A Closet Full of Memories -- Part 2

Jim listened to Jean rattling around in the other part of the house gathering her purse and keys for her trip to the grocery store. He placed the photo album and the other loose pictures he'd been looking at into a box and tore off a length of tape to seal it. As he closed the lid, he saw a picture of his mother and father standing in an embrace in front of his childhood home, and an irrational surge of fear washed over him. He slapped the tape onto the box, then called out to his wife.

"Jean? Honey!" He jogged into the hallway, then into the living room, just as Jean opened the front door to leave.

Jean turned to face him, her hand still on the knob. "What? Did you think of something you wanted from the store?"

"No. I just wanted to tell you..." Jim suddenly felt ten times a fool. "I love you. Be careful, okay?"

Jean's expression melted from puzzlement into one of complete understanding. "I love you, too. And I'll be careful, I promise." She let go of the door handle and walked back toward Jim.

He met her halfway, then gathered her into a tight embrace. They shared a warm kiss, then Jean gingerly extricated herself from his arms. "I'll be home soon, love."

"Okay." Jim watched her go and swallowed down the fears that wrapped cold, greedy tendrils around his heart. He didn't often dwell on the what-ifs in his life, though he felt certain Pete would disagree with that. But he didn't often think about his mother and her untimely death, either. That's probably why I kept putting Jean off about doing this job. I didn't want to do it. Not because of the physical labor, but because I knew what looking at this stuff might do to me. Some of it's great, but some of it hurts. I guess if I don't think about it too much, I can pretend I didn't lose both my parents before I was 21 years old.

Jim turned and made his way back to the spare bedroom. He picked up the magic marker and the just-taped box and labeled it "Reed Family Photos." He took it and placed it on top of the other box he'd already filled, but he had a hard time tearing his gaze away from it. Maybe I should take the family album out and put it in the den bookcase. I should look at it more often. I want Jimmy to get acquainted with the grandparents he'll never know, but maybe I need to reacquaint myself to them first.

Jim reached for the box again, but the remembered pain stopped him short. No. Not now. He turned his back on the short stack and quickly grabbed up another dilapidated box to see what turned up inside.

Jim opened the criss-cross folds of the boxtop and frowned when he saw a variety of items in the box that looked like mere junk. A lot of junk. What is all this stuff? He reached in and pulled out the first few things that lay on the top.

"Oh, yeah, my Cub Scout handbook," Jim grinned when he recognized the torn and dirty paperback. He thumbed through it quickly, laughing aloud at some of his childish notes written in the margins. He first put it in the trash pile due to its poor condition, but then thought the better of it, retrieved it, and put it in a new box. He then added a few mangled paper items to the pile of trash, some of which he couldn't even recognize or imagine why on earth he'd saved them. He did save a large bag of marbles, which he'd give to Jimmy when his son stopped putting everything into his mouth, a tin filled with four or five Buck Rogers decoder rings, and a pile of old Superman comic books that he hoped would have value one day.

That odd assortment of items didn't begin to fill a box, so Jim chose another rotting cardboard box and opened it. He found this one full of items similar to the box he'd just emptied. Most of it he simply trashed, but he did find some items worth saving, including some green plastic molded army men, more Superman comics, and a pair of 3-D glasses he'd gotten at some movie back in the 1950s. He couldn't bear to toss them out, so he added them and his other "treasures" to the new box, sealed and labeled it, and added it to the "repaired" pile.

Jim next turned his attention to a mound of clothing he'd pulled from the closet. He picked through seemingly ancient pants and shirts, none of which seemed to hold any special memories or sentimental value. Must have saved these thinking I'd be too poor to buy any new ones once I got married. Jim put most of the clothing in a pile for Goodwill, with the exception of a few jerseys from his early playing days, and a college uniform or two. Those he folded, deciding he would leave them out to wear occasionally after Jean washed them. The really important and sentimental items of sports clothing such as his high school and college letterman's jackets and his first college football jersey he already had carefully stored in the hall closet.

Taking care of the clothing made the mess in the bedroom look more organized. Jim took a moment to bag up the clothing to be donated, and compacted the trash into another bag. Hey, this looks almost doable now. With any luck, I'll have time for a late afternoon nap.

The next box Jim picked to investigate seemed sturdier and in better shape than the others. It had been sealed carefully with duct tape, and even had the word "Jean" written over the tape. Is this Jean's box? Can't be. She'd never use duct tape to seal up a box. Besides, that's my chicken scratch. Jim tentatively shook the box, and heard the rattle of papers inside. Oh, I know what this is, I think. Jim tore the tape off the box and opened it. Oh, yeah. Just what I thought.

