“Yes, I can.”
“Because the thought of losing you completely shreds me a billion times more than she ever could.” He stood and knelt down beside her, then cupped her hand. “I love you, Paige.”
Those three magical words she’d desperately waited and ached to hear floated off his lips and stole her breath. Happiness and hope flooded her veins. Still, she was scared of placing the broken pieces of her heart into his hands.
“I fell in love with you the first time I saw you…in that nightshirt, barefoot and wresting with that big-assed shotgun.”
A watery laugh quivered her lips as that pivotal night flashed in her mind as well.
Paige remembered thinking how big, strong, and beautiful Austin was. He still was as far as she was concerned. But that night she’d had no idea he was as damaged and broken as she was then.
She realized now that, over the months they’d spent laughing, talking, and making love, Austin had healed her, made her whole. Paige knew she’d done the same for him. Knew she’d breathed life back into his soul as well. Clearly it hadn’t been enough, not if he could easily push her away as viciously as he’d done last night.
Oh, yeah? How would you react if the shoe were on the other foot?the voice in her head challenged.
In her mind, Paige traded places with him. Imagined believing Austin had knocked up some other girl and was supposedly planning to marry her.
Betrayal, rage, and agony pressed in all around her until she wanted to slap his face and tell Austin to go to hell. Then she would have faded into the wallpaper and licked her wounds, become invisible, like she always did.
He’d figuratively done exactly what she would have, had their roles been reversed.
Blinking out of the nightmarish scenario, Austin was still kneeling beside her, holding her with a fierce and passionate stare.
“I don’t want to lose you, little girl. I want you by my side and in my arms until our time on earth is over.” When Austin reached into his pocket and retrieved a little blue velvet box, Paige’s heart stopped. Shock and excitement swirled within, like a whirlpool, making her head spin.
“I can’t imagine life without you, little girl.”
She held her breath as Austin slowly started to open the little blue box.
“Hold up there a minute, son,” her grandpa suddenly barked.
Duke, wearing an unreadable expression, and Grandpa wearing an unhappy frown, were now standing on the porch.
“While I appreciate you wanting to do the right thing by Paige,” Grandpa bit out, “I need to know if you truly love her or love what she’s about to inherit?”
“Grandpa!” Paige wailed.
“Yeah, yeah,” he groused at her distress. “I know. I’m embarrassing you. I can’t help it. After that rat bastard Johnny pulled the wool over my eyes, I intend to find out what Austin’s motives are from the git-go.” He narrowed his eyes at the man still kneeling at her feet…the man who said he loved her…the man…
Who was just about to ask me to marry him! Dammit, Grandpa!
“Well, which is it, boy?” he prodded.
A smirk tugged Austin’s lips as he plucked a piece of paper from his shirt pocket and handed it to him.
“If this doesn’t answer your question, sir, nothing will.”
Completely confused, Paige watched her grandpa unfold the paper and read what was on the page.
“Everything all right inside?” Austin murmured to his father.
“Yep, Raymond and I are working on burying the hatchet…but not in each other’s heads,” Duke announced cautiously.
Paige was happy her grandpa had swallowed his foolish pride and extended an olive branch. She prayed Duke would someday accept it.
Austin nodded in understanding before turning his focus and expectant expression on her grandpa. Paige still didn’t know what was on the piece of paper, and before she could demand someone tell her, Grandpa’s mouth dropped wide open…wider than his eyes that were now like saucers.
“Are you pulling my leg, son?”
“No, sir,” Austin replied, loud and confident. “I love Paige more than anything in this world. Love her a hell of lot more than any amount of land.”
“What are you two talking about? she demanded, tired of being in the dark. “What is in your hand, Grandpa?”
“It’s a quit claim deed, sweetheart. Austin just gave up any and all claim to Nelson land. It all belongs to you if you and Austin get married.”
“Oh, my god.” Paige gaped. Austin simply winked.
“Does that answer your question, sir?”
“Indeed it does.” Her grandpa chuckled. “By the way, you have my blessing. Carry on.”
“Thank you, sir.” He smirked, then sobered.
Ignoring the two old men, both now grinning, he stared into her eyes. Butterflies dipped and swooped just like the first time she’d snuck out to see him…the night she’d given Austin her virginity.
“You own my heart and soul, little girl. And while there are so many things I want to give you…the sun, the moon…the stars, there’s only one thing I want to share with you, and that’s a happily ever after,” he said, slowly opening the box.
“Oh, my god,” she whispered, gaping in awe at the beautiful diamond.
Looking back at Austin the heat of his love rolled up her body and melded into her soul.
“Paige Nelson, will you make me the happiest man in the world and marry me?”
“Yes. Yes. Yes,” she cried.
As her tears flowed like a river, Austin slid the ring on her finger.