When Julia advertises for a husband, a bad-boy-turned-Mountie from her past shows up in town.
© Kate Bridges. All rights reserved.
June 1898, Calgary, Alberta
Even after all these years, at the mere mention of his name, Julia O’Shea felt her body tense and her heart spin.
On the day the memories of Ryan Reid came flooding back to her, Julia was working in her print shop, racing to meet her noon deadline. With an hour left, she was organizing stacks of freshly printed newspapers while her reporter worked the cylindrical press. Two of her distributors walked in. Julia smiled in greeting, but from their dampened expressions, she knew their news wasn’t good.
“Business is slow at the mercantile,” old Mr. Rossman whispered in shame.
He pushed a pile of clean rags across the counter. “The drought’s affected a lot of ranchers and no one’s buyin’ much of anything. Can I pay you with rags again?”
Julia ran a finger beneath her sticky velvet choker. She’d lost five pounds in the past month from working so strenuously, and her loose gray skirt dragged along the floor.
She glanced at the gent’s worn shirt, elbows patched ten times over. Why, he was no better off than she was, and he had three children to feed compared to her one.
“No need to fret, sir,” she said with a smile. Thank you for taking the amount of papers you do.”
When he left, the stooped man who owned the diner next door offered her a crate of tin scraps. With a pinch to her stomach, Julia accepted the tin as payment. At this rate, she’d be closing her presses within a month. But she remained cheerful, walked him to the propped-open door and waved goodbye.
A hot prairie breeze swirled around her skirts. The smell of dust seared her nostrils and permeated her thin blouse. Outside, a team of groaning oxen pulled a wagon full of homesteaders. Dozens of settlers in wagon trains had been arriving all day, and the shifting landscape made her restless. Change disturbed her, and always had since the age of five.
Life never seemed to get any easier. What she wished to give her son, Pete, was a bit more than she’d had as a child. A hot meal once a day. A bed with a real mattress, not a straw one. Parents who didn’t go to prison. All the love he needed.
Behind her, her assistant and sole reporter, David Fitzgibbon, turned a large drum. A clickety-clack filled the air. Last week, she’d shamefully had to let go of her other two reporters due to dwindling business, which left her and David to do the bulk of the work.
She could turn this around. She knew she could. She’d spun bad luck into good before.
“What we need around here,” she said, approaching David, “is a big story to increase sales. Something to make folks feel good. Something that’s got nothing to do with the drought or the wildfires.”
Blond hair poked out from beneath his plaid cap. “As soon as people read your personal advertisement in today’s paper, tongues will flap and—”
“My ad was not intended to increase sales.”
“But placing an ad for a husband—”
“A gentleman husband. You and Grandpa always forget that word.”
Julia picked up the newly inked front page of the Calgary Town Crier. The news would be out by midday. Seeing her ad at the bottom, in black and white, made her hopes flutter. Meaning no disrespect to her late husband, Brandon, she’d been five years now without a partner at her side, and it was time.
For the past five months, Julia hadn’t had any luck with suitors on her own. Some men disapproved of her running a business and had demanded she quit to concentrate on the home. Some hadn’t been able to accept another man’s child. One unemployed drifter had the gall to assume she’d consent to any man who walked through her door.
Many men placed ads for mail-order brides, so Julia saw no harm in placing her own ad for a husband. Being frank ahead of time about the type of man she wanted would save on hurt feelings later—his and hers.
“We should concentrate on our society page. There’s nothing more interesting to people than other people.” She turned the focus back to her newspaper and to drumming up sales.
“Then we should write about a prominent family.” David heaved the last papers to the counter so they could fold them. The weakness in his left arm, caused by a gangrenous wound he’d suffered awhile back, caused the pile to shift. “Ryan Reid’s back in town. We could write about him.”
Heat flashed through her face. “What did you say?”
“Do you know him? Ryan Reid.”
Julia stumbled, dropping the paper. “Donovan Ryan Reid?”
“That’s right. According to the hotel clerk across the street, most folks call him Ryan.”
The day had finally come. She fumbled with her lace collar, trying to block the vivid memory of Ryan standing in her grandpa’s bar. As she recalled their last conversation, anger stiffened her spine. A bead of sweat trickled down her neck beneath her heavy auburn braid. She peered across the street, past the rolling covered wagons, toward the Prairie Hotel. “He’s there?”
“Walked by two hours ago. When I saw this big wolf of a man leap off a wagon and enter the hotel, I followed. He walks like he thinks he’s important, so I figured he might be. Even beneath the scraggly hair and beat-up clothes.”
Gone ten years and now fifty yards away.
“The hotel clerk said he’s the long-lost son of Joseph Reid,” said David. “I couldn’t stay longer to ask more questions due to our deadline. But a maid told me he’s the black sheep of the family. Any idea why they call him that?”
Julia braced herself. “He once killed a man.”
David dropped onto a stool. “A murderer. How?”
“It was a—a stabbing.”
