Mary straightened Jonas' tie as she beamed up at him. "You look so handsome. Beth will be ecstatic when she sees you."
The mere mention of her name sent a wave of heat to his neck that spread down his back. "Where is Beth?"
She tipped her head toward the top of the stairs. "Just taking a minute to settle her nerves before the wedding."
"Is she having second thoughts?"
"Oh, stop your worrying. Of course she's not having second thoughts. All women get a touch of butterflies on their wedding day."
He nodded, forcing himself not to glance upstairs. "If you say so."
Elias nearly crashed into his side. "Excuse us, Mary. Jonas and I need to have a word." He shoved and pulled at him until they were in the parlor.
"What is it?" he asked, yanking his arm free and straightening his jacket sleeve.
"Why the hell you fail to mention your sweetheart's a magician? I looked like a fool staring at her blue hair with my mouth hanging open. And someone like her traveling the frontier? A bright blue target for bandits; that's what she is. Like the ones we met earlier today."
Jonas held up a hand. He needed Elias to shut his trap so he could process this information. "Stop for a second. Let's start with the bandits."
"A group of bandits tried to rob the stagecoach today on our way back from the train station, but Beth used her magic and scared 'em off."
"Used her magic?"
"Yes," he said, dragging out the word. "Like I said, your sweetheart's a magician. Which you never bothered telling nobody."
Jonas shook his head. "I—She never told me."
Just then, the upstairs door clicked, uttering a drawn out creak as it slowly swung open. Jonas rushed out of the parlor to the bottom of the stairs, and a blue-haired woman caught her breath when she saw him, stopping in the middle of the staircase.
Why would she keep her magic a secret from him? It wasn't as though being a magician was comparable to being a dragon. Quite the opposite, even. The public adored them. They were famous, wealthy, influential and powerful. Not to mention highly marriageable.
He cleared his throat. "I thought we could—um—spend a moment in private." Eyeing Elias, he cleared his throat again, giving him a subtle nod.
"Oh. Right. I'll leave you two alone." He dipped his head toward Beth before heading toward the back of the house. "Ma'am."
As she descended the remaining stairs, he caught a whiff of the columbines in her hair. She stopped on the last step—still a head shorter than him—and outstretched her hand. He kissed the top of it.
"It's wonderful to finally meet you," she said with a gentle smile.
The blue of her eyes nearly matched the color of her hair, and they hypnotized him.
"Are you all right?"
He shook himself back into reality. "Yes. I'm sorry. You're just so…"
She chuckled. "Yes?"
His forehead wrinkled as something occurred to him. "You don't have an accent."
"What do you mean?"
"I thought you were from England."
"Oh." She removed her hand from his, clutching it to her chest. "I was only visiting England."
He nodded. His animal side couldn't help but smell the fear leaching from her skin, and the see the sweat beading along her hairline. Seemed he wasn't the only one with secrets to hide.
"Beth, I'm sure there are so many things we don't know about each other yet, but I want you to know everything about me…in time. And I want to know everything about you." He reclaimed her small hand. "So let's make a promise to each other: share our secrets with one another as we spend our lives together until there are none left. What do you say?"
She grinned. "I'd like that."
He grinned back. "Okay." He pivoted until they were side by side, holding out his elbow. "Well then, Miss Beth Parrish, shall we get married?"
She linked her arm in his. "We shall, Mr. Jackson."
Mary had truly gone far and beyond for his and Beth's wedding. Everything about it seemed to please Beth, and that was what mattered most.
When it came time to kiss his young bride, he did so chastely, so as not to embarrass her. Then they shared a meal with Pastor Clark, Elias, Mary, and Will—prepared by Mary herself.
And as much fun as they were having together, Jonas still itched to take Beth home. Show her everything that was now hers too. And, of course, take her to his bed.
Pastor Clark chuckled as he stopped them at the front door. "Wait a minute, lovebirds. You still need to sign your marriage license."
Jonas signed first. Then Beth. He noticed a slight hesitation as she began the first letter of her name and hoped it wasn't because she suddenly realized the permanency of her decision to marry him. But after signing her full name, she smiled up at him reassuringly and cast his worries aside.
It would be so much easier to take her home through the air. Shift and let her ride on his back; he'd prefer it that way. But Hector was fast too, for a horse. And it gave him a chance to get to know Beth a little better while she sat beside him in the wagon.
"Ohio," she said all of a sudden.
"You mentioned my accent earlier. I grew up in Ohio."
"Oh." His tone lifted, glad she felt comfortable enough to open up to him. "Are your parents there, then?"
She looked at her feet. "No. My parents died a little less than two years ago."
"I'm sorry to hear that." He wouldn't ask how they died. If he did, she might ask about how Jenna died, and he couldn't discuss that with her yet. Changed the subject instead.
"If you don't mind my asking, what made you decide to answer my ad? Not that I'm not grateful," he added quickly, "because I am. I really am. Just…don't magicians usually marry other magicians? Or politicians? War heroes? That sort of thing?"
She shifted in her seat, quiet. Opened her mouth once, but closed it again. Then, looking straight ahead, she answered. "I wanted to leave that life behind me, I suppose. Live more freely rather than…" She trailed off and turned to him, squinting into the setting sun. "Does that sound silly?"
"Not at all. Freedom's all I want too."
That seemed to please her.
He pointed up the road toward the house. "That's home."
She tipped her body side to side. "Where? All I see are trees."
"The road travels up through the trees a bit, and the house is at the end of it."
"You mean our home is surrounded by forest?" The light in her smile lightened his heart. "Are there streams too?"
