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Skagway, District of Alaska, late August 1899
That familiar and arrogant way he moved captured her attention. Wearing a tan leather vest and black shirt that barely spanned his wide shoulders, Brant MacQuaid strode down the path as though he still thought he could part the Red Sea. His granite eyes flickered at the stagecoach driver, then he turned and headed straight for her. Her heart leaped. He'd changed a great deal in the five years since Victoria Windhaven had last laid eyes on him.
He was more of a man.
I don't care, she told herself. He was one of three men who'd deserted her at a time when she'd needed him to stay. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing how devastated she'd been.
With her pulse rushing, Victoria shuffled beneath
her skirts and stood in the morning light that slanted over the livery stables and cast shadows on their well-oiled stagecoach. Stable hands around them calmly pitched straw and walked horses, unaware of her moment of reckoning.
Her partner on this journey, young medical student Cooper Sullivan, was huffing in exertion as he tried to swing his suitcases up beside the driver.
Brant reached her side, still a head taller but so much more filled out. Last she'd heard, he was hundreds of miles away, hired as a trail guide in the Klondike. Maybe he'd even tried his own hand at staking gold.
She sucked in the dusty air. Fighting for poise, she gripped her medical bags. "What are you doing here?"
"Morning." His voice was as deep and razor-sharp as she remembered. He tilted his hat in mock salute. "Pleasure to see you, too, Victoria." His eyes cornered hers.
"Rumor was you were in Dawson."
He was as annoying as ever. What did it matter? She was leaving town and owed him nothing. Not even the slightest social grace.
He looked over her shoulder toward the inside of Colburne Stables. Wasn't even able to meet her eyes. Maybe his guilt had finally caught up to him. The cad.
His gaze returned to her face.
She tilted one shoulder at him. "This stage is private. If you've bought a ticket, keep it for the next one."
"Don't need a ticket." Then he added in a more personal tone, "You're a long way from St. Louis."
She ignored his attempt to get reacquainted. "Let me say this again. This coach is for the medical team heading to Glitter Mountain."
"I heard you became a nurse."
"And I never heard what more became of you." Not until last year, but she'd rather play innocent than admit she'd exchanged a thread of gossip about him.
"If I thought you cared about my well-being, I'd tell you."
Now he really was too much.
With a whirl of her skirts, she set down one of her bags and opened the coach door. She called over her shoulder in a dismissive manner, "I'll be leaving town for two or three weeks, so you won't have to worry about that. Enjoy your solitude."
"Can't say I will."
She wheeled back to him again. Hot sunshine blasted her cheeks beneath her cowboy hat. The hat was much sturdier and offered more protection from the weather than a bonnet. "What do you mean?"
"I'm going with you."
She squared her jaw. "I've just explained. This coach is for me, that young man, and—" she peered around Brant's obnoxiously wide frame, looking for another man "—our bodyguard."
Something in his dark eyes intensified, and her stomach fluttered in a silent warning. "Oh, no."
Alarmed, she stepped back a few paces. "Don't tell me. Please don't tell me…"
"Got hired last night."
"What happened to Harry? He went with me in the spring." She peered desperately around the stables. "He knows the backwoods up and down."
"Expecting his brother on a ship, any day now. Harry prefers to stay here and greet him."
"What about John?" Her voice rose another octave. "John Abraham?"
"He's already up there. Took a group on an expedition to the mountains, looking for gold. My orders are to bring you there. He'll bring you back."
"But the deputy marshal…" Her mouth ran dry.
"Go ahead and talk to him. He's the one who hired me."
Her stomach tightened into a lump. He peered over her shoulder again. What was he looking at? Were the men behind her more interesting than what she had to say? She was speaking about his job.
His focus returned. Those sharp gray eyes she'd once found charming were now untrustworthy. "Up to you. You could make your patients on the trail wait a day or two, till they find you another bodyguard. Or you can relax—for once in your life—and accept my services."
Outrage pounded through her, just as Cooper stepped up beside them.
He was a slender young man in a tweed wool vest, studying to be a doctor and here for the summer from Philadelphia.
He craned his head at Brant. "You qualified, mister?"
"Land's sake," she sputtered, her thoughts still on Brant's insulting comment. "You're the one who was wound up so tight—"
Before she could finish, he pulled a gun from his holster so fast at her, she squealed and dropped her remaining bag. He leaped toward her. She shut her eyes for a second, but heard no gunshot. Just the sound of his footsteps raced behind her.
She opened her lids and wheeled around at the commotion. Men inside the livery stable halted in the midst of their chores to watch Brant jump over the stall boards and leap at three men.
"Stop!" Brant hollered.
But two of the men ran. The one holding the reins of a horse swung at Brant. Brant ducked, then jumped up and punched the stranger in the jaw.
Always looking for a fight. Always.
When the man hit the floor, two stable hands rushed to keep him down as Brant pursued the others. He caught them as they raced through the back doors into the corral. He collared one, wheeled him around and slugged him in the gut. When the second stranger doubled over, Brant raced to catch the third, twenty feet into the field.
Brant shouted again, "Stop! Horse thief!"
The man kept running. Brant reached him, yanked him by the shoulder and punched him, too.
She closed her eyes at the fighting. When she opened them again, the stable hands had taken over the scene, patting Brant on the back, getting the story from him.
