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Watching my psychotic life had made him crazy too, and now he thought he wanted to date me. Just because I didn’t understand his choice, didn’t mean I wasn’t willing to humor him. I was certainly charitable enough for that.

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20 – Hidden Falls

I felt sorry to mislead her.  But it was necessary, so I let my mom believe that I was spending my Saturday with Sam, when she wrongly assumed that, as I was gathering my keys and purse on the counter by the garage door.

“Give Sam my love,” she offered sweetly and I knew she meant it.  She loved anybody who loved me—unconditionally.   No matter if they looked scary, and I hoped, no matter if their job was watching my every move from the house next door.

It was exactly one week since my life had started over.  Though it was a new and improved existence, I noticed that time now behaved erratically with some stretches moving like ketchup in a glass bottle while other moments shot by like whipped cream from a can.   I soaked up the whipped cream moments with the same enthusiasm I felt for the topping:  eager addiction.  These took the form of short phone calls once or twice each day and even shorter late night tree-house encounters, about every other evening with Ash—the guy of my dreams and now my reality!  Today was to be our first real date, and my first date ever.  I was beside myself wrapped up in a painful yet pleasurable mixture of anticipation and nervousness.

As I headed off in the Jeep and glanced at the instructions one more time, though I felt like I knew where I was going.

Oldham County was fairly close to where we lived, but further away from Louisville, and more rural and picturesque with horse and cattle farms linked between rolling hills and open spaces that were dotted with woods and lakes.  After a twenty-minute drive, which was an enjoyable activity in itself, especially with the windows down and the radio cooperating with a pleasing string of favorite songs, I came to the neighborhood called Hidden Falls.  It was heavily wooded and each home looked to be custom built with large tree-filled properties providing lots of space between neighbors.  The area was very hilly and this place seemed sort of precariously perched on the edges of a fairly steep ravine running along the back of the development.

The address I was looking for took me to the very end of the road, to the last house.  There was a ‘For Sale’ sign near the end of the driveway and I realized with amusement that I knew the person whose picture was smiling back at me.  The last time I’d seen Leah Shelby and her husband, Jim, was at our house for a cookout last summer.

Had it been that long?  Well, probably so.

It was hard to get with them because she was so busy, especially on weekends—a common side effect of being a successful realtor.

But then I had a scary thought.  Was Ash planning to move away from me?  Was I going to have to pretend to like this house so as not to hurt his feelings?  I wasn’t sure my acting skills were up to that.  He hadn’t explained anything about this place or why we were meeting here, other than we were having a picnic.  I decided to hold off on the panic attack until he gave me something definite to panic about.

As I pulled around to park next to his Hyundai SUV (an odd vehicle choice for a security professional, but one I hadn’t inquired about) he appeared from inside the garage and walked over to open my door for me; helping me out of my vehicle in an ultra-polite, gentlemanly, and totally unnecessary move—but I loved it anyway.

“I hope you’re hungry,” he said with a warm and wonderful greeting smile.

I still couldn’t get over how gorgeous he was.  When I was away from him I felt certain I must be greatly exaggerating his appeal quotient in my mind, but the real thing, so obviously happy to see me, was even better—far better—than my distinctly rose hued mental reflections of him.

Poor thing.

Watching my psychotic life had made him crazy too, and now he thought he wanted to date me.  Just because I didn’t understand his choice didn’t mean I wasn’t willing to humor him.  I was certainly charitable enough for that.

He guided me, hand in hand, through the empty garage passing inside to the kitchen.  Looking around I could see that the house was unoccupied, totally vacant and ready for a quick sale.  We kept moving across the kitchen to a door that led to the decking off the back of the house.

Set up on wide deck suspended over what I guessed must be a sheer drop to the ravine and creek far below was a round table with two chairs.  It was very elegant with a lace tablecloth and fabric skirts on the seats.  As I approached I noticed the centerpiece was a stunning floral arrangement which smelled as beautiful as it looked.

“Lily of the Valley?”  I asked as I turned to him, surprise flavoring my tone.

“Do you like that?” he asked, seeming pleased, or maybe amused was a better way to describe his expression.

“I love that, and yellow roses too.  How…how did you know about that?”

