The dark-haired stranger stepped into the saloon, and every whore’s head turned, including mine.
Strangers were nothing new in Seattle, not since the stampede had begun a year or so ago, but anyone walking through that door was a potential john. After several slow nights in a row, none of us wasted time sizing up new arrivals.
As I searched him for tells—something to hint if he was here for a drink, a game of cards, or a companion for the night—I had to admit I was intrigued. Gladys had said that if you’d seen one stampeder, you’d seen them all, but once in a while, someone stood out from the crowd.
Like this one.
From behind the bar where I was wiping down glasses, I watched him. He looked tired and cold just like everyone else, but he carried himself like he was already on his way back from the Yukon with a pocket full of gold. Even as he brushed the rainwater off the sleeves of his heavy overcoat and held his hat outside the door to shake it out, he had a dignified air that didn’t often find its way into Ernest’s saloon and brothel.
Apparently satisfied his coat and hat were dry enough, he came all the way in, carrying a large pack on his shoulders and a locked wooden box in his hand.
He strolled toward the bar. I couldn’t decide if he didn’t have a care in the world or if he was damned certain the rest of the world would be wise to get out of his way. On his way across the warm, if stuffy, saloon, he didn’t even seem to notice Frances’s and Anna’s coquettish smiles.
Aside from a day’s worth of shadow on his jaw, he was clean-shaven, and his dark hair was only slightly tousled from his hat, which he set on the bar. He shrugged off his pack, then his coat, revealing a finely embroidered waistcoat that had clearly been tailored to fit his narrow waist. Well dressed. Not rich, but certainly not destitute. Still too early to say if he’d come here for a whore, but from the looks of him, he could afford one, and he was showing no interest in the girls, so I casually inched closer to where he was sitting.
Ernest leaned on the bar. “What’ll it be?”
The stranger peeled off his leather gloves and laid them beside his hat. “Your best cognac, please.”
Oh, dear Lord, he had a voice like the cognac he wanted.
Ernest laughed. “What city d’you think you’re in, son?” He gestured at the rows of uniform bottles on the wall. “Whiskey or brandy are the best you’re going to find here.”
The newcomer scowled, then made a dismissive yet so elegant gesture. “Whiskey will do fine. A double, please.”
Ernest beckoned to me. “Robert, get over here and pour the man a drink.”
“Yes, sir.” I joined him, and the newcomer met my eyes but only for a second.
Clearing his throat, he shifted his attention to Ernest while I poured his drink. “Do you know where a man might look if he wants to round up a team to head north?”
“Heading north?” Ernest sniffed. “You and every man in this town. Ain’t you heard the ground up there’s running out of gold? The last two months, every stampeder who’s come back through here’s been empty-handed.”
My stomach sank at the reminder of the dwindling gold fields. Some said the gold would all be picked clean by spring, and those who left now to struggle over that hellish pass into the Yukon would be weeping into frozen, barren soil for their trouble. With winter just around the bend, those of us still itching to make the journey were losing hope by the day.
“I’ve heard the rumors.” The stranger offered a tight-lipped smile. “But I’m not concerned about that.”
Ernest eyed him, then shrugged. “Well, you’ll find the men you’re looking for hanging around the docks down by the outfitters. But watch your pockets—there’s as many thieves down there as men who could help you.”
“But there are men looking to go north?”
“Aye. Dozens of ’em who’ll join any party led by a man who’ll pay them.” Ernest turned to me. “How about that drink?”
I slid the double whiskey across the bar. The stranger briefly met my eyes again, and his taut expression warmed to something a little friendlier.
He turned back to Ernest. “I’m also in need of a room. I expect to be gone tomorrow, so—”
“You’ll have to speak to Beatrice.” Ernest gestured across the barroom to where his wife, the brothel’s madam, peered at everyone over her teacup. “She’s in charge of the whores and the rooms.”
The stranger glanced over his shoulder. “I don’t suppose there are beds available without company?”
Ernest shook his head. “Not in this hotel.”
“Very well.” The stranger nodded and raised his glass. “I’ll finish my drink and be on my way, then.”
Ernest left him to his drink. I should have done the same, but I may as well have been knee-deep in mud.
The stranger studied me as I studied him. He didn’t have the same hunger in his eyes as the other stampeders. Oh, there was something in his eyes, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but he lacked the palpable gold fever so many men in this town had these days.
I cleared my throat. “You’re setting out in the morning?”
“Well, once I find a man or two who can accompany me, and of course some equipment to haul my gear.” Clicking his tongue, he shook his head. “Ridiculous, this requiring a damned year’s worth of provisions for each man just to get into Canada. Any man worth his salt could easily survive on half that.”
