"Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be." - Robert Browning
Days quickly turned into a week, and Zoe was getting more and more stressed. Will was getting married in less than a week and a half. She had to do something; anything. She'd noticed Tess more than once staying out late, coming home smelling like old spice. She knew Will didn't wear it, but he never seemed to notice. Late one night, when he'd stayed up going over a few of the books, she walked into the study and sat down, looking out the window. He glanced up at her, already nervous, and went back to reading. She'd mistaken the novel he had in his hands for one of the ledgers of the ranch.
"Can I help you?" He asked at last. He'd read the same line fifteen times since she walked in. He could pick out her scent easily among the musty pages of the old books.
"Will…" she sighed, and he just knew it was going to be a long night. She looked over at him, thinking over her words. "Do you remember that day you took me to the falls?" She asked, tracing patterns into the arm of the chair she was sitting on. She had on a pair of sweats and a t-shirt that left her hips exposed. Not for the first time since her return, he wished he could curl up with her again.
"Yes," he said warily, closing his book. He set it down on the desk and looked at her. He hadn't gone to bed at his usual time since she'd arrived. Rather than stay up tossing and turning, he chose to read to tire his mind out.
"Remember how I told you that Dan wasn't better than you?" He had no idea where she was going.
"Yes," he said again.
"Based on how protective he's been of you, I'd retract that statement," she said coolly. He shook his head and looked down at the desk.
"I can't leave her, Zoe," he sighed.
"Why," she demanded.
"We've gone over this a thousand times," he said, his tone growing more and more frustrated. She stood up quickly and walked over to the desk.
"Yes, I know; I was there. I'm just hoping that if you say it enough times, you'll realize how ridiculous you sound. You are aware that at some point, she's going to realize you aren't giving all of yourself to her. And you know why you aren't giving all of yourself to her?" She didn't give him a chance to answer. "Because you gave part of yourself to me, a long time ago. I know it, and you know it, and I still see it in your eyes sometimes."
"Do you?" He raised his eyebrows. "I was pretty sure all you saw was anger and hurt," he said smoothly. She gritted her teeth and stepped closer, grabbing a fistful of his shirt. As hard as she tried, she wasn't intimidating, not in the least bit.
"Don't play with me, Will. I came back because I love you, and I'm willing to fight for you, but if you get up there and say 'I do', I'll never come back." She said, her voice dangerously soft. Will sighed and stood up, easily pulling out of her grasp.
"Please, Will," she scoffed. "You think she actually loves you?"
"No! And that's why I know it's safe to marry her!" He said, finally giving her something she wanted to hear. He glared at her, his arms crossed. "You ripped me apart once, Zoe -"
"That wasn't me," she interjected in a monotone.
"- I refuse to let you do it again. Everyone in this family but Dan thinks I should give you a second chance, but you didn't even put up a fight when your dad took you away."
"I was hypothermic, you idiot!" She said loudly.
"You were strong enough to tell me to leave you alone," he pointed out, unaware of the fact that their voices were getting louder and louder.
"Oh, admit it, Will; you know I didn't have a say in the matter." He fell silent and so did she, both of them glaring at each other. "If you loved me at all you would have known that I wouldn't write a letter like that," she said quietly. He'd shown it to her after she'd asked to see it a hundred times. "And if you truly wanted to come after me, you would've made damn sure I meant it."
"You know I'm never going to leave this town," he defended himself, glaring at her. "And you know that I loved you." He hissed. There was a creak at the door that neither of them heard.
"Loved? Don't even try that on me, Will. You still do."
"No, Zoe, I don't." He said, crossing his arms. She raised her eyebrows and walked toward him. He stayed where he was, even though he wanted to move back.
"You don't?" She asked softly. She shook her head, standing before him defiantly. "Then why are you so afraid to be alone in the same room with me?" She whispered, staring up at him. "I know you, Will. You haven't changed as much as you think you have. I know every move you make. I know when you're dodging a question or trying to get out of a conversation." She reached up and placed her hand against his cheek.
For a moment, he succombed to the unbearable urge it was that had pushed him to hold her, to kiss her, to tell her how much he needed her. He leaned into her touch, feeling the hurt and the pain melt away for the smallest moment. He dragged her against him, his mouth searing angrily over hers. His hands bunched in the thin material at her waist, keeping her close. His head swam, his heart soared; but then, he remembered what it felt like when she left, and he didn't want to feel that again. He pulled away, thrusting her hands down to her side.
"No, Zoe." He growled, and turned toward the door. He started to leave, opened the door, and prepared to walk out. Before he made it over the threshold, he paused and took one look over his shoulder. Bathed in dim light, she looked so strong, and he wished he could have just a bit of that strength; that courage to keep holding on when what you were holding on to had told you several times that there wasn't any point. He turned completely around and stepped back into the study, closing the door with the intention of opening it up again.
"Is she really what you want?" She said softly.
