Meet Quinn, an outlaw who goes to a masquerade ball, in critical need of medical help.
© Kate Bridges. All rights reserved.
Skagway, District of Alaska, June 1899
He kept looking her way.
Miss Autumn MacNeil tried to come up with a name for the man with the penetrating brown eyes, but couldn’t place him. Was he someone from a recent audience who’d heard her sing?
“You have a new admirer,” Victoria Windhaven whispered as they stood on the stairs overlooking the crowded dance floor of the grand ballroom.
“Perhaps it’s you he’s focused on,” said Autumn, trying to ignore him.
“It’s definitely you.”
Dressed in black tails, elegant wool pants, a blue silk cravat and a spotless cream shirt that accentuated the intensity of his dark face, he’d walked into the masquerade ball at the Imperial Hotel shortly after eight. He’d tapped an older gent on the shoulder, appeared to ask a question, then both men had turned and stared at Autumn.
Autumn glanced away but her pulse strummed with excitement. Her lashes flicked against the velvet mask that covered her eyes. Such fun, after such a long winter. It felt exhilarating to be fooling everyone on this splendid Saturday evening. Even him.
The bustle of activity around them flushed her with heat. Beneath her tight corset and the borrowed, ivory lace blouse that covered every inch of flesh from her chin to her bosom, her stomach tingled with anticipation. Even the pins in her brown wig yanked at her roots, heightening her senses.
Autumn moved her toes in time to the music and admired everyone dressed in such top form tonight. “Since I’m masquerading as you, who do you suppose he thinks he’s staring at?”
Victoria smiled and shrugged beneath her blond wig. “At least I don’t have to sing as you tonight. That would give me away immediately.”
Pretending to be each other had been Autumn’s idea. There’d be a prize for best costume, and they had agreed if either of them won, they’d donate half of the generous fifty dollars to Skagway’s charity drive to build a proper hospital.
The orchestra began the Viennese Waltz. Autumn couldn’t resist humming as couples on the polished pine floor practiced twirl after twirl.
Victoria, one of the town’s three precious nurses, looked sinful in the low-cut black velvet costume Autumn had lent her. Who would’ve known they would become such close friends on the sea voyage to Alaska, twelve months ago, when both had nearly died of loneliness? In Seattle, before Autumn had left to seek her fortune, she had lost her grandparents, one shortly after the other. For the first time in her life, she was totally alone.
Trying to ignore the pang of grief that often arose without her control, Autumn raised her fan to her heated face and waved it madly. She’d concentrate on more joyful events this evening. She was waiting for her dance partners to arrive. Surely they’d be here soon. How fortunate she was that things might finally be coming together in her life…. Well, almost.
Autumn spotted her employer, Mr. Kennedy, owner of the Imperial Hotel, across the ballroom and this evoked another type of sentiment. Apprehension. She nudged her friend. “I need to speak with him.”
“Good luck,” Victoria hollered behind her. “Don’t give in!”
Autumn’s red suede skirt shifted around her high buckled boots. She pressed a hand to the black leather belt cinched at her waist and maneuvered past the ball gowns, cravats and Stetsons.
She felt the stranger’s eyes upon her, but she ignored him.
“Evenin’, Miss Windhaven,” said the town’s clockmaker as she dipped by, mistaking her for her friend. “Thank you for that liniment. Rash is nearly gone.”
Autumn smiled but said nothing to correct him.
“Miss Windhaven,” called another in error. “Save me a dance!”
“Me, too,” said Deputy Marshal Brander as she passed. He pressed his thick arms against his chest, adding with bold accuracy, “Miss MacNeil.”
The directness of his gaze made her pulse jump. The lawman had recognized the true her. But she ignored him, too, and latched on to the bulky elbow of her target. “Mr. Kennedy, a word, please.”
The man swung around, his false beard for the evening looking ridiculously out of place on his usually clean-shaven face. “Miss MacNeil—” He’d recognized her voice, but stopped himself when he saw her in the wig and mask. “Or is it Miss Windhaven?”
“Right the first time,” she said in a cheerful tone. “Autumn.”
“How did your meeting go yesterday with the banker?”
Her face heated. “Not so well … He …”
“Turned you down, too?”
“Yes, sir, but I’ve come to ask you. Please don’t sell the hotel. I’ve got an appointment with the manager of the credit and loan—”
“You say this every time.”
“He seems very amenable to my skills as a bookkeeper.”
“I told you. The gentlemen who made me that offer want an answer soon.”
“My appointment, sir, is on Monday. Surely you can let any business dealings rest on the Sabbath. Please give me until the end of the business day, Monday.”
Mr. Kennedy pursed his lips and gazed around the room, as if trying to come to terms with something. “You’re a woman. No one is going to lend you any money, my dear.”
She swayed. Then took a deep breath.
“You’re pretty and you have a nice voice. Accept what you do best.”
“What I do best, Mr. Kennedy, is balancing a ledger. The shop I ran with my grandparents—”
“If you were so good with that shop, why aren’t you still running it?”
She stung from the comment. Her stomach quivered as she fought for words. “My grandpa was a lithographer. The sole artist for the shop. When he passed away, my grandma and I had nothing left to sell.”
