Cole wiped his sweaty hands on the denim of his jeans as he checked over the gazebo one last time, making sure everything was ready. A cool breeze ruffled his dark brown hair and the collar of his dress shirt, but even with his sleeves rolled up he still felt uncomfortably warm. The sky grew darker as dusk approached, reminding him he only had a few more minutes to mentally prepare himself.
His phone rang in his pocket, and his heart drummed heavily in his chest. Stiff fingers fumbled as he pulled it out and dragged his thumb over the screen. “Yeah?”
“The cake is on the griddle,” a deep voice announced triumphantly.
“The duck is heading south.”
Cole stared at his phone, his brows pinching together. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Man, take all the fun out of it why don’t you?” The voice sighed on the other end. “Lo is on her way to you now.”
“Jesus, Cowboy. Why didn’t you just say that?” His heart started beating even faster. God, he ran into burning buildings for a living, and he didn’t think he’d ever been as nervous as he was now.
“Relax, brother. You’ve got this. She’s going to say yes.”
“You think so?”
“Absolutely…that or she’ll finally realize what a huge mistake she’s made and profess her undying love to me before we run off to the Bahamas together.”
Cole’s lips threatened a miniscule smile. “What kind of odds are we talking here?”
“Hmm. I’m thinking fifty-fifty.”
“That good, huh?”
“Well, after all the work you put in tonight, I may be willing to give you sixty-forty.”
“How generous of you.” Cole took a deep breath and felt his muscles finally start to relax. “Thanks, man.”
“Anytime. Look, I’m going to let you go.” His voice had lost its earlier levity. “But remember this. You two were made for each other. You know it, I know it, and so does everybody else in this town. Including her.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Cole conceded, mostly to help reassure himself. He knew Logan loved him, but it still didn’t stop the doubt from creeping in. “Hey, how does she look tonight?”
“She looks gorgeous, man. And lightyears out of your league.”
The corner of his mouth hitched a fraction, then fell. “But does she look happy?”
“Of course she does. She’s on her way to see you.”
Cole nodded, wiping his sweaty palm yet again. “Do you think she’s figured it out?”
“No way, man,” Cowboy pronounced confidently. “Logan Kase has no idea what’s coming.”
Holy shit, I’m getting engaged!
Logan stared out the window of her daddy’s truck, her mind still reeling over the recent revelation.
She’d had no idea what all lay in store for her when she woke in her childhood bedroom that morning—typical whenever Cole was working. Even after a year and a half of dating, they still hadn’t taken the step of moving in together. Partly because he worked several nights at the station a week, but also because he still lived in that small two-bedroom house with Cowboy. Not that she would mind living there. She’d decided a long time ago she’d be happy to have Cole anyway she could.
And now he was going to propose!
Okay, she didn’t know that for sure. But really, what else could it be after the day she’d had?
She’d come down the stairs that morning just like any other day, but instead of finding Momma and Daddy already starting on her birthday breakfast—so maybe not any other day—she’d found a quiet kitchen, the breakfast table empty but for a single red envelope with her name on it. Inside was a slip of paper with a short sentence scribbled in Cole’s hand.
Head to Byrdie’s for a special treat.
No signature, no “happy birthday,” just a quick set of instructions and the implication of seeing Cole soon. Only when she arrived at Byrdie’s Café and Bakery, it was a different Tucker waiting to greet her.
Tater, Cole’s gorgeous little sister who rivaled even him in beauty, squealed out a piercing “Happy birthday!” just as Byrdie presented Logan with a giant cupcake which she happily devoured with Tater’s help—because who didn’t love cake for breakfast on their birthday?
Logan was getting ready to head to the fire station and tell Cole how much she loved her present when Tater handed her a second red envelope. Another set of instructions in Cole’s writing stating he’d made reservations for her and her momma at the spa over in Dublin.
