Authors: Lee Savino
Jesse wrinkled his brow. "I thought you wrote your friend Carrie that your fiancé died."
"No." She waved a hand. "Not dead. I just wish he were. Stupid sod. I wanted to die." What was it that she was forgetting? "Do you know he actually had the audacity to end things in a letter? Even though we lived a few blocks from one another. And then he was never home when I called. He married a month later, a younger girl. But rich." She drank again, and remembered: she wasn't supposed to tell anyone out west the most shameful chapter of her life. A few more pulls of liquor would help. She tipped the flask up, her neck already straining back to get the next few drops.
Jesse was leaning over her. "I think that's enough rotgut for one night."
Susannah let him take the flask out of her hand, wondering why her face was numb. Then she looked up at her outlaw. "You're pretty," she blurted.
Jesse laughed. "Yeah, you've definitely had too much. All right, baggage, time for bed."
"Why do you call me that?" she protested as he lifted her. "That's not very nice."
"What do you want me to call you?"
"Susannah," she said. "Or no... it wouldn't be proper. My last name..." She had to think a while before announcing triumphantly, "Moore."
He raised an amused brow. "Is that your last name?"
"Yes! I mean, no." She thought hard. "It would be your last name, if I stayed married to you. Mrs..."
"No, that's silly. It's a made up name."
"What makes you say that?"
She shrugged. He sank down to the bedroll and arranged her to lie as she had last night, tucked against his side.
She let her head roll on his chest, angling it to peer up at him. "You know, you're a very handsome and wonderful man. I should quite like to keep you. But I can't."
Jesse's lips twitched. "Why not, baggage?"
"For one thing, you call me baggage. But mostly it's what people would say. Susannah married a rogue."
"My aunt, for one. Mrs. Marsh..."
"You really think so highly of them? You may never see Mrs. Marsh again."
That was a good point. Susannah considered it.
"Or your aunt," Jesse continued. "But even if you did, wouldn't you rather live your life guided by your own opinions?"
"I would like that." That did sound rather nice. "What about you, Jesse? What do you think of me?"
Above them, the thick veil of stars lent enough light to caress his rugged face, but not enough to reveal his expression. But his finger stroking her cheek and voice were very, very gentle. "Well, Susannah," he said. "I think you're drunk. But sometime, when you're not, ask me again and I'll tell you."
She pouted a little at that, but in the end gave a little sigh and snuggled in. Half asleep, she barely felt his fingers lift her chin and lips touch hers in a soft kiss.
* * *
The next morning she wanted to shoot him.
"Sleep well?" he asked.
"Shhh, shhh." Susannah pressed her hands over her eyes. At some point in the night, someone must have taken a hammer to her head.
"Sore?" Jesse was already up and moving around, he brought her a cup of steaming coffee. "We'll be in town tonight, and get another bed."
"Thank goodness," she muttered.
"I know a way to get the kinks out," he suggested, and laughed when she glared at him.
"Relax, baggage. I was speaking of a hot bath in town." He offered his hand, and raised an eyebrow at her when she hesitated. "We'll go slow for the first leg. Come on."
An hour later, and her body was warm enough to feel better. Seated behind Jesse, she almost enjoyed the ride, holding on to her husband's muscular form as he pointed out eagles, jackrabbits, and the odd coyote. True to his word, he kept Jordan to a slow trot. Under his master's guidance, the big stallion was easy to ride, and calm, even when they rode past a bush and disturbed a family of quail. Susannah gasped as the birds burst from the undergrowth.
"There goes dinner," Jesse said, and his hand brushed hers as he touched one of his pistols.
"How did you get to be so good a shot?" she asked a soon as her heartbeat returned to normal.
"Practice." He shrugged. "Soon as I got my first gun, I was always off hunting. I liked the solitude, liked the woods, and it beat farming. Besides, it put meat on the table, so my parents couldn't complain."
"They weren't proud of you?"
"My pa was never proud of me a day in his life. I was always getting into scrapes." Pulling off his glove, he showed her the scar on his hand. "Got that from setting a shed on fire. I was trying to turn it into a smokehouse. Pa beat me good after that one."
