Authors: Lee Savino
Opening the door, Susannah felt a surge of triumph at the hotel matron's awestruck look. With her white muslin dress decorated in blue flowers to bring out the sapphire in her eyes, and new lace gloves, she looked quite the future bride. Perhaps not as fine as she would look in Boston, but good enough for Colorado Territory.
"He's here," Mrs. Marsh stated, and Susannah took a deep breath. Time to meet her future husband.
* * *
Jesse almost forgot to turn at the sound of his false last name. A sweet, familiar scent wafted across the room and he stiffened before swinging around with a smile fixed to his face.
He spotted her immediately, stepping out from behind the dowdy Mrs. Marsh.
Damn and blast. Here, pretty as a picture in a white dress, was the little baggage from the coach. Clean and rested, she glowed from the top of her blonde head to her satin lined hem. Silently, he cursed himself up and down; he'd thought the chit had looked familiar, but she'd thinned since sending her picture, and the dust-covered traveler—although alluring—was nothing like this beautiful vision before him.
Besides, he'd expected her two weeks from now. When the message arrived at his "residence" alerting him of his bride's arrival, he'd nearly written off the whole marriage operation. His plans for Doyle were coming to a head, and he didn't have time for a distraction until they were finished.
But his future stake in his brother's mine was contingent on him taking a wife and keeping her on the homestead for a month—a stupid plan thought up by his sister-in-law Rose. Unfortunately, his brother, Lyle Wilder, had agreed with his wife, and made it a condition of the agreement. Until Jesse could catch a wife and keep her, he couldn't share in the profits.
So here he was, in a hotel parlor, meeting his future wife a few days after robbing her coach. He'd certainly been in worse scrapes, but at the moment, he couldn't think of any.
He waited for a flicker of recognition in the blonde's face, but whatever preparations he'd made for their visit—washing his hair and changing his clothes to complete his transformation into the gentlemanly Mr. Oberon—had worked. The little baggage stared up at him with interest, but no recognition. As far as first impressions, his disguise held.
"I present to you: Miss Moore," Mrs. Marsh said, and stepped away.
"Mr. Oberon?" Miss Susannah Moore repeated the matron's call, and her voice was light and soft, nothing like the screeching wild cat she'd been on the trail. Indeed, he was hard pressed to decide which side of her he liked better—her on her knees in the dirt, or gliding across a parlor with a sweet smile on her face.
Jesse crossed to her in one stride, and bowed over her delicately gloved hand. "Miss Moore, a pleasure."
He looked up into his fiancée's lovely face and hoped she wouldn't recognize him.
* * *
His luck held. Mrs. Marsh presented an impressive lunch and served as chaperone, and Jesse played the gallant, sitting close to the matron and flattering both women with attention, while giving Susannah intense, heated glances whenever the matron's back was turned.
By the end of the hour, both ladies were sighing at his charming manner, and he felt his fiancée would allow him to take his leave. He stood, bowing again, playing the gallant down to the last flourish. "Ladies, I must thank you for the pleasure of your company, and though it's been the most pleasant hour of my life, I'm afraid it must come to an end, for now I must go."
"Oh, must you?" Susannah fluttered her eyelashes at him. Throughout the lunch, she'd proved her intelligence and wit, while flirting like a coquette.
"I have business to attend to. Not the least of which depends on your answer to my next question."
Susannah blushed, and Mrs. Marsh smiled as Jesse got down on one knee and took up Susannah's hand. "My dear, we have known each other through letters, and you graciously consented once, but I will ask again: will you do me the honor of being my wife?"
Her answer came breathless and happy, accompanied by a satisfied applause from the stoic Mrs. Marsh.
"Well done, young man." The matron blushed as pink as a schoolgirl as she escorted him from her establishment. She and his Susannah would spend all night planning a perfect celebration, he was sure.
Stepping out onto the sidewalk, Jesse breathed a sigh of relief.
At first, Susannah had seemed the perfect solution to his matrimonial problems: pretty, young, available. Last winter, he'd dashed off a letter introducing himself and dropping her friend Carrie's name as a mutual acquaintance. He'd half expected a reply, but none so eager as the one he received. It seemed Susannah was more than ready to be a bride.
