The State Fair

"Come on, Lexi," Heidi called. "We don't have all night."

"Technically, we do," Mike grinned, "If we didn't have all night we wouldn't be going to the fair."

Heidi glared playfully at her 11 year old son as I rushed down the stairs.

"All right, I'm ready. Let's go."

The twins, Mike and Mira pulled open the front door followed closely by Heidi

and me. When we got into Heidi's minivan the usual argument about who got the front seat never arose as my niece and nephew were too excited about the fair to worry about who was sitting in the front. I would've won anyway because Heidi insisted I be given the 'seat of honor' since I'd just moved back.

After college I'd moved out of state to pursue a career in photography. It turned out very well for me and I moved home again to start my own photography business in the state I loved. Luckily, I had my lovely older sister Heidi's house to crash at while I got everything arranged and found my own place.

"Where's Dad?" Mira wondered, breaking the silence.

"Yeah, where's dad?" Mike echoed.

"Dad's meeting us there," Heidi said. "He might be a little late, but he said he'd find us at the fair grounds."

At the words fair grounds I reached into my bag and pulled out my camera. It was only a ten-minute drive to the state fair grounds and I wanted my camera ready.

"Oh, you're not going to hide behind a lens all night, are you?" Heidi complained. "Just for one night I wished you'd put your camera away and enjoy yourself."

I grinned, and rechecked the auto-focus.

"I enjoy taking pictures," I said, turning in my chair to take a shot of Mira and Mike thumb wrestling in the back seat.

"Yes, but you never ride rides, or pet the pigs…"

"Pet the pigs?" I chuckled.

"Yes, pet the pigs," Heidi said. "How many years have we come here growing up only to have you sit everything out because you were taking pictures?"

Unable to respond without proving her right, I decidedly put my camera back in its case and tucked it carefully under the front seat.

"No way," Heidi said incredulously. "I don't believe you."

I shrugged indifferently and got out when she parked.

"Wow," she said when we walked through the front gates near the baked goods that were being judged. "I wish I had a camera to take a picture of this."

"I thought you said no cameras," I said teasingly.

She 'tsked' at me and bumped me with her arm. "Come on; let's go ride all the rides so you can recall what it's like to live a little."

The four of us raced around the fair grounds, riding the Ferris wheel, the small roller coasters and the huge slides. I was certain I would fly off clear into the bandstand, but I stopped just in time.

We ate corndogs and cotton candy and walked around singing to the live music being played at the top of our lungs. I was having the time of my life and for once I was happy to give myself a night off from lugging around my camera bag.

Heidi had been right. I needed to live a little.

I swept my long locks behind my shoulder and tried my hand at air hockey and shooting hoops. Mike and Mira kicked my butt every time, but I couldn't deny how fun it was to lose.

Brett, Heidi's husband, joined us an hour later and bought everyone ice cream after signing a big contract at work. It seemed the laughter would never end.

Before too long, we were walking through the booths, looking at handmade bags and airbrushed tattoo designs. Mira had to stop at every single booth that held jewelry and Mike liked all the shirts with sayings printed on them.

When we strolled into a booth of wildlife paintings, only Heidi and I cared, and tried not to take too long, knowing her husband and children would die of boredom if we did.

"Mom, let's go," Mike urged right on cue. "Dad found a churro vendor."

"Mmm," Heidi said, licking her lips. "Okay."

I laughed and followed my family across the row of plastic tents to the small trailer that was selling the dessert whose heavenly aroma hung tantalizingly in the air.

"Lexi? Is that you?"

I turned around only to find myself face to face with Eileen Ericson. She was the mother of one of my ex-boyfriends from college and I hadn't seen her in ages.

"Eileen, how are you?" I asked, giving her a hug.

Of all my exes she was the lady I wished most to have a mother-in-law like. She was warm and funny and could cook like nobody's business. Best of all she loved me.

"I'm wonderful. I can't believe you're here," she said.

She turned from me suddenly and grabbed the arm of a red-haired lady a few paces from her.

"Lindsay, look who it is!"

"Hi, Linds," I greeted Eileen's daughter and, once upon a time, a very good friend.

"Hi, Lexi," Lindsay said happily, also giving me a hug. "What are you doing here? I thought you'd moved to Colorado?"

