Meet Colt, the strong and silent Mountie who’s forced to escort the beautiful, brainy and talkative Elizabeth through the northern wilderness.
© Kate Bridges. All rights reserved.
British Columbia, late May 1898
“All you have to do is pretend I’m your sister,” she said.
Frustrated, Sergeant Colton Hunter of the North-West Mounted Police stared at the bold young woman sitting across from him in the first-class compartment of the train. Her posture stiffened. Colt pressed his shoulder to the velvet drapes of the rumbling window and assessed her money-bought looks.
“Miss, I can no more pretend you’re my sister than I can pretend you’re my maid.”
“Try harder. You can start with the name. It’s not Miss. It’s not Doctor. It’s Elizabeth. Just plain Elizabeth.”
There was nothing plain about her, yet there was no way on earth he wanted to be stuck with Dr. Elizabeth Langley. She might seem harmless, but Colt, as private bodyguard to her father, knew otherwise. He would never trust her again. What she’d done to him in his personal life had been reckless. Maybe accidental, but reckless nonetheless.
And now this.
The morning sun billowed over the Coast Mountains of British Columbia, through their window, and lit the red sleeve of his Mountie uniform. They’d only been riding east for fifteen minutes and were still making stops on the outskirts of Vancouver when Colt stood up and slid the aisle door closed to prevent anyone from overhearing.
He had one last chance at trying to convince her.
“Listen, miss, I don’t know why you think I’m supposed to be your savior. Take this train across the country like you planned. Take that ship to England. They’re expecting you.” He tossed his Mountie Stetson to the seat and eased in beside it.
“I have no intention of doing that,” said the young doctor. “I’m getting out at the next stop with you and your men. Furthermore—”
“Why do you always make things difficult?”
“They don’t have to be. Just escort me to the Klondike. You’re going anyway—”
“Please.” Exasperated, he leaned forward on the cushion. His long legs, straining beneath dark breeches, penetrated the swirl of her gray satin skirts. “Miss, I beg of you, lower your voice. Or better yet, pinch your lips together. You’re jeopardizing my mission and the safety of my men. Surely even you can understand that.”
Her face colored as ripe as a berry.
Her dark blond hair, pulled tight above her ears, exposed flushed cheeks and searching brown eyes. Soft amber stones dangled off her ears.
It was hard to believe she was a newly graduated doctor. Her youth—midtwenties—and her gender contrasted sharply with the gray-haired doctors most folks were accustomed to seeing. Dressed from head to toe in shiny gray satin, she looked untouchable. But then, she’d always been above his station. Lace and satin were buttoned up to her throat. They might rouse another man’s curiosity as to the spoils that lay beneath, but Colt wouldn’t give in to those thoughts.
Nonetheless, he tugged at his hot collar.
A small gray hat, adorned with a burgundy feather that plucked the air as she spoke, topped the blond curls pinned on her head. A highly ridiculous outfit for traveling.
“My father doesn’t think I’m jeopardizing your mission.” Elizabeth straightened her spine again on the red velvet seat. “When you get to the Yukon border where the crimes are occurring, you’re to escort me to my grandfather’s door while the rest of your men finish the investigation.”
“Perfect,” he said with sarcasm. “Just what every officer wants to hear. To be on the brink of adventure and freedom. To head the team directly into the heart of danger, only to be cut short and forced to escort a…” His gaze swept over her.
Her lips pressed together. Her cheeks grew taut. “A what?”
“A coddled young woman to Dawson City.”
She gasped. “I’m a doctor.”
The light in her eyes flared. “I beg your pardon?”
“You’re a doctor of rashes and fevers…or whatever else ails the female population of high society Vancouver.” He wondered what else she spent her time on, when privately summoned by a lady’s maid. Childbirth? Female issues? “You’ve no business interfering in the lives of working men. Hardworking men you don’t understand.”
“I’m not here for your insults. I know all about the differences between men and women.”
Elizabeth reeled to the window, but not before he saw the dewy sheen that sprang to her eyes.
He fought the urge to feel sorry for her.
She would have to come to terms with her father’s limitations on what she could and couldn’t practice in medicine. Her father, the Finance Minister of Canada, liked to call himself a champion for women’s education, but there were natural limits to his generosity.
