A minute later, I leave my stunned mother behind me and walk out of the motel room with a weight gone from my shoulders. Without Ryan to remind me I’m a strong human being, I would have lived with the weight of responsibility forever.
I’m so sorry.
But I’m not hopeless. No, right now, I can do anything I set my mind to.
And I know exactly what I have to do.
I’m not calm.
I’ll be anything but calm until I’m holding Jessie in my arms again.
After calling a cab to bring me back to Philadelphia, I spent the entire ride telling myself it wasn’t useful to be hurt she’d left after finding the engagement ring. It was still on the counter when I went to drag her back to bed. I’d purchased the ring two Valentine’s Days prior, planning to use it every year, then choosing to bide my time instead, until she was ready.
I expected her to spiral and have second thoughts. I mentally prepared for this. Still, waking up to find her gone was a knife through the heart and I’ve had no success trying to dislodge it. Did I imagine the affectionate way she looked at me? The way she curled into my body, like she trusted me to weather any storm?
I will until the end of time. Even if I have to track her down, time and time again, to convince her of that truth.
I’m striding down the hallway to our apartment, keys in hand, and if she’s not home, I’m going to change and head down to the station. With Jessie preparing to commit armed robbery this morning, I didn’t have time to find her mother’s current address. But that is where I’ll search next if she’s not on the other side of this door.
I shove my key into the lock and lunge into the apartment, her name on my lips.
And I’m brought up short, struck silent.
There are candles everywhere, reflecting off the walls while soft violin music plays from the kitchen. The dining room table is set for two people, sprinkled with red rose petals, along with the floor. Jessie, my Jessie, stands in the center of it all wearing the red dress and high heels, her eyes wide and hopeful.
“Hello Ryan,” she says haltingly, her eyes taking on a sheen. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
Vaguely, I hear the apartment door close behind me. I can barely hear a damn thing over the wild pounding on my heart. What is all this? What does it mean?
How soon can I touch her again?
I hate it when she cries. She needs me.
“You’re mad at me,” she says, misinterpreting my silence. “Of course you are. I would want to kill me, too.” She swipes at her eyes. “You were right, about my mother. I just needed to see it for myself—and I did. And I missed you horribly the whole time. From the moment I left the cabin. Because you’re not just my best friend, you’re…the man I’ve loved all along, aren’t you? You’re the best man I could have fallen in love with and I’m the worst possible woman you could have picked, but if you’re still willing to love me, even though I made you hide your true self for so long and then…stranded you at a cabin when you finally got enough courage to be honest, then I’m yours.”
She blows out a shaky breath…
…and kneels, knocking the breath out of my lungs.
There’s something in her hand I didn’t see before. A ring box?
My legs turn to water and I have to use the kitchen table for support.
“I’m asking you to be my husband. My permanent valentine,” she whispers, opening the box to reveal two gold bands. A thick one and a thinner, more feminine one. “I hope it goes without saying that I’m yours. Totally and completely yours.”
I move before my mind catches up on what’s happening, scooping Jessie off the ground and up against my chest. As soon as her smooth skin brushes me, it’s like being pinched to prove I’m not asleep. She is real. She’s real and she just proposed to me, right when I thought we’d have to start from scratch. I can barely fucking process my dreams coming true. This woman is mine. I get to worship her forever.
My heart is crammed up in my throat and all I can do is squeeze her tight, try to absorb the perfection of her.
“Is that a yes?” she breathes.
“Yes,” I growl, taking the rings out of her hands and setting them on the kitchen table, before finding her mouth with my own. Giving her a hard, slanting kiss while hefting her up, so she can lock her legs around my waist. “I can’t believe you did all this.”
“It was my turn.” Her eyes are almost dreamlike as she looks at me, her fingers busy in my hair. “And I wanted to. I want to do everything and be everything to you. The way you’ve been for me.”