Nothing surprised me much anymore, but I was certain we’d never talked about my floral preferences.  They weren’t normal yellow roses.  They had a gorgeous kiss of deep red on the very tips.  I’d never seen anything like it before.  I couldn’t take my eyes off them…until I saw it, resting on one of the plates.  Just like a bee to nectar, I was instantly drawn to the exquisitely miniaturized bouquet of just four flowers: another yellow red tipped rose, flanked on each side by a red rose and a yellow rose, with a tiny spray of lily of the valley in the front and center, all tied together with a simple piece of twine.  The understatement of the string was in perfect contrast to the glory of the floral quartet it bound.  My hand closed around it and I drew it up for a closer look and smell.

I was completely dazzled.  I didn’t know the first thing about flowers or their meanings, but I knew for certain that this piece of nature’s artwork could have no other combined sentiment than ‘I love you’ as its theme, and that notion made my heart race wildly.

“Just lucky, I guess.  I’m glad you like them.  Will it be alright for you to take them home later so that you can enjoy them while they last?” he asked.

Apparently he was thinking the same thing that I was, or would be, once I recovered from romantically induced cardiac arrhythmia.

“I wish.  But how would I explain them to Mom?” I wondered out loud.  Then a happy solution took shape in my mind.  “I guess it would be true to say they’re from a secret admirer.”

He gently drew me closer and said, “Well, as long as my admiration is no secret to you, then I’m fine with that explanation, and I’ll bet she will be too.”

Then he drew up my hand, the one holding the tiny perfect bouquet, and held it so that we could both smell the fragrance while looking into each other’s eyes.  The pounding arrhythmia was coming back stronger.  My poor heart could barely handle the glorious assault of those gorgeous, unusual, piercing eyes, the heavenly fragrance of rose and lilies, his warm hand on mine, his other hand on my back, this place, this day, and this fantasy come true!

“Come and sit down so I can serve you lunch.”

He probably sensed I was close to swooning and decided it was a good time to seat me.

I don’t know how I overlooked it, because it was obviously the reason we were there, but once I was seated I guess I could no longer miss the stunning, forty-foot waterfall flowing over the rocks of the other side of the ravine, just like the main attraction at a state park.  With all the rain we’d had recently it was thundering, and obviously had been the entire time, but as I became aware of it, the sound turned on in my head and then it seemed suddenly very loud to me.  It’s amazing what being so well distracted can obscure.

He laughed at my reaction to the waterfall.  It must have been very plain that I’d only just now noticed its amazing beauty and sound…and presence.

“This is the hidden falls…of Hidden Falls,” he explained.  “I thought you’d like this secret place, in fact, I thought of you the first time I saw it, and I’ve been hoping to bring you here to see it ever since.”

He looked at me with a wistful expression.

“Well, then I’m honored to be involved in your wish fulfillment.  Is there anything else I can do?”

Did I just say that out loud?

I was being flirtatious.  I’d never done it before, but I was glad it was coming naturally.  Of course, there would have to be something seriously wrong with me if it didn’t, present company being what it was.  No, I realized that I was feeling more healthy and feminine than I ever had in my life.

Considering the knowledge that Ash did not cook, ever, I was extremely impressed with what he’d orchestrated for our lunch.  In fact, as I took it all in, I concluded that he must have had some female assistance.  It was too perfect for a single guy to have conceived and executed a presentation this well coordinated and elegant.  I was sure he could take credit for the concept and the main elements, but not the details like fine china, a crystal container with lemonade and matching mini goblets, chicken salad on croissants, the tiniest baby carrots I’d ever seen, and chocolate covered strawberries for dessert.  I’m not sure whether Martha Stewart could have come up with something nicer—but then maybe that’s who he’d gotten to help him.

It was the most romantic, perfect, enjoyable picnic ever in the history of picnics.  The best part was the view.  Oh, the waterfall tumbling over the rocks with the afternoon sun making the water and the spray glisten in rainbows was pleasant, but the incomparable masculine magnificence sitting next to me was a difficult sight from which to break away.  I had hyped up butterflies bouncing in my stomach, making it difficult to eat, though I still managed to get down almost half the sandwich and several strawberries despite myself.

After we were finished eating and he had cleaned off the table, putting things back inside a large and cheerfully lined picnic basket, we just sat in the shade, holding hands and talking, watching the waterfall.  I couldn’t imagine a more perfect setting.  Just like the time he’d agreed to join me for dinner, I was smiling so much that my face hurt—in a good way.

The intense nervousness I’d felt at the beginning of the day had slipped off almost immediately, the way a heavy winter coat would be shed by a person arriving at a beach near the equator.  Being with Ash was easy and somehow comforting.  He made me feel safe in a variety of ways:  safe from danger, safe from embarrassment, safe from loneliness, and completely safe from unhappiness.

