“Oh my gosh, that was embarrassing. I’m so sorry!” Caleb kept stuttering on as he dragged Ashley back down into the hallway toward the main entrance. He walked quickly, pointing in one room after another. “So you’ve seen the library, and this over here is the formal parlor. You’ve seen the great room, which we really only use for larger get-togethers. Down this hall are the less-formal living areas where we spend most of our time.”
“Caleb, stop.” Ashley pulled him and forced him to turn around. “You’re making me dizzy.”
He still wouldn’t look up at her. He seemed nervous and frightened.
“It’s okay, Caleb. Your mom’s really sweet. I enjoyed spending time with her.”
Caleb finally looked up at her and smiled shyly. She’d never seen him like this. It was obvious to her that he did feel something strong for her, but that this was not the way he had wanted to tell her.
“It’s okay,” she told him in a soft whisper. He visibly relaxed and she took his hand again. “Now, show me the rest of your house.”
He led her quietly down a large hallway; not as large as the main foyer that led to the great room, but larger than most homes. He stopped at the first door, opened it and turned on a light. It was a spacious and decorative lavatory that was obviously for guests rather than family use. He turned the light back off and kept walking. There was a rather impressive mahogany door that led into a formal office.
“This is my father’s,” he explained and then turned the lights back off. “I don’t mess with it. That’s his space. The one over here is my mom’s office.” It was busier and a little more cluttered, but still very formal and pretty. It had a lot more character.
“Where’s your office?” she asked in a teasing voice.
“I just have a nice little nook in the corner of my bedroom,” he explained. “We all do. Even though all the other kids have grown up and moved away. Maybe one of these days my parents will be able to get rid of me.”
He smiled at Ashley, but kept walking. There was a large archway at the end of the hall that led into a less-formal living room. It had comfortable sofas, a very large television, another fireplace, a baby grand piano, sliding glass doors out to the patio overlooking the lake, and lots of little areas where a game of cards could be played, or a board game set up. There was even one little table in the corner that had a puzzle going. It looked like a big, difficult puzzle, like something she’d like to sit and work on. She figured this was not the time to do that, though. Maybe the next time she came over could be a little more relaxed.
“I think this is my favorite room so far,” Ashley whispered.
“I thought that the library was your favorite room.”
“Okay, you got me.” She laughed lightly. “But this is my second favorite room.”
“There’s more. Come on. I’ll show you my favorite room.” He led her back the way they’d come and around behind the kitchen to another hallway like the first, which opened into a jungle.
Plants reached to the ceiling and created a beautiful canopy that hung low over lounge chairs and a glass-top table complete with an umbrella to shield a person from the tiny amount of sun that might reach through the solarium roof and down through the foliage. Ashley could understand why this was Caleb’s favorite room.
“This is so cool.” She breathed in the clean, almost moist air as she walked further into the solarium. “I’m waiting for birds to sing and a monkey to swing from the trees.”
“I could buy some for you if you’d like.”
“That would be very cool, indeed.” She turned around, flirting a little. “I don’t really like monkeys, so maybe we should leave those at the zoo. I’d love to come over again soon, though.”
“Consider it a date.” He held his hand out to her, and led her back out of the room. “Dinner’s probably ready, and I’ll bet my dad is already home from the golf course.”
“I’m looking forward to meeting him,” Ashley replied. “If he’s as nice as your mom, I’m sure I’m going to like him.”
“I hope so.” He hesitated.
“What?” She got the impression that there was more to the story.
“Well, if he stopped at the nineteenth hole, he may have had a beer… or two.”
“Does he ever get obnoxious?” she asked.
“No, not at all,” Caleb answered. “He gets kind of funny actually. I just don’t want you to be offended.”
“I’m a big girl,” Ashley reassured him. “Don’t worry about me, Caleb. I’ll just roll with it. If anything gets overwhelming, I’ll just make an excuse that I have an early class tomorrow and yawn or something.”
“I’ll take that as a cue.” It turned out to not be a problem.
Bartholomew Rogers was a perfect gentleman, and insisted that Ashley call him Bart. That’s what everyone called him. She actually would have felt more comfortable calling him Mr. Rogers, but even Caleb called him Bart, so it was easy to follow along. Besides, he was the fun kind of guy who wouldn’t have wanted to be called by anything else.
As he explained it, ‘Mr. Rogers’ was for the corporate world, and everyone else needed to call him Bart. She decided just to respect his wishes and go along with it.
The meal turned out to be fun and relaxing. Ashley never did see any carrots on the table, but that was okay. She got the impression that the carrots were just an excuse for Linda to get a chance to know the new woman in her son’s life.
Linda asked more probing questions at dinner about Ashley’s family and classes at school, and where she wanted to live after she graduated. She also continued to be fascinated with farm life, and asked lots of questions about the animals. Bart asked some weirder and funnier questions.
“So, Ashley. If I search for you on the internet, am I going to find you on the ‘most wanted’ list of criminals?” At first she thought he was serious, then he chuckled loudly and acknowledged that he was teasing her. The next funny question wasn’t so funny to Ashley, nor to Caleb. “So, what are your intentions with my son?”
It was the typical question that a father would ask a young man who was courting his daughter, but a pretty strange question to ask a young lady. He started laughing, but Ashley grew a little more serious.
Caleb jumped in to get her out of the situation. Neither of them wanted to go into details about the delicate balance their lives held right now.
“Gosh, Bart,” Caleb warned in a playful way. “I think those are the kinds of questions that should wait until we’ve dated for a while, don’t you think?”
