Her gaze drifted outside the window of the restaurant to the rain softly falling against the pavement. The gloomy weather had become something of the norm in Atlanta of late, but she never minded. The headlights of cars passing by caught her attention now and again, their horns echoing through an otherwise silent night.
She looked down at her dress, hoping it was as decent as she thought it was for him. He’d told her to dress “pretty” but hadn’t expanded on his requirement. This was how she’d ended up calling her best friend for some much-needed fashion advice.
The high life had been Willow Lewis’s life for five years now, but she was still the same country girl from Connecticut. She still hated people’s outdated expectations of women and also of their roles by their partners’ sides. She still hated the appreciative and sometimes downright leery looks she’d receive from businessmen when she was on his arm. While she was grateful to be seen, the shadows were beginning to look inviting once again.
Her dress hugged her frame, accentuating her hour-glass figure. It showed the right amount of cleavage, and she was still able to breathe in it. A win-win, she thought. Her friend had done her hair and makeup, going on and on about how tonight may just be the night she’d been hoping for.
A small smile played on Willow’s lips as she imagined him walking through the double doors, handing his umbrella to one of the servers and sitting down in front of her in his fitted suit and tie. She imagined he’d make small talk about his father’s business and other news about his life; then she hoped he’d ask about her day.
And she’d tell him everything, while he paid more attention to his emails. She’d tell him about her boss from hell and why she even stayed in the same job when she no longer had the passion for it. She’d tell him the little office gossip she was privy to and laugh about the obscenity of it all. She was never one for gossip; she was mainly a focal point of it.
“Ma’am, may I get you a drink?” The server had approached her, rousing her out of her daydream. She sighed and looked down at the diamond-encrusted watch he had given her just last week.
He was over an hour late.
She looked at her cell phone, wishing he’d at least call to give her a time, but somehow, she knew he wouldn’t do that.
“I’m fine with water, thank you.”
Her appetite was gone, having vanished over the past hour while she waited with bated breath for him to arrive. Nothing on the menu sounded the least bit appetizing, apart from the bread. She folded the cloth napkin across her lap, fidgeting with the edge of it as she caught glances from other customers in the restaurant.
She’d seen those looks before – the pitying, apologetic looks. They were never far from strangers’ eyes when it came to her. This wouldn’t be the first time, nor would it be the last time he’d do this to her.
He was late again, and she was alone in a restaurant that was almost filled to capacity.
Anxiety flooded her as she imagined someone coming up to her, telling her she’d have to vacate her table for another couple. She’d had to do that before, too, and the looks had been even worse then.
“Your water, ma’am. Perhaps an appetizer?” The server – Lana – placed a fresh glass of water down in front of her and took a step to the side, eager to take her order.
“The Turkish bread with a side of garlic butter, please.” There, she’d ordered something. Now maybe she’d stop getting the rude looks.
“A wonderful choice,” Lana beamed at her before prancing away.
After another fleeting look at her watch and then her phone, she began to resign herself to the fact that he wasn’t going to show.
“You’ve reached Holden Peters. Please leave your name and number, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can,” his voicemail sang back at her. Tears welled in her eyes.
“Hey, it’s Willow. Just wondering where you are, or how much longer you’re going to be. Just… let me know, okay?” She hastily hung up and dropped her phone into her clutch. If it rang, she’d hear it. She didn’t want to spend any more time counting the minutes without him there.
She knew Ardonix—the empire he’d soon be inheriting from his father—was important to him, especially with his father Montgomery setting him more challenging tasks each day. She hadn’t realized that what people were saying was true though, that Holden would marry the job before he’d marry her. She’d laughed about it at the time, but the last few months had done little but confirm that theory.
Willow knew she was no longer the first priority in his life. And that’s what hurt the most. When you’re with someone, you’re with them. You love them harder and more than you’ve ever loved anything else in your life. They should always be your number one priority, the only opinion that should ever matter.
She knew that, but he didn’t.
“Excuse me?” She called out to Lana, who turned and smiled at her. “Cancel my order, I’m going to go…”
“Oh, I… okay, I’m sorry, ma’am.”
“No, it’s okay… It’s my mistake.” She stood to gather her things when someone rushed in beside her and kissed her cheek.
Heat flooded her before she even had a chance to look up at the stranger, the electricity from the brief contact of lips to her cheek still crackling in the air.
“I’m so sorry I’m late, angel. Traffic was a nightmare, and you would not believe what they wanted me to pay for that taxi,” the man said loudly, as if he were talking to the entire restaurant and not just to her.
