The Sweetest Obsession: Chapter 28

ONE WAY HOME (OPHELIA)

It’s not like Grant to be this late.

Call me paranoid, but after everything that’s happened, I don’t think anyone could blame me.

It’s almost time for dinner, and Nell’s looking a little worried, too, though she won’t say it out loud.

She’s been quieter than usual since everything that happened on the yacht.

The child counselor she’s seeing twice a week says that’s normal. She needs time to process the horror in terms she can understand at her age.

What she needs most from us is to be there for her, without any pressure to act a certain way or get better faster. My own experiences certainly taught me pain moves at its own pace.

Love and reassurance are the medicine she needs most, knowing her world won’t fall apart tomorrow.

That she’s not going to lose anyone else the same awful way she lost her parents. Or how she almost lost us.

I can do that.

Loving Nell is easy.

And being there for her… if I’m honest, I don’t ever want to be anywhere else.

I want to be here for Nell, for Grant, for me.

But that requires Grant to be here, too.

I squeeze Nell’s shoulder as I stand up from the sofa.

“Give me a sec, I’m going to call him. He probably just got buried in work and lost track of time. You know what he’s like.”

She looks up from doing her homework at the coffee table.

For a moment, there’s a flicker of fear in her eyes before she smiles sweetly and bravely. “He’s a big dumb dorkface like that. Worky-holic.”

“He is. But we’ll take care of him, won’t we?” I return her sunny smile and squeeze her shoulder again. “I’m not going anywhere, little lady. Just getting my phone off the charger.”

Her fear eases, her smile growing brighter, stronger.

She hasn’t let me or Grant out of her sight since that nightmare happened.

For a couple days after, we kept her home from school, spending whole days snuggled in bed, Nell tucked between us while we let her watch anything she wanted on TV in Grant’s bedroom. We also let her talk to us and ask us questions about what happened, about what scared her most.

I see so much of myself in her at that age. A little bit of Ros, too.

Whip-smart, strong, but she still needs those little moments to be a kid.

I get it.

I see how she struggles, the pain making her grow up faster until she’s under pressure to be the big girl, to show she’s too smart and mature for this, too brave.

But big feelings aren’t that easy.

Neither is trauma.

Mrs. Graves—Delilah—at school has been a big help with that. She says Lucas used to call her a human cactus because she was so prickly and dead set on her independence. She gets a little girl like Nell, and Nell idolizes her to kingdom come, so Delilah’s been a help to us teaching Nell that she doesn’t need to be the strongest kid in the room all the time.

It’s okay to cry.

And it’s okay to reach for a helping hand when you’re scared, instead of doing what Ros did and falling down a deep, dark hole.

Not that I’m blaming my sister.

We all do awful things when we’re afraid. Some of us turn to bad habits.

Some of us run.

For me, those days are over.

Not unless it’s running right down to the station to drag Grant out by his scruff, but we’ll try the easy way first. I give Nell another smile and grab my phone off its charger.

Just as I pull up Grant’s contact, though, the latch on the front door turns.

He’s pushing his way inside when I look up, bundled up in his wool-lined coat—and he’s brought company, too.

His parents come bustling inside behind him while Grant grins.

“Look who’s here to fetch their favorite granddaughter for cake and hot chocolate!” Jensen Faircross announces.

“Grandpa! Gammy!” Nell shrieks as she flings herself around the coffee table and into her grandmother’s arms.

Margaret Faircross laughs, lifting her up and swirling her around.

“How’s my favorite girl?”

“Tired! Too much homework,” Nell pouts, latching her arms around her gram’s neck with a sly look. “I get to stay with you tonight? Does that mean no more homework?”

“It means you get to finish your homework at our house, sweet girl. But you also get to have Gammy’s special hot chocolate with cinnamon and those extra-big marshmallows while you do it. Trust me, it’ll be over in no time.” Mrs. Faircross winks while her hubby chuckles indulgently and pats Nell’s head before Margaret sets Nell down. “Grant already said it’s okay. Go run, pack your overnight bag, sweetie.”

I look at Mrs. Faircross and we share a nod.

“I’m sorry to steal her away on such short notice,” she says.

“Oh, no. When there’s special hot chocolate involved, no need to even ask,” I say.

Nell brightens, then pelts toward the stairs, not even waving to Grant. He looks after her with a snort.

“I see where I rank. Somewhere between pet dog and chopped liver,” he grumbles.

My heart swells with warmth and I laugh—really laugh—for the first time in forever.

I’ve missed this easy, happy feeling, so cozy and so right.

“On a school night, though?” I cluck my tongue. “You two always let her stay up past bedtime.”

Jensen chuckles, a laugh so much like his son’s, dry and deep. But it doesn’t fill me with the same tingles.

It just makes me feel comfortable, casually accepted as part of their family.

“I think we can indulge her a little longer. It ain’t spoiling the kid to let her have a few happy distractions. She still having trouble sleeping?” he asks.

“A little,” I admit. “We end up with a burr in bed with us most nights. I mean, she’ll fall asleep just fine, but usually she’ll wake up in the middle of the night and come into our room to read.”

“She was like that after the fire, too,” Jensen says solemnly. “But she just needed time and care, which you two are giving her plenty of.”

The warm approval in Grant’s father’s voice makes me blush so hard I duck my head.

Sometimes I’m a little awestruck.

I don’t know what to say.

They’ve always treated me like family, but ever since I moved in with Grant, it’s been different, somehow. Like pulling me into the fold and knowing this time, I’m not going anywhere.

Nell saves me from having to come up with a response by tumbling back down the stairs, her backpack only half-zipped and bursting with her pajamas and a change of clothes. Mr. Pickle dangles from the strap by a jingly pet collar she’s insisted on using ever since she almost lost him on the yacht.

“All ready!” she announces.

I sigh indulgently.

“No, you’re not. Hold still, munchkin.” I slip around behind her and tuck her bag in a little more neatly so I can zip it up. “Now you’re ready. Oh—wait, no, you’re not.” I step back and quickly scoop up her books from the coffee table, closing them with a sheet of her notebook tucked inside to mark her place, then unzip the bag again and start to wedge them in. “Don’t think I don’t know you stuffed this too full for your books.”

