“It’s none of your business.”
“On the contrary. It’s very much my business, if you’re going to be my wife.”
“David, I’m not...” She rubbed her temples, already beginning to throb, and lowered her voice. “I’m not going to marry you. Didn’t I make that clear the other evening?”
His face remained firm and unyielding, as though chiseled in marble. “Step in here so we can talk.” He opened a door to a meeting room and held it for her.
She halted on the threshold and looked about. It was hardly appropriate for her to be alone in a room with him...but then she hardly wanted someone overhearing their conversation, either. And David simply had to get this fool notion of marrying her out of his head. So she stepped inside, letting him close the door behind her.
“There’s nothing to talk about. I don’t love you, and if I don’t love you, I can’t possibly spend the rest of my life with you. I’d be miserable, and I’d make you miserable, as well. I appreciate your offer and...” Shame crept into her face, and she swallowed. How did she even discuss the situation without feeling like an expensive brothel girl? “...your willingness to help my parents financially, but I simply can’t agree. Now if you’ll please open the door. It’s highly inappropriate to be in here together.”
“Not any more inappropriate than you riding home with Hayes the other night.”
“You shouldn’t have told the headmistress.”
“Who says I told and not your mother?”
She stilled at that. Could Mother have done such a thing? Surely not. Mother might not approve of her daughter teaching, but she wouldn’t try to get her fired, not when the scandal would have negative implications for the rest of the family.
David came toward her, slowly, as though he had no reason to hurry, since he already had her cornered. “Your unwillingness to give my offer due consideration surprises me. What could cause you to spurn me so quickly, I wonder? Feelings for someone else? That cowboy, perhaps?”
Not a cowboy. A rancher.
“The only thing between me and Mr. Hayes is friendship.” Or so she hoped, because if Luke loved her, too...but no. She wasn’t going to love him back.
David tapped her chin up. She met his eyes for a mere instant, and then his lips covered hers, hot and invasive and humiliating.
No. She attempted to say the word, to push him away. But his arms wrapped around her, pressing her tight against him. She clamped her lips together and tensed every muscle in her body. She might not be strong enough to fight him off, but he wouldn’t get any satisfaction from holding her. Then his hands snaked up into her hair. She planted her hands against his chest and shoved, but it was too late. Her hair tumbled down in one giant mass, her hat landing on the floor at her feet.
And the door opened.
“Hope I’m not interrupting,” the intruder drawled lazily.
David released his hold on her, and Elizabeth sunk her head in her hands. She didn’t need to see who stood in the doorway, the rusted twang of his voice gave him away.
“Fix your hair, Miss Wells.”
Miss Wells. Such formal words, and this from the man whose eyes had emanated love and concern in the school hallway that afternoon, who had held her in his arms and let her tears dampen his suit two nights ago. What must he think of her? Kissing him the other night, speaking privately with him today, and found in another man’s embrace this evening?
“Miss Wells.” Luke spoke her name so firmly her head shot up. “The girls are waiting behind the building. They wanted to thank you for your speech. So unless you fancy parading around with your hair tangled and hanging every which way, I’d suggest you put it back up.”
She flew into action, kneeling on the floor to retrieve her hat and pins, shoving her snarled tresses up beneath the too-small creation, and squishing it into place. She jabbed pins randomly through her locks. Now if only the arrangement would hold for the ride back to Valley Falls.
“And you,” Luke said. She didn’t need to look up to know he pointed a finger at David. “I trust she’s given you an answer about your marriage proposal.”
“Yes, as a matter of fact.” David’s smooth politician’s voice filled the room. “We’ve decided—”
“Good. Don’t come near her again.”
Don’t come near her? Luke was protecting her? After finding her in David’s arms? She stood slowly and glanced at him, but he’d trained eyes so fiercely on David he didn’t notice. Somehow he knew she’d been forced, knew she hadn’t wanted David’s kiss. Maybe her struggle had been obvious when he opened the door, even more obvious than her fallen mass of hair.