She had no idea who this man was, only that he had a head of dark brown hair and the most stunning pair of whiskey-brown eyes she’d ever seen.
She took a moment to look at him, really look at him, before smiling. He was well defined, his Armani suit fitting him as though it had been sewn onto him. His chiseled jaw bore the usual five o’clock shadow, but it made him look more mysterious to her. His finely manicured fingers now encased her own hand.
She looked at their joined hands in confusion before a delicate rose blush crossed her cheeks. She’d yet to say a word, and the stranger was waiting.
“It’s okay. I understand.” Her voice was a whisper, but she’d said something at least. He leaned over, his lips centimeters away from her cheek and spoke.
“My name is Nathan Wolf. Just go with it, okay?” He moved away again as she nodded. He turned to Lana and smiled. “Do you mind if we have a few moments?”
“Of course not,” Lana answered before leaving their table.
“Willow Lewis, but everyone calls me Wills.”
“Willow,” he echoed, tasting each syllable on his tongue as it left his mouth. “A beautiful name for such a rare and beautiful woman.”
Her blush was now scarlet, heating her from the inside out.
“Oh…” She looked into his striking brown eyes for a moment before having to look away. “Thank you.”
“You don’t hear a lot of compliments about yourself, do you?” he asked. She wanted to tell him that Holden complimented her all the time, but that would’ve been a lie.
In fact, she couldn’t remember the last time he’d paid her a compliment.
“To be honest, no, I don’t.” She’d grown up believing she was stupid and ugly, unwanted by her mother and unloved by the people around her.
When she’d met Holden and fallen in love with him, she’d truly thought someone was playing a cruel joke on her. She’d never expected him to return those feelings, but he had.
For a time.
“Well, you are. And a beautiful woman such as yourself should be showered in them constantly,” he continued.
“Thank you.” She offered a genuine smile this time, and it made her feel more alive than she’d felt all week.
Lana stopped by their table then, a warm smile on her face for the man in front of her.
“Glad to see you’ve made it, sir.”
“Yes, I truly am terribly sorry. My phone died, and then there was a nasty accident on the I-85… just one thing after another…” he explained, his gaze still trained on the woman seated in front of him. “May we please have a bottle of Sancerre?”
“Of course, sir. Ma’am, would you still like your appetizer?” Lana asked her, and she nodded.
“Thank you, Lana.”
“No problem. An appetizer for you, sir?”
“I have a feeling I may need to help my date with her own, but thank you anyway.” He dismissed her with a kind smile.
Finally alone, Nathan looked at the woman in front of him. Her hair fell in waves over her shoulders, framing her delicate face in chocolate decadence. Her lips were stained pink, and her eyeshadow added just the right amount of smokiness to make the yellow flecks of her hazel eyes stand out. She hadn’t lost the pink tint to her cheeks since he’d sat down, and that thought made him smile.
He’d watched her for the last hour while he’d entertained his parents in a private booth, gazing across the room at her as she’d waited for a date who would probably never arrive. He’d never done anything like this before, but something about her told him he needed to do this.
“So, what is it that you do, Willow?” He wanted to get to know the woman in front of him, to learn everything there was to know about her.
“I work for a real estate conglomerate as their senior interior designer. Technically, it’s my business within their business, if that makes sense,” she told him, her hazel eyes staring into his.
“You own your own business?” he asked, his interest piqued.
“It’s only me and my best friend, but we do pretty well. Illusion by Design, a subsidiary of Thousand Keys Real Estate,” she recited the spiel she’d been forced to repeat ad nauseum.
“I’ve heard of it,” Nathan smiled. “I’ve seen some of your work up close, I believe.”
“You probably have. We’re very heavily involved with a number of corporate prestige projects,” she murmured. “I’d love to do homes, but my boss thinks it’s a waste of time and resources.”
“I don’t think it is,” he commented. “Homes are where futures are built.”
“You took the words right out of my mouth, Nathan.” The way his name rolled off her tongue had a surprising effect on him. Rather than feel the sense of nervousness he’d expected at her beauty and grace, he was hit with a tidal wave of calm, like her words were soothing a storm in his heart.
They’d barely spoken to each other for five minutes, but he felt there was definitely something more here than either of them could even imagine.
“Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts,” she mused.
“Oliver Wendell Holmes… Senior, I believe?”
“You know your poets.”
