“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Ashley said. “It’s only been an hour into the party and somebody spiked the punch.”
“Don’t worry,” Paul reassured her. “Pastor George’s wife already removed the punch bowl and they’re putting out two-liters of pop instead.”
“I think they need to have someone watch the refreshments table more closely,” Ashley said.
“Maybe we should appoint ourselves that job.” Paul grabbed her hand and pulled her gently in the direction of the table.
“I think you just want to be closer to the snacks.” Ashley teased, but followed easily along with him.
They were volunteer chaperones for the New Year’s Eve party at the Methodist church. Paul was active in the youth programs anyway and was more than willing to help out.
This was the first year he and Ashley were old enough to be chaperones rather than actual party goers. They’d been going to the church every New Year’s Eve since the time they were in their early teens, and were excited to be some of the ‘adults’ now.
Still, they felt very young in relation to the other chaperones and seemed to fit in better with the kids than the adults. Paul’s younger brother Jacob was just fourteen and this was his first year at the party. Their mom and dad were glad to have a place for the kids to hang out that was close to home on a night that traditionally had drunk drivers on the roads.
The last thing the adults wanted was for anyone to leave this party with any alcohol on their breath. She suspected Paul was more than thankful to use the excuse to stand next to the wide array of homemade cookies, potato chips, and veggie trays.
Ashley pulled up a chair, took off her heels, and started rubbing her feet.
“It’s going to be a long night if your feet hurt already,” Paul said.
“I think we should re-designate the dance as a ‘sock hop’ and then we can all be more comfortable,” Ashley replied.
In reality, they could make the party into anything they wanted. There was a dance in one room, Karaoke in another, board games, card tables, and lots of food.
Mostly the kids were just glad to have a safe place to hang out with their friends and know they wouldn’t be exposed to less wholesome activities.
Ashley and Paul were content to hang out where they could be a part of the dance and watch the disco ball throw colors around the room as the teens swayed to the beat. The song shifted to a slower love song and Paul reached out his hand to Ashley.
“Would you care to dance with me?” he asked. “You can leave your shoes off if you’d like.”
She grinned up at him and let him pull her from her seat to lead her out onto the floor. They didn’t look out of place since they weren’t that much older than the kids, and technically were still teenagers in the literal sense.
Ashley couldn’t help think back to the conversation she’d had with Caleb while riding horses together the day before when he’d realized how much younger she was. She felt comfortable with Paul; he was exactly her age. They’d grown up listening to the same music, graduated high school side by side, and rode the same school bus together right up until the time he was old enough to buy his truck.
She rested her head on his chest as allowed herself to get carried away in the rhythm of the music and his heartbeat. She took a deep breath and inhaled the scent of his cologne. He always smelled so good when he was away from the barn and had taken the time to get cleaned up.
He looked down at her with creased brows. “What’cha thinkin’ ‘bout?” he whispered.
“I really like you, Paul.”
“I really like you too,” he whispered back. She could hear his apprehension. He was probably waiting for the ‘but’ at the end of her thought. He was probably nervous she’d decided that ‘like’ was the only emotion left in her heart for him.
“Okay, I really love you,” she admitted and smiled up at him. He let out a breath he’d been holding.
“I really love you too.” He leaned down and kissed her gently, then pulled away quickly with a smile.
Ashley realized that they should be setting a better example for the other kids, so she pulled slightly farther away from him.
She remembered the old joke that they should be dancing far enough away that you could fit a good sized Bible in between. It was a good reminder. They were, after all, at a church dance, and they were supposed to be chaperones.
She decided it was a good time to glance around the room and keep their eyes peeled on the other kids rather than each other. Everyone else seemed to be acting appropriately, which was good.
Still, all the chaperones remained on high alert looking for signs of the culprit who had spiked the punch. He, or she, was still someone in the building.
The remainder of the evening went off without incident, and when the countdown began, Ashley allowed herself to steal one more kiss to celebrate the New Year and gave Paul a long hug.
Then they broke apart and went around the room hugging and wishing everyone a happy New Year. It was a great night. The party broke up within another half hour and both Jacob and Ashley were yawning as Paul took them on the short drive home.
Ashley rode her mare, Shelly out of the pen and led an obedient horse named Dude carrying a reluctant passenger named Caleb out along a path that led up towards the little bluff of trees at the north end of her father’s property.
The trail was dry, hard mud, but the snow still clung to the rest of the ground. It had melted off the tree branches, but the ground was cold enough that the snow that had fallen just before Christmas was here to stay for a while. It was a beautiful, late-afternoon ride.
They skirted the outside edge of the little forest, not too far in that it would be dark, just enough so they felt surrounded by a few trees. It gave them a feeling of seclusion, and almost felt romantic.
They walked along side by side and talked about nothing and everything. Caleb told Ashley about his drive with Greg and how her little brother seemed to really look up to her. They talked about the classes they were taking in the upcoming semester. They talked a little about where he served as a missionary. Finally, the conversation came around to something a little more serious.
“I’ve been wanting to tell you something,” Caleb started, then hesitated
“Okay,” she encouraged.
“There’s something I haven’t told you about my parents.” Caleb stopped again and looked over at her.
“They’re space aliens?” She teased him. “I knew it. No wonder you didn’t want me to meet them a few weeks ago. You didn’t want me to be afraid.”