Jim reached in and pulled a plastic-wrapped pile of envelopes from the box. Jean's love letters to me. Jim felt a little thrill pass through his body, thinking of how he'd anticipated getting Jean's letters when they dated. Even if it had only been a day since they'd seen each other, he still wanted a new letter from her. If he didn't find one somewhere, tucked into a book, or his coat pocket, or receive one in the mail, he'd merely read the older ones again. Jean made writing love letters an art form. I don't know how she found chances to sneak those things into my stuff. But they were always the highlight of my day. I could never bear to lose these.

Jim carefully opened the plastic and fingered the envelopes and loose letters, now looking a little dingier than they had nine years earlier. They no longer exuded the delicate scents that Jean would spray onto the letters, but Jim could remember the aromas of roses, orange blossoms and Jean's favorite scent, White Shoulders, as if they still clung to the papers. Looking at Jean's eloquent handwriting evoked still other memories of reading her letters when he should have been taking notes in class, or studying for an exam in the library, or even working at one of the myriad of part-time jobs he had. Even now, Jean still took time to write him notes that she'd stick in his brown-bag lunches or slip into a pocket of one of his uniforms so that he'd discover them unexpectedly during a shift. And getting them still thrills me. I still love reading her love letters. Pete tolerated the giddiness that reading one of the notes usually sparked in Jim with patient amusement. In fact, Jim often suspected Pete helped Jean park some of those notes in unexpected places. How else could a note have gotten into the hot sheet desk of Adam-12 one day during a particularly rough week?

Jim thumbed through the letters, looking for a couple in particular he wanted to read before he got back to his work. He found one of them near the bottom of the stack. He grinned and pulled the envelope out, and carefully lifted the letter, written on delicate, almost translucent paper, from the envelope and unfolded it. The very first one she wrote to me. Sunday night, right after our very first official date. Jim ran his hands over the paper and read the first few lines aloud. "Dear Jim, I want to tell you what a wonderful time I had this afternoon. I've never felt this way about anyone before in my life." Jim paused, already drawn back to nine years ago when a shared chocolate milkshake led to a lifetime of love...


Jim awoke on Sunday morning following the eventful Bellmont basketball game feeling chilled, sore, and still tired. He swiveled his head to look at the clock and regretted it immediately; the knot on his head reminded him that a night's sleep hadn't made it magically disappear. It's 10:35! Dad let me sleep in. Good thing. What a night.

Jim had easily made it home by his 11:30 deadline, feeling oddly deflated and anxious, rather than on the giddy high he'd been on most of the night. His father had questioned him briefly about the date, and Jim had given him a succinct and rather sanitized version of events. The aches and pains, no longer held at bay by adrenaline or anticipated romance, demanded attention and suddenly made him feel the depth of his fatigue. Luckily, his father had picked up on his somber mood, given him aspirin and packed him off to bed without pressing for too many details.

Sleep had been elusive, even though he had been exhausted. Jim wanted to fall asleep thinking of the gorgeous Jean Smithson, and how he had felt in her presence; instead, Dwight Murphy's angry, drunken face kept shoving the nicer vision out of the way. Jim wondered if he'd handled the situation correctly. Jean seemed to have been pleased, but had he really done the right thing? He wondered if he should have told the manager that Dwight had been drinking. He wondered if that had been mean-spirited and vindictive, and wondered if Dwight had gone to jail. Those insecurities, and the nagging aches, had followed him into his dreams, disturbing his sleep.

Jim rolled over stiffly and sat up, favoring his bruised hip. How come it didn't hurt like this last night? He stretched and reached for his robe that had fallen to a crumpled heap on the floor. Jim shrugged into it and stood up. He took a couple of steps and winced when his hip protested. Shake it off. Shake it off or Dad won't let you go out with Jean today.

Thinking of Jean sent a little anticipatory shiver through his body, but fear took the pleasurable edge off that anticipation. What's the matter with me? I've met the most fantastic girl in the world. She likes me. I can't wait to see her again. What am I scared of?

Jim sighed, opened his door and padded down the hallway toward the kitchen, where he found his father sitting at the table reading the Sunday paper. He purposefully hid his limp as he walked in.

"Morning, Dad. Thanks for letting me sleep."

"Morning, son." John Reed lowered the section of the paper he'd been reading and looked at Jim with a critical eye. "Doesn't look like you did much sleeping."

"I'm all right." Jim grabbed a glass and poured himself a glass of orange juice. He gulped it down standing at the refrigerator door and poured himself another one.

"Want some eggs and bacon?" His father asked.

