The Courtship Plan
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Finding a husband is serious business. And serious business requires serious planning.
Charity Raber is one of many single women who came to Birch Creek, Ohio, with one goal in mind: secure a husband from among the desperate bachelors a newspaper advertisement claimed inhabited the town. Even though that claim proved to be nothing more than a cruel prank, Charity is still hopeful that her happy ending might be within reach when she’s set up on a date with Jesse Bontrager. That is until Jesse not-so-gently shares that he has no interest in a relationship with anyone—and especially not with her.
One year later, Charity is working as a caretaker for a kind, elderly English woman in the nearby town of Marigold. She’s also working hard on a brand-new courtship plan. A plan that absolutely does not involve Jesse Bontrager. But when he moves next door and is made aware of her scheming, Charity vows to prove that her plan is foolproof. Meanwhile, Jesse is sure she’ll make a fool of herself. And for some reason he’s not willing to let that happen.
This stubborn bachelor and determined bachelorette will soon learn that their plans rarely work out as expected—but God’s plans always will.
- Sweet Amish romance
- The first book in the Amish of Marigold series
- Book length: 87,000 words
Release date: January 17, 2023
Print pages: 320
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The Courtship Plan
Birch Creek, Ohio
Where is he?
Charity Raber checked the clock on the wall of Diener’s Diner and huffed. Ten minutes late. He’s going to stand me up. I just know it.
She closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. Now wasn’t the time to panic. Just because she’d been stood up before—more than once, by more than one guy—didn’t mean she would be today.
Be positive! Be confident! She’d repeated those two phrases this morning as she chose her most positive and confident outfit—a light-green short-sleeved dress that matched her eyes and a pristine white kapp reserved for church service only. Not only was she dressed for success, she was ready for it.
After a second or two, she opened her eyes and stared at the empty seat opposite her. She didn’t feel positive. Or confident. Not even close.
Desperate to distract her doubt-filled mind, she straightened the silverware on her right. Moved the menu in front of her an inch to the left. Wiped off the drop of condensation sliding down the side of her iced tea glass. All the while she tried to ignore the blend of Amish and English voices surrounding her, hoping no one would notice how long she’d been sitting alone at the booth.
She fought the urge to glance at the clock again. Folding her hands together, she stared straight ahead at the front door while warm, mid-May sunshine beamed through the window beside her.
Staring. Straight . . . ahead . . .
Her gaze flicked to the clock again. Only two minutes had passed? Phooey.
“Ready to order?”
She glanced up at Norene Yoder, one of three Amish waitresses working the lunch shift. Charity had interviewed for a waitress job at Diener’s a month ago. By then she’d lived in Birch Creek for nearly a year, and her savings were almost depleted. She wasn’t hired here or at the other two jobs she’d applied for—counter help at Yoder’s Bakery and a clerk at the fabric store in Barton. “I’m sorry,” each employer said after the interview. “I don’t think you’d be a good fit.” What did that even mean?
Norene was hired less than a week after she’d moved to Birch Creek in April. Charity was still looking for employment. Double phooey. Life was so easy for some people.
“Did you hear me?” Norene asked.
“I heard you,” Charity muttered, her gaze aimed at the front door. “And no, I’m not ready to order yet.” No reason to elaborate further. Her business wasn’t Norene’s business.
“Still waiting on yer friend?”
“I’m waiting on my date.”
Norene arched a pale-blond, perfectly shaped eyebrow, her silver eyes alight with curiosity. “You have a date? We live across the hall from each other and you never said a word.”
Norene was one of the prettiest women Charity had ever seen, and she’d seen plenty since her arrival in Birch Creek. The town ebbed and flowed with single women from all over the country who had answered the same newspaper advertisement stating that Birch Creek was jam-packed with eligible bachelors. She couldn’t recall the exact wording, but it was clear from the text that single men in this community were yearning for single women . . . and Charity was yearning for a husband.
Soon after she stepped off the bus from Cherry Springs, she realized the ad was misleading, in her case anyway. There were plenty of single men in the community, mostly from the same family. But—a big but—very few were ready for or even wanted marriage. Regardless, a few marriages had occurred, so Charity still held out hope that one day she would find the man of her dreams.
And then Norene showed up. Charity couldn’t get a man to look at her twice, but every available man in the community noticed Norene.
“Who is he?” Norene pressed.
Charity frowned. Talk about nosy. Then again, Norene would get her answer anyway when he showed up. If he showed up. Perishing the thought, she smiled. “My date,” she said with a touch of triumph, “is Jesse Bontrager.”
