He rubbed his chin in slow deliberation.
Losing patience, Sarah warned, “I am also not above a swift kick to the shin if warranted.”
Tony threw back his head and laughed out loud, the last of his tension falling away and real amusement filling his eyes. “You would do that, wouldn’t you?”
“In a heartbeat,” Sarah joked and hugged him, laughing along with him. They passed more than one person whose mouth dropped open in shock, which only set the two of them laughing more.
Sarah felt young, alive, and in love for the first time in her life.
Love. Her gut clenched at the word, and the laughter died on her lips.
I love him.
He stopped walking and turned her to face him, suddenly concerned. “What’s the matter?”
Even if I could say it, you’re not ready to hear it.
Instead she said softly, “Tell me about Keith and what you did for his father.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
She laid a hand on his cheek and said, “Why? It sounds like you did something wonderful.”
He shook his head. “Only to make amends.”
Sarah bared her inner pain to him and asked, “Do you believe that I deserve to be happy after what I did?”
His jaw tensed beneath her hand. “You were young, innocent. It wasn’t your fault.”
“That wasn’t my question. A thousand people can tell me I was too young to know better and it won’t change what happened or bring him back. It’ll never lessen the guilt I feel. But how should I spend the rest of my life? Hiding from it? Denying it? Or making amends for it and finding a way to go on?”
He hugged her to him, publicly, right in the middle of the sidewalk. “I don’t know,” he murmured against her hair. “I don’t know.”
Sarah found a comfort in his arms that she’d never found elsewhere. For a man who gave reluctantly, he gave her everything. He kissed her, not in the heated way they’d done so often in the past, but gently, reverently. Then he pulled her tighter into his arms and rested his chin on the top of her head. The deep breath he took was as shaky as Sarah’s knees felt.
Eventually awareness of where they were seeped in and Sarah said, “Maybe we should talk about this later.”
Tony set her back from him with a grim expression. “I don’t know if I can be the man you need me to be.”
Sarah wanted to tell him that he already was, but she couldn’t.
Instead she lightly kissed him on the lips and said, “Let’s go shopping before your brother orders us off the sidewalk. We’re stopping traffic.”
Tony looked around, but this time he didn’t seem to resent the attention. “They’ll have to get used to it, because you’re not going anywhere anytime soon.”
It’d be nicer if you said—ever.
But we’ll work on that.
Tony took his place at the head of the somewhat makeshift long table his ranch hands had put together while he and Sarah were in town. He wasn’t much for decorating, but he had to admit Sarah had set a beautiful table: a light-blue linen tablecloth, nice plates he hadn’t known he owned, and flower centerpieces she’d insisted were necessary.
David and Melanie had quickly taken over the job of cooking after Sarah had asked if the grill required an extension cord. Had the question come from another woman, Tony might have thought she was joking, but he’d tasted Sarah’s cooking a few times during their week in the cabin. Sarah was an amazing woman, but a man might decide starving was a viable option if forced to live on what she whipped up in the kitchen.
Sarah took the seat to his right, and it was the first time he’d seen more than a blur of her since they’d returned from town. The way she’d fussed about the house and then retreated to the guest room to primp made him feel like an ass for wishing the meal were already over.
He took a moment to appreciate her effort. She’d piled her blonde curls in a loose knot on her head and had changed into a summer dress. A memory of their earlier conversation about the advantages of dresses sent his blood rushing southward.
She caught him looking at her and smiled—so beautifully he temporarily forgot to breathe.
She leaned in and whispered, “Nervous?”
Not exactly. He shifted, the front of his jeans suddenly uncomfortably tight. He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts of visions of how she’d look later that night when he showed her how much fun dresses could be.
Sarah laid a reassuring hand on one of his, proving quite definitively that women cannot read a man’s mind. Still, the sweet look on her face reminded him why he’d agreed to the meal in the first place. She wanted this, and when it came to Sarah, he had a real problem saying no.
He didn’t notice how the food arrived on the table. He couldn’t care less if they filled his glass with lemonade, sweet tea, or beer. Sarah had woven her fingers through his and was absently caressing the back of his hand with her thumb. Nothing else at the table mattered.
Sarah leaned toward him again and said, “You should say something.”
He frowned at her, but she didn’t relent so he stood. The table fell quiet and all present turned to hear what he would say. David, Melanie, and her son were seated on Tony’s left. Five young men sat on both sides of the table at the far end. He knew he should know their names, but he didn’t. He always preferred not to know. It made firing them easier.
One seat was empty.
Dean hadn’t come.
It had been a long time since he’d addressed a group of people he wasn’t threatening. He felt like a fraud making a speech to people who knew he’d rather they all be anywhere but there. His attention was drawn to the serious expression on the young boy’s face. He should be running circles around the table while Melanie threatens him to calm down.
I should know his name.
Beneath the sustained attention of her boss, Melanie tensed and put a protective arm around her son’s shoulders, as if she believed Tony was preparing to order the child removed from the table.
I’m not that much of an ass**le.
Not tonight, anyway.
Tony’s free hand clenched in a fist on the table. When did I become a man even I don’t like?
Tony realized he was scowling at them and tried unsuccessfully to defuse their anxiety with a smile—a sad attempt at one if Melanie’s continued grip on her son was anything to go by. He winked at the boy and felt infinitely worse when the boy sat straighter and smiled—his hero-worship obvious to all.