He shoved a piece of meat into his mouth and chewed. “You ever tried my cook’s brown sugar ham? It’s the best meat this side of the Mississippi.”
She shook her head and pressed herself harder against the wall. A foolish place to stand, but she could hardly resume her packing while he watched, and if she got any closer, he’d finagle some way to have her sitting beside him. And surely she had some good reason why she couldn’t eat with him—she just couldn’t remember it.
“The best meat west of the Mississippi would, of course, be fresh beef from the Double H ranch in Wyoming, but Valley Falls is a little far for that.” He popped a cracker in his mouth and rested a hand over his knee. He looked handsome and at ease sprawled on her parlor floor, as though he belonged there. His shoulders so broad and commanding she could hardly look anywhere else, his jaw stubbly and unshaven and begging for her to run her hand across it.
She’d been so certain she couldn’t trust him, couldn’t trust any man after David had betrayed her. But in the end, her family had proven untrustworthy, not the man sitting before her.
Why hadn’t she been able to look past her own fears a week ago and see the heart of the man that loved her? What she wouldn’t give to have him look at her with the tenderness his eyes had held when they’d talked after the speech, to feel his arms around her as they’d been in the carriage after she’d first confronted David. She sagged against the wall and wrapped her own arms around her middle—a rather poor substitute for Luke’s.
“Care for a grape?” He popped one in his mouth.
Yes. She nearly said it. But he couldn’t know grapes were her favorite, could he? Or that she longed to launch herself into his arms and bury her face in his shoulder and cry until her heart stopped aching.
She needed to get out of this room before she made a fool of herself.
He swallowed another bite, and the perfect excuse hit her. “Tea. You need tea or water or milk. Something to drink. Let me get it.”
She hurried toward the doorway, but his hand shot out and fisted in the front of her skirt as she passed.
“Sit.” He tugged the fabric.
“Mr. Hayes. I appreciate that you’re hungry and will happily get you something to drink, but then you really must be on your way. It’s highly inappropriate for you to be here, in my house, without a chaperone.”
“Probably is.” He stuffed more food in his mouth, but didn’t release her skirt. “It’s also highly inappropriate for your brother to use his position at my company to embezzle over twenty-five thousand dollars’ worth of funds from various accounts.”
Twenty-five thousand dollars? She hadn’t any idea the amount was so large. The paper that morning didn’t list any figures, just said her brother and father were in jail, charged with embezzlement and without the funds needed to post bail.
As for Mother... Elizabeth blew out a breath. Mother knew where she lived and hadn’t come. “I already told you I was sorry. What more do you want?”
“As I said Saturday night, I don’t know why you’re sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, you turned your family in when looking the other way would have made everything a heap easier for you.” He dropped his hand from her skirt. “But if your heart’s set on getting me a drink, get on with it. I could stand to whet my whistle—I’ve got a while to talk yet.”
“I don’t understand why you’re here at all. What’s left for us to say to each other? My family stole, and the school board had me fired. Not that I feel like I could ever look my students in the eye again, but you and the others didn’t have to get rid of me in such a manner. I’d already decided to leave anyway. I couldn’t stay here while everyone gawked and whispered behind my back.”
He sprang to his feet. “I didn’t vote to fire you. I didn’t even know what those idiots had done until a couple hours after Taviston paid you a visit.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out an envelope. “Here, see if this changes things.”
She stared at it dully, the crisp, straight lines too similar to yesterday’s letter from David.
“Do you need me to open it?” He pulled a knife from his belt and slid it along the top fold, then held out the missive.
She scanned the contents. “This...this can’t be right. It says the school board is reinstating me.”
“You got me my job back? Why?”
“Because you did right even though it meant turning your family in, and the people you’ve spent the past two years working for should support you.”