He’d figured it out a second before Elizabeth. Then she’d given him that stricken look, and he’d wanted to wrap his hands around DeVander’s throat. How dare he treat Elizabeth that way? How dare anyone treat her that way?
Luke blew out a breath. I love you. I’ll protect you. The words had nearly poured out of his mouth when Elizabeth had looked at him with all that hurt shimmering in her eyes. But with four others crammed into the little room, it was hardly the time to start spouting his devotion.
He shifted and smiled as a tendril of hair slipped from the back of Elizabeth’s hat and down her neck. Several locks had already fallen from their hastily crammed positions. She’d probably have to put her hair back up before she got off the train in a few minutes.
And he’d enjoy watching.
Yep, he loved the woman. He’d have to tell her. Maybe even tonight after the girls left. When a man decided he loved a woman, that wasn’t something to put off.
But say he told her how he felt, what happened then? He would return to the Teton Valley in another month or so, and where would that leave her? He swiped a hand over his mouth. Hang it all. He’d known getting too involved would cause a mess from the first moment he’d laid eyes on her.
But knowing hadn’t stopped it from happening.
When the train finally ground to a halt in Valley Falls, he herded the girls into the waiting carriages. The students, content to ride in two carriages on the way to the train station, all swarmed into Elizabeth’s conveyance now, leaving Luke alone on the ride to the academy. But as soon as the girls headed inside, he ushered them up the stairs to their rooms.
And he was alone with Elizabeth.
“Let me walk you home.” He extended his arm.
She looked away. “Not tonight, Luke. Perhaps you could just lend me use of your second carriage.”
“I could, if we didn’t need to talk.”
She shook her head and took a step back from him. “We can’t. Walking outside after dark is just as inappropriate as being in a carriage alone with you. Or in a room. Or even standing in this hallway. Please...” Her voice quivered. “Just let me go home.”
“Look at me, Elizabeth.” He stepped closer, peering into her pain-clouded eyes, and touched a hand to her cold cheek. “I can’t let you go home like this. What will you do? Climb into bed and lie awake stewing until dawn? You can’t hide from what your mother and DeVander tried to do. You need to talk about it.” He knew. He’d have been a lot better off if someone he loved had forced him to face his problems after Blake died.
“I’m not hiding. Needing time to think and sort through my feelings isn’t hiding.”
“Then sort through them with me.”
She seemed undefeatable standing there, her back stiff and chin high even with half her hair falling about her shoulders. But sadness haunted her eyes. Sure, she was strong, could handle almost anything she faced—at least on the outside. Inside, the woman seemed ready to shatter.
“Is there something you’re not telling me?” He brought his hand down to cradle her neck. “Did DeVander hurt you when he had you alone?”
Her eyes turned flat. “I’m fine.”
But she didn’t seem fine, and she was shutting him out, much like Samantha had when he’d first arrived in Valley Falls. “Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.” He reached out and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
She jerked back as though he’d slapped her. “No. Don’t touch me. Don’t ask me to talk, and don’t look at me that way. Just leave me alone.”
“I only want to help. What your mother’s trying to do... Elizabeth, you can’t handle it on your own. Think. What if I wouldn’t have come looking for you earlier tonight? You could have found yourself engaged to DeVander come morning.”
She took another step back, shaking her head as tears pooled in her eyes. “I can’t do this. I don’t want this.”
“You can’t do what? Talk to me? Let me support you?”
“Be alone with you like this.”
Confound it! Were all women this impossible? Her mouth said she didn’t want his help, but her eyes begged for it. He’d have had her home by now, half the incident with DeVander and her mother talked out, if she would stop backing away from him and simply walk toward him. “Why can’t you be alone with me? Because of what Miss Bowen said to you?”
“Because I—I...” Her gaze drifted to his lips, then back to his eyes.
“You want to kiss me.” He closed the space between them.
He leaned down until mere inches separated his mouth from hers. “You do. Why else would your eyes get sleepy and your breath catch when I’m this close?”