Chapter 69: Blue Eyes

August 14

Alley

“ALLISON KATHLEEN!” Louise’s voice shouted at me through the bathroom door. “You are late! So hurry up!”

I don’t know why I’m late for everything. Honestly, I don’t. I watched Dr. Phil do a show about perpetual lateness a few months ago, and he claimed that people who weren’t punctual were selfish. That’s a little harsh, in my opinion. I mean, is it selfish that I got stuck in traffic on the way back from Target today, which threw off my whole ‘getting ready’ schedule? Is it selfish that my hot rollers take so damn long to heat up? Is it selfish that Taylor takes a freaking hour in the shower? I don’t think so.

“I’m hurrying!” I managed to yell back. Well, that much was true, although I wasn’t really making much progress. The aforementioned hot rollers were still embedded in my hair, in an attempt to tame the curls, and I hadn’t even put on my dress or shoes yet. “I can’t do twelve things at once!”

“I swear…” The next thing I knew, the door was being opened, and Louise barged in. She stared at me, still clad in just my towel from the shower I’d taken. “You’re not even dressed yet!”

“I can’t help it, Louise… it took forever for the rollers to heat up, and then I had the worst time getting them in my hair…” I walked over to the bathroom shelf, where I’d laid my strapless bra and boyshorts. Not exactly the height of underwear comfort, but at least I wouldn’t have panty lines or straps showing under my dress. “See? I’ll get dressed right now, if you’ll just get out…”

She folded her arms. “I’m giving you two minutes to put that dress on, and then I’m coming back in and helping you with your hair.”

I sighed. “Fine.” She left, and I quickly put my underwear on and slipped into the gray crinkled satin dress Taylor had forced me to buy in Louisville. I pushed the thin straps up over my shoulder, but it zipped in the back, so I needed help. I ran to the door, opening it and sticking my head out. Louise wasn’t waiting outside, like I had expected, so I scurried down the hall, holding the dress straps up, shouting for her. I nearly tripped over Chester, who had been watching all the frenzied shenanigans with interest. He shrieked and ran away as I accidentally stepped on his tail.

“Louise!” I shouted. “Help me…” She appeared in the hallway, coming out of her room. At my plea, she followed me back in the bathroom and quickly zipped me up.

“I sent Taylor after your shoes,” she said, reaching up to unroll the curlers from my hair. “I figured he should make himself productive.”

“Thanks.” I reached up, pulling the hot cylinders out and tossing them on the sink.

“This dress looks really good on you,” she said. “Where did you get it?”

“General Eccentric…” I hissed softly as one of the rollers burned my fingertips. “Taylor picked it out.”

She snorted. “Of course he did.”

“I did what?” Taylor appeared in the room, holding a pair of black high-heeled sandals. His hair was still wet from his shower, and he was wearing a ratty old t-shirt and a pair of baggy cotton shorts.

“Nothing,” Louise said. She quickly snatched them from his hands and bade me to put them on. I slid them onto my feet, but struggled with the thin, buckle straps.

“I can’t get them fastened,” I muttered.

“Taylor,” Louise barked. “Fix her shoes. Alley, stand up. I need to comb out your hair.” She sounded like a drill sergeant. Taylor and I immediately obeyed, because as we both knew well, you simply didn’t mess with Louise when she declared herself in charge.

I stood perfectly still while she shaped my loosened curls and Taylor fastened the straps of my sandals. I felt like a movie star in the makeup chair, getting ready to go on set… being pampered and fawned over by everyone. I could get used to this sort of thing… Taylor straightened up, having fixed my shoes, and affectionately kissed me on the cheek.

“You look gorgeous,” he said. I blushed furiously. He smirked, fingering the smooth, soft material of my dress. “I have such good taste…”

“Get out of the way, Taylor.” I was suddenly barraged with a can of hairspray. Louise walked around me in a circle, spritzing like crazy.

 “Damn,” I said, coughing as I accidentally inhaled the mist. “I think that’s plenty.”

“Well, I just want it to stay in place,” she said. Taylor, meanwhile, was rubbing his eyes furiously.

“Shit, woman, I think you sprayed it in my eye,” he mumbled.

“Well, what are you still doing in here, anyway? You need to go get ready, too!” Louise began pushing him out the door. “Go!”

I grinned. “Now who’s in trouble?” He gave me a sour look before he disappeared into the hall.

“Alley, quit standing there and get going!” I found myself being dragged out of the bathroom and down the stairs. “Do you have your gown? Your hat? Your tassle? Your sashes?”

“Yes, yes, yes, and yes, mother… they’re already in the car.” I grabbed my purse from the kitchen table as we passed it.

“Good,” she said. “Now go. If you mess up the whole procession because you’re thirty minutes late, you’re not blaming me.”

“I’m going, I’m going,” I muttered. Jesus, who knew graduation would be so stressful? Or such a big deal? I didn’t even want to go to the damn thing in the first place… “I’ll see you all there.”

“Now, to just get Taylor ready in under 45 minutes… this may take some effort,” she said as I scooted out the door, struggling to run in the high-heeled sandals. I laughed as I hurried out to the Jetta.

“Good luck with that,” I called to her just before the door closed. Grinning, I jumped in my car, heading for Heritage Hall downtown.

*****

 

 Whoever came up with the concept of mortarboard hats should be shot.

“Tell me the truth,” I said to one of my friends from class, a tall, model-thin girl named Sarah. “Do I look stupid?” I beckoned to the graduation get-up: a shapeless black gown, silly-looking black mortarboard, obnoxious gold tassles, and long cords and sashes. I sure felt stupid. My hair, which had actually looked good thanks to Louise’s efforts, was unfortunately smashed under the elastic fabric of the stupid hat. The sashes wouldn’t lay straight, and for some reason, my gown had static cling, and I couldn’t keep it from riding up onto my dress.

“Alley,” she said. “We all look stupid.”

“So I guess that’s a yes.” I sighed. “Oh, well…”

We were standing in Heritage Hall, the downtown convention center where the ceremony was being held. I’d been 15 minutes late getting there, but as I discovered, wasn’t a big deal, because so far we hadn’t even been informed of what was going to happen when we walked inside. People were milling about everywhere; no one knew where to go, and there didn’t appear to be a single sane person in charge. Some squawky woman was on a bullhorn, shouting for us to line up, but since none of us could understand a word she was saying, we just stood there, which only served to infuriate her even more. Yep, it was looking to be a long evening.

“Hey, I think we’re supposed to go over there,” Sarah said. She grabbed my arm and we trotted over to where a line of our classmates was forming. There were nearly 20 other similar lines, each for a different major. I scowled. Hadn’t Ms. Ryan told me that August graduations were small, and therefore were much quicker? There seemed to be an awful lot of students here…

“I hope this doesn’t take long,” Sarah said as we were herded into a single-file line. “I’ve got tickets to see Ani Difranco at the Singletary Center, and if they make me late, I’m kicking someone’s ass.”

I laughed. “Me, too. We’ve got reservations at 8:30 at Malone’s.”

“Really? God, steak sounds good right about now… The Sorrells taking you out?”

“Yeah. Louise, her parents, aunt and uncle… and I think Steve’s going, too. And me and, uh, Taylor.” I kept my voice low. Pretty much everyone in my art classes had realized that their classmate was dating a Hanson, and for the most part I’d been left alone, but occasionally I got a snide comment or a snicker. ‘I didn’t know you were a lesbian’ and off-key renditions of MMMBop were generally the most popular reactions. I’d learned to just roll my eyes and stop caring. After all, they didn’t get to go home and sleep next to him, or with him, in bed every night… And though Sarah herself pretty much despised Hanson, she had admitted, after seeing him in class the day he’d come to visit me, that Taylor was one of the hottest guys she’d ever seen.

She smiled at me knowingly. “I see. What do they think of him?”

