FRONTIER MIDWIFE AMANDA is the prequel to the Mountie Brides series. Find out how it all started….
© Kate Bridges. All rights reserved.
May 1888, Town of Banff—Rocky Mountains Park, District of Alberta
It had been eighteen long months since Amanda Ryan had felt aware of a man’s gaze.
The man she was here to meet this morning, Chase Murdock, stalked into his sawmill, Murdock’s Lumber Mill and Construction, and stood thirty feet away from her. He slammed the documents he was carrying onto the corner desk. When he glanced up through the cloud of sawdust to the back, he noticed Amanda walking toward him, and caught and held her eye.
A sprinkle of nerves took root in her stomach. Raindrops trickled down her bonnet. Horses clomped in the mud outside.
“That’s him, that’s the boss,” said the thin Scotsman leading her, but Amanda had already deduced it from Mr. Murdock’s confident glare.
With a quick, sharp breath, he released her from his scrutiny. He shouted orders to his men, straining to be heard above the buzzing band saw. Dressed as if he’d just come from outdoors, he tossed away his cowboy hat. He yanked off his long leather duster, then shook the rain from its massive sleeves. He wore denim jeans, Levi’s, that melted into muscular thighs, and black pointed boots with shiny silver toes. Of strapping height, with powerful hands and a dark profile, he radiated masculinity. And anger.
She’d come at a bad time.
“Right this way, ma’am.” Dressed in baggy overalls, the Scotsman squeezed between two worktables and ignored the other men’s inquisitive glances. “Watch your head.”
Amanda veered beneath the water pails hoisted from the ceiling—a first line of defense in case of fire. The scent of pine and sawdust tickled her nostrils. Ignoring her queasy nerves, she pressed her oilskin slicker to her green twill skirt and wove from the side door from where she’d entered, to the front where Chase Murdock stood.
He was frowning. Who could be upset here, surrounded by the beauty of ice-capped mountains, springtime air and acres of trees? And where was his partner, Mr. Finnigan? The older, stockier man she’d met in the town of Calgary, eighty miles east, who’d smiled readily and invited her to come?
“Watch your step over that log.”
Passing over it, she smiled gently at the bearded, friendly faces. Many of these men had wives and children. Some of their wives had yet to become mothers. Hopefully Amanda would grow to be their friend, and as a midwife, even deliver their babies.
She’d come a long way to hire Chase Murdock, and a long way to build her dream. Just because he was in a surly mood didn’t mean she had to be.
The sun broke through the clouds. It streamed through the high windows, highlighting his black hair and clean-shaven jaw.
A big, wet, white husky dog barreled around his desk.
“Wolf,” he commanded, pointing to the door. “Outside. You’re soaking wet.”
He was a lovely dog, thought Amanda.
Mr. Murdock’s black leather vest fell open, revealing a row of shiny buttons down a crisp blue shirt. His rigid face softened into handsome planes and deep dimples. He was a pleasure to look at, but that’s not why she’d come. Good looks were not something you could respect, like being a hard worker, or a good husband, or a kind man.
“Chase, this lady would like to speak to you. Mrs. Amanda Ryan.” The Scotsman leading her stepped aside.
Mr. Murdock regarded her for a moment. A current of curiosity passed between them.
“How do you do, Mr. Murdock?” Amanda peeled off her worn leather gloves, tugging a bit harder over the finger with the hole, and held out her hand.
“Mrs. Ryan. Call me Chase.” A strand of black hair slid down his forehead. Leaning closer with extended palm, he glanced down at her ringless fingers.
Self-conscious, she gulped. She’d finally removed her wedding ring six months ago and could no longer hide behind it when a man looked her up and down. But, selling her ring had funded medicinal tonics, one crate of silk sutures and a brand-new fetal stethoscope.
When his long, calloused fingers laced into hers, his grasp was firm and warm. It maddened her the way her pulse rushed.
“I’m in a bit of a jam and don’t have much time,” he said. “If you’ve come about the woodstove, I can have it delivered in the morning. Works fine. Never gave me trouble.”
