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

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Mallery Susan

Wild West Wife

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Haley clung to the side of a tree. The world had finally stopped spinning. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been unconscious, or if she really had blacked out at all. She couldn’t think straight. If the pain of being on a horse was difficult, the pain of falling twice in two days was many times worse. Knowing she had only herself to blame for her present circumstances didn’t make them any easier to bear.

She drew in a deep breath. The action didn’t hurt as much as it had just a few minutes ago. She leaned heavily against the rough, scratchy bark because it was too much effort to stand on her own. She’d been walking for what felt like hours. Stumbling really, calling for her horse, for Jesse, for Lucas. At this point she would be happy to see savage Indians. It was cold and getting dark. Soon the sun would set completely. Then what was she going to do? She didn’t have any food, or the means to start a fire. How was she going to survive?

The questions made her head ache more. Weariness settled on her like a damp cloak, sucking out the last of her reserves. She sank to her knees and fought against the urge to cry. She would not give in to tears, she told herself. She was strong and tough and she would make it through this.

“Jesse,” she called out, knowing in her heart that he was her only hope. “Jesse, where are you? I’m over here. Jesse?”

Had he given up? Was he even bothering to look for her? Maybe he’d decided she was too much trouble and that he would find another way to get what he wanted. Maybe—

“Stop it!” she said aloud. “You’re trying to scare yourself. Just stop it! Of course he’s looking for me. He needs me to bargain with Lucas. And if nothing else, Jesse isn’t the kind of man who would leave me out here alone.”

An odd opinion to have about her kidnapper, but she believed it and that belief comforted her.

She shifted on her knees, trying to find a less painful position. The ground was chilly and the cold seeped in through her skirt and petticoats. A shiver rippled through her. It was going to get worse, she knew. There were many poor in Chicago and she’d seen what happened to them when they slept outside in the winter. The lucky ones only lost fingers and toes. Those not so lucky died.

Something rustled in the brush to her left. She looked toward the sound. “Jesse?”

There was a soft yipping in reply. An animal!

“Oh, God.” She leapt to her feet and stood with her back to the tree. “Get out of here,” she screamed. “Shoo, run away. Leave me alone!”

The creature rustled again. Haley glanced around and saw a good-sized rock a few feet away. She picked it up and heaved it into the bushes. The animal yipped again, then the rustling stopped.

“It’s gone,” she told herself, as she wrapped her arms around her chest. “It’s gone and I’m fine.”

She was fine. She was going to be fine.

What was the alternative?

Slowly, even as it got darker and colder, some of the fear left her. Perhaps it was because she would rather be afraid out here than afraid in the city. To die in the wilderness wasn’t as terrifying as being attacked in the street, or burned alive in a dark, windowless room.

So she huddled by her tree and occasionally called out Jesse’s name. The pain in her head subsided to a manageable throbbing. He would come for her, she told herself again and again. He wouldn’t leave her out here.

But as time passed, she grew less certain. And the realization that she was going to die out here, all alone, made the tears come. She crouched with her back up against the tree, brushing the drops away as they fell. The cold crept up her skirt and made her shiver. Her teeth chattered. She tried to think about being warm, about a blazing fire, but that only made her discomfort worse.

She shouldn’t have run away. She should have stayed put and found another way to—

A gunshot cut through the night. Haley jumped and pressed her hand over her mouth to hold in a scream, not knowing what the sound meant. Had the men who must surely be looking for them found Jesse? Was he dead? Maybe it was Indians, or outlaws or someone frightening and she would be better off staying quietly here by the tree. Maybe she should—

Another sound drifted to her on the chilly breeze of the night. The faint whisper of her name. And then she knew. Jesse had fired his gun to let her know where he was. He was looking for her and couldn’t find her, so he wanted her to find him.

She took off in the direction of the shot and his voice. She screamed for him. “Jesse! Jesse, I’m over here.”

He called back an answer. She raced through the trees and the brush, ignoring the branches that caught at her clothes and scratched her face and hands.

