Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Romance  ➡  Coming of age

Love Like Crazy

p.

Love Like Crazy

h2=.

Niki Embers

h4=.

h4=.

h5=.

Love Like Crazy

Copyright© 2014 by Niki Embers

www.NikiEmbers.com

Cover Design: Rizal Firmansyah at Spring Imagination

This is a fictional work. All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are solely the concepts and products of the author’s imagination or are used to create a fictitious story and should not be construed as real. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form by any means, without the prior permission in writing, except in the case of brief quotations, reviews, and articles.

For any other permission, visit NikiEmbers.com

Contents
[_
  • ] [
  • Dedication_]
  • 1 – Jesse
  • 2 – Kayla
  • 3 – Jesse
  • 4 – Jesse
  • 5 – Kayla
  • 6 – Jesse
  • 7 – Jesse
  • 8 – Jesse
  • 9 – Kayla
  • 10 – Jesse
  • 11 – Jesse
  • 12 – John
  • 13 – Jesse
  • 14 – Jesse
  • 15 – John
  • 16 – Jesse
  • 17 – Jesse
  • 18 – Kayla
  • 19 – Jesse
  • 20 – Kayla
  • 21 – Jesse
  • 22 – Kayla
  • 23 – Jesse
  • 24 – Jesse
  • 25 – Jesse
  • 26 – Kayla
  • 27 – Jesse
  • 28 – Kayla
  • 29 – Jesse
  • 30 – Jesse
  • 31 – Kayla
  • 32 – Jesse
  • 33 – Kayla
  • 34 – Jesse
  • 35 – John
  • 36 – Kayla
  • 37 – Jesse
  • 38 – Kayla
  • 39 – Jesse
  • 40 – Kayla
  • 41 – Jesse
  • 42 – Kayla
  • 43 – Jesse
  • 44 – Jesse
  • 45 – John
  • 46 – Jesse
  • 47 – Jesse
  • 48 – Jesse
  • 49 – Jesse
  • 50 – Jesse
  • 51 – Kayla
  • 52 – Jesse
  • 53 – Jesse
  • 54 – Kayla
  • 55 – Jesse
  • 56 – Jesse
  • 57 – Jesse
  • 58 – Kayla
  • 59 – Kayla
  • 60 – Jesse
  • 61 – Jesse
  • 62 – Jesse
  • 63 – Kayla
  • 64 – Jesse
  • 65 – Kayla
  • 66 – Jesse
  • 67 – Kayla
  • 68 – Jesse
  • 69 – Kayla
  • 70 – Jesse
  • 71 – Kayla [_
  • SNEAK PEEK_] [_
  • Book Description_] [_
  • 1 – Charity_] [_
  • 2 – Brock_] [_
  • Thank You!_]

h1=.

Love: a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person

that makes you …

Crazy: senseless … impractical … totally unsound

Dedication

[_
p=. [* For anyone who’s ever had a first love, an everlasting love … *] _]

h3=.

1 – Jesse

I pulled into the shrouded driveway, virtually covered with leaves and debris from Mrs. Johnson’s surrounding trees. No matter how many neighbors complained, or how often I had to frequent her property, she refused to remove any of them.

As much as I enjoyed working for the elderly woman, I couldn’t help but feel apprehensive. It was March, which meant spring break, which inevitably meant Charity would be here, and she was anything but what her name represented. Whenever Charity was around, her grandmother must have insisted that she talk to me and bring me refreshments. I couldn’t understand it. No doubt, they came from money, but if I didn’t know any better, I’d think Mrs. Johnson was trying to acquaint me with her granddaughter. Me, a lowly plumber’s son who worked in mud and crap all day. As though I’d ever be worthy enough for the likes of Charity and her snobby friends.

I knew Charity and girls like her all too well. She was a snob and dated only the richest and most popular guys in school. She wouldn’t give me the time of day in public, which never bothered me since I had no interest in her either. She was beautiful in a model-like way, not at all my type. Moreover, she was ignorant and rude. I couldn’t stand how she treated others. I’d dated her type before, no sense in repeating history. I remained polite, though, because she hadn’t inherited her rudeness from her grandmother, and I’d never do anything to offend Mrs. Johnson.

The old-fashioned southern woman was my favorite client. When I saw her name on my log this morning, I cleared the rest of my appointments. It had more to do with how she treated me than the extra money I always earned doing the odd tasks she conveniently thought up while I was doing my normal job.

I’d been working for my father’s small plumbing company as an apprentice, doing the dirty jobs like clearing the roots from Mrs. Johnson’s pipes for the last three years, since I was fourteen. Against my father’s wishes, I’d explained to her on the last three service calls that all she needed to do was pour some Root Kill in the toilets occasionally, and she wouldn’t need me to come out every few months.

The problem was all her beloved trees; a live oak, older than most of the houses in Crystal Beach, countless other laurel oaks, pines, and too many varieties of palm trees to count. Her house, one of the oldest in the small community, was set far back off the road and yet still had a beautiful backyard that sloped gently toward the inland waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I could only imagine the offers she must receive to sell. Neighboring mansions, whose owners I was sure wished she would sell to increase their property values, dwarfed her smaller, more traditional Florida home.

She’d lived there since 1955, though, and as she’d relayed to me on a previous call, she didn’t intend to move any time soon. That relieved me. Too many residents sold their beautiful Florida homes to make way for atrocities that obliterated the view of the gulf. I loved this section of Pinellas County. It was one of the quieter areas as it was far from Highway 19. However, developers were quickly ruining it like the rest of the Tampa Bay Area. Today, though, I’d enjoy the views while sipping the lemonade she always offered me and dream that I was sitting on my own private dock that I’d own one day. A place where I could simply throw my kayak in the water and paddle away from all the noise.

I lifted the power rooter out of my truck and went to work. I knew what the problem was; it was the same every time. The roots had grown through the pipe, causing a blockage, and the water had backed up into the drains in the house. After hauling the machinery to the outside drain, I carefully fed the seventy-five-foot cable down the pipe before turning on the equipment. The engine had only been churning a few minutes when the screech of the screen door opening alerted me that Charity was here. Mrs. Johnson always waited until I finished my scheduled task before offering me a side job.

When I saw her bare feet descending the porch steps, I didn’t bother looking up. She knew better; I’d told her last time. “Stay back, Charity. I warned you before … this cable is dangerous. It can whip back and take your legs clean off.” I struggled to keep my tone light. I wasn’t in the mood for her jabbering about which jock was dating which cheerleader, which rich snob got accepted into an Ivy League college, or which momma’s boy received a sweet new BMW from his parents. Not that I was jealous, I wasn’t. I’d get everything I wanted eventually, too. The only difference was that I’d worked for every dime I’d saved, and one day when I owned a house on the water, it’d be because of the sweat of my own brow.

“Oh … sorry,” a soft whisper responded. “I didn’t know.”

It wasn’t Charity’s voice, and Charity would never have said she was sorry. I looked up. This girl was daintier and dressed entirely more decently. Even though Charity couldn’t stand me, it must have bothered her that I’d never revealed an interest. When she did come outside, she always wore something tight and revealing. This girl hadn’t. She wore cutoffs that ended just above her knees and a crew-neck, retro-looking Mickey Mouse T-shirt that looked as though it’d hailed from the seventies. She was standing on the porch holding a glass of lemonade with a huge smile on her face.

I couldn’t help but smile back, but then instantly felt self-conscious. My uniform consisted of old carpenter work pants that had stains and rips in them and a denim shirt that had seen too many days of working in crud. And I was pretty sure I hadn’t even bothered to comb my hair this morning. I rarely bothered, since it did whatever it wanted anyway. The sweat that had already saturated my shirt trailed down the sides of my face. Not that it mattered what I looked like. More than likely, she was a spoiled rich girl, just like Charity, even if her smile was amazing.

The girl took a step back, then leaned over the railing. “Well, I don’t want my legs taken clean off, but Gram suggested I bring you something to drink. Jesse, that’s your name, right?” she asked with the most endearing accent while keeping the smile plastered on her face.

Attempting to keep any interest out of my tone, I offered, “Yeah. Give me a sec and I’ll come over.”

“No problem. Take your time.” Her voice was warm and sweet with a southern drawl, clearly not from around here.

I continued to feed the snake into the pipe while she watched from the porch. After a few minutes, she settled down on the top step without saying a word, just kept watching me.

When I finally pulled out the clog and turned off the machine, she stood as if she wanted to come over and investigate. “Eww … disgusting. Is it an animal?” Her eyes widened, and her face was bright with enthusiasm.

“No.” I chuckled in spite of myself. She sounded like a little kid. Though, clearly, she wasn’t a child. Even shielded under her casual clothes I could see that. “You can come over now if you want to.”

She bounded off the steps, making her way to me, forgetting the lemonade. “What … is … it?” She drew out each word with that sexy, southern drawl.

I shrugged. “Just roots and a bunch of other stuff I really think you’d rather I not point out.” Nor did I want to remind her of how I made a living. For the life of me, I couldn’t fathom her interest. “Where’s Charity?” Not that I cared, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

She cocked her head toward the last window on the house, folding her arms over her Mickey Mouse T-shirt. “Still asleep. Is there something wrong with me?”

“Er … no,” I stuttered. “Just wondering.” What had she meant by that? Far as I could tell, there wasn’t anything wrong with her, except maybe her interest in what I was doing. How many young rich girls spent a Saturday morning watching someone unclog a pipe?

“Oh, I forgot.” She loped off toward the stairs, retrieved the lemonade, and then glided back to me.

I stripped off my gloves and accepted the mug. “Are you a friend of Charity’s?” I asked, truly curious now. No way was she a friend of hers, and besides, I’d never seen her around before today.

“I’m her cousin. Corinne Johnson is my grandmother too.” That’s right. She’d said Gram suggested she bring out the lemonade. If she and Charity were cousins, she must be as snobby, and yet she was talking to me. “My name’s Kayla,” she continued. “I’m visiting from North Carolina.”

I nodded while chugging the lemonade. Too bad. Not that she’d be interested in me, but she seemed like a nice girl. I had to remember where I was standing. Wealthy parents didn’t allow girls like Kayla to date guys like me. I wasn’t good enough. They only saw me as the son of a small-time plumber. They weren’t interested in my aspirations or if I even had any.

Still expecting Charity, my head popped up when the front door opened again. Mrs. Johnson walked toward us, prepared, I was certain, to offer me another job. “Mornin’, Jess. I see you met my granddaughter Kayla.”

Since I couldn’t think of a response, I just nodded. What was it with her? She was trying to set me up with one of her granddaughters. Other than my mother, Mrs. Johnson was the only other person who called me Jess. It made me ache inside, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her when she was merely being nice and felt comfortable to shorten my name.

She flashed a sly smile, as though she had secret information. “I don’t suppose you have time to do additional work for me today, do you?”

Thankful I hadn’t canceled my early appointments for nothing, I smiled. “Already cleared my morning, Mrs. Johnson. What do you need?”

“Well, I think my gutters need to be cleared. They haven’t been cleaned since you did them last fall, and with the summer rains coming, I think they’ll need tending to soon.”

“Ladder still in the garage?” I inquired without having to, but it told her I was willing to accept the job. I never asked how much or suggested a price. She was always generous.

She nodded and flashed a wink. “Right where you left it, Jess. Thanks.”

I handed Kayla the empty cup and headed off toward the garage. Halfway around the house, the crunch of footsteps on dried leaves grabbed my attention. I chanced a quick glance over my shoulder, spotting Kayla following me. What was the girl thinking? Was she interested in gutters too? This chore was messier than the last one. No telling what was living in the gutters: palmetto bugs half the size of my hand, spiders, and even the occasional fruit rat. Definitely not an enjoyable job. I lifted the old wooden garage door and headed toward the aluminum ladder.

Kayla darted inside. “I’ll get the rake and rubbish bags.”

Confused, I tilted my head.

She stopped and stared at me as though her words had been perfectly clear. “Won’t you need to rake up whatever you remove?”

“Uh … yeah … thanks,” I mumbled. Idiot, I thought, wanting to smack myself. She’s getting the rake for you. For a second, I thought she wanted to help, as if she would want to put her hands in that muck.

Futilely, I tried to ignore Kayla watching my every move as I set up the ladder. I wanted to tell her she could go back inside and do her nails, go shopping, or whatever girls like her do on the weekend. Instead, I held my tongue. No sense in getting on the wrong side of Mrs. Johnson by offending one of her granddaughters. If I could deal with Charity’s snotty attitude, I certainly could handle Kayla following me around like a puppy. Maybe girls from North Carolina weren’t as stuck up as the girls at my school. A week with Charity would probably do the trick, though.

I inserted my earbuds, which always made the workday go by faster, then climbed the ladder and clambered onto the roof. I carefully edged my body over the clay tiles. If one was loose, I’d slip and hit the ground, and that wouldn’t be attractive. Not to mention how ticked off my father would be. Workman’s comp wouldn’t cover me if I fell off the roof when I had no business up there to begin with. And since we only had three employees, we were pretty much self-insured.

Mrs. Johnson was right; the gutters were chock-full with leaves. I didn’t want to think about what I was grabbing as I excavated the gutter around the rear of the house.

After an hour, I decided to break up the work a bit by coming down and raking up the leaves and debris before starting on the front gutters. Cautiously, I inched my way back onto the ladder.

“Wait!” Kayla called out. “Wait till I hold it steady. Okay, got it. Come on down.”

Surprised as I was, I was grateful. It was always smart to have someone hold the ladder. But how would she know that?

“Thanks —” I stopped short. Three black bags sat on the ground, filled with what I could only imagine was the stuff I’d thrown off the roof. Smudges of dirt lined Kayla’s forehead and cheeks, and her hair, which had been falling down her back earlier, looked as though she’d tied it in a knot on the top of her head. “What are you — why did you do that?” I asked, my mouth falling open.

She flashed an easy smile, her green eyes sparkling in the bright sunlight. “I wanted to help.”

“Why?” I couldn’t wrap my head around this. What girl, rich or not, would want to get that dirty helping when I was getting paid to do the work?

Her smile dropped. “I’m sorry. I’m bothering you, aren’t I?”

Still confused, I shook my head. “No, no … not at all. I’m just … I don’t know …” I gestured to the bags. “Why would you want to help me?”

“Gram said you were a nice young man, her exact words.” She shrugged. “So, since I wasn’t doing anything, I thought I’d help.” She barely paused long enough to take a breath. “Hey, are you hungry? I was gonna make some sandwiches. I’ll wash my hands first, of course.”

Unable to frame a coherent response, I nodded. It was impossible to imagine that Kayla and Charity were from the same bloodline. I’d never seen anyone like her. She didn’t seem real. She skipped back into the house, happy just to be alive, it seemed.

I moved the bags to the curb, transferred the ladder to the front of the house, and then headed to the pool bathroom. Mrs. Johnson had told me before that it was the best place to clean up. When I rounded the side of the house, I stopped dead in my tracks. Charity stepped outside the bathhouse in the skimpiest bathing suit I’d ever seen on her. I took in her long legs and her barely covered figure. No doubt she looked good, but the moment I saw her pursed lips, I remembered what a witch she was.

“Well, hello, Jesse,” she said, her voice icy. “I see you met my cousin.”

“Yeah, she seems nice,” I answered honestly, but also as an accusation against Charity.

Charity rolled her eyes. “She’s sweet all right, a real southern belle.” Distaste laced her words, as though there was something wrong with being pleasant. “I’ll have to see what I can do to transform her in just a week.”

Exhaling loudly, I shook my head, remembering she wasn’t worth the effort of a snappy retort. Ignoring her, I walked into the bathroom, using my elbow to close the door in her face.

Kayla must be kind if Charity despised her. It made me want to get to know her better, if only to upset Charity’s world. Then I remembered … nothing could come of it. Kayla lived three states away, so why bother?

h3=.

2 – Kayla

I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, hoping Jesse wouldn’t think I was simple. It just seemed easier, and there was still a lot of work to do.

He’d been surprised I’d wanted to help. Maybe he didn’t like girls who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty or break a fingernail. He’d asked where Charity was; she was probably more his style.

Of course, my cousin is every guy’s sort, the total antithesis of me. Charity is tall and thin with dark brown, straight-as-a pin hair and baby blue eyes to boot. I, conversely, am not tall, only five-four according to my driver’s license. I’m not overweight, but nobody would classify me as thin. Too much time spent doing sports and riding horses ever to be skinny. I’d read somewhere that “athletic build” was the polite way to describe my curves.

I stared at my reflection in the windowpane as I watched Jesse wash out his hair with the water hose. I did have good skin and a unique shade of green eyes, characteristics I’d inherited from my father. My skin tanned easily and, unlike Charity — who’d gotten burnt the first day of spring break — I was already sporting a great tan, even though I’d smothered myself with sunscreen.

My dark blond hair was a mess, though. I’d had it looking perfect in long spirals before Jesse had arrived this morning, but the Florida humidity had wreaked havoc on it. And after an hour in the Forida sun, I’d had to tie it up on the top of my head. No way would Jesse want to come to the party with me tonight, but I had to try. The last thing I wanted to do was go to a party with Charity and her friends and end up being the outcast. Last time Dad and I had visited, and I’d let Charity talk me into hanging out with her, she’d ignored me all night. I’d found out later that the only reason she’d even asked me to go with her was because Gram had said she couldn’t go out without me.

While I poured two glasses of lemonade, I watched Jesse run his fingers through his hair, and then rinse his hands again. Man, he was cute. Was he just trying to cool down, or did he care what he looked like too?

Earlier, he’d yelled and looked at me as though he didn’t like me, without even knowing me. Though, he’d thought I was Charity at the time and lightened up when he realized I wasn’t.

I carried the tray of sandwiches, two for him, one for me, and a bag of Doritos and two glasses of lemonade to the front porch.

Jesse was sitting on the front stoop where I’d sat earlier. Even as dirty as he was after working a couple hours, I realized he wasn’t just cute; he was as good looking a boy as I’d ever seen. No wonder Charity was ticked that I’d woken up before she had.

His hair was dirty blond, like mine, and wild; it stuck out in every direction, but it worked for him. His eyes were a cross between blue and green, almost aqua. He was tall, but not too tall … just shy of six feet, I’d guess, and had a well-built body. Not like the football players at school who spent all day at the gym, but like someone who worked hard for a living. He didn’t look like a scroungy teenager; he looked like a man. Though, surely he couldn’t be more than eighteen.

The moment I sat down beside him, he instantly scooted away. I wasn’t sure if he thought he smelled or maybe I reeked or if he just didn’t want to be near me.

“Really … is there something wrong with me?” I grumbled, frustrated at his actions when I’d been nothing but polite.

“No,” he said, sounding embarrassed. “I just thought I might smell.”

“Well, I don’t smell you, and even if you do, you probably don’t smell any worse than I do anyway.” I laughed lightly, and thankfully he laughed too. “Dig in. You must be starving.”

“Thanks.” He took a bite, then looked around as though struggling for something to say. After swallowing, he said, “Your grandma’s nice. She’s one of my favorite clients. I keep telling her what she needs to do so I don’t have to come back constantly, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion she likes me to work for her.”

I covered my mouth to conceal the bite I’d just taken. “She does.”

He wiggled his eyebrows. “Ah, so she has a crush on me, is that it?”

“No.” I giggled. “She says you’re honest and sweet and one of the only people who talks to her. One of the reasons I brought out your drink was so that I could meet you.”

“And here I thought she was trying to set me up with you or Charity for some reason; I knew that couldn’t make sense.”

Surprised that he’d waved off my comment so nonchalantly, but then said it wouldn’t have made sense that Gram would have tried to set us up, I stopped eating and just stared at him.

h3=.

3 – Jesse

Did that mean no one forced Charity to come out? I wondered, then looked up to see Kayla staring at me. Wait. Had Kayla said she wanted to meet me? I was too busy chattering nervously to register what she’d said. I’d never been good at meeting girls. Now I wished I’d been paying attention.

“Why?” Kayla asked, narrowing her eyes.

“Why what?” I asked, confused.

“Why wouldn’t it make sense?” she reiterated, her tone reflecting her hurt expression.

“Oh. Well, I’m not exactly your or Charity’s brand of guy.”

As she’d done earlier, she folded her arms again. “How do you figure that?”

What was she saying? Was she interested in me? She was still staring at me, her eyes boring into mine. And for the first time, I actually looked at her. She was beautiful, even under the dirt, maybe because of the dirt.

Her eyes were amazing, like the color of the water in the Caribbean. Her hair was, well, earlier it was nice, I remembered. Now it was a rat’s nest on top of her head, but even that looked good on her. A few curls fell around her face and down her back where they’d escaped her loose knot. She wasn’t tall and lanky like Charity either; she was petite and shapely.

I stopped short, carried away with my appraisal of her; I hadn’t answered her question. “Look at me, Kayla. I’m a lowly worker,” I explained, trying to get across that I wasn’t good enough for her. Not yet anyway. One day I’d be good enough.

“Do I look like I don’t work?” she snapped.

I exhaled, bemused. “I’m not sure what you want me to say … am I your type?” Did she enjoy slumming? Was she a rebel attempting to upset her parents? I wasn’t willing to be someone’s boy-toy again. Been there, done that. No thanks!

“I don’t know if you’re my type or not? I don’t even know you. I’m simply attempting to have a friendly conversation, and you’re being a snob.”

I nearly choked. “I’m … being … a snob?”

“Yeah. You have me all summed up as if you know me because of where I’m staying and my cousin and grandmother. That’s being a snob.” She wadded up her napkin and jumped to her feet.

“Wait,” I said, grabbing her hand and coaxing her back down to the step. I couldn’t let her leave! “You’re right. I guess I am being a snob. I just never thought of it that way. Please stay.”

Settling back down, she narrowed her eyes again, but then a smile slowly inched up one cheek, as though she’d just decided on a course of action. “Okay.” She paused for only a second, then angled her body. “So, what do you do when you aren’t snaking drains or clearing gutters?”

I couldn’t conceal my smile. Kayla was something else entirely. I shrugged. “Not too much. I’m trying to work as much as I can now so that when I start college in the fall, I won’t have to work as hard.”

“You’re graduating this year?” She lifted her cup and took a sip.

“Yeah. Are you a senior too?”

She looked down at her lap. “No. I turn eighteen in September, though. I was one month away, so they held me back from starting school.”

I bent my head to catch those beautiful eyes of hers again. “I turn eighteen in August. I just made it, so I was always the youngest in my class.” I smiled as she looked up. “Well, we have one thing in common; we’re practically the same age.” It amazed me how this simple revelation made me feel all tingly inside. For some reason, I wanted to have something in common with this totally uncommon girl.

“Would you come to a party with me tonight?” she asked abruptly.

Again, I almost choked. She wasn’t shy one bit. “Uh … I’m not sure … who else is going?” I didn’t go to many parties. Too much of a chance I’d see my ex-girlfriend.

“Other than Charity,” she shrugged, crinkling her brow, “I don’t know. And I really don’t want to go, but Gram won’t let her go without me. If I don’t go, she’ll be ticked, but I really don’t want to go with just her friends.”

Her eyes pleaded with me. She didn’t know me, but for some reason it seemed as though she wanted to, and I realized I wanted to get to know her better too.

I didn’t want to go to a party with Charity’s friends either, but how could I deny this beautiful girl, who clearly wasn’t a snob, her request. How many girls were even able to ask a guy out on a date? Maybe she hadn’t meant a date. “You mean like a date?” Okay, that wasn’t very suave. It’d sounded right in my head.

“It doesn’t have to be.” Sadness crept back into her voice. “I clean up pretty good, though.”

“I’m sorry, Kayla. I didn’t mean to imply that I wouldn’t go out with you. I’m just trying to understand.” Her eyes narrowed again, giving away her frustration. Abruptly, I made my decision. “Yes, I’d love to go out with you.”

She smiled then, a heartbreaking smile, and I felt my insides warm. This was a mistake. I was going to get hurt badly. I could feel it.

Kayla leapt up again. “Good. Let’s get back to work so we can finish. You have more jobs today, right?”

“Yeah, but I can knock them out quickly. What time is the party? Do you want me to pick you up, or meet you there?”

“How do you know where it is?”

I smiled. “Because her beach parties are always at the same place.”

“Oh … that’s right. I always forget that my cousin is one of those popular girls. The kind of girl everyone knows everything about. You can meet me there around eight; no sense in upsetting Charity. It doesn’t sound as though you two get along.”

“Yep! And we don’t. She is a snob,” I said, hoping not to further offend Kayla.

“Yeah, I know.” She skipped away, heading toward the rake and trash bags.

 

I had a difficult time paying attention to my work. I was also more careful about how I tossed the crud from the gutters over the ledge. Whenever there was something large and unrecognizable, I warned Kayla.

Repeatedly, I tried to convince her that she didn’t need to help, but she wouldn’t listen. Since she apparently liked to work, I thought about offering for her to come with me on my next job, but figured that was pushing it. It wasn’t that I needed help, I just liked the idea that she was nearby. Something about a beautiful girl willing to work and not be afraid of messing up her hair and nails made my heart race.

After finishing the job, Mrs. Johnson paid me in cash. “Here. Half of this is yours.” I held up the cash for Kayla, but she turned up her nose as though I’d offended her again.

“If you like, you could just spend the money on me this week.”

I smiled. “I’d like that.” I walked off to my truck, glancing back at Kayla as I opened the door, surprised that she was still standing there, watching me. “I’ll see you tonight.” I hopped in my truck and backed out, watching as she offered me a friendly wave, which surprisingly made my blood race through my veins as if she’d kissed me.

For the first time in a while, I felt downright happy. I cranked up the music and sang loudly as I headed to my next client. Yeah, I was going to get hurt badly by this one. What was I thinking? This couldn’t be more than a rebellious fling. Why was I pretending this was more than it was?

I’d finally recovered after the last time this happened. Morgan had said how much she liked me, but had never introduced me to her parents. Any time we spent not going out, we’d always stayed at my house. She’d said that no one was ever home and it wouldn’t look proper to be at her house; though, she never minded being at my house alone.

After we’d been together for almost two years, I overheard her and her friends talking. Charity — whom Morgan had never even liked — had asked if Morgan had introduced me to her family yet, and that’s when I found out how Morgan really felt. She was embarrassed because of the work I did. It didn’t matter that I made more money than other teenagers my age. Most of the guys I knew still collected allowances. So I’d been shocked to hear Morgan say, “Are you kidding. My dad would have a cow. Besides, it’s not like anything will ever come of us.”

I broke up with Morgan that night. No explanation, just told her I didn’t see any possibility that we’d remain together after high school, so why waste any more of our time. Instead, we should enjoy the remainder of our senior year single. She’d cried, but I’d refused to let her see how crushed I was.

I couldn’t understand how I’d been so blind. Morgan had always acted as though she liked me, and maybe she did when we were alone. But when I reflected on the times we were in public, I realized she’d never shown me affection. She’d always treated me as if I’d been just another friend.

Would Kayla be the same? Darkness overshadowed my good mood. Maybe it’d be better if I didn’t show. Kayla would be gone in a week anyway; it certainly wouldn’t cause her grief if I canceled our impromptu date. She’d meet some richer, more suitable guy within minutes of being at the party. She was very friendly.

Still brooding, I finished my last job of the day. I wanted to go; I wanted to see her again. No matter how much I fought with myself, I couldn’t get past the simple fact that I was being a snob. I was unfairly comparing Kayla to Charity and Morgan.

Maybe I’d just go and watch. If she was already smiling and having a good time, I’d leave. After all, I knew Charity’s friends and I had no desire to fraternize with the likes of them, especially if there was any chance Morgan might show up.

 

 

h3=.

4 – Jesse

I waited until after eight before leaving my house. I was being rude, I knew. I really wasn’t trying to play games … I just couldn’t see where this would go. So why bother wasting time?

I knew that wasn’t how most guys viewed things; the dudes I knew would be all over a chance for a spring break fling. Not that I’d ever admit it, but I just wasn’t like them. I couldn’t see wasting time and money on a girl I wasn’t interested in for more than a few dates.

The last three hours I’d debated whether I should go or not, but Kayla’s eyes had won out. The compassion I saw in them, the honesty, and something else … a goodness I couldn’t explain. Besides, I owed her for doing half the work today. It wouldn’t be right not to repay her by doing the one thing she’d requested.

Reluctantly, I drove across the causeway leading to Clearwater Beach and hung a right at the roundabout. I didn’t like Clearwater Beach; it was too touristy. And North Beach, where I was headed, though mostly locals … was usually reserved for rich locals. Families that lived in Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs but maintained a beach house to get away for the weekend. I could understand a house in the mountains, but a house forty-five minutes away to escape their stressful week … right.

I was a snob. I hadn’t recognized it before. I was judging all rich people by the few wealthy people I knew. They weren’t all bad. I’d hung out with plenty of guys in school who’d always been nice to me, and I’d gone over to their houses for birthday parties when we were younger. It just seemed in the last year I hadn’t associated with them. Maybe that was my fault, though. I was always working, so they’d finally stopped calling.

I parallel parked my truck along Mandalay Avenue. I knew the place where Kayla had instructed me to come; it was where all the kids went. It was one of the few places on the beach where the houses were vacation homes or rentals, not hotels or condos. Residents rarely messed with us as long as we weren’t drunk and disorderly. I hadn’t been to a party in months, though. Not since I’d broken up with Morgan.

The sugar sand was still warm from baking in the sunshine earlier, but the breeze coming off the water felt refreshingly cool. Streaks of pink and purple swept across the sky where the sun had set in the last hour. It was going to be a clear night with an incredible view of the stars. As silently as I could, I walked toward the place where I knew they’d be hanging out. A fire crackled in a cheap aluminum grill, so no one would see my approach. Instead, I’d be able to sit and watch unnoticed.

Only a few stragglers sat around the fire. So, either everyone wasn’t here yet or they’d walked down the beach. One couple was making out while another just sat and stared into space, obviously high. Across from them sat a single girl, absently digging her feet into the sand, a bored look in her eyes. Kayla. I strolled up to her, and she looked up at once.

A smile started to form on her face, but then quickly turned downward as her eyes glazed over. “It took you long enough. What happened? You weren’t sure if you wanted to go out with me? I guess I’m really not your type.” She looked away and stared out over the water.

I was embarrassed, as I should be. I could kick myself. Instead, I sat down on the blanket beside her. She kept her eyes lowered, refusing to look at me. My heart felt torn in two, and I didn’t even know her. I placed my hand against her cheek, hoping she’d forgive me. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

She peeked up, her eyes still glazed. Yes, she was going to hurt me badly, but I couldn’t see how to prevent it now. I knew how Charity and Morgan were — I immediately chastised myself; it didn’t matter. There was no turning back; I’d try to make her mine. My heart pounded, and I felt compelled to kiss her right there. She felt it too. She licked her lips in anticipation. I couldn’t though, not yet. Still, the compulsion was a driving force. I felt as though I’d known her for weeks, not hours. I had to speak; I had to do something. The desire consumed me, and I didn’t want our first kiss to be in front of others who were making out because they didn’t know what else to do with their time. I wasn’t like that, never had been. One of the things Morgan had never understood. She’d always tried to push me into a physical relationship.

“Let’s go for a walk,” I said, reaching for her hand and standing up.

She followed me with no questions, so I led her down the slope of the dune to the hard-packed sand along the water’s edge, her hand held tightly in mine. It’d been forever since I’d been on the beach at night. The soft lap of the waves against the beach, and the hint of suntan lotion, fish, and salt drifting in the air always reminded me of when I was a boy. How my mother had enjoyed spending the days at the beach, how she’d lift me over the waves.

Not wanting to think about my mother, I turned my attention back to the beautiful woman beside me. “Not that I care, but where’s Charity?”

“Oh, she and her boyfriend took off almost immediately after we arrived. I’ve been sitting here waiting for you for more than an hour. I’d just about given up and was going to call in a plumbing emergency to get you here, but thought they might get a little suspicious when I requested you by name.” The words tumbled out of her mouth in a flood of truth, something I wasn’t accustomed to.

A roll of laughter overcame me and I couldn’t stop.

She huffed, attempting to pull her hand out of mine. “Great. Now you’re laughing at me.”

“I’m not laughing at you,” I said, refusing to let her go. “Well, not at you anyway. You’re right, I am a snob.” I pulled her in front of me, taking her other hand in mine. “I was so excited to see you tonight, and then I went and talked myself out of coming because I knew you couldn’t be interested in me. Once I got home, I realized I owed you because of the work you did for me — wait, that didn’t come out right. I wanted to come, but I’m scared, and you’re so honest, and I just don’t understand …” I moved my hands to her shoulders, pulling her even closer. Watching how her eyes smoldered in the dim light, there was no resisting this time. I reached behind her neck, but held back a few inches to gauge her response. Closing her eyes, she lifted her chin. We were alone now, and she wanted to kiss me, too. I closed the distance, lightly touching my lips to hers.

Her lips were warm and yielded to mine. I moved softly and respectfully, but pulled her closer, entangling my fingers through her beautiful long curls. Her hands wrapped around my waist as she took a deep breath. My heart pounded out an erratic rhythm, and it no longer mattered that she came from money or that she lived three states away. I wanted to make her mine. Never had I felt so compelled by a girl, and I’d only known her for a few hours.

Kayla opened up more. I breathed in her breath, tasted her on my tongue. “Kayla,” I whispered under our kiss, “please … we have to stop.” I didn’t want to, so I hoped she would. She did, but with a questioning look and a longing that still filled her eyes. I pulled her back against my chest again. It was quick but passionate, but then I backed away. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”

She smiled. “I’m not. That was nice. I’m glad to see that maybe I’m your type after all.” She released a quick laugh, but then looked embarrassed.

“You are exactly my type, Kayla.” I took her hand in mine and started down the beach again. The ice had been broken. She liked me; I liked her. I’d do my best to forget everything else.

We walked for miles, talking about nothing important. We discussed movies we liked, movies we hated. Books we loved, books we hated. What we thought about different music, laughing at the fact that not only did we listen to the same music, we listened to the same channel. We lived states away, and yet we were always listening to the same song at the same time, an interesting factor of satellite radio. It made me feel closer to her, knowing that even when she returned home, she could be listening to a sad song and would be able to feel the way I did at the exact moment.

There were also many differences in our lives. Kayla lived on several acres of land with horses; I’d only sat on one once, and only for a few minutes. I spent my free days at the beach or springs kayaking; she’d never sat in a kayak.

Kayla stopped near the water’s edge and stared up at me, a smile on her face. “So, back to books … you really read the entire series?”

“I like to learn.” I shrugged. “Since all the girls love the series, I wanted to know why. Personally, I don’t get the attraction to the actor. He’s thin and pale and always looks angry, but I understand the character in the book; he was chivalrous.”

She smiled. “I agree.”

I nodded, hoping she really did agree. Most girls didn’t seem to appreciate that attribute in a real guy. They were always throwing themselves at men, not appreciative when a guy tried to be a gentleman. I knew the first date wasn’t the time to broach the subject, but I had to know.

“Let’s sit for a while before we head back.” I gently tugged her to the sand beside me. This was a serious conversation. It’d bugged me when I’d found out months afterward with Morgan. I didn’t want to make the same mistake. It wasn’t a factor whether we should continue a relationship or not, but I’d hated it when she embarrassed me about it later, so better to find out immediately. “Can I ask you a question?”

Kayla nuzzled up against my side. “Yes …”

“Are you? I mean … have you ever?” I looked down at our entwined fingers. “You know …” I felt like a fool. It was too soon for this conversation. “Never mind.”

She stared at me for a second and then her eyes widened. “Are you asking me if I’ve ever been with a guy before?”

Yes, it was too early. I’d evidently read more into the evening than she had. I exhaled loudly, hanging my head in humiliation. “Yes. I’m sorry.”

“I haven’t! And I’m not planning to tonight either!” She wriggled herself from my arms, obviously misunderstanding my question.

I pulled her back down again. She was feisty. “That’s not what I meant. You thought I was asking you if you wanted to — right here? Remember, I was the one who stopped the kissing?”

“Oh, sorry … I guess I overreacted. I just thought you were different.”

Nudging up her chin, I locked eyes with her. “I am different, and I’m relieved to hear that you haven’t. It’s so uncommon. But I haven’t either, and it takes a lot of pressure off me.”

She sighed and leaned against my shoulder again. “So … where do we go from here? It’s obvious that we’re both each other’s type, but we live six hundred miles apart. Is that a problem for you?”

Kayla had a way of breaking through all the walls and just saying what she intended. Good thing too, or I wouldn’t have this opportunity with her.

I pulled her closer and pressed my lips to hers for a short kiss. “How ’bout we start with another date, and then we’ll just take everything day by day. I would like to take you to do one of my favorite things tomorrow. What do you say?”

Her eyes lit up, and she was the same Kayla I’d seen all day. I wouldn’t worry about next week or next month; I’d simply enjoy this time with her.

 

We made our way back to the circle. Charity had returned with her clan, but she was sitting by herself, an unusual occurrence. Her eyes flipped wide, then narrowed into slits when she saw us walking hand in hand. So Kayla hadn’t told Charity she’d invited me? I dropped her hand at once … transported back to six months earlier when I’d realized Morgan was embarrassed of me.

Kayla came to a sudden halt, pulling me to a stop as well by grabbing my arm. “What happened?” she growled. “Did you not want Charity to see you with me?”

How could I keep misreading her actions? What was my problem? I wrapped my arm around her waist. “Just the opposite. I thought maybe you didn’t want her to see me with you,” I whispered.

We were still out of hearing range if we whispered, but Kayla huffed loudly. “Have you been listening to anything I’ve said all day and night?” Her voice had gone up an octave. “Do you think I give a flip what she thinks?”

“No,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“And stop saying you’re sorry; just stop doing it!” She wrapped her arm around my waist as well and started moving forward again. “Hey, Charity,” she called as we neared the group of partyers. They were all pretty lit up, one of the other reasons I didn’t hang out with them. I didn’t drink, and they never understood it. Years of watching my father slip deeper and deeper into depression, letting go of everything he loved, had sealed the deal. The alcohol my father consumed nightly didn’t fight off his demons; it just numbed him into nothingness. I had no desire for that life.

Charity raised her chin. “Where’ve you been? I’ve been worried about you.” Her gaze seared Kayla, then moved onto me. Maybe I’d read Charity wrong all these years? I was grateful I’d never attempted to date her, though. She would’ve been exactly like Morgan, and I wouldn’t have the opportunity I now have with Kayla, who clearly wasn’t like any of these spoiled-rotten girls. They were so accustomed to getting their way; I must present them with a challenge.

“I’m leaving. Are you ready?” Charity continued with her outburst. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face at her reaction. Although I hadn’t meant to upset her, it clearly ticked her off. She drilled her gaze at me. “And don’t you have some toilets to plunge, Jesse?”

Kayla leapt from my arms, aiming directly for Charity’s throat. Charity had no time to react, and her eyes grew wide with horror.

“Whoa,” I said, launching forward, grabbing Kayla’s waist, managing to pull her back. “I guess I’ll be taking you home then.” I gently pulled her in the direction of my truck. “What the heck was that all about?” I asked as I opened the door for her to enter.

Crossing her arms over her chest, she fell back into the seat with a loud huff. After closing her door, I walked around to the driver’s side and slid behind the wheel. I sat for a few minutes without starting the truck, allowing her time to cool off.

Kayla pulled in a deep breath, then pushed it out as though trying to calm herself. “I assume the way you treated me this morning and this evening is because you think I’m like her. Well, I’m not! Yes, I have money … but you never would’ve known if you hadn’t come to my grandmother’s house, because I don’t flaunt it. I don’t want people to like me for my money.

“My dad married my grandmother’s daughter, but they never accepted anything from my grandparents. My dad worked hard for everything he’s accomplished in life. And I work too! I take care of my horses and the house. I cook and clean, and babysit when I get a chance. Not that I need the money, he’d give me anything I want. But I don’t want my father’s money. I want to be like him.” Kayla paused for a breath. “And you,” she shrieked, “assume I’m like her!”

I interrupted her then. “I did assume, and that’s my fault. But we already hashed that out. You’re angry with Charity right now, not me,” I gently reminded her.

“I’m sorry,” she admitted.

“Don’t be sorry; just stop doing it.” I smiled at the opportunity to use her words against her. She returned my smile, obviously unable to stay angry long. I liked that about her, too.

“So, will you take me home?”

“It’d be my honor. You’re pretty feisty, cowgirl.” I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. “Thanks for sticking up for me, but you didn’t have to do that. I make good money, and unlike those putzes, I don’t have to ask my daddy for money; actually, I’m on the payroll.” I laughed, hoping she would too.

She lowered her head, looking embarrassed by her indiscretion.

I slid her next to me. “You really are my type, Kayla. What time do you wake up? I usually go to church on Sunday, but it’s a long drive where I want to take you, so we need to start early.”

“I’m up by five at home so I can take care of things before I go to school. I’ve been sleeping in on spring break, though. How ’bout six?”

“Perfect. I’ll be on your doorstep at six a.m. sharp. Bring a bathing suit and a change of clothes.”

She rested her head on my shoulder. “So you won’t make me wait for an hour?”

I turned on the engine and shifted into drive. “I’ll never be late again. I promise.”

She shivered on my arm, and I wondered if she was cold or if my words had actually caused her reaction. I reached for the heater and turned it on low just in case. She relaxed into my arm, and it felt incredible. I leaned my head on hers and inhaled. God, she smelled good. Her shampoo, I suspected. I couldn’t quite make out the scent, but it blended with the sea air and a hint of the campfire, and was intoxicating. I sighed deeply, and she looked up at me. Her eyes held a question that I couldn’t read yet, but I was sure with time I’d know everything about her. Kayla was very expressive; she held back nothing.

 

When we arrived at her house, I got out of the truck and quickly headed around the front to her side of the cab, but she was already out. So I took her hand and led her up to the door. My heart started pounding again in anticipation of another kiss that would carry me through the night. She didn’t disappoint. She turned at the last second and stopped right in front of my face. I didn’t pause this time. I touched the side of her face, noticing she didn’t close her eyes until I started kissing her this time. I gave in to the kiss completely. I wasn’t worried whether she liked me anymore; I was sure she wanted this as much as I did.

I couldn’t stay long, though. Her grandmother would be looking for her and Charity would be home any minute. But for the few precious moments we had, I made the most of them. I’d remember this night forever, I was certain. Even if we were over in a week, I’d treasure this night with this beautiful girl in my arms forever. When we parted, I simply stared into her eyes again. I didn’t want to let her go even for seven hours, but I forced myself to back away, and then at the steps to turn and leave. When I got to my truck, I looked back and she was still standing there. I barely had the strength to shift the truck into drive.

h3=.

5 – Kayla

I walked dreamily into my grandmother’s house, still lost in Jesse’s kiss. He was wonderful. Gram had been right. He was perfect. It was only our first night and I couldn’t imagine wanting anyone more than I wanted Jesse … ever.

“Gram,” I called, walking inside the door.

“In here, dear,” Gram called from the sunroom at the back of the house.

“I’m in love!” I plopped down into a chair next to my grandmother.

Gram set down the book she’d been reading. “I thought you would be. I saw the same thing in him I saw in your father, and I knew you would fall as head over heels as your mother had. I was afraid Charity was going to try to scoop him up, but he had no interest in her, just as your father had no interest in Melissa. It’s as though I’m watching a remake of the same play I saw twenty years earlier.”

“Really?” I laughed. “Jesse thought you were trying to set him up with Charity.”

“Why on earth would I do that? Charity would never appreciate a boy like Jess.”

“I know. And, Gram, she said the rudest thing to him tonight. That’s why he drove me home.”

“Oh well, better for you. So, are you going out with him again?”

“Yes! He’ll be here at six a.m., so I guess I should get to bed. Thanks again, Gram, you were right … he’s absolutely perfect.”

I leaned down and gave my grandmother a goodnight kiss, then strolled off to my bedroom, certain I wouldn’t be able to sleep.

h3=.

6 – Jesse

I’d like to say that I woke up with a smile on my face, but the fact of the matter was, I doubt I ever really went to sleep. I couldn’t get Kayla out of my head.

Not a good thing when I had such a long drive ahead of me. I could have taken Kayla to countless other places nearby that I liked, but this was my favorite and the farthest away. We only had a week to see if we really liked each other. What better way to get to know someone than a two-hour drive each way and a four-hour kayak run in between. And, if we still liked each other at the end of the day, I’d ask my father for a much-deserved vacation.

I’d been working non-stop for the last several years. And this year, since I only had to take two classes, I’d basically worked a full-time job while finishing high school. I planned to start at St. Pete College in the fall. It wasn’t prestigious, but with my grades and SAT scores, I had a full ride. After two years I would enroll at USF or UCF. I was told it’d be easy to take my pick because the colleges were always trying to fill the junior and senior classes due to dropouts after the initial two years. Unlike a lot of kids in my class, I didn’t care where I obtained my business degree, just that I received one.

I got out of bed early enough to pack a lunch. PB&Js again, peanut butter crackers, and a few snack-size Snickers, all unwrapped and stored in plastic containers. I then filled a gallon cooler with ice water, hoping she’d be okay with sharing. Morgan wouldn’t have been. She’d been a priss in just about everything she’d done. Admiring how hard Kayla worked yesterday, it amazed me that I’d ever found Morgan attractive.

After loading my thirteen-foot Kayak, life vests, and two paddles into the back of my truck, I headed over to Mrs. Johnson’s house.

When I arrived, six on the nose, Kayla was sitting on the front porch, duffel bag on her arm, and dressed sexily — well, most guys wouldn’t consider it sexy, but I liked it when girls left something to my imagination. She was wearing black-and-pink board shorts, with what looked like a very sensible top underneath a thin white shirt that tied around her waist. And to top it all off, a pink Buccaneers cap. If that wasn’t enough to excite me, she was outside, ready and waiting at six. She wasn’t going to make me wait, even after I’d almost stood her up last night. Okay, so she was too good to be true.

“Good morning, cowgirl,” I called as I hopped out of my truck.

She trotted down the steps. “Hey! I guessed we were going kayaking. Am I dressed appropriately?”

“You’re dressed perfectly! Did you bring a change of clothes?”

“Yep, and a towel … do I need anything else?”

“Nope. Just your smile.” She rewarded me with the smile I was referring to. Why play it down? I liked her, so why hide my feelings? I never was good at playing games, and if she was just half of what she seemed, I was already in love. Though I couldn’t admit that; she’d think I was out of my mind.

I opened the door for her, then strapped her bag down in the truck bed. When I got in the truck, I didn’t pull her next to me as I did last night. It was too far a ride in my compact pickup for her to sit in the middle, so I was surprised when — before we even made it out of her driveway — she scooted next to me.

“We have about a two-hour ride ahead of us,” I offered, not wanting her to move, but letting her know. She didn’t move.

“Where exactly are we going?”

“Juniper Springs. It’s in Ocala National Forest. Have you been to a Florida spring before?”

She shook her head.

“Then you’ve never seen Florida. Everyone thinks Florida is about Disney World and the beaches. I’ll admit the beaches are nice, especially here, but the springs are the best. I’ve been to almost every one of them. No two are exactly the same, and they all have different specialties. Juniper Springs is best known for its long canoe run and enormous swimming hole.”

“Will we see creatures?” she asked, a furrow appearing between her eyebrows.

I draped my arm around her shoulders. “I hope so.”

“Gators?” she asked, cringing under my arm.

“Of course. Are you scared? I thought you were feisty?”

“Won’t they jump in the boat?”

“No, silly … besides, I wouldn’t let anything eat you.”

“So, you’re gonna wrestle an alligator for me?” she asked, as if it weren’t possible.

“I would if it came to that.”

She laughed, then sighed. Happy with my comment, I guessed. I didn’t say anything while I made my way to the highway, but once on Highway 19, I decided to roll with the questions. We had two hours to fill, and I didn’t want it to get awkward.

“So, would you like a difficult or an easy question to start with?”

She leaned forward and caught my eye. “Oh, I have a choice … unlike last night, when you threw a personal question at me without warning me first.”

I grimaced at her reminder.

“Do I have any passes?” she continued.

“What do you mean?”

“You know, like three times I can refuse to answer a question without you harassing me. And remember, if you get to ask any questions you want … I get to ask them in return.”

“Okay,” I agreed. “Three passes, and I get to ask on the way up, and you can ask on the way back.” I was cheating, of course; she’d be asleep on the way back, I was certain.

“Shoot. Whatever you want, but I get three passes, and you can’t just rephrase the question.”

“Hmm,” I said. Now I had to think about a great first question. I’d thought of a few of them on my way to her house, but wasn’t sure where I wanted to start. She sat back, waiting patiently. “Okay, an easy one. What do you want to do with your life when you finish school?”

“Skip.”

“What?” I shot a quick look at her, then returned my eyes to the road. “That’s like the easiest question in the world.”

“No, it’s not, and I’m afraid you’ll think I’m crazy, and hey … I said no harassing when I skipped a question.”

“Hmm … hard one, then. You mentioned only you and your father last night and that you cooked and cleaned. Where’s your mother?”

“My mother died when I was twelve. She had a heart attack. I don’t know what led to it, and Gram and Dad don’t like to talk about her, so I really don’t know too many of the details. I loved her so much, but I’m finding it harder and harder to remember the little things. I remember she liked to watch romantic comedies. Whenever my father was away on business, we’d always have a date night. We’d rent the newest hit or watch one of her classics, order a pizza the way we liked, and she’d let me pick out a tub of my favorite Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.”

“I’m sorry, Kayla. I had no idea. Though, it sounds like you’re handling everything well.”

“Don’t be sorry. Life happens. And my dad is great. I know he misses her too, though.”

“How’d they meet?” I asked. Not thinking about my questions anymore, but genuinely curious.

“Skip number two. You aren’t ready for that one yet.”

“Uh … I don’t understand,” I grumbled. “You’ll answer the tough questions but not the easy ones.”

“That’s only because you assume they’re easy, when in fact they are deep personal questions that give away more about me than maybe you’re ready to know. My mom is gone; it’s over. Nothing will change that, but I’m afraid if I answer your first question and your last one, you’ll know more than you want to know about me.”

“That’s not possible, Kayla. I want to get to know you. Why do you think I asked you here today? I could have taken you to a local beach or a nice kayak run only a half an hour away, or Lord forbid the old stand-by movie date.” She chuckled. So I figured I hadn’t upset her with my honesty. I shrugged. “I figured if we got along today, I could take off the rest of the week.”

She cocked her head. “You’d do that for me?”

“I told you, I’ll wrestle an alligator for you.” I laughed lightly, then stole a glance at her again. “Please talk to me.”

“Promise you won’t laugh?”

She was obviously serious, so I nodded in compliance.

“Okay,” she said on a sigh. “I guess we’re not too far away. You could always take me home.”

I rolled my eyes. I didn’t intend to take her home before I had a chance to get to know her.

“Well,” she continued. “I know most teenagers have dreams of grandeur of what they want to do when they grow up, but did you ever stop to think that not every woman ends up being a doctor or a lawyer? Where are the girls who say, ‘I want to be a mother and a wife’?”

“I never thought about that, but you’re right. I’ve never heard a girl say that’s what she wanted. Why? What do you mean? Things don’t turn out anyway, so why bother?”

“No … I’m saying that’s what I want. I know I can have a career and be a mother and a wife, but I don’t want that. I want to be home, always.”

I couldn’t hide my shock. She was right. I hadn’t heard that, and yet many women decided just that. I wondered … did any woman ever really decide to lead that life, or did they just get pregnant right out of high school, like my mother? Kayla was saying that’s what she wanted.

“See … I told you that’s how you’d react.” She pulled away from me again; it was the first thing she did when she got irritated, I noticed. I’d lost count, but she’d done it several times yesterday.

“I didn’t react any certain way; you assumed I did. See nothing … the tables are now turned. I was simply thinking about what you said. I haven’t heard a woman say that, but I think it’s an honorable decision.”

“Really?” she asked, relaxing again.

I laughed. She was so easy to read. “Yes, really … so will you answer the other question, then?”

“Okay, but remember … you asked for it.” She gnawed on her bottom lip before she started. “My dad came to Florida on spring break twenty years ago when he was a senior in high school. He met my mother, who was a junior. They fell in love immediately and managed to stay together through the next year while my mother finished high school. They were married within weeks of her graduation. My grandmother saw my father in you and couldn’t wait to introduce us. She even tried to keep Charity from talking to you when you were there because she wanted you to meet me. Last night she told me it was like watching the exact same play that happened twenty years ago.”

“Oh,” I said on an exhale, certain my heart had stopped. Unable to frame a coherent response, I reached for her hand and held it to my lips. I could see exactly what she painted coming to fruition. I could see myself falling in love with her. The idea of a woman who wanted to be home … with her children, always, and never leave … Yet, all that came out of my mouth was oh.

“Told you so. You want to take me home now?”

I heard the tightness in her throat. “Give me a moment, please. I don’t want to say anything stupid.” Although it was a little too late for that, the “oh” definitely constituted as something stupid. “But, no … I don’t want to take you home. I want you to stay with me.”

Removing her hat, I touched my hand to the side of her face and pressed my lips to the top of her head. Apple, the scent I couldn’t place last night along with all the other aromas. Now what? Her answers hadn’t bothered me; I’d just been taken aback and wasn’t sure where to go next. We still had a long drive, and I didn’t want to upset her.

“Okay …” I started. I now knew what approach I would take: a bold one. “So like, how rich will your husband have to be to support you and kids?”

She laughed, so it’d worked. “Not too, I’m pretty simple. I think life gets more complicated with money.”

I blinked. “You’re the most amazing girl I’ve ever met. And you know what? There’s no doubt I could fall for you, then you’ll break my heart when you leave.” There, that was as honest as I could get. “I need to think of some easy questions. My head is spinning.”

“Tell me about your parents then,” she suggested.

“No, it’s still my turn,” I reminded her.

The remainder of the trip, I continued with easy queries that didn’t dig too deeply into her personal life. I asked her about her horses, what she did on her birthday last year, what classes she liked, and which she didn’t. Kayla was expressive with her answers, using her hands to animate everything she talked about. I loved watching her. She rambled on over minute details, and I found myself fascinated just listening to her country accent. The trip flew by, and before I knew it, I saw the turn for the park.

h3=.

7 – Jesse

I registered at the ranger’s office and paid for a return ride on the shuttle. The Juniper run ends on a highway; it doesn’t make a round-trip.

“This is a seven-mile run,” I explained. “But it’s fairly easy. The current travels about two miles per hour, so all we really need to do is navigate the boat and occasionally port.” She stared up at me as though I were speaking in another language. “You’ll see.” I thought it better not to explain that “port” meant that if the water was low, we might have to get out of the kayak and carry it over any shallow, swampy areas.

The drop-off point didn’t look like much. Just a small bubbling spring about ten feet across and only a couple feet deep, but it opened up and remained fairly deep the entire way.

I handed Kayla a purple life vest almost as old as me. It’d been my mom’s. “You can sit on your life jacket; you don’t have to wear it. It just has to be on the boat.” I watched her reaction as she stepped in the water. No one expected the temperature in Florida to be so cold.

She screeched. “Holy cow, that’s freezing!”

I laughed as she narrowed her eyebrows, grimacing at me for not warning her. “It’s seventy-two degrees year-round, and believe it or not, you’ll get used to it. We’ll snorkel in the main boil later.”

“In that, are you kidding me? I will not.”

“Yes, you will, and you’ll like it,” I insisted.

After she lowered herself into the kayak, I adjusted her seat straps so she’d be comfortable. She watched my hands as I moved from one side to the next, pulling the straps so she was sitting straight up without slouching.

Next, I adjusted her handgrips on the paddle and demonstrated how to stroke. “I do the turning; you simply keep a steady stroke from left to right, or you don’t have to paddle at all if you don’t want to.” I held my hands over hers as I demonstrated, feeling a surge of heat soar through my veins again. When I finished, I couldn’t stop myself from kissing her. Just a short kiss, but it made my insides burn. “You’re beautiful, Kayla,” I said, retracting from her lips. “I haven’t told you yet, but you are.” I forced myself to walk to the rear of the boat and slid into my seat. I shoved us away from the dock, wondering how I’d manage to go two hours without kissing her again. Focus, I reprimanded myself. Focus on the beauty of the outdoors.

With its crystal blue water reaching depths of up to twelve feet, the run had always taken my breath away. Of course, now it was vying with Kayla for my attention. Tough choice. Set in the middle of the Ocala National Forest and too small for anything other than canoes or kayaks, there were no boats, no cars, and I rarely even heard airplanes. I always knew when I was nearing the end because I’d start to hear the sounds of the city, which always depressed me. I could spend every waking minute kayaking, camping, or doing anything outdoors.

“We have about seven miles to paddle, and for at least three-quarters of the way it will stay narrow like this, but at the end it opens to marshland and hopefully we’ll see gators and otters. For now, keep your eyes open for turtles, deer, and if we’re really lucky, wild boar, panthers, or black bears.” I said the last two quietly, anticipating her reaction.

She whipped around in her seat. “Bears … Panthers … Seriously?”

“Yes, but not really.” I chuckled. “It’s unlikely we’ll see any, but they’re out there. No worries … I’ll wrestle bears and panthers if I have to as well.”

That caused her to laugh.

We paddled easily through the water. She was great at recognizing when I needed help in a turn. Happily, I noticed she kept looking overboard in awe. Turtles, trout, and numerous species of fish swam directly under the boat. It was incredible, and I enjoyed sharing her elation; it made everything seem new again.

I pointed out different trees along the water’s edge. My favorite, the majestic cypress trees with their roots stretching out like long, slender fingers into the marsh. “See all those rounded stumps?” She nodded. “Those are called knees. My dad taught me a rhyme the first time he brought me here when I was eight years old, since I assumed, like most people do, that the stumps are saplings. A knee will never be a tree, but brings oxygen to the tree.”

She giggled. “I’ll remember that.”

We traveled about fifteen minutes in complete silence, just glancing around at the wildlife. I wasn’t sure what to ask her … or if I should even badger her for more information. She was probably tired of my probing since I’d asked her about every part of her life.

“As much as Charity?” she asked, slicing through my thoughts.

“As much as Charity, what?” I hadn’t realized I’d asked a question.

“Am I as beautiful as Charity is?”

“Oh …” I chuckled softly. “More. Charity couldn’t come close to your beauty.”

“What if she was nice, though? You’re just saying that because she’s rude. What if all of a sudden she was nice?”

I stopped paddling. “Yes, I admit, Charity is beautiful, even if she’s a snob, but still, you’re far prettier than she is. Do I need to go into detail?” I stroked the paddle through the water once, straightening our track.

“No … as long as you’re telling the truth.”

“I never lie, Kayla.” I paused to let that fact sink in. “How about just one detail? Your eyes are the most incredible color I’ve ever seen. A dazzling color of green, like tropical water.”

She turned to look at me. Her eyes sparkled in the sun, confirming my assessment.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“Hey, I thought of an easy question,” I said. “Here I am crazy about you, and I don’t even know your entire name.”

“It’s Kayla M’Lynn Jordan. My middle name is spelled M with an apostrophe then Lynn. My mom was a big fan of an old movie, Steel Magnolias; she got it from the movie.”

“Well, your name is beautiful, too.”

“What’s your middle name?”

“Promise you won’t laugh?”

She lifted her hand and made a cross over her heart. “Promise.”

“James …” I whispered.

“As in, Jesse James? That’s cute.”

“Cute? It’s not cute.”

“Well, I think it’s sexy … like the outlaw Jesse James. Jesse James and the Cowgirl. Perfect!”

She giggled and I couldn’t help but agreeing. “That is kind of cool. Can you turn the boat for a sec? I’m going to get something to drink and a snack.”

She cautiously tried to take over the controls. It was easy to get off-track in such a tight channel, especially trying to maneuver from the front of the boat, but she managed wonderfully. I took a swig of water, then pulled out the plastic container with the Snickers. I offered her the jug, and she accepted it without even a grimace. She flipped up the nozzle and let it pour into her mouth. It was a test, I realized, and she’d passed. It’d always irritated me that Morgan would kiss me, but wouldn’t take a sip of water after me.

I held out the plastic container with the bite-size Snickers bars. “Sorry they’re unwrapped. It’s illegal to bring wrappers on the waterway.” She accepted without one mention of I’m on a diet or I don’t eat carbs. They were silly tests, but they were things that had always bothered me. I wanted a real woman, not a fake and whiny Hollywood wannabe. I’d had my fill of them.

“Jesse,” she whispered, “look.”

Her voice snapped my mind from its wanderings again. A deer and its fawn stood at the water’s edge. I stopped paddling, allowing the boat to coast. Kayla had already halted her strokes. The momma’s head popped up when she saw us, but she didn’t run. Evidently, the deer was accustomed to people. Instead of a full stroke, I used the paddle like a rudder, keeping us headed in the right direction. Once we passed the deer, I resumed paddling.

“This is nice, Jesse.” I loved hearing her voice. Her soft southern drawl dripped with seduction. I was certain she didn’t mean to, but the way she said my name, like it was two words, did something to my insides. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Yes,” I said hesitantly. “Remember, you get your turn on the way back.” I didn’t want to get into any deep discussions when it was so peaceful, but that was one of the reasons I’d chosen to bring her here — so we’d have time to be alone.

“Have you brought other girls here?” she asked bluntly.

“Yes. But only one, my ex-girlfriend Morgan. And it was after we’d gone out a long time, not after only knowing her a couple of days. And if it makes you feel better, it didn’t go very well.”

She didn’t respond, but seemed to accept my answer.

We continued to have small conversations, but nothing as in depth as earlier. She told me about school and her horses. I asked her about previous boyfriends, but it was a short conversation. She’d said she never really dated anyone, what with taking care of the house and horses. She was always too busy. It was difficult to imagine that guys didn’t ask her out. She went on to explain that she only went out with groups of people. Then a thought occurred to me, if she didn’t date … the way she’d closed her eyes and moved toward me last night, but hadn’t actually kissed me, as though she were waiting.

“Kayla,” I started, feeling stupid for asking … it was like my question last night. Maybe it was too personal, but I wanted it to be personal. “Last night … was that your first kiss?”

“Yes …” she said on a sigh.

