I love the smell of a bright summer day.
Even better, the smell of a summer day with my munchkins yelling “Miss Clare! Miss Clare!”—because half of them can’t say Clarendon yet—as they scamper around.
They come charging in with a thousand questions, plying me with everything from the wonders of pinecones to flowers to four-leaf-clovers.
I can’t help but smile.
They’re all thrilled to be on this summer field trip, hiking through the hills along the lakeshore. Every last kid treats what they find in the forest like it’s a tiny miracle.
That’s why I truly love this.
Through their eyes, I get to see the magic of life again.
They’re so open, so innocent, and it’s a total joy just watching them indulge their curiosity.
“So, ‘Miss Clare,’” a deep voice drawls at my back. “How much further to this campsite?”
I spin around, lacing my hands together behind my back and smiling impishly at Lucas.
He’s bent over with the weight of our camping gear, though it’s easy to tell he’s exaggerating when it’s not that crushing for him. Just light summer tents and a couple backpacks.
It’s not even enough to make him break a sweat, though I wouldn’t mind watching his skintight white t-shirt turn translucent.
Of course, the big lunk insisted on carrying everything, leaving me and the kids free to run ahead.
“Close enough to keep you from complaining,” I tease, poking him in the nose.
He snaps his teeth at me with a mock-growl that seems more feral.
I think it’s because he’s grown his scruff out into a proper thick beard since winter, making him look more rugged and sinfully handsome than ever.
Or maybe I’m just swooning that hard for this man.
Everything he does makes me love him a little more.
If he leaves the toilet seat up one more time, I might scream loud enough to burst his eardrums.
But considering that’s one of the only things I’ve had to complain about over the past few months of normalcy in Redhaven…
Yeah. I’d say things have turned out pretty sweet after all.
Life has calmed down tremendously.
No creepy stalkers. No more dead bodies.
I rarely see the Jacobins in town ever since the big dustup, and neither does anyone else. The Arrendells either avoid me like the plague or talk to me with such strained courtesy you’d think I was royalty.
I’m good with that.
They can stay away. Far, far away.
Sure, they still sign my paychecks at the school.
But I look at that as the town paying me, not them. And this town has given me a mountain of goodness to be grateful for, now that I’m really settled in.
Wonderful classes full of bright, eager students.
An amazing friend in Nora. Not to mention Janelle, who knew nothing about Ulysses’ true intentions and was horrified for accidentally delivering me into his hands.
A happy life settling in with Lucas.
Oh, and Lucas himself.
Those spring-green eyes always look at me with such wild adoration. Like I’m something precious he would never dream of throwing away.
He’s looking at me that way now as we make our way to the camp—a common spot for hikers with a cleared fire pit, good flat areas to set up tents, and lots of old logs to sit on.
Together we wrangle up the kids and turn them loose so they can help us set up. Lucas handles the tents with a little help from me when I’m not chasing rug rats down.
He’s technically here in an official capacity as the police department chaperone, but it’s nice having him along to do the heavy lifting, too.
It’s also nice that every time I glance up from anchoring another tent post in the ground, he’s just watching me.
Always with this lopsided half smile like he’s still trying to figure out how exactly we happened.
The heat in his eyes speaks so much louder.
It says he doesn’t know, but he doesn’t mind one bit.
That goes double for me.
I keep catching myself smiling back shyly as long as I can before another little hand pulls me away.
It’s a total circus, getting these mini monsters settled and then prepping dinner.
It’s grilled cheese toasted over the fire tonight, and then roasted marshmallows for dessert.
There are oohs and ahhs and excited chatter when I break out the s’mores.
Good thing we remembered wet wipes to take care of all the chocolate-smeared fingers and faces.
When we settle in for story time, I’m not sure if we should be telling ghost stories, but the kids insist.
They wind up shrieking themselves silly when Lucas holds a flashlight up to his face and tells them the story of a monster in the lake. I struggle not to laugh.