“What a great story this would make. No wonder his family disowned him…both his brothers are Mounties. And his father was a copper back in Ireland. How long was Ryan in prison?”
“He didn’t go to prison. It was self-defense.”
David whistled. “Imagine the headline. Black Sheep Returns. Folks would buy us out.”
Julia frowned. “No…that’s not what…”
David grabbed his camera. “Your grandpa and Pete will be here soon enough to take over. Here’s your notebook. Let’s go.”
She ran a shaky palm along her cheek. Over the years, she’d promised herself she’d never again get close enough to see the light reflecting in Ryan’s eyes. But if she didn’t act on this bit of news, there were three other papers in town that would. She had Grandpa and Pete to support. She had an obligation to pay David his wages. She had her pride in proving that a former barmaid did have the business savvy to pull through any hardship.
Blood pounded through her veins. And a secret part of her wanted to show Ryan that she had survived just fine without him.
“Your timing is awfully bad.”
“When do you figure they’ll be back?” Shirtless from his recent bath, with a towel slung around his bare shoulders, Ryan Reid strode past his narrow hotel bed to the open window. A hot breeze stirred the fine damp hairs on his chest. Rubbing his beard, he turned to the skinny clerk who’d introduced himself as Ned.
Ned huffed beneath the weight of Ryan’s suitcase. He flung it onto the mattress beside Ryan’s two most precious things—a beat-up leather bag and the violin, in its hard leather case, that was causing him so much grief.
“The manager says your pa and brothers are deliverin’ two hundred head of cattle west of Red Deer. They’re supposed to be back within a week, same time as your sister and mother. The ladies went south to visit relatives.”
Ryan stiffened at the talk of his family, more nervous than he thought he would be about seeing them again. This was the time of year for cattle drives and Ryan had suspected the men might be gone, but he had hoped for better luck.
While the clerk straightened bedsheets and filled the water basin, Ryan spun around to peer out of the second-story window. Moving stiffly from his old wounds and his long ride, he leaned over the squat sill and pressed his left shoulder against the frame.
Dusty air stung his nostrils. Ryan stared out beyond the shifting wagon trains. Calgary had tripled in size since he’d last been here, but to him, the town was still a tight fit.
In the far west, a faint ribbon of smoke curled above the foothills, against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. A wildfire. This year seemed more parched than most, folks had told him, and the drought was aiding and abetting the flames.
“Pray for rain,” the settlers he’d ridden with kept saying.
A knock at the door pulled Ryan in that direction. When he opened it, a young Scottish maid, her pretty face turning poppy-red as she looked at his chest, handed him four folded newspapers.
“As ye requested, sir.”
Newspapers were inexpensive to start up, and therefore most towns had several, but Ryan knew many didn’t survive long in business. “Which is the most recent?”
“Calgary Town Crier is fresh off the press.”
He shuffled it to the top of the pile and read the headline. Wildfires Burning Closer. “Thanks.”
After another flustered glance at his scarred chest, the maid raced away. He reckoned she didn’t like what she saw. He never knew with women.
He tossed the papers on the bed. The bath had done him good, but his hair was tangled from weeks of riding, and his beard was too long to look respectable.
Another knock on the door drew him to it. “Yes?”
The barber stood in the hall.
“Come on in. Set up anywhere you want.”
The old man nodded and headed toward the dresser and chair. His greased-back hair shimmered in the orange sunlight. He wore a brown satin vest buttoned over a white shirt. “Sir.”
Ryan squinted at him. “Good to see you again, Todd.”
“Mercy, is that you? Ryan Reid?”
The barber glanced at the scar running across Ryan’s chest, then coughed. The clerk glanced away.
Ryan gave the old man an uneasy nod, recalling how much Todd Mead used to enjoy prying into other men’s affairs.
The clerk and barber set up an area by the window where the lighting was best. Ryan slid onto the chair and told Todd to cut it all off. As the barber snipped, wads of hair fell onto the towel wrapped around Ryan’s shoulders.
“Say, there’s a good fighting match going on later tonight behind the saloon. A man could make some extra money.”
Ryan’s jaw tightened. “I no longer fight.”
“But you were so damn good with a knife.” With glee, the barber explained to the clerk, “We used to call him ‘The Edge’ because he’d scrape the blade right along someone’s chest—”
“I said I don’t fight.” Ryan’s brisk tone halted the conversation.
Someone pounded on the door. The wiry clerk dashed to get it.
A thin blond man wearing a plaid cap poked his head around the pine slab. He reminded Ryan of a scarecrow. When he eased into the room, he was carrying a boxlike portable camera.
A young woman inched in behind him. Her floppy straw hat concealed most of her face, but Ryan could see her journal and pencil.
Reporters? Ryan balked. What did reporters want from him?
A plait of auburn hair flowed over the woman’s shoulder. Three blue feathers adorned her hat. Her thin white blouse clung to the corset reining in her curves, and a sagging gray skirt draped softly against her thighs. Her clothes were well-worn, but she was dressed like a proper lady.
