She shook her head. “I don’t—”
“Hush. I’ve more to tell you, now that you’ve started talking to me again. On the way back from Philadelphia, I decided something—or rather, God showed it to me. I’m not going back West. I’m staying in Valley Falls to run the businesses Grandpa left me.”
“Y-you’re not leaving?” She could hardly breathe, let alone think, as she waited for his reply.
“No. And what’s more...” He took her hand and held it between them, her fingers dangling over his. “I still love you.”
“Oh, Luke.” He couldn’t feel that way, not after everything that had happened. But his eyes didn’t lie, and the deep blue of them shone with patience and support and love. All things she’d never had from her family. All things she’d never realized she wanted until Luke walked into her life. “I love you, too. I didn’t want to fall in love with you, but it happened anyway, without me even realizing it.”
A smile tilted the corners of his mouth. “Don’t make it sound like a crime, Lizzie. People have been falling in love since Adam and Eve.” He pulled a box from his pocket and opened it. An emerald ring gleamed dark and rich against the blue fabric. “Marry me. Spend your life with me.”
Her throat shriveled into a gritty mass of sand. How easily she could accept the life he offered. How wonderful to be his wife and wake up beside him every morning, to go back to teaching and surround herself with students. She’d have a life she’d only dreamed of.
Yes. The word rested on her tongue, ready to tip over, fall out and cement her future to his.
But she couldn’t.
She must have taken too long to respond, because he gripped her shoulders and pulled her so close her petticoats squashed against her legs. “You’re going to tell me no. I can see it in your eyes.”
She looked away.
“It’s because of what happened with that cheat, DeVander, isn’t it? You still don’t think you can trust a husband.” He trailed a finger down the line of her jaw and back up again. “I can’t promise never to hurt you or disappoint you, Elizabeth. But I can promise to always be faithful. Before God and you, I promise. And if it takes another week or month or year for you to believe that, then that’s how long I’ll wait for you.”
But he didn’t. He stroked a strand of hair behind her ear and leaned closer. “I love you for who you are, and I’m never going to take that love away and give it to another woman.”
“You’ve been so patient with me. Too patient, really. I don’t deserve you.”
“Then why are you about to cry?”
She straightened her shoulders. “I’m not.”
She shifted away and clasped her hands together. “Have you forgotten about my family? Surely you saw the paper this morning. The embezzlement scandal is huge, and it just appeared today. We haven’t yet seen how voters are going to respond when they find out the politician they’ve elected for the past twenty years stole twenty-five thousand dollars. Or how the companies Jackson took from are going to react when everyone learns of his deceit. Why, you might lose half your accounting clients. More than half.
“And now you want to stay here and take your grandfather’s place. Which is fine. It’s what you should have done all along. But nobody will accept a thief’s daughter as your wife. You can’t...” Marry me.
The words stuck in her throat, but she pressed on, speaking the truth, the only logical answer despite her heart’s screaming otherwise. “You’re going to be a respected member of society, even with that wretched cowboy hat you like to wear, and me...I have to leave.”
“Look at me.” He grabbed her upper arms and waited for her eyes to meet his. His jaw had gone hard, his eyes glinting with determination. “I love you. I want to marry you. And as for what everybody else thinks about your family and the embezzlement—” he bent and kissed her forehead “—I don’t care.”
If only she could see the world through Luke’s eyes. Black-and-white, right and wrong, and forget anybody who didn’t agree. But society wouldn’t hold with Luke’s ideas about marriage. “You don’t understand. A marriage can’t work between us, not now. Maybe...” She drew in a breath. “Maybe in a few years, after the scandal settles and things calm, if you still feel the same about me, you can write to me and...”
He ran his hand back to cup the base of her neck and tilt her face toward his. “Maybe I want to marry you now,” he whispered, his breath hot against her skin. Then he lowered his lips to meet hers. His mouth tasted of warmth and comfort, understanding and forgiveness.