Well, here we are, the penultimate chapter of this saga that began back in March. I cannot thank all of you enough for your continued support and encouragement for what has become an alternate version of S4. Many, many thanks to R. Grace for her ongoing encouragement and precious spirit. To the amazing Silvestria-many thanks for you eagle-eye editing and your most precious friendship. And to my dear friends and sisters miscreantrose and Cls2011, what can I say? I can never thank you enough for the endless read-throughs and overwhelming support. I feel so very blessed.

Own nothing. Wish I did. And I hope you enjoy!

"I don't like it, Mary," Charles insisted gently, taking her hand within his as her dinner tray was carried away. His stomach knotted at the thought of leaving, the lines around his eyes emphasizing his dilemma.

"I know you don't," she replied, giving him a sympathetic look, "You've made that very clear. But the fact is that you have not left my side since you returned from America. You need to go home, Charles, to see your aunt, if for no other reason."

He inhaled audibly, shaking his head slightly as if to pose an argument.

"I know how much she has missed your company."

Her words struck home, and his brow knit together firmly, his internal struggle evident in the line of his shoulders.

"Please, Charles," she soothed, "I shall feel much better if you do."

"Alright," he returned, eyeing her in a manner which stated he was still none too pleased with this arrangement. "But only if you're certain."

"I have Anna, Mama, and Carson all fussing over me like a flock of mother hens," she observed with a sideways grin. "I believe they can adequately manage until you return."

The notable absence of her father in the list of care-givers made him cringe yet again.

"I do have gifts for you and George back at Rufforth Hall," he admitted softly, watching her eyes widen in surprise. "I wanted to give them to you sooner, but…"

He paused, the slight tremor in his chin making speech somewhat difficult.

"It just wasn't the right time."

She took a steadying breath, his emotional state bringing her to the brink of breaking yet again.

"I do hope you chose well," she tried, leveling her own voice with determination. "You know how picky I can be when it comes to surprises."

The lopsided grin made an appearance, tugging on her heart-strings as it always did.

"Do you know how badly I want to climb in that bed with you and hold you close until you go to sleep?"

She shivered as his words touched her physically, the need to be drawn into him almost overpowering.

"This is Downton, Charles," she reminded him gently. "Not Crawley House. I'm afraid everything we do here is under constant surveillance."

"I'm not sure I care about that any more, Mary," he stated, the frankness of his statement filling the space between them. "Not after everything we've been through, all of the pain you have suffered. I just…"

He faltered again, dropping his gaze to intertwined hands.

"I want to take care of you. Regardless of what anyone else may think."

Her eyes blinked rapidly, the depth of his assertion almost too much to take in.

"You are taking care of me," she affirmed, looking at him directly. "Going home tonight and sleeping in your own bed will not change that. "

He fought to keep his composure, sitting up straighter as Anna entered the room.

"Besides," Mary added softly, "You can check up on me as soon as you return."

"Which will be tomorrow," he stated firmly, his gaze resolute. "As quickly as I am able to get here."

She squeezed his hand in response.

"Just don't arrive with the sunrise," she replied, leaning into him. "I can be horribly cranky if I don't get my sleep."

"I know," he reminded her, heartened by the renewed splash of color in her cheeks. "Remember that night in the nursery?"

"That's hardly a fair comparison," she retorted, quirking her gaze. "George was unwell, if you remember."

"How could I forget?" he mused, somehow closer to her than he had been just seconds before. "You were beautiful, even when pacing the floor with an unhappy George at an ungodly hour."

"And you still need to go home," she stated flatly. "No matter how much charm you attempt to toss in my direction or divert me from the topic at hand."

He grinned guiltily, shaking his head at her insistence.

"You are a stubborn woman, Mary Crawley," he dared, rewarded by a flash of energy in her eyes.

"If you're just noticing that, you're much duller than I thought," she teased, thankful for the lighter tone of their conversation. "Now go."

He kissed her lightly, mindful of Anna's presence in her bedroom as he stood.

"You will let me know if I am needed?" he asked Mrs. Bates. "For any reason at all."

"Of course, Mr. Blake," Anna assured him. "You have my word."

He looked back at Mary again, running fingers through his hair as he moved towards the door.

"I'll say my good-byes to George, and then I'll be off," he informed them, fiddling with his hands awkwardly as he lingered at the exit. "Promise me you will take it easy."

"I already have," she insisted, raising a brow slightly. "Twice."

