Glimpse Eternity by Ryan Jo Summers

It should not be this difficult, Kasey Griffin decided, taking aim at the nail head once more. Missing, she nicked her thumb again and dropped the hammer. Swallowing another oath, she sucked tenderly at her bruised thumb, cursing the wave of dizziness that lead to making this such an impossible task. Honestly, hammering a few nails in the wall was all she wanted to do.
Glimpse Eternity
Glimpse Eternity by Ryan Jo Summers
Well, not today at least. Temporarily admitting defeat, she returned the tools to the box and shoved them aside. Heading to the freezer, she withdrew a small bag of blended vegetables and a pint of ice cream. Sometimes chocolate chunk caramel ripple can have medicinal benefits. Four bites later, the phone rang. Tempted to ignore it, she waited for the monotone caller identification. “Call from Abbie,” the automated voice announced. Setting her ice cream aside, she swept the phone up from the cradle. “Hey, Sis, what's up?” She hoped her tone sounded cheerful. “Not much, thought I'd call and chat. Do you have a minute?” “Yeah, of course. Everything okay with you and the baby?” Abbie was six months pregnant. “Fine, a few less kicks today. How about you? You sound tired. Are you having a bad day, sweetie?” Kasey sighed. Sometimes it was hard to tell. “I guess so,” she admitted, opting to tell her about the most recent failure. “You know Bobby would have come over and done that for you.” “Yes, but I want to be able to do things for myself.” She needed to be able to do things on her own, if only to prove to herself she could. That was one big difference between them. Abbie had no problems asking for help, whereas she'd rather swallow a toad than ask anyone for assistance. Character flaw? Probably. Did that make it necessarily bad? No. Just stubborn. But that was how she ran the daily affairs of The Next Chapter bookstore. And how she planned to keep running them. “Baby,” Abbie said, her voice heavy. “You have MS. You can't do it all. No one expects you to do it all. And certainly not all the time. It's okay to lean on someone once in a while.” Easy for Abbie to say. She had a wonderful husband to lean on. Bobby would do anything for her. “So what are your plans for the weekend?” Abbie asked. Kasey knew her sister was trying to lighten the heavy conversation by switching gears. “A few of us girls are going out Friday night to Austin's Alley to hear a band. Molly's cousin is one of the musicians. They're called Been All Around.” “That sounds like a great time,” Abbie said, delight obvious in her tone. “Don't wear yourself out before you go. Tell me about it later, okay?” “Sure, at lunch one day.” The sisters tried to get together once a week. It gave Kasey a break from the bookstore and, well, she wasn't sure what exactly Abbie got out of it, but it was their routine for three years now. Her Multiple Sclerosis support group said to stay active with family and friends so she looked forward to any outing she could get. * * * * Friday night and Austin's Alley was packed. A small band stood on stage, with a lead female belting out some mournful bluesy tune, as Kasey and her friends entered. They were shown to a round table up front. “That's not them,” Molly said, waving to the band. “The lead singer, Ben, is a dreamy hunk. I’ve seen their pictures. It's his name they used when they formed the band.” Candlelight flickered on the tables and a server came for their orders. Kasey opted for mineral water. “Has he been all around?” Molly shrugged. “I guess so. He was a singer and musician before he moved here. He's more experienced than some of the guys in the band. My cousin said he’d been in lots of bands and a solo artist for a long time before they joined up.” What would make an experienced musician move to Portstown? Kasey wondered. It was not exactly well known for its musical opportunities. Maybe he had family nearby, though it didn’t seem likely. Someone would know. Since music wasn’t a huge industry here, what other reason did he have to come to their quaint Carolina seaside town? The drinks and appetizers arrived and the female singer and her band finished their set, bowing and retreating back stage. A buzz filled the room during the wait. The curtain parted again and five men came on stage, carrying guitars and drumsticks. Molly punched Kasey's arm. “That's them. Max is the one at the drums.” But Kasey only had eyes for the man in the center. Tall with dark hair sweeping off his face, he adjusted the belt on his guitar, chocolate brown eyes studying the crowd. They seemed to stop at her, causing her breath to pause and then skip wildly forward a few beats. He gave the microphone an adjustment too and sent a small smile her way, making her heart skip a beat. Long and lean, dressed in khakis and a gold t-shirt, he settled onto the bar stool and glanced around at his band mates. At their silent nods, he strummed his thumb over the guitar strings, sending a chill up Kasey's spine. Moving to the microphone, he spoke in a purring rumble that sent a shiver up Kasey’s spine. “I'm Ben Salem and we are Been All Around.” Applause lifted around the room as they each tested their instruments once more. Ben counted off the beats, swept the crowd until he found Kasey again, and started to sing. The tender ballad made her heart gallop in beat to their toe tapping. By the time he finished the song, she had to wipe a tear away. * * * * Saturdays at the bookstore were traditionally busy. Dressed in a long, peach skirt and a soft, gray sweater, Kasey was ready for a long day. Still strumming inside from the music of last night, she felt great. The bookstore was her baby and brought her great pleasure. One tangible and daily thing she could do to prove to the world that she could take care of both herself and a business, despite this curse laid upon her. Last night's outing had been a great tonic to her occasional moments of doubt. Balanced on a step stool, reaching for a stack of books requested by a customer, she was caught unprepared for the wave of dizziness suddenly enveloping her. Closing her eyes, she felt her breath catch. Her hold tightened on the edge of the bookshelf as she gritted her teeth, riding it out. Until the tingling in her arm forced her grip free. Horrified, cursing, she felt herself going over backward, helpless to stop the inevitable crash upon the floor. Two strong arms caught her, breaking her fall and cradling her. Breathless, she pried her eyes open and looked into those same dark fudgy eyes from last night. Instantly, she was reminded of sinful brownies. She swallowed. “Are you all right, ma'am?” he asked, his voice the same rich timbre she had heard in her mind all night. Like music itself, it carried a rich melody. It caught her off guard, startling her senses. Scents of fresh minty toothpaste and aftershave surrounded her. Breathless, she nodded. How much of an incompetent mess did she look like? Silently cursing her weakness once more, she nodded again as he lowered her to the floor. She pulled herself from his grasp. He wore tan khakis again, worn and snug. His faded purple t-shirt stretched over his chest. Fleetingly, she felt the taut muscles beneath the soft fabric. “Thank you,” she managed to say, dusting herself off to avoid his concerned stare. “I'm fine. Just lost my balance is all.” Cursed MS. “What did you need? I can get it for you.” She bristled. Handsome, polite, and a great singer, she still did not need him to help her. But he pushed past her frown and reached for stacks of books. “Which ones were you