“If you could please just keep from telling anyone about this, this...indiscretion. I didn’t mean to kiss you, and it won’t happen again.”
“That’s two indiscretions in the past hour I’m supposed to keep secret.”
“Indeed. I’ll be more careful in my future encounters with you.”
“Tell you what. I’ll keep your secrets, if you refuse to marry DeVander.”
Her eyes flew up to his. “You can’t make such a demand. My relationship with David is hardly your business.”
“I’m making it my business.”
Her spine straightened, inch by inch, revealing the steel hidden beneath her veneer of softness. “And why is that? Are you prepared to give my family the money they need to keep their house? Or maybe you’ll make me an offer like David’s. Marriage in exchange for helping my family?”
“Would you consider it?”
He’d gone daft. Crazier than a senile old man. What made him say that? Sure, Elizabeth was being smart with him, but he didn’t want a citified wife in the first place, and certainly didn’t plan to get one by making a business deal.
“I used to think I knew what I wanted, could reach my dreams.” She stared blindly at the far wall. “But I don’t think I can do anything anymore—except for marry the man Mother’s picked out.”
And now she was thinking her life worthless. She’d had a hard enough night already, and here he was being harsh on her all over again. He reached over and took her hand. “You’ve reached your dreams, and you’re a good teacher. Do you realize that? Every one of your students is better for having sat in your classes, for having known you as a person.”
“Most of my girls would rather run screaming from the room than study advanced algebra.”
He grinned. “I doubt that, Lizzie. Really.”
“Don’t call me Lizzie.”
If a look could shoot poisoned arrows, he’d be dead several times over.
“Say you won’t marry DeVander, and I’ll call you Elizabeth.”
“You can’t talk me out of marriage by threatening to call or not call me some name.”
He scratched his forehead beneath his hat brim. “It makes me furious to see you all but forced into marriage.”
Because marriage should be more than a business arrangement. Because Elizabeth loved teaching and should pursue that rather than chain herself to a snake like DeVander. Because Pa and Grandpa had spent forty years of their lives not speaking to each other over this very issue.
“Because I don’t cotton to browbeating people into marriage.” And for some reason he didn’t understand, he’d forfeit his entire inheritance to prevent the smart little teacher beside him from falling into that trap.
* * *
Elizabeth pressed her palm against the cold bedroom window and stared out over the street. Luke’s carriage had disappeared around the corner moments earlier, but still, she couldn’t pull her gaze from the path it had followed.
She rubbed her eyes, trying to dispel the image of him inside the conveyance from her mind. Or the image of him squaring off with David. Or the one of him sending the reporter scampering away after the banquet. She could alternate between the images at will, but try as she might, she couldn’t fully shake those clear blue eyes from her memory.
Or his words. What does God want for your life?
To teach, of course. The answer was so obvious to him that she hadn’t the slightest notion why he’d bothered to ask. But then, why was the answer obvious to him, and not Mother or Father or Jackson? Why did a rancher from Wyoming understand her better than the people who’d known her since birth?
He’d sat in the carriage and held her, calm despite the storm raging inside her, open and straightforward despite her family’s deceit.
And she loved him for it.
Oh, goodness. She loved him.
No. She couldn’t. Perhaps she’d grown fond of him, and perhaps she counted him a friend. But she didn’t love him, certainly not. David had hurt her too badly to love again.
She let the curtains fall, shutting out the world beyond her own little room. She didn’t want to love a man, especially not a man who’d come to take his sister away and sell off Jonah’s life work.
She moved from the window and sank down onto her bed. She wouldn’t let herself love Luke Hayes. Perhaps he played the attentive gentleman—or rancher—when she was about. But hadn’t David? Maybe he kissed her as though she meant something. But hadn’t David? Perhaps he would even say he loved her. But she couldn’t be sure he’d love her forever, couldn’t say with certainty he’d still love her five years from now.