She shouldn’t be in the carriage with him at all. David had been right in that respect. She’d get in trouble if someone at the academy found out she’d ridden alone with Luke Hayes, and David would likely announce her lack of propriety to the world if doing so served his purposes. But still, letting Luke, with all his assessing looks and uncomfortable questions, escort her home seemed a small difficulty compared to walking back inside her parents’ house.
The carriage wheels clattered against Albany’s cobbled roads. Snorts, groans, creaks and shouts from all manner of conveyance, beast and persons echoed through the space she and Luke shared, but the noise from outside didn’t thwart the quiet that lingered between them.
She looked down at her hands, curled atop the soft brown leather of his duster, and settled deeper inside the warmth it offered. The scents of sunshine and grass and Luke Hayes clung to the material, as though she need only close her eyes and she could be with him in some Wyoming meadow, the sun beating down upon her back and wildflowers surrounding her. So very far away from the chaos her life had become.
She glanced up. Luke leaned forward, his eyes intent upon her face, probably still waiting to hear what had happened that evening. She could evade, of course. Change the subject or flat-out refuse to speak of the evening. Except she couldn’t ride the entire way to Valley Falls with his gaze boring into her and silence strangling the air.
“My family...” she started, but tears welled up to choke her throat.
“Your family is the biggest bunch of conniving rats I’ve ever met.”
She gasped and blinked against the burning in her eyes.
“Your ma tricked you out of helping with the play so you would come here and have dinner with that snake DeVander. Am I right?”
She looked away.
“But you didn’t stay.”
She sank her head in her hands. “Oh, goodness, what have I done? I was so disrespectful. Mother will never want to speak to me again. And Father, how will I ever stand up and give that speech for him?”
She was still supposed to speak to her fellow educators in two days’ times. And now that David was in town, he was sure to be there as well, giving a speech on the benefits of education. His attendance had likely been planned—and concealed from her—from the beginning.
She couldn’t do it. It simply wasn’t possible for her to stand up and smile and speak to educators on David’s behalf.
Luke’s fingers gently wrapped around her wrists, tugging her hands away from her face. “You did the right thing. You shouldn’t have stayed, not when your ma used deceit to get you there.”
“You heard the sermon on Sunday. ‘Children obey your parents. Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.’” The scripture tasted bitter on her tongue, and try as she might, she couldn’t stop a tear or two from slipping down her face. “Mother’s right. I’m a terrible daughter.”
“No.” He wiped one of her tears away with his thumb. “You’re a strong, courageous woman. A tad bit independent but beautiful for it. You like teaching and helping your students. You challenge those girls to be better, more educated people than they were before you met them. You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”
His words swirled around her. Supportive and hopeful and kinder than anything she’d heard all night, probably even all month. Was her independence truly beautiful? Did she mean that much to her students? And if so, how could she mean so much to them and so little to her family? “You don’t understand.”
“Maybe my students appreciate me, but according to Mother, I’m sinning by refusing to marry someone who will support Father until...until he can...”
The torrent of sobs building inside her chest broke in one violent gush. She pressed her hand to her mouth, trying to stem the swelling flood.
Luke watched her for a moment, then pulled her against himself and held tight. Tears dampened the front of his shirt, and her petticoats crinkled awkwardly against his legs; but he didn’t unleash a harsh rebuke about puffy eyes, unlady-like behavior or tears ruining his clothing. He only tightened his hold, his muscled arms offering strength and protection, his solid chest lending stability and support. She buried her face into his shoulder and cried until she had no tears left.
Then she cried harder, after the tears refused to come but her soul still ached.
He simply held on.
“Hush now, there’s nothing wrong with you. I doubt you’re disobeying God.”
The words soaked through slowly, seeping in layer by layer, and filling the icy cavern inside her chest.