The next morning Ashton found Brock packing his suitcase. “What are you doing, buddy?”
“Going home,” Brock said. He folded another shirt and tucked it in with the others. “Isn’t it obvious?” Brock raised his eyebrows.
“But… I thought we weren’t getting love letters until later today.”
“I’m leaving on my own.” Brock’s statement had an implied ‘duh’ hanging off the end.
Brock stopped folding and turned to give Ashton his full attention. “Between you making out with Michelle, Victor sleeping with her, and Casey living practically next door back home, the rest of us don’t stand a chance.”
“Wait? What did you say? Victor… sleeping with Michelle?”
“Yeah, he walked the half mile down the hill to her place last night and never came back.” Brock resumed packing.
Ashton couldn’t speak. He balled his hands into fists. That jerk. He ignored his friend’s calm packing and stomped down the stairs and out the front door. Kimball called after him, inquiring where he was going in such a hurry.
It didn’t take Ashton more than a few seconds to break into a run and he made it the half mile in a little more than two minutes. He pounded on Michelle’s door and leaned against the frame, out of breath.
She came to the door in a cute night shirt and matching shorts. The confusion in Michelle’s eyes was intermixed with apprehension. “Ashton? What are you doing here?”
“Is it true?” Ashton asked, still breathing heavy. “Did Victor sleep here last night?”
“No, we were just talking.”
“Sweetheart, who’s at the door?” Victor strode confidently up behind Michelle and wrapped his arm around her waist.
“You bastard!” Ashton lunged for Victor, ready to tackle him, but Michelle stepped in between them.
Ashton's attack became a mingling of arms and tripping, and before he knew what was happening, a cameraman had him by one shoulder and Brock held his other. Kimball and Casey and several other guys were back there, too but all Ashton could see was Victor’s laughing eyes.
“You stay away from her, you hear me?”
Victor just chuckled and shook his head. “Not a chance, surfer-boy.”
“Ashton, look at me.” Brock’s soothing words pulled Ashton’s head around. “You have to calm down.”
Ashton shook off their restraints but maintained his offensive stance, glaring daggers across the driveway, surprised at how far away the guys had managed to drag him.
Victor leaned against the door frame with a smirk, but Michelle was now a few feet away from him, arms crossed and vitriol in her eyes. Ashton couldn’t decide if she was angry, hurt, embarrassed, or maybe a combination.
“Forget him,” Brock said. “He’s a jerk, okay? He’s not worth it.”
“But she is,” Ashton mumbled, shaking his head. He flexed and unflexed his fists, wishing he could let loose his anger and punch Victor in the nose. Instead, he turned on his heel and trudged back up the hill.
“Wanna take a walk with me?” Ashton whispered. He nodded his head to the side, off toward the dark ocean. He had positioned himself close to Michelle at the campfire in hopes he’d have this little opportunity. He knew where his surfboard was waiting and knew he could find it in the dark.
As soon as they were out of the ring from the firelight, Ashton casually reached for Michelle’s hand. She didn’t pull away. They swung their arms between them, walking in companionable silence next to the softly crashing waves. When they got to the edge of the water, Ashton leaned down and lifted his board.
“What are you doing?” Her playful tone encouraged him.
“You’ll need to leave your hoodie and sandals here.” He pulled his sweatshirt over his head.
“Is the water going to be cold?” Michelle slipped off her shoes and unzipped her sweatshirt, tossing it higher onto dry sand.
“Nah, it’ll be fine.” He pulled her gently into the surf, letting the water gather around their ankles and then their knees. She allowed herself to be pulled along. When the water was waist high, Ashton floated the board on top of the rising and falling swells.
“Climb on.” He patted the top.
“Are you serious?” Michelle rested one hand on the board and the other on his shoulder.
“Need some help?” Ashton lifted her up onto the board and she laid on her belly just like he’d taught her earlier in the day. He put his hand on her lower back and walked further out into the ocean, not so far that he couldn’t still easily touch the ground.
The moonlight played across her face and her eyes sparkled. Her braid had loosened over the course of the day and tendrils of soft curls framed Michelle’s face. Ashton reached his hand up and tucked a curl behind her ear, keeping his hand up near her face.
The backs of his fingers caressed her cheek then lowered to her shoulder, lingering there, wishing he dared go further. He stepped closer and held her gaze while his other hand gripped the board holding her firmly in place as his face drew closer.
He didn’t ask if she approved, he didn’t acknowledge the tension from the past two weeks, he didn’t hesitate. His lips met hers with a soft sigh.
Before Ashton could even register the implications of her actions, Michelle’s hands were gripping into his hair, pulling him even closer, deepening the kiss. Their connection was real and yet they were still too far apart.
Without hesitation, Michelle rolled herself off the surfboard and down into Ashton’s arms, nearly knocking him over as she fell into the water.
He tasted salt on her lips as the water splashed in their faces, but she didn’t pull away. Their arms intertwined around each other’s bodies, gripping like they couldn’t get close enough. Although her swimsuit was modest enough in broad daylight, it was way too skimpy to be this close to his bare chest and thin swim trunks.
“I need to get away from you,” Ashton whispered close to her ear, then kissed her neck. “Right now.”
“I need to get away from you, too.” Michelle whispered back but pulled his face to hers for another kiss. This kiss didn’t last more than a few more seconds and they each pushed away from one another.
Michelle raised her fingers to her lips and closed her eyes. Her soft sigh and slight smile told a secret truth. She’d never been kissed like that in all her time on earth.
Ashton chuckled. This could be our life, passionate kisses in the moonlight from now until eternity. When Michelle finally opened her eyes, he gazed into hers and his longing for her was reflected right back to him. They searched one another’s eyes for a long moment.
A suggestive whistle from up near the campfire reminded them that they were supposed to be hanging out as a group. Michelle bit her lower lip.
“Do you think they can see us all the way out here?” Michelle lifted her face to the moon, high amid the stars. It shone down on them like a spotlight.
