Lady Lavender - Page 26

Never in her life had she been this tired, not even walking day after day alongside the wagons that had brought her to Oregon. Her arms ached, her legs were wobbly with fatigue. And her face, her hair—she must look like a sunburned scarecrow.

But she’d harvested all her lavender! She would have meat and milk for Manette, and at this moment that was all she cared about.

Wash half turned to her. “You all right?”

She nodded, and he climbed down and began to unhook the rig. He kept his head down but she thought a smile touched his mouth. He was pleased, then, with their day’s work? Or was he pleased that his precious railroad could now roll its iron tracks over her farm?

Men liked nothing better than to win. Henri had bragged that he was the best swordsman in New Orleans; it would have been better had he spent his time practicing marksmanship with his rifle. And this man, Wash Halliday…well, she could not say what she thought of him.

She was so weary her thinking was confused, but she was not so weary she could not feel the inexplicable pull toward the man who was now lifting her sleeping daughter into his arms. She stumbled down from the wagon seat to walk close beside him, up the stairs to the hotel’s second floor. He paused at the door to her room while she unlocked it. Light spilled in from the doorway, illuminating the room she and Manette slept in.

He entered as if expecting to be ambushed, then gently deposited Manette on the big double bed. When he straightened Jeanne laid her hand on his muscled forearm. He flinched the tiniest bit, and somehow she guessed he was weighing his reticence about her against his masculine need. That pleased her.

“You have been very kind,” she said. “You are a good man, Monsieur Wash. I am sorry that I kick you, and I thank you for today.”

The oddest expression crossed his face, and in his gray eyes she suddenly saw both wariness and raw de sire.

“Are you hungry?” he whispered.

“It does not matter. I cannot leave Manette.”

Then he did a strange thing. He reached out and laid his hand against her cheek. For a moment she did not move and then an irrational yearning tugged at her. She wanted to turn her mouth into his palm.

She leaned toward him. Oh, if he would only hold her in his strong arms and make her fears go away. She hadn’t known a woman could be so desperately lonely at times; perhaps he would talk with her? God knew she had no one else to talk to—no friends. No family.

But he dropped his arm and stepped away. Something in him held back. Alors, she should not have kicked him in the stomach yesterday.

Mon Dieu, would she never learn not to strike out first and questions later?

Chapter Eleven

Wash moved through the open hotel-room door and closed it decisively behind him. No use prolonging it; he’d accomplished what he set out to do, even though it had cost this woman everything she had. Now his mind was rolling up all his doubts in a ball and bouncing it off his heart.

Was it worth it? No one was paying a higher price for this damn rail line than Jeanne, not even Grant Sykes, who was shelling out hundred-dollar bills like Christmas candy canes. Just thinking about Jeanne’s cabin and the look in her eyes when she’d seen the pile of boards at the site made him feel rotten.

He hadn’t felt like this since the War. Sykes would probably give him another raise for being an efficient instrument of destruction. And on top of everything, Rooney was right: he was falling in love with Jeanne Nicolet.

What was he going to do?

He decided to pay a visit to the sheriff and ask about Joe Montez. The answer unsettled him.

“Sure, I ran into Montez couple of days back. Said he was leaving town, but my deputy spied him setting up camp in the woods somewhere near River Fork Road.

Wash felt his belly turn to ice. He had to find Montez; he had a feeling the Spaniard meant bad business.

In the hotel dining room, he caught Rita’s eye and ordered a picnic basket with a jar of chicken soup, half a loaf of bread and three hard-boiled eggs. Then he tramped back up the stairs and left the basket outside Jeanne’s door, tapped softly and fled. He could break a horse in half an hour, but right now he hadn’t enough grit to face Jeanne again.

The next morning, Wash found the burned remains of Montez’s campsite but no sign of the man. Maybe he’d been spooked by the deputy who’d seen him, but had the Spaniard hightailed it out of the county?

Wash didn’t think so. The man seemed to have a grudge of some kind against Jeanne.

He rode out to Green Valley to supervise the clearing crew in cutting timber and laying the split logs onto the four-foot-wide cleared track the men had leveled in preparation for the iron rail sections. The rolling bunkhouse for the workers had already reached the town of Colville, twenty miles to the west; another week of laying the three miles of track a day credited to the Chinese laborers Sykes hired and they’d be at the rim of Green Valley.