Thom sat alone on the mattress, the tiny little box cupped between his palms, nerves turning his guts to sour water churning away at his core. He knew he shouldn’t be nervous. It wasn’t like she was going to say no, was she?
Is she? He squeezed his eyes shut. The rift that had opened between them—the rift he knew now that he’d caused thanks to his own fear—was potentially one that could never be fully bridged. Talking to Phelan, though, had made him sure he had to try. This was only a first step.
The first of many, many more with her at my side, I hope. Images of a boy—of their son—floated up before his eyes, then gave way to the images he feared, of him begging Jacqueline to somehow save her, to do something.
I can’t lose her, I can’t live without her.
His hands tightened and he looked up at her, smiled weakly. Her brow creased.
“Are you okay?” Marin whispered, kneeling down next to him.
“I’m fine,” he said softly, reaching up to stroke her cheek, turning his other hand to hide the box for at least a moment longer. “Everyone settled? Questions answered?”
She laughed weakly. “As much as I was able, anyway. What about you? Are you…are you okay with all of it?”
“I have to be,” he said, and meant it. “It’s a reality of life now. I can’t pretend it’s not real, not after what happened to you. What happened to both of us.”
Hope shown in her eyes, overshadowed by the tears that welled up along the rims, caught in her lower lashes. “Then you believe?” she asked, voice trembling.
He swallowed past the lump in his throat and simply nodded. She put her arms around him and buried her face in his shoulder. It made his ribs hurt, but he ignored the pain as he wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly, burying his nose in her hair.
The box lay against his thigh, almost forgotten for a few long moments as she wept against his shoulder and he reveled in the feel of her in his arms, the scent of her hair. She smelled of lavender and the woods.
“I love you,” he murmured in her ear.
“I know,” she whispered against his shoulder. She pulled back a moment later, sniffling and wiping her eyes. He reached up and brushed a few away with his thumb.
“I made a mistake eight months ago,” he said slowly. “When I bailed on that trip to the island. I got cold feet.” She looked confused. He just smiled weakly. “I’m not afraid anymore.”
“Afraid of what?” she whispered.
“This,” he said softly, and kissed her cheek. He fumbled for the box, then pressed it against her palm. She startled, looking down at it. Her hands trembled as she opened it slowly. Her breath caught.
“Marry me, Marin,” he whispered into her hair. “I know we don’t have a priest or a chapel or anything, but marry me. Stay with me for a year and a day and forever. As long as love lasts.”
“As long as love lasts,” she murmured, staring at the ring. A claddagh, with a diamond cut into a heart shape between the hands. She squeezed her eyes shut, a tear splashing down onto her palm.
Don’t say no, he thought. Please, don’t say no.
“Yes,” she said after an agonizing silence.
Relief flooded through him, robbed his limbs of strength for a moment. He shivered. She laughed weakly but lightly, lacing her fingers through his hair.
“I love you,” she said, and kissed him fiercely.
“I know,” he murmured back against her lips. His arms went around her and crushed her against his chest. Her kiss stole his breath away.
They sat astride a horse, she behind him, her arms around his waist. He put his bandaged hand over hers as she clung there and he stared back over her shoulder, back toward home. “Are you sure about this?” he murmured, stomach feeling sour. They were leaving them. Leaving their son.
What were they doing? But she nodded a little, voice weak as she answered. “I don’t have a choice, Thom. I have to find it.”
His fingers tightened. Will they be safe without us there? What’s going to happen to them? “Will the wardings hold?”
“Yeah,” she said, resting her cheek against his shoulderblade. “I think so. For a while, at least. Until we can come back and strengthen them again.”
At least she’s talking like we’ll be back, even if neither of us quite believe it.
Her arms tightened around his waist. “It’ll be okay.”
He looked down at her, smiling. “Yeah,” he said gently. Promise me. Lie to me. I’ll believe.
I’ve always believed, even when I didn’t want to.
He set his heels into the horse’s flanks, heading west, toward the lake and away from the rising sun. They’d return someday.
Thom blinked back the tears on his face as he broke the kiss and buried his face in her hair. That day, the day he’d seen, was still a long way off.
But it was hope, and in the darkest hours, sometimes hope was all they’d have.
“I know,” he whispered again, over and over. “I know.”