Stacking hay in ninety-degree weather with the sun beating down through a cloudless sky was no one’s idea of fun.
Everyone from the Davis family and the Hardman family knew this was the life blood for their animals, and a cash crop that could be sold to other local farmers. They cut and turned and baled and stacked until they fell down at the end of the day, so tired they couldn’t move.
Paul’s mom Sue stayed with the kids because hers were too young to come out and help, but she kept bringing food and lemonade and water and occasionally popsicles.
They didn’t stop for very long, for fear that if they sat down, they wouldn’t be able to get back up. But they’d had near-perfect weather all week and they needed to keep going, in spite of the heat. The end of the week promised thunderstorms, and the work had to be done before the rains came.
Each night they would quickly shower off the grime of the day, then collapse and get up to do it all over again.
On Thursday evening, Paul and Ashley found themselves last in line for showers and alone on the balcony in Ashley’s father’s largest barn. The last of the hay was stacked for the evening and there wasn’t much left for the following day, which was good because it was getting muggy.
“Why won’t you make out with me?” Paul asked. They were both hot and dirty from the day’s work. It was getting late, and the sun had almost gone down. They’d been coming up here for years. This was their not-so-secret hiding spot where they would hang out, talking and goofing off. And for years, after helping with the hay harvest, they’d always spent at least a little while kissing. Her father knew they were up here, and he knew they weren’t doing anything wrong. Paul knew he’d get his butt kicked by Ashley’s father if he so much as looked at her inappropriately. But he loved to kiss her, and he knew that she loved kissing him too.
“Because I’m not going to choose which one of you to kiss, and which one of you not to kiss.” Ashley turned to face him, propping herself up on her arm.
“That’s not fair. I’ve been kissing you for years, and he just met you a few months ago.” Paul’s pleading tone was endearing, but she wasn’t budging. “You love kissing me, and you know it.”
“I do love kissing you,” she told him softly. “But I like kissing Caleb, too.”
“Whoa, how much of this kissing are you doing with him?” Paul backpedaled. He didn’t like the way that sounded. He wanted to be the only one who was allowed to kiss Ashley. He knew she’d been dating Caleb, and that she really liked him, but kissing wasn’t something he was willing to accept.
“Not much, really. That’s the whole point.” Ashley looked down at him lying next to her. She almost couldn’t see him well enough in the twilight, so she leaned forward to look into his eyes. “How does it make you feel to hear that I’ve been kissing Caleb?”
“Like crap!” Paul answered.
“So how do you think it makes him feel if I’m kissing you?” Ashley waited for him to answer, but he just pressed his jaw together and looked up at the rafters.
He didn’t want to think about Caleb’s feelings. He didn’t want Caleb in her life at all, and he didn’t want him stealing her away for dates, or church meetings, or anything else. He certainly didn’t want him kissing her.
“Now, look at it from my perspective for a minute.” She paused and pulled his face around to look at her. “How does it make me look if I’m kissing you and then turning right around and kissing him?”
Paul looked up at her with longing in his eyes, but with a new understanding. He just stared up at her though. The threads of hair that had fallen out of her loose braid were sticking to her face because of the heat from the day. The dust and hay that were plastered all over her should have combined to make her pretty ghastly. But it only made her more beautiful.
Ashley had an earthy appeal that was enhanced by her ruggedness, yet softened by her femininity. No amount of farm work or scooping manure, or lifting bales of hay, or wearing dirty overalls could take away from how sweet and innocent she truly was.
In his eyes, she was the epitome of perfection. She was everything he had ever wanted in a wife, and it pained him that it felt like she was slipping through his fingers. He refused to answer her, because he refused to acknowledge what she was implying.
“It makes me look like a slut, that’s what.”
“Dang, you don’t have to be so blunt about it,” he said, not appreciating her choice of words. “There isn’t anyone in the world who could ever think of you as a slut. You’re the farthest thing from it.”
His voice got quieter. It had taken on an almost reverent quality that she couldn’t help noticing. She loved this man. He was everything that she was looking for in a husband. With one little exception, but she pushed that thought to the back of her mind for the moment.
Paul had grown up in the past few months. He would always be the boy she’d loved for years, but he was more than that. He was gaining a maturity that she’d only subtly noticed. He was gaining a view of the world that went beyond their back fence. It only made him more attractive.
Although she’d been denying him for weeks, suddenly her face was lowering to his and her lips pressed gently against his. She didn’t stop herself even as she realized that her actions were contradicting her words. She did love kissing him, and it was impossible to deny that.
His hand came up to the back of her head and he held her to him. She didn’t resist. She wanted him to hold her. It had been a long time since she’d let her guard down. She let him roll her over so that he was lying beside her, practically on top of her.
He didn’t push his luck. He never reached his hands in places he knew they shouldn’t go, and he never let things go too far. But he wanted her in his arms and he kissed her for several minutes.
She wrapped her arms around him, entwining her fingers in his hair and just feeling the warmth of him all over her. They were so comfortable together. They always had been. She felt such a strong passion for him.
They both pulled away at the same time, knowing they’d gone far enough for one evening. He continued to look down at her though, and she sunk back into the scratchy hay and closed her eyes. She wanted to just rest for a few minutes. She could have easily fallen asleep there, with him lying with her. She was completely exhausted, hot and dusty. The breeze coming into the loft was pushing a little bit of the humidity away, and it felt good.
“Look at me, Ashley.” Paul whispered down to her. His face was just inches from hers. She opened her eyes and took a long breath. “What would you say if I asked you to marry me?”
Confusion and indecision filled her head at the same time. Part of her wanted to claim that she would accept without hesitation, yet a greater and more reasonable part of her knew that she wasn’t ready for this conversation. He knew it too, and that frustrated her. Still, at that moment it would have been really easy to forget that more rational side of herself. She took a minute to look up into his eyes, trying to decide how best to word what he already knew was coming.
“I’d tell you that I’m not ready to answer that question yet,” she replied.
“That’s what you always say,” he said.
“Then why do you keep asking?” She pushed him playfully off of her and sat up, brushing the hay from all around her clothes. She knew she must look like she’d been rolling around in the hay, which was pretty accurate. She decided to play with him a little more to lighten the mood. “You know, they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Paul rolled over flat onto his back and tucked his arms behind his head. He smiled up at her, knowing he had lost that argument before it started. But at the same time, he felt like the winner. He’d ultimately gotten what he had wanted. He stole a few kisses, and placed himself firmly in the front of her mind again.
He wasn’t giving her up without a fight, and he wasn’t going to sit around and wait for some rich doctor to swoop in and steal her away from him. He loved her, and he knew that she loved him. She might love Caleb also, or maybe she just thought she did, but there was no denying that she felt something strong for Paul too.
He took a deep breath and just laid there while she inched her way over to the ladder to climb back down to the lower level of the barn.
“See you in the morning, Paul.” Ashley whispered to him in the dark.
“Bright and early, my beautiful Ashley. Bright and early.”