Lady Lavender - Page 9

Like life, Jeanne thought. Like youth. You blinked and it was over.

Inside the bank the air was cool, the light dim. Jeanne stepped up to the teller’s window. “I wish to see my safe box, if you please.”

The blond youth behind the iron grate glanced up at her, then focused on Wash, who was suddenly standing at her shoulder. “Sure thing, Mrs. Nicolet. Just step this way.”

Manette settled herself on a bench to wait, and Wash followed Jeanne through the grille and toward a private room.

“I heard all about you, Colonel Halliday,” the boy said as he led the way. “About gettin’ shot and being in prison and—”

“Take my advice, Will. Don’t join the army.”

“Pa wouldn’t let me anyway. Says I have to be a banker, like him.”

“Not a bad life,” Wash said.

“Not very much excitement, bein’ stuck in a bank all day.”

Wash grinned. “Excitement is highly overrated.”

Jeanne’s breath stopped. When he smiled, the perpetual frown on his face lifted. He was not so frightening, now. Alors, he was almost handsome. Or would be if his smile ever reached his eyes. Surreptitiously she studied his profile while the boy returned and plunked the small steel box onto the polished desktop.

“Merci, William.”

The boy unlocked the box. At the click, she leaned forward, plunged her hand inside the receptacle and drew out a rolled-up parchment tied with ribbon.

“Here is my deed,” she said with a note of triumph. “See for yourself.”

Wash unrolled the document and scanned the words. He’d known it all along, but his heart sank anyway. “It’s like I said, ma’am. You’ve been swindled. This deed is fake.”

Her face turned white as cheese. “How do you know this?”

“Well, look here, ma’am.” She stepped up beside him and studied the document he held out.

“There’s supposed to be two signatures, buyer and seller. Only got one here. Yours. Doesn’t prove a thing.”

She stared up at him. “You mean it is false?”

“’Fraid so, ma’am.” He breathed in her scent and his fists clenched.

Her whole body went rigid. “You mean I do not own my farm? My lavender?”

Wash wished he could drop through the floor. “The Oregon Central Railroad owns it.”

“But I paid money to Monsieur Lavery. I paid him all the money I had!”

“I’m real sorry, Miz Nicolet. You’re not the first person to get taken in like this, but I know that doesn’t help much.”

“You mean I have nothing? Nowhere to live? No land? No lavender to sell to Monsieur Ness at the mercantile?”

He nodded.

Tears shimmered in her eyes. “But what will I do? I must care for Manette.”

His fists opened and closed. “Maybe I could get your money back. I work for the railroad, see, and—” He broke off at the look on her face.

Her tears overflowed, spilling down her pale cheeks like fat droplets of dew. Wash’s throat ached. Dammit, watching her cry ripped up his insides. He closed his hand about her elbow.

“Come on, Miz Nicolet. You need some coffee.” He folded the deed into her hand and ushered her out past the teller’s window. Manette scrambled off the bench where she’d been waiting, took one look at her mother’s face and flung her small arms around her skirts. “Don’t cry, Maman. Please don’t cry. It makes me feel bumpy inside.”

Absently Jeanne smoothed her hand over her daughter’s red-gold hair. “C’est rien, chou-chou.” The words sounded choked.

Manette tipped her head up and pinned him with a furious look. “Did you hurt my mother?”

Wash flinched at the question. Of course he’d hurt her mother. He’d yanked every bit of security out from under this woman in less than three minutes. He released Jeanne’s elbow and knelt before the girl.

“If I did hurt your mama, it was not on purpose.”

“Make her stop crying, then.”

“I would if I could, honey. I think maybe some coffee might help.” He gestured toward the hotel across the street. “Do you think that’s a good idea?”

“Yes. And some ice cream, too?” She was out the door like a nectar-hungry bee.

Wash rose to his feet with a grimace, fighting the urge to wrap the sobbing woman in his arms. Gently he took Jeanne’s elbow. Her entire body trembled like wind-whipped aspen leaves.

“Oh, hell, I’m sorry.” He grasped Jeanne’s upper arm and guided her out onto the boardwalk and across the street to the hotel dining room.

She gave no sign that she had heard his words.