Donna moved from well-wisher to well-wisher, accepting congratulations in an ecstatic daze. Through it all, Sam stayed close, and even when the crowd separated them, she could feel his eyes on her, keeping her grounded against the high-tide of islander celebration. These were her people, the only family she had, and while their enthusiasm warmed her heart, it was a little overwhelming too, and eventually she looked for a quiet corner and a place to sit down.
She shook her head and blew a bit of loose hair out of her eyes. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been this happy. And then Sam was there, and he touched her cheek with the back of his fingers, his gaze so full of love that it brought sudden tears to her eyes. But before she could offer him more than a misty smile, Rosie's voice rang out over the crowd.
"All right, everybody! All right!" It took a minute or two, but eventually an expectant silence settled over the crowd. Rosie, the least flamboyant of their crazy little trio, had always had a talent for crowd control that awed Donna. Standing on one of the chairs (and what must the Vicar think of that, Donna wondered), she was head and shoulders above even the tallest reveler—a fact she used to her advantage as she bestowed a regal nod on the group and then grinned at Donna. "I heard a rumor there's food back at the hotel. Is that right, Donna?"
Donna nodded, but didn't get up. Instead she leaned against Sam, delighting in the proprietary way his arm came to rest across her shoulders.
"Well, I'm hungry!" Rosie announced. "So I'm heading down. Anybody who wants to eat had better come along, or there might not be anything left!"
There was a burst of laughter, and people started to filter out of the tiny church. Tanya touched Donna on the shoulder.
"No need to hurry," she said, sotto voce. "Catch up to us when you're ready." She bent to give Donna a quick hug before turning away to help Rosie and Sophie herd the excited guests out of the church. In moments, Donna and Sam were alone.
"Wow." Donna stared at the ring on her finger, amazed that something so unassuming had just changed her life so completely. "I'm … Wow."
"Yeah. I kind of surprised myself there, too." Sam dropped to one knee in front of her. "You okay?"
"Careful." Donna reached out to touch him, still more than half-convinced the last twenty minutes had been a lovely dream. "The last time you did that, you ended up married to a woman you hadn't seen in twenty years."
He caught her hand in his. "Donna—"
"No." She was just as much to blame for this mess as he was. "Let's just put it behind us, shall we?" The farther the better, as far as she was concerned.
He shook his head. "I need to say this." The candles cast shifting shadows on his face, making it seem first younger, then older. "I never wanted to hurt you."
"I know." Whatever else she may have thought about Sam over the years, she'd never really believed he'd meant to cause her pain. "Why didn't you tell me you were going to break off your engagement?"
His gaze dropped to the slim golden band, and he rubbed his thumb over it as he answered. "You weren't exactly in a listening mood at the time."
Regret washed over her. Her quick temper, the bane of her existence, had cost them twenty years. "I was just so mad."
The days after he'd left were lost to a haze of pain and sadness through which few other memories could pass. But she remembered Bill, and how he'd made her laugh when she'd thought she'd never laugh again. And she remembered that Harry had held her in his arms while she'd cried over another man. But as grateful as she was to Bill and Harry for saving her back then, the price had been steep.
"I didn't love them, you know. Not the way I've always loved you. I just … They made me feel alive again."
Sam got to his feet and drew her into his arms. "I guess the real question is, do you love me enough to try again?"
"It's a little late to ask that, don't you think?" But Donna thought about how she'd felt when she'd seen him in the goat house. And later, when she'd made that humiliating entrance, the way her heart had pounded and her mouth had gone dry at the sound of his voice.
"Yes," she said, in belated answer to his question. "I do love you enough." She was too old to believe in soul-mates and happily-ever-afters, but she hoped she'd never be too old to believe in miracles. "What about you?"
His mouth quirked in a lopsided smile. "I think I've already answered that question."
Donna looped her arms around his waist and rested her head in the hollow of his shoulder. It felt both strange and achingly familiar to be this close to him, and the knowledge that she would soon be closer still sent anticipatory tingles to parts of her body that had been dormant for more years than she cared to think about.
He shifted, and she looked up to meet his kiss. Tender at first, it quickly escalated, and Donna drank him in, letting her hands roam freely. He'd changed over the years. His shoulders and chest were broader, the muscles a little less defined, but it was still Sam beneath her palms, still Sam whose smell filled her senses and whose taste made her heart race. She pressed against him, and he responded by tightening his hold on her, making it impossible for her to miss the growing evidence of his arousal, and for an instant, just an instant, she considered making love with him right there, in the little stone church where they'd found their way back to each other after twenty years of loneliness.
Abruptly, Sam let her go and stepped back, his hands going to her shoulders when she stumbled. They stared at each other, eyes wide, chests heaving.
"Well." His voice snagged. He swallowed and tried again. "That was … nice."
