The girls returned to their work—or attempted to. Half still peeked up despite their bent heads.
Elizabeth moved to the door and held it for Samantha and the stranger. Neither moved. She anchored her hands to her hips and ground her teeth together. Of all the days. Didn’t the Good Lord know she hadn’t the patience for such an interruption this afternoon?
The man hugged Samantha, bracing her shoulders with a hand that held...a cowboy hat? Elizabeth blinked. Surely she didn’t have a cowboy in her classroom. Her eyes drifted down his long, lanky form. He wore a blue striped shirt, some type of leather vest, a brown belt and tan trousers complemented by a pair of what could only be called cowboy boots. And was that a red kerchief around his neck?
Plus he was covered in dust—whether from traveling or working with cows, she didn’t know—but she could well imagine the dust embedding itself on the front of Samantha’s—
A cowboy. From out West.
No. It couldn’t be.
But it was. She knew it then, as surely as she knew how to solve the quadratic equations on the board. Samantha clung to her brother.
The Hayes heir.
The man who held the power to either continue Hayes Academy or close the school for good.
“Samantha?” Elizabeth’s vocal cords grated against each other as she spoke, but she had to get her student and Mr. Hayes out of the classroom.
Finally, the girl pulled back from her brother and looked around the roomful of staring students. She flushed and moved into the hall, the dark skirt of her school uniform swishing about her ankles. The cowboy followed but only to crush his sister against him in another embrace.
Elizabeth wasn’t sure whether to roll her eyes or scream.
* * *
Luke Hayes hadn’t hugged his sister in three years, two months and thirteen days—not that he’d been counting—and he didn’t plan to stop hugging her because some fancy teacher squawked at him like a broody hen dead set on guarding her eggs.
“I’m sorry, Sam. I didn’t mean to get you in trouble,” he spoke against her head, still unable to unwind his arms from her.
“It’s all right,” came her muffled reply.
She’d grown taller and curvier since he’d seen her last. Looked grown-up, too. Her hair was done up in a puffy bun, not long and free as it had been in the Teton Valley. And she smelled different, no longer of sunshine and wildflowers but like fancy perfume. He tightened his hold. He should have come and yanked her out of this school sooner, regardless of what Pa had to say about it. “I missed you. Can’t rightly say how much.”
Inside the classroom, the teacher said something in that stern voice of hers. Then the distinctive clip of a lady’s boots on wood flooring grew louder, and the door closed with a thunk. “Samantha Hayes, what is the meaning of this?”
Sam pulled away from him, her eyes finding the floor. “I’m sorry, Miss Wells. I didn’t mean to make a scene. This is my brother, Luke, from Wyoming.”
The hair on the back of his neck prickled. Sam didn’t need to cower like a whipped dog because she had hugged him. He crossed his arms and met the teacher’s stare.
Hang it all, but she was a beautiful little thing, with deep hazel eyes and a wagonload of reddish-brown hair piled atop her head.
Her name should be Eve, for if ever God had created a perfect woman, she was it. Adam would have taken one look at that long, smooth face, milky skin and sparkling hazel eyes and been lost.
Good thing he wasn’t Adam.
He swallowed and took a step back, while Sam snickered beside him. Why was he staring? Pretty or not, she was a city woman—just the type he avoided. Citified women didn’t fare well out West. They squealed when a bear meandered into the yard, left the door open on the chicken coop and complained about getting water from the hand pump—he knew. His twin brother had up and married one of the useless critters.
He scowled, but still couldn’t pull his eyes from the gentle curve of the teacher’s cheek or the soft pink of her lips. “Excuse me, ma’am, but I didn’t catch your name.”
“Miss Elizabeth Wells.”
Did she know a strand of hair had fallen from her updo and hung beside her cheek? Or that she had a big smear of white—most likely chalk—smack on the front of her plum-colored skirt?
“I’m Samantha’s mathematics instructor and private tutor.” She arched an eyebrow, a rather delicate and refined eyebrow.
He snuck a hand atop Sam’s shoulder. “Your letters haven’t said anything about having trouble with mathematics.”
Sam smiled up at him, that familiar toothy grin that had always wriggled straight into his heart. Except the grin didn’t look quite so toothy anymore, and her lips had a rather refined curve to them. “Oh, no, Luke, not trouble. Miss Wells instructs me in preliminary calculus after school. That way I can head straight into the calculus class when I attend college next fall.”