Birdie’s head swam, trying to make sense of what was being said.
“We felt it a courtesy to tell your pa he is a dead man unless he makes good on this.” Jeremiah reached out and lightly touched the split in her lip. “But if you ask me, your bastard of a father deserves what’s coming to him.”
Birdie pulled away and glared. “Don’t say that! How am I supposed to know you are even telling the truth? My father doesn’t even leave home. How could he have done something like this?”
Jeremiah reached out for her hand and held it within his. “They come to him, Birdie. Surely you see this. Your pa runs quite the operation, and it’s finally caught up with him.” He paused for a moment before adding, “The thing is, these people he swindled are mean as the worst outlaw you can imagine. I worry for you.”
“Yes, I wouldn’t put it past them to hurt you to seek revenge on your pa—right before they kill him that is.”
Jeremiah placed her hand back on his arm and continued to lead them through the forest towards town. Birdie could do nothing more than allow him to guide her since the news stunned her senseless.
“I would take you with me to San Francisco if I thought that would keep you safe, but I fear that is just walking you into further danger. I may be able to clean this up for both of our fathers, but I have no way of knowing that. And then there is the discussion of marriage.”
Birdie froze. “Marriage?”
Jeremiah pulled her gently, urging her to continue walking as they spoke. “Yes, marriage. I can’t in good faith allow you to live this life anymore. As a boy, I had to just sit back and watch helplessly, but now I’m in a position where I can change that. Your pa is a mean son of a bitch, and I would like nothing more than to see him rot. But I refuse to know I left a helpless woman behind at his mercy once again.”
“But you barely know me. We haven’t seen each other in years. We don’t love each other.”
Jeremiah chuckled. “This proposal would not be one out of love, Birdie.” He laughed a little harder. “My interests don’t lean toward the…female attraction. I thought you knew this.”
“What?” Birdie had no idea what he was talking about.
Jeremiah took a deep breath to control his laughing. “My heart belongs to another. But my lead foreman, Wyatt, does not make proper marriage material.” He smiled and winked at her when Birdie looked up at him in shock.
“A man?” she barely squeaked out.
“So marriage provides you an escape from your father, his abuse, and this forsaken life you lead. And it provides me a proper wife to satisfy society. Your father won’t argue since I will help pay off these men in return for leaving you alone forever. A winning business deal for all.”
“You want to marry me? When?” This all seemed like a dream.
“Yes. I plan on leaving for San Francisco on the next train. Then when this mess is cleared up, I will come back for you, marry you, and we will head to Virginia City and make a fine home.”
Birdie shook her head. “I don’t…I don’t know.”
“I know this is all overwhelming, and maybe this isn’t what you had in mind for a marriage. But it’s either this, or watching your father be murdered…that is if they don’t kill you first. And even if your pa gets himself out of this mess, I can’t leave you to live like this anymore. If these men don’t kill you, it is just a matter of time until your father does.”
Birdie pulled away again and shook her head. Maybe if she could shake it hard enough, all this information would just go away. “I really should go back and check on pa. If I’m gone too long—”
“He’ll beat you. Hurt you. Make you bleed.” Jeremiah grasped her arm, hard this time. “I will not allow you to return to that monster.”
He was right. Her father was a monster, a fact that was pounded into her daily. “And where would you suggest I go?” She threw her hands in the air, losing her temper. “Last I checked, my options are limited.”
“Have you no friends? No place to stay until I come for you?”
“Birdie…I find that hard to believe.”
For a split second, Birdie thought of the Langstons—they had offered her a place to stay—but pushed that thought out of her head. “Even if I did, Pa would never allow it.”
“He wouldn’t have a choice. Once I go to him and tell him that I will save his sorry ass, he will do exactly as I say. I will call the shots, and I will insist on leaving you completely alone. No contact.”