Now on a level with the thick, waist-high field of bushy growth, he reined General to a stop and dismounted. It had to be done; he’d best get it over with.
Dropping the reins where he stood, Wash patted the animal’s neck and made his way toward the small cabin at the far end of the valley. The greenery on either side of him was so close to the uneven footpath his elbows brushed against the purple fronds. A pleasant spice-like scent rose. Lavender! That’s what she was growing. Looked damn nice in the hazy sunlight, like an ocean of blue and purple waves.
He raised his head and glimpsed a movement on the cabin porch. Miz Nicolet had seen him.
He didn’t slow his pace until he was maybe twenty yards away, and then suddenly she pulled a rifle from behind her skirt and aimed it at his heart.
Wash put his hands in the air. “It’s me, ma’am. The jackrabbit hunter, remember?”
She said not a word, and he kept walking toward her, the slight hitch in his gait more noticeable now. When he was close enough to see the dark curls escaping the blue kerchief tied over her hair, he stopped.
“You do remember me, don’t you?”
Her mouth opened. “Oui,” she snapped. “I remember you. What do you want?” She moved the gun barrel an inch to the right. If she pulled the trigger at such close range, she couldn’t miss. His heart would be splattered all over the path.
“I’d like to talk to you, ma’am. About your farmland.”
The teal-green eyes narrowed. “I own this land. It is not for sale.”
“Oh, I don’t want to buy it…well, yes, I do, in a way, but let me explain. You see—”
“You are trespassion—trespassing,” she corrected. “I ask you to leave.”
“I can’t do that, ma’am. See, I’ve been ordered to—”
“Go away,” she interrupted. “Or I will shoot.”
Frantically Wash racked his brain for some words in French. Bonjour? No, that didn’t fit. Au revoir? Not yet. Not until she had heard him out. Comment ça va? That would do.
He pushed his stiff lips into a smile, but it was dicey with that rifle trained on his shirt buttons. “Comment ça va?”
Her gaze widened. “I am quite well,” she replied, her voice tightening. “But I am not patient. Go!”
He waited three heartbeats. “My name’s Washington Halliday, ma’am.”
He took another halting step forward, and then another, until the toes of his boots stubbed the bottom step. At each step she adjusted the angle of the gun to accommodate his position. He was so close now he could see those odd flecks of gray in her eyes.
Wash drew in a long breath and began to recite the first French words that came to mind. “O, claire de lalune…” Damn. He wished he hadn’t switched his long-ago college language class to Latin.
She frowned and tilted her head, obviously puzzled.
“Mon ami…” On the word ami he charged straight up the single step toward her and knocked the gun barrel upward. It went off with a crack, the shot skimming off into the trees where a chatter of birds broke the quiet.
She gave a little cry and Wash grabbed the gun out of her frozen grasp and checked the chamber. She backed away from him until he clunked the rifle flat on the porch beside her, and then she stopped, one hand covering her mouth.
“Sorry I had to do that, ma’am. But it’s hard to talk sense if you’re dead.”
Her throat convulsed in a swallow.
“Talk about what?” Her face was white as limestone.
“Ma’am, you got any whiskey? I think you need a shot.”
“Non. No whiskey.”
“How about tea? Coffee?”
All at once her legs gave out and she sat down hard on the porch, her skirts fluffing up around her. “Café,” she said. Her voice sounded shaky. “Inside. Mais, je—I cannot…”
He strode past her into the tiny cabin and headed for the potbellied stove. The place was as neat as his mother’s parlor, he noted. Nothing out of place except for a child’s exercise book on the kitchen table, propped between a sugar bowl on one side and a white ceramic cream pitcher on the other.
“Coffee,” he muttered. His own hands were shaking by the time he found the coffee mill and a small bag of coffee beans. He chunked up the fire, brewed the coffee extra strong and found two patterned china cups. He grabbed the bubbling pot off the stove and carried it through the doorway.
She was still sitting where he’d left her. Trying to control her trembling hands, she reached for the cup, then quickly set it down on the porch and blew on her fingers. “Hot,” she explained.