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Finally, he arrived.
Catherine Glick placed the jar of pickled eggs on the serving table, then pretended to straighten the other dishes so she could spy Zachariah Lantz press through the crowded entryway of The Amish Table restaurant. Removing his snow-covered coat, Zach looked her direction and smiled. Even from across the crowded room, his deep blue eyes had a way of warming her insides, and melting the balled-up tension. Thoughts of him sliding into the ditch somewhere had invaded her mind. Sure, icy roads were typical this time of the year in northern Michigan, and Zach owned an exceptional horse, but not knowing if her bu of nearly five years was stranded someplace had knotted her muscles.
Catherine couldn't help but return his smile at the sight of his rosy cheeks and bright red nose that practically glowed. Now it didn't matter how much snow accumulated. Zach was here, safe, and just in time for their district's New Year's Eve supper.
Perhaps God would answer her prayers and Zach would propose tonight. Thoughts of becoming Zach's fraa had danced in her mind for what felt like forever. Then yesterday, when he mentioned wanting to take her for a sleigh ride after dinner this evening, and even made a point to say how much he looked forward to ushering in the New Year with her at his side, she was certain her dreams were about to be fulfilled. Catherine drew in a deep breath, a fresh fluttering of hope bubbled up to the surface. She could hardly wait for the meal to get started and, more importantly, for it to end.
Catherine followed Zach with her gaze over to where the unmarried men had gathered in the corner of the room.
Her friend, Mary sidled up beside Catherine, a vegetable tray in her hands. "I see mei bruder finally made it."
Catherine's smile deepened. "Better late than never."
Mary set the tray on the table. "You'd think being a clock maker, he would pay more attention to all those chiming reminders around him in the shop and be on time."
"Jah, you'd think," Catherine echoed. Zach was a talented clock maker, meticulous with details, but he was certainly not a time keeper. Nor was he known for making rushed decisions—not life altering ones anyway, which was why after nearly five years of courting she was still waiting for him to propose. Why at twenty-nine years old, she was the oldest unmarried maedel in the district. But she wasn't about to complain about his punctuality now and ruin this fine evening. "I better get the mop and clean up the melted snow around the door."
Even on gatherings like tonight when she wasn't officially working, she was mindful of what needed to be done at her place of employment. Especially while her cousin Faith and Aenti Irma had their hands full overseeing the kitchen. Catherine pushed through the swinging double doors, which separated the dining area from the kitchen, to where a frenzy of women's chatter filled the room. She grabbed the mop from the utility closet, then dashed back into the dining room to take care of the mess before someone accidentally slipped.
She had nicely dried the floor when the double door swung open and the other women filed out carrying various plates and bowls of food to put on the table. Roasted turkey, sliced pineapple ham, sauerkraut and pork, and venison made up the meats, and yummasetti, baked yams, mashed potatoes, green beans, and peas made up the side dishes. The feast was like Christmas all over again. Even the children had flocked to the cheese and pickle trays, their tiny hands snitching a few samples before the meal was blessed while their mothers hovered nearby, chiding their actions.
Jealousy stabbed Catherine's heart. She wished a few of those little sticky-figured culprits were hers to wag a finger at. Stop! Don’t let heaviness fill your heart. She should be looking forward to this New Year, not allowing the enemy to rear its ugly head in the form of jealousy and steal her joy. But lately, it seemed she struggled with the same sappy emotions at every district gathering. Nett tonight. Nothing was going to ruin this evening. Catherine returned the mop to the closet in the kitchen, then rejoined Mary near the serving table.
The bishop's wife, Alice Zook was the last to come out of the kitchen. She placed a steaming dish of brown gravy on the table, then nodded at her husband, who stepped forward.
Bishop Zook cleared his throat signaling everyone's attention. "Shall we bow our heads and ask the Lord's blessing over this wunderbaar food the women have prepared?"
Catherine closed her eyes. I know You hold the future, Lord. I pray it's Your will that Zach wants to include me in his future.
The bell over the door jingled, and a gust of cold air sent a shiver down her spine. Boots stomped, muffling the tune being whistled as the latecomer entered. Catherine recognized the man by his off pitch tune prior to opening her eyes. Elijah Graber.
The latecomer blew into his fisted hands. His hat, coat, scarf, and pants below the knees were snow-covered. As Elijah stood at the entry, his gaze flitted across the room and stopped on Catherine.