He laughed softly along with her. Obviously she was trying to break down his level of seriousness, and reassure him that whatever it was couldn’t be that bad.
“They’re not members of the Church,” he finally said. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before.” It almost felt as if he’d been hiding it from her.
“You don’t have to be sorry,” she said quickly, trying to reassure him. “What’s the big deal?”
“Well, they’ll probably offer you a glass of wine with dinner,” he told her sheepishly.
“That’s shocking, Caleb!” she mocked him. “I’m only nineteen.”
“Oh my gosh.” He looked over at her, a different kind of panic in his heart. “I completely forgot about that. You’re so young.” He looked away again.
He was reminded of the thoughts he’d had a little while ago about her being wise beyond her years, but he hadn’t thought about it quite like this. She was so young. What am I doing? She’s just a little girl. I’m twenty seven. This is crazy.
“Caleb,” she asked, interrupting his inner panic. “Are you okay?”
He shook his head quickly, trying to clear his mind. He had just been telling himself how grown up she was. She was a legal adult. She was old enough, right? I mean if she looked like a little girl, and acted like a little girl, that would be different. It was just that number, nineteen. It hit him hard. She was a teenager.
He had to stop thinking about her that way. He looked back over at her and realized that she was still the woman that he was dating, not the little girl that his mind had suddenly concocted. He took a deep breath and smiled over at her.
“I just,” he stammered. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I mean, I knew you were a freshman and everything, you just seem so much older than… that.”
“Does it bother you that I’m so young?” The evening was as silent as her question, the air taking on a certain stillness. It was comforting. A peace came over him and he realized that it didn’t bother him.
“I guess not.” He smiled over at her. “I mean, when I asked you out, it was because I really liked you. I wouldn’t have if I’d felt you were too young for me. It was just the number that jumped out at me, I guess.”
“I won’t mention it again, if it makes you more comfortable.”
“No,” he backpedaled. “It’s fine. I’m past it now.” He was past it. He could feel that. He knew that from then on he wouldn’t be uncomfortable about her age. It was after all, just a number. And she was a legal adult and very mature for her age. It would all work out. “You don’t have to stress about it.”
“Alright, then. No stress,” she said.
He reached over and tried to grab for her hand. She reached across and took it, and they smiled at one another. It was going to be okay, and it would all work out.
Another thought entered the back of Caleb’s mind. Paul was exactly Ashley’s age. One more comparison. He needed to stop doing that. She wouldn’t be out with me if she didn’t want to be out with me, he reminded himself.
They walked along for a while again and she brought the conversation back around to his parents.
“So, your parents aren’t members of the Church, and they like to drink. No wonder you frequent a bar.” She was teasing him, obviously poking a little fun at him to lighten the mood.
“Ooh, that’s a low blow.” He laughed with her. “They’re actually not ‘drinkers’ really, they just like to have a glass of wine with dinner.”
“Jesus drank wine with dinner,” Ashley pointed out. “God still let him in to Heaven.”
She was teasing him again and he kind of liked it. She changed the subject again, but kept the air of flirtatiousness.
“So when did you embrace the Gospel?”
“It’s kind of an embarrassing story, actually.” He looked over at her a little sheepishly.
“Ooh, I’m going to like this.”
“I was invited to church by a girl I liked when I was in my early teens. In Germany.”
“Ooh, a girl. Do tell. Was she pretty?” She was obviously having fun teasing him.
“Well, my German was a little choppy back then. So I didn’t realize that she had invited me to church. I just thought we were going on a date. And yes, she was very pretty.” He stopped and smiled at her again. “You’re very pretty yourself, you know?”
“Oh, I’m sure I’m an ugly duckling compared to your cute little German girl.” She blushed a little and looked away for just a minute, then forced the conversation again. “So what did you do when you got there and found out where she had taken you?”
“Well, that’s the thing,” he explained. “I didn’t understand most of it. It was all in German, and like I said, I was pretty bad at German back then.” He stopped again and took a deep breath. When he looked back at her, he was more serious; almost reverent. “All I knew was how I felt while I was there. I had never experienced anything like that before, and I really liked the way it felt.”
“That’s so cool,” she whispered. “So what happened?”
“Well, as it turned out, there were two American missionaries there, and they had a nice long conversation with me after the service. In English. I was converted almost on the spot. My parents thought it was just a phase I was going through, and so they gave me permission to be baptized. The rest is history.”
“Sort of,” she said. “Whatever happened to the little German girl?”
“I have no idea,” he admitted. “We went back to America and I never saw her again.”
“Well, I guess she was a little angel put into your life to share the Gospel with you.”
“I guess so,” he said, looking off ahead of him.
It was starting to get dark, and they decided to head home. The loop back to the house was not very far and they were back in the barn in no time. The pain didn’t hit until he had gotten off the horse.
“Oh… my… gosh. I can’t walk.” He hobbled along, trying to lead Dude back to hook him up to the cross ties.
“You’ll be fine.” She laughed at him. “I’ll get you some Motrin when we get in the house.”
It felt easier to get the horse back into his stall. It was like everything was in reverse. The bridle came off, the harness back on, the saddle and blanket went back on to the saddle rack, the hoof pick came back out, and after a quick rub down, Dude was happily back in his stall and crunching on hay. Caleb felt a sense of accomplishment at having lived through the afternoon.
“How about we go get a piece of that apple pie my mom made?” Ashley suggested. “I’ll bet she has some ice cream we could have on top.”
