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The Front Runner: Epilogue

STEFAN

Three months later…

I feel Mira’s fingers dig into my thigh from where she sits at the dinner table beside me. Hank sits across from us, and we’ve just finished a beautiful dinner I cooked for two of the most important people in my life. Seared duck breast, complete with a special blueberry sauce Mira concocted. Just to remind me of our very first “fake” date.

I’ve just placed an envelope in the middle of the table. It holds the results of our DNA test. It’s what I’ve been waiting for, except now that it’s here, I’m not sure I want to open it. Hank and I have been spending time together as though he is my father. Making up for lost time. And I’ve been soaking it up. No matter how much time I spend with the man, it’s just never quite enough. I always feel like I want more. I have so much to share with him in whatever time we might have left. My perception of making the most of the time we have has drastically changed since the fire. Some might say it was a wake-up call to stop living in the past.

“Is that what I think it is?” Hank asks, eyes glued to the yellow envelope.

Who knew something so life altering could come in such a generic looking package?

“It is.”

He swallows and I watch him, feeling Mira’s steady presence beside me. The tips of her dainty fingers press into my inner thigh, making me think about things I shouldn’t be at a moment like this. But then, she’s always had that effect on me.

“It’s funny”—Hank’s voice is all gravel as he smiles and looks up at us—“because I’ve been looking forward to this, and now that it’s staring me in the face… well, I think I’d be happy to go on pretending that it’s exactly as we think it is.”

A silence descends over the table before Hank continues, “You know, Stefan, even if this envelope doesn’t hold what we’re both hoping it does. I’d… well, I’d like to keep doing what we’ve been doing. Everything I felt about your mom is still true, and I like to think she’d be happy to see us spending time together regardless of DNA.”

I lick my lips and wish away the stinging sensation across the bridge of my nose. “I would like that.”

“Do you guys want me to read it first?” Mira asks quietly, her thumb rubbing soothing circles against my jeans. Her head volleys between us, her shiny black hair brushing the tops of her shoulders. After the fire, she cut the burnt ends and went for a straight blunt bob and it suits her to a tee. She is striking, and there’s still plenty for me to wrap between my fingers when I take her from behind.

Hank and I make brief eye contact before both nodding. Her hand darts out, and I see the anticipation shining in her eyes. Feelings about this have been a bit of a rollercoaster for me, but Mira is so certain. She’s the only thing keeping me grounded.

In a flash, she tears the top of the envelope and pulls out crisp white papers. Intelligent eyes scan the page, her practiced impassive face giving nothing away. She flips the papers onto the placemat before her, rolling her lips together as her almond-shaped eyes find mine. Like always, I could get lost in those eyes. I often do, but right now I’m staring at them looking for some sign, some tell. She’s giving me nothing.

“Stefan…”

This is torture.

I can’t even tell if she’s taking forever to say it or if time is standing still. Her full, soft lips tip into a smile. “I’d like you to officially meet your father.”

Hank barks out a loud laugh, leaning back in his chair with an exaggerated clap. But I just reach for Mira and yank her to me, gathering her in my arms. Her hair smells like honey, and her T-shirt smells like fresh laundry soap.

I realize that without her, without the universe placing her in my path, without a sick horse, without a dead mom… without all of that, I may never have found Hank. Without Mira, I may never have met my dad.

“Thank you.” I nuzzle into her neck, momentarily distracted by all the ways I plan to thank her later tonight.

“Always,” is all she says, before holding me back and smiling at me, eyes twinkling with unshed tears. “Now go hug your dad.”

So, I do. I round the table and walk right into Hank’s wide-open arms. My dad’s wide-open arms.

God. That feels good.

“Nice to officially meet you, son.”

I hear the emotion in his voice, and to be frank, I don’t really trust myself to respond. So, I just squeeze him tighter. It feels like I’ve spent a lifetime looking for him. And now I’ve found him.

We spend the next thirty minutes talking, laughing, and just feeling immensely relieved. When the night winds down, he hugs Mira, and I don’t miss the way he whispers, “Thank you for bringing me my boy.”

I also don’t miss the way she wipes at her eyes and nods.