"My goodness," Susannah said. "I should think he'd just be glad you weren't too badly hurt."
"Naw, he always was looking for a reason to whip me. Even after I shaped up, we never saw eye to eye. I always went my own way, I guess."
His tone was casual, but Susannah could feel the tension in his body. Two days riding pressed against him, and she could read his mood in the set of his back.
"I know how you feel," she admitted. "My parents died when I was young, and my aunt became my guardian. I don't think she even wanted much to do with children."
Jesse turned his head, thick hair brushing his forehead. In profile, his face was almost beautiful. "A pretty girl like you?"
"No." Susannah pressed closer to him, so he wouldn't see her expression. The memory of being called a "poor little orphan girl" by her aunt's friends still stung. "I was in more than my share of trouble."
"You? Trouble? I can't imagine."
Susannah poked him in the side, hard, but he just chuckled. "Did she spank you?"
"I wish she had. I would've preferred that," Susannah said honestly. "She ignored me, and the servants did too. I was left to my own until I grew into a young lady, and she realized she could further her station by marrying me off to a good family."
Which is why she'd accepted Roger's proposal in the first place, she realized. In part to escape her aunt, and in part to make the woman proud. Otherwise, she never would've considered such an arrogant fop, judge's son or no.
A silent minute passed, then Jesse reached back and took her hands, drawing them around his waist and tucking them against his abdomen. "Seems like we both were misunderstood." His ungloved thumb rubbed over hers, just the lightest touch, but in that moment it meant so much. With a sigh, she leaned forward and rested her head on his back.
"Of course." His tone changed into the gleeful one she knew. "Certainly explains why you're such a goody two shoes.
"And why you're a cad," she sniffed.
He laughed, and she could feel the muscles in his gut kick against her hands. His body relaxed into his easy nonchalance, and she smiled against his shoulder.
Around noon they stopped at a stream. The sun streamed down, brutal in its light and heat, blue sky above and land a burnt orange, both stretching as far as the eye could see. While Jesse saw to Jordan, Susannah shaded her eyes with a hand and watched an eagle soar in lazy circles over them.
"Here." Jesse handed her the canteen, fresh and dripping from the stream. She drank, and handed him the rest, watching as he poured it over his head and shook out his thick hair before replacing his hat.
"Still stiff?" he asked.
"A little." Susannah stretched, feeling her limbs protest. There were new muscles growing under her petticoats, though, and she was proud of them.
"Let's walk a bit." Holding the reins, Jesse set the pace, tempering his long stride to hers.
"How do you know where we're going?" Susannah asked, scuttling along beside her husband, taking care not to turn her foot on a rock. Her muscles enjoyed the walk, even if her lady boots weren't made for rough terrain.
"There's a town south and west of here. I know because of the sun."
"You don't have a map."
"Map's in my head."
"You really live out here, don't you?"
He shrugged. When she wasn't watching her way, Susannah snuck glances at her husband. Jesse walked in comfortable, alert silence, squinting at the horizon, picking a path between the boulders and scrub brush as easily as a city woman navigating shops. He also paid attention to Jordan, and to her, for when she grew out of breath, he paused in the shade of a giant boulder.
"When we get to town, we won't be out of Doyle's reach. Have you ever fired a gun?"
He grinned at her surprised squawk, and drew out his pistol.
Her hand lay limp in his, and he molded it around the gun, coaching her. The weapon was heavier than she'd imagined.
"Two hands, Susannah, just like that. Fingers there, on the trigger. Grips a little large for your hand, but it'll do." He seemed to admire the sight of her dainty hand wrapped around the weapon.
"Now," he stepped behind her, "sight it for that stick there."
Her shoulders hunched as she aimed at the target, feeling ridiculous. As she held the strange weight in her hands, she could hear her aunt's voice, telling her that ladies always wore gloves. What would her aunt think of her now, covered in dust with sweat trickling down her back, her eyes squinting at a target?
Susannah slumped, pointing the gun at the ground. "I can't do this."
"Sure you can." Jesse moved closer, bringing his arms to either side of her to help her hold the gun. With his solid weight at her back and his hands sure on hers, Susannah felt steadier. She raised the gun again.