“I’m full of surprises, Willow,” he smirked as Lana returned to their table with the wine bottle. He nodded at her before Lana and she proceeded to unscrew and pour two glasses of the liquid for them. “Thank you.”
“Are we ready to order?”
“I’ll have the steak, medium rare, with extra mushroom sauce, roasted potatoes, and vegetables. Willow?”
“My appetite has returned, so I think I’ll have the pork shoulder roast, please. Extra apple sauce and roast vegetables.” She handed her menu to Lana before turning her attention back to Nathan.
“You can call me Wills, you know,” she told him.
“You said everyone calls you that. I don’t want to be everyone,” he answered. “How did you come across Holmes?”
“Speak clearly, if you speak at all; carve every word before you let it fall,” she quoted at him.
“‘A Rhymed Lesson.’ Impressive.” He sat back and sipped his wine glass, an appreciative smile on his lips. He was invigorated by her intelligence and her wit, and he’d only been sitting opposite her for only such a short time. He idly wondered what else her brilliant mind held and how much he’d be able to experience tonight alone.
“When I needed to escape, his poems were where I felt most comfortable. He had this… wit about him that I don’t think many people understood. He spoke with so much understated meaning, and I think we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface of it all,” she admitted, suddenly bashful at how much her words revealed about herself.
“I’m assuming you’ve read most of his works?”
“I have copies of them, yes. My partner, he thinks books are trivial things.”
“Hardly. They’re one of the few things that will still be here, long after we’re gone. The world of internet, computers, and artificial intelligence will dwindle and slip away, but one will never be alone without a good book to keep them company.” The way he spoke with such reverence to a topic she held so close to her heart spoke multitudes for the man he was.
“Tell me about yourself. You have just sat down at my table, after all,” she laughed. The sound of bells ringing, of birds singing quiet love songs, floated through his ears.
“Well, there’s not much to know. I own a business as well, albeit a smidgen larger than Illusion by Design,” he smirked. “I’m twenty-six years old, and I’ve never done this sort of thing before.”
“You don’t just swoop in and save damsels in distress on your days off?” she quipped, a playful edge to her tone.
“I didn’t… I wasn’t trying to save you, Willow. I just wanted your night to end on a high,” he explained.
“It’s okay. I’m grateful that I was the damsel on this particular occasion.” She looked down to her lap before looking at her plate once again. “You own your own business? Aren’t we two peas in a pod…”
“Technically, I inherited it. My grandfather entrusted me with his legacy after he passed.” He swallowed the ball of emotion developing in his throat, hoping Willow wouldn’t catch onto it.
“I’m sure he’d be incredibly proud of you and what you’ve done with his company. He left it to you for a reason. Remember that,” she assured him.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned since taking over and learning the lay of the land, it’s the importance of prioritizing work and home. I could spend fifteen hours a day in the office if I wanted to, but I go home so my staff can have a night off and so I can spend time with my family. To be honest, that’s what has had me scratching my head since I sat down. I don’t understand how anyone could leave such a stunning woman sitting alone like he did.”
She took a large gulp of her wine, almost moaning in ecstasy at the taste of it before clearing her throat.
“It happens every now and again. I guess he just hasn’t learned yet…”
“I don’t mean to sound too forward, Willow, but no one should ever keep you waiting.” His fingers grazed over hers again, electricity thrumming through her body at the slightest touch.
“You’re too kind.”
“Just stating a fact,” he shrugged. “This is a first for me, too.”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t recognize me, and you’re not like every other female in this city,” he grinned.
“I’m not sure if you’re trying to compliment me or not…”
“I am. To many in Atlanta, I’m the ‘single, hot, homemade multi-billionaire.’ Objectively speaking, I guess I can understand why I’ve been branded that way, but it seems utterly ridiculous to me. The way women behave around me can be downright appalling.” He made gestures with his hands that were truly mesmerizing to Willow, but she wouldn’t tell him that.
“You’d think dating a trust-fund millionaire for five years would have opened my eyes to the rest of the high socialite world, but it hasn’t. You’re a man… A devastatingly handsome one, but you’re still just a man,” Willow replied as Nathan’s eyes lit up at her words.
“You’re the first person I’ve met in the last nine months that I actually believe when you say that. It’s nice to meet someone real for once. Someone genuine.”
His gaze was hypnotic, his eyes swirling with some unnamed emotion she couldn’t place. Willow wanted to lose herself in them, and she didn’t regret the thought at all.
Holden be damned, this was the type of conversation she’d always longed to have. She couldn’t care less for business and construction and labor; it was the beauty of the human mind that truly spoke to her.
