“Thanksgiving is not an easy holiday for vegetarians,” Winnie said. They were cruising up Route 14 on the way from Ann Arbor to Farmington Hills. It was just long enough a drive for Joel to pick up on Winnie’s anxiety about spending the day with her family.
“I can imagine.” Joel reached over and lifted Winnie’s hand into his. “Will there be anything on the table you’re able to eat?”
“The stuffing I brought with me.” She held up the casserole dish that was resting in her lap. “My mom always includes giblets in her dressing.”
“Doesn’t she understand the concept of being a vegetarian?” Joel asked, incredulous that Winnie’s mother wouldn’t go out of her way to accommodate her daughter’s dietary needs.
“She thinks I’m just being difficult,” Winnie said, looking down at her lap with a frown. “Or a picky eater.”
“Why are you a vegetarian? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Originally for the health benefits. But the longer I go without eating meat, the less my body is able to tolerate meat.”
“That makes sense, I suppose.” Something occurred to Joel. “Will it bother you if I eat meat?”
“No, you’re fine.” Winnie waved her hand dismissively. “This is one of those situations where it’s me, not you. I’m not so much an animal rights activist as I am just disgusted with the whole concept of eating a dead animal.”
Winnie seemed more and more closed off and quiet the closer they got to her parents’ house and Joel wished he could take her in his arms and make the anxiety go away.
The LaFleur’s classy home was in an upscale neighborhood in a secluded cul-de-sac on the golf course of an elite country club. When Joel pulled into the driveway, Winnie didn’t reach for the door handle but clutched the casserole dish in her hands.
“You okay?” Joel asked, trying to soothe her anxiety.
“I’ll be fine.” She nodded once definitively, then opened the passenger-side door.
Joel hurried around to hold open the door and helped her carry the casserole dish. Not that it was heavy. It just seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do. He wanted to make a good impression on her family.
He needn’t have worried. Winnie’s younger brother, Gage, latched onto Joel immediately by handing him a football and inviting him into the backyard. He looked back at Winnie as if to ask if she needed him to stay inside with her but she waved him on telling him that she would help out in the kitchen until dinner.
As soon as Marshall realized that Joel was there, he abandoned his girlfriend with the other women and met Joel in the backyard along with Aunt Violet’s son, Leon. Now they had two-on-two.
The teams would have been evenly matched if any of them were decent quarterbacks, which they weren’t. Pretty soon guys from nearby houses joined them and eventually the fairway on hole three had been transformed into a makeshift football field. Good thing for the holiday or they’d have gotten hit in the head by golf balls or kicked out of the club for defiling the fairway.
Joel was on one team and Marshall was on the other, which meant they were each other’s fiercest competition. Facing off on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage grew more and more tense until Joel intercepted a ball intended for Marshall and got tackled so forcefully, he almost couldn’t get back up.
When he finally pulled himself off the frosty, nearly frozen grass, he got right in Marshall’s face. “What the heck was that for?”
Marshall shoved Joel so hard he almost hit the ground again. “That was for making bedroom eyes at my little sister!”
“Got news for you, big brother, your little sister is all grown up now and can make her own decisions whose bedroom she sleeps in.”
“You cockroach!” Marshall lowered his shoulder to ram into Joel’s midsection, but Joel was ready for him and didn’t let Marshall gain any ground. “Keep your hands off my sister!”
Suddenly Gage was pulling Marshall away and some other guy was pushing Joel back even while Marshall continued yelling obscenities toward Joel.
Multiple voices bombarded Joel’s senses from multiple directions, and he tried to calm his breathing. Finally, a voice he recognized.
“Joel, are you okay?” Winnie tucked herself into Joel’s embrace and wrapped her arms around his waist. He pulled her close and bent down to kiss the top of her head.
“I’m fine. Your brother and I just had a disagreement about… my interception.” Joel glared across the way at Marshall. “He didn’t want me to rush the ball for a touchdown.”
“Humph,” Marshall said with a scowl. “You need to keep your hands off the ball.”
“You need to control your temper.”
“That’s enough, boys,” Warren La Fleur interrupted. “It’s time to get cleaned up for dinner. Your mother prepared a beautiful meal, and I won’t have you ruining Thanksgiving because you’re fighting over”—Warren glanced at his daughter— “a football game.”
Joel narrowed his eyes one more time at Marshall, then wrapped his arm around Winnie’s shoulder and walked with her toward the house.
The evening before Thanksgiving, Joel showed up at Winnie’s apartment. They’d been texting and snap chatting and talking on the phone off and on for days, but she hadn’t seen him since the dinner with her parents the previous Saturday.
When she opened the door, she could hardly breathe. He was so handsome. But it was more than. He was confident and cocky. In a really good way.
“Sorry to just show up out of the blue like this,” Joel said, stepping in the door. “Am I interrupting? Were you doing something this evening?”
“I was hoping you would call.” Winnie shrugged. “Does that count as doing something?”
“In the old-fashioned kind of way, I sort of did just call.” Joel took her hand and brought it to her lips to kiss her knuckles.
“I like the old-fashioned kind of way.” Winnie stepped closer and tucked herself into his arms, noticing how he engulfed her in a very protective embrace. “To what do I owe the honor?” She continued their formal cadence as she pulled away and looked up at him.
“Just wanted to talk about Thanksgiving.” Joel leaned down and kissed the tip of her nose. “Tell me who all I’m going to meet tomorrow. Anyone besides your parents and brothers?”
“My grandparents will probably be there and possibly my Aunt Violet. They’re all really nice.”
“I’m sure I’ll get along with them just fine.” He lowered his gaze to the side as if nervous about something.
“What’s the matter?” Winnie took Joel by the hand and tugged him toward the couch. “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to. I’m sorry my mom pressured you into attending our family Thanksgiving when we barely know each other.”
“Believe me, I want to go,” Joel assured her. “I was just thinking about the interesting conversation I had with your brothers. Are they always that overprotective of you?”
“I don’t know,” she said, thankful that’s all he was concerned about. “I’ve never brought a boyfriend home to meet them.”
“Never?” Joel raised his eyebrows.
“Nope. Never.” Winnie shook her head slowly.
“Well, I’m honored to be your first.” Joel lifted his chin with confidence.
“You’d be my first… at a lot of things.” She was suddenly bashful, admitting more about herself in that one sentence then the whole rest of the conversation.
“Really? First ever?” A hint of a grin appeared and then Joel pulled his face back into a mask of seriousness. “I’m glad we haven’t yet.”
“Why?” Winnie tried to not get her feelings hurt.
“I was glad I was able to answer your brother’s question truthfully.”
“Yeah, that would have been pretty awkward,” she agreed.
“We can’t have sex tonight,” Joel blurted out. “No matter how hard I beg.”
“Why?” Again, Winnie’s insecurities hung in her question.
“Because they would know,” Joel said. “They would see it in our eyes. Even if we tried to pretend nothing had happened, they’d notice the change in our countenance.”
“Would you want to have sex with me tonight?” Winnie felt very vulnerable even asking. “Like if we weren’t going to see my family tomorrow afternoon would you want to spend the night tonight?”
“I would totally want to spend the night.” Joel’s voice lowered into a sensual husky tone that conveyed more than his words alone. This somehow made her feel better. Winnie knew she was beautiful, but she didn’t get asked out very often because she intimidated most guys. Joel didn’t seem intimidated by her.
“Maybe tomorrow?” Winnie suggested. “After we get home from visiting my parents?” This seemed like a very strange conversation to have when they’d barely kissed before.
“Is your roommate going to be home?” Joel lifted his gaze and glanced around the apartment as if just remembering to check if they were alone before having this very personal conversation.
“Nope, she’s gone for the whole weekend.” Winnie wiggled her eyebrows playfully. Her heart raced at the prospect of continuing the conversation they’d started the night they’d gone out to dinner for the first time. She wasn’t sure why she was nervous. All her friends had guys over, usually the night they met. This was finally her chance to know what that was like.
“Gone for the whole weekend, huh?” There was a playful glint in Joel’s eyes. “I think I’m going to look forward to tomorrow night.”
“That will make tomorrow visiting with family a lot more tolerable knowing that we’re coming home together.”
“I like the sound of that.” He rubbed his hand up and down her back as if comforting her, but not in a suggestive way.
“What? Coming home together?” That made her feel even better than the prospect of sleeping with him.
“Yeah. I mean, I know we haven’t been dating long but I think spending the weekend together would be a great way to get to know each other.”
“Have you ever… you know?”
“Yeah.” He didn’t elaborate and she didn’t ask. “You?”
“Not even close. I’ve been too focused on dance to even have a boyfriend.”
“A boyfriend isn’t really necessary. Some girls just want a hookup.”
“Well, I don’t,” Winnie said with confidence. “If we do have sex, it will be because I like you a lot and want to develop a relationship with you. I don’t want this to be a hookup. I don’t want you to leave me after sleeping with me. I don’t want you to use sex as some sort of litmus test to decide whether or not we’re compatible and whether or not we could have a long-term relationship.”
“I won’t do that.” Joel reached up and tucked a lock of hair behind Winnie’s ear. “I promise.
“I’m sure every guy says that to the girl that he’s trying to hook up with.”
“Yeah, but I’m not trying to hook up with you.” Joel shook his head and sighed. “I want to date you. Seriously. Like to give a relationship a go.”
“You’re the first guy to even take me on a second date.” That was hard for Winnie to admit. “Guys are usually intimidated by me or make assumptions about what kind of date I want.”
“You have me intrigued,” Joel said. “What kind of date do guys think you want? And more importantly, what kind of date do you want?”
“Guys think I want something formal and uppity, like an orchestral performance or poetry reading.” She lowered her gaze and reached for Joel’s hand. “But what I really want is to lay on the couch and make out.”
“When was the last time someone laid with you on the couch and made out?”
“Never,” she admitted. “No guy has even asked what I want to do for a date.”
“We’re going to need to remedy this oversight on behalf of the entire male population.” Joel tackled Winnie playfully, capturing her in his grip, supporting her weight in his strong arms. Even though he was on top of her on the sofa, no part of him was actually touching her body.
Winnie’s heart raced. Finally, she was going to get her dream date. A guy she really, really liked was going to make out with her while lying on the couch together. Maybe the reason she’d never had this chance before was because she hadn’t met the right guy yet. Maybe this meant that Joel was the right guy. Maybe he was her forever guy.
His face was just far enough away that they could look into each other’s eyes and he seemed to be searching hers, maybe looking for the same answer she was seeking. Was she his forever girl?
Joel lowered his face to hers and she lifted her head to meet him halfway. Best first kiss ever. Not that she had anything to compare it to. But his lips were gentle yet confident, sensual and romantic, passionate but controlled, comfortable and safe, like she could trust him with her whole heart.
She relaxed into his arms and let him kiss her for a long, long time.
What do think of the name Hidden Swan?
How am I supposed to keep my hands off this girl the whole time we’re out to dinner with her parents? Joel almost couldn’t stop himself from wrapping his arm around the back of Winnie’s chair. He wanted to hold her hand and smooth the flyaway strands of hair that had fallen from her bun, and hold her delicate face in his while he gently pressed his lips to hers.
He cleared his throat and forced his thoughts back to a more appropriate topic, like the question her father had asked. Where did he grow up? Right.
“I’m originally from southern California and my parents still live there,” Joel said, giving up the fight to wrap his arm around the back of Winnie’s chair. “That’s one of the reasons I’m excited to go to the Rose Bowl. My friends all think I’m a traitor for coming to U of M instead of staying and playing for USC.”
“That is a long way to come for school.” Winnie’s father, Warren LaFleur creased his brow. “What brought you to Michigan?”
“The finest medical school in the world.” Joel lifted his chin with pride.
“Do you have a specialty you’re considering?” Teri LaFleur asked. Winnie’s mom was beautiful and upper class to a fault even while trying to fit in. She lifted a glass of wine and took a sip, passing the proverbial baton.
“Sports medicine,” Joel said. “That’s one of the reasons I was fascinated about Winnie’s injury.” He looked over at the gorgeous brunette sitting beside him and lost the will to keep from tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. Then he winked at her. Oh my gosh, if he didn’t stop, he was going to do something crazy like pull her into his arms and make out with her right in front of her parents.
“Are you sleeping with my sister?” Marshall, Winnie’s older brother folded his arms across his chest and narrowed his eyes at Joel.
“What? No!” Did he sound overly defensive? Yeah, a little. Joel gulped. “We just met a few days ago.”
Winnie coughed and reached for a drink of her water, probably thinking the same thing he was, remembering how close they’d come a few days ago. If her roommate hadn’t been there and they’d had her apartment to themselves, the ice cream would have been a midnight snack instead of a barely satiating alternative.
“Marshall, why would you say such a thing?” their mother hissed at him. “That’s not the type of thing you blurt out at dinner the first time you meet your sister’s new boyfriend.”
Marshall didn’t even glance at his mother or release Joel’s gaze. “I don’t trust you.” He seemed to have vocalized what Winnie’s dad and younger brother were thinking because they all had their eyes trained on Joel.
