Annabell couldn’t stop shaking, although she wasn’t certain of the reasons. Was it because her clothes were soaked to the skin, or because this Nicole woman’s nearness made her nerves thrum with something strange and not at all unpleasant?
She hadn’t been entirely truthful. She knew exactly who Nicole was—she had seen the woman many times in town and in her shop, and tonight, she had even recognized her vehicle and had attempted to flag her down, but she had ended up falling and sprawled across the road instead. How embarrassing. She would never admit to that sort of begging as long as she lived. It had been embarrassing enough without admitting to herself how her desperation and excitement had kicked in when she’d spotted Nicole’s dark-blue truck creeping down the slick road.
Aside from a hello or thank-you, Annabell had never spoken to Nicole before, much less held her hand. Yet she had always been drawn to her, always watched for a glimpse of her while riding in the buggy with Father and Josef, and even as far back as when Annabell had been with her now deceased husband, Earl.
It had to be mere curiosity at seeing a woman in what her community would consider a man’s role. Running a business alone, hammering and nailing and using her hands to cut and shape wood.
Annabell wasn’t certain why that seemed so appealing.
The heat from Nicole’s bare palm permeated Annabell’s hand and sent a pleasant thrill through her blood. A warming thrill. One that moved up her arm, suffused her chest, and spilled into her lower abdomen. It was the very same sensation she’d always had when glimpsing Nicole, only magnified by a thousand.
Once, her dear Amish friend Hannah had whispered a secret to Annabell and their friend Tatum—that she’d heard of women bedding women in the outside world, and women taking on men’s roles, just as it seemed Nicole had done.
Lesbians. That’s what Hannah had called them, though Annabell suspected there was more to it than that.
God forgive her, but the word “lesbian” alone sent her pulse racing and made the spot between her legs quicken and feel warm and heavy.
Hannah had also told Annabell and Tatum of a rumor that the female woodworking shop owner, Nicole Croft, was one of those “lesbians.” Annabell had practically corroborated that shocking rumor, for she’d seen Nicole a time or two walking along the sidewalks of Cool Hollow with another woman—and she’d had an arm draped around the other woman’s shoulders!
Annabell pressed the heel of her free hand to her breastbone and rubbed it to ease the thumping of her heart.
What was wrong with her, thinking such ill-disciplined thoughts?
Yet it wasn’t as if Annabell were some dawdling teen, giggling with her girlfriends at the handsome Amish boy in the schoolroom and feeling a flutter in her belly. No, this was the blooming of something that had begun as a child. Her interest in girls had far exceeded the expected interest in boys. It had survived her marriage and matrimonial expectations in the bedroom with Earl. In fact, it had only been amplified by her body’s somewhat tepid response to Earl’s hands upon her flesh.
And now she was to endure the same with Josef?
Annabell shivered, not from the cold but from revulsion.
Josef’s hands were not gentle, nor had they been clumsy as Earl’s had been. Josef had cornered her in the barn a few times, and the hurried, painful snaking of his hands under her skirt or down her bodice had not been the makings of a woman’s dreams.
Neither had the backhanded slaps he’d given her when she would resist or attempt to flee.
The last episode had left a blackened eye she’d had to make excuses for. “Silly me, I tripped over the pitchfork in the barn and fell against a horse stall,” or “Goodness, I am so clumsy. I yanked the outhouse door open and got smacked by the handle.” God forbid she tell the truth. No one would believe such slander against respected, powerful Josef.
Therefore, her last run-in with him had certainly sealed her urge to fulfill her plan to experience the outside world before dooming herself to that mundane, obedient, and unhappy life expected of her.
She had vowed to herself to live it up and experience anything and everything before Christmas Day. Before her life ended.
However, she would have to devise some sort of viable explanation for her absence lest she be excommunicated for life. Something such as she’d become lost in the storm or ill with amnesia—or kidnapped. Yes, as farfetched as it sounded, that might work!
thing would have to work, or she risked losing her mind.