Her face lit up even more when the house came into view. A few stray chickens clucked as the wagon passed. "You have a real farm, Jonas. A cow, pigs, chickens, and a horse."
"Hector," he said with a smile. "He's my best pal. Even more so than Elias and Will."
She giggled. "Hector. A fine name for a fine horse."
She unloaded her own belongings using her magic. Usually he'd object—wanting to be a gentleman—but watching her things float through the air like they weighed nothing at all was a sight he suspected he'd never get used to. "Amazing. You're amazing, Beth."
"One of these days I'll show you what I'm really capable of." Her expression softened. "I want to be a good wife, Jonas. Helpful, useful…worthy of such a good man."
His chest twisted. Good man. What would she think after she found out the truth about him—about the creature he was hiding from her?
"No, Beth." Taking her hands in his, he rubbed his thumb over the tops of them. So soft and warm. "I want to be worthy of you."
They stood like that for several seconds, just staring at one another. Then Beth smiled. "Come on, Mr. Jackson, show me the rest of our home."
It was nothing like Will and Mary's home. One level. One giant room. Four windows in all with no glass, just shutters that opened and closed.
She set her things down against the wall just to their left, near the rocking chairs Mary suggested he buy. He was grateful she did, too, since Beth already seemed to gravitate toward them. After letting her fingers trail along the top of one, she moved to the kitchen. Ran her palm over the tablecloth, swirled her fingers over the wildflower petals. Grinned when she spied the painting over the bed.
Say something. Anything. She didn't. Just kept looking around, finally returning to the rocking chairs.
Jonas cleared his throat. "I'm sure—being a magician—you're used to finer things. Mansions with servants. And um…walls."
She laughed as she sat down and began rocking. "It's perfect, Jonas." Her eyes met his. "I mean that."
He sat next to her. "I'm glad you think so. We can always add on to the house when—well—when we have need to."
A flush brightened her cheeks, and she swallowed. "Right." Standing, she glanced around the house. "Jonas, do you have a candle we can light?"
"I have this," he said, going to his nightstand. "An oil lamp. I'm not sure how long it will last; I need to buy more oil from the general store."
They sat, rocked, and talked around the oil lamp until the crickets sang. While her attempt at distraction was cute, it wasn't working. Eventually they would have to go to sleep, but before that happened…
"It's nearly eleven, now."
"Is it?" She looked out the open window. "Oh. It's pretty dark out, isn't it?"
Rising from his chair, he stalked toward her and held out his hands.
Moving as slowly as a deer who just detected a predatory rustle in the forest, she reached up and placed her palms on his.
There was no reason for her to be afraid. "Tell me what you're thinking, Beth."
"I'm…" She grew silent a moment. "I know what happens next. We…consummate our marriage. And—well—this is my first time, Jonas. So…"
Releasing her hands, he pulled her into his embrace. She rested her head against his chest. "I won't hurt you. I just want to be close to you."
"I want that too."
Lightly pushing away from him, she began undressing herself, and he did the same. She avoided direct eye contact, but he couldn't look away. She was so beautiful. When she had on nothing but her nightgown, she let down her hair. Blue trickled down her shoulders to the middle of her back like a waterfall.
One careful step toward her.
Heartbeat thundered everywhere. Ears. Chest. Even in his fingertips.
Another step. So close now.
Couldn't wait to touch the softness of her.
His hand barely latched on to the string on the front of her nightgown when she took a step back.
"Wait—before we—" She swallowed, her eyes wide. "I have something for you." She moved so swiftly across the room it almost looked like she was floating. She came back carrying the wooden box she never seemed to let go of. "Here." She presented it to him with her chin tucked toward her chest, as though offering a king a priceless treasure.
When he took it from her, his dragon hearing caught the sound of a heartbeat. From inside the box? It was small—only as tall and wide as his hand, maybe—and he ran his fingers over the ridges formed by carvings etched into it. "What is it?"
"I don't know how familiar you are with magician traditions, but when we marry, we give our heart's chests to our spouse. So I'm entrusting mine to you. My heart is yours now. To hold. To protect. Even to destroy if you choose."
"I would never—"
"I know," she said, lightly touching his hand. "I know."
He stared down at the case, humbled by her gesture. "How do I care for it?"
"Most people hide it somewhere for safekeeping. A vault or safe, usually. Not a bank. They're too easily infiltrated." She laid both her hands atop his. "Whatever you do, don't tell me where you put it. A magician's mind can be breached, and I can't risk anyone finding it." There was a strange urgency in her tone.
"Why would someone want your heart?"
"More than my life is stored in here," she said, tapping the box. "My heart is my source of magic. If someone were to steal it, they might gain access to it—use it for themselves."
He nodded once. "I'll protect it with my life."
After carefully placing the box on the table, he turned his attention back to his wife. Pressing his palm against her cheek, she leaned into his hand and closed her eyes. Blue silk kissed his skin as she tipped her head to the side. She felt so small, so weak, yet so strong.
In one stride he was directly in front of her, her breasts grazing his torso. It wasn't the animal part of him that longed to be inside her, but the desperate and lonely man. But mindful of her nervousness—and of her innocence—he would take his time, and take extra care to be gentle.
Towering over her petite figure, he leaned down to kiss her, his lips looming over hers for several seconds before putting skin to skin. Her breath was so warm. The scent of her body so inviting. Doe eyes stared up at him expectantly as heady pants escaped her slightly parted mouth. Swollen lips. Rosy pink. Breasts heaved under her nightgown, teasing him by rhythmically brushing against him and falling away with each heavy breath.
Claimed her mouth with his. Slow at first, until she rose to her tiptoes and linked her arms behind his neck.
She was his.