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Valley Falls, New York
The simple cotton curtains on the classroom window fluttered with a whispered breeze, while autumn sunlight flooded through the opening in the thin fabric and bathed her in a burst of gaiety. But the warm rays upon Elizabeth Wells's skin didn't penetrate the coldness that stole up her spine, numbing her lungs and turning her fingers to ice.
Elizabeth tightened her grip around the envelope in her hand. She could open it. It wasn't such a hard thing, really, to slip the letter opener inside and slit the top. She just needed a moment to brace herself.
The envelope weighed heavy against her skin, as though it were made of lead rather than paper. She ran her fingers instinctively along the smooth, precise edges. A quadrilateral with two pairs of congruent sides joined by four right angles. The mathematical side of her brain recognized the shape as a perfect rectangle. But the contour of the paper didn't matter nearly so much as what was written inside.
She sighed and glanced down, her gaze resting on the name printed boldly across the envelope.
Miss Elizabeth Wells Instructor of Mathematics Hayes Academy for Girls
Forcing the air out of her lungs, she slit the envelope from the Albany Ladies' Society and slipped out the paper.
Dear Miss Wells
The jumble of words and phrases from the letter seared her mind. Regret to inform you revoking our funding from your school donate money to an institution that appreciates women maintaining their proper sphere in society. And then the clincher. The Albany Ladies' Society not only wanted to stop any future funding but also requested the return of the money they had already donated for the school year.
And they called themselves ladies. Elizabeth slammed the letter onto her desk. Two other organizations had also asked that money previously donatedand spentbe returned. Then there were the six other letters explaining why future funding would cease but not asking for a return of monies.
This request galled more than most. If even women cared nothing about educating the younger generation of ladies, then who would? She'd spoken personally to the Albany Ladies' Society three times. Her mother was a member, and still, at the slightest bit of public opposition to the school, the society had pulled their funding.
She stuffed the letter back into the envelope, yanked out her bottom desk drawer, and tossed it inside with the other lettersand the articles that had started the firestorm.
She shouldn't even be receiving letters from donors and disgruntled citizens. Her brother, Jackson, was the head accountant for Hayes Academy for Girls, not her.
But then Jackson wasn't responsible for the mess the academy was in.
She'd only been trying to help. With the recession that had hit the area following the economic panic in March, the school had lost students. A lot of students. Many parents couldn't afford to send their daughters to an institution such as Hayes any longer. And without those tuition dollars, the school risked being seriously underfunded. So she'd written an editorial delineating the advantages of female education and girls' academies and had sent it to the paper.
She'd hoped to convince a couple families to enroll their daughters or perhaps encourage donations to the school. Instead, she'd convinced Mr. Reginald Higsley, one of the reporters at the Albany Morning Times, to answer her.
On the front page.
She pulled out the newspaper, the headline staring back at her with thick, black letters.
Excessive Amount of Charity Money Wasted on Hayes Academy for Girls
Since the economic panic in March and the ensuing depression, countless workers remain unemployed, food lines span city blocks, four railroad companies have declared bankruptcy, three Albany banks have failed and myriad farmers have been forced to let their mortgaged lands revert back to lending institutions. But not six miles away, in the neighboring town of Valley Falls, community and charity money is being wasted on keeping open an unneeded school, Hayes Academy for Girls.
It has long been recognized that the overedu-cating of females creates a breed of women quick to throw off their societal obligations to marry and raise children. It is also well-known that educated women are more concerned with employment opportunities and their own selfish wishes rather than fulfilling their roles as women .
Elizabeth's stomach twisted. No matter how many times her eyes darted over the words, the opening made her nearly retch. The article went on to compare the lower marriage rate of women with college educations to those with only grammar schooling. It examined the divorce rate, also higher among women with college educations. And then the reporter turned back to the topic of Hayes Academy's funding, questioning why anyone would waste money teaching women to throw off their societal responsibilities while the poor of Albany were starving.
Elizabeth shoved back from her desk and stood. Charity money "wasted" on keeping an "unneeded" institution open? How could the reporter say such a thing, when the academy prepared young women to attend college and qualify for jobs that enabled them to support both themselves and their families? An educated woman could certainly make a fuller contribution to society than an uneducated one.
