“He’ll return to Wyoming,” Elizabeth muttered, more to herself than anything.
“He can’t.” Mother’s face pinched. “He’ll need to stay and manage his grandfather’s estate, unless he wants to see Jonah Hayes’s life’s work run into the ground.”
As though that would bother him.
“You simply must go over there and stand beside him.” Mother gripped her shoulder and nudged her forward. “The man escorted you here, and now he’s not paying you the least attention. It’s nearly scandalous.”
Probably wiser not to tell Mother she ignored him, not the other way around. “The man didn’t escort me anywhere. We—”
The announcement for dinner interrupted her.
“What excellent timing. Come along now. I’ve already arranged for him to sit across from you.”
Luke shifted sideways ever-so-slightly in an attempt to put some space between himself and the gentleman crowding his left side. Unfortunately that placed him a little too close to the girl wearing butter-yellow and ruffles standing on his right. He looked around the banquet hall. With dinner and the speaking long finished, people sauntered toward the exits.
But for all the people leaving, he stood surrounded. He stuck a finger in his collar and pulled. Four hours of chattering. Meet him, meet her, donate money to this, donate money to that. He needed a break.
And he spotted his excuse to escape, right by the back double doors. Jackson stood in a corner alone with Samantha, far too close and looking ready to eat his little sister for dessert.
Where was Miss Wells? Wasn’t she supposed to be chaperoning? He glanced around the room. There she was, on the far side of the hall, engaged in a fierce conversation with an older gentleman. The woman probably wouldn’t be paying attention to Jackson or Samantha anytime soon.
Luke shifted his gaze back to the rotund man earnestly yammering about beds and quilts for the hospital. “If you’ll excuse me, sir. There’s a matter I must see to.”
The man’s mouth dropped slightly. “Yes, well, can we look forward to that donation, then?”
“I’ll speak with my lawyer.” Luke dipped his head and scooted toward the door, their shirts brushing as he squeezed past. He didn’t glance back at the girl in yellow, but another mother waiting with a different young lady gave him a furious glare.
Reaching Jackson and Sam, he grabbed Jackson’s shoulder and jerked the younger man backward. The city boy landed against his chest with an umph. “You best step back from my sister. Or you’ll not be seeing the likes of her again.”
“Yes, sir,” Jackson squeaked.
Samantha scowled at him. “Let him go, Luke. He wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
“He doesn’t need to stand so close.” Luke let go of the slippery accountant, and with another three steps, he burst through the doors and into the yard. Muted voices from inside floated to his ears, horses clomped past on the road and an electric railcar clunked along the street. No one else appeared on the patio, but he stood awful close to the banquet room. Anyone who stepped outside could see him, and one of those calculating mothers was sure to send her daughter out. He ducked around the far side of the hotel, where shadows shrouded the ground.
A gate or wall of some sort blocked the far end of the pathway leading to the street. Probably a wise decision on the hotel’s part. One too many men had likely gotten bored with a fancy to-do and escaped thataway. Hang it all, he would escape if he didn’t have two women to escort home.
He leaned against the brick and inhaled the thick city air, not nearly as stale as the air inside that banquet hall, but a far cry from the clean air of home. At least he had a break from all the badgering. How many young women could a man be expected to meet in one night? He didn’t remember what half the ladies looked like, let alone their names.
And he wouldn’t go back inside until he figured out some way to stop the constant requests for donations. Maybe he could be generous with some of his money before he returned to Wyoming—Grandfather had evidently been so—but a man needed a chance to breathe, didn’t he?
A door thudded and footsteps clattered against the stone pavers.
“Don’t be infantile. You know we must have the money back.”
Luke grimaced. Probably time to show himself and get back to the banquet.
“You simply can’t revoke the funding from the school. Half of it’s already spent.”
The steely voice laced with sugar stopped him. Was Miss Wells out here? Alone with a man?
“Well then, unspend it.” Frustration grew in the older masculine voice.