He laughed, his stomach kicking a little under her ear. "Me neither, little baggage. But I'll get you out of this mess, safe and sound. That's a promise."
His finger crept down to thread in her hair. It felt nice so she didn't protest. "Do you miss Boston?"
She thought about it. "Not really," she realized. "I suppose I've been too busy to really think of it. I wanted an adventure. Guess I got it."
"For what it's worth, I apologize for my part of it. I wish I could've given you what you wanted. A woman like you deserves it."
Her breath caught and she wanted to ask what he meant by "a woman like her", but he continued. "Now, I can give you a gift," he said, and her heart leaped.
His hand fell on her shoulder and drew it back. "Look up," he whispered.
She did and gasped. A large swath of milky white striped the night sky, as delicate as a bridal veil with a thousand million diamond stars twinkling down on them. They seemed so close she could touch them.
"Have you ever seen them like this?"
She had to admit she hadn't. Boston was a modern city, full of trains and new-fangled inventions, but its sky was dirty and often clouded with smog at night. Out here the sky seemed a living, breathing thing above them, alive as the land.
"Your book learning can't give you this," Jesse said.
"You're right. Thank you."
"A poor wedding present."
"No, it's beautiful." Her thoughts drifted, and she wondered at how nice it was to lay there, on the rocky ground, head pillowed on a strong body. Jesse Oberon would make a fine husband to someone, someday.
"What do you want in a wife?"
He was silent a moment, and she arched her head back to study the shadows in the hollows of his face. "Someone to talk to," he said. "Someone I can tease and laugh with."
"Not a good cook or housekeeper?" She tried to joke.
"I can do those things." He shrugged. "I need someone who loves me. But not only that." He shifted, and Susannah could feel the serious thought he gave the statement. "She will make me a better man."
"I don't know." He shifted a little and tucked her into his side. She relaxed into him, her body fitted to his. "That's for her to find out."
Susannah laid her head down, feeling very small. She liked his answer, very much, but it scared her. She'd spent so much of her life trying to live up to her aunt's standards, and fit into good society. Even when she skirted the lines, she didn't push it too far. She'd never really lived.
"You don't care what other people think about you," she stated.
"Nope. I live the way I want. I have my own code, but when I know what's right, I'm free to do it, and not go by any other's rules. Now, if I had a wife, a real partner on this long trail we call life, I'd care what she thought about me."
A part of her wished she could be the woman he described, even though common sense told her it would never work. Still, despite all that had happened between them, she'd had her heart set on being Mrs. Oberon, and it was disappointing to imagine life otherwise.
"Oberon," she said suddenly, and laughed.
"You laughing at my name?"
"Perhaps I am. I've never heard of anyone with that surname."
"It's not a family name. My mother saw a traveling show and a play, and gave it to me."
That was curious, and Susannah wanted to ask more, but thought it would be rude. "Do you even know the play?"
He cleared his throat. "Once upon a time, there was a beautiful fairy queen who fell under an enchantment. She fell in love with a man with the head of an ass."
Susannah smiled in the dark. "You know Shakespeare."
"Quiet, let me finish. I tell the story better than he does."
Despite herself, she laughed.
"Under the spell, she lavished her love on this ugly ass-headed man. But then her true love, the handsome fairy king came to her, and released her. And they lived happily ever after."
"Well done." She smiled in the dark. "I suppose you're Oberon?"
"I am Oberon. But in this story, I'm the ass."
"But you are beautiful enough to be a fairy queen, Titania."
She raised herself up, her hand on his middle. She could feel the muscles clench under her fingers.
"Jesse, do you think, if things could've gone differently... we could've been happy together?"
"I think you deserve a man who will be king to your queen."
"I don't think you're an ass," she said, fingers stroking, tracing the planes of his midriff through his shirt, until he caught her hand.
"Don't tempt me, baggage," he growled.
She froze, but he only drew her hand to his mouth and kissed it.
"I won't ever hurt you, Susannah." Even she could hear the strain in his voice. "But there's only so much a man can take."
