An elderly Amish couple play matchmaker for their brokenhearted grandson and his best friend’s sister in this romance by the author of Huckleberry Hearts.
When it comes to matchmaking, Huckleberry Hill, Wisconsin’s unstoppable octogenarians Anna and Felty Helmuth never seem to run out of opportunities—or grandchildren . . .
Reuben Helmuth is plenty bitter. John King, his best friend—or so he thought—is engaged to the girl Reuben loved. Humiliated, Reuben flees from Ohio to his grandparents’ home on Huckleberry Hill, where he knows he’ll find comfort. He’s enjoying wallowing in his misery—until John’s sister, Fern, shows up. She won’t stop pestering Reuben about forgiveness—or trying to help him find love again. Yet Fern’s efforts only reawaken Reuben’s long-buried feelings—for her . . .
With her brother too ashamed to face Reuben, it’s fallen to Fern to help mend fences. But as she and the Helmuths do all they can—even organizing a knitting club event filled with eligible girls—it may take one more challenge to inspire Reuben to forget his heartache, recognize his own blunders, and embrace the true love that’s right in front of him . . .
Praise for Return to Huckleberry Hill“One of my favorite installments yet in this series . . . ! I invite fellow readers to read Return to Huckleberry Hill as it is a story you will not want to put down!” —Harlequin Junkie
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Return To Huckleberry Hill
By JENNIFER BECKSTRAND
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Jennifer Beckstrand
All rights reserved.
Reuben Helmuth had a sinking feeling in his gut the minute Delores Johnson answered her door, and it wasn't because Delores was glaring at him from behind her screen.
The Christmas Eve night was bitter cold, and Reuben's breath hung in the air as he tried to keep the tune while Benji Troyer sang loudly off key right next to Reuben's ear. Poor Benji couldn't have carried a tune if it had a handle.
Delores Johnson, one of the Englischers who lived in their mostly Amish community, had never possessed a pleasant disposition, but tonight she looked downright hostile. She narrowed her eyes and scowled directly at Reuben as if she blamed him for her being alone on Christmas Eve. Or maybe she didn't like the way he sang or the fact that she had to strain her neck to look up at him. Maybe she was annoyed that she had to stand there and listen while the warm air seeped through the screen door and out of her house. Reuben never could tell with Delores.
Delores's bad mood wasn't the reason Reuben felt unsettled all of a sudden. His throat tightened and "O Come All Ye Faithful" died on his lips. Irrational as it was, he felt vulnerable and exposed, as if everyone behind him was laughing at a joke he wasn't in on. He casually turned around and glanced at die youngie behind him. Most of them were bundled up like snowmen with coats and scarves and winter hats, but they were smiling and singing as if they weren't paying Reuben much attention at all.
But where was Linda Sue? He could have sworn she had been right beside him not five minutes ago.
He scanned the group of young people, looking for Linda Sue's lavender scarf among the sea of black coats. She wasn't there, and yet right before they'd made the trek up Mrs. Johnson's driveway, Linda Sue had been by his side. Hadn't she? Their youth group was traveling door to door on foot, singing carols and delivering goodies to the shut-ins. It would have been impossible for Linda Sue to get lost.
He smiled, even though Mrs. Johnson's frown could have given him a rash or something equally as itchy. Tomorrow was Christmas, and he was going to propose to Linda Sue. His heart skipped about in his chest like a moth around a flame. They'd be married in September, and he couldn't be happier. He and Linda Sue were perfect for each other. She was the bishop's daughter. His dat was a minister. Both of their families were respected and loved in the community. Linda Sue was the prettiest girl in Sugarcreek, and Reuben's mamm had always said he wasn't too bad to look at.
It was a match made in heaven with Gotte's approval, for sure and certain.
They finished the song, and Mrs. Johnson opened her screen door just wide enough for one of the girls to hand her a basket of Christmas goodies. "Thank you for stopping by," Delores said. "I love having you Amish folks come see me. Come anytime."
After seeing her lemon-sour expression, Reuben wasn't entirely convinced of her affection. Maybe she was offended by Reuben in particular.
