“Oh my God, this is adorable.” Abby picks up the rock tumbler kit I got Jamie for Christmas and examines it. “It even comes with rocks.”
“I know, isn’t it cute?”
For the first time, I have presents to give him that aren’t Lego-themed.
“Which paper do you want?”
I consider the myriad of wrapping paper rolls spread out across my bed and point to the one with dogs dressed as Santa printed on it. “He’ll like that one.”
She unrolls it and somehow without measuring knows exactly how much to cut off to fit the shape of the box. She’s like a savant when it comes to wrapping presents.
“Thank you again for helping me wrap everything,” I tell her. “And by help, I mean do it for me.”
She smiles as she expertly folds the paper around the kit, creasing the edges so there are no tears or wrinkles. “No problem. I like doing it.”
Good, because I hate it. Underneath our Christmas tree wouldn’t look nearly so put together if it wasn’t for her.
She finishes wrapping Jamie’s present and picks up a mug with the geologic time scale on it. Colorful fossils dot the striated earth, along with facts in small script about each era.
“Is this for Eli?” she asks as she sifts through my bin of random gift bags.
“Yeah. Is it too lame?” It’d seemed the perfect present for my geology-loving secret-nerd when finding it online, but now I’m second-guessing myself. Especially since he might get me—
I cut myself off from that line of thought. I’m not falling down that rabbit hole.
“No, it’s good. He’ll love it.” She finds an emerald green bag just larger than the size of the mug, and nestles it inside. “But it’s not all you’re getting him, right?”
Geez, I’m not that bad. “I was thinking of doing a romantic weekend getaway thing, too. Maybe at that winery we went to before Harper and Owen’s wedding?”
Her cheeks flush and she avoids my eye as she plucks sheets of white, lighter mint, and deeper pine green tissue paper from the package next to her to arrange in the gift bag.
Oh, God. Did she and Grayson do something there?
“That’s a great idea,” she says. “They have that spa that does couples massages and stuff. And maybe you’ll be celebrating something special after Christmas?”
She gives me a sly smile and I press a hand over my stomach, containing the butterflies in there.
“What?” she asks innocently. “You said he—”
I reach forward and motion for her to hush, my gaze snapping to the window. The blinds are angled so no one can see in, and even though I hear Eli playing soccer with the kids out in the backyard, I still slip off the bed and peek through the blinds to make sure they’re out there. Breathing a sigh of relief when I spot them, I pause as I turn back around, Abby’s face incredulous.
“Seriously?” she asks, giving me crazy eyes. “He’s outside. He can’t hear you.”
I wring my hands together. “I know.” Logic has never affected my brain’s personal brand craziness, though. “I just… don’t want to jinx it.”
“That he’ll pro—”
I flutter my fingers in front of her face again. “Abby, please.”
“Hey, knock it off.” She bats my hands out of the way. “You’re not superstitious. What’s up with you?”
That gnawing sensation in my stomach grows, the way it’s done over the last few weeks as Christmas has drawn closer. “I…” I blow out a breath, knowing I’m being irrational. “I’m afraid to think about it,” I admit in a quiet whisper.
Her brows narrow. “What? Why?”
I rub my palms on my leggings and triple-check that I can still hear the kids and Eli outside. “What if…” I clear my throat, hating the sudden frog stuck in there. “Never mind. I’m being stupid.”
I don’t look at her, not wanting to see the concern sure to be on her face.
“Did something happen with Eli?” she asks. “Did you have a fight?”
I shake my head. “Everything is perfect.” Too perfect. Suspiciously perfect. The same way it’s been for the last year, ever since we officially started dating. We should have hit some kind of bump in the road by now, right? The worst I can think of is that he doesn’t always put the butter back in the fridge after using it.
And if that’s the worst of my problems, I have it pretty damn good.
“Don’t you want him to propose?”
My eyes squeeze shut. Now that she said the word, the floodgates open, remembering last Christmas and how he’d said he wanted to put a ring on my finger. The assurance in his voice. The promise of next Christmas.
Which is… now.