“Well… I guess we’ll find out tonight. He hasn’t met them before.” I didn’t mention that the Sorrell women had practically frothed at the mouth when I told them they’d be meeting my boyfriend, Taylor… Jeez, you’d have thought they were eager to get me married off, or something…

Her eyes widened. “Really? Ooh, this should be interesting…”

“I know. I hope they like him…” I nervously fiddled with the green card they’d made us fill out when we’d walked in. We were told that we would be handing the cards, which included our name and major, to the dean as we got ready to go onstage. She would then read our name, we would walk, get our diploma, shake the professors’ hands, and have our picture taken. And all I could think about was how stupid I was going to look when I tripped as my name was called.

“Hey, we’re moving,” Sarah said. We straightened up and did our best to look like bright, educated young women as we shuffled forward towards the doors to start the procession. I could hear the muffled music start up through the wall.

“I’m going to fall down,” I whispered as we entered the room and proceeded between the rows of chairs set up for family and friends. Our chairs were in the front of the huge room, lined up in neat rows below the stage. I poked her, pointing to it. “You see that? Everyone will have a perfect view of my idiocy…”

“That would be hilarious,” she whispered back, which was not the answer I’d been looking for. I glared at her, but she laughed and nudged me.

“Smile. There’s cameras everywhere…”

Right. Well-intentioned family members had lined up all along the aisles, squealing and snapping pictures as we walked past. I wanted to look for the Sorrells, but at the same time, I really didn’t want my picture taken… not when I was wearing this ridiculous-looking hat and my gown was slowly but surely crinkling and inching up my leg. I had finally decided on keeping my face straight ahead and playing dumb, when an excited shout caught my attention. I turned to see Joanna, Louise’s effervescent aunt, braving the crowd, with Ellen and their respective husbands, Travis and Thomas, standing just behind. Louise and Taylor were nowhere to be seen… Joanna was holding a Nikon and frantically waving at me to stop and smile. Dammit to hell. I obliged, immediately planning to have that camera meet with an unfortunate ‘accident’ on the way home…

We made our way to the seats. Once we’d sat down, and the Dean began his monotonous introduction, I turned, craning my neck to look for the rest of the bunch. Again, for a ‘small’ graduation, there seemed to be a lot of people there… I spotted the Sorrells immediately, though, as they’d managed to stake out a spot close to the front. There were two empty seats in their row.

“Where are they?” I murmured. Though really, I should have known the answer to that. Taylor was probably still standing in front of the mirror at home, fussing over his hair…

“They?” Sarah repeated in a whisper. Up onstage, the Dean continued to ramble. She turned around. “You mean them?”

I spun and followed her gaze. Sneaking in the door, in the back of the long room, was Louise, followed by a sheepish-looking Taylor… Oh, God. A sheepish-looking, incredibly fucking hot Taylor, dressed to kill in a coal-black tailored suit and tie… Where in the world did he get a suit? And where has he been hiding it? And why do I feel like I’m about to melt into the floor right now? “Yeah,” was the answer I think I gave her.

I watched, sitting sideways in my chair, unable to tear my eyes away as the two of them slinked up the aisle to the front and slid in their seats. The Dean was instructing us to follow our dreams and work hard in life, but I was barely conscious of his words, because I was too busy watching Taylor be introduced to Ellen, Thomas, Joanna, and Travis… Louise sat by Taylor, and I watched as she whispered something and Taylor proceeded to shake all their hands. The wide-eyed looks Joanna and Ellen gave him didn’t pass me by, either… I bit back a smile. They talked quietly for several moments, heads bent close together. I was dying to know what they were saying…

After several minutes, Taylor and Louise leaned back in their seats, ready to sit and watch. I continued to stare. As if he could feel my gaze, he looked over, meeting my eyes. I felt a wide grin spread across my face – I couldn’t help it. He grinned back, and mouthed two words: ‘Nice hat.’

That little bastard… I let the smile drop, and slowly reached up to scratch my face… with my middle finger. His eyes widened in delight at my crude gesture, and he wiggled his eyebrows suggestively, his unspoken message loud and clear.

“Hey,” Sarah whispered, interrupting our little stare-off. “Have you gotten your grades yet? I checked mine last night and they hadn’t posted it, but I thought maybe they would have gone up today…”

“No, I haven’t checked yet,” I said, reluctantly turning around. We chatted for a few more minutes, steadily ignoring the keynote speeches and pointless rambling of the guest speakers. I kept sneaking looks back at Taylor… I couldn’t help it, he was like a magnet, or something… a magnet with perfectly coiffed hair and a snazzy black suit. Every time I turned to look, he mouthed another smart-ass remark or made a funny face. I might as well have just turned my chair completely around and stared at him unabashedly, considering how much attention I was paying to the proceedings onstage…

I felt Sarah prodding me, but I was too busy trying to think of yet another appropriate response that could be mimed back. Then Louise leaned over Taylor to interrupt, having watched our little interactions with mild amusement. However, this time, she gave me a pointed look, and did a fluttering, spinning hand gesture. ‘Turn around!’ she mouthed.

I scowled at her, but slowly turned… to see that everyone had stood up, getting ready to walk out, row by row, to go onstage. I hastily stood up to join them, momentarily pushing Taylor from my mind, with a fluttery, nervous feeling in my stomach.

Students were sent across the stage like cattle – as soon as one starting walking across, another was stepping the stairs on the side… it was really like an assembly line. When it was my turn, I nervously climbed onstage, handed my card to the dean, and sent a frantic prayer to God to keep me upright for the twelve or so steps I would be taking across the stage. As my name was called, I barely heard the cheers from the Sorrell family. I was too busy concentrating on placing one foot solidly in front of the other. I walked across, accepted the little fake diploma they handed me, shook my professors’ hands, hugged Ms. Ryan, and immediately scrambled offstage. I was back in my seat seconds later, a little stunned.

That was it? Ten seconds? I’d spent half the day getting ready, bought a brand new dress, and endured Louise’s motherly screeching all day for that? Jesus. Granted, I’d hoped the ceremony would go quickly, but I had expected to have a little more time to bask in my educated glory as they called my name… What a waste of time. I could have been at home doing something much more productive, or fun… with Taylor…

Speaking of which… I turned back around to catch his eye again. But Louise was leaning over, whispering in his ear. I watched, curious, as he closed his eyes, nodding his head. He turned his head to her, meeting her eyes, and though I couldn’t tell what he was saying, because I was only seeing his profile, I could see the gravity and seriousness of his expression. A slow smile spread across her face after his reply. Hmmm… what had he just said? What were they talking about? 

Sarah poked me. “Hey, stop ogling your boyfriend and get up… we’re about to switch the tassles.” Turning back around, I reluctantly stood up and joined her, gripping the shiny braided strings between my fingers.

*****

I don’t know why I ever worried about Taylor meeting my ‘relatives’. Millions of girls, young and old, had fallen for his charms over the years, so really, what were two more? Especially when the two women in question were Ellen and Joanna.

Once the ceremony was over, and all the group pictures had been taken, I wandered around the building, scanning the crowd for any of the Sorrells, or Taylor. I didn’t have to look far – I was accosted by Joanna within moments of entering the room.

“Honey! Congratulations!” She came out of nowhere, enveloping me in a bear hug. I laughed and squeezed her back. “How does it feel to be done?”

Terrifying.

“Good, I guess,” I said. “Just glad it’s over.” She smiled, grabbing my arm and pulling me along. Presumably, to find the rest of our clan.

“Well, we are all so proud of you, Alley Kat…”

“Thanks…”

She chattered on excitedly until we saw the rest of them. They were standing in a group, waiting… Ellen and Thomas, Travis, Louise and Taylor. As always, my eyes turned to Taylor, who was talking animatedly with Ellen and Thomas, his hands gesticulating wildly. They both had huge, genuine smiles on their faces, and I knew, immediately, that he’d made his mark. Jeez… that had to be record time, or something… they’d probably spoken to him for all of ten minutes…

“And may I just say,” Joanna said as she caught sight of Taylor, and she leaned in close to my ear. “That your boy is divine. So handsome and well-mannered…” I snorted at that. Well-mannered? Only when he wanted to be. “Where in the world did you find him?”

