“I lied. I heard everything. And I want to hear it again, right now, while you’re looking into my eyes.”
She sucked in a breath.
“Fine. I’ll go first,” he said. “I fell early and fast for you, so fast I was dizzy almost every single second we spent together. And I loved it. I love your sweet laugh, I love how frigging smart you are, I love how you took your own strengths and made a successful business for yourself. I love how you take care of your grandma, coming back here to a place that wasn’t necessarily filled with happy memories just to make sure she wasn’t heading for the crazy house.”
“Excuse me,” Lucille said through the kitchen door. “I don’t mean to interrupt but I’m years away from the crazy house.”
Tanner didn’t take his eyes off Callie but he did smile. And at the sight, the knot in her chest loosened very slightly.
“I’m going to tell you what else I love,” he said. “Even with our audience. You okay with that?”
All she could do was nod.
“Good,” he said. He put his hands on her hips and lifted her up to sit on the counter. He pushed her thighs open and stepped between them so that he was flush up against her. “You,” he said simply. “I love you.”
The knot loosened a little bit more even as her heart swelled against her rib cage so that she could scarcely draw a breath. “You heard me tell my grandma how I feel about you,” she said. “That doesn’t mean you have to say it back. I don’t expect—”
He put a finger over her lips, shutting her up. “You should expect,” he said. “And this is me. I say only what I mean, always. You can take that to the bank, Callie. That, and the fact that I love you, I’m always going to love you, and if you need to hear it every day for the rest of your life to believe it, I think I can manage that.”
Her eyes filled, and she wrapped her fingers around his wrist, pulling his hand from her mouth. “You said your life was full,” she said, “that you had everything you needed.”
“I was wrong,” he said, gaze darkening and pinning her in place. “I didn’t realize I needed you in my life. Now I can’t imagine my life without you. I fit with you, Callie. You’re my other half, my better half.”
“I…” She shook her head. “I’m not even sure what that means.”
“It means—” He hauled her in close and pressed hot kisses along her jaw, his voice low, for her ears only as he spoke in between each kiss. “That the next time you and I make love, it won’t be because we have an itch to scratch, or because we’re convenient, or because of any benefit plan.”
“Oh, for God’s sake” came Lucille’s voice through the door. “They’re talking too quietly. I can’t hear a thing.”
Tanner grinned and his voice lowered even further, his lips brushing the shell of Callie’s ear now, sending heat spiraling through her body. “It’ll be because we can’t live another day without being together.”
She opened her mouth to respond to that and his lips caught hers, his tongue making itself right at home with hers.
“The next time,” he said when they broke free for air, “it will be forever. Now.” He waited until she looked up at him. “Say it again. Tell me what I want to hear while you’re looking at me, talking directly to me.”
She waited for the chest pain of anxiety to hit but it didn’t. In fact, the words were right there on her tongue, ready to be said. “I love you, Tanner.”
He let out a whoosh of air and pressed closer, dropping his forehead to hers, making her realize she hadn’t been the only one feeling the strain of a possible rejection.
Then he lifted his head a fraction of an inch. His mouth brushing against hers, he said, “Again.”
She cupped his scruffy jaw and met his gaze. “I love you,” she told him.
His mouth curved. “Did it hurt?”
She laughed softly. “No.”
She kissed one side of his jaw, and then kissed the other, and then his chin. And finally his mouth. “I love you,” she said against his lips.
He caressed her cheek with his thumb, the palm of his hand warm against her jaw line. “I’m not going to be able to get enough of that.” He entwined their fingers and put her hand to his chest so that she could feel his heart beating strong. “It hurt when I thought I’d blown it enough that I might not ever hear that from you,” he said.
“You didn’t blow it,” she told him. “I did, by not letting myself free fall for you even after I knew you’d catch me.”
“Always,” he vowed, and brought tears to her eyes.
“It’s you and me together now,” she said, giving him a vow in return. “I won’t hold back again.”
“I know. But you and I are still in a vulnerable place,” he said. “I want a commitment.”
She stared at him, her heart surging with emotion. Good emotion. “A commitment?”
“Yeah,” he said, and then kissed her.
Just as the kiss got as serious as his statement, including a good amount of tongue and heat, there was a knock at the back door.
“Ignore it,” Tanner said. “We’re busy. They’ll go away.”
“Wish we could” came Cole’s amused voice.
Callie pulled free of Tanner and looked at the door. Cole, Sam, and Troy stood there, all three of them bent and staring in through the window—although Cole had his hands over Troy’s eyes.