“I don’t blame you,” Joel said with confidence. “I’m a twenty-one-year-old guy who is enamored with your beautiful sister. I’d like to continue to get to know you all better and perhaps gain your trust. And I’d like to take her on a couple more dates. Not just because she’s elegant and talented and funny. I really kinda like her.” Joel turned again to meet Winnie’s gaze and she smiled back at him, almost batting her long, feathery eyelashes at him. Joel almost melted.
“Why don’t you come have dinner with us for Thanksgiving,” Winnie’s mom suggested. All eyes turned to her and her husband’s jaw dropped.
“Sweetheart, we just met this young man,” Winnie’s dad said. “We can’t just invite him over for dinner. We don’t even know him.”
“Well, if he’s going to be dating our daughter, wouldn’t you like to get to know him?” She had a valid point. “Did you have any plans on Thanksgiving?” Teri turned her gaze back to Joel.
“My family is in California, so… not really.” Joel glanced at Winnie and raised his eyebrows as if asking her opinion.
Winnie surprised him by reaching for his hand and interlacing her tiny fingers with his. “I’d love to have you come with me to my parent’s house for the afternoon.”
“Well then I guess it’s settled.” Joel squeezed her hand gently.
“Before I let you in the door to my home on Thanksgiving, you need to pass one test,” Warren said. Joel gulped. “Who’s going to win? Green Bay Packers? Or Detroit Lions?”
“No self-respecting Michigander would bet against Stafford,” Joel said with confidence, not really answering the question literally. Knowing the Lions lost more often than won on Thanksgiving, there was less than fifty-fifty odds of getting that correct. The more important underlying question was whose team are you on? “I’ll proudly sit by your side and cheer on the Lions.”
“You considering the draft?” their younger brother, Gage asked.
“Nope. I’m considering medical school. That’s the only reason I came to Michigan.” Joel glanced sidelong at Winnie. “I’m really glad I did.”
Rather than answering with words, Winnie gave his hand a squeeze. The message clear. I’m glad you came to Michigan too.
“He said he was going to try to steal the ball and run it back for a touchdown and point up here as if to say, ‘That was for you, Winnie!’ just because I teased him in the smoothie shop.” Winnie sighed, waving her hand in front of her face like she was fluttery inside.
From her seat in their reserved box at The Big House, she could see the entire University of Michigan football stadium, all one hundred and seven thousand seats of it. All she really cared about was the cute defensive cornerback down there on the sidelines wearing the lucky number thirteen jersey.
“Sounds like you kind of like this guy.” Her dad’s statement sounded more like a question. Warren LaFleur was a no-nonsense kind of guy. If he wanted to know about a guy who was trying to date his only daughter, he wouldn’t beat around the bush.
“Well, yeah, I mean, Joel’s really sweet. I think you’re going to like him, dad.”
“And how long have you been dating this guy?”
“Technically?” Winnie hesitated. “Just one actual date, unless you count the time he carried me from the smoothie shop all the way across campus to the trainer’s.”
“Carried?” Her older brother, Marshall asked. “What do you mean by that?”
“Well, I had a sore knee and so he offered to give me a lift so I didn’t have to hire an Uber.”
“What did you do to your knee, sweetheart?” Her mom, Teri asked from where she sat at one of the high tables near the windows of the box. Her perfectly coiffed hair and manicure contrasted with her attempt to look like just another football fan. Her Navy cashmere sweater was accented by a maize and blue striped knit scarf and gold jewelry. The country club look made her seem like she was at the stadium to show her status in society rather than because she was a die-hard fan of the game.
“Nothing, I’d just overdone it and needed some ice and anti-inflammatory treatments.” Winnie waved off her mom’s concerns. “With only two weeks until my performance, we weren’t taking any chances.”
“Who’s we?” Why did her dad sound suspicious?
“My ballet instructor and me…” Winnie raised her eyebrows. “Why?”
“You and this boy aren’t making plans together, are you?”
“Dad… no. We went on one date. What kind of plans would we be making together?”
“Some men like to control their girlfriends.” As if that explained her dad questioning their involvement. “Young, impressionable girls can be prey for big guys like him.”
“Twenty-one is hardly young, I have a mind of my own, and he’s not my boyfriend.”
“Turnover,” Gage called from his place by the window. Her younger brother had binoculars pressed up against the window to view right down onto the field. Box seats in the largest stadium in the United States were prestigious, but pretty far away from the action. “Defense is coming onto the field.”
“Ooh, is Joel out there?” Winnie hurried over to stand beside her brother, holding out her hand for the binoculars. “I never thought I’d be so excited for us to lose the ball.”
“Yeah, it does kind of seem counterintuitive, doesn’t it,” Gage said. “Here.” He handed over the binoculars and Winnie pressed them against the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of his jersey.
“And she says he’s not her boyfriend,” Marshall mumbled in jest.
“Well, he could be someday.” Winnie shrugged. “I have to make sure I can say I attended all his games.”
“Is he going to attend your performance?” her mom asked.
“I don’t know, Mom, that’s two weeks from now.”
“If you’re still dating by then, you should invite him.”
“I’ll be sure to do that.” Winnie and her younger brother rolled their eyes at each other. She wasn’t sure if she was more annoyed about her mom’s assumption that they may not still be dating by then or because she insinuated that Winnie needed to be reminded to invite her boyfriend to her performance. Wait, didn’t Winnie just insist to her family that Joel wasn’t her boyfriend? Whatever. She smiled a secret smile and continued watching the game.
After a few plays, the defense successfully stopped the Bronco’s progression and brought possession back to the Wolverines. Darn. Wait, what? This whole cheering for the defense thing was a little confusing. She should be impressed with their ability to stop the opposing team rather than disappointed that he was coming off the field.
They had the opportunity to take the field again after Michigan scored a touchdown and Western got the ball back. There were a few uneventful plays and then suddenly number thirteen was running toward the end zone. He’d done it! Joel had stolen the ball and run it back for a touchdown, just like he said he was going to do.
Joel took a moment in the endzone, palming the ball in his right hand and holding it up as if to throw it right up to the line of box seats. He wouldn’t know which one she was in, so he basically just pointed in the general direction.
Winnie almost melted. He was so hot wearing his full uniform. She kind of hoped this fledgling relationship did last long enough for him to attend her performance. He’d like to have him see her in her finest hour just like she was seeing him.
Two hours later after the Wolverines had beat the Broncos, Winnie and her family waited near the exit to the locker rooms so that she could introduce them to Joel.
Joel walked out of the locker room talking to his best friend, Shane, the guy Winnie had dubbed football player number one. Joel’s smile broadened when he noticed them, and he told Shane he’d see him later.
“Mr. and Mrs. LaFleur, what a pleasure to meet you.” Joel reached out a hand to her father first and then her mother.
“You can call me Warren,” her dad said.
“And I’m Teri,” her mom said.
“Joel, this is my older brother, Marshall. He’s twenty-three, and my younger brother, Gage. He’s nineteen and is the traitor attending MSU.”
“Michigan State’s a great college,” Joel acknowledged. They made small talk around the group about what everyone was studying and then Winnie’s dad surprised them by inviting Joel to join them for dinner. Joel glanced at Winnie and raised his eyebrows as if to ask if she thought that was okay.
“Sounds good to me.” Winnie shrugged with a grin. “I’m game if you are.” With Joel at the table, everyone would be focused on him and she could eat as little or as much as she wanted without the spotlight. Her mom was almost as obsessed about making sure Winnie put some meat on her bones as her ballet mistress was.
Winnie didn’t see the big deal. She wasn’t that much underweight. She planned to increase her calorie intake after her performance when she no longer had talent scouts in the auditorium. Until then, she was quietly controlling everything that went in her mouth.
Having Joel with her at dinner was just the distraction she needed to avoid questions from her mother. She draped her hand through his outstretched arm and led the way to the parking lot.
Winnie tried not to gag at the sheer quantity of food Joel had in front of him. If she was going to have any chance dating a football player, she was going to need to get over that reflex. She’d been upfront with him that she was a vegetarian and light eater, so he knew not to take her to a steak house or something. Winnie decided that if she kept talking, he would keep eating and not sit there watching her pick at her meal.
Joel asked her a few leading questions, and she took lots of time elaborating. Where’d you grow up? How many brothers and sisters do you have? What do your parents do for a living? How long have you been dancing? What are your plans after college? He seemed fascinated with her and listened intently. That was refreshing.
When Joel had made a dent into what he’d ordered, Winnie scraped half of her food off her plate and onto his, claiming she would never be able to eat all that and didn’t want it to go to waste. Which was true. She didn’t mention that she didn’t want the food to end up on her waist. Leotards showed every pound, and she had a performance in less than three weeks.
She picked at the other half of her food, taking a small bite here and there between stories. Just enough that she didn’t look like she was sitting there with her hands folded in her lap not eating.
Why guys thought they needed to take girls on dates to restaurants was beyond Winnie’s comprehension. Eating was such a private activity, necessary to stay alive, but not something she wanted to do in public with people watching and analyzing every bite she took.
Winnie had dozens of questions she wanted to ask him too but decided to wait until he was finished. Until then she kept talking.
“So, when my dad started working for Chrysler, we settled in Farmington Hills and they enrolled me in a private school for performing arts. Of course, I’d been dancing since I was old enough to walk. My mom sometimes jokes that my first pair of shoes were ballet slippers. She’s not far off. I’ve always wanted something light and soft on my feet, kind of like a snuggly pair of socks.”
“What’s your dad do at Chrysler?” Joel asked after swallowing and taking a drink of his ice water. No serious athlete would have a beer with dinner this close to playoffs. Winnie wondered if he ever drank in the off season but decided to wait for another day to have that conversation. Dancers didn’t have an off season. Dancers danced. Almost every day. From Joel’s defined muscles and trim physique, she’d guess he worked out every day too.
“He’s a vice president of marketing,” Winnie said. “Plus, did I tell you he loves football? He comes to almost every one of your home games. We have box seats.”
“Now that his daughter’s dating a football player, he’s going to be doubly motivated to come to the home games.” Joel raised his eyebrows.
“Does that mean you plan to take me out on another date?” Winnie asked playfully, her heart racing with excitement. She didn’t usually get this excited around a guy she just met. Usually, she got bored halfway through the first date. Snooty guys stereotyped her as an uppity ballerina who only wanted to go to some upscale coffee shop and listen to bad poetry or an open mic night. No, thank you.
She’d rather go to a sporting event or rock concert than an orchestra performance or lecture. The perfect date would be lying on the sofa watching a romantic movie and making out afterward. Probably too soon for that when they’d just met the day before. Of course, he was a testosterone-driven guy in the prime of his life. He’d probably be up for anything she was willing to do. Wouldn’t hurt to ask.
“Want to come over and watch a movie… or something?”
“Check, please,” Joel called over to the waitress and they both laughed. Guess that was a yes. They waited as their server walked in their direction.
“You two aren’t interested in desert tonight?” The waitress asked, laying the bill in the middle of the table. Joel snatched the bill and already had his debit card out before the waitress could leave.
“Oh, I’m sure we’ll want desert later.” Joel wiggled his eyebrows at Winnie.
“I have ice cream in the freezer,” Winnie suggested, loving the direction this conversation was heading.
Joel looked up at the waitress. “We have ice cream in the freezer.”
“I’ll be right back with your receipt.” The waitress chuckled and walked away. She didn’t take long and then they were out in Joel’s car, a black Mustang that smelled like his cologne was competing with the new car smell and losing.
Winnie gave Joel directions to her apartment and then started into her own list of questions. “My turn to get to know you now that you’re not trying to replenish lost calories you burned off at practice this afternoon.”
“Is that what you think I was doing?” He laughed heartily. “I was hungry. I’m a growing boy.”
“How old are you, by the way?” she asked.
“Same.” Winnie kind of figured he was about her age because he seemed like a senior and serious about school. “Any NFL draft talk in the works?”
“Nah, I love football, but I want to be a doctor. Football was just my way of getting into U of M.”
“Is your family not well-off?” She wondered why he was driving a brand-new Mustang but needed scholarship money to pay for college. She ran her hand along the leather console.
“My family has plenty of money. But my GPA in high school was subpar. It was only through my prowess on the football field that I was able to convince them to let me in. They needed a good defensive cornerback. I needed to get into the top-rated medical school in the world.”
“So, you really are a cornerback?” Winnie impressed herself that she’d gotten that correct.
“Yeah, and I have no idea how you figured that out.” He raised his eyebrows and glanced sidelong at her, baiting her to tell him.
“With that bod, you were either a cornerback or a wide receiver, and for some reason you just don’t look like you play offense.”
“Are you saying you like my bod?” As if he needed confirmation.
“Nah, I’m really not into jocks,” she teased. “They can be such… jocks.”
“What kind of guys are you into? If not jocks?”
“Hmm… probably jocks.”
A little growl escaped the back of his throat as he turned into her complex. “Can we just skip the movie, postpone the ice cream, and get to the fun stuff?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” Winnie said, triumphant that her flirting had succeeded.
