Night of Mercy
Some unfinished business between a hunky auto body shop owner and a certain gorgeous champion race car driver...
HEART LAKE #11
I miss him.
Nothing felt right without Jace Countryman within hugging distance — not even winning her latest string of races.
Alina Paddock pulled off her sparkly gold helmet and ruffled her hands through her long, dark hair to unflatten it. Then she leaned out the window of her butter-gold Toyota 2000GT and pumped a fist into the air. The crowd went wild at the sight of her signature metallic gold driving gloves. Most of them were too far away to see her features clearly. If they hadn't been, they might’ve noticed the sheen of tears blurring her vision.
The thrill of the race no longer gave her the same rush of elation it used to, nor did the prize money she received at the end. She hadn’t been sleeping well lately, either.
If she was being perfectly honest with herself, she was exhausted from the inside out. Having one’s last two living relatives carted off to jail could do that to a person. She was still waiting to hear back from the police station on the rez near Heart Lake. Over the past several months, she’d left them a gazillion voicemails. So far, though, the sheriff claimed he had no news as to whether her Uncle Levi had succeeded in negotiating some sort of plea bargain.
She barely felt her crew tugging her the rest of the way out of her car and lifting her to their shoulders. The flash of cameras was half-blinding. The shout of questions from television reporters was like a dull hum in the background. Her goal was simply to get through the rest of the afternoon. To survive. Maybe when she returned to her RV, she’d finally get that long-awaited-for phone call from the police.
She was running on such thin emotional fumes these days that she’d even settle for a call from her fake boyfriend. Sad, but true. Their relationship had started off as something of a joke. She’d asked him to pretend to date her to keep some of her cousin’s hotheaded drag-racing friends at a distance, but she’d developed feelings for him. Though he claimed he’d fallen for her, too, he hadn’t asked her to stay in town after the arrests of her family. All he’d done was watch her drive away, arms folded, with a bleak expression riding his swarthy features.
Maybe he was having second thoughts about dating a woman related to two jailbirds. She couldn’t exactly blame him for that. So she pasted on a smile that she didn’t feel and waved into the cameras like it was the best day of her life.
* * *
As hard as it was to see Alina so happy without him, Jace Countryman forced himself to keep looking at the television mounted on the wall of the Triple J Auto Body Shop. He had it tuned to his favorite sports channel, the one that televised most of the championship races his girlfriend drove in.
Not that he had any real confidence that she still considered herself to be his girlfriend. Or if she ever had, for that matter. She was a bright, shining star — one that had shone a little too brightly for a small town like Heart Lake. She was meant for bigger things. Today’s win was proof of that. She was on an impressive winning streak.
His brother, Jalen, breezed into the shop with his usual clatter, banging the door shut behind him and slapping his soda can down on the nearest cabinet. He took one look at the television screen and groaned, “Quit moping and call her already!”
Instead of moving to the black pickup awaiting repairs in the second bay, he reached for a wrench and stomped in Jace’s direction. “It’s kind of hard to have a conversation when I’m the only one doing the talking.” Though clean, his favorite red and white plaid shirt was half-untucked from his jeans and splattered with grease stains. He wore an equally stained red baseball cap, twisted on backwards.
Jace glared at him. “I’ve got this one.” He’d been working all morning on rebuilding the engine of the classic Corvette. He was hoping to finish it and get started on the body work before the close of business today.
“Not anymore.” Jalen took a flying leap in his direction and playfully shouldered him out of the way. “You’re on break now. Go call your girl and congratulate her on her latest win.”
Grimacing, Jace glanced up at the television again. “Not sure she wants to hear from me.”
“Are you kidding?” His next younger brother gave him an are-you-out-of-your-mind look. “Please tell me you’re kidding.”
Jace shook his head and waved one grease-blackened hand at the screen. “Just look at her. She’s happy, and heaven knows she deserves to be after what she’s been through. I don’t want to do anything to ruin that.” Like beg her to come back to me. Which was exactly what he’d be tempted to do if he got her on the phone. And then what? The closest professional racetrack was over thirty miles away, and it wasn’t even a big one. Not the kind that hosted the Indy 500 and events like that — events worthy of the rising racing sensation, Alina Gold Gloves Paddock.
“She’s not happy.” Jalen’s voice was so flat with conviction that all Jace could do was stare at him.
