Inhaling the scent of freshly baked bread, Maddie Baum pressed a hand to her middle. Her stomach rumbled, reminding her lunchtime had come and gone. She’d been so busy unpacking that she’d forgotten to eat breakfast.
“Would you like to try this brot?”
Maddie glanced at the girl working behind the counter. Barely a teenager, the young lady was clad in a plain but crisply ironed dress. Clean white apron tied around her plump waist, her long hair was neatly plaited. Tucked beneath a prim white kapp, a few bobby pins held everything in place.
“Oh, it does look fabulous.”
“Ja,” the girl agreed in a softly accented voice. “Please, try.” Knife in hand, she cut a generous slice off an unwrapped loaf. Adding a smear of strawberry preserves, she offered the sample. “You will enjoy.”
Smiling, Maddie accepted the food. Biting into the treat, she savored the crispness of the crust, followed by the nutty mix of stone-ground wheat and other seeds mingling with the sweet-tart fruit.
Swallowing, she smiled with approval. “Delicious.”
The young clerk beamed. “My maam baked it this morning. And my sister, she makes the bewahrt.”
Maddie cocked her head, inwardly translating the foreign words. Unlike many Englischers she had a familiarity with the language the girl spoke, learned at the knee of her grandfather. Opa always spoke to his enkelkinder in the Deitsch language, taking care to make sure they understood and respected their unique heritage.
Finishing the bite, Maddie brushed the crumbs off her fingertips. Shopping in an Amish market was like passing the pearly gates into heaven. Eggs, fruits, meats, along with a variety of home-made baked goods were guaranteed to make the mouth water. And the waistline grow wider.
“Tell them both it is gut, the best I’ve ever tasted.”
Cheeks reddening, the teenager shyly dropped her gaze. “May I wrap one for you?” she asked, slipping a large round loaf into a paper wrapper. She also added a jar of preserves.
Unable to resist the temptation, Maddie accepted her offerings, adding them to the selection in her basket.
Mentally totaling what she’d spent, she glanced down. Panic immediately stopped her cold.
Her seven year-old nephew, at her side just a moment ago, was nowhere to be seen.
Anxiety shredded her insides. Even though she’d told Josh to stay nearby, he had wandered off.
A thousand what if’s invaded her mind.
Maddie immediately gave herself a mental kick. How could she have lost sight of him? She’d only taken her eyes off Josh for a minute to speak with the clerk. He’d obviously taken advantage of her distraction to sneak away.
“Oh, my word!” This wasn’t the first time her nephew hadn’t minded. Since learning they’d be moving to the smaller rural town of Humble, Josh had taken on a willful steak. It didn’t help he was probably restless. Days of packing and driving hundreds of miles to an unfamiliar destination was guaranteed to make any kid eager to run and explore a strange new place.
The young clerk noticed her distress. “Are you unwell?” she asked through an expression of concern.
Maddie tamped down her surge of emotion. “The boy who was with me,” she explained. “He’s gotten away from me.”
“The little braunhaarig child?”
“Yes. The brown-haired boy.”
The clerk pointed. “I saw him walking that way.”
Given a direction, Maddie nodded gratefully. “Danke.”
Lips pulled into a thin line, she wove her way around other shoppers milling through the aisles. She’d find Josh, finish shopping, and then head back to the small apartment she’d rented.
Adding haste to her steps, Maddie doubled back to the dessert aisle. Earlier, Josh made a fuss when she’d said no to a chocolate cake with fudge icing. Looking into her child’s eager face, she’d gently reminded him sugar was not allowed, except as a special treat. Of course, he didn’t understand the need for a healthy diet. Already a hyperactive youngster, Josh was prone to tantrums when he didn’t get his way. His reaction was typical; sticking out his bottom lip in a pout and dragging his feet.
Having only a limited amount to shop with, Maddie tried to make sure every item she chose would not only be nutritious, but would last at least two, maybe even three, days. Right now, she couldn’t afford to waste one thin dime.
Sure enough, she located her nephew.
But he wasn’t alone.
Two men – one elderly and bearded and the other, younger and clean shaven – had the boy bracketed between them. Both were clad in simple shirts, plain pants and work-boots, which clearly identified them both as Amish. Other shoppers curiously eyed the trio, pretending not to notice the commotion in their midst.
