"Hold still," he ordered. "Or it'll go worse for you."
When she only struggled harder, he just laughed and reaffirmed his grip on her. "As you wish," he mocked, and rained smacks onto her flesh until her bottom felt like it would burst into flame.
Pinned and helpless, Susannah shouted her outrage into the gag. She'd been disciplined before, as a young girl in her aunt's home, but most of the time it was carried out by a servant who had the sorry job of watching the bratty ward. As a schoolteacher, she'd been tempted to strike her students, and the principal had given her a hard strap for that purpose, but she could never bring herself to do it.
This spanking was nothing like she'd ever seen or felt. Her outlaw had a hard hand, calloused and rough from a working life. It may as well have been made of granite. It didn't matter that the other hand pinning her was gentle. She was in the grip of a strong man who wouldn't brook any argument, and was helpless to the onslaught of his punishing hand.
She yelped over and over again into the gag, her begging turning into incoherent sounds. Her bottom was burning, the pain searing her mind. Her punisher took care to deliver smacks to every part of her bottom, even laying a few on the backs of her thighs, Worse, she knew as her bottom reddened and her legs jumped with each spank, her cunny was on display, framed by blonde curls. As she shifted on his iron thighs, she could feel his manhood growing against her, poking her as it had last night in sleep. Through the handkerchief in her mouth, she let out a despairing wail. God forbid the man spank her, and enjoy it.
Finally she stopped struggling and sniffled loudly. She'd always found any man in her life could be swayed with tears.
Not so with Jesse. It wasn't until she began to well and truly sob that he slowed the spanking, delivering ten odd smacks to her sit spots in between rubbing. His caresses felt so good, she let her head sag onto the bed and sighed.
"This is for your own good," Jesse spoke, deep voice gentle. "I don't want to see you hurt. It's been a few days, and you've faced death and tried my temper." A slap on her bottom, hard enough to resound, but then his palm squeezed her flesh, rubbing away the sting.
"I understand that you don't know me very well. But I want you to be safe. You're still my wife, even if it's in name only."
Hands soothed her, and Susannah shut her eyes. As much as her behind hurt, she wanted to stay like this, in the grip of a strong man, who may punish her, but would also protect her.
When he drew her up to face him, she kept her eyes down, reluctant to meet his gaze. Her emotions were raw and ragged, contrition and sorrow and submission passing over her face, all on display.
Still holding her hands behind her, he lifted her chin, lessening the severity of the session with the tenderness in his touch. "Do you understand why I punished you?"
"Can I trust you to behave until I can get you on the coach to Boston?"
For a moment her body quivered, and she wanted to tell him: she didn't want to go back to Boston, there was nothing for her there. But her mouth was still gagged, so she simply nodded.
"Good girl," he said, and released her. He stood, kissing her forehead. "Do as I say and we'll get along."
Part of her stiffened at his patronizing tone, but he was already moving about the room, grabbing his bag and packing his rifle into it.
"We're going to try to sneak out of here. I'd say we need to lay low, but I don't know how long it will be before one of the men below report a pretty blonde woman, and Doyle's men come looking for you."
Susannah pulled out his handkerchief and threw it on the bed.
Jesse turned and a swath of dark hair fell across his forehead, framing his masculine good looks. Pity he wasn't ugly. It would be easier to hate him.
"Susannah," he said, and held out his hand. With a sigh, she crossed the room and took it.
They started down the hall, Jesse carrying his bag and keeping a strong hand on her back. They'd reached the top of the stairs before their luck ran out.
"There she is." One of the thugs from the lobby was at the foot of the stairs, pointing up at them. Two more men started to push past him, guns out. Susannah froze, but Jesse didn't.
"Go." He pushed Susannah behind him, and fired down the stairs before turning and running with her. He pushed her past their bedroom, all the way down the hall, then kicked open a door at the end. He practically threw her into the room, waving his gun at the man on the bed who turned with a shout.
"Just passing through," Jesse said. "Don't want any trouble."
This bedroom had a window. Susannah hurried to the window and tried to draw up the sash; Jesse followed, and sweeping her aside again, put a boot through it.
