Lady Lavender - Page 72

“You don’t say,” Wash snapped. He slipped off the bar stool and felt the gnawing ache in his hip. Unconsciously he straightened his leg.

Rooney eyed his friend as he hitched up his belt and strode through the saloon doors. Then he laughed out loud and ordered another whiskey.

“Here’s to Wash and Jeanne,” he said to the swinging doors. “One in the canoe and the other one on the dock.”

“Survey crew’s ready,” Wash announced that evening after supper. “Going to send them out tomorrow morning.”

Beside him on the front porch step of Mrs. Zwenk’s boardinghouse, Rooney nodded. “Did Sykes replace Montez? Or do I hafta slog around all day with a measuring rod?”

“Nope. You get to deal with our landlady, Mrs. Zwenk. See if you can get her to lighten up on her fried eggs—they’re like sun-dried cow-patties with yolks.”

Rooney spit out the grass stem he was chewing. “Why me?”

Wash clapped his partner on the shoulder. “Because you’re so good-looking,” he said with a straight face. “Plus you said yourself you ‘have a way with the ladies.’”

“It’s a ‘way’ I’m fast growin’ out of it,” Rooney muttered.

Wash thought about the phrase “growing out of it” and something in his belly began to unravel. He figured he didn’t need to grow out of anything. What he needed was to grow into something.

He bid Rooney good-night and limped out to the stable. Rooney had found some kind of center for himself, a lodestone that would draw him, anchor him for the rest of his life. A granddaughter.

It stirred the gnawing hunger in Wash’s gut. Rooney was connected in a way Wash had never been. Rooney had found a place where he belonged.

He filled General’s feedbag, then dug in his vest pocket for the apple he’d spirited away from under Mrs. Zwenk’s long nose. He watched the animal crunch the fruit down, thinking about Rooney and canoes and docks…and falling into the river.

Dammit.

Upstairs in his room an hour later, Wash lifted his head from his hands and composed a letter to Grant Sykes. For fast delivery he would send it by rail from Smoke River all the way to Portland.

Tomorrow he’d get it to the train.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Jeanne jolted wide-awake from a dreamless sleep, jerked upright on the simple mattress she’d stuffed with pine boughs, and concentrated on listening. There was no sound other than the soft rustling of her pallet.

A half-moon had risen, casting silvery light through the window. Making no noise, she stood up and peered outside. The barn stood silent, and in the adjacent cow pen, Bessie was folded up under the yellowing maple tree placidly chewing her cud. Jeanne watched a long time, but nothing else moved.

Uneasy, she tiptoed across the hall to check on Manette. Her daughter slept soundly, her arms hugging the pillow squashed against her stomach. She often slept that way, as if cuddling an imaginary pet. Perhaps Manette should have a puppy!

Frowning, Jeanne rubbed her right shoulder and closed the bedroom door without a sound. After an exhausting day cleaning out the barn she should be tired enough to sleep until lunchtime, but instead, she wandered down the half-lit stairs to the kitchen. Coals still glowed in the stove firebox. She stirred up the embers and added two small chunks of wood she’d chopped from deadfall near the creek.

The fire sparked and she flinched as if it were a gunshot. Mon Dieu, she was jumpy as a cat. The flames began to eat into the wood and the light from the stove cast shadowy figures that danced and flickered against the wall. It reminded her of something.

Her breathing stopped and a thumping began in her ear. It reminded her of making love with Wash. In her mind’s eye she saw the two of them together that first time, melding into one another like two restless shadows, touching each other and becoming one.

All at once she knew why she could not sleep. And she knew what she must do to fix it. How simple it seemed.

Simple? Then why was her heart leaping and fluttering like a caged bird’s?

“Chou-chou, would you like to visit Mrs. Rose in town? Perhaps you could play with her grandson?”

Manette stood straight up in the box bed Jeanne had cobbled together until she could afford a real one with a bedstead. “Oh, Maman, could I really? Mark knows lots and lots about spiders!”

Jeanne shivered under her man’s shirt and vest. Spiders again. Alors, she would let Mrs. Rose deal with it this time; Jeanne had something else on her mind.

When they arrived, riding double on the dappled gray mare, Mrs. Rose took a horrified look at Jeanne. “Child, whatever are you doing in that getup?”

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