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Will her new, firm husband and the hard journey West break Esther's spirit, or give her the adventure she's always wanted?
"Esther Richardson, get out of that tree!"
The branches of the apple tree shook, dropping fruit, and the short, plump matron on the ground squawked and shielded her head. At her feet, a pair of tow-headed children tucked their heads under their mother's skirts to escape the volley of hard, unripe apples.
The shaking became violent, and more fruit bounced to the ground, along with a few dead twigs. Then a blonde head poked between the leaves.
The squat woman on the ground stomped her foot. "Naughty girl, get down before you fall and break your neck."
One of the larger boughs danced wildly, and then a young woman dropped out of the tree. Her mother shrieked again as the girl staggered, then righted herself.
"I'm fine, Mama. The ground broke my fall."
The two children stuck their head out from behind their mother's skirts and giggled.
The young blonde winked at them.
"Honestly, climbing trees at your age, what will the neighbors think?"
Esther shrugged and brushed back her honey-colored hair. "If I was a boy, you'd let me climb."
"You are not a boy...oh, if your father was here. I'd have him spank you, old maid of twenty-two or not."
"I'm not an old maid," Esther cried. "You have to be twenty-five at least to be a spinster. I'm merely considering my offers." Pulling her two siblings out from behind her mother, Esther set off in the direction of the house, her complaining mother in tow.
"You have no offers, according to your father."
"I know Mr. Miller asked for me." Esther dipped and caught up an apple, walking while she polished it against her dress.
"That was three months ago, and your father turned him down firsthand."
"Well," Esther said, biting into the apple. "I can hardly keep up with every suitor."
Her mother sighed. A pity her eldest had been a girl, blessed with a quick mind and a sharp tongue, strong will, then pretty green eyes and long shining hair. The good boys she found too slow, the sharp ones too ugly, and the successful ones she challenged to live as Jesus and give all their money to the poor.
One disgruntled mill owner had stormed out of dinner, telling Mr. Richardson his daughter was a radical.
Her poor mother remembered all this, and drew in a big breath. "At fifteen, I met your father..."
"...and married a week later, I know, I know. You always told me you should've waited." Esther threw her arm around her short mother who was breathing hard, trying to keep up with her daughter's strides. "Anyway, Mark Spencer said he would take me."
"Heavens, no," her mother said, thinking of the town hooligan. Handsome, to be sure, but just the other day Doctor Whitney had treated a poor beggar who claimed Mr. Spencer's fine buggy had run him off the road.
"What use have I for a husband, anyway?" They approached the house, and Esther threw her apple core into the midden. "Most men smell bad and think that books are for propping open doors. I want a scholar. Someone who wants to travel the world with me and see strange things and talk to different peoples. I want to see the world."
"Oh, Esther." Her mother groaned and wished, not for the first time, that her eldest had been a boy.
At dinner that night, her mother told Esther's father of her afternoon escapade. Her father frowned over his spectacles but said nothing until his wife had turned away to fuss over a younger child.
"My dear daughter, what am I to do with you?"
"Nothing, Papa. I just needed solitude."
Her father looked over the rowdy dinner table, filled with his eleven children and shrieking wife. "I understand. You need to leave home, get away. I thought seminary would settle you, but you seem more restless than ever."
"I just want to do something." Esther leaned in, face shining. "All the things I studied, all the knowledge I gained, I want to use it."
He shook his head. "You should've been a man. Then at least I could set you up in a parish."
"I don't want to settle here. I want to adventure."
"Well, until then, no more climbing trees. You give your mother a scare." Her father pushed away from the table and stood with a sigh.
Esther rose with him. "Let me help you to your study, Papa."
"No, no." He waved her away. "I have some important business to go over. And under no circumstances are you to come in and snoop among my papers. Don't think I don't know that you snuck in to read about the Abolitionists when I was gone." His finger waggled in her face, but there was a twinkle in his eye.
The moon hung bright and shining in the sky when the tree next to the Richardson's house started shaking softy.
Esther wriggled out onto a branch to a half open window. Grunting, she got it open and dropped into her father's study, right behind his big desk. There was still some oil in the lamp, and she lit it quickly, glancing around her favorite room in the house. Tonight, the books held no interest for her.
Sifting through her father's papers, Esther found three newspapers, as new as last week, and set them aside. As she did, a letter fluttered to the floor. Picking it up, she read the solicitation from the American Mission Board to her father for funds, and had an idea.
