Highlighted against the skyline is the rustic shadow of my great, great granddaddy Beau's gate, the arch tall and proud and still defiantly standing even after all this time.
A sentimental sense of commitment and purpose fills me as I look out over the land I will now be able to call home. I'm next in our family line to watch over and protect and nurture the farmhouse, stables, barn and fields that have been here for well over a century.
I've never had something like this before. Security. Safety. Somewhere to call my own. I feel as if I've been waiting to come back to this place my entire life, even long before I knew this ranch existed, and wonder if I was always meant to be here.
The light is almost gone. The harvest moon will be coming up as soon as it is dark. Nick isn't back yet and I anxiously scan and search the hovering twilight for him. He's been gone all day. I haven't seen or heard from him since breakfast this morning. I texted him but he hasn't responded. I wonder if he forgot about sitting out and watching it together.
I haven't told him the news that I'm staying. I want it to be a surprise and do it in person. I'm curious what his reaction will be.
He missed dinner. One of the horses broke through a section of the fence and a few had escaped onto the neighbor's farm. He and Ben have been bringing them back in and making the repairs. There's always the worry of them getting too near the road or being injured. I hope they had been able to gather them all to safety. I spent the afternoon with Glory so I already know she's out of harm's way.
I'm about to go back inside when I see him walking the worn path towards the house. He's carrying a blanket over one arm and a thermos. I wonder if he can hear how fast and hard my heart is beating as he comes up the porch steps. It seems to get louder and stronger the nearer he gets as if it's leading him back to me.
I notice he showered and changed, his hair still a little damp and falling over his forehead, covering his scar. Odd how I can't seem to picture him without it. His pain is so much like mine, our wounds and loneliness binding us together.
"Hey," he says as soon as he's close enough.
"Hi." I'm already smiling as I push myself off the swing and walk towards him. I have a memory of the first night he found me out here all those months ago. We were strangers then, guarded and defensive and far apart. And now he knows more about me than anyone. Funny how life can change so quickly.
"Sorry I didn't text you back," he tells me, his voice and eyes apologetic. "Day slipped away from us. Got back in a little later than we thought." He holds out his hand to me. "You ready?"
Nodding, I link my fingers with his, the feeling of completion immediate as he leads me down the steps. He's here. Nothing else matters. "I thought maybe you forgot."
He looks over at me in that way only he knows how to do that makes everything on the edges of us blur and disappear. "I've been thinking about you all day, Lexy," he drawls, his voice low like a love note slipped secretly into my pocket, and a thrill rushes through me at the husky way he says my name.
Fireflies wink as if guiding us. Cicadas, crickets, and croaks of frogs call out from wherever they are hiding, seeming to surround us with their songs. Stars are starting to wake up and already crowding the sky as if coming to see the show. My mom is right. They do shine brighter out here. The horizon is darkening with hues of lavender and deep shades of blue that seem unreal in their beauty.
"What's in the thermos?"
"Hot chocolate," he answers. "I snagged some from the batch Becca made."
I beam at him. "I love how she makes it. She puts peppermint in it. It's delicious."
He laughs at my excitement. "I knew you'd like it."
"I do," I tell him, touched that he thought of it and that he notices little things about me when I am not even aware of it. This is the real him, I realize, my fingers tightening in his hold, the him I kept trying to get to underneath the deep layers of devastation and grief. Tender, soft, sweet. He's irresistible. "The moon isn't out yet."
Nick looks up at the sky. "The sun just set. It'll rise in a bit."
"Did you get all the horses in?"
He nods. "Yeah, we did. And the fence is back up so they can't get out again. For now at least."
"Is it the part we worked on?"
Nick smiles. "No. Ours is still standing."
I smile back, remembering that sweltering, humid afternoon a few months ago when we mended the fence line together. "That was one of my favorite days on this ranch with you."
"Mine too. I think of you every time I'm over on that side."
Surprised, I look at him. "You didn't seem like you wanted me out there with you."