When he didn’t elaborate, Jace demanded, “How do you—?”
“I just know, man.” Jalen bent his head and disappeared under the hood of the Corvette. “Maybe because I’ve seen her really smile when she’s with you, so I can tell when she’s really not smiling.”
“Whatever.” Jace shook his head in exasperation at his brother.
Jalen straightened and met his gaze just in time to see the gesture. “Dude, I’ve seen that woman smile bigger over an ice cream cone than she did over today’s win.”
Jace jammed a thumb in the direction of the television screen. “She’s smiling pretty big on the shoulders of those guys.” He hated that nearly all of her racing buddies were male — young, muscle bound, cocky, rising stars with dreams of going places. Guys who could show her a lot better time than a small-town mechanic like him.
Jalen made a sound of disgust. “She’s faking it. Girls do that sometimes.”
Jace continued to glare at him, hoping to hide the jolt of hope his brother’s words inspired. “Yeah, pretty much everything about our dating was fake. Thought I already told you that.” I was the only one in our relationship who was dumb enough to fall in love. Not only had Alina never said the words back to him, she’d driven out of his life without a backward glance. That was nearly five months ago.
“Yeah, I heard what you said, bro.” Jalen’s voice was airy as he dove back under the hood of the car. “Never believed it, though. I know what I saw when you two were together.” His voice grew muffled. “You were happy. She was happy. And now you’re not.”
“Yeah, well, she’s not coming back. Why should she?” Jace drew a heavy breath, scrubbing a hand across his jaw. He was probably leaving grease marks, but it didn’t matter. He had nobody to impress.
“Why should she, indeed?” Jalen’s voice was dry. “Maybe because you failed to give her a reason?”
“I told her I loved her,” Jace snarled. What else could a guy say to a girl that counted for more than that?
“Uh-huh.” Jalen still didn’t sound convinced. “When did you tell her?”
“The day I helped her hide from the Dallas Kings.” He hadn’t really meant to tell her. The confession had more or less fallen out of him in the middle of all the stress and danger.
“How many times have you told her since?”
Jace didn’t answer. Things had been too strained between him and Alina after that. She’d not once told him that she loved him in return, and he hadn’t wanted to pressure her into it. You couldn’t make a woman love you back no matter how much you begged, and he wasn’t the kind of guy to beg. Nope. He was the kind of guy who cared enough to let someone go when the time came. Which it had.
“Your silence tells me all I need to know.” There was no mistaking the accusation ringing in his brother’s voice this time. “Don’t bother telling me you’re not still in love with her, because we both know you are.”
Jace’s phone buzzed with an incoming message, saving him from answering. He wiped his hands on a dry cloth before pulling his phone out of his back pocket. Just in case he’d missed a spot of grease, he held the phone between his thumb and forefinger.
Hog dog! The message was from his attorney.
“Now what?” Jalen’s grumble rose from beneath the hood.
Jace snorted in disbelief. “I just got approved to sponsor a parolee.” Not just any parolee, either. He’d be sponsoring Mato Paddock, his fake girlfriend’s cousin.
“Come again?” Jalen’s head popped back up so quickly that he grazed his forehead on the hood.
“I applied to sponsor Mato Paddock.” Jace ran a hand through his hair, still trying to absorb the fact that everything had gotten approved. “Never really thought his uncle would succeed in negotiating a plea bargain, but that scoundrel pulled it off!” Levi Paddock was going to prison, no way around it, but he’d managed to get most of the charges dropped from his son. Talk about a miracle!
Jalen raised his hands, chuckling sarcastically. “You know what? I’m just one of the guys who lives here. Brother. Part owner of this shop. That sort of thing. I don’t need to know everything.”
Jace felt a smirk tugging at his mouth. “Right. That’s why you badger every snippet of information out of me. You’re worse than all the old gossips who hang out at The Blue Brew downtown. All of them put together,” he added with a touch of vehemence.
“Then don’t fight me, bro.” Jalen waggled his eyebrows suggestively. “Why sponsor Mato Paddock?”