"I did, yeah, but I've just recently moved back," I explained. "What about you? How are your boys?"

"They're great!" she said merrily." We've expanded a little. It's still all boys, but now we have four instead of two."

"Four?" I said in shock. It had only been three years, and she and her husband had only been trying to get pregnant.

"We had a set of twins," she explained.

"Four boys. I'll bet that's a handful," I chuckled. "How many red-heads in the bunch?"

"Three out of four," she laughed merrily.

"So what have you been doing with yourself?" Eileen asked. "You have any kids of your own?"

"Oh, no," I smiled. "I'm not quite ready for kids."

"I see," she said warmly. "Well, you're welcome to sit with us if you want, Lexi."

"Thank you, Eileen," I said gratefully, though I was pretty sure I wouldn't take her up on that offer.

Lindsay put an arm around my shoulder and leaned in so she could speak without needing to yell over the music.

"So you aren't married?"

"No," I confirmed. "I've never really settled down."

"What about boyfriends?" she wondered. "Surely you have a boyfriend."

"No, not for a while. It's rare that I find a man who is willing to share me so often with my camera."

"You always did take pictures a lot," Lindsay joked.

"So how's Daryl?" I asked, finally letting my curiosity get the best of me. "Last I heard he was engaged?"

"Yeah, he was," she nodded. "He met a girl in Wellington and they dated for a while."

"But?"

"It didn't really work out," Lindsay said regretfully. "She wanted to live in the city, he didn't. He wanted to have kids, she didn't. Eventually she decided he just wasn't enough and left to find someone else. And I guess she did because I've seen her a few times with a ring on her left hand."

I sighed.

"That must've been hard for him. Two engagements broken off?"

"Yeah," Lindsay confirmed. "He deals with it though."

"I'm sure he'll find someone," I said quietly, not sure if I wanted to mean that or not.

Daryl had won my affections almost immediately after meeting him in college. Although it had been a few years since we dated, I still wondered what might've happened if we'd stayed together and gotten married like we'd planned.

"I don't think he wants to," Lindsay said, voicing her evident worry aloud. "He's pretty mopey when it comes to dating. When I've talked to him he just shrugs and says his horses keep him company enough."

"Yeah," I shook my head. "That sounds like him."

"Well, I'm sure he'd be happy to see you," she continued. "You should come to dinner sometime and I'll have him over."

"I don't know about that, Linds," I said awkwardly. "It was pretty final the last time we talked."

"You don't have to say anything about it to him. Just come as friends," she said.

"I'd love to come to dinner sometime, but really I don't know about—"

"Lexi?"

My heart stopped.

"Daryl," I finished, turning around.

He stopped several feet away and just stared at me. I stared back unable to keep from gawking at him. His hair was in its usual disarray, some of it long enough to actually hang in his face if he hadn't used gel to keep it out; his eyes were dark and just as deep as they'd always been. He had a strong jaw that tended to flex when he was angry and generously muscular arms which were now folded across his chest.

"What are you doing here?" he asked quietly. "I thought you'd left."

"She just moved back, Dar," Lindsay said, hitting her younger brother's arm. "Don't be rude."

"Sorry, I didn't mean anything," he said, wiping his hand on his jeans, and offering it to me. "It's nice to see you, Lex. How are you?"

"I'm good," I said, taking his warm hand and shaking it.

After our initial greetings we fell back into silence, just staring and shaking hands indefinitely.

"Hey, Lex," Heidi said interrupting the new silence. "We're going to head over to the rodeo grou … nds… oh."

"Heidi," I said quietly. "You remember Daryl and Lindsay."

"Sure," she said, shaking his hand. Heidi then smiled and turned to me. "Are you coming or would you rather stay and talk?"

Daryl put his hands in his pockets and offered a bleak smile before walking past me to the table his mom, Eileen, was sitting at.

A strange knot formed in my stomach.

"Stay and talk with me for a while," Lindsay said cheerfully. "I'd love to catch up."

I nodded and turned to my sister. "I think I'll stay and talk for a while."

"Okay," Heidi said, she gave me a quick hug and muttered. "Be careful."

That's my sister… always worrying.

When Lindsay and I were left standing at the concession stands, I glanced back to the table the other Ericsons were occupying. Daryl had been looking over, but looked away as soon as our eyes met.

