Slade’s heartbeat stumbled.
There she was. His wife. His beautiful, beloved wife. She was standing at the window, staring out at the night, with Michael, asleep, in her arms.
He took a deep breath and thought of all the times in his life when he’d known that what he said next might change the future. The first time he’d stood up to his old man. The time he’d talked his way into college, and then into grad school. Turning points in his life, all of them…but nothing, compared to this.
If he lost Lara, he lost everything.
Slowly he started toward her, trying feverishly to work out what he’d say. I made a terrible mistake. Can you forgive me? Will you give me another chance?
But when she swung toward him, as if she’d sensed his presence, and he saw the anguish in her eyes, his apology flew out of his head.
“Lara.” His voice broke. “Lara, I love you. I need you. I can’t imagine my life without you. I was wrong about everything. Sugar, I’m sorry. I’m so terribly sorry I hurt you…”
His words stumbled to a halt. He’d lost her. He could see it in the way she just stood there, looking at him, her eyes empty of everything but pain.
A cold hand seemed to tighten around his heart.
“I love you,” he said softly. “I’ve loved you all along, ever since that day in Denver. Do you remember? You thought I was just another guy, hitting on you, and maybe I was—but then I kissed you and I was lost.”
He paused, waiting for her to speak, but she was still silent. Slade took a deep, deep breath.
“I was afraid to admit it, even to myself. I didn’t believe in love, Sugar. I thought it was because of my father, and what I’d seen, growin’ up. I was afraid of how defenseless I’d be, if I ever gave away my heart.” His mouth curved into a rueful smile. “What I never figured was that I’d meet a woman who’d take my heart, whether I was ready to give it or not.” His smile faded. “Darlin’, please. Tell me you’ll give me another chance. Tell me you’ll come home with me, that you’ll let me spend my life provin’ my love to you.”
“You broke my heart tonight,” Lara said softly.
Slade clasped her shoulders. Between them, their son sighed in his sleep. “I know I did, darlin’. If I could go back, undo all that—”
“I was planning a surprise for your birthday.” Her voice trembled. Tears rose in her eyes and turned them into glittering stars. “And then you walked in, and I was so happy to see you, and then you said—you said—”
“I was wrong, Sugar. I know there’s nobody else for you, the same as there’s nobody else for me.”
“There never was.” Lara looked at him through a spill of tears. “I’m not what you thought, Slade. There’s no long line of men in my past. As for what I did in Denver, agreeing to go that hotel with you—”
“It was my doin’, sweetheart. I know that. I’m the one who talked you into it. I seduced you.”
“I wanted you to.”
Her smile was tremulous and teary, but he felt his heart leap with hope.
“Did you?” he said softly.
Lara nodded. “And it wasn’t because…” She looked down at their sleeping son, then up at Slade. “It wasn’t because I wanted a child. Oh, I did, I wanted a baby…but I went with you because of what I felt for you, Slade. I’d never felt that with another man, the sense that I’d—that I’d found a part of myself that had been missing, that now I would be—”
They stood looking into each other’s eyes. After a long moment, Slade clasped Lara’s face in his hands. He smoothed his thumbs along her cheeks, stroking away her tears.
“I love you. My heart and my soul are yours. And I want you to marry me.”
Lara gave a watery laugh. “Aren’t you forgetting something, Mr. Baron? A license? A justice of the peace? A ceremony that took place almost two weeks ago?”
“That doesn’t count. We did it for all the wrong reasons.” He smiled. “I want you to marry me again, Sugar, this time for all the right reasons. Because we love each other, and because our lives won’t be complete without each other.” His eyes searched hers. “Will you say yes?”
Lara didn’t hesitate. “Yes,” she whispered, “oh, Slade, yes.”
He kissed her, his mouth gentle on hers.
“We’ll do the thing right, darlin’. At Espada, with my whole family lookin’ on. Me in a tux, you in a white gown and a veil.”
