“It is,” Declan confirmed.
I bet she was lovely. I could be like an older sister to her! Maybe she liked some of the kinds of things I did? Maybe we could trade recipes and raise our children together, holidays with the cousins!
Declan took the portfolio from my lap and flipped through the remaining pages. Apparently his father had remarried toward the end of his life, just three years before he passed away. Altogether, he’d left behind a sum total of six descendants: Declan, four from his first wife plus a stepson.
“Six kids,” I marveled. From three different women. But, I guessed family came in all shapes and sizes. Whatever, however, whoever, I thought it was exciting.
Declan clearly didn’t. He sat staring at a page with a picture of his father, the late Richard Kavanaugh. “He wanted to find me.” He shook his head, staring into the middle distance. “I can’t believe it.”
“It sounds like he tried.”
“But he didn’t succeed.” He looked up at me and I could see all the emotions there swirling through him, sadness and anger and loss. I needed to settle down and give him time to make sense of this all.
I didn’t even bring up the two hundred and fifty million dollar elephant in the room. It harrumphed and trumpeted around enough without my saying a word. That was a gargantuan amount of money. I knew Declan didn’t need it, he had more than enough as it was, but what could that kind of money do for his charity? Think of the children he could help with that kind of funding.
But to release the funds, he had to agree to meet the family. As much as I wanted to hop on a plane with him right now and be by his side as we knocked on everyone’s doors, starting with Ash Black so I could get him to sign a t-shirt for me, I had to admit, I couldn’t exactly picture Declan doing it. He was such a proud man, had defined himself so resolutely as a lone wolf. He’d spent all 27 of his years standing proudly on his own two feet. What would it feel like for him now to attempt to enter into a family that didn’t want him to exist?
He was probably right, with that kind of money there had to be at least some relatives who wished he’d crawl right back under a rock and leave that money untouched so the rest of them could split it. Not to mention the ex-wife his father had cheated on when he’d come out to Montana and slept with Declan’s mother. She couldn’t be happy about him surfacing now, after all those years. Declan wouldn’t want any part of causing more pain and anger.
Still, I couldn’t shake it, the sense that this was a good thing. He wasn’t an unwanted cast-off, a boy whose father had abandoned him. His father had wanted to find him, had sent money to provide for him all along.
But I couldn’t push. Declan was a stubborn and proud man, and he needed time to make his own decision. I wanted to plunge in headlong, but I always wanted to do that. I felt certain things would work out. Declan felt certain everything would require a fight to the death. It was one of the many reasons we made a good team together. We balanced each other out.
Declan put the thick, black portfolio back down on the coffee table.
“Let’s go get some dinner,” I said, giving him the opportunity to change the subject.
“Sounds great to me,” he agreed.
I knew what I needed to do. I needed to give him time. It wasn’t as if we were married and this was a joint decision.
In fact, I didn’t even know what the future would bring for us. I’d been hanging out with him here at this resort, lounging in this alternate universe, recovering from my trauma. Bill at the ranch and Dot at the diner encouraged me to do it, but soon I’d have to return to reality. Would Declan be in it? Different question, same answer. Give it time.
“Wanna go swimming?” The next day Declan sauntered into the main room in the cabin, a boyish grin on his face. I loved seeing him look so young. I wondered how many times in his life he’d had the chance to ask that question. I guessed it hadn’t been all that many. His childhood hadn’t exactly been filled with lazy days picnicking at swimming holes.
“I didn’t even know you were back!” I stood up from the couch, delighted. He’d headed up to Billings early that morning, but now, three o’clock, here he was.
“You up for a swim? he asked again.
“Absolutely,” I agreed.
“There’s this amazing creek,” Declan continued, sounding a lot like a six-year-old the night before Christmas. “I can’t wait to show you.”
“I can’t wait to see it!”
“Wait…” He paused and drew back. “Are you sure you’re up to this? I don’t want to exhaust you.”
“Declan, yes, I’m up for it.” If I could have sex with him like a rabid bunny, I figured I could manage to go for a swim. He still seemed nervous about my full recovery, but I wasn’t, not anymore.