After that it was a free lunch at Wade’s, the local bar and grill, with her daddy and a round of birthday drinks. Then a trip to the salon to get her hair and nails done with her best friend, Carly.
Envelope after envelope, each one with another surprise. And as much as she loved them, none led to the one surprise she wanted most. The one person she wanted most.
When an envelope finally sent her home that afternoon, she found two boxes of very different sizes waiting on her bed. A stunning pink dress with soft, silky fabric and a flowing skirt and a pair of ankle boots that matched perfectly. With them was another note.
Your escort will be ready downstairs at 7 to take you to one final surprise. Don’t make me wait too long. -XO Cole
Lo had felt absolutely giddy as she came down at seven. Cowboy stood in the living room, a bouquet of orange and red roses in hand. He kissed her cheek. “You look incredible, Lo. Happy birthday.”
Momma stood nearby, her eyes on Logan clouding with moisture. She sniffed, grabbing the roses from Cowboy’s hand. “I’ll just go put these in some water.” Her voice sounded thick and froggy. Geez you’d think she never saw her daughter dressed up before.
Logan sized up Cowboy’s dark pants and clean button-down shirt. “This mean you’re my escort tonight.”
He shook his head. “I’m just here to bring you those,” he clarified, nodding toward the kitchen. “I’m afraid some other lucky guy gets that job.”
“You ready to go, baby girl?” her daddy called as he came down the stairs behind her. She turned, frowning as she took him in. He wore slacks and a dark blue dress shirt he normally wouldn’t be caught dead in except for Sunday church. Why was he—?
That was when it finally clicked. Daddy dressed up? Momma blinking away tears? This was so much more than some elaborate birthday surprise.
“What you thinkin’ about, baby girl?” her daddy asked now as they started down the gravel road toward town in his truck.
She swallowed as she turned toward him, her mouth suddenly painfully dry. “Is Cole about to propose?”
His eyes doubled in size. He glanced at her several times, blinking as he opened his mouth to finally speak. “Well—”
“No, wait!” she shouted over him. “I don’t want to know.” She turned back to the window, and they sat in silence for several minutes.
“You remember when you were a little girl and you told me you didn’t want to get married because then you’d have to stop climbing trees and playing in the mud?”
“I think so.” She’d been maybe ten or eleven at the time, upset after her great-aunt in Virginia told her she’d have to stop all that “foolishness” if she ever wanted to find a man to settle down with. “You told me I just had to find a boy who’d want to play in the mud with me.”
“Ifyou and Cole ever decide to take that step,” he said, heavy emphasis on the if, “I want you to know, I don’t think there’s a man alive who would climb higher or crawl through the mud faster for you than he would. And if you think he deserves you, then so do I.”
She sniffed, and the tension in her stomach eased. “Thanks, Daddy. I love you.”
“I love you, too, baby girl. More than you’ll ever know.” He smiled at her from across the cab before focusing back on the road. A couple more minutes and the truck started to slow.
Daddy patted the steering wheel as they came to a stop. “Looks like we’re here.”
Logan peered out the window of her daddy’s truck, instantly recognizing the small park on Main St, and her breath caught when her eyes landed on the large gazebo in the park’s center. It was beautiful, wrapped in fairy lights that shone like stairs against the night sky. Her door opened, and Cole appeared at her side with a grin that set her heart to stuttering.
How the hell did she ever get lucky enough to deserve that smile? Or the overwhelmingly handsome man behind it?
She took the hand he offered her, squeezing it with hers as they circled the truck. Cole’s other hand rose as he stopped in front of her daddy. “Thank you for your help, Chief.”
Daddy took it, then patted him firmly on the shoulder. The two watched each other, a silent conversation passing between them. A minute later he was back in the truck, his taillights shining through the dark night.
Logan’s stomach twisted into a tight knot as she turned toward the dazzling gazebo. “Wow. You really do know how to make a girl feel special.”
He shrugged, a small grin on his lips. “Your birthday is a special day.”
