For me, I realize.

And suddenly, I don’t want to keep him waiting any longer. Any fears I felt at the idea of walking through this crowded store, all the way up to the front, to pledge myself in front of all these people, melt away. All I want to do is be with Xander, right now. I want to make this marriage real and official. I want to promise to be his for the rest of our lives together.

I want that life to start right now.

The music shifts into my processional. Patricia walks up the aisle first, and Devan squeezes my hand one last time before she turns to walk next. Finally, it’s my turn. I grip my bouquet in both hands and suck in a deep breath. Up front, the whole bookshop full of people rise to their feet, their gazes turned back, on me.

Then I start to walk, in tune to the music, one step at a time.

Everyone smiles and beams and whispers. I notice cameras flash, and people pointing, gaping, grinning as they talk about me. The dress, how I look, how this is going. But I tune them all out. I have eyes only for Xander, up front, his hands folded in front of himself.

His eyes find mine, and the astonished look that spreads across his face nearly stops me dead in my tracks. He looks like he’s just won the lottery. Like he can’t believe his luck.

Tears sting at the backs of my eyes. My feet stumble, and it’s all I can do to keep moving, keep walking.

But I do. Because Xander’s waiting for me. And the way he’s looking at me now gives me strength. The kind of strength I never even knew I had.

I reach the front of the room, struggling to suppress my smile. But when Xander winks, I can’t do it anymore. I let it break across my face, a huge, stupid grin that feels both out of place and perfectly right here, where it’s just the two of us, about to pledge ourselves to one another.

“Please, be seated, guests,” the minister says, and my heart skips a beat.

Throughout the whole ceremony, a short but meaningful one that we planned ourselves with the minister’s help, I can’t tear my gaze from Xander’s. Nor can he drag his from mine, it seems. His eyes bore into me, giving me strength, bearing me up. When he reads his vows, though, I nearly do lose it.

“Melanie, I promise to love and to cherish you, to care for you, and yes, to spoil you rotten,” he adds, and I can’t help it. I let out a faint, weak laugh. “For as long as we both shall live. You are the light of my life, and I’ll show you just how much you mean to me, every day.”

My throat wells up, choked tight with emotion. Behind me, I hear faint sobs, and I’m not sure whether they’re coming from Patricia or Devan or maybe both.

“Xander.” I flash him a watery smile. “I promise to love and to cherish you, to care for you in sickness and in health. For as long as we both shall live. You taught me what life can really be, you opened my horizons, and I pledge to do the same for you, every day.”

His eyes go watery, tears swimming along the edges. Then he reaches back to accept the ring from Marco, and when he slides it onto my finger, it feels right. Like finally coming home after a long time away, to a place I never even knew I belonged.

When I give him the ring that Devan hands me, an even louder sob interrupts us. We both glance over to find Xander’s father weeping, a handkerchief pressed to his face, and we both exchange grins, unable to resist. We know he’s just as happy for his son as we are that we found one another.

And in some strange way, I guess we both have Xander’s father’s weird rules to thank for forcing us together in the first place.

“You may now kiss the bride,” the minister announces, and Xander draws me to him, his lips finding mine. I lean back, his arms supporting me as he tilts me back, our kiss deep and slow and sweet, filled with the promises we just made aloud to one another a moment before.

When we break apart, the whole store erupts in cheers and applause. The recessional starts to play, and Xander hooks his arm through mine to lead me back up the aisle, this time, the two of us together. As we walk, he leans down to whisper in my ear, his breath hot against my cheek.

“Now this bookstore is special for a whole new reason,” he murmurs, and the words send a thrill through me, make my belly tighten and my pulse skip in my veins.