I tense. “I can’t—”
“Or we could just . . . unwind together.”
I nod, but not because I think the conversation we’ll have will be relaxing. I know what I need to do, and it’s not fair for me to put it off any longer. “Okay. Come on in.”
Stella’s yawning when she meets us at the door.
“Hey, Stella,” Julian says before stepping inside and pointing toward the powder room. “I’m going to use the facilities. I’ll be out in a minute.”
“I’ll pour the wine,” I say.
“Night, Julian,” Stella says. She waits until he disappears down the hall before turning back to me. “I know it’s barely past nine and I should be taking my newly single ass out to find a man, but I’m going home to crash. Don’t tell my twenty-one-year-old self. She’d disown me.”
I laugh quietly. “Your secret’s safe with me. You know you don’t need to rush into a new relationship, right?”
She waves a hand. “I know, I know, but I miss sex.”
I snort. “You and Bobby broke up less than a week ago.”
She arches a brow. “And what does that have to do with how long it’s been since I’ve been properly fucked?”
“Oh.” I make a face. “Was that why . . .?”
“Still not talking about it,” she says, but she softens the declaration with a wink.
Someday this girl is going to open up about what happened with Bobby, and I’m going to be ready. In the meantime, I’m just glad to have her back in the OV, even if it means she’s had to take up temporary residence in her mom’s guest room. “How’d it go with Cami tonight?”
“Awesome, of course. That girl wore me out, but we had fun.” She stretches her arms overhead and yawns again. “What about your night? Did your parents openly mock you for having flaws, or did they stick to the subtext burns tonight?”
“A little of both.” I grin, knowing she understands without explanation. “It sucked, but that’s nothing compared to how much it’s going to suck when I talk to them tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” She searches my face then seems to get it. “Oh, baby girl.”
I swallow hard, but I can already feel the tears burning my eyes. “I really wanted it to work. He’s a good guy, Stella.”
She nods. “He’s been good to you, but . . .”
“But I can’t marry him just for The Orchid,” I say, finishing the thought so she doesn’t have to. “That’s not fair to him.”
“It’s not fair to either of you,” she whispers. “What can I do?”
“Remind me it’s not the end of the world when my parents threaten to never speak to me again? And remind me I can climb out of debt and be independent without their stupid trust?”
“Done and done,” she says.
“I’ll pour the wine,” Julian calls from the kitchen.
“Thanks!” I reply over my shoulder.
Stella blows out a breath. “I’ll get out of here so you can . . .” Her gaze drifts toward the kitchen, and she swallows.
“Yeah.” I open the door for her. “Thank you for babysitting, and everything else.”
“Love you, boo.”
“Love you too.” I close the door behind her and head to the living room. The second I sink into the plush cushions of my sofa, my eyes float closed.
I listen to his heavy footsteps coming into the living room and force my eyes open.
He sets a glass of red wine on the coffee table, then drops something from his palm beside it. I can practically feel the air in the room chill. “Can we talk about why you even have this?”
I swipe the ring from the table, then blink up at Julian, my resolve hardening. “You looked in my jewelry box?”
“Yeah. And since you’re hiding another man’s ring in there, I’m glad I did.”
“You looked at my messages without asking and then searched through my jewelry box.” I shake my head. “What the hell, Julian?”
“Why. Do. You. Have. It?”
I stare at the ring where it sits in the palm of my hand.
The one Julian gave me is a family heirloom. When he told my parents he planned to marry me and asked for their blessing, Mom took him straight to Orchid Valley Bank and Trust to pull it from their safe deposit box. When he put it on my finger, he told me how my mom cried when he agreed to use it in his proposal, and I imagined how pleased my grandmother would be to see it on my finger.
The one Marston gave me is less familiar, and in no way an antique, but somehow it’s no less precious. I wonder if we picked it out together that night—if he held me from behind, my back to his front, while I peered into the jewelry case and oohed and ahhed over the beautiful choices—or if he excused himself at some point during the evening and picked it out himself.