“Alright,” I say. I walk past him and he follows me up the stairs and into the house. Stepping inside, I notice that it doesn’t feel much warmer than the outside. I flip the switch to the lights, but nothing happens. Has the power been shut off? Oh, no. I forgot to pay the bill. Self-consciously, I turn to face him. “Well, this is just embarrassing,” I say.
“Power’s not working?”
I shake my head.
“Well…” He glances over at the fireplace. “Do you have any firewood?”
“Tons. Outside behind the house.”
“I’ll be right back,” he says and darts out the door. He returns in under a minute, carrying an armful of logs.
Right—matches. I go to the kitchen and search through the drawers. I know they’re in here somewhere. I find the shabby box in the bottom drawer and bring them to Michael. He has already stacked the logs in a neat pile inside the fireplace, and has stashed tightly twisted up newspaper pieces in between them.
“What are you like a boy scout or something?” I ask.
“Eagle scout,” he says with a smile that has me melting even though it’s freezing in here.
“Really?” I ask.
“Well, you haven’t exactly been a very personable, business partner. I don’t know much about your personal life.”
He gets an expression on his face like my comment bothers him. “What do you want to know?” He lights a few matches and throws them into the fireplace, the newspapers immediately taking the flames.
Just like that, he’ll tell me? I stare at him blankly for a moment. Of course now that I have the opportunity to ask any question under the sun, suddenly my mind draws a blank. Too much silence.
“Can I make you a cup of…water?” I ask, remembering I can’t make anything without the power.
He stands up. “No thank you. I just came here to talk.”
He looks so attractive in that turtle neck, his eyes sincere, gazing at me attentively.
“I don’t exactly know how to say this, so I’m just going to blurt it out,” he says.
My insides turn to liquid. Is he going to confess? Wait…do I want him to confess? I do, but that will mean I have to confess, too, and I’m not quite ready to do that.
“I wanted to see if we could formalize our engagement a little more,” he says. He looks down at my hand, and then I remember that I took the ring off.
“Sorry, I…I was really angry with you.”
“I don’t care about the ring, Scarlett.”
I sigh inwardly. “What did you have in mind?” I narrow my eyes.
“I need to come clean about something, and if you kill me, so be it, but I have to get it out. I’ve been…pursuing this other woman. It hasn’t been sexual, well, close to it, but…and…well, I just couldn’t stop thinking about her for some reason.” He glances at me from beneath his eyelashes, massaging the back of his neck.
I press my lips together and breathe.
“I met up with her today, but…then I realized…” He stares into my eyes like a man who’s about to give his life away. “I made a huge mistake. All I could think about was how I only want to be with you. You are all that I need, Scarlett. I’m really sorry I didn’t come clean before. But I wanted to be sure about…us before I did. That’s all.” He waits for my reply.
I don’t know how to respond. I want to throw my arms around him, but at the same time, here I am being untruthful in return. Now would be the moment to say something. Now would be the moment to come clean like he has. But my father’s face flashes before me. If I tell Michael that I’m the stripper, will he feel differently about me? Will the deal be off? Tears fill my eyes.
He reaches for my hand and squeezes it. “I’m so sorry. I understand if you don’t…I can’t stop myself from smiling when I see you, Scarlett. I…can’t explain it, but no woman has ever made me this happy. I’m such an idiot for not having seen it before.”
I turn away from him because when I look at him, I can’t manage a single sensible thought. What do I do? What do I say? I just need to talk with Anne. What would she tell me? There’s too much at risk here to lose it all. But I feel if I’m not honest with him…no. I can’t be. I almost feel as if I have to choose between Michael and my father, and I have come to a complete standstill.
“Are you still upset with me?” he asks. “Well, of course you are.”
“It’s not that.” I turn around again, but let my eyes wander to the flames that are slowly taking to the logs.
“Then what is it?” he asks.
“I just…I just…I have a confession, too,” I say.
“Whatever you have to say, it won’t change how I feel about you,” he says.
I almost believe him, but the words still have to be spoken, I have to come clean.
“Unless…you don’t feel the same way about me,” he says with a nervous chuckle. “That would be embarrassing.”
I shake my head. “It’s not that. I…I need to tell you this. For my own sake.” I close my eyes and a tear rolls down my cheek. “I want to be open.”
He leans forward, the space between us now only a few inches. “We’re stronger than our issues, Scarlett. I’m sorry I lied, and that I pulled you into this deal. It is a significant amount of money, yes, but…you are more important. We are more important.”
My heart is pounding something savage. I let out a sigh and open my eyes. “I…I…”
“Whatever it is, it can’t be worse than what I did,” he says.
I laugh a little, but it is soon choked down by a single sob.
“You can tell me whenever you’re ready. But what I wanted to ask, the reason I came here, is, I wanted to see if I could date you—for real.”
My eyes startle to his. “For real as in…there is no deal?” I ask. Shit, that made it sound like I am just after his money.
“No. We’d still have the deal, but I’d like to see if our relationship could actually lead somewhere other than in a pre-meditated divorce.” For a moment, he seems hesitant, shy even, and lets a slow breath hiss between his teeth.
I look him in the eyes. “So like—you’d take me on a real date?”