Last night had been the most incredible night of Demola's life. And it was destined to remain that way. He stepped outside onto his small wooden porch, carrying his duffel. It was early. Not much after five in the morning. But the estate was already starting the new day.
The sun was half up the horizon. After years of living here, he was intimately familiar with the routine. He drew in a breath of the hot, dry air, savoring the combined scent of dust and livestock. It was a sweet fragrance. A fragrance that was uniquely the Big W's. Breathing deeply of it, he shifted his gaze to the big house.
He'd dropped Tomilola at her front door a bit after one last night. The four hours since had been the longest of his life.
He couldn't get her out of his mind. She was everything he'd ever dreamed of. Everything he'd ever wanted. Sexy. Caring. Giving. And so damned tough.
Across the way, a light went on in the big house. Through the big picture windows, he could see her making her down the stairs, her soft, stonewashed jeans hugging her feminine curves, her tank top accentuating her tiny waist and the tantalizing shape of her breasts.
His fingers tingled. His body readied. His heart ached. If he needed proof the decision he'd agonized over all night was the right one, the need pounding through him right now was it. He drew a deep fortifying breath, took one more look at his surroundings and forced his feet to move.
He tossed his duffel into his car and strode across the road to the big house, his movements heavy and stiff, as if his legs didn't belong to him. As if they didn't want to go where he was pushing them.
He'd felt this way once before. When he'd walked into the state prisons all those years ago. He'd thought walking through those big iron doors had been the longest, hardest walk of his life.
He'd been wrong.
Tomilola walked into the kitchen in the quiet house. The other girls were still asleep, thank God. She wasn't up to facing them this morning, any more than she had been at 3:00am when they'd finally wandered home. She'd stayed hidden in her room to avoid them then, but she was glad such measures weren't necessary this morning.
She needed coffee. It had been a long, anxious night. She wanted to believe making love to Demola last night had been a breakthrough. That she'd convinced him there was something between them worth fighting for. But she didn't think she had.
There'd been something about his lovemaking last night. A desperation in the way he'd watched her and touched her and loved her that made her think it was a onetime deal for him. A thought that had been reinforced when he'd dropped her at the door instead of coming in with her or bringing her to his house.
Measuring coffee into the filter, she tried to calm the nagging sense of dread. She might be misreading the whole thing. He might have dropped her at her door because he didn't think the best way to announce their relationship was to have the entire estate population find them in bed together. He might think it was better if the hands saw them dating first.
Except he hadn't said anything about future dates. About future anything.
She closed the coffee basket, flicked the machine on and took a deep steadying breath. If he was trying to close her out, she wasn't going to let him. Not after what they'd shared last night. It had been too good. He was too good to let get away. And she was going to let him know it. Just as soon as she bolstered her nerve with a little caffeine.
A knock sounded on her front door.
She startled. Who on earth was knocking on her door at five o'clock in the morning? She hurried to the door and pulled it open.
Demola stood on her porch, hat in hand.
His expression was an unreadable mask, but she didn't think she'd ever seen such desolation in a person's eyes. Her stomach plummeted, and a cold sweat broke out on her palms. "Is there a problem on the estate?' Please, let there be something wrong with the estate.
He shook his head. "As far as I know everything is running smoothly."
Oh, God. She swallowed hard, the fear she'd been fighting all night swamping her. "Then why are you here?" It obviously wasn't to pick her up where they'd left off last night or he wouldn't be crushing his hat in his hands. He'd be reaching for her.
He looked away, a muscle along his jaw working.
Her stomach crashed to her toes.
Finally, he looked back, meeting her gaze. "I came by to let you know I'm leaving. I know this is short notice, but with roundup behind us, there isn't anything crucial going on. I've left a list of men on my table I think are best qualified to be in charge of the estate. Have Charles help you make a decision. He won't steer you wrong."
She could barely make sense of the words. "You're leaving?"
He nodded. "Tell Charles I'll get in touch with him for my last paycheck once I'm resettled."
She shook her head, panic racing through her. "Oh, no. I am not going to just let you walk away. Not after last night."
"After last night, it's the only thing I can do."
"What the heck does that mean?"
His lips thinned into a hard, uncompromising line. "You know what it means."
"No, I don't. And you're not leaving until I do."
"We've already had this conversation. Nothing's changed."
"Have you lost your mind? Everything's changed."
He shook his head. "All last night did was prove I can't keep my hands off you. It didn't change who I am. What I am."
"Oh, for. . .we're back to the stupid ex-con thing."
"There's nothing stupid about it. I won't risk your reputation by having your name linked to mine in anything other than a working relationship. And after last night, it's pretty clear to me I'm not capable of keeping my hands to myself where you're concerned."
"I don't consider having to face a few bigots a risk worth noticing. And the fact that you can't keep your hands to yourself around me isn't a bad thing. It means you're as attracted to me as I am to you. And in my book, that's a good thing. A very good thing."
"If I was any other man in the world, it might be a good thing. But I'm not any other man. I'm a man who tried to kill another man."
She tossed a hand in frustration. "Thirteen years ago."
He shook his head. "Time doesn't negate some things. Having a prison record is one of them. I'm leaving, Tomilola. End of story." He turned on his heel and strode toward his car.
She grabbed hold of him and pulled him back. "You're being ridiculous. I don't care what other people think."
"You might not. But I do. And your father world have cared, too."
"What does my father have to do with anything?"
"A lot. Before he died, he made me promise I'd make sure you had everything that was good and wonderful and bright in this world. And, by God, I'm going to keep that promise." He pulled out of her grasp and strode away."
She stared after him, her heart shredding into a million pieces. She wanted to run to him, make him listen to her. But it wouldn't do her any good. She had only to look at the stiff line of his back to know he'd made up his mind.
He was leaving.
She watched him walk to his car, crawl in and drive away, tears pouring down her cheeks. Would she never get this man thing right?