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March 15, 1870
This couldn't be Ogden.
Squinting gray-blue eyes against the drizzling rain, Ginny Parker stepped from the protection of the crowded railway station, pulled the rich woolen fabric of her cape more firmly around her shoulders, and began to search for some tiny speck of beauty that could justify the glowing report she'd been given about this bustling territorial town. A sense of unease trickled down her spine. Ruby Ghant had told her Ogden was a grand and glorious city with wide, brick-edged lanes, gas street lamps, and stately buildings. But this place was nothing at all like that description.
Clouds hung over the Wasatch Valley, causing the railroad town to huddle in chill early shadows. Buildings that had been new only months before squatted in the mud like old women too settled in their ways to worry about appearances. Even the air was thick and heavy, laden with the odors of woodsmoke and manure.
"Come along, Ginny."
Ginny regarded her traveling companion in disbelief. "Mrs. Ghant, there's been a mistake. This can't be Ogden."
"Watch your step. I don't want you falling in all this mud. In all your born days, have you ever seen so much?"
"But Mrs. Ghant!" Her protests sailed over the older woman's head as if they hadn't been uttered.
Ruby seemed prepared to leave her if she didn't follow, so Ginny held her tongue and gathered up her skirts. Juggling a hatbox and two carpetbags, she trailed her chaperon's portly frame from the station and down the stairs to the boardwalk.
Blinking against the raindrops, she darted quick glances at the weathered storefronts jumbled together like children's building blocks on either side of the street. Ginny had formed such grand expectations. She'd imagined a quaint Western town with new shops still gleaming with their first coat of paint. She hadn't envisioned anything like this.
Huge drops of rain splattered against the rough planks, collecting in pools that were already thick with grime. The hem of Ginny's indigo skirt soon became coated with mud, making her wonder why she'd spent the last two hours of travel worrying about her appearance.
The jostling of Ruby Ghant's bustle informed Ginny as effectively as words that the older woman was eager to see Ginny married to Orrin Ghant, Ruby's nephew.
Ginny's stomach suddenly filled with a whirl of butterflies. She shouldn't have come. She shouldn't have let Mama talk her into this harebrained scheme. After all, what did Ginny know about housekeeping, or marriage? Or men — sweet heaven, she didn't know anything about men!
But she couldn't go back.
As if Ruby sensed Ginny's unease, her pace slackened. "The stationmaster said we could find Orrin down by the freight cars." She scowled in irritation. "I thought the boy would know to meet us at the station, but apparently he hasn't got the brains God gave a cabbage to remember we wouldn't be coming on the cattle cars."
Ginny tried to smile as if it were no concern to her that her future husband hadn't bothered to meet them at the train. Hadn't bothered to leave a message. Hadn't bothered to consider that his new bride-to-be would be apprehensive about their first meeting. She was beginning to wonder if the man were stupid or if he just didn't care enough to make her feel welcome.
Why hadn't she insisted that she needed some time to decide whether or not to agree to this marriage? Perhaps then she could have obtained references, exchanged letters — or at least seen a picture!
But there hadn't been time.
The walkway gave way to bare, muddy ground. Grimacing, Ginny tried to carry her bags while keeping her skirts free from the puddles. Ruby led her down the line of boxcars and cattle cars, then through the traffic of wagons and animals that was being directed toward the trains. With all the hustle and commotion Ginny could only hope Ruby had some idea of where to find her nephew. Otherwise they could spend most of the afternoon searching the freightyard.
Without warning Ruby Ghant sniffed in satisfaction, spun on her heel, and walked toward a trio of men slinging crates onto a slat-board wagon.
Ginny's arms trembled, though not from the weight of her bags. Judging from the determined angle of Ruby's double chins, the woman had just caught sight of her nephew. And Ginny's husband-to-be.
Unconsciously, Ginny began to pray: Please, please don't let him be old, or unforgiving, or lame.
But what other kind of man would have his aunt arrange his marriage this way?
The nervous churning in Ginny's stomach increased until she thought she would be ill. She shouldn't have given in to the urge to lace her corset so tightly, but she'd wanted to look her best when she met her future spouse. Now the rigid boning of her stays pressed so firmly against her torso, she feared she would lose the sandwich Ruby had given her for lunch. Or worse yet, that she would faint.
Eyeing the puddles at her feet, Ginny tried to remain calm. She absolutely refused to fall facedown into the mire. Not with her prospective husband watching her.
Peering beneath the brim of her bonnet, she studied the men on the wagon. Though Ginny and Ruby had been traveling together for nearly a week, Ruby had told her very little about Orrin Ghant. According to Ruby, he was a sturdy, upstanding citizen. But that gave her little help in guessing which man he could be.
Of the three males working near the wagon, one was short and stout, nearly twice the size of Ruby herself; one was tall and lean, but missing most of the teeth in his mouth; and the last ...