Folks weren’t comfortable with female doctors. It was said they took business away from men, that women didn’t have the constitution needed to handle gruesome illness or surgery. Being the Minister’s daughter put her in an awkward social situation, as well. She couldn’t very well work beneath her.
And her father had forbidden her to practice medicine on men. She was forbidden to touch male strangers, and forbidden to have a man “drop his drawers” in front of her. It was indecent, Colt agreed.
“I know what your anger stems from.” She turned stiffly toward him, the ruffles on her bosom fluttering. “And I can’t seem to apologize enough for the heartache I caused you at Christmas—”
“Perhaps you did me a favor.”
“I did you no favor. Please, let’s not pretend. And you’re doing me no favor in taking me north. You’re doing your duty.”
Who was she, telling him what his duties were? Perhaps this quality of hers was why her own engagement had fallen apart.
His muscles flexed beneath his uniform. It was no use fighting her. Her father was too powerful. “All right, you win. I shall do my duty, miss, as promised.”
The train screeched around a curve. Sunlight slanted across her cheekbones. “Why do you insist on calling me miss? One would think that after eight years’ time—”
“It’s my duty.”
“I’ll escort you to the Klondike.” He shifted his legs in the tight space between them. “But first we’ve got to go over the rules.”
She leaned back. “All right. I’ll listen to your rules. Colt.”
He hated when she used his first name. He hated her ability to weave in and out of his private life. For the next five weeks, she’d be doing exactly that.
His plan had been simple until two days ago, when she’d confided to her father that she wanted to join her grandfather in the Klondike for the summer. Apparently, she preferred to practice medicine on the hundreds of migrating women instead of touring England.
Gold had recently been discovered in Dawson City, Yukon. The gold rush was creating a frantic pitch heard around the world. Most stampeders were American, but the Klondike belonged to Canada and was policed by the Mounties. With a population that’d swelled overnight to thirty-five thousand, the area had an overabundance of gold but few resources to feed, clothe and house the miners.
Food items that sold for pennies in Vancouver sold for one hundred times their value in gold dust in Dawson City. Eggs, chicken, meat, vegetables. Criminals infested the trails. A Klondike crime ring was targeting incoming food supplies. Since the Finance Minister was responsible for some of those supply lines getting through, he was sending Colt as part of a team of six Mounties to infiltrate the ring. They would travel in disguise as a group of brothers. They’d be hauling a ton of sausages to exchange for a fortune.
What better way to attract thieves than with a cache of goods literally worth its weight in gold?
But she wanted to be their sister. Colt pressed his hand to his thigh. “You’re not a doctor.”
She smiled in disbelief. “Pardon me?”
“Rule number one—on this journey, forget you’re a doctor.”
Her smile faded. “What on earth for?”
“We’re supposed to be a modest family of ranchers seeking a great fortune. We don’t want anyone thinking you’re educated. Or wealthy.”
An artery at the base of her throat pulsed. “But the whole purpose of my going is to treat women when I get there.”
“I understand that, but I’ll need to get you there without compromising my duties.” He glanced at the suede bag by her feet. “Since you’re not a doctor, you’ve got to leave your medical bag behind.”
“But the patients when I get there—”
“You can borrow supplies. From the two or three doctors already at the hospital—”
“That hospital is nothing more than two log huts. They don’t have enough—”
“If you can’t abide by the first rule, then you can’t—”
“What if someone falls ills on the journey? Someone in distress—”
“You’ll ignore them.”
Elizabeth stared at him in dismay. The train careened around a corner and they braced themselves. She looked, quite simply, as though she wanted to throttle him.
“We’ll be traveling in the wilderness. No help, no towns, no shops to buy supplies. Nothing but the wind and sun around us. What about wild animals and accidents that might befall us? What if someone on the team gets ill? One of your men? Maybe you.”
“We can take care of our own bruises.”
“Bruises? Is that what you think I do?”
“Look, we can’t risk you taking the bag. Some folks might have heard of your father. Or maybe his unusual daughter.”
“But I’ve got a whole trunk of badly needed gauze and tonics—”
“Sorry. Not on this trip.”
She snapped to the window and stared at the passing shanties. The woods were getting thicker. They were leaving Vancouver behind.
Her cap and feather shifted on her head. “What if I take some essential supplies and tuck them into my clothing bag, but leave the medical bag behind?”
