“This is a big mistake,” Aunt Bitsy said as she pulled back the curtains and watched Dan walk across the yard. “There's no reason that we have to feed Luke Bontrager tonight. Poppy's honey apple pie was bad enough.”
“But, Aunt B,” Lily said, “he's worked for two days straight on our chicken coop. The least we can do is feed him dinner.”
Poppy glanced out the window to see Dan disappear around the side of the barn. She had wanted to stay out there until she and Luke had completely finished the chicken coop, but an hour ago, she'd needed to make bread for dinner. She'd come into the house reluctantly, even when Luke assured her that there wasn't much more that needed to be finished up and that he'd be happy to do it himself. Of course he'd be happy. He would have been happy if Poppy had never insisted on helping him in the first place.
Then again, she wasn't entirely sure about that. This morning, after telling her that she didn't have to help, he didn't so much as peep when she limped right past him and picked up the hammer. Perhaps he had simply resigned himself to the fact that she wouldn't be talked out of helping. He had still treated her like a nuisance, but he had also taken care to teach her how to square the corners and level off the floor. Maybe he planned on taking credit for her
work. It wouldn't have been the first time a boy had done that to her. Then again, Luke didn't seem the deceitful type.
He had been genuinely irritated that she was on the ground hammering nails with a sore knee, but then he had started calling her Stumpy, and she figured he wasn't really mad at her. They'd had a lighthearted conversation about wood floors and freak carpentry accidents. And when Poppy hit her thumb with the hammer, he hadn't even suggested that she go into the house and lie down.
All in all, it had been a
day. Poppy wasn't too proud to admit that she enjoyed stealing glances at Luke Bontrager. Although he could be disagreeable, he was also very nice to look at. She frowned to herself and finished cutting the bread. She didn't usually give place to such frivolous notions.
“Luke is done with the chicken coop, Aunt Bitsy,” Rose said, taking the meat loaf out of the pan. “It's not likely we'll see much more of him even if we feed him tonight.”
Aunt B fingered her red-and-green poinsettia earring. She had told Poppy she wore the Christmas ones out of season just to make her life more exciting. “Mark my words, little sister, that boy will be harder to get rid of than the smell of skunk from a wool coat.”
Lily poured a bottle of chow-chow into a bowl and set it on the table. “We can't very well invite Dan without inviting Luke.”
Aunt Bitsy gave an indignant harrumph. “Of course we can. We have to put up with Dan because he's your fiancÃ©, but I'd just as soon toss Luke out on his ear. He's pushy and too sure of himself. I can't abide a boy who is sure of himself.”
Lily laughed and pulled a stack of plates from the cupboard. “He's confident, Aunt B. And smart. Dan likes him. He must have some
“He saved Poppy's hand,” Rose said. “And he glued her knee back together. And he built us a new chicken coop.”
And he had a nice smile, even though Poppy rarely saw it. But the smile wasn't near enough to make up for his arrogance.
Dan walked into the house with Luke following close behind. “I fetched Luke just like you wanted,” Dan said, glancing at Lily, then Poppy, and grinning from ear to ear as if he were about to burst with a secret.
“Well, wash up then,” Aunt B said, not even pretending to be happy that Luke and Dan were here for dinner.
Dan led the way down the hall to the bathroom. Luke took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. “How is your thumb?” he said as he passed Poppy.
She held it up, pretending it didn't hurt something wonderful. The nail already looked a light purplish red. “It's fine,” she said. It didn't look any worse than the bruise across the back of her right hand or the swollen cut across her knee.
What had happened to her? A week ago, before Luke decided to interfere in her life, she hadn't a scratch on her.
When Dan and Luke came back into the kitchen, Dan fetched the glasses and silverware and helped Lily set the table. Luke, on the other hand, made himself comfortable on the sofa. Billy Idol, who'd been lurking upstairs on the lookout for mice, appeared and leaped into Luke's lap. Luke raised his hands as if the cat had a dread disease and then tried to brush Billy Idol off like a piece of lint. Billy Idol didn't budge. Luke stood up in hopes of forcing Billy Idol to tumble. Billy Idol only scowled and dug his claws into Luke's trousers.