“It would appear that way.” Ashton pulled the surfboard closer. “Climb back on. I’ll push you to shore.”
“I don’t wanna go back,” Michelle grumbled as she climbed onto the board. Once she was firmly onto her belly, he lifted her chin and lowered his face for one more kiss.
“Me neither,” Ashton whispered. He pulled away from Michelle and lifted off his toes, using the surfboard as a float, he kicked toward shore. Me neither.
Michelle could see that Ashton was having a friendly conversation with Mason as they paddled out, but his countenance changed when he got to a certain point in the breakers. His stance shifted. He was all business.
Ashton did a perfect duck dive under a large wave, and Michelle lost sight of him for a few minutes. Her anticipation was rewarded when he suddenly popped up onto a crest and slid down the wave as if it had been placed there just for his use.
“He makes it look so easy,” Brock said.
“Too easy,” Kimball added.
“Wow…” Michelle’s comment was barely a breath. The smoothness to his ride was undeniable. It was obvious why he was a professional surfer. “He’s beautiful.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Victor mumbled.
“Did I say that out loud?” Michelle brought her hands up to her cheeks but couldn’t take her eyes off Ashton.
He swooped down and up and down and up, flowing through the waves with a rhythm and skill that defied anything he’d taught the group. This kind of talent couldn't be taught. It was just inherent. He seemed to know where the wave was going before the wave knew itself. He managed to make his body fall right into the correct position with every flip of his board. It was magical to watch.
Mason trudged up to the beach much sooner than Ashton and fell onto his towel and groaned. “I take it back. That kid’s a machine.”
Michelle and the other nine guys watched Ashton finish his run before he rode his board almost all the way to dry sand, hopped off into the ankle-deep water, and lifted his board under his arm. Before coming too close, he shook the droplets of water from his hair. Brock rose from his spot near Michelle and handed a clean towel to Ashton along with a water bottle.
“That was fun to watch, dude.” Brock made a show of quickly returning to his spot before Ashton could encroach and sit next to Michelle. His tactic backfired when Ashton crouched down in front of Michelle and lowered himself onto the front edge of her towel, effectively monopolizing her view.
Ashton winked at her, then turned his attention to Brock. “Thanks, man. It felt really good. I haven’t been on my board in, like, three weeks.”
“How often do you normally surf?”
“About seven or eight hours a day?”
“Most days, yeah. Then a couple hours in the gym.”
“There’s something wrong with you, man.”
“Have you ever surfed the really big waves?” Kimball asked.
“Heck yeah! I wouldn't be a pro if I couldn't handle a few mavericks.”
“Those monster swells are pretty dangerous,” Casey said. “They can get you killed.”
“So can a car accident, but I still drive,” Ashton replied. “There’s no better adrenaline rush than riding the big waves.”
“What’s the biggest swell you ever rode?” Mason asked.
“About 25 feet.”
“No freaking way,” Brock said.
“Way. There’s nothing like the rush of a 20-foot drop.”
“Were you, like a surfing prodigy?” Brock asked.
“Nah, I didn’t start surfing until I was an adult. I’d actually been in Hawaii for two years before I even got in the water.” Ashton glanced at Michelle and held her eyes for a few seconds.
Ah, so that’s why you were in Hawaii. Michelle sensed Ashton wasn’t ready to admit out loud that he had served as a missionary. Remembering how it had made Michelle feel when he had called her out in front of everyone, she just nodded with the slightest bob of her head, letting him know she understood.
Missionaries aren’t allowed to go swimming. It’s one of the many guidelines they live by while serving. No swimming, no dating, no drinking alcohol. She looked down at her hands folded in her lap and gulped.
Michelle was disappointed with Ashton’s drinking habit, more so than if he’d never served as a missionary. She held Missionaries to higher standards. They made promises to God that were sacred, and Ashton had broken those promises. Everyone makes mistakes.
“Once I got in the water, I didn’t want to leave. The only way they could talk me into going home was the promise that I could come back the next day.”
“You make it look effortless,” Michelle said.
“People say that, but they don’t realize how much work I put into it behind the scenes.” Ashton picked at the frays on his towel.
“How about some Ultimate Frisbee?” Victor called from a few yards away. His distraction from the Ashton Fan Club discussion was a little too obvious. He held up a quality disc and waved it in the air with a grin. The guys scrambled to get up and quickly divided themselves into two teams of five, Victor on one side, Ashton on the other.
Michelle watched the guys in wonder, realizing she could have eliminated all but two of them on week one. Ashton and Victor. They were so different and yet equally attractive in their own right.
Ashton was fun and exciting and made Michelle’s blood race. Victor was stable and mature and incredibly sexy, and his eyes, woah. Michelle’s insides were weak and fluttery. He could easily get her into serious trouble.
The game was remarkably fun to watch. Ten guys with swim trunks and no shirts, running, jumping, tackling each other, giving each other high-fives and fist bumps.
It was nice having them in their element, not dressed up and pretending to be what she wanted them to be, as if any of them knew what she really wanted. They were sheer testosterone running back and forth on an invisible field with imaginary boundaries and goal posts. They were boys. Pure and simple.
This is going to make excellent television. She sat back to enjoy the show.
Michelle trudged into the water, laid her board on the moving waves, and tried to remember a little bit of what Ashton had taught. All the guys already seemed to be catching on. She walked slowly, watching them.
“Come on, sweetheart.” Victor fell into step beside her. “You can do this. I’ll stay close to you.”
“Oh hey, I thought you were already out there.”
“I didn’t want to leave you behind.” His voice was soft and casual. “Besides, I feel like I haven’t seen you in days.”
“Well, we haven’t spent much time together since we hung out at your baseball stadium.” Michelle felt her cheeks grow warm. Or was it just the sun. She didn’t care. Victor made her smile and laugh, and that day on the ballfield had offered her a peek into how her life would look if she chose him at the end of this process.
