Chapter 38

The late summer sun tucked itself behind some clouds as we walked up to a familiar, quaint, downtown ice cream shoppe. “Recognize the place?” Brad’s eyes lit up and hinted of mischief.

“Of course, I do. This is where you brought me the first night we met,” I answered. “How could I forget?”

The couple standing in front of us took two large chocolate-dipped ice cream cones and a handful of napkins from the counter and headed toward a bench at the edge of the sidewalk. The cashier smiled as Brad and I closed the gap, walking up to the register. “What may I get you this lovely evening?” her sweet Southern accent welcomed us.

“The lady will have a small scoop of your cookies and cream ice cream,” Brad started. “And I will have….”

“Would you like that in a bowl or on a cone?” the woman interrupted, looking at me.

“She’ll take it in a bowl,” Brad answered.

“A bowl is fine,” I replied, forcing a sheepish grin.

The cashier’s eyes met mine, astute understanding making itself known. “And for you, Sir?” She returned her attention to Brad.

“I’ll take a bowl of your pralines and cream, but make mine a big scoop, and be sure you sprinkle it with extra nuts,” he answered, precise and to the point.

“Will that be all?” She presented a cordial grin.

“Yes, thank you,” Brad responded.

“Yes, I’m good,” I added.

She pointed at the register. “Your total is on the screen. I’ll collect it in just a moment when I return with your order.”

“We’ll be ready,” Brad smiled. Turning to me, he took my hand and laced his fingers through mine. “I remember a lot about this place a year ago. You were stunning! I couldn’t keep my eyes off you.” He winked, causing me to blush. “You were intellectual. Engaging. Always two steps ahead of me. And, Lord knows, you kept me on my toes!” I chuckled. “I liked that about you. Still do.” He squeezed my fingers, puckering his lips, blowing me air kisses.

Pausing to receive our frozen treats, Brad handed me my selection first, paid the cashier, then picked up his bowl. Staring into the paper container, he scowled. “Wait. This isn’t what I ordered. Where are my extra nuts?” He set his bowl back on the counter, pushed it toward the cashier, and gave her a stern glare. “I would like what I paid for.”

Taken back by the firmness of Brad’s tone, the woman cleared her throat and offered her apologies. “I’m sorry. That can easily be fixed. Please give me a second.” She retrieved Brad’s bowl and turned to open a jar of nuts behind her, sprinkling a small scoop onto his ice cream.

Brad rolled his eyes and mumbled under his breath. “It’s hard to find good help.”

“Hush,” I scolded, jabbing him in the ribs. “She’s doing the best she can. It’s obviously a very busy night for her. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional.” I glanced back at a number of people who had lined up behind us during the time we had ordered. Lowering my voice, I added, “Be nice.”

Just then, the cashier returned to the counter with Brad’s ice cream. “Sorry for the wait. Again, I apologize for any inconvenience. I hope the nuts are to your liking.”

“Thanks,” Brad went along with the formalities.

“Enjoy your evening,” she smiled.

Before leaving the register, I pointed at the metal holder sitting on the counter. “Don’t forget the napkins.” Brad grabbed a couple and handed me one as a trickle of liquified sugar started dribbling down the side of my cup.

“Thank you.” I wiped the napkin over the stickiness.

Steering us across the patio to a table away from the main walk, Brad pulled out one of the black, wrought-iron chairs and scooped the air over the seat. “For the queen of my heart,” he declared.

“Awww. You’re so sweet.” I curtsied, playing along.

Taking a seat, we both sat in silence for several moments, appreciating small bites ice cream as we observed several couples strolling down the sidewalk in front of us, each lost in their own little world. “I’d love to be like that couple over there some day,” Brad daydreamed aloud. He pointed to an elderly couple standing by their car in the parking lot several feet away. Thoughtfulness and patience engrossed the older gentleman as held the car door open for his aging wife. She maneuvered around her walker, shuffling to the passenger seat. Placing his hand between her white head of curls and the rubber doorframe, the gentleman made sure his wife didn’t bump her head as she stooped to sit. “That’s the type of love I want to have,” Brad mused. “I know it takes time and patience, but it’d be worth it. Think that could be us someday?” His tone had mellowed from the harsh behavior he’d shown with the cashier, and his words sounded sincere.