Norene snickered. “Nee.”
“Ya.” Charity emphasized with a terse nod.
“Jesse’s going out with you?”
She pressed her lips together and glanced down at the white laminate tabletop. Although she wanted to, she couldn’t blame Norene’s skepticism. When Nelson had pulled her aside after church last Sunday and told her Jesse wanted to meet her for a lunch date, she almost keeled over from shock.
Next to Ezra, Jesse was the most handsome of the eleven Bontrager brothers. Actually, there were only three to compare, since the older ones were married, and other than Ezra, who was already taken, Nelson was the only age-appropriate Bontrager. Nevertheless, tall, wiry, curly-headed Jesse was cute, even if she’d only seen him from afar. But lately the men in Birch Creek seemed to run in the opposite
direction whenever she showed up, so she found it hard to believe anyone, including Jesse, was suddenly interested in her.
But when she asked Nelson to repeat himself, he said the D word again. Date. “He’s too shy to ask,” Nelson said. “So I’m asking for him.”
Jesse had never struck her as shy. Then again she’d been so enamored with Ezra—and once he was unavailable, she’d set her sights on Nelson—that she hadn’t paid much attention to Jesse. She’d even hoped that Nelson was going to ask her out, making Jesse’s invitation more astonishing.
She wasn’t disappointed, though. A date was a date. She’d never had one before. And the prospect of a date was what her dwindling hope and diminishing morale needed.
One date and she could prove herself. One date and she could show everyone she was worthy.
She lifted her chin. “Ya. I have a date with Jesse. And he’ll be here any second, so we’ll order after he arrives.”
Norene’s laughter faded. “You’re joking, ya?”
“You don’t believe me?”
She shook her head. “Nee one has been able to convince Jesse to date. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
“I guess you’re not his type then.”
The last sliver of humor disappeared from Norene’s eyes. “You think you are?”
“He’s meeting me here. Not you.”
Norene glanced around the diner. “I don’t see him, and you’ve been waiting for almost twenty minutes.”
“He’ll be here. You’ll see.” Everyone will.
She rolled her eyes. “Let me know when you want some food. We’re busy and you’re taking up a table.” She spun around and walked away.
Phooey. Charity slumped. Ever since Norene had arrived in Birch Creek and moved into the room across the hall from her at Stoll’s Inn, life had been miserable. Okay, her life had been miserable before Norene moved in, but it was simpler to pin her disappointment and aggravation on someone else, and Norene made it easy.
Why was she interested in Jesse anyway? It wasn’t as if she were lacking male attention, including Nelson’s. Right before he’d talked to her about Jesse, Charity noticed Nelson couldn’t keep his eyes off Norene. And why had she noticed? Because she couldn’t keep her eyes off him.
Nelson was what, the third—or was it fourth?—Bontrager she’d tried to pursue, some more fervently than others. There was Ezra, who was now with Katharine Miller. Before him was Owen, although he never seemed to get the message and ended up marrying someone else. When Ezra had rejected her, she planned to move on to Nelson. And that didn’t even count the four men she’d targeted as prospects who weren’t Bontragers. Three of them were considerate when they declined her interest, but one wasn’t.
He’d called her weird and a pest. He wasn’t the first one to throw those awful adjectives at her.
That honor was reserved for her mother.
She’d been the one to give her the ad in the first place, practically shoving Charity on a bus to Birch Creek the next day. At first Charity was glad for the chance to prove she wasn’t seltsam. But after living in Birch Creek for almost a year, she was wondering if Mamm was right, that she was a square peg in a round hole that wouldn’t fit in anywhere or with anyone.
Her throat burned. Don’t let anyone see you cry.
Mamm had imparted that nugget of wisdom. More like hit me over the head with it. Mamm wasn’t even her biological mother, but her stepmother who insisted Charity call her mamm since she and her father had married when Charity was eight years old, after her grandmother passed away. Grandmother had never called her seltsam.
She crossed her arms and looked at the clock again. Almost twenty-five minutes late. There was no reason to be this tardy for a date . . . except one. She caught Norene smirking at her from behind the front counter.
The ice in her tea was melting, her stomach was turning sour, and Norene was right. Jesse wasn’t coming. Either Nelson had gotten his signals crossed with his brother, or he was playing a joke on her. It didn’t matter which. Both thoughts made her chest squeeze.
She pulled her wallet out of her purse to leave a five-dollar bill on the table. More than the price of the tea, but she couldn’t stomach facing Norene right now. As her fingertips touched the money, the bell above the diner door rang. She didn’t bother to look up. Why should she? It wasn’t like Jesse would appear for their date at this point. Or ever.
