“Your family is tough.”
He tipped his head up to look at her. “Tough?”
“It’s just . . . big. Complicated. Competitive.”
His brow furrowed. “Is that how you see us?”
“That’s how I see them. How do you see them?”
He smiled. “Complicated. Competitive.” He looked at her with appreciation in his gaze, which wasn’t helping her campaign to shelve her feelings for him. “It feels off being back now. I’ve always been the one to be here—you know that.”
He’d felt it was his responsibility to stay. Except maybe responsibility wasn’t what he’d felt. Maybe it was the desire to be the one who was necessary. Not martyrdom—nothing that self-serving—but a true need to feel . . . needed. Why had she never seen that before?
“I did know that, but I don’t think I really understood it until now. I shouldn’t have asked you to leave.”
He sat up and pivoted the stool so he was facing her. His knee brushed hers as he turned, and she felt the connection everywhere. He, on the other hand, didn’t seem to notice.
“Whoa,” he said. “This is a total one-eighty. I’m not sure I can wrap my head around this.” There were lines of humor around his eyes, so she knew he was at least half-joking.
“I know, right?” She brought the whiskey to her lips and drank.
“What happened?” he asked softly, his gaze intense. “Why do you say that now?”
Oh, this was dangerous territory. This intimate conversation, the dimness of the room, the familiarity and its pull—at least for her. “You seem out of sorts now, like you maybe can’t find your place, whereas before you knew what it was. You were Hayden the Dependable, the one everyone counted on.”
His stare pierced her. There was a bit of admiration there. She fidgeted with her glass, unsure where this was going.
“You get it. No one gets it.”
She wasn’t sure that was true, but maybe it was just that he hadn’t talked to them about it. And maybe he didn’t want to. Maybe his place wasn’t here. “I get it now,” she said, smiling. “But I didn’t before. And I’m sorry.”
“You said you shouldn’t have asked me to leave. Do you . . . do you regret leaving?”
Damn, that was the worst question ever. Yes and no. “Until I’d come back here, I would’ve said no. Now . . . I’m not sure. It’s hard to regret things, isn’t it? Because we are who we are today because of the choices we made. And I like who I am.” For the most part.
He hadn’t broken eye contact with her the entire time she’d spoken, and she wondered if he felt this connection, this bone-deep longing that she’d truly never experienced before. Then he leaned in, and she did the same. Did he realize how close they were? If they both leaned just a bit more, their lips would touch.
“Maybe that’s it.” His voice was soft, sexy, but dark, too. “Maybe I don’t like who I am.”