Meet HARRISON, the most eligible bachelor in town and owner of a tavern who advertises for a bartender, not expecting a runaway bride to respond.
© Kate Bridges. All rights reserved.
District of Alaska, August 1899
When Harrison Rowlan placed the sign in the window of his new tavern, calling for a bartender, he didn’t expect a woman in a torn wedding gown to apply.
Harrison was stacking kegs of ale against the back wall when she first entered his empty bar. Warm morning sunshine streamed in from the windows. Humming to himself, he slid the heavy slosh of liquid off his shoulder and inhaled the earthy scent of the wood. His tavern and adjoining livery stables here in the town of Eagle’s Cliff weren’t officially open yet. He still had two days to go.
However, he was pleased to be making steady headway in obtaining supplies from the much larger Skagway harbor, twenty miles south, and had already hired six of the seven employees he needed, including extra security for his stables. With the recent news of the gang of horse thieves pillaging the coast and valleys, armed guards were an unexpected necessity.
Harrison preferred to own a tavern rather than a rowdy saloon. His tavern would be a neighborhood place for local patrons to drop by not only for a pint of brew and a solid meal, but also where a person might meet up with a friend, exchange dated newspapers from home, pick up mail, or listen to the only entertainment available in town.
Footsteps sounded behind him. He turned around too fast and the rib muscles that were still healing from the knife wound he’d received earlier this summer twisted. He winced with the annoyance.
There she stood.
Staring at him from the other side of the long, freshly oiled wooden bar. She was covered in ivory satin, blond hair slipping out from a silken braid that trailed down one shoulder, cheeks taut and scuffed with dirt, with a piercing look of determination in those big brown eyes.
He inhaled deeply, stunned by her sudden presence. Even more so at her appearance. He wasn’t normally speechless, but then he’d never been surprised in this town by a pretty woman he didn’t know or recognize. He bristled as he contemplated any reason why she might be here, a runaway bride with one sleeve torn. Dirty, frightened and alone.
He couldn’t think of one.
His right hand instinctively dropped to the gun strapped to his thigh. Ready for anything. Wasn’t he always? Not that he feared this unarmed slender woman, a head shorter than himself and half the width of his shoulders, but rather the trouble she might be bringing with her. He’d had enough of that, running from the law the past two years before he’d finally cleared his name of the crimes he’d been mistakenly and maliciously accused of. His face had been plastered on Wanted posters all over the district.
“This sign,” she said, holding the cardboard that he’d stuck into the front window ten days ago when he’d bought the place, “is why I’m here.”
He looked down at the words she clutched between grimy fingers—Bartender Wanted.
He assessed the situation with a quick look to the front windows and doors. The freshly painted outdoor sign hanging from the covered boardwalk tilted in the wind, declaring Eagle’s Cliff Tavern and Inn. There was no one out there. No one following her. At least, not right now. Judging by the streaks of dirt across her gown and her ruffled hair, she’d been on the road for a couple of days.
“Miss? Or is it missus? You in some sort of trouble?”
“It’s miss…and…yes, I am.” Her voice was soft and rich, and he tried to stop himself from enjoying the view. “I’d be mighty grateful if—” she glanced over her shoulder “—if you could take me to…to your kitchen and we might have a talk.”
It was one of those situations—and he’d known plenty in the past couple of years from being on the run himself—where he had to make a quick decision.
Did he help this stranger or not?
Should he get involved, or worry about his own hide and the new life he was attempting to make for himself?
Looking down into her face, the way the angle of light hit her soft jawline and bounced over the curve of her lips, he told himself her problems were not his.
Even if she looked more like an angel than a troublemaker. He knew better.
But blazes, his chest tightened and his pulse rippled inside his skin at seeing the lovely lady. The least he could do would be to offer shelter for a moment, explain the route to the Skagway deputy marshal, who was the nearest lawman, twenty miles south—a full day’s ride since the coastline was so treacherous—and point her to the women’s store on the boardwalk, where she could buy proper clothing.
He stepped out from the bar, a head taller than her, and waved his hand toward the back hall. “This way.”
He led her through the doorway. His leather vest slid over his white shirt as he twisted his wide shoulders. Denim jeans fit snugly on his thighs. When they reached the huge kitchen with its two walk-in fireplaces, the simmering pots of stew and the shelves of dishes, he turned, nearly bumping into her. He quickly stepped away, giving her distance.
“I need a job,” she panted.
First thing’s first. Her comfort. He slid the cardboard sign from her slender fingers, placed it on the counter and offered her a stool.
She hesitated, then looked about the room. Her gaze skimmed the hanging herbs, the dry sink in the corner, which was no more than a cabinet with buckets for washing dishes, then to various shelves and sundries. Her eyes flickered on the closed back door. A route of escape, she was no doubt thinking. Slowly, she sank onto the stool. Ivory satin billowed about her feet.
