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Authors: Jennifer Beckstrand

Huckleberry Spring

BOOK: Huckleberry Spring
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HUCKLEBERRY SPRING
“Do you like Adam Wengerd?” Ben asked.
Emma swallowed hard. “I . . . I don’t know.”
“I don’t think you should date him anymore.”
“You don’t?” Through the fog, she latched on to one thought. Had Lizzie’s plan worked? Was he jealous enough to get back together with her?
Of course not. How could she dare open her heart to such a possibility?
Instead of pulling away like he absolutely, positively should have, Ben traced his finger down the side of her cheek and rubbed his thumb along her jawline.
“Adam can’t take care of you the way you need to be taken care of,” he said in a low, rumbly tone that might have made her swoon if she had been prone to fainting.
She couldn’t read the emotion in his eyes as he grew breathlessly still and stared at her mouth.
Oh, no. Oh, no.
Without warning, he wrapped his free hand around her waist, pulled her closer than she would ever have dared hope, and kissed her....
Books by Jennifer Beckstrand
HUCKLEBERRY HILL
 
HUCKLEBERRY SUMMER
 
HUCKLEBERRY CHRISTMAS
 
HUCKLEBERRY SPRING
 
 
 
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
Huckleberry Spring
JENNIFER BECKSTRAND
ZEBRA BOOKS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
Chapter 1
Felty’s eyes did not stray from his newspaper as Anna Helmuth laid a four-inch stack of brochures on the table next to his recliner.
“Take your pick, Felty,” Anna said sweetly, plopping herself into her rocker and scooping up her knitting. “What kind of surgery would you like to get?”
“Hmm,” Felty said, not paying attention as he perused the death notices.
“Sometimes you squint. Maybe you’d like to get Lasik.”
Felty lowered
The Budget
so he could spy his wife over the top of it. “What are you saying, Annie Banannie? You think I squint?”
Rocking back and forth, Anna inclined her head toward the thick stack of papers without missing a beat in her knitting. “It’s that purple brochure on the top. I don’t know. You might be too old for Lasik.”
“I’m only eighty-four—not too old for anything.” The newspaper crunched as Felty set it in his lap. He stared curiously at Anna’s potpourri of brightly colored brochures. “What is Lasik, and why do you have a brochure about it?”
“I already told you, dear. You need to pick what kind of surgery you want. Lasik is just one of many choices.”
“Do I need surgery?”
“Of course you do, dear. Spring is the busiest time of the year on a farm, and I need you laid up and unable to work for at least a month.”
Felty took off his glasses and cleaned them with his handkerchief as if this would help him decipher what Anna was talking about. “You want me laid up for the spring work?”
“You’re squinting, dear. You need Lasik.”
“What will become of the chickens?”
Anna lifted her eyebrows, pursed her lips, and nodded as a gesture of reassurance. “I’ve got it all worked out. Our grandson Ben will take over the farm while you’re indisposed. And look after the chickens.”
Felty furrowed his brow as if someone had taken a plow to his forehead. “You’re not still scheming to get Ben and Emma Nelson back together, are you? It’s a lost cause, Banannie. A lost cause.”
“Lost causes are my specialty,” Anna insisted as her fingers and knitting needles seemed to meld together in a blur of fuzzy pink yarn. “Ben and Emma belong together, and if anybody can make it happen, we can. We’ve never missed yet.”
“I don’t know if I’d say we’ve never missed.”
“Then what would you call our amazing success matching up our grandchildren?” Anna asked, tilting her head to one side and peering at her husband over her glasses.
“Lucky guesses.”
Anna shook her head. “No such thing.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Felty said, smoothing his paper to get a better look at the story about pike fishing in North Dakota. “It would take a miracle to get Emma to set foot on Huckleberry Hill ever again.”
“Leave that to me. I have a few tricks up my sleeve.”
Felty frowned as if he’d already lost this debate. “But Ben lives in Florida. What young man in his right mind would trade Florida for Wisconsin?”
“Ben would, if he knew his
dawdi
needed him. If he knew the farm would fall to pieces without his help.”
“Ben’s got twenty cousins living in Bonduel who could help with the garden and the animals. He’d wonder why we couldn’t use one of the other grandchildren.”
Anna’s ball of yarn tumbled off her lap. “Don’t you worry. I’ll see to it that all of the other grandchildren are excessively busy on their own farms.”
“And how will you see to that?”
“Now, Felty. They all want Ben to come home. If I tell them we’re going to lure Ben with your surgery, the cousins will be perfectly happy to neglect their grandparents. Ben has such a tender heart. He’ll come back when he knows we need him desperately, especially when you’re going to be feeling so poorly after your operation.”
Felty leaned back in his recliner and raised his arms in surrender. “I’m feeling worse already.”
“That’s the spirit!”
Chapter 2
Emma Nelson plopped herself down on a chubby tree stump, glanced around to make sure no one lurked in the woods, and burst into tears. After months of hiding her deepest emotions, she deserved to wallow in a little self-pity today. Despite her aching heart, she had refrained from blubbering all winter long.