“Still…I’m pretty sure this beats last year’s concert tickets by a mile.”
“It was your first birthday while we were together. I couldn’t set the standard too high.”
She took in the breathtaking gazebo one more time. “If this is what you consider low, I can’t wait to see what you do when I turned fifty.”
“Come on,” he said with a chuckle, gently tugging her hand as he led her to the gazebo steps. A dark blue blanket lay spread out in the corner next to a large wicker basket.
“What’s all this?”
“Just a few things I threw together for us. But first…” He stopped in the center of the gazebo and drew her against him. He tapped a few times at the phone he’d pulled from his back pocket, and soft music filled the air, drifting from some unseen speaker. She recognized it instantly from Carly’s wedding, the first song they’d ever danced to. Had it really been a year and a half since then?
“Dance with me?” Cole asked her with a sheepish grin.
“I’d love to.”
They moved slowly to the music, and his gaze swept over her. He nodded. “Cowboy was right. You look gorgeous.”
“You think so?”
He laughed. “Of course I do. Though, to be fair, I’m pretty sure you could be standing here in a muumuu and you’d still be the most stunning woman I’ve ever seen.”
His hand brushed her cheek, and he lowered his soft lips to hers. They were warm and familiar and tasted like mint. He pulled away a fraction of an inch.
“Happy birthday, baby.”
Logan’s toes wanted to curl. God, she loved it when he called her baby. It was like a shot straight to her heart. Not to mention other places…
“Thank you,” she murmured. “For all of this, and for today. You didn’t have to do all that.”
“No, but I wanted to.” He squeezed her hand. “You deserve to feel like a queen today.”
“Hmm. Queen Logan. I could get used to that. Maybe I should stop by city hall in the morning and change my name. Make it official. What do you think?”
He grinned mischievously. “I think if you’re looking for a change, I’ve got something much better in mind.”
Her stomach fluttered at the sudden look of fiery intensity in his eyes. “I do like change.”
“Then I guess there’s something I need to ask you.”
He sucked in a deep breath as they both went still. “Lo, will you…”
Oh God, this was it. The moment he asked the one question that would change their lives forever. Logan’s heart raced, and her head felt lighter than air.
“Will you move in with me?”
Uh, what now? She let out a gust of air, feeling as if the wind was knocked out of her. “Huh?”
“I know you stay over a lot already, but I want to make it official. I want to come back home and know you’re there waiting for me. Because even after living in that house all these years, it just doesn’t feel like home without you there.” He was talking fast, his nervousness as clear in his voice as it was in his eyes. It grew stronger when she went several seconds without answering. “Lo?”
“I thought…” So that alarm on her daddy’s face wasn’t because she’d guessed the proposal. It was because he knew she was going to be disappointed. And he’d been right. “Sure, yeah.” She forced a smile on her face. “I’d love to move in with you.”
Cole grinned, and she tried with all her might not to let her own slip. So it wasn’t a proposal. But it was still a step in the right direction. She could wait ’til he was ready. If he’d ever be ready. An icy sensation raced up her back, and she shivered.
His smile fell. “You cold?”
No, she wanted to say. At least, not on the outside. Another wave hit her, and her body shook. “Maybe just a little.”
“Here.” He pulled her over to the picnic blanket. Sitting her down, he wrapped an extra blanket around her, then pulled her into his arms. “I’ve got another surprise for you.”
“Yeah?” Honestly, she wasn’t sure she could take much more. Her head was still swimming with the future she’d only glimpsed before it slipped through her fingers, and it took everything in her not to tear up at the loss.
Cole handed her a small rectangular metal box with two chrome switches. Some kind of remote? In answer, his thumb brushed over the first switch, flicking it up with a satisfying click.
Across the street from the park, a large tree lit up, wrapped in the same white fairy lights he’d decorated the gazebo with. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered.
“I had the guys at the fire station helping me with it all day. Can you believe that’s the tree where it all started for us?”
