“Wow. This is totally different than I’d imagined.”
Robert looked up from his fries and gave her a lopsided grin. “In a good way or a bad way?”
“Good, I think.”
The restaurant was definitely not what she’d imagined Richard Jones’s son taking her to. Instead of a stuffy formal environment, he took her to Cinematic Burgers. It was a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where the burgers were huge, fries fresh, and clientele migrated regularly from table to table to watch the assorted films that were playing on nearly fifty different TVs throughout the restaurant.
They’d sat down at a table that was playing Katherine Hepburn’s Pride and Prejudice, and the few people who stopped by to watch in quickly changed to other, more exciting tables. Janelle didn't mind. She loved the movie, didn't mind the lack of company, and was finding herself more and more fascinated by the man sitting across from her.
“So, this new company you’re gunning for—”
She smiled at him. “Can we just not talk about work right now?”
He wiped his fingers off on a napkin, looking a little nervous. “Okay. What do you want to talk about?”
She dipped another fry in ketchup and took him in. Her mind instantly went back to the Christmas party, and to her everlasting horror, she was suddenly asking, “If I hadn't freaked out, would you have kissed me at the party?”
He choked a little on his soda.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, looking back toward the TV, feeling her cheeks flush.
“Don’t be. I just—Sorry. It was just a surprise.” He looked around the restaurant, then leaned across the table toward her.
“And the answer is yes. I would have kissed you.”
She sneaked a peek at him from the corner of her eye. He looked so adorably genuine, his expression earnest, his hands pressed down on the table. “You would?”
“Definitely. And it probably would have been one of the stupidest things I could have done.”
* * *
He had her full attention now. She was looking at him, and she seemed genuinely curious.
“Why would it have been stupid?”
“Because my father could have seen.”
“He has a habit of destroying things I care about.”
“You thought he’d take it out on me?”
He tried not to swell with pride when he heard the disbelief in her tone. Like she couldn't believe a man was actually standing up for her. Clark Kent, that’s me.
“I don’t know if he would have.”
She shook her head. “He’s...”
He gave her a look, and she rolled her eyes and smiled.
“Okay, I won’t lie. He’s a bastard, but I can’t believe he’s really that bad.”
He shrugged. “You may not see him that way, but I’m only going off of personal experience.”
“What did he do that was so awful?”
It would be crazy to tell her. But for some reason, the words were already flowing out of his mouth, even when he wished he could shut himself up. “When he divorced my mom, his lawyers made sure she didn't get anything. A few months later, we found out she had cancer. The treatments were expensive. I dropped out of high school, but I couldn't cover the costs. I went to him for help.”
“He knew I was good with computers, so he made a deal. I would provide his company with new tech products and services, and he’d pay off the hospital bill each month.”
Her face showed shock, her tone even more so. “He wouldn't just pay off the amount? Is that trade even legal?”
“Nope, and probably not. He wouldn't pay a lump sum because he claimed I might try to get out of the deal. But I was young and stupid and desperate and signed the papers.” He shrugged. “Regardless, in two weeks, the final bill gets paid, and I’m free of the devil.”
“How’s your mom doing?”
She said it so softy, he almost didn't catch it. But the fact that that was her main concern touched him deeply. “Remission for over eight years now. We caught it early and I made sure that we went to the best doctors. If I was going to sell my soul, I wanted my money’s worth.”
“So, in two weeks, you’ll be out of a job too?”
“Do you have anything planned?”
He couldn't help smiling at the thought of what awaited him once these last torturous weeks were done. “I've been working on a few things. Nothing he could take from, either. I made sure to play my cards right this time.”
“I don’t know how you’re still standing,” she admitted. “It seems like an awful lot to give up.”
“Worth the cost.”
“So when you asked if I was going somewhere better—”
He shifted in his seat. It was hard to explain what had really been running through his head. “I wanted to know that you weren't getting screwed in an attempt to escape my father’s clutches.”
“I can promise I’m not.” Her smile really did light up the room, but it dimmed when she glanced down at her watch. “I’m sorry, Robert, but I've got an interview tomorrow morning and I should be getting home—”
“Let me take you,” he offered, already standing.
“It’s not that far,” she protested. “I can catch a cab.”
“I insist,” he said, bussing their table with a casual familiarity that tugged at her heart. He really wasn't what she’d been expecting. And that was nicer than she cared to admit.