She swallowed and stepped forward. Her hands were slicked with sweat, and her heart pounded in her ears. “I, um...” What had her paper said? “I came to speak to you about education this evening.”
Of course she had. The entire event was about education. She’d hardly been asked to speak on derivatives or integration.
Her stomach tightened and lurched. She couldn’t do this. Couldn’t stand up here and recite platitudes to make her father and David look good.
“Education is...” She licked her lips and stared out into the audience. Mother and Jackson sat in the front row, both scowling, as she imagined Father and David were doing on the side of the stage. She forced her gaze past them to the other people filling the hall. Some she knew, like the teachers and board members from Hayes and its affiliate institutions. Some she recognized as teachers she’d met at similar events in the past, but many unfamiliar faces stared back at her, as well. All waited, thinking she had something important to say, something of value.
But what could she say? That her own education had saved her after she’d escaped from what would have been a terrible marriage? That if teachers truly wanted to educate students, they would endeavor to open up possibilities rather than stifle the country’s future generations in societal expectations? No, she could hardly say such things, even if truth dripped from her statements.
And then she spotted them, clustered into the back right corner. Not a group of teachers from Hayes wearing polite smiles and dignified clothing, but a group of students. Samantha and MaryAnne and Meredith and Helen, surrounded by several others she couldn’t make out, all beaming as though the sun rose and set on her.
Behind them stood Luke, leaning against the back wall, legs crossed and shoulders relaxed, in much the same way he probably leaned against a fence post on his ranch. He’d brought her students. She’d not mentioned more than two words about her speech to him, but evidently he’d known of it—and cared enough to come.
A bud of warmth unfurled somewhere deep inside, spreading heat to her icy fingers and a smile to her face. And with that smile came her answer. She didn’t need to stand there and cite platitudes so people would support Father and David, she needed to convince people that education was significant, because students were people, with longings and desires and dreams, and their futures were important.
“Education is important.” Her full voice rang with confidence over the fidgeting crowd. “Not so much because it teaches Shakespeare, quadratic equations and the War of 1812, but because it teaches students to dream.”
* * *
“Your speech was wonderful.”
Elizabeth stiffened at the masculine voice behind her. She stood on the side of the platform, peering out from the edge of the curtain and into the chaos beyond.
“Your speech was delightful, as well.” She spoke without turning to face David, and glanced at her father, standing only a few feet from the stage, nearly swallowed by a horde of well-wishers and supporters. “The crowd really took to it. I’m surprised you’re not out there greeting people, though.”
Something large and brown flashed in the far corner of the room. Luke and his cowboy hat? She’d likely imagined it. Even if he hadn’t rushed himself and the girls outside by now, she had no way of getting to him without being engulfed and waylaid by all the people.
“Looking for someone?”
“Pardon? Oh, um...no. Not really.” She waved her hand toward the crowd. “I’m simply watching. You really should be out there, though. Wasn’t your speaking engagement intended to give you opportunity to meet constituents and procure votes?”
“As always, you have an excellent understanding of politics and publicity. But the audience tonight would have slept through my speech had they not been so captivated by yours. I think when I came onto the platform, everyone was holding their breaths and hoping you would reappear for an encore.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
He moved behind her, so close the heat of his chest radiated into her back. She shivered and huddled nearer the curtain.
“Now who is it you’re watching for?” David peered over her shoulder, not giving her room to shift without touching him. “The Hayes heir?”
She bristled. Luke Hayes was the last thing she wanted to discuss with David. “You’ve gone from ridiculous to insane. Now please let me by. You’re standing far closer than is proper.”
He took a half step to the side, just enough so she could brush past. But rather than stay at the curtain, he followed her down the hallway. “And where are you going now?”