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"I'll make it up to you, I swear—"

"Shut up," Gage said tenderly, and kissed me with a blistering heat that made my knees buckle. I wrapped my arms around his neck, forgetting the reason for tears, forgetting everything but him. He kissed me over and over, deeper, until we both staggered in the aisle, and he was forced to brace a hand on one of the seats to keep us from falling over. And the plane wasn't even moving. His breath rushed fast and hot against my cheek as he drew back enough to whisper, "What about the other guy?"

My eyes half closed as I felt the heel of his hand brush the side of my breast. "He's the past," I managed to say. "You're the future."

"Damn right I am." Another deeply uncivilized kiss, full of fire and tenderness, promising more than I could begin to take in. All I could think was that a lifetime with this man wouldn't be nearly enough. He pulled away with an unsteady laugh and said, "There's no getting away from me now, Liberty. This is it."

/ know, I would have said, but before I could answer he was kissing me again, and he

didn't stop for quite a while.

"I love you." I don't remember who said it first, only that we both ended up saying it quite a lot during the seven-hour-and-twenty-five-minute flight across the Atlantic. And it turned out Gage had some interesting ideas about how to pass the time at fifty thousand feet.

Let's just say flying is a lot more tolerable when you've got distractions.

EPILOGUE

I'm not sure if the ranch is an engagement present or an early wedding present. All I know is that today, Valentine's Day, Gage has given me a huge ring of keys tied with a red bow. He says we'll need a getaway place when the city feels too crowded, and Carrington will need a place to ride. It takes a few minutes of explaining on his part before I understand it's an outright gift.

I'm now the owner of a five-thousand-acre ranch.

The place, once known for its prime cutting horses, is about forty-five minutes away from Houston. Now reduced to a fraction of its former size, the ranch is small by Texas standards—a ranchette, Jack calls it mockingly, until a glance from Gage causes him to cringe in pretend-fear.

"You don't even have a ranch," Carrington accuses Jack cheerfully, scampering to the doorway before adding, "which makes you a dude."

"Who you callin' a dude?" Jack asks with feigned outrage, and chases after her. while her screams of delight echo through the hallways.

On the weekend we pack overnight bags and go to see the place, which Gage has renamed Rancho Armadillo. "You shouldn't have done this," I tell him for the dozenth time as he drives us north of Houston. "You've given me enough already."

Keeping his gaze on the road, Gage brings our entwined fingers to his lips and kisses my knuckles. "Why does it always make you so damn uncomfortable when I give you something?"

I realize there is an art to accepting gifts gracefully, and so far I haven't acquired it. "I'm not used to getting presents," I admit. "Especially when it's not a holiday or a birthday and there's no reason for them. And even before this.. .this—"

"Ranch."

"Yes, even before that, you'd already done more for me than I could ever repay—"

"Darlin'." His tone is patient, but at the same time I hear the uncompromising edge in it. "You're going to have to work on erasing that invisible balance sheet you carry around in your head. Relax. Let me have the pleasure of giving you something without having to talk it half to death afterward." He glances over his shoulder to make sure Carrington has her headphones on. "Next time I give you a present, all you need to do is say a simple 'thank you/ and have sex with me. That's all the repayment I need."

I bite back a smile. "Okay."

We drive through a pair of massive rock pillars supporting a twenty-foot iron arch and continue along a paved road that I come to realize is our driveway. We pass winter-wheat fields dappled with the wing-shadows of geese overhead. Dense growths of mesquite, cedar, and prickly pear crouch in the distance.

The drive leads to a big old rock-and-wood Victorian shaded by oak and pecan trees. My dumbfounded gaze takes in a stone barn...a paddock...an empty chicken yard, all of it surrounded by a fieldstone fence. The house is big and sturdy and charming. I know without being told that children have been born here and couples have married here, and families have argued and loved and laughed beneath the gabled roof. It's a place to feel safe in. A home.

The car stops beside a three-car garage. "It's been completely renovated." Gage says. "Modem kitchen, big showers, cable and Internet—"

"Are there horses?" Carrington interrupts in excitement, tearing her headphones off.

"There are." Gage turns to smile at her as she bounces in the back seat. "Not to mention a swimming pool and hot tub."

"I dreamed of a house like this once," Carrington says.

"Did you?" Even to my own ears. I sound a little dazed. Unbuckling my seat belt and climbing from the car, I continue to stare at the house. In all my longing for a family and a home, I'd never quite been able to decide what they should have looked like. But this house looks and feels so right, so perfect, it seems impossible any other place would suit me half so well. There is a wide wraparound porch, and a porch swing, and it's painted pale blue under the ceiling like they did in the old days, to keep mud daubers from building nests. There are enough fallen pecans beside the house to fill buckets.

We go inside the air-conditioned house, the interior painted shades of white and cream, the polished mesquite floors gleaming with light from tall windows. It's decorated in a style the magazines call "new country," which means there aren't many ruffles, but the sofas and chairs are cushiony, and there are lots of throw pillows. Carrington squeals in excitement and disappears, running from room to room, occasionally hurrying back to report on some new discovery'.

