Prologue: Colt, One Year Earlier
Easy for him to say. He’d never proposed to the girl of his dreams before. Then again, he was fourteen so… thank God for that. We lived in the south, sure, but we weren’t that deep south.
“I’m fine,” I mumbled, more trying to convince myself than anything else.
My son, Beau, laughed. “Yeah, sure you are, pal.”
I just shook my head and fiddled with the ring box in my jacket pocket for the five hundredth time that hour.
“She’s gonna say yes. We all know it already. Why you even nervous?” Beau continued looking at me with twinkling dark eyes that were now level with my own.
Puberty had hit my kid hard. He was damn near taller than my 6’2” frame, and skinny as a rail. Last week he’d decided he needed to start shaving, because the faint porno mustache that he was starting to grow apparently wasn’t working for him. Fuck, we looked more like brothers than father and son, he just had his mom’s lighter hair.
“You keep telling me that,” I sighed in return.
“Dad, it’s been a year since we moved to the farm, almost two since y’all started dating. I already call her Mom, so this is basically just a formality.”
“We’ve never really talked about marriage…”
“Because you’re basically already married!” Beau cried with a laugh. “Come on, dude. Relax. At this point the only thing that changes is her last name.”
I chuckled and arched an eyebrow. “If she changes it. She may not want to.”
Beau rolled his eyes. “Whatever. She’s already a Hayes. Always has been.”
I smiled to myself. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t agree. Lennie Tyler had been a part of my life since I was a kindergartener: puppy love and holding hands on the playground and all of that. Fairly certain I’d been in love with her since before I knew what the word meant. But life got in the way, got in the way in more ways than I could count. The first time when we entered high school, the second when she took off for Nashville after graduation. I moved to Atlanta with my band and Beau’s mother and thought that I had the rest of my life planned out, even though Lennie’s absence had always left a gaping hole in my heart. Rachel, Beau’s mother, got pregnant when we were barely more than kids, and at twenty-one, we had Beau. And then everything took a nosedive.
Rachel wasn’t happy, not stuck in the small Georgia town of Snyder, and not with me, who was on the road or recording more than he was home. She took off one night while I was on tour, leaving Beau with my mother. She and her friend were drunk, and neither one made it out of the wreck that night. That moment was where I pretty much stopped living. I quit the band, I moved back to Snyder, and I did my best to raise my kid on my own, despite the fact that I had no idea what I was doing. My heart, my head, my emotions, all of it was on lockdown. I didn’t want to deal with any of it, so I shut it up and threw away the key. That is until Lennie Tyler walked her pretty ass back into my bar and set my dark, small world off its axis.
I was done for the second I realized who she was, though it took me a few months to admit it, even to myself. After a whirlwind summer spent losing ourselves in each other, I very nearly lost her for good, pushing her away under the guise of freeing her, or protecting myself or some other cliché excuse. Fact of the matter was, I was terrified of setting myself up for another loss, another disappointment, another heartbreak. But it didn’t last long. Lennie being nothing more than a character in passing in the story of my life forced me to come to terms with a lot of things, but mostly with the battles going on in my own head. I got therapy. I cleaned my shit up, and I won her back. Now, here we were, damn near eighteen months since our second reunion, and it was time to lock her down, once and for all. That is, if I could get my nerves together so I could actually fucking speak without stammering.
“What’re you gonna say?” Beau asked with a bright grin. This goddamn kid was more excited than I was, which, in turn, excited me more. He loved Lennie as if she'd given birth to him. Hell, he probably loved her more than he loved me. She was definitely the easier parent to deal with. She was the sunny beauty to my growly beast, and who wouldn’t rather deal with the sun?
“What do you mean what am I gonna say? I wrote a goddamn song!”
“You’re just gonna ask her in the song?”
“I mean... that was the thought, yeah...”
“You sure she’s gonna get it?” Beau asked.
I narrowed my eyes. “You LIKED the song idea...”
“Yeah, but I thought you’d say something too...”
“Well, if I have to I will!”
“Don’t you wanna plan it out? Talking from the heart ain’t exactly your strong suit.”