“It sounds wonderful. But you don’t have to do this.” Lara lifted her hand and lay it against his cheek. “That ceremony in Baltimore—”
“It was legal.” He grinned, and for the first time in hours, she could see the mischief dancing in his eyes. “Which means, my beautiful wife, that I don’t intend to let you out of any of your matrimonial obligations, just ’cause we’re gonna do this thing up right in a few weeks.”
Lara grinned back at him. “Amazing, how that accent of yours just comes and goes.”
They smiled at each other and then their smiles faded. Slade reached out and took Michael gently from Lara. He clasped his son in one arm and put the other around his wife.
“Let’s go home,” he said softly.
Tears of joy blurred Lara’s eyes. She rose on her toes and pressed a kiss to her husband’s lips.
“Yes,” she said. “Let’s.”
THERE had never been a wedding at Espada before.
Marta Baron smiled at her reflection in the mirror as she applied the last touches to her makeup and thought how remarkable it was that things could so quickly change.
Just a little more than a month ago, her stepsons had come home to the ranch under duress. They hadn’t said so—they were fine young men and wouldn’t have wanted her to know how little they enjoyed returning to Espada—but Marta knew how they felt. And each had been troubled, as well.
She smiled again.
Now, on this brilliant summer afternoon, the house rang with their laughter, as well it should. There was nothing more joyous than a wedding. She said as much to Jonas, when he came up behind her and looked at her in the mirror.
“Isn’t it lovely, having such a wonderful celebration at Espada?”
Jonas nodded. “You and Catie did one heck of a job, all right.” He took something from his pocket. “Got a little somethin’ for you,” he said, and looped a diamond-and-emerald choker around his wife’s throat.
Marta smiled and lay her hand over his. “It’s beautiful, Jonas. Thank you.”
“Goes real nice with that there gown.”
“Yes, it does. Good. I want to look just right. I’ve never been the stepmother of the groom before.”
“You don’t look like nobody’s stepmother, gorgeous. Why, you don’t hardly look old enough to be my wife.”
Marta turned around. “And you don’t look old enough to be the father of three married men,” she said as she tied his bow tie.
Jonas chuckled. “Flatterer.”
“Well, it’s true.” She sighed, gave a last pat to his tie and smiled up at him. “What a happy day this is! Gage and Natalie, back together again—”
“And Natalie with a bun in the oven.”
Marta rolled her eyes. “Such a delicate way of putting it, darling, but yes, it’s lovely that she’s pregnant. And Travis, with a wife—”
“And Slade with not just a bride but a son.” Jonas looked past Marta, into the mirror, and smoothed back his hair. “Baby came a little early but what the heck, he’s a good-looking little guy. Got all the best Baron attributes.”
“They’re nice girls, Lara and Alexandra. You’d think the two of them, and Natalie, had known each other all their lives.” Marta sighed. “Now, if Caitlin would just find a good man, and my daughters, too.”
“Hell’s bells, woman, you got one weddin’ about to take place and here you are, already plannin’ more. Give ’em time, why don’t you? It’ll happen.” Jonas turned her to face him. “No
w, gimme a kiss, tell me again how I don’t look a day over sixty, and then let’s go down and greet our guests.”
Marta smiled, rose on her toes and wound her slender arms around her husband’s neck.
“You don’t look a day over thirty,” she whispered, and pressed her mouth to his.
* * *
Slade stared into the mirror in his old bedroom.
“How do I look?” he said, for the tenth time.
Gage and Travis looked at each other and tried not to laugh.
“Handsome as sin,” Travis said solemnly.
“Perfect,” Gage said, just as solemnly.
“No, I’m serious. You don’t think this collar’s too tight? Or that this tie—”
“You look wonderful,” Catie said, peeping into the room around the half-opened door. “Can I come in?”
“And me?” Alexandra said, carrying Michael and following behind Caitlin.