Lady Lavender - Page 32

“I’m getting too old for this,” he muttered.

“Get some sleep,” Rooney advised. “You got a carload of Chinese track layers comin’ tomorrow.”

Wash groaned and turned away to see Jeanne and Manette starting for the wagon. He’d just see them safely back to MacAllister’s bunkhouse and then…

He couldn’t think clearly beyond that. Maybe he didn’t want to.

Chapter Thirteen

Wash guided the mare away from Jensen’s barn and used the moon’s light to pick out the path between the bare fields. Seated next to him on the wagon bench, Jeanne twisted to the side and leaned over Manette, who had wrapped herself in a soft quilt and curled up in the wagon bed. “Are you comfortable, chou-chou?”

“Oui, Maman. But I am sleepy. I have danced a long time with Monsieur Rooney.”

Beside her on the bench Wash chuckled. He lifted the reins but he was watching Jeanne and he dropped one leather line. “Damn,” he said under his breath. “Guess I’m a little shaky. Sorry the evening had to end in a fight.”

Jeanne reached a still-trembling hand to pull the quilt up over Manette’s shoulders. “D-damn,” she repeated with a soft laugh. “I, too, am shaky.”

Wash shot her a quick look as he urged the horse and wagon forward. Her face was white as flour, but she held her head high and looked straight ahead. She sure didn’t show her feelings.

He could understand that. He rarely showed his own feelings, especially about a woman. Just one small shove would push him back into the safe cave he’d built. Feelings were scary things. And dangerous.

Jeanne settled her hands in her lap. “I do not like the West very much,” she announced.

Wash nodded. “Life out here can be hard. There’s not many who can stick it out.”

“But I have nowhere else to go.”

“Would you want to go back to France?”

There was a long silence. “I do not know. My maman is now dead. Even the cottage where I grew up is gone.”

“Do you want to leave Smoke River?”

“I want a small piece of land to farm,” she said. “I will find one here.”

He heard the determination in her words but her voice said something else. She was scared. Not of Montez, but of being vulnerable. With looks like hers, he guessed she’d rebuffed a number of overamorous men. He’d fought Montez to protect her, but maybe she didn’t need protecting. This woman seemed more concerned about finding farmland than avoiding the unwanted attention of a randy Spaniard.

Suddenly she pointed at something beside the path. “Look!”

An old abandoned plow sat in the stubbled field. Moonlight bathed the metal in silvery light, and Wash slowed the horse to admire the picture it made against the dark earth.

“Pretty,” he remarked.

“Useful,” she said instantly. “I will come back for it tomorrow.”

“You want that old rusty thing?”

“Oui, I do want it.”

He flapped the reins to speed up. “Well, I’ll be… What the he— What for?”

Her laugh rang out. “To plow with, of course!”

“Jeanne, is that all you think about, farming? Growing your lavender?”

“Ah, no,” she said slowly. “But it is of importance, you see, because of Manette.” She glanced over her shoulder at her sleeping child. “Compris?”

No, he didn’t “compris.” But maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe he would never understand this woman beside him, but he knew one thing: the brush of her skirt against his thigh, the hint of her warm body underneath all those yards of calico, was enough to make his mouth dry and his palms sweaty.

He turned his face away and gulped in air that didn’t smell of lilacs and something spicy. He wanted her. How he wanted her. He was so hard he ached. If he wasn’t careful he’d forget all about his safe little cave.

He circled the mare around the bunkhouse and parked the wagon next to the wall. It was a relief to climb down and ease the turgid pressure from inside his jeans. He loosened the mare’s cinch but left the horse hitched up to the wagon for Jeanne.

She rose with a swish of her skirt and waited. He didn’t dare lift her down from the bench; he knew he’d be unable to lay his hands on her waist and stop there. She’d be in his arms in a heartbeat and he doubted he could bring himself to release her. She’d feel the bulge in his jeans and she’d know everything.

And, dammit, if he kissed her, as he ached to do, he’d be a goner.

Instead he reached into the wagon bed and lifted the sleeping Manette into his arms, snugging the quilt close around her small form. Jeanne climbed down, unlocked the bunkhouse door and swung it wide for him. He heard a match rake across something—the stove top, he guessed—and then the glow of a kerosene lantern washed the small room in soft light. She held the lamp up high so he could see.