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REBELThe Blades of the Rose
By Zoë Archer
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Ami Silber
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEncounters at the Trading Post
The Northwest Territory, 1875
The two men tumbled over the muddy ground, trading punches and kicks. A sloppy fight, made all the more clumsy by a surfeit of cheap whiskey and punctuated by grunts and curses. Nobody knew what the men were fighting about, least of all the men themselves. It didn't matter. They just wanted to punch each other.
They rolled across the soggy earth, gathering a few interested onlookers. Bets of money, beaver pelts, and tobacco were placed. Odds were six to one that Three-Tooth Jim would make pemmican of Gravy Dan.
No one counted on the lawyer.
Jim and Dan, throwing elbows and snarling, careened right into the path of Nathan Lesperance, actually rolling across his boots as the attorney crossed the yard surrounding the trading post. Lesperance calmly reached down, picked up Three-Tooth Jim, and, with a composed, disinterested expression, slammed his own fist into the big trapper's jaw. By the time Jim hit the ground, Lesperance had already performed the same service for Gravy Dan. In seconds, both trappers lay together in the mud, completely unconscious.
Lesperance sent a quick, flinty look toward the onlookers. The men-hardened mountain dwellers, miners, trappers, and Indians who had seen and survived the worst man and nature could dole out-all scurried away to other buildings surrounding the trading post.
Sergeant Williamson of the Northwest Mounted Police looked down at the insensate bodies of the trappers. "That wasn't necessary, Mr. Lesperance," he said with a shake of his head. Two young Mounties, Corporals Hastings and Mackenzie, hurried forward to drag the trappers away to the makeshift jail. "My men could have seen to the disturbance. Without resorting to fisticuffs."
"My way's faster," said Lesperance.
"But you're an attorney," Williamson pointed out.
"I'm not your typical lawyer," said Lesperance, dry.
On that, the sergeant had to agree. For one thing, most lawyers resembled prosperous bankers, their soft stomachs gently filling out their waistcoats, hands soft and manicured, a look of self-satisfaction in their fleshy, middle-aged faces. Nathan Lesperance looked hard as granite, hale, barely thirty, and more suited for a tough life in the wilderness than arguing the finer points of law in court or from behind a desk.
Williamson said, "I've never met a Native attorney before."
Lesperance's gaze was black as chipped obsidian, his words just as sharp. "I was taken from my tribe when I was a child and raised in a government school."
"And you studied law there? And learned how to throw a mean left hook?"
"Yes, to both."
"You must have a few stories to tell."
A brief smile tilted the corner of Lesperance's mouth, momentarily softening the precise planes of his face. "More than a few. I'll tell you about the time I took on three miners making trouble in town-the only gold they found came out of their own fillings. But later, over a drink." His smile faded. "I came here all the way from Victoria, so first let's get this business taken care of."
No Native had ever talked to Williamson this way. For one thing, Lesperance spoke flawless English, better, even, than most of the Mounties at the post. And there was no deference or hesitancy in Lesperance. In his words and eyes was a tacit challenge. Williamson had no desire to take up that challenge, lest he wind up lying in the mud, unconscious. And that seemed the least of what Lesperance seemed capable of. He wasn't an especially big man, but no one could doubt his strength, judging by the way he filled out the shoulders of his heavy tweed jacket and by the facers he'd landed on both Jim and Dan.
"Of course, Mr. Lesperance," the sergeant said quickly. He tugged on the red wool tunic of his uniform. "Please follow me. The Mounties keep a small garrison here. We have our own office, which serves as our mess, too, and a dormitory." He gestured toward two of the low structures clustered around the main building of the trading post. Both the Mountie and the attorney began to walk. They passed fur trappers, clusters of Indian men and women, some white men in wellcut coats who could only be representatives for the Hudson's Bay Company, here to buy furs, and horses and dogs. The Indians stared at Lesperance as he walked, no doubt just as amazed as Williamson to see a Native with his hair cut short, like a white man, and wearing entirely European-style clothing. Lesperance didn't even walk as a Native might, with soft, careful steps. Instead, Williamson had to lengthen his stride to match Lesperance's. "We do appreciate you traveling so far."
"You could have just sent Douglas Prescott's belongings to Victoria," Lesperance said. "His next of kin agreed to it."
"The Northwest Mounted Police take their responsibilities very seriously," Williamson replied gravely. "We were created only last year to enforce law and order out here in the wilderness."
"I thought it was to fight the whiskey trade."
Williamson flushed at Lesperance's blunt words. "That, too." He cleared his throat. "I think you'll find that Mrs. Bramfield also wants to conclude this Prescott business as soon as possible."
"Bramfield. The woman who found Prescott."
"And then her husband brought Prescott's belongings to the fort."
