When Clay spotted the crushed look on Ella’s face—the shock, the disappointment, the pain—his heart dropped to his gut.
He wasn’t sure what the darn Realtor had revealed to Ella just now, but it must have had something to do with him. And from what he could see, Ella hadn’t taken it very well.
Damn. He hadn’t meant for her to stumble onto his identity before he got a chance to tell her himself.
He set the rag and can of lubricant he’d been holding on the windowsill, then headed outside to try to ease Ella’s mind with the truth he’d been holding back. But before he could reach her, she met him at the door, her hands folded across her chest and a fire in those pretty, green eyes.
“What’s going on?” she asked. “Why did you lie to me?”
“I didn’t exactly lie.”
The flame that blazed in her eyes threatened to burn him alive. “Oh, no? You let me think that you didn’t have a job or a penny to your name.”
She had a point, but he’d never actually said he was unemployed and broke. “You came to that conclusion on your own.”
“But you could have corrected me.”
Yes, he could have. And he probably should have. He’d deceived her, and while his reason for doing so had seemed justified at the time, he realized she wouldn’t see it that way.
“I wanted a chance to get to know you better,” he said.
She stiffened. “Excuse me?”
He wasn’t so sure if he could explain without making it worse.
“You’re angry,” he said.
“You bet I am. I’m also shocked. And crushed. You were probably plotting to get inside the house all along.”
“Now wait a minute.” Clay placed his hands on Ella’s shoulders, trying to connect with her again. “That’s not true, honey. I never thought about buying the house until I saw how sad you and Aggie were about moving. So I made the offer this morning, asking that you remain here until summer. But even after that, I wouldn’t have let you move until you wanted to.”
“That doesn’t make sense. Why would a man like you—a successful businessman, of all things—purchase a piece of property he had no intention of using?”
“I did it for you. Because I—”
She tilted her head to the side. “Because you what?”
Clay glanced at the people who stood near the For Sale sign, gaping at him and Ella. Then he reached for her hand. “Come with me, and I’ll try to explain.”
He feared that she might put up a fight, but she walked with him through the house and out to the backyard.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“For starters, I’d like to have some privacy.”
Once they were in the back of the old, three-story house, he led her to a wrought-iron chair that sat under the elm tree. When they were finally alone, he said, “I have a confession to make.”
“You should have made it a lot sooner.”
“You’re right. I realize that now. But when I saw you at Red, I knew there was something different about you, something special. And I was determined to get to know you.”
“It was a mean trick.”
“Maybe so, but I never meant to hurt you. It’s just… I’ve been with women in the past who said they loved me, when they were only interested in my money, my success. I’ve seen the damage those kind of people can cause.” He thought of Connor’s widow. “And I wanted to make sure you were different.”
“Oh, I’m different, all right. I don’t have any money to my name. And if I did, I’d use it to go back to school and get a college degree.”
“I find that refreshing.”
“Do you?” The flame, which had seemed to cool down a bit once he’d gotten her alone, flared again. “Well, I don’t. And where is your sense of fairness? Didn’t you think that I would have liked to be able to get to know you? You didn’t offer me the same courtesy that I’ve given you—honesty.”
She was right; he hadn’t thought of it that way.
“In a way, you did see the real me,” he added.
Skepticism crossed her face. “How do you figure?”
“In the past, I was so focused on business, that I lost the real me along the way. That’s why I spent a week camping by myself. I’d just returned to Red Rock that night when I met you at Red. And it seemed as if you were…some kind of divine answer, I guess. A gift I’d been waiting for all my life.”
As she wrapped her mind around that, he added, “I liked coming by the house and doing chores for you and Aggie. And not just because you’re beautiful and witty and charming. I actually enjoyed the fix-it projects, as well as mowing the yard, trimming the tree and pruning the hedges. In a way, while I was working on the house and in the yard, I was fixing all the broken and run-down things in my own life.”
He scanned her face, trying to read her expression, hoping she understood what he was trying to say. When she didn’t comment, he said, “I’m sorry, Ella. And if you’ll let me, I’ll make it up to you.”
“How do you plan to do that?”
By pulling out all the romantic stops, he supposed. And laying his heart on the line.
Clay got down on one knee and reached for her hand. “I love you, Ella. And I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
Ella blinked. Had she heard him correctly? He loved her? “I don’t understand.”
“I can’t explain it, either. I never believed in love at first sight, but I’d never met anyone like you before. I believe in it now. I fell for you, Ella. And I fell hard.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Well, for starters, you could forgive me for deceiving you. I swear I’ll never lie or hold anything back from you ever again. And then, maybe you’ll agree to go out on the town with me, so I can show off the woman I love.”
All the anger, all the pain, faded away as she gazed into Clay’s eyes and saw the love shining there.
She might have been angry at him for withholding his identity, but in doing so, she’d been able to see the real Clay and to get to know him on a level she never would have allowed herself to enjoy before. And it had given her the opportunity to share more of herself with him than she would have under different circumstances.
“I love you, too,” she admitted. “Although, I must admit, the money and success frighten me a bit.”
“They frighten you?”
“I’m not well-versed on things like fashion or socializing at fancy places with the rich and the famous.”
“That’s fine with me. You don’t have to go anywhere or do anything if you’re not comfortable. I’d be happy to spend every night at home with you.”
Ella laughed. “I didn’t say I was a homebody. It’s just that I might not fit into your world.”
“My world is anywhere you are, honey.” Then he cupped her face, his eyes shining with love. “So what do you say? Will you marry me and make me the happiest man in the world?”
Ella wrapped her arms around his neck and answered his question with a kiss that promised she’d love him forever.
Fairy tales didn’t get any better than this.