“Oh, you know,” I said, grinning as Taylor turned and caught my eye. The warm smile on his face nearly brought me to my knees. “You’d be surprised at who you find when you least expect it…”

She laughed. “I suppose… he looks so familiar, though. You said he’s not from around here?”

“Uh… no.” I was pondering whether or not to explain Taylor’s familiarity when I suddenly found myself swarmed with hugs. I wasn’t used to so much attention… I blushed as Ellen insisted on making me take pictures with everyone. I quickly snatched off the hat, fluffing out my hair. There was no way I was taking any more pictures with that stupid thing on my head. Taylor gave me a look of mock disappointment, and so I stomped on his toe when Ellen took a picture of us together. Ten minutes and approximately 400 flashes later, my lips felt quivery from smiling so hard.

Louise sidled up, grinning merrily, and threw an arm around my shoulders. “My little Alley,” she said. “All grown up.”

Oh, God, not her, too… I didn’t know how much more of that sort of talk I could take. “Yeah,” I said dryly. “The very height of maturity.” Which would explain why I’d spent the entire ceremony making faces at my boyfriend.

“You know it… listen, I’m gonna go ahead and take off. I have to pick up Steve from work, and then I’ll meet you all at the restaurant. Okay?” she asked. I nodded, and she waved, winking at Taylor, before flitting off.

“What was that all about?” I asked. Taylor just shrugged, looking a little embarrassed. Hmm. Well, if it wasn’t going to answer that, he was going to answer the other burning question I had. “Where did you get this suit?” I demanded.

He smirked. “Ah, you’d love to know, wouldn’t you? I have my ways… you like it?”

“Not really,” I lied, unable to keep the laughter out of my voice. He laughed and kissed my forehead.

“Liar,” he murmured affectionately.

“So, are you guys ready to go?” Ellen interrupted us, tugging on my arm and eyeing Taylor with a smile… she was obviously smitten with him. And hell, I couldn’t blame her. He’d gotten me, hadn’t he? “I’m ready to eat.”

 

“Me, too,” I said, which, of course, got laughs all around.

*****

“How do you do it?” I asked Taylor on the way to Malone’s.

“Do what?”

“Charm the pants off of everyone in your vicinity.”

He guffawed. “What?”

I rolled my eyes. “Don’t play dumb, Taylor. You had Joanna and Ellen practically drooling over you with motherly affection. And you spoke to them for what, ten minutes?”

He shrugged, grinning. “I can’t help it… I’m just lovable, I guess…”

I leaned over and pinched his leg. He yelped, laughing and grabbing my hand. “So, how’s it feel to be a graduate?” he asked. “Do you feel different? Older? More intelligent?”

“No,” I said simply. “Not really.”

“That’s no fun…”

“Well, it’s the truth.” I leaned over and turned on the radio, eager to distract him and change the subject. I really didn’t want to discuss anything having to do with my impending doom right now… ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ spilled out of the speakers, and I laughed gleefully as I cranked up the volume.

Taylor groaned and covered his ears. “Jesus, here we go.”

“What? Don’t you like this song?”

“Well, yes… I just don’t like for it to make my ears bleed…”

“Fine, you wuss,” I said, relenting and turning it down. My distraction apparently worked, as he remained largely quiet as we continued the drive to the restaurant.

We entered Malone’s, one of the more upscale restaurants in the area. The tables were all draped with starched white tablecloths, and the serving staff wore crisp white blouses with black trousers and cummerbunds. I stepped up to the Maitre d’ to let her know we were there, and she picked up two menus and led us to the back of the restaurant. The Sorrells were already seated, except for Louise, gathered around a giant U-shaped booth. Taylor and I slid around to join them. Joanna grinned at me. “There you are! Louise went to pick up Steve from work, and then they’ll be here.”

“Yeah, she told us,” I said. We were handed menus, and I flipped mine open, idly looking through. After a few minutes, I decided on the Cajun Beef Alfredo and folded the menu, laying it back down on the table.

“So,” Joanna said, leaning over. “Taylor. Tell us about yourself.”

Oh, Lord. I started to interrupt and tell Joanna that I hoped she had all night to listen, because Taylor could talk a blue streak, especially about himself… but before I could even open my mouth he had launched into his speech. He told them about his parents, his brothers and sisters, being home-schooled, living in Tulsa, being a musician… except, of course, my relatives not having kept up on pop culture in the past ten years, didn’t quite put together ‘musician’ plus ‘Taylor’ plus ‘gorgeous blond that every female in the restaurant was staring at’. Did he even tell them his last name? I wondered. He must not have, because surely Joanna at least would have picked up on the ‘Hanson’ name… And he hadn’t mentioned it just now…

“Yes, Alley told us you played music, I think, awhile back,” Ellen said. “What instrument do you play?”

I stared into my goblet, choking back laughter. Taylor reddened slightly. “Oh, you know… piano…some guitar… I sing…”

“Really? Wow, very versatile… do you write your own songs?”

God, this was hilarious. I propped an elbow on the table, leaning my head into my hand, hoping they couldn’t tell that I was snickering. “Yeah,” Taylor said. “Ah, yeah, we do. We, um, like to do covers, though, too, for fun…”

“That sounds like fun… I’d love to hear you play sometime, Taylor.”

“You and two million other girls,” I mumbled under my breath. Taylor kicked me under the table.

Ellen hadn’t noticed that remark. “You should come by sometime. We’ve got a grand piano at the house, but it never gets any use… Alley here tried piano lessons for awhile when she was younger…”

Taylor look surprised. “You never told me that!” he exclaimed.

“Yeah, well, the operative word in that statement was ‘tried’… sadly, the piano and I did not take to each other…” I grimaced at the memory of my clumsy little hands banging out half-assed renditions of ‘Fur Elise’ and other dumbed-down versions of Beethoven compositions. Really, not a pretty sight. “It’s something I’ve worked hard to forget.”

Taylor rolled his eyes. “Of course,” he said to Ellen. “I’d love to test it out.” I raised my eyebrow at him. Was this the same guy who’d refused to play for me when I’d first bought him the keyboard?

The waitress came up to the table to take our drink orders. Joanna, who seemed to be in a very celebratory mood, picked up the wine menu and ordered two bottles from it. She winked at me as the waitress walked away. “We won’t tell them you’re underage,” she said, laughing. Taylor nearly snorted. I knew what he was thinking.

“How long are you staying, Taylor?” Ellen asked.

“Until next Saturday…” he replied. “Then it’s back to Tulsa, for a little while…” I sighed heavily, and Taylor rested his hand softly against my back. Ellen was about to ask another question when we were interrupted.

“Hey, guys…” I turned to see Louise, with Steve in tow, waltzing towards us. They slid in the booth and she immediately grabbed the menu I’d put down, opening it so she and Steve could both look. “Sorry we’re late. Have you ordered yet?” We replied that we hadn’t, and she sat back, talking quietly with Steve.

I leaned against Taylor, sighing. He put an arm around my shoulders, giving me a gentle squeeze. With the Sorrells chatting amongst themselves for a minute, and Louise poring over the menu with Steve, it sort of felt like he and I were in our own little world… I closed my eyes. Just one more week, that was all I had… he was returning to Tulsa, to his family, to his job. The thought made me want to cry, as ridiculously babyish as that sounded. I was a grown woman. I’d lived 20 years without male companionship, so why did I feel so lost just thinking about him being gone?

The waitress returned with our wine, ready to pour. I opted for the Silverado Merlot, figuring a dark wine would be sweeter, while Taylor chose the Au Bon Climat Chardonnay. I took a tentative sip of the grape-colored liquid. Not too bad. Sort of heady and fruity. I took another drink, a little deeper. The pungent smell burned my nostrils.

“Let me taste yours,” I said to Taylor. He obliged, holding his glass out, and I tipped it up. I immediately pushed it away. “Ugh! It’s bitter!”

“What? I think it’s good,” he said.

“You would,” I muttered. I grabbed mine and took another drink to clear out the taste of the Chardonnay. Taylor just shrugged and daintily sipped from his goblet.

