The two-story yellow clapboard boardinghouse loomed ahead. Wash dismounted outside the picket fence, now flattened by the wind, and lifted Manette from her mother’s lap. He had to pry the child’s stiff fingers off the saddle horn.
Rooney appeared in the open doorway. Manette darted up the steps and he swung her up into his arms. “Why, yer soakin’ wet, Little Miss. What you been doin’, swimmin’ in the creek?”
The girl giggled and threw her arms about his neck.
“Jehoshaphat, yer nose is colder’n a snowball!”
Jeanne could not dismount she was so exhausted; could not swing her leg over the horse’s rump with the weight of her sodden skirts pulling against her ankles. She watched numbly as Wash strode toward her, his tall form slick with mud and rainwater. He reached up, pressed both hands against the poncho that covered her and grasped her around the waist.
He lifted her out of the saddle, steadied her feet on the ground and unexpectedly folded her into his arms. Their wet ponchos brushed together with a whispery sound and all at once he was chuckling near her ear.
“Wh-what is s-so funny?” Her body shook from the bite of the freezing wind on her wet legs. She could not stop her teeth from chattering.
“Nothing is funny,” he said, sucking in a gulp of air. “I’m just happy that we got here.”
“You—” she tried to keep her voice steady “—are easily p-pleased.” It was just a jest, but she heard his voice change with his reply.
“The hell I am.”
She had said exactly the wrong thing. But it did not seem to matter because he scooped her up, poncho and all, and tramped up the porch steps with her in his arms.
Rooney, with Manette hanging about his neck, ushered them through the front door with a shout. “Sarah, they’re here!”
Wash set Jeanne down and lifted off the poncho and her rain-soaked shawl, then wrestled Manette’s arms out of her red coat.
He rolled all the wet garments together in one bundle and looked at Jeanne. “You want to add your wet skirt and petti—?”
“Certainly not!” A bubble of laughter escaped, and the next thing she knew he was down on one knee, un lacing her boots.
Opening the door briefly, he tossed her shoes and his own boots and the pile of wet garments out of the front door onto the lawn swing.
Mrs. Rose had the dining table set with flowered china bowls of warm bread and milk at each place. One bowl had what looked like gingerbread floating in it; Rooney plunked Manette down in front of it. “You like gingerbread, don’tcha, Little Miss?”
Manette did not answer because her mouth was already full.
“Well,” Rooney said. “Turned out to be a nice day for a ride, huh?”
Wash snorted. Hiding her smile, Jeanne dropped her head to concentrate on the bowl in front of her. Wash clanked his spoon back into his bowl and eyed Rooney. “Worst damn picnic I’ve ever been on.”
“Yeah?” Rooney eyed him with a perfectly straight face. “What was wrong with it?”
“Ants,” Wash said.
At that, Jeanne laughed aloud. She felt giddy, as if the last few hours had been just a bad dream. But it was over now. She and Manette were safe and dry. While Mrs. Rose fluttered in and out of the kitchen, replenishing their supper bowls, and Wash got the horses warm and dry in the livery, Jeanne’s spirits rose until she felt like dancing. Heaven help her, she could not live without this man!
Oh, yes, she could. She would soon have her own farm, her own house. Her heart might shrivel up, but she could go on and make a new life for herself. Vraiment, she had no choice. Even if she wanted it to be different, she could not rope and tie the man down; it would kill him.
Rooney stood up suddenly, scrabbled at the sideboard and produced a bottle of amber liquor and two shot glasses. “Sarah musta forgot this when she dusted this mornin’.”
He poured both glasses full. Before Jeanne could stop herself, she reached over and claimed one.
Rooney’s thick eyebrows shot up. “Didn’t know you was a drinkin’ woman, Jeanne.”
“But I am not,” she confessed. “It is an American custom I am just learning.”
Both men chuckled.
“But it is true,” she insisted. “I have never tasted spirits or whiskey or whatever it is called.”
Rooney poured a third glass and shoved it in front of Wash. “Down the hatch.” His head tipped back and he downed the liquid in one gulp.
Wash raised his brimming glass. “Down the hatch,” he echoed. He gulped it all down, then sat back in his chair waiting to see what she would do.
“Oh, very well,” she said. “I will do it just to prove that I can.” She lifted the liquid to her lips. “Damn the match,” she announced. She held her breath, poured the whiskey into her mouth and swallowed.