“Do you make your own ice cream?” he asked, naively.
“No!” She laughed at him. “It’s probably Meijer brand.”
“Hey, I like Meijer brand,” he said. “Nothing but the best.”
“That’s right.” She grabbed his hand as they walked up to the house.
* * * * * * * * *
Late that night, Ashley got a text from Caleb. I can’t move! Remind me never to do that again. I had a really nice time with you though. See you next year.
Ashley giggled. The following day would be New Year’s Eve. The next time she would see Caleb would be after the semester started in a week. She was planning to spend New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day with Paul. This was getting complicated.
Ashley put the stool on the ground in the middle of the round pen and stepped back.
“Now what?” Caleb felt his chest tighten.
“You get on the horse,” she told him. As if it was just that easy.
“Oh you big baby,” she teased. “Get up on the stool, put your left foot in the stirrup and swing your right leg up over the horse.”
Once he was up in the saddle, she started adjusting his stirrups. He felt kind of silly and like a little kid. Once they were where she wanted them, she had him put his feet in and stand up to test the height.
“Good, now put your pinkies underneath the reins and your thumbs on top. Shorten the reins when you ride. If you hold them too loosely, he’ll think you want to run.”
Caleb definitely didn’t want that, so he pulled them a little too hard and Dude started backing up.
“Not that tight!” Ashley warned softly. “Just so that you’ve taken up the slack.”
She reached up and took hold of Dude’s bridle. It was almost as if she were communicating with the horse and telling him to behave himself with this new rider.
It kind of felt to Caleb like the horse was being defiant on purpose because he was carrying such an obviously inexperienced rider. Dude tried to shake himself free from her grasp, but finally calmed down and lowered his head in defeat.
“Now to get him to move… forward—” She looked back down into Dude’s eye again, then back up at Caleb. “Just tap him lightly on his sides with your heels. Both at the same time.”
He did as she told him, and the horse took a few steps.
“Now just lead him around the wall of the pen,” Ashley called softly.
“How?” He looked back at her, a little panic setting in because he didn’t know how to ‘drive’ a horse.
“Pull the right rein gently when you want him to go to the right. Just follow the curve of the pen. You’ll be fine!” she called to him. “I’m going to go get Shelly, I’ll be right back.”
You’re just going to leave me here? Caleb thought. Alone! He tried to remember her words. Pull the right rein, follow the curve, I can do this.
He watched as she picked up the stool and took it with her back into the barn. She came back out with Shelly, but no stool.
Ashley skillfully reached her left foot up into the stirrup and pulled herself onto that big horse. She seemed too small to have gotten all the way up there by herself. Caleb felt silly for having needed the stool at all. She expertly led Shelly around to walk along beside him.
“Now, you’re going to trot,” Ashley said.
Caleb panicked. He didn’t know much about horses, but he sensed that ‘trot’ was faster than what he was doing right now.
“Uh, uh.” He shook his head. “I’m fine at this speed, thank you very much.”
“Too bad.” She laughed at him. “You have to get him warmed up before we go out on the trail. Now kick him twice softly and he’ll know you want to trot.”
He shook his head, panic filling his heart.
“You can do it, Caleb. You’ll be fine. Now come on!” She kicked Shelly twice and Dude followed along as Shelly sped up.
He felt like he was bouncing along on the saddle like a beach ball. A very painful, human beach ball.
“Stand up in your stirrups, or you’re going to have a very sore rear end!” She called out to him. He did, and it felt a little better.
“Is this far enough?” he asked, feeling like his teeth were going to jump right out of his mouth. He was afraid he was going to bite his tongue. “Can we slow down now?
“No, we need to canter twice around the pen to get warmed up.”
Caleb connected the dots in his head. They weren’t slowing down, and what they were doing right now was trotting, therefore cantering was probably going to be… faster. He didn’t like the thought of that.
“Come on.” Once again, she kicked Shelly gently and took her into a canter and Dude followed her lead.
Suddenly, Caleb felt like he was rocking and flying at the same time. It was very disconcerting, but in an exciting way. It was like the feeling of having no control because you’re riding on a roller coaster, except with less stability. He was ready to stop cantering long before they got all the way around twice.
Finally, they slowed down to a trot and he felt like he never wanted to go that fast again. They slowed down again to the leisurely walking pace where they had started, and he took a deep breath. Okay, this I can handle.
“Can we walk from now on?” he asked.
“For now. Come on. Let’s go for a trail ride.”
“Okay, so the first thing we’ve got to do is get him out of his stall and hook him up to the cross ties,” Ashley explained. Caleb was a little terrified at the prospect of climbing up on that very large horse. Having the desire to learn how to ride a horse is different than actually doing it.
But, as he kept reminding himself, he had asked her to teach him how to ride. Still, now that he was actually in the barn, standing next to an animal that looked like he could cause some serious bruising; it was a little more daunting.
“How…?” Caleb gulped. Ashley shook her head and chuckled at him.
“Just grab him by his halter. Dude’s not going to hurt you, Caleb. He’s fourteen years old. He’s very well trained, I promise. We use him for all the newbies. He’s very gentle.”
“Offended?” Ashley teased him, flirting a little.