Of course, her stiff-upper-lip act hadn’t fooled her brother Mahlon. Only when she made a point to burn the bread and “accidentally” let the chickens into the house did he suspect the worst was over.
She shouldn’t have strayed from the lane, but she had been unable to resist when her curiosity pulled her in the direction of the white aspen tree. She wanted to see if it was still there. Not that the tree would have uprooted itself and walked away, but maybe, by the hand of Providence, it had been struck by lightning or smitten with a disease and toppled over sometime during the long winter.
But
nae
. The gnarled old aspen hadn’t moved. Even though it dripped with fuzzy springtime buds instead of silvery green summertime leaves, it could have been yesterday that she had sat on this very stump and watched Ben carve her name into the bark.
Ben loves Emma
.
After seeing her loss so plainly etched into the tree, her carefully guarded composure had disintegrated, and here she sat, bawling like a baby over a stale memory. Why had she not ignored her heart and continued marching up Huckleberry Hill without a sideways glance? Why had she not taken an axe to that tree last autumn or rather, asked her brother Mahlon to take an axe to that tree? Mahlon forbade her from picking up sharp objects. He had definitely overreacted to that incident in the haymow three years ago.
Emma swiped the tears from her cheeks. They were quickly replaced with new ones. She had exactly five more minutes to cry before her appointment with Anna Helmuth. Time to quit wallowing.
With a sigh, she stood and brushed off her dress. She dabbed at her face with her apron and pinched her cheeks. Crying made her complexion pasty.
Dry leaves crunched beneath her feet as she found her way back to the lane and trudged up the hill. Despite her reluctance, she had promised Anna she would come, and she didn’t want to be late.
Anna’s request for a visit had surprised Emma. Didn’t the entire Helmuth family despise her? Why would Anna want help from Emma, the girl who had somehow impelled Anna’s grandson to flee to Florida?
The thought of seeing Anna almost called forth fresh tears. Before their broken engagement, Emma had spent many happy hours on Huckleberry Hill with Ben and his adorable grandparents. Once Ben moved to Florida, Emma had avoided his entire family. She wasn’t in the same district as Anna and Felty, so she hadn’t been forced to see them at church, and she kept away from the places that Anna and Felty and the rest of Ben’s family might frequent. The associations and memories were too painful to bear.
After a brief pause to collect herself, Emma squared her shoulders, ambled around the last bend in the lane, and came within sight of the house. Anna, looking like springtime in a peach sweater, stood on her covered porch grinning with anticipation and clutching the railing as if she might float away if she let go. No doubt Anna had knitted the sweater she wore. She loved to knit, and no one had the heart to tell her that Amish sweaters and coats were supposed to be black. Only black.
Anna clapped her hands in delight, which was the same greeting just about everyone got when they came to Huckleberry Hill. Anna had a way of making each person feel as if they were her favorite. Emma thought it was an invaluable talent for a
mammi
, a grandmother, to possess.
“Lo and behold, it’s Emma Nelson,” Anna squealed. She skipped down the porch steps as if she walked on twenty-year-old knees and drew Emma into her embrace. “It’s been ages, absolutely ages since you’ve set foot on Huckleberry Hill. We’ve missed you something wonderful.”
Emma pulled away and blinked rapidly to keep the tears from forming. She cleared her throat and gave Anna a warm but guarded smile. “How have you been, Anna?”
“Right as rain, except for not seeing you as much as I would like.”
“And how is Felty?”
“You know how badly he snores at night.”
Emma shook her head and sprouted a half smile. “I didn’t know.”
“Well, he’s getting his deviated septum fixed next week. We’re hoping he’s off his feet for at least a month, maybe longer. But they say it’s a pretty routine surgery.” Anna looked a little concerned at the possible ease of Felty’s recovery. She patted Emma’s arm. “We’ll hope it gives us enough time.”
For the better part of a year, Emma had been pretending that she didn’t care for Ben Helmuth. If she could convince Anna of that fact, she could probably convince anybody. “And how is Ben?” she said, lacing her tone with casual interest and unaffected cheerfulness so she sounded like a polite friend asking about the grandchildren in general. A twinge of pain twisted her stomach into a knot. She hadn’t said his name out loud for months.
Anna tugged her sweater more tightly around herself. “Oh, we’ve no time to talk about Ben just yet. Come out of the chill.”
Anna led the way up the porch steps and into the great room where her husband Felty filled the stove with wood and sang at the top of his lungs. “
Time has made a change since my younger days, Many of my friends have drifted away, Some I never more in my days will see. Time has made a change in me.