He smiled at her again, biting his lower lip and shaking his head slightly.

"I love you, Mary," he stated, his assurance warming her chest. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight," she replied, staring at the doorframe after he stepped through.

"He's a good man," Anna observed, moving in Mary's direction to fluff her pillows.

"Yes, he is," Mary agreed. "A very good man."

"Can I get you anything else?" Anna asked, looking down at her with concern.

"I don't think so," Mary replied. "You should fetch Marianne and go home soon, Anna. I'm already dressed for bed, and I don't want you out late on my account."

"And what of my promise to Mr. Blake?" she questioned.

"You'll be back in the morning," Mary returned. "And I'm not planning to do anything but sleep tonight."

"Alright, then," Anna agreed, draping a silken dressing gown over her arm. "But are you sure you're alright?"

Mary paused, pushing back emotion pressing tightly against her eyelids.

"I've been better," she admitted quietly. "I'd be lying if I said otherwise. But I'll manage."

"I'm so sorry, my lady," Anna offered quietly, daring a step closer. "I hate that you have had to go through this. It seems unfair after everything else you have suffered this year."

Her throat constricted in spite of herself, and she fought back tears that had plagued her for three days.

"Thank you, Anna," she managed, swallowing back the thickness in her mouth. "It hasn't been easy."

The maid pressed her lips tightly, clasping her hands together.

"If it bothers you for me to have Marianne here, just say so," Anna gushed, her voice unsteady. "I can try to make other arrangements for her if that will ease your discomfort."

Mary stared at the other woman, attempting to process what had just been offered.

"No," Mary asserted firmly. "Marianne will never be a bother. She is always welcome here."

"If you say so, my lady," Anna returned.

"Besides, she'll be here on a regular basis starting next week," Mary put forward, tilting her head slightly. "Unless you have changed your mind."

"No, my lady," Anna affirmed with a dip of her chin. "I have not changed my mind."

A small sigh of relief escaped her, the knowledge that Anna would still be George's nanny a balm to her spirit.

"In fact, Lady Grantham spoke to me about that very thing earlier today."

"Mama?" Mary questioned, taken aback by this statement. "What did she have to say?"

Anna chewed her bottom lip before looking back at her directly.

"She informed me that Nanny Thompson would be staying on to tend to Miss Sybbie," Mrs. Bates began, her words weighed carefully. "And that I would be seeing to Marianne and Master George."

"Two nannies?" Mary clarified. "Does she not think you can manage three children?"

"No, that's not it," Anna grinned, toying with her hands. "It's just that she doesn't want to lose Nanny Thompson and then have to search for a new nanny when and if…"

She paused, swallowing as her eyes darted uncomfortably.

"When and if Charles and I get married."

The statement settled between them slowly, the words not as foreign to her tongue as they would have been but weeks ago.

"Yes," Anna confirmed, clearly relieved that she did not have to go into further detail. "It would seem that Miss Sybbie has bonded well with Nanny Thompson and that she fits into the household very well."

"That's true enough," Mary nodded, processing the conversations that had obviously taken place while she had been recovering. "And Mama believes that I shall attempt to steal you and Bates away to Rufforth Hall if I move there in the near future?"

The reality of a life lived in two places began to pulse through her veins, the thought of managing two estates taking root rapidly. Marriage to Charles seemed suddenly very close indeed.

"So it would seem," Anna returned.

"Would I succeed?" Mary questioned, leaning forward slightly.

"With me, yes," Anna answered frankly, her arms dropping to her side. "But I haven't yet broached the subject with Mr. Bates. I'm not certain how he would feel about leaving his lordship."

"And Charles does not employ a valet," Mary noted, her mind attempting to unravel this new development. "Perhaps I should endeavor to persuade him to see the need.""

"I think you could persuade him to do almost anything," Anna noted, rewarded with a sudden rounding of Mary's eyes.

"That's true enough," Mary smiled. "But he can be rather stubborn when he wants to be."

"Perish the thought," Anna grinned.

"Indeed," Mary threw back, relaxing her shoulders into the pillows. "Thank you, Anna. And do take Marianne home and get some rest."

"I will, my lady," she returned, moving with measured step to the exit. "Goodnight."

Weary muscles settled with relief into the comfort of pillows and sheets, a mixture of emotions swirling uncontrollably as the reality of being alone for the first time in days sank in. There was still a hollowness that ached all over, a longing for something precious she knew could never be reclaimed. Yet she was home with George, in her own bed.

