“Sparsely decorated,” Joel said, turning on the light switch just inside the door of their tiny new apartment. Having stayed at his parents’ home for the past week in complete luxury, coming back to the real world was depressing. Especially returning to the cold Michigan winter after watching the sunset off the beach in California.
“Our furniture will be delivered in a few hours,” Winnie said with a teasing lilt to her voice. She dropped her purse on the kitchen counter along with her water bottle and turned to the empty living room. “We can dance without furniture getting in the way.” She leapt across the room and spun on her toes.
“Leave it to you to find a way to bring dancing into the equation.” Joel slipped his keys in his pocket and reached to pull her into his arms, swaying to an unheard rhythm playing out in his head.
“Not exactly the kind of dancing I was talking about, but this works too.” She swayed back and forth in his arms and rested her head on his shoulder.
Joel appreciated her allowing him to lead. He wanted to be man enough to be what she wanted him to be. To care for her. To provide for her. So far in their marriage he hadn’t felt much success in providing for her. Their honeymoon had been nonexistent, or frustrating at best. Sure, they’d gotten to spend time together but not in the way he wanted, not in the way he needed.
He didn’t want to put any pressure on Winnie. She was so vulnerable, thinking their failures in intimacy had been her fault. It was just bad luck that she’d gotten sick and then started her period, neither of which she had any control of. Now they’d been married close to two weeks and nothing.
There’s more to marriage than sex. He kept repeating that to himself, trying to convince himself. Joel had promised Winnie that he was happy and content no matter what, that he loved her, and he did. But dang, he wanted her.
Holding her in his arms like this, swaying to music that only existed in his thoughts, his body took his mind in a million directions and all of them led back to the bedroom.
Their bedroom currently had an empty floor without even a rug or carpet, not that he would subject either of them to such discomfort. The first time he made love to his wife would be on a bed. Period. End of story. As tempting as the backseat of his Mustang sounded right about then.
Broad daylight? Not a good idea. None of this was a good idea. He was pulled from his musings by her soft voice.
“We should get the groceries out of the car.”
“One more minute of dancing,” Joel insisted, not opening his eyes, just swaying in their empty living room, wanting so much more.
Winnie surrendered into his arms and sighed. “I could get used to this.”
“We should dance together more often,” Joel mumbled, rubbing his hands up and down her back while holding her close. With her body pressed against his, she lifted her face off his shoulder and they were cheek to cheek and then his mouth searched for hers. Before connecting in a kiss, he whispered in desperation, “Edwina.”
Her answering kiss was passionate, hungry, demanding. She wanted him as badly as he wanted her.
There was a clanking in the hallway and a man came around the corner pulling a dolly with a large box. Interrupted again.
“Got a dining room table delivery for”—the man looked down at his clipboard—“the Andersons.”
“That’s us.” Joel cleared his throat as he pulled away from his wife.
For the next several hours they had an almost continuous chain of furniture deliveries.
Shane arrived to help Joel set up the furniture, Danielle arrived to help Winnie organize the kitchen and by the time they were ready for bed, they were both exhausted.
Just as they’d done every night since they’d been married, they snuggled into bed together and fell asleep.
Book Club Discussion Questions: Super short chapter here that will need to be expanded when I have a few minutes. What would you like to see added here?
“Would it be weird for me to ask you for some advice?” Winnie peeked sidelong at her new mother-in-law as they drove to the store. Lynnette had made good on her promise to take Winnie to purchase things she needed.
“You can ask me whatever you want,” Lynnette said with a soft smile.
“Since it’s about your son, I wondered if this might be an uncomfortable conversation.”
“Try me,” Lynette said.
“Well, you know how I’ve been sick the past few days?” Winnie barely paused at the end of her rhetorical question. “We haven’t exactly… you know… uh…”
“At all? I thought you were feeling better.” Lynette glanced over at Winnie with a creased brow.
Winnie didn’t want Joel’s mom to get mad at her, so she quickly added details. “We tried, last night. For the first time. And it hurt too bad for me to continue.”
“Oh, sweetie, I know exactly which aisle in the pharmacy section we should start our grocery shopping.”
“What does grocery shopping have to do with my sex life?” Winnie asked nervously. “Or lack thereof?”
“You need some lubricant.”
“Lube— what?” Winnie felt her cheeks heat with embarrassment.
“Lubricant. It’s okay, you can say the word out loud,” Lynnette chuckled. “It’s not a dirty word. Most couples need some.”
“They do? Why didn’t anyone tell us before we got married?”
“Look how uncomfortable you were just asking to me about it.” Lynnette raised her eyebrows. “And I’m your mother-in-law. Can you imagine talking to a friend?”
“Everybody always talks about the need for birth control.” Winnie breathed a sigh of relief that Joel’s mom didn’t blame her for their failure. “You would think someone would warn engaged couples about that also. Somebody needs to create a how-to manual for newlyweds.”
“I’ll tell you what, you write down everything that you learn in the first few months of marriage and you can be the one to publish that book.”
“What I Wish I’d Known as a Newlywed by Edwina LaFleur-Anderson,” Winnie joked. “That has a nice ring to it.”
“I like it! The perfect gift for engaged couples.” Lynnette changed lanes and slowed the car as they approached the exit ramp.
“Yeah, I’m a real expert.” Winnie snorted with irony. “We’ve gotten our marriage off to a great start. Joel’s held me over the toilet more times than he’s held me in his arms.”
“Things will improve,” Lynnette promised.
“I’m afraid that if I keep failing him… he’s not going to want me anymore.”
“If he’s anything like his father, trust me, he’ll want you.” Lynnette pulled off the expressway and waited for the light at the end of the ramp. “My turn to ask you a question.”
“Okay…” Winnie suspected she knew what was coming.
“Are you getting any counseling for your eating disorder?”
Wow, just throw it right out there why don’t you? No matter how she answered Lynnette’s question, Winnie was admitting out loud that she knew she had a problem. Was she ready to do that? Did she have a choice? Lynnette had already been open and honest with Winnie. She deserved to have Winnie be open and honest with her. Her answer was barely a whisper. “Not yet.”
“Does Joel know?” Gosh, his mom was blunt.
“I don’t know. He probably just thinks the only thing wrong with me is the way my body reacted to the rich food at our wedding.”
“Was the rich food the only thing that caused you to get sick on your wedding night?” Lynnette’s suspicion laced her sentence. What was she trying to say?
“Yes! Why would you ask that?” Tears filled Winnie’s eyes.
“Sometimes fear of intimacy manifests in physical sickness like that,” Lynnette said.
“I’m not afraid to be intimate with my husband,” Winnie insisted. “I tried to get him to have sex with me the night of our first date. He was too much of a gentleman.”
“He seems to love you very much,” Lynnette said, changing the subject. “You’ve brought out a softer side of him. I’m glad he found you.”
Winnie wasn’t even sure what to say next, so she sat there in her mother-in-law’s minivan, frustrated tears on her cheeks. Finally, she squeaked out, “I want to make him happy.”
“I think you already do make him happy, sweetie.”
“I hope so.”