“I’ve heard it isn’t true.”
His eyebrows rose. “Is that so?”
I nodded. “They say it’s just the outfitters’ way of making money.” I gestured in the general direction of the docks. “Trouble is, the boats are in on it too, and they won’t let anyone on board without it. Only the airships will.”
He snorted. Into his glass, he muttered, “And what man who hasn’t already struck it rich can afford an airship ticket?”
I laughed quietly. As he swallowed the whiskey with a grimace, I glanced around, then leaned on the bar and lowered my voice. “So you’re traveling alone at the moment?”
“Aren’t most men who walk into a brothel?”
“I . . . well, no. Some have just broken away from their—” I waved a hand. “Listen, the men down at the docks, whatever you’ll pay them to come with you, I’ll do it for half.”
He blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
I couldn’t quite believe I’d blurted it out that way, but I didn’t take it back. He was a stranger, but he had two things I needed enough to take a risk that would’ve been deemed foolish by most men: the means to get to Dawson City and a vacancy for a team member.
“Half,” I said in spite of my dry mouth. “I’ll help you haul your gear, dig, everything, for half of what you’d pay them.”
He stared at me for a moment and then chuckled. “Might be a bit cold and grueling for someone of your profession, don’t you think?”
I glared at him. “I’m only a whore because it keeps me fed. I came to Seattle for the same reason you did.”
The stranger shook his head and then brought his glass up to his lips again. “Oh, I doubt that very much.”
“Why?” I growled. “Don’t think I want to find gold just like the next man?”
“No, no, not that.” He gave another quiet chuckle. “But I assure you, we’re not going up there for the same reasons.” He set his glass on the bar again. “Why aren’t you on your way to Dawson City already?”
My cheeks burned. “Because my brothers and I lost the money for our provisions. Didn’t even have enough to get back to Montana.”
“And you think you’ll make that money in Dawson City?” He eyed me. “Plenty of men come back poorer than they left, you know.”
“I know. Been stuck working here for six months now, so I’ve got enough money saved to hold me over. What I want is to go to Dawson City, but I can’t handle that much gear myself, and I can’t afford to buy a mech, never mind pay someone to operate it.”
He pursed his lips but said nothing.
“I’d have gone with any other team, but men look at me”—I gestured at myself—“and don’t think I’m strong enough for the journey. I’m small, but I am not weak.”
He rolled a sip of whiskey around in his mouth as he looked me over. As much as he could see above the bar, anyway.
I pushed my shoulders back. “Listen, I can pull my weight. And I’m desperate. I can’t go back to Montana. The stampede will only last so much longer, and then this place will be back to the logging town it was before. And I’ve seen what happens to loggers. I’ll risk freezing off my fingers and toes to get to Dawson City for a fool’s chance at riches before you’ll find me working in a logging camp.”
He glanced around the brothel, his gaze pausing on three of the girls trying to charm men into their beds, then raised an eyebrow at me. “This is preferable to logging?” Before I could reply, he nodded. “I suppose it is, isn’t it?”
“It is. And I won’t be able to make a living in here once this stampede ends.” I cursed the desperation in my voice and in my situation. “That could be in a month, six months, a year. Who knows? But if I have any chance of finding gold, I can’t wait much longer.”
“You may already be too late. The barkeep said himself the gold fields are dwindling.”
“That isn’t stopping you.”
“I’m not interested in gold.”
Then why . . .
But I shrugged. “I’ll take my chances. I didn’t come here, lose my shirt, and whore myself for six months just to turn around and go home.”
The stranger’s brow furrowed. “And you said you came here from Montana?”
“How many years in Montana?”
“Twenty. Lived there my whole life before I came here.”
“So you know what harsh winters are like,” he said, more to himself than to me.
“Probably better than most of the men you’ll find down on the pier.”
He swirled his drink slowly, watching the liquid slosh inside the glass. “What did you do for work before you came here?”
“My father is a tanner. I worked for him and on my grandfather’s farm.”
The stranger looked me up and down again, running his thumb across his lower lip. This was when most men would inform me they didn’t think I was quite strong enough, quite solid enough to handle the journey, never mind the mining at the end of it. That, or they’d leer at me and say of course I could join them, at which point I’d realize I’d be out in the middle of nowhere with these men rather than in the relative safety of the brothel, and I’d think better of my offer.
The stranger opened his mouth to speak, but just as he did, heavy boots tromped across the planks outside the door. Out of habit, I turned my head. He did as well, and when three men appeared—as well dressed as he was—he turned back toward the bar, swearing under his breath.