“Ah, I’m just poking fun at her,” Bart called out to his son. “She’s a tough girl, she can handle it.”
“Thank you,” Ashley replied. “I try to be tough, but usually only when I have to shovel stalls and milk cows.” She was teasing him back now, partially to deflect from the real answers to his question, and partly because she wanted to have a fun meal and get the tension out of the room.
“Okay, Caleb,” Bart told his son. “I think I can give her my stamp of approval. You have my permission to marry her.”
“Oh my gosh, Dad, stop!” Caleb jumped in. “You’re as bad as Mom. Why don’t you both just let Ashley and I move at our own speed, okay?” It was obvious that Caleb wasn’t really mad, more embarrassed. Ashley looked over at him with a smile and a little wink.
“Well, you know,” Linda piped in. “We’re not getting any younger, and your brothers and sister have all given us grandchildren. Don’t you think it’s about time?”
“Alright, that’s so beyond enough.” Caleb got up and offered Ashley his hand to help her up from the table. “I am so sorry for my parents’ behavior.”
“Oh, sit down Caleb,” Ashley warned in a teasing manner. “Your mom has provided a beautiful desert, and I’m not going to miss it just because you can’t handle the fact that you think I’m cute and you’re scared to death of me.”
“You’re just as bad as these two,” he accused her, but he sat back down in exasperation. “What am I going to do with you guys?”
“Well, I think it’s obvious,” Bart said. “You need to snatch this girl up before somebody else does.”
Ashley almost choked on the water she was sipping. Now, she’d had enough. She was still laughing and smiling, but reminded Caleb that she had an early class. She didn’t go so far as yawning, but quickly finished the last few bites of her desert, thanked the Rogers’ for the meal and they sped away in Caleb’s little black Porsche.
They laughed and even joked about it all the way home, but they both knew that the situation was a little more complex than his parents would ever understand.
At least they’d gotten past the first ‘meet the parents’ dinner and it would be easier after this. She actually liked both of his parents, and looked forward to going back to see them soon.
“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.
When Ashley came out of the restroom, Paul was leaning against the counter near the little refrigerator. He grabbed her hand as she started to walk by, pulling her to him.
Everyone else was out in the seats watching the game. Ashley looked over at them hesitantly before letting him pull her close. He put his hands on her hips and leaned down so he was at eye level with her.
“Paul,” she whispered, then looked back out to see if anyone was watching them. They were all facing the game. “I told you we weren’t supposed to be showing one another any affection.” She felt terrified that Caleb was going to walk in and see her practically in Paul’s arms.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered back. “He’s out there watching the game with your brothers… and sister. That cracks me up, by the way. Does it bother him the way she practically throws herself at him?”
“He tries to be polite about it.” Ashley let her guard down a little and rested her hands on his arms. She realized he’d been right. It was too easy between them. They were so comfortable together that they just naturally showed each other the affection that they felt without even realizing they were doing it. She inadvertently let him pull her close and looked up into his eyes. “I’ve tried to talk to her about it, but she just doesn’t take a hint.”
“I wanted to tell you ‘thank you’ for bringing me here tonight.” He changed the subject. She could tell he really meant it. “It’s been an amazing evening. This is something I never would have experienced. I really, really appreciate it. It would have been very easy for you to have come here without me and have no reason to think twice about it. But you didn’t, and I can’t tell you what that means to me. So thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” she whispered. She wanted to lean in and kiss him, but held back, keenly aware that just a few feet away was the guy she was supposed to be on a date with, and that he could walk around the corner at any time.
Which, he did. Caleb and Steve came up the stairs and around the corner, and Ashley pushed away from Paul. Steve chuckled and politely turned around, letting the three of them deal with the awkwardness.
“Caleb,” Paul said. “I was just telling Ashley, and I wanted to tell you also, thank you so much for inviting me tonight. This has been really amazing. I’ve had such a great time.” Paul sounded sincere but Ashley could tell Caleb was very uncomfortable about walking into the room and finding Ashley in Paul’s arms.
Caleb stuck his hands in his pockets and walked all the way into the room. It would have been really easy to get upset, but he nodded his head slowly.
“And… I’m sorry I can’t keep my hands off your date.” Paul smiled sheepishly.
“It’s my own fault. I’m the one who invited you here,” Caleb said.
“It’s really Ashley’s fault in a way,” Paul said, shifting his teasing grin over to Ashley. He winked at her and she melted. “If she would just break up with one or the other of us, then we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
“I’m sorry, you guys.” Ashley spoke softly, looking back and forth between the two of them. This was the first time the three of them had actually had a conversation together like this, and it was probably a good thing. They needed to clear the air and put some clarification on the table. “I’m trying really hard to keep my heart and mind open here. I really like you both, and for such different reasons, and in different ways. I wish you could see inside my thoughts, because you’d understand why I’m so conflicted. You’re both such awesome guys, and I feel bad that I’m doing this to you. I’ll understand completely if either of you… don’t want to continue dating me.” Her voice got really soft at the end. It hurt her to even think about it.
“I’m not going anywhere, Ashley.” Paul quickly interjected. “You know how I feel about you, and I’m going to be right by your side until you tell me otherwise.”
“I don’t want to stop dating you either, Ashley,” Caleb told her softly. “I wish this were easier on all of us, but I think if we just be realistic and understanding, we can get through this. We can’t both have you, obviously. But we don’t have to make firm decisions about the rest of our lives, right now. Let’s just see how this plays out, okay?”
