Mrs. Davis slipped through the door with a pie in one hand and the diaper bag in the other. Paul was right behind his mom with his two -year-old sister Stephanie in his arms. She was all wrapped up in a fluffy coat with a big hood wrapped up around her ears. She had her arms around her brother’s neck and rosy cheeks from the cold. She got a big smile on her face when she saw Ashley.
Ashley reached for little Stephanie, took her from Paul’s arms, and helped her out of her coat.
Paul stomped his boots at the back door, shaking snow from all parts of him. It had really picked up outside and looked like it was going to be a white Christmas. He slipped off his coat and hung it on the rack by the back door, then walked over to where Ashley sat helping Stephanie, and leaned down to give her a kiss.
Paul’s kiss surprised Ashley. He had never kissed her in front of any of their family members. “Merry Christmas,” he whispered.
“Merry Christmas to you as well.” She looked up at him and smiled shyly then went back to helping Stephanie with her little boots.
The rest of the Davis family arrived within minutes of one another, having trekked across the path between their two properties. The two families gave each other hugs and well wishes and smiles, and Ashley could tell the evening was going to be great.
She loved the Davis’. These were her family, as much as they were Paul’s. If she did choose to marry him, they would all fit together very nicely.
Stephanie didn’t want to leave her side, and even insisted that she sit by her at dinner. Paul sat on Ashley’s other side, close enough that his knee was touching hers.
He was in a nice sweater over a button-down shirt with clean blue jeans, so she knew that his mother must have insisted that he get dressed up for dinner. He looked very nice, and Ashley couldn’t help smile up at him shyly quite a few times during dinner.
When it was time for the blessing and everyone’s heads were bowed, Paul reached for her hand under the table and held it. His callused hands felt good. They were big and strong, but gentle and loving. She didn’t know if it was the holiday, or the way he was cleaned up in nice clothes, or his cologne, or the talk she’d had with her mom a few hours earlier, but she could feel love radiating from him. She really liked the way that felt.
When the dishes had been cleared, the pies had been set aside for later, and the family all gathered in the living room around the tree, it was time for the kids’ favorite part of the evening – gift exchange.
The kids drew names to give each other a gift. Even though the Hardman kids were all grown up, and the Davis kids were still little, they all still loved the ritual.
It was obvious that eight-year-old Samantha hadn’t gone to the store to purchase the pretty jewelry box for Sarah, and ten-year-old Mark hadn’t saved up all year for the baseball that he gave Greg, but they both grinned as if they had helped pick them out. It was endearing.
All the little kids got games or toys or books or something fun, and everyone opened boxes and started putting things together. Ashley had drawn five-year-old Shawn’s name and had picked out a neat train set that required a little bit of help to set up. Greg jumped right in to ‘help’ although it looked like he was having just as much fun as little Shawn.
It seemed that no one had drawn Ashley’s name, because when all the gifts had been handed out, she had not received anything. She didn’t say anything about it to anyone, but suddenly Paul leaned over to her and asked if they shouldn’t go out and check on the horses, make sure they had enough feed and blankets to get through the cold night.
Ashley grinned up at him, understanding that it was a ploy to get her alone. Ashley’s mom smiled at her as she and Paul quietly slipped from the room to go grab their coats and put on their boots.
They held hands as they walked silently to the barn. Ashley walked straight over to where her horse Shelly was quietly crunching on some hay, and Paul came up behind her to wrap his arms around her waist. She leaned back to rest against him and closed her eyes for just a moment.
“Merry Christmas,” he whispered to her again and she opened her eyes as he held a little square box in front of her. It was too big to be terrifying, so she took it carefully in her hand and loosed the bow. It held inside a delicate and beautiful gold necklace with a small heart charm. “I saw this and thought of you.”
“Paul, you shouldn’t have spent so much money on me,” she whispered back. She touched the sweet little gold heart and it seemed to radiate the same love for her that she had felt from him all evening. “It’s beautiful.”
“Ah, it wasn’t that much.” He took the box from her and took the necklace out. She waited while he worked with the little clasp until he placed it around her neck and closed the latch. His strong hands felt very gentle as he reached up and adjusted the little heart so that it rested softly against her chest. Finally, he looked up into her eyes. “It looks beautiful on you.” His voice was barely a whisper.
“Thank you, so much.” She felt her cheeks flush, as she had so many times that evening. She wished that she could blame the cold, but she knew better.
Paul reached his hands up and held both sides of her face, very gently. Her heart beat sped up and her breath quickened. Very slowly his face came down to hers and he held her gaze as he kissed her softly. She felt dizzy and sort of like she was going to fall over.
He let go of her face and reached his hands around so that they rested on her lower back, holding her to him. She didn’t resist. She didn’t hesitate. She reached her arms up around his neck and kissed him firmly and passionately, standing there in the barn on Christmas Eve with the snow falling outside and Shelly crunching hay in her stall.
It felt like the world stood still and it had been the happiest night of her life.