Meet Weston, a Mountie who never thought he would marry, much less be forced to the altar with a gun to his back.
© Kate Bridges. All rights reserved.
Dawson City, Yukon, May 1899
“I think he’s going to ask you to dance.”
“I dearly hope not,” said Milly Thornbottom to her good friend, Cora Vandenberg. Anyone but him. Heat of embarrassment rushed up Milly’s throat. She smoothed the pleats of her ball gown in the bright evening sun that blasted through the community lodge for the annual Spring Fever Ball.
Milly’s other friend, Rose Addison, whispered. “He’s attracted by your wicked hat, no doubt.”
“Stop teasing. Can’t you two behave?” Milly glanced across the crowded dance floor to the tall man in the red Mountie uniform to whom they were referring, who wouldn’t let go of her gaze. A cool evening breeze ruffled the hairs at the back of her knotted bun, dark brunette hair she’d carefully pinned up for the biggest event of the year. She fiddled with a lose strand.
The lace trim on her sleeves swirled through the air. Beside her, Cora leaned against Rose. The two friends were such a contrast—Cora with her ruddy complexion and short golden curls, Rose with long black tresses.
He was still looking. In order to break away from the Mountie’s stare, Milly adjusted the brim of her hat, a wine-colored burgundy that matched her dress.
She’d stitched the organza to the brim only last night at eleven o’clock because it had been so sinfully busy at the hat and dress shop where she worked. She’d volunteered to stay extra late to help her dear older neighbor, whose vision was going. The grandmother had needed help to hem a dress she’d attempted to fix on her own and then required a proper seamstress. Milly had restrung the loose beads across the waist while she was at it, and the woman couldn’t thank her enough.
The customers had all dropped in at the last minute it seemed, women boisterously preparing for the coming week of celebrations.
The Yukon was celebrating its spring, the thawing of its rivers for passage and the endless sunshine that would soon bake the north. Milly couldn’t wait.
Across the room, the door opened again and caused another breeze. More folks entered the lodge. The fluttering white sash on Milly’s hat tickled her back, where her neckline plunged in a fashionable swoop.
She wondered if the man in uniform was truly coming for her, and dared another glance his way.
They hadn’t spoken the entire winter.
Weston Williams. Recent recruit for the North-West Mounted Police. He maneuvered his muscled frame through the crowd, aiming his blue eyes on Milly. To her annoyance, he still made her pulse rush. Dark blond hair brushed his shoulders, a bit longer than the other Mounties’. Although she and Weston had been quarantined for measles together last summer for two whole weeks in a group of strangers, they’d rarely shared an entire conversation. No matter how hard she’d tried.
“Are you still angry with Weston?” asked Rose.
“I couldn’t care, really. Last summer he treated me as though I was far beneath him.”
“Because he wouldn’t talk to you much?” said Cora.
Milly nodded. “He was always shrugging me off at every opportunity. Making me feel stupid for asking him what he probably thought were endless questions about his horses and his work. I was only curious. But he made me feel like I was a puppy wagging my tail around him.”
“Oh, I know the feeling,” said Cora. “It’s humiliating. You were bored in quarantine. He could’ve kept you company.”
“Maybe he’s changed,” said Rose.
“He’s rude in my opinion,” said Milly, “and I want nothing more to do with him.”
However…she couldn’t help but notice when he looked her way again, the flecks of black in his blue eyes added to their depth and mystery. His lips seemed always on the verge of expression, yet never seemed to give away what he was thinking.
His red wool jacket tugged at the corners of his broad shoulders. Dark breeches spanned long legs and tall leather boots added height to his already-huge physique.
Did the Mounties dress to intimidate? She supposed the uniform and boots did that. Or perhaps the shoulder harness and gun.
Judging from the other men nodding at her, it seemed Weston was not the only one who’d noticed how much she’d changed from last year to this. Changed on the outside, she thought, but not on the inside. She was the same she’d always been, only he’d been too haughty to notice when it had really mattered to her.
Tonight, she appreciated the others in the room who had more manners and kinder things to say to her.
“Pardon me,” said a male voice behind her.
