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Mallery Susan

Wild West Wife

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CHAPTER THREE

They made camp in a small clearing beside a rushing stream. Haley leaned against a thick tree, trying not to think about where she was or why she was there. The pretending to be strong and brave only worked for a short period of time. Sometimes, the fear won anyway.

A shiver rippled through her. Her dress was soaked from where she’d fallen in the snow, but she didn’t have anything else to change into. The small carpetbag Jesse had brought with them contained a nightgown, stockings, her brush and comb, some hairpins and two spare petticoats. Her other dresses were in her trunk, still tied to the stage.

The snap of a twig caught her attention and she turned toward the sound. Jesse moved back into the clearing. His arms were full of tree branches, which he placed on the ground. Next he gathered small twigs and some leaves. He pulled a tin of matches from one of his saddlebags, then lit one and touched the flame to the kindling. The fire caught instantly.

“If you stand close to the heat, your clothes will dry,” he said without turning around.

Haley glared at his back. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of responding to his suggestion. But another shiver rippled through her and she knew she was risking a serious chill if she didn’t get warm soon. So she approached the growing fire and turned so her damp skirts were closest to the flames. She was careful to keep her gaze from meeting Jesse’s. As it got darker and the sounds of the night surrounded them, it was more and more difficult to forget she was alone with this man. What was he going to do to her?

Don’t think about that, she ordered herself. Think about Lucas. So she tried to picture his face, his eyes, his warm smile. She got lost in a daydream of how he would tell her he’d been so worried about her. She would tell him about her adventure and he would gently take her hand and offer comfort. They would—

Something settled on her shoulders. She let out a scream and tried to jump. Strong hands held her in place.

“Just until you stop shaking like a wet calf,” Jesse said, smoothing a coat over her. “I have a spare. I figured a city girl wouldn’t know how to dress for Montana nights.”

She wanted to throw his gift back in his face, but she could feel the weight of the fabric and the warmth lingering from his body and all she wanted to do was snuggle into the soft sheepskin lining. Despite her annoyance at the implied insult, she knew he was right. She didn’t have a warm coat.

“I—” She clamped her lips shut. She was not going to thank him. He didn’t deserve it.

He also didn’t seem to expect it. He moved away and began setting up the camp. He filled a coffeepot with water and put it on a flat rock he rolled into the fire. Next came cans of beans and some hard, flat chunks of bread. He heated the beans in their can, then used a bent fork to push them onto two plates.

Somewhere in the process, he removed his hat. Haley didn’t notice the exact moment he did so, but suddenly he wasn’t wearing it. As he crouched by the fire, the light illuminated his features. Stubble darkened his jaw, making him look forbidding. Dark eyes and a straight mouth gave nothing away. She didn’t know what he was thinking and she decided she didn’t want to know. When he stood up, she realized he was much taller than she. The top of her head barely came to his chin.

He’d already proved he could physically overpower her without a moment’s pause.

The fear returned and with it a sensation of helplessness. She glanced around, but there was no one to help her and nowhere to run. The vast star-filled sky seemed to mock her. In the middle of the wilderness, what did the fate of one unknown woman matter to anyone?

* * *

The woman had gotten real quiet.

Jesse told himself it was a good thing, that her silence was better than her threats, but to tell the truth, he’d spent a lot of the past two years in his own company and he’d gotten tired of the quiet. But he couldn’t think of anything to say. And if the little glances she kept throwing at him were anything to go by, she was terrified. Despite the large fire and his coat, she kept shivering. He knew her dress was wet from where she’d fallen in the snow, but there wasn’t anything he could do about that. It was unlikely she had a spare in her small carpetbag and he didn’t have one with him, either. She was just going to have to shiver until she dried out.

But he could try to reassure her fears. Somehow.

He searched his brain, wondering what he could say that would bring her a measure of comfort. He felt another of those darting glances. She’d cleaned her plate and set it on the ground beside her. From here he couldn’t see if she’d finished her coffee or not so he reached for the pot, rose to his feet and headed toward her.

