When Virginia is jilted at the altar, her former fiancé’s brother Zack, a rugged Mountie, proposes a marriage of convenience.
© Kate Bridges. All rights reserved.
Calgary, May 1896
She was marrying the wrong brother.
Dr. Virginia Waters flattened her palm against the nervous tremble in her stomach. Dressed in her wedding gown for the final fitting, she stood before the pine mirror in her bedroom and tried to silence the runaway thoughts.
She was not marrying the wrong man. Wedding jitters were common, she told herself. Zack Bullock was the right brother.
“You look splendid in your gown. Bonnie indeed.”
“Thank you, Millicent.” Feeling guilty for her thoughts, Virginia smiled at the reflection of her uncle’s housekeeper, Millicent Gray. With aging yet supple fingers, the pleasant Scottish woman pinned the hem as the satin train rustled around Virginia’s long legs. A lacy V neckline swooped to her bosom. Her velvet black hair, still damp and fragrant from her evening bath, cascaded below her waist. Crackling wood in the fireplace melted the chilly spring air while a kerosene lamp glowed in the other corner.
“I like the shiny fabric,” said Emilou, Millicent’s eight-year-old granddaughter and Virginia’s soon-to-be flower girl, standing beside them holding the calico pincushion.
Virginia ran a gentle hand along Emilou’s butter-colored braids. Everything was set for the wedding, three days away. A large wedding was expected. Zack was well-known in the community and Virginia was the niece of a prominent citizen. While friends and distant relatives fussed over details, she was grateful for their help. But she knew from painful experience that none of it mattered without her groom. None of it.
“Ask me another question from your book,” said Emilou.
“All right,” said Virginia, eager to oblige. She was less than four weeks away from writing her licensing exams, squeezing her studies into every stolen moment she could spare between her final practicum in this house with her Uncle Paddy—Dr. Patrick Waters—and her wedding preparations. “How many bones does a person have in their body?”
“Two hundred and six. We’re all born with three hundred, but as we get older some of ’em grow together.”
“That’s right,” said Virginia. “What’s the longest one?”
“The femur in your leg.” Emilou then reversed the questioning, in the game they’d been practicing. “What’s the shortest?”
“The stirrup bone in your ear, one-tenth of an inch long.”
The girl plopped down at Virginia’s feet and slid a picture book of tropical animals onto her lap.
Virginia pointed to a painted giraffe. “Do you know that people and giraffes have the same number of bones in their necks, except giraffe bones are much longer?”
Emilou giggled. Virginia bent lower, kissed the girl’s hand, then straightened in front of the mirror. She stroked the delicate fabric of her gown and wondered what Zack would think of it. Her stomach rolled again.
Emilou picked up her book and left the room. She hollered, “Going for a glass of water!”
“What is it, Virginia? What’s troubling you?” asked Millicent when they were alone.
Mindful of the pins, Virginia turned so Millicent could unfasten the yard of pearl buttons down her spine. “I haven’t seen Zack in five years. I thought we’d have the chance to reacquaint ourselves before our wedding day. I thought he’d be here to meet me a month ago when I arrived.”
“The Mounties don’t schedule when the crimes occur. When a policeman is called to duty, he has to go.”
“What does Zack look like now?” Virginia asked between tugs.
“He’s tall and big. Dark haired.”
From her childhood, Virginia remembered him as a thin and wiry boy. He was almost ten years older and had rarely spoken to her. “Does he smile much?”
“What sort of question is that?”
“One a bride likes to know about her groom.”
“I don’t know how much he smiles. I don’t know the man very much,” Millicent said gently. “Why don’t you ask your uncle these questions?”
“Uncle Paddy thinks I’m being frivolous.”
“From what I hear, Zack is a quiet man. He’s legendary in his work. People say he’s tough but fair.”
Was it fairness Zack felt for her? Duty was likely driving him to repair the devastation his brother had caused.