It took the rest of the night, but by dawn she had a perfectly penned letter to the Board, introducing herself as a single woman of Baldwin, Maine, and offering to carry their cause West.
"I cannot send money," she wrote, "but I am a pious woman, hardworking and true, who wishes to do God's work. Please consider sending me to preach the good news to the people of the frontier."
She mailed the letter, and when fall turned to winter and winter into spring without a response, she forgot about it.
Which is why, when one late afternoon she was dressing for dinner, she looked up in surprise at the sound of horses. Two men rode into the yard, one familiar and white-haired, and the other a stranger�young and very, very tall.
She recognized one as the local doctor and turned to her next youngest sister. "Mattie? Are any of the others ill?"
"No," her younger sister answered, hustling to the window. "Why would old Dr. Whitney be coming today?"
"He must want to meet with Father." Esther scrambled to take off her work frock and replace it with a new one, a rich purple that she wore only to church.
"What is it, Mattie?" The blonde stood in front of the mirror, fixing her hair.
"Who's the other rider? The tall man?" Mattie stayed peering out of the window.
"Perhaps his apprentice?"
"He doesn't look like an apprentice."
Tripping over her skirts, Esther flew back to the window in time to catch a glimpse of the tall man with brown hair and dark brows. The stranger was younger than his fellow rider, but probably around thirty. He wore a dark jacket and suit that Esther could tell was very fine�the latest fashion according to the newspapers from Boston.
"But so tall. He may not fit in the door," Esther murmured, and left Mattie craning to see if this was so, while Esther went back to the mirror to finish putting in her hair pins.
"Esther?" Her mother called up the stairs, just as young William arrived at the top of them, breathless.
"You're wanted in the parlor," he told his older sister.
"What? Why her?" Mattie started from the window, but before she reached the door, Esther shut it firmly.
The blonde took the front stairs so as to avoid the kitchen, where her mother would surely be waiting to lecture her. After sending William back, Esther paused on the landing to peer into the parlor.
The two men stood in the receiving room. Old Dr. Whitney looked his usual grizzled self, so Esther barely spared him a glance. Her eyes were all on the stranger�taller than her by almost a foot. Another few inches and his brown hair would touch the ceiling. Up close he looked younger, probably in his late twenties, but he stood with assurance of a much older man. He had a lean face and dark, forbidding brows.
A rustle of her skirts betrayed her, and the strange man's head whipped around. Esther met his gaze boldly, and made her way down the steps, her head held high. Once she descended, she sent her smile all around, at ease even in the center of three men's attention.
"Esther." Her father cleared his throat. "Dr. Whitney is here and he brought along a young man as his guest. Mr. Johnathan Shepherd�excuse me, Doctor Johnathan Shepherd."
So he was a doctor, too. That still didn't tell her why he was here.
She dropped a curtsy from her spot on the last stair. "Welcome." If she stood straight, and stayed on the last step, she could almost look the tall stranger in the eye.
"Miss Richardson." The newcomer's mouth quirked a little, as if he understood what she was doing. For a second she wished she'd thought to put on her green frock, the better to bring out the color of her eyes. At least she was wearing her newest lace gloves.
"What brings two doctors to our door? Is someone ill?" She feigned worry, widening what Mr. Spencer called her "fine green eyes."
"No, child," her father sputtered. "They're here for you."
"Me? But, I assure you, I am feeling quite well."
At this, the stranger, along with Dr. Whitney, exchanged amused glances. Still, they said nothing, as if waiting to see what else she would do.
Behind her she could hear her mother in the kitchen ordering Maddie to set another place for dinner. Then a plate crashed to the floor.
Her father seemed to expect her to say something more, so she smiled broadly at Dr. Whitney. "Would you like to stay for dinner?"
"I've already invited them," her father said. "It seems there is much to be discussed about your future." He peered at her through his spectacles, a chastising look she recognized well. When she was younger, it would herald a spanking. Now that she was almost twenty-three, her father hadn't had cause to put her across his knee in a long time.
"My future?" She risked another glance at the tall stranger. He'd fixed dark eyes on her, and with his height, heavy brows and bony face, he should seem threatening. Instead, he looked like he was about to laugh, and she found that intriguing.
"They're from the American Mission Board," her father said. "They received your letter. The one you sent requesting a missionary post in the West."
"Oh yes, I remember." She colored a little, realizing her father would've found out one way or another. She shifted a little from foot to foot, wondering if she'd earned a punishment, and hoping her father would wait until the guests were gone before meting it out.