She heard only snatches. "… recognized one from Dawson… wanted for bank robbery."
Victoria sank onto the floor of the stagecoach behind her, grappling for air. Her heartbeat roared through her chest. Cooper stood with his hands on his hips, equally thunderstruck.
How was she going to deal with this man? A barbarian, the way he used his fists and his body.
Blazes, why did he have to be so good at violence?
She did a quick calculation of time. She was already starting a week late due to the delays here in Skagway—the banker's broken ankle, heart trouble for the minister's wife and the fatal stroke of the poor tinsmith. Yesterday, trappers had told her there was already snow in the mountains. It would reach the valleys soon. There was no more time to delay this journey. Folks depended on her, since a nurse only made it up the coast twice a year. And this trip was different.
The most vital reason for going to Glitter Mountain was to check on the gold miners injured in the cave-in.
It had already taken a couple of weeks for the news to reach them in Skagway. She had to see how the broken bones were mending, and ensure the men were getting out of bed every day, moving their muscles and working their lungs.
A bodyguard was essential. The trail was thick with dangerous strangers—failed gold miners looking to rob anyone they crossed, men who hadn't laid their eyes on a woman for two years, and criminals who'd fled justice from the lower states.
She studied the group of men before her. With softer words, the stable hands indicated they'd haul the three thieves to the jailhouse by themselves if Brant was in a hurry to leave with her.
Brant dusted off his black Stetson and returned to the coach. His black hair, vivid in the sun, dipped around his ears. And there was that long, irritating stride. When he faced her again, she noted the tiny new-to-her creases at his eyes, the leaner jaw and the calm control he had over the situation. He hadn't been so calm in St. Louis.
Damn him for his competence.
He gazed at her, then Cooper. "You satisfied with the deputy marshal's pick? Or you want to call for someone else?"
She jumped to her feet, her starched blouse still crisp from the morning iron.
The excitement and fear of what she'd just witnessed raced through her muscles. The moment throbbed with unspoken words. But she didn't want to give him an inch.
Cooper broke the stalemate. "I guess you are qualified, mister."
She pushed past this…this hired gun to get her bags. "Of course he is. Used to be a bounty hunter. With the same killer instinct as a rattlesnake."
She didn't mean the words as a compliment. But with a vexing nod of amusement, the familiar gunman tugged his hat onto his head and had the gall to dismiss her to speak to the driver. She grated at the sound of her name coming from his throat.
"Thank you kindly, Victoria."
"What took you so long?" Victoria snapped at Brant from inside the stagecoach as he approached forty-five minutes later.
Hell, he thought, adjusting his hat as he eased into the tight quarters, this woman needed to relax. If she were a porcupine, her quills would be in a spiked position, ready to strike.
He shifted his long legs opposite hers. The driver, Gus Newly, a thick man with scruffy gray hair, shut the door.
Brant tossed his hat on the seat beside him and leaned forward, nice and close. He jammed one knee firmly between hers. "The deputy marshal wanted a written statement. He also needed to speak to the three other witnesses." He leaned back in frustration. His boots shuffled on the planks. "And I did not appreciate you trouncing in and asking about John Abraham when we were in the middle of the statements."
"I wanted to make sure he's meeting us at Glitter Mountain and taking us home. You don't expect me to just take your word for it." She drew in her rib cage, yanked on the fabrics of her skirt and tucked her knees away from his, avoiding all contact.
On the other side of her, the boy-doctor hastily looked away from Brant's glare and amused himself by staring out the scratched glass window, all the while stealing glances at Victoria.
Brant tried not to watch the medical student watching her, but there was little else to amuse him.
What a strange couple, thought Brant. They looked too young to be medical saviors. Not the choicest companions Brant had ever had. Certainly not the most pleasing to the spirit.
The stage rolled forward and they were off.
She might've approved of him years ago when he'd first come into her life, but she certainly didn't approve of him now. He sucked on that for a while, as sour as it was. All the more incentive to keep his real reason for heading to Glitter Mountain to himself.
In St. Louis, he'd done what he had to under the circumstance, even if she hadn't liked it. Faced with the same choices, he'd do it again.
Straining to hold his tongue, he nudged his hat forward, swung his boots at an angle over the threadbare cushion beside him and tried to get some shut-eye.
He ignored her loud scowl and slept with his hand near one of his Colt revolvers. He enjoyed the weight of his holster as it dipped around his hips.
Next thing he knew, he awoke with a jostle.
"First stop," said the doctor with the fuzz that substituted for a mustache.
Brant swung his legs out of the way. "Sure thing, doc."
"Oh, no, no, no." Cooper adjusted his string tie and yanked on his bowler hat. "I'm not a doctor till I get my license. And I'm three years away from that." He blushed.
Honest to God, Brant had never seen a man blush before. It came in blotches beside his ears.
The young man grabbed his medical bag and leaped out.
Victoria fiddled with her bags on the luggage rack above their seats. Brant jumped up to help her.
He fumbled for something neutral to say, perhaps even pleasant. "There still a shortage of doctors in Skagway?"
"Yeah. There's just me and two other nurses. Plus the three medical students for the summer."
"I reckon you feel lucky, then… being under that young man's guidance."
Victoria angled past his body, close enough for him to smell the soap she'd used for her glossy brown hair.