“It’s an unmitigated disaster.”
Delilah Robbins stood in the doorway of the house about to become her home and glanced down the entry hall strewn with papers, trash, and broken shards of what might have once been blue-flowered dishes.
“Surely, it can’t be that bad,” her father said as he walked up the porch steps. Ross Robbins shifted the traveling cases in his hands and moved behind Delilah, pushing the door open wider with the toe of his boot. He emitted a long, low whistle as he shook his head. “Perhaps calling it a disaster was painting it in a rosy light.”
“We can’t possibly stay here, Papa. It will take days to clean up this mess.” Delilah started to step into the house, but her father set the cases on the porch and pulled her outside.
“I’m concerned the house may have been ransacked and robbed. It would certainly explain the mess. Stay out here while I locate the sheriff.” Ross didn’t wait for her to agree or argue as he took the porch steps in two long strides and headed into the heart of town.
A resigned puff of air escaped from between her lips as she glanced across the porch. Delilah spied a rickety chair that looked as though a strong gust of wind might turn it into kindling. Weary and disheartened, she settled her skirts over the cracked seat. When the wood creaked, she cringed and waited for it to collapse beneath her.
Amazed when it held her weight, she released a sigh and set the hatbox in her left hand on the porch floor. The filthy boards needed a good scrubbing. A new coat of paint wouldn’t hurt, either.
She settled the leather bag with her father’s important papers on her lap, loosened the top clasp of the dark blue wool cape she wore over her traveling suit, and looked around with interest. The house was near the southeast end of town. In fact, she could see a bustling lumberyard in the distance with what appeared to be a river flowing near it.
The sound of the gurgling water provided a lulling background to the duo of birds chirping from a nearby tree. Delilah cocked her head and listened. Robins. The cheerful song of the birds meant spring was quite likely on its way. Truthfully, it looked as though spring had well begun its arrival in the Eastern Oregon town that was to be her new home.
A week ago, when she and her father had left their lovely home in Washington, D.C., the weather had been frigid and a late season storm was on its way. Papa had been intent on beating the snow out of town, which explained why they’d arrived in Baker City without most of their household goods. Her father planned to spend a few weeks in town before he fully committed to taking over the meteorological post in Baker City. If they decided to stay, they’d have the rest of their belongings packed up and shipped to the mining town.
For years, her father had served under the War Department’s Signal Corp. Then last summer the weather stations, telegraph lines, apparatus, and all the office equipment right down to every accounted-for pencil were transferred from the Signal Corps’ Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Weather Bureau. Personnel, most of them military people, were given the option of transferring. Of course, military men like her father were honorably discharged to be able to join the civilian ranks of the new organization.
Ross Robbins had spent several agonizing days trying to determine his best course of action. Delilah had encouraged him to follow his passion, which had always been the weather. Eight months ago, he’d left a twenty-year military career to continue his work as a renowned meteorologist.
Delilah balked at first when her father had received the offer of an opportunity to travel to the West to take over a station that had been abandoned, again, by the meteorologist in charge. Three different men had worked at the station in the last few years, but none of them stayed long before gold fever struck and drew them into the mines.
Her father, ready for a change, had jumped at the chance to explore a new territory. Delilah didn’t share his enthusiasm. She’d never lived anywhere other than their comfortable brick home in a residential area just a few blocks from where her father had worked. And she’d spent years perfecting the elaborate gardens at the house.
Now, she was in a western town that didn’t appear quite as uncivilized as she’d anticipated, unless she considered the state of upheaval in the house that was to have been their new home.
Afternoon sunshine illuminating the clear blue sky made her tip back her head to soak up the glorious rays spilling through a missing section of the porch roof. The tang of approaching spring mingled with the yeasty aroma of baking bread and the mouth-watering smell of roasting meat in the air. A slight breeze, redolent with the mixture of scents, caressed the tendrils of her hair that had escaped the confines of the once-tidy chignon she’d hastily fashioned early that morning.
