“Fucking dipshit,” Duke said under his breath. “You know he bribed Wayne, don’t you? You could’ve gotten out of here yesterday.”
That was news to me, but it felt like too little, too late. “Doesn’t matter. We had fun, and now it’s over.”
Luke knew how I felt. I’d put my heart out there the night of my party, asked him to tell me to stay. He wouldn’t, and now it was too late.
After handing Wayne his money, I watched as Duke said one last good-bye to Charlotte and then climbed into his truck. Wayne went back inside, and then it was just Charlotte and me.
“The end of the road,” I murmured, and she nodded.
I didn’t know what to say, and it seemed she didn’t either. I folded her into my arms one last time, trying not to notice how perfectly she fit there. There were no tears, no long drawn-out good-bye, and no promises to keep in touch. She had stormed into my life, but it seemed she was leaving without the same flair.
I thought about kissing her good-bye, but in the end, I couldn’t. I simply helped her into her car, shut the door, then watched as she drove off into the distance, my fists clenched at my sides and my stomach tight with despair.
But as that fancy foreign car disappeared over the horizon, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was taking my heart along with it.
I cried all the way through the rest of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. For three days, I drove toward LA, thinking over the past week in Shady Grove and trying to convince myself not to turn back.
I wanted to run into Luke’s house and demand that he realize I wasn’t the same as Sarah, that things would be different with me if he’d only give it a chance. But then, whenever I was leaving one highway motel or another, I would realize that my actions—no matter how grand—would do nothing to change his mind.
He was a traditionalist, down to the stereotype of being stuck in his ways, and if I thought I was going to be the one to change him? Well, I had another thing coming.
No, Luke Wilder and everything he stood for was in the rearview now—just like New York and Prescott and all the rest of my past.
Suddenly, this move didn’t feel like starting over or starting fresh anymore. It simply felt like . . . settling. As if every mile I got closer to LA, I was getting a little farther from what I actually wanted.
I was excited to see Valentina, of course, but even when I finally pulled up to my friend’s house, it was with a growing sense of doom and despair.
After hauling my suitcase from the backseat, I trudged up the little stoop outside Valentina’s chic bungalow and rang the doorbell. In an instant, my friend was there, all tanned willowy limbs and long dark curls, embracing me in a hug that seemed to go on forever.
Which, of course, only made the tears I thought I’d managed to leave behind in Arizona spring back up and rear their ugly heads.
“What’s wrong, honey?” Valentina cooed as she ushered me inside.
I sniffled before following her, swiping away my tears with the back of my hand. “I’m sorry. I’m being stupid.”
“You are many things, but stupid is not one of them.” She gestured to her bright white couch and I took a seat carefully, wiping away another errant tear. “What’s going on?”
I let the whole story spill out—or, at least, the parts of it she didn’t already know. I was a little ashamed that I shared more than I probably should have. About the hot sex and the burning attraction between Luke and me. About what we’d said to each other in our intimate moments. About how he’d held me all night before I left, and the way he hadn’t even kissed me good-bye.
About how he refused to ask me to stay.
Through it all, Valentina sat in rapt attention, nibbling at her long, perfectly manicured fingernails and nodding in all the right places. When I finally finished, she sat back and let out a wistful little sigh.
“Well, that sounds like it was all long overdue.”
“What?” I asked.
“Think about the guys you’ve been with,” she said with a shrug. “You needed someone outside your comfort zone. You needed to have a little brush with real love.”
She rolled her eyes. “Are you really going to sit here and tell me—me, your best friend since kindergarten—that you were in love with Prescott?”
“I was going to marry him,” I shot back.
“Which, I’ll remind you, had nothing to do with love. Your parents just wanted to see that you didn’t squander that tidy little inheritance of yours. He was well bred, just like you. For God’s sake, that relationship was more like two animals mating in captivity than actually—”
I made a little choking noise and Valentina stopped short.
“What?” she asked.
“Well, I never actually . . . Prescott and I didn’t . . .”
Valentina let out a disgusted snort. “You were going to marry a guy you’d never slept with? What is this, the eighteen hundreds?”
I closed my eyes. “Marrying him just seemed like the practical thing to do. We got along well and traveled in the same circles.”
“God, that is the most depressing reason for getting married I’ve ever heard. I’m so glad you weren’t going to write your own vows. You probably would have cited the tax codes that made marriage such a great decision.” She rolled her eyes again, tsk-tsking at me. “Come on, we both know the real reason you were going to marry him, and it wasn’t because he was practical and respectable.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Are you really going to make me say it out loud?” Valentina said, and I stared at her blankly.
As far as I knew, I’d gotten engaged to Prescott because he’d asked me, and because it made a certain kind of sense on paper. Anything other than that would have been news to me.
“You don’t think you were just so desperate to please Mommy and Daddy that you were ready to commit yourself to their all-star team pick for your husband?”
I scoffed. “I don’t know what you—”
“Charlotte, I saw you after your father turned you down for that job at his company. And I was there when your mother sniffed at your prom date and asked about his last name. I know what those people do to you. You’re never good enough for them. But with Prescott, you had a chance to finally—”
“That’s not true,” I said, a sick feeling welling up inside me, but Valentina ignored me.
“Prescott had a better family name, a bigger inheritance, and a prettier penthouse than yours. No wonder Mommy and Daddy were so gung-ho about this union. Their social stock would climb like nobody’s business.”
I chewed on my bottom lip, not willing to give in yet. God, the person she was describing sounded so pathetic. Poor little rich girl, desperate for her parents to love her. That couldn’t be me.
“My parents’ approval is important to me, but it’s not everything.”
“And that’s why you made the right decision and left.” Valentina gave me an approving nod. “But tell me, when was the last time they really listened to what you thought or what you wanted? You can’t go on like this, just living life to please them, and they need to know it.”
She jerked her head toward the phone on the coffee table between us. “Tomorrow, you call. But for now? You’ve had a long trip. I think you should take a nice hot shower, have a nap, and then we’ll hit the town. Come morning, you can decide what to say to your parents. And Luke. Maybe even Prescott too.”
“You’re too wise for your own good,” I said, and she laughed.
“I get that a lot.”
So, that afternoon, I did as she suggested. I took a shower and then lay down to sleep, but whenever I closed my eyes, I felt like I was in Luke’s bed, waiting for his warm, strong arm to wind its way around me and pull me close. Waiting for him to smell my hair and kiss the back of my neck. Wanting him to pull me close and whisper something dirty in my ear. Waiting for something that would never come again.
Of course, in the rare moments I didn’t think about Luke, I considered my life. My choices.