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Mallery Susan

Wild West Wife

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Haley couldn’t remember ever having been this thirsty, hot, tired and sore. She stayed in the saddle by sheer will alone, simply because she knew it would hurt too much if she allowed herself to fall to the ground. Not that she was sure she could feel a whole lot more pain. Her thighs felt as if they’d been stretched two inches too long. Her rear was one giant bruise. The sun beat down unmercifully and she could feel her face burning. If only she had a bonnet. Or a glass of water. If only she was still in the carriage. A queasy stomach was simple compared to this.

To make matters worse, Jesse didn’t seem to notice. He rode a few feet ahead, sitting comfortable in his saddle as if he’d been riding since before he could walk. He probably had been, she thought grimly, tugging at her suddenly too-tight collar and wishing a few clouds would appear in the brilliant blue sky. From time to time she heard a faint noise that sounded suspiciously like whistling. As if this were a great adventure to him. As if her suffering meant nothing.

If she were standing on solid ground instead of undulating on this poor excuse for transportation, she would stomp her foot and tell him exactly what she thought of him.

Then she heard the most perfect sound. At first she was afraid she was imagining it. The soft rush of water over rocks. A stream? Her mouth watered at the thought and she rubbed her cracked, dry lips.

“Is there a stream up ahead?” she asked.

“Yeah.” He glanced at her over his shoulder. “I thought we could take a break there.”

“I’d like that.” Gratitude filled her and she nearly smiled at him before she remembered it was his fault she was suffering in the first place. If he hadn’t come along, she would be in Whitehorn by now, possibly entertaining Lucas before the wedding. Or she might actually be getting married at this very minute. Her new, perfect life would be starting. But instead, she was stuck in the wilderness, dying of thirst and slowly roasting alive in the afternoon sun.

She would never have guessed it got hot in Montana in the spring. Last night the temperature had dipped below freezing, but today was just like summer. Under other circumstances, she might have enjoyed the unexpected warmth. Under other circumstances, she might have been willing to make polite conversation and be an agreeable companion. But right now all she wanted was to get off the horse and have something to drink.

Five minutes later, she reined in her mount and slowly slipped to the ground. There was an awful moment when she wasn’t sure her legs were going to support her. Everything shook. Her thighs, her knees, her insides.

Jesse dismounted and grabbed her horse’s reins. “You might want to walk around for a bit,” he said. “That’ll ease the stiffness.”

“I doubt it,” she told him, not bothering to look at him.

She made her way to the stream and crouched down by the flowing water. It was as icy as the one they’d camped by last night and she nearly laughed her delight. Again the taste was almost sweet. In some ways she felt as if she’d never really tasted water before. This clear, nearly sparkling liquid was nothing like what she’d grown up drinking. There was no odd color or odor, no taste of the barrel. The closest she’d come had been rainwater and that was a rare treat.

When she’d sipped her fill, she straightened and walked around on the bank. Moving did help, although she wasn’t going to admit that.

Jesse walked down to the edge of the bank and broke a branch off a sapling. She’d noticed him doing things like that before. He’d taken a length of ruffle from one of the petticoats in her carpetbag and cut it up into small pieces, one of which he lodged in the broken branch.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Leaving a trail.”

She glanced across the stream to the other side. It was thick with trees, but she thought she saw a narrow path. “Are we going that way?”


She frowned. “Then why...” Her mouth hung open for a moment, then she snapped it shut. She thought about all the times he’d stopped to break branches or leave bits of cloth. He usually did it when they changed direction or stopped. But the broken branches and pieces of petticoat didn’t lead to them. Jesse was using them to send her rescuers in a different direction.

“You’re tricking them,” she said, as the anger returned. This time she was standing on the ground, so she placed her hands on her hips and stomped her right foot hard. “You’re sending them away from where we’re going.”

“That’s right,” he said as easily as if he were agreeing to the day of the week. “I want them close, but I’m not ready for them to find us.”

“Find me, you mean.” Frustration boiled as her anger flared. “You want to keep me as long as you can.”

Dark steady eyes studied her. “I want to keep you as long as necessary, Haley. I’m not doing this because I want to. I’m doing it because it’s the only way to get Stoner to talk to me. When he gives me the information I need, I’ll let you go.”

“But I want to go now!”

“I’m sorry. I can’t do that.”

He sounded sincere, but that wasn’t good enough. She looked around for a rock or a branch. Something with which to threaten him and convince him to let her go. She could feel her promise of happiness disappearing with every passing minute. She’d already waited so long. She wanted to meet Lucas. She wanted to be with him.

Jesse finished tucking the length of torn fabric in the tree branch and crossed to her. “Haley, I know this is difficult for you. I’ll turn you over to Stoner as soon as I can. I promise.”

“I’m not interested in your promises. You’re nothing but a criminal. You’ve kidnapped an innocent woman, kept her in the woods and Lord knows what else you have planned.”

A dull flush climbed his cheeks. He pushed his hat back on his head.

“We’ve been over that one already. You know I’m not going to hurt you.”

She did know, but she wasn’t about to admit it to him. “I hate this,” she said, turning away from him. “I want to go to town. Just let me go.”