Michelle never intended to fall in love during this silly reality show, but if Victor continued comforting her just when she needed him, she could see herself considering the possibility. He was so different than the other guys. Much more mature, more worldly. He was smart and funny and incredibly sexy. Michelle found herself glancing at his bare chest and abs but forced her eyes back to his face.
Victor raised his eyebrows. “Were you checking me out?”
“Maybe…” Michelle splashed him with a little water and bit her lower lip.
“Did you like what you saw?”
“You know you did,” Victor said. “I know I like what I see when I look at you.”
“I feel a little exposed, actually,” Michelle admitted. “I’m not used to having ten guys ogling me in a swimsuit.”
“You’re beautiful, sweetheart, with or without clothes.”
“You know what I mean.” Victor sounded sincere. “Whether you’re in an evening gown, or sweats and a t-shirt. You’re naturally beautiful.”
“You always know how to make me feel good.” Michelle was now up to her waist with waves crashing around her, and knew it was time to stop flirting with Victor and get on her surfboard. “Hey, will you hold this board still for me while I attempt to climb on and paddle out?”
“Absolutely,” Victor said. It took her a few minutes, but she was finally in the right position and plunged her arms into the water in what she thought was the correct technique. It was awkward at first but eventually she got the hang of it. Finally, she was out far enough that the waves were larger and crashing down onto her.
A large wave flipped Michelle off her board and suddenly Ashton was right there beside her and called out to her. “You okay, babe?”
“I think so.” Michelle coughed and sputtered. “I don’t know what I did wrong.”
“You’ll get the hang of it,” Ashton said. “Come on, let’s get out past this breaker. If you’re going to punch through the wave, you need to paddle hard, get as much momentum as you can, and just before the whitewater gets to you, you’re going to peel your chest up and create a space between your chest and the surfboard. Right before the wave hits you, it will pass in between you and the surfboard, sometimes it will actually pass under the surfboard and you’ll go over it.”
They pushed over the large wave before it could crash on her head this time, and like magic the water was calm.
“Nice job. Maybe someday I can teach you how to duck dive and then you can get beyond the breaker a lot easier.”
“I can almost guarantee this is the first and last time you’ll talk me into surfing.”
“Ah, don’t be so quick to dismiss the power of the surf. Once you get on that board, you’re going to have so much fun you’ll be begging me to take you back out tomorrow.”
“I’m going to need a chiropractic adjustment and massage tomorrow!”
“I volunteer for that job.” Ashton spoke with such a straight face Michelle laughed out loud and threw her head back. His teasing was helping her relax and forget her nervousness.
“Very funny, Ashton.” Michelle reached over and pushed his shoulder. He pushed hers back and she almost fell. “Stop that!”
“Come on, let’s catch this next wave,” Ashton said. “It looks like it’s going to be perfect for a beginner.”
Michelle reluctantly followed his lead and paddled in the correct direction, right along next to him.
“Okay, you’re almost in the right position,” Ashton called. “When I say now, you paddle as hard as you can toward shore. Remember the instructions. Come back onto your knees and then pop up.”
Easier said than done. Michelle didn’t quite pop up. More she got halfway up and fell sideways. He helped her back to the starting position and the next time she overcompensated to avoid falling to her left again and fell to her right.
After two more tries, Michelle finally got into a standing position, barely, and managed to stay upright for almost twenty whole seconds before falling.
“Can we stop now?” Michelle called out. “My legs and arms are like jelly.”
“Of course.” Ashton’s brow pulled together. “I’m sorry. I forget you’re using muscles that don’t normally get used. You must be exhausted.”
That was an understatement, and she was not the only one. By the time they paddled into shore, most of the rest of the guys were already collapsed onto the beach sucking on cold water bottles. Brock handed her a water bottle and she grabbed it as she fell face first onto her towel. Victor came up beside her and draped another towel over her shoulders.
“Thanks.” She appreciated both the warmth and the cover-up. Victor understood her. He sat down next to her on his own towel. Ashton didn’t sit down but picked his board back off the sand after he’d downed half a bottle of water.
“You ready, Mason?” Ashton asked.
“Ready for what?” Mason was flat on his back, shielding his eyes with his hand to try to look up at Ashton.
“Let’s go back out,” Ashton said. “I haven’t even had a chance to surf yet. You said you’d give me a run for my money.”
Mason groaned. “I’m exhausted… but okay.”
“Anybody else?” Ashton looked around at the group, most of whom were avoiding eye contact.
“It’s all you, buddy,” Brock said.
“Us,” Ashton corrected. “Me and Mason. Taking on the waves.” Ashton wrapped his arm around Mason’s shoulders, leading him back toward the water’s edge.
“Wish me luck,” Mason said, looking over his shoulder. “If I drown, I’m blaming you, Ashton.”
“If you drown, you won’t be able to blame anyone… because you will have drowned.” Ashton turned around and winked at Michelle but kept walking backward.
“Have fun, you guys,” Michelle called after them. She sat up and wrapped her arms around her knees, pulling them tight against her chest and draping the large towel around her shivering limbs. “Be careful.”
“Always.” Ashton turned back around and trudged into the surf.
“Are you excited?” Ashton bumped Michelle’s shoulder as they trudged through the sand, each carrying a surfboard.
“I’m nervous,” Michelle admitted. The board was heavy and awkward tucked under her arm. The swimsuit she’d chosen that looked so modest on the rack next to the bikinis, covered way less than she was comfortable with. “You’re not going to let me fall, are you?”
“Of course, you’re going to fall.” Ashton leaned his head back in a hearty chuckle. Michelle didn’t find that funny. “You’ll probably fall more than you’ll surf. That’s the way it works.”
“I don’t think this is a good idea.” Michelle stopped and planted her feet in the sand. A queasiness replaced her excitement. It took Ashton a few seconds to realize she was no longer walking with him and he turned around. Michelle felt her lower lip quiver. “You’re laughing at me.”