“Then why are you trying to put them in?” she asks sulkily. “You can’t.”

“I can. I have magic space-time bending powers.” More like enough persistence to compress the fabric until I can slide the books in and the notebooks behind them. After a solid minute of pushing, I zip the bag back up and pat it lightly. “There you go.”

Nell sticks her tongue out at me over her shoulder.

“Miss Delilah won’t be happy if you haven’t finished your homework.” I grin.

That works a charm.

Delilah really is like Wonder Woman to that kid.

“Okay! I’ll finish it tonight at Gammy’s.” Nell lets out a huge, dramatic sigh.

“We should get going.” Margaret holds her hand out for Nell’s bag. “Standing here in the doorway, letting in the chill. I want to get home before the snow starts, anyway.”

Snow? I peer past them at the deep, dark winter sky.

Not a star in sight past the porch overhang.

That darkness isn’t night sky.

It’s low-hanging, slate-grey clouds, heavy with the promise of snow.

“Go on,” I shoo. “Drive safe.”

Sure, it’s only a couple of blocks, but… did I mention I’m a bit of a safety freak lately?

Soon, it’s all goodbye hugs, Grant’s parents pulling me into a tangle of Faircrosses while Grant looks on with warm amusement.

I’m left dizzy from the whirlwind of back-pats, well-wishes, and then bundling Nell out the door.

After they’re gone, I brush my messy hair away from my face before I round on Grant, playfully putting my hands on my hips.

“Okay,” I say. “What’s up? What’s so important that you maneuvered your parents into taking Nell for the night?”

His slow grin tells me he hasn’t even tried to fool me.

He jerks his head at the door.

“Take a walk with me, Butterfly.”

“But it’s about to snow?” And I’m in a light-pink cashmere sweater and jeans.

Fine for indoors, but outside, not even borrowing his police windbreaker will keep me safe from those bone-stripping winds.

“I have the perfect solution.” He holds up a shopping bag I hadn’t noticed before in the happy chaos all around us. It has pink stripes running through it, printed with the logo of a local clothing store.

Blinking, I reach for it hesitantly.

It’s hefty when he drops the pink handle into my hand.

Curiously, I shove the tissue inside aside, peering in—and I’m rewarded with a glimpse of buttery soft brown leather. Eyes wide, I pull out a lovely fitted leather jacket with a padded inner lining and wool collar.

“Grant! You didn’t…” Laughing, I flush as I hug the new coat to my chest. “It’s gorgeous. Thank you.”

“Had to do something before you froze to death,” he teases. “I ain’t having my girl turning into a Philia popsicle. Try it on and let’s go give it a test drive.”

I don’t know how it couldn’t be warm enough when it feels like a blanket that could beat back any cold. Plus, the gesture itself, knowing Grant cares so much about my well-being—and my absentmindedness.

With a happy sigh, I wiggle into it and let the snugness settle around me.

It’s like being hugged by a cloud, and it actually fits, too. Which should tell you right now that Grant truly is the ideal man.

Is there another straight guy on Earth who can buy his girl clothes in the right size on the first try?

“Give me a sec,” I say, fumbling for the door and my warm leather boots stowed away just under the coatrack.

It takes a minute to lace my boots, and then we lock up and head outside.

I instantly curl my hands into the crook of Grant’s arm, leaning on him gratefully.

He doesn’t say anything.

Neither do I, really, but we don’t need to.

It’s nice to just be together in the still, silent night. The whisper of snow charges the air with a peaceful, pure energy.

I don’t ask where we’re going.

It’s enough to be here with him, following his slow, strolling steps, breathing in the heavenly scents of my white knight and my shiny new coat.

This is the way we’re meant to be, I think.

We just took a long, hard detour getting here, but doesn’t it feel good?

I don’t feel the cold at all.

The jacket is too perfect, insulating and comfortable. It lets me enjoy the night and the soft glow of the streetlamps shining gold paths through the darkness.

When you forget the darkness, the heaviness of the Arrendells’ shadow over this town, Redhaven really is a beautiful place. Picturesque, cozy, and while I’ve experienced terrible loss and horrifying secrets here, so many people in this town are happy.

I’m glad I’m finally one of them.

As we walk, I’m so focused on how handsome Grant’s serene, quiet profile looks against the night sky that I don’t realize where we’re going until we step off the sidewalk and I feel grass crunching under my feet.

I tear my gaze away from Grant and realize we’re at the shore of Still Lake.

It sure lives up to its name right now.

Not even a whisper of waves. Completely glass-smooth, reflecting back the dark clouds until it’s nothing but a solid sheet of ink, this great shadow vault spread out before us.

Maybe for some that would be a dark image, but for me it’s like looking into a scrying mirror.

One where I get to imagine any future I want.

And the future I imagine now is peaceful, safe, and full of love.

Grant seems to want to linger, so I lean against his side, resting my head on his shoulder and watching the water.

When he finally speaks, the low rumble of his voice is a part of the calm night, blending into the smooth darkness like black silk.

“Have you thought about what you’re doing?” he asks. “Staying in Redhaven.” He clears his throat, a hint of almost boyish uncertainty creeping into that deep growl. “You are staying… aren’t you?”

“Yeah. I am.” There’s no doubt when I say it.

Under my cheek, his shoulder relaxes and I smile to myself, hugging his arm closer against me.

That lunk.

Not wanting to admit out loud that he was worried I was leaving again.

“So what are your plans?” he asks.

“A work in progress. I don’t really want to go back to being a nurse,” I say. There’s no doubt there, either. I’ve known that for a while now. “Cases like Mom’s, they’re rare, you know? Working in hospice, you’re mostly holding hands until death shows up. I’ve seen enough of that for one life.”

I rub my cheek on his shoulder, so grateful he wasn’t one more tragedy.

Neither was Mom or Ros.