At least the pleasant weather was one thing working in Baker City’s favor. In spite of the house’s disorderly status, she would greatly enjoy spring days in the area if today was any indication of what the future held. She pushed the cape from her shoulders, closed her eyes, and relaxed against the chair, enjoying the peaceful moments before her father returned.
“Maybe this place won’t be all bad,” she whispered, allowing her grip on her father’s bag to loosen.
“Baker City tends to grow on most folks, if you give it a chance,” a deep voice said, startling her from her musings.
Her eyes snapped open in surprise. Pride straightened her spine as her glance settled on a man standing a few yards away on the winter-browned grass on the other side of the porch railing.
Sunlight glinted off a shiny silver badge pinned to the front of a long duster. She studied the black western-style hat on his head, similar to those she’d seen cowboys sporting on the train. The lawman wore a tan flannel shirt topped with a dark vest and a neckerchief the color of crocuses. Dark blue denims encased muscled legs while dust covered the toes of his worn boots.
Slowly, her gaze glided from his boots back up to his face. A square jaw covered in a rakish growth of stubble, firm lips, and a straight nose proved to be a handsome combination. But it was the man’s eyes that captured her attention.
The same shade of blue as the azure spring sky overhead, his eyes held amusement, interest, and welcome. The thickest, longest eyelashes she’d ever seen on a man rimmed his expressive eyes. A pity, it was, for a man to have such luxurious eyelashes.
Delilah could think of a dozen women she knew who would die for eyelashes that long, dark and thick. The same dozen women would most likely faint at the sight of such a rugged, indisputably attractive man. The thought of seeing some of them fall off their chairs if this sheriff’s deputy walked into one of their exquisitely ornamented drawing rooms drew out her smile.
“New around here?” the deputy asked, taking two steps closer. The slightest hint of a swagger accented his movements. He lifted a foot to the porch and leaned his elbows on the railing, gifting her with an easy, albeit slightly crooked smile.
Delilah stood, clutching her father’s leather bag in front of her like a shield. The man unsettled her. She didn’t know if it was his western manners or speech, or just the overt masculinity that exuded from him, but something about the deputy left her utterly discomfited.
“My father and I just arrived. We planned to move into our new abode,” she said, tilting her head toward the still open front door. “However, it appears the house has been robbed.”
“Robbed?” The deputy’s smile dropped as quickly as his arms from the porch railing. He hurried up the steps and inside the house without another word.
Delilah remained outside, but listened to the sound of his boots thudding across the hardwood floor. The crackle of paper and the crunch of broken pottery carried out to her as he strode down the hall. The deputy soon appeared in the doorway and gave her a long look that left her feeling overheated and apprehensive.
“You sure the place was robbed, ma’am? Ol’ Eugene wasn’t much for keeping house. I’m not sure it looks any different than it did the day he left.”
“Gracious!” Delilah muttered, staring over the deputy’s shoulder at the chaos behind him. “Surely you aren’t saying the previous occupant of the house willingly resided in such a condition of utter disrepair.”
The deputy leaned a brawny shoulder against the frame of the door, as though he had all day with nothing better to do. He grinned, kicking up little brackets around the right side of his mouth. “No, ma’am, I’m not saying it with that many words or quite so eloquently, but Eugene Sutler ranks only slightly higher than a pig when it comes to cleanliness.”
Delilah tightened her clasp on her father’s bag and glared at the deputy. “And Mr. Sutler was the former meteorologist?”
“That’s right. I heard a new one was coming from back east, but no one mentioned it would be a woman.” The deputy gave her what might have been an endearing smile if she’d noticed it instead of focusing on the trash lining the floors behind him.
“My father, Captain Ross Robbins, is the meteorologist,” Delilah answered absently, then forced her attention back to the deputy.
“Well, this is sure a sorry way to welcome you to town, ma’am,” the deputy said, removing his hat and revealing a head full of thick, short brown hair. A band encircled his head where the hat had rested. He reached up and ran his hand through his hair, loosening the depression, while Delilah’s eyes followed his every move.