She glanced to where he motioned. Surrounded by a stone floor that would deaden any stray sparks, a shiny cast-iron stove crackled with fire. A large bucket of water sat beside it as a precaution.
Beside that was an empty smaller stove, the one to which he pointed. She took a step closer, enjoying the warmth on her frozen toes. It’d taken such a long time for her to stoke the fire in the shack this morning due to the damp wood, and longer still to get it rolling to this wonderful blaze. She hoped her grandmother was still enjoying its heat.
“I’m not here about the stove.”
When she turned around again, Mr. Murdock—Chase as he preferred—was seated and rummaging through his desk.
“Well, whatever it is, my foreman will handle it. I’m expected somewhere in twenty minutes. Patrick, come here a moment,” he called to the far side of the mill, at one of the men hammering a cabinet.
“What on earth is this?” Chase pulled out a gray envelope, tore open the letter and began to read.
While rudely keeping her waiting. Perhaps she should take her business elsewhere and forget about his excellent recommendations.
He winced, then paled. A flash of vulnerability rippled across his face.
Was he in some sort of trouble? She didn’t know much about him. Mr. Finnigan had mentioned that Chase was unmarried, that the sawmill was an important business to the town, and that Finnigan himself was simply an investor.
She watched in sympathy at whatever the man was reading in that letter. You never knew what someone else’s pain felt like until you walked in their shoes. The neighborly thing would be to help instead of criticize.
Stepping closer, she squeezed the frayed ribbon of her purse. “What is it? Is it…bad news?”
He jolted out of his concentration. A wave of redness washed his face. “Nothing.” He folded the sheet and jammed it into his denim pocket.
Before she had a moment to think about that, a flash of white fur caught the corner of her eye. She looked up as the dog raced toward her. He shook himself, spraying water in a six-foot diameter.
Amanda yelped, then laughed, cupping a hand over her face.
Protecting her, Chase leaped from his chair, encircling her waist, tugging her out of the spray and standing in the line of fire himself. “Wolf!”
When the dog stopped, Chase peered down at her. “Sorry, he’s gotten you all wet.”
She managed an awkward smile, well aware of his hard fingers pressing through her clothing. How long had it been since a man had touched her?
“Luckily, I’ve got my rain slicker on,” she murmured, inches away from him.
At least the dog had penetrated Chase’s veneer. Transformed him, really. Creases appeared at the corners of his warm eyes. A boyish smile touched his mouth and those deep dimples reappeared. The scent of his shaving lotion met her nostrils. It was something she missed, sharing those intimacies with a man, waking up together, watching him shave.
She wriggled free and removed her plaid bonnet. She wasn’t ready for any man to touch her, no matter how much she wished she were. He cleared his throat with an anxious cough. His eyes followed the movement of her hand as she patted the damp bun beneath her mended kerchief. When he glanced at her plain clothing, she wondered how long it had been since she’d dressed to impress anyone.
The moment dispelled at the sound of the dog chewing. Chase’s tall dark figure sprang toward a stack of lumber where the dog crouched, chewing on something brown. “Hey, give me back my glove.”
The husky wanted to play. Chase charged around her, his broad shoulders leaning behind the desk, but the dog escaped with a glove between his teeth. The two were amusing, and the beautiful animal reminded her of her own two lovable mutts, Missy and Ranger, which she’d lost when she’d lost her husband, William.
“I’ll get the glove.” Patrick whizzed by.
Chase shoved a hand through his wavy black hair, turned back to her and caught her soft laughter.
“My dog’s well trained, don’t you think?” he said with humor. “Took me nearly a year to get him to this level of obedience.”
“You’ve done a marvelous job.”
Chase’s subtle grin played with her pulse. Friendliness flickered in his eyes, and he seemed ten years younger. Late thirties? This time, he really looked at her, her simple country bonnet, her kerchief, her high-laced, worn-out leather boots with the temporary insole covering the hole she hoped he couldn’t see. But the boots had lasted one more winter, and the cold weather was almost over for the year.
Perhaps she should ask for his partner. “I’ve…I’ve come to see Mr. Finnigan.”
Chase shifted. A thundercloud appeared on his face again. “Finnigan? What business do you have with him?”
