Johanna felt a spark of lightning sizzle along her arm when the sergeant touched her. She inhaled, remembering how she’d felt when Wilhelm used to waltz her across the dance floor. Why was Wilhelm, her childhood sweetheart, on her mind today? She hadn’t thought of him in years. It must be the lieutenant—with his blond good looks and charm—he reminded her of Wilhelm.
On the porch, the lieutenant turned to her and took her hand. “We’ll do all we can to find the murderers. You have my word on it.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“And I want to thank you, too, Lieutenant,” the sergeant said. “I didn’t expect your help.”
“I want to do it,” the lieutenant replied. “To help Mrs. Gunter.” He waved at them and clattered off. “I’ll see you at mess, Sergeant.” He threw the words over his shoulder.
She bowed her head, wondering why she didn’t respond to his touch when he reminded her of Wilhelm. But it was the sergeant, the man she’d dubbed as arrogant and rude, who drew her, putting her into a rare tizzy, like a silly smitten schoolgirl.
She stole a look at him from the corner of her eye. He wasn’t handsome as Wilhelm had been, though, he had a pleasant face with a strong jaw and warm brown eyes. Where Wilhelm was slim and lithe, the sergeant was stocky with impossibly broad shoulders. Strength radiated from him, from his physical presence as well as the firmness of his convictions. She found his nearness soothing, making her feel safe for the first time in a long time.
With her feelings in a muddle and her heart pounding in her ears, she tried to pull away from him, but his grip was firm. She bit her lip and realized she liked him touching her. Changing her mind, she leaned against him, drawing on his strength.
“That was very kind of you, Sergeant, to put up your own money for a reward.” She tried a small smile. “And kind of the lieutenant, too.”
He stopped and turned to her, but he didn’t let her go. His voice was soft. “It’s the least I can do for Kurt.”
This time, her smile came readily, realizing how easily he’d changed the baby’s name. First, Josiah, and now, Kurt. He really was attached to the child, and his obvious tenderness left her feeling all squishy inside.
“Can I escort you to the Bauers’ resting place. They were buried this morning after reveille. We could stop in the adjoining meadow and gather some wildflowers for their graves.”
“Ja, uh, yes, er, I mean, nein. Maybe later, if that’s fine with you.” She lifted her head and snagged his gaze. “Can you take me to see Kurt first?”
“It would be my pleasure. He’s with his wet nurse, Guadalupe, at the laundry.” He stopped and changed course, gently steering her.
“Does she take him home at night?” she asked.
“No, the commander let me have a room behind the schoolhouse. I’m with Kurt at night.”
She gazed at him, trying to puzzle out this unusual man, though, it was difficult to see much with his hat pulled low. She thought she detected dark shadows beneath his brown eyes. “How did that work out last night?”
He pursed his lips and then grinned. “Not so good, but I’ve laid in a few more supplies. Hoping tonight will go better.”
She wanted to ask about the brother he’d lost, Josiah. But she doubted he would tell her much on their short acquaintance. Instead, she decided to ask about his unusual background.
“You were a fur trapper before you joined the cavalry?” she inquired.
Zach stopped and gazed at her. Her wideset eyes were blue-gray with flecks of green in them. Hazel eyes. Interesting, especially since her hair, peeking from beneath a rather unflattering poke bonnet, was so blonde as to be almost silver-white in the sunshine. She had a pert nose with freckles across it, and a wide mouth, almost lush in its contours.
She had to be over thirty, given the ages of her daughter and deceased son, but she didn’t look her age. Except for a few laugh crinkles at the corners of her eyes, her skin was a smooth, alabaster color. And beneath her rather shapeless dress, he could guess at the contours of her body. She was full-breasted but slim after having birthed three children.
He was drawn to her, and he was seldom drawn to women, having witnessed some rough wooing at the mountain men’s annual rendezvous. Squaws and white captive women were kept to serve their masters in bed and out. Those memories had left a bad taste in his mouth, especially after his upbringing.
Mostly, he felt pity for women, knowing how vulnerable they were. It was partially why he’d offered a reward—that and because of Kurt. The boy’s parents’ deaths deserved a thorough investigation. When the boy was grown, Zach wanted to tell him that he’d brought the killers to justice.
He liked touching Johanna, could feel the warmth of her body, and he enjoyed the way she smelled of lavender. The scent reminded him of the pomanders his mother used to make to keep their clothing fresh. And Johanna had a way about her, a directness and open honesty he’d seldom encountered with most women. Not to mention how brave she’d been, facing down the commander.
How much did he want to tell her?
He’d seldom told anyone about his past, except the barest of outlines. He took her arm again, and they proceeded across the parade ground. “I wasn’t exactly a fur trapper, though, I did learn how to trap beaver, fox, and wolves.”
She nodded. “Isn’t the Sierra Nevada mountain range out west somewhere?”
“Yes, in California.”
“But you don’t sound like a westerner.”
“I grew up in Pennsylvania until I was eight years old. Then we moved west.”