Rocky Mountain Rogue (Rocky Mountain Bride Series Book 5) (24 page)

"The marriage had to be legitimate. You couldn't just pay off a whore. It had to be someone respectable, so they'd believe the marriage was real."

She took his silence as assent.

She nodded. "I see. You were right when you said I was perfect for you. I was an unmarried woman, desperate, gullible. I'm glad I could suffice."

"Susannah—" He reached for her again.

"No, don't touch me." She leaped up and backed away, as if his touch might break her. She couldn't bear for him to comfort her right now. It would remind her of everything she almost had. "It's all right. My aunt didn't want me. My fiancé didn't want me. You're just another person I can't please." He came off the bed, moving towards her and she held up her hand to keep him away. "No, please don't touch me. I'm all right, really. I expected to be alone. That's why I became a school teacher, so I could be a spinster and make my own way."

"Susannah, listen."

"Just leave me alone," she shrieked. The sobs tore out of her, wave upon wave as she backed into the corner. He followed her, pulling her into his arms as she cried, too overcome to fight. "Why Jesse? Why did you have to be so nice? Why did you say such pretty things so I would love you?"

"Shhh, Susannah. It's not true. Sweetheart, you must believe me."

Her sobs died and he carried her back to bed, laying down with her and stroking her hair as she shuddered out the last few tears.

"You could've just told me from the start," she whispered. "I would've played along. I was desperate to get out of Boston, this could've been a business arrangement for both of us." She squeezed her eyes shut as she spoke. The thought of being with Jesse and not being able to kiss him or touch him, wrenched her heart. She'd tasted true love, and didn't want to go back.

"I wanted the marriage to work. I swear, Susannah."

She took a deep, shuddering breath. "It's all right, Jesse. I'll stay. I'll stay the month, or as long as you need to convince them that you deserve the claim." She didn't look at him. He was close enough to touch but she wouldn't. She could never touch him again, because it was a farce. Every kiss, every time he touched her, it was just part of the lie. He said he wanted her, and in a way, he did. He needed her love and loyalty as insurance to get his claim and his gold.

"I don't want that, Susannah." His hand clenched around a strand of her hair.

"Then I'll go." She kept her eyes downcast. "I don't want to inconvenience you."

"That's not what I meant. I don't want you to go. Susannah, dammit. Look at me." His fingers threaded through her hair, gripping her head lightly and drawing it back. "Listen to me." His grip loosened and his hand threaded through her hair. "I agreed to take a wife because it was what I wanted. I wrote to you because Carrie shared your picture and your letter and I was intrigued." He dropped his hand, sighing. "I didn't expect you to write back. I'd never wooed a woman through letters." His breath huffed out in a small, self-deprecating laugh.

She stared at him sadly, feeling broken. It used to be that the look in his green eyes made her feel whole, but now they only reminded her how shattered she was inside.

"Susannah, from the first letter, from the first sight of you, I wanted to know you better. These past few days, I've known I want to spend the rest of my life with you." He caught her chin, forcing her gently to meet his gaze. "I swear, I'm telling the truth. I've been a liar, a cheat, and a fool. But you make me want to be a better man. You make me better."

"It's too late, Jesse." Everyone already knew of the agreement, and her disgrace. The people around her would always know how pathetic she was. She would be a laughingstock here, just as she had been in Boston.

"Don't say that." He shifted, cupping her face in his hands. "I want you, Susannah. You and no other. I've never wanted anything more. Tell me to give up the claim, or to go into a pit and work for endless days without seeing the sun to earn enough for you, I'll do it. I'd do anything for you."

"You know, Jesse," she broke in. "I never thought that a man could make me feel as low as Roger did when he discarded me. Everyone knew. Everyone was laughing at me. Susannah Moore, the orphan no one wanted, the woman no one will ever marry. But this is much, much worse. I crossed a continent for you. I came to a place where I knew almost no one, and just when I finally had friends, and finally felt I belonged..." She wanted to cry, but had no more tears left.

"Susannah, don't say that. You do belong here. With me."

She shook her head, squeezing her eyes shut so she didn't have to face his earnest expression.

