He plopped down on the porch and lowered his head into his hands. Laura had been helpless as a butterfly. He’d rescued her cats, helped her over fences, shaded her face with his hat when she started to sunburn. He’d felt needed. He’d liked the feeling it had given him—as if his presence had mattered.
Jeanne was about as helpless as a riled-up scorpion. She didn’t need him. She didn’t need anybody. What a woman!
Jeanne tiptoed out the door, took one look at Wash and quietly piled her arms full of small logs, then stuffed a handful of twigs and small broken limbs into her apron pocket. Wash didn’t even raise his head.
Alors, he had been busy, and on her behalf, too. She had watched him rub down her mare and tie its foreleg to a wooden stake. She heard the chickens crooning contentedly, safe now in the coop.
The sun spilled warm light down on the man’s dark head and wide shoulders; as she watched, his shadow on the porch floor lengthened. He was a handsome man, un homme très beau, with his tanned features and long legs that walked unevenly when he was tired. Oh, yes, she had noticed.
She liked the man, she admitted. She did not know why, she just felt a kinship between them. A mutual respect. She liked the way his gray eyes laughed at the world. The way his mouth curved into an occasional smile.
But, she reminded herself, she could not trust him. She would not ever again trust any man…and this man in particular. He worked for the railroad.
By suppertime, Wash had roused himself enough to appreciate the enticing smell of a bubbling pot of stew, and now a dilemma nagged at him. What about tonight?
He could roll up in his saddle blanket, but Jeanne had sacrificed her bedding to fight the fire. What would she and Manette do to keep warm? He asked the question over a brimming bowl of chicken stew and received a blank look.
“I have yet another quilt. Manette and I will be perfectly comfortable.” She piled two more biscuits onto his plate. “When I come from France to marry my husband, I bring my…how do you say…box of hope.”
“Hope chest,” Wash supplied while buttering his biscuit. “Young ladies fill them up with things for their marriage.”
“Trousseau,” she blurted. “I come with my trousseau. I have many quilts I make myself. And sheets with embroidery.”
Wash leaned back in his chair. He didn’t want to think about her embroidered sheets. “You burned some of them up today.”
“Oui, I did. But I can make more. When I have money for my lavender, I will ask Monsieur Ness to order some muslin.”
“Oh, no, your lavender,” Wash groaned. “With the railroad coming you’ll have to harvest early.”
Her beautiful blue-green eyes turned to stone. “How early?”
“I’d say within a week. You’ll have plenty of time, I promise.”
A doubt niggled at his brain, but he squashed it down and ate another biscuit.
No night spent on the windswept plains of Kansas, or even in the prison barracks at Richmond, was as hard to get through as this one, wrapped in a blanket lying across Jeanne’s cabin entrance. He rolled his lanky form over onto his other side. Porch sure was hard.
The air still smelled of smoke, both from the supper Jeanne had cooked on the woodstove in her kitchen and from the fire that had almost wiped out the whole cabin. Every little noise from inside brought him wide-awake. He heard Jeanne’s soft, steady voice reading a bedtime story to Manette, in French. Heard the mumble of Manette’s nighttime prayers. An owl hoo-hooed from a nearby fir tree, and then he heard the sigh of a cornhusk-stuffed mattress as a body lay down on it.
The bed Jeanne slept in was hidden behind a curtain that sectioned off part of the small cabin. Manette had her own bed, she had told him proudly. “Maman does not like my spider box under my pillow.”
The cornhusks whispered again. And again. Was she sleepless, as well? Why?
She was frightened because of the fire and her smoky blankets and her mare and the chickens and…what? The more he thought about her, the more his hands burned to touch her skin.
His groin began to ache.
God help him, it was hot, urgent desire he felt, but Jeanne was not a woman he could tumble like a barroom dove. This woman was the kind a man courted, the kind who deserved a man’s honorable intentions.
He didn’t feel honorable. He was damn lonely and he was damn hungry. Still, the deepest need he felt was to just talk to her.
Talk! He couldn’t remember if he and Laura had ever just talked. He rolled over once again and laid his forearm over his eyes.
In the morning Jeanne dressed hurriedly and went to feed the chickens and her mare. She had to step over the man sleeping across her doorway; his breathing did not change so she knew she had not awakened him. She fed the mare some oats and flung handfuls of grain onto the ground for the chickens, then turned back toward the cabin.