The last was so coated with mud and manure, his hair lank and dripping, his jaw covered with the scraggly beginnings of a beard, that he could have been the devil incarnate and no one would ever have known.
Ruby snorted. "Orrin! Orrin Ghant, you get down here this minute."
Ginny watched the three men to see which one responded to Ruby's command, but Ruby's shrill voice had startled the lot of them, and they all turned at once.
At her second real look at the candidates Ginny wanted to drop her bags, sit in the mud, and cry like a child. But she didn't; she wouldn't. She kept reminding herself that Ginny Parker was made of sterner stuff than that.
None of the men proved a welcoming prospect. Ginny cringed when Ruby made a beeline for the huge gentleman by the back wheel. No doubt corpulence ran in the family, and — sweet heaven! — she was about to wed someone three times her own size. One who couldn't be a day under forty-five. She was about to marry a fat old man who would chew tobacco and spit on the floor.
"Orrin! What's the meaning of leaving me high and dry at the station — with your new bride arriving and all?"
The huge man spat onto the ground and guffawed, revealing blackened teeth. "Bride?" he chortled, then he nudged the dirty figure on top of the wagon. "What's this talk of a bride, Orrin?"
The filthy character dragged his hat free, using his arm to swipe at the rain that drizzled into his eyes.
"Hello, Aunt Ruby," he drawled, his teeth flashing white against his grimy skin when he grinned.
"Orrin Ghant — why, I declare your mother must be spinning in her grave right now, absolutely spinning! And don't you glare at me like that — I've got no disrespect for the dead. But I sent you a telegram days ago specifically telling you to meet us at the station at one o'clock so the ceremony could begin at one-thirty and I could head back to Plymouth at two. I told you to bring a pretty bouquet of flowers, a ring, and the proper papers. Yet, here I find you standing in the middle of a wagon full of crates!"
"You said you'd be arriving on the fifteenth."
Ginny straightened when the dirty man — apparently the true Orrin Ghant — jumped from the wagon and landed ankle-deep in mud, splashing mire all over the front of Ruby's skirt.
"Look what you've done to my suit!" Without taking a breath, Ruby lifted a finger to stab Orrin in the chest "And this is the fifteenth." Her chins quivered in disapproval. "No wonder you're in need of a woman to care for you. You're lucky you haven't stepped into the snow wearing nothing but your long Johns. Because if you had, you would have slipped on a piece of ice and died for all the smarts you've got taking care of yourself. And those children — I'm surprised they aren't dead, just like their mama."
A sudden pall of silence descended over them all. Orrin's companions ducked away, intent upon the excuse of finding more crates to load onto the wagon. Even Ruby realized she'd gone too far, because her mouth gaped, devoid of sound, while her nephew stared at her with eyes that had grown cold and hard. One of his hands clenched into a fist as if in an attempt for control, but when he spoke Orrin's voice betrayed none of his apparent anger.
"Is this the girl?"
Ginny found herself the object of his attention.
"Yes. Yes, that's the girl."
Ginny stood stiffly as Orrin and his aunt scrutinized every inch of her body with the same attention they might have given a mare they were purchasing. She became overly conscious of the way her hair peeked from beneath her bonnet like a tangled haystack, and the way her travel-stained clothing hung limply over the supports of her gown.
"She seems strong enough," Orrin finally stated.
"She's from a good family. I told you that in my letters."
Orrin moved forward and, after gesturing for Ginny to remain still, began to walk a circle around her. Ginny would have uttered a pithy remark, but the two of them continued speaking as if her opinion was of little consequence.
"Her eyes are blue, though. Just like you said."
"She's a good worker, too. She'll be a big help to you on the farm."
The whole conversation was galling! Ginny wanted to inform him that she was not a slave on the block, but she knew that if she opened her mouth, she would explode in indignation.
This wasn't at all how she'd envisioned her first meeting with Orrin Ghant — he wasn't at all how she'd imagined him. She'd thought he would be an older man — a shy, mouselike farmer. She certainly hadn't considered that she would marry someone like this. A man who was tall and lean and powerful. Square-jawed. Determined.
"I guess you'd like to settle into a hotel room and clean up a bit. No doubt you're tired."
Finally he was speaking to her as if she existed. Ginny opened her mouth to respond, then realized he'd been talking to Ruby. How dare he? she thought. How dare he?
But the anger drained away beneath a wave of despondency. What had she expected? Flowers? Poetry?
Not from a man who'd sent back East for a bride.
"Don't you listen?" Ruby burst out, her earlier blunder forgotten. "You two need to be married before my train leaves. I can't let her stay here without the benefit of clergy. Not when I promised her mother I'd see her soundly wed before I came home. We've got to get that taken care of right away. I'm scheduled to leave this godforsaken country of mud and manure in less than an hour. Did you make the arrangements like I asked you to?"
