“Are you sure you’re ready for this?” Caleb asked.
“I’m a big girl,” Ashley answered. “I can handle it.”
“I’ve already warned them to be nice and remember both of our standards.” He looked over at her sheepishly. “What I didn’t tell them was how young you are.”
Ashley sort of snorted. “Still caught up on that, huh?”
“I’m okay with it,” he said. “But, they are dealing with enough already. I think they’ve always hoped that this whole Mormon thing was just a phase, and that I’d settle down with some little socialite trophy wife who they could show off and brag about to their superficial friends.”
“Wow, you make them sound so shallow.” She chuckled, trying to make light of the situation, but starting to feel even more nervous. “Now I am afraid.”
“It’ll be fine.” He hesitated. “I’m sure it will be fine.” He looked as nervous as she felt as he pulled along the little private drive that would lead him in to his parents’ property.
Oh my gosh, this is terrifying. The driveway wound along the peninsula, completely obscured by trees. When they came around the corner and she saw the house for the first time, it was overwhelming. She’d never seen anything like it except in movies.
Ashley was glad she’d taken some time to clean herself up. She’d let Sarah curl her hair, rather than leave it in the typical single French braid down the back of her head. She’d clipped her nails, cleaned them out, and let Sarah pick out appropriate clothes and nail polish to match. Now, seeing the house she was about to walk into, she felt that it wasn’t nearly enough.
This is stupid, Ashley thought. Either they’re going to like me, or they’re not. And if they don’t, then that’s their loss. I’m an awesome person. Still, her own insecurities left her open to feelings of inadequacies. She waited for him to open the car door, and let him help her out.
The doorman opened the large front door. Doorman? Oh my gosh, no! She panicked again. Her breathing sped up.
“Caleb, I can’t do this,” she said.
“Yes, you can,” he reassured her. “They’re going to love you.” He grabbed her hand and pulled her along.
“Master Caleb,” the doorman said as they approached. He was a portly man – older, but distinguished. It was obvious that he a caring person, intelligent and humble, yet sophisticated. This was probably his retirement job and a cushy one at that. “How are you this fine evening, sir?”
“Perfectly well, George. How are you?”
“Fabulous, as always.” He smiled and shook Caleb’s hand. Then he turned to Ashley, bowed his head slightly and took her outstretched hand in the manner that a gentleman would use to greet a lady, rather than a familial handshake. It kind of reminded her of the way April had offered her hand to Caleb when they’d first met. She smiled at the thought. Maybe this situation would have been easier for April to handle.
“And who might this lovely creature be?” he asked in a formal, yet friendly tone, turning slightly to Caleb.
“This is my Ashley,” Caleb responded. She kind of liked the way he said my, and left it at that. He didn’t say ‘my friend,’ or ‘my girlfriend,’ it was more possessive. It was very similar to how Paul would have introduced her. That kind of made her laugh lightly. It was almost as if Paul and Caleb were becoming more and more alike in a lot of ways.
Ashley was sure that Caleb wouldn’t even remember that he’d questioned the way Paul had done that very thing when he first met Caleb. She kind of liked the idea of belonging to Caleb, in the same way that she enjoyed belonging to Paul. It was endearing, and it made her feel special.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Ashley.” He bowed his head regally again, and released her hand, taking a small step back and out of the way. “If there is anything I can do to be of assistance, don’t hesitate to ask.”
Ashley and Caleb both removed their shoes in the foyer and stepped onto a plush carpet that felt thick enough to sleep on comfortably. It also looked clean enough to sleep on. She looked around the large hall that led forward into a great room, but was flanked on either side by a library and a parlor.
She was immediately drawn to the library, and walked straight in without being invited. She sensed Caleb following her slowly, holding back and letting her take it all in.
Ashley’s eyes were drawn upward to gaze at the floor-to-ceiling shelves of beautiful books. But it was more than that; there was a balcony at the level of the second floor that went all the way around three walls. The fourth wall was graced by a hand-laid stone fireplace whose chimney reached all the way up the two-story room. Several maroon leather sofas were placed strategically in front of the fireplace, and mahogany desks with straight back chairs sat off to the sides. One corner held a comfortable chaise lounge with a table lamp that looked like it was more expensive than Ashley’s truck. She couldn’t help turning fully in a circle as she absorbed the feeling of the room. When she finally looked back at Caleb, she felt tears prick the corners of her eyes.
“This is the most beautiful room I’ve ever seen,” she whispered. “I love it.”
“Do you like to read?” Caleb asked, coming to her and taking her gently in his arms.
“When I’m not studying or milking cows,” she said. “I haven’t had time to read in a long time. But if I did, this is just the room I’d want to sit in while reading.”
“Well, I’ll have to arrange that sometime,” he told her in a soft, husky voice. She almost thought he was going to lean in and kiss her, but he didn’t.
Just then a beautiful woman came around the corner. Ashley knew immediately that she was Caleb’s mother. She looked like a shorter, more feminine version of him. Her smile was friendly and not at all judgmental, more welcoming than anything else.
“Good afternoon, Caleb. I thought I heard you come in,” she said. She was in no way intimidating or frightening. She made Ashley feel comfortable immediately. “And you must be Ashley.”
She came to her and practically pulled Ashley from Caleb’s arms to give her a hug. It was as if all of Ashley’s fear about meeting Caleb’s parents fell away and she felt completely at ease.
“I’m Linda. I’ve heard so much about you, and I’m glad to finally meet you.”
“Oh, gosh. I hope he didn’t make me out to be too amazing.” Ashley giggled. “I don’t know if I can live up to it. But it’s nice meeting you as well.”