Jace shrugged. “Because he knows cars.” Mato was more than a drag racer. He was a self-taught car junkie who could put together a kit car in nothing flat. The guy was worth so much more out of jail than in jail. Yeah, he’d chosen to hang with the wrong crowd in recent months, but there was a lot of good in him, too. Jace was convinced that Mato had saved the doc’s life the day he’d pulled her from the clinic on the rez at gunpoint. As bad as it looked and sounded, she’d have been dead if she’d stayed there another hour. There were folks far worse than Mato coming for her, and Mato had risked everything to prevent that from happening. Any investigators on the case who couldn’t connect those dots weren’t trying hard enough.
Jalen pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Literally thousands of other young punks know cars, dude.”
“Fine.” Jace waved a hand. “He’s our people, Jay. Guess that makes me feel a little more responsible.”
“Right.” Jalen still didn’t sound convinced. “You’ve never lived on the rez. You’ve never taken part in any of the tribal festivals. You’ve never—”
“I still love her, alright?” Jace grated out the words. “Feel free to call me a fool. I know that’s what I am.” Maybe he’d never find the courage to pick up the phone and tell Alina everything that was on his heart. Maybe helping Mato was his way of attempting to show her instead of telling her. Maybe it wouldn’t change a thing where their fake relationship was concerned. Regardless, he was pretty stoked about sponsoring Mato. The guy really did know cars. He was going to be an asset to the Triple J Auto Body Shop. Jace could feel it in his bones.
“I knew it!” Jalen was grinning when he returned to tinkering beneath the hood.
“Then why’d you ask?” Jace shot the question over his shoulder as he jogged up the stairs to their loft apartment.
“Just to see if you’d finally admit it,” Jalen chortled back.
* * *
The next couple of days were full of meetings with Jace’s attorney, visits to the local police department, and mile high stacks of papers to sign. He had to finish verifying his financial viability as a sponsor by providing his most recent pay stub. He and Jalen also had to be present at the shop for an inspection of the living arrangements they’d be providing for Mato.
To make room in their apartment upstairs, they’d moved their youngest brother, Jasper, down to the lounge in the back of the shop. They hadn’t precisely bothered to inform him yet, since he was on the road racing monster trucks. Nobody ever knew for sure the next time he’d visit home. When he did, he’d find his collection of odd-and-end furniture in the back of the shop. If he pitched too big of a fit about it, Jalen had already offered to swap places with him. While Jasper was out of town, though, Jalen would be helping Jace keep a close eye on Mato. The nineteen-year-old kid would be required to wear an ankle bracelet and everything. Jace suspected it was as much for his protection as anything. The thugs he and his dad were witnessing against were pretty big fish in the sea of criminals.
And now they’ll have to come through me to get to him.
Jace wasn’t sure why that thought gave him so much satisfaction as he folded his arms and leaned back against the grill of his pickup truck. He was early to pick up his first-ever parolee. Mato wasn’t scheduled to be set free for another fifteen minutes, but Jace didn’t want him standing around when he walked through the silver gate in front of him. Too much was at stake. For the kid’s safety, Jace planned to whisk him back to the auto body shop pronto.
The rev of a motor made his shoulders tense. Despite his proximity to the nearest security tower, he shot a wary look over his shoulder and grew still.
The butter-gold race car zipping into the parking lot was the last vehicle he’d been expecting to see. Its driver nosed in next to his truck and came to an abrupt stop after a short skid.
Jace was shaking his head, trying not to grin like an idiot when Alina Paddock pushed open the driver’s door and stood.
Their gazes clashed and held for an electrifying moment. There were too many emotions swimming in her dark gaze for him to count — surprise, disbelief, a twist of anguish, and no small amount of anger.
“What are you doing here?” She slammed her door shut and slowly glided in his direction, all curvy and perfect in a pair of black jeans and boots. A metallic gold blouse was loosely tucked into the front of her waistband. The color was very much in line with her sparkly brand on the racetrack.
He shrugged, not quite ready to answer her question. “You almost sprayed me with gravel.” It was far from a romantic greeting, but he wasn’t full of sappy one-liners. Never had been. Never would be.
“I hope it stung.” She lifted her chin. “You don’t write. You don’t call.”
He shrugged again, unable to tear his gaze away from her. “Wasn’t sure you wanted to hear from me.” She was even more beautiful than he remembered, more alive, and a whole lot angrier.
To his amazement, his words made her burst into tears. “It’s because I’m a Paddock, isn’t it?” She gritted the words out between clenched teeth. “I was never going to be good enough for you, was I?”
