An image of Luke Hayes, standing in the school hallway with his arms crossed and that frown on his face, flashed across her mind. “Is your brother still determined to take you out of school? If there was such a problem with your attending, why didn’t he or your father protest earlier, when you first started?”
“It’s not my going to the school that’s the problem. It’s staying in Valley Falls now that Grandfather is gone. Luke’s decided I have to return to Wyoming.”
The breath stilled in Elizabeth’s lungs. Pulling Samantha out of school was bad enough, but to take her all the way back to Wyoming? Samantha’s future would be ruined. “Why would he want such a thing?”
Samantha tucked her knees up into her chest and huffed. “Because he’s a tyrant, that’s why.”
“I’m sure there’s more to it than that.” There had to be. No one would be so cruel without a reason, not even the intimidating man she’d argued with yesterday.
“Not really. All he’ll say is that Ma and Pa miss me, there’s no one left to care for me here and I belong back on the ranch.”
Elizabeth reached over and squeezed Samantha’s hand. “Do you think it would help if I talked to him? Maybe if I explained all the opportunities graduating would give you, he’d let you stay.”
“It won’t work, not with my brother. Once he gets an idea into his head, he doesn’t listen to reason.”
Elizabeth let the silence settle between them, punctuated by the chirping of birds, the nattering of squirrels and the constant trickle of water over rocks. There wasn’t much she could say, really. She’d speak with Luke Hayes, all right, do anything she could to keep Samantha here. But Samantha knew the man better than she did, and if Samantha didn’t think anything was going to change Luke Hayes’s mind, the girl was probably right.
“How long since you’ve been home?”
“That is rather long.” Elizabeth bit the inside of her cheek. “Christmas doesn’t afford a long enough break for you to travel home and come back, but maybe if you offered to return to Wyoming for a visit after you graduate, your brother would let you stay until then.”
“Actually, I’ve been thinking of something else...” Samantha drew in a breath and fixed her eyes on the ground. “Do you think it’s wrong to...to hope Jackson proposes? Then I could stay here, marry him and not bother with anything Luke says.”
The meadow grew silent around them as she stared at Samantha’s flushed cheeks. Her brother and Samantha certainly showed signs of being a good match. But Samantha had dreams of being an architect, and she was still so young...
“I—I think marriage is a very serious decision, one that affects the rest of your life. If you marry Jackson, you should do so for the right reasons. Because you love him, want to spend the rest of your life with him, and will be happier with him than you’d be without him. Marrying for any other reasons will just cause trouble.”
It was a lesson she’d learned far too well when she’d been Samantha’s age.
A horse nickered somewhere in the distance, and the ground reverberated with the steady thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump of the beast’s gallop.
“I suppose you’re right.” Samantha looked up from the speck on the ground she’d been staring at. “That sounds like Triton’s gait, but who would be riding out this far? The stable hands don’t usually head this direction.”
A moment later, a rider in a cowboy hat appeared atop a magnificent dark brown steed at the far edge of the field.
Samantha scowled. “I should have guessed. My brother has to spend at least six hours of his day on a horse, or he goes crazy.”
Elizabeth tried not to watch as Luke Hayes approached, but in truth, she could hardly take her eyes from him as he raced across the field. He seemed to move as one with the strong horse, his legs hugging the beast as though it were an extension of his own body. It hardly seemed possible to imagine the man stuffed into Jonah Hayes’s office, going through the endless papers.
“Good afternoon.” Mr. Hayes reined the horse to a stop beside the blanket, towering over them like a king; then his eyes narrowed on his sister. “You didn’t say anything about coming out here, Sam.”
Samantha’s eyes flashed, and she crossed her arms over her knees. “I wasn’t aware I needed to ask permission to go for a walk on the estate.”
He raised one of his arrogant eyebrows and scanned the blanket, ledgers and slates sprawled on the ground. He didn’t need words to express the thoughts clearly written across his face: this doesn’t look like an unplanned walk.