And Charles…

She sat up as a tap sounded on her door.

"Come in," she commanded, expecting Anna to emerge. "Did you forget something?"

Her body stilled, her breath snarled helplessly in her ribs.

Her father stood unmoving in the doorway.

"May I come in?"

Her brow creased, her head nodding before she could formulate the words.

"Yes. Of course."

His steps were measured, his expression pained as he made his way to her bedside. The silence between them was potent, his breathing the only sound that penetrated her ears.

"How are you feeling?"

His question hung between them, her surprise in seeing him tripping coherent thoughts as they sought to emerge.

"Tired," she finally managed, watching him closely as he sat in a nearby chair.

"I won't keep you long, then," Robert said, his gaze moving continually about her room uncomfortably.

"It's alright, Papa," Mary stated, pushing herself up a bit taller. "I've done very little but rest the past several days."

His face crumbled at her words, his chin quivering as he looked down at his hands.

"Of course, you haven't, I…"

Lord Grantham's eyes found hers and held them fast, his turmoil evident in the broken lines of his face.

"I'm so sorry, Mary."

His chest deflated as he hung his head.

"For this…for everything."

Her lungs constricted as her own eyes pooled, her jaw clenching hard.

"I should have been there for you when you arrived earlier today," he continued, the raw edge of his voice pressing her heart. "No. I should have come to Crawley House immediately when I heard the news."

"Yes. You should have."

He flinched as if she had struck him, standing once again as he paced the floor. Further speech then failed her, and she wiped her eyes to ward off the stubborn edge of tears.

"You're right," he asserted. "And I have no valid defense. I let my stupid pride and anger keep me from supporting you at a time when I should have been at your side without question."

He paused, looking at her directly.

"Can you ever forgive me?"

His admission cut through the emotional fog in her mind, forcing words to form as she nodded her head.

"Of course," she managed, her tone ragged.

Her words lured him back to his seat, and he leaned in closer, folding his hands in his lap.

"I fear you have made this too easy for me."

"I don't want to fight anymore," she confessed quietly, caging in as much emotion as she was able. "When all is said and done, it's rather pointless, isn't it?"

His sigh was heavy, his expression even more so.

"Yes. When all is said it done, it most certainly is."

They sat in silence another moment, so much left unspoken on still fragile ground.

"Is there anything I can do for you?" Robert finally questioned, watching her carefully. "I know nothing can adequately make up for how I have treated you, but if I can do anything to repair the damage I have done, I would very much like to know what it is."

She stared back at her father, the sincerity in his eyes almost too much to process.

"If you could try to get along with Charles," she began, her gaze steadily marking his reaction, "It would make things easier. For all of us."

His mouth pressed into a thin line as he nodded in agreement.

"I many not like the man at this moment, nor agree with the choices the two of you have made," Lord Grantham returned. "But I must give him credit for his faithfulness and protective stance towards you."

His words were a beginning, the hint of a fresh start that unknotted some of the constriction in her lungs.

"He loves me," Mary admitted quietly, taking his handkerchief from her nightstand. "He leaves me in no doubt of that."

"And do you love him?"

They met eye to eye, and she was reminded of another difficult discussion many years prior when he instructed her to go to America and find a cowboy.

"Yes," she replied. "I do, actually."

Robert exhaled audibly, the lack of surprise on his features quite telling.

"Then I shall apologize to him, as well," he stated, standing slowly to take his leave. "And make every effort to get to know him better."

So much lay behind his offer, Mary knew, strife with Tom and Sybil, the profound grief of losing his daughter as well as a child never born.

"Thank you, Papa," she replied softly. "That means more than you know."

He looked at her once more before leaning down to kiss the top of her head. The contact shook as it permeated senses still unguarded. Her eyes followed him out of the room, and she remained motionless for several minutes, still processing what had just occurred. Yet the beckoning of her pillow was insistent, its softness more soothing than she remembered as cheeks freshly marked by tears touched down.

She wondered if Charles had spoken with him, then pushed the thought aside, convincing herself that it didn't matter if he had or had not. The fact was that an olive branch had been extended, a gulf finally crossed. And wrapped in the arms of this fresh reassurance, she finally closed her eyes.

"Mr. Blake."

His name summoned his attention, his mind so transfixed on reaching Mary he had missed the man's presence standing so near.

"Lord Grantham," he acknowledged steadily, unsure of the direction this conversation might take.

