I shouldn’t have looked at him so long but I hadn’t been able to keep pretending he wasn’t staring at me. In a weak moment I met his steady gaze and saw the sadness in his eyes. He had secrets hidden inside. I knew what that felt like. The stupid part of me wanted to reach out and help him.
Luckily the smart rational part of me knew that he was walking this way and I needed to move. He would want to explain again. I didn’t need his explanation. I understood. Tonight was about having fun with new people. Not me running off to find a dark hole to hide in if my crazy started to break through.
I only made it two steps before his large hand wrapped around my upper arm. “Please, Della. Don’t. I just want to talk.”
Again with the sadness. It was even in his voice. He was hurting somehow. I’d hurt for so long all alone. Identifying pain in others was easy for me. I was drawn to it in some strange perverse way.
“What do you want, Woods?” I asked without looking at him.
“To talk. I just want to talk.”
He wanted to talk. Fine. We could talk if it would give him some closure. Maybe ease that sadness in his eyes that haunted me. “Okay. But we talk in here.” Being alone with him wasn’t going to happen.
“Fair enough,” he replied.
I finally turned around and stared up at him. He really was beautiful. Sometimes it was easy to ignore. But up close when he was completely focused on me it was harder. I’d seen those eyes glowing with passion. I knew what his mouth tasted like and I had heard his cries of pleasure. I never would again, but those memories were hard to forget.
“Come sit with me,” he said, gently pulling my arm toward an empty table in the corner.
I took the seat across from him putting the safety of the small cocktail table between us. He had something he wanted to say and the sooner he said it the sooner I could get away from him.
“What is it you want to talk to me about?” I asked.
Woods ran his thumb over his bottom lip thoughtfully and I jerked my eyes away from his face. I didn’t want to look at those lips and remember.
“About the other night. I was trying to be honest with you, and I screwed it up. I shouldn’t have let you leave without explaining everything to you.”
I knew sitting down that this was the only thing we had to talk about. It still didn’t ease the pain that came with it. I had been so open and free with him. And no, he hadn’t been honest.
“If you had been honest you wouldn’t have had sex with me before telling me you were about to get engaged. I didn’t even know you were in a relationship. And one so serious! Were you with her back when we… the night we… met?”
He rested both his elbows on the table and leaned forward.
“No. I wasn’t. It isn’t a real relationship, Della. Not like you think it is. It’s a business deal. Her father’s company merging with my father’s. We aren’t exclusive… or we weren’t until I gave her the ring.”
A business transaction? What? “I don’t understand,” I finally replied.
Woods let out a soft bitter laugh. “You wouldn’t because it’s screwed up. My grandfather built the Kerrington Club. It’s been successful down here but it isn’t in the big leagues. The Greystone name being joined with the Kerrington name would open doors for my father… and me, that couldn’t be opened before.”
Greystone? Where had I heard that before? “Your fiancée is a Greystone?” I asked, trying to understand what he was telling me.
“Yeah, she is the only heir to the Greystone name. Her father and mine see this as a winning solution for them both. I will one day control not only Kerrington but the Greystone empire as well.”
Wow. So, people really did marry for reasons as shallow as this. Is that why he seemed sad? “Does she make you happy?” I asked, watching his face for any sign of an answer instead of listening to just his words.
“No. But she wants this arrangement as well,” he replied. The regret etched in his face hurt my heart. I didn’t like that he’d had sex with me without telling me all this but I still didn’t want him to be so sad. We only got one life and that was it. I knew that better than most. I’d lost the first part of my life locked away. He would lose the last part in a very similar situation. His heart would be locked away. Unused.“This is what you want?” I finally asked.He didn’t reply right away. Instead he stared at me intensely. My heart picked up its pace and I realized it always would around Woods. He had connected with it and I couldn’t stop that. I had tried.“Yes, and no. I want what I’ve grown up knowing would be mine. I want to take my rightful place in my family’s business. I’ve worked hard for this. But… I don’t want Angelina.”His eyes said more than they should. I dropped my gaze and stared at my hands resting in my lap. I had a decision to make. I could continue to push Woods away or I could forgive him. I could be his friend. Nothing more. He’d given me a job when I needed one. I would leave soon. The day would come when I left anyway. Until then, maybe I could share memories and moments with Woods. We could find the happiness in life together. New experiences. His last taste of freedom and my first taste.Lifting my eyes, I met his steady gaze. He was waiting on something from me. “Can we be friends? Even after everything else? We could just start over,” I suggested.The muscles in Woods’ neck moved as he swallowed. I wondered if I’d read him wrong. If he had just been needing closure and nothing more. But his eyes said something different. “I’d like that.”Smiling, I reached my hand out toward him. “Hello, I’m Della Sloane.”A crooked grin touched Woods perfect face and he slipped his hand into mine. “Woods Kerrington. It’s nice to meet you Della.”His warm touch caused me to shiver and I pulled my hand away and stood up. “I’m going to get a drink. Save me a dance tonight.”He nodded. “Without a doubt.”Bethy met me at the bar. I had planned to take a deep calming breath after getting far enough from Woods to think this through. But instead I managed to smile at her like nothing was wrong.“Can I ask what the handshake was about?” Bethy said, sitting down on the stool beside me and ordering two lemon drop shots.“We’re starting over. This time I know he’s engaged and we’re going to be friends.”Bethy nodded but I could see the disbelief in her eyes.“Really, we are. Nothing more,” I assured her.The bartender slid both of the pale yellow drinks our way.“I believe that you believe that. But Woods doesn’t want Angelina. So you see if I’m skeptical about him keeping it friendly between the two of you, I have reason.”Even Bethy knew he didn’t want to marry Angelina. I didn’t understand this. Would it be so bad not to connect his name with hers?“It just seems like he’s sacrificing his happiness for money and gain. I don’t think that will end well.”Bethy threw back her shot and then wiped a drop off her bottom lip with the pad of her thumb. “It will be a disaster. He’ll be miserable. But he thinks this is what he wants out of life. No one can convince him otherwise. In their world of money and power this is what they do. It’s why Tripp took off running. He didn’t want to play that game.”Tripp? He’d had that kind of ultimatum too? But he’d left. He’d run. He hadn’t sacrificed his happiness. He was living. There was no cage holding him in. Cages were suffocating. I hated the idea of Woods living in one.“I’m just passing through. While I’m here I think we can be friends. I like him. I want to get to know him. When I have his memory to pull out one day and think about I don’t want it to be just the sex. I want to know the man. Is that wrong?”Bethy picked up my lemon drop and handed it to me. “No. It’s not. Now, drink up. I need someone to get the karaoke going and- tag you’re it.”I shook my head. “Oh, no. Not me.”Bethy nodded. “Yes, you. I’ve heard about your amazing vocal skills. It’s time I heard them. Come on, do it for me. Please.”I took the shot glass and quickly downed the tangy drink.