I’ve never said two words to that kid.
He should hate me.
Sarah squeezed his hand gently. He looked down into those loving brown eyes of hers. Was she right? Was it time to let go of the past and salvage what he had left before it was too late? Could he ever deserve the faith she had in him?
Tony cleared his throat. “I know I’m not an easy man to work for, but I appreciate y’all joining us tonight. Thank you for the work you put into setting it up. Let’s eat.”
He sat down, both relieved and surprised at how good he felt. During his short-lived career, he’d spoken to crowds of all sizes, and enjoyed it. Until now, he’d put those feelings behind him. It surprised him to discover that a piece of him missed public speaking. He missed the rush of adrenaline he’d always felt just before stepping out in front of a crowd, and then the sense of accomplishment that followed his speech. He spontaneously lifted Sarah’s hand to his lips and gratefully kissed the back of it. If the move shocked anyone, he didn’t notice.
“I never would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes,” Dean said from a few feet away, referencing the group before him. Tony stood, dropping Sarah’s hand.
David stood and walked over to shake his hand. “Sheriff.”
Dean shook his hand. “David, always good to see you.” He tipped his hat at Melanie and said, “Melanie, Jace gets bigger every time I see him. What are you feeding him? He’s growing like a weed.”
Melanie smiled at the compliment. “What don’t I feed him? He’s a bottomless pit.”
Jace left his seat and ran over to hug Dean’s legs. “I’m near all grown up, Sheriff. Watch your job. I’m fixin’ to take it.”
Dean ruffled the young boy’s hair and said, “By the time you’re ready for it, I may give it to you gladly.” He nodded a greeting to the other men.
Sarah put a hand on Tony’s arm and said, “I’m so glad you made it, Dean.”
Tony stood silent.
Sarah elbowed him, causing him to expel his breath harshly. He caught David’s amused expression and glared at him. Then he looked down at Sarah intending to express his displeasure, only to have his breath knocked out of him for the second time. When she wanted something, she had a way of looking up at him with the widest, sweetest eyes he’d ever seen. A man could lose himself in eyes like that.
Or make a fool of himself because of them.
Tony shook his head to clear it and offered his brother the warmest greeting he’d likely ever given him. He held out his hand and said, “Dean, you’re late. Sit down before everyone’s food gets cold.”
Dean shook his hand briefly, then nodded at Sarah. “It’s nice to see the two of you fully dressed.”
Anger rushed in, but before Tony let his heated thoughts fly, Sarah chastised Dean gently. “Let’s have a nice meal together. You two can go back to fighting tomorrow, but I put a lot of work into making tonight nice. Behave.”
To Tony’s surprise, his brother’s face reddened slightly and he removed his hat. “Yes, ma’am.”
Something about her tone and his compliance tickled Tony’s sense of humor and he laughed out loud, all of his anger dissolving as quickly at it had come.
Dean shook his head in awe of the sight and then smiled. “Sarah, don’t let my brother run you off, you hear? You marry him just as fast as you can.”
Sarah laughed his comment off and sat back down. Dean found his seat and everyone started eating again. Everyone except Tony. He felt a bit sick.
It wasn’t Dean’s comment that had struck the hunger from him, it was how close he’d come to agreeing to the idea.
Some people weren’t meant to be happy, and Tony had long ago accepted that he was one of those people. Believing that things could be better, that he deserved more, was how he always felt just before life intervened and proved him wrong.
Sarah would stay as long as she wanted to stay. They’d find pleasure in each other’s bodies while she was there, and when she left he’d find another willing woman to replace her.
That was all they could have, because that’s all he had to offer.
He met her eyes and knew she was upset by his sudden change of mood.
It’s better if she doesn’t forget the kind of man I am.
It’s not every day I watch a man turn green and lose his appetite at the idea of marrying me. You’re lucky I didn’t throw this drink in your face and walk away. But I’m not going to, you know why? Because you’re so close. All you have to do is open your eyes and see that these people care about you. Even your brother. They’re here, waiting. Just like I am. How can I make you see them?
Sarah put on her brightest smile. “David, I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know the names of everyone at this table. Will you introduce me?”
Like Tony should have, but he’d have to want them to like me to do that, and he doesn’t believe I’m staying. Maybe I’m not, but does he have to treat me like I don’t matter in front of his men?
David said, “Yes, ma’am. You’ve met Jace, Melanie’s son.” David pointed to each of the men around the table, and they stood in greeting as he did. “Lucas is the one with red hair; he helps out with most of the exercising and has been here the longest. Sawyer’s sitting on his left. He can stay on a horse better than any man I’ve ever met. Really should be in the rodeo, but he says there’s too much left to learn here. Then Austin and Gunnar. They are brothers and if you want to have some fun, ask them which one was born first. They’re fraternal twins and their mama won’t tell them who is the older. Then there’s Travis. He’s new this year, which means Tony hasn’t fired him yet.”
Tony frowned at his manager. “Are you saying you keep rehiring the same people?”
David shrugged. “Some. You never noticed, and they’re hard workers.”
Sarah took a sip of her lemonade to hide her smile. She didn’t dare look at Tony because she knew she wouldn’t be able to contain the laughter bubbling within her.
Tony didn’t appear as amused. He said, “So, you all think this is a fu—”
Sarah laid a hand on his arm and shook it, stopping him mid-word. She looked at Jace and back at him, raising both of her eyebrows with meaning.
“Damn joke,” Tony finished, growling out his amendment.
Dean roared with laughter and David said, “It’s almost sad to watch, isn’t it?”