"Not your fault." He released her. "Go to sleep." He turned her away from him, and then fitted himself to her body. His manhood pressed into her back.
Despite her fatigue and the long day, it took Susannah some time to drift off. As always, her thoughts drifted to the man at her back.
Who was Jesse Oberon? An outlaw? A hero? A gentleman? A rogue?
It made sense that she was attracted to him. She'd wanted a strong, handsome man, but not a fop or a fashionmonger. She'd had her fill of those men in Boston, especially the boys her own age. Wealthy, privileged, they spoke well, weighing in on issues like the war or politics while not lifting a finger to make a difference.
Jesse wasn't like that; he was a man of action. She couldn't imagine him standing in a parlor, talking disdainfully of the War Between the States while not lifting a finger to help or hinder it. He would be on his stallion, riding to the front lines.
She liked that. He was rude and violent, to be sure, but he even had a softer side. She'd never forget the way he talked of Shakespeare and showed her the stars. It was almost romantic.
If she wasn't really careful, she'd fall in love with Jesse Oberon.
* * *
The charm of camping wore off quickly the next day, when Susannah woke stiff as a board. She groaned as she moved, cursing the hard ground and her poor beaten behind. They broke camp early, after a breakfast of coffee and fried johnnycakes. Jesse made both, and after cleaning up, Susannah watched her escort pack the horse, admiring the lean strength in his body and the ease in which he walked and rode. He seemed born for this life.
He wasn't altogether unpleasant. As they rode, he took it upon himself to explain the landscape. He knew the names, down to the scrub brush and jackrabbits, the hawks in the sky and the mountains rising in the distance. Susannah lost herself in his voice, marveling that he was a living-breathing version of the Audubon books her aunt had in her library.
When they stopped for lunch, Susannah paced around, stretching her legs while Jesse busied himself in his saddlebags. He drew out water and dried meat for their repast, and spent some time fussing over his guns: two pistols he kept holstered on either hip, and the long rifle he treated like another limb. Out came oiling cloths, bullets and gunpowder.
Susannah wandered over to a few things he'd laid out on a rock.
"What's this?" Susannah touched a wicked looking length of braided leather, about two feet long with two little strips hanging off the end.
"That's a type of whip vaqueros use."
"Men who work for ranchers. I worked for a few in Texas."
She touched the long braid with a delicate finger. "You use this on cattle?"
"Not this one." Jesse gave a wicked grin. "The ones I used on cattle were longer and heavier."
"Then, what do you use this for?" When he chuckled, she looked up in confusion.
"Some ladies prefer a little... added stimulation in their bedroom. I like to oblige."
"Added stimulation..." Susannah's forehead wrinkled for a second, and she wondered at the devilish glint in his eye. He winked at her and realization dawned. "Oh. Oh my." She dropped the quirt, dancing back from it as if the coiled leather was a snake.
Stooping, Jesse retrieved the implement from the dirt, his grin promising wickedness that made her secret parts clench. "If you ever wanted a demonstration..."
"No! No, thank you." Smoothing her skirts in agitation, Susannah retreated to the other side of the horse, Jesse's laugh still mocking her ears.
* * *
As they rode on, Jesse kept glancing back at his little companion. She sat stiff and straight, such a proper miss. With her blonde hair—a bit frizzy after some time on the trail, but the curls still holding shape—and fine, pale skin, she looked quite the proper miss. He could imagine her in a schoolroom, looking after children as they quietly read their letters, or in the parlor of a Boston brownstone, entertaining fine company. She was a lady, through and through.
But every so often, his prim wife peeked at the quirt he'd stuck prominently out of one of the saddlebags. He caught her out once, and she looked away, blushing, while he stared boldly, daring her to say something. It seemed Susannah had hidden depths, beyond even what she realized.
He shifted into a more comfortable position on his horse, but didn't bother to hide his interest. There was no point. Indeed, his thoughts danced around how he could "accidentally" press up against the baggage. If she wanted to leave so badly, she might as well know what she would be missing.
