“I was, actually. Quite devastated.” David glanced at his feet, as though truly pained.
Elizabeth sighed. Perhaps she was being unfair. He may well have loved his wife. Simply because he hadn’t loved Elizabeth when they’d been engaged didn’t make him incapable of loving anyone else. “I’m sorry for your loss then. Truly.”
“Thank you.” He flicked his gaze over her once again, lines of disapproval wrinkling his forehead and mouth. “You’ll want to clean up for dinner, I’m sure. We’ll wait for you before we adjourn to the dining room.”
The controlling snake. He was a guest here, yet he had no scruples at hinting she wasn’t good enough to dine as she was. He may have lost his wife, may have even been upset by the death, but the man hadn’t changed. “Mother, I’d like a word with you. Now.”
Mother straightened. “Surely any conversation we have can wait until after we eat, dear.”
“No.” She clenched her teeth. “Either we talk now, or I leave.”
“You’re not leaving, when we’ve waited the better part of an hour for you to get here,” Jackson piped up. “I’m famished.”
“Yes, daughter, is this truly necessary?” Father added.
She gripped her skirt in her hands and turned. “Then watch me leave.”
“Very well, very well.” Mother stood slowly, as though trying to temper Elizabeth’s quick movements with her own languid ones. “This won’t take but a moment, gentlemen.”
Elizabeth marched straight across the hall and into her father’s office.
“Really, child. You’re going to ruin your chance with David all over again.” Mother closed the door behind her. “‘I’m sure you were devastated’? You don’t say such things to a man grieving for his late wife.”
“If he still grieved, he wouldn’t be here, expecting to have dinner with me.” Fury built inside her, an angry storm of rage and betrayal and past regrets. “You lied. I had plans for this evening, a play to help with, and you deliberately misled me to get me away from it.”
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic.” Mother sank fluidly into a chair. “I had a headache when I sent for you, and it cleared up before you arrived.”
“You didn’t send for me because of a headache. You sent for me because you wanted me to have dinner with David while he was in town.”
“Why you’re here hardly matters now that you are. So stop blabbering, fix your hair and come in to dinner. Wait. Don’t you have one of your dresses here, up in your old room? That ivory velvet?”
“Hardly matters? Have you gone daft?” She paced in front of Mother’s chair. How could the woman sit and wear that guileless smile after what she’d done? “No, don’t answer that. You must have. Or you wouldn’t have called me away from my commitments. My students have been working since the beginning of the school year on the production, and I promised I’d be there for them.
“Maybe the play and how I got here hardly matter to you. But they matter a great deal to me.” She stopped her pacing and headed straight for the door. “Good evening, Mother. I’ll see myself out. Thank you.”
“No, you won’t.” Mother sprang up, a terrifyingly quick movement for someone so elegant, and rushed to the door. “You’ll go into the dining hall and eat with the rest of us. You have a responsibility to aid your family, not spurn it, and this is your opportunity to do so.”
“Opportunity? For what? I know you didn’t want me to walk away from my engagement to David all those years ago, but that’s over and done. And you did let me. Why do I suddenly have to marry now, when you’ve survived the previous twenty-six years of my life with an unwed daughter? And don’t tell me it’s because I wrote an editorial in the paper. I’m not a fool.”
“We’re going to lose our house if you don’t marry him.”
She barely refrained from rolling her eyes. “Yes. You told me so at the banquet. But I highly doubt it’s going to happen tonight, so that still doesn’t answer my question.”
“No. You don’t understand. The bank sent a man to...to our house yesterday. He was here when I returned from the Ladies’ Society meeting. He apparently spoke with your father and assessed the value of the property. There were papers from the bank and...and...I don’t know.” She waved her hand, as though the simple gesture would shoo the problem away. “I had hopes of you and David reuniting while he was in town. What mother wouldn’t dream of such a thing? But after your father told me about the bank man...”