Lady Lavender - Page 8

She could not answer.


“I can show you, yes. But not today. The deed is at the bank in Smoke River.”

He turned his face toward her. His eyes were nice, gray like her grandfather Rougalle’s, with fine sun lines crinkling the corners. Her heart stuttered at the expression in their depths. Such sadness. She did not like that look.

Liar! You like it very much, even if it is sad.

Something about this man’s eyes made her chest hurt. She wished he would smile once more.

“How about meeting me at the bank tomorrow morning?”

She looked at him so long he wondered if she’d heard him.

She turned her head and looked into his eyes, saying nothing for a good two minutes. At last she dipped her kerchief-swathed head in the slightest of nods.

“Very well. Tomorrow.”

Wash unfolded his long legs, stood up and stepped down off the porch. “Eleven o’clock.” He touched the brim of his brown Stetson, then turned away and strode toward General where he patiently waited at the end of the footpath. His hip hurt like hell from squatting on the porch, but he worked to keep his gait smooth.

The eleven o’clock sunlight on a midsummer morning in Smoke River revealed a number of town folk briskly crisscrossing the dusty main street on their way to buy feed or pick up their mail. The grocer, Carl Ness, was sweeping the board walkway in front of his displayed bushel baskets of ripe peaches and bloodred tomatoes. He hummed a tune as he worked his broom down as far as the barbershop where he stopped abruptly, leaving an obvious contrast between the barber’s dirty, leaf-strewn frontage and the grocer’s clean expanse of walkway.

To the left of the grocer’s sat the Golden Partridge, quiet at this hour but not empty. The minute Carl stashed his broom, he ambled toward the saloon where Wash knew he’d sit nursing a beer and glowering at Whitey Kincaid.

Whitey Kincaid was the barber. Watching Carl from the sheriff’s office across the street, Wash laughed out loud. What was known as the “Boardwalk Battle” had been waged since he’d been a boy attending the one-room schoolhouse twenty-some years ago.

The struggle between the two men had started years ago, when Whitey’s prize mare had stumbled into Carl’s carefully stacked boxes of potatoes and fresh-picked corn and broken its leg. Whitey had put the horse out of its misery and then come gunning for the grocer. The sheriff arrested both of them, Wash recalled, and three days in the same cell at the jerry-rigged jailhouse had fanned the animosity into an unspoken war both were determined to win.

Wash gazed at the saloon and ran his tongue over his dry lips. No time for a drink; Miz Nicolet should be riding into town any minute and he had to keep his head clear. He sure didn’t relish telling the French lady how easy it was to get the wool pulled over a foreigner’s eyes out here in the West.

The sound of hooves pulled his attention to the far end of the street; sure enough, it was the lavender lady herself. Her young daughter rode in front, holding a sheaf of dried lavender fronds on her lap.

The woman rode astride, her sky-blue skirt rucked up revealing black leather boots, an expanse of ruffled white petticoat, and the flash of one bare calf. His mouth went dry as a dustbin.

He strode up the street to meet her. “Morning, Miz Nicolet.”

“Bon jour, Monsieur Washington.” She drew the skinny mare up in front of the redbrick bank building next to the hotel.

Wash plucked Manette off the horse and carefully set her on the ground, then reached up for her mother. No stirrup, he noted. How the hell did she mount, anyway?

He closed his hands around her waist and felt a jolt of heat dance up both arms. When she laid her hands lightly on his shoulders, the warmth swirled into his chest. He lifted her down and found he couldn’t bring himself to release her. Her high-collared white shirtwaist swelled over her breasts and nipped into the waistband of her skirt.

She glanced at him from under the wide brim of a straw hat banded with a blue ribbon. He didn’t see her eyes for more than a half second, but her mouth had gone white and tense.

“Manette, take the lavender over to Monsieur Ness.”

But Manette was absorbed by a scraggly dandelion poking up between the wood planks of the boardwalk and the grasshopper clinging to the flower head.

“I’ll take it,” Wash volunteered. He needed to be away from her to regain his equilibrium. “Meet you at the bank.”

Jeanne scarcely stammered out her thanks before he had gathered up the sheaf, bound in twine, and started for Ness’s Mercantile & Sundries.

She turned to her daughter. “Manette?” But just now Manette was looking for bugs under the walkway. She would probably eat one or two, as she was insatiable in her curiosity, and very often hungry, as well. She squinted at something cradled in her tiny palm, a grasshopper. And then whoop! It was gone.