Part I

Brian Baxter has been sheriff of Hargrove County for eighteen months. He was a deputy for three years before that. Got his start as a Dallas PD rookie and worked his way up to member of the SWAT team and finally a detective before his daddy's heart attack and Momma's pleas to move back home. He's a good cop, a damn good cop, but all people see is Bobby Baxter's youngest son. They respect the badge, but he's not so certain they respect him.

Most days it's enough to make him want to turn his badge and hightail it back up to the city. At least there no one remembered changing his diapers or babysitting him or giving him his first beer. The other thing that bothers him is the boredom. It's a large county in terms of area, but his small section of Dallas saw ten times as much action. There are no more nights filled with murders, rapes, or robberies. He tells himself that he shouldn't miss it, but he does.

When he snaps on his belt and checks the walkie-talkie, he doesn't expect that it's going to be the last peaceful morning he'll ever experience. He spends two boring hours in his office going over paperwork and approving vacation requests and time cards before setting up position on a long stretch of road near the county line. It's dull as hell but a good spot for catching speeders. Mostly out of towners. Locals know it's a speed trap.

Five tickets and countless hours later, he contemplates stopping off at Momma's for a sandwich or picking up a greasy burger at Bo's diner when a sky blue sports car whizzes past. His radar gun clocks the car at fifteen miles over the posted speed limit. With a flick of the switch, he turns the lights and sirens on and tears off after the car.

Dreading a chase, he's inordinately grateful when the car pulls over onto the shoulder. Pad in hand, hat pulled low over his eyes, and grim smirk firmly in place, he saunters to the car. His money's on finding a spoiled, rich kid on the way to spend Daddy's money at Calver Island, a popular vacation spot on the south side of Hargrove County. When he taps on the window, he doesn't expect to come face-to-face with a pair of familiar moss green eyes or that smile.

"Afternoon, Sheriff."

His Adams' apple bobs. Ella Monahan. His childhood nemesis. Junior High tormentor. High School best friend. Love of his life. He fingers his brim, softens his smile into something genuine.

"Ella. Evan didn't say you were back in town."

"Evan doesn't know. At least he won't for another ten minutes." Her eyes narrow into a mock-scowl. "Unless your big mouth gets on the phone as soon as I leave and ruins the surprise."

Brian leans forward and eyes the suitcases filling the back. There are more than necessary for a short vacation. "Man likes to know when something big like this is coming, El. You can't just dump it on him like it's a birthday party."

"Not talking about Evan anymore, are we?"

Ella clicks the button to unlock her seatbelt, motions for Brian to take a step back, and gets out of the car. Her legs enjoy the break after nearly five hours cramped in the car; she enjoys the sight of Brian framed by the summer sunshine. It's been far too long since she's been this close to him; it's a bit like being next to a lake after a trek through the desert. She doesn't know whether she wants to dive right in or take a slow, sweet sip.

"None of your emails said anything about coming for a visit." He nods his head at the car. "Not that I think this is just a visit."

Her face flushes. She kicks at a pebble with her toe. "No. I'm thinking about moving back. For good." Her eyes flicker to his and then return to the ground. "If that's okay."

"Oh, I think it's more than okay."


"Yeah." His grin is so wide it feels like it's going to split his face but he doesn't care. He resists the urge to pull her in his arms for a celebratory hug.

"Cool." She grins back at him and for a moment it's just like high school. "I'm going to take you up on that offer for dinner, you know that, right?"

"Am counting on it, sweetheart." This time he gives into the devil on his shoulder and hugs her close. She curls up against him just the way he remembers. He always believed she was made for his embrace. The top of her head just reaches his chin. His arms drape around her waist perfectly and her cheek feels like heaven over his heart. "I've missed you, Ellie. Late night chats and emails weren't cutting it anymore."

"For me either. Coming home feels right. For a lot of reasons."

There's a story somewhere about why the timing is right, but there'll be plenty of opportunities to ask. He knows how skittish she can be, and he's perfected the art of dealing with a skittish Ella. He'll pry the story out of her so slow and gentle she won't even know she's blabbing.

Sooner than he's ready, he releases Ella and takes a step back. While she tugs down her t-shirt, he scribbles across his ticket pad, tears off the top sheet, and hands it to Ella. "I'll keep my mouth shut to Evan if you have breakfast with me tomorrow."

"Sure." Her smile disappears when she reads the sheet. "A ticket? You're giving me a ticket? Brian Harrison Baxter!"