“Just the same, let’s get you something to help with the physical stuff.” Lynnette pulled her car into a parking spot at the grocery store. After she parked, she turned to Winnie and took her hand. “I want you to promise me you’ll get some help for the mental stuff, too. Okay?”
“Okay,” Winnie said, meeting her gaze. “I promise.”
* * * * * * * * *
“Look what your mom bought me!” Winnie tossed a small box onto the couch next to Joel where he was laying watching a football game on television. Winnie didn’t know how he could watch so much football even after playing dozens of football games. He couldn’t get enough of football. This ought to distract him.
“Yours and Mine?” He picked up the little purple and blue box with excitement. “What is it?”
“She called it personal lubricant.” Winnie sat on the edge of the couch. Joel moved over to give her room.
“Wait, did you talk to my mom about our sex life?” Joel was either amused or mortified. Winnie couldn’t tell which.
“Well, I had to talk to somebody.” Winnie took a nervous breath. “I’m certainly not going to talk to my own mother. Danielle is far away and I don’t have any sisters. So, I’m stuck with your mother. And by the way she was awesome. She gave me lots of good advice and said that if you’re anything like your father you’re still going to want me even if we have trouble for a while.”
“Sweetheart, I’m going to want you no matter what.” He sat up halfway, concern on his face. “Did you really question that?”
“It’s just that, well, I don’t know how many times I’m going to fail you before you give up on me.”
Joel sat up all the way and pulled Winnie into his arms. His words were husky and sincere. “I’m never giving up on you. I’m never giving up on us.”
“I hope not,” she whispered, laying her head on his shoulder. “I’m afraid being married to me hasn’t been as much fun as you thought it would be.”
“We’ve had a few challenges. Nothing we can’t get past.” He pulled back and looked at her with a twisted grin, holding up the little blue and purple box. “This could make things more fun.”
“Before you get too excited, allow me to show you the other thing I bought at the store today.” Winnie tossed another box in his lap.
“Tampons? Seriously?” Joel fell back on the couch and pulled his hair. “We can’t get a break, can we?”
“Just think, we’ll appreciate our lovemaking that much more since we had to fight for it.”
“True.” Joel held open his arms and Winnie climbed onto the sofa along with him, snuggling her back against him. “One thing’s for sure, we’ve gotten really good at snuggling.”
“We have,” Winnie agreed. She considered telling him about the other topic she and his mom had discussed but decided against it when he reached for the remote control to turn the game back on. Some other time. Or never. She settled in to watch football with her husband, thankful for the distraction.
Book Club Discussion Questions: I love my mother-in-law but I think she and I both would be morbidly embarrassed to have this conversation. Not a bad idea about the What I Wish I'd Known as a Newlywed book. What other advice would you give newlyweds?
“You’re sure you’re not too full?” Joel was still hesitant, even though Winnie had insisted she was fine. Several hours had passed since having dinner with his family and they’d spent the past hour watching the sunset over the Pacific Ocean, holding each other and talking.
“Do I look too full to you?” Winnie held her arms out like a supermodel and spun like she was on a runway showing off the most fashionable bikini ever designed by man.
“You look incredible, Mrs. Anderson.” Joel recognized a husky growl in the back of his throat and fought the urge to rip the bikini off his wife’s body so he could finally see what was on the other side. They’d been married over a week and he’d yet to see his bride fully unclothed.
“Right back at you, Mr. Anderson.” Winnie stalked forward, crossing the room to where Joel stood beside the hot tub wearing swim trunks and holding a towel for when they emerged from the water. “Love the no-shirt look.”
“In that case, we might as well match.” He reached behind her neck and pulled the strings holding her swimsuit in place, letting the barely concealing bit of fabric fall to the floor. He didn’t go so far as to leer at her now exposed body even though that’s exactly what he wanted to do. Instead, he pulled her close and held her gently, whispering down to her, “I promised we’d try but I don’t want to overwhelm you.”
“We’ve been married over a week,” Winnie said. “It’s time we do more than try.”
“If you insist.” Joel pulled away and held his wife at arm’s length, allowing his eyes to travel all the way down to her calloused ballerina toes and all the way up to parts only recently exposed. He lifted his gaze back to hers. “You’re beautiful.”
Without acknowledging his compliment, Winnie pulled Joel toward the Jacuzzi tub and climbed the stairs, never releasing his hand. He climbed in after her and immediately lifted her onto his lap, wasting no time before pressing his lips together with hers.
Even their first kiss didn’t compare to this level of intensity. They were married now. He didn’t have to hold anything back, and he didn’t. He kissed her everywhere, her lips, her neck, her earlobes, her shoulders. Nothing was off limits. And she kissed him right back. She wanted him as much as he wanted her, and he wanted to give her every part of himself.
Forget the Jacuzzi. Within ten minutes of sinking into the hot water, he was carrying her right back out of the tub, barely pausing their kisses long enough to deposit her on their king-sized bed. The anticipation of finally making love to his wife was overwhelming. The rest of their clothes were quickly removed and he didn’t wait a second more.
“Ow! Joel, you’re hurting me. Get off!”
You’ve got to be kidding me! Joel pressed his face into the pillow beside her head and physically cried, This was not what he had in mind when he committed to waiting to have sex until they were married. They were married! It was time! If not now, then when?
“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” Winnie was crying too.
“You don’t have to be sorry,” Joel managed to choke out through his tears. “Not your fault.” He surrendered completely into her arms, not even trying to hide his tears.
“Feels like my fault,” she said thru wracking sobs.
Joel pulled away and propped himself up on his elbow, needing to provide reassurance. “Listen to me, this is not your fault.” He brushed a stray hair away from her face.
“I don’t know what went wrong,” Winnie said. “What did I do wrong?”
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Joel said, still breathing heavy and frustrated beyond his own imagination. “Our bodies just need to learn how to work together. That’s all.”
“How are our bodies supposed to learn if it hurts to try?” Winnie asked.
“I don’t know, sweetheart.” He pressed his face into the pillow again and mumbled into the fabric. “We’ll figure something out. I’m sure we’re not the only married couple in the world who struggles with stuff like this.”
“I think we’re the only married couple in the world who’s never at least had a honeymoon.”
“We’ll have a honeymoon.” Joel lifted his head again and looked his bride firmly in the eye. “I promise. We might just need to get creative. And be patient with each other.”
“I can be patient,” Winnie squeaked out, her brow still creased.
“I love you,” Joel said definitively. “No matter what else happens. Please know that I love you.”
“I love you too.” Winnie nodded.
“Love is the foundation for a happy marriage,” Joel said. “Not sex.”
“I agree… but… I want to have sex too,” Winnie whispered.
“Me too,” Joel whispered back and grinned. “What do you say we make out for a little while and hope our bodies catch up to our hearts.”
“I love that idea.” Winnie pulled him down for another long kiss.
Book Club Discussion Questions: Statics show that couples who have a honeymoon are much more likely to stay happily married. What advice would you give to Winnie and Joel?
Joel’s parents’ home was huge and perched on a mountain overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Winnie hadn’t taken much time to get to know the Andersons yet because she knew she’d be staying with them for four days. They nonetheless welcomed her with open arms.
