Wild West Wife - Сьюзен Мэллери - CHAPTER TWO Читать онлайн любовный роман

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Mallery Susan

Wild West Wife

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Three tries later Haley found herself sitting on top of a very tall horse. The hard saddle was uncomfortable, but it was a lot better to be upright on it than thrown across it. She shifted uneasily and tried not to let her fear show. At least her skirt was full enough that the fabric fluttered down to cover most of her legs. She didn’t allow herself to think about exposed ankles and feet, which were a lot easier to ignore than the fact that a strange man had just kidnapped her.

“You gonna be able to hang on?” Jesse asked.

She nodded firmly. She might be his prisoner, but she wasn’t going to cower like a dog. If necessary, she could survive on pride and grit. She’d done it before.

Without warning, his horse started walking. As Jesse was holding on to her mount’s reins, she found herself moving forward, too. The odd swaying, rocking motion nearly caused her to slide off the saddle. She made a quick grab for the leather and clutched it tightly with both hands. Instinctively, she clung with her leg muscles. Every part of her tensed.

After a few minutes of the steady pace, she was able to loosen her grip a tiny bit. They were in a wooded area with trees so thick, the branches were practically a roof. It was still early enough in the year that not all of them had leaves, and she could look up and see patches of sky. In a few weeks the leaves would be so thick it would stay dim and cool, even during the hottest part of summer.

Below them the ground was hard, with a few patches of snow in the shaded areas. Dead leaves covered everything. She inhaled deeply, absorbing the unfamiliar smells of damp earth, the trees themselves, plants, leaves and the sweat of the horses. So different, she thought, half exhilarated, half terrified. She was used to the city. Those smells and sounds were familiar. Not pleasant, but known. Out here, she wasn’t sure what to expect.

Several strands of hair had worked loose from her tight bun and she raised one hand to push them off her face. The steady walking gait was getting easier to move with and she found herself relaxing a little more. Her heartbeat finally slowed, making her realize how hard it had been thundering and for how long. Ever since the sharp gunshot had cut through the rhythmic sounds of the stage rolling over the rough path and the carriage had crashed to the ground. One minute she’d been speeding toward her happy destiny and now...

She stared at the man in front of her. He wore a dark coat that barely came to his hips. The combination of thick fabric and broad shoulders made him look huge and forbidding. His hat was pulled low, and even if he’d been facing her, she would have had trouble seeing his eyes.

She looked away, preferring the view of the trees and plants to watching him. She didn’t want to think about what had happened or about the fact that she wouldn’t get to Whitehorn tonight. If she allowed herself to dwell on that, she would become even more afraid. Then she would shake and possibly even cry. And what use were tears? In all her twenty-one years, crying had never once accomplished anything.

But it was hard not to think about what was happening. She’d come so far, with such high hopes. After years of barely surviving in Chicago, she’d finally had a chance to be happy, only to have it snatched out of her grasp. If this...this.

..villain hadn’t stolen her away from the stagecoach, she would be meeting her beloved at this very moment.

Haley closed her eyes and pictured what it would be like. She touched the white collar of her green dress, the collar she’d carefully preserved throughout the difficult journey. The clean collar she’d put on only a few hours before at their last stop before Whitehorn. She raised her hand higher, to the intricately arranged hair she’d spent an hour on that morning, working in the dark, trying not to wake the two other women in the shabby room. She’d so wanted to make a good impression on Lucas Stoner.

She opened her eyes and smiled. Even his name was perfect. Lucas Stoner. He sounded strong. And tall. While their correspondence had been brief, with him simply responding to her letter of interest with a stagecoach ticket and a few lines of instructions, she’d studied his words and his handwriting until she felt certain she knew the man. Lucas Stoner was good and honorable, kind yet firm. He was the sort of man others respected. She wasn’t sure what he looked like, except perhaps for his height, of which she was very confident. But his appearance didn’t matter to her. She’d seen too many handsome men who beat their wives and children, or stole, or even killed. What she cared about was on the inside of the man and she knew Lucas Stoner was the incarnation of all pure virtues.