I don’t know how I’ll ever repay her. Repay the universe for giving me her.

Actually, I do. I know exactly how I’m going to do it. Which is why after Hank leaves, I suggest a walk down to where the barn used to stand. They have cleared away the rubble and now it’s just a big flat space. Ready to be rebuilt.

Next to the lake, Loki and Farrah graze happily in their field. Loki whinnies when he sees me.

“Your heart horse is saying hello, my love,” Mira says.

I wrap my arm around her and pull her closer, feeling endlessly grateful.

After the fire, Billie approached me with a deal. Half-ownership of the little colt for everything I’d done to help with saving him. The woman I thought hated me is now calling me her ‘brother from another mother’ and giving me half of one of her most prized horses. The world works in truly mysterious ways.

We walk into the middle of the cleared space. Hand in hand. After the hospital, Mira moved straight in with me. I wouldn’t take no for an answer. Life was too fragile to spend another moment not together. This much I have learned. Plus, since finishing her courses, Nadia has decided to attend a college in the city to become a veterinary technician. That’s how much she loves working with Mira. She’ll be moving to Vancouver to pursue that soon, leaving the house to just the two of us.

A companionable silence stretches between Mira and me. Today is already one of the happiest days of my life. And I’m about to make it a whole lot happier.

There’s this part of me that thinks standing here in the aftermath of a fire that took so much should make me sad.

But I feel relieved.

This is where I almost lost Mira. This is where I roped her into my arrangement. This is where I spent quiet nights learning Mira. This is where I laid my life on the line to save her.

I believe my mom is overlooking this exact spot from where I sprinkled her ashes.

This spot is my whole world. This spot is fate. This spot is my future.

This is where I’m going to rebuild.

Mira and me? We’re like a phoenix, born from the ashes. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

She’s looking up at the sky, all pink and orange as the sun crosses the horizon of the mountains, when I drop to one knee.

Her head snaps down to me immediately. “What are you doing?” One hand lands across her chest.

I grin. “What does it look like I’m doing?”

“It—”

“Do you think I’m down here trying to fix your shoe again?” Her eyes widen as she looks down at her simple slip-on sneakers. “Don’t worry, Kitten. I can…”—I wink at her—“fix your shoe later. First, I have something I want to ask you.”

“Oh my God.” Her hand slides up around her neck and I can see her pulse jumping in her throat as I pull a small velvet box out of my pocket.

“I’ve never considered myself a particularly good man. I never thought I was a bad man either. I was just a man with a sad past and no one to love. And then I saw you. It only took one look and I swear some part of me knew.”

Her free hand cups my cheek lovingly.

“I knew my life would never be the same. You didn’t treat me like I was a bad man. You didn’t always treat me like a good one, either. But you made me want to be a better one. You make me want to deserve you. And I have every intention of spending the rest of my life trying.”

“Oh, Stefan.” A tear trails down her cheek as I flip the box open to display the thin yellow gold band with a sparkling tear drop shaped emerald affixed to it. All she can talk about these days is how green is her favorite color because it reminds her of me.

“This fire almost stole you from me. I almost lost you. And that’s a mistake I never intend to make again. I intend to cherish you like the treasure you are. This fire burned everything else away. My anger, my vendettas. The only things that mattered to me I pulled out of it. And so, I’m taking this as a fresh start. Everything else is ash—dust in the wind. And now I realize that the only thing that matters is what made it out. You and me.” I pause here, watching my love reflected at me in her eyes. “Mira Thorne, would you do me the incredible honor of being my wife?”

She falls to her knees before me in one swift motion, hands cupping my face. “Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Nothing would make me, or my aunt, happier.”

The smile on my face is huge as I slide the vintage ring onto her delicate finger. And when I gaze back up into her eyes, all I can see is our future.

I love you. I love you. I love you.

“Green is my favorite color, Stefan.” She looks down at her hand with a tearful smile. I laugh and brush the tears off the apples of her cheeks before I erase the space between us and press my lips to hers. The lips I plan to kiss for the rest of my life. Mine.

A better man would have let her out of our arrangement.

I am not a better man.

And I’ve never felt less sorry about anything in my life.


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