Just like my parents paid for my first house and first car.
Just like Julian cut me a deal so I could live in a condo I couldn’t afford.
Marston’s not like them, but a slick, slimy feeling coats my skin as I realize what this could mean—for me, for my friends, for any future relationship I might’ve tried for with Marston.
Nausea rolls over me, and I bring the back of my hand to my mouth.
“I wanted to tell you before he did. He’s out in the lobby chatting with Savvy, and I don’t think he understands you might not like this.”
Might not like this. It makes me feel like the spoiled little rich girl again. The fragile thing who couldn’t do for herself and messed it up any time she tried. The trapped girl who only had one thing that was ever really hers—and when she panicked and pushed him away, she didn’t even have him anymore.
I look up when Marston steps into my office.
“Hey, Stella!” He’s grinning and looks so damn handsome. I could almost forget my worries if they weren’t sitting on my chest like a five-ton elephant. He’s dressed down today in jeans and a dress shirt rolled to his elbows, no tie, and when he turns to me, his eyes brighten with joy. “Good morning, beautiful,” he says softly.
I lift my chin, but everything inside me is too tight. Like I’m made up of thousands of tiny strings that are all about to snap. “Morning.”
“I’ll just go,” Stella says, sidestepping him.
Marston flashes her a confused smile, but she waves and pulls the door closed behind her as she goes.
He strolls toward me and walks around to my side of the desk before leaning against the edge. “Remember when I was in Atlanta and told you I bought you a gift?” He pulls a skinny box from his pocket and puts it on the desk in front of me.
I close my eyes as each of the strings holding me together is pulled a fraction tighter. Pretty soon they’ll snap and I’ll fall apart. “I told you I didn’t want you to buy me anything.” When his knuckles brush along my cheek, I open my eyes again.
“Don’t be sad, baby. You’ll want this. I promise.” He lifts the lid off the box, revealing a delicate blown-glass orchid inside.
I don’t speak. I can’t.
“I know how important this is to you, and I realized that by canceling your wedding to Julian, you were giving up something you’ve spent years working for.”
“So you bought it for yourself?” I barely recognize my own voice. It sounds hollow. I should be grateful for his generosity, but . . . I thought Marston understood. I thought he knew me.
“For you. I bought it for you.” He tilts his head to the side, studying me. “Because you couldn’t.”
“So it’s mine?” I hate myself for the words, for the sneer in my tone, for the panic that’s making me turn to ice and shove him away. “On what condition?” I ask, my voice shaking.
“I don’t understand what the problem is. There are no conditions. There are no stipulations. I formed a shell company I can transfer to you at any time.”
“You bought me a multimillion-dollar business for nothing? You’re just going to hand it over?” I shake my head. “Don’t condescend me. I’m not a child.”
He stands, irritation clear in his face. “And I’m not your parents.”
“What if I told you I still want the divorce? That I don’t want to move to L.A. with you? Would I still have my job here, or would the new owner take it away?”
“I don’t expect you to move to L.A. Alec and I were in Atlanta scoping sites for a new office. Our business has grown. We can have dual headquarters now, and Atlanta makes sense. I can commute for the time being, and then when you’re ready and you’ve trained someone to run this place, we can buy a place there.”
I shake my head. “Tell me you aren’t making plans for my life without me.”
He takes my hands and pulls me out of the chair. “I’m making plans with you. And I’ve been listening. You want Cami to be able to see her father more. You want your friends who work here to be secure in their jobs, and you want to own the business you’ve worked so hard for. I’m giving you all those things.”
I press my hand to my chest. “All I want is to be independent. I want to take care of myself so I can control my own life. You took that away from me when you bought this place.”
His jaw is tight. “That’s such bullshit, Brinley. You were happy to let Julian put you up in that condo, but you couldn’t move in with me. You were planning to take that trust from your parents, but you wouldn’t take money from me. You say you want to be independent, but what you really mean is you don’t want anything from me.”