Laura forced herself to sit through breakfast, although her bags were packed. She didn't want to go, she didn't want to say goodbye. But Richard was capable now and her job was done. Katherine Davenport had already called yesterday with a new assignment.

It was time to go.

God, she felt horrible.

"Kelly and I are going to the grocery this morning, you coming with us?"

"No, I've got some laundry to finish and I'm still a little tired."

Richard came to her, slipping his arms around her. "I missed you last night," he said.

She merely nodded and he tried not to frown at the desolate look in her eyes. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing sleep won't cure."

"Why don't you go back to bed, it's only eight."

"I might," she said, and couldn't bring herself to speak what she was thinking.

A few minutes later Richard and Kelly were tooling down the drive, ready to greet the rest of the island and dispel the gossips once and for all.

Laura cleaned the breakfast dishes, prepared something for dinner and called a cab.

* * *

Laura stood on the dock, her eyes burning to hold back tears. She felt severed in half, and she hated leaving the two most important people in her life, but she had no choice. Part of her shouted to stay and be with them as they had been, any way she could. And her heart said he had never asked, never spoken about a future, and maybe she was just reading too much into their relationship. She'd done that with Paul and look what that had gotten her.

Richard knew this was temporary. Her job was done.

"Where the hell do you think you are going?" a voice said from behind.

She stiffened and didn't turn. "Home."

"I thought you were home."

The anger in his voice was clear as the sky.

"No, Richard. I came to help you with Kelly, to integrate her into your life so you could be her father."

"And that's it? You're leaving me?"

Her heart shattered at the sorrowful sound of his voice. "I have to," she said.

He grabbed her arm, forcing her around. "Why?"

"I'm finished. My job is done."

His anger flared hard. "What were Kelly and me, a damn charity case?"

"No!"

"So you float into our lives and then skip out? Is that how little you thought of me? Some poor wretched soul you needed to bestow your tenderness on?" He leaned and lowered his voice. "Was that what you felt when you let me touch you, taste you?"

"Of course not." A single tear escaped, and she let it fall.

"Then why are you doing this?"

"Because I will never know if it's gratitude you feel or more!" she said in a soft howl.

"Good grief, give me some credit for knowing how I feel." He released her and took a step back. "I'm a grown man and I know what I want, and I want you."

She shook her head and lifted her gaze. His heart cracked at the tears in her eyes.

"How am I to know if it's still not just transferred emotions? You were alone and hiding. Now you're free and have your daughter and can be her father. How can I be sure?"

"Because I don't need to lean on you anymore. I don't need your help. And I still feel the same."

She blinked.

Suddenly he was inches from her, crowding her. "How could you not know? I don't need a crutch, Laura, but I need you in my heart." He rubbed her arms, gazing deeply into her green eyes. "I always will. I can't breathe with the thought of you gone. I can't live without you. Stay, Laura."

She sobbed without sound, tears streaming down her cheeks.

"I love you," he said cupping her face in his broad hands, and she choked on her tears. "I love you!" he said fiercely. "From the moment I saw you. I loved you when you yelled at me for hiding, when you held my daughter and soothed her heartache and kept loving her when I couldn't. I loved you when you fought with me and cursed me." His eyes burned. "I was in a prison, Laura, but loving you is my real freedom. Don't send me back there."

She whispered his name, her gaze searching his and seeing her future unfold. "I love you," she said.

"Thank God." He closed his eyes and exhaled, and when he looked at her again, he said, "Marry me, be my wife, my best friend. Take my name, make babies with me, and make me the happiest man alive. I need you, my beauty."

She gazed into his bright blue eyes.

"Say yes," he said, worrying her lips.

"Are you demanding again or asking?"

"Begging."

"Aah, dishrags and begging, my kind of man."

He chuckled, the sound full of old pain and heartache releasing into the cool Carolina air.

"I love you, Richard Blackthorne," she whispered against his lips, then sank into one of his slow, wet kisses that made her toes curl.

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