Authors: Lee Savino
Blowing out the candle, Jesse settled behind her, his head up by her ear. "We're getting a place of our own. As soon as I can."
"That's what you said before," Susannah said, but, reaching back, she found his hand and drew it around her waist, squeezing it to let him know she was only teasing.
* * *
Susannah woke the next morning to the smell of fresh frying donuts. To her delight, her own husband was crouching at the hearth, cooking breakfast. She sat down next to Rose and accepted her offer of coffee. Squeezing his wife's shoulder so she'd stay in her seat, Lyle jumped up and got it, along with a plate of fresh donuts.
"Dig in." The older Wilder set the plate right in front of Susannah, and her stomach growled in readiness.
"There's eggs and bacon, leftover fish and potatoes coming too," Rose said. "But we always eat the donuts first while they're hot."
Susannah wasted no time filling her belly. She ate with an appetite she'd never had before, and to her surprise, cleared half the donuts before pushing the plate towards her new relatives. Rose waved them away, saying that she'd already eaten her fill.
"Good to see a woman who likes her grub." Lyle winked at Susannah, and took the rest of the plate. "And you married a decent bean-master."
"Bean-master?" Susannah asked.
"Camp cook," Jesse answered, taking his seat with a plate of his own piled high. Coffee in one hand and a donut in the other, he ate and drank, and the pile disappeared rapidly. Lyle took a turn at the hearth, cooking up bacon and eggs and potatoes, and refilling the coffee pot.
"Wilder women don't cook," Rose explained with a smug smile.
"Can't cook, is more like it." Lyle came to the table with the coffee pot, and his wife swatted his behind.
"I can cook porridge. But why should I, when Jesse makes donuts so well?"
"Can you cook, baggage?" Jesse asked Susannah.
"Did you just call your wife 'baggage'?" Rose looked appalled. Lyle laughed.
"Yes." Susannah blushed. "It's a silly nickname. I don't mind it." Ignoring Jesse's cheeky wink, she went on. "And yes, I can cook a few things. But it's not high on my list of talents."
"That's all right," Lyle said. "The thing about Wilder men, we marry women who can't cook, but more than make up for it in their looks and their charms." And then it was the older Wilder's turn to get a tongue lashing from Rose.
* * *
After breakfast, Susannah put on a dress borrowed from Rose, as her sister-in-law had promised to launder her travel stained one. As she dressed, she could feel how her body had changed in the past few days. Though she kept the same soft curves she had before, her muscles were stronger and her body leaner. She felt tough, and ready to live in the wild.
Her husband leaned against the doorframe, a smirk on his face. She hoped he hadn't opened the door while she was still dressing, but she wouldn't put it past him.
Reaching out, he tugged her hastily made braid, and loosened the thong to redo it. Presenting her back to him, she stood still and meek, feeling his heat at her back and marveling at how much she'd changed in the past few weeks. From pampered perfectionist to a woman who slept on a pallet on the ground and woke up refreshed. Instead of a dainty breakfast seated at a long table across from her aunt, she chowed down on heavy food and licked her fingers with delight. Instead of servants, her new family made sure she had everything she needed, and once she got used to their teasing conversation, she'd never enjoyed herself more.
Her new husband tugged her braid again to let her know he'd finished. "All done, baggage," he said, his voice low and husky. Stepping closer, he put his arms around her and Susannah closed her eyes. The heat of his body close to hers, and the rasp of his unshaven chin as he nuzzled her neck filled her body to the brim with longing. Turning, she slid her arms around his neck and went up on tiptoe to kiss him. He responded, and a thrill went through her. Here was a man she could admire and kiss anytime. She didn't even mind the annoying nickname anymore.
By the time they broke away from each other, their breathing was ragged.
"We need to get our own place," she reminded him, and he dropped his forehead to hers with a groan.
"Where are we going today?" she asked in a whisper, not wanting him to pull away just yet.
"To see your friend Carrie."
That broke the mood. Susannah had forgotten her friend lived so close by. Her hands fluttered to her hair, then her clothes. What would her East Coast friend think of the new, rugged Susannah?
"You look fine," Jesse said, drawing her closer with his hands on her hips. She could feel his manhood press into her, and pushed him away.
