Authors: Lee Savino
The room was dimly lit and Susannah peered into the murky depths before she could make out the tableau.
Otis Boone was an older man, grey hair mixed with brown. He stood with his back to the door, near a dresser. For some reason, he was holding his hands in the air, arms spread away from his body.
Beyond, a tall, black-clad man stood in the shadows, a gun trained on the first man.
"Jesse?" she gasped.
* * *
Everything had been going splendidly. He had Boone in his sights, and was about to give him an honorable death—a chance to duel and die with pistol in hand—when the little blonde baggage burst through the door. She was a sight dirtier than he'd left her, and in a change of dress with a shawl hiding her shining hair, but he'd recognize those big blue eyes anywhere.
After all, he had married her.
As soon as she saw him, her mouth fell open, and his gut tightened. Had she been in league with Boone all along?
Boone took advantage of the surprise to whirl around, grabbing Susannah around the neck. Jesse raised his gun too late; Boone had a knife to the missus' throat.
Hell and damnation.
"Let her go, Boone. She's got nothing to do with our quarrel." At least, she better not, or a roasted rump would be the least of her worries.
Otis was edging for the door, dragging Susannah with him.
"You're gonna die, Oberon, or Wilder, or whoever the hell you are. I'm huntin' down your brother and his whore, and they'll curse your name before they meet their end." Otis reached behind him for the door, his other hand still holding his knife to Susannah's throat.
"It's all right, Susannah," Jesse said. "It'll all be over soon."
Otis paused. "She mean something to you? 'Cause I'll carve out some time to have fun with her, too."
His knife nicked Susannah's throat and she gave a terrified squeak. Otis took a step back and Jesse knew if the fiend took Susannah out into the hall, Boone would be gone forever, and Susannah with him. The man would probably drag her to Doyle, and torture her for what she knew, in between raping her. She probably wouldn't last the night.
His bride's blue eyes still held Jesse's in silent plea, and Jesse felt a pang. He wasn't ready to lose the little baggage, troublesome though she might be.
So Jesse raised his pistol and shot Otis Boone through the eye.
* * *
The second the gun went off, Susannah recoiled. Her hands were clawing at her captor's arm, desperate to keep the blade away. After the blast, her captor's arm dropped and he sagged against her. Under his weight, she staggered and would've fallen had Mr. Oberon not crossed the room and caught her, wrenching her away from Boone even as the dead man fell.
A scream rose up through Susannah, but her whole body stiffened and no sound escaped.
"Move." Mr. Oberon dragged her through the hall, kicking open another door and crossing the empty room to the wall, where he ripped an oilcloth away from the window. He propelled Susannah through it, onto the porch roof, where she clung to him. Behind them, Susannah heard a shout and a cry; they were being followed.
"It's all right," he muttered. "Trust me. We're getting out of here." For the second time that evening, Susannah lay down on a roof and dropped to the ground. This time her husband caught her, and instead of setting her down, he carried her, striding through the alleyway. A few dark turns, and he came to silent building. Letting her down, he picked the lock while she shook by his side. A hand at her back guided her down a dark hall, then up some stairs and into another dark room.
Susannah waited, wringing her hands as Mr. Oberon closed the door and lit a lamp. Once the light washed over herself, she realized the dark spots on her dress, and the wet on her neck was blood spatter. Her stomach turned and she rushed to the chamber pot, barely making it before all of her dinner came up. Bent double, she retched desperately.
It wasn't until the cramps in her stomach calmed that she realized her new husband was at her back. He'd collected her hair and was keeping it out of her way. As she straightened, he was ready with a handkerchief to wipe her mouth. Feeling weak and hollow inside, she allowed him to guide her to the bed so they both could sit down.
"You're all right now, Susannah. You've had a bad night, but you're safe here."
Shaking, she stared at him with broken eyes.
He left her side for a moment, and returned with a wet cloth, which he used to gently wipe her face and then neck. "There you are. Good as new."