The sudden realization at just how right his brother had been about her almost brought Jace to his knees. He felt a little like weeping himself.
Instead, he gave a rather tortured-sounding grunt. “Darling, I knew you were trouble the first time you walked into my shop.”
“Because I’m a Paddock,” she spat, coming to stand directly in front of him.
“And a race car driver. I knew exactly what I was getting into the day I agreed to date you.” He grimaced as he corrected himself. “Fake date you, that is.” He wagged a finger at her. “But that didn’t stop me.” He’d felt powerless to say no to her playful request that day. He’d been too drawn to her. Too interested. Too attracted.
“Then why did you?” She swatted his hand away. Or tried to.
He caught her hand and held it against his heart. “Pretty sure I made my reasons clear.”
“You watched me drive away.” Her tears welled thicker and started to roll down her cheeks. “You did nothing to stop me.”
His heart wrenched at the memory. “You were meant for bigger things. Didn’t want you to spend the rest of your life resenting the grease monkey who held you back.”
“Stop calling yourself that,” she protested damply. “You know I hate it when you belittle yourself like that.”
“It’s true.” His fingers tightened on hers. The way she’d always championed him was one of the reasons he loved her so much.
“Hardly,” she quavered. “You own your own business. Your own shop. You practically finished raising your brothers. You—” She broke off the rest of what she was about to say at the clang of metal.
Jace instinctively tugged her closer as a key scraped in the lock, and the tall gate swung open. Mato was led beneath the barbed wire fence between two security guards. His black hair was buzzed short, and his jeans hung a lot looser on his lanky frame than they had before, but his mocking grin was still intact. So was his swagger.
A noisy sob wrenched out of Alina as she yanked her hand from Jace’s and went flying in her cousin’s direction. “Mato,” she quavered. “Oh, Mato!” Sounding at a loss for words, she threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly.
He gave a gusty chuckle and hugged her back. “Hey, there’s no need to get all emotional. It’s just me. Your troublesome little cousin and—”
“You’re family,” she snapped, pulling back a little to scan his features. “My family. That’s why I’m here. I want to meet your sponsor and make it very clear how important you are to me.” Her lovely lips tightened. “And just how often I plan to visit to help keep you on the straight and narrow going forward, kid.”
Mato glanced around her to meet Jace’s gaze. There was a mocking glint in his eyes. “Pretty sure you’ve already met him, but okay.”
Alina slid from his embrace and spun around to scan the otherwise empty parking lot. Her gaze finally skidded back to Jace. “You?” She sounded stunned as she watched the guards march up to him to deliver the final paperwork and repeat the basics of what would be expected of him.
He nodded as he accepted the paperwork and listened to their instructions, not sure what she expected him to say. How was he supposed to know she hadn’t yet been informed of who her cousin’s sponsor was? He’d figured as next of kin, she’d be privy to that sort of information.
“You didn’t know?” Mato sounded incredulous as his gaze darted curiously between the two of them. “Wow! That’s just…wow!” He reached up to lift his ball cap and run a hand through his hair. “Figured you two might be married by now, and I’d missed the wedding.”
“Nope.” Alina’s lips curved downward. “He never asked.” She was no longer weeping. She was angry again.
Jace nodded his thanks to the guards. It was official now. He was Mato’s sponsor. “Didn’t think you’d say yes,” he informed her as he marched around to the passenger side of the truck and opened the door for Mato. He angled his head at the kid to climb aboard.
Mato wasted no time jogging to the truck and getting inside. He kept casting wary glances around the parking lot, as if half-expecting trouble.
Jace could hardly blame him. He’d been through a lot.
“Jace, I…” Alina raised and lowered her hands helplessly. “You’re wrong,” she quavered. Her voice was barely above a whisper. “So wrong.”
A lump formed in his throat as he moved around to the driver’s door. “Babe, unless you want me to pop the question to the tune of a prison basketball game…” He gave her a crooked smile at the shouts of men enjoying an energetic match of wits and muscle from the other side of the concrete wall hiding the inner courtyard from view of anyone in the parking lot.
“Jace,” she gasped.
He wanted so badly to run take her in his arms that it caused him physical pain not to. “Follow me back to the shop?”
She nodded, blinking rapidly to hold more tears back.