“You know Caleb,” Paul said. “This whole thing would be a lot easier on me if you were a real jerk. But, you’re actually a really cool guy, and I’m sorry I was rude earlier… in the car.”
“What did you say to him in the car?” Ashley demanded.
“Ah, we just had a little… misunderstanding, that’s all.” Caleb smiled and waved his hand dismissively. “It was no big deal.”
Caleb pushed away from the wall and walked across the room extending a hand to Paul. He took it, and they nodded at each other as they shook hands.
“And you’re a cool guy too,” Caleb set. “I’ll try to remember that.”
It was almost a truce. Ashley still felt apprehensive about the situation, but Caleb seemed glad to have invited Paul, and Paul seemed glad to have come.
Caleb came over and gave Ashley a little hug, and then they all walked back out to sit and finish watching the game.
The lights in the stadium fell. Strobe lights and spotlights lit up the cavernous space. Music pulsed through the crowd as the players ran out of the tunnel. The excitement level reached to the rafters of the arena as both teams ran around the perimeter of the court. Fanfare ensued as the announcer called out the starting lineup.
The crowd erupted as the Pistons took first possession from the tip-off and scored the first points. The teams were well matched and the score bounced back and forth almost as quickly as the ball.
Ashley felt almost dizzy from the fast pace of the game and was a little relieved when the first half was over.
Predictably, the guys turned to the catered food.
“I’m so glad we don’t have to walk up all those stairs and go stand in line for concessions,” Paul said.
“Yeah,” Donnie added. “This is awesome. Thanks so much for bringing us here, Caleb.” Everyone else echoed his appreciation.
“You’re very welcome,” Caleb said. “This has been a really fun night.” They all sort of drifted back to their seats as the game looked like it was about to resume.
A few minutes into the third quarter, a scuffle broke out between two of the players. Other players stepped in to defend their teammates, and referees got knocked over while trying to break up the fight. It didn’t last long. A few players were escorted from the arena, coaches yelled at players, referees called fouls, and things settled back to an almost normal level.
“Man,” Ashley said. “I never knew how violent basketball could get.” She was still wide-eyed and taken aback by the players’ reactions.
“Oh that was nothing compared to the fight between Charles Barkley and Bill Lambeer during that game against the Philadelphia Sixers in 1990.” Donnie piped in.
“Yeah, that was legendary,” Steve added. “It also involved Isaiah Thomas when he tried to fight Rick Mahorn.”
“That was intense,” Caleb agreed.
“I was too young to remember,” Greg said proudly, as if his youth was something to brag about.
“I wouldn’t have cared,” Sarah mumbled. She’d gotten pretty bored by that point.
“Or in 1993 when Michael Jordon got knocked out.” It seemed that Donnie was a walking statistician that evening.
“That was a cheap shot by Lambeer!” Paul added.
“Typical of him,” Caleb agreed.
“I think Lambeer also smacked Scott Williams across the face in that same fight,” Steve said.
“Yeah, but Jordan went down so hard that he hurt his right hand,” Paul argued. “He went up for the shot, got pulled down, and just stayed there!”
“That was an amazing game.” Donnie sighed nostalgically. All the guys were quiet for a minute. Ashley looked around at them, wondering how they could remember all that, but also why they cared to remember it. Must be a guy thing, she thought to herself.
“Didn’t Ron Rothstein get thrown out of that game?” Steve asked no one in particular.
“Who’s he?” Greg asked innocently.
“He was the Pistons head coach that year,” Caleb explained.
“He was only there for like a year, wasn’t he?” Paul turned to look at Caleb.
“Yeah, I think he got a technical foul that game also,” Caleb answered.
“That probably took a couple of bucks out of his wallet.” Paul chuckled.
“I think the Bulls won the World Championships that year though,” Donnie added.
“Okay—” Ashley stood up. “I think there’s enough testosterone out here. I’m going to the ladies room.” She walked up the steps off the balcony, not really wanting to hear any more trivia for one night.
Caleb showed up in a brand new Cadillac Escalade and Ashley’s brothers had almost as much drool on their chins as when they’d seen his Porsche.
Paul just shook his head in disgust and stood back waiting for the other guys to choose where they wanted to sit. Ashley went out of her way to drag Sarah with her into the very back seat along with Greg, since he was the smallest. The bigger boys got to fight over the front seats. He was hoping one of them would call shotgun and climb into the front passenger seat, but they didn’t. Paul was reluctantly stuck with sitting next to his nemesis.
As he clicked his seatbelt into place, Paul reminded himself that the only reason he was going to a professional basketball game at all was because of this guy. He forced himself not to scowl at Caleb.
He tried not to be impressed with the sleek leather seating and the fancy navigation and sound systems, but it was impossible. He was silent for a few miles as everyone got settled in.
Greg and the girls talked in the back, laughing and having fun. Donnie and Steve were mostly silent in the middle seats but occasionally spoke with one another. Paul was forced to either stare straight ahead, turn around to attempt a conversation with the other guys, or engage in conversation with the man who was dating his girlfriend.
Finally, he couldn’t resist asking the question that had been bugging him since Caleb had pulled in the driveway with this monstrosity.
“Tell me the truth,” Paul whispered low enough that no one in the back seats could hear them. “Did you buy this just so that you could take Ashley’s brothers to the Pistons game?”
“Well, they wouldn’t all fit in my Porsche, would they?” Caleb whispered back.
“Okay, another question for you,” Paul whispered again. “Did this cost more than your Porsche?”
“A lot more,” Caleb looked over at Paul, with creased brow. “Why?”