“Oh, Kayla … why didn’t you tell me? I would’ve waited.” Now I felt like a heel. Her head dropped a few inches. I hated that I couldn’t see her eyes. To know what she was thinking. “I’m sorry,” I said softly.

“Wasn’t it good, then?”

Of course she’d worry about something like that. Not that I’d rushed our first kiss. I sighed. “You’re such a silly girl. That’s not what I meant. Are you kidding? I didn’t sleep a wink last night. Our kiss — kisses — were all I could think about … almost all I can think about now. I just wouldn’t have been so impulsive.”

“Well, I thought my first kiss was perfect.”

“It was.” Now kissing Kayla again was all I could think about.

Our break mark was approaching. It was a little over the halfway point and not where others usually stopped. The flat clearing was right off the bank, but hidden behind a grouping of trees. Thankfully, other kayakers usually missed it. When I was by myself, I’d stop and read, letting the other boaters pass me so I’d have the run to myself. I could catch up in plenty of time without missing the porter. And if Kayla asked if I’d brought another girl there, I’d be able to honestly say no.

I had thought about taking Morgan when we’d kayaked the river, but by then she’d complained so much that I didn’t want to make the trip any longer than necessary. She’d shrieked at every single water bug that got close to the boat, she didn’t attempt to paddle at all, and when we did see a gator, she bellowed so loudly I thought she would have a stroke. As much as Kayla acted afraid when I told her about the critters we might see, her expression revealed that she was excited. Maybe she really wanted to see me wrestle an alligator. I couldn’t help but smile at the thought. I was just crazy enough to attempt it, if it would impress her.

Spotting the bend I was looking for, I turned the boat toward the bank. I approached as close to the side as possible so she could step out onto the ground. She saw what I was proposing and lithely stepped out of the boat with the assistance of a nearby vine.

After she was clear, I jumped out and drew the kayak out of the water. As she’d done at the start of the trip, she walked around the back of the boat and helped me carry it. The girl was amazing. Not once had Morgan ever helped; it was beneath her. Even at the beach when it was a long haul, she would make me carry everything, even though most of the items were her stuff. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face as the realization hit me that Kayla really could be the one. Just like her parents, I could see myself waiting for her, never being with another woman for the rest of my life. It was all I’d ever wanted.

As quickly as the thought permeated my brain, dread set in. Would she wait? Would she want me? She had a year of high school left, and as she’d pointed out, she lived six hundred miles away. I shook the thoughts from my head. Just enjoy these few days, that’s what I needed to do, not worry about the future. I was entirely too serious; I needed to relax.

“So, where are we going? You’re not dragging me off to bury my body in the woods, are you?” she asked playfully.

“I don’t think I could accomplish that with your family knowing you’re with me. They do know you’re with me, don’t they?” I asked with the most menacing voice I could summon.

“Ooh … scary,” she teased.

“Wait’ll I make you swim in the freezing springs … then you’ll be frightened.”

“You’re right, that will frighten me. You won’t really make me do that, will you?”

“Yep … even if I have to carry you in myself.” I stopped in the small clearing. Following my lead, she lowered the boat. I spread out a blanket, set down the cooler of food, and then reached for Kayla. She took my hand willingly, allowing me to pull her down beside me. I removed her hat and ran my hands down her hair. As curly as it was, it was incredibly soft. Drawing her to me, I buried my face in her hair, breathing in her aroma. Apple and other fresh, clean scents permeated my senses, not too perfumey.

“Mmm … you smell wonderful. Maybe that’s what kept me up all night,” I murmured in her ear. Nuzzling my way down the line of her jaw, I found her lips, but hesitated. I didn’t want her to think that’s why I’d brought her here. She didn’t move away. Instead, her breath was warm against my face and her breathing had increased. Unable to stop myself, I closed the few inches. My heart raced as she opened up to me. I delicately slid my tongue across her lips, parting them, aware of the fact that this was all new to her. She accepted me and I kissed her deeper, trying not to overwhelm her. Her hands moved to my head, her fingers intertwining in my hair. Her breathing increased as she moved in closer.

All too quickly, though, I realized we had to stop. The familiar burn coursed through my body, and my board shorts got tighter. “Kayla …” I whispered her name, “we have to stop.”

“Why?” she asked between soft kisses.

I backed away, draping a towel over my lap. “Because … I won’t want to stop.” I busied myself by pulling out our lunch.

“Oh …” She sounded disappointed.

“I’m sorry. Maybe I shouldn’t have stopped here. I don’t want you to think that’s the only reason I brought you here.”

Her eyes narrowed. “So, did you bring Morgan here as well?”

I wanted to laugh at her jealous tone. I probably shouldn’t have even mentioned Morgan. “No. Only you. But the reason I brought you here is so we could talk, not so I could take advantage of you.”

“Jesse, I don’t think you’re trying to take advantage of me. You’ve been nothing but a gentleman.” She reached into the cooler. “So, what did you make for us?” She’d changed the conversation, sounding downright happy.

I shook my head, wondering how some football star or other popular kid in school hadn’t snapped up this beautiful girl. I curbed the thought, hoping she really didn’t have a guy in North Carolina waiting for her to come home. Maybe that’s why she had a ring on her left ring-finger. I wanted to ask, but I wasn’t sure how to ask without sounding jealous.

“Just PB&Js again,” I finally answered her. “But I’ll buy you dinner on the way back. I don’t want you to think I’m cheap.”

She leaned forward and kissed my cheek. “I think you’re romantic.”

I rolled my eyes. No one had ever called me romantic before. Most girls didn’t think a day of kayaking and peanut butter sandwiches was romantic. All she’d seen so far was my backing away from her and accusing her of being a snob. What did she see in me? I still wasn’t sure if she was as good as she seemed. I couldn’t keep myself from wavering back and forth.

“Is it my turn yet?” she asked after following a bite of sandwich with a swig from the cooler.

“Nope. I told you … you get your turn on the way back.” I’d thought of another important question, but wanted to make sure I asked it in the right way. As always, what sounded correct in my head came out incorrect and blunt. “So what will your dad think of me?”

“Oh, he’s excited to meet you. He’s impressed that you work a full-time job while going to school. He did that too.”

I almost choked on my food. “You already told your dad about me and what I do?”

“Of course,” she said, as though it were the most natural thing in the world. “I tell him everything. I called him this morning and told him we were spending the day together. He gets up early, too. Actually, he rarely sleeps.” She touched my arm, as though I wasn’t already in rapt attention. “Dad wants to know if you’ll go to lunch with us on Saturday.” She planted her hands on her hips. “And why are you so down on what you do? He said plumbers make great money.”

I couldn’t suppress my surprise. “I don’t understand, Kayla. You say you’ve never dated, so I assume you’ve never introduced anyone to your father. Why me? I’ve done nothing.”

Her eyes softened. “Yes, you have. You came last night, even though you didn’t want to. You’re friendly and respectful to my grandmother. She told me so much about you that I felt like I already knew you when you arrived yesterday. You didn’t fall for Charity’s approaches. I’m pretty sure she likes you.”

I shook my head. I never would have thought that; at least, before yesterday I wouldn’t have.

“She was fuming when I woke up before she did yesterday. Then when she saw us working and talking together. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t even know she was interested since she was dating someone, until I came inside and she started yelling at me for,” she lifted her hands, making quote marks in the air, ‘fraternizing with the help.’” Her mouth twisted at the words, as though they’d upset her. “Her words, not mine.” She dropped her hands in her lap. “I saw something in your eyes yesterday, something I couldn’t explain. I still can’t explain. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but I wanted to know you more. I want —” She broke off, staring at me. “I talk too much.”

I sat dumbfounded. How many times did she have to admit how she felt before I’d believe it was true? I wanted to believe her, wanted to believe that she wasn’t playing some joke on me, something cooked up by Charity and Morgan. God, what was wrong with me? I wanted to know what she wanted, but I was afraid to ask her to continue her thoughts.

“So,” she continued, “do you want to meet my father on Saturday?”

I smiled. “Yes, I do, very much so. Thank you.” I cupped her cheek and she leaned into my hand, then turned and kissed my palm. She was genuine. No way could she fake this. I’d never felt this with Morgan or any girl I’d dated. The feelings that soared through me now were so unique, so unusual I couldn’t place them. They weren’t the same as before, when I was kissing her and knew we needed to stop. A different passion filled me. I wanted to be with her, always, just next to her. I didn’t need anything else. Without a doubt, this feeling would carry me through the long year ahead. I pulled her close, kissing her again. It felt better, different. None of those other stirrings attacked me. I just wanted to kiss her. Her lips moved seductively over mine, and it was hard to imagine she’d never kissed before. We fit together perfectly.

Catching her breath, she stopped our kiss first this time. “Wow … that was different from before.” She gulped a mouthful of air, and her reaction made me smile. “You didn’t stop.”

“This feels right, Kayla. For the first time, I wasn’t worried. I will never hurt you.” The truth engulfed me. I didn’t just want her body; I wanted her heart, and I was willing to work for it.

I stared at her hand as she ate. “Kayla?”

“Hmm?” she asked around a bite of sandwich.

I touched the ring on her left hand. She swore she didn’t date, and I believed her, but if I didn’t ask, it’d drive me crazy. I just never heard of a girl wearing a ring on her left ring-finger if she wasn’t engaged. “Why do you wear a ring on your left ring-finger? Isn’t that normally what girls do when they are engaged?”

She looked up at me, then down at the ring, then smiled. “I’m not engaged, Jesse. It’s called a promise ring. My father gave it to me. Normally a father buys his daughter a promise ring, but this was my mother’s. I accepted it as a promise that I would remain pure until marriage. When I get engaged, my fiancé is supposed to remove it and replace it with an engagement ring, signifying a new promise.”

“Oh…” I wasn’t sure what else to say, and she didn’t appear upset by my ignorance. I looked up, and she was still smiling, as though she had private information. Kayla was a beautiful enigma indeed.

We ate the rest of our lunch silently, simply listening to the surrounding nature. It was so easy to be alone with her. She rested her head on my shoulder, and it felt so right. I didn’t ever want to move, but we had to continue. I didn’t want to miss the shuttle.

“We’d better go.” I pulled her up to her feet and couldn’t resist one final kiss to hold me over the next two hours. I kept it short and sweet, loving the fact that she sighed in contentment.

“That’s nice,” she said with a smile.

After loading the kayak, we headed downstream. We were fortunate enough to see an otter, which came right up to the boat, and tons of turtles.

“Humph! So … where are all the gators?” she asked, glaring at me as she stepped onto the dock at the end of the run. “Maybe they don’t really exist.”

“They exist, believe me. If you’re up for another trip, I can guarantee you some gator sightings.”

“Sure …” she taunted, challenging me.

She did want to see me wrestle a gator. I’d been thinking about taking her to Hillsborough River, which promised large gators around every turn, but I decided I’d give her a real thrill. I’d take her to Myakka River. The gators there weren’t just large; they were behemoth.

I pulled the kayak out of the water and walked up to her. “You just wait, cowgirl. You’ll be latching on to me to save you.”

Kayla leaned forward and whispered in my ear, “It won’t take a gator for that.” She picked up her bag and sauntered off toward the waiting bus.

Yep, she was going to break my heart.

 

 

h3=.

8 – Jesse

When we returned to the headspring, I led Kayla to the main boil. Concrete walls blocked off the swimming area so that nothing but small fish and turtles could enter, but her eyes grew wide as she saw the bottom consisted of sand, rocks, and water plants. “No large creatures,” I assured her.

“Are you sure?” She dipped her foot in the water. “Doesn’t matter. I have no desire to swim in ice water.”

“I swear you get used to it. Look at those little kids.”

She shook her head, so I trailed her around to the back where the pool was about twenty feet deep.

“Ready?” I asked as we stared down the rock wall into the shimmering blue water.

She crossed her arms. “I already told you. There’s no way I’m swimming in that.”

“And if you remember, I said if you didn’t, I’d make you.”

“You wouldn’t dare …”

I reached down and swept her off her feet.

“Jesse James … don’t you dare —”

I jumped with her in my arms.

We plunged about twelve feet below the surface, and Kayla kicked wildly to get to the top.

We broke through at the same time, but Kayla gasped for air, smacking me on the arm as she swam to the steps. “I can’t believe …” she sputtered.

“Kayla, look!”

She turned, and I pointed to the fish below her. She dipped her head and swam down to meet them, then popped back up. “Did you bring masks?” she growled.

I smiled. “Of course.”

She swam back over to me. “I might forgive you, then.”

I pulled her toward the steps, and then moved her up against the wall, pressing my body against hers. Together, the seventy-two-degree water felt warm. I touched my lips to hers, warming them too. “Do you forgive me?”

She gulped. “Umm …”

I cut off her words with another kiss, a little deeper than the first one. “Please forgive me. You’re not cold anymore, are you?”

She shook her head. “Did you bring Morgan —”

“Morgan who?” I pressed my lips against hers again and then pulled back. “No … Only you, Kayla.”

She sighed and wrapped her hands around my neck. “I forgive you.”

“Good. Then I’ll let you use my mask and snorkel.”

She pushed me away and scrambled up the ladder.

I quickly followed, but when I got to the top, she pushed me off the ladder, back into the water, laughing the entire time as she dug into the dry bag I’d brought.

After we’d had our fill of diving to the bottom of the pool, I toured Kayla around the smaller boils, botanical gardens, and the Mill House with its water wheel that had been there since 1935.

I spread out the blanket over the grass, and for a while we simply soaked up the rays, warming our bodies so we could go back into the spring. I relished the opportunity to put sunscreen on her back, surprised I didn’t suffer any of the feelings I usually experienced whenever I was near a woman. With Kayla, everything felt pure and right.

As we talked, I paid attention to all her expressions and sounds, wanting to know her inside and out. I wanted to be so familiar with her that when she returned home, I’d feel as if I knew her better than anyone did. I was certain we could continue this relationship, especially since she’d be back for the summer in just a little over two months.

As much fun as we were having, I knew we needed to go. I didn’t want to bring her home too late and make Mrs. Johnson angry. But I’d also started dreading the return trip; she didn’t seem to be the least bit tired. She’d inquired several times if it was her turn to ask questions. I’d given her entirely too much time to think.

When she jumped into the water for the third time, I called after her, “Kayla, we have to leave. I’m starving and it’s a couple hours’ drive.”

Like a little kid, she stuck out her lip. “Five more minutes.”

I couldn’t suppress a smile, knowing I’d provided her with a day to remember.

It was five o’clock when we finally loaded the truck and made our way back to Route 40. We weren’t on the road for a minute when she asked, “So, is it my turn?”

“Yes, I suppose it is, but answer me one more thing first. What do you want for dinner?”

“Pizza … I could eat pizza every day,” she replied happily.

Another item to add to my list. “Okay then, we have a while … there’s an Italian restaurant on the opposite side of Silver Springs that makes the best pizza. We’ll get some there. So, what exactly would you like to know?”

h3=.

9 – Kayla

I loved that Jesse made decisions. He gave me a choice, but still made the decision. He’d taken me to a place that was special to him, not just out to the movies as I’d heard several of my friends complain about. Jesse was unlike any boy I’d ever met in school, or any of my friends’ boyfriends.

There really wasn’t any reason that I’d never dated; it just seemed that whenever I went out, it’d been a group thing. Not once had a guy said, I’d like to take you to a special place. Not before Jesse, that is.

I struggled with what to ask first. I could start by repeating his questions, I guessed. “Okay, what do you want to do when you graduate?”

“That’s a personal question, remember?” He laughed, but then let the words spill out easily. “Just kidding, that’s an easy one for me. I plan to go to college for business. You’re right, plumbers do well, if they’re not afraid to expand. My dad is happy just to work on his own with me as an apprentice. But if you want to do well, you have to be willing to hire workers and have a payroll and be able to manage accounts. I’ve already increased my dad’s business. Not that he cares, but I’m hoping that once I finish college, he’ll let me take the reins.”

“Wow, you really do know what you want. That’s great; my dad will love that about you.”

He stole a look in the rearview mirror, then peeked in my direction, his aqua eyes bright against his sun-bronzed skin. “The question is … will you?” His eyes burned with intensity. He cared about what I thought. “Will you be okay with a boyfriend who is a worker?”

I nearly jumped at his words. Jesse liked me more than he’d let on. Since I had an opening, I’d strike while the iron was hot, as my dad always said. He’d always taught me to speak my mind, go after what I wanted. “Is that what you are?” I asked anxiously, hoping he’d answer the way I wanted.

“A worker … ’fraid so, at least for a while. I’d never want to be a doctor or a lawyer, or be stuck behind a desk somewhere. I want to move around from site to site, oversee everything. But … I don’t want to have my hands in muck all day. That’s why you hire employees.” He grinned widely, showing off his perfectly straight and white teeth. God, he was cute.

I smiled at his excitement about running his own business one day, but he’d missed my real question. “I didn’t mean what you do for a living. You said, ‘Will you be okay with a boyfriend?’ Is that what you are?”

“Oh,” he said, obviously realizing he’d slipped. He’d let on how he felt. “Is that what you want?”

I sighed loudly. “Jesse, you’re so blind.” I reached over, wrapped my hands around his arm, and snuggled into him. His skin was hot from the sun, and I could feel the power in his biceps. “It’s all I want,” I whispered. I didn’t have to ask any additional questions. That was the only question I had, and he’d admitted how he felt about me in so many words.

I couldn’t explain the feelings inside me. I didn’t know how I could be in love with the first boy I’d ever kissed, the first boy I’d ever officially gone out with, and after just meeting him, but I was. And I knew it wasn’t some infatuation. At almost eighteen, I might not be worldly, but I wasn’t ignorant. I’d just always known what I wanted in life. When I’d seen Jesse yesterday, after hearing so much about him from my grandmother, I knew immediately.

As he’d done the previous evening, Jesse kissed the top of my head. “I want that too, Kayla. I’m not so blind that I don’t recognize a good thing when I see it. I’m just scared.”

I sat back up and looked at him. It was hard to look in his eyes when he was driving, but that was probably what he wanted. The reason he wanted the long drive; so I couldn’t see too deeply into his soul.

“Jesse, pull over at the closest place to eat. I don’t care what we get or if we get nothing at all, but I want to talk to you face-to-face.”

“We need to get home …”

“We have plenty of time. Just stop as soon as you see a spot.”

Jesse had been pulling back from me from the first moment we’d met. I hadn’t given him one reason not to trust me; yet even though I knew he liked me, he kept pulling back. One minute he’d be fine, and then he’d suddenly pull back like a puppy that’d gotten his nose smacked. If I didn’t break through this barrier, we’d never stand a chance. I could see it in his expressions. He went from excitement to dread in a matter of seconds. Well, I wasn’t going to have it; he’d have to trust me completely or we wouldn’t stand a chance, especially when I returned home at the end of the week.

He pulled into a pizza chain a few miles down the road. They always had pizza ready and waiting. He walked in, ordered a pizza, and brought it to the truck. A few minutes later, he drove into a small park and pulled into a parking spot on the end.

Jesse turned to me, his eyes searching mine. “Did I say something wrong?”

“Now why would you think that? That’s why I wanted to stop. Exactly what are you afraid of, Jesse? I’m not asking you for anything; I’m just being honest. It’s who I am. Sorry if I’m too pushy, but if I see something I want, I ask for it. I’ve never dated before, so I don’t know how this works. I assume if I like you and you like me, why not try? One minute you’re fine, though, and the next you’re scared. I’m not trying to push you into something you don’t want, but I keep getting confused. You seem as if you like me, but then you say you’re afraid.” Exasperated, I stopped to let everything sink in. Maybe I was being too pushy. We’d just met … what did I expect? I couldn’t expect that he’d fall in love with me the way my father had fallen in love with my mother. Gram was wrong … it wasn’t the same play. And life was different than it was twenty years ago.

“I do like you, Kayla. That’s the problem.”

I threw my hands up, but refused to give up. I knew what I wanted. “See, that’s what I don’t understand. Why is that a problem … what happened to you, Jesse?”

He sat stock-still, looking as if he didn’t want to answer, dropping his head back against the headrest. He closed his eyes and exhaled.

“I’m sorry …” I rested my hand on his forearm. “I’m pushy —”

He opened his eyes and stared at me. “Don’t be sorry …”

I glared at him.

“Okay … Kayla.” He scooped up my hand. “My mom is the reason I’m so gun-shy. She married my dad after she got pregnant with me, but I guess we weren’t enough for her. She left when I was nine and hasn’t been back since. I don’t remember much; I just know she was always crying. My dad said she wanted more than he could offer, so she left and found it elsewhere. She sends me birthday cards, but my own mother hasn’t come to see me once in nine years. Supposedly, she remarried some wealthy stockbroker and has two young children with him.”

Knowing he wasn’t finished, I sat still and waited.

“Also, I’ve dated a few girls, but I was only serious with the one I told you about, Morgan. We were together almost two years. I thought she liked me … I overheard her talking to her friends, though. She told them how she could never introduce me to her parents because of what I did for a living, and that we weren’t going to go anywhere after high school. So I broke up with her that night. She’d always tried to get me to sleep with her. I didn’t find out until six months after we were together that she’d already had sex with several other guys. What if I’d slept with her? What if she’d gotten pregnant? It would’ve been the same thing all over again. Girls like Morgan and Charity, they want to go out with me because of how I look and because I don’t give them the time of day, but they don’t want what’s inside of me, just like my mother didn’t.”

“Oh God, Jesse, I’m so sorry.” I shoved the pizza on the dash and slid closer to him. Now I understood his questions and the constant standoffishness. “I swear to you, I’m not like them. I couldn’t care less what you do; of course, as long as you do something … like I said, I really have no aspirations of a career. That sounds terrible, doesn’t it?” I laughed nervously.

“No,” he said on a soft exhale. “It sounds beautiful. Promise me you’re for real, Kayla. Promise me you won’t hurt me,” he pleaded, burying his head against my neck, making my heart pound out an erratic rhythm. “I do want you to be mine, but I am scared … I’m sorry.”

“I promise,” I whispered. My heart was pounding so hard I could barely hear my own voice.

He moved his mouth up my neck to my lips. “I know I’m falling for you, Kayla, as crazy as that sounds, and I promise I’ll wait for you as long as it takes,” he whispered between delicate kisses. He held my face with both hands as if he could seal his promise with a kiss.

“That’s all I ask.” I smiled. “Now that we have that hashed out, and we know where we both stand, can we try to enjoy our week together without you getting so moody?”

“Yes,” he agreed, an authentic smile spreading across his face.

That was all I wanted. I’d broken through his shield, and he’d admitted that he was falling for me. I couldn’t wait to tell Gram; she’d be excited too. She was crazy about Jesse.

h3=.

10 – Jesse

I loved feeling Kayla beside me. I’d be so sad when she left, but she was right: I felt better. She was honest and kind and absolutely perfect for me. At this stage in my life, it’d be better to have a long-distance relationship anyway.

I would work so hard while I prepared for her return. I’d knock out as many classes as I could, get my father to let me start getting more contracts, and hire more help. For now, though, I’d enjoy our week together.

Together we planned what we would do for the rest of the week. I decided to voice my one concern, though. “Won’t your grandmother be upset if I monopolize all your time.”

“As long as I’m with you, Gram will be ecstatic,” she assured me. “Maybe we should plan a Dinner and a Movie night at home, though.”

I smiled. “Perfect.”

 

I showed up every morning around eight so we could explore Florida and each other. I took her to Myakka River and her eyes grew wide with terror as we paddled within six feet of a gator that was no less than thirteen feet long, the length of my kayak and twice the width. Since we had to paddle through a canal to get to the lake, all I could do was hug one side of the channel while the mammoth beast sunned himself on the bank.

“Could you wrestle that gator?” she whispered once we were far away from the massive brute, as if the gator would’ve come after us if she’d spoken earlier.

“Umm … sorry, cowgirl. If I was anywhere in the water when he decided to come after me, it would be all over.”

As we left the canal and paddled into the large lake, a family of wild boars scavenged around the banks at the top of the Myakka River. I paddled up on them quietly. “Boars have poor eyesight, but an excellent sense of smell and hearing, so be very quiet,” I whispered. The momma caught our scent when we made it within a hundred feet and scattered her piglets up the bank, disappearing into the woods quickly.

“Aww … they’re so cute,” Kayla said when the piglets were out of sight, then turned to look at me. “Thank you, Jesse. This is great.”

My heart soared. I’d never gone out with a girl who enjoyed kayaking. It’d always been something I’d done on my own. I’d taken a few girls kayaking off the beach, but they couldn’t be bothered. Kayla, however, reveled in the outdoors, seeing the animals … wasn’t afraid to get her hair wet. Once again, I couldn’t get over how utterly perfect she was for me.

 

I broke down against my not-doing-anything-commercial stance after hearing she’d never been to Busch Gardens. “I’m not usually into theme parks; I don’t like crowds, but Busch Gardens is one of the best,” I offered, swinging her hand as I trailed her through the Clydesdale stables. I knew she’d enjoy petting the horses, since she’d mentioned several times how much she missed hers.

We spent the first few hours walking through the animal habitats. Kayla was like a kid in a candy shop. I’d never seen someone so happy just to be alive.

“I’m really not into coasters, Jesse.” She clenched her hand around mine so tightly when we were strapped into the coaster that it’d made the entire trip worthwhile.

I dipped my head to her ear. “I’ll protect you. Just close your eyes and hang on to me. I’d never let you fall either.”

When I brought her home that night, it was again after eleven. “I’m sorry I’m monopolizing Kayla, Mrs. Johnson.”

“Oh, pshaw, Jesse. What would Kayla do here all day with me? I have her at night.”

“Would it be okay if we stayed in tomorrow evening? I could bring bar-b-que for dinner.”

“That would be great, but just bring the meat and I’ll make all the fixin’s.”

I spent the morning catching up on some jobs that my dad insisted couldn’t wait. Kayla, of course, understood, telling me it would give her some time to hang out with Charity, who’d been bummed out the last few days for some reason. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that Charity was always bummed out. As long as I’d known Charity, she never smiled or had a good time. Well, except for when she was drinking. Every party I’d been to with Morgan, she’d always been wasted.

 

When I arrived, Charity opened the door. “Oh, hey. I’m glad to see you, Jesse.” She rested both her hands on the foyer walls, effectively blocking me from entering.

Everything in me wanted to question her statement, but not sure what she was up to, I smiled instead. “Nice to see you too, Char.” I looked over her shoulder. “Umm … is Kayla home?”

She took a step forward. “Char?” she repeated. “So you do know me from school.”

“Of course I know you.” I rolled my eyes. “We’ve gone to school together since the third grade.”

“Then why haven’t you asked me out?”

I sighed, wondering where Kayla was. She hadn’t been late once since we met. She had to know I was here. “Why would I have ever asked you out? We have absolutely nothing in common. And besides, you’ve been dating Nathan for the last two years.” I took a step to pass her, and she put her hand on my chest, which I quickly removed. The last thing I wanted was Kayla thinking I had any interest in her cousin.

“Actually, we do have something in common, Jesse,” she said in a low voice. “We have a lot of mutual friends, and one I’m particularly fond of. In fact, I just spent the afternoon shopping with Morgan. You remember Morgan … the girl you ditched for my cousin.”

“That’s not true!” I growled. “Morgan and I broke up four months ago. I didn’t even know Kayla.”

“But you were with her just last month …”

My eyes widened. What did she know? Morgan wouldn’t have said anything to her. Yeah, they all hung out together, the popular and rich kids, but she hated Charity. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Char. Morgan and I have been nothing but friends since we broke up.”

“Good friends …” she taunted.

I closed my eyes, praying that Kayla would get here soon. Otherwise, I’d have to leave. I had no desire to discuss Morgan. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what I’d ever done to make Charity despise me. If she liked me, she sure had a weird way of showing it.

“Hey!” Kayla skipped around the corner. “Thanks, Charity.” Kayla stepped around Charity and grabbed my hand, drawing me into the living room. “Sorry … I was on the phone with my dad.” Charity brushed past us, heading toward her room. “Hey, Charity. Wanna watch the movie with us?” Kayla asked.

“Nope!” Charity said, then slammed her door.

“Ignore her,” Kayla said, rolling her eyes. “She’s upset because her boyfriend broke up with her. That’s why she was such a witch Saturday night. He did it right before we got back there. Evidently he didn’t want to spend his final spring break and end of his senior year tied down. I feel bad, but she has no right to take out her aggravation on us.” She shook her head. “Besides, this is our last evening together semi-alone. My dad will be here tomorrow morning, and we’re supposed to spend the day with him.”

I looked down the hall, still wondering why Charity hated me. I hoped she wouldn’t try to cause trouble between Kayla and me. Not wanting to ruin our last evening semi-alone, though, I turned my thoughts to her father. I had no idea what I’d possibly discuss all day with her father, but we were both crazy about the same girl, so that had to count for something.

“You’re right,” I said. “She doesn’t bother me. She’s been ignoring me since the third grade. I just wish she wasn’t so mean to you.”

Kayla wrapped her arms around my waist. “I’m fine. She doesn’t bother me either.”

I handed her the bag of bar-b-que I’d brought, and we both found Mrs. Johnson in the kitchen and had a great meal with zero discussion about Charity. Even Mrs. Johnson seemed used to the fact that she didn’t even eat with them.

 

After I started the movie and sat on the sofa, Kayla curled up against me. I felt a bit uncomfortable, but when I looked up to see Mrs. Johnson’s reaction, she was smiling. The movie ended too soon for my liking. I would have loved to just sit there all night with Kayla’s arms wrapped around me. But it was late. I stood up to leave, and Kayla got up with me.

“Mrs. Johnson,” I said, walking over to where she was sitting. She stood too. “I just want to thank you for introducing Kayla to me.”

“Jesse, please call me Gram. It sounds so formal you calling me misses all the time.”

Without warning, tears stung my eyes, but as always, I refused to let them fall. I didn’t have a grandmother, and she was the closest I’d ever known to a grandmother. “Thank you, I’d like that.”

“Take care of my girl, and don’t y’all stay out too late. Her daddy’ll be here early in the morning, so she can’t have circles ’round her eyes or he’ll think I haven’t been taking care of her and not let her return for the summer.” She winked as she leaned in for a hug.

“I’ll take care of her,” I promised.

Kayla and I walked outside and sat on the porch. Wrapping my arms around her, I sighed. “I’m sure going to miss you, Kayla.” She laid her head on my shoulder, sighing too. It didn’t sound like a sigh of contentment this time; she sounded worried. I’d paid attention to everything she’d done this past week. I wanted to make sure I’d know how she felt through the phone or over an email.

I lifted her chin so I could look in her eyes. She was crying. “What’s wrong? What did I say?”

She slowly shook her head back and forth. “I’m sorry; I didn’t want to do this.”

“Do what, Kayla?” Doubt seeped in without warning. She didn’t want to stay together. We’d had a fantastic week, but that’s all it was. I’d been so stupid.

“Cry … I promised myself I wouldn’t make this harder on you by crying.”

“You’re killing me … make what harder?” I clenched my teeth together, ready for impact. She was going to break up with me.

“Leaving you for two months … I’m going to miss you so much.”

“Oh …” I exhaled in relief. I wiped my hand over my burning eyes. I still had so much doubt. How could I think like this after we had such a wonderful week together? “Don’t cry, cowgirl. I’ll see you in two months.” I pulled her against me and kissed her lightly, then leaned back. “I know it sounds cliché, but it’ll just give us more time to realize how much we mean to each other.”

Kayla pulled me back to her and kissed me feverishly, more than I was used to. Perhaps she realized this was our last kiss like this. I gave in to her and felt her passion soar through me.

“I love you, Kayla,” the words poured out of my mouth without warning. I’d known it from the second day we’d spent together, but hadn’t planned to say it first. I couldn’t believe I had actually admitted it and could only hope that she felt the same way.

She smiled through her tears. “I love you too, Jesse. I’m going to miss you so much, but you’ll wait for me?”

“Oh God, Kayla … now who’s not listening? I’ve never loved anyone. Never thought I’d trust a woman after my mother left my father and me, and then what happened with —” I didn’t want to talk about my ex, especially since I now realized I’d never really loved her. “It doesn’t matter. None of it matters. I love you.” My eyes burned with intensity as if I could convince her just by looking at her, when I knew only time would tell. I pulled her back to my side. I didn’t want to let her go, but Gram was right. It was late, and I didn’t need to start off on the wrong foot with her dad. “Till tomorrow, cowgirl,” I said, allowing myself one more kiss, before I forced myself to back away. Surely, it wasn’t our last kiss. She wouldn’t leave until Sunday, so we’d find some time alone.

I walked backward to my truck. As always, she waited by the door until I drove off and I shot her one final glance.

h3=.

11 – Jesse

Kayla’s name popped up on my cell at seven a.m. I wasn’t supposed to be at her grandmother’s until nine. She’d said her dad would arrive around six, but she wanted to have a little time to talk with him before I came over. I’d asked if I should come even later, then, but she was adamant that we spend the entire day together with her father.

“Hey, babe, I was just thinking about you,” I said as soon as I answered, determined not to hide my feelings from her. Actually, I hadn’t thought of anything but her since I woke up. I was scared to death to meet her father, though, worried he’d hate me.

“Jesse,” she choked out through gasps of air. “Did … did you …” she sobbed.

“What’s the matter, Kayla? Are you okay? Did something happen? Did your dad arrive okay?” Unable to process what could have upset her, I blurted out the questions.

“Your ex-girlfriend, Morgan. You helped her … you helped her have an abortion? You lied to me, all of it, everything was a lie!” The words tore out of her in a torrent of anguish.

“No … no … I didn’t … that’s not what —”

“Are you denying it?” she cut me off, stifling her tears. “Charity saw you! Morgan even told her how you pretended you were a virgin to get her to let down her guard, and then how you would beg her to stop …” She choked on her words again. “I can’t believe I fell for your games.” A new sob rose in her throat. “I loved you. I trusted you.”

“Please listen to me, Kayla. That’s not —”

“You aren’t denying you were there? I’m leaving, Jesse. I’m packed, and I’m leaving with my dad immediately. Goodbye,” she shouted as a dismissal, disconnecting the line.

I ran to my truck. Maybe she hadn’t packed completely. If I left right now, maybe I could stop her. It was usually a thirty-minute drive to her house from Pinellas Park, but it was early. If I ran every red light, maybe I could make it before she left. She couldn’t leave me like this, without giving me an opportunity to explain. She’d promised she wouldn’t hurt me. Why wouldn’t she listen?

I peeled out of my driveway. Once I got on the main road, I tried to call her. It went right to voicemail, so either she’d pressed ignore or turned off her phone. I didn’t have Mrs. Johnson’s number or Charity’s, not that she would help. What had I done to Charity to cause this? I’d never uttered a cruel word to her in all the years we’d known each other.

I floored my Ranger. The four-cylinder engine protested. I never drove it hard. It was old, and I needed it to last through college, but today I didn’t care. I’d give everything I owned and had saved to have her listen to me. She couldn’t leave me like this.

I pulled into Mrs. Johnson’s driveway twenty-five minutes later, but knew immediately she was gone. I felt empty.

Jumping out of my truck, I raced to the front door anyway. I pounded on the door and rung the bell until Mrs. Johnson opened it. When she answered, I saw the look in her eyes: doubt and grief. She didn’t believe me either. Feeling as if someone had kicked me in the gut, I fell to the steps.

“Why are you doing this, Charity?” I screamed. “What did I ever do to you?” I stumbled backward toward the steps, finally collapsing, my head hanging in anguish.

Mrs. Johnson sat beside me, draping her arm around my shoulders.

I leaned against her. “I swear, Mrs. Johnson, they aren’t telling the truth. I tried to stop Morgan, and I didn’t get her pregnant either. I swear!” I blinked the tears out of my eyes. I never cried. Even when my mother had left, I hadn’t cried. Why did it feel like my heart was splitting in two? The pain was so unbearable that I’d swear I was having a heart attack. I couldn’t move.

“I believe you,” she whispered. “I’ve seen this before.” She got up and left me on the porch to cry alone. What she must think of me now. How pathetic I must look, but I couldn’t make myself leave. If only I could explain. It was a simple misunderstanding. I’d done nothing wrong. I’d simply tried to help Morgan.

The day she’d called, I’d been so desperate to get to her, to stop her, but it was too late. I would have helped her. I would have married her and claimed the child as my own if it would have saved the baby’s life. I still felt sick every time I drove by the clinic. Now I was being punished for Morgan’s decision. If I hadn’t broken up with her, maybe she wouldn’t have gone off and gotten herself pregnant. How could I make Kayla understand if I couldn’t talk to her?

h3=.

12 – John

John looked over at his daughter as she sat up in the seat. Her eyes were bloodshot and swollen, and she was still gasping for air.

“Dad,” she sputtered. It was the first time Kayla had spoken all morning. She’d done nothing but sob from the moment he’d arrived this morning. “I forgot my ring, Mom’s ring. We have to go back.”

“It’s okay, honey. Gram will mail it.”

“No!” she screeched. “What if it gets lost? We have to go back.”

“No,” he said adamantly, knowing she wouldn’t argue. He rarely took a tone with Kayla, but he never wavered. When he said something, he meant it. And she knew it. The last thing he wanted was to see her as she’d been just fifteen minutes ago.

He pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot. “Want something?”

Kayla didn’t move.

“Kayla,” he touched her shoulder. “Did you eat this morning?”

She didn’t move, which told him she hadn’t.

“Come on … Let’s get some food and talk.”

She shook her head again, refusing to sit up.

“Kayla, if you’re gonna turn into a spoiled girl after a week with Charity, I won’t allow you to come back this summer.”

“I don’t want to come back,” she said through sobs.

“Baby girl, you’ve begged me for the last week to spend the summer here. Now all of a sudden you’ve changed your mind? Because of some boy?”

She soared up in her seat. “He wasn’t just some boy, Daddy!” She rarely got an attitude with him, let alone screamed. She was a teenage girl, so he did have to put up with some tantrums, but she was a good kid. He’d never been disappointed in her. And it wasn’t like Kayla to get suckered into anything. She was smart as a whip, never cared what her peers thought. “I loved him!” she continued, dropping her head in her hands.

“Come on, sweetheart. I need some coffee. We’ll talk it over.” He didn’t wait for her to say no again. He hopped out, walked around to the passenger side of the truck and opened her door.

Kayla fell into his arms. “I really loved him, Daddy. I can’t believe he lied to me, about everything. I didn’t ask for all his history, but he told me … only, it was all a lie. Why did he lie?”

He escorted her inside the restaurant, allowing her to sit while he ordered their breakfast. Tired as a one-legged man in a butt-kickin’ contest, he dragged himself to the table.

Knowing it was her favorite, he handed her a McGriddle. “Did you ask him why he lied?”

She pushed the food away. “He didn’t deny being there.”

“But did you give him a chance to explain?”

Her tears stopped for a second, but her eyes were bloodshot as she drilled him with the same gaze her mother had when she thought he was plumb crazy. “He helped his girlfriend have an abortion. What’s to explain?” she sassed, but then dropped her head again. “I just can’t believe he lied to me. He seemed so sincere … How could I have been so stupid?” She blew her nose into a napkin and then got up. “I’m not hungry. Can I go back to the truck?”

He stood too. He could eat and drive. He spent half of his workday eating and driving. He walked her back to the truck and closed the door behind her. In the span of walking to the driver’s side and pulling himself up, she was bawling again. It killed him to see her like that. Kayla had always been happy, rarely did things upset her.

His phone vibrated in his pocket. “Yeah?” he answered, aggravated by the entire situation. The first time he allowed his daughter to visit without him and this is what happened. And now she lay sprawled across the front seat, crying her eyes out. He was so tired. He’d driven all night, and now he had to drive another nine hours. Maybe they should stop in Georgia for the night, stay at one of the empty apartments? He listened patiently as Corinne rambled on about the past.

“Of course I remember. How could I forget?” Making a decision, hoping it was the correct one, he didn’t utter a word as he made a series of right turns.

When he pulled onto the driveway, the boy was still there, face down on the steps. He had seen this before. More to the point, he’d been this boy. He shifted the truck into park, and Kayla darted up in the seat. Red still rimmed her eyes, but she actually stopped crying when she realized where they were. Just like when she was a child and she’d gotten her way. He’d always hidden his face so she wouldn’t see him laughing when she was having one of her rare tantrums. She’d grown up into a wonderful woman, though, not spoiled at all. And if Gram was right, the boy deserved a chance to defend himself.

Swinging open the door, his daughter jumped out and ran to the boy, no questions asked. “Jesse,” she cried, falling down beside the shriveled mass. “I’m sorry I left … I’m just so mad … but I … I don’t want to leave. I just want to understand.”

h3=.

13 – Jesse

I didn’t look up as I felt Kayla fall down beside me, crying that she was sorry. I just wrapped my arms around her waist. Pulling her to me, I buried my face against her neck, breathing in her warmth, her smell. I thought I’d lost her. Tears overflowed my eyes again.

I couldn’t look at her like this, so I just spoke into her ear. “Don’t be sorry, just listen. I never had sex with Morgan or anyone, I swear, but I did pick her up, because she called me. It was too late; I couldn’t stop her. She’d already gone through with the abortion.” I sucked in a breath, attempting to control my emotions. “And yes, I struggled with being intimate. My body always wanted to, but my heart didn’t. With you it was different, Kayla. I only struggled that first night, and then it was easier. I love you and never want to do anything that would hurt you.” I pulled back to look at her, softly squeezing her shoulders. “Did I ever try to make you do anything, Kayla? Even when our time together was up? Did I? How could you believe them? How could you think that everything we shared was a lie?” My eyes burned from unshed tears.

“I’m sorry, Jesse … I didn’t want to believe them, but when you didn’t deny being there —”

“Don’t be sorry, just don’t do it again.” The meaning was clear, but I’d used her words against her again, and her mouth turned up at the edges. I forced a smile too, even though my heart was still thrashing in my chest. “Please don’t ever leave me like that again. Promise me that we’ll always talk things out.”

“I’m so — I mean, yes, I promise.” She fell against my chest, and I folded my arms around her.

A car door closed, and I was suddenly aware of the situation. Great, now this was going to be my first impression with her dad.

“Mornin’, son,” her father’s resonant voice called as he walked around the front of his F-250 Super Duty truck.

I stood immediately, pulling up Kayla beside me. “Good morning, Mr. Jordan.” I ran my free hand through my hair, trying to smooth it back. I could only imagine how pathetic her father must think I looked.

“Call me John. So, it looks like there was a misunderstanding, and maybe I can get some sleep after all.” He strode up to me, a half-smile on his face, offering his hand.

I took his hand gratefully, surprised by his acceptance.

“I’ve seen this before, son. Looks like I need to go have a chat with my niece.” He walked off. “Charity Jane!” he thundered as he entered the house.

Gram stepped out on the porch. “The same thing happened to him and your mother after your aunt pulled a similar display. Well, not the exact same thing, but it was close. It’s the strangest thing, like déjà vu. Come on inside, kids, breakfast is almost ready.”

“Thanks, we’ll be right in,” I assured her. I had to handle something first. I pulled Kayla back down to the step. I drew in a deep ragged breath. “Are we going to be okay? We can’t keep assuming how the other feels. I thought I was going to die this last hour. I truly didn’t know how I’d ever pick myself up from these steps. I didn’t even go through the same grief when my mother left. Promise me, please … don’t doubt me again, and I’ll do the same.”

“I promise.”

“What made you come back?” I asked. “How did you know I’d be here?”

“My dad came back. I was crying on the seat, utterly useless. I had no idea. I think Gram called him.”

I sat for a long moment. “Your dad …” I bit my lip and nodded as I took it all in. “I guess I better go try to make a good impression then. I hope Charity stays in her room, though. I don’t know if I could handle seeing her right now.”

“Me neither,” she grumbled, glowering in the general direction of Charity’s room. “Why would she do this? Nathan just broke up with her, but why would she want to hurt me?” She shook her head in disbelief.

As much as I didn’t want to defend Charity’s actions, I offered an explanation, “Maybe she thought she was helping you.”

Kayla huffed. “How can you defend her? I don’t want to talk about her. Come on, let’s go. Allow me to officially introduce you to my father.”

 

Conversation staggered for only a few minutes, and then John shot questions at me, sort of like what I’d done to Kayla. Instead of making me feel uneasy, though, it actually made me feel accepted.

I told him what my plans were, as I’d explained to Kayla on Sunday. John nodded and gestured to Kayla with a smile. “I like this boy, honey. I’m glad I decided to turn around.”

Kayla and Gram exchanged a look, then unrestrained smiles spilled across both of their faces in unison.

I studied John’s face, and it was clear he spoke the truth. Of course, I couldn’t imagine the man speaking anything but what he actually felt. His entire presence demanded respect. He was tall and powerful looking. He clearly worked hard for a living. I’d felt his calloused hands and firm grip when he shook my hand and was thankful that he probably noticed the same about me.

What I also saw in John was a passion for his daughter. It was evident that he treasured Kayla and would probably kill the first man who ever hurt her. I pondered briefly if that was his initial reason for returning, but the concern was fleeting, as I’d never do anything to hurt Kayla.

“So, Jesse,” John’s deep voice pulled me from my thoughts. “Do you know how to drive a boat?”

“Uh, yes, sir.”

“Why don’t we hijack Charity’s dad’s boat and you can motor it out while I sleep?” The question was rhetorical; he didn’t give me an opportunity to reject his offer. “Kayla, why don’t you make sandwiches?”

Kayla nodded and smiled at me while scooting back from the table. I could see where she inherited her candidness.

I picked up the remaining breakfast plates that she hadn’t been able to carry and followed her into the kitchen. I’d barely set the plates on the counter when she bounded into my arms.

“He likes you,” she beamed, an effortless smile spreading across her face. She kissed me, and my heart fluttered. Earlier, I’d almost lost her, but now I felt even closer.

“I like him too, and I love you,” I whispered in her ear. “I now know the pain it will cause me if I ever lose you. It was a severe wake-up call. No pun intended.” I frowned at my awful joke, but she smiled. She kissed me again, but a slight clearing of a throat made me pull away until I saw it was Charity.

“Take a hike, Charity,” Kayla growled.

“Can’t. I’m supposed to help you make lunch for our boat ride,” Charity retorted.

Our … Kayla and I flinched at the same time.

“Evidently … I have to go,” she added. “Don’t worry … I won’t come between you lovebirds. Oh, and incidentally … I’m sorry.”

She didn’t sound sorry, and I was sure John had forced her to say she was, but I refused to let her ruin my last day with Kayla and an opportunity to get to know John.

“Thank you. I forgive you,” I managed with as much genuineness as I could muster. I must have been convincing because Kayla looked at me incredulously, as though I’d lost my mind.

“Well, I don’t. You’ll have to be a lot more convincing for me to forgive you, and furthermore, I don’t need help making lunch. We can manage,” Kayla hissed through her teeth.

Charity looked up with guilt-ridden eyes, but quickly blinked that emotion away. After glaring back at Kayla, she strode out of the room.

“Kayla,” I said, concern filling my voice, “I don’t want to cause strife between you and your cousin.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll be gone tomorrow anyway. You’ll be the one who has to deal with her. Besides, we were never that close anyway. She’s only six months older than I am, but she’s always acted like she’s my boss. I’m sick of it!” She dragged in an unsteady breath and closed her eyes. Then her face softened, and I realized as before, it took only seconds for her to compose herself. “You’re right, I’m okay … this is our last day.” Her face took on yet another expression. She was so passionate. She couldn’t hide any emotion.

“Don’t be sad, cowgirl, it’ll all work out. We’re young and have plenty of time.” I silently willed the words to be true. “What’s for lunch?”

h3=.

14 – Jesse

As much as I enjoyed driving the boat, I fretted as the day swiftly surged by. Thankfully, Charity hadn’t been a problem; she spent her day on the bow getting sunburnt. Whereas, Kayla smothered us both with sunscreen and stayed with me while I steered the boat.

The feeling was exhilarating; it’d been a long time since I’d been on a boat. My father had owned one after my mother left. He’d probably been trying to find other venues to monopolize his time, but after a while, he’d gotten bored and sold the boat and spent his nights on the couch drinking. It was too bad; I’d always enjoyed the time we’d spent together. But no matter what I did, I never seemed to be enough for my father.

My father trusted me to work for him, but he never commented on how I brought in new clients or how I did in school. He never asked where I was going or seemed to care whether I came home at night. As long as I finished my work, it was all that mattered to my father. I felt like just an employee.

Was it just my mom leaving that had made my father so depressed or had she left because he was depressed? I’d found a box of old photos in a closet once, photos of their wedding, my baby pictures, and a few small trips we’d taken when I was young. My father had been holding me and smiling. He didn’t look like the person I’d known for the last nine years. He actually looked proud.

Kayla tightened her arm around my waist and rested her head on my shoulder. As much as her sounds and expressions spoke to me, was it possible that she perceived the same about me?

I kissed her forehead. “Thank you, Kayla. How did you know I was thinking about something sad?”

“Your soul speaks to me. It’s like I can hear it when you’re sad. What are you thinking about?”

“My dad,” I answered honestly. “We used to do stuff like this.”

“I’m sorry … I mean …” She laughed as she tried to correct her statement. “I really started something, didn’t I?”

“Yeah. You really did …” I laughed too, wondering if she understood my hidden meaning. She had started a fire within me. “I’m really going to miss you.”

“It won’t be long. What with finals and all, you’ll barely have time to miss me.”

“Yeah, I keep trying to convince myself that too.” I smiled, but it was with great effort.

I pushed the thoughts from my head and managed to put on an authentic smile after a few minutes. It was hard not to be happy when there was a beautiful woman on my arm, the wind blowing through her hair.

I navigated the boat to Three Rooker, a sandbar that looked more like a small island. We ate lunch and took turns diving from the boat. John looked like he was enjoying the trip as well, which was good, because according to Kayla he never took time off work, let alone vacations.

After lunch, I drove the boat to Anclote Key. There, we were able to have some alone time as we walked the boardwalk to see the lighthouse and traversed the island hand in hand. Charity, thankfully, had no desire to see a hundred-and-twenty-something-year-old lighthouse and just stayed on the boat. John’s eyes lit up at the prospect, but he used the excuse of not leaving Charity by herself to remain on the boat. I assumed he was giving Kayla and me a little private time since it was technically our last day.

“Jess,” John said as he extended a hand to Kayla to help her enter the boat, “how ’bout you meet Kayla and me for breakfast on Gulf to Bay Boulevard tomorrow morning.”

I nodded. “I’d like that.” Inside, though, my heart ached as I realized the day was nearing its end. I quickly stilled the anguish, squeezing Kayla’s arm.

John took over driving the boat on the way back, and Kayla and I were able to spend some quiet time together. Her school got out a little earlier than mine did, so she promised to come to my graduation, something I’d totally forgotten. I wondered if my dad would come too, but then realized it didn’t matter if Kayla was there. She was quickly becoming my family. All my thoughts of the future consisted of Kayla and if she’d be happy and approve of me, not if my dad would commend me.

When we returned to the house, John asked, “Gram, why don’t you order some of that great Philadelphia-style pizza Kayla loves. This young man and I’ll go get it while the girls take their showers.”

My body went rigid. What would John want to talk about? Clearly, he had an ulterior motive in getting me alone.

“Well, young man,” John started as soon as both our vehicle doors shut, “I guess it’s a little late for me to ask, ‘So, you want to go out with my daughter?’, since it looks as though you’ve had some week together. Leave it to my mother-in-law; she always was a matchmaker. My parents were friends with her and her husband, Carl. We came to Clearwater on spring break one year and looked them up. It was just the two of them the first night; they’d come over to the beach to go out to dinner with my parents. I didn’t want to go along … a night with four old folks …” He laughed. “Surprisingly, I had a good time. Corinne and I hit it off, especially since she kept talking about her daughter and how she’d like us to meet. I didn’t know she had twins.” He paused to let this fact sink in. I hadn’t heard this story. “They were as different as Kayla and Charity in their personalities, but they were identical in looks. Brooke and I hit it off immediately, but Melissa … well …” He chuckled. “You’ve met Charity.”

I nodded in understanding.

“Corinne arranged for them to return the next day and hang out around the pool and beach with my family. Brooke and I spent every day after that together, inseparable until the last day. I showed up at their house early, ready for a day just hanging around her house, and Brooke had promised to take me to Honeymoon Island. When I arrived, she trailed me out the patio door and started kissing me. Not so unusual. We’d found a few moments alone, but never at her house. Still … I was a seventeen-year-old boy. We were discovered, but not by her parents … We were discovered by Brooke.” John paused again, letting me absorb what he’d said.

“And I thought Charity was rotten,” I couldn’t help commenting.

“Yeah, imagine my surprise. Brooke wasn’t just angry that I’d kissed Melissa; she was infuriated that I couldn’t tell the difference. Well, needless to say, we worked it out, but only after I looked something like you did this morning. That was the reason I came back today. When Gram called and told me she believed you were innocent, and reminded me of the past, I knew I had to give you a chance. Now, let me ask you something … did I do the right thing?”

Surprised at the turn in the conversation, but wanting to be as honest with this man as possible, I stammered, “Yes, sir, I swear to you. I never had sex with Morgan. I was just being a friend.”

“And you love my daughter?”

“With all that’s within me, sir.” It wasn’t hard to sound firm. I meant every word and didn’t feel so intimidated by John not to admit it. I’d never play down my feelings again.

“Good. And, Jesse, call me John, please. So, where do you go from here?” John pulled into the parking lot of the pizza restaurant, but he didn’t bother getting out. “Do you plan to keep this relationship going?”

I wasn’t sure what John wanted to hear, but again, decided to be truthful. “Yes, sir … I mean, John, yes, with your blessing of course.”

“Well, you sure have good answers, son.”

“Thank you, sir … I mean, John. Sorry … habit.”

“Well, Jesse, let’s just take this one step at a time. It’s only two months. Let’s see how that goes, and then, if you’re still together by the end of summer … we’ll pass that bridge when we get there. But please don’t make any promises you don’t intend to keep. I won’t be too happy if I ever see my baby girl like I did this morning, understand?”

“I do,” I answered emphatically.

“Then we have an understanding?” John reached his hand out to seal our deal with a handshake. I accepted it, but then the large man pulled me into a half-hug. “I enjoyed being with you today, son. Let’s get our food. I hear this is the best pizza around.”

“It is, sir, and thanks … for everything.”

 

 

h3=.

15 – John

John pursed his lips and nodded, then smacked the boy on the back. No need to get all mushy. He had to remain the fierce father, but he truly was impressed by this young man. Jesse reminded John a lot of himself when he was seventeen.

He’d always wanted a son; unfortunately, life had other plans. Kayla had been the best of both worlds. She was a tomboy when it came to doing outdoor things with him, but then she’d stepped right in and taken over the house duties when her mother died. She kept him fed and the house clean. He’d always hoped that she would provide him with grandsons one day. He’d forgotten about the husband part, though, and now he realized that could be a plus.

He couldn’t help but wonder where they would live, though. What a ridiculous thought. He was acting as if they were going to stay together like Brooke and he had, when he knew how unusual that was. But still, if they did … Jesse had his entire life planned. He had a paid scholarship to a Florida college and then an established business here he planned to expand.

John chastised himself. What was he thinking? He’d even told the boy to take this one step at a time. He’d do the same. He’d worry about next year when it arrived. Until then, he needed to spend more time with his baby girl.

 

 

h3=.

16 – Jesse

John drove us back to the house, mostly in silence, with only a few comments about sports. No more drilling questions aimed at my intentions with his daughter. Thank goodness.

John was a Steelers fan, which I could understand; they were a dependable team. Although he admitted that when the Carolina Panthers were playing, he had to root for them.

“A Buck’s fan,” John smacked me on the knee. “Anyone who can stand behind them through all their ups and downs is definitely loyal.”

He released a deep hearty laugh, and I realized how much I liked this man.

Kayla was waiting on the couch, picking threads from an afghan on her lap, when we returned. “Took you long enough … where’d you go, New York?”

I walked up to her and planted a kiss on her forehead, which I hoped showed her that all was well. She took my hand, seemingly pacified, but glared at her father.

The rest of the night was relaxing; we sat around and talked for a while after we finished eating. I heard several refreshing stories of when Kayla was a child and even Charity joined in the discussion a couple of times.

“How ’bout a game of Euchre,” Gram suggested. “It’s rare that there are at least four of us. We can rotate —”

Charity waved her hand. “Don’t mind me, Gram, you know I hate cards.”

No surprise there. I didn’t know the game, but I knew how to play anything with trumps.

John patted me on the back. “I’ll take you as my partner since I’m the best player.”

Kayla and Gram laughed heartily.

“Uh-oh … I think the women disagree.” They were going to trounce us; I was sure of it.

“No … no … Daddy’s the best … He just lets us win. Right, Daddy?”

“Not on your life, baby girl.” John dealt out the cards as he narrowed his eyes. “Humph! We’ll see who’s the best.”

Unfortunately, I was right. The women creamed us. They won two consecutive; then John suggested we switch and it would be kids against old folks. Kayla won those two games also. I would have liked to take some of the glory, but she pretty much single-handedly whipped them. Then the teams switched to father and daughter against Gram and me, and finally John won a round. With that, John quit, satisfied he’d won.

It was nearing midnight and I realized I’d have to say goodbye eventually, even if the idea sent my stomach practically into convulsions. I’d see Kayla for breakfast, but this was really it. How had I become so needy in just a week? I’d never needed any girl … I’d practically been on my own since I was nine.

With a forced smile, I hugged Mrs. Johnson, shook hands with Mr. Jordan, and even threw a farewell to Charity.

“Jesse, please feel free to stop by anytime,” Gram offered. And I realized that I’d like that.

“I will, Gram … thank you. I’ll call you next week. And tell you what, I’ll just come by and put that Root Kill in for you once a month.” She gave me a satisfied smile and another hug.

“And, you’ll meet Kayla and me tomorrow on Highway 60 at Perkins?” John reminded me.

“Yes, sir.” I didn’t bother apologizing, and John didn’t correct my use of sir this time. Instead, they allowed Kayla to walk me out to my truck.

As soon as we got outside, I pulled her into my arms. “Everything feels surreal. Like I’m going off to war — or you are. Can you imagine what it must be like for soldiers to leave for years at a time?” Kayla kissed off my words. Wetness from her tears dampened my face. I brushed my fingertips underneath her eyes. “Don’t cry, cowgirl. Your dad and I had a good talk, but if he sees you upset, I’m in for a beating, I think.” I chuckled lightly, trying to cheer her up. I couldn’t bear to see her cry. “It was a wonderful week, and we’ll see each other soon, okay?”

“Yes, I —” she tried, but her words were cut off by another sob.

The feelings warmed me that she would miss me as much as I’d miss her, but it still made me ache. I nudged up her chin so I could look in her eyes. The water in them actually made the color even prettier. The depths of them looked like I could swim in them.

“I love you, Kayla … Forever.” Her dad’s words, not to promise anything I couldn’t commit to, flashed through my head, but I was certain this was an easy promise. I knew without a doubt that I’d love this girl forever, even if she stopped loving me. No way would my feelings ever change. She’d altered my life completely. I dropped my arms, one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I wanted to scoop her up and take her home, but I knew we had to be responsible.

Tears poured down her face relentlessly, and caused a stitch in my heart. My eyes started to sting, so I had to go. I couldn’t cry in front of her again. I’d get through these two months and then we’d have the summer, and then there’d be an even longer separation, but we would make it.

I hoped; and just that brief doubt caused me to remain awake all night.

 

h3=.

17 – Jesse

I kept my word and showed up to meet Kayla and her dad for breakfast. Kayla’s eyes were bloodshot, and her hair was escaping its ponytail as though she’d rolled out of bed. Light purplish shadows sat beneath her eyes. It looked like she hadn’t slept a wink all night. Of course, who was I to talk; I probably looked like a walking zombie.

We didn’t discuss much over breakfast … mostly stupid things like the weather and what work I would have in store for me tomorrow.

John questioned me about all the other things I knew how to do, and I was proud to admit that when it came to construction, my dad had taught me practically everything.

John nodded. “It’s good that your father taught you all those things. Really saves money when you don’t have to call someone to fix a toilet or leaky faucet. It amazes me how many young men nowadays don’t even own a toolbox.”

I nodded. “Yes, sir.”

John shook his head and offered me a handshake, but as before, pulled me in for a half-hug. “Call me John, Jess.” John turned to Kayla. “I have a couple emails to return before we start driving, so take a few minutes and say goodbye.”

Although I felt uncomfortable with Kayla’s father so close by, I needed to taste her lips one more time. I closed my eyes and tried to remember every second so I could replay it over and over. The way her lips molded to mine, the taste of her kiss, her hands on my hips, the fresh-from-the-shower scent of her hair.

“I love you, Kayla.”

She nodded, biting down on her lip, then wrapped her arms around my waist. “Why does it hurt so much?”

“I don’t know, baby, but it sure does.” I pulled back. “You have to go. We’ll see each other soon. Okay?”

She pushed out a ragged breath. “K … I love you too.”

I kissed her one more time, just a quick peck, and then opened the passenger door and helped her climb up into the F250.

I closed the door, and she was gone. She waved as her father turned the truck into traffic.

As quickly as Kayla had infused herself into my life, just as swiftly she was gone. I sat in my truck for an immeasurable amount of time. I felt lost; I didn’t know what to do next. It had only been an hour at most since she’d left, and I felt as though she’d taken everything I held dear — my very soul — with her. I felt like an empty shell, incapable of breathing, let alone driving and carrying on with my life.

I decided the best way to start my day without her would be to at least go to church. It was nine o’clock, and the first service would start in fifteen minutes. I’d thank God for sending her into my life and then beg Him to heal the emptiness her leaving would cause me.

 

The days wore on dreadfully, one into the next, just like the first.

Other than work and school, I couldn’t remember what I used to do without Kayla. My social life was non-existent. Not that it had been much of anything before, but now if I tried to hang out with a friend with a girlfriend, I felt like a third wheel. And my other friends were worse. The ones who weren’t dating anyone did nothing but talk about hooking up and partying and pushed me to do the same.

The weeks wore on painfully, one into the next, just like the first.