“Come on, babe.” Ashton trudged back through the sand. His surfboard didn’t even look heavy in those strong, tan arms. He brushed his shaggy hair off his forehead. “We’ll go over a quick little beach instruction before we get you out in the water, okay?”
“Okay,” she squeaked. He was so close Michelle almost thought he was going to lean down and kiss her, but he just winked.
“Want me to carry your board for you?” Ashton asked.
“No, I need to learn how to do this. All of it.”
“Are you two done flirting now?” Brock asked. “Can we get this lesson underway?”
“No, we’re not done flirting.” Ashton winked at Michelle again. “But yes, we can get our lesson underway. Everybody flop your boards down on the sand and face me.”
All the guys made it look so easy. Michelle’s board slipped from her fingers and landed on her toes, bringing tears to her eyes. She whimpered but tried to hide it from the guys. Victor noticed.
“Are you okay, sweetheart?” Victor picked up the board and crouched down to check on her toes.
“I’m fine, really.” Michelle giggled when Victor tickled the bottom of her foot. She reached a hand into his hair and twirled a curl around her finger. When his hand left her foot and reached up her calf muscle, Michelle stepped back, almost falling against Kimball. He caught her and helped her upright again.
Michelle felt very exposed with Kimball’s hands on her bare arms, and Victor crouched in front of her.
“Go ahead and hop on your boards,” Ashton called. When she caught his eyes, they held concern and he raised his eyebrows. She could almost hear his unspoken question, you okay?
Michelle nodded, and her face flushed. She shooed the guys away from fussing over her and followed Ashton’s instructions.
“Have any of you ever surfed before?” He raised his hand like a second-grade teacher encouraging a classroom of students.
“I have.” Mason raised his hand in a half-hearted gesture. “I’ll probably be able to give you a run for your money out there.”
Michelle was impressed how well Ashton kept a straight face, but Brock laughed out loud and slapped his knee.
“I can’t wait to watch that,” Brock said.
“I’ll appreciate an extra set of hands out there while we’re teaching everyone else.” Ashton kept his stoic face but couldn’t hide the twinkle in his eyes when he glanced at Michelle. “Okay, now everyone lay down on your bellies with the line going right down the center of your body. Your toes should be touching the back.”
Ashton meandered in and out and around each of them checking to see that they were positioned correctly.
“Once a big-wave comes, I want you to pop up,” Ashton said.
“I don’t see any big waves coming this far up onshore.” Brock’s teasing tone was accompanied by his hand up to his forehead, searching the horizon.
“You’re going to have to use your imagination. Trust me, you’ll thank me later for this little shore demo.” Ashton kicked sand onto Brock’s legs in response to his teasing. “Now, there are four steps to the process of getting up on your board. Mason, you can demonstrate the moves as I describe them… since you’re already a pro at this.”
“I didn’t say I was a pro,” Mason mumbled, but readied himself for the demo.
“Put your hands right next to your chest,” Ashton said. “Then push all the way up so you’re on your knees. Next, bring your front foot forward, there you go, and then your back foot’s already back there, so leave it back there, but you’re going to stand up on it.”
As Mason tried to follow Ashton’s instructions, he wobbled a few times but managed to get into a standing position on his board.
“Nice job.” Ashton’s compliment sounded sincere. Michelle decided he was a patient teacher. She took a breath and tried to relax as he continued focusing on Mason. “You want this line to go right down the arches of your feet. There you go. And bend your knees. Everybody I teach thinks they should stand straight up and go ‘whoo hoo’ and then they fall over.”
Michelle snickered, watching Ashton fall back into the sand. He rolled onto his side and grinned at her.
“Keep laughing, babe. You’re next.”
“I don’t know. I think we should stay on the shore and let you and Mason show us how it’s done.”
Ashton scrambled to his feet. “You’re not getting out of it that easily. Come on, let’s get you up on your board.”
They spent the next twenty minutes practicing on the beach, Ashton calling out instructions to everyone, but giving Michelle as much of his attention as he could. By the time they were comfortable with popping up onto their boards, Michelle wasn’t as nervous, until they started walking toward the water. Some of the guys ran to where the water pooled around their ankles and trudged into the waves. Ashton held back with her and spoke softly.
“I know you’re a little scared, but once you pop up, get on your feet, you’re going to have the biggest smile on your face.” Ashton reached for her hand and squeezed it gently. “Your first time is something you’ll never forget.”
Michelle gasped and met his eyes. A tiny smile hinted along the edge of his lips.
“Surfing,” Ashton whispered. “Your first time surfing. What’d you think I was talking about?”
Michelle pushed his shoulder. “You’re a bad boy, you know that?”
“You have no idea.” Ashton leaned closer and Michelle could barely breathe. His words, so close to her ear, were seductive in their simplicity. “Bend your knees, keep your arms out, get your surfer-dude look on, and shoot the waves. You’ll look back at me, throw your arms in the air in celebration, and then you’ll fall.”
Ashton leaned over and kissed her cheek, then ran into the waves.
“You’re a jerk, Ashton,” Michelle called after him.
“I believe you’ve told me that before,” Ashton called back. “Come on, you’re wasting daylight!”
Michelle almost choked on her drink when Ashton winked at her from two tables over. That jerk. He knew exactly how he was affecting her, and that wasn’t fair. She fought her attraction to Ashton. She had a sinking feeling she wouldn’t be able fight him too much longer.
After Reggie finished his set, Casey, Mason, and Kimball hopped on the stage to perform an animated rendition to “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi, complete with air guitars and mussed up hair. They got the whole crowd involved on the last verse, encouraging everyone to sing along.
Next Ashton and Brock belted out a passionate version of “America” from Neil Diamond’s movie The Jazz Singer about a Jewish rabbi who turns rock star. They were terrible, but the crowd loved it when the guys had them sing along crying out, “today” in time with the chorus.
Victor surprised Michelle with his bravery by singing alone, but laughed at his song choice, “Brown-Eyed Girl” by the legendary Van Morrison. Michelle smiled and clapped along, but when he got back to their table, she closed her eyes and asked, “Victor, what color are my eyes?”