“I can’t.”

“You won’t.”

“You’re right. I won’t.”

She stalked over to her horse and waited until Jesse joined her. When he made a step by lacing his fingers together, she wanted to scream in frustration. Why was this happening to her? How dare he treat her like this?

Then she was settling onto the saddle. Every part of her body clenched in protest. She did not want to spend one more hour on this horse.

“I’m going to get a quick drink of water,” Jesse said, turning toward the stream. “I’ll be right back.”

She watched him walk away, hating him and the circumstances that had brought her here. If only she could convince him to—

Her gaze settled on him as he crouched at the water’s edge. She glanced in the other direction and saw his horse waiting patiently. This was her chance, she thought suddenly. She could escape and get to town on her own.

She urged her horse close to his, then slapped his mount on the rump. The animal jumped and started to move away. Haley didn’t bother waiting to see if it kept going. Instead she collected her reins and kicked her horse hard. The gelding leapt forward. Unlike her first flight yesterday, this time she was prepared for the momentum. She crouched low and hung on, keeping control of the reins. A frustrated cry rose up behind her, but she didn’t bother turning. This time she was going to do it. This time she was going to get away.

The countryside flashed by quickly. Haley steered her horse down to the edge of the stream where there was plenty of room for it to run. The wind whipped her hair out behind her and cooled her heated body. The fear and pain faded, replaced by exhilaration. She liked feeling free. At last she was taking matters into her own hands.

Up ahead the bank narrowed. She tugged on the reins, urging the horse into the forest. The thick trees forced her to slow the animal. She didn’t want a repeat of the previous day, when low-lying branches had blocked the path. After a few minutes, she drew her mount to a stop and listened for the sound of someone following. But there wasn’t anything except the call of a few birds and the thundering of her heart. She’d done it!

Over the next hour or so, Haley let the horse pick its way through the thick grove of trees. She had a general idea of where she was heading because she’d started keeping track of the sun’s slow descent. They were trotting now, a bone-crushing pace that made her want to audibly whimper with each step. But they were also moving toward Whitehorn. Perhaps by sundown she would have made it.

She kicked the horse into a faster pace. The animal obliged and soon they were racing along. She laughed at the pleasure of it. Once again she heard the rushing sound of water, but it was too soon to stop.

The horse slowed, but she kicked it again, wanting it to keep running. She needed more distance between herself and Jesse. The animal slowed a second time. She leaned forward and kicked harder. Then she saw it.

This particular stream had been flowing hard and fast enough to cut a gully through the forest. It was about eight feet deep and three feet wide, with steep muddy banks. There was no way for them to walk down and judging from the bunching of the horse’s muscles, her mount planned to jump the distance.

Haley screamed, but it was too late to stop. She bent as low as she could and wrapped her arms around the horse’s neck. Even as the animal leapt out into nothingness, she felt herself being lifted and flying. Fear exploded into her, a heartbeat before she hit the ground. There was a moment of silence, then the world spun once and disappeared into blackness.

* * *

Daisy opened the door to the land office and stepped inside. She heard voices, but didn’t worry about interrupting. If Stoner didn’t want anyone listening, he would have turned the lock. She walked to the counter and placed her covered basket on top, then looked at the two men standing next to Stoner’s large desk.

Stoner glanced up, saw her and smiled. She returned the greeting, knowing her pleasant expression would mask the hatred in her heart.

“I’ll just be a minute, my dear,” he told her.

She nodded and turned to glance out the front window, as if the conversation in progress held no interest for her. But in truth she strained to hear every word Stoner told Vernon Lindsay, Whitehorn’s excuse for a sheriff.

“I want him found,” Stoner said. “Do whatever you have to as far as Kincaid is concerned. In fact, I would consider it excellent news if he was killed while you were trying to arrest him.”

“I can’t just shoot him if he doesn’t put up a fight.”

“I doubt Jesse Kincaid will come quietly, Lindsay. But if you don’t have the stomach to do it yourself, I’ll take care of it later. The point is, I don’t want the girl hurt. I haven’t decided what I’m going to do with her.”

“I’ve got men out looking for them now,” Lindsay said. “But he spent two years on the trail and I’m sure he’s learned a trick or two. It might be a while.”

“I’m aware of your limitations,” Stoner said. “If he’s not found in the next couple of days, I’ll decide what I want to do.”

“I heard all he wants is to talk with you, Mr. Stoner. He’s not asking for ransom.”

There was a pause and Daisy wondered how the sheriff would pay for the insolence of offering a suggestion. The man was saved by the land office door opening again and three large, burly men walking in.

Daisy forced herself to smile politely at the unwashed, hulking brutes. They were Stoner’s cousins and the trio he sent out to clean up anything he might consider untidy. They had fingered Jesse’s father, Michael, as the man supplying guns to the mysterious renegades who had begun to plague the neighboring ranches.

“Miss Daisy,” they said as one and tipped their dusty hats to her.

She nodded.

Stoner glanced up. “I want to talk to you,” he said. “Lindsay, let me know if you hear anything.”

“Yes, Mr. Stoner.”

