When we pulled up outside of my apartment, I got silently out of the car. Equally silent, Parker climbed out and took my suitcase out of the trunk before I could make a move to do it myself. He put it down on the sidewalk next to me.
I wanted to say something, but what could I possibly say? I gave up and just remained quiet.
Parker turned back towards the car, and I saw the pain on his face. Yet again, my own heart broke.
I’m sorry. You’ll understand eventually.
After he’d driven away and even his taillights had disappeared from view, I grabbed my suitcase and dragged it into the house. Thankfully, Paula was asleep and didn’t emerge rom her room. I couldn’t face anyone right now.
It took all of my strength just to make it into my bedroom. As soon as I was inside, I dropped down onto the bed and let the tears fall.
“This is a wonderful day,” I said with a bright smile. “It’s so nice out.” To kick off our one full day in Granite Falls, Parker had suggested a nature walk. I hadn’t been completely sold on it, despite agreeing to it, until we’d gotten on the path. Then the smell of pine, the gentle breeze, and the sounds of nature had convinced me of what a great idea a hike was.
“It’s beautiful,” Parker agreed. He looked over at me with a tender smile. “Not as beautiful as you, of course.”
I flushed but accepted the compliment. The instinct to deny it had slowly gotten less insistent over time. I’d gotten better about taking compliments since I’d started seeing Parker. Sometimes, I even agreed with him. How could I not when the way he looked at me made me feel beautiful?
“The bugs I could live without, but I can deal with them.” I’d thought we knew bugs in Willow Creek, but we had nothing on Granite Falls!
“Do you hear that?” Parker asked after a few more minutes of walking.
“Is that a waterfall?” I’d only ever seen those on television!
Parker grinned and led the way through a particularly dense bit of brush. After a minute of struggling with prickling thorns, we entered into a lovely, sunny clearing.
I gasped softly and looked up at the waterfall. “It’s amazing,” I breathed.
Parker didn’t spare a glance at the fall. “Yes,” he agreed softly. I felt his gaze on me.
I flushed softly. My kneejerk reaction was still to say that I wasn’t amazing at all. I pushed it aside; the last thing I wanted was to ruin this with my lingering insecurities.
Parker reached out and stroked my cheek tenderly. “Nora, you know, I used to think that I’d be broken forever.”
“Me too,” I said in a small voice.
A gentle smile curved his lips. “I never thought I’d be whole again. I put on a smile and a brave face, but it was just an act – until I met you. I think, Nora, that helping you heal helped me to do it, too.”
I nodded and blinked back a sudden misting of tears. “You’ve helped me heal more than you know.”
“I love you, Nora, so much more than I’ve ever loved another person.” He took my hands and brought them up to his lips to press a soft kiss to them. “And for a long time, I’ve been wanting to ask you something.”
Suddenly, I realized what was happening. A leaden pit dropped into my stomach. I wanted to say No, stop, don’t change anything, but I couldn’t move.
Parker dropped down onto one knee. His smile as he looked up at me was blinding. “Will you marry me, Nora? As long as we’re together, I know we’ll survive anything.”
I burst into tears, shaking my head fervently. “No.”
Though the morning was bright and sunny, my world felt bleak and lifeless. Until the day I died, I would never forget the crushed expression on Parker’s face. It made my stomach roil to remember it.
One day, I know he’ll understand, I promised myself as I went up the steps to Mom’s house. As quickly as the thought came, so did the burn of tears. No, no he won’t. And neither will I!
What have I done? I’m so stupid! I ruined everything. Last night, I’d come up with perfectly logical-sounding reasons for why I’d refused Parker. In the light of day, I knew the truth. Fear and all of my insecurities had surged forward and ruined the best thing that had ever happened to me.
It’s over. And it’s all my fault.
I was barely able to restrain my tears as I knocked on the door. I’d thought about letting Caleb stay until that night as planned, but I needed a distraction. Otherwise, I might make a fool of myself.
Mom was smiling when she opened the door. She wasn’t when she saw my face. “Oh, God, what happened?” The note of expectation in her voice suggested she was expecting some kind of death notice.
All at once, the dam burst and the tears I’d barely been holding back started to fall. Heavy sobs began to wrack my body. “Mom, oh my God, I’ve destroyed everything.”
Mom wrapped her arm around me and guided me into the living room. Carter was there watching television, but he quietly got up and left when we came in.
“Tell me what happened,” Mom said gently as she rubbed my back.
Through my crying, the whole story spilled out of me. I told her how wonderful everything had been, and I told her about the waterfall and Parker’s beautiful proposal. And then I told her my shame. How I’d let my fear of tying my life to someone else’s choke me and make me refuse.
“I’m so stupid,” I wailed. “I trust Parker, I do! How could I do this?”
“Oh, sweetheart. Fear doesn’t know trust. You’ve just got to be stronger than it.” She stroked my hair back. “I know that fear. After your father cheated on me, my trust was broken. But just look at what I found once I decided to let myself trust someone else.”
I sniffed and wiped my face. “What if it didn’t stay perfect? You and Dad had good years, right? What if, after a few years, it all goes south?”
“We did, but, Nora, I knew the kind of man he was when I married him. He was married when I met him, remember. Parker is nothing like Houston.” She made me look her in the eyes as she spoke. “You know that, too; you’re just scared. And it’s okay to be scared, but you can’t let it control your life.”
“You’re right, but it’s too late,” I said morosely. “He’ll never forgive me for breaking his heart.”
“If he loves you – and I’m sure that he does – he’ll give you another chance. You’ve just got to be brave and go to him.”
“You really think so?” I asked, hesitant hope in my voice.
Mom nodded. “I’m certain. You go over there right now and eat some crow.”
That pulled a weak laugh out of me. “Okay.”
And that was exactly what I did after I borrowed the bathroom to clean myself up and make myself semi-suitable to go out in public.
I got out of the cab and walked up to Parker’s rental house. I can do this, I told myself. After a deep, steadying breath, I knocked on the door.
A minute later, Parker appeared in the doorway. His expression was closed and unreadable. He stepped outside, shutting the door after himself.
“Yes?” He asked hollowly.
I really hurt him, I thought sadly. Please, let him forgive me.
I swallowed hard. “I’m a fucking coward. An idiot and a coward.” I wrung my hands nervously in front of me. “I’m so sorry, Parker. I can’t apologize enough. I let my fear control me last night, but that’s not what I want.”
He looked at me. I thought I saw a tiny light come into his eyes. Hope? “So, what are you saying?”
“I’m saying I love you, Parker Jennings. I love you so much that I’m bursting with it. I’ll never let fear make decisions for me again. I’ll understand if you don’t want to waste your time on me anymore, but what I want more than anything is for you to ask me to marry you again.” The words were rushed – I couldn’t say them fast enough. They spilled out of me one after another. But I didn’t stumble over them – this was just what I wanted. I knew it with absolute clarity.
Parker was still and silent for an interminable heartbeat. Then he beamed – lighting up my world – and dropped down onto one knee. “Will you marry me?”
The words were hardly out of his mouth before my answer sprang from my lips. “Yes!”