“Thank you.” He rubbed the cloth over his palm and returned it.
She wiped her hands furiously, even though she’d be back to work the second he left.
He simply watched her, a half smile quirking the side of his mouth. “You missed a spot.” He pointed to her right sleeve, where a huge smear of white stood stark against the yellow of her dress.
“Thank you,” she gritted.
“So can I take those ledgers now?”
“I’d—” ...rather eat a toad!
Could she lie? Tell him things were going well—or at least as well as they had been before the newspaper article appeared on Monday morning—and tear out the last pages of the ledgers so the school appeared to have money?
She rubbed her fingers over her temples. No, of course she couldn’t do such a thing. She’d never been one to lie for convenience, and she wasn’t about to develop the habit now. He’d find out the truth soon anyway; just as he’d learned of the article she’d written to the paper. Better to be honest.
No, better to ask for another donation, and then be honest.
Except she didn’t want to ask the arrogant man in front of her for a penny.
Taking her requests to Jonah, with his kind smiles and grandfatherly manner, had been easy. But the man who had stormed into her class yesterday and torn Samantha out of school wasn’t exactly grandfatherly.
She stared into Luke Hayes’s rigid face, his mouth and eyes stern and unreadable, and forced herself to form the words. “Actually, I’ve been wanting to speak to you about the ledgers and the academy. We’ve recently had difficulty with several of our donors, and I was hoping you could make a donation to Hayes Academy.”
There. She’d said it. Surely she deserved some type of award. A medal of honor, a golden cup, a life-size statue of herself erected in the town square.
“Yeah, that would at least be something nice you could do for the school.” Samantha crossed her arms over her chest. “Seeing how you’re dead set on pulling me out of it.”
But Mr. Hayes didn’t bother to look at his sister. “Grandpa donated slews of money to Hayes Academy. I don’t understand why you can’t be happy with what it’s already received.”
She threw up her hands. The man’s brain was as dense as a piece of lead. “Happy? You think I want a donation to make me happy? Girls’ futures are at stake, not my happiness. It’s an issue of keeping the school open, so we can train young women, not pleasing me.”
Mr. Hayes rubbed his hand over the back of his neck. “Why is girls getting high school diplomas so all-fired important? I never graduated from high school, and neither did Grandpa. Yet here I am, doing a fine job of running my ranch without any piece of paper from a high school.”
She opened her mouth to respond, then snapped it shut. What did she say to that? Was it true Jonah Hayes never finished school? Probably. A lot of young people left to find work before graduating even now, let alone sixty years ago.
Mr. Hayes’s face remained set, his jaw determined, but sincerity filled the little sun lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth. He wasn’t furious with her as he’d been yesterday but was asking an honest question.
And here she was, parading the importance of educating women in front of him, when he’d never finished his own education. Did he feel slighted or belittled? That hadn’t been her intention. “Well, you see, a high school education is important because—”
“Never mind. I read your article last night. I don’t need to hear some highfalutin list of arguments in person. Just give me the ledgers, and I’ll be on my way.”
“Oh...um...” And there again the man had her speechless. From ledgers to donations and back again, she could hardly keep up with the conversation. “Will Monday be all right? Samantha and I have a bit more work to do on them this afternoon, and I’ve some issues to discuss with my brother. I truly need the books over the weekend.”
Mr. Hayes blew out a long, tired breath, the kind that held a world of weariness in the exhaled air. “Monday, then. Sorry to disturb you ladies.” And with that, he swung back onto his horse and galloped off.
Elizabeth tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear and sighed. The conversation surely could have gone worse. At least she hadn’t stormed away in a rage, and he hadn’t refused to give money to the school—
Though he hadn’t agreed to give any, either.
So why did she have a sour taste in her mouth?
She turned and offered Samantha a weak smile. “I feel like I handled that wrong.”