I rolled my eyes and gave my head a wave. “Would you cut it out? You're making me MORE nervous, and I don’t really need help there.”
“I’m just trying to help...”
“Alright, alright. My lips are sealed,” Beau stated, throwing his hands in the air in a sign of surrender. “I just don’t want you to fuck it up.”
I glared at him from under the ridge of my brows. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, kid.”
“You know what I mean, Dad,” Beau responded dryly. “You been in love with this girl your whole damn life and you STILL get tongue-tied around her.”
My brows furrowed and I pouted a bit. “I ain’t good with words.”
“Yeah, we are ALL well-aware.”
Just as I opened my mouth to tell off my much too wise for his age kid, my best friend Carter appeared beside me, a shit-eating grin on his face. “What?” I asked. “I don’t like that look.”
“She’s here,” he answered, bouncing where he stood.
Of course, she was here. Lennie wouldn’t miss a show if her life depended on it, yet somehow knowing she was present made my stomach lurch like I'd just hit the plummet on the world’s tallest roller coaster. This wasn’t just some street dance our cover band was playing. This was probably the biggest night of my life. “I can’t breathe,” I stated, my voice sounding a bit more than choked.
Beau and Carter both just laughed at me.
“You’re gonna be fine, Dad,” Beau insisted, giving me a hard slap on the shoulder. “It’s a sure thing. Just put the ring on her and everything is gravy.”
“You sure about that?” I retorted with a disbelieving chuckle. “What if I totally blow it and she bails? What if I become the laughingstock of northern Georgia?”
“Well, then I'm going with her,” Beau stated.
“Me, too,” Carter smirked.
“Who needs enemies with the two of you?” I sighed as I rolled my eyes once again. “Fuck, where’s Leon when I need him?”
“Probably talking to Lennie, trying real hard not to blow the whole surprise,” Carter snickered.
My eyes widened in horror. “He fucking better not!”
“You know Leon can’t keep a damn secret!”
“Jesus Christ,” I groaned, scrubbing my hands over my face. “Shoulda just done this at home. Alone. Left all you idiots out of it.”
“Shoulda, woulda, coulda!” Carter smirked. “It’s showtime, buddy boy.”
“I fucking hate you.”
“Like hell. Beau, go make sure Lennie gets a real good spot.”
“On it,” Beau said with an excited grin and a salute before he ran off.
“You need a shot?” Carter asked.
“I need a whole fucking bottle.”
“Relax. That woman loves you. Don’t know why. She coulda had me, but I’m over it.”
I rolled my eyes, but I laughed. “You’re never gonna stop are you?”
“No. You obviously stole her from me, and I have a right to be upset about it,” Carter stated with a wink. His large hand wrapped around the top of my shoulder and squeezed. “But she belongs with you, man. Everyone knows it.”
I smirked a bit. “Thanks, man.”
“As I’ll ever be,” I answered with a chuckle. I was practically vibrating with nerves, but that wasn’t going to change until I asked her. That much I knew.
“You got the ring?”
I brushed my hand against the pocket of my jeans. I knew it was there. I’d fiddled with it how many times now? But Carter’s questioning it made ME question it. “Yup.”
“You sure? You sure it’s in the box?”
My eyes widened and I stared at him, horrified. I tugged the box out of my pocket and cracked open the black velvet. Thankfully, resting in the center, was the ring: a slender gold band with a setting that made the diamonds look more like a flower than a singular stone. It had been my mother’s ring and my grandmother’s before her. Not long after I pulled my head out of my ass and landed Lennie for good, my mom had taken the ring right off her finger and handed it to me. My father had died when I was around seven, but she wore that ring every single day until she put it in my hand, making me promise that one day she’d see it on Lennie’s finger. She reminded me of it every day since, but Carter, Beau and the rest of the boys were the only people who knew it was happening tonight.
“That’s a fucking stunner.”
I smirked. “Matches the girl, then.”
“That it does,” Carter agreed with a nod.
I looked up to see our bassist, and my sister’s boyfriend, Travis, waving us toward the stage.
“Looks like it’s showtime,” Carter grinned.