Zack had first written her father, then Virginia, that he was ready for a wife and for them to begin a family of their own. He’d written that it would be a marriage of mutual benefit and comfort, that he’d do his best to make her happy. But still… “I thought I’d get to know Zack. Meet his friends. I wish we had more time before the wedding.”
“Didn’t he wire you he’d be here as soon as possible? Maybe he’ll arrive on this evening’s train. Or tomorrow’s.”
Virginia nodded as her gown dropped, revealing a tight new wedding corset and crisp silk petticoat. She steadied her shaky breathing and made a crucial decision.
She’d give Zack all of her attention. She’d never let him know how deeply her love had run for his brother, Andrew. Although her heartache and anger at Andrew were still raw, she’d never make Zack feel as if he were second-best.
He had no time to think about his upcoming wedding.
“Take off your noisy spurs,” Zack commanded in a whisper. Eleven men did as he asked without question.
Gripping two Enfield revolvers, Inspector Zack Bullock, known as “Bull’s-Eye” to his men because he was their best marksman, inched forward through the moonlit pines to the cabin nestled in the mountains. Although dressed as travelers and drovers, they were North-West Mounted Police, highly skilled federal agents commissioned to bring law and order to the West. He was leading the troop.
Zack stopped to analyze the sounds. He sensed his men stopping behind him. Bullfrogs croaked in the icy spring air. A light wind whispered across his unshaven face. A hawk fluttered through the sky. Its wings sliced the golden moon, then touched down to the cabin rooftop, beside the smoking chimney.
They watched and waited as two night guards, criminals of the Stiller gang, lit a smoke. Four more killers were inside, either sleeping or securing the two hostages, or counting the money they’d robbed from the train two days earlier. The scum had forced an elderly couple off the train with them—a jeweler and his wife, the O’Connolleys.
When the hawk cried into the night, Zack whispered, “Now.”
They rampaged the cabin. They overtook the guards. Zack kicked in the door, his leather duster flying at his ankles.
“Mounted Police! Drop your weapons!”
Four men hit the floor, guns drawn and firing. Zack threw himself onto the terrified couple in the corner. Rage filled him at the fear that had been instilled in two innocent people.
To protect them, he wasn’t able to shoot till the criminals fled outdoors. Three were grazed by the Mounties. The vicious one, jumping on his mare, fired back at the unarmed jeweler. Zack cursed. Shooting at an unarmed man was despicable. Zack took careful aim with both hands—ambidextrous in his talents—and, as a cloud uncovered the moon, shot back.
“He’s dead,” said Sergeant Major Travis Reid two minutes later. “Right on target, Bull’s-Eye.”
Without pride or arrogance, Zack came to look at the man he’d shot. “Does anyone recognize him?”
“He’s James Stiller’s brother, Ned.”
“What a waste.” Zack lowered his head. It was always pitiful when a man died before his time. “We’ll bury him here.”
Ten hours later the O’Connolleys were safely back in their home in the mining town, and the prisoners delivered to the local jailhouse.
It was early evening when the Mounties loaded their muscled horses into the boxcars at the train depot. Zack smiled. He was going home to get married. Five Mounties would return with him to Fort Calgary for a week’s leave. Six would remain here to continue the eleven-month hunt for the Stiller gang.
The fresh scent of lemons and raisins caught Zack’s attention. Everyone was gearing up for spring. European tourists were arriving for the Rocky Mountain trails, farmers were picking up sacks of seed and homesteaders were streaming in for quarter sections of land.
Virginia would be waiting. The last time Zack had seen her pretty face was five years ago on New Year’s Eve, when she was hired help at his family’s hotel in Niagara Falls. She’d been clearing dishes when Zack had caught her by surprise beneath the mistletoe, stealing a midnight kiss. The kiss had been short and mellow but had left him with a fever of curiosity.
Thinking of how his brother, Andrew, had treated her, Zack shook his head in disgust. Marrying Zack was the last thing Virginia had expected, he believed, even fully wanted. But as the eldest brother, he had the responsibility to fix things for her and her folks. Besides, he was ready for a wife. They’d be compatible. She was a new doctor finishing her training, so she’d spend much of her time on her work, leaving him alone to do his.