Frowning, he glances at me. "That's what you thought?"
I nod. "You barely said two words to me. I felt like you just wanted me to leave you alone."
He's quiet as he studies me. "That's not what I wanted," he says softly.
"I could never tell what you were thinking," I confess, shaking my head. "It drove me crazy."
Nick seems to like that. I can see his mouth curve into a smile even in the dimming light. "Oh yeah?"
Laughing, I self-consciously shrug. "Yeah."
"I know the feeling," he murmurs, pinning me with that intense stare, making my world stand still. "I was constantly trying to figure you out."
It's my turn to be flattered. "Really?"
He nods. "But, I feel like you understand me more than I do you."
Before I can ask him what he means we reach the large oak in my great granddaddy Cade's field. Nick lets go of my hand to spread out the blanket on the grass. Sitting down, he pats the ground for me to join him. He sets the thermos on his other side. I don't think he wants anything between us.
I sit next to him, close enough that our legs and arms and skin touch. Thick, gnarled branches drape over us, starlight glittering and peeking through. The night is comfortably warm.
"Why do you think I understand you better?" I watch his profile, memorizing the slope of his cheek, the curve, and stubble of his jaw, the length of his lashes as he blinks, waiting for him to answer.
He doesn't say anything for a bit, stretching out my anticipation and fascination and curiosity. I would stay up all night to hear his voice. I think it's still hard for him to open up. I find it ironic that he thinks I'm the mysterious one. He's so quiet and elusive and likes keeping to himself. Talking about his feelings isn't something he's used to.
"You know how to read people," he finally explains. "You can feel their pain from a mile away. It was one of the reasons you always made me so nervous."
"How come I made you nervous?"
Stammering and struggling to find the right words, Nick opens his mouth, closes it again, then shakes his head. "I'm not very good at this," he mutters, staring towards the fields where we spent dawn to dusk together months before. "It's as if you can see right through me or something. Like that day we worked on the fences. Every time you looked at me I kept thinking of all the things I wanted to tell you. I knew you'd get it. And it would've been so easy with you, which was the whole problem."
Flustered, he lets out his breath. Bringing his legs up, he rests his arms over them, clasps his hands. "You were changing everything, changing me. From the very first night I found you singing on the porch I knew everything was going to be different."
"Do you wish I hadn't?"
He looks over at me then, his eyes dark and direct and a bit desperate as if the ledge of the pit is still right behind him, and I'm his only rope to safety. "No."
Reaching out, I hold onto his wrist, feeling his pulse throb under my fingertips, and tug him towards me until our lips meet. He seems surprised and doesn't even have time to close his eyes before I move back.
Confused, he searches my face. "What was that for?"
He seems so vulnerable and helpless. I can't help smiling. "You're just better at this than you think."
Shoulders gradually relaxing, he shifts his wrist I'm holding to where my hand moves back into his. His smile is sweet and shy and my heart flips over in my chest. "Good to know."
I snuggle into his side, not leaving a hint of space or night or air between us. "You've changed everything for me, too."
He wraps his arm around my shoulders. "Are you sorry I did?"
Keeping my eyes on his, I shake my head. I want him to believe me. "No."
He kisses me again, a little longer this time and I start to spin out, my fingers tangling into the ends of his hair, his hands moving under the hem of my shirt, just on the edge of where they shouldn't be, our breathing heavy, my mind and body weakening and leaning into him, warmth making my limbs weightless, the blanket soft beneath us.
But before I fully go under he seems to get distracted by something and pulls back, leaving me dazed and breathless.
Turning his head, he points out over the fields. "Look."
Following his gaze, I gasp as I see the moon, large and full and bright and seeming to be sitting right in front of us. I instinctively want to duck as if it unexpectedly fell from the sky like a meteor or a comet and is about to crash into me.
I'm not sure when it appeared or how I could have missed it. It's so close I swear I could touch it. Even though I know it's impossible I still try to reach my hand out, but of course it's thousands and thousands of miles away.