Ryan’s muscles tightened in response. Proper ladies had been scarce on his journeys.
Her hat dipped while she looked him over, then she recoiled and gasped. She was reacting to his scars.
His neck burned with hot anger, with the sting of being rejected. The reaction of a proper lady bothered him more than the maid’s or the clerk’s or the barber’s.
It served her right. It was her fault for barging in. The shock of seeing him undressed was no more than she deserved. This was his hotel room. He was getting his hair cut, and they were invading his privacy.
“Hello, sir,” said the scarecrow.
“Who are you?” boomed Ryan, jumping to his feet. He stalked across the floor, clumps of shorn hair flying from his shoulders. His muscles shook as if he were a grizzly defending his territory. “What do you want?”
“Ryan,” Julia whispered to herself, stepping back in alarm as he approached them.
Beneath the straw hat that shielded her face from him, she stared at the wild beast. Hair trailed down his shoulders. His black beard glistened in the streaming sunlight.
With a tremor, she took in the guns and rounds of ammunition tucked into his belt, and wondered what war he was expecting. Still a fighter, she thought with an ache. He’d always be true to his guns or his fists or his knives, but never to a woman.
She heard David explaining their presence, and was grateful for the moment to recapture her breath.
“Sir, I’m David Fitzgibbon from the town’s biggest paper, Calgary Town Crier, and I’d like a moment to…to speak with you,” he continued, while Julia watched Ryan.
Beneath his shaggy hair, droplets of water bounced across his broad shoulders. Looking closely, she saw that Ryan’s face was still recognizable. Incredibly sharp, dark features and a sweeping gaze that took in everyone and everything in the room.
But his wounds…oh, his wounds.
They began with his earlobe—his partially missing left earlobe, which someone had apparently sliced off. She forced herself to look at his chest again. It was lightly matted with dark hairs, still damp from an obvious bath. She could well imagine layers of grime. There were more scars than she recalled, and she winced. Sunshine streaming from the window highlighted a long gash that cut from one side of his chest to the other and down beneath his heavily muscled arm. Where in the world had he been?
She watched his muscles pulse, and tried to find a word to describe his looks. Barbaric? His overbearing appearance created an aura of power, an attitude that he didn’t care much for the world.
He never had. He’d always been searching for meaning and direction in his life, even as a young man sitting on a stool in her grandpa’s bar, trying to drink away his misery. He could drink longer and harder than any man Julia had ever known, and she’d served a lot of men in those lean years.
She forced herself to look lower down his body to his firm stomach, the coating of fine hairs, the muscled thighs encased in blue denim. His huge tan boots were as lined as his skin.
Had he found direction in his life? Had he found meaning?
She’d once heard Ryan’s father, Joseph Reid, tell his son that he wouldn’t amount to much in life. Even now, though she fought the reaction, her heart twisted as she recalled the look on Ryan’s face when his father had berated him. But most folks in town, after witnessing the rage Ryan showed when he fought with his pocket knives, had said the same. They predicted he would die before he reached the age of thirty.
Her gaze traveled to the folded newspapers on the bed, piled beside a worn leather bag and curiously, a violin case.
Her paper was right on top. She groaned, thinking of her ad and wondering if Ryan had read it. She wasn’t embarrassed about it in front of anyone else, but instinct told her to shield her vulnerability from Ryan. He wouldn’t recognize her ad by her surname, but later, he might connect it to her. Placing a written request for a husband suddenly made her feel exposed.
If he saw it, Ryan would do what he always had. Judge her.
David was still talking. “…if we might just…just snap a photograph or two, and ask a few questions, it could take the focus off the town’s troubles for the moment. Sir.”
Ryan turned toward Julia. A bolt of angry pride shot through her at the thought of how he might react if she lifted her brim to reveal her face. Would he be sorry for having treated her as if she’d meant nothing to him? Would he beg forgiveness?
She couldn’t see his face, but his arms grew tense.
“And what about you?” he said to her in a vexing growl. “Do you speak?”
Her fingers gripped her notes while she fought the memory of what he’d done to her all those years ago. “Only to people who are calm and reasonable enough to listen.”
She heard the hotel clerk snicker. David gasped.
With a slow, deliberate sweep, she lifted her head, giving Ryan a full view of her face.
Their gazes locked. His dark eyes flickered. He stared a little too closely. It penetrated her calm. The shock of knowing him raced along her skin. She braced herself for his reaction, expecting him to stagger back at the discovery. For ten long years she’d wondered about this moment. Gooseflesh rose on her arms and her heart drummed as she waited for him to crumble.
He did nothing. The spark of what might have been recognition vanished from his brown eyes.
“Reasonable enough to listen?” His mouth lifted in a slight grin. “Then maybe you should do the talking and let your friend sit down.”
Julia struggled to grasp his meaning, then, slowly, her body slackened, her bottom lip dropped and a new humiliation swept over her. Ryan didn’t remember her.