after?” Shoulders slumping in momentary surrender, she pointed to the stack in question. With maddening ease, he brought them down and held them, waiting for her next instruction. One would think he worked here, she thought with a bit of frustration. She called to her assistant. “Sarah, take these for Miss Wills,” she ordered, fighting to keep the crispy tone from her voice. “Thank you,” Kasey said again, slowly turning back to him. She wished she could think of something more intelligent, and less snappy, to say. Finally, she just threw on a smile and said, “I'm Kasey Griffin, the owner here. What brings you to The Next Chapter?” “I noticed you at the show last night,” he began, hands hooked in his pockets as he glanced around. “I'm fairly new to your town and like to read, so Max suggested I stop by.” He gave a shrug. “I like to support locally owned businesses over big box ones whenever I can.” “You like to read?” Somehow, she was surprised at the words. She wasn't sure why. She licked her lips, suddenly nervous. “Sure.” Again, he gave a lift of his shoulder that could have meant anything. “As a songwriter, I have an appreciation of any written word. Song lyrics or poem or novel. It's all writing.” “I see.” How true. “Okay, so what do you like to read? Can I point you somewhere particular?” She half expected him to say he liked popular fiction or thrillers or something masculine. She was pretty good at reading her customers. “I like just about anything. Current nonfiction, anything about music, westerns, and mysteries. I'll read poetry collections if they are good ones.” He paused, looking around again and back to her, his head dipping close. “There is nothing wrong with a good love story either.” That musical purr, that glint in his dark eyes made her heart gallop away. She breathed deep, taking in the coffee on his breath and fresh mint. Gum? “No, no there isn't,” she heard herself stammer. “Well, come over here. We have a couple biographies on people in the music world and a selection of popular mystery novels. Poetry is one row down.” * * * * Half an hour later, Ben left with three books in a bag swinging from his fingertips. He had really liked Kasey’s fresh and fruity scent. Her obvious frustration at his offer to help matched her reddish-blonde hair and green eyes. And freckles. Oh, how he dug the freckles. Though for the life of him, he could not figure out what she was so bristly about. If he had not caught her, she'd probably have a big bump on her cute little butt. And he sure wasn’t complaining about holding a soft-as-peach lady in his arms for a moment. Whistling a tune, he wondered if there was some excuse he could come up with to go back there soon. * * * * Sunday found Kasey at home in her loft apartment. Curled on the sofa, she was designing the new storefront display. Closing up last night, she paused at the windows. It was time to give it another change; the New Year theme was getting old. Beside her, Muttonchop wagged his feathery tail and looked up hopefully each time she shifted or sighed. Dear Muttonchop. She had brought the medium-sized, brown and white mutt home from the shelter two years ago. In that time, he had become a loyal pet. He was almost as self-sufficient as her six-year-old ginger cat, Thomas, who sat bathed in sunlight on the window ledge, watching the world below. Abbie and Bobby, her pets, The Next Chapter; they were Kasey's world and life. They were all she needed. All she wanted. A little time out with friends once in a while and she was fine. So why couldn’t she concentrate on the fresh display? Why was her mind preoccupied with the handsome new singer in town? Finally, uttering a groan, she tossed the sketchpad down. “Come on, Muttonchop, let's go for a walk.” CHAPTER TWO “Excuse me, but they said I could find you back here.” Sucking in a breath, Kasey almost jumped. That musical voice could only belong to one man. She straightened up from digging and unpacking boxes and braced herself for that gentle smile and those sinfully chocolate eyes. Suddenly she yearned for brownie chunk ice cream. He’d been close enough yesterday for her to notice the tiny gold flecks. He probably thought she was a terrible klutz, but nonetheless she favored him with a bright smile. She would be professional if it killed her. “Yes you can. And you did,” she began, daring herself not to babble. Standing, she brushed herself off. “Is there something wrong with the books?” He smiled, looking just a little bit nervous. “No, the books are fine. I nearly finished the poetry collection already.” He paused. “You were right. It was a good one.” Silence hung before them. Questions filled Kasey's mind. If she kept her mouth closed, she would not babble. So what did he want? “Was there something special you needed to see me about?” She could not keep her mouth shut. He shifted his weight, rocking back on his heels. “Actually, yes there was. I was wondering.” He paused, taking a breath as color tinged his cheeks. “Would you be interested in having dinner with me?” She gasped, her hand going to her chest. That had not been one of the possibilities that crowded her mind. He chuckled. “I didn't mean to scare you with the suggestion. I just thought dinner with you would be pleasant. Tonight, maybe? Unless you have other attachments.” “Attachments? No, I don't.” She never allowed herself the time. Besides, why bother, she had always asked herself, especially since her diagnosis. But his honest eyes seemed to beg her. Something inside her heart crumbled like dry mud squeezed tight. “Okay, dinner,” she heard herself agree. His smile, transformed from nervous to anxious, melted what was left of her reservation. “Seven o' clock? Do you know where The Landing is? Down near the boardwalk?” He nodded again, a little slower. “I can find it,” he promised. “I will meet you there.” She gave quick directions. “Seven.” He brought his hands together in a clap, followed by a brisk rub, as though pleased. “Great. Now, did you need any of this stuff moved up front? I could help you with that before I go.” That automatic bristle bubbled up within her. She could do it herself. She knew how. Just take small amounts over several trips until she had it all moved. That was the way she did things now. Or he could easily move all three boxes in probably two trips. “No, I don't need much, thank you though,” she replied, hearing Abbie's voice ringing in her ears, and she called herself a fool. She could get Sarah to help if she really needed it. He looked a little disappointed but shrugged. “Okay, seven tonight. See you then, Kasey.” Spinning, he slipped from the back room. She waited, breath held, until she heard the front door bell chime. * * * * The Landing was a mid-scale restaurant facing the bay. It was locally owned and Kasey liked to support local businesses as much as Ben apparently did. Prices were fair, service was good, and the food great. They met, taking a corner table with a view of bobbing sailboats. Ben gave the menu a quick study and nodded at her recommendation before replacing it. “So what do people do here in Portstown?” he asked once their orders were taken. She sipped her water. “Depends. Our town offers a lot, depending on what one’s interests are.” He chuckled. “Okay, what do you like about being here in Portstown?” he clarified. “I work. The Next Chapter takes up a lot of my time.” It was to be the next chapter of her life. “Beyond that.” “I have a sister and brother-in-law. They're expecting their first baby in a few months.” “Congratulations. You'll be an aunt.” He