Are you haunting me or am I torturing myself?
Which one of us is convinced that I don’t deserve to be happy?
His hand paused as an image of Sarah, smiling sweetly up at him during one of their evening walks, mocked him. How can she be the best and the worst thing that has ever happened to me? Is that the hell I earned for myself? To have everything offered to me and be unable to enjoy it? To watch a good woman fall in love with me and know that ultimately I’ll disappoint her?
And Sarah was a good woman. Everything she touched was better for the attention she gave it. His house finally looked lived in, his employees were happier than he’d ever seen them, and David said their clients appreciated the sparkle hoof polish she applied to each horse they sold. Dean dropped by the ranch a few times a week, and each time he did he mentioned how good everything and everyone looked.
So I smile and lie.
I let everyone believe that Sarah’s magic has worked on me as well.
Because the truth is as ugly as my nightmares.
I’ll never be the man she needs me to be.
Sarah was sitting on the porch steps and had just finished revising a chapter in her book when a long, black limo pulled into Tony’s driveway. She stood up and shaded her eyes to see it better. A perspective buyer? Had Tony gotten to the point where he was willing to meet with them now? A swell of pride rushed through her. He’s come so far.
When the tuxedoed driver walked around to open the door, Sarah held her breath and instantly recognized the expensive shoes and business suit before she saw the face of the man they belonged to. Charlie!
She sprinted down the driveway, her smile growing wider as she did. She’d wanted to tell him the details of her new life in Texas but had been waiting for the perfect time. Now she could show him instead.
He took off his dark sunglasses and looked around even after Sarah had come to a near-sliding stop in front of him. “So, this is where you’ve been all summer.”
Despite how serious her brother looked, Sarah threw her arms around him and hugged him. “I’m so glad you came.”
The hug he gave her in return wasn’t as enthusiastic as she would have liked, but she blamed fatigue. He’d traveled a long way and was dressed far too formally to not be miserable in the heat of the afternoon sun. He replaced his sunglasses and without smiling said, “Mom and Dad sent me after you spoke to them. They said you think you’re staying here.”
Sarah waved an arm behind her and said, “I’m happy here, Charlie. For the first time in forever I feel like I know where I belong. And I’m writing. I’m halfway through a book. Can you believe it?”
He didn’t say anything, but his mouth pressed in a straight line of displeasure. “It’s time to go home, Sarah.”
Before Sarah had time to say more, Tony appeared beside them. Country met city as they sized each other up. Two men who were used to intimidating those around them squared off in a bit of a standoff, as if waiting to see who would blink first. Sarah took Tony’s left hand in hers. “Tony, this is my brother, Charlie.”
Tony held out his hand and said, “Welcome.”
Charlie hesitated just long enough to make Sarah want to kick him. Not here. Not now. Don’t judge this, Charlie. He means too much to me.
“Charles,” her brother said, correcting Sarah’s title for him. Their handshake looked a bit brutal on both sides. “So, this is your place.” He dropped Tony’s hand and looked around.
Tony nodded once.
Trying to lighten the mood, Sarah asked, “You must be tired, Charlie. Let’s go in the house. It’s much cooler in there.”
Her brother glanced over his shoulder at the white ranch house, then back at Sarah. His tone was arctic cold. “Is that where you’re staying?”
Tony answered for her with one curt word. “Yes.”
Charlie turned and said something to the driver, who nodded and reentered the limo, moving it to a place in the shade. “Then by all means, let’s go inside.”
As the three of them marched toward the house like it was a guillotine, Sarah searched Tony’s face. It was impossible to tell by his guarded expression if he was nervous about meeting her brother or put off by his attitude. Charlie could be a bit of a pill, but he was her only brother, and she wanted these two men to get along.
Just inside the main hallway of the house, Melanie and her son came out of the kitchen to meet them. Melanie’s reaction to seeing her brother was almost comical. Her eyes rounded, her jaw went slack, and she instantly started shoving her loose tendrils back into her ponytail.
Charlie looked over Sarah’s head at Tony and in a tone as quiet as it was deadly, he asked, “Who is she?”
Sarah jumped in, “That’s Melanie, his housekeeper.”
“Does she live here, too?”
What are you doing, Charlie? What’s with the interrogation? “She has her own house on the other side of the barn.”
“Convenient,” Charlie said, his displeasure and innuendo clear to all.
Melanie’s face reddened. “It is since I spend most of my day working here.”
“I’m sure you do.”
Tony made a noise deep in his chest that sounded an awful lot like a warning growl. “Melanie, why don’t you and Sarah take Jace into the kitchen and get us a drink. I’m sure Charles is thirsty.”
Sarah looked back and forth between the two of them. She didn’t want to leave them. She’d really wanted their first meeting to be a pleasant one, but her brother was being an ass, and if their past was anything to go by, nothing she could say would change that.
When he made up his mind, he could be as stubborn as Tony.
I don’t know why I thought he’d approve.
He’s never approved of anything I’ve ever done.
He’ll say this is for my own good, but it’s about him. Without me, he’s probably afraid he’ll have to go home and deal with Mom and Dad himself.
Don’t judge me for leaving, Charlie—you left a long time ago.
It was that last thought that convinced Sarah that Charlie deserved whatever Tony was about to say to him.
I can’t punch Sarah’s brother.
I’d love to, but I shouldn’t. Tony took a calming breath. “It would mean a lot to Sarah if you pretended to be happy for her.”
Charles whipped off his sunglasses and glared at Tony. “I deal in facts, not fantasy like she does. You may have her fooled, but I’ve had you investigated, and I don’t like anything I learned about you.”