Still Lake isn’t big enough for monsters. Not even the Loch Ness kind.
And now, neither is my life as long as I’m with him.
Even if a few of the kids look nervous, by the time Lucas finishes his story, half of them are nodding off. While I gather them up to usher them to their tents, Lucas bends to kiss my cheek.
“Just gonna go do a quick check for things that go bump in the night,” he says, gripping his flashlight. “Stomp around a bit. Scare off any cougars.”
“Cougars?” little Nickie Spelman mumbles as I lift him up into my arms.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “You’re too big for any cougar snack.”
Lucas chuckles and slips off into the woods while I get the kids settled. He’s still not back by the time I tuck the last munchkin in with a promise the scary lake monster won’t get her while she sleeps.
So I linger by the fire for a bit before I retreat to our shared tent, stretching and rolling my shoulders. I lean down to rub calves sore from hiking so many steep inclines.
A silhouette against the tent wall warns me just before Lucas ducks in. “Hey. Think you can leave the rug rats for five minutes? Something I wanna show you.”
I chew my lower lip, frowning. “Is it far?”
“All in earshot and still in view. If anything happens, we’ll be back in two steps. I promise.” He offers me a warm, inviting hand and the biggest grin.
God, it’s so nice to see this bear of a man smile.
How could I ever say no?
“As long as we’re quick.” Smiling, I slip my fingers into his and let him pull me to my feet and out into the night.
It’s lovely out for late June.
Hot and sticky as a cinnamon bun, sure, but with the sun down, it’s a pleasant warmth, almost like a hot tub that wraps you up. We’re silent as we walk hand in hand through the trees.
I tilt my head up at a break in the branches, trying to pick out the constellations.
“Close your eyes, lady,” Lucas whispers, bringing me to a halt next to him.
I give him a curious look and comply, closing my eyes and trusting him to lead me through the night.
Honestly, I trust him with so much more than that.
It’s just a few more steps, right past the feeling of leaves brushing against my bare arms before he says, “Okay. You can look now.”
I do—and the sight steals my breath away.
We’re standing in an open field surrounded by thick forest, tall grass dotted with little juniper bushes and blooming fronds of lilac.
But the entire field is lit up with a galaxy of green-gold stars.
They burn so bright and luminous and pretty my chest goes tight with awe. My lips part on words that never come as I turn slowly, taking in the light show.
“Holy hell,” I whisper.
There must be hundreds of the little bugs out here. The whole night glows with this miracle of nature.
Lucas caresses my chin, gently tilting my face to the sky again.
“As above, so below,” he whispers.
My heart flips over at the beauty.
It’s like the stars have come down to Earth, and I can reach out and hold them in my hands.
“I knew you’d love it,” he says proudly.
I’m too awestruck to even sass back.
Laughing with delight, I gently cage a firefly with my fingers so I can watch its glow light up my palms before letting it free again.
I’ve never been this much in love.
Spinning with sheer exhilaration, I spread my arms out—only to stop as I face Lucas again.
He’s watching me with his heart in his eyes, so clear it makes my throat knot with a shiver of sweet emotion.
“Lucas? What’s up?”
“Lilah, you make this so hard when you’re that damn pretty,” he breathes, and then, “Delilah.”
He steps closer, catches my hands, taking them in his own and squeezing so tight.
“I’ve been working up to this for a good long while,” he says, looking at me intently, his hands so warm in mine. “Just didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t want to just throw you a ring—”
A ring, oh God!
My heart soars, so high and bright, bursting with color like the fireflies.
“That makes me think of them. Of how they use shit like that bracelet as marks. I want to possess you, woman, but not like a thing stuck with my gold. I want you to be mine because you want to be. Because you chose me. Because you trust me.” He swallows roughly, a hint of nerves breaking through that almost blows me down. “I also wanted you to have something to remember this by, too. So every time you see fireflies, you think of this—of what I know is right for us, when you’re the only thing that’s ever been true and real in my heart.”
Oh. My. God.