“I can see that I’m going to have to culture you,” he murmured.

You? Culture me?” I snickered. “Whatever you say, Taylor.”

He merely smiled. “So,” he said, speaking loud enough for everyone to hear. “Since this is Alley’s day, and she’s the center of attention… anybody got any good stories to share? Preferably embarrassing ones.”

I made a mental note to kill him when we got home.

“Oh, Taylor, honey,” Joanna said, laughing. “How long do you have?”

*****

 

Dinner seemed to fly by, but as we were finishing off the rich, creamy cake we’d ordered for dessert, I checked Taylor’s watch and was amazed to see that it was nearly 10:30. Where had all the time gone? Was the rest of the week going to pass as quickly? How depressing… for once, I found myself wishing that the days would drag on… that he really wouldn’t be leaving so soon.

I sipped at my wine, half-listening to Taylor chat easily with the others. God, he was so good at it; at meeting new people and making small talk. Of course, I guess, he’d had plenty of practice over the years… but still. Was there some sort of ‘charm’ gene in the Hanson DNA? And some sort of ‘socially inept’ gene in my DNA? I sighed, swirling the wine around. Taylor was telling them all about New York. Ellen and Thomas were planning a short vacation there in October, and they eagerly asked him about all the touristy attractions they should hit while there. New York. I wanted to go to New York…

“So, Alley… what are you going to do now?” I looked up, trying to figure out who’d just asked that question. I realized, after a minute, that it had come from Travis.

“Oh…” I said. I don’t know, stop asking me... I decided to be sarcastic, instead. “Now? I thought I might ask for another piece of that cake…”

They laughed, and thankfully Louise began another conversation, meeting my eyes and understanding that I was tired of that topic. Taylor, meanwhile, excused himself to the restroom, kissing my cheek as he left. The Sorrell women were silent until he was out of sight, and then they squealed like little schoolgirls. It was embarrassing, really.

“Honey,” Ellen said. “He is a sweetheart.”

“If I was about twenty years younger…” Joanna said, trailing off. Travis gave her a bemused look, and we all laughed.

Louise smirked. “I told you, didn’t I? He’s perfect for her.”

“Just one thing worries me, honey…” Ellen said hesitantly. “Listen, I think he’s wonderful, but it worries me that he isn’t in school or working… You know, I dated a musician in college, and he never had any money, he was always bumming off of me… I don’t know how successful he is at what he does, but I just don’t want you to end up supporting him…”

I had been steadily staring at her while she explained her fears, and somehow managed to keep a straight face. Which was something both Louise and even Steve couldn’t seem to do. Louise snorted loudly and covered her face with her hands, while Steve pressed his lips tightly together, trying not to laugh.

“I… I understand,” I said slowly. “But… I don’t think you really have to worry about that…”

“Well, you never know, honey, and – Louise Marie, why are you laughing?” She shot her daughter a fixed glare. Louise wiped her eyes.

“Mother, you’re so clueless,” Louise said. “Do you even realize who that boy is?”

Ellen looked confused. “What are you talking about?”

“He’s Taylor Hanson, Mom. Hanson? Ring a bell?”

Joanna stopped mid-sip. “What?” she demanded. She shook her head. “No… You’re joking, right?””

“No. Ask him, when he gets back.”

Her eyes widened a little. “Hanson? But I thought they were kids…”

“Well, they were, seven years ago…”

“How old is he?” she demanded. “Wasn’t the drummer like 10 years old or something?”

“He’s 21, Joanna,” I said. “He’s the middle one.”

“The middle one… the one that looked like a girl?!” Everyone at the table burst into laughter, except for Ellen, who still apparently didn’t know who Hanson was. Where in the world had she been in 1997?

“Yes,” I said dryly. “The one that looked like a girl.”

Her mouth formed a perfect ‘O’. “Jesus, he grew up nicely, didn’t he?”

“Yeah…” I murmured. He sure did…

Joanna took another long drink of wine, shaking her head in amazement. “Taylor Hanson… Oh my God! Allison Kathleen, you little sneak!”

“What?” I said. “It’s not something I go around screaming to everyone who meets him.” Not if I didn’t want to get called a lesbian, that is.

Joanna sighed, exasperated.  “I can’t believe I didn’t even recognize him!” She looked at me sharply. “Why didn’t one of you tell me before? He must think we’re idiots…”

I shrugged. “It’s not that big a deal, really,” I said, though that was completely untrue. “They’re not as popular as they used to be, anyway…”

Ellen still had no clue. “What?” she asked. “Jo, what are you all talking about?”

“I’ll explain it to you later,” Joanna hissed as Taylor reappeared and approached the table. “Let’s just say for now that your fears are completely unfounded.”

Louise laughed hysterically. “You all are killing me,” she said. “Killing me.”

Taylor walked up to the table, smiling. “So what’d I miss?” he asked.

*****

It was well after 11 o’clock by the time we finally left Malone’s. I was standing by the car, waiting on Taylor to detach himself from my relatives. We’d already said our goodbyes, and I’d thought he was right behind me, but it wasn’t until I reached the Jetta that I noticed that he was still standing with the rest of them, just outside the door of the restaurant. It was not unlike watching him be swarmed by fangirls – Ellen and Joanna were staring up at him, attentively listening as he rambled on about whatever topic he’d chosen this time. Louise was standing there, too, an amused expression on her face. Well, at least I could always count on her to be normal.

“Taylor,” I called, walking towards him. I was halfway there when he looked up abruptly and held his index finger up, indicating for me to wait. I stopped and sighed, folding my arms as Steve walked up to me.

“So,” I said to him, smiling. “You think he won them over?”

Steve rolled his eyes. “I’d have to say ‘yes’.”

“What about you?” I asked carefully. “Still freaked out?”

He shrugged uncomfortably. “He’s alright, I guess. Nice enough guy…” Well, that was pretty close to a rave review coming from Steve. “It’s just a little weird.”

“Yeah…” I murmured.

“It could be worse… at least it’s not Justin Timberlake…”

“Thanks,” I said with a snort. He nodded, looking over my shoulder, and then suddenly grabbing my arm. “What?” I asked.

“Hey,” he said. “I need your opinion on something.”

“Okay. What?”

“Come here.” He tugged on my arm, pulling me to their car.

“What? Are you showing me something?”

“No, just come here, Alley. Jesus!”

“Don’t ‘Jesus’ me!” I relented, letting him drag me to Louise’s little black Corolla. “What?” I grumbled when we were standing next to it. “What is it, Steve?”

Before he could reply, the warm, quiet summer air was split with ear-piercing shrieks. My surrogate mother and aunt, yet again. I turned around, bewildered. “What the hell?” I asked. I strained to see them, but it was difficult with only streetlamps lighting the way… I could see Taylor hunched over, with everyone leaning in, as if looking at something. I frowned. What was he doing? And why was I being left out? I took a step back.

Hey.” Steve snapped his fingers in my face, startling me into turning around. “Listen to me.”

“What are they doing? I’m missing out…” I started to ignore him and go back to the restaurant, but he grabbed my arm again. Good grief… Steve was never usually this outgoing… he was generally the submissive type, which was why he got along with Louise so well… “What?” I demanded yet again.

“I need you to help me think of what to get Louise for her birthday,” he said quickly. I stared at him.

“Steve, her birthday isn’t for four months.”

“So? It’s never too early to start planning…”

I scowled, wrestling my arm out of his grip. “Are you drunk?”

“No…”

“Hey, Alley!” I turned to see Taylor walking towards me. Apparently he was done with whatever he’d been doing with my relatives. “Ready to go?”

“Yeah,” I said. I turned to Steve. “Ask me that question again in November, Steve, and maybe I’ll help you then…” He merely smiled and nodded, immediately backing off without protest. Weird. I gave him a quick wave and scampered over to Taylor. As I got closer, I could see that his face was slightly flushed, and he was grinning uncontrollably.