Caleb stuck his chin out and reached up to take the halter like she’d shown him. Dude stepped forward just like he was supposed to, and let Caleb lead him out of the stall. Or maybe Dude just knew where to go, in spite of Caleb’s naïveté. The kind old horse stopped exactly at the location where his cross ties were waiting, and Ashley showed Caleb how to hook him up.
“This really isn’t that difficult,” she said with laughter in her voice. “We haven’t even gotten to the fun parts.”
“Now what?” Caleb had his back pressed up against the wall as far away from the horse as possible, and wondered if he was going to either run from the barn or throw up.
“We’ve got to get him cleaned and put his saddle on,” she told him.
“He looks clean to me,” Caleb observed.
“Well, they get dust and sand down inside their hair, and if we put the saddle on, it will rub up against all that sand and hurt him. You don’t want to hurt him, do you?” She appealed to his sense of duty to assist a helpless animal to snap him out of his stupor. “Here, I’ve got a few kinds of brushes for you. This one is the spike, you work it in circles and then use this brush afterward--
“No, don’t go against the grain with that one.” She stopped and corrected him. “That one’s to smooth the hair back down. See how they work together?”
Little puffs of dust and horse hair started flying off the places where he was brushing, and Caleb felt like he was going to sneeze.
“This feels awful,” he said, cringing. “Are you sure the horse likes this?”
“Oh, yeah. He’s a happy camper.” She patted Dude on the neck and looked him in the eye. “You’re happy, aren’t you Boy?” she cooed to him.
Caleb stopped what he was doing and watched Ashley talk to this animal that she obviously loved. It was sweet and endearing.
She noticed him watching her, and chastised him. “Get back to work. I’m going to get Shelly and start brushing her.”
He smiled as he watched her walk away. He couldn’t help but notice how hot she looked in her riding boots. He shook off the thought and turned back to Dude, talking softly to him.
“You like her too, don’t you Dude?” he asked the old gelding in a soft voice. “She’s very pretty, isn’t she? Yeah, I think so too. Does she give you lots of apples, and oats? I’ll bet she takes good care of you, doesn’t she?”
He stopped talking when he realized Ashley had come back out of Shelly’s stall and was coming up behind him, leading her mare. She hooked Shelly up to her cross ties and grabbed a couple of brushes from the tack box.
Caleb tried not to get distracted watching her work skillfully with her horse. She seemed so natural. He tried to mimic the fluidity of her movements, but it was impossible to duplicate something that someone had been perfecting over a lifetime.
Ashley had her horse completely brushed, hooves cleaned, saddled and bridled before he had even completed one side. She left Shelly to come over and help him with Dude.
She finished brushing the other side, then handed him a strange metal tool in the shape of a hook that looked like it could do some serious damage. He wasn’t sure what she wanted him to do with it.
“It’s a hoof pick,” she told him. “You have to clean his hooves. We’re going to do this before and after our trail ride.”
He looked down at the horse’s feet and gulped.
“Just grab his ankle like this, and he’ll raise his hoof for you.” Ashley made it look easy. Apparently he was doing it wrong, that or Dude was secretly laughing at his inexperience and wouldn’t raise his foot out of spite.
Ashley reached around and grabbed the hoof and handed it to him. Caleb tried to scrape out the hoof the way Ashley was showing him, but he was sure he was doing it wrong. She assured him that he was doing fine, maybe just so he wouldn’t get discouraged.
“Now, we’ve got to put his saddle on. First goes the saddle pad, like this. Then the saddle goes on top of it.” She expertly lifted the huge saddle up onto the horse as if it weighed very little.
“Here, let me help you.” He tried to grab it from her, but she had it on to Dude’s back before he could even reach his hands up. She made it look so easy. He was impressed.
“I’ve got it,” she responded. That’s an understatement, he thought to himself. She could probably lift a lot more weight than he could, simply from having worked on the farm all her life.
He looked her up and down appraisingly, and raised his eyebrows. As she turned away from him, she smiled. Caleb got the impression that Ashley was showing off for him, maybe just a little.
She unhooked Dude from his cross ties, removed his harness and slipped a bridle up into his mouth. She took hold of the reigns and held the harness of the bridle and started to lead the gentle horse into the round pen.
Before they had gotten all the way out of the barn, she stopped suddenly and turned to Caleb. “Here, hold this while I go get you a stool.” She handed him Dude’s reigns, and left him standing there alone.
A horse in the stall directly behind him made a soft noise that caused Caleb to jump. He turned around to find the large stallion staring him down. He looked much bigger than Dude, obviously much younger, and feistier. If it was possible to say this about a horse, he looked very intimidating. Ashley came back around to find Caleb take a frightened step backward.
“This horse doesn’t like me,” he told her. “He looks mean.”
“That’s kind of funny, actually. If you think about it.”
“What’s funny?” Caleb turned to her.
“That’s Paul’s horse.” Ashley reached up and playfully brushed her hand along the side of the big horse’s face. “His name’s Rex.”
Caleb didn’t really like the attention Ashley was showing to Paul’s horse. I’m feeling jealous of a horse, he thought to himself. This is silly.
“He’s… a very lovely horse,” Caleb tried to hide his jealously, but apparently it didn’t work.
“He doesn’t hate you, you know?” She spoke to him softly and reassuringly.
“Oh, I know that,” Caleb backpedaled. “Horses don’t hate people, and besides he only just met me for the first time.”
“No—” Ashley tried to catch Caleb’s attention. “I meant Paul doesn’t hate you.”