I talked to Kayla every night, but she sensed my grief. She insisted that I needed to go out and have fun, so that brought on a new wave of emotion as I wondered what she was doing for fun. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust her. I did. I was just lonely.

Even kayaking, my first love, couldn’t eradicate the ache. I’d paddle out most evenings after work and watch the sunset and long for Kayla to be there with me. The subtle sounds of the waves hitting the boat used to calm me before, but now the monotonous thud reminded me of how boring everything was without Kayla.

Wanting to feel closer to her, I looked up her school schedule online and thrilled to see that we’d made it over halfway. I scanned all of the year-end events, wondering if Kayla was in any of the groups or activities. She’d never mentioned any. I hoped she was enjoying her high school experience more than I had.

 

 

h3=.

18 – Kayla

I moped around every day after school until my dad came home, and then I pasted on a smile for him.

I always tried to have dinner ready and waiting. I knew he saw through me, but he tried not to bring up the subject of what I should do or where I should go, so it surprised me when he asked me about going to prom.

“Dad,” I whined. “Why would I want to go to prom?”

“Because that’s what young ladies do at your age. You don’t have to go with anyone, just go with your friends. Girls can get away with that.”

“And what about Jesse? Do you suppose he’ll be able to get away with going by himself?” I sneered. I knew he meant well, but this was Jesse’s senior prom and he’d miss it. How could I go when he wasn’t?

“I insist you go,” he demanded, undeterred.

“Dad … you’re serious? You can’t make me go to prom.”

“Yes, I can, and tell you what … I’ll pay for everything. Just pick out whatever dress and accompaniments you need, and I’ll pay for it all.”

“No, Dad!” I said obstinately, and I rarely took a tone with him.

“Please, Kayla, trust me. He’ll understand, I promise. I know you love him. But if you miss these times in your life, you’ll never get them back. I’m sure Jess went to his Junior Prom, so he’ll understand. He’s a smart boy.” His voice was clear, and my father never changed his mind when he decided something. “Besides … your mother would have wanted you to go.”

“I can’t believe you brought Mom into this.” I slammed my chair back and bounded up from the table, retreating to my room. “I’ll clean up the dishes later,” I called down the stairs, attempting not to be disrespectful. But how could he force me to go to a dance? If my mom were alive, I’d want to go. It’d be fun to shop for a dress and makeup. But she wasn’t, and nothing would ever change that.

Since I was crying, I decided to wait a few minutes before I called Jesse and tried to explain. Not that he’d be upset. I knew he wouldn’t be. He’d mentioned several times on the phone that he hoped I was enjoying the end of the school year.

I held the phone in my hand, contemplating how to tell him this ridiculous piece of news. It wouldn’t be like I would go with anyone, though; I’d just go to make my dad happy, then leave. The phone buzzed in my hand and I nearly fell out of bed. Since it was too early for Jesse’s call, I glanced at the ID to make sure it wasn’t one of my girlfriends, whom I’d pretty much ticked off because I’d been so distant.

To my delight, it was Jesse. [How did he do that? _]I sniffed back my tears[. _]“Hey … I was just thinking about you.”

“Aren’t you always thinking about me?” he said back smoothly, seemingly in a much better mood than he normally was when we spoke. Although we tried to talk about our days, and how much we missed each other, I always sensed his sadness. Even though he acted happy, I could always hear the despondency in his tone.

“Of course I’m always thinking about you, but something kind of happened tonight and I’m pretty ticked off at my dad right now.”

“Don’t upset your father, baby. You have to be the respectful daughter you’ve always been or he won’t let you come see me in a month,” Jesse responded without a hint of concern that I was irritated.

Even though he couldn’t see me, I rolled my eyes. Respectful? Humph! How could I respect my father if he forced me to do something so unreasonable? And why didn’t my boyfriend ask why I was upset? “Did you have a good day or something? You sound … happy …” He didn’t just sound happy, he sounded cheerful, an unusual occurrence.

“I did,” he said in a singsong voice. “I picked up a few contracts today, but I also looked at my calendar, and realized I made it over halfway, and I haven’t died yet, so I’m pretty sure I’ll still be breathing when you get back here.”

I couldn’t suppress a laugh. “Ah … see. I told you that you weren’t dying the other night.”

He laughed back, but then the line grew quiet. “It feels like it sometimes.”

“I know … Hey, you got me off track. I need to tell you why I’m upset.”

“So, tell me. What did your dad do to upset you? I always thought he walked on water.”

“Hah!” I knew Jesse wouldn’t be jealous, but I would be. I wouldn’t want him to go to prom without me. Morgan would probably hang all over him. I took a breath and then decided just to tell him straight out. “Well … you might not be so happy either when you hear what my dad is forcing me to do.” I paused and pulled in a deep breath. “He’s making me go to prom! Can you believe it? Using his parental powers to make me go to a dance! It’s unheard of. It should be against the law to take advantage of parental authority like that.”

Jesse laughed. “That’s all? What’s the big deal? Go. I agree with your father. It’s a rite of passage, something all high school students should experience.”

“Are you going to yours?” I growled.

“No, but my dad isn’t forcing me. That’d be the day,” he said through a chuckle.

“Humph! So you’re just telling me to go, is that it?”

“That’s not what I said. I said … it’s no big deal. I trust you completely, and if your dad is happier with you going to prom, then you should go. But will you do me a favor?”

“What?” I asked, frustrated. Now I was angry with both of the men in my life.

“Pick out a really nice dress and email me a picture, and then when you come for graduation, I’ll get a tux and we can go out and pretend it’s our prom night. No one will know … some of the schools run later here anyway. Won’t that be fun?”

Againhow did he do that? Somehow, Jesse could calm me down in a second. “I guess … I’ll tell you what. I’ll get the dress, go to prom, get my picture, and leave. He didn’t say how long I had to stay.”

“That’s my cowgirl. Feel better?”

“Yes, but only because I’m going to see you in a little over a month. You’ll be waiting for me when I get off the plane?”

“Wild horses couldn’t keep me away. Now, go make up with your father and call me back before you go to bed.”

“Okay … and, Jesse … thank you for being so smart. I love you.”

“I love you too. I’ll talk to you in a little bit, okay?”

 

Comforted by the notion that I was going to wear the dress for Jesse in just a few short weeks, I found one that would match the prom theme but still be casual enough to wear again.

I did my best to fix myself up, knowing that I was going to send him a picture. I didn’t have any nice pictures to give him when I was in Florida, and all the ones we took were with his phone and I was almost always dressed in shorts and a T-shirt with my unruly hair pulled back in a ponytail or under a baseball cap.

Tonight, since I had no one waiting for me and it was a chance to get dressed up, I took longer than usual fixing my hair and doing my makeup. I blow-dried my hair until it was impeccably straight and finished it off with a flat iron. I wondered what he’d think of me with straight hair. Not that it would stay that way in Florida. The humidity would have it curling up in hours. I applied makeup, which I rarely did as I had no one to impress, but again, all I could think about was that Jesse had requested a picture.

I hoped that my dad would be home before I left. He was the one who’d insisted I do this, so the least he could do was see me off. I suddenly missed my mother; she would’ve been good at these special occasions. It wasn’t that my dad didn’t try; it was just different. Like tonight. He should have known to be here. He cared enough to force me to go to a stupid dance, but now when I needed him for support, he was out working, as always.

It was six. I had told him that I planned to leave at six thirty to meet my friends. Maybe he had stopped to get something to eat, since I’d also informed him that I wouldn’t be cooking.

I started down the stairs, feeling stupid. Maybe I just wouldn’t go. I could set up the tripod and take my own picture. As I was heading toward the storage closet, my phone rang — Jesse’s ringtone. I ran to the foyer table and snatched it up. “Hey …” I said, attempting to put on a smile for him. Even though he couldn’t see me, he always knew when I was upset.

“Hey, cowgirl, how ya feeling? Ready for your big night?”

“I’m ready, but not ready … I don’t want —”

“Well, guess what?” He cut me off. “Our song’s on the radio right now, so if you’re ready early, like you usually are, we can listen together.”

I couldn’t resist smiling. “I love it when you call like this, like you don’t want to miss anything. You’re always so romantic. I was waiting for my dad, but I’ll wait in my truck so we can listen together … hang on … just grabbing my keys and stuff.”

He laughed as I fumbled for my keys while trying to hold the phone. “Do you need help carrying anything; it sounds like you have a handful?”

“No, I was just grabbing the camera — what did you say?”

“Would you like some help?” he repeated.

I opened up the door and almost fainted. Standing there, looking as gorgeous as I’d ever seen him, was Jesse. Decked out in a tux, his hair carefully gelled, wearing the most breathtaking smile, he was more handsome than I even remembered.

My eyes filled as I stumbled forward, falling into him. Behind Jesse was my father, standing tall and proud.

“Are you gonna let the boy come into the house?” my father grumbled, walking around us.

Jesse didn’t move either. He held onto me as if his life depended on our embrace. “Surprise, cowgirl,” he whispered in my ear. He pulled back. “You look incredible. Your hair is different, but I like it.” Then he shot a teasing glare. “And why are you looking so good?” Pulling me into the house, he shut the door behind us.

“Your picture,” I confessed. “I’d just decided I wasn’t going and was going to set up the tripod to take the picture here when you called.”

“You wouldn’t have dared,” he challenged. “You already promised you would go.”

h3=.

19 – Jesse

Kayla threw herself at me again, kissing every square inch of my face, ending with my lips.

“Wow, maybe we shouldn’t go …” I offered, but took her hand in mine and led her back to the door; I was aching to get her alone. “Thank you, John,” I called back into the house. I knew John had left us alone, but I assumed he’d want to hug his daughter goodbye.

Sure enough, John appeared around the corner, camcorder in hand. “Okay, kids. Just a couple seconds, and then you can leave.”

Kayla handed John the camera, and he took several pictures while the video recorded. Then I offered to take a couple of Kayla and her dad. John argued, but I insisted.

John shooed us off quickly, and for that I was thankful; also appreciative that he let me take his truck. Kayla had a truck, but from what she’d told me, it wasn’t nice enough to take her to prom in.

I dragged Kayla outside. I was so excited to see her, but I wanted to get her in the truck where we could be alone.

I helped Kayla up into the truck, not an easy task with her dress … which was absolutely incredible on her. I was glad I was here. I would have been terribly jealous if she had, in fact, gone alone. As fast as I could, I ran around the front and hopped into the driver’s side.

Kayla just stared at me, arms crossed, eyebrows furrowed, but I saw her mouth edging up at the corners. “So, you and my dad tricked me?”

I reached for her hand, anxious to pull her into my arms. “I just couldn’t bear for you to miss your prom because of me.”

“What about your prom?” she asked, frowning.

I shrugged. “I went last year, and this here with you … this is all I need. Besides, you’ll discover you won’t really care about prom as a senior. You just can’t wait to get out. As a junior, it’s more exciting.” I lifted her hand to my lips, kissing it. “So, do you forgive your father and me for tricking you?”

“Yes,” she said, blushing … she never blushed.

“Good! But … you’ll have to tell me where you want to eat. I didn’t figure out that part since I don’t know the area.” I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. I was just so happy to be here and was delighted by my reception. She’d clearly missed me as much as I’d missed her, as hard as that was to imagine.

“How ’bout we just get a pizza and eat it in the car?” she beamed.

“Seriously?” I asked, shaking my head in mock horror. “I get dressed up in a tux and you want pizza?” I pulled her closer and wrapped my arms around her. “I love you, do you know that? Can you begin to fathom just how much?”

Her eyes were anxious and wide. “I think so …”

“I don’t think you can, Kayla, if you say, I think so.” I placed my hands on either side of her face and looked fiercely into her eyes. “You’re the most amazing woman. So much so, I flew six hundred miles just to eat pizza and go dancing with you.”

“Not to kiss me, then?” she asked, a smile in her voice.

“Oh, and definitely to kiss you. That’s a given. I’d travel any distance to kiss you.”

“Then hush up and kiss me.”

That was all the invitation I needed. I pulled her closer, aware that we were still in her driveway, thankful for the dark tinted windows, and not concerned with anything else in the world but this beautiful woman in my arms. The last month dissolved as though we’d never been apart. She felt exactly the same in my arms, warm and loving. I breathed in her scent. I’d missed that too, I suddenly realized. The subtle fragrance instantly transported me back to the blanket by the stream, where I first knew I loved her and would always want nothing but her.

Kayla pulled back before I did, but laid her head on my chest. I wrapped my arms around her tighter and buried my head in her hair. I could hear her soft gasps for air as she tried to hold back tears.

“Please don’t cry, Kayla. I’m here. Let’s go have fun, okay?”

She nodded against my chest, but didn’t move.

I nudged up her chin so she’d look at me. I narrowed my eyes and gave her a firm look. “I love you, Kayla, never doubt that. We will have a good time tonight, we will be together this weekend, and then again in a little over a month for the entire summer. And after that …” I paused to make sure she understood what I was saying. It wasn’t time yet, but I needed to get my point across. “We will be together forever.”

She was momentarily dazed, then a wide smile spread across her face. She understood.

“So where do we get pizza, silly girl?”

Kayla directed me to the restaurant she liked, and instead of going inside to eat, she made me bring it back to the truck.

We talked while we ate, and I had to remind her that it was time to go. She still didn’t seem too excited about going to her prom. “Don’t you want to introduce me to your friends?” I finally asked, only a twinge of concern eating at me. Unlike my ex, I had no doubts about my relationship with Kayla, but I still hoped that she’d be proud enough of me to introduce me to her friends.

h3=.

20 – Kayla

I hadn’t thought about introducing Jesse to my friends. I’d told the few girlfriends that I was close with about him, but they didn’t believe he existed. They accused me of making him up so I would have an excuse not to date. Wouldn’t they be surprised when I strolled in on Jesse’s arm?

Jesse had thought of everything. He’d even had my dad get him a ticket so there wouldn’t be any questions at the door.

I looked around for any of my friends to see me walk through the door … no one so far. We paused to take our picture with the Casablanca background, the theme for this year’s prom. I would now treasure the picture I’d only remotely been interested in taking before Jesse arrived.

Jesse didn’t offer to sit or ask if I wanted to dance; he just led me to the dance floor. It wasn’t a fast song, but it wasn’t a slow song either, and yet it didn’t seem to bother him. He pulled me close, gathering my one hand to his chest and proceeded to move me around the floor. He was extremely good, and I felt a stab of jealousy. I’d never slow danced before, but he acted as though it were old hand.

The song ended and before I could ask him, a slow song came on … our song, which wasn’t surprising since it was so popular. I no longer cared to bring up a silly question. I knew he’d dated before me. Instead, I rested my head against his chest again, not caring who saw us or if we spoke to anyone all night. I only wanted Jesse to hold me — always.

 

 

h3=.

21 – Jesse

I savored how good it felt just to have Kayla in my arms again. I hadn’t enjoyed my prom with Morgan last year. It was all about who was there, what they were wearing, and where I took her out to eat. What a difference between the two girls, and it made me wonder again what I’d ever seen in Morgan. I couldn’t remember one reason why we’d stayed together for almost two years, other than I just hated to date.

Kayla, on the other hand, I knew every smile, every sigh, everything she liked and didn’t like, and she even enjoyed doing the same things I did.

As much as I tried to drown myself in Kayla, however, I couldn’t help but notice the stares. Several guys lounging around the room couldn’t keep their eyes off us. I suddenly had a flashback of an animal show. It felt as though I were a lion, waiting while other lions circled, until one would be brave enough to challenge me for my prize.

I wasn’t into playing team sports; I liked individual sports like kayaking and martial arts. I’d only lost one fight when I was young; after that, I’d made sure I was the best. I hadn’t felt threatened in years, not since I whooped the boy who’d beaten me up when I was thirteen. The next time he’d said something about my mother, I’d been ready. No one had ever touched me or taunted me again, but I continued training. Not just any sparring either, I didn’t practice the kind of stuff that looked good; I learned the arts that worked.

The last thing I wanted was a fight, but I saw one guy coming in for the challenge. He was the brave one … looked like the captain of the football team … school hero was making his approach.

I nodded over Kayla’s shoulder. “What’s this dude’s name walking up?” I asked casually, making sure my expression remained indifferent.

“Oh, that’s Roger.” She rolled her eyes. “Thinks he’s all that.”

“Has he ever asked you out?”

“Me?” she huffed lightly. “No, never. Why?”

“Because he’s getting up the nerve to cut in on our dance, and sorry, I’m not about to let that happen. I didn’t plan for a month and fly six hundred miles to share you with anyone.”

h3=.

22 – Kayla

I blanched at the idea that Roger or any kid in my school would try to cut in on our dance. “No, he isn’t,” I told Jesse, laughing. “Roger’s never given me the time of day. He dates the most popular and beautiful girls … cheerleaders.”

“Did you look in a mirror tonight, Kayla? You’re the most beautiful girl in the room.” Jesse looked straight into my eyes, but his arms tightened around me as — like Jesse had said — Roger approached us.

I instantly tensed up when Roger tapped Jesse on the shoulder. I wasn’t used to being the center of attention, and all of a sudden I felt all eyes on me.

Jesse didn’t let me go, though. Instead, he glanced over his shoulder. He was taller than Roger was, but Roger was huge. Although it was hard to see through his clothes, Jesse was strong. I’d seen him in nothing but board shorts and he was pure muscle, strong and fast.

“Roger,” Jesse said, shocking him by using his name when he’d clearly never seen him before, “I know you’ve seen in the movies where a guy approaches a couple and cuts in on their dance and the other guy graciously concedes. Well, I’m not that other guy. I haven’t held my girl in a month, and I don’t plan to let her go all evening, so I suggest you find someone else to dance with. I’m sure there are plenty of other girls who’d be interested.” Jesse twirled us away, never removing his eyes from Roger.

Cowering in Jesse’s arms, I took in the surrounding stares. Roger seemed to be stunned and had no comeback; plus, he would’ve had to follow us across the dance floor. It impressed me that not only had Jesse stood up for me, but he also hadn’t tried to start a fight. He said his piece, then moved away without waiting for a reply.

“Wow … uh, that was unexpected.” I shook my head, trying to reassemble my thoughts. “I liked your dignified response, though.” I smiled up at him. “Not that other guy, huh? I didn’t realize you were jealous.”

“You have no idea. It kills me that I’m not here, and now I wonder … how often —”

“Never,” I cut him off. “You don’t have to wonder. Like you said, I’m your girl … forever. That was unexpected; I’ve never even spoken to him.”

“Well, I guess I can’t blame a guy for trying. You look incredible tonight.”

“I do?”

“Yes, you look wonderful every day. I like you in shorts and a T-shirt with dirt smeared across your face, but I can get used to this too. So, how long do you want to stay?”

“Not long … what do you have in mind?”

“Um … I don’t know. This is your turf. What do you suggest?”

“I’ll think of something,” I promised.

We spent the next hour meeting and greeting all my friends who were completely giddy to see Jesse. I realized suddenly how much he stood out with his naturally highlighted hair and tanned skin. No one else approached me for a dance. I guessed that when the star of the football team fails, everyone else throws in the towel. Good. I wasn’t up to disputes over me. I didn’t need proof that anyone was interested in me other than Jesse.

After we left, I directed him to a private park, so it didn’t have a close-at-dusk sign as most parks did. It wouldn’t be desolate, but it’d be private. The subdivision was set up like an old-fashioned town center with a clock tower, a main street dotted with townhouses, an ice cream shop, and deli. Behind the clock tower, a water fountain drowned out what little traffic passed on the main road.

I trailed Jesse to one of the benches adjacent to the pond and pulled him down beside me. “My mom used to bring me here for movie night under the stars.”

“Really?” he said. “That would be so cool. It’s nice to have some happy memories of her, huh?”

“Yes. I try to remember the good things.”

He pulled me up. “Let’s walk.”

I fell in step with him, but I was a little discouraged, as I’d been hoping he’d want to make out on the bench, but knowing Jesse, that was probably why he wanted to walk. Over the last month when we’d talked on the phone, he confessed more about his reasons for never entering a physical relationship, how utterly terrified he’d been that he could have gotten a girl pregnant. [Case and point … _]he’d said. _Look what happened to Morgan after I broke up with her.

We walked hand in hand as we had over spring break, sharing everything. It felt so natural being with him. When the time came that neither of us had anything to say, we were just as comfortable walking silently or sitting and staring up at the stars. I silently imagined the future. I hadn’t thought too much about it. I knew I wanted to be with Jesse forever, but I’d never thought about the specifics. I suddenly thought about a complicated issue. Where would we live? He had his entire career planned out, his college, his business; everything was in Florida. My father … lived in North Carolina. I was all he had. How could I leave him?

I couldn’t very well bring up the subject. Although Jesse had said forever and implied that I was his, he hadn’t asked me to marry him and we were, after all, still only seventeen. Not that that mattered, I knew what I wanted; I just didn’t know how it was going to work.

Jesse brushed his hand across my cheek. “Hey, what are you thinking about? You look nervous.”

“Nothing, just us …” I sighed, attempting to lighten my mood. Relax … just relax. Everything will work out, I repeated over and over in my head.

 

I was thankful that my dad had allowed Jesse to stay at our house. He wouldn’t have to drive back to a hotel, so we could talk all night. I put fresh sheets in the spare room, and after we talked for hours, I turned the lock on the door before I started to walk out.

He laughed. “Don’t you trust me?”

I smiled. “It’s me I don’t trust. That’s why I’m locking you in here.”

“Lock your door too, just in case I sleepwalk,” he ordered.

We both laughed, but then sighed at the true emotions that swarmed our hormone-filled bodies.

 

We spent the weekend exploring my favorite haunts. I took him to Crowder’s Mountain on Saturday and then Sunday we stayed close to home. I took him to Reed’s Gold Mine, which was supposedly the first documented commercial gold find in the United States, and then afterward I taught him to ride horses. I laughed when he complained about his knees hurting afterward. He had no idea, he admitted, how much strength people used just to ride.

My dad had planned to take Jesse to the airport on Monday morning, but after pleading and groveling, he’d allowed me to skip a few hours of school to take him instead.

Jesse refused to let me wait with him. Instead, we said our goodbyes in the cell-phone parking lot, and then he asked me to drop him off. He didn’t want me hanging around the airport and walking through the parking lot.

We planned my return trip to Florida, which was just a little over a month away. I’d fly in again, and he promised to be there to pick me up when I arrived.

And then Jesse was gone. And I felt utterly alone.

 

 

h3=.

23 – Jesse

I spent every minute of my day at school, working, or studying. I continued to save every penny I made, as I’d done for the last three years. One thing nice about living with my dad, even though it was like living on my own: he never asked me for a dime. I’d offered once, but he’d acted offended, saying, I don’t need your money, son, just keep doing a good job working. It was the first compliment he’d ever given me.

I, however, had always tried to keep the refrigerator stocked with food, and when I noticed he liked a certain item, I made sure I bought extra. Then my dad started to leave a few bills on the counter and marked them for groceries, so evidently he’d gotten used to me stocking food. I also made a few home-cooked meals and then left a note for him that dinner was in the fridge. He never commented on it, but he always ate whatever I left.

I knew my dad loved me; he just didn’t know how to show love. When my mom left, she’d taken every ounce of him with her. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t just try to find another woman; after all, how deeply could you love a woman who’d left you for another man? But then I imagined myself in the same position with Kayla. How would I feel if I all of a sudden found her with another man? Would I recover? Would I be able to trust a woman again?

Because of that, I vowed to do everything I could to be successful and make sure she was never forced into marrying me. I’d never be super wealthy, but Kayla, like me, seemed to be happy with the simpler things in life. I’d never heard of a woman who wanted pizza on prom night.

She’d explained it in a way that made total sense. “I know I can have anything I want to eat or go to any restaurant I want, but if I want pizza, I eat pizza. I don’t have to go to an expensive restaurant … just because I can or because that is what is expected.”

I’d sat for a long moment in astonishment. Would I ever get used to her?

Graduation was Friday night, and she would be here. She’d booked an early flight so we’d have the day together before my final walk ending my high school years. I left the graduation information on the counter for my father, but didn’t ask him to come. If he showed, great. If not, oh well … Kayla would be there, and that was all I needed.

 

I parked and walked as far as airport security would allow. Kayla had insisted that I didn’t need to park, that I could wait in the cell-phone parking lot until she was through baggage claim. I’d laughed. As if that was ever going to happen. I’d meet her on the tarmac if they allowed me.

I scanned the monitors, praying there weren’t any delays. Finally, her flight number reported “arrived,” and my arms ached in anticipation of holding her again. Not knowing which tram she’d arrive on, but wanting to spot her first, I angled my body so I could see both monorails as they pulled up.

The minutes crept by … until fifteen minutes had elapsed since the plane had landed. I scrutinized the people as they exited the plane, searching for clues that they’d arrived from Charlotte. A Panther’s cap, UNC T-shirt, Tar Heels paraphernalia, anything. I pulled out my phone, wondering if she’d missed the plane. I was looking down when a vicelike grip seized my waist.

“Ha-ha, gotcha,” she said through a chuckle, burrowing her head beneath my arm and popping up in front of me.

“Yes, you did,” I agreed, and she had. She’d gotten to me completely.

I picked her up and swung her around, then pulled her face to mine. How many more times would we have to go through this before we were together permanently? “I was just getting worried that you’d missed your plane. What took you so long?”

“Hah! Are you kidding? I was the first person on the plane,” she said, draping her arms around my neck. “But I’d sat in the rear of the plane and had the slowest people you could imagine in front of me. I almost climbed over the seats to get out.”

I could picture her doing just that. I grabbed the handle for her carry-on bag, and wrapped my arm firmly around her waist, leading her to the baggage claim. “Let’s go. The faster we get out of here, the better. We have a month’s worth of kissing to make up.”

She leaned against me, wrapping her arm around my waist. I absolutely loved that she always hung on to me. Obviously she wasn’t embarrassed to be seen with me.

“I see you already have your standard Florida attire of cutoffs, T-shirt, and flip-flops.”

She stared up at me. “Sorry … too casual?”

“No, I love it! It’s perfect for where I’m taking you today.” I loved that about her. Never putting on airs, just being herself. Of course, she didn’t have to do anything to look great; she was naturally the most beautiful woman in my world. “So you were in a hurry to see me?” I asked casually.

“You have no idea. I think my dad was ready to drive me here so I’d shut up about it. So where are you sweeping me off to before we have to go to your graduation tonight?”

“You’ll see … something we never got around to when you were here in March.”

When we got to the luggage pick up, Kayla leaned back into my arms while we watched the carousel go around. As before, it felt as though there was no down time, no awkwardness. She fit nicely in my arms, as if she’d never left.

“There they are,” she said, sprinting forward and pulling her suitcase off the belt. I nudged her hand off the handle and lifted the first one she pointed out, and then a few seconds later, the other piece she indicated. It felt as though she’d stuffed each of them to the full fifty pounds allowable.

I piled one on the other and drew them behind me while holding her in my other arm; I didn’t plan to let her out of my arms for even a second.

Once we reached the top parking deck, I loaded all of her suitcases in the bed of the truck, closed the door behind her and crawled into the driver’s side. She’d already moved to the middle seat. I reached over and locked her door, then drew her into my arms. We weren’t going anywhere for a few minutes.

Before kissing her, I just rested my cheek against hers, breathing in her familiar smell, then pulled her entire body to me. Her lips were soft, warm, and familiar. “God, I missed you,” I whispered beneath my kiss. I moved my hands through her curls … even the texture was memorable. Everything about her felt comfortable, no strangeness from not being together for two months less our weekend visit. “I wish you never had to leave again.”

“Well, we have almost three months this time … are you sure you won’t get sick of me? After all, we’ve only spent ten full days together,” she said.

“Wow … I never thought about that. Why does it feel like forever? In a good way,” I amended. “Of course, I think between our phone conversations, emails, and texts, I actually speak to you more than I’ve spoken to any other living and breathing person. Even my father … and I live and work with him.”

“Same,” she said, falling against my shoulder and wrapping her arms tighter around me. “And it feels like I’ve been with you forever, but when I thought about it, I was shocked when I realized we’d spent such a short time together physically. I plan to remedy that over the next few months, though.” She laughed. “So, not to start off with forceful questions, but you know me.” I smiled. I did know her. “How much do you have to work this summer?”

“Oh, that’s easy. I already worked it out with my dad. I’ll go to work at five every morning and get off somewhere between noon and two, depending on how the day goes. How does that work?”

Kayla jutted out her bottom lip. “You have to work every day?”

I pushed in her lip with the tip of my finger. How cute she was. “Not Saturday and Sunday, and if I’m caught up, I can take off Friday too. Besides, I don’t want you to get sick of me.”

“That’s not gonna happen, Jesse.” My heart melted at the sound of my name on her lips, the way her sweet southern accent always came out smooth and sultry when she drew out my name. “Why do you have to work full time? It’s your last summer as a kid … won’t your father let you take time off?”

“We’ll have plenty of time, cowgirl. I was even thinking I’d take a full week off when the weather looks good, and if your dad will allow it, maybe take you camping. You think he’ll be okay with that? If you’re interested in camping, that is.”

“I’d love that, and he’ll just have to deal with it.” She narrowed her eyebrows. “Are you okay with it, though? Aren’t you afraid I’ll attack you?”

At her intense look, I wondered if I really could handle being alone with her all night. “I think I’ll take my chances,” I said. “I still have you by almost a hundred pounds, cowgirl.”

I turned on the ignition, and navigated my truck through the parking garage, making my way to Highway 60. “Are you hungry?”

“Famished … it was too early to eat this morning, and they don’t give you anything on the plane.”

“Good.”

“Jesse, you sidetracked me … I wasn’t finished complaining yet. Why do you have to work full-time? You don’t have to pay for anything at home, do you? I certainly don’t expect you to spend money on me. I’d rather spend more time with you just hanging out.”

“I don’t have to buy anything but food at home, and sometimes my dad even leaves money for groceries, but I make good money and I’ve been able to save every penny since I’ve had no one to spend it on … before now, anyway.” I rested my hand on her knee, reveling in her soft skin that I hadn’t felt against mine for six weeks. I looked at her as I stopped at a red light. “If I save enough in the next year, I’ll have enough to pay for some much needed items in the future.” I didn’t want to go into detail and hoped, as always, she’d read between the lines enough not to push the issue. I’d given her a little hint by saying a year; we both knew we had another year of waiting.

“Okay, Jesse,” she sighed, “just remember I don’t need much.”

I squeezed her closer. “I know, babe, and I appreciate that more than you know.

 

The restaurant I took her to was an old southern-style eatery I’d been going to as long as I could remember. Its eclectic style encompassed not only the furniture but also the food, patrons, and building materials. It had literally been piecemealed together as they grew in popularity over the years. From the front, it looked like just an ice cream stand with bright colored wooden benches.

Around back, simple plastic patio tables and chairs sat below a wooden trellis laced with ivy and other evergreen vines. Areca palms and old oaks surrounded the property, providing privacy. The floor was mostly wooden slats, and practically every time I’d eaten here at least one woman would start dancing to a Jimmy Buffett song playing in the background, even when there wasn’t a designated dance floor.

Even the food was a hodgepodge of everything from ice cream and hot dogs to fried green tomatoes and New York Strip. The service wasn’t the best, and honestly, I figured the owner just didn’t care. Ever since the Travel Channel had run a feature on them, visitors from the famous spa down the road frequented the local haunt with their demanding attitudes.

“We can grab ice cream and hot dogs or sit down for lunch; either is fine with me. How hungry are you? Don’t forget we’re going out tonight. Some place nice … not just pizza.” I chuckled as I pulled her toward the restaurant. “It’s fun to sit in the back, or we can take it down to the dock with us.”

“How ’bout we just get a hot dog and ice cream, since you won’t let me eat junk food for dinner.”

“Sounds good to me. This is one of the only places I can get a slaw dog.”

I ordered two chili dogs with slaw and two ice cream orders in cups, and we were back in the truck heading to our first stop: the Baranoff Tree, directly down the street.

When we got out, I threw her luggage into the cab and locked up. I loved coming to Safety Harbor just to think. It was one of my favorite places. I’d been here several times in the last couple of months, looking forward to when I could bring Kayla with me.

“The Baranoff Tree is the oldest living live oak in Pinellas County. It is estimated to be between three hundred and five hundred years old, and the trunk measures about twenty feet around. Cool, huh?”

“It’s majestic,” Kayla said, popping a too-large bite of hot dog in her mouth. The coleslaw smashed out of the sides of her mouth, making a mess. I handed her a napkin, almost losing my food from laughing so hard. She was just so darn appealing it made my heart hurt. Everything she did only made me love her more. I thought maybe her display should bother me, but instead I found it endearing. And best of all, she was in total awe of the tree, as I’d been since I was a child.

Next, we walked down to the docks. I trailed her along the dock, checking out all the sailboats and what species of fish the fishermen were pulling in. I led Kayla away from the tourists to a boat ramp that was marked “private,” but I knew several of the owners. We were rewarded with a private view of a family of manatees.

We ate our ice cream in silence as we watched pelicans diving for fish and hundreds of tiny crabs scurrying along the water’s edge. She scooted closer to me and rested her head on my shoulder when she finished eating.

“Did you bring the same dress for tonight?” I asked. “I didn’t get another tux, but I bought a nice suit that should complement it nicely. I figured I’d need one soon, so why waste the money renting another tux.”

She smiled. “No, but I bought another dress I thought you’d like. Not quite as formal, but very Floridian-like. No more details, though. You’ll have to wait until tonight. I needed another dress; all I have is jeans, shorts, and casual shirts.”

“I like them too.” I smiled, wiggling my eyebrows. “Especially the white one that ties in the front that you wore at Juniper Springs … that was sexy.”

A beautiful display of pink spread across Kayla’s cheeks. “Sexy?” She could be so bold one moment, then the next I could have her blushing. “So where are we going out to eat tonight?” she inquired, obviously trying to change the subject.

“Not a chance … it’s a surprise. And stop changing the subject. You don’t think you’re sexy?”

She shook her head.

“Hmm …” I said. “I obviously haven’t been doing my job.” I nuzzled her neck.

“But it’s your graduation … shouldn’t I —”

I sat back upright, cutting her off. “Kayla, you haven’t allowed me to take you anywhere. I have money, you know. I like to go out too, and I haven’t done anything like this in a long time, so let me have my fun … okay?” I pulled her face to mine and kissed her lightly, then pulled her back on the grass. “Shh … about that stuff. Let’s just enjoy this.”

She curled up against me, sighing.

Closing my eyes, I let the warmth spread across my face. I’d worked so much lately I hadn’t even taken time to go to the beach. Kayla would be good for me. She liked the outdoors, so she’d force me to take it easy and have fun this summer.

After about a half hour of soaking up the rays, and practically falling asleep, I rolled over, still keeping her head on the crook of my arm. “I’d better get you home. Gram will probably want to see you sometime today.”

“Yeah, I suppose. I miss her too. I just hate for you to have to leave.”

I slid out my arm and offered her my hand, pulling her to her feet. “It’ll only be for a little while, just long enough for you to get ready and I’ll be back.”

“I can be ready in fifteen minutes.”

“You’re such a silly girl. I’ll miss you too, but we have all summer. Gram will be mad if I don’t share you.”

We walked back up the street hand in hand. The summer had started off perfectly.

 

When we got to her house, I went in long enough to carry Kayla’s stuff to her room, kiss and hug Gram, and talk for a few minutes. I wanted to stay as long as possible too, but I also hoped that when I was home getting ready, maybe my dad would be there and realize that it was a special night.

As always, I left Kayla on the porch with a lingering kiss. I hoped we never got to the point where she didn’t feel the need to walk me out or kiss me goodbye. I loved that and the fact she waited until I drove off before turning away. Little things like that made me feel completely loved.

 

 

h3=.

24 – Jesse

A black F-150 sat in my driveway, so I parked along the street in front of my house. My dad’s work van sat next to it, so he was home but evidently had company. Not completely unusual; sometimes he met with building contractors, but he hadn’t taken on any large jobs in years. Said the stress wasn’t worth the money.

“Hey, Dad, I’m home,” I called out as I stuck my head in the fridge for something to drink. I hadn’t really expected an answer. I just did it to let him know I was in the house.

My dad walked into the kitchen from the living room, dressed in something other than his work clothes. That was an unusual occurrence. My dad lived in khakis and a blue work shirt.

A beautiful woman with long platinum-blond hair followed in behind him. Very unusual.

It took a few seconds, but then my mouth dropped open. “Mom?” I asked. “Is that you?”

“Hi, honey. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to visit.”

Kayla’s words ran through my head, Don’tbe sorry … But I didn’t dare say them. My dad may have been upset at her for deserting us, but not once had he ever uttered a bad word about her. The solitary time I had said something derogatory about her, when I was too young to know what the word meant, I’d received a hard slap across the face. It was one of only two incidents my dad had ever hit me. The other was for taking the Lord’s name in vain.

“Wow … why … why are you here?” Oops. That didn’t come out right, but I really didn’t know what else to say.

“I wanted to come to your graduation, and your father and I pitched in together on a graduation gift.” She smiled sweetly, but the years of pain she’d inflicted overshadowed the joy I should have felt at seeing her.

I really didn’t know what else to say. Now I understood my father’s clothes. He was going to come to my graduation — with my mom. I’d have to change my dinner plans, but at least I’d have an opportunity to introduce them to the best decision in my short life; my parents would meet Kayla.

“Did Kayla get in okay?” my father finally spoke.

“Yeah, we went to Whistle Stop for a hot dog and ice cream. Afterward, I took her to see the old oak tree, and then we walked down to the docks … like we used to when I was a kid.” I smiled up at my dad, and he nodded in return. I hoped it didn’t hurt his feelings to bring up happier times when the three of us were a family, but I wanted him to know I remembered the good things. And it felt good to actually have a conversation that didn’t comprise of just plumbing. I wondered what pain this visit from my mom would inflict on my dad, not that he could get much worse than he was, but if seeing her again would help him to move on or push him over the edge… It was clear that the years had been kinder to her, but that’s what an unlimited amount of money to visit spas and plastic surgeons offered.

“It’s been a long time, Jess,” my mom finally said, walking over to me and giving me a hug. Her embrace felt awkward and forced, but I tried to give her a genuine hug. I firmly gripped my arms around her for a few seconds, but she patted me on the back, releasing me all too soon.

I wondered how adults could have physical relationships with strangers they had met online or in a bar but couldn’t be comfortable hugging their own child. It frustrated me, but I pushed it aside. She was here. Although I didn’t understand why she’d stayed away for nine years, she was here now.

My dad looked slightly content, if that were at all possible. I remembered a time when my father was happy, when he’d come home from work and we’d wrestle on the floor. It seemed like forever. Maybe my dad was just feeling melancholy too, with mom being here.

“Well,” my mom blurted out, “let’s show Jess his gift, shall we?”

My dad actually smiled. It’d been forever since I’d seen him smile. They both started toward the front door, and I followed, confused.

“What do you think,” my mom asked animatedly, imitating a game show host, her hands held out.

“What do I think of what?”

“Your new truck,” she said. “I asked Tom what you needed, and he said you were going to be a businessman and needed something nicer than your old, broken-up Ranger.

“You bought me a truck?” I asked.

“We both did … What do you think?” she repeated. “Do you like the color?”

I didn’t know what to think. Yeah, I was grateful, but I was also a little peeved. Neither of them had been parents to me for years, and now they were giving me a new F-150? A nice one at that. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what it must have cost. My dad had money, of course. He never spent a dime and we lived like paupers, even though the business did well enough.

I had a good mind to tell them what to do with their truck, but then they would be upset and probably wouldn’t come tonight. That’s all I really wanted from my parents: for them to show up at even one of my school functions.

“Um … wow … this is for me?” I finally pushed out. Humble was always good. “I don’t know what to say. Thanks! I can’t believe you did this.”

My father tapped me on the back. “Well, you deserve it. You’re a good kid, Jesse. Great student, great worker, and we love you.” It was the first time I could remember my father saying that he loved me or acknowledged anything I did other than work.

Whether he wanted it or not, I turned and hugged my dad. “Thanks, Dad. I love you too.” I turned to my mother. “Thanks, Mom. I’m so glad you came tonight. Are you coming to my graduation? I was taking Kayla out to dinner afterward … it’d be great if you could come with us.”

“I have to catch a plane back home, Jess, so I won’t be able to come to dinner, but yes I want to see my son graduate.”

Oh well, better than nothing. I shouldn’t have expected more.

“Keys are in it. Check it out,” my dad said.

The truck was an all-black number, even black leather, and four-by-four to boot. I didn’t need this. My Ranger would have lasted me through college, but the full-size truck was sweet. I’d feel better driving Kayla around in it instead of my dent-in-every-panel Ranger. Not that she minded; she’d even nicknamed my Ranger Sir Dents a Lot.

“This is awesome. Thanks again. You really didn’t have to do this.” I checked the time. “I have to pick up Kayla in less than an hour, so I need to get ready. Will you meet me outside the dome so I can introduce you to her? She’s great, and she means everything to me.” My parents exchanged a look. My father knew, of course. I’d had to inform him when I disappeared for three days, so he knew how serious we were, but hadn’t commented or had any reaction about Kayla before now. I ignored their prejudices and went inside. Clearly, they were thinking of their history, but neither Kayla nor I were like my parents.

Twenty minutes later, I hugged my mom goodbye and told them where we should meet.

I didn’t want to take the F-150 to Kayla’s, but it would have hurt my parents’ feelings if I didn’t. I didn’t feel like the same person I’d been just an hour ago, as though accepting their gift had compromised me somehow. Maybe Kayla could help.

When I pulled up in front of the house, the wood blinds moved, but Kayla didn’t come to the door. Oh … I forgot … the new truck. I jumped out and bounded up the stairs two at a time. Kayla opened the door before I could knock.

“What the heck? You bought a truck?” She hated spending money more than I did, it seemed.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “You’ll never believe what happened. It’s a graduation gift from my dad and mom. And … my mom is here.”

“Oh, Jesse, that’s wonderful. She came to see you graduate? You must be ecstatic. Why are you here? You should have called. I would’ve understood.”

Kayla said the words as if the most important place to be wasn’t with her. She said nothing about the gift; she felt the same way I did, obviously.

“Nothing would keep me from you, Kayla. Besides … I asked her out to dinner with us, and she couldn’t because she has a return flight that she has to rush to. That’s how much time she wants to spend with me.”

“But she came to see you, Jesse; you have to give her that. It’s a start,” Kayla chastised lovingly.

She was right, and I couldn’t argue with her, because Kayla would do anything to have her mom attend her graduation.

“Oh, and by the way … my dad flew in thirty minutes ago. He’s on his way from the airport now to pick up Gram, and then he’ll meet us there.”

“He flew in just for my graduation?” I asked.

“Well, it’s his niece’s graduation too, but yeah; between you and me, he came to see you. He really likes you.”

“Wow! It’s turning out to be an awesome day. Enough about them, though. You look amazing. Not that you don’t always, but do you ever clean up nice, Kayla M’Lynn.”

Closing the few inches between us, I forgot about everything else going on right now. I trailed my fingers over her bare shoulder beneath the thin straps that held up the silky blue gown she’d chosen for my special night. The silky dress fell effortlessly over her beautiful curves. I glanced down at her shoes. Sandals of course, but the thin thongs matched the dress and had tiny rhinestones that showed off her painted toes. The shimmering deep purple polish almost looked black against her suntanned feet.

“Let’s go, beautiful. I’m going to have to help you up into the truck. It’s high, and there aren’t any running boards on it yet. Not that I mind that, mind you.” As soon as we stepped off the last step, I scooped her up and carried her to the truck.

She draped her arms around my neck. “It doesn’t bother me either. You can carry me anywhere you want.”

I pulled her tighter and afforded myself one more kiss before setting her inside.

“What do you think? Nicer than my old compact truck?”

“Hmm … I’ll miss Sir Dents a Lot.”

I laughed. No surprise there. “I could keep the Ranger and give them back the F-150. I really didn’t want to accept it.”

“Don’t be proud, Jesse,” she chastised again. “I know what you’re feeling, but it’d still be rude.”

Kayla was smart. She acted silly sometimes, but when it came to the serious discussions, she knew what to say and do. “You’re right, I thought the same thing. But just so you know … I didn’t want to accept it, but I knew you’d advise me on the right thing to do.”

She looked pleased with my confession and that I trusted her to lead me along the right path.

 

The greetings with my parents outside the USF Sun Dome in Tampa were short but sweet; no one had much to say. With more than six hundred students’ families clamoring for seats, though, I knew we needed to get moving. Kayla took charge with her always-chipper demeanor, then trailed them away to search for Charity’s family, who’d said they’d hold seats for them.

For the first time in a long while, I felt like I had a family. When I looked into the crowd, I saw my dad and mom, Kayla, John, Gram, and even Charity’s parents cheering for me. Kayla was smiling from ear to ear, and I could almost read her thoughts: one-step closer to forever. Maybe everything would work out for me after all.

 

After the graduation ceremony ended, we all congregated in the lobby over snacks provided by the Junior Class.

Charity’s parents were there alongside her and, surprisingly, I didn’t feel the waves of animosity that usually rolled off her. Maybe she was growing up since we were graduating.

John invited everyone to dinner at a family-style Italian restaurant he loved. His treat. I started to balk, but Kayla squeezed my hand, stopping me in my tracks.

My mom explained that she had a flight to catch, but John was having nothing doing with that. “Catch the next flight; it’s your son’s graduation,” he commanded. “The restaurant is only five minutes from the airport. I’ll take you myself if need be.”

I cringed. John had a powerful, demanding presence, but I’d never felt it turned on me, so it shocked me when he used it on my mother. Kayla squeezed my hand again, turning her head slightly to wink at me. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. Kayla had explained to her father what she wanted or what she thought should happen, I guessed, and her father had clearly agreed.

If that didn’t shock me, my mom’s acquiescence did. “Well, okay then.”

Then my father, “But she won’t need a ride; I’ll drive her.”

Then it dawned on me. Maybe why my mom had left, why she agreed to go to dinner when John had pressed. My father never demanded anything, never took control of a single situation. He had let her leave. My mom was now looking at my father with awe. She still loved him, even though she’d remarried; at least, I thought she was married. Maybe something happened and she was using my graduation as an excuse to test the waters. And my dad had stood up for himself finally. Adults were so ridiculous, the games they played. I promised myself I’d never do that with Kayla.

“So it’s settled then? I assume you kids want to drive yourselves?” John asked, his face void of any emotion, perfectly smooth and blank.

Kayla looked to me for my answer. I wasn’t sure what she wanted, but decided to make a decision. “We’d like to ride with you, if that’s all right?” Kayla wasn’t going to see her father for three months; the least I could do was share her for one evening.

John’s answering nod and smile confirmed that I’d made the right choice, the mature decision. And I wanted to please this man who could teach me so much.

 

h3=.

25 – Jesse

The evening went smoothly. It’s hard not to be comfortable when you have to decide as a group what to eat for appetizers, salad, dinner, and dessert, and then spend the meal passing around plates of food, just as I imagined large families did for special occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Conversation never lulled. When my parents had nothing to say, John quickly filled the air with anecdotes about business and politics. John had my father talking more than I’d heard him speak in the last nine years. John quickly discovered my father’s interests and had no trouble making conversation around them.

Although John wasn’t a plumber by trade, he knew practically everything there was to know about plumbing. In fact, I realized John knew a little about everything. As a mass real-estate proprietor, his holdings included apartment complexes, commercial properties, houses, and even some hotels.

“I learned young in my career,” John continued, “to make most of my repairs when I was starting out. Now I have my own maintenance people who handle most of the work at each of my properties, which saves me from calling in businesses and paying the markup.” He paused for a beat. “No offense, Tom,” John said to my father, “I understand you have to mark up your services, and I still need your expertise for the big jobs. Fixing drains and leaky toilets, though, those are jobs not worth calling out experts like Jess here, but I’m sure glad he’s here for Gram. I wouldn’t trust anyone else to take care of her. You have a bright young man here.”

John squeezed my shoulder, and I was sure my face had turned beet-red.

“No doubt, John,” my father responded. “I wouldn’t trade Jesse for ten workers. He’s the best man I’ve ever had.”

Now I was sure my mouth had fallen open, and Kayla now squeezed my knee, clearly as excited as I was by his proclamation. I never would’ve believed those words had come out of my father’s mouth if I hadn’t heard them personally.

My mother scooted back her chair. “Excuse me, gentlemen, as entertaining as this is, I’m going to take a quick break while you discuss business.”

“I’ll go with you,” Kayla said, standing up, even though I knew she had plenty of interest in our conversation. Gram followed, as did Charity and her mom.

I decided to jump at the opportunity to speak with John privately. “Mr. Jordan, thank you for dinner. For everything,” I reiterated.

“Jesse,” John said with a chuckle, “please call me John.”

I shot a look at my father across the table.

“It’s my fault, John,” my father said in my defense. “I’ve always insisted that Jesse refer to all of his friends’ parents and teachers respectfully as Mister, Sir, or Ma’am, even if they requested otherwise.”

“Thanks,” I repeated to both of them. “John, I was just curious. How long will you be in town?”

“I’m leaving tomorrow morning. Why?”

“Well, I wanted to speak to you about something important. Do you think we could speak tonight … after dinner?”

John looked at me with sharp eyes, and I was sure the man could read my thoughts. “Yes, we can,” he answered, his voice low and intense. “I need to speak with you too.”

Oops … had Kayla already mentioned camping? Was John upset that I’d suggested we spend a night together unsupervised?

“We’ll get coffee after we drop off the women,” John continued in his authoritative tone.

My father watched the interaction between John and me. What did he think we were talking about? I’d never thought to ask my dad’s advice before tonight. We’d never been intimate enough to discuss such delicate situations.

 

When dinner ended, I said goodbye to my mom and dad. They were going to the airport together and would just wait for the next available flight. It’d give them time to talk. I hoped that whatever happened, it’d help my father move on one way or the other.

Kayla looked forlorn when I explained that I was going with her father to get coffee. She couldn’t stand to be away from me any more than I could bear to leave her.

I kissed her lightly, squeezing both her hands gently as she’d done earlier. “Just an hour or so, and then we have all summer, cowgirl.”

She reached up on her tiptoes. “Okay, but don’t let him scare you. He likes you, but he also thinks he needs to play big, bad protective father. Feels it’s his duty as a father to scare you.”

“Thanks for the tip.” I kissed her again, then trotted off to John’s waiting truck.

 

I wasn’t a coffee drinker at night, so whatever I ordered would keep me up. Not that I would be able to sleep tonight anyway.

John ordered his coffee black. “Doesn’t matter if I don’t drink a drop. I hardly sleep anyway. Can’t seem to turn off my brain.”

Kayla had said John had fought insomnia as long as she could remember, and that he’d literally go until he crashed. She’d find him sound asleep in the recliner sometimes and knew not to wake him, even if he stayed there all night.

John leaned back comfortably in the wingback chair, crossing his legs. “So, why don’t you start?”

I found it hard to translate his ambiguous expression. I couldn’t tell if he was pleased or angry. John held his posture as he waited for my — which now felt like a confession of guilt — request. I sat motionless, my back ramrod straight, refusing to allow John’s expression, which was calm but otherwise unreadable, to deter me from my request.

“John,” I started boldly, “as you know, based on our last conversation, I’ve worked for my father as a plumber’s apprentice for three years. Because I have no expenses, I’ve managed to save practically every penny. By this time next year, I expect to have close to thirty-five thousand dollars saved. Enough, I believe, to put a large deposit on a house. I have high expectations for my career and where I see my business going in the next few years, and believe I can provide a comfortable life for Kayla.” I paused to take a breath, but noticing John had not changed his posture, I continued, “I know we’re young, but I’ve been practically taking care of myself for the last nine years and know without a doubt that Kayla is the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with. With your permission, I would like to ask her to marry me privately when she turns eighteen, and then I’d like to have an official wedding when she graduates next year. And so you know that I have nothing but good intentions, I will further suggest that even though I want to marry her immediately, I wouldn’t expect to consummate our marriage until she graduates next year and we’re on our own.”

There, I’d said my piece. I sat back and took a deep breath. I’d made my request; now it was up to John. What would I do if he refused his blessing? Would I retreat graciously? Could I wait a year to ask Kayla to marry me?

John nodded, holding his mouth in a firm, tight line. “I expected this much. I want you to know I admire you, son. You know what you want, or at least you think you do. Just like I did when I was your age, but I’d like to make you a counter offer.” He arched a brow, then steepled his hands beneath his chin. “Did you buy a ring?”

I gulped, but tried to hold my own with John. At least he hadn’t booted me out of the café. “Yes, sir.”

“May I see it?”

I nodded and reached into my coat pocket, pulling out the small black velvet box and setting it in front of him.

“So, if I or your parents hadn’t shown up tonight …” he trailed off.

I cleared my throat. “Yes, sir, but I still planned to ask for your blessing.”

“And you think this is what Kayla wants?”

“I certainly hope so.” I couldn’t help but grin. “If not …”

John flipped open the box, but didn’t take out the ring. He closed it and set it on the table between us. “That’s a nice ring; that must have set you back plenty.”

“Sir, I’ve had no one or nothing that I’ve wanted to spend my money on till now. I’m a pretty simple person. May I ask what your condition is?”

John sat back again and inhaled a deep breath. He looked like he was ready to do business. He pulled one leg up and rested it on the other, looking as comfortable as if he were discussing the last Steelers game.

“I know you two will do whatever you want when Kayla turns eighteen in a few months, so I appreciate the fact that you’d like my blessing. When Brooke and I decided to marry, we were determined to do everything on our own. We struggled for the first ten years of our marriage to make ends meet, but we were happy. I worked a full-time job, then continued with my own ventures, putting in nearly eighty hours a week. She never complained, but I know it caused her great stress. We finally made it. We had everything we wanted, more than we wanted, really, and four years later I lost her. Now all I have of her is Kayla, and I don’t want to lose her too. I know you have your life completely planned out, but I’d like to save you a few years of work and keep my daughter at the same time.”

John paused, allowing me to process his words. He hadn’t told me no, but he wanted to make me a counter offer. I didn’t want to interrupt him, so I just nodded that I was listening.

“I’d like to offer you a partnership, Jesse. Not just as an employee, but as an actual partner. My business has grown entirely too large for me, and I think that with minimal training, you could take over the reins in no time. Of course, you could continue with your Business Degree in Charlotte if you wanted, but you’d get on-the-job training and be taking over an established company. As far as a house goes, I have plenty of properties to choose from, so I’d like to give you one as a wedding gift. That way you can keep your nest egg for emergencies.” A wistful half-smile crossed his face.

Shocked, I studied him, and it was clear he spoke nothing but the truth. I could understand the grief he’d have at losing his daughter. I’d never thought of that aspect. As much as it would kill me to lose Kayla, I could understand the grief John would feel if I took Kayla six hundred miles away.

But that meant I had to leave my father, who’d looked so proud of me tonight. He’d said I was going to be a businessman. I had told my father what I’d planned to do for the company, and my father had actually seemed interested.

John was offering me something greater, though, and it came with Kayla. If I turned down the offer, would I also lose his blessing? Would Kayla be willing to leave her father, knowing that he’d made me this offer?

“Wow, sir — I mean, John. Thank you. I’m honored. You’ve given me a lot to think about, and please don’t think for a second that I’m not completely grateful. I am, but I think you can also understand my hesitation, because as you said, you wanted to make it on your own. And then there’s my father. I’ve told him what I have planned for his company — our company.” I took in a deep breath and rubbed my head. “Wow … I wasn’t expecting this.”

John patted my shoulder. “No rush, son. Why don’t you talk to Kayla? You have three months to decide what you want to do. If you decide to accept my offer, you could move up to North Carolina right after the summer. I have plenty of apartments you could move into until Kayla graduates.”

Lost in that thought, I nodded. I’d never be separated from Kayla again. We’d spend the summer together while I worked. I could help my dad as much as possible, give him plenty of notice, help him find a replacement, and then be close to Kayla for the entire year while I waited for her to finish high school. Suddenly I realized there wasn’t much to think about; this was what I wanted. I remembered Kayla’s words not to be a snob. John was offering me my dream of owning a business — well, a partnership in a business, really, and I’d see Kayla every day.

“John, I really don’t have to think about it. You’re right … this makes so much sense. I never thought about how you’d be alone. And though it’ll be hard on my dad, I’ve been nothing but a worker for him for the past three years. If this is what Kayla wants, I can’t see why I should want anything different.”

John flashed a broad smile, the same smile Kayla had. He reached out his massive hand, then pulled me into a tight grip. It was authentic, so much more than the hugs I’d received earlier. I hated to disappoint my father, but this was my new life, my new father, and my wife-to-be.

“Come on. Let’s go,” John encouraged. “Kayla’s probably already angry with me. I’m sure she thinks I instigated this meeting.”

“Oh, and, John, one more thing I forgot to request. I don’t know if Kayla already asked you, but I was hoping to take her camping this summer and I wasn’t sure if you trusted me enough to keep her out overnight?”

John slapped me on the back. “Son, you’re truly one of a kind. I wouldn’t have trusted myself when I was your age as much as I trust you. Just don’t let me down.” He glowered at me, then smiled.

John dropped me off at my truck and I followed him back to the house. Kayla was sitting on the front steps when I pulled onto the drive, but lurched to her feet. She didn’t wait for me to get out of the truck, but instead ran around to the door. I jumped out of the truck, but led her to the opposite side of the cab. “Let’s go for a ride.” I lifted her into the cab, and she assented without a word.

Kayla sat immobile and completely silent — an unusual occurrence. Obviously, she wasn’t sure why we were taking off so late, as I usually had her home by eleven every night. How could she possibly think that I had anything other than good intentions? I pulled up the middle console and slid her next to me, feeling her relax a tad.

“Where are we going?” she asked, apprehension threading her voice.

“You’ll see.” We’d be completely alone. Honeymoon Island closed at dusk, but I had an annual pass that allowed me to go in after-hours to fish and kayak.

I unlocked the gate, then drove toward the end of the park, but pulled into the first parking lot. Most of the pass holders parked in the last lot so they could be at the tip of the island.

When we parked, she smiled, but still hadn’t uttered a word. A walk on the beach, that was normal enough. I reached for the backpack I’d tossed in the backseat, putting my arm through one strap. I opened the passenger door and pulled her into my arms.

I removed her shoes, tossing them lightly into the cab. “I’ll carry you until we get to the sand.”

 

 

h3=.

26 – Kayla

I was certain that my heart would pound right through my chest. I couldn’t imagine what Jesse and my father had discussed, but it was clear that it hadn’t interfered with his plans for our evening together.

I wondered what restaurant he would’ve taken me to if my dad hadn’t taken over our evening. Thankfully, he hadn’t seemed too upset that my dad had taken control of the situation, which was good, because my father had been right; it didn’t make any sense that his mother couldn’t stay long enough to have dinner.

As soon as he’d walked over the boardwalk, Jesse set me down on the sand. How romantic he was. Here we were, dressed in formal wear, but walking barefoot on the beach at night. This was all I’d ever wanted. Since I was thirteen, I’d dreamed of finding a real prince. Not the wealthy son of a king, but a man who’d treat me as though I were a princess, as my father had always done.

It was probably all the books Jesse read. He really knew how to make a woman’s blood boil, and yet he was the perfect gentleman. Sometimes I wished he wasn’t, but I understood the reason why he was so concerned, his fear that he’d get me pregnant and then I’d abandon him and our child. I couldn’t imagine a woman leaving her child.

The few other people on the beach were so far away that I only saw a hint of light from a lantern. The air was cool, but next to Jesse I felt warm. I inhaled deeply, luxuriating in the scent of the Gulf. No words could accurately describe the smell of the beach. Leftover aromas of suntan oils, a hint of fish, but it smelled fresh, and I could swear I could actually taste a bit of salt on my tongue when a breeze swept my face.

When the boardwalk was a couple hundred feet behind us, Jesse stopped and pulled out a blanket from his backpack, spreading it over the sand. He pulled me down with him as he lowered himself onto the blanket.

My hair lapped at my face, so Jesse jumped up and sat on the other side of me. “Better?” he asked when I turned to him.

“Yes, thank you. This is beautiful. I’ve never been on the beach at night. Have you?”

He laughed. “It is beautiful. And no, to answer your unasked question, I haven’t brought another girl here. I only come to fish.” He leaned forward and placed a delicate kiss on my lips, but then pulled back too soon. “I had an entire evening planned, which was a little interrupted, but I’m glad. I enjoyed the evening with your family, and of course, your dad making my mom stay, that was pretty funny. Did you put him up to that?”

I shook my head fiercely at the notion that he thought I’d do that. “I’d never do that without asking you. That was all him.”

“Wow … that’s cool, but somehow, not surprising.” He nodded as though he were thinking it over, but then shook his head as though clearing his thoughts. “I know we have all summer together, Kayla, but there’s something I wanted to ask you now.”

He could be so serious. I hoped he wasn’t going to get all worried about our relationship because of his mother showing up. If so, I might have to hunt her down. I would never be anything like her. Although I’d enjoyed talking with her tonight, I couldn’t see a trace of Jesse anywhere in her. Even in the ladies’ room, she’d gone on and on about her face and traveling and how haggard she thought she looked, even though the woman was a total knockout. She was thirty-six and yet she could pass for my sister. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was trying to tease Jesse’s dad. She hadn’t mentioned her husband or her other children, but she was obviously married based on the ridiculous rock on her hand.

Hoping to get his mind back on me, I reached for Jesse’s hand. “Why do you look so serious? Is it because of your mother?”

He shook his head. “No. Not even close. I almost forgot she’d come.” He inhaled a deep breath, then pressed our linked hands to his face. “I know you love me. There’s no way I can doubt that, but how much do you love me?”

I blanched, taken aback by his question. How could I describe my love? I’d always believed that actions spoke louder than words. Surely he already knew how I felt. “I don’t understand. What are you asking me, Jesse?”

He bit down on his lip, sliding his hand out from mine. He touched his hand to my face, then ran it down my arm, finally picking up my hand. “I know we’re young, but I can honestly say that I love you enough that I want to be with you forever. Do you love me like that? And please be honest; I can take anything. If you’re not sure, we have plenty of time to find out.”