Disconcerted by her sudden yearning to reach out and run her fingers through his hair, she scowled and took a step back.
“I reckon I should introduce myself. The name’s Dugan Durfey. I’m a deputy at the sheriff’s office.” He tipped his head to her with polite solicitousness. “We’re mighty glad to have you here in Baker City, Mrs…?”
“Thank you, Deputy Durfey. And it’s miss, Miss Delilah Robbins.” Delilah felt like she should dip into a curtsy with the deputy smiling at her so engagingly. Instead, she stiffened her already straight spine and lifted her chin a notch.
“Miss Delilah Robbins, huh?” His grin broadened. “A pretty name for a beautiful woman. Sounds like a spring flower, or something, although you smell even sweeter.”
Delilah didn’t know what to say to his obvious attempt at flattery. No gentleman she’d known would be so forthright with such buttery comments. Were all the men in this western town going to be so free with their opinions and excessive in their flirtatious remarks? She certainly hoped not.
Her brain scrambled to find a polite way to set Deputy Durfey in his place when her father turned the corner and waved at her, accompanied by another man wearing a badge.
“Is that the sheriff?” Delilah asked, returning her father’s wave.
The deputy pushed away from the doorframe and strode over to the porch steps. “Nope, that’s my partner, Deputy Seth Harter.”
Delilah rapidly concluded the town must have an abundance of handsome men if the two deputies were a representation of the type she’d encounter. Deputy Harter was every bit as good looking as Deputy Durfey. The two men were close to the same size, but from the fringe of hair peeking from beneath his hat, Deputy Harter sported blond hair and an even more affable smile.
“Lila, this is Deputy Harter. He’s going to take a look at the house,” Ross said as he strode onto the porch. He held out a hand to Deputy Durfey. “Ross Robbins.”
“Welcome to Baker City, sir. Deputy Dugan Durfey. I was walking by and noticed the loveliest flower soaking up the sunshine on the porch. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Captain.”
Ross shot Delilah an odd look and shook his head. “I’m no longer a Captain, Deputy. I was honorably discharged last summer.”
“Because of the change in the Signal Corps to a civilian organization under the Department of Agriculture,” Deputy Durfey said as a statement, not a question.
Delilah could sense her father’s astonishment that the deputy would know the details about the end of the Signal Corps and beginning of the Weather Bureau.
“That’s right.” Ross motioned to the open doorway. “Has the house been robbed or vandalized?”
“I don’t reckon so. It looks the same as it did when Eugene ran off a month ago.” Deputy Durfey shrugged. “He wasn’t ever real particular about keeping house.”
Ross settled his hand on Delilah’s shoulder. “You stay out here while I look around.”
“But, Papa, I should…”
“Stay,” Ross ordered.
Delilah stiffened, feeling like a chastised pet instead of a woman grown with a strong constitution and mind of her own.
“I’ll go with you sir,” Deputy Durfey offered, following Ross into the house.
Delilah glanced up as Deputy Harter stepped in front of her and removed his hat, offering her a bright smile that showed off a row of perfectly even teeth. “Welcome to our little corner of Oregon, Miss Robbins. Your father told me the two of you just arrived on the afternoon train. What do you think of Baker City?”
On the walk from the depot to the house, Delilah had been astounded by the variety of businesses they’d passed, expecting the town to be little more than a rough watering hole.
“I think it’s a place that may prove to be full of unexpected adventures.” She didn’t wish to get off to a bad start by telling the deputy she didn’t care for the dusty streets or muddy puddles that lingered in the cool shadows. She felt exposed to everything with the valley so open to the elements, although she could see tree-covered mountains in the distance. They’d traveled through sagebrush-dotted hills to the south as the train carried them to Baker City. She’d even seen a little girl riding a red and white pony with a boy on a tall horse along the tracks not far from town.
If a child could survive living in the area, Delilah knew she could, too.
Seth Harter grinned and subtly sidled closer to her. “If you ever want someone to show you around town, just let me know. I’d be happy to give you a tour.”
“That’s very kind, Deputy Harter. Thank you.”