"Too much trouble," Jim shook his head.

"Consider it lunch," John Reed put down the paper and went to the refrigerator to gather supplies. "Besides, I'm hungry, too."

"Okay," Jim grinned.

"There's a pretty good article in the sports about last night's game," John said, as he lay a few strips of bacon into a skillet. "To read it, somebody might think you played a pretty good game," he teased.

"Good press doesn't hurt," Jim said. He reached for the sports section.

"As long as you don't let it go to your head."


Jim read the article as his father prepared them a late breakfast/early lunch. As usual, the written word hardly began to capture the intensity and emotion of the actual event. At least not for me. But I had lots on my mind. I wonder if Jean's Dad will let her go out with me this afternoon. I've got to see her again, soon. I need to know if this is real. If it's what I think it might be.

"Jim." John Reed's voice broke into his thoughts.

"Huh?" Jim jumped.

"For the third time, how do you want your eggs?"

"Sorry. Ummm, I guess fried."

"Okay, fried it is."

Jim cleared the paper from the table and got them both some juice from the refrigerator. By the time he'd done that and gotten them silverware, his father slid their plates on the table, complete with toast.

They ate in silence, a common occurrence since the death of his mother, but Jim could feel his father's gaze fall on him with more frequency than usual. He tried to think of something to say; a way to ask his father some of the questions that burned inside him. Only he couldn't seem to formulate the feelings into a question. I don't even know what to ask. Why is this so hard?

Jim decided to start with the practical. "Dad?"

"Yes, Jim?" His father answered quickly, almost anxiously, Jim thought.

"Uh, Dad, is it okay if I go out with Jean for a couple of hours this afternoon?"

John Reed frowned. "This afternoon?"

"Yessir," Jim looked up and searched his father's eyes for anger, but found only concern. "We just didn't get enough time together last night. I was late getting there, and then Dwight Murphy butted in, and she had to be home by eleven." Jim took a deep breath. "I just need...want to spend some more time with her."

"Looks to me like you could better spend the time resting. You're still favoring that hip. And I know you didn't sleep well last night. I heard you moving around most of the night."

Did he stay up all night listening? "Sorry if I kept you up."

John shook his head. "Nah. But maybe you'd be better off waiting until next weekend to see her again."

"Dad," Jim dipped his head, frustration rising in him. He would burst if he had to wait that long. The uncertainties would be unbearable. How can I make him understand? "I really need to see her again. It's important." He lifted his head to meet his father's gaze again.

"That's what you said last night," John reminded him. "And I agreed against my better judgment. You seemed so excited I didn't have the heart to say no. But when you came home you seemed, I don't know -- deflated? Disappointed? I thought you might have decided she wasn't as great as you thought."

"Oh, no, that's not it," Jim shook his head. "She's great! She's wonderful. In fact, I think she's..." Jim stopped himself, feeling foolish.

His father arched his eyebrows at him and his face twisted into a semi-amused look.

"She's great," Jim repeated, unsuccessfully trying to keep from blushing. "But we didn't have enough time to even talk. Dad, I wouldn't ask if it wasn't important. I don't think I can wait a week."

John's eyebrows arched even higher. "She must be something really special."

"She is! At least, I think she is. And that's the problem. I need to be sure."

"There's always the telephone."

"The tele--you can't decide something like this over the telephone!"

John sat back in his chair, all traces of amusement eliminated from his expression. "Something like what? What is it you're trying so hard not to say?"

If I knew, I wouldn't be feeling like this. If I knew, I wouldn't feel like I'm about to throw up my breakfast. Jim shook his head. "Nothing. Never mind." He pushed his plate away and scraped his chair backward so he could leave.

"Jim." John Reed stopped him with a word and an outstretched hand.

Jim stopped but didn't look at his father. The silence stretched long between them, and Jim fought to keep his face neutral.

"The heart is a tricky thing," John Reed finally said. "You've known this girl less than a day. Don't confuse love with desire."

Jim swallowed but still could not bring himself to look at his father. Is that what I'm doing? Have I let her beauty blind me? Is that what I'm afraid of? Jim remembered the thrill that went through his body when he looked at her or touched her. Maybe it is just physical. But then he remembered the way her voice and her laugh moved him, and how he felt warmed when she spoke of her love for a home and family. It can't just be that. I'm so confused. "That's what I have to decide," he finally managed to choke out.

Another long silence followed. "I can't tell you how to feel," John said after a while. "I can only say go slowly. You're only seventeen. Remember that."

