Authors: Lee Savino
"Even for an explorer like you?" Jesse asked.
"Me? I dinnae go above the trees. Air goes to my head. I'm too tall, bump my head on the sky." He winked at Susannah. She offered a shaky smile.
Jesse whistled, and Jordan trotted over, keeping the people between him and Wolfie.
The mountain man led them through the forest, loping quickly forward on foot with his dog-wolf at his side. His large body didn't make a sound.
"He used to be a fur trapper," Jesse told Susannah in a low voice. "Lost his wife and two sons to dysentery while on the trail and has been wandering ever since. Aren't many beaver around, though, so he settled at the foot of the mountain to try his hand at farming."
Susannah felt pity for the large man, stepping so quietly through the brush. "He seems to know his way around pretty well."
Jesse pointed out the subtle markings on the trees they passed. "These are his woods."
"So you knew he'd..."
"Be close," Jesse finished, nodding. "I was hoping he would get my brother for re-enforcements, but, as it turns out, the two of us could handle the three."
"I dare say you could take on a regiment, with Mr. MacDonnell at your side."
"You hear that, Mac? Susannah says she'd bet on you against an army any day."
The giant grinned. "Me da always said if you cannae have an army at your back, have a MacDonnell." His accent was thicker as he mimicked his father.
"The old man was right." Jesse smiled.
Calum led them on through the thick trees, finally stopping when they reached a path broad enough to fit a horse and wagon. Susannah stepped onto the road with a sigh, then looked back at the giant Scot waiting on the edge of the forest. It was clear this was as far as he went.
"I don't know how to thank you," Jesse said.
"Keep the lassie safe." With a jerk of his chin, Calum drifted back into the trees, as silent as the wolf by his side.
"He's a good man."
"He needs a wife," Susannah said.
Jesse looked at her with alarm. "Steady, baggage. You're not going to become one of those women who wishes matrimony on everyone as soon as she ties the knot."
"Maybe I am." She turned up her nose. "And don't call me baggage. It's rude." Turning to Jordan, she put her foot in the stirrup, prepared to swing up, looking at her husband smugly.
He shook his head. "Women." He mounted first and then hauled her up. Feeling mischievous, as soon as he held the reins, she poked him in the side. He caught her hand in his rough one. "Careful. I still have the quirt."
Flushing, Susannah settled her arms around him. As they rode on, she felt the playfulness leave her as nervousness began to gnaw at her. Would she like her new home? Would Jesse's family like her? What if she wasn't cut out to be a frontier wife? When she imagined their marriage, she'd had a very different image of the Wild West. Now, with travel-worn clothes, braided hair, hands and cheeks sun-chapped and rough, she even looked the part of a pioneer woman.
When they stopped at a stream for water, she splashed her face over and over, trying to rub away as much dirt as she could.
"You all right, baggage?" Jesse noticed her fussing.
"I look a mess." She hadn't expected to meet her new family without her trunks and fine clothes.
"You look beautiful." Going to the saddlebag, he took out her hairbrush. "May I do the honors?"
With trepidation, Susannah let her husband brush her hair. His gentle, patient strokes would have lulled her half to sleep, if she hadn't been so nervous. What would her brother and sister-in-law think of her?
"There," Jesse said finally. She reached back and felt the long braid, tied with a leather thong.
"Where did you learn to do a woman's hair?"
Jesse grinned. "You don't want to know."
Turning, she put her hands on her hips and fixed him with a look.
He sighed. "There was a painted lady in Texas I spent some time with. She had a daughter. When her mother was working..." He shrugged.
"Jesse Oberon Wilder, do you mean to tell me you played nursemaid to a little girl?"
"Yep." His grin surfaced and he reached out and tugged her braid lightly. "Did her hair, helped her discipline her dolls."
"Discipline her dolls? Only you." Susannah rolled her eyes.
* * *
They rode up to the Wilders' cabin around dusk, it was picturesque with smoke curling. The old Susannah would have wrinkled her nose at how rustic it looked, but after sleeping under the stars, the prospect of a proper bed pushed her nerves aside.
As they rode into the clearing, a tall red-haired woman stepped out onto the porch.
"My sister-in-law, Rose, the original Rosie May," Jesse murmured.