“Go ahead and laugh, but I’m thinking about taking over Mom’s shop,” I admit. “I know she’ll want to go back to work once she’s out of the hospital, but I know what recovery after a second round of cancer is like. She won’t be able to manage alone. And Ros, she needs to find her own way instead of feeling obligated to take on the shop, especially if she was feeling so trapped that she fell into Aleksander Arrendell.” A chill breeze blows against me until I shiver, chasing me into Grant for warmth. “I think I need to do this. That shop is family. It’s home. And I think Mom would be happier knowing there’s someone to pass it on to who really wants it. So, yeah… I want to stay and make a few more memories there. Good ones.”

Grant lets out an understanding rumble.

“Only in the shop?” His head turns and he looks down at me with those hazel-honey eyes that warm me from head to toe.

“No,” I answer quietly, and stretch up to brush my lips to his, his beard prickling my cheeks. “Do I look like I just mean the shop?”

I feel him smile more than I see it, his lips moving against mine, a lazy sweet thing. A reminder that now we have all the time in the world for every kiss, every touch, every lingering glance, every secret.

Because I’m not leaving this time.

I’m not going anywhere again.

His kiss leaves my chilled lips warmed—way more than my lips, honestly.

But as he leans back, he curls his hand over mine, laying it against his arm and reminding me just how frozen my fingers are, too.

“You forgot your gloves,” he says.

I beam back a cheeky smile.

“I could think of a few ways you could warm my hands up.”

“I could,” he says—and is there something strange in his voice as he pulls back from me? Then he lets me go, his arm slipping from my grasp. “Or you could try putting them in your pockets.”

Huh?

I blink, puzzled, a sting of hurt going through me.

It’s not like Grant to reject me like this, pulling away so I can’t even touch him, but there’s something odd in his eyes.

Something intense, deep and searching and not cold at all, making a lie of his actions.

I don’t understand.

But I need a second to compose myself so I don’t react with instant hurt. Shrugging, I turn away from him to look out at the water, stuffing my hands into the pockets of my lovely new coat.

Then I go completely stiff.

Motionless except for the frantic beat of my heart.

The right pocket.

My fingers brush something—a boxy shape, velvety, a seam under my fingertips, and—I’m not stupid, I instantly know what it is—but I don’t dare believe it.

Not until I yank the box out with a gasp, holding it up in my palm.

Soft blue velvet, dark as the night sky.

And when I open it, my blood rushing and crying out with joy, I see the unthinkable.

A ring!

It glitters like the first delicate snow drifting out of the sky, diamond-clear, a gorgeously cut stone set in the center and framed by two smaller clear-polished peridots the same shade as my eyes, all on a delicately wrought band of twined silver ropes.

Oh, God.

Oh my God, I’m going to cry.

I’m going to scream.

I’m going to barf.

I’m going to—I’m definitely laughing, a little manically, clutching at the box with one hand and pressing the other over my mouth, staring down at the ring and then up at Grant as I try not to hyperventilate.

His smug smile calms me, the gentle way his eyes glitter with teasing warmth.

“Grant?” I whisper in the faintest voice.

“Never met a woman who can find more ways to be so contrary,” he says. “Gets herself a brand-new coat and she doesn’t even do the obvious thing and stuff her hands in her pockets on a cold night.” His grin widens as he snorts. He steps closer, his warmth reaching out to me in a cloud. “But I guess that gave me a chance to find a prettier place to propose than the front porch.”

Propose?

Even if I knew it was coming, my brain can’t handle it.

I let out a choked sound that’s half giggle, half sob as he plucks the box from my hand and sinks down on one knee in front of me. His taut thighs strain against his jeans as the grass crunches under him.

It used to be an art form, knowing how to read Grant Faircross… but right now, the look in his eyes needs no translation.

Not when his heart shines so clear in those hazel depths, in that devil’s smile on full, firm lips.

Not when, looking up at me, Grant offers me the ring and so much more as he clears his throat.

“Ophelia Sanderson, I’ve been chasing you even when you weren’t here to chase. I always loved you. Always damn well knew I’d be here one day, if only you’d let me. And now that I have you, I don’t ever want to see the back of you again. Stay this time, Ophelia. Stay and be my wife.”

Trembling, I reach for the box again, delicately touching the sharp-cut edges of the stones, my eyes blurring.

“That’s not even a question,” I can’t help teasing.

He snorts.

“Give me a yes or no, you brat,” he says.

I’m already laughing with sheer joy.

Yes,” I cry, flinging myself against him. “Now put your ring on me and kiss me, you big lunk.”

There’s nothing but laughter between us then, and cold, fumbling fingers as he works the ring out of the box and slips it on my finger.

My God, it feels like the rightness I’ve been searching for all my life.

A promise.

Proof positive that Grant loves me, and I love him, and that’s never changing.

For a moment we both just stare at that small band lining my finger, so heavy with meaning.

Then with another messy laugh, I cup his face and bury my fingers in his thick beard until I find the warm skin underneath.

“I used to daydream about this all the time as a little girl. I never thought it would actually happen. I never thought you’d actually see me.”

“I always did,” Grant promises. “I was just waiting for you to come home.”

I can’t hold back anymore.

I lean in to kiss him—only to stop as something wet and cold touches my lips, my cheeks.

Something besides my own tears.

Pulling back, I lift my head and look up.

A happy sigh slips out of me.

“It’s snowing,” I whisper.

I’m smiling like I might break as I watch the first snowflakes of winter falling down in pale fluffy magic.

“Yeah,” Grant answers, wrapping his arms around me so tight. “Feels like it’s all for us, huh?”

I don’t answer.

I don’t need to.

I just need to live this moment with him, bursting with love.

We watch the snow for some time, but there’s a pull between us, and in the silence we sway closer until we’re not watching the snow at all.

His eyes lock on mine.

His lips part, but there are no words.

We don’t need them.

We only need our mingled breath and parted lips and the mating mouths.

How does it feel so different now?

Kissing him, I mean.

Somehow, it’s like this one simple change from girlfriend to fiancée opens up this deep sealed-off part of me. It’s like I’m blown open, my shields down, so much feeling pouring in.

The texture of his lips, brushing against mine until my heart trills with every teasing caress.

The warmth, soaking into me and reaching down, claiming me from the inside out.

The flick of his tongue, so rough and yet so delicate, teasing me in that slow, tormenting way that ignites me like mad.

It makes me tingle with an ache between my thighs and a need for something more.

