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 pleasant, but her brother was being an ass, and if their past was anything to go by, nothing she could say would change that.
When Charlie made up his mind about something, 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 around, 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.
That last thought convinced Sarah that Charlie deserved whatever Tony was about to say to him.
Tony took a calming breath. I can’t punch Sarah’s brother.
I’d love to, but I shouldn’t. “It would mean a lot to Sarah if you pretend to be happy for her,” he said.
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.”
One corner of Tony’s mouth curled sarcastically. “I’m beginning to understand why she had to leave Rhode Island.”
His face red with fury, Charles snarled, “You’re a violent drunk who should be rotting in jail instead of making a fool out of my sister in all the gossip rags.”
A deadly calm swept through Tony. His past had found a voice at last. He went toe-to-toe with Charles, striking out at him with words in a way he knew would wipe that superior look off his face. “I haven’t had a drink in four years. My guilt or innocence is my own business. But your sister, she’s a good fuck.” He regretted the words even as they came out of his mouth.
Charles hauled back to punch Tony, but Tony caught his fist in his hand, his strength buoyed by a rage that had simmered inside him for years. He dropped it in disgust and prepared for another strike.
Melanie’s voice carried clearly in the charged quiet moment that followed. “Sarah, he didn’t mean that.”
Tony’s head spun in time to see the two glasses of lemonade in Sarah’s hands fall and shatter on the wooden floor at her feet. Shaking her head slowly back and forth, she turned and ran out the front door.
Tony looked back at Charles just in time to receive a brain-rattling punch that set him back a step. The world beneath Tony tilted and he shook his head to clear it, preparing to deliver a crushing rebuttal.
Melanie was between them before he raised his fist. She was spitting angry. She threw her glasses of lemonade in their faces, which brought them both to a shocked, temporary cease-fire. “You two just broke that girl’s heart. If one of you doesn’t chase after her to apologize, I’m coming back with a frying pan.”
The real concern in Melanie’s voice focused Tony’s attention on Sarah’s vulnerability. This wasn’t about what her brother thought of him. He’d let the mention of his past cause him to say something he would always regret.
Melanie didn’t look like she needed any help defending her honor. She wasn’t joking about the frying pan. Tony set off in long strides to find Sarah.
She was holding on to the railing at the corner of the porch, her pale cheeks wet with tears. He went to stand beside her, searching for what to say to erase the hurt he’d caused.
She turned to him, folded her arms protectively across her chest, and said, “Is that what you think of me? What I am to you?”
He shook his head. “Of course not.”
Her tear-filled eyes searched his. “I want to believe you. I really do, but I need you to give me a reason to.”
“What do you want me to say?” he asked, his gut clenching painfully.
She wiped her cheeks with her hands and implored, “Tell me you love me. Tell me this is real and that this summer has meant as much to you as it has to me.”
He reached for her, but she pulled back, waiting.
He wanted to say what he knew she needed to hear. He wanted to so badly that he almost did, but he chose honesty at the last second. “I care about you.”
She released an audible, shaky breath and demanded, “But you don’t love me. Say it. Stop pretending to be someone I could spend the rest of my life with, and just say it.”
He rubbed his chin and shook his head sadly. “I want to love you.”
Her eyes filled with tears, but she straightened her shoulders and said, “Okay.”
He hadn’t wanted to hurt her. He’d never wanted to hurt her. He grabbed her arm. “I didn’t mean what I said back there to your brother. I let my temper choose my words and I’m sorry.”
She pulled her arm out of his grasp and said, “It’s fine. I understand. I shouldn’t have left the two of you alone. I knew my brother was being a bastard. I guess I hoped you’d put him in his place.” A lone tear ran down her face. “I just didn’t know you’d use me to do it.”
“Sarah, don’t . . .”
She met his eyes and he knew that no matter what he said, he’d already lost her. She held up a hand in a request for him to stop talking. “Please. Stop. I know you said it to hurt my brother and not me, but maybe I needed to hear it. I was imagining us living happily ever after, but you can’t do that, can you? Because you can’t let yourself be happy.”
He didn’t have to say anything. She knew him too well.
“I’m going to hook up my trailer and load Scooter. If you can ask Melanie to come see me, I’d appreciate it.”
She’s leaving. She’s really leaving.