Joel held her hand as they walked up the stairway to her apartment, but they both sighed in frustration when they walked into find her roommate, Danielle had a few friends over.
After introducing Joel to everyone, they stepped over to the refrigerator and Winnie held open the freezer. With a smirk of resignation, she looked over at Joel and asked, “Ice cream?”
“Ice cream sounds great.” Joel leaned forward and placed a tiny kiss on her lips. Probably for the best. Good things come to those who wait, and Winnie had been waiting twenty-one years. What’s a few more days? She grabbed two spoons and the carton, and they settled onto the couch beside Danielle, resigned to hang out eating ice cream with friends.
Joel Anderson was still on cloud nine the day following when he met Winnie. The guys at football practice teased him about switching teams and joining the fine arts department so he could be her dance partner.
Little did they know how close to the mark they’d hit. He was planning to meet her at her studio after practice and take her out to dinner. He didn’t care. They could tease him all they wanted. He’d get the final laugh by hanging out with a gorgeous brunette for the evening.
Winnie was tall and elegant with legs that stretched on for miles, almond eyes brimming with mystery and intrigue. Olive skin tone that hinted of Mediterranean or Italian or Middle Eastern origin. Whatever it was about her, he wanted to peel back the onion layers and find out more.
This afternoon he needed to focus on upcoming games. The University of Michigan had appeared in the Rose Bowl twenty times, second only to University of Southern California. Joel and the boys intended to make it twenty-one. They were undefeated this season and rumored to be a shoe-in.
But first they had to get through Big Ten championships and that required kicking Ohio State right back to Columbus. Normally their toughest competition, Ohio State had a few key injuries and a tough year. Michigan should pull off a win, but not necessarily an easy win.
The week before Thanksgiving they had a non-conference game against Eastern Michigan that would be another throw away. Nonetheless, they treated every practice as if this week’s game was the most important.
Joel and the guys gave it all they had. As he stole the ball from an offensive running back, Joel couldn’t help smile about how Winnie had said if she was the ball he’d have her halfway to the endzone by now. As he spiked the ball in victory that day in practice, he thought, that one’s for you, babe.
Shane was the only guy on the team who had overheard that conversation and he razzed him on the way to the locker room.
“How’d that ball feel?” Shane nudged Joel’s shoulder. “Almost as heavy as your date last night? What was her name? Winifred?”
“Winnie, short for Edwina, which I think is an elegant name.” Joel sighed. “And I think the ball was heavier. That girl was light as a feather.”
“Light as a feather, stiff as a board,” Shane teased. “Sounds like a party game that’s ends with those long legs wrapped around you.”
“I was a perfect gentleman,” Joel said. “I deposited her safely on the trainer’s table, typed my cell phone number into her contacts list, and sent myself a text asking myself out to dinner.”
“How’d she react to that?” Shane asked with a congratulatory nod.
“She laughed and told me she gets out of practice this evening at seven, I’m picking her up in a little while.”
“Be careful with this woman, Joel,” Shane warned. “She’s out of your league.”
“Only if I let her be,” Joel said with confidence. “She doesn’t intimidate me in the least. She likes football, flirts with me shamelessly, and let me bench press her the night we met. Imagine what she’ll want to do after a few weeks of dating.”
“I’m telling you, she’s too much woman for you.” Shane was probably right but Joel was too egotistical to admit that. As they headed into separate showers, Shane called over his shoulder. “Hey, if she’s got a roommate or something, hook a brother up.”
“I’ll see what I can do, man.”
Joel forgot his promise on the walk from the stadium to the fine arts building, and by the time he snuck into the back of her practice room, carefully staying out of Winnie’s line of sight, he forgot his own name.
She was mesmerizing. Joel knew very little about ballet but had a sudden desire to learn more. He didn’t know the names of any of the moves, but watched as Winnie leapt into the air, spun on the tips of her toes and moved to the beat of a haunting piano arrangement of something Christmas-y and passionate.
He remembered the conversation from yesterday about her being flexible and she definitely was. He could imagine all kinds of ways to put that flexibility to good use.
When the music finally wound down to slower, controlled movements, Joel thought the dance was coming to an end. He was wrong. Whoever had created this piece of music suddenly pounded out the last few notes in a dramatic ending that was almost orgasmic. He could imagine the auditorium on their feet immediately following the conclusion of the dance and Edwina LaFleur stepping to the front of the stage, taking a bow while adoring fans threw roses at her feet.
Joel was breathless. Whoever this girl was, she was talented beyond Joel’s imagination. Shane was right. She was out of his league.
Did you miss the song? I've imbedded her performance piece below.
“You’re favoring your knee again,” Madame Jocie called over the majestic piano music pounding through the speakers in the otherwise empty practice room.
“It’s just been a long day,” Winnie called back, annoyed that her ballet instructor had interrupted her flow. “I just need some ice.” The music stopped abruptly but Winnie continued spinning on pointe, finishing her series of pirouettes without missing a beat.
Winnie didn’t need the music playing through the speakers in order to hear Jarrod Radnich’s arrangement of Carol of the Bells in her head. She only wished she could dance across the stage as rapidly and passionately as his fingers danced across the keys of his piano.
She ended her series of turns, landing in fourth arabesque and shifted her spot in the mirror to meet the pointed glare of her ballet mistress who stood a few feet away.
“Your back leg is where you get your power for those pirouettes.” Madame Jocie’s purposely calm words were more terrifying than her shouting at a class full of freshman ballerinas with weak ankles. “You’re this close.” She held up her fingers as if pinching a grain of sand.
“I know.” Winnie’s eyes lowered to where a dusting of chalk collected in a divot created by someone’s overzealous tap shoe.
“Your performance is in less than three weeks.” Madame Jocie’s reminder encouraged Winnie to lift her chin with confidence. “Talent scouts will be in the auditorium. This is your chance, Edwina. Don’t screw this up.”
“I won’t let you down, Madame. I promise.” Winnie’s confidence soared and she knew her words to be true.
“This isn’t about me. These are your dreams. I’m a washed-up old ballet mistress teaching college level dance rather than donning a tutu at the New York City Ballet.”
“At one of the finest universities in the world,” Winnie pointed out. Teaching dance at the University of Michigan was hardly something to sniff at. The theatre and drama department at U of M was world-renowned. They didn’t hire second-rate instructors.
“I want you to call it a day and head over to the training room and get that knee checked out.”
“Yes, Madame.” There was no way Winnie was going to argue. Her knee was throbbing just enough make her cautious. She turned to head over to gather her belongings and sit down to remove her toe shoes.
“When was the last time you ate?”
Winnie stopped walking and avoided Madame Jocie’s penetrating gaze. “I was going to head over to get a protein smoothie on my way to the trainer.”
“I promise,” Winnie whispered.
“Lots of berries, kale, and avocado, and see if they’ve got some olive oil they can throw in there.”
Winnie shuddered and stuck out her tongue. “Yuck. I don’t think they have olive oil at the smoothie shop, but I’ll ask.” She hoped her ballet mistress didn’t hear the lie Winnie was trying to slip past.
“You know, I’m kind of hungry myself.” Madame Jocie followed Winnie to the door and untied her dance shoes also, reaching for her street shoes. Guess she didn’t believe the lie. “Let’s go get some smoothies together.”
“That sounds… lovely.”
With her parents’ wealth, Winnie didn’t exactly need anyone buying her dinner, but she wasn’t going to argue or Madame Jocie would become even more suspicious.
Winnie would drink as much of that smoothie as her body could handle and throw the rest away. She wasn’t going to risk puking it back up on the long walk to the training room. She might be struggling, but she wasn’t stupid. Nutrition needed to stay inside the body once it was there. Period. Getting it in there was the hard part.
She finished untying her toe shoes, pulled on some long, warm socks over her tights, slipped on the most comfortable pair of soft leather boots ever created by the finest cobblers her parents could afford, and wrapped herself in layers of sweaters and a parka. Michigan in November was not the kind of place to walk across campus in the chill of twilight. Especially for someone with so little fat on her bones. Madame Jocie was right. She needed to add some oil into that smoothie.
They mostly walked in silence, huddled against the wind and chill in the air. The smoothie shop was only a few hundred feet from the entrance of the performing arts building but it was far enough that her knee hurt even more from walking in the cold.
The smoothie shop was relatively packed with college kids and the main topic of conversation was the football playoffs. Michigan was rumored to be in the running for the Rose Bowl this year. That was pretty big time. Even Winnie was impressed and eavesdropped on the two guys in front of them in line. Something about a defensive tackle who got past the linemen and pummeled the quarterback. She tried not to roll her eyes. She also tried not to gag at the sheer volume of food they ordered.
At last, the moment arrived when they noticed her. There was always the moment. Guys tended to do a double take when they looked at her. Winnie knew she was beautiful. Tall, slim and elegant. And guys were predictable. Like their hormones controlled their jaw that dropped, and their eyes that couldn’t help traveling down and then up her body. And then their gaze would lock with hers and she’d smirk and raise her eyebrows and they’d come out of their testosterone-induced hypnosis. It was kind of adorable.
Football player number one and football player number two stepped aside with a gesture of inviting her to step up to the counter and order her food. Football player number two was kind of cute. He exuded confidence like he knew he was hot and sexy. And, dang it, he was. Sandy brown hair with a hint of a curl, a five o’clock shadow, broad shoulders and muscular but not too stocky.
Winnie glanced over at him several times while Madame Jocie ordered exactly what kind of smoothie she wanted Winnie to drink. Every time she glanced his way, football player number two was still smiling that cocky little smile that insinuated he’d welcome another cheerleader into his life. Too bad for him, Winnie wasn’t a cheerleader. She was a prima ballerina. Likely to leave college with a one-way ticket to New York City.
Madame Jocie handed her the plastic order number and pointed for her to go stand over there and wait while she paid. Right beside football player number two.
Winne pulled a page from the guys’ playbook and allowed her eyes to trail down and then up his body in a very provocative way that had him flustered to the point where his jaw involuntarily dropped again. Adorable and predictable. She stood beside him close enough that she could have held his hand if she’d been so bold, which she wasn’t.
Her ballet mistress and mentor didn’t notice the primal tension that rolled between her student and football player number two, but his buddy obviously did.
Football player number one nudged his friend’s shoulder, smirked, cleared his throat, and finally reached around football player number two and stuck out his hand. “I’m Shane. This tongue-tie coward is Joel. He totally thinks you're hot and wants to ask you out but isn’t brave enough so I’m going to have to ask you out instead.”
“I don’t think so, dude.” Joel stepped in front of Shane, blocking his advance and intercepted her handshake.
“Ooh, played like a defensive cornerback,” Winnie said with bravado. “Impressive.”
“A woman who knows her football,” Joel said. “Now that’s impressive.”
Winnie leaned closer to Joel and stage whispered, “If I were the ball, you’d have me halfway to the endzone by now.”
Joel let out a tiny whimper that told Winnie everything she needed to know about him. Typical guy who probably thought she researched the game of football on Google while standing in line to get her smoothie in order to impress him. The thought wouldn’t occur to him that she had brothers and a father who were season ticket holders with box seats at The Big House.
“Edwina,” Madame Jocie hissed at her. “That was completely unladylike.”
“My apologies, Madame,” Winnie said with a playful lilt. “I promise to refrain from flirting with any other guys for the remainder of my college career.”
The guys laughed at her teasing and were distracted as a guy behind the counter called them over for their meals. The same guy called Winnie and Madame Jocie over for their smoothies, which had gotten done at the same time.
Winnie winced as she turned away from the counter. “Ooh, I think I’m going to take an Uber over to the training room.”
“We were heading that way also,” Joel said, grabbing a stack of napkins and adding them to the large bag of takeout boxes filled with more food than she’d be able to eat in a week. “What are you in for? Twisted ankle?”
“Throbbing knee pain,” Winnie said. “You?”
“Student, actually.” Joel puffed out his chest. “Sports medicine.”
“I’m Winnie, by the way. Probably should formally introduce myself to the guy I’ve been shamelessly flirting with the past five minutes.”
“Nice to meet you, Winnie. What’s your major?” Typical pickup line.
“Modern ballet.” She lifted her chin.
“Ooh…” He leaned closer to whisper near her ear. “Flexible?” It wasn’t really a question. More like an acknowledged assumption.
“Very,” she whispered back.
Joel pulled away slightly. “I’d very much like to take you on a date sometime.”
“How about our first date be that you give me a lift over to the training room so I don’t have to call for an Uber?”
“Your wish is my command.” Joel swooped Winnie up into his arms like she was a feather. He probably bench pressed more than she weighed. She laughed and clung to her smoothie with both hands. “Shane you carry my bag of food and I’ll carry the invalid.”
As Joel started walking toward the door, Madame Josie called out from back at the counter, “Make sure she drinks every drop of that smoothie!”
Winnie pursed her lips around her straw and made a show of taking a long drink while batting her eyelashes up at Joel.
He chuckled as Shane held open the door for them. The walk to the training center was much more fun than she’d have predicted twenty minutes ago. Dating a football player could be fun. She took another drink of her smoothie and settled in for the ride across campus in the arms of football player number two.