“Of course I do,” I reply. “More than anything.” Seriously. Eli is my dream guy. The past year has only cemented that feeling. The way he fits in to this family is beyond my wildest dreams.
“So, what’s the problem?”
I inhale deeply and exhale through my mouth, just needing to finally voice the thought aloud. Maybe then it won’t hold such power over me.
Or maybe it’ll come true.
“What if he changed his mind?” I whisper. “What if I’ve been hoping he’ll propose all this time and then he doesn’t?”
Her brows knit in concern. “You’d still be dating. Still be living together. Things won’t magically change because you’re engaged.”
“I know. But if he doesn’t, it means something’s wrong. That he finally realizes he’s way too good for us. That he got the short end of the stick—”
I’m cut off by Abby sliding off the bed and gripping my shoulders. “What are you talking about? The man is crazy in love with you. He doesn’t think that at all. No one does.”
I nod, covering my face with my hands. “There’s this little voice in my head I can’t get rid of lately. Telling me something bad is going to happen. That nothing this good can last forever.”
She squeezes my upper arms and I peek through my fingers to find her face filled with compassion and understanding. I’m reminded yet again that she’s the perfect best friend.
“I’m being ridiculous, I know,” I murmur.
“No, I get it. Little voices can be brutal.”
I nod. “Our anniversary is coming up and what he said about this Christmas and it just seems like a lot of pressure all of a sudden.”
“When’s your anniversary?”
“The twenty-first.” It’s still crazy to think we were saying I love you only three weeks after we met, but nothing else has ever felt so right.
“Kristen.” She waits until I look at her. “I promise you Eli would have a few choice words to say to that voice in your head. He’s all in. It’s obvious to everyone.”
I nod again, desperately wanting to believe her. “You’re right.” I smile, hoping it comes across as sincere and not with the hysterical edge I suspect it does. “How about we finish with the presents?” We still have to get through Jenny’s stuff, then the gifts for my brothers and mom.
“You’re sure you’re okay?”
I cross my index and middle fingers behind my back. “Much better. Promise.”
The bedroom door opens and I pause in my efforts to find matching pairs for all of Eli’s socks in the laundry basket in front of me. I think the dryer is stealing them.
“The kids asleep already?” I ask Eli as he shuts the door behind him.
“Yeah. Soccer must have worn them out earlier.”
He sits on the edge of the bed and I study him out of the corner of my eye as I find another sock match. His dark hair is a little longer now than it was when we first met, but other than that he’s the same. The muscled body. The handsome face and stubble on his jaw. The calming reassurance I always feel when I’m around him, as if he’s radiating it. That little voice doesn’t pipe up when I’m with him, only when we’re apart.
“You okay?” he asks.
“Abby pulled me aside before she left earlier. She said I should talk to you.”
The socks in my hand drop into the laundry basket. “Did she?” I ask through suddenly numb lips. Maybe I didn’t fool her as well as I thought. “What about?”
If she told him we talked about him proposing, I’m taking back her perfect best friend status.
“She said you were worried about something. That you were struggling with it.”
My lips part. “No, I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”
His gaze narrows, suspicion lurking in those beautiful blue eyes. “That means you’re not fine.” He reaches for the laundry basket and sets it on the floor. “Talk to me. What’s going on?”
That’s the terrible thing about being with someone who knows you inside and out. They call you on your bullshit.
I blow out a breath, my hands fluttering nervously without something to occupy them. “We were just talking about Christmas, is all. Since she was helping me wrap presents.”
Damn it. I’m not getting out of this, am I?
“And the topic came up of what you had said last Christmas. About what might happen this Christmas.”
Confusion lurks on his face for a moment until it clears. “Right.” A second later, the confusion is back. “Is that something you’re worried about? Has…” He swallows heavily. “Has your mind changed?”
Oh, no. Now I have him worried. “No, of course not.” I kneel on the mattress and scoot toward him until I can take his hands in my own, squeezing his fingers to reassure him.
“So why did she say you were struggling with it?” The concern is still etched in the bracket lines around his mouth.
“I…” I wet my dry lips. There shouldn’t be any secrets between us. “There’s been this little voice in my head telling me you might have changed your mind.”