More than the slow, plunging thrust of his tongue.

More than the possessive grasp of his hands on my ass, promising he’ll never let me go.

More than the wet, heated sounds rising up between us as our bodies press together until I can feel every inch of him.

When I pull back, the heat in his eyes matches the molten core building inside me.

Without a word, I take his hand and turn to lead him home.

We walk back in sweet, heavy silence.

Gone is the peace of our earlier stroll. No matter how calm we may seem on the surface, there’s a giddy storm building in my blood.

The tension between us is a living thing that cuts as deep as the snowy wind tonight.

Every time his glance reaches me, I shiver with more than just the cold.

It takes everything in me not to run, when I need him so much, when I love him to death.

Grant barely gets the door open back at the house before we tumble inside and I sweep the door shut with my foot.

Then we’re a human collision, slamming into each other hotly, not even bothering to turn on the lights.

We’re lips and teeth and hands, grasping wildly, ripping at each other’s clothes.

Upstairs—oh my God—we should go upstairs right now.

But Nell’s not home and I don’t care where I have him.

I just need to have him, rising up on my toes to take his mouth with a heat as deep and heady as the fire he gives back.

The man devours, claiming me with a crushing kiss.

“How the fuck do you do it, Butterfly?” he whispers.

“What?”

“Taste this much sweeter the second you’re wearing my ring,” he growls.

Yep, I’m dead.

And I’m sure my epitaph will say, Here lies the woman a human bear loved too much.

Before I can even kiss him again, his hands are on my shoulders.

My new jacket hits the floor, my sweater follows, then Grant’s coat, his shirt, and it’s my turn.

He lets out a startled sound as I throw myself forward, shoving him back, sending him thudding down on the sofa.

He blinks at me for a harsh moment, breathing hoarsely, his huge chest heaving.

And I get my chance to answer his question by flowing down to straddle him.

Holy hell.

It shouldn’t feel this good—this devilishly satisfying—with how wide I have to stretch my straining thighs to fit around him.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been attracted to his size, how small and delicate and easily overpowered he makes me feel.

But there’s something different in the air now.

The promise in that ring, the lashing fire in his eyes, the feel of him under me…

It makes Grant’s size more than just deliciously overwhelming.

He’s more like a mountain built just for me.

Sheltering and protective.

My war shield, given to me for the rest of our lives, and that vow makes me crazy to feel every inch of him.

It makes me greedy to take him, to worship him, to remind him he belongs to me as much as I’m his.

His hands cup my ass with a growl that vibrates my bones, dragging me in and grinding me against his cock. Our jeans scrape together.

“You need it bad,” he whispers, cupping my chin. “You too proud to beg for your almost-husband?”

A blush like flames licks my cheeks.

“What can I say?” I press myself against him, my breasts straining in the bra cups against his chest and my nails digging into his neck. “Something about a man promising to devote his entire life to me just turns me on. Please don’t make me wait, Grant. Please.

The way his eyes ignite like burning leaves when I say that special word slays me.

Sometimes, I wonder what I did to deserve a man as loyal as Grant Faircross.

I wonder if he’s my prize on the karma wheel for all the terrible things I’ve suffered.

A man who would wait for me for ten years.

A faithful friend.

A lover who gives me his body, his soul, and his entire flaming heart.

But there’s no waiting around now for questions that have no answers.

There’s only our greedy mouths merging in a wild, biting kiss, tongues dueling as we grasp and pull at each other.

Half fighting.

Half moving in tandem.

We peel off the rest of our clothes until we’re gloriously naked, twined together in the dark.

His body moves under mine and his cock slides against my folds.

I can barely breathe through the pleasure arcing through me as I rock against him.

Even with his hands so hot on my skin, so commanding, making me burn everywhere he pleases as he teases at my aching, wet center, he lets me set the pace.

I’m in control, keeping this great beast wrapped around my little finger, letting me do as I please.

Letting me torment us both with the slow-burn rhythm as I move over him, rubbing myself against his burning-hard cock.

Letting me kiss his jaw, his throat, while I arch my back into the flow of his hands over my hips and the curve of my spine.

Letting me tease myself until I’m delirious on his girthy length.

Letting me stroke my chest against his, my nipples pricking and throbbing as his coarse chest hair rouses me with enough friction to make me feel divine.

Letting me capture his face in my hands and kiss him slowly, tenderly, as that heat reaches a simmering peak.

Letting me brace for his power as he boils over.

The frenzy between us briefly calms into cool sweetness, this intense realization that this isn’t just another night.

This isn’t temporary.

It’s not another moment of undeniable passion erupting until it breaks our world.

This is a sacred vow.

This is everything we’ll ever be.

This is us, welded together in a love so desperate it’s totally unbreakable.

And I still want more.

I want to be as close to him as humanly possible.

When he catches my hips, supporting me, he knows what I want without me saying one word as I lift myself up on my knees and position myself over him.

His swollen cock kisses my flesh.

God, I can’t stand it.

I reach down, touch myself, spread myself open for him.

His huge hand falls on mine and he guides my fingers to my clit.

“Show me how bad you want this cock, woman. Your pussy gets my dick wet before I’m inside you.”

Oh, shit.

I’m so not ready as he leads my hand, tracing circles around that soft nub that’s already pure lightning.

And when his fingers push inside me while he urges me to keep going, I’m absolutely gone.

Grant’s fingers delve deep and his eyes never leave mine, every gaze and every thrust searing, melting me from the inside out.

A loud moan rips out of me.

“Bring that little pussy the fuck off, Philia. Come for me now.”

I do.

I lose control like a woman possessed.

And I guess I am.

I’ve completely given myself over to this man who owns me, my core burning and my vision going white.

I see snow.

I see stars.

I see those blazing mocha eyes as I come on his hand, ripped apart by sheer ecstasy.

“More,” he rasps against my lips.

“Grant…”

“Fucking more,” he snarls again, his fingers still going and oh God, how does he always know exactly where to touch me?

His knuckle strokes my inner wall and it’s like flipping a switch.

My orgasm intensifies until I’m deliciously frayed, every part of me curled, gasping and gushing and going down so hard.

My free hand grips his shoulders so hard it must hurt him.