“Felty,” Anna said with a smile as wide as the Wisconsin River, “look who’s here.”
Emma loved Felty like he was her own dawdi. He had always been so kind and nothing seemed to ruffle his feathers, even Anna’s cooking. He stopped singing and turned his gaze in Emma’s direction. His eyebrows rose in unison. “Annie, I don’t know how you do it, but you are a wonder.”
Emma wasn’t quite sure what to make of his reaction. “It’s nice to see you again, Felty.”
He straightened, stroked his beard, and studied Emma’s face with a twinkle in his eye. “Are you ready for all this rigmarole?”
She still couldn’t make heads or tails of what Felty talked about. Maybe he was finally beginning to show his age.
Going to her husband, Anna giggled uncomfortably and nudged Felty in the direction of the hallway. “What a silly notion, Felty. There’ll be no such thing as a rigmarole here. There won’t even be a kerfuffle. Emma is here to help me with my vegetables. Everyone knows the Nelsons have the most beautiful produce in Bonduel.”
Shaking his head, Felty shuffled down the hall. “If I were Emma, I’d buckle my seat belt, just the same,” he called over his shoulder.
Dear Felty. His mind was definitely going.
A knot formed in Emma’s stomach as she glanced around the room. The massive cast-iron cookstove and the gas-powered fridge stood against the far wall. A counter holding the sink jutted from the wall at her right and cut the kitchen in half. A round kitchen table sat on Emma’s side of the counter. She and Ben and his grandparents had spent many an evening playing Bananagrams at that table. Anna would invent wild spellings, and Emma would sneak all her
Z
’s and
X
’s into Ben’s pile when he wasn’t looking. He would protest in mock indignation and then come up with outrageous words like
zyzzyx
. Ben was the smartest boy she knew.
The great room looked as if not even a newspaper had been moved since last summer. She and Ben had often sat on the sofa talking late into the night. Once he’d even dared hold her hand. Emma caught her breath and stuffed her fist into her pocket. After all these months, she could still feel the tingle of Ben’s calloused skin against hers.
Maybe this wasn’t such a
gute
idea after all.
She took a deep breath and did what she always did. She pretended that nothing could possibly be wrong.
She smiled as if she’d be delighted to spend the entire summer on Huckleberry Hill playing Bananagrams with Anna. “Are you ready to get started?”
Anna glanced at the bird clock on the wall before bustling to the counter and retrieving a box of supplies. “
Jah
. I got ajar, scissors, some tape, and newspapers, just like you said.”
She laid the box on the table, and Emma picked up the medium-sized jar and separated a sheet of newspaper. “You want the newspaper to be two widths the size of your jar.” She showed Anna how to measure the paper using the jar as a guide and handed Anna the scissors. “Now we cut off the extra paper.”
“Oh, dear. I don’t think I can make it perfectly straight,” Anna said.
“No need to worry about that. It can be crooked and still work fine.”
With more uncertainty than was required, Anna slowly trimmed the newspaper to the proper size.
“Gute,” Emma said. “Now fold the paper two-thirds of the way down. Jah, like that.”
Anna grinned. “I’m gute at folding. I folded plenty of diapers in my day.”
“Now lay the jar on its side and roll it up in the newspaper.”
Anna followed directions well. Emma taped down the edge of the newspaper and showed Anna how to fold it over the bottom of the jar and tape it again. “Now pull the jar out of the paper, and you have a seedling pot for your pumpkin plant.”
Anna worked the jar carefully from the newspaper and balanced her creation in the palm of her hand. “I never thought I’d see the day.”
“How many pumpkins plants do you want to grow this year, Anna?”
“Just one.”
“One?”
“And I desperately need your help.”
Emma curled the corners of her mouth. “Pumpkins aren’t hard to grow. They just need plenty of water and sunshine.”
Anna’s eyes danced as if they held a thousand eager secrets. She looked at the clock again. Did she have somewhere to go? “I want a giant pumpkin, like the one you grew last summer.”
