Poppy Christner was screaming her lungs out.
Well, she wasn't exactly screamingâmore like yelling, as if she were mad as a wet hen and everybody within a mile was going to hear about it. Even though Luke couldn't see her around the bend in the road, that shrill voice certainly belonged to Poppy. She'd spent too many recesses in primary school yelling at Luke for him not to recognize it. Poppy always seemed to be irritated about something.
He furrowed his brow and snapped the reins to get the team moving a little faster. Not that a team pulling a wagon laden with wood would ever win a race, but he wanted to see why Poppy was making all the racket, and he hoped to get there before Christmastime. Even though she sounded more angry than distressed, Poppy might be in trouble. Maybe he could help.
A smirk tugged at his lips. Maybe he would need to rescue the person being yelled at.
When his wagon lumbered around the bend, it took him a second to make sense of what he saw. Poppy, unapologetic tomboy and Luke's nearest neighbor, jogged alongside an old rusted-out car, yelling at the driver as the car inched slowly down the dirt road in front of Poppy's farm. She clutched the top of the driver's side window as if the mere touch of her fingers could keep the car from speeding off.
Hold on there.
Only when Luke brought the horses to a stop did he realize that the window was almost completely closed, with Poppy's hand stuck between the top of the window and the car door. The driver had rolled up his window on Poppy's hand, and she had no choice but to jog alongside the car or be dragged down the road.
Luke's heart all but leapt out of his chest. If that car sped up, Poppy could lose her arm.
No wonder she was shouting at the top of her lungs.
“Roll down this window right now,” she yelled. “Let me go!”
Whoever was behind that windshield didn't seem to care that he might rip Poppy's fingers off with a careless foot to the gas pedal.
Without a moment's hesitation, Luke vaulted into the back of his wagon and pulled out the long crowbar from his toolbox. He jumped from the wagon bed and raced toward the car. “Don't be afraid, Poppy,” he called.
She turned her eyes in his direction. “I'm not afraid,” she snapped, as if he'd insulted her. Not acting the least bit surprised that Luke had appeared to rescue her, she glared at her own reflection in the tinted car window. “Show your face, you coward.”
Luke planted his feet three yards in front of the car, looked daggers at the figure behind the windshield, and didn't even flinch as the car inched closer. If they ran him over, they ran him over. He wouldn't stand aside and let a girl get hurt.
Holding the crowbar aloft, as if he was about to take a swing, he yelled loud enough for the driver to hear. “Roll down your window, and let her go.”
“And be prepared to answer for your sins,” Poppy added.
Luke wasn't sure what sins Poppy wanted the driver to answer for, but now was not the time for her to make such a demand. Righteous indignation would only make it more likely that she would be parted from her fingers.
The windshield was so dirty Luke couldn't make out the face of the driver, but the person in the passenger seat ducked his head and pulled his wide-brimmed straw hat over his face.
The car kept right on coming, slowly, but still on course to smash Luke like a bug. He held his breath and raised the crowbar higher. “Stop the car, or I'll take out your headlights.”
He didn't know if a threat broke his vow of nonviolence, but he could consider that question when he wasn't about to get plowed over. The bigger question was whether the driver cared if his headlights were taken out. The car looked to be in pretty bad shape. What was one more dent?
The car kept coming, still dragging Poppy by the hand, still on course to imprint a tire mark on Luke's chest. His heart pounded against his rib cage so hard he could feel it in his throat. Would whoever was driving really mow down a defenseless Amish boy? Well, he wasn't completely defenseless, but he felt pretty certain a crowbar didn't stand much of a chance against the hunk of metal rolling toward him.
He saw movement behind the windshield and heard the two people in the car yelling at each other. Loudly. He hoped that whoever wanted to set Poppy free would win the argument. Luke would rather not die with a weapon in his hand. What would the bishop say?
The car jerked to a stop, and Luke heard a squeaky groan, much like the hum of one of Poppy Christner's beehives in springtime. The driver's side window stuttered open about three inches. In a flash, Luke raced to the side of the car, grabbed Poppy around the waist, and pulled her back just as the driver gunned the engine and drove away, spitting gravel and dust twenty feet into the air.
Poppy pried herself from his grasp faster than he could put hammer to nail. With her gaze glued to the disappearing car, she took several quick steps down the road before stopping. Was she considering chasing after the car on foot?
With her back to him, she stood motionless and stared in the direction the car had gone, almost as if she were longing for it to return. Her labored breathing matched his own. They were both shaken up. He'd nearly been run over, and she'd nearly lost her hand. Or worse.
He'd probably saved her life.
Luke Bontrager comes to the rescue. You're welcome, Poppy Christner.
“Poppy, are you okay?” he said, because she was waiting a wonderful long time to express her undying gratitude. “Poppy,” he said again. “Is your hand okay?”
With posture as rigid as a flagpole, she spun on her heels and glared at Luke as if she were about to smack him in the face, which was not altogether unheard of. She had once given him a bloody nose. No one was as unpredictable or as aggravating as Poppy Christner.
It was why Luke usually steered clear of her.
But wasn't she grateful that he hadn't avoided her today? Wouldn't she at least thank him for saving her life with his crowbar?
A fire raged behind her eyes. “Why did you do that?”
“Maybe because that man was about to rip your hand off,” he said, returning her scowl.
His sarcasm only made her madder. “I was trying to get a good look at his face.”
“Believe me. You were never going to get a good look. The only thing you were sure to get was a new nickname.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Oh, really?”
“Poppy Five Fingers.”
A hint of disdain played at her lips. “I had everything under control.”
“Unless he decided to drive off and take your fingers with him.”
“I needed to see his face, Luke Bontrager, and you ruined everything.”