Now the strange Dr. Shepherd was smiling outright. The happy look transformed his face from a sober, gauntness, to a breathtaking beauty. He really should find a wife, she thought, someone who will love his homely looks and fatten him up.
Dr. Whitney coughed, and Esther fixed her attention on him. Now both the older doctor and her father seemed to be suppressing a laugh, and it made her cross.
"What's going on?" she asked.
To her surprise, Johnathan Shepherd stepped forward to offer the answer. "Miss Richardson, I also wrote to the Mission board, requesting a pastoral position West of Kansas Territory. They agreed, on the condition I take a wife."
She stared up at him, speechless for the first time in her life.
"Miss Richardson." He smiled down at her. "I'm here to see if you will consider me for a husband."
"I'm sorry, Father," Esther said later that night. "I should've told you about my letter."
"It's all right, my dear." Her father laid down his bible. "I had hoped you would leave seminary and settle down and marry some Maine farmer. It was selfish of me to want to keep my eldest daughter close."
She smiled at him.
"I'll leave any punishment to your future husband," he said. "Do you like the young Dr. Shepherd?"
Cocking her head to the side, Esther considered it. Once they'd sat down to dinner, she'd barely paid any attention to her new suitor, even though she'd been seated by him on a bench. Instead, she'd plied Dr. Whitney with questions about his travels, as usual. The old man seemed flattered, but kept trying to drive the conversation back to his colleague. It seemed Dr. Whitney had a high opinion of Johnathan Shepherd, who had gone to medical school in Boston, then felt called to seminary. Such a young man to have completed both.
Esther felt that to become a minister and a doctor before thirty was rather showing off. She herself had gone to seminary, and usually she'd take the opportunity to debate with a fellow graduate. Tonight, however, she ignored Mr. Shepherd entirely, having learned a long time ago how to drive a suitor crazy. Young men, she'd found, were much more interested in the chase than a woman who simpered all over them.
So all night, she pretended to ignore him, even going so far to sound cold and disinterested when she said goodbye. Again, she noticed the corners of his mouth turning up, as if he was more amused by her behavior than infatuated.
"Esther," her father called, breaking into her musings. "I asked you if you liked him."
"I suppose it doesn't matter," she said. "He's a man of God, and he and I are called to the same mission. We both can do a lot of good."
Her father harrumped. "I would hope to see you settled with a rich young doctor, a man who could keep you in all your pretty dresses and fripperies, and bind you up if you break your bones falling out of trees. But I suppose Dr. Shepherd is someone you could love."
She bid her father goodnight. Could she love Johnathan Shepherd? She didn't need to love a man to marry him, just get along with him. In fact, she thought it would be better to have a husband she didn't love�that way she wouldn't be distracted from God's work.
Yes, Mr. Johnathan Shepherd would do just fine for a spouse.
She told her mother this the next morning. "I think he's a good choice. We'll both be focused on God's work. He's so tall and awkward, I'm sure I won't fall in love with him."
"Esther!" Her mother gasped. "How can you say such things about poor Mr. Shepherd?"
"Well, it's the truth."
"I think he's quite handsome," Mattie put in, and then blushed.
Rolling her eyes, Esther continued kneading the bread, waiting for her mother to speak again. There was something brewing in the squat matron's head.
"You could still marry Mr. Spencer," Mrs. Richardson finally burst out.
Esther laughed. True, the young Mainer had a nice surry, and would inherit his father's shop. But he didn't make her heart beat as fast as it had when she thought of Mr. Shepherd�Johnathan� taking her across the country, on an real adventure. The thought of staying in Maine and being a shopkeeper's wife paled in comparison.
When she explained this, her mother didn't take the news well.
"Esther," her mother wailed. "You, go west? You'd be taken by wolves, by Indians, by bandits!"
"And in that order," Mr. Richardson said from his place at the breakfast table, and Esther was certain her father was smiling behind the newspaper.
With ten younger children swarming around the house, and her mother talking about the marriageable men around town in a last effort to get Esther to change her mind, the slim blonde escaped to her favorite place.
In the apple orchard, she climbed an old gnarled tree and sat with her feet hanging over the branch, and her head in the clouds of white apple blossoms.
Could she really go through with it? Marry Mr. Shepherd? Here was her chance at adventure. Of course, he was the perfect choice, with his lanky body and angular face, there was no chance of her falling in love with him. She could concentrate on the missions. The only thing remained: would he take her?
