He couldn’t leave it behind and head back to the Teton Valley. Not anymore.
He could run the businesses Grandpa had left him well enough. In fact, it almost seemed God had used his ranch to prepare him for taking over Grandpa’s holdings. Sure he had a few things to learn, but numbers made sense to him, always had. And managing a business didn’t differ too much from running a ranch—except the workers smelled better.
He’d still miss the wide-open prairie, with those giant Tetons looming to the east. But the ranch would be well taken care of under Pa, and like Sam, he could go back and visit. Besides, New York had its own appeal. Though not as grand as the Tetons, the Catskill Mountains loomed to the west, their blue-shadowed slopes visible from his bedroom and office. He could take day trips into the wilderness or spend a weekend camping here and there.
And besides, if he stayed in Valley Falls...
He slowed his horse in front of the house. A vision of a woman, dressed in green velvet and standing in the hallway of Hayes Academy, curled around the edges of his mind. She looked hesitant, unsure as she said she’d have dinner with him the following evening.
A smile crept across his lips as he stared up at the white three-story mansion. Such a grand house needed a beautiful woman to run it. A beautiful woman with a heart for teaching and a wagonload of reddish-brown hair. Now he only had to figure out how to ask her—and hope she said yes.
He gulped. A woman as fine as Elizabeth would have plenty of reasons not to want a country bumpkin like him.
Luke swung off his horse and took the steps two at a time. The butler opened the door before he’d even reached the top.
“Stevens, what are you doing awake? Do you realize how late it is?”
“Yes, sir, quarter of two.”
Luke stepped inside and waved his hand at the fully lit chandelier. “Then why’s the house lit up like there’s some fancy dinner going on?”
A sob echoed from the direction of the drawing room, and he turned. He knew that sound, had heard it far too many times when he’d first arrived. “Samantha’s still up?”
“Yes, sir. You have a visitor, and I’m afraid she delivered some rather distressing news.”
Distressing news? Was something wrong with Ma? Had Sam received a telegram after he’d left yesterday afternoon? He strode toward the drawing room and opened the door, only to find Elizabeth sitting on that fancy white and gold couch. What was she doing here? And in the middle of the night to boot?
He whispered her name, running his eyes over her unkempt hair and pale face. Samantha sat hunched in her arms, sobs emanating with every breath.
Elizabeth raised her head and looked toward the door.
“What’s wrong?” He came closer, and she hugged Sam tighter to herself. Redness lined her eyes while devastation haunted the hollows and planes of her porcelain face. His heart thumped against his ribs. “Is it Ma? Or Jackson? Was there an accident? Is someone...”
Sam pulled back from Elizabeth, her hands clenched into angry fists. “Oh, I wish there were some accident. I wish it was all some mistake, or maybe that I’d never met the conniver at all.”
Luke strode toward his sister, his own fingers clenching in response. “What’d he do? Tell me, and I’ll make him pay.”
Sam leaped into his arms and started crying all over again. “I should have listened to you. You were right from the very beginning. All he wanted was money.”
“Hush now.” Luke stroked her hair, but the soothing movements had little effect on her. “It’s all right. We’ll work everything out, just calm down.”
She only cried harder.
He lifted his eyes to Elizabeth’s. She’d backed away from him and Sam, and stood near the fire, her arms wrapped around herself in a lonely hug.
Confound it. He should be holding Elizabeth in his arms at this moment, kissing her and whispering promises about staying in Valley Falls. But with Sam sobbing in his arms and that silent sorrow etched across Elizabeth’s face, this was hardly the time. “What happened?”
“I’m so sorry, Luke.” Her whispered words barely reached him above Sam’s shudders. “I didn’t know. I promise I didn’t.”
“Didn’t know what?”
She shook her head, as though trying to deny whatever she needed to say.
“Go on, now. You can tell me.”
“I tried to go to the police, but they wouldn’t believe me.”
“The police?” His hands tightened on Sam’s back. “Why would you need to go to the police? What did Jackson do?”
“He...” Elizabeth pressed her eyes shut and rubbed her temples. “I’m sorry. This is harder than I’d thought.”