It rankled Jim to hear his father say that, even though he understood the wisdom of it. Anger surged through him. "You were seventeen when you met Mom," he blurted, then immediately regretted it.

His father stayed quiet so long that Jim finally felt compelled to raise his eyes and look at John Reed. "I'm sorry, Dad. I shouldn't have..."

"Yes, you should have," John said, though his voice sounded strained. "Just because we lost...we lost your mother doesn't mean we should lose the memories." A wistful look crossed the elder Reed's face, and he focused on a spot on the far wall. "I was seventeen when I met your Mom. And it didn't take me very long to realize that there was nobody else like her. Nobody."

Jim felt a lump rise in his own throat as he heard his father talk about his mother with such a bittersweet tone. The pain of their loss still stung deeply. A thousand thoughts and emotions swirled inside him, but he still could form no words.

"Go on your date," John said quietly. "Be home by six-thirty. Your sister's expecting us for dinner at seven."

"Thanks, Dad," Jim said.

"Why don't you go take a long, hot shower, and maybe you can get rid of that limp," John said as he got up from the table. "I'll clean up here."

"I can help you."

"No, you go on and shower. And if you have any schoolwork to do, get it done before you go out this afternoon."

"Yes, sir."

Jim spent a long time showering and getting ready. He wanted to look as good as he possibly could for this important date. If she gets to go. God, please let her father say yes. And don't let me look like an idiot when I meet him. Jim shaved twice, hating the fact that he'd inherited his father's heavy and fast-growing facial hair. He meticulously combed his hair into place and hoped he had enough Brylcream in it to keep it in place. He spent nearly a half-hour picking out what to wear. I don't want to look like a nerd, but I want to make a good impression. Not for the first time, he wished that he could ask his mother for her opinion. She always knew what to do. She'd always tell me the truth.

Jim finally settled on a pair of khaki pants, white shirt, and plain blue sweater that his sister had given him at Christmas. He polished his loafers and put them on, too, though he thought that bordered on nerdom, and he'd have been more comfortable in his tennis shoes. He shook his head as he surveyed himself in the mirror. Too skinny. Too dorky looking. I hate my nose. Why can't I look like Troy Donahue? Too late to worry about that stuff now.

Jim sighed and moved to his desk, deciding he should study for his Monday physics test while he waited for the time to crawl to two o'clock. An hour and a half and I can talk to her again. He opened the book, pulled out his notes he'd folded into the chapter, and started reading. Unfortunately, Jim's mind focused more on Jean Smithson's face, the memories of last night, and the uncertainties of the afternoon than on his angular momentum problems, and he spent most of the hour and a half watching the clock and dreaming of the possibilities of the day.

As soon as the clock ticked to two, Jim slammed his physics book shut and limped out into the hallway to the phone. When Jane had turned fifteen, his father had put an extra long cord onto the phone so she could use it in her room. Jim had often been glad for that long cord, himself, and never moreso than today. He pulled the phone into his room, shut the door, and retrieved the paper Jean had written her phone number on out of his billfold. Jim unfolded the paper and marveled once again at Jean's fluid, elaborate, yet neat handwriting. Even an address and phone number looked elegant written that way.

Jim dialed the number, not a bit surprised that his hands shook. When he heard the first ring, he cleared his throat and prayed Jean would answer the phone and not her father. In the middle of the second ring, someone picked up, and Jim's heart fluttered when he heard Jean's sweet voice sound over the handset.


Jim decided to play it safe, in case her mother or sister sounded like her. "May I speak with Jean, please?"

"It's me, Jim," Jean said.

"Hi," Jim said, relieved that Jean had answered. "How are you?"

"I'm great. How are you? Are you sore today?"

"Maybe a little. Not too bad. So, uh, can you go this afternoon?"

"I had to beg a little," Jean giggled, "but Daddy finally said yes."

"Oh, good," Jim said. He tried to sound cool about it, but inside his heart did handsprings. "What time can I pick you up?"

"Daddy and Momma want to meet you," Jean said, her voice almost a whisper. "Why don't you get here about 2:30 and after they meet you we can go. Daddy says I have to be home by dark."

"Okay." Jim flicked his gaze to the clock. "I'm ready now. I'll be there by 2:30."

"You remember how to get here, don't you?"

"Sure," Jim said, with a lot more confidence than he felt.

"I'll be looking for you," Jean said. "I've got to go finish getting ready. Bye."

"Bye." Jim hung up the phone, and rushed it back to its stand in the hall. He ran back to the bathroom and made one final inspection, grabbed his billfold and ran into the living room, under protest from his bruised hip. "Dad! Dad!" he called, looking around for his father.