Reuben took another look around as the group started moving down Mrs. Johnson's driveway and on to their next destination. No Linda Sue. His best friend, John King, was nowhere to be seen either.
"Ruth," he said, tapping the girl next to him. "Have you seen Linda Sue yet? I've lost her all of a sudden."
Ruth, a mousy girl of barely sixteen, turned bright red. She looked almost guilty, which made no sense. She was probably flustered at having an older boy like Reuben Helmuth talk to her. He had that effect on girls. John teased him about it all the time, but he couldn't help that girls found him good-looking.
Ruth shuffled her feet and clasped her gloved hands together. "I ... well ... I ..."
Ruth's sister, Jolene, hooked her elbow around Ruth's arm, and the two of them simultaneously burst into a fit of the giggles. "She and John fell behind," Jolene said. "At the bridge that crosses the creek."
Benji Troyer, with his brother Andy and cousin Enos, ambled past Reuben. Benji's lips twitched in amusement. "They've been falling behind a lot lately."
Andy and Enos glanced at Reuben and down at their feet and snickered softly while Reuben stared at them and tried to figure out why they were acting as if their suspenders were cinched too tight.
Reuben didn't especially like how Benji was smirking. He planted his feet and folded his arms across his chest. "What do you mean?" "John and Linda Sue," Benji said, not even trying to hide a self-satisfied grin. "If they're not with you, they're with each other."
Reuben casually shrugged his shoulders and pretended that he already knew it and couldn't care less what Benji and everyone else thought. He wouldn't give Benji the satisfaction of knowing something Reuben didn't know, even though it felt as if someone had just thrown a snowball at his head.
A hard, cold snowball. With a rock in the middle.
That was what had been nagging at his gut all afternoon. Something had been different between Linda Sue and John for weeks. Whenever the three of them were together, it was as if Linda Sue tried to pretend John didn't exist and John would turn so painfully cheerful as to be annoying — as if he was trying too hard to be someone he wasn't.
What did Benji know that Reuben didn't?
He refused to lower himself to ask.
Clenching his teeth, he glanced in the direction of the bridge. "You go on to the next house. I'll find Linda Sue and catch up."
"Maybe she doesn't want to be found," Benji said. "Girls are like that, you know."
Reuben turned and strolled away as if he hadn't a care in the world, even though his neck and shoulders were so tight he thought they might snap.
Jolene and Ruth were still giggling, and he heard two or three other girls join in. Then Benji murmured something under his breath, and Andy and Enos laughed softly.
Reuben's face flamed with embarrassment and anger, and he felt the heat all the way to his ears. They were laughing at him! Him. Reuben Helmuth, the boy no one laughed at. The boy everyone loved and would never dream of making fun of. The boy with his own hefty bank account and too many friends to number. He was practically engaged to the bishop's daughter. Everybody respected him. And nobody would ever dream of laughing.
What had Linda Sue done?
The narrow bridge across the creek was only a few hundred yards through the trees. John and Linda Sue stood on the bridge with their heads together, whispering as if they were engaged in some secret and intimate conversation.
Reuben furrowed his brow and cleared his throat, even though he wasn't the one doing something inappropriate. His frown deepened when Linda Sue and John flinched and practically jumped away from each other as if they'd been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.
"Is everything okay?" Reuben said, trying to keep his voice light and carefree. After all, John might have been helping Linda Sue get something out of her eye. John was Reuben's best friend. He would never do anything to jeopardize that friendship. Linda Sue was the bishop's daughter, and she had been in love with Reuben for years. Reuben had finally taken notice of her, and she had felt herself doubly blessed. She'd never trade her prosperous and happy future for a pig farmer.
John looked as if there'd been a death in his family. He gazed at Reuben, every line of his face etched with pain as his eyes flashed with pity.
Pity? Surely he didn't feel sorry for Reuben. Reuben was everything that John wanted to be. John was the one Reuben and his other friends had pitied. Nobody pitied Reuben Helmuth. He wouldn't allow it.