“Let’s go this way,” Nicole said, interrupting her musings. The woman led her through a door near the garage. “Back stairs. Quicker than going through the front shop door.”
Annabell didn’t care which door they entered. She simply needed to get warm. Her clothes were soaked through to her underwear after tripping—truly tripping this time—over a fallen branch and plunging right into an icy stream. Nicole’s hand remained wrapped around hers, and while it warmed her fingers and made something odd flutter in her chest, it did little to thaw her feet.
A gush of warm air engulfed Annabell when they entered the building. She continued to shiver, but God above, the heat felt like heaven. “Ah, it’s warm in here.”
“Yep, I keep the huge woodstove in the showroom going constantly. Got it piped upstairs, into the loft, and even up to the empty third floor. It all stays toasty.” Nicole drew Annabell up a flight of steps in a brick-encased stairwell. They reached a heavy wooden door at the top. Nicole released Annabell’s hand to dig out her keys, and the break in contact left Annabell with a curious urge to snatch Nicole’s hand back.
While Nicole fiddled with the keys and lock, Annabell glanced around. The stairwell did, indeed, wind upward to another floor. What was up there? She’d called it empty. Was it another shop? Living quarters? What?
“Go on in.” Nicole pushed the door open and reached around the doorjamb. Annabell heard a switch flip, and light spilled into the stairwell. Nicole stepped aside to allow Annabell entrance.
Annabell passed over the threshold and into a fascinating living space alight with overhead, recessed bulbs rather than the oil lamps she was accustomed to. The kitchen was positioned directly in front of her. She drew off her last mitten, crossed the space, and skimmed her palms over a door panel. “Your cabinets. They’re beautiful. The craftsmanship is amazing.” She spun around and faced Nicole as she hung her cowboy-style hat on a hook, shut the door, and peeled off her coat, revealing long legs in denims, and a button-down, plaid shirt much like the men in Annabell’s community wore.
Only it was pink. Pink plaid. The garment was so close-fitting, Annabell could not help but notice the outline of a full, womanly chest. She forced herself to look away, to study the iron pull handles on the cabinets. Warmth spread through her breasts and knotted her nipples while she opened doors and drawers, testing the handles. She had to clench her legs together to soothe the tingling and slow dampening in the crotch of her underpanties.
“Thank you,” Nicole said, causing Annabell to look back at her. She tossed her coat on a bench near the door. “I made them myself.”
Nicole nodded and stuffed her hands in the front pockets of her denim pants.
“Why, it’s even better woodcrafting than my father’s. I am very impressed.” Annabell ran her palm over what she knew to be granite, what the wealthiest buyers in the area chose from her father’s meager choices in his own small shop. “And these countertops. They are…sinful.”
The surface felt cool, smooth, easy to maintain. She frowned. The countertops her deceased husband had insisted on were wood slab. Annabell glanced at her ragged fingernails. She had long since tired of scrubbing and bleaching the surfaces thrice daily.
“Sinful? Seriously? I can think of a lot more sinful things than that…” Nicole had dark eyes to match her dark hair. Her assessing gaze probed Annabell with an inspection that could be nothing but intimate. Nicole bent and unfastened the laces of her boots. She hurled one of them toward the entryway near the bench where her coat remained.
Annabell caught a glimpse of an inky design on Nicole’s back when her shirt rode up. Sinful, indeed. She and Tatum had heard of them from Hannah. Tattoos. Permanent artwork on the skin. How fascinating. In spite of her religious upbringing—she shuddered at what her parents or the elders would do if they were privy to her wayward thoughts—she longed to get a closer look, inspect the ink…touch it.
Annabell lifted her chin. And she would before this night ended. Just as she’d promised herself that she was going to see the world before she settled into a dull life with Josef. She was going to do every
thing and any
thing, in spite of the uncontrollable fluttering in her belly.
