“Is that what you told yourself when you left me that note?”

She shrugs, as if it’s irrelevant, then turns toward the door.

“It wouldn’t have made a difference,” I say as her fingers curl around the handle. “I would’ve married you anyway. I’d marry you today.”

She bows her head for a beat, but she doesn’t look back to me before heading out the door and walking away from me—like she’s done again and again since coming back into my life.

Chapter Ten

Brinley

“Knock-knock.”

I look up from my computer to see Julian standing at my door. He’s dressed for meetings today in a plum shirt and pressed black slacks. His sandy-blond hair is artfully messy in a sexy-casual look that takes him a special blend of three hair products and ten minutes in front of a mirror. I push out of my chair, relieved to see him after our fight two nights ago. “Hey, I didn’t think you’d be back until tonight. How was your trip?”

Grinning, he strides into my office, hands tucked into his pockets. “It was good, but I decided to come back early and take my fiancée out for lunch.” He peeks over his shoulder then lowers his voice. “I heard you’ve had a rough couple of days.”

My stomach sinks. From the moment Stella told me Marston was acting as a consultant for The Orchid yesterday morning, I expected Julian wouldn’t like it. I’ve been preparing for the conversation but didn’t think I’d have to have it here. I school my expression and cock my head to the side. “Where’d you hear that?”

“The grapevine.” He rocks back on his heels. “Mrs. Wright’s eldest is an acquaintance. When I ran into him in Atlanta, he mentioned that Marston’s consulting for them. He was crowing about it, actually.”

“It was a bit of a shock,” I admit, “but it hasn’t been bad. In fact, if I’m looking at it objectively, having Marston’s critical eye on The Orchid for a few weeks will only strengthen my future business.” I force a smile, but the harder I try to cling to our plans—get married, buy The Orchid, live a simple, happy life—the more they feel like they’re slipping through my fingers.

“I hope so,” Julian says, a wrinkle forming between his brows. “I’d hate to think he took the position to have some power over you.”

I open my mouth to explain that Marston wouldn’t do that then snap it shut again, afraid any defense of Marston will be salt in the wound for Julian. “Lunch sounds good.” I grab my purse. If I want to make this work, I need to start giving my fiancé more of my attention and energy, and that starts now.

Julian beams. “You just made my day.”

It takes so little to make this guy happy. I’m a total jerk for not trying more often. “Where do you want to go?”

“Let’s see what the specials on The Patio are.” He misses my frown as he takes my hand and heads in the direction of The Orchid’s in-house restaurant.

I’ve suggested The Patio for a quick lunch many times, but Julian always said there was no point in taking a lunch break if I wasn’t even going to get away from work. “I can leave,” I say, quickening my pace to keep up with his long strides. “We don’t need to eat here.”

He slows his steps and narrows his eyes. “Are you ashamed to be seen with me?”

I blink at him. “Wha— Why— No. Of course not.” He looks so wounded that I can’t even laugh this off. “Julian, we’re getting married. Of course I’m not ashamed to be seen with you.”

“Good.” He gives my hand a gentle squeeze and resumes his path toward The Patio, if a little slower this time, and I wonder if this visit is really about us or if it’s about Marston.

* * *

“Thanks for having lunch with me,” Julian says, stopping just outside my office.

“Thank you for taking me. It was a nice surprise.” I hope my smile hides any untruth in these words. Lunch was good. Okay, well, the food was delicious. The company was . . . awkward?

The whole time we were eating, I felt like Julian was focused on how he looked interacting with me, rather than actually interacting with me. He didn’t bring up Marston working at The Orchid, and neither did I—more of that conversation can wait until we’re alone—but something was definitely off with him.

His gaze locks on my mouth for a beat. “I wish I could take you home with me.”

I laugh. “We both need to work,” I remind him, because it’s true. Also because nothing’s changed since he stomped out of my condo on Tuesday. I’m not ready for us to be physical again.

The door down the hall clicks open, but before I can turn to greet whoever’s coming our way, Julian takes my face in his hands and lowers his mouth to mine. This isn’t his typical “have a nice day” kiss or even his typical “I hate to leave, but if you insist, I’ll go” kiss. This is deep and searching, and I’m so surprised by it that I just stand there. When I do pull away—because, hello, I work here—he holds me tight and doesn’t make it easy.

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