An artist, just as she was with her voice. Something she would never again rest her entire future on. Running this hotel—with its gift shop, restaurant and twenty-eight rooms—was something much more dependable. Her grandmother, rest her soul, would agree with Autumn’s dream. The two of them together had barely survived in Seattle after Grandpa had succumbed to pneumonia.
“There’s nothing I can—”
“Mr. Kennedy.” Autumn pressed a hand on his prickly wool sleeve. Confidence attracted confidence, and so she kept her manner firm. “You have three young daughters of your own. At some point in their lives, they will come to you and ask for something you feel is equally outrageous. Perhaps one of them will want to own a hotel, as well. Three days. Just give me three more days, till the end of business on Monday.”
He stared into her face and said nothing. But the longer he was silent, the more hopeful she became. He wasn’t saying no.
With a quirk of his scraggly beard, he nodded and left.
The pressure in her chest subsided. Roughly ten percent of Skagway’s population was made up of women, the numbers were climbing and some of them were doing quite well as shop owners. Others had staked claims in the Klondike and were just as rich as their male counterparts. Still, it wasn’t fair that most bankers thought men were smarter and worked harder in business than women.
There was a tiny thread of optimism here. That’s all she needed. The same thread of optimism she’d felt two months after her grandma’s funeral in Seattle. As far as Autumn had been concerned, she’d had three choices there: accept the marriage proposal from her grandpa’s solicitor, thirty years her senior. Stay in Seattle and work as a housemaid to pay her bills. Or take the next ship to Alaska and get hired as a singer through the advertisement she’d read in Skagway News. Until she saw an opening in a business venture, something much more solid than singing.
Someone tapped her waist from behind. It had to be one of her dance partners. Breathless, she wheeled around, craning her neck upward, expecting to see a familiar face.
Instead, here was the mysterious stranger.
There went her stomach again.
His brown eyes sparkled beneath the candlelit chandelier. A man well into his thirties. “May I have this dance, Miss Windhaven?”
Yes, she’d fooled him, too.
My, he was bold in how he stared. Autumn squirmed in her red lace corset. Not everything she wore was borrowed. Not her underclothes.
With the stranger this close, she hesitated. Sometimes, men who listened to her sing got carried away with their feelings. She was accustomed to protecting herself, onstage and off, particularly in this crime-ridden town, and thus responded, “I don’t believe I know you, sir.”
“That’s what a masquerade is all about.”
“But …but I do recognize the other gentlemen who’ve asked for my time, and I don’t seem—”
“Perhaps the other men are bores.”
She shifted her weight. “I beg your pardon?”
“You were tapping your toes and sipping your punch with great restraint. Perhaps it’s more thrilling if you don’t know my name.”
“Ah …huh …” Who was this man with such rude manners? “I peg you as a politician.”
A hint of humor tugged at his dark cheeks. His eyes remained unreadable. “Not so.”
“Then perhaps someone who does dramatic readings on stage?”
He tilted his dark head. His hair was neatly trimmed, his silky skin patted with barber’s lotions, the lightest scent of mint. “Wrong again. Aim for something more obscure.”
“Well, I have heard the town hired a new tombstone maker.”
His lips lifted with definite amusement. “I’d be too lonely. No one to talk to all day.”
“You could talk to the dead. Perhaps they wouldn’t mind if your manner was a little brisk.”
“I apologize for my briskness. May I have this dance?”
“It’s nearly over now. Sadly, you’ve talked your way through it.”
From behind, a large warm hand cupped hers. A different man. She turned to see Shaun, owner of the town’s largest bakery.
“Shaun! How wonderful you look in your tailored coat.” One lapel was lightly dusted with flour.
“I almost didn’t recognize you,” he boomed, nodding to Victoria, who swooped by, dancing the waltz. He nodded as if thanking her for pointing out the correct Autumn to him. Then he turned back to Autumn. “You look like a preacher’s wife.”
In the comfort of Shaun’s firm embrace, she left for the dance floor and the new waltz that was beginning. Shaun was by far the best dancer she’d ever known, although she’d only known him for little more than a week.
She was determined to enjoy this evening. Tonight’s social was a celebration of spring thaw, when the rivers opened up, when steamships arrived in the harbor after a long bleak winter, unloading hundreds of daring men and a few daring women in hopes of striking gold. Many were content to stay put in Skagway, to acclimatize to the weather and backwoods living, before facing the strenuous climb over the mountains to the Canadian Klondike.
They’d only completed one pleasant round of the waltz when Shaun was tapped on the shoulder.
That man again.
“A moment with your partner,” the stranger asked, so much taller and darker than her blond baker. At the responding silence, the man’s voice deepened. “For a wounded soldier who’s returned from battle.”
What battle? There was no battle she was aware of. Was he fibbing?
It worked on Shaun. He gave her up without a struggle. With annoyance, Autumn clamped her lips together.
“I’ll be back with two drinks,” said Shaun. “I’m parched. The ovens were hot tonight.”