"In the kitchen, son."

Jim loped into the kitchen and found his father sitting at the table paying bills.

"I'm about to leave, Dad," Jim said. He rifled through the Sunday LA Times, looking for a section of the paper.

"So your date is on, huh?"

"Yessir," Jim said, as he found the section he wanted.

"What are you looking for?"

"Nothing. Just checking on something." Jim scanned the page for the information he wanted and folded the paper back. "Her parents want to meet me, so I'm heading over there now. I'll be back a little after six."

"Where are you going?"

Jim shrugged. "Probably over to the Spinning Wheel for a shake. Then maybe a drive down the beach or to the park. She has to be back before dark."

"Her father sounds like a wise fella," John smiled. "You remember your manners, Jim."

"I will. See you later," Jim headed for the front door even as his father admonished him to drive carefully.

I shoulda cleaned the car this morning before I showered. She'll see all the dirt in the daylight. No time now. Jim slid in, cranked the car, and headed into the street. He found an old hand towel in the glove compartment, and as he got caught by traffic signals, he'd swipe at the dash, or the passenger seat. He even polished up the gear shift and the area over the speedometer, then stuffed the towel under his seat. All the while, his thoughts whirled. His stomach knotted in anticipation, both of seeing Jean again and of having to meet her parents.

The light Sunday traffic flowed well, and Jim's memory did not fail him. As he drew closer to Bradford Drive, his heart beat faster and he broke out in a cold sweat. Don't let me make a fool out of myself. I've got to make a good impression on her family. The same life-and-death feeling that plagued him last night settled over him once again. This has to go well. It has to.

Jim signaled and turned onto Bradford drive. Number 326 looked even more impressive in the daylight. Her Dad must be good at what he does. This is a great house. Jim could see the small touches around the house, both in the yard and on the porch, that spoke of care and attention given to it. The paint job on the house looked fresh and the whole setting seemed inviting. Jim turned his car into the driveway and killed the engine. He wiped his sweaty palms on his pants legs, took a deep breath, and got out.

Jim's stomach took up residence somewhere in the base of his throat. This must be what a convict feels like walking the last mile. He swallowed hard and took another deep breath when he came to the door. Okay, this is it. Don't blow it. Jim rang the doorbell, then bounced up and down on the balls of his feet waiting impatiently for it to be answered.

After a few moments Jim heard heavy footsteps and the door opened with a jerk. Jim found himself standing facing the man who'd peeked at him from behind the lace curtains last night. The same scowl that had covered Jean Smithson's father's face appeared there again. Only it didn't seem quite so intimidating today, because Jim stood a full head taller than the slightly-built, sandy-haired man standing in the door. "Yes?" the man growled.

Jim covered his surprise at the man's smaller stature, and prayed his voice wouldn't fail him. "I'm Jim Reed, sir," Jim said. "I'm here to see Jean."

The man Jim assumed to be Jean's father looked him over for almost a full thirty seconds, during which time Jim tried not to squirm. He could feel a cold sweat trickling down his back, and hoped desperately that he didn't look as nervous as he felt. Hemay be short, but he can look mean. I hope he doesn't have a shotgun hidden behind the couch.

"I'm Dan Smithson," Jean's father finally spoke and extended his hand. Jim took it and shook it firmly, as his father had taught him. A man's handshake is a measure of his character, his father always said. "Come in," Mr. Smithson continued.

"Thank you, sir," Jim said. He stepped into the living room and Mr. Smithson shut the door behind him. Jim looked around, as impressed with the inside of the house as he had been the outside. The furnishings, though modest, gave the impression of warmth and comfort. The room practically shone with cleanliness and smelled of a mixture of Sunday lunch and a flower garden. It reminded Jim much of the way his home looked and felt while his mother still tended to it.

"Jeannie's still upstairs getting dressed," Mr. Smithson said. "You know girls, they have to make a grand entrance."

"Yes, sir," Jim agreed.

"Marge, Jim Reed's here," Mr. Smithson called.

A muffled voice came from the direction of the kitchen. "I'll be right out, dear."

Mr. Smithson walked around Jim and settled himself in an over-stuffed easy chair, as the door to the kitchen swung open and an attractive woman who looked amazingly like Jean walked through. A taller, blonde, young woman followed on her heels. Jim remained standing.

"Hello, Jim," the woman greeted him with a warm smile and an outstretched hand. Jim took it and shook it more gently than he had Mr. Smithson's. "I'm Marge Smithson, Jean's mother. This is her older sister, Annie."

"Nice to meet you, Mrs. Smithson. Annie," Jim smiled shyly and nodded in the sister's direction.