swirled his ice cubes. “Beyond that?” “I have a dog. Muttonchop. I like to take him over to the park, or I rent a boat and we go to the island over there.” She pointed to a dot of land across the bay. He laughed. “Muttonchop, huh? Was he almost someone's dinner once?” “No, he's a mutt. Spaniel or setter or something mixed with terrier of some sort. Who knows?” She liked how his eyes crinkled when he smiled. Made him look sweet. Honest. “I see. And the island?” he asked, jerking a thumb outside. “What's over there?” “Trails. Woods. We can hike or I can relax with a book and let him run free.” Depending how she felt any given day they went. “Um, sounds like a great time. Next time you go, give me a shout and I'd like to tag along.” She'd have to think about that one. “Maybe,” she answered vaguely. “So what brings you to Portstown? Certainly not the music venues.” “Actually, yes. Like the band's name, I have been all around.” He listed several towns, some she had heard of, many she had not. “I was playing with some of the guys in the band for a while. I guess they got homesick so they suggested we all come back. I couldn’t see a reason not to.” He shrugged again, that careless lift of his shoulder. “Why not, I always say. See what's there.” Interesting. Why not? “So it's your music that keeps you moving around?” He nodded. “Yeah. I was born in Mississippi, on the border of Louisiana, where music is breathed into you as a newborn. It's in your blood. Though I worked shrimp boats, factories, mills and everything else, music was the one thing I always had to do. Eventually, I went from being in a band to being the band since I write most the songs too.” She felt her eyes rounding. “You wrote those songs Friday night?” “Did you like them?” he asked. “Each one was mine. They say you have to live a lot to feel those emotions. It's hard to write them down and even harder still to get the audience to feel them too.” “I felt them,” she confessed, remembering the tears she shed at the ballads and the joy from the celebrating songs. “They were real.” His smile was big. “Glad to hear that, Kasey. You give my life's work vindication.” Their food arrived. Conversation died down as they ate. Kasey had never felt so aware of herself or of sharing a table with another person. His presence filled the table, though he said little as they ate their meal. He would pause and favor her with that smile, sending shivers down to her toes. “You made a fine recommendation, Kasey,” he said, pushing the plate away. “The fish was delicious.” “I like it occasionally. It's always fresh caught from the bay.” She swirled her fork a few more times around the linguine. “When the weather is better, folks usually dine out on the patio. They light the torches at night and play soft music.” He thoughtfully stared at the water, slowly bringing his gaze back to her. The smoldering look in his eyes took her breath away and made her forget the remaining food on her plate. “I can just picture it all,” he said, whispering softly. Unbidden, she lowered her fork and leaned in, drawn to his longing expression. “How soon do the nights get warm here? I already want to bring you back, sit outside there, smell the salty air, and feel the breezes off the bay. I want to see it play with your curls.” He smiled shamelessly. “I want to play with your red waves. They intrigue me. Kasey, I want to know so much more about you.” A shiver of anticipation slithered over her, starting at the back of her neck and trailing down her spine in electric spirals. “It doesn’t get warm soon enough.” * * * * The days of January slid by like the boats gliding in and out of the harbor. From the front windows of her bookstore, Kasey could watch the colorful sails. Ben became as steady a fixture in her life as the boats. Some days he came down to the bookstore, acting as if he owned it. He overrode her protests and scrubbed the front windows until they shone and rearranged shelves and displays throughout the store; he made the two girls who worked for her giggle and blush every time he glanced their way or softly, and unconsciously, sang out loud as he worked. Sometimes he simply sat alone in a corner, either quietly reading some book that caught his eye or scribbling in the notebook he always carried. Many times, he either joined her for lunch at her apartment or down on the boardwalk as the afternoons warmed. He sometimes cooked and invited her to his small place for dinner and a movie. With January coming to a close, she looked at the calendar and wondered how she’d managed to keep such an empty life until now. Until Ben came into her life. Today, Sunday, they rented a boat and took Muttonchop over to the island to play ball. Sitting on a grassy hill, the breeze blowing salt air, Ben tossed the ball. Each time, Mutt brought it back until it was wet with drool. Leaning against his shoulder, happier than she recalled being in a long time, Kasey eased a sigh. The sun felt good on her upturned face. Finally, tired, Mutt dropped down next to them panting, the ball between his paws. “Silly mutt,” Ben said affectionately, his arm curled around Kasey's waist. “Your cat would never stoop to such levels of silliness.” “Oh, Thomas can be silly when he wants to be. Don't let that cool cattitude fool you,” she laughed. “Show him a feather on a piece of string, and you'll see a twelve pound ginger kitten.” Leaning his head back, he laughed at the picture in his mind. “I'll remember that,” he promised. “Thanks for the tip.” “I'm glad you like my animals,” she said softly, almost hesitantly, starting to nibble her lip. “Why wouldn’t I? They're a part of you.” He swiveled to face her. “I like you. So it stands to reason I'd like your animals. Right?” “Yes.” She let the comment linger. Was today a good time to talk to him? Really talk? About the one thing that had been preying on her mind. Abbie had insisted it was no big deal; it would not matter. But it was a big deal. It did matter to her. It would have to matter to Ben. He had made her so happy lately, could she bear to open up and tell him now? “Kasey? Are you all right?” Concern touched his voice, making her wince a little. “I like you, Ben.” “I like you too,” he said when she remained silent. Twisting, he moved her in front of him, where he could study her eyes. She looked away, quickly blinking back the tears when she saw the worry fill his face. “Kasey?” She cringed at the fear in his tone, but she couldn't do it. The emotions moving through his eyes and over his face tore at her heart. Coward, she called herself, but she could not make herself say the words now. Not today. It was too perfect a day. Beside them, Muttonchop looked up and whined, a sure sign even he could sense the change in their emotions. “I think you need to meet the human side of my family,” she said suddenly. “My sister and her husband. I know they would love to meet you.” “I'd like that,” he said softly. “So what did you have in mind?” She hesitated, biting her lower lip. She had nothing in mind, having just grabbed the idea from the salt air. What would Abbie suggest? “Dinner,” she decided. “At their place. They have a nice house.” He chuckled. “As opposed to our small flats?” He ran a finger gently along her chin and down her neck, tracing her collarbone. “Dinner with your family sounds great.” * * * * An hour later Ben returned Kasey home and started back to his small flat. Apartments were nice, but he’d bet Kasey’s sister had a real house. A place for people with roots. He had no roots; he was a drifter. So why was he suddenly thinking that