Her eyes widened, then a smile darted across her lips. Of course, she must be aware of her unusual choice of clothing. He was trying to set her at ease, and the comment worked.
His gaze lowered to her wedding gown. The top part, the part with the neckline, plunged daringly to her cleavage. A golden necklace anchored itself between her breasts, beyond his vision. He rubbed his neck to distract himself.
The gown seemed a bit too large for her, but who was he to criticize fashion? Besides, here in Alaska, where everything had to be shipped in due to the shortage of supplies, folks took and used what they could.
“Not the marrying kind?” he asked.
She straightened her spine. Her neckline gaped in response, revealing the top of a black lace corset. His pulse leaped involuntarily. He ordered his eyes to remain focused on her face.
“Not the anything kind. I’m my own person.”
“How does he feel about that?”
“Not taking it well.”
“Is he chasing you?”
She inhaled a rush of air. “I think he and his men assume I ran to the docks. In Skagway. That I left for the lower states on the first ship out.”
His men? What odd words. Not his friends? Not his groomsmen?
“Why would they think that?”
“Because I left them false clues. Told them I was running home.”
She looked toward the fires. Both stone fireplaces sputtered and popped with heat as cauldrons boiled within them. Pots also simmered on the stoves. The cooks had been in earlier and had started on the stews, then they’d left for the market.
Harrison kept the conversation on topic. “Where’s home?”
She didn’t answer right away. She breathed in the aromas of the kitchen. The tightness in her cheeks relaxed. Her firm bottom lip softened. “This place.”
“Nooo,” he said, planting his palm in the air. “Let’s just hold on here a minute.” He leaned against the counter that jutted from the side wall, surrounded by stacks of dishes and glassware. His massive frame barely squeezed in. He crossed his cowboy boots and remained calm. No matter how attractive she was, it would be a bad business decision on his part to let her stay. It would also be a bad personal decision. “I don’t have a job for you.”
Her eyes flashed. “I’d make a remarkable bartender.”
“The position’s open for a man.”
“I could do it.”
He crossed his arms. “That might be. But the position’s open for a man.”
Her slender throat bobbed, caught in some emotion he didn’t wish to analyze. She looked down to her lap, where she was knotting her fingers together.
He hadn’t asked for her name yet. On purpose. The less he knew, the less likely he’d be suckered in by a woman.
“Why?” Her voice echoed softly off the uprooted herbs hanging from the ceiling. “Why’s it open only to a man? In Skagway, a woman runs one of the casinos. Another owns a tavern. Maybe in the lower states, the position of bartender might be unusual. But not in Alaska. Women do all kinds of things here.”
She was right. Women owned jewelry shops, worked as apothecaries, printers, barbers, and he even knew of a female blacksmith. But it didn’t mean he was looking for a woman.
Women were scarce in Alaska, he guessed maybe only ten to fifteen percent of the population. The stamina it took to cross the ocean, then the mountains to the Klondike by foot if they were in search of gold, meant only the toughest and most independent arrived.
He took out a bowl from underneath the counter, walked to the pot of stew and ladled out a steaming heap of beef and potatoes. Moving closer, he placed the hearty meal in front of her, along with warm biscuits.
Her eyes misted in gratitude. She picked up the spoon. “Thank you.”
It wasn’t often he got a chance to watch a beautiful woman eat. She cracked the biscuit and dipped the spoon into the stew with grace, head held high, despite the mussed-up hair and the smudge of dirt across her chin.
Whoever had let her go would want her back. He would.
“Did you notice, on your escape between Skagway and here,” he said, hauling fresh logs to the fireplace to give her privacy to eat, “that Alaska is filled with men? When this place opens, it’ll be packed with fishermen, explorers, lumberjacks. Gold miners who cuss so loud and hard your eardrums rattle. A rough place. No place for a woman.”
“Well, I did grow up with eight boys on a ranch.”
Nice try to get him to care. He refused to dig deeper into her personal life.
“Aren’t any of your employees ladies?”
He poked at the red embers. “The cook is. But I hired her as a team with her husband. And two of the barmaids who double as singers and piano players. But they’re both used to working around men. The bartender’s got to be a man. Able to stop fights. Able to keep the tabs straight. Knows what a working man likes to drink.”
“Mead. Bourbon. Scotch. How about those kegs of beer and ale you were unloading in the bar? Stout, bitters, porters. You name it, I’ve poured it.”
“You’ve worked in a bar before?”
The sparkle in her brown eyes dampened. “Not exactly. But I grew up with eight male cousins and one demanding uncle. They’re the main reason, I suppose, that I got stuck in this mess.” She looked down at her gown. “Everyone always telling me how to run my life. I served them a lot of meals and a lot of drinks.”
