Meet Wyatt, a hardened rancher in Alaska, who gets a second chance with a lost love.
© Kate Bridges. All rights reserved.
Timberlost, District of Alaska, 1900
He was a hard man to forget. Dr. Emma Sinclair took a deep breath, ignored the pounding of her heart and warned herself to stop thinking about him. With a skilled eye and very steady hand, Emma threaded her medical needle.
Her leg-of-mutton sleeves billowed up and down with her movements. Even after sixteen years, the thought of bumping into Wyatt Barlow during the last three days of her visit home made her pulse hammer and her stomach quiver. Would he still have the power to affect her? With those deep, riveting brown eyes and that warm, private smile that had always flushed her skin.
It didn’t matter. He was the last man in the town of Timberlost that she wanted to see. Now he was after her brother.
With hot afternoon sunshine blazing through the scrubbed windows and tiny Mrs. McCullough standing behind her just bursting to ask about Wyatt, Emma brushed aside her frivolous thoughts and concentrated on her young patient. She gently stitched the final suture in his arm.
“Are you feeling better, David?” She knew the morphine had taken hold.
Sitting on the rickety examination table, Mrs. McCullough’s grandson raised his tear-streaked face to Emma’s reassuring smile. “Yeah, I don’t feel the pain no more.”
She nodded and wrapped his arm with gauze. She was itching to wipe the perspiration trickling down her neck beneath her braid, but her hands were occupied. A fresh, cool breeze rolled in from the window, scenting the air with pines and cedars from the valley.
To get a smile from David, she let him hold her shiny new pocket watch, last month’s graduation present from her family, while she counted his pulse.
White-haired Mrs. McCullough, in a faded country dress, edged closer. “It’s just our bad luck,” she complained, “missing Doc Brady on the one day he’s outta town. You sure you know what you’re doin’, Emma?”
Emma drew a breath at the insult, reminding herself the woman was her elder and the reverend’s mother-in-law. “Yes, Mrs. McCullough,” she said kindly, “I do. It might be my first time filling in, but I watched Doc Brady do this all the time when I was growing up. And I got excellent grades in college.”
She anchored a sling around David’s arm. “Your grandson’s going to be just fine.” She was proud of her smooth stitching—and her quick response to her first emergency alone, although Mrs. McCullough didn’t need to know that.
The woman’s mind seemed to be on other things. “I bet your Ma’s sorry you’re heading back to Philadelphia.”
Emma shifted uneasily. The topic was changing to her personal life and that usually led to talk of Wyatt. “She’s encouraging me to go. The training I’ll get working alongside the surgeons is training I can’t get here.” Her bags were almost packed, her banking done.
She helped David off the wooden table to his steady feet. “We’re all finished.”
“Have you talked to Wyatt yet?”
Emma winced at the name. “No. Now, where did I put my soiled instruments?” She tried to keep her voice calm. Stepping to the wall of worn cupboards, she searched the sunny office, hoping the woman would take the hint. “I don’t have much time to clean up, I promised to help my sister with dinner.” She rambled on, “We’re roasting a turkey to celebrate my new job…I’m always the one who peels and mashes the potatoes.”
The woman’s face darkened. “Turkey dinners! Celebrations! What have you Sinclairs got to celebrate?” She opened her mouth to say more, but the sound of children hollering and horses’ hooves pounding the dirt distracted them both.
Someone—a child—a boy was screaming, “Doc Brady! Doc Brady!”
Emma jumped and ran to the door. Two white horses heaved to a stop in a flurry of dust. A single rider, a young boy, stood in the stirrups of one while holding the reins of the other, and screamed again, “Doc Brady! Doc Brady!”
She grabbed her medicine bag and ran. People dashed to him from all directions. Pain jabbed through her calf, just enough to annoy her. She kept moving, limping, sizing up the boy.
He seemed unhurt. Dressed in farm clothes, ten or eleven, he jumped off his horse, sobbing, “Doc Brady!”