I smiled. “Would you like it to be?”

“Actually, there’s nothing I’d like more,” he answered. Setting down his empty bowl, he lowered himself onto one knee in front of me.

I covered my mouth with one hand, my eyes growing wide. Is this what I think it is? I set my bowl on the table, giving Brad my full attention.

“Hope Blythe, you stole my heart the moment I saw you. Your contagious smile. Your joyous laugh. Your infectious love for God.” My heart began pounding in my ears as Brad took my hand in his. “Every day God gives me with you is a priceless gift; and, if you give me permission, I would like to spend the rest of my life showing you just how much you mean to me.” Reaching into his right pocket, he pulled out a half-carat diamond engagement ring. Pinching it between his fingers, he raised placed it within my reach. Unbelieving, I looked him in the eye then gazed down at the ring in his hand, reeling in shock.

“Just say, ‘Yes,’” a male voice shouted from behind me.

Instinctively, I turned toward the utterance, releasing a self-conscious laugh. “He hasn’t asked me, yet—well, not technically.”

Brad gently touched my knee, drawing my attention back to him. “Let me remedy that.” He smirked, clearing his throat. “Hope, my heart is 100% yours. I can’t imagine a future without you in it. Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”

I bounced up and down in my seat like a giddy schoolgirl, hardly able to contain myself. “Yes!” I bursted with excitement. “Yes, I will marry you!” I held out my hand as his shaky fingers slipped the diamond onto my left ring finger.

“She said, ‘Yes’!” Brad announced, jumping to his feet. Pulling me to a standing position, he lifted me off the ground in a great big bear hug, spinning us in a complete circle. Landing on my feet, clapping erupted all around us.

“I love you,” I smiled, touching the side of his face.

“And I love you,” he answered, lifting my face with his hands. Bending down, he kissed my lips. “Yep. Sweeter than ice cream!” I felt my cheeks turn pink.

Taking our paper bowls, plasticware, and soiled napkins to the trash, Brad reached for my hand and guided the two of us down to the lake and a wooden bench overlooking the water. Sitting down next to me, Brad dug a gray flip phone from his front pants pocket and handed it to me. “Thought you might like to call your mom and dad.”

“Wow! Thank you. You think of everything,” I acknowledged, collecting the cellphone from his hand. “They’re not going to believe this! Shoot, I’m not sure I even have a complete grasp of what just happened.” Punching in Mom and Dad’s home number, I waited as the phone rang. I grinned at Brad, then stared down at the token of love wrapped around my finger. This is so surreal!

“Hello?” Dad’s voice broke into the moment.

“Hi, Daddy. It’s Hope. Is Mom there?” My chest filled with giddiness again, a chill of excitement running through my veins.

“Yeah, let me go find her,” he answered.

“Thanks, but don’t go far,” I instructed. “You’re gonna want to hear this, too.”

“OK. Give me one second to find her. I know she’s home, but I’m not sure where she’s at.” I waited while Dad yelled into the house. “Renee, Hope’s on the phone. Can you pick up the other line?”

“I’m here,” Mom chimed in a few seconds later. “Was just finishing up some dishes. What’s up?”

I could barely contain myself. “Brad asked me to marry him!” I blurted out.

“And?” Mom waited for more.

“I hope you said, ‘Yes,’” Dad teased.

“I ab-so-lutely said yes!” I squeezed Brad’s hand as he leaned against my arm, kissing my cheek.

“We’re so happy for you,” Mom celebrated our news. “I told you he was a keeper.” Brad looked at me sideways, flirting with his eyes.