“What are you so happy about?” I asked, giving him a quick kiss. He took my hand and let me back to the car. I handed him the keys, as I didn’t want to risk being pulled over by a cop, having had a few drinks and being under the age of 21… He unlocked the door and I reached for the handle.

“Oh… everything,” he said. “I’ve had a great time tonight…”

I settled in the passenger seat, tugging the seatbelt over my shoulder. “Good. I have, too.” I yawned, feeling a little sleepy, no doubt due to the Merlot. “Let’s go home…”

*****

Louise had opted to stay at Steve’s for the evening yet again, so we returned to an empty house. I’d trudged up the stairs, fully intending to get the hell out of that dress and into something more comfortable as soon as possible. But something stopped me… While Taylor went to the bathroom, I walked into my room, flipping on the light. My long wall mirror was directly opposite the door, and I stopped and stood in front of it, studying my appearance. For once, I didn’t avert my eyes or look away in shame. I didn’t deconstruct every flaw, or obsess over the little imperfections that had always seemed so screamingly evident to me in the past. Instead, I looked over my softly curled blond hair, my simple makeup, and thin, dress-clad body, and for the first time, thought, I am beautiful. So what if I didn’t tan? If I could stand to fill out a little more in the hips and chest area? If I was clumsy or awkward or a little goofy-looking? Taylor loved me. He thought I was perfect, somehow, even with all my faults. I slowly placed my hands on my hips. I am beautiful, I thought stoutly.

Of course, that could have been the Merlot talking.

In the mirror, I saw him step into the room, still dressed in his suit, still looking unbelievably lovely and unreal. I smiled, catching his eye, and he walked up behind me. I stood perfectly still as he reached out, lightly running his hands down my arm, drawing me close to his chest. I leaned back against him, watching our reflections.

“Hey,” I said softly, feeling my blood rush a little faster from his close proximity. He didn’t reply, instead, bent his head down and slowly kissed a path up my arm, where his hand had just been. I swallowed, feeling a familiar, pleasant tingle rush up my spine; the way I always felt whenever he touched me this way, so sweetly, lovingly. He straightened up a little, raising his head to look in the mirror, meeting my eyes. I couldn’t tear myself away from that gaze – not even when he lifted my hair up off my neck and began working on it, slowly moving from the nape around the side, then straight up until I could feel his hot breath against my ear.

“Alley,” he whispered, his eyes still locked with mine in the mirror. They crinkled up in a smile. “I am so proud of you…”

Proud? I smiled shyly. “Why? Millions of people graduate every year… most of who will actually go on to find a job, unlike myself…”

Why?” he repeated. He seemed taken aback by the question. “Yeah, but are they all going to be happy? It takes a lot of guts to go after what you really want…” He pressed a soft kiss against my cheek. “I know you don’t think so right now, but in the long run, you’ll be glad you dropped the science.”

“If you say so,” I mumbled, laughing a little at his sudden guidance counselor attitude. “I guess I’ll have to wait and see…”

The corners of his lips curved up, and he nodded his head, but didn’t say anymore. Nor did I. I didn’t want him to waste his breath talking – particularly not when his hands moved down, creeping around my waist, slowly sliding up and down the crinkled satin. His arms tightened around me, and he finally broke our visual connection, burying his face into my neck and fervently placing open-mouthed kisses all over the skin. My knees were beginning to feel weak…

I looked away from the increasingly ardent scene in the mirror, turning my head over the shoulder to look at Taylor as he momentarily stopped to catch his breath. Before I could even focus, he pressed his mouth against mine, lightly running his tongue over my lower lip. Oh, God. He tasted like the chardonnay he’d had with dinner, but this time, I didn’t mind the bitterness at all. I closed my eyes, leaning back against him and snaking one hand up and around his head, tangling in his hair, aggressively pulling him closer. These were the kinds of kisses I’d waited my whole life for – passionate, uncontrolled, and most important of all, adoring…

And fireworks? Ooooh, yeah.

His hands slowly withdrew from my waist, and he backed off, nuzzling my nose softly. I wasn’t even aware of what he was doing until I heard it – the soft, buzzing sound of my zipper being undone. I looked back to the mirror, watching as his eyes followed his hands down my back. I felt the cool air hit my skin and shivered. He looked up, smiling softly, and carefully hooked his fingers under the straps of my dress, pushing if off my shoulders. It slid easily to the floor, being a slick, silky fabric, and of course, with me having no real hips to stop it. I was left standing in my strapless black padded bra, which I’d worn to help fill out the dress, and the matching black boyshorts. And of course, the high-heeled shoes, which hadn’t managed to make their way off yet. For a moment, standing there watching him undress me, I sort of felt like a stripper.

He immediately hugged me close again, the buttons of his suit scratching against the skin of my back, his warm palms a stark contrast to my chilled skin. My stomach trembled slightly as he ran his hands over it, his teeth gently nipping at my neck and ear. I fell back against him, going limp like a rag doll, leaning my head back and closing my eyes. I would have crumpled to the floor in a heap if he hadn’t been holding me up. The coarse material of his suit jacket rubbed against my sides, which didn’t feel nearly as nice as the gentle roughness of his calloused hands... Well, I could fix that soon enough. I managed to find the strength to stand on my own again and I clutched his arms.

I slowly spun, facing him, and immediately grabbed the lapels of his jacket, pushing it back and over his shoulders. He chuckled at my overzealousness, letting the jacket drop back, catching it with his hands. I started to grab it from him and throw it in the floor, out of the way, but he laughed and held it back, gently folding it and tossing it onto my armoire at the foot of the bed. I figured he didn’t want it to get wrinkled, so I simply shrugged and went to work on his tie, loosening the knot and practically ripping it from his neck.

“Easy,” he murmured, grinning. His expression was so sweet and sexy that for a moment, I forgot all about his shirt and stood on my toes, throwing my arms around his neck, breathlessly kissing his lips. He responded in kind, his hands firmly around my waist, crushing me against his chest.

God, I loved him. How was I going to make it when he left? Sure, there would be visits, and phone calls, and letters, but the thought of not having him right next to me was just painful. I’d been spoiled by the past two months… falling asleep and waking up every morning with his body draped across mine… staying up late downstairs, laughing and talking aimlessly… listening to him practice on the keyboard, working on new music for when he went back to work… just being normal. Well, as normal as a rockstar and someone like me could be, anyway…

I gently kissed his chin and pulled back, suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to get him immediately into bed. Was I becoming a nymphomaniac? Was it normal to feel this way? I wasn’t sure – I’d always been curious about sex, but never thought I’d get to experience it so soon; never thought that I would be so unafraid to get naked in front of a man… or that I would enjoy it all so much, despite the awkwardness and pain that came along with being a new member of the non-virgin club. But practice made perfect, right? That was my philosophy, anyway…

He looked at me with a mischievous, expectant expression as I backed away. I reached down and grabbed his hands, lacing my fingers through his. I intended to lead him over to bed, to set him down and get to work on getting those annoying pants and shirt off his body. However, when I started to take the steps to walk over, pulling him behind me, I suddenly realized that the satin dress was still around my ankles. And that it had somehow gotten tangled up with the straps of my shoes.

I stumbled, my hands breaking away from his, and fell forward, collapsing into an ungainly heap on the floor beside the bed. I stared down at the dark blue carpet, which was mere inches from my face, cursing silently. From somewhere above me, I heard the sound of barely restrained giggles. I wanted to thump my head against the floor – why, God, why? Why did He have to make me such an idiot? Why did I just ruin an incredibly sexy and perfect moment? Just once, I would have liked to be perfectly elegant and charming without making a complete ass of myself…

“Are you okay?” He was fully laughing now, not even trying to hide it. I rested my forehead against the floor, closing my eyes.

“Fine, thank you.” I buried my face in the carpet. “Taylor, I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “I just can’t do it. I just can’t be sexy.”

“Au contraire… I think you’re plenty sexy.”

“I think you’re plenty crazy.” I groaned, trying to shift my body so I could reach my feet and disentangle myself from that stupid dress.

