“That does not mean I am helpless.”
He barked out a laugh. “No one would ever think of you as helpless! Misguided, maybe. Hardheaded as a Sioux brave on the warpath. But not helpless.” He sighed and shook his head.
She held up one hand to stop his speech. “I will make it all right. I must make it all right. Do you not see that, Monsieur Railroad Man? It is necessary for me and my Manette to survive. When I sell my lavender, when I have money, then I will find another place.”
Wash clumped twice around the little stove, then halted and propped his hands on his hips. He looked so angry she took a step backward.
“I can’t look after you. During the day I’ll be out in Green Valley supervising the crews.”
“There is no need to—”
“Oh, yes, there is! I will be here at night.”
“You need not be here!” It came out a bit harsher than she had intended, but she knew she was right. She did not need Wash Halliday to protect her.
“I’ll be here,” he growled. “Just don’t shoot me when you hear my horse.”
“I will not feed you,” she warned. “I have enough only for Manette and myself.”
He took a step toward her. “I’ll eat in town.”
She raised her chin. “You will not wake Manette.”
“Not unless you shoot me. She’ll wake up when she hears the shot.”
“I will not shoot.”
He looked up at the ceiling, his fists opening and closing. “You are more trouble than any woman I’ve ever known.”
“Oui, that must be true. Otherwise, you would not make such a noise.”
Wash gave up. He pivoted away from her and stomped outside to his horse. How in Heaven’s name had he been brought to his knees by this slip of a woman in a blue gingham dress?
He found Rooney lingering over his coffee at the Rose Cottage boardinghouse; Wash poured himself a cup of the brew and explained the situation.
“I can’t rest easy while she’s out there alone.”
“Yer even less easy when she’s not alone. ’Specially when you’re the one who’s with her.”
“Rooney, how ’bout you keep a watch over Miz Nicolet and Manette during the day? I’ll take over at night.”
Rooney sent him a wry look. “You mean days I get to bust my knees huntin’ for bugs with Little Miss and nights you get to sleep on her doorstep?”
“Deal,” Rooney shot.
Wash reached the railroad site in time to start the crew hacking the roadbed down the hillside into the canyon. All that day he couldn’t erase the picture of Jeanne, so mad at him she looked like a fluffed up banty chicken, her green-blue eyes studying him with that wary look he’d come to know. Who was it she didn’t trust? Him?
At supper in the boardinghouse that night Wash was the last one to sit down at the table. He took an empty chair across from Rooney and dug into the fried chicken and mashed potatoes Mrs. Rose had saved for him while his partner pared his fingernails and then cleaned them with his pocketknife. Rooney was wearing a new shirt.
“What’s up?” he inquired, his mouth half-full of mashed potatoes.
“Hell, man, it’s Saturday night.”
“So?” Wash gulped down a mouthful of coffee.
Rooney tapped his folded blade against Wash’s chest. “You dead or alive in there? Big barn dance out at the Jensen place tonight. Sarah—Miz Rose, that is—invited me to go with her.
Wash stared at him, a drumstick halfway to his mouth. “‘Sarah,’ huh? If I live to be two hundred I’ll never understand your appeal to women.”
Rooney chuckled. “I’m halfway handsome and all the way smart, that’s why.”
Wash chewed in silence.
“Now you, on t’other hand, are all-the-way handsome but only half smart! If you was all smart you’d see what’s starin’ you in the face.”
“And what’s that?”
“Jeanne Nicolet, that’s what.”
Wash shoveled in potatoes and said nothing.
Rooney waggled his salt-and-pepper eyebrows. “She ’n Little Miss will be goin’ to the dance tonight. Jeanne’s figurin’ to make friends with some of the townfolk and try to sell some of her lavender sacks.”
“Sachets,” Wash corrected.
“French, huh? Figures.”
“Yeah? Well, my friend, I won’t be going to the dance tonight.”
“Wouldn’t count on it, son.” Rooney straightened the collar on his new shirt, smoothed down the cuffs, and headed for the kitchen.
“Sarah? You ’bout ready?”