I think a couple of my Super Fans will know who this book is dedicated to... the problem is, I have no idea what this book will be named. Any suggestions?
P.S. it takes Jarrod Radnich almost a full minute to get to the good stuff, but listen from the beginning to get a feel for Winnie's performance number wherein she will be approached by talent scouts from the New York City Ballet.
Greetings My Favorite Readers!
Today I have a dilemma. Usually, I know exactly which book to write/post next. Right this second there are too many books and not enough time to get them all written. I love them all, but I want to write what YOU want to read.
So, I’ll tell you which books I have in the works and you vote which book you want me to finish (start) writing next. If I’m able, I’ll try to start posting that book tomorrow.
I’m gathering votes from multiple sources: here on the blog post comments, emails, and my Facebook group. I will seriously try to take all your votes into consideration and go with the majority. But sometimes I have to follow my muse. And sometimes I have a weird dream at 3:00 in the morning and then three weeks later wake up to find that I wrote a book.
Speaking of books, here are the current options:
Finish writing Mending Fences (sequel to The Farmer’s Daughter)
About 1/3 written
Caleb, Paul, and Sarah go three separate ways trying to pick up the pieces after Ashley’s dramatic betrayal at the end of The Farmer’s Daughter. Caleb heads to Germany in search of the angel who introduced him to the gospel when he was in his early teens hoping to rekindle an old flame. Paul is called to serve as a missionary and unexpectedly happens upon the missing piece of a complicated puzzle. Sarah fumbles through college as an older student only to discover that embracing her natural talent leads to the love of her life.
Finish writing Phantom of the Chapel
About 80% complete
Phil Chapel is a military veteran who was burned severely when his patrol ran over a roadside bomb. His face is unrecognizable from the handsome man he used to be. He feels ugly, frustrated, judged, lost, has PTSD, trust issues, the works.
This story is a combination Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast type of story.
Christine has a beautiful singing voice and speaking voice and her voice is what originally draws Phil to her. She doesn’t see his face until well into the story and he barely sees hers, definitely not up close. They are truly falling in love with each other for who they are on the inside and not outward appearances.
Phil hides in the periphery of life, leaving her notes on the music stand in the chapel where Christine is the music leader each Sunday and sending messages through his roommate. For that reason, Christine and her roommate start jokingly calling Phil the Phantom of the Chapel. Little do they know that P.C. is actually his initials, but it fits.
Finish writing The Overlook
About 1/3 written
Stephanie’s marriage to Jared was supposed to last forever. After a honeymoon filled with laughter and romance, a tragic accident leaves Stephanie to pull her life back together as a young widow.
Their lake house in northern Michigan becomes a prison she needs to escape. After wandering through the woods, Stephanie happens upon a deck overlooking the picturesque and peaceful Au Sable River. She’s drawn to its beauty and the freedom from her troubles if she would take one… long… fall off the overlook.
After a handsome, young park ranger pulls Stephanie down off the ledge, both literally and figuratively, she comes to realize how much she has to lose.
Matt never dreamed how his world would change when he rescued Stephanie. His solitary life patrolling the forest is turned upside down in an instant, and he comes to question everything he thought to be true. Matt never knew how much he needed Stephanie until she needed him first.
Cinderella Meets Einstein
Possibly in the All’s Fair in Love and Sports Series but not sure if this story fits the pattern of all the others. It’s kind of a football player meets cheerleader type of story except I’ve got a lot of football player meets cheerleader stories already. There’s a cool twist to the story but I can’t tell you what that is yet.
As I Have Loved You
A famous motivational speaker, her right-hand woman-slash-personal assistant-slash-best friend, and her business manager-slash-boyfriend.
None of them could do their job without the other two. What happens when one of them is stricken with a life-threatening illness?
Can the love they feel survive this devastating loss? Can they honor a dying request to pick up the pieces and move on?
Before He Was a Billionaire
Darren Berkley is determined to get married before he becomes a billionaire. But with his net worth creeping ever closer, he dates woman after woman hoping he’ll find his future wife.
Chelsea Sparks has given up finding a husband. As a single mom, she waits tables and tends bar by night and volunteers at the local women’s aid service by day. Most men she meets are either creeps or drunks. Late each night, she counsels her friend, Darren.
Darren brings the women he dates to Chelsea’s restaurant and they evaluate them afterward. While discussing the pros and cons of each prospect, Chelsea wonders why she can’t find a man like Darren, and Darren wonders why he can’t meet a woman as caring and understanding as Chelsea.
When Darren learns of a funding crisis at the women’s aid service, Chelsea comes up with a plan to solve his problem, inadvertently helping every needy woman for miles around.
But can she help him find a wife before he becomes a billionaire?
Outline written – leaning toward this as my next project
Joel’s a college football player majoring in sports medicine. Winnie’s majoring in performing arts and specializing in ballet. After a minor knee injury sends her to the sports medicine department, a serendipitous moment lands Winnie in the arms of the handsome wide receiver. He calls her a delicate little bird not realizing she is teetering on the edge of anorexia. A whirlwind romance filled with family holidays, baggy sweaters, and a trip to the Rose Bowl hides what should have been obvious to Joel. His promise to love and cherish through sickness and health is tried and tested when he realizes the extent of Winnie’s illness. Can they pull through with a little help from their two best friends and modern medical treatment? Or will till death do us part come sooner than expected?
Book Club Discussion Questions: Which book should I write next and why?
Their newly built pole barn near their newly built house had yet to be defiled by any tractors, cars, tools, animals, or people. The poured concrete floor had yet to receive even a single stain from oil. The walls didn’t have a single cobweb. The darn thing even smelled new.
Until the caterers arrived with the food. The main dish, pot roast, of course.
The decorations were simple. The folding chairs were lined up in rows at the beginning of the wedding, and pushed to the side for the reception.
Melissa’s dress was modest enough to be worn to the temple or to a Mennonite church, even though they were married in a pole barn filled with a diverse collection of guests who mostly disagreed with their decision to be married.
Troy and Melissa didn’t care. They refused to let their friends and family members sway their decision.
Troy’s minister declined to marry them, and there was still the looming threat of excommunication. Troy refused to let that sway his decision.
Melissa’s bishop was willing to officiate even though they realized the sealing power of the temple ceremony would not be included and the marriage would last for the rest of their lives rather than the rest of eternity. Melissa refused to let that sway her decision.
They refused to let anything, or anyone come between them.
The wedding was held on a Friday evening a few days after they’d been given final approval and the keys to their new home. Forget a hotel. They had the most beautiful view of the landscape from the kitchen window, and beautiful curtains and shades in the bedroom window, which they didn’t intend to open for a long, long time.
After they’d eaten the obligatory number of bites of food and cake, taken the obligatory number of photographs, and hugged the obligatory number of guests, they kicked their family and friends off their property and Troy carried Melissa over the threshold of the door to their new home.
The carpet had never been walked on, the dishwasher had never been run, the laundry machine had never been used, and the bed had never been slept on… yet.
Troy set Melissa on the floor near the entrance to their bedroom and leaned against the wall near the door. “Can I tell you a secret?”
“I hope you’re comfortable telling me anything,” Melissa whispered, suddenly more nervous than she had been at the prospect of finally being alone with her groom.
“I didn’t want to get married.”
“What?” The butterflies in her center turned into thumping in her ears.
“Until I met you.” A sly smile grew on Troy’s face.
“Really?” Melissa blew out a long, shaky breath. “But I’m not exactly the kind of wife you dreamed of in your youth.”
“I have devoted my life to serving God, and to serving the land, and my community, and my church. But getting married wasn’t a priority to me. I didn’t spend my youth dreaming up the perfect wife.”
“What changed your mind?”
“You.” Troy lowered his head so that he was looking her in the eye. “You changed my mind, and my heart. You punched a hole into my world and challenged everything I thought I knew about life.”
“You confirmed everything I thought knew about life,” Melissa said, eliciting a confused crease on Troy’s brow. “I’m headstrong and determined to live on my own terms and not be seen as just a beautiful woman.”
“Hard to hide the beauty of an angel in white,” Troy said, his eyes playfully travelling the length of her wedding gown.
She ignored his teasing. “You’ve shown me that it’s okay to be a beautiful woman.”
“I have?” Troy pulled her into his arms. “How have I shown you that it’s okay to be a beautiful woman?”
“You have shown me that I’m a chosen vessel of God, prepared to bring your babies into the world and raise them and love them and protect them… while you protect me.”
The teasing was gone from his countenance and his eyes searched hers. His whisper was sincere, “I promise to protect you… and our babies.”
“I know we won’t always agree on everything,” Melissa said. “And I know there will be struggles and challenges as we grow together in our marriage. But I truly believe that God directs your path and that you live your life according to his plan for you.”
“I try,” Troy whispered, his voice wavering but his gaze never leaving hers.
“Troy, I honor you as head of our household and as the spiritual leader in our home.” Melissa felt a peace come over her heart and a single tear fell from each of her eyes. She took a deep breath and continued. “I will follow wherever you lead.”
“I will lead you in righteousness.” The intensity of Troy’s statement hung in the air and Melissa felt warmth from her heart emanating to the very tips of her toes. Her fingers trembled as she reached her arms up and pulled his face down to hers.
A passionate kiss sealed their commitment to one another. The rest of that night is too sacred for words, but the love they shared will forever remain in their hearts.
“Judah, quit picking on your sister. Issachar, you’d better get over here and eat before Asher and Naphtali eat all the corn. They’re taking the best parts.”
Troy held out his hand filled with corn and met the gaze of little Issachar, so petite compared to her sisters. He had to conscientiously feed the little girl.
Remembering Melissa’s question about his chickens having gender identity issues, Troy wondered how his chickens would feel if they knew he’d named them after boys, well, men. The twelve tribes of Israel.
“You ladies don’t have a problem with your names, do you? A chicken by any other name is still a chicken, right?” Troy snorted.
This was getting out of hand. He barely ate. He barely slept. He barely worked. The only reason he had to get out of bed each morning was to feed his chickens. They had become his companions and reason for living for days, weeks, no… one week. Or was it two? He’d lost track of time.
“Look at me. I’m sitting in my yard surrounded by chicken poop and corn and seeds and bits of straw talking to gender-confused chickens with boys’ names. There is something seriously wrong with me. These poor chickens. I need to rename my chickens.”
“I like the names of your chickens,” a soft voice said from behind him.
He would know that voice anywhere. Dare he turn around and allow the imagined voice to disappear? He chanced the turn of his neck and realized if his ears were imagining Melissa standing behind him, then his eyes were imagining her as well.
“Why is Zebulun way over here where she’s not getting any food?” Melissa picked up the little, brown chicken and held her feet in a way that she couldn’t escape the grasp if she wanted, which she probably didn’t. No chicken in her right mind would reject being held by Melissa Dalton.
No man in his right mind would either, which is why Troy knew he’d lost his. Imagining this moment as he’d done over and over, he never dreamed the first sentence out of his mouth would be, “Why did I break up with you?”
“Do you really want me to give you a list?” Melissa stepped up next to him, chicken in her arms, and lowered to sit on the ground, not even looking to see if she’d be sitting in chicken poop. A true farmer at heart.
“No, please don’t. Just let me enjoy this fantasy before I wake up and you’re not here.”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Melissa said with a resigned sigh.
“Why?” Troy’s heart was racing.
“Because I refuse to leave this time.”
“But what about all the things we disagree on?” Troy asked, meeting her gaze.
“We’ll probably still disagree about them. But we’ll wake up in each other’s arms and make eggs together.”
“What if our parents won’t let us get married?” Troy asked.
“Then we’ll elope.” So matter-of-fact. So logical he wondered why he’d never thought of that.
“What if you never get married in one of your temples?”
“Then we’ll be married until death instead of throughout all eternity.”
“What if we disagree about whose church to take the kids to each weekend?”
“We’ll do one weekend at your church and one weekend at mine.”
“What if I’m excommunicated?” He gulped.
“Their loss,” Melissa said. “I guess that would narrow our decision about where to take the kids each weekend.”
“Troy, stop.” She placed her hand over his mouth, effectively shutting him up. “I refuse to let any of that come between us anymore.”
“I refuse to let anything come between us anymore. It’s over. None of it matters. I’m the woman God made for you and you’re the man God made for me, and you’re going to marry me—immediately—and you’re going to make love to me every night, and wake up with me in your arms every morning, and we’re going to raise chickens together, and raise babies together, and serve God together, and live together in a beautiful house overlooking a beautiful farm where you’ll plant the crops and I’ll watch my smoking hot husband from our kitchen window, awaiting the hour when you’ll come inside to a home cooked meal and a wife who loves you.”
“When you put it that way, we should have gotten married a long time ago.” Troy grinned.
“We weren’t ready,” Melissa said.
“What changed your mind?” Troy asked.
“Your brother stopped by the store and told me you’d gone a little… off your rocker. He said you weren’t handling our breakup well and that I needed to get my act together and get over here and whip some sense into you.”
“Why would he do that?” No wonder he was having this daydream fantasy. He was insane. His brother had already informed Melissa that he was insane so it must be true.