“Why are you doing this?” The question wasn’t so much an accusation, but more an expression of exasperation. “Is this a competition to you? Because it’s not to me. This is my life you’re messing with… and Ashley’s. I don’t want you playing with her like this.” His voice had taken on a little bit of desperation.
“I’m not playing.” Caleb’s voice held just as much desperation, evidenced even through his whisper. “I don’t know what you want from me. You told me that I needed to be driving a domestic car, and that it needed towing capacity. And I needed something big enough to haul around a couple of good-sized farm boys. So… here it is!” He kind of waved his hand in a little gesture toward the front of the vehicle.
“I didn’t want you to go out and buy a new car!” Paul spat at him, trying to keep his voice low enough that no one else could hear him. Luckily, Caleb had turned the back speakers up just far enough to drown out the sound from the front of the cab, but not loud enough to be too annoying to the passengers. “I wanted you to get the heck out of her life!”
“I’m not leaving her, Paul.” Caleb said it with finality, his eyes barely straying from the road. “I’m not saying that she’s going to choose me over you, and I don’t want to presume to know her feelings for me, but I care about her… a lot! And I’m not going away… unless she tells me to go away. And this isn’t a game to me. I’m not competing with you. This is my life too, you know. I’m not just here to make your life miserable. She wouldn’t be going out with me if she didn’t like me, maybe even…” He didn’t finish his sentence, but the implication was there.
Paul narrowed his eyes just slightly, then turned away from Caleb. He decided that coming on this trip was a bad idea. No it wasn’t, he told himself. I would never have had this conversation with Caleb if I hadn’t come along. He needs to know how this is affecting me. I don’t think he cares, but he at least needs to know. They were silent for most of the rest of the way to Mid-town.
When they got to the Arena, Paul was surprised to see Caleb pull the car around to an exclusive VIP parking lot. Ashley had not told Paul about the reserved suite, so he raised his eyebrows at her when they walked in through the suite holder’s entrance.
She just shrugged her shoulders at him and gave him an affectionate punch on the arm. They eventually got off the elevator, and Caleb escorted them down a plush hallway to what Paul gathered was his regular suite.
Paul’s level of intimidation was wearing off by the excitement and atmosphere of being at the Little Caesars Arena. This stadium set the standard for what an arena should look like.
When he walked into the suite, he couldn’t help grinning. It was amazing. They were only fifteen rows up from the floor, had their own room complete with refrigerator, flat screen television, and private restroom. It was cozy and secluded, yet opened right out to overlook the court. It felt like they had the best seats in the house.
He and the other guys were all smiles as they looked around at the amenities, and Caleb graciously started tucking their coats away in the little closet. As much as Paul hated to admit it, he was very impressed.
They all bypassed the couches and went straight to the bar where a person could sit and watch the game from inside the suite. Greg was the first to step down onto the little balcony with regular stadium seats.
The arena was still pretty empty when they arrived but people were filing down the walkways in streams, and the court was a busy flurry of activity. There seemed to be a lot of people in expensive suits, and others in Polo shirts and khakis who all seemed to have very little obvious purpose. There were men in blue shirts and black pants standing in strategically placed locations, like body guards set to make sure that no one gets on the floor of the court that doesn’t belong there. It seemed to Paul that it would be difficult to determine who belonged there and who didn’t.
The arena was loud. Even though it was still filling up, the din and echo was indescribable. It wasn’t loud in a bothersome way, more in an exciting way. Powerful rap music encouraged acrobatic gymnasts as they leapt off tiny trampolines and flipped and dunked basketballs to the rhythm. Dancers took to the floor, waving poms, and wearing little blue shorts and tiny tank tops.
“Dang, those cheerleaders aren’t wearing much!” Greg exclaimed. All the boys gawked, although Paul and Caleb tried to pretend they weren’t. After all, they were supposed to be there for Ashley.
“Those aren’t cheerleaders,” Caleb explained. “They’re the Automotion Dance Team.”
“They’re making me blush,” Ashley complained, yet she too didn’t take her eyes off the dancers. They were dancing very suggestively directly in front of the people who were sitting on the floor-side seats. “I feel like I’m watching something from a strip club. I don’t want to watch this.”
“I do!” her three brothers chorused, almost in unison. Almost everyone laughed, but Ashley just shook her head and walked back up the stairs into the suite.
Paul sat on one of the bar stools just inside the suite, politely trying to make it look like he was not watching the dancers. Caleb was flitting about trying to be the perfect host, offering sodas to all the guys and pointing out the trays of snacks that had been catered in. Once everyone was settled and attended to, Caleb asked if anyone would like to come with him to take a tour of the building.
“I’d love to,” Sarah chimed in. It seemed she would do just about anything Caleb wanted her to do, even if she had no interest in the fancy architecture.
“I’ll go too,” Ashley quickly added, probably not wanting to torture Caleb.
“Oh, you can stay here with the guys,” Sarah said. “I’m sure Caleb and I will be able to find our way back before the game starts.” She walked over and draped her arm through his, ready to lead him out of the suite.
Ashley was probably mortified by her sister’s brazen attitude toward poor Caleb. She shook her head and gave her sister a dirty look, then walked over and stuck her hand through Caleb’s other arm.
Caleb dropped his arm to hold Ashley’s hand instead; making it clear to Sarah that Ashley was his only priority.
Paul thought about what she had told him about not holding hands with Caleb while they were here, but it was too late. They waved goodbye to the other guys. The three brothers barely acknowledged them, but Paul smiled slightly and tried not to let Ashley know that he was upset about her holding Caleb’s hand. Then he turned back around to stare out into the arena.