Reuben's lungs seized up when John grabbed hold of Linda Sue's hand. Linda Sue didn't even try to pull away. "We've got to tell him, Linda Sue."
Linda Sue finally turned her eyes to Reuben. They were moist and pleading. "I didn't want to do this at Christmastime," she said. With her hand still in John's, she took a step toward Reuben and reached out her free hand. He stepped back, quite sure he didn't want whatever she was trying to give him. "I'm sorry, Reuben. We didn't mean for this to go on so long without telling you. It just ... it just happened, and I haven't been able to confide in you for a long time."
Reuben couldn't believe, wouldn't believe what he was hearing. "What do you mean?"
"You won't listen."
"I sit at your kitchen table every week late into the night. We talk about everything. What do you mean I won't listen?"
A tear meandered down Linda Sue's cheek, as if she cared. As if she felt real and sincere remorse. "You don't know how many times I tried to tell you about my growing feelings for John."
"Tried to tell me?" Reuben said, unable to keep the bitterness off the tip of his tongue.
John pulled Linda Sue to him. How could she let him when John smelled like the pigs, and he wasn't near good enough for the bishop's daughter? "She tried to tell you, Reuben, but you're too wrapped up in yourself."
Every word that came out of John's mouth pulled Reuben's nerves a little tighter. "So whatever is going on here is my fault?"
"Of course it's not your fault," Linda Sue said, her eyes glowing with compassion.
She must have been trying to win an award for being sensitive. He found it offensive. Reuben Helmuth didn't need anyone's compassion or pity or sympathy. It was humiliating that she thought he did.
"No one is to blame. These things just happen," she said, as if that would make everything all better.
"What things?" Reuben said, knowing he didn't want the answer. He was shaking with rage and cold and pure and utter shock. What would people say?
John dropped all pretense and put both arms around Linda Sue. "We love each other, Reuben, and we have for several weeks. We're going to be married, Lord willing."
Linda Sue had the gall to give him that kindly smile she saved for old ladies and small children. He thought he might be sick. "We would be so happy if you would come to the wedding."
Come to a wedding that was supposed to be his? His humiliation was complete.
Die youngie would never stop laughing at him.CHAPTER 2
Three days after Christmas, and the snow kept falling. The drifts were already piled up past the porch, and Huckleberry Hill looked like a marshmallow-and-mashed-potato wonderland — which also sounded like a brilliant idea for a new recipe. Maybe Anna could try it out for New Year's Eve. On a night like this, it felt wonderful gute to hibernate in a cozy house and let the bears and the bunny rabbits enjoy the weather outside.
Anna Helmuth adjusted her glasses to get a better look at her letter, and her shoulder creaked like a rusty hinge. It seemed that her body made a new groan or whimper every time she got up in the morning. Walking around the house was getting to be noisier than a buggy rolling over cobblestones. Anna supposed it was only to be expected that an eighty-four-year-old should have a few squeaky joints. She didn't consider herself aged by any means, but the body the gute Lord had given her had seen quite a bit of use. She had given birth to thirteen children, after all.
But it wasn't her own children who occupied Anna's thoughts these days — she'd done all she could to rear them, and if they had turned out poorly, she didn't have time to feel guilty about it.
Nae. Anna fretted over her poor, unmarried grandchildren. Too many of them were hopelessly in need of spouses, and if Anna and her husband Felty didn't help them, their posterity would very likely wither and die on the vine.
The thought of unwed grandchildren put Anna in quite a dither. Something had to be done.
"Felty dear, how do you spell 'parsimonious'?" she said, holding her pen at the ready.
Felty, Anna's husband of sixty-five years, sat in his recliner reading The Budget as he did every Wednesday evening. He lowered his paper and squinted at the ceiling as if the answer were written in the bumpy plaster above. "Annie-banannie, I don't even know what 'pars-pneumonia' means. You're so much smarter than me. In school, I was always the first one to sit down during a spelling bee."
"Now, Felty. I'm not that smart, but I know what 'parsimonious' means because it sounds like 'persimmon,' and I just remember that persimmons are cheap at the store, and 'parsimonious' means cheap or miserly."
