Gretchen didn’t retreat, but her posture didn’t welcome him closer, either. “I think we’ve done plenty of talking, don’t you agree?”
“Not about this.” He took another step forward. “Gretchen, I’m so sorry about Monday. The whole situation with Ross, the news article... I know now that none of that had to do with you, and I’m sorry for blaming you for it. You were right when you said you would never do anything like that to me. And I knew it. But I’ve had so many people betray my trust in the past. Someone had to be to blame, and I didn’t know who else could possibly be involved.”
She nodded, setting down her tablet so she could cross her arms over her chest. “Jumping to unfounded conclusions tends to cause problems. I’m glad you found the real culprit. I hope you made them suffer the way you made me suffer the last few days. It seems only fair.”
Julian watched a flicker of pain dance across her face, and he hated that he was the one to cause it. He had to fix this. “It was Bridgette,” he admitted. “She had a detective following me around Nashville and up to Louisville. He dug up the whole story, and then she leaked it because she was jealous of you and wanted to break us up.”
Gretchen snorted at his words. “Bridgette Martin...is jealous...of me? How is that even possible? She’s one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.”
“Like I told you before, Gretchen, it’s all an illusion. I work in a business where everyone tries to tear you down. Even someone like Bridgette isn’t immune to scathing critique, and their ego can be fragile because of it. You were a threat to her. She’s a woman used to getting what she wants, and she was going to get me back by any means necessary.”
“Those silicone implants must have leached chemicals into her brain.”
Julian smiled. “Perhaps. But I wanted you to know that it didn’t work. Even before I knew the truth about what she’d done, I didn’t want her. I still wanted you.”
Her dark gaze narrowed at him. “No, you don’t,” she said with certainty in her voice.
“I do,” he insisted. “I did then and I still do. Even when I was angry at you, I only pushed you away because I knew I had to or risk another story in the papers. I didn’t want to let you go, though. These days without you have felt so empty, like I’ve just been going through the motions. I miss having you in my life.”
He expected Gretchen to echo his words, to say that she missed him, too, but she stayed silent.
“And then, just when I didn’t think I could feel like a bigger jerk, I got the letter from the Cerebral Palsy Foundation. When I saw it, I knew the donation had come from you.”
“How do you know it was from me? It was anonymous.”
Julian shook his head. “It was, but it had you written all over it. I made you take the money when you didn’t want it, so you returned it in a way that even I couldn’t argue with. It was brilliant, really, but it just confirmed in my mind that I had been right about you all along.”
Her brow went up slightly. “Right about what?”
“Right when I thought that you were one of the sweetest, most giving creatures I’d ever met. That you didn’t want anything from me but my love, unlike so many others in my life. You could’ve taken that money and blown it and forgotten all about me. But you didn’t. You couldn’t return it, so you used it in the best possible way. A way that could help my brother.”
“I hope it does,” she said. “Something good should come of the last week’s chaos.”
Julian’s chest clenched at her words. Did she really think what they had was nothing more than a muddled mess? “It might have been chaotic, but I loved every minute of it.” Julian hesitated and took a deep breath before he said the words he’d been waiting to say. “And I love you, Gretchen.”
Her eyes widened at his declaration, but the response stopped there. No smile, no blush, no rushing into his arms. She certainly didn’t respond in kind, as he’d hoped. She just stood there, watching him in her suspicious way.
“I mean it,” he continued in a desperate need to fill the silence. “You’ve changed me in such a profound way that even if you throw me out of here and never speak to me again, there’s no way I can go back to living life the way I had before. I’ve told Ross that I want to take the role in that independent film we discussed. They’re going to be filming in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the summer. I’ve got some re-shoots between now and Christmas, and then another shoot-’em-up movie to film this spring, but after that I’ll be out this way for months.”