Everything had gone swimmingly, except for Doyle, the brothel owner who thought he owned Jesse's sister-in-law, Rose. As long as Doyle lived, Jesse's brother Lyle and wife couldn't live in peace.
So Doyle had to die.
But killing a man with power took time and money. Jesse had some of the latter, especially after robbing Doyle's own coffers. As for the former: spring turned into summer with no opportunity to kill the man who'd caused his family such misery. And then his bride showed up two weeks early, riding on the same coach as Doyle's gold.
Hell and damnation. If that wasn't unlucky, Jesse didn't know what was. Still, the fact that the little baggage was more delicious in person than in daguerreotype was a point in his favor.
First things first. Tonight he'd put the final touches in place to ensure Doyle's downfall, and then return to his fiancée's hotel tomorrow with the minister. Once he was married, he could turn his attention back to Doyle. By fall, he could ride to his brother's homestead, wife on arm, and prove he was ready to settle down and work his claim.
He just had to manage to fool his bride for a whole month.
* * *
In her bedroom, Susannah brushed out her hair and contemplated her bridegroom Jesse Oberon. Very strange name, but familiar, since she was an avid reader of Shakespeare.
Susannah Oberon. Mrs. Susannah Oberon. The name had potential, especially since her fiancé was everything she wanted and more. Dashing, attentive, with very fine clothes and manners. And, oh, the way his green eyes sparkled. He was just the right height and build, too, tall enough to tower over her, with enough lean muscle under his clothes to make her heart race. The men of Boston seemed weak and pale next to such a rugged, masculine figure.
"You'll be back within the month," her aunt had blustered when Susannah had revealed the details of her engagement to a gentleman in Colorado Territory. "That is, if you are not killed by the heathen."
"Nonsense, Auntie. If I'm taken by Indians, I'm sure to be married off to one of the braves. They like women with blonde hair." Susannah had bit her tongue so she wouldn't laugh over her aunt's appalled expression.
Truth was, she'd been eager to escape her New England home. Sure, Boston was exciting with its international port and cosmopolitan populace descended from the first families of the New World. The women wore the latest fashions, and the men were witty and wealthy. Of course, one of those men had almost destroyed her. Whatever the painful result of her brief engagement, Susannah no longer felt at home in Boston society.
So, when correspondence began arriving from a self-described "landed gentleman in need of companionship", she'd been at once flattered and intrigued. When the writer, a Mr. Jesse Oberon of Colorado Territory, spoke of his connection to Susannah's friend Carrie, the blonde Bostonian thought she had all the verification she needed, and promptly wrote back. With the current speed of the postal system, they exchanged several letters throughout the spring. Mr. Oberon wooed her with very sweet words, and before she knew it, she was buying riding habits and imagining herself as a frontier bride.
The last letter came with the photograph, and an exquisitely penned marriage proposal. She accepted by telegraph, and booked her fare to arrive in Colorado Springs by August at the latest.
Laying down her hairbrush, Susannah sank into the bed. The mattress was rough and the sheets a scratchy, poor quality. She hardly cared.
Her new fiancé was perfect, handsome and doting. Perhaps a bit shallow, and certainly a dandy, but a gentleman. He wouldn't treat her the way her former fiancé, Roger, had, and leave her a laughingstock, in disgrace, with escape from Boston her only recourse.
Most importantly, he would never rob a stagecoach.
With that thought, she rolled to her side and dreamed of a black haired man with bright green eyes. Whether bandit or Mr. Oberon she couldn't tell—both faces blended into one man who bent his dark head to her breast.
* * *
Jesse walked into the bar at midnight, hat pulled low over his face. Nodding to the bartender, he looked to the corner, where three men were waiting for him, and cursed silently. His luck had run out.
One of the men was Otis Boone, one of the most dangerous men in the West, and Doyle's right hand man.
Without pausing his swagger, Jesse headed for the table. Sitting with his back to the wall, Boone locked onto his approach immediately, and Jesse met his gaze head on. Here was another man who had it out for his sister-in-law, and would've gotten her, too, if his boss, Doyle hadn't stopped him. If Doyle died, Rose wasn't safe from Boone's blood feud.
So, Boone had to die first.