“The answer’s no.”
She dabbed her lips on a napkin. Then stood up, tidied her dishes and brought them to the dry sink by the window. When she turned around again, her gaze shifted to a ball of twine and a pair of scissors.
She lunged for the weapon.
He reached for his gun, but there was no need to panic.
In a combination of disbelief and amusement, he watched her use the scissors to hack off her torn sleeve. Then she went for the other one to match. Next, she attacked her train. In a maneuver he found mesmerizing, she bent over and slit her dress just above the floor, wiggling till she got it fairly even, exposing the tips of shiny black boots, buckled up real high around her ankles. The kind of boots he’d always found seductive.
She returned the scissors and threw the scraps of fabric into the crackling fire. Her eyes spotted a pile of empty burlap sacks in the corner, ones the cooks had emptied of various vegetables bought off the incoming ships. She searched for the cleanest one and then draped it over her shoulders as a makeshift shawl.
Her eyes sought his for permission.
He shrugged. “You can have it.”
Mighty resourceful of her. And what a change. The burlap shawl covered much of her upper body, and cut the ivory color in half so it wouldn’t be so glaring and noticeable from a distance. Now sleeveless, the gown looked more like a pretty summer dress.
“I’ll go.” She moved toward the door. “Quietly. I’ll slip out this back way and I won’t bother you another minute. But first, I’d appreciate an honest answer to one question.”
He quirked an eyebrow and strode to the door to open it, eager for her to leave. He didn’t like the uncomfortable squeeze in his chest that she’d produced since arriving. Besides, his work was piling up and by the time he walked her to the shops, he’d lose another thirty minutes.
“One question usually leads to another,” he told her firmly. “And I’ve got work to finish in the front room.”
She tried a different tactic. “My name—”
He stopped her with a motion of his hand. “No need for names, either. I’ll walk you to the hotel down the road. You can write your pretty little name in the registry book. The hotel I’ve got in mind is fairly safe. The proprietor’s an old widow, and she knows how to use a shotgun.”
He had a few spare rooms upstairs, but he planned on renting them out.
“Just one question? Please.”
He set his jaw straight, ignoring her plea, determined not to argue or extend this any longer than necessary. Leaning past her shoulder, he yanked open the back door. A stream of sunshine poured in around the draped burlap that covered her shoulders. In an odd way, the brown sack accented the warmth of her brown eyes and golden hair.
He pointed past the garden. “There’s a lady’s shop two blocks down. I’ll walk you there. We don’t have any lawmen in town, but I’ll help you contact the deputy marshal in Skagway. He’s a friend of mine. His name is Jackson. Jackson Langford. Speaking to him is your best bet to get your would-be groom off your back. Let’s go.”
She didn’t move. She jutted her chin in refusal. An odd stance, considering she was in such desperate circumstance and he was the only one around helping her.
She had a fiery spirit, which was the other likely reason, besides her cousins and uncle, for what had gotten her into this sticky situation.
Her lashes flickered. “You’ll want to fill your tavern with customers when it opens.”
“Come on, lady, I’ve got work to do. I’ll make sure you’re safe. I’ll even pay the bill for the hotel. I’ll give you a few bucks to get you back to Skagway. Whatever you need. Now, after you.” He nodded to the outdoors, indicating she step out first.
Still, she wasn’t budging.
And despite his refusal to hear her one and only question, she gave it to him anyway. “You’re starting a new business. You want it to be successful.” Sunlight caught the side of her downy cheek. “You said your patrons will be mostly men. Don’t you think those men would prefer an interesting new woman pouring their drinks, rather than some bearded old guy everyone in town already knows?”
Willa knew by the look in his eyes that she’d hit a soft spot with her question. Of course he’d be affected by talk of increased sales. What owner wouldn’t be?
Especially this man. Peering up at him as his mouth twisted and his firm, tanned cheeks pulled back, Willa waited as he grappled for an answer. He wanted his business to flourish. It hadn’t taken her long to size him up when she’d walked in.
The newly painted sign hanging off the front awning gave him away. It was full of pride, the glossy green paint and ornate wrought-iron details, the handsome depiction of two men bowing to each other. Then there was the sparkling bartop that glistened with polish. The bar was made of mahogany—unusual for this part of the world—and no doubt imported. And the neatly stacked kegs of spirits. Even the kitchen was bursting with fresh foods and brand-new drinking glasses.
Then there was the man himself, dressed in a white shirt and brown leather vest that accentuated his black hair and dark eyes. He stood toned and muscled. With his freshly scraped jaw, he still had a hint of shaving cream on his skin. Everything about his movements told her he was trying to nudge her out the door so he could get back to his first love—his tavern.
