He heard a gasp and inched blindly forward until he stumbled over a warm lump huddled near the spring.
“Wash?” came a small, distinctly female voice. “Did you say wedding?”
“I did.” He spoke before he could stop himself.
The warm lump uncurled and reached for him. “Wash,” she breathed near his ear. “How did you know it was me?”
He kissed her, and took his time with it. “Doesn’t matter,” he murmured after a while. He kissed her again. “You’re damn lucky I’m not armed.”
“Oh,” she sighed. “I am damn lucky anyway. Kiss me again.”
He held her close for a long time while she confessed why she was on the road heading to Gillette Springs. “I decided that we should not be apart. We should be together.”
“Yeah?” Wash tightened his arms about her.
“It felt good when we were together, even when we were fighting. And,” she added with a catch in her voice, “I have been alone for too long. I was never lonely until you came into my life, and then I began to feel what I had been missing.”
She fell silent, and Wash rose, built a fire between three of the flat rocks and retrieved a tin shaving basin from his saddlebag. He filled it with water from the spring and set it over the flames. Then he tugged the wool blanket out from under her, added his saddle blanket and tossed the double roll close to the fire.
Without speaking, they perched close together on the bedroll, toasting their feet so close to the flames the leather soles of their boots began to smoke.
“Feet warm enough?” Wash joked. Hurriedly she pulled off her riding boots; he added his and then lined them up in front of the fire like four soldiers at attention.
He tested the heated water with his forefinger. “Try it,” he invited. “You can have a whole bath just by rubbing your wet hands over your skin. ’Course,” he said with a grin, “you have to take off your clothes.”
Jeanne began to unbutton her vest and then the boy’s striped muslin shirt she wore. When she had splashed water over herself down to her waist, she hesitated. Wash drew off her denim trousers and her lacy pantalettes and finished the job for her, running his hands over her bare skin until she began to tremble.
Then he stood, stripped and poured the remaining water over his torso and waited. Jeanne took the hint.
When they had both dried off and stopped shivering, he pulled her down beside him on the blankets. Watching the flames burn down to coals, they began to talk. It was the first time Wash had ever put into words what had been growing in his heart.
“Rooney was right about me. All these years I’ve been driven by fear, so scared of getting hurt again that I forgot how to live.”
Jeanne reached for his hand and laced her fingers with his, suddenly very close to tears. “Do you want to remember how to live?”
“I’m not sure I can,” he admitted honestly. “How I spent the years after Laura wasn’t exactly living, it was more like dying. And living—real living, with you and Manette—still scares me some.”
Jeanne leaned over to brush her lips against his cheek.
“I think that it scares you a lot.” She rested her head on his shoulder. “But you kept trying, that was the important thing. Courage is not walking into battle with no fear—you should know this as a soldier. Courage is feeling great fear, but walking forward anyway.”
“Jeanne,” he said in a low voice. “I don’t want to be away from you. Don’t want to spend my nights wondering if you are aching for me the same way I’m aching for you. I love you. I want us to get married.”
“Ah, that is what I hoped you would want! That is why I was coming to see you.”
“Jeanne…” he said when he finally lifted his mouth from hers. “Now that Manette has a grandfather, do you think she might like to adopt a father, as well?”
“I am quite sure of it. And if she does not, I will take away her spider box.”
Their laughter rose into the quiet.
Dr. Nathaniel Dougherty drove his buggy slowly along the road back to Smoke River. Twins, he mused. He’d delivered twins tonight. Twice the labor, but twice the joy.
The horses were tired. He was tired. Suddenly he pulled up. Laughter floated on the warm night air, a man’s deep tones and a woman’s lighter ones. It came from the grove of cottonwoods up ahead.
Well, well, well. He couldn’t help smiling.
He would not interrupt. Maybe nine months from now there would be another set of twins for him to deliver.
“You own the Double H?” Wash stared at her, scarcely able to believe what she had said.