Lynnette Anderson kept saying things like, “I don’t want to overstep my boundaries. You two need to make decisions together as a couple,” and “I should warn you that Joel has always been a momma’s boy, but I recognize that you are now the most important woman in his life.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Anderson, I appreciate that. I'll make sure he keeps in contact with his mother.”
“Wonderful,” Lynnette said, draping her arm through Winnie’s. “We’ve set up the lower level of the house for the two of you so you can have some privacy. The view is not as magnificent as the upstairs balconies, but the sliding glass doors in the basement open right up to a patio where you can watch the sunset.”
They walked down a long flight of stairs to a family room complete with a theater sized television screen, sectional sofas, and an incredible view out the sliders. Winnie was in awe.
“Over here is a private bedroom suite with a Jacuzzi tub. Perfect for late night rendezvous.”
“Oh my gosh, Mom, please. I don’t want to talk to you about our marital relationship.” Joel turned to Winnie. “Can you tell she’s a real estate agent for a living?”
Winnie giggled. “Personally, I’m looking forward to a late-night rendezvous in the hot tub. I don’t know what your problem is.”
“If we were talking to your mother you’d understand,” Joel said. “Let’s just get unpacked and look forward to… watching a nice sunset.”
“What are you guys hungry for? Shall I throw some steaks on the grill?”
“Winnie’s a vegetarian,” Joel told his mom. Winnie was grateful he stepped in right away.
“Well definitely not steaks then.” Lynnette chuckled. “Do you like spaghetti?”
“I love spaghetti. Thank you.”
“Garlic bread and salad?” Lynnette asked.
“That sounds wonderful.” Winnie already felt more at home around Joel’s family than she did her own. Maybe they were just putting on a good first impression for their son’s new bride, but Winnie appreciated the gesture.
“Everybody decent?” Dean Anderson called as he was bounding down the stairs. “Am I allowed to come say hello?”
“Seriously, Dad?” Joel shook his head about his father’s teasing. “Aren’t you guys a little over the top?”
“Hey, I was warned by the woman in charge—aka your mother—that I was not allowed to bother the newlyweds.”
“Do you remember what it was like to be a newlywed?” Lynnette asked Dean, wrapping her arms around his waist. “Would you have wanted to be around your in-laws?”
“I didn’t want to be around anyone.” Dean returned his wife’s hug.
“Okay, Mom, Dad, you’re grossing me out,” Joel said.
“Ah, my son, you’ve just been too busy with football and stuff since you’re wedding.”
And sick, Winnie added in her head.
“A couple needs time alone for a honeymoon,” Dean added, finishing his little spiel.
“We have the rest of our lives to be on our honeymoon,” Joel said, wrapping his arm around Winnie’s shoulders. “We’re only in California a few more days and want to spend time with family. I want you to get to know my new wife.”
“And we look forward to that,” Lynnette said.
Another person bounded down the stairs and Joel’s sister, Emilie came around the corner. “Am I allowed to come say hello?” Emilie was a senior in high school, tall and athletic like her brother and had a friendly smile like their mom.
Before anyone could answer, Joel’s phone binged with an incoming email. “Ooh! Got the email from Madame Jocie!” Joel released Winnie from his embrace and stepped over to where a television remote sat on a table.
“Why are you getting an email from my ballet mistress?” Winnie asked with suspicion.
“I asked her to send me a copy of your ballet performance from last month,” Joel said, pushing buttons on the remote. “I wanted to show my parents,”
“I want to see too,” Emilie said, plopping onto the sectional and pulling her legs underneath her.
“I haven’t seen my own performance, either.” Winnie’s stomach fluttered with excitement. This would either be morbidly embarrassing, or a confidence boost. She sank into the nearest sofa and perched on the edge, crossing her ankles and lifting her face to watch the screen. “I’ve already had two theaters in New York City invite me to audition for principals.”
“Wow, that’s really exciting.” Lynnette’s voice sounded impressed. She rounded the sofa and sat near Winnie.
Dean stood behind the sectional, which filled most of the middle of the family room, and Joel stood beside Winnie, remote control in hand. When he started the recording, Winnie gasped inwardly.
I look so fat! Winnie almost said out loud but refrained. No one in their right mind would look at the lithe ballerina on that stage and think she looked fat. She was being her own worst critic and she knew that. Logically, she knew that. Illogically, Winnie could barely watch herself. She wondered if anyone else in the room saw the woman on the screen the same way she was seeing herself.
Lynnette’s jaw was slack, and her brow creased. Joel and his dad both looked proud and oblivious. Emilie glanced over at Winnie and then back at the screen.
Tears filled Winnie’s eyes as she watched the performance of her life dancing across the screen. She understood why she’d gotten offers from talent scouts. She was an incredible dancer. She waited for the torture to be over and then she waited for the questions to begin. She didn’t have to wait long.
“Sweetie, have you been sick the past few weeks?” Lynnette moved closer and took Winnie’s hand.
“Yeah,” Winnie whispered, glancing down at her new mother-in-law’s hand clasping hers. “We didn’t want to say anything to anyone because we didn’t want anyone to worry.”
“Well, I’m worried now.” Lynnette scooted even closer.
Joel sat beside Winnie on the couch and wrapped his arm around her back. “We think it was all the rich foods at the wedding reception, or maybe food poisoning. She’s barely kept anything down for days.”
“I’ve felt a lot better the past couple of days,” Winnie defended herself. “I’m almost back to eating normally.”
“Well, if that’s eating normally, then you’re not normally eating enough,” Joel said, shaking his head.
“I’ve always eaten small, frequent meals,” Winnie said. “I don’t want to get overly full. You saw what happened when I ate too much at once. Madame Jocie has been telling us for years, ‘nutrition needs to stay in the body,’ and she’s right. She doesn’t want a bunch of bulimic dancers in her classes.”
“That’s admirable,” Dean said, rounding the sofa and sitting close to his wife. “Some ballet instructors want their dancers to be twigs.”
“Madame Jocie wants us to be healthy,” Winnie said. “Speaking of which, you promised me spaghetti. Could I help in the kitchen?” Winnie stood and reached her hand down to help her mother-in-law off the sofa, determined to force everyone’s minds away from her weight loss.
Lynnette took Winnie’s proffered hand and rose from the sofa but instead of leaving for the kitchen, Lynnette pulled Winnie into her arms. Her voice was compassionate. “I want you to be healthy too, so you let me know how I can help, okay?” Lynnette pulled away to hold Winnie at arm’s length.
“The best thing you can do is feed me like I’m a vegetarian and don’t overanalyze everything I put in my mouth like my mother does.”
“I will try my best.” Lynnette nodded definitively and offered a smile. “Now let me show you around my kitchen and see if there are any groceries we need to make your stay more comfortable.”
“Thank you.” Winnie pulled Lynnette back into a hug, treasuring whatever subtle perfume clung to her and feeling like she was home. As she looked over Lynnette’s shoulder, she met the gaze of her new husband and they smiled at one another.