I don’t think he cares.

There’s a mission in his eyes.

He’s going to ruin me tonight—and I’m happy to let him just as long as he keeps me hanging in heaven.

But we’re both so greedy.

A low growl vibrates the room. He barely stops to let me catch my breath.

Then he rears back, just enough to reposition, to let me watch him stroking his massive cock with my slickness.

Holy flaming shit.

“Good girl, Ophelia,” he rumbles, bringing his swollen cock to my entrance. “Now, you get to feel me like never before. Get up and ride me.”

I don’t know what he means as I slide over him again.

Not until a gasping, needy cry explodes out of me as I sink down, engulfing his cock.

“Grant!” His name comes out hoarse, just as broken as the rest of me.

He rises up to meet me, spearing deep.

My legs go weak in under ten seconds and I take him in hard, willing him to fuck me as wildly as he wants.

A jolt rushes through me in bright-hot bursts as he fits me perfectly, fills me, makes me feel a wholeness I’ve never known.

Like I’m not alone.

Like I’ve run away for so long, hid from what I truly wanted, avoided my home, my family, this love and pleasure that was always waiting but I’ve been afraid to claim.

That’s over.

Every rising, rough thrust of his cock says we’re in a new chapter now, and oh, is it glorious.

Grant is mine now and I’m irrevocably his.

I’m not alone any longer in this bed or in this life.

“Look at me before you come again,” he says, his thrusts coming faster, harder.

His eyes hold mine.

So do his hands, lacing through my fingers, steadying me with perfect strength.

This rhythm is deep and raw and delirious.

We flow together, one blazing body, where each of us begins and ends hidden in our pleasure.

He’s never out of tune with me, never lets me go, always clutching so, so tight.

It’s crazy intimate, and as Grant whispers “Ophelia” one more time, I’m totally undone.

Melting against him, kissing him like he’s my next breath, falling into the animalistic flow and the churning feelings stirring up my everything.

I came to Redhaven under a cloud of darkness.

But now, there’s no question what I see as my eyes flutter, as my breath hitches, as we almost break something as he throws himself into it.

As I hear him snarling, “Fucking come with me!”

Light.

Blinding and beautiful, inside and out, overwhelming.

Insane warmth.

Two deprived souls tangled up until our flesh matches our joined hearts.

And with pure wild ecstasy devouring me, I feel him.

The way he rocks his punishing hips into mine and buries himself to the hilt.

His face screws up as he unloads and sets me off again and then it’s all fire. Waves of burning—

No, not waves.

Mountains.

Towering landscapes of absolute flame.

If it’s a sin to come this many times for any man, I accept my punishment.

As Grant pulses inside me and I throb myself numb, we meet somewhere in the brilliant middle.

We make forever.

When I come down from the roaring high, I taste salt on my lips.

My own tears, I think, overwhelmed from the depth of what we just experienced.

And I smile into this timeless moment, opening my eyes and finding his sated and so full of love.

He’s still watching me like I’m the only girl ever made for him.

Raptly, in the truest sense.

My heart convulses.

No one but Grant has ever looked at me like that—and no other man ever will.

Not since he’s claimed me as his.

With his ring, with his love, with his touch, we’re one and the same.

Two perfect hearts rescued from the dark.


Months Later

Okay, I’ll let you in on a little secret.

I always wanted a spring wedding. In my little daydreams about a fairy-tale life with Grant as a little girl, it was always green and warm.

There’d be flowers everywhere.

A sunny day full of butterflies and the smell of blooming plants.

An open-air ceremony under the crisp blue sky with God himself watching and nodding along in approval.

Instead of doves released into the air, we’d have more butterflies, set loose everywhere. Even my dress would be butterfly-themed.

I had it all planned out just like every girl who dreams of her future husband, wondering who she’ll get to be with him.

I just never thought my husband-to-be would spoil me enough by making it flipping happen.

A silly comment started it one night after we collapsed in each other’s arms, sated and sweaty and deliciously sore.

We hadn’t set the date yet, still caught up in the afterglow of getting engaged. Our families were so ecstatic we almost didn’t survive all the hugging and back-thumping and laughing shouts.

I used to write about marrying you, I teased him, swirling my fingers through his chest hair. All the details worked out. I wanted a butterfly dress.

Yeah? He’d caught my hand, held it tight, kissed my knuckles. Tell me. Tell me what kind of wedding you dreamed up.

So I told him.

I just never thought he paid that much attention beyond the idle conversation.

I also never thought Grant freaking Faircross would be the kind of man to take over planning a wedding. I admit I was nervous, when he insisted—but Ros promised to keep him in line and make sure he didn’t make a complete man-bungle of it.

It still made me a little skittish, being kept in the dark about my own wedding.

But today, as I look at myself in the mirror, I know.

I know I should’ve trusted my sister and my fiancé.

There’s zero doubt left that I can always trust the people I love.

I gave Ros a sketch from memories half a lifetime ago. Then I let her drag me to a dress shop in Raleigh to get my measurements taken, and back again for a basic fitting for a simple sheath dress.

At first, I thought the sheath was the base of the dress. But it turns out it was just a body mold to give the dressmaker what she really needed to work with while still keeping the actual design a secret.

The odd secrecy, everyone working overtime to make something to surprise me, adds a little thrill to everything.

But it’s nothing versus the sweet rush that rolls through me as I stare at my reflection while Ros zips me into the dress.

I don’t look good.

I look enchanting.

Heck, I feel enchanted.

The dress is sleeveless and strapless with a bodice scalloped in the shape of a fluted butterfly’s wing on a diagonal down to a high, empress-cut waist.

Delicate lines like the stripes of fragile wings shimmer in a soft hematite glitter against the white bodice. The rest of the dress is layered damask sheeting down to the floor in misty ripples.

Sometimes white. Sometimes a sheer, soft grey depending on how the layers merge. They always catch the light with a shine like the dust falling from a butterfly’s wings.

The scalloped hem moves against the floor like waves as I turn—no, more like a butterfly’s wings.

I smile until my face hurts.

Behind me, the dipping backline trails out into a train of the same damask.

When I step forward, it’s magic.