“I don’t have to wonder if I’m sure, Jesse. Yes, I love you completely, and I can’t imagine myself ever being with anyone else. I knew from the first night that you would always be the love of my life.”

“And you don’t think we’re too young to know this?”

I shook my head, wondering what he was asking. He said he’d love me forever, but he made it sound as though he thought we should take it easy or something. Maybe he wanted to see where we were going, maybe because I’d pushed him for more time together this morning.

He stood and pulled me up in front of him. [_Oh, no … _]He did think we were too young … and believed we were going too fast. He’d decided to end the night already. I’d thought we were on the same wavelength, just him graduating tonight felt like another hurdle gone. We had less than a year and then we could be together forever. Or at least that’s what I’d thought.

“Jesse, I —” I stopped. Unshed tears filled his eyes. What had happened? “What did I say? Please don’t break —”

He placed his fingers over my lips and dropped to one knee. My heart started beating so fast that I thought it might take flight right out of my body. Tears overflowed from my eyes without warning, leaving a salty trail down my face.

“Kayla M’Lynn Jordan, I know there are a lot of specifics that we need to discuss, and we’ll get to those later, and I know we’re young, but I swear to you that I will love you and cherish you for the rest of my life. That said, I have another question for you. Will you be my wife? Will you marry me, Kayla?” He held a ring in his hand as he waited for me to agree.

I fell to my knees and kissed him. “Yes, Jesse. Yes, I’ll marry you, and I don’t care about the specifics or the fact that we’re young. I know what I want, forever.”

He slid off my mother’s wedding ring, the promise ring between my father and me. I was making another promise to Jesse, that I would marry him. He put the promise ring on my right hand before taking my left hand in his and kissing it, then slid the engagement ring on my finger. He kissed me deeply and passionately. It was going to be a long year waiting for our wedding night, since I knew he still wouldn’t touch me, but it’d be worth it.

He lowered me to the blanket and trailed kisses up the line of my jaw to my ear. “I love you more than life itself, Kayla.”

I turned my head into his kisses and wrapped my arms as tightly around him as I could; I never wanted to leave him again.

He pulled back after a few minutes. “Do you want to talk about the specifics yet, or do you want to wait until tomorrow?”

“You asked my dad?”

“Yes, and he gave us his blessing.”

“Then yes, as much as I’d rather keep kissing you, I guess it would be good to know what you guys discussed before I see him.”

He trailed his fingers down the side of my face. “I haven’t agreed to anything. I told him I’d talk to you before we made any decisions.”

I bit my lip and nodded, loving that he’d said we. We were a couple. Our dreams had merged into one now, and together we’d make new dreams and goals.

Jesse pulled me up so we were both sitting, then explained his conversation with my father and how he wanted to marry me privately when I turned eighteen in three months, and then we’d have a large wedding when I graduated. He told me about his savings and what my father had proposed.

“So, Dad offered you a job and a place to live, and we won’t have to be apart for nine months while you wait for me to graduate?”

Jesse laughed softly. “Yes. Is that the only part you heard?”

I closed my eyes and sighed. “No, I also heard the part about us marrying in three months and you still not touching me for another nine months … why?”

“Because I want you to finish your high school year without feeling like an old married woman.”

“Jesse, you do understand that I’m probably the only girl in high school who hasn’t had sex yet.”

“It seems that way, doesn’t it? But I’m sure it’s not true. I read somewhere that one in five couples are virgins when they marry. We’re just bamboozled by Hollywood to think that all kids do it. Same thing with drugs … did you ever stop to think that if two out of ten kids smoke pot, that means eight out of ten don’t.”

I laughed. “Jesse … you read too much.”

He rolled his eyes. “Anyway, this isn’t about sex. I’d be leaving my dad and his business. I wouldn’t be making something of myself on my own. I don’t know how I feel about that. I don’t know how you’ll view me since you said you wanted to be like your dad and mom and not accept help from anyone.”

Serious now, understanding where his thoughts were coming from, I nodded. I had said that. “Okay, let me ask you a question?”

He nodded in rapt attention, as though his future depended on what I thought of him. I’d never realized that being successful was important to him because of what I’d think of him.

I picked up his hand. “First of all, I’ll love you no matter what you do. But … let’s say you weren’t taking over your dad’s business. Instead, you were going to college for your business degree. What would you do when you got out? You’d look for a business that would hire you and you would work your way to the top. Isn’t that what most people do? Or, what if my dad’s business wasn’t successful? What if it was smaller, like your dad’s? Then would it make a difference? You still have an opportunity … it’s not like he’s handing you a business. He’s saying, he needs help and he thinks you’re the perfect person for the job. And what if you took that ball and ran with it, what if you were able to take it to the next level … would that be satisfactory?”

He grabbed my shoulders and planted a quick kiss on my lips, then pulled back and smiled. “That’s an awful lot of questions, cowgirl, but you’re right. You’re always right.” Happy with his assessment of me, my lips turned up at the sides.

“So, you’ll take his offer then, and I’ll be your wife?”

“Those are much easier questions. Yes, and yes, of course.”

He pulled me back down and rolled me over on my back. “Enough with the specifics. I have a month’s worth of kissing to make up. Oh, and he said okay on the camping trip, too.”

 

 

h3=.

27 – Jesse

I pulled away from Kayla’s delicious lips. “Time to go, Kayla. As much as I love being here with you, I don’t think your dad will be too happy with me if I keep you out past midnight.”

Kayla pulled me toward her again. I’d created an animal. I grinned at the thought. She was mine forever. No other man had even kissed her; she was mine completely. I’d cherish her forever.

The temperature was dropping too. Even sandwiched together, she’d shivered more than once in her silky thin dress. I pulled her up while still kissing her. “We have to go …”

She stuck out her lip. “Why must you do everything right?”

I laughed. “I don’t know about that. I just don’t want your father’s massive mitts on me. He has an eight-foot truck bed too, the perfect size to haul off a body.”

She giggled. “As if …” She stood back while I packed everything into the backpack, and then, without warning hopped on my back. “Getty up!”

“With pleasure, cowgirl.” After carrying her over the boardwalk, I lifted her back into the truck.

“Oh, and believe me …” Kayla started as soon as I opened the door, scooting into the middle of the seat, “no matter how my dad acts, he loves you. He’s always wanted a son, and he told me that if he’d had a son, he would’ve wanted him to be just like you.”

I turned to her. “He really said that?”

She made a cross over her heart. “I’d never lie to you, Jesse. Yeah … he likes you.”

“Wow … well, I guess we made our decision then, huh?” She nodded, so I leaned forward for one more kiss before I had to take her back to Gram’s house. “Now I just have to tell my father.”

“I’m sorry …”

I shrugged. “Kayla M’Lynn, you have absolutely nothing to be sorry for. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” I turned the key in the ignition and pulled the shifter into drive before we got sidetracked again. It wasn’t hard to do when I’d missed her for so long. But now, we’d never be apart more than a night.

When we returned to her grandmother’s house, the lights were on, which was no surprise. According to Kayla, her dad didn’t go to sleep until after twelve and was usually up when she woke up at five.

I walked her to the door and gave her a short kiss goodbye. As always, she waited until I was pulling out of the driveway before she went inside. A simple gesture that warmed my heart. I missed her already. It would be a long year indeed.

It was now time for the most difficult part of my decision. Should I tell my father now, or wait until the end of summer?

Thankfully, I found I didn’t have to worry about it right now. When I turned the corner, I noticed that my dad wasn’t home yet. So my mom must have had to wait for a flight. Well, they’d have time to discuss their issues anyway. I truly hoped she wouldn’t hurt him further.

h3=.

28 – Kayla

Everyone was still up when I walked in the door. My dad couldn’t hide the gleam in his eyes, but my grandmother looked confused, so he must not have said anything to her about Jesse’s request.

I walked over to my dad and threw myself onto his lap. “Thank you, Daddy. Jesse is the most wonderful man, and I love him deeply. Thank you for this.”

Gram and Charity looked up, confusion clear on their faces, but then Gram spotted the ring. “Honey … he didn’t? Oh my heavens, darling, come over here and let me see that.”

I pranced across the floor and knelt down in front of my grandmother. Gram took my hand in hers. “Whew, that’s some ring.”

Charity flew across the room, jealousy and shock clear on her face. I didn’t understand. I knew Charity wasn’t really interested in Jesse, so I couldn’t understand why she looked so angry. I watched as Charity’s color changed from bright red to her normal pale peach. The scowl also diminished, and if I wasn’t mistaken, she may have even smiled.

“That is a beautiful ring, Kayla. And you’re right … Jesse is a great guy. I’m truly sorry for what I did in March. I thought I was right. I thought he was using you. But Morgan disagreed also; she told me he never touched her, refused to touch her, and then he showed up at the clinic, begging her not to go through with the abortion. She admitted that he even told her he would’ve claimed the baby as his own if it would help, even though they’d been broken up for several months. It was too late, though; she’d already gone through with it and just wanted him to drive her home. I was wrong about him, and for that, I’m sorry. Can you forgive me?”

“Of course,” I said, pulling my cousin in for a hug. “We can put this behind us and have a good summer. Maybe Jesse has a friend?”

“No, Jesse doesn’t do anything but work and study. All the girls in school were crazy about him, probably because he didn’t pay attention to them. He hasn’t socialized with anyone at school since he broke up with Morgan.”

“Well, maybe you could come with us sometime, and we can meet new people together.”

“That sounds good. Thanks.”

For once, I could tell Charity really meant what she’d said.

“So what did Jesse decide about my offer?” my dad asked, a worried crease expanding the length of his forehead.

“We decided that we accept.” I grinned at the thought of we. It was the two of us now. We’d make decisions together.

“Good,” he said matter-of-factly. “Guess I’ll get to work readying up an apartment and then finding y’all a house.

I threw myself at him again. “Thank you, Daddy. I love you.”

“Anything for my baby girl. I love you too.”

h3=.

29 – Jesse

I filled every minute of the day. From the time I got up in the morning and went to work, to heading over to Kayla’s house to clean up and change for whatever we had planned, every minute was full. I’d fall into bed around midnight, and be up by five the following morning.

The days were exhausting, but it didn’t matter. I never tired of spending the day with Kayla, and I refused to leave my father employee-less when I knew I’d be leaving permanently soon. I tried to find a replacement, but my dad was never satisfied. Over the years he’d had few employees other than an operator, and since I had been old enough to help he hadn’t had one extra employee. He’d also begged me to wait until after Christmas to leave. My father had never requested anything of me, so why would he ask now? I wasn’t happy about it and wanted to say no, but Kayla insisted that I do what my father appealed, since it would only be a couple of months. “And besides,” she’d grumbled, “It’s not like you’re gonna consummate our marriage anyway.”

I reluctantly gave in to my father’s request, but told him I’d have to take several long weekends and drive up to stay with Kayla for several days. It wasn’t like before when I’d only been with her for a week. Now I’d filled my every conscious thought, even while working or sleeping, with her for over two months, and I didn’t perceive how I’d go without seeing her for one day, let alone weeks at a time.

As always, Kayla looked at things altruistically. “It’s only a few more months. If it pleases your dad, shouldn’t you do this one final thing to make him happy? And imagine how much you’ll anticipate seeing me after being away for several weeks.”

I rolled my eyes. “I miss you overnight and can barely get through the workday.”

 

Kayla had picked out the week for us to go camping, and I was now waiting outside her house, packed and ready to go while she grabbed a few extra necessities. It would be the first time we’d be alone an entire night with no worries about getting home or having to work in the morning.

“Ready!” She tossed her bag in the back seat and then snuggled up beside me. “You ready to get away?”

“You bet I am.” I sighed, throwing my head back. “I’m so tired.”

“So, you’re gonna sleep all week?” she pouted.

“No, silly. Just being away from work and doing the things I love best, spending time with you and kayaking, will be relaxing enough.”

Rainbow Springs was one of the most beautiful rivers to kayak and snorkel. It wasn’t the most private river in Florida — residences and vacation homes dotted the entire west bank, while the east side bordered a state park — but there was plenty to do. Between kayaking, bike riding, snorkeling, and just swimming and sunbathing at the main boil, our days would be filled. The nights were another issue. I wasn’t sure how we’d fill the nights when I wanted her so badly.

After taking turns swimming downstream behind my kayak, I stopped at what I’d dubbed the jumping tree. “Hey, cowgirl. I’m not climbing up there to rescue you,” I shouted as she ascended to the highest limb that I’d pointed out was safe.

“As if I’d need rescuing.” She giggled.

She bounced on the limb as I followed her up. I’d never climbed that high before, but I couldn’t have her show me up. As I reached her, she jumped, screaming the entire way. I waited until she cleared from below me, but jumped quickly so she wouldn’t get to shore before I landed. As soon as I broke the surface, I used my best swim strokes to catch her.

“Hah, gotcha!”

She turned in my arms. “You most certainly did, Jesse James.”

I moved up the bank just enough that I could stand so she’d have to keep hold of me, and took advantage of the situation. “You taste so good,” I said after a few delicious kisses.

“Maybe it’s the spring water we’re swimming in. This is beautiful. Are you sure you want to leave this?” she asked, nuzzling against me.

I sighed. I’d miss Florida, but nothing could be worse than missing her. “I’ll choose you over spring water any day.”

Seemingly content, she smiled and wrapped her legs around my waist. Yep, tonight was going to be torture.

When the sun faded behind the clouds and the seventy-two-degree water started turning our lips blue, I packed up and headed to the campsite.

When dusk came, we walked down to the river. It was always so quiet and peaceful. The partyers would still be going strong at their campsites until around eleven when it was quiet time, so this was the best time for a late-night swim. The water, which felt freezing during the day, was surprisingly comfortable at night when there wasn’t such a drastic difference between the air and the water temperature. It also brought down my core temperature enough that it didn’t feel so hot when I tent camped in August.

I built a fire, and we spent the evening roasting marshmallows and telling more stories of our youth.

“Jesse, how did you learn how to do all of this?” Kayla asked. “Since your dad has pretty much been nonexistent for the last nine years, I mean.”

I scraped another marshmallow onto a graham cracker along with a piece of a Hershey bar and handed it to her. “We used to do this several times a year when I was real young, and when he pulled into his shell, I started spending time at church. One of the pastors there would take us to Tennessee for week-long hiking, rafting, and camping trips. If it weren’t for him, no telling what I would’ve gotten myself into.” I sighed. “I even talked to him about Morgan … always wanting to have sex. I was so afraid she’d get pregnant, and he’d been so honest and helpful. Of course, he recommended abstinence, but said if I did do anything, be prepared to be a father, as he and his wife had had two children while using protection. They were married, but hadn’t planned to have children so young.”

Kayla listened intently. She was always amazing about that. She’d just sit and listen if I rambled on for days, I was pretty sure. I leaned forward and kissed the marshmallow off the side of her lip. Was it possible that any man loved a woman as much as I loved her?

“Oh, that’s nice. We used to go to church a lot, but then … Dad just got busy. It’ll be nice when you’re there. Maybe he won’t have to work so hard. I worry about him. I don’t understand why he works so hard. We have more than we’ll ever need.”

I nodded. “Maybe he’s just trying to keep his mind occupied.” I pressed my hand to the side of her face. “If I lost you …” I paused so I didn’t choke on my words. Just the thought of ever losing her… “I’d probably work myself to death too.”

“Oh, Jesse. Don’t say that.”

I shrugged. “It’s true. If he loved your mother even a fraction of how I feel about you, I can definitely understand.” I kissed her quickly before she could say anything else. I didn’t want her upset. “Hey … you ready to get cleaned up? Better to take a shower before the mosquitos come out.”

She nodded and I escorted her to the bathhouse, waiting outside after I finished while she got ready for the night. I caught a fleeting glimpse of our future and couldn’t wait until I could hold her in my arms, in our bed, all night, every night.

Silently, a little awkwardly even, we walked back to the tent. I unzipped the screen and held the flap for her to crawl through, then zipped it closed behind me.

She sat down cross-legged on the double-sized foam cushion I’d brought for us; I hadn’t wanted to bring two. She looked at me curiously.

“Honestly, Kayla, I promise I won’t attack you,” I teased lightly. She said nothing, but instead stretched out on her back. I crawled in beside her, lying on my side, my arm propping up my head. I leaned over her and kissed her delicately, then pulled back just a few inches. “Good night, cowgirl. I love you.” It was all I’d do, and we would just be able to lie here in each other’s arms and dream about the day when we would be able to love each other fully.

Kayla grasped onto the back of my head and pulled my mouth back to hers. Her hands tangled in my hair, then unexpectedly moved down my back. She tugged at the bottom of my T-shirt, pulling it up, exposing my back and chest.

I didn’t see an issue with taking off my shirt; after all, she’d seen me wearing nothing but shorts all the time. I submitted to her unspoken request by pulling my shirt over my head. Her hands trailed up my sides, focusing on my lats.

“I love this, these muscles here … the way your shoulders are wide, but then taper down and the area here …” She trailed her soft hand up and down my sides, sending a chill through my body, even though it was still close to ninety degrees outside.

“Lats,” I said self-consciously, “from all the kayaking.” It thrilled me that she noticed and appreciated the effort I put into looking good. I wasn’t naturally well built. I had to overeat to gain weight at all, but then had to make sure I worked out to gain the right kind of weight.

Kayla trailed her fingers along my biceps and then my triceps. “Mmm … nice,” she said on a drawn out breath.

This isn’t good. This was an entirely different approach and strangely unsettling. With Morgan, it’d always been easy, as she just tempted me with her body, wearing skimpy, tight clothes. Kayla did just the opposite. She didn’t wear clothes that were provocative, which only made me wonder more what was beneath. I knew she had a great body, and longed to feel it against mine. And instead of trying to subtly brush her body up against mine, she was admiring me, appreciating my body. It was innocent, but at the same time dangerous. I felt a surge of pleasure soar through me, and the last thing I wanted to do was scare her.

She moved her hands to my front and traced my chest and then my abs. Another shiver surged through me. She rolled to her side and pulled herself up against me.

I closed my eyes, my heart pounding, not wanting to stop her. “Please, love … don’t do this to me. I want you too much. I can’t tell you how much my body yearns to make love to you. Every part of my physical body is crying out to experience you fully. Please, baby, you have to stop.” Every ounce of my soul screamed, yes, while my mind cried, no. I couldn’t do this.

She continued to pull herself closer, nuzzling her face into my neck and wrapping her arm around my body.

“It’s the ideal time, Jesse. I timed it perfectly. There’s absolutely no chance of getting pregnant tonight.”

“Kayla,” desperation threaded my words, “it’s not just about you getting pregnant. I don’t even think that would upset me, but I promised your father, and I promised you and myself that we’d wait.”

“But, Jesse, I love you, and I’ve committed myself to you. What does a piece of paper mean?”

Her logic seeped into my head. I nudged up her chin and pressed my lips to hers. I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her body completely against mine. I trailed my hand down her waist, over her hips that were covered only by thin cotton, then moved down her thigh and wrapped my hand around the back of her knee, pulling her leg over mine. My mouth moved against hers with more drive; I wanted her something fiercely. I felt her body melt in my arms. She wanted me too.

I was stronger than I thought, though, and felt my willpower return. I needed to take control of the situation. “I want you, and I’ll be thrilled to do this all night long, but we’re not going to make love, our first time, in a tent, with people only yards away. I’m just not that selfish. But this here, now, holding you … this is nice if it doesn’t frustrate you.” I chuckled darkly, attempting to lighten the mood. “However, I promise you, no matter what, you’re not going to change my mind.”

“Really?” she asked, sounding disappointed.

“Really.”

She took in a deep breath. “Jesse,” she sighed out my name, “about this marrying in September and waiting until June business … I’m not happy about that and don’t understand. If you want to marry me next month, I think we need to work out some of the minor details. You and my father decided everything, and though you asked for my opinion on your business choices, no one asked what I thought about our marrying situation.” She pushed out her lip in her finest southern-girl pout.

I pulled back, my eyes widening in mock horror. “You don’t want to marry me?”

“You know that’s not what I said, but what’s the sense of getting married if you won’t touch me for nine months?” She lifted her chin in defiance, pushing her lip out more.

I kissed just her bottom lip, effectively pushing back her pout. “Because I want you to belong to me, officially, at the first possible moment,” I explained.

“I am yours, and I want to be yours completely. Besides, I only need four credits. I can take all of them in the fall and have enough to graduate. I could be finished by January,” she proclaimed with excitement in her eyes. “We could have a Christmas wedding instead.”

I didn’t think her dad would see it that way, and I really didn’t want to have this discussion tonight. I just wanted to hold her.

“Okay, Kayla, I promise we’ll discuss this, but at a more appropriate time. Right now, I just want to hold you and maybe kiss you some more, but please don’t ask me to make love to you. I don’t want to have to keep turning you down.” I kissed her again, cutting off any opportunity for her to argue with me. And when I pulled back, she seemed content with my promise. I caressed her hair. “You’re so beautiful, and I swear to you that when we make love, it is going to be special, between a husband and wife.”

“Which will be soon,” she amended, then pressed her lips back against mine, cutting off any attempt to counter her proposal.

 

As I’d requested, Kayla no longer pushed me to make love to her. Not that it mattered; I struggled every night with her in my arms. I was a masochist to have put myself in such a precarious position of being alone with her in this setting. It was hot, so both of us wore very few clothes, and it was even hotter with her body pressed up against mine, but the heat of our bodies together wasn’t uncomfortable. Nothing could overshadow the burning heat inside my body.

It was our last day camping and our summer would be over in a few days. I decided to drive Kayla back to North Carolina instead of her father picking her up this time. I had business I needed to discuss with John anyway.

Kayla was thrilled at the idea, and John sounded as if he approved of the situation. Her dad didn’t seem bothered by me being alone with Kayla. He truly seemed to trust me, and I was thankful I hadn’t been tempted to discard that faith.

 

 

h3=.

30 – Jesse

It was August 23, my eighteenth birthday, and the two of us spent the day scouting out different places Kayla had narrowed down for us to get married at.

No matter how many times we tried to tell her father that we wanted nothing more than a simple ceremony with a few family members and friends, he insisted we get married somewhere grand and gorgeous, in lush gardens or an extravagant church.

“You’re my only child, Kayla,” John said over lunch. “It’s my duty to make this day special and spectacular. Besides, your momma will kill me when I see her again if I don’t do everything the way she would’ve wanted it.”

After lunch, Kayla showed me one place that looked promising with all its blooming flowers and shrubs. “What do you think?”

I squeezed her hand. “Looks good, but visualize the outside with bare trees, since you changed our June wedding to a December wedding. Of course, if you want to change it back to June, this would be beautiful.”

“Not a chance,” she snorted. “We’ll just go with elegant black and white, and inside, then. Thanks for reminding me.” She grinned fiercely. “So then our other choice, that historical hotel we stopped by this morning?” she asked, a smile in her voice.

“Perfect, I love that idea.” I was ready to go. “Let’s go, please … I’m exhausted. We have four months to work out the details. I’ll come up the week before and settle in. My dad promised that he’ll have found someone by then, and if not, oh well. I hate to leave him, but my life is with you now, and I don’t want your dad to find someone else that he wants more than me to work for him.”

“But you’ll be back before then …” she trailed off.

“What a silly question. You know I will. I told you I want to marry you the moment you turn eighteen.”

“And, I still can’t persuade you to forget about all this nonsense of waiting until December? We don’t even have to do this second wedding thing …”

“If we did … how could I ever bear to go back to Florida without you, even for a week … let alone months? As it is, I don’t know how I’ll be able to stand it. I may have to turn right around and come back.”

“Works for me,” she said on a chuckle, but the sound was tense with worry.

“It’s my birthday, Kayla. Can we do something, since I have to leave tomorrow?” She looked up at me in anticipation, as if I’d suddenly changed my mind. “Can we just be together tonight without any concerns, without any pressure? It’s the end of our perfect summer, and I can’t think of a better way to end it than to stay home curled up watching a movie or just listening to music. Your dad conveniently has to work late this evening. I don’t think that was a coincidence. He trusts us and wants us to be happy.”

“Yes, of course,” she said on a sigh, “I’d like that, and I promise not to attack you. Well, maybe a little attacking, but I promise I won’t get carried away.”

I kissed her cheek and exited the truck, locking her in it as I went in to retrieve the pizza we’d ordered over the phone.

 

The next morning tears filled her eyes as we said goodbye. “Three weeks, cowgirl, then I’ll be back. Please don’t cry. We’ll be together soon, forever.” I stepped up into my truck. I hated leaving her, but it was the only agreement we could all live with. It was what she’d suggested, what she had said I should do. Now I wasn’t so sure. Maybe I could find a replacement for myself in the next couple of weeks and just come back permanently. My dad could live without me. I watched in the mirror as she waited for me to pull out of the drive. As always, she afforded me one final wave.

Grief spread like wildfire as soon as I was out of her sight. I’d reined in my heartache in front of her, not wanting her to be more upset than she already was. I hoped that she didn’t think I was cold. I just suffered so much when she was sad, and to add that additional pain to my already agonized heart, I just wasn’t sure how I could take it.

I turned to our favorite country station on the satellite radio, knowing she would’ve already done the same. I’d listen to it the entire nine hours and pray that the next three weeks were a blur. I’d work every minute of the day if it would smother the pain of what I was getting ready to go through. I’d missed her last time, but we’d only spent a week together at the time, and I hadn’t known her every sound and smile.

We’d spent so much time together over the last three months that every scent and every location I drove by would remind me of her, but I’d hold on to the notion that we’d be together in three short weeks, and after that, a longer separation, but at least then, she’d be my wife.

 

 

h3=.

31 – Kayla

The days blurred, one into the next. I was in school, but all I heard was blah, blah, blah. I didn’t want to be at school; I didn’t need it. I knew that most women would think I was crazy. They all wanted to be someone, make something with their lives, as if being a wife and mother wasn’t something important. Sure, I could do both, but I didn’t want to. Ever since my mom died, all I had realized was how short life was. Why would I want to spend my life trying to climb a corporate ladder?

I had no brothers or sisters. The only family I had, other than my father, was a day away. From the moment I’d laid eyes on Jesse, everything I wanted had been crystal clear. I wanted to get married, I wanted someone to love me forever, and I wanted children. Of course, I didn’t talk about this with my friends. Not because I was embarrassed, but because they didn’t understand.

Oh, the girls at school were getting pregnant, all right, twenty-two this year alone, I had counted, but it wasn’t always because that’s what they wanted in life. Often, it was because they wanted to prove something to their boyfriends, or they were drunk when they had sex and all concerns had gone out the window.

I wondered when we should have children. As much as I wanted children, I didn’t think I was ready for that commitment yet. Jesse had said he wouldn’t have even cared if I’d gotten pregnant. That had shocked me, but I’d kept my expression calm. If I showed even an ounce of trepidation about anything, he got concerned. He still had no comprehension of the extent of my feelings toward him. He knew I loved him, and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt how much he loved me, but sometimes he looked at me as if to say, Why do you love me? I wanted to grab him when he did that, shake him, and somehow penetrate that thick skull what a catch he was. He’d been unloved for so long, he couldn’t believe that someone was capable of loving him.

Well, I’d show him. I’d told my dad I didn’t want a new house or even a large one; I wanted something that needed work, something with room to grow. Jesse had enough money saved that we could have bought a house on our own, and we would’ve made it just fine without my father’s help. But he wanted to give us a wedding gift that was more than a house; he wanted to give us time, he’d explained to me. Time to be together, for Jesse not to work as hard as my father had when he and my mother had married.

He promised me that he was going to teach Jesse everything he knew about our business, but most of all he wanted to teach him how to know when it was time to go home and be a husband. The work would always be there tomorrow.

I had hugged my father tightly. How many dads would understand this situation? I could see in his eyes that he was almost as excited about Jesse returning as I was; he was already like a son to him.

Jesse had agreed to take more time off when he came up for my birthday. My dad wanted to spend a few days driving him around, showing him the area, and explaining what his job would entail. He hadn’t been too pleased when he found out that Jesse’s dad wanted him to stay until Christmas, but I had explained that it was my suggestion to give him this one final request. I believed it was more about time with his son than about work. Tom hadn’t been paying attention to his son growing up, and I believed that when Jesse approached him with the announcement that he was leaving, it’d sparked a fire in his dad’s heart. Jesse said that Tom had been more of a father to him in the last few months than he’d been in the last nine years. On more than one occasion, his father had shown up on a job site and insisted they go to lunch. Jesse explained that they still didn’t talk much, but just his father being there had made all the difference.

I had secretly feared that Tom would try to keep Jesse longer than December, but I didn’t dare say anything. I wanted Jesse to be happy no matter what it took, and if he decided to stay in Florida, I’d go to him. I loved my father dearly and preferred to stay in North Carolina, but Jesse was my life. I’d follow him anywhere.

 

Jesse would arrive any minute. He’d called me when he left last night before I went to bed, but said he wouldn’t call me again so that I could get my rest … as if I could sleep. He’d driven all night to get here, so he hadn’t rested … why should I?

I watched the front door with anticipation, since he hadn’t called this morning. He’d told me that he didn’t want to talk to me on the phone, that he wanted to see me in person. He wanted me to go out of my mind crazy with worry was more like it.

“No news is good news,” he’d told me. “If anything happens to me, you’ll be the first person the medics notify, since I’ve already added you as my wife in my contacts.”

He’d told me that to appease me, I was certain.

I paced across the floor anxiously, looking out the window every few seconds. He should have been here by now. I should call. I grew more fretful by the minute. I could hear the clock ticking on the wall. It felt like a bad dream, like a countdown to disaster. What if he fell asleep behind the wheel and went off an embankment and no one saw him there for days. He could be hurt … pinned inside his truck.

I picked up my phone and stared at the blank screen: no missed calls, no texts. I thought back to prom night when he’d called when he was standing outside the door, and my insides warmed. Nothing bad could happen. Not now, when we were supposed to marry tomorrow.

Phone in hand, I walked onto the front porch. I’d just send him a “?” text to say Where are you? No talking to ruin our reunion. He’d be okay with that.

Before I could hit send, I heard the sound I’d been longing to hear: tires rolling over gravel. When I saw his truck, relief pulsed through me. Unconcerned about being barefoot, I flew off the stairs and rushed across the front yard to meet him.

Jesse jumped out of the truck before I made it to him, closed the distance, and gathered me into an embrace and swung me around. Tears filled my eyes, but they were tears of joy. How would I be able to let him leave again? His lips found mine, and I melted under his touch. My heart thrummed an erratic beat under my skin, my blood rushed as he kissed me. I wrapped my hands around his neck and pulled him closer. He scooped me up in his arms and carried me across the yard and up onto the porch.

“Barefoot and in your PJs, just like I imagined,” he said, grinning wildly. “God, I missed you!”

I kissed off his words while he held me in his arms. “Jesse, I missed you so much. I don’t want you to ever leave again.” I blinked to clear the tears that quietly flowed down my face. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say that, and I didn’t plan to cry when I saw you. I usually save that for when you leave.”

He set me down on the porch, but continued to hold me in his arms. “Don’t be sorry … I understand. I don’t want to leave again either. But let’s not talk about leaving when I just got here.” He kissed my tears away, then pulled back a few inches to look at me. “But look at the reception I get. Do you think I’ll get this every day when I come home from work?” He nudged up my chin and kissed me again.

“Maybe,” I admitted, my cheeks burning.

“Good, I think I’ll like that.” Jesse grinned widely. He pulled me through the door and led me directly to the couch. “Your dad already left for work?”

“Yep.”

“So, I have you all to myself?”

“Yep!”

“I should sleep so that when he gets back we can get some work done. He said he needed to discuss a few things with me. But I think I’d rather make up for three weeks of missed kisses if that’s all right with you.”

“Jesse … stop talking and kiss me.”

He plopped down on the couch and pulled me onto his lap, burying his head into my neck. “You smell so good. How can such a simple smell be so seductive? I’ve barely slept in the last three weeks thinking about our camping trip.” He kissed my neck, and a shiver swept through my body as his warm breath caressed my skin. He worked his kisses up my neck until he was at my ear. “I love you, Kayla,” he whispered. “Are you ready to be my wife?”

Heat soared through every part of my body. Was I ever … there was nothing I wanted more. “Yes … very … much so …” breathless, the words came out broken.

His mouth moved along my jaw to my lips, and then finally his mouth was on mine. He kissed me with renewed passion. He always seemed to hold back, but this was good. I hoped his willpower would weaken once we were married … it just didn’t make any sense to wait.

Jesse lowered himself down the length of the couch, pulling me beside him. He supported my head with his arm, hugging me tightly to his chest. His lips moved against my head, whispering words I could barely hear, but it didn’t matter. My body relaxed into his, happy just to have him here holding me.

Only a few minutes passed, and I heard his breathing grow deep and steady. I tilted my head to look at his face. He was sound asleep. I stared at him; he was beautiful. His strong chiseled features relaxed while he was sleeping. He looked young and sweet, which he was, but he was also a man. A man who would take care of me, stick up for me, probably even fight for me. I thought of prom night when he’d made it clear he wasn’t about to share me with anyone.

He wanted me completely, not just physically, and it was clear he couldn’t wait for me to be his wife. What a story we’d have to share with our children and grandchildren. Most couples didn’t start out at seventeen, and even if they did find that perfect person, they assumed that it couldn’t be real. After all, how could you fall in love forever at such a young age?

Several of my friends had asked me, “Don’t you want to go to college and date different men?” The argument made no sense to me. If I was dating, wouldn’t I just be dating to find someone I loved? Does anyone date just to have fun? Isn’t everyone always looking for their soul mate, to find the person whom they’ll fall in love with eventually? So, if I found someone I loved perfectly in every way, what would I be looking for on a date? If I did date other guys … wouldn’t I just be comparing every man to Jesse? And if I couldn’t think of one thing that I’d change about him, what would I be looking to achieve? So, no … I’d told them; I had no interest in dating anyone else, ever.

I also didn’t intend to move from his embrace, even though I wasn’t tired. I didn’t want to wake him, and it felt too good lying in his arms. My dad would be home any minute, but he’d just have to get used to our intimacy. We were fully dressed and in plain view, and besides, we’d be married in less than twenty-four hours.

 

The front door opened, and I started slightly. Jesse didn’t move an inch; he must have been exhausted.

“Hey, Dad,” I whispered, attempting to turn my head in his direction. There wouldn’t be any getting up, Jesse’s arms still held me in a tight embrace. “I think he was exhausted. He fell asleep within minutes of arriving.”

My dad gave me a knowing nod, but didn’t look disturbed by our position. Seeing your daughter in the arms of a man, any man for the first time, though, had to be slightly uncomfortable. I tried to appear casual, hoping that if I didn’t look as though I were doing anything wrong, he wouldn’t view it as such. After all, we weren’t doing anything immoral.

“What time did he get here?” he asked quietly, concern filling his voice.

“Just after eight,” I whispered.

My dad just shook his head. “Probably worked all day, showered, ate, and then headed directly here. He’ll need to sleep awhile. I’ll get some work done, and then I’ll return around lunch to drive him around the properties.”

“Okay,” I said, resting my head back on Jesse’s chest and eventually falling asleep as well.

 

I felt the arms around me contract involuntarily.

“Mmm, this is all I ever want, cowgirl.”

Okay, so maybe not unintentional. Jesse was awake.

“What time is it? I didn’t plan to fall asleep, but this is nice.” He buried his face in my hair again.

“I really don’t know,” I whispered. “You fell asleep within minutes, and I think we’ve been here several hours, so maybe twelve?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to waste our day,” Jesse mumbled, but didn’t attempt to move.

“It wasn’t a waste, Jesse. Like you said, this is nice, and you needed your sleep obviously. My dad is supposed to be here around one to show you around. So if you want to shower and eat —”

“I don’t want to do anything but hold you.” He squeezed me tighter. “I missed you so much, Kayla.”

 

 

h3=.

32 – Jesse

My heart felt like it was tearing apart. I didn’t say anything else. I wanted to tell Kayla I’d never leave her again, how I couldn’t bear to spend one more day without being able to hold her, but I couldn’t. It’d only hurt her more; I had to be strong, for Kayla. We’d marry tomorrow, but then next week, I’d have to leave again for three months. I wasn’t sure I could do it; I wasn’t sure I’d physically be able to.

I yawned and stretched, my entire body trying to wake up.

Kayla shook with laughter.

“What’s so funny?” I asked, stifling another yawn.

“Us … life … this here, I don’t really know … I guess it just seems funny you not wanting to move, but your body evidently needs to stretch and is ready to wake up even if we aren’t.”

“I guess you’re right,” I groaned. “I don’t want to get up, but I think I need to move.”

 

 

h3=.

33 – Kayla

Another protesting grumbling noise escaped the back of Jesse’s throat. He nudged up my head with his lips, kissing me on the forehead, then trailed kisses down the side of my face, my nose, and then my lips.

His body shifted from beside me and suddenly he was on top of me. He pressed his mouth hard on mine, but then rolled off the couch, pulling me on top of him. I gasped for air, but he grabbed me and kissed me again, rolling over me again until I was on my back, his body suspended over top of mine.

He trailed his hands down my side to my waist, lowering his body on top of me. Surprisingly, his weight didn’t bother me. I knew he weighed just shy of two hundred pounds, but it felt good pressed against me. I wrapped my arms tightly around him, holding him to me, knowing all too quickly he’d escape.

Feeling him retract, I tightened my hold on him. “Don’t stop,” I whined. “Kiss me again.” He obliged, and my insides boiled, but all too soon he stopped again.

“I think I need to go take that shower now.”

“Need any help?” I teased.

“Kayla,” he said on a sigh, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to take this; you’re driving me insane.”

“But I didn’t do anything this time …”

“You don’t have to,” he said, pressing his lips to mine again. “Just your love, I feel so drawn to you, not just my body, but my heart, too. It’s as though it aches to hold you. It really is amazing how God made us, isn’t it? How our bodies yearn so much for something we’ve never done? It’s like your mouth watering for something you’ve never tasted; it doesn’t make sense. It’s as though my body knows what I should be doing, even though my mind says no. Luckily, my mind is stronger than my physical body.”

“I wish it wasn’t,” I complained.

“It doesn’t help matters that you’re always so willing … you’re supposed to fight me off.”

I laughed. “That’s not gonna happen anytime soon, Jesse. My body wants you just as much. I understand exactly what you’re saying, and I don’t think it’s entirely physical. My soul aches for you.” He afforded me one final kiss, then pulled back. I tried to hold him down, but it was no use; he was entirely too strong for me.

I gave up and let him pull me to my feet; his arms remained folded around me, though, as he nuzzled his face into my neck, sending chills down my back.

“Would you like breakfast or lunch?” I asked.

He continued his nuzzling, kissing me along the line of my jaw to my ear. “Surprise me.” His hands brushed my hair off my neck, and he trailed kisses down my neck to my throat and my exposed chest. His hands ran down my sides, sending goosebumps down my arms.

I squirmed in his arms. “You’re driving me insane.”

“Good. It’s about time. You should suffer like I am,” he said, chuckling darkly. But then he backed away, just his hands holding me. His eyes bore into mine. “Soon, my love,” he whispered seductively, dropping my hands and closing his eyes, breaking contact with mine. “I’m going to go get my stuff,” he said, and if I wasn’t mistaken, he even pouted.

I smiled and watched him stomp out the door. He’d said good that I was suffering too, as if I wasn’t the one always pushing him. Maybe he thought I did it just to tempt him; he didn’t understand how much I wanted him too.

Jesse made himself at home, walking straight up the stairs with his bag. I considered following him, but remembered my dad would be home soon. One more day and then I wouldn’t feel like a harlot always trying to seduce him. Tomorrow, I could tempt him all I wanted.

I’d been prepared to make him something special whether he wanted breakfast or lunch, but he didn’t care … so I’d go with something in between. I texted my dad to see if he’d be home soon and if I could make him something as well.

He texted me back in seconds: tht’db grt, b hm n 20

We spent a lot of time texting back and forth. Sometimes when he was in a meeting, he’d text me about inconsequential things. We didn’t use typical text language; we tended just to leave out most of the vowels. Between my dad and Jesse it was a good thing I had unlimited texts, otherwise I’d have a three-hundred-dollar bill.

I decided on breakfast, even though it was closer to lunch. I’d make omelets, hash browns, toast, and orange juice. They’d like that: lots of protein and carbs. Jesse was picky about what he ate, I’d learned. My dad always wanted southern-style, home-cooked meals like meatloaf and macaroni and cheese and fried chicken. Jesse, on the other hand, wanted grilled chicken and fish and lots of rice. I’d have to come up with dinners to please them both.

I wondered how I would still be able to take care of my father when Jesse and I moved in together. In some ways, I wished we could just stay here; the house was large enough. But it wouldn’t be good for newlyweds to be living under the same roof as the bride’s father. Maybe I would pre-make my father’s meals for a week, or I could always make extra food the night before and just drop off his meals in the morning when I tended to the horses. It wasn’t as if I’d be that busy.

Dad planned to take Jesse around to all of our local properties this afternoon and said he wanted to talk to Jesse man-to-man before we married tomorrow. I couldn’t imagine what he wanted to talk to him about “man-to-man.” At first, I’d been upset, because we only had two days together before I had to return to school on Monday, and he’d have Jesse every day next week, but my dad promised he wouldn’t keep him out too long and that they’d come back before heading over to our new house.

My dad had not been enthusiastic about the house I’d chosen for many reasons. He thought it was too small, too old, needed too much repair, and just a little too far away. I assured him it was what I wanted, though.

I was thankful that my dad was giving Jesse a job, and the two of us a house, but I didn’t want anything extravagant. Not just because of me, but for Jesse’s sake. He’d wanted to do everything on our own, but had conceded that it would be just like he’d landed a great job that my father truly felt he deserved.

But I wanted a simple house, something we could spend our money fixing up that would also keep me busy. I’d decided I wasn’t ready for kids, but wasn’t going to go pro-active against having them either. I would watch the days closely, and if we were close we’d just have to use protection. I didn’t want to start taking the pill as I’d heard too many horror stories about the drug, not to mention that it diminished sex drive. I definitely didn’t want that to happen. And with my mother’s heart attack, I was at higher risk for complications.

I was folding over an omelet when warm, strong arms circled my waist. “Mmm, I feel like a new man, and what better sight is there than a beautiful woman who can cook.” He dipped his head over my shoulder and pressed his lips to my neck.

I turned my head to kiss him. “Barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, huh?” I teased.

“I’m not that antiquated, Kayla … I only long for what you want. If you decide to go to college and work, I’ll be happy to pull my share. I’m not a stranger to cooking and cleaning. I’ve been doing it for nine years.

I turned in his arms to face him. “I’m just playing with you, Jesse. I told you this is what I want. I’ll find plenty to keep me busy. Besides, I stay busy doing most of the bookkeeping for my dad. In fact, I guess you could say I already have a position as the accountant for the company.”

“Smart, beautiful, and a great cook. How did I get so lucky? That smells incredible. I didn’t realize how hungry I was. I never was an inventive cook. I pretty much eat the same thing every day.”

Pleased with his words, I smiled. As long as Jesse thought I was smart and beautiful, that’s all that mattered to me. “Well, have a seat. Dad’ll be here in a few minutes, and I guess I should probably go shower and change out of my PJs.”

 

 

h3=.

34 – Jesse

I tugged her to me once again, holding my arms tightly around her waist, pulling her hips to my body. I pressed my lips to hers and her lips parted invitingly. I wouldn’t see her for several hours, and then her dad would be here. I ran my fingers through her hair and pulled her head closer to mine. My tongue circled hers, tasting her. This week was going to take me to the precipice. The question was … would I fall off? Would it even matter if I did? I was starting to realize my previous concerns were now unfounded.

The front door opened, and John announced, “I’m home.”

I stepped back from Kayla and headed to the table. Since he’d clearly announced his entry, her dad obviously didn’t think I was capable of keeping my hands to myself either, and more than likely didn’t want to catch us in any precarious situations.

“We’re in the kitchen, Dad. I’m just putting lunch on the table,” Kayla called out.

John walked through the door dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, his standard attire, it seemed. He walked toward me and I stood to greet him. “Good to see you made it safe and sound,” he said, extending his hand. But as with the last few times, my father-in-law-to-be pulled me into his standard half-hug. It felt good.

“I know y’all got some catching up to do, but you think you could spare a few hours with me today, Jess?”

I flinched ever so slightly at the shortening of my name. It was inevitable, since Gram always called me Jess. It really shouldn’t still affect me the way it did. I hoped John didn’t read something else into my reaction. “Yes, sir. Looking forward to it actually.”

John sighed. “Call me John please, or,” he paused, “if you’re comfortable and it doesn’t feel awkward — you’ll be my son-in-law tomorrow, after all — you could call me Dad.”

Standing behind her father, Kayla’s eyes instantly watered up. John wasn’t just trying to make me comfortable for her benefit. He truly liked me.

I gave my soon-to-be father-in-law a wide smile. “That’d be nice and not uncomfortable at all. Although, I can’t promise that sir won’t come out. Since we worked together, I’ve called my dad sir for years, but I’ll do my best.”

“Whatever you’re comfortable with, son.” Evidently accustomed to Kayla waiting on him, John took a seat and I sat across from him. “Smells great, sweetheart, as always.” He laughed as he took in her appearance. “Nice to see you got dressed up for Jesse.”

She dropped her head. “I know … I’m going now.” She bounded up the stairs.

I smiled … I liked it, but no sense bringing it up; I’d already told Kayla.

“Just like her mother. She practically lived in sweatpants and a T-shirt; good thing her mother looked good in them.” He winked at me.

My cheeks burned. I knew John was talking about his wife, but I was picturing Kayla, and she did look good in them. Especially the thin cotton ones she’d worn camping. I still lay awake at night thinking about them.

“So, Jess, I’m going to show you our office and our apartment buildings today, and then we’ll come back and get Kayla and take you to the house.”

“The house … sir? Sorry … I’ll seriously try to stop doing that; it’s bordering on being rude at this point, isn’t it? One house … I thought you had many that needed to be overseen?”

“We’ll go look at the rental houses next week when I get back. Today, Kayla wants us to go look at your house.”

“My house?” I asked, bewildered. I could feel the furrow between my eyes and worked to relax my expression.

“Well, yours and Kayla’s … didn’t she tell you she found a house she wanted for the two of you? I told you I was buying you a house for your wedding gift.”

“Uh, no, she didn’t tell me you found one.” I was a little shocked and wasn’t sure what I felt. It was a gift, so I shouldn’t feel as if they should have included me, but suddenly I did. I hoped that she hadn’t picked out something extravagant that would make me feel self-conscious for agreeing to her father’s conditions of marriage. “I thought I was going to stay in an apartment until —”

“Kayla had other plans, but don’t tell her I told you.” He winked. “She’s gone over there every day cleaning it up, so try to act excited. She loves it for some reason that I can’t fathom. So, try to show enthusiasm, even if it’s rather rough.”

Once again, I felt like kicking myself. Of course she wouldn’t allow her father to buy just anything. Kayla wanted what I did. She didn’t want life handed to us. I had acquiesced on the job offer because I knew I’d pull my weight, knew I’d be a great employee. Why should I snub a job offer just because my father-in-law had offered it to me? If someone other than her father had presented the same opportunity, I would have jumped at the position.

 

I was finishing cleaning the dishes when Kayla stepped into the kitchen, looking incredible. I tossed the towel I was using on the counter and closed the distance between us. I inhaled deeply. “You smell so good … please don’t ever change whatever it is you use. I love it.” Her damp hair fell in long spirals around her face, and her cheeks blushed pink. “You’re so easy to make blush anymore. What happened to that feisty cowgirl?”

She giggled, proving my point. “Oh, she’s still here … I’m just a little worked up.” She looked around the kitchen, and then focused her gaze back on me, narrowing her eyes. “You cleaned?”

“Of course. You cooked.” I shrugged. “Lunch was great, by the way.” I rested my hands softly on her waist.

“Thanks, but you don’t need to clean —”

“Shh,” I cut her off. “Relax. I know I don’t have to do anything, and neither do you. Let’s just play this by ear, okay? We don’t have any roles to fill. I don’t expect anything from you but one thing, Kayla.”

“What’s that?” she asked, her eyes growing wider in anticipation.

“Your only requirement is to love me.” I stared intently at her. “I mean it. That’s all I need from you.”

Her face softened, a pensive half-smile forming. “Jesse, I love you more than anything, but I also want to be your wife. I want to take care of you. I’m not going to feel held back or trapped. I want this. I know you’re thinking about your mother, but please understand, we’re different. I swear this is all I’ve ever wanted.”

I studied her face, and it was clear that she believed what she said. She did want this. But still … I was going to do dishes. I stared down at her. So much fire in a petite package. “I let you bag leaves. If you can bag leaves, I can wash dishes.” I smiled wryly, then; she couldn’t argue with my pure logic.

“You got me there,” she said, pursing her lips. “Don’t you have someplace to be?”

“Yep, right where I am.” I grinned. “Dad said he’d be down in a few minutes.”

A huge smile flashed across her face.

“What did I say?” I asked, confused.

“I didn’t think you’d feel comfortable. He’ll be happy with you calling him Dad.”

“Wow, I didn’t even think about it; it felt so natural. He’s a good man, Kayla. I’m honored to call him Dad,” I said without hesitation.

John walked into the room while I still had my arms wrapped around Kayla’s waist. I dropped them and took a step backward. “Ready to go …?” I stammered.

“Yep, are you? Or should I give you two a couple minutes?” John glowered at me for a second, then turned his gaze on Kayla and winked.

“Dad, stop scaring Jesse. He doesn’t know you’re playing.” Kayla stepped forward, backing me against the counter with no place to retreat. Taking my hands, she returned them to her waist. She then gave me a soft kiss that only lasted a second, but I was still shocked. “Now, go to work. You gentlemen need to be back here and pick me up before it gets dark.”

I dropped my hands again, knowing I was definitely red in the face.

Kayla leaned forward and whispered in my ear, “Who’s blushing now?” She turned and walked toward the front door. “I’ll unpack your suitcase and put everything in the spare bedroom while you’re out, Jesse.”

She was making a point. I got it and understood. “Thank you, Kayla.” I brushed my hand along her cheek as I walked by. She wanted me to let her be what she wanted as much as I wanted to be who I was: the people we fell in love with. I needed to stop pushing her, assuming she wanted anything different from what I did; we were two of a kind.

“Come on, Jess, we don’t have much time. Bye, sweetheart. We’ll be back around six.”

I followed my new dad across the yard to his truck and jumped up into the passenger side.

“I’m going to head straight to the office first. It’s not far, and realistically I probably don’t even need one, but it’s always a good idea in real estate to never get too personal with the tenants. I run an honest, clean company. I make sure everything is in proper working order and residences are clean and safe, and in return I expect rent on time. I understand times are hard, but I adjusted my rents accordingly. When you have an office and a business name, not just an individual, you’re more likely to receive payments. Also, never, ever let a tenant miss rent without sending a notice, no matter what they say or claim. I was burned badly on my first venture … because I was nice.”

I suddenly realized I was getting a crash course on business.

John continued, “I had an attorney move in … nice people, wife played piano in the church, blah, blah, blah. Never rent without a credit app, no matter who they claim they are or how nice they seem. He took me for seven months of rent before we could evict him. Brooke and I almost lost everything, but we got up, wiped the dirt from our backsides, and tried again.” John pulled out of the driveway and headed north. “Of course, it’s not just about renting. There’s a lot of maintenance to schedule and follow up with, and that’s where you’ll start. You’re familiar with all matters of construction, right?”

“Mostly, yes …”

“Don’t be shy, son. No time to be timid. Tell me what you can do.”

“As far as general maintenance, pretty much whatever you need. My father taught me how to work with plumbing, of course, but I know electrical work as well. I’ve installed water heaters, ovens, ceiling fans, and even electrical boxes. He taught me to drywall, and we replaced our roof. We even closed in our carport to a garage. If I don’t know how to do something, I study how to do it on the Internet. I’ve painted, ripped out carpet, and installed tile. Gram can attest to how many things I’ve done just at her house alone.” I finished my resumé, hoping I didn’t sound like I was bragging.

“That’s more like it, and she already did. I heard nothing but Jesse-this Jesse-that for a month before Kayla even went there for spring break. Corinne was certain you and Kayla would hit it off immediately, and then of course, when Kayla returned home from spring break, it was every night at dinner Jesse, Jesse, Jesse.” He sighed. “It’ll be good to have you here so I can have a conversation with you instead of about you every night,” he said with a hearty chuckle.

“Wow, I had no idea … I think maybe I’m a little embarrassed, though.”

“Don’t be. Kayla loves you. I know it seems strange for a father to be okay with what you two are about to do at such a young age, but I am. Life’s too short. I know Kayla will be exactly like her mother, and there’ll be no problem with her making a marriage work. And you, Jesse, well … honestly, you remind me a lot of myself at your age. Although, I think you have more self-control than I did. I don’t think I could’ve put myself in the same situations as you have. Brooke and I were never alone overnight or had a house to ourselves all day. Heck, I didn’t even have a car when I was there. I had to take the bus to her house or borrow my parents’ car. You two’ve had so much time together alone, and she swears you haven’t touched her.”

“No, sir … I haven’t …” I stammered, shocked that Kayla would have mentioned that to her father.

“I know … Kayla never could lie well.” He paused, thoughtful for a minute, then continued, “Jesse, I know you don’t need a man-talk. You’re plenty old enough, and they don’t leave much to the imagination in movies anymore, but I know your dad and you are not close, so I assume he’s never talked to you about personal issues like sex, has he?”

Yikes. I definitely wasn’t expecting this conversation. We had evidently made it to the office, because John parked in front of a building and turned off the ignition, but didn’t bother to get out. Again, as before, it was clear that Kayla inherited her bluntness honestly.

I swallowed, not sure what to say. “Um, no, he didn’t, but like you said, it’s pretty prevalent everywhere you look, and as I mentioned before … I like to read. If there’s anything I’m not sure of, I research it. Does that sound strange?”

“No, it sounds smart. So you’re comfortable … with it being the first time?”

“I’m not really comfortable discussing this with you … being Kayla’s father and all. Won’t that be difficult?” I asked honestly. I did have a few concerns, and I really didn’t have anyone to talk to. But John was the last person I thought I could broach with the subject.

“Well, I already discussed it with Kayla, had to … no mother and all. No, it’s not easy. It’s the last thing you want to think about your baby girl, but at least she’s waited till marrying. From what I understand, her cousin didn’t, nor did most of the girls in her high school. Twenty-two pregnancies this year alone, did she tell you that?” The question was rhetorical; John really wasn’t looking for an answer. He continued swiftly, “Kayla said you planned to wait until after the wedding and reception in December, as you mentioned at the beginning of summer, is that correct?”

“Yes,” I said hesitantly, not sure if John believed Kayla or me.

“Again, I know it’s an unusual question coming from a father, but … why?”

I inhaled deeply and then shook my head, as if I didn’t understand my logic myself. My eyes slipped from John’s face down to my hands clenched at my sides. It really didn’t make any sense now; it had when I’d originally asked for her hand, and then there was the other reason.

“When I asked to marry Kayla, we’d only spent roughly ten days together. I didn’t want her or you to think that I was interested in her physically as much as I was mentally. I wanted her to be mine, forever, and the only way I could think to ensure that was to ask her to marry me. And because I can’t wait for her to be mine, I wanted to do it at the first possible chance, when she turns eighteen. I assumed you, her, and even I would think I rushed into a proposal because I hadn’t made love yet and was in a hurry. Now, of course, I know better. As you’ve pointed out, we’ve spent plenty of time alone and I’ve been nothing but honorable. The other reason is twofold. Yes, I’m a little afraid of what to expect, but also … she made me promise my father I’d go back and work for him until December. I’m afraid if we enter into a physical relationship now, I won’t want to leave. Already, the pain is overwhelming. I can’t even begin to explain the feelings inside of me.”

“You don’t have to explain, Jess. I understand, believe me.” John sounded so certain and composed. “What are you afraid of?” he jumped right in, not allowing me to feel uncomfortable.

“I’m afraid I’ll hurt her. I heard it can be very painful.”

 

h3=.

35 – John

John attempted to separate the fact that he was talking about his daughter and instead imagined that Jesse was his son, knowing that what he’d tell him would actually help his daughter.

He took a deep breath and looked Jesse in the eyes. “You’re right, and again, a very smart young man. Most men aren’t thinking about what a woman will feel, only what they want to feel. My father explained to me, and if you feel comfortable enough, I’ll explain to you.”

Jesse simply nodded.

“When a young woman is still a virgin, it means her hymen, a thin ring of tissue, is still intact. No matter what happens, it’s always possible that it will hurt, even bleed.” John exhaled again; this was harder than he’d thought. “However, if you’re not in a rush, as most young people are the first time. If you use a lubricant and —” He stopped. It was too much. He composed his expression and took a second to reword his thoughts.

Jesse waited patiently.

“One of the reasons that you don’t hear too many girls complain about their first time anymore is because they’ve been sexually active in other ways for an extended period before actually having intercourse.” There, that wasn’t so difficult. “So … if that makes sense, and in the simplest vernacular I can think of, take your time. There’re plenty of products on the market that will make the first time easier too.”

Jesse bit his lip, nodding. “Thank you. That definitely helps, and I know that couldn’t have been easy for you, but I want you to know I appreciate you. You’ve been very kind. I’m not used to being treated so well.”

“You’re a fine young man, Jess. I’ll be proud to have you as a son-in-law. Now, we better get a move on. I only have a few hours to show you around before Kayla calls looking for us. And then, I have to leave tomorrow morning early and won’t be back till Tuesday afternoon. I have an issue with my apartment building in Georgia.”

Jesse darted his eyes to John’s face. “You won’t be here?”

“Nope,” he popped his answer. “It’ll just be you and Kayla. Good luck with that, Jess. She’s stubborn. I can attest to that.” And with that, John jumped out of the truck.

Jesse caught up alongside of him. “Does Kayla know?” The boy was chewing on his fingernail, looking like a puppy that’d just been caught rifling through the shoe rack.

“No, she doesn’t,” John admitted, amazed at this young man. Corinne could sure pick them. If he and Brooke had been left alone overnight, he was certain he wouldn’t have been able to keep his hands to himself. Not to mention after they were married. In fact, he knew he wouldn’t have been able to. Well, he’d done more than any father had probably ever done to give his daughter what she wanted; Jesse would have to figure out the rest himself.

John gave Jesse the tour and returned home before six as promised. Jesse didn’t say much the entire afternoon. He was probably contemplating running for it. He looked as scared as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs.

When they pulled up in front of the house, Kayla flew down the steps to Jesse’s side of the truck … the way she used to come to him when she was a little girl when he came home from work. Oh well, they had to grow up. He watched as Jesse’s eyes lit up the moment he saw Kayla. All of the boy’s concerns melted away as soon as he laid eyes on his little girl — woman, John reminded himself. Kayla would be eighteen tomorrow, and though she was still cute and silly at times, she was an intelligent young woman who knew what she was doing, just like her mother had. They’d be okay; he wouldn’t have to worry about his baby girl if something ever happened to him.

Jesse was smart and compassionate, and in love. John had watched him today as he absorbed everything, and even offered a few good ideas. That’s what he wanted, a man who’d speak his mind, and his daughter needed that too. She wouldn’t be able to stand a mansy-pansy who couldn’t make a decision or take care of her. She’d gone out and found a man who was just like him, or Gram had, and that made John feel honored.

 

John woke up early and kissed his daughter goodbye. “Happy birthday, honey. We’ll celebrate when I return.”

“Where are you going, Daddy? It’s Sunday,” she said, her eyes squinting at the light from the hallway, her tone soft and sleepy. Suddenly, Kayla looked like his nine-year-old daughter again, asking him where he was going and when he’d be home to play with her.

So Jesse hadn’t told her. Maybe he was hoping to hide it from her. He chuckled to himself, so much like him when he was that age. Young ladies seemed to know more about this stuff than men did.

“I have some work. I told Jesse … He’ll explain. Enjoy your day. This is private between the two of you. I’ll be looking forward to walking you down the aisle in December. He’s a good man, baby. I’m proud of you both.” He kissed her on the forehead and left her room.

 

h3=.

36 – Kayla

Still sleepy, but too anxious to fall back to sleep, I rolled out of bed. It was early, but not much earlier than usual. Where the heck could my father be going so early on a Sunday morning? Per my demand, Sunday was the one day of the week he always stayed home. He still worked from the house, but at least I got to spend time with him.

I decided to let Jesse catch up on sleep and plodded downstairs to get my work done for the day.

Not much chance of not seeing the bride before marrying her when you’re eloping. Luckily, I wasn’t superstitious. My other grandmother, who had been gone for years now, would’ve been appalled. She was extremely superstitious.

After I’d finished feeding the horses, I made my way back to the house. Jesse was on the front porch watching me, a cup of coffee in each hand.

I smiled. “Oh, you’re up.”

“Remember, I started getting up over the summer to finish work early so I could be with my fiancée, and I just kept to the schedule. I remembered that you woke up by five every morning. I’m glad I got up; I enjoyed watching you.”

Was there anything he said that didn’t cause gooseflesh to rise on my arms? I accepted the coffee gratefully. “You really know your way around the kitchen, don’t you? Just made yourself at home, I see.”

“I feel like I’m at home, Kayla.”

He reached for me, but I pulled back. An unusual occurrence. I never pulled back from him. I saw the confused look in his eyes and quickly explained, “I smell, Jesse. I’ve been out with the horses.”

h3=.

37 – Jesse

I opened my arms, welcoming my wife-to-be. “Get over here and kiss me good morning, cowgirl.” I rolled my eyes and shook my head. “Silly girl, I wouldn’t care if you’d rolled in their stable.”

She obliged and I wrapped my arms around her. I pulled her down on the bench and we sat together watching the sun make its approach over the eastern trees. She finally relaxed and rested her head on my shoulder.

“So, you have everything ready for today?” I asked. I couldn’t believe it was finally the day that we were to be married. I wanted the big wedding for the family, but this was all I really cared about, making this wonderful woman mine for all eternity.