"No," he said honestly, looking down at the ground. Beyond the door, Tess covered her mouth to keep him from hearing her gasp. "I think she knows, too. She's been seeing someone, but I don't think they've done anything but talk." He was scared; so scared, his hands were shaking.
"Weren't you leaving?" She asked, but he ignored her question.
"Why are you still holding on?" He asked, torn between frustration and bewilderment. "Haven't I shut you down enough?"
"Until you pledge the rest of your life to her, I'll be waiting," she said, her eyes speaking volumes of strength even though her voice was shaking. "I can't force you to give in, Will. But I can't force myself to give up, either," she said, the lump in her throat making it hard to speak. He took a hesitant step towards her, and then another, until he was standing in front of her and they were both illuminated by the moonlight coming through the window. Maybe it was because it was late, or maybe it was because he'd had a little Scotch. Perhaps it was just a dream, or possibly he was just crazy; whatever it was, he couldn't deny it any longer. He didn't say a word as he lifted his hand to her cheek. She was still warm, as real as anything he'd ever touched, so he knew it couldn't be a dream.
"Don't play with me, Will," she whispered, completely surrendering herself to him. He wrapped one arm around her and pulled her close. For the longest time, whenever he'd looked at Tess, all he had seen was the fact that she wasn't Zoe. His lips touched hers, and fireworks exploded in her mind. She wrapped her arms around him, pulled him as tight as she could, and kissed him with all the anger and frustration and longing and love that had been pent up inside her for so long. She drank in the moment, imprinting it in her mind forever. Even if the night turned out to be a mistake and he pretended it never happened, she wanted to remember the feeling of holding him tight, in case she never felt that way again. When he couldn't last on his single breath any longer, he pulled away. His other hand had made it up to her face, cradling her head in his rough hands. His breath shook as he stared at her, raw emotion in his eyes. He was terrified of what he was doing; she could see it plain as day.
"I said I'd never do this again," he whispered, his voice hoarse. "I said I'd never let myself get hurt by you, but here I am again… and I can't seem to remember why I waited so long," he whispered. Tears cascaded down from her eyes and over his thumbs. He wiped them away gently, sadness filling his eyes. Her stomach twisted painfully.
"Don't go," she whispered, as he pulled his hands away. He wrapped his arms around her in a hug, holding her tighter than ever.
"I can't do this while Tess is still under the impression that we're getting married," he said into her neck. She shuddered, clenching her hands around the material of his shirt. She held him there as long as she could, but eventually he pulled her hands away.
"Promise me you won't forget," she whispered, not wanting to let him go, not when she'd been happy for the first time since being back.
"I won't," he said, but he didn't promise; they had a history of a broken promise. He was about to leave; the door was open and everything, but again he went back to her. This time, he kissed her softly, not wanting to leave but not wanting Tess to still believe they were together.
He disappeared into the dark house, leaving Zoe in the study. She sat down in the chair; it smelled so much like him. She fell asleep in the comfortable chair, tired and nervous but hopeful. She knew there was a chance he'd change his mind, but she had crossed fingers saying he wouldn't.
When she woke up in the morning, she found herself on the couch in the parlor. Will had been right; it was the most uncomfortable thing she'd ever slept on. When she walked into the kitchen, Will was sitting at the table with a cup of coffee. He looked like he hadn't gotten any sleep. Tess was sitting across from him, next to a man who looked like he was from the Caribbean. Will looked up and smiled, even though he was bone-tired.
"Zoe, this is Brian." He said, gesturing to the man. Tess looked rather sheepish, almost ashamed, but there appeared to be no bad blood between the couple. Or rather, ex-couple. "We have a lot of people to talk to, but as of this morning, the wedding is off." He said, looking up at her with relief. He itched to hold her again. Ideally, he wanted to be alone with her, but he knew he had a while of her to himself once Tess left.
"The arrangements have been made. Dad's getting the truck ready to move all of her stuff out of the house, actually. And I think Mom already started calling people." She stood at the stove, pouring herself a glass of water and rubbing the back of her neck.
"Just like that?" She said warily.
"No," he chuckled. "We've been up all night… but we both agreed that it wasn't right for us," he said, taking a deep drink of coffee.
"You look like hell," she said, sitting next to him.
"Gee, thanks," he muttered, but reached for her hand anyway.
"I think that's your dad," Tess said, as the rumble of the old Ford met their ears. "Wow, he must be right outside," she said quietly. Brian shook his head, then chuckled and stood up, following her towards the front door. Will looked over at Zoe.
"You're not having second thoughts, are you?" He asked warily.
"No… I'm just wondering where the ring went." She said, her eyebrows creased in thought.
"She gave it back. They're both in the original box. I gave her money to replace the money she spent on mine. It's over, Zoe. I'm all yours." He said, squeezing her hand. She smiled up at him, wanting to just crawl in his lap. She wondered if she'd ever get over being away from him for so long. She wanted to make up for lost time.
"Finally," she joked.
