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Life was part survival and part contentment, and in each other, we’d found both of those things. Whether that was miracle or fate or coincidence, I’d take it. I’d take it with both hands.
Nine months later
“I know this is where I’m supposed to say, ‘If you don’t want to do this, we can jump in my car and get the fuck outta here.’ Sorry, Wynn. She’s the best you’ll ever do and we both know it.” Maxfield chuckled, watching from the second-story window as guests arrived while I paced on the opposite side of the room. “When she’s too good for you, man, you don’t run. You thank your lucky stars and hold on tight.”
“Thanks for the confidence booster, asshole,” I grumbled, moving next to him to glance out the window at the cloudless blue sky. Pearl couldn’t have ordered a day that looked more like a postcard. Dr. and Mrs. Frank had rented out the whole inn to house all the out-of-town guests, the courtyard for the ceremony, and the dining room for the reception.
Maxfield smirked and grasped my shoulder. “You don’t need any more confidence, Wynn. You got that girl. All I can figure is you must be fucking amazing in ways I do not want to know.”
Ray Maxfield knocked and stuck his head around the door. “You boys about ready?”
Maxfield held up a finger. His dad nodded and shut the door.
“In all seriousness, man. It shouldn’t be me standing next to you today.”
I frowned, confused, but then I knew—Brent.
“Since I never knew him, I’ve talked to a few people about Brent—Thompson and his mom, old Hendrickson, and of course, Arianna. He was a war hero when he died, but first and foremost he was a protective big brother. He was a good man. And he raised a good man.” He clapped my shoulder. “He’d be so fucking proud of you.”
Fuck. “Maxfield, don’t make me lose my shit right now, for chrissakes.” My voice shook.
“Almost done—just one more thing.” He looked me in the eye. “I didn’t have a brother growing up. You’re as close as I ever got, and damn if you weren’t exactly what I needed. I’m honored to stand up with you today.” He jerked me in for a hug and I went easy because I needed a minute. “Don’t forget what I said, man,” he said. “Just hold on tight.”
He slapped my back and I slapped his. We separated and shrugged our shoulders. Torn between the desire to punch him in the face or hug him again, I heaved a deep breath. “Sorry Dover will be standing across from you during the ceremony, by the way.”
He shrugged. “This is Pearl’s day, and I was over that shit a long time ago. My only concern is if she gets catty with Jacqueline, because she will find herself face-first on the ground and eating dirt.”
“Oh man, what I’d give to see that. Just… not today.” Melody Dover had been almost accepting since Pearl’s and my engagement. I reckoned she’d assumed it wouldn’t last, but here we were. She still bit my head off when the opportunity arose, and she’d cornered me for a convincing Hurt my girl and I’ll cut your nuts off speech night before last, but I sorta respected her for that.
“I’ll ask Jacqueline to hold off on any ass-kicking until after the reception.”
“Deal. You got the ring?”
He pulled a small pouch from his pocket. “Got it. Randy outdid himself.”
I’d gone to Thompson last fall and told him what I wanted. A ruby stone for her July birthday. A few small diamonds. A design with all the stones completely inset so she could slide lab gloves over it and whatever else she did for work or research without catching it on anything. The ideas he sketched out were cool, but they didn’t do justice to the finished product.
When she was home for winter break, I brought her to my place on Christmas Eve. “I have one more gift for you,” I said, leaving her standing in the middle of the living room with no lights on but the ones strung through the tree in the corner. “Stay right here.”
The Christmas tree was the first one that trailer had seen since I was seven years old. I’d threaded white lights all over it and called it done, which was all manner of wrong according to Sam. “Jeez—lazy much? Where are the ornaments?” she’d said. “It looks dumb with just lights.”
“I don’t have any,” I’d admitted. “I haven’t had a tree since I was a kid.”
She’d shown up with four boxes of shiny ornaments from Walmart the next day. “Merry Christmas from me and Dad. It’s sorta lame to give you Christmas ornaments for Christmas, but I had no choice.”
When I brought a kitchen chair out to the living room and sat Pearl in it, facing the tree, her expression was a blend of a worry, laughter, and total confusion. “Boyce…? We set gift limits—you made me promise not to go beyond them! What—”
I knelt in front of her and she sucked in a breath and fell silent.
I took her left hand, pretty sure we were both shaking. I just hoped to hell it wasn’t all me. “Once upon a time, an undeserving boy pulled a little half-drowned, wannabe mermaid out of the ocean. He laid her on the sand, thinking his heart would break if she didn’t wake up. The moment she opened her big dark eyes and looked up at him, his heart wasn’t his anymore. After that moment, his life’s quest wasn’t a matter of searching for his other half, because he knew right where she was. His mission was waiting for her to know he’d left his heart in her hand that day on the beach and hoping that someday it would bring her back to him.”
She raised her trembling right hand and covered her mouth. Glassy with tears, her eyes reflected the lights from the tree like handfuls of stars in a clear midnight sky.
I pulled the small, carved driftwood box Thompson had converted into a ring box from my front pocket and opened the lid. “Pearl Torres Frank, I want to have you and hold you and love you for as long as we both shall live. Will you let me do that, sweetheart?”
She nodded and burst into tears.
I’d waited five more months for her to come home. Five months for me to have that trailer hauled off and a little house erected in its place with help from Vega and Thompson and a few customers who were happy to barter construction services for car maintenance and repairs. Five months to develop the cold feet I never got. Maxfield had nothing to worry about on that score. I knew what I wanted, and I was about to stand under a flower-covered arch in front of half the town and get it.