Luke winced in pain and gave up trying to shake the cat. He sat back down on the sofa and let Billy Idol snuggle into his lap.
Aunt B propped her hands on her hips and glared at Luke as if he'd brought a live chicken into the house. “Young man, no one lounges around in my house when there's work to be done.”
Luke, being his own predictable self, spread his arms and settled deeper into the sofa. “I don't do women's work,” he said, as if expecting everyone to sympathize with him. As if he had no idea how completely wrong he was.
Lily and Dan stopped setting the table to stare at him. Aunt Bitsy's glare became positively lethal. Rose eyed Luke with something akin to horror on her face. Poppy smirked and cocked an eyebrow. After a pleasant day learning how to build a chicken coop, she'd almost forgotten how much she disliked him. As soon as her knee got better, she'd have to challenge him to another race, just to keep him humble.
“You're too good to help us get dinner on?” Poppy said, almost hoping he'd dig a hole so deep for himself that he wouldn't be able to climb out.
Luke shook his head. “
, but I'm a man. Men do the hard work and let the women do the easier chores.”
Even Billy Idol must have had enough of such talk. He twitched his whiskers and jumped off Luke's lap.
Dan broke the uncomfortable silence by laughing out loud. He put his arm around Lily's shoulder and gave her a squeeze. Lily smiled at him as if she were in on whatever secret he was keeping. “Don't believe a word of it, Poppy. For sure and certain, Luke is just plain lazy.”
Luke didn't seem the least bit offended. What would it take to ruffle those peacock feathers of his? “I just spent two whole days building a chicken coop.”
“With my help,” Poppy insisted.
Luke glanced in her direction, and his lips curled slightly upward. “With Poppy's help.”
He seemed sincere, as if he actually appreciated her help. Or maybe he'd just decided she hadn't been a complete nuisance. Why did that casual grin set her heart fluttering like a moth to a lantern, especially when she didn't even like him?
“It was very nice of you to build us a new chicken coop,” Rose said.
“You won't help with dinner,” Dan said. “Sounds lazy to me.”
“I'm not lazy.” Luke leaned forward and propped his elbows on his knees, revealing the hard muscles of his arms.
, those weren't the arms of a lazy man. He might be a hard worker, but he was still conceited.
If Luke was to be brought to the depths of humility, Poppy would have to be the one to do it. She'd made Marty Hoover cry in the sixth grade. She could surely teach Luke Bontrager a lesson.
She took the watermelon from the counter and set it on the butcher-block island. “You're afraid you'll be outdone by a girl.”
A spark flashed in his eyes.
was the way to ruffle Luke Bontrager's feathers. “I'm not afraid of anything.”
She pulled two knives from the knife block and held them in the air like umbrellas. “If you think women's work is so easy, why don't you cut this watermelon just to show me how it's done?”
“You can cut a watermelon all by yourself with no help from me.”
Poppy smile archly. “I bet I'm faster.”
“I'll bet you're not,” he said.
“Would you like to find out?” She pointed one of the knives in his direction.
he said. “I don't have to prove it.”
“Then you're afraid because I beat you in that race.”
“I was wearing my boots,” he said, but he didn't seem exceptionally bitter about losing to a girl. He stood up, came around the island, and took one of Poppy's knives. “You forget that I'm a carpenter. I can cut a watermelon faster than you can get rolled up in a car window.”
“We'll see.” Poppy sliced the watermelon down the center and gave Luke half. She pulled two cutting boards from the drawer and handed him one.
“We'd better move out of the way, Rose,” Aunt B said. She gazed up at the ceiling. “Dear Lord, we know Luke is a proud young man, but please see to it that he doesn't chop off his fingers.” She looked at Poppy and shrugged. “If I had known you were going to challenge Luke to a race, I wouldn't have sharpened the knives this morning. I'm afraid there's going to be blood.”