Sharpness seized her breath. After six years, why would he search her out in the crowd first? Years of wondering what it would feel like to see him again flooded her senses, and for the split second that their gazes connected, everyone else in the room disappeared. Rein it in. You feel nothing. Nothing. Catherine narrowed her eyes on the man. At least be respectful of others, Elijah. Bow your head.
As if reading her thoughts, he dropped his hands to his side and lowered his head for the final seconds of the blessing.
Once the bishop cleared his throat again, his way of signaling the end of the silent prayer, the conversations around the room resumed.
Elijah shivered and snow fell from the brim of his straw hat. Removing the knitted scarf from around his neck exposed his big red ears, which contrasted the pale, purplish tinge on his lips. But what caught her off guard was his beard.
She focused on the puddle, which had formed from stomping snow off his boots; a hazard that needed to be addressed immediately. As other members greeted Elijah, Catherine dashed into the kitchen, grabbed the mop from the utility closet, then returned to the dining room.
Still standing at the front door, Elijah looked up from brushing snow off his pant legs as she approached. "Hiya, Cat," he said, smiling as if there'd never been a moment of distance between them.
Before she had the chance to return a formal greeting, Bishop Zook came up to Elijah and patted his shoulder.
"It's gut to see you again, Elijah."
The bishop glanced at Catherine a brief second, then "I trust the trip to Posen went well. How long will you be staying?"
This time it was Elijah who looked at her. "I'm ah, nett sure."
Sure she was the cause of their stilted conversation, Catherine focused on the puddle. She knew if Elijah ever returned it'd be uncomfortable, but she hadn’t expected the bishop to tiptoe around asking Elijah about his wife and children.
"I hope we get the chance to talk more later," Bishop Zook said to Elijah. "It's gut to have you home."
"Nau don't be a stranger. Jump in line for the buffet and fill your plate while it's hot."
"Jah, I'll be sure to join you shortly."
Once the bishop left to rejoin some of the other married men, Catherine mopped up the trail of water he tracked across the floor. Elijah hadn't moved from the entrance when she went back to clean up the area.
Elijah lifted one snowy boot, then the other. "I made a mess, didn't I? Would you like me to mop it up?"
"Nay. I'll get this." Why was he volunteering to mop when he'd just told the bishop he would join him in the food line. She motioned to the other married men filling their plates. "You should go eat. I'm sure a hot meal and mug of kaffi will warm you up."
"That's nice of you to be concerned. I've been meaning all week to stop by your haus and say hello."
All week? Catherine harrumphed. "It's a little late to tell me you got married."
He scratched his whiskered jaw. "Jah, I've been meaning to—"
"It's a long story."
"I'm sure." Obviously, he hadn't changed. He always had long stories he was itching to tell. Well, this time she wasn't interested. Six years ago when he'd told her he needed to visit an out of town friend, she hadn't expected to read in The Budget newspaper a few weeks later that he'd gotten married. She redirected her attention to the wet floor and began shoving the mop around.
"I'll get out of your way," he said, yet didn't move. When she swabbed the area next to his boots, he finally sidestepped the mop. "Nice seeing you again, Cat."
She stopped cleaning the floor and straightened her posture, but just as she unclenched her teeth to speak, he was swarmed by other members welcoming him home.
"Mei name is nett Cat," she muttered to herself.
She finished sopping up the melted snow, then returned the mop to the utility closet in the kitchen. After taking a moment to relax her breathing and slow her racing heart, she turned to head back to the dining area, but a shadowy figure moved out from behind the row of storage shelves. She clutched her chest, hissing his name in a sharp gasp.
"Were you expecting someone else?" Zach stepped closer.
"I—I wasn't expecting someone to be lurking in the shadows. I thought you were in line getting food with the others." Her hands were noticeably trembling, and she wiped them on the side of her dress.
"Jah." He lifted his plate dumbfounded by her sudden lack of observation skills. "I did." He hoped catching her off guard was all that was wrong and her jumpiness didn't have something to do with Elijah's return. "I didn't mean to startle you. I figured I'd say hello and tell you that I'm looking forward to our sleigh ride tonight."
Catherine smiled. "You are? I mean, I'm looking forward to our ride too. When you didn't arrive right away I started to think something had happened."
"I had an important business matter to take care of and lost track of the time." He stabbed his fork into a chunk of carved turkey, his mouth watering. He'd been so preoccupied tinkering with a customer's antique pocket watch that he'd skipped lunch. Although his stomach complained, he was happy that word had started to spread about his clock and watch repair services.