Nicole threw her second boot across the room. It hit the wall and fell to the floor with a thump
Annabell blinked. She gasped and clapped her cheek. “Oh, my goodness, forgive me.” She glanced down at her sodden boots. “Where are my manners? I should have removed my shoes at the door.”
When Annabell started toward the bench where Nicole’s boots lay, Nicole halted her with the grip of her arm. “No, it’s fine. It’ll mop up easily. But I’ll go find you some warm, dry clothes first and help you get those ice hunks pried off your feet. They must feel like ten pounds each.”
“Ja, they do.” Annabell smiled, attempting to ignore the pleasant shimmer of heat that raced up to her shoulder. “And thank you. I do believe I will accept your offer of assistance.”
“I’d be glad to help. Go sit down on the sofa near the heat register while I fetch those clothes and then get you something hot to drink. I’ll work on your boots while you’re warming up.”
“Thank you very much.”
Nicole disappeared down a short hallway. Annabell heard drawers and doors banging shut.
In order to distract herself, Annabell glanced around the room. The main living space beyond the breakfast bar had a cozy U-shaped sofa, low tables, and a stuffed rocker. She knew the buildings in the town square to be old, perhaps from the early 1900s. Every wall in Nicole’s apartment had been built from red brick, and silver pipes crisscrossed the ceiling. A large cherrywood cabinet stood angled in the corner near a railing. She assumed the piece of furniture to be one such as Father had once sniped about while building. He’d spat out his explanation: “An entertainment cabinet for all those unnecessary and immoral things—televisions, radios, and computers.”
She’d always thought it somewhat hypocritical to build them and take money for them while at the same time damning their use.
Still, that had piqued Annabell’s interest rather than biased her, and now one of those cabinets, probably loaded with the most iniquitous of all sins known to outside men, stood within her reach. Exploring those possible novelty items excited Annabell. Her stomach had a fluttery sensation in it, and her pulse beat out of control. This was her chance, the one week in her life to get a sample or two of the English way of life.
Annabell, it seemed, had become an outsider, for all intents and purposes.
That is, until the day before Christmas when she must return and tell a lie—that she had become a lost, vulnerable woman adrift in that horrible world. She had yet to devise an excuse as to why she’d left in the first place.
Nicole returned with thick, fluffy towels, some clothing folded atop the towels, and a blue robe slung over her arm. She set the stack on the sofa, draped the robe over a nearby chair, and then returned to the kitchen. She rooted through the cabinets and brought out two green coffee mugs with large white snowflakes, “Ho-ho-ho!” painted over one side, and a picture of Santa’s chubby, furry face on the other.
“You know, you should really get out of those wet clothes and warm up before you start with a fever or something,” she said from the kitchen, digging through a pantry. “The bathroom is just up the hallway.”
Annabell rounded the sofa and tables and made her way to the railing. She gazed down at another room below. How amazing. Nicole’s living quarters overlooked her shop. “Sure, yes, you are right.” She glanced over her shoulder, then back at the shop area below, utterly fascinated, barely noticing the cold anymore. “This is wonderful. You live in the loft area, the level overlooking your store. I never noticed it during my few visits here.”
A silver Christmas tree, with a revolving, multicolored light set beneath it, sat in one of the shop’s bay windows. The cheerful hues shone on the tree and cast stunning colors across the foil limbs that changed them from yellow to green to blue to red.
And all with electricity.
“Yes. Yes, I do. I’m glad you like it,” Nicole said. Her voice started off from the general area of the kitchen, but with each word, it grew nearer, softer.
The undeniably heartwarming, jolly holiday atmosphere of the store caused Annabell’s chest to stir with something strange. Joy, contentment.
Dared she even say…hope?
She didn’t know how or why or where it came from, but for the first time since slipping out the door earlier this evening, relief washed through her, and she knew without a doubt she’d done the right thing.
But there was more to accomplish. More to learn and to do…