Quietly moving across the floor, he nudged the door open to find Jessie wearing her night clothes and sitting in a chair before the hearth, her blonde hair hanging loose down her back. She cradled a cup in her lap, caressed the rim while staring at the low-burning fire. He filled a cup and joined her.
“Can’t sleep,” he asked.
“Oh,” she startled, and arched her neck toward him. “I didn’t hear you.”
“I didn’t mean to frighten you.” He nodded toward the hearth. “May I join you?”
Her guarded gaze traveled the length of him. “Al-all right.” She shifted her attention back to the crackling wood.
He pulled a chair beside her and sat, took a long drink of the hot brew. “Are you up because you’re worried about the squatter?”
“No. The sheriff and the deputies will find him.” She kept her gaze on the flame. “They won’t allow harm to come to their wives and children.”
“Reckon you’re right about that.” He took another long swallow to settle the unease snaking through his gut. He had plenty to say to her, and hoped the words came out right.
“Why are you awake?” she asked.
“I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
“Most people do.” She leaned forward, pulled a log from a basket beside the hearth and added it to the fire. Sat back in her chair.
“Jessie,” he started, only to pause and take a deep breath. He let it out slow, prayed his gumption wouldn’t desert him. “I apologize for what I said to you earlier. You’re more than a waitress to me. You’re someone I care about very much.”
She sniffled and met his gaze. Except for the moisture clinging to her eyes, her expression was void of feeling. “So you’ve often said.” She cocked her head. “Are you willing to do something about that?”
He swallowed hard. “If you’re referring to marriage, than I’m sorry, but the answer is no. I can’t marry you.” He touched her arm. “But I can be your friend.” And loveyou with everything I am. “Someone you can depend upon for anything.”
“I have friends, Tom,” she said, stonily. “I want more than that.”