Before she’d finished cleaning one stall, Paul snuck in the door and closed out the evening air.
He said hello then grabbed a shovel and started working on the stall next to her.
“I have a weird question for you.” Ashley didn’t stop shoveling, maybe as a way to avoid eye contact. “Would you like to go to a Pistons game?” She didn’t add the phrase ‘with Caleb’ to the end. She was afraid he’d say no if he knew who else was going.
“How did you get tickets to a Pistons game?” He sounded more surprised than accusatory, but definitely excited.
“Well, it’s not exactly me that’s inviting you.” She scooped another load. “Caleb has tickets and invited me and my brothers, and wanted to know if you’d like to come also.”
He stopped and leaned against his shovel. The excitement faded from his eyes and a flash of anger creased his brow.
“I promise that it wouldn’t really be like a date at all, more like just a group of friends hanging out at a game. Even my… sister is going to go.”
He chuckled and went back to shoveling, but Ashley put aside her shovel and came over to him. Paul stopped and stood up to look at her. He had a mixed expression on his face and she could tell that he was warring with the prospect of going to a professional basketball game, and having to spend the evening with Caleb.
“What do you want me to do?” he finally asked in a soft voice.
“I don’t know, I want you to come, but I understand why you wouldn’t want to be there.” She stopped and wrapped her arms around his waist. “I don’t know yet how to handle all this. You know that I’m in love with you. And I’m sure it’s very confusing to you that I want to date someone else. I don’t want to pretend that it wouldn’t be a little awkward, but I’ll try to just stay neutral between the two of you and not show either of you any affection.”
“I think that would be the hardest thing.” Paul wrapped his arms around her and looked down into her eyes. “It’s so natural for us to hold hands, and for me to give you lots of kisses.”
He leaned down with a playful look on his face and kissed her neck, tickling her and making her laugh. Then he pulled away and got serious again.
“How much affection do you show him when I’m not around?”
“Very little,” she whispered, trying to reassure him. “I’ve never kissed him, if that’s what you’re asking.”
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly “Well, I’m really glad to hear that.”
“I’m not promising that I never will,” she whispered. Ashley looked up at Paul with a soft expression she hoped was somewhere between apologetic and apprehensive. “We’re just not to that point in our relationship yet.”
“Yet,” Paul said. “I don’t like that word.” He pushed her away gently and lifted his shovel from where it rested against the stall.
Before he even took a single shovel of manure, he dropped the shovel, letting it fall to the floor, and grabbed her in a hug. She lifted onto her toes as he leaned down and their lips met. There was nothing in her life that compared with kissing Paul. When they finally separated, he leaned his forehead against hers and closed his eyes.
“I’m not giving up without a fight,” Paul whispered. His breathing was heavy. He pulled away and looked down into her eyes. “As long as you promise not to hold his hand or anything, I’ll come. You can let Sarah sit next to Caleb and I’ll sit next to you.”
“How about if I sit with Sarah, and you boys can sit together.” She felt peace and had a feeling they were all going to have a good time.
“Have you ever been to a Detroit Pistons basketball game?” Caleb asked. They had just arrived at Institute class and were slipping out of their winter coats. “I’ve got a few tickets to next week’s game against the Bulls. I thought maybe you’d like to go.”
“How many is a few?” She looked over at him apprehensively, recognizing that ‘a few’ was not two.
“Well, I thought maybe your brothers might want to go.” He grinned sheepishly. “And… your sister. If you want her to come.”
She noticed the way he wrinkled his nose when he said the word ‘sister’ but she didn’t want to read too much into it.
Ashley knew it bugged Caleb when Sarah flirted with him. She figured that he was going way out of his comfort zone to include her in the activity. It said a lot that he’d be willing to do that. It also said a lot that he was willing to plan this whole thing.
Dating each other was easy, but it took things a step further to include the family. She wondered at what point he’d finally take her over to meet his parents, but she didn’t want to ask. She didn’t want to seem pushy. Still, they’d been going out for a few months now, and she wondered when he was going to take that next step. One thing at a time.
“I don’t know much about basketball,” she admitted. “But I think that sounds like fun.”
“Well, we have really good seats, so even if you don’t like basketball you should be able to get caught up in the atmosphere and have a good time anyway.” He smiled over at her. “Besides, just being with me will be fun in and of itself!”
She smiled back at him, content with the idea of going anywhere with him. Besides she’d never been to a Pistons game. It would be a new adventure. Then she realized that when he’d said that they had really good seats, it sounded as if these were more than just regular stadium seats. These sounded like reserved seats.
“Do you have season tickets or something?” she asked. He smiled sheepishly again.
“Yeah, sort of.”
“What do you mean by ‘sort of’?” She pushed for more information. Knowing that his parents were very well off, she suspected that they had really good seats.
“My parents have a little suite that they have reserved for each season.” He said it so fast, and looked down at his hands.
Ashley could tell that Caleb was always trying to play down the fact that his parents had money. He didn’t want to seem like he was bragging, yet he wanted to be able to take advantage of the seats that were available rather than go out and purchase different tickets just so he didn’t have to take her to the exclusive suite.
She wanted to reassure him that it was okay. She was trying to learn not to be intimidated by his lifestyle, and just enjoy being with him because she liked him.
“That sounds really fun, Caleb.” She reached for his hand. “I’m excited about it. I’ll talk to my brothers tonight, okay?
“Cool.” He seemed relieved. She was glad that she’d pushed her feelings of apprehension aside so that she could give him the reassurance that he needed.
