Plum Creek Bride

Plum Creek, Oregon, 1886

Chapter 1

     The searing July heat boiled up from the road as Erika gazed up the tree-shaded street. She shifted her heavy satchel to her other hand. She had walked all the way from the stagecoach stop, and the plain, high collar of her wilted travel dress stuck to her neck. Perspiration trickled between her breasts, and her feet, imprisoned in tight high-button shoes, baked like twin loaves of brot. Bread, she corrected. English words were so hard to remember!
     She turned up the street, trudged another twenty paces, and stopped. The two-story house occupied the entire corner across from where she stood. A white board fence encircled the meticulously groomed emerald lawn, and a scrolled iron sign hung from a porch rafter. Jonathan Callender, Physician.
     Such a grand home! A trio of graceful plum trees shaded the huge gray and black Victorian structure from the merciless sun. Erika moved past the neat row of scarlet zinnias bordering the gravel path leading to the front porch, unlatched the gate, and marched up the cobbled walk. Settling her satchel on the painted verandah floor, she lifted the iron knocker and rapped twice. After what seemed an interminable wait, she rapped again. Someone must be home; a dusty black buggy stood in front of the house.
     Another long minute passed, and Erika tapped her foot in frustration.
     Abruptly the door swung inward, and a tall, dark-haired man faced her. The sleeves of his rumpled white shirt were rolled up to his elbows, and the collar gaped open at the neck.
     "Yes?" His rich, deep voice startled her with the impatiently clipped single word.
     Erika swallowed. "My name Erika Scharf."
     "Yes?" he repeated. Weary gray eyes surveyed her with disinterest.
     "Name means no-thing?" She winced as she realized her pronunciation error. She had to work hard at English, but thoughts came faster than her tongue could form the words.
     "Nothing at all. Should it?"
     "You not get my letter? Your wife, Mrs.... " She extracted a slip of paper from her reticule and squinted at it. " ... Ben-bough?"
     "Mrs. Benbow. My housekeeper."
     "She write and-- Oh! Your housekeeper? Not your wife?"
     "That is correct. Now, Miss Scharf, perhaps you would tell me why your name should mean something to me?"
     For some reason the look of the man made her feel hot and cold all at once. "Oh, yes, my name. My papa German. Mama she is--was--Danish. When I come New York, name not Scharf, but Scharffenberger. Too long to write, so they make short. Scharf. Is more American, ja?"
     "Ja. Yes," Jonathan amended hastily.
     "You do not remember name?"
     "I do not." What did this chit of a girl want with him? Was she ailing?
     "Are you ill, Miss Scharf?"
     Two dimples appeared in her sunburned cheeks. "Nein. Never ill. Much health. I go to work now?"
     "Work?" he echoed.
     "Ja, work. W-o-r-k," she spelled. "Did not your wife tell you?"
     "My wife is ... " He could not bring himself to say it. "Tell me what?"
     "Mrs. Ben-bough, Benbow, she write to me in old country and say 'come to help, is baby coming.' There is baby, yes?"
     Jonathan started. A shard of pain ripped into his belly. "Yes, there is a baby."
     Tess must have sent for the young woman months ago. He had never been told.
     "Come in, Miss Scharf."
     Erika stepped through the wide doorway. "Baby is called ... ?
     "Marian. Marian Elizabeth." His throat tight, he ushered the young woman into the parlor.
     "I will see house later," she said. She did not sit down, but flitted about the room inspecting everything-- Tess's tall walnut harp, the settee she had ordered reupholstered in forest green velvet, the polished oak end table piled high with medical journals from the East, then the harp again. The young woman ran one finger over the dusty surface.
     "I would like now to see my room, please."
     Jonathan jerked. "Your room?"
     "Yes, please. I come to stay, help with baby."
     Jonathan watched the slim young woman hoist her traveling bag and turn toward the wide mahogany staircase. Tess had not told him about the baby in the first place, and when she did, she hadn't admitted how risky it was for her. Now he found his wife had engaged a-- a what? He already had a housekeeper. A mother's helper?
     He groaned inwardly. Another surprise.
     "You cannot remain here, Miss Scharf. My wife is ... She passed away three weeks ago. There is no mother--there is no need for a mother's helper."
     "But there is baby!" Erika protested.
     As if in corroboration, a thin wail drifted from behind a closed door. The honey-haired young woman stared at him accusingly.
     "I come all the way from New York, from Bremerhaven on ship. I cannot go back--I have no money for ticket."
     "I will pay your-- "
     "Besides," she interjected. "I do not want to go back. I like America. And Or-e-gon." She pronounced each syllable with care. "I like very much. So, I do not go back." She folded her arms across her tiny waist and lifted her chin. "I stay."
     "On the contrary, Miss Scharf. This is my house, and my child. I can do whatever I feel necessary."
     "But-- "
     "When the infant is six months old, I intend to send her to my mother in Scotland."
     "You cannot," Erika exclaimed, her blue eyes widening. "Baby needs father."
     Jonathan raked the fingers of one hand through his hair. "Baby needs-- " He cleared his throat. "The child needs a mother. Someone to care for it, feed it. In Scotland-- "
     "In Scotland is not mother. Or father. Here in Plum Creek is family. You. Papa."
     A smile flashed across her face, lighting the sapphire blue eyes from within. In the next instant, the curving lips pressed into a thin line and the sparkle in the wide-set eyes faded. "Next best thing to mama is mama's helper. Me. Erika Scharf."
     She brushed past him, leaving the scent of lavendar and travel dust in her wake. "I work now." She headed toward the staircase. "I will put on apron and then meet baby."
     The doctor stepped forward. "You will not!"
     Erika paused on the first polished riser. "And why not is that?" She suppressed a smile of triumph at so many correctly pronounced w's today. She was learning! But the English came slowly.
     Dr. Callender's hands closed into fists. "Is there something wrong with your hearing, Miss Scharf? I said I intend to send the child to-- "
     "Nein." She met his gaze with an unflinching stare of her own. "Hearing good. Seeing also good. Thinking ... " She tapped a forefinger against her forehead. "... best of all! Baby stay here, with papa."
     He drew himself up to his full height. "Now look, Miss. You may stay the night, and that is all. In my home, I decide what is best."
     Erika tipped her head to meet his gaze. "Ja, of course," she agreed. "But baby not on Scotland ship now. Later maybe, not now. Now, baby is here. I am here. You-- papa--are here. Is for the best, I think. You will see."
     She spun past him, dragging the satchel up the stairs. "Which room, please? I put on apron now."
     Erika did not look back at him on purpose. She didn't want to give the frowning man at the bottom of the stairs one second to open his mouth and stop her ascent to what was surely the closest to heaven she'd ever been in her twenty-four years.
     A house! A big, welcoming house, with beautiful furnishings and lace curtains at the windows--and so many windows, the glass sparkling clean, not dingy with soot as in her parents' tiny cottage at home. Mama would be so happy for her! Mama always wanted a window.
     A house in America! It was almost too good to be true. America.... Land of the free, Papa had said. Where people were equal. It was all he'd talked about before he died. In America, even a poor German cobbler could eat.
     More than that. An unmarried woman could work hard and save money, could stay respectable even if she did not marry. A young woman in America had a future.
     And now that she was finally here, nothing--not fire or flood or Dr. Jonathan Callendar--would keep her from starting her new life. It was what Papa had wanted for her. It was what she wanted. In fact, it was the only thing she wanted--to live in America.