“He’s concerned about you,” she said with compassion. “He told me that if I didn’t take the initiative, I’d be throwing away both of our chances for happiness.”
“And it doesn’t bother you that I’m insane and talking to chickens?”
“Didn’t you hear me?” Melissa asked. “I refuse to let that stop us.”
Troy reached over and lifted Zebulun out of Melissa’s hands, giving the chicken a little toss and off she flew to land amongst her sisters, fighting her way into the pecking order.
Not taking into consideration that he may or may not be dreaming, or the fact that they were sitting in a yard surrounded by chicken poop and crushed corn and clucking chickens happily enjoying their dinner, Troy turned to his future bride and pulled her into his arms, gripping his hands into her hair and connecting his lips to hers.
Book Club Discussion Questions: Have you ever seen the episode of Big Bang Theory when Sheldon has all those cats? Do you remember what his mom said to Leonard?
Work was different than the last time they broke up.
The day they’d driven home from Melissa’s parents’ house, and Troy had dropped her off at her cousin’s, everyone seemed to know they’d broken up. The guys in the community had come out of the woodwork, vying for Melissa’s attention.
This time, no one knew they’d broken up.
Not even her cousin.
Melissa went about her daily routine. Got up for work. Spent the day like a zombie. Ran the store. Ordered supplies and inventory. Calculated payroll. Scheduled employee shifts. Volunteered to come early and stayed late. Never made a fuss. Never shed a tear.
It was like Troy Weller never existed. Except, he did exist. And he had changed Melissa. Forever.
And yet, forever is exactly what Troy didn’t want. For whatever reason, Troy didn’t want to spend forever with her. And for whatever reason, since he didn’t want to spend forever with her, he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life with her either.
She tried not to let that hurt. She tried not to think about him at all. Or so she told herself.
Not talking about him helped. Since no one knew they’d broken up, no one gave her those pitying stares. Since there was no juicy gossip about her and Troy, everyone went about their daily lives without paying her any attention.
One week and two days after they broke up, Melissa had a knock at her office door. Not a face she expected to see.
“Craig?” Melissa couldn’t fathom why Troy’s brother would be showing up at her work in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon.
“May I have a word with you?” Craig asked. Not waiting for her answer, he closed her office door and sat across from her desk. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
Their conversation was brief. Ten minutes, tops. And then he was gone.
And Melissa was left to mop up what was left of her heart. In order to do that, she needed to make a trip to the back room and locate a proverbial mop, or in this case a green block of industrial strength soap just right for scrubbing germs out of a hand cut by a broken beer bottle that destroyed the drive train on a no-till planter.
As if in a trance, Melissa walked slowly to the utility sink where she found what she was looking for. She picked up the strong-smelling bar of green soap and remembered Troy’s comments about how good she smelled, and how her eyes shown like emeralds. She never did get that emerald engagement ring.
She held the bar in her hands and turned it over several times, marveling at the sticky dryness with a hint of a damp spot on one side.
Melissa turned on the water in the utility sink, holding the soap under the running water, letting the water flow over the bar without fanfare or suds. Rolling the bar over and over, she created a sudsy mound of soap all around her hands, relishing the silky smooth, fluffy bubbles.
After a few moments of scrubbing her own hands, remembering the day she met Troy and how this had felt washing his hands, she set the soap back onto the little rack and rinsed her hands thoroughly. She reached for the paper towel and dried her hands but didn’t go so far as to wrap her uninjured hand in a bandage.
She reached into the first aid kit and held an unopened bandage in her hand, welcoming the tears that finally pricked at her eyes. Finally allowing herself to grieve the loss of the man she loved, she sank to the floor in the back room of her store, crouched beside the utility sink and sobbed, rocking back and forth like a confused child.
This is not how she planned to spend her afternoon. This is not how she wanted to live her life. She clutched the unopened bandage in her hand and sobbed.
Book Club Discussion Questions: What do you think Craig said to Melissa that made her so upset?
Troy’s mind was racing. His heart was racing. He wanted to race right out to his truck, race from the parking lot, and race home. To his own church. To where he understood the Gospel as taught in the Bible.
He wanted to race home to a place where there were no golden fake scriptures, where the women respected their devotion to God enough to prepare themselves for prayer and worship by properly covering their heads, where men didn’t arrive at church wearing war uniforms, where no one spoke of temples and marriage that somehow lasted for eternity.
How was that even possible? There was no logic. And why would Melissa want this temple marriage when she knew she could never have that with him? Did that mean she didn’t want to marry him? If she married him, she would be forever resentful that he couldn’t marry her forever. She would be disappointed. She would hate him.
Troy refused to take that away from her. He refused to be the reason she spent the rest of her life wishing for something she couldn’t have.
He hurried down a hallway he thought led to the door where they’d entered the building. Instead, he seemed to be going in a large circle or horseshoe. Wondering if he missed the door, he doubled back and ran right into Melissa. She must have been following him.
“Troy, are you okay?” Melissa’s compassionate voice was like a jolt to his already racing heart.
“No, I’m not.” He backed away, holding his hands up like touching her would cause him pain. “This is worse than I thought. You were right. We’re too different. We’re not meant to be together. There’s no way we can make this work.”
“Okay,” she whispered.
Okay? She wasn’t even going to argue? She wasn’t going to try to convince him they were meant to be together? She wasn’t even going to fight for their relationship? “Just like that?”
“Just like what?” Melissa crossed her arms over her chest, her face a mask of feigned indifference.
“You’re not going to even try to convince me to stay with you?” The disappointment was startling to him. Wasn’t this what he’d wanted a moment ago?
“Troy, our relationship has been doomed since the day we met,” Melissa said with a shrug. “All of our family members have been trying to tell us that and we refused to listen to them. I think it’s time we wake up and smell the manure. This isn’t something we can fix with handwashing and a bandage.”
“You deserve one of those temple marriage things where you can be with your husband forever.” Troy wasn’t sure if he was trying to convince her or himself.
“And you deserve to marry someone who won’t cause you to get excommunicated.” Melissa’s point was valid.
“You deserve to read whatever scriptures you want, even if they’re written on golden plates.” Troy didn’t try to hide the derogatory nature of his comment.
“And you deserve to interpret the Bible however you want.” Melissa lifted her chin with resolution.
“You deserve to wear your long, beautiful hair down and flowing.” He reached out and pulled a lock of silken strands through his fingers, letting them slide down and rest across her shoulders.
“And you deserve to marry a woman who’s willing to tuck all their hair up into a bun and cover it all day long.”
“Our families will be happy we broke up.” Troy’s words stuck in his throat. Never were words more true.
“Finally, something we agree on.” Melissa chuckled with irony.
“Shall I drive you home?” Troy held up the keys to his truck.
“Well, I certainly don’t want to walk,” Melissa said, turning on her heel and heading back the way they’d come to a hallway Troy didn’t realize led to the outside door.
He followed her and held open the door, relishing the scent of her body lotion. The thought of never experiencing the intoxication of her fragrance nearly crushed his resolve to end this relationship before it got any further out of hand.
Troy kept his hands in the pockets of his dress slacks in an attempt not to hold her hand or wrap his arm around her waist. He did offer his hand to help her up into the cab of his pickup and had a difficult time letting go.
They were quiet on the drive home to Lowell. When he parked in her cousin’s driveway, Troy walked around the truck to help her down from the cab. Just as when he’d helped her up, he didn’t want to let go. Setting her on the ground, he kept his hands on her hips longer than necessary, begging with his eyes for her to ask him to stay.
Troy backed away and watched Melissa walk up the porch steps to her cousin’s house.
She turned one more time to meet his gaze before opening the front door and disappearing within, taking his heart with her.
Book Club Discussion Questions: What's it going to take to get Troy and Melissa back on the same page?
The first thought in his mind was, I forgive you.
There was no doubt that Alex was with God, however unlikely that seemed. An hour ago, God didn’t exist. And now, God had always existed. Alex had merely forgotten. As quickly as he had this perfect recollection, all his past sins were placed before him for every peaceful being to observe. For God to observe.
Alex fell to his knees and wept, recognizing every detail of the past few hours, the alcohol, the girls, the haughtiness, the swearing, the girls, the defiance, the girls, and more girls and more girls. Alex tried to cover his face with his hands but couldn’t move them. He was being forced to see everything as quickly as scenes flashing one after another after another.
The horror of what he had done. The innocence stolen, the crushing guilt, the feeling of complete unworthiness.
Again, God’s voice was there, I forgive you.
How? Alex screamed the thought. How can you forgive me? Can’t you see what I’ve done?
I’ve watched your every move since the moment you left my presence and entered this realm.
Why didn’t you stop me?
You have the choice to follow me, or to follow my adversary.
I want to follow you!
Come, follow me.
I will! Alex cried to God. I will follow you forevermore. I promise.
Oh, my son, I welcome that. But you will be tempted repeatedly throughout your life and you will choose over and over to follow me or to turn your back.
I will never turn my back on you again. Never.
Many trials await you upon your return.
Return where? I’m home.
You must go back, my son.
No, you cannot send me back.
In this you do not have a choice.
What do you mean I have no choice?
I have work for you to do.
Work to do? No, I want to stay.
It’s not your time.
Not my time? This doesn’t make any sense.
You will understand when you’re ready.
“Alex, wake up.”
Please, I want to stay. Don’t make me go back.
“Alex, can you hear me?”
No, I cannot hear you. Leave me alone. I’m staying. It’s peaceful here.
“Please, Alex, you’ve got to come back to me. You’re my best friend. So many people are worried about you. Your mom and dad have been here. Thankfully they didn’t force me to leave. They’re all mad at me though. My Audi was totaled. Heck, I might go to jail if you don’t wake up. I might go to jail even if you do.”
“Whatever. I don’t care. I just want you to wake up. I can endure any punishment as long as you wake up. That’s all I care about. Do you know how many cards and flowers are in this room? Maybe you can smell them.”
I don’t know. Can I smell them?
“News of our accident has blown up social media. Oh, and I had a concussion. I’m better now. Sorta. I mean, I can’t sleep, and I can’t eat, and I’m shaking, like a lot. Can you hear me, man?”
“They have you hooked up to so many tubes and monitors. They’ve pumped like a million bags of fluid through your IV. You almost died a couple times.”
I did? That’s weird because I’ve been walking and talking and exploring and meeting new people and it’s really beautiful here. I can’t wait to tell you about it.
“You really scared me, man.”
Are you crying?
“You can’t leave me like this.”
I’m right here, what are you talking about?
“Hey, man, I learned how to pray, I think. I don’t know if anyone can hear me.”
“Maybe you see angels and ghosts, I don’t know. I figured if God does exist, it wouldn’t hurt to talk to him.”
“Can you even hear me?”
Hey, are you still there? Are you crying again?
Alex squeezed his fingers just a little to see if he could still feel whatever had been resting in his hand for hours.
“Alex? Can you hear me?”
“Alex, squeeze my hand again, man.”
No, it hurts.
“Please, wake up, man, squeeze my hand again.”
Gus? Is that you?
“Wake up, Alex. Squeeze my hand again.”
Okay, okay, already. You don’t have to get all huffy.
“NURSE!!!” Gus yelled. “He squeezed my hand!”
That’s so loud! Alex cringed away from the sound.
“I’m sorry, oh my gosh, where’s that damn nurse’s button, there it is!”
Alex was jostled around for a few seconds, then Gus’s voice was talking to him again.
“Alex, wake up, man. It’s Gus.”
Duh, I’d know your voice anywhere, man. I can hear you. You can stop talking so loudly. I’m right here.
“Alex, squeeze my hand again. Please.”
“How can I help you?”
A woman? Who’s the woman? Why’s she here?
“He squeezed my hand!”
And we’re back to yelling.
“Twice! And then I saw his forehead move.”
Weird. Why would I move my forehead? That seems like a strange thing to do.
“Alex, wake up. Squeeze my hand again.”
Why do you keep saying that?
“The doctor’s here.”
Gus? Where’d your hand go? Gus? You still there?
“Alex, it’s Doctor Herman. Can you hear me?”
Who the heck are you? Our family’s doctor is Doctor Cathcart. He has a place somewhere down in Kingston, but he usually just comes to our home. Am I home? No, this doesn’t smell like home. Hey! I can smell again. Yuck… what the heck is that smell? Ugh!
“His pupils are reactive,” Doctor Herman said.
What the heck! What on earth makes you think I want you to shine an incredibly bright light into my eye? And then the other eye? Get the heck out of my face!
“Mrs. Stephenson, he squeezed my hand!”
Hey, there’s Gus again. Good. He’s further away. Come back and hold my hand again, Gus. Wait, Mrs. Stephenson? Is he talking to my mom? Where’s my mom? Mom!
“He’s showing multiple reactions. He can probably hear us. Where’s that kid? Get him back over here.”
Kid? What kid? Who can hear you?
“Gus, honey, come talk to Alex,” the woman said.
Gus! Yeah, bring Gus back. Oh, good, there’s your hand. Thank you. Don’t leave me again, okay?