“Don't worry about me. I work with very dangerous tools,” Luke said, with that aggravating air of confidence. “It's Poppy you should be worried about.”
Poppy kept her smile to herself. Luke Bontrager would be cut down to size same as the watermelon.
Dan said “go,” and he and Poppy's sisters and Aunt B watched intently as Luke sliced his watermelon with a vengeance. Poppy turned her watermelon cut-side-down and sliced the rind off from top to bottom like peeling an orange. It was a trick Mammi Sarah had taught her, and it proved twice as fast as cutting the rind off each individual slice.
Luke saw what she was doing, but he was too far into his own cutting to change course, so naturally he tried to distract her. “You're going to lose that nail, you know. If you hadn't insisted on helping with the chicken coop, you wouldn't have hammered your thumb flat and you'd still have ten perfectly good fingernails and a leg that bends correctly.” He chopped wildly at his watermelon, making juice fly in every direction.
Poppy grinned as his desperation seemed to mount. “If you had agreed to my helping in the first place, you wouldn't have been humiliated in that footrace. It hurts to lose, doesn't it?”
“You should know,” he said.
Poppy finished cutting while Luke wrestled mightily with the rind of his last slice. She'd beaten him with two bad hands and a smashed thumbnail. Dan and Lily cheered, and Rose nearly clapped her hands. She must have thought better of it, because at the last second, she folded her arms and stared out the window as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening in the kitchen. Tenderhearted Rose wouldn't gloat, not even at Luke Bontrager.
Luke hurried to finish his watermelon, got overzealous on the last cut, and sliced right through the knuckle of his left index finger. He growled in frustration, and Poppy only knew it hurt because a grimace traveled fleetingly across his face.
“Are you okay?” she said, trying to suppress her elation at besting Luke once again. He'd cut himself. Probably not the best time to give a victory cheer.
He grabbed the nearest dish towel and wound it tightly around his finger. “Right as rain,” he said, pressing the towel to his finger with his other hand.
“Put pressure on it,” Poppy said.
“That was my favorite dish towel,” Aunt Bitsy murmured. “I should have asked for protection for the towels in my prayer.”
Poppy watched in alarm as a wide spot of blood seeped through the towel. “Do you need stitches?”
He frowned and raised an eyebrow. “If you don't need stitches, then I don't need stitches.”
It didn't seem as if he would die. Poppy smiled. “I won.”
“Don't get used to it,” he said, with a deep huskiness to his voice. “It will never happen again.”
He narrowed his eyes and pressed his lips together in a tight line, as if planning a strategy for the next contest. He obviously didn't like to lose, but the good-natured glint in his eye surprised her. She'd expected him to be a sore loser, especially to a girl.
“I wouldn't be too confident,” Poppy said.
His smile nearly knocked her over. “You might have won, Poppy Christner.” He lifted his hand with the towel attached. “But this gets me out of kitchen duty.”
“It doesn't get you out of anything,” Aunt Bitsy said. “There's lots of things you can do with one hand.”
“As long as it's man's work,” he said with a grin.
B looked as if she might be ready to sell him to a band of traveling nomads.
“No need, Aunt B,” said Lily, pulling a chair from the table. “We're ready to eat.”
Poppy slid the watermelon into a bowl and set it on the table. Aunt B sat at the head of the table with Rose to her left and Lily to her right. Dan sat next to Lily and Poppy sat next to Rose. That left the other end of the table for Luke. It also meant Poppy would have to hold his hand during the prayer.
Could she trade places with Rose without being obvious?
Rose was skittish enough around boys. She might break into hives if she had to sit next to formidable Luke Bontrager. She might faint if she had to hold his hand. Poppy clenched her teeth. She would have to be the tough one.
They always had two prayers at mealtime. Aunt B said the first one out loud while they held hands, and then they bowed their heads in silent grace in the proper Amish tradition. Poppy's grandparents often admonished Aunt B about her unconventional praying, but Aunt B insisted that two prayers were always better than one. It was hard to argue with that, even for her grandfather, Dawdi Sol, and he argued about everything.