He shifted, waiting, his face growing stressed, and I stared at his eyes, the depths I loved, though I could never tell a damn thing from them.

I moistened my lips, my eyes stuck in the channel between us, then spoke.

“No.”

Fifty

His eyes blinked, but stayed on me. “No?”

“No. I’m sorry.”

He looked down at the rough roof beneath his knee, then hefted himself to his feet and sat down across from me. He gave an exasperated smile and looked at me, waiting.

“I would love to marry you, and to be your wife. But I want you to propose to me for the right reasons—not because we are in a bad situation. Am I correct in my understanding that getting engaged is your plan for keeping me safe?”

“Are you even going to look at the ring?” He set it on the table in front of me, pushing it forward, his eyes excited.

I glared at him. “Are you listening to me? I’m not going to look at the ring.”

“Why not?”

Grrrr. “Am I correct in that you are proposing so that your family does not hack me into little pieces?”

He grinned, still not getting the idea that I was rejecting him. “They don’t ‘hack.’”

“Answer the question.”

“I am in love with you. Something I never expected, didn’t want, but am now ecstatic over. You know me well enough to know that when I want something, I go after it. I love you, and want to let everyone know it—want to make our relationship permanent.”

“And...it would also conveniently fix our problem.” I folded my arms at him, the damn black box in front of me screaming for attention. I fought against looking down, against giving credence to its screams.

He shrugged. “Well, yes. As my wife, you would be untouchable. Protected.”

“Under lock and key.”

His eyes narrowed, a hard edge coming to them. “I don’t know what you mean by that comment. I have no desire to put you up in a big house and leave you alone, if that is what you are referring to. I want a partner in life, not a trophy in my case.”

“And you will be faithful?”

He reached forward, grabbing my hand and clasping it in both of his, pulling my eyes to his, dark and solemn. “Julia, you are incomparable. I know what I risk in straying from you, what I would lose if you left me. I promise to never kiss, caress or f**k another woman without you there, watching it happen. And I promise to allow you to be as unfaithful as you want, as long as I am there to make sure you’re satisfied.” His mouth curved into a grin and he brought my hand to his mouth, kissing it gently.

“Or flirt.”

“What?”

“You can’t flirt with women either. And by the way, you really do suck in the romance department. Hallmark will never put that last paragraph on a card.” My mouth moved without order, and I found myself grinning back at him. He nudged the box again, practically pushing the damn thing into my lap, his eyes lit with anticipation. He was like a damn kid at Christmas. I looked at him expectantly, and he frowned, then understood what I was waiting for.

“Oh. Right. No flirting. Do you want me to kneel again?”

I exhaled, frustrated. “You are treating this as a joke.”

“And you are way too serious about this—this is supposed to be a happy time. I am finally throwing off my stubborn bachelor ways and professing my love to you. You should grab the damn ring and run for the closest altar.” He reached forward, plucking the box from the table and opening it in one quick motion. Then he held it forward, and leaned across the table at me. “Julia, please. Ignore the bullshit and the drama going on in our lives. I truly believe that I was made for you, and there is not a woman on the planet that is more perfect for my troublesome self. I know you deserve better than me. But please, give me a chance to be a husband worthy of you, and I will spend my life becoming the man you deserve. Please, Julia. Marry me.”

His intense eyes, with darkness that I never could decipher, stared at me, and I saw truth in their depths. My eyes flickered from the heat of his stare, and I glanced down at the ring. I expected the ring to weaken my resolve, to be the final straw that broke the camel’s back. I expected that I would not be able to resist a diamond. It was a gorgeous setting, a perfect, breathtaking stone, but I wanted more. And looking back into his eyes, I found it.

I wanted him. Needed him. And in that desperation, I wanted to push him away, badly. Because in that vulnerability, there was certain heartbreak. But in the ring, in the engagement, there was safety. And I needed to be smart.

I exhaled slowly, decisively, and nodded. “Yes.” I held up my hand when he rose, his face lit with excitement. “Wait.” He stayed standing, but leaned forward, resting his hands on the table, waiting for me to finish.

“I’ll accept your proposal,” I said carefully. “But I’m not getting married. Not for at least a year, long enough for me to feel like you will be faithful to me. I’m not worried about us being happy, about us having enough love, about you being ‘the right one’ for me. I worry about you not being happy in a monogamous relationship, whether we are engaged in a swinger lifestyle or not. I just need time to make sure that you will be loyal, and will be happy being loyal.”

I paused, trying to keep a smile from my face. “But to appease your bloodthirsty family, and because I can’t imagine life without you, I will accept your proposal.”

I was in his arms before I could take a breath, his arms around my body, his mouth on mine. He lifted me, spinning me around, and I laughed when he finally let me come up for air.

“Thank you,” he said, his mouth at my ear, voice gruff. “You have made me so happy.” Then he bent me back into a Hollywood dip, and my eyes found his in the dim light. “I love you,” he whispered.

“I love you, too,” I said, smiling up at him.

“Will you wear the damn ring now?” he said, pulling me back to my feet, the rooftop spinning a little, city lights and night sky everywhere.

I smiled and rolled my eyes. “Well, if you insist.”

And then my unromantic future husband knelt again on the rough rooftop and, with the sounds of Sinatra floating through the night air, put the ring on my finger and made it official.

Epilogue

We rode back to Brad’s house, the new engagement ring sparkling on my hand. It shone at me in the dark car, claiming me as its own, and I slid it off, then back on, just to prove to myself that I could. He reached over and grabbed my hand, squeezing it reassuringly, and I looked over at him. His profile was strong, beautiful, mine. It felt odd, having security in our relationship. And at a point when I had just come to terms with the feelings I had for him.

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