Luke shifted closer, running his eyes down Elizabeth’s slender form. Her face didn’t carry the flushed look of anticipation one might expect from a woman meeting with a lover, but glowed pale and taut with tension in the dim lamplight. Lines etched the corners of her mouth, while smudges haunted the hollows beneath her eyes, and her dirty, serviceable clothing hung limp and twisted on her frame. Not the way a woman would look if she had a rendezvous with a man.
She shivered under his gaze—no, not under his gaze. She was freezing. Hang it all, he’d been too all-fired frustrated to notice how cold she was.
“Where’s your coat? Did you leave home without it?” He shrugged out of his and wrapped it about her shoulders. “And why are you outside without something to keep you warm?”
“My coat’s inside with my reticule.” She hunched her shoulders against the cool air and stretched the coat tight around herself. “I was heading inside to retrieve them when I was...intercepted.”
He glanced toward his carriage, then back to her disheveled form. “You need a ride home?”
“She most certainly does not,” the other man interrupted. “She’s coming inside to dinner. Aren’t you, darling?”
“Stop calling me ‘darling.’” Her body stayed slumped as she spoke, as though she hadn’t the energy to straighten and raise her chin in that familiar, haughty angle. As though the man on the steps had already defeated her.
“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend, darling?” Something sharp glinted in the man’s eyes.
Luke shifted in front of Elizabeth as the scoundrel came forward.
“Mr. DeVander, this is Luke Hayes, grandson of the late Jonah Hayes, whom I’m sure you remember.” Gone was the usual steel behind Elizabeth’s voice, replaced by a small quiver. “Mr. Hayes, this is David DeVander, United States Representative of our congressional district.”
DeVander. The name set off warning sounds. Luke looked the scoundrel up and down, from the top of his sleek black hair to the tips of his shiny shoes. Where had he heard...?
DeVander. Luke hardened his jaw while Stevens’s words echoed inside him. This was the man who had offered to marry Elizabeth and then taken a mistress.
“The Hayes heir.” DeVander straightened and extended his hand, his eyes assessing, probably trying to figure whether he could hit up the new heir for a donation. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Luke stared at the offered hand and pushed some spittle around in his mouth. If only the lady wasn’t present...
He settled a hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder instead. “Do you want to leave? I can take you in my carriage and send a footman later for your things.”
“I already said she was attending dinner,” DeVander barked. “And she can hardly ride back to Valley Falls with you unchaperoned.”
Unchaperoned in a carriage. Did that break one of the social rules? Probably. Simply breathing was enough to break half those highfalutin guidelines. But at the very least, he could take the train and give Elizabeth his carriage.
“As though you would complain if I rode unchaperoned in a carriage with you,” Elizabeth snapped at DeVander, then turned. “I appreciate your offer, Luke. I can use a ride home.”
Luke extended his arm, and she took it.
“Very well, Elizabeth.” DeVander glowered at them through the darkness. “I’ll be waiting to hear your decision.”
A shudder rippled down her slender frame as she headed to the carriage.
“What happened back there?”
Elizabeth’s bottom had barely touched the carriage seat before Luke asked his question.
What had happened? She pressed her shaking fingers to her temples. She wasn’t sure. Mother had deceived her and arranged an engagement to David. Father had a mistress—which evidently wasn’t a shock to anyone but her. And David had proposed.
No it wasn’t just a proposal. David had offered to help her family out of their current disastrous situation if she married him. The hard timbre of his voice as he made his offer resonated through her memory.
“Elizabeth?” Luke’s fingers, firm but warm, took her chin and lifted it up until their eyes met.
She pulled back and sank deeper into the carriage seat. If only she could be home. In her own bed, that sat in her own room, that was part of her own house, surrounded by her own soothing things, in the comfortable world she’d created for herself.
She would be there in a little over an hour. She just had to endure the ride home with Luke first.
The carriage lamp burned above them, casting the inside of the conveyance in a soft orange glow. She shrank farther away from Luke. Why did it have to be lit? Darkness had cloaked their ride back to Valley Falls after the banquet, but now he could see everything about her, from her dirty clothes to her falling hair to the tears brimming in her eyes.