"Very clever, Banannie, but who are you writing a letter to, and will they know what 'parsimonious' means even if you spell it right?"
Anna raised her eyebrows and peered over her glasses. "Elsie will know. She's smart as a tack and very avuncular."
"For sure and certain our granddaughter is smart, but why are you writing her a letter with big words like 'parsimonious' and 'have-an-uncle-yooler'?"
Anna leaned closer to Felty and took him into her confidence. "I'm hoping my big vocabulary will convince her to come to Huckleberry Hill yet. The school will be needing a new teacher in August, and Elsie needs a husband. We can kill two birds with one stone."
"That is a very gute plan, Annie."
Anna crossed out an entire sentence, dotted her last i with a heart, and picked up her letter. "How does this sound? Dear Elsie, I hope this correspondence finds you in good health and very comfortable at home. Your dawdi and I have very avuncular feelings toward you and want you to abide with us and teach the scholars at the school next year. The school board is not parsimonious. You will be compensated well. What do you say? Would you like to come to Huckleberry Hill?" Anna eyed Felty expectantly. "What do you think of that?"
"There are so many big words in that letter, she's sure to say yes."
"I hope so. I got a headache just trying to spell everything correctly."
Three loud taps at the door nearly peeled Anna out of her skin. "Do you think that's Elsie already?"
"She's smart, Banannie, but I don't think there's any possibility she got your letter before you sent it."
Anna folded her letter carefully, slipped it into her apron pocket, and ambled to the door, trying to ignore all the creaking her knees did. Her shoulders were doing quite enough creaking for everybody.
She opened the door and peered into the darkness. A snowman stood on the porch with his hat pulled low over his eyes. Well, it wasn't truly a snowman, but his trousers and coat were covered with snow, his hat caked with ice, and the small duffel bag he carried in one hand could have been a giant snowball. Anna drew her brows together. It most surely wasn't Elsie. She was too smart to be out on such a bitter night. "Can I help you?" Anna said, hoping that whoever was standing on her porch would feel welcome in her home, even if he wasn't very bright.
He took off his hat and lifted his head. The dull-witted boy turned out to be Anna's very icy grandson Reuben, who Anna knew wasn't dull-witted at all. His eyes caught the light from inside the house, and Anna caught her breath. No wonder she hadn't recognized him. She'd never seen Reuben slouch his shoulders so low or have such a gloomy cast to his expression. "Hello, Mammi," he mumbled. Something was very wrong. Reuben never mumbled.
Anna threw open her arms. "Ach, du lieva, Reuben. Cum reu, cum reu. You look as if you've just come from Alaska." When Reuben didn't seem inclined to move, she grabbed the front of his coat, pulled him into the house, and wrapped her arms tightly around him, being careful not to crush the precious letter in her pocket. It had taken far too long to write to have to compose another one.
Reuben tried to pull away. "Mammi, I'll get you wet."
Anna refused to let him go. "Ach, I'd rather have my hug."
Felty rocked his recliner back and forth until he built enough momentum to toss himself out of the chair and onto his feet. He joined Anna and Reuben in a three-way hug.
Reuben grimaced. "Now everybody is wet."
"My dear boy," Anna said, hurrying to the drawer for a dish towel, "why in the world are you out on a night like this? You could have been swept away by a blizzard or frozen solid to a light pole. What will your mamm say?"
Felty took Reuben's bag. "Did you ski all the way from Sugarcreek?"
Reuben drooped even lower. "I'm sorry I didn't write. I got on the bus in Ohio yesterday, arrived in Shawano station this morning, and walked from there."
"You walked from Shawano? That's ten miles!" It was fortunate Reuben didn't have creaky knees.
"I needed the time to think," Reuben said. From the look on his face, he'd been thinking about very serious things. Too serious for a young man who was usually so perky.
Excerpted from Return To Huckleberry Hill by JENNIFER BECKSTRAND. Copyright © 2017 Jennifer Beckstrand. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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