Colt leaned back into the plush upholstery. “That might work. But you can only lend us the supplies. No strangers. You can’t let on you’re a doctor.”
She pressed her mouth closed and yanked off her hat.
“Rule number two,” he continued. “We’re changing our names.”
“Yes, of course. But how am I to—”
“I’ll make it as simple as possible. Our surname will be Blade. Your first name will be Liza. It’s close enough to Elizabeth so if your real name slips out, no one will blink. I’ll keep mine as Colt, Tommy will remain Tommy. As for the other four men you haven’t met yet, I’ll introduce you by their new names so it won’t confuse you. You think you can heed that?”
She nodded. “The Blade family. From where?”
“Ottawa. We sold our ten acres of farmland to buy supplies for the trip and payment on a gold claim. You know the Ottawa area from your travels with your father almost as well as we do, so picture it in your mind if someone asks.”
“And our parents? Where are they?”
“They died in a terrible fire.”
“How awful.” She sniffed. “How old were we?”
“No one’s going to ask that.”
She surveyed him. “They might.”
“You were the youngest at six, all right?”
Her lashes flickered. “That’s so tragic.”
Colt sighed. “I’m the oldest. Ten years older than you. I’m bossy, okay? I boss everyone around and you all listen.” He was the commanding officer on the team, so this would make sense.
“I bet you’re the least liked.”
Colt scowled. “The final rule. Number three. You’ve got to look and act the part of my obedient sister. You’re not above me. You’re not an eyelash better than me. Got that?”
“Huh,” she said softly. She wove her satin-gloved fingers together, looked down at her lap and fingered her cap. Sunlight streaked the blond hair amassed on top of her head.
With a swoop of his broad Stetson, Colt rose. He glanced through the window at the jagged mountains. “We’re almost there. Twenty more minutes.”
She had bought tickets to London months ago to visit friends. Colt was supposed to escort her partway by train, so they were still using the story as a cover to hide their new trip to the Klondike. Everyone in Vancouver would think she was spending the summer in London. When she didn’t arrive in London, everyone there would think she’d changed her mind and was remaining back home. But her real journey was about to start.
He opened the door that led to a private bath and sleeping quarters. “It’s time for you to change. I’ll change out here and then flag Tommy back in.”
She rose, and by the color in her cheeks, was finally catching on that he was boss here. She brushed by him in a womanly sway, a bundle of satin and feathers. Colt inhaled her fresh scent and observed how the delicate fabric fell against her ample curves.
She had a hell of a walk—a way of penetrating into a man’s private thoughts, making him imagine all sorts of things and lingering in his imagination when she wasn’t welcome.
Abruptly, he turned away.
He’d never confess it aloud, but rule number three would be the most difficult one for him. He swallowed hard.
Sister. Elizabeth was his devoted sister.
Why did he provoke her at every opportunity?
Alone and half-naked in the private quarters of the train, Elizabeth tugged a chemise over her corset, pulled her bare arms into a simple white blouse, then fastened the multitude of buttons, silently criticizing Colt.
What could be wrong with a woman wanting adventure and freedom, the very things he’d mentioned?
Men and women were similar in many regards. Weren’t they equally cheered at seeing the sun rise on a warm spring day? Didn’t they both enjoy the taste of a strong cup of coffee? Weren’t they equally touched by the sad tales of the weary traveler?
Her enthusiasm for adventure didn’t mean she didn’t want home and family, too. When Elizabeth had ventured to tell someone—her dear Gerard—about her bigger dreams, he had been dismayed.
Gerard. Her stomach fluttered at the thought of seeing him in the Klondike. A twinge of guilt followed, at how he must have felt reading her goodbye letter. How sad that in six months’ time, he hadn’t written back. Was he that angry with her?
It seemed anger was the only sentiment she was able to evoke in men. First her father. Then Gerard. Now Colt.
With a sigh, Elizabeth stepped into a brown muslin skirt. Cool mountain air whisked up her bare thighs. She pulled the skirt over her hips and clasped the buttons.
She’d prove that her abilities as a doctor were equal to any man’s. That no one could bar her from treating male patients. If she could ease someone’s discomfort in sickness or injury, no matter what their sex, then why should it matter to a bunch of other healthy men who ran the country?
