The interior was warm, smelling of pine planks and coffee and tobacco smoke and ladies’ scented powder. At one end of the room a long table was laden with cakes and pies, glass bowls of lemonade punch, two speckleware coffeepots, and even a few bottles of whiskey for the men. Jeanne set her basket of sachets next to the lemonade.
In the opposite corner Thad MacAllister and Whitey Kincaid sawed away on their fiddles, and Seth Rubens jauntily plucked a washtub bass. Upturned wooden boxes served as chairs along one wall, and an area behind the refreshment table had been set aside for makeshift beds for young children and a few cradles for infants.
Wash felt suddenly out of place in the overwarm, noisy atmosphere. For some reason the friendly spirit of the gathering grated on his nerves. He knew almost everyone. Some folks he’d known since he was in knee pants on his dad’s ranch, but he still felt he didn’t belong.
Jeanne was whirled away into a square dance set and Rooney strode across the polished floor and bowed before Manette. “Now, then, Little Miss, I’m gonna teach you how to dance.”
Wash found himself standing against the far wall, trying not to watch Jeanne lifting her arm to make a Ladies’ Star in the center of her square. She was clearly working hard to mend some bridges with the townsfolk. Instead he concentrated on Rooney and Manette. The girl placed her feet on top of Rooney’s big boots, so that when he stepped, she stepped. Together they moved about the floor in a dance of sorts, Manette grinning up at Rooney, her eyes shining. Rooney, the big galoot, was one big smile.
Wash blew out a pent-up breath. He was surrounded by a bustling crowd of people yet he felt lonelier than he could ever remember. He edged toward the whiskey on the refreshment table. He downed one hefty slug, and then another, and began to feel more alive.
The music changed to a polka. He searched the dancing couples for Jeanne, found her with Carl Ness, the mercantile owner. Looked like Carl had warmed toward her; he was teaching her the steps. She looked distracted and kept stumbling over her partner’s feet. He guessed they didn’t polka in New Orleans.
A tall young cowboy cut in on Carl, and then another fellow with a handsome blond mustache cut in on the cowboy. The mustache held her too close, and Wash clenched his jaw. Don’t manhandle her, you big oaf. This one is a Lady with a capital L.
He watched as long as he could stand it, then shouldered his way onto the waxed floor. When her partner swung her close enough, Wash reached out, snagged his arm around her waist, and spun her out of Mustache’s arms and into his own.
“Merci!” she whispered. “I thought he was going to eat me!”
“I thought so, too.”
She said nothing, and their conversation died. Wash tried to concentrate on moving his feet. The fiddles moved into a slow waltz, which made it easier in one way—he knew the steps—but harder in another: he was holding her in his arms. Her hair smelled of flowers and under the billowy yellow dress she was warm and soft. He held her slightly apart from him, afraid he would crush her.
Which was exactly what he wanted to do. After a slight hesitation he pulled her closer, so close her tumbled hair brushed his bare hand splayed against her back.
“What do you think about when you are dancing?” she murmured.
“About the railroad, I guess.” No, you don’t. You think about Jeanne.
She swallowed. “I never stop thinking about it. It has changed everything. I feel…lost. Everything I have worked so hard for is gone. It makes me feel—how you say?—helpless. Marooned, like a ship with no place to go.”
Wash nodded, grazing her forehead with his chin. “Partly I’m sorry about it. But partly I’m glad, too.”
“Are you glad for this? For the dancing?”
“Some,” he answered honestly.
“It is not comfortable for you, then? Why is that?”
At that moment he forgot everything except the feel of her pliant body in his arms. He forgot why he was here in Jensens’ barn. He forgot to move his feet.
She tipped her head back to look at him. “Why?” she repeated.
He stopped dancing. She didn’t seem to notice, but stood still, closed in the circle of his arms. “Because,” he said at last, “I can’t be near you and not want you.”
His words hung in the air between them, as if a bell were summoning them. For a long time neither of them moved, but then she dropped her head to rest her cheek against his shoulder. When she reached her hand up and curved her fingers across the back of his neck, Wash gritted his teeth. He was finding it hard to breathe. Hard to think. He wanted to hold her close enough to feel her breasts against his chest. Oh, he wanted to taste her nipples.