He narrowed his eyes at me. “Now you are being evasive.”

“Fine. I’ll answer the question, then circle back to this train of thought.” I sighed, taking a slow sip of champagne to buy myself time, trying to organize my thoughts and emotions into a communicable form. Talk about putting myself out there. I looked at him, silent and sure, waiting for my response. I was nervous again, and cursed myself for it.

I sighed. “At the risk of scaring you, I think I knew from the moment I met you. I didn’t admit it to myself then, and my mind is fighting with me to even admit it now. You are so...different than anyone that I’ve ever met, and that isn’t necessarily a good thing. I should not be sitting here now, should not have ever gone to lunch with you, to Vegas with you, should not have risked my job and my future to be with someone who should have been nothing more to me than a good f**k.”

He watched me carefully, his dark eyes revealing nothing.

“That is what you were. The only man who ever touched me and made me physically need, made me wet and hot and viral. I have become your sexual slave and if, an hour ago, you had bent me over in front of that entire restaurant and wanted to f**k me, I would have done it.” His eyes changed during my speech, flashing in the darkness, and I felt his virility steal over the table, the vocalized words making me wet, and I clenched my legs together under the table.

“I lusted for you and that is why I didn’t stay away from you like I should have, like every reasonable bone in my body told me to. But in f**king you, in you taking my sexuality and warping it, expanding it, I lost myself, my barrier. And somewhere in all of that, I fell. I was unguarded and unprotected and my heart latched on to you and made every pore in me yours.” I wanted to pull my eyes from his, but he held me still, exposed.

“It’s not because of your money, or your looks. It’s your essence. I love your sense of humor, your honesty, your ability to piss me off and make me laugh at the same time. I love how you are respectful to Martha, and how you will risk your safety to keep me safe. I don’t ever want to experience anything again without you next to me. You change a situation, make an ordinary event incredible.” I stopped suddenly, out of words and too bare to create any more. I closed my eyes briefly, then opened them and stared into his, scared of his reaction. “Does that scare you?”

He was still, and when he spoke, his words held restrained emotion.

“There is very little that scares me, Julia. But you certainly do. I think I have, for a long time, feared love. The last person I truly loved was my mother, and it did nothing to protect me from her abandonment. Since then, I’ve avoided love. Not deliberately, but I’ve set myself up for failure through my actions. Whether it was this crazy situation that brought us together, or my own inability to screw this one thing up, somehow you slipped past that defense.” He paused, his eyes on mine, dark prisons I was unable to break from. “Julia, I have fallen hard. Fallen madly in love with you.” The words hung across the table for a moment, and I waited in the stillness, not wanting to break the moment, his bareness breathtaking and terrifying in its sincerity. “I didn’t admit it to myself until last night, and am just now fully coming to grips with it.”

He bit his bottom lip, the causal gesture tantalizing. “I didn’t expect to ever really fall in love. I hoped, one day, that I would find someone who could satisfy me sexually, and also provide a home, possibly children. But I didn’t expect to fall in love with her. I expected to have affection, to love her in the sense that I love Martha. But what I have with you is different. I don’t really understand it yet, so I’m not going to try and put it into words, not yet. It is going to sound strange, but I don’t particularly like the feeling. I don’t like not being able to control every part of a situation. I don’t like feeling vulnerable, unsure. You are a gamble in that you are young, you could fall out of love as quickly as you fell in it.”

He held up a hand, stopping the protest that was about to leave my lips. “I am, as you have so eloquently put it, ancient. You may, ten years from now, decide that I am too old for you. You may decide that you settled down too young, that you missed out on other opportunities. You just got out of a two-year relationship, an engagement. You haven’t had any time to be single, to have a normal college experience. That may not seem important to you now, but it could later.” His brow furrowed and he looked at me intently. “I’ve never really cared if a woman ‘broke up’ with me. With you it is different. I am a gambler, Julia—I love the thrill of it. But with my heart, with my life, with you, there is too much at stake.”

I frowned at him, trying to understand the meaning behind his words. “So, what are you saying? You are breaking up with me? Because you love me?”

He laughed softly, shaking his head. “No. I just want you to really think this through. I want you to understand what is at stake for me, and for you to really look at what you are giving up by being with me. I want you to really ask yourself if what you are feeling is love. Because for me, I have no doubts. I hate it, it scares the hell outta me, but I know it is true. I know that my life, from this day forward, will be incomplete unless I share it with you. I’m asking if you will be my wife.”

His wife? This was so unexpected that I blinked, my jaw literally dropping as my mind tried to comprehend the statement.

“Julia, will you marry me?”

I was so flustered I hadn’t even noticed him standing up, walking over to me and kneeling at my chair, a small box in his hand, unopened. He looked at me gravely, with such intensity, his handsome face waiting, expectant.

It was like time stood still, as if even the piano player took a break midsong. I was still adjusting to the fact that he had admitted love, to being “in love” with me. This was too much, too overwhelming, and I stared at the small box in his hand, in terror, afraid to open it, afraid that it might contain something beautiful that would be the final crack that would cause this whole beautiful glass ball to break into a million pieces. I understood what he was doing, understood what my saying yes would mean—to my situation, to the danger that threatened my life. Marrying him would protect me, but chain him. Possibly chain us both, and it was too soon. There was too much unknown about each other. Yes, I loved him. I was surer of it than I had ever been of anything. But did he really love me? Or was this a gallant form of chivalry that had invaded his senses, chloroformed his heart?

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