He waited until she was inside her car with the seatbelt buckled before sliding behind the wheel of his truck. Revving his motor, he waited until she backed up and pulled behind him before pulling forward himself.
“So, why didn’t you ask her yet?” Mato stretched his arms in front of him, linking his hands and popping his knuckles.
Jace raised an eyebrow without looking his way. He was too busy keeping an eye on Alina in his rear-view mirror. “It wasn’t the right time.”
“Aw,” the punk drawled. “Don’t tell me you’ve been waiting for me to make parole before putting the moves on my cousin.”
As if. “Something like that.” No way was Jace admitting the truth to his new parolee — that he’d been too much of a coward to talk about his feelings with the woman who owned his heart.
“Cool. I’ll be your best man if you’re in the market for one,” Mato offered in a jovial voice.
“I’m not.” Jace wasn’t sure if he was joking or not.
“That’s cool, too,” the kid said quickly — too quickly.
“Jalen will be my best man,” he assured him matter-of-factly. “You’ll be stuck being one of my groomsmen, the same as my younger brother.”
“Don’t own a suit,” Mato mused, trying to sound casual, but Jace could tell he was pleased.
“Neither do I.” It didn’t take more than fifteen minutes to reach the Triple J Auto Body Shop at the edge of town. Despite the short drive, Mato’s eyelids were drooping by the time Jace rolled into the narrow parking lot. The prison guards had warned him that Mato might crash after the first blast of euphoria wore off over his newfound freedom from the pen.
Jalen must have been watching for them, because the tall garage door in front of the first bay started rolling upward before Jace brought his truck to a full stop. His brother remained standing at the back of the garage, waving them forward like a runway attendant at the airport. The moment Jace braked, he mashed the button on the control panel to shut the door behind them.
Mato yawned, stretched, and straightened to peer out the windshield. “Are we there yet?”
“Yep.” Jace pushed open his door and leaped down. “Jalen will show you to your room.” He met his brother’s gaze and exchanged a silent message of pleading.
Jalen nodded, looking a little puzzled. He hadn’t expected to be the one to show the kid around. Neither had Jace, since he hadn’t expected to run into Alina at the jail, much less have her follow him home.
“Aw, is it nap time, Dad?” Though Mato’s voice was mocking, he didn’t sound too put out about the thought of hitting the rack right away.
Jace waved at the two vehicles in the other garage bays. “Unless you feel up to helping me rebuild an engine or paint a car right this second…”
“You know what? Nap time is sounding pretty good about now.” Not bothering to suppress his next jaw-cracking yawn, Mato followed Jalen upstairs like a dutiful puppy.
The office door jingled as Alina stepped inside the building.
Jalen paused at the top of the stairs and half turned around.
“I’ve got it,” Jace assured. “It’s Alina,” he added in a lower voice. “She followed me home. We, uh…”
“Need to talk,” Jalen said firmly. “So help me, bro…”
Jace nodded ruefully. His heart was already thumping in anticipation of what he was going to say to her. Man, but he was no good at stuff like that! He didn’t know any poetry or smooth lines. He was just Jace Countryman.
What you see is what you get. Just a hard-working guy. Nothing fancy.
There were no racing medals on the walls of his shop. No shiny trophies or award certificates.
The door from the office opened, and Alina stepped into the garage. “I just turned the Open sign to Closed,” she informed him shyly. “Hope that’s okay?” She spread her hands uncertainly.
He nodded, momentarily rendered speechless by her presence. He’d never get tired of looking at her. Never get his fill of being with her. She was so beautiful that it made his heart ache. More talented, intelligent, and successful than he deserved. She was more. Just more.
Whatever Alina saw in his gaze propelled her closer. She reached for his hands. “I’m hoping your silence doesn’t mean you’re having second thoughts about, er…what happened between us at the jail?”
“No.” His voice was so hoarse that it was almost unrecognizable. “Never.”
“Jace,” she sighed, standing on her tiptoes to bring their mouths closer. “It’s okay if you’re not ready to take things to the next—”
He shut her up by dipping his head to seal his mouth over hers. He was ready. So ready. He was just no good at putting stuff like that into words.
Her arms slid around his neck, holding him tight. As they kissed, her tears continued to flow poignantly down her cheeks. He reached up to brush them off with his thumbs, knowing there was no way he was ever going to be able to let her go again without breaking from the inside out. She’d become that necessary to him. Like air. Or water. Or both.
