"No, let me just say what I have to say." He drew a breath. "The girls are miserable. I'm no good to anyone and the plantation isn't the same, honey."
"I can't come back. You know it." Her eyes stung and she blinked. "What do you want from me? To give up my career that I've worked for all these years to have? You said yourself you need someone there for you and the girls. I can't give you that."
Tears filled her eyes and spilled.
"I can give it all to you, honey."
She shook her head. "It's my debt and my problem."
He reached out and brushed her hair off her forehead. "Baby, you've been on your own for so long you don't know how to let someone else take part of the burden. Let me show you. Let me be the one. Trust me not to hurt you and to do what we have to so we can be together."
Hayley felt as if she was teetering on the edge. Do it, let him, a voice chanted. Share with him. She'd been utterly miserable for the past few days and could barely concentrate for the sound of her breaking heart. She'd never given anyone her troubles. She'd never had the chance, and it just wasn't in her to spread her problems or ask another to take them.
"I've made some changes so you don't have to give up a thing."
Her brows tightened. "What did you do?"
"I paid off your loans. No," he said when she tried to speak, "just listen. Let me do this. It puts us a step closer. Or don't you love me?"
"Yes, I do," she whispered. "I love you so much it's killing me to look at you."
He sighed, his lips curving for an instant. "That's one thing out of the way. Now I know you have to do your residency, but who says it has to be here?"
"What do you mean?" Her heart started to pound.
"I spoke to the head of this hospital and chief of medicine at the County Hospital in Aiken. They agreed. You can do your residency there. They have the best OB/GYN in the state, if that's what you need. And you can work with Dr. Swanson at his practice. He's retiring in two years and he wants you to think seriously about taking over his patients then."
Hayley couldn't speak. She could be a country doctor and be with Nash. She had the urge to suddenly pinch herself. He'd said to trust him, that he'd find a way, and until this moment, she didn't think anyone could move so many mountains. And never for her.
When she didn't say anything, Nash moved within an inch of her, his tall form crowding her. "I'm not doing this for control or for any other reason than I love you and I need you. I lost you once because I couldn't see how important being a doctor was to you. And all you wanted was a little time. I'm not about to make the same mistake again. I love you, Hayley. I have since I met you. I'm doing this because I can't survive without you." He took her hand, pulling it to his lips. "Marry me."
"Marry us, Miss Hayley."
She turned sharply and found the twins standing near the glass doors.
Nash still held her hand, and when she looked back, he slid a diamond ring on her finger.
The water-clear stones took her breath away.
"You belong with us. Marry us poor lonely Rayburns, sprite. Make us a family."
Nash stared, waiting, his breath locked in his lungs.
Hayley choked out a sob, then another, throwing her arms around his neck and whispering, "Yes, yes!"
The girls cheered and flew to them, their little arms wrapping around Nash and Hayley's legs.
Nash crushed her, squeezing his eyes shut, relief and rapture enveloping him. "Oh, honey," he rasped. "You don't know how you saved me."
Hayley smiled against the curve of his throat, her happy sobs mixing with the sweet joy spinning through her. She did know. His love rescued her, kept her hope alive, and when she let her fingers sink into Kim and Kate's hair, her heart swelled tenfold. Oh, yes. She had it all, every dream she'd had as a kid, as a grown woman trying to find a spot where she belonged. Here it was, in Nash's arms, in Nash's heart.
She was truly a happy woman. How could she not be?
Her family was here.
* * *
Five years later
Nash strode down the hospital corridor, his son tucked under his arm and squirming to be let down. His daughters trailed behind him, their heels clicking on the quiet ward floor like the tap of a small hammer. He paused, glanced back and let his gaze drop meaningfully to their boots. They tiptoed the rest of the way down the hall.
He stopped before an office door, knocking, then swinging Alexander across his shoulder. The boy giggled and kicked his feet, nearly catching Nash in the jaw.
Hayley swung around as Nash strode in and dropped Alexander into the patient chair before her desk.
"You're not ready," he said as if he'd known. He crossed to kiss her, a deep kiss of strong love as he slipped his arm around her waist.