Caleb looked back over at the big stallion, trying not to think about how many times that Paul had gone out on trail rides with Ashley. They probably go all the time, he thought. This barn, this farm, this really isn’t my place. It’s his.
“He’s not particularly fond of you, of course.”
Caleb felt like he was intruding on a part of Ashley’s life that was uniquely reserved for Paul. It made him very uncomfortable. His expression must have cued Ashley in to his emotions.
“Hey—” She grabbed his arm and pulled him around to look at her. “He’s just as jealous of you as you are of him.”
“I’m not…” Caleb knew he couldn’t even finish that sentence. It would have been a lie. Of course he was jealous. Paul led the same life as Ashley. They were a perfect match in a way. Caleb was just a city boy who had traveled the world and lived in fancy homes and drove fancy cars. He knew nothing of Ashley’s world. His first time experiencing life on a farm was when Ashley led him into this barn. He looked down at the boots that he’d borrowed from Ashley’s older brother. “Okay, I’m a little jealous. I have to admit. He has everything you want and need. I don’t really fit into your world.”
“Obviously he doesn’t have everything I want and need,” Ashley said. She reached up and touched his face, almost lifting it up so that he would look her in the eye. Her voice got really quiet. “I wouldn’t be going out with you if I already had everything. And I wouldn’t be going out with you if I didn’t see something in you that I do want and need.”
They held each other’s gaze for a moment and Caleb felt as if they were searching each other’s eyes.
Ashley smiled at him softly, and it felt to him that she was wise beyond her years. He kept forgetting how young she was. She seemed much older. He had a strong desire to lean down and kiss her, but felt as if this were not the right time or place, especially with Paul’s horse literally breathing down his neck. He smiled back at her and decided to lighten the mood.
“Well, I guess you’d better teach me how to ride this Dude then, huh?”
“I guess so.” She grabbed the stool in one hand and took Caleb’s free hand in her other while he led Dude out into the round pen.
Ashley almost felt apprehensive about calling Caleb to ask him to dinner, but knew that if she was ever going to have him over, it needed to be now, between Christmas and New Year and before the winter semester started.
She hadn’t seen him since their date, and she was nervous about inviting him over. Every day that she spent with Paul pushed Caleb to the back of her mind. But she’d already decided that she was going to invite him to dinner, so she called him and they chose a day that he had off from rounds at the hospital.
The snow from the week prior had stopped, the sun was out, and the streets were dry. So, she wasn’t surprised that her little brother was waiting by the window to watch for his car again.
Caleb had told her on the phone to have Greg come out for a little ‘driving lesson’ before he came in for dinner. Greg was practically pacing back and forth in anticipation. He already had his shoes on and his coat in his hand when Caleb pulled up the drive.
The back door flew open and closed so fast that Ashley barely realized that Greg was gone. She went to the back door and stepped out onto the porch to wave lightly to Caleb as he walked around the car and let Greg climb in the driver’s side. He smiled up at her, then got in and started talking to her younger brother.
Ashley saw Caleb pointing out this or that gadget or button, making sure that Greg had a handle on what to do. Greg had been driving a stick shift truck and tractor since long before he’d legally had a driver’s license, so it wasn’t so much a ‘driving’ lesson as it was a ‘get acquainted with my car’ lesson. She felt that Caleb was pretty brave to let a seventeen-year-old kid get behind the wheel of his sixty thousand dollar car, but hey, it was his money, not hers.
Greg carefully shifted the car into reverse and it jerked a few times as he got used to the sensitive clutch. He turned the car around and inched down the driveway. He jerked a few more times and squealed the tires a little as he pulled out onto the road, but other than that, he seemed to do okay. Ashley shivered from the cold, and went back inside.
“Yum-my!” Sarah commented. Ashley looked up, thinking that Sarah was getting into the desert that sat on the counter, but found her sister leaning against the island and looking up at her with a grin. “That is one fine piece of craftsmanship.”
Ashley got the impression that Sarah was not referring to the Porsche. “Shut up, Sarah.”
Ashley pushed her as she walked past her into the dining room, wanting to make sure that the finishing touches were on the table settings. Everything looked just as perfect as it had the last ten times she’d walked in here, but she was still nervous. She still felt very intimidated with the fact that she lived in a hundred-year-old farmhouse, granted a very nice farmhouse, and that she was inviting over a guy who was so wealthy that it hurt to think about.
She knew that the potato casserole was already in the oven, the biscuits were made, the salad was in the crisper, and the steaks were marinating, so there wasn’t much left to do except be nervous. She paced back into the kitchen, where her sister was still looking up at her with a knowing grin.
“So,” she started back in. “Has he kissed you yet?”
“No, Sarah,” she said. “Oh my gosh. We’ve been on one date.”
“Wait, don’t all those late-night Institute classes count? Huh? Huh?” Sarah had her on that one and they both knew it. Ashley’s mouth turned up into a little smile, though she tried to hide it. Sarah could probably see right through her. Ashley liked Caleb a lot more than she was letting on.
“We did sit next to each other in class.” Ashley took a deep breath and felt her eyes gloss over. “And he held my hand across the table when we were at the restaurant. And he’s very… handsome.”
Ashley couldn’t help leaning against the other side of the island and gazing out the window at the now-empty driveway where her date would be bringing back her younger brother at any time.