"Oh, no. Only she came to report Prescott's death. She lives over a day's ride from this trading post in a cabin by herself."
This stopped Lesperance. He frowned at Williamson as the sergeant stumbled to a halt. "Alone?"
"It is," agreed the sergeant. Lesperance resumed walking, so Williamson followed, saying, "But the locals say Astrid Bramfield has been on her own ever since she came to the Northwest Territory four years ago. She must know how to take care of herself. She even buried Prescott on her own, then brought his belongings to the Bow River Fort."
"Maybe Mrs. Bramfield killed Prescott," Lesperance suggested.
Williamson shook his head. "She's a tough woman, but no killer. If murder was her aim, she didn't need to bring Prescott's possessions to the fort."
"She may have kept some for herself." Lesperance's direct, forthright way of speaking reminded Williamson of his superiors at nearby Fort Macleod. He wasn't certain whether the Mounted Police took Natives into their ranks, but Lesperance would have made an excellent Mountie-straightforward and determined.
"No, her honesty is impossible to deny, yet she refused to go back to the fort when it came time to meet you. This trading post was as far as she would come, and only then with quite a bit of reluctance."
"Indeed. Even the Indians call her Hunter Shadow Woman. But you'll find that these parts are full of peculiar characters. Here we are, our office-cum-mess. Right now it's an office."
They had reached one of the small log buildings that huddled near the trading post. It was barely more than a shack, a testament to the trading post's rough surroundings. Out in the Northwest Territory, people made do with what they had. Over two thousand miles of prairie, mountains, and lakes stood between the Territory and the civilization of Toronto or Quebec. Sergeant Williamson stopped in the doorway and looked apologetic. "She's inside. Please give me a moment to speak with her alone. Then we'll have you and Mrs. Bramfield sign some papers and Prescott's belongings will be released to you."
Nathan gave a clipped nod and turned away when the sergeant went into the building. He heard voices within, the sergeant's and a woman's, and something, some rich quality in the timbre of her voice, sent immediate awareness tightening the surface of his skin. Something inside of him sharpened, like a knife being turned to the light. With a frown, he stepped farther away from the building and breathed in deep, looking around, assessing.
The trading post and the buildings that surrounded it were situated at the base of wooded foothills, and just beyond rose the jagged, snowcapped peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Even from a distance, such impassive, raw mountains awed, becoming godlike as they stretched toward the heavens. No shelter, only rock and sky. A cold wind blew down from the mountains, swirling in dusty clouds around the trading post yard. A man's life would be a fragile thing out in those mountains, even more tenuous than within the isolated woods surrounding the post. Hard not to feel small and temporary when faced with beautiful, pitiless wilderness.
Home. Of a sort. His mother's grandmother had come from these mountains, journeying all the way to Vancouver Island and taking a husband from one of the local fishing tribes. The few times Nathan had seen his mother, she would tell him stories of the mountains, legends of magical creatures and elemental spirits that lived within each spruce and aspen, but the teachers at his school always said such tales were at best only ridiculous and at worst idolatrous. He paid neither his mother nor the teachers any mind. He had his own path to follow.
He'd lived almost entirely in Fort Victoria, a bastion of Britishness on the west coast of a fledgling territory. Not once had he traveled the hundreds of arduous miles to see his great-grandmother's ancestral home. He had never wanted to. The mountains were the past, and he moved forward. His business, his needs, kept him elsewhere. Until now.
No one at the firm where Nathan worked wanted to make the journey to some hardscrabble trading post out in the middle of rough country. Someone had to go. Douglas Prescott had been a valuable client, and remained so even after he abandoned his family to find adventure as a trapper. Poor sod had found more than adventure. He'd found death. And somebody from Steedman and Beall must go out and claim his belongings. A trip to the Northwest Territory meant weeks of grueling travel through unmapped terrain. And then turn around and do it all over again to get home.
In the silence that greeted Mr. Steedman's announcement, Nathan had stepped forward to claim the task. Somebody muttered, "Of course, Lesperance. He's just the contrary bastard to do it."
So he'd gone, and thought of nothing in his long journey but returning and throwing down the packet of Prescott's belongings on Steedman's desk as everyone gaped. Yes, he was a savage, as they said he was behind his back, but it had taken a savage to get the job done. He liked nothing better than defying expectations.
But as he stared out at the pearl gray sky, stretching above the harsh, magnificent mountains and deep green forests, Nathan couldn't shake the oddest sensation of being drawn toward the mountains and wilderness, invisible hands reaching out to him. Come to us, the woods seem to call. We are waiting.
Nathan almost snarled in surprise as Sergeant Williamson appeared at his shoulder.
"Sorry," the sergeant gulped. "I called your name several times, but you didn't hear me. Mrs. Bramfield is waiting."
