Chapter 24

About a week later, I found myself preparing a picnic basket for a lunch date with Gavin: egg salad sandwiches, dill pickles, a bag of potato chips, a pre-washed pint of strawberries, and two Thermoses filled with chilled, fresh-squeezed lemonade—ah, yes, and my homemade apple pie, if it finished baking in time.

I gently turned on the oven light and pulled back the oven door, releasing one of my favorite smells—cinnamon and ground cloves. Mmm. Delish! I smiled at the browning crust under the warm glow—not too light, not too dark. I then allowed the door to latch back into place and switched off the internal light. “A few more minutes should do it,” I casually informed an empty room.

As the pie bubbled in the oven, I rounded up a handful of napkins, a picnic blanket, and two durable paper plates. Neatly tucking the napkins and plates inside the basket, I nestled the blanket on top between the handles. Standing back, I then placed my hands on my hips and surveyed the kitchen. “What am I missing?”

As if on cue, the doorbell rang. “Oh, yeah. My date.” I glanced down at my light green sleeveless blouse and white shorts and brushed off my shirt for good measure. “As ready as I’ll ever be!” Taking in a couple deep breaths, I headed for the front door. “No need to be nervous. This is just a date. No expectations. Just two friends getting together for a meal,” I reminded myself.

A dashing young gentleman with a dark bronze tan, aqua-blue v-neck surfer t-shirt, and classic black board shorts greeted me with a mischievous grin and a long-stemmed rose tucked carelessly behind his back. “Are you ready to go to the park? I know of a perfect li’l place with our name written all over it,” Gavin announced, stepping through the doorway. He wrapped his free arm around my waist and spun us in a circle in the middle of the foyer. I let out a silly laugh. Whipping out the rose from behind his back, he placed it under my nose as he landed me on my feet. “For you!” His flirting added a sparkle to the moment.

I chuckled and smiled at the fragrant bloom. “Thank you. How very thoughtful of you! Smells pretty, and you are quite the charmer.” I touched the side of his clean-shaven face, stroking his ego. He returned my compliment with a debonair nod.

Taking in a deep breath, Gavin’s sanguine personality breezed us onto the next topic. “What is that delicious smell I’m getting a whiff of?” He glanced down the hall toward the kitchen.

My eyes grew big. “My pie!” Being so wrapped up in the moment, I had completely forgotten about our special dessert. Gavin slipped off his loafers and left them by the front door, following me down the hall and into the kitchen as I scurried to grab the oven mitts and pull the sweet confection from the oven after laying down my rose on the counter.

Crisp brown edges marked the peaks of the pie, but when I stuck a fork into the middle, the metal came back covered in dough. “Oh, no,” I groaned. “This is a flop; and I wanted this day to be perfect. It’s not a real picnic without homemade apple pie.” I dropped the fork onto the counter and tossed the oven mitts beside it. “Now what? The pie is pretty much ruined.” I gently closed the oven door and turned off the temp, my shoulders sagging, along with my spirits.

Gavin smiled, despite the frown on my face. “I’m sure lunch will be just fine without it.”

I rolled my eyes. “You haven’t had my apple pie before, have you?”

“I can’t say I have,” he smirked, “but if you made it, I’m sure it tastes wonderful.”

“Brownie points, really? You’re trying to earn brownie points without even tasting the pie?” I rolled my eyes a second time and cocked my head to the side. “Nice try! The ‘tasting wonderful’ part would’ve been right had the pie been cooked all the way through, but I don’t know what went wrong. This never happens.” I threw my hands up in the air, defeated.

Gavin sat on a barstool and though aloud. “There’s really no way of salvaging it? None at all?”

I tapped my pointer finger on my chin and thought a moment. “Well, I suppose I could lower the heat and let it bake a li’l while longer, but that would mean we wouldn’t get out of here anytime soon, and you must be getting hungry. I know I am.” My stomach growled, as if on cue, emphasizing my sentiment. Gavin grinned.

“Well, who’s to say we can’t have the picnic right here?” He glanced out the kitchen window and onto my parents’ manicured lawn.

