The bench was warm from the sun, but an ocean breeze kept the temperature pleasant. Good, because her cheeks were hot enough to be a fire hazard. She cringed at the thought of seeing Luke after she’d declared her love for him to his parents, of all people. What must he be thinking? She drew her knees up, encircling them with her arms, and buried her face on top of them.

“You have a habit of running out of restaurants.” Luke’s solid presence sat down next to her.

She took a deep breath and raised her head. There was a faint smile on his face. He didn’t seem upset she had run out on him and his family. If anything, he was a bit wary. As if he didn’t know what to expect from her.

And why would he know what to expect, when that speech had surprised herself? Better to get this conversation over with so they can both pretend it never happened and go back to their previous arrangement. She unfolded her limbs and gave him a lopsided smile. “I didn’t run out of the taqueria. I even offered to pay.”

“I’m also counting the sushi at the benefit.”

“Hey, Chef Nagao was the one who ran out. Of fish.”

He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. His gaze remained wary. “I’m sorry,” he said simply.

He was sorry? For what? She was the one who’d opened mouth, inserted foot, ankle and calf. “You have no need to apologize.”

He snorted. “You were already doing me a favor by coming to lunch. You didn’t have to give that speech too. Now I really owe you.”

“A favor?” She unfolded her legs and sat up straight, turning so she could meet his gaze head on. He thought of what she said as a favor? She didn’t know whether to be happy at the out he gave her or upset he thought her words weren’t 100 percent real. “I didn’t—”

He made an impatient sound deep in his throat. “You know what I mean. But that went above and beyond.” He picked up her hand, rubbing his thumb across her knuckles. As always, hot lightning sparked where their hands connected and spread through her veins. “I appreciate it, Danica. I appreciate you.”

Appreciate. It was a nice word. In the past, she’d wished Johanna had used it more frequently when applied to her work. But coming from Luke—

It was like being handed a brussels sprout when one craved a steak. She didn’t want his appreciation. She wanted his love.

But it wasn’t on the menu. She pulled her hand from his and gave him a wide smile. “Just trying to do my temporary husband a solid,” she said brightly. “I’m sorry I ran out.”

He gave her a one-sided smile. “I’m sorry I put you through that.”

His approval wrapped around her like a warm blanket. It should be enough. He gave it so rarely.

But while she enjoyed his appreciation, it wasn’t enough. Would never be enough. “You did warn me,” she said, plastering a smile on her face. “We should go back to the restaurant, so I can apologize to your parents for being gone so long.”

“You mean so they can apologize to you. Which they will. But they left right after you. Seems an earlier tee time for my father just happened to open up, while my mother conveniently forgot she had plans to meet friends in the city.” He stood and offered her his right hand. “I know a great burger joint between here and Palo Alto. Interested?”

She nodded and took his hand, his fingers curling around hers, and he pulled her off the bench. It felt so natural to continue to hold his hand as they strolled through the charming downtown on the way back to his car. She paused to point out the terrible wine puns on display in a cheese shop. “Everything happens for a Riesling,” she groaned.

“I just called to say Merlot,” Luke countered. “Que Syrah, Syrah.”

She laughed, turning to resume their journey toward the carpark. But she stopped, just for a second, when she caught a glimpse of their reflection in the shop’s window.

They looked like a couple. A real couple. Out for a stroll, enjoying the beautiful weather. Enjoying each other.

But she knew the truth. Luke was engaged in a game of wits with Irene and Nestor Stavros, and she was just a chess piece. She kept her gaze focused on the sidewalk all the way back to the car.

Tags: Susannah Erwin Billionaire Romance