They hadn’t gone on a date in a long time. Between starting school, seeing each other every day anyway, and now dealing with their preoccupation with this new man in Ashley’s life, they had never really taken the time to go out with each other lately.
It was time, and he knew it. If Ashley was going to be dating two men, then they needed to date, not just hang out at the barn together and go for trail rides. Even though these were things they both enjoyed doing together, they still weren’t dates.
Paul felt pressured to spoil Ashley a little. Not that he could ever keep up with Caleb. Paul tried to remind himself it was useless to try. He knew Ashley better than anyone in the world and he wanted to treat her like the lady she was, not the girl he had always known.
He turned his attention back to his work, but the gears in his head were working, trying to decide what kinds of fun things he could plan. He’d have to give that some more thought. Creative dating. Not too much money, but something fun.
Paul had taken the time to clean his truck, even scrubbing the tires free from most of the mud, and vacuuming the inside. She thought it was sweet. He had also put on clean jeans and a nice button-down shirt. It was very unlike him, but it showed off his huge arm muscles and he wore it with the top button open and a white t-shirt underneath. He looked hot, in a very fun way.
Ashley was almost concerned the other girls at his Agri-marketing Association meeting were going to be pining for him. After all, he was a successful farmer who was almost a land-owner and already ran his father’s business even though he wasn’t twenty years old yet.
Ashley was wearing the little heart pendant necklace that he’d given her for Christmas, over a pretty tight-fitting sweater and nice jeans. They were both wearing cowboy boots, but not the ones they wore in the barn. Newer ones that were clean and softly worn.
As a couple, they were comfortable and relaxed. They were happy together. There was no nervousness, like when on a first date, even though it kind of felt like one. They cranked the country music station on the radio and Paul drove a little too fast, which was kind of exciting.
He kept looking over at her with a little bit of a grin on his face and it felt like he was checking her out and that like he liked what he saw. It made her feel kind of sexy, and she felt the same way about him.
“Where are you taking me for dinner?” she asked when they were half way to campus.
“I asked around and everyone kept telling me about this little hole-in-the-wall place called The Soup Spoon Café. It’s over near the hospital, and they say it has the best food around.”
“That sounds awesome. I’m so excited to be on a date with you. I don’t know why.”
“Because you get to go out with the hottest guy around.” He puffed up his chest in mock superiority.
“You are hot.” She enjoyed flirting back. “Am I going to get a good-night kiss at the end of our date?”
“You can have a good-night kiss at the beginning of our date too.” He grinned over at her. “If you’d like.”
“I’d like.” She raised her eyebrows at him and bit her lower lip playfully. This was getting fun. They were bouncing positive energy off one another, and felt like all the cares in the world were back in Fowlerville.
Paul flew around the corner to turn north onto US-127 going way too fast, then curved toward downtown Lansing. He got off at Pennsylvania Avenue and headed north toward Sparrow Hospital.
True to his word, when Paul came around to open the door and help her down from the truck, he pulled Ashley into his arms and gave her a very passionate kiss. They pulled away from each other, but stood there smiling for just a minute. Then he took a deep breath and grabbed her hand to escort her into the restaurant.
The Soup Spoon Café was adorable. It didn’t look like much from the outside, but it had that feel to it, like you could just tell that it was going to have great food. It was spacious and the tables were situated around the kitchen, which was open and fun. There were only a few tables left, as the dinner hour was approaching and it was starting to get busy. They were glad to have gotten there early enough to beat the rush.
Before the waitress even arrived, Paul leaned over to a couple at the table next to them and asked, “We’ve never eaten here before. What should we try?”
Ashley was impressed at his boldness. She’d never known him to do something like that, but it had been a really long time since they’d gone out on a date, and never since they’d been adults. She liked it. He seemed confident and self-assured.
“Oh, you’ve got to try the Hanger Steak,” the guy said.
“I am not purchasing something I have a freezer full of at home.” Ashley laughed. “Besides, I don’t want to eat something from an animal that I milked this morning.”
“You must be a farmer,” he said.
“Just a farmer’s daughter.” Ashley looked over at Paul again with an appraising look on her face. “He’s a farmer.”
“Don’t let her fool you,” Paul told them. “She could probably handle any job on the farm, and usually has the chores completed faster than the rest of us can even analyze what needs to be done.”
“Well, you should probably marry her, dude.” The guy teased Paul.
“Workin’ on it.” Paul looked over at Ashley with a husky voice. She just blushed and looked down at the menu.
“Anyway,” she said, and the other three laughed lightly.
“You should try the Lentil Soup,” the lady told her. “It’s amazing. Any of the soups are.”
“Now, that sounds good,” Ashley said, setting her menu aside and looking up at Paul with teasing defiance. “You can eat some cow, if you want.”
“The braised lamb shank is good too,” the guy said.
“Now, that’s an animal I don’t already own,” Paul said and laid his menu on the table. One quick conversation with some regular customers, and they were ready to order their meals before the waitress was even over to take their drink order.
They declined on the specialty draft and Michigan-made beers that the waitress suggested, settling instead for fountain pop. The food was amazing, and the lentil soup just about blew them away. They smiled and teased each other, and talked a little more with the couple at the next table. They were even happy when the bill came, noting again that the prices were quite reasonable. This place was a real find.
It was still early when they left the restaurant, so Paul drove around campus for a little tour before heading over to the Agricultural Hall.
“I want to take you to see the Horticulture Gardens at the south end of campus,” Paul told her. “It’s amazing!”
“What is it? I’ve never heard of it.”
“Well, we get to go there as part of my Horticulture class, but it’s open to the public for tours.” Paul looked over at Ashley, and his voice got soft. “The gardens are beautiful.”
“Well, I look forward to you sharing them with me,” she responded. Ashley felt as if she were seeing a new side of Paul, one that was paying closer attention to the amazing world that existed beyond his eighty acres.
Suddenly, Ashley cried, “Stop! Look! Turn in here!”