Her mom was upstairs putting a last minute touch up on her hair and make-up, her dad and brothers had come in from the barn and were cleaned up and watching football in the living room, so it was just Ashley and Sarah in the kitchen. And Sarah wasn’t through taunting her little sister.
“You like him,” she teased. “Don’t you?”
“Of course I like him.” Ashley turned to look at her sister. “He’s a really nice guy.”
“And he’s handsome and rich.” Sarah said it with finality, as if that was all that mattered.
“Why is everyone so caught up in the fact that he’s rich?” Ashley mumbled, looking back out at the driveway.
“Who else is caught up in that?” Sarah asked. “I don’t think Mom and Dad care one way or another. Greg’s excited about it, maybe. But the older boys couldn’t care less. They’re just glad that he’s a returned missionary so that they’ll have something to talk with him about. He’s not a farmer…”
Ashley quickly turned her head back to her sister.
“That’s it? Isn’t it?” Sarah raised her eyebrows. “This is about Paul!”
“No, it’s not about Paul,” Ashley snapped at her. “Okay, maybe a little bit. He’s not happy about all this. Especially about the fact that Caleb is wealthy. I think it makes him think that he doesn’t stand a chance…” Her voice trailed off.
“What are you going to do about this, Ashley?” Sarah asked her, more seriously than she’d asked anything else so far. She wasn’t teasing her little sister anymore. She was concerned about the mess that she’d gotten herself into.
“I don’t know, Sarah.” Ashley looked down at her hands, pulling at the jagged edges of her fingernails and wishing that she’d taken the time to clean herself up a bit. She’d have to remember to paint her nails or something before he took her to meet his parents. It would probably be awhile before that happened anyway, so she wasn’t really all that worried. “Paul’s really jealous. And I don’t blame him. He has reason to be. I really like Caleb.” Ashley’s voice was no more than a whisper. She looked back up at her sister.
“But you really like Paul too.” It wasn’t a question, it was a statement.
“No, Sarah. I love Paul.”
“Then why are you doing this to him?” Sarah asked. It wasn’t an accusation, it was more concern.
“Because when I’m with Caleb, I forget all about Paul.” She smiled just a little. “And when I’m with Paul, I can’t even remember Caleb’s name sometimes.”
“That’s funny.” Sarah lightened the mood a little. “I haven’t been able to forget his name since the first time he pulled in our driveway.”
“Speaking of which—” Ashley stood all the way up. “Here they come.”
She was nervous again.
“Mom!” Ashley called up the stairs. “The guys are back!”
“I’ll be down in a few minutes, Honey.” Her mom called down. “Take him in to watch football with the boys or something. Dinner will be ready in a little while.”
Ashley walked over to watch Caleb and Greg laughing as they came up to the house. They were bonding. She wasn’t sure if that was good or not. If her family didn’t approve of Caleb, it was going to make her choices a heck of a lot easier. It looked like that wasn’t going to be a problem. She smiled lightly. The boys bounded up the steps and in the door, slipping out of their coats and shoes, still laughing and joking with each other.
“Did you guys have fun?” Ashley asked them.
“Yeah, your brother’s a great driver.” Caleb smiled down at her.
“And he didn’t even crash your pretty car,” Sarah said from the other side of the kitchen where she was still leaning against the island.
Ashley noticed for the first time that her sister had taken a little extra time curling her hair that day and picking out a dark blue sweater that looked good with her eyes. She felt a twinge of jealousy and wondered if that was what Paul felt about Caleb. No, she thought. The jealousy Paul feels goes way beyond this.
“I didn’t really have the time to get to meet you the other day,” Sarah practically cooed at him, walking around the island and sticking out her arm to shake his hand. “I’m Sarah. Ashley’s older sister.”
Ashley couldn’t help notice the slight emphasis on the ‘older’ part, but Caleb didn’t seem fazed by it. He just reached out his hand and shook Sarah’s just like he would anyone else. Then he turned back to Ashley and took her hand gently.
“I hear a football game on in the other room,” he said quietly. “Let’s go see who’s winning. Not that I know much about who’s in the playoffs. I’ve been so busy up at the hospital.”
“How much longer do you have in your program, Caleb?” Sarah followed them into the living room and sat down on the arm of her father’s chair. Their dad got up and shook Caleb’s hand.
“Nice seeing you again, Caleb. How’d my son do? Any dents?”
“Nothing too drastic.” Caleb laughed lightly. “He’s a fine driver.”
Caleb sat down on a chair opposite Ashley’s dad, then turned back to Sarah.
“My classes and clinical rotations are done this spring when I graduate in May, but my residency is a five year program. So it’s still going to be awhile.”
“Caleb,” Ashley spoke quietly. “Can I get you something to drink? It’s going to be a little while longer before dinner is ready.”
“I think you promised me a glass of milk, if I remember correctly.” He looked up at her with a grin and winked. She smiled lightly and walked out of the room, dragging her sister by the arm as she left.
“What are you doing?” Ashley asked in a loud whisper. “You… are flirting with my date!”
“Look who’s jealous now.” Sarah laughed at her. “You’d better get him a nice cold glass of milk before he dies of thirst.”
With that, Sarah skipped up the steps, laughing lightly at her sister. Ashley watched her leave, then turned back to the refrigerator. She carried a tall glass of milk back in and handed it to Caleb. Then she found a chair next to him and settled in to watch a little football, which she had grown to really like.