"Yes, I made an appointment."
"And did you take care of the papers?"
"And buy a ring?"
"And a proper bouquet?"
Orrin settled his hat onto his head once again. "No," he retorted firmly, his lips thinning in apparent irritation at his aunt's hounding. "I told you. I thought you were coming tomorrow."
Ruby spun on her heel and marched back the way they had come. "Well, tomorrow is here today, so you'd best get us to the justice of the peace on time."
She strode toward the sidewalk, leaving Ginny and Orrin alone. His gaze passed over her frame as if he hadn't believed what his eyes had told him the first time.
Before she could break from the nervousness that held her in a tongue-tied grip Orrin offered her a smile and pointed to her bags. "Those your things?"
"Y-yes. They're mine."
"Might as well load 'em up now. We'll be leaving for Eden Creek as soon as the wagon's packed."
"So soon?" The minute the words were out Ginny wished she could retract them, but Orrin had already reached for her bags and turned away.
When she remembered she'd need the hatbox for the wedding ceremony Ginny hurried to stop him. "Oh, wait! I need the box."
Judging by the look on his face, Orrin thought she'd lost her mind for wanting to carry the sodden container back into town, but he waited until she'd taken it from beneath his arm before he tossed the other two bags onto the wagon. They landed with a dull plop on the back of the pile of crates.
Ginny winced at the careless treatment of her baggage, but didn't speak. To her, the two satchels were a sad reminder that she would never be going home to Plymouth, Missouri.
"Won't they fall off?" she finally asked.
"What about my other things?" Orrin frowned at her, and she self-consciously remembered the wilting feathers atop her bonnet, the wrinkled basque waist of her bodice, and the soot-stained skirt. "You mean there's more?"
She clutched the hatbox as if it could ward off the intensity of his disapproval. "Well, yes," she began. "There's a trunk with my china, another with the silver. Then there's my summer wardrobe, my table linens, and my bedding."
"Did you leave anything behind?"
She ignored his sarcastic tone, but for one unbidden moment a spark of anger flared in her eyes. "There wasn't much point in that. This is my home now. I won't ever be going back." As gracefully as she could manage, she slogged past him and followed Ruby.
Orrin watched his bride-to-be as she flounced off in a huff.
Ruby had promised him a loving, docile wife. But damn it all to hell, Ruby had stretched the truth a little when she'd called the woman biddable.
So why couldn't he shake the feeling that the woman's sudden show of spunk hid some deeper emotion? Something that lingered in Ginny Parker's gray-blue eyes like the dull glint of panic?
For at least the twentieth time in less than five minutes Ginny stopped pacing. A curtain partition separated her from the main room of the barbershop where the justice of the peace doubled as the barber and augmented his living by giving cuts and shaves. She'd been allowed a few minutes alone to "gather herself," as Ruby had put it. But since all of her things had been left in the carpetbags on the wagon, or the trunks at the station, Ginny had no comb or brush, not even a few extra pins to tuck her hair into place and repair the wavy chestnut strands that had escaped from the knot at the back of her head.
Peering out the dusty storage room window onto the street below, Ginny tried to calm her nerves.
"It's all for the best," Mama had told her at the train just before Ginny had left Missouri. "You'll start fresh in the country with a man who needs a wife and three girls who need a mother."
Ginny had been sensible enough not to expect a prince — after all, what prince would have Ruby Ghant doing his matchmaking? — but she hadn't dreamed of this, either. She was marrying a man who probably hadn't bathed for the better part of a week, one who studied her as if she were a new plow to be bought and put to work on his farm, one who'd forgotten that she'd been scheduled to arrive that afternoon.
"What have I done?" she moaned softly, looking around with wild eyes.
She immediately recognized Ruby's voice on the other side of the curtain.
"Are you finished, honey?" A note of impatience entered Ruby's tone. "We only have a few minutes until I have to leave."
"Just a minute. I'll be out in just a minute."
"You're sure you don't need some help?"
"No! No. I'll be out."
The sound of Ruby's boots faded away.
Ginny yanked open the window and reached for her skirts so that she could climb outside into the street. It wouldn't be hard to escape. She could run away. She could slip through the window and melt into the evening crowds without anyone ever being the wiser.
Her resolve seeped away like air wheezing from a squeeze box. Things wouldn't get any better if she left Ogden — or Ruby's nephew. Her mother had made that fact quite clear. And her father ...
She hoped her father would think she'd run away from the Parker home.
Sometimes she felt as if she'd never had a home. She'd been shuffled from one place to another all her life. First boarding school, then finishing school, then tours of the Continent. She'd only been allowed a few weeks in Plymouth each year.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Eden Creek"
Copyright © 1991 Lisa Bingham.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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