Anna blinked slowly, her sleepy eyes gradually focusing on a pure white down feather drifting through a morning sunbeam.
Her body had never felt so heavy. Not only was she exhausted from her journey, but she was also weighted down by the many woolen quilts Declan had hustled about the inn to collect for her warmth and comfort as he'd tucked her into bed the night before. She was also thoroughly satiated from the even warmer welcome they'd shared once he'd finally tucked himself in right beside her.
And yet, her heart felt as light as that feather. Untangling her left hand from beneath those many covers, she held it out and turned it over, watching her ring—his ring—gleam in the light of that sunbeam. She felt her stomach flip over—and then she heard it growl.
She couldn't mistake the titter she heard from behind her. With some effort (truly, the standard of hospitality at the Caragh had improved quite dramatically since she'd left . . . or perhaps since she'd returned?) Anna rolled over to find Declan on his back, his hands folded behind his head, barely trying to conceal the cheeky smirk on his lips. The flutter of feathers that danced above their bed told her now that he'd flopped down beside her just recently, disturbing the contents of his down pillow on impact. She smiled, too, and then reached out to stroke his cheek as she whispered, "good morning."
He finally opened his eyes as he turned his face toward hers. "Good . . . " all the teasing melted away as he met her gaze. His grin softened into a tender smile and he seemed to gulp before he could murmur, "good morning."
Anna tilted her chin upward and Declan answered her invitation with a caress of his lips against hers, and then on her cheek, and then behind her earlobe as he threaded his fingers into her hair and, at last, drew her mouth back to his to kiss her soundly. When they finally parted, Declan had regained all of his confidence and it was Anna who had to gulp when he asked, "Sleep well?"
"Grand," she managed, which earned her a genuine laugh and another thorough kiss. He was just starting to wriggle back under their covers—with her enthusiastic assistance—when her stomach growled again. "Hush!" she admonished, when he dropped his forehead against her bare collarbone with a light, laughing groan. "Not you—my stomach. It can wait." Anna continued to clutch at his shoulders. Though she was famished, in this thrilling moment, she seemed only to have an appetite for her fiancé.
"No, ma'am. For breakfast is served." Declan nodded toward the foot of the bed where Anna noticed for the first time an aromatic tray of poached eggs on thick, buttered toast, several plump sausages, the biggest apple she'd ever seen in her life, all laid beside a delicate teapot and a pair of matching teacups and saucers, a tiny pitcher of cream, and a pot of honey. What stole her breath away, though, was the tuft of wildflowers arranged in a glass milk bottle.
"Declan O'Callaghan," she asked—he'd risen from the bed and was now filling a cup with hot tea, was adding a swirl of cream, was placing a sprig of white buds on the saucer alongside the cup, was reaching over to place it in her waiting hands, "did you stage this?"
"No, ma'am," he murmured again as he filled the other cup and took a sip without meeting her eyes.
"Oh." She sipped her own tea, wondering if he'd say more. He would.
"I dreamt of it," he admitted. Her gaze shot up over the rim of her cup. He was squinting through the window, but seemed to be looking at something ever so far away. "I'd already shown you the worst of me, the 'beast' of me, so I imagined showing you the best of me . . . and then never taking it away." Suddenly he'd turned his head to meet her eyes with the most open expression she'd ever seen. She'd witnessed the hopeful plea in his eyes once before, but this time, she understood exactly what she saw in his face.
Anna leaned forward, replacing her cup and saucer on the tray. She plucked the blossom from her saucer and fixed it behind his ear before caressing his cheek with her thumb and then her nose and then her lips. "I love you. The best of you and the beast of you, both. I'll never give you something only to take it away. I want to show you possibilities—real possibilities—for a real life that we can share. Declan, I want to share everything with you. No facades. No cons. No sheen. Not ever."
Declan accepted her kiss and answered it vigorously for long a moment before drawing away as though steeling himself. "In that case, my love, we'd better tuck into our breakfast before it gets too cold. And . . . " his head disappeared into the collar of his t-shirt, "if you wouldn't mind sharing this while we eat, for there's something else I've been dreaming about and . . . oh." He bit down on his knuckle as though enduring a great agony.
Anna followed his shy glance downward and realized that the bedsheet and all the blankets had slipped down around her waist when she'd crawled forward to comfort him. She snatched the t-shirt from his outstretched arm with mock indignation and yanked it over her head, barely stifling her giggles. When her tousled hair and beaming smile emerged at the collar, Declan cupped her blushing face in his hands and kissed her quick.
Then he handed her a fork.