“No. The mistake would have been marrying David. I’m happy remaining a spinster and teaching.”
“I expect you to care about your family’s happiness, not just your own. You’re still a Wells, after all.” Mother’s face paled beneath her face powder and rouge, and she blinked an absent tear from her eye. “And it...it happens that your family needs you right now.”
Her family needed her? Since when? They always seemed to manage fine on their own. Elizabeth reached her hand out and clasped her mother’s. “What’s wrong, Mama?”
“Oh, do forgive me, dear. I didn’t intend to get so overwrought.” Mother wiped another tear from beneath her eye and fanned her face, though the jerky movement did little good in the overly stuffy room. “It’s nothing really. At least I think it’s nothing. But well...oh, how I worry about your father. He’s not been the same since the panic, losing all his savings and having to mortgage the house, so he can build his other assets back up. Some of the voters are speaking out against politicians, claiming people like your father were responsible for the panic itself. He’s under so much strain.”
Elizabeth patted her mother’s hand. “Father may have happened upon hard times, but he’ll ride it out. He always does. A year from now things won’t seem nearly so terrible, but if there’s anything I can do, you know I’ll help.”
“Do you understand how much a good marriage could aid us in a time like this? You know I married your father because of the benefit it brought my family, even though it meant I had to leave England. Every daughter should be willing to make such a sacrifice.”
She dropped her mother’s hand. The argument was far too familiar. “I want to help Father, but I’m not willing to spend the rest of my life chained to someone like David. It’s unfair of you to expect such a thing.”
“But what if your father can’t make payments on the house? What if he loses it?” The whispered words hung in the air between them. “We’d lose everything then.”
“No.” Elizabeth spoke the word quickly, almost harshly. In her mind, she drew up an image of the century-old stone home she’d grown up in, the room in the top right corner that even now held some of her things. “That won’t happen. It’s ridiculous to even think it. Father’s been managing his own money and investments since before I was born. Perhaps the panic set him back, but he’s still a smart businessman.”
The lines around Mother’s eyes and mouth only deepened. “Don’t you see? This is why we need you, dear. You say your father won’t lose the house, but it’s possible. If you were to marry someone who could help support the family, everything would be taken care of. I’ve invited several guests to dinner next weekend, and you should have a new gown made for the occasion. It’s a time to look your best.”
Elizabeth rubbed her temples. “I’d be there, you know I would. But I told you last week, the school play is that Saturday.”
Mother’s shoulders slumped, as though the very world would end if her daughter missed one of the weekly family dinners. “The guests are coming specifically for you.”
Lovely. She so enjoyed being paraded around like a horse for auction. In fact, she could almost hear the auctioneer’s announcement. Marry Elizabeth Wells, and you’ll land yourself a spinster mathematics teacher with an overbearing mother and debt-laden father. “Why don’t you reschedule for the following week?”
Mother sighed, the unladylike sound only further evidence of her distress. “Elizabeth, dear, I have your best interest in mind by wanting you at that dinner. Your family should be more important than your students.”
She wanted to scream. She wanted to howl. She wanted to beat her head against the wall. And she would have, if any of it would make Mother understand. “You are, but this play is only once a year. I’ll attend dinner the week after next, I promise.”
“Sometimes I hardly know what to do with you,” Mother huffed. “Now, just look at the Hayes heir over there. He would make a choice husband.”
She glanced at Mr. Hayes, standing among a small crowd, tall and devastatingly handsome with layers of sun-bleached hair falling around his tanned face. Mr. Brumley, the manager of the orphanage, spoke with him, while several others circled like vultures waiting to descend upon his vast inheritance.
If Mr. Hayes’s handling of Jackson was any indication, he wouldn’t be giving away a penny.
Directly beside him, Mrs. Crawford stood with her daughter, a young lady Samantha’s age, wearing pink and flounces. Indeed, every mother in the room seemed to keep one eye trained on Mr. Hayes, waiting for that perfect chance to introduce her daughter.