“Something so romantic and thoughtful?” he suggested. “Something so perfect and special to commemorate the moment so you’d never forget it? Something that a woman that truly loved me could never turn down?”
“Something so public!” she shouted instead. “Did you think that you could twist my arm into accepting your proposal by having four thousand witnesses? You proposed to me onstage in front of Blake Wright! All those people watching us.” She shook her head, still in disbelief that the night had taken such a drastic turn. “That whole thing is probably going to end up on the internet and go viral.”
Colin’s hands curled into controlled fists at his sides. She could see the ring box still in one hand. “Is that what you think I was doing with all of this? I couldn’t possibly have been trying to craft the perfect moment to start our lives together. Obviously, I was just coercing you into marrying me, because that worked out so well for me the first time.”
It was perfect. It had been perfect. And if she was any other woman, it would’ve been the kind of story she would’ve told her grandchildren about. But she couldn’t pull the trigger. This was too much, too soon. She’d just come to terms with loving him; she wasn’t ready to sign her life away to this man. They might have known each other since they were kids, but how much did they really know about each other?
“You hardly know me, and yet you want to change me. If you really loved me, Colin, you wouldn’t force me into something I don’t want to do. You would understand that I need time for a step this big, and that I might never want to make that leap.”
He ran his hand through his hair in incredulity. “Yes, I’m such a horrible person for inviting you to be a part of my family and to let me love you forever. What a bastard I am!”
Natalie stopped, his beautiful, yet rage-filled words sending a tear spilling down her cheek. There was no stopping the tears now, and she hated that. She hated to cry more than anything else. How had this perfect night gone so wrong? “You can do all that without a marriage.”
“But why would I want to? It doesn’t make any sense, Natalie. Why can’t you make that commitment to me? You know, I always thought you were such a strong woman. So in control, so self-assured. But in reality, you’re a damn coward.”
“What?” she asked through her tears.
“You heard me. You hide behind this big philosophical cover story about love and marriage being this forced social paradigm and whatever other crap you’ve recited because you’re afraid of getting hurt. You’re afraid to give in and let someone love you, then have it not work out.”
Natalie didn’t know what to say to that. It was true. She’d justified her own fears in her mind with all the statistics and academic findings she could spew. But the truth was that she used it all to keep men away. She’d done a hell of a job this time. She didn’t want to lose Colin entirely, though. Couldn’t they just go back to before he proposed? Pretend like tonight never happened?
“I might be scared to take the leap, but what if I’m right? What if I’d said yes and we had this big wedding and four kids and one day, we wake up and hate each other?”
“And what if we don’t? What if we do all of that and we’re actually happy together for the rest of our lives? Did you ever consider that option while you were wringing your hands?”
Did she dare consider it? Her mom considered it over and over just to fail. Time had turned her into a bitter woman constantly searching for something to complete her. Natalie wouldn’t let herself become like that. “I’m sorry, Colin. I just can’t take that chance.”
Colin stuffed his hands in his pockets, his posture stiff and unyielding. “Don’t be sorry. If you don’t want to marry me, that’s fine. It doesn’t matter what your reasoning is. But I’m done with the two of us. One marriage to a reluctant bride is enough for me. Come on, I’ll drive you home.”
“I think I should take a cab. That would be easier on us both.”
She saw the shimmer of tears in his eyes for just a moment before he turned and walked away. Natalie could only stand and watch as he got into his car and drove away.
As his taillights disappeared into the distance, Natalie felt her heart start to crumble in her chest. She’d been so afraid to love and be loved that she had driven Colin away and made her fears a reality.
With one simple no, Natalie had ruined everything.