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Mallery Susan

Wild West Wife

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It was still dark under the trees when Jesse woke up. He could see the first fingers of light filtering through the branches as he rolled onto his back and got his bearings. Slowly he turned his head toward the fire, then rose on one elbow. Haley was still there, curled up on her side, the blankets pulled to her chin. So she hadn’t tried to run. He was pleased, but a little surprised. She was tough and he admired that. He suspected her fighting spirit would cause her to try to escape again. He could only hope that he would be able to catch her. Being tough wasn’t going to be enough to keep her alive out here in a wilderness that didn’t show anyone mercy.

He continued to study her. Sometime in the night her light brown hair had come loose from its pins. Soft-looking strands spread out on the pile of clothing that was a makeshift pillow. She was, he acknowledged, very pretty. Claire had been pretty, but in a more traditional sense. He supposed at one time his mother had been beautiful, before the hardships of ranch life had leached the color from her face and hair. This wilderness was hard on women, which was why it would be better for everyone if Haley just turned around and returned to Chicago. At least she would be safer there.

Still, he knew better than to tell her his opinion on the subject. She was about as stubborn as she was tough. He had to admire that, even though he knew it was going to make the situation more difficult for him. Despite everything, despite her sharp tongue and her misplaced faith in her fiancé, he liked her. A useless piece of information, he thought, sitting up and reaching for the coffeepot. Haley wasn’t for him, and even if she was, he wasn’t going to get involved with a woman ever again. He refused to be responsible for another woman’s death.

He walked to the stream and washed his face, then filled the coffeepot. Six months of living under a real roof at the Baxter ranch had softened him some. He’d spent more than a year on the trail before that and he knew it wouldn’t take long for him to get used to being outdoors again. Of course he wasn’t going to be out here all that long. Just as soon as Stoner agreed to talk to him, he could let Haley go and get on with his quest for justice.

As he stirred the cold fire and added more kindling, he heard a faint sound. He half turned as Haley’s eyes fluttered open. She drew her eyebrows together as she glanced around. Her gaze settled on him. Fear followed confusion, then she remembered and stiffened slightly. With a reaction that he knew was involuntary, she reached for the buttons of her green dress, checking them as if to make sure they hadn’t been disturbed. At the same time, her other hand reached down to smooth her skirt. Then she blushed.

Jesse looked away, fighting embarrassment of his own. He’d told the woman he wasn’t interested in ravishing her. Why didn’t she believe him? But he knew the answer to that question. He was a stranger to her. A man who had taken her away against her will and was holding her captive. Why should she believe anything he said?

“The coffee will take a few minutes,” he said, his voice gruff. “You should go clean up. We’ll be moving out right after breakfast.”

She scrambled to her feet and walked briskly toward the stream. When she was gone, Jesse collected their blankets and rolled them up. He gathered the saddlebags together and as he set them next to the blankets, he felt something hard inside one of them. Without wanting to, he opened the flap and reached inside.

The brooch was wrapped in a piece of soft cotton.

He squatted down and flipped open the edges of the cloth, until the beautiful piece of jewelry winked up at him. A pink cameo edged in gold. The carved face showed a beautiful woman in three-quarter profile.

His father had given the piece to his mother before he, Jesse, had been born. He remembered her wearing it nearly every day. She used to laugh and finger it, saying it was too fine for daily wear, but too beautiful to be left in a box. It was, she’d often said, a legacy of the love she and his father shared. When Jesse fell in love, she would give it to him to give to his bride.

So when Claire had arrived, she’d been given the Kincaid cameo brooch and she’d worn it at the base of her throat. His mother had been pleased by how the jewelry suited Claire. Then Claire had died and his mother had taken the brooch back. Jesse had ceased to believe that it was given as a legacy of love. He doubted the pin was cursed—it just didn’t have enough power to ward off the inevitable. Or maybe love wasn’t strong enough. Or maybe it was something else entirely. For while Michael Kincaid had loved his wife desperately, he, Jesse, had never come close to loving Claire. It was an ugly truth and one he didn’t want to face. But today he couldn’t ignore it. He hadn’t loved her and she’d known. Perhaps that had been the real reason she had died.

* * *

Haley crouched in front of the stream and shivered as her hands dipped into the frigid water. This morning there was still ice on the muddy banks. It crackled as she shifted her weight. But she didn’t mind the cold water or the chill of the early morning. Instead she had to hold in a laugh of pure pleasure.

