In this enemies to lovers romance, Jessica and a daunting Mountie are forced to travel together on a perilous secret mission.
© Kate Bridges. All rights reserved.
Alberta, July 1897
The man astride the horse dominated her attention. For three days running, Jessica Haven had watched Sergeant Major Travis Reid exercising the stallion on the oval track inside the fort, desperately trying to have a word with him, and for three days running the officer had ignored her. Today she’d force him to listen.
Sitting in the bleachers beside her, awash in early-morning sunlight, a small group had gathered to watch. The men concentrated on the dangerous bucking of the unbroken mustang, but Jessica knew the women focused on Travis.
“It’s a pity he’s leavin’ his horses,” said the banker.
“Sad shame what happened to his wife,” whispered the commander’s sister.
The officer twisted in the saddle. Leaning forward in concentration, his dark head tilted, body flexed, he melded with the sculpted lines of the horse. Dressed in the work clothes of the North-West Mounted Police—loose white shirt tucked into tight black breeches—he ran a large hand over the stallion’s neck and whispered something into its mane.
He coaxed the animal into submission.
Jessica fanned her heated face and rearranged her flowing cotton skirts around her ankles, uncomfortable that it was obvious the man stirred her. Her absence of two years hadn’t changed his ability to dominate her senses.
Roughrider, his men had nicknamed him, a man skilled at riding untamed horses.
The name suited him, she thought, watching him dismount. He was rough. Travis was a master horseman, the Mounties’ best. Jessica had heard he also excelled at tracking outlaws, that he’d been promoted four times in three years. He’d risen from corporal to sergeant major faster than prairie lightning.
“Sergeant Major!” she shouted, jumping out of her seat and racing into the stables behind the intimidating man and beast.
Rows and rows of horses filled the stalls. Warm gashes of sunlight filtered through plank walls. The soothing scent of fresh straw and oats drifted around her.
“The girth wasn’t tight enough. I had to fix it.” Swinging one long leg off the saddle, Officer Reid spoke to a stable boy. “The stallion has a tricky habit of holding his breath when you saddle him, keeping his chest expanded. Next time walk him a few paces till he exhales, Shamus, then tighten the girth again.”
“May I help you, Miss Haven?” Another Mountie, carrying a pitchfork, stepped into her path. “You’re looking exceptionally fine. Welcome home. Is anyone escorting you to the pub social this eve—”
“No, thank you.” Panting, Jessica dodged through the workmen. “Officer Reid!”
Travis eyed her, then turned sharply on his black leather boot, broad shoulders twisting, ready to leave.
The insult burned deep. The man still had a way of brushing her aside. “Travis! I’d like a word with you! Please!”
She dashed out and nearly stumbled over a cluster of barn cats. Four small kittens froze in her path, the smallest one, a tawny fur ball, hunched its shoulders and peered up at her.
Laughter bubbled in her throat. She lifted him, tucking his entire body into one palm. Pressing her face into the downy neck, she enjoyed the tickle on her skin. “You’re so soft. A child would adore you.”
Travis turned around. The rippling shadows beneath his white shirt tightened in wary response. He said nothing, simply stared down at her as she drew closer. Her bonnet, sliding off her head but tied at her throat, bobbed along her spine. Her blond hair, braided neatly at the side, brushed along her shoulders.
Don’t be nervous, she told herself. Remain cheerful and simply ask the man.
Stroking the kitten, Jessica swallowed in a stew of emotions. Travis had the same solid jaw and firm cheeks she remembered. And there was something compelling about the physique of an active man, the straining and stretching of ropy muscles knotted from hard work and perseverance.
His lips tugged into a cool line. “Back from charm school, are you?”
Her face heated, even as she nodded in agreement. Charm school. It was what her father had told everyone to cover his shame, but so far from the truth it was laughable. And her own shame made her go along with the story.
Travis’s deep blue eyes, almost navy in color, flickered. “The mayor’s daughter has returned to Calgary. Let’s all bow and bid her good welcome.”
He tilted his head in mock acknowledgment, a finger of his black hair falling on his forehead.
Hiding her humiliation, she lowered the kitten to the ground, near a bowl of water where his bigger black-and-white brothers and sisters were drinking. “Make way for the little one,” she coaxed. The kittens parted and she smiled softly.