"Please, baggage." He sounded almost as broken as she felt. Of course, losing his wife would disgrace him too, but he could think of a pretty lie to tell everyone. He was good at those. "Don't leave me."

Lifting her hand, she pulled off the ring he'd given her and held it out for him to take. He could give it to another, a woman he truly loved.

When he didn't take it, she laid it on the bed.

"I'm sorry, Jesse. I can't be your wife. Not like this."

He jerked away from her, and she kept her eyes on the floor. She could feel him pacing, a wild animal, caged, his physical power rendered useless. After a minute, he stopped in front of her.

"Susannah."

"Just let me go." Heart breaking, she covered her face with her hands until she felt him leave.

"It would've worked," he said from the door.

Limp on the bed, she drew in a ragged, teary breath. She lay like that all night, numb. She didn't cry, and she didn't sleep.

After endless hours, her door opened again.

"Get up," Jesse said. "We're leaving."

She peeled herself off the quilt. "What?"

"You want to go, we're going to go. I'll not keep you."

Swinging her feet to the floor, she winced at the pins and needles in her legs. "Where are we going?"

"I'll take you to a town where I can put you on a stage."

"But—"

"We may meet Doyle's men, but I'll take care of them. I'll escort you to Missouri if I have to." His head was bowed, dark hair over his face so she couldn't see his expression. "You coming or what?"

* * *

The journey back was much shorter than Susannah remembered. They left Royal a few hours before dawn, her little mare following Jordan. The stallion gave Susannah more reassurance than its master, whickering to Lily to keep up, slowing as the trail twisted down the steep slope of a ravine. Jesse kept his eyes front and his back straight.

They reached the first town where they'd rendezvoused with Lord Chivington and Rosie May, by nightfall. Susannah was sure that Jesse was taking a faster route. His deception revealed, he was probably eager to be rid of her. Even though she'd spent the last day hardening her emotions against him, her heart sank when Jesse ordered separate rooms.

"Only one left," the hotel man said, and Jesse agreed to it with a brusque nod.

"I can pay." Susannah stepped up with her purse, the little remaining money she had.

"Keep it," Jesse said, not bothering to look at her. Once the porter let them into the little room, he tipped the man and then spun on his heel to follow him down the hall.

"Wait," Susannah called to Jesse's retreating back." Where are you going?"

"To a saloon." He stopped and angled his dark head back, finally meeting her gaze. "You gonna nag me about it, wife?"

"No. I just… You're leaving me here?"

"You want me to stay? Maybe you have another entertainment in mind." Folding his arms, he raised an eyebrow, his expression mocking. Tall and dark, eyes hard on hers, he didn't look anything like the kinder Jesse who'd brought her to his brother's home. "Just say the word, baggage."

At the nickname, steel shot through her. Shaking her head, she closed the door on him, and stared at it for a few minutes, deciding whether to lock him out.

A saloon! Of all the places to prefer to her company! He could get drunk and die for all she cared. It would serve him right.

How dare he treat her so rudely! None of this was her fault—the journey, the danger, the end of their relationship. Their relationship had been doomed from the start. She should've known better than to trust a rogue.

In the end she left the door unlocked, but determined to go to bed with a poker, in case he came to her worse for drink. If he tried to touch her, she would brain him.

Fuming, she turned down the bed, then pulled out the trundle and shoved it into the corner as far as it would go. He could sleep there, the drunken bastard.

She stomped around the room, washing up and then redoing her toilet to go down for dinner. But when she ventured out of the room and started for the dining area, the raucous sounds of the men downstairs drifted up to her, and she lost her nerve. Jesse had always been her strong shield, a guardian at her back who would protect her. In his own rough way, he'd been a gentleman at every turn.

In fact, when she was with Jesse, she'd never felt more safe or more cared for. And, the way he held her, challenged her, taught her, and kissed her: more loved.