He tips his brim and turns, saunters back to his cruiser. "Welcome back, sweetheart."

Part II

"You're crying."

Ella Monahan's slender hand tightens around the sleek cellular phone. She doesn't need any of her extra senses to read the misery in her cousin's tone. She's known Amber Monahan, older by only two months, all her life; she knows her cousin as well as she knows herself.

"I am not." Amber scrubs at her damp, raw cheeks. She should have waited an hour or so before calling Ella. The other woman is like a bloodhound when it comes to certain things.

"I feel it's my duty, as your cousin and best friend, to remind you that you are, in fact, a crap liar."

Ella leans back against the kitchen island, crosses her ankles. Pale eyelashes flutter shut as she focuses on Amber's emotions. Ella's portion of the Monahan legacy allows her to read people's emotions and, if she chooses, see them in terms of their auras. Though she can't see Amber, she can feel her cousin's heartbreak.

"It's Mark again, isn't it?" Ella pauses to let Amber deny it. She takes Amber's silence as confirmation. "Pack a bag. We're moving you out today. If that drunken, loud-mouth, s.o.b's hit you, so help me Bear, we'll be having a bonfire tonight."

Despite the pain it causes her swollen jaw, Amber's lips curve up in a smile. Ella's fierce over-protectiveness has always been one of the few things she can count on. She pushes aside flashes of memories of a dark room, a man's rasping voice, tears, and her cousin's hand in hers. "You live five hours away. Dave's the one who can teleport, remember?"

Amber's brother Dave, the oldest of the Monahan grandchildren, possessed what everyone else saw as the cool power. Amber was limited to reading an area and, in certain cases an object's, energy. She could view the entire history of a house but was as in the dark as the next person about its future. No one in the Monahan family could view the future. It was one of the forbidden abilities.

"Actually, I'm at Evan's. I've been hiding out with him for a couple of days."

"I talked with your mom yesterday. She didn't say anything about you being in town." Amber twirls the phone cord around her finger. If Aunt Glenna had mentioned that Ella was in their hometown of Hargrove Hills, only an hour from where Amber lived, Amber would have thought twice about calling Ella.

"Mom doesn't know." Ella winces at Amber's surprised inhalation. Amber, honest-to-a-fault Amber, would never dream of lying to her mother. "I've had a rough few weeks. I took some time off. I needed to relax."

The only set of twins in Monahan family history, Evan and Ella share abilities, strawberry blonde hair, and moss green eyes but their personalities are polar opposites. Ella is controlling and high-strung. The family joke is that if Evan were any more laid back, he'd be unconscious. It is no surprise to Amber that Ella automatically runs to her brother's when her batteries need recharging.

"I'll borrow Evan's truck so that you can take whatever you want. I'll leave as soon as we hang up, so you'd better start packing." Ella pushes away from the island, grabs her sneakers off the floor and slips them on.

"You can't kill him, El."

Ella swears under her breath, fluently enough to make her absent brother proud. Amber wouldn't give that warning if Mark Davies, her worthless jackass of a fiancé, hadn't hit her. It doesn't seem fair that Amber, the kindest, gentlest Monahan, would take up with a bully. "No? Should I call Dave or Evan so they can do the honors?"

"Ella!" For a moment Amber fears her cousin will do just that. It is no secret that most of her family members, male or female, are itching to do Mark in. While it's nice to feel so loved, at times it can be downright suffocating.

Ella blows her bangs out of her eyes. She doesn't like pressuring Amber. The other woman gets enough of that from Mark. "Sorry, Bear. Look, if you don't want to move out permanently, just come and spend the weekend with me. We can spend a Saturday trolling the mall like we used to in junior high or stay in and go through Evan's movie collection. I promise pizza, beer, and nothing that'll make you cry."

Amber hesitates before answering. She wants to get out, permanently, but is afraid of taking that final step. Can she do it with Ella's support? If she left just for a vacation, after spending the weekend with her best friend, will she even want to return to life with Mark? Maybe they can figure it out after Ella arrives.

"I'll see you in an hour, El."

"Forty-five minutes, tops." Ella grins to herself. She jots a short note on the back of a Shipley's Donuts napkin and sticks it to the refrigerator with a magnet. The spare keys to Evan's truck are beside the keys to her sky blue sports coupe. Though he'll grumble about it, he won't mind the car swap since it's for a good cause.