She nodded. Her face must be puffy and hair disheveled, but there wasn't a trace of disgust in Mr. Oberon's expression. Still, she wasted no time putting distance between them, backing away a little to take inventory of her person. She'd lost her bag in the escape, and her dress was ruined. At least she still had her money tucked into her corset.
A loud stomping heralded someone in the hall. Susannah scuttled closer to her bridegroom until the footsteps passed. "Are you sure we're safe?"
"Pretty sure." Mr. Oberon was watching her closely.
Susannah squeezed her arms around herself, wanting to retreat, but not knowing where. The man before her was dangerous, but outside might prove deadlier still. "What do we do now?"
"That's a very good question." Her new husband stood, and she had to crane her neck to look up at him. He stepped closer, his height and broad shoulders dominating the small space, and her. His hand came out and she flinched, but he only caught a lock of her hair between finger and thumb, looking thoughtful.
"So sweet, so soft. Your charms almost made me forget."
"Forget?" she asked, and watched his face harden before her eyes.
"You want to tell me what you were doing at Doyle's brothel?"
"What?" she whispered.
Jesse's finger caught her chin. The look in his eye made her heart plummet. Gone was the casual, joking air, the amused smile just around the corner of his mouth.
"Have you been in league with him this whole time?"
"No," she stuttered. "I don't know..." She started to back away, and he caught her shoulders.
"Which is it?" His fingers dug in. "Answer me."
"I don't know anything about any of this, I swear! I was looking for a place to spend the night." She panted in fear, feeling tears press against the inside of her eyes. "I've only just come here. The only people I know are Mrs. Marsh... and... and... you!" Her voice stuttered and she lost her fight with tears. "I just wanted to... to get married," she wailed. "I never wanted any of this to happen."
His grip eased. "All right, baggage. I believe you."
But the dam had broken and she couldn't stop. "And then you robbed the coach, and blew up the safe, and then the sheriff came and questioned me, but I didn't tell them about the scar or what you looked like. I dreamed of you, and you came and we got married, and then you tied me up and left me for hours..."
Jesse pulled her shaking body into his arms. She huddled in the warm strength of his body, her hands gripping his shirt as sobs wracked her body.
"Now there's blood on my clothes and that... man..."
"Boone is dead, he won't hurt you." There was nothing but tenderness in the rugged outlaw's voice. "Don't cry, sweetheart. I'm here."
That only made her cry harder. Finally, Mr. Oberon scooped her up and eased them both down onto the bed. He just rocked her, and made shushing sounds until she calmed. She pressed her face to his throat, breathing in his scent. He smelled good, like leather and gun smoke. His presence was a quiet, steady solace in a world gone mad.
After some time, Susannah peeled herself away from his chest.
"Thank you," she sniffled, and he offered her his handkerchief. The kindness almost made her cry all over again. In her whole life, no one had ever taken care of her when she was sick, or held her when she cried. No one.
"You feeling better?" He let his arm fall from her shoulders but didn't move away. His body was close enough that their clothes touched. It was more intimate than she'd ever been with a man, and yet she felt completely comfortable. And safe.
"You've had a rough time of it, baggage." He leaned down a little so his shoulder nudged hers.
"I'm not in league with anyone. I was only trying to get away from you."
"Shhh, Susannah, I know." Gently, he tipped her face up to meet his smile. "You have the worst luck of anyone I've ever met."
"It's not me," she said sorrowfully.
"I know it's not." He let his forehead brush hers for a moment, and pressed a little kiss on her mouth before releasing her.
She sat in bed, shivering a little, confused, even as she missed the warmth of his body and mouth. Something deep inside her was crying out for something, she knew not what.
He crossed the room in the easy, loping stride she now recognized, and returned with water.
"I can ring for some food if you're hungry."
She shook her head.
"All right, darling. It's been a long day." Producing a clean handkerchief, he wiped her eyes. "In the morning, we'll go back to Mrs. Marsh's, get your things, and put you on a coach back to Boston."
"But what about—" she started, then hiccupped.
Jesse chuckled. "The marriage? I won't hold you to it."
She nodded, even though a little pain shot through her heart. Looking up at the tall man, with his dark hair and rugged face, handsome despite his devilish smirk, she felt she knew him better than any other person she'd ever met.