To think that if she’d been allowed to continue on her journey at this very moment she might be meeting him for the first time. She’d pictured the moment a thousand times. The way he would tilt his hat, then take her hand and help her down from the stage. The shy smile they would share, the polite and awkward conversation about which they would both laugh later.

But instead of beginning her new life, she was stuck on the back of a hideously uncomfortable horse, in the wilderness, facing Lord knew what.

“You’re quiet,” her captor said.

She looked at him, but he hadn’t bothered to turn around. “Yes,” she answered.

“Just making sure you’re still there.”

“You’re holding on to my horse’s reins. Where would I go?”

He did glance at her then. A long steady appraisal over his shoulder. Dark eyes met her own. “You could have slipped down and run off.”

“You would have heard me. Besides, I gave you my word.”

His firm mouth twisted slightly. “It’s going to take me a while to trust your word.”

“I hope we’re not together long enough for you to form an opinion of my honesty.”

“You’re a plucky little thing, aren’t you?”

Plucky? She raised her chin. “I’m not afraid of you, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m not afraid of anyone.”

He faced front again. “Must be nice to live that way. Fear can chew a man up inside. Like I said. Plucky. That’s good. You’re going to need that to survive out here. The land is hard on folks.

Especially women.”

She glanced around at the tall trees and the endless sky beyond. Ever since they’d left Chicago, she’d been eager to see what the great West of the country had to offer. The sheer size overwhelmed her. Until she’d answered Lucas’s ad for a bride and had decided to accept his proposal, her entire world had consisted of twelve square blocks in a poor part of the city. She rarely ventured past those familiar streets.

What she’d seen on her journey had excited her. There was so much life, so much land. Different places, and people. She couldn’t remember all the wonderful sights and she’d barely been able to sleep for the excitement of trying to relive all that she’d seen during the day. Everything was bigger and the colors were brighter. Winter in Chicago was shades of gray. The sky, the snow, the dirt, even the people.

“I don’t believe it’s harder out here for women than it was in the city,” she said.

“Women die there?” he asked.


“Then maybe it’s just different.”

She didn’t want to think about death. Especially not now when a stranger had kidnapped her. She wanted to think about Lucas and how he would surely come rescue her.

A faint rustle caught her attention and she saw something flash through the trees. It might have been a deer, but she wasn’t sure. She opened her mouth to address the man, then snapped it shut. Was polite conversation appropriate under the circumstances? She didn’t think so.

“What should I call you?” she asked. “The stage driver called you Jesse. Is that what you prefer?”

“It doesn’t much matter. I’m Jesse Kincaid. Make do with what you’d like.”

Calling him by his first name was a little informal, but the man had stolen her away, so using Mr. Kincaid was just too strange. As she mulled over the dilemma, she noticed it was getting darker. The sun had disappeared from the visible bits of sky and the shadows lengthened perceptibly. A shiver rippled through her. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just from cold.

What would happen when they stopped for the night? What would he do to her? She’d heard stories, too many of them. Stories of women at the mercy of strange men.

“We’ll have to make camp soon,” Jesse said.

She jumped, wondering how he’d known what she was thinking. Her unexpected action made her horse step to the side suddenly. She shrieked and grabbed the saddle with both hands.

Jesse reined in his mount and reached for her. He gripped her upper arm, steadying her. “It’s all right,” he said. “I’ve got you.”

Which shouldn’t have reassured her, as he was the reason she was frightened in the first place, but it did.

When her horse was calm again, he released her. “There’s a stream a little up ahead,” he said. “We’ll stop there for the night. I’m going to have to ask you to promise not to run away.”

She glared at him. “Why should I do that? I don’t want to be with you. I want to be in town with my fiancé.”

“If you don’t give me your word, I’ll have to tie you up. It will make your evening very uncomfortable.”

She thought about how he’d so casually lifted her onto his shoulder, then flung her across the horse. Anger filled her. She knew it was only there to camouflage the fear, but she didn’t care.

“No! I won’t do this,” she told him. She wanted to be in town. She wanted to be with Lucas. Finally she had a chance at being happy, at living in a safe place and belonging, and no one was going to take that away from her.

