Matt Lambright slipped out of the stream of nearly two hundred wedding guests who were filing out of the house and into the front yard after his aunt Zanna’s marriage to Jonny Ropp. When he reached the pasture fence, he loosened his stiff white shirt collar. After more than three hours of sitting in front of the crowd as a newehocker, he was ready for some fresh air.
The April sun warmed his face and the breeze riffled his hair. Matt breathed deeply. He smelled the “roast” made with chicken and stuffing, and the creamed celery, which were about to be served for the noon feast . . . heard the bleating of his sheep grazing in the pasture . . . saw his grandmother, Treva Lambright, walking toward her glass greenhouse where long tables had been set up for the traditional Old Amish wedding meal. He saw so many smiles on the faces of family and friends who had come here to Cedar Creek, Missouri, from such far-flung places as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana.
His parents, Sam and Barbara Lambright, mingled among their many guests, looking happier than he’d seen them in a long while. Aunt Zanna was his dat’s youngest sister and she had given them all quite a shock last fall when she walked away from marrying James Graber, their lifelong friend from across the road, because she was carrying Jonny Ropp’s baby. Now that little Harley had arrived, and Jonny had joined the church and reconciled with his parents, all was well. Family ties among the Ropps had been restored, and that was what mattered most.
Matt chuckled as he noticed James breaking away from the crowd, loosening the collar of his white shirt as though he, too, couldn’t wait to get back into everyday clothes. Aunt Abby had made their new black trousers, vests, and white shirts, but—as perfectly as they fit—most fellows weren’t keen on wearing their collars fastened for any longer than they had to. It was good to see James smiling, apparently enjoying the wedding festivities, considering how Aunt Zanna had forsaken him.
“Well, Matt, you look all dressed and ready to get married yourself,” James teased as he came to stand beside the pasture gate.
Truth be told, Matt had been studying the single girls from his bench up front during the wedding service, because lately he’d been thinking about living somewhere other than his lifelong home, with someone other than his parents, his grandmother, and his three sisters. At twenty-two, with an established flock of sheep and some money in the bank, he was eager to move beyond rumspringa—his “running around” years—into a more satisfying life with a special someone . . . if only he could find her.
“Emma was gawking at you all during the wedding,” James continued in a low voice. “My sister doesn’t talk about marriage much, as busy as she is with our parents, but she’s sweet on you, Matt. Or at least when she bakes brownies, most of them seem to end up at your place.”
“Emma?” Matt shrugged, searching for a polite way to state his case. “What with living across the road from you Grabers, and Emma’s being at our house so much while she and Aunt Abby were growing up, she seems more like one of my sisters than somebody I might court, you know?”
“Jah, that happens,” James murmured with a wry smile. “Sometimes we overlook someone who’s been standing right in front of us for years, even though the connection is obvious to other folks.”
And what did James mean by that? Matt was in too fine a mood to pursue such a deep topic, so he searched for something else to talk about. “Would you look at that?” he said, gesturing toward the crowd beneath the trees. “Aunt Zanna’s holding Harley to her shoulder, swaying from side to side as though she’s rocked him all her life. Who ever thought she would take to raising a baby and making braided rugs? I didn’t see this coming at all.”
“Zanna’s a gut mother.” James nodded his approval, even if he looked a little wistful. “I wish her and Jonny all the best. It was God’s doing, the way they worked everything out, and I hope God will reveal His plan for me sometime, too.”
Matt sighed, wishing he had picked a better topic. “I’m sorry I brought that up. This can’t be an easy day for you.”
“It’s all right, Matt. Everything’s happened the way it was supposed to. Now that she and Jonny have tied the knot, I can move on, too, you see.” James gestured toward the clusters of fluffy white ewes and lambs that dotted the rolling, green hills behind the farmhouse. “Looks like you’ve done right well for yourself,” he continued. “Something tells me you’re better at shepherding a flock than you’d be at storekeeping. Or maybe your dat didn’t want you going in with him to run the mercantile.”
Matt acknowledged James’s candor with a smile: the Cedar Creek Mercantile had been in the Lambright family for generations, so most folks would have expected Sam Lambright to pass the business down to him as the only son. “Never thought much about running the store,” he replied. “Abby has her Stitch In Time shop up in the loft, so she helps Dat quite a lot—knows as much about the inventory and ordering as he does. And my sisters, Phoebe and Gail, have always been better at keeping the shelves straightened and making out the orders than I would ever be.”
He drank in the satisfying sight of his sheep on the lush hillsides. “You know how it is,” he continued in a thoughtful tone. “One business rarely brings in enough to pay for a large family. Just as there’s not enough income from your dat’s farm for you to support a wife and children, we Lambrights can’t all be storekeepers. My dat has no time to farm his land while he’s running the mercantile, so it’s a gut thing for all of us that I can raise sheep and grow enough hay and grain to feed them and our horses, too.”
“Jah, you’ve got that right. I apprenticed to make carriages right out of school, because I was a lot more interested in running the roads than I was in raising crops,” James said with a chuckle. “There’s always a need for buggies and wagons amongst Plain people.”