She went through the reasons why she'd make a good wife, being careful to list her faults. She was vain, and sometimes outspoken. Still, many men in town wished to marry her, ever since she'd gone to seminary, grown three inches and lost her childish snub nose.
The sound of horse interrupted her thoughts and she peered through the branches. When she saw the tall man riding past the orchard, she almost fell out of the tree.
A blizzard of white petals swirled to the ground just as Johnathan Shepherd rode by. His horse jumped a little, and the rider steered closer to the tree, peering through the leaves.
"Hello," she called down, as if it was normal to greet riders from a branch ten feet off the ground. "Lovely weather we're having. Would you like an apple?"
"No thank you." Mr. Shepherd dismounted, peering up at her, thick black brows pressed together with concern. "In fact, I should feel better if you came down from there."
Esther hesitated and leaned back so snowy branches obscured her visitor's face. She took inventory, she was in an old, faded dress, with her braided hair mussed from the climb. She'd forgotten a bonnet. It wasn't the best impression for her to make on a suitor.
He'd positioned himself to help her. With his height, he could easily reach her branch, but she simply jumped to the ground, startling her suitor and his horse.
She staggered a little, and he was at her side, steadying her. "Are you all right?"
"Yes." She grimaced, her feet aching with the hard landing.
The sides of Johnathan's mouth quirked up, not quite a smile. "Quite an ingenious way to pick apples. But rather difficult on the end."
"Yes," she said, dusting off her skirts with an air of self-importance. "Next time I'll bring a ladder."
"May I escort you back to the house?"
"Of course." Inwardly she sighed. She'd learned to avoid private walks with potential suitors. Next would come the flirting, the fervent promises, and pleading for her hand in marriage, or, at the very least, prolonged begging for the chance at a kiss.
Instead, Dr. Shepherd stopped before the edge of the orchard, the house just in view but far enough away from some privacy. "Miss Richardson, if I may be blunt."
Esther smoothed her skirts and waited for the courting to begin.
"I hesitate to say this," he began, and she almost rolled her eyes. A proposal, or request for a kiss, so soon? But then he said, "Last night, at dinner...are you always so given to flirtation?"
Her mouth fell open. "Excuse me?"
"I'm sure you have a large number of suitors. But even I was surprised by your coquettish behavior. I didn't think to expect it from a woman of your intelligence."
She stepped backwards like she'd taken a blow. "I can't believe you would accuse me of such a thing," she sputtered. "I did not act in such a manner. In fact, I made certain to ignore you."
Again, his mouth drew up briefly into a grin, telling her that she'd given herself away.
"And isn't that a sign of flirtation?" he said, mock sternly. "Young women pay men no attention, knowing it will spur a suitor on."
"I don't know what you're talking about," she said, upset that he'd found out one of her sure fire tricks. She faced him, wishing she were a foot taller, or at least had a stump to stand on.
The man's brown eyes were mild. "Don't be angry, Miss Richardson. I did not mean to offend, only point out a reason why I am having second thoughts."
Esther felt a horrible rush of warmth come over her, and her cheeks colored with embarrassment.
The tall doctor continued. "At first, I thought it providential that we both wrote letters to the Board at the same time, and are so obviously well matched in our thinking...but I still hesitate to offer for you."
Esther felt her blush move over her whole body, spurred by rage. Who did he think he was? He should be begging for the chance to marry her.
"Why?" she cried. "Because I'm a woman and can't possibly have ambition? Because I don't look strong enough to brave the wilds? Do you think I'll throw up my hands and faint at the first sign of hardship?"
"No," he interrupted as soon as he could get a word in. "Because you are very beautiful."
Esther opened her mouth, and couldn't think of anything to say. She'd been struck speechless for the second time in her life, and again the cause was Mr. Shepherd.
"I'm sure you know how lovely you are. Anyone who looks on you must tell you, and most men would make it their first reason to ask for your hand."
"But not you. You seem quite intent on breaking the mold," Esther said coldly. She felt unsettled around this tall, intense stranger, who would court a woman based on a letter, then decide she wasn't good enough because she was too pretty.
"Of course I would love a wife as beautiful as you," he said, cocking his head and looking at her with kindness. Pity almost. She felt anger surge again.
