“Don't get fresh,” Bitsy said, not even looking up from her notebook.
Luke forced his lips together to keep from grinning. It didn't work. “I've never heard the bishop preach against boys holding on to girls' knees.”
“That's because you missed church yesterday,” Bitsy said.
Luke shook his head. “I was there. Erna King fell asleep and slipped off the bench in the middle of the minister's sermon. You gave her a hand up. The minister didn't say anything about knees.”
Bitsy nodded. “Okay, then. You have my permission.”
He looked at Poppy. “Do I have your permission?”
Was she blushing? Probably just flushed from the pain. Then again, a boy she didn't like very much had his hand on her knee.
“Why do you have to hold it?”
“It needs to dry completely so I can apply another coat. Every
carpenter knows you have to let the bottom coat dry or you'll mess up the paint.”
Poppy regarded him with her brilliant green eyes. “Okay. Just don't get your germs on my cut.”
“I washed my hands,” he said, before falling into an uncomfortable silence. He didn't have anything to do but sit on the floor with his hand on her knee and try to look busy.
Poppy must have felt the awkwardness creeping between them. She gave him a half smile. “
for fixing my knee. I don't like the hospital.”
“Neither do I.”
“The last time I was a patient in a hospital was at my own birth,” Bitsy said. “It was not a good experience.”
“You remember when you were born, B?”
. But I can't remember what I had for breakfast yesterday.”
Poppy craned her neck to look at her aunt. “What are you writing? You've been at it all morning.”
Bitsy set her pencil down and leaned back in her chair. “We're going to need a little extra money for Lily's wedding. Especially if we want fireworks.”
Luke nearly choked on his laughter. “Does Lily want fireworks?”
Bitsy said. “I'm going to surprise her.” She pointed a finger at Luke. “Don't tell.”
Luke closed his mouth and shook his head. Not in a hundred years. The look on Dan's face when Bitsy started lighting things on fire at the wedding would be worth keeping the secret for.
Poppy leaned over to look at the notebook. “How are you planning on making extra money? Are you writing a cookbook?”
Bitsy folded her arms. “I thought I should come up with something that will make more money than a cookbook. Something that will be an instant success. I'm writing a Mennonite vampire romance. Vampires are very popular right now, and the Mennonites are such
people.” She tore the half-written page out of her notebook and crinkled it into a ball. “But it's a lot harder than it sounds. I can't decide if my conflict should involve a werewolf or Mr. Darcy.”
Luke looked at Poppy. He must have had the same puzzled look on his face that she did. “What is a vampire?” Poppy said.
Bitsy waved away the question with a flick of her wrist. “It's a skinny teenager who can't get a tan, no matter how long he sits out in the sun.”
Bitsy had lived as an
for several years. When Poppy's parents had died, Bitsy had come back to the community to raise her nieces. She knew things that Luke couldn't even begin to guess.
“It sounds like a wonderful-
book, B,” Poppy said.
Luke couldn't say if it sounded
or not. Some of the things that appealed to
made no sense to him. A thin boy, a wolf, and Mr. What's-His-Name didn't seem like much of a story. “If the wolf chased the thin boy and tried to eat him, that might add some excitement to it.”
Bitsy shook her head. “Never give an author writing advice. You don't want to mess up my creative flow. Isn't that right, Farrah Fawcett?”
The cat, who up until now had sat nearly motionless, lifted its head and mewed softly.
“Farrah Fawcett?” Luke said.
“That's our cat's name,” Poppy said, smiling at Luke as if she didn't dislike him so much. “She's named after one of Aunt B's favorite movie stars.”
As if she knew they were talking about her, Farrah Fawcett eyed Luke like he had a foul smell hanging about himâmuch the same look Poppy often gave him. Well, Poppy had never liked him, and what did he care for the opinion of a cat?
“She doesn't look like much of a hunter,” Luke said. “But Poppy says she leaves a mouse on your doorstep every morning.”
Bitsy smirked. “Farrah Fawcett would never stoop to chasing mice. Billy Idol kills enough mice for the both of them.”
“Our other cat,” Poppy said.
Luke examined the line of super glue on Poppy's knee. “This looks dry. I'm going to apply another coat.”
As he picked up the tube of glue, he heard what sounded like a low-pitched moaning on the other side of the front door.
Bitsy raised her eyebrows. “That's our other cat.” She ambled to the door and opened it.
A black-and-white cat stood on the welcome mat with one paw propped on a dead mouse. Luke wasn't exactly sure how a cat could manage to sneer, but that cat looked as prickly and mean as a porcupine with a splinter. No doubt it had seen its share of fights. The top of one of its ears was split in half, and one eye only opened halfway. It was a very ugly cat. Luke felt kind of sorry for it.
, Billy Idol,” Bitsy said, motioning for the cat to come into the house. “Dan Kanagy brought him over two weeks ago. I've promised to give him a chance, but I haven't promised to keep him.”
“He's taken care of our mouse problem, B,” Poppy said.
