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I scowled and wriggled beneath him. “If you’re going to make fun of me —”
“No,” he said tenderly, keeping me pinned in place. He took my head in his hands. A last chuckle escaped, and then he stared into my eyes, seeing everything, hiding nothing. “I love you,” he said. His mouth caressed mine, soft as velvet. “Now try it again.” Another gentle, smoldering stroke of his lips. “You don’t have to be scared.”
“I love you,” I managed to say, my heart still thundering.
Joe rewarded me by covering my mouth with his, searching deeply. After a kiss that dismantled my brain entirely, he finished with a soft nuzzle. “I can’t kiss you enough,” he told me. “I’m going to kiss you a million times in our life, and it will never be enough.”
I had never known a happiness like this, reaching all the way down to the place in my heart where sorrow usually started, siphoning up tears. Joe wiped at the wetness with his fingers and pressed his lips to my cheeks, absorbing the salty taste of joy.
“Let’s practice some more,” he whispered.
And before long, I discovered that with the right person, saying those three words wasn’t difficult at all.
It was the easiest thing in the world.
The Happy Tails Rescue Society has been decorated for Christmas, with lights strung high near the ceiling and a tree in the lobby covered in bone-shaped doggie treats. Although Millie and Dan have enforced a no-adoption policy during the weeks before and after Christmas, to prohibit impulse buying that might lead to later regrets, the shelter and its website have still been busy. People are allowed to visit the dogs and ask for one to be kept on hold until January 1, when adoptions start up again.
Joe sets up his camera in the dogs’ exercise room, while I pick out a few toys from the box. We’re here for our monthly visit to take pictures of the shelter’s newest arrivals. Later in the day, we’re going to the Galleria to shop for Christmas presents, which Joe hates nearly as much as I enjoy it. “Shopping is a competitive sport,” I’d told him. “Stick with me, pal – I’ll show you how it’s done.”
“Shopping’s not a sport.”
“It is the way I do it,” I had assured him, and he had allowed it was probably worth going just to see me in action.
Even before Dan opens the door to bring in the first dog, I can hear a tumult of high-pitched barking. I make a comical face. “What’s going on out there?”
Joe shrugs innocently.
The door opens, and a pack of golden retriever puppies rushes in. I laugh in delight at the roly-poly creatures swarming around us, all bright eyes and wagging tails. Five of them. “All at once?” I ask. “I don’t think there’s any way I can get them to…” My voice fades as I notice that each puppy has a sign tied around its neck. Name tags? Perplexed, I pick up a puppy and read the word printed on its sign while it struggles to lick me. “You,” I read aloud. I pick up another. “Me.” I glance quickly at Joe, who nudges another puppy in my direction. I look at the sign. “Will.”
And then I understand.
I blink against a sudden blur. “Where’s the other one?” I ask, sniffling as the rambunctious little bodies scamper around me.
“Guys,” Joe says to the yapping, unruly bunch, “let’s do it the way we rehearsed.” He reaches for the puppies and tries to set them in a line, except the order isn’t right.
Will. Me. Marry. You.
The fifth puppy, wearing a ?, has wandered off to investigate the toy box, while the others race around in circles.
“You’re proposing with puppies?” I ask, my lips stretched in a crooked smile.
Joe pulls a ring from his pocket. “Bad idea?” he asks.
I love this man beyond reason.
I use my sleeve to blot my eyes. “No, it’s wonderful… maybe a little ungrammatical, but you can’t help it if you lack puppy-herding skills.” I move some of the puppies out of the way so I can straddle his lap. My arms link around his neck. “How do I say yes? Do you have any more signs?”
“There was a sixth puppy who was supposed to wear a reversible ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but she was adopted last week.”
I kiss him passionately. “The ‘no’ option wouldn’t have been necessary.”
“Yes, of course it’s yes!”
Joe slides the diamond ring on my finger, and I admire the flash of cool, brilliant fire. “I love you,” he says, and I say it back with a tremor of emotion. Leaning hard on him, I try to push him to the floor.
Joe eases down obligingly and wraps his arms around me as I lower my mouth to his. After a minute, he rolls me to my back and makes the kiss deeper, more intimate. Our soulful embrace is interrupted as puppies begin to clamber over us, and we discover that it’s nearly impossible to kiss when you’re laughing.
But we try anyway.