Emma pushed her way toward him and dropped her heavy bag. “Doc Brady and his wife are in Skagway buying supplies.”
The boy spun around. She peered into his eyes and froze. Wyatt’s son. Had to be. Same dark brows and piercing eyes.
A honeybee whizzed by her ear at full speed. “What is it? Is it your father? Who needs help?”
“She’s gonna die.” He bent over and sobbed.
Not Melissa. Calming herself, Emma knelt and gripped the boy by the shoulders. “You’re Tommy Barlow, aren’t you?”
He looked up and nodded.
“I’m a doctor, my name’s Emma. Tell me what’s wrong.”
Frowning, he glanced at her city-bought blouse, its fancy collar, the lace trim.
“Tell her boy,” said someone, “she’s a doctor.”
“It’s Melissa. The baby’s not supposed to come for a long time.” Tommy’s voice broke. He clamped a hand over his eyes. “But my sister’s screamin’….”
Terror seized her. “How long has she been screaming?”
“About an hour.”
“Is she alone?”
“No, Pa won’t leave her. Great-grandpa’s there, too.”
“They’re at the ranch?”
Thirty minutes away at full gallop. “Why do you think Melissa’s dying?”
“I heard ’em say there’s too much blood.”
Heart pumping, she sprang to her feet. “How much blood?”
“I don’t know, they said it was soakin’ the bed.”
“I’ll get my supplies, you calm your horses.”
Tommy nodded. Two men stepped forward to help him.
She raced back to the empty office and grabbed the obstetrical bag. Poor Melissa, she wasn’t due for six weeks. Emma’s stomach turned. The baby hardly had a chance.
And Doc Brady had said Melissa had a small pelvis. Reeling, Emma clawed through the bag for forceps. Doc Brady should be going to help, he’d know exactly what to do. She’d send someone to get him. Her fingers wrapped cold metal. A short prayer burst from her lips. Her first delivery. Her first time with forceps.
She drove the fear down and flew to Tommy. He was gently tending to his mare. Her heart stirred. He’d lost his mother years before and now he was worried about his sister. It was more than any boy should have to think about. Should she add to his burden and tell him her last name was Sinclair?
No. It would upset him, more time wasted.
He glanced up as she hobbled down the stairs. Panicked, his gaze fixed on her walk. “What’s the matter with your leg?”
“When I was a girl, I was bitten by a snake.”
“Yes.” Should she tell him his father was there when she got bitten?
His voice escalated. “You sure you can ride?”
“I’m sure.” Neighbors’ hands helped her mount her horse. She left word for Doc Brady and her brother, Cole, then tore off.
Wobbly and out of practice, she shifted in the saddle. She pressed with her knees. That was better.
The hot wind whirled around her blouse, drying her lips and ballooning her skirt. In rhythm to the gallop, her braid slapped against her back. She felt her blouse latch to the sweat of her spine. In a rumble of horses’ hooves, Tommy appeared beside her. They cornered the general store.
She thought of Wyatt and her heart squeezed. He must be sick with fear. She whispered a prayer for Melissa and the baby. Did Wyatt have anyone he could turn to for comfort at a time like this?
She gulped air, trying to squelch the fluttering in her stomach. The last time she’d seen him, through a crowd almost two years ago, they’d pretended their eyes hadn’t met. He’d ignored her completely.
What would she say when they came face-to-face? Words seemed so inadequate. How are you, Wyatt? Please forgive my brother, he’s so young. By the way, was there ever a solitary moment in the last sixteen years when you were sorry you didn’t marry me?
Nothing could ever persuade her to trust herself to Wyatt again. Not her. Never again.
“Hold on, darlin’,” Wyatt whispered tenderly to Melissa, wondering if she could hear him as she slept. “Help’s coming, Doc Brady’s on his way.”