He was a rogue. He knew it. She knew it. She deserved someone richer, kinder, and gentler than he. But he wasn't the sort of man to let beauty slip from his grasp.
So, even though they were close to the next town, he didn't head straight there. Instead, he circled around the long way, telling himself it was to throw Doyle's men off the trail, if they were following. His hope was that they'd find Susannah's luggage going to Denver, and head there. She might lose her things, but at least she'd be alive. Still, he told himself as they stopped again at nightfall, it was wise to live wild a little longer, just in case. His reasons for sleeping under the stars had everything to do with safety, and nothing to do with the memory of Susannah's soft cheek pillowed on his chest all night, the only sound her breathing and the air filled with the lilac scent of her expensive soap.
"Here we are, baggage. Nice, comfy spot. I'll get dinner while you build the fire."
She nodded, a mournful look on her face. Suppressing a grin, he headed off, returning with two quail to find her sitting on the saddle in front of a gorgeous blaze. At least she was a quick study.
"I'd give anything for a bath," she sighed after the meal, licking grease off her fingers. She'd eaten a whole bird herself.
"Tomorrow." Jesse felt a pang of regret at not getting them to town faster. But even with dust on her clothes and an ashy smudge on her face, his company was so beautiful, he wasn't really sorry.
"Here." He handed over his flask. "A few pulls of this, and you'll be feeling better."
* * *
Susannah took the flask and stared at it for a second. She'd never been much of a drinker, just the odd sherry after dinner. Her aunt had always warned her off of it (though Susannah was sure the woman imbibed a good bit of Madeira after dinner). But after another day riding behind Mr. Oberon, she was hungry and thirsty for something beyond quail and spring water.
All day she'd fought the pull of her rogue's mysterious attraction. Sure, he was tall and well built. She could only guess at the muscles under his worn clothes. His face wasn't pretty, his nose seemed a little crooked, the product of a fight or two, but his jaw was strong and attractive, even under thick stubble. His lips were full and perfect, but always on the brink of an infuriating smirk. His green eyes twinkled with humor at a joke that only he seemed to know.
His good looks, combined with his immense competence on the trail, led to a casual arrogance that set her teeth on edge. She also had never been so aroused in her life.
Even now he sat across from her, a little smile that dared her to drink the rotgut. Well, when in Rome.
Toasting him silently, she tipped the flask up. Just like the night before, the moonshine burned down her gullet, leaving a fiery trail that made her cough. She took another sip and found that more tolerable. A few more, and a lovely warmth spread through her.
"Not bad." She smacked her lips.
Jesse took the flask back with a nod of approval. Susannah felt like singing.
For a few minutes they passed the drink back and forth.
"It's nice out here," she said. "I like the stars."
"Prefer this to a hotel?"
"I'm not sure I would say that."
Jesse chuckled. "Must be a lot different from the fine things you were brought up with."
"It is." She nodded, sipping a little more moonshine. The taste had really grown on her. "Yes. But it's better. Much, much better. Boston was…" she shook her head, searching for the word while Jesse watched her closely, "difficult. My aunt was very strict. She didn't really want to raise a child."
"You didn't tell me that, in your letters."
Susannah squinted. Hadn't she? Perhaps not. She was too busy trying to present the perfect image, so Jesse Oberon would be smitten and ask her to marry him.
"It worked, then," Jesse said, and Susannah realized she'd said all of that out loud. "When I read your first letter to me, I was ready to propose on the spot."
Warmth spread through her body, and it wasn't just the rotgut. "Why didn't you then?" She giggled. "I would've said yes."
"A lovely lady like you? You were sure to have a million suitors after you, and I wanted a chance to make my case. Still, when you said yes, I couldn't believe my luck."
"Not so many suitors," she hiccupped. "At least, not suitable ones."
His look said he didn't believe her.
"No, no," she protested. "I'm serious. There were a few, but after..." She stopped abruptly, trying to remember something.
"After?" Jesse prompted.
"Well, I was in disgrace. In fact, I was ready to leave Boston even before you wrote. My engagement ended. It was horrible. Everybody was laughing at me."