The lightest brush of air lifts it up.

I try not to squeal.

They’ve given me wings.

They made me the butterfly.

My throat chokes up as I turn to hug my sister tight.

“It’s beautiful,” I whisper. “Thank you. Thank you so much for doing this, Ros. Thank you for being here.”

“I mean, I had to, didn’t I? Ethan’s not around to stuff you into a princess costume made from paper bags.” We laugh because it’s no exaggeration.

My dumb brother totally would’ve given me a grown-up version of my favorite Halloween costume as a wedding present.

God, I miss him today.

Ros’ voice thickens as she hugs me back. “Besides, you’re always there for me. It was definitely my turn. How could I let my big sister’s big day be anything but magical?”

“Oh—crap.” I let out a shaky laugh. “Don’t make me cry and ruin my eyeliner.”

“Oh, hush. You both know I’ll fix it,” a warm voice says at our backs.

We pull apart as Mom steps into the small covered pavilion tent set up for the bridal party in the large clearing on Still Lake’s shore.

My mother looks radiant today.

No other word works.

Yes, she’s still thin, baring the signs of her recovery in the shadows of her cheeks and the bones poking through the shoulders of her dress… but she’s alive.

She’s up and about, bursting with excitement to be my matron of honor in a lovely silk waterfall dress the color of a blue morpho butterfly’s wings. A perfect match for Ros’ bridesmaid dress.

“Mom,” I whisper.

That choked feeling returns for a different reason now.

Not so long ago, I didn’t think she’d live to see me at the altar.

I didn’t think either of them would, honestly.

Yet here they are, right by my side, smiling with so much warmth and love in their eyes.

“Now, baby,” my mother chides playfully, tucking a lock of my hair back into the wild tumble of twists and curls my sister made, strewn with flowers in pink and blue and white. “Today wasn’t made for tears. I’ve waited for you and Grant to find each other your entire lives. Go out there and make me the happiest mother alive.”

Ros snorts. “Don’t let Mrs. Faircross hear you say that. She’s already mad she’s not in the ceremony when Mr. Faircross is.”

“Well, someone had to give me away,” I say. “And Jensen Faircross always treated us like family, so…”

There’s a chill moment then.

A silent awareness.

The ugly knowledge of who should be here to give me away in another life.

But we’re not talking about him on today of all days.

True to form, no one’s seen Montero Arrendell since he gave his brief police statement on Aleksander.

No evidence linking him to high crimes, of course.

There never is.

I tell myself I don’t care.

It shouldn’t matter.

Today, at least, it doesn’t.

All the little questions that still eat at me are just annoying mosquito bites instead of coyote teeth stripping my skin off my bones.

He’s not our father, anyway. Not in any real sense of the word.

He’s just bad history meant to be left behind.

But the moment breaks when Mom smiles, reaching out to clasp hands all around.

“Are we ready?” she asks.

As ready as I’ll ever be for my own little happily ever after.

“Yes. Kinda.” I nod breathlessly as my stomach drops. “Um. I’m not ready… What if he changes his mind, Mom?”

“My love, stop.” My mother’s cool knuckles graze my cheek. “That man loved you every day of his life without seeing you for ten years. He won’t stop now.”

I nod again, taking a slow breath.

I know that.

I believe that.

It’s just nerves.

“Okay. Ready,” I say. “Let’s do this.”

Soon I’m gathered up in tearful hugs.

We’re all sniffling, but we manage not to cry, and suddenly Nell flies into our huddle.

She’s completely adorable in her little flower girl dress with butterfly wings scalloping the hem. It hits me that she barely speaks, just throws her little arms around me and clings like a blessing.

And then I’m alone, waiting for my cue.

Outside, I hear the wedding march starting.

Delilah Graves recruited the high school band to play it because Nell asked. Another little personal touch that makes my heart mush.

Sure, they’re a little clumsy, a little off-key.

But that honest imperfection feels like a better fit when nothing about our love story was ever easy or orderly.

Jensen Faircross leans into the tent, peeking around the flap with his eyes averted, probably making sure he doesn’t catch me in a state of undress.

“Ready to be my daughter for real, Ophelia?”

I flush hotly and nod, stepping forward to take his arm.

Yep, I’m speechless.

Everything I’ve been missing my whole life is here in Redhaven—family, love, acceptance.

I wonder why I ever ran away.

Jensen draws me out into the light, standing at the foot of the long white silk carpet laid over the grass and leading up to the altar. The entire Redhaven police force, minus Chief Bowden, is lined up on Grant’s side.

My mother, Ros, Janelle Bowden, Nell, and Delilah wait for me on my side. And right there before the pulpit with the priest looking like a ghost in his shadow, I see him.

Grant.

My big lumbering bear of a man has never looked more handsome in his life.

I don’t even want to know what Ros did to find a tux that fit him.

It sits on him perfectly, though, wrapping his grizzly frame in this sleek gloss, but it also can’t hide what a wild man he is. His hair’s slicked back, his beard neatly trimmed, but he’s still my gentle giant.

Maybe he’s a grouch.

Maybe he’s a little feral, sometimes.

Maybe, just maybe on some days he can be a bit of a massive asshole.

But I love him desperately.

He loves me.

And there’s nothing else that matters in the world except the love shining in his eyes as they land on me and he freezes.

That barrel chest stops rising and falling, his lips parting soundlessly. Without a word, he gives me his reaction.

You take my breath away.

I smile shyly, glancing at Mr. Faircross.

Together, we step forward.

The moment I take that first stride, though, I gasp.

A cloud of blue light erupts around me as several townsfolk let go of the ties on delicate nets I hadn’t noticed before.

Before I can blink, I see swarms of glittering, beautiful blue morpho butterflies.

They float up like scattered leaves, rising to the sky.

My gasp of wonder isn’t the only one as the family, friends, and neighbors gathered here today stare up at the sky in amazement.

The butterflies fan out in delicate arcs of jeweled wings, shedding their dust in soft motes that feel like they’re showering me with magic today.

My heart spills over.

It really is the wedding of my wildest fantasies.

I can’t stop myself from laughing with the sheer elation running through me while Jensen and I step forward again.

It’s a slow march.

