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Hand Me Down Bride

a novel by Juliet Waldron

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An excerpt from

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Chapter 1

        Sophie studied her toes. She sat on the double bed in which she’d spent the night, knees drawn up beneath her white lawn nightgown. Only her toes stuck out. Lifting her dark head, she gazed through a nearby window at a May morning that shone upon a blooming--but sternly regimented--rose garden. In spite of the warm breeze, she shivered.
        Then, hoping it wasn’t true, for the hundredth time, she looked at the other narrow bed, the one next to hers. Upon it lay her new husband, the rich grandfatherly man who’d paid her way from Germany, a man she'd married only yesterday.
        Theodore Wildbach was quite dead. Proper, in death as in life, he was flat on his back, hands folded on his chest. He looked like the stone knights lying in the cathedral in her home town. That was how Theodore habitually slept, and how he’d died. Pale lips gaped inside a ring of neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard.
        She’d discovered him upon awakening. She’d come close, staring, unable to believe her eyes. It was a terrible surprise, nowhere among the thousand twists of fate she'd imagined as she'd journeyed across sea and land to German Mills, Pennsylvania.
        That was when the shivering began. Stumbling, teeth chattering, Sophie beat a hasty retreat to her bed.
        She’d been sitting there ever since. She kept thinking she ought to feel something, sorrow for Mr. Wildbach, panic at the black abyss of unknowns into which she was plunged, but all she could do was sit, study her toes, and shake.
        At last she heard footsteps ascending the stairs. Sophie jumped out of bed, dashed across the room, tore open the door and ran into the long hallway. She didn’t know which member of the family she’d meet, but she didn’t care. She couldn’t sit with a corpse--even such a proper one--for another minute.
        There was her dead husband’s youngest son, dressed in one of those outfits of denim that all the young men around here seemed to wear. He was tall, muscular and blonde. He was also shocked by her sudden and indecorous appearance in nothing more than a summer nightgown.
        “Herr Karl Joseph!” She how noted his clear gray eyes widened, then began to roll, trying to look anywhere but at her. “Dein Vater ist Tod!”

* * *

        Your father is dead?
        The shock of seeing that poor girl race into the hallway, shaking, terrified, in an embarrassing state of undress, made him stumble over the German. Karl had been born and raised here in Pennsylvania, but, unlike his father, he strove to be, in every way, an American. When, at the age of fourteen, he’d run away and joined the Union Army, he’d told everyone his name was “Joe Wildbrook.”
        Only yesterday Karl had come from the mill to attend the wedding. He’d arrived in a terrible mood, still hardly able to believe his father was enough of an old goat to have gone through with it. The feeling grew after he'd seen the young, pretty Fraulein Papa had ordered from The Old Country. Karl had come home from the great Civil War with a notion to get married himself, but the local German girls his father kept parading under his nose aroused no interest.
        “Handsome enough, eh?” His father had taken Karl by the elbow, nodded in the direction of the bride. Sophie sat on the other side of the room, gravely sipping from a flowered teacup, one that had belonged to the first Mrs. Wildbach. Karl's mother had been a plump, fair lady from an “English” family. Her placid manner had given Theodore no warning of the strength of will she’d possessed.
        “We could send for one of her sisters for you.”
        “No thanks, Papa. I can find a wife on my own.” Karl pointedly disengaged his fatherís hand. His insistence upon his marrying a German girl grated. Brother George had been given no such orders, but George, like Papa before him, had found himself a well-heeled bride.
        “Ah, but not a Schone Jungfrau like that.” His father had sent a proud, possessive look at the poor girl.
        To Karl, Sophie appeared solemn and edgy. There was not so much as a glint of happiness to animate her beauty. She seemed like the girls who eyed him hopefully at the church socials in nearby Palatine or New Bremen, the ones from whom he ran as if they were agents of the devil.
        Sophie nodded whenever his father spoke, those dark, long-lashed eyes apparently engaged in a careful study of her lap. Born and raised to be a Hausfrau, Karl thought, with not a thing in her lovely head but “kuchen, kirche und kinder”--cooking, church and babies . . .
        It was a genuine surprise to learn she could play the piano. When her Aunt insisted, Sophie executed a classical piece, showing far more animation than she had in conversation. Karl didn’t know much about music, but it was a treat, the performance poised and polished. It was clearly no beginner’s effort.
        Papa had been cross when Karl, after one too many glasses of the spiked punch, had made a joke about it.
        “You think I would marry a peasant? If I wanted one of those, I could have had a barefoot Mennonite off any farm from here to New Bremen, with none of the trouble--or expense--I've just gone to.”
        As the celebration went on, Karl began to have second thoughts about the girl. When she thought no one was looking, she surveyed the goings-on with intelligent, wary eyes. When she caught him watching, however, that numb mask quickly took control again.
        Maybe she was the sly opportunist his sister-in-law Sally suspected. Which would, Karl thought, serve Sally right. After all, it took one to know one.
        Now, this morning, here the object of all his speculation stood! Dark braids trailed over high unsupported breasts. Ample curves showed to advantage beneath a sheer lawn night gown. She was distraught, disturbingly disheveled.
         Sophie, seeing the shock and embarrassment in Karl Joseph's gray eyes, thought he might run away. To prevent this, she seized his wrist and repeated what she’d said.
        “Entschuldigen bitte, Herr Karl. Excuse, please, Herr Karl.” Somehow she managed to translate between chattering teeth. “Dein Vater ist Tod.” Then, hoping that use of both languages would aid the son's tardy understanding, she added, “Herr Teo-dore--iss--dead.”
        “Good God!” Karl tore his wrist from her grasp and ran straight into the spacious paternal suite.