Despite the reality check, she lifted her eyes. Her whole body stilled, her hand halfway in the air and gripping a ten-dollar bill because it turned out that was the only amount she had with her. Jesse. He came after all.
He walked a few steps farther into the diner, his gaze darting back and forth as if searching for someone. She stuffed the ten back into her wallet, tossed it into her purse, and put her hands in her lap.
Then he turned to her . . . and the world stopped. The clock. Her heartbeat. The frustration always lingering around the edges of her emotions. All she could see and comprehend was the handsome man looking straight at her.
Or was it straight through her?
He shifted his gaze, did another search of the dining room, then shrugged and opened the glass door.
Oh nee! He was leaving! “Over here, Jesse!” she screeched.
The entire diner went silent. All eyes were on her, including Jesse’s. She squirmed. She hadn’t meant to sound that loud. Or that shrill.
His black brows knit above vibrant blue eyes as he met her gaze. Slowly he pointed to himself.
“Ya!” She shot from her seat and waved him over again, her hand flapping like a baby bird struggling to fly. “I saved you a seat!” The pitch in her tone jumped an octave. Nope, not weird at all.
His frown deepened, and for a second she feared he might leave for good this time. Thankfully he walked toward her.
She sat back down and tried to settle herself. Be cool. Calm. Confident! But when he stopped in front of the booth, she blurted, “Hi, hi, hi!”
“Uh, hi.” He wasn’t frowning as much now, but he still looked confused.
“You can sit here.” She wagged her hand toward the seat across the table. “Sit right there.”
Jesse glanced over his shoulder, then looked at her again. “Sorry, Charity. I’m supposed to meet Nelson for lunch.”
“Oh nee, nee, nee.” Why was she sounding like a terrified chipmunk? “You’re meeting me!” She pointed to her chest with her thumb. “For lunch. Food. Lunch. With me.”
He gaped at her.
“We’re having a lunch date,” she clarified since he didn’t seem to comprehend words. “You. Me. Lunch. Foo—”
“Food. Got it.” He frowned.
“Hi, Jesse.” Norene appeared at his side, standing close to him. Too close.
“We’re not ready to order,” Charity said quickly. “So, shoo.”
Both Norene and Jesse stared at her.
“Shoo?” Norene said, her silver irises turning stormy.
“Geh. Leave.” The last thing she needed was an interloper, especially since Norene had spilled the beans about being interested in Jesse. “Did you understand that?”
From the way Norene glared at Charity, she certainly did.
Yikes, I need to apologize. And she would—later. Right now she didn’t want Norene working her charms on Jesse. Why hadn’t he sat down? If he would just sit down, then she could calm down.
“Hey, Norene.” He turned to her and smiled.
Charity froze again. She’d never seen his smile up close before. Oh, she’d seen him grin when he hung out with his friends and brothers after church, but that was always from a distance. If only he was smiling at me.
“I don’t want to interrupt your date, Jesse,” Norene said, inserting herself between him and Charity. “But I wondered if you wouldn’t mind dropping by the inn later, if you have time.”
Charity’s fists clenched. How much hochmut and nerve did this woman have to literally ask Jesse out in front of her? Dropping by the inn wasn’t necessarily an official date, but Charity had lived there for months. When a single man showed up at the inn, they were there to see one of the single girls staying there. Except me.
Can’t today,” he said, his smile dimming. He was a tall man, and Norene didn’t block him completely from Charity’s view. “I’ve been pretty busy lately. Lot’s of plowing and planting on the farm this time of year.”
“But you can’t work all day and night,” Charity blabbed. She slid lower in her seat. Why had she said that? Why was she helping Norene? Dear Lord, please shut my mouth! At this rate she’d end up planning their wedding.
Norene glanced at her with a satisfied smile, then turned back to Jesse. “I won’t take up much of your time. I promise. I’m thinking about buying a horse, and I need some advice.” She lowered her eyes, then glanced up at him through her long, light-brown lashes. “I heard you’re really gut with horses.”
“You should probably talk to mei bruders about that. They’re the experts.” Jesse sidestepped her and sat down in the booth.
Charity unfolded her arms and sneered at Norene, but there was very little satisfaction behind it. The date was a disaster already, and that wasn’t all Norene’s fault, even though she was trying to steal Jesse from under her nose. “We need a few minutes to decide what we want,” she snapped. “I’ll let you know when we’re ready for you to serve us.”
Norene’s mouth tightened. She turned on her heel and headed to the front of the diner.
“Finally, she’s gone.”