Even as my answer flutters on my lips, shivering with the thrill of it along with the rest of me, he drops down to one knee.
I’m freaking shaking as he holds my hands in his, looking up at me with so many promises so bright they shame the stars.
“Marry me, Miss Delilah Clarendon.”
I can’t tell if it’s a question or a statement.
I don’t care.
“Took you long enough!” I rush out—then throw myself against him, sealing my high-pitched “Yes, yes, yes!” to his lips with a kiss.
His startled joy is drowned out by the messy crush of our mouths.
We kiss like we’re dying of thirst. Like we can never get enough.
“Pace yourself, darlin’. We’ve only got the rest of our lives.” He chuckles.
I barely let him finish before attacking his mouth again.
Oh, the heat feels so wild, so frantic, exploding with wonder and beauty and sheer, overwhelming happiness.
It’s a kiss that feels like closure. The end of the worst chapter of my life—and the beginning of a book that can only be my new favorite.
His mouth moves hard against mine, claiming and desperate and yet so reverent. I know he’ll never hurt me.
Not this man.
Not on his life.
Not the one who touches me like he can see how fragile I really am.
Not the beast who shows me he’s the one who’ll never throw me away.
He loves me.
And I flipping love Lucas Graves.
Enough to trust him with my heart, my soul, and my future.
I could never be happier than I will be as his wife.
He’s such a big, gorgeous, adorably annoying asshole.
More importantly, he’s a gentle, thoughtful, wonderful man with a heart bigger than the sky.
Beneath that sky, I kiss him with my all.
I promise the fireflies that we’ll be together for the rest of our lives.
We get married among the fireflies, too.
It’s not an extravagant wedding.
It doesn’t need to be.
I also barely notice the late summer humidity making the night sticky. We chose a late hour to say our vows for a reason.
Our love will always have a touch of darkness along with the fireflies and stars.
And it’s even more glorious than I could ever imagine with everything we truly need.
Family means so much to us.
All that really matters is having everyone we consider family here with us on our big day.
My mother drove down from NYC the second she could. Although she’s met Lucas before, she hugs him like she’s seeing him for the very first time.
Nora’s there too, hugging me until I nearly pop out of my corset.
Of course, all the boys from the police station show up too.
Grant Faircross looks like he’s about to burst out of his tuxedo as he stands in as best man, while his girl Nell is our charming little flower girl.
I couldn’t ask for a more perfect wedding in this intimate cluster of people and so many amazing tiny lights scattered around. A reminder of the night we made our real promise to each other, not so long ago, only now it’s floating there in the open for everyone to see.
I don’t think anyone walks off to the reception with a dry eye.
There’s this sweet, heavy moment right before the ceremony starts where a few night birds perk up in the trees, pulling my gaze up.
I swear, it feels like Emma Santos is here, too. Wishing us well among the fireflies.
And Celeste Graves.
I’ll never meet her, but somehow I know she’s watching over us in the stars and chirping crickets, giving her blessing from the Great Beyond.
The ceremony feels sweetly informal and that’s totally us.
We don’t need pomp to make it real.
When the music swells, when I step out of the little alcove in the trees where Janelle was fussing with my hair, when I see Lucas standing there looking so handsome in his three-piece tux on the other side of the field with a universe of fireflies between us…
I promise I’ll never ask for anything else when this is all I want.
I can’t take my eyes off him as I start down the makeshift aisle that’s really just a narrow lane of flowers between the packed rows of our friends.
He’s my Hercules to the end.
He’s perfection itself.
“Delilah!” My name flies out of his mouth as my heel catches the soft earth and I pitch forward, nearly flinging my bouquet.
Everyone around me gasps.
Lucas runs forward, hand outstretched, but I catch myself in time—just barely—and pull myself up, clearing my throat and flushing hotly.
The wedding march is still playing and my face is redder than a fire engine.
Everyone stares, even Lucas.
Then it happens.
I just laugh and laugh until I can’t stop.
I don’t know why, but it feels right.
