I went to the cabinet under the sink and pulled a large black trash bag from its cardboard box. I shook it out before handing it to him.
Taylor dropped his pack into the sack, and it crashed to the floor. He peeled off his yellow jacket, and then he bent over at the waist to unfasten his boots before pulling them off. Each time he removed a piece of his protective clothing, he’d put it inside the bag.
When he was done, he held the bag closed at the top. “Don’t want your place smelling like smoke.”
He grinned. “You will. It doesn’t go away for a while. And the black is hard to get out of the carpet. Trust me.” Down to his boxer briefs, he tied up the sack and set it outside the door in the hall. “I’m going to take a shower,” he said.
I chuckled. Now that he was undressed, his skin was only dirty from the neck up.
He padded into the bathroom, and I heard the shower come on. I covered my mouth, stifling an unexpected sob. He was okay. He was alive and in my bathroom. I thought about what Kirby had said—about the sacrifices he was willing to make and how atrocious I was behaving when it was time for me to take a risk.
I knocked on the open bathroom door, the steam billowing out from above the curtain. The mirror was fogging. Everything was blurry again.
“Just wait,” he said. “I know what you’re going to say. I know what happened last night doesn’t change anything. But I’ve got your fucking attention. I want to talk.”
The faucet shut off, and as Taylor opened the curtain, I grabbed a clean towel from the rack and handed it to him. He dried his face, patted down his chest and arms, and then wrapped the towel around his middle.
“You’re not doing this. We love each other. That hasn’t changed,” he said.
“How? How can you still love me? If I deserved it before, I definitely don’t now,” I said, exasperated.
He shrugged. “I just love you. I don’t stop to question whether or not you’re worthy. But you can’t keep forcing me to make choices that aren’t mine.”
I had burned him twice. Anyone else would have walked away by now, but he still loved me.
“You’re right. You’re absolutely right. I know I said I wasn’t scared of you. But I lied. I tried not to fall in love with you, but I didn’t want to try too hard. Now, we’re here, and every time I try to do the right thing, it’s wrong. I hurt you, just like I knew I would.”
He took a step toward me, interlacing his fingers with mine. He grazed his lips along my cheek until his mouth was whispering against my ear, “No one could have been prepared for this scenario. I don’t blame you. I don’t want an apology. I just want you to stop the bullshit, Ivy League. You’re smart, but you’re not always smarter than me.”
I looked up at him, the corners of my mouth curling up.
“We’ve got a baby on the way,” he said.
“You have a baby on the way.”
“No, this is our baby. You have said from the beginning that this was all happening exactly the way it was supposed to. You can’t pick and choose. It’s either fate, or it’s not.”
“What if she changes her mind? What if she comes back?”
My eyes filled with tears. “I’m afraid. That’s a lot to ask.”
“I’m not asking.” He held the back of my neck and kissed me, tightly closing his eyes, as if it were painful. He held my cheeks and looked straight into my eyes. “You’ve walked away from me twice, Falyn. I go back to Estes in a couple of months. I’m going to be a dad in December. I’m fucking terrified. But I love you, and that surpasses fear.”
Even after months of being apart, being in his arms felt normal, as if it had always been and would always be. I couldn’t break his heart again even if it meant being brokenhearted later. I didn’t know anymore what the right thing to do was. I just knew that I loved him, and he loved me, too. That was worth all the pain before and all the pain to come.
He leaned back, scanning my entire face. “You’re in? Which part?”
“When you go back, I’ll go with you.”
I sighed a breath of relief, waiting for whatever he was going to throw my way. “Okay. Name it.”
His mouth pulled to the side. “Marry me.”
My lips parted, and my breath caught.
Taylor leaned down, touching his thumb to my chin, tilting his head. “Say yes,” he whispered against my lips.
“I … this is not a good time to be making life-changing decisions. We just experienced a traumatic event. I thought you were dead.”
“I almost was,” he said. He sucked on my bottom lip.
My breath faltered. “When?” I asked, stumbling over the word.
“Why wait?” he said, his voice low and smooth.
He left a trail of kisses from the corner of my mouth to the skin just beneath my ear while reaching around to where my apron was tied in a knot. With two tugs, it came loose and fell to the floor. He backed me up to the door, placing his palms on the peeling white paint on each side of my head.
“See? It’s not hard. Just say yes. Say you’ll marry me.”
I reached behind me for the knob before twisting and ducking under his arm. I escaped to the living room, crossing my arms over my middle.
Taylor came out of the bathroom, stopping at the kitchen bar. “You can’t?”
I shook my head, pressing my lips together.
“You can’t right now or can’t at all?” he said. Waiting for my answer was torture for him.
“You’re throwing a lot at me all at once. I give you an inch, and you go balls out.”
Taylor relaxed a bit, and he breathed out a laugh. “Okay. That’s fair.”
“I might run away, but you don’t know when to quit.”
His happiness vanished. “I’m not quitting on you. As long as you love me, I’m going to keep fighting.”
“Well,” I said, “we’re definitely good at that.”
He took a step toward me. “I didn’t know I wanted it until I said it. But I said it, and now, I want it.”
“Fuck it,” he said, shrugging. “Who cares what the logistics are or what your college psych books said or what happened last night? I fucking love you. I want you to be my wife. I want you to have my last name.”
A small smile touched my lips. “You do have a pretty great last name.”
“Falyn Maddox,” he said, each syllable full of admiration and love.
He slowly made his way to where I stood, wrapping his arms around me. “I have never exactly fantasized about proposing to a girl, but I damn sure never thought I’d have to beg.” He thought about that for a moment and then knelt.