"And to think, it only took me almost getting married for you to figure it out," he grinned. She punched his arm lightly. A few minutes later, Richard and Diane came walking in.
"We're heading off, now," Richard said, looking knowingly at Will. Will rolled his eyes as his dad grinned.
"Will, you look really tired."
"I'm thinking about heading to bed," he sighed, setting his forehead in his hands.
"You go right ahead, baby," she cooed, stroking his hair gently. "Richard already took care of the horses, anyway," she said, smiling at Zoe.
"Wake me up before lunch," he said, standing up. "I don't want my sleep pattern to get all thrown off," he muttered.
"Will do, honey," Diane said as he went into the living room. "It's good to have you two back together. I can't say I didn't miss you," she smiled, drawing Zoe into a hug. "You're welcome here as long as you need to stay, and you'll always be provided for here on the ranch." She said, unable to help the large grin on her face.
"Thanks, so much, Diane." She said, hugging the woman back. "If you don't mind, I think I'll grab some more sleep. That couch is awfully uncomfortable," she rolled her shoulders.
"Don't I know it," Diane laughed, patting her on the back. "Go on ahead. You two deserve some time alone, anyway," Diane winked, and Zoe's face flushed with color. She drained her glass of water and walked into the living room. Will was already half asleep, his head buried into the pillow. Zoe knelt on the bed next to him and then lowered herself beside him, gently stroking his hair. He cracked open his eyes and looked at her, then closed them again. He mustered up the strength and willpower to roll over and held his arm out to her. She snuggled up close to his side, drawing the blankets up to her shoulders. He pushed as much of the covers off of himself as he could, while still leaving her covered. He was the happiest man alive; tired as Hell, but happy.
"I love you," he murmured, just before falling into a deep, dreamless sleep.
A couple months later, as Will was making a few repairs to his house after the wet winter months, he pulled a small, wine-red box from his work pants. Inside was a small ring; nothing flashy. Just a plain silver ring with a small, sleek diamond on top. When he'd finished with his repairs, he climbed down from the roof. It was a little on the cold side, but he'd worked up a sweat and only needed a t-shirt while working.
"Zoe?" He called, walking through the front door.
"Upstairs," she yelled. He smiled and tore up the stairs, letting off a little bit of steam as he reached the top so he wouldn't scare her by barreling into the room.
"Hey, woman," he smiled, walking up to her. He pulled her to him and kissed her passionately, even though she'd been in the middle of laundry.
"Will," she mumbled, trying to pull away. "Will, just hang on, I'm in the middle of something!" She laughed. He let her turn around, but kept his arms around her. He kissed the back of her neck.
"Zoe, I've gotta ask you something," he said casually, and he felt her stiffen slightly.
"What?" She asked, slightly weary.
"Well, two things. One, what would you say to getting a dog?" He asked. She turned around and looked at him, surprise in her eyes.
"What kind of dog?"
"Oh, I don't know; something big and pretty. A Great Dane, perhaps?"
"Will, you know they're my favorite!" She cried, hitting him on the shoulder.
"Of course I do," he rolled his eyes. "There's something else, though."
"If you ask me one more time what color I want the house -"
"No, no, it's not that," he laughed. He turned her around so she was facing him. "I know this isn't very romantic, but you know I'm not really that kind of guy. I know we had our troubles, but we worked through it. It made us stronger. It's because of those three years apart that I know we can make it through anything." He paused, licking his lips. "It's because of this… that I want you to marry me," he said slowly, pulling out the ring box. He popped it open and showed her the ring, and watched her face light up all over again.
"Will…" she breathed, biting her lip. "Are you sure?" She whispered.
"Damnit, Zoe, would you just say yes already?" He growled impatiently, kissing her neck. She laughed, trying to push him away.
"Yes! Yes, I'll marry you," she giggled, his five o'clock shadow tickling her neck.
"Good." He smiled, taking the ring out. He put it on her slender finger, unable to help the idiotic grin on his face.
"I love you, Zoe Martin."
"You can call me Zoe Taylor," she smiled, throwing her arms around his neck. He growled happily and picked her up, depositing her on the big, comfortable bed. He leaned over her, kissing her slowly while she worked his sweaty shirt off of his torso.
"Do you want kids?" He asked suddenly, looking down at her apprehensively.
"Kids? Gross." She made a disgusted face, and the terrified look on his face made her burst out laughing. "Of course I want kids! Hundreds of them," she smiled, pulling him down to kiss her again.
"You know," he said against her lips. "You're going to pay for that."
"Oh, I don't care," she sighed, wrapping her legs around his waist while she ran her hands up and down his chest. "You're incredible, Will," she whispered, as he moved his lips to her neck.
"You're pretty damn amazing, too, Zoe," he murmured, holding her tight in his cowboy arms.
Author's Note: And that's that. It moved fast, I know, but I ran out of steam about halfway through and the last, like, twenty thousand words (four or five chapters), I wrote on the fly. In one night.