“Uh…” Victor stuttered.
“Jade!” Ashton called out, and Michelle’s eyes flew open to look across at him. She hadn’t been close enough to him in the past week for him to remember that, had she? Apparently, she had.
“Are they green?” Victor asked, gently pulling her chin back toward him. He grinned and relaxed his shoulders. “They look more hazel in this light. I guess that’s why I thought they were brown.”
Hazel? Brown? Green? Such bland descriptions of what Victor guessed was her eye color, even though he was by her side more often than not. Maybe that’s why he didn’t know her eye color. He was always by her side instead of looking her in the eye.
Jade. Deep, sparkling, intense green. Memorable. Ashton remembered her eyes. Her stomach fluttered.
“I’m going to use the restroom and stop at the bar on the way back,” Victor said. “Do you want me to grab you another Coke while I’m over there?”
“No, but I’d love a glass of ice water.” Michelle smiled up at him.
“Will do,” he said, leaning down to kiss her cheek.
As Victor walked away, Michelle’s attention was drawn back to the stage where Andy and Reggie were preparing to sing a country ballad.
Just as the opening notes of “I Can Love You Like That” by John Michael Montgomery came through the speakers, Michelle was startled to have Ashton by her side. He lifted her hand from where it rested on her knee.
“Dance with me,” Ashton spoke softly, pulling her gently from her chair.
As if in a trance, Michelle allowed herself to be led down the three steps onto the dancefloor and felt herself pulled into Ashton’s arms.
He held her close, too close. And yet not close enough. Neither of them spoke as they swayed side to side and in a slow circle, gazing into one another’s eyes.
She listened to every word of the song as if Ashton were singing them directly to her, even though he didn’t lip-sync or sing along. Until the song came to one phrase stuck in the middle of a sentence and Ashton spoke the words in perfect time with the song, “give me a chance.”
“That shade of lipstick looks so nice on you, Victor,” Brock said in a fake feminine voice. “Wherever did you find it? I wanna get some just like it.”
They’d barely gotten seated in the limo before the guys laid into Victor and Michelle.
Ashton turned to the window and wouldn’t even Acknowledge Victor’s appearance. He didn’t want to think about the implications of why Victor had Michelle’s lipstick on his face.
It didn’t matter. Ashton was sure he wouldn’t be around much longer anyway. How he’d gotten past the first two rounds of eliminations he would never know. Well, he’d won his second love letter in a game of chance. He’d probably never discover whether or not she would have chosen him.
He kept his gaze at the passing scenery all the way to the bar, ignoring the continued goading.
It was early in the evening when they pulled into the Karaoke bar, which meant they had the place to themselves. The cameras were able to be positioned in strategic ways so that as patrons filled the room throughout the evening the show would capture people coming and going, dancing on the mosh-pit style dance floor, singing on the stage, and of course sitting at the raised tables that perched behind the railing overlooking the dance floor. It was the perfect set up,
The remaining ten guys monopolized three of the tables and positioned themselves close enough to the DJ booth that they would have easy access to the stage. Ashton had a feeling they were going to have a fun night.
He pushed aside the annoyance of Victor carefully positioning himself to Michelle’s left and pulling his chair just an inch or two closer to hers, draping his arm around the back of her chair. Ashton also noticed Michelle pull her chair just a hair closer to Victor’s.
Instead of avoiding eye contact and staying to the back of the group like he had been the past week, Ashton sat directly in Michelle’s line of sight so that in order to not look at him she would have to turn away from Victor. The irony of the situation almost made Ashton laugh, but he purposely looked at his menu and ignored her… for now.
They all ordered burgers and fries, and Cokes, until they got around to Andy who asked the waitress what beer they had on tap and ordered a Bud Light. Other guys glanced at one another and raised their eyebrows, hoping the night turned out okay for everyone.
Ashton supposed if Andy got inebriated and made a fool of himself that was one fewer guy in his way to getting another love letter.
Dinner was jovial, and the guys all flipped through the Karaoke song lists, laughing and writing down their song choices. Ashton wanted to find something that would be meaningful but fun and light, and didn’t upstage anyone else. He didn’t want to be accused of stealing the spotlight again.
By the time their tables had been cleared of dinner dishes, and songs had been chosen, the restaurant had filled up. The patrons at the surrounding tables seemed excited to be a part of a television show and had all signed agreements to allow their faces to be shown on the episode when this aired.
Rachel Gibbons took the stage first and introduced Michelle and each of the guys to the crowd. When she introduced Victor, the patrons cheered. He was a local guy, being the first baseman for the Dodgers, and was by far the most well-known of all the group. That was fine with Ashton. He needed an evening out of the spotlight.
The last person to be introduced was already near the DJ booth and waiting to come on stage, his guitar already tuned and strapped around his shoulders.
“We have a special treat tonight,” Rachel said. “Up-and-coming country star Reggie Johnson is here, all the way from Nashville to perform his latest single, ‘Running to You’.”
Some people in the crowd cheered. Ashton was surprised to learn that Reggie was known in the country music sphere. Just as Reggie wouldn’t have heard of Ashton because he didn’t follow the surfing scene, Ashton never listened to country music. That made this evening more fun.
Michelle called out, “Go Reggie!” and the rest of the guys politely called out their cheers and applause. Reggie really was a nice guy. He wouldn’t make it past the next round of love letters, but they all knew he wasn’t interested in Michelle. This night, and this event, was exactly why he’d been chosen as one of the contestants. This was going to boost Reggie’s career. Accepting that made it easier to support him.
He started the evening with a country ballad, during which he basically serenaded Michelle. She played along perfectly, batting her eyelashes and holding her hand to her heart as if Reggie’s song was actually drawing her closer to him. She even leapt from her seat when he was done and ran up to the stage to give him a hug.
