Epilogue

"I won!" Alecia yelled and she and her horse galloped up to the grassy knoll, a full length before Jake and his horse.

"You cheated!" Jake complained. "You took off before I said 'go'." He dismounted and stood toe-to-toe with her, causing her to have to look up at him.

"Oh yeah? So what are you going to do about it?" she taunted, a teasing smile on her face. She took a step backwards, but Jake followed her.

"What am I gonna do?" Jake's face inched closer to her. "Hmm. What will I do?" Her eyes fluttered closed as his lips were a mere centimeter away from hers.

That's when he made his move. Grabbing her wrists in one hand, he held her immobile and began mercilessly tickling her. Her laughs and shrieks made him laugh harder and tickle her more.

They finally collapsed onto the beach of their special, secret spot. Alecia fought to regain her breath; Jake fought to stop laughing.

"That wasn't very nice." Alecia murmured from her comfortable space in Jake's arms.

"Well, you cheated first." He insisted.

She stuck her tongue out at him and got up to retrieve a bundle from her saddle bag. The fading sunlight cast long shadows as she walked back towards Jake.

They settled down against the hill, watching the river. Alecia slowly unbound the letters she held. She handed them to Jake and then poured them each a cup of the infamous strawberry wine.

Slowly, they took turns reading the ten-year-old letters, letters that spoke of hope and love for the future. By the time they finished, tears were rolling down Alecia's face.

Jake tenderly wiped her tears and kissed her forehead. "Allie, the past doesn't matter anymore. What matters is that I have always, always loved you."

"I know, Jake. And you know the same goes for me. I just can't help but think of how different things would be if we hadn't been separated." Alecia wrapped her arms around his neck.

"Yes. Your mother made a huge mistake, but she understands that now. She's horribly sorry, Allie." Jake stroked her cheek, being careful that he didn't bump her with his annoying metal wrist braces, braces that reminded them of the emotional times of the past months.

"I know my mom is sorry. And I've forgiven her. But I'm not crying about that, Jake. I'm just crying for us. We went through so much, but our love withstood it all." Alecia blinked away her remaining tears.

"Do you think your mom will come for the wedding?" Jake asked, absentmindedly.

Alecia stilled. She looked up into his teasing blue eyes. "Are you proposing to me, Jacob Merriman?"

Jake slowly turned so he was directly in front of her. "I wanted to wait until I could hold you the way I want to, but…" Jake glared at the braces still on his arms, then he turned back to her.

"Alecia, you know I love you. My life without you is completely meaningless. You are my life." He kept his gaze on her sparkling eyes. "So, we're here. This is the place of our firsts: first kiss, first dance, first 'I love you'. I know this isn't your first proposal, but I know it's the first … and last…proposal that is born of pure, undying love. I love you, Allie. Say you'll marry me?"

Alecia launched herself into Jake's arms. "How did I get so lucky?" she whispered. "Of course I'll marry you. I love you, Jake. Just name the day and I'll gladly be there."

He pulled back slightly so he could look into her eyes. "How 'bout next weekend?"

Alecia gasped. "Jake! Only a week! How on earth would I---"

"Allie, I've waited ten years for you. Don't make me wait for months so you can plan a huge fancy wedding." He grinned at her. "Our closest family and friends, right here, in our spot. It'll be perfect."

She smiled tenderly at him. "Getting married in a courtroom would be perfect as long as I was marrying you."

He pressed his lips to hers again. After a moment, he spoke. "I am hopelessly in love with you, Soon-To-Be-Mrs. Merriman."

"We're going to be so good together, Jake." She whispered. "We waited ten years. Our love is everlasting, and nothing, not a bank hold-up, not a stupid businessman, and not any family member, will ever, ever break this. This is real love. It's perfect."

Like strawberry wine

And seventeen

The hot, July moon saw everything

My first taste of love

Bittersweet

The green on the vine

Like strawberry wine.

~*~

This novel was completed on Monday, September 20, 2004 at 9:11 pm, mountain time.