Lady Lavender - Page 56

“Must have been hard traveling,” he said in a low voice.

“We came by rail to El Paso. That part was not difficult.”

“Jeanne…”

“Manette liked the train,” she added without a pause. “And—”

Wash groaned. “You know what?”

She blinked. “No, what?”

“You’re not letting me talk again. Won’t let me say something I’ve been wanting to say.”

She dropped her head until her chin brushed the lace at her throat. “It is because I am frightened.”

“Frightened of what? Of me?”

“Oh, no. Not of you. Well, yes, in a way.”

He twisted to face her. “‘Yes’ in what way?”

She raised her head and looked straight into his eyes. “I do not want to be unhappy.”

“I don’t want you to be unhappy. I’m trying to figure—”

“Wash.” She laid her hand on his forearm. “It is not possible. When you are gone, I will miss you.” She lifted her hand away and laid it in her lap. “But I will manage.”

“I imagine you will,” he said drily.

“Oui, I must. A woman should not depend on a man for happiness. I have to make the best of my life.”

Wash’s throat began to ache. “I have something for you. The railroad’s paying you for the land you got cheated out of, so…” He dug in his shirt pocket. “Here’s a check for your $400.”

“Vraiment? But I thought—”

“Don’t think, Jeanne. You’ve got enough money now to do anything you want, buy a house. Buy another farm.”

He slipped his own monthly pay into her hand. “My room and board is paid up for six months. I want you and Manette to stay here in town, at the boardinghouse.”

“But I cannot repay you!”

“I don’t ask for repayment. I need to know you’ll be safe and warm, come winter.”

“This will matter to you? Even though you will be gone?”

“Damn right, it matters to me.”

Her eyes shone with tears. “You are a good man, Wash.”

Wash tried to smile. “Well, hell, this ‘good man’ is not feeling very good about things right now.”

But something inside him eased, now that he’d told her everything. Everything he could afford to tell her, that is. He couldn’t tell her that he loved her; he wasn’t really sure what that would be like. He wanted her, for damn sure, but that wasn’t the same thing, and he’d be lying if he said it was.

In all the years since Laura, this was the first time he’d really cared about a woman. But his mind felt hazy and unfocused, and some kind of knot in his gut wouldn’t let him think it through.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Wash had no appetite for breakfast the next morning, but he did need coffee. All night he’d wrestled with nightmares: the first time he’d killed a Johnny Reb, the first time he’d kissed Laura Gannon behind the school house. The last time he’d seen her before the War, driving her own rig out of Smoke River on the day she was to marry him.

Maybe if he could sort all those blasted memories out, he’d be able to think straight.

The long table gradually filled up with boarders chattering about yesterday’s shooting at the livery stable and whether it would rain on Sunday’s Church Ladies’ social. And… Where was Mrs. Nicolet and her charming daughter this morning?

Rooney tramped in and without a word settled into the chair next to him.

“Is little Manette better this morning?” the school-teacher who boarded with Mrs. Rose asked.

Rooney just grunted, and the woman turned her attention to the platter of pancakes in the center of the table. Half an hour later Jeanne entered, a silent Manette clinging to her hand. Jeanne nodded a Good Morning but said nothing and she did not look at Wash but seated herself and her daughter across the table from him. Rooney rose to fill her cup with hot coffee. Manette’s cup he filled to the top with mostly milk and Jeanne added a splash of coffee.

Her gaze moved from the pancakes to the china cream pitcher on the sideboard, but she clearly avoided looking at Wash. Her mouth didn’t look pinched like it had yesterday, but she wasn’t smiling, either. She wasn’t even close.

Wash lingered over a third cup of coffee, hoping she’d say something, but she remained as talkative as a fence post. Finally he couldn’t stand it any longer. He pushed away from the table and stood up.

She didn’t even glance at him.

But Rooney did. The older man met Wash’s gaze and shrugged his shoulders. Wash could read the man’s thoughts as if they were smoke signals. Hell, I don’t know what’s goin’ on with you two!

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