‘You are going to pay for that, Ms Fox.’
‘Big talk, Mr Milburn.’
He laughed then—a genuine laugh that made her go weak in the middle.
‘That feels like a challenge,’ he said.
She laughed. ‘Is that your way of saying you want a billiards rematch? Because we can play for money this time, if you want.’
‘Only if you wear those shoes.’ He smiled slowly. ‘Just those shoes.’
The slow burn of his gaze reached inside her, pressing down against her pelvis. ‘I’m game if you are.’
Grimacing, he shook his head. ‘You know, your brother has a lot to answer for. I think at some point I’m going to have a few words with him about unleashing you with a cue on an unsuspecting male population.’
Feeling cold on the inside, she stared past him at the sea.
Answer him. Say something...anything, she told herself.
But her mouth wouldn’t move.
After a short, gritty pause, he said slowly, ‘It’s not a big thing, Frankie. I’m not angling to meet your family.’
She felt her chest pull tight with anger and panic. How dare he throw that at her? This was his fault. If he’d warned her that he was going to start talking about her family she would have prepared herself.
‘Not everything is about you, Arlo—’ she snapped.
Adrenaline was spiking inside her and her hands were shaking. She could feel it building beneath her skin. The misery. The guilt. The memories she fought so hard to keep at bay. Her heart twisted and she pressed her knuckles against the ache.
His voice was gentle—too gentle. It was melting her anger, melting the barriers she had built, so that the memories were filling her head and the truth was spilling from her lips.
‘You can’t meet my brother.’ Tears filled her eyes. ‘You can’t meet any of my family. They died in an accident two years ago. They all died. Everyone except me.’
* * *
For a few half-seconds Arlo stared down at Frankie in shock and horror, and then he pulled her into his arms, holding her close until she softened against him just as he had on that first morning.
Only this was so much worse.
‘It’s okay, Frankie. It’s okay,’ he said, holding her tighter.
But obviously it wasn’t.
His heart was thudding painfully hard, the last few days replaying on fast-forward inside his head. The things he’d said, the way he’d acted.
‘Here.’ Pulling out a handkerchief, he gently wiped her eyes and cheeks.
She bit into her lip. ‘I’m sorry. You don’t need to deal with all this. It’s not fair. You lost your parents too.’
He tensed. They hadn’t talked about his parents, Lucien and Helena, but no doubt Johnny had told her the basics—that his mother had died young and their father was dead now too. Heaviness was seeping through his chest. He’d known pain and loss, but to lose everyone like that... It was impossible to imagine how that must have felt—how it must still feel, given that it was so recent.
‘You don’t need to worry about that. I’ve got strong shoulders.’
He pulled her closer. She needed to talk, but he felt as if he’d cornered her into the conversation, and he sensed that it would be easier for her to answer yes/no questions.
‘Was it the same accident that gave you your scar?’