“I’m sorry,” he blurted out as he stood. “For what I said over Blake’s body, for the way I sent you packing seven months pregnant.”
She stood still, as though etched in granite with her rigid posture, tight muscles and white skin. Her throat worked back and forth, the only sign she hadn’t turned to stone, then her eyes filled with moisture.
“I don’t blame you.” Her voice sounded like cracked glass, thin and frail and ready to shatter if he breathed wrong. “You were right. I may have been able to save Blake that day, but I’d...I’d...chosen to be ignorant about the ranch. I’d been there a year. I should have known how to ride a horse or hitch a wagon. I should have found rags to stop the bleeding, rather than stare at Blake and cry.” She reached out to steady herself on the back of a chair. “Excuse me—I need to sit down for a moment.”
He offered his hand to help her into the chair.
The gesture was basic, simple. Anyone would have done it. But rather than take his palm, she stared at it, the battle flashing in her eyes. Touch him or refuse? Accept his help or decline?
Then she looked into his face, the corners of her mouth tipping up into a soft smile before she placed her hand firmly in his.
And he knew. A weight, three years old and as strong as steel fetters, fell from his chest and cracked into a thousand unrecognizable pieces. Cynthia had forgiven him. God had forgiven him. And he was finally making amends for how he had handled Blake’s death.
* * *
Elizabeth let herself into her brother’s office, the building empty on this early Saturday evening. Jackson probably didn’t even remember the key he’d given her over a year ago “in case of an emergency.” And in truth, finding out about another wrong shipment of food wasn’t an emergency per se. But how many wrong shipments and unpaid bills needed to pile up before they became an emergency? This was the fifth time since the beginning of the school year that something hadn’t aligned with the payments recorded in the school’s accounts. Yet she’d entered everything in her ledger and had spent the better half of the afternoon poring over it to find the discrepancy.
As usual, she found nothing.
So she would compare her books to Jackson’s. She’d asked him about the finances again Monday at the political rally, and he’d been too busy to answer. Not that she could blame him, enamored as he was with Samantha. But the world still spun on its axis, regardless of whether Jackson had proposed, and tonight she was getting to the bottom of this. She’d find his ledger and take it to dinner at her parents. While Jackson and Samantha spent the evening huddled together in a corner of the drawing room whispering their goodbyes before Samantha left for Wyoming on Monday morning, she’d plop down at one of the tables and review the two books until she found the errors.
She sighed. In truth, she should have looked into the wrong food shipment earlier that week. It had arrived on Wednesday, but she’d gone out to dinner with Luke on Wednesday—and Tuesday and Thursday—and hadn’t stopped by the kitchen until yesterday afternoon, after Luke had left for Philadelphia.
That man. She pressed a hand to her flaming cheek. He was too handsome and understanding by far, and the added layer of Western charm only sealed her demise. He drove all sensible thoughts from her head, had been doing so since first they met. She could hardly recall the Pythagorean theorem when he was around, let alone her name or any semblance of why she shouldn’t be spending time with him.
She rubbed the heel of her palm over her heart. Falling in love with him felt wonderful—at least right now. He would still leave her one day, and her heart would likely break. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t love him today. Couldn’t let herself dream of a future with a husband who loved her and children she could cherish while teaching an advanced mathematics class or two.
And goodness. Look at her. Here she was, standing in Jackson’s office daydreaming instead of finding that ledger. She’d told Samantha, waiting in the carriage, that she wouldn’t be more than a couple minutes, and she’d spent those minutes thinking of Luke.
She walked deeper inside the darkening office and rounded the desk to where her brother’s ledgers rested on the shelf, everything organized alphabetically. Her eyes scanned the Gs and Hs, before landing on a leather binding clearly marked Hayes Academy. She pulled it down. Columns detailed the academy’s regular expenditures, but the accounts were from last year, not this year. Jackson must have started a new ledger at the beginning of the school year.
She slipped the binder back into its slot. But the books on either side read Gomer’s Millinery and Headings Mercantile, with no vacant space indicating another ledger for Hayes Academy. Standing on her toes, she brushed her fingers over the bindings on the highest shelf. Perhaps Jackson had simply labeled the ledger as Academy.