“Wait.” I sat up a little further and reluctantly put the yummy toast down as a full speed rant shot off from the starting line. “Don’t bother saying it. I already know but, Mike, you keep playing this game with me—saying you’re in love with me, but you touch me and pull away, or you say things to my dad that make me think I’m imagining all this, and when we’re alone, you—it’s like you pretend we’re together and then remind yourself that we’re not. Why? Why do you do that if you want me? Why do you keep confusing me, Mike? I can’t do this. I can’t be the girl that takes charge and makes the first move. I’ll never be that girl. If you want me, you have to make it clearer than this. You have to be consistent.”

“This is what’s wrong. Us,” I yelled and tried to stand, but he took my hand and pulled me back down, grinning.

“You know I do—otherwise I would’ve told you already that I don’t.” I lowered my head.

“Holy shit.” He sat back, his lips parting as he stared at nothing. “Shit. You’re serious?”

“I…” He looked at me then, rubbing his brow. “I wasn’t sure anymore, Ara. I thought maybe—” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter, but…I just can’t believe it. You have no idea how long I’ve waited to hear you say that. I just don’t even know what…I just…”

“Why did you tell my dad you don’t want me?”

“Baby, I—I never said anything to your dad about not wanting you. What’re you—when was this?”

“The other day, when you said that thing about going home…alone. I don’t do long distance relationships, Mike—they don’t work.” Even though I’d love David from afar for the rest of my life.

“Ara, I didn’t mean that. I was...” He looked frustrated. “As if I was going to tell your dad I’d asked you to come home with me. He’d have pulled out his shotgun right then.”

My eyes narrowed with an insistent smile. “True. I suppose.”

“Ara, I want you. You know that. I…I want nothing more than for you to come home with me.” He looked at me for a long moment. “And…you know I’d look after you, right?”

He would. He’d take very good care of me; love me, protect me, and I’d never want for anything. “I know,” I said softly.

“Then…come with me.” He took my hand, his gentle touch littered with hope. “You could finish school, go to uni—be a teacher—like you always planned?”

“Please. Don’t say anything now. Not if you’re going to say no. Just—” He paused, releasing a really deep, tense breath, then looked away—far away to where his thoughts were on the other side of the window. “Whatever you choose? I already decided I can’t go back—not without you.” A warm grin lit his face then. “If you stay, I stay.”

The little fold between my brows tightened. “What about your career?”

“Ara, you’re the love of my life.” He took both my hands. “What would my career mean to me if I didn't have you? God, I only joined because I thought I’d lost you.”

He sighed and looked down; sad Mike. “When you moved away—when you refused to even speak to me—I figured you hated me. And…I don't know, I guess I decided that if I didn't have you to look after, I’d be a perfect candidate to risk my own life, because it’d be worth nothing.”

“I know. I'm sorry. It…it wasn’t like a suicide mission or anything. But, I could’ve joined tactical six months ago. I chose not to because I didn't want to leave you alone if anything ever happened to me.” Mike’s eyes softened as they scanned my cheeks and my lips. “When you told me you fell in love with David, I—I died inside, Ara. I thought everything was lost. So, if I have to give up Tactical to stay here and be with you for the rest of my life, it doesn't even need a second thought. All I ever wanted was you.”

“So you’d move here? Throw it all away? What would you do for a job?” My voice of reason challenged.

“I’ll be fine. I used to be a chef, remember? I can get work anywhere.”

“Or—” He took my hands again and looked into me with those charming, caramel-colour eyes, melting my heart like maple syrup on pancakes. “Or, we could get married. You’re an American citizen now, right?” His tone softened on the end into a shrug of his shoulder.

“You’re never getting married. Remember? You hate weddings.” I laughed.

“No.” He shook his head. “I said I wouldn’t get married until I found the right girl.”

“But you’d only be marrying me for a visa.”

“Oh, come on, Ara.” He brushed a quick hand through his hair. “I was using it as a line to open that door. I’ve bloody been trying to cough out a proposal since the first day I got here.”

Holy crap! “Why didn't you just ask me?” I played neutral, concealing the little girl inside me who was jumping up and down, throwing confetti.

“I didn't wanna risk it, Ar. I uh…I don’t take rejection as well as I’d like to think I do.” We both laughed softly. Then, he inched closer, and the serious Mike I’d come to know more recently slipped into place. “All I’ve been waiting on is you—for you to realise you love me, and then, that night, when I didn’t kiss you—”

I looked away, feeling the pain of the night I lost my mother etching into my heart.

Mike hooked a finger under my chin and pulled my face toward his. His lips were so close I could smell the peanut butter on his breath. It smelled nice. “You took me by surprise, Ara. It was all I’d ever wanted, you know? I’d imagined it so many times and, when it finally happened, I acted like a damn fool. And I lost you. I had to accept that you were being dragged away from me, had to accept that you wouldn’t even speak to me, and then, worse, had to break apart hearing you speak about loving another guy. Do you know how hard it was for me to play the supporting friend, when all I wanted to do was coax your naive little mind into believing he didn't want you?”