Robert stepped as close as he dared, his eyes direct but without the marked hostility they held during their last exchange.

"What you said to me yesterday," the older man began, dropping his chin slightly. "You were right."

Charles continued to stare at him, the surprise on his features evident.

"And I am sorry. For all of it."

His fingers twitched at his side, his lips pressing together as he looked back to Mary's father.

"So am I, Lord Grantham. So am I."

"Perhaps we should start over," Robert suggested, relaxing his stance somewhat. "Put our past difficulties behind us. For Mary's sake."

This was indeed more than he had dared to expect.

"Agreed," Charles responded directly. "And for George's, as well."

The mention of the boy earned him a look of surprise, but Robert nodded in appreciation, extending his hand in the process.


He offered his hand in return, meeting the man on common ground. They shook soundly, neither flinching in their gaze.

"How is she this morning?"

"Better, I think," Robert answered, the first sign of shame crossing his features. "I saw her earlier when she came down to locate a book. I believe she is the nursery with George at the moment."

So Mary had already been up and about. He was both relieved and concerned to hear it, knowing she needed to get back on her feet again, yet wanting to do nothing but wrap her in cotton wool.

"Then if you will excuse me," Charles stated, receiving a nod before he made his way towards the stairs. "I should like to go and check on her, if you don't mind."

"Of course," Robert replied, standing his ground. "She's expecting you."

He nodded in response, moving with a steady deliberation, needing to see her, to hold her, to see for himself that she was indeed improving with each day that passed. But he halted in mid-stride, knowing that something important had been left unsaid.

"Lord Grantham," he called, summoning Robert's full attention.

"Yes, Mr. Blake?"

Robert stared at him thoughtfully, clasping his hands behind his back.

"Thank you."

The earl's lips pressed together tightly, and he cast his eyes down for a split second.

"Thank you," Robert replied, looking at him almost as if this were there first introduction. He then turned on his heels, walking away in a silence broken only by the sound of his feet on.

What in God's name had just happened?

Charles shook his head and resumed his course, the thoughts of seeing Mary practically pushing him up the steps. How he had missed her last night, having all too quickly familiarized himself with the feel of her lying beside him, the warmth of her in his arms, the texture of her beneath his fingers. He longed to feel the rise and fall of her chest, to smell the essence of lavender laced softly through her hair.

How had he survived those weeks in America without her?

The path to the nursery was now very familiar, and his stride never faltered until he reached the door. There she sat with her son, the sight of them together almost too much for him.

She did look better. He sighed in relief.

"You're later than I thought you'd be," she teased, picking up blocks just knocked over as she attempted to reassemble the castle George had just toppled. "After all of the effort it took to get you to leave last night, I half-expected to find you camped out outside of my door."

"The thought did cross my mind," he confessed, grinning at this show of spirit as he sat on the floor beside her. "Forgive me. There was some business in the stables that I needed to see to personally. I came as soon as it was all sorted out."

"Everything is alright, I hope," she put forth, steadying the rickety structure her son was constructing.

"More than alright," he smiled in return, ruffling George's hair as the child moved to pick up another block. "Some changes have been made that I am most anxious to show you."

"Changes?" she questioned, eyeing him with curiosity. "The stables looked to be in excellent condition when I last visited."

"They were and still are," he returned, placing a precarious piece of ceiling atop the structure, laughing as George's eyes widened in wonder. "But there is something different, something I hope you will approve of."

"Well now I'm curious," she mused, leaning back as the building began to wobble. "Which is rather unfair, actually, as I'm certain you're not planning to take me to Rufforth Hall today."

"No," he admitted with a shrug. "I still think you need to take it easy. Just to be cautious."

She rolled her eyes in his direction, fighting off a stab of pain that always accompanied thoughts of the child they had lost. He gently caressed her cheek, drawing her gaze back to him, his understanding readable in his eyes.

"But I did bring presents."

George froze, staring at Charles with an owl-like expression as he processed what he had just heard.

"He knows the word, it would seem," Charles observed with a grin, reaching over and tickling the boy's belly until he fell into a fit of giggles.

"It is nearly Christmas," Mary reminded him. "And I'm afraid things were rather gloomy around here last year."

Eyes clouded over briefly as she dropped her gaze, turning back slowly with a smile that nearly broke him.

"You both deserve a splendid Christmas," he stated resolutely, clearing the tightened confines of his own throat.

The look she gave him pulsed deep, invading every piece of his framework as she touched his arm.