"Annie, go tell your sister her date is here," Mrs. Smithson said.

Annie gave Jim a lengthy once-over, not unlike the one Mr. Smithson had favored him with. "Okay, momma," she said, then, and headed up the stairs.

Jim began to feel like a piece of meat in the butcher shop. More sweat ran down his back. Don't do anything stupid, Jim.

"Jim, please sit down," Mrs. Smithson said. She indicated the sofa, so Jim took a seat on the edge of it, though it made his hip ache to perch there.

"Thank you, ma'am."

Mr. Smithson cleared his throat. "So, Jim, you're a senior at Westlawn," he stated.

"Yes, sir," Jim said with a nod.

"And apparently a pretty good athlete, from what I read in the papers," Mr. Smithson continued.

"Thank you, sir," Jim said.

"Seems like every Saturday I see your name in the paper for some sports related accomplishment. You have plans to go tocollege and play sports?"

"I hope to, sir. I've been talking to a few schools, but I haven't made a decision yet." That's an understatement. I still don't have a clue where to go.

"You planning on making a profession out of sports?" Mr. Smithson asked. His voice sounded remarkably like an Army drill instructor. It held a no-nonsense edge that continued to make Jim sweat.

"No, sir, I don't think so, sir. I love competing, but I'll be lucky to do well at the college level. I'm just not big enough to go to the next level, except maybe in baseball, but that's my weakest sport."

"So what are you going to do with your life?"

"Dan, really," Mrs. Smithson said.

"It's a fair question," Mr. Smithson said.

He would ask that. The one question I can't answer yet. "I'm undecided at the moment, Mr. Smithson. I'm thinking I might be a teacher, or something like that. I'd like to do something useful with my life. Do something so I can make a difference in the world."

"That's nice," Mrs. Smithson said before her husband could comment. "That's an admirable goal."

"What does your father do?" Mr. Smithson asked, with a glance at his wife.

"He's a mechanical maintenance supervisor at Associated Delivery Fleet," Jim said. He felt a headache coming on, and not from the bump on his head. "He used to own a gas station but he sold it a few months ago and took that job."

"Where was the station?"

"On West Burton, 1200 block. It was a Texaco."

"Why'd he sell out? Did he get robbed or something?"

Again, Jim tried not to squirm, but he had definitely begun to feel the heat from Mr. Smithson's interrogation. I wish Jean would hurry. "He'd been robbed a couple of times, but that wasn't it. He wanted a job with more regular hours. He'd hadtrouble keeping good help and he was away from home more than he wanted to be."

"Hmmm," Mr. Smithson nodded.

"I'll bet your mother appreciated that," Mrs. Smithson said.

I'm sure she did. "Well," Jim hedged, "my mom...passed away last April. That's why Dad needed to be home more. For me, I guess." He didn't add that his father had also simply lost all interest in running the station.

Mrs. Smithson gasped quietly. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Jim. I had no idea."

"That's all right, Mrs. Smithson. Of course you couldn't know."

"So you don't have any brothers and sisters?" Mrs. Smithson asked. Her face broadcasted sincere sympathy.

"I have a sister, but she's four years older than me and already married."

"Oh, then she'd be about Annie's age," Mrs. Smithson said.

"And she's married," Mr. Smithson said sotto voce, which earned him a scowl from his wife.

"So, it's just you and your father at home?" Mrs. Smithson asked.

"Yes, ma'am, just us."

Before either of the Smithsons could say anything else, Jean appeared at the top of the staris. "Hello, Jim," she said.

Jim leapt to his feet, his heart racing. The sound of her voice still had the same effect on him today as it had the previous evening. A shiver went down his spine, and he turned to watch her come down the stairs. She's even more beautiful today. Jim smiled as Jean glided down the stairs, looking radiant in a royal blue and white polka-dotted dress. She carried a white sweater draped over an arm. Jim hardly noticed the dress. All he could see was the graceful turn of her ankles, the way her coppery hair shone and draped around her shoulders, and her beautiful, smiling face.

"Hi," he said in return, the smile widening to a full-blown grin. Seeing her made him forget about Mr. and Mrs. Smithson, the intense questioning, and his headache. In fact, his world narrowed down to only her.

Jean crossed the room to him, still all smiles.

"You look beautiful," Jim said.

"Thanks. You look good in that blue sweater."

"Thanks." Just like the night before, Jim couldn't stop staring at her. Something about her completely mesmerized him.

Mr. Smithson cleared his throat, and Jim jumped slightly.

"You met my parents, I see," Jean giggled.

"Yes," Jim nodded. "And your sister."

