“You could be President Cleveland for all I care. If the lady asks you to leave, you leave.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I didn’t catch your name.” The reporter’s voice turned icy.
“Because I didn’t give it. Now go.” The growl in Mr. Hayes’s voice must have convinced the other man to obey, because he departed.
* * *
“Are you all right? Did the scoundrel hurt...?”
Luke’s words fell away as he turned to face Miss Wells. He’d thought her beautiful before. She had been beautiful before, in that midnight-blue gown that reminded him of the sky just after sunset and with her hair swept up into that mass of fat curls. But now half of those thick mahogany locks fell about her shoulders and shimmered under the lighting.
She wasn’t simply beautiful, she was magnificent. Beyond magnificent. Luke edged closer, compelled partly by a desire to ensure she was safe and partly by some invisible pull he didn’t understand.
He should be drawn and quartered for leaving her unprotected with that man for so long. But she didn’t seem harmed. Her body didn’t tremble nor did tears streak her cheeks. If anything she seemed more courageous than before.
“No. I’m not hurt, and I can explain,” she answered, but she refused to meet his eyes.
“Go on, then.” His fingers itched to slide up into those burnished mahogany tresses. Surely they couldn’t feel as soft as they looked. He crossed his arms solidly in front of his chest—a good way to make his hands stay put.
She began to babble then, a torrent of words about not doing anything untoward with the reporter, and being upset earlier and grabbing her hair, at which time half of it fell down. Then she claimed if he just went back inside, she’d take a few minutes to set herself to rights, and they could leave for home.
Her brain had plumb run off and deserted her body, if she thought he’d leave her alone again. After he’d overheard her conversation about the money for the academy, he peeked around the side of the building to find Miss Wells still outside, clearly distressed. Then he’d wandered over to the gate near the street to try getting out somehow. A crying woman hardly needed to know that a man she despised had witnessed her being humiliated.
But the exit had been shut up tight, with no way to break the lock, short of putting a bullet in the thing. And since he didn’t rightly want to climb the fence and mess up his fancy getup, he waited awhile, figuring to give Miss Wells some time to herself. He hadn’t thought some brute might approach her.
“So if you please, Mr. Hayes?”
If he please what? Had she asked him something?
“I only need a moment of privacy.”
Oh, so they were back to him leaving again. “Not likely.”
She took a step away from the wall, maybe to chase him off, maybe to head somewhere herself, but the bricks at the back of her head must have pulled something loose in her up-do. The moment she moved forward, the rest of her hair tumbled down, a waterfall of velvet glinting traces of red and brown where the lights touched it.
She gasped, the quiet sound clambering through his head as though she’d screamed, and she started sifting through the heavy locks. “Oh, I’ve done it now. I’ll never be able to get this back up. I’m terrible at putting it into anything but a twist, you see. This is why most women who attend such events have maids. To pin up their hair properly, so it doesn’t fall at the slightest bump. But I simply must become a better hairdresser, living on my own as I do.” She sank to the ground, her hands still moving frantically about.
“What are you doing?”
She glanced up. “Searching for pins, of course.”
Searching for pins. She’d just been told her father was taking back money from her beloved school, then a reporter nearly accosted her, and she became upset over her hair?
Most times women made little sense, but at moments such as this, they made no sense at all. He hunkered down to help anyway.
“The things are impossible to find in the dark.” Her hand brushed his, slender and warm even through her glove, then went about searching the ground. “And I can’t go back into the hall with my hair like this. Everyone will assume your hands have been in it, or worse, and—”
She stopped and stared at him, then pressed a hand over her mouth, her eyes rounding. “Oh, no. I didn’t mean it like that. Forgive my tongue. It gets carried away far too often.”
“Calm down.” He laid a hand over hers. “If you can’t go back through the banquet hall, we’ll go ’round the side of the building and have the carriage brought out.” He’d find some way to break the lock on that gate if it meant saving the woman from rumors. Then again, maybe there wasn’t a gate on the other side of the building.