Authors: Lee Savino
"Then how did you meet Lyle?" Susannah asked one morning while they were hanging the washing, and the whole story came pouring out: Lyle's marriage to Rose's sister, and his wife's death a few months later, his five year search to find Rose. "I wasn't happy to see him," Rose admitted. "Those first few weeks were hard. But we suit each other."
Watching her sister and brother-in-law tease one another at the dinner table and exchange a thousand loving touches and looks, Susannah had to agree. Her own feelings for her husband were growing, not only the first fiery, but into a deep and abiding satisfaction. She loved waking up beside him, holding hands under the breakfast table, and kissing him before he went off to his work. She loved greeting him when he came home, and she especially loved when he came home early and surprised her, and pulled her into the woods for a long afternoon romp.
A couple times, Susannah asked about Jesse's plans for Doyle, but he seemed reluctant to think of anything outside of life on the homestead. "With Boone out of the picture, Doyle may sit back and lick his wounds, and plot for spring. In the meantime, Rosie May will confuse the trail."
Susannah wasn't eager for her husband to leave to finish his vendetta, either. Come Sunday, both Wilder couples rode into town. They met Carrie and Miles in the large barn-like building that served as a church. Susannah was glad to see her friend again, and also to meet the town shopkeeper and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Martin. The latter assured her they had some ready made bonnets and fabric for new work dresses. Jesse hesitated to ride to Denver to collect her trunks, in case Doyle wasn't as weakened as he thought.
The crowning moment of the Sunday service was meeting the reverend's wife, Esther.
"You and I could be sisters," Esther said, and took Susannah's arm. The two women shared a blonde hair color, though Esther's eyes were sparkling green.
After the service, they all lunched together at a long table, and once the meal was done, the men went off to look at horses or run errands while the women helped Esther in the kitchen and then gathered around the giant fireplace to talk.
"I must say," Esther said, "when Rose told us of the ultimatum she and Lyle gave Jesse, I never thought he could find a wife so quickly. Especially not one so fine."
"What ultimatum?" Susannah asked. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Rose raise her head sharply.
The minister's wife looked confused, glancing from Susannah to Rose, and flushing. "Oh, I'm sorry. It's nothing important. I shouldn't have said..."
Rose sighed and turned to Susannah. "It was a way for us to be sure Jesse was ready to settle down and leave his rambling ways. Last Christmas he told us he wanted to come back and work the claim, but Lyle wanted to make sure he was serious. So, as part of the agreement for him to come work the claim and share the future profits, we told Jesse he had to take a wife and remain married for a month." She paused, looking a little pained. Her voice was gentle. "He did tell you of that, didn't he?"
The world narrowed, and Susannah suddenly felt she couldn't breathe. "Oh, yes, of course," she heard herself say.
"It wasn't the only reason he wanted to take a wife, though," Esther put it, a worried look on her face. "He was ready to settle down. We all could see it."
"That's why he took your picture and letter. You wrote that you wanted to be married by this summer, so he knew you might be a prospect. He was interested in you particularly," Carrie said, watching her friend's face intently.
"Oh, yes, of course." Susannah forced her features into a stiff smile. Her mind raced, weighing every word, every moment since receiving Jesse's first letter. He'd wooed her, said all the right things, of course he had—he'd read her innermost thoughts as she'd poured them out to her friend. Everything he'd said and done, it all was to achieve his end goal: share a stake in a gold mine. Did he even love her?
"I suppose it's all ended well," Rose said nervously. "You two seem to be well suited, and quite in love."
"Yes," Susannah said in a soft voice. She realized she was twisting the ring around her finger, and snatched her hand away.
"Susannah—" Carrie started, but Miles shouted for her that they needed to leave. "Coming," she called, before shooting Susannah a strained smile. "Let's talk more on this later." With a final squeeze, she left.
Susannah kept her eyes down, not wanting to see the pity in the women's eyes. What must they think of her? Poor Susannah, couldn't find a husband back east, so she came here and married a man who only wanted her as a bargaining chip in a business agreement.
