The next morning started off as it normally did. Ashley headed out to the barn and spent a few minutes with Shelly. She felt bad that she hadn’t taken the time to go for a ride the previous evening, even though she’d gotten home plenty early enough.
Caleb had driven her home after dinner and walked her to the house. He met her mom briefly, then took off. Ashley had gone upstairs to her room pretty soon afterward and had lain down on her bed for a long time, still wearing her jeans and sweater. She had a lot to think about.
Confusing thoughts were running through her mind. She was still so young. She felt like she’d been telling herself that a lot lately. She was still so young. She had plenty of time to make the big decisions in her life.
She made one decision, however. She was going to keep her major in college the same as it was right now and just let her mind be open to all the other possibilities at the university. Maybe she did want to be a doctor, maybe she didn’t. She just didn’t know. But one thing she did know was that it wasn’t a decision she had to finalize right now.
She fell asleep gradually, still in her clothes and still resting on top of her bed covers. She’d woken to the crow of the rooster, just as she always did and changed into overalls and a flannel shirt. She undid her braid and pulled her hair back into a sloppy pony tail before heading out to the barn.
After cleaning the horse stalls and giving them some feed, she headed over to the cattle to start the milking. She wasn’t surprised to see Paul resting against the side of one of the stalls. She smiled up at him and realized that it was the same location where he had kissed her a few months ago. The meaning wasn’t lost on her.
She didn’t head straight over to him, but instead grabbed a hoof pick and started in on the first hoof she came to. It wasn’t like she normally would have come over to see him; they usually just started working without so much as a good morning hug or kiss. Why change that now, just because there was a little tension between them?
“So,” Paul started, speaking quietly but with confidence. “Your new boyfriend’s pretty well off. You hadn’t mentioned that to me before.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” she corrected him. “And I didn’t know he was rich any more than you did. I had no idea.”
She looked up at him, searching his face to try to decipher what he was thinking. He was hurt, obviously. Jealous. A little deflated. Probably feeling like he didn’t stand a chance next to Caleb.
“Did he take you someplace fancy?” Paul grabbed a milking machine and started in on the nearest cow.
“He took me to a bar, actually.” Ashley laughed lightly.
“What?” Finally Paul had a little smile on his face.
“Yeah, it was really fun. We had a few beers, danced to the juke box and then played a couple of games of pool.”
“You’re joking, right?” Paul stopped what he was doing and looked over at her.
“Of course I’m joking,” she said. “You’re very cute when you’re gullible though. We had steak and fish and drank root beer. And it was fun.”
“You gonna see him again?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” She went back to work. “Probably. He’s really nice, and a lot different than what I’d expected. I’m not sure what I had expected…” her voice trailed off.
“But he’s rich?” he asked. Apparently Paul was a little hung up on that minor detail.
“You have no idea,” Ashley said. “It was really kind of intimidating to tell you the truth. But he didn’t make me feel intimidated; it was more my own insecurities than anything else.
“Maybe that’s why he didn’t take me anyplace fancy. He probably didn’t want to overwhelm me. And he definitely was not trying to go out of his way to impress me. That was never his intention.”
She felt like she was babbling on, and probably sharing way more information than Paul wanted to hear, but it felt good to vocalize some of her thoughts.
“You have no idea how much wood I chopped last night. My dad’s not going to need to restock the pile for the wood stove for the rest of the winter.”
“Why did you chop wood?” Ashley laughed, looking up at him from what she was doing.
“Because with each log I pictured his face as he pulled out of your driveway.” He raised his eyebrows, a little sheepish.
“Jealous much?” she teased him.
“Yes! It was torture! It was a very… difficult night for me.” He went back to work on the next milking machine.
“Well, I’m glad you took your frustrations out on the wood pile and not on Caleb’s face.” She stopped and her voice got a little quieter. “Because I think he’s actually quite handsome.”
“You know I don’t want to hear this crap?”
“Hey, you asked how my night went.” She threw right back at him.
“Yeah, but I don’t need the, ‘Oh he’s so handsome’ crap.” He put on his best girly voice with that part and smiled at her.
She smiled back at him. Neither of them wanted to fight, and it was good that he’d broken the ice a little.
Suddenly he put down his work and crossed the room to her and lifted her into a hug. She wrapped her arms around his waist and held him close to her.
He smelled really good. Earthy, with a little manure thrown in. He smelled comfortable. He smelled like home. She held him for a few minutes and he put his hand up on her neck, just underneath her pony tail.
She could tell what he wanted, and she resisted for a minute, but finally looked up at him. He didn’t lean down to kiss her, but she could tell that he wanted to. He just took a deep breath and gazed into her eyes.
“I really missed you last night,” he whispered in a husky voice. “I was very jealous. I’m sorry about that.”
“Well, you’re going to have to find some other form of physical labor if that wood pile is all set, because I’m sure it won’t be the last time you’ll have to wait up for me.”
He took a deep breath and held her gaze. Then finally he leaned down and kissed her gently. Not with any passion or intensity. Not like he was jealous or upset. It was just a kiss. A very nice kiss. She didn’t hesitate or resist. She just held him and kissed him.
Then they pulled apart, smiled at one another, and went back to work.