I followed his gaze, peering out the window. “Here? Like in the back yard?” I searched Gavin’s face for sincerity. That’s not very romantic.

“Why not?” He raised his eyebrows while popping to his feet. “Point me in the right direction, and tell me what I can do to help.”

“Are you sure…?” I drew out my uncertainty. Pointing to the picnic basket, I started redirecting our lunch. “I guess you can start by carrying the basket outside and spreading the blanket across the grass—if this is really what you want to do.”

“Eating here, it is,” he confirmed, adding a wink. “I would hate to miss getting a taste of that delicious-smelling pie.” He scooped up the basket, carried it through the kitchen, and out the sliding glass doors onto the back lawn. “By the way, where are your mom and dad?” he called over his shoulder. “Do you have them locked up in a bedroom somewhere?”

I followed him to the back door, chuckling at his humor. “Julia’s at a friend’s house for the day, and Mom and Dad are out with friends on the lake. I think they decided to go on a boat ride. It’s just the two of us,” I answered. Watching him roll with the punches, I thought, Someone to remind me not to take life so seriously. I could get used to this. I shook my head and returned to the kitchen to reheat the oven.

Sliding the pie back onto the baking rack, I closed the oven door. “Now work with me,” I coaxed in a hushed tone. “You’re supposed to taste delicious. That means you need to finish cooking.” I turned on the oven light and bent over to view the pie through the small oven window.

Gavin leaned against the sliding door’s metal frame, watching me in silence. “Do you always talk to your food like that?” I jumped at his words, unaware of his presence.

Catching the twinkle in his eye, I felt blood rush to my cheeks. “Yeah, all the time. It helps sweeten things up.” My quick wit surprised even me. I grinned as Gavin’s lips curled into an impressed smile.

“The woman can think on her feet,” he teased.

“It happens from time to time.” Punching in some numbers on the timer, I pressed the start button, then glanced around the kitchen for any missing items. Pulling a cluster of grapes from the fridge, I gave the kitchen a final nod. “I think this should do it.” I nudged the kitchen light switch off with my elbow and headed for the back door.

Gavin blocked my exit, his hands tucked neatly behind the crook of his back as he leaned against the doorframe. “Need by?” he smirked.

“That would be nice,” I answered.

“Fee is one kiss.” He playfully puckered his lips and remained blocking the door.

I came to an abrupt stop, my eyes widening. “Nice try, but you’ll have to move.” I studied Gavin’s eyes, trying to gauge his sincerity. I can’t tell if you’re being serious or simply enjoying catching me off guard. I assumed Gavin would be a gentleman and allow me to walk by.

Instead, his gaze lingered on my lips, his boldness sucking the air out of my lungs. “May I kiss you? I’d rather do that.”

I shook my head in disbelief. “No. I don’t think so.” The words left my mouth before I had the chance to really think about them. You realize what you’ve just done, right? The boy just asked you for a kiss, and you turned him down. The rational side of my brain argued in my favor, inserting some much-needed wisdom. A second kiss would be nice, but you want him to want you, not just a kiss. Right? Right. I nodded toward our picnic basket, side-stepping my stunned date. “Come on. The food’s out here.”

Befuddled by my reaction, Gavin allowed me to pass, following me to the red-and-white-checkered blanket. “Maybe later?” he suggested, trying to save face. I gave him a two-second glance, refusing to acknowledge his proposal with a verbal response.

Sitting on the edge of the blanket, I pulled out the plates, napkins, and sandwiches, placing the grapes in the middle of the blanket on a napkin. Making eye contact with Gavin, I smiled. “Would you mind having the blessing for us?”

He reached for my hand. “May I?” I allowed my hand to rest in his, noting the comfortable fit. His smile widened, and I smiled back, then we both bowed our heads.

“God, we come before You, thankful for this sunshine—thankful for the beautiful weather You’ve provided for our picnic today. Thank you for the food You’ve given us and for the hands that have prepared it. May it nourish and strengthen us, and may we always remain in the center of Your will. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.” The sun beat down on my shoulders, the smell of fresh-cut grass and Gavin’s musky cologne forever burning the moment in my mind.