She felt Travis’s gaze beating down on her tilted head. She wished she could erase the past.
He’d once called her a spoiled young woman. And shamefully, it’d been true. It had begun five years ago when she’d convinced her father to outbid Travis on a feisty stallion so they could buy it and she could learn to ride. Travis hadn’t had the money to compete, but he’d tried to convince her the horse wasn’t suitable for an inexperienced girl because of its size and temperament. She remorsefully admitted now that the stallion had attracted her simply for its color—a speckled gray with almost purplish mane and tail. And Travis had been right. She hadn’t been able to handle the horse and got such a fright she was still put off by large animals.
She had been rude. Self-absorbed. But in her defense, she’d also been young and inexperienced, and she’d learned a lot of things in the grueling years since.
Remain cheerful. “I heard you’re leaving for Devil’s Gorge tomorrow.”
“How do you know? I told very few people where I’m headed for my leave.”
“The commander’s wife told me. They joined us for dinner a few nights ago.”
He clicked his tongue in disapproval.
Unaffected, she continued. “I came to offer you a proposition. To pay you to take me along.” Her mouth parted with a silent plea. He had to say yes for her world to regain its balance.
“Absolutely not. I’ll pass on your proposition. This is a personal leave and a difficult seven-day journey. Ask at the livery stables if you want to hire a guide.”
The fluttering in her stomach tightened. Desperation trembled in her voice. “I already have but they’ve got two men out on trail and only one left. He leers at me and I just couldn’t spend an entire week…Even though I’d bring a chaperon. You know our family’s butler, Mr. Merriweather.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.” Travis stalked down the middle of the stalls, ducking buckets and workmen. Horses turned their heads to watch him as he passed. “Ask at the big hotel. They hire out to travelers and tourists.”
She raced behind him, barely keeping up with his long stride. She’d worn her best dress to make a favorable impression, a shimmering linen with dancing blue flowers, but now felt like a silly child tagging behind.
He glanced to his left at a groom brushing the coat of a splendid Clydesdale, then stepped into the stall. Travis took the brush and demonstrated. “Press harder. You’ve got to put muscle behind it. You’re grooming not only the coat, but you’re massaging the muscles beneath. The mare enjoys it.”
Travis’s caressing hands worked over the horse. His hands were soiled and massive. Dirt streaked his palms, gilded the hairs on his knuckles, yet there was something pleasant and mesmerizing in watching him. He came from a working-class family of three rough-and-tumble brothers—with one younger sister—while Jessica came from a quiet political family of two daughters. Watching Travis’s transfixed gaze, it was obvious to her how much he cared for these animals. Anyone who fell beneath his masterful touch would feel adored and needed.
“Officer Reid?” called another man. “The palomino in the corner is coughing.”
Travis reared his head. “When did that start?”
“About an hour ago.”
“Any other horses coughing?”
“Take him to the smaller barn and isolate him immediately. I’ll take a look as soon as I’m done here. Only light exercise for the next three days.”
Travis came out of the stall and she leaped forward to appeal to him once more, but a movement on the straw floor caught her eye. The tawny kitten peered up at her. She laughed softly. “Watch out, you’ll get trampled.” She lifted him. “Are you following me?”
The kitten meowed and she was snared. “It’s a sign we’re meant to be together.” Her pulse rushed with eagerness. She blurted to the stable boy passing by, “Is he for sale?”
“He’s still too young to be separated from his mother,” replied the youth. “Won’t be ready for a coupla weeks.”
She gulped at the comment. “I wouldn’t want to separate him from his mother. But when he’s ready, may I buy him?”
“I reckon you could have him,” said the boy, taking the kitten from her. “I’ll save him for you.”
Jessica smiled. She hadn’t felt this sense of happiness in a long while.
Travis shook his head and the gentleness in him evaporated, replaced by ice. “Still trying to buy the pretty things that attract your eye.”
Travis had no right to be rude. “It’s not for me—” She stopped herself.
“Goodbye, Jessica.” Two hundred pounds of power and brawn pivoted away from her.