“Oh, Alley,” he sighed. I turned my head, resting it against the floor, watching as he stooped down next to me. “You’re so funny.” Grinning, he carefully untangled the dress from my legs, removing it and draping the wrinkled material over my desk chair. Then he picked up my feet, one at a time, and undid the tiny buckles of the sandals, pulling the shoes off. I smiled as he tossed them to the side and scooted towards me.

“Thanks,” I murmured.

“You’re welcome, clumsy…” He laughed, stretching out next to me on his side. “See? Now we’re both in the floor… no big deal…”

“Yeah, but one of us is still dressed…” I eyed his shirt, reaching out to fumble with the buttons. I’d only managed to get the first two undone when he suddenly leaned over, tangling his hand in my hair and attacking my lips. He sighed softly after a few breathless minutes.

“Did I follow through on my promise? Has this been the best summer you’ve ever had?” he murmured. I felt like rolling my eyes. Was that answer not totally obvious to him? I’d spent every day since June 1st in a Taylor-induced stupor, which felt a lot like being addicted to some sort of psychedelic drug, except without all the nasty side effects. Unless you counted my sudden nymphomania as a side effect. Or my inability to concentrate on anything else when he was in the room… I sighed. And, of course, like any drug, when he left I would no doubt suffer withdrawal… I focused my mind away from those thoughts before I answered.

“Yeah,” I whispered in reply, roaming my fingers through his long hair. “It has. More than you know…” Don’t leave, I added silently in my head, though I knew he had to, even if he didn’t want to. Please, just stay here with me…

He smiled, bending to give me a soft kiss once more. “Good.” I felt his arms push around my shoulders, coming between my back and the carpet. He hugged me close, and suddenly I was hoisted up from the floor. I squealed, flinging my arms around his neck to hold on.

He carried me to the bed, gently setting me down. I reached up, taking that opportunity to practically rip through the buttons of his shirt, finally exposing his chest. I quickly removed the annoying barrier and threw it in the floor.

“Eager, are we?” he asked, amused. I raised one eyebrow.

“Listen, if you want to sit around and wait for awhile, that’s fine with me…” That got his attention. He grinned wickedly, quickly giving me another kiss.

“No, no,” he said. “Eager is good…”

“That’s what I thought…” I giggled as he suddenly backed up, momentarily pushing me aside to fumble with the clasp and zipper of his trousers. I lay on my side, head propped in my hands, watching him push the black material down. He looked up as he did so, his eyes slowly traveling from my legs, to my torso, to my face. I met his gaze unwaveringly, weakened by the desire in those blue eyes. Where had all my self-consciousness gone? Was it really only a little over a year ago when I was mortified that he’d seen me clad in only my bathtowel? Jeez… if I’d only known then how intimate we would become… unbelievable. I winked at him as he hooked his fingers into his boxers and began sliding them down his hips.

He pounced on me once he was done, crushing me in a hug as I shrieked with laughter. For awhile, anyway, his impending departure was going to be the furthest thing from my mind. I bit my lip and closed my eyes as he began pressing quick, soft kisses all over my shoulder, his hands pulling at the elastic of my Victoria’s Secret boyshorts… then tugging on the complicated clasp of my Miracle Bra. Damn. Well, he already knew there was nothing under there, anyway, but still… I opened my eyes, dazed, and watched as he tossed those flimsy articles of clothing into the floor, where they joined his. He slowly crawled until he was just above me, pushing me onto my back, the ends of his hair falling over either side of his face.

So there we were… undressed, waiting, wanting. Yet he stayed on his hands and knees just above me without moving, staring down into my eyes. I reached up, running my fingers down his face, silently pleading. Why was he stopping? I was ready, dammit…

“You have no idea how much I love you.” He lifted one hand up, brushing a wayward strand of hair away from my face.

God, why did he say things like that? Did he find it amusing to turn me into a puddle of incoherent mush? I nodded softly, my head barely bobbing up and down. “Yes, I do,” I whispered back, squirming underneath him. Of course I knew, how could I not? After a year of being too stupid to see it, a year of being separated from it, and then just two months of being together, it was the one single thing in my life I was sure of – he really, truly loved me. It was a simultaneously magnificent and terrifying feeling.

He smiled at me crookedly. “You’ve changed me, you know that?”

Hadn’t we been through this before? I wasn’t sure where he was going with that statement... “For the better, I hope,” I managed to squeak.

“Of course…” He bent and kissed me softly. “I’m sure that was all part of God’s grand plan… part of choosing the right two people to be together…”

I thought about telling him that now was really not the time to be waxing philosophical about God’s mysterious ways… we were both stripped bare and in bed, not hanging around at the coffee shop over a couple of mocha chinos… I shouldn’t have been surprised though, since Taylor loved to talk. Although personally, I was amazed at his self-control, when apparently I was completely lacking…

Instead of answering, I turned my head and began kissing his arm, hoping he would take the hint.

“Alley…” He stopped, blinking, as if the words that had been about to come out were stuck somewhere in his throat. He had a faraway, thoughtful expression, and I knew he would just sit there, thinking, until the words came back. And that could take all day. Desperate, I looked up at him beseechingly. Did he really think he still had to convince me?

Don’t get me wrong – I loved to hear him talk about how much he adored me and how we were destined to be together via divine intervention, but at that precise moment, all I wanted was for him to stop chattering and put those perfect lips to better use…

“Taylor, please,” I whispered, amazed and a little embarrassed at how breathy my voice sounded. “I know that I love you more than any single thing in this world, I know that you love me, I know that we were born to be together, and I know that I want to wake up next to you every single morning of every single day of the rest of my life, and I also know that I want you right now, so please…” I stopped, swallowing thickly. “Please…”

He smiled, almost childishly, laugh lines forming around his eyes as I grabbed his head and pulled it down to mine. “Sorry,” he murmured. “I get caught up sometimes…” He gave me a slow, gentle kiss, and I felt his hand slide down and grasp my hips. His lips brushed against mine as he spoke again. “I take it you’re ready?”

I wrapped my arms around his back, digging my fingers into his damp skin. “You take it correctly.”

*****

Later, I was flat on my back, swathed in the sheets, staring at the ceiling. I felt incredibly warm, drowsy, and comfortable as I reflected on the events of the day. Overall, not too shabby… I’d made it through graduation, been treated to some delicious pasta, had gotten boyfriend approval from the relatives… and of course, had slow, sultry sex with a gorgeous man who worshipped the ground I walked on. Life, as they say, was pretty damn good.

Taylor was on his side next to me, breathing softly, still covered in sweat. I shivered as the air conditioning kicked on, humming quietly through the vent just above my bed. I snuggled further down in the sheets, unable to keep the smile from my face. I felt his fingers slowly slide across my stomach, and I sighed, resting my hand on his.

“So,” I murmured. “Was that my graduation present?” I bit my lip to keep from laughing.

He chuckled. “Hmm, perhaps…” He scooted closer, resting his head against my shoulder.

“Damn, is that it?” I sighed. “And I was looking forward to getting a card with some money in it…”

“Ah, I see… so sorry to disappoint…” I giggled, rolling over on my side to face him. He shifted back a little to give me room to move, and continued. “Well, there’s another part to it…”

“Really?” I murmured. He nodded silently, moving his hand up my arm and finally resting the palm against my cheek. His thumb lightly rubbed the skin below my temple. I started to demand to know what it was, but I was so comfortable, so sated, that I simply closed my eyes, content to just lie next to him for the time being. I’d already begged once tonight, and so I decided against doing it again.

“Hey, don’t go to sleep,” he chided. He gently chucked my chin, but I didn’t open my eyes.

“I’m not… I’m just thinking.”

“Thinking? Wow…” he teased. “You do that?”

“On occasion, yes…” I smirked. “I know that’s a totally foreign concept to you, so…”

“Always the comedian, you are.” He shifted closer again. “I guess I’ll sit here and think, too…”

“Mmmm… don’t strain yourself...” I fought back a yawn, rolling over again until I was on my stomach. The breeze from the ceiling vent felt wonderful against my back.

