A troop of Mounties secretly send their commander, Dr. John Calloway, a mail-order bride as a prank.
© Kate Bridges. All rights reserved.
Calgary, early August 1894
It was a hell of a way to meet a woman.
Dr. John Calloway, Chief Surgeon of the North-West Mounted Police, had just finished in the operating room and was striding down the hall of the officers’ quarters toward his bedroom, fighting exhaustion. Drenched in perspiration, John struggled with his white shirt collar and undid another button. It was hot inside the fort. Even the air smelled hot. Dry pine planks and leather.
“Evenin’, sir,” said two passing officers.
“Evening.” Was it John’s imagination or did they elbow each other and grin as he passed? John glared at them. “Something on your mind?”
“No, sir.” The sergeant glanced down at the papers spilling from his youthful hands.
“Then I suggest you hightail it to the paymaster. He’s looking for the schedules you’re holding. As for you, Corporal Reid, we could use your help cleaning those vacated beds.”
“Yes, sir,” came the response.
John shoved a hand through the thick brown hair at his temple, swallowed the dryness in his throat and continued walking. His own fatigue never usually hit him until the worst was over. Under normal circumstances he’d be heading to his private house in town for dinner, then to sleep for the night. But in the past week he’d had six men in surgery at Fort Calgary and he’d been too busy for sleep.
It was still undecided whether the constable John had just operated on would lose his leg. There had also been the constable who’d lost his eye on a runaway bronco. Two others with second-degree burns from fighting forest fires. And finally, the two discharged this morning with bullet grazes from an ambush ten days ago by that vicious cattle-rustling gang. For John, their discharge brought back a wave of remorse and grief for Wesley Underwood.
John’s assistant surgeon, his friend, who was only doing his duty by racing to the ranch to help the injured, had been ambushed and murdered by the remaining members of the Grayveson gang.
Last Christmas, the Mounties had captured a few of them—the ones who’d kidnapped and shot Logan Sutcliffe. Thank goodness Logan was safe now—but there were still a few Grayveson members on the run. Blast them all. Wesley Underwood had been a good man.
John rubbed his bristly jaw. He was starting to feel his age. He rolled his shoulders to loosen the stiff muscles.
Turning forty was a landmark, but why did he feel so…unsettled?
The restlessness had started eight months ago, around Christmastime when Wesley had decided to get himself a mail-order bride.
No respectable man orders a woman from the newspaper, John had argued. What kind of woman would answer your ad? A desperate one, with little backbone and no self-confidence.
But Wes had just laughed and placed the ad anyway, claiming it was hard to meet a woman, with so few in the West. He always did have a good sense of humor, thought John, but John hadn’t agreed with him when it came to mail-order brides.
And now Wes was gone.
With a sigh of sadness, John neared his bedroom door. He stopped at the laundry basket. Although he’d worn a surgical gown, a few blood drops had still soaked through to his shirt. He peeled it off and tossed it in, knowing the clerk would need to boil it, too. Down to his sleeveless undershirt, he burst into his private room, glancing to his desk for drinking water.
He was shocked to discover a strange woman inside, who’d reeled toward him at the sharp sound of the door.
“Ah,” he yelped in surprise. She let out a choked laugh.
Standing at his open closet, she’d been rummaging through his uniforms. She dropped his scarlet tunic from her fingers like a child caught with something forbidden. A pink stain infused her cheeks.
A wall of wavy, strawberry-blond hair, braided at the sides and clasped at the back, spilled down her shoulders. Finely arched brown eyebrows framed her clear gray-blue eyes. Her lips parted in a pretty smile, revealing a front tooth that slightly overlapped its partner.
Her clothes were fancy for the West. Her heavily boned and corseted red jacket clung to her waist; a long red skirt with protruding bustle accentuated full hips. When one polished black leather boot peeked out beneath her hemline, he noticed a ridiculously spiked high heel. Why was she so dolled up?
He stepped away. His dangling suspenders slapped against the thighs of his tight black breeches. “How’d you get in here?”
She smiled but he didn’t smile back.
“Corporal Reid let me in,” she said. “I’m sorry for laughing. It’s just…I was so nervous to meet you…and here I’ve made you jump.”
If Travis Reid had let her in, she must be here for good reason. Was that why Reid had been chuckling in the hallway?
She took a step forward, holding out her hand. Happiness shone in her eyes. “I know this is a bit of a surprise, but I managed to pack up sooner than I thought. I’m Sarah.”
Was he supposed to know her? He racked his brain, but no recognition came. “John Calloway.”