“Wait!” She chased after him. “There’s no guide at the big hotel as qualified as you. And now that my father has discovered my plans, he won’t let me go unless I’m escorted by a Mountie. Devil’s Gorge isn’t a light jaunt into the mountains and no one seems eager to go.”
He spun around. “Then why do you?”
She had prepared for the question for days, but it still prickled her skin. “I’m trying to locate Dr…. Finch.”
Travis frowned. “I know him. He’s been through here before. He’s helped a lot of folks.”
Helped was not the right word. “I’ve—I’ve been tracing him for the last year and a half and I hear he has a base in Devil’s Gorge.”
“I thought he set up his practice on the West Coast, north of Vancouver.”
Is that what the Mounties thought? She fumbled with her drawstring purse. “But I heard it from someone in Montreal, and another source since.”
“At the charm school?”
She looked away and nodded.
“Why are you looking for him?”
“I’m writing an article on doctors for the Pacific Medical Journal.” On quacks and charlatans. But she didn’t add that bit.
He assessed her. “You’re a medical journalist?”
“Why would you need to work?”
“I enjoy it. It’s something I’m good at, and…I’m needed.”
He pondered that for a moment.
“It’s an interest I began in Montreal. I’m still learning, but they’ve published three of my articles already.”
Dr. Finch had hurt a lot of people. She believed he’d gone by another name in Montreal—by Dr. King. When she found him, she’d expose him and Travis could jail him.
The blue in Travis’s eyes deepened, as if he couldn’t quite believe she was no longer solely occupied with ball gowns and fancy dinner shows. “And I imagine by speaking to him, you could write a better article. Perhaps land an interview and a better paycheck.”
There was always a monetary bonus to getting an interview with any subject, but she’d fight her way to Dr. Finch for no money.
“I told you,” he said. “The only thing I want on my leave is to be left alone.”
He stalked past her. The stall boards rose to just above his waist level, but met her at shoulder height.
“I know you’re delivering your horses. You’re selling your three prize broodmares to a buyer who will be meeting you there.”
He stopped and faced her.
“The superintendent told me,” she explained. “Why are you selling them so far away? I would think there’d be plenty of buyers here.”
“I did sell them here when the buyer was visiting, but he lives there. And it’s as far away as possible, which is fine with me.”
She didn’t understand his answer. “Why?”
“That’s no one’s affair but my own.”
“I thought breeding horses was…You seem so good at what you do. You seem to love—”
“It’s no one’s affair but—”
“Your own,” she finished. “Listen, I’m prepared to pay you as my part of the bargain. Lots.”
He walked away.
“One hundred dollars,” she shouted after him. “And another hundred on safe delivery!”
He turned toward her, his eyes misty. “It’s always about money with you people, isn’t it?”
Her throat clamped. “Not always.”
Not anymore. But no one knew about her problem—or at least believed how Dr. Finch had deceived and devastated her.
She followed Travis as he walked around the stalls. “Mighty fine horse,” she said about the beautiful bay in the corner. Its muscles glistened reddish brown.
Travis didn’t respond, but she saw him grow rigid.
“I said, it’s a mighty fine mare.”
He cleared his throat, but his head didn’t turn in the bay’s direction. “She’ll bring in a fine dollar.”
“What kind of horse is it?”
He blinked but still didn’t look at it. “Some people call them running horses, some call them quarter horses.”
“On account of their speed, ma’am,” said Shamus the stable boy, passing with an armful of straw. “Their muscular legs and rump make them excellent at racing the quarter mile.”
Travis’s gaze followed the boy. A muscle in the man’s cheek quirked. “And also at maneuvering through cattle, which makes them excellent on cattle drives. This one’s sold to a rancher.”
She found it odd that he wouldn’t look at the horse. “Ah, one of the broodmares you’re selling.”
That seemed to make him angrier. He scowled. “Let me make myself clear, Miss Haven. I don’t care what you’re up to, who your friends are or what you do with your time. Leave me alone.”
She felt dizzy and wavered on her feet. She knew his response stemmed from Caroline, and Jessica was sorry that she’d caused the woman any grief. But it was unfair of Travis to blame Jessica for everything.
“I’m sorry to hear about your wife,” she murmured.
He didn’t respond. His mouth tightened.