“Surely you’ve been interested?” she breathed after she remembered he was waiting for her response.
“I’ve dated a couple of women, but things inevitably fell through,” he answered. “Seems money is more important to most people than a fulfilling relationship.”
Willow disguised her snort as a cough, as she related to him on an even deeper level. She knew exactly what he was saying; after all, she had a mother who chose the money over her daughter every time.
“One day you’ll meet the right woman, and you’ll look back at the others and laugh,” Willow smiled. “You deserve a lifetime of happiness, Nathan.”
Lana returned briefly and placed their appetizer in front of them before walking away.
“Looks delicious,” they both commented at the same time.
“A woman after my own heart. The bread here is to die for, and the garlic butter… You won’t find better in this city,” he said softly, before beginning to cut a slice for her. “Now that I’ve told you about myself, I believe it’s only fair for you to do the same.”
“Um… Well, I’m originally from Hartford, but I’ve traveled a lot. Los Angeles, Houston, Savannah, Houston again, Phoenix…”
“You like the heat?” he asked. She scoffed and shook her head.
“Getting married seemed to be something of a hobby for my mother while I was growing up. She married six times in ten years. I had to move with her every time.” She didn’t like talking about that time in her life, but there was something different about sharing it with him.
“Sounds difficult, uprooting your life because your mother’s selfish endeavors…”
“I learned pretty quickly that I could only look out for myself. I didn’t have friends. No one really even knew my name, anyway. I didn’t mind. As I said, I got lost in my books, in worlds of my own,” she smiled.
“You sound incredibly mature for someone who doesn’t look a day older than twenty-one,” he surmised.
“I’m twenty-four, but thank you again for your compliment.” She bit into her bread and reveled in the taste. He wasn’t wrong; it was the best she’d ever tasted.
“So, I’m guessing no father?”
Sadness crossed her features as another unpleasant memory of her mother flitted through her mind. She hadn’t thought of Vicky Lewis in months now, and she was quite enjoying the serenity.
“No. My birth father died before I was born. After that, it’s just a long list of stepfathers. Some of them were okay, others not so much,” she repressed a shudder.
“I’m sorry if I touched a sore spot.” He hated the idea of harm coming to her at the hand of someone who should have protected her, but there was little he could do about it now.
“No, it’s okay. If I couldn’t at least talk about my past, I’d never leave my apartment,” she gave him a half smile as she finished off the last piece of heaven-sent bread.
“What about you?”
“My story doesn’t have a lot of hardship. I was lucky to grow up where I did. Mom and Dad moved around a lot, especially with Dad’s placements. As soon as my brother and sister were born, though, they settled down. Mom found a job with a snap of the fingers, and Dad… Well, he was honorably discharged. He’s still a part of the Army as a civilian, but he’s based at home now, for which we’re very grateful.” His eyes softened with love for his family, and she felt a pang of sadness that she hadn’t experienced such love with her own.
“I was born thirteen months after the twins. Poor Mom,” he chuckled. “But I don’t think they wanted it any other way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a family quite like mine.”
“You sound like you have a good support network around you. Friends, family, and the like.”
He filled her wine glass before nodding in agreement.
“I’ve learned not to take anyone I meet for granted. People have a way of… opening your eyes to things you’ve never noticed before.”
“Sounds like the kind of advice a grandparent would offer,” she grinned.
“Indeed. My grandfather stepped in when Dad had to go away. I think I latched onto him faster than my siblings because I was just so in awe of him. He wore these three-piece suits and had this pocket-watch.” He tapped his breast pocket, as though making sure it was still there. “He’s always with me.”
“How long ago?”
“Nine months. Nana passed only six weeks ago.” He did little to halt the stray tear that fell to his cheek. Only when he felt her fine fingers there did he realize that he was actually crying.
“You loved them very much.” There was no pity in her eyes, nothing that told him he was being silly or that it wasn’t what she wanted to see. He was grieving, and that grief was still very much a focal point in his mind.
“I did. I still do. Married sixty-eight years. If I ever get a love like that, I’ll have done something right.” His fingers cupped hers on his cheek.
“You and me both.” She didn’t know where that came from, but there was something true in her words. She was slowly coming to terms with the idea that Holden wasn’t her forever and, after tonight, she’d tell him just that.
“How long have you and your actual date been together?” he asked.