And there was her other personal dilemma, her uncle’s secret whispered on his deathbed…she’d see to that in the Klondike, too. Gerard would have to answer directly to her.
She thought she knew Gerard, yet if he was involved in the theft with her uncle…
Elizabeth rummaged through her bags and repacked necessities. After changing into more sensible boots, she burst out of the private quarters and back into Colt’s so quickly that he hadn’t finished changing.
He was buttoning a fresh blue shirt and tucking it into faded denim jeans, the rugged ones miners and drovers usually wore. He had a forceful stance, and it contrasted with the intimate nature of his buttoning. The muscles of his chest rippled beneath his undershirt, and slivers of smooth tanned skin, bronzed by the sun and hammered by the wind, slid in and out of view. She was frozen by the sight.
Eyes as gray as gunmetal held hers.
Her heart seemed to beat at a hummingbird’s pace. “I’m sorry, I—I didn’t realize…”
She glanced away.
“It’s okay. I’m almost done.”
She looked back to see him buttoning his sleeves.
“You seem accustomed to women watching you dress.”
He raised his eyebrows, smiling gently, and she blushed. She always managed to blurt the most inappropriate comments to this man.
A brown cowboy hat, black leather belt and silver buckle completed the striking picture. His cowboy boots were well worn-in the toe and heels, the creases along the tan leather softened from years of wear.
When he gave her a slow gaze up the length of her body, she shifted with discomfort.
Gerard had never looked at her like this. Even when…even when she’d been with him…in their most intimate times, he’d been a gentleman. She reminded herself Colt was a Mountie, sworn to uphold the law, and one of her father’s most trusted guards.
Rubbing her face to mask her unease, Elizabeth stepped to her medical bag. She brought out the few items she needed most—stethoscope, scissors, sutures and gauze—and tucked them into her two other bags. She plopped her gray satin skirt and blouse onto a discarded pile. Next to the red leather trunk she was forced to leave behind.
“Two bags?” Colt declared. “You’ve whittled your things to two bags already?”
Elizabeth hid a satisfied smile. “You wanted me to pack lightly.”
“But I didn’t think…well…good.” Colt tucked his uniform into a leather bag of his own. “My uniform will stay behind.”
For some inexplicable reason, she regretted that she wouldn’t be able to see him in uniform on this journey. She’d never seen him out of uniform before, not once in eight years, and this casual look held a new fascination. But not for her. She tore her gaze away from his denim-clad figure.
Colt, a block of muscle, tugged on the door and leaned into the aisle. “Tommy, we’re ready.”
Tommy St. James—now Tommy Blade—a slightly younger and shorter Mountie with similar brown hair to Colt’s, sometimes served as her father’s replacement bodyguard. He, too, was dressed in rancher’s clothes. She didn’t know him well, but his build and the agile way he moved reminded Elizabeth of a boxer. Behind him came another Mountie, a skinnier man dressed in full uniform.
“Miss,” said Tommy, “this constable will tend to your extra luggage. He’ll make sure your bags arrive safely at their secret location for the summer. He’ll also pretend you’re still on board and going all the way to Montreal.”
“Thank you.” She reached into her skirt pocket and handed him a parchment envelope. “When you get to Montreal, could you please deliver this letter to the ship bound for England?”
Her hosts, Lord and Lady Abercrombie in London, wouldn’t receive the letter for another month. It stated that with much regret, Elizabeth had decided to stay in Canada for the summer. By the time she and her brothers reached the Klondike, the secrecy of their mission would no longer have to be guarded.
“Get ready,” said Colt, causing her pulse to jump. “Wait for my command. We’ll disembark after everyone else.”
The train hissed through the forest, causing blackbirds in the cedars to flee for their lives. Timber shacks appeared in clusters. Their chimneys spewed smoke, laden with the heavy scent of peat moss. Then their train left the houses behind as it chugged and bellowed into the iron-vaulted ceiling of Whippoorwill Station, like a man chugging on his last breath.
“Gracious,” whispered Elizabeth, peering at the packed platforms. “I’ve never seen so many people.”
“They’re heading to the coast,” said Colt. “To board the ships for the Klondike.” In the same direction they should be headed, except they were still pretending to be going to England. Soon they’d be traveling incognito and turn west again.
