A plump older woman in a checked apron glanced up as Wash and Jeanne entered the River Hotel dining room with Manette dancing after them.
“Morning, Rita. Got any coffee?” The woman’s face darkened at the sight of Jeanne. “Always got coffee for you, Colonel. Made fresh, too.”
The waitress shot another look at Jeanne, instantly dug a handkerchief out of her pocket and pressed it into her hand. “Here, dearie. You just cry it all out of your system.”
Wash settled Jeanne at a corner table and lifted Manette onto the chair between them. The girl leaned toward him. “Why is Maman crying?” she whispered.
Wash flinched. “Because…well, because she’s just had some bad news.”
“Can you make it go away?”
“I wish I could.” Never in his life had he felt this helpless. He didn’t like the feeling one bit.
The waitress sailed off to the kitchen and returned with two delicate cups of steaming coffee. One she placed before Jeanne; the other she brought around the table to Wash and leaned in close to his ear.
“What’d you do to her, anyway?” she muttered.
“Railroad wants her land,” he explained, keeping his voice low.
“And I hear you’re workin’ for the railroad.” Rita sent a speculative glance at Jeanne. “A man’s always at the root of a woman’s troubles,” she sniffed.
Wash waited until Rita had retreated into the kitchen. “It’s almost noon. Are you hungry?”
She shook her head, blotting at her eyes with the damp handkerchief.
“She is hungry,” Manette whispered. “She let me eat all of her breakfast.”
“Well, then, perhaps you both would join me for lunch?”
“Oh, non,” Jeanne protested.
“Oh, yes! Manette’s bright-eyed grin made Wash chuckle. He’d order a steak—two steaks—and a big bowl of chocolate ice cream; maybe it would ease the sick, guilty feeling in his gut.
Jeanne spoke not one word during the meal, but he noticed she ate every ounce of her steak, right down to the bits of gristle. Wash cut up half his meat for Manette, but found he couldn’t swallow even his own portion.
After a tense quarter of an hour, Jeanne quietly laid her fork across the empty plate and looked up at him. “I came from a small village in France to marry my husband,” she said, her voice near a whisper. “It was a mistake.”
Wash blinked. “You mean he was the wrong man?”
“I mean he was killed in the War when Manette was a year old. He had no family and no land. I could not survive in New Orleans, so I left. I came out to Oregon to buy a farm where I could grow lavender. It is all Manette and I have.”
“Your husband was a Southerner, then? Confederate Army?”
She nodded, then lifted her china coffee cup and cradled it in her hands.
“I fought for the North,” Wash said. “union Army. I grew up out here in Smoke River but I’d gone back East to school when the War broke out. I volunteered right before Manassas.”
Again she nodded. The rivulets of tears had stopped, he noted with relief. Talking seemed to help.
“When my father died,” he continued, “Ma couldn’t wait to get back to Connecticut. Some women aren’t cut out for life on the frontier.”
She held his eyes in a long, questioning look. “What is required for a life on the frontier?”
He blew out his breath. “Horse sense, for one. Hide like a tanned buffalo. Temperament like a rattlesnake. And grit.”
“Grit? What is ‘grit’?”
He studied her work-worn hands, the sunburned patch on her nose, and the unwavering look of resolve in her eyes.
“Grit is being strong when the going gets tough. It’s what you had when you packed up your things and came out here on your own and started your farm.”
She pursed her lips and his groin tightened. Lord, but she got to him easy. Was it because her body swelled in and out in just the right places? Or because he’d been without a woman for so long he’d forgotten the pleasures female company brought?
Or was it because he just plain liked her?
That thought sent a cold thread of fear coiling up his spine.
“I know this has been a hard thing to come to grips with, Miz Nicolet, but do you have any idea what you plan to do?”
She folded her napkin and laid it over the wadded-up handkerchief next to her plate. “Do?”
She reached up to straighten her hat, and tried to smile.
“I will go home to my farm. I will feed my chickens and I will harvest my lavender when it is ready.”
“I mean what’re you gonna do about the land the railroad owns?”