After Bass’ sudden exit, the Nevilles and Mathesons lingered a bit over dessert. The entire time, Charlie was distracted by thoughts of Bass: where he had gone, and why. She was pretty sure he was avoiding her. Not to mention, making arrangements for Jason to move to Willoughby. She bit her lip in frustration. This was not how she’d wanted this night to go.
Everyone finished eating and started to get up from the table. Rachel shooed Charlie away when she tried to help clean up. “You two go outside,” she said knowingly to Charlie and Jason. Charlie suppressed an eye roll. Her mom had made it pretty obvious over the course of the night that Jason was on the official mother-approved list of potential boyfriends. Unlike a certain devastatingly sexy former dictator. Charlie pushed that thought out of her mind as she led Jason out the door to the front porch.
“Want to go walk around a bit?” Jason asked her, gesturing down the front walkway to the sidewalk beyond.
“Sure,” Charlie shrugged. Then, realizing she should probably try to seem a bit more enthusiastic, she added, “That sounds great.”
She and Jason walked in silence for a little while. Finally, he said, “Is it just me, or is this kind of awkward?”
Charlie laughed in relief. “It is, isn’t it? God. Our parents are about as subtle as sledgehammers.”
“I think my mom thinks it would be highly advantageous for me to be dating the niece of the great Miles Matheson.”
“Daughter,” Charlie unthinkingly corrected, then felt the blood drain from her face as she realized what she’d done.
To Jason’s credit, he took the news in stride. “Really?” Charlie nodded. “Huh. Recent development?”
“No, think it happened about twenty-two years ago,” Charlie joked. Before he could respond, she added, “But yeah, I just put the pieces together recently.”
“Gotcha,” Jason said. “Well, even better then, Miles Matheson’s daughter.”
Charlie was grateful to him for not asking her any more questions, happy to move on. “Yeah, pretty sure my mom is thinking along the same lines. Not that she’s your parents’ biggest fan, but, you know, keep your enemies close. And I think she likes you, at least.”
Jason smiled. “Parents usually do.”
Charlie raised an eyebrow. “Oh really?”
Apparently feeling no need to be modest, Jason confirmed, “Really. I mean, I can actually talk to them, and I know enough not to grope their daughters in front of them. Somehow, that goes a long way.”
Charlie snorted, thinking of some of the guys she knew in town, who were as uncouth as they were dumb. “Yeah, I guess I can see that.”
“Winning over the daughters is the tough part,” Jason continued. He glanced over at her. “Like you, Charlie. What would it take to win you over?”
Charlie blinked, speechless for several seconds. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she finally said. “I like you.”
Jason smiled tolerantly, as if she’d said something extremely facile. “Fine, you like me. But that’s not what I asked.”
“That’s kind of putting me on the spot, don’t you think?” Charlie replied. “It’s not the kind of thing I can just tell you.”
They walked by a fallen down tree that was at about the right height, and Jason sat on it, tugging Charlie down next to him.
“I know,” he said. “I didn’t really expect an answer. But I want you to know, there’s nothing I can’t give you. Nothing I wouldn’t give you. My parents are wealthy, now, and I’m going to start to make a name for myself here in Texas. Diamonds, a beautiful home, children… whatever you want. It’s yours.”
Charlie’s mind involuntarily flashed to the one thing she wanted that Jason couldn’t give her. Tamping the thought down, she said, “Do I look like I’m that easily bought?”
“No. But I had to try.” Charlie gasped as Jason got down off the log and onto one knee. What the hell was he doing?
“If you’ll let me, I will pledge myself to your happiness,” he swore, taking her hand in his. “I’ve never met another woman like you, Charlie, and I will do anything it takes to make you mine. Please. Say yes.”
Charlie began shaking her head before the words were even out of his mouth. “I can’t,” she said. “It’s amazing that you would offer that, but… I can’t.”
Jason got up. “Can I ask why not?” he said, standing before her.
Charlie got to her feet, too, and they started to walk back toward the house. “Look, you’re a great guy,” Charlie said. “But I’m not really in a place to be in a relationship with you. It doesn’t feel right.”
Jason laughed under his breath, a slight edge of bitterness creeping in for the first time. “What’s funny?” Charlie asked defensively.
“It doesn’t feel right with me. Right. But maybe it would with someone else.”
“What are you talking about?” Charlie asked.
“Come on,” Jason scoffed. “Have you even admitted it to yourself yet? I saw how you couldn’t take your eyes off the General at dinner.”
Charlie’s stomach sank. “The Gen--Bass?”
“Yes, Bass,” Jason said mockingly. “I don’t think you two could have been any more obvious about eye fucking each other if you tried.”
“That’s… that’s insane,” Charlie insisted. “There’s nothing between me and Bass. Absolutely not.”
“Really,” Jason said skeptically.
“No,” Charlie insisted. “Aside from the fact that Miles would kill him, it wouldn’t make any sense. He’s twice my age. He’d probably never see me like that.”
“He sees you like that,” Jason assured her. “Trust me. Everyone knows it, except apparently you.”
Charlie was stunned into silence. She had hoped, but never actually thought it was possible.
“But you should forget about him.” Jason stopped and turned to face her, taking her hands in his. “Forget him, be with me.”
“Jason…” she hesitated.
“Damnit, have you forgotten who he is? What he’s done?” Jason finally allowed his temper to flare. “He killed half your family, and a whole hell of a lot of other people. I’ve seen it firsthand. He’s ruthless. Twisted. How can you want anything to do with him?”
“He’s changed!” she practically shouted. “What you’re talking about, that was a long time ago. You think he and I haven’t talked about it? You think I haven’t seen him go days, weeks, without sleep because he’s so tormented by his past? You think you know him, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. I know him. He’s not that man anymore.”
“Are you that blind?” Jason asked in disgust. “You think someone like that can change? He’s broken. There’s something fundamentally wrong with him.”
“What about your dad?” Charlie demanded. “He’s done the same things, and worse. Is he broken, too?”
“You’re goddamn right, he is,” Jason snapped. “I could never do the things that either one of them have done. And neither could you, because that’s not how you’re made. Men like that, they never change. And you’re a fool to hope otherwise.”
“I don’t want him to change!” Charlie cried. “There’s nothing wrong with him.” Realizing what she’d said, how much it revealed, she lapsed into silence.
“Jesus,” Jason said quietly. “You’re actually in love with him. You’re in love with General Sebastian Monroe.”
“I told you, that’s not who he is anymore,” Charlie said stubbornly, not addressing Jason’s allegation.
Jason shook his head. “You’re delusional,” he told her as they walked back up to the house. “If you think this is going to end well, for anyone, for either of you, you’re completely out of your mind.”
“You’re probably right,” Charlie said evenly. “Best you stay away, then.”
“I can’t do that,” Jason said. “I care about you. I’ll always be here if you decide you’re ready to move on from this fantasy you’ve got going. If you decide you want something real.” With those parting words, he jerked the front door open and strode inside, not bothering to see if she followed.
She almost didn’t, suddenly desperate to go to Bass. But she knew nothing good would come of disappearing suddenly and making her mom and Miles panic. She’d have to wait just a little bit longer. As soon as she could, she was going to find Bass. Breathing in and out slowly to calm her racing heart, Charlie walked back into the house.