'This one's a special case. The love of my life,' he said softly.
'That explains it, then.' The nurse sounded decidedly sentimental.
Love of his life?
But...he'd said she didn't have to marry him. He didn't want to marry her any more—did he?
When the door clicked again, Vicky turned her head to the side and opened one eye. Jake was settled in the chair beside her bed, reading a journal. Such a simple thing. And it made her want to cry.
Something made him look up, and then his eyes widened. 'Vicky? How are you feeling?'
'Horrible,' she whispered.
His face radiated concern. 'Tell me where it hurts,' he said briskly—sounding cool and professional, like a surgeon, but looking distinctly panicky.
'My heart. I thought...I thought you'd gone.'
'You told me to go away because you felt crowded and wanted to rest.'
'I know.' A tear oozed out of one eye, but when she lifted a hand to brash it away she felt the pull of wires and drips. 'I'm stuck here.'
'And you hate it. You hate being fussed over. And you want to be home.' He leaned over and wiped the tear away gently with the tip of his forefinger.
'I didn't think you'd come back.'
He grinned. 'I ligated an aneurysm, not your common sense! You've had four hours of brain surgery. You're bound to feel a bit fragile right now.'
'You said you weren't going to hold me to my promise. To...to...' She couldn't finish the sentence.
'To marry me? I'm not. You're right, I probably wasn't being fair, asking you.' He stroked her face. 'But it doesn't change the way I feel about you. Seb and Charlie grilled me about my intentions, Alyssa gave me a thorough going-over when she asked me to go take a look at baby Chloë, and Soph cornered me in the kitchen when she asked me to help her clear the table. They know I love you to distraction. I thought you knew that, too.'
'Even though I'm bald?'
Jake groaned, and dropped her hand.
She closed her eyes, wishing she hadn't said anything about her hair. Then she heard a swooshing noise she didn't recognise. 'What are you doing?'
'Drawing the blinds.'
'Because, my love, I'm going to be as bald as you if I'm caught doing this. I'll be scalped and probably banned from the whole of this floor. I'm not even supposed to sit on the end of your bed, let alone do this.' He returned to her side, wriggled onto the tiny space at the edge of her bed and put his arms around her.
Holding her. The contact she'd longed for.
'You're supposed to be lying flat, and you're hooked up to a million and one monitors,' he said dryly.
Right now, she didn't care. The world had just become Technicolor again. Jake still loved her. 'I'm sure my neurologist is capable of putting any wires back,' she teased.
He rubbed his nose against hers. 'Sure I am. But I'm not in charge of ICU. If the consultant anaesthetist catches me, he'll have my guts for garters.'
'Live a little. Take the risk.'
'Oh, I will.' He kissed her gently. 'More than that. Now, first of all, you know I don't care about you being bald. It's temporary, but even if it was permanent it wouldn't bother me. I fell in love with you, not your hair. And why on earth did you think I'd gone for good?'
'Because you weren't here when I woke up.' Her voice wobbled, despite herself.
'I was doing something while you were resting. Sorting out the loan of a flatscreen TV and DVD player while you're in here, because I know there's only one thing that keeps you in bed without complaining.' He grinned. 'Well, only one that the ICU consultant will approve of! The other can wait until you're home.'
So he did still want to go to bed with her? And when she'd thought he'd gone for good, he'd just been busy trying to find something to make her convalescence more bearable. Her heart melted. 'Where did you get it?'
'I pinched it from the private ward.'
'Borrowed, with permission,' he amended. 'And I nipped into the high street to get you some films to tide you over, until you tell me which ones you want me to pick up from your place.'
He'd arranged all that for her. Without being asked. 'I...I don't know what to say.'
'I have an idea.' He kissed her lightly on the mouth. 'I just want you to say one little word to me. Though this isn't the best of settings. I should be asking you this under a romantic sunset. Or in that place where the sea looks like a staircase to the moon—I found it on the Internet. We could fly over there and I could ask you then.'
'Ask me?' She wasn't quite following the conversation.
'I've asked you before. Except this time there's nothing hanging over our heads. Just you and me. The op's over now. You're not desperate, and I'm not scared out of my wits. So will you marry me, Victoria Charlotte Radley? Love me for the rest of our days, just like I'll love you?'
She smiled. 'What do you think?'
'I think,' Jake said quietly, 'if you don't tell me you're going to marry me, I'll set your brothers on you. And your sisters-in-law. And they'll nag you and nag you until you say yes.'