And cry until the sun came up.
“My butler told me why you called off your engagement to DeVander.” His breath brushed her face, warm and sweet and with the barest scent of mint mixed in. “I’ve known since the night I first asked about why you weren’t married.”
She ducked her head. At least she hadn’t needed to voice her shame, to admit aloud she hadn’t been woman enough to keep her last fiancé. “So you understand why I can’t let you court me. I can’t take a suitor, Luke. Any possibility of me marrying ceased the night I ended my engagement to David. If I opened up myself that way again and got hurt, I’d shrivel up and die inside.”
He didn’t back away but stayed close, so close she only need raise a hand to touch him, so close the subtle heat emanating from his body warmed her skin. What she wouldn’t give to rest her head in the crook of his shoulder as she had that night in the carriage. To draw from the strength and steadfastness of Luke Hayes.
“Lizzie.” He pressed his palm, warm and callused, against her cheek. “Do you have feelings for me? Tell me you don’t. Just say it, and I’ll back away.”
She pressed her eyes shut. She should say she felt nothing. Then he’d let her go, and life would be easier for both of them.
But she couldn’t lie, not to a man as honest as him.
“You’re leaving.” They were the only words that came out. “Whatever you feel for me, whatever I feel for you, it doesn’t mean anything. It can’t, unless you stay here and manage your inheritance. I won’t leave my students.”
“I’d never ask it.” He smoothed a strand of hair off her forehead. “But I’m not requesting your hand tonight. I’m asking you to dinner. I’m asking you to be my friend. I’m asking for a chance to earn your trust. Please, Lizzie. Have dinner with me tomorrow evening, and let’s see how things go.”
She swallowed. Trust and marriage loomed ominously before her but giving him a chance? She gave her students a chance every day when they walked into her classroom.
How could she do any less for the man she loved?
The Philadelphia Society for Children buildings sat drooping and dirty on a half-forgotten street in Philadelphia. An occasional person or carriage passed by the aging brownstone, but no one bothered to even glance its way. Perhaps because it stood farther back from the road than most establishments, perhaps because it held nothing interesting or unique enough to draw one’s attention.
Luke didn’t care so much whether the orphanage sat in the middle of Philadelphia’s business district or on a forgotten twenty acres in the country. He only cared about one thing: seeing Cynthia Hayes.
His hands slicked with sweat and his pulse quickened as he waited for her in a cramped, stuffy parlor. Would she be willing to see him? She might have the worker who had shown him in come back and send him away without even laying eyes on her.
And he’d deserve it.
He’d treated her no better after Blake’s death.
Luke plopped down in a faded chair and attempted to still his antsy legs. At least he was trying to make things right. A person couldn’t blame him for that.
Something swished gently near the door, and he looked up.
She stood there, framed in the peeling blue-trimmed doorway, with no clomp of footsteps or creaking floorboards to introduce her. Then his eyes landed on the boy beside her, gripping his mother’s hand with a white-knuckled fist, and the breath left his lungs.
Clear blue eyes peeked out from beneath a mop of floppy blond hair. He looked like Blake. Exactly, completely, entirely. From the way he awkwardly held his shoulders—too big for the rest of his little body—to the curiousness in his eyes, to the half smile curving one side of his mouth.
Luke swallowed. If the boy looked like Blake, then the boy looked like him, too. An ache started somewhere deep inside his chest, and he wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.
Cynthia hadn’t changed, save for a few extra lines around her eyes and mouth. Her flaming hair was tucked up into a haphazard bun, and a serviceable black dress with a white apron draped her figure. But otherwise, she looked much the same.
The image of her kneeling over Blake’s lifeless body flashed like fire through his mind, and the pain, old and bruised, came flooding back. Get out! his mind screamed. And his mouth nearly formed the words.
But he wouldn’t do that again. He couldn’t blame Cynthia for what had happened to his brother any more than he could blame himself. Rafe McCabe had fired the gun that had killed Blake, and the man had swung from a tree for his crime. The matter should have been settled the day Rafe was hanged, but instead of letting go, Luke had clung to his pain with the same bitterness and vengeance Pa harbored toward Grandpa.