HOLLIDAY'S HIGH NOON HONEYMOON:
Outlaw Jesse Coleman
As if his name had been whispered in her ear, Elizabeth lifted her eyes to fathomless chocolate eyes. "Mr. Jesse Coleman."
He nodded once and grinned, twin dimples winking her way, even as she wondered if Luke's sigh was one of vast relief. But Jesse stepped forward, shielding her from the stranger's leer. "She's mine. Make no mistake about it, Slim," he warned in a low growl. With that, Jesse crowded Slim toward the open door. "Let's go."
Slim hesitated then bobbed his gun toward Luke. "The boss wants Marshal Stone dead."
Elizabeth caught Luke and Jesse exchanging a short secret-coded message with their eyes, before Jesse said, "Don't waste your bullet. I've got one with his name engraved on it." Then he shoved Slim on out the door and held out one hand to Elizabeth. "You're with me, Miss Beth Holliday. Keep your sassy mouth shut and do exactly what I tell you."
Elizabeth took one giant step in front of Luke. "Jesse, you can't seriously intend to shoot—"
Jesse shut off her stream of words by pressing one hard fast kiss on her lips. "Quiet, woman." Then he jumped out of the coach and swung her down to the ground. "Go," he pushed her forward, toward the waiting outlaws, and pivoted back inside the coach.
A single deafening boom and then silence before Jesse slammed the coach door shut. Elizabeth didn't realize her mouth was gaping until he ambled over to her and pushed up with his index finger to gently close her jaw. The acrid scent of his smoking gun wafted by even as Jesse holstered his ivory handled Colt.
A cheer erupted from the five other outlaws. While the gang congratulated Jesse, he untied a black stallion from behind the stage and mounted. In a flash, he bent over and scooped Elizabeth right off her feet to sit astride the horse in front of him. "Can you ride?" he whispered near her ear as the gang started moving out at a gallop.
She snorted. "Of course. Sidesaddle as is proper."
This time Jesse snorted. "Not out here in the Wild West, lady."
Despite the fact she held the saddle horn tightly, Elizabeth had to struggle to keep a distance between them.
Jesse growled once and pulled her back against his chest. "Relax. You called me a gentleman not even thirty minutes ago."
Elizabeth humphed and said nothing at first, enjoying the hot desert wind caressing her face as sunset faded to twilight. "I was using the term gentleman very loosely," she added quietly.
"Did I warn you about that sassy mouth?" Jesse lowered his lips next to her ear. "Luke's fine, Beth."
In spite of everything, she smiled. Somehow, deep inside, she'd known that all along. Jesse was certainly playing a role though, a dangerous fast-gun outlaw. It had to be a role, she repeated in silent mantra. Or the good Christian man with kind and gentle coffee-colored eyes was an act, a very convincing act.
Jesse chuckled. "Stop thinking so much."
"How do you know I'm thinking?"
"Are you kidding? I can practically hear the gears grinding louder than my pocket watch, woman."
"What's happening, Jesse? Explain this to me."
"No," he said firmly, shaking out the reins to wave one hand in the direction of the other five outlaws. "You'll just have to trust me, Beth."
"Trust isn't my best virtue right now."
"Why's that?" When she didn't answer him immediately, Jesse added, "It involves a man, I'd imagine."
"Change of subject, please, Mr. Coleman?"
Instead he leaned his mouth close to her ear again. "You can trust me, Miss Holliday. A part of you already does cause you chose me. I will protect you, I promise."
She pulled her ear away from his lips before relaxing against him again. "For future reference, Mr. Coleman, I do not believe in promises. Nor do I need your protection." Elizabeth tapped her gun handle. "Does the name Holliday mean nothing to you?"
Jesse chuckled. "Yeah sure, Doc Holliday. Are you going to try and tell me that you can shoot as good as him?"
"No. If the time comes, it'll be in the showing and not the telling."
He humphed her this time. They rode in silence as the first star twinkled down upon them. Finally Jesse asked, "Tell me your story, Beth?"
"Sorry, no story. I threw out the old. This is a fresh start."
"Hmm," he grunted in response. "A woman as beautiful as you, obviously well-educated, probably fresh out of charm school—"
"Finishing school. Not charm school."
He chuckled. "Thank you, Miss Proper. What would your headmistress say if only she could see you in those jeans and shirt?"
"I don't care what anybody says about me."
"Alrighty. So I touched yet another wound. Yeah, I want your story, Beth, and sooner or later you'll tell me. Soften her heart, sweet Jesus, to You and to me."
