Time in Willow Creek: 2 years, 4 months, 2 weeks, 4 days
“So, uhhh…” Jase ran his hand through his hair a few times. The nerves still attempted to paralyze him though he knew what she would say. “Do you wanna–I was wondering if,” he took a deep breath to calm his nerves, “if you would go out with me.”
The silence on the other end of the line lingered like a bad omen.
“Are you there?”
“Like…a date?” Her voice was thick as if tears suddenly overtook her.
Her understanding of their new chapter in life was not the concern though a feeling of relief still rested on him. “Yeah. A date.”
She sniffed, confirming his suspicions about her emotional state. “Of course I do!”
That conversation was a few days ago. With a stomach full of butterflies, and his lady by his side, he led them to a swanky seafood restaurant in Uptown on a Saturday night.
The restaurant towered above the city 75 stories above the ground. The wind blew much more persistently up there. Though she didn’t appear uncomfortable, he wished he would have worn a jacket he could drape over her bare shoulders.
Her gleaming eyes bounced around the twinkling edifice. “Jase! This place is beautiful!”
Bringing her to a fancy restaurant on their first date set the bar extremely high for the rest of their relationship, but kicking off their new life together in any other way seemed dull. He knew about many of her past relationships–if they could even be called that–and guessed no one had ever taken her to a nice place before. Well, most of those douche bags probably couldn’t afford it, but that was beside the point. She had few experiences with gentlemen, and he planned to show her what it meant to be loved and cherished from the very beginning.
“Good evening,” the host said cheerfully. “May I have your name, sir?”
He scrolled through the guest list and found the reservation. “Welcome, Mr. Templeton. Your table is ready.”
Hillary seemed impressed as they followed the host to their table. She definitely hadn’t been to a 5-star restaurant before, and he was glad; it was his first time too.
“Our chef’s special tonight will surely tantalize your taste buds and send you back to your childhood. The chef put a modern spin on fish pie. Your server will be with you shortly. Excuse me.”
Jase’s face lit up. “Fish pie? Wow…my mother used to make that.”
Her nose wrinkled. “It sounds disgusting.”
“Yeah…it is kind of weird.”
His mother wasn’t someone he thought of much, but she ran across his mind more often in the past year. She still didn’t know about Abigail. That cute, chatty little baby was his pride and joy. He yammered on about her to anyone who would listen, so keeping this information from his mother had nothing to do with being ashamed. Telling her would force him to deal with the things he still struggled with, and he wasn’t prepared to add another layer of complication onto his life. It made him sick though. Abbie had a grandmother who was alive and well, and she had no idea such a person existed.
“Jase,” she whispered, “this place is really expensive!”
He chuckled. “Don’t worry about it. Order whatever you want.”
Hillary was exceptionally beautiful that night. Regal even. She looked matronly yet sexy as hell. Over the past year, she had made pleasant changes to her wardrobe. The skin-tight, revealing clothes were oh so appealing to the eye, but they weren’t appropriate anymore for many reasons. It pleased him to see she realized it too.
“I don’t even know what half of these fish are. What’s a halibut?”
He didn’t know either and snickered at their cluelessness. Perhaps next time he decided to do something out of their league, he’d educate himself first. “You remember what your mom used to say?”
“Go with what you know,” they said concurrently.
“Exactly! I’m gonna go with this trout men–men-ye?”
He laughed heartily. “Men-yair.” At least he remembered something from French class.
“Yeah, well, you order it since you can say it right.”
Did Hillary realize exactly how much she was like her mother? Not only did she look exactly like her, but also her voice and the way she spoke were similar. Even her humor was just like her. Watching and listening to her was both amazing and hilarious.
“Good evening,” the server said. “Are you ready to order?”
“Yes. I’d like the fish pie, and she’ll have the trout meunière. And, can we have a bottle of white wine?”
Hillary grinned at him as he ordered. “I feel like we’re too young to be ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am.'”
They were 24 years old, but everyone said they were still babies. They had a baby. And, Jase had his own home. They didn’t feel very childlike, but in a way, it was nice to get some respect for a change. Maybe being called sir and ma’am wasn’t so bad.