"You'd better hope Brian's on duty today, then." Amber disconnects the call before her cousin can start their years-long debate about Ella's relationship with Hargrove County Sherriff Brian Baxter. She flops onto the lumpy couch, buries her head in her hands. At least she has a forty-five minute reprieve before all hell breaks loose.

Fortunately, for him, Mark is out at a buddy's. Hopefully he will stay away until after she and Ella are long gone. Though he's over six-three and built like a linebacker, Amber's money is on Ella beating him in a fight. After… Amber swallows, shivers. After the kidnapping, Dave and Evan had tried to teach both Ella and Amber how to fight dirty. While Amber disliked violence, Ella had excelled at the lessons.

Thirty minutes after tossing the phone onto a coffee table, Amber hears the unmistakable sound of a diesel engine pulling into the driveway. In a moment of pettiness, she hopes Ella's speeding had earned her a ticket or two. As much as Brian is infatuated with Ella, he isn't above punishing her for her lead foot. With a beleaguered sigh, Amber wearily rises to her feet and moves to unlock the front door before her cousin can beat it down.

Ella's lips thin when she spots the bruises forming on her cousin's pale face, but she keeps her thoughts to herself. Amber doesn't need to hear all the creative ways Ella planned on killing Mark. Most of them are admittedly gory and promise a great deal of pain. Having spent over a decade shadowing cops, hanging around morgues and interviewing killers, her imagination is more detailed, and realistic, than most.

"So, what's the plan oh favorite cousin of mine?"

Amber's eyes drift to the lace curtains fluttering in front of the open bay window. When she'd first moved in with Mark, it had all seemed like a dream come true: the dishy boyfriend, charming house, and new job at a new hospital. Three years later she has an abusive fiancé, leaky pipes, peeling paint, and a job that is slowly suffocating her spirit.

"Pack it up. All of it."

Ella lets out a whoop of glee. She wraps her arms around Amber's neck and squeezes until Amber protests about lack of oxygen. "That's my girl!"

"Easy for you to say. You're not the one whose mother is going to try and set her up with every available doctor and lawyer in Hargrove County! All you have to do is wink at Brian and your mommas will be ordering flowers and cakes."

Amber doesn't miss the way Ella's cheeks turn a bright red. She wants to question her cousin about it, about any new developments with Brian, but it isn't the time. She doesn't want to hear about Ella's prospering love life while packing up the remains of her own.

As they pack, she silently thanks Ella for not pointing out the hundreds of times her cousin warned her about Mark. Ella had used her gift to vet all of Amber's boyfriends before Mark, but Amber had begged her not to do it before her first date with the dashing doctor. She hadn't wanted to have the shine taken off the relationship before it even started.

Three years of her life boxed up and loaded in the back of Evan's truck and her diamond solitaire resting on the kitchen counter, Amber feels lighter. Freer. She leaps at Ella, kisses her surprised cousin's cheek. "Thank you, El. Thank you for this."

"I'd say anytime," Ella drawls as she leads the way out of the house, "but I'm not keen for a repeat performance."

Making a vow to have all of her relatives use their gifts on her next romantic interest, Amber nods in agreement. "Neither am I."

Part III

Brian Baxter knows he's in for a long night when Ella Monahan storms in through his backdoor with murder in her eyes. He kisses his plans for a quiet evening of SportsCenter and beer goodbye. Ella swipes his sweating bottle of summer pilsner off the table and drains it before collapsing on the chair beside him. Her elbows on dining table, the empty bottle twirls between her fingers and her forehead is dangerously close to his grilled cheese.


He can't help but chuckle at her answering groan. He swallows the last of his sandwich, licks the butter off his fingers and lifts her chin. The green eyes he adores are cloudy with anger and her teeth are clenched so tight he fears for her jaw. "C'mon, Ellie. Tell me all about it. Better I hear it from you than the night dispatcher."

Her lips twitch. Some of the rage in her eyes fades and the tension drains out of her shoulders. "I didn't kill anyone."


This time her lips curve up in a genuine smile. "You could try not to sound so disappointed, Bri."

Pleased with his success so far, he jerks her out of the chair and onto his lap. Her heels bang his shins; he's never been a fan of her obsession with thick-soled sneakers. The way her arms loop around his neck more than makes up for the pain.

"Can't help it, El. It's been downright boring these past few weeks. I know I can always count on you to shake things up." He waits until she's stopped laughing to press his lips to hers for a quick kiss. "So are you ready to tell me what's going on?"