Lindsay waited for the three larger men to make their way past the counter before he headed for the door. Daisy watched to make sure Stoner took his cousins out back for some privacy before she stepped toward Lindsay and touched his arm.

“Do you really have men out looking for Jesse?” she asked.

Lindsay turned to look at her. She could smell the alcohol on his breath and seeping from his body. His skin was a shade somewhere between white and gray, and his blue irises were surrounded by yellow instead of white.

“They’re looking,” he said. “But Jesse’s not going to be easy to find.”

“You can’t let them bring him in,” she said, her voice low but heated. “Stoner has been looking for an excuse to kill Jesse and this is all he needs. If you arrest Jesse Kincaid, he’ll be dead in less than two days. You know that.”

Lindsay brushed his too-long blond hair from his forehead. His hands were shaking. “I’m doing what I have to.”

Daisy leaned closer and lowered her voice. “Jesse hasn’t done anything wrong and you know it. He’s trying to clear his father’s name. If you don’t want to help him, then at least have the decency to stay out of his way.”

Lindsay started for the door.

Daisy went after him. “You won’t help, will you?”

“I can’t.”

She shook her head. “Bought and paid for by Stoner. What kind of man are you?”

Lindsay straightened. The drink might have defeated him for the moment, but he wasn’t completely vanquished. “I know what I am, madam. And I’m not the only one Stoner bought and paid for.”

She shouldn’t have been surprised and yet she was. His words shocked her, sending color to her cheeks. It took all her pride to keep from ducking her head in shame. Whitehorn was a small town. No doubt everyone knew about her affair with Michael Kincaid and how she now allowed Lucas Stoner into her bed.

“I understand that I’m little more than a whore,” she said stiffly. “But at least I’m doing all I can to see that the Kincaid family is vindicated. What are you doing?”

Lindsay reached out toward her, then dropped his hand back to his side. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Newcastle. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Don’t bother, Lindsay. We’re both sorry excuses for decent folks. We fight our demons in different ways. But know this. While I understand you have a job to do, I won’t let you or anyone hurt Jesse. If you do, I’ll kill you myself.”

Lindsay reached for the door, then paused. He turned his watery gaze on her and nodded. “You know,” he said at last, “that would be a true act of kindness and I would thank you for it.”

* * *

Jesse cursed loudly. His horse flicked its ears as if trying to understand what he was saying.

“Dammit all to hell,” he muttered again. “Where is she?”

Bad enough that she’d caught him not paying attention. He’d known she was angry, frustrated and sore; he should have realized that she would try to escape. He couldn’t even comfort himself with the fact that she’d broken her word. When he thought about it, she never promised anything that morning. He’d just taken her silence as assent.

He’d been married long enough to know that wasn’t true. Women were stubborn creatures. Haley was tougher than most and one determined lady. He should have seen this coming and been prepared. Instead he’d been caught like a doe trapped in a mud bank.

He swore again, even though it didn’t accomplish anything. She’d come this way and judging from the stripped branches and stirred earth, she’d been traveling quickly. He glanced around at the trees and the close branches, wondering why she’d gone from a trot to a full-out gallop. She and her horse had been making good time. She was even heading toward Whitehorn...sort of.

Jesse glanced up toward the sky. The sun would set within the hour. She would be safe on her horse, but eventually she’d have to stop and once she was on foot, she was in danger.

A faint rustling caught his attention. He reined in his mount and listened. Then he grinned. She was right up ahead, making enough noise to alert a deaf man. He had to give her credit for making it this far. She was one scrappy woman.

His horse moved forward. Jesse headed for the sound but before he could break through the trees, Haley’s horse nosed its way out first.

Jesse stared at the riderless horse. Something cold and tight squeezed in his chest. Haley hadn’t made it this far. Somewhere, somehow, she’d been thrown. He wanted to think she’d dismounted to get a drink of water, but his gut told him otherwise. She would have kept on going for as long as she could. All she wanted was to get to town and find Stoner. Nothing would have stopped her from that.

He tried to convince himself she’d been rescued by the men undoubtedly following them, but he knew better. Even if they had a carriage for her to ride in, they would have taken her horse with them. So she’d been thrown and was out there now wandering around alone. Unless she’d been injured.

The pressure in his chest increased. He told himself his concern was because he needed Haley healthy so he could use her to bargain with Stoner. He didn’t really care about her. Except he knew he did care, at least a little. Despite everything, he didn’t want her injured...or worse.

He got down from his horse and began to study the ground. The trail he’d been following was still clear and fresh. She’d been on her horse when the animal had come this way earlier. He could tell by the depth of the hoofprint in the soft ground. The gelding had been carrying a rider. So all he had to do was continue to follow the trail. Eventually he would find Haley.

At least that was what he told himself as he swung back in the saddle and headed west. Every few minutes he glanced up at the darkening sky. Tonight the temperature would again drop below freezing. Without a fire, Haley would die. If the wolves and bears didn’t get her first. If she didn’t fall and break something, or if she hadn’t already.

He urged his horse on faster, studying the ground with an intensity that made his head throb. It was, he told himself, because he needed his prisoner alive and well, and for no other reason at all.


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