And she had the deed to prove it, now safe in the bank vault in Smoke River. Once each week she saddled up the mare and rode into town to trade for supplies; and once each week she stopped by the Smoke River Bank and smoothed her hand over the strong box where her precious document rested.
Green Valley was the only land she’d been able to afford, and nobody, nobody, was going to stop her from growing her lavender. French lavender. English lavender, Spanish lavender. Her family had grown lavender back in France; she knew more about lavender than she knew about ladies’ fashions.
Her lavender field was the only source of income for herself and Manette. She reached up and patted the rusty barrel of the rifle mounted over the door. She would fight to protect what was hers, even if she had to shoot the first man since Henri who had made her heart jump. All the more reason not to trust him.
The following morning, Wash and Rooney rode out to Green Valley, drawing rein at the rise overlooking the valley. Beside him on his frisky strawberry roan, Rooney grunted. “You see what I see down there?”
“Yeah, I see it. Damn cabin built on railroad land. Who’d expect to find a squatter way out here?”
Rooney patted the neck of his mount and surveyed Wash with narrowing black eyes. “A better question is what’re you gonna do about it?”
Wash blew out a long breath. “If I knew the answer to that, maybe I would have slept some last night.”
Sykes had ruled out Scarecrow Hill because the railroad owned no right-of-way there. Wash had to get Green Valley surveyed, then get Miz Nicolet off that land before the clearing crew arrived. Problem was, she’d set to farming on land she didn’t own. Most likely she thought she owned it; probably paid that cabin owner $2.50 an acre and he gave her a ginned-up deed and skedaddled before the law caught up with him. It had happened before.
He watched gray smoke puff lazily from the stone chimney into the summer air. Poor misguided woman. Her entire crop of whatever that purple stuff was would have to be ripped out. It looked like a nice, neat little farm. Pretty spot, too, with walnut and sugar maple trees covering both sides of the steep hills that enclosed the valley, and the sun bathing her crop in a glow of golden light.
His belly tightened. He hated to see things destroyed, whether it was Reb trains or ammunition dumps or Georgia plantations. Or little farms, like this one.
He’d try not to think about it.
Rooney nudged Wash’s elbow and pointed. The French woman was out beside the cabin, hanging up laundry on a sagging clothesline: four white flounced petticoats and three girl’s pinafores and…
He sucked in a breath. Leaping lizards…underwear! Lacy chemises and ruffled white underdrawers so small he could bunch up a dozen and stuff them in his pocket.
He shut his eyes to block out the sight, steeling his mind against the sensual tug of those delicate lace-trimmed garments and the woman he imagined wearing them. His groin heated anyway. Gritting his teeth he worked to squash the feelings he’d kept buried all these years.
Abruptly he wheeled the black gelding away. “Come on, Rooney, let’s ride back into town and get some whiskey. The railroad can wait.”
But the railroad couldn’t wait, and Wash knew it. All the way back to town he cursed the problem unfolding before him.
“Ain’t ’xactly her fault,” Rooney observed when they had settled themselves at the Golden Partridge’s polished wood bar.
“Widow lady on her own, speakin’ a foreign language. Coulda been took by a swindler easy.”
Wash snorted and sipped his whiskey. “Maybe you should mind your own business.”
Rooney paused long enough to empty his own glass. “Or maybe you should mind your business and get that lady off the railroad land before the sheriff arrests her for trespassin’.”
“I don’t think the sheriff would do that.”
“Somebody’s gotta do it. That’s why Sykes’s railroad company is payin’ your salary. Think about it. Why else would they hire a lawyer with courtroom smarts to supervise railroad crews?”
God knew he didn’t want to think about it. He especially didn’t want to think about those slim bare legs flashing through that purple field.
Late afternoon shadows stippled the trail as Wash guided General back to Green Valley. He didn’t fancy returning, but Rooney was right: he had his orders.
When the path narrowed and began to slope downward, he fought off an attack of belly butterflies. Pretty ironic, to have lived through Laura’s betrayal and then the War, the Yankee prison in Richmond and Sioux-Cheyenne skirmishes near Fort Kearney only to find his entire frame laced up with nerves over one lone woman. A woman who had no legal claim to the land she sat on.