"Bear left Mark. She's going to stay with Evan and me until she's less shaky. It wasn't pretty. I mean, the leaving was easy, but… Jesus."

Her fingernails dig into his shoulders, but he doesn't complain. The way her eyes have glazed over is a clear indication that she's not even aware of what she's doing. Drawing her attention to it would only make her feel guilty.

"How ugly?"

"The bruises will fade. Not sure about the rest of it. I'm not sure how long it was going on. She's so sensitive. So caring. I swear, if he did anything to kill that light…"

"I'll hold him down while you, Evan, and Dave each have a go." He brushes a fallen strand of red-gold hair out of her eyes. "You need to give Amber more credit, though. She's a Monahan. She'll bounce back."

"Hope so."

"So… three of you in Evan's tiny apartment? Gonna be pretty tight."

"No kidding. Bear and I have shared a room before, but I hate sharing a bathroom with her and Evan. There is no room for an extra tube of toothpaste on that sink. Forget trying to get hot water after they've showered."

In the five days since she's returned, he's pieced together the story about her flight from Houston. He enjoys her true crime novels as much as the rest of the world seems to devour them. Just like the rest of the world, he was as oblivious to the personal cost. One of her subjects hadn't appreciated the rather frank, unsympathetic way she told his story. Another had been a little too flattered by her attention. She hadn't felt safe and returned to the one place where she could be surrounded by people who loved her.

"Harder to hide the nightmares when you're sharing a room, I imagine."

She flinches but doesn't leave the circle of his arms. "Yeah. Don't want to bring up all those memories for Amber. I don't think she remembers much of what happened and I don't want to bring back any memories she may have suppressed."

He remembers the three days the Monahan girls were missing. His mother had locked him and his two brothers in the house while every man in the area had joined the search for Amber and Ella. No one talked much about the condition they were found in, but old, mothball-smelling Mr. Jenkins had been shot during the rescue and Ella had been out of school for a month. There'd been two assemblies that year and Sheriff Bobby Baxter had given lectures on stranger-danger and being wary of even those people who looked trustworthy.

"Always protecting everyone. That's my girl." He kisses her forehead, savors the feel of her satiny skin against his lips. "My only question is: who protects you?"

"I kinda thought that's what you were for."

"Just say the word, sweetheart. I'm letting you set the timeline."

She leans back, runs her knuckles along his jaw. "So… if I said that I needed some time away from Evan and Bear, you'd let me crash on your couch?"

"Momma'd skin me alive if she knew I let a lady sleep on that piece of crap couch."

He waggles his eyebrows salaciously. Her grin widens. His heart trips in response. He wonders what she'd say if he told her he wanted her to stay for always.

"I have nightmares," she reminds him, smile faltering for a moment. There's a part of her, her inner, terrified eight-year-old, that wants to hold back. She hates it because it's Brian, but she can't help it.

"I have two nieces who will testify to my nightmare-fighting abilities."

"Maybe I'll just have to test those abilities for myself."

"Just say when, sweetheart. Just say when."

Part IV

Ella snorts in disgust as the caller on the radio continues to gush about his "perfect" girlfriend who he is just "madly and totally" in love with. Even if she weren't able feel the insincerity and guilt behind his tone, the sheer sappiness would have made her nauseous. Was it any wonder she preferred murderers and rapists and scumbags? At least you expected them to lie.

"He slept with her best friend and is afraid she found out." Ella shakes her head in dismay. "Typical, huh?"

The sound of glass slamming into the wall near Ella is the only response she gets out of her cousin. Soapy hands dripping water onto the floor of the house she rents with her cousin, Ella pivots on her heel. She glances at the broken glass at her feet before meeting Amber's furious gaze.

"What's wrong, Bear?"

"You! You're wrong, Ella." Amber slams her hand on the table. "You hide it behind snide remarks and sarcasm and jokes, but you're wrong."

"I'm wrong?"

"Yes!" Amber blows out a frustrated breath. She sinks onto a chair when the initial burst of anger fades and leaves her knees weak. "You let your gift twist you into something bitter. You're jaded, cynical. You look for the dust under rugs."

"Bear, I - "

"So yes, you're wrong. I refuse to look at the world like it's something ugly and dirty. I'm not going to push everyone away before they can get too close. Look at how you've twisted poor Brian up all these years. All because you're afraid of trusting someone, of getting your heart broken. I don't care how many times I get hurt, I don't ever want to be like you."