“Are we going to drive in separate cars?” she asked. “We sure won’t all fit in your Porsche.” She giggled.
“Don’t worry; I’ll get something big enough to hold everybody. It’ll all be good. I promise.” He reassured her.
Ashley’s brothers were ecstatic about the prospect of going to a Pistons game. They loved basketball, and they’d never been to a professional game.
Sarah was just excited about going out on an exciting adventure, especially if it meant traveling along with Caleb.
A few days before the big game, Ashley got an unexpected phone call. Caleb sounded really nervous. “I have a weird question for you,” he started.
“Okay,” she encouraged him.
“How would you feel about inviting… Paul to come with us to the Pistons game?” They were both silent for a moment. She didn’t know what to say.
“Why would you want to do that?” She spoke softly. She didn’t understand why he would want to invite her other boyfriend to come along on a date with him.
“Well,” he hesitated again. “I don’t know. I keep feeling prompted that he should be there. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
“Do you even have that many tickets?” she asked. She still wasn’t sure how to feel about this.
“Yeah,” he reassured her. “The suite holds twelve.” Twelve?
“Let me think about it, okay?” After she got off the phone Ashley sat and stared out the window for a long time. She knew that as soon as she headed out to the barn to do some evening chores, she’d run into Paul. So she wanted to ponder the situation first.
She was sure that Paul had never been to a Pistons game, but that he loved basketball. If it were anyone else inviting him, he wouldn’t hesitate to jump at the opportunity.
But there was something more. Something about the way Caleb had said that he had felt prompted to invite Paul. It didn’t seem at all suspect to her. It didn’t feel like Caleb was trying to show off in front of Paul. It almost felt as if he were acting like a… missionary.
She would have to let the evening play out and see how Paul reacted. She got her boots on and grabbed a light jacket as she headed out to the barn, knowing that he wouldn’t be far behind.
New Year’s Day was spent at the Davis’ home. The only real objective was to watch as many football games as they could in one day. The basement hosted a large screen television, a pool table, and lots of other games and activities.
Ashley dozed off lying on the sofa with Paul’s little sisters and brothers climbing all over her.
As Paul sat off to the side playing a game of UNO with his little brother Mark and their little sister Samantha, he couldn’t help glancing over with contentment at the beautiful woman resting on his couch all snuggled up next to his baby sister Stephanie. He thought about what it would be like to have her holding his baby in her arms. He wanted that so badly.
Paul was reminded of the conversation a few weeks prior when Ashley had accused him of letting his body think for his mind. She wasn’t really that far from the truth; he did want her in so many more ways than he was normally willing to admit to himself.
But it was more than that. It was the thought of her being there every morning when he woke up, and having his babies, and being partners in every way possible.
As if sensing his gaze, Ashley opened her eyes sleepily and smiled softly back at him. He suddenly felt a really strong desire to take her and sneak away together and have her all to himself. He quickly shook the thought away, knowing how easily that could get them into a lot of trouble. Especially in his vulnerable frame of mind. He smiled lightly back at her, then turned his attention back to his siblings and tried to shake off the thoughts that kept creeping back into his mind.
“Touchdown!” Donnie called out, shaking them all from the stupor that had fallen over the room. “Sorry,” he grinned sheepishly when he realized that he’d startled everyone. He reached over and gave his older brother Steve a high-five then turned back to the television.
Ashley stretched and untangled herself from Stephanie and little Shawn. She yawned and reached for her glass of Diet Coke, before realizing that it was mostly melted ice and little else. Paul jumped up to grab her glass and walked over to the wet-bar in the corner of the basement to get her a refill. He grabbed a bowl of popcorn on his way back and plopped down on the sofa next to her, handing her the drink.
“Hey,” Samantha called out to him. “You’re supposed to be playing with us.” She waved his UNO cards at him and he sighed wearily and wrinkled his nose before reluctantly getting up from the couch. He was reminded again that it was probably a good thing that his family was there and that he wasn’t alone with Ashley. She smiled up at him and thanked him for the pop.
At halftime, they hauled out the Karaoke machine and made fools of themselves singing along to goofy songs and sounding pretty off-tune. Everyone but Sarah. She had a beautiful voice and everyone stopped what they were doing and listened intently whenever she had the microphone.
Ashley’s sister had once been the popular girl at school who wore the queen’s crown several times and always had a string of friends hanging on her every word. Paul wondered what had happened in Sarah’s life that had caused her to have so little drive now. All she did was hang out at their parents’ home and be pretty and sweet. She didn’t have a job or go to college or have a boyfriend. Paul wondered what Sarah was ever going to do with her life. Oh well, it wasn’t his job to worry about her or be judgmental. He just sat back and smiled as he enjoyed the beautiful music.
The end of the football game on the big screen quickly turned into a pick-up game of flag football in the yard. The snow wafted down from the dark sky, illuminated by the back porch light and softened by the relative warmth of the day. Jackets quickly came off, leaving hooded sweatshirts as the only protection from air that was cool enough to turn noses red and fingers numb. Sweat gave way to shivers when everyone was too tired to play anymore and hot cocoa was passed around while they warmed themselves by the fireplace. A new year had begun, and the excitement of it subtly masked the changes that loomed ahead.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Ashley said. “It’s only been an hour into the party and somebody spiked the punch.”
“Don’t worry,” Paul reassured her. “Pastor George’s wife already removed the punch bowl and they’re putting out two-liters of pop instead.”
“I think they need to have someone watch the refreshments table more closely,” Ashley said.