“Yep, all the papers are signed, and I found a perfect little chapel in Monroe. It’s about twenty minutes south of Indian Trail. I have us scheduled to arrive at eleven.”

“Are you nervous?”

“Not at all. A little discouraged, though,” she confessed.

“Of what …?” I cocked my head as I wracked my brain trying to think what would cause her to be disheartened. Happily, though, I realized my thoughts hadn’t immediately gone to some dark area of my brain that thought she didn’t want me. I’d finally extinguished all those earlier apprehensions.

She shrugged. “My dad … I thought he’d be here. I know we’re eloping, but I thought he’d want to be there. He left for the day.”

“It’s not that he doesn’t want to be here; he said he felt that it should be private between us. And, to tell you the truth, I think the leaving for three days is a ruse.”

“Three days? He didn’t tell me he’d be gone for three days. Where on earth is he going for three days?”

Okay, so I was right: it was subterfuge, as this was evidently not the norm. “He said he had an issue with the apartment complex in Georgia.”

Kayla just shook her head. “Bob is one of his best managers; he doesn’t have a problem in Georgia. Even if he did, he’d handle it and be back tonight.” She huffed lightly and then laughed. “He’s as meddlesome as Gram.”

I rolled my eyes. “You have no idea. He had a man-to-man talk with me yesterday. I was completely discombobulated, but in the end, thankful. He was very informative.”

“He said he wanted to talk to you. What did he say? He didn’t give you the, ‘If you hurt my daughter’ speech, did he?”

I laughed. That would’ve been easier. “No. And as I said, it was man-to-man … no-girls-allowed kind of stuff.” Kayla tried not to look bothered, but she didn’t like it when we didn’t involve her in our decision-making. She may want to be a stay-at-home wife and mother, but it was clear she wanted to be intimately involved with all affairs. Which I loved.

I felt compelled to ease her mind. “Seriously, Kayla … when I say man-to-man, I mean it,” I clarified in a teasing tone.

“Oh…” She laughed lightly. “Wow … and he left us for three days.”

I just shook my head in defeat. It wasn’t enough that his daughter was trying to undermine my self-restraint; now her dad wasn’t making it any easier.

“Are you hungry,” she asked suddenly, changing the subject.

“Not yet. I don’t really eat much in the morning. Let’s get cleaned up and go out for breakfast. After all, it’s your birthday.”

She smiled. “I guess you’ll be in real trouble if you ever forget my birthday, as you’d have forgotten our anniversary as well.”

I kissed her then, not a deep, passionate kiss — evidently we had time for that later — but a sweet, good-morning kiss, one of thousands upon thousands to come. This was nice, sitting with her in the morning, watching the sunrise over coffee.

“Okay, I’ll go get ready, and I’ll meet you in the hallway … I’ll be the one in white,” she giggled.

 

 

h3=.

38 – Kayla

The ceremony was short and sweet, actually very sweet. The minister spoke of marriage from a biblical view, one of the reasons I had chosen this chapel.

He spoke of the symbolism of the rings having no beginning and no end, signifying eternity together. He spoke of marriage as a gift to cherish and, most importantly, that we seek God’s wisdom in everything we did.

Jesse was as handsome as ever and looked more thrilled every passing second. When the preacher finally got to the part, I now pronounce you husband and wife, I didn’t think Jesse would be able to maintain his composure. It looked like he might sweep me off the stage and out the door. He took a step forward as the preacher then said, “You may kiss the bride.”

He wrapped his arms around me tightly and pulled me off my feet. But his mouth was gentle on mine. He pulled back just enough to whisper under his kisses, “I’ll love you until the day I die, Kayla, and even afterward, I believe.” And his mouth was back on mine. We parted, and he carried me down the stairs.

h3=.

39 – Jesse

I wondered if Kayla would miss the big fanfare that usually followed the wedding vows.

I didn’t. I only wanted to hold her in my arms for the rest of the day and through tomorrow. Our honeymoon wasn’t until December, so we’d have to make our own paradise.

I wrapped my arm around her waist and led her back to the truck. “Do we need anything … because I was really hoping we wouldn’t have to leave once we got back to the house?” I looked up at her as I lifted her into the truck. Even with the running boards, it wasn’t easy when she wore a dress. Her eyes were glassy.

“You okay, love? Are you upset that your dad isn’t here?”

“Jesse, there’s absolutely nothing in the world that could upset me today. I’m quite possibly the happiest woman alive.”

I stepped up on the board and reached in, kissing her again; we needed to get back to the house.

“And, no, we don’t need anything … I bought everything we could possibly need.”

As many times as I opened doors for her and helped her in and out of the vehicle, she would still forget. Well, not today. When I pulled in the driveway, before I stopped, I said, “No hopping out of the truck, cowgirl. Wait for me this time, okay?”

I hopped down and darted around the truck and opened the door. I scooped her up and carried her to the house. After I opened the door, I carried her over the threshold. It wasn’t our house, but it was no different from a hotel room on vacation. I’d have to officially carry her over our threshold when we moved in together.

I stood in the foyer, not sure what to do next. I kissed her and then set her down. She took my hand and led me up the stairs.

“Kayla?” I whispered. After speaking with her father, I’d made preparations for all outcomes, but I wasn’t sure how much self-control I’d have if we were alone in her room.

She ignored me and tugged me gently upstairs. She directed me through her door and then nudged me down onto her bed. My heart thundered loudly in my chest, but surprisingly, that normal inner voice that always chimed out warnings seemed to be quiet for once. This was right.

“Wait, Kayla, I …”

“Jesse,” she sighed, “it’s perfect. Everything’s perfect.”

“No, that’s not what I meant … I have something for you. Hang on. I’ll be right back.”

 

 

h3=.

40 – Kayla

I crawled up on the bed, smiling. He wasn’t going to fight me. He’d be right back.

Jesse walked in a few seconds later with a small bag. He reached inside, pulled out a little box, and then set the bag on the end table. He inched his way next to me on the bed. He opened the little box and inside was a lovely gold box chain with a delicate little cross at the end.

“I know you don’t wear much jewelry, but I thought this would be nice for when we go out and on Sundays.”

“It’s beautiful, Jesse. I love it! Thank you.”

“Happy Birthday, my love. I didn’t want you to miss your birthday present because of your wedding … it’s like a kid with a birthday on Christmas.” He took the box and set it on the table.

“What else is in the bag?”

“You’ll see.”

Jesse pressed his lips to mine and gently lowered me onto the bed. My blood pulsed through my veins as his fingers lightly traced my collarbone and down my chest.

“This feels right, Kayla.”

“Jesse … what are you saying? Are you going to make love to me?”

“I only want to do what you want, nothing more. We can take as long as you need. But yes, I plan on loving you all day if you’ll allow me. We don’t have to do anything specific, but I want to feel you in my arms. I want to make you feel good. I want to love you completely, and I want you in my arms when I wake up every morning.”

“Oh, Jesse, I want this too. I can’t tell you how much I desire this. My body feels like it’s on fire every time you touch me. I want to know what it feels like to experience you completely.”

“Kayla, you realize it might hurt the first time, right?”

“Yes, I know, but I’m not afraid.”

“If you don’t feel uncomfortable and you’ll allow me, I think I can make it easier, though.”

“I trust you,” I said on a sigh, “completely.”

“How about the time of the month? Do I need protection?”

From my research, I knew that if I didn’t want to get pregnant or catch a disease, I should always use protection. But I knew Jesse had never been with another woman, and I knew that based on the date, it was practically impossible for me to get pregnant, and truthfully, it wouldn’t really bother me if I got pregnant.

Not wanting to voice my thoughts, I just shook my head. This was really going to happen. I thought I was going to have to beg him, but evidently, my father’s man-to-man talk must have made the difference, and now I was nervous. Not about Jesse, but about what we were going to do. Would I be able to please him? Would it hurt?

Jesse pushed the hair back off my neck and lowered his face to my ear. “I love you, Kayla. I can feel that you’re nervous. Please don’t be, I told you we don’t have to do anything.”

I started to protest, but he kissed off my words. His mouth moved over mine seductively. I parted my lips and he didn’t hesitate; he kissed me deeply and passionately. Blood rushed through my body and pounded in places I’d never experienced before. His tongue moved with mine. He moved his mouth expertly. Just his kissing was incredible, and I felt a quiver run through my body.

His hands moved down my neck, leaving a trail of fire, and then he slowly moved down my side. His hand lingered at my hip, then traced up around my chest, circling my breasts. He’d never touched me like this before, and I suddenly wanted more. His hands moved down to my waist and across my dress. He pressed his hand gently against my abdomen, and the blood rushed there as well. He moved his hand down my dress to below my knee. Pulling up the dress, he traced a pattern over my leg, slowly moving up my inner thigh. My blood boiled, and I wasn’t sure I could contain the rushing wave of emotion.

I tried to move my hands to him, but he politely stopped me and moved his lips to my ear again. “No, love, just lie back, relax, and feel me touching you. We have plenty of time. I want you to close your eyes, and I just want to touch you. Can I remove your dress?”

“Yes.” I gulped, squeezing my eyes shut, feeling his breath in my ear again.

“Breathe, Kayla. I’m your husband. You trust me, right?”

I nodded.

“I want to make sure you don’t hurt. I want to make you feel good, but you have to relax.”

“Jesse?” I asked, opening my eyes. “How do you know all this?”

“I told you. I like to read, and I listen.”

I closed my eyes again, and my body melted under his touch. He unhooked my dress and unzipped it all the way to my lower back, but he didn’t pull it off. I kept my eyes closed as his lips traveled across my cheekbones and his fingers pulled down the front of my dress. His mouth stayed on mine as he pulled the dress down to my hips. He trailed kisses down my neck, between my breasts, all the way to my tummy. My muscles tensed.

“You’re beautiful, and your body is perfect,” he whispered between kisses. “You don’t have to feel uncomfortable. I love you, and I plan to learn every inch of you.”

He moved his way back up to my mouth and lowered his body over mine. He kissed me lightly and moved his lips up my jaw again, over my cheeks, on my forehead. He pulled back from me. I felt his gaze and opened my eyes. He was looking at me with such passion, his eyes liquid.

“I love you, Kayla, with all of my heart.”

I felt my eyes sting. “I love you too.”

“How do you feel … do you trust me?”

“Completely,” I exhaled, meaning it. “Please don’t stop.”

“Close your eyes and just lie back, try not to be nervous. I’ll go very slowly.”

Jesse removed my dress the rest of the way. “God you’re beautiful, Kayla,” he whispered again. He seemed to know exactly what to say, when to say it, and where to touch me. It was as though he were listening to my soul. His fingers trailed around my waist, gently tracing its lines. He took every move cautiously so as not to alarm or panic me. After trailing his fingers around my naval, he removed my panties and bra.

I heard a small rustle of the bag, but then felt his palm press gently against my stomach again, and then he moved his hand to my thigh as he pressed his entire palm against different parts of my body, just slight pressure, desensitizing me, forcing my body to get used to his touch.

I gasped as silky fingers slowly moved against me, gently parting me.

His breath was at my ear again. “Breathe, Kayla. I love you, baby.”

My pulse thudded through my body and my hips arched to feel more of him. He pressed his lips against mine and moved his mouth back and forth over my mouth in perfect rhythm with his fingers. His tongue made tiny circles with mine, as his fingers mimicked the movements.

A current coursed through my entire body, like small doses of electricity shocking me, but it felt incredible and I didn’t want it to end. I wasn’t supposed to feel this. I’d read that it would take months to orgasm, but Jesse had insisted I feel everything. When I asked my cousin how I’d know, she simply replied, Ifyou’re not sure if you did, then you didn’t. I hadn’t understood at the time, but now I did.

“Oh … that … oh … my … wow.” I opened my eyes, but I was pretty sure they rolled back in my head as I arched my hips again, wanting more. I found Jesse’s eyes, and he smiled, looking pleased. He knew what he’d accomplished and looked proud.

“Are you okay?” he whispered.

Unable to speak, I nodded.

He moved his mouth over mine and started to unbutton his shirt. Once done, I helped pull it off. I traced his chest. He was wide and strong — gorgeous.

I moved my hands to his pants and helped him shed them as well. I didn’t close my eyes this time; I wanted to see him.

He moved to my ear again. “Are you ready, my love?” I nodded again. “I need to hear you. Tell me.”

“Jesse,” I whispered. He wanted to hear his name. How many times had he breathed my name? “Make love to me.” I braced myself, and he stopped.

“Relax, Kayla, breathe. I’m going to make love to you, but we’re going to take as long as you need.” He moved toward me again. “Just move with me, okay? You have to let me know if it hurts.”

I felt him then, and I couldn’t keep from gasping.

He pulled back, his eyes widening as though he were in pain. “Are you okay? You want me to stop?”

There was pain, but an overwhelming desire to please my husband masked any discomfort. “No.” I grabbed onto his shoulders, holding him inside of me. “I’m more than okay,” I said breathlessly. “You have made everything right.” The only thing I felt was joy at being able to share this experience with him.

“This is a gift, Kayla. A husband and wife are supposed to feel pleasure.” He was very gentle as he moved again, and his words calmed me.

There was no trepidation; I was in love, and this was my husband.

I moved with him. “Jesse …” I tried to speak, but my words wouldn’t come. Heat surged through me. “Jesse … oh … wow …” I wrapped my arms around him tighter, pulling him deeper.

 

 

h3=.

41 – Jesse

My name on her lips was all I needed to hear. She was okay, she wasn’t in pain, and she was my wife. It was everything I’d dreamt of and more. I hadn’t imagined the overwhelming joy of hearing her pleasure, but now a surge of heat pulsed through my body as her hips moved with mine. Nothing I’d ever experienced was close to this.

The room went black and I collapsed beside her. I pulled her tightly into my arms. “Wow, is right. Are you sure you’re okay?”

Tears slid down her cheeks, but she was smiling. “I’m more than okay, Jesse. You’re the most amazing man.”

“And you … I heard that’s not supposed to happen yet, but I could see it in your eyes.”

She nodded and smiled widely at me “And it’ll only get better?”

“From what I understand, yes. But I have one complaint, Kayla.” I watched her eyes grow wide. “How am I going to leave now? How am I going to be able to leave you for a week, let alone three months? This is exactly what I was afraid of.”

“So, are you sorry?”

“Are you kidding?” I burst out. “Never! This is the happiest day of my life. I have a lovely bride, and we just experienced one of God’s greatest gifts. No, I’m not sorry. But how am I going to be able to leave without you?”

“Really … do you mean it?”

“Hey, I thought you were the one who said I should stay for my father.” I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter … I’ll go back long enough to find an employee, and then I’ll be back. He’ll manage without me.” I brushed my hands across her face. “Shh … let’s not talk anymore. Let’s enjoy this time together.” I pulled her closer and we lay there, content just to hold each other.

I felt her body go limp, and knew she’d fallen asleep. I’d been so worried that I’d hurt her, or that I wouldn’t please her, but now I felt nothing but pure rapture. The feelings I’d experienced making love to her were like nothing I’d ever felt, and I didn’t think I could sum up the overpowering love I’d felt as I pleased her.

We had just two nights together and then her father would be back. Would we be able to spend the rest of our nights together? Our house was ready; we just needed furniture. Maybe we could stay there?

How would I be able to return to Florida alone? It wasn’t like I wouldn’t be able to go without making love to her. I’d spent years denying myself; that wasn’t my concern. My issue was that I didn’t want to leave. I wanted her next to me every night now. She was mine, truly a gift, and I didn’t ever want to spend a day without her.

As much as it would hurt, I wasn’t sorry for my decision to consummate our marriage. Everything had felt right. If it hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gone through with making love to Kayla. I’d prepared myself so that if the time was right, I’d be ready, but I was surprised at how right the moment had felt. All of the pleasures I’d been denying myself because they felt wrong, had suddenly felt right.

I tightened my embrace around her and nuzzled my face into her hair. I didn’t want to wake her, but I couldn’t stop myself from breathing in her aroma. A new scent lingered with the delicate fragrance of her hair and skin. My blood coursed through my veins as the heady scent transported me instantly to the sensations we’d experienced. I worked my mouth down her face, finding her lips.

“Mmm, now that’s a pleasant way to wake up …” she murmured.

I continued to plant kisses down her throat as my hands traced patterns across her bare stomach. I took my time again, knowing that I’d have to be just as careful.

I brushed her hair from under her neck, splaying it across the pillow, a sea of curls. I buried my face into her neck again and kissed my way back up to her earlobe.

“You smell incredible, baby. It’s driving me mad,” I whispered into her ear as I inhaled deeply again, experiencing the way it made my body crave her. “Can I make love to you again?”

“You don’t have to ask, Jesse. I’m yours,” she purred.

My vision blurred slightly. I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her on top of me. My lips pressed firmly to her mouth. “Make love to me, Kayla,” I whispered under my kisses, “so you can move at your pace.”

 

 

h3=.

42 – Kayla

I wasn’t sure what to do, but I let my body lead the way. My hands seemed to move of their own accord, and Jesse moaned with delight.

It encouraged me, and I experimented with ways that seemed to make him move with pleasure. I found it already easier than the first time, but I took my time, careful not to put myself in pain, knowing it would hurt him if I cried out. I kept my eyes open most of the time and watched the elation transform Jesse’s features.

When it was over, I collapsed against his chest and his arms folded around me tightly.

“I love you, Kayla M’Lynn O’Brien.” He smiled. “That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? I bet your mother didn’t think you’d have an Irish last name when she gave you your middle name.”

“Probably not, but I love the way it sounds … especially when you say it.”

“Mrs. O’Brien. I like the sound of that.” He rolled me over onto my side and curved his body next to mine. “So, do you think we’ll get out of bed for the next couple of days or should we start ordering in food?”

“Are you hungry for something other than me?” I asked, eyeing him suspiciously.

“Never, my love. But if I don’t eat, I won’t have any strength. I’m famished!”

 

I jumped in the shower quickly and then made my way to the kitchen. I’d gone shopping last week, stocking up on the foods that I knew Jesse liked.

I’d purchased a huge pack of chicken breasts and had spent an hour trimming, slicing, cubing, and dicing the meat into four different sections. I then found tons of recipes online, deciding I’d grill all the breasts, adding barbecue sauce to a few for one night, and then use the remaining grilled breasts in sandwiches and salads. I’d hand-bread the chunks to make buffalo chicken bites — baked, of course, then I breaded breasts for Chicken Parmesan and would use the pieces for stir-fry.

Jesse finished his shower and strolled into the kitchen right behind me. “So, what are we making for lunch?”

“I’m not sure yet … Chicken.”

“Chicken sounds good, but it’s your wedding day. I don’t want to leave either, but maybe we should go out or order in?”

“You want to go out?” I asked, disturbed by the idea.

“I think that might be a good idea,” he admitted

“Pizza, then?” I was excited at the prospect.

“You’re incorrigible. Do you eat anything besides pizza?” He shook his head. “How do you keep your body in such good shape with your diet of pizza and ice cream?”

“I’ll eat other things this week. I have chicken prepared to cook at least six different ways. Dad won’t be happy about it, though.”

“Okay. Let’s go. We’ll pick up ice cream on the way home. It is your birthday and wedding night after all. So if you want pizza and ice cream, then pizza and ice cream it is.”

h3=.

43 – Jesse

After picking up the pizza, I drove to the park we’d visited on prom night. We sat by the lake, pizza box in front of us, and talked of our future.

“So, I’ll go home to pack my things and spend every waking hour looking for my replacement. Dad will just have to understand. If it takes more than a couple of weeks, I’ll drive up or you can fly down. Since we don’t have to use my money for a house, we have plenty.”

Kayla leaned against me. “Thank you, Jesse. That’ll be wonderful.”

“And what do you think about going shopping for furniture tomorrow — after we spend precious time in the morning, of course.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. There’s no way I could spend the rest of the week sleeping in the next room, and there’s no way I’d be comfortable in your room with your dad in the house. And … there’s absolutely no possibility that I’d be able to go all week without touching you again.”

She grinned. “So we’re doing it then, setting up house tomorrow?”

“Again, thanks to your father, we have the money, and I’m pretty sure he saw this coming.”

We could afford it. I’d be earning good money, and she was undoubtedly not spoiled. The house was indication enough. I had about dropped when I saw it. I wouldn’t have picked the house, but Kayla had told me all the possibilities, and I could envision it now. I’d have a lot of carpentry work to do, but she assured me she’d make a great apprentice, handling all of the prepping, painting, and cleaning up afterward.

We made our way back to her dad’s house around sunset. There were still hours before it was time to go to bed, so we opted for a mushy chick flick, not always a bad idea when the woman of your dreams was in your arms. I just had to make certain she was thinking of me when the time came. After tossing all the sofa cushions on the floor, I pulled her down in front of me. I wrapped my arms around her and just rested my head on top of hers, closing my eyes, fantasizing about ways to make her feel good later.

I couldn’t really say what was happening in the movie as I wasn’t really paying attention. I’d never seen it, but recognized the title as a classic. Kayla had said it was one of her favorites. I saw her wipe her fingers across her cheeks, crying.

“Why do women like to watch movies that make them cry?” I asked, truly curious.

“I only like movies that make me cry that have happy endings. I guess it’s because you appreciate true happiness after witnessing sadness. This movie taught me something about relationships … that you need to talk to each other. Both of them loved each other, but neither could imagine that the other loved them in return. Instead, they allowed themselves presuppositions of whom they assumed the other was. For example, when I met you, if it wasn’t for me your pride and prejudices would have gotten in the way of us getting together. You saw me as someone else based on association to my cousin only.”

I started to argue, but then realized she was right. “You’re right, I was prideful and prejudiced. It seems like forever ago, though. But I’d also point out that if it weren’t for Gram and your father willing to listen to reason, you would’ve left me without giving me a chance to explain.” I cringed at the memory of how much pain I’d felt at the time, which was nothing compared to the agony I’d suffer if I lost her now. I buried the thought quickly; we were here … together.

I smoothed my hand down her arm to her hips, then up the front of her threadbare T-shirt; it was very sexy. For pajamas, Kayla wore only T-shirts and different styles of sleep pants. I loved them.

I’d almost forgotten my comment when she spoke. “That’s true. See … we need to make sure we always communicate.” Kayla clutched my arm and pressed my hand to her lips. She traced sensual circles on the back of my hand as her fingers trailed down the inside of my arm. Chills thrilled through my entire body. I wished the movie would end.

As if she’d heard me, she whispered, “This is the best part.”

I looked up at the scene on the screen. The first rays of sunrise lit up a meadow, and the heroine watched as the main male character walked across the field, his long overcoat flowing in the morning breeze. The music was beautiful, the scenery captivating. I watched, happy to share the moment with Kayla. The gentleman admitted his affections, and I had to admit, it was a good line, very romantic.

The movie closed, and I quickly reached to turn off the TV. Kayla turned in my arms so she was facing me and then lifted her lips to mine. We lay there for untold minutes, just kissing each other, until I couldn’t restrain myself any longer. I scooped her up in my arms, then threw the afghan that was on the back of the couch onto the carpet. I lowered her to the floor, then hovered over her.

“I want you so much, Kayla. You wouldn’t think it was possible, but it’s as if the fire has only been fanned.” I locked eyes with her, wanting to know what she wanted. Her eyes burned with intensity.

We made love again, and then I carried her up to our bed. She would fall asleep in my arms and then be there when I awoke, as it should be every day of our lives. I wished I hadn’t promised my father. I wished I could just call him and say sorry and that he’d understand, but I couldn’t, and I knew Kayla wouldn’t want me to either.

She fell asleep in my arms again, and I looked down at her angelic face, and kissed her forehead. We had forever. That thought would help me make it through the time away from her again, hopefully for the last time.

 

I watched as Kayla slept in my arms. Rays of sunshine seeped through the blinds. The golden sunlight touched her hair and skin; she was literally glowing under the streams of light. She stirred slightly in my arms, and I couldn’t resist kissing her.

“Good morning, sleepyhead. I thought you woke up at five?”

Kayla’s eyes popped open. “What time is it? I have to take care of the horses.”

“Seven. If you hadn’t woken up in the next few minutes, I was going to have to use my powers of persuasion. Can the horses wait a half an hour?”

“Just this once, I suppose. So … what exactly are your powers of persuasion?” she asked, a smile in her voice.

“I guess I’ll just have to show you.” And I did.

It was easier every time; I was learning what pleased her and was sure by her sounds that she wasn’t in pain anymore.

I wondered how long the honeymoon would last. It seemed that I’d be thrilled to love her morning, noon, and night, but I knew that wasn’t realistic. I’d just have to enjoy the celebration of our wedding as long as it lasted.

h3=.

44 – Jesse

I couldn’t keep the grin off my face as Kayla and I started our first morning as a married couple with the simple act of eating breakfast together, discussing the best place to start purchasing furniture.

“What do you like, Jesse? I like an eclectic blend of antiques and sensible furniture, nothing trendy or new age. I think we should only buy a bed and sofa new, and then we can find the rest of the items in pre-owned furniture stores and antique shops.”

“We can afford new furniture,” I grumbled. “I told you we have over thirty thousand saved since, thanks to your father, we don’t have to purchase a house.”

“And I told you, I don’t need all fancy, new stuff,” she retorted. “I don’t like it. I want a new sofa and bed, though; I don’t want something someone else has slept on.” She wrinkled her nose and grimaced in horror at the thought. “But tables and dressers … they can have character. You’ll see … trust me.”

“I trust you, Kayla. This won’t take too long though, will it? I want to get back home soon.” I flashed my most devious smile.

“No, we’ll start with the bed and sofa, and maybe a table. And then, since you trust me, I’ll take more time and look for pieces when you’re gone. We also need to go by Wal-Mart and pick up some kitchen and linens too, but I’ll do most of the work when you’re busy.”

 

Daylight passed swiftly, and before I knew it another day ended. We’d found some good pieces. What we couldn’t fit in the truck, we placed on hold to pick up tomorrow. I agreed to stay another night at her dad’s house, and tomorrow we’d move into our first home.

Kayla did wonders with chicken. I typically just threw it in the oven and boiled rice, but she had prepared grilled chicken so tender I was able to cut it with a fork, and a rice dish I’d never experienced outside a restaurant.

“Where did you learn to cook, Kayla? This is wonderful.”

“I read and research too, Jesse.” She smiled warmly as she echoed my words from yesterday. “And, I’ve been the woman of the house for the last six years. I’m a little concerned with leaving my father to fend for himself; he’s never had to take care of a home. He moved from his parents’ house to live with my mother, and then when she passed, I stepped right in. Unlike you; you’ve sort of been taking care of yourself for nine years, haven’t you?”

I nodded. “This is nice, but as I said … I don’t expect a cook and a maid. I’ll pull my weight. I don’t ever want you to feel trapped. If there’s something you decide you want to do, I want you to do it.”

A provocative smile flashed across her face. She got up and walked to my side of the table, and then lifted my hand, pulling me to my feet.

“We’ll clean up later,” she drawled in her most seductive southern accent as she led me up the stairs.

Warmth washed through me at her actions. “I was speaking of career moves … but this works too,” I said, following her enthusiastically.

 

We spent our morning rolled up in blankets, discussing our future. We talked about our house, my career and college, and eventually children. We both agreed that we were entirely too young to have children, but weren’t sure what method we should use to prevent pregnancy. Kayla was enthusiastic about counting days, even though it wasn’t a reliable means of contraception, but suggested if we were close on either side, we could use protection. The pill was the easiest, but with her mother’s heart attack at such a young age, her doctor had recommended against it.

“I have a request, then,” I said. “It may sound strange, but can you keep a calendar where I can see it, so I don’t have to ask you every time and spoil the mood. I can just be ready.”

“Okay,” she acquiesced. “But if you’re concerned with me getting pregnant and feeling trapped, that’s not the reason I don’t want kids. I just want us to have this time. If it happens, I’ll be okay with that too.”

We finished picking up the rest of the furniture before noon, then returned to the house to meet her dad for lunch. He’d said he wanted to take me out starting today. I’d miss Kayla, but I knew it’d only be for a few hours.

Tomorrow she’d have to go back to school. But John assured me that we’d start the days off early so we could have our afternoons together before I had to return to Florida.

 

I decided to be like my new father-in-law and not beat around the bush. We were driving to the first site John wanted to show me, and we had the time alone in the car.

“Sir,” I started, but then I paused. Taking a deep breath, I continued, “I’ll be honored to call you Dad, but I have one final discussion before I do so, because I need to talk to you as Kayla’s father.”

John simply nodded in understanding.

“Kayla and I went shopping yesterday and have started furnishing our new house, and I know we’re married, but I’d told you that we’d wait till December, but —”

John held up his hand, interrupting me. “I don’t need details, Jess.”

I nodded. “Of course not. First of all, thank you for our talk and for giving us alone time; it helped me greatly to make the correct decisions. I just wanted you to know that if it’s okay with you, we’ll be staying in our home tonight. And though I have to return to Florida briefly to settle up with my father and bring back some of my things, we’ve decided that I’m coming back as soon as possible. I can’t leave Kayla for three months. I’ll never leave her again.”

h3=.

45 – John

John took in the boy, who was more of a man than most men he knew. He didn’t ask, he didn’t demand, he simply stated. He’d make Kayla a wonderful husband.

John had known all along that if he left them alone on their wedding night, Jesse would make the right decision. His daughter didn’t want Jesse to leave, and so as always, he’d done what he needed to do to make his baby girl happy. Before Brooke had died, everything had been for her, but afterward, everything he did in life was for his only daughter, the only thing he had left of his beloved. He missed her so badly it hurt sometimes. He hadn’t dated so Kayla would always be his number one priority, as Brooke would have wanted.

“I know, Jesse. I didn’t think you’d want to leave again, and I know Kayla doesn’t want you to leave, but you had to make your own decision.”

 

 

h3=.

46 – Jesse

I smiled. Kayla was right. The man had known exactly what he was doing. I didn’t feel exploited, though, I was thankful. “Thanks, Dad, you were right.”

“Now … back to business.” John handed me a printout of the apartment complexes and our managers. “We have a meeting tomorrow morning with everyone, but I wanted to show you around so you’d be familiar with each location. Each property has its own manager, who handles maintenance and security and gets a salary and a complimentary apartment. We also have another employee who handles maintenance at all of the single-family homes, and a secretary who fields calls, schedules repairs for maintenance with residential clients, and handles minor complaints.”

I was in awe of the fact that John referred to everything as we. He really did want more than just an employee. “So, what exactly do you want me to do?”

“I want you to oversee them all, and of course we’ll discuss any new acquisitions and ideas. It may not sound like much, but it will keep you busy. I want you to root out issues before they arise. You’re familiar with all things construction, and what you don’t know, I have a feeling you’ll learn.” John took a deep breath and continued, “What I don’t want you to do is waste a moment of precious time with your new wife. The business will always be there, bills will always be there. Life continues. Forget everything when you’re together and be together often. You both have one main job: Love Like Crazy. That’s it in a nutshell. Love is the most important thing of all. If you put each other before everything else in life, you’ll make it. When it’s time to leave, go home. I don’t want you to overwork yourself to try to prove something. Kayla told me how much you worked this summer, and then you spent the rest of your time with her. You were sleeping, what, five hours a night?”

I nodded sheepishly. Was there anything she didn’t share with her father?

“Son, I can’t sleep. I’m a hopeless insomniac, and whether that’s from years of depriving myself of sleep so I could make one more deal or accomplish one more goal, I’m not sure, but I don’t want to see you end up there. Brooke was the same. We worked for all of this together. She was as much of a go-getter as I was. Luckily, Kayla didn’t seem to inherit that gene. She wants, I believe, what she feels she missed in life by her mother passing so early. And she’s good at it too. She’s a great cook, smart as a whip, and a pleasure to come home to and talk with at night. She pays attention. Don’t think she isn’t extremely intelligent because of her lack of career-oriented goals. She’s probably smarter than both of us put together; she has her priorities straight, anyway.”

“You’re not telling me anything new. Already, I’ve looked to Kayla whenever I have decisions to make,” I admitted.

“This business … can be stressful. You can go weeks with no issues, and then all of a sudden, everything goes haywire. We took a hard hit when the economy turned, but Kayla came up with a great idea after she noticed we had to evict more tenants than usual. She decided that instead of evicting hard-working people, we’d lower the rent on all of our properties and for new tenants. She researched the area to establish what the current market value was, and we adjusted accordingly. It’s been a year now, and at least that part of business has been running smoothly. We even have more funds coming in because we now have fewer vacancies.”

He smiled proudly at the mention of his daughter, then continued, “But back to my point about stress; you can’t let it bother you. Things happen, and there’s nothing you can do to change it. Roll up your sleeves, fix the problem, and get on with life. And that’s good advice in everything. You can’t change the past, whether it was ten minutes ago or ten years. Live in the present, prepare for the future, but don’t get caught up in it either. Stress will kill you. I still wonder why I have so many issues. I’d do well to take my own advice,” John added.

I laughed at his candidness. I wondered if this conversation was really about business or about his daughter.

As we drove around, I understood what John had meant about handling issues before they arose. I noticed many things in need of attention, roofs that needed replacing before they caused bigger issues with mold and interior ceilings especially. I was hesitant to point it out, but figured John wanted me to be honest. Again, John gave me an approving nod, making me wonder if he’d brought me by this specific location just for that reason.

I got bolder as the day progressed, and started taking notes on things we could discuss later. I wondered how the employees would react to an eighteen-year-old high school graduate taking over as their boss. I was sure no one would thwart John’s orders while he was there, but what would happen when John started taking days off, as he said he planned to do. Would I have a problem directing a manager?

I was confident that I’d handle the position well and with dignity. I wouldn’t be a tyrant, but I wouldn’t be a pushover either. One of the reasons I assumed my own father had never grown his business, and maybe even the reason he’d lost my mother. I would make a conscious effort to watch everything John did and learn from him.

It was six, and John headed toward the house. The day had flown by, as I really did like to work. I’d actually been able to move Kayla to the back of my mind so I could pay attention to John’s instruction. Now that we were on the way home, however, she was front and center in my thoughts. I imagined coming home tomorrow to our house and her waiting for me.

Only five more nights, the thought punched me in the gut, and then I’d have to leave. Hopefully for the last time.

 

After dinner, we sat around the living room and talked for a while, but then John stood up, informing us that he had business matters to tackle.

“Jesse, I’ll see you at the office at seven, and Kayla … you’re going to school, right?” he asked, staring at her intently.

“Yes, Daddy. Thank you for everything.” She stood up and hugged him goodnight, and then he retreated to his office.

I walked over to her and took her hand. “Let’s go home,” I said longingly, but then remembered our things and started to ascend the stairs. “Of course, I guess we need our things.”

Kayla tugged on my hand. “Already there.” And her smile echoed my thoughts. “The only bad thing is we have to take both of our vehicles. I’ll need a way to get to school in the morning.”

It was the first act of our normal life together. She never drove. I picked her up and drove her everywhere. If she wasn’t with me, she was home. Such a simple thing, but I felt the heat wash over me. We really were married, and heading to our home. I’d get up in the morning, go to work, and she’d be waiting for me when I returned home.

I smiled. “Let’s go, shall we? We have to be up early, and I don’t want to miss any time with my wife.” I kissed her lightly as I closed the door behind her.

I led the way to the house, making sure I arrived ahead of her. When she parked, I opened her door for her to get out, but then scooped her up and walked up the few steps to the front porch. I allowed her to unlock the door, and then kissed her as I carried her over the threshold. “Welcome home, cowgirl, my bride.”

I breathed deeply; she’d been cleaning. The house no longer smelled musty; it smelled like autumn. Curtains adorned the windows, new pillows were on the couch we’d just purchased, and a few pictures hung on the wall. Framed pictures of our spring and summer escapades that I’d emailed her from my phone, sat on the coffee table and a bookshelf against the opposite wall in the living room. I just stared in awe. Kayla had been busy. I was home, and it didn’t matter what house we lived in or what furniture we purchased, Kayla had made them a home. She was my warmth, and she made everything beautiful.

“What do you think?” she asked while I just stood there holding her in my arms.

“I think, as I’ve always thought, you’re amazing.” I pressed my lips to her forehead. “And, that you’re smarter than I am.” I kissed her cheek. “And you have more faith than I do.” I kissed her other cheek. “And that I love you more than you could ever imagine possible. More than any person real or fictional has ever loved another. I love you, Kayla O’Brien, always.”

Her eyes lit up and a flush warmed her cheeks. “Is that all?” she teased.

“If I say anything else, you’ll think I’m preposterous.”

“I wouldn’t, but I was talking about the house,” she clarified.

I set her down. “Uh … so was I, sort of … because of the house, because of everything.”

She took my hand and walked toward the back of the house. “Let me show you around.”

It wouldn’t be a long tour; the house was barely more than a small apartment. She took me first to the kitchen, with its small eat-in area. She’d added little homey touches in the kitchen, a few small plants on the window ledge that looked out over the backyard, and put more pillows on the little window seat behind the table. A few of the books I’d brought with me were stacked on the seat.

She took me to the first small room off the hall where she’d put a small desk she’d found — probably at another antique store, I guessed. She’d already decorated the desk with pens, notepads, and spiral bound books. Above the desk sat a small lamp and another picture of the two of us from our day at Juniper Springs. I remembered holding the phone out at arm’s length to get the shot with the blue water in the background. The room was devoid of anything but the desk and a bookshelf, but I was elated at her thoughtfulness. She was telling me that I’d be the businessman I’d always wanted to be.

She passed the next room, leading me straight to our master bedroom. A white down comforter and more pillows covered the new bed. The scent in here was not the same as the living room. I breathed deeply, trying to recognize the aroma.

“Sandalwood and lavender,” she said. “You like scents, I noticed.”

“I do,” I agreed. “How did you know?”

“I pay attention, too.” She gathered the hand that she was holding around her waist and pulled my other hand around her other side. “I thought that maybe we should break the ice and go straight for the bed. What do you think?”

“I think I’ve created an animal.” I pulled her back up into my arms and carried her to the bed.

She didn’t waste any time, pulling off my clothes immediately. Then she pulled off hers as well as she scooted herself back on the bed, grabbed me, and pulled me down on top of her.

“Uh, Kayla, shouldn’t we —”

She kissed off my words. “I’m fine, Jesse. I’ve thought of nothing but you all day.”

She gripped me tightly. “Please make love to me.”

I obliged, and the feeling was euphoric. I held back nothing, and she continued to hold me tightly, pulling me closer to her with every ounce of strength she had.

I saw the look as her eyes rolled back, and she closed her eyes off from me. It was different this time from why I’d asked her to close her eyes the first time. I wanted her to see me; I wanted to watch her as she felt the pleasure.

“Open your eyes, Kayla. I want to see you.” She did, and I saw her green eyes gaze up at me in wonder. I felt the sensation surge through my body at the same time she did. I held her gaze, watching the ecstasy build in her eyes. “I love you,” I whispered. “God, how I love you, Kayla.” I fell down beside her and gathered her in my arms. “I can’t envision this ever getting any better, but I hear it does. Can you imagine?”

She nuzzled her head under my chin. “No, but I’ll do my best to make sure it does.”

I nudged up her chin with my finger. “You’re amazing.”

We lay there for a few minutes, but then she looked up. “I’m gonna take a shower. Wanna join me?”

“Good luck trying to stop me.” I laughed and clutched her closer for a brief second, kissed her, then released her. She started to get up, but I pulled her back down in my arms again. My mouth was back on hers. “I just don’t want to let you go.”

“Then don’t.”

I didn’t miss the ambiguity in her words. Her words, whether she’d meant them or not, sliced through my soul like a knife.

I released her hand so she could take a shower. “I’ll be right in,” I said flatly, feeling as if she’d slapped me. I knew she hadn’t meant it to be mean, but I’d heard the sadness in her tone and knew what she’d meant.

She was afraid I would be gone more than a few weeks. She was worried that my dad would try to keep me until December. It’d been her idea, though, so why was she making me feel guilty? I didn’t want to go back to Florida. I’d told her I didn’t want to leave.

Sitting at the edge of the bed, I dropped my head into my hands. The shower turned on, but she would see the pain in my eyes if I went in now.

Delicate fingers ran through my hair, lifting up my head. “I’m sorry, Jesse. I won’t do that again. I forget how much you know me. I was trying to be sly with my words, and it was wrong.”

“But if you meant them, Kayla…”

“I didn’t really mean them. I was just being a brat.”

I suppressed a laugh. “You’re not being a brat; I’ve never seen you be a brat.”

“Oh, yes, I was … and I can be a brat, believe me. I’m an only child with a doting father, after all. Luckily, he has always reined me in, or I probably would’ve turned out like Charity. I’m sorry, though. I really didn’t mean to upset you. I know you have to go … and that it was my idea. I’m just feeling a little selfish right now, that’s all.” She pulled me off the bed and led me to the shower. “I’ll make it up to you, I promise,” she said, a hopeful smile spreading across her face.

“Okay, I’ll let you.” Suddenly, selfish sounded nice.

h3=.

47 – Jesse

The week had flown by and it was now Sunday evening. I’d decided to leave after dinner, putting me in Florida around three a.m.

I’d get six hours of sleep, and then get to work finding a replacement. I also planned to make it clear to my father that I wasn’t staying. I wouldn’t stress out my new marriage in any way. Forget missing Kayla. I could deal with that. What I couldn’t handle was the strain it would cause her. She wanted me home, so home I’d be as soon as it was possible.

My dad probably hadn’t even put out an ad as I’d requested. I’d showed him how to do it on Craig’s List; it didn’t even cost money.

As promised, I texted Kayla as soon as I arrived, informing her I’d call her after she was out of school. Thankfully, she had agreed to stay with her father while I was gone. She didn’t want to; she wanted to stay in our house. I’d explained that there would be no way I could concentrate on my job here if I was constantly worried about her, so reluctantly she’d agreed. She would just spend a little time after school each day fixing up the house, and then would go back to her father’s to prepare dinner and do her homework.

 

It had been two weeks and not one qualified applicant. My dad needed someone motivated and reliable. Problem was, all the good plumbers worked for themselves or large companies. Rarely did I find prospective employees who didn’t care about health insurance, and had clean records. It was really starting to stress me out. I remembered John’s words and laughed at how he’d mentioned you could think all the right things, but when it came to applying them, it was another story.

I got a future glimpse of having to look for a maintenance person who could also serve as manager. If I couldn’t find a plumber, I couldn’t imagine finding someone who could handle multiple responsibilities. John must have turnover in that field.

My dad understood, promising that whomever I chose to hire, he’d accept, no questions asked. That had only made it more difficult. Before, I’d chosen qualified applicants, but then had just forwarded their information to my dad to make the decision. Now that I’d agreed to choose my successor, I was being even pickier than my father was. I couldn’t hire just anyone and stick my dad with him.

I’d explained the problem to Kayla, and of course she was sympathetic. She was struggling to leave her father as well. She already worried about who would cook and clean for him. He could afford a housekeeper, but said he didn’t want a stranger in his house.

We both just exhaled, exhausted over the task. I missed her something awful. If I didn’t find someone by the end of the week, I’d go home for the weekend, which would also give me a chance to bring up a load of my stuff to our house.

If I did find someone … well then, I’d have to stay another week to train him, and then I’d be free.

 

Friday arrived and still nothing. I decided I’d cut out early so that I could be with Kayla before it was time to go to bed. How I longed to have her beside me. Even if we did nothing, just to have her in my arms as I fell asleep and still be there when I woke up would be wonderful.

I hadn’t scheduled any jobs for today, and so far there were no emergencies, so I was just catching up with paperwork when a gentleman I recognized walked in. I’d met Brock about a year ago in a plumbing supply store. Even though I was sure he was just a few years older than I was, we’d hit it off immediately. Brock had worked for his father-in-law, if I remembered correctly.

I stood to greet him. “Hey … Brock, right? You work for Bill’s Plumbing?”

“That’s right. I was hoping you’d remember me. Only, used to work for Bill is more precise.”

My heart skipped a beat. Was it possible? Was Brock here looking for a job? I needed to remain calm and take control, not appear desperate for an employee. “What happened?” I was surprised at how perfectly blasé I sounded.

“Honestly, nothing. Bill and I get along great. I’ve been working for him for years, since I was a teenager. Met my wife — his daughter — through him. Well, ex-wife now. Since we didn’t have any kids, our divorce went through immediately, and then she went crying to her father. As much as he and I still enjoyed working together, she complained. Said it wasn’t right. Now I’m out of a job at the worst possible time in history. There’s absolutely nothing good out there, and even though I know you’re a small operation, I thought maybe if I brought some of my contracts, you’d be willing to take me on.”

Dear God, thank you, I prayed silently. Not only was he a good man, but he’d do what I’d been planning to do: bring on more contracts. I wanted to call Kayla immediately and tell her I was coming home, but I couldn’t. I had to be responsible. I needed to check his references, maybe even call some of his clients. If I called his clients to check on his work, it could work two-fold; they’d be honest and would know he was changing jobs, which would open the door for Brock to call them back.

“Brock, it just so happens we’re looking for someone.” I pulled out an application form. “Here, fill this out please, and if you could give me the names of a couple clients, that would be helpful. Is it okay if I go ahead and call Bill now?”

“Absolutely. He knows I’m out looking today. He gave me the day off.” Brock sat down at the table in the area that displayed different models of pipes, plumbing catalogs, and such.

I walked into my father’s office and closed the door. I couldn’t contain myself; I sent a quick text to Kayla. Nothing meant anything until she knew.

Interviewing hopeful, looks good.

She texted back in seconds: Yay!Love You!

Of course, she was in school and shouldn’t be texting, but public schools had pretty much given up on that battle. There was just no use trying to control it.

Bill provided me with an exceedingly positive, but sorrowful, evaluation. He relayed the same story Brock had. For a fleeting second, I pictured myself in Brock’s shoes. What if that happened with Kayla and me … would John fire me? Of course, it was a ridiculous concern; nothing was going to happen to Kayla and me.

I returned to the front showroom. Brock stood up and walked toward me, application in hand. I took it appreciatively. I mulled over his experience. He’d worked for Bill as long as I’d worked for my father, in practically the same position. I read over the clients, some large ones that I’d been eyeing. “Looks good. Do you have a few minutes? I’ll make some calls right now, if that’s all right with you. I was taking today off too, so I have time right now.” Again, I couldn’t help but feel a little smug; I was a natural. I was certain that what John had in store for me would be a piece of cake.

I called a few of the references. Not only were they positive, but several mentioned for him to call if he made the switch, indicating they’d change companies. Several times I was told that they appreciated the individual treatment Brock gave them; it wasn’t about the company.

I almost shouted with joy. It would postpone my trip tonight, but I could walk through everything with Brock today and tomorrow and maybe leave tomorrow night. Brock was smart and knew what he was doing. He knew the area; he wouldn’t need a week of me driving him around town and going over paperwork.

I called my dad, requesting that we meet for lunch. My dad had told me he’d accept whomever I chose, but I wanted him to have the final say, and of course there was the discussion of pay, but I was sure Brock would be flexible. As he’d said, jobs were hard to come by right now. Smaller companies were going out of business left and right, and larger companies wanted young kids they could get to work for peanuts.

“Brock, how do you feel about going to lunch with my dad and me? Far as I’m concerned, you’re perfect for the position. If he agrees and the pay is suitable, you have yourself a job.” I thrust out my hand, and Brock accepted it gratefully.

While waiting for my dad to arrive, I briefly explained the situation. Brock was sorry that I wouldn’t be here, but he was thankful that he would have all of my clients so that his earlier proposal of working just the clients he brought in wouldn’t be necessary. I also told him of my most treasured client and that no matter what, she was first priority. I didn’t want Gram to have problems because I wasn’t here.

My dad agreed with my assessment of Brock, and they made an agreement immediately over lunch. Thrilled and unable to contain my elation, I excused myself from the table and walked outside to call Kayla. She was out of school by eleven due to her small class load, so she’d be at the house.

While the phone rang, my heart pounded in anticipation. I’d never experienced a relationship so personal that I couldn’t wait to share something. She’d truly become not only my wife and lover, but also my best friend. The ringing continued and I found myself getting edgy. I was so impatient.

She was breathing heavy when she finally answered. “Sorry, I was on a ladder when I heard your ring.”

Of course she was. She was always working on something around the house. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous to descend a ladder when someone isn’t holding it? Oh, right … you do know that. Why are you on a ladder, Kayla?” Worried about her, my good news slipped to a back burner in my brain.

“I was just scraping off the old paint, so we can repaint the outside of the house.”

I sighed. “When you said paint, I thought you meant the inside. The outside is a job for professionals. Would you please stop thinking we’re broke and that you have to do everything yourself.”

“Why exactly did you call, Jesse, other than to fuss at me?”

I could tell by her tone that she wasn’t upset, so I continued, “Stay off the ladder, cowgirl, at least until I’m there holding it for you. Do you think you could manage not to climb a ladder for a couple of days?”

“Oh, Jesse, really?” she shrieked into the phone. I had to pull it back from my ear.

“Just hired him. He’s perfect. Nice guy too, someone I met about a year ago. He just walked in looking for a job. I need to show him around today and tomorrow, but I figured I could be home by late tomorrow evening.”

“And you won’t have to leave again?” she choked out the words as though she were crying.

“Don’t cry, baby. This is good news. Even if you tried, you wouldn’t be able to get rid of me again. I have to go, though, so I can finish up. I’ll call you tonight, okay? I love you.”

“I love you too, and I promise I won’t go back up on the ladder.”

“Thank you. I’ll talk to you later.” I’d see her in just a little over twenty-four hours.

 

It was early, but I felt wide-awake. After talking to Kayla last night, I’d had the best night’s sleep that I’d had in almost three weeks. It felt like someone had removed a tremendous burden from my shoulders. I understood what John had meant about stress. It was hard to turn it off when you turned off the light. But I had found a replacement, a good one, and I’d see my wife tonight.

My alarm hadn’t gone off yet. I always woke up before it; I just set it as a precaution. I stretched, feeling energized, but then glanced at the clock; it was barely past four. I rarely woke up before five.

The phone vibrated on the side table … that must have been what had woken me. Fear surged through me. Who would call at four in the morning? Kayla? Maybe she was just anxious. She got up this early sometimes.

I looked at the number and froze; it was Kayla. Was she hurt?

“Kayla?” I asked hesitantly, but there was no answer. Was someone else using her phone? Was she okay? Unexpectedly, tears poured from my eyes. Last time I cried was when I thought I’d lost her.

“Kayla?” I tried again. “Please talk to me.” I heard her sobbing on the other end. “You’re killing me, what happened? Good God, please say something!”

“Jesse … Dad’s hurt … he’s … in the hospital. I have to go see him.”

“What happened? You can barely talk, how are you going to drive?”

“A car accident … Someone saw his car flip … The police were just here …” She struggled with every word, and I wanted to climb through the phone and hold her. “He … might not make it,” she cried.

I started grabbing my things and throwing them in my backpack, then headed for my truck. “I’m on my way. Please call a taxi to take you to the hospital. You can’t drive like this. Promise me you will, please? I can’t lose you.”

“I promise,” she said, still weeping.

“Call for a taxi now. I’ll call Gram, and I’ll be on the road in five minutes. I’ll be there before noon. Hang in there, okay? I’ll be praying the entire way; you do the same. I’ll call you back as soon as I get on the road. Okay?”

“Okay …” she said, spent.

I should have been there for her. On our first date I’d told her I’d never be late again. I’d failed. She needed me, and I wasn’t there for her. “I love you, Kayla. Please be strong for your dad — for me.”

She choked on another sob. “I will. Please hurry. I’m calling a taxi now. Goodbye, Jesse.”

I called Gram. I hurt tremendously, but relief from my first thought, that something had happened to Kayla, drowned out the pain. I’d never leave her again.

I relayed all that I knew so far. Gram was devastated, but remained calm.

“I’m on my way now, Gram.”

“Jesse, maybe her uncle and aunt should go?”

Initially taken aback, I started to argue. Then I realized the family didn’t know. To them, I was just an eighteen-year-old boyfriend. We hadn’t planned to tell anyone before the family wedding that we were already married. Gram didn’t know that I was moving up there before December or that we had a house or any of our arrangements. So I really couldn’t be upset at her assumption.

She continued, “I just think maybe Kayla needs a relative who can handle all of the paperwork and such. She’ll need —”

“Gram,” I interrupted her, “Kayla is my wife. We got married on her birthday. John knows all about it. I have to go. She’s expecting me to call. Please don’t call her yet. Please give me time to calm her down.” I’d changed in the last few months. I was no longer the boy everyone knew. I was a husband and a son-in-law, and I needed to help my wife.

“Oh,” she gasped lightly into the phone. “Well, that changes everything, doesn’t it? Why didn’t you tell me — never mind … not important. Jesse, please drive carefully and take care of Kayla. Call me as soon as you know something.”

“I will.” I hung up. I was already flying down the road. Luckily I’d left my Bluetooth earpiece in the truck and had just filled up my gas tank yesterday, knowing I wanted to leave as soon as possible. I clicked the recall button on my earpiece.

Kayla answered on the first ring, but as before, said nothing. Only soft sobs filled the line.

“Did you call a taxi?”

“Yes … on the way.”

“I’m so sorry, baby. I’m sure he’ll be okay. I’m on my way. I’ll drive as fast as I can, and the traffic shouldn’t be bad. If I thought it’d be faster, I’d go to the airport, but by the time I got there, found a flight and with taking off and landing, I could almost be there. So hang in there for me, okay?”

“I will.” She let out a ragged sob.

She was almost in shock. The crying was better than the one- and two-word answers, but I wasn’t sure what I should say. How normal should I act? Should I talk about her dad or something else? I wasn’t used to feeling so out of control. Whenever something happened that I didn’t understand, I’d research it, but now I was stuck in a truck doing eighty, attempting to get to my wife.

“Did the officers say what happened?”

“I don’t know … don’t understand …” A new sob rose in her throat. “When I went to bed, he was in his office. He always stays up later than I do, normally till after midnight. But why would he leave the house?” She paused to catch her breath in between sobs. “Someone saw his truck run off the road into a ditch at three in the morning. Where could he have been going?”

“I don’t know, baby.” I heard the doorbell. “Kayla, make sure it’s the taxi driver before you answer.”

She called out that she’d be right out. “It’s the taxi. I’ll call you when I get to the hospital.”

“Okay. Breathe, and pray, and I’ll do the same. Everything’s going to be all right. I’ll be there soon.”

 

 

h3=.

48 – Jesse

I turned off Highway 26 onto Highway 77 in Columbia, South Carolina. I had about an hour to go.

I’d spoken with Kayla several times during the trip. John was out of surgery, but was still in ICU. She was able to sit beside his bed now and that helped tremendously.

The phone rang again. “Hey, baby. Any word?”

“The doctor just came in and asked if I had any family. I told him you were on your way. He said he’d be back to speak with us together. I’m so tired of being treated like a child, as though I wouldn’t be able to understand any medical terminology, but I didn’t feel like arguing with him.”

“I understand.” Inside, my heart tore in two, knowing that wasn’t why the doctor had asked if she had family.

The hospital was in Pineville, west of our house, so at least it was closer than going home. I’d be there shortly and be able to comfort her. If anything happened to John, how would she handle this? How would I? John was already like a father to me. In just a few short months, I’d grown closer to him than I’d ever been with my own father. “I’ll be there in just a little bit. Why don’t you try to get something to eat?”

“Okay … I love you.”

“I love you too.”

 

My phone rang again. I stomped on the gas … this was it. I pushed the green button. I didn’t have to ask. Nothing but tortured moans filled the earpiece. I just listened and let Kayla cry.

She finally squeezed out the words, “Where are you, Jesse? I need you!”

My heart broke for her, for myself. “I’m so sorry, baby, I’m almost there. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

Her weeping continued, and I just listened.

Tears overflowed and poured down my face without warning. I was at my turn; I had to pull myself together for her. “I’m here, baby. I’ll be right there.”

I had no idea where she was or how to find her. After parking in the emergency room parking lot, I burst through the doors. A woman behind the front desk looked at me indifferently, unconcerned that a panic-stricken man had just entered her ER.

“My father-in-law, John Jordan, just passed away, and my wife is all alone. Can you please tell me where I can find them?”

The woman slowly punched numbers on a keyboard, and I thought that I wouldn’t be able to restrain myself from launching across the counter and searching for myself. Before I had a chance to react rashly, Kayla stumbled through the door and sprinted into my arms.

I wrapped my arms around her. “Oh, baby, I’m so sorry.”

She just held onto me and continued to weep. I supported her body and led her to one of the smaller waiting areas.

I said nothing, just held her. She started to spew words that didn’t make sense. “Maybe I ran out of milk …” she whimpered. “Maybe something … was wrong … but I didn’t notice. I … I … shouldn’t have gone to bed.”

I just held her and let her cry out all her anxieties. When she stopped for a moment, I asked her if she would be okay for just a minute while I talked with the nurse. She nodded and just leaned her head on the back of the couch.

I walked up to the counter with the uncaring receptionist, who just stared me down. She had clearly seen how distraught Kayla was, but was cold.

“Do we need to do anything, or can I take my wife home?” The woman looked at me skeptically, of what I wasn’t sure. Then I realized how young I looked, even younger than I was. She was too busy questioning my claim of my wife to be concerned with my request. This was going to get old real quick. I was thankful she was a woman; otherwise, I’d have leapt over the desk.

I walked over to a nearby locked door that I’d seen the nurses coming and going through, and banged my fist against it.

The receptionist jumped up from the desk. “Sir!” [_Oh, now I was _]sir? “You can’t do that!”

The door opened and a plump, round nurse opened it with an angry scowl.

“My wife’s father just died,” I spoke through clenched teeth. “She’s only eighteen and very upset. Are there papers I need to sign, or can I take her home?”

The nurse’s expression softened. “I’m sorry, no. Someone will contact the funeral home, and they’ll follow up with you to make the arrangements.”

“Thank you.” I wanted to say, Youshould get a new receptionist; I’d fire her if she worked for me, but I didn’t want my tone to upset Kayla anymore than she already was. I turned and walked away.

I pulled Kayla to my side and led her out the door.

“We can’t leave him, Jesse. I have to take care of him.” She tried to pull away from my embrace.

“Kayla, there’s nothing you can do. Let me take you home.”

“He needs me!” she screamed. “I’ve always taken care of him. He needs me …” She collapsed in my arms. I pulled her up into both arms and carried her to the truck.

I opened her door and set her in carefully, then walked around my side of the truck.

She’d fallen over on the seat. I slid in, started the truck and smoothed her hair off her face. I drove home, to our home. Kayla would want to return to her father’s house, but I thought it’d be best to be away from the memories, where everywhere she looked would remind her of her father.

My mother hadn’t died when I was nine, but she might as well have. I hadn’t heard from her in nine years other than a cold card. I remembered that everything I saw, did, and heard reminded me of her. And the smells … every time I smelled the soap she used, even the foods she’d cooked, they reminded me of her.

I pulled into our driveway. The aluminum ladder was still against the house. She had planted shrubs and trees and flowers. The American Flag was on a pole, reaching out from one of the beams on the front porch. A potted flowering shrub sat next to a park-like style bench, with pillows on it, of course. I carried her up the front porch and into the house, keeping my eyes lowered so I wouldn’t see any more of the improvements she’d made until she was able to show me. She’d obviously been working feverishly these last few weeks to establish our home.

She finally cried herself to sleep, so I pulled an afghan off a chair at the end of the bed and laid it over her. I removed her tennis shoes and socks and then kissed her delicately on the forehead.

I quickly ran back to the truck so I could get my stuff; I didn’t want her to wake up without me there for her, but I needed my laptop.

I threw my suitcase and toiletry bag on the living room floor, then carried my computer back to the room. I sat on the chair and booted up. I had to research and find out what to expect and what to do; I’d never dealt with death before. Both sets of my grandparents had died when I was very young. I didn’t remember them well.

For the first time, I didn’t feel comforted by my research. Kayla hadn’t only lost one parent, but both, and as a teenager, and she was an only child. She fit in the worst category you could. I shut down the computer and crawled in beside her. Fearful she’d wake up, I didn’t touch her.

The hours passed, and still she slept. At one point, I heard her sobbing softly, but she didn’t open her eyes, so I just wrapped my arms around her and said nothing.

Around six, Kayla finally woke up. Her eyes, rimmed with red, bloodshot, and swollen, were the saddest I’d ever seen. Matted hair stuck to her face, and she looked extremely pale. I brushed her hair back and continued to stroke the side of her face to soothe her.

I offered her water I’d brought into the room. She accepted, but then lay back down, this time curling into my chest.

“I can’t believe he’s gone. He was so wonderful. He didn’t deserve to die. What did I do to cause this?”

“Oh, Kayla, this isn’t your fault. Accidents happen, please don’t blame yourself. Nothing you could’ve done would’ve prevented this.”

I felt her shake her head against my chest. “No, I’m being punished for some reason. First my mom, then my dad … why?” she asked, starting a new session of crying.

I wanted to tell her that was crazy talk. How could she possibly be the reason both her parents had died? But I now knew this was natural. As much as we all want to believe we’re different in the world, when it comes to pain and suffering, we all cry in the same language.

Nothing I could say would help her. I just had to let her know I was here and let her cry. At least, that’s what all the sites I read about grief said. Crying was good.

When her breaths were even, I quietly rolled out of bed, padding my way down the hall. The house was dark; I’d forgotten how dark the country was. My house in Florida was never pitch black. Even with all the lights out, the neighbor’s security lights or street lamps would streak through the slats of the blinds.

I tripped over something and almost went face down. I found a light switch. My suitcase; that was smart. I picked it up and carried it back into the first room so Kayla wouldn’t trip over it if she got up in the middle of the night.

I walked into the kitchen; I needed to eat. I knew that I shouldn’t be thinking about food, but I’d unwillingly fasted for more than twenty-four hours and my head was pounding from the lack of sugar in my system. I found something easy, cereal. Not the healthiest choice, but it was sustenance with plenty of sugar, so it would hold me over until morning.

Next step was to clean up, but I wanted to check on Kayla first. I walked back into the room, leaving the hall light on. Approaching the side of her bed, I knelt down in front of her. Her eyes were open, but she was staring into space. Not good.