She stumbled over a tree root, fell to her knees, then righted herself and kept running. Her chest ached from lack of air, her legs were heavy, but she pushed on.

“Haley? Are you all right?”

“Yes,” she called back and broke through a few waist-high bushes. Jesse stood in a clearing, the two horses behind him. In the darkness, she couldn’t make out his features, but she recognized the size and strength of him.


He turned toward her. “Dammit, Haley, what were you thinking? You could have been killed.”

She recognized his anger as concern and once again she fought the tears. “I’m fine,” she murmured, barely able to form the words.

He strode over to her, put the rifle on the ground and grabbed her forearms. “Are you hurt? What happened?”

Before she could answer, he pulled her roughly against him.

She went willingly because she had no thought to protest. He was warm and she felt so very cold. Strong arms came around her and despite his strength, his embrace quickly gentled. She leaned against him, absorbing his heat. He rubbed her back.

“Running off was damn stupid,” he said. “You could have died.”

“I know.” She buried her face in his shoulder. “But I had to try.”

“Don’t do it again.

“I won’t.” She could smell the pleasant scent of his body. As she snuggled closer, she tried to remember if she’d ever been this near a man. She didn’t think she had, and felt a pang of loss. It felt nice to be hugged. Especially by Jesse.

“You could have died.”

She raised her head and found him staring at her. In the darkness, she could barely make out his eyes boring into hers. She thought she read concern there, but she wasn’t sure.

His mouth twisted. “We’d better get camp set up and a fire started.” He shifted until his arm was around her, then he led her toward the horses. “Did you fall off the saddle? Are you hurt?”

“No. My horse jumped over a stream and I couldn’t stay on. When I hit the ground, everything went black. I’ve been wandering around for a while, waiting for you to find me.”

He grabbed the coat draped over her saddle and wrapped it around her. “Sit down,” he said, pointing to a fallen tree. “I’ll get the fire started, then we’ll eat.”

As he worked, she huddled inside the sheepskin coat. Gradually the shivers faded. By the time he got the coffee brewing, she was nearly thawed, although her feet felt as if they would be frozen forever.

“Did I get close to town?” she asked as he opened a can of beans. “I know I was heading west. At least I thought I was.”

He dumped the beans onto two tin plates and set them close to the fire. The light illuminated his features and she saw the corner of his mouth turn up in a smile. “You were heading due west, but Whitehorn is a little north of here. If you’d kept in that direction for a while you would have eventually run into an outpost.”

Well, that was something. At least she wasn’t completely lost. “How far is the outpost?”

“About fifty miles.”

The hint of a smile turned into a grin. She opened her mouth, then snapped it shut. “Fifty miles? I wouldn’t have made it.”

“I know.” He looked very pleased with himself.

“You think you can tell me what to do just because you’re the only one who knows where we are and where we’re going.”

“Don’t you forget it, either,” he said.

Without wanting to, she smiled in return. She’d made her escape, which at least salvaged her pride, and now she was safely back in camp. Perhaps it was better this way. She believed that Jesse wouldn’t hurt her, so for now she could be patient. Eventually she would get to Whitehorn and be with Lucas.

The thought of her fiancé brought a familiar gladness to her heart. How lucky she was. Lucas Stoner was everything a woman could want in a husband. Tall, kind, gentle, loving. She continued to recite the familiar list, and as always the words brought her a measure of comfort. But the thought of marrying Lucas also made her feel slightly wistful, and for the life of her, she wasn’t sure why.

* * *

Haley kept her word and didn’t try to run away again. Probably she hurt too much, Jesse thought as he reined in his gelding and waited for her to catch up. It was their third day on the trail and she was barely keeping pace with him.

As her horse tramped along next to his, Jesse glanced over at her. She’d given up trying to keep her hair in a tidy bun at the base of her neck. Instead, she wore it in a long braid that hung down her back. The sun had left freckles on her nose and cheekbones and fatigue had left shadows under her eyes. None of the scratches she’d gotten wandering in the forest had become infected although a few red marks still marred her otherwise smooth skin.