Their honeymoon just improved immensely. This beautiful home perched on a mountain overlooking the Pacific Ocean was the perfect place to unwind. Maybe now they could relax and enjoy being married.
Book Club Discussion Questions: Have you ever looked back at pictures from months or years ago and thought, Wow! I was so fat/skinny back then! I know have. Do you think Winnie knows she has a problem that needs medical treatment? Or is she dismissing her eating disorder as just a little problem that will work itself out?
Playing football in the Rose Bowl was one of the busiest, most exciting, and most exhausting days of Joel’s life.
The team was expected to ride in the Rose Parade, show their faces in dozens of media staged moments where the team members were either listening to their coach’s motivating words, dressing for the big game, bouncing on their toes as if excited and anxious to get on the field, stretching in synchronized patterns, or lifting their gazes to the American flag in focused contemplation of all the flag represented while a Grammy-award winning vocalist belted out a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem.
All throughout the morning, Joel’s focus was split between his duties and his concern for his bride knowing she was still weak. Winnie would face her family and friends for the first time since getting sick after their wedding. Her acting skills needed to be perfect since she still wasn’t feeling well. Joel wanted to be by her side yet knew that the worry and tension that existed between them would likely cause others to question their relationship.
They were solid in their love for each other, and Joel had no question in his mind that he’d done the right thing in marrying Winnie. But their intimacy hadn’t developed beyond holding one another while sleeping. As sick as she’d felt, and as busy as Joel was with all things relating to the big game, neither of them had even broached the subject.
That night they’d likely fall into bed with exhaustion and the following day they’d be moving into his parents’ house for four days before flying home to Michigan. Joel was excited to spend time with his family, but looked forward to getting moved into their new apartment in married housing back in Michigan,
Once the game started, Joel forced himself to focus on that and that alone. They lost by one missed field goal, but that was okay. The game was more than the score. The Rose Bowl was special, iconic, almost regal. Just playing in the Rose Bowl was enough to set his team apart as one of the great leaders in American college football.
There wasn’t even any anger or frustration in the locker room after the game, just a general excitement to go find their friends and family and continue celebrating life and the new year.
Joel and his best friend, Shane hurried from the locker room to head up to the box where the rest of the wedding party had been seated together to watch the game. They intended to enjoy a catered meal together in the box rather than attempt to find a restaurant nearby with availability for a group their size.
Winnie met him near the door to the box and Joel pulled her aside, away from eavesdroppers, gathering her in his arms and lowering his face near her ear.
“How are you feeling,” Joel whispered. “Have you been able to eat anything today? Did the caterers bring you the soup we requested?”
“Yes, they did. And that helped. I feel okay. No one has mentioned that I look sick.”
“You actually look a lot better this afternoon,” Joel said with a thankful sigh.
“I’m ready to be done for the day. But I can handle a little while longer. Make an excuse for us soon, okay?”
“Absolutely.” His voice drew low and husky. “I look forward to getting you alone anyway. Might be too tired to do anything other than hold you in my arms, but alone nonetheless.” They both chuckled and took the opportunity to press his lips to hers briefly before they received jabs and whistles from their friends and family.
“Looks like the bride and groom have been apart too many hours,” Winnie’s older brother, Marshall called across the room and everyone laughed, holding up whatever bottles and cans they were holding for a collective toast to the newlyweds.
“Yes, and if the rest of you don’t mind, we’ll take our leave now,” Joel said, and everyone laughed again. “No, seriously, guys, thank you all for coming to California to celebrate with us. I know most of us are here for the big game, but you came early and made it a point to gather with us and congratulate Winnie and I as we start our new life together.”
Winnie wrapped her arms around Joel’s waist and lifted her gaze to his. He winked down to her and smiled. When he looked up at the group of friends and family gathered in the box, he made another jest he knew to be mildly deceptive.
“Now let’s eat. I need to replenish my depleted energy from playing football so I can be up late tonight.” They all laughed along with Joel and held up their drinks in a toast one more time.
With an easy excuse to duck out early, Joel escorted his bride back to their hotel suite where they climbed into bed together and slept in each other’s arms, content and satisfied with that alone. As Joel drifted off to sleep, he wondered how much longer this would be enough.
“Danielle, can you come stay with Winnie while I go to practice?” Joel’s voice woke Winnie from her nap. She appreciated Joel calling her best friend rather than her mother. She didn’t want anyone to know she was sick.
Joel had been so attentive and caring through the night and the following day, and they’d finally gotten some sleep the previous night. But he couldn’t miss any more practice. Not with the Rose Bowl three days away.
The Marriot hotel staff had been helpful by providing clean linens and robes, so Winnie didn’t have to wear pants across her stomach, which was tender and bloated from all the rich foods. They’d taken her wedding dress and Joel’s tux to be dry cleaned, brought room service meals for Joel and broth and crackers for Winnie. They’d cleaned and sanitized the bathroom and generally helped them to make the best of a terrible situation.
Winnie felt guilty that she’d ruined their wedding night. She’d looked forward to finally being intimate with Joel now that he was her husband, and instead of them making love, they’d slept in separate beds because him moving made her nauseous.
The first time her groom had seen her without clothes was when he peeled her soiled wedding dress off because she’d thrown up on it. He was probably so repulsed by her that he’d never want to be intimate.
She may have ruined their whole marriage. All the passion they’d felt for one another would be gone. He had proven his commitment to care for her when she was sick, but would he still be interested in her once he’d gotten over his revulsion?
While he was waiting for Danielle to arrive to relieve him of his caregiver responsibilities, he straightened the room and fidgeted as if he didn’t know what to do with himself if he didn’t have something to keep him busy. He probably thought she was asleep, and Winnie didn’t reach out to tell him otherwise. She just laid there with her head on her pillow, eyes peeking out from beneath the covers.
Finally there was a knock at their hotel room door and Joel let Danielle into the room. They spoke quietly about how Winnie had gone about fifteen hours now without throwing up and had eaten broth a few hours ago before laying down to take a nap and how she’d probably love some girl time. Joel mentioned he didn’t know enough about what women needed to be useful. Danielle told him that was nonsense and complimented him for how well he’d been caring for Winnie.
Then he approached her bed and knelt beside Winnie, barely jostling her by taking her hand in his. “Hey, sleeping beauty,” he whispered. “How are you feeling?”
“Like I spent the past two days puking. How are you feeling?”
“Like I spent the past two days holding you in my arms while you were puking.” He chuckled.
“That good, eh?” At least they were able to joke a little.
“Danielle’s here,” Joel said. “She’s going to stay with you while I’m at practice, but I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Take your time,” Danielle said. “Maybe I’ll help her get a bath and wash her hair and stuff. Turn this puking duck back into a beautiful swan.”
“That sounds good to me,” Winnie said, sitting up halfway. Joel reached out and helped her sit the rest of the way up. She only felt a little woozy. He helped her to her feet and she gave him a quick hug before turning toward the bathroom.
“Are you hungry? Do you want me to call for some room service? Maybe call housekeeping to get clean bedding so you can come back from your shower to clean sheets.”