Thinking of his mother, and even the brief homeownership thought, caused the big plans he hadn’t revealed to rush to the front of his mind. It wasn’t the news he wanted to lead the conversation with, but he had to tell her at some point. May as well get it over with.
“Ummm…I have some news.”
She waited expectantly while her dazzling smile did a number on his nerves.
“I kinda bought a house.”
“A house? WOW! When did you do all this?”
“Well, I’d been looking casually for a while, but after Abbie was born I figured I needed to get serious about it.”
Her expression softened, and she looked proud of him. “Why? I mean, I think it’s great! I just want to know.”
He shrugged. “I’m a dad now. I can’t have Abbie over with all my systems and wires hanging everywhere. Besides…it’s my mom’s house. I want something bigger and more my style.”
She nodded hesitantly. “Have you…”
“I can’t. Not yet.” He could only handle so many things at once. Reconciling with mom would have to wait.
Hillary looked concerned.
“It’s in a good neighborhood on the south side of Newcrest. I should be closing pretty soon.”
“I love Newcrest. That’s so great, Jase. I’m really happy for you.”
“You’ll have to take me by there soon. I wanna see it.”
“Yeah, yeah…about that…” The butterflies swarmed again. “After I get settled, I was wondering how you’d feel about Abbie staying with me sometimes.”
Her chest deflated completely, and he knew why. It had nothing to do with a lack of trust. She was just too attached to the child. That was the negative side of co-parenting; one parent always drew the short straw.
“I know I’m at the house every day, but I still feel like I’m missing everything. And, I know she’s young and doesn’t understand right now, but I don’t want her to feel abandoned like I did.”
Her face fell. “Oh, Jase… I didn’t… I always wondered how you really felt about that. I mean, you always seemed ok.”
“Meh. There was no use in crying about it. It wouldn’t make her stick around and be a mom.”
He didn’t plan to go there with her that night, but something had just occurred to him. “I think that’s part of the reason why I’ve been so hesistant…with us.”
Certain warm childhood memories came to mind. “When I was little, it was fun, you know? It felt like going to grandma’s house. But, Harriett wasn’t my grandma. And you weren’t my cousin. When I realized it wasn’t normal to go live with other people, I asked her about it. She’d say she was trying to make things better, it was only temporary…you know. She kept leaving me there… I loved growing up at your house, but…I wanted my mom. Why didn’t she want me?”
Hillary’s eyes glistened from the tears that threatened to fall.
“She picked him over me.”
Hillary shook her head. “I’m so sorry, Jase. Mama never told me why you kept staying with us. I had no idea!”
“It’s cool. I mean, I’m ok mostly.”
“So…you felt abandoned…by me?”
He nodded. “I know it’s stupid because we were never together, but some kind of way, it felt the same.”
“It makes sense, though. I kept going in and out of your life and choosing other guys over you too. It’s exactly the same.”
He snorted. “Look at us…psycho-analyzing each other.”
She grinned. “Therapy helps. Maybe you should go.”
“Maybe. Anyway, I don’t want Abbie to feel like I leave her. And, she needs to see us together more. Maybe…I don’t know…maybe both of you could…”
“Really? Y-you think we should live together?”
“I mean–well–if you want–but–I mean–I’m not trying to–“
How did he just let that slip out? His thoughts got away from him and he needed to regain control. He paused for a moment and took a deep breath. “I’m serious about spending more time with Abbie, and I would love to have her spend the night sometime. But, the idea seems to make you pretty anxious, so if it would make you comfortable to be there with her, then yes, I think it would be easiest to live together.”
That came out so transactional. The words were true, but they didn’t describe how he felt truly in his heart. “No matter how we look at it, Hill…we’re family.” A pleasant warmth radiated inside him. It felt so good to be able to confess those things to her. “Families should be together. Isn’t that what we both want? To be together?”
She nodded, donning that radiant smile.
“So, let’s just be together. We’ve known each other our whole lives. We’re not strangers. We’ve been through so much together already, I think we can handle it. Don’t you?”
She nodded slowly. “I do… It’s just…well, I’m not sure if I should leave daddy right now. He’s still kind of fragile sometimes. And, I don’t think it would be right to leave all the responsibility on Juliana. She has enough to deal with.”