She looked at him and rubbed her left cheek. “Do I have dirt on my face?”

He shook his head. “You look tired.”

“I am. The ground is hard and I’m not used to sleeping outside.” She glanced at the sky, then at the trees around them. “Although I think I could get to like it around here. Maybe a little bit more if I could actually sleep under a roof.”

“Soon,” he promised and wondered if he was telling the truth. “Go on with your story.”

She thought for a moment, then nodded. “As I was saying, this poor woman was about to give birth to what later turned out to be twins and her husband kept swaying on his feet. The doctor told him to leave, but he’d promised her to be with her through the birthing. It was her first time and she was so afraid. Anyway, sure enough, his eyes rolled back in his head and he dropped to the floor like a stone. The whole house shook.”

She chuckled at the memory. “He was a large man, too. Tough. Worked in the railroad yard. The doctor was so surprised, he went over to the man to see if he was all right. Which left me to deal with the mother. Of course the twins decided they were ready to be born, so there I was, juggling slippery babies and one excited mother while the father was out cold through the whole thing.”

“Was he all right?”

“Sure. He had a bump on the back of his head, but otherwise he was fine. And very proud. Two beautiful baby boys had come into the world.” She grinned. “I told the mother that next time she should tell her husband to stay outside the room, where he belonged.”

Jesse urged his horse forward and hers followed suit. “Didn’t that frighten you?”


“Delivering babies by yourself?”

“The first time it did. But I’ve done it many times since. When the doctor is busy with something else, I take care of whatever comes up. My nursing is good experience. I’ve heard there aren’t a lot of doctors around here, and it can be a long trip to town. I’ll be helpful to Lucas.”

Jesse didn’t want to think about her with Stoner because he didn’t want to think of any woman cursed with that fate. Especially not Haley. She was bright and funny, and she deserved more. She had spirit and an inner strength he respected.

“Your face is all scrunched up,” she said. “What are you thinking?”

“That you’re very different from my wife.”

“Your wife?” Haley’s eyes widened. “You’re married?”

He shook his head. “I’m a widower. Claire died about four years ago. She was...” His voice trailed off. For the first time since he’d lost her, he found himself willing to talk about her. Maybe it was because he knew he wasn’t going to be with Haley very long. Or maybe it was because Haley was in a similar situation and he wanted to warn her of the pitfalls.

“Claire was the youngest daughter of my mother’s second cousin. She was from the South—a small town near Atlanta, Georgia. She wanted to get married and I needed a wife, so our family arranged the match.”

Haley tilted her head as she studied him. “So you had a mail-order bride, too.”

“Yes.” He shrugged.

“What happened?”

A simple enough question. What had happened? “We weren’t well suited to each other and she wasn’t prepared for the life here.”

Not suited didn’t begin to tell the truth. Claire had been as delicate and fragile as a soap bubble. All pale skin and slender build, she’d never worked a day before in her life. The reality of ranch life had frightened her and she’d spent much of her time wandering through the rooms of the house, as if looking for a part of herself.

“She didn’t like Montana?” Haley asked.

“Not really. She thought it was too cold and the ranch was too isolated.”

He wasn’t willing to say more, or tell Haley how his wife had actually died. He didn’t want to think about that day, or any of the days before. He didn’t want to picture Claire in his mind. She always wore white and that was how he remembered her. A slender, wisp of a woman in a pale gown, as if she’d already turned into a ghost.

“You must miss her very much.”

He had regrets but little else. “No, I don’t miss her at all. That’s the tragedy of Claire’s death. Once she was gone, I rarely thought of her.” He glanced at the sky. “We’re going to be stopping early today.”

“Really?” She sighed. “I’m glad. I’m still sore from riding. I just want to take a nice walk around and stretch.”

She was still talking as she slid off her horse. Jesse didn’t want to do it, but he had no choice. She’d already proved she was more than capable of running off.