Yet since the article had appeared, the academy had lost half of its financial backers.
A burst of giggles wafted from outside, and Elizabeth rose and headed to the window. In the yard, groups of girls clustered about the pristine lawn and giant maple trees with their reddening leaves. They laughed and smiled and talked, flitting over the grass alone or in packs, their eyes bright, their spirits free, their futures optimistic.
She sank her head against the dark trim surrounding the window. "Jonah, why did you go and die on me?"
The words swirled and dissipated in the empty room. As though she'd never spoken them. As though no one heard or cared what a mess Hayes Academy had become when its founder unexpectedly died three months earlier.
If Jonah Hayes were still alive, he would know how to get more donors. He would write an editorial on women's education, and people would listen, enrolling their daughters at the academy. And in the interim, while the school struggled through the recession, he would likely donate the money Hayes Academy needed to continue operating.
But Jonah Hayes was gone, and his estate had been tied up for three months, waiting for the arrival of his grandson heir from out West. In her dreams, the grandson came to Valley Falls, filled Jonah's position on the school board, convinced the other board members to keep Hayes Academy open, obliterated all opposition to the academy.
Of course, the heir had to arrive first.
And at this rate, the academy would be closed and the building sold before the man got here.
The students returned from lunch, a cascade of laughter and conversations fluttering in their wake. Elizabeth tried to smile, tried to straighten her shoulders and stand erect, tried to be grateful for the chance to teach her studentsan opportunity that she might not have in another month.
Tried, but failed.
"Miss Wells?" The shining blue eyes of Samantha Hayes, Jonah's granddaughter and one of the academy's most intelligent pupils, met hers. "Meredith, MaryAnne and I are going to have a picnic along the stream that runs through Grandfather's estate tonight. Do you want to join us?"
Elizabeth did smile then, though it doubtless looked small and halfhearted. How enjoyable to spend the evening chatting with the girls beside the clear stream, watching autumn swirl. If only she didn't have to find a way out of the financial mess she'd created for Hayes Academy, which meant she had an appointment for tonight with the extra set of ledgers she kept for the school. "I'd best not. Thank you for asking."
"Are you feeling all right?" Concern flitted across the young lady's face. "You look pale."
"I'm fine, but. .well, now that I think of it, I could use your help on a certain project tomorrow."
Samantha's eyes danced, light from the window streaming in to bounce off her golden tresses. The girl was breathtaking. More than breathtaking, really. Elizabeth smiled. Little surprise her brother, Jackson, had started courting Samantha Hayes last spring. Half the men of Albany would be courting her if they had any sense about them.
"Is it more calculus?"
She did smile then, full and genuine. If only all her students were as exuberant over calculus as Samantha Hayes. "I'm afraid not. I've some ciphering to do tonight, and I'd like for you to check my sums."
Samantha excelled at finding discrepancies in account books, whether they be the school's or Jonah Hayes's or Elizabeth's personal ledgers. "Sounds fun. Should we meet at the picnic spot around lunchtime tomorrow, then?"
If Samantha knew the state of Hayes Academy's accounts, she wouldn't be nearly so happy. Oh, well, the younger girl would find out tomorrow.
"Yes, that will be fine, but you'd best take your seat now." Elizabeth moved to the chalkboard and turned toward her students. Thirteen expectant faces stared back at her. Last year, she'd had twenty-three in her advanced algebra class.
"Today we're going to learn about.."
But she couldn't finish. How could she, with the school struggling to pay its bills and teachers' salaries? Did the girls understand how much funding had been pulled from the academy within the past five days? That they might not be able to finish their final year of high school if more students didn't enroll or if new funds couldn't be raised?
And part of it was her fault. Oh, what had ever possessed her to write that editorial?
"Miss Wells, are you feeling okay?"
"Can we do something for you?"
"Did you forget what you were saying?"
The voices floated from different corners of the room. Elizabeth plastered a smile on her face. "Forgive me, class, but I've decided to change the lesson. We'll review today."
