“It matters,” he said. “I just don’t know what to do about it.”
Jeanne straightened her spine. “I could perhaps go with you?” She had to ask; she could not simply wipe him out of her heart.
“You and Manette, you mean?” Wash shook his head. “I’d only be there a month at the most, then Sykes will move me on to another town.”
“No. That I cannot do. Manette must remain in one place to go to school.”
Wash groaned. “This afternoon I thought hard about the Oregon Central. About resigning my position. Sykes could replace me and I could stay here. Work at something else.”
“You must not do that,” she said. “I know what your work means to you.” His job with the railroad was his way of healing his past wounds. He’d said it was his salvation. She could not ask him to forego that.
He looked up at the ceiling, his lips tense. “Gillette Springs is only forty miles east. Maybe I could—”
She stopped his lips with her fingers. “Non, you could not. You would exhaust yourself riding back and forth for only a few hours together.”
He caught her hand, turned it over and pressed a kiss into the center of her palm. “Jeanne, if we’re not careful, we’re going to talk ourselves out of something we—”
“Something we both want?” she blazed. “Is it not clear that we want two different things?” She turned away and started for the stable door. “You want your railroad, and I want a home for Manette and a place to grow my lavender.”
Wash walked beside her without speaking. At the boardinghouse, Mrs. Rose took one look at Wash’s haggard face, bandaged the knife slice on his shoulder and poured him a cup of double-strength coffee.
“I heard about the fracas over at the livery stable. You both look like you’ve been through one of those new-fangled clothes wringers.” The landlady brewed a cup of peppermint tea for Jeanne and shooed her upstairs with a glass of warm milk for Manette.
In tense silence Wash and Jeanne climbed the stairs to Manette’s room. Rooney was perched on the edge of the neatly made bed, reading aloud from an open book on his lap while Manette sprawled on her belly, her chin propped in her hands. Rooney marked his place with a finger and looked up.
“Heard about Montez,” he said. “Too bad.”
Wash and Jeanne glanced at each other. Rooney cleared his throat and continued the tale of The Orphan Princess. “‘Then the cruel king ordered the guards to lock his daughter in the dungeon.’”
“But that’s not fair!” Manette objected. “It wasn’t her fault his glass horse broke.”
Rooney wet his lips. “That’s just the way it is, Little Miss. Life ain’t fair sometimes.”
Behind him, Jeanne sucked in an audible breath. Rooney shot a glance at Wash.
Manette cocked her head at him. “Why isn’t it always fair?”
“Well…” Rooney scratched his beard. “Uh…if things was always the same, always fair and always just, it’d be like having sunshine every single day. Wouldn’t it get kinda boring?”
“No!” the girl shouted.
“Non.” Jeanne murmured.
“Not on your life,” Wash growled.
Jeanne set the milk on the nightstand. “Finish your story, chou-chou. Then you must go to sleep.”
Wash caught Jeanne’s eye and tipped his chin toward the hallway.
She shook her head.
He grasped her elbow and propelled her into the hall and down the stairs. “There’s a lawn swing out on the front porch. We need to talk.”
She hesitated. “It will do no good, Wash. We are headed down two different paths.”
“Please, Jeanne. There’s more I want to say.”
His eyes looked smoky, like the blued steel of his revolver, and in their depths was an expression she could not read. Desperation?
She said nothing and let him guide her through the screen door to the wide front porch. The late summer night was quiet except for the rhythmic scrape of crickets and an occasional burst of song from an evening sparrow in the pepper tree overhanging the porch. Honeysuckle twined along the front fence, wafting a flowery scent on the warm air.
Jeanne drew in a shuddery breath. “The night is beautiful, is it not?”
Wash settled his long form onto the porch swing, pulled Jeanne down beside him and pushed off with his foot.
“I have always liked summer,” she said quickly. “I came to Oregon in the summer, across the desert in a schooner wagon.”
“Ah, no. I joined a wagon train. It is dangerous for a woman and a child to travel alone across the country.”