“Talk to him, honey. He can probably hear you.”
“Alex, buddy. Can you hear me?”
“He squeezed my hand again!”
You keep yellin’ in my ear, and I’m gonna stop squeezing. I’m joking. You can yell all you want, just don’t leave me again.
“Alex, can you open your eyes, man?”
Why would I want to open my eyes? For someone to shine bright lights in them again? Ah, man, did my eyes just move? I am not opening them. I refuse.
“His eyes are moving!” Gus said. “Alex, can you hear me? Open your eyes and look at me.”
Too bright. What the heck did you do to your face? It’s all scratched up. Man, you’re crying again. Stop.
“You’re alive! Oh my God, you’re alive!”
Please don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, you idiot. Don’t you know He hears every word you say? And He really doesn’t like that. Also, when was I ever not alive? I’ve been walking all over this place. There were a lot more people before. But whatever.
“Alex, can you say something? Can you talk to me?”
“Did Phoebe agree to go out with you again?” Alex asked, his voice scratchy.
“You idiot! I wouldn’t know! I haven’t left your side!” Gus pressed his face into Alex’s white blanket and sobbed, gripping the blanket as if he’d never let go. His words were muffled through the thick blanket. “Alex, God, Alex, I thought you were gonna die. Don’t you leave me like that again. I’m so sorry. I’ll never drink alcohol again as long as I live. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”
Alex lifted his heavy hand and rested it on Gus’s head. Gus leaned toward his hand, and Alex patted his head. He cleared his throat and tried talking again. “Quit being such a baby.”
“Alex, do you know where you are?” Doctor Herman asked. So that’s what you look like.
“Do you know why you’re in the hospital?”
“’Cause this idiot prince got shot down by a hot chick, drank himself into a stupor, and killed a perfectly good Audi, and I happened to be sitting next to him at the time.”
Gus started crying again.
“Shut up, man, you blubber like a baby.”
“Do you know what day of the week it is?” Doctor Herman asked.
“Darn it, I missed my geography test. Probably woulda failed it anyway.”
“I’m sure they’ll let you make it up.” Doctor Herman chuckled.
“I’ll still fail it. My teacher won’t believe that there’s this country in northern Saudi Arabia near the Jordanian border where these four cocky princes think their ancestors cry to them from the dust.”
Gus gripped Alex’s hand again and pressed his forehead against Alex’s and then they were both crying. “Don’t you leave me again.”
“Only if you promise not to wrap any more cars around telephone poles.”
“I promise,” Gus said, pulling his head back. “Hey, how did you know about the telephone pole?”
“I saw it,” Alex said. “Your car was trashed, man.”
“You were unconscious when they pulled you from the car.”
“Nah, I was standing right there, man. Two idiot princes puking, you bein’ hauled outta yer mangled wreck of an Audi by yer shoulders, and mister crown prince himself throwin’ around his title like it was gonna git him outta gettin’ a ticket or somethin’. I never realized how haughty he sounds when he does that.”
The room had gone quiet, and Alex looked around at everyone staring at him. That annoying Doctor Herman with his flashlight ready to blind him again, the older woman who called Gus “honey” and another woman. Oh, and Gus. His best friend. Alex smiled at his best friend.
“Do you know where my mom is?” Alex asked. Everyone continued to stare at him with gaping jaws.
“She’s on her way, honey.” The older woman stepped forward.
I’m not honey. Gus’s honey. “I want my mom.”
“She’ll be here soon,” Gus said.
Alex reached out to grip Gus’s hand again, squeezing as hard as his limited strength would allow. “I’m really tired, Gus. Will you stay with me until my mom gets here?”
“Yeah, man, I’ll stay right here.” Gus held onto Alex’s hand with both of his and gripped as if he’d never let go.
“Wake me up… when she gets… here.” Alex closed his eyes and slept for what felt like the first time in days.
Alex stumbled along beside Gus and his older brothers, all of them laughing, just as plastered as he was.
When they reached the curb, Gus held up the keys to his sporty little Audi RS 5. “Who’s drivin’?”
They usually fought over who got to drive. Tonight no one stepped forward. Alex shook his head. No way was he gonna volunteer. He could barely walk. He just hoped Gus was more sober than he was, or they’d be in a ditch before they could make it down the hill into Kingston.
“All right, pile in,” Gus said.
Alex sat in front and Gus’s older brothers crammed into the tiny backseat. None of them considered seatbelts a priority anyway, so it didn’t matter that they were practically sitting on each other’s laps.
“Drive fast,” Hayden said. “’Cause I’m gonna need to puke eventually, and I’d really prefer not to do that in the back seat of yer pretty car.”
“You’ll be payin’ to git it detailed if ya do,” Gus said. “But gest in case, I’ll put the pedal ta tha medal.”
“We all appreciate that, l’ill brother,” Owen said.
They rolled down the windows and let the night air flood them with wind in their hair, whooping and laughing and singing along to Bohemian Rhapsody as if they were starring in their very own Wayne’s World video. When it came time to do the headbanging, they gave it all they had, complete with air guitars.
Complete with flipped cars.
And broken guardrails.
Fallen telephone poles.
Alex stood beside the car, not sure how he’d gotten there. A loud hissing came from somewhere within. Smoke and dust billowed into the air. Broken glass was everywhere. There was chaos, lights, sirens. Hayden was puking loudly somewhere nearby, hanging half his body out the side door from how it sounded. Owen moaned from the backseat, and Aaron kept calling Alex’s name over and over.
“I’m right here, man,” Alex told Aaron. “You can stop yelling.”
He didn’t. It was like Aaron couldn’t hear him. Alex stepped closer and tried to get Aaron’s attention. He was distracted by Gus struggling to disentangle himself from his airbags. When did those explode? Alex didn’t remember that happening. He turned his attention back to Aaron. Was he crying?
“He won’t wake up,” Aaron said. “Git him to wake up.”
“I’m awake,” Alex tried to tell him. “I’m right here.”
“Sir, take a step back,” a paramedic said. When did they arrive? Alex looked around at all the vehicles with swirling, flashing lights. “We’re doing everything we can for your friend. I need a gurney over here. Get his neck stabilized. On my count. Three, two, one. Sir, step back. I need you to move out of the way.”
“Alex, wake up!” Aaron cried. “Wake up, dammit! Wake up!”
Alex was tired of trying to get Aaron to hear him, so he listened to a police officer asking Aaron questions.
“Sir, come this way, please. Can you tell me your name?”
“Prince Aaron Sayid of Madain Saleh,” Aaron choked out through tears. His standard answer whenever asked. As crown prince, he’d always been determined to carry on their name and monarchy even if they never saw their homeland again. Now it just sounded haughty. Alex snickered.
“What?” a police officer questioned.
“Aaron,” he cried. “Just call me Aaron. Where are you taking Alex?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Alex answered the question intended for the police officer.
“He’s going to the hospital, sir.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Can you tell me Alex’s last name?”
“Stephenson,” Alex told him.
“Stephenson,” Aaron echoed.
“Is he related to the real estate developer, Alexander Stephenson?”
“Hey, you know my dad, cool.”
“Yes, Alex’s his son.”
“And did you claim to be a prince?” the officer asked.
“Yes, our father is Prince Marcos Sayid of Madain Saleh. Alexander Stephenson is our father’s best friend.”
“The other three men in the car are your brothers?”
“Yes.” Aaron’s sobs had lessened to heavy breathing.
“How old are you, son?”
“And can you give me your brother’s names and ages?” the officer asked.
“Gus was driving. This is his car. He’s seventeen. And Hayden, the one who was puking a few minutes ago, he’s eighteen. And Owen, he’s still in the car”—the interrogation was halted by heaving in the backseat— “I guess he’s puking now too. He’s nineteen.”
“How much have you had to drink tonight?”
“Uh… a lot?” Aaron said.
That was an understatement, Alex thought.
“Yeah, that sounds about accurate.”
“Is Alex gonna be okay?”
“I’m okay,” Alex said.
“I’m sure the paramedics are doing all they can. What is your father’s phone number?” the officer asked.
Aaron gave the man his father’s phone number.
“And do you know Alex’s father’s phone number?”
Alex rattled off his dad’s phone number but the officer didn’t even bother writing it down.
“No.” Aaron said.
None of this was making complete sense to Alex.
“Okay, we’ve got ambulances on the way for each of you so sit tight.”
“I don’t need an ambulance,” Aaron said.
“I don’t need one either,” Alex told him.
The officer shone his flashlight into Aaron’s eyes, and he cringed away.
“Hmm, you’re probably right. But your brothers do,” the man said.
Alex was relieved the man didn’t say he needed an ambulance. He was standing, which is more than he could say for Gus, Owen and Hayden.
Aaron left Alex’s side and went to sit by Gus and they held each other’s hands.
“Is Alex gonna be okay?” Gus looked up at his brother, his expression that of a desperate man.
“I dunno, buddy.” Aaron squeezed Gus’s hand. “I hope so.”
“Dude, I’m right here. I’m fine. You don’t need to worry about me.”
Suddenly Alex wasn’t fine. He was screaming in pain, flat on his back in a moving vehicle with lights and sirens. An ambulance? He told the officer he didn’t need an ambulance. He did now. His body hurt everywhere and all he wanted was for them to make the pain go away.
It did. As quickly as the pain had arrived, it was gone and Alex was standing in an emergency room where he heard scary phrases like, “multiple injuries, “life support,” “critical condition,” “stable,” “blood alcohol level of point-one-two,” “the youngest one was driving.”
The youngest one? Gus? Alex looked around for Gus and found him lying on a hospital bed in one of the curtained partitions, talking to his mom.
“Are you hurt, baby?”
“My head hurts,” Gus told her. Then he asked the same question everyone kept asking. “Is Alex gonna be okay.”
“I’m fine, dude, the pain’s gone now.”
Gus’s mom looked away and straightened the blanket. “I’m sure they’re doing all they can for him.”
What did she mean by that?
“Where are my brothers?” Gus asked.
“They’re down there.” Alex pointed to the other side of the emergency room.
“Aaron is having a talk with your father, and Hayden and Owen are in beds near the end of the room over there, basically sleeping off what will soon become a nasty hangover.” Her tone grew more and more irritated.
“I’m sorry, momma,” Gus said. Was he crying? What a dork.
“I want you to concentrate on getting yourself healed,” she said. Her expression shifted, and her lip quivered. “And I’d suggest you pray—hard—that Alex lives… because you will be tried as an adult.”
“Lives?” Alex asked. “I feel totally fine.”
And just like that he wasn’t totally fine. The pain was back and Alex wailed in agony. He was on a bed again but this one wasn’t moving and there weren’t lights and sirens anymore. Well, there were lights, but not spinning ones. Blinding lights. Why didn’t someone turn down the lights?
As quickly as he’d thought the words, the lights didn’t blind him anymore. Alex was thankful to the nurse in the white uniform who beckoned to him.
Come this way. Did she say something or was Alex imagining her words? You’ll understand everything. And he did. Everything around him made perfect sense.
There were people surrounding him and they were all smiling, welcoming him.
Wow, they were all so beautiful, and so familiar, and so peaceful. There was unconditional love flowing all around him and he had the desire to share that love, and all that he owned, with everyone he knew. As if nothing he had on earth was truly his.
The peaceful, beautiful people took him on a tour of the hospital and through the streets of the community, up one street and down another. Alex felt love for everyone he saw but also those he couldn’t see, everyone in each of the homes they passed. It was as if he had no enemies, and all of them had everything in common. As if there were no physical riches, only intrinsic riches. Like the love that they all shared was what made them rich.
And then a new pain arrived. A different kind of pain than he’d experienced a few minutes prior. A dark pain. A dark, horrific pain.
“Brothers and sisters, the time is now yours to stand and bare your testimony of the gospel, should you choose,” the bishop of the Grand Rapids congregation said into the microphone. “Please keep your comments under five minutes in order to allow time for anyone who feels prompted to share. We’ll end the meeting at five minutes to the hour.” With that the bishop returned to his seat and waited with a patient smile.
When Melissa had invited Troy to come to church with her, she hadn’t realized the Sunday was fast and testimony Sunday. There was no prepared talk or sermon. People were encouraged to share whatever was on their minds or in their hearts. Melissa groaned inwardly. Anything and everything could, and likely would, go wrong with this scenario.
Troy could insist that their religions had enough in common to get them through whatever hard times lay ahead in their lives, but the reality wasn’t quite as easy. Melissa tried to run through a list of things Troy might find confusing or not conforming to Biblical standards.
The Book of Mormon was the most obvious, but also temple marriage, modern prophets and apostles, the restoration of the priesthood, premortal existence, women holding leadership roles in the church, women cutting their hair, women not wearing devotional head coverings, women getting advanced educations. Why did it always have to come down to women’s roles? Ugh.
At least everyone was polite and welcoming when Melissa and Troy walked in hand in hand. They purposely didn’t kiss each other in the parking lot and laughed about not making that mistake twice.
Because Melissa hadn’t lived in the area for very long, people in the congregation were still trying to get to know her. They wouldn’t question her bringing a boyfriend.