roots weren’t such a bad thing? Swinging up his street, he considered the shift in Kasey’s behavior on the island. Whatever had been on her mind, meeting her family wasn’t it. She’d made that up on the sly to avoid whatever made her not able to face him. He’d bet one of his guitars on that. Well, he could flow with that for now, but he wanted to know what was really on her mind. CHAPTER THREE It was all she could do not to cry. Kasey dropped the last bag in the back of her car, slammed the trunk down, and plopped into the driver’s seat with a tired huff. Today was a bad day. Tonight was dinner with Ben and her family. She had taken the day off work, leaving Sarah and Elizabeth in charge of the store so she could help Abbie cook and clean. Once they settled on a menu, she offered to stop by the store on her way over so Abbie didn't have to go out. She had not figured on the bone-weary fatigue that sucked away at her energy right now. Cursed MS. Standing in the aisles and staring at the list, she had wanted to cry. She needed both produce from one end, frozen items from the middle, and dairy items from the other end. Way on the other end. Why did they always have to arrange stores like this? Between the dizziness, fatigue, and shooting pains in her leg, she clutched the shopping cart and gritted her teeth. She vowed she would walk the length of the stupid store to get every item on the list if it killed her. By the time she reached the cheeses, she was fairly certain it was going to. By a miracle, she reached the checkout and almost wept when she approached her car in the parking lot. It never felt so good to get inside. Clutching the wheel, she waited, eyes closed, gathering strength for the drive to Abbie's house. How could Abbie ever say it would not matter to someone? The first time Ben saw her like this, he was probably going to run in the opposite direction. Pack up his guitars, head fast for the next town on his list, and never look back. He may like her, sure, but he would never want to be stuck with a woman who could barely handle a simple trip to the grocery store. Tears stung her eyes as she finally turned the key. Upon reaching her sister’s home, Abbie gracefully exited the front door, meeting her at the car. “Another bad day, honey?” she asked. Kasey bit back an oath. Was she that transparent? “How'd you know?” Abbie took two sacks. “Your eyes,” she explained, slipping an arm over Kasey's shoulders. “Come on. I'll make you a cup of strong tea.” The tea helped, Kasey decided as she watched Abbie start their work. She wished she could handle her rotten disease as well as Abbie handled being pregnant. She felt like old, wilted lettuce whereas Abbie positively glowed with radiance. It wasn’t fair. “I am so glad you are finally bringing Ben around for us to meet,” Abbie said. “He sounds just wonderful.” “He is. I like him a lot.” She started slicing vegetables. “So you don't mind this impromptu dinner date?” “I'll do that, you can clean,” Abbie insisted, taking the knife and pushing her away. “Of course I don't mind. I'm delighted.” Kasey turned to the dining room, thinking where to start. The pains persisted in her leg, making her involuntarily reach to massage it. With teeth gritted, she swore under her breath. Not today, please not today. She needed to vacuum. “Kasey? You okay?” Without waiting for her reply, Abbie had her by the shoulders and pushed into a chair. Blinking back the tears, she had to admit it was impossible to ignore the truth when it continued to slap her across the face like this. Implications beyond even Ben crowded her mind. “Talk to me,” Abbie pleaded, pulling a chair up next to her. Tears stung her eyes. “What's going to happen when Ben sees me like this?” What was going to happen when it got worse? Though today she was hard pressed to define “worse.” How much more was her life going to change? It was terrifying. Abbie quietly waited, her soft blue eyes warm and reassuring. Abbie would always love her. “He won't want me when I can't walk anymore.” “Kase, we don't know for sure that will happen to you. New medications and treatments—” “I remember Mom a little before she died,” Kasey said softly, her whisper halting Abbie. “Mostly I remember the wheels of her chair.” They had been as tall as she had. “Oh, honey,” Abbie took her hands into hers, searching her face. “Do you remember her at all before that?” Kasey shook her head. “I barely remember what she looked like when she was...healthier. Before. Just hazy pictures.” Abbie nodded, understanding. “And Dad stuck by her till the end. He stuck by us till the end too.” He raised two little girls for five years after his wife died, until he himself was killed in a car accident. “He loved her very much and he loved us.” “I know,” Kasey agreed, wiping her nose on her sleeve. “But what if Ben isn't like Dad?” she whispered, dread clutched in her throat. What if Ben really was a drifter as he seemed? Tears pricked Abbie's eyes. “Honey, only you would know the answer to that.” * * * * Ben leaned back in his chair, extremely satisfied with the meal, the company, and the conversation. Bobby, a tech designer of some sort, was engaging. Abbie, though older, was more delicate. Pregnancy certainly agreed with her but she also needed protection, which it appeared to him Bobby was glad to provide. Not like Kasey, who was clearly the independent fighter of the group. The stubborn one as far as he could tell. She had a fighting spirit to match that flaming hair of hers, he thought whimsically. It was doubtful she would ever let him protect her, since she still balked at him doing simple things like hammer nails in the wall for pictures. He smiled at that particular memory from two weeks ago. Her strong character was both admirable and irritating. That was the only explanation lately for thinking odd thoughts of picket fences, real houses, steady paychecks, and long term. He fell asleep last night dreaming of a house with a fenced yard for Muttonchop and Thomas and woke up with thoughts of babies and kids at play in the yard. Independent, beautiful Kasey was clearly the only reason his thoughts had taken such a turn. Right now, shaking himself back to the present, he wanted to kiss her. She was talking to Bobby, saying something he was not following, his eyes glued to her full lips. Kissable lips. Sweet, tinged-with-honey lips. He nearly died when she laughed, her tongue moving over those lips. Her cute little habit. It was driving him crazy. He was dying a slow death sitting there watching her. No longer satisfied despite the good dinner, he found he was still hungry. Remembering her sweet kisses, he wondered if it would be rude to take her and leave. Get her away where he could taste those rosy sweet lips again. He tasted them most recently on the boardwalk a couple nights ago. The memory made him sizzle with a fresh hunger. “Don't you agree, Ben?” Abbie's voice shook him, bringing him back to their table. Swinging his gaze, he saw all three looking at him expectantly. “About?” he asked cautiously. He hoped they could not see the heat he felt in his cheeks. Thank goodness for five o' clock shadows. “About the four of us getting away for a weekend before the baby comes. Rent a couple of those cabins in the mountains maybe.” He faltered, caught completely off guard. “Well, I play most weekends with the band. Uh, maybe if we found one between our dates.” He turned to Abbie's swollen belly. “When did you say Junior is expected again?” * * * * “He was practically eating you up,” Abbie exclaimed once they were alone