Elizabeth licked her lips and took another step back. Was there any point attempting to argue? The men had already made up their minds. “Yes, I’m sorry. I see I made a mistake. But I was only trying to help boost enrollment.”
“Help?” Father adjusted the lapels on his tuxedo. “We can’t afford that kind of help. It cast the school board and others involved in a bad light, and hurt the public’s opinion of us.”
You mean hurt potential voters’ opinion of you. She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from spewing the words. And to think, she’d already agreed to give a speech to educators for her father in a little over a week, to help convince them to support her father in next year’s election. Yet when he stood here now, he tossed any and all support for her school aside.
She should have never told him yes when he’d asked. “I think closing the school would be a great disservice to both young women and society as a whole.”
Father glared. “Elizabeth, I believe Edward needs to speak with you. Why don’t you go seek him out?”
Oh, sure he did. Her father’s head of staff always needed to see her when she started causing trouble, which seemed to be every time she was with her father these days.
Elizabeth sighed at the sound of the crisp English voice. One would think, after thirty years in America, the accent would mellow, but Mother still sounded as though she recently stepped off the ship from London.
“Mother.” She offered the group a tight smile as Mother squeezed into the foursome.
“Good evening, Mr. Wilhem, Mr. Taviston. Hasn’t the weather been wonderfully mild for October? I trust you’re taking the utmost advantage of it.” Mother looked elegant in a new rose-colored gown, likely one Father couldn’t afford.
“Why of course, Mrs. Wells,” Mr. Wilhem responded. “I’ve enjoyed several walks with my wife during the evenings.”
Mother smiled, a flawless half curve of lips and slight raise of eyebrows. “Have you gentlemen met the Hayes heir? I was informed Elizabeth arrived with him this evening, and I think I smell romance in the air.”
Elizabeth’s entire body grew rigid while four pairs of eyes turned to her. If only she could grit her teeth and pretend she didn’t know the woman beside her. Instead she kept her forced smile in place. “Mother, my arriving with Mr. Hayes is not what you make it seem. He decided to chaperone Samantha, and as Jackson had already asked me to chaperone, we traveled here together. Mr. Hayes and I are merely...” friends? No, too strong of a word. “...acquaintances.”
Mr. Wilhem raised those bushy eyebrows once again. “Then you’re not seeing Mr. Hayes?”
“No. I’m not accepting any suitors. Now if you gentlemen will excuse us, Mother and I have some important matters to discuss.” She squeezed her mother’s elbow so hard the woman’s perfect smile pinched.
“Yes, do excuse us, gentlemen.”
Elizabeth pulled her mother away, leaving the men to whisper furiously, probably about how soon they could announce the closing of Hayes Academy. Why even ask Jackson for a report when they’d already made their decision?
“Dear, you should have had something special made for this evening.” Mother’s lips sank into a frown as Elizabeth led her toward a vacant corner of the room. “That dress is so old I’m afraid you’ll not attract a single man.”
“I’m not here to attract men.” This time she couldn’t stop her teeth from gritting.
Mother reached up to touch a stray wisp of hair at the side of her face. “Really, Elizabeth, a girl of your wealth and beauty should be married.”
Wealth. That was laughable considering the money her family had lost in the panic. And if her beauty wasn’t enough to keep a suitor faithful, then what good was it? “I’m a mathematics teacher, Mother, and a rather good one according to my students and the headmistress. I don’t plan to stop what I’m doing.”
She should have expected the crestfallen look, the way the light deserted her mother’s eyes and turned them a dull green. But something inside her deflated anyway.
“We never should have let you walk away from marrying David when you were younger.” The tone of lecture in Mother’s voice, the hint of implied guilt, the soft way her eyes entreated Elizabeth to agree all coalesced into a giant wave of regret. Did Mother stand in front of the mirror and practice these speeches? “You were so young, and I thought we were helping, that maybe you should wait another year before you married. Now it’s been eight years and I see how foolish a mistake we made.”