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By Kate Bridges
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAlberta, May 1891
She was marrying the wrong brother.
Dr. Virginia Waters flattened her palm against the nervous tremble in her stomach. Dressed in her wedding gown for the final fitting, she stood before the pine mirror in her bedroom and tried to silence the runaway thoughts.
She was not marrying the wrong man. Wedding jitters were common, she told herself. Zack Bullock was the right brother.
"You look splendid in your gown. Bonnie indeed."
"Thank you, Millicent." Feeling guilty for her thoughts, Virginia smiled at the reflection of her uncle's housekeeper. In her late fifties, the pleasant Scottish woman pinned the hem as the satin train rustled around Virginia's long legs. A lacy V neckline swooped to Virginia's bosom; her velvet black hair, still damp and fragrant from her evening bath, cascaded below her waist. Crackling wood in the fireplace melted the chilly spring air while a kerosene lamp glowed in the other corner.
"I like the shiny fabric," said Emilou, Millicent Gray's eight-year-old granddaughter and Virginia's flower girl, standing beside them holding the calico pincushion.
Virginia ran a gentle hand along Emilou's butter-colored braids. Everything was set for the wedding, three days away. A large wedding was expected; Zack was well-known in the community and Virginia was the niece of a prominent citizen. While friends and distant relatives fussed over details, she was grateful for their help but knew from painful experience that none of it mattered without her groom. None of it.
"Ask me another question from your book," said Emilou.
"All right," said Virginia, eager to oblige. She was less than four weeks away from writing her licensing exams, squeezing her studies into every stolen moment she could spare between her final practicum in this house with her Uncle Paddy - Dr. Patrick Waters - and her wedding preparations. "How many bones does a person have in their body?"
"Two hundred and six. We're all born with three hundred, but as we get older some of 'em grow together."
"That's right," said Virginia. "What's the longest one?"
"The femur in your leg." Emilou then reversed the questioning, in the game they'd been practicing. "What's the shortest?"
"The stirrup bone in your ear, one-tenth of an inch long."
The girl plopped down at Virginia's feet and slid a picture book of tropical animals onto her lap.
Virginia pointed to a painted giraffe. "Do you know that people and giraffes have the same number of bones in their necks, except giraffe bones are much longer?"
Emilou giggled. Virginia bent lower, kissed the girl's chubby hand, then straightened in front of the mirror. She stroked the delicate fabric of her gown and wondered what Zack would think of it. Her stomach rolled again.
"What is it, Virginia? What's troublin' you?"
Mindful of the pins, Virginia turned so Millicent could unfasten the yard of pearl buttons down her spine. "I haven't seen Zack for five years. I thought we'd have the chance to reacquaint ourselves before our wedding day. I thought he'd be here to meet me a month ago when I arrived."
"You know the Mounties don't schedule when the crimes occur. When a policeman's called to duty, he has to go."
"What does Zack look like now?" Virginia asked between tugs.
"He's tall and big. Dark haired."
From her childhood, Virginia remembered him as a thin and wiry boy. He was almost ten years older and had rarely spoken to her. "Does he smile much?"
"What sort of question is that?"
"One a bride likes to know about her groom."
"I don't know how much he smiles. You know I don't know the man. Why don't you ask your uncle these questions?"
"Uncle Paddy thinks I'm being frivolous."
"From what I hear, Zack is a quiet man. He's legendary in his work. People say he's tough but fair."
Was it fairness Zack felt for her? Duty was likely driving him to repair the devastation his brother had caused.
Zack had first written her father, and then Virginia, that he was ready for a wife and for them to begin a family of their own. He'd written that it would be a marriage of mutual benefit and comfort, that he'd do his best to make her happy. But ... "I thought I'd get to know Zack. Meet his friends. I wish we had more time before the wedding."
"Didn't he wire you he'd be here as soon as possible? Maybe he'll arrive on this evenin's train. Or tomorrow's."
Virginia nodded as her gown dropped, revealing a tight new wedding corset and crisp silk petticoat. She steadied her shaky breathing and made a crucial decision.
She'd give Zack all of her attention. She'd never let him know how deeply her love had run for his brother, Andrew. Although her heartache and anger at Andrew were still raw, she'd never make Zack feel as if he were second-best.
He had no time to think about his upcoming wedding.
"Take off your noisy spurs," Zack commanded in a whisper. Eleven men did as he asked without question.
Gripping two Enfield revolvers, Inspector Zack Bullock, known as "Bull's-Eye" to his men because he was their best marksman, inched forward through the moonlit cedars to the cabin nestled in the mountains. Although dressed as travelers and drovers, they were North-West Mounted Police, highly skilled federal agents commissioned to bring law and order to the West, and he was leading the troop.
Zack stopped to analyze the sounds. He felt his men stop behind him. Bullfrogs croaked in the icy spring air. The easy wind whispered across his unshaven face. A hawk fluttered through the sky; its wings sliced the golden moon, then touched down to the cabin rooftop, beside the smoking chimney.
They watched and waited as two night guards, criminals of the Stiller gang, lit a smoke. Four more killers were inside, either sleeping or securing the two hostages, or counting the money they'd robbed from the train two days earlier. The bastards had forced an elderly couple off the train with them - a jeweler and his wife, the O'Connolleys.
When the hawk cried into the night, Zack whispered, "Now."
They rampaged the cabin. The guards were overtaken. Zack kicked in the door, his leather duster flying at his ankles.
"Mounted Police! Drop your weapons!"
Four men hit the floor, guns drawn and firing. Zack threw himself onto the terrified couple in the corner. Rage filled him at the fear that had been instilled in two innocent people.
Excerpted from The Engagement by Kate Bridges Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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