Chapter 37

The ocean waves crashed against the shore, seagulls squawking against the sun-drenched sky. My flip-flops kicked sand onto the upper part of my heels as my feet repeatedly slid and sank into the slick, white grit of ocean landscape. “You picked a perfect day for us to come to the beach,” Brad shouted over the incoming waves. “Feels great to be back on the coast. It’s beautiful out here!” Holding on to the opposite end of Mom and Dad’s big red cooler, Brad’s biceps flexed, his red muscle shirt showing off his polished physique in the late-morning sun.

“I wish I could take credit, but I’m not the One who controls the weather,” I hollered back. Adjusting my sunglasses to prevent them from sliding down my nose, I hoisted my beach bag higher on my shoulder, then shifted the cooler to secure my grip. “We can set this down over there where Julia is putting up the umbrella,” I directed, using my chin to motion her location.

“Good by me!” Brad announced. “There’s nothing like the feel of salty air on your skin and the sun on your face! This breeze coming off the Atlantic is invigorating!” A satisfied smile graced his lips.

“I’d have to agree,” I smiled back.

We deposited our treasury of food in the shade of the umbrella then sloughed off our over-sized beach bags next to the cooler. “Last one in the water is a rotten egg!” Brad shouted as he peeled off his t-shirt and tossed it next to his shoes on the sand. Heading for the ocean, he motioned for me to join him.

“Nah. Have fun!” I yelled after him. “I’m going to lounge on one of these beach chairs for a bit.” Slipping out of my flip-flops, I removed my cover-up then pulled a towel from our bags, laying it over a chair Dad had already set up.

“Don’t you dare think of sitting down,” Brad teased, sneaking up behind me. Wrapping his arms around my waist, he lifted me off the ground, quickly carrying me toward the ocean.

“Put me down!” I laughed, wriggling to free myself. “You are not taking me into that water,” I protested.

“That’s what you think,” Brad roused, tightening his hold below my ribs.

I hollered in bold opposition. “Bradley Moore, put me down this instant, you big galoot! I haven’t put on my sunscreen, yet.” I couldn’t stop laughing. “I’m serious. Put me down.”

“Yeah, that’s not gonna happen,” Brad teased, dimples caving the sides of his cheeks.

“And who says I want to go for a swim?” My laughter intensified as I pressed harder against his hands.

Brad’s belly laugh mocked my efforts. “Give up, Girl. Your fate has already been sealed.” I gave him a sideways glance. “What? I always get my way.” Big, playful eyes exaggerated his intent, followed by a big, sloppy kiss on my cheek.

“You don’t get a say,” I light-heartedly objected. “You just think you do.”

“I beg to differ,” he countered. “You can’t come to the beach and not get wet.” Waves hit his shins and smacked against my feet. “Get ready, because you’re about to get soaked!” In a grand gesture, he toppled both of us into an oncoming wave.

Breaking the water’s surface, I gasped for air. “You’re dead meat, Mister!” I sputtered my mock fury. Water ran down my forehead and dripped into my eyes, causing a frenzied eye flutter. Fumbling to my feet, I wiped my wet hands across my face and blinked back the sting of salt.

“Whatcha gonna do about it?” Brad teased, getting hit in the back by another wave.

“Absolutely nothing,” I pretended to succumb to his playfulness, sticking out my tongue. I teetered with the rocking motion of the ocean, but remained upright.

“You know you love me!” he cheesed a grin.

“We’ll see about that.” I cupped my hand and ran it through the water, peppering Brad with a spray of salty droplets.

“Ooo, is it starting to rain?” he teased.

“Something like that.” Scrunching my nose, I made a silly face then retreated to the comfort of my beach chair and towel. After pulling my chair into the sun, I wrapped the plush terrycloth towel around my shoulders, sat down on the plastic weave, and dabbed water from my eyes.

Mom walked up about that time and handed me a cold can of soda from the cooler, her eyes twinkling. “I think he’s a keeper.”

I gazed out at the ocean and watched as Brad jumped waves with Julia, just like he would a younger sister. “Ya think?”

Mom made herself comfortable on the chair next to me, taking a swig of soda from her own can. She nodded. “I think.”

Glancing over at Dad on his beach lounger, I noticed his gaze fixated on Brad. “So, what are your thoughts, Dad?”

He smirked, keeping his focus on the ocean. “You could do worse.”

“That’s not sayin’ much,” I chuckled. Lowering the back of my chair into a horizontal position, I closed my eyes and basked in the warm rays beating down on my skin. Today’s a good day! Fifteen, twenty minutes lapsed as I soaked up some Vitamin D. Splat! Splat! Ice-cold liquid hit my exposed belly button. “What the…?” I nearly came out of my seat.

Brad’s cocky smile greeted my startled awakening. “You looked like you could use some cooling off,” he beamed. “Need some more?” Hovering over me with a soda can angled precariously above my head, his eyes dared me to move.

“You wouldn’t,” I challenged.

“Are you sure about that?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Oh, I know you would,” I corrected myself. I struggled to a standing position. Grabbing me before I could escape, Brad pressed me against his chest, drizzling syrupy, ice-cold liquid all over my hair and down my back.

