“Your family. I can’t go to Sea Breeze and be with your family and talk weddings as if it’s all going to happen when you’re not wearing my ring.”
“But we went through this.” Carson sat up. “I’m still wearing your ring. Around my neck.”
“Not on your finger. Not in a way that matters.” Blake shook his head. “The way I see it, we’re either engaged. Or we’re not.”
“I don’t see why you’re making a federal case of this.” She felt her fuse light up. “It’s up to you. I have a job offer. It will take me away for a few months and it’ll pay well. Then I’m home again. I’m okay with that. Lots of married couples are separated for a while.”
“Not me. Not for months at a time. We both know the temptations you’ll face. And when you come back, how long will you be home? How long before you accept the next job? And the next?”
“We’ll have to work out the ground rules. I’ll only take one or two jobs a year depending on the length. No more than a few months at one time.”
“That’s what you told me about this last job. Four months. You swore by it. But it took six.”
Carson flushed. There was no denying it, but she was tired of apologizing for it. “So I’ll only take one job a year.”
“I don’t want to have a marriage where my wife is gone for six months of the year. I don’t want to take those odds.”
Carson raked her hair with her fingers, then clutched it in fists while she counted to ten. He was being unreasonable. They sat across from each other, stiff shouldered, eyes blazing. “And I don’t want to sit around jobless. I told you that. I can’t. I won’t,” she said emphatically. She dropped her hands. “Why should I be the one to give up my career? You could move to California, you know.”
He reached out to take her hand. “I know,” he said in a low voice.
When he lowered his tone, it immediately diffused the tension between them. Blake could cool quickly, and in doing so, he could always bring her down from the edge as well. It was a gift, she knew. One she appreciated. He managed wildlife as readily as he did the humans who worked under him with that same calm and easy manner. But she’d seen his temper flare, too. When he got truly angry, he was formidable. He could be terribly stubborn. As, she knew, could she. Harper referred to them as Scarlett and Rhett.
“Here’s the thing,” he said in that soothing tone of voice. “I’ve thought about this all morning.”
She looked into his face. His brown eyes appeared so black she couldn’t tell where the pupils ended and the irises began.
“We have things to work out,” he acknowledged. “Our schedules may be tough to manage. But all couples have issues to get through. That’s what marriage is all about. Taking the good and bad, the hard and easy. And making it work. The way I see it, if we can’t get through this now, then what’s the point of being engaged or promised or whatever you want to call it? On the other hand, if we love each other, and we want to be together, to get married, you should wear the ring and together we’ll figure something out. We have time. Then, if we can’t find a solution we can live with”—he shrugged in the Gallic manner—“then you can give the ring back to me before the wedding and we’ll call it all off for good.”
Carson could only stare back, mute. The thought of breaking her engagement had crossed her mind. But the reality of it was too cold. She shivered.
Blake saw her reaction and took both her hands. “But I don’t believe that will happen. Because I love you, Carson Muir. And I believe you love me.”
“I do,” she said softly though urgently.
“We’ve been through worse.”
Carson’s mind whirled back through a series of traumas that she’d fought her way through the past year. And each time Blake was there, enduring it all with her.
“Yes, we have.”
“Have faith, Carson. Wear my ring.”
Carson smiled tremulously. She stretched far across the bed to the small marble-topped bedside table to grasp the diamond-and-sapphire ring that Blake had given her the previous September. The ring she’d removed during the night with the intention of slipping it on a chain and wearing it around her neck. She was unaware of the beautiful, long line her slender, athletic body presented to Blake, but she felt his hand once again slide across her curves. Sitting back up, she held the ring between two fingers. Then, in one movement, she slid the ring back onto her left ring finger and smiled up at him.
“Carson!” Harper exclaimed, grinning wide. “You’re here!”
Carson looked much the same as she had the previous fall. Tall and exotic with her long dark hair, brilliant sapphire-blue eyes, and her finely tuned body that turned heads wherever she went. Yet she appeared different, too. The restlessness had settled and her manner had a new softness. She wore no makeup yet had the glow of a woman well loved.
“You look beautiful. Rested. It must’ve been an easy trip.”
“I caught some z’s on the plane.” Carson moved through the open door into the house, her eyes scanning Harper. “You look different, too. Less sleek New York and more French country. I like it. Careful, though. Don’t go too Suzy Homemaker on me.”
“I think there’s a compliment in there somewhere,” Blake said to Harper, stepping into the house.
“Harper knows I swing from the hip, don’t you, Sis?”
“I do.” Harper laughed, closing the door behind them. Carson was always honest, sometimes brutally so.
Carson leaned forward to give her sister a hug, then pulled back and asked, “Where’s Mamaw?”
“Oh, she’s here somewhere. Probably in her cottage. She’ll be up in a minute.”
“The cottage?” Carson asked with surprise.
“Yes.” Harper paused to kiss Blake and offer him a hug, then turned to Carson. “Mamaw moved into the cottage. I thought you knew that.”
“No,” Carson said coldly. “Why would she move into the cottage? This is her house.”
Harper’s smile fell, replaced by stunned surprise.
Carson immediately realized her mistake and quickly amended, “I mean, it’s your house, of course. But it’s still her house, too. In a way. I mean . . .” She let her words slide away feeling sure her meaning was understood.