Gage and I tour the house more slowly. He watches my reactions, and he says I can change anything I like, I can have whatever I want. I am too overwhelmed to say much of anything. I have instantly connected with this house, the stubborn vegetation rooted so stubbornly in the dry red land, the scrubby woods harboring javelina and bobcats and coyotes, so much more than with the sterile modern condo poised high above the streets of Houston. And I wonder how Gage knew this is what my soul has craved.

He turns me to face him, his eyes searching. It occurs to me that no one in my life has ever concerned himself so thoroughly with my happiness. "What are you thinking?" he asks.

I know Gage hates it when I cry—he is completely undone by the sight of tears—so I blink hard against the sting. "I'm thinking how thankful I am for everything," I say, "even the bad stuff. Every sleepless night, every second of being lonely, every time the car broke

down, every wad of gum on my shoe, every late bill and losing lottery ticket and bruise and broken dish and piece of burnt toast."

His voice is soft. "Why, darlin'?"

"Because it all led me here to you."

Gage makes a low sound and kisses me, trying to be gentle, but soon he is gripping me closer and murmuring love words, sex words, making his way down the curve of my neck until I remind him breathlessly that Carrington is somewhere nearby.

We fix dinner together, the three of us, and after eating we sit outside and talk. At times we pause to listen to the plaintive song of mourning doves, the occasional whicker of a horse in the barn, the breezes that rustle the oaks and send pecans rattling to the ground. Eventually Carrington goes upstairs to take a bath in a refurbished clawfoot tub, and she goes to sleep in a room with pale blue walls. She asks drowsily if we can paint clouds on the ceiling, and I say yes, of course we can.

Gage and I sleep in the master bedroom downstairs. We make love in a king-sized poster bed, beneath hand-stitched quilts. Sensitive to my mood, Gage takes it easy and slow in the way that never fails to drive me crazy, drawing out every sensation until my heartbeat is hammering in my throat. He is strong and hard and deliberate, every gentle movement an assertion of something beyond words, something deeper and sweeter than mere passion. I go rigid in his arms, muffling a cry against his shoulder while he coaxes long, delicious shudders from my body. Then it's my turn to hold him. I put my arms and legs around him,

wrapping him tightly in myself, and he gasps out my name as he surges and quickens.

We both wake up at daybreak as the wintering snow geese honk and flap across the fields on their way to breakfast. I lie snuggled against Gage's chest, listening to the mockingbirds serenading us from the oak tree by the window. They are relentless.

"Where's the gun?" I hear Gage mutter.

I hide my grin against his chest. "Easy, cowboy. It's my ranch. Those birds can sing all they want to."

Just for that, Gage replies, he's going to make me go with him on an early morning ride to check out my property.

That causes the smile to fade. There's something I've wanted to tell him, but I haven't been sure how or when to do it. I am quiet, playing nervously with the hair on his chest. "Gage.. .1 don't think I'm up for riding today."

He lifts up on one elbow and looks down at me with a frown. "Why not? You feeling okay?"

"No—I mean yes—I feel fine." I take an uneven breath. "But I have to ask the doctor if it's all right before I do anything that strenuous."

"Doctor?" Gage rises over me, taking my shoulders in his hands. "What doctor? Why the hell would you..." His voice fades as it dawns on him. "My God. Liberty, sweetheart,

are you..." He immediately moderates his grip, as if he's afraid of crushing me. "You're sure?" I nod, and he gives a delighted laugh. "I can't believe it." A flush of color has made his eyes startlingly light by contrast. "Actually, I can. It was New Year's Eve, wasn't it?"

"Your fault," I remind him, and his grin widens.

"Yes, I'll take full credit for that one. My sweet girl. Let me see you."

I am immediately subjected to an inspection, his hands sweeping over my body. Gage kisses my stomach a dozen times, then levers upward to pull me into his arms again. His mouth descends to mine repeatedly. "My God, I love you. How do you feel? Do you have morning sickness? Do you need crackers? Pickles? Dr Pepper?"

I shake my head and try to talk to him in between kisses. "I love you...Gage...love you..." The words catch sweetly between our lips, and I finally understand why so many Texans refer to kisses as "sugar-bites."

"I'm going to take such good care of you." Gage lays his head gently on my chest, his ear pressed to the rhythm of my heart. "You. Carrington, and the baby. My little family. A miracle."

"Sort of an ordinary' miracle." I point out. "I mean, women have babies every day."

"Not my woman. Not my baby." His head lifts. The look in his eyes takes my breath away. "What can I do for you?" he whispers.

"Just say a simple 'thank you/" I tell him. "and have sex with me."

And he does.

I know without a doubt this man loves me for exactly who I am. No conditions, no limits. That's a miracle too. In fact, every day is filled with ordinary miracles. You don't have to look far to find them.

The End

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