It’s supposed to be.

But I’m not a patient girl. I want to break free and just run to Grant.

He’s magnetic, this constant pull drawing me to his side, and it takes far too long to make that graceful procession. My train flares behind me, shining in the sunlight with a little more dust that fell from the butterflies’ wings.

It’s over before I draw my next breath, and here I am.

Face-to-face with destiny—and who knew it was so handsome?

Jensen’s arm slips free from mine, turning me free.

The only thing stopping me from reaching for Grant is the bouquet of white lilies clutched in my fingers. For a breathless second, we just stare at each other in awe, before he smiles that slow, boyish smile that feels like it’s just for me.

“Is it everything you dreamed of?” he whispers.

“Everything and more,” I answer. “You really…? All of this, I mean? Just from what I told you?”

“With a little help from your ma and sister.” He grins. “They made sure I didn’t fuck it up.”

I giggle low in my throat. “And what about you? This wedding feels like it’s all for me…”

“Ophelia,” he growls fervently, nearly stopping my heart, “you’re everything I ever dreamed of and now you’re standing here. If I’ve got you, what the hell else do I need?”

Wow.

Looks like he’s determined to kill me before we finish our vows.

But then the priest clears his throat, glancing at us with indulgent amusement before the traditional words begin. “Dearly beloved…”

Ah, here we go.

Lots of lofty words that land like heavy snow through the happy haze around my brain.

I feel so very dearly beloved.

And for me, Grant is the only beloved I’ll ever need.

I don’t know how I even hold still while the priest recites the vows, the long litany of passages from the book, everything that makes this ceremony complete.

It’s just a formality, I suppose.

Everything became real the moment I saw Grant standing there, waiting for me without any hesitation or doubt in his smile.

But finally—finally, we’ve arrived.

My heart just about bursts as the priest calls for the rings.

Grant takes the simple gold wedding band and slides it on my finger, then leans in close, whispering, “Check the inscription later.”

Smiling, I nod, a silent promise as I slip the ring onto his finger.

Those coarse, weathered knuckles fight the confines for a split second before the gold band settles snugly. He flexes his hand like he’s testing how it feels, the weight of it, before his hand laces in mine, ring to ring, absorbing our heat together.

And when the priest says, “Do you, Grant, take Ophelia to be your lawfully wedded wife…”

“I do,” Grant answers.

His voice is rolling thunder, this gruff whisper I imagine only I can hear, this secret just for us, but the crowd strains forward, listening intently.

I do.

My heart beats in sync to those words as the priest turns to me. “And do you, Ophelia, take Grant to be your lawfully wedded husband?”

I become the butterfly again, fluttery and full of shiny things.

“I do,” I whisper.

Then the entire gathering erupts into clapping, shouting cheers.

The priest says something about pronouncing us husband and wife.

I’m completely deaf to it.

Grant and I are the only stillness left in the noise around us, completely locked on each other.

I can’t sense anyone else when I’m already home, becoming Ophelia Faircross.

“You may now kiss the bride,” the priest announces.

Grant rakes his eyes over me, then sweeps me close, pulling me against the hardness of his body.

“Hello, wife,” he rumbles.

I laugh, twining my arms around his neck, showering pollen from my bouquet into his hair as I stretch toward him.

“Hello, husband.”

His mouth twitches with repressed laughter.

I can’t help fixating on it as he leans in closer. Closer.

For a second, I realize there’s another burst of blue from the corner of my eye—a second cloud of butterflies rising up to herald our union—but I’m not paying attention to that.

All the magic is right in front of me.

As Grant’s mouth claims mine.

As I fall into him for the first kiss of the rest of our lives, heady and sweet and electric.

He rocks me gently with slow touches I never want to end.

And even with the entire wedding party watching and people roaring behind us, I can’t help how he melts me, how he makes my knees weak with every trace of his tongue from one corner of my mouth to the other, leaving behind trails of fire on my skin.

His kiss takes me deep, owns me, leaves no doubt about my fate with every caress and every rough nip of teeth.

I belong to this man, here and now for all the world to see.

I belong, and I’ll never miss my true home again.


The reception is small and intimate.

Most people who aren’t direct family and friends linger for the grand toast and a little food. Plus, a chance to embarrass us with noisy spoons clinking against glasses.

They mostly head out before the dancing starts.

Honestly, it’s a bit of a mess—people trying to dance in high heels in soft earth and lush grass, but no one seems to mind, tripping and stumbling and falling into each other with raucous laughs.

When I see Mr. and Mrs. Faircross dancing together, smiling at each other with such heartwarming sweetness like they’re remembering their own wedding day ages ago, I think my heart grows one more size.

It makes me hopeful that can be me and Grant, one day.

Oh, I’m aching for the wonderful life ahead.

Seeing our children off into their own happy lives, and still as deeply in love as the day we were married.

As Grant and I take the floor for our dance, though, I catch my mother standing on the sidelines, watching us with bittersweet emotions I can’t totally describe.

I offer her a smile, leaning into my husband.

She smiles back and mouths, Love you, baby girl.

Love you right back, I mouth back.

My eyes sting wonderfully.

“You realize,” Grant rumbles, his chin resting lightly on the top of my head, “I have every intention of giving your ma grandchildren to obsess over as soon as possible.”

“Oh?” I tease. “You do know that’s my uterus involved in that decision, right?”

“I know. Just had a feeling your lady bits were thinking the same thing.”

“…I was,” I admit. “I almost lost her. Of course, I want to give her grandbabies while she’s still here to see them grow up.”

“We will, sweetheart. As many as you want.” His hands tighten on my waist possessively. “We’ve got time. Your ma’s a stubborn woman. The Reaper won’t be back anytime soon after she chased him off. She’s not going anywhere—except possibly being swept off her feet.”

“What?” I lift my head from Grant’s chest, peering over my shoulder—just in time to watch Officer Henri Fontenot bow to my mother like an old-fashioned gentleman, offering her his hand while she blushes and titters. “Oh, no! Isn’t he the new guy you warned me about? The shameless flirt?”