I took a deep breath, puffing my cheeks out with air before I nodded. “Here goes nothing.”
Beau, his girlfriend Maggie, my sister Cora, and Lennie were stationed smack dab in the middle of the front row. Every time Lennie’s eyes met mine, I felt my stomach lurch. Why the hell was I so fucking terrified? We’d been together going on three years now, minus a couple months. We already lived together. She already co-parented my son. We already bickered about all the things married people bickered about. We already made all of the household decisions together. We were already “Colt and Lennie” to everyone who knew us. So why did I feel like this was such a huge deal?
Well, because it was. I had just turned thirty-seven, and even though at one point I had a ring for Rachel, I had never proposed. It never really felt right, despite it being the “right” thing to do. That’s what you were supposed to do when you accidentally knocked up your high school girlfriend, right? Get married, force yourself to be a family, all that jazz. I tried to, but... something held me back. Something held HER back. Maybe I was waiting for something to click into place. Maybe I was waiting for it to feel like it was supposed to. OR... maybe I was just waiting for Lennie. Not sure I believed in fate or destiny or all of that shit and I sure wasn’t spiritual in the least, but when the first girl you ever really loved pops back into your life and you pick up like twenty years hadn’t passed? It was a bit hard to deny that something was on our side.
Right before we had our planned break between sets, I turned and gave the rest of the guys a nod. It was time. Nerves be damned. Now or fucking nothing, Colton Hayes. It was showtime.
I just started strumming the chords and I could tell by the way Beau’s eyes lit up that he knew exactly what was happening. Lennie, on the other hand, just looked confused as all hell. Her eyes narrowed and she got this adorable little crease between her brows. In her defense, we were a cover band, and this? This was definitely a song she’d never heard before. I just stared back at her, certain I was going to get a whole lot more emotional than I wanted to. If I didn’t puke first.
I’d written her a song about love and loss. A song about drifting in the wind, not knowing where to land, until I met her. How she was my home. She was my everything and I'd spend the rest of my days making sure she knew that.
“It seems there’s only one thing left to do,” I sang, staring directly into those emerald eyes that captured my very soul. “Hey Songbird, you think I could marry you?” I knelt at the front of the stage, ring box cracked open for all to see.
As a collective gasp echoed through the crowd, Lennie froze, her eyes wide and bright and full of tears, her hands both clapped over her mouth. Beau, Maggie and Cora were all grinning behind her, as were the guys surrounding me. I just stared at her, waiting for a reaction, but she just stood there still as a statue until Beau nudged her a bit. Lennie gave her head a wave, as if trying to shake herself out of her current stated and then she launched herself at me. I’m talking she all out threw herself in my direction, damn near knocking my flat on my ass. I chuckled a bit as she clung to me, face buried in my neck, her shoulders shaking as she cried.
“Is that a yes?” I whispered, dipping my chin directly to her ear.
I felt her head nod and then she lifted her face to mine. “That is a hell yes, Colton Hayes,” she stated with a sniffle and a beaming smile as she scratched her pink painted nails through my beard.
“Yeah?” I asked, smiling bigger than I had probably smiled in the rest of my years combined. She just nodded, and I swept a few strands of her dark hair out of her eyes. “I’ll take a hell yes.”
Not willing to wait even one more second, I pressed my lips firmly to hers and the crowd cheered. Somewhere behind me I heard Carter’s voice shout “I guess that’s a yes!” But it was faint, because the only thing my brain could focus on, the only thing my brain WANTED to focus on, was my soon-to-be-wife, kissing the living daylights out of me.
After another set, Lennie and I took off to explore the little Fourth of July Carnival, hands clasped together like we’d float away from each other if we let go. Snyder was a typical southern small town, so we basically knew everyone in attendance, and they all stopped to say congratulations or buy us a drink. I’m sure most of them never thought they’d see the day that Colton Hayes put a ring on anyone’s finger, but I was more than happy to prove them wrong. We grabbed an assortment of fair foods for dinner, then hit the beer tent that my bar, Culprit’s, was in charge of. Nina and my other bartender Darren gave us their congratulations and shipped us back off to have fun, even though I was definitely supposed to be working our post at some point. I wasn’t going to argue. Even though we were together damn near twenty four seven, I’d never say no to more time with my Songbird.