“Who sent you here?” he asked.
Her face skewered. How could he possibly know someone had advised her? But she trembled beneath the dangerous stare and decided she needed to tell him straight. “Stew MacGuinness.”
“Ah. One of the dozens of men who runs a boat from Skagway, up the coast and back.”
“Yes, sir. He put in a good word for you. Told me you might need an extra hand.”
He paused and watched her. She shuffled to her other foot, so weary from her night’s travel. Heat crawled up her cheeks at his scrutiny, at her proximity to yet another stranger. “He…is a man to be trusted, is he not? He swore he wouldn’t tell a soul he took me.”
“Yeah, he’s trustworthy. Especially since you likely didn’t give him your real name.”
The hot flame of embarrassment flicked at her throat. This man would not be easily fooled.
“What name did you give him?”
He studied her hard and she tried not to flinch.
Part of her name was true. Her real name was Mary Somerset. Willa was her middle name and she’d always preferred to use it over Mary. Her uncle had first teased her with it when she was a tyke who’d defended her toys and space from her older cousins, whenever they’d ganged up on her. Willa, he’d told her, meant fierce defender.
It seemed that for her whole life, she’d been trying to live up to the name. What was she here on earth to defend?
Willa Banks had been her secret play name as a child with her best friend, Madeleine, when they’d dressed up and pretended to be lady pirates on the high seas. Madeleine had moved away a year after Willa’s mother had died, but Willa had never forgotten the secret surname. Back in Skagway, her wretched would-be groom, Keenan Crawford, had never heard of Willa anyone. When she’d arrived in Alaska, she’d used the name on her papers, Mary Somerset.
That’s who he was looking for now. If he was still looking.
Perhaps Willa Banks would be a rebirth. A reconnection with her lost childhood friend, and maybe to her vanished mother.
The tavern owner in front of her stepped through the back door into the gardens. She followed, inhaling the scents of plush turned soil, ripe herbs and vegetables. Benches lined the property. They were enclosed by buildings on both sides.
“If you stay,” he said, “I don’t wish to know anything personal about you.”
A shiver of delight raced through her. She tugged on the burlap. Bees darted around them, through the smattering of willow trees and pines. “You mean I’m hired?”
Her uncle in Montana would be outraged at her working as a bartender, but he had outdated standards. Hers were much more modern, in the vein of other Alaskan women. She’d be protected here, surrounded by the men of Eagle’s Cliff. There were no telegraph lines to Skagway, no easy communication between the towns, and no reason for anyone to come looking for her here.
“You’ve got a few more questions to answer.” He rubbed the dark wave of hair above his ear. “Why me?”
“Mr. MacGuinness told me about your problems with the law. He—he showed me an old Wanted poster with your face on it. Explained how it had been a mistake and your name was now clear.”
“And you figured that would soften me to your plight?”
“Yes, Mr. Rowlan.”
The man frowned at the use of his name. “And why a bartender?”
“I need to make some money to get where I’m going. Can’t save much on a woman’s salary. Not at a dress shop. Not as a cashier. Or laundress. Bartending will earn me tips on top of my wages. I’ll make more than I ever could working in a woman’s job, and you’ll make more hiring me.”
“I can’t pay you like a man.”
“You’re a woman. It’s just not done. Half salary is appropriate.”
“Fifty cents a night. But you get to keep all your tips.”
“Fifty cents,” she negotiated boldly, “plus one percent of the increased sales I’ll be bringing in.”
“One percent? You’re jumping the gun. How do you know sales would increase since I haven’t opened yet?”
She faltered. “Mr.—Mr. MacGuinness coached me a little. On what to ask for.”
“Did he now?” His fierce look made her back down.
“All right, I’ll take the full dollar a night. Plus all my own tips.”
“Lady, you’re tougher than you look.”
“That’s the kind of person you want working behind your bar, isn’t it? Someone who can hold their own with a man?”
He paced the plot of vegetables, rubbing his neck. His shoulders cast long shadows on the stone path. He was bigger and more muscled than any of her eight cousins, and they were all physically fit from working on the ranch.
When he turned around, his dark intensity caused her stomach to flutter.
“One week. Trial period. If you don’t work out, I’m free to let you go.”
She swallowed, scared to believe it. Scared not to. “All right.” Moving closer, she held out a tentative hand and they shook.
His grip was firm, businesslike and manly.
“One week,” she agreed.
He spun on his big cowboy boots, leaning into the gentle wind, motioning her toward the boardwalk and shops visible beyond the stretch of his shoulders.
But she didn’t wish to go to the other hotel. Squinting in the sun, she gazed up at the second story of his tavern. The muscles in her stomach turned and twisted again. How would she tackle her next question?