She felt like she was standing on the edge of a chasm, a dark pit yawning at her feet. For a few days, she'd had everything she'd wanted: a home, friends, a man who loved her. At least, she thought he did.
"Rose," Lyle called, and her sister-in-law got slowly to her feet.
"I'm sorry, Susannah," Rose said. "I had hoped he'd told you. We had hoped it would be a good thing." She looked ashamed. "We didn't mean it to cause problems," she finished in a whisper, and hurried away.
At the door to the stables, Jesse was walking in with Esther's husband, a quiet man who was both the town's doctor and minister.
"It's awfully kind of you to offer, Shepherd," Jesse was saying to the tall reverend. "We shouldn't be here long; my brother wishes we would stay at his house. But it will be nice to have a night of privacy."
"I understand," the reverend chuckled. "Esther and I spend Sunday afternoons together. We often... retire... early."
"Sounds like the prescription for a lovely evening." Rubbing hands together, Jesse called out eagerly. "Where's my wife?"
"Esther." Shepherd held out his hand for his wife. With a final sad smile for Susannah, Esther left with her husband.
Watching her own husband stride over to her, Susannah felt numb. It would've worked, perhaps, if he had told her from the beginning. He needed a wife; she needed a way out. It was too late now; she was in love with him. She didn't know what was worse; that he didn't love her, or that she loved him—passionately, desperately.
He must think her such a fool. Ducking her head, she brushed away a tear.
"Are you all right?" Jesse came to her side. He was a good actor, the very picture of the attentive spouse. His act had certainly fooled her all these days.
"I'm fine. Just have something in my eye."
Settling onto the bench beside her, he offered his handkerchief. She took it, and wiped at her face, her heart sinking. She even loved his scent. Why did she have to fall for another man whose only aim was to use her?
"Good news." He leaned in, excited. "Shepherd has offered to let us stay in one of the rooms here for a few nights. We can return to my brother's, but this will give us a few days on our own. We can put an order in at the store and wait until it comes."
"Wonderful," she said.
Concern creased his face. "Is something wrong?"
"No. I'm just tired. I'm not feeling well." It was true; her gut was churning and she was afraid she might throw up.
"You're not with child?" he asked with alarm, and she felt her heart sink into blackness. Of course he wouldn't want children with her. He didn't want a relationship or a family, just his horse and his rifle and his stake in a mine. He'd told her as much.
He frowned. "Maybe you should go lie down for a while."
She nodded. "So we're staying here for the night?" The table where they sat was in the middle of a great lodge-like room, a massive fireplace in the center. Half a dozen rooms fanned off the central space, so the building could double as a hospital as well as a church on Sundays.
"Yes." Jesse scooted closer on the bench. "I was thinking, for the house. We can stay with my brother and then build on the land between him and Donovan's place. That way we'll have privacy, and so you can be close to both family and friends."
She closed her eyes, wondering whether she would be brave enough to say anything, to stop the lies.
"We couldn't build anything before winter, though."
"Oh, God." Her stomach roiled and she stood, hands pressed to her belly. It all made sense now: why he hadn't made a house ready for her, hadn't brought her bags along, hadn't really planned for their life together. He didn't expect or need her to stay.
"Susannah." Jesse was at her side and she bent double, her belly twisting with pain. "Hang on, baggage." He helped her into a bedroom, and bent over her as she lay back on the bed, gasping. "I'll get the doctor."
"No, no," Susannah said. "Just let me be. I'll be all right."
But he left her in the dark, writhing in pain. Her ears still rang with his mocking nickname. Baggage. An appropriate term for a bargaining chip. It wasn't a term of endearment at all. She was a fool to think it ever was.
Her stomach heaved and she rushed to the chamber pot in time. As she bent over it, panting, she remembered the last time she'd felt this way. The churning pain in her gut was familiar. The first time had been when she received the letter that Roger, her former fiancé, had written to break off their engagement. The second time had been when she arrived at his doorstep, confused and frantic, to learn more. The servants had invited her into the parlor, but wouldn't let her further. They stood in the hallways, whispering about her as she'd waited, listening to the giant clock ticking on the wall. Finally, Roger's father had come in and told her, in no uncertain terms, that his son would never stoop to marrying someone of her standing, that he would never allow it.
