It was amazing how life could change in just one year. The Fowlerville Fair in Livingston County was just as it always was, but Ashley saw it in a new light. She didn’t ride that year, but instead spent a good deal of time in the cattle barn with the calves from her father’s hobby cows.
She helped with her 4-H kids to teach them the proper ways to show for the judges. She sat with anticipation, watching as each auction brought top prices for the calves that ‘her’ kids had raised.
A few times a day she walked over to the horse arenas and watched the kids show in the different classes. She cheered as the kids got high marks for showmanship, and Dressage, and barrel riding, and English. She went around to the stalls and spent time with each of the horses who normally lived in her barn. They all knew her and loved her as much as she loved them. It was there in the horse barn that she turned around to a familiar voice.
“I thought you promised me you were going to show me your skills in the saddle this summer,” Linda Rogers scolded Ashley playfully.
Ashley turned around to Caleb’s mom’s smiling face. She wasn’t expecting Linda to actually show up at the fair, and hadn’t thought to tell her that in light of recent tragedy, her heart wasn’t up for riding this year. They reached over and gave each other a hug.
“How are you holding up, sweetie?” Linda asked.
“I’m doing okay.” Ashley put on a brave face, knowing she failed miserably to convince Linda that everything was back to normal. She was going to have to face a new kind of normal.
As jumpy as Ashley had been in the two weeks since the storm, she almost wondered if she would eventually need counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder or something. She felt a lot of comfort being here at fair. This was one place where the horror didn’t stare her in the face every time she looked out the windows of her house, or the door of her barn.
Fair was the same year after year, with subtle changes as people grew up and new faces took their place. She loved all the animals and wished she could spend all day everyday with them. The whole week was therapeutic for her, and she didn’t want to go home.
“Thank you so much for coming to see me. Did Bart come with you?”
“Of course,” Linda said. “He’s over in the merchant barn, talking with some salesman about installing new windows or something like that. Like we need new windows. I should put the poor guy out of his misery and pull Bart away; the salesman probably thinks he’s actually going to get a commission off this old man who asks lots of questions about which windows are most energy efficient. I got the impression that Bart had his eye on going over to hassle the guy in the next booth who was running for some political office. He’s probably not even in our district, but Bart loves politics. He doesn’t tell people that he’s been to almost every country in the world before he lets the unassuming politician try to tell him how he’s going to fix all the problems in Michigan. It’s actually kind of fun to watch. My husband is such a character.”
“I adore him,” Ashley said. “He’s the type of guy who makes the world a better place.”
“More colorful anyway,” Linda said, and took Ashley’s hand. “Show me some of your horses. Is your Shelly here somewhere?”
“She is,” Ashley said, leading Linda in the direction of Shelly’s stall. “I’m not competing this week, but Shelly loves being here. I’ve taken her out in the arena a few times to demonstrate some things to some of the littler kids. She’s right here.”
Ashley came to an unassuming stall that wasn’t decorated with glittery posters and flags and ribbons like most of the other stalls. She shoved aside the heavy door and led Linda inside. Shelly lowered her head to let Ashley pet her and introduce her to this new woman. It was almost as if the pretty mare was bowing a greeting of respect. It was endearing.
“Oh, she’s beautiful Ashley. Hello, Shelly,” Linda practically cooed to the horse. She looked back up at Ashley. “You’re really good with animals, aren’t you? You should forget medicine and be a veterinarian.”
Linda turned her attention back to the horse and Ashley just stared at her. It was as if a switch flicked inside Ashley’s brain.
Veterinarian? Hmm… maybe? Ashley was transported forward in time, thinking about what life would be like as a vet. She already knew all of the farmers in the region. She knew the cattle and the horses and the swine and the sheep. She knew more about how to care for them than she wished to admit. She could look at an animal and know if something was not right. She could tell by the sheen of the coat or the color of their eyes, to indicate if they were sick. She wondered why she’d never thought of it before. She would be an amazing vet. Her thoughts were interrupted by a familiar voice.
“There you are, babe. I was looking for you.” Paul barely glanced at the woman standing in the stall with Ashley. “They’re pushing back the swine auction for about an hour because one of the judges is running late, so I wondered if you wanted to come with me to get some lunch. I’m starving, and my camper is just about run out of everything. My brothers are getting to that age where they eat all the time.”
“Paul,” Ashley sort of interrupted him. “This is Linda Rogers… Caleb’s mom.” She gestured toward Linda.
“Oh wow!” Paul reached over and shook her hand with a big smile. “Thank you so much for the sandwiches last week, and the donuts, and the fruit basket, and…” Paul turned to Ashley with a pleading look in his eye, as if trying to remember what else Linda had sent along with Caleb in the days following the storm.
Linda was always trying to help and she seemed to know that when a bunch of guys were working hard all day clearing downed trees and broken fences, the best thing was to send food.
“Homemade cookies,” Ashley whispered the reminder.
“Oh, that’s right. They were so good. You are an amazing cook. Thank you so much.”
“Thank you, but I can’t take much credit. My chef, Lorenzo made them. He’s the amazing cook.” Paul looked over at Ashley with raised eyebrows at the reference to chef. Ashley had warned him that Caleb’s family was wealthy, but having a personal chef was a little over the top for rural Michigan. She forgot, Paul had never seen what White Lake was like. If he’d ever driven through that region, he wouldn’t have been as surprised.
“Well, it was greatly appreciated.” Paul went back to his gushing compliments. “Our brothers eat like horses. No offense Shelly.” He reached over and patted Ashley’s horse on the neck.
“You’re very welcome,” Linda replied. “It was the least I can do.”
“So, is Caleb here… too?” Paul looked back and forth between the two women.
“No, I believe he’s down at the hospital today.” Linda almost sounded like she was bragging, but more that she was proud of her son. “He’s a doctor now, you know?”
