My mind reeled, a mix of surprise, confusion, and a strange sense of relief. My trust in Brad had never wavered, but this...this was a step I hadn't anticipated.
Yet as I looked into Brad's sincere eyes, I realized that this wasn't just a declaration of love—it was an oath of protection. And I couldn't deny the comfort that it brought.
"Brad," I finally responded, squeezing his hand reassuringly. "I...I need time to think."
He nodded, understanding. "Of course, take all the time you need."
In that moment, my heart warmed to him even more. This man, who had shown me nothing but kindness, respect, and love, was willing to wait for me, even in the face of such a life-altering decision.
I took a deep breath, letting his words sink in. I was scared, yes, but also intrigued by the idea of a future with Brad. The proposal shocked me but opened the door to possibilities I had been too afraid to consider.
For the first time in a long while, the whirlwind of thoughts in my mind began to slow down. Maybe, just maybe, there was a path forward—and Brad was offering to walk it with me.
Brad rose from the breakfast table, saying he needed to leave to give me some space to digest everything. "I'm just a phone call away, Courtney," he assured me, his gaze soft with understanding. As the door shut behind him, the room felt emptier, echoing the sudden loneliness.
Needing to clear my mind, I decided to go for a walk. Dressed in my summery dress, I enjoyed the warm sun on my skin as I strolled along the sidewalk, appreciating the beautiful surroundings of Casa Palacious, my new neighborhood. The chirping of birds in the distance and the gentle rustling of leaves provided the perfect backdrop for my thoughts.
As I walked down the path, I spotted Ariel tending to her colorful flower garden. Her kind face lit up when she saw me and waved me over. From the moment we met, I was drawn to Ariel's lively spirit, devotion to her husband, Guy, and love for her son, Jonathan.
"Courtney," she greeted me, a warm smile spreading across her face. "Out for a morning stroll?"
"Yes," I replied, my eyes drifting to the beautiful flowers surrounding us. "I needed some fresh air. And maybe some advice, if you're willing."
She chuckled softly. "I'm all ears, girl. What's on your mind?"
I took a deep breath and told Ariel about my talk with Brad, his proposal, and my whirlwind of emotions. Ariel listened patiently; her eyes full of understanding. When I finished, she sighed and looked at me thoughtfully.
"Courtney," she began, her voice soft, "life has a funny way of surprising us. And when it does, it's normal to feel scared or confused. But the best advice I can give you is to listen to your heart. Sometimes, it knows things that our mind is too scared to acknowledge."
Her words resonated with me more than I expected. "But what if I'm not ready?" I asked, my voice wavering slightly.
She reached out, placing a comforting hand on my shoulder. "Then you wait until you are," she said simply. "Don't rush into something as important as marriage. Take your time. Let your heart guide you."
I couldn't help but smile at her words. Ariel had a way of making everything seem so simple. As we continued to talk, I felt my shoulders relax. Maybe she was right. Maybe all I needed to do was listen to my heart.
"Oh, by the way. I love the loft. Thanks again for your generosity."
"I think it's perfect for you, especially when I heard you were raised on a ranch." Ariel wiped her brow on her forearm and smiled.
As I waved goodbye to Ariel, I couldn't help but feel a newfound sense of optimism. The sun was high in the sky, the day was beautiful, and for the first time since I moved here, I felt everything was going to be alright.
Returning to my loft, my heart felt lighter than it had in days. With a sense of purpose, I started unpacking my belongings from the crates and suitcases.
Even as I unpacked, my mind played out the day's events over and over again. Brad's proposal, and Ariel's advice, all swirled around in my head. Then my thoughts were interrupted by the shrill ring of my flip phone, jolting me out of my reverie.
Frowning slightly, I picked it up and glanced at the screen. Giuseppe. I breathed in deeply before accepting the call. “Good morning?”
"Courtney," his voice, though rough from years of smoking, still carried an air of authority that demanded respect. "We need to meet. Agent Downing's office. Tomorrow."
The abruptness of his words caught me off guard. "What's this about, Giuseppe?" I asked, trying to keep my voice steady.
He let out a sigh. "We're setting up the call, Courtney. The one to Clint. Agent Downing has the means to monitor and trace the call. We need to plan it out."
A knot formed in my stomach, a sense of dread filled my gut. But I knew this was inevitable. It was the whole reason I was here. Gathering up all my courage, I replied, "Alright, Giuseppe. Tomorrow. I'll be ready.”
As the call ended, a sense of finality settled over me. The wheels were in motion now. There was no going back. Everything was finally falling into place with the call to Clint and tomorrow's meeting.
With a heavy heart, I returned to unpacking my things. My mind was a whirlwind of thoughts and fears, but I knew I had to stay strong. For my father, for Brad, my Rosedale friends and for myself. Tomorrow was another day that would bring me one step closer to the end of this perilous journey. And whatever it may bring, I was ready to face it, right?