“I had a feeling that’d be your answer,” Dad added.

“You did, did you?” I played along.

“Yeah, that’s why I welcomed him to the family last week when he came and asked for your hand in marriage.”

My voice raised an octave. “He did what? You mean you already knew he was going to do this, and you didn’t tell me?” I jabbed Brad in the ribs.

Dad chuckled. “What? And ruin the surprise?”

“Yeah, well, there’s that,” I conceded with a smirk.

Good humor coated Dad’s words. “So, how long before Brad takes you off our hands, and I get to start converting your bedroom into a man cave?”

I rolled my eyes and groaned. “Dad….”

He snickered. “Just asking.”

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

The following months transformed into a long list of wedding organization and details: picking a date, selecting a bridal party, finding a venue, deciding on a caterer, choosing a photographer, shopping for a wedding dress, coordinating tux styles, asking our pastor to officiate, addressing invitations. The list went on and on, consuming most of Brad’s and my free time. Amidst our crazy planning, Brad and I took a break one evening, indulging in a late night movie on TV.

“Why don’t you use the empty guest bedroom at the end of the hall, Brad?” Mom motioned to the back of the house. “Crash in there, if you like. Spare towels are in the hall closet if you need them in the morning. Cold cereal is in the pantry. Milk is in the fridge. Make yourself at home. Hope you guys don’t mind, but this old woman needs her beauty sleep. I’m going to go join your dad for some shuteye. Feel free to stay up as long as you like, just turn off all the lights when you head to bed.”

“We’ll do that,” I promised.

“Thank you for your hospitality,” Brad added.

“Any time.” Mom paused by the couch and kissed my cheek then headed toward the other side of the house. “Good night, you crazy love birds.”

“Good night,” we answered in unison.

Snuggling up to next to Brad, I rested my head against his shoulder. “I could stay here forever,” I sighed. Closing my eyes, I drank in the warmth of his closeness, inhaling all the goodness of the moment. “I hate to be a party pooper, but I’m afraid I’m going to need to call it a night, as well. I can barely keep my eyes open.”

Brad lifted my fingers so he could view the sparkly diamond on my left hand. “Soon you’ll be all mine, and we won’t have to worry about saying good night,” he smiled, kissing the side of my forehead. “Won’t that be nice?”

“That will be very nice,” I agreed. “But for now….”

“I know. Go get some sleep. I’ll see you when the sun comes up,” he promised. “Don’t worry about the guest room. I know where everything is.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, feeling the need to take care of my man. “I can pull out a washcloth and towel for you and find an extra blanket.”

“I’m sure,” he insisted. “Go take care of you. I know you’re tired.”

“OK. If you’re sure.” I stood and bent down, cupping Brad’s face in my hands, focusing on his lips. “I love you, Mr. Bradley Moore. I still can’t believe you picked me to be your wife. How did I ever get so lucky?” I pressed my lips to his and inhaled slowly.

“I love you, soon-to-be Mrs. Moore,” Brad reciprocated, letting out a deep sigh. Dimples caved the sides of his cheeks, and he stared up at me. “Don’t forget to dream of me,” he encouraged with a wink.

I smiled and blew him kisses as I walked toward my bedroom. “You know I will.”

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

Bright rays streamed through my blinds and fell onto my pillow the following morning. “Not yet,” I moaned. “I’m not ready to get up.” Pulling the covers over my face, I scooted deep under my comforter. No such luck. “I’m awake.” Slipping into my pink, full-length terry cloth bathrobe, I tied it shut over my blue and white cotton cami and matching sleep shorts, then tiptoed to my bedroom door and quietly inched it open.

Mom is running errands and will be attending a baby shower later this morning. Dad said he was going to be helping with a project at a church member’s house, and Julia is at a sleepover, I reminded my groggy mind. I’m sure they’re gone and won’t be home for hours. Why am I acting like a mouse? I chuckled at how silly I must look creeping down the hall. Rapping on the guestroom door, I projected my voice. “Hey, Sleepyhead. You awake yet?”