Jesse rubbed the back of his neck. “What?”
Oops. She hadn’t meant to say that out loud. Pushing her rudeness and Norene to the side, she attempted the sweetest smile she could and gazed at Jesse. Sigh. She had no idea he was so dreamy up close. His blue short-sleeved shirt matched his eyes so perfectly that she barely noticed what appeared to be fresh mud spots on it, or that his hat was frayed around the brim. The most amazing thing about him was his hair. She’d seen Amish men with curly hair before, but Jesse’s was on another level. He had corkscrew curls, and she wondered if they would spring back in place if she gently tugged on one.
She gripped her hands together. “Nice day for a date, ya?”
His work boot thumped against the floor as he stared out the diner window. He didn’t speak for a long time. Long enough for dread to circle her stomach.
Finally, he turned to her, his blue eyes tense at the corners. “This isn’t a date, Charity. It’s a mistake.”
* * *
Jesse’s molars ground together. Bad enough his frazzled nerves hadn’t settled down since this morning when he chased after a runaway horse. The mare ran straight past Zeb and Zeke’s horse farm. Jesse called out to her several times, praying she wouldn’t take off for the open field on the opposite side of the road. Eventually she slowed down so he
could catch up to her, and after several minutes of some of the stickiest sweet talk he’d ever uttered, she trusted him enough to guide her back to the farm.
On the way back to the corral, she stepped in a puddle and kicked some mud on him, probably out of sheer spite. Zeb had taken over from there, leaving Jesse free to help Zeke patch the fence she’d broken through. His twin brothers specialized in rehabbing abused horses, and the ironically named Miss Peach was one of their worst cases.
Only when Zeke had mentioned his wife, Darla, was making bacon cheeseburgers and waffle fries for lunch did Jesse remember he was supposed to meet Nelson. There was no time to change his dirty shirt so he wet a washcloth and dabbed the spots with water before hurrying to Diener’s. He ended up tardy by almost thirty minutes, and when he didn’t see Nelson, he thought his brother had given up on him.
Then Charity screeched at him from the other side of the diner, and now here he was sitting across from her, trying to comprehend why she thought they were supposed to have lunch together.
Wait. Had Nelson set him up with her? That was the only logical explanation.
In the background he could hear Charity and Norene’s voices, but he was unable to process their chatter. He stared out the window. Why would his brother do this? Jesse had played many a prank on his siblings over the years, and he’d been on the receiving end of a few. But this one took the pie and the cake. Charity Raber was the strangest and, from the way she talked to Norene, rudest woman in Birch Creek—if she was even old enough to be considered a woman. He was only eighteen but she looked like a child. Stick thin with carrot-colored hair and more freckles than he could count in a lifetime, she wasn’t just boyish looking. She was homely.
“Nice day for a date, ya?”
Her sunny tone dug into him and he continued looking out the window. What was he supposed to say? No way he was going through with Nelson’s stunt. Even if he was interested in dating—and he’d made it clear to everyone he knew that he wasn’t—Charity Raber was the last person he would ask out. It wasn’t that long ago she was bugging Ezra to spend time with her. What did that make him? Second helpings—maybe even third? No thanks.
Honesty was the best policy, although he’d made a farce of that saying more than once in his life. He turned to her and said, “This isn’t a date, Charity. It’s a mistake.”
Her fair skin turned the color of ripe rhubarb, transforming her freckles into a solid, rosy mass. “What do you mean a mistake?”
His right foot tapped faster. “A misunderstanding—”
“You said mistake.” She pursed her lips together.
He winced. Nelson is going to regret this. “I thought I was meeting mei bruder here for lunch. Not you. That’s the misunderstanding.”
A pause. “You’re not shy, are you?”
Odd question, but he shook his head anyway. “The opposite, actually.”
“So Nelson didn’t ask me out on your behalf?”
“Nee.” Is that what he’d told her?
“This isn’t a date.” The words came out in a barely intelligible mumble.
She glanced at the tabletop, and from her lack of response he thought he might be in the clear. If she still wanted to have lunch, he’d join her. He was close to famished now and Diener’s had a reputation for good burgers. To make amends, he’d pay for her meal too. But he’d get the money back from Nelson later.
“It could be a date,” she said, her small voice disrupting his thoughts. “Couldn’t it?”
Yikes. “Nee. It can’t.”
“Because I don’t like you that way.” He glanced out the window again.
He met her gaze, surprised at her sincere expression. She wasn’t trying to make him uncomfortable. She really wanted an answer. “You’re not mei type.”
“What’s your type?”
