Authors: Lee Savino
“Dammit, Rose.” Lyle was at her side, guiding his stallion nearer. “Slow down.”
“Let me go,” she cried, trying to spur the gelding on, but the beast didn’t obey. It knew its true master.
Lyle leaned out and caught her horse’s bit, and then steered both horses to shelter under trees beside the river.
Rose sat with stiffened spine, staring out angrily, refusing to look at Lyle. The horses picked their way through a small wood to stop beside the stream. Lyle dismounted, tying the horses where they could reach the water before coming around to help her down. She met his eyes then, wincing at the fury blazing there.
“I—” she started.
“Quiet.” As soon as she was on the ground, he undid the reigns, and took her hands and looped the leather around her wrists, before pulling her over to the tree. He threw the end of the leather rope over the tree branch and secured it. Quick as a flash, he had her tied and trussed, the rope pulling her arms up, stopping just before her feet would have to go on tiptoe.
“Lyle,” she cried as her arms stretched over her head.
“I said quiet.” He came closer, blue eyes scorching her. His fingers pinched her nose and when she opened her mouth, stuffed his handkerchief inside.
She protested, but he ignored her muffled pleas.
“I don’t know what you were thinking, Rose. But I don’t want to know. You could’ve been killed.”
She stilled at the anger in his voice, but his hands on her hips were gentle.
“I can protect you, but first I have to teach you to stop fighting me.”
As he spoke he worked his hands around her waist, working at the fabric. She felt a whoosh as her skirt fell, then another as he stripped off her petticoat. Her feet tangled in the cloth, and he stooped to secure them, too, so she couldn’t kick.
When he rose again, his serious expression chilled her. “I reckon, after this, you’ll learn that lesson.”
He left her for a moment, and she tried to turn to see what he was doing. All too soon he was back, standing in front of her. “You have to trust me.”
She opened her eyes wide, trying to communicate. He stepped back and to the side, but not before she saw the strop in his hand. He’d grasped both ends of the flat leather piece, doubling it to make a mean strip of leather. Stepping behind her again, he touched the makeshift strap to her backside, over her drawers.
That’s when she started struggling in earnest.
“Be still,” he ordered, but she only jerked around harder, shaking the branch.
He was back in front of her, smoothing hair out of her face. “I’m a fair man. I want you to be safe. But your behavior today put all our lives in danger. I wouldn’t be a good husband to you if I didn’t give you the discipline you need.”
Rose pleaded with her face, making noises low in her throat.
“Stay still,” he said. “Or it’ll go worse for you.”
She sagged as he stepped away, but her surrender didn’t last long.
The leather snapped against her bottom, and she jerked away as far as her bonds would allow, yelling as loud as she could with her mouth full of cloth. The sound came out muffled and angry, but Lyle ignored both her squirms and her cries and continued beating her buttocks. Her drawers stopped some of the sting, but Rose could feel her bottom heating up. Outraged, she threw back her head and screamed at her bound wrists, the branch holding them, and the sky.
She almost didn’t realize when he stopped. Lyle stepped around, blue eyes serious as he checked her bindings. She knew her face was red and drool had started to soak the fabric. She glared at him, but he took out another handkerchief, wiped her face, and then tied it around her head to the secure the gag already in her mouth. She cursed him, and stomped her feet.
Lyle looked like he was about to chuckle, and the sight made her even madder. “You gonna settle down and take your punishment like a good girl?”
The muffled cry behind the gag was a resounding no.
Lyle did grin at her then. “Well, darlin’, it’s my job to teach you to mind. And this is an important lesson. We all could’ve been killed.”
He walked around her, and she tried to dance in place and turn her body to follow, but he stopped her with a hand. “You will learn this lesson today. I can protect you, Rose, but I need you to do your part.”
His other hand went to her waist, and she felt her drawers drop as he unknotted them. Her bottom was bare to the air, her warmed cheeks vulnerable to the strop.
She started shouting again, trying to shake the branch. Lyle’s hand came back to hold her still.
“No, no, my lovely. This is one lesson you’ll not wriggle out of.”
And he let the strop fly. He gave her steady strokes, painting lines of fire up and down her proud bottom, and even the backs of her thighs.
