“Sorry, buddy. That sounds really tough.” I touched my glass to his again and we both took another sip. “I can totally understand why you’d be throwing yourself back into business then. Jesus, man,” I said, shaking my head in quiet commiseration.
“Actually, that’s only part of the reason for my visit.” He leaned in with a sigh. “I’m looking for someone.”
The floorboards creaked behind us and I turned in my chair, expecting to see Duke stroll in. What I saw made me nearly cough up the burning liquid sliding down my throat.
“Charlotte,” I sputtered.
Then I realized I hadn’t been the only one. The man next to me had said her name at exactly the same time. I glanced at him and turned back to Charlotte to find her gaping at him.
“What’s going on?” I asked, my surprise and joy at seeing her tempered by total and complete confusion.
“Speak of the devil,” he murmured, and Charlotte’s eyebrows inched higher.
Behind her, a slim woman with thick, dark hair edged into the room and held up a hand, waving to me shyly. “Hey,” she said in a voice richer than I’d expected. “I’m Valentina. And you must be Luke.”
“Uh, hi,” I said. “Maybe you could explain—”
Charlotte stalked toward the man beside me and finally seemed to find her voice. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Look, you might have left me but that doesn’t mean I stopped caring. You posted on Instagram, so I did some—”
“Snooping,” she spat out, cutting in.
“Research,” he said, correcting her, “and I came here to make sure you’re okay. Which, obviously, you are.”
This time, his eyes found mine and something clicked.
“Speak of the devil.”
I scrubbed a hand over my face and stood from my bar stool. “The girl you were talking about is Charlotte?” I asked, and he gave me a clipped nod. “I thought you were an investor—”
Charlotte let out a humorless laugh. “So, you lied to him to get to me? That’s low, Prescott. Who put you up to this? My parents?”
“You said your name was Scott,” I muttered, my gut clenching in shock.
Prescott? Prescott Billingsley was the guy sitting next to me—the guy who had apparently been nothing to write home about? Except that wasn’t true either, because she’d been fucking engaged to the guy. The whole time she’d been here, she’d been engaged. And she’d left him high and dry, just like Sarah had done to me. Worse than that, Charlotte had lied to me.
“I use the name in business so there’s no confusion. My father is named Prescott as well. And nobody put me up to anything.” He shook his head, then glanced at me. “I’m sorry. I hadn’t had a chance to explain, and I’ve never turned down a free glass of whiskey, which—considering you know Charlotte—I’m sure you can understand.”
My head spun again as twin urges warred inside me—one to knock this guy’s fucking head off for talking about my woman like that, and the other to tear my hair out at the lunacy of this situation.
“What the fuck is going on, Charlotte?” I shouted.
The whole time she’d been here, she’d been hiding. Hiding from Prescott and from her parents, and lying to me and my family about why she was here. She obviously hadn’t felt that she could trust me, that she didn’t know me well enough to confide in me. And here I’d bought a ticket to go to her and try to make this work.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure which part of it stung the most.
Little snippets of memories played through my mind—the way she’d snapped at me when I’d pressed her about her ex, how angry she’d been when she’d slammed down her phone in my kitchen, the way she always looked at her cell like it was about to detonate at any moment.
“Nothing to write home about?” I asked quietly, and then forced myself to look at her, wondering if I’d ever be able to do that again without feeling sick.
Charlotte’s gaze darted between Prescott and me, her eyes brimming with tears. “You have to understand—”
I wasn’t interested in hearing it. I turned on Prescott, now remembering the things he’d told me before she walked through the door. He’d talked about what a pain in the ass his fiancée had been. How he didn’t love her. How he’d only gone after her to make sure she cleaned up her own mess back home before moving on with her life like nothing had happened.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I demanded, my hands balled into fists at my side.
Prescott’s eyes narrowed. “What the fuck is wrong with me? What’s wrong with you?”
“You couldn’t just leave her the fuck alone?” I growled. “You didn’t think she’d been through enough?”
“Ah.” Prescott nodded. “So that’s how you know each other.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“I mean you fucked her. Not to put too fine a point on it,” he muttered.
All I had to do was swing. One punch and he’d be on the floor—that was the one advantage of growing up without having money to fix all my problems, I supposed. But he was smaller than me, obviously just as confused, and the fight wouldn’t have been a fair one.
No matter how much I wanted to teach him a fucking lesson.
“Don’t talk about her like that. Or better yet, how about you don’t talk about her at all?” I started, but then Charlotte’s hand was on my chest, pushing me back toward the bar.
“Look, I couldn’t tell you,” she said, her eyes pleading. Then she turned to Prescott. “You didn’t have to come here and do this to me.”
“Do this to you?” This time it was his turn to let out a humorless laugh. “Do you have any idea what I’ve been dealing with? Your parents are all over me, and I had to handle the fallout of your big break for freedom. The least you could’ve done was return my calls.”
She shook her head, her hand still pressed to my chest as she replied to him. “I didn’t want you to try to convince me to change my mind,” she whispered miserably.
“Change your mind?” Prescott shook his head. “I don’t want you back. Your leaving was the best thing that ever happened to me. You set us both free. I realized that two seconds after you left, when I found I felt nothing but surprise and relief. But I can’t handle the fallout on my own. You might not love me, Charlotte, but I know you care. Just help me deal with this mess and our families.” He raked a hand through his hair and groaned. “Do you have any idea what our mothers are putting me through?”
A single tear slid down her cheek. “I didn’t hurt you?”
Prescott shook his head. “My pride was wounded and I was pissed, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t love you. We weren’t right for each other, and never have been. The family pressure was just too strong for me to see that.”
“I—” she started, but I sidestepped her and made my way for the barn door.
“Well, I’m glad you guys have worked everything out. Have a good time in New York. And lock up on your way out.”
I shoved the door open and scanned my surroundings for anything I could hit, something that might relieve the pressure building inside me, about to blow. Because all that time, Charlotte had been lying to me. All that fucking time.
Fuck, runaways must have been able to smell me from a mile away. First my mother and then Sarah, and now Charlotte too.
Charlotte shouted to me from the barn door but I was already too far away, and her voice was nearly drowned out by the whipping of the wind.
I had to get back home, needed to try to return my ticket to LA and move on.
A little voice inside me laughed. Move on to what, Luke? The next fucking tumbleweed that rolls into your life and back out of it?
God, how could I have been so stupid?
Maybe I should have gone back to shake Prescott Billingsley the Sixth’s hand. I might have a broken heart, but he might have just saved me from total annihilation.