"Business on New Year's Eve?"
"I'll tell you all about it later. But now, you should get something to eat. I don't want to stay long." He had to wake up earlier than normal tomorrow morning. The man was coming to the shop to pick up his watch and Zach wanted to give himself enough time to adjust it if it wasn't keeping perfect time.
"Jah, I'm sort of anxious to leave early too." Catherine's cheeks turned a rosy shade before she spun around, her dress hem swinging around her ankles with her quick turn.
He took another bite of turkey and followed Catherine through the swinging doors, but as she went toward the food line, he veered over to the table where his long lost friend Elijah was seated.
Zach clapped Elijah on the shoulder. "Nobody whistles like you."
"You mean off key."
"Exactly." Zach set his plate on the table, then plopped down beside him. "I heard you were in town."
"Mammi guilted me into being here for her birthday. She told me, 'One doesn't turn one hundred years old every day, you know.'"
Zach chuckled. "I'd say nett. How long do you plan on staying?"
"A week, maybe two—maybe all winter if I can't get mei mammi's buggy out of the ditch. The driveway was like a big frozen pond. The buggy skated into a pile of snow at the bottom of the ditch—at least I think it's the ditch."
Zach opened his mouth to take a bite of food, but lowered his fork. "The mare didn't get hurt, did she?" He recalled Elijah always trying to race his family's horse, and goading Zach into doing the same. But on snowy nights like tonight, no way. Even with runners on his buggy, Zach always went slow.
"The old mare is fine. I put her back in the barn. Hey, you think you could give me a ride back to Mammi's when this is over?"
"Ahh..." So much Catherine and his moonlight sleigh ride. "Jah, sure."
"I can find someone else to take me or I'll walk if you have other plans," Elijah said, buttering a dinner roll."Nay, that's okay. But I want to make it an early nacht. I have to work in the morning." He ate a spoonful of buttery mashed potatoes while pondering how he'd tell Catherine their plans now included driving Elijah.
"Still making clocks?"
Zach nodded. "I repair watches nau too."
"That's great. I always knew you would do well." Elijah pushed his empty plate aside and picked up his coffee mug.
"What about you? I seem to recall you wanted to train horses."
"Still want to ... one day," Elijah muttered as he stood. He motioned to the dessert table. "I think there's a piece of apple pie calling mei name."
Zach continued eating. When Elijah didn't immediately return to eat his dessert at the table, Zach scanned the crowd and found him standing with the married men, and engaged in a conversation with the bishop. A scene all too familiar to Zach. His other friends had migrated to the married side of Sunday services and gatherings after they married, too, as if an unwritten rule forbade them hanging around their unmarried friends once they passed over to the other side. Over the years he'd grown used to the changes, but for some reason, watching his once best friend huddling with the others, irked him. Zach finished cleaning off his plate, then picked it up and went to the buffet for seconds.
Catherine approached the serving table from the opposite side. "Have you tried the pork pie?"
"I haven't yet. Did you make it?" Catherine's grin told him she had before she confirmed it with a nod. Zach reached for the spoon. Usually he asked Catherine what she brought and selected those dishes first, but tonight she'd been busy cleaning the floor when he was in the serving line getting food. He scrapped the bottom of the dish to get the last few morsels of pork gravy and crust. "This looks gut."
"I hope you like it."
He smiled. "I don't think you've made anything I haven't liked." He took a bite and nodded. "It's gut." Just as tasty as it was when she had served it to him a few weeks ago when she invited him for supper at her brother's house.
A gust of cold air filled the room as several men went outside, then reentered a moment later. Bishop Zook raised his hand. "Folks, may I have your attention. The weather appears to have gotten much worse. I suggest we conclude the evening activities as soon as possible."
Zach wasn't concerned about the amount of snowfall. The runners he'd mounted on an old open buggy would glide over anything. Besides, he had a blanket for warmth and lanterns to help guide the way. Perhaps the get-together ending early was a blessing. He did need to get up early and double check the watch he’d been working on.
Within minutes the women had the tables cleaned off and the place tidied up. As children were dressed in their outerwear and shuttled to the buggies, the room emptied quickly. Zach shoved his arm into his coat sleeve. He spotted Elijah being handed a covered dish by the bishop's wife. Knowing Alice Zook's motherly concern over the flock, she would insist on them giving Elijah a ride to his grandmother's house once she heard about him going into the ditch. Zach smiled at the thought of not having a third passenger in his sleigh tonight after all.
