And she’d wanted to ride with him to the edge of the ranch.
He tossed the rag into the pail in the corner, already a quarter filled with sodden cloths, washed his hands in the basin, then moved back to her. The scents of rose water and blood and chronic sickness emanated from the bed.
She opened those dull blue eyes and blinked up at him.
“Are you...” All right? He clamped his teeth together. Of course she wasn’t all right. Every day she crept closer to death. And every day Sam stayed East was a day forever lost between mother and daughter.
“Luke...promise me.” Short breaths wheezed from her mouth.
“Promise you what?” He knelt on the floor, his eyes tracing every dip and curve and line of her features, branding them into his memory lest she not be alive when he returned.
She wrapped her hand around his, her corpselike skin thin and translucent against the thick, healthy hue of his palm. “Th-that you won’t tell Samantha how sick I am.”
“What do you mean? Haven’t you told her yet yourself? Doesn’t your letter explain?”
She looked away.
“Ma?” He stroked a strand of limp hair off her forehead. “You have to let Sam know you’re sick.”
“No.” A tear streaked down the bony ridges of her cheek. “If I tell her, she’ll come home. She needs to stay and finish school.”
“She deserves to make that choice on her own. Deserves the chance to see you before you...” Die. He couldn’t move the wretched word past the knot in his throat. Ma might not want Sam told about her condition, but Sam would never forgive herself if Ma passed without her saying goodbye. “Surely you want to see Sam again? Surely you miss her?”
Ma squirmed. “Let her finish her schooling, and we’ll see each other next summer.”
Except Ma wasn’t going to live that long. “Sam needs to know. Now.”
“I won’t let her give up the life she loves to watch me die.” She shook her head, her sunken eyes seeking his. “You mustn’t tell her. Promise me.”
He couldn’t do it. He could barely stand to leave Ma as it was, wouldn’t if he had any choice in the matter. How could he promise to keep her condition from Sam? Maybe Ma was right, and Sam wouldn’t want to come home, but she should know what was going on.
“Luke? Promise?” Ma’s voice grew panicked, even desperate.
Something twisted in his gut.
His twin’s death three years earlier had been quick, nearly instant. Watching Blake die had hurt, but watching the life slowly drain from Ma? No one should be asked to endure such a thing.
But he couldn’t very well leave her knowing he’d denied her last request.
He might never see her again. Even if he got Sam and brought her home, he might be too late.
“I promise.” The words tasted bitter on his tongue. “Goodbye now, Ma.”
He stood, swiped Sam’s letter from the top of the dresser, and left, taking long strides out of her room and through the ranch house before she could thank him.
Before delight from his agreement could fill her face.
Before common sense forced him to rescind his promise.
Valley Falls, New York
The simple cotton curtains on the classroom window fluttered with a whispered breeze, while autumn sunlight flooded through the opening in the thin fabric and bathed her in a burst of gaiety. But the warm rays upon Elizabeth Wells’s skin didn’t penetrate the coldness that stole up her spine, numbing her lungs and turning her fingers to ice.
Elizabeth tightened her grip around the envelope in her hand. She could open it. It wasn’t such a hard thing, really, to slip the letter opener inside and slit the top. She just needed a moment to brace herself.
The envelope weighed heavy against her skin, as though it were made of lead rather than paper. She ran her fingers instinctively along the smooth, precise edges. A quadrilateral with two pairs of congruent sides joined by four right angles. The mathematical side of her brain recognized the shape as a perfect rectangle. But the contour of the paper didn’t matter nearly so much as what was written inside.
She sighed and glanced down, her gaze resting on the name printed boldly across the envelope.
Miss Elizabeth Wells
Instructor of Mathematics
Hayes Academy for Girls
Forcing the air out of her lungs, she slit the envelope from the Albany Ladies’ Society and slipped out the paper.
Dear Miss Wells...
The jumble of words and phrases from the letter seared her mind. Regret to inform you...revoking our funding from your school...donate money to an institution that appreciates women maintaining their proper sphere in society. And then the clincher. The Albany Ladies’ Society not only wanted to stop any future funding but also requested the return of the money they had already donated for the school year.