“Maybe we should appoint ourselves that job.” Paul grabbed her hand and pulled her gently in the direction of the table.
“I think you just want to be closer to the snacks.” Ashley teased, but followed easily along with him.
They were volunteer chaperones for the New Year’s Eve party at the Methodist church. Paul was active in the youth programs anyway and was more than willing to help out.
This was the first year he and Ashley were old enough to be chaperones rather than actual party goers. They’d been going to the church every New Year’s Eve since the time they were in their early teens, and were excited to be some of the ‘adults’ now.
Still, they felt very young in relation to the other chaperones and seemed to fit in better with the kids than the adults. Paul’s younger brother Jacob was just fourteen and this was his first year at the party. Their mom and dad were glad to have a place for the kids to hang out that was close to home on a night that traditionally had drunk drivers on the roads.
The last thing the adults wanted was for anyone to leave this party with any alcohol on their breath. She suspected Paul was more than thankful to use the excuse to stand next to the wide array of homemade cookies, potato chips, and veggie trays.
Ashley pulled up a chair, took off her heels, and started rubbing her feet.
“It’s going to be a long night if your feet hurt already,” Paul said.
“I think we should re-designate the dance as a ‘sock hop’ and then we can all be more comfortable,” Ashley replied.
In reality, they could make the party into anything they wanted. There was a dance in one room, Karaoke in another, board games, card tables, and lots of food.
Mostly the kids were just glad to have a safe place to hang out with their friends and know they wouldn’t be exposed to less wholesome activities.
Ashley and Paul were content to hang out where they could be a part of the dance and watch the disco ball throw colors around the room as the teens swayed to the beat. The song shifted to a slower love song and Paul reached out his hand to Ashley.
“Would you care to dance with me?” he asked. “You can leave your shoes off if you’d like.”
She grinned up at him and let him pull her from her seat to lead her out onto the floor. They didn’t look out of place since they weren’t that much older than the kids, and technically were still teenagers in the literal sense.
Ashley couldn’t help think back to the conversation she’d had with Caleb while riding horses together the day before when he’d realized how much younger she was. She felt comfortable with Paul; he was exactly her age. They’d grown up listening to the same music, graduated high school side by side, and rode the same school bus together right up until the time he was old enough to buy his truck.
She rested her head on his chest as allowed herself to get carried away in the rhythm of the music and his heartbeat. She took a deep breath and inhaled the scent of his cologne. He always smelled so good when he was away from the barn and had taken the time to get cleaned up.
He looked down at her with creased brows. “What’cha thinkin’ ‘bout?” he whispered.
“I really like you, Paul.”
“I really like you too,” he whispered back. She could hear his apprehension. He was probably waiting for the ‘but’ at the end of her thought. He was probably nervous she’d decided that ‘like’ was the only emotion left in her heart for him.
“Okay, I really love you,” she admitted and smiled up at him. He let out a breath he’d been holding.
“I really love you too.” He leaned down and kissed her gently, then pulled away quickly with a smile.
Ashley realized that they should be setting a better example for the other kids, so she pulled slightly farther away from him.
She remembered the old joke that they should be dancing far enough away that you could fit a good sized Bible in between. It was a good reminder. They were, after all, at a church dance, and they were supposed to be chaperones.
She decided it was a good time to glance around the room and keep their eyes peeled on the other kids rather than each other. Everyone else seemed to be acting appropriately, which was good.
Still, all the chaperones remained on high alert looking for signs of the culprit who had spiked the punch. He, or she, was still someone in the building.
The remainder of the evening went off without incident, and when the countdown began, Ashley allowed herself to steal one more kiss to celebrate the New Year and gave Paul a long hug.
Then they broke apart and went around the room hugging and wishing everyone a happy New Year. It was a great night. The party broke up within another half hour and both Jacob and Ashley were yawning as Paul took them on the short drive home.
Ashley rode her mare, Shelly out of the pen and led an obedient horse named Dude carrying a reluctant passenger named Caleb out along a path that led up towards the little bluff of trees at the north end of her father’s property.
The trail was dry, hard mud, but the snow still clung to the rest of the ground. It had melted off the tree branches, but the ground was cold enough that the snow that had fallen just before Christmas was here to stay for a while. It was a beautiful, late-afternoon ride.
They skirted the outside edge of the little forest, not too far in that it would be dark, just enough so they felt surrounded by a few trees. It gave them a feeling of seclusion, and almost felt romantic.
They walked along side by side and talked about nothing and everything. Caleb told Ashley about his drive with Greg and how her little brother seemed to really look up to her. They talked about the classes they were taking in the upcoming semester. They talked a little about where he served as a missionary. Finally, the conversation came around to something a little more serious.
“I’ve been wanting to tell you something,” Caleb started, then hesitated
“Okay,” she encouraged.
“There’s something I haven’t told you about my parents.” Caleb stopped again and looked over at her.
“They’re space aliens?” She teased him. “I knew it. No wonder you didn’t want me to meet them a few weeks ago. You didn’t want me to be afraid.”
He laughed softly along with her. Obviously she was trying to break down his level of seriousness, and reassure him that whatever it was couldn’t be that bad.
“They’re not members of the Church,” he finally said. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before.” It almost felt as if he’d been hiding it from her.
“You don’t have to be sorry,” she said quickly, trying to reassure him. “What’s the big deal?”
“Well, they’ll probably offer you a glass of wine with dinner,” he told her sheepishly.
“That’s shocking, Caleb!” she mocked him. “I’m only nineteen.”