“Joel—” Danielle pointed to the door. “Go to practice and your media event. I know how to call housekeeping and room service. Come back in a few hours and maybe your bride will feel like being a bride again.”
Winnie and Joel both chuckled and smiled at one another.
“Wouldn’t that be nice,” Winnie said, not entirely hopeful.
“You just focus on getting healthy. The rest will work itself out,” Joel said, heading for the door.
As Winnie watched him leave she couldn’t help thinking that it was going to take a lot more than a shower and clean sheets for her to feel healthy.
Clean would be a step in the right direction so she’d settle for that. Winnie decided before allowing her best friend to get anywhere near her, a toothbrush was her first order of business. While she was brushing, she could hear Danielle in the main room calling housekeeping to come change the bedding and to bring a shower chair. Brilliant. “Why didn’t we think of that?” Winnie mumbled through her foaming toothpaste.
This was going to be humiliating enough having someone else help her in the shower without also having to hoist herself in and out of a bath or stand up long enough for Danielle to wash her hair. Neither option sounded pleasant. A shower chair was a perfect middle ground.
The whole experience still proved exhausting to her weak, little body. By the time Joel arrived back to their hotel room a few hours later, Winnie had clean, braided hair, soft pajamas, a cup of vegetable soup in her belly and renewed life in her countenance.
Joel thanked Danielle profusely and Danielle promised to return the following day so he could leave again for practice. He closed and locked the door behind her then came and sat beside her. “How are you feeling?”
“Weak,” Winnie said. “But not nauseous, so that’s a step in the right direction.”
“Definitely.” Joel seemed nervous and Winnie suspected she knew why. Neither of them knew where to go from here. They knew what they’d be doing right now if she hadn’t spent the past two days puking, but she did, and now she was weak, and tired. “I know you’re probably not feeling up to much of anything else, but do you think, maybe we could sleep in the same bed tonight without that making you feel sick?”
“I would love that.” Winnie smiled with a tired sigh. “You’re so good to me. How did I get so lucky to have you marry me?”
“Probably the same way I got lucky to have you marry me.”
“Some luck”—Winnie snorted— “You’re so lucky instead of making love to me on our wedding night, you got to clean up after me.”
“Hey, we have every night for the rest of our lives to make love to each other. Tonight, I’m just thankful to have you sleep in my arms.”
Involuntarily, Winnie yawned, reminding them both that her body was ready for some sleep right now.
Even though the night was still young, Joel got himself ready for bed and climbed between the sheets beside Winnie, pulling her close to him. She drifted off to sleep with her head resting in the crook of his arm, as close to comfortable as she could get under the circumstances. She slept for a long time.
Some might refer to theirs as a destination wedding. The bride and groom paid to bring their guests from across the country to one exotic location, in this case Pasadena California, home of the Rose bowl.
Between Winnie’s parents’ wealth, and Joel’s affiliation with the football team, they were able to get box seats for the entire wedding party. It helped that quite a few of the people in the wedding party were football players, or family members of football players.
Only a few of Winnie’s friends and roommate had no affiliation with the University of Michigan football team so those were the only people difficult to include, but they made it work.
Because the football players and entourage were already reserved to stay at the Marriot, only a few strings needed to be pulled, and a few people willing to give up their individual suites to share a hotel room with a buddy, in order for a few extra wedding guests to reserve rooms.
The wedding was planned for December 27th. After Christmas but still with plenty of time to have a quick honeymoon before the big game, with only a few practices and media appearances interrupting their otherwise blissful time together.
Or so they thought.
Because they didn’t take the time to communicate to the hotel caterers clearly enough, there wasn’t a great selection for vegetarians at the wedding reception. That meant Winnie had only a few things on her plate just like at her family’s Thanksgiving dinner.
Joel wouldn’t let that stop him from making sure his new wife got plenty of the finest delicacies available. He paid more attention to the foods she ate and kept encouraging her to eat more. He even shoved a small piece of cake in her mouth. She laughed and then shoved an even bigger piece of cake in his mouth. That led to a food fight, which led them both to find the restrooms so they could get cleaned up.
Waiting outside the ladies’ room for his bride to emerge was a necessary mild inconvenience. At first. Then he got concerned. Ten minutes was too long by any woman’s standard. He left his post near the door and made a beeline for Winnie’s best friend, and now former roommate, Danielle.
“Can you go check on Winnie? She’s been in the ladies’ room for a long time and I’m getting worried.” Danielle followed him without hesitation. She was only in the restroom for a moment before emerging and waving Joel inside. What he saw was heartbreaking. His new bride was on the floor in the restroom with her arms wrapped around her stomach and tears coursing down her face. “Sweetheart, are you sick.”
Winnie reached her arms around Joel’s neck and climbed right up onto his lap, causing him to sink to the floor, holding her in his arms. “Food… too much.”
“Let’s take you up to our hotel suite, okay?”
“Too… far… to walk.” Winnie continued sobbing.
“I’ll carry you, sweetheart. Come on.”
Danielle helped Joel up from the floor, him still cradling Winnie in his arms. As she held open the bathroom door for them, Danielle handed Joel a small garbage can that was in the corner of the ladies’ room.
“Good thinking.” Joel nodded to Winnie’s friend and carried Winnie toward the elevator. No one would question the groom carrying his bride from the reception. Anyone who saw them leave would assume they were escaping for a romantic evening. Joel had a feeling there wouldn’t be much romance that evening.
They somehow made it up the elevator and down the hall to their suite before Winnie clamored to get down from Joel’s arms and rushed to the bathroom, kneeling before the toilet and letting go of all the heavy food he’d been encouraging her to eat all evening.
When she took a short break from her violent heaving, he helped her remove the elegant veil from her head, which would now require dry cleaning, along with her gown, which he helped her slip off.
Joel never dreamed the first time he’d see his wife without clothing she’d be shivering on the floor in a hotel bathroom, shaking and trying to hold off the next bout of sickness long enough to don a terry cloth robe.
He brought Winnie a water bottle, soaked a washcloth in hot water so she could wash her face and then held her in his arms tight against his body for warmth and comfort and sat with her on the bathroom floor, propped up against the side of the tub, still wearing most of his tux.
“Some wedding night, huh?” Winnie said in a quiet voice.
“I’m so sorry I forced you to eat all that food.” Joel felt guilty, as if he caused her pain.
“You didn’t force me,” she assured him. “Some foods just don’t agree with some bodies. I ate a lot of weird foods tonight. They tasted a lot better going down. Trust me. Speaking of—” Winnie pushed off his lap and knelt in front of the toilet again.
There was nothing he could do but wait to help her clean herself up when she was done getting sick. A tissue for her nose, a water bottle to swish out her mouth, a washcloth for her face, and then he held her again, leaning against the tub, treasuring every moment together with his bride even if under terrible circumstances.
Instead of holding Winnie in his arms lying on their king-sized bed with nothing but a negligee between them, he held her on the bathroom floor fully dressed cradling her tiny body in a robe that would need to be laundered before the night was over.
A few hours ago, he’d made a vow to love her in times of sickness and in health. He didn’t realize that vow would be tested quite so soon.