"He really loved you, you know," Lindsay said, when she caught our exchange.

I glanced again and then turned my back toward the table so I wouldn't look anymore. There was no use poking at an old wound.

"I know," I admitted. I'd loved him, too. Still did.

"I think he still does," she said softly. Lindsay pursed her lips thoughtfully and shrugged. "He still looks at you the way he always did."

"You mean sadly," I supplied dryly.

"No, like he'll never want anything else. Like he's not over you."

"Well …" I said, trying desperately to steal my nerves against the onslaught of emotions that were suddenly resurfacing. Like hope. "It's his own fault he doesn't have me."

"That's true," she said, glaring at her unsuspecting brother.

While she was otherwise occupied my mind went into overdrive. Of course, I had to run into Daryl again. Just when I'd thought I was on top of things and had everything under control, he had to step in and ruin everything. It shouldn't matter what he thought or how he felt. It had been almost three years. Wasn't that long enough to move on several times over? Why did I still care so much?

Daryl had been everything to me. I'd cried for months when we'd broken the engagement off. Always wishing he'd see what an idiot he'd been and take it all back, but he never had. Even when we'd talked only a week later and he'd admitted how much he missed me and how unhappy he'd been, he still stood by his belief that he wouldn't be good enough for me or would make me happy and all it did was make us both miserable.

So I'd tried to move on. I'd dated, though I hadn't gotten especially serious with anyone. I'd moved out on my own, got a job, and found something I loved that people would pay me for. I was very happy, but I'd still missed him. As it turned out, no one I could fill my time with had ever been like Daryl.

"Sorry," Lindsay said a moment later. "I really freaked you out, didn't I?"

I looked away from the blue checkered tablecloth and then up at one of the people I'd always been able to confide in.

"You don't have to apologize, Lindsay," I said calmly. "I just… I don't know if…" I shook my head, unable to say what I meant to say. "I don't know if I'm really ready to be around Daryl."

"You're-?" she looked at me in surprise, her jaw hanging open. "You're not over him?"

I looked at her and as soon as she said it, I couldn't deny it. I glanced at her brother sitting at the table several yards away and my heart lurched. I shook my head.

"In a way," I said honestly. "I haven't been waiting around pining this whole time but I've always sort of … hoped…"

"Something would happen sometime?" she filled in for me. I nodded. Her eyes brightened suddenly as she smiled. "Lexi!" she squealed in quiet delight. "He's your what-if!"

"Yeah," I said a little embarrassedly. "I guess he is."

She smiled though I could see she was trying not to.

"I won't say anything, I promise," she said. "I mean, I'd love it if you were around again, but it's up to you guys to decide whatever you're going to decide."

"Yeah," I said. I looked around without really focusing on anything.

"Oh, but maybe you should decide soon," she said, looking over my shoulder at the tables behind me.

"Why?" I said curiously.

"Hey, Linds. Lexi," Daryl said, taking the chair between his sister and I.

"Daryl," Lindsay said in greeting, though it was easy to see she wanted to know what he wanted.

Daryl turned pointedly to me, with his back to his sister. She rolled her eyes at him. I tried to keep from laughing.

"Do you want to hang out with me, Lex?" he asked tentatively.

"Hang out?" I asked in astonishment.

"Yeah," he nodded. "Talk. Catch up. It's been a long time since we talked. What do you say? One night for old time's sake?"

I looked at the hopeful expression in Daryl's eyes and remembered the days when he always looked like that. When he goofed around with me and teased me, always having a smile on his lips and laughter in the air wherever we went.

I'd waited a long time to just have fun with him again. I could give myself one night.

"Sure," I said decidedly. "But you're buying me a churro."

"Of course," he said like that was obvious. "Why wouldn't I buy you a churro? That's practically the man's job, right? Supply the woman with pastries?"

"I think so," I smiled, standing with him and walking toward the churro vendor with him, purposefully not looking at his sister in case she was smiling.

He purchased said pastry and handed it to me with a flourish.

"Thanks, Dar," I said, easily.

"I've missed that," he grinned. "Your smile. It's nice."

"Thanks, Dar," I repeated with a chuckle. "So what have you been up to?"