“Mmm, this really is good,” Caleb spoke quietly to her, setting the glass down on the end table and smiling at her. “Your dad tells me that MSU is going to the Rose Bowl. That’s pretty cool.”
“Yeah,” she replied. “Our rival. U of M didn’t even make it into the playoffs.”
She was reminded of a conversation from last summer where Paul had chided her that MSU had a better team than U of M. I guess he was right, she thought. She needed to stop thinking about Paul and focus on the man who was sitting beside her.
“Did you ever play? Like in high school or anything?” She doubted it. He didn’t look like the type. He was tall, and strong, but not built like a linebacker or anything.
“Oh, yeah, I almost went pro.” His smile and half laugh made her realize that he was completely joking. “Homeschooled, remember?” he whispered.
That caught Donnie’s attention from across the room. “You got to be homeschooled? Lucky! I had to sit through four boring years of English and Math. Like I’m going to need that working on the farm,” he mumbled at the end.
“How come you didn’t homeschool us, Mom?” Steve looked up at their mom. Ashley hadn’t realized that she’d walked in the room.
“Because I’m not smart enough,” she teased her son. “Nor do I have the patience to deal with your mouth.” She gave him a little shove.
“I don’t believe that for a second, Sister Hardman,” Caleb responded, obviously complimenting her. “You couldn’t have turned out such nice children if you weren’t pretty amazing yourself. Besides—” he looked back over at the boys. “My mom’s not actually that smart. She just knows where to purchase the good workbooks and computer programs.” They laughed lightly, looking back at the game.
“So, you studied in Europe? Is that correct?” Deanna asked Caleb.
“Back and forth,” he replied. “We lived in Atlanta mostly, though.”
“What brought you to Michigan?” Donnie asked.
“My dad retired, and they bought a place close to my mom’s parents. She wanted us to get to know our grandma before she gets too old.”
“Where’d you serve your mission?” Steve interjected.
Ashley was glad that they’d gotten past the question she was dreading might come next. The ‘what did your dad do for a living’ question. She took a deep breath and let it out with a sigh of relief. She knew it would come out sooner or later, she just hoped it would be much later.
“California, San Diego Mission,” Caleb answered, “And you?” He looked back and forth between the two older boys.
“Texas, McAllen Mission,” Steve offered.
“Kansas, Wichita Mission,” Donnie added.
“So, are you guys both in college still?” Caleb asked.
“I am,” Steve replied. “Donnie here never had much use for it.”
“What the heck do I need college for? My father has taught me everything I need to know to run this farm. And I’m darn good at it.”
Ashley noticed their dad look over at his son with pride.
“That’s cool,” Caleb said. “It doesn’t take a fancy degree to know one’s worth. There’s something to be said for hard work, determination, and skill. Steve, what’s your major?” Caleb turned back to Steve.
“Philosophy,” Steve answered with a straight face.
Caleb’s jaw dropped slightly.
“I’m kidding.” Steve reached over and pushed Caleb’s shoulder. “I’m majoring in Business Management. Nothing exciting.”
“Well, that’s really good. Businesses do need managers.” Caleb visibly relaxed.
Ashley was afraid Caleb was going to add to it that his dad ran a large company, but was relieved when he stopped and smiled up at her with a little wink.
“Well, I think dinner is about ready,” Deanna interrupted. Ashley looked at the television and noticed that it was half-time. Her mom was very good at planning these things. She’d had sons, and a husband, long enough to know what the real priorities were. “Why don’t you start the grill, Stan? And I’ll go dish out everything else.”
“Sounds good.” Dad got up from his chair. Her brothers and Caleb all got up as well, and in a show of male bonding they all went out to the back patio and stood there freezing while the steaks cooked.
“I like him,” Deanna spoke quietly to her daughter as they were gathering the food to take to the dining room. “He’s really nice.”
“He is, isn’t he?” Ashley practically sighed. She glanced out the patio door again, watching him talk and laugh with her dad and brothers.
Deanna came over and put her arm around her daughter’s shoulders. “Open heart, open mind, right?” she whispered.
“Right.” Ashley looked over at her mom. “And no commitments… yet. To either of them.”
“How’s Paul doing with this?”
“Not great,” Ashley said. “But he knows that he doesn’t really have a choice. If he wants to continue to see me he’s going to have to accept that I’m going to see Caleb a little, too.”
“A little?” Mom looked at her with raised eyebrows.
“Caleb is going to have to be understanding as well,” Ashley replied. “Either one of them could run off screaming at any moment, and then my decision would be a lot easier! Or both could…” her voice trailed off and she turned back to look out the patio door.
“What’s meant to be, will be.” Deanna patted Ashley on the shoulder, then turned back to the food. “You have plenty of time.”
Plenty of time, Ashley thought. And two great guys waiting to see who will win out in the end. Plenty of time. Ugh. She turned back and helped her mom carry the casserole out to the dining room.
Mrs. Davis slipped through the door with a pie in one hand and the diaper bag in the other. Paul was right behind his mom with his two -year-old sister Stephanie in his arms. She was all wrapped up in a fluffy coat with a big hood wrapped up around her ears. She had her arms around her brother’s neck and rosy cheeks from the cold. She got a big smile on her face when she saw Ashley.
Ashley reached for little Stephanie, took her from Paul’s arms, and helped her out of her coat.