“Yeah… I’m aware of that.” Paul stammered.
“He mentioned that he’d drive up later this evening,” Linda continued. “Bart and I thought we’d take these two young people out to dinner. Get Ashley away from the farm for a little while.”
Ashley bit her tongue thinking that if she wanted to ‘get away from the farm’ all she had to do was get in her truck and drive away, but also that it was a little presumptuous that the Rogers’ could just swoop in here and pull her away whenever they chose.
“That sounds wonderful, Mrs. Rogers.” Ashley gave Paul a warning look after his jaw dropped. “We wouldn’t be able to go to dinner until after all the auctions are done, and it sounds like they’re running behind.”
Ashley casually scooted the two of them out of Shelly’s stall, gave her one last pat on her neck, and pulled the heavy door closed. She draped one arm through Paul’s and the other arm through Linda’s and started walking them out of the barn.
“Come on, let’s go find Bart so we can give him a hard time before Paul takes me out for some lunch. It sounds like I have two dates today.” She laughed lightly as she pulled them gently along. Linda laughed lightly as well, completely oblivious to the ramifications of Ashley’s statement.
Paul gave Ashley a curious look and raised one eyebrow at her. Ashley just smiled up at him and gave him a little wink then turned back to Linda.
“Would you like to sit with me during the swine auction later?” she asked her. “You might even choose a nice pig to have Lorenzo work his magic on for your next barbeque. Just think what a nice pig roast you could have.”
“Oh, that sounds wonderful!” Linda agreed. “I haven’t been to a pig roast in years!”
“And you have the perfect yard for it too!” Ashley complimented her. “Will you invite me to your pig roast?”
“Well, of course you’re invited.” Linda turned to her. “You know you’re always welcome in my home.”
“Oh, here’s Bart.” Ashley let go of both of them and rushed ahead to sneak up on Caleb’s dad. As Linda had predicted, he was talking animatedly to a handsome young politician who was dressed down to fit in at the fair.
Bart was dressed down as well, if you didn’t know what to look for. The clothes he was wearing were all tailored, albeit casual, and his shoes were probably worth more than the politician’s mortgage payment. Ashley poked him from behind and he turned in surprise.
“Well Ashley.” He grasped her up in a bear hug and kissed her on the forehead. “How are you, my dear?”
“I’m doing okay.” Ashley genuinely liked Caleb’s parents. They were wonderfully down-to-earth especially considering the underlying wealth that they obviously toned down in situations like this. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”
“It sure is.” He leaned over and kissed his wife on the cheek and looked up to be introduced to Ashley’s ‘friend’ Paul.
“Mrs. Rogers promised that you were going to buy a pig during the swine auction in a little while, then can invite me to a pig roast at your house.” Ashley teased him.
“Oh she did, huh?” Bart laughed and looked over at his wife.
“Wouldn’t that be fun?” Linda asked him. “Lorenzo would do such an amazing job pulling that together, don’t you think?”
“I think he would do a great job,” Bart agreed. He turned back to the politician who stood nearby, watching with wide eyes. Bart pulled out his wallet and slipped a fifty dollar bill from among the wad of cash and tucked it into the young politician’s hand. “Good luck with your campaign, son.” He patted the surprised young man on the shoulder and turned away from him.
“Well, you go check out all the swine in the barn while I go get some lunch with Paul and I’ll meet you back there in an hour. We can sit together for the auction.” She slipped her arm through Bart’s and pulled him gently in the direction of the barn. “I’ll tip you off as to which pigs are the best value.”
“That sounds great, Ashley.” Bart patted her hand that was tucked in his arm. They walked out of the merchant barn together, and Ashley let go of him when they were near the door. She turned to Paul and draped her now free arm through his and turned to smile at Mr. and Mrs. Rogers.
“I’ll see you in a little while.” She waved lightly and smiled.
“Bye, dear.” Linda smiled and turned her husband toward the open barn door. She immediately started pointing out the “pretty animals” as she pulled him along. Paul turned to Ashley and grinned at her.
“How do you do that?” He asked as they walked along between the swine building and the small animal barn, toward the parking lot. “How do you manage to make everyone happy and everyone feel so good about themselves at the same time?”
“I don’t,” Ashley said. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “If I could make everyone happy, we wouldn’t be in this situation… would we?” Paul stopped her and pulled her into his arms.
“I think you do make everyone happy,” he whispered down to her. “If Caleb and I weren’t both happy spending time with you, then we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
He pulled away and looked firmly into her eyes. His voice got husky.
“If you didn’t make me happy, I would have dumped you a long time ago.” He grinned playfully.
“You’re too sweet to me.” She smiled up at him. Paul leaned down and kissed her softly, but firmly. They hadn’t kissed passionately in a few weeks, purposefully. But she let her guard down a little and let him hold her for a few minutes. When they pulled away from each other, they looked into each other’s eyes and smiled gently.
“Let’s go get some lunch so you can come back and sell your boyfriend’s parents one of my best pigs.”
“He’s not my boyfriend.” Ashley pushed him playfully. Paul puffed up his chest just slightly.
“I know,” he bragged. “I’m your boyfriend!”
“You’re so much more than a boyfriend to me,” she mumbled.
“Would you rather be my fiancé?” he teased her, pushing her gently back. “Just say the word. Dump that rich doctor and we can ride off into the sunset on our horses and live happily ever after.”
“Life isn’t a fairy tale, Paul.” Ashley scolded him.
“Your horse is just right over there in that barn,” he said. “I’m sure I can borrow one of the others until we can ride home to our barn and I can trade it out for my Rex.”
“Ha, ha Paul.” Ashley shook her head at him, grinning. “Let’s go get some lunch. I couldn’t possibly marry you on an empty stomach.”