“Exactly. Maybe that’s why you didn’t answer. Or maybe you wouldn’t have if you’d known it was me.”

“I would have,” she blurts. “I don’t answer calls from numbers I don’t know, but if I’d known it was you . . .”

I shrug. As if it doesn’t matter. As if I wasn’t lonely as fuck that night and so many nights before and after. I called three times just to listen to her voice asking me to leave a message. Hi! You’ve reached Brinley. Sorry I can’t make it to the phone, but leave a message and I promise to get back to you as soon as I can. She sounded so damn happy, sounded the way she’d looked the day I came back to Orchid Valley and saw her holding Cami on the patio behind her parents’ house. “I didn’t leave a voicemail,” I say unnecessarily.

She bites the corner of her mouth. “What would you have said if I’d picked up?” She smiles. “Hey, this gorgeous Hollywood starlet just broke up with me; come over here and kiss me better?”

I have to laugh. “I like to think I would’ve done better than that, but like I said, there was a lot of bourbon involved.” I swallow. “I imagine I would’ve just said I missed you every day, and I didn’t think I’d ever love someone else the way I loved you.”

She drops her gaze to her wine. “You always say sweet things.”

More words lodge themselves in my throat—sweet things she probably doesn’t want to hear. “Tell me about Julian.”

She wrinkles her nose. “Do I have to?” When I just arch a brow in response, she sighs. “Julian moved to town about six years ago. We met at Smithy’s and hit it off.”

“Six years ago?” I lean back in my chair, fighting every possessive, jealous asshole instinct I have. I want to hear this story, but this isn’t some random hookup she’s telling me about, and unlike my old girlfriend, Julian’s not just an ex I can process in an intellectual way. This is the guy she almost married. This is the guy I almost lost her to. And they were involved for six years.

“Like I said, a long-term relationship was never a priority to me. When I went home with Julian that night, he was supposed to be another random hookup. One and done. I wasn’t looking for more.”

“But he was,” I say. “He’s thought of you as his since that first time.”

She rolls her head from side to side as if she needs to release tension in her neck. “I’m not sure how you know that, but yeah. It’s becoming very clear to me that despite my warnings that I wasn’t interested in more than easy hookups, Julian’s been playing the long game since the beginning.” She closes her eyes. “I feel like such an ass, in retrospect. I should have realized he was falling for me.”

“But you did at some point—realized it and realized you returned his feelings? Or was it not that at all? Was there another reason you were planning to go through with this marriage?”

When she looks up at me, her eyes are guarded. “If you’ve already figured it out, please don’t make me explain. It’s mortifying.”

I scoot my chair halfway around the table and brush my knuckles down her arm. “I haven’t figured anything out. But I know you came home from Vegas and got engaged days or, at most, weeks after. When I first found that out, I made myself crazy thinking what we had that night was nothing more than a last-minute fling. Cold feet.”

“In some ways, it was,” she says softly, and when her eyes meet mine, there’s something like shame there. “I went to Vegas knowing I needed to make a decision about Julian.”

“But the woman I spent that night with wasn’t in love with another man. I don’t know why, exactly, you decided to marry me, but I know you weren’t in love with anyone else.”

“No,” she says, and her voice is so low it’s as if she wants to keep her secrets from all the strangers in this restaurant. “I wasn’t in love. Not in the way you mean.”

“So why did you agree to marry him?”

She looks around, and something like shame pulls at her features. “Can we get out of here?”

Chapter Twenty-Four


Twilight has descended when we leave the restaurant, and the streetlamps cast the streets in a soft glow. “Want to walk or go to the car?”

“Walk, if that’s okay?”

I nod. The restaurant is tucked in a charming little residential neighborhood. The two-lane street’s lined with colorful craftsman homes, and the light breeze makes it the perfect temperature for a stroll.

We’re two blocks down before she speaks again. “The spa,” she says, turning to look at me as if those two words explain everything and she expects me to react to this somehow. “The owner retired years ago after training me, and now her kids are pushing her to sell. She doesn’t do much with the place anymore. She would’ve sold sooner, but she was trying to give me a chance to be able to buy it from her. But . . . I’m not.”

Source: www.StudyNovels.com