She was obviously a good actress. Someone brought Michelle a stool to sit on and Reggie sang her another love song while she sat there smiling up at him as if he stood a chance with her. She gave him another hug and then returned to her seat, where Victor leaned closer and whispered something in her ear that made her laugh.
Ashton was through being jealous. He suspected Michelle was putting on a good act for Victor as well. But not for Ashton. Their connection was real. He could feel it in the way she tried to avoid his glances from two tables over.
When they finally did connect, Ashton raised his eyebrows seductively and then winked at her. She almost choked on her sip of Coke. Yeah, their connection was real.
“Today is all about Reggie,” Michelle said. She was having fun planning these little surprises for the different guys.
“What? Do I finally get to sing for you?” He stood from where he’d been sitting on the couch.
Reggie bounded over to her and lifted Michelle into his arms, spinning her around. She laughed and smiled, her arms wrapping around his shoulders in a playful hug.
He set her back on the floor but kept his arms around her waist. “So, where are we going?”
“I thought it would be fun to go to a Karaoke bar so anyone who wants to take a turn at the microphone can sing,” Michelle said. “But you’ll be first, and we’ll find you a guitar.”
“Oh, I’ve got my guitar with me honey,” Reggie drawled in his Nashville accent. “A true artist doesn’t go anywhere without his guitar.”
She placed her hand on his chest in a flirty way, but the maneuver subtly pushed herself out of his arms. “Well I look forward to hearing you perform.”
“If Ashton doesn’t upstage him,” Victor mumbled. All heads turned toward Victor. Michelle wasn’t sure how she felt about Victor’s jealousy or the underlying accusation.
She chanced a sidelong glance at Ashton, who pinched his lips and shoved his hands in his pockets. He didn’t seem like the type of guy to purposely upstage someone else, but she didn’t know any of these guys well enough to make that kind of assumption.
Brock stepped up in defense of Ashton. “Dude, he beat me at Fortnite fair and square.” Brock reached over to give Ashton a first bump, and Ashton pulled his hand out of his pocket to return the gesture. He folded his arms across his chest in a defensive stance.
“Shoot, I might upstage you, Reggie,” Andy piped in. “I’ve got a heckuva voice.”
Michelle smiled at the farmer. Somehow, she couldn’t picture him as a singer. “Really?”
“The only entertainment we have within fifty miles is a honky tonk,” Andy said. “You get a couple beers in me and I’ll rip up the place.”
The smile fell from her face and her heart sank at the mention of beer. She’d forgotten she was surrounded by a group of men who all had alcohol in their hands the night she’d met them.
Since that first night, they’d played video games, served at a retirement home, and gone to church. There had never been another chance for drinking.
She forced a smile back onto her face. “I can’t wait to hear you sing, Andy. All of you. I hope you’ll all sing, even you, Ashton.”
He looked surprised at her addressing him directly. He nodded regally. “I’ll check the playlist and see if I can find something.”
“Well, great.” Michelle clapped her hands together once and smiled to everyone in the room. “Are you ready to go, how did Andy describe it? Rip up the place?”
“We’re ready,” Andy said. He headed toward the door and everyone else followed.
Victor held back and reached for her hand before she could leave the room. “I need to apologize.”
Ashton was the second to last person to leave the room and he turned back, eyebrows raised.
“Can you give us a minute, Ashton?” Victor said, still holding Michelle’s hand lightly. “Will you pull the door shut on your way out?”
Ashton’s jaw dropped, and he met Michelle’s gaze. They locked eyes for a moment, then she looked up at Victor. The smoldering intensity in his face showed his remorse for having been a jerk. She realized he probably should be apologizing to Ashton and not her, but she let it go. She pulled her gaze back toward where Ashton still stood by the door.
“We’ll just be a minute…”
Ashton blew out a light whistle, shook his head infinitesimally and walked out the door letting it slam behind him.
“Sweetheart, that was wrong of me.” Victor pulled her close and raised her chin with one finger. “I’m so sorry.”
“Shouldn’t you be apologizing to Ashton?” Michelle asked, allowing herself to surrender into his embrace. It had been almost a week since they’d had even a second alone. Whatever it had taken to get to this place she was glad to be in his arms.
“I will. I just wanted to take a minute and recognize that it was rude of me to say that.” Victor’s voice was husky. “I admit, I’m terribly jealous of Ashton.”
“Really?” She gulped. “Why?”
“Because it feels as if he’s breaking through your resolve and reaching you on a deeper level than I ever could.”
“Shoot, I can’t imagine anyone reaching me more than you have.” She bit her lower lip and batted her eyelashes at him. Who was she trying to convince? Him or herself?
Victor pulled her a little closer and lowered his face toward hers. This was the moment she’d been waiting for since they left the ballfield almost a week ago. Her heart raced. She wanted this.
Michelle raised onto her toes, meeting him halfway, and their lips connected. Forget the other nine guys. She was already falling in love with Victor. Or was this lust. She shoved that thought down into the far reaches of her mind and pulled herself closer.
Another voice entered her conscious and it occurred to her that Victor knew exactly what he was doing. She didn’t want to consider if that meant he was manipulating her or if he knew physically how to do things written about in smutty novels that would have gotten her kicked out of Sunday school class.
Whatever the reason for the voice, it was a warning, and she took it seriously. Victor was dangerous, and unfortunately, she liked the way he made her feel too much.
Michelle pushed herself away from Victor and he didn’t fight her. Thankfully he was being a gentleman. He probably knew she would want to take things slow. She wondered if he realized that meant waiting until marriage. Anyway, it was time to get back out with the guys and head off to the Karaoke bar.
“Tomorrow will be a little different,” Rachel announced. “If you want to hang out with Michelle, you’ll have to ride with her to church.” There were murmurs amongst the guys.
Church? Ashton’s mouth went dry and he gulped. He recognized this as a turning point. Was he willing to go to church? Just like the time he’d agreed to compete in a tournament on a Sunday, this was a choice. He would be choosing to return to the teachings of his youth.
