Sexy Stranger - Page 32

Charlotte

The wind whipped my hair over my face as I called for Luke again, but he didn’t stop walking. In fact, he didn’t even bother to turn around.

Part of me wanted to run the other way. Admit defeat and accept that I’d done this to myself and deserved whatever happened next. But the other part was so damned mad at him that nothing else mattered anymore.

Whatever happened, he needed to hear the truth from my lips. If he still hated me, so be it. At least I could go on and try to piece some semblance of a life together with no regrets.

I took one step forward, then stopped as a big blue truck rolled into the parking area and stopped next to my sedan. Duke climbed from the driver’s seat and blinked at me, although he seemed much less surprised to see me than his brother had.

“What’s the deal? I heard there was an investor here?” He glanced from me to the other cars and then gave me a confused look. “And where the hell did you come from?”

“It’s a long story,” I said.

The wind picked up again as Valentina tripped through the door to join me. She stared from Duke to me and back again.

“Oh, sorry, I’ll just—” She tried to move, but then stopped. “Wait, you weren’t wearing—”

“This is Duke.” I nodded toward him. “Luke’s twin brother. Luke’s gone,” I murmured, my throat sticking on the words.

“Hey there,” Valentina said with a smile, and wrinkled her nose when Duke tipped the bill of his ball cap toward her. “Charlotte, Prescott says he still wants to talk to you.”

“Does it have to be this moment? Surely he realizes I’m a little busy right now?” I asked her, staring in Luke’s wake.

“Yes, now would be good, Charlotte.” This time it was Prescott who spoke, poking his head out from behind the barn door.

I let out a sigh and turned to face him. “I’m so sorry for what I did to you. It was immature and selfish, and you deserved better. I’m happy to do whatever it takes to clean up the mess with our parents the second I’m done here, okay? I just need a few minutes with Luke. He wasn’t part of any of this, and he’s got so much going on here, trying to get this business—”

“That’s what I wanted to tell you before I got out of your hair,” he said with a half smile. “I’m not mad anymore. I think I was just worried, and now that I’ve seen you . . .” He gestured around with a little laugh. “Now that I’ve seen you with all this and him, it makes weird sense to me. I get it. Oddly enough, I think you belong here. What I wanted to tell you was that I’d like to invest in the distillery. After you and Luke talk, I’d appreciate it if you would give him my number and ask him to give me a call.”

“What?” I blinked at him in surprise. “You don’t have to do that. You’ve done nothing wrong here, and—”

“Believe me, I know that. But I tried your . . . friend’s liquor, and I like it. He’s got something special that I think is a worthwhile investment. Him, this place . . . it’s got a whole vibe to it that I think can be a huge moneymaker. So, when you work everything out, let him know that I’ll be in touch.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and nodded to Valentina. “Val.”

She looked from Prescott to Duke, apparently unsure of who was on what side, and if she should be mad at someone or not.

“Thanks, Prescott,” I said sincerely, the lump in my throat growing. Whatever happened, his belief in Luke’s business made me so frigging proud, I could burst. “You’re a good man.”

“And you don’t need to come back. I’ll handle things in New York. I mostly just came here to make sure you were okay, because they were starting to get to me. Your mother even mentioned a cult?” He laughed and shook his head. “Anyway, you’re clearly fine.”

“If you need anything, please let me know. I don’t want to leave you holding the bag. That was never my intention.”

“If I need you, I’ll call.” He nodded again and waved a good-bye to the others before climbing into his car and driving away.

I watched him go, then turned back to Valentina and Duke, who were both staring at me. “I have to go find Luke.”

My heart pounded again in panic as I imagined the kind of head start he’d managed. When I moved for my car, Duke held up a hand.

“In that?” He pointed to my beat-up clunker with a wince. “Is it even street legal? Where did you get that thing, a junkyard?”

I rolled my eyes and yanked open the door. “Val, will you entertain Duke here and fill him in on everything?”

“That sounds like something I could get behind,” Duke said, his eyes alight.

Valentina’s lips quirked into a smile. “Yeah, sure. Come on, you can pour me a drink,” she said, and led him into the barn.

I slipped behind the wheel and sped off for the farmhouse. It was the obvious choice, but Luke simply had to be there. If he wasn’t . . .

Then I’d wait. He’d have to come home sometime. I’d left once before without telling him how I felt, and I wasn’t going to do it again.

• • •

I needn’t have worried. When I pulled up at his house, it was to find the front door open and the hall light on.

“Luke!”

I shouted his name and rushed into the house before he could slam the door in my face and lock it. I called his name again, searching the living room and then the kitchen. At last, I found him behind the old-fashioned desk in his office.

“You don’t want to do this, Charlotte,” he said without looking up. He was hunched over in the chair, apparently examining a few of the branding designs we’d come up with.

“Do what? Drive day and night to get here and have you ignore me?” I shot back. “Yep, you’re right about that one, and yet here I am.”

He didn’t look up. “You should go back to New York with your husband.”

“He’s . . . he’s not my husband,” I stammered, my hands starting to shake at the icy chill in his voice.

“Only because you got cold feet and left him at the altar,” Luke muttered.

“No. We’re not married because we weren’t meant to be, and I was smart enough to see it before it was too late.” I stalked toward the desk and swiped my hand over the top of it, sending the papers flying into the air.

As they floated to the floor like confetti, Luke sputtered, “What the—”

When he finally looked up, I grabbed his chin, forcing him to meet my gaze as I pleaded, “Listen to me.”

His lips thinned into a resolute line, but he didn’t pull away.

“I couldn’t tell you about him. At first, I thought I was in town for so short a time that it wouldn’t matter, and then, well, I was running away. I didn’t want to talk about him with anyone, let alone with you. Don’t you see? I needed some time to process it all. At least give me the chance to tell you the whole story now. And if, once I’ve finished, you still want me to leave, then I will.”

I released Luke’s chin but he just looked at me, silently waiting for me to go on.

I started in a rush before he changed his mind. “Prescott and I met at a charity function at our parents’ country club. He bought a date with me at one of those stupid bachelorette auctions.”

Luke’s mouth twisted, but he didn’t say anything.

“I later found out that our parents had arranged things that way. We traveled in the same circles, so the more I saw him, the more it seemed to . . . I don’t know, work. After my dad refused to let me into the family business, I thought I needed a man to support me because I wasn’t talented enough, and Prescott was okay with that. We got along fine and we’re friends, but . . . I never loved him. We never even slept together. I only agreed to marry him because I knew what was expected of me, but when I put on that wedding dress at the church and saw myself in it, I felt nothing.”

I shook my head, remembering the bone-chilling calm I’d felt that day.

“If I could have called it off before that moment—if I could have realized what kind of mistake I was making—I would never have left him that way. It was an awful thing to do. But I didn’t realize until then, and I can’t feel bad for not waltzing into a marriage that I didn’t want. I couldn’t bear to think of living my whole life without ever feeling . . . well, without ever feeling the way I feel about you.”


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