“Kayla,” I whispered, keeping my tone calm, “are you okay?” Stupid question, I chastised myself. Of course she’s not okay.

She blinked once, but stared into space, not really seeing me. She wasn’t in shock yet, she was just dazed. I wondered if I should take her to get help. Would I be able to handle this? Barely an adult, and yet suddenly I was thrust into one of life’s hardest circumstances. I brushed my fingers across her forehead and down her hair.

“I love you, but you’re scaring me. I’m not sure what to do. Can you talk to me? I’d rather you cry or scream, but please do something.” I pressed my lips to her forehead. Tears streaked noiselessly down her face. I crawled up beside her again and gathered her up in my arms. “It’s okay to cry, baby, just don’t go catatonic on me.”

Suddenly, she was kissing me. I kissed her back, but then pulled back. I’d read about this too. It was a common phenomenon when a loved one died. The uncontrollable desire to feel something other than the pain they were experiencing. It was more common with men, who didn’t know how to express themselves, when all they really wanted was for someone to hold them but didn’t know how to ask.

I held her face between my hands. “I’m here, love. Just relax, I’m here.” She tried to kiss me again, but gave up when I constricted her arms and held her against my chest. “You don’t want this, baby, you’re just suffering.”

“Jesse, I want you to love me,” she cried.

“I do love you, and I’ll stay here for as long as you need me to, but nothing more. It’s just your body’s reaction that makes you think you want sex. I don’t want you to remember this night like that.”

“Jesse,” she hissed, “why do you have to know everything? Why do you have to take control of every situation?”

I ignored her affront. She didn’t mean it; though, deep inside, I guessed she probably did. I knew that she appreciated that about me. I was like her father, so she’d lash out at me because she was angry with her father. I prayed that I could suffer in silence, accept the insults as needed therapy.

“Let me go, Jesse,” she screamed.

“No.”

“I said, let me go,” she shrieked.

“Kayla, please, you’re not mad at me …”

“Stop that! Stop telling me what I’m feeling. Let me go!” she cried out.

I still refused, and though she struggled, I was stronger. I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing, but I knew she was being unreasonable, and that she’d come to her senses eventually.

“I love you, and I know I haven’t lost a parent to death, but I did lose a parent. I know what the abandonment feels like, and right now you’re afraid that you can’t hold on to anything, so you suddenly want to push me away. But that’s not going to happen. I won’t let you. We promised, remember, that we’d talk about everything and that we wouldn’t push each other away or pull back from each other. You don’t have to talk; you just have to be with me.”

She relaxed in my arms as another wave of contractions shuddered through her body. The water in her tear-filled eyes spilled onto her cheeks, and I knew I’d broken through her first few waves of anxiety. We would get through this together. I loosened my grip only to cup my hand to her face. I pulled her gently against my chest and rested my face on the top of her head.

“I’m sorry —” she tried.

“Shh, you don’t have to be sorry. I understand. I really do. I’m here for you. No matter what.”

“But I was hateful. I didn’t mean it, honest.”

“It’s okay. I know you’re not mad at me. I know you lashed out at me only because I’m here. But you don’t have to worry. I’ll never leave you.”

“What if you do? What if something happens to you? What would I do? Why is God punishing me?” Desperation intertwined through her voice.

“You can’t think like that. You can’t live your life worried about what might happen, and God’s not punishing you.”

She was thoughtful for a moment. I knew I sounded like her father, and it gave her pause. I didn’t mean to do it, but I was an awful lot like John. I just wished I could have gotten to know him better.

“Would you like to get up for a little bit, maybe eat something? I’m sure you haven’t eaten since yesterday evening, have you?”

She shook her head.

“For me … please. Something simple like cereal? That’s what I did. I don’t want you to get sick.”

She struggled to sit up, so I helped her. She was probably dehydrated. I needed her to eat and drink, or I’d be taking her to the hospital next.

I pulled her against me and wrapped my arm around her waist. She stumbled forward, leaning into me.

“Does anything sound good? Toast, cereal, crackers …?”

“No, but I’ll force something down … for you, Jesse.”

“For us,” I said.

I made her a small bowl of cereal; the sugar and milk would be good for her. She ate a few bites, drank some water at my pleading, but then stared up at me. “Can I go back to bed? I just need to sleep.”

I nodded, trying desperately not to cry. I needed to be strong, I reminded myself.

She undressed and slipped into a T-shirt, and I left my boxers on.

I pulled her into my arms, feeling her body lift and fall unsteadily as she tried to control the sobs. I held her tighter, soothing her as much as possible. I simply didn’t know what else to do other than to hold her.

 

 

h3=.

49 – Jesse

It was early, barely light outside, but I felt Kayla get out of bed.

I said nothing, just watched as she went to the bathroom, washed her face, and brushed her teeth. I knew I couldn’t ask her every second what she was doing or how she felt. How was she supposed to feel. She was upset, she was angry, she was confused. Everything I’d read said that I should just be here for her, to not offer any anecdotes or false promises. None of the ridiculous comments like, He’s in a better place or He lived a good life or Everythinghas a purpose. Preposterous statements that only made the person who uttered them feel better because they didn’t know what else to say. Sometimes just being quiet and listening, only answering a question when asked, was the best way. From my experience, most people just didn’t know when to shut-up, or were simply unable to tolerate silence.

I watched her without a word until I saw that she was getting dressed.

“Where are you going?” I whispered, sitting up in the bed.

“I have to take care of the horses.”

“Can I come?” I asked, not sure if I’d give her an option if she said no.

She shrugged, and my stomach plunged. Never once had she ever wanted to do anything without me. When I wasn’t working, we’d been inseparable. A wave of self-loathing washed over me, and I admonished myself. This wasn’t about me; it was about Kayla. I needed to remember that no matter what she did, no matter what she said, she was still my Kayla. She would return to me; I just had to be patient and see her through this.

I rolled out of bed. “I’d like to come. You can show me what to do, and then I’ll be able to help.”

She said nothing, but walked over and sat in the wingback chair where I’d sat yesterday. Her head lolled to one side as she waited.

I quickly washed my face and brushed my teeth, pulled on a pair of jeans and a long-sleeve T-shirt, then walked over to where she sat. I knelt down in front of her, and she leaned forward, resting her head on my shoulder. My arms, seemingly of their own accord, folded around her, pulling her body completely into mine. Standing up, I lifted her in my arms and sat back down in the chair with her in my lap. I wished I could take away all her pain. I remembered what she’d said when we’d driven to Juniper Springs. How explaining about her mother’s death had been easy because it was over and done and nothing could change that. Her father had echoed similar words. I wanted to quote them both, but I couldn’t. I could only hope that she’d find that strength again.

We sat on the porch steps together, donning our shoes. I’d already picked up on that requirement. It was obvious that there were no shoes worn in the house, and for good reason: everywhere I looked, the ground was red clay. Unlike Florida, where you could simply shake the sand from your shoes, this stuff stuck in every crevice.

Kayla leaned against me as we walked to the truck. I assisted her into the cab, then walked around to my side.

The ride was just slightly less than fifteen minutes. She said nothing, and I managed to keep quiet too. I did, however, take her hand in mine. At least she didn’t pull back. The crunch of the gravel road beneath the tires sounded ominous as I pulled onto the dead-end road that led to John’s house. We still had a few-minute drive, but Kayla’s breaths quickened, and I suddenly wondered if I should have allowed her to do this. I could figure out what the horses needed; it couldn’t be that difficult.

I paused at the always-open gate at the front of the driveway. The sun was just making its appearance over the trees, and the morning was beautiful. All the neighbors and most of the people in Indian Trail would be enjoying this day, reveling in a beautiful Sunday morning that would still be warm enough to enjoy outside activities, church, and cookouts. Not Kayla and me, though. We’d only been newlyweds for a month. We should be rolling under the sheets; instead, we were grief-stricken. A pang of guilt pierced my side for even thinking that way. I shouldn’t be thinking selfishly about what I should have, but about what my wife needed.

“Are you sure?” I asked softly. “I could do this for you.”

“I have to, Jesse. It’s my job.”

The sound of my name on her lips, as always, warmed my heart. She’d be okay. She had to be. Here she was already out of bed, trying to be normal. Most people grieving weren’t able to leave their bed for a week, I’d read.

I drove forward slowly, parking the truck close to the barn. Kayla got out and mindlessly went to work. I followed her into the barn. The horses were happy to see her; they stamped and whinnied for her affection. She walked over to the first stall. Sugar, his nameplate said, ambled over nose down, and she stroked him affectionately. Tears formed at the edges of her eyes, then fell down her face.

Kayla started by cleaning out his stall, and then proceeded to groom him. She laid out a leather satchel that held different tools, brushes, combs, and picks. She started with a round tool with short teeth that she called a Curry, then followed up with a stiff-bristled brush she referred to as a Dandy Brush. The next brush she pulled out was soft-bristled, a Body Brush, she said. She handed it to me. Up to this point, I had been resting back as far as I could against the barn wall.

“Do you want to brush him while I start with his hooves?” she asked, her voice void of any inflection. Still, she was talking and asking for help.

I accepted the brush hesitantly. The only time I’d been near a horse was when I was a young kid, and all I had to do was get on top of it. I’d never had to stand beside it so closely where it towered over me.

“Just relax and breathe, don’t show any fear … they can sense it.”

I stood beside Kayla and let her demonstrate, her hand over mine. Sugar made a disgusted sound as if he wished this idiot wouldn’t manhandle him, and she soothed him, whispering encouraging words.

This was as good a therapy as she could get; this was normal, and she loved her horses.

I boldly took the brush and did as she instructed. When I finished, she handed me a large-toothed comb and told me it was for his mane.

After we finished with Sugar, we headed over to Snickers, and then Chocolate. A pattern stood out here … Kayla liked sweets.

“So your dad allowed you to name all the horses, didn’t he?” I blurted out before thinking.

Kayla’s eyes filled.

“Oh, God! I’m so sorry … I didn’t think …” I struggled to get out the words as I walked toward her. “I like the names, they’re cute. They’re all sweet names. I’m … Oh, God … I’m an idiot!” I grabbed her up into my arms. “Please forgive me! I’m so sorry!”

She whimpered out an, “S’Okay. He did allow me. He never said they were silly names. I was young, and he allowed me anything I wanted.” Her words broke as the weeping took over again. “He gave me everything. I loved him so much.”

“I’m sorry, baby. I’m so sorry.”

“S’Okay. It would’ve happened soon enough.” She gasped for air. “We need to finish. We just need to let them out in the pasture and give them food and water, and then I’ll come back later and lock them in. I don’t like them out all night.”

She shrugged out from under my hold, and I let her go.

After we finished, Kayla started toward the house. I followed silently by her side. When we stepped on the porch, I turned her to look at me.

“We don’t need to do this now. Why don’t we go back home?”

“I just want to see something, Jesse, before anyone else arrives.”

I followed Kayla upstairs to her father’s room. She stepped inside, absorbing the scene. The bed was unmade, as though he’d just rolled out of it. Kayla walked into the bathroom and opened the cabinet; normal toiletries: toothpaste, shaving cream, razor, aftershave, Band-Aids, other unrecognizable bottles, and then one prescription bottle. Kayla picked it up, cocked her head, and stared at the label. I read the label over her shoulder, noticing the date on the prescription was just two days ago.

“Can I see that?” I asked. She handed the bottle over wordlessly. After spilling out the contents on the counter, I counted the pills. There were twenty-eight, so it hadn’t been an overdose. I sighed with relief. I’d thought that maybe John had taken too many, then drove and fell asleep.

“What are they?” she asked softly.

“Sleeping pills. Your father suffered with insomnia.”

“I know, but I didn’t know he was taking sleeping pills.”

“Kayla, did Dad drink?” I saw her eyes light up for a second, then close at my reference. She wasn’t able to feel, no matter how fleeting; she was punishing herself.

“He never drank, said he couldn’t very well ask me not to drink if he did. Why?”

Good point, and again, I was sorry that I wouldn’t get to know John personally. I would’ve learned a lot from him.

“Just something I read. Did he always leave his bed unmade?”

“Never,” she admitted. I saw the lights go on in her eyes. “So he went to bed and then got up and went for a drive?”

“After taking a sleeping pill, according to the date it was filled and the fact that there are two missing.”

“Oh, God, Jesse, he was impaired!”

Or sleeping, I thought to myself, but I didn’t say it aloud. I’d have to research it later.

“If I’d only known … maybe I could have …” she moaned.

“There’s nothing you could’ve done, Kayla.” I picked up the bottle and took it with me, leading her down the stairs. She latched onto me willingly this time. “Let’s go home. You need to eat.”

She allowed me to escort her downstairs. I was grateful, since I’d worried she might want to stay around and wait for anything, just to be here, but I knew it would be better to get her away from all the memories.

We drove home quietly; I pulled her next to me this time when we got in the truck. She moved without restraint to my side.

She didn’t want to eat, but I made enough food for both of us anyway. Something simple, scrambled eggs with toast and orange juice, and then I made a pot of coffee. She wasn’t a big coffee drinker, but I had a tremendous headache and the caffeine would help.

After breakfast, she wanted to go back to bed, so I went with her, but got up once she was deep asleep. I walked outside and called the hospital, attempting to track down anyone who would know what I was supposed to do next.

The most I could ascertain was that the hospital would already have notified the police, who would notify the medical examiner’s office, who would then contact the funeral home when they were ready to release the body. I left a message, hopefully with the correct person, identifying myself as John’s son-in-law, requesting they notify me with any questions or information and the location of a funeral home.

Next, I called Gram. She picked up on the first ring, as though she’d been waiting for my call. Knowing how she cared about others, she probably had been.

“Hi, Gram,” I started, but had to stop to take a breath.

“You don’t have to say the words, Jesse. I already called the hospital. How’s Kayla?” she asked.

“She’s … she’s in pain,” I said, not knowing what else to say. “Would you call the rest of the family and let them know, please?”

“Of course, Jess. Don’t forget to take care of yourself too, young man. You’re doing a wonderful job for Kayla, but I don’t want you getting sick.”

I felt like telling her not to commend me … that I was only doing my best to help Kayla and that I felt like I was in some nightmare where I couldn’t wake up. It all felt surreal, but instead I said, “Thanks. I will.”

I called my father next. My dad gave me his condolences, but then started discussing business and his new employee, Brock, and how he thought he was going to do a great job. I wanted to throw my phone across the lawn. My father obviously had no idea how much John had meant to me — or Kayla, for that matter. I listened politely for as long as humanly possible, then hung up after explaining that I had to get back to my wife.

 

 

h3=.

50 – Jesse

When I walked back inside, Kayla sat curled up in a ball on the sofa in the small living area. Without a word, I sat beside her and wrapped my arms around her.

She seemed to be catching her breath from another bout of crying, and I was furious that I’d stayed on the phone so long with my father. She gasped for air a few times, and then her breaths seemed to normalize after a few minutes.

Her eyes slipped to her hands twisting in her lap. “It scares me when I wake up and you’re not there.”

“Then I’ll make sure I’m here. I won’t leave again,” I promised.

She sucked in another ragged breath, and I felt her melt into my arms. I slid down the length of the couch and pulled her in front of me. I wrapped my arms around her, and she layered her arm over mine, lacing her fingers through my fingers. It felt good. I needed comforting too. I’d held her these terrible two days, but she’d not really touched me. She held on, but she hadn’t embraced me, and I realized now how much I needed to feel her. I was scared, too. I wasn’t sure if I could handle this. I was trying to do everything right, but now I was feeling all the inadequacies of my short eighteen years.

“I love you, Jesse. I’m sorry that you have to deal with this. This certainly isn’t how I envisioned our reunion.” She started crying again, but this time she wasn’t crying for her father; she was crying for us. “I was so happy when you called. You would’ve been here last night and we would’ve made love, and then again this morning. We’d be having fun outside, and then I was going to make you a great dinner —”

I rolled her over so I could look in her eyes. “I love you too, baby, and everything will be okay. I know it doesn’t feel like it now. And I don’t expect you to be okay, but …” I hesitated; I didn’t want to hurt her, and I wasn’t sure if this was one of those stupid things to say, even if it was the truth, but I continued anyway, “Dad wouldn’t want you to suffer. Above all, he cared about your happiness. That first day when we met … he asked me if he did the right thing by turning around, then went on to warn me that he wouldn’t be too happy if he ever saw his baby girl like he saw you that morning.” I could see the pain in her eyes, but I continued, “If it weren’t for your father, I wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be together, and even if we were, he was the one who made it happen sooner. If it wasn’t for him, I’d have stuck with my original nonsensical proposal of June, and then again, even December. All he ever cared about was what would make you happy, even when we rode around discussing business. His primary concern was that I take care of you first and foremost. I promised I would, and I intend to keep that promise.”

She pulled in a deep breath and closed her eyes for a second, trying not to cry, it seemed. I drew her to my chest. The dampness of her tears worked their way through my shirt again; it was the third time I’d changed today, but it didn’t matter. She needed to cry until she got it all out.

“Hey,” I whispered. “Are there any blankets other than the one on our bed?”

She nodded. “I grabbed a few old ones I had … in case it got really cold and we needed to layer.”

“How ’bout we go out in the sun? It’s a clear and sunny day, and I think it’d be good for us. We can just lay the blanket out in the backyard.”

I didn’t wait for a reply; I shifted her body so she was sitting up. She rose and walked toward the hall. I darted into the kitchen and made two PB&J sandwiches and filled up a large cup of water. It took her a few minutes to return, as she must have made a pit stop. I was just topping off the thirty-two-ounce cartoon character cup she’d probably had since she was a kid, when she stepped around the corner.

I took her hand and led her out the back door. I set down our lunch and character cup and shook out the blanket over the grass.

She slid slowly, gracefully to the blanket. I handed her a sandwich and she took it numbly. I then offered her the cup after I took a swig myself.

“Wanna hear something ridiculous?” I gazed into her eyes, momentarily stunned by their brilliance in the bright light. Despite all the crying that made her face puffy and red, she’d always be the most beautiful woman to me. “The day I took you to Juniper …” She exhaled lightly. “When I brought the cooler, I purposely only brought one.” She looked at me as though she were thinking, Whatin the world is he rambling on about? “It was a stupid test, among so many stupid things I did those first few days. I wanted to see if you’d drink after me.”

She raised an eyebrow, and her lips were still in a straight line, but I saw one side curve up at the edge. “Why?” she finally asked when I didn’t continue. “Would you’ve given up asking questions and getting to know me if I was grossed out by drinking after you?”

“I don’t know … maybe. Though, you probably wouldn’t have let me.”

“Probably not,” she admitted, releasing a short puff of air.

It was probably as close as I was going to get to a laugh. She was always so cheerful and energetic. I missed that part of her, I realized. She always encouraged me; it was strange that I was the one trying to make her feel better when she’d always done that for me.

“By the way, we haven’t really talked, but I want you to know … the house looks great. I wasn’t as optimistic as you were about it. I’d envisioned a much nicer house, but I was wrong. This one has character, and even better, it has property. How many acres do we own?”

“Five total, but that includes the trees all the way down to the creek.”

“The creek?” I asked. “You didn’t tell me there was a creek.”

“It was supposed to be a surprise.” Her voice was still distressed, but at least she was speaking in full sentences.

“Do you want to walk down there?” I asked hopefully.

“In a little bit. The sun feels nice.”

I took the cup from her hand and set it on the lawn, then pulled her down beside me, supporting her head on my arm. The sun did feel good, especially when lying down out of the breeze. “There’s enough room for horses, right?”

I felt her nod.

“I’m going to build you a barn, so you can bring Sugar, Snickers, and Chocolate home.”

She lifted her head to look at me. “You can do that?”

“I can do anything I set my mind to. I may need help with the roof, but I’m sure one of the maintenance people has an idea. If not, I’ll call a roofer. There might even be a pre-fab kit I can purchase at the lumber yard.”

I was happy with her acceptance of the idea; it was what we needed to do, but I also wanted to make sure she wanted to stay here in our house, and in North Carolina. I’d thought that maybe we should move back to Florida but hadn’t brought it up, not wanting to upset her, when I thought of the horses as a perfect way to broach the subject. Obviously, if she wanted me to build a barn and bring the horses here, that meant she wanted to live here … which kind of surprised me. I knew she wouldn’t want to live with constant reminders of her father every day, but his house was superb compared to ours, and she had been accustomed to living in luxury her entire life.

I didn’t want to push my luck, but the talking seemed to be keeping her mind occupied, even if for only a few minutes. “I was also thinking that maybe we could close in half the deck at the rear of the house off the kitchen, make it a family room that opens up to the kitchen and the eat-in area. The front room is really more the size of a parlor. The room could start at the end,” I said, using my hands to describe, “with French doors that open out to the remainder of the deck. What do you think?”

“I think you’re trying to distract me … can you really do all of that?”

“Do you doubt my construction skills, young lady? Do you think your grandmother kept hiring me for my looks and pleasant conversation?”

“No.” And praise God, she actually chuckled on the word. “So you can really do all that?”

“For you, Kayla … I’ll do anything … are there any bears around?” I received a small huff and barely a smile. So she’d reached her max for the moment. I wouldn’t push her; we would work through this one step at a time.

 

The sun started to make its descent behind the western end of the property, and with it, the temperature. The high temperature of the day wasn’t too far off from Florida, maybe ten degrees, but the difference was substantial when the sun went down. Many nights I’d be on the beach in my kayak watching the sunset, and the temperature difference once the sun went down was nominal. Here, I suddenly needed a jacket.

“Would you like a fire tonight? It feels kind of chilly. I thought I could scavenge some wood, and we could gather as many blankets as possible and make a bed in the parlor,” I emphasized the word I’d used earlier to describe our handkerchief-sized living room.

“That’d be nice,” she said softly.

“We can even order a pizza,” I said with a half-hopeful smile.

“Let’s walk down to the creek. We can gather wood and bring it back.” She was trying; I had to give her that. She hadn’t pulled entirely into her shell, and I struggled with how far I should try to pull her out.

Mornings were worse, I remembered. It seemed my mind protected itself when I slept, but the moment I opened my eyes, the realization and the anguish would set in. Since my mother had left in the summer time, I didn’t even get out of bed other than to eat cereal and go to the bathroom, and then I’d crawl right back into bed. When my father finally told me I had to get out of bed, I’d spent hours just trying to walk upright. I’d been used to my dad leaving early to go to work, but my mom had always been there, making me breakfast, asking me what I wanted for lunch, and then making it. I’d get to school and she would have put all types of treats in my Spiderman lunch box. Kids always tried to swap me for my food, but I always liked what she packed, no need to trade. After she left, I was lucky to find peanut butter inside the pantry. Usually, I stuffed cold pizza slices or leftover Chinese food that my dad brought home after work into a paper bag.

Kayla held my hand while we walked to the creek, and I was in heaven. For a second, I almost forgot that there was something wrong; it just felt right being here with her. When I saw the creek, my heart jumped. It wasn’t just a creek, it was a river … a small one, but clearly large enough for a kayak, right off my backyard.

“It’s magnificent!” The tears I’d been holding back stung my eyes, but I blinked them away. I couldn’t cry.

A small smile played on her lips. She knew what she’d been doing when she picked out this house. She’d chosen it for the water. I’d told her of my dream to have water in my backyard where I could just drop in my kayak whenever I wanted to paddle.

“You did this for me, didn’t you? You could have gotten a larger house, but you chose one with a river in the backyard for me.” Tears started pouring down her cheeks, and I wasn’t sure if they were from joy over my happiness, or guilt because she was feeling something other than pain for her father. My eyes filled as I watched her, so I strode forward and took her in my arms before the tears could fall in front of her. I couldn’t control myself in the moment, though; I found her lips. I breathed her in, tasted her, the tears falling unrestricted. I wanted to hold my wife. I needed her to love me and hold me. She wrapped her arms around me and pulled herself to me. “Kayla,” I whispered under her passionate kiss, “I love you. Just hold me, please.” I folded my arms around her. “I love you. God, how I’ve missed you. It’s like I can’t breathe without you.”

We stayed there for a while until I felt her shudder. “Come on, let’s get some wood and head home. Thank you, Kayla … for everything.”

 

 

h3=.

51 – Kayla

I couldn’t understand why Jesse was thanking me. I knew, of course, but I couldn’t comprehend the absurd way he viewed me, as if I were some prize.

I was damaged goods right now. Two days ago, I was a happy bride, waiting for my husband to come home. Now I was just a girl who’d lost my mother at twelve and now my father at eighteen. I had no siblings and only one grandmother who lived six hundred miles away. Jesse was all I had. Two days ago, I needed him to love me; now I needed him to take care of me. I couldn’t fathom what I would’ve done if Jesse hadn’t been there within minutes of me losing my father.

Now there was a funeral to arrange, a business to run, a life to figure out. Jesse’s wheels had already been turning. He’d thought about me having to return to the house every day for the horses and had offered to build me a barn. I didn’t want to set foot in the house ever again, but I had to figure out what happened, why my father left in the middle of the night.

I looked up at Jesse now; my husband gazed back at me with nothing but love in his eyes. I’d been cruel to him. I loved the fact that he took control, that he was more intelligent than he let on. He was so much like my father. Of course, I didn’t know that when I fell in love with him; I just liked the way he looked and the way he looked at me. I loved the way he had no interest in Charity, that he worked hard, and that he had achievable goals. Not childish fantasies, but real-life expectations. He was everything I’d ever wanted, and I’d been cruel because I was upset.

Jesse called in the pizza order, and we drove together to pick it up after putting the horses in their stables. While Jesse made a fire, I gathered up all the blankets and pillows around the house, grabbed two cokes, and then carried them back to the living room.

I tried not to cry. My dad wouldn’t have wanted me to cry nonstop. I knew there’d be no way to hold off the tears completely, but I’d do my best to think what my dad would want me to do at this moment.

 

 

h3=.

52 – Jesse

Kayla sat across from me, cross-legged on the floor, taking, as my mother used to say to me, Stuart-Little-sized bites of her pizza.

When she finished eating, I took the box and drinks into the kitchen before she could dispute my actions.

I came back and sat next to her on the floor, taking her hand in mine. She rested her head on my shoulder. It was like we were at the campground again; only this time, not young and carefree.

“What do we do now?” she asked, breaking the silence.

“I’ll handle everything, Kayla. I already called the hospital and expect a call tomorrow to make all of the arrangements. I called Gram, and she called your aunt and uncle. I’ll follow up with them when I have a better idea of the date. I told Gram that it’d be better for her to wait a few days to come. Is that right, or would you rather that she fly up immediately?”

“No, you’re right,” she said, exhaling softly. “I’d rather just you be here with me. But what about afterward …”

“You want to stay here in North Carolina … In this house … with me, right?”

“Of course I want to be with you, Jesse! Why would you even ask such a thing?”

I dropped my head, ashamed. I shouldn’t have made that ridiculous comment. “I just want to make sure. I know you love me, but I thought that maybe this was too much. This is a lot to handle.”

Tears poured from her eyes. “Without you? How could I handle any of this without you? Is it too much for you?”

“Oh, God no, Kayla, I’m sorry. When the tables are turned, it’s easy to understand. No … again, I’m so stupid! I’ll be here for you always, through everything, I promise.” How many times would I keep doing this, doubting myself, doubting her? Of all the times I needed to chill, it was now. I needed to be a man.

“But my original question,” she pressed. “What are we going to do here, with the house, the business?”

“None of that has changed. I’m going to do what your dad asked me to do. I’m going to run the business, and I’m going to take care of you. Most importantly, though, I’m going to love you and cherish you like he ordered. Trust me, Kayla, you don’t have to worry about anything; your only concern is to heal yourself. Although you and your father had said you managed the books, so you may have to give me a crash course in bookkeeping.”

“You think you can do it?”

“Your lack of faith in me is disturbing. I’ve run my father’s business for years.” I smiled to lessen the severity of my statement. “Now, shh … let’s just relax.”

I pulled her back into the safety of my arms, and before I knew it, it was morning.

 

The shrill scream broke the air without warning. “Jesse!” Kayla screamed again.

I ran into the room. “I’m right here, Kayla. I was just making coffee.” Tears already stained her cheeks. I sat down on the bed beside her and wrapped my arm around her waist. “I’m here, baby.” Her chest heaved as she tried to stop the assault of anguish on her body. After a few minutes, her breathing was back to normal, with the exception of a few short gasps.

“The sun’s up. What time is it?” she asked frantically. “How … did I get here? I don’t remember coming to bed.”

“It’s seven. I carried you in this morning. I already took care of the horses,” I answered her unasked question along with her others.

“Thank you, and, Jesse,” she said.

I could hear the defiance in her voice. Was she upset because I’d taken care of the horses? Would she tell me to mind my business again?

“Yes?” I pressed when she didn’t continue.

“I’m not going to school.”

I attempted to keep a laugh from popping out at her determined look. One minute she was screaming, then she was worried about the horses, then she made a stance. “No one expects you to go to school, Kayla.”

“I mean, I’m finished … I don’t care about finishing with my class. I don’t care about graduating with the other students. I’ll get my GED when I’m ready, but there’s no way that I could possibly go back and finish now.”

She looked fierce and determined. This was good, I thought, but I pondered her declaration, knowing if I pushed her, she’d only want it more. She just needed time; we could discuss this later. “If you want to quit school … quit. As long as you promise never to come back and accuse me of holding you back from anything. Do what you want. I love you and trust your decisions.”

A bewildered look crossed her face, as if she expected me to argue with her, but then she nodded somberly.

 

I spent a lot of the day outside on the phone, completing a crash course on accidents involving a death and arranging funerals.

The one thing I was adamant about was that the medical examiner needed to complete a tox screen. I’d do more research later, but I wanted to make sure I had information to back up my hypothesis.

The other thing I needed to do was see if John had a will or any other paperwork that would direct me with how to proceed. I hated having to bring this up, but there wasn’t another way. I called the office and broke the news to Jan as delicately as possible; she was devastated. She’d worked for John for eight years.

I asked if John had a safe or safety deposit box that might house his will and personal papers; she said he had both.

“Kayla,” I started. “I need to gather up all of Dad’s paperwork from the house and office. Will you be okay here, or would you like to come?” I didn’t want to leave her, but I didn’t think she would want to see his office or home either.

“I’ll be fine, Jesse, but please hurry back,” she pleaded.

I kissed her, then rushed out the door so I could hasten my return.

John’s office was well organized. His files were in perfect order, and inside the safe was a packet marked personal. No surprise, his will stated that everything he owned went to his daughter, which would make everything run smoothly from what I read online. I found a life insurance policy and instructions for his funeral proceedings, one of the items I had been hoping to find. I didn’t want to ask Kayla if her father wanted to be buried or cremated. John, thankfully, had thought of everything. Since his wife had passed away at a young age, he had probably realized what Kayla would have to go through if something happened to him.

As I sorted through the files on his desk, I found an envelope that amazed me. John had already added me to the incorporation papers and the company bank accounts. He had a signature card sitting in the file for me to sign. I was instantly overcome; it was like John had known something bad was going to happen to him. I fell back into the chair, exhausted. This was all the paperwork I needed. I had to get home to Kayla. I locked up and left, still dumbfounded by my findings. John had trusted me completely.

 

On the way home, I picked up Chinese food. If Kayla had cooked, great, we could eat it for lunch tomorrow. If not, it’d be one less worry for her.

When I walked in the door, it was quiet. Kayla wasn’t in the front room, and I was instantly tense. I walked through the tiny house calling her name, but nothing.

“Kayla!” I called frantically, stumbling through the house, looking in each bedroom, bathrooms, and every closet. I ran back through the house and out the back door. “Kayla!” I screamed again. I didn’t want to keep screaming. Neighbors weren’t on top of us like in Florida, but we were definitely within screaming distance. I took the stairs in one leap and darted across the yard and down the hill to the river. I was halfway down when I saw her, sitting on the ground, her arms clutched around her waist, her body pitching back and forth.

“Kayla!” I darted down the hill and slid on the clay, landing beside her. “Kayla you almost gave me a heart attack!” I pulled her to me and exhaled deeply. “Don’t scare me like that!”

Her entire body trembled as I pulled her up. I supported as much of her as I could against my side. I’d carry her, but I didn’t think I could climb the hill with this clay. She trudged beside me faithfully.

“I won’t leave again until you’re ready. I’m sorry.” I ran my other hand through my hair, exhaling again. I was mentally exhausted.

When we reached the house, I helped her remove her shoes. Mud covered her from head to toe; it looked like she’d slipped as I had.

I walked her through the house, into the master bathroom, and removed her muddy shirt. She was like a doll, moving only when I directed her. Unbuttoning her jeans, I pulled them down and off, one leg at a time. An intense desire overwhelmed me, making me feel guilty. I knew I couldn’t, but somehow my body needed to feel her, to feel loved, to forget about everything around us. I started the water and waited while it warmed up.

“Do you need more help, Kayla, or can you manage?” She said nothing in response.

I slid off the rest of her clothes and helped her step in, but she just let the water run over her head. I gathered up her muddy clothes, took them to the laundry room, and then removed mine and went to the spare bath; I’d just jump in and out.

After I finished, I wrapped myself in a towel and darted into the master bath to make sure she was okay. The hot water had to be running out, but she was still standing there, the water running over her face. I didn’t understand. She’d seemed better last night and this morning. It was as if she was going backward. I turned off the water and wrapped a towel around her.

“You’re scaring me, Kayla.” I looked at her intently. I didn’t want to frighten her, but I needed her to at least cry or yell; I couldn’t take her like this. “I don’t know if I need to take you to get help.” She still said nothing. I lifted her out of the tub and placed her on the floor. “Kayla? Are you in shock? I have to know; you need to talk to me. Cry, scream, yell … I don’t care, anything but this …” I took her face in my hands. “Talk to me, dammit!”

Her eyes widened, and she collapsed in my arms.

“I’m sorry, Kayla. I didn’t mean to swear, but you’re scaring me.”

She gripped her hands around my waist. “Please don’t leave again, Jesse, not without me. I had a vision that you were in a wreck and you left me too.”

“I won’t, Kayla, not now, but you can’t live in fear either. What happened was an anomaly, and I’ll figure it out, but I’m not going anywhere. I have everything we need. I can do everything from home.” I led her to the bed and pulled back the comforter.

“I just don’t know what I’d do.” She grasped onto my shoulders, pulling me down. She wrapped her hands around the back of my head and pulled my lips to hers. She kissed me frantically. I couldn’t break free without hurting her or myself; she had completely latched her body around me.

I pulled back. “I want you, baby, but not like this. I don’t think you’re ready.” My mind said no, but my body said yes. I wanted her too, but not because I wanted to have sex; I wanted my wife. I needed to feel loved, too. I’d felt so terrible these last few days. I moved her over in the bed and slid in beside her. My body ached to have her against me. I pulled off her towel, and the blood rushed through my body, throbbing through me to the point that it was painful.

“Make love to me, Jesse. Make me forget everything else … make the pain go away, please.”

My mouth was back on hers, and I couldn’t deny her. I pulled her into me, careful to move slowly. I saw the tears in her eyes and wanted to stop, but she latched onto me and pulled me tighter.

I watched every emotion that played across her face: sadness, guilt, anger, and then passion, but it was fleeting. She squeezed her eyes shut. It bothered me that she couldn’t see me, but she could still hear me. “I love you, Kayla,” I whispered. I wanted every part of her love. I wanted to take away the pain. When I felt her body relax, I fell down beside her. She stared at me, as though not understanding my actions. I placed my hand on her face and pulled her head to me.

“I only wanted to make you feel good, love.”

“But —”

I cut her off. “Shh … let’s just lie here, please … this feels right.”

I waited a few minutes to see if she was going to go to sleep, when she didn’t, I asked, “Are you hungry?”

She shrugged. “Not really. Are you?”

“Yes, I brought dinner. Do you want to try to eat?”

“Yes, I do. I want to get better, Jesse.”

 

h3=.

53 – Jesse

I handled all the funeral arrangements. I called the family, informing them that we would have a memorial service on Friday. Kayla’s family would drive up Thursday and stay the weekend.

Jan took care of notifying friends and employees from John’s address book. She also arranged for a meeting with all the staff, including those in South Carolina and Georgia, to take place the next day. Next week, I’d start spending a few hours a day at each location, going over items that needed attention immediately and any ideas each manager had.

Kayla accompanied me to the staff meeting. I felt like we were two kids showing up for a school project, but held my head high. After all the condolences and formalities were over, it didn’t take long for me to settle right into business. It came naturally to me. I asked the right questions, and before long I recognized that the men were asking me questions about where I saw business going and when I’d be by to discuss their individual ideas. Kayla sat beside me, but only commented when it was a discussion directly related to rents received or an accounting issue.

I realized that this was good for Kayla. Being at home while I was gone would’ve given her too much time to think. And it was good for me too. I felt like we were partners again. I knew Kayla was going through tremendous grief, as was I, but I was also feeling that all of the responsibility had fallen into my lap. Not that I’d thwart any of my duties, I was ready, but everything felt better with Kayla by my side.

We worked through lunch, going through all the files and setting up appointments for the following week. At three, I decided we’d worked enough and should go home. The family would arrive tomorrow, and I was certain that would bring another wave of anguish, so the least I could do was make sure she was rested.

When we left the office, Kayla reached out and took my hand. Warmth rushed through me; I’d missed her touch. The last few days I’d only felt her touch when she was crying; she hadn’t taken my hand just to hold me. I squeezed her hand and then stopped in the parking lot to look at her.

“You okay?” I asked.

“I’ll be okay, Jesse. You were incredible in there. Dad was right about you.”

“Thanks,” I said tensely.

“I’m serious. I thought we’d have to sell all the properties and fend for ourselves. And from what I’ve noticed in the market, if we sold, we wouldn’t do too well. Property values are low, and no one has any money to buy anything, so we’d have to practically give them away. But I think you’re going to do great. Are you up for it, though?”

“I think so …”

“Don’t be modest, Jesse. Either you can or you can’t. If you aren’t up for this, we’ll sell everything. We have enough in life insurance to put you through school and start up your own business as you originally wanted.”

I loved that Kayla asked what I wanted to do, and had said we. She didn’t want me just to take care of her; we were still a team, and she was willing to give up everything she had if it was what I wanted.

“I can do this, Kayla. I will do this for us; it’s what your dad wanted. And by the way,” I stopped to think about what I wanted to say, hoping it wouldn’t hurt her. “You sound just like him. He basically said the same thing … for me not to be modest … to tell him what I was capable of doing. You have a way of cutting right through the heart of matters. I’m a little discouraged that it looks like I won’t be starting college anytime soon, but as you said, this is on-the-job training; this is what I was going to college for anyway.”

I helped her up into the truck, then walked around to my side and jumped in. She turned to face me. Evidently, she wasn’t finished talking.

“Jesse, I don’t want you to miss college. Did you ever think about doing the Distance Learning program? That’s what my dad did. He took a little longer because he was working full time, but he eventually received his Master’s in Business. I can work with you, handling all the paperwork Dad managed day to day, and continue to do the books. You can do the field work and give yourself a few hours a day to do school work … wouldn’t that work?”

“I don’t know. I never thought about it. I don’t want you to have to pick up a lot of extra work.”

“It’ll be good for me. Plus, I don’t want you to ever look back and say that I held you back from something you wanted.” She stared at me as she echoed my words.

I sighed. What could I say? I had told her that on numerous occasions. I wasn’t upset, it wasn’t her fault; it wasn’t as if she’d planned this. I was a business owner, something I’d planned to be anyway. I could’ve worked for years and never reached this level of success; now I’d just have to see if I could handle what I’d been given.

“I’ll make you a deal, and I’m only saying this because I know it’s what your father wanted.” I paused, letting her contemplate my words, hoping she wouldn’t react harshly. “I’ll start college online … in January … if … you’ll finish your last two months of school.”

“Jesse —”

“Before you argue, hear me out. You don’t need to go this week; they’ll excuse you for grieving. But then you barely have two months to go, Kayla. You have Thanksgiving Break and Christmas Break, and then you’re done. You’ll be able to walk down the aisle with your class. Think of what it would mean to your grandmother, and it was what your dad wanted, too. But I won’t force you. I just want you to think about it. Okay?”

“Okay, I’ll think about it, but I’m not making any promises.”

“Fair enough. Now what would you like to eat? Anything but pizza.” I scowled mockingly. “I’m pizza’d out. When you said you could eat pizza every night, I thought you were kidding. How ’bout we pick up a rotisserie chicken at the store and a couple of side dishes.”

Kayla scowled back; she didn’t like to eat healthy. “Okay, but pizza is my comfort food … we have to eat it at least twice a week.”

“Deal. I can live with that.” I scooped up her hand and pressed it to my lips. She slid next to me, and I sighed with contentment. “I love you, Kayla.”

“I love you too, Jesse. Thank you … for everything.”

I didn’t comment back; I understood. I hoped we were over the worst. I remembered how, when my mom left, I’d be fine, and then it would hit me when I thought of something we’d shared together or saw something personal of hers.

I didn’t expect Kayla to be better in four days, but I hoped the devastating bouts of catatonia would end; I could deal with crying and even screaming, but not with her going into a trance.

 

The family arrived the next day around seven, at John’s house. Kayla and I made a huge pot of penne pasta and meat sauce, along with fresh bread and salad. It was good … she did well with Italian meals. A round of crying ensued when she saw Corinne, but Gram, being the strong female influence, had her calmed down in minutes. She’d dealt with death many times through her life.

Charity was noticeably miserable. She’d always loved her Uncle John, according to Gram, who’d taken me aside to inform me that Melissa and William were somewhat concerned about the situation. She told me that she hadn’t told them about our elopement, but thought that I should probably explain when the time seemed right.

“Well,” I said when I came back into the room, “you all must be starving. Kayla and I made you dinner, so why don’t we go in and continue our conversations in the dining room.”

The family reacted exactly as I’d expected: everyone but Kayla stared at me, astonished at my taking command as head of the house, but Gram walked toward the dining room, and everyone else followed. William eyed me suspiciously, and Melissa nudged her husband in the arm. I couldn’t help but smile when they all turned their backs to walk off; I was getting used to the stares and comments. Well, this was my home and my wife; they would just have to get used to it.

After the food was set out across the table and everyone took their seats, I remained standing and addressed them all. “Before I say grace, there’s something I need to share with you.” All eyes were on me, including Kayla’s. “Kayla and I were married on her eighteenth birthday, with John’s blessing.” Melissa released a gasp, but William held his tongue. “John had already made me partner in his business and purchased us a home about fifteen minutes away. I know you’re all concerned for Kayla, but I assure you that as her husband, my first priority is her wellbeing. I’m thankful that you’re all here for Kayla’s sake, but please remember she’s my wife and we’ll decide together what is best for the two of us.”

I gracefully slid to my chair. I knew it was bold and maybe not the best time to make such a declaration, but I could see in Melissa’s eyes that she was going to try to take Kayla away from me, as if she were a child. I went right into the blessing before anyone could breathe a response.

“Dear Lord, thank you that our family has arrived safely, and thank you for all your grace and provisions. Thank you for my wife and the strength you’ve given us to work through this tragedy together as one. Thank you for this food, and bless the hands that have prepared it. Amen.”

Kayla was on my right, and Gram was on my left; both of them took my hands and squeezed lightly, reminding me they were with me always.

Charity sat across the table, her mouth open, but then she smiled.

“Well, young man,” William started, “sounds like you have everything under control.”

“I’m trying, sir. I swear I wasn’t trying to be rude. I just thought you should know.”

“No, you’re right, we should know,” William responded politely.

“We should have already known,” Melissa interjected. “Are you sure you’re ready for this?” She looked at Kayla then. “You’re so young, and it’s so much responsibility being married. I realize that being able to take over a company of this magnitude is tempting —”

“[Tempting _]…” I clenched my chair to keep myself from coming out of it. My breathing increased, but from years of practice, I reined it in. _Tempting … as if I’d wanted this to happen? So I could take over a company? What was she accusing me of? If I hadn’t been in Florida, would she have accused me of murder?

“My dad thought we were ready,” Kayla snapped before I could continue. I rested my hand on her knee and gave her a little squeeze. She looked up at me, and I shook my head slightly.

“Yes, Melissa,” I took over. “John thought we were ready, but of course he also thought he’d be here. He showed me what I needed to do at the company, and I’m not saying it’ll be easy … what in life is? But I’ve helped run my father’s company for three years, so we’ll manage.”

“But as a newly-married couple and only eighteen?” She sneered. “Kayla is still in high school, for heaven’s sake! This is a lot to deal with; marriage is hard enough.”

“Melissa,” I continued, attempting to keep my voice level. “I married Kayla because I love her; we certainly didn’t expect this to happen, but it did. Would you prefer that I leave her now because it’s too hard?”

Kayla shot me a look of instant despair.

“I’m just making a point, love. You know I’d never leave you,” I whispered. I turned back to the others. “Don’t you understand, Melissa, William, Charity, Gram …? I love my wife, and I’ll stand by her. So please don’t get it in your heads to tell us how young we are or what we should do. I saw it in your eyes the moment you walked through the door. I know you mean well, but I won’t stand for it.”

Melissa had no response, but shot a look at her husband, imploring him to say something.

I hadn’t meant to include Gram. She knew better; I only did it so I didn’t single out Melissa and William.

William stared at me for a few seconds, then a smile spread across his face. “John said you were a strong-willed man; he was right. I’ve nothing to say against the two of you. John and Brooke made it work; Melissa and I’ve been together for nineteen years, why wouldn’t you be able to? We’re here as a family to support Kayla, and you too, Jesse.”

“Then let’s eat,” Gram chimed in. “I’m starving. Kayla, this looks wonderful, just like I taught you.” Gram wanted the discussion to be over, as did I. I was thankful for her acceptance and now, peacemaking.

Kayla smiled briefly, noticeably shaken by the conversation, and I wondered if I’d gone too far. I just didn’t want her hurt or to feel undue pressure, and more than anything, I didn’t want anyone attempting to take her away from me. I didn’t want an easy life if it meant not having Kayla. I’d accept whatever trial was in store for us.

The conversation turned to more casual subjects: continuing to live in North Carolina, the business, school. Kayla quickly deflected the subject of school by discussing college. “Jesse is thinking about continuing his school via online college,” she proclaimed.

“And what about you, Kayla, what are your plans?” Melissa asked directly.

“I don’t plan to continue my education, Aunt Melissa. I have enough to do with the bookkeeping for the company and as a wife.”

Melissa’s expression was stricken at first, then turned livid. She furrowed her eyebrows, leveling an accusing glare toward me, then back to Kayla. “Are you pregnant? Is that why you got married?”

“No!” I shouted, dropping my fork on my dish. “How many times do I have to defend myself in front of this family? Kayla and I never had sex before we were married, not with each other, or anyone else, for that matter,” I added for Charity’s benefit. “We got married because we love each other. Why can’t any of you understand that?”

“Jesse, I’m sorry,” William started, glaring at his wife. “Melissa, enough already!” he barked.

Too late, Kayla started weeping softly. I backed my chair from the table and took my wife into my arms, directing her to the living room. I sat down with her, laying her head on my chest. She continued to cry louder now, and I stroked her hair. I could literally throw Melissa out of the house. I was to blame as much as she was, though; I shouldn’t have allowed her to upset me. I could have just answered her inquiries, but I was on edge.

“I’m sorry, Kayla. I shouldn’t have gone on like that with Melissa, but it irritates me when people question our motives.”

She shook her head. “It’s not your fault.”

I looked up as I felt someone walk in the room. It was Melissa, looking mortified and obliging. She came up behind us and wrapped her arms around Kayla’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I really am sorry,” Melissa murmured into Kayla’s ear. “I didn’t know, and it’s just so hard for me to imagine all of this. I’m so sorry.”

Kayla turned her body toward Melissa. “Can we please just not fight anymore?”

“Yes, honey, of course …” She hugged her niece, apologizing repeatedly. Melissa looked over Kayla’s shoulder and mouthed the words to me, I’m sorry.

I smiled half-heartedly in response. It wasn’t her fault; it was hard to take in. But all I could picture was Melissa as the seventeen-year-old trying to seduce her sister’s boyfriend. Of course, she couldn’t understand true love. She and William had been married a long time, but from what Kayla had told me, it seemed like a loveless marriage. William did his thing; Melissa did hers. They hardly ever ate dinner together and were often in different cities altogether, enjoying different pastimes. I couldn’t comprehend living a life without Kayla involved. Not that there wouldn’t be times when we would do our own thing, but to want to be apart? I couldn’t imagine ever getting to that stage.

“Can we go home?” Kayla mumbled with a small voice.

I nodded. “Give me a moment to talk with everyone, and I’ll be right back.” I kissed her lightly on the forehead. I turned my head and glowered at Melissa, motioning for her to join me, then turned and strode across the floor. Melissa made no attempt at answering my glare, but followed obsequiously.

“I truly am sorry, Jesse,” she pleaded, taking my arm to impede me as we walked down the hallway toward the dining room. “I wasn’t thinking.”

“No, you weren’t,” I hissed under my breath. “Do you realize what I’ve been dealing with this last week? She’s been practically in shock over her father’s death, and you accuse her of being pregnant? Would it have even mattered if she was? Isn’t the most important thing to facilitate her through this?”

Melissa lowered her head shamefully. “Yes,” she mumbled, shaking her head back and forth, her lips pressed together. “It just doesn’t seem fair. It’s like Kayla has had her youth stolen from her; first her mom, now this. I’m just angry.” She looked up at me, her eyes fierce. “I love my niece, like she was my own daughter. I miss my sister, and Kayla’s my only connection to her. Please understand, I only want what’s best for Kayla.”

I stood my ground, but attempted to be pleasant. “I understand, but you have to realize … I am the best thing for Kayla right now, and always. We belong together, and I’ll never hurt her.”

She nodded. “I can see you are. Thank you.”

I walked into the dining room, taking in all the apprehensive faces. “I’m going to take Kayla home; we’ll see you in the morning. We have to be here early to take care of the horses. I stocked the fridge for you, and was hoping we could have breakfast together before we leave for the funeral.” I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding, expecting more grief.

“We’ll see you then,” Gram said sweetly. “Take care of my baby girl, like I know you will. I’ll have breakfast ready when you get here.”

“Thanks, Gram. Charity, you can have Kayla’s room. You two can have the spare bedroom,” I said, looking at Melissa and William. “And, Gram, we made up the office for you, if that’s okay? Kayla doesn’t want anyone in Dad’s room. Well, I better go … she doesn’t do well being alone.” I turned to leave, not concerned if they were offended by my directions.

“Jesse, wait,” William spoke. “We’re all sorry if we offended you. You’re a remarkable young man, and it sounds as though you’re taking good care of Kayla.”

I shrugged and exhaled, turning back to look at William. “I love Kayla. I hope I’m doing everything correctly. Who knows in these situations? We’ll see you in the morning.” With that, I turned and walked away.

h3=.

54 – Kayla

I watch Jesse as he drives down the road without a word. He’s so wonderful; I can’t imagine life without him.

The road is dark and it’s starting to rain. He drives on down the road, oblivious, deep in thought, but then perceives I’m looking at him and turns to me and smiles his breathtaking smile. He seems abnormally happy; I haven’t seen him this happy in a while, not since our wedding day.

I start to ask a question, but can’t hear my voice over the rain pounding on the window. We should probably pull over and wait out the storm; the road is so dark I can’t understand how he can discern where he’s driving.

“Jesse!” I yell, but he continues to drive. “Jesse!”

His hand is on my arm, but still he looks forward, as if in a trance.

Because of the torrential downpour, I can barely see through the windshield. He’s just trying to keep his eyes on the road. I should do the same.

A crack of lightning sends my hands to my ears, and I watch in horror as a tree crashes across the highway, directly in our path. “Jesse, watch out!” I shriek. Again, Jesse doesn’t remove his eyes from the road; instead, he grabs my arm as we go careening into the tree. The truck comes to a sudden stop, and I feel a sharp pain across my chest. Everything happens so quickly that I can’t make out whether the truck is right side up or not, but my hair should be on my shoulders, not draped above my head.

I quickly unsnap the seatbelt, noticing that Jesse isn’t moving. Blood drips from his mouth. The tree has penetrated the windshield, hitting him square in the chest.

“Jesse! No! Not you too!” My scream overpowers the sound of the thunderstorm, hurting my ears.

I feel tugging on my arm. One of the rescue workers is trying to pull me from the wreckage. I can’t leave Jesse. How will he escape without me? “No! I can’t leave him!” I insist, ripping the stranger’s hands off my arm. “Save him! I don’t care if I die. Save Jesse! Leave me!”

“Kayla! Please!” the man shouts my name.

 

My eyes blinked open.

“Oh, thank God!” Jesse said, exhaling.

“Oh, Jesse!” I screamed, darting up and throwing my arms around his neck. “You were dead. We wrecked, and you were covered —”

He pulled me tightly to his chest. “You were having a nightmare; I’m not hurt, baby. You have to stop worrying; you’re going to drive yourself crazy, and take me with you.” He buried his head beneath my hair. “I’m scared, Kayla … I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t wake you.” Blood wasn’t covering his body, but the red vessels stood out in his eyes; I was doing this to him. “I’m so afraid I’m going to lose you, Kayla. Maybe we should get some help. I can’t lose you … I love you so much.” He choked on his words, his head held low. “I’m sorry. I told myself I’d be strong for you, but I’m so scared.”

I blanched at his words. I didn’t need help; I only needed him. What would a psychiatrist tell us? Would a doctor insist this was all too much … that we shouldn’t be married, trying to make a life right now? Put me away somewhere … away from Jesse?

I took in Jesse’s expression. He was in pain. I was causing his grief. Not purposely, of course, but I needed to get a grip. “It was just a dream. Thank God, it was just a dream.” I took his head between my hands. He needed me? What did I do for him? All I’d done was hurt him. “I’m fine … it was just a bad dream. You’re not going to lose me. Just hold me, please. We’ll get through this, I promise.”

“But maybe we should get you some help. There are groups we can go to that are supposed to help with the symptoms of grief. I could go with you … you wouldn’t be alone.”

I smiled wistfully. “Jesse, I’m just sad, but I’m not crazy. I’ll get through this.” I ran my hand through his hair. “With your help, of course. Daddy wouldn’t have wanted me to curl up in a ball and die. I’m not saying it’ll be easy. Like that dream … it was horrible, but it’s sort of made me realize something. I’ll always be sad I lost my father, but I know I can’t live without you; the pain I felt, even in my dream, when I thought you were gone was unbearable. So, no matter what, I have to be okay for us.”

Jesse pressed his lips against my head. “I can’t lose you, Kayla. You’re all I have too. But more than that, I love you so much it hurts. You’re my life.”

“Don’t you understand, Jesse, it’s the same for both of us? My family, they aren’t what I need; you’re everything to me. I love you more than life itself.”

He folded his arms around me and soothed my hair. “Okay, love. It’s clear that we can’t be apart, so let’s just try to live. We will get through this. Together.” He ran his fingertips over my eyebrows, and as I closed my eyes, he gently continued his caress over my shuttered eyelids. “Shh now, go back to sleep and try to have pleasant dreams. Dream of me in a good way, please, holding you in my arms.”

“Mmm, I promise.”

h3=.

55 – Jesse

The funeral went as well as I could have hoped. An incredible number of friends showed, each one paying their condolences to Kayla and offering anecdotes about John.

They told of his love for life, how funny he was with all of his Southern sayings, and above all, every one of them reverberated about his love for his daughter.

I arranged the wake at John’s house, where I had food catered by an Italian restaurant, mostly comfort food. When the throngs of friends had finally dissipated and it was just the family again, we gathered in the living room. Instead of barraging Kayla and me about our choices, they told stories about when Kayla was a baby and how much John adored his little girl.

Conversation withered as the evening wound down. We talked about the weather, this weekend, and what we could possibly do as a family.

Kayla had been sitting quietly, but then she suddenly sat up and looked at Gram. “Gram, have you heard of … what was the name of that sleeping pill, Jesse?”

I pulled up my phone, even though I remembered the name, and sounded out the long generic name.

Gram’s eyes darted to Melissa and then back to Kayla. “Yes … I’m very familiar with it. Why?”

I couldn’t help but wonder what had just transpired, but I remained silent.

Kayla pursed her lips. “Dad was taking it, and I was wondering why.”

“Isn’t that what Brooke was taking, Mom?”

Gram shot another look at Melissa, but this one said, shut up.

Kayla also turned to stare at her aunt now. “My mom?”

“Honey, your mother was taking them because she couldn’t sleep,” Gram explained.

“Dad had insomnia too. He’d be up until one or two, and then be up before me at five. Sometimes I’d hear him in the middle of the night. I don’t know how long he’d been taking this medication, but the fill date was just two days prior to his accident, and there were exactly two pills missing. It just seems strange. Dad wouldn’t have left the house in the middle of the night; I’m just trying to find out why. So my mom was on this stuff too?”

I broke in, “It’s late, Kayla. Why don’t we go home? We’ll see you all in the morning.” I stood up and offered her my hand; she took it reluctantly.

“Okay.” She stooped to kiss Gram, and gave Melissa and William a hug. “Thanks for coming; I’ll see y’all tomorrow.”

 

I awoke with a start; the first thing I noticed was that it was unusually cold. It was dark, always so dark here. It was taking me time to get used to not being able to see. I carefully moved my hand to Kayla’s side of the bed, mindful not to wake her. Nothing but cool sheets greeted me.

I quietly rolled out of bed, feeling around with my foot for the boxers I’d shed as I fell into bed. I pulled them on and padded my way around the bed to the hallway. I shot a quick glance at the clock radio: two a.m. As I opened the door, I saw light emanating from beneath the office door. I felt my way down the hallway and softly turned the handle.

Kayla was sitting with her back toward me, scribbling notes on a piece of paper. I walked up behind her, trying not to startle her, but wasn’t sure how to accomplish such a thing. Whether I spoke, cleared my throat, or touched her, she would surely jump through the roof. I looked over her shoulder at what she was reading on the screen. Google’s home page, and in the search box were the words: Sleeping Pills Related Deaths.

“What are you researching, Kayla?”

As suspected, she practically jumped out of the chair.

“Oh, you ’bout scared me to death!” she screeched. “Jesse, you wouldn’t believe all this stuff I’ve found on this drug … it’s scary.” I saw the light in her eyes, an energy I hadn’t seen in over a week. I hated that I had to be the one to deflate her.

“I know,” I admitted hesitantly. “I did some research too.”

“You did? Why didn’t you tell me? Jesse, we have to do something!”

“There’s nothing we can do, Kayla. Try researching class-action suits and see what you come up with. There have been numerous attempts, but the lawyers keep backing out because they can’t afford the research it takes to bring down the drug manufacturers. These companies have deep pockets and political power. The only positive thing I found was that the Supreme Court ruled that drug companies are not protected because they have FDA approval, and in another case they called for stronger warnings on the labels of these types of sedative and hypnotic drugs.”

“But look at all these famous people. I already found six who died of a drug overdose, and it was mentioned that the same drug Dad took was in their system, and then there are the suicides, auto accidents, mass shootings …” She looked at me as if to say, make this right.

I ran my hand through my hair and exhaled softly. “I’m tired, Kayla, please come back to bed. We can talk about this in the morning.” I reached over her, shut down the computer, and clicked off the screen. It was pitch-black now, but she didn’t move. “Please, baby, for me.”

She stood and leaned into me. Wrapping my arm around her, I led her back down the hallway to our bedroom.

 

The barn was as clean as a barn could be, but I still wasn’t used to the smell first thing in the morning, so as always, I worked at breakneck speed to get everything done quickly. We managed the work in half the time now that we were working together, but Kayla seemed to be moving slower than usual this morning, as though she weren’t thinking about what she was doing but working on autopilot.

Even the sounds of brush strokes stopped after a few seconds. I peeked up to see her staring at me, her brows furrowed.

“I want to go after them.”

“Go after them? Who’s them?

“The drug company,” she announced, a fierce look in her green eyes.

I stopped what I was doing, walked to her stall, and knelt beside her. I tried hard to be forbearing. “I know you want someone to pay, baby. I know you want someone to be responsible. But sometimes, things just happen. We don’t always understand why, but if you take this on, I know it won’t help anything; it’ll just draw out your pain.”

She huffed and stood up, brushing pieces of hay off her shirt as though the straw were burning her. “So that’s it, then? You said we’d talk about this, but really, you don’t want me to talk about anything, just be all hunky-dory like nothing happened. Well, I can’t. Not now that I’ve found out this drug might be the reason both my parents are dead. I deserve an explanation.”

“Kayla, I never said I expected you to be perfect, or that I didn’t want you to talk about everything. It’s only been a week, for heaven’s sake; I expect you to be in pain. I just don’t think this is the answer. I think it’s very clear in the Bible … That it is already a defeat for us, that we have lawsuits with each other. Some say that we shouldn’t sue, but I don’t think that’s what it means … I think He tells us that we’re already defeated if we have to sue someone, so better not to live with the pain twice. This thing you’re talking about … it would take years. I’ve heard of cases like these being drawn out more than ten years.”

She threw down her brush, then glared at me, her brow furrowed again. “God, Jesse? God let this happen. He let my mom die, and then He let my dad die. And someone should pay. God chose not to take care of this, so now I have to. I don’t want to hear about what God wants. I want my dad!”

I reached for her hand before she could run, as she always did when she was upset. “Kayla, you don’t mean that. You know it’s not God’s fault.”

“Don’t I? How could God allow this to happen? My parents were good people. If there’s a God, and He’s good, why would He allow them to die?”

“That’s not how it works, and you know it. God is just.”

“I don’t know anything, Jesse, except that He took both of my parents. Why would I want anything to do with a God like that? Why would I care what He wants me to do or whether I should sue someone?”

“Kayla …” I pleaded, not knowing what to say. She obviously wasn’t going to listen anyway. She needed to calm down.

She shook her head, then pulled her hand from mine and stormed off.

This time, I let her walk away.

 

I finished up with the horses and found her sitting in the truck. I said nothing as I turned the ignition and then pulled the truck in gear, but stopped. I couldn’t allow her to lose her faith.

“Kayla, will you let me talk for a moment without interrupting me? It’s important.”