Milly twirled around. Her long skirts flashed across the plank floors, exposing the pointed black tips of her new boots. When the mercantile’s handsome son, James Yakov, nodded his dark head at her, she beamed. “James.”
“Your father said I might have this dance.”
“Absolutely,” she gushed. “I was hoping you’d ask.”
She’d stitched this dress for James. He’d once complimented her on a burgundy-colored blouse, and so she’d chosen burgundy linen for her gown tonight.
“You look pretty,” he told her, causing her pleasure to deepen.
“Thank you. I’ve—I’ve never seen you in a suit before. It makes you look quite dashing.”
He boldly took her hand and whirled her around the floor to a waltz, awkward at first, then synchronizing steps.
She glanced in her parents’ direction. Theodore and Abigail Thornbottom, owners of the rope and broom shop in Dawson City, were watching her carefully, even while shaking the hands of Reverend Murphy. Her thin father, in his tight plaid suit and white ponytail, squeezed the plump shoulder of her mother, whose own golden ball gown Milly had worked on in secret for a solid month, and then surprised her. It had been well worth her mother’s delight.
Tonight, her mother’s skin was flushed with pride, her eyes sparkling as she said goodbye to the minister. The man was leaving on a journey in the morning to visit the camps that dotted the riverbanks, for those in need of religious services that had been stymied by the impassable winter weather.
Milly reveled in the feel of James’s loose hold on her waist. She wished he’d press tighter so she could really feel his grip. She also wished her folks would let her make her own decisions regarding dance partners, but she was working on them.
Thank goodness they’d said yes to James.
It was spring and Milly, Cora and Rose would blissfully take their time deciding on men. Potential husbands, even. The thought made Milly’s stomach flutter. Like Cora and Rose, Milly was ready for courtship—for the year ahead, meeting all types of gentlemen she could thankfully choose from. Perhaps she didn’t have to look far. James was here.
He squeezed her waist. She lowered her lashes and held back a smile, not wanting to be too obvious. Then to her utter shock, he twirled her around right at the base of Weston William’s feet. She held her breath and didn’t dare look up.
Weston had been snubbed by James already, if he’d intended to ask for the dance first. However, it was Weston’s loss. He’d waited too long. Ever since last summer, to be frank.
When the waltz ended, she was panting with enthusiasm. “Thank you so much, James, I—”
“Her pa said I was next.” A heavy-set older man interrupted them. Mr. Dirk Slayton. He’d apparently missed a patch of dark stubble on one cheek when he’d shaved this evening.
Queasiness rolled up her spine. Must her father direct every moment? In his late forties, Mr. Slayton was nearly as old as her folks. And as big as a giant.
She nodded goodbye to James—for the moment—and slipped her hand into the palm of this rich gold miner, one of the Klondike’s newest millionaires.
He waltzed her into the crowd. She held her face away from his sweaty neck.
It was said Mr. Slayton had more gold than he could carry. More than he could spend in a lifetime. But his problem was the same as everyone else’s who’d struck it rich, here in the middle of nowhere at the end of civilization.
Nothing to buy. No place to spend his massive fortune. The shops and tented stores couldn’t keep up with the demand for clothing, utensils, furniture and everything else that most folks back home in Montana took for granted.
“Been a long, cold winter,” said Mr. Slayton.
She nodded. Her hair tugged from its bun as he spun her around a little too freely. “Yes, sir.”
“Fella gets awful lonely.”
“A wife is what I need.”
“Yes…no… I see.”
Her temple throbbed. Her fingers, moist with perspiration, slipped against his grip. She dreaded what he might say next.
“And in case you’re wonderin’, my nuggets are the size of eggs.”
Good grief. How crass.
Milly’s gaze darted about for a means of escape. Cora and Rose were also on the dance floor, being whirled about by a shopkeeper, and another gold miner even older than Milly’s.
To her rescue, one of the youthful Baldwin brothers appeared. “Your parents suggested I come say hello.”
With great relief and giving the pleasant bartender her best show of welcome, she moved forward, intending to place her hand in his.
Instead, a familiar figure slid in. Weston snatched her hand and placed his other firmly against her waist.
Her pulse leaped.
“She’s mine this time, Baldwin.”
Had Weston asked permission from her father?