He blinks a few times. “Why would you think that? You know I love you. That I’m a hundred percent committed to us.”
I cup his jaw and smooth away the worry around his mouth with my thumb. “I didn’t say it was rational.”
“You’re the most rational person I know.”
“Outwardly,” I add, then motion around my head. “Inside, it’s a whole mess of crazy.”
His lips quirk up on one side, but there’s still a lingering apprehension in his eyes.
“If you say there’s nothing to worry about, then there’s nothing to worry about,” I tell him. “I just… I guess I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
His gaze searches mine. “Why would it?”
I shrug a shoulder, knowing it’ll sound silly. “Things don’t go this right for me. Especially for this long. The last year with you has been better than I thought possible.”
“You took the words out of my mouth,” he murmurs.
And that’s exactly why I love him so much.
“Anyway, I know it’s not logical. But the brain is weird sometimes.”
He nods, but doesn’t seem satisfied. “Do we need to wait until Christmas?”
My breath catches. Is he going to… “You’d do it now?”
“I want to set your mind at ease. You shouldn’t ever doubt how much I love you. How much I want you in my life forever.”
My eyes grow damp and I squeeze his hands again. “I’m so lucky I have you.”
He shakes his head and kisses me softly. “I’m the lucky one. So… tonight?”
I waver, not wanting to ruin whatever plan he originally had. “It’s up to you.”
His grin eases the ache in my chest. “If it were up to me, we would have been married already.”
A breath of laughter escapes me, and I wipe at my eyes. “Okay, tonight, then.” It’s only two weeks difference, anyway.
He gets up and moves to the corner of the bedroom where his work backpack rests. He retrieves a black velvet ring box from inside, then zips it back up.
“You’ve been hiding it there?” I ask, impressed by his sneakiness.
“You never have a reason to go in here.”
My heart speeds up as he approaches and sinks on one knee in front of me. He sets the ring box down and takes my hands in his, kissing my palms, then looks up at me, love shining in his eyes.
I bite my lip so I don’t release the sob that wants to escape, emotion welling within me. I never got this kind of proposal the first time around all those years ago. And though I wasn’t happy about it then, I’m glad now. It makes it all the more special with Eli.
“I’ve been thinking over and over about what I’ll say,” he murmurs. “What the right words are to tell you how much you mean to me.” He shakes his head. “But I haven’t been able to come up with any way to fully express how deep you are within my soul.”
I squeeze his hands, silently telling him I feel the same way.
“When I think about the random set of circumstances that brought us together, how close we could have been to not being here today. If I hadn’t accepted the job for the hotel. If that pipe hadn’t burst at the inn. If you hadn’t taken a chance on a strange guy living with you.”
“If we both hadn’t admitted how we felt,” I whisper, an echo of dread running through me at how easily the course of our lives could have changed.
“Exactly. But I’m forever grateful we did. That I get to wake up with you every morning and hold you in my arms each night.”
He kisses my hands again, and a tear slips down my cheek.
“You mean everything to me. You and the kids. You all complete me in a way I didn’t know was possible. And I want to spend the rest of our lives making you as happy as you’ve made me.”
He lets go of me to reach for the ring box. When he opens it, I gasp and cover my mouth in that cliche way I’ve always thought was so stupid. But I see now why women do it. There’s something incredibly overwhelming about the man you love on his knees holding a symbol of his love for you.
“Yes,” I say, nodding.
He grins wide, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “I didn’t ask yet.”
My lips compress tightly. Oops.
“Kristen Marie Taylor, will you marry me?”
“Yes,” I repeat, my hand trembling as he slides the gorgeous diamond on my left ring finger.
As soon as it’s on, he’s off the floor and tugging me into his arms to kiss me, his mouth warm and wonderful as he drugs me with deep, slow kisses full of promise. Everything seems to be in a haze around me, but in the best way possible. Eli wants me for the rest of our lives.
“I love you,” I whisper against his lips. “I can’t wait to be your wife.”
He groans. “Say that again.”
“That you’ll be my wife.”
