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By Kate Bridges
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAlberta, July 1892
Unaware of it, the man astride the horse dominated her attention. For three days running, Jessica Haven had watched Sergeant Major Travis Reid exercising the stallion on the oval track inside the fort, desperately trying to have a word with him, and for three days running the officer had ignored her. Today she'd force him to listen.
Sitting in the bleachers beside her, awash in early-morning sunlight, a small group had gathered to watch. The men concentrated on the dangerous bucking of the unbroken mustang, but Jessica knew the women focused on Travis.
"It's a pity he's leavin' his horses," said the banker.
"Sad shame what happened to his wife," whispered the commander's sister.
The officer twisted in the saddle. Leaning forward in concentration, his dark head tilted and body flexed, he melded with the sculpted lines of the horse. Dressed in the work clothes of the North-West Mounted Police - loose white shirt tucked into tight black breeches - he ran a large hand over the stallion's neck and whispered something into its mane.
His hard muscles coaxed the animal into submission.
Jessica fanned her heated face and rearranged her flowing cotton skirts around her ankles, uncomfortable that it was obvious the man stirred her. Her absence of two years hadn't changed his ability to dominate her senses.
Roughrider, his men had nicknamed him, a man skilled at riding untamed horses.
The name suited him, she thought, watching him dismount. He was rough. Travis was a master horseman, the Mounties' best. Jessica had heard he also excelled at tracking outlaws, that he'd been promoted four times in three years. He'd risen from corporal to sergeant major faster than prairie lightning.
"Sergeant Major!" she shouted, jumping out of her seat and racing into the stables behind the intimidating man and beast.
Rows and rows of horses filled the stalls. Warm gashes of sunlight filtered through plank walls; the soothing scent of fresh straw and oats drifted around her.
"The girth wasn't tight enough. I had to fix it." Swinging one long leg off the saddle, Officer Reid spoke to a stable boy. "The stallion has a tricky habit of holding his breath when you saddle him, keeping his chest expanded. Next time walk him a few paces till he exhales, Shamus, then tighten the girth again."
"May I help you, Miss Haven?" Another Mountie, carrying a pitchfork, stepped into her path. "You're looking exceptionally fine. Welcome home. Is anyone escorting you to the pub social this eve -"
"No, thank you." Panting, Jessica dodged through the workmen. "Officer Reid!"
Travis eyed her, then turned sharply on his black leather boot, broad shoulders twisting, ready to leave.
The insult burned deep. The man still had a way of brushing her aside. "Travis! I'd like a word with you! Please!"
She dashed out and nearly stumbled over a cluster of barn cats. Four small kittens froze in her path, the smallest one, a tawny fur ball, hunched its shoulders and peered up at her.
Laughter bubbled in her throat. She lifted him, tucking his entire body into one palm. Pressing her face into the downy neck, she enjoyed the tickle on her skin and its barnyard scent. "You're so soft. A child would adore you."
Travis turned around. The rippling shadows beneath his white shirt tightened in wary response. He said nothing, simply stared down at her as she drew closer. Her bonnet, sliding off her head but tied at her throat, bobbed along her spine. Her blond hair, braided neatly at the side, brushed along her shoulders.
Don't be nervous, she told herself. Remain cheerful and simply ask the man.
Stroking the kitten, Jessica swallowed in a stew of emotions. Travis had the same solid jaw and firm cheeks she remembered. She looked lower. And there was something compelling about the physique of an active man, the straining and stretching of ropy muscles knotted from hard work and perseverance.
His lips tugged into a cool line. "Back from charm school, are you?"
Her face heated, even as she nodded in agreement. Charm school. It was what her father had told everyone to cover his shame, but so far from the truth it was laughable. And her own shame made her go along with the story.
Travis's deep blue eyes, almost navy in color, flickered. "The mayor's daughter has returned to Calgary. Let's all bow and bid her good welcome."
He tilted his head in mock acknowledgment, a finger of his black hair falling on his forehead.
Hiding her humiliation, she lowered the kitten to the ground, near a bowl of water where his bigger black-and-white brothers and sisters were drinking. "Make way for the little one," she coaxed. The kittens parted and she smiled softly.
She felt Travis's gaze beating down on her tilted head. She wished she could erase the past.
He'd once called her a spoiled young woman. And shamefully, it'd been true. It had begun five years ago when she'd convinced her father to outbid Travis on a feisty stallion so they could buy it and she could learn to ride. Travis hadn't had the money to compete, but he'd tried to convince her the horse wasn't suitable for an inexperienced girl because of its size and temperament. She remorsefully admitted now that the stallion had attracted her simply for its color - a speckled gray with almost purplish mane and tail. And Travis had been right. She hadn't been able to handle the horse and got such a fright she was still put off by large animals.
She had been rude. Self-absorbed. But in her defense, she'd also been young and inexperienced, and she'd learned a lot of things in the grueling years since.
Remain cheerful. "I heard you're leaving for Devil's Gorge tomorrow."
"How do you know? I told very few people where I'm headed for my leave."
"The commander's wife told me. They joined us for dinner a few nights ago."
He clicked his tongue in disapproval.
Unaffected, she continued. "I came to offer you a proposition. To pay you to take me along." Her mouth parted with a silent plea. He had to say yes for her world to regain its balance.
"Absolutely not. I'll pass on your proposition. This is a personal leave and a difficult seven-day journey. Ask at the livery stables if you want to hire a guide."
The fluttering in her stomach tightened. Desperation trembled in her voice. "I already have but they've got two men out on trail and only one left. He leers at me and I just couldn't spend an entire week ... Even though I'd bring a chaperon. You know our family's butler, Mr. Merriweather."
Excerpted from The Proposition by Kate Bridges Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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