behind closed doors. “I doubt he would bolt like you seem to think once he finds out about...” Kasey squirted soap into the water, swishing it thoughtfully. “I just don't know.” “He reminds me of what we would call the boy next door.” Giving a slow nod, she pictured the type. “Probably.” She began scrubbing a dish. “So who gets the boy next door?” Abbie smiled, hand on Kasey's shoulder. “It's usually not the girl next door.” * * * * “I like your family as much as I like your animals. More so actually.” He also liked how she rested her head heavily on his arm along the back of the truck seat. He looked at her bathed in the moonlight streaming through the windshield, and was struck with the picture of vulnerability. Once in a while, it made a strong woman look sexier. “I'm glad,” she murmured, stifling another yawn. She’d been doing a lot of that, he noticed. “We'll see about that trip, okay? We have a few months yet.” He didn't know how since the band was booked every weekend for three months in over four counties. Even he was surprised at the band's quick success. “They were thinking maybe over Valentine's Day.” He knew they were. Height of romance season. And he would love nothing better than having Kasey to himself in a mountain cabin over Valentine's. But he was booked at a club out of town. Did he dare say anything to her now? He cast a quick glance at her, her eyes closed, and he felt his heart snapping like dry twigs. They'd talk later, he decided. He'd figure something out. Maybe cancel one show. “Kasey, we're here,” he said later, gently shaking her shoulder. * * * * Prying her eyelids open, feeling like they weighed a ton, she saw they were in her parking lot. The pain in her leg made her wince at the thought of climbing those stairs. Twice. Mutt would have to go out. She sighed. Weariness tugged at her like a black blanket. “You okay?” She was getting tired of hearing that. And tired of pretending. “Fine. Just tired.” Tired of her normal pat answer. “Your name fits you, you know that?” “Kasey?” “Griffin. The mythological symbol of strength and courage. You have it in spades, which is both admirable and slightly irritating. Come on, let's go.” Swinging the door open, she tried lifting her leg out. It turned to rubber. A cry built in her throat and she choked it down. Resting her hands on the door handle, hot embarrassment and cold dismay swept over her. Seeing a shadow fall over her, she lifted her eyes to see Ben standing over her, concern knitting his brows together. This was it. She had no choice but yield to him. Hoisting her up, he draped her over his shoulder, taking most of her weight as they crossed the lot and ascended the stairs. She felt like a sack of potatoes, utterly useless. “Why didn't you get a place with an elevator?” he panted, adding to her misery. “Didn't seem important.” Not at the time she moved in. That was before. Fear gripped her as she realized how weak she suddenly was. She had not felt this way in a long time. What was going to happen when she could not climb the stairs at all? Hating herself for her weakness, she surrendered to his quiet strength. Wordlessly, she blinked back the tears so he did not see and dropped her key in his outstretched hand. Numb, dizzy, and weary, she closed her eyes with a sigh; she allowed him to propel her to the bedroom, barely hearing Muttonchop's nails clicking on the hardwood floor. “Thank you, Ben,” she whispered. With a sob, she gave up the last of the fight, settling into the mattress. Surely he would be gone out of her life now that he had seen her worst side. At least she had the memories of tonight. * * * * Gently easing her sweater off, he drew a blanket up and stood in the pale light of her room, puzzled. Whatever had hit her today, hit her hard. It was like two different Kaseys. One strong, independent, and vibrant—a great kisser who laughed at life. The other was dragged down and vulnerable. Now he had seen both. The second one scared the heck out of him. He carefully pulled her hair clip off and her tresses fell in a tangle over the pillow. Sweeping it off her forehead, he leaned in for one sweet kiss and fingered the silky tresses. Heat knifed through him at her soft moan. Kasey just scared him sometimes, plain and simple, with the thoughts she put into his mind. Muttonchop danced anxiously near him. He'd walk the dog and go. As he turned, his eyes fell on an item on the dresser. Picking it up, he slowly turned it over. He remembered seeing something like this before. His grandfather had one, for securing buttons when his hands were too weak and stiff to manage. Interesting. Now that he thought about it, he recalled some other things in her kitchen that his grandparents had used as well. Why would a healthy, vibrant woman of her age need tools like the ones his feeble grandparents used? That made no sense. And neither did whatever hit her tonight. Muttonchop whined, nudging him with his cold nose, drawing his attention. “Come on, Mutt, where's your leash?” * * * * Kasey awoke to Thomas beside her, purring as he watched her through narrowed eyes. Giving him a pat, she climbed out of bed. She had to walk Muttonchop, poor dog. Entering the living room, she spotted him lying next to the sofa, where Ben was sleeping. Why was Ben asleep on her sofa? About to cover him with a blanket, he stirred, popping one eye open. “Good morning,” he greeted, swinging his feet to the floor. “Feeling better?” he asked cautiously. She tugged at her hair. “Yes.” Silence hung between them. She shifted from foot to foot. Should she offer coffee, cook breakfast, or ask what happened that he spent the night? Self-consciously, she tugged at her hair again. Muttonchop whined at the tension slowly filling the room. “So, does that happen often?” he asked slowly, cautiously, reaching out to pat Muttonchop. “Last night?” Her eyes widened, breath caught. She felt like a deer in the headlights. So this was where he was going to walk out, she decided. Thomas padded into the room and sat, watching them. She wanted to scoop the big cat up, to hold him as a shield from what was to come. He was going to ask just enough questions to find out what was wrong with her and then decide it wasn't for him. Who would want her once he knew? She took a breath, steeling herself for the inevitable. “Sometimes.” He considered that, tilting his head. “Have you seen a doctor? It seems kind of out of character for you.” He cracked a quick grin. “Please don’t look like I’m scaring you because it’s starting to scare me.” He was scared? She was terrified. She pulled in a hard breath. “I have seen a doctor. It's complicated.” “I see. So what do you do when this happens?” She sighed, pulling her hair behind her and shifting back to the other foot. There wasn't much she could do. That was the horrible part. “The doctors would say I need to eat better,” she offered. She knew it was one small part of the mess and probably one that lead to last night's relapse. And do more yoga. Nutrition had never been her strong suit. “I should date a nutritionist and pick his brains. Then when I know all there is to know about diet and nutrition, dump him.” She grinned, as it was a running joke between her and Abbie. Ben gave her a sideways smile. “Maybe. Instead you decided to date me.” He paused. “I can show you all there is about chords and melodies.” He made motions in the air of strumming a guitar. “Would that help any?” Stunned, she studied him. He teased, not making an excuse for himself. A slice of hope flickered in her chest. Could it be? She watched him rake a