She snatched at her reins. In the process of steadying her, Jesse had released his grip on them. He grabbed for her, but she was faster. She slapped her horse’s neck. The animal bolted forward, the force of the movement nearly tossing her from the saddle. But she clung on to the leather and gripped the reins tightly.

“Dammit, Haley, you’ll get yourself killed.”

She ignored him, just as she ignored the sound of hoofbeats behind her. The brush and trees grew close together here. There were branches all around her. They plucked at her clothing and pulled at her hair. The musty odor of the forest was thicker, too, seeping up from the ground and filling the air with a heady aroma that, under different circumstances, might have been pleasant.

Her horse moved faster. She didn’t know where they were or where she might find Whitehorn, but right now all that mattered was getting away. Later, she would figure out how to find Lucas. For now, there was only escape.

“Haley, look out! Pull back on the reins.”

Jesse’s frantic words made her look up ahead. Tree branches jutted out on the path, forming a thick, impenetrable barrier. The horse would probably be able to duck underneath them, but they would hit her in the center of her chest.

She screamed low in her throat as she began to saw on the reins. Her horse didn’t slow. If anything, the animal went faster. The branches seemed to rush forward. She screamed louder and tried to sit up. Behind her, the sound of hoofbeats got louder but she knew Jesse wasn’t going to reach her in time.

At the last possible second, her horse dug in and stopped. She felt powerful muscles bunch with the effort and then found herself sailing through the air. Twigs and new leaves clawed at her arms and face, then the ground rushed up to meet her.

She landed on a patch of snow. The impact knocked the breath from her body, leaving her stunned, aching and unable to breathe. She tried to sit up, tried to inhale, anything to relieve the hideous pressure in her chest. At last she drew in a shaky mouthful of air, then another.

Every part of her hurt. Her back, her arms and legs, her shoulders, even her hair. The cold, damp snow soaked her dress, but she didn’t have the strength to move. She just wanted to lie here until Lucas found her and took her to town.

But the man looming over her wasn’t her fiancé. He was big and as cold and unyielding as the ground beneath her. Without saying a word, he crouched beside her and began touching her.

Haley was too stunned from the fall to protest. Her eyes burned and she fought tears as large, male hands moved over her arms, then her legs. She flinched against the invasion, wondering why she’d been spared attack for so many years in the city, only to find herself at some man’s mercy out here.

She told herself to fight him, to scratch and kick until she drove him off. But there was nothing left inside. The failed escape attempt had used up her last reserves.

“Nothing feels broken,” he said, sitting back on his heels. “Can you stand?”

She blinked several times. “Wh-what?”

“I asked if you can stand up. Are you hurt?”

She rolled until she was kneeling, then slowly pushed herself to her feet. Once there, she staggered a step or two until she regained her balance. Straightening her shoulders, she stared at her captor. “I’m not hurt.”

“Good. Hold out your hands.”

When the meaning of his words sank in, she thought about running. But where was there to go? If she hadn’t been able to escape on horseback, she wouldn’t make it on foot. There would be another chance tomorrow, she told herself as she brought her arms up and held them stiffly in front of her.

As he wrapped a length of rope around her wrists, she studied his lean face. The stubble darkening his jaw, the set of his firm mouth. “You’ll be punished for this,” she said defiantly. “You’ll be caught and punished.”

He finished his task, then shrugged. “You’re probably right. But it will be worth it.”

* * *

Daisy Newcastle lifted the cover off the china serving dish and smiled. “More soup, Lucas?”

The tall man sitting across from her at the small table shook his head and tossed his napkin on the table. “I don’t know how you do it, Daisy. I’ve paid three dollars for a meal like this in the city and never tasted anything so delicious.” He leaned forward and cupped her chin. “You’re a treasure.”

The feel of his fingers against her skin made her want to shiver, but instead she smiled winningly and lowered her gaze as if embarrassed by the compliment. “You’re so sweet to me,” she said. “I don’t deserve you.”

