Her knees weakened and her body went limp for the briefest of moments. Then she stiffened. Nothing good could come of kissing him. Not when she had to turn down his proposal. Not when she had to leave. But Luke Hayes had never been easily put off. He wrapped his arms around her back and pulled her closer, his lips gently lingering on hers, then broke to trail kisses down her jaw.
“I love you, Elizabeth,” he whispered as his mouth trailed up to her ear.
“I love you, too. But we can’t marry. You have to understand.”
“Nothing to understand. We can marry without the heap o’ troubles you’re yammering about, and I’ll prove it to you.” His lips, still soft and warm, left her suddenly. Then he clasped her hand in his and pulled her toward the hall.
“Prove it? You can’t prove something like that. And where are we going? I need to finish packing.”
He dragged her out of the parlor and toward the front door. “There’s another matter you have to settle first.”
“Another matter? The house will be up for sale by the end of the week. My things are nearly packed. I answered several advertisements for teachers this morning. What’s left to—?”
She dug her heels into the tiled floor. “I can’t face them again, not after how I missed the signs of the embezzlement.”
“Look at me, Elizabeth.” He took her by the shoulders, rubbing her knotted muscles. “You have to see your students. Sure, you feel like you let them down. But you can’t hide away in your house forever. Nor can you leave without fixing things. I know that better than anyone.
“There was a man once, a criminal who stole from the ranch.” He sucked in a breath, as though telling the story robbed him of air. “After my twin caught and fired him, he returned and shot my brother, who died from the wound.
“I went a little crazy after his death. Holed myself up, let Pa send Sam out East where she’d be safe, and blamed myself over and over again for what happened. I got bitter at my sister-in-law, who I faulted for not stopping my brother’s bleeding, even though the wound likely would have killed him anyway. And I shut out everyone else. In short, I wasted three years of my life blaming myself and those closest to me for something none of us could control.
“I love you too much to let you do the same.” Pain etched his face and glittered in his eyes, but he gave her shoulders another squeeze. “Your family was wrong, yes. But you protected your students once you realized everything. You did right by them, and you need to go back and face them.”
He was right, as always. Before God, she had nothing to be ashamed of. She’d honored her Creator above men. Of course, society didn’t judge people by God’s standards. No. The socialites at church would rip her apart, and the teachers at Hayes probably gossiped even now.
Still, she owed her students one last visit, didn’t she? Then she could start anew somewhere else, rather than hide.
“Let’s go.” Luke held out his hand.
She looked down at his hand, the same hand she’d covered in chalk dust the second time they’d met. The same hand that had wiped her tears after David had proposed, had anchored her hair behind her ears too many times to count and had cupped her cheek when he’d kissed her. And she put her palm in his.
* * *
Elizabeth had never before considered how ominous Hayes Academy for Girls could appear, with its redbrick jutting three stories and its plain windows staring down at those coming up the walk.
Like a prison without the fence.
Luke held open the door and waited. “No one’s going to attack you for coming inside.”
If only she could be so sure. “The first time I looked at this building, all I saw were dreams, both mine in possibly teaching here one day and the students’ for the expanded opportunities they would have after graduating from such a place.” She stood just outside the threshold and peered in at the austere white walls. “I never thought...that is...” She rubbed her damp palms together. “I never really noticed before how intimidating it looks.”
He grabbed her hand and pulled her through the doorway. “Stop stalling.”
The door closed behind them, sealing her inside. She nearly pulled her hand from his and dashed back into the sunlight.
“I thought the same thing the first time I saw the building. Dull and void of life.” He led her forward, so quickly she hadn’t time to think of another way to slow him down. “A little teacher with rich mahogany hair changed my mind, though.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”