“Piper?” Jackson asked tentatively. “Do you need some time alone to think?”
I’d had a full year to think. I’d had three hundred and sixty-five days to decide what I was going to do, and up to this very moment, I was confident in the decision I was going to make. There was nothing in this world more important to me than my family. They needed me to reach for the crisp white envelope sitting on the table between Jackson Lee and me. They needed me to make this sacrifice.
And I’d been so willing.
I stared at the dark-haired man at the end of the line. My man. The man I’d known was mine since the moment I left him at the end of our month. The man who’d left more of an impression on me than all the others.
The man I’d have given everything to save. To love. To cherish.
His brown eyes fell closed and he drew another deep breath. His lips—his perfect lips—were still pressed in a small smile after he mouthed the words I love you, Piper. As he stood on the other side of the one-way mirror, I wondered what sort of Hell he was enduring. Yes, my position was difficult, but his?
He’d been waiting for this moment for months. His torment would have been so much more acute than mine. But even so, he was calm and steady and sure. I could have sworn he looked right at me when he said those words, even though logic and fact proved there was no way he could see me.
I’d felt his eyes on me. Heard his words in my head. Felt the gentle pull of his love.
Doubt broke over me in a wave.
I looked at the rose. It dared me to pick it up as Camden’s words rang in my ears:
You must choose the man who makes you happy. Promise me you’ll do that.
I gritted my teeth. “I promise.”
“What?” Jackson asked. He shifted in his seat to lean a little closer to me.
I ignored him. My eyes shifted from the envelope to the single-stem red rose on the table. My heart thundered in my chest, my blood rushed in my ears, and the world around me faded away.
As I reached out my hand, I realized I was smiling. My fingers passed over the envelope and closed around the stem. The roar of my own blood and heartbeat subsided. It was no longer waves crashing upon the shore but a gentle tide. A steady and sure one.
“I promise,” I said again. The words fell out of me and so did all of the pain I’d been carrying with me all year. The reservations. The fear. The grief and the guilt. It all slipped away as I held the rose to my chest. My eyes filled with tears as I lifted my gaze to Jackson Lee.
He was grinning like a fool at me and he tugged at the collar of his crisp white shirt before letting out a nervous laugh. “For a minute there, I thought you were going to take the money.”
I wiped my eyes. “For a minute there, I thought I would, too.” Absently, I ran my fingers through the silky-smooth petals of the rose. “What happens now?”
Jackson ran his hands down his thighs. “Well. For starters, you tell me which man you chose. I will bring you to the gardens and lead him to you when you’re ready. And then—”
“The proposal,” I finished. My heart skipped several beats.
Three hundred and sixty- five days.
“Yes. The proposal. He’ll have selected a ring for you. We’ll bring it to him before he comes to meet you. In the meantime, we’ll get you changed into something more appropriate. And you two will have your moment. Nobody else will be there. Just you. When you’re ready, you’ll come out and meet me and we will discuss the next steps. The wedding, where you’ll be living. You know, the details.”
Eight thousand seven hundred and sixty hours.
“Are you ready?” Jackson Lee asked.
I stole one last look at Wyatt through the glass. He’d averted his gaze to the floor. For him, the waiting was still plaguing him. But for me, it was over. And in moments, he would learn that I wanted him and he’d come to me. I’d be waiting.
Of course, this meant the other men would learn in less than a few minutes that there was no longer a we in their future. The journey was over for them. There was a certain level of guilt swirling in my gut over that, but it was nothing compared to what I’d been contending with when I thought I was going to take the money.
This was about love. And now that I’d found that and chosen it, they couldn’t fault me for it.
“I’m ready,” I said.
“Which man am I passing the good news along to?”
I couldn’t say his name without smiling. “Wyatt.”
“Very well.” Jackson stood up and offered me his hand. I took it. He led me out of the sitting room and down a long hallway. He delivered me to a room with three women in it. There was a standing metal rack against one wall filled with gowns of various colors and materials. I was sent in while Jackson took his leave to get Wyatt ready. My mind was consumed with thoughts of Wyatt as the women helped me get ready. I chose a red gown. I couldn’t help myself. It was silky and simple, with dainty straps and a slight mermaid cut. Once my hair and makeup were done, with my signature red lipstick, I plucked a white flower from a vase and tucked it in my ear. The women assured me I looked beautiful.
I felt it, too. As I looked at my reflection, I smiled.
“He’s a very lucky man,” one of the women said as she rested a hand on my shoulder.
“And I’m a lucky girl,” I whispered.
Jackson Lee returned for me when I was ready. Again, we stepped out into the hallway. We took several turns before stepping through a wall of white curtains into a courtyard with high walls covered in snaking vines blooming with white and red flowers.
A stone path cut through a dark square pond covered in lily pads. Bees buzzed lazily over the white flowers in the center. It smelled like flowers and rich soil and fresh beginnings. Jackson brought me to the middle of the courtyard where I stood on a platform surrounded by water facing the curtains.
“I will bring him to you now, if you’re ready,” Jackson said.
“I’m ready.” I’d never been more ready for something in my life.
Five hundred and twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes.