She sat in a half crouch across from him. As he approached, she stiffened, then slowly stood up. He’d untied the ropes around her wrists so she could eat. She’d pushed her arms through the coat sleeves. The garment hung down to her thighs, making her look small and childlike.

“More coffee?” he asked, holding up the pot.

She dropped her cup to the ground as her hands curled into fists. “Stop it,” she said softly. “Just stop it.”

He paused in midstep. “What are you talking about?”

“This.” She made a motion that took in him, the camp and the horses. “All of it.” She cleared her throat and her voice got stronger. “I’m not afraid. You can do whatever you have to and I won’t be afraid. But don’t make me wait and wonder. Just get it over with. Whatever you’re going to do to me, I can bear it. I just can’t stand the waiting!”

Jesse took a step back and stared at her. The firelight illuminated half her face. Her green eyes had darkened to the color of shadow while her skin seemed to glow. But it was her mouth that caught and held his attention. Her lower lip quivered. He didn’t know if she was terrified or just close to tears and he didn’t want to know. Dammit all to hell, he hadn’t wanted to do this from the start. If there’d been another way to make Stoner listen to him...

But there hadn’t been, he reminded himself. The past six months had proved that. Stoner was too smart to make a mistake and Jesse had no choice but to force his hand.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said.

She made a sound that was half laugh, half strangled sob. “Yes, I’ve heard the men always say that right before they ravish the woman. That it won’t hurt. That she’ll like it.” Her chin raised slightly in a gesture of defiance. “I don’t care because I won’t be afraid of you. So ravish me or kill me, but just do it now.

Her words sank in slowly. Jesse felt an unfamiliar heat on his cheeks, then realized he was blushing. “I’m not going to do that,” he said quickly and returned to the fire. After putting the coffeepot back on the rock, he shoved his hands into his pockets.

“Kill me or r-ravish me?”

“I’m not going to hurt you at all. You’ve got this all wrong.”

“Forgive me for misunderstanding the kidnapping. Perhaps you merely meant to show me this beautiful countryside. Of course. How silly of me. Allow me to admire the beauty of the night sky. There are so many stars out. It’s lovely. You are a thoughtful host.”

He had to admire her guts. She was still visibly shaking with cold and fear, yet she spit at him like a barn cat facing down a coyote. She had about as much chance of winning this encounter, too, but by God she wasn’t going to let her fear best her. He had the brief thought that life would have been easier for Claire if she had had a little of Haley Winthrop’s spirit. But Claire couldn’t help what she’d been and he knew better than to speak or think ill of the dead.

He pointed to the log he’d rolled over for her to sit on. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he repeated. “You might as well make yourself comfortable.” He sat on the ground on his oilcloth and stared at the flames. She didn’t move.

“I didn’t want to kidnap you,” he said, figuring he owed her some explanation for what had happened.

“So you made a mistake. How unfortunate...for all of us.”

Her frosty words almost made him want to smile. Almost. “I have a ranch, or rather I had one with my father. It’s a few miles from here. A great piece of land with plenty of room for grazing cattle and there’s lots of water.”

“How lovely for you.” She was just as sarcastic as ever, but he noticed she’d lowered herself onto the log and was leaning toward the fire.

“A couple of years ago I headed south to bring up a herd of longhorns from Texas. We wanted to breed them with the stock we already had and build up our cattle.” He paused, remembering the plans he and his dad had made. The dreams they’d had for success as ranchers. There were opportunities available to men willing to work hard. He remembered his mother and Claire. The land wasn’t as forgiving when it came to women.

“Did you?” she asked. “Did you bring the herd north?”

“Yeah. Nearly two thousand head of cattle. But when I got back, the ranch was gone.”

That caught her attention. She straightened in her seat and stared at him. “What do you mean, gone? The land is still there, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yeah, the land is there, but the cattle had been scattered and the house was mostly burned. My father was dead.”

He stared into the fire and remembered that time. Those days—the shock of seeing the half-burned house. The silence broken only by a few birds flying overhead.

“What happened?” she asked.

