Elizabeth glanced at the other side of the carriage, where Samantha’s breathing had grown deep and even with sleep. “She must have no idea. You clearly haven’t told her yet, or she’d be packing her bags and heading West on the next train.”
Mr. Hayes’s hand clenched around her arm again, squeezing so tightly her hand grew pale and cold. “I can’t tell her and neither can you. My ma and I aren’t fools, Miss Wells. We read Sam’s letters and know she likes her schooling. Neither of us wants to take her away from something she loves. That’s why Ma made me promise.”
Promise? What kind of promise could he be talking about? Likely not a good one if it prevented Samantha from finding out about her mother. “What did you promise?”
“Not to tell Sam about the illness. The doc says Ma’s got a year to live. She’s ailing faster than that. Everyone can see it. Pa, me, any of our friends, but she’s gone and convinced herself she has plenty of time, so Sam doesn’t need to come home until she graduates. Then she thinks Sam will spend the summer with her before she passes.... But she won’t last until summer.”
Elizabeth clasped her hands together on her lap and glanced down. His mother was dying, and he and his sister were stuck two thousand miles away. What must that feel like? For all the antics she put up with from her own mother, she’d be devastated were her mother to become seriously ill. “So instead of telling her about your mother, you’re not giving her any choice in leaving.”
The clomp of the horse’s feet and rumble of the carriage wheels grew louder as the carriage moved from the dirt road onto the cobbled streets of Valley Falls. A few more moments, and she would be home, the conversation finished whether she’d spoken her piece or not.
The soft moonlight filtering through the window cast Mr. Hayes’s hair and eyelashes in a silvery glow, outlining half of that strong, handsome face while leaving the other in shadows.
She understood him now, at least partly. It made sense that this man would storm into Hayes Academy and announce his sister had to leave, made sense that he’d want to sell everything and get back to his mother’s bedside as quickly as possible. She’d do the same in that situation. And yet, Samantha was trapped between his desires and his mother’s wishes, and all the answers she needed were being withheld. “You need to tell your sister anyway. She deserves a chance to decide for herself what she’s going to do.”
“No man with any bit of character can just up and break a promise like the one I made to Ma.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t have made the promise in the first place.”
“You try telling the woman who raised you no, while she’s lying on her bed coughing up blood.”
The carriage rolled to a stop in front of her house, and Elizabeth took her reticule and stood as the coachman opened the door. “If you don’t tell Samantha, you’ll end up breaking her heart in a worse way than Jackson ever could.”
His eyes widened even as his jaw took on that familiar, determined set. She turned and stepped down from the carriage before he could think of something else to say, because in the end, her words would turn out true. He knew it. She knew it. And even his mother, sick and dying back in Wyoming, had to know it.
* * *
Luke’s boots sank into the plush carpet as he carried Samantha across the floor and laid her on her bed. Lavender and lace decorated the room, from her bed to her curtains to the wallpaper. Girlish colors in a childish room. He swiped a hand over his eyes, trying to dispel the image of Sam kissing Jackson, but it clung to his mind like a wood tick on a buffalo.
Sam’s dress rustled as she curled on her side without waking. Lamplight spilled off the silvery-blue material, making it glisten in the half-lit room. He should probably rouse a servant to help her change. But she looked so restful he could hardly wake her.
Her face lay peacefully against a white, flowery pillow. Tears had streaked the black around her eyes and the pink smudged onto her cheeks. He rolled his shoulders and took a clean handkerchief from his pocket to dab her face.
The girl was too young for makeup, and too young to be kissing Jackson. She’d looked like a gullible child beside the accountant. But society deemed her old enough to attend the banquet, old enough to find a husband, old enough to graduate from school. And she seemed so grown-up in that confounded dress, such a mixture of girl and woman he hardly knew what to do with her.
She wasn’t supposed to start crying when he protected her from a man. Wasn’t supposed to claim she loved the scoundrel. And she wasn’t supposed to come out East and make plans for her life that didn’t include her family. She should chafe for home at that ridiculous academy, not want to graduate. Not think about going to college or becoming an architect. Luke raked a hand through her hair. He didn’t want to crush her dreams or the life she’d built in Valley Falls, but to protect her. If her dreams were doomed to fail, then wouldn’t she be better off back home, with her family looking out for her? Wouldn’t she be happier in Wyoming, the place where she belonged and where she’d have time to spend with Ma before it was too late?