“Tate.” He spoke slowly, looking into my eyes in a way that was still so much like the boy I grew up with but more like the man I’d grown to love.

“You’re written all over my body,” he spoke low, just for us. “The tattoos can never be erased. You hold my heart, and you can never be replaced.”

I pressed my lips together, trying to stay composed.

He continued, “I only live when I’m with you, and I’m asking for your heart, your love, and your future.” He smiled. “Will you please be my wife?”

My chin trembled, and my chest shook, and I couldn’t help it. I covered my smile with my hand and let the tears fall.

The crowd around us started cheering, and I caressed his face as he stood up and lifted me up off the ground.

“Now, that’s how you propose,” I joked through my shakes.

“You going to answer me, then?”

I laughed. “Yes.” I nodded frantically. “Yes, I would love to marry you.”

***

After the Loop, we escaped.

Just the two of us to Mario’s for a late dinner and then home. I couldn’t stop the flutter in my chest.

I think it was the happiest day I’d ever had.

Jared had slipped the ring on my finger and held me close, tucked under his chin as we called my father on Skype with his phone.

Apparently, he’d asked my dad a year and a half ago, and true to fashion, my father didn’t share business that wasn’t his to share or interfere in situations he knew needed to play out. We also found out that was why he’d never accepted other offers on the house. He knew Jared would come home eventually.

I looked up at Jared, resting my head on his arm behind me. “I’m sorry about the tree,” I said, feeling bad as we sat in the middle of it, me between his legs and lying back against his chest.

“I know.” His voice was gentle. “It’ll heal. Everything does with time.”

Looking down, I studied the ring, feeling its happy weight on my finger. There were still lots of things to work out—living arrangements while I went to school, his career—but it was small potatoes considering what we’d survived to be together. Two assurances I had come to realize about life: Almost nothing turns out exactly the way you plan, but I’d be happy only if he was by my side. There was no choice.

“If you don’t like it, we can exchange it,” he spoke up, seeing me admire the ring.

“No, I love it,” I assured him. “It’s perfect.” And then I smiled. “My new lifeline.”

Jared snorted, remembering my lifelines from high school. The things I always made sure to have on me when I went out, just in case I needed to escape him.

He leaned in, kissing my hair. “I don’t want to wait to marry you,” he whispered, and I nuzzled into him, loving him so much.

I didn’t want to wait, either.

Chapter 18

Jared

Three Months Later

“Knock it off.” I jerked away from Madoc’s hands as he fiddled with my tie.

“But it’s crooked,” he argued, yanking me back. “And it looks like shit.”

I gave in, standing still and trying not to feel creeped out as another guy straightened my necktie.

My entire suit was black, of course, but I’d added a vest for extra effect.

Madoc leaned in, his mouth inches from mine. “Mmmm, you smell good,” he purred.

I jerked back, wincing. “Get off me,” I grumbled, shoving him away, and he hunched over, his face turning red from laughing so hard.

Jax hurried over to my side, smiling. “She’s here.”

I grinned but then hid it right away. Grabbing the back of my neck, I put my head down and tried to get my pulse under control. Hell, get my temperature under control, for that matter. I felt sweat on my back, even though it was late September and the weather had started cooling off already.

I looked around the pond—our fishpond—and focused on the small man-made waterfall display with little rapids cascading down the rocks, and I remembered her here when we were little.

This was where I’d thought I lost her when I was fourteen, so as a measure to make sure that no bad memory ever controlled us again, we both agreed that this was where we’d be married.

This was the start of new memories and new adventures.

Jason and Ciaran, Fallon’s father who had employed my brother for a time and become part of the family in a way, stood off to the side, chatting casually—which was surprising, considering they worked on opposite sides of the law. My mom—glowing and with newfound energy—sat on a ledge, holding Quinn in her arms, while Pasha stood next to the pond’s edge dressed in a tight silver and black dress, standing out like a sore thumb.

Lucas, Madoc’s “little brother”, played on his phone, while Lucas’s mom and Miss Penley—or Lizzy, as we were allowed to call her now, but I refused, because it was weird—cooed over my new little sister.

James, Tate’s dad, and his new fiancée had bought a house between Chicago and Shelburne Falls, an easy commute that wouldn’t disrupt either of their jobs. They were planning a summer ceremony next year.

Juliet, Fallon, and James were all with Tate, I assumed, and Madoc and Jax were standing up for me.

“You know, you didn’t have to do this,” Madoc spoke up, straightening his own tie. “Jax is your brother. It would make sense that he’d stand up for you at your wedding.”

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