Billy Idol crept into the house as if expecting to be shoved into a bag and taken to the ditch to be drowned. Farrah Fawcett took one look at Billy Idol and, showing more life than she had since Luke had been here, leaped from the window seat, padded quickly across the kitchen floor, and disappeared up the stairs. Apparently, Farrah Fawcett was not fond of the new cat either.
“We get a mouse or a bird on our porch two or three times a day. I think he expects us to eat them for supper,” Bitsy said.
Keeping her leg still, Poppy held out her hand. “Come here, Billy Idol, and I'll give you some love.” Billy Idol bared his tiny teeth, and Poppy giggled. “He's a ferocious hunter, but a very disagreeable pet. He won't want to be your friend.”
“That's okay,” Luke said. “I don't like cats.”
Bitsy grunted. “Neither do I.”
Billy Idol sniffed the air and pinned Luke with a glare made all the more menacing by the fact that one of his eyes didn't fully open. He padded closer and nudged his scarred nose against Luke's knee.
Luke faithfully pinched Poppy's wound while he sat cross-legged on the floor. “Go away, cat,” he said.
Poppy's unfriendly, vicious, ugly cat mewed pathetically and leaped into Luke's lap without even asking permission. Luke nearly jumped out of his skin as the cat settled in and made himself comfortable.
Poppy's jaw dropped open. “He's never done that before.” She turned to look at her aunt. “Did you see that, B?”
Bitsy tilted her head to look at the cat. “Maybe he likes Luke because they're both so ornery.”
Luke would have protested, but he was too busy trying to get the cat off his lap without touching the mangy thing. He nudged the cat with his elbow, but Billy Idol didn't act as if he even noticed. “Don't sit on me, cat.”
Billy Idol rested his head on his paws and closed his eyes.
Luke growled in helpless frustration.
Poppy looked as if she were about to burst into laughter. “You've made a new friend. Or is Billy Idol your very first friend?”
“I have friends,” Luke protested in mock indignation.
“Imaginary friends don't count.”
He made a face at her.
“Billy Idol wants you to take him home,” Bitsy said.
“I would never tear him from his loving family,” Luke said. With his free hand, Luke lifted Billy Idol by the scruff of the neck and set him on the floor as far away as he could reach. Billy Idol scowled and crouched as if he might try to jump on Luke's lap again. Luke held out his hand to guard his lap from intruders. Billy Idol sat on his haunches and peered at Luke with a mixture of menace and outrage in his expression. At least that's what it looked like to Luke. Who knew what any stupid cat was thinking?
Luke took a last look at Poppy's cut, which seemed to be staying together, and slipped his hand off her knee. “I think you're cured. Try not to bend your knee for a few days. The glue is a poor substitute for stitches.”
Poppy jumped to her feet too quickly, but at least she seemed to take some care with her knee. “I'll be careful.”
“You should probably reglue it every day or so yet.” He stood up, being careful not to step on the cat sitting next to him. “I should get to that chicken coop.”
should get to that chicken coop,” Poppy said, as if she were itching for a fight.
Luke stifled a groan. He had been hoping against hope that Poppy would decide she preferred sitting in a comfortable chair in the kitchen to sitting on the hard ground hammering nails. “I don't mind getting started if you'd like to rest for a few minutes,” he said.
“I'm plenty rested,” she said through gritted teeth.
“You need to bandage your knee first,” he said through clenched ones.
She limped to the super glue drawer and pulled out a box of Band-Aids. Standing at the counter, she methodically opened three and stuck them over her hospital-worthy gash. Luke had no doubt that was as good as he would get.
He did his best to unclench his teeth. Poppy would gloat for days if she realized how much she irritated him. Better to keep his irritation to himself. “Okay then. Let's go.”
Poppy, then Billy Idol, followed Luke out the front door.
He tried to bury his aggravation.
He wouldn't be able to shake either one of them.
“I had a wonderful-
time tonight,” Dinah Eicher said as she climbed into Luke's buggy. “But it was so hot, I almost melted.”
Luke said, climbing in beside her. “I'm glad they made ice cream.”
Dinah smiled at him as if he were the smartest person in the world. “Was the ice cream your idea?”
He smiled back. After the glares Poppy Christner had given him today, it was refreshing to have a girl gush over him. “
. Aunt Miriam wanted ideas for eats to serve at the gathering. Both Joe and I suggested ice cream.”
“You're not giving yourself enough credit. You probably saved all
from heat stroke.”
At least Dinah knew how to appreciate a boy's efforts instead of accusing him of arrogance because he wanted to help people.
He picked up the reins and prodded the horse down the road. Many of
had taken a van over to Shawano to watch the fireworks and then gone back to one of the ministers' homes for ice cream. Luke had been looking forward to taking Dinah home after the fireworks all day. Poppy Christner did her best to cut down his self-assurance; Dinah did nothing but build it up. She didn't question his motives or call him stubborn, and she would never challenge him to a race. A sweet, delicate Amish girl would never dream of doing that.
He frowned. How had he let Poppy talk him into a race? Not only had he gotten beat, but Poppy had been hurt, and she'd practically bled to death before he had even noticed.
Dinah Eicher would never let herself bleed to death.