A month later she read of Roger's marriage to another in the society news, and she'd felt the same sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. She should be used to it by now; all her life she'd been unwanted, unloved.
Sobbing a little, Susannah straightened and wiped her mouth. Hearing a noise outside, she hurried back to the bed, managing to climb in and lie quietly before Jesse burst in with Dr. Shepherd at his heels.
"I'm all right," she croaked as the doctor checked her. "Just a bad stomach, that's all."
"What have you eaten?"
"The same lunch as us. The usual this morning: porridge and coffee."
Susannah burned with humiliation as the doctor asked her all sorts of questions, while Jesse hovered at the edge of the bed. Had she felt sick before today? When did she last have her menses?
When she answered everything satisfactorily, Dr. Shepherd patted her hand. "Just a bad turn, is all. Esther has a tincture she can give you for stomach upset, works wonders. A lie down and you'll be good as new."
"Thank you, doctor," she said, and felt relief when they stopped fussing over her and left her to rest.
The dark room matched her mood. She would have to leave, make her excuses to Carrie and the rest of them, and find her way home. Or perhaps settle in a town where she could work as a schoolteacher, and become the spinster her aunt always warned her she would be.
If only things had been different. She could've been a good wife to Jesse, but pride would not let her stay. Not now. It was worse than her failed engagement. She hadn't loved Roger, not really. She hadn't uprooted her whole life and put all her hopes and dreams into the promise of a marriage, of a man who truly loved her for who she was.
"Susannah?" Esther crept in, carrying a cup. "This is for you, when you feel ready to drink something."
The doctor's wife nodded and started for the door, then hesitated. "It's not my place to say, but however Jesse found you, it's because the two of you were meant to be."
Susannah stayed quiet.
"I know it's hard, but if you could see what I see, you would know Jesse loves you. And when two people love each other, they can work out the rest."
Holding her breath, Susannah waited until Esther closed the door to let out a sob. Esther knew as well as she did; if Jesse didn't really love her, the marriage wouldn't work. Perhaps, after a month, he planned to go back to his whores. Better for her to leave now, than suffer more disgrace.
The door creaked open again, and she knew it was Jesse. Her husband moved quietly for such a large man. To her dismay, he climbed into bed with her, his long form stretching out beside hers. In the dark and quiet, his presence dominated.
"A little," she whispered, and rolled onto her side, curling up into a ball.
"Cold?" He tucked a blanket around her, then curved his body around hers. "The doctor thinks it's just a temporary upset, nothing serious. I suppose, if you have to be sick, this is the best place for it, in his backyard."
She didn't say anything. The sadness was fading, replaced by a cold, growing anger.
"Esther has certainly taken to you. Would you prefer to live in town, or close to Rose and Carrie?"
"I don't care," she said.
Jesse sighed. She felt his breath stir the hairs on the back of her neck. "I'm sorry I don't have a house for you."
"It's all right." She half raised her head. "You didn't expect the marriage to last more than a month. I understand that you wouldn't want to prepare a place for us to live."
There was a moment of stunned silence, then she felt him rise up on an arm. "What?"
She laid her head back down, refusing to answer.
"Susannah, what are you talking about?"
Tears were close, but anger was closer. Susannah reached for it and sat up. "I know about the arrangement you had with Rose and Lyle. You had to take a wife by summer. You chose me because you read Carrie's letter that said I needed to find a husband."
"Don't deny it," she burst out. "I know what happened. I know all about it now."
"Those women. Those damn women."
"Don't talk about them like that," Susannah said, a few tears escaping down her face. "At least they were honest with me."
Jesse moved off the bed, lighting a lamp and then returning to sit by her. "Susannah, it's not like that." He reached for her hand and she snatched it away.
"Did you make a bet that you could take a wife in exchange for the claim?"
His hand tore at his hair. "You know I did, but..."