Delilah gave him a small, tight smile, wondering if there was a lack of women in the area for all the attention the two deputies tossed her way. Flattered as she might be, she just wanted somewhere clean and quiet she could rest. The train trip across the country had been long and tiring. Her clothes were covered in soot and dust. The thought of a hot bath, a decent meal, and a comfortable bed were all that were keeping her going.
“If you’re of a mind to…”
Ross reappeared with Deputy Durfey, interrupting whatever Deputy Harter had planned to say. “We absolutely can’t stay here. Every square inch of this place needs a thorough cleaning before it’s fit for humans to enter. Deputy Durfey said there’s a nice boardinghouse in town. Once we’ve acquired rooms, I’ll make arrangements for the rest of our luggage to be placed into storage until the house is inhabitable.”
“Are you sure, Papa? I could…”
Ross patted her shoulder and then bent to pick up the pile of cases he’d left on the porch. He’d only picked up one when the two deputies gathered the rest of the luggage.
“We’ll see you to the boardinghouse,” Deputy Harter said, looking at Deputy Durfey for agreement. The man nodded and motioned for Delilah to precede them down the steps.
Her father took the leather bag from her. As she picked up her hat box, Ross cupped her elbow in his hand, guiding her to follow the deputies leading the way down the street.
They walked through town along the main street. As they strolled down the wooden boardwalk, Delilah glanced in shop windows. Spectacular spring gowns in the dress shop beckoned to her with their lovely colors and unique designs. She intended to visit the store soon, once she and her father were settled into their new home. They passed a china shop, a restaurant, and a store selling hardware.
The two deputies offered commentary about businesses in town. They pointed out some of their preferred places, such as a well-stocked mercantile located a block away from the corner where they stood waiting for a wagon to pass.
“If the accommodations at the boardinghouse don’t suit you, there’s always the Hotel Warshauer.” Deputy Harter pointed to a building off to their right. “It’s a nice place and the restaurant serves the best food in town.”
“It looks like a fine establishment,” Ross said. He kept his hold on Delilah’s elbow and guided her around a muddy puddle as they made their way across the street. “Baker City appears to offer a grand assortment of amenities.”
“Yes, sir,” Deputy Durfey said, smiling at them both. “You’ll find everything from an opera house to a tea room here.”
“There’s a performance coming up next week. A play by some poet,” Deputy Harter said.
Deputy Durfey frowned. “I wouldn’t call Shakespeare ‘some poet,’ but the performance of Macbeth should be entertaining.”
“There are quite a number of impressive homes, here, too,” Ross noted, changing the subject.
Delilah had often admired her father’s talent at keeping conversations on an even keel, especially when it came to men hinting at an opportunity to court her.
“Look at that place, Papa. It’s lovely,” Delilah said, indicating a large house, complete with a wide porch and gingerbread trim, on the other side of the street.
“That’s the boardinghouse,” Deputy Durfey said, looking both ways before they stepped into the street. “Edwin and Hattie Greenfield own it. They came from England last summer for a visit and decided to stay.”
“Well, how about that,” Ross said, grinning at the deputy as they made their way across the front walk and up the steps. The door opened and a smiling elderly man greeted them.
“Deputies, what may I do for you gentlemen today?” the man asked, motioning them all inside.
Delilah breathed in the scents of furniture polish and roasting chicken as they walked into the immaculate foyer. Floors gleamed, windows glistened, and a fire crackled in a nearby fireplace, making her feel like she’d stepped into a long lost aunt’s inviting home. She cast a quick glimpse into the parlor, encouraged by the welcoming appearance of the room.
“Captain Robbins and his daughter are here to take over the meteorologist station and house, but Sutler left the place in a mess.” Deputy Durfey looked to the older man.
“A mess? Looked more like a tornado whipped through a pigpen to me,” Deputy Harter said, drawing a chuckle from Ross and Mr. Greenfield.
“Do you have a room or two available?” Deputy Durfey asked.