He clenched his jaw. “Next time I'll let you get run over.”
“I hope you do,” she replied. She cradled her hand close to her body, and Luke could see a nasty bruise already beginning to form along the back of her hand. Poppy was tough, but while she tried not to show it, Luke had a pretty good idea just how badly that hand hurt.
He expelled an annoyed puff of air from his lungs and held out his hand. “Here. Let me have a look.”
“I'm fine,” she said, folding her arms to hide her hands from view. That small movement sent pain traveling across her face.
He set his crowbar on the ground. “Look. I have put down my weapon. You have nothing to fear.”
“I'm not afraid.”
“You seem to be afraid of a little first aid.”
She lifted her chin higher. “My hand is fine, and you don't know anything about first aid.”
Shoving aside the urge to get about his business and let Poppy fend for herself, he reached out his hand until he was practically touching her. “I've hammered my thumb and staple-gunned my own leg. I splinted my brother's arm when he broke it last year, and I super-glued my own lip back together when I was sixteen.”
In spite of her obvious pain, she relaxed enough to cock an eyebrow. “You glued your lip?”
He fingered the half-inch scar running through his upper lip. “My mouth met the claw of my brother's hammer. I glued it back together with super glue. No harm done.”
She seemed to eye him with greater appreciation. “I can barely see the scar.” Maybe she would decide he deserved a little appreciation for saving her fingers. And her life.
“So let me see your hand.”
“I don't want you to look at my hand. I'm mad at you.”
He didn't know why he let that surprise him. “Mad at me? For saving your life?”
With her arms still securely folded, she started toward the lane that led to her house. “You let those boys get away.”
Stifling an aggravated growl, he ignored his better judgment and followed her. He had almost run out of patience, but he wouldn't abandon a girl who needed help, even a girl as bullheaded and disagreeable as Poppy Christner. He could be stubborn too. “Poppy, I'm not going to go away until I make sure your hand is all right.”
She stopped in her tracks, puckered her lips in frustration, and blew a wisp of hair out of her face, eyeing him as if he were a pesky fly. “It doesn't hurt that bad.”
“Can I see?”
His persistence finally paid off. She slipped her hand from under her arm and held it out to him. If he'd asked for permission to touch her, she probably would have started arguing with him again, so he simply took her hand as if it were the most normal thing in the world. She didn't even flinch.
Her skin was soft and smooth against his rough carpenter's hands. His calluses probably felt like sandpaper. No matter how abrasive Poppy was, he would try to be gentle.
An ugly red welt ran across the length of her palm where more than a few layers of skin had peeled off. Blood oozed from the wound, but it was barely enough for a Band-Aid. He grimaced. “It must sting something wonderful.”
“I'm okay.” She stared straight ahead, her face a mask of cool detachment, as if she couldn't care less about her hand. Luke knew better. He could hear her unsteady breathing and sense the trembling just below the surface of her calm exterior. She was hurting, but being Poppy, she had to be proud about it, especially in front of a boy.
He slipped his fingers around her wrist and turned her hand so her palm rested on top of his. She tensed, but Luke didn't know if it was from the pain or embarrassment that they were practically holding handsânot that
was embarrassed by her warm palm against his or the smell of honey and vanilla that seemed to float about herâbut she might be.
A long, purple bruise ran along the back of her hand just below her knuckles. The swelling had already begun. He looked up. She stared intently at him with those leaf-green eyes that always unnerved him a bit. “The most important thing is to get some ice on it and then make sure it's not broken. By the grace of
, you still have your fingers. Where would one of the Honeybee Schwesters be if she couldn't tend bees?”
Poppy might have curled her lips slightly at that.
The Amish neighbors in Bienenstock, the settlement in northern Wisconsin where they lived, had nicknamed Poppy and her two
the Honeybee Sisters because they kept beehives, sold their honey at a local market, and made all sorts of wonderful-
He should have stopped at that, but he never could resist needling Poppy just a bit. “Think of all the boys who would never get the thrashing they deserved if you only had one good hand.”
She yanked her hand from his and winced at the sudden movement. “You know perfectly well that I don't hit boys anymore. That was when I was a girl, and I've grown out of it. Though for you, I might be willing to make an exception.”
“I'd rather not be the exception.” He casually twined his fingers around her wrist again, pulled her hand close, then pressed gently in search of broken bones. “After I see you safely home, I think we can agree to stay away from each other unless your hand gets stuck in another car window. I prefer girls like Dinah Eicher who are pretty and demure and who don't hit people. You don't like boys at all.”
He saw something deep and aching flash in her eyes before she snatched her hand away from him again. With a speed he had not thought possible for a girl, let alone a girl with a bad hand, she took off down the road. “You don't need to see me home,” she called over her shoulder.
, I do. What if you faint?” Dinah Eicher would have fainted.
“I don't faint,” she said, without breaking her stride.
He frowned. Had he hurt her feelings?
He hadn't said anything that they both didn't already know.
With long strides, he followed her over the small bridge that marked the beginning of the Honeybee Sisters' property, down the lane past the red barn with the orange door, and practically raced her to the house. He had definitely hurt her feelings. No one would be that diligent without reason.
Had it been his comment about liking pretty girls? Surely Poppy wouldn't be bent out of shape over that. A girl like her didn't much care if she was pretty. Luke liked girls who were delicate and graceful, like flowers. Poppy was pretty in her own wayâa fact Luke usually ignored because of all her other bad qualities. A boy would have to be blind not to notice the shocking green eyes and hair the color of golden honey, the smattering of freckles across her nose or the hint of a dimple that appeared every time she moved her mouth. But he'd also be
, foolish, to forget the stubborn independence and hot temper that were as much a part of Poppy as her green eyes.