He squeezed once, then released her. The light from the lamps around the room caught his profile. As she stared at the left side of his face, she acknowledged that Lucas Stoner was a handsome man, with strong features and thick, dark hair. But when he heard a noise outside and turned toward it, she saw the other side. A thin scar cut down his right cheek, the line marring the flesh from his cheekbone to the corner of his mouth. The two sides of his face were much like the man himself. Viewed one way, he was handsome, successful and charming. But the other side of him, the scarred side, was ruthless and forbidding. He was a cruel man for whom life held no meaning, save perhaps his own. She played a dangerous game, teasing a lethal opponent. Yet she didn’t have a choice. She would risk everything for the man she’d once loved. She couldn’t bring him back from the grave, but she could try to make his murderer pay.

That thought was as close as she came to allowing herself to think about Michael Kincaid, Jesse’s father. About his senseless murder and the destruction of his ranch. She dropped her hands to her lap and clutched her fingers tightly together in an effort to control the rage and helplessness that swept through her. It had been nearly six months, but the pain lingered. In some ways it wasn’t as fresh as when she’d first learned the news, but she’d loved him too much to let him go easily.

So for Michael, and for Jesse, too, she invited Lucas Stoner to her small house and into her bed in the hope of learning enough to get him arrested. For justice’s sake she played the whore and made him believe he was all she’d ever wanted.

Sometimes when she wondered how she could stand it another minute, she reminded herself she wanted to see Stoner in prison, then she wanted to watch him hang. With any luck his death would be slow and painful. At least that was what she prayed for each and every night.

“Did I smell pie?” he asked and raised the left corner of his mouth in a mocking imitation of a smile.

“Yes. I know it’s your favorite dessert and I couldn’t help myself.”

He leaned forward and pressed his mouth to hers. The feel of his hot lips and the scent of his body made her stomach turn. She forced herself to stay completely still until he’d straightened back in his seat.

“Thank you,” he murmured.

“Anything for you.” She rose to her feet and began clearing the table. As always, she refused to think about what would happen in the next few hours...what always happened. The idle chatter about his day and how brilliant he was. How he sipped coffee from the delicate cups that had been brought to this country by her English grandmother. The way he would set the cup on the table in front of the sofa, place his hands on his thighs and leer at her.

“I think it’s time, Daisy dear,” he always said, then waited for her to lead the way to her bedroom.

She hated it all. Especially his calling her “Daisy dear.” But at least he was quick. Sometimes he didn’t bother undressing all the way. He simply unbuttoned his trousers and thrust himself inside of her. Sometimes, if she ignored the burning pain and telltale wetness he left behind, she could convince herself nothing had really happened.

As she took a step toward the kitchen, someone knocked on her front door. Daisy frowned and glanced at the grandfather clock in the hallway. It was already dark and after seven. Who would be calling at this time of evening... especially when Stoner left his carriage carelessly in front of her house for everyone in town to see?

She set the dishes back on the table and brushed her hands against her skirt. “I’ll just get that,” she said.

“Perhaps I’ll come with you.” Stoner pushed back his chair and stood.

Daisy crossed to the door and pulled it open. An older man stood on her small porch, his hat in his hand. He looked familiar, but she couldn’t put a name to his face. Stoner moved close behind her and supplied the information.

“Charlie, what are you doing here?” he asked.

“Mr. Stoner, I’ve brung you a message.”

Daisy frowned at the man, realizing he drove the stage. “Were you expecting a package?” she asked, glancing at Stoner over her shoulder.

“In a manner of speaking,” he answered. “What message? Was there a problem?”

Charlie turned his hat in his hands, spinning it faster and faster. He swallowed twice and a muscle twitched in his cheek. “Mr. Stoner, we had us some trouble with the stage.”

“Would you like to come in?” she asked Charlie.

“That won’t be necessary,” Stoner said, never looking away from the driver. “What happened?”

“There was a holdup.”

“I didn’t have any packages or money on the stage.”

“I know that. But you did have...” Charlie trailed off and glanced pointedly at Daisy. “You know.”

“My mail-order bride. Yes, I do know. Go on.”