“Remember to pause a full breath during your transition from the adagio section at the beginning into your allegro, and don’t throw your leg too much on your grande jete.” Madame Jocie took Winnie by the shoulders and gently straightened her posture, then lifted her chin and met her gaze. “You’ve got this. The piece was written for you. Your performance is near perfect. Don’t worry about the audience. Don’t worry about the talent scouts. Don’t worry about that hot football player I know will be watching.”
“He may not get here in time.” Winnie choked back tears. “Indianapolis is four hours away.”
“The game got over at three. That’s five hours ago. If he left right away, he could make it.”
“He’s probably still celebrating with his team.” Winnie dismissed Joel as if knowing he wouldn’t be here. He’d played—and won—the Big Ten Championship game that afternoon. Driving back to Ann Arbor for a ballet showcase wasn’t top priority. “Besides the players have hotel rooms in Indianapolis tonight. The bus isn’t even returning until tomorrow.”
“Did he say he was coming?” Madame Josie was baiting Winnie with her rhetorical question.
“Yes,” Winnie said, squaring her shoulders with renewed confidence.
“Then dance as if he’s in the front row and he’s the only member of the audience who matters. Whether he’s there or not, you’ve given your best performance as if he was.”
“Okay, I can do that.” Before they could converse further, the music shifted, and Winnie’s curtain call beckoned. Her toe shoes thumped delicately across the stage in little beats, and she came to a rest at center stage, chin lifted, eyes half closed, waiting for her performance piece to begin.
This was it. This was what she’d been working toward all these years. This was her moment to shine. She took Madame Jocie’s advice and focused on the proverbial front row, which she couldn’t actually see because of the stage lights. All the rest of the audience didn’t matter. She wanted Joel to appreciate her performance.
If he was in the auditorium at all.
Jarrod Radnich’s fingers began their slow progression across the keys of his piano and Winnie got lost in his song. Muscle memory took over and her body flowed with the undercurrent of the beats, as if they were smooth and connected without individual notes. Forty-five seconds into the piece, Jarrod slowed his strokes to a few graceful sounds and Winnie remembered Madame Jocie’s suggestion to hold a pregnant pause there.
When the music resumed with quick, pounding beats, Winnie leapt into her performance, jumping and spinning and lifting onto her toes as if the whole experience was effortless to her.
In a way, this was effortless. She had incorporated just enough modern elements into her showcase that the line between classical and contemporary dance was blurred. She wasn’t just showcasing her talent; she was showcasing her ability to choreograph and explore different styles of dance while still maintaining the tradition of pointe ballet. This was what she was born to do.
And she wanted to share the moment with Joel.
Winnie danced for Joel and him alone. Everyone else in the auditorium was merely here to observe her seduction. She wanted her performance to bring Joel to his knees.
If he was watching.
During the pounding climax of the song, Winnie launched into a series of pirouettes, spotting that proverbial front row and the man of her dreams watching her from the darkness of the theater, even if he was still popping champaign with his teammates in Indianapolis.
He was there. With her. Every turn. Every spot. Every turn. Every spot.
Rather than landing in the traditional fourth arabesque, Winnie ended her series of pirouettes by extending her leg in a releve en pointe that was nearly perpendicular to the stage. She then used the momentum to transition into a tour jete arabesque finally landing in a simple fourth arabesque closing out the piece with classic elegance. The cheering began before the music ended and Winnie took a series of curtsies, bowing to her audience of one, wherever he was.
Exhilaration radiated from her very being as she travelled across the floor, her face to the audience until the last second when she disappeared into the curtains of stage left.
Right into the arms of her ballet mistress who held Winnie as she sobbed onto her shoulder.
Madame Jocie was always prepared with a box of tissue and a water bottle. For some weird reason Winnie couldn’t hold in the emotions of her performance and the tears just flowed. Happened every time. Thankfully always in the wings and thankfully no one questioned her outpouring of emotion.
“Come on, let’s get you to your dressing room so you can clean yourself up,” Madame Jocie said, pulling Winnie gently away from the stage.
Winnie followed obediently, allowing herself to be pulled along blindly, trusting her ballet mistress would lead her wherever she needed to go next.
Her tears had mostly stopped by the time she reached her dressing room where she was met with a surprise. A handsome defensive cornerback fresh off the field where he’d helped the University of Michigan football team win the Big Ten Championship game a mere five hours prior.
“Joel, you’re here!” Winnie threw herself into his arms and he held her as the tears flowed again. “How did you get here so fast?” she asked through her sobs.
“I took my Mustang down and drove home as soon as we got off the field, well, after a shower, of course.”
“You’d smell almost as bad as I do if you hadn’t,” Winnie joked, knowing she was drenched in sweat.
“Trust me, you smell like roses compared to the way a team of football players smell when we get off the field.”
“Speaking of roses—” Winnie pulled back and met his gaze. “Is the Rose Bowl guaranteed now?”
“It’s official.” He grinned. “We’re heading to Pasadena.”
“Yay!” She jumped up and down like a little girl then realized she was still in her toe shoes and a very restrictive tutu that was getting in the way of any intimacy she was trying to convey in her celebration. She pulled away from Joel again. “I gotta get this thing off.”
Without any other preamble, Winnie tugged the stiff taffeta tutu down over her hips and stepped out from within its constriction.
“Dang, if you’re going to start removing clothes, maybe we should close the door to your dressing room,” Joel said with a provocative whistle.
“Don’t tempt me, young man,” Winnie teased him. “You’re the one who put the brakes on that particular activity. If you’re ready to change your mind, let me know.”
“Come with me to Pasadena,” Joel said suddenly.
“I want you to come with me when we go out to California.” Joel placed both hands on her hips and pulled her close to him. “I want you to meet my parents and family and see where I grew up. Come with me to the Rose Bowl.”
“Really?” She rested her hands on his biceps, giving them a little squeeze. Her heart raced almost as much as when she ran off the stage following her performance.
“And let’s bring your family. We can get them tickets to the game, stay at a fancy hotel, have your family meet my family… and maybe come back for the winter semester and move into married housing.”
“M—married housing?” Her jaw dropped and her head spun with shock. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“I know we just met a few weeks ago, and this has happened really fast, but I can’t think of a better way to cap off this incredible year than to end the year sleeping in your arms and start the new year winning the Rose Bowl.”
“Oh my gosh, you’re serious, aren’t you?” Winnie didn’t know whether to squeal or jump up and down and cry out with excitement.
“I thought about this for four solitary hours as I rushed home to see the most incredible woman I’ve ever met dance the most incredible performance I’ve ever seen, and I just know that I have to be yours forever. I am yours forever. You have my heart. Let me give you all the rest of me too.”
“Okay.” Winnie nodded once, then again with more conviction. “Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Let’s do this!” She jumped into his arms again.
“Wait, I haven’t even asked you, yet.”
“No.” Joel pushed her away slightly and lowered himself to one knee right there in her dressing room. He cleared his throat. “Edwina Cosette LaFleur, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
“Yes! Oh my gosh, yes!” Winnie bounced with excitement, still wearing her leotard, tights, and toe shoes, feeling more like a little girl than she did coming off the stage for her first recital at the age of three.