The laugh bubbled up and spilled over before Donna could stop it, and she fell into his arms, helpless with amusement. "What a pair we are," she said when she finally managed to control her mirth.
"I suppose we have to make an appearance at the reception?" He touched his forehead to hers and ran one lean finger down the chain of her necklace, following it to the golden crucifix that rested between her breasts—the crucifix she'd worn since the day he'd bought it for her in the little marketplace on the mainland. She could tell by the look in his eyes that he was remembering that day, too. They'd made love on the beach later that same night. Donna liked to think that was the night she'd conceived Sophie.
With an effort, she brought her mind back to the present. "We'd never hear the end of it if we didn't show up."
Sam quirked an eyebrow and lifted his free hand to shift a wayward tendril of hair away from her eyes. "I'm not sure I care."
She leaned into his touch. "I wouldn't care either," she said, "if it weren't for Sophie."
"Somehow I don't think she'd be all that shocked." He dropped a series of light kisses across her forehead and along her cheekbone, and Donna's knees wobbled dangerously.
"No." Her voice sounded strangely weak. She cleared her throat. "Probably not."
"Hundreds of men, though." He tilted his head to one side, observing her with mock severity. "I don't know if I can compete with all that experience."
"Sam!" She smacked him lightly on the chest, laughing. "She was exaggerating!"
"Ahh. Well, that's a relief." Amusement tugged at the corner of his mouth and sparkled in his eyes.
Donna's own smile faded as she thought back over the long, empty years. "Three men, Sam. Including you."
That surprised him. Donna took a certain perverse satisfaction in that, though she couldn't have said why.
He cradled her face in his hands, and there was a tenderness to his expression that made Donna's heart tighten painfully in her chest. "You mean to tell me it's been twenty years since …"
She shrugged her shoulders, her eyes sliding away from his. "Well, I had Sophie to raise, and then there was the hotel to look after … When was I going to find a man?" She didn't mention the fact that she'd compared every man she met to her memory of Sam—or that every one had come up wanting.
He stared at her for a long moment. "Oh, sweetheart. I'm so sorry."
Surprise she could take. Sympathy stiffened her spine. "We managed just fine." She stepped away from him and crossed to the open doorway. "Don't get me wrong. It hasn't always been easy." The crashing surf was just a distant echo this high up, and if her voice was soft when she continued, it was out of deference for the majesty spread before her rather than remembered loneliness. "But I wouldn't trade a single minute."
He moved to stand beside her, and together they looked out over the ocean with its tinge of orange and gold. "Do you remember when we first met?"
She'd been on tour with the Dynamos at the time. Sometimes she couldn't believe that'd ever been her life.
"You were wandering around Paris alone, something that would've made anybody else a little nervous." He shook his head. "But not you. You were ready to take on the world." His expression softened, and Donna knew he was thinking back to those magical days. "I thought you were the most courageous woman I'd ever met." Taking her shoulders in his hands, he turned her to face him. "I still do."
"I don't need you to take care of me." He had to know she wasn't looking to be rescued—by him or anybody else. "I can take care of myself."
"Good thing," he said with an ironic smile. "I think I'm a little old for shining armor."
She stepped back and eyed him, letting her gaze linger as she studied him from head to toe. "Oh, I don't know," she said slowly, "I think it might look good on you."
Instead of the laugh she'd expected, his gaze grew serious. "We have a lot of decisions to make, and they aren't all going to be easy." He put a finger to her lips and shook his head, quieting her. "But I know this is what I want." With a gentle touch, he traced the shape of her mouth, and despite herself, Donna's eyes drifted closed. "It's what I've wanted for twenty-one years."
When his lips replaced his finger against her mouth, Donna let herself sink into the kiss so that everything else faded away, and for a little while all their problems, all the history, all the questions about their future together—it all gave way to the primacy of one perfect moment, and when he drew back and looked into her eyes, Donna knew her last defense against him had fallen, that she was his, and he hers, and that, whatever hurdles lurked in their future, they'd be dealing with them together.
Without releasing her, Sam glanced through the open doors to the deepening gloom beyond. There was regret in his voice when he touched his forehead to hers. "If we don't get off this rock pretty soon, the tide's going to come in and we'll be stuck up here until dawn."
Donna couldn't help thinking she wouldn't mind, as long as Sam was here with her, but she knew the others would worry. "I love you, Sam Carmichael."
He lifted his hand to her cheek and smoothed his thumb along her cheekbone. "And I love you."
She didn't harbor a young girl's dreamy conviction that love would somehow make her life a perfect paradise, didn't even believe their marriage would be particularly smooth sailing—she and Sam were both too strong-willed and too used to doing things their own way for that—but she wasn't alone anymore, and that was miracle enough for one day.
No, she corrected herself as they moved about the tiny church, blowing out the candles one by one.
It was miracle enough for the rest of her life.