"Boone." Walking up to the table, Jesse extended his hand. Boone was shorter, with a square jaw covered in a brown and white beard clipped close to his face. After a moment, he leaned forward and silently shook with Jesse, but didn't rise. Neither of his underlings did, either.
"Oberon." A second man greeted him, while Boone's steel grey eyes roved over Jesse's form. Jesse sat, letting his coat flap open to show twin pistols holstered at his side.
Three men's eyes on him, and with more lookouts probably waiting in the wings. Otis Boone would be cautious meeting a new potential crew member for the first time; the dangerous outlaw had survived this long for a reason. Jesse had never met a man so hard to kill.
"Never heard a name like Oberon before," the second man said.
Shrugging, Jesse raised a finger for the barmaid to bring whiskey.
Annoyed at his lack of response, the man prodded Jesse. "You're pretty clean for an outlaw. You ain't a nancy, are you?"
Jesse let his lip curl, but otherwise didn't react. "No. Don't have to take my word for it. You can ask the little blonde I have back in my room." He leaned forward. "So what's this job you need done?"
"Just a little ride up to Denver," the second man said. Otis Boone still hadn't spoken. "We ride out in two day's time."
Jesse nodded, thoughts racing. Two days to get close enough to kill Boone and Doyle, and get married to the blonde baggage, not necessarily in that order.
The bartender came with his whiskey, and he took a pull of the swill. Three men's eyes watched him take his liquor without a grimace. "What's the pay?"
The third man frowned. "You don't want to know the job?"
Jesse shrugged. "Don't need to know until I get there. Don't even need to know after. I just do my bit, get paid, get out. I find it saves time, and there's less mess in the end." He met the other man's eyes dead on. "If you're satisfied, and I'm satisfied, I find it best to be done. Less chance I get a bullet in my back for my share."
With a nod, the man sat back, but Otis Boone remained quiet. Jesse sensed that the leader wasn't impressed.
"We'll meet you at Doyle's a day from tomorrow. Dawn. You know where it is?"
Jesse nodded, inwardly he cursed again. Bad enough he had to come to Doyle's town; going to his place of business increased the chance someone would recognize him, or link him to his brother Lyle. He'd just have to set his plan in motion tomorrow night.
Of course, he couldn't very well ride out with an outlaw gang to rob a coach with a new bride on his arm, either.
"My men Johnson and Bigs in the Royal Mountain Gang say you're the man we need." Boone spoke in a low, raspy voice, result of a throat damaged in a failed assassination attempt. After almost choking to death, Boone had gotten the upper hand, shot the man in the gut and staked him out in the desert to die slowly, or so Jesse had heard. The cold metal glint in his eyes bespoke a dangerous man. Many a man had under estimated Otis Boone, and died because of it; Jesse was determined not to be one of them. "If you're at Doyle's place on time, we ride together."
Jesse waited until he was sure the man was finished before nodding. "I'll be there."
"May have to shoot a few men. You squeamish about that?"
"Don't have a bounty on my head in three states for just stealing cattle."
"You're a traveling man, aren't you?" Boone asked.
"Reason I ask. Coach was robbed coming into town last week. Lone rider blew a safe, took the gold belonging to an important personage about town. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
"Not gonna lie," Jesse drawled, and paused for dramatic effect. The table, and the room behind him fell silent. "I've been shacked up with a little blonde filly for the past week. She's got a mouth like you wouldn't believe and a fierce love for what lies between my legs. She's so good, I'm thinking of marrying her. Talk to the minister tomorrow."
One of the men snorted, and the whole room breathed. The second men grinned at him and slapped Jesse's back. "Lucky man. Bartender! Get this man some bottled courage. He's marrying before he rides out with us."
Only Otis Boone wasn't smiling.
"How'd you get 'er?" the second man asked.
"Catalogue," Jesse said, and the man choked.
"Mail order bride? Really?"
The bartender delivered the rotgut that passed for whiskey, and the men toasted Jesse.
"Here's to roping yourself a heifer."
"Ready to get back to her?"
"Naw." Jesse stretched. "I wore her out earlier today. Let her sleep awhile."
"If you're marrying her," Otis spoke up. "What about the job? Will she stay out of your business?"