Sitting on the bed, her stomach growling, she let her head fall into her hands. What was she going to do without him? Go back to Boston with her tail tucked between her legs, face her aunt and whatever horrible suitor her aunt would choose? Or stop in Missouri and cower in a town, relying on the charity of strangers? Find a community that would take pity on her and give her a schoolmarm position—and then what? Teach children for the rest of her life, wearing unfashionable clothes and living off tea and crackers, all the food her meager salary would afford? If a man wanted to woo her, hide away from the world, or worse, accept the proposal and live in the shadow of what her love could have been?

A knock came on the door, but it was only the porter, asking if she wanted dinner. Claiming a headache, she accepted the plate of food he fetched for her, then picked at it.

Numb, she waited until the hour was late enough, then undressed and laid down in the little bed. Another day, and she would be on a stagecoach away from Jesse. She wished tomorrow would never come.

* * *

A noise woke her. She peered into the dark until she could make out the form of a tall man sitting next to the fire.

"Jesse?"

He raised his head. The moonlight from the window was enough for her to make out his slumped shoulders, the dejected weariness resting on his face.

She sat up, everything in her wanting to go to him. Swinging her legs around, she perched on the edge of the trundle and wrapped her arms around her knees.

"Did you want to get some sleep?" she asked. "I left you the big bed."

When he said nothing, she slipped out of bed, and padded across to the room until she stood in front of him. In the moonlight, her white nightgown glowed like a beacon.

Reaching down, she took his rough hand in her soft one and tugged a little. He roused but didn't stand, just caught her hand in both of his, holding on as if he'd captured a bird and wanted to make sure he didn't crush its fragile body.

"Just tell me this," he said. "If it hadn't been for the bet, would you want me as your husband?"

Tears filled her eyes at his rejected tone. "I don't know. I don't know the answer to that."

His head bent again, and his forehead dropped until it rested against his two hands, and hers. Her other went to stroke his hair.

"Come on," she whispered after a few moments. "You need rest." Tugging a little, she got him to rise, and follow her to the bed like a little boy following his older sister.

He lay down on the big bed, and she moved the blanket around him, tucking him in.

"Wait." He caught her nightgown. "Don't leave me. Just... one more night."

Susannah hesitated.

"Just lie here, with me. Please."

She remembered moments in her nursery, when she was alone and scared, and would wake up. There was no one around, no one to comfort her. In the endless black of the night, it was nice to have someone to hold onto.

He made room for her and she lay down in front of him. It felt so good to have his arms around her again, blanketing her back with his big, warm body. Other than his breathing, the only movement was his thumb sliding over her hand.

Against her better judgment, she spoke. "Do you remember that night under the stars? When I asked you what you wanted in a wife?"

"I remember."

"If someone asked me what I wanted in a husband, it would be you."

He didn't answer, so she snuggled closer, getting as comfortable as she could. But it was a long time before she fell asleep.

* * *

"Wake up, Susannah."

"What?" She rolled to look up at his dark shape bending over her.

"Time to get up and get dressed."

"What time is it?" Peering at the window, she didn't see any light beyond a grey glow; it wasn't even dawn.

"Early. The sooner we get moving, the sooner we can slip in under Doyle's watch." He lit the lamp and she winced at the bright light.

She sat up. Jesse had packed up the trundle and pushed it back under their bed, and had their few bags waiting by the door. He was already dressed.

She felt a surge of anger. Was he so eager to be rid of her?

"What was that, last night?" He'd come back to her side.

Blinking, she tried to remember the moment they shared in the soft darkness. "You were lonely."

He gripped a lock of her hair but didn't tug. Somehow the gesture seemed more intimate than his hands on her skin, as if he was so filled with longing he had to touch her, but his control wouldn't allow it. "And if I told you I'd be lonely the rest of my life, would you stay?"

"Jesse..."

His face hardened. "Answer me, baggage."

But she couldn't. After a few minutes, he knelt, so he could look up at her. "I don't want you to go."

Her hand went to his hair, unable to stop herself from stroking its thick darkness. "I know."
I don't want to go either
was on the tip of her tongue.

"Then why... What can I do to get you to stay?"

"I can't." She pulled her hand away, and pushed off the bed, walking a few steps away. "I can't go back there with you."

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