"Well, I have my own property now," he said easily, tucking his sun-tanned hands back into his pockets. "And we're getting into cows a bit as well as the horses we've been raising."

"We?"

"Me, Dad, and Uncle Jeff," he clarified. "They're helping me run things for a while."

"I'll bet your dad loves that. He always said he missed cattle and herding."

"Yeah, he's having the time of his life," Daryl confirmed. "Of course he still teases Mom about starting up a real dairy, but she says she's milked enough cows to last a lifetime."

"Are your cows for dairy or beef?" I wondered.

"Dairy," he said decisively. "We only have ten or so right now. Three of them are with Dad being judged right now."

"I want to see," I said, stopping in front of him.

"Really?" he said, surprised.

"Yeah, let's go," I said, walking around him and heading for the building with 'cattle' spelled out in big letters on the side of the building.

I bounded into the large barn shaped building long before Daryl did and the first person I saw was Henry, Daryl's dad.

"Well, well," he smiled. "I didn't think we'd be running into you here."

"I know I was surprised myself," I admitted.

"Jeez, Lex," Daryl said, commenting on my speed as he joined us.

Henry looked from me to Daryl in confusion and curiosity, very unsure about what we were doing together.

"We just ran into each other," Daryl supplied him with the answer.

"Oh," Henry nodded. "Well, good."

Daryl then introduced me to three of his cows; all of them were black and white and quite large. I'd gotten used to horses when I'd dated Daryl before but these were not horses.

"They're huge," I said in awe and maybe a little nervously.

"They are, but still gentle enough," Henry said as he worked.

Daryl smirked at me and the cow, staring at each other.

"You can pet her if you want."

My eyes widened. "But she's huge."

"Here," Daryl said merrily, taking my hand and putting it on one of the animal's soft sides.

She didn't seem to mind that I was patting her and I was surprised how gentle she was. She hardly mooed.

"Wow," I said, moving my hand along her side with a smile. "She's kind of sweet."

Daryl chuckled.

"All right, all right," Henry said, playfully shooing us from the building. "Get out of here. This isn't a petting zoo."

Daryl and I walked around for a while, talking about everything from football to how Colorado had been for me. It was really nice. I'd never thought we'd be comfortable with each other again. Relaxing with Daryl; not really worrying about anything. I'd missed it.

"So what brought you back?" Daryl asked curiously while we walked through another booth of blankets.

"I missed my family and I'd done well enough in Denver I really wanted to move back home and start my own photography company. It'll be a little slow for a while, but I think it'll be worth it," I smiled. "I'm glad to be home. I've always wanted to settle down here anyway."

"Oh," Daryl said, nodding at the pavement. "Then you're married."

I didn't mean to but I smiled.

"I'm not married."

"You just said you came back to settle down," he said in confusion.

"Eventually," I corrected with a laugh. "Are you kidding? I haven't even been on a date since I've come back; I'm definitely not getting married anytime soon."

Daryl laughed at himself for the misunderstanding and guided me toward the rodeo grounds.

We laughed and talked about our families and how different everything had become in the last few years. He'd been in a wreck and broken several bones in his hand which is why his dad and uncle were helping him. He lived by himself on the edge of town with his dog, Edgar, and a stray Edgar seemed to have adopted, that Daryl called Tag.

We rode one or two rides, but we mostly talked. We watched the end of the rodeo, with Daryl's commentary in my ear about the horses and tricks for competition and when the rodeo ended, we sat in the stands for another hour while they set up the stage and equipment for the band that was playing tonight.

As we sat, I looked at Daryl a lot. I noticed he smiled more than he used to. He made eye contact a lot more, too. He motioned with his hands to illustrate and listened attentively, but couldn't help interjecting his witty remarks every so often to make me laugh. He was still as charming as ever, but he'd grown up. Even I could see he'd matured a lot.

I guess there's a big difference in everyone from when they're 22 to 25. Part of me was sad that I'd missed it.

As the night progressed, I kept my eyes out for Heidi and her family. I knew how hard it would be to walk away from Daryl again and riding home with him would only make it worse, so mentally I was preparing myself to say goodbye. Emotionally I was drinking in every drop of the man I'd always wanted, but couldn't keep.