With a deft mixture of polite questions and intriguing commentaries he kept any threat of awkward silences completely at bay while we enjoyed our time together.  He asked me about my friendship with Sam and my impressions of Trevor.  I explained the deep sense of gratitude and attachment I felt for my best friend and the ways she had helped me to crack out of my shell over the past few months.  I also explained the love/hate nature of my relationship with my ‘best-friend-in-law’, Trevor.  It occurred to me that perhaps Ash may have thought I had feelings for Trevor at some point, and looking back at the big brother-like torture he’d put me through on an almost daily basis, that notion was truly laughable.  When I questioned him about his own impressions, especially of Trevor, his only comment was that he made a decent spotting partner at the gym.  He seemed unwilling or unable to give me anything more than that.  Then  in a move to guide the conversation elsewhere he directed the focus a little closer to home as he began with a new line of thought about a different intimate associate of mine.

“Hoyt seems like an agreeable step-father,” he said.  As I thought about the elegant truth of that observation he continued, “You can’t imagine how jealous I used to be of him, and your date nights,” he added, as a quiet laugh punctuated his comment at the end.

I was pleased by this confession and couldn’t help but smile as I nodded in agreement.

“He’s very agreeable; that’s a good description.  But you should know those date nights were horrible at first.  Hoyt’s not shy, well, not like me, but he’s a man of few words and in the beginning we were like two monks observing a vow of silence,” I informed him, chuckling softly at the memory.  “He tried harder after Grandpa died.  We both did.”

I could feel a dark cloud of sadness building on my mental horizon, threatening to dampen the sun-soaked happiness.  Taking a deep breath as if I could blow it away, I refocused my thoughts on something funny and chuckled in an exhale.

“What?” Ash was watching my face the entire time and had seen the dip and turn in my thoughts.

“Hoyt and I had our first real breakthrough when we realized how much we both hate Monica-style nutritional imperialism.”

It took him a half-second to compute my meaning, but then he smiled in understanding.

I continued, “She’s like a June Cleaver version of Darth Vader, but she doesn’t strangle you with the force.  She uses logic, and sweetness, and worst of all:  guilt!  Ugh!  You know how the Emperor in Star Wars could use force lightning?  Well, I swear, she’s got some kind of invisible ‘guilt lightning.’  It knocks me on my butt every time,” I said, shaking my head and rolling my eyes, feigning aggravation but then giving way to a laugh.

He laughed indulgently.   I wondered if he was being sympathetic or empathetic.  That would depend on his mother, I supposed.

“But don’t get me wrong.  I love my mom to pieces—most all of the time. She’s very sweet and I would never trade her, even for June Cleaver.  But she definitely puts the ‘mother’ in ‘smother’ sometimes.   I know it’s because she loves me,” I finished with a sigh of resignation.  Ash made no comment, and though he was looking at me, his mind seemed distant, for the moment.  I kept talking anyway.

“Hoyt and I have an inside joke about how freaked out she would be if I ran off and joined the Air Force some day.  That was his idea.  I always thought of myself as more of a Marine, but whatever.”

Ash laughed indulgently once again, though I sensed a slight edge of wariness within it.  I tried to reassure him.

“Oh, don’t worry.  It’ll never happen.  I’m pretty sure they won’t let me in.  I’ve heard that they have standards—or something,” I added in a slightly conspiratorial tone.

He smiled and shook his head in simulated disagreement.

“But I can totally picture my assignment.  I’d be the back-up light bulb changer at some frozen airstrip in Alaska.  Of course, in my fantasies I pilot a C5 Galaxy Transport, because there’s nothing funnier than a really little person at the controls of a really big piece of equipment, especially the kind that flies, and especially a girl, right?”

“Exactly,” he replied, with an expression that was a mixture of amusement and puzzlement.

“So you’d like to follow in your father’s aviation footsteps, then?” he proposed.

Of all the times that Hoyt and I had joked about it, the very notion of me behind the controls of aviation equipment remained just that:  a joke.  Now in a fleeting instant I could picture how proud my dad would have been if the scene I’d just described was real and he was there to see it.  Suddenly I realized that my own joke had bitten me somewhere deep in my heart and I was looking through that hole in my future that would never be.  Once again, the same cloud of tears threatened to block the sun in my mind.  Working to mask the self-inflicted damage, I sighed and smiled at Ash, though I knew I’d accidentally let a little bit of the pain I felt slip out in my expression.  There was clearly a look of regret in his eyes.  I hurried to dispel it.