So far the meeting had gone okay, other than the conversation following the passing of the sacrament. When the tray of bread was placed in front of him, Troy shook his head.
“I am not allowed to participate in communion observances at your church.”
“You can if you want to,” Melissa whispered. “We’re not like some churches where you have to be baptized into their church before you can take the sacrament.”
“I would be excommunicated,” Troy stated emphatically.
“Wow, there are a lot of things that will get you excommunicated, aren’t there?”
“Not really.” He shrugged. “You just happen to be involved in several of them.”
“What are they?” Melissa gulped.
“Joining another church, marrying outside the church, and joining the military.”
“You’re not allowed to join the military?” She tried not to let her eyes stray to the pew several rows over where a young man sat in his dress uniform, having just graduated from basic training in the National Guard and was preparing for deployment to the Southern border to help with the humanitarian crisis. “Why?” She was afraid to ask.
“The Spirit of Christ is in nonresistance, love, gentleness, kindness, patience, goodwill and good works. This is contrary to the spirit of war.”
“Okay, well, good to know. I won’t encourage you to join the military.”
“Kind of a moot point anyway.” Troy snickered. “I’ll be excommunicated if I marry you.”
Melissa didn’t like anything about that sentence, particularly the word if. Not when. If. Also, she didn’t want to be the reason he got kicked out of his church. She turned to face forward, wondering when the next shoe would drop.
The shoe dropped when a nice older woman stepped up to the microphone and shared her testimony about the restored gospel through the prophet Joseph Smith. Melissa had never told Troy the story about Joseph’s first vision.
“Young Joseph was confused about which church to join so he knelt in a grove of trees and prayed to ask God what church he should join.”
Oh boy, here is comes, Melissa thought. Troy’s not going to like this.
“Joseph saw a pillar of light over his head and the light descended to him and he saw God, the Father, and God, the Son standing right there in the air.”
The old lady’s voice was excited and animated.
“They told Joseph not to join any of the churches because they were all wrong.”
Not exactly how the story goes, but Melissa had no way of correcting the woman. She glanced sidelong at Troy, gaging his reaction. His brow was creased.
“And that wasn’t the only vision Joseph had,” the lady continued. “He was visited by resurrected apostles and saw angels, one of whom told him where to find the gold plates containing the writings which were translated and published as the Book of Mormon.”
Another thing Troy doesn’t want to talk about, Melissa thought.
“I’m thankful to have the restored gospel in my life—” The woman glanced over at her husband. “And I’m thankful my husband and I were able to be sealed in the temple to be married for all eternity.”
Melissa wished she would be able to say that as well. All her life she’d longed to get married in a temple so that she would be with her husband forever. If she married Troy, she wouldn’t have that chance.
Forever marriage wasn’t something Troy believed in. He thought marriage ended at death. That was such a sad concept. Melissa felt a tear roll down her cheek and quickly wiped it away.
She thought Troy would put his arm around her and comfort her. She could use reassurance that everything was going to be okay. She could use that confidence Troy had shown last Sunday when he’d stood up to his father in her defense, and when he’d rattled off a list of reasons their religions were similar enough for them to make this work.
Instead of comforting her, Troy did something unexpected. He stood and walked down the aisle, shoved open the doors to the chapel, and left the building.
Book Club Discussion Questions: What do you think made Troy storm out?
“I’m disappointed in you, son.”
Great, that didn’t take long. They’d barely started eating the meal his mother had so graciously prepared for Troy and his new girlfriend, and already his dad was laying into him.
Troy didn’t know what to say so he shoveled in another forkful of baked chicken. He knew his father would want to have his say in the matter before requesting an answer to his accusations. He forked in another bite of food.
His father’s glare bounced back and forth between him and Melissa. That woke Troy up a bit. He would not openly defy his father except when the matter affected his wife, well, future wife. Troy swallowed before reacting.
“The fault is mine, father.” Troy wiped his face with his napkin and rested it in his lap. He reached over and took Melissa’s hand, hoping to convey his solidarity and commitment to her. “I chose to kiss her inappropriately and was punished for my behavior. While attempting to remove the stain, I spent time in sincere repentance for my actions.”
“Inappropriately?” Melissa raised her eyebrows at him. “That was a very chaste kiss in a public location and I don’t think God’s punishing you because I chose to wear lipstick.”
“Young lady, you have no right to presume to know what God does and does not do,” Troy’s father said. “You are but a harlot tempting our son to stray from the teachings of the church.”
“A harlot?” Melissa stood and glared across the table at Troy’s father.
“Father, that was uncalled for.” Troy stood also, again feeling the need to protect his wife. He tried to wrap his arms around her but Melissa shook him off.
“Troy, I would like you to take me home please.” Melissa didn’t even glance up at him as she dropped her napkin over her plate as if to send a clear message that she didn’t plan to eat another bite. “I know where I’m not welcome.” She turned on her heel and strode from the room, not even glancing at his mom or thanking her for the nice meal, most of which was still on her plate.
Troy had wanted Melissa to have a chance to get to know his mom, but he knew that his mom wouldn’t ever defy her husband and reach out to Melissa. Troy’s only choice was to take Melissa home.
“Thanks a lot, dad.” Troy shook his head at his father in disgust then turned to his mom. “Mother, thank you for the meal. The chicken was delicious.” He didn’t want to make note of how much chicken was still on his plate or how disappointed he was to leave it uneaten. He left to go find his future wife, hoping the repeated confrontations with his father wouldn’t deter her from wanting to marry him.
He found Melissa already sitting in the cab of his pickup truck staring straight ahead with a resolute expression. He climbed into the driver’s seat and started the engine.
“I suppose that’s how you felt when you met my parents, huh?”
“Not even close.” Troy turned to face her. “What my dad said was unacceptable and rude. Your parents were polite in comparison.”
“I’m sorry,” Melissa whispered, her gaze lowered to her lap where her hands were gripping into her skirt.
“What do you have to be sorry about?” Troy reached over and lifted her chin gently, turning her head toward him.
“We don’t belong together, Troy.”
“Oh, yes, we do,” he said adamantly.
“Every time we turn around we’re creating more problems for ourselves and the people we love. Your family is never going to embrace me and my family’s never going to embrace you, and we’ll always argue about which church to take our kids to, and I’ll never be good enough for you.” With that she lifted her hands from her lap and covered her face, sobbing.
“Listen to me,” Troy said, pulling gently on her hands. “You are better than good enough for me. You are perfect for me.”
“I’m not perfect, Troy. Nothing about me is perfect.” She held firm and continued crying.
“You’re perfect for me,” Troy clarified. “You are the woman God made for me.”
“If that were true why would we have been born into such different lives?” She finally pulled her hands from her face and glared at him. “Look at us. You’re a Mennonite. I’m a Mormon. How are we even remotely similar?”
“We both believe in God as the father, and Jesus Christ, his son, and in God, the Holy Spirit. Right?”
“But nothing. We both read the Bible, and pray, and we both believe in faith and sin and repentance and baptism and miracles and healings, and we believe that God created the earth and man and woman and plants and animals, and, and, we both love each other.”
Melissa met his gaze and Troy reached up to wipe the mascara from beneath her eyes. “You love me?”
“Of course, I love you,” Troy said. “Haven’t I made that clear enough yet?”
“I don’t know… maybe.” The vulnerability in her emerald eyes broke his heart.
“Melissa, I love you. I love you. I love you.” He held his hands on either side of her face and pulled her a little closer, hoping she would reciprocate those three magic words.
“Troy, I love you too.” She closed the distance between them and for the second time that day their lips connected in a forbidden kiss, this time right in his parents’ driveway.
“Will I be the only woman not wearing a head covering?” Melissa asked, pulling down the vanity mirror in the passenger side of Troy’s Ford pickup truck. He had driven north to Lowell to bring her to church rather than making her arrive by herself.
“Nah, there will be a few.” Troy glanced over at her, keeping one hand on the steering wheel and his other elbow, leaned on the arm rest between them. “You’ll probably be the only woman with her hair down though.”
“What?” She had taken twenty minutes curling her long hair into soft ringlets. “Why?”
“A woman’s long hair is a glory to her and is given to her for a covering,” Troy said. “There are two kinds of head coverings, A natural covering—a woman’s hair—and a sign covering, which represents prayer and worship and thus must be something that can be put on and taken off.”
“If it’s just for prayer and worship, why do women in your church wear the cap all day, every day?”
“Should we not seek to spend all day in Christian service?” Troy asked. “If so, then she should wear the devotional head covering whenever she appears in public as a constant testimony of her submission to God and to her husband.”
Melissa wanted to say something about women not being submissive to their husbands, but she held her tongue. No need to cause contention when they were on their way to church.
“I should also tell you about the Holy Kiss,” Troy said.
“The Holy Kiss?” What did he mean by that?
“The Holy Kiss is used as a Christian Salutation. But don’t worry. No one will try to kiss you because you are not of the church.”
“Not… uh… holy kiss… uh, okay.” As Melissa stammered to grasp the multiple connotations of his statement, Troy turned from the gravel road into a large and modern church building with a parking lot filling up with pickup trucks and minivans.
“It’s a greeting between two brethren in the church, or between two sisters,” Troy explained. “From a worldly perspective, the practice may seem strange, but we are not of the world.”
“Of course not,” Melissa reassured him. “Don’t worry about me. I’m not one to judge others.”
“The brethren will be welcoming me back into the fold as one who has sinned and repented.” Troy pulled his truck to the far corner of the parking lot and parked in a way that the cab was facing away from the building providing a moment of privacy to compose themselves before entering the church.
“What did you do?” She laid her hand on his arm.
“I slept with you.” His statement was so matter of fact as if the answer should be obvious.
“But Troy, we didn’t do anything.” Melissa scoffed. “All we did was fall asleep.”
“But I wanted to do things with you. My body wanted to do things with you.” His intense gaze was sending her a clear message to read between the lines.
“Troy, that’s kind of an involuntary thing first thing in the morning, isn’t it?” She raised her eyebrows.
“Not like that.” Troy shook his head. “That would not have happened if you hadn’t been lying on top of me.”
“Did you… tell other people about that?”
“They knew. They’re all men. They called me out on my sinful behavior.”
“Is that considered sinful once we’re married?” She hoped not.
“Heck no!” He cleared his throat. “I mean, no, that’s not considered sinful once we’re married.”
She made a show of wiping her brow and they both chuckled.
“So, let me get this straight—” Melissa began ticking things off on her fingers. “I’ll be the only woman with my hair down and not covered, every guy in the building knows we slept together, and they’re all going to kiss you?”
“Very funny.” He reached over and tugged on one of her curls, then held the strands in his hand and let them slide through his fingers. “But… pretty much, yeah.”
“Great, let’s do this.” Melissa feigned enthusiasm she didn’t feel, butterflies fluttering in her stomach.
Troy climbed down from his truck and hurried around to the passenger side to help her down from the cab. Before placing her on the ground, Troy captured Melissa in his arms and pulled her close. “For the record, your hair is beautiful curled like that, I loved sleeping with you, and you are the only person in the world I want to be kissing.”
As if to prove his point, Troy captured her lips briefly and Melissa wished she could remain in that moment, kissing in the church parking lot, relishing in the feeling of being in his arms. Too soon they pulled away and they took a moment to regain composure.
Before rounding the truck to head toward the front doors of the church building, Troy reached for Melissa’s hand. “You ready for this?”
“Nope.” She shook her head adamantly but slipped her hand into his and walked with him across the parking lot.
The first people to greet them on the way in the door were Craig and Jessica, who reached out to hug Melissa. Craig, however, placed his hands on Troy’s shoulders and wrinkled his nose.
“Really?” Craig shook his head, keeping his hands on his brother’s shoulders. He glanced at Melissa and then back to Troy. “That’s a lovely shade of lipstick. It looks much nicer on Melissa than it does on you.”
“Oh crud.” Troy covered his mouth with his hand and glanced at Melissa with wide eyes. “Excuse me while I make a side trip to the men’s room.”
“Good luck,” Melissa called after him as he rushed away. Then she turned to Jessica and giggled. “It’s the kind that lasts eight hours.”
“Oh, no.” Jessica cringed.
“What an idiot,” Craig mumbled, then leaned close to his wife. “Glad you don’t wear lipstick.” He picked up baby Jesse and strode away to go find them a pew.
Melissa and Jessica chuckled again as Becca approached and gave each of them a hug. “What was Troy hurrying off for? Is he sick?”
“He will be when he looks in the mirror,” Jessica said.
“He’s about to learn the finer aspects of makeup removal.” Melissa raised her eyebrows at Becca.
“He didn’t…” Becca’s jaw dropped.
“He did,” Jessica confirmed. “He kissed her.”
“In the church parking lot.” Melissa nodded.
“What an idiot,” Becca said, failing to hide a grin.
“That’s what my husband said, too.” Jessica wrapped her arm around Melissa. “Come on, let’s go sit down. Troy can find us when he gets out of the restroom.”
“He’s going to be in there a while.” Melissa snickered.
