The man she loved. The words packed a wallop to his gut.
“Samantha!” Shock seared Miss Wells’s voice. Whether because of Sam’s accusations or her attitude, he couldn’t tell. “You mustn’t blame your brother. It’s my fault. I got myself into some trouble, and then I accidentally knocked my hair askew when I put my head in my hands.”
Luke took a step toward Miss Wells. “You don’t owe—”
“Your brother came to my aid,” she continued. “Yes, my hair is down, but if not for your brother stepping in, I may well look worse.”
“Are you all right, Elizabeth?” The words were appropriate, but doubt tinged Jackson’s voice. Instead of going to his sister’s side, Jackson wrapped his arm tighter about Samantha’s shoulders. He didn’t ask why her head had been in her hands or if anyone had tried to hurt her, didn’t even sound like he believed her.
Miss Wells raised her chin a notch, masking whatever she felt beneath that polished veneer of calm. “Thank you, I’m fine.”
So she claimed. But she swallowed as she stood there. So still, so alone, his arm ached to reach out and pull her against him.
A bad idea to begin with, and definitely not something to attempt with Jackson and Samantha around. Still...couldn’t Sam hug the woman or something? Then she wouldn’t seem so abandoned.
“Right.” Sam’s gaze darted between Miss Wells and him, and the hairs on the back of his neck prickled.
Samantha and Jackson were in the wrong, not Miss Wells and him. And he wasn’t about to stand around while someone else threw accusations at the poor teacher. “We’re leaving, Samantha. Now.” He pointed toward the front of the building, then turned to Jackson. “You’d best say goodbye. You won’t be seeing my sister for a while.”
The finality in his voice must have resonated with Jackson, because the younger man reached up, touched the side of Sam’s face, and whispered against her ear.
Luke scowled. Something still told him this was the first time Sam had been caught, not the first time Jackson had kissed her that way. But as he took Samantha’s shoulders and steered her toward the street, he couldn’t block the sound of her quiet sobs.
“How could you?”
Samantha’s whimpers floated from the opposite side of the carriage. Elizabeth shifted uncomfortably and glanced out the window while the conveyance rocked and swayed toward Valley Falls.
“I love you, Sam.” Tenderness filled Mr. Hayes’s—she couldn’t bring herself to call a man she’d known for so little time by his first name, even if he’d asked her to—voice. “I’m trying to protect you.”
Indeed he was. After sneaking off with Samantha and kissing her that way, Jackson deserved a belt to his backside.
“I don’t want your protection.” Tears, rather than venom, choked Samantha’s voice.
Through the darkness shrouding the opposite side of the carriage, Elizabeth made out the combined silhouette of the two siblings: Mr. Hayes holding Samantha on his lap and the girl crying into his chest.
The moment seemed oddly tender, and something she’d no business witnessing.
“I’m your brother. I can’t just stop protecting you or caring about you.”
“But I love him.”
“I’m sure you love him, Samantha. But you’re only seventeen,” Elizabeth said, then licked her lips. The same age she’d been when she had fancied herself in love with David. “You’ve much to learn yet.”
“You don’t understand.” Samantha sniffled. “Neither of you do. You’ve never been in love.”
Elizabeth’s heart twisted. If only she didn’t understand. If only she’d never been in love. “Perhaps so. But your brother is simply trying to help.”
“If he wanted to help, then he’d let me see Jackson rather than tear the two of us apart.”
“Samantha, it’s not like that,” Mr. Hayes rasped, his voice a mixture of tiredness and frustration.
Fabric shifted across the carriage, likely Samantha moving away from her brother, and Elizabeth sighed. The girl didn’t realize how blessed she was to have a brother willing to protect her from ill-intentioned suitors. If her own family had been half as concerned about her as Mr. Hayes was about Samantha, then breaking off her engagement with David all those years ago might have worked out better. Namely, her family wouldn’t still think her a villain for her decision.
Instead, she’d had to fight her family to get away from David, rather than fight to be near him.
“Do you mind?” Mr. Hayes appeared from the shadows and settled onto the seat beside her. “I’m not exactly welcome on the other side of the carriage at the moment.”