He didn’t notice how the food arrived on the table. He couldn’t have cared less if his glass was filled 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.
She leaned toward him again and said, “You should say something.”
He frowned at her but she didn’t relent, so he stood. The guests 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 realized 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 were all 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 warns him to calm down.
I should know his name.
Noticing 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 for the child to be removed from the table.
I’m not that much of an asshole.
Not anymore, 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 Melanie and the boy, and he tried unsuccessfully to defuse their anxiety with a smile—a sad attempt at one if her continued grip on her son was anything to go by. He winked at the boy and felt infinitely worse when he sat up straighter and smiled—his hero worship obvious to all.
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 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 in front of him. Tony stood, releasing Sarah’s hand.
David stood and walked over to shake Dean’s 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 silently.
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 the 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 flared, 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 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. Even if she makes me wish things were different.
Sarah pushed the slab of steak around her plate. 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?