Brent frowned at her. “Are you all right?”
“Fine,” she answered, though she wasn’t quite. “I’m just full. Too much junk food at SeaWorld, I guess.”
He smiled at that, and pushed his own dessert aside, half-eaten.
“I had fun today,” he said softly. “So did Cara.”
“Me too. My feet will be sore tomorrow, but it was worth it.”
She spoke lightly, but he answered with perfect seriousness. “I mean it, Jessica. You’re the only person that’s ever encouraged her to be who she is. I mean, other than me, but I’m always so busy. You’ve made a huge difference in her life.”
To her surprise, tears sprang to her eyes. Which was ridiculous. She never got teary, except right around her period. Must be that time, she thought. Hormones, ugh. She tried to calculate if her period was likely to make its unwelcome appearance tonight – which would be inconvenient, all things considered – and couldn’t quite recall the last time she’d had it.
“She’s made a huge difference in mine,” she admitted. “So have you, Brent.”
“I want you to know,” he said, looking at her with the charming earnestness that made him look so much younger, “how much you mean to us. And to me. I know things between us are complicated, but… I need you to know that this is more than just a fling, at least as far as I’m concerned. I’m falling for you, Jessica. Falling hard.”
A sudden sensation of panic caught her by the throat, choking her. For a moment, she couldn’t speak at all. The panic only intensified when he took a velvet box from his pocket and opened it, displaying a lovely pendant in the shape of a dolphin, its soft gold surface studded with glittering diamonds.
“I can’t—” she blurted, or tried to. But her throat was still not cooperating, and he didn’t seem to notice her objections. He rose to his feet, came around the table, and fastened it around her neck.
“It looks beautiful on you,” he murmured. “But then, most things do.”
Driven by her growing panic, Jessica suddenly found her voice. She rose to her feet and faced him, looking straight up into the brilliant blue eyes.
“I’ve had fun this summer,” she said, somehow managing to keep her voice steady even as her aching heart shriveled inside her chest. “But this can’t be serious, Brent. I’m going back to college soon. Senior year, remember?”
“I know,” he answered, his voice low, but brimming with sincerity. “I know how much it means to you to earn your bachelor’s degree and your doctorate, not to mention your upcoming internship. I understand, Jessica, and I’m willing to wait for you. For as long as it takes.”
She lifted her chin and spoke as coolly as she could manage.
“I don’t think you understand, Brent. This thing between us – it’s not forever. I’m just a college student, and you’re – you’re a Sanderson. You have a daughter to think about. And besides, my father is your close friend. The two of us can never have… whatever it is you’re thinking. I’m too young, and it’s just too complicated.”
She reached up to take off the pendant, but his big hands captured hers, stilling them.
“Where we go from here,” he said, looking down into her eyes, “is up to you. If you don’t want…” Me, she could almost hear him say. “… a long-term relationship, that’s your decision. But keep the pendant. Please. As a token of my feelings, and a reminder of this summer. Okay?”
She swallowed and blinked, fighting back the tears.
“Okay,” she agreed.
He bent to kiss her, but she looked guiltily toward the kitchen. “Your staff—”
“All left after the dessert was served, just as they were told to do. We have complete privacy, Jessica. For what I have in mind, we’re going to need it.”
The corners of his eyes crinkled, and she couldn’t help but smile back at him.
“What exactly did you have in mind?”
“You know what I am thinking,” Brent said, licking his lips before her.
Standing up, he took her hand and led her to his bedroom, to his special corner of the penthouse. The massive king-size bed was decked out with sumptuous black silk sheets. He’d obviously been planning everything for a while, as he had candles set up on his nightstand, casting the walls of the room in the brilliant orange of a flickering flame. There were rose petals scattered at the foot of the bed, and Jessica was overwhelmed with the whole scene. She’d slipped the gorgeous gold and diamond dolphin around her neck, but it felt heavy.