As night fell, people started splitting off, headed to find the best spot to watch the firework show, but I’d had my spot picked out since before the carnival even began. My date just didn’t know it yet.
“We’re gonna go find a place to watch,” Beau stated, clutching his teenage girlfriend’s hand.
Lennie pouted a bit. “You’re not staying with us?”
“No offense, Mom, but I’d rather not,” Beau stated with a bit of a sheepish smirk. He was scared to hurt her feelings, I could tell. He’d probably have admitted it too. Kid definitely had a soft spot.
“Fine,” Lennie sighed, slumping against me like he’d just broken her heart. “I guess I’ll have to just deal with your dad then.”
He snickered. “Good luck with that.”
“Hey!” I stopped him just as he started off. I pointed a stern finger in his direction. “Hands above the equator, kid.”
“Oh my God, Dad. Seriously?” Beau groaned, turning red enough I could see it, even in the near dark. Lennie and Maggie, on the other hand, burst into giggles.
“I’m too young to be a granddad.”
“Colton, hush,” Lennie commanded, though she was struggling to hide her amusement. She then turned her eyes on Beau. “Go have fun, honey.”
“Maggie. I’m counting on you here,” I called after the far too pretty for her own good (or my kid’s) fifteen-year-old. “I know what it’s like to be a teenage boy. I got no hope for him.”
“We’ll be good, Mr. Hayes,” she insisted, laughing as Beau just shook his head and tried to pull her away as quickly as possible. “I promise.”
“That’s what I like to hear.” As they finally made it out of my vicinity, I tucked Lennie more into my side. “Guess we better go find our own spot, huh?”
“Hands above the equator,” she stated in a mocking tone as she wound her arms around my waist.
“Not on your goddamn life.”
“Well, then I guess we better find an awfully private spot,” Lennie smirked, tipping her chin up and poising her lips for a kiss.
“Already done,” I responded a bit gruffly before I obliged. The kiss was soft and sweet, just like the girl in my arms.
She cocked an eyebrow at me. “When’d you get a spot?”
“Before you got here.”
“Colton Hayes, what’re you up to?”
“Guess we better go find out, huh?” I wrapped my giant mitt of a hand around her much smaller one and led her off in the opposite direction most folks were traveling.
“Where the hell are you going?” she asked, obviously confused. “I wanna SEE the fireworks, Colton, not miss them.”
“Oh, you’ll see fireworks alright...”
“I meant in the SKY. Real fireworks, explosions, ya know? Not whatever’s going on in that dirty brain of yours.”
“Okay, one, you just made that sound WAY dirtier than my brain did, and two, I meant real fireworks, too...” My voice trailed off for a second. “Or... I at least meant both. I can’t really decide right now.”
I tugged her into my arms. “You agreed to marry me. What does that make you?”
She released a dreamy little sigh as she wound her arms around my neck. “Utterly and hopelessly in love.”
I couldn’t combat the boyish grin that took over my face. “That’s one hell of an answer.”
Lennie just shrugged and pursed her lips into a smirk. “It’s the truth.”
“You sure about this?” I asked, tucking away a few stray locks that had slipped their way out of her ponytail. “You sure you wanna put up with my grouchy ass for the rest of forever?”
“I’ve never been more sure about anything in my whole life.”
“Again with the A-plus answer. How am I supposed to compete with that?” I grinned as I took her hand, intent on leading her to exactly how I planned on competing with that.
“You can’t,” she said with a teasing shrug and a sigh. “I’m the wordsmith of this duo.”
“Guess I’ll just have to figure out another way,” I responded.
I pulled her along a barely beaten down path and as soon as we cleared a few trees, I heard her gasp. I had to admit, my plan had turned out even better than I had imagined it.
There, sitting about ten yards ahead of us, was my pickup, all decked out with blankets and pillows and rose petals and little candles in lanterns. Damn... putting Cora in charge of pulling this all together really paid off.