Zack boarded the third-class passenger car. The Mounties would have it to themselves for their three-hour trip across the prairies. Passing three constables, Zack slid in beside the sergeant major. Travis was an expert horseman, but Zack was taking a personal interest in training him how to track outlaws.
Two hours and fifty-four minutes later, a stone flickered beneath his wooden seat. Zack leaned over to scoop it up. It was an emerald-cut red jewel. Someone came up from behind him and started to say something as a light flashed outside the window. With a dawning of horror, still bent over but trying to struggle to his feet, he shouted, “Abandon the train!”
But an incredible, massive pain seared his chest. He heard the explosion, then felt twisting wreckage beneath his feet.
“Dr. Waters! Dr. Waters!” The night messenger raced to the house fifteen minutes after Virginia heard the thunderous explosion. Her heart thumped beneath her apron as she dashed with her uncle into the dark, chaotic street.
“What’s happened, boy?” Uncle Paddy propped his hands on his hips.
“The train’s been derailed! Someone threw dynamite! Ma’am, Zack Bullock has been shot!”
Heat drained from her pores. “Is he alive?”
“Yeah, but the Mounties’ car was hit the hardest. They’re callin’ for you there!”
Virginia and her uncle were the only medical personnel in town. The fort’s surgeon, Dr. John Calloway, was making his yearly rounds to the other forts, delayed by an outbreak of Rocky Mountain fever to the north. Whatever she could do for these injured men, she would.
She bolted to the station with her uncle. Dozens of people swarmed the platform. Many of the wounded, scratched and bruised, had already been plucked from the train. Injured Mounties were propped against the stationhouse wall. She guessed by their size and youth that they were police. She knelt beside two of the seriously injured. There was nothing she could do. They were gone.
“You help Zack,” her uncle shouted, kneeling beside the Mountie with the broken leg. Horses whinnied along the tracks.
“Which one is he?” she cried.
“The one at the end with the injured shoulder.”
Her mouth trembled as she peered down the line and spotted him. With a prayer, and her thin skirts billowing, she ran toward him. She fell to her knees beside him. “Zack…”
Someone had already placed a towel over the wound to try and stop the bleeding. Illuminated by the stationhouse lanterns, his looks came as a shock to her. The last time she’d seen him, he’d been dressed in a gentleman’s suit, clean shaven with short hair, standing beneath a sprig of mistletoe.
Here he was a big, wild-looking man. Unkempt and unshaven. He struggled to rise. He mumbled something incoherent. Dozing in and out of lucidness, he wobbled forward. His long, dark hair glistened with moist blood, and the solid jaw she’d always remembered as being untouchable was lightly bearded.
“Save your strength,” she told him, swallowing her terror, uncertain if he understood. His eyes closed. “Let me take a look.”
Virginia pulled the towel off his left shoulder and winced. The bullet had penetrated from his back and exited out the front. Both wounds were clean and small but the front one was slightly ragged. From his asymmetrical movement, she guessed the bullet must have shattered through the clavicle bone.
With trembling hands, she pressed both wounds with bandages to stop the bleeding. He whimpered. Pain etched lines around his full lips. Virginia moaned in sympathy. She’d give him something to ease his agony as soon as she controlled the bleeding. She tried to fathom what had happened and tried to control her disgust. What sort of criminal beast could do this?
“An ambush,” said her uncle, tending to the man behind her. When she turned, she vaguely detected wine on her uncle’s breath, but her concern was for the wounded. Injuries she’d never seen before and broken limbs she’d never dealt with as a medical student.
Virginia glanced at Zack’s dark face. We’re to be married in two days. She whispered, “I’m Virginia. It’s good to see you after all these years, Zack. Open your eyes.”
He didn’t respond. He wasn’t aware of her.
That was disappointing, but right now all that mattered was that Zack had made it.