"I would like it to be festive. Especially for George."

The tower then fell over with a crash, drawing peals of laughter from the boy as he clapped his hands.

"As long as he receives nothing fragile," Charles observed wryly, reaching into a satchel behind him and producing a brightly wrapped box.

"Here, George," he stated with a smile, chuckling at the wide-eyed wonder staring back at him. "A present for you."

"Pesnt?" the boy mimicked, clasping the box on both sides.

"Yes, present," Mary instructed, flinching slightly a George dropped the gift of the floor, attacking the paper with feverish gusto. His face scrunched in confusion when his efforts resulted in nothing more than a box, and he quickly crafted a rhythm on its surface with pudgy fists as if it were a drum.

"Here," Charles laughed, turning the box over and opening its lid. "Look inside."

The boy peered over the top in interest, finally flinging the lid aside and staring at the contents.

"Cat!" George exclaimed, clapping again as he bounced in place.

"What is it?" Mary questioned, trying to get a glimpse of what only her son and Charles could see. "What did Cat give you?"

"He just told you," Charles answered, adoring the look of confusion on her face. "It's a cat."

"You did not wrap a kitten!" she protested in concern, her brow creasing further as Charles laughed openly.

"God, Mary, do you really think I would stick a live animal in a box? Or bring George a pet without your consent?"

George joined in the merriment, giggling infectiously as he plopped down in Charles's lap and stuck a pudgy hand inside for his prize.

"Well, you did take it upon yourself to build a house for Biscuit," she pointed out, quickly tossed a look of disbelief as he moved to defend himself.

"That puppy had already taken up residence," he clarified, raising his hands in mock surrender. "Tom and I were simply ensuring that he was provided with accommodations appropriate for a privileged canine."

"Well done," she mused tartly, fighting down the urge to smile at the expressions on the two males beside her. "He thinks he owns the place now. Poor Isis still isn't sure what to make of him."

"She'll sort him out sooner or later," he threw back with a grin. "Women always do if they sniff around a chap long enough."

"If they can get past the initial smell, that is," she retorted playfully, enjoying the exaggerated shake of his head as he conceded her the point.

"Cat," George announced again with insistence, pulling a spotted stuffed toy cat out of its confines. He held it in front of him proudly, inspecting the red bow tie around its neck with interest.

"He's going to have to find something else to call you now," she stated, watching her son's merriment in wonder. "We can't have two cats running around the house."

"He will," Charles returned quietly, holding the boy with the ease of a father. "When the time is right."

The knowledge of what he had just implied hit her soundly, the utter rightness of it nearly taking her breath. She stared at the pair of them yet again, unable to tear her eyes away as George reached up and grabbed Charles's chin.

This was the man George knew…the man who knew him. It was not the life she had planned yet it possessed a warmth and beauty she could have never anticipated. Her mind began to reel as memory and reality intertwined.

"And this present is for you."

His voice summoned her attention, and her eyes dropped to the small box in his hand. She took it from him slowly, feeling a heated unsteadiness spread quickly across her nerves.

"I hope it's not another feline," she mused, attempting to quell the rabid thrumming of her heart.

"I think you know me better than that, Mary."

His face betrayed him, the combination of eagerness laced with fear making her both excited and hesitant to discover its contents.

"I supposed I should open it, then."

He noted her nerves, reaching over to steady her hand.

"I believe that is the accepted practice when given a gift."

She moistened dry lips, setting herself to the task at hand as she delicately ripped the seam.

"Would you like George's assistance?" he teased, earning himself a tweak of her brow. "He's much faster than you are."

"Must I remind you just who demonstrated the art of package demolition so expertly for him?" she quipped, carefully unbinding one edge of the paper with a clean line.

"There are times when delicacy is overrated," Charles retorted with a shrug. "It takes a certain measure of wisdom to discern such matters."

"Be careful," she threw back as she drew the last of the wrapping aside. "You might yet find yourself commiserating with the dogs."

A carved wooden box stared back at her, beguiling in its artistry and rich hues.

"Look inside," he instructed softly, smiling at her overt curiosity as she dared to pry open the lid.

Her breath hitched audibly.

"This is lovely," she observed, removing a carved, wooden horse from the box's lined interior. "The craftsmanship is breathtaking."

"She is a beauty," he agreed, never taking his eyes from her as she examined the sculpture. "Her color is magnificent—a rich chestnut."

