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Romeo Redeemed Part 32

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EPILOGUE.

TWELVE YEARS LATER ...

Romeo

"But you were lying, Mommy. Weren't you? I wasn't in your tummy yet." Gemma leans forward in her little chair, her chubby cheeks red, eyes glittering with anticipation as Ariel reaches the end of the familiar story.

Our girl has my eyes-dark and filled with trouble-but her mother's nearly white blond hair and pale skin. She is strikingly beautiful. I could stare at her all day and never get tired of it. When she was first born, I'd stand over her cradle for hours, dumbstruck by her very existence, by the miracle of this tiny person who was mine to protect. She's perfect, unforgettable, the most breathtaking thing I've ever seen.



Except for her mother.

I catch Ariel's eye. She smiles, as if she knows what I'm thinking. Which she probably does.

"Yes, I was lying," she says. "But I had to, or Daddy would never have made it out of Verona alive."

Gemma lets out a shaky breath and turns to look at me, giving a serious nod that I know is her forgiving me again for not always being the good father she knows. We haven't told her the entire truth, only that Daddy did something foolish and wrong when he was young and that's the reason we can never go back to Verona. We had to tell her something. She'd started to ask why Grandpa and Grandma DeSare always come to us in Mantua, and why we couldn't go to their estate, where there are horses and ducks and the portrait of Mommy when she was little.

Gemma's only seven, but so curious, with an imagination that devours all the stories her mother tells. The ones about fairies and dragons and the troll that lives under the bridge down the lane, and the more extraordinary ones about her mother and me and the future and our journey through time and space. Ariel leaves out the scariest parts, but keeps enough excitement to make our story our daughter's favorite. She knows every word by heart, but asks to hear it again and again. Especially the next part.

"And then what, Mommy? What happened next?"

"I hugged Daddy tight and wouldn't let him go. I told the men that Friar Lawrence had promised to marry us, but when we arrived at the church, he went mad and tried to kill your father," Ariel says, sharing the version of events we've agreed to stick to until Gemma is old enough to be told about the Ambassadors and the Mercenaries. "I kept telling them what happened again and again, and finally the men started to believe me. And so the captain of the guard sent for Grandpa, who came to get us right away."

"Two hours later, your mother and I were married by the pastor from the next village." I gather Gemma into my lap and hug her tight. "Before the sun had even come up."

"We loaded one of Grandpa's carts with the furniture he'd given me for my dowry, and set out for Mantua after breakfast," Ariel says. "We planned to stay with my aunt and uncle until we could find a home of our own."

"Even though your great-aunt Mary was less than thrilled by the circumstances surrounding our marriage," I add.

Gemma scrunches her nose and squints her eyes, making a prune face so completely her aunt Mary's that I have to fight the urge to laugh. I try not to encourage her.

Mostly.

"Right." The grin on Ariel's face leaves no doubt she's seen Gemma's impression as well. "So, we were worried about the reception we'd receive, but still very happy to be together. We thought the worst of everything was behind us." Ariel comes to sit beside Gemma and me on the couch, the soft one stuffed with wool that we made in the studio behind the cottage, having not outgrown our taste for certain modern comforts. "But then, not three miles outside of town, a man on horseback came riding up hard behind us."

"And you thought he was a highwayman!" Gemma shouts, pulling her knees in and balancing her chin on top.

"We did," Ariel says, "but as he came closer, we could see that he wore the Capulet family crest. And in his hand he carried a land deed for a small farm outside of Mantua, signing the property from Juliet's father, Lord Capulet, over to Romeo. There was also a note from Juliet Capulet to me. It said, 'Thank you for the past you gave me in the future. Please take-' "

" '-this as a token of my undying gratitude,' " Gemma finishes with a giggle. "Because she was already in love with Daddy's cousin, and they got married two years later and had hundreds of babies!"

"Not hundreds of babies." I tickle her ribs, turning her giggle to a squealing laugh. "Five is nowhere close to a hundred."