The glass shattered, and taking care of the shards, Jesse thrust Susannah through the open frame, keeping a hand on her arm to stop her from falling.
Jesse climbed out behind her, gun still pointed at the surprised man. He whistled, and a horse came trotting up the alley. Susannah recognized the black stallion with a white star on his forehead.
"Here, Jordan," he called, and the horse moved forward. "Come on." Grabbing Susannah, he lowered her from the room down into the saddle, and handed her his bag. He was settling behind her when bullets flew from the window above him.
Pistol in hand, Jesse fired back, gaining them some cover as he finished seating himself and prodded Jordan forward.
"Hang on, Susannah."
The stallion shot forward and left the town in a cloud of dust.
* * *
They galloped for miles, stopping only briefly at a stream to get water. Jesse filled the canteen, and handed it to her to drink first.
"You all right?" he asked when she was finished and wiping her mouth.
"Yes." It was the truth, more or less. After two days with her rogue, she was beginning to equate a good hour with one where she wasn't being shot at or held at knife point.
"We'll ride for a bit and sleep out here tonight. Lay low."
Susannah took a moment to look around. 'Out here' was a harsh, rocky terrain boasting only toughened bushes, red earth, and a long range of mountains rising in the west. "Are they following us?"
"Probably." He finished off the water before refilling the canteen. "But I'm going to keep you safe."
* * *
They finally dismounted at dusk. Susannah wandered around the clearing that would make their campsite, stretching and sighing. Jesse unbridled Jordan and let the horse roam to graze on the few grassy patches by a small spring. Thinking to help, she took up the water canteen and headed for the little stream.
"Watch out for snakes," Jesse called.
Susannah froze. Sloshing the remaining water in the canteen she decided that they had enough water to last them awhile.
He set out the saddlebags and bedroll on a nearby rock.
A thought struck her. "Jesse, where are my bags?"
"Well, baggage, let me put it this way. The good news is I don't think anyone's following. The bad news is I sent your luggage to Denver, and we're going the other way."
"What?" she shrieked.
"I figured if Mrs. Marsh gave them your description, they'd follow your luggage north. I can put you on a stage back to Boston, and ride up to Denver to send your bags on later."
"I can't believe this. What am I to wear?"
Jesse shrugged. "You like the dress you've got on? Wear that."
"I can't just—"
"Susannah, most women out here would be lucky to own one dress half as fine as that one. You're a frontier gal now. Besides, a little dirt might do you good." He turned back to his bags with a grin, laying out flint and a small frying pan.
"I hate you," she said.
"I know." He winked at her. Taking up his rifle, he started striding into the brush.
"Wait. Where are you going?"
"Get us some food before it gets too dark. Do me a favor, and start a fire."
Muttering under her breath, she started looking for bits of sticks and wood, poking gingerly into the brush to check for snakes first. She'd never started a fire in her life; that's what servants were for. But how hard could it be?
Piling brush into the center of their camp, she cried out at a sharp pain on her finger. Her nail had broken.
She moaned. Who was she kidding? This was ridiculous. She'd wanted romance and adventure, a handsome husband who would redeem her from past romantic pain. And what did she get?
Her backside throbbed where Jesse had imparted her "lesson." Her inner thighs burned from gripping the horse. Her face was sure to be red and dirty from the journey, her hair an awful mess, and her nice purple taffeta a disgrace. She looked like a naughty child playing in the mud. She could almost hear her aunt scolding her, telling her to be a lady.
A shot rang out in the distance, and she sank down, quivering. She was still huddled in the dirt, praying Doyle's men hadn't caught up with them, when her outlaw husband returned with rifle and dead game in hand.
"We've got a nice rabbit for dinner," he said, holding up the long, furry body. "Where's the fire?"
Feeling relief, she rose, her lower lip trembling. "I didn't know how to do it."
He didn't mock her, just knelt and motioned her to come and watch. As the sun faded behind the mountains, Jesse showed her how to collect bracken and strike the flint. He was a patient teacher. She broke another nail, but hardly noticed it when the blaze caught and took, flaring up before her eyes.
"We did it!"