Though she couldn’t hear what the elder man was saying, the look on his face warned Maddie he wasn’t pleased. Leaning heavily against his cane, he waggled an angry finger in the air. “The boy is a dieb, a thief,” he spat, speaking loudly enough for all to hear. “I want him arrested.”
Rubbing his fingers against his temples, the younger fellow gave the old man an indulgent nod. “I hear what you’re saying, gran’pa,” he returned, speaking in a softer, calmer voice. “But I can’t very well go calling the police on a child. Maybe we need to find his parents first.”
Walking on numb legs, Maddie interrupted the trio. “Excuse me, please. I’m Maddie Baum, and you seem to be holding my child.”
The younger man greeted her with a serious expression. “Glad you’re here, ma’am,” he said, adjusting the frames of black rimmed glasses. “I’m Abram Mueller and this is my groossdaadi, Amos.”
Gaze pinging from the old man’s frown to Josh’s puffy, red face, Maddie struggled to keep her composure. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the boy had done something to displease the elderly gentleman.
The old man thumped his cane on the ground. “The boi has stolen from me,” he spat through a row of yellowing teeth. “Have ye not taught the child thou shalt not steal?”
Fat tears rolled down Josh’s cheeks. “I’m sorry,” he wailed. “Please, don’t let them call the cops to take me to jail!” His voice, wobbly and panicked, revealed his fear.
Reaching out, Maddie pulled her nephew into a tight embrace. Josh trembled, terrified at what he imagined jail might be.
“Entschuldigen Sie, mein Herr,” she said, stroking Josh’s hair to soothe his anxiety. “I am truly sorry my son has taken advantage.”
Both men looked surprised.
“Du sprichst Deitsch?” Abram Mueller asked.
Dipping back her head, Maddie found herself gazing into brown eyes dotted with flecks of gold. Her breath caught. Oh, my. The clerk was a handsome fellow, and it was hard not to look twice. Unruly black curls ruled over his strong brow and straight nose. Slim and trim, with just enough muscle for his weight, he wore his clothes well. One side of his face was scarred, but that didn’t detract from his looks one bit.
Tamping down the rise of attraction, Maddie cleared her throat. “Ja,” she answered. “I mean, yes. Some of my die familie were born in Pennsylvania.”
Abram Mueller smiled. “I’m impressed.”
A huff of exasperation slipped past Maddie’s lips. “I’m not impressed you caught Josh stealing.” She turned to the old man. “What did he take? Whatever it is, I will pay for it.”
Shaking his head, the old man grunted. “Bäckerschokolade,” he answered, pointing to a shelf of neatly wrapped bars. “Put them down the front of his trousers.”
Maddie eyed the unsweetened squares of baker’s chocolate. Josh had obviously mistaken them for regular candy bars.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Kneeling down, she took her nephew by the shoulders. “Didn’t I say no to sugar earlier?”
Sniffing, Josh rubbed his runny nose with the back of one hand. “Yes,” he murmured, loud enough to be heard.
Maddie put on her sternest look. “When I say no, I mean it.” Standing up, she guided Josh around to face his accusers. “You will apologize to your elder for taking something that did not belong to you.”
Gulping down a mouthful of air, Josh drew back thin shoulders and angled his chin. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do anything wrong.”
Refusing to budge an inch, Amos’s nostrils flared. “Ach, a boy your age should know better,” he scolded. “Tis a sin to steal.”
Abram Mueller stepped in. “And to forgive others their trespasses is divine.”
“That’s not in the good book,” the cranky old man grumbled.
“Then I’ll go by what is,” Abram Mueller countered. “Something about judge not lest ye be judged.”
“I suppose the good Lord knows what He is talking about,” the old man conceded.
Shaking his head, Abram Mueller clucked his tongue. “Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone deserves a second chance. We’re all only human.” He gave Josh a stern frown. “As for you, young man, I’ll let your mother school you in Gott’s commandments.”
Maddie breathed a sigh. Relief lessened the grip of anxiety. “Thank you. I’ll certainly do that. Let me pay for our things, and we will be leaving.”
“Sounds fair.” Abram Mueller tipped his head. “Have a good day, ma’am.” He strode away, returning to his work in the busy market.
Amos spat, but said nothing more. Cane in hand, he hobbled away, muttering under his breath about the tongues of snakes.
Grateful for the reprieve, Maddie took a firm hold on Josh’s hand. “I think we need to go.”
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