“The—” She blinked, the fog in her mind clearing away as she focused. Of course. “That’s the tree Zach Prescott hung my bag in. You climbed up there to get it down for me.”
“And you climbed up right behind me, yelling at me and swearing you could get it yourself.”
She shrugged. “I wasn’t the one who fell and broke my arm, just saying.”
“And still not even a thank you for my heroic efforts.”
“More like stupid, if you ask me,” she muttered.
He chuckled beside her, wrapping his arms even tighter around her. “I’d climb up there and break my arm a thousand times so long as it brought us here.” His lips brushed her temple, and she felt his lips curl. “Now flip the other switch.”
Logan’s vision blurred as the tears she’d been fighting sprang to her eyes. Her daddy was right. Cole was the only one she’d evet want. The only man she wanted climbing that tree with her.
Her shoulders shook, and Cole wiped at her cheek. “Baby, what’s wrong? What did I do?”
“I can tell when you’re lying, remember? Not that it’s all that hard to tell right now.”
Her breath shook. “It’s stupid. I just…it’s all so beautiful. And Momma was crying, and Daddy was dressed up and I thought…” She sobbed. “I thought you were going to propose.”
“But then you asked me to move in, and I want to. I do. But I want so much more. I want all of this. All of you. Forever.”
“Lo…” His voice was a little firmer, but she couldn’t stop.
“I’m so sorry.” She wiped at her drenched eyes and cheeks. “You worked so hard on all this and I’m ruining everything.”
She finally looked up, and her heart nearly broke when she saw the torture in his eyes, the mix of love and pain that practically flowed from them.
He sighed. “Just flip the damn switch already.”
Logan shuddered as she blinked away the last of the moisture in her eyes. Not knowing what else to do, she flipped the second switch. The tree of lights went dark just before a row of large marquee letters lit up beneath it, spelling two words.
“B-but—” She turned, the blanket falling from her shoulders.
Cole had knelt at her side, a small velvet box in hand.
He lifted the lid, revealing a modest solitaire diamond on a shiny silver band. The ring winked at her in the reflection of the gazebo’s fairy lights. “Logan Brynn Kase, I told you when we started this that I couldn’t know how it would all turn out. But I promised I’d hold onto you with everything I had. I still can’t tell you what the future has in store, but I don’t care as long as you’re with me through every second of it. Because I love you more than anything on this earth.”
He took a deep breath, his lips curving into the same sheepish grin from before. “Will you marry me?”
“You jackass!” Logan lunged at him, throwing her arms around his neck as she pulled him close and planted her lips hard against his. When she pulled back, she knew she was grinning like a fool. “You made me think this was all just to get me to move in with you?”
“Not intentionally, but I got so nervous I thought maybe I’d start with a warmup question. Feel it out a bit.”
“You’re such an idiot,” she cried, but this time it sprouted from pure joy. He really was the only man who could drive her crazy and fill her with so much love at the same time. She tightened her hold on his neck, pulling his lips to hers once more.
“So is that a yes?”
She laughed. “Yes.” He plucked the ring from the box and slid it onto her left hand. A perfect fit. “I love you.”
“I love you, too, baby.” There was that word again that warmed her all over. It was enough to completely overtake her, and without another thought, she hiked up the skirt of her dress and straddled his lap. She kissed him deeply, her fingers nimbly tugging at his shirt buttons.
“Lo, what are you doing?”
“A year and a half together and you can’t tell?”
His hands slid up the bare skin of her thighs and gripped them tightly. “We’re in the middle of the park. What if the cops come by?” Her lips trailed over his jaw and down to the base of his neck. His breaths grew ragged. “They could get us for public indecency or something,” he choked out.
Logan reached around him where she’d only just noticed where the long strand of fairy lights plugged into an orange extension cord. “Trust me,” she said as she gripped both ends. She yanked them apart, submerging them both in total darkness. “It’ll be worth it.”