"No, it's ninety-five less than a hundred!" Gemma says.

"Smart girl," Ariel says.

"I am," Gemma agrees with a sigh. "I am so wonderful at math." She oozes onto the carpet at our feet.

I take the opportunity to scoot closer to my wife, tuck her under my arm, and smell that irresistible place where her hair covers her neck. Flowers and paint, just like always. The flowers we mix in our soap, and the paint that's become such a part of our life together. Despite the challenges facing women artists in this time, Ariel has found work painting portraits for a few of the city's wealthiest families. So long as she refrains from competing with the male guild artists-who won't allow a female, no matter how skilled, to join their ranks-for the more lucrative commissions in the cathedrals and palaces, she is left alone.

My father died four years ago, and I inherited his fortune, but in our early days, her portraits of wealthy children put food on our table, allowing me to spend my days tending our garden and animals, and, later, teaching Gemma all the things a girl isn't supposed to learn in the fourteenth century.

Ariel teases me about being the world's first stay-at-home dad, but I don't mind. Of all the things I've been, a husband and a father are by far the best.

"I wish I had brothers and sisters." Gemma plops her feet into my lap, an invitation for me to pull her little toes, a thing she's loved since she was barely able to walk.

"Then you wouldn't have your own room," Ariel says, not a hint of sadness in her voice. Gemma's birth was difficult, and neither of us were surprised when no more children came. We weren't upset, either. We have one amazing girl, a life together, freedom from all things Mercenary and Ambassador, and each other. It is ... everything. Better than eternity or superhuman power. This is real magic, and I live and breathe it every day.

"I could share," Gemma says. "I'm small."

"No, you're not." Ariel pinches her heel. "You're the tallest girl on the entire road."

Gemma smiles a sleepy smile. "I am. I am going to be the tallest girl in the entire city when I grow up. And I will be a painter like Mommy, but I will only paint animals. Mostly horses."

"Sounds like an excellent plan." Ariel smiles down at her, that loving smile that makes her even more beautiful. And then she turns to look at me with that same look in her eyes, and I melt the way I always do. I am the luckiest man in any world, a soul transformed, pulled back from the abyss and blessed with love more powerful than evil or death or time or space or any of the rules.

"I love you," I whisper.

She smiles. "Two thousand and twenty-four," she says, and then she kisses me. And it is still the best kiss.

And soon we'll put Gemma to bed, and when she's asleep, we'll go down to the stream behind the house with a bottle of wine and none of our clothes and remind each other that-even in the midst of so much goodness-there are delightful ways to be wicked. And we'll swim and laugh and kiss, and the stars will shine, beautiful and bright, but Ariel will always shine brighter.

At least for me.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS.

As always, many thanks to the team at Delacorte Press, especially to my editors, Michelle Poploff and Rebecca Short, for their guidance, support, and enthusiasm. Thanks to the Bard for the inspiration, Julie Linker for the critique (you were right, as always), and the Debutantes of 2009 for their friendship and support. Thanks to the booksellers who have worked so hard for my books in troubled times. Thanks to the Ithaca College Theater Department, London Center, for the walking tours of Shakespeare's haunts-the frozen toes were worth it! And even bigger thanks to my readers. You inspire me daily.

STACEY JAY is the author of Juliet Immortal and several other books for young adults. She lives in California wine country with her husband and their two little boys. Learn more at staceyjay.com.

DISCOVER JULIET'S STORY IN.

Juliet Capulet didn't take her own life. She was murdered by the person she trusted most, her new husband, Romeo Montague, who made the sacrifice to ensure his own immortality. But Romeo didn't anticipate that Juliet would be granted eternity as well, and would become an agent for the Ambassadors of Light.

For seven hundred years, Juliet has struggled to preserve romantic love and the lives of the innocent, while Romeo has fought for the dark side, seeking to destroy the human heart. Until now.

Now Juliet has found her own forbidden love, and Romeo, O Romeo, will do everything in his power to destroy their happiness.

end.

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