"Just where do you plan on taking my daughter?" Mr. Smithson asked.

"There's a place down on Greenbrier called Spinning Wheel. I thought we'd go there for a shake, since we didn't get one last night."

"And then?"

"Well, uh, I guess we'll go for a drive or something. There's a nice park nearby, with lots of trees and birds and things," Jim stammered, feeling stupid. I can't come out and say I want to be alone with her so maybe I can kiss her. He'd kill me on the spot.

"It's a little cold to be in the park, don't you think?"

"Dan, leave the poor boy alone," Mrs. Smithson frowned at her husband. "It's a very nice afternoon out. The park sounds nice."

Mr. Smithson frowned back at his wife, then turned the frown on Jim. "Have her back here before dark, young man."

"Oh, yessir. I'll have her back by 5:26."

"Five twenty-six?" Mr. Smithson's brow creased more severely.

"Yessir. That's when the paper says the sun sets today."

Mr. Smithson's eyebrows climbed up under his hairline and Mrs. Smithson covered her mouth with a hand. From the top of the stairs, Annie Smithson snorted, then laughed out loud.

"Shut up, Annie," Jean said over her shoulder.

Mr. Smithson cleared his throat again, but his expression lightened. "Is your car in good condition?"

"Daddy, please," Jean sighed.

"Oh, yes, sir," Jim said. "It's a 1950 Ford, but it's in tip top condition. My Dad and I restored her ourselves. She runs like a dream."

"Bet you enjoyed that. I like tinkering under the hood, myself, but having two daughters, well...you know." Mr. Smithson shrugged.

"Yes, sir."

"You have plenty of gas?" Mr. Smithson narrowed his eyes at Jim and Jean moaned quietly.

"I filled up yesterday before the ball game," Jim nodded.

"Daddy, may we please go now?" Jean asked impatiently.

"You'll treat my Jeannie with respect?" Mr. Smithson asked.

"I promise. Mr. Smithson, you don't have to worry. Jean's perfectly safe with me. I'm nothing like Dwight Murphy."

Mr. Smithson nodded. "I can tell that already. And by the way, Jeannie told me about how you avoided what could have been a very bad situation last night. I want you to know that I appreciate that."

"Thank you, Mr. Smithson. I wouldn't do anything to put Jean in any danger."

"Dan, let the kids go while they still have time to enjoy the afternoon," Mrs. Smithson said.

"All right, all right. Go on, have a good time." Mr. Smithson waved his hand in the direction of the door.

"Thank you, Daddy," Jean said. She walked over and kissed him on the cheek.

Jim followed and extended his hand. "It was nice to meet you, Mr. Smithson."

Mr. Smithson shook his hand warmly. "Likewise, Jim."

"You, too, Mrs. Smithson," Jim nodded to her.

Mrs. Smithson smiled at him and the resemblence between mother and her younger daughter intensified. "Have a nice time."

Jim offered Jean his arm, and she took it. He opened the door for her, then let her move through first. Jim took a deep breathonce they got outside, grateful for the fresh air, and glad to be away from Mr. Smithson's questions.

"I think I'll come check out your car," Mr. Smithson's voice sounded from behind them, and Jim's anxiety returned as Jean's father shadowed them down the porch steps.

"Daddy, please..."

"It's purple. Your car is purple." Mr. Smithson stopped at the bottom of the steps.

"Lavender, Daddy," Jean corrected. "Isn't it beautiful?"

"Umm, it's certainly unique. I assume you and your father did this, too?"

"Yes, sir. Do you want to look under the hood?" Jim asked. At least he seems to be lightening up a little bit.

Jean turned and narrowed her eyes at her father, and Jim had to work hard to keep from laughing.

"Maybe later," Mr. Smithson said.

"Bye, Daddy. I'll be home before dark," Jean said sweetly enough, but Jim noticed an underlying tone there meant to warn herfather not to delay them any longer.

Mr. Smithson sighed, as if in surrender. "Okay, princess. Jim, take care of my little girl."

"Yes, sir."

Jim opened the door for Jean and she slid into the car. He walked around to his side of the car, gave a nod to Mr. Smithson, then got in, cranked it up and backed out of the driveway at a discreet and careful pace. Only when he got to the end of the street and turned right off of Bradford Drive did Jim heave a sigh of relief.

"Oh, man, I'm glad that's over," Jim said. "How did I do?"

Jean giggled. "You did great. Daddy likes you. I can tell."

"I'd hate to see how he would act if he didn't like me."

"Oh, Daddy's bark is worse than his bite. And that's the problem -- sometimes he barks too much!"