“Colton... how did you...”
“Cora,” I answered with a grin. I wasn’t about to take all the credit. I just had the idea. “Well, and probably Trav. I just had the idea.”
She just silently shook her head for a moment as I watched tears once again well in her green gaze. “I can’t believe...”
“Baby,” I cooed affectionately as I pulled her into my arms. “When you gonna figure out I’d pull down the damn sun for you?”
She chuckled a bit as I thumbed away the tears that had escaped her eyes. “I do believe it. Doesn’t make it mean any less when you do it, though.”
“How are you so fucking precious?” I sighed, burying my lips in the crown of her hair. “Come on. Let’s go get snuggled up before the show starts.”
She just nodded against me, and I led her to the bed of my truck, hoisting her up by the waist before climbing in myself. Even I had to admit this moment was pretty damn smooth, and I usually found myself about as smooth as a patchy, gravel road.
We spent the next hour, wrapped in each other’s arms, watching the fireworks show on the other side of the creek. Well, she did. I was more intent on getting kisses than watching fireworks, but she put me on some sort of ration program that I was not enthused about. Even after the show ended, we laid there, silently, just enjoying the calm and the crickets and the quiet.
“We should probably think about getting home,” I whispered into her hair. It was true. We definitely should’ve been thinking about it. There was a thunderstorm set to roll in at any minute, but I couldn’t seem to motivate myself to actually move.
“Five more minutes,” Lennie mumbled against my chest.
I let out a breathy chuckle. “You can lay on me at home, baby girl.”
“I know. But I like the smell of the rain coming. And the quiet.”
“Me too, but that’ll disappear as soon as it starts pelting us.” I heard a distant roll of thunder and sighed. “We’re gonna lay here until the last minute, aren’t we?”
I just chuckled and snugged my arms around her even tighter. “Whatever my girl wants.” We all knew I couldn’t say no to this woman, so why even bother trying?
I started dozing off within seconds until I felt a cold SPLAT against my forehead. Just as I blinked open my eyes, another one pelted me directly in the nose and I heard Lennie squeal. “Goddammit,” I grumbled sitting up straight. “I told you...”
“Oh, shut up,” Lennie grinned as she hopped off the tailgate. “A little rain never hurt nobody.”
As I scrambled to cover the things that shouldn’t get wet, she just stood there as Zeus or whatever god controlled the weather unleashed a whole arsenal of droplets. As I folded up the blankets and the rain began coming down harder, I paused and just started at her: this gorgeous brown-haired girl, spinning in the rain in a T-shirt, cutoffs and Converse, with a look on her face like this was the best thing to ever happen to her.
I shook my head. “How do you do it?” I asked, having to raise my voice a bit against the now pounding down rain.
“Do what?” she asked with a bright smile as I hopped off the bed and strode toward her.
“Make even the most annoying moments feel like the most beautiful thing in the world?” I answered before wrapping my arms around her waist and tugging her into me.
She just shrugged and raised her arms in the air. “Because everything is beautiful if you look at it right,” she stated. “All the pain, all the sadness... there’s beauty in all of it if you care enough to find it.”
“Guess that explains how you like me.”
“You, Colton Hayes, are the most beautiful of all.”
I was in a constant state of awe over this woman and the way she saw the world. The way she made everything glow. My girl was a stunner on the outside, sure, but nothing, absolutely nothing compared to the beauty of her heart, and I was goddamned lucky to spend the rest of my life basking in her light. She made me want to be brighter, to be warmer, to see the world even for a second through her eyes.
As the rain continued to pound down on us, I lifted my hands to her cheeks and kissed her with everything I had. Both of her hands wrapped around my wrists, and she held me there, kissing me with just as passion, just as much pure, unyielding love.
As our lips finally parted, she was giggling. “We should go now. I’m getting cold.”
I laughed in return and tugged her into me. “Let’s go get you dry.”
She kissed me quickly and then bounded for the passenger door as I stood in the rain, smiling like a fool. I had never much believed in forever, but this woman? This human ray of sunshine? She could make me believe the sky was green.