Matt raised a hand to signal for his two border collies. “Lois Yutzy was telling me her husband Ezra’s brother, Titus, raises sheep over past Queen City and he might be looking to trade some breeding stock. He’s supposed to be here today, but I haven’t had a chance to look for him.”
“You’ve drawn a big crowd today.” James leaned down to rumple the ears of the two black-and-white dogs that had raced up from the pasture. “And you two pups are dressed up just like the rest of us, ain’t so? Always in your Sunday black and white.”
Folks often complimented Matt’s border collies, which were not only well-disciplined flock dogs, but also eager to be friends with anyone who would scratch behind their ears. “Pearl will sit there all day, if you keep rubbing her neck that way,” he said as he watched the white-faced dog close her eyes in contentment.
When Panda stood at attention, Matt followed the dog’s intense gaze and spotted a toddler coming toward them. She wore no kapp, and was still young enough for her pale blond pigtails to be braided and pulled back. Her airy white pinafore drifted above her blue dress with every determined step she took. “Puppy! Puppy!” she said as she approached them.
“Panda is the puppy with the black rings around his eyes,” Matt said, smiling to encourage her, “and the one with the white head is Pearl.”
The little girl stopped. She studied Matt and James for a moment, her expression serious until Panda let out a little woof.
When she laughed, Matt crouched beside her. “If you stand real still,” he murmured, “Pearl and Panda will let you pat them. They want to be your friends.”
When the toddler put a finger in her mouth, Matt thought she was the most adorable child he’d ever seen. James stopped stroking Pearl so the dog could focus on their little visitor, and then both border collies stepped cautiously toward her, as though they understood that such a young child could be easily knocked over. The girl extended a hand and then cried out in delight when Pearl licked her fingers. Not wanting to be left out, Panda nuzzled her other hand.
“Where’s your mamm?” Matt asked, glancing toward the crowd now making its way toward his grandmother’s greenhouse for the wedding feast.
“Can’t say as I saw this little one during the church service,” James remarked as he, too, scanned the group of guests. “Maybe she and her parents are Ropp cousins who came from out east.”
The girl seemed unconcerned about her mamm and dat’s whereabouts. She was running her fingers along the dogs’ silky ears, her expression rapt as Panda and Pearl patiently allowed her to touch them.
Then a woman cried, “Katie!” as she stepped out of the crowd. She was dressed all in black, from her kapp to her shoes, yet her melodic laughter and her wide-eyed, playful expression made Matt’s heart pound. “Katie!” she exclaimed again as she broke into a run. “I’ve been looking everywhere and—oh, punkin, be careful around those strange dogs!”
“Panda and Pearl love kids,” Matt assured her as he placed his hands on the dogs’ heads: he didn’t want them barking and scaring the little girl as a reaction to her mother’s noisy approach. An impish grin lit Katie’s face, and she tottered away as though running from her mamm would be another fun game to play.
James scooped the escaping child into his arms. “She’s been in gut company here. We wouldn’t have let her go into the pasture or down the lane, you see.”
The young woman opened her arms to take her child. “I can’t turn my back for two seconds, or she runs off,” she explained breathlessly. “I was just talking to Aunt Lois and suddenly realized Katie was gone and—”
“Lois Yutzy?” Matt inquired. Now that she had come this close, the woman looked younger than her black clothing had led him to believe. She had smooth, flawless cheeks and eyes as green as the trees that grew along Cedar Creek. Her sleek brown hair was pulled neatly away from a center part and tucked beneath a black kapp that seemed far too harsh for such a fresh complexion. She was awfully young to be a widow. “I’m Matt Lambright, by the way. Zanna’s nephew.”
“And I’m James Graber.”
“Thank you for catching my little runaway. Katie’s a handful.” The young woman hugged her daughter around the waist, planting loud, exaggerated kisses on her cheek. Katie wrapped her chubby arms around her mamm’s neck, happy to be where she belonged.
The sight of mother and child clutched at Matt’s heart and he suddenly had a hard time making conversation. This woman must have been seated in the rear pews, back among the younger women, because he hadn’t noticed her during the wedding. Lois and Ezra Yutzy had kin scattered all over northern Missouri, but Matt was sure he’d never seen this pretty widow. He would have remembered her face, no doubt about that.
“I—I didn’t catch your name,” he said.
She smiled shyly, her face half-hidden by Katie’s dress and pinafore. “Doesn’t matter,” she murmured. “I’m not from around here.” She turned and strode quickly back toward the throng of guests.
“But it does matter,” Matt murmured as he gazed after her. Why hadn’t she told him who she was? After the playful way she’d chased after Katie, he couldn’t believe she was stand-offish or unfriendly. Was she shy about being around folks she didn’t know? Or modest because she was a widow?
“That was odd,” James remarked. “We’ll have to look around during dinner to see who she’s sitting with.”
Matt nodded as they headed toward the greenhouse. Through its big glass windows he could see the long tables draped in white where guests were taking their seats. He glimpsed the tall white wedding cake, too. But all he could think about was the young woman who had come to fetch her child. “Jah,” he murmured, “Lois Yutzy’s her aunt, so I’m going to find old Ezra straightaway . . . to ask him where he’s been hiding his niece all these years.”