“’Night, Wash. See you at breakfast.”
Wash paced up and down the hall outside Jeanne’s door for a good ten minutes before he worked up the courage to lay his hand on the knob.
He guessed it didn’t much matter how helpless he felt; right now all he wanted was for Manette to be okay and for Jeanne to hold steady.
He bowed his head. Was this too much to ask from a man who hadn’t prayed in years?
He rapped against the wood and didn’t wait.
Soft golden lantern light bathed the room. Jeanne was curled up in a ball, asleep at the head of the bed, one hand extended to rest on her daughter’s arm. She had slipped one of his shirts over Manette’s head; the sleeves were rolled up to her elbows. Her left arm looked red and puffy, but her breathing had quieted some.
He draped his clean shirt over the back of a chair and slid onto the bed beside Jeanne. She didn’t move. He touched her shoulder, and she jolted awake.
“Oh, it is you,” she said in a sleep-fuzzed voice. “I am glad it is you.”
A curious warmth burrowed into his chest and he couldn’t get enough air.
“Take off your dress, Jeanne. By morning it’ll be a mess of wrinkles.” He began to unbutton her gingham shirtwaist. She wasn’t really awake, he realized. Probably wouldn’t remember a thing come morning. He worked the dress down off her shoulders.
The instant her hand was free, she reached out to touch Manette, then, without opening her eyes, let her head droop down onto her extended arm.
Wash slid his fingers along the waistband of her skirt, found the button closure at the back and gently slipped it free. He tugged it over her hips, unknotted her petticoat tie and pulled it off, as well.
Her work boots sat on the floor beside the bed. Wash looked at them a long time, then shucked his own and set them next to hers. His blue muslin shirt settled easily over her head and shoulders; he half wished it had buttons down the front instead of the neck placket. Then he could…
Oh, no, he couldn’t! He stood up quickly, draped her garments over the chair and blew out the lamp. The sky outside the single window was black as coal dust. When his eyes had adjusted to the dark, he carefully eased onto the bed next to where Jeanne lay, gently lifted her hand away from Manette’s swollen arm and straightened Jeanne’s pantalette-covered legs. Then he rolled her body toward him so her back snugged up against his chest. With one hand he searched for the wire pins holding her hair in its bun at the back of her neck, drew them out and stuffed them into his trouser pocket. Her dark, silk-soft waves spilled over his hands and he clenched his teeth.
He pressed his lips against the crown of her head and breathed in the spicy-sweet scent he knew he would never forget. Her soft, even breathing told him she was asleep, but his heart began to hammer so hard he was afraid she might feel it against her spine.
For a long, long time Wash stared up at the ceiling, wondering what the hell he thought he was doing, and at the same time knowing deep in his gut that, whatever it was, it was the right thing.
Long past midnight, Jeanne woke with a small jerk and immediately reached out to touch Manette in the adjoining bed. Her skin was still hot, but the snake-bitten arm Jeanne felt under her palm seemed less swollen.
She rose up partway to dip the cloth in the basin of cool water and smoothed it over Manette’s hot face and neck. It was then that her sleep-fogged brain began to register that she was not alone in the bed.
Most definitely she was not alone! Wash lay next to her, asleep, his bare chest rhythmically rising and falling, one arm flung out across the quilt toward her. Had she lain next to him all these hours? She emitted a tiny gasp. Incroyable. And how had she come to be wearing his shirt? She did not remember.
Or did she? She recalled his voice speaking low in her ear, but Mon Dieu! Her skirt and petticoat were gone. Underneath Wash’s blue shirt she wore nothing but a lacy wisp of a camisole and her ruffled drawers.
Her face heated. He had undressed her? Surely not. But it was clear that he had done exactly that. With trembling fingers she lifted the cooling cloth from Manette’s forehead and ran it over her own burning cheeks.
And then she had to smile. This man was unlike any she had known before. He was skittish about a relationship with her, yet when there was need, he was here beside her, caring for her the best way he knew.
She remembered that night after the Jensens’ dance, those wondrous hours in his arms. And she understood.
Or thought she did. He wanted her, but he was not sure how far he dared to step into her life.
She leaned over the side of the bed, dipped the cloth in the cool water and wrung it out before replacing it on Manette’s sweat-sticky forehead.