“Michelle’s car will be arriving at 9:30 tomorrow morning.” Rachel said. “Anyone who wants to join her should be waiting out front.”
All ten of the remaining guys wore suits and ties as they waited in the foyer of the mansion, most ready by nine o’clock. They all seemed excited, anticipating this new adventure. Ashton felt his chest tightening. Returning to church was a huge step.
Right on time, the limousine pulled up and the driver came around to open the door. Ashton waited as all the other guys climbed in first. He was shaking as he ducked his head and entered the dimly-lit interior of the crowded vehicle. Of course all the seats close to Michelle were taken and the guys all seemed to be in conversation with her and with each other. Ashton slipped into the last available seat and pulled the door shut. He never even looked up to connect with Michelle.
The drive took less than ten minutes and they pulled up to the back of the building. Because he was in the door last, he was out the door first. It felt rude, but Ashton didn’t wait for anyone else. He knew how to find his way to the chapel. Most of the church buildings had similar designs.
They arrived early, which meant they had their pick of the empty pews. Ashton chose the far back row in the seat closest to the wall. Brock slid in next to him.
“You okay, buddy?” Brock was perceptive.
“It’s just been a long time since I’ve been to church,” Ashton said. “I’m not sure I’m ready for this.”
“What aren’t you ready for?” Brock creased his brows together.
“I’ve made a lot of poor choices the past few years,” Ashton admitted.
“That’s what church is for, right?” Brock bumped Ashton’s shoulder in solidarity. “So, us sinners can confess our sins and be forgiven?”
“I guess.” Ashton leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. He clasped his hands together and closed his eyes. That’s what I need right now. Some serious forgiveness. What d’ya say, Lord? Wanna offer me some forgiveness?
Ashton’s snarky prayer was interrupted by commotion to his left side. He heard whispering “excuse me,” and “coming through,” then, “Brock, can I trade you places?”
“Michelle?” Ashton raised his head. “What are you doing?”
“Sitting by you,” she said. “Is that okay?” She blinked her eyelashes in pretended innocence. She had barely spoken a word to him all week and now, when he felt most vulnerable, she wanted to sit beside him?
“You looked like you could use a friend.” Her soft voice was a caress to his taut nerves. She settled in next to him, reached for one of the hymnbooks and flipped through the pages as she glanced up at the numbers on the wall. She found the correct hymn and tucked her program between the pages, then turned away from Ashton. “So, Brock, is this your first time at church?”
“Nah, I’ve been to churches many times.” Brock’s answer didn’t sound entirely honest. “Weddings, funerals, my little nephew’s Bar Mitzvah.”
“That’s not at a church.” Michelle laughed and pushed Brock’s shoulder lightly. “That’s a synagogue. Are you Jewish, also?”
“Kinda, I mean, that’s how I was raised, but I’m not a practicing Jew, or anything.” Brock sounded apologetic or embarrassed to admit he was Jewish while sitting in a Christian church. Ashton wanted to comfort him with knowledge he and Michelle both knew, that Jews were important in God’s eyes.
“Once a Jew, always a Jew, man.” Ashton reached across Michelle’s lap and tapped Brock’s knee. “Baby, you were born that way.”
“Jews are God’s chosen people.” Michelle offered a soft smile. “You and your people are to be highly revered. The scriptures are quite clear on that.”
“Me and my people have done a lot of crappy things over the years,” Brock said.
“Haven’t we all?” Ashton grinned at Brock. “I think we recently established that we’re in the right place if we’re sinners, right?” They chuckled at one another.
“Yeah, I guess we are.” Brock sat back and draped his arm around the back of the pew, not quite resting on Michelle’s shoulders, but close. Surprisingly, Ashton felt no jealousy about Brock having his arm around Michelle. If Victor was next to her, Ashton would have a problem with it.
People gradually filled in the remaining seats, many glancing to the back row where eleven new faces waited, but few people questioned them. A couple of people came to shake their hands and introduce themselves, but accepted the “We’re just visiting,” excuse and moved on.
The prelude music eventually began, and when the clock reached ten, the Bishop stood to introduce himself. It all felt very familiar. The opening hymn, the opening prayer, the order of business, the sacrament hymn… Ashton’s breathing sped up.
“Are you okay?” Michelle leaned closer.
“I’m not sure I’m ready for this,” Ashton mumbled.
“How long has it been since you’ve taken the sacrament?”
“How long has it been since you’ve had a drink?”
“Not since the night I met you,” Ashton said.
“Really?” Michelle turned her head and raised her eyebrows.
“Seeing the hurt in your eyes… I guess you could say it was a wake-up call.”
“There’s something to be said for that.”
“I really do want to quit…” Ashton bit his lower lip.
“Has this week been difficult?”
“Not really.” He shrugged. “I mean, once I made the decision, it was pretty easy. I don’t think I’m addicted to alcohol. I think it was more of a social thing. Everybody else had a beer, I had a beer. It was no big deal.”
“Well, our conversation may have been the catalyst, but don’t quit for me. If you’re going to quit, do it for you.”
The sacrament hymn ended, and Michelle tucked the hymnbook into the shelf. They both bowed their heads and the room quieted. The prayer to bless the bread before passing it to the congregation was ingrained in Ashton’s soul. He’d heard the words, and spoken the words, so many times he thought the prayer a half a second ahead of the boy who was reading from the scriptures.
More important, he thought about what the words meant, what they represented. What they represented to him, at this time in his life. The forgiveness and peace the gospel offered were exactly what he wanted.
Even if Ashton were sent home from this silly show today, and he never saw Michelle again, she had just given him the greatest gift he’d ever received. She brought him back to church.
When the little tray of bread was finally in front of him, Ashton hesitated. He shook his head softly and handed the tray back.
When the young deacon had stepped away, Ashton leaned closer to Michelle and whispered, “I should probably have a nice long talk with my Bishop before I take that next step.”
“Good idea,” she whispered back.