“Because I love you.” He squeezed my hands. “I wanted you to be happy, and you sounded happy with him. But…I don't know now, Ara. I'm glad he’s gone, because, all I've seen so far is the damage he's done to you.”

I rubbed my hand over my neck. “It wasn’t like that, you know. He loved me.”

“Yes, I do. I uh—” He scratched his brow. “I have a confession to make.”

His shoulders dropped. “I stole David’s number from your phone and…I called him.”

His arched brow gave half the answer. “Come on, Ara. Why do you think? I’m not stupid. I’ve watched you pretending to be happy, but I knew there was something up with you. I’ve known you all your life. I knew he was hurting you. And I was afraid he might be one of those controlling types; you know, who makes you feel like you need him to feel good about yourself.”

“I know.” He smiled and flattened my frown with his thumb. “He’s a decent guy, Ara.”

“So, when you talked to him,” I asked delicately, “like, what...what did he say?”

“He told me he’s leaving—that you couldn’t be together. He told me you wanted a family one day and a normal life, but he couldn’t give you that.”

“So—” his words echoed in my mind, “—he...what, he told you to have me?”

“It wasn’t like that, Ar.” Mike rolled his head to one side. “He just said he knows I’ll make you happy and that’s all he ever wanted for you.”

Mad? I wasn't mad that he called David. I felt hurt that he knew everything—embarrassed, but it wasn’t Mike’s fault. It was so like him to do this. He was my protector—he always had been. My best friend. My Zorro. “I'm not mad at you, Mike. Okay?”

“Well, don't be mad at David, either, baby.” His fingers tightened over my hand. “He just wants you to have a—a normal life.”

“And you think you can give me that?”

“Ara, I’ll give you everything. I’ll be whatever you want me to be. I’ll be a husband, a father to our children, a provider, a protector, but most of all, Ara, if you say you’ll marry me, I will love you—more than anyone has ever been loved in the history of mankind, and I will devote every breath I take to being the best husband you could ever have.”

“But what about what you want, Mike? I don’t want you to be what I want. I want you to be happy, too. I mean, do you even want children?” We’d never discussed that. Mike was good with kids—he always adored Harry, but never spoke of wanting a family.

He took a breath, lifting his shoulders as he did. “All I ever wanted was you, baby girl—a thousand times over and every day for the rest of my existence. I’ve never really thought about kids before.”

I nodded, looking down at my fingers.

“But…” His gaze settled on my belly, lost in a smile.

“If I could place a piece of myself inside of you and—” he lifted my top and traced little circles around my navel, “—and that would grow, and become something so beautiful as life—a life that’s a part of you and me, combined? I can’t imagine something more magical. So, yes.” He broke eye contact for a second and reached into his nightstand, closing the drawer with his pinkie after. “I want to have babies—with you. I want a hundred little dark-haired, blue-eyed babies running around, and you and me, we’ll be together. We’ll have each other. Always. That’s what I want.”

The breath I finally released quivered its way out.

“Please?” Mike slipped off the bed and knelt in front of me, lifting the lid just a fraction on a small purple box. “Make me the happiest man on the planet, Ara. Marry me.”

Every flower that once was dead bloomed within my heart, and the ashes of my soul circled in on the breeze, finding breath, light among the darkness. I looked into the small box, and a red blossom shimmered back; a ruby rose, with two emeralds on either side. A promise in the shape of life, disguised as the colour of blood—a colour so exquisite in the shadowed parts of my broken past that it cast a spotlight on the door to a future I thought was gone—a door that opened by the key of one word.

Mike and I belonged together; we were two souls from the same world.

But my heart…would it always truly belong to David?

“Yes,” I whispered so quietly that Mike’s eyes focused on my lips.

“Did you just say yes?”

“Yes. I...yeah, I did.” I could feel the light sparkling off my tears.

Mike laughed, his shaky fingers removing the ring from the box, holding it to the tip of my nail. “I…I have a speech.”

His cheeks and forehead went pink. “Yeah, I uh…I kinda planned this for a while.”

He cleared the awkwardness from the back of his throat, holding my fingers firmly—almost unintentionally too tight. “I designed this for you, because any other stone, any other ring would never have been perfect enough to tell you how much I love you; how you’re a part of everything I am, and how no matter what I see in the world, I will never see anything that is quite as delicate and perfect and sparkling as you. You’re my girl.” He pointed to the ruby stone. “My beautiful rose.”

The ring slid perfectly into place on my finger—fitting like the way Mike fit me, like we were made to go together. I smoothed my fingertip around the gold. “It’s perfect, Mike.”

“I know.” The corners of his eyes softened and he grinned, running his fingers along my forearms, bringing them to rest just on the backs of my elbows. As I parted my legs and let him kneel between them, my confident, womanising best friend became a little rigid, jittery, I suppose—with a kind of schoolboy awkwardness I’d never seen in him before.

“Nothing,” he said, but his eyes held the smile of poorly concealed thoughts.

He looked away, seemingly lost for words. “Sorry. It’s just...I’ve never felt this way before. About anyone. Not like this. I—I just don’t know what to do with you.”