I wondered how many more minutes and seconds I had left to wait as Jackson Lee followed the path back through the curtains. Everything in the garden remained perfectly still, except for the lazily buzzing bees.
I twirled the single-stem rose between my fingers and chewed the inside of my cheek. There were so many things I was going to want to say to Wyatt. So many things I needed him to know. And for the first time since we met, there were no time constraints on us. I had all the time left in the world to say every little thing I wanted.
It was a freeing and wondrous thought and I reveled in it as I waited.
And then I heard him coming.
The sound of shoes clipping the hallway floors on the other side of the curtain reached my ears. I tensed. Every muscle screamed for me to run to him. For me to drop the rose and throw myself into his arms. But this moment was supposed to be perfect and I knew he’d have an idea in his head of how he wanted this to go.
Wyatt stepped through the curtains.
The tears came with my smile. He grinned eagerly back at me as he squared his shoulders. I watched his chest swell as he took a breath and I knew he was soaking in the moment just like I was.
Wyatt had changed his clothes, too. He was wearing black dress pants with black cowboy boots peeking out underneath the hem. The tips were silver. His dress boots. The silver matched the buckle of his belt and the cuff links at the end of his crisp white sleeves. He didn’t wear a suit jacket, but rather a black suede vest. I recalled that he had a lot of vests. And plaid. I was happy to see he’d arrived in one hundred percent Wyatt fashion—minus the plaid, of course.
His dark hair was gently pushed back. I itched to run my fingers through it later. His facial hair was trimmed short, like usual, barely more than stubble, and it framed his square jaw perfectly. When he began walking toward me, he moved with that effortless cowboy swagger that made my knees weak and my heart pitter-patter in my chest.
I couldn’t stand it.
I went to him.
Wyatt spread his arms and I fell into him. A laugh escaped his lips before I silenced it with a kiss. His lips were warm and soft and still stretched in a smile as he gathered me in his arms, held me tightly, and kissed me like his life depended on it. He smelled like he always did, of leather and mint, minus the softer scent of hay that clung to his clothes when he was on the ranch. I breathed him in and let his scent wash over me before he pried me off him and held me at arms’ length.
His dark brown eyes were glassy as he looked upon me.
“This is really happening,” he said softly.
I nodded fiercely. “It is.”
“There was so much I planned on saying,” he said, his words hitching together as he struggled to keep his composure.
“But I’ve forgotten it all.”
“Me too.” I giggled. Then I glanced down at the rose in my hands. Wyatt followed my gaze and I held it out to him. “I think I’m supposed to give this to you.”
He didn’t say anything. And I wasn’t entirely sure what the protocol was here, so I broke off the length of the stem and slid the two inches I left into the front pocket of his vest.
Wyatt took my hands in his and ran his thumbs over my knuckles. “Piper?”
“I…” He trailed off and his dark brows drew together. It was a look I remembered from our last day together on his ranch. We’d ridden his horses out to the perfect spot beneath a willow tree, where we enjoyed a lazy picnic in the grass before we said the hardest goodbye of our lives.
I squeezed his hands. “It’s okay. We have time.”
His eyes flicked up to me and the furrow in his brow vanished. “Before I started my month with you, I didn’t know what to expect, Piper. I never saw it ending like this. But I can still hear the exact words Jackson said to me before I went to pick you up at the airport. He said this process just has a way of sneaking up on you. One minute, you are content with how your life is going, and the next, you’re so fucked because this girl has just flipped everything on its head and you barely know how to make your own damn coffee in the morning. He was right. I was lost when you left. I put on a brave face. I pretended I had my shit together. But I didn’t. I was floundering. Drowning. One thing has become crystal clear to me these past nine months.” He searched my eyes. I could’ve gotten lost in their dark warmth. “I can’t be without you, Piper.”
“And I can’t be without you.”
Wyatt let go of my hands. My fingers were warm from his palms and I pressed them together as he took a knee before me. He slipped a hand into the pocket of his pants, and when he pulled it out, he held a small blue velvet box. “Are you ready?”
I nodded as fresh tears bloomed in my eyes. I pushed them away hurriedly as they blurred my vision. I had to see every second. Every moment. I had to see him.
Wyatt popped the box open.
The ring inside was as bright and beautiful as his eyes, but I only spared it a moment’s glance. He was all I could see as the words I never thought I’d hear tumbled out of him in a rush of excitement and joy.
“Piper James, I’ve loved you since the first time I saw you mucking out a stable. Romantic, I know, but it’s true. And if you’ll have me, I promise to spend the rest of my days doing everything in my power to make you happy and to keep you safe. You’re the love of my life, Piper.” He paused to pluck the ring from its seat in the box. He took my left hand and held the ring inches from my ring finger. “So I guess what I’m trying to say here is, will you marry me?”
The word was so simple, but it caught in my throat with a sob of joy. So instead of speaking, I nodded desperately. Wyatt slid the ring on my finger, and then he was on his feet, and I was in his arms, and the whole world stilled around us. He held me close, his hands pressing into the small of my back, and I held his face in my hands as I kissed him. The ring on my finger caught the sunlight above and painted the walls of the courtyard with dazzling light that matched the magic I felt in my soul.
Suddenly, finally, everything was as it should be, and I had the man I loved back in my arms where he belonged.