She huffed, but made no indication that she didn’t want to hear me, so I continued, “I know it’s going to sound like something everyone says, but hear me out, please. I know it’s not the same, but when my mother left, I asked my pastor the same questions.” I glanced at her briefly; she was just staring out the window. “Bad things happen, Kayla, and we say we don’t know why, but we do know. Yes, God could intervene if he wanted to, but then … where would our free will be?” I paused at my question, not really expecting a response. “Everyone understands free will when it comes to our choices to choose God, to do good things, but free will is more than choosing what is right. It is our choice to do what we want, good or bad. Whether it is a drug company that chooses to misinform the user of its product or a psycho who rapes and murders children, or the person who decides to dedicate their life to helping others, it’s all our choice. If God were to interfere with any decision, it would take away our free will, so he can’t or he wouldn’t be a just God.”

Kayla still said nothing.

“I know it’s hard right now, but you can’t lose your faith.”

“Please take me home, Jesse.”

It was all part of the steps, I knew. I’d read that everyone went through the stages of grief differently; some steps took days, some took years, but all sufferers went through them. I had to let her work through this, but it pained me terribly.

 

 

h3=.

56 – Jesse

It was Sunday morning. I rolled out of bed and stumbled to the shower; it had been a long week.

I stood motionless under the hot water, letting the needles work their way into my back. The family would leave today and it would be just Kayla and me again, and then tomorrow, work, and hopefully school for Kayla; she still hadn’t made her decision.

I suddenly felt old. This was it; this was my life. Wake up, go to work, come home, eat, sleep, and repeat daily. I knew I wouldn’t have felt this way if John hadn’t died; his death had changed everything. If it weren’t for his passing, we’d probably be in bed right now, curled up under the sheets. Our honeymoon had lasted barely a week, and then I’d left to go back to Florida. I wondered what would’ve happened if I’d stayed. Would John still be alive? Would my wife be talking to me right now instead of being angry?

I crossed the room to Kayla’s side of the bed and knelt down in front of her. She was so beautiful. Her long hair always fanned out over the pillow while she slept. I stroked my hand across her long curls; they were so incredibly soft. Leaning over her, I inhaled deeply, allowing the scent to transport me immediately. My eyes filled; I didn’t want her to be mad at me. I understood her pain. In fact, I assumed it would be months until she was even remotely better. I just needed to be here for her, I realized. She’d come around eventually. She couldn’t continue to hold God responsible. And this thing with a lawsuit, it would take years, not to mention drain us financially. Not that I cared about money, she had plenty of it and I was accustomed to not spending money.

I dropped my head to her forehead. She didn’t open her eyes, but moved back in our bed and lifted up the sheet and comforter for me to join her. I crawled underneath the warm blankets beside her, and she wrapped her arms around me, burying her head in my chest. I wanted to say, [I’m sorry _]or _Everythingwill be okay after a while, but instead I said, “I’ll stand beside you whatever you decide to do, Kayla.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” I said on a long breath, when I wanted to scream, No! Please don’t do this! I should be setting my foot down, and yet here I was, acting like my father when he let my mother have her way, and then she left us. If my dad hadn’t been so passive, if he’d taken control, would she have seen a man in him and not left?

The sting in my eyes increased. I knew I’d lose my wife to this; there was no way she’d ever be the same. The only thing I could hope was that every attorney would turn her down, but I knew they wouldn’t, not when they realized she had money.

What if she got pregnant? Would she forget all this nonsense? She probably wasn’t keeping track of the days like I was. I hadn’t wanted her to get pregnant, so I’d been keeping a watchful eye in case the opportunity arose, and right now was prime time. How juvenile. I felt like one of those girls who ensnared their husbands by getting pregnant. Had there ever been a situation where a man purposely tried to get a woman pregnant to keep her close? Then there was the other information I’d researched when I found out her mother was a twin. The chance of Kayla having twins was highly likely. Instant family. The thought scared me to death, but comforted me at the same time. Kayla swore she wanted nothing other than to be a wife and mother; I’d just assist her, I decided.

How would I suggest it, though, when we’d fought last night? She must still be angry with me, even though she welcomed me into our bed.

I ran my finger down the side of her face and she opened her eyes; they were glassy and wonderful. As much as I hated to see her cry, she had the most beautiful eyes, and the color intensified when she cried.

“Please don’t cry, Kayla.”

“You’re so wonderful to me and I keep being awful to you.”

I pressed my lips to her mouth and held them for a second, and then pulled back. “You’re not awful to me, you’re in pain. If you can’t yell at me, whom else could you yell at?” I couldn’t help but smile.

She smiled in response, and I pressed my lips against hers again; I couldn’t do this.

“Jesse,” she whispered in that seductive drawl, pressing closer. “Love me.”

“I do love you, Kayla. So much it hurts, so much that I’m willing —” I stopped short. It didn’t do any good to do something selflessly if you announced that it was a sacrifice.

“I know you love me. I mean, make love to me, make me forget everything.”

Too easy … I couldn’t do this. “Kayla, we can’t. It’s not the right time.”

“I don’t care,” she mumbled, moving her lips back to mine.

“Kayla … you do know —” I started, but she kissed off my words. “Kayla, the chances are extremely high that you would have —”

She pulled back then, I thought to hear what I was saying, but instead she said, “Jesse, hush up. You think too much.” She smiled to lighten the insult.

“Fine!” I said aloud, not meaning to. I rolled her over on her back and moved over her. If she didn’t care, neither did I, and I did want her something fierce. It had been forever it seemed, and I’d hurt after last time. It wasn’t a good idea stopping like that, even though I knew it was the right thing to do at the time.

I saw the fire in her eyes and was instantly lost in them; suddenly, all else faded away. Nothing existed in the world but my wife and me, and she wanted me. Everything was natural and beautiful; her body was amazing, created for me and made to love. There was no reason to feel guilty; she wanted this as much as I did.

We lay together, tangled as one in the sheets, just as I’d pictured earlier. My fingers trailed circles along her bare back; she had such beautiful skin. It was golden with a slight olive undertone, Mediterranean somehow.

“Kayla, you look like a Greek goddess lying there.”

She lifted her head slightly and smiled. “I’ve never heard that one before.”

“Oh, but you do, your hair, your skin, your eyes …”

“Hmm, go on, please.”

“You’re beautiful, Kayla, and I’m sure you’ll be lovely pregnant.”

She scowled. “You don’t know that I’ll be pregnant.”

“Ah, but I do, and furthermore … you didn’t let me finish my comment earlier; you’re going to have twins.”

“What?” She huffed animatedly. “Why would you speak such blasphemy?”

“I thought that’s what you wanted, Kayla.” My voice sounded hurt even to me.

“Just because Gram had twins doesn’t mean I will. And just because we made love, doesn’t mean I’m pregnant.”

“You need to do better research.” I grinned, wiggling my eyebrows. “At your age, it’s easy to become pregnant. Why do you think there are so many teenage pregnancies? And yes, I think you’ll have twins … but if you’re not sure, we can try again.”

“Now you want me to be pregnant? Sometimes I just don’t understand you, Jesse.”

“I never said I didn’t want you to get pregnant. I said I didn’t want you to feel trapped by being pregnant. I think you’ll make a marvelous mother. But you’re the one who insisted that we didn’t need protection. Is this what you want?”

“I don’t know. I guess I just don’t care.”

“Oh, Kayla …” I sighed heavily. What was there to say. I’d made a mistake; I knew she wasn’t well enough to make a decision, and I’d allowed her. I’d been so careful, for so long, doing the right thing, and now, when it mattered more than ever, I’d succumbed to her irrational thought processes. I’d let my hormones and self-preservation stand in the way of making the right decision, and now she didn’t care. The ache climbed up inside of me and looked for a home in my heart. I didn’t want to turn away. I didn’t want to leave her as she did when she was mad at me, but I didn’t want to see her right now. I closed my eyes and willed for her not to be pregnant. She wasn’t ready.

“Hey,” she asked, rubbing her hand across my cheek. “What did I say?”

Fearful she’d see the guilt in my eyes, I couldn’t look at her. Why had I been so careless? I could have refused her.

Her lips on my forehead, she nudged up my head. “Please don’t be upset with me. Whatever you thought I meant … I’m sure it came out wrong.”

I kept my eyes shuttered. “I’m not upset with you, Kayla. I’m upset with myself.”

“Will you look at me, please?” she pleaded, her breath hitching. “Why are you upset?”

I opened my eyes. She was crying again … great … more reasons to feel culpable. “Because I need you to care. This is exactly what I was afraid of. It’s when people don’t care that they make poor decisions. When you said you didn’t care earlier, I thought you really didn’t mind getting pregnant, that you were ready to start a family with me, but just now when you said you didn’t care … That’s a different kind of not caring, and frankly, it scares me. So yes, I’m upset that I allowed myself to screw up.”

I pulled myself up and threw my legs over the side of the bed. So much for our pleasant morning, again, my mistake … what had I expected?

“Jesse,” she choked out through a breath. “Please don’t leave me.”

Exasperated, I dropped my head in my hands and just stared at the floor. “I’m not going anywhere. Can’t you see that? Why can’t you understand? I just want what’s best for us, and I feel like I keep messing up.” I turned to look at her. “Do you really not care, Kayla? I can handle anything but that.” How had we gone from making love, to her being a Greek goddess, to arguing? Maybe I was a know-it-all. Maybe I just needed to stop talking.

She rested her head on my shoulder. Her warm breath draped across my skin. She would drive me insane eventually, I was certain.

“I do care, Jesse. I didn’t mean it like that … I don’t know what I meant …”

Tired of always guessing, constantly wondering what I should do, I whipped around, facing her. I just wanted her. I didn’t care about anything else. I was done worrying. I grabbed her up and rolled her over on her back.

“Listen to me and listen to me good, Kayla. I’m not leaving you, ever, and I do care. I’m tired of doubt, and I’m tired of miscommunication. We keep promising that we won’t do this to each other, but then fall right into that trap. We’re both sad, and with good reason, but I’m not going to let this destroy us … do you hear me? I love you.” I pressed my lips hard against hers. “I want you to care about everything, do you understand? I don’t want you to be numb, but I don’t want you to take on a fight either. I want my wife back!” I pressed my body against hers, engulfing her mouth. I wouldn’t back down again; I’d fight to the death. John would have wanted it that way; she’d just have to deal with it.

She said nothing in response. I rolled off her onto my side, afraid that I was being too aggressive, and propped up my head with my hand, daring her to respond.

She said nothing.

I wanted this, I realized. I knew we were young, but I wanted her to be pregnant.

I pulled the sheet back and trailed my hand over her stomach. What would it be like? Would I still want her as much when she was pregnant? I felt a surge of joy rush through me as I really thought about it. Why didn’t it bother me? I should be terrified, but I wasn’t. Instead, I felt bliss.

“I’m not pregnant, Jesse.”

“Would you care if you were?” I challenged, cocking my head to one side.

She measured her words before speaking. “No … But not in a bad way. You want this, don’t you?” she asked, surprise lacing her question.

“Yes,” I said on a sigh. “I do. I don’t know why, but all of a sudden, I do. Maybe it’s because I don’t remember having much of a childhood. There were only a few good years, and then it was gone. I’ll be a good father, Kayla.”

“I know you will, Jesse, that’s why I don’t care. If I am, fine, but I’m not going to worry about whether I am or not.”

“But would it make you happy if you are?”

“I don’t know … I won’t be unhappy.” She shrugged. “I’ve only been around older children … I’ve never been around babies.”

“Can we make love again, then?”

“Right now?”

“Yes, please … I can’t tell you how much I want you right now. It has been building up inside me for so long that I’d be content if we never left our bed.”

“Okay … and, Jesse, no offense, but you’re kinda strange, you know.”

“I know. Unlike your comment to me earlier, it’s not the first time I’ve heard that. I should have been born in the forties or fifties, I think.”

“Jesse, shush please,” she muttered, moving her mouth over mine. “Just hold me.”

 

Monday morning, decision time. I had to start working; I couldn’t let the business fall apart. Then where would we be?

It was five, and Kayla hadn’t woken up yet. She’d had a dreadful night’s sleep; I’d had to wake her from nightmares several times.

I ran my hand down the side of her cheek and pushed her hair back off her face. Her eyes opened and her face displayed the same expression that she’d worn almost every morning. The restrained realization that everything that had happened wasn’t a dream, that her father was really gone. She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. I wondered if I’d ever see the youthful, energetic Kayla again.

“How do you feel this morning?”

She shrugged, taking in a ragged breath and then letting it out.

“Would you like me to take care of the horses?”

“No, I have to get up to go to school anyway.”

“Are you sure, Kayla? If you’re not ready, you can come with me today.”

She shook her head. “No, I need to do this.”

“Well then, I’ll help you with the horses and then we can both try to continue with our responsibilities.” I kissed her lightly, then pulled back to gauge her expression. Her face was blank and she said nothing in response, just rolled out of bed. I let her go without comment. As hard as it was to let her go, I needed to relax and let her do what she needed to do to get through the day. I’d be here if she fell.

We walked out our door two hours later, after tending to the horses, showering, and eating breakfast. Silently, she headed toward her truck. I grabbed her from behind and turned her to face me.

“Kayla O’Brien, I’m going to miss you too, you know. Please don’t leave without kissing me goodbye.” She’d been trying to hide her tears. “Oh, baby, please don’t hide your suffering. I’m here … we don’t have to do anything.”

“I have to go, Jesse. You have to go. We have to get back to life. I’m sorry. I just didn’t want you to see me cry … I know it’ll make it harder on you.”

“I don’t want you driving like this. Should I drop you off and pick you up?”

“No. I’m gonna do this. Let me do this, please.”

“Okay, but promise me, if you get too upset, you’ll call me. No matter what I’m doing, I’ll come and get you. Please don’t wait until you’re so overcome that you can’t think straight.” I pulled her into my arms and held her tight. “I love you, Kayla. Do you have any idea how much and what it would do to me if something happened to you?” She nodded against my chest. “Please be okay, for me.”

“I will, Jesse. This is the first step.” I let her go, and she afforded me one final kiss before leaving. I followed her to her truck and closed the door behind her. She rolled down the window and offered me a small smile. “I love you too, Jesse. Please don’t worry about me.”

I smiled back and stuck my head through the window. “Yeah, like that’s going to happen. Just please be careful. There aren’t too many things I can’t live without in life, you just so happen to be at the top of the list. Along with breathing, food, and water, and somehow, I think losing you would kill me faster than lack of food or water.”

She sighed, attempting a smile, and the crying seemed to cease if only for a few seconds. Stepping back, I watched her drive off, praying constantly that God would keep watch over her when I couldn’t.

 

I made it through my morning easily enough. Kayla hadn’t called or texted, so I hoped that she was okay. Jan had mapped out the locations for me to visit, and I found myself up and running with barely any time to think. I spent the time I’d allocated for lunch drinking a smoothie so I could continue to work on finding a contractor to build our barn. We needed it soon. The time spent driving back and forth, not to mention Kayla having to keep going back to the house, was just too much. After comparing prices and my time, I decided just to go with having them install it. It would be finished in no time, they promised. Sometimes it was cost effective to hire someone to do a job.

It was three, and I could see how easy it would be to continue to work, but John’s words echoed in my mind; I needed to go home.

Kayla was on the porch when I drove up. She skipped the steps and ran to the truck. My heart swelled. This was my Kayla. I barely had the door open, and she was climbing up to reach me.

“Wow!” I marveled. “I could get used to this.”

“Jesse!” she squealed with delight. “I missed you, and I’m so excited. I want to talk to you.”

My previous glee fell. “What happened?”

“I decided I’m going to finish high school, and in January, I’m going to start online courses.”

“Really? In what?” I asked, attempting to keep all suspicion off my face and remain positive.

“Law,” she announced matter-of-factly. “I don’t need a fancy law degree from Harvard. Liberty has one of the best law schools in the nation, and I can do everything from home.”

Now I understood. Her dad wasn’t kidding. She was the most tenacious person I’d ever met. She wanted to take on a multi-billion dollar company on her own. I did my best to sound excited. After all, I was the one who’d pushed her to do what she wanted. Now I realized … I wished I hadn’t. But this had to be better than trying to open a case now. It’d take years to finish law school; by then, wouldn’t the fire for revenge have subsided?

“I think that’s a fantastic idea!” I said sincerely, realizing I really was happy. A goal would keep her mind occupied, and at least she’d be home.

“You do?” she asked, sounding shocked.

“Yes, I do. I told you I want you to be happy and do what you want. But the fact that you’re doing this online means I still have you here with me, so I get the best of both worlds.”

She took my hand and pulled me into the house. It smelled like a home. “And here I tried to make you a great dinner to mush you all up in case you were upset.”

“It smells delicious. What is it?” I asked as she trailed me toward the kitchen.

“Lasagna with salad and garlic bread,” she said, and I could hear her excitement. “Come sit down.”

I pulled her into my arms. “Isn’t lasagna better after it sits for an hour?”

“That’s what they say … why?”

I scooped her up and carried her down the short hall to our bedroom.

“Oh!” she burst out through a giggle, wrapping her hands around my neck.

“I missed my cowgirl,” I said, pressing my lips to hers as I undressed her.

 

 

h3=.

57 – Jesse

The weeks passed quickly. Kayla grew stronger every day. She rarely cried in front of me, but sometimes, in the evenings, I’d feel her body quiver. I tried not to ask, but instead just held her.

I rarely mentioned God, deciding she needed to work things out with Him in her own time. Her father had been a good Christian man and had raised her well … she just needed time.

Work was intense. Never would I have thought there could be so many issues involved with owning properties. I repeatedly explained to my managers that they had the authority to make decisions. Kayla had come up with the idea of giving them a budget. If they needed something done and it fell within the parameters they agreed upon, then they were to just do it. Documented and receipted, Kayla had added. Still, I was busy every minute of the day so the weeks flew by, and before I knew it, it was Thanksgiving week. Kayla had the week off school and insisted I take the time off work as well. She reminded me that I didn’t have to do everything; that’s why we had managers in the first place. I doubted she’d spoken to her father like that, but then wondered if maybe she should have.

The barn was in place on our property and we found a sixteen-year-old girl, Johanna, who was mature and reliable to watch the horses while we were away. She’d been coming over to the house every day for the last week with Kayla and me, and we both felt confident that she would do a good job. Our assistant at work, Jan, also promised to stop by and check on things a couple of times during the week.

So, with everything organized, we were packed and ready for our trip to Florida to visit both sets of families. Gram had invited my dad to come to Thanksgiving dinner after asking for my approval. I’d been surprised at my father’s consent; he usually preferred to spend the day watching football. I was ecstatic: a week with Kayla with nowhere to go and nothing to do but be together. I’d wanted to book a hotel on the beach, but Kayla wanted to stay with Gram, reminding me our honeymoon was coming up next month. We’d be going to Atlantis in the Bahamas for a week, as originally planned, even though she’d canceled our remarriage plans. It’d be too painful without her dad, she’d explained. However, she seemed excited about our honeymoon … which we both needed badly. It’d been a long two months.

We spent Monday at the beach and Tuesday kayaking to some of the smaller islands. Gram had allowed me to store a couple of my kayaks at her house, so I was able to just drag them down the backyard and launch. Since there hadn’t been any storms to stir up the sand, the water was shallow and clear. Kayla marveled at stingrays that passed beneath the boat and porpoises that would race with us while we paddled. It wasn’t much of a race; the sleek, powerful mammals could leave us in the ripples of water whenever they chose. Porpoises were inquisitive animals, though, so they’d swim smoothly alongside the kayak, occasionally peering up to gaze at the strange yellow creature with two long fins.

We spent the entire day on a small, uninhabited island, sunbathing together on our blanket, speaking of our future, reluctantly conversing about business, and eating our standard PB&J picnic lunch.

Minutes after we entered the water, I gently nudged Kayla back to the beach.

“What are you doing?”

I pointed to the edge of the tiny island. “Watch.”

Kayla shielded her eyes and gazed in the direction I’d pointed. “What is it?”

“Just a couple of black-tip reef sharks corralling a school of fish. They’re harmless, but I don’t want them to mistake your leg for a juicy fish.”

She ran up on shore. “Done swimming!” she announced.

“Aww … why? They’ll be gone in a few minutes. The water’s crystal clear; I can see them coming. Besides, black tips aren’t interested in you. They don’t know how yummy you taste. Bull sharks, on the other hand —”

She wrapped a towel around her waist. “Nuff said. I’m done swimming.”

I shook my head. “Kayla, it’s the same water as Clearwater Beach and Honeymoon Island. You mean to tell me you didn’t know there were sharks?”

“Yes … but at least there my odds were lower, as hundreds of other potential shark bait is in the water.”

I pulled her into my arms. “You’re so cute. Okay … we’ll stay up on land. I’m sure we can find something to keep us busy.”

 

The next night, after I’d done some work around the house for Gram, I found Kayla curled up on a chaise reading a book.

I snuck up behind her and draped my arms over her shoulders. “Hey, how ’bout a sunset paddle? The water is like glass, and we have just enough time to get out before the sun sets. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and everyone will be here, so it’d be nice to get away tonight.”

She squeezed my hand. “That’s okay. Why don’t you just go?”

A wave of sadness rushed over me, the first I’d felt in a while. Kayla never turned me down for anything. She must have noticed my disappointment because she pulled me to sit down beside her. “Don’t look so sad. I’m okay. I’m just tired.”

“Would you rather I not go,” I offered reluctantly. “We could just get a movie?”

“No, Jesse, go … I know how much you miss this.”

“I have our river, so I don’t miss it too much; there are just more things to see here, but it’s not as much fun without you,” I sulked.

“I’ll be right here. I’ll take a nap, and you can wake me when you return,” she insinuated suggestively, wrapping her hands around my neck.

“Are you sure?” I asked, searching her eyes warily. I didn’t want to leave her if there was any chance she was going to have a breakdown.

“Yes … I want you to go. Please have fun, okay?” She dropped her arms and pushed me off the chaise playfully. “Go already, so you don’t miss the sunset.”

I leaned over her again, placing my hand against her cheek, running my thumb over her chin. “So, I should wake you up if you’re sleeping?”

She grinned. “Yes, please.”

I used my thumb to coax her mouth open as I pressed my lips against hers. She closed her eyes and sighed. I wasn’t sure if it was a sigh of longing or exhaustion, though. I pulled back and forced myself to let her relax. I was such a worrier, I knew, but I couldn’t imagine why she wanted to stay home. A nap … when did Kayla nap? I pulled out my gear and headed down the sloping backyard toward the beach.

I paddled through the inland waters, out toward the open waters of the gulf. It was faster using my sea kayak than the two-man sit-on-top I used with Kayla. The feeling was exhilarating; the speed and the muscles I used that had been all but dormant these last few months were much-needed therapy. Kayla was right, it felt better knowing she was home waiting for me. Last time I’d come out here, before I’d moved to North Carolina, all I could think about was Kayla. Now, even though she was always foremost in my mind, I felt like I could finally relax. She was with Gram, not alone, and I realized it was the first time in months that I was doing something entirely for myself. Paddling faster, I relished the breeze whipping my face and arms. The smells were familiar, taking me back to a time when I had less worries, even if they weren’t happier times. I’d never been happy, I realized, not since I was a child. Even time spent with Morgan had been gray with uncertainty. As my head cleared, I realized that as much heartache as the last two months had been, I wouldn’t trade them for anything if it meant not having Kayla. The love I had for her surpassed any and all other feelings.

 

Thanksgiving dinner was wonderful. It was the type of family gathering I had dreamed about growing up. After clearing it with Gram, my father brought Brock with him.

Charity, William, and Melissa were also present, and the animosity I’d felt at our last gathering had all but dissipated. I did detect Melissa eyeing everything Kayla and I did, but chalked it up to her motherly concern.

Kayla nibbled at her food, not really eating, just moving it around her plate. The first holiday without her dad was probably too much for her. Holidays hadn’t been good for me in years, and I felt guilty that I was enjoying this one so much when she was clearly in pain.

The family and conversations moved to the porch after dinner. Charity and Brock seemed to be getting along a little too well, and that managed to sidetrack Melissa’s attention. I’d never thought about introducing the two of them, but now that I observed them talking and laughing together, I realized they were a perfect match. Brock was about three years older than Charity, but that was probably a good thing; she needed a strong, independent man.

I wondered what Kayla thought of the pair, but when I turned to inquire on her thoughts, she was gone. I quietly searched the main area of the house where the family had been congregating since dinner. She wasn’t in the dining room, kitchen, or living room. I walked into our bedroom and found her curled up in a fetal position on our bed. I didn’t want to disturb her, but I didn’t want to leave her alone either. She’d been melancholy over dinner, and I’d wondered when it would hit her.

Drawing up beside her, I wrapped my arms around her. Short gasps escaped her throat, as though she were in the aftermath of crying. It saddened me that she’d come in here to cry alone, and worse, that I’d been so busy talking I hadn’t noticed.

“I’m here, baby,” I whispered in her ear.

She started sobbing softly in response. “I miss him so much, Jesse.”

“I know.” There was nothing else to say, so I just pulled her tighter. She settled down after a few minutes; her crying spells were shorter than they used to be. I found that I just needed to hold her through them.

“And I’m so tired. I don’t understand it. I was trying to keep up with everyone, but felt like it was getting to be too much.” She was still for a few minutes before speaking again. “Did you notice the way Charity was looking at Brock? I’ve never seen her enthralled with anyone like that. She likes him.”

I chuckled. “Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. Melissa doesn’t look too happy, though.”

Kayla turned in my arms and started giggling too. “I guess two plumbers in the family is too much for her, huh? What is it about you plumbers that attracts us spoiled rich girls?”

“Hey, I’m not a plumber anymore, remember … you turned me into a landlord.”

“Real-estate proprietor,” she corrected. “Is he a good guy?”

“I think so. I don’t know the entire story … but his ex-wife sounded like an unpleasant woman. From what I understand, she cheated on him. When he confronted her, she asked for a divorce, and then had her father fire him. He seemed pretty distraught about the entire ordeal.”

“Well, it’s none of our business anyway, is it?” she mused.

“No, it’s not. I didn’t appreciate people interfering with our decisions.” I paused a moment, kissing her on the forehead. “Do you feel well enough to go back out? I’m sure they’ve missed us by now.”

“Yeah, just give me a few minutes to catch my breath and freshen up.”

“Are you okay, Kayla? I mean physically okay? It’s not like you to be tired. You have more energy than anyone I know.”

“I think it’s just stress, first holiday and all.”

“I understand … I’ll go explain if needed. Hurry out soon.” I helped her up, but left the room to give her a moment to collect her thoughts.

Gram’s eyes shot up when she saw me walk in the room, giving me a knowing nod. She didn’t ask any questions, nor did anyone else. They understood. I imagined they’d been through the same thing with Brooke just six years earlier, so they would realize what Kayla was dealing with. They all loved John, but even though he’d been part of the family for more than twenty years, he wasn’t a flesh-and-blood relative.

I spent a little time talking with my dad privately about business and Brock. To my surprise, Dad changed the subject to a personal matter. “Jess, I have to leave early if that’s okay. I have another dinner to attend.”

I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. “Dad, you have a date?”

“It’s a little more than a date, son. Her name is Susan. She has two teenage kids, so she couldn’t come; it wouldn’t be right to confuse them so early in a relationship. So I agreed to have dinner with her family later because I wanted to be here with you.” He paused briefly, then his words spilled out, “I’m sorry, Jess. I know I wasn’t much of a father all these years. I was preoccupied in my own grief. But when you left, I realized how much I missed you. I want to thank you for everything. For the cooking, the cleaning, the job you did for me, for Brock … everything. I love you, son, and I want you to know that I believe you have grown to be a fine man.”

“I love you too, Dad. Thank you,” I said, stunned. I had waited for years to hear those words from my father. I’d spent my childhood trying to please him, to be good enough. Maybe we could still be a family; maybe it wasn’t too late. “Hey, do I get to meet her?”

“Do you want to?” he asked, surprised.

“Of course I do, and I’m sure Kayla will too. Ask Susan if it’ll be all right, then call me later; maybe we can do something tomorrow or Saturday? We’re leaving pretty early Sunday.”

“Sounds good. Thanks, Jess. I feel lucky to have you as a son.” He hugged me fiercely then. I squeezed back, delighted to have my father back.

We walked back inside together, and Kayla was there looking much better. She’d removed all of her makeup, which was fine with me; she looked better without it. Her skin glowed from the sun she’d received the last several days, and her eyes were glistening. She was absolutely the most beautiful I’d ever seen her. Maybe it was just the overall feeling of the day, but I had a hard time not gathering her up right there in front of everyone and carrying her away.

My father announced he was leaving to Brock. And to no one’s surprise, Brock looked disappointed. I quickly offered to drive him home later if he preferred, but then Kayla looked disappointed. I nudged her playfully, then whispered in her ear, “We’ll find something to do on the way back.”

Now, Brock and Charity looked happy, but Melissa didn’t. William and Gram were indifferent. We shot a knowing glance at each other. Such drama … Family was great, but I could live without all the drama.

It turned out we didn’t have to drive Brock after all. Charity had brought her own car with plans to meet some friends for a movie that evening, which now included Brock. I couldn’t suppress a smile at Melissa’s chagrin. No matter how much Melissa wanted to fight it, it was going to happen. I saw the look in Brock’s eyes when they left. It wasn’t lust; it was a fire I recognized all too well. This evening would be life altering for the two of them. I hoped Charity would be good enough for him. She seemed to have changed in the last eight months, and she was looking at Brock with the same passion.

William and a sullen Melissa left next, and Gram excused herself for the evening. Gram had no equal, and I was thankful that my spirit had recognized her kindness long before I’d ever met Kayla.

After everyone had left, Kayla and I sat outside on the dock and spent a long while just gazing at the moon and stars as they reflected in the peaceful inland waterway. Neither of us said a word, content just to be together. Finally, she stood and took my hand, leading me back to the house. I’d hoped that she wouldn’t be too sad tonight, because the way she looked, I didn’t know how I’d manage to keep my hands to myself. The reason I’d suggested walking down to the dock instead of retreating directly to bed. I wanted tonight to be her choice.

Back in our room, Kayla stood in front of me. Her dress, a simple, cream-colored cotton, with unneeded straps that had trouble staying up all evening, was alluring. One of the straps was falling over her shoulder. She moved to adjust it and I stopped her, tracing the line of the strap around her arm. “You’re so sexy, Kayla. Sexier tonight than I’ve ever seen you. It has taken every ounce of willpower I have not to whisk you off to our room or attack you earlier.”

“I don’t feel very sexy,” she replied modestly.

“Oh, but you are …” I lowered my head and followed the line of her neck across her collarbone. I breathed in the natural perfume of her skin, and it sent a warm sensation throughout my body. I reached for the back of her dress, searching. I lowered the zipper, then lightly pulled down the other strap. Her dress fell to the floor and she stepped out. I sat down on the bed and pulled her in front of me. I kissed her stomach, trailing my hands down her hips and thighs. “How can you not know how sexy you are? Just looking at you I go insane.”

She giggled. “You’re biased.”

“Hmm, works for me. I hope no other men are thinking what I am when they look at you. If I could hear their thoughts, I’m sure I’d be in a lot of fights.”

I pulled her down and she giggled again. “Shh, Kayla … no giggling. We’re in your grandmother’s house; she’ll hear you.”

“We’re married,” she countered.

“Still … I may have to stop if you can’t keep quiet,” I teased, as if that’d be possible, looking and feeling the way she did in my arms.

“Okay, I’ll try,” she whimpered.

I purposely tickled her then to test her. She burst into more giggles. “I’m serious, Kayla.” I wasn’t, but I was having too much fun. I did my best to make her struggle with keeping quiet, a challenge I found pleasurable. I knew Gram couldn’t hear; she was on the opposite side of the house, and these walls were solid plaster, not just drywall, like cheaper houses.

To my satisfaction, Kayla couldn’t keep quiet no matter how hard she tried. She pleaded with me futilely, but I ignored her half-hearted appeals. She’d never enjoyed me this much, and I simply couldn’t resist pleasing her.

When we were totally spent, I gathered her up and stared into her eyes for her reaction. For once, she was speechless.

 

The next morning I started awake when I heard Kayla jump out of bed and scurry to the bathroom. I quickly followed, but she slammed the door behind her, not locking it. I turned the handle and peered in cautiously. She’d already thrown herself to the floor, positioning her body over the toilet. Despite her glare, I entered. I held back her hair, praying I wouldn’t get sick. I had a strong stomach, but this wasn’t easy. Luckily, it was over fairly quickly. Kayla stood up and went to the sink and rinsed out her mouth, then brushed her teeth.

“I think I have food poisoning.”

I smiled wistfully. “I’ll get some Pepto and be right back. Go lie down for a minute. It’ll pass.”

I didn’t bother asking Gram. I needed to go to CVS; I needed more than Pepto. I was back in fifteen minutes with crackers, ginger ale, Pepto, and a tiny blue box. I set the bag on the bed and sat down beside her.

“How do you feel?” I asked, brushing her matted hair away from her face and pressing my lips to her forehead.

“A little better … Sorry ’bout that, not a very romantic way to start the day, is it?”

“Oh, I don’t mind. But will you do me a favor?”

“Anything, you’ve certainly done enough for me. When are you going to get tired of taking care of me, Jesse?”

“Never, I assure you. Here,” I said, handing her the tiny box. Her eyebrows shot up in shock as she shook her head back and forth. “Please,” I insisted. “If it’s food poisoning, we’ll deal with that, but I’d like to explore this possibility first.”

She snatched the box out of my hand and stormed off to the bathroom. “It was only that one day, Jesse. I’m not pregnant. Besides, I wouldn’t be sick already. It’s only been …” I assumed she was counting in her head. She didn’t continue with her argument.

I sat motionless on the bed, a satisfied smile spreading across my face. She stepped out a few seconds later, wand in hand. Patiently, we watched the tiny hourglass in the display screen and, in less than three minutes, it revealed what I already knew in my heart. I grabbed her up and swung her around, then realized she might still be feeling ill.

“Sorry, not the best thing to do when you’re feeling ill, is it?” I set her down gently, then struggled to understand the look on her face.

h3=.

58 – Kayla

I wasn’t sure what I felt. Jesse was right; he was always right. It was only that one morning … how could I be pregnant? Was he right about twins as well? Was I happy? How would this affect going to college?

He leaned toward me, his eyes smoldering, shattering my concentration. His look of sheer joy gave way briefly as he gazed into my eyes that were now filling up with fresh tears.

“Are you okay?” he asked quickly, searching my face.

“Humph,” I said, rolling my eyes. “You always have to be right, don’t you?” But my tone was playful.

“Kayla,” he asked again, seizing my face between his hands, an edge of hysteria in his voice. “Are you happy?” He froze. His eyebrows furrowed and his jaw tightened as if waiting for impact.

I pressed my fingers to the frown line between his brows.

“Please, Kayla, you’re killing me here.”

“Of course I’m happy, how could I not be?” I smiled. “I have a wonderful husband who’s practically jumping for joy that his eighteen-year-old self and wife are going to have a baby, maybe even two …”

He grinned wickedly at me.

“Please don’t be right about that too, Jesse … Twins … can you imagine?”

“Yes!” he hissed happily. “I can.”

“You’re truly sick, do you know that?”

“Yep!” He grabbed me and pulled me down on top of him. “At least I don’t have to worry about protection anymore.” He pressed his lips against mine, then pushed me back a few inches. “Are you really happy, Kayla?”

“Yes, Jesse. So many girls got pregnant in school without a husband, without a home, without any hope for the future, and most importantly, without love. I have everything.”

He looked up at me triumphantly. “Thank you, Kayla. I do love you, something fierce. And, I promise you, I’ll be a great father.”

“I know, Jesse.” There was absolutely not a doubt in my mind about him being a great father. If I doubted anything else in the world, I had no doubt about Jesse.

Jesse stared me down for a brief second. “You know what?” he announced confidently. “I knew last night. Your being tired the last few days, you’d breathe but not catch your breath. You haven’t been eating, and then the way you looked last night. The way I wanted you, the way I want you now.”

“But will you want me when I’m as big as a house?” I asked, frowning.

“Yes, I’m pretty sure I will. Probably even more, knowing me, knowing you’re carrying my child. Now, let me hold you while I can still get close to you,” he teased lightly.

I glared at him, smacking him on the shoulder. I couldn’t move, though; he had me in an unbreakable embrace. I tried to retract, but he held me tighter.

“Where do you think you’re going? I’m not finished with you yet.” He grinned mischievously, burying his head into my neck, nuzzling his way up to my ear. “Make love to me, Kayla. I need you so much. Do you have any idea?”

I shook my head slightly. “No, Jesse, I really don’t. I know how much you love me. But I don’t know why you would need me. I offer you nothing.”

“You silly girl, you’re my world. You’re everything to me and now you’re giving me a child. I don’t want or need anything other than you.” He grinned up at me. “And right now, I want to feel your body on mine.”

 

Jesse had propped himself up against the headboard and watched as I got dressed. I’d rather we just stay in bed all day, but he’d promised his father we’d meet him for lunch. I sat on the bed beside him. “Let’s not share the news with the family yet. It’s still early, and I’d like my doctor to confirm anyway.” I glared at him. “You could be wrong, you know. Those things aren’t a hundred percent accurate.”

He laughed and pulled me tightly to his chest. “When will you ever stop doubting me, love?”

“I don’t doubt you … I just …” I started, trailing off as my eyes drifted to the floor.

He pressed his hands to my face, nudging up my chin. “What is it? I thought you were happy?”

“I am happy, Jesse, I’m just afraid.”

He sighed with relief … he was so worried that I’d feel trapped by him. “What are you afraid of?”

“Pain, knowing how to be a mother, getting fat …”

He laughed and wrapped his arms around me tightly. “You won’t be fat, baby, you’ll be pregnant, and you’ll be the most beautiful pregnant woman alive, and I know you’ll be a great mother. What child wouldn’t want pizza and ice cream all the time?”

I sighed. “You always know what to say.”

“I’m not just saying it. It’s the truth,” he said.

“I —” I started to protest, but he interrupted me with a swift kiss.

“Let’s go, Kayla; we’re going to be late. You’re beautiful, and you’ll always be the most beautiful thing in my world … doesn’t that count for something? And I’ll be with you every step of the way, I promise.” He brushed my hair off my shoulder and threaded his hands in my curls. When a few tears escaped, he swiped them away with his fingertips. “I love you, cowgirl. Please don’t cry. You’re supposed to be happy.”

“I am happy, Jesse.” I buried my head beneath his arms, snuggling against his chest.

He held me as the soft sobs melted away. After a few minutes, I pulled away and headed back to the bathroom. He let me go; he was getting used to my routine. I’d be out in a few minutes freshened up and ready to go. Some day, I hoped, the crying would end and I would be happy again. But for now, everything was about my dad, what I would miss with him, what he wouldn’t be able to share with us. There would be no grandfather on my side, just a great-grandmother and very little of one on Jesse’s side. I couldn’t see his father all of a sudden wearing a shirt that read, World’s Greatest Grandpa. We were clearly on our own, but then again, that’s the way it had been for Jesse his entire life. At least we now had each other.

 

 

h3=.

59 – Kayla

All morning, Jesse had been ecstatic, doing everything, making me rest. This afternoon, we’d fly out of Charlotte to spend Christmas and New Years in the Bahamas at Atlantis. Jesse had changed our original dates so we wouldn’t have to deal with all the memories of Christmas at home.

Next year we would have a baby, and hopefully I wouldn’t break down in tears daily. As much as Jesse said he understood, I could see the pain in his eyes every time the grief hit me.

Today was also our first ultrasound appointment. The doctor would confirm if we were having twins. The doctor had mentioned it was a possibility not only because of my history, but because I had such terrible morning sickness. I was sick every morning for several hours. The doctor insisted that it should start subsiding soon, and we should enjoy our trip.

 

***

 

Jesse sat transfixed in his seat on the airplane, his eyes staring at the sepia colored 3D image in his hands. “Amazing, isn’t it?” He traced the image. “Eight weeks and they are already formed. Each one a complete baby with a brain and a beating heart, fingers and toes …” he whispered. “Miraculous.”

I leaned my head against his arm, happy that he’d finally come down from his cockiness earlier of being right all the time.

If I were being honest, he wasn’t being cocky; I was just frustrated when he offered that maybe next time I’d listen to him.

He nudged up my chin and kissed me lightly for the hundredth time today. He was ecstatic, and I couldn’t resist smiling up at him.

“You’re really happy, aren’t you?” I whispered.

“You have no idea, Kayla. I can’t fully explain what I’m feeling. When by all rights I should be scared stiff, I’m happy. Of course, because of you and that you’re healthy, that the doctor said everything looks good. I feel complete somehow, like this was supposed to happen.”

“Hey …” I asked, leaning forward suddenly. “Will you want to know what sex they are? He said we could find out next month when we go back.”

He shook his head furiously. “No, I want to be surprised. Do you?”

“Not if you don’t,” I said. “I can wait … unless of course you decide to tell me what they are.” I giggled. “So far, you’ve been right about everything.”

He shrugged and his body shook with laughter. “Not a clue. I don’t think there’s any real research that points to that information … only science is accurate in this case.”

I sighed and nuzzled into his arm again. We had a long flight to Miami, and then had to transfer to another plane that would take us to Nassau and then a bus to Paradise Island. I felt nauseated already. I hoped this week would be better, that I wouldn’t wake up every morning puking my guts out. It wouldn’t make for a very romantic honeymoon.

“How ya feeling, Kayla … better now that we’re in the air?” he asked, concern seeping into his voice. It was almost like he could hear my thoughts.

“I’m fine, just tired, I think.”

“Why don’t you sleep? I can read,” he suggested, kissing the top of my head.

Not wanting to argue, I closed my eyes. When I opened them, we were landing. “Wow, that was fast,” I murmured, still sleepy.

“You were out like a light, Kayla; you must be exhausted. We have a short layover here, long enough to stretch, and then we’ll be back in the air and in the Bahamas in no time.”

He pulled our carry-on luggage out of the bins and from under the seat, juggling everything as he motioned for me to go ahead of him. He was insane. He was so concerned that I’d strain myself and possibly miscarry that he wouldn’t let me pick up anything. He insisted that there just wasn’t any reason to take a chance when he was right here.

Because of the time it took to change concourses and get a snack, it was already time to board when we found our gate. Worked for me, I was exhausted. It was as though the babies were draining every bit of energy from my body. I knew I needed to eat more, but I was so concerned with getting fat that I didn’t want to change my eating habits. The doctor had suggested that with twins I should gain thirty-five to forty-five pounds. I had looked to Jesse for his reaction, but he had nothing but a smile on his face from finding out that we were having twins. I wasn’t sure if he was more excited about being right or the fact that we were actually having twins. Already my clothes felt tight, and that concerned me, since I was only eight weeks. I had thought I wouldn’t show until around five or six months. But I’d already gained six pounds, and I hadn’t eaten anything extra and had been throwing up every day. I couldn’t understand how it was possible.

 

 

h3=.

60 – Jesse

I walked silently behind Kayla; she hadn’t said a word in the last half hour. It concerned me, because I wasn’t sure if it was because she was sick, tired, scared, upset, mad at me, or all of the above.

I tried not to constantly barrage her with questions, always asking her what was wrong. I knew it got on her nerves. I stowed all of our belongings, then settled onto the seat beside her.

A new direction, ignore what you see, just talk. “So, are you excited? You’ve never been to the Bahamas … right?”

“Mm-hm,” she murmured.

Great … that wasn’t my idea of conversation. “Do you want to eat lunch now, or wait?”

She sighed. “I’m not hungry.”

“You haven’t eaten all day. It’s no wonder you’re so tired. You need to eat at least three hundred extra calories a day.”

She rolled her eyes.

“Sorry … you were sleeping … so I read the information the doctor gave us.”

She just shook her head and sighed again.

I scooped up her hand. “Can I ask a stupid question, Kayla?”

She laughed lightly. “When do you ever ask a stupid question?”

“I’m serious, this is a stupid question. And I’ll apologize ahead of time for asking it, because I know you’re just going to react to the question without actually thinking about it and get mad at me, but I want to ask it anyway.”

“Okay,” she said hesitantly. “But why would you ask a question if you know I’m going to get upset?”

“Because I truly want to know,” I implored, looking around. The plane wasn’t too full, and it looked as though everyone around us was busy reading or listening to something. “I know you love me, but,” I paused, not sure if I should go on with this line of questioning when she was already irritated, but I couldn’t help myself, “do you like me?”

She didn’t disappoint me with her reaction. She was clearly mortified at my question, but reined in her disapproval, I suspected, to answer me honestly. “That is a stupid question, Jesse, but I’m going to answer you honestly.”

I braced myself, not sure if I really wanted to know her answer.

“Jesse, you know I love you …” She pulled my face closer and leveled her eyes with mine.

“Yes, but?” I tried.

“And I understand your question. You can love someone, but not like them, right?”

“Yes,” I said on an exhale.

“Jesse, I think you’re great. I think you’re smart. I think you’re pushy. And … you’re my best friend. Of course, I like you, you ridiculous man. I can still be irritated at the fact that you’re always right, though, can’t I?”

I let out the breath I was holding. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to come off like a know-it-all. And I’m sorry for asking you that stupid question. You just seemed so melancholy, and then when I tried to talk, you rolled your eyes. Maybe you should add insecure to your list describing me.”

“I’m sorry too … it’s not you. I just feel so blah. I’ve already gained six pounds, and I feel fat.”

“Kayla, you’re not fat. You’re pregnant.”

“I know …” she whimpered. “I just don’t want to gain forty-five pounds. I don’t want to be as big as a cow. I’m afraid you won’t want me anymore, and I won’t be able to lose the weight afterward.”

“Now who’s being ridiculous? As if there were any way I couldn’t want you. And …” I paused, realizing I was being a know-it-all again. I sighed. “I don’t know how to change … I was just going to tell you why you were tired: because you’re not eating enough. It’s the way I am, Kayla, but I’ll try, I promise.”

She squeezed my arm. “I don’t want you to change, Jesse. I like you the way you are. Hand me that sandwich, will you? I’m going to do what my husband suggests from now on,” she grumbled.

I smiled at her comment and fished through my backpack for our lunch. “By the way, I think you look awesome.”

“Thanks, Jesse.” She kissed me lightly as I turned to give her the sandwich, but I curled my hand around her neck and pulled her closer and gave her a longer than usual kiss for being in public.

“And just so you know, there’s no way I’m ever not going to want you, Kayla. Physically or otherwise,” I whispered.

 

The bus ride to the resort was interesting. That was the only word I could think of to describe it. I hoped it wasn’t an omen of the week ahead. Someone must have really ticked Kemia off, because I couldn’t believe that every bus driver drove and acted the way she had on the ride from the airport. I’d heard how pleasant Bahamians were. They had to be: their gross domestic product was tourism. Not wanting Kayla to interpret my feelings, I shook it off. I could already see she was practically turning green. I toyed with the idea of asking the driver to take it easy, explaining my wife was very ill, but from the look she flashed me when I even moved toward her, I rethought the idea. She’d probably just drive worse.

Eventually we made it in one piece, and Kayla didn’t lose her lunch. The pills the doctor had prescribed must be working.

“Hey, babe, why don’t you just hang here while I get us checked in,” I offered, gesturing to a row of comfortable-looking chairs at the edge of a balcony overlooking an enormous aquarium that would make Sea World jealous. I watched as a Manta Ray made a lap. I’d only seen one once before, when I was deep-sea fishing with a friend in junior high. It was massive, maybe fifteen feet across. I saw the awe in Kayla’s eyes too, looking as if she would rather be down there than sitting up on the balcony. “It’ll only be a few minutes, then we’ll check it out. Or … if you want to walk down there, I’ll find you,” I continued.

“No,” she murmured, “I’m too tired. I’ll wait, so I can lean on you.” She smiled and collapsed into an overstuffed chair.

It took only a few minutes to register and then I was back with her, ready to start our week. I loaded our assortment of luggage onto a trolley and headed to our room. The room was simple, furnished with a king-size bed, dresser, small sofa, table, and chairs. Our balcony overlooked the harbor with all of its yachts and sailboats, a spectacular view. I would’ve reserved a larger, more glamorous room overlooking the ocean, but Kayla had insisted that we stay practical. Besides, we’d only be using the room to sleep in, she’d commented when I’d reserved it.

“So,” I started, “would you like to unpack, freshen up, take a nap, or go exploring?”

She fell back on the bed, exhausted, even after the two naps on the plane. Maybe the medicine that was helping with her nausea had a drowsy side effect. She inhaled deeply, then pushed out the breath, closing her eyes. “Maybe I could rest a few minutes. Are you tired?”

“Nope, but that’s okay. I’ll unpack.” I walked to her and leaned to kiss her on the forehead. She wrapped her arms around my neck, pulling me down, but I knew she wasn’t really in the mood. “It’s okay, Kayla, take a nap. I’ll wake you up in a little bit after I take a shower and put everything away.” I unclasped her fingers from around my neck and lowered her hands gently to her side. She rolled over and curled up into a ball.

I pulled the curtains closed, instantly turning the room as dark as night. One of the things I loved about hotel rooms. I’d gotten used to sleeping in total darkness.

I put all our clothes into drawers and hung up my two suits and her dresses. Then I put away the toiletries. Last was our carry-on bags. We’d brought snacks that needed to be put in the small fridge, and I wanted to set up my laptop.

Kayla’s carry-on weighed a ton. I hadn’t noticed before, since I was carrying everything. What in the world had she packed in there? I unzipped the main compartment and pulled out three huge textbooks. I read the names and then sank to the floor. I’d thought she’d given up the idea. I’d hoped over the last few months that she’d realized the past was the past. But here we were, on our honeymoon, and she’d not only brought textbooks, she hadn’t told me she’d enrolled.

 

 

h3=.

61 – Jesse

I sat on the small sofa, her books at my side, just staring at Kayla while she slept. I’d told her I wanted her to do what she wanted.

How many times had I said that? But she’d repeatedly replied that she didn’t want anything other than to be a wife and a mother before her father’s death. The idea had taken root; the notion had embedded itself into my wants and dreams.

It’s not that I didn’t want her to go to college or have a career, but now, with babies and a company to run, I just didn’t see how it was possible. I’d think myself chauvinistic if it weren’t for the fact that she’d insisted on several occasions that it was all she wanted.

How in the world did she think she was going to manage this without something or someone suffering? I wasn’t sure what I should do or how I should react. If I didn’t say anything, I’d be lying about how I really felt and she’d see through me anyway.

I watched her stir, probably feeling the stillness in the room. She rolled over, and her eyes fluttered open with a brief look of confusion, but then she found me and rewarded me with a sleepy smile. “Hey.”

“Hey,” I responded, but couldn’t bring myself to return the smile.

“Did I sleep too long? What’s the matter?”

One word was all it had taken for her to see my despair. So spit it out, get it over with, and be on with our week already. I held up one of the books as evidence of her duplicity. It wasn’t that she’d lied. She just hadn’t shared the entire truth, which was basically the same thing. I’d been taught, Thetruth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, anything else was misleading.

“What?” she responded indifferently. “Classes start within a week of us getting back, so I figured if I got some reading done, I’d be ahead of the curve.”

“On our honeymoon, Kayla? And why didn’t you tell me you enrolled?”

“I did tell you, Jesse.”

“Two months ago, you mentioned the possibility of going to college. You never told me you’d enrolled, which means you kept it from me because you knew I’d be upset. Which means you withheld it from me purposely … which means you lied.” The words came out more harshly than I’d intended. What else was new? I never was good at holding back my feelings.

She gasped. “I didn’t lie!” She sat up, furious now. “I told you.”

I shook my head. “We’re having twins, Kayla. We’re on our honeymoon … I just thought. I don’t know what I thought. It’s like everything I ever wanted, but everything that I never wanted to happen is happening at the same time. I have no control over anything. Our life seems to be spiraling out of control, and I’m not sure what to do or how to fix it.”

She walked over to me and put her hands on either side of my face. I felt like a child, sulking because I wasn’t getting my way.

“I didn’t lie, and I didn’t hide it either. I told you what my plans were.”

“Okay,” I conceded. “I’m sorry. You didn’t lie. That was uncalled for, I suppose.” But deep down inside I knew that she hadn’t told me the entire truth for this very reason: because she knew how I felt.

“You can’t control everything in life, Jesse. Sometimes life just happens.”

“Exactly!” The irritation had been building for a while, and she’d just opened the hatch, releasing my ire. “Life does happen, and I’m willing to accept that, but how we react to it is another issue. I can accept what has happened, but I want to have some control over how I face the future. And this just isn’t the way to go about it. I don’t want you to forget your father, but I want you to accept his death. I want you to be my wife, the mother of our children, not some activist, or someone on a mission. It’s not what John would’ve wanted either.”

Undeterred by my spiel, she crossed her arms and released a long breath through her nose. “If I’d brought fiction books to read, you wouldn’t have been upset.” She waved her hand at my backpack, still sitting next to the sofa. “You have all your books on management, construction, and pregnancy.” She sneered on the last word. “I’ll read when you do.” She tilted my head up to make eye contact with me. “They’re just core courses; it’s not like I’m attending Harvard Law. I promise you, I won’t let anything interfere with our family. I’m going to take my basic college courses and work toward my associate’s degree, and then we’ll see where that takes us. Okay?”

I said nothing.

“I love you, Jesse. I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize our life together. You need to relax.”

I sighed. I needed to relax? Maybe I did. Kayla did seem to be doing much better; I was the one freaking out all the time. It’d be okay. She loved me … wasn’t that all that mattered? Then I had a thought. Maybe I was wrong before about my father. Maybe it wasn’t that he wasn’t strong enough. Maybe he was too pushy. My mother could have gone to college, even after having me. Maybe my father had tried to control her too much. I needed to call my mother, I realized. I needed real insight on women. Reading could only take me so far.

Kayla sank down beside me and curled herself into my side.

I hadn’t responded to her. “I’m sorry, Kayla, you’re right, I do need to relax. I worry if you like me because of my actions, and then I turn around and overreact again. I’m not helping my case any, am I?”

She gave me a half smile. “You’re very passionate, Jesse. I love that about you. As I said before, I don’t want you to change.” She paused for a second or two, weighing, it seemed, how to continue. “And I’m stubborn enough to present you with a challenge, I know, but I’m doing what you asked me to do from the beginning. I’m going to be honest with what I want, and you’re going to placate me.” She smiled at her curtness, and then continued, “And that’s why we’re going to make it.” She laid her head on my shoulder. “We will compromise.”

Now I couldn’t help but smile. “You are feisty, cowgirl, aren’t you?”

“Uh huh,” she breathed.

“Will you promise me one thing? I know you said you told me and you did … but you didn’t tell me when you actually made the conscious decision to enroll. So, yes, it took me by surprise. Will you promise me never to do it again, please? Will you be straightforward and let me know before you do something like this, that no matter what you believe … will affect our lives? It’s not that I want to control you; I don’t. I just don’t want us to keep anything from each other. Does that make sense?”

“Yes.” And she sounded as if she meant it and really wanted to end the conversation.

I wanted that too; we were on our honeymoon.

“So, do you want to go downstairs, or we could stay here for an hour or so and make up?”

She answered by crawling into my lap. I draped my arms around her and pulled her close, then carried her to the bed. Make up time, it was.

 

Making up was fun, and then we changed clothes for a walk around the property.

It was still too early for dinner, but we dressed up anyway. We wouldn’t be swimming or sunbathing today; Kayla wasn’t up for it. I knew the real reason was she felt bloated and didn’t like that people wouldn’t know she was pregnant and would think she was just fat. I tried to hide my amusement; she was anything but fat. She had such an incredible body that I could never seem to get enough.

Atlantis was like a fantasy world. If I had a blank checkbook to spend anything I wanted, I couldn’t have even come close to designing such an incredible resort. Everywhere we walked there were aquariums. Every restaurant had a view, whether inside or out, and each tank held different groups of species. We decided to save the Dig — an underground masterpiece of aquariums meant to represent the Fall of Atlantis — for another time.

I trailed Kayla through the lavishly decorated casino. Neither of us were old enough to do anything but walk through; we weren’t even allowed to stop and watch. Not that I wanted to; gambling held no interest at all for me. Life itself was a gamble. No need to throw hard-earned money away on a pipe dream. Instead, I took her to the mall. She needed new clothes so she wouldn’t feel uncomfortable because of the few pounds she’d put on in the last few weeks.

“Jesse, I really don’t feel like trying on clothes; you know how much I hate to shop.”

I chuckled lightly. “You’re so adorable. How many girls will admit that they hate to shop? Come on, it’ll be fun. I’m sure they have a lot of tropical items you can’t get in Charlotte.”

“Ugh … really, I don’t want to do this.”

“Kayla, I don’t want you to be worried the entire trip about your clothes not fitting. Besides, I’ve never shopped for clothes with you. I’d like to help you pick out some things.”

“Fine,” she said, exhaling sharply.

I couldn’t control my laughter. “Poor thing, a husband forcing you to shop. I’m sure you’ll have a lot of women who’ll pity you.”

“Probably not,” she moaned.

We strolled through several of the shops until we found one we liked. I pointed out some shirts that I thought made women look pregnant anyway. Baby doll tops, Kayla called them, agreeing with my assessment and choosing a few to try. They did look comfortable and the fabrics were silky and stretchy, a plus.

Eventually, Kayla lightened up, seemingly enjoying herself. She even picked out a Tommy Bahama shirt for me and a pair of light-colored rayon shorts to match. They’d look fine here, but I couldn’t see myself ever wearing either in North Carolina. Someone would definitely challenge me to a fight. It was bad enough that I looked like a surfer when I lived on the redneck side of Charlotte. I was more redneck than surfer any day; I’d prefer muddin’ over surfing given the chance, and my music of choice had always been country. But unless I dyed my hair, changed my complexion and body type, I’d always look like a surfer.

Next, I led Kayla to a lingerie store. She whined again, “Seriously? You want me to wear this?” She tossed the sheer white nighty I’d picked up back on the table.

I nodded. “It’s not that I don’t love the cotton T-shirts and pajama pants, but it would be kind of nice.”

She picked up the outfit and charged toward the dressing room. “You’re gonna pay for this, mister.”

“Name it! I’ll take my punishment. Whatever you want to do to me,” I whispered, following her until she let the door swing back against me. “It’s our honeymoon, Kayla,” I called after her. “And … I happen to love your body.”

h3=.

62 – Jesse

We spent the next few days exploring the resort, walking on the beach, and on the third day, I scheduled us for a trip to Blue Lagoon, a small private island designated for nothing but peace and relaxation.

We took a ferry to the island, which wasn’t the most peaceful thing for Kayla. About ten minutes into the trip, she started turning green, but we managed the entire thirty minutes without incident.

Hundreds of hammocks strung between palm trees invited weary city folk to take a nap. The sand was pure white like the beaches in my hometown of Clearwater, only the density was more like crushed rock than fine sugar sand. A shallow, crystal-clear path of water cut between the island and the inland waterway, so we rented a kayak and paddled around the island.

I booked a dolphin excursion for later in the day, so we spent the early part of the afternoon simply relaxing in the sun.

When we arrived at the dock, the dolphins were jumping and peering up at us as if they’d been waiting on our arrival. I was accustomed to their playfulness and curiosity, but Kayla thrilled at the sight. She’d witnessed one in Florida, but had been feeling rather ill that day.

After a ten-minute or so instruction and information on the dolphins, we donned our life preservers and entered the water. Kayla shrilled with joy when she was able to hug and kiss the dolphins and laughed as one danced around her. I took advantage of two dolphins launching me through the air, but to Kayla’s dismay they wouldn’t allow her, due to her pregnancy.

After the experience, we returned to the gift shop and were able to purchase pictures and a video of the encounter. All in all, it was a great day that I would remember for the rest of my life. The look on my wife’s face was all I needed to make me happy. I’d shown her a great time.

By the time we returned to the hotel, it was around six. Kayla had fallen asleep on the ferry, and it looked as if she wouldn’t be able to stay awake through dinner.

I took her bag from her and set it on the dresser. “Why don’t you take a shower, and I’ll just go get pizza and bring it back to the room.”

“That sounds wonderful,” she agreed. “Why am I so darn tired?”

I just looked at her and smiled. The question was rhetorical, and I really was working on not having an answer for everything. “I’ll be right back,” I said, kissing her lightly, then walked out the door.

 

 

h3=.

63 – Kayla

After taking a shower, I curled up on the couch, waiting for Jesse to return. It took only a few minutes of being alone for the sadness to creep its way in, and before I knew it, I was bawling.

I tried to pull myself together; I didn’t want Jesse to see me like this. I’d been doing a good job of hiding my grief lately, but it was always there at the back of my mind.

Sometimes I was the saddest when I was the happiest. Days like today. Jesse had planned such a wonderful day, and I could see his bliss. He worked so hard, and when he wasn’t working he was taking care of me. How pathetic I’d become. I’d never needed someone to take care of me.

I’d taken care of my father for years, and then he left me. I was so afraid that Jesse would leave too. What if he got tired of taking care of me? Would he die, as my parents had? Or, would he just up and leave me one day, alone with two children to care for. No, I couldn’t think that way; Jesse was wonderful. Why were these thoughts even in my head?

I tried to control the sobs, but they continued to rack my body. I opened up the balcony doors; it wasn’t much of a balcony, just a railing really, but it felt good. I allowed the breeze from the harbor below to wash over me. Dad would’ve loved this. He’d loved the water, but never had much time to get away. Why? Was it because of me? Was he working so hard to keep me in the style of living he provided? The extravagant house, the horses … Did he think I needed any of it? The horses’ upkeep alone took a small fortune.

Would Jesse work himself to death also? It was my fault, I realized. I didn’t need all of this. I looked around at our hotel; it had probably cost a fortune. Jesse had taken care of everything, so I wasn’t privy to the cost. He’d paid for everything before we even married. He’d worked for years to save up his money and had spent a great portion of it on my ring, a new barn for me, and our honeymoon — always for me. Overcome with grief, I fell to my knees. I didn’t want any of it. I wanted my father back; I wanted a carefree life again. I wanted to stop crying.