Emma’s heart did a little flip-flop. The eight-hundred-pound pumpkin. Ben had been so proud of her. Even though they weren’t supposed to flaunt their talents, he had called the local paper to take a picture and then found a buyer who paid her three hundred dollars for her pumpkin. Ben was even more excited than Emma had been. He told her he thought she was the most wonderful, smartest girl in the world to grow such a thing. Oh, how she loved him for that!
Or rather,
used to
love him. That’s what she wanted everyone to believe. None of her family should spend a single day worrying about how she got along without Ben.
“Giant pumpkins take a lot of work. You need to tend to them every day.”
Anna nodded vigorously, as if Emma had guessed a riddle. “That is why I insist on paying you for your trouble.”
“You want to pay me to grow a pumpkin?”
“It would mean so much to my great-great-grandson Toby. I promised him a giant pumpkin this summer.”
Emma regarded Anna doubtfully. Toby was barely two years old. He wasn’t likely to have begged Anna for a giant pumpkin. Even if he had, anything over fifty pounds would be plenty giant for him.
Growing a giant pumpkin for Anna was sure to be a strain on Emma’s carefully guarded emotions. Memories of Ben would permeate the very air of Huckleberry Hill. She’d see his shadow everywhere she went and in every pumpkin that sprouted from the stem.
Inwardly, she chastised herself. She had to be strong for
Dat
and Mahlon and all the other people who fretted about her. What better way to prove to everyone that she wasn’t suffering than to keep company with Ben’s grandparents without so much as thinking twice about the grandson?
Her mother had admonished her months ago.
Emma, get over the boy. You’re as mopey as an old cat.
As far as
Mamm
knew, Emma’s heart had moved way down the road from Ben. She couldn’t abide Mamm’s irritation any more than she could bear Mahlon’s fretting.
Anna waited for an answer. Was she holding her breath?
“Are you sure you want
me?
” Emma said. The girl who’d accidentally burned down Zimmerman’s chicken coop last year? The girl their grandson found so unworthy?
“I won’t settle for anyone else.”
Anna’s adamant response took Emma aback. What could Anna possibly see of value in Emma’s help? Anna certainly didn’t act as if she felt any ill will toward her grandson’s ex-fiancée. Had she forgotten about the chicken coop?
Emma pursed her lips. If Anna didn’t object to Emma’s tending pumpkins on Huckleberry Hill, then Emma would do her best to help. Perhaps Ben’s family would not think so badly of her if Ben’s mammi accepted her with open arms. “Okay,” Emma said. “I’ll do my best.”
Anna all but burst with laughter. “That is wonderful gute. Felty will feel so much better knowing you are watching out for our pumpkin.”
As long as the chickens didn’t protest. Every hen in the county was probably terrified of Emma Nelson, even if Anna wasn’t. No doubt Emma had a dangerous reputation among the chickens.
She took a deep breath. “I can come three days a week to tend the pumpkin, and maybe I should plant some other vegetables for you too, so you’ll have plenty for canning come autumn.”
Anna’s eyes strayed to the clock once again. “I love peas and beans.”
“Okay. And some cucumbers?”
“I love dill pickles,” Anna said, gushing like a newly drilled well.
Emma couldn’t help but crack a smile. Anna’s enthusiasm rubbed off on everybody who came within ten feet. “I will go to the market and buy special pumpkin seeds and bring them back tomorrow so you can plant one in your pot.”
Anna’s face lit up. “Tomorrow? That would be better than my wildest dreams.”
Emma giggled. Sometimes the enthusiasm went a little overboard.
A firm knock at the door caught their attention. Anna glided across the room and opened it.
Emma’s throat constricted, rendering her unable to breathe while her heart hammered against her chest, making it all the more likely that she would suffocate.
BOOK: Huckleberry Spring
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