Indignation, and a fair amount of both pain and betrayal, stiffen Ella's spine. She wipes her hands on her jeans, fixes Amber with an icy glare. "You didn't seem to mind my wrongness when you needed me to wade through your potential dates after the breakup with Mark. You even encouraged it, if I remember correctly. How about every other time I've had your back? Scoped out people or situations for you? I wasn't quite so wrong then, was I?"


"Do you even wonder why I'm like this? Of course you don't. You'd rather sit up in your tower, high and mighty, and pass judgment on those of us too human to live in your fairytale world of bluebirds and rainbows. Do you even think about what it takes to make sure you have that fairytale?"

Tears prick the corners of Amber's eyes. How had this gotten so twisted around? Wasn't she supposed to be the angry one? "Ella, don't be like this, please."

Ella shuts off the faucet before the sink overflows with suds and water. She yanks the damp dishtowel out of her back pocket, flings at in her cousin's face. "Apparently, it's too late."

Amber flinches when the back door slams shut. The sound of wheels peeling out of the driveway grates on her nerves. Alone in the kitchen with her guilt, she buries her face in her hands and cries.

Ella's first stop is, naturally, Brian's. The driveway is empty. Of course it's empty. It's the middle of the day and he has to protect and serve. Fingers trembling and stomach twisting, she manages to dial his number. After five rings, his voicemail picks up.

"H-hey, Bri. It's me. I'm going to have to take a rain check on dinner. It's… I need some time to think." She sniffles, fights the tears burning the corners of her eyes. "I'm not pushing you away. I swear. I'm sorry if you've felt that way. I love you. I've… I love you."

Her next stop is the Watering Hole. Evan owns the bar with Rich, Brian's oldest brother. She prays Rich and not her nosy twin is on bartending duty. Rich, the only member of his family not in law enforcement, doesn't ask questions.

Rich temporarily replaces Brian as her favorite Baxter Boy when he lines up drink after drink without comment or inquiry. He waves away her money every time she tries to pay and, hours later, ushers her into his office in the back when the room starts to spin and the bar fills up with patrons.

She's thankful it's her mother and not Brian that appears in the doorway. Brian would gently pull answers from her and she doesn't want to have to tell him about her wrongness. Not that he probably doesn't already know. Apparently, it's so evident even a blind person could see her flaws.

"Hey, Mamacita," she slurs, slinging an arm around her mother's rounded shoulders. Somehow, they manage to make their way to the parking lot. She slumps in the passenger seat of her mother's sedan and ignores the curious glare fixed on the side of her head.

"Any reason you're drinking like the world's ending and carrying around enough pain for fifteen people?"


"All right." Glenna Monahan shuts off the radio before Alan Jackson can assault her daughter's sensitive ears and pounding head. "This have anything to do with why Amber called me crying earlier?"

"Yes. I don't want to talk about it."

"Fine. Do you want to go back to the house, Evan's, or do you want to go home?"


Ella draws her knees to her chest and stares at the rip in her jeans. When the car stops, she glances around in confusion. They are parked in front of white, two-story house she grew up in rather than Brian's red ranch-style. It's her fault. Brian's house, where no one expects her to be anything but herself, is more home than anywhere else. She should have told her mother that. It was her idea to keep the depth of her relationship with Brian a secret until they were on more stable ground so they could enjoy the honeymoon phase without all the prying eyes. Was that the truth or was she just holding him at arm's length? It's hard to tell, now. Damn Amber to hell for making her doubt everything she's ever done.

Harry Monahan helps Glenna carry Ella upstairs to her old bedroom. With his gift, he heals his daughter's mild alcohol poisoning but leaves the rest. He and Glenna decided years earlier that they wouldn't save their children from self-inflicted injuries. He only wishes he could cure the emotional pain rolling off Ella's thin shoulders.

"She's hurting, Glenna."

"I know, Harry. I can taste it." Glenna perches on the end of the bed and strokes her daughter's sweat-dampened head. "Let me try and talk to her."

"I'll be downstairs if you need me." He kisses the top of his girls' heads and quietly shuts the door behind himself.

"Mom, you have to listen to me." An hour later, Ella reaches out with a flailing arm until she feels the cool cotton of her mother's sleeve. "You have to be careful with Evan. He's not like you and me and Dad. He feels so much, so deeply. He takes everything, every careless word, to heart."

Glenna settles more comfortably beside her inebriated daughter. She's afraid she won't like the track this conversation is following, but it has been so long since she talked to Ella, just talked, that she can't bring herself to leave. "I know your brother, El."

