College next fall? He pulled his hand from her shoulder. “Sam, we’ve got a load of things to talk about, what with Grandpa’s passing an’ all. Go on and gather your belongings. You’re coming to the estate with me. I’ve already arranged it with the office.”
Her face lit up like sunlight sparkling off a cool mountain stream. “May I be excused from classes early, Miss Wells?”
The teacher’s gaze went frigid, those beautiful eyes likely to turn him into a pile of ice. “If the office has granted you leave, I’ve no authority to say otherwise.”
Luke bit back a cringe. He wouldn’t say the office had said yes. Exactly. He’d just handed a letter explaining the situation to the secretary, who would probably give it to the boss lady.
“Thank you, Miss Wells.” Samantha gave him a brief, tight hug before pulling away. “It’ll only take a moment to pack a bag.”
“No, Sam, not a bag.” He slung his Stetson atop his head. “All of your belongings. You won’t be returning.”
The teacher let out a little squeak, her hand flying up to clutch the cameo at her neck. “Surely you don’t mean to pull one of our brightest students from the academy. Why Samantha’s...”
He shut out the teacher’s prattling and focused on Sam. Her face had turned white as birch bark.
He should rip out his tongue and hang it up to dry. He hadn’t meant to tell Sam she was leaving like that, but he’d spent most of his trip out East pondering things. He’d promised not to tell Sam about the consumption, but he’d never promised not to take her out of her fancy school. If he could get Sam to make a clean break from this place, convincing her to come home with him should be easy as coaxing a thirsty horse to the drinking trough. She could help him sort through Grandpa’s things for the next few weeks, and then she’d be off to Wyoming before she had a chance to think about missing her school.
He stepped forward and rubbed Sam’s back. “Now don’t go bawling on me, Sam. It’s just that—”
“How could you take me from here?” Her voice quivered.
How could he?
How could he not? Grandpa was gone now—there was no kith or kin anywhere in the whole of the state of New York to tie her here. Surely she didn’t expect to be left here without anyone to look after her. She must hanker to see Ma and Pa and the ranch. To fall asleep to the sound of coyotes yipping and awake to the scent of thin mountain air. To see Ma before she died.
“Samantha.” The teacher laid a slender hand on Sam’s arm. “Why don’t you head to your room and freshen up? I’ve a matter to discuss with your brother.” Her eyes shot him that ice-coated look again. “Privately.”
Sam fled toward the staircase, muffling her sobs in her hand. And something hollow opened inside his chest, filling him with a familiar ache.
“Mr. Hayes, I do not appreciate having my class interrupted or one of my students upset.”
He turned back toward the teacher. Though the woman only reached his shoulder, she acted like she commanded an army. A firm line spread across those full lips, a hint of fire burned beneath her cool eyes, and her face looked as blank as a riverboat gambler’s.
He’d gone and raised her hackles, all right. She probably had a hankering to sit him in the corner or send him to the office or apply some other schoolboy-type punishment.
He tipped his hat. “I’m sorry. I’d no intention of disrupting anything, miss—” or of sending Sam away in tears “—but I haven’t seen my sister for a fair piece, and I wasn’t keen on waiting any longer.”
Not that he was about to plop down and explain the bad blood between Pa and Grandpa to the woman.
“I understand that, sir, and I appreciate your apology.”
“If you’ll excuse me, then.” He dipped his head and shifted toward the stairs. “I best find her and get on to the estate.”
“Mr. Hayes.” The teacher stepped in front of him, a bold move for someone so tiny. “You can’t take Samantha from here.”
He crossed his arms. “My sister’s not rightly your concern.”
“Yes, she is. You made her my concern when you sent her here.”
“Now listen. I never sent her here and neither did Pa. This school thing was all Grandpa’s idea. Pa just wanted to get Sam away from the Teton Valley while we dealt with a few troubles. We figured she’d come live with Grandpa and go to the local high school hereabouts. No one ever mentioned Sam coming to this fancy school until she was already here.”
But that bit of information seemed to have no effect on the teacher. Her eyebrows didn’t arch, her jaw didn’t drop and her eyes didn’t flash with questions. Instead, she pointed her finger and shoved it in his chest. Hard.