The harsh tone of his voice sent a shiver through her. How could a man turn abruptly from one mood to the next?
“I’m new to town. You’re a builder. And you supply lumber. That’s what Mr. Finnigan told me.”
She already knew he supplied the cheapest lumber in town, seeing that he owned the only sawmill.
“Zeb Finnigan hasn’t been in town for five days. How did you happen to meet him if he wasn’t here?”
“We met in Calgary last month. At the Cattlemen’s dinner. My…my husband used to be a member.”
She gulped. “He’s gone now. I’m…I’m widowed.”
The harsh line of his black brows softened. “I’m sorry.”
She hadn’t meant to tell a fib. It just came out. In truth, she hadn’t known for sure what she’d say when someone asked about her former husband, yet here it was. She’d fibbed. And why?
Because looking up at Chase Murdock, she didn’t feel like fessing up to her failures. Or explaining to a stranger. She’d finished with her mourning, and her anger at her former husband, and was ready to start anew. She was eager to resume the skills her late grandfather—one of the hardest working doctors in Calgary—had taught her. Midwifery skills to help the women who sought her help, and medical knowledge to tend to children and their ailments.
Realizing her fib wouldn’t hold for long, for as soon as Mr. Finnigan arrived, he was a man who knew the truth about her husband, she flushed. She’d fibbed and hadn’t done it well.
Amanda straightened her spine. It was no one’s business but hers. “I’ve bought some property and I’d like to build a log cabin. Something simple, with a couple of spare rooms in the back.” She’d already allotted every nickel of her small inheritance to put toward her practice and the children.
“I think I’ve heard of you,” he said, recognition shimmering in his bright eyes. He sat on the edge of his desk. The wood creaked beneath his muscled weight. “You’re new to town. Just been here since yesterday, right? Are you that woman I spotted at the mercantile yesterday afternoon, who rides that—”
“What difference does that make?”
“No difference. We’re friendly folks in Banff. We’ve never seen anything like it before, that’s all.”
She pressed her fingers into her skirt, clasping her bonnet, surprised again by his unpredictability.
He stood and grabbed his duster. “Sorry about… Let’s start again. Forgive me, I really do have an appointment. Patrick will be back in a minute to take the information from you, and I’ll take it from there. What property did you buy?” He put on his cowboy hat. Now he was even taller.
Tension left her muscles. She fell into step with his long stride as he walked to the door. “That pretty square along the mountain, on the end of Hillside Road.”
He stopped in surprise. “What?”
When she stopped beside him, her dangling purse slammed against her slicker. She answered cheerfully, “Mr. Finnigan sold me that shack on the five-acre square—”
“On the right or left side of the road?”
His voice lowered to a deadly calm. “The one with the huge spruce? Lot D ninety-five?”
What was wrong with him? She swallowed past the dryness in her throat. “Yes. And the tall pines. You know it?”
Bracing himself, he stepped back. “What’s going on here? Finnigan sold you my property?”
Her heart began to thump. She answered in a rush of words. “Well…it might have belonged to you and Mr. Finnigan at one time, maybe as investment partners here at the sawmill, but didn’t he tell you? He sold it.”
Chase blinked, then grinned slowly. “This is a joke, right? My whole morning’s been one whole joke, hasn’t it? Finnigan’s been known to pull my leg. He’s a real practical joker.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. He sold me that property.”
He clenched his jaw. “I don’t believe you. You might be part of this whole thing.” His eyes narrowed. “Lady, who are you?”
“I told you who I am. And I don’t like the way you’re talking—”
“Do you have a deed?”
“Of course I do.”
“Let me see it.”
She fumbled in her purse. “It’s right here.” It was right here, but she was darn well keeping it to herself. There was a problem here. A big problem.
She pretended to reach into her bag, but she was judging the distance to the door. Three feet. What would he do if she refused? He wouldn’t try anything physical in front of witnesses. And if he did, she’d kick him as hard as she could. Her heart drummed. She dug her heels into the floor.
“On second thought, I’ll wait for Mr. Finnigan,” she said. “I’d rather deal with him.”
She sprang to the door for freedom. Neighborly or not, she didn’t like Chase Murdock.