“Of course.” The elderly man smiled at Delilah and her father. “Edwin Greenfield at your service. My wife, Hattie, and I are the proprietors of this establishment.”
“A fine one it appears to be, Mr. Greenfield.” Ross held out a hand in greeting. “And please, it’s just Mr. Robbins or Ross.”
“Very well, Mr. Robbins. If you’ll follow me, I’ll see you up to your rooms.” Edwin led the way up the stairs with Delilah and her father close behind him. The two deputies brought up the end of their little procession and deposited the cases in a guest room after Edwin opened the door.
“We only have three other guests at the moment, so we have plenty of room if you’d like your own rooms,” Edwin said.
“That would be most appreciated, Mr. Greenfield. Thank you,” Ross said, lifting two of the cases. He followed Edwin across the hall to a room identical to the one in which Delilah stood.
She looked over the big bed, the matching dresser and washstand, a rose-painted lamp on a small table by the bed, and a rocking chair beneath the window. A colorful quilt covered the bed and looked so inviting, she longed to curl up on it and close her eyes.
“Will you be okay here, Miss Robbins?” Deputy Durfey asked, lingering in the doorway with concern causing vertical lines to crease his brow.
“The boardinghouse is perfectly splendid, Deputy Durfey. Thank you.” Disconcerted by the look in his eyes as he held her gaze, she spun around and walked over to the window. She needed a moment to collect her thoughts and composure.
“I’m sure I’ll see you around, Miss Robbins. Have a pleasant evening,” the deputy said.
“I plan to, Deputy. Thank you, again.” She kept her gaze outside rather than face him. When Deputy Harter stopped by a moment later to wish her a pleasant evening she refused to be distracted by his presence, continuing to stare at the yard below the window.
The familiar scent of her father’s aftershave lotion floated around her a moment before he settled his hands on her shoulders. “Well, Lila, what do you think? Can we make a go of things here?”
“I suppose we’ll learn the answer to that soon enough,” she said, spinning around and giving her father a hug.
He ducked beneath the brim of her hat and kissed her cheek before taking a step back. “The deputies both seemed quite friendly and helpful. Deputy Harter said the sheriff is out of town with his wife and daughter, but should be back in a few days.”
“I suppose it’s nice to know the local law enforcement officers are approachable and inclined to be of assistance.”
Her father winked at her. “And they both seemed more than a little taken with you.”
Delilah glowered at her father. “Don’t you think we should unpack a few things and tidy our appearances before dinner?”
“We should,” Ross said, glancing at a watch he drew from his vest pocket then snapping the lid closed. “In fact, you probably have time for a nap.”
“I plan to take a bath before I do anything else. I’ve got a week’s worth of soot and dirt embedded in my skin.” Delilah grinned at her father. “In the near future, you ought to consider making an acquaintance with a local barber. We really should have taken time for Mr. Langley to trim your hair before we left home.”
“Probably,” Ross said. He ran his hand through hair that was once as dark as Delilah’s, but was now peppered with streaks of gray along the temples. “Thank you for coming on this venture, honey. If I’d had to choose between staying there with you and coming here alone, I wouldn’t have accepted the position.”
“I know you wouldn’t have, Papa.” She pulled out her hatpin and removed her hat. “It was time for us to embark on a new adventure.”
“And it’s been quite an adventure so far. Tomorrow, we’ll go see what we can do to set that house to rights. Tonight, we’ll enjoy a fine meal and rest.”
“I like the sound of that, Papa.” Delilah kissed her father’s cheek. “Now get out of here and let me indulge in a hot bath.”
“Yes, my darling, ever-bossy girl.”
Delilah gave her father a playful nudge out of her room then sank onto the bed when he closed the door. It took her no time at all to yank off her shoes, step out of her clothes, and climb into a tub full of steaming water in the bathroom connected to her room.
She washed her hair then sank back, letting the water work wonders on her travel-weary muscles. As she relaxed, a pair of long-lashed blue eyes and a crooked smile filled her thoughts, rousing her curiosity about Deputy Dugan Durfey.