"We have to go," she reminded him, and after one more bruising kiss, he let her go.
* * *
Susannah's face still burned from Jesse's whiskers when Jordan burst through the trees into the wide clearing where her friend lived. Her friend's husband, Miles Donovan, had built a log house on a hill, along with a few stables, pens and outbuildings in the front, and a fenced garden in the back.
Swallowing hard, Susannah took it all in, feeling very out of place.
Carrie's brother had come to tutor Susannah for a brief period when she was ten, and he'd brought along his young sister. The two were close in age, and had bonded quickly, even though her aunt didn't approve of the connection, their friendship survived through letters.
As Jesse helped Susannah down, a short, curvy woman came from the back gardens, a wealth of chestnut curls tumbling around her back from under her bonnet, and a child in her arms.
"Susannah?" The young mother hurried forward.
"Carrie," Susannah choked out, overwhelmed at the sight of a familiar face. Her friend was just as she remembered, with a few more freckles splashed over her cheeks, and a glow that came from more than fresh mountain air. Carrie swung her daughter down and flung her arms around her Boston friend.
"It's been too long." Carrie squeezed her hard, and then held her away. "Look at you!"
"Do I look very different?" Susannah bit her lip.
"Not very much. You just... look so happy."
Beside them, Carrie's daughter grabbed at her mother's skirts and started to cry.
"Oh, Mary, it's all right. I'm here. Come meet Auntie Su." Carrie swooped up the little toddler. Instantly the child calmed.
"Hello, Mary," Susannah crooned. Carrie's daughter had a round face like her mother, and a little thatch of reddish brown hair. Susannah reached for her, and the child burst into tears again.
A shout from the stables heralded Miles Donovan. Carrie's husband was broad and built, striding forward with the same air of power and ease that all the western men seemed to have. With his tanned face and dusty clothes, he looked almost as rugged as Jesse.
"Donovan," Jesse said, and greeted him almost with relief as the two women tried to soothe Mary. Miles Donovan was frowning so fiercely that Susannah thought he was angry at first, but as soon as he grew close to his wife and babe his expression softened.
"She's still getting used to strangers," Carrie said apologetically over Mary's anguish. "We're so alone out here, we don't often see people."
"She's all right," Miles said gruffly, but he put an arm around his wife and stroked his daughter's hair with a gentleness that belied his stern manner. "Just needs her mother."
"She's beautiful," Susannah said, and was rewarded with a grateful look from Carrie.
"You'll stay for lunch?" Miles invited.
Carrie pressed forward. "Oh yes, you must."
Susannah glanced at Jesse, who nodded. "Of course. Go with Carrie; Miles and I have some business."
The two women made for the cabin. Once inside her home, little Mary calmed enough to play on the floor as Susannah helped Carrie prepare the meal, chattering nonstop.
At one point, Carrie looked up from shelling peas.
"Susannah, I must say, I'm glad you're here, but I was very surprised to hear of the marriage. Calum MacDonnell came around last night and told us."
Susannah nodded, making a note that the wild Scot wasn't so isolated as he seemed.
"It's not my place to question you, but... Jesse Wilder? I don't mean to pry... it's just, he's very rough."
"Yes." Susannah flushed, remembering just how rough her new husband could be, and how much she enjoyed it.
Judging from Carrie's raised eyebrows, her friend could guess exactly what she was thinking.
"Well, well," Carrie said, sounding very wise.
"It's not been easy," Susannah hastened to say.
"That's to be expected." Carrie shrugged. "It took some time for Miles and me to come to an understanding."
"Is he a good husband?"
"The best." Carrie's voice softened.
"He seems very stern," Susannah said.
Carrie flushed. "He is. But he's gentle, too. And when I first came here, I needed someone strong to take me in hand. In the end, his rules made me feel protected, and loved. He's everything I need."
"I'm glad you have that. I don't think Jesse cares much for rules."
"That might be good for you. You certainly had a lot of them growing up, too many, if you ask me. I mean, I'm a mother now, and I want my Mary to be safe, but also to feel loved. You know?"
"I know." Susannah watched Mary playing on a blanket on the floor with one of her mother's clean cooking pots, and her heart ached a little for the tender childhood she never had.