“Yeah.  Maybe for pleasure, but not for a career.  That would be too hard on my mom, and I’m not quite that evil,” I confessed.  Then switching up and tossing it back I asked, “So what do you fantasize about driving?”

He smiled enthusiastically, as happy as I was to embrace the change in topics.

“Any vehicle, as long as you’re the passenger.  A bike will even do—if I can fit you safely on the handle bars, that is,” he joked.

“Or in the basket, like Toto?” I joked back.

He laughed with a slight edge of discomfort.  Then side-stepping the pet reference altogether he said, “Again, I was quite jealous of you at the Kentucky Speedway.  You got to live one of my dreams that day:  topping out in Corvette ZR1.”

“Oh.  You saw that, huh?”

I felt a twinge of delayed self-consciousness at the notion of observers in the stands, though by that time I knew I had them.  I must have been too nervous about wrecking the sports car to think about who might be watching.

“Now tell me the truth.  Were you afraid for the car?  I was,” I said very seriously.

He laughed like I’d told a great joke.

“That was awesome, but we didn’t top out.  I was watching the speedometer like a big baby and Lidia took it easy on me.  She’s very considerate.”

He didn’t respond but for split second it looked like he wanted to disagree with me and then decided not to.

So the strange discord between them that night at my house was not my imagination after all.  This intrigued me to no end, but something in the back of my mind warned me to steer clear of that path, for now.  I chose a different dangerous path instead.

“That’s twice you’ve mentioned it.  Are you by chance the jealous type?”  I was going for playful ribbing, but his response indicated he had interpreted my question as though it were a serious accusation.  His eyes darkened a shade and he looked positively mortified.  I felt instantly awful and angry with myself.

He caught that too and now he was working to dispel my discomfort, smiling big with a chagrined look in his eyes.

“It would seem so.  But Ellery, I … I hate jealous behavior.  It’s what tore my parents apart, and I swore I’d never give in to it, no matter what the situation.  Of course I never expected to have anyone to be jealous over, and now I see I was being a bit idealistic in my resolutions,” he said with an apologetic looking smile.

There was a slightly uncomfortable silence as I worked furiously to come up with a way to plug the hole I’d just created with one of my signature idiot bomb questions.

“Am I even allowed to ask about your parents?” I finally ventured, certain that it was just as dangerous a topic but unable to come up with anything better.

“Allowed?  You can always ask me anything, Ellery.  Always,” he replied, his eyes pushing so deeply into mine that I couldn’t even blink.

Eventually he released me to look at a bright red cardinal that landed on the rail just inches away from us.  When the beautiful little bird flitted away he began again.

“From what I understand, they were very happy in the beginning.  They met in college.  She tutored him in English and he tutored her in Chemistry.  She was in nursing school and he was studying to be an engineer. My mother was a very smart, generous, and hard working young woman and exceptionally beautiful, but with a very modest opinion of herself.  My father tended to be somewhat serious, but they say he absolutely adored her, perhaps to a fault because over time he became consumed with jealousy.  The lack of trust and reasonableness on his part eventually drove her away,” he sighed.  “They divorced when I was eight.  I lived with her until she died in a car accident when I was ten—”

He paused and closed his eyes, just for a second, but in that second I felt the pain and emotion and the presence of the same kind of mental storm cloud that loomed in my own mind.  I rubbed his arm in reassurance and his eyes instantly met mine, a mixture of sadness and embarrassment there.

“Anyway, I don’t mean to be so serious and dark.  It’s just that jealousy happens to be one of those emotions I try to keep in check, and I wanted you to understand why,” he smiled at the end, sounding very final regarding this line of conversation.

It was bad timing and very inappropriate but I had to laugh at the thought of anyone—especially the poster-child of handsomeness by my side—ever experiencing anything remotely related to jealousy in connection with me.  Ash looked puzzled by my outburst, and slightly hurt.

“I’m sorry.  It’s just that between the two of us, it seems more likely that I would be the one to struggle with feelings of jealousy and suspiciousness.  I mean, have you looked in a mirror—ever?”  I was trying to hold down the sarcasm but it was slipping through in chunks.

“Have you?” he replied with a lopsided smile.

