Wash took his time riding out to MacAllister’s, trying to sort out his feelings about Jeanne Nicolet. She was annoying as hell and prickly as a cactus. But he liked her. In addition she was so good to look at he hadn’t stopped wanting her since he’d laid eyes on her.
He gazed up at the beginning of a colorful sunset. The shorn barley fields glowed with a rich, golden light and purple-tinged clouds hung over the mountains in the distance. He’d always thought this part of the country was beautiful. Hadn’t realized how much he’d missed it in the years he’d been away.
He let General pick his way slowly toward the bunk house where a spiral of smoke curled from the stovepipe on the roof. The empty wagon sat next to the structure and…dammit, there was another clothesline draped with lacy undergarments flapping in the breeze. Wash groaned aloud. This woman would try a man’s patience until it snapped.
Before he could dismount the door swung open and Manette sprang out, dressed in a crisp white pinafore. She tipped her face up, watching him slip out of the saddle. He bent his knees and hunched down to her level, ignoring the stab of pain in his wounded hip.
“I wanna look for grasshoppers, but Maman says I can’t cuz we’re going to a dance.”
“You ever been to a dance before?”
“No. And I don’t want to.”
Wash had to laugh. At what point in a young girl’s life did she get interested in dances?
“I see,” he said. “You’d rather hunt for grass—”
Jeanne appeared in the doorway and he broke off. She wore a yellow dress made of some kind of soft-looking stuff. She’d let her hair down and it brushed her shoulders in dark waves. He’d like to run his fingers through it. In the gauzy almost-evening light she looked like an angel. Over her arm she carried a basket of lavender sachets.
“Bon soir,” she called.
Very slowly he rose to his feet and snaked off his wide-brimmed hat, his mouth suddenly dry as tumble-weed. He had to clear his throat twice before he could utter a word.
“Manette says you’re going—”
“Oui, to the dance at Peter and Roberta Jensen’s barn. They were very kind to invite me.”
“How’re you going to get there, walk?”
“But of course! It is only one half of a mile. Ten minutes!”
His mouth opened and before he could close it, words he hadn’t expected came tumbling out. “I could drive you in the wagon.”
What was he saying? He didn’t want to go anywhere near that barn dance. He especially did not want to be anywhere near Jeanne in that yellow dress. Every time he looked at her, his britches felt too tight.
She gazed at him, considering his impulsive offer, probably weighing all the reasons she would prefer to walk. Apparently she didn’t want his help. Well, let her walk if she was so independent. He hoped she’d get cockleburs in her stockings.
He looked skyward where the moon floated above them like a fat orange pumpkin sailing close to the earth. He guessed she was still mad enough about the railroad to spit nails. She wouldn’t want to be within a mile of him, much less sitting next to him on the wagon bench.
“Bon,” she said abruptly. She gestured toward the slat-wood vehicle pulled up next to the bunkhouse. “Would you hitch up my horse?”
Wash stood motionless, wondering if he’d heard right. Hitch up…? Yeah, he’d heard right.
His hands shook when he nudged the bridle over her gray mare’s head. By the time he’d linked the traces to the wagon axle, he was so nervous the horse sidled away from him.
What the devil was wrong with him? He’d be sitting next to Jeanne for maybe five minutes while he drove the wagon to the Jensen place. Five minutes, that was all. And he would position Manette between them.
He lifted the girl up onto the wagon bench, then offered a helping hand to Jeanne. She ignored it, stepped up on the axle and settled herself into place beside her daughter. Wash tramped around to the other side, climbed up and flapped the lines. The mare started forward.
Jeanne smoothed out her soft yellow dress and sat in rigid silence while Manette clapped her hands and began to hum a tuneless song. Jeanne leaned sideways to put her arm around her daughter and he caught a whiff of that indefinable scent that rose from her hair. Like lilac blooms, with a dash of…cloves? Whatever it was, it made him ache with an old, old hunger he thought he’d never feel again.
The Jensens’ barn, actually their threshing barn, was lit up like a Kansas City carnival. Candlelit lanterns lined the path; music poured out the double doors which stood wide open as townsfolk crowded to get inside.