Shaking his head at his imagination, Nathan followed Williamson into the low building. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the changing light. Small windows cut into the west-facing wall allowed watery sunlight to wash into the single room. A heavy, crude table and several chairs composed the room's sole furnishings. Primitive as it was, there were homes in Victoria equally simple, especially belonging to the Indians and Chinese laborers. Once his vision cleared, Nathan barely noticed any of this. His attention was claimed entirely by the woman standing on the other side of the table.
From Sergeant Williamson's description of Astrid Bramfield, Nathan had expected a much older woman, someone well on the other side of middle age, with the rough features and sturdy build of a female living alone in the wilderness. Beauty, youth, and femininity could not survive out here. He'd met fresh-faced girls going out to live pioneering lives with their husbands, only to return a few years later, haggard, weathered women with girlhood left long behind. Mrs. Bramfield would likely be much the same.
Yet Astrid Bramfield took his few preconceptions and obliterated them. She was much younger than he'd believed, closer to his own age of twenty-eight. She wore men's clothing-a heavy coat, jacket, shirt, and slim trousers tucked into worn boots. The hilt of a stag-handled knife peered above the top of her boot. Despite the coat's bulk, her figure revealed itself to be an elegant collection of curves, her waist narrow, the flare of her hips tapering down into long legs. A gun belt hugged her hips, a revolver holstered and ready for use. Her hair, the color of wheat in high summer, had been pulled back into a long braid, revealing a face of pristine, solemn loveliness. The golden freckles playfully dotting the bridge of her nose contrasted sharply with her gray eyes.
Those eyes. They burned him and would leave an afterimage branded into his mind. Never had Nathan seen such eyes, the hue of clouds just before a storm. It wasn't their color so much as the depth of feeling he saw within them that seared him. Haunted, hunted. A feral creature, trapped within the body of a striking woman. That creature called to him, even more than the wilderness outside. A kinship there. Something dark inside of him stirred and awakened as he gazed into her eyes.
An animal within himself. He'd always felt it, fought it down every day. White men thought Indians were animals. He would prove them wrong, even if it meant brutally tethering a part of himself. But that hidden beast recognized her, saw its like within her. And demanded.
He felt his senses sharpen almost painfully, becoming aware of everything in the room-the fly buzzing in one corner, the sap smell of the wooden table. Most of all, her.
She stared at him with equal fascination, her hands spread upon the table as though leaning toward him without thought. Her breath came faster, her ripe pink lips slightly parted. He heard each intake and exhalation, saw the widening of her pupils within those storm eyes of hers.
A deep, barely audible growl rose in the back of Nathan's throat as he started toward her.
The sound seemed to rouse them both from a trance. Nathan forced himself to take a step back, cursing himself. Hell. He wasn't truly a damn animal.
Astrid Bramfield curled her hands into themselves and glanced away. The next time Nathan saw her eyes, they had become as remote and cold as a glacier.
"Mrs. Bramfield," Sergeant Williamson said, entirely unaware of what had just transpired, "this is Nathan Lesperance. He is an attorney from the firm that represents Douglas Prescott."
She gave Nathan a clipped nod but said nothing. He returned the nod, wary of her silence. Some white women found his presence to be an affront, the savage aping the dress and manners of a superior race; others thought him dangerously intriguing, like a pet wolf. How did Astrid Bramfield see him? And why did he care?
Despite her reserve, something charged and alive paced between them in the small room. They continued to regard each other across the table.
"Why don't we sit?" the sergeant offered.
"I'll stand," Mrs. Bramfield said. Her voice was sensuous and low, unexpectedly cultured. She was English. That wasn't entirely surprising. Canada was full of Britons, both English and Scottish. Why Astrid Bramfield's Englishness, out of everything, should surprise Nathan, he had no idea, but the thought of a well-bred Englishwoman living the life of a solitary mountain man caught him off guard. He wondered what had driven her to seek isolation in this untamed corner of the world. At some point, there had to be a Mr. Bramfield.
The sergeant shifted uncomfortably on his feet. "Very well." He gestured toward a small wooden box on the table. "Would you be so kind as to confirm that the items in that box are the same you found on Mr. Prescott's body?"
Mrs. Bramfield opened the box and, as she did so, Nathan noticed her hands. At one time, they might have been a lady's hands, slim and white. Now they were still slim, but they looked far more capable and used to hard work than any other lady's hands. His vision, still sharper than he could ever remember, noted the calluses that thickened the skin of her fingers and lined her palms. For some reason, he found the sight arousing. A plain wedding band gleamed on her left hand.
Excerpted from REBEL by Zoë Archer Copyright © 2010 by Ami Silber. Excerpted by permission.
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