This couldn’t possibly be my life. I had been on the losing end of so many things in my 20 years on this earth that I couldn’t believe I’d managed to come out ahead. All part of God’s grand plan, as Taylor would have said… Louise had been right. Of course, she was always right. I’d just needed the patience to make it through the crazy events of the past two years, and now, finally, I was reaping that reward. I opened my eyes to narrow slits, just enough to glimpse the man lying next to me. Taylor fucking Hanson. Who would’ve thought?

“Alley…” His voice was delicate, soft; and barely discernible over the humming of the air conditioner.

“Yes?”

He was silent for several moments, once he’d gotten my attention. When he spoke again, he said just two words:

“Marry me.”

My eyes shot open. It didn’t register for a minute, what he’d said. And when it did, I was positively sure I’d misheard him. He didn’t just say that… I misheard him, I had to have misheard him… he said ‘carry me’, or ‘mon cherie’, or something…As if that made any sense. But he had spoken that French phrase earlier...  He didn’t just say what I thought he said, did he? Did he?!?

 

“What?” I squeaked. I looked up into his eyes, searching for confirmation. He smiled, though I noticed his lips trembling. He nervously licked them before repeating it.

“Marry me.”

Was this a joke? God, it better not have been… I would fucking kill him if he was joking... I slowly sat up, clutching the sheet tightly against my chest. My mouth dry, I swallowed, looking down at him. He turned his head to meet my eyes… waiting, I guess, for an answer.

“Are…” I faltered, unsure how to word my anxieties. “Are you serious?”

Wordlessly, he sat up, crawling to the foot of the bed, still wrapped in his sheet. I watched, frozen, as he pulled his suit jacket from the armoire and stuffed his hand in the pocket. When he removed it, tossing the coat aside, there was something in his hand. A tiny, velvet black box. He slowly crept back to me and planted himself down. He lifted his shaking hand, beckoning for me to take the box.

“Oh, my God,” I whispered. I carefully took it and managed to get the lid open with fumbling fingers. Oh God oh God oh God…

It was a ring… holy shit, it was an engagement ring, and a breathtakingly beautiful one at that…

“Oh, my God,” I repeated, my voice rising to a nearly hysterical pitch. “Oh God…”

“I know it hasn’t been that long,” he said, and I could detect the slight tremble behind his words. “But I— I can’t… I don’t want to live without you. I don’t want to wait. I want you to marry me. I love you so much, it’s frightening…”

I clapped my hand over my mouth, and promptly did what any rational girl would have done in my situation – I started sobbing uncontrollably. Clenching my eyes shut, I lowered my head, still holding that tiny box in my hand. I felt his hands on my arm, squeezing it.

“Alley,” he said worriedly. “I—I’m sorry, I--”

Apologizing? Could he not tell the difference between tears of sadness and tears of sheer elation? I took a ragged breath, trying desperately to calm myself down. He was serious… completely, utterly serious. I wanted to jump up and scream Yes, God, yes! FUCK yes! or any other charming affirmative reply, but the words were temporarily stuck... I studied him, trying to read his eyes. Did he have any idea of the consequences of that question? He was so calm… Had he thought this through?

“Taylor,” I began, voice shaking, “before I jump in your lap and scream ‘Yes!’… Are you sure?” I looked up, making eye contact with him for the first time since he’d spoken those two words. “I—I’ll be a terrible wife. I can’t cook, I’m a slob, I have no job…” I realized, once I’d said those words, how stereotypical they were. Gloria Steinem would have kicked my ass – I’d just managed to set the women’s rights movement back by about 50 years…

“We’ll hire a maid… and a chef,” he added with a laugh. “And you do have a job… you’re an artist, like me…” He smiled tentatively, leaning forward and wiping away my smeared mascara. “We’ll make you a studio, where you can work on your art… I’ll have my space, you’ll have yours…”

I slowly wiped the tears from my eyes with my free hand, not believing what I was hearing. “Really?” I whispered.

“Yes… and now… before you scream ‘yes’ and jump into my lap… are you sure?” he asked softly. “I know this is a lot to ask. I can’t guarantee it will be easy. It will take a lot of… adjustments… on your part… on both our parts.” He looked down, and I noticed he was nervously wringing his hands. “I want you to be happy. I don’t want to mess up your life…”

It was that exact moment, I think, that I became aware of the enormity of his question. Life would change, true... I wouldn’t live here anymore… I’d be wherever he was, whether that was in Tulsa, or New York, or Los Angeles… probably live out of a suitcase much of the time. I’d have to endure scrutiny like I’d never seen before, from both jealous, snippy fans and possibly the press…  not to mention all the beautiful, obsessed women who would be throwing themselves at his feet… and that, really, was just the beginning…

All of it, however, seemed like mere inconveniences compared to what I would get in return… he was worth it. Mess up my life? The only way that would happen was if he wasn’t in it.

“Taylor, you make me happy.” I reached over, grabbing his hands, attempting to stay composed. “You are my life.”

He raised his head, meeting my eyes shyly and nodding, as if to say, ‘me, too.’ We stared at each other silently. A lock of hair had escaped from behind his ears, and I carefully reached up to push it behind his ear, dying to touch him…

“So…” he said softly. “What do you say? Will you marry me?”

Grinning wildly, my heart thundering so hard that I was sure I was going to need a defibrillator any minute, I crawled into his lap, pressing my forehead against his. “Yes,” I whispered.

His tense muscles relaxed. He let out a sort of high-pitched, relieved laugh, his hands tightening around my waist, digging into my skin. “That wasn’t a scream,” he teased, his voice catching.

I crushed him in a bear hug. “YES!” I shouted, clutching his neck so tightly that I wondered if he could even breathe. I turned my head and anxiously pressed my mouth to his, overwhelmed with love and desire and ecstatic euphoria. He responded eagerly, his arms sliding around and pulling me flat against his chest.  I feverishly kissed all over his face – his chin, nose, cheeks, forehead, anywhere I could reach. He laughed at my exuberance, eagerly kissing me back.

“I love you,” I whispered into his ear. What else could I say? There just weren’t words…

“You know I love you… here,” he said breathlessly, breaking away. He slowly pried the velvet box from my hand and pulled out the ring. “Let’s get this on you…”

“Yes, yes,” I whispered. I leaned against him as he pulled the sparkling platinum ring from the box. I held my hand out, embarrassed when it shook uncontrollably. Until, that is, I noticed his hands, which were also trembling… He slowly placed the ring on my finger and slid it down past the knuckle. I stared at the beautiful square-cut Tiffany diamond that winked back at me. When had he gotten this? Where had I been?

We both just stared at it for a moment, the silvery metal shining against my fair skin. I lifted my hand up, watching the light glint off the sharp edges. I never wore jewelry, because I’d always figured that precious metals just didn’t go with grungy t-shirts and jeans, but I knew, looking at the ring, that I would never take it off. They would have to cut the damn thing off with bolt cutters, or something…

Finally he reached up and pulled my hand down, kissing it. “It looks good on you.”

“Yeah…” I wasn’t about to argue with that one. Two-carat Tiffany diamonds look good on anyone

He chuckled. “Actually, it looks fucking great on you…”

“Mmmm…. That, too…”

“I have such good taste…”

“No arguments there… you chose me, didn’t you?” We laughed, and I hugged him again, resting my head on his shoulder. I felt almost dizzy… I was in love and engaged. After my many relationship failures, I had simply prepared myself for a lifetime absent of the male species… and filled with the company of numerous furry pets…  Engaged? Me? With him? I let out a little squeal and hugged him fiercely again, burying my face into his warm neck. I didn’t even realize I’d started crying again until I lifted my face back up and noticed the wet streaks on his skin. I sniffled, embarrassed, and he smiled fondly, wiping the tears from under my eyes.

“Hey, it’s not that bad, is it?” he teased gently. His eyes were starting to look a little glassy, too…

I shook my head, leaning forward and kissing him again. “No,” I whispered. “It’s wonderful…”

He nodded. “Listen,” he said softly. “I want you to come back to Tulsa with me next week… stay with me…”

Stay with him? My heart leaped. “Really?” I whispered.