Ashton took a deep breath and closed his eyes, so he wasn’t prepared to have Michelle’s hand resting on his. He smiled softly but kept his eyes closed as he turned his hand over and clasped hers, intertwining their fingers and squeezing gently. His whole body tingled, not just from having her hand in his. The peace of the gospel overtook him, and he knew he was sitting right where God wanted him.
The score was close, but Bruce and Ashton pulled off a win at their game of Euchre. It was not thanks to Ashton since he was completely distracted by having Michelle in his line of sight and the piano music drifting across the room.
By the last few hands, it was obvious Ashton would need to walk across the room and see what music books were in that stack on the shelf by the piano. He was surprised to find the draw to that corner even stronger than the draw toward Michelle.
Bruce sensed the change as well because he cleared his throat after playing the winning card and Ashton barely noticed. Ashton’s body leaned on the arm of the chair and his head tilted so that his ear was reaching toward the music.
A knowing look came over Bruce’s face and he raised his eyebrows. “Do you play?”
“Huh?” Ashton looked down at the cards. “Oh, we won. Good game.”
“Do you play?” Bruce repeated his question.
Ashton coughed lightly and gathered the cards into a pile. “A little.”
“What’s your favorite song to play?” Bruce asked.
Called to Serve, Ashton thought, then cleared his throat. “Um, well, I’m not very good.”
“How long did you take lessons?”
“My mom made me take them,” Ashton said, shuffling the cards for the third time.
“Why did you stop playing?”
Ashton shrugged. He didn’t want to admit to his new friend that he stopped playing when he stopped going to church. He didn’t want to go into details about how he had let down his congregation when he hadn’t shown up on a day he’d been assigned to play in a sacrament meeting.
“I’m tired,” Roger said, clearing his throat. “I don’t think I want to play a second game.”
“You just don’t want to get beat again,” Bruce said.
Ashton didn’t argue or even pay attention to the rest of their banter. He pushed his chair back and rose from his seat, his feet moving as if by their own free will. Reggie didn’t seem to notice Ashton’s presence by his side and Ashton didn’t interrupt him, just carefully lifted the stack of piano books from the shelf and sat on a nearby sofa, spreading the books out beside him.
Jazz, Mozart, Easy Listening, Christmas Carols, definitely not. It was August. Too soon to start Christmas music by most everyone’s standard. Traditional Hymns, maybe. He set that one aside, Best of Pink Floyd, really? Best of Bryan Adams. That was do-able. He flipped through the music book. Summer of ’69, no, You Belong to Me, uh, no, I’m not Victor, Ashton thought. He chuckled and kept flipping. Please Forgive Me. Perfect.
Ashton looked up just as Reggie was finishing a song and he cleared his throat. “Hey, man, can I cut in?”
Reggie turned on the piano bench, surprised to see Ashton there, surrounded by piano books. “You wanna play?”
“If you don’t mind…”
“Nah, be my guest.” Reggie pushed back the piano bench and stepped away.
Ashton moved as if in a trance, adjusting the bench, testing the pedals to make sure he was the right distance from the piano, and resting his fingers on the keys. He didn’t bother warming up or playing a scale. He studied the lines on the staff, took a deep breath, and lowering his shoulders, played.
The simple rhythm felt natural even though he’d never played this song, and he played all the way through once before starting over. With hesitation, he added the words, expressing his feelings through the sultry words describing how it felt the first night, the first time their eyes met. He wished he knew what it was like to have a first kiss with Michelle but pushed through that part of the song. The most important words were right out of the title itself: please forgive me.
Ashton ended the song with a sigh and lifted his hands from the keys, staring down at them as if they were delicate traitors that had called him across the room and seduced him back to this place in his life. Dang, that felt good.
“Is there anything you can’t do?” Victor’s snide remark pulled Ashton from wherever he’d been, back to the present day and time, and Ashton looked up to a room full of people staring at him.
Ashton chuckled and pulled a line from his mom’s favorite musical, The Sound of Music. “I don’t think I’d make a very good nun.”
An older gentleman laughed out loud, obviously knowing exactly the scene where the Baroness asks Maria the same question Victor had asked Ashton, and Maria’s snarky reaction. None of the younger guys seemed to understand the joke, but Ashton could tell Michelle did by the way she pinched her lips together as if trying not to laugh.
“Whatever,” Victor said, turning on his heel, heading back over to the pool table.
The crowd dispersed somewhat, and Ashton turned back to the piano. He didn’t feel like flipping through the book to find another song to play but couldn’t get his favorite hymn out of his head. A mainstream hymnbook wouldn’t contain this one, so he had to pull it from memory.
Ashton had played Called to Serve so many times in those two years, he easily drew it from the darkest reaches of him mind. He didn’t sing this one out loud but knew one other person in the room would hear the words right along with him. He slowed the tempo way down so that it was reverent rather than the powerful anthem it was written to be.
Called to serve him, Heavenly King of glory, chosen e’er to witness for his name. Far and wide we tell the Father’s story, far and wide His love proclaim. Onward, ever onward, as we glory in His name. Forward, pressing forward, as a triumph song we sing. God our strength will be; press forward ever called to serve our King.
He stared at the keys for a long time, letting the notes settle into the air around him, oblivious to the conversations, card games, and clicking of billiard balls against one another.
Ashton closed the fall board over the keys and pushed the piano bench firmly into place. Reggie didn’t approach the piano again, and Ashton didn’t rejoin the games.
He gulped as he met Michelle’s eyes from where she stood with a pool stick in her hand waiting for her turn. He blinked and looked away then turned to a sliding glass door that led into a courtyard with a winding path beyond. He didn’t know where he was going, or why, he just walked.
Eventually the sidewalk led back to the parking lot where Ashton stumbled upon the waiting limo. He leaned against the car and let the afternoon breeze blow through his shaggy hair. He could almost smell the ocean from here.
Eventually the rest of the group made their way out to the limo and they all climbed in to ride back to the mansion. No one mentioned Ashton’s piano performance or his absence.