He raked his hand through his hair. She stood only two feet away, but she may as well be standing on the other side of a mountain. His arms ached for the feel of her, but she wouldn’t come, not now. And he could hardly blame her. She’d been hurt, and even though he hadn’t been the cause of it, he was tangled in the mess right good, as he owned the company her family had used to steal. “Then let me apologize, too. I’m sorry for what your father and brother did and for the pain it’s putting you through.”
She shook her head and took her cape from where she’d draped it over a chair, then moved to hug Sam before turning back to him, her face as desolate as the prairie after a blizzard. “Thank you, for being my friend, Luke, and for believing me when no one else would.”
You’re more than a friend. I love you. I want to marry you. Didn’t she see that? Didn’t she understand he would stand by her through whatever trouble her discovery unleashed?
But she disappeared through the door before he could open his mouth to tell her.
The knock sounded at two thirty-six the following afternoon. Not that Elizabeth was watching the clock. Oh, no. She had plenty to do as she sat in the parlor, rocking in an old chair and staring out the window at the side yard. She could be packing her books and belongings, going to Jonah’s lawyer and asking that her house be put up for sale, writing a farewell to her students, or any other of the numerous tasks that awaited her.
But every one of those took energy, and as she’d cried through the night until the first streaks of dawn tinged the sky, she didn’t have any left.
News of the rumored embezzlement hadn’t appeared in the paper yet, but no doubt speculation circled through town. Indeed, with Luke likely at his office doing an audit and his entire staff knowing where he was, things could hardly be kept secret. Miss Atkins and Miss Tourneau, friendly this morning, hadn’t even looked at her after they’d returned from church.
Elizabeth wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. She’d expected as much. She’d grown up in Albany and knew how gossip worked. Regardless of whether her father and brother ended up on trial and were found guilty, society had already formed their opinions. So if she planned to keep teaching, she would have to leave the area. And she had no choice other than to continue teaching. She needed to earn a living, needed food to eat and clothes to wear and a roof over her head.
Maybe she should go West. Not somewhere as remote as the Teton Valley, but newspapers always ran advertisements for teachers wanted on the other side of the Mississippi.
The knock sounded again, and the floor above her creaked. She stared up at the parlor ceiling, but no footsteps pounded down the upstairs hallway. Evidently neither Miss Atkins nor Miss Tourneau seemed inclined to answer the door. It was just as well, the callers would be there for her anyway.
She rose slowly, each step a concentrated effort as she headed out of the room and pulled open the front door.
“Miss Wells.” Mr. Taviston removed his hat and offered a slight dip of his head, his lips pulled down into a frown and his eye devoid of their usual lecherous glint. “Just the person I needed to speak with.”
“Indeed.” She forced her lips to curve into a smile. “Won’t you come in?”
She stepped back from the door, took his coat and ushered him into the parlor. If she wanted to be polite, she would offer tea and sandwiches, but why go through the flat, empty gesture? Tea or not, he would fire her.
She sat on the settee. “Mr. Taviston, let me make this conversation as quick and painless as possible. You don’t need to fire me. I resign.”
Tears, hot and coarse, crept up the back of her throat. Whether she loved her job or not, she’d no business facing her students again after how her family had stolen from them.
“We appreciate that overture on your part, Miss Wells.” Mr. Taviston kept his frown in place, as though his actions somehow pained him. “You’ve always been a sensible woman, and I’m sure you understand why we can’t allow you to continue teaching at Hayes Academy.”
“Yes.” She felt hollow inside. Like an eggshell drained of its contents and a breath away from cracking. “With the trouble my family is in, keeping me on would look bad for the school.”
“Your father, of course, is also being relieved of his position on the school board. Nearly all the board members were in agreement regarding the actions to be taken toward both you and him.”
“Nearly? Striking the Wellses from any association with Hayes Academy wasn’t a unanimous decision?”
She was daft to ask, but something inside her had to know if Mr. Taviston’s words meant Luke had dissented.