“Angie conspired with you?” Of course she had! Wasn’t that what he’d been telling her?

“I’m afraid so,” he said apologetically. “But I did ask her.”

Melanie frowned. “She didn’t call you?”

“No, I called her. Once I realized.”

Finally they’d arrived at the heart of the matter. “Realized what?” she almost whispered.

“That Elk Springs is home now.” His voice took on a rough urgency. “That you’re what I’ve been looking for. You and Angie. I don’t want to go back to the Park Service. I’ve been happier here these past months than I’ve been in years. Ever.” He closed the few feet between them and dropped to one knee in front of her, seizing her hands in his. “Melanie, marry me. I won’t uproot you. I swear.”

Her fingers curled to grasp his. “But…you can.”

There was a momentary silence as he studied her in perplexity. “Can what?”

“Uproot me.” In a rush she said, “That’s why I called you. To say that I did think, like I said I would. And I realized that I don’t want to be left behind. If…if you really love me, I’ll go anywhere with you.”

“But you’ve told me how much you hated moving!”

“It wouldn’t be my first choice,” she admitted.

“It was hard when I was a kid. I’d be dumped into a new school, and when I walked into class the first day, it always felt as if everyone was sneering. I was never wearing the right clothes or…” She stopped.

“That doesn’t matter. The thing is, I could have been happy with Ryan if he’d been different. If our marriage had been different. Mostly, I was unhappy with him. I was…like a girlfriend, not a wife. I was desperately trying to create a home everywhere we went, and he didn’t want one. The guys were all single.” She concluded simply, “He wanted to be one of them.”

Kevin’s grip tightened. “He must have been crazy.”

“I’ve thought of ways I could continue working,” Melanie continued on a flood of hope. “No matter where we go.”

“And Angie?”

“She makes friends easily.” It was painful to admit the problem had always been hers, never her child’s. “Having a real father would mean more to her than anything in the world.”

Kevin squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head for a moment. Melanie’s heart cramped. Had she said something wrong? Was he having second thoughts now?

But when he looked up, exultation blazed from his eyes. “You have no idea what it means to me to have you willing to give up every damned thing you value to come with me.”

She blinked back tears. “We can put the house up for sale. Or…or keep it as a rental. Maybe someday…”

“Not someday.” He let go of her hands to frame her face, to brush his thumbs over her mouth.

“We’re going to live here, sweetheart. The college has asked me to stay on, to build a new program in park management that will offer a four-year degree. I’ve accepted. I could buy a house of my own, but—” he glanced around “—this one looks appropriate for a college professor. If you don’t mind sharing it.”

“You’re doing this for me.” That was all she could think. He was offering to give up everything he valued, for her. Hot tears welled in her eyes.

His fingertips caught the tears. Voice low and tender, Kevin said, “A selfish part of me wants to say yes. Let you think I’ve made a sacrifice. But the truth is, falling in love with you has made me understand a little sooner what I really want out of life.”

“And that is?” She held her breath.

“You.” His lips were against her cheek now, warm, seeking. “Angie. Friends. Family. Home.”

Their mouths met for a soft sweet kiss. Melanie’s mind became hazy, but she had enough sanity to argue before it was too late.

“But…when you talked about your job and the places you’ve been…” She groped for the right words and found them. “You had such passion.”

“Yeah, I did.” He stood and pulled her up with him. “But I was also lonely. I didn’t quit just because I got shot, Melanie. I wasn’t lying when I told you I’d been unhappy before that. My job had changed, I didn’t like the new direction, and… I guess I’d reached an age where I was looking around and noticing that everyone else had something I didn’t. Home and family.” He gave a short laugh.

“Maybe it was Scott’s letters that did it. The guy dove into the family thing from the high platform. He and Meg adopted a little girl, Meg had a teenage boy already, and then Meg got pregnant. Every letter he wrote was so damned happy, I could hardly stand it. Now I know—he had the right idea.”

Melanie felt as if she were in free fall. No, a parachute had caught her; she was floating now, not tumbling. “Does that mean, um, that you might like to have other children?”

A sexy grin blazed on his face. “Oh, I’m counting on it, sweetheart.” His hands were wrapped around her waist, his thumbs grazing the underside of her breasts. “Unless you have some objection.”

“No.” Blast it, she was crying again. “None,” she blubbered.

He kissed her fiercely. Against her mouth, he said huskily, “I wish we could start right now. But I’m not that sure my orders will be followed.”

“You mean, to stay upstairs?” Through her tears, a giggle rose in her throat. “I’m pretty sure I just heard a bump in the hall.”

“What?” He swung around and roared, “Angie Parker, you come out this minute!”

The doorway stayed empty for a moment. Then Angie edged into sight, head bowed, sneaking a peek up. “I’m sorry,” she said remorsefully. “I just couldn’t wait! But I did make Samantha stay up there.” A tiny smile puckered the dimple in her cheek. “Mommy said yes, didn’t she?”

“Yep.” His grin was as wide as a winter quilt. He flung his arm out. “Whaddaya say, kiddo? Group hug?”

Angie ran to them. Melanie got tears in her eyes as the three of them closed their arms around one another.

“No.” Over her daughter’s head, Melanie met Kevin’s gaze. The expression in his eyes was all she’d ever hoped to see. “Not a group hug,” she finished softly. “A family hug.”