"I don't think he likes my car."

Jean giggled again. "Don't worry about it. I like it."

"I'm glad." Jim reached out and took her hand. "I'm more glad that we're finally alone."

Jean looked up at him with those liquid brown eyes that melted Jim's heart. "Me, too."

"Is the Spinning Wheel okay? I thought we'd go there."

"Spinning Wheel's fine. But I thought Westlawn kids hung out at the Dairy Barn."

"We do. And that's exactly why I don't want to go there," Jim said. "The place will be crawling with people who'll bug us. I want to go where we're both anonymous so we won't be bothered."

"That sounds great." Jean took her free hand and smoothed out her skirt. "Except now no one will care that I wore your school colors today."

Jim looked away from the road long enough to finally notice her dress. "Hey, you did. That's great. I didn't even notice the color. I just noticed how good you look in it. You really look beautiful."

Jean blushed and dropped her eyes shyly. "Thank you. I wanted to look nice."

"You do," Jim said. He squeezed her hand gently. "But you looked nice last night, too."

"You're sweet to say so. And speaking of last night, I saw Ruthie at church this morning, and..."

"You go to church with Ruthie, too?"

"Yeah. That's how we got to be friends, as a matter of fact. But she said she stuck around Papa Bear's Den awhile, and the manager did call the police, and Dwight got arrested."

"Really? Man, I was afraid of that. That's too bad."

"What? I thought you'd be pleased."

"A part of me is," Jim admitted. "A part of me is really glad the idiot got what he deserved. But then again, another part of me thinks that maybe I shouldn't have said anything to the manager." Anger from last night still simmered under the surface, but a little irrational guilt stared to seep in as well. "But I was so angry because he was acting like such a jerk."

"That's because he is a jerk," Jean said. "And he did deserve what he got. Nobody twisted his arm to make him drink. And it's like you said. He might have gone off and gotten in an accident if the police hadn't come. As it is, maybe he learned a lesson."

"I guess you're right. Still, I hate to see somebody mess up their life. He's definitely a jerk, but he's got a lot of talent. It's stupid to waste it by making dumb decisions."

"You're very forgiving. He did try to take your head off last night."

Jim shrugged. "Life's too short to go around mad. Or doing dumb things. My Dad says that lot of kids don't realize how they can mess up their lives when they think they're just having fun. If I'd had a fight with him, I might have gotten arrested myself. Or gotten hurt so I can't play ball, then I might not be able to go to college."

"Jim, I've never met a boy like you before," Jean said.

"I hope that's a good thing," Jim said, his stomach knotting up. Does she think I'm a wimp or stupid or something?

"Oh, of course. I mean it as a compliment," Jean said. "You just seem more, well, mature than any boy I've ever been around. It's nice."

Jim didn't know whether to feel better or not. Being mature might be another way of being boring. He'd always secretly feared that he was a boring person and maybe that's why girls never seemed to like him over the long haul. Jim tried to think of a way to assure her he wasn't boring while still seeming mature, but nothing came to mind.

"That's one reason I haven't dated a lot of guys," Jean continued, seemingly oblivious to Jim's discomfort. "Daddy wouldn't let me date until I was sixteen, anyway, but there really wasn't anybody I was dying to go out with. I'd seen a lot of guys that Annie would bring home, and most of them were just plain dorky or silly or rude. Definitely immature. That just doesn't appeal to me. The few guys I've dated have pretty much all been the same. Clods. Rude. Immature." Jean sighed almost theatrically. "And then I made a dumb mistake by going out with Dwight. After that fiasco, I made a vow to myself that I wouldn't do anything stupid like that again. I vowed I wouldn't go out with guys just to be going out. I vowed I wouldn't settle for just any old guy." Jean smiled up at Jim, and it felt to him as if the sun shone from behind dark clouds. "But you're different. From the minute you ran into Ruthie I knew you were different. And everything that's happened since has reassured me that you aren't just any old guy. You're the kind of guy I've been praying to find."

Jean's words washed over Jim like a balm, soothing the knot in his stomach and easing the worry-spawned tension that had plagued him for the better part of the day. She's been looking for someone like me. And I've been looking for someone like her. And now here we are...God, this is too good to be true. He gently squeezed her hand again. His heart overflowed with emotions and words that he wanted to share with her because he somehow knew that she'd understand and approve. And in that moment, he understood himself a little better, too. Now he thought he knew why girls like Tammy Belden didn't appeal to him; why dating a different girl week after week had never been his ideal. Jean's words resonated with him, echoing almost exactly the way he felt about dating and relationships. He