“He was murdered. Falsely accused of helping renegades who have been attacking local ranches.” Rage welled up inside him; the familiar heat had kept him alive through the long, cold winter. “I know my father as well as I know myself. He was a decent man who never broke the law. He wouldn’t have helped any renegades. I asked around in town and found out there had been a quick arrest and a quicker trial. He was hanged in two days. It happened about four months after I left for Texas, so by the time I got back with the herd, people had mostly forgotten.”

He heard Haley catch her breath. “I’m sorry for your family,” she said. “But what does this have to do with me?”

“I know who’s responsible. Lucas Stoner is behind my father’s death and he’s responsible for the other attacks on the ranches around here. So far I haven’t been able to prove it, but you’re going to help me change all that.”

Haley sprang to her feet. “No! I won’t listen to this and I’m certainly not going to help you. How dare you imply that Mr. Stoner is anything but a good and kind man? He’s honest and hardworking. While I appreciate and sympathize with the death of your father, that does not give you the right to kidnap an innocent woman and hold her against her will.”

Jesse shook his head. “You’ve never met Stoner.”

“So?”

“How can you claim to know what kind of man he is?”

That pointed chin came up a notch again. “I have read his letter. I know the man.”

“Lady, I think living in the city has addled your brain. You don’t know this man, and trust me, you don’t want to know him. If anything, you should be grateful I kidnapped you.”

“Grateful? Why, you are nothing but a lying dog. Lucas Stoner is a gentleman and you have no right to even speak his name. You are a criminal, a liar and I’m not sure what else.”

Jesse was too stunned to protest. She was comparing him to Stoner and Stoner was coming out the winner? “You got all this from one letter?”

She nodded, her green eyes flashing fire. “My fiancé is a wonderful man and I’m lucky to be engaged to him.”

Haley was grateful for the argument. Not only did talking about Lucas make her feel less alone, but the anger gave her strength. She wasn’t sure if she believed Jesse’s claim that he didn’t want to hurt her. She hoped he wasn’t lying, but she had no way of knowing for sure.

“Must have been a hell of a letter,” Jesse muttered as he turned back to the fire and poured himself more coffee.

Haley knew if the truth were told, it hadn’t been much of a letter. Just a few lines of Lucas telling what he wanted in a wife. She had replied with a long detailed description of herself, her character and her life in Chicago. His answer had been the stage ticket west.

So she wasn’t completely sure of Lucas’s character, but she had been able to interpret several qualities from both what he wrote and what his words probably meant. And when the little voice in her head asked why, if Lucas was so wonderful, did he have to advertise for a wife, she reminded the voice, and herself, that there weren’t many women in the West. Besides, her entire future depended on the character of Lucas Stoner. She couldn’t bear the thought that he was anything less than perfect.

“It’s getting late,” Jesse said. “If you want to wash up, go on down to the stream to take care of your business. We need to turn in soon.”

His words reminded her of the pressure low in her belly and the fact that she hadn’t had a moment’s privacy since he’d kidnapped her. While she was surprised he was willing to trust her on her own, she wasn’t about to question the fact and hurried in the direction of the running water.

Once by the bank, she found a clump of trees and carefully lifted her skirts. It was dark and she worried about what kinds of creatures might be lurking in the shadows. Still the outdoors was cleaner smelling than any privy in the city.

When she’d finished, she made her way to the stream and quickly washed her face and hands. The water was like ice, but so clean and sweet tasting, she had to drink several handfuls before reluctantly turning back to the camp.

It would be easy enough to run away, she thought. She could simply disappear into the darkness.

A bird hooted from the high branches above her head and something rustled in the leaves next to her. She jumped. Her choices were the enemy in the form of Jesse Kincaid, or the unknown of the forest. For now the man was less frightening.

But as she got closer to the camp, her step slowed and she wondered if she would be better off taking her chances with the creatures of the night.

To distract herself, she thought about what he’d told her about his family and the death of his father. She didn’t know anything about her own family. She’d been delivered to the orphanage when she was only a few weeks old and no one had ever come looking for her in all her twenty-one years. She had often wondered what it would be like to have people related by blood, people who cared where she went and what she did with herself. That was one of the reasons she was so looking forward to getting married. Lucas was going to care about her. In time, he would love her and she would finally belong. He was...