The woman's eyes narrowed with intelligence as the two of them dismounted and came forward. She even put her hands on her hips, cocking her head at her brother-in-law. She didn't look pleased to see him. When she stepped forward, Susannah could see the redhead's round, pregnant belly.
Jesse dropped a kiss onto Rose's cheek. "Sister. You're looking well. I'd like you to meet my wife." Confusion lit the redhead's eyes, and her head swiveled to Susannah.
Pushing away her hesitation, Susannah stepped forward. "Hello. I'm Susannah."
"Susannah Oberon Wilder," Jesse corrected.
"Susannah? Carrie's friend from Boston?" Rose gave Jesse a sharp glance.
"I'm afraid so," Susannah said. "But I'm sorry my trunks didn't complete the journey. I don't quite look myself." She shrugged.
A pause, then a smile wreathed Rose's face. "Not at all. You look like a proper frontier bride. And I can't tell you how happy I am that you actually exist."
* * *
Rose invited them in and fussed over them both, offering tea and a bit of cake, and starting dinner until both Jesse and Susannah got to their feet and made the pregnant woman take a seat.
"I'll get dinner," Jesse said.
"He's a better cook than I," Rose said sheepishly, sitting back with a sigh. Susannah got more tea for her new sister-in-law, finding she liked the woman more and more as time went on. Rose seemed cold at first, but there was friendly curiosity under her wary nature.
When the door flew open, Susannah and Jesse leaped to their feet.
A tall, dark haired man stood there, handsome face twisted in a mock scowl. "What's this I hear from Calum? My own brother is in town and married?"
"Lyle—" Jesse started, but his brother grabbed his arm, pulling him onto the porch. Both Susannah and Rose came to their feet, knocking over their chairs in their haste to get to the door.
Outside, the two brothers tussled in the yard.
"You didn't even invite us to the wedding?" Lyle bellowed, and tried to box his brother's ears. Jesse ducked and backed away, weaving as his older sibling advanced, fists out.
Susannah squeaked in shock as the two brothers flew at each other, wrestling and trying to knock each other in the dirt. Lyle seemed to have a slight advantage of height, but Jesse was more compact and quick, though he didn't seem as intent on hurting his older brother. Lyle got him in a hold.
"I was going to write," Jesse grunted. "We got sidetracked." He twisted, and got away.
"You're a rascal," Lyle sang out happily. "I'll teach you some manners." The two brothers circled for a moment, and Susannah held her breath. There didn't seem to be any mercy left in Jesse's rough face.
"What in God's name are you doing?" Rose sounded livid, but the men didn't even glance up.
Susannah cried out as the two brothers rushed each other, grabbing each other's bodies and trying to throw the other down. Dust rose from their wild scuffle.
The fight ended when Rose threw a bucket of water over the two of them. "Stop it, both of you!" The pregnant woman's cheeks were bright with anger. "I've never seen brothers so willing to act the fool. What will Susannah think of the two of you?"
"Ah, yes." Lyle pushed his brother back and leaped up the steps towards Susannah. The blonde bride backed away, throat working, but her new brother-in-law only stooped, and taking her head in his hands, kissed both cheeks. Under the drops of water, his face was finely featured, and his blue eyes danced. "Welcome to the family."
Susannah couldn't find her voice in time to be polite.
"Let her go, you oaf." Rose swatted her husband from behind.
Turning, he grabbed the redhead's arm and pulled her in for a kiss. "You look beautiful as always, wife. Thanks for the bath." He pressed in closer with his wet clothes threatening to mar hers, and she wrinkled her nose. "Don't you dare get me wet! To the stream with both of you, and wash up for dinner. Lyle, get your brother a change of clothes. They've come with very little."
"What?" Lyle tsked his brother.
"We had a little trouble," Jesse admitted.
"He'll tell us about it later," Rose ordered. "I'm getting Susannah a change and then dinner."
"I'll make it," both brothers said simultaneously.
"Go!" Rose roared, and threw the empty bucket. The two Wilder brothers jumped back, both wearing similar grins. Side by side, Susannah could see the difference in the two brothers. Jesse was a rougher cut than his brother, but Susannah thought he was handsomer, more manly.
He winked at her and pulled his brother towards the woods. "Better get clean quick. Otherwise Rose will burn the fish."
