“I’m happy to assist.”
He sent her a lopsided grin, the kind that transformed his entire face from handsomely serious to irresistible. “You’re lying.”
She couldn’t help but smile back. “Not really. I mean, yes, the afternoon was long, and perhaps a bit frustrating, as I feel like I’ve done nothing to prove the school’s financial stability. But I’m willing to do whatever you need, if you think you can convince the school board to change its mind.”
He placed his other hand atop hers, strong and warm over her small fingers. “I’ll convince them. Don’t worry.”
He stopped at the top of the marble staircase leading down to the grand hall and turned her to face him. “You’re not one to trust people, are you? I tell you that I’ll take care of things, and you need to see a detailed battle plan before you’ll believe me.”
She paused, the words striking somewhere deep in her chest. Not one to trust people? Perhaps she trusted her students or even her fellow teachers. But not men, no. “I didn’t mean to offend you. Do forgive me.”
His gaze latched on to hers, watching, probing, as though looking into her very soul to find...what?
“You don’t even deny it, do you? Just apologize and hope you didn’t cause any hurt feelings. But you’ve no intention of trusting me the next time around, either.”
She had no answer she could give to that, not without lying, so she smiled weakly and looked away.
“Somebody’s hurt you before.”
She attempted to tug her hand away from his, but he only settled those wide, callused fingers more firmly atop hers. “Really, Mr. Hayes—”
“You can call me Luke.”
She glared at him.
“You just spent an entire afternoon in my study, working with me and my sister. It’s entirely appropriate that you call me by my first name. Just like it’s appropriate for me to start calling you Elizabeth.”
Her face turned slightly warm at the sound of her name on his tongue. “Fine, then. Luke...but I hardly see how my past, or what we call each other, pertain to keeping the academy open.”
“If I get the board to keep the school open, will that convince you to trust me a little more?”
“Probably not.” She’d trusted a man once before, and it wasn’t something she planned to do again.
* * *
Elizabeth slipped out the front door on Friday morning, picked up the paper, and nearly dropped it back onto the porch boards. There it was, written in black lettering across the bottom corner article.
Hayes Academy Creating Jobs and Opportunities for Women
Mr. Hayes—or rather, Luke—had done it. Not only had the school board members been curiously silent throughout the week, but now the paper itself seemed to be retracting its first two articles.
Her hands trembled as she glanced over the specifics. Another reporter had written this one, and Luke had been quoted as pledging five thousand dollars to the academy.
And then inviting others to do likewise.
She pressed the paper to her chest and grinned up at the sky. “Thank you, Luke.”
“Miss Wells, your mother’s taken ill.”
Elizabeth stared at her parents’ coachman and gripped the molding along the doorway until wood dug beneath her fingernails.
“She’s asking for you directly,” he added.
Giggles and squeals rang out from the parlor of her house behind her, where would-be actresses dressed in costumes and applied makeup for their production of The Taming of the Shrew. Miss Atkins’s calm voice tempered the insanity of laughs and chatter—when it could be heard above the noise.
“Ill? How ill? What’s wrong?”
“I was merely sent to fetch you, miss.”
“Yes, of course.” Something hard fisted in her chest. Mother’s illness would have to be consuming for her to cancel the dinner party tonight. She’d hosted such events before in spite of fevers, headaches and nerves. Unless...
Mother wouldn’t be using some illness as a ploy to get her away from the play, would she? Mother had a way of getting what she wanted, but surely a weekly dinner party wasn’t important enough to pull antics such as this.
“Miss Wells?” the coachman asked.
“Is she truly ill? Not feigning something?”
The coachman shifted back and forth on his feet. “As far as I know, miss.”
Elizabeth licked her lips. “Did you see her? Was she lying down?”
“I only see your mother when she needs use of the carriage.”
“Yes, of course.” Elizabeth glanced down at the tips of her shoes, part of her ready to bolt outside and head to Albany, and another part aching to ignore the summons and return to her students. The tinkle of feminine voices and laughter rose from behind her. But what had Luke said earlier, about her having family? Something about her being blessed to have family alive and well and close at hand?