Everything was so clean. The scent of the air and the earth, the taste of the water, the ground, the sky, all of it. Clean, new and alive. She splashed water on her face, and caught her breath at the coldness. Then she drank several handfuls of the sweet liquid. A few drops ran down her chin and soaked the collar of her dress, but she didn’t mind. Montana was more wonderful than she had allowed herself to believe. It was big and beautiful and, no matter what, she was never going back.

She rose to her feet and, arms open wide, she spun in a circle. Her loose hair hung down her back. She shook her head, enjoying the feel of the thick strands moving against her. The rising sun touched her face, warming her skin. As she stretched, she felt stiff and a little sore. Probably from her horseback riding yesterday. She rubbed her rear and wrinkled her nose at the thought of getting back on the horse again. But it was unlikely Jesse would have another way for her to travel. At least being on the horse was much better than being trapped in the swaying stagecoach. The first two days of the journey her stomach had been queasy and she’d been afraid she was never going to feel better.

A familiar and tempting smell caught her attention. She sniffed, inhaling the scent of coffee. Her stomach rumbled. She turned and headed back toward the camp, her nose leading her when she nearly lost the narrow trail.

As she broke through the brush surrounding their small clearing, she saw Jesse squatting on the ground, staring at something in his hand. She approached him and when he didn’t turn away, she bent down and studied what he held.

It was a woman’s brooch.

Gold with a carved cameo in the center. The gold caught the rising sunlight and seemed to wink at her. “It’s lovely,” she breathed. “Is it yours?”

He looked at her. It was the first time she’d seen his face in daylight. Yesterday, when he’d kidnapped her, he’d been wearing a hat pulled low over his forehead. Last night he’d taken the hat off, but it had already grown dark and she’d only seen him by firelight. Now she stared at him in the full brightness of day.

He had regular features, with a straight nose and dark eyes. His hair was a little shaggy, thick and straight, with a few strands falling over his forehead. Stubble shadowed his cheeks and jaw, outlining his firm mouth. A mouth that looked as if it never smiled, yet he had last night...hadn’t he?

He didn’t want to answer her question. She could tell by his silence and the way he carefully wrapped the pin in its piece of cotton and placed it in his saddlebag. Had it belonged to someone in his family? An old sweetheart? It wasn’t her business, she reminded herself.

She turned to the fire and grabbed their coffee cups. The brew was nearly ready.

“It belonged to my mother,” he said, startling her.

She spun toward him. “Really? It’s very lovely.”

He shrugged. “My father gave it to her when they were married.”

“Your mother died?” she asked.

“About three years ago.”

She heard the pain in his voice. “At least you can remember her,” she said. “And you have the brooch.”

“I know.” But she could tell by his shuttered expression that he didn’t think it was much.

If only he knew how precious the remembering could be. There had been so many times when she’d lain awake at night and desperately wanted to remember something... anything. But she’d been an infant when she’d been left at the orphanage and there weren’t any memories to be had. She’d contented herself with making up stories about a family that didn’t really exist.

The coffee sputtered. She bent low to the fire and grabbed her skirt, then used it to protect her hand from the heat of the pot as she poured them both a cup.

“You’ve been around open fires before,” Jesse commented, coming up behind her and taking the cup she offered.

“I’ve been around every kind of fire and cookstove you can imagine,” she said. “Big black monsters in restaurant kitchens and tiny flames in shacks on the edge of the neighborhood.”

He frowned and sat on the log by the fire. She settled next to him. He produced a couple of hard biscuits and some dried beef. “Why so many places?”

“I worked for a doctor,” she said, taking the food. It wasn’t what she would have requested, but she was hungry and there didn’t seem to be much choice. She’d long ago learned to eat when food was around because it might not always be available. “I assisted him as he cared for patients, so I went with him to their homes or where they worked.”

Jesse looked surprised. “You had a job?”

“Of course. How do you think I took care of myself?”

“Didn’t you live with your family?”

“I’m an orphan.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know.”

“There was no reason for you to.”

He glanced at the saddlebag containing the brooch. “Do you remember your family at all?”

She shook her head. “I was left at the orphanage when I was first born. I like to think I have many brothers and sisters and they just lost track of me, but I know that’s not true.”

“How did you get from the orphanage to working for a doctor?”

She took a sip of coffee, not sure if she should answer the question. She didn’t much like talking about her past. Dr. Redding had often said life had not treated her well, but she didn’t think it had been any more unkind to her than to most people.

“The orphanage kept us until we were twelve, then we were sent out to work.”