She was reminded of her desire just a little while ago to bring Joel to his knees with her performance. Seeing him on the floor in front of her asking her to be his wife brought more tears of joy to her eyes.
Joel lumbered back off his knees, lifted Winnie into a hug and captured her lips with his. Nothing could ever ruin the perfection of that moment.
Winnie fell asleep on the way home from her parents’ house. She needed the rest from the emotional day of dealing with her mother and brothers. She also hoped to be up late, snuggling in Joel’s arms, taking their relationship to the next level. She stretched when she realized they’d pulled into the parking lot of her apartment complex.
Joel had kept the radio off, and Winnie was lulled to sleep by the white noise of the car’s engine.
“Hey, there, Sleeping Beauty,” Joel said quietly. “Did you have a nice nap?”
Winnie cleared her throat and cringed away from the streetlamps shining down on the nearly empty parking lot. “Yeah, I think so.”
Joel pulled his car next to hers but left the engine running. “Did you still want me to stay tonight?”
“Yeah… I thought you wanted to.”
“I do. I just… well… I’ve been thinking about my conversations with your brother.”
“What about them?” Winnie’s heart plummeted. If her brother said anything that scared away the first guy she ever really liked, she was going to be so angry.
“He’s your big brother. And he just wants to protect you.”
“Are you trying to break up with me and using my brother as an excuse?” Winnie threw the car door open and scrambled to leave. Joel tried to grab her hand but she ripped it away and slammed the door, grumbling as she did. “That’s just great. My stupid brother ruined the only real relationship I’ve ever had. The only guy I’ve ever actually cared about.”
“Winnie, wait up!” Joel left his car running and the driver’s side door wide open while he raced to catch up with her.
Winnie spun around and glared at Joel. “Just do it. Break up with me. I get it. My family’s crazy. They scared you away. Whatever. Just let me down easy and don’t drag this out.”
“Winnie would you just listen?” Joel pleaded. Whatever he had to say wouldn’t make this blow any easier.
“Joel, just get it over with and leave me alone!” Winnie yelled. “Don’t make this any harder than it already is. I knew you were too good to be true. I knew you’d break my heart. Why did I ever let myself get caught up in your lies?”
“I have never lied to you!” Joel yelled back. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about you breaking up with me because my brother turned you away from me.”
“Your brother didn’t turn me away from you,” Joel said.
“Then why are you breaking up with me?”
“I’m not breaking up with you!”
“Then why are you yelling at me?”
“Because you’re yelling at me!”
Winnie dropped her shoulders in defeat. “Why am I yelling at you if you’re not breaking up with me?”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out,” Joel said, also relaxing his shoulders and let out a long breath.
“You said my brother talked to you.” Winnie’s thoughts were spinning. She was still not fully awake and feeling mildly woozy from lack of food.
Winnie waited for Joel to continue. “And?”
“And I’m thinking maybe you and I should… wait.”
“Wait for what?” Winnie shivered and folded her arms across her chest.
“Wait to have sex until we’re married.” Joel reached out and rubbed his hands up and down her arms to warm them up.
“But… we just met.” Winnie shook her head.
“But… but… do you realize how long that is from now?”
“No, I don’t.” Joel pulled her just a little closer. “How long is that from now?”
“Is this a trick question?” Winnie was almost more confused now then when they were yelling at each other.
“Do you want to marry me?” Joel asked. Was he proposing to her?
“I don’t know. We just met.”
“You said that a minute ago,” Winnie said.
“If you don’t know if you want to marry me because we just met, then it’s too soon for us to have sex.”
“But you’ve had sex before.” Winnie couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to have sex with her.
“But you haven’t.” He bent down so he could look her in the eye.
“Don’t you want to be my first?” she whispered, her lip trembling, emotions close to the surface.
“Yes, I do”—Joel added a caveat— “on our wedding night.”
“I’m not following you. Are you asking me to marry you?”
“Because I want you to be ready,” he said.
“I am ready,” Winnie practically whined. “I’ve been looking forward to this all day.”
“We can still snuggle, and kiss, and talk, and wake up in each other’s arms.” Joel pulled her closer and kissed the tip of her nose. “Let’s take some time to get to know each other and think about the future and what we want for our futures and decide if what we want is to be together forever. And if we do, then I’ll buy you a pretty ring, and get down on one knee, and you can wear a white dress, and your dad can give us his blessing, and then—on our wedding night—I’ll make love to you for the first time.”
“You will?” Winnie relaxed into his arms.
“Yeah, I will. But if you decide that I’m not the man you want to marry, then you deserve to save yourself for the man you do want to marry.”
“What about you? You didn’t save yourself.”
“Just because I made mistakes in the past doesn’t mean I should make them in the future. Like we said yesterday, neither of us wants this to be a hook up. Right?” He nodded and she answered with a nod of agreement. “If we had sex tonight, we would cheapen the relationship we’re developing. We both deserve to wait for each other until we’re married.”
“You’re really serious about this, aren’t you?” Winnie looked up at him in awe.
“I’m very serious about this. And I’m serious about you.” Joel paused and smoothed flyaway hairs that had fallen from her bun. “I watched you sleep while I was driving, and you seemed so peaceful and beautiful, and I couldn’t help thinking that I want to watch you sleep in my bed every night from now until eternity.”
“That statement would be a little creepy if it weren’t so adorable.”
“You know what I mean, Edwina. I want to sleep beside you every night.”
“I thought we were planning to sleep together tonight,” Winnie grumbled. “Why do you think I took such a long nap?”
“We can still sleep together tonight,” Joel said. “Just, without the sex. Okay?”
“Okay.” Winnie breathed a sigh of relief. He didn’t want to break up with her. He wanted to wait to have sex until they were married, and he wanted to get married. But not yet. She could be okay with all that. “Can we go inside now? I’m freezing.”
“I should probably go turn my car off first.” Joel chuckled. “But one more thing I need to say.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m falling in love with you.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m falling in love with you too,” Winnie said, comforted by the trajectory of their fledgling relationship.
Before Joel headed back to his car, he took Winnie in his arms again and lowered his face to hers for one long, passionate kiss.
Yeah, she was falling in love with Joel Anderson.
Joel was still fuming when Winnie showed him the way to a downstairs bathroom where he could get cleaned up.
Marshall had crossed a line by tackling Joel to the ground with that much force. Joel was going to be sore for days. Usually on the football field he was covered in pads and protective gear. That tackle was uncalled for.
With just over a week before Big 10 championships in preparation for The Rose bowl, Joel needed to stay in top shape, or he would have difficulty at his game. He never would have played football with Winnie’s brothers if he'd known that they would get rough.
“I’m so sorry,” Winnie said, leaning against the vanity near the sink. “I don’t know what got into my brother.”
“He’s just protective of you. If I had a little sister, I would probably be the same way.” Joel was especially glad that he and Winnie hadn’t slept together because the argument with her brother would have been that much worse.