"Yep." He grinned. "Now we skin the rabbit."
Susannah declined that lesson, so Jesse pulled the saddle up for her to sit on while he made the meal. She fed the curling flames with larger and larger pieces until a nice fire crackled under the logs while Jesse spitted the rabbit and roasted it.
"Here." Pulling hot bits off the meat, he offered them to her. She reached for it, but he held it up to her mouth until she craned her neck and opened her mouth like a baby bird. There was a little quiver of humiliation in her chest as he fed her, but she was too hungry to care. The meat was lean, a little stringy, but hot.
She nodded, and he licked his fingers, a suggestive smile on his stubbled face. Pulling his makeshift spit away from the fire, he used his knife to pick off more meat until the rabbit cooled. She sat close to him, opening her mouth for him to place morsels in. It kept her hands clean so she kept on, and he seemed amused to treat her like a little pet.
It was the best meal she'd ever had.
When the carcass was picked clean, Jesse pulled a flask out of his bags. "Something to wash it down?"
After a moment, she took the flask, and tipped it up. The juice burned down her throat and she handed the flask back, coughing.
Jesse drank, too, and smacked his lips. "That's good varnish. Put hair on your chest."
She looked at him in horror and he chuckled.
"Don't worry, baggage. It'll just wash out your mouth." He took another pull, and it struck Susannah how at home he seemed, relaxing in the light of the fire.
"Do you do this often? Sleep outside, hunt for your food?"
He shrugged. "I've lived on the frontier more than half my life. It comes with the territory."
"You said you wanted to settle down in your letters."
"So I did." He shrugged. "May as well."
Picking at her broken nail, Susannah wondered if he imagined her differently too. Well it was all done, he probably wanted a woman like him, a real frontier bride made of sterner stuff than a school teacher from Massachusetts.
"Mr. Oberon, when I get on a train back to Boston, what will you do?"
"Boone is dead. He didn't die the way I intended, but the result's the same. Next is Doyle." There was no mercy in her Jesse's face. "Doyle is an outlaw of the worst kind. He does his deeds through other men. Boone was one of those men."
"And you're worthy to judge him?"
"I'm a man of my word, Susannah. Never doubt that. I may not look the part, but there's more to a man than looks. Doyle looks respectable, but he's evil to the core. He's a man who's made his fortune by lying, cheating and stealing from others."
"Are you an honest man?"
"I never said I was." His face bleak. "I'm an honorable one."
Despite herself, she longed to caress that hard face. She tamped down this response. "You said you wouldn't lie to me."
"I did. I won't and I haven't. That's no way to start a marriage. Though, I may have, um, bent the truth a little."
She frowned. "So, your brother and sister-in-law, the mine, the homestead—"
"That's all true. Doyle's the one who threatens it. I'll do anything to keep my family safe. Anything."
"Live like an outlaw? Kill dangerous men? Run for your life?"
"If it comes to that. As long as I can take Doyle out before I go."
She took a deep breath. "I've never met a man like you, Jesse Oberon."
He stared at her across the fire, and though his body was still, there was nothing still about his gaze. Its burning intensity seemed to draw her closer.
"The men I've met are all milksops." She waved a hand as if to dismiss them. "They talk of grand things, and make money, but I don't know one of them willing to lay down his life for his cause."
"Way I'm made, I guess." Jesse stretched out long legs.
"It doesn't sound like a wife fits into all of this."
"Bad timing. But it needn't be," he said, and she half expected him to extend an invitation.
Instead, he rose and packed up the flask, and prepped the campsite for the night. He disappeared into the brush to call Jordan and stake the stallion to a picket.
When Jesse returned, he lay back on his bedroll, using his saddle as a pillow. His holster, rifle and boots he set beside him. "Coming to bed?"
"There's only one blanket and bedroll," he reminded her. "I won't do anything. You're safe with me." He held out his hand, and she took it, and settled beside him, still fully clothed.
She shivered a little and he put an arm around her, curling her into his side. After a moment, she rested her cheek to his chest gingerly. Closing her eyes, she felt his breath rise and fall. "This isn't how I imagined our marriage," she admitted.