The orange setting sun beat through the frilly bedroom curtains, across the flowered wallpaper, and blazed onto the half-dozen dolls lined along her dresser. He drew a trembling hand through his black hair and sighed. She cast a lonely figure, lying on the iron bed, a lacy sheet pulled over the womanly bulge of her stomach, while such youth shone in her face.
He wiped her forehead with a cool cloth. Her wild auburn hair spilled about her, accentuating her paleness.
Ruth, gray-haired and hunched over, shuffled into the room with clean towels. Even with her poor eyesight, the old midwife had been a big help, coming quickly from the neighboring grain farm. Just having another woman around made him feel better.
She’d already changed the sheets. Thankfully, Melissa’s bleeding had stopped and things looked almost normal. The only remaining proof it’d happened were the scattered red drops on the legs of his denims.
“I’ve got everything set up for the doc,” Ruth said. “Clean towels, fresh water and a blanket for the baby, if we should need one.”
He glanced at Melissa’s big belly and winced. The baby. Little girl or little boy?
Ruth placed a thin hand on his shoulder. “Nothin’ we can do now except wait. No doctor can stop what nature’s intendin’. When they’re this early…” Her words caused his heart to spiral downward. She shook her head and wrung her hands into her apron. Leaving the room, she added, “And poor Melissa, you should prepare yourself…”
No. Studying his daughter’s sleeping face, his gaze traveled over her smooth cheeks to the freckles on her nose. He pulled in a shaky breath.
Was it that bad?
Melissa had lost an awful lot of blood, but maybe the worst was over. His gut tightened. Pulling the slat-back chair from the wall, he slid into it, grateful to anchor himself into something solid. It creaked under the weight of his muscled body.
He lifted Melissa’s hand in his, delighting in its soft, familiar feel.
All they’d done for months was argue.
What a mess he’d made of everything, trying to be both mother and father to his children. What made him think he could raise them alone? Why hadn’t he listened to everyone around him, telling him to marry again, at least for the sake of the children?
Because he wasn’t very good at it.
He’d believed in love once, a long time ago, but he’d learned a lot since then, and romantic foolishness had been purged from his heart.
He was the one responsible for his wife’s decline, and he shuddered at what the children had witnessed. The worst thing of all was that they were with him the night he found Lillie, frozen in the storm. She was losing her mind with loneliness, she’d told him once. Even though he knew he’d done all he could to make the marriage work, to help her with her despair, in the end he couldn’t help her.
And that had broken his heart.
Marry again? He shook his head. Not in a thousand years.
Melissa moaned and he nearly jumped. She fell back into a restful position as a name burned in his brain.
Cole Sinclair. What should he do about the boy? Food, shelter and clothing—Cole couldn’t provide one of those necessities, let alone all three. What father could hand over a daughter and her newborn to such a helpless boy? When would Cole learn how to hold down a job?
If Melissa didn’t make it through this—Wyatt clenched his jaw—he was going to skin Cole alive. And if she did make it through… Wyatt would deal with Cole Sinclair.
Kissing Melissa’s hand, he placed it back at her side. He glanced at the clock on the dresser. What was keeping Doc Brady? Feeling so utterly useless, he had an urge to jump up and scream.
Blazes, he needed some air. He needed to move.
He got Ruth to sit with Melissa and stepped into the hall to peer out the bay window. With a good view of the valley from the second floor, he searched the dirt road nestled in the greenery. There was no trace of riders.
He stared at his horses galloping on the slopes. If he lost Melissa, nothing he’d worked so hard to achieve mattered. Not the house, not the ranch, not the fifty horses.
If ever he needed the old doctor, it was now. Where were they? He felt an arm on his shoulder and he spun around.
Grandpa tried to smile but his forehead crinkled up with concern, adding to the heavy wrinkles of his eighty-some years. His bushy brows drew together on his shiny balding head, his long gray hair fluffed around his ears. “Don’t worry, boy, Doc’s comin’. Ain’t never disappointed us, no sirree.”
Wyatt peered through the window again. What was that? On the horizon, a tiny swirl of dust.