While she was occupied with her horse, he walked up behind her. In one quick movement, he captured her wrists and quickly secured them.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded, tugging at the bindings. “You’re tying me up. You can’t do that. I don’t understand. You haven’t tied me up in a couple of days. I’m not going to run away. Jesse, why are you doing this?”

He swept her into his arms and set her on the ground. She started kicking, but he quickly subdued her, then tied her ankles.

Green eyes spit fire. “Jesse Kincaid, I demand an explanation. I have obeyed your every order.”

“You ran away,” he reminded her, his voice calm. “Twice.”

“I know, but—”

Her words were silenced by the bandanna he slipped into her mouth. He secured the ends behind her head. She worked at the material, trying to spit it out, but it didn’t budge. Shrieks of outrage cut through the afternoon, but they weren’t as loud as her screaming and Jesse knew it was the best he could do.

“I have to go talk to a friend of mine,” he said, crouching in front of her, careful to stay out of reach of her bound but kicking feet. “I won’t be gone long, but I need to make sure you’ll be here when I get back.” He motioned to the ties at her wrists and ankles. “I’m really sorry, Haley.”

Muffled sounds exploded from her. Obviously she wasn’t impressed by his apology. He stood up.

“You’ll be safe enough here. I’ll be back before sundown.”

She shrieked. This time he thought he made out what she was saying. What if you don’t come back?

She had a point. Bound and gagged, she was as vulnerable as a newborn. It was a risk they were both going to have to take.

“I’ll be back,” he promised. “You’ll see.”

He secured her horse to a tree, then got on his mount and headed out. Her muffled screams of protest faded quickly.

Less than an hour later, he’d reached the meeting place. A few minutes after that Bart Baxter rode up on his black gelding.

Bart grinned. “I don’t have to ask if you got her,” he said. “Everyone’s talking about it. You made a real impression on a couple from back east. They’ve been talking up a storm about how you held up the stage and attacked poor innocent passengers.”

Jesse grimaced. “The man pulled a gun on me.”

“I saw it, Jesse. It wasn’t much of a gun.”

“Agreed, but he was less than a couple feet from me. Even a fool like that wouldn’t have missed.”

“Did you have to go and break his wrist?”

“I just kicked him. How was I to know he was delicate as an eggshell?”

Bart’s grin broadened. “To hear him tell it, he wrestled you to the ground like a bear, but ultimately you got the better of him.” He’d raised his voice slightly so it sounded cultured and easternlike.

“Great,” Jesse muttered and pulled his hat lower over his forehead. “Lindsay got men out looking for me?”

“Some. I asked around and so far they haven’t found your trail.”

“A blind man could see it,” Jesse said, wondering how on earth they’d missed the very obvious clues he’d left. He looked at his friend. “Anything from Stoner?”

Bart shook his head. “Nothing. I got him word that I was the one he should come see and I was real obvious when I was in town today, but he didn’t talk to me. You want me to go to him directly?”

“No. You’re in this too deep already. I don’t want to give Lindsay an excuse to arrest you. So far there’s just a rumor that you’re involved.” He frowned. “I wish you’d change your mind about helping me. I don’t want anything to happen to you. Christine would kill me.”

“My wife understands and wants to help, too. Don’t worry. Lindsay isn’t going to do anything to me. You’re the one in danger here.”

Maybe, Jesse thought. But so far the plan wasn’t working. Stoner was supposed to be frantic over the loss of his bride and willing to talk. Or at least pretend he was.

“Stoner hasn’t said anything about Haley?” he asked.

“Not that I heard.”

“You think he’s going to want her back?”

Bart grimaced. “He paid for the ticket. You can bet he’s going to want to get his money’s worth. He’ll want her. I think he’s trying to wait you out. He’s probably hoping you’ll get nervous and make a mistake.”

Maybe he already had, Jesse thought grimly. Maybe the kidnapping hadn’t been a good idea, although it was too late to change that now.

Bart shifted in his saddle. “How’s it going? Is she giving you a lot of trouble?”

“Not if you don’t count her trying to escape twice in two days.”


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