“I’m sorry, but I...” Won’t be making any donations. The words turned to dust in his mouth. The headmistress’s severe face shone with delight, and he’d already upset enough womenfolk since walking into this school. Two an hour ought to be his limit. “Settling Grandpa’s estate is a mite complicated. I don’t know how much I can promise.”
Her shoulders sagged—if that were possible for a woman who exuded perfect posture. “Of course, I understand it will take time to fully grasp the reins of your grandfather’s financial concerns. But I do hope you’ll bear in mind that, while your grandfather left a wonderful legacy, in order for it to be enjoyed by future generations, we must all endeavor to keep the legacy alive. Perhaps the board members call fill you in on some of your grandfather’s other contributions when you meet them.”
“Board members?” This whole school business was growing a bit too involved. He took a step backward and glanced toward the stairway. The hot, stale air inside the building clung to his skin, and the hallway’s white walls and dim lights were a mite too suffocating. He needed to get outside, breathe some fresh air, feel the sun on his face. What was keeping Sam?
“The school board meets once a month.” Miss Bowen’s grip tightened on his arm, her nails digging in a tad too forcefully. “Of course you’ll fill your grandfather’s seat. What a shame you missed last night’s meeting, though. We truly needed someone present to keep the needs of Hayes at the forefront. Otherwise I’m afraid our precious institution gets eclipsed by the needs of the nearby college and boys’ school. Unfortunately the most I can do now is provide you with a copy of the minutes.”
“Uh, sure,” he mumbled, then stuck a finger in his collar and pulled, but that didn’t stop the tight feeling in his throat.
“But I will be able to introduce you to the board at the banquet tomorrow night. How marvelous that you’ve arrived in time to attend!”
“Banquet?” he croaked.
“Yes, the annual banquet for Maple Ridge College and its two preparatory schools, Hayes Academy for Girls and Connor Academy for Boys. All are located here in Valley Falls, but as most of the board members are Albany businessmen, the banquet is held in Albany. The Kenmore Hotel. Seven o’clock.”
Seven o’clock. Albany. Tomorrow night. These fancy eastern women wanted money, his gun off, his sister in school, his presence at some uppity banquet and him seated on a stuffy school board. And he’d only been off the train an hour.
What demands would they come up with tomorrow? And how was he ever going to survive a month?
Mug of coffee in hand, Luke stood at the French doors in his grandpa’s study, looking out over the estate’s immaculate back lawn. To the west, the Catskill Mountains, shadowed in blue and gray, rose over the fields and trees like sentinels guarding the land below. Pretty enough, but not anything close to the untamed wilderness he hailed from.
He rubbed a hand over his face.
What was he even doing in New York State, standing in a fancy house that he’d somehow inherited rather than Pa?
You be careful out there, Pa had told him before he left. Your old codger of a grandfather was awful wily. Wouldn’t surprise me if he found some way to chain you to that wretched estate of his, even from his grave. The tension had risen like an old, unhealed wound still festering between Pa and Grandpa despite one of them being cold and buried. Probably ruined Sam in the few years he had her.
Not once in his twenty-eight years had Pa said anything good about Grandpa. Luke had about fallen over three years ago when Pa sent Sam off to the man. But the ranch had been no place for a young girl after Blake’s death, and she’d needed to go somewhere.
Someone rapped at the office door, and Luke turned.
“I’m here...like you asked.”
Oh, Sam was there all right. With a face chiseled in granite.
His boots sunk into some highfalutin gold and burgundy rug as he walked behind Grandpa’s desk. With lions’ heads carved into eight columns and sprawling paws to serve as feet, the desk belonged in a king’s throne room rather than a study and wasn’t something he cottoned to sitting behind. Still standing, he gestured to her. “Sit.”
Head high, back rigid, she took dainty steps toward a gilt chair with blue cushions that faced the desk. She still wore that lifeless school uniform of a white shirtwaist and navy skirt, the black armband around her right sleeve indicating she was in mourning for a man he’d never met. And yet, she carried herself like a lady. Maybe that was the problem. She wasn’t so much the girl he remembered anymore, but a woman.