The glow seems to give off its own heat. A magical golden haze shimmers in the air as if the dust from the lunar surface has left a sheen over the entire earth, turning everything angelic, holy, supernatural somehow.
"It's beautiful," I say, stunned with wonder. "It looks like it's melting right into the land."
Nick grins. "I told you. There's nothing like it out here. Shame it only happens once a year."
Biting my lip, I look at him from under my lashes and decide it's time to share my news. "Well then I guess it's good I'll be here next year to see it."
I watch as my words register and he quickly turns to me. "What?"
I don't know why but I'm suddenly nervous and fidget with the frayed seam of my jeans. "I talked with my mom today. I was out here practicing one of my songs for school and she found me. She's never heard me sing before."
"What did she say?"
"That I'm really good." Overwhelmed, tears burn the back of my throat and I blink as they cloud my vision. I'm still amazed at her response, at our conversation, at how years of mistrust and silence and hidden hopes and dreams had been broken wide open and revealed.
I smile tenderly at him. He's the first I ever trusted with my secrets and believed in me. I will forever be grateful to him for that. "It's different hearing it from her. She used to sing all the time when I was little. I wanted to be exactly like her. She reminded me of a princess or a mermaid. She had the most beautiful voice I've ever heard. She still does." Sighing, I stare over the moonlit fields towards the house where my mom has come to face down her demons. I can't see it from where we are but simply knowing she is nearby is reassuring. "I just want her to be proud of me."
Nick strokes my back, the heat of his palm radiating through the cotton of my shirt. "I'm sure she is."
"I hope so. I feel as if I have been waiting my whole life to be her daughter, but her drinking never let me. Until now. She taught me the song our grandma Rose taught her when she was younger. We sang it together today on her guitar. I never thought in a million years that would happen with us."
"Sounds like you two made a lot of progress."
"We did," I agree, trying to wrap my mind around all that unfolded and came to the surface between us. "It's nice to finally be able to share something I love so much with her. I didn't think I'd ever be able to. She's the reason I can sing. I inherited my talent from her. And I think it means a lot to her to know that."
"That's really great, Lexy," he says, his voice sincere. "I know how much you've wanted this with her."
"I told her I want to live here and go to the music school in Nashville. She said she supports my decision and told me to send in my application."
He gently nudges me in my side. "I've been telling you to do that for months."
I playfully roll my eyes. "I know. There was just so much going on though. But my mom said she understands why I want to do this. She has the same passion as me so she gets it. I emailed my teacher today and she said she would write the reference letter so as soon as she does I'll submit everything. I'm hoping I can make the deadline for next year."
"I already know you'll get in." And then it dawns on him. I watch his eyes shift back to me, widen, focus on my face. "So, that means you're staying."
"Yes." I notice I'm holding my breath as I carefully watch his expression. As important as we've become to each other over the last few months, there's still something I can't break through on his end. A hesitation, a barrier, a line in the sand.
He still never says Megan's name out loud and I don't ask. It feels too swollen and sore and sensitive to the touch. Almost as if neither of us knows what will happen or if it will break or tear us apart if we get too close to her.
So we talk around her, underneath her, in between her. She's on the outskirts, always in the shadows, right over his shoulder, up on a shelf just behind me, out of my reach, following and watching us.
I seem to have every part of him except that one place she holds. It's as if he's keeping us completely separate. I know letting someone else in is difficult for him and am hoping he will open up more with time.
But, then he's slowly smiling, easing my doubts, the moonlight creating creases and lines and shadows over his features that have become so intimate and familiar to me. Even his eyes seem lighter, clearer against the ethereal backdrop.
"Good. I was hating the idea of you having to go again."
I quietly let out a relieved breath. "I won't leave you," I promise.
"You better not. I just got you back." He leans in and kisses me and I taste his need and something else, something waiting, glimmering, the corner just peeking out, right under the surface that I can't quite get a grip on.
And I lay my hesitation aside, giving into him, grateful to know he wants me here, letting it be enough for now.