“Five years, but something has changed. He’s become all about the business, and less about who he has at home.” She looked down at the watch he’d given her and suppressed another sigh. “I admit I’ve been selfishly waiting for his eyes to open without my needing to say something, but I think the time has come where I… where I finally tell him.”
He quirked an eyebrow at her, part of him wanting her to elaborate and another part wanting her to tell him in her own time.
“Have you ever found yourself blinded by someone else’s success?” she inquired as she raised her wine glass to her lips. “So completely blinded by your love for them that you don’t see what they’re doing until it’s done?”
“I can’t say I have. I haven’t… No one’s truly interested me in that way for the longest time,” he admitted. “Is that what you feel with him?”
“He was my first love,” she shrugged. “He had the world in his hands, and I was lucky enough to share in it. When his father brought him into the business fold, I was left back in the shadows. I think that time in the shadows has shown me something though, that maybe my feelings for him weren’t as… intimate as I’d once thought.”
“I hope my impromptu appearance hasn’t made you feel like this.” He spoke with reverence and a hint of pride. She was a strong woman, determined not to let the world stop her from being the person she’d always wanted to be.
“If anything, it’s opened my eyes,” she admitted. “Holden rarely held an interest in anything I said or did. It was like talking to a brick wall sometimes. You haven’t lost interest in topics that mean something to me. You actually want to know about me and what makes me tick, and if that makes me sound selfish, then so be it. It feels strange confessing all of this to some stranger, but—”
“But you’ve been feeling this way for a very long time, otherwise it wouldn’t need saying tonight,” he finished for her.
“I think the wine might be helping with that, hah.” A bubble of laughter parted her lips before she could stop herself. Nathan’s eyes widened as he watched her lose it momentarily. The sound was everything he’d remembered from earlier and so much more.
“It might, but it’s good to open up to someone, even if I am a random stranger.”
Lana returned to their table, their appetizers in her arms.
“Steak for the gentleman and the pork shoulder roast for the lady.” She beamed at the two of them. “Another bottle of Sancerre?”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly…”
“Of course. It’s my treat, Willow,” he purred at her.
Their dinner passed in silence. She stole from his plate at one point during the night, and he repaid the favor in kind by stealing from hers.
They spoke briefly about their other interests, his being his love for writing and his wish to pen his own book and hers being the desire to be a foster mother to animals in various rescue shelters around the city. She was a regular contributor to the humane societies and could quite often be found at the shelters on her weekends, entertaining as many fluffy faces as she could.
They had grown more comfortable with each other as the night progressed, their stories becoming more private and detailed. Willow felt like she could have told him anything and he’d still want more information. He felt like she was the first person to truly see him for the man he’d always wanted to be.
Neither wanted the night to end.
Nathan slipped his Amex into the black folder that held their bill, and as he winked at Willow, he realized how much he wanted more nights like this.
“Willow, would you like to do this again? Just two friends having dinner? I… I don’t want tonight to end,” he admitted sadly. “You’re a breath of fresh air, and I’ve loved talking with you and just being with you.”
Her blush had returned and darkened a thousand-fold at his words. The range of emotions he’d caused her tonight, the feelings he’d ignited within her… Holden had never done that.
“I’d love that,” she smiled, finally breaking into a dazzling smile that almost had Nathan falling over backwards in his chair. He pulled out his business card and handed it to her.
“This has my cell number on it. Feel free to call me whenever you feel the need. Tonight has been… extraordinary. Beyond anything I could have ever dreamed when I sat down in front of you.”
“I should thank you, Nathan,” she blushed. “You truly made my night so much more… Well, just more.”
Lana handed Nathan his credit card back, and he stood, making his way over to Willow’s chair to pull it out for her. He offered her his hand, which she took willingly, and pulled her gently to her feet.
Their bodies were so close together, so warm against the one another, that all it would take was a slight movement forward and their lips would touch.
He held himself back, hesitant to take that final step, however wrong it might have been. He knew her relationship with her boyfriend was on the rocks, but he wouldn’t be that guy to her. He wouldn’t break them apart, even if he truly desired it.
“Thank you, Nathan, for the most incredible night,” she breathed, her shimmering hazel eyes shining up at his.
“You’re most welcome, Willow,” he replied softly.
She pulled away, but not before leaning up on her toes and pressing her lips to his cheek. “Until we meet again.”
“Next Tuesday, same time, same place,” he told her. Her eyes widened with shock, tears forming shortly after as she recognized the promise in his words.
“Sounds great. I’ll see you at eight.” And she knew he’d never be late for her.