Joel washed his hands thoroughly, trying to get the scrapes cleaned. He’d brushed himself off as best he could while they were still outside to get the grass and mud off his clothes. But he still felt too dirty to sit on any of the LaFleur’s expensive furniture.
“Hey man, I’m sorry.” Marshall came into the bathroom holding a stack of clothes; a pair of sweats, a T-shirt, a sweatshirt and some clean socks. He handed them to Joel. “Thought you could use something warm and dry to wear. I’ll put your slacks and dress shirt in the washer and they should be ready before it's time for you to leave. Again, I’m really sorry.”
“I forgive you, I guess,” Joel grumbled, taking the stack of clothing. “That was totally uncalled for. If we lose to Ohio State next week, I’m blaming you.”
“Fair enough. I’ll take the blame.” Marshall took a step back and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Anyway, get changed because dinner is almost ready and mom will be even more angry at me if we're late for dinner.”
Winnie remained standing in the bathroom, leaning against the vanity with her arms folded across her chest.
“You’re coming with me, young lady,” Marshall said, pulling at her sleeve.
“Why?” Winnie didn’t budge. “I’m allowed to see my boyfriend without his clothes on.”
Just for fun, Joel stepped closer to Winnie and wrapped his arm around her waist, smirking at her older brother, daring Marshall to come after him again.
His didn’t. Marshall grumbled something unintelligible and left the room.
Joel stepped away as soon as her brother was out of sight. “As tempting as that sounds, I don’t want to make any more enemies in your family than I already have.”
Winnie lifted onto her toes and whispered in Joel’s ear. “Later.”
“Definitely,” he whispered back. “Now get out of here before your dad comes in with his shotgun.”
She giggled as she slipped out the door, pulling it shut behind her.
The clothes were just a little too tight in the thighs and shoulders, lessoning the indignity of the afternoon’s beating he’d endured. As an athlete, Joel was a force to be reckoned with and his sculpted body was proof. How Marshall had managed to throw him to the ground like that was a testament to how low Joel had his guard down. He’d been having a fun afternoon and never expected an attack.
He was determined to make the rest of the afternoon better.
Coming out of the bathroom in sweatpants and a hoodie, Joel realized he would be the only guy not in a dress shirt and slacks. Until he met Marshall in the hallway and handed him the stack of muddy clothes. Marshall had changed out of his muddy dress clothes and matched Joel’s attire. Joel appreciated that.
Before handing over the clothes, Joel looked Marshall in the eye and said with conviction, “I haven’t slept with your sister.”
“But you want to.”
“Heck yeah, I want to.” Joel wanted to add you idiot to the end of his statement, but he was trying to smooth things over. “Have you slept with your girlfriend?”
“That’s none of your business,” Marshall said.
“Does she have an older brother?” Joel raised his eyebrows and Marshall looked away. “How do you think her older brother feels about you sleeping with his little sister?”
“Probably about the way I feel right now,” Marshall mumbled.
“How about if we just remember that we’re all college kids and we make our own choices about who we sleep with, ’kay?”
“Whatever, man. Just give me those clothes so I can clean up the mess I made.”
“I’m not going for round two if that’s what you’re asking,” Marshall said. “The only thing more stupid than tackling a college linebacker is angering my mother.”
“Good thing I’m a cornerback, then.” They both chuckled and turned away from each other, Marshall in the direction of the laundry room, and Joel down the hall toward the dining room.
Winnie was waiting for him when he entered the formal dining room and she showed him to where they would sit together.
Joel noticed Gage and Leon had also changed into sweats, and Warren had slipped a Lions hoodie over his white shirt and tie. Nice show of solidarity on the part of the guys in the family. Likely his weren’t the only muddy dress clothes Marshall was throwing into the laundry machine. Maybe they’d save the football until after dinner next year.
To her credit, Teri didn’t make a single snide comment to her sons about instigating the backyard rumble. She just laid a platter on the table with a giant bird resting on top.
Winnie turned away from the dead animal in front of her and batted her eyelashes up at Joel. “My aunt made squash and my grandma brought her world-famous pistachio salad, which isn’t a salad at all. It’s an incredible pudding and cool whip green fluff of yumminess.”
“That sounds delicious.” Joel wrapped his arm around the back of Winnie’s chair and glanced across the table to notice Marshall had his arm around the back of his girlfriend’s chair also. They smirked at each other and came to a nonverbal truce. Joel turned his attention back to Winnie. “I can’t wait to try that.”
Bowls and platters of food were passed around the table and casual banter resumed. The turkey was moist, the gravy was flavorful, and Joel declined the giblet stuffing in favor of the stuffing his girlfriend had made.
Glancing over at Winnie’s plate, Joel realized she only had four items: a roll, stuffing, squash, and the coveted green fluff. Some Thanksgiving. He realized in that moment that Thanksgiving was not about the food. It was about getting the family together. He decided they should call his parents later and let them meet Winnie by video chat.
Teri’s annoyed comment interrupted Joel’s ruminating. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, are you still insisting you don’t eat meat?”
“I haven’t eaten meat in years, mom,” Winnie said with a calm voice. “You know that.”
“I just figured you’d get over your health food kick one of these days.” Teri waved her hand dismissively.
“I’m a college athlete, Mom. We don’t just get over our health food kicks.”
“I’ll second that,” Joel said.
“Me too,” Marshall agreed, followed by an ascent from their younger brother.
“Although, I refuse to give up meat.” Gage held up a drumstick and took a large bite.
Winnie physically gagged and turned away from her brother, meeting Joel’s eyes with a panicked expression.
“Hey, are you okay?” Joel whispered.
“I think I’m going to go get some fresh air,” Winnie whispered back.
“I’ll come with you.” Joel pushed back his chair and helped Winnie up, ignoring the rest of the family and their concerned faces.
To the back of the home there was a great room with a wall of windows on one side, and a complete home entertainment system on the other. Winnie sank into the corner of one of the sectionals and Joel snuggled up next to her.
“Do you want me to take you home?” He asked gently. “We can spend the rest of the day together, just me and you. I’ll make you a protein shake or something.”
“Nah, I don’t want to miss watching the Lions with my dad and brothers. It’s tradition.”
“Well, since we got into the living room first, we get the best seats in the house,” Joel joked. “And this sofa is very comfortable.”
Winnie laughed lightly then climbed up on Joel’s lap and tucked herself into his arms. He held her lithe dancer’s body close and had to force his mind away from the things he’d like to do with her when they got the chance. She had an incredible body but at that moment she needed his emotional comfort more than physical comfort. They just held each other for a long time.
Eventually other family members started trickling in, staking claims to corners of the sofas and easy chairs. No one mentioned the incident at the dinner table, and no one raised an eyebrow at Joel snuggled into the couch with Winnie draped over him.
When Marshall came into the room, he was carrying a small bowl with a spoon and handed it to Winnie. “Here, Sis, I saved you some green fluff. I know it’s your favorite.”
“Thank you.” She smiled up at her brother and then dug in with gusto.
That little olive branch, along with the Lions’ kickoff, changed the tone for the rest of the afternoon, which included light and fun banter, combined with competition, and a room full of armchair quarterbacks.
“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.
“Classical 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?
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.