Her grip was warm and soft, very different from the bulky, callused hands he was used to shaking. With the contact, his pulse took a leap. As their fingers parted, she glanced heatedly at his chest and he realized he was still in his undershirt. Good grief. What an indecent way to introduce himself to a woman.
“Sarah O’Neill,” she prompted louder, a deeper crimson flowing through her face. “I know I didn’t send a photograph, but I didn’t have one.”
What was she talking about? If he’d ever met her, he was sure he’d never forget.
“Hey, Doc?” Corporal Reid’s dark head appeared around the door. “Constable Pawson’s wakin’ up in a lot of pain.”
John addressed the corporal, but his gaze still held the pretty woman’s. “Give Pawson another drink of the laudanum by his bedside. I’ll be right there.”
The corporal glanced into the room at the woman, then cleared his throat. “I see you’ve met Miss O’Neill.”
John’s gaze pivoted to the corporal. Judging by the broad smirk on the tanned face, Reid knew something more.
“Can I speak with you outside, Corporal?” John nodded to the woman. “Excuse me, Miss O’Neill, you’ve caught me at a bad time. I’ve been in surgery around the clock.”
“John, you can call me Sarah.” There was laughter in her voice. Why was she smiling so much at him? Not that he minded, in fact, he was enjoying it…but who was she?
The minute they were out the door, John growled at Reid. “What do you know about her?”
Reid squirmed. “I have to get the laudanum.”
“You better tell me right now. Who is she?”
Reid’s face paled. He lurched and hurried down the aisle.
“Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea,” Reid called over his shoulder. “Come to think of it…” He gulped and John felt a shiver of dread race through him. “Maybe it got out of hand,” Reid continued. “We all chipped in for the newspaper advertisement and her train ticket…and ordered her for you.”
“Ordered her?” John stalked after Reid. Was she a painted lady?
Reid began to run toward the doors of the hospital ward.
John called after him. “What does that mean? You ordered her?”
Reid dove through the doors, escaping John’s fury, shouting the explanation just before the thick door slammed in John’s face. “She’s…your mail-order bride!”
What? Stumbling backward, John slumped against the hard wall.
What…had his men done?
They’d sent for a mail-order bride? For him?
After his criticisms to Wesley, was this some kind of joke? John had thought he’d seen it all in the fifteen years he’d been a Mountie. The pranks, the initiations, the tricks on the new recruits…
So help him, he’d string them up one by one!
What decent man could do this? This was someone’s life they were playing with. Maybe they thought it’d be a funny prank to play on him, but what about the poor woman in his room?
She was too innocent-looking to be a painted lady, to be part of a hoax. And Reid had been too scared to be lying.
Where had she come from? What was he supposed to tell her? How could a simple apology be anywhere near enough?
And he shouldn’t have to do it. The men responsible should. But…they were busy, and she was waiting.
She deserved an explanation—right now.
Bracing himself, John walked back down the hall, rapped on his bedroom door, then entered.
She was standing at the window, letting the breeze roll over her face. Turning around, she met his awkward gaze with an awkward one of her own.
That’s why she was so dressed up, he realized, glancing at her cinched waist. She thought she was coming to meet her groom. Just watching her, he felt his muscles tighten.
The air grew still between them. When her gaze hesitated over his bare shoulders, he wondered what she was thinking. That they would soon be married? That the two of them would soon be very intimate?
The thought brought a surge of heat to his own flesh. Then shame found him again, for how his men had tricked her. Looking down into her expectant eyes, he felt the hairs at the back of his neck bristle.
He tried to ease the news. “I’m not who you think I am.”
“You’re not?” Her generous mouth opened and she colored fiercely. “But you’re John Calloway.”
“Dr. Calloway!” They were interrupted again, this time by a sergeant running through the open door. “You better come quick! Pawson’s trying to get up! The stitches in his legs are comin’ apart!”
John leaped into action. “Get two more men to help us. We’ll need to hold him down.”
He grabbed a clean shirt from his closet and tugged it up his arms. “I’ve got to go,” he said to Miss O’Neill, leaving her standing in his turbulence. “Wait right here till I get back. Don’t go anywhere.”
Sarah was left wondering. What did he mean, I’m not who you think I am?
He was John Calloway. He’d sent for her! She had his four letters in her satchel to prove it. But an hour had passed and Sarah was getting the eerie impression something wasn’t right.
