Samantha huffed and picked up the ledger again, interested anew in the endless columns of numbers.
“Miss Wells, I can’t say I expected to find you here either, but I’ve a need to speak with you.” He glanced briefly at the equation-filled slate on her lap, and the side of his mouth quirked into a cocky little smile. “Do you ever take time off from that fancy mathematics?”
“Do you ever take time off from being a cowboy?”
The smile on his lips straightened into a firm, white line, and he swung off his horse. “I own five thousand head of cattle in the Teton Valley. I’m a rancher. That’s a mite different than being the hired help we call cowboys.”
“Indeed.” She nodded curtly and drew in a long, deep breath. With Samantha sitting beside her, she couldn’t exactly persuade him to let his sister graduate, but she still needed to ask about donating money to the academy. If only she could be polite long enough to make her request.
It was going to be very, very hard.
She blew out her breath and forced herself to smile.
“Can I help you up?” Mr. Hayes extended his hand.
She stared at it for a moment, hesitating to reach for him. But really, what was the point of being rude when she still had to ask about that wretched donation? She placed her palm firmly in his.
His wide, callused palm engulfed her small fingers, and heat surged through the spot where their skin met. He raised her to her feet without ceremony, as though he didn’t feel the impact of their touch somewhere deep inside. As soon as she was able, she tugged away her hand and shoved it behind her back, where it could stay safely away from Mr. Hayes.
The rascal didn’t even seem to notice, just pinned her with his clear blue eyes. “It seems you’ve taken quite an interest in the business affairs of Hayes Academy here lately.” Afternoon sunlight glistened down on Mr. Hayes’s head and cowboy hat, turning the golden-blond tufts of hair beneath the brim nearly white.
Elizabeth forced her gaze away from his hair. Why was she staring at it, anyway? So the man had beautiful blond hair. His sister did, as well. Blond hair wasn’t that uncommon.
Except when it shimmered like silvery-gold in the sunlight.
And she was still thinking about his hair. Ugh! “I teach at the academy. It’s only natural I’d be interested in it.”
“Interested enough to write editorials for the newspaper?”
Every bit of blood in her face drained to her feet, and her limbs felt suddenly cold. Did he hate her for interfering? Feel she had no business fighting for new students? Resent the negative attention she’d drawn to the school when that dreadful reporter retaliated?
The emotionless look on his face gave nothing away. His eyes stayed that cool blue, the same shade as a winter sky, without a hint of either understanding or disdain as they waited for her answer.
“Educating women is important to me.”
“I gathered that much yesterday. A bit hard to miss, actually, but I’m curious about the school ledgers at the moment.” He nodded toward the books, the one lying on the blanket and the other still in Samantha’s lap. “My lawyer informs me you’re keeping a set. I assume these are them?”
Oh, perfect. Just what she wanted to discuss. “My brother in Albany has the official ledgers. Perhaps you should talk to him.”
“I intend to, but I’d like a look at yours, as well.”
“No.” The word flew out of her mouth before she could stop it.
Samantha slammed her ledger closed. “Why do you want them? So you can look for some excuse to close down the school? As if pulling me out isn’t bad enough.”
Mr. Hayes glanced briefly at his sister. “This has nothing to do with you, Sam. I’m only doing the job Grandpa left me. Miss Wells, you must be aware that since I’ve been given my grandfather’s seat on the school’s board, I can request your books at any time.”
She knew very well what he could request, and what he’d likely do if he saw the books. He’d take one look at how little money was in the account and want the school closed immediately.
“Mind if I borrow your rag?”
Mr. Hayes held up his hand—the same he’d used to help her stand. His palm was practically white, smeared with chalk dust.
Heat flooded her neck and face. She didn’t need to look down to know her own hands were covered in fine powder.
“Messy place, these fields.”
She reached into her pocket, grabbed a hanky—one of the ones she was forever using to wipe her chalk-covered hands on—and held it out to him. “I apologize. I don’t usually forget to clean my hands.”