"Did you see horses such in Kentucky?" she asked, looking back to him. "The legendary Thoroughbreds?"

"Yes," he confirmed, leaning closer to stroke the horse's back. "When the sun hits a coat of this color, the red hues are indescribable. It's like watching a sunset dash across a field."

"That would be something to see," she added wistfully, allowing George to touch the creature in interest. "You've peaked my curiosity even further."

"Good. I cannot wait to show her to you in person."

Her gaze flickered in a silent question, breaking his smile free in earnest.

"She's yours," he confirmed, chuckling at the gasp escaping her lungs. "The real thing and the model. She was the business I was seeing to in the stables this morning, in fact."

"You bought me a Thoroughbred?" she asked breathlessly, her mouth gaping in spite of herself.

"I did," he stated. "I thought it might be nice for you to have a suitable mount at Rufforth as well as at Downton. I know how much Diamond means to you."

The rapid flutter of her lashes made him laugh once again, and her lips sought to form words, even as her tongue refused to cooperate.

"I don't know what to say," she finally uttered, still stunned by the magnitude of his gift.

"You've said more than enough already," he grinned, stroking her cheek gently as she leaned into his hand. "I'm just delighted you're so pleased."

"Why wouldn't I be?" she inquired, her eyes still rounded. "But my God, Charles. A horse! Have you named her?"

"Of course," he answered, the spark in his gaze exciting her further.

"Well, what is it?" she demanded, punching him lightly on the arm as he hesitated on purpose.

His expression became serious as he pursed his lips together, glancing down at the child in his lap before looking back to her directly.

"Wildfire," he answered, noting the flash of recognition in her eyes. "Her name is Wildfire."

"Wildfire," she whispered in return, staring back at him in amazement. "That is lovely."

"I could think of nothing more fitting," he explained, the play of his features tugging at her heart. "For either of you."

God—this man.

"Kiss me, Charles."

The word flew unbidden from her lips, but their intensity was unquestionable. His mouth twitched in spite of himself, the liquid brown of his eyes a most intoxicating brew.

"I thought you'd never ask."

He leaned into her with a smile, fingers sliding with ease over her ear into her hair. His mouth touched down gently, the pressure of his lips against her own infusing her with a warmth she felt all over. Her hand reached up to rest on his chest, her mouth parting in a summons for more of him, a request he was more than happy to answer.

God, how she needed him…this man for this life.

"Cat!" George interrupted, thrusting his new treasure in between them.

They drew back reluctantly, and he mussed the boy's hair.

"We are going to have to have a discussion about your timing, young man," he instructed with mock severity, unable to keep from grinning as the child gleefully grabbed his nose.

"Yes," Mary agreed wryly. "I can tell you're going to be very stern."

"I'm afraid he leaves me rather defenseless with those eyes of his," he admitted with a shrug, noting the wistful expression that overtook her face. "Between the two of you, I won't stand a chance."

She gazed at her son, seeing so much of her past in eyes that had seen so little. "He has Matthew's eyes, you know."

A comfortable silence enveloped them, and she marveled at how much less the words now stung.

"I assumed as much," he noted, watching as George began to rebuild his fortress yet again. "And your resilience, it would seem."

She looked into him, smiling softly at his choice of words.

"You know, Mrs. Hughes and I had a very similar conversation once."

He nodded in appreciation.

"Mrs. Hughes is a very wise woman. I knew that from the moment I met her."

Her brow creased in thought.

"And when have you spoken with Mrs. Hughes, pray?"

"When she brought a tray of biscuits and lemonade to Tom and me," he confessed with a grin. "When we were constructing the puppy's house. As I stated, a wise woman, indeed."

"You're incorrigible," she stated flatly, her smile overshadowing any hint of reprimand in her tone.

"And you wouldn't have me any other way," he challenged, his dimples beckoning her as they had so many times before.

She leaned in close touching her nose to his before taking his lips firmly with her own. His breath hitched in surprise at the contact, drawing an appreciative noise from her lungs. She kissed him soundly, leaving him breathless as she drew back with a coy grin he knew would stay with him the rest of his life.

"You're right," she murmured, the flush staining her cheeks winding its way around his heart. "I wouldn't."

And for once in his life, he had absolutely no idea of what to say.

The next time we meet, it will be for the final installment. (I'm getting emotional just thinking about it! Just overlook me.) But remember-there will be a sequel. And as always, I would cherish your feedback. Have a lovely week, precious readers!