With a slight smile of victory, the stranger cupped her right hand, and with his other hand on her waist, yanked her firmly to his chest. She sprang to life. Didn’t he know the proper way to hold a woman? She wiggled her way out a bit and was grateful, for the first time this evening, that every inch of her body was clothed. It didn’t stop him from glancing over the lace that ruffled her bosom. Her cheeks flamed.
Because there were so few women in Alaska, the town was filled with attention-starved men.
She strained a smile. “What battle do you come from? Somewhere overseas?”
“No battle. I only said that to get him out of the way.”
Scoundrel. Her chin slackened with distaste.
“Oh, I do have scruples,” he said, much to her displeasure that he could read her expression so accurately. “That’s what got me into this mess. Justice and injustice.”
What did he mean?
Just like that. A command. He locked his fingers around her wrist and marched her toward the balcony. Insulted by the intimate gesture, she yanked free of his hot fingers.
Nevertheless, she saw Shaun headed that way, too, with two glasses of punch, so she reluctantly followed.
“You can remove your mask,” the stranger said.
“As can you.”
“I’m not wearing—” He dark eyes flicked, then he found humor in her words. “I told you. My name’s irrelevant.”
Never mind him. Where was Shaun? As they entered the cool outdoors, she swatted at the blackflies.
The outdoor balcony was surrounded by icy peaks. The midnight sun of Alaska blazed low between the shoulders of the mountains, casting a warm glow on all it touched. All these hours of sunlight. It was still a marvel to Autumn. She spotted the half-moon, high in the sky and tinged in blue, determined to shed some light on their balcony, too, even though outpowered by the sun a billion to one.
A handful of men stood near the stone ledge rail. Three dressed in miner’s clothes immediately left, mumbling something about fresh drinks without the pesky flies, till there were only two remaining in the shadows. They were dressed more like ranchers than gentlemen at a dance.
Down below, on the path leading to the front door of the grand hotel, more folks were making their way through the heavy cedars.
Something dawned on her. Was this man an investor? Had the banker sent him? Smiling timidly, she stared at the turn of his dark cheek. Sunlight glinted off the clean lines of his jaw. His muscles strained against his jacket as he stepped back two paces. His face remained in shadow, almost as though he were trying to hide.
Attempting to figure things out, she looked past his heavy shoulders to the opened balcony door. There was poor Victoria, being dragged toward the stage.
“Oh, no,” said Autumn beneath her breath. “They want her to sing.” Victoria was the nurse and Autumn was the singer.
“Pardon?” The stranger tilted his dark head.
“I need to go rescue someone.”
“But I have something to ask you.”
He was an investor. She could feel it. Something unspoken between them, a surge of magnetic excitement.
“You are Victoria Windhaven?”
She blinked at him. He had her wrong identity. Not an investor, after all.
Now she was getting angry. If he refused to give his name, why should she give hers? Shaun would soon set him straight. She took another step to get away, but he blocked her path.
“Do you travel with your medicine bag?” he asked.
“Of course not. This is a social event.”
“Then you left it at the boarding house.”
“Inside the front door. Left closet.” That much she knew. But she was showing off, stretching this game too far. He would soon discover she had the upper hand here.
“It’s a pity we’re short of doctors,” he said. “They tell me the last two headed for the Klondike a month ago.”
“I…I understand a group of medical students will be arriving for the summer.”
She wheeled around to his other side, but he simply leaned back against the stone wall and she was trapped again.
“What happened to the two other nurses who work for the Society?”
So he wasn’t such a stranger. He knew the goings-on. Autumn glanced into the ballroom. Victoria was arguing with the two men leading her up the stage. At this rate, though, surely Victoria would win the fifty-dollar prize for best costume. “Left on a boat up the coast three days ago. A mountain fever has gripped Cedar Point. They’re not sure if it’s dysentery or cholera or something else. Two men have come down with it.”
The planes of his face twisted. “That’s a shame.”
She didn’t like how close he was standing, mere inches away. She stared at the white patches on his skin. “You normally have a beard. Your face is lighter where the sun hasn’t hit.”
He angled his head away from her, but she noticed something else. Fading light caught the tiny hair clippings at his ear and a dot of fresh blood, likely from a razor blade.
“You just got your hair cut.”
Why would someone get their hair cut and beard shaved, the very minute before a dance? Had he been in that much of a rush?
Behind him on the stage, Victoria was raising her hand to her face, about to unmask.
But here in front of Autumn, oblivious to the stage, the stranger’s riveting gaze made her tense. There was something contrary in his eyes. A black hint of trouble.
Prickles raced up the back of her neck. Sensing danger, she stumbled backward across her petticoat and long suede skirt.
“You won’t be hurt,” he said. “We only need your help.”
She leaped to run, but it was too late. He signaled to the two men hidden in shadow, and as silent as an ocean wave in moonlight, one clamped a hand over her mouth and they slid her over the balcony to two more outstretched hands waiting in the shrubs.
She kicked and bit and swung her arms into jaws and chests. “Leave me alone,” she managed to shout between the trees. “They’ll kill you! My friends will kill you!”
No one heard her. Her heart roared against the whipping Alaskan wind.
What kind of help did he want from her? Who was this criminal?