Hallelujah, approaching riders. His heart sped. “It’s them.” He leaped down the stairs and out the door. Standing under the aspen, he peered down the rutted road to where the mountains split, past the gold-mining pits and cuts of timber where the loggers were hauling wood. The riders entered his valley. His anticipation mounted as he watched the cloud of dust twist and swell behind the two riders.
But…his eyes were playing tricks.
It took a moment for him to register what he was seeing. They were his precious Arabians—he’d sent his fastest horses—and he could make out Tommy. He squinted through the shimmering waves of heat, cupping a hand over his eyes. He tensed. Where was the doctor’s head of white hair? And what was that? A skirt blowing in the wind? A woman?
Something about the rider seemed familiar. The angle of her head, the way she held her shoulders tight and leaned into the horse. As she turned the final border of trees, his breath caught.
His senses spun. Reeling back, his heart lurched and his gut slammed, as surely as if he’d been punched. Trying to right his balance, he rubbed his bristly cheek with his palm. Hell, he would have preferred a punch…a little blood, a few cuts, but at least he’d know in a day or two, he’d recover.
Emma. What was she doing here? Coming to help Melissa? She sure wasn’t coming for him, not after how he’d treated her. He pushed aside his guilt as anger overtook him.
Now what? Was he supposed to let her help? After what her brother did? Dammit, was Wyatt supposed to quietly step aside and let Cole’s sister deal with Melissa? Was that supposed to somehow clear the slate?
He rubbed a hand over his mouth and swore. He watched her, hypnotized, as she galloped straight toward him. He’d heard rumors she was visiting and that she’d finally graduated from the Women’s College, a brand new doctor. He’d always believed she’d make a good one. Was she? It mattered more to him now than ever.
They thundered in. The mutts barked. He dashed out, reaching for the mare’s reins before Emma could dismount. “Pa,” Tommy shouted, jumping off his mount.
Wyatt’s gut wrenched as he gazed up into her eyes. Her cheeks were flushed and she was out of breath.
His heart hammered against his chest with concern for Melissa. “Where’s Doc Brady?”
“In Skagway buying supplies. How’s Melissa? She still bleeding?”
He softened, letting the reins slacken between his fingers. “She’s sleeping. Her bleeding stopped forty-five minutes ago.”
Her shoulders dipped with relief. Sliding off the saddle, she touched the ground on tiptoe, standing a head below his large frame. “Any more contractions?”
Her cheeks grew pinker. “And the baby? Can you see movement in Melissa’s belly?”
“Yeah. I almost jumped out of my skin when I saw the baby wiggling, clean through the sheet.”
Her whole face brightened. Her eyes sparkled. “That’s reassuring. Those are good signs. The best thing for Melissa is to let her sleep. There’s nothing better we can do.”
Maybe the worst was over. His daughter might be fine.
Emma’s confidence made the clamp around his heart loosen. His hopes soared to the endless blue sky.
Tommy took the horses and led them to the watering trough. Wyatt couldn’t help but beam at Emma. A smile trembled over her mouth, the pretty sight catching him off guard, causing his stomach to roll. He didn’t want to be caught off guard. He suddenly realized their proximity, not two feet between them. Close enough to notice the clean scent of her sweat, the tiny drops of dew glistening above her upper lip.
She seemed to be affected, too, either by him or the hard ride. Face flushed, she pulled in a deep breath, her chest heaving and her pink lips quivering. Looking like she’d just been made love to.
Watching her was torture. He took a step back, tried to regain his composure, then his eyes found hers again.
“How are you, Emma?”
“Fine.” She thrust out her chin. So she was still mad at him. Yet she’d come to help. And those big, greenish-brown eyes… Did they still flash more green than brown when she was angry? Yes, they did. He swallowed hard. Staring at her felt like an aching wound.
His probing gaze seemed to make her uneasy but she held her ground. Something about her was different. She was dusty from the ride, but in her starched city clothes and that fine braided twist of her glossy brown hair, she looked out of place. As out of place as a polished city slicker who’d just arrived to the wilds of Alaska.