Paul stomped his boots at the back door, shaking snow from all parts of him. It had really picked up outside and looked like it was going to be a white Christmas. He slipped off his coat and hung it on the rack by the back door, then walked over to where Ashley sat helping Stephanie, and leaned down to give her a kiss.
Paul’s kiss surprised Ashley. He had never kissed her in front of any of their family members. “Merry Christmas,” he whispered.
“Merry Christmas to you as well.” She looked up at him and smiled shyly then went back to helping Stephanie with her little boots.
The rest of the Davis family arrived within minutes of one another, having trekked across the path between their two properties. The two families gave each other hugs and well wishes and smiles, and Ashley could tell the evening was going to be great.
She loved the Davis’. These were her family, as much as they were Paul’s. If she did choose to marry him, they would all fit together very nicely.
Stephanie didn’t want to leave her side, and even insisted that she sit by her at dinner. Paul sat on Ashley’s other side, close enough that his knee was touching hers.
He was in a nice sweater over a button-down shirt with clean blue jeans, so she knew that his mother must have insisted that he get dressed up for dinner. He looked very nice, and Ashley couldn’t help smile up at him shyly quite a few times during dinner.
When it was time for the blessing and everyone’s heads were bowed, Paul reached for her hand under the table and held it. His callused hands felt good. They were big and strong, but gentle and loving. She didn’t know if it was the holiday, or the way he was cleaned up in nice clothes, or his cologne, or the talk she’d had with her mom a few hours earlier, but she could feel love radiating from him. She really liked the way that felt.
When the dishes had been cleared, the pies had been set aside for later, and the family all gathered in the living room around the tree, it was time for the kids’ favorite part of the evening – gift exchange.
The kids drew names to give each other a gift. Even though the Hardman kids were all grown up, and the Davis kids were still little, they all still loved the ritual.
It was obvious that eight-year-old Samantha hadn’t gone to the store to purchase the pretty jewelry box for Sarah, and ten-year-old Mark hadn’t saved up all year for the baseball that he gave Greg, but they both grinned as if they had helped pick them out. It was endearing.
All the little kids got games or toys or books or something fun, and everyone opened boxes and started putting things together. Ashley had drawn five-year-old Shawn’s name and had picked out a neat train set that required a little bit of help to set up. Greg jumped right in to ‘help’ although it looked like he was having just as much fun as little Shawn.
It seemed that no one had drawn Ashley’s name, because when all the gifts had been handed out, she had not received anything. She didn’t say anything about it to anyone, but suddenly Paul leaned over to her and asked if they shouldn’t go out and check on the horses, make sure they had enough feed and blankets to get through the cold night.
Ashley grinned up at him, understanding that it was a ploy to get her alone. Ashley’s mom smiled at her as she and Paul quietly slipped from the room to go grab their coats and put on their boots.
They held hands as they walked silently to the barn. Ashley walked straight over to where her horse Shelly was quietly crunching on some hay, and Paul came up behind her to wrap his arms around her waist. She leaned back to rest against him and closed her eyes for just a moment.
“Merry Christmas,” he whispered to her again and she opened her eyes as he held a little square box in front of her. It was too big to be terrifying, so she took it carefully in her hand and loosed the bow. It held inside a delicate and beautiful gold necklace with a small heart charm. “I saw this and thought of you.”
“Paul, you shouldn’t have spent so much money on me,” she whispered back. She touched the sweet little gold heart and it seemed to radiate the same love for her that she had felt from him all evening. “It’s beautiful.”
“Ah, it wasn’t that much.” He took the box from her and took the necklace out. She waited while he worked with the little clasp until he placed it around her neck and closed the latch. His strong hands felt very gentle as he reached up and adjusted the little heart so that it rested softly against her chest. Finally, he looked up into her eyes. “It looks beautiful on you.” His voice was barely a whisper.
“Thank you, so much.” She felt her cheeks flush, as she had so many times that evening. She wished that she could blame the cold, but she knew better.
Paul reached his hands up and held both sides of her face, very gently. Her heart beat sped up and her breath quickened. Very slowly his face came down to hers and he held her gaze as he kissed her softly. She felt dizzy and sort of like she was going to fall over.
He let go of her face and reached his hands around so that they rested on her lower back, holding her to him. She didn’t resist. She didn’t hesitate. She reached her arms up around his neck and kissed him firmly and passionately, standing there in the barn on Christmas Eve with the snow falling outside and Shelly crunching hay in her stall.
It felt like the world stood still and it had been the happiest night of her life.
Opening Act: Buxton Peak Meets Infusion Deep is ready to be published. If you'd like to request a complimentary Advance Review Copy (ARC) of the book, click here to join Julie L. Spencer's review team and a copy will be emailed to you.
Opening Act: Infusion Deep Meets Buxton Peak is ready to be published. If you'd like to request a complimentary Advance Review Copy (ARC) of the book, click here to join Lara Wynter's review team and a copy will be emailed to you.
Opening Act: Buxton Peak Meets Infusion Deep is ready to be published.
If you'd like to request a complimentary Advance Review Copy (ARC) of the book, click here to join Julie L. Spencer's review team and a copy will be emailed to you.
Opening Act: Infusion Deep Meets Buxton Peak is ready to be published.
If you'd like to request a complimentary Advance Review Copy (ARC) of the book, click here to join Lara Wynter's review team and a copy will be emailed to you.
The Farmer's Daughter
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