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Dawson City, Yukon, July 1898
"I now pronounce you man and wife." The old judge coughed. "Sort of."
Genevieve Summerville felt like a fraud. She didn't normally dress in such rich clothing. She clutched at her much-too-expensive bouquet of fresh-cut pink roses, white chrysanthemums and stag's-horn moss. Ribbons of organza streamed below the stems, lily of the valley perfumed the air and she could barely breathe in a corset laced too tight for this heat. She glanced up from the banks of the rushing river to the judge. His black robes flicked in the breeze. Dots of sweat gave sheen to his forehead and caused his spectacles to slip down his nose. Behind him sprawled the tents and new plank buildings of Dawson City, center of the Klondike gold rush, at the juncture of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers.
She couldn't bring herself to look at the tall, intimidating man standing to her right, a position normally reserved for the groom. Dressed in the handsome red uniform of the North-West Mounted Police, he wasn't hers.
She'd only been in town for three days, but she'd already heard the rumors about him.
A light breeze lifted her loose black hair and swirled around her bodice, around the see-through lace overlay, the twenty-four tiny buttons that plunged down her spine, the low-cut neckline she'd picked out because she'd thought she'd be wearing it for another man. Beneath the silk and chiffon and her lengthy tulle veil, she wore homemade bloomers and drab stockings she'd mended many times over.
Thank goodness, some things remained private. "You may now um" Judge Donahue strained to be heard above squawking ducks "shake hands."
Genevieve turnedto the Mountie inspector.
Luke Buxton Hunter didn't smile when he took her hand, gloved in white satin. His grip was a bit too firm, like the man himself. The officer wore no hat and his shiny black hair sparkled in the sun. She bet his underclothes matched the state of his fine-looking uniform.
She bet he was what he appeared to be. "Congratulations," said the stand-in groom. "I hope you two will be very happy."
"Whenever he makes it back to town."
"Hopefully Joshua will return before the end of the month."
Sunshine caught the jagged scar beneath the officer's left eye. She wondered how he'd got it. Is that why he never smiled? "Unless he strikes gold first."
The statement cheered her. It was the whole point of Joshua's absence, and why he hadn't been here to meet her three days ago when she'd arrived. Most of the lucrative gold claims in Dawson City had already been staked. Joshua was trying his hand panning farther up river, working hard to support her and any future children.
"Yes well well, thank you for filling in for Joshua."
"Least I can do for an old friend. I must admit, this is my first proxy wedding."
"Mine, too. Well, save for my parents' back home, but I didn't attend their wedding." Anxious, she chattered on.
"I wasn't born for another two years."
When she stared into his dark and serious eyes, that pang of loneliness hit her again. What this man had done for his friend, Joshua McFadden, reminded her of the dear friendships she'd left behind in Montana.
But she should count her blessings. She was getting a whole new start in a beautiful new country, with an upstanding man she'd briefly known in her childhood. He came highly recommended by her aunt and uncle here in Dawson.
In his letter to her, Joshua had written that he was supportive of her new profession. She didn't recall exactly what he looked like, but she remembered his kindness when once taking her to the country fair, and how ambitious he'd seemed telling her of his big dreams to see the world and make a fortune.
His ambitions were what had attracted her as an adolescent. That's why she understood his absence today.
Her puppy yelped at her boots, biting at the buttons, breaking her spell. Genevieve smiled. She bent forward in the intricate gown she'd hauled over the Chilkoot Pass, careful to hide the scuffed boots that didn't match her gown, and scooped up the frisky white pup.
"Nugget, can't you sit still for ten minutes?"
The inspector leaned over and, with two broad fingers, stroked Nugget's head. The gesture seemed too intimate, seeing how the puppy was pressed so close to her bosom. Genevieve flushed, but then recalled that the inspector was a veterinary surgeon. A doctor of animals. He looked after the horses and livestock at the Mountie outpost. Hence his interest in puppies was genuine.
"How'd you get her here?" he asked.
"In my pocket, the whole climb up." All three pounds of her. Now she was four. The tiny white lapdog had French heritage, Genevieve had been told by the steamship captain who'd donated her, like Genevieve herself.
Her aunt was the first to bounce over from the handful of witnesses.
"Congratulations, my dear." Abigail Thornbottom, as wide as she was tall, cupped her niece's face in her hands and kissed her cheek. "Your mother would be so proud. And your father, my goodness, may God rest their souls." She lowered her headand her magnificent felt hat in the processto smell the bridal bouquet. "Worthy of a princess."
"Much too extravagant flowers," murmured Genevieve. They'd sent the money for her wedding gown, as well, and she'd be forever grateful.
"Nonsense. We bought them from the best Dutch florist in town"
"The only florist," said thin Uncle Theodore, dressed in his tight wool suit.
Aunt Abigail whispered with pride. "His gardens are full of imported seeds all the way from Rotterdam."
Genevieve knew they meant well, but she lowered her lashes. She wished they'd stop boasting. Especially in front of the officer.
Two steps away, Judge Donahue moaned. When he coughed again, his face turned patchy red.
Inspector Hunter put his hand on the frail man's shoulder. "Are you all right, sir?"