Her inquisition was turning out worse than a date. Or so he guessed. He’d never been on one, but surely they weren’t this harrowing. Her question prompted a question of his own. What is mei type? He’d never thought about it before. All he could say was, “Not you.”
Her eyes filled. “You could at least be nice about it.”
He frowned. “I thought I was. You wanted me to be honest, ya?”
Two tears, one from each eye, dripped down her cheek. She rubbed them away with both hands. “Ya. This is mei fault, of course.”
“I’m so sorry I’m not your type.” She scrambled out of the seat.
Grimacing, he watched her dash out the diner door. Her questions hadn’t just thrown him for a loop, but almost off a cliff. Did she want him to lie to her? To pretend they were on a date and that he liked her?
“Where did your date run off to?”
Norene’s snide voice twanged his last nerve. Charity might be desperate and seltsam, but Norene was full of herself.
He turned to the window again, frowning. Charity had disappeared. Maybe he should have agreed with the so-called date, and afterward made it clear he wasn’t interested in her. But that wouldn’t have been right either.
Norene slid onto the seat across from him, her smile unnerving. “I’m on break, and I haven’t had lunch yet.”
He looked around the diner. When had everyone cleared out?
You must be hungry too.”
Jesse glanced at her, not liking what he saw. He didn’t have much experience with women. Zero, in fact, and he planned to keep it that way for the foreseeable future. Witnessing his brothers and his nephew Malachi go through different stages of grief during their relationships had only cemented his determination to stay out of the dating pool. But despite lacking knowledge of females and their ways, he could tell Norene was up to no good.
“I have to get back to the farm.” His appetite had disappeared anyway.
“See you tonight?”
He’d already hurt one maedel’s feelings. What was one more? “Nee. Not tonight.” Before she could stop him, he slid out of the booth and scurried out the door, glad that other than the diner staff, the only people around were an English couple eating in the dining room. The fewer people witnessing him turn tail and run, the better.
His work boots slid on the gravel as he skidded to a stop at the parking lot entrance. He glanced in the direction Charity had left. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t catch up with her. And what would he say anyway? His brother was the true culprit. She should direct her anger at Nelson, not him.
But there was something else keeping him from tracking Charity down. I don’t want to be alone with her.
He’d intended to return to the horse farm after lunch, but he went straight home to deal with Nelson first. Jesse found him in the barn tossing hay bales to their younger brother Mahlon, who was stacking them against the opposite wall.
A huge grin broke across Nelson’s face as he pitched another bale to Mahlon. “How was lunch?”
Jesse clenched his back teeth. “Mahlon, I need to talk to Nelson alone.”
Mahlon looked from one brother to the other. “Do I need to get Daed?”
“Nee,” they both said.
“Are you two gonna fight?”
“Probably,” Jesse muttered.
After Mahlon hustled out of the barn, Jesse marched toward Nelson. “Why did you do that?”
“Do what?” Nelson held up his dusty hands in feigned innocence.
“Set me up with Charity Raber.”
“Oh, she was there?”
“Don’t play dumm. You caused both of us a lot of problems.”
Nelson scoffed. “The way you did for everyone when you put that ad in the paper?”
He stilled. He hadn’t said a peep to his brothers or anyone else about being behind the bride advertisement hoax. Only Cevilla Thompson knew what he’d done, having somehow figured it out on her own. She gave her word she wouldn’t
tell anyone, and he trusted she’d keep it. As for him . . . he’d planned to take his secret to the grave. “I—”
“Don’t deny it.”
He was tempted to do just that, but there would be no point in lying. “How did you find out?”
“I kept wondering who in Birch Creek would want to marry us off. Of course Mamm came to mind, but she would never stoop that low to find us frau. Neither would anyone else in the district. Then it came to me. You would. And you would think it was funny.” He took a step toward Jesse, scowling. “Then I started paying attention. You sure like to tease everyone about their women problems, ya?”
Jesse held up his hands. “I was just having a little fun.”
“There’s nix funny about this.”
He grasped for a defense. “It all turned out fine, didn’t it? Some of our bruders even got married. It all worked out in the end.”
“It worked out for some,” Nelson muttered. “But not everyone.”
“Never mind.” He waved his beefy hand. “What you did was wrong.”
“And setting me up with Charity was right?”
“I was just having a little fun,” he mocked. “No harm done, ya?” He shot him a bitter look. “You never admit you’re wrong, do you?” He slammed his shoulder into Jesse as he walked out of the barn, knocking him off balance.
Jesse regained his footing. Why was Nelson so angry with him? He was only fifteen when he put the ad in the paper on a whim. ...
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