He pulls away but his face, his eyes, his lips are only inches from mine, blocking out the rest of the world just beyond us. "Is it going to be hard for you to be so far from your parents?"
A bit light-headed, I let out a soft, shaky breath. His kisses are addicting. "Yeah, it will. I'm going to miss them like crazy." I already feel the aching beginning to build at the thought of having to say goodbye in a few days. "But my mom is doing really well with her recovery. And she and my dad are closer than ever now. She knows how much I love it on this ranch and how important singing is to me so I think we will figure it out with each other. She did make me promise I would call and text her every day though."
"I'm sure she did." He tucks me against him and I think of all the nights we will have like this now that this ranch is my home. "I'll bet Becca is happy you're staying."
I laugh and nod. "She is. Gave me the hugest hug ever."
I feel Nick's smile against my hair. The smell of him is so comforting. Soap and soil and grains and horses. I'm surrounded by his body heat. Tilting my head, I look up at him with the moon casting a mystical, otherworldly light over the two of us and then go completely still as I realize I'm in love with him. Maybe I always have been since that very first night he found me in my most vulnerable moment singing on the porch.
The moment is surprisingly simple and pure; no fireworks or big bang or huge explosion. I've never been in love before and thought it would be more intense, a total eclipse or loss of sanity, a wild state of euphoria, a life-shattering epiphany and reeling revelation that swept over my body like a gusting wind, knocking me backwards off my feet.
But, it's more like a delicate drifting, a feathery breeze, a gentle, floating free-fall through the air until I softly land in his arms. Easy and light and effortless. A warm and lazy southern summer day sipping cool lemonade in the shade of the porch. He's like the land itself. Consistent and predictable and faithfully loyal and true. When I'm with him I'm where I belong.
Catching me staring, he leans back, searches my face. "What's wrong?"
My lips part, the words straining, surging, standing just on my next breath. But I can't find the courage to say them yet and close my mouth, swallowing hard to keep my emotions from bursting out. There's still a sliver of a question of whether he will let me be as important as Megan. I'm sad to admit I'm not sure. What if he won't let himself love me? Or let me love him?
Losing my nerve, I shake my head and awkwardly look away trying to hide my heart from his eyes. "Nothing. I'm just really glad I'm staying."
He watches me a moment longer, and I'm relieved it's dark as I feel myself flush. My feelings are on my sleeve. I'm too exposed and am worried he's finally figured out how to see through me and knows there's more. But he doesn't push or ask, maybe he doesn't know how or dare, and I wonder if he's not ready for me to tell him yet either.
"So am I," is all he says.
We sit together in the crackling silence where there's too much being said underneath it, and I'm grateful to have a few moments to collect myself back from the cliff I almost tumbled over.
Breaking the tension, Nick reaches for the thermos, opens it, and pours hot chocolate into the lid. Steam drifts up and I can smell hints of peppermint and my mouth starts to water, anticipating the taste. He hands it to me and I close my eyes as I sip, absorbing the sweet flavor and warmth seeping through me.
"I was thinking you could ride Glory tomorrow."
My eyes fly open. Thrilled, I grin at him. "I would love that."
He laughs out loud, the sound echoing beautifully over the pastures. It's such a rare thing to hear it fully and openly from him. I can count on one hand the times I actually have. It's my favorite song on earth. "Thought you might. We can do it after breakfast."
He takes the lid from me, drinks the rest then screws it back on, setting it to the side. As soon as his hands are free he's reaching for me again and I eagerly move towards him.
"I can't wait." Content and happy, I rest my head on his chest as we gaze at the yellow harvest moon that we won't see for another year. I'm curious how things will be then, where our lives will have landed. Autumn will be here in a matter of days and everything will start to change.
There are so many thoughts and feelings burning through me, under my skin, waiting on the tip of my tongue, that I want to share, to confess, to give him. But Ben always says the best things in life are always worth waiting for. And he's right. They are. I will wait as long as it takes for Nick's heart.