Elizabeth sighed. No. Mother didn’t understand, not how important teaching was to her, or how miserable she’d be if she married David.
Perhaps Mother didn’t understand because she didn’t care to, or perhaps she was simply incapable of recognizing that some women had dreams which extended beyond marriage to a prominent husband. So round and round they went. Mother would never look at her life and see success, would never say, “Well done, Elizabeth. You’re making a difference.” She would only, always, see the world through her unchanging, marriage-hungry eyes.
“Good evening, then. I’m quite done here.” Elizabeth hurried out of the study and to the front door, not stopping to ask for her coat or reticule. The cold air cloaked her as she rushed outside and down the steps. Then she halted, staring at the empty street.
The carriage. How could she have forgotten she’d ridden here in her parents’ carriage? Mother certainly wouldn’t offer to have the coachman return her to Valley Falls, and without her reticule, she could hardly pay to take the train home.
“No way home?” a cool voice asked from the steps.
Her body tensed. If only she could find some way not to turn around, some way not to face the man she’d once promised to wed. But that would involve walking down the street and into the night without either her coat or reticule. Her knees trembled and her hand locked onto the iron railing beside the steps as she turned.
“If you’ll please step aside, I need to retrieve my things.” She tried to move around David, but he shifted to the middle of the steps and extended his hands until they touched both railings, completely barring her way.
“Yes. A great deal.” She shivered. Didn’t he realize that she needed her coat?
The lantern on the porch slanted down, illuminating David while his eyes narrowed and traveled down her once again—as though he hadn’t learned enough from his earlier perusal in the drawing room. “I’m trying to determine if the change was for the better.”
She stared into the smooth face, the hair black as midnight, and the brown eyes full of secrets. Most would call him handsome, but then, most people saw his outward charm rather than the blackness within. “And what about you? Have you changed? Or do you still keep a mistress in the house around the corner?”
He laughed, a bold, raucous sound. “Still upset about that, darling? No, if you must know. I tired of her long ago.”
“And moved on to another, no doubt. Probably one who stays in Washington. Tell me, did you bring her with you on your trip here?”
“Come now, Elizabeth. No gentleman discusses his mistress with a lady. You know that.”
No. You only discuss your mistresses with other gentlemen. The old wounds, long buried under the busyness of her current life, opened fresh as she stood before him, David DeVander, the man who had caused her untold hours of tears and heartache.
The man who had taught her never to trust another man again.
Of all the nights to have this conversation, all the times to face him, did it have to be now? Tonight? After Mother’s lie and news of the house and missing her students’ play?
She glanced down at her skirt, still splotched with chalk and cosmetic dust, and her shirtwaist tucked crookedly into her belt.
“I’m not much of a lady anymore,” she whispered. Was it a bad thing?
“You would make any man a fine wife and if you marry me, I’ll see that your family is taken care of. I’m sure you know your father’s about to lose his house.”
She tried to breathe, clean deep breaths that would calm her, allow her to think rationally. But the air choked off in her throat, and her entire body turned cold, then hot, then cold again. Mother had given her the same ultimatum inside, so why did the words seem more terrifying coming from David himself?
Perhaps because David’s offer laid the choice bare in a way Mother’s hadn’t. Mother was always imploring her to marry one man or another, but never before had her family’s house been at stake. Never before had someone made her so clear an offer: Marry and save your family or refuse and...and what?
She looked up at the house, the strong brick walls that had sheltered her family for nearly thirty years, the bedroom in the upper left corner where she’d spent the first seventeen years of her life, the room that her parents shared on the opposite corner of the second floor. She could save it, allow Mother to keep her silks and Father to keep his dignity. Just one single, tiny word. Yes.
She licked her lips. The word wasn’t hard to say, not even two syllables. So why did her tongue refuse to form it?