He wanted to— Oh, hell. Her hand was clasped in his in proper waltz position; he drew it to his breastbone and folded his fingers over hers.
What in hell was wrong with him? He began to move slower, and he forgot to think about the steps. They moved at the periphery of the other dancing couples, past the refreshment table, past the musicians in the corner.
Jeanne closed her eyes. She drew in an uneven breath and let herself drift between the sob of the violin and the thrum of his heartbeat. She liked his smell, of leather and sweat and…ah, it did not matter what else; it was just good. All of him was good. Très beau.
She needed some lemonade.
Non, she needed some whiskey.
Mon Dieu, she needed…him.
The music stopped, but they kept moving together, their bodies almost touching. His mouth grazed her forehead; the yellow ruffles on her bodice brushed against his shirtfront.
The violin struck up a reel. Jeanne heard the faster tempo but she did not want to stop their slow journey together. It was almost like making love, his body asking, hers answering. At the thought she sucked in a gulp of air and felt tears sting into her eyes. It was such pleasure being close to him! It made her nerves sing in a way they had not since she was a girl in France.
Mon Dieu! Was she falling in—?
A rough hand grasped her forearm and yanked her out of Wash’s arms. She stumbled, then found herself dragged against another man’s body. “Aye, señora,” a silky voice said. “Now I will have that kiss, no?”
The Spaniard! The one Wash had chased away that night. She opened her mouth to shout, but another voice, low and menacing, interrupted.
“Take your hands off her, Montez.”
For a second nothing happened. The Spaniard tightened his hold, and then Wash slipped one arm about her waist and simultaneously rammed his other elbow into the man’s windpipe.
The man doubled over, gasping for air.
Wash propelled her to the sidelines. “Let’s get out of here.”
He spun at a woman’s cry from across the room. Montez had halfway straightened and now he was pulling a knife from inside his boot. Wash thrust Jeanne behind him and stepped forward. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Rooney lift Manette onto a chair protected behind the refreshment table. Rooney could smell a fight a mile away.
Jeanne gave a stifled cry. Damn, he didn’t want her mixed up in this; he’d have to keep himself between her and Montez until she could leave the barn.
Montez crouched, the blade in his right hand sweeping in an arc as he advanced. The man’s steps were slow and deliberate, his eyes glittering, his breathing raspy. Wash had had plenty of practice during the Sioux skirmishes, but at least he’d had a knife of his own. Now, he had nothing. It wouldn’t be fun, but he’d done it before.
He lifted both arms and began circling to the left, drawing Montez’s attention away from Jeanne. If he could get in close enough, under the Spaniard’s blade…
He crouched and kept moving to the left, drawing closer bit by bit. He couldn’t take his eyes off the shiny knife Montez brandished—some kind of silvery blade with a carved black handle. The Spaniard would have to raise his arm to stab downward at Wash. Or he could strike up from waist level and catch him in the rib cage.
He moved in. “Come on, Montez. Come and get me.”
The Spaniard’s lips drew back in a feral grin. “I will kill you, Boss Man.”
“I don’t think so.” Wash feinted with his left hand, and when Montez followed with his knife, Wash lunged inside the blade’s arc, close enough to the man’s body to hamper his thrust. Before Montez could rip the blade into Wash’s side, Wash shot his right fist into the man’s shoulder and with his left arm knocked Montez’s elbow up.
Montez yelped, and the knife clattered onto the barn floor.
Wash dived for it, but the sheriff stomped out of nowhere and pinned it under his boot. Then he lifted his coat back to reveal his holstered sidearm.
“Come along, Montez. Got a nice cool jail cell waitin’ for ya.”
Wash was breathing hard, but inside his gut the knot of anger and fear was dissolving in a rush of masculine triumph. He watched the sheriff march the Spaniard out the side door. Outside, he found Jeanne leaning against the side of the barn, her eyes huge, her fingers clasped over her mouth. Rooney appeared with Manette clinging to his hand.
“Thought I’d have to patch you up, Wash.”
Wash barked out a half laugh. “Maybe next time.”
“Huh! Guess I’d better stock up on bandages. And whiskey,” he added with a grin.
Wash chuckled. All at once he realized how tired he felt, as if his legs had turned to lead. His hip hurt like hell.