“I’ve read about gold rush fever in the papers, but this is incredible,” she said.
Their train rolled past lineups a quarter-mile long and six people deep. Some travelers were dressed in rags. Others in expensive suits. Some were accompanied by women. There wouldn’t be enough trains to seat them. And when they reached the coast, Elizabeth knew there wouldn’t be enough ships to carry them.
Goats, donkeys and horses lined the far platforms, waiting to board the boxcars. The smell of animals cloistered with their sweaty owners drifted through her window.
A toothless man, wearing a potato sack as a shirt, sold lettuce and peas in one corner. Beside him, a fishmonger weighed salmon on a scale. The earthy smells of vegetables and fish drifted into the car as the train came to its final stop.
“Stay put,” Colt said to Elizabeth. “But you go, Tommy. Find the others and we’ll meet you someplace outside the north entry.”
Tommy scooted down the aisle and with duffel bag in hand, jumped to the platform. He got lost in the crowd. Colt nudged Elizabeth to the side door. They waited in the aisle, watching for the perfect moment to disappear into an ocean of bodies.
Her dear brother, she reminded herself, aware of Colt’s shirtsleeve brushing her own, his solid stance and the breadth of his shoulders as he tried to fit into the cramped space.
“Now,” he said.
Elizabeth gripped her handbag, shawl and umbrella and bounded down the steps onto the stone platform.
Colt lugged her two carpetbags as well as his own duffel. The dark brown hair at his temples glistened beneath his cowboy hat, moist from the heat.
They headed toward the merchant stalls and ticket vendors.
Panic quelled in her throat. What if she couldn’t get their story straight? She leaned in toward his tall frame and kept her voice low so others couldn’t overhear. Her lips were an inch away from his shaven cheek. “Do any of us have family of our own? Wives or husbands?”
He turned his smooth dark face toward her and she realized she was standing much too close. His eyes flickered and her stomach tugged in response.
“I suppose some of us should. Let’s say you and Tommy have never been married. Let’s say I was married once.”
Her voice strained. “What happened to her?”
A muscle flexed in his jaw. “She ran off with the head butler from the mayor’s house.”
Elizabeth didn’t miss the slight. “Are you trying to make me feel terrible about your fiancée again? Rosalyn was the best kitchen maid we ever had and I truly enjoyed her company. She was the one who came to me for advice.”
His gaze riveted on her face. “Why exactly do you suppose that was?” he asked with the same disgust as when he’d first confronted Elizabeth, two days after Christmas when she was home for the holidays. Why couldn’t the man lighten up?
“I don’t know. Maybe Rosalyn trusted me because I’m a doctor. A female one, as you and my father insist on reminding me. The only advice I ever gave Rosalyn was to follow her heart. To choose love over what others expected of her.”
“Love?” His voice was tempered restraint. “Then you might be happy to know she married that butler. He’s a lot older, but he’s the man she wanted, with money in the pot and required love in his heart. I hear their first child is on the way.”
Elizabeth groaned, feeling sympathetic and wishing he’d accept her explanation. “When I advised her on how to choose between two men, I had no idea you were one of them. How could I know you were courting, let alone engaged? You kept it to yourselves.”
His cowboy hat drew hard shadows on his cheeks. “It’s called being discreet. A skill you are sorely lacking, otherwise you never would have put your nose where it didn’t belong.”
The man’s arrogance was too much. He’d never accept her apology, no matter how hard she tried.
She snapped. “I think I did Rosalyn a favor.”
His gray eyes narrowed. He lowered his bags to the platform. “How’s that?”
“You’re driven by your duties and inflexible when it comes to women. Good qualities in a bodyguard. Poor in a husband.”
His voice came as low as a growl, as if he were uttering a threat. “What makes you think you know what drives me? Don’t you have enough romantic woes of your own?”
She detected pity, and flung her bags to the ground. “I did her a favor…because now she won’t be saddled with you for life.”
“The same might be said for your poor Gerard. He’ll no longer be saddled with a mouthy wench. Congratulations. You’ve managed to ruin two engagements in one winter.”
Elizabeth gasped. “You…I…ahh…”
“Do you finally understand what you’re getting yourself into?” And suddenly his dark and dangerous face was a blink away from hers.