He broke off the kiss long enough to tip his forehead against hers and croak out the most important thing that was on his heart. “I love you, babe.”
“I know.” She leaned into him, nuzzling his lips. “I love you, too.” She sounded dreamy.
He grew still. “Then why’d you never say it before now?”
“Fear, I guess. I was worried you were just saying it to be nice.” More tears slid down her cheeks. “Everything in my life felt like it was falling apart for a while there. I wasn’t ready to believe something this good could ever happen to a person like me.”
“Whoa!” He drew back a little to scowl down at her. “You get mad at me for calling myself a grease money, but you never stop criticizing the woman I love.” His jaw tightened. “Well, I’m done with that,” he growled, dropping to a knee in front of her. “If you agree to be my wife—”
“Yes!” Her voice was tremulous with happiness. “I agree.”
He gaped in astonishment at her. “I didn’t finish.”
“You didn’t have to.” She tugged at his hands, wordlessly imploring him to stand again. “It won’t change my answer, anyway. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me and my family, Jace Countryman. A living, breathing miracle. An answer to so many prayers.”
He hadn’t fully straightened yet, so her words nearly brought him back to his knees. “Me?”
“Yes, you.” She reached up to cup his face the same way he’d done to her earlier.
That’s when he realized his cheeks were wet. “You’re the answer to one very big prayer of mine, too.”
“Oh, yeah?” She beamed a smile up at him, so brilliant that it nearly took his breath away.
“Yep. Been sort of begging the Lord to send me the one.” His mouth twisted wryly. “Then I met you. And ever since then, I’ve been begging Him to make you fall for me as bad as I fell for you.”
She wrinkled her nose playfully at him. “Sounds a lot like the prayers I’ve been sending up lately.” Then she caught her breath on a choking sob. “I’ve been so miserable without you, Jace,” she wailed.
He snorted at his own stupidity. “That’s what Jalen’s been telling me. Wasn’t sure I believed him. I watched all of your races on TV, and you always looked so happy at the end.”
“Wait a sec.” Her eyes grew round. “You’ve seriously watched all of my races? As in all of them?”
He grimaced. “Yep. As much as it made me miss you, it also reminded me that I did the right thing in letting you drive away.”
She drew a sharp breath. “I could slap you for saying that!”
“Go ahead.” He knew he deserved it.
“Can’t,” she grumbled, sliding her arms around his neck again. “I love you too much.”
He wrapped his arms around her, pressing their damp cheeks together. “I am never gonna get tired of hearing you say that.”
“Good, because you’re going to be hearing it pretty often now that I’m back in town,” she informed him softly.
He hugged her tighter, hardly daring to believe what he’d just heard. “Say that again,” he pleaded.
“I’m retiring from racing, Jace. I made the decision the moment I heard Mato was making parole. He’s all the family I’ve got left.”
“No, he’s not.” Jace nuzzled his way back to her lips. “You’ve got me now. And my brothers.”
“Mmm,” she sighed as he brushed his mouth across hers. “I love you for saying that. So much!”
He kissed her again. “If you’re serious about moving to town…”
“I’m serious.” She smiled against his lips. “I’m engaged now. I have more reason than ever to stay. Besides, I know this guy who owns a garage. A guy who just finished bringing on one of the most talented detailers in the industry.”
Jace’s arms tightened around her. He couldn’t wait to put Mato to work.
“And I’m thinking, between the two of you,” she continued, “I can probably get all the test driving in that I want on all the hotrods you guys service.”
“I think we might work something out.” He touched his lips to hers again, already dreaming about the day she’d become his wife. He hoped she didn’t plan to make him wait too long to make that happen.
“Good. I can’t wait to get started.” She kissed him back. “That better mean you’re taking me ring shopping soon.”
“Today,” he promised. “We can hit up Modello’s afterward to figure out the wedding dress and tuxes.”
“Now you’re talking.” There were no more tears in her voice, just a raw brand of joy that matched his own.
In that moment, he couldn’t have asked for more. Yeah, her uncle was still awaiting trial, and there was a bunch more stuff about to hit the fan in Heart Lake. But he was going to get to face all those things with Alina by his side.
He was ready to be her husband. More than ready. He offered up a silent prayer of thanksgiving as he led her upstairs to share their good news with his best man.