"Ainsleigh, will you marry me?"
After what seemed to Nick like an eternity of silence, Ainsleigh smiled. "What took you so long?" she said, breathless. "I thought you'd never ask!"
"Is that a yes?" he asked, desperate to hear the word.
She narrowed her eyes, as if considering. "Weren't you supposed to get on one knee first?"
"If that's what you want. I'll lie on my face if it makes you happy," he said as he lowered himself onto one knee in front of her.
"Will you still cook for me?"
He chuckled and nodded. "As happy as I will be to leave all other aspects of bachelorhood behind, yes, I will definitely still cook for you. We can even add it to the vows if you want."
"It's a deal!"
"Is that a yes?" he asked impatiently.
She laughed. "Of course, it's a yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Did you doubt it?"
"Not for a second," he lied, as soon as he could breathe again.
"Well?" she said when he continued to grin at her. "Are you gonna kiss me, or what?"
He jumped to his feet and pulled her into his arms, twirling her around the room, before kissing the breath right out of her.
"If I'm dreaming," she said, intoxicated by the rush of emotions and the spinning room, "please don't let me wake up."
"I finally have you right where I want you, Mrs. Jamison."
Ainsleigh smiled at the sound of her new name. She and Nick were in the gazebo in her backyard, dancing under the twinkling lights that were strung through the rafters. He had taken her there after she accepted his proposal because he said he felt closer to God when he was underneath the night sky. They were both too happy to notice the cold.
She looked up at the mistletoe hanging overhead. "Another excuse?" she teased.
"As if I need one." He lowered his head until their lips met.
The innocent kiss exploded into passion. He twisted the fingers of one hand through her hair while the other hand went around her waist and settled on the small of her back, pressing her against him. The intent was clear; he did not want her to move.
As the kiss deepened, her breath started coming in gasps. Her heart beat so loudly she was sure he could hear it. She put her hand on his chest to see if his own heart would betray him, then smiled in satisfaction when it did.
"I should go," he said as he felt his control slipping. He tried to ease himself out of her grasp. But she refused to let him go.
"No, please," she whispered between kisses. "More. I want more." She threw her head back and sighed as his lips traced a path along her neck to the hollow of her throat. Her breathing became shallow. She knew she was pushing them both too far, but she could not find the strength—the will—to stop.
"Is this a private party?"
Nick froze, but Ainsleigh turned toward the familiar voice. She continued to cling to him as her knees gave way. "I knew it. I am dreaming," she whispered. Then everything went black.
Ainsleigh fought consciousness, unwilling to wake up from the dream. She hadn't even had a chance to talk to Evan yet. She could hear his voice mixed with the muffle of noises in the background, but was unable to make out words. She resisted the urge to open her eyes, afraid he would be gone when she did.
She could feel someone brushing the hair away from her face and knew instinctively that it was Nick. So who was holding her hand? She was confused and disoriented, but still unwilling to have it all make sense. Not without Evan.
"That must have been some kiss."
Her eyelids fluttered and opened against her will at the laughter she heard in his voice. Evan was there, smiling down at her with a smirk on his face. "Not exactly the welcome home I was expecting," he said. "Although it looks like I got here just in time," he added with a knowing glance at Nick, who smiled unrepentantly.
Ainsleigh was lying on the couch with Nick fussing over her while Evan and Michelle watched. She sat up too quickly and had to close her eyes against the head rush.
"Are you okay, love?" Nick asked, moving to sit beside her. After a few seconds, she nodded and opened her eyes again. They were immediately filled with tears as she realized that she was not dreaming. Evan was really there, sitting right in front of her, holding her hand as he laughed at her confusion.
She lunged at him, falling to her knees in front of his chair, and hugged him fiercely while the tears flowed. He was in much the same condition. He held her tightly and stroked her hair while she cried, using the time to get his own emotions under control. Eventually, her tears dried up and she pulled away from him so she could see his face.
"You look terrible," she said, her expression turning dark. "Tired, and too thin," she continued, taking inventory. "You need a haircut, too. And a shave," she added, rubbing her fingers across his heavy beard. "But I swear, Evan, I've never seen anything more beautiful." She hugged him again as she fought off a fresh wave of tears.
"I missed you too, Ains," he said as he kissed her forehead. "You have no idea." He looked up at Michelle and Ainsleigh could see the pain in his eyes. Whatever he had been through these past months had obviously taken a toll on him. He was weak and clearly exhausted, but he was alive. And home. Nothing else mattered.
That's when she noticed the silver metal chair that Evan was sitting in. She looked at him, then her eyes went to Nick's. And then Michelle's. Realizing that she was the only one who looked horrified, she forced herself to stay calm. Schooling her features, she turned back to Evan, who shrugged. "It's a long story," he said evenly.