Leaning forward, Carrie put her hand on her friend's. "Jesse loves you. Anyone can see it, after a moment. I don't know what sort of man he is, but I think, for you, he'll become a better one."
"It's good to have you here, Susannah," Carrie said.
"It's good to be here," Susannah said, and meant it with all her heart.
* * *
At lunch, Susannah finally got to hold Mary, as long as Carrie didn't stray too far. She fed the baby peas.
"Looks like your wife will make a great mother," Miles remarked to Jesse. Susannah glanced at her husband, who looked uncomfortable at the thought.
"So, Susannah," Miles scooted closer to her and wiped his baby's mouth with his handkerchief, "you came all the way from Boston? That's very brave of you."
"Thank you, Mr. Donovan." She handed over Mary when the toddler reached for her father. Miles cradled his daughter's little body, then set her on his muscled legs and bounced her until she let out baby giggles. Susannah tried to hide her shock as Miles' whole face broke into a smile.
Scooting closer to Jesse, she tucked her arm in his. "Do you want children?"
Jesse looked a little panicked. "Perhaps one or two. In a few years. You?"
"Seven to ten," Susannah said, and giggled at her husband's expression. "A whole schoolroom."
"Baggage," he said weakly.
"Don't worry, perhaps they'll be all girls. You can braid their hair and make them dolls."
"And worry myself grey when they grow up to be as beautiful as you. I'll have to sleep on the porch with all my guns, to fend off their suitors."
"You'll teach them to shoot," Susannah said, and Jesse perked up at that idea.
She turned back to her friends, feeling satisfied.
Carrie was nursing Mary, a shawl draped over her shoulder.
Miles served the coffee, and sat back to regard Susannah. "So, Mrs. Wilder. Do you find this land very different from your home?"
"Very different. But it has its own rugged charm." She smiled at her scruffy husband as she said it. "Jesse has been very good about showing me what's beautiful."
"It'll be good for my wife to have a friend so close."
"I'm glad as well," Susannah said, feeling another swell of love for her husband, that he'd bring her to a place where she already had a good friend.
"So you have a wife now, Jesse." Miles turned his attention to Susannah's husband, and there was something critical in his gaze that she didn't like. "That's a lot of responsibility. You finally going to settle down?"
"We're staying with my brother for now, but will probably rent a house in town until we build."
Miles nodded, and again Susannah felt that the stern homesteader was judging her Jesse. She moved closer to her husband, threading her arm with his and smiling up at him. "Wherever Jesse decides we shall live, I'll gladly go. In a house, in a cabin, in a teepee on the plain; it doesn't matter, as long as I'm with him."
Smiling up at Jesse, she could practically see her husband's chest swell. "Thank you, darling." He raised her hand and kissed it. A part of her missed being called 'baggage'.
"Well, Mrs. Wilder. You're made of stronger stuff than most," Miles said, and Susannah met his intense gaze.
"I am. I won't deny my marriage had a rough start." Susannah squeezed Jesse's hand. "I can't imagine how it could be otherwise. I think every couple must find their own way. What matters is that we love each other."
Miles met her bold stare with his tawny one, a blank expression on his face. Then he raised his cup in mock toast to Jesse. "Sweet with a core of steel. To East Coast women."
"Stop talking about us like we're not here," Carrie scolded, turning back to the table, a sleepy Mary in her arms. "And stop pestering Mr. Wilder about his marriage."
"All right, wife," Miles said. "Just want to make sure Susannah knows she has friends looking out for her." He nodded to the blonde wife.
Susannah looked straight back at him. "Thank you, Mr. Donovan. It's nice to know that, along with a wonderful husband, I have excellent friends. I truly am a woman blessed." She raised her own cup in a toast, and thought she caught a smile before Miles drank to her.
"All right, enough," Carrie said. "Let me put Mary down for a nap, and then we'll show Susannah her wedding present."
* * *
While Carrie laid Mary down, Miles busied himself in the stables, and Jesse took his bride for a walk around the homestead. Susannah admired the gardens, but inwardly, she was still fuming at Miles' insinuation.
"Jesse, why didn't you stand up to Miles? And last night to your brother?" she asked. "They think you're some sort of... unruly boy at best. A vagabond criminal at worst."