“Oh my gosh.” He looked over at her, a different kind of panic in his heart. “I completely forgot about that. You’re so young.” He looked away again.
He was reminded of the thoughts he’d had a little while ago about her being wise beyond her years, but he hadn’t thought about it quite like this. She was so young. What am I doing? She’s just a little girl. I’m twenty seven. This is crazy.
“Caleb,” she asked, interrupting his inner panic. “Are you okay?”
He shook his head quickly, trying to clear his mind. He had just been telling himself how grown up she was. She was a legal adult. She was old enough, right? I mean if she looked like a little girl, and acted like a little girl, that would be different. It was just that number, nineteen. It hit him hard. She was a teenager.
He had to stop thinking about her that way. He looked back over at her and realized that she was still the woman that he was dating, not the little girl that his mind had suddenly concocted. He took a deep breath and smiled over at her.
“I just,” he stammered. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I mean, I knew you were a freshman and everything, you just seem so much older than… that.”
“Does it bother you that I’m so young?” The evening was as silent as her question, the air taking on a certain stillness. It was comforting. A peace came over him and he realized that it didn’t bother him.
“I guess not.” He smiled over at her. “I mean, when I asked you out, it was because I really liked you. I wouldn’t have if I’d felt you were too young for me. It was just the number that jumped out at me, I guess.”
“I won’t mention it again, if it makes you more comfortable.”
“No,” he backpedaled. “It’s fine. I’m past it now.” He was past it. He could feel that. He knew that from then on he wouldn’t be uncomfortable about her age. It was after all, just a number. And she was a legal adult and very mature for her age. It would all work out. “You don’t have to stress about it.”
“Alright, then. No stress,” she said.
He reached over and tried to grab for her hand. She reached across and took it, and they smiled at one another. It was going to be okay, and it would all work out.
Another thought entered the back of Caleb’s mind. Paul was exactly Ashley’s age. One more comparison. He needed to stop doing that. She wouldn’t be out with me if she didn’t want to be out with me, he reminded himself.
They walked along for a while again and she brought the conversation back around to his parents.
“So, your parents aren’t members of the Church, and they like to drink. No wonder you frequent a bar.” She was teasing him, obviously poking a little fun at him to lighten the mood.
“Ooh, that’s a low blow.” He laughed with her. “They’re actually not ‘drinkers’ really, they just like to have a glass of wine with dinner.”
“Jesus drank wine with dinner,” Ashley pointed out. “God still let him in to Heaven.”
She was teasing him again and he kind of liked it. She changed the subject again, but kept the air of flirtatiousness.
“So when did you embrace the Gospel?”
“It’s kind of an embarrassing story, actually.” He looked over at her a little sheepishly.
“Ooh, I’m going to like this.”
“I was invited to church by a girl I liked when I was in my early teens. In Germany.”
“Ooh, a girl. Do tell. Was she pretty?” She was obviously having fun teasing him.
“Well, my German was a little choppy back then. So I didn’t realize that she had invited me to church. I just thought we were going on a date. And yes, she was very pretty.” He stopped and smiled at her again. “You’re very pretty yourself, you know?”
“Oh, I’m sure I’m an ugly duckling compared to your cute little German girl.” She blushed a little and looked away for just a minute, then forced the conversation again. “So what did you do when you got there and found out where she had taken you?”
“Well, that’s the thing,” he explained. “I didn’t understand most of it. It was all in German, and like I said, I was pretty bad at German back then.” He stopped again and took a deep breath. When he looked back at her, he was more serious; almost reverent. “All I knew was how I felt while I was there. I had never experienced anything like that before, and I really liked the way it felt.”
“That’s so cool,” she whispered. “So what happened?”
“Well, as it turned out, there were two American missionaries there, and they had a nice long conversation with me after the service. In English. I was converted almost on the spot. My parents thought it was just a phase I was going through, and so they gave me permission to be baptized. The rest is history.”
“Sort of,” she said. “Whatever happened to the little German girl?”
“I have no idea,” he admitted. “We went back to America and I never saw her again.”
“Well, I guess she was a little angel put into your life to share the Gospel with you.”
“I guess so,” he said, looking off ahead of him.
It was starting to get dark, and they decided to head home. The loop back to the house was not very far and they were back in the barn in no time. The pain didn’t hit until he had gotten off the horse.
“Oh… my… gosh. I can’t walk.” He hobbled along, trying to lead Dude back to hook him up to the cross ties.
“You’ll be fine.” She laughed at him. “I’ll get you some Motrin when we get in the house.”
It felt easier to get the horse back into his stall. It was like everything was in reverse. The bridle came off, the harness back on, the saddle and blanket went back on to the saddle rack, the hoof pick came back out, and after a quick rub down, Dude was happily back in his stall and crunching on hay. Caleb felt a sense of accomplishment at having lived through the afternoon.
“How about we go get a piece of that apple pie my mom made?” Ashley suggested. “I’ll bet she has some ice cream we could have on top.”
“Do you make your own ice cream?” he asked, naively.
“No!” She laughed at him. “It’s probably Meijer brand.”
“Hey, I like Meijer brand,” he said. “Nothing but the best.”
“That’s right.” She grabbed his hand as they walked up to the house.
* * * * * * * * *
Late that night, Ashley got a text from Caleb. I can’t move! Remind me never to do that again. I had a really nice time with you though. See you next year.
Ashley giggled. The following day would be New Year’s Eve. The next time she would see Caleb would be after the semester started in a week. She was planning to spend New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day with Paul. This was getting complicated.
The Farmer's Daughter
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