His gaze narrowed. “At twelve?”

She nodded. “We could stay after that, but we had to pay room and board. That’s what I did. I found a job cleaning. Scrubbing floors, that kind of thing.” She made light of that time, not wanting to dwell on what it had been like. She didn’t want to remember her cracked and bleeding hands, so raw from the hot water and lye soap. She didn’t want to relive the pain in her back from the endless scrubbing. It was, she’d found out, only slightly better than working in a laundry, where she’d only lasted three days before deciding it would be easier to simply starve to death.

“One of my friends worked for Dr. Redding,” she went on. “When a position became available in his office, she recommended me. I cleaned there, but it was easier than what I’d done before. Then one day, one of the nurses was ill and I accompanied him as he visited patients. I found I liked it a lot more than cleaning and he said I had a talent for helping the sick.”

“How old were you?” Jesse asked.

“Nearly fifteen. After a few months I was earning enough to leave the orphanage. I rented a room in a nice house. It was in the attic, but still it was mine.”

She could remember how proud she’d been the first night she’d slept in that narrow bed. In the morning the room had been freezing and she’d bumped her head on the sloping ceiling, but none of that had mattered. She’d found a place that was hers. And she’d done it all by herself.

Jesse continued to study her. She wondered if she’d missed a smudge of dirt on her face and tried to casually wipe her cheeks.

“That’s not what I imagined,” he said at last. “You’ve been through some difficult times.”

She shrugged. “I suppose. It’s all I know.”

“Do you miss Chicago?”

She thought about the tiny room that was so hot in the summer and so very cold in the winter. She thought about the sick and the dying, the stench of the open sewers, the fear of being attacked when she walked home late after tending an ill patient. In the past four years only three men had invited her out for an evening and she hadn’t liked any of them. There were, she knew, lots of young men in the city, but she didn’t know how to meet them. While a few friends had offered to introduce her to brothers and cousins, she always felt shy and silly and she’d refused. So she remained alone.

“No,” she said softly. “I don’t miss it. I wanted something different than I had there. I know how to work hard and I’m not afraid. Mr. Stoner and I can build a good life together here.”

She thought about her fiancé and wondered if he was already out looking for her. It would have been difficult to get men together in the darkness, but she was sure that first thing this morning, they would begin the search. Perhaps they’d already started. Her heart quickened. At this moment, he could be on horseback, retracing the journey she’d taken with Jesse. Perhaps in a few short hours, she would be with him.

A quick movement caught her attention. Jesse stood up, his body stiff with tension. She knew it was because she’d mentioned Lucas. Well, none of this was her fault. Jesse was the one who had kidnapped her and if he didn’t want her talking about Lucas, he could take her to town and let her go.

“How long do you intend to keep me prisoner?” she asked.

“For as long as it takes.”

“You want money? Is that it?”

He turned his cool gaze on her. “No. Not money. Information. A confession.”

Frustration filled her. “Why do you insist on blaming him for what happened to your family? I’m sure he wasn’t—”

He cut her off with an angry flick of his hand. “Lady, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You have one letter from a stranger and nothing more. You’ve never met the man, nor have you spoken to anyone who knows him. If you want to believe he’s the archangel Gabriel, that’s your business, but I don’t want to hear about it anymore. As far as I’m concerned, Lucas Stoner is a murdering son of a bitch and I want to see him hang.”

She opened her mouth, then closed it. This wasn’t the time to reason with him. Later, when he’d calmed down, she could try to explain the situation to him. Or maybe it was better if they avoided the topic altogether.

“You are entitled to your opinion,” she said stiffly and took a bite of the dried meat.

“Thank you,” he said sarcastically. “Now if you’ll hurry up your breakfast, we have a lot of ground to cover today. I want your word that you won’t try to escape.”

She’d forgotten about her plans until he mentioned them. In the daylight, the forest didn’t look so frightening. Maybe she could find the road, then make her way to town. Wouldn’t Lucas be proud of her for getting away all on her own!

“Don’t even think about it,” Jesse told her. “If you don’t give me your word, I’m going to tie your hands. If you remember from yesterday, it’s not a very comfortable way to travel.”

She popped the last bit of beef into her mouth and turned her back on him. Although she hadn’t promised, he seemed to take her actions as agreement because he didn’t bother with the rope. Which was fine with her. There was no way she was going to just accept her fate. She had a life she needed to get on with and Jesse Kincaid wasn’t going to stand in her way. At the first opportunity that presented itself, she was going to run.


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