The protector, p.38
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       The Protector, p.38

           Jodi Ellen Malpas

  happiness with you. Every day for the rest of our lives.” He reaches forward and strokes my cheek tenderly. “Will you marry me?”

  I swallow, choking up, forcing my lips to remain locked tight so my emotion can’t escape. Then I start to slowly nod.

  “You have to say yes!” Charlotte sings, and I chuckle along with Abbie and Jake, while Charlotte waits for me to follow her instructions. I don’t bother telling her that we’ve been through all of this. It’ll hold no importance to her, since Jake screwed it all up in her eyes.

  I pull away, smiling through my overwhelming emotion. “Yes,” I say clearly, accepting the ring as Jake slips it on my finger. “You’re my home now.” I’m done for, a wreck, tears streaming down my cheeks. Screw Cinderella. She must have been a hard bitch. “You’re my everything, Jake Sharp.”

  “Yay!” Charlotte squeals, and I laugh over my tears, seeing her pirouetting on the spot.

  Jake rubs a thumb across the gem, sighing. “Thank you,” he murmurs quietly.

  “You have to kiss now!” Charlotte starts bouncing to the side of us, clapping her hands.

  I don’t waste time. No one will ever need to tell me twice to kiss him. I throw myself into his arms and slam my mouth to his, pushing him back to the grass, losing all of my inhibitions. I’m lost in a haze of happiness, optimism, and undying love, while Charlotte dances around our sprawled bodies, clapping her hands and cheering.

  I only come up for air once she’s demanded that we stop kissing. Crouching by her daddy’s head, her little hands joined and resting in her lap, she looks at me, while Jake looks up at her. “Daddy gave me a ring, too,” she announces proudly, holding her chubby hand out in front of me. “He said it is superspecial.”

  I look down and see a replica of the penned engagement ring that Jake drew onto my finger at his country hideaway. My lips stretch into a massive smile, my gaze flicking to Jake.

  He looks a little shy and awkward. “You’re lucky,” he says on a shrug. “She wanted that one.” He nods down to my ring finger where my diamond sits perfectly.

  I laugh loudly, thinking something I never thought I would. I think about how willing and excited I am to share Jake. To share him with this spirited, gorgeous little girl. His little girl. Everything he has is mine. And Charlotte is now mine, too.

  I breathe in the fresh air and the overpowering scent of love surrounding me, closing my eyes and burrowing down into Jake’s chest. “What happens now?” I ask quietly.

  “What do you want to happen?”

  “I’d like to live in your enchanted land and have my happily ever after.”

  I feel him smile against my neck. “Anything you want.”

  Charlotte squeals, and we both look up at her. “I want to live in an enchanted land, too! Can I, Daddy? Can I, can I?” She looks almost panicked by the possibility of being refused, and I look at Jake, wondering how he might handle her. I’m not deluded. I realize we’re not going to be sweeping Charlotte up and whisking her off to the countryside to join us in our happily ever after. This is going to take time and deep consideration. Jake’s lips straighten as he looks at his daughter’s hopeful face, clearly wondering how he should approach this without upsetting her, or, most importantly, stepping on Abbie’s toes. She’s raised his daughter for four years. She needs to be considered here, too.

  Abbie steps forward and drops to her haunches, getting Charlotte’s attention. “Maybe you can visit on the weekends for a little while. Just until Daddy and Camille get everything fixed up for you. I’m sure they have a lot to do to get ready for your arrival.” She smiles a small smile that is strained, and I see the effort it’s taking her to speak, her voice a little wobbly.

  Jake starts to sit up, taking me with him. I move to the side, seeing his intention. He reaches for Abbie’s hand and squeezes comfortingly. “Thank you,” he says quietly.

  Abbie swallows and shakes her head. “And, of course, they need to fix my bedroom up, too, for when I come visit you.”

  “I’ll be a princess in Daddy’s enchanted land!” Charlotte jumps on the spot excitedly before launching herself at Jake, tackling him to the ground. He laughs, letting her sit astride of his chest. She looks down at him seriously. “I’m glad you’re home now, Daddy.”

  The hollows of his cheeks pulse, emotion threatening to wrack his body as he reaches for her chubby cheek and strokes it gently. “Me too, baby. Me too. I’m never leaving you again.”

  Charlotte drops to her daddy’s chest, looping her small arms around his big body. “You can be my king, Daddy.”

  Jake’s face disappears into his little girl’s small neck, and he crushes her to his chest. He’s hiding his overwhelmed tears, whereas I let mine stream down my face, so happy, feeling Jake’s peace reaching me.

  My shadow has his own shadow now.

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