hand through his dark mane of hair and then climb to his feet. In one step, he was taking her into his arms, his eyes tender, warming her heart. “Sorry for crashing on your couch without an invite,” he said, his voice low. “I walked Muttonchop and guess I just lost it when I brought him back.” His fingers spread out over her back as his eyes searched her lips. “I get wiped out too sometimes.” She felt the involuntary hitch of her breath as her lips parted, heard herself whimper with sudden anticipation. His touch burned through her shirt. She shivered as his fingertips twirled around her hair. Closing her eyes, she rose up to meet his kiss. It was wonderful. Better than the quick kisses they had stolen before on the boardwalk, at the bookstore. This was longer, deeper, and more intense. More hungry. More heated. Was it just Ben? Or her too? A shuddering breath escaped her as he pulled away finally, hunger and raw emotion in his eyes. He moved his hands to cup her chin in his palms, rubbing his thumbs along her jaw as he searched her face. She licked her lips, his sweet taste on her lips, her heart thumping, and she waited. She felt the hot flush as it fanned her cheeks. Slowly releasing her, he offered her a wink, trailing one finger gently down her arm. “If you do decide to date and dump that nutritionist,” he said, voice husky, “be sure you come back to me.” CHAPTER FOUR “You sure are in a good mood today,” Elizabeth observed after listening to her boss hum for several minutes. “Can't I be in a good mood?” Kasey asked as she rearranged books along a shelf. She felt the tug of a smile on her face. Running her tongue over her lips, she could still taste Ben's kiss from earlier. Remembering the smoldering look in his eyes, a shiver of pure delight raced over her. Of course she was in a great mood. “Sure you can. It's a nice change. Been a while,” Elizabeth stated as she walked away. Been a while, Kasey mused, and caused by a man who had been around. By a man who was talking of staying put now. Of course she was happy. He had seen her at her worse and still wanted to be a part of her life. Before he left, he suggested over coffee that maybe he should find some full time job and start backing off on the music. Open up some time over the weekends for them. Moving on to help a customer coming through the door, she wondered what could possibly be better. * * * * Ben caught himself humming a new tune as he drove home. Leaving Kasey's, he had a sense of things for them were now moving in a whole new direction. And he was delighted. While she still hadn’t opened up about what caused last night’s crash, he had a couple ideas. And he viewed her courage in a whole new light. He was eager to see where their relationship was going now. He knew in his gut there would be big changes, but he felt he was finally ready for them. The phone rang beside him and he scooped it up. Could it be Kasey? “Ben Salem? Hello, this is Tuck Baldwin from Newmarket Records in Coventry. Some associates and I have heard your band performing lately and we'd like to meet with you. We’d like to offer a chance to produce an album.” Ben almost dropped the phone as he ran a red light. He narrowly missed a little sports car as he pulled into a parking lot and yanked the truck into park, heart hammering, hands shaking. “When can you come to our office in Coventry, Mister Salem?” For this, he would clear his calendar. Setting up the details, he hung up, not sure if he should get out and do a dance or shout to the stars. A big time record producer wanted to talk to them about doing an album. Woo hoo! He had some calls to make. * * * * “So, Kasey, I was thinking I'd bring dinner over tonight. We could talk,” Ben said over the phone an hour later. “If you're not busy on a date with that nutritionist.” He grinned into the phone. Worry caught in her throat. “Everything okay?” “Sure, something's come up and I want to talk to you about it. So is seven okay?” Pinching her lips, she agreed. He sounded both happy and wary. But she acknowledged he was bringing things to her to discuss, and it showed the new depths of their relationship. After this morning, she ought to be welcoming it. Walking home a few hours later, she paused, a sight making her breath catch. Up ahead near the bus stop stood a man and woman, maybe ten years older than herself. The man leaned heavily on a wheeled walker. He looked exhausted. Kasey could relate. Swinging her gaze to the woman, she was struck with the soft look of love and tenderness on her face. Her eyes shone with adoration as she waited for her husband to slowly settle himself on the seat. She stood by to help, but seemed to be waiting for a cue that her help was needed. Had her father looked at her mother the same way once she was wheelchair bound? Abbie would say he did. In that sense, her mother was a lucky woman. As this man was lucky to have such an understanding partner. Again, her breath caught and she reached for a lock of hair. Would Ben be the same with her? Would he shower her with that same tender look of love and patience? All the time? Could she count on him like this man clearly depended on his wife? Searching their faces, she saw only love between them. She wanted that. She needed that. Forcing down the lump in her throat, she clutched her bag and hurried on her way. Ben would be at her place soon, and she needed to be emotionally ready for his news. Wiping the tears away, she wished the couple well and turned the corner. * * * * Ben arrived with Chinese. Muttonchop danced a happy dance, nails clicking on the floor. Thomas sat in his preferred windowsill, tail lashing in anticipation of a nibble. Ben immediately noticed the animals were a little more eager to see him than Kasey. She stood, alternating between tugging her hair and absently brushing her face. A trait he knew she did only when nervous. So why was she nervous? His news? “So you had mentioned once you liked Chinese,” he said, shaking the bags hopefully, further exciting the pets. At least someone would eat tonight, he thought wryly. “I do. Here okay?” She gestured to the living room. “It’s great.” He settled down on the sofa where only that morning he had woke. This spot was more intimate than the dining room and less formal. They would have to be closer together. She slid next to him, shooing the dog out of the way. He unpacked the cups and containers and handed one over. He immediately noticed her hand shook as she reached for it. A sliver of anxiety rippled through him. What had happened since they parted earlier today? “So you said you had news?” she prompted, taking the question of how to progress away from him. He poked at his cup of chow mien, drawing in a breath. “I got a call from a producer in Coventry. They want to cut an album with us.” He launched into a brief recap of the call from Baldwin. “They want to have a single ready for release by midsummer.” He’d swear she was forcing down her bite of water chestnut. The few bites he’d taken turned to lead in his gut as he watched the emotions move across her face like clouds. “When do you go?” she asked as she set her food aside. “I leave day after tomorrow. I can go over the paperwork and start laying down some vocals. The band will join me this week, and we'll do the rest in between gigs.” “How long will you be gone? Coventry is nine hours away.” A muscle in his jaw ticked. This is what he wanted to avoid. He would have to miss Valentine's with her, something he had been looking forward to. “Two to three weeks total.” Her startled intake of breath caught him off