Her hand flew across the chalkboard as her mind formed the numbers, letters and symbols without needing to consult a textbook for sample equations. "I'm giving you a surprise quiz. Take the next half hour to finish these quadratic equations, and we'll check them at the end of class." She wiped her chalk-covered hands on a rag and turned.
A shadow moved near the open classroom door, and the darkened frame of a man filled the doorway.
A man. At Hayes Academy for Girls. What was he doing here?
"Can I help you?"
He entered and dipped his head. "Excuse me, ma'am." A Western drawl lingered on the rusted voice.
"You're here!" Samantha screeched.
Elizabeth nearly cringed at the unladylike sound, but Samantha took no notice as she sprang from her desk and rushed toward the gentleman. "I can't believe you finally came. I missed you so much!" Samantha threw her arms around him for all the world to see.
Most unladylike, indeed. Did Jackson know about this other man? These were hardly fit actions for a girl who'd had an understanding with another man since last spring.
"Samantha " Elizabeth drew up her shoulders and stepped closer. Their quiz forgotten, the other students watched the spectacle. "Sir, if the two of you would accompany me into the hallway. Students, please continue working."
The girls returned to their workor attempted to. Half still peeked up despite their bent heads.
Elizabeth moved to the door and held it for Samantha and the stranger. Neither moved. She anchored her hands to her hips and ground her teeth together. Of all the days. Didn't the Good Lord know she hadn't the patience for such an interruption this afternoon?
The man hugged Samantha, bracing her shoulders with a hand that held a cowboy hat? Elizabeth blinked. Surely she didn't have a cowboy in her classroom. Her eyes drifted down his long, lanky form. He wore a blue striped shirt, some type of leather vest, a brown belt and tan trousers complemented by a pair of what could only be called cowboy boots. And was that a red kerchief around his neck?
Plus he was covered in dustwhether from traveling or working with cows, she didn't knowbut she could well imagine the dust embedding itself on the front of Samantha's
A cowboy. From out West.
No. It couldn't be.
But it was. She knew it then, as surely as she knew how to solve the quadratic equations on the board. Samantha clung to her brother.
The Hayes heir.
The man who held the power to either continue Hayes Academy or close the school for good.
"Samantha?" Elizabeth's vocal cords grated against each other as she spoke, but she had to get her student and Mr. Hayes out of the classroom.
Finally, the girl pulled back from her brother and looked around the roomful of staring students. She flushed and moved into the hall, the dark skirt of her school uniform swishing about her ankles. The cowboy followed but only to crush his sister against him in another embrace.
Elizabeth wasn't sure whether to roll her eyes or scream.
Luke Hayes hadn't hugged his sister in three years, two months and thirteen daysnot that he'd been countingand he didn't plan to stop hugging her because some fancy teacher squawked at him like a broody hen dead set on guarding her eggs.
"I'm sorry, Sam. I didn't mean to get you in trouble," he spoke against her head, still unable to unwind his arms from her.
"It's all right," came her muffled reply.
She'd grown taller and curvier since he'd seen her last. Looked grown-up, too. Her hair was done up in a puffy bun, not long and free as it had been in the Teton Valley. And she smelled different, no longer of sunshine and wildflowers but like fancy perfume. He tightened his hold. He should have come and yanked her out of this school sooner, regardless of what Pa had to say about it. "I missed you. Can't rightly say how much."
Inside the classroom, the teacher said something in that stern voice of hers. Then the distinctive clip of a lady's boots on wood flooring grew louder, and the door closed with a thunk. "Samantha Hayes, what is the meaning of this?"
Sam pulled away from him, her eyes finding the floor. "I'm sorry, Miss Wells. I didn't mean to make a scene. This is my brother, Luke, from Wyoming."
The hair on the back of his neck prickled. Sam didn't need to cower like a whipped dog because she had hugged him. He crossed his arms and met the teacher's stare.
Hang it all, but she was a beautiful little thing, with deep hazel eyes and a wagonload of reddish-brown hair piled atop her head.
Her name should be Eve, for if ever God had created a perfect woman, she was it. Adam would have taken one look at that long, smooth face, milky skin and sparkling hazel eyes and been lost.
Good thing he wasn't Adam.