Charlotte blew out a breath and stepped aside to allow me in. By the light of her candle, I could see that her eyes were gleaming with tears, and I felt like a total shit.
I paced the floor, then put the candles on the dresser before turning to face her. “Look, I’m not going to ask you to stay. I made that mistake before and it didn’t work out so well for me, but it also could’ve worked out way worse. Even if it had been okay with you and me at first, eventually you would’ve wound up resenting me, and we’d have ended up hating each other.”
“So now I’m Sarah?” Charlotte’s voice raised an octave, and I cringed.
“No, that’s not what I’m saying. It’s just . . . I’ve only known you a week, and we both know you don’t belong here.” I hated even thinking it, but saying it out loud, I knew it was true.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” she demanded.
“It’s not an insult.” I held up my hands. “You’re beautiful and cultured, and yes, you may think you want to stay here with a guy that you’ve only known for a week. But when time goes on and you realize that you’re sick of fried chicken and you can’t stand that there’s not a decent theater or shopping mall anywhere nearby? Shady Grove isn’t going to be enough for you.”
“That’s not true.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “You don’t know that. You don’t know me if you think that’s all I care about.”
“Maybe I don’t. But don’t you think that could be a problem too?”
She sucked in a deep breath and stared at me. Even in the candlelight, I could see the tears slipping from her eyes, finally breaking free. My heart gave a squeeze, and I resisted the urge to yank her close to me and take it all back.
“You’re right, okay? Is that what you want me to say? Wanting to stay here is a pipe dream.” She took a step closer to me, her bottom lip trembling. “It was just so good between us, Luke. What if we never find that again with anyone else?”
The very thought of her with anyone else made my gut tense. The thought of her in another man’s arms made me want to hit something.
Don’t think about it, man.
“So I can’t stay,” she added. “But does that mean we have to spend this last night apart?”
Jesus. Even after I’d hurt her, she wanted to be with me one last time, and it was what I wanted more than anything too. To hold her in my arms and take her, to claim her as my own. We would fit together so perfectly—like two missing puzzle pieces—and I would feel even worse when I had to watch her drive away from me in the morning.
But if I said no to her again? I knew I’d regret it for the rest of my life. And I had enough regrets.
I walked toward her and tucked my hand under her chin, pulling her lips to mine until I could taste the minty-sweet toothpaste on her tongue and the oaky, rich flavor of honeyed whiskey on her breath. The perfect combination. The perfect girl.
Before I knew it, we were falling backward onto the bed until she let out a soft sigh and connected with the mattress.
When she breathed my name, I kissed her again, tucking her hair behind her ear as my tongue searched deeper inside her mouth, pulling her toward me, claiming her with my lips.
“Come home with me,” I whispered, and she nodded, her head tucked under my chin.
A few minutes later, we ran for the truck, rain pelting us sideways as she left without taking a thing. Once we were back at my place, I led her to my bedroom, each of us carrying a lit candle to guide our path.
Stripping down to my boxers, I watched as Charlotte shed her wet clothes. After dressing her in one of my T-shirts, I led her to my bed.
I kissed her lips softly in a moment so sweet and perfect, it almost didn’t seem real. It felt like something out of one of those cheesy Nicholas Sparks movies that Molly liked. The raindrops pelting the windows, the sound of Charlotte’s shallow breaths, the way her lips met mine . . . I wasn’t a romantic, but the knot in my throat and the ache in my chest felt very real.
I wouldn’t make love to her tonight. I knew if I claimed her again, I’d never let go.
Come morning, it would be agony to watch her leave, but at least I’d still have my pride. I wouldn’t have begged or pleaded. She wouldn’t wake up and hate me one day for asking. And I’d be able to go on knowing we’d both been happy for a time, which was all we’d ever wanted from the arrangement.
I didn’t tell her that, though. Instead, I pulled away from the kiss despite everything inside me urging me on, and held her tight.
“You okay?” I whispered.
“I am now.”
We curled together in the darkness, sharing pieces of our pasts. Charlotte spoke again about her overbearing parents and wanting to make a decision that was just hers, while I shared my dreams of making my whiskey a household name. I told her stories of my mom and dad, and growing up in a small town. She talked about the lingering ideas she still had for the distillery, promising to call if she came up with any more, but I secretly hoped she wouldn’t.
Because if I heard her voice again?
I’d crack faster than a priest at a Vegas strip club.
I rose from bed early the next morning, unable to sleep with the knowledge that today was the day. Creeping into the bathroom while Charlotte slept, I turned on the shower and waited for the water to warm.
As I soaped up, I reflected on everything that had happened. This past week had been one of the best of my life. I didn’t know it, but before Charlotte arrived, I’d been living in a fog. I’d wake up early, work all day, stress the fuck out over the distillery turning a profit one of these days, then fall into bed exhausted. But ever since she showed up here, my miserable little routine had been interrupted in the best way imaginable.
Watching Charlotte blossom and grow during her stay here had been something, and I wanted to believe that I’d had a hand in that. Gone was the uptight, spoiled rich girl who expected everything to be done at the snap of her fingers. In her place was a beautiful, confident woman who was learning to roll with the punches and make lemon drops from lemons.
After rinsing off, I grabbed a towel and wrapped it around my waist. Swiping at the fog in the mirror, I scowled at the reflection staring back at me.
What the fuck am I supposed to do?
Running a hand across my jaw, I decided that forgoing shaving today wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Charlotte liked my scruff. The thought made me crack a smile.
But then it hit me again that she wouldn’t be here later to stroke her fingers along my jaw and tell me that she loved me like this. That thought stung.
Padding back into my bedroom wearing just a towel, I grabbed a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, dressing quietly before Charlotte woke.
Curled onto her side with a spray of dark hair spread across the pillow, she looked so soft and sweet in her sleep. Smirking, I realized that the woman was anything but soft. Awake, she was a feisty firecracker who never hesitated to put me in my place.
As if sensing my presence, Charlotte turned toward me, blinking against the sunlight streaming in through the blinds.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“Just after eight.”
Sitting up, she grabbed her phone and deleted a couple of text messages without bothering to read them. Probably just her friend in LA giving her a hard time about her lengthy stopover. Charlotte and I both knew that Wayne could have been pressured into having her car done sooner.
“You hungry?” I asked.
“Can I shower first?”
I nodded. “Take your time.”
That statement was all wrong. Time was the one thing we didn’t have. But Charlotte brushed her tangled hair away from her face and smiled weakly at me. That sad little smile tore through me like a knife.
“I’ll be downstairs,” I murmured, heading for the door. I found Duke in the kitchen fixing himself a plate of eggs.
“What’s on the agenda today?” he asked.
I cleared my throat, forcing down the knot that had formed. “Charlotte’s taking off today.”
“And that’s it, huh?”