"But I don't need one," Dr. Shepherd continued. "And the life I've chosen, I cannot have a wife who longs for grander things. I am a simple man. I want to serve, and be of use to God and man. I need a helpmate who will be by my side, thick and thin, during good times and bad. The board told me of you and showed me your letter. You talked about wanting to live a life of meaning, of wanting to answer the call to do good work."
Her heart was pounding faster than it ever had before, even faster than the time Mark Spencer had snuck her out of church to take a ride in his carriage at full speed.
"I understand, Mr. Shepherd. I want the same." She gulped hard, hoping he'd believe her. Suddenly her green dress, and all her plotting to wear gloves and the right bonnet seemed very silly. Since when did she care for such frivolous items? She'd never cared what she wore at seminary; indeed, she'd barely looked in a mirror until she'd come home and all her suitors had swarmed her. Their compliments must have made her vain.
Her throat was very dry as she thought of how best to explain this to Mr. Shepherd, when they were interrupted by Mattie's shouting.
"Esther," her young sister called. Most of the young Richardsons had arranged themselves in the yard, where they could watch their older sister's courting.
Esther waved back at them and then looked up at Dr. Shepherd. "We should go in. Mother needs my help preparing dinner, and Father will want to speak to you."
Again, his smile crinkled his eyes, and he offered her his arm. After a moment, she took it, although she wasn't sure how she felt about being near him. No man had ever said such things to her�a strange mix of critique and compliment. In fact, in all her nineteen years, no one had criticized her so thoroughly at all.
Dr. Shepherd didn't seem perturbed by her silence. "I must say, it heartens me to see you in plain dress, working. Although, if we married, I will ask you to stop climbing trees. Or at least leaping out of them from such high branches. You might break your ankle and then where would we be?"
He smiled down at her, causing Esther's heart to flutter wildly. Confused, she watched him turn to greet her siblings.
It was a much less formal Mr. Shepherd who sat beside her at dinner. He made her mother laugh, and entertained her father with news from Boston, where he had studied, and Philadelphia, where he'd lived as a boy. When the dishes were being cleared, he asked if he might help Esther with the chore of washing them.
"No, you are a guest," Mrs. Richardson said in horror.
"But if all goes well, I will be family."
Unfortunately, her mother relented, and Esther found herself next to her tall suitor, who hummed cheerfully to himself as he rolled up his sleeves and started scrubbing out the biggest pot.
They were halfway done before he leaned down. "You're very quiet."
"Isn't that what you want?" Esther wiped down a plate as roughly as she could without breaking it. "A quiet wife who's plain and works all the time?"
He sighed. "I didn't mean to criticize. Time is short and we must speak honestly."
She handed him a clean plate for him to dry.
"Besides," he said. "When you are my wife, you will understand why I take you in hand and offer correction. As your husband, I will lead you, and it's my responsibility to help you become the best woman you can be. I intend to do that with firm discipline, as necessary."
Head spinning, she forced a laugh. "Of course, Mr. Shepherd. If I would be your wife, I would give you as little cause to discipline me as possible."
"It's a serious matter, Esther," he said, putting his hand on hers. Her heart skipped a beat at his touch, and at the use of her name. "We will be journeying together, and hard put upon. We need to act as one, and for you to follow my lead."
She stared up at him, confused. Was he telling her he wished to marry her?
"Do you understand?" His deep brown eyes were mesmerizing, and she had to shake herself out of her stupor.
"Of course." She pulled her hand away. "I would submit to you, and any suitable correction, though I'm sure there will be no cause for it."
"Good." His secret smile appeared again.
Esther fell silent again, her head swimming. He told her he wasn't sure of marrying her, then joined her in her chores. Like every other man before him, he told her she was beautiful, but he made a compliment almost into an insult. And now he spoke of marrying her as if it was a sure thing.
When the dishes were done, she bid him adieu in the parlor, with her mother and Mattie listening outside the door, she was sure.
"Dr. Shepherd, I thought on what you said. And I want you to know, I'm ready for adventure. All these pretty things�" she indicated the parlor, "mean nothing to me. I want to serve." She lifted her chin, standing as tall as she could to look him in the eye. "I can be a good wife to you. I promise."
"I'm sure you will be," he said, gazing down at her in a way that made her skin heat.
"Does that mean...you wish to have me?"
Again, the subtle smile. "I do. Will you let me ask your father for your hand?"
"Of course." She blushed. "He's in his study. Right that way."
With a full grin, Dr. Shepherd strode to the side room, hat in hand, leaving Esther to realize she'd just proposed to a man she'd met yesterday.