WANTED IN ALASKA Harl. Historicals ISBN 978-0-373-29531-9 Feb 2009
Outlaw Quinn Rowlan is in desperate need of help for his wounded brother when he attends Skagway's fancy masquerade ball and kidnaps a nurse. Except that Autumn MacNeil is no nurse, and his reckless mistake could cost them their lives.
Autumn is outraged at what this madman has done, and has a few tricks of her own for survival. What neither of them anticipates is how intense and meaningful every moment they spend together becomes. Slowly, they lower their guard, and set off on a dangerous adventure to set the world right.
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Excerpt - WANTED IN ALASKA February 2009 Harlequin Historicals 978-0-373-29531-9 Copyright (c) Kate Bridges. All rights reserved.
Skagway, District of Alaska, early June 1899
He was a tough man to ignore. And 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.
“It’s definitely you.”
Dressed in black tails, elegant wool pants, blue silk cravat and 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 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 being locked up in the longest winter she’d ever experienced. 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 reddish-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 blonde 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 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, 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 ballgowns, 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 her. But she ignored him, too, and latched onto 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 McNeil—” 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?”
A sticky warmth infused her face. “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 within the next day.”
“My appointment, sir, is on Monday. Surely you can let any business dealings rest on the Sabbath.”
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 the 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, may God rest her soul, would agree. The two of them together had barely survived 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. A hotel owned by a woman. Three days. Just give me three more days.”
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 five percent of Skagway’s population were women, 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. As far as Autumn had been concerned, she’d had three choices in Seattle: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.
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, in a swoop of anxiety.
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, on stage 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 better, more adventurous, 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. “You think me quite boisterous. Aim for something more obscure.”
“Well, I have heard the town hired a new coffin 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’s blond cheek. 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.”
Her spirits sank at the comparison, but she gasped with exaggerated pleasure in front of the stranger.
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...