His presence seemed to fill the entire bench, which was ridiculous, as he only took up 33 percent of the black leather seat. Though it seemed like more with the way the mixture of grass and sunshine and subtle cologne filled the air.
Elizabeth shivered. Because of the draft creeping in from under the carriage door. Not because Mr. Hayes shifted subtly closer. Not because he watched her with those piercing eyes. Not because he smelled so good she wanted to lean toward him.
“Why don’t you tell me what’s putting those worried lines around your mouth and eyes?” He spoke gently, that deep, rusted voice full of concern.
The carriage rocked and bumped—common, lulling movements—and somewhere outside coyotes yipped. Across the conveyance, deep, rhythmic breathing had replaced Samantha’s soft sobs.
Elizabeth picked at a speck on her dress, unwilling to meet his eyes. “It was a long night.”
“Because you learned your father’s revoking public funding from the academy?”
Embarrassment flooded her anyway. “Yes, in part because of Father, but even more so because of that reporter.” She folded and unfolded her hands in her lap. “You see, with the panic last spring and now the recession, enrollment at the academy is down, and—”
“My lawyer explained the situation. Why do you think I asked for your ledgers?”
“I’m afraid you still don’t understand. The reason I didn’t want to give you my ledgers...that is, well...a lot of donors have pulled their funding from the school...like, like my father.” She could barely force the last words over her tongue. Maybe if she said it over and over in her head, it wouldn’t be so hard to speak it aloud. My father revoked our funding. My father revoked our funding. My father revoked our—
“Your father shouldn’t have pulled your funding.”
She stared at him. “I beg your pardon?”
“I said your father shouldn’t have pulled money out from under you.”
“Why would you be bothered by such a thing, when you’re taking your sister out of school without so much as a thought about her desires?”
“Because no father should deal with his daughter like that.”
Her lungs suddenly stopped drawing air. Was he defending her? This man who’d come into town with a will of iron and a desire to make everyone bend to his wishes?
“It’s cruel enough to give you something and then ask for it back. But the old man didn’t even tell you himself. He sent his little minion to do it.” Resentment dripped from Mr. Hayes’s voice. “Then that reporter appeared, and where was your father? Or your brother? Not keeping an eye on you. Not making sure you were safe. Your brother wasn’t even concerned you may have been hurt. Instead, the scoundrel thought I’d taken your hair down and refused to listen when you tried to tell him otherwise. No person should suffer that kind of treatment from family.”
Something thick rose in her throat, and she looked down toward her feet. Surely her family didn’t treat her as poorly as he made it sound. They were just caught up in their own lives and wanted her to support their endeavors rather than her own.
So how should she answer Mr. Hayes? Say she was used to it, that they’d treated her this way since she had called off her engagement? “Thank you for your concern. But I’m a spinster. It’s ridiculous to expect my father or brother to watch me as though I were a debutante.”
“I wouldn’t have figured you for a spinster.” He shifted forward and moved a strand of hair from her face. Then he trailed his fingers beneath her jaw and tilted up her chin.
Her skin burned beneath his touch, tiny agonizing fires that paralyzed her, despite her mind screaming to slap him or push him away.
“Well, I am.” And being one was better than being a wife to the wrong man.
“You don’t want a husband? Children? A family?”
She used to. And maybe somewhere deep inside, she still did. She’d had numerous opportunities to marry, good men whose faces lit up like the sun when she’d walked into the room. But no matter how kind or interested a gentleman might seem, her experience with David had taught her that she wouldn’t be able to keep him happy. The man would probably be content with her for a year or so, then lose interest. After all, David hadn’t been engaged to her half a year, and he’d found himself a mistress. “No. I’m quite comfortable remaining a spinster. Thank you.”
Mr. Hayes released her jaw, though the pressure of his fingers against her skin still lingered. “Why? You’re still young enough to have a gaggle of little ones.”