A group of children and their haggard parents raced past us and Daryl grabbed my hand to pull me out of their stampede, causing my heart to clench painfully in my chest. How I wished his hand would stay in mine.

We walked a ways hand in hand, but I finally decided enough was enough. I gently removed my hand from his and turned to face him with my arms folded stubbornly across my chest.

"I'm sure Heidi and the kids will be done by now. I should probably go find them," I said.

"Oh, yeah, sure," Daryl said. "I guess it is kind of late."

"Well …" I said, slowly stepping past him, I turned wishing I had something to say to prolong our conversation. He turned as well to face me as I left. "It was fun tonight."

"Yeah, it was," he agreed without emotion.

"Maybe I'll run into you again sometime," I said, taking another couple steps backward.

Daryl barely nodded and watched as I left him standing by the cotton candy vendor.

I speed-walked through the crowds, desperate to find my sister before any more of my careful walls came down. How much damage had I inflicted on my poor heart spending hours with him tonight? Why couldn't I be over everything and just be able to hang out and not have it feel like the end of the world? He'd gotten engaged again for heaven sake! I hadn't even dated seriously.

"Heidi!" I yelled toward the short blond I could see leaning against my brother-in-law.

"There you are," she said happily. "How was your night?"

"Good," I said, close to tears.

The way my chest ached was way too familiar. I really had spent too much time with him.

"What happened?" Heidi asked in alarm at my almost tearful expression.

"Nothing happened really, I'm just … I don't know what I'm doing. Can we go home? I think about ten hours of sleep will erase everything."

"Sure, Lex," she said, rounding up her kids and leading everyone back to the van.

Brett ended up giving Mira a piggy-back ride and Mike trudged ahead of them. They were worn out but still happy. Heidi walked with me in the back, linking her arm with mine when my tears actually started to fall.

"Are you sure you're all right?" she queried.

I nodded vaguely.

"I didn't think it would feel like this," I said quietly. "I really thought I was fine. Strong."

"You are strong, and you are fine," Heidi said confidently.

"Then why am I crying and wishing I could run back to him?" I demanded in confusion. "I didn't feel guilty or wish for him while I was dating Rick or Brad or anyone else."

"Maybe you were never in it for anything more than fun with them," she guessed. "Maybe they were in it to see where it would go and you were just having fun."

Huh. She was right. No wonder they'd never lasted for more than a few weeks. Eventually the guys wanted something more than someone to hang out with and I never gave that to them.

The ride home was silent. The twins fell asleep and I was sucked into my own musings about what I'd been doing with my feelings since then. I was beginning to think I'd just buried them instead of dealing with them. I couldn't afford to do that again. I wanted to get married someday and have kids of my own. I'd never be able to do that if my heart wasn't in it.

We went inside and everyone retired to their respective bedrooms. When I reached mine I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep until I'd calmed down a little more. So I listened to an Elvis Presley CD and continued unpacking my clothes, hanging everything up in the closet and stuffing my sweaters and socks in to the small dresser.

When all that was left on my bed was my camera bag I pulled everything out and leaned out the window to snap a few shots of the stars and the moon shining through the leaves of the tree near my room.

My inner photographer got the best of me and soon I slid on a jacket and snuck outside to attempt to capture the peace and stillness out there.

The tulip border was wonderful in the moonlight, the rose bushes seemingly perfect. I loved the way the reflection of the moon rippled through the water in the birdbath and the stars seemed like sparkles instead of solid objects suspended in the sky.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?"

My eyes closed at the familiar voice.

"Daryl," I said softly. "What are you doing here?"

He took a step forward and stopped again.

"I couldn't stop thinking about you after the fair. I knew you'd be here and I … I couldn't let you go."

I turned around to face him, surprise etched on my face.

"Tonight was great, Lex, really great," he said truthfully. "I've missed you for so long; I knew I'd really hate myself if I didn't give me some kind of a chance to talk to you again."

"You missed me?" I asked, touched.

He chuckled that that's what I'd picked up on.

"Yeah, Lexi. I missed you. Maybe it seemed like a foolish reason to break up back then, but I meant it. I wanted to be a better man. I had to know I was going to be enough for you and three years ago I wasn't … that doesn't mean I didn't love you or miss you terribly."