“Alright.  Fair enough.  I hereby declare our association to be  jealousy-free.  And that will conclude the minutes of this week’s meeting of the Mutual Admiration Society.”

He chuckled and nodded, patting my hand now and looking away at the waterfall again.

I didn’t want him to think I was fishing for compliments so I tried my hand at conversation control and switched topics, though it was more abrupt and less sophisticated than I would have preferred.

“New topic.  Did the realtor help you set this up?”

I was extremely curious about his handiwork for this occasion so I decided to ask him about the extent of his contribution.  It occurred to me that if Martha Stewart wasn’t available, Leah Shelby would make a worthy stand in.

He looked surprised, but then smiled with only the barest trace of chagrin flitting across his expression.

“Yes, as a matter of fact she did.  But the more questions you ask about her involvement, the less impressed you’ll be with me,” he said with a half smile.

“Well as long as this was your idea, you get full credit…for all of it.  Thank you for all the trouble.  It was absolutely amazing—just like you.”

I was back to flirting.  He didn’t respond with words, but the look in his eyes was the best thing I’d seen all day.  It was pure limerence (the powerful exhilarating rush of falling in love) and I knew it was perfectly mirrored in my own eyes.

Eventually my insecure side resurfaced and I got back to asking questions to which I didn’t really want to hear the answers.

“When you were here the first time, were you house-hunting?”

I tried to seem casual, as opposed to pathetic and desperate.

“Yes.  And though this is phenomenal,” he paused as he waved at the waterfall, “there were several factors that knocked it out of contention.”

It seemed like he was going to leave it at that until he saw the expectant look on my face, expecting to hear those factors.

“Well, the layout of this house is very strange.  I’ll walk you through it before we go and you’ll see what I mean.  It looks like the person who had it built designed everything around his artwork.  I understand he was a painter.  So unless you’d be willing to do some water colors for me—very large ones—I think it would be awkward at best to try to fit a normal décor into this space.”

He’d been looking back at the house while he spoke, peering in through the windows.  Now he turned to face me.

“But the most important factor was distance.  It’s much too far away from you.  Everything was.  So I gave up looking after a while.  I’m glad I did.  I like where I live now, and I’m especially fond of one of my neighbors.”

He said that last part with a jillion dollar smile, while squeezing my hand slightly.  I nearly passed out with pleasure from the multiple forces acting on my senses and my heart.

After I recovered from my close call with a pleasure pass-out I said, “I haven’t seen Leah since last summer.  It sounds like you’ve had more interactions with her than I have in the last twelve months.  She’s my mom’s cousin,” I explained.

His eyebrows raised and then crinkled together in a bit of a smirk and he asked, “Wouldn’t that make her your cousin as well?”

I laughed once and agreed.

“Yeah, I guess so—second or third removed or something like that.  She’s my mom’s age, so if anything, she seems more like an aunt.  Leah’s the relative who gets things done in our family.  If I ever got married, she’d be the wedding planner and tell us all how it was going to go, and my mom would roll over and let her because she’s always right.”

And then I waved my hand at the table and the picnic basket making my point with an example.

He nodded in acknowledgement.  We stared quietly at the waterfall for a while again.  This time there was no awkwardness in the silence.  It was peaceful and pleasant.  I mused over the idea that Ash had unwittingly engaged the services of my wedding planner, and then I switched it off.  Getting too far ahead of myself on that tangent—especially if things didn’t turn out—would absolutely be the makings of Heartbreak Debacle two-point-o, Nuclear Winter version.  To combat the sudden chill, I concentrated on the feel of his warm hand around mine and the ray of sunshine glowing warm over top of that.

“So you see yourself being married someday?” he asked in a hushed tone, his face searching mine as I turned to the sound of his voice.  It felt like maybe he’d been thinking about that during the entire quiet interval.

There was no thought in my response, just a straight confession.

“I see you there too,” I nearly whispered, shyness taking over at the end so that I had to look away, even though I didn’t want to.

Even from the corner of my eye, I could see that the happiness my response had elicited from my companion was enough for me to give myself full permission in constructing a new tangent-like game in my mind called Romantic Triumph Odyssey.  In this game a Nuclear Winter of heartbreak was melted away with miracles, sunshine and joy, and things turned out fine and every day was as sweet as a chocolate covered strawberry.  It would be set up for two-players, and because my partner seemed every bit as eager to play as I was, this would be a game I would truly enjoy—and possibly even win, from time to time.

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