Me tripping over my clumsy feet, turning something solemn into pure whimsy.
Thankfully, everyone relaxes with huge sighs of relief, grinning and laughing along with me.
Lucas eyes me with concern for a few more seconds before a slow, warm smile spreads over his lips. Then the priest beckons, clearing his throat with gentle amusement.
“Slowly now,” he teases. “We don’t want any accidents today.”
Only a very deliberate choice to spend the rest of my life with Lucas Graves.
I’m extra careful as I continue the procession up the aisle, though.
Nell traipses around me with high-skipping steps, throwing flower petals everywhere. When I reach the spot where Lucas waits with the priest, Lucas holds his hands out, his eyes glittering.
“You in such a hurry to get to me you can’t walk straight, New York?”
Smiling, I slip my fingers into his. “Don’t get too full of yourself, dork.”
“Can’t help it.” He grins. “Prettiest girl in the big city’s about to be my wife. I must be pretty hot shit to have a babe like her falling for me.”
I roll my eyes, trying not to laugh.
The priest clears his throat again with a chuckle, giving Lucas a mild look.
“Language,” the priest teases. “We are technically in the middle of a religious ceremony. Are we ready?”
Lucas nods firmly.
“I’ve never been more ready in my life,” I breathe.
That earns me a gentle look from the priest and a fierce one from Lucas, right before the priest begins.
“Dearly beloved,” he says. “We are gathered here today…”
Gathered is right.
Friends, family, people I never imagined having in my life when I’m so used to being alone and unwanted.
Yet this man wants me, and so do they.
In sickness and in health, till death do we part, yada yada yada, you know the rest.
Mom first showed me how amazing it felt to know someone loves you.
Now, Lucas shows me just what it means to love someone and want them right back—and trust them to take that feeling, to hold it, to cherish it and make it theirs forever.
I don’t remember repeating our vows—even if I stumble over a few words and make Lucas mess up, until the priest makes us repeat it again.
We’re so wrapped up in each other’s eyes we’re only half listening to what we’re supposed to say.
Until the very last.
Those perfect final words.
The fireflies live in his eyes tonight, dwelling in those stark depths. And the way he looks at me in my summery white dress with my bouquet of flowers picked by all my students…
I really do feel like the most prettiest girl in the world tonight.
His smile says he knows what’s coming, asking if I’m ready.
We’re going to fight.
It’s what we do.
We’ll have sick days and bad days and tragic days where life and death becomes more than bickering over what type of potato salad to bring to the police picnic.
But as long as we always love harder than we fight, we’ll always find our way back to the light.
We’ll find our fireflies.
And we’ll always kiss away the wounds we claw in each other before carving sweeter ones with the way we crash together in bed.
That’s who we are.
It’s who we need to be together.
It’s what makes us stronger, when we never crumble, never waver.
And there’s no waver, not a crumb of doubt, when the priest says, “Do you, Delilah, take Lucas to be your lawfully wedded husband?”
“I do,” I answer.
That’s the one thing I can’t trip over when I mean it so sincerely.
When what I’m really saying is, I love you and I always will.
Lucas answers the same question, growling his “I do” with a powerful glance that binds us together with the force of its certainty.
The rock-solid promise that he’ll love me right back.
For a trembling moment, the whole night goes still.
We share this silent second, this great stillness, our first instant as husband and wife while the stars and the fireflies and loving eyes look on.
Then Lucas sweeps me into his arms.
My husband draws my lips to his for the very first time.
There are a thousand ways to describe that kiss, but only one that matters.
His warmth reaches down inside me and plucks all my strings with a wildness and fervor that belongs to me as surely as mine is his.
His kiss proclaims he’s my husband, my protector forever, and I am his wife.
We’re no longer broken when our love made us whole.
I don’t know how I’m still standing as he breaks away.
We’re just one big beating heart of the reddest passion that’s so wrong it can only be right.
With the fireflies as my witness, I swear we’ll never be lonely again.