“Yep. Every woman over fifty in town loves him. Old Mrs. Maytree calls in with a ‘stolen cane’ three times a week and demands Henri come find it. It’s always in her bedroom closet.” Grant chuckles. “I promise he’s a gentleman. Frenchie won’t do anything too dastardly to your ma.”

I giggle.

“Oh, I’m more worried about her doing something dastardly to him,” I groan, but it’s full of laughter. This entire day is full of good humor and more joy than I ever thought possible. I smile as I look up at Grant. “You know, I think you’ve made this the happiest day of my life, Grant Faircross. Good job.”

Grant smiles, hazel eyes gleaming like bronze stars as he spins me into a stomach-fluttering turn. “Then that makes this the happiest day of mine, Ophelia Faircross.”

I think I die hearing him say my name that way.

Sometimes little girls’ dreams do come true.

And maybe I’m about to make another little girl’s dream come true when it’s time to throw the bouquet.

I swear I don’t do it on purpose. I toss the thing wildly, blindly over my shoulder, listening to the laughing, shrieking scramble of women.

When I turn around, I see my sister holding the bouquet with her face beet-red.

For a second, Ros looks stricken, but then she smiles, hugging the lilies close and looking up at me with damp eyes.

God, I hope it’s her turn soon.

I hope she finds the love she deserves—a good man who’ll care for her, cherish her, treat her with the same tender care Grant shows me.

And it’s with real tenderness that Grant keeps me on my feet even when my legs go wobbly with exhaustion as the party starts winding down.

With the energy waning, that’s our cue.

Hand in hand, breaking away from the others, all of them pretending to chase us but giving up far too soon as we break for Grant’s truck.

It’s parked on the road through the trees, festooned with cans and ribbons and a garish Just Married painted on the rear window. The back is crammed full of camping supplies for our big road trip slash honeymoon deep in the wilds of Vermont.

Nothing but us, tall trees, a tent, a gorgeous lakeshore, and as little clothing as possible, if I have my way.

“Get moving while there’s time,” Micah Ainsley says, ripping open the door like our personal valet. “I’ll distract any stragglers.”

His albino skin glows like ivory under the moonlight.

“Thank you!” I gush. “But you don’t need to go through this much trouble for us, Micah, if you don’t want to—”

I never finish. He’s already rushing through the trees, yelling about being attacked by a giant raccoon.

“Oh my God! He’s always such a serious guy too.” I snicker.

“He’s earning his hazard pay today,” Grant agrees.

Breathless, still laughing, we tumble into the truck and pull away.

I’m a floofy mess in the passenger seat, my dress spilling everywhere and licking at Grant like waves. I tuck my hair back and pull the skirt in closer.

“Sorry. This dress slaps when I’m standing, but sitting down, it just wants to eat me alive. We should probably change before we head out…”

“Not a bad idea,” he says. “First, we’ve got one more stop.”

My curiosity deepens, but knowing Grant, I might as well wait and see instead of asking questions.

I don’t have to wait long.

He steers us quietly through the streets of Redhaven—or as quietly as he can with cans rattling behind us and everyone who sees the truck yelling their congratulations and fist-pumping the air as we pass.

The streets grow more somber as we turn down a familiar lane lined with overhanging birches, all bowed toward a wrought-iron fence I know almost as well as my childhood home.

“Oh. You meant this stop,” I whisper, staring at the cemetery gates as Grant pulls the truck into a parking slot.

“Thought he’d want to see you in your dress,” Grant rumbles gently. “And I thought you’d want to say goodbye.”

Somehow, my eyes find a few last tears.

I understand.

It’s finally time for us to truly let Ethan go.

Hand in hand, we walk through the tombstones, the procession as solemn as our wedding march.

When we reach my brother’s grave, it’s almost jarring to see the freshly turned earth there, the grass only slowly beginning to grow over it in a thinner carpet than the neighboring plots.

We interred him right around New Year’s.

No more empty grave.

No more missing date of death.

No more gaping questions.

My wonderful brother finally laid to rest, his name cleared… and I remember my resolution that day.

To live a life he’d be proud of.

As I stand here with Grant, I think I’m on my way.

Ethan would be proud of me today.

Of both of us.

He tried to save the woman he loved. He fought for her. He failed, in the end, but I followed in his footsteps.

Together, we saved my family, Grant’s family, our family.

We fought like hell and we won.

“Hey, big brother,” I whisper, smiling even though I’m breaking. “Guess who just married your favorite asshole?”

“Hey!” Grant flares with a chuckle. “Don’t listen to her. Well, listen to her, but not about me being an asshole.”

“Oh, please.” I snort. “He’d be right here calling you every variant of ass along with me.”

“Yeah, guess he would.” Grant’s eyes soften. He squeezes my hand tight as he looks at the headstone in silence.

“Hey, buddy,” he whispers. “Hope you know I’ll do my damnedest to make her happy. I’ll look after her—even when she’s giving me the lifetime of hell I’m missing from you.”

Be still, my heart.

But that’s asking the impossible.

Because I don’t think I could ever feel more complete than I do right now.

Hand in hand with my new husband, feeling Ethan’s presence.

He’s still here, still watching over us from the Great Beyond, and loving the crazy romance we’ve found in each other.

That’s when I remember to check the ring.

I reluctantly pry my hand free from Grant’s and work it off so I can angle it just right to catch the light that lets me see the letters inside.

We’ll live on in love. Always.

My heart swells as I slip the ring back on and twine my fingers in Grant’s.

Talk about heavy.

But it hits deep, hits true, hits until I’m smiling so hard my face screws up because he’s right.

When has he ever been wrong?

For Ethan, for Nell, for ourselves, we’ll go on.

We’ll live on and make the most of these lives.

We linger for some time with our own quiet thoughts, saying goodbye to Ethan in our own quiet way. I think we’re both living the same kaleidoscope of memories and emotions that bat my heart around like a tennis ball.

Eventually, by some unspoken agreement, we turn away. But not without me stopping to pull one of the flowers from my hair. A bright-blue one.

Ethan always loved dark, rich blue, too.

I lay it down gently on the grass and kiss the ground.

Then I rejoin my husband.

My love.

My destiny.

My sweetest obsession.

Together, we leave death behind forever, and step into a heavenly new life.


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