Gavin squeezed my fingers then released my hand, eyeing the basket next to me. “What ya got in there? I’m guessing there’s more than just these sandwiches.”

“You guessed right,” I cheesed a grin. “I happen to have a few goodies in here I purchased just for today.” Pulling out a bag of wavy, seasoned potato chips, I placed it on the blanket in front of Gavin’s plate. His eyes widened in obvious appreciation.

“Ooo…my favorite! How did you know?”

I laughed at his naïveté and answered, “Oh, I don’t know. Numerous church outings together? Or maybe it was sitting across from you at lunch on and off for almost seven years in grade school,” I teased. “I’m not blind.” I watched as he popped the air out of the bag of chips and tossed one into his mouth. “Men!” I feigned exasperation.

“All right, Smarty Pants,” he poked fun, “so, you’re observant. Anything else in there I might like?” He wadded up a napkin and tossed it my direction. I ducked, but the light weight of the napkin made it fall short.

I gave Gavin the evil eye. “Dare I give you anything else, or will you be turning this into a food fight?” My hand hovered over the open basket, waiting for his reply.

Holding up his hands, he surrendered, his puppy dog eyes begging for a truce. “I promise to behave. No food fights—today.”

I scooped up the napkin and tossed it back at him. “Sure you will.”

Gingerly picking up the napkin, Gavin dabbed at the sweat on his forehead and sighed. “Whew! Who turned up the thermostat?”

“I don’t know, but it doesn’t help that we don’t have any trees back here. Shade would’ve been nice.” I fanned my hand in front of my face, doing little to ward off the stale heat. I finished unloading the basket then took a long swig of cool lemonade from one of the two Thermoses. As I swiped perspiration from my upper lip, I asked, “So, tell me, what are your plans for the upcoming school year?”

Gavin took a bite of his sandwich then rested his elbow on his bent knee, taking a moment to chew his food. “I’m keeping my options open,” he answered. “I’ve thought about staying local and returning to school here in Florida, but nothing’s been set in stone yet.” He picked up the second Thermos and chugged down half the contents before continuing.

“Nothing like waiting until last minute to decide on one’s future,” I smiled.

“It’s not last minute,” he rejected my assumption. “I’ve been thinking about my future quite a bit recently. It’s actually been on the very forefront of my mind.” He took another bite of sandwich and looked me in the eye, exposing raw vulnerability.

I held his gaze for a moment, then glanced down at the blanket, guarding my heart. “Rumor has it you’ve been dating Jill—the one we went to grade school with. How’s that going?” I looked back up, proceeding with caution.

He sighed deeply and wiped some miscellaneous mayonnaise from the edge of his mouth. “Yeah. We were an item last year,” he admitted, “but we broke up before I came home this summer. It wasn’t working out between us.” He brushed off his hands and dusted imaginary crumbs from his shorts.

“Really?” My curiosity piqued. “Why not?”

Gavin shrugged. “I couldn’t see us together long term, so what was the point?” He peeled his shirt from his back and pumped air between him and the fabric. “Wow! It’s mighty warm today!”

“Yeah, the weatherman said it’s supposed to be in the lower 90s this afternoon, but without a breeze, it feels like 100 degrees out here,” I affirmed. In spite of the scorching sun, talking about the weather seemed trivial after finding out Gavin’s relationship status. Does that mean he can see a future with me? Why else would he be sitting here? It’s not like he’s just getting to know me. We’ve been friends and classmates for years.

I finished my sandwich and licked some excess egg salad from my fingers, fanning my plate in front of my face to create a breeze. “I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be opposed to finishing the rest of this indoors.” I wiped away a trickle of sweat running down the side of my face and lifted the hair off the back of my shoulders to air off my neck. “It’s hot out here!”

“I thought you’d never ask.” Gavin eagerly helped pile everything back into the basket then assisted me to my feet. Hoisting the basket onto his hip, he waited while I gathered the blanket, shook it out, and folded it into thirds before draping it over my arm.

“Let’s go check on that pie,” I instructed, heading toward the house.

“I’m right behind you.”

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