Lady Lavender - Page 12

Manette burst out of the open cabin door and flew across the porch to clasp her arms around his knees. “Oh, Mr. Washington,” she cried. “Did you come to see my spider box?”

“Manette,” a voice called from inside the cabin. “We have not finished your lesson.”

Wash reached to gently tug one of her braids, tied at the end with a crisp red bow. “You can call me Wash, if you like. What’s a spider box?”

“Manette!” came the voice again.

The girl tipped her head up and grinned. “My spider box is where I keep my spiders. Want to see?”

“Manette, where are you?”

“Here, Maman. On the porch.” She tossed the words over her shoulder and peered up at him again. “Don’t you want to see it?”

Jeanne Nicolet stepped through the doorway, wiping her hands on a huck towel. “See what?”

Wash straightened and their eyes met. A queer little zing went up the back of his neck. Lord but she stopped his breath! Her lustrous dark hair was caught with a ribbon in a fall down her back; she wore a faded blue gingham skirt and a matching body-hugging shirtwaist. From her head to the tips of her black boots, which brushed up a foam of white petticoat ruffles, she didn’t look like any farm wife he’d ever laid eyes on.

She stuffed the huck towel under her apron. “Monsieur Washington.”

He lifted Manette’s thin arms away from his knees. “Morning, Miz Nicolet.”

She inclined her head and pinned him with an unflinching look.

“I’m going to show Mr. Wash my spider box,” Manette announced.

Jeanne’s gray-green eyes widened. “What spider box?”

“I keep it under my pillow, Maman. I have all kinds of spiders, even a big yellow one.”

Jeanne shuddered. “Mon Dieu, I do not wish to see spiders of any color. Especially not under your pillow.”

Manette skipped away into the cabin as her mother spoke. When she disappeared, Jeanne turned her attention to Wash.

He brought two fingers to his hat brim in a salute and smiled. “I see you have no gun today, ma’am.”

She narrowed her eyes at his gun belt with its holstered weapon hanging low on his hips. “And I see that you do.”

“The survey crew for the railroad is here. Thought I better warn you that those three fellas climbing up and down the hillside work for me.” He gestured over his shoulder just as Handy, halfway down the hill, came to a dead stop and pointed.

“Joe! Hey, Montez! You ever seen a prettier gal?”

Montez’s dark gaze followed Handy’s pointing forefinger and his mouth dropped open. “Holy—”

Wash spoke quickly to cover the profanity. “They won’t bother you, ma’am. They’re just doing their job.”

“And what job is that?” she inquired through pinched lips.

“The survey. You remember, I told you about it yesterday?”

“Oui, I have forgot. How long will they work?”

“Just today and tomorrow.”

She made an involuntary motion and then studied the men more closely. “They trample my lavender.”

“With all due respect, ma’am, what does that matter? In a couple of days it’ll all be gone.”

“Gone?” Her voice wobbled.

“’Fraid so, ma’am. The clearing crew will come through in a few days and mow down—”

“Non! I will not permit it.”

Wash took a step closer, catching the elusive scent of that spicy soap she used. He brought his head up and inhaled deeply. Damn, she smelled good.

“Miz Nicolet…Jeanne…you can’t stop the railroad. I’ve sent a request for your money to be returned, but the legal right to this land belongs—”

“So you have said,” she snapped.

Would she ever let him finish one single sentence?

“If you know that, ma’am, you also know you’ve got to leave.”

She turned away. “Excuse me, Monsieur Washington…I have the bread rising.”

Before he knew what he was doing, he snaked out his hand and captured her forearm. Under the thin gingham her flesh was warm and alive. And so soft he didn’t want to let go.

“Jeanne, you are the most stubborn woman I’ve ever encountered. Even my mother wasn’t as prickly as you! Now, you’ve got to listen to me.”

Jeanne wrenched her arm out of his grasp. “I will listen.” She watched his lips thin. Very fine, those lips. While she stared at them, his mouth opened.

“I think it would be wise not to, uh, do any laundry while the survey crew is here.”

“Oh? And why is that?”

“Well…” He swallowed. “It could rile a man up seeing your…um…you know, small clothes, drying on your clothesline.”

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