Charlie began speaking, but Daisy wasn’t paying attention. So the woman had arrived. There was nothing to be done about her, of course. The poor innocent had answered an ad from a man looking for a wife. No doubt she thought she was marrying someone kind and ordinary. Not a monster. Not Lucas Stoner.

“Jesse Kincaid took her off, bold as you please. Right in front of all of us.”

That got Daisy’s attention. “What did you say?”

Charlie’s head bobbed several times. “That’s right, ma’am. Jesse kidnapped Mr. Stoner’s bride. Said he would bring her back when Stoner agreed to talk with him.” He shrugged. “So that’s what I come to tell you.”

Daisy didn’t want to look, but she forced herself to turn slowly and raise her gaze to Stoner’s face. The cold, ugly hatred there made her shrink back against the door frame.

There were several moments of silence. All Daisy heard was the sound of the hat brim brushing against Charlie’s callused fingers and the faint ticking from the clock in the hall.

“Thank you for bringing me that information,” Stoner said at last. “I’ll take care of it.”

Charlie bobbed his head again. “Yes, sir, Mr. Stoner. I just wanted to be the one to tell you. When he took her off, she wasn’t hurt or anything.”

“Thank you,” Stoner repeated, drew Daisy inside the house and firmly shut the door.

Daisy tried to gather her composure. She had to figure out how to act. She hadn’t known about Jesse’s plans, so her surprise about that had been genuine enough. The fool boy was trying to get himself killed, she thought grimly, then pushed the thought away. There was no time to deal with Jesse’s folly right now. First she had to handle Stoner. She was supposed to be his loving mistress, and as such, news about a mail-order bride should bother her. Stoner had no way of knowing she’d overheard him talking to the wire operator when he had sent the money for the woman’s ticket.

“Lucas?” she asked, as he led the way back into the dining room. “I don’t understand.”

He motioned for her to take her seat. She hesitated, then did as he requested. She rested her hands flat on the table and opened her eyes wide. For a couple of heartbeats, she allowed herself to remember the pain of watching Michael Kincaid hanged for a crime he didn’t commit. As always, the memory of the senseless death brought tears to her eyes. She blinked as if trying to hide them.

“A b-bride,” she said, deliberately stumbling over the word.

“I know, Daisy dear. This is a shock.”

“More than a shock. I thought—” She shook her head and turned away. “Lucas...”

He took the chair next to her and grasped both her hands in his. “I don’t have a choice. Look at me.”

She drew in a deep breath for courage and did. His faked concern made her supper rise in her throat.

“You know about my ambitions,” he said.

She nodded. “You’re going to be governor.”

“And more.” He smiled as if she were a bright student and had provided the correct answer. “That requires the right kind of connections and the right wife.”

Daisy hung her head. “I have no connections, nor am I a young, blushing bride.”

“You are a beautiful woman and I have no intention of ending our relationship.”

She sucked in a breath, then turned her mouth up into a smile. Pray God he didn’t notice the lie. “Really? But I don’t understand.”

“She will be a convenience, nothing more. I specifically wanted an orphan. She has no family to appear and refute whatever I may say about her past. But she will be little more than a decoration to appease the world. You will still warm my bed at night.” He leaned close and kissed her. “Often.”

Her pity for the faceless young woman vanished. She, Daisy, was still going to have to allow Stoner to have his way with her. At least for now. Which was fine with her. She still wanted Stoner dead.

“But she’s been kidnapped. What are you going to do?”

His expression hardened again. “I will take care of Jesse Kincaid myself.”

Just like you took care of his father, Daisy thought angrily.

“He can’t be allowed to go around kidnapping innocent women,” Stoner continued. “I will think of something suitable.”

Daisy realized she had to warn Jesse. On the heels of that concern came the knowledge that he’d known by kidnapping Stoner’s bride-to-be he would be tangling directly with his enemy. Perhaps that was what he wanted—a way to flush Stoner into the open. He had a plan. Of that she was sure. The best thing she could do to help was to stay close to their mutual enemy and learn all she could. Eventually Lucas Stoner would make a mistake. They only needed one. Then she would be standing right in front to watch the man hang.


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