Sheets began to rustle, the bed creaked under shifting weight, then I heard Brad clear his throat. “I’m decent. You may come in,” his husky voice beckoned me. Cracking the door, I peered around its thickness. “Well, there’s my Morning Sunshine,” he yawned, covering his mouth. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?”

“You’re quite the charmer,” I answered, remaining by the door. “I’m getting ready to make some eggs and toast. Just came by to see if you would like some.”

Brad stretched and released a deep sigh. “That would be nice, but why don’t you come give me a hug first?” He extended his arms to me.

I glanced over my shoulder. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? Maybe you should give me a hug when you come out to the kitchen.”

Brad’s lower lip protruded into a fake pout. “Awww. You’re going to make me wait? Not even a little hug?”

“Waiting isn’t gonna kill you,” I laughed. “Pull yourself together, and I’ll meet you in the other room with some food.”

I turned to leave, but Brad didn’t relent. “Are you going to make me beg? It’s just a hug. It’s not like we aren’t engaged or anything. Come give your soon-to-be hubby an idea of what he can look forward to in a few weeks,” he petitioned. Puppy dog eyes stared into mine, his lower lip extending out a little further.

“One hug,” I acquiesced, “but only one. Then I’m gonna go make us something to eat.”

“I’ll take whatever I can get,” he conceded. Welcoming me into his arms, he toppled me onto the mattress next to him. Rolling on top of me, he pinned me to the bed.

“Hey! I came in here for an innocent li’l hug. What do you think you’re doing, Mister?” I laughed at his playfulness.

His eyes flared with mischief as he planted a big, wet, sloppy kiss on my lips. “I’m accepting your hug and adding a kiss.” His lips grazed my neck from my collarbone to my jawbone then he started nibbling on my left earlobe.

“Brad, stop. We promised each other we would wait until we’re married. I love you, but we need to stop this before it goes any further.”

Ignoring my pleadings, he challenged my resolve. “Do you know how long I’ve wanted you?” Sliding his hand past my bathrobe, he inserted his fingers into my shorts and shimmied them below my hips.

I gasped, mortified and shocked by his assertiveness. “Brad, I said no.” I wrestled against his weight, pinned between the mattress and his groin.

Disregarding my feelings, he continued to fondle me with one hand while trying to remove his t-shirt with the other. “Lie still. This will be fast. Relax. You’ll enjoy it more that way.”

I blinked my eyes in disbelief. “This is not ok. Get off me,” I objected. “I don’t want to be doing this.”

“We’re about to be married. There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing,” he negated my feelings.

I craned my head to the side and struggled to remove his hand from inside my clothes. “Right, but we’re not! You can wait,” I insisted. “Get off of me! I’m not finding this fun.”

Lust saturated his eyes. “But I am.” He started humping my pubic bone, causing me to cringe to the very core of my being. “What are you worried about?” he asked, pulling at my clothes, avoiding eye contact. “No one’s home.” He lifted my shirt, exposing my breasts.

“That doesn’t make it right,” I argued, fighting to cover myself. “I’m serious, Brad. Let me up.” Wrestling to rise off my back, Brad pushed me back onto the bed. “I’m sorry if I’ve somehow misled you,” I apologized, “but you’ve got to stop. No sex before marriage, remember?” My voice began to tremble.

“Come on, Baby. Don’t you want to know what it will be like?” He kicked off his shorts and adjusted his boxers, starting to press into me.

“No. I’m not kidding. Please, Brad, not like this,” I pleaded. A tear trickled down the side of my cheek as I felt his skin touch mine. This isn’t happening. He’s not listening. God, please make him stop! “I’m serious, Brad.” I raised the volume of my voice., hoping to be heard. “Please, stop!” I gasped in pain.

“Shh. It’ll be over in just a moment. Don’t move.”

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