She stared openmouthed across the floor, searching for her parents, but Weston yanked her back to look at him.
She stared up at the cut of his dark blond eyebrows, the strong lines of his jaw and cheekbone. With a tingle racing through her stomach, Milly didn’t know how to stop him from entwining his fingers into hers.
“Have you asked permission?” Milly asked.
“The only permission I need is yours.”
He paused for a moment to let her respond while her heart pounded against her ribs.
Piano music filled the hall. Guitars strummed. Banjo pickers added flavor to the waltz.
She should object. She should say no. He gave her precisely two seconds, then taking her silence for a yes, he pressed his warm palm against the plunging back of her dress and led her firmly across the floor.
Weston held her. She was stunning.
He wrapped his hand around Milly’s warm, slender fingers and slid his other dangerously low along her bare back. Her mouth formed a silent gasp when he did so, which in turn made the corner of his mouth tug upward.
Fool with him, would she?
He’d give her a taste of how it felt to follow through on temptation.
How much could she expect him to take?
Last summer in quarantine had been almost impossible. She had tagged along his every step as he’d tended to the horses in the stables, always watching with those dark, luscious eyes…but she’d seemed so much younger at the time. There’d been other eyes upon him then, too. Wherever Milly had gone, her father and mother had followed. Indeed, it had been her obnoxiously interfering parents who’d kept him at a safe ten paces. They didn’t see themselves as the town’s biggest gossips, but everyone else did. Nothing but a headache is what they were.
Good luck to any man trying to get close to Milly.
But…what harm could one dance bring?
Maybe she’d stop making those eyes at him if he once and for all just danced with the woman. He’d get the desire to touch her out of his blood and be done with it.
In one year’s time, Milly Thornbottom had matured into a startling beauty. Her brown hair, rich in the fading sunlight, framed clear skin and a pretty upturned mouth. Had her waist gotten smaller and her bosom larger, or was she simply constrained by a tighter corset? In either case, she had blossomed from a shy adolescent into a compelling and competent woman, one training as a milliner.
At least her parents had taught her the virtues of hard work and labor. They owned the only shop in town that sold ropes and brooms.
Surely a Mountie, caged indoors for an icy winter in the Yukon like he’d experienced, was allowed the presence of a beautiful woman if only for one night?
They would dance. He would know how it felt to hold her, then be on his way.
“How’s business at the dress shop?” he asked.
“Busier than ever, now that spring has arrived.”
“Does spring fever bring out the desire for colorful new hats?”
Her responding smile affected the rhythm of his breathing. Her cheeks sparkled with light glowing from the ceiling lanterns.
She tilted her head, her crimson hat framing brilliant brown hair. “How are you enjoying your apprenticeship?”
“Very much,” he said.
“I hear the veterinary surgeon is relying on you more and more.”
It felt strangely pleasing that she had heard—or perhaps even asked about him. “We’ve got half a dozen horses just brought through the pass. Twelve others didn’t make it. The ones that did are in rough shape. Two broodmares who’ll need delivering soon.”
Tenderness melted the lines of her mouth. “Will the foals be all right?”
“They’re skinny, but the mares are in good health.”
He pressed her close to twirl her through the crowd.
Weston lowered his palm on her back, letting it linger almost at the base of her spine. It was a racy position, and he knew it. But he enjoyed the soft feel of her, the proximity of her lips to his neck, her bosom pressed almost against his chest. When he glanced down, her scooped neckline revealed the white lace edge of her corset, making him gulp a breath.
Her corset had to be a daring new design, in order to expose this much of her bare back without the whalebone being visible.
Her lashes flashed upward at the boldness of his hand. Her nostrils flared slightly, her glossy lips parted. He restrained himself and glanced away. But his body was beginning to react in a manner that would soon betray him.
The dance ended. Weston grasped her hand. “Let’s go for a walk, shall we?”
He should leave her. Right here on the dance floor, staring up at him with that feverish look, in a pretty, low-cut gown that exposed the top swell of breathtaking curves.
“Sorry,” he said, abruptly changing his mind. “I didn’t realize the time. I should really say good-night. Thank you for the dance.”
He departed and left her with her mouth open, standing alone among the others.