He was not responsible for the death of Jesse’s father. She knew that for sure. He couldn’t be. There had to be a mistake.

Before she could figure it all out, she found herself entering the camp. The first thing she saw was two bedrolls stretched out on opposite sides of the fire. Relief filled her, chasing away the chill and the last of the fear. Jesse had meant what he said. He wasn’t going to ravish her.

When she hesitated, he pointed to the one closest to her. She walked to it, then sank down on the thick blankets. “How did you know I’d come back?” she asked.

“You didn’t have a choice. You’re a city girl and you wouldn’t survive half a day in these woods, let alone half the night.”

She thought about the unfamiliar smells, sights and sounds and knew that he was right. As long as he kept his word and didn’t try to take her, she would be fine. In a few days she would be in town and this would all be just a bad dream.

He tossed the rest of his coffee into the bushes, then stretched out on his bedroll. “I’m not going to tie your hands,” he said. “If you try to escape in the night, I’ll probably hear you and drag you back. Then I will tie your hands, and your feet, too. You won’t like it.”

“I’m not going to try to escape.” At least not tonight, she thought. Maybe tomorrow, when it was bright and she was rested.

“If I don’t hear you, you’re going to be on your own out there,” he said as if she hadn’t spoken. “There are a lot of hungry critters who would like to have someone just like you for supper.”

“You don’t scare me,” she told him.

“I’m not trying to scare you, I’m telling you the truth.”

She raised herself on one elbow and looked at him. “It doesn’t matter if you try or not, I’m tough. I’ve been on my own since I was twelve. Some backwoods criminal isn’t about to make me do anything I don’t want to do, so don’t even try.”

He raised himself on one elbow, too. “You don’t say.”

“I do say.”

He lifted his eyebrows, then smiled. “Good.”

She’d expected several reactions, but not a smile. Not from him. Not after what they’d been through.

Her first thought was that he was surprisingly handsome, in a rugged kind of way. The second was that he looked kind when he smiled, and he made her want to smile back. Which was ridiculous because the man had kidnapped her. So she stretched out on the bedroll and pulled the blankets over her. The wool smelled of horse and hay and the outdoors. She inhaled the scent and thought it was very nice. Clean and safe smelling.

Logs snapped on the fire. In the distance, something howled a mournful cry. An answering yip filled the night. When there was silence again, Haley turned on her side, toward the fire.

“Jesse?”

“Yes?”

“Tell me about Lucas Stoner.”

He was quiet for so long, she thought he wasn’t going to answer. Then he said, “I thought you knew everything about the man.”

“I know some things. What he told me in his letter and what I figured out for myself. But there’s a lot I don’t know.”

“You know he killed my father.”

She sighed. “I don’t believe that. There has to be some mistake.”

“There’s no mistake.” Jesse’s voice was bitter.

“I don’t want to talk about that.”

“I don’t blame you. I don’t imagine any bride wants to hear that her fiancé is a murderer.”

“Never mind,” she said and closed her eyes.

She heard Jesse draw in a deep breath. “I can’t tell you about him without telling you what I know he did, but if you ask me something specific, I can probably answer that.”

“Is he handsome?” Haley wasn’t sure where that question came from. She’d never thought of Lucas as being good-looking or not. In her mind, he simply existed. But now that she’d asked, she found she wanted to know.

“I’m a man, Haley. How would I know?”

He had a point. “Is he ugly?”

“I don’t think so. He has a scar on his face, though. That might bother you.”

“A scar? What does it look like?”

“It’s a thin, pale line on the right side of his face, from his cheekbone to about an inch from the corner of his mouth. And before you ask, I don’t know how he got it.”

Haley drew her knees to her chest and thought about the scar. He must mind having it. Anyone would. In a way it made Lucas a tragic figure, which made him more approachable. The scar wouldn’t matter to her. She would find him just as easy to love. She would tell him after they were married. After all, she’d worked with a doctor for several years and she was completely used to seeing things more unpleasant than a scar.

She felt herself start to relax and she pulled the blankets up over her shoulders. Tomorrow Lucas would come find her, she was sure of it. They would get married and she would begin her new life.

.

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