“I said, I’m sorry to hear about Caroline’s passing.”
“Hmm.” The pain that settled in his eyes was enough to stop her heart.
“Poor Caroline,” she continued. “It was a terrible way to go. I-I know it happened a while ago, but I heard it only last week when I arrived on the train.”
“Did you now?”
She flushed at his insinuating tone.
His body stiffened. “Let’s not coat things with honey. You never liked Caroline and she never liked you.”
Jessica bit her lip. Tears pricked her eyes. She blinked them away. It was too difficult to keep begging him face-to-face. She whispered as she left, “A person can change.”
Later that evening when everyone had left the stables for supper, Travis leaned against the stall and slid his arms over the boards. “Happy anniversary.” The pain of despair gripped him. “Twelve months today.” He cocked the hammer of his revolver and aimed it between the animal’s two eyes. “What makes you think I’m going to allow you to live while Caroline died?”
Standing in the stall, the quarter horse looked straight back at him, dipped its head into the feeding bucket and chewed.
A year ago, witnesses had told Travis that it hadn’t been the broodmare’s fault. The raccoon had spooked Caroline more than it had the horse as they’d jumped the fence, but Caroline had lost control. Riding sidesaddle, she’d slipped off and had fallen to her death. With Caroline’s foot caught in the stirrup, the horse had immediately stopped. The mare was a sound animal that had done what it’d been trained to do, but Caroline had died from internal bleeding. Killed on impact, the fort’s surgeon had told Travis, and not the horse’s fault.
Travis looked into the mare’s dark eyes. He cursed the beast.
It was more a curse at himself. He could no more shoot a viable horse than he could shoot a child. The joke was that everyone thought he was a tough leader, always in control of himself and the situation. And so he harbored his grief.
And his rage. It simmered below the surface, ready to jump at the slightest trigger, as it had earlier today at the sight of her.
“Miss Haven says you’re a mighty fine horse.” Travis wiped his mouth on the cuff of his sleeve and smirked. “A mighty fine horse that killed my wife.”
The horse shifted. Straw rustled.
Travis couldn’t stomach looking at the mare, yet it drew his gaze at the oddest moments. He hadn’t once touched its coat since the accident, fed, watered or saddled it, although heaven knew this wasn’t the first time he’d pressed a gun to its head.
And always, always, he fell short, coward that he was.
Since he allowed the Mounties to train with his horses, they allowed him the use of the stables and it’d been easy to ignore its care. He planned on continuing to ride for the police and training new recruits in tracking and horsemanship, but he’d sell every horse he personally owned. The fact that he’d dreamed of and acquired a ranch of his own had in effect snuffed out every blissful dream Caroline had held. She had died on that ranch.
They’d only been married for three short months, but those few weeks had filled him with such a glorious anticipation for what life had to offer that he had feared it would someday shatter.
He stared at the horse. He’d already sold his land and six stallions. It’d taken him months to find the right buyer for his broodmares. He’d received other offers, but the bidders all lived in the area, which meant he’d forever be haunted by this broodmare’s offspring. Taking it to Devil’s Gorge in the middle of the mountains, where they traded more with folks from British Columbia than Alberta, would cure that sorry problem.
Tomorrow morning he’d be leaving without Jessica Haven. Thankfully, he wouldn’t bear the responsibility for the safety of another woman.
Crazy fool, some had called him for keeping the horse this long. Frankly, he’d fallen into a numb pit for the past year, coldly going through his duties, never raising his voice. Only since the beginning of this week had any sentiment returned. The rage had been building for days, as he anticipated the year’s anniversary with rising gloom. Thunder churned within him, and he wasn’t sure he could control it if it spewed. He was grateful he’d be alone to handle it.
He slid his revolver back into his shoulder holster. Stepping back into darkness, he glared at the mare. He softened and whispered, “I miss you, Caroline.”
He heard footsteps in the straw and spun at the intrusion.
“Roughrider,” called one of his friends. “I’ve been told to remind you that your sister’s expecting you at her pub and the commander and his wife are waiting. He needs to speak to you about something urgent first. Something about the mayor’s daughter.”
With a looming premonition of trouble, Travis sensed he hadn’t seen the last of Miss Jessica Haven.