"I've got time." Ainsleigh started to stand, but he held her in place.
"You're not hurting me," he said, a note of sarcasm seeping through. "Now don't freak out, okay?"
She nodded and shot another look at Michelle, who was also nodding. "Tell me," she pleaded.
Evan took a deep breath. "I don't remember much about the tornado," he began quietly. "I was heading home from Collinsville, frustrated because the guy I was supposed to meet had wasted so much of my time. Not too long after I talked to you, I pulled over and checked my load to be sure everything was secured. I could feel the wind picking up and I didn't want to leave anything behind."
He cleared his throat, which sent Nick into the kitchen for a glass of water. After a few seconds, Evan continued. "The weather deteriorated rapidly. I tried to find a safe place to pull over, but I was out in the middle of nowhere. When the hail started, I knew I was in trouble. But I never saw or heard any tornado. One minute I was struggling to see through the driving rain, and the next I was lying on the side of the road, wet and disoriented. It all happened so fast."
He reached up to cover Michelle's hand where it rested on his shoulder. "I don't really know what happened after that. I guess I blacked out or something. I have no idea how I got out of that ditch. I just know that I woke up in a bed, somewhere, and there was a pretty angry-looking guy standing over me. His name is Hank and he's a retired doctor. He found me and nursed me back to health, fussing the whole time," he added with a chuckle. "But he never bothered to let anybody know I was there."
"The doctor didn't know we were looking for Evan at first," Michelle interjected. "He lives like a hermit back in the woods and has very little contact with the outside world. He only cared about saving this stranger's life, kind of a Good Samaritan thing. But Evan was worried about us, if you can believe that," she said incredulously.
"Oh, I can believe it," Ainsleigh said, smiling ruefully.
"I didn't even know how long I'd been there," Evan added, picking up the story. "He told me he'd kept me sedated for a while, but even he didn't know for sure how long I had been there. I was scared to think about what y'all were dealing with here." He hugged Ainsleigh tighter. "Michelle told me what happened to your house, Ains. I'm so sorry you had to go through that alone."
"I wasn't alone." She reached for Nick's hand and smiled up at Michelle. "You made sure of that," she said, meeting Evan's gaze. "I was well taken care of. But that doesn't mean I didn't miss you like crazy. I was so scared, Evan. Don't ever put us through that again." He chuckled at the absurdity of the request and hugged Ainsleigh to him.
"Promise," he whispered.
She had a million questions, but decided to give him a chance to catch his breath. Instead, she jumped to her feet and ran to Michelle, hugging her fiercely as well. "You did it!" she said. "You found him! When? How?"
After the hug, Michelle knelt in front of Evan. "He found me, actually." She looked into his eyes as she spoke. "I was with my family, getting ready to celebrate a sad Christmas, when my phone rang. Best present I ever got," she added as she leaned up to kiss him.
"I tried to call you," she said, turning to look at Ainsleigh, who was sitting next to Nick on the sofa. "But when you didn't answer, we decided to surprise you. I hope you don't mind … we were obviously interrupting." She glanced nervously at Nick before turning back to Ainsleigh, who was already waving her off.
"Don't be ridiculous! Nick and I can get engaged any night. How many times can Evan return from the dead?" She laughed at their reaction. "What? You didn't tell them?" she asked, elbowing Nick. "I guess I have a long story of my own to tell."
She spent the next twenty minutes walking Evan through the milestones he had missed in her life. There were tears in his eyes when she talked about her salvation. Of course Michelle had already told him about it, but he loved hearing it in her own words. Her enthusiasm excited him.
"You sure ran long enough," he said. "I always knew you were stubborn, but …" The words faded as he and Nick exchanged glances. "I told you," Evan said.
"Yeah, man. You warned me. But you were right. She came around eventually. And she was definitely worth the wait."
Ainsleigh rolled her eyes, clearly not comfortable being the center of attention. "I bet your mom nearly had a heart attack," she said, turning the focus back to Evan. "I hate to admit it, but we were convinced you were never coming back. We didn't have as much faith as Nick and Michelle. I have never been so glad to be wrong."
Michelle and Evan both broke into laughter at the memory. "Yeah, they were pretty stoked," he said. "Bummed about the chair," he added, patting the large steel wheel. "But that's just temporary. I'll be back on my feet in no time. Right, baby?"
He looked up at his wife, who put her hand on the side of his face. "Right," she whispered as her lips met his.
"That's good to know," Ainsleigh interjected. "I've got a wedding to plan and you, Mr. Daniels, are an important part of that. Don't keep me waiting too long. We're pretty anxious," she said, grinning at Nick.