She was an outsider now. She hadn’t lived in Alaska for years. She’d spent them working at her aunt and uncle’s boardinghouse in Philadelphia, paying for her studies as she could afford them, becoming a fine city girl in the process.
Another city girl, just like the one he’d married. People and places he didn’t understand. He shoved a hand into his pocket.
Tommy’s boots crunched on the ground beside him. “Emma’s a doctor,” said the boy, “that’s why I brought her.”
“Please let me help, Wyatt.” The huskiness of her voice as she said his name strummed through him. He’d missed that. “I’d like to examine Melissa,” she said. “I won’t disturb her, but I need to see her.”
Before he could open his mouth, Grandpa stomped up from behind and blocked her path. “We’re not lettin’ a Sinclair through our door. Go back to that no-good brother of yours. We don’t like Sinclairs around here. Every time we have something to do with your lot…even with your father, you know what happened—”
“Sir, that happened thirty years ago. In Montana Territory. Far away and long ago.”
Tommy’s head whipped up. “What! You’re a Sinclair? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Emma turned to the boy with sadness in her eyes, and Wyatt momentarily felt sorry for her. “It would have been a terrible burden for you to have to make that choice for your sister.”
“But I trusted you—”
“You can still trust me,” she assured him, her eyes moistening. “I took an oath to help people. Their last name’s got nothing to do with it. And neither does mine,” she said, directing the comment to Wyatt. Her chest rose and the lace around her buttons shifted. He jerked his gaze away from her chest.
Grandpa cleared his throat. “You’re not gonna trust a Sinclair, are you Wyatt?”
He certainly was. His daughter was upstairs bleeding. “Melissa needs help, Grandpa, more than we can give her.”
The old man propped his hands on his hips. “We can manage fine with Ruthie until Doc Brady gets here.”
Emma reddened. “He may not get here till morning.”
Wyatt’s heart plunged.
Grandpa lost some of his color. “Not till mornin’?”
Emma’s chin trembled but her hands remained steady, a good quality in a doctor, and that’s what mattered to Wyatt. He stepped to her horse and untied her bags. “Come on in, Emma, and—” he paused, turning around to face her “—thank you for coming to check on Melissa. I’m grateful.”
She flushed and nodded, averting her eyes, and glanced uneasily at Grandpa.
“You’re playin’ with fire,” Grandpa muttered, but Wyatt could see mixed feelings churning in the old eyes. “Opening the door for her,” Grandpa said, “yet slamming it in the face of her brother. You’re playin’ with fire, yes sirree.”
Motioning to the stables, Wyatt tried to find some way to pacify the old man. “Please, Grandpa, the ranch hands have returned from fencing, ask them to wipe down the horses. Tommy, you did a good job going all the way to town by yourself and bringing back a doctor. Now help your Grandpa.” The old man scowled and left with the boy.
Turning to Emma, Wyatt waved an arm to the big house. “Melissa’s upstairs, follow me.”
In five long strides, he reached the wide porch, carrying the heavy bags with ease. She trailed behind, flogging dust from her skirt.
When he turned and waited for her a second time, he saw her limping. A pang of guilt shot through him. She was trying to hide her discomfort as she climbed the porch steps.
“You all right?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she said, a little too quickly.
He frowned. “Your leg’s bothering you.”
“It’s nothing. Blame it on new shoes.” She looked away hastily as his eyes shot down to her feet. “Always takes me a week or two to break them in….”
Her scuffed, brown leather boots looked more worn than a week or two. She turned crimson and didn’t meet his gaze, and he didn’t question it further.
He yanked the screen door wide, fully intending to step back to give her space to pass, but he found himself rooted. As she brushed by him into the entry, her shoulder grazed his arm and a shiver of awareness rippled through his body. She inhaled sharply at their contact, blushing and blowing the moistened strands of silky hair away from her face.
What on earth was he doing?