“Th-that you and I rode back to Valley Falls unchaperoned. She’s agreed not to tell the board this once, but if they find out anyway and determine I acted improperly, I could lose my job.”
“Not while I’m here.” Luke’s jaw hardened into a determined line.
A trio of students emerged from a classroom down the hall, and she took a step back, putting more space between her and Luke. “Please, we have to be careful. You can’t be alone with me again or touch me.” Or kiss me.
He crossed his arms over that impossibly broad chest, and his eyes glinted with untamed anger. “DeVander did this.”
“How it happened hardly matters. But you’ll need to call me Miss Wells in public, and you can’t...can’t...”
“Can’t what? Talk to you? Show you any attention?” He leaned so close his breath tickled the top of her head. “Kiss you?”
She shook her head furiously. He definitely couldn’t do that again, not ever. “We have to be careful, that’s all.”
“Fine.” And with that sharp word, he turned and disappeared back into the office, leaving the hallway beside her empty.
Elizabeth bit her bottom lip and stared at the suddenly vacant space. She drew in a deep breath and let it out in one giant rush. He’d brought the editor and chief of the paper to meet her and had finagled a way to get favorable articles printed about the school. How was she supposed to resist a man who did that?
She’d known she needed to be careful around him, but would carefulness be enough? What if, despite her efforts to keep her distance, despite Miss Bowen knowing about the carriage ride and Luke’s leaving in another month, she couldn’t keep from loving him?
Elizabeth sucked in a breath and leaned her head on the town hall’s back door. She should have been indoors ten minutes ago, but couldn’t quite manage to step inside the building. She knew what awaited her. People. Probably about three hundred of them—teachers and school board members come to hear her father and David speak on education. The speeches, of course, were an unofficial start to the campaign both David and Father would run through the coming year until the elections next fall. And who better to begin the event than her, a schoolteacher?
She rubbed her arms. Oh, why had she agreed to give this speech? She didn’t know if she could look at Father or David after last Saturday, let alone stand on a platform and publicly beseech fellow educators to vote for them.
She glanced down at the paper crinkled in her hand, the wording for her speech scrawled in elaborate cursive across the page. She’d read it a hundred times and still had no idea what the paper said. The words just seemed to slip through her head without sticking.
And here she was, being a terrible daughter again. Truly she was the most hopeless daughter ever to grace the earth. Giving a speech was the least she could do to help her family, especially since she refused to marry David. She should be happy to aid them, not hiding outside the building and praying for the earth to open up and swallow her. But still, getting up on that stage and convincing people to support Father and David in the next election felt wrong somehow, fraudulent.
She closed her eyes as the cold autumn air stung her face. What had Luke said about Jonathan honoring God above his father in the Bible? Was there a way she could honor her family and God by giving this speech, even if she didn’t respect her Father or David? It didn’t seem possible.
With a sigh, she pulled open the back door and stepped inside.
“Elizabeth, there you are,” her father bellowed. “Come, they’ve already started. Where did you disappear to?”
But he didn’t wait for an answer, just grabbed her wrist and tugged her down the hall and toward the steps to the platform.
“...feeling a little sick,” she mumbled.
“We haven’t time for that. See?” He gestured up the steps, hidden by a thick curtain, to where a man in a tuxedo stood introducing the speakers. “Here, give me your cape.” He yanked it off her shoulders until she stood in the faded green velvet she’d worn for the occasion. “And what are you doing with that paper?” He tore the page from her hand, scowling when she didn’t let go and it ripped in two. “You’ve been giving memorized speeches since you were ten. You’re not taking a paper up there with you.”
Applause drowned out his words as he snatched the rest of the speech from her still-clenched fist and shoved her up the steps. The host stood at center stage, his smile wide and welcoming. Then, before she could even take a breath, the speaker left, and she stood alone on the platform with several hundred people seated before her.