“Not too amazing. Just special. His face lights up when he talks about you,” she whispered with a smile on her face. “Come on, you can help me get dinner finished. That will give us a chance to talk.” Linda started to pull Ashley out of the library, leaving Caleb shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders at Ashley.
Ashley giggled and let Mrs. Rogers lead her to the back of the house towards the great room. It was amazing. The grand hallway opened up to a million windows. Like the library, this room was at least the height of two stories and the entire south-facing wall was window. There were four sets of sliding glass doors that opened onto a spacious deck that probably wrapped all the way around the house and had a beautiful view of the lake.
The kitchen was off to the left, and opened to the one side so that a person could be working in the kitchen, but still be a part of the gathering in the great room. Ashley had always wanted a kitchen like that. It usually felt like the person who was doing the cooking was isolated from the rest of the family.
There were already two women and a man working in the kitchen. They were all wearing uniforms, and the gentleman looked like a professional chef. Ashley turned around and creased her eyebrows together in a questioning look back at Caleb.
“Did you hire a catering company to make dinner tonight?” she asked.
“No, they work here all the time,” Linda said. Ashley couldn’t figure out why Caleb’s mom needed her to help in the kitchen. But she continued to let her pull her along.
There was a whole counter that looked like a professional prep station, but instead of stainless steel surfaces, it was beautiful granite. It looked as if Linda had already been working here, because she grabbed the little apron that hung next to the counter, reached into a drawer to grab an apron for Ashley, then turned back to the carrots she’d been cutting.
Caleb reached over to a knife holder and handed Ashley a knife with an apologetic smile. Ashley just shrugged and went to work on the carrots.
The rest of the kitchen staff barely acknowledged their presence, and just kept working. The whole room smelled amazing. It made Ashley hungry just standing there. They chopped side by side for just a minute before Linda turned to Ashley with a concerned look on her face.
“Oh, I forgot to ask you, do you like to cook?”
“Um, sure,” Ashley responded. “I get to help in the kitchen… frequently.” She didn’t go into detail about how when you lived on a farm, everyone pitched in, all the time. She also didn’t mention that she didn’t have hired servants to help her either.
“So, tell me about your studies.” Linda changed the subject. “You’re in medical school, right?”
“Pre-med, actually,” Ashley said. She didn’t tell Linda that she was just finishing her freshman year of college. That would give away more information than Caleb probably wanted his mom to know.
“And you have the privilege of living with your sweet parents, is that correct?” She turned back to her son and smiled. “Caleb told me they’re just wonderful.”
“That’s right. It’s a little bit of a drive, but it’s nice to go home every day.”
“And your home is a farm, is that right?” Linda looked… impressed by that. Here Ashley had been concerned that Caleb’s parents would be averse to her being a farmer’s daughter. “I hear it’s just beautiful land. Caleb told me you actually talked him into riding a horse.”
“I sure did.” Ashley glanced over at Caleb, who was leaning on his elbows on the other side of the counter, sitting on one of the bar stools there. “He was terrified at first. But once he got situated, he did pretty well. I gave him a good old horse who knew what to do with a newbie.”
Linda laughed about that. “So, your mom teaches riding lessons, is that correct?”
“She does; she’s very good at it too. Her horses always earn top prizes at fair each year.”
“Oh, I haven’t been to a county fair in years. I used to love looking into all the little stalls and petting the animals.”
Ashley giggled at her. She didn’t have the heart to tell her that the farm kids thought the city folk were pretty stupid when they would come up to the animals and make mooing noises at the cows and baa at the sheep. It was so silly. Instead, she invited her to come see her ride.
“You should drive up to the Livingston County Fair in Fowlerville this year,” Ashley said. “I’ll probably be riding a few classes in English and barrel riding and jumping. I’m pretty good.”
“Oh, I would love that.” Linda turned to Caleb. “You be sure to remind me, okay? I want to see this lovely girlfriend of yours riding a horse.”
“My horse’s name is Shelly,” Ashley said. She wasn’t sure if Linda would think to ask, but it felt good to Ashley to speak of her mare in more concrete terms than just ‘a horse.’ Shelly was much more special than that. It was kind of like how some people felt about a lap dog. Shelly was Ashley’s friend, not just her farm animal. She usually could look into Shelly’s eyes and know what she’s thinking.
“Do you just have the one horse, then?” Linda asked.
“Well, each member of our family owns his or her own horse,” Ashley explained, grabbing another carrot. She wasn’t really sure why they were cutting all of these carrots. It almost felt as if they were cutting carrots just to have something to do. But, she kept cutting. “But we also board horses for local folks, mostly 4-H kids who are under my mother’s tutelage. We currently have twenty horses who live on our farm. They’re all very special to me; it’s almost like running a day care center or something. They’re like my kids.”
Linda put down her knife and turned to look at Ashley. She had a serious and thoughtful look on her face. “You are a fascinating woman, Ashley. I can truly see why my son is so in love with you.”
“Ooooohhhkay, Mom!” Caleb interjected. “I think that’s enough carrots for one day. Ashley, why don’t I give you a tour of the rest of the house before dinner?” He was already around the counter and reaching behind Ashley to pull the strings on the back of the apron, which he quickly pulled off of her and tossed onto the counter. He gently grabbed her hand and pulled her out of the kitchen.
“Oh, okay,” Ashley stammered as she was being dragged away. “I guess I’ll see you at dinner, Mrs. Rogers. It was a pleasure talking with you.”
“You as well, Ashley.” Linda called back.