guard. He cracked a grin, trying for humor to keep it light. “That will give you time to date that nutritionist guy.” Even as the words came out, he was surprised to hear them. What was he doing? She stared at him, hurt and surprise spread over her face simultaneously, shocking him. “Maybe I will,” she said softly, straightening her spine. He could smack himself. He meant it to soften his departure, but she apparently did not see it as that. He could only wonder at how she was viewing this. It was a great chance for him, but her expression spoke volumes. She was thinking another thing altogether. How could he pull those words back? He set his container down, ready to retract the words and pull her into his arms, to kiss her, and promise her somehow he would spend Valentine's with her. He would find a way. Whatever was upsetting her, he’d fix it. Her look stopped him cold, splashing icy water over him. “I wish you and the band the best.” Tears glistening in her eyes, lip quivering, Kasey stood up and brushed herself off. Spine rigid, she faced him. “Please excuse me.” He searched her face and wondered how this situation got so far out of hand so quickly. Blinking, she spun around and slipped from the room. Should he go after her? Wait? Leave? Write a note? Dumping the food from his cup into Muttonchop and Thomas’s bowls, he eyed the closed bedroom door, hands in his pockets. Indecision gnawed at him like the dog scarfing through his unexpected meal. If he knocked, would she even answer? Five minutes later, five minutes of total silence from the bedroom and only hopeful stares from the pets, he scribbled a note and left it on the table, pinned under an apple. Kasey, this is not what I expected. Sorry. Wishing like crazy he had some clue how to make amends with her, he finally let himself out, locking the door behind him. * * * * “See, I told you he would bail as soon as he found out.” Kasey waved Ben’s note, all one line of it, under Abbie’s nose. She’d heard him leave and finally exited the bedroom, only to find the note. Crushing it and Thomas to her chest, she cried until she lost all track of time and the number of burning tears and crumpled tissues. Her worse fear realized. Abbie took the note and set it aside. She dished out ice cream and pushed it at Kasey, along with chocolate syrup and a spoon. “I don’t know what to say, Kasey. I really thought better of him.” Kasey wordlessly poured the syrup, its very color reminding her of Ben’s beautiful fudgy eyes. She would eat the ice cream and drown out the memory of the man. Maybe she’d get permanent brain freeze. * * * * Ben stared at the calendar, just barely resisting the urge to pound the wall. Where had the time gone? He'd been so busy laying tracks in the daytime with the band in Coventry, performing at night around the surrounding towns, and lying awake in the wee hours of the morning thinking of Kasey that he was sure his blood pressure had risen measurably higher in the past few weeks. He had thought a little time away would give him a fresh perspective of their last day. Instead, it had the opposite effect. Each time he spotted a couple in the crowds or walking the street, his chest burned in agonizing pain. Each view served to remind him that he was here in Coventry, and she was back in Portstown, probably hating his guts. Now that he had time to think about it, his note might not have been worded the best either. Except he hadn’t been able to pour out what he had been feeling. Could he possibly have handled the situation with her any worse? Some songwriter he was. Well, he sure could pour it out now. The stuff he was penning lately was all heartbreak. Pounding the wall anyway, he swung around and glared out the window of the tiny studio he'd been stuck in all afternoon. Calling himself a fool that night, he had tossed a few things in a bag then headed out of town within twenty minutes. Now he'd give anything to replay that scene again and do it differently. The jangle of his cell phone startled him. Jumping, he reached for it on the counter. Could it be Kasey calling to say she missed him half as much as he missed her? Heart thumping, he quickly swiped the screen to answer. “Hey, how are you, kiddo?” Cold waves of disappointment washed over him. Barbara, not Kasey. “I’m fine, how’s my favorite older sister?” Only sister, but moot point and old game. “Oh no. What’s wrong?” “Nothing’s wrong. I’m working. I’ve been offered a recording deal.” “That’s great. So what’s wrong?” There was a pause. “What did you do? I can hear it in your voice, Benji.” He cringed. She had a way of making him feel ten years old again, even from hundreds of miles away. “I met this girl since I moved to Portstown.” He let out a long breath. “And I think I blew it.” Succinctly, he explained the situation as Barbara listened. “I see,” she finally said. “The record deal is great, Benji. I’m happy for you and the band. But you have to decide what is most important to you. There might be a way to have both Kasey and your music career, but one has to be favored over the other. And you’re telling me right now the music is preferred over Kasey. If that’s the way you truly feel, why do you sound so tore up?” Because his heart told him he needed to be with Kasey first and make music second. “You always valued my opinion before so here it is: search your heart. If things are wrong, make them right. Tonight. Don’t wait. I think you need to go find Kasey, fight for her if need be, and let her know how you really feel about your relationship.” He smiled. “As usual, you’re right. I want Kasey. The music gig is great but she fills me with sensations I’ve never felt before.” “Go get her, Benji. Bye.” He hung up, feeling a smile building on his face for the first time in days. He could always depend on his sister to shake him back to the right track, even if she did treat him like a kid. And she was right. He had to go back to Kasey and tell her how he felt. And there was no better time than right now. Valentine's Day. He'd take her a dozen roses—pink, her favorite color, and pour his heart out about how badly he handled things. Then hope she was in the mood to overlook his stupidity. He moved around the small room, packing up the guitar and notes. He’d tell Baldwin on his way out. He was going right now. A man on a mission. CHAPTER FIVE “Don’t you have a dozen that are pinker? These aren’t pink enough,” Roger asked, eyeing the floral deliveryman’s nametag. “Hector, she really likes true pink.” Hector grunted, setting the discarded bouquet on the van’s bumper and dug around inside. He pulled two pink bouquets out and wordlessly held them out for display. Roger studied them, reaching for the left one, and handed over a fistful of bills. “I guess the later it gets on Valentine’s, the more desperate we guys get, right?” Hector nodded, grinning. “Crazy. But the tips get bigger.” “Oh right.” Roger reached into his pocket again. “Gotcha.” Pocketing the folded bills, Hector returned to the cab. Pulling the van away, the original bouquet slipped off the bumper, bouncing once before rolling to a stop on the side of the road. Roger waved at the van, then shrugged and walked away, leaving the flowers where they landed. * * * * Could his luck get any worse, he asked himself as the engine sputtered, finally dying with a giant hiccup. Coasting to the side of the road, Ben yanked the hood up, waving off the plume of gray smoke. Well, this sure wasn't getting him any closer to Kasey any faster, he thought darkly. And now he'd be walking to Portstown. And it was well past