“Of course… did you think I was going to leave you here, alone?”

I shrugged shyly. “I thought maybe you’d want a break, or would be too busy…”

He shook his head, one corner of his lip curving up. “No, no…” He kissed my nose. “There’s so much I want to show you… people you have to meet… places to see…” He grinned.  “I have to show you off…”

I sputtered with laughter. Show me off? What was I, a pure-blood Thoroughbred? Not to mention that there really wasn’t much to show… “Whatever you say,” I murmured, but smiled. He chuckled, tipping my chin up and giving me another slow, sexy kiss.

We didn’t talk for several minutes after that.

Finally I leaned back, breathing hard. “Taylor,” I said softly, “I’m in shock right now. I mean…” I placed my hands on either side of his face, pushing his hair back. “We’ve never even talked about marriage… I had no idea…”

“That’s not true,” he said. “Didn’t I promise to marry you when you turned 30?”

I laughed and started to say, ‘Yeah, but you were just joking around’… except… I suddenly realized, from the calm, sincere expression on his face, that he hadn’t been. He had been serious back then… and I’d had no idea. I’d just brushed him off when he’d said that, assuming it had been merely an attempt to lift me out of my Jay-induced funk… He always claimed he’d been in love with me forever, but it wasn’t until now that I really believed it…

 “Yeah,” I managed to say. “Yeah, I guess you did…” I covered my face with my hands. “I can’t believe this… I can’t believe this…” For a moment, I thought I was going to cry again.

“Why? Alley, you know how I feel about you… I know it seems a little soon, but like Louise said, we’ve already lived together for a year…”

“Louise?” I asked sharply. “She knew?”

He smiled sheepishly. “Of course she knew. She helped me pick it out…”

That conniving little wench… She knew he had that ring and never gave so much as a hint… “I don’t believe it. Once again, I’m the last to know…” I eyed him. “Speaking of which… who else knows?” Had he told his brothers? His parents? Oh, God, I hadn’t even met them yet…

“Well,” he said, looking a little embarrassed. “I, um, asked your… relatives… for permission tonight.” His face flushed a deep red. Permission? He asked for my hand? How old-fashioned… God, that was just too fucking sweet…

“Awwwww,” I said. “Really?” I bit my lip, thinking about the strange events just before we’d left the restaurant… “Ahhh… I guess that explains all the screaming…”

“Yeah,” he said, grinning. “They approved.”

“Of course they did… I told you, they loved you…” I nestled closer against him. “Apparently no one can resist your charm…”

“Apparently,” he said smugly.

“Arrogant,” I murmured, smiling and leaning into his embrace. I suddenly wanted to go somewhere, do something… get up and move around, disperse some of the euphoric energy built up inside. I really wanted to go running through the streets, screaming and flaunting the new rock on my hand, but that was probably not the most mature idea... I gave him a quick, hard kiss on the lips. “Let’s go out… let’s do something… celebrate. I can’t sit still any longer…”

He grinned. “And put clothes back on? Why would you want to do such a thing?” His hand crept around to my stomach, sliding under the sheet and tickling it.

“Come on,” I said. “I’m too excited to sit still… let’s go for a walk or something, at least…” I grabbed his hand, dragging him out of bed as he relented. We managed to get dressed again, though this time considerably more casual than we’d been earlier. I slid into a pair of jeans and a shirt, stuffing my feet into a pair of flip-flops.  I watched as he picked up his suit jacket and hung it neatly on a hanger in the closet.

“I can’t believe you’ve been walking around with this ring all day,” I murmured, studying the jacket. “And it was right there in your pocket, the whole time…”

He turned, giving me an odd smile, and let out a loud, hysterical laugh. “Oh, Alley,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes, “you don’t know the half of it…”

*****

I’m engaged.

I stared up at the unlit ceiling lamp the next morning, pondering those words as I’d done for roughly the past two hours. By all accounts, I should have been exhausted – Taylor and I had stayed up all night, celebrating the event with a leisurely walk through the streetlit downtown, a second dessert at an all-night diner, and of course, once we’d made it back to the house, more sultry, sweaty goodness. Yet after all that, I still felt positively wired. Ridiculously happy. Smiling, I lifted up my left hand, studying my ring. Unbelievable.

He shifted, grunting in his sleep, and I smiled fondly, carefully stroking his hair. I loved the way he sighed softly as I did so, and I wondered what he was dreaming about. I also wondered when the disbelief would wear off, if ever. The astonishing idea that this man – the sleeping, snoring blond man whose hair was currently ticking my chin, was going to be my husband. Husband! I was going to be a wife… Oh, my God…

I heard a noise outside – a car door. Louise? I listened carefully, and sure enough, after a few minute, the downstairs door opened and closed loudly. I tensed, my heart hammering. After debating on whether to wake Taylor up or not, I opted for ‘No’. I wanted to speak to Louise alone for a minute…

I carefully slid out from underneath him. He didn’t wake, and I couldn’t resist leaning down to plant a soft, loving kiss on his temple before rolling out of bed. I dressed quickly, throwing on the closest shirt and shorts I could find. I snuck out of the room, closing the door quietly behind me.

The stairs squeaked as I stepped down. I could hear water running in the kitchen; a coffeepot beginning to brew. I hugged my arms around my chest and slowly walked into the kitchen, knowing that my face was probably scarlet.

“Good morning,” I said quietly. Louise was standing at the sink, rinsing out a cup. She started, turning around to look at me.

“Good morning,” she repeated, studying me. She said nothing else, and I waited for a minute, trying to decide how to tell her. Finally, I settled on walking around the table and joining her by the sink. Wordlessly, I lifted my left hand. She clapped her hands over her mouth, eyes widening.

“Oh, my God,” she whispered, grabbing my hand. “He did it… he finally did it…”

“Yeah,” I said shyly.

“Oh, sweetie…” I was crushed in a hug. I laughed, feeling a little lightheaded, and squeezed her back. Her shoulders were shaking… I let go and looked at her, alarmed. Louise, crying? No… she never cried… I couldn’t recall the last time I’d seen her shed tears… she was always my rock; the stable one…

”Louise,” I said. “Please, don’t cry… if you cry, then I’m gonna cry…”

She sniffed, squeezing my hand. “Sorry, Alley… oh, God, I can’t believe it. I thought he’d never get the balls to ask, the pansy…”

“You knew,” I said accusingly. “I can’t believe you were so casual all day yesterday… I had no clue…”

She smiled, patting the side of my face. “Sweetie, you never did. Do you know how long he’s been waiting to ask? How long he’s had that ring?”

Actually… I hadn’t thought about that… I’d just wondered when he’d managed to sneak away from me long enough to get it… “No…” I said slowly.

“Two months, honey.”

“TWO MONTHS?” I gaped at her. He’d hidden it from me for two months?

“Since June, yes…” She grabbed my arm and pulled me over to the table, pushing me into a chair. “What do you want to eat? I’ll make you breakfast…”

“SINCE JUNE?”

“Yes…” She grabbed a set of frying pans from the cabinets. I stared at her as she pulled ingredients out of the fridge, still milling over those two phrases in my head. Two months? Since June? How in the world had he pulled that off? Why had he waited so long? What a tremendous secret to carry on your back…

“The trip to Louisville,” I said suddenly. “Was that…?”

“Yes,” she said. “But he chickened out… again.”

Suddenly, his strange behaviors of the summer made so much more sense… his occasional secretiveness, jumpiness, philosophical ramblings… “Wow,” I said softly. Louise slapped the pans on the stove and cranked up the heat. She was fixing eggs and bacon, and I watched as she cracked several eggs into the pan. Once she’d thrown the food on to cook, she turned back to me.

“Alley,” she said. “You’re getting married.”

I looked down at my ring. “I know,” I said softly. I looked up and grinned at her, feeling suddenly giddy. “Oh, God… I’m going to be a Hanson!”