I stare at this piece of jewelry we both used as part of our vows and wonder how I was ever strong enough to take it off and walk away.

“Why do you have his ring?” There’s no denying the anger in Julian’s voice. I can’t blame him for it, either.

I finally lift my gaze to his. “Because he gave it to me. The night he came back into town, he gave it back to me.”

Julian’s jaw twitches, and I count the flutters in that little muscle as I wait for his response. “Why did you take it? Why were you keeping it in your jewelry box like it’s something you plan to keep?”

“Can we talk about you invading my privacy?”

“We’re getting married.” He paces the living room and drags a hand through his hair. “I’m in limbo here and getting nowhere with you. You barely let me touch you anymore—but, hey, why worry about me? I’m just the schmuck who wants to take care of you.”

“We’re not having sex, so that gives you the right to spy on me?”

“I don’t want to find shit out from your text messages or by digging through your room. I just want you to tell me what you’re thinking.”

I only control you when I need to. I only cross the line when you behave badly. I’ve lived that life. I’ve lived with the man who can be lavishly generous only to yank it all away the second you step out of line. Living with that kind of “love” nearly destroyed me. I’m not living it again. I pull his ring off my finger and drop both of them onto the table. “I can’t marry you.”

Julian snatches Marston’s ring and hurls it across the room. It bounces off the wall and lands on the floor in front of the fireplace. “This is such bullshit!”

I shake my head. I don’t even recognize the angry man pacing in front of me. I feel like I’m dreaming. This is all so . . . Surely this isn’t real. But when I force myself to meet Julian’s eyes again, I see the hurt there. “Julian.” I should never have agreed to this. I resisted for six years for a reason. I knew I’d end up hurting him. “I’m sorry.”

He sinks to his knees in front of me. He picks up his ring, presses it into my hand, and closes my fingers around it. His grip is tight, and the stone digs painfully into my palm. “We’ll be fine,” he says, burying his face in my chest. “I’m sorry I’m panicking, but we can do this. We can get through this.”

I shake my head, but he can’t see me. I shove him back by his shoulders. “Listen to me.” I wait until he lifts his eyes to meet mine. “I can’t marry you.”

“You’re choosing him?”

I’m choosing me, but I don’t let myself say it.

“What about The Orchid? Buying that place is your dream.”

I shrug. “Everyone has dreams, but just because it’s my dream that doesn’t give me the right to act carelessly in my pursuit of it.” I pull my hand from his and uncurl my fingers. “I can’t marry you for business reasons when you’re marrying me for personal ones.”

“You love me.” He presses his hand to his stomach as if I’ve plunged a knife in there, and I have no choice but to twist the blade—to end this with the truth before I hurt him more.

“Not enough to marry you.”

Chapter Seventeen

Marston

Abraham fucking Knox is in town.

When I spotted him walking into the Spotted Duck tonight, it was every reminder I needed of why I stayed away from Orchid Valley for so long. To add insult to injury, I learned the Knoxes are in town for some sort of engagement party for Brinley and Julian.

At some point, I’m just going to have to accept that she’s not going to break it off with him. Maybe her reasons are bullshit or maybe they’re the right ones, but at the end of the day, she’s the one who gets to decide.

And she’s never led you to believe she’s going to choose anything but a life with Julian.

I came straight to Smithy’s to drown my sorrows. My old friend’s behind the bar tonight and keeping me entertained with stories from his short career in the NFL. I’m pretty sure half this shit isn’t true, but at least it’s taken my mind off Brinley and our just-on-paper marriage.

“How much longer are you going to stick around?” Smithy asks, plopping on the stool next to me.

I stare at my beer. “I’m not sure. I’m meeting the Wright family in Atlanta on Monday afternoon to report my findings on The Orchid, so that’s almost wrapped up.” Brinley laughed in my face when I gave her a rundown of my suggestions for the owners. Every update on my list is something she’s been after them to do for years. For her sake, I hope they’ll listen to me. Good management will only take the company so far before an unwillingness to put money back into the business will backfire on them.

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