“Oh! Yeah, of course. I’m not expecting an answer right now. It’s a huge step with so many layers. And, it’s risky. I just wanted to let you know I’m willing to take the risks now.”
She grinned. “Ok. I’ll think about it.”
Her new maturity level was so attractive. The old Hillary would have jumped on the opportunity and figured out the details later, but the new Hillary behaved responsibly and not as impulsive. Wait, attractive? How could he forget to compliment her appearance? That was dating 101!
He cleared his throat. “You look amazing tonight.” What did she think about his not-so-smooth transition? He was so rusty.
Blushing, she said, “You’re quite handsome yourself.”
Now he was the one blushing. They were so nervous and awkward. The unfinished kitchen business was the elephant that had been sitting with them the entire time, but it wasn’t the only element in the equation. They had never been in this place before, and it was scary. He had always censored himself, and she was in denial most of the time. The only times they ever confessed their feelings was when they were in crisis. Now, they were free, and it was weird. But, weird in a good way. They simply needed to get used to the freedom. Maybe if they got rid of the elephant at the table, the tension would break and the night would run smoother. No. He couldn’t do that to her. He wanted to be different from all the other dudes despite knowing she wouldn’t be opposed.
“How are you? Like, really.” It felt weird to ask her that. They saw each other every day, but they never had time to really really talk. Or, maybe they never made the time for fear of what could happen between them.
“I’m…” She sat back and considered her answer. “I think I’m going to be ok now that…” The color in her cheeks turned deepened into a beautiful mauve. “Now that…we’re here.”
What did that mean? Had she been struggling silently? “You don’t have to hide anymore, Hill. What’s going on?”
She bit her lip in attempts to keep the tears from falling. How silly of him. She wasn’t holding back. She didn’t want to fall apart in public. The food still hadn’t arrived, and no one had come to give them an update, so he took the opportunity to offer a change of venue. “Do you want to talk outside?”
She nodded, and they walked around to the back of the restaurant to feast their eyes on the beauty of downtown 75 stories above the ground. It was breathtaking. The buildings in the distance looked like twinkling lights on a Christmas tree. They were so high up, the bustle below blended together into pleasant white noise.
“Juliana loves this so much. You know she wants to live here?”
“Really? I didn’t peg her to be a city girl.”
“I give it a few months before she hates it.”
They laughed and continued gazing at the skyline.
“So, what’s going on with you?”
“I miss mama every day. I wish she could see…” She closed her eyes and gathered herself as the tears attempted to make a comeback. “I was such a brat. All she wanted was for me to grow up. I wish she could see me now.”
Her lament touched him, and he had his own trouble not crying. He missed Harriett too. “I think she looks down every day and sees you. Heh, she probably has all the angels and everyone looking at you.”
She snorted, but she smiled too.
“She’s proud. I know she is. We all are.”
“Jase…kiss me, please. I’m gonna go crazy if you don’t do it soon!”
He didn’t need to be asked twice and grabbed her.
She clung to him as if her life depended on it. Her breasts pressed against his chest as she squeezed him as tight as she could. If they could get any closer, they would become one person. Was this really happening? He waited so long to massage her lips and caress her skin. They were both thirsty and needed a drink from the other’s fountain. Resisting the lustful urges was more difficult than he could imagine, but he resist for he wanted to savor the moment. After all, he was supposed to show her what it felt like to be cherished. He could show her other things some other time.
“I love you,” she said quickly.
“I love you too. SO much.” What a relief to finally say it out loud after saying it in his head for so long!
Hillary also had trouble resisting, of course, but his slow, deep kisses soothed her anxious body. When they finally broke away from each other, she was in tears.
“Wha-what’s the matter? I know I’m out of practice, but it couldn’t have been that bad.”
She smiled and swatted at him playfully. “I’m just so happy!”
He grinned. “Me too.”
He wrapped his arms around her small waist and held her tight from behind. Her wide hips provided a nice rest for his elbows. She sighed satisfactorily, cradling his arms as they stood there gazing at the beautiful vista again. There was no way he’d ever let her go again; it would kill him. If their food ever arrived, it was probably getting cold, but he didn’t care. He finally had the love of his life. Who cared about food? It wouldn’t satisfy his hunger anyway. Only she could.