"That's it. You just need a little help the first time." Her heart beat faster as he spoke right into her ear. "The gun will kick and you need to hold it steady. I'll help you."
Her finger found the trigger.
The shot blasted out, ringing in their ears. Susannah rocked a little with the kick of the gun, but Jesse anchored her. She panted, heart racing, out of breath.
"Good girl," Jesse said into her ear, and a thrill ran through her.
She turned her head a little. "Did I scare Jordan?"
"Naw, he's used to it. Try again."
Again, she marveled at what a good teacher he was. Strong and sure, he kept up a constant stream of instruction, always patient, never raising his voice. She shot the gun until she almost felt comfortable hefting its weight, even if she couldn't quite control the kick. Jesse reloaded it for her, explaining the steps as he did so. He even set out a larger target for her: stacking a piece of wood on a rock. But her favorite part was when he put his arms around her again, speaking softly into her ear, his large hands on hers to steady the gun.
Her last shot nicked the target, and she looked back at him, beaming.
"Nice work, baggage. You'll be shooting dinner in no time."
The thought of killing an animal made her gasp. "Oh, no I couldn't."
He chuckled, and took back his weapon. "One step at a time." Holstering the gun, he reached out and smoothed back her hair where it was streaming from her bonnet, then cupped her chin. His green eyes gazed on her fondly, and for a moment, it seemed he would bend down and kiss her.
Instead his grin turned rueful, and he tugged a lock of her hair before turning away. "Come on, Susannah. Best get into town before it's too late."
* * *
Mid-afternoon they came to the town, which was little more than a camp in Susannah's opinion.
"Stick close to me. We are still within Doyle's reach," Jesse said as they rode down the one long street.
"As if there's anywhere I could go," Susannah grumbled as Jesse guided Jordan towards a rough building—another one of the establishments that passed for a hotel in this godforsaken land.
As he helped her dismount, Susannah felt the eyes of every man on the street crawl over her. Her fingers itched to fiddle with her hair, trying to smooth it into some semblance of order. She was hot and dirty all over. Jesse kept his hand on her waist, his gaze sweeping up and down the street.
They entered the building, and Jesse paused again to get his bearings, beating his black hat against his leg to get rid of some of the dust. His thick hair was silky with sweat. Even with dirt creased on his clothes and dark stubble covering half his rugged face, he was very handsome.
Approaching the innkeeper, Jesse got them a room, then drew Susannah under the shelter of his arm. "I'll settle you in the room, and then go see what I can do about securing a coach. Best if you keep to the room. I don't think Doyle's men are about, but we need to lay low."
"I say, is that Jesse Wilder I see?" A crisp British tone sounded across the lobby. "Jolly good."
Jesse closed his eyes for a moment as if the sound pained him. Susannah turned to see a tall man in smart dress and an outrageously large brimmed hat. He strode up to her husband, sweeping off his ridiculous hat.
"Lord Chivington," Jesse greeted the man, holding out his hand.
The fair-haired fellow ignored the hand and pulled Jesse into an embrace, pounding him on the back.
"Good to see you again, old boy. Especially since you owe me fifteen shillings." Stepping back, the man wagged a long finger.
Jesse raised an eyebrow.
"You bet I wouldn't survive my first encounter with a buffalo. I can gladly report I bagged two." A smile wreathed the tall man's face.
"I'm glad there are enough left. The hunting is sufficient?"
"Yes, quite. I haven't gotten enough of killing things," Chivington said, then turned. "But who is this lovely vision of beauty?"
"This lady is my wife," Jesse said drily. "My dear Susannah, may I introduce my former employer, Lord James Sebastian Chivington?"
"Mrs. Wilder, it is a pleasure to meet you." As Susannah murmured her greetings, the Englishman made a great show of bending over her hand and kissing it. He followed it up with a hard smack on Jesse's arm. "Tish tosh, employer. We were comrades in arms against the great wild," he explained to Susannah. "Your husband helped me a great deal in my travels. He's a top-notch wanderer. Jolly good fun; always handy with a flask." Chivington winked at Jesse, who, eyes closed, was rubbing the bridge of his nose.
"Yes, I know." Susannah raised a brow of her own at "Mr. Wilder."