Wash just tightened his arms about her shaking body.
Tom Roper bent over the Spaniard’s inert form, his hands propped at his waist. “What’s he wanted for?”
“Breaking out of jail, for one thing,” Sheriff Dan Rubens said from the doorway. He was followed by his new young deputy, Curt Tempelhaus, who took one look and turned ashen.
“And maybe assault,” Wash added. He bent and put his mouth against Jeanne’s temple. She was trembling so hard the lace cuffs at her wrists fluttered.
“Did he hurt you?” he asked quietly.
She shook her head. “N-non. But he touch me, here.” She laid one hand on her breast and a shudder racked her frame. The top four buttons on her shirtwaist had been ripped free of the buttonholes; Jeanne clutched it together at her throat.
Wash had to bite his tongue to keep his voice calm. “Anywhere else?”
She buried her face against his shoulder. “My neck.” Her voice was muffled but not tearful. Gently he tipped her chin up and perused her skin from throat to hairline. An angry red band encircled her neck. Finger marks. Wash felt his control wobble.
The sheriff straightened. “Anybody else here at the time?”
Tom Roper cleared his throat. “Far as I knew, Miz Nicolet was the only one in the stable, Sheriff. Until Colonel Halliday came, just a few minutes ago.”
The short, graying sheriff turned to Wash. “You know the dead man, Colonel?”
Wash nodded. “Yeah. He worked on my survey crew. I fired him a while back.”
The sheriff nodded and a frown pulled his gray eyebrows together. “Will you be around a while longer, Colonel? Might have an inquest.”
“Long enough,” Wash answered. “Maybe another week.”
Jeanne’s body went absolutely still.
Oh, hell! He had not told her about leaving. This was a cowardly, backhanded way of letting her know, but he hadn’t had a chance to explain about Sykes or the letter or what his work for the railroad entailed. He prayed it would help that he had a $400 check for her in his pocket.
The sheriff glanced once in Wash’s direction and stalked out. Liveryman Tom coiled and recoiled a length of rope and finally exited to see to the horse he’d been training.
In the next minute the undertaker and his wagon rattled in and took the body away.
For a long time Jeanne said nothing, just stood there in the circle of his arms. When she stepped back to look up at him, there was fire in her green eyes.
“You are leaving.” Her voice sounded tight as new barbed wire.
“Jeanne, let me explain. The letter came just this after—”
She snapped her head up. “You have known this all along? That you would be leaving?”
He began to perspire. “Yes. I didn’t exactly know how to tell you.”
Her face was white as paste, her eyes bruised looking. Wash swallowed hard. “I’d give anything if you hadn’t found out this way.”
Her voice hardened. “It does not matter how I found out. I should have guessed long ago.”
“Jeanne…” He reached for her but she jerked away.
“Do not touch me!”
“At least let me explain.”
Her lips formed a thin line. “You do not need to ex plain. I understand well enough.”
He closed his hand around her upper arm. “Listen to me, dammit!”
Her eyes went wide, then instantly narrowed. “Alors, I am listening.”
Wash gritted his teeth. “I wanted to tell you, I just didn’t know how. When I got to the boardinghouse Mrs. Rose said you weren’t there, that you’d gone to the livery stable to get more lavender.”
“And so?” She spit the words at him.
“Rooney told me Montez was loose. I didn’t want you to be alone here.”
Jeanne moved away from him and was silent for a long moment. “For that I am grateful,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady. “I am angry because…”
“Because I’m leaving? Or because I didn’t tell you before?”
She dropped her head to hide her face, then raised it immediately. “Why did you want to tell me at all? Is it because we are…close?”
He caught her wrist and pulled her toward him. “We’re more than ‘close,’ Jeanne, and you know it.”
Jeanne let out a shaky sigh. “Oui, I do.”
He had a strange expression on his suntanned face, as if something in his mouth had turned sour. For a moment a twinge of sympathy tempered her fury, but she brushed it aside. It felt much more satisfying to be angry.
“I’ve known I’d be leaving all along,” he said quietly. “I just didn’t know when.”
“Perhaps it does not matter?” She hated the way she sounded, like a quarrelsome fishwife.