Feeling ill again, she pressed a hand to her corseted stomach and tried to ease her nervousness. It was the same way she’d felt the whole eight days on the train. Motion sickness, the conductor had told her. There hadn’t been much she could do except lay her head between her knees whenever she’d felt the urge to vomit. She did so now until the feeling passed. If she were already married, she might have confused her symptoms for those of childbearing, but she knew that was impossible.
Hopefully it would happen soon. A husband and children, a family of her own.
Maybe John was trying to tell her something minor. Maybe he wanted to clarify something he’d written in one of his letters. Looking at him in his undershirt had had her imagining what it’d be like to be his wife in the ultimate sense of the word. Oh, my. Sarah fanned her hot face. Rising from the chair, she walked to the window. As she leaned forward, it blessed her with a cool gust of air.
Why would a man like him need to find a woman by mail? She’d asked the troublesome question in one of her letters. He’d responded that there were currently no suitable choices in Calgary because there were so few unattached women who could handle the danger and isolation of being a Mountie’s wife, and he was eager to start a family. He added that he was intrigued that she was of Irish descent, like himself. When she’d read that, she’d felt as if her dearly departed father himself was guiding her.
The fact that John lived in Calgary was why she was initially attracted to his advertisement. It was rumored that her brother Keenan had moved West. Calgary, one of his friends had finally admitted to her. If she couldn’t locate Keenan here, then she’d find a way to search other prairie towns.
The ache to find her missing brother wove around her heart. At first she’d search discreetly because she wasn’t sure if Keenan was still in trouble with the law. She knew marrying a Mountie might help her search, since they kept records of settlers in the area, but she wasn’t using John Calloway to find her brother. She wanted this marriage.
John seemed like a kind man, writing about the busy frontier town and how much he appreciated finding a woman like her. After dealing with her father’s sudden passing, then her mother’s brutal decline, Sarah was ready for a new start. She ached to see the wide-open prairies for herself, to smell the flowers of the Rocky Mountains, to see an eagle or a wolf, to live in a place she’d only daydreamed of, in a house that didn’t smell of sickness.
She had value and emotions and skills to offer the world.
Please let there be more to my life than what’s been already.
In the West, she’d heard women had more freedom. When John had written that many women couldn’t handle the perils and isolation of being a policeman’s wife, she’d written back that she’d marry him on the condition he’d let her work. It would keep her busy when he traveled, and more independent.
She’d do everything in her power to be a good wife and partner to John. She envisioned the intimacy of a lasting, bonding friendship that might someday grow into love. A love that had sadly escaped her parents.
Glancing around the room, she tried not to be intimidated. From her training, she always noticed two things when she entered a room, besides the people in it.
The guns and the clocks.
John had a pretty good gun. A great gun. The Enfield six-shot revolver sat in full view, slung in its holster over the dresser mirror. The beautiful contour of the mahogany stock glistened like new, but the tiny medallion screw needed tightening, and the holster hadn’t been oiled in weeks.
Didn’t they have a gunsmith who made regular checks?
Then again, what doctor would make his guns a priority?
Compared to his gun, his wall clock was in precise order. It was Austrian with a gold-leaf frame, likely thread suspension with four quarter striking on coiled gongs.
Glancing at the time made her nervous again.
She’d been caught going through his closet, but only because she’d wanted to touch something personal. The most intimate thing she could find had been his clothing; not the botany textbooks lining his desk, not the private medical journal she dared not open, not the wall clock, nor the desk lamp. Even his bed with its plain brown blanket and squared corners looked bleak and detached.
Well, no more. They couldn’t live here in the barracks, but she was definitely here to mess up his bed.
A shiver of anticipation coursed through her.
When the door flew open, she bolted straighter.
John strode through it. Again he wore only an undershirt. She gulped and glanced away. Blazes, maybe she wasn’t as ready for this as she’d thought. Goodness, the man liked to undress.
He left the door open. “Sorry it took me so long.” He grabbed another white shirt from his closet, weaving his muscled arms through it. His skin was golden, his chest lightly matted.
His thighs flexed beneath his breeches and she abandoned herself to the dreamy thought of seduction. “You’re busy,” she said. “I understand.”
“I’ve got two hours to myself. Let’s go for a walk.” He nodded toward the hallway. “Away from this ruckus.”
Half a dozen men walked by, talking in crude language she didn’t often hear—only sometimes when her father or brother or cousins had been too preoccupied in the shop to bother with politeness. When the men caught sight of her, one elbowed another and they grinned in her direction.
John stepped into their line of vision and, although she couldn’t see his expression, it stopped the men cold.