Certain he had just prayed aloud, Elizabeth was afforded no opportunity to comment as they rode into a canyon, a hideout for a den of outlaws. Several campfires were scattered across the rocky ground. The entire gang rode toward the middle blaze and dismounted.
As Jesse swung his leg down, a heavy bald man stood.
"Good to see ya again, Coleman. The boss'll sure be happy you're back. That sweet young thing for him or you?"
Adrenaline surged through Elizabeth even as Jesse reached large gentle hands around her waist and lifted her from the horse. He held her for longer than necessary, set her feet too close beside him on the ground, before he slung one arm around her shoulders. "She's mine. Anyone but me touches her and I'll fill 'em with lead."
Elizabeth couldn't resist. Her mouth opened before her brain gave her tongue the go ahead. "Anyone touches me and I'll fill 'em with lead."
Despite the chorus of male guffawing, Jesse lowered his face to hers. In a low tone of warning, he growled, "Don't challenge me in front of them." Then as if to back up his words with actions in direct conflict with her own words, Jesse cupped one hand behind her head, one around her back, and slanted his lips over hers.
Although she tried to pull back at first from the punishing hard press of his lips to hers, Jesse held her in place while he publicly labeled her as belonging to him. Yet, within a few seconds, the pressure against her lips gentled as if to seek her pleasure. He kissed the corners of her lips softly then slanted his mouth to brush over hers again. Like her mouth belonged to someone else, a little sigh escaped and she relaxed, accepting his kiss even if not really kissing him back. Just as she pressed her mouth against his, started to kiss him, Jesse pulled back.
"Mine," was all he said, a loud clear warning to the crowd of nearly two-dozen other outlaws. Then Jesse pulled her with him, away from the crowd of unruly men, away from the fire, off toward a darkened cave at one side of the canyon. He sat down on a bedroll and patted the spot beside him.
Elizabeth huffed a quick exhale out her mouth, ready to run.
Jesse clamped one hand onto her wrist and pulled her to sit beside him. "Easy, Beth," he said softly. "Don't run off and cause another scene, or they'll expect to be hearing your screams as I take you against your will. There's no one to help you out here, but me. And God. You need to learn to trust Him, then me."
She breathed a little unsteadily, unsure, never having been in any such situation before in her life.
Again Jesse whispered to her. "Tell me why you don't trust men?" She didn't answer, so he insisted, "Then tell me why you don't trust Jesus?"
She raked her top teeth over her bottom lip for several long seconds before she swung one arm toward the two-dozen drunken outlaws gathered around the three fires. "When you tell me why you're hanging out with them."
"Beautiful Bethy, trust me. The less you know, the better, the safer, for you."
"If Jesus were real, He surely wouldn't sit back and watch as disaster befalls me yet again."
Jesse reached over and covered her hand with one large calloused palm. He sighed deeply. "This surely isn't the perfect situation, but Jesus did not sit back and watch disaster befall you today. He sent you to me, for me to watch over you, to protect you."
"A gunslinging outlaw?"
"A half-breed at that," he added quietly.
Elizabeth stroked her thumb over his fisted knuckles. "That's an ugly word, Jesse."
"How do you feel about my mixed blood, Miss Holliday?"
"Do you consider yourself an American?"
He covered one hand over the white gleam of his smile as he chuckled. "Yes, ma'am."
"What's the problem then?"
He paused then whispered, "Is that charm school talking, or Beth Holliday?"
She brushed her thumb over his fist once more as she considered his question seriously. "Well now, maybe Beth doesn't care what anybody else says about her. Maybe she blocks them out. Maybe that's a key to life. Maybe I'm on a journey to discover other keys."
"Maybe you'll unlock the woman who God created you to be." He scooted back against the canyon wall, leaving her alone on his bedroll. "Get some sleep, Beth."
Although she stretched out on the bedroll and flipped one layer of blanket over her, Elizabeth giggled. "I-I don't sleep, Jesse. Why don't you sleep while I sit and watch?"
"And why don't you sleep, Beth?"
"Stop calling me that."
"Beth? Why, cause that's who you really are and calling you that is more up close and personal than you allow most people to be?"
She growled out an irritated sigh before Jesse asked to see her gun. Elizabeth unholstered her Colt and handed it to him.
Jesse sniffed the snout then checked the barrel. "Uh, Beth, this gun has never been used."
Nodding, she agreed. "Brand new, bought it today."
"Did buying ammunition occur to you?"
