A fist tightened around his heart. His sister stood before him, her body tall and womanish, her eyes alive with hope and passion, her mind determined to win their argument. He’d had a dream once, too—one he shared with Blake about buying a cattle ranch. No one had told him that he couldn’t. If anything, Ma and Pa had encouraged him and Blake to make their own ways in life. And they had.
And while he’d been out West, grieving Blake and seeing to the cattle ranch that now belonged solely to him, Sam had grown up, become a woman.
But woman or not, she still had a dying ma in the Teton Valley, and he had a promise to keep. Except didn’t he also have a duty to reunite his sister and mother before it was too late? “I’m not trying to quash anything, Sam. Ma and Pa miss you. Is it so hard to believe they want to see you again?”
Her back went rigid as a fence post. “They sent me away.”
“Come on now. Once you get back home and see some of your old friends, things won’t seem so bad. Levi Sanders took over his pa’s ranch a year back, and he’s looking for a good wife who knows the ways of a ranch. Not a silly city woman who can’t tell the front end of a horse from the rear. Here.” He dug in his pocket and held out the creased envelope. “Levi sent you this letter.”
She clutched her hands together defiantly, but her actions didn’t hide the moisture shimmering in her eyes.
He blew out a breath. What was he to do with a girl who was hard as iron one minute and all weepy the next? “Take the letter, Sam, and stop being so all-fired stubborn.”
“What about Cynthia and Everett? Are you forcing them to go back, as well?” she whispered furiously.
He froze, a flood of bloody images he couldn’t erase scalding his mind. “I wouldn’t take them back West for all the land in the Teton Valley.”
“Enough.” He slashed the air with his hand, cutting her off. “We’re discussing you, not the woman responsible for Blake’s death. Now take the letter.” He shoved the envelope across the desk as a knock sounded on the door.
The butler poked his head inside. “Mr. Hayes? Mr. Byron, the lawyer, is here for your meeting.”
“Thank you.” But his gaze didn’t leave Samantha.
She huffed, stood and snatched the letter. “Fine. I’ll read it. And I’ll reply. But I’m not going back to Wyoming. I’m graduating from Hayes Academy, and then I’m attending college. I’m going to become an architect one day. You just see if I don’t.” A tear slipped down her cheek before she flew out of the room.
Luke blew out another breath and rubbed the heel of his palm over his chest, but the action didn’t quell the pain in his heart. He should have never let Pa send her away, should have stood up to his sire the moment Pa had suggested Sam had to leave after Blake died. But he hadn’t, and now he was good and stuck.
He couldn’t drag his sister, crying and screaming, away from a place she loved. And she wasn’t about to come willingly...unless he told her about Ma. But then he’d be breaking his promise, and a man couldn’t just up and ignore a promise like that.
His fingers dug into the polished wood top of the desk. If he did nothing else on this confounded trip, he’d convince Sam to come home on her own.
If only he could figure out how.
* * *
Elizabeth’s head ached, her neck muscles had turned into a mass of knots and her stomach roiled as though it would heave out her lunch—despite the fact she hadn’t eaten any.
She could blame most of her discomfort on Luke Hayes.
She’d grown up with a politician father. She’d seen him, her younger brother, Jackson, and even her mother wheedle donations more times than she could count. Goodness, she had wheedled donations before. She knew the best way to go about it. Smile. Look pretty. And agree with everything the potential donor said.
Not three hours earlier, the man who could save Hayes Academy had stood in front of her. She hadn’t smiled. She’d probably looked a fright with chalk on her skirt and her hair askew. And she’d disagreed with everything he had said.
Goodbye, Hayes Academy.
She sighed. Was she was being too hard on herself? Luke Hayes had interrupted her quiz and then pulled her brightest pupil out of school. Certainly he didn’t expect her to smile and say, “Yes, that’s fine. Ruin your sister’s future. I don’t care in the least.”
She opened her bottom desk drawer and stuffed into her satchel the letters she needed to work on the ledgers. He had no right to rip Samantha out of class then spout off about his sister not being her concern. Of course she was concerned—she knew exactly what the girl was going through. The battle was all too familiar.