"Yeah, I noticed that," Evan said dryly. "But if you think I'm gonna be a bridesmaid, well … we need to talk."
Michelle stood up. "There is plenty of time for that later. Right now I think it's time to go. You've had a long day, Evan."
Ainsleigh noticed again just how tired he looked. She felt guilty for taking so much of his time, and yet she still hated to see him leave.
"I'll talk to you tomorrow, Ains," he said, reading her thoughts. He glanced down at his watch and smiled. "I guess it is tomorrow. Merry Christmas everybody!"
After another round of hugs and well wishes, Evan and Michelle left, leaving Ainsleigh to wonder if any of it was real.
"Two Christmas miracles in one night; how lucky can a girl get?" She let Nick pull her into his arms and rested her head on his shoulder. They sat in silence for a long while, contemplating the major developments of the day.
Her mind drifted back to the first time she met Nick, on that deserted country road. She had been drawn to him immediately, but was naïve enough to believe it was his physical beauty that attracted her. Now she knew the truth: his real beauty was on the inside. In less than a year he had totally transformed her life, and in the process introduced her to the beauty within herself.
Most importantly, he had shown her that giving herself to God was not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. Letting go of the pain and guilt she had been wearing like armor around her heart had been the beginning of a new life for her. There was a time when she thought she would never be happy again, and now she found herself ready to burst with joy. True joy. The kind that came from within. The kind that made her whole.
As tears ran down her face, she was reminded of the Washington Irving quote that Nick had referenced when she complained of being a crybaby: There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.
SIX MONTHS LATER
"Look at you, a blushing June bride. How cliché."
Ainsleigh stood outside the doors that led to the sanctuary of the church that had become a haven for her. Evan stood at her side, the wheelchair a remnant of the past. It had taken a lot of hard work, but he and Hank had fought their way through physical therapy and managed to get him back on his feet in record time. Which was fine with Ainsleigh. She wanted nothing more than to be Mrs. Nick Jamison. For her the wait had been excruciating.
Evan proved to be a relentless chaperone. Not that it was necessary. She and Nick were committed to waiting until after the wedding to consummate their relationship. But it made Evan feel like he was protecting her, and it gave her an excuse to have him around.
"This from a man who refused to be my Matron of Honor. I thought you were Mr. Tradition," she teased. She had never asked him to be a bridesmaid. She had bigger plans for him. She needed someone special to walk her down the aisle, and no one was more special to her than he. Except maybe the man who was waiting for her at the altar.
The last six months had brought a lot of change to Ainsleigh's life. She and Nick had settled into an easy, comfortable routine. But after all the demons were exorcised, she became restless. After extensive prayer about the direction she wanted to take, she was now enrolled in college, pursuing a career as a grief counselor. She had also become active with the women's group at church, finding herself welcomed with open arms. Luckily, Tabitha Montgomery had accepted defeat and moved on to other targets.
Ainsleigh gasped when the music shifted to The Wedding March. Not because she was nervous, but because the moment was finally here.
"Ready?" Evan whispered as the doors opened in front of them.
"You better believe it," she grinned, scanning the crowd. She wanted to take everything in before she saw Nick, knowing nothing else would matter after that. She looked around the church at all the smiling faces. Evan's whole family was there, as proud as if she was one of their own. Her eyes lit on Iris Hawthorne and the two women shared a knowing smile. The older woman nodded briefly before dabbing at a tear.
The next face Ainsleigh saw was Marlene's. She and Britt were looking at her like she had just won the Miss America crown. For a second, she wanted to flash them a pageant wave, but settled on a wink instead. Marlene had not found her way to Christ yet, but she had been to church a few times. And Brittani Marie had become an active member in the youth group. It was a start, and Ainsleigh knew that sometimes all that was needed was a little space, and a lot of patience.
She looked toward the front of the church. The first person she saw was Michelle, who was glowing with impending motherhood. Only four months along, she was already showing off a sizeable baby bump. A true Daniels baby, to be sure. Seeing it, Ainsleigh touched the locket that she wore around her neck, feeling more connected to her own baby whose picture was tucked inside. Nick had surprised her with it the night before, proving once again that he was absolutely perfect.
Finally she found the one she was looking for. Nick was beaming. She could see the love she felt mirrored in his eyes and it made her want to run down the aisle. Luckily, Evan was there. He squeezed her hand before lacing it through his arm. Just before they took their first step, he leaned down to whisper in her ear.
"These aren't tears, Evan," she laughed. "These are the messengers of unspeakable love."
~ THE END ~
Well, that's it, folks. Time to step out of Ainsleigh's life and enter another's. Feedback welcomed. Until next time ...