Elizabeth chuckled and patted her pocket. "It did. It's a good thing I didn't load it though. I'd have probably shot you or Luke and that would indeed be the height of rudeness. Maybe, Jesse, I'm a straight up sure-shot. Maybe somebody with a really bad reputation, but really good with a gun, taught me when I was really little."
"You related to Doc Holliday, kid?"
She snorted and grabbed back her gun from him. "Me with the not-even-loaded brand-shining-new Colt? What do you think?"
"I think," he whispered, "If God will help me knock that chip off your shoulder, you'll be much more forthcoming with information. Walls up around your heart, you're not letting anyone get close. What has happened to you, Beth; what disaster struck you the first time? Yes, your story, I want it."
"Three questions. I'll answer three of your questions."
"Wow. Three? Taxing yourself, huh?"
"Is that your first question?"
He shook his head and chuckled. "You've got a sassy mouth, Beth. You're funny. Okay, here you go. Where did you last live?"
"That's it, just Boston?"
"It's in Massachusetts, Mr. Coleman. Was that number two?"
"Who was the man who hurt you so badly, Beth?"
"Steven Sterling was before I perfected letting things roll right off my back."
"And Steven Sterling was what to you?"
"Surely we've covered three questions already?"
"No, Miss Holliday. That was number three. For tonight."
"For forever," she grumped. "Steven was my betrothed."
"You're running from your betrothed?"
Elizabeth yawned unexpectedly and closed her eyes for a second. "That's number four, Mr. Coleman." Here, she most assuredly shouldn't feel safe enough to sleep, was the last thing she remembered thinking until right before dawn.
She awoke with a start, adjusting to her surroundings.
"Easy, Beth," Jesse whispered. "Good morning, beautiful."
Oh Jesse, so tall, dark, and handsome, so kind and insightful, the man with gentle eyes and even gentler hands. Elizabeth groaned quietly. "I didn't dream you up then, huh?"
"No, dream. God's will. His plan for your life has crossed your path over mine." He paused while he rose up on one elbow and leaned against the red stonewall. "So, you're running away from Boston and your betrothed, hiding out in the Wild West?"
She sighed. "You're a morning person, aren't you? I don't like mornings or cheerful, perky, think-fast, morning people."
"Would you like a cup of coffee, Miss Holliday?"
"Oh, Jesse. Yes, thank you ever so kindly."
"When was the last time you had something to eat?"
"Uh-huh. I have enough experience with you to comprehend that means you're searching hard for an appropriate answer."
He sat up and slid his ivory handled Colts into his holsters. "Stay here. I'll be back. Try not to shoot anyone, Holliday," he chuckled as he ambled toward the fire.
Although she may not like to carry a Colt, Elizabeth could see the wisdom in loading it now. After she filled all the cylinders, she looked around the canyon as the sun peeked over the far wall.
Horses, dozens of them, grazed not thirty feet away.
Her heart thudded hard, heavy, fast. Her chance! Her chance at freedom, at being totally alone again. Elizabeth staggered to her feet and ran. With one hand on a horse's reins, she led the gelding toward a saddle and blanket. Once she heaved the saddle onto the horse's back, she tightened the cinch and reached for the saddle horn.
"Where are you going? Running away from me now?"
Elizabeth gasped, slapping one hand over her heart, and pivoted toward Jesse. Staring into dark sparkling brown eyes, she slid one hand down over her gun handle in unspoken warning. "I'm leaving, Jesse."
He shook his head, ebony hair nearly touching his shoulders. "Afraid I can't allow you to do that, Beth. It's not safe out there." He shrugged. "Besides, how would it look if the best gunslinging outlaw had his woman run off?" His eyes widened, but his expression closed off, cold enough to freeze fire when she palmed and cocked her Colt in about a half-heartbeat. "Lady, you point that thing at me and you'd better be prepared to use it."
"Don't make me shoot you, Jesse. Just turn around and let me ride away. No one else is awake or watching us right now."
His jaw muscles pumped and jumped on his handsome bronze face as he fisted hands on hips and ebony hair swung with the negative shake of his head. "No."
She swallowed hard. She could wound him, but he appeared most angry so a close warning shot was out of the question. "Please, Jesse." With that, she swung up astride of the gelding. Elizabeth nodded once, reinforcing her decision. "I am leaving right now," she whispered in her own assertive low tone of warning.
She nudged the horse with her knees, turning away from Jesse toward freedom at the mouth of the canyon and her plan for her life. Uncertain if Jesse would stand there while she walked the horse quietly out of camp or if he would try to stop her from escaping, Elizabeth kept Colt in hand.
What will Jesse do?
Will he allow Elizabeth to run away and escape him without interfering?