Because she didn’t want a marriage based on a business contract. Perhaps some young ladies married for the reasons David delineated. But her? She’d shrivel up and die. Was the sacrifice worth it, her family for her soul?
“What are you thinking?” David’s dark voice pierced her thoughts. “Tell me.”
She took a step away from him. “You wouldn’t want me. I’ve changed too much.”
“You know how to behave, even if you’ve been off on this...” he twirled his hand in the air as though too bored to find the right word “...teaching escapade for several years. Your recent antics with newspaper articles have been a little much of late, but they merely prove a woman like yourself ought not be living on her own, without parents or a husband to answer to. It’s nothing a solid hand couldn’t correct once you’re wed.”
Solid hand. Correct. Did he think her some errant child?
“Furthermore, my late wife left me with two young sons. They need a mother. I need someone to host dinner parties and appear at political gatherings. You’re a rather good orator and would do well speaking to ladies’ groups and so forth.”
A mother. A hostess. An orator. All the things he required in a wife. Still the man said nothing about her as a person. What she dreamed of, what she liked or disliked.
Because he didn’t know. She’d been raised with him, their families were longtime friends. Then they fell into courtship and got betrothed at the proper ages. But he only knew her in the way one knew an objet d’art. A person could study the lines and forms of a sculpture, the position and facial expressions. But a statue was only clay or stone or marble, incapable of feeling or emotion, of behaving in any way other than what the sculptor designed.
That’s what David wanted: a marble wife.
His golden-tipped words would have been enough once. But she’d changed; David was right in that assessment. And she’d rather spend her life teaching mathematics and offering her students a glimmer of hope instead of hanging on the arm of David DeVander or anyone of his ilk.
“I thank you for your compliments, Mr. DeVander. But truly, I must be going. Now if you’ll let me pass so I can fetch my belongings.” She tried to brush by him, but he grasped her shoulder and turned her face to his.
“You’re beautiful, Elizabeth.” He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
She lurched away, the feel of his fingers so near her face burning despite the cold seeping through her clothing. “Don’t touch me.”
He tightened his grip and dragged her closer. “I leave for Washington in two weeks. I need a wife before I return, and your family needs money. You think I don’t know how badly off your father is? He can barely keep his house and staff and you can change all that—if you marry me.”
“Elizabeth?” a rusty voice called from the direction of the street.
Elizabeth gulped a breath and closed her eyes. She’d imagined the voice, she must have. Luke couldn’t be here, not now. She merely needed to open her eyes and see that no one stood on the walkway, particularly not a tall, lean man wearing a cowboy hat.
“What’s going on here?” the voice growled.
She opened her eyes and took in the shadowed figure in the unmistakable cowboy hat. There was no denying Luke was here, all right, staring straight at her.
* * *
Luke wasn’t sure whether to run up and yank Elizabeth from the scoundrel who held her on the steps or turn and head home. When he’d left Valley Falls an hour ago, he’d figured on finding any number of things at the Wells’s house, but Elizabeth standing outside, practically in the arms of another man, wasn’t one of them.
She tried to step down, probably to greet him, but rather than release her shoulder, the other man pulled her back against his chest. Luke curled his fingers into hard fists.
“Can I help you?” the dandy asked in a voice as smooth and liquid as water itself.
Luke flicked his gaze to Elizabeth. “Since you’re not keeping vigil near your mother, I assume she’s feeling a mite better.”
“The students were worried, especially Samantha. I volunteered to come check on you. Though I see they got their dander up over nothing.”
“Is that what your mother did to get you here?” The other man laughed, a chilling sound. “Sent word she was ill?”
The laugher must have loosened his hold, because Elizabeth jerked away and headed down the steps. “It’s not funny. My students were counting on me.”
“I’m sure they were, darling. I’m sure they were.”
She stopped before Luke, and he stilled as the words sank in. Her mother had tricked her by sending word she was ill? Why would she do such a thing? Surely Mrs. Wells didn’t begrudge her daughter helping with a play.