“Serves him right for kissing you before marrying you,” Becca said.
“Got that right,” Jessica added.
With barely restrained laughter, they headed down the aisle and slid into the pew where Craig had already reserved a spot, leaving space at the end where Troy slid in at the last minute.
Troy wrapped his arm around the back of the pew and leaned closer to Melissa. “You wanna take off?”
“Nope.” She turned and blinked innocent eyes at him. “The lipstick will wear off… in about eight hours.”
He shook his head in playful resignation. “Great… just great.”
The sermon that morning spoke of purity and cleanliness and the importance of keeping oneself spotless before the world. It was like they’d prepared the sermon just for Troy. Melissa rested her head against his shoulder and sighed, more content than she’d felt in a long time.
Book Club Discussion Questions: I threw a lot at you in this chapter. I personally wear the kind of lipstick that doesn't kiss off. Can you relate to anything in this scene?
A brotherly kiss upon entering the home of his father was expected and therefore that much more a slap in the face when not received. Troy knew he was in trouble when he entered the living room and found every seat occupied by other brethren from the church.
He’d already had a long day in the sun, missed a shower that morning in his haste to get into the field, was hungry and dehydrated. This was the last thing he wanted to endure but found the situation neither unexpected nor unwarranted. What he had done was wrong in God’s eyes on so many levels.
Craig pulled up a straight back chair and grunted for Troy to sit down, which he did.
Their mother, bless her, brought Troy a glass of water and then hurried from the room. He wished he could follow her. He wished he could be anywhere but here.
No one spoke for several long moments as Troy drank heartily of the water his mother had provided, then watched condensation fall in droplets down the sides of the glass, as if the glass had been filled half hour ago and was waiting as impatiently as the brethren.
“Father, I’d like to offer my thoughts, if I could.” Craig was the first to speak. Great. More condemnation and testimony against him. “As Troy’s brother, my duty is to offer admonition and a call to repentance. Troy has shown me through his actions this morning that his heart welcomes the grace and mercy offered by our Lord. I think that should be our first item of discussion this evening.”
Huh? Troy gaped at his brother. This was not what he’d expected. Craig lowered his gaze and pursed his lips.
“How are we to preserve the purity of the church if sin is accepted with the least degree of allowance?” The man who spoke up was Becca’s father, Timothy. He would be naturally angry at Troy for his rejection of his daughter. “In Galatians chapter five Paul teaches that the flesh lusts against the spirit and the spirit lusts against the flesh. These are contrary to one another.”
“I agree with the apostle,” Troy choked out through his dry mouth. “But if you will hear me out, you’ll find that this was not the case in my situation.”
“Perhaps we should take a moment to hear Troy’s confession before passing judgement,” another of the brethren said with pointed direction at the man most likely to desire swift action against Troy. All eyes turned back to Troy, who cleared his throat and set aside the nearly empty glass of water.
“As I’m sure all of you are aware, I’ve fallen in love with a woman who is not yet of our faith.” Troy emphasized the word yet in hopes the brethren would acknowledge the importance of sharing the gospel with unbelievers and the acceptance of all children of God. “She loves the Lord and is willing to open her heart to his teachings. She’s willing to come to church with me next weekend. I hope that you will all welcome her into the fold. Because in welcoming her, you’re welcoming me. In rejecting her… you’re rejecting me.”
“How so?” Another of the men frowned and folded his arms across his chest.
“I intend to marry Melissa—”
Several of the men gasped. Troy was shocked that any of them hadn’t figured that out yet.
“—and in doing so will be excommunicated and removed from your midst.”
“That’s not what we want for you son,” one man mumbled.
“Nor is that what I want,” Troy said. “I hope that Melissa will join our fold and we can become one. She and I have agreed that we need to spend a little more time getting to know each other’s faiths before marrying in haste.”
“That doesn’t explain why you were seen leaving her bedroom this morning,” Troy’s father said. He hadn’t realized his dad was the angriest man in the room. Of all people, Troy expected his own father would desire that his son be offered grace and forgiveness. Apparently, that was not the case.
“Father, I never entered Melissa’s bedroom. I was in her cousin’s living room and fell asleep on the couch.”
“Was Melissa with you on the couch?”
“Yes,” Troy choked out.
“Did you sleep together?”
“We slept on the couch together, but we were fully clothed. Nothing happened.”
“Were you aroused by her presence?” His father’s anger was increasing rather than diminishing.
“Yes.” Troy’s admission was accompanied by sobs. He rose from his chair and fell to his knees before his father. “I have sinned against heaven, and before thee.” Troy knew every man in that room would recognize the plea spoken of in Luke by the prodigal son and understand the reference. Troy’s heart cried out for mercy and grace.
“Salvation is not obtained through confession.” His father’s words were wrought with emotion. “But your confession is an outward sign of your broken heart and contrite spirit. Are you willing to turn from your wickedness?”
“I am, father.” Troy sat back on his heels and gazed up at his father with hope of forgiveness.
“The Lord said to the woman taken in adultery to go, and sin no more.” He reached for Troy’s hand and Troy grasped on like a lifeline. Then his father lifted his gaze to the brethren in the room. “And the Lord told her accusers that whosoever among them was without sin should be the first to cast a stone.”
As Troy clung to his father’s hand, he marveled at his father’s warning to those who were here to judge that it was time to back down. He felt like a little child laying his head on his father’s lap and wrapping his arms around his waist. He whispered, “Thank you, father.”
His father pushed him away gently. “Uh… Troy?”
“Yeah?” Troy wiped his eyes and found as much grime on his face as tears.
“You need a shower.” His father wrinkled his nose but had a gleam in his eyes.
“I do. I know.” Troy chuckled and wiped his hands on his grubby jeans.
“Go clean up. Your mother saved you a plate from dinner.”
Troy couldn’t help connecting the double meaning in his father’s command, triple meaning really. His sins would be washed away. He was saved and welcomed among the family. The symbolism was not lost on him, and Troy looked forward to the feeling of being clean again.
Book Club Discussion Questions: I did a lot of research in the Mennonite book titled Bible Doctrine and Practice and tried to provide an accurate example of how a young man might be called to repentance. Having never been a young man, or a Mennonite, I pray I've done the process justice. Pun intended?
“What on earth were you thinking?” Craig’s grumble was menacing. His back was resting against the driver’s door to Troy’s truck and blocking entry.
“We fell asleep, okay?” Troy pulled his keys from his pocket and clicked the key fob to unlock the door. Still Craig didn’t move.
“No, not okay at all,” Craig said. “Do you realize how many people know your truck on sight? Everyone. You bought the most identifiable, customized, over-the-top, vanity display of a truck this side of Lansing and everyone in this town now knows that Troy Weller spent the night with Melissa what’s-her-name.”
“Melissa’s last name is Dalton,” Troy said in an unapologetic tone. “And it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. All that matters is that you’re embarrassed of me.”
“I’m not embarrassed of you.” Craig’s tone said otherwise. “I’m disappointed in you.”
“We didn’t have sex, if that’s what you’re assuming.” Troy folded his arms across his chest, mimicking his brother.
“It doesn’t matter.” Craig pushed himself away from the truck and got in Troy’s face. “The appearance of evil is more significant than the deed itself.”
“Oh, trust me, it’s not,” Troy insisted. “Or I wouldn’t be in physical pain this morning.”
“That is your own fault.” Craig narrowed his eyes and took a step back, shaking his head in disgust. “That woman has ruined you. She is a canker to your mind and body. She has turned my innocent brother into a heathen bound for hell.”
“I am not a heathen, and I am not bound for hell,” Troy said. “Melissa is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
“Your baptism and commitment to the Lord should be the best thing to ever happen to you.”
“My commitment to the Lord is between me and the Lord. He knows my heart and he knows how strongly I follow his teachings. He loves me and he forgives me for my mistakes.”
“How many times do you think you’re going to be forgiven for making the same mistakes?”
“As many times as I’m willing to repent.” Troy lifted his chin in defense of God’s grace in times of weakness.
“I don’t see any admission of guilt or show of repentance in your eyes or in your countenance,” Craig said.
“Good thing God only sees what’s in my heart and not in my eyes,” Troy said. “Besides, all I see in your eyes is judgement. I hope for your soul’s sake that’s not what’s in your heart. And I would suggest you remove the beam from thine own eye before you attempt to remove the mote from mine. If you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
Troy pushed past his brother and opened the door to his truck. While Craig stood in Jamie and Melissa’s driveway with a gaping mouth, Troy gunned his engine and backed out of the driveway. As he headed south out of Lowell, he fought angry tears and lost the battle with one or two.
Book Club Discussion Questions: In what ways are they both right and yet both wrong?
Troy woke to the sunlight beaming from the wrong side of the room. He was definitely not in his own bed. Before the thought fully registered, he felt the unmistakable dead weight of Melissa’s body resting on top of his.
Oh crud. He didn’t want to admit to himself that he had slept with Melissa, but… he had slept with Melissa. In his arms. On top of him. She was still on top of him, thankfully fully dressed. If they hadn’t been fully dressed, he might have done the unthinkable. He might have rolled her over and—okay, he needed to go home right now.
The noise that escaped his throat was almost a whimper and the sound—and his uncomfortable shifting underneath her—woke Melissa and she snuggled closer.
He’d never felt anything so incredible in his life. He’d never felt more tortured in his life. He’d never felt his willpower so tested in his life.
“Melissa,” Troy whispered. “I need to go home.”
“Okay…” She settled onto his body and he groaned.
“You’re on top of me.”
A soft, involuntary smile played across Melissa’s full lips and she hitched her leg up and wrapped herself around him.
“No, no, no.” Troy slid out from under her, dropping Melissa onto the sofa, startling her awake.
“Oh my gosh, what are you still doing here?” Melissa’s question was laced with panic.
“We fell asleep.” Troy scrambled to get away from her before he climbed back on that couch and kissed her until he couldn’t see straight, or worse. He didn’t need to have any experience to know there was only one way to make this pain go away and that was not an acceptable scenario. “I need to leave right now.”
“When will I see you again?” The vulnerability in her words reminded him that he’d disappeared for several days twice since they started dating. Her concern was justified.
“Soon, I promise,” he said, kneeling on the floor beside the couch, his body calming down now that he didn’t have the woman he loved draped all over him. “I want to take you over to see my parents and I want you to come to church with me, and I want to go to church with you. We need to know more about each other before we jump into marriage. Because to me, marriage is for life. Divorce is not an option.”
“Divorce isn’t an option for me either.” Melissa reached up and laid her hand on Troy’s cheek. While he turned his head so that he could inhale the essence of her wrist, she continued, “But… uh… in my religion, marriage can be forever.”
“That is definitely a difference in interpretation of doctrine,” Troy said, kissing the inside of her wrist and seriously reconsidering climbing back on that couch. “Matthew twenty-two, thirty states that in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage.”
Melissa sighed and gripped his face tighter. “Yet in Matthew sixteen, nineteen, it states that whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. And in Mark ten, nine, what therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.”
“I would very much like to be joined together with you.” Troy’s breathing increased as he leaned into her hand and closed his eyes.
“Eternal marriage was taught by a modern-day prophet,” Melissa whispered.
“Another point of doctrine on which we disagree.” Troy gave up trying to be strong and crushed his lips to Melissa’s, climbing back up on the couch and pulling her into his arms.
She intertwined her legs with his and gripped her hands into his hair, her passion dissolving Troy’s willpower.
“Okay, guys, time to come up for air,” Jamie said from the doorway to the living room.
Troy fell off the couch and landed on the floor, glad for the plush carpet, and for the interruption. He startled out of his daze and glanced up sheepishly at Melissa’s cousin.
“Melissa and I need to get to our jobs, and I’m sure there’s a field somewhere that has a tractor you’re supposed to be sitting on.”
“A… a field, tractor, right. I’m sure there’s something I’m supposed to be doing right now.” Troy sat there on the floor a moment more, trying to regain his bearings.
Melissa hung her face off the side of the couch with a cheesy grin. “Sorry.”
Troy leaned close and spoke next to her ear. “Probably shouldn’t talk about scriptures together until we’re married.”
“Probably a good idea.” Melissa kissed his cheek and Troy turned his head, capturing her mouth again.
“Troy, get out of my house!” Jamie called playfully.
“Yes, ma’am.” Troy scrambled away from Melissa and hurried over to the door, yanking on his shoes without fully tying the laces. He glanced one more time over at Melissa, who was still lying on the couch. “Goodbye, my love.”
“Get out!” Jamie pointed at the door.
Troy was still grinning as he stepped onto the porch, adjusting his clothes and tucking in the parts of his shirt that had gone askew. Trying unsuccessfully to shove thoughts of their kiss out of his mind, Troy looked up to see his brother Craig standing beside his truck with an angry scowl and arms crossed over his chest. Oops.
Book Club Discussion Questions: Interesting topic of conversation. Divorce is another thing that would get Troy excommunicated from his church, however unlikely that would be for these two. Mute point since he's going to be excommunicated if he marries her. Poor Troy. Sorry, not really a question per se. Just a topic of conversation.