Gretchen swallowed hard, her throat working before she spoke. “You’ll like Knoxville,” she replied casually.

“What I’ll like is being closer to you.”

“For a few months. And then what?” she pressed.

“And then I move to Nashville.”

That got her attention. This time it was Gretchen who took a step forward, stopping herself before she got too close. “What are you going to do here?”

Julian shrugged. He didn’t have all that worked out yet, but he knew that he wanted his home base to be here with Gretchen, even if he had to travel to the occasional movie set or publicity event. “Whatever I want to do. Theater. Television. Smaller-budget films. I could even teach. You were right when you said I was using my brother as an excuse. I have plenty of money to care for him. Even if I just invested the income from Bombs of Fury and never acted again, I could probably keep him comfortable for the rest of his life. The truth is that I was scared to try something new. Afraid to fail.”

Gretchen’s expression softened as she looked at him. “You’re not going to fail, Julian.”

“Thank you. You believe in me even when I have a hard time believing in myself. You give me the strength I didn’t know I was missing. Having you there by my side when we visited have no idea how much that meant to me. I need you in my life, Gretchen. I love you.”

He reached into his pocket and grasped the ring he’d hidden there. As he pulled it out, he closed his eyes and sank to one knee, praying that his words had been sincere enough to quell her doubts so she could accept his proposal.

He opened the lid on its hinge, exposing the ring he’d selected specially for her. The large oval diamond was set in delicate rose gold with a halo of micro-diamonds encircling it and wrapping around the band. The moment he saw it, he knew the ring was perfect for her. “Gretchen, will you—?”

“No!” she interrupted, stealing the proposal from his lips.

* * *

Julian looked startled at her sudden declaration, but Gretchen was even more surprised. The word had leaped from her mouth before she could stop it.

His mouth hung agape for a moment, and then he recovered. “The jeweler recommended this cut for a woman who was artistic and daring. I thought that suited you perfectly. Do you not like it? We can get a different one. You can pick whatever you want.”

Of course she liked it. She loved it. It was beautiful and sparkly and perfect and she wanted to say yes. But how could she? “It isn’t about the ring, Julian.”

“Wow. Okay.” He snapped the ring box shut and stood up. He glanced around the room nervously, as though he hoped none of the suppliers had witnessed his rebuff. Thankfully everyone was too busy to notice them in the corner.

“Julian.” She reached out to touch his arm. “We need to talk about this.”

His jaw flexed as he clenched his teeth. “It sounds like you’ve said all you needed to say. You don’t want to marry me. That’s fine.”

“I never said that.”

His blue eyes searched her face in confusion. “I proposed and you said no. Quite forcefully, actually.”

Gretchen sighed. She’d botched this. “I wasn’t saying no to the proposal. I wanted you to stop for a minute so I could say something first.”

The lines in his forehead faded, but he didn’t seem convinced that she wasn’t about to drop him like a rock. “What do you want to say?”

“I care about you, Julian. I’m in love with you. But I’m not sure if that’s enough to sustain a marriage. How can I know that you love me? Truly? How does either of us know that you don’t just like the way I make you feel? Yes, I support you. I care about you and make you feel ten feet tall when everyone else is trying to tear you down or get something from you. Are you proposing to that feeling you get when you’re with me, or are you actually proposing to me?”

“I’m proposing to you. Of course I am.” He seemed insulted by her question, but it couldn’t be helped. She needed to know before she fully invested not only her heart, but her life in this relationship.

“That all sounds wonderful. This whole speech of yours has been riveting. Award-caliber material. I think you’ll do great in that independent film. But standing here, right now, how can I know that you mean what you say and that it’s not some over-rehearsed script? You said that I wasn’t the kind of woman Julian Cooper should be with. I heard you agree with Ross when you thought I wasn’t listening. For you to turn around and propose not long doesn’t leave me feeling very confident about us. Are you going to drop me when the next hot young thing hits the scene and Ross pushes her at you?”