“OH-H-H! You meanie!” I gasped. “What did I ever do to you?” Ice-like burning and prickly sensations dispersed across my shoulders, sending a shiver up my spine. “Two can play at this game,” I playfully retaliated. Jabbing a finger into his armpit, I watched him squirm.

Doubling over in laughter, Brad released his hold on me. “Truce! Truce!” he surrendered. “You don’t play fair.”

“Yeah, well, you don’t, either,” I returned the sentiment. Recouping from his defeat, Brad grabbed my waist and drew me to him again, dumping the rest of the can’s contents over my head. “Oh, that’s just lovely!” I acknowledged. “As if I wasn’t sticky enough already!”

Brad licked a stray drop of liquid from my cheek then smacked his lips with great satisfaction. “But you taste delicious!”

“Eww.” I pushed his face away from mine then reached to retrieve my fluffy pink towel. “You may be laughing now, but revenge is sweet!” I warned.

Brad winked. “Yeah, but not as sweet as you.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Spotting Val across the church lobby, I waved and smiled. A grin lit up her face. I turned and grabbed Brad’s hand, guiding the two of us through a mess of mingling church members until we reached the other side of the room. “Hey there, Stranger!” I teased. “I haven’t heard from you in weeks. What’s with that?” I nudged her in the arm with my elbow as I stepped up beside her.

Val wrapped her arm around my shoulders, inviting me into a hug. “Figured you were kind of busy,” she smirked, nodding at Brad. “How’s it goin’, Sir?”

“Can’t complain,” he answered, extending Val a hearty handshake. “Things are definitely lookin’ up since meeting Hope. Thank you for the introductions.” His smile widened as he stared into my eyes.

“Anything for true love,” Val replied, returning his exuberance.

“Who said anything about love?” I widened my eyes, pretending to be surprised by her assumption.

Val eyed Brad then me and chuckled. “I believe you both did.”

Brad’s cheeks flushed. “It’s that obvious, huh?”

“Just a little.” She gave me a wink.

“Well, let me be the first to tell you, we’re officially dating.” I reached for Brad’s hand and squeezed his fingers.

Val laughed. “Shocking! I didn’t see that coming.”

“Yeah, well, every now and then you have some good insight,” I played into the fun.

Val’s eyes twinkled. “May I get that in writing?”

I cheesed a grin. “Never.”

Gently touching my arm, Brad lowered his voice. “I’m gonna go pull the car around and let you have some girl time. May I take your Bible?”

“That would be nice,” I answered. “Thank you.” I allowed the book to slide from my grasp into his possession. “I won’t be long.”

“Take as long as you like. No hurry.” Making eye contact with Val, he added, “It really was nice seeing you today.”

Val smiled. “And you.” She watched as he placed a gentle kiss on my cheek. He then disappeared through the remaining crowd and out the double-glass doors to the parking lot. “So, things are going pretty great for you and Brad, I see.” The gleam in her eye revealed her approval.

“Yeah. It’s the strangest thing, though. I came home from school, totally set on taking care of me, and Brad shows up. Suddenly, life doesn’t seem so overwhelming and unbearable any more. There’s actually a reason for me to get up in the morning.” I teetered between gratefulness and confusion, trying to wrap my mind around the timing. “What I don’t understand is why now.”

Val shrugged, but offered up an answer anyway. “Maybe ’cause you stopped looking.”

I smiled, in spite of myself. “That would make sense. My timing’s never been like God’s.” The thought of Brad brought undeniable warmth to my heart, triggering a spontaneous sigh. “There’s definitely something special about him.”

“Special, like, he could be the one?” I looked Val in the eye, but didn’t say a word. “That’s what I thought.” Her smile broadened. “I’m really happy for you, Kiddo.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

My romance with Brad bloomed naturally and without effort—a storyline that lifted itself straight off the pages of a well-thought-out novel. It compelled me to take risks, dared me to be adventurous, and challenged me to step outside my comfort zone. With Brad, love became coveted, impassioned, raw. I looked forward to every minute with him.

Sauntering through the park Brad would slip his arm around my waist then comfortably slide his hand into the back pocket of my jeans while we strolled, as if his hand belonged there. Instead of shying from his touch and public display of affection, I found it endearing.

At home, in private moments alone, I would occasionally drop my basket of laundry on the floor, grab Brad’s shirt near the collar, and pull him in for a passionate kiss. The thrill of knowing Brad would reciprocate by pressing me against a wall or hoisting me onto the washing machine lid to easily reach my lips only heightened my intrigue and desire to be with him. “You never have to question if I want you,” he confirmed. “Any time. Anywhere. Any how. I’m yours. Just say the word—or, better yet, show me.” Though sexual temptations enticed our relationship, like any normal romance, strong personal values and a commitment to God and each other kept our boundaries in place.

Our first year together morphed into popcorn fights during movie nights at home; splashing in the pool in the heat of summer; trying to kiss underwater then laughing hysterically at failed attempts; along with putt-putt, go-carts, and water skiing with the young adults at church. Emotionally enmeshed. Chemically compatible. Nearly inseparable. Talk of marriage naturally surfaced around our one-year anniversary.

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