Zach scanned the area for Catherine and spotted her talking with her cousin, Faith. He sidled up beside them as they were discussing how the restaurant needed a deep cleaning. Not sure if they were planning to do that tonight, he asked, "Should I wait to pull the sleigh around?"
"Nay," Catherine said, putting on her wool cloak. "I'm ready to leave. Faith and I are going to meet back here in the morning."
"Weather permitting," Faith added before saying goodnight and walking away to join her bu, Gideon.
Elijah joined them. "Just need a second to grab mei coat and I'll be ready." He faced Catherine and extended the dish. "Do you mind holding this?"
Her hands remained at her side.
"Please," he added after her brows puckered in what looked like confusion.
Accepting the covered dish, she faked a smile. Zach had known her well enough to know when the corners of her mouth twitched, the smile wasn't because she was happy.
As Elijah crossed the room, a steeled expression replaced her smile.
"He needs a ride," Zach explained.
"And there's no one else?" Her gaze traveled around the room. "Isn't one of his cousin's here. Why couldn't—"
"He"’s staying with his mammi and her haus is only a couple miles down the road from your bruder's place. Besides, I'd hate for someone else to go out of their way on a nacht like tonight."
If he didn't know better, the way her voice quivered with unevenness saying his name, he would have thought she was still holding onto the past. "Do you want me to hold the dish?"
"Nay, I'm fine."
Guilt wiggled through him like a hooked worm. Expecting those two to sit side-by-side on the same bench peacefully might have been foolish. He scanned the dwindling crowd for his sister, but Mary and her bu had already left, which was too bad. Elijah would have made a perfect chaperone for his younger sibling. Still, even they would be going out of their way—on icy roads. Catherine would understand. She was a practical woman. And six years later there really wasn't much to hash out now. Elijah was married. "I'll take you on a sleigh ride another day—just the two of us. Okay?"
A flicker of disappointment shone in her eyes, but she nodded then immediately dropped her gaze to the floor.
"I'm ready whenever you are," Elijah said, breaking the silence.
Catherine handed Elijah back the dish, then wrapped her knitted scarf around her neck and head, covering her entire face except for her eyes.
A few inches of snow had collected on the bench in the short time Zach had been inside. He swept the snow off with the small broom he kept under the seat, then held Catherine's hand as she climbed onto the bench. He offered her the lap quilt he'd brought for the journey, although snow had fallen on it making it cold and wet. Catherine declined. She wasn't shivering either. Apparently sandwiched between him and Elijah had given her two windbreakers.
Elijah did the majority of the talking on the ride. Zach tuned him out after the first mile, Catherine spoke only when directly questioned, and even then, her answers were brief.
Zach pulled into Catherine's driveway, stopped in front of the house, then jumped off the sled. He reached for her hand. "Watch your step. The runner is slippery."
"Danki for the ride home," she said through chattering teeth.
"I'll walk you to the door." He wanted to be out of earshot when he apologized again for the change of plans and told her goodnight.
"That's okay." Instead of going in the direction of the house, Catherine turned toward the barn. "I want to make sure Cocoa has a blanket on."
He followed her to the barn.
She removed the horse blanket from the wall peg and took it inside the mare's stall. "Easy girl," she said, placing the covering over the horse.
He entered the stall, then squatted down and helped tie the straps under the horse's girth. "I wish you weren't upset with me." He rose when she did.
"I understand Elijah needed a ride to his mammi's..."
"But I'm a bit surprised you dropped me off first. Shouldn't it be the other way around? I thought this being New Year's Eve..."
"Your haus is the closest. I'd have to double back if I took him home first."
Catherine pivoted so that her back was to him.
"This isn't like you," he said. "What's wrong?"
She was silent a moment, then her shoulders lifted with a raspy inhale and sank again as she released her breath. She faced him. "I thought you were going to propose on Christmas, and when you didn't, I thought maybe you would surprise me on Second Christmas. But I was wrong—again."
He opened his mouth, but she continued.
"You made a point to tell me how much you were looking forward to our sleigh ride tonight, so of course, I figured for sure this was the nacht—the nacht you would propose."
He swallowed hard.
She placed her hands on her hips and stared into his eyes. "We've courted almost five years. I'm ready to get married. Are you?"
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