She clasped her gloved hands together on her lap. What had Jonah been thinking, anyway, to leave the estate to his grandson? It would have been much simpler had Jonah divided up his legacy before his death and donated everything to charity. Then again, maybe he’d planned to do that in a few more years. No one had been expecting that sudden heart attack.
“Good evening, Miss Wells.” Mr. Hayes’s voice rumbled from beside her.
She glanced his way, then down at her lap. My, but he did look dashing in a tuxedo, all the wild strength of the West, thinly veiled in dark evening attire. Now if only he would trade in that cowboy hat for a proper top hat.
But cowboy hat or not, he’d still be the most sought-after man at the banquet. He had too much money and too-fine looks for people to ignore him. Not that she cared in the least.
And she’d best find something productive to talk about, lest she sit here contemplating his appearance for an hour. “Jackson, about our previous discussion, have you—”
“Not now, Elizabeth.” Jackson flicked his hand as though getting rid of a fly. “I’m sure Mr. Hayes has more pressing things to discuss than your preoccupation with food costs at the academy.”
“Mr. Hayes.” Jackson nodded at the rancher. “Please accept my sincere condolences about your grandfather.”
Mr. Hayes’s hands gripped the edge of the seat, and his body tensed as though he would vault from their bench and squeeze between the courting couple across the carriage. The man was quite good at issuing threats with his eyes, and this one read: Jackson Wells, touch my sister, and you’ll regret it.
“Jonah Hayes was a great businessman,” her brother continued. Whether oblivious to Mr. Hayes’s disapproval or purposely ignoring it, she couldn’t tell. “Not to mention one of my father’s most faithful and generous supporters.”
“Yes.” Mr. Hayes’s eyes glinted with studied coolness. “I understand my grandfather was a faithful supporter of a great many things.”
Jackson laughed, the overly loud sound bouncing off the carriage walls. “Have you considered following in your grandfather’s footsteps and donating funds to one of New York’s longest sitting and most popular assemblymen? My father has personally passed legislation that...”
The sun cast its fading orange rays inside the carriage while the familiar discussion about politics and campaigning swirled around her. Elizabeth shifted in the seat and made herself comfortable as the carriage wheels rumbled over the road.
If they were exactly 5.2 miles from Albany and they reached Albany in 56 minutes, that meant they traveled at a rate of 5.474 miles per hour. So say the wheels on the carriage were twenty-four inches in diameter, what would be the wheels’ rate of rotation? She closed her eyes, letting the numbers and equations dance before her.
But even with her eyes shut, the scents of grass and sun and musk emanated from the person beside her, and the seat dipped ever so slightly in Mr. Hayes’s direction, making him rather unforgettable—even with her equations.
It was going to be a long ride.
* * *
As the carriage threaded through the crowded streets of Albany, Mr. Hayes and Jackson continued to discuss Father’s politics. Jackson talking about Father’s campaign and funding for an hour wasn’t unusual, but Mr. Hayes not agreeing to give away a penny?
Across from her, Samantha stared blindly out the carriage window, bored with how Mr. Hayes had kept Jackson’s attention away from her this whole time. An intelligent man lurked behind the rancher’s cowboy hat and country slang—now if only he shared his grandfather’s passion for educating women.
Instead it seemed he’d come into town convinced he needed to undo half of his grandfather’s strides in that area. Elizabeth folded and unfolded her hands in her lap.
“Are you looking forward to the banquet?” Mr. Hayes’s breath tickled her ear.
She turned to face him. Had he and Jackson finally finished their conversation? They must have, because he was leaning over, his attention riveted to her.
“Yes, of course.”
The bright glow of streetlamps shone through the carriage window, bathing that bold, handsome face in a mixture of shadows and light, while subtle wisps of cologne teased her nose. She stared at the ceiling. She could breathe. Nice calm breaths not remotely affected by the fragrance of sun and grass and musk tingeing the air. “I...um...thank you for your concern.”
“I’d like a word with you once we step inside,” he whispered as he leaned closer.
Her heart pounded. She wanted words with him, too—about keeping Samantha in school, about contributing to Hayes Academy. But not at the banquet.