The pain pressed around her, overwhelming her. The only sound in her ears was her harsh breathing and the slap of leather against her tender cheeks. After a dozen strokes, her head hung in defeat. Another crack and she whimpered. Each strike was a crack in her stone fortress, breaking down the walls that had held her vulnerable emotions captive. Another lash and another, and she sniffled.
She didn’t know when she started crying, but as tears burned her eyes and boiled over, it felt like she would never stop.
Her vision blurred by tears and tangled hair, she barely noticed when Lyle reached up to undo her wrist. Her body sagged forward and he caught her, strong arms closing around her. For some reason, she clung to him, gripping his shirt and sobbing into the fabric.
Eventually, she could hear him murmuring, “It’s all right, Rose.”
She felt him kiss her hair, and quieted, going very still.
“Can you stand?” he asked.
She nodded, and he knelt at her feet to draw up her skirts and underclothes. He fastened them, his gaze never leaving hers.
“Are you very angry with me?” she asked. All the fire had drained out of her; she felt young and vulnerable.
“Not any more. I was more frightened for you, than upset.”
“You looked upset.”
He pulled her to his chest with a rueful smile. “You tend to bring it out of me.”
She sniffled. “I’m sorry.”
“I know you are, darlin’. Can I trust you to wait here, while I signal my brother?”
She gave another nod against his shirt, but he didn’t leave right away. Instead, he cupped her face in his hands, kissing one tear-stained cheek then the other, ending with lips pressed to her forehead. In the strong circle of his arms, she sighed and snuggled closer.
“I have to see to Jesse,” he whispered against her hair. She stepped back and watched as he first laid a blanket out under the trees, near the widest part of the stream, inviting her to lie on her stomach. For the next few hours, she dozed, watching Lyle build a fire using green twigs and grass. He soaked a blanket in the water and wrung it out well before casting it over the fire. When he pulled the cloth away, a great puff of white smoke floated up. He repeated the action until Jesse was sure to see the message in the sky over the trees.
Sure enough, the sound of hoof beats heralded the younger Wilder. Rose stayed on her belly, closing her eyes as Jesse strode into camp to pretend she was sleeping.
“Jesse,” Lyle called. “You made a clean escape?”
“Clean enough.” The younger brother sounded like he was grinning. “We were lucky. My shooting made them scatter, the smart ones at least. Dumb ones aren’t long for the world, I guess.”
Lyle chuckled. “What happened?”
“Well, you probably guessed most of it. They were waiting here for a coach to come through. Last night we rode up, they sent the two men as a party to check on us, didn’t deem us worth the kill. Not when a big take is coming through soon. That was our first bit of luck.”
“And the rest?”
“Well, once Rose went through and broke their camp, the game was up. You saw me shoot some of them. And here’s where fortune really smiled: as I was routing them, the stagecoach they were waiting for came through, and it had its own shooters. ‘Course, by then, most of the bandits had turned tail and run. Then it was just a matter of rounding them up. It was easy to pick them off, one by one.” Jesse sounded like he was talking about a game at a church picnic, not shooting down outlaws. Rose peeked through her hair and saw the satisfaction on the young man’s face. With his cheeks flushed with excitement and green eyes sparkling, his rough face looked almost as handsome as his older brother’s.
“Any bounties?” Lyle asked.
“Perhaps. At any rate, stage couch owner is grateful, and wants to pay me to escort them on. I said I’d camp here tonight with you, then give my answer. If I go with them, I’m looking at double a day’s wage for a ride back to town. And I have a few of the bandit’s horses I can sell. I know I said I’d ride on with you…”
Lyle slapped his brother on the back. “Go on, you rascal,” he said without rancor. “Won’t hurt you to get paid for this venture. Rose and I will get on to the homestead tomorrow. Shouldn’t have any more trouble.”
Jesse grinned back, then lowered his voice. “How is your wild Rose?”
“She got a lesson she won’t soon forget.” It was Lyle’s turn to sound satisfied, and Jesse’s to slap his back.
“I bet. You’ll make her ride a horse with a whipped behind?”
“We’ll camp here tonight; take it slow tomorrow.”
