Lady Lavender - Page 23

“Look, the house goes first. They’re going to raze it this afternoon, so you’ll have to pack up your…” His voice clogged up and the unfinished sentence hung in the morning air.

“I will do no such thing! Jamais! Those men will have to chop me up with their shovels before I—”

Wash grabbed her shoulders and shook her, hard. “Hush up, will you? Just…be quiet.” He looked at her oddly, hot light kindling in his eyes, and then his mouth was bruising hers. For an instant she forgot that she hated this man and gave herself up to the glorious sensation of his lips on hers. Her insides turned to warm molasses.

When at last he lifted his head, they were both breathing unevenly. He leaned his forehead against hers. “We’ll get through this, Jeanne. Trust me— Oh, hell, never mind. I’ll send one of the men into town for a wagon to haul your things.”

In tight-lipped silence Jeanne made breakfast for Manette and Wash, scrambled eggs and the last of the bread for toast. Manette gobbled her plate clean; Wash pushed his eggs around and around with his fork and hoped Jeanne wouldn’t notice.

No such luck. Jeanne noticed everything, even his uneaten piece of burnt toast.

“You are not hungry?” she inquired, her voice accusing.

Wash groaned inwardly. He was hungry, but not for scrambled eggs. He wanted another taste of her soft honey-sweet mouth.

A horse-drawn wagon rattled up outside. Wash dropped his napkin beside his plate and bolted for the door.

The rest of the day he and Jeanne spent without speaking a word to each other while they packed up pots and skillets, china and tableware, and whatever bedding was undamaged after the fire. Wash even loaded Manette’s prized spider box and her Mason jar full of grasshoppers, stuffing them between two quilts so Jeanne wouldn’t be upset by the crawly things.

Two men from the clearing crew helped to jockey in the cast-iron woodstove and settle the chicken coop into the space remaining. Finally they tied Jeanne’s gray mare to the back end with a lead rope.

She made a last inspection of the now-empty cabin, then marched out and climbed up onto the driver’s bench next to Manette. Wash left General tied to a tree stump and drove the draft horse and the wagon up the winding trail to the ridge. At the top he reined to a halt.

“You might want to take one last look? Valley looks real pretty in this light.”

She turned her face away but did not look down at the cabin. He picked up the reins. She kept her back rigid and her eyes fixed straight ahead for the three-mile trip to town. Not once did she glance back.

Rooney was waiting at the livery stable. Manette scrambled down from the wagon and threw her small arms about the older man’s knees. Wash almost laughed at the look of consternation that crossed his friend’s weathered face. Manette had apparently adopted him.

Rooney bent down to her level. “Hullo there, Little Miss. Got any new critters to show me?”

Wash arranged with the liveryman to store the loaded wagon until Jeanne had relocated. For tonight, she and Manette would sleep at the Smoke River Hotel.

All he wanted to do tonight was close his mind to the pained, set look on Jeanne’s face. He could feel himself withdrawing from her; not letting himself feel anything had gotten him through his prison years. He figured it could get him through this.

“Care for a steak supper?” Rooney offered.

Jeanne shook her head. “I could not eat, Mr. Cloud— Rooney. I am not hungry.”

“I’m hungry,” Manette sang.

Rooney grinned. “Well, come along, then. I know a hungry miss when I see one. Wash, you joining us?”

Wash shook his head. He couldn’t eat, either. “I’ll get Jeanne settled at the hotel and then…”

He didn’t know what then; he knew only that he couldn’t stand to look at Jeanne’s eyes any longer. In silence he walked her into the hotel foyer. The clerk scowled at Jeanne, but Wash ignored him and got her registered. Surreptitiously he even paid the bill. He knew her lavender crop would bring her some money, but it wasn’t harvested yet. Right now, he’d bet she hadn’t a penny to her name. He hoped she could harvest some of her lavender before…

Rooney and Manette walked into the hotel dining room, her small hand clasped in his big one. Jeanne watched them go, still with that stricken look on her face, then turned away to climb the stairs to her room.

He knew what being uprooted felt like. He didn’t want to think about Jeanne and her cabin. Mostly he didn’t want to feel what she must be feeling.

He clumped down the hotel steps, marched three doors down to the Golden Partridge and ordered a double shot of Red Eye. After an hour Rooney sidled up beside him. “Finally got her all wised up, didja?”