The two women waited on the porch, watching their husbands go. Halfway to the woods, Lyle reached out and grabbed his brother's hair, gripping it and giving it a shake before pounding him on the back in obvious affection. Jesse laughed as he fended his brother off.
Rose sighed. "They're rough with each other. But mostly they get along."
"I understand. Jesse's often rough with me," Susannah said, then blushed bright red.
"Mmm, yes, Lyle can be too. It's not always unwelcome." Rose's smile was wicked and her hand rubbed her belly as if she was thinking of a happy memory.
* * *
They all ate together, fish, peas and potatoes, with a tangy-tasting bread Jesse called sourdough. Rose boiled a few eggs, too, in case there wasn't enough food. To Susannah's eye, there was plenty, though the two women were long done and drinking their tea before the brothers stopped shoveling food into their mouths.
"Nothing like summer fare." Lyle leaned back and sighed.
"It's delicious," Jesse said around a mouthful of food. Susannah poked him and he turned to her. "What?"
"Don't talk with your mouth full," she said primly. "And sit up straight. I know you have better manners."
Jesse complied, looking aggrieved. Rose coughed to hide her smile, and Lyle laughed outright.
"Susannah, we're glad you're with us."
"Thank you, Mr. Wilder."
"Call me brother."
"Have you put any thought to where you might live?"
Susannah glanced at Jesse, who grimaced, swallowing hurriedly so he could answer.
"He hinted that he had a fine house for us to live in," Susannah said, teasing.
The younger Wilder had the grace to look sheepish.
"I intended to rent one. You can pick your own when we get into town."
"Jesse," Rose scolded. "You wooed a bride without a house to put her in?"
There was a flush growing on Jesse's cheeks. It was the first time Susannah had seen her husband embarrassed, and she didn't like it. She put her hand on his shoulder. "It's all right," she said, surprising herself, and her new relatives. "I can sleep under the stars. I don't mind."
Jesse's rough hand covered hers, and his look was tender. "Susannah's gotten to be a regular pioneer."
"You can't do that forever," Rose pointed out. "Frost is coming."
"You're welcome to stay here until you decide. We built an addition for all our children, starting with this little man." Lyle had his arm around his wife's chair, and cupped her belly with the other one.
"Lyle thinks this is a son." Rose told Susannah, and rolled her eyes, even as her hand threaded with her husband's, resting on her belly. The pregnant woman seemed to glow with an inner light, and her lips curved slightly with a private smile.
"It makes sense for you to stay with us, or at least live close by. The baby will come soon, and we'll need all the help we can get," Lyle said.
"It may be better for you, too," Rose said to Susannah. "When I first came here, I wished I had a friend next door."
"I always wanted a sister." Susannah smiled. "One I could play house with."
Rose stilled, but then she smiled too, this time with a touch of sadness. "Me too."
"It's decided then." Lyle lifted his wife's hand and kissed it.
* * *
It was late before Susannah and Jesse crawled onto the pallet in the little side room. Susannah undressed and put on a borrowed nightgown, and brushed out her long hair.
"What do you think of them?" Jesse asked, setting the candle on the floor.
"They're lovely, of course." Susannah didn't pause in her brushing as Jesse stretched out beside her.
"Rose has quite the tongue."
"Nothing wrong with that."
"What do you think about my brother?"
"Lyle?" She shrugged. "He seems a good man."
"Most ladies think he's good looking."
"He is," Susannah said, her ears pricked up to her husband's insecurity.
"Would you prefer a man to look like him?"
"Oh, I don't think so," Susannah sniffed, careful not to let her grin onto her face or into her voice. "I should never like to be married to a man prettier than me."
Jesse chuckled, and Susannah crowed silently. "My family likes you."
Susannah smiled. "I think they like me more than you."
"That's probably true." Jesse laid his head back with a sigh.
She poked him in the ribs.
"Watch it, baggage. That's becoming a bad habit."
Putting the brush away, she turned to face him. His finger stretched out to trace her breasts through the thin night rail.
She swatted his hand. "Not here. Not with them in the house."
He looked pained, and she laughed, rolling onto her side away from him. There was something she wanted to ask him, but it would wait until morning. Better not risk an argument, and the amorous exercise that always seemed to follow their fights.