“Well, then all’s well that ends well, I guess. If it had to happen, at least she had perfect timing.” Ducking his head, Jesse caught Rose peeping at him, and winked at her. He didn’t seem upset by the forced attack. At all. The younger brother turned his grin to Lyle. “I’ll go now, give my answer to the coach master, then circle round the butte, make sure we don’t got any more surprises.”
“Be back by sunset, or miss dinner.”
“All right, brother,” Jesse drawled. “But I may make my bunk on the other side of the river. Less chance of over hearing a lover’s spat.”
Rose glared at him.
Lyle called him a name, affectionately, and the rugged brother loped off.
As they approached nightfall, Lyle built up the fire and started drawing out supplies. True to his word, Jesse returned, and after they supped together, he took his bedroll far out of sight of the two newlyweds.
Rose undressed down to her chemise, but couldn’t bring herself to lie down. Drawing a blanket around her shoulders, she paced around the fire, watching it die. Lyle left to picket the horses, and when he returned, she stared at him across the camp. Shadows danced across his face, resting in the hollows of his cheekbones and accentuating his full lips. She felt a pang at his incredible beauty. How was such a man married to her?
Before she knew it, he’d prowled around the campfire and was standing right in front her: real, solid, made of flesh and blood and not spirit. Not an angel, or if he was, one fallen to earth. Probably sent to haunt her.
“What’s wrong, Rose?” His head tilted as he studied her.
She drew a ragged breath and pushed a hand through her hair. “I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
He took a step closer. “Do you need to know?”
“Yes.” Her hands flew out to emphasize her feelings. “I’ve been fending for myself for a long time. I’m not used to being out of control.”
His grin rewarded her honesty. “Well, then, I’ll tell you. I’m taking you home.”
Home. The word hit her like a cannonball.
Lyle didn’t seem to notice. He put his arms around her and continued. “If we ride hard tomorrow, we can be at the homestead by dusk. I’m to trade the gelding for a cow my neighbor Miles has for us. He and his wife live close by, and helped build the cabin.” Rose didn’t move, didn’t speak, just listened to her new husband’s talk of a life together. After a lifetime living in hotels and boarding rooms, a homestead sounded like a fairy tale. “My place is set in the woods, close to the river, a few miles away from the mine. We’ll hunker down and get ready for winter. Come spring we’ll pan for gold, and then see if we can find a vein that runs deep.”
Leaning against her husband, cheek to his chest, Rose stared at the fire and imagined everything just as he said. At some point, Lyle’s head dropped so when he spoke, his breath stirred her hair.
“We can help Miles with his autumn slaughter, and eat the meat all winter. Miles has a wife, Carrie. You’ll like her.”
He shifted and she looked up at him, realizing that she’d been staring at nothing for a few moments of silence.
“But there’s plenty of time to talk about that. You need to rest.” He smiled at her dazed expression and leaned down for a moment. She felt his fingers searching around her hem and came wide awake.
“It’s okay, Rose. I’m just checking the marks. Let me see.”
She let him lift her chemise away, feeling his hand hover over her bare skin, touching her sore flesh gently.
“Good girl,” he soothed. “You took your punishment well. Tomorrow you’ll be good as new.” When he faced her again, he wore a smirk she knew well. “And, if you learned your lesson, we’ll have a quiet day tomorrow. I have no wish to wake up getting rode down by bandits again.” He laughed and pulled her head in to kiss her forehead, letting her know he was teasing.
She rolled her eyes.
“Still haven’t heard a thank you for that rescue. But I’m a patient man, Rose, so—”
His arms came around her as his shoulders shook with silent laughter.
“You’re infuriating.” Her voice was muffled by his shirt.
“Same to you, darlin’. Same to you. But it’s worth it.” His hand sifted through her hair, and his voice turned thoughtful. “I’m going to take care of you, Rose.”
Her breath caught, and she pressed her face into the firm plane of his chest, her eyes suddenly burning. “Why are you doing this?”
Almost immediately, he drew back so he could look at her face. She tried to turn her head away to escape his soft expression, but he caught her chin with gentle fingers. “You and me, we’re connected.”
“You don’t know me,” she whispered.
His smile was so tender, so breathtakingly beautiful, she couldn’t look straight at it without her vision blurring with tears. “I know you. Your favorite meal is green beans, bacon and cornbread. You had a doll named Nelly until you were twelve, and a calico blanket you slept with every night.”