Lady Lavender - Page 13

She cocked her head. “What means ‘rile up’?”

“Ah. It means to, well, to upset a man. Make him want something.”

Jeanne laughed at his embarrassment. “In France, men are much less—what is the word? Suggestible?”

He groaned, grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her up so close her chin almost brushed his shirt. She looked up into his angry face and her heart began to pound.

“You know damn well what a man wants,” he growled at her. “So don’t go flying your lacy underdrawers under the noses of my crew. We’ve got a railroad to think about, not…” He did not finish the thought.

“I know little of men except for my husband, Henri. And even him I did not understand.” After Henri had lured her to New Orleans with all his lies, she had sworn she would never trust another man.

He glared down at her.

Well! She did not get the smile she had hoped for. What she got instead was an unsettling reminder of what this man wanted—a railroad through her lavender field. She wanted to scream.

But in the next instant she looked into the hard gray eyes in that tanned face and wanted something else entirely. She liked this man, even if he was with the railroad. She liked him so much she hoped he would smile at her again. A man had not looked at her in that way since her husband had been killed.

Late in the afternoon the survey crew finished, packed up their equipment and mounted their horses. Wash led the way back to town on General, remembering that puzzling look on Jeanne’s face—half fear, half pleasure.

Something had shown in the green depths of her eyes he hadn’t seen before. It was when he’d grabbed her shoulders and she’d looked up at him with uncertainty and…something else. He’d wanted to kiss her. To pull her close enough to feel her breasts against his chest and capture her soft mouth under his.

He was glad he hadn’t; he was afraid he wouldn’t have been able to let her go. It was a funny thing, being without a woman for so long. Like the sweet flavor of his first spoonful of chocolate ice cream, he hungered for another taste.

He thought he’d had enough of women since Laura. The day he’d ridden off to the War, he’d told himself that women were fickle and demanding, fainthearted and selfish.

Most women, that is. Jeanne was different. Or at least he thought she was different. But he still didn’t trust her completely; maybe he never would. She had one big strike against her, and that was that he liked being near her. That in itself was a danger sign. She aroused feelings in him he’d long since put aside as the yearnings of a younger man, not some burned-out ex-colonel with a gimpy leg and a heart crusted over like an overcooked flapjack.

He felt an odd protectiveness toward Jeanne Nicolet. Maybe because she was a foreigner, struggling for a livelihood on the rough western frontier, as his mother had. Maybe because she was so delicate she couldn’t hold up a rifle for more than four minutes. Maybe just because she was a woman. Whatever it was, he couldn’t get the feeling out of his head: she liked him. And he liked her. She was all woman, and he was a man.

Damn, that did soothe a broken man’s sense of worth.

Rooney was waiting on the board walkway outside the Golden Partridge when Wash got there, his thumbs stuffed into his denim pockets. The early evening light glowed through the larch trees, turning them into shimmering gold torches. He sure liked these long days, but his stomach told him it was suppertime. Plenty of time to enjoy his steak and beans and linger with Rooney over his coffee. Ever since that Yankee prison at Richmond he’d hated eating in the dark.

He heaved a sigh of satisfaction. He’d survived the War and the Indian skirmishes on the plains, and now he held a good job with the Oregon Central Railroad. The railway fed some hunger inside himself he was only now beginning to recognize.

After the chaos and destruction he’d seen, he longed for order. As the iron tracks spread from town to town across the western frontier he recognized at long last some peaceful purpose in life. Washtubs for farm wives; bolts of calico and denim for their sons and daughters; sacks of seed for the ranchers. It felt good to be part of something growing, even something as inanimate as an iron railroad track. He was building something instead of blasting it to smithereens.

He figured he was a lucky man; he had a satisfying job. And his life was…well, it was satisfying, too. Except for Jeanne Nicolet. He wished he could get her off that land. He wished he could get her out of his mind.

“How come you workin’ the crew so late?” Rooney swung the hinged saloon door open and Wash dismounted, tied General to the hitching rail and hauled off his saddle. He strode inside and dropped his burden just inside the door.