“I was wrong for keeping it secret.” He swiped a stray strand of hair away from her face. “I won’t try forcing you to do things my way anymore. The decision’s yours, but I’m telling you, your ma’s dying, and if you want to see her, you’ve got to go soon.”
“How long?” Moisture pooled in her eyes, and she didn’t look at him but stared vacantly at a spot on the wall above his shoulder. “With something like consumption, a doctor can tell how long, can’t he?”
“Maybe, sometimes. But Ma seems set on hiding how sick she is from the doc. Seems set on hiding it from everyone, really. The doc said she’ll last through next summer, but she gets a little sicker every day, and she won’t...” The aching sadness fisted in his chest again. One would think he’d grow used to saying the words aloud, but they caught in his throat every time.
“I want to go.” Tears coursed down Sam’s cheeks. “Now. As soon as I can. I can come back to school later, can’t I? Come and finish up?”
“Whatever you want.” He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pushed her face into his chest, her body trembling against his. “Forgive me for not telling you sooner?”
With her face still buried in his shirt, she nodded.
He stroked his hands through her falling gold tresses in soothing, comforting motions. Or so he hoped. Because truly, one could do so very little to soothe when the pain inside ran as deep as life itself. “You’ll need to decide about Jackson, as well. I won’t stand in the way of you and him—”
“He can wait.” She pulled back and met his gaze, determination etching her voice despite its slight wobble. “I need to see Ma. She’s more important right now, wouldn’t you say? And there’s no need to rush on setting a wedding date, not with Ma so ill.”
Sam twisted the sapphire ring, then slid it off her hand. “Maybe you should keep this for me until we sort things out. Do you think Jackson will wait for me to get back?”
Luke closed the ring in his grip and pulled Sam in for another hug. “The man would be daft not to.”
* * *
“Thank you for meeting with me, Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth smiled at Miss Bowen and took a chair across from where the headmistress sat behind the wide desk in her office. But rather than offer her usual prim smile or begin the conversation, the older woman looked down at her hands and fidgeted with a stack of papers.
Elizabeth swallowed. This couldn’t be good.
“It’s the academy, isn’t it?” she blurted out. “The school board decided to close us down despite the money Mr. Hayes has donated and that favorable article in the paper.”
Miss Bowen’s gray eyes shot up to hers, and the lines of her painfully straight suit almost seemed to slump with resignation. “No, Elizabeth, it’s not the academy we need to discuss but Mr. Hayes himself.”
“Mr. Hayes?” The sandwich she’d eaten several hours ago for lunch threatened to come up.
“It’s been brought to my attention that you and Mr. Hayes traveled back from Albany Saturday night in his carriage. Alone.”
She tried not to cringe. “I...um...”
“Do you deny it?”
She stared at her feet, at the swirling golden vines and leaves on the rug. “No, it’s true. I hadn’t planned to be unchaperoned with him. It simply...” A vision of David standing on the steps making his marriage offer seeped into her mind. “It seemed the best choice at the time. My family and I were facing some...difficulties, and Mr. Hayes offered me a ride home.”
“I’m glad to know it was an exception.” Though nothing about the severe lines on Miss Bowen’s face looked glad. “After all, you’ve been here over two years, and I’ve never received any complaints about your conduct until this morning.”
Elizabeth fisted her hands in her skirt. A complaint, and David was the only one to see her leave with Luke.
“But you are aware of Hayes’s policy regarding teachers courting?” Miss Bowen’s tight-laced voice echoed loudly against office’s sparse walls. “A chaperone is to be present at all times.”
“Yes. A chaperone.” Elizabeth licked her lips, as though she could still feel the firm pressure of Luke’s mouth against hers, the way the stubble on his jaw brushed her chin.
Which was why a chaperone was needed—to prevent situations like that. Her cheeks burned, and she glanced away from the headmistress. “M-Mr. Hayes was only being gentlemanly. Being from Wyoming, he’s not exactly aware of society’s rules about chaperones and propriety and such. But I assure you, he didn’t have any ill intentions.” Except for the kiss. That exquisite, wonderful kiss. One which would likely remain unparalleled for the rest of her life.