"Yeah, but do you know you? Your tongue, Mom, your words. They come out so smooth, but they're sharp. So sharp and full of venom. Little things, observations, that shouldn't hurt become fatal." Ella swallows the bile burning the back of her throat. Is she like that? Is that what Amber had meant? She has to keep her mother from being wrong, has to save someone this pain. "You want to use them on me? That's fine. I can take it. Just not Evan, okay?"

"Why not Evan?"

"He's the heart of us. The compassion. Keeps us from tearing each other apart. He's so full of joy and life that we're all a little brighter just for being around him. Killing that would be tragic." A fond smile curves Ella's lips at the mere thought of her twin. Though she gives Evan a hard time for his constant optimism, it is one of the things she admires most about him.

"Dad's the anchor," Ella continues. "Strong and stable and reassuring. No matter what happens, what changes us, Dad stays the same. The world could fall down tonight, but I know Dad will be Dad in the morning. 'S a universal constant."

"And where do I fit in your scenario, Ella?" Stung pride has Glenna's words coming out sharper than intended. Perhaps sticking around to listen to Ella hadn't been such a good idea. What was that old adage about eavesdroppers never hearing anything good about themselves? "The evil witch?"

Ella chuckles softly. "That's my role, remember?" She slides her hand down her mother's arm, twines their fingers together. "Dad may be the one we run to when things turn to crap, but you're the one we look to for direction. You're our compass. Our guide. You're our conscience, the mostly gentle hand that keeps us on the straight and narrow. We turn to you for everything else because, for all Dad's healing ability, you make it all better again."

Glenna blinks damp eyes. She hadn't expected that. It isn't a glowing recommendation, but it is exactly what she's tried to be. "I know what you are, honey."

Ella's laughter is tinged with self-pity and something darker Glenna doesn't want to classify. "The black sheep," she says, acknowledging how she's so different from the rest of her bright, shiny family. "Not exactly a newsflash, Mom. I'm also, according to a very reliable source, wrong."

Glenna brushes a lock of hair off her daughter's flushed cheek. "You keep us honest. You're our polygraph. You see the things we try to hide and draw them out. You hold our hearts up to the light. You're our truth."

"I'm wrong."

"No, you are not. Don't argue with your mother." Glenna bends down, brushes a kiss across the top of Ella's head. "You're not going to remember any of this tomorrow, are you?"

"If the fates are kind, when I wake up I will be in Houston and the past month will be nothing more than a vivid nightmare."

Ella doesn't remember her mother leaving the room. She dozes off and on, drains the glass of water waiting on the nightstand. It isn't until the bed dips and warm arms curve around her waist that she fights off the cocoon of drunkenness.

"You leave cryptic messages on my phone. Drink half your weight in tequila at Rich's place. I go by the house and find Amber a sobbing mess. I couldn't understand a word she said, so I stopped by Evan's and you weren't there either. This was my last stop. You sure know how to make a guy worry, sweetheart."

"I'm wrong."

"Yeah, well, I don't mind a chase every now and then, but let's not make a habit of it, okay?" Brian's lips ghost over her hot cheek.

She twists in her arms and moves his hands so they're over her heart. "You don't understand. I'm wrong. Here," she taps his hands before moving her finger to her temple, "and here."

His teeth flash in the moonlight. Through the faint light filtering in through blinds she can see his blue eyes, dark and so full of love she wants to cry. "Did you ever think, Eleanor Monahan, that what's wrong for one person is right for another? I don't have fancy gifts like the rest of your crazy family, but I see you. I've always seen you. And there's not a damn thing about you I don't adore."

That part of her she despises, that always holds back when he pushes for more, disappears. Something near her heart clicks and she can't breathe for the giddiness welling in her chest. "I love you, too."

Brian spends the night listening and brushing away her tears. His shirt is utterly ruined and the bed was not made for someone of his height, but it ranks up there as one of the best nights of his life. The next morning, he descends the stairs with Ella's hand in his. Her daddy's glare is almost enough to make his knees wobble. Glenna's beatific smile is even more horrifying, especially since he's certain she was on the phone with his mother before the sun came up.

"So," Harry starts as he slides two mugs of coffee across the counter, "when's the wedding?"

Brian chokes on his coffee. The hand that slaps his back is small and warm. The laughter ringing in his ears is bright and makes his heart clench.

"How does September sound, Daddy?"