"Still," he said, raising her chin with a finger. "It would've been nice if things had turned out differently."
The pain in her heart disappeared, replaced by a soft heat, spreading through her limbs.
She watched him cross the room and check the door before ruffling through his saddlebags. He must have been staying here awhile, she realized. He certainly looked at home in the shabby room.
"Sleep now, Susannah." Mr. Oberon was standing in front of her. She blinked at him, and he grinned down at her, his fingers going to her dress' buttons. He had four of them undone before she smacked his hand.
"What are you doing?"
"Helping you get ready for bed." He brushed aside her hands, and when she pushed at them again, he caught her wrists. The pain from the skin rubbed raw made her hiss.
"Baggage?" He turned her hands palm up and frowned.
"Don't call me that," she muttered, even as he examined red marks on her wrists.
"You hurt yourself."
"Don't look so surprised. Someone tied me up and left me for hours."
"I was gonna come back."
She glared at him. "I didn't know that."
He left her side again. "I'm not the type to lie to a lady. Or leave her tied up overnight." Pausing in his search through his bag, he shot her a grin. "Unless she wants it."
Susannah huffed. "Well I most certainly didn't."
"All right, baggage," he returned, and took her hand again. Before she knew it, he'd smoothed something cool on her wrists.
"What's that?" She hissed again, even as the burning pain immediately cooled.
"Just a balm. Cowboys I rode with used it to help the teats." He smeared it liberally on both wrists, then cocked an eyebrow. "I've found it also has other uses."
For a moment, she just looked at him in confusion. His smirk clued her in. "You rogue," she cried. "Take your hands off me."
Laughing, he loped away, tucking away the unguent.
"You really are a scoundrel."
"As you say, wife." He sauntered to the door and paused with his hand on the knob. "Shame our marriage is to be short lived. We could've had a lovely time together." He winked at her before he left the room.
As soon as he was gone, Susannah breathed a sigh of relief, even as she felt disappointed. She scolded herself a little as she started unbuttoning the rest of her dress. Of course they wouldn't spend the night together, even though they were married, and she did feel safer with him in the room. With wrists soothed and tears all cried, she felt her old self.
She was struggling to get her corset off when Jesse Oberon walked back in.
"What are you doing?" she yelped.
"Returning to my room after checking my horse." He approached, and she backed away.
"Turn around," he commanded, and for some reason, she obeyed. She felt his fingers, nimble and quick on her stays. He must have had a lot of practice, she thought, her heart sinking. Of course, the silver-tongued rogue would have all the feminine attention he wished for. Her mouth twisted at that bitter thought. Of course, she was no better; after all his mistreatment of her, here she was, letting him undress him. There was something about him, a magnetism she couldn't resist.
"There, baggage." Her corset fell from her, and she crossed her arms to cover herself. She still wore her chemise and drawers; their thin fabric would do as a nightgown in a pinch, or at least until she got her things from Mrs. Marsh's.
She climbed into bed, drawing the covers over her up to her neck. Jesse still puttered around the room, unbuckling his holster, placing his pistols near the bed and leaning his rifle against the wall. Even though he was a tall man, he moved with a predatory grace, his dark hair and lean, muscled body reminding her of a panther she'd seen painted in one of her aunt's library books. It was funny, really, even knowing how violent he could be, Susannah wasn't afraid of being in the same room as her rogue. She felt safer, knowing she was under the protection of a man more dangerous than any other.
"When will we return to my room?"
"Tomorrow, if it's safe. Tonight I thought it best to lie low. Doyle runs this town; Boone was his right hand man. His death won't go unnoticed."
Under the covers, Susannah fingered the torn flesh of her wrists. The pain was completely gone. "Why did you kill him?"
Jesse looked up from where he was checking his saddlebags. "He was going to kill you."
Her hand fluttered to her neck. "I understand that, Mr. Oberon. But you had a gun on him before I arrived."
"He wanted to kill my sister-in-law."
He nodded. "She would never be safe with him alive."