A smile tugged at his lips when he thought of Poppy, so stubborn and so annoyed, practically drag herself to the house rather than accept help from him. That girl was as tough as a whole wagon full of crowbars. And she hadn't made a peep when Luke tended to her cut. Still, he wished she didn't have such a hard time letting him help. It would have made his life a whole lot easier if he didn't have to talk her into things that were for her own good.
“Did you hear that the Christners' chicken coop burned down?” Dinah said.
“It didn't burn down,” Luke said, glad that whoever had chopped the coop into pieces hadn't thought of taking a match to it. The barn could have easily caught fire along with it. “Someone came in the middle of the night and took an ax to it.”
Dinah's eyes got wide and moist. “Who would do such a thing? I'd be terrified if I were Bitsy, living out there all alone with no man to take care of her. It gives me goose pimples just thinking about it.”
He should have kept his mouth shut. News like that scared the girls out of their wits. Luke was sure that deep down Poppy Christner was scared too, even though she would never show it. As long as the girls didn't know about such terrible things, they would be spared the worry that was the man's burden to carry.
“I'm building them a new chicken coop,” he said. “No harm done.”
“You're building them a new coop?”
“I have two free days this week.”
Dinah batted her eyelashes in the perfect mixture of modesty and admiration. “It's
that you would help that poor family out of the goodness of your heart. No one is as kind and strong as you are, Luke.”
He pressed his lips together. Poppy Christner had chastised him for being conceited, and maybe he deserved it. It was pride, pure and simple, to brag about helping his neighbors.
Dinah practically melted into a puddle right there in the buggy as she gazed at him with those trusting baby-blue eyes. He certainly preferred baby-blue eyes to the emerald-green ones that flashed with fire every time he opened his mouth. Was it so wrong to enjoy the sight of Dinah's face lit up in admiration?
“I can't take credit for the whole thing. Dan Kanagy helped me this afternoon, and even Poppy hammered a few nails.”
Dinah glanced sideways at Luke and worried the ends of her
strings. “Why would she do that? I'd be too nervous to pick up a hammer.”
That's because Dinah was soft and feminine and delicate, like a girl should be. “I tried to tell her I didn't need her help, but she wouldn't take no for an answer.”
Dinah pursed her lips and gazed at Luke. “Poppy's always been strange that way. It's like she wants to be one of the boys.”
Luke drew his brows together. He'd rather be stepped on by his horse than admit it, but Poppy, with only one good leg, had been a great help. She'd never be as good as he was at swinging a hammer, but she kept up with him just fine and never complained once about her knee or her hand or the heat. The Christners didn't have a man around to help them out. He should be more understanding of Poppy's insistence that he teach her to build a chicken coop. She might never have a husband to take care of her.
Luke fingered the stubble on his chin. Poppy would get a husband all right. She might be contrary, but she was also very pretty to look at and made an irresistible apple pie. “I don't think Poppy wants to be one of the boys. I think she wants to prove that she is good enough as a girl.”
Dinah studied Luke's face and blinked rapidly, as if she were trying to fan up a breeze. “That's downright prideful, if you ask me. A girl shouldn't want to be better than anyone, especially a boy.” Dinah widened her eyes indignantly. “And surely she doesn't think she's better than you at anything.”
Luke smiled. Poppy thought she was better than he was at everything, except maybe heavy lifting. She'd challenged him to a race to prove it.
Misguided or not, Poppy would never wilt like a flower in the heat.
A blaring car horn sounded behind them, and Luke pulled as far to the right as he could. The driver revved the engine and passed Luke, leaving only inches to spare between his fiery red car and Luke's buggy. Luke huffed out a breath as he slowed the horse considerably so he wouldn't be forced off the road into the ditch. Most drivers were courteous and did their best to share the road with the buggies, but sometimes someone in too big of a hurry would set Luke's heart racing with their wild driving.
The car disappeared down the road, its radio turned up so loud that the bass line probably rattled every house in the vicinity. Luke guided his horse Cody back to the center of the lane just in time to hear another car come barreling down the road behind him. This one had a loud engine that rumbled like a tornado. The car's brakes squealed as it came up behind Luke's buggy, and the driver laid on his horn as if he were trying to move the buggy with the sheer force of noise. Fearing he'd be plowed over, Luke held his breath and pulled the horse hard right. Dinah screamed as the buggy pitched wildly back and forth. It rolled down a shallow embankment and into the equally shallow ditch.
The driver passed him on the left, slowing down long enough to yell an obscenity at Luke, then followed the other car out of sight. For sure and certain, the angry teenager had just lost a race.
Luke took a deep breath and let his heart slow to a gallop. Thanks be to
, the buggy was undamaged and Dinah was unhurt. Cody would be able to pull it back onto the road. Dinah's blue eyes were as big as dinner plates. With one hand she clutched the back of the velvet seat and with the other she held on to the dashboard for dear life. Was she breathing?
“Are you okay?” he said.
“I'm . . . I'm going to be . . .” she said breathlessly, before she gagged and threw up all over the inside of his buggy.
She'd eaten a lot of strawberry ice cream.