“We apologize, ma’am,” said one as they passed. Another man called out to John by some sort of nickname. “Sorry, Black-’n-White.”
John turned back to her. For an instant his face looked racked with fury. Was he that angry about the coarse language? My, he was exceptionally decent.
The sun’s waning rays caught the side of his short chestnut-colored hair and one plane of his handsome face, accentuating his black brows and brown eyes.
He smiled. Just a hint of a smile from one corner of his mouth, nothing overwhelming, but her body responded with a sensual tug.
She was a bit disappointed that he wasn’t going to introduce her to his friends, but then…it was nice of him to want to spend time alone with her first. “All right then, John, you lead the way.”
“Where are the rest of your bags?”
“I left them with the porter at the train depot. They were too heavy to drag along.”
“It’s not far. Besides, I needed to stretch my legs from the train ride.” And wanted time to take it all in.
“Then would you like to walk back again?”
“Surely,” she said, hoping her voice sounded more credible than she felt. Her new heels were killing her feet, but she felt idiotic voicing a complaint. They had to get back into town, as she imagined he’d be setting her up in a pleasant hotel room this evening. After they decided on a wedding date. As soon as possible, he’d said in his letters.
Grabbing the satchel’s handle from her grasp, John’s knuckles grazed hers. His touch made her instantly blush. He responded with an equally embarrassed look.
They had to get to know each other, that’s all.
Her skirt and petticoat rustled as she walked. Her stomach growled from hunger and her tight corset didn’t help. She’d changed into the clothes at the last station before they’d pulled into Calgary. She’d saved her best suit and brand-new shoes to meet her husband. Although joy bubbled through her, she prayed the nausea would fade.
The sun was setting on the prairies. Dusk surrounded them. Stepping out of the newly built barracks, they walked side by side, weaving through the dusty log buildings. They passed the blacksmith’s forge, the canteen, the chapel and, finally, the stables. When John stole a glance in her direction, a warm glow tingled through her. Her senses became saturated with the night scents of prairie wheat, rich loam and the hiss of insects. She felt fully alive for the first time in a long while.
The sound of clomping hooves on trampled earth filled the air. Men on horseback galloped past them. The animals were sleek and beautiful; the men, excellent riders. Judging from their uniforms of red wool jackets and dark breeches, they were training for an official event. Winchester rifles dangled in slings attached to the pommels of their compact saddles. Repeating rifles, eight rounds, she noted.
John’s hand brushed the small of her back as he led her out the gate through a small crowd of men and women. He took charge with quiet confidence and she liked that. Her pulse fluttered as she dipped beyond his grasp, her long hair swaying around her. It felt good to finally meet him after four months. She wished he’d be more daring and wrap his arm around her shoulders.
“It must have been a hard journey. How long did it take you?” he asked.
He exhaled. “Eight…” His brown eyes sparkled. “Straight from…the east coast?”
“Well, of course. Direct from Halifax.”
“No one to talk to for eight days?”
“I met a few nice folks.” Two very kind elderly women in particular, Sarah thought, who were staying at one of the local boardinghouses. Sarah usually kept her private matters to herself, but over the course of several days, the two women had pried it out of her—that she was a mail-order bride coming to meet her husband. Once discovered, she’d been eager to share her news, and they eager to listen. Although surprised when she’d told them it was John Calloway who’d sent for her, they congratulated her with the warmest wishes.
Walking in anxious silence beside her tall surgeon, Sarah followed him onto the grassy path. It wound along the gently flowing Elbow River, leading to the steel bridge. The moving water whispered by. Blackbirds sang in the aspens. The fragrance of summer leaves drifted between them.
John dropped her satchel beneath an overgrown willow tree. He moved with a restless energy and she was struck by a strange discomfort.
“Sarah, I don’t know how to tell you this, other than to just say it.”
Her smile faded. “What is it?”
“It’s not good news.”
She peered at his face, at the firm strength she saw in his eyes. There was a deeper significance to what he said. Her hands began to tremble. “You’re not well?”
“No, no…it’s not about my health.”
“Then what? I surprised you. I arrived at a bad time.”
“That’s not it exactly, either.”
She tried to force her confusion into order. Her pulse hammered at her throat. Something was terribly wrong. “We’re soon to be married. Soon to be husband and wife. Please tell me what’s troubling you.”
Her words cut deep into his composure. His expression faltered and he looked suddenly off balance. Pulling in a deep breath, he struggled with the emotion in his husky voice. “It wasn’t me who wrote to you.”