While she continued pressing his shoulder, tortured by the devastation of his injury and the loss of life around her, she recalled that, as a child, Zack’s awful temper had made him the biggest scrapper in the neighborhood. In one of her first memories—when she’d been five and he fourteen—Zack had fought off five boys who’d started a game of throwing pebbles at a newly arrived boy from England. Even then, Zack had fought for those who couldn’t help themselves.
“Don’t tell my ma,” Zack had asked her as she’d brought him a hotel pillowcase he could use to tie his bleeding fist. “She hates it when she sees blood.”
His father had found out about the incident, though, and had given Zack a walloping behind the hotel for jumping on the dentist’s son.
She’d stayed away from Zack and he’d never spoken to her much from that time forward. She’d preferred the company of his brother, who was nearer to her own age, who never raised a fist to anyone. But her friendship with Andrew had turned her world upside down and left her with a painful heart. She’d trusted the wrong brother. She wouldn’t make that mistake again. Zack was to be her husband, and she’d put her faith in him.
A train engine whistled. As if in a foggy dream, she realized the platform was covered with spilled fruit. They were sitting in a sea of lemons. Some of the yellow balls were scorched, some still ripe and golden, many rolling down the platform. In the foreground, young boys shoveled mounds of raisins back into barrels. The scent was strange, as burned juices mingled with sweet grapes.
With Zack’s bleeding under control, Virginia drew up the morphine syringe. She injected it into his good arm.
Zack murmured with his eyes still closed. Virginia faltered at the sound of his voice.
“I was bending over to get something off the floor…something…don’t remember…someone startled me from behind and threatened me…” His body tensed. He jolted forward. His bloodshot eyes opened. His grip on her arm was ironclad. “What about the rest of my men? How did they fare?”
“Two didn’t make it.”
He leaned his head against the wall, closed his eyes and swallowed hard. His Adam’s apple bobbed along his unshaven throat. “Which two?”
A feeling of inadequacy rippled along her spine. She didn’t know the names of his men. She called behind her. “Which two, Uncle Paddy?”
“Peters and Littlefield.”
Zack slumped. A sob burst from his lips.
Virginia felt the sting of tears behind her eyes but had no time to stop. She needed her strength to help him. Unbuttoning what was left of his shirt, she realized she couldn’t remove it by herself. She took the pocketknife from her bag and sliced it off him.
Some of the hairs on his broad chest were lightly singed, but most of his chest glistened with fresh blood. After cleaning it with antiseptic, she began her final bandaging.
One of the men, helping her uncle set the broken leg, was finally free to help her. Grimacing, she pressed Zack’s left arm against his chest, and together they wrapped the linen gauze around his body as one unit. Zack’s arm, held tightly against his chest, would support the injured clavicle.
Zack grumbled. “Stiller’s going to pay for what he’s done.”
She didn’t know who Stiller was, but wondered how Zack could be certain Stiller was to blame.
While she knotted the final bandage, Zack squinted up at her, as if noticing her for the first time. “You’re a doctor.”
Her hands fumbled. “Yes,” she said, hopeful of the dawning glint in his warm brown eyes. She wished she could speed up Zack’s recovery from the pain she knew would follow this event. Physical pain would be the least of his problems, for he was sturdy. The mind-numbing inner pain of losing his friends wouldn’t be so easily overcome.
“I know you,” he whispered.
He attempted a smile, but it was weak and misplaced. Seeming to realize how awful he must look, he took a hand and swept it through his black hair. He rubbed a hand along one thigh, a leg as thick and solid as a tree trunk, trying to straighten his pants. With tenderness, she noticed his denims were riddled with gunpowder holes, though, and his pointed boots charred.
He reached out with a shaking hand and cupped his blackened fingers beneath her chin.
Her skin tingled where he stroked her. She’d imagined his intimate touch for weeks, never guessing his first touch would come as patient to doctor. Her long dark hair, knotted in one casual twist, glided along the back of her blouse.
“Virginia,” he murmured, slipping back into darkness, into unconsciousness, and sending a shudder quivering up her spine. “We weren’t supposed to meet like this.”