Madison stepped inside and lost her breath.
It was the only room with furniture. Baby furniture. The decorating was detailed down to the pattern on the rug and the trim on the curtains. The nursery was filled: a high chair, cradle and crib, a stroller, stuffed toys, clothes. There was nothing more that a child needed. Their child.
She spun around and found him close.
Pushing up against her body, he gripped her arms, gazing deeply into her eyes. "I love you, Maddy."
Her heart jumped every time he said it. "Why did you do all this?"
"I couldn't think of any other way to convince you that I'm ready for commitment. For sixty years or so." He gathered her close, gazing into her eyes. "I've been going through the motions of living, and I felt as if I didn't belong to anything or anyone. I lost my way. Till you found me. You showed me everything I was missing and let me touch all I could have. I know you are capable of taking care of our child alone, but you don't have to. I won't let you. It's time for you, time for us. We'll do this together. I love you."
She swallowed repeatedly. "I'm afraid that love isn't enough."
The question in her voice slayed him. "Does anyone know if it's enough? Does any one person know exactly how to make a marriage work, or how to raise a child? We all take the risk. I'm terrified of losing this one chance, and all I am certain of right now is that I want to spend my life loving you."
Her eyes watered. Oh, how she loved this man.
"This is our house. Where we start our life. Our new beginning. And see?" He brushed back the curtain. A good hundred yards away, near the edge of the woods, lay a cottage similar to the house. There was a plowed garden plot beside it.
"Your dad can come live here, and you can fuss over him all you want."
"Claire has her college paid for, a nanny for her son and a place of her own, just as she wanted."
"Alex, I can't ask you to—"
He silenced her with a strong kiss. "You didn't ask. That's what's so incredible about you, baby, you. never ask for yourself. Now I'm asking for us. I've spent my whole life missing the good things, simple joys, and the reason why people fall in love and have kids and stay married for fifty years. I've missed your laughter, your jokes. I can't survive without you, darlin', so I'm begging. Marry me. Put me out of my misery with your twelve-gauge or just say 'I do.' I'm not ready to be your man … I am your man." His eyes grew suspiciously glossy. "Now I want to be your husband." He covered her still-flat tummy. "And a daddy."
"Alexander," she said in a slow drawl that left him shaking. "I do love you so."
The corners of his eyes crinkled with his smile, and between thumb and forefinger he held up a ring, a proper diamond solitaire. "Believe in me, baby. You're the only one who matters."
A tear rolled down her cheek. "Yes, I'll marry you." He slipped it on her finger, his relief palpable as he closed his arms tightly around her, burying his face in the curve of her throat. He trembled in her arms, and Madison smoothed her hands over his broad back.
"Thank God you said yes," he muttered, then rained kisses over her face. "The decorator comes on Monday."
She pulled back and met his gaze, sniffling. "You were so sure of yourself?"
With his thumb he swiped tears from her cheeks. "With you, I'm never sure of a damn thing. But I was going to camp out on your doorstep until you committed to me."
She smiled, a smile that lifted his heart, and Alex crushed her in his arms and knew he'd found a home. A real home. And a place to belong, not in the structure surrounding him, but in the woman in his arms.
* * *
"We haven't decided on a name."
"Now is not the time, Alexander." Madison nodded to the obstetrician and rose up, pushing, panting, pushing, the obstetrician like a quarterback ready for the catch. Alexander, bless him, mopped her brow, held her upright and labored with her as she forced their child out. The poor man was going to rupture something vital.
"That's it, Mrs. Donahue, keep going, keep going," the doctor urged.
"Only wins in horseshoes," she muttered, took a deep breath and pushed. She strained for what seemed like minutes, then let out a rebel yell of triumph and freedom, and sank onto the labor bed.
"You did it, baby."
"Not like I had a choice, huh?" she gasped.
"It's a boy!" the doctor said and Alex choked as his son's wail filled the delivery room. After measurements and tests, they placed the child in his arms and tended to Madison. Her eyes never left her husband as he held their child reverently and dropped a tender kiss to his forehead. Then Alex came to her, laying their son in her arms.