Even if she hadn't yet managed one for herself.
As the bride, the groom, and their guests all moved inside for the reception, she stepped beneath the roof of the gazebo and onto a wooden floor covered in rose petals--where forever had been declared so many times before--when--
"Christie." Slowly, she turned to face Liam. "I missed you."
She'd never known how to lie. She definitely didn't know how to do it now. "I missed you too." So much that her heart had broken a little more every time she thought about the distance between them.
She could almost feel his relief, could certainly see it in his face. She was about to tell him everything she felt when he spoke first. "You were right."
Her heart was thundering in her chest. "About what?"
"About going." Finally, he crossed the distance between them, coming close enough that she knew he'd catch her if she fell. "I gave you so many reasons to leave me. So many reasons to stop loving me. All I wanted was to find one to make you stay. Just one. That was why I talked to my mother that night. Because I knew you wanted me to. Because you thought I needed to. Because I knew you'd leave if I didn't. But you left anyway."
Her chest had never felt so tight, so constricted. "I didn't want to go. Leaving you was the hardest thing I've ever done."
"When I was a teenager, I didn't understand that loving someone could mean having to break a promise. I've made and remade that mistake over and over for twenty years, but you were wise enough to know better than to keep a secret that was going to tear someone apart. That was already tearing me apart. The first time I saw you, I thought you looked so delicate. But you're the strongest person I've ever met. So strong that you'll sacrifice anything for the ones you love." He paused, his gaze sweeping over her. Sweeping through her, deep into her heart. "Even yourself."
She felt tears come again, but she didn't want anything to blur her vision of the beautiful man standing before her.
"It was a hell of a week," he said softly. "Probably the worst one since I was fourteen. But all I could think was that maybe, just maybe, if I kept at it, if I kept trying to forgive her a little more, then somehow you'd know and you'd come back."
"I told you I was coming back."
"Not just for the weekend. For good. But somewhere along the way, I realized I wasn't just talking with my mother for you anymore. I was trying to fix things in my family for me too."
She couldn't stand apart from him another second. She reached for him, wrapped her arms around his broad shoulders. And held on tight, wishing she'd never, ever have to let go of him again.
But he held her even tighter as he said, "You were gone, but I could feel your love behind me every step of the way, sweetheart."
She didn't bother to try to stop her tears as she pulled back to tell him, "It still is."
He slid his hands across her shoulders and down her arms, until he was holding her hands in his. And then he was getting down on one knee and looking up at her. "You taught me to trust again. And to love with all of my heart. Please stay, not only because you love your job and your friends and this town--but also because you want to live forever with me. Here. Together." She'd never seen him look so intense--or so full of love--as he said, "Marry me, Christie. Please, be my wife. And I promise to love you more than any man has ever loved a woman."
She had to join him on her knees so that they were eye to eye. Heart to heart. "You say I taught you so many things, but what about everything I've learned from you? For so long I was afraid to trust my heart, but it led me to you. You showed me a world I've only glimpsed from the outside, that I was too afraid to explore. That day out on your beach, with your plane, you believed in me in a way no one else ever has."
"You would have gotten on an airplane eventually, even without me."
"Maybe, but it wouldn't have been nearly as special. Nothing is as good without you, Liam. When I'm with you, everything is brighter, sweeter." She smiled. "I spent the week planning a round-the-world trip that I should have taken a long time ago, because being with you has shown me that I can't put off what I want--what I need--another moment." She intercepted the pain moving across his face by placing his hands over her heart. "I want you, Liam. I need you."
"But you just said you're leaving."
"You know how I'm always saying and doing things no one else would? Well, it turns out I couldn't give up hope when anyone else would have." She smiled even wider, feeling the joy of being with the man she loved in every cell. "I bought two round-the-world tickets. One for me. And one for you. Although now it looks like we're going to have to see a whole lot of stuff really fast, before my legal name changes and my ticket isn't valid anymore."
Liam's eyes were shining as he tested out her future married name. "Christie Kane. God, that sounds good."
"It really does."
"So is that a yes?"
Christie whispered, "Yes."
And then she leaned in close to seal it with a kiss.
Two weeks later...
Wesley threw them a heck of a going-away party at the inn. Christie's and Liam's bags were packed, and they were due to fly to London that night on the red-eye. For the next several months, the world was theirs, ready to be explored, hand in hand.
She looked around the room at her friends, then out the window at the lake. "All this time, I've been wanting to see the world. So why do I suddenly wish we could just take our bags back upstairs and stay right here?"
Liam smiled at his fiancee. "It will still be here when we come back."
It wasn't just a promise; it was something he knew from experience. He'd tried to leave Summer Lake behind, but he'd never succeeded. Christie was going to love the Eiffel Tower, the Tower of London, the beaches of Thailand--but he knew that nothing would ever take the place in her heart held by this small Adirondack town.
He wanted to say all of this to her, but before he could, his mother approached them. His parents were currently living apart. After the festival, Henry had moved out of the house he'd built and was renting a cottage on William Sullivan's property. Henry had come in earlier to say his good-byes, but he'd left before he and Susan could run the risk of bumping into each other in the inn's event room.
"This has been a lovely party," Susan said. It was far too easy to see the sorrow behind her smile. "I'm so happy for both of you. We all are."
Liam and his mother had been meeting every few days for coffee out on her porch. He knew how glad Christie was to see them trying to forge a new relationship. And he was glad, a million times over, to see Christie face his mother with none of the anger that had been eating her up before.
"Your father and I have been talking," Susan said. "Not a lot, but more than we were last week." Christie squeezed his hand as his mother added, "I'm hopeful that we'll be able to make a new start. One day soon."
Jean came to say good-bye next, kissing both of them on the cheek, one after the other.
"I'll take good care of your grandson," Christie said.
Jean smiled. "I never had any doubt of that," she said in her serene way, as if she had expected them to fall in love all along. "Loving with all our hearts is what Kanes do. That's how I knew you were one of us, honey--because you've always been willing to risk everything for love."
Christie blinked back a rush of tears as Wesley moved into their small circle and pointedly looked at his watch. "Time to go, lovebirds."
He was their chauffeur for the night, having offered to drop them at the airport on his way to visit John for a couple of days. Christie had been training Alice to run the inn while she was gone, and this would be her first trial run by herself.
After hugging everyone good-bye--with Christie solemnly promising Sarah and Calvin they'd be home with plenty of time to spare before they had their baby--the three of them headed off down the forested road to Albany International Airport.
During the drive, Liam and Wesley kept Christie laughing with their stories of growing u
p on the lake. There was nothing Liam loved more than seeing her smile and knowing he could make her laugh--everywhere, including in the bed they shared.
Wesley was just pulling up to the curb to let them out at Departures when he said, "I forgot to tell you guys. The plumbing contractor finally looked at that problem you've been having with noises and cold in your bedroom."
Liam and Christie looked at each other. "It's been silent and warm for the past two weeks." She smiled, and Liam knew what she was thinking, that the problems with the bedroom had gone away when they'd declared their love to each other, a love with no secrets in the way. His grandmother had told him all about what had happened on her honeymoon, and even Jean seemed to believe that their love had healed old wounds.
"What did he tell you was wrong?" Liam asked his brother.
Christie laughed. "Did he say anything about a ghost?"
Wesley clearly didn't know how to respond to that. "Uh, no. Should he have?"
Christie simply said, "Ask your grandmother about it." They hugged good-bye, and then she turned, flipping her silky hair over her shoulder as she headed in to the check-in area.