Declan packed a picnic blanket and some towels. I pulled together some sandwiches, chips and fruit. We headed off into the day, blue sky, green grass and birds chirping overhead.
Driving over, I felt my whole body relax. I didn’t have to fight anything anymore. Declan had been my fantasy since I’d been 18. I’d fallen for him the moment I’d seen him. I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about him ever since.
“I can’t believe you left because my father kicked you out,” I blurted out, mid-stream of my thoughts.
“Wow, what’s going on in your head over there?” At the wheel, Declan looked over at me.
“I guess I’m just still adjusting. So much has happened in the past couple of weeks.”
“That is a massive understatement,” he agreed.
“That summer you left? I really thought you’d hit it and quit it.” I shook my head. I’d known my father was over-protective, but his role in it all still surprised me. “I can’t believe my father did that.”
“I was pissed at the time,” Declan acknowledged. “But, now I get it. I was a mangy mutt back then.”
“You were not.” I remembered him like something out of a movie, the classic cowboy against that setting sun, long legs in worn jeans, hat tipped just right.
“I was, trust me. I was.”
“You’re defending him?”
“I’m just saying, someday if I’m ever lucky enough to have a daughter, if I see some joker like me messing with her, I’m going to run him straight off my property.”
The thought of Declan as a father made me giddy. I couldn’t believe he was talking like that. I’d never heard that sort of thing from him before. I’d let myself acknowledge my feelings for him, sure, but never fully let myself dream. I knew he’d never seen himself as the settling-down sort of family man.
He cleared his throat as if sensing where the train of my thoughts was taking me. “I’m just saying. If someday.”
I smiled at him. What was this, Declan feeling awkward? I freaking loved it. This powerful, wealthy man, more gorgeous than literally any guy I’d ever seen before, was maybe feeling self-conscious? My heart swelled in my chest.
He had more inner strength than anyone I knew, rising from impossibly hard circumstances to make so much of himself. Hard-working and smart, he’d found a way to sustain the ranching life out here in Montana while also moving it forward. And he’d started a foundation to help foster kids! Now, I felt self-conscious. What had I done to deserve this man?
We drove the rest of the way in silence, each of us rapt in our thoughts. He parked us in a sunlit clearing by a weeping willow. Suddenly shy, I fussed
with the picnic things, setting out the blanket and arranging Tupperware containers as if it was of utmost importance.
“Kara,” Declan choked out by my side. He looked distraught and I almost wondered if he’d hurt himself.
“I used to worry that I wasn’t a good enough man for you,” he continued. “Now I know I’m not. I don’t deserve you, but I need you. I know I’m not the perfect man for you. But I want to try.”
Wait, what was happening? Declan dropped down on one knee. In his hand he held out a diamond ring.
“I know things are crazy. And I can’t promise you what the future will bring. But I can promise you I’ll love you the rest of my life.”
Tears sprang to my eyes and I brought my hands up to my face. What was he saying?
“Kara,” he asked, his voice gruff with emotion. “Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
“Will you marry me, Kara?” he asked, offering me the ring. It glittered in the sunlight, the diamond casting sparkles in every direction.
“Yes!” I flung my arms around his shoulders and even though he had to have at least 80 pounds on me he nearly lost his balance. I gave him everything I had. We tumbled together onto the soft flannel of the picnic blanket. He kissed the tears from my cheeks even as more flowed from my eyes, happy tears, and we kissed and laughed. Thankfully, he still managed to keep the ring between his fingers even as we fell together to the ground. He wiped another tear of joy from my cheek and took my ring finger in his hand.
The ring fit. I didn’t know how I’d manage to get used to wearing something that spectacular on my hand every day for the rest of my life. But it was a challenge I was willing to face.
I kissed him again. I’d never get enough of his lips, so soft and so masculine all at once.
“Kara,” he murmured into me, kissing me as if his life depended on it.
“Declan.” I never wanted to let go. And now I never had to. We belonged to each other. Always had. Always would.
Six Months Later