five thirty. What were the chances of finding a flower shop open late on Valentine's Day? Late enough for him to get there? He wished he had gotten them in Coventry. Grabbing his duffel and guitar, he slung the bag over his shoulder, and struck out for the east, the setting sun in his eyes as he tried to flag down a ride. * * * * Back to walking again, Ben tried not to compulsively check the time. It was late but he was getting closer too. The last ride took him as far as Portstown's neighboring town. He was almost there. The glowing lights ahead of a truck stop gave him an idea. He could exit the freeway, stop at the truck stop, and get a ride from a trucker heading east. He'd be at Kasey's door in no time. But first, he had to find a florist still open. He could not go back to her empty-handed. Approaching the door of Blooms Florist twenty minutes later, his heart sank at the darkened windows. He'd missed them by an hour. Turning back for the truck stop, he waved an eastbound driver down, climbing into the cab with a heavy heart. He'd be back in Portstown soon but with no flowers. On Valentine's Day. What a heel. The driver let him off at the exit ramp. Waving his thanks, he shouldered his bag and set off swinging once more. Eleven-thirty. Ideas sparked in his mind. Was she in bed already? Was she up? Out with friends? How was she dressed? Cotton shirt or nightgown? Hair up or down? Late or not, flowers or none, he had to see her. What was that shiny sparkle up ahead? Something that glinted in the pale moonlight caught his eye, making him pause. He bent over to pick it up. A dozen pink roses and ferns, wrapped with cellophane. He glanced around the darkened road. What were they doing discarded out here? Had someone had a fight and pitched them out a window? Seemed acceptable enough. They were in perfect condition with no broken stems. Burying his nose in the bouquet, he inhaled, smiling. Finally, finally, something had gone right for him. One man's loss was going to be his lucky break. And they were the pink he would have bought her if he could have. * * * * Kasey heard the knock at her door and rolled over, checking the time. Muttonchop barked, halted a moment, and then broke into a merry jig. Only Ben could make him do that. Her heart lurched. Why was he back now? At midnight? She considered not answering the door. Eventually he would go away. But Muttonchop's persistent barking warned her the neighbors would be up soon. Heaving a weary sigh, she surrendered. “What do you want?” she asked, opening the door a crack. Just enough to see. What she saw tore at her heart. He looked like he'd been up for days on end. His unshaven and exhausted look gave him a ragged and sexy edge. But his smile brightened and he held a bouquet out. “Happy Valentine's Day, Kasey,” he said, beaming. “I had to come see you.” “Right now?” she asked, pushing the dog out of the way. “Well, I had planned on being here sooner. I ran into a difficulty or two along the way.” She stood there. Should she let him in? Take the flowers and send him on his way? Hear him out? His words from their last conversation still burned in her ears, making her hesitate. Muttonchop's exciting whining made the choice for her. Her shoulder slumped as she unchained the door, stepping away. He followed her in, the flowers held out. “I said a stupid thing before I left, Kasey, and I am sorry.” He held the roses as a peace offering. “I never meant to hurt you by that.” “Thank you,” she said, taking the flowers and inhaling briefly. They did smell good. The petals felt soft and cool on her warm skin. He shifted from foot to foot, hands in his pockets. “I also have to say you've been on my mind since I left. Pretty much constantly.” “That's nice.” She didn't know what else to say. What did he want from her? Gripping the flowers, she sucked in a deep breath. She could not hold her feelings back any longer. “When you walked out of here that night, I thought you were gone forever,” she began, before she lost her nerve. “I was more disappointed. I thought you had found a clever way to step away from a situation you suddenly found to be too much.” “To be too much what?” he asked, puzzled. “Too much anything,” she exclaimed, throwing her hand in the air. “Confining. Stifling. Overwhelming. You name it. You did, sort of, in your note.” The one she finally threw away. “Kasey, I'd never see us as anything like that. And I apologize for that lousy attempt of a note. I was clueless what to say.” His soft tone knocked at her heart, but she kept the door closed this time. Pressing her fingers tight around the bouquet, she moved on. “You don't know it all, Ben. There are things I have never shared with you. And maybe I should have. Maybe I was wrong to keep it from you. But I was scared you would do exactly what you did. Find out and run.” She sucked in a shaky breath. “I thought if I kept it hidden, it would prolong the inevitable. I didn't want you to go. But when you did, I—” He swooped in, taking her chin into his palms to drop his lips to hers, pressing softly, and ending her tirade. One sweet moment later, he released her, taking a step back, eyes round. “Kasey...I don't... I didn't... I mean...Kasey, I love you.” Licking her lips, tasting him, feeling the roughness of his unshaven face on her chin, she stared at him as hot tears stung her eyes. If only it were that easy. If only... “Ben, I have MS.” The words tumbled out, refusing to be silent any longer. “Multiple sclerosis.” Squeezing her eyes closed, she waited, heart hammering. “I know.” Her eyes flew open. “You know? How can you know?” He was back to hands in his pockets again. “Well, I knew it was something like that. I had a strong hunch for a week or so before, and it was confirmed the night we had dinner with your family.” She could not begin to imagine how he’d confirmed it that night. “And?” Her heart thumped. “And what? I don't know why you felt you had to hide that from me.” She started. “Because it's a lot to expect someone to take on,” she sputtered. He shook his head, taking a step closer. “Not if someone loved that person.” Had Abbie not implied the same thing? “But—” Once again, he moved in and framed her face in his hands, cutting off her words, searching her face. “Kasey, I've long admired your courage and independence. And once I noticed there was some form of limitation to you, I admired it even more. That night, once I knew for sure you had MS or something like it, my love for you grew like you can't imagine. You inspire me.” He paused, looking deep into her eyes. “Kasey, sometimes when I watch you, knowing what battles you must have, I get a glimpse of eternity. And I want to spend that eternity with you.” He paused, swallowing. “I know we have not known each other very long but I can't imagine life without you. These last days taught me that. Will you please marry me?” “But what will you do when I can't hold a fork?” “Then we eat with our fingers I guess,” he suggested, a crooked smile on his face. She shook her head. “But what about when I can't walk anymore?” Her heart slammed painfully, remembering her mother. Clucking, he wagged his head. “I’ll give you a house with one level, no more stairs. Build you a ramp if I need to. Whatever it takes, baby, I’ll do it. We will do it together. Kasey, make no mistake, I will be there for you, now and forever.” Rubbing his thumbs along her cheeks, he waited, breath held, searching her eyes. “Marry me?” Surrendering, she gave the only answer her heart would allow. “Yes.

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