Aw, hell, he couldn’t even say it. The worst part was that he was beginning to recognize that he cared about her; and, not only that, he still wanted her. He wasn’t sure he would ever stop wanting her.
All that morning Wash thought about seeing Jeanne again. What would he say to her? It felt as if he was watching himself from outside his skin, and what he saw was a man in turmoil. A longing ate at his gut and nibbled away at his spirit, but his fear chewed him up like that rusty plow Jeanne wanted, dragged over a barren field.
He climbed up to the valley rim and scanned the road that stretched toward town. “Never thought of myself as a coward,” he muttered. “Learn something new every day.”
A puff of dust caught his eye, about a mile away; he watched it move toward him. Oh, Lord, it was Jeanne’s gray mare. He couldn’t wait to see her again, hear her voice. He hadn’t stopped thinking about her for the last twenty-four hours.
On the other hand, he wanted to drive her from his thoughts. Hell’s bells, she’d tied him up in knots.
The gray mare halted a good ten yards from where he stood. He studied his boots for a long moment, afraid to look at her. His heartbeat tripled, slamming against his rib cage like the hooves of a wild horse. Not even a Sioux war party evoked a fear like this.
She gave him a half smile. “Hello, Wash.” That was all it took for the war party to attack.
“Jeanne,” he acknowledged. He looked up at her, then wished he hadn’t. A glow of hot sunlight spilled around her shoulders where she sat her horse; her straw hat was tipped down to shade her face, but then she lifted her head and her eyes met his.
The bottom fell out of his belly.
She held up a wicker hamper. “I brought you some lunch. And some coffee.”
His legs started toward her of their own accord. She handed the basket down to him and slipped off the mare into his arms. She smelled good, like soap. He wanted to kiss her so much his chest ached.
“It’s…good to see you,” he managed. The truth was he was stunned at how happy the sight of Jeanne Nicolet made him.
She stepped away from him. “It is awkward, too, is it not?”
She didn’t wait for an answer, but moved past him and pointed across to the opposite side of the valley.
“Over there is my thinking spot. It would be nice for a picnic, no?”
No. The thought of sitting close to her in some shady bower made his hands curl into fists. “Sure,” he found himself answering.
She started off, walking purposefully along the horse trail that skirted the valley rim. He could see she was used to walking; he had to lengthen his stride to keep up with her. He concentrated on the sway of her blue checked skirt and tried to keep his mind off her backside.
“Where is Manette?” he wondered aloud. It was the only thing he could think of to say.
“At the hotel dining room. Rooney is filling her up with strawberry ice cream.”
“Rooney is a good man.”
“Oui. He is a good friend, as well. Manette likes him.”
She didn’t explain, but she didn’t have to. Wash knew his partner must have told Jeanne all about Laura Gannon. He felt completely exposed.
Within ten minutes they had circled the valley rim and all at once Jeanne stepped off the path and led him to a spot where a vine maple had woven itself between two elders to form a sun-dappled trellis.
“Here,” she announced. She reached for the hamper he carried and flipped open the hinged wicker top. Then she bent her head and rummaged in the basket.
Wash tried not to let his eyes linger on her bare neck. He held his breath until spots danced in his vision to avoid inhaling the scent of her hair.
She spread a blue gingham tablecloth over a grassy spot and settled herself on one corner, her legs folded under her skirt. She sure liked blue gingham. Her dress was blue gingham, and he remembered the blue gingham curtains she’d hung over the bunkhouse window. She must have brought an entire bolt from New Orleans when she’d come West.
Wash plopped the hamper in the center of the tablecloth and took the opposite corner, stretching his long legs out until the tips of his boots almost brushed the white petticoat poking from under the flounces of her dress.
“Are you hungry?”
Her question sent a red-hot knife up his spine. “Sure,” he groaned. Damn, but he was hungry.
“I am, too. Very hungry. I have been working hard this morning.”
“Yeah?” With relief, Wash grabbed on to the conversational thread. “Working on what?” He accepted something wrapped up in a napkin—blue gingham, again—and watched her pour coffee from a Mason jar wrapped in a thick towel.