looked over her little patch of yard. "I don't know if we can be friends the way we were before. I know it's hard to be at odds with someone you care about. I made up with my father tonight."

"Did you?" He stepped forward, then stopped because she'd shifted away. Just a little, just enough to tell him he no longer had the right to touch. "I'm glad."

"I suppose I have you to thank for it. If I hadn't been so mad at you, I wouldn't have let myself be mad at him and get everything out. I'm grateful for that, and I appreciate your apology. Now I'm tired, so—"

"You said a lot of things to me today." She wasn't going to brush him off until he'd finished.

"Yes, I did." She shifted again, met his gaze straight on.

"Some of it was right, but not all. Not acting on how I felt about you before… it's the way it had to be."

"Because you say so."

"Because you couldn't have been more than fourteen when I started loving you, and wanting you. I was close to eight years older. I was a man when you were still a girl. It would have been wrong to touch you then. Maybe I waited too long." He stopped, shook his head. "I did wait too long. But I'd had time to think it through and I'd promised myself I wouldn't get you tangled up with me. You were the only one who I wanted enough that it mattered. Part of it was for me because I knew if I ever had you I wouldn't want to let you go."

"And you'd already decided that you would."

"I'd decided that I was going to live my life pretty much alone. I was managing that well enough until recently."

"You see it as a noble sacrifice. I see it as ignorance." She lifted her hands, knowing she was heating up again. "I guess we'd better leave it at that."

"You know damn well that if we were to get married you'd want more children."

"Yes, I would. And while I'll never agree with your reasoning for not making them together, there are other ways to make a family. You of all people should know. We could have adopted children."

He stared at her. "You… I figured you'd want to get pregnant."

"You figured right. I would want it because I would treasure your child living inside me, and knowing you were there with us. But that doesn't mean I couldn't find another way. What if I couldn't have children, Ethan? What if we were in love and planning to be married, and we found out I couldn't have babies? Would you stop loving me because of it? Would you tell me you couldn't marry me?"

"No, of course not. That's—"

"That's not love," she finished. "But it's not a matter of can't. It's a matter of won't. And I could have tried to understand your feelings if you hadn't kept them from me. If you hadn't turned me away when all I wanted was to help you. And I won't compromise on everything. I won't be with a man who doesn't respect my feelings and who won't share his problems with me. I won't be with a man who doesn't love me enough to stay. To make a promise to me to grow old with me and to be a father to my child. And I won't spend my life having an affair with you and then having to explain to my daughter why you didn't love and respect me enough to marry me."

She stepped toward the door.

"Don't." He shut his eyes, fought down panic. "Don't turn away from me, Grace."

"I'm not doing the turning away. Don't you see, Ethan? You've been doing the turning away all along."

"I've ended up right back where I started. Looking at you. Needing you. I'm never going to be able to stop now. I made so many promises to myself about you. I keep breaking them. I let her put her hands on this, too," he said slowly. "I let her put her mark on what we have. I want to clear that mark away, if you give me the chance."

He lifted his shoulders. "I've been doing some thinking."

She nearly smiled. "Well, there's news."

"Do you want to hear what I'm thinking now?" Following instinct, listening to his heart, he started up the stairs. "I'm thinking it's always been you, Grace, and only you. It's always going to be you, and only you. I can't help it if I want to take care of you. It doesn't mean I think you're weak. It's only because you're precious to me."

"Ethan." He would make her give in. She knew it. "Don't."

"And I'm thinking I'm not going to be able to give you the chance to live without me after all."

He took her hands, holding them when she tried to tug them free. And keeping his eyes on hers, he drew her out and down the steps to catch the last gilded light of the setting sun.

"I'll never let you down," he told her. "I'll never stop needing you to stand beside me. You make me happy, Grace. I haven't valued that enough, but I will from now on. I love you."

He touched his lips to her brow when she trembled. "The sun's setting. You said that was the best time for daydreams. Maybe it's the best time to pick the dream you want to hold on to. I want to hold on to this one. I need you to look at me," he said softly and lifted her face to his. "Will you marry me?"

Joy and hope blossomed within her. "Ethan—"

"Don't answer yet." But he'd seen the answer, and overcome with gratitude, he brought her hands to his lips. "Will you give Aubrey to me, let me give her my name? Let me be her father?"

Tears began to swim in her eyes. She willed them back. She wanted to see him clearly as he stood watching her with his face so serious, lit by the last quiet light of the day. "You know—"

"Not yet," he murmured and this time touched his lips to hers. "There's one more. Will you have my children, Grace?"

He saw the tears she'd been struggling to hold back spill over and wondered that he could ever have thought to deny them both that joy, that right, that promise.

"Make a life with me, one that comes from love, one that I can watch grow in you. Only a fool would believe that what comes from what we have together would be anything but beautiful."

She framed his face with her hands, took that picture into her heart. "Before I answer, I need to know that this is what you want, not just for me but for yourself."

"I want a family. I want to build what my parents built, and I need to build it with you."

Her lips curved slowly. "I'll marry you, Ethan. I'll give you my daughter. I'll make children with you. And we'll take care of each other."

He drew her close, just to hold, while the sun slipped away and the light shimmered into evening. Her heart beat quick and light against his. Her single quiet sigh echoed seconds before the whippoorwill began to sing in the plum tree next door.

"I was afraid you weren't going to be able to forgive me."

"So was I."

"Then I figured, hell, she loves me too much. I can get around her." The laugh rumbled out as he nuzzled her throat. "You're not the only one who can reel somebody in like a damn rockfish."

"Took you long enough to bait the hook."

"If you take your time about things, you end up with the best at the end of the day." He buried his face in her hair, wanting the scent and the texture. "Now, I've got the best. Good, solid stoneware."

Laughing, she leaned back so she could see his eyes. The humor there, she thought, was aimed at both of them. "You're a smart man, Ethan."

"Few hours ago you said I was stupid."

"You were." She pressed a noisy kiss on his cheek. "Now you're smart."

"I missed you, Grace."

She closed her eyes and held tight, thinking it was a day for forgiveness. And hope. And beginnings. "I missed you, Ethan." She sighed, then gave the air a puzzled sniff. "Peanuts," she said and snuggled against him. "That's funny. I could swear I smell peanuts."

"I'll explain it to you." He tilted her head up for one soft kiss. "In a little while."

Turn the page for a preview of

INNER HARBOR

Nora Roberts's trilogy about the lives and loves of three brothers continues with a captivating new novel…

Phillip Quinn would always remember the generosity of the couple who took him in and gave him a second chance at life. And he vowed to keep his promise to his father by helping to raise young Seth. Even through the difficult times, the Qu

inn family had never been so strong. Until Phillip falls in love with a beautiful woman who holds a secret that could destroy everything…

phillip quinn died at the age of thirteen. Since the overworked and underpaid staff at the Baltimore City Hospital emergency room zapped him back in less than ninety seconds, he wasn't dead very long.

As far as he was concerned, it was plenty long enough.

What had killed him—briefly—was two .25-caliber bullets pumped out of a Saturday night special shoved through the open window of a stolen Toyota Celica. The finger on the trigger had belonged to a close personal friend—or as near to a close personal friend as a thirteen-year-old thief could claim on Baltimore's bad streets.

The bullets missed his heart. Not by much, but in later years Phillip considered it just far enough.

That heart, young and strong, if sadly jaded, continued to beat as he lay, his blood pouring out over the used condoms and crack vials in the stinking gutter on the corner of Fayette and Paca.


Tags: Nora Roberts Chesapeake Bay Saga Romance
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