Now it was my turn to chuckle, although it was humorlessly.

"I missed you, too, Dar," I admitted. "Do you know how many times I dreamt you wanted me back? I always kept this ridiculous hope in the back of my mind that you'd show up in Denver and beg me to come home … but you never did."

Daryl frowned and shifted his weight. "I was afraid to."

"Why? I waited for you," I announced without meaning to, those obnoxious tears welling up in my eyes again. "I didn't date anyone, Daryl, not one date for almost a year. Because I wanted you. You're stupid stubbornness and endless jokes. No one was good enough… but eventually I had to move on."

His eyes flashed reflectively in the full moonlight and his mouth opened instinctively, grasping for something to say.

"I'm sorry I hurt you Lex. I wish I could take everything back, but I couldn't have taken care of you the way I should've if we'd have stayed together. I wish I could've been the man you needed then so we wouldn't have had to live all this time apart."

"It couldn't have taken three years, Daryl," I said quietly. "You could've come and got me or at least talked to me."

"I didn't come get you because I didn't know where you were. And… I didn't think you'd come back."

I took a breath to clear my head and wiped the remaining tears from my face. I wanted to demand to know how he could've given his heart to someone else and gotten engaged. I wanted to tell him I still loved him. But I couldn't.

Folding my arms across my chest, I moved purposefully toward the front door, but I had to pass Daryl to get to it. He took my arm as I did and stopped me.

"Daryl," I said softly, not sure if I wanted him to stop me or not.

"Alexia," he said seriously. "This is me begging you to come home…"

I blinked back more tears at his words and I felt the back of his fingers brush over my cheek.

"Maybe I should've done it sooner, but I'm doing it now. Please tell me I'm not too late."

I opened my eyes, surprised to find him awaiting my response in obvious anguish.

"I want to Daryl," I whispered. "I really, desperately want to …"

"Then do," he pleaded softly.

"I … I …"

"Look, sweetheart, I can't let you go again," he told me unhesitantly. "I've wasted my time for long enough on other people who don't mean anything to me and I can't make myself do it anymore. If you want me to fight or prove it to you, I will. I'll do it, just tell me you want me to."

I smiled bleakly at his heartfelt speech and wished it had come even a year earlier. I would've known how to answer him then. Could I trust him this time? Would he stay at my side or bail again? Could I let myself get wrapped up in him again and trust that he wouldn't hurt me? Then again, we'd both done some growing up. There was a good chance it would be better now than it had been before.

I could see us going out to movies and dinner, enjoying each other's company. Daryl would no doubt teach me to milk his cows and we'd ride all over on horseback again. We'd fall asleep more often than not on his couch with our arms around each other protectively. Those were all things I wanted. Things I'd missed.

The night wind blew his comforting scent to me, making my musings more vivid and wonderful.

"Lex?"

I looked into Daryl's blue eyes and everything seemed obvious all of a sudden. If I said yes I was risking my heart to either splendor or further heartbreak. If I said no I'd never find out what might've been. I risked an entire future of happiness with a wonderful man.

"If we do this, Daryl," I said seriously, stepping closer to him. I gripped his shirt in my forefinger and thumb on each hand and took a breath before looking up to meet his eyes. "We're starting over. From the beginning."

"I agree," he said hopefully. "So?"

I sighed. "You'd better not break my heart."

He choked back a laugh and smashed me to his chest, smiling merrily.

"I'm not going to break your heart," he said. "I'm holding onto you this time."

Without warning tears filled my vision again. I chuckled embarrassedly and dabbed at my eyes, shaking my head.

"I've waited so long to hear you say that."

Daryl smiled and wrapped his arms around me, pulling me in for the longest awaited kiss I'd ever experienced. His lips curved into mine and my heart stuttered contentedly as I gave in to a kiss I'd imagined many times before. He smiled as we kissed and hugged me closer to him. I couldn't remember feeling so happy. My heart was full, my mind was content, and my lips were busy remembering every long lost flavor they'd once known.

Daryl stayed with me for several hours, talking and laughing well into the night. When the man who still had my heart finally left we had our first date less than fourteen hours away. It was nothing spectacular, just dinner at his house and horseback riding, but after three years without him I couldn't wait.

Thank heavens, I wouldn't have to.

(c) 2012