“Oh God. You’re here. You’re really here.”
Cord kicked the door shut and just held her. He tipped her face back to look into her eyes. “Before I kiss you, before I touch you, let me say this: I love you. Sweet baby Jesus. I love you so damn much.” He kissed her with a mix of tenderness and passion that had tears springing to her eyes.
When she broke away, she whispered, “I love you too.”
“Then marry me, AJ. Not because we’re compatible, or because you are a born ranch woman, or because you’d make a good mother. Marry me for me. Marry me because I’m a selfish bastard and I want you to be mine forever. Marry me because I don’t know if I’ll survive the rest of my life without havin’ you by my side every damn day. Please say yes, baby doll. Make your home with me. With us. Make me the luckiest man in the world.”
Cord kissed her again.
All the need and hunger that’d been dormant inside her ignited like a brush fire. She tugged him toward her bedroom.
He gently dug his bootheels into the carpet. “Nuh-uh. No hanky-panky until you’re wearin’ my ring and you’re my wife.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “That’s one.”
“Can I have the swat now? I’ll even take my skirt off. Shirt too.” Her hands went to the buttons on her blouse.
“Amy Jo. You ornery cuss. Keep them clothes on.”
“I missed you. I want you. I don’t wanna wait.” She nipped his chin and scraped her teeth down his throat. “Bet I can getcha to change your mind.”
“Probably. But we ain’t got much time, so there’s two things we hafta talk about first.” He reached inside his suit coat pocket and removed an envelope. “Your mama gave me this to give to you.”
“What is it?”
“I have no idea.”
AJ opened the letter and her heart caught at the familiar formal handwriting: Sweetheart-I’m glad Cord finally knows the truth about what you did to keep our ranch going.
I’m thrilled he’s asked for permission to marry you and I know you’ll be happy to be home in Sundance where you belong and with a man who loves you like crazy.
You’ve no idea the guilt your father and I felt about how you worked so hard and got nothing in return but more work. In hindsight, we knew what we did was wrong. There’s no way to make up for the lost time now, except to offer you this check as “back wages”
and hope it eases the way for you to start your own business. You earned it. I’m so proud of you for finishing school. I miss you. Bring your new hubby and son up for a visit after you get settled. Congratulations!
Love you, baby girl,
She glanced down, in utter disbelief, at the check for thirty-five thousand dollars. “I don’t understand. Where did she get the money?”
“Our buyout was very generous, AJ. But I had nothin’ to do with this.” He pointed to the check. “I ain’t gonna argue that you earned it. You shouldn’t argue either.”
AJ’s mind was already whirling. She could rent that storefront space in Sundance she’d been eyeing. Heck, she had money to renovate even if the loan from the state didn’t come through. She looked up at Cord. “Do you know if that space in the Sandstone Building next to Macie’s restaurant is still up for grabs?”
He shook his head. “Afraid not. It’s spoken for.”
Cord put a finger under her chin. “By you. I leased it in your name, AJ, last month.”
“Why? Did you know Mama was gonna give me this money?”
“No. I know you. I have faith in you. I know how good you are at givin’ massages and so will everyone else in the county. Even if you wouldn’t have gotten this unexpected windfall, I figure the state of Wyoming ain’t dumb enough not to fund your business. I didn’t want you to miss out on the space you’d set your heart on.”
“Really? You did it for me?”
“There ain’t nothin’ I wouldn’t do for you.” Just as he bent down to kiss her, the door opened and Keely and Colt burst in.
“Did she say yes?”
“Of course she said yes. The woman’s been in love with me since she was five.” He whispered, “I’ve got a lot of catchin’ up to do.”
Keely squealed and AJ smacked Cord in the arm before Keely squeezed her tight.
“We’re really gonna be sisters now. This is so cool! So, you guys ready?”
“Ready for what?”
“You haven’t told her?” Colt grinned. “Typical.”
He sauntered over and hugged AJ. “Welcome to the family. I’m gonna enjoy teasin’ my bro about bein’ a cradle robber for a long time to come.”
AJ looked at Colt. He looked fit and healthy, even when a sense of wariness surrounded him that hadn’t been there before. She whirled back around and faced her intended. “Tell me what?”
“That we’re goin’ to Vegas. Tonight. To get married. Thought I’d surprise you. Colt and Keely are standin’ up for us.”
She stared at him, stunned.
Which caused him to babble. “Come on, baby doll. I love you. You love me. I don’t wanna wait. You told me when we talked about gettin’ married on the phone the past coupla weeks that you didn’t want a big weddin’ ceremony. Colt and I got three days before we’re needed at home. Keely said she’d kill me if she didn’t get to see us tie the knot. Ky’s stayin’ with my folks, though it’s makin’ him mighty antsy waitin’ for us to come home. I thought we could get hitched, and spend the night in the honeymoon suite of a swanky hotel. Then we’d come back here, pack your stuff and you could come home with me for good.”
She continued to stare at him.
“Ah, hell. Are you mad?”
“No. Just trying to wrap my head around the word home and you in the same sentence.”
Cord’s eyes softened. “Same thing, in my opinion.”
She melted. The feeling of rightness, of inevitability, flowed over as sweetly as it had when she’d been a young girl. But unlike then, she now knew real, true love earned through trial and error was better than any one-sided fairy tale love from afar.
“You guys gonna stand here makin’ goo-goo eyes at each other? Or are we goin’ to Vegas?” Keely demanded.
“Whatcha say, cowgirl mine?” Cord asked.