My lips tip up in a sly smile as I move my mouth to the shell of his ear. “I’ll be your wife, Eli.” My fingers sift through his hair in that way he likes. “Completely yours. Forever.”
He breaks away, his breaths a touch faster, and searches my gaze. He must like what he sees, because he picks me up and tosses me on the bed, then covers me with his big frame. Our clothes come off in no particular order as we make out, then he’s traveling down my body, stopping first at my breasts to lick and suck my nipples. I writhe underneath him, loving how he uses his tongue to make me squirm, and then he’s there between my thighs, spreading me wide for him.
He makes a sound of satisfaction as he tastes me, and as I look down at him eagerly licking my pussy, a surge of arousal rushes through me. He holds my legs open, his palms warm against my chilly skin, and continues to work me up, alternating flat sweeps of his tongue with strong sucks, until it’s too much for me to take and I crest that edge, the release familiar yet something I’ll never tire of. This man knows exactly what to do to get me there.
When I’m finished, he leans back, wiping at his mouth with his forearm, and gives me a devilish grin. “You like that?”
I nod, still panting too heavily to verbally respond.
“You ready for me to fuck you?”
I nod again, the sizzle of anticipation that runs down my spine revving me up all over.
Between his thighs, his erection juts out, ready for what the night holds. His hand wraps around it, pumping up and down, and I drink in the sight, loving watching him play with himself.
All too soon, he’s positioning himself at my entrance, and pushes in slowly, both of us groaning at the gentle intrusion.
“I love that first moment of being inside you,” he whispers.
“Me, too,” I reply, my wits too addled to come up with a better response.
His thrusts are shallow, giving me time to adjust, and he waits for my signal to move faster. I run a hand down the muscles of his back and grip his ass, encouraging him to go deeper, and he does, my legs moving to either side of his hips.
He rocks into me, fucking me like he promised, but it’s also so much more than that. There’s the gentle way he grips my hip, treating my body with care. The love in his gaze as he looks down at me. The returning love filling me up inside knowing this man is mine forever. He’ll be my husband. With him, the word takes on a completely different meaning than it did with anyone else.
I know bone-deep he will always be there for me. To protect me. To put me first. To do everything in his power to make me happy. I don’t know what I was so worried about before. How I ever could have doubted this bond we’ve created.
I reach up, brushing a hand over the sexy stubble on his jaw. “I love you.”
Pleasure crosses his face as he turns his head to kiss my palm. “I love you, too.”
He picks up the pace and my hand falls away, clutching at the sheets as the pressure within me quickens, rising, rising over long minutes. I move my hands to my breasts, fondling myself, and his gaze goes slack with lust as he stares at me. I only discovered this particular weakness of his a few weeks ago.
“You like it when I touch myself?” I ask him.
This time he’s the one without words as he nods silently, his gaze never leaving my chest.
I pinch my nipple and he shudders, his eyes shutting.
“Fuck, Kristen,” he mutters as he lowers himself to his elbows and crushes his lips to mine.
I love that I affect him like this. That I can still surprise him after a year together. That there are so many years to come, so many new things to discover about each other, even knowing the core things will stay the same. That this love between us will never die.
“Are you close?” I whisper in his ear.
“Yes.” The word is strained, as if he’s holding on by a thread.
“Then I want you to come. Fill me up. I want to feel you.”
His hips jerk, his rhythm faltering, and just knowing he’s coming inside me kicks off my orgasm. I groan, long and low, wanting him to know how much I like it.
He cups the back of my head and kisses me, a sense of desperation in it. I love how far gone he is for me. It’s the same as I am for him.
Collapsing to the side when he’s finished, he tugs me in tight to him, his hands roaming my backside. I snuggle in, loving this closeness, this connection.
“My fiancée,” he murmurs.
“Mmm, I like the sound of that.”
“I’m going to like calling you my wife even better.”
The smile that graces my lips is effortless. “I will, too. And I can’t wait to call you my husband.”
He squeezes my ass. “Oh, damn. I really like that.”
I do, too. And pretty soon, that’s what we’ll be for the rest of our lives.