He rubbed his temple. "It's this heat ." "Come. Let's get you a glass of water." The Mountie led the gent to a table and chair, set up beneath a gnarled willow tree. The officer's wide brown Stetson lay on the table.
While he took care of the judge, some of the other witnesses stepped forward to congratulate Genevieve. They were all strangers to her, except for her smartly dressed seventeen-year-old cousin, Milly, Aunt Abigail and Uncle Theodore.
A rugged man in his thirties, a casino owner and friend of her uncle's, removed his gold pocket watch and looked at the time. He'd brought his two brothers to the wedding out of respect for her uncle, she'd been told. Uncle Theodore, a rope and broom salesman who'd only arrived weeks ago himself, seemed to know almost everyone in town.
They were the Cliffton brothers, Genevieve recalled. Burt, Vince and Ripley Cliffton had been introduced to her as the saloon keeper, casino owner and gold prospector. In addition to their good looks, they had sandy-brown hair in common, shaggy to their shoulders. One of them, Burt the saloon keeper, wore a mustache.
"Miss, are you sure this is legal?" asked Vince Cliffton.
"A proxy ceremony without your groom?"
She took her hand off the elegant bouquet and pressed it to her nervous stomach. "As legal as any country wedding."
Some of the weddings on the long journey here, Genevieve recalled, hadn't bothered to use a preacher or a judge. There were simply none available. Her folks had told her that on the frontiers of Montana, too, on the trails riding West, couples solemnized their nuptials by themselves, using friends as witnesses. The couple would then register the marriage at the courthousewhen and if they could; otherwise, saying their sacred vows aloud and moving in under the same roof meant they were married.
"You know, English royalty have been using proxy weddings for centuries." Aunt Abigail shook her head so hard that her plumed hat sprang forward on her head, like a chipmunk about to pounce.
"You don't say," said Burt Cliffton.
"And we mustn't forget Napoleon to his archduchess." Beaming,AuntAbigail pressed her gloved hand to her throat.
Ripley Cliffton, the third youthful brother, not nearly as finely dressed as the other two but just as handsome, strummed his fingers along his shabby wool overalls. "If it's good enough for emperors, it's good enough for your niece."
They laughed. "But to just to make sure," Genevieve declared, "Joshua and I plan on a church ceremony as soon as he returns."
She smoothed her wedding gown and attempted to step forward, but her boot snagged the train.
"Let me help you." Cousin Milly, in an apricot dress and white picture hat, scooted to the grass and picked up the ballooning silk.
Genevieve scanned the gathering to locate the sturdy Mountie. She looked over the heads and shoulders of the other menan older fellow who worked in the livery stables, as muscled as a horse himself and his scalp as shiny as a cabbage; a quiet jeweler she'd met only yesterday and whose head was shielded by a bowler hat; and a tall blond constable who was the veterinarian's apprentice.
Her gaze found the officer. He was giving his apprentice direction, pointing to the horses hitched at the riverside.
She tried to ease her jitters. Her new life with Joshua would work out fine. She'd just been married to a man who'd take good care of her. She'd do her best to make their home a center of comfort and, hopefully sometime in the future, of love.
"The proxy is only a formality," Uncle Theodore explained to the guests. His long white ponytail ruffled in the wind. It hit the spine of his plaid wool jacket. "It was our idea. Genevieve, well-bred lady that she is, didn't want to move into his cabin while he was gone, without the proper title of being his wife."
"Of course," said Burt Cliffton, the saloon keeper. Aunt Abigail caressed the silk on Genevieve's mutton sleeve. "And Joshua insisted she be looked after in fine style while he was away. He wasn't quite sure when she would arrive in the Klondike. But he begged us to move in with her, in that gloriously large home he built last year."
"I can hardly wait," whispered Milly.
"We bought her a little bell," said Aunt Abigail.
"A bell?" asked the men.
Aunt Abigail giggled. "To call the maid."
Genevieve blushed. "There's no maid, Aunt Abigail. I've told you, there's isn't that type of money"
"There will be. There will be. Just you wait until Joshua comes back with sacks full of gold."
"But" "I picked up the bell from a shop across the street from ours. The shopkeeper is the only Englishman in town who imports directly from London."
Inspector Hunter looked up from the judge's side, straight at Genevieve. He'd removed an envelope from his uniform and was pointing to it as the judge took quill in hand, signing the marriage certificate. Had the inspector overheard?
Genevieve prickled with discomfort right down to her toes. What did it matter what he thought of her or her family?
She would enjoy this moment. She inhaled air as fresh as morning dew, sensed a breeze warming her throat, tasted the mint powder she'd brushed her teeth with only an hour ago.
It occurred to her that the officer had taken extra care to dress, as well. His hair, dark above his temples, shone with freshness. His cheeks were smooth due to a morning shave, his uniform neatly pressed.A shoulder harness was strapped across his broad chest and fitted with a gun. He was well groomed, she thought, out of respect for his friend, Joshua.
Still, she pondered the incongruous nature of the polished details set against the scarred face.
There was no getting around the daunting presence of the officer looking her way. She was in her early twenties, but he was likely in his late thirties. More experienced in the world. She wondered about the rumors, the whispers she'd heard about him. It was said that Inspector Luke Hunter was a man who highly savored his bachelor days.
Her breath quickened. And nights.