The other three talked amongst themselves, their voices low and their eyes darting around the room.
The stranger glanced at the floor beside him, and something scraped quietly. Wood on wood, as if he’d nudged the locked box with his foot.
One of the new arrivals stared right at the stranger, and then turned to the others. They exchanged muffled words until one gestured for the others to follow him.
As they left the way they’d come, the stranger glanced over his shoulder again. He exhaled hard and reached for his glass again.
A knot tightened in my stomach. “You know them?”
He studied me as he took another sip of whiskey. “We’re . . . colleagues of sorts.”
Colleagues? Of sorts? What did that—
“I think I’ll stay here after all.” He glanced back at the empty doorway, and then his glass clinked on the polished bar. “How much do you charge for a night?”
I gulped. “Um, for the bed? Or the company?”
He held my gaze. “Either or.”
“Five . . . five dollars for the bed.” I almost choked on the words. “An extra three if I’m not in it.”
His expression turned to one of amusement, his broad smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. “It’s more expensive to sleep alone, is it?”
I gave a casual shrug in spite of my pounding heart. “If you sleep alone, I have to go find a place for myself.”
“Point taken.” His gaze darted toward the door. Then he drained his drink and slid the glass back across the bar. “In that case . . .” He reached into the pocket of his trousers and withdrew a few bills and coins. He counted some out, then put it beside the glass. “Fifteen cents for the drink, eight dollars for the bed. Unaccompanied, if you please.”
My heart sank, and I tried not to show my disappointment or take it as an insult that he’d declined my services. After all, men who were interested in me were few and far between compared to those who came for the girls—that was why I also tended bar.
I collected the money and nodded toward Beatrice. “I’ll let her know you’ll be staying with us tonight.”
He smiled. “Thank you.”
Once Beatrice had taken her cut and given me what was left, I offered to carry his pack and box, but he declined, hoisting the former onto his shoulder and clutching the latter’s handle.
I led him out of the bar area to the creaking staircase. Upstairs, amorous sounds came from Catherine’s room, and I was sure I heard Gladys’s voice in there too. Good. If they were working together tonight, as they often did, maybe I could talk Beatrice into letting me occupy Gladys’s room for a few hours.
I was being paid without having to work for it, but I didn’t want to let this man out of my sight while I was still holding on to the hope that he might take me up on my offer to join his team. On the other hand, the three men who’d made him nervous made me a little nervous too. What was I getting myself into?
As I led him down the hall, dusty amber bulbs dimmed and brightened along the crown molding like they were connected to my pounding heart instead of the wires that drew our electricity from the city’s hydroelectric plant. When finely dressed men casually pursued other finely dressed men into barrooms, there was reason to be concerned. Perhaps he was a criminal. More than a few thieves and crooks had swindled their way through Seattle to Alaska and up the deadly Chilkoot Trail, sneaking across the border into the Yukon to escape or to wreak havoc on the miners in Dawson City. The red-coated North-West Mounted Police didn’t always get their man.
My hands shook as I drew my room key out of my pocket. I unlocked open the door and gestured for him to go ahead. Then I walked past him and lit the kerosene lamp. “There’s an electric light in here. I’m not fond of it, since it blinks and dims all the time, but you’re welcome to it.”
“The kerosene is fine,” he said in that cognac-smooth voice.
I pulled open a bureau drawer to find the few things I’d take with me to wherever I’d be sleeping tonight. “I’ll leave the key here on the bureau. Beatrice asks that you’re out by quarter past nine in the morning, and—”
The door clicked shut. I turned around.
From across the tiny room, in the faintly flickering light, our eyes met.
The stranger grinned. “Am I safe in assuming that paying your surcharge doesn’t preclude a night’s company?”
Ever since Robert Belton gambled away the money to stake his claim in the Klondike gold fields, he’s been stranded in Seattle working as a prostitute. When an attractive customer needs help hauling provisions to the frozen north, Robert eagerly volunteers.
Dr. John Fauth is only searching for one thing, and it isn’t gold. He needs platinum for the prototypes of his revolutionary inventions, and if he doesn’t find it in the Klondike, his university career—and his research—is over.
Getting to the Klondike is a grueling, dangerous journey, and just hours after leaving Seattle, John and Robert find themselves in over their heads. John is carrying an invaluable device that his competitors will do anything to get their hands on. And as the cold nights and mutual desire pull John and Robert closer together, they discover that they have much more to lose than gold or platinum.
(Publisher's Note: This book was previously published by a different press; it has since been edited extensively and expanded by over 10,000 words.)