“Yeah. Guess so.”
He slammed the skillet he’d just washed onto the counter. “Don’t be a dumb fuck. She’s perfect for you.”
He was wrong about that. She was way too good for someone like me, and I wouldn’t trap her into something she’d regret.
“I won’t ask her to stay.”
He shook his head. “Then show her why leaving would be stupid.”
Tingles started at the base of my spine as a plan formed in my mind. I needed to make a call, and my cell was still in my bedroom.
“Give me your phone,” I demanded.
Duke gave me that cocky crooked grin he always wore when he’d just outsmarted me, and handed me his phone.
Glancing toward the stairs to make sure there was no sight of Charlotte, I dialed the number for Wayne’s. Several rings later, I was almost convinced his lazy ass wasn’t even up yet when he finally answered.
“Yup,” he said.
“Wayne. It’s Luke Wilder.”
“What can I do for ya?”
“I’ve got a crisp hundred-dollar bill with your name on it if you can keep the Audi in the shop today.”
He was quiet, and I had the sinking feeling he was going to refuse to play along. Duke nodded, watching me.
“I just need one more day,” I said.
“All right then. I’ll see you tomorrow,” Wayne said and then clicked off.
A little while later, Charlotte came downstairs, her skin freshly scrubbed and dewy, and her damp hair hanging down her back.
“Wayne called to say things didn’t go according to plan, and he said to come by tomorrow morning.” She shrugged and took a seat at the breakfast table, but she didn’t seem particularly upset.
Duke smiled at me and took his plate of eggs to the other room, giving us some privacy.
Today was my last chance to show her everything our life could be if she’d only take a chance. I couldn’t waste this opportunity. Maybe, just maybe, if I played my cards right, she’d make the decision to stay all on her own.
“First, I’m going to feed you,” I said, setting down a mug of steaming coffee in front of Charlotte.
“And then what?”
“I think we can entertain ourselves for one more day, don’t you?”
• • •
After breakfast, Charlotte took my truck into town to check out of the inn and get her suitcase. While she was gone, I got to work, packing up a picnic basket while Molly supervised with a grin.
So far, I had cheese, crackers, fruit, hot dogs and buns, and a bottle of white wine. Molly was getting a little too much joy out of this, but without her help, the basket would have probably only contained a bottle of whiskey and a whole bunch of condoms.
After adding a couple of red plastic cups from the pantry, I surveyed my work. Not bad.
“Pass me those napkins,” I told Molly.
“Here, take these instead.” She handed me two cloth napkins, and then switched out my plastic cups for a pair of stemless wineglasses.
While I grabbed a blanket from the hall closet, Molly darted off, then emerged from her bedroom with a little package of salted caramel dark chocolate squares.
“These are your favorite,” I said. “Are you sure?”
She nodded. “Charlotte loves them too.”
I added those to the basket, along with graham crackers and a bag of marshmallows.
“Where are you taking her?” Molly asked.
“I’m thinking the swimming hole, a picnic, maybe a bonfire and a movie on the iPad if she likes the idea.”
Molly’s gaze went soft. “How sweet. It’ll be like your own private outdoor movie.”
“Yep. That’s the idea.” Privacy was my main goal, that and showing her all the pleasures life in a small town had to offer.
“Oh!” Molly ran to the hall closet. “You’re gonna need some pillows. Maybe a couple more blankets too.”
Tires crunching on gravel out front meant Charlotte was back, and I turned to Molly and handed her the blanket.
“Throw the pillows and blankets in the back of the truck for me, would you?”
Molly nodded and hurried toward the screen door.
I snatched up the basket and on second thought, grabbed the whiskey and condoms, tucking those in too. After all, a man could never be too prepared.
“What’s all this for?” Charlotte asked as she climbed out of the truck and handed me the keys.
I placed the basket behind the seat. “Just get your pretty little ass back in the truck, and you’ll see.” I swatted her behind playfully while Molly waved from the front porch.
“Yes, sir,” Charlotte muttered under her breath.
She fiddled with the radio until she found a station that suited her while I headed out toward the spot I had in mind. What we needed was privacy, and I knew just the place. About a half hour outside of town on a stretch of country road was a piece of land I’d looked at buying last year. Acres of rolling hills and shady pecan trees, and a rocky bluff overlooking the clearest, prettiest lake. It was completely secluded with no one for miles around.
The owner, an old man in his eighties, wasn’t ready to sell, but told me I was free to visit whenever I wanted to go fishing in the lake. I had a lot more on my mind today than catching a few catfish.
“Where are we headed?” Charlotte asked. “Am I dressed okay?”
Looking down at her delicious creamy thighs below a pair of cut-off jean shorts—thighs that I hoped would be wrapped around my neck later—I just grinned. “You’re perfect.”
A little while later, we pulled down the hidden single-lane road that was so narrow, twigs and branches brushed the sides of my truck as we drove on.
Charlotte gave me a worried look. “Will you tell me where you’re taking me? Because this is looking more and more like somewhere you go to get rid of a body.”
Chuckling at her, I finally pulled to a stop in a clearing overlooking the lake. “I figured I had one last day to show you all the pleasures of the simple life, and I didn’t want to waste it.”
She gazed out the windshield to the lake beyond, and as hard as I tried to decipher her expression, I couldn’t quite read it.
This was my last shot, and I was pulling out all the stops.
The asshat had conveniently forgotten to mention that I needed a bathing suit. But I couldn’t be mad because getting to see Luke, a whole lot of Luke, all tanned skin and rock-hard muscle, made it totally worth it. Plus, I’d never been skinny-dipping, so I got to cross that off my bucket list.
We played in the shallows for a while, and then he carried me out into deeper water and kissed me. He became aroused, and for a moment I thought we might make love right there in the lake, but we didn’t. Instead, he dunked me and swam away laughing, which spawned a twenty-minute water battle.
Then we dressed and grabbed what Luke had brought. He led me on a hike around the lake, finally climbing up to a rocky bluff where we could see for miles. We spread out the blanket on a perfect spot and cuddled together, watching the clouds float by. It was truly the perfect day already, and it was barely even noon.
“You getting hungry yet?” Luke asked, leaning over to brush a wisp of hair away from my face.
“Maybe. What’s in that picnic basket?”
Smirking, he said, “You’ll just have to find out.”
We sat up, stacking up the oversized throw pillows behind us, and Luke arranged an impressive picnic. We munched on cheese and crackers, and sipped glasses of wine while chatting about everything and nothing.
“This is an awfully romantic date, Mr. Wilder. Explain to me again how it is that you’re still single?”
He chuckled and shook his head. “No, you’ve got it all wrong. This isn’t a date. I just needed to get you out of the house before the hookers that Duke hired came over.”
Knowing he was kidding, I nodded, keeping my expression serious. “I see. Good plan.”
He told me about the history of Shady Grove, and how his family came to be settled there. We laughed and ate, and then watched a movie on the iPad he’d brought. It was the perfect day.
When the sun began to set, I thought that was it, that it was time to pack up and go home. Instead, Luke went to gather firewood while I built a little stone ring several feet away from our blanket. Once he got a fire going, we roasted hot dogs on sticks and ate gooey burned marshmallows, chasing them with sips of his smoky whiskey.