The door opened, and I quickly jumped up and headed to the bathroom before he could see me. Luckily, the room was dark.

“Kayla?” Jesse called. “Are you still in the shower?”

“I’ll be right out,” I said.

“They only had cheese and pepperoni, no veggie … sorry.”

Although slumped up against the door, I smiled. If only he could stay with me twenty-four hours a day, I’d be okay.

Standing upright, I pressed a cool washcloth to my face, begging the swelling and redness to dissipate.

“You okay?” Jesse’s voice beckoned, soft and reassuring. He cracked open the door. I tried to hide my face, but it was too late. He’d seen my eyes and opened the door wider. “What is it? What happened?”

“It’s nothing. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, baby. It’s okay. Talk to me,” he pleaded.

I couldn’t talk, the tears started up again as soon as I tried to speak.

Jesse came in and wrapped his arms around me. “What is it, baby? Are you hurt? Was it too much today?”

The tears fell unrestricted. The nicer he was, the harder it was to bear. “I’m just sad, Jesse. I can’t seem to get better. I’m scared. We had a beautiful day. I don’t know why this happens?”

“You’ve had a very traumatic three months. You’re only eighteen, and yet you’re married, you lost your father, and you’re pregnant. This is to be expected, love.”

“But I’m so afraid you’ll get to the point where you can’t handle it anymore, or something will happen to you.”

Jesse brushed my hair back from my face and pulled me against him. “Please don’t ever think like that. I will never leave you. You’re adding unnecessary stress. I assure you it’s the one thing that you’ll never have to worry about. You’re my life, Kayla. I love you more than life itself, can’t you see that?”

“You’re eighteen, newly married, having twins, and you’re not falling apart every five minutes.”

He lifted my chin. “You lost your father, baby. He was everything to you. I wish I could fill that hole, but I know it’ll take time. You weren’t ready for it. It’s hard at any age, but you’re so young and have had to deal with it twice. The grief isn’t something that will just go away.” He paused and took a deep breath. “Maybe if you could forgive God …”

My body tensed. I didn’t want to forgive God.

“I’m sorry, Kayla. I know I promised not to mention it. I know you don’t want to hear it. But I think it’s the only way to heal. You need to let it go.”

I pulled away from Jesse and walked to the bed. I curled myself up into a ball. In only seconds, his arms were around me again. How could he keep trying to make me feel better? I was a horrible person. “Maybe we should sell everything when we get back, Jesse.” He just lay there, saying nothing, so I continued, “The horses, the houses, everything.”

He turned me in his arms. “Why?”

“Because … I don’t need it; I don’t need any of it. I don’t want you to have to work so hard.”

“No.”

“What do you mean, no?”

“Exactly what I said, no. You’re trying to run away, and I won’t let you.”

“I’m not running away. I just don’t want you to work so hard, like my dad did. You can finish school and —”

“What are you thinking, Kayla?”

“I just don’t need all this, Jesse. I don’t want you to work to support me.”

“It wasn’t your fault. Your dad would’ve worked no matter what. You didn’t cause this because he worked. And I will work. If I wasn’t running our business, I’d be working somewhere else, probably even harder.”

“But he worked so hard to provide for me, and I know you —”

“I said, no,” he cut me off. “This is my career choice; get used to it. I won’t allow you to sell your horses. They are a part of your life. Now stop this nonsense. End of discussion. I’m hungry.”

His resolve surprised me. It was the firmest he’d ever spoken to me. I wasn’t sure whether to be offended or mad. He sounded like my father. A wave of emotion soared through me and I started to get up, but he pulled me back into his arms.

“Oh, no you don’t … you’re not walking away from me. If you have something to say, say it. But I’m tired of you pulling away.”

“You said you were hungry,” I hissed.

“I am, but it can wait. Do you have something else to say?”

“You just sounded like my dad a minute ago. Whenever he spoke like that, end of discussion, he meant it; there was no arguing with him. I never liked it.”

Jesse smiled.

“Why are you smiling?”

“You can argue with me, Kayla. I’m not your father … thank goodness for that. Of course, you’re not going to change my mind, but you can try. You know what, though, I’m glad I sound like your father. He was a great man. You need to start remembering the good times, and I guess what upset you about him too. I’ve never heard you mention a characteristic of his that upset you, so that’s why I’m smiling. That’s a good thing.”

I rolled my eyes and attempted to roll free again.

“I’m not letting you go, cowgirl, until you talk to me.”

“I have nothing to say.”

“Why do you want to sell everything?”

“Because I don’t want you to work so hard. Because I think my father worked too hard to provide for me, and I’m afraid I’ll lose you. You’ll get tired of me, or you’ll become exhausted like him.” I sighed in exasperation.

“Kayla …” He pulled me closer, lovingly this time. “Nothing is going to happen to me.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“You won’t allow it,” he said, grinning.

“I’m sorry, Jesse.”

“Don’t be sorry, just stop being sad.”

“I’ll try. Can we eat now?”

“Almost. Kiss me first.” But then he kissed me quickly, almost roughly. It was a different side of Jesse I’d never seen. It made me feel safe. He wouldn’t let anything hurt me, even myself.

 

 

h3=.

64 – Jesse

I watched as Kayla readied herself for our day in Nassau. She was excited. She loved the idea of shopping at the straw market, meeting the locals. I wasn’t thrilled, but it was what she wanted to do, so I agreed.

“Leave your purse, Kayla. I hear these places can get rather crazy and I don’t want to have to chase after someone. Are you sure you really want to do this?” I pulled on the shorts and shirt Kayla had picked out for me, while she rummaged through the drawers to find something comfortable.

“Yes. I love this kind of stuff. I know it’s crazy, but isn’t that what it’s supposed to be like?”

“From what I read, it’s filled with just a lot of knockoffs. You don’t even like designer handbags.” I thought of my ex-girlfriend for a fleeting moment. How she’d drooled over the purse her mother had given her on her sixteenth birthday. It was something like three hundred dollars … for a purse! I was so thankful Kayla didn’t want that type of nonsense. Even if she did have the money, it just didn’t make sense to me.

She pulled out a cute pair of what looked like overalls, a jean short contraption with straps. That would be fun taking off later. It surprised me how I couldn’t seem to get enough of my wife. If I wasn’t ripping her clothes off, I was thinking about it.

“It’s the culture,” she continued, “or at least, it used to be. Besides, they need us to buy their stuff; it supports them.”

“Okay, but we need to get going. I don’t want to be out after dark. I’ve heard it isn’t safe.”

“It’s your fault we’re late. We were supposed to leave directly after breakfast.”

I strolled up behind her. “You didn’t seem to object,” I purred into her ear, pulling on the straps of her jumper. “We could just stay inside today.”

“Jesse, this is the only day. You said so yourself.”

“But you’re just so darn cute.”

I started to pull the strap over her shoulder, and she slapped my hand away playfully.

“Later. It’ll give you something to look forward to.”

“Okay … but only if you let me remove these later. I find I appreciate the finer workings of women’s clothing. I think they do this purposely to make men crazy with anticipation.”

“You’re really quite insane, Jesse O’Brien. They’re overalls, for Pete’s sake. How can that be sexy?”

“You could wear sackcloth and I would probably find it appealing. Let’s go before I attack you again.”

After nudging her into the hallway, I pulled the door closed behind us. I really didn’t understand it myself. The more I made love to my wife, the more I wanted her. I’d literally worn us both out in the last four days. I kept expecting her to say no, but she continued to accept my advances, so I continued pressing my luck morning and night. I simply couldn’t get enough of her.

 

We took a taxi to the docks alongside the Straw Market. We weren’t out of the car a minute when a lady started toward us. “Pretty lady, pretty lady, a gift for you,” the woman crooned, slipping a bracelet onto Kayla’s arm.

I sighed. And it begins. I pulled a five from my pocket. I’d made sure I had plenty of small bills at the hotel.

“Surfer man, deese be made by de sick children. Can you donate ten?”

Kayla looked at me, her eyes pleading; she was a sucker. I pulled out another five, then pulled her from the lady before the woman started putting a necklace around her neck.

“’Ey, surfer mon,” a dark-skinned man with dreads approached a few minutes later. “You want some weed. I have d good stuff.”

It was going to be a long day. I pulled Kayla closer and hurried us toward the market.

Kayla giggled. “’ay, surfer mon,” she mimicked.

“Pretty lady,” I bellowed back. “Come on. Let’s get off the street.”

“They’re harmless, Jesse. They’re just trying to make a living.”

Kayla had such an innocent nature. She couldn’t imagine anyone trying to hurt her. I, on the other hand, was scared stiff. It’d only been a few minutes and I was already restraining my wife to my arm.

The Straw Market was obnoxious, but it wasn’t as bad as the alley. Vendors shouted out their wares. Most of the items were cheap knockoffs, didn’t resemble anything straw, and definitely didn’t hail from the Bahamas, but Kayla looked happy. She loved talking and laughing with the shopkeepers, and I found myself shelling out ones and fives to buy things I knew we’d never use again, but she was happy, and that was all that mattered.

Finally, after we’d walked up and down each crowded corridor of the market, we made our way to Bay Street. The shops there were more dignified. Kayla discovered cologne that she loved on me and insisted we purchase. Then we found a few scents I agreed smelled awesome on her.

We stopped for lunch at a small two-story restaurant. It was quaint and filled to capacity with every nationality of tourist, so it must be a hotspot. It looked safe, so I didn’t mind the wait for a table.

When we were finished with our meal, it was twilight. I nervously hurried down the road back to the docks to get a taxi. This wasn’t good; this wasn’t good at all.

We passed a side street and my skin started to crawl. Four men hovered around, and when they saw us, they blocked our path.

“’Ey, mon, where you rushin’ to?” he asked, eyeing his friends. “You b wantin’ some reefer, mon?”

“No,” I said firmly, attempting to pass them, pulling Kayla quickly.

“Maybe d lady?” the man said, reaching out and blocking my escape.

Kayla’s eyes bugged wide.

“Thank you, no. We need to get going. Our friends are waiting down the street.” I pushed his hand aside and attempted to pass again.

“Why you not let ’er answer? You want to party, pretty lady?”

“Look, man,” I stated, louder this time. “We don’t want anything, and we don’t want any trouble.” The other men had encircled us, and I couldn’t do anything but try to talk my way out of this mess. I should have noticed it was late. I never should have allowed us to come here. What had I been thinking?

“Again, mon, I as’ed d lady.”

Kayla spoke this time. “Can we please pass? We don’t want anything, thank you.”

“Ah jus’ a little bit, pretty lady. You like it, I promise you.” He pulled her arm toward the side street.

“Get your hands off my wife,” I exploded, grabbing the man’s arm.

“You wife? You look a lil’ young, surfer boy, to be ’avin a wife. We jus’ wan’ a lil’ fun.” He shoved off my arm and punched me in the gut.

Kayla screamed until the other man clamped his hand over her mouth, while the others restrained her arms.

I threw a punch into the larger one’s jaw. The man stumbled back and then launched at me full force. Two of the men left Kayla and grabbed each of my arms while the larger man continued to punch me in the gut. The other man continued to restrain Kayla, and I looked helplessly into her eyes. I’d failed. I could take the hits, but I couldn’t stand her tears and didn’t want to think what they would do to her when they were finished with me.

“Money! I have money. Lots of it! I’ll give you anything if you let her go.”

The man stopped punching me for a second. “’ow much you ’av?”

“I only have a few hundred on me, but I’ll go to an ATM. I can get five hundred more. It’s the most I can withdraw in a day. Just let my wife go.”

The man looked at his friends, weighing his options. Money or raping a woman, a tough decision when the woman looked like Kayla.

“Let d woman go,” the man in charge ordered.

“No, Jesse,” Kayla screamed.

“Kayla, go! Get a taxi. I’ll meet you back at the hotel. I’ll be fine.” I looked at the men, willing my words to be true.

“Go, lady, but if you stop anywhere an’ call d police, if I see ‘em, we kill your mon.”

Kayla looked at me, pleading, and I knew what she was thinking. I tried to smile to reassure her. “Go, baby. It’ll be okay. They just want money. She won’t say anything. Will you, baby?”

Kayla shook her head, but still didn’t leave.

“Go, lady! Dis your las’ chance. Go now, or I take d money and you. We won’t ’arm ’im if ’e and you do as ’e says.”

“I love you, Jesse.” Tears streamed down her face as she finally obeyed and started backing away.

I mouthed the word “Pray” as I watched her leave, thankful for her safety. I waited until she rounded the corner and then turned to the men. “You have me, now let’s go.” I pulled out my wallet. “This is all of it, plus five hundred at a crowded area and you let me go.”

The man planted another fist into my gut. I took it willingly. Then spat blood onto the street.

“We do ’dis my way, surfer boy,” he spat, landing another fist into my gut.

“I’m not a surfer,” I spit out the words. I was so tired of people calling me that. It didn’t even make sense that it upset me, but it did. “Do you want your money or not? My wife is pregnant with twins; she needs me.”

“Aw, you a naughty rich boy … get ’er pregnant and your parents send you on ’oneymoon. ’ow sweet ’dat is.”

“I’m not a rich boy — whatever — can we get on with this.” I had lost all my patience. Getting hit didn’t bother me; martial arts had taught me to take an impact as much as it had trained me to hit. If it had only been two of them, I would’ve stood a chance. But four … there was no way, despite all the stupid movies. Without a weapon, there was no way I could take on the men without getting myself killed in the process, and Kayla hurt. I shouldn’t even have hit the guy, but when he put his hands on her, all I could see was red. No one had ever touched her, and I didn’t plan to allow these men to defile her. I’d die first; I knew that without a shadow of a doubt.

“Come on, lil’ rich boy, we ’ave some fun first. Den we find an ATM, and tomorrow we find anot’er one.”

I froze in my tracks. Kayla couldn’t take that. She’d go insane; she’d end up hurting herself trying to find me. There had to be another way.

“I have an offer for you,” I said as coolly as I could muster. I had plenty of experience negotiating, and Bahamians liked to negotiate.

 

 

h3=.

65 – Kayla

I hailed a cab at the end of the road and unwillingly got in and headed to the hotel. Jesse would be okay; he had to be. He’d asked me to pray. Would God hear me? Would He care?

I fretted the entire drive to Atlantis. I shouldn’t have left. I’d had to leave; he’d forced me. But why did I allow it? Maybe they would have just let us both go if I had begged. Why hadn’t I fought?

“You okay, miss?” the driver asked nicely.

I’d been crying the entire trip; I barely remembered our hotel I was so distraught.

“I’m fine,” I lied. But it was true. I was safe, but Jesse wasn’t, and that brought on another wave of tears.

Pray. He asked me to pray. But how? How could I ask God to help me now when I had dismissed Him for not being there before? Jesse had said that God couldn’t interfere with free will. So what could I ask for? I could pray for Jesse. He was smart; he’d find a way. I could pray that he’d think of a way to escape or bargain with them as he had for me.

The cab stopped. I hadn’t realized we’d crossed the bridge.

“Oh,” I breathed. “I don’t have any money with me. I forgot … my husband had all the money.”

The driver swung around swiftly and glared at me over the seat.

“I have some in the room,” I quickly added. “Can you wait for me? I’ll go get it.”

“’urry, I ’av other clients I’m missing,” he said brusquely.

I leapt from the cab and made my way back to the room. I pulled out enough money for the fare and a large tip.

The driver accepted the money and the hefty tip, and apologized for being rude earlier. All of the Bahamians I’d met had been so nice, until those thugs. Of course, brutes like them were everywhere, just waiting for someone to cross their paths. Why had I made Jesse stay so late? He’d told me he didn’t want to be there when it got dark. He’d known it wasn’t safe, and now he was paying the price. Would I always hurt the ones I loved?

I made my way back up to the room and fell to my knees by the bed. I did believe. I was just angry with God, but I’d heard once that God would never give me more than I could bear. I’d lived through my parents’ deaths, but I knew I couldn’t live without Jesse. So, I pleaded with everything I had. I would pray until God returned Jesse to me. God could take everything I had. It didn’t matter what it was. He could take anything, the house, the trucks, my horses, and the business, anything except Jesse. He simply couldn’t allow anything to happen to Jesse. He had to intervene.

h3=.

66 – Jesse

I stood as upright as possible. I hurt inside; the man had hurt me more than I was accustomed to.

“W’at you ’ave to offer, mon?”

My father-in-law had come to the rescue again. I had a blank check with nothing but the business post office box address on it, per John’s instructions. I had transferred my remaining savings, after buying the barn and paying for our honeymoon, into an account in North Carolina. John had said never use your home address and always keep a business check with you. I had done both.

“You’re a man of your word. You let my wife go as you said you would. Now, I want you to know I’m a man of my word, too. I care nothing for money, but I have a large sum in the bank. I’ll give you the cash, five hundred more at the ATM, and I’ll write you a check for ten thousand dollars. I swear to you, I don’t care about the money. I won’t stop payment. You can cash it first thing in the morning. It takes longer than that to even put a stop on a check. For this, you let me go tonight, right after I give you the check.”

“’ow I know it even be good?”

“Easy. I’ll show you my balance at the ATM. Who should I write it out to?” I was being presumptuous, I knew, but this man had nothing to lose. “You have nothing to lose. You get eight hundred tonight and ten thousand tomorrow, and I go free. I assure you, I never want to come back again … I couldn’t care less about notifying authorities. I don’t even care about my own life. I care only about my wife.”

“If it no good, I’ll ’unt you down, I swear to you, rich boy.”

“I’m not a rich boy. Actually, I’m a poor country boy. I’m giving you everything that is in my account. I worked three years for that money.”

“Well, country boy, if it not good, I’ll ’unt you down.”

“It will be good, and if I ever see you anywhere near my wife or home … I’ll kill you.”

“You t’reatnin’ me?”

“No, sir, it’s a promise. I’m buying my freedom. Do we have a deal?”

“Write d check to a friend of mine. If she ’as any problems at d bank, I’m coming after you.”

“She won’t. I told you. I don’t care about the money.”

The men led me to an ATM. I withdrew the money, then requested a balance. I had just a little over ten thousand left. I was surprised when the man didn’t ask for all of it.

“I’ll need just a twenty to get back to the hotel. I can’t get any more out tonight.”

“’dat wasn’t our deal. I s’ould keep you till mornin’ any ’ow, but I t’ink you right. I t’ink you not say anyt’ing to no one.”

I shook my head. “I won’t. I’m a man of my word, and my wife means more to me than life itself.” I’d told her that only this afternoon.

“I tell you w’at, mon. You party wit’ us, an’ we take you back t’nite.”

I stared into the man’s eyes. “What do you mean?”

“You smoke some reefer, an’ we take you back afterward.”

I shook my head. “No, I’ll take my chances.”

“We not good ’nuff for you?”

I backed up, deciding whether I should run. Could I outrun these men? The man looked as if he was changing his mind on the deal. I had given him entirely too much time to think. Take the close and run with it. I’d heard it from both my father and John. Why had I even spoken after our deal had been made. I should have just taken off running.

One of the thugs grabbed me by the arm, and this time I fought back. Kayla wasn’t here; she couldn’t be hurt now. She was safe. But what would it do to her if something happened to me? I had to fight with everything I had; I’d promised I’d never leave her.

 

 

h3=.

67 – Kayla

It’d been several hours and Jesse still wasn’t back. I prayed unceasingly, but I needed to move. I needed to do something.

“God, please tell me what to do. I can’t lose him. I won’t fight. I swear I’ll forget everything. It means nothing to me now, I know. Just tell me how to save Jesse.”

I crawled off the floor and made a decision. I would find him. I would travel in a taxi all night if I had to. I should have done that to begin with; I should have stayed down the street. I had become so accustomed to listening to Jesse that the one time when I shouldn’t have listened, I did. How stupid. What had I been thinking?

I pulled all of the money out of the safe that I would need. Enough for a taxi and enough to buy his freedom if need be. It had to be the right decision.

The same driver pulled up to the hotel. “You a’gin? You have money dis time?”

I got in the back and showed him the bills.

“Where you goin’ dis late, lady?”

“To find my husband,” I replied emphatically.

“Aw, you two fi’tin dis evenin’?”

I inhaled deeply. “We need to drive around until we find him; that’s all you need to know.”

“Okay, lady, w’atever you say.”

 

h3=.

68 – Jesse

I went down, but only after causing a lot of discomfort to the other men. My eyes were swollen shut and I could barely see where I was going, but they had finally walked off and left me alone.

I wasn’t sure why they hadn’t killed me. Maybe they knew they wouldn’t get away with it after cashing the check, or maybe they figured someone else would do the job. I walked as far as I could and then the darkness started to overtake me. I was hurt worse than I’d thought. If I could get to a taxi before I passed out, I could pay when I arrived at the hotel. I should have thought about that before I asked for the twenty dollars.

I fell to the ground, exhausted. I could only pray that a Good Samaritan would find me. I needed a miracle. My last thought was of Kayla.

 

 

h3=.

69 – Kayla

I searched the streets frantically as we passed over the bridge. We were just turning onto Bay Street when I saw the lights of an ambulance and police cars. “There,” I screamed at the driver, pointing at the scene. “Take me there.”

The driver pulled as close as possible before an officer attempted to redirect him.

“Stop the car.” I threw money at him, jumped out and ran across the road to the commotion.

They were loading a man onto a gurney, putting him in the back of the ambulance. Then I saw his clothes.

“Jesse!” I screamed frantically. “Jesse!”

An officer intercepted me.

“He’s my husband! Is he all right? I need to see him.”

The officer let me pass, and I ran to the side of the cart. It wasn’t covered. That was good, wasn’t it? In the movies, they covered a person if they were dead. But the man on the cart wasn’t moving. His face had been beaten to a pulp. It didn’t look like Jesse, but I looked at the clothes and knew it was him.

“Is he —” I stammered to get the words out of my mouth through the onslaught of sobs.

“’e’s alive, miss, but ’es ’urt badly.”

He was alive. Thank God, he was alive, and I was with him.

“Can I come?”

The man looked me over, then made a decision, it seemed. “’e’s your ’usband?”

“Yes,” I breathed. “I know … we look too young, but he is. Please, he needs me.”

The man nodded and allowed me to enter the ambulance in front of him.

“Talk to ’im,” the man prodded. “’e’s been out since we got ’ere, but maybe ’e ’ear you voice and wake.”

I didn’t hesitate. “Jesse, I’m here. I’ll take care of you now. Come back to me.”

I looked for some part of Jesse that wasn’t bleeding. He’d risked his life to save me and our unborn children. He’d said more than life itself on several occasions; now he’d proved it. Not that I’d needed him to prove anything. He’d proven his love over and over to me.

“Dammit, Jesse O’Brien! Why do you always have to be right?” Tears poured down my cheeks, and I saw no way to impede them, nor did I want to. I thought about him always being right; he’d said nothing would happen to him … that he wouldn’t leave me. “You said you would never leave me, Jesse. Now you wake up and keep your word … do you hear me?” I pulled in a breath. “Don’t you dare leave me with twins on the way! That would be cruel, and you’re not cruel.”

The medic looked at me sadly. He surely thought what everyone else suspected: stupid kids got pregnant so young. I didn’t care anymore. Nothing else mattered.

“Jesse! Please!” I was losing it.

The man took my arm.

I jerked away. “No, he’ll listen. I know he’ll hear me. Dammit, Jesse … don’t you leave me, not now. I love you. I’ll always love you.”

Jesse’s eyes tried to open, but swollen beyond belief, only a sliver cracked open. “Kayla?”

“Oh, Jesse, you stupid man … I love you. Why did you risk your life? Jesse, please be okay.”

“I’m sorry —”

“Don’t be sorry. Just be okay.” I put my hands as gently as I could around his face. “Just be okay, baby. I can’t lose you. God won’t allow it; it’s the one thing I can’t handle.”

Jesse’s body went limp under my hands. “No, Jesse, don’t leave me!”

The medic reached for me again. “’e’s okay, miss, ’e’s not dead.” He pointed to the monitor. “’e’s jus’ sleepin’. ’e be needin’ ’is rest now. Okay?”

I breathed a sigh of relief at the man’s words, but knew it wasn’t over yet. I’d been at the hospital for hours after my father’s accident. He’d made it through surgery and still died.

I bowed my head again. Please, God, please don’t take him from me. This is no one’s will You’re interfering with; this is life. You can interfere, You can heal. I know You can or why else would You ask us to pray? You can save him. I have faith that You can save him. If it is Your will, please, God, save Jesse.

Within minutes after we entered the ambulance, it seemed we were at the hospital. Thank God for small miracles.

It had felt like forever since I’d heard anything, so I was just getting ready to go find someone when finally a nice-looking young man approached me. He wasn’t Bahamian; in fact, he looked like he could be one of my father’s relatives up north. There was no reason to feel comforted by this revelation, but for some reason I was.

“Are you Mrs. O’Brien?”

“Yes,” I said, thankful that finally someone didn’t question my marital status and age. “Is my husband okay?”

“Jesse has a concussion and several broken ribs; his seventh, eighth, and ninth on his right side and his ninth and tenth on his left side. Unfortunately this is the worst possible place to receive blunt trauma. There’s a good chance that he has lacerations to his liver or spleen; it would be easier to diagnose if he were awake, but I ordered a CT scan and hope to find out more. You can see him now. It will be just a few minutes before they come and get him.”

I followed the doctor quickly.

The doctor left me when we arrived at Jesse’s door. It was a small ICU, approximately eight rooms, it looked like. I stepped inside and cautiously walked to Jesse’s bed. It was the same scene. No, it couldn’t be; Jesse promised.

I fell to his side and couldn’t help weeping. “You promised, Jesse. You promised me you wouldn’t leave me. Please come back to me. I don’t want any of this without you. I’m sorry, baby. I know you want me to be strong, but I’m not. I’m nothing without you. Please don’t leave me.” I took his badly injured hand in mine. Was there any part of him that hadn’t been broken? His face, though swelling, was at least clean now and didn’t look nearly as awful as it had only an hour earlier. They had evidently concentrated their punches in his stomach area. How had he taken so much pain and still managed to make it so far from where we were originally? Why had I left him? I would never forgive myself as long as I lived.

Jesse’s hand twitched in mine.

“Jesse,” I breathed near his ear, “I’m here, baby. I’m here. Please wake up. Please don’t leave me.”

“Kayla,” he struggled, his voice weak, but he said my name and it sent my heart soaring. “I’ll never leave you.” His words were strained, but I’d heard him correctly. He was practically dying, and he was trying to reassure me.

This brought on another wave of emotion. “Oh, Jesse. I love you. You’re so good to me. How did I get so lucky?” And I realized it was true. If everything ceased to exist in my life and I still had Jesse, I would be happy. He was all I would ever need.

Jesse tried to mutter something, but it was unintelligible.

I moved my head closer to his. “Shh, relax, Jesse. I’m going to take care of you now.”

His hand was tighter on mine, and he refused to stop trying to speak. “I love you, Kayla,” he finally pushed out.

“I love you too, Jesse, forever.”

I felt his hand go limp in mine, and my eyes darted to the monitor. He was only sleeping, I assured myself. He was only sleeping. He wouldn’t leave me. He’d promised he’d never leave me.

The nurse came in and took Jesse away. She informed me it could be an hour, and that I should wait where I was or get something to eat.

“I’ll wait.” I leaned over Jesse and kissed him on the forehead, the only place not swollen and bruised.

I knew I should eat. I hadn’t eaten since lunch and I could feel myself getting weaker by the minute. The babies drained everything from me, it seemed. I would need to keep up my strength. I couldn’t take care of Jesse if I was sick too. So, for him I would force myself to eat. It would be what he’d want.

I went to get food and returned within minutes. I forced down a sandwich and an apple. Jesse would be proud of me. I waited as the minutes turned to hours. Where was he? What was taking so long? They had said an hour at most. My mind started to betray me, and I started slipping into despair. He promised, I reminded myself. He promised. I fell asleep in the chair, as close to the area where he’d return soon in his bed. I felt so tired, so weak, in many ways. Jesse was my strength. He had enough strength for both of us.

 

 

h3=.

70 – Jesse

I woke up slowly, my head pounding. It was no doubt the worst headache I’d ever experienced. My entire body felt crushed, but what I saw beside me made me smile despite my pain.

Kayla was okay. She was sleeping beside me, her head on my bed. I was in a hospital, I realized, and she was here with me. She’d found me; she’d come back for me. I vaguely remembered hearing her scream at me, and I knew I had to hold on, for her. I’d promised her I wouldn’t leave her.

I brushed back her hair, so I could see her face.

She started awake; confused at first, then she found my face. “Oh … Jesse … You’re awake. Thank God! I was so worried.”

I smiled lightly, and just the small movement made my head hurt. “I promised you, Kayla. I couldn’t break a promise. How are you?”

“How am I?” Her head fell on the bed, and I heard her soft sobs. “I’m fine. I’m never the one hurt. It’s always the people I love who get hurt.”

“Please don’t cry, Kayla. It’s going to be all right. Everything is going to be all right.” I pulled up her head so I could see her beautiful eyes. “You know, Kayla … statistically …” I paused as she glowered at me. “Seriously, you can relax now. The chances of me ever getting hurt again are so rare. I should only die of natural causes now … when I’m a hundred and five.”

She couldn’t suppress a smile, even through her tears. “Jesse, you’re so strange. Only you would think of something like that at a time like this.”

“I know.” I closed my eyes. “But it’s true.” My body hurt everywhere. I couldn’t keep a groan from escaping my lips as I tried to reposition myself.

“Sleep, my Jesse. I’ll be here when you wake.”

“Kayla,” I opened my eyes again. “Will you have them check you out please? Make sure the babies are all right.”

“Yes, Jesse. Whatever you say.” I heard her say on a long sigh.

I smiled and let the darkness take me.

 

 

h3=.

71 – Kayla

I watched as Jesse drifted off to sleep. He was going to be okay. My dad had never woken up after surgery. Jesse was awake and talking to me, worrying about me, concerned about our unborn children. He cared about everything but himself.

I would do everything I could to make him happy. I wouldn’t take on any battles; I would accept life as it happened. I had my Jesse, and that was all that mattered. I would probably finish my degree, just so he could never worry that I didn’t finish what I wanted, but maybe I would end up with an accounting degree. I would take it one step at a time. I wouldn’t allow it to interfere with my husband or my children. After all, they were all I ever wanted in life. A life, a home, and a family, my family.

I made my way to the reception area, requesting they check me out after the stress of the evening. I felt fine, but I wanted to honestly be able to tell my husband that I’d done what he’d requested. How could I deny him anything at this point?

 

The doctor gave me a clean bill of health. The heartbeats of the twins were strong and fast; they sounded too fast to me, but he explained that they were normal. They did insist that I lie down and accept an IV of fluids as I was dehydrated. I managed to get a nap in the process, and when they released me I ran back to Jesse’s room.

Jesse had more color, though in several places the colors were black, blue, and several shades of yellow. But he looked better already. He was strong and determined, I knew; he would not allow this to affect him.

I eased down next to him quietly, careful not to awaken him, but his eyes opened as soon as I sat in the chair.

“Aw, you look better,” he crooned in a low whisper.

“Look who’s talking.” I huffed lightly. “You almost scared me to death.”

“Did you get checked out, Kayla?” His voice sounded raw, as though he’d been screaming at the top of his lungs for hours.

“Yes,” I admitted. “Everything is fine, but they gave me IV fluids. I was dehydrated.”

The corners of his mouth turned up. “That’s what I thought. You looked drained; now your skin is glowing again. You need to eat and drink, Kayla.”

“Jesse, will you please stop worrying about me. You’re the one lying in a hospital bed right now.”

He harrumphed. “I’ll be fine, just bruises.”

“No, Jesse, it wasn’t just bruises. They operated on you. You had lacerations in your liver and spleen, you’re lucky to be alive.”

“Luck had nothing to do with it, Kayla,” he said, then moaned as he moved his arm toward me. “I heard you praying for me. Thank you.”

I just sighed and lay my head down again, hoping to keep him from moving and talking. He was right; he was always right.

The doctor and a nurse walked in about an hour later. Jesse was still sleeping, but woke up when they started taking his vitals.

“Well, you were very lucky, son. Everything looks good, and I see no reason why you can’t leave this afternoon.”

“Really?” I asked, breathing a sigh of relief. “He’s going to be okay?”

The doctor answered me with a reassuring nod. “Really. He’ll need to rest for a couple of weeks, but other than that, he’ll be fine. I’ll get your discharge instructions prepared, and you’ll be out of here this afternoon.”

“It’s New Year’s Eve, baby, a new year. I’m glad. I didn’t want to start my new year in the hospital; that’s just not what I want to do for the rest of the year.”

“Instead, we’ll spend it in bed all day, or maybe lounging around the pool,” I offered.

“Not what I’d like to be doing in bed, I’m sure, but at least we will be together.”

I released a long sigh. “Only you would think about sex at a time like this, Jesse. I think you have a few weeks of rest before we can entertain that prospect.”

“Told you I’d always want you,” he mumbled, and his smile was, as always, breathtaking.

“Yes, you did,” I agreed, laying my head gently on his arm. “Forever.”

A true love story never ends, because true love is for eternity.

Thank you for reading Love Like Crazy. Please read on for the next release in the Crazy Love Series, Love Until it Hurts(Charity’s Story), which picks up on Thanksgiving, the night Charity met Brock.

For more information or to reserve your copy, visit my website: www.NikiEmbers.com!

SNEAK PEEK

Love Until it Hurts

Book Description

A fire-red BMW, a mansion on the water, a closet the size of a small department store … At eighteen years old, Charity Bauer has gotten anything she has ever wanted in life. At least she thought she had everything she wanted … The night Charity meets Brock Ryan she sees not only a chance to spend a night with a hot divorcé, but also an opportunity to make her ex jealous. Some things aren’t for sale, though, especially not Brock Ryan. When one night of innocent flirting causes a chain reaction that will forever change her life, Charity will have to make difficult decisions that will affect the ones she loves — maybe even cost her the love of a lifetime.

[“I have found the paradox, that if you *] *love until it hurts , there can be no more hurt, only more love.”

[– *] *Mother Teresa

[* For anyone who remembers what it’s like to be young and in love … *]

1 – Charity

“Have fun at the movies, Charity,” my cousin, Kayla, said with a wink.

Kayla acted silly and naïve sometimes, but she knew the deal. I often wondered how innocent she really was. She’d managed to sweep Jesse O’Brien off his feet, a boy I hadn’t been able to catch more than a parting glance from all through high school, even though we’d known each other since the third grade.

No concern there, though, it wasn’t as if I ever wanted Jesse; I just never understood why he’d never asked me out. Most of the other guys in our class had wanted me.

And right now, Jesse O’Brien was the last guy on my mind. My sights were on Brock Ryan, and I couldn’t keep the smile off my face as I led him out of my grandmother’s front door, ready to get on with our evening. It was clear Brock was engrossed with me, too. He hadn’t been able to take his eyes off me since he’d walked into my grandmother’s house. And undoubtedly, I was attracted to him, too. Thanksgiving with the family hadn’t been the drag I thought it would have been when Brock showed up with my cousin’s new in-laws.

Dark hair, dark skin, dark clothes, tattooed, and brooding. Brock looked like someone I could definitely spend a few delicious hours of time with.

Thankfully, I’d dressed to go out later. I’d been hesitant, told my new BFF Morgan I’d think about coming to the party. But now, a party sounded like a perfect way to start the evening.

For the first time in more than eight months, I wouldn’t mind showing up at a house party. Other than a few dates, I’d pretty much ignored keg party invitations, beach outings, and even shopping excursions. The thought of seeing my ex-boyfriend without being with someone better had scared me more than starting college did. I simply didn’t want to be the poor “dumped” chick. I’d never been dumped. I was a catch. My ex was a moron. And tonight, I planned to prove it by showing up with a guy who was hotter than any of my friends’ boyfriends. Who cared if he didn’t come from money? Nathan hadn’t either. He hadn’t even been popular before I’d started dating him. It wasn’t like I was interested in more than one night with Brock anyway; a little eye-candy on my arm and a few hours after the party was all I wanted.

I clicked the remote of my fire red BMW convertible, a gift from my parents for my sixteenth birthday. “Wanna drive?” I asked the gorgeous stranger who didn’t feel like a stranger. We’d only met a few hours ago, and at first, he was the last guy I ever thought I’d go out with. A plumber, just like Jesse. Only, unlike Jesse, he didn’t own his own company; he worked for Jesse’s father. I knew that fact would have my mom downing a couple extra Xanax tonight, along with her one glass of red wine, which I was pretty sure was actually three glasses. And she had the nerve to give me a hard time.

My mom was hell-bent that I marry a doctor, as she’d done. I loved my father, but I wasn’t sure how good of a husband he was to my mother. Or, maybe it was the other way around. Dad and I were home alone more often than my mother was.

Brock smiled. “Nah, you go ahead, Charity—”

“Ugh. Call me Char!” I cut off whatever he was going to say while he held open my car door. “I hate the name Charity. It sounds like I should be a nun or something.” I looked up at him as I lowered myself into the black leather seat, watching as his eyes moved up my legs to the hem of my dress. Sitting down in a micro mini dress left little room for error.

He grinned again. “I’m sure I can find something to keep me busy inside that sweet ride…Char.”

Brock closed the door, and I watched as he made his slow way around the hood of my car. My insides heated up. Who cared what he did for a living? He was sexy as all get out, and it’d been way too long since I’d felt a hard body against mine. I wasn’t the purest girl in Pinellas County, but I wasn’t a slut either. Since Nathan ditched me over spring break, I hadn’t found a guy worthy enough of doing anything other than making out. Some girls didn’t care, but I’d be damned if I was gonna give it away to some loser. Nope. I had to show Nathan that I only traded up.

I turned the ignition and shifted the car into drive, glancing in Brock’s direction. “Oh, so you wanted me to drive you home so you could play with my instruments?”

He repositioned his long legs, angling his body toward me. “Home? I thought we were meeting your friends at the movies.”

I shrugged. “Nothing good’s showing. I just told my parents I was going to the movies so they wouldn’t razz me about where I really wanted to go.”

“Oh…well, thanks for the ride then.”

I stopped at the end of the drive, almost laughing. “Don’t look so discouraged. I thought we could do something else.”

He smiled again, evidently pleased that I wasn’t just being a Good Samaritan by offering to drive him home. “I’m game. Whaddya have in mind?”

My eyes trailed over Brock’s dark, but faded-in-all-the-right-places, jeans, his plain black T-shirt with just a tip of a tattoo peeking out from under the sleeve. I’d pondered all night about that tiny tip of ink, wondering what was hiding under the thin cotton. “A party…” I ventured, not sure if he’d be up for a house party with a bunch of strangers.

He nodded, but it was a slow movement of his head, as though he weren’t sure. Accepting his consent, though, I pulled out of the driveway and headed south. All I had to do was get him to the party. When I walked in with an older, better-looking man than Nathan, I’d be the one on top again. Not that I wanted to get back together with Nathan, I didn’t. But I was tired of everyone tiptoeing around me, treating me like I was a rejected maiden who would end up sad and alone, a spinster like in one of those old movies my grandmother always watched. How pathetic women had been back then. Especially since Nathan was the one who’d needed me, who’d said he would die without me.

A few minutes later, I pulled into a convenience store parking lot. “Can you get a couple six-packs of Mike’s,” I asked, handing Brock a fifty. “Get whatever you like too.”

Brock narrowed his eyes. “Mike’s? As in Mike’s Hard Lemonade?”

“Yeah. I like the strawberry if they have it, but if not, regular is good. Get any type of beer and snacks you want, too. There’s probably a keg, but it’s usually the cheap stuff.”

A loud huff coupled with Brock snatching the bill out of my hand made me wince. “I should have known. Another spoiled rich girl who thinks she can get everything she wants with money.” Brock tossed the fifty on my lap. “Take me home, Char.”

“What did I say?”

His nostrils actually flared. “Where would you like me to start? One, I don’t need your money. I make good money at what I do. It may not be as much as your daddy the doctor makes, but I do well enough. Two, how old are you—you know what…I don’t care. Obviously you needed someone old enough to buy you liquor. Just take me home.”

I stared down at the fifty and then back at him, narrowing my eyes. “I don’t need you to buy me liquor. I have a fake ID. I’ve never had an issue getting what I want—”

“Good, you don’t need me, then.” He looked around the parking lot as though someone were watching us. What did he think? That I was setting him up with the cops or something?

I huffed out a breath and stared at the back of his head. “Seriously? You’re upset because I asked you to buy alcohol?”

“Take me home, please.”

“You live all the way in Pinellas Park. I’ll take you home after the party.”

Brock grabbed the door handle and shoved open the door. “Fine! I’ll call a cab.”

“Wait.” I grabbed his arm, and he whipped around like a viper ready to attack. What happened to the funny and charming guy I’d been flirting with all evening? “I’m…sor—I don’t know what I did, but… Can we just start over?”

“My mistake,” he growled. “Sorry. Just take me home, please.”

“Brock,” I held onto his arm, leaning closer, “I don’t want to take you home.”

He shuttered his eyes, then opened them, looking down at my lap instead of my chest, which was right in front of him. He snatched the fifty off my lap and jumped out of the car before I could stop him.

Shocked, I watched as he stormed off, slamming his way into the store. Was he going to take my fifty and call a cab?

He walked to the back of the store, then headed to the cashier, a six-pack of Mike’s in his hand, another tucked under his arm. He set the items on the counter, then pointed to something behind the man. He paid the cashier with the fifty, dumped the change in the bag, then headed back to the car.

Without a glance in my direction, Brock dropped the bag in the backseat. “Will you take me home now?”

I started the car, darting off down the road before I answered him. “I told you, I didn’t need you to buy me alcohol. And no, I won’t drop you off. I want you to come out with me.”

Obviously ticked off, he released a loud huff, then smacked his head against the headrest. “Why?”

“Damn, Brock! What the hell happened? We were having such a good time.” I chanced a peek at him, wondering what had made him so angry. He’d mentioned the money, but really, who got upset about that anymore? Women paid their way all the time.

He focused his eyes on mine, his dark brows narrowing. “We were having a good time. Until you lied to me, then insulted me. I don’t like to be lied to, Charity, and I don’t need a rich snob insulting me. I got plenty of that from my ex-wife.”

He was ticked. I’d caused that reaction. Or…his ex-wife had caused it. “I didn’t mean to offend you. It just seems that if I ask you to buy something, I should offer you money. And I lied to my parents, not you. I just asked if you wanted to come along.”

“Where’s the party?” His tone was gruff and curt, no sign of the guy I’d been flirting with all evening. I smiled, though. He wasn’t happy, but I was getting my way. I couldn’t let him see how much I really wanted him to go. I couldn’t let another man have the upper hand. If a man thought you liked him, he could hurt you.

“Not far. A couple of miles.”

Brock sat back in his seat, evidently deciding not to fight me anymore.

I glanced over at him again, my eyes roaming over his long legs sheathed in those sexy jeans. “Hey…how old are you, anyway?” I knew he was older than I was, but he seemed too young to already have an ex-wife.

“Twenty-two. You?”

“I’ll be nineteen in a few months.”

He sighed again.

Ignoring him, I asked the question I really wanted to know, “How long were you married?”

He shifted in his seat, and I could feel those intriguing eyes of his narrowing at me again. “Three years.”

“How long have you been divorced?”

“We didn’t have any kids or joint assets, so she demanded a divorce in September, and less than thirty days later, it was official.”

I slowed as we approached Morgan’s house, wanting to know a little about him before we arrived. Morgan and I had gotten close in the last eight months. I’d been using her at first, looking for dirt on Jesse, but we’d become good friends, at least I thought we were good friends. I’d never really had any real girlfriends, so I wasn’t quite sure. Probably we just felt we had something in common because we both felt jilted by our ex-boyfriends. At least mine hadn’t left me pregnant, wondering what I should do.

The front yard, which normally had a spectacular view of the inland waterway of the Gulf of Mexico, was packed with cars. Evidently, I wasn’t the only teenager who wanted to get out of the house on Thanksgiving after being cooped up with the family all day.

Morgan had said that her parents would be out of town until Sunday, so anyone who wanted to crash at the party should bring a sleeping bag. I’d stashed mine in the trunk of my car after my parents left the house.

I parked and turned to Brock, leaning over the center console, hoping he was in a better mood. “Ready?”

He huffed out a breath, but reached for the plastic bag he’d tossed behind my seat. He sure huffed and sighed a lot, but maybe that was because I’d supposedly blindsided him. As much as I wanted to get inside, I really wanted to get Brock to loosen up. I’d told myself that I’d only wanted to make Nathan and all my friends jealous, and that Brock was good enough for a few hours of fun, but now I realized I wanted more. I had enjoyed talking with him all evening. Something inside of me actually wanted more of that.

Brock pulled a small cardboard box out of the bag, then handed the plastic bag to me. “Thanks for the cigar. I’ll walk across the street and smoke it while you’re partying with your friends. Come get me when you’re ready to take me home.”

“What?” I dropped the bag onto the floorboard and crossed my arms. “You said you’d go.”

He smiled, but it wasn’t the friendly smile from earlier, just a quick quirk of his lips that didn’t even show his bright white smile. “No, I didn’t. I asked you how far away the party was.”

He opened the door and strolled off toward the dock across the street as if he didn’t possess a care in the world.

I jumped out of the car, grabbed the plastic bag, and charged after him as if my life depended on it. Why was I chasing down this guy? I’d wanted to look good. Now I looked like a fool.

At the end of the dock, he plopped down and pulled out a packet of matches. After taking a few puffs to light the sweet-smelling cigar, he leaned back. “Ahhh…it’s been a while.” He patted the wood slats next to him. “Have a seat, Char.”

I glanced down at the wood, which was certainly covered in bird droppings, fish scales, and God only knows what else. I’d paid almost two hundred dollars for this dress. I didn’t intend to sit on fish scum.

Brock cocked his head and smiled. Still no teeth, but it was one of those cute sideways smiles that lifted up his left cheek. I was certain guys learned about that flirtatious, non-threatening smile in men’s magazines, listed on the front as How to drive girls wild with just your smile. “Oh…sorry, princess.” He set down the cigar and pulled his shirt over his head, spreading it over the weathered wood next to him. He patted the boards again. “That work? Or are you too good to sit down on anything other than a leather seat?”

I inched my way down, a difficult task in the form-fitting dress. He offered me his hand as he helped me situate my rear on his shirt. After I finally got comfortable, as comfortable as I could get sitting on hardwood, I reached for the bag with the Mike’s. I definitely needed a drink.

Brock reached for the bottle in my hands, twisted off the cap, and then handed it back, his tattooed chest and arms now open for inspection. He had a tattoo on each arm, the one on his right shoulder branching out over the uppermost part of his chest. Armor, of some sort. A shield covered with a thorny vine wrapped around it. My eyes followed the thorny vine, noticing the vine twisted around a sword.

Interesting, but I didn’t want to ask. Not yet. He’d already demanded too much of my attention. Here I’d thought I’d gotten my way, and instead, he’d managed to get me to follow him like I was some lost puppy.

He picked up the cigar, holding it up as if in question. “Do you mind?”

Childish, I knew, but I couldn’t resist rolling my eyes. “Would it matter if I did?”

He smiled, a genuine smile again. He really was to die for. Under the street lamp, I noticed his dark hair had subtle highlights. I doubted Brock was the type of man to pay to get his hair done, so the wisps of blond and bronze had to be natural. His body was lean, but muscular. Just watching the way his forearms and biceps had flexed when he passed me a bowl of mashed potatoes earlier had me wiggling in my chair. His skin was tanned, too, something I could never manage. I was as pale as Snow White, with hair just as dark. If I had ruby-red lips, I could play the lead, I imagined. Even though my body wasn’t anywhere near the Disney Princess type. I was tall, and I didn’t have an hourglass figure. Not that any man had ever complained, especially since I was well-enough endowed where it counted.

“Of course, it would matter,” Brock continued. “If the smoke bothers you, I’ll put it out. But I don’t drink, so this is one of my favorite ways to unwind. Not that I do it often. This is the first one I’ve had in six months.”

I shrugged, letting him know I didn’t care. I didn’t smoke, but plenty of my friends did. I never saw the benefit. Might as well roll up dollar bills and smoke them. At least Brock was trying to unwind. Maybe I could talk him into going to the party after he finished his cigar. As much as I wanted to get this man alone somewhere, the first thing I wanted was to show him off. Make Nathan jealous.

A spicy, woodsy smell permeated my senses. As if I wasn’t already turned on enough, the scent sent a wave of longing through me. I took a swig from the bottle, then licked my lips, catching his eyes watching me.

Without knowing why, I leaned forward, feeling a tickle in my stomach I couldn’t ignore. He’d yelled at me, thrown my money at me, stormed off from me, and yet, I ached for him to kiss me.

He set down his cigar again, then turned to me. He tilted his head slightly, but didn’t move in for the kiss he knew I wanted.

As if confused, he shook his head. “What do you want from me, Char? Why did you bring me here? I’m not your type.”

“I want you to kiss me.”

He released a long breath again. Although, it didn’t sound like his earlier sighs. It sounded…sad. “I’d never be able to buy a woman a BMW.”

“I have a BMW.”

“I’d never be able to buy a house on the water.”

“I hate waterfront property. Too many bugs. Although, beachfront property is nice, but I already have one of those, too.”

“I’m not your type—”

“Brock?”

“Yes?”

“Shut up and kiss me.”

His hand moved to the back of my neck, and he pulled me to him, almost roughly. He wanted me, too. His lips met mine, parting me, dipping inside, the spicy taste of the cigar filling my senses. I gulped in a breath. His mouth was hot, wet, demanding, exploring. My stomach flipped again as heat rushed downward, pulsing through me.

[Forget the party. Maybe I _]should _just take him home.

“Char?”

I jolted upright as the familiar voice ripped through me. “Nathan?”

“Uh…yeah… Morgan said you were coming…alone…to see me.” My ex-boyfriend shook his head. “Clearly, you’re the same spoiled bitch you’ve always been. The one who wants attention from everything in pants. I should have known better. I thought you’d changed.”

2 – Brock

I watched as Charity charged after the boy who’d interrupted our kiss. They were out of hearing range now, but I caught enough of their comments to make out the gist of the conversation.

He’d broken up with her eight months ago because she was a flirt, always allowing guys to hang on her, he’d said.

What a fool, I thought, then wondered if I was talking about him or myself. I picked up my cigar and walked along the riverbank until I was further downwind from their lover’s quarrel. Why should I care? Why should it bother me?

It didn’t bother me. I’d only known her for a few hours, and we’d already been in a fight, and she’d already chosen another man over me.

I couldn’t help the burst of laughter that escaped my throat, even though the situation wasn’t even remotely funny. History liked to repeat itself, it seemed. When would I ever learn? Sadly, I was a sucker when it came to women, and Charity was one of the hottest women I’d ever seen. But that wasn’t what had attracted me to her. All night she’d been easy-going and fun—or at least I thought she was—which was more important than looks. Eating Thanksgiving dinner with her family, watching how much in love Jesse and Kayla were, had obviously messed with my head, reminding me of what I’d lost in a few short months.

An engine revved, and I turned to see Charity’s red convertible. She lowered her window. “Brock, I’m sorry. Come on. I’ll take you home.”

I thought about my options. I didn’t have many. I could call a taxi, but that’d probably cost a hundred bucks, and I didn’t have money to burn. I didn’t have anyone to call either. My boss was with his new girlfriend’s family. Jesse was with his new wife. And I hadn’t hung out with any of my old friends in so long—because my ex hadn’t wanted to associate with them—that it’d be wrong to call them on a holiday and ask for a ride. I could walk home. It probably wouldn’t take more than three hours. Three hours I could use to assess why I was so stupid when it came to women.

Charity pulled her car off the road, blocking me. I could walk around her, of course. Run away from her, which I should do, but that would look ridiculous.

“What happened to your friend?” I asked, resisting a growl.

She shook her head. “Not my friend, or couldn’t you tell?”

“For not being a friend, you sure ran after him quickly enough.”

“His comment ticked me off. I never flirted with anyone when I was with him unless he asked me to. He broke up with me because he wanted to spend the rest of his senior year alone.”

The comment that she’d nonchalantly tucked in between two complaints confused me. “He asked you to flirt with other men?”

Charity dropped her head, and I could tell she was telling the truth, maybe for the first time all night. “Yeah. He’d get off on the idea of other guys watching me, but not being able to have me. He’d make me—”

I raised my hand. “I don’t think I want to know.” I opened the door and slid back in. “Just take Alternate 19. I’ll lead you in as we get closer.”

Charity shifted the car into gear and headed south without saying a word.

The girl was an enigma. At the house, she’d been sweet and shy, laughing at everything I said, but when she got into her car, it was as if she had turned into another person. Had she been lying to me, or her parents? Who had I been kissing when she said she didn’t need a BMW or a house on the water? I’d said the words to scare her, and she’d turned my words against me. I hadn’t been scared, though. I’d been enthralled, captured in her web, wanting to scoop her up in my arms.

Maybe it was because it was a holiday, because my life had felt over when my wife cheated on me. Although, my life didn’t feel over anymore. I felt alive. Because one stupid girl who was too young for me, too young to know what she wanted in life—just like my ex-wife—was driving me home.

“Next right,” I said. “You can just drop me off up front. You don’t need to wind through all these roads. You might get lost getting out.”

“Give me a little credit, will ya? I’m great with finding my way. If not, I always have GPS on my iPhone.”

“Okay.” I laughed. “My ex-wife couldn’t even find her way out of a mall. God forbid when she went to the multi-level ones.”

Charity flashed me a scowl.

“What?”

“Nothing.” She stopped at the first intersection and glared at me again. “Where am I going?”

“All the way to the back of the complex and take a right. My apartment’s in the last building at the end of the last road. I like the woods in the back, being away from the road.”

She nodded. “Looks like a cool place to live.”

“It is. Safe area. Inside is nice too. All new interiors, great balconies. It doesn’t feel like an apartment complex.”

“Hmm…”

I watched her as she weaved the car around the islands in the middle of the road, making her way to my place. I pointed to a guest parking spot beside my truck. She pulled in and turned off her car.

Even though I wanted to, I couldn’t ask her up. With everything that was inside of me, I wanted this beautiful woman in my arms tonight. I didn’t have to have sex, but I wanted to kiss her again.

“You want me to come up?” Charity asked.

I released a long breath and closed my eyes. No…I didn’t want her to come up, but the only word that escaped my mouth was, “Yes.”

Without hesitation, she opened her door, so I grabbed the plastic bag and jumped out of the car, thankful I’d cleaned up my apartment this afternoon. It had only been my boss picking me up, but I didn’t want him to think I was a slob, which I wasn’t. Not really. But living on my own for the first time in my life had given me some liberties. I washed dishes when I wanted. Kept my shoes wherever I wanted. And ate all my meals at the coffee table, so that’s where all my books and magazines stayed, too.

Charity followed me to the third floor without a word. Only her perfume spoke to me. The soft scent I’d breathed in when we’d kissed. Somehow, she smelled like the beach. The feel of her skin and hair when I’d pulled her to me assaulted my senses. I could kill that guy for interrupting our first kiss.

After slipping the key into the lock and opening the door, I strolled to the glass doors and opened them, assuming she’d like to be in the open air.

Charity walked right to my sofa and plopped down. “Can you hand me one of those?”

“You want ice?”

“Nope.”

I popped off the cap, then set it on the side table. “Charity, can I ask you a favor?”

She tilted her head. “I suppose. I guess I need to know what it is first, though.”

I inhaled a deep calming breath as I lowered myself beside her, gathering her into my arms at the same time. “I know we’ve just met, but…honestly, you’ve hurt me twice tonight. I don’t like to play games, and I hate to date. Can we just…I don’t know…skip all the crap?”

She laughed. “Wow…you’re a true romantic, aren’t you?”

I shook my head. “Women can be so callous. I tell you that you’ve hurt me, and you laugh. Women say that they want a man who’ll be honest, but I don’t think they do.” I bit down on my lip, pulling back from her again. “My ex…she cheated on me with a total dirtbag. I mean a total piece of garbage. Nowhere job, druggie, out of shape, and for the life of me, I swear he didn’t even look good. I went to his place when I found out who he was, told him he could have her. Know what he said?”

“No,” Charity said as if she didn’t care either, but I wanted her to hear this. I knew I wasn’t supposed to talk about my ex, but I wanted her to know.

“He said, and I quote, ‘Hell, man. I don’t want her. I can’t afford her. She was just a good lay.’ Now tell me, why would a woman cheat on her husband for that?”

Charity shook her head. “I don’t know, Brock. I’ve never been married. Sounds like you’re still hung up on her, though.”

“I’m not. You just reminded me of her tonight.”

“What? I’ve never cheated on a guy.”

“You jumped up from our kiss the moment that kid said your name,” I reminded her. “He dumped you eight months ago, and yet, you ran to him.”

Just as she’d done earlier, Charity leaned toward me. “I’m with you, aren’t I?”

“Yeah, but I don’t know what he said to you.”

“Does it matter?”

I shrugged.

“I’ll make you a deal,” she said, inching closer, her mouth so close I could taste the sweet lemon on her breath. “I won’t talk about him if you’ll stop talking about her. I don’t really want to hear about your ex-wife, and I definitely don’t like it when you compare me to her when you don’t even know me.”

My heart pounded harder in my chest, and even though I knew we’d never go anywhere, I wanted to believe for just a little while that she could be mine, that I could want a woman in my life again.

I pulled her to me, burying my head into her thick hair that felt like silk against my face. “Just for tonight, could we pretend that you’re mine?”

Her breathing increased as I trailed my lips down her neck, over her bare shoulder. The dress she wore, some sort of sweater dress with a neckline that rested on her shoulders, had been calling to me all night. Her creamy skin had made my fingers ache, wanting to skim the edges of that neckline, wanting to tug the fabric down a few inches to reveal the swell of her breasts that had increased in size when we’d kissed. She wanted me, too.

“We can…pretend…” she gasped out between breaths.

I moved my hands up her neck, then, like before, curled my hand around the back of her head and pulled her to me. My mouth crushed hard against hers, wanting to taste her again. My other hand found its way around her back, pulling her into my arms. I scooped her up, carrying her into my bedroom. I wanted her, and if she was willing to pretend she wanted me, I wanted her all night, every night. We’d work out all the other differences later. The one thing I knew without a doubt was that we’d be dynamic in bed together. And it’d been three months since I’d had sex, so I was aching all over. It wasn’t everything in a relationship, but it was a damn good start.

Charity wrapped her hands around the back of my neck, and nestled her face into my neck, letting me know she wanted me, too.

The rap on the door came loud and fast, the kind of knock that you knew something was wrong. I lowered her to her feet.

“Brock, don’t go,” Charity pleaded.

“Just a second, darlin’, something must be wrong. Maybe it’s Tom. I never have company. My friends don’t even know where I live. I’ve only been here a little more than a month.”

I walked to the front door and peeked through the peephole. It wasn’t Tom. It was a woman. It looked like she was crying. Her head was lowered so I couldn’t see her face, but her body was wracking back and forth. Maybe a neighbor.

Just in case, I grabbed my gun off the shelf in the coat closet by the door. I’d heard of home invasions that started like this.

I inched open the door. “Hello, ma’am? You okay?”

The girl…no, not a girl, Caitlyn. “Cat? What’s the matter? Are you okay?”

“I’m so sorry, Brock.”

I walked outside, pulling the door closed behind me. “What do you mean? What happened? Is your dad okay?” Other than something happening to her father, I couldn’t think of any other reason why my ex-wife would show up on my doorstep.

She wiped at her eyes. “I was so stupid, but thankfully it’s not too late.”

“What do you mean?”

“Us…it’s not over.”

I huffed out a laugh. She was a spoiled girl, who would never grow up. “Cat, we’re divorced. You had your father fire me. Yes, it’s over.”

“It’s not over, Brock. We’re connected forever now, so we have to make this work. I’m gonna have your baby.”

 

 

Thank you for reading this sneak peek! For more information or to reserve your copy, visit my website: NikiEmbers.com

Thank You!

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed Love Like Crazy, please leave a review for other readers, so they’ll know if they’d like to read it, too.

 

If you haven’t read Love UntilIt Hurts, the second book in the Crazy Love Series, you can find links to it on my website: NikiEmbers.com. All my books are stand-alone stories — no cliffhangers — but I like to include characters from previous books. So if you’d like to see future books, please sign up for my newsletter here. I rarely send out emails, so you’ll only receive notices when I have info on a new release.

 

If you’re on social media, please feel free to connect with me. I love meeting new friends and chatting about my favorite subjects: Reading and Writing!

 

www.NikiEmbers.com

Twitter @ NikiEmbers

Pinterest

Facebook

 


Love Like Crazy

Sweet, sexy, and hardworking, Jesse O’Brien has plenty of girls who want his attention. Jesse, however, only has his sights on his future and becoming successful. The last thing he has on his mind is a spring break fling, so he doesn’t anticipate meeting the girl of his dreams when he’s only seventeen and knee-deep in crud, especially when she lives in the same house as the spoiled rich girl he despises. The daughter of a wealthy real-estate proprietor, Kayla Jordan has her life mapped out too. Her dreams don’t include climbing the corporate ladder, though. Motherless since she was twelve, she only wants to meet the love of her life and live happily ever after. When their dreams merge into one, the young couple has everything they ever wanted -- until tragedy strikes. Now, thrust into a world of pain and heartbreak, family members insist they are too young. But when you find the love of your life, no matter how young you are, no matter what happens, the only thing you can do is hold on and Love Like Crazy. Crafted for today’s mature young-adult readers, but with an old-fashioned cadence, Love Like Crazy will appeal to anyone who’s ever had a first love, an everlasting love. Although tastefully written, this coming-of-age story includes sexual scenes and adult situations appropriate for readers sixteen and older. Although this isn't a Christian book, because it deals with tragedy and the steps of dealing with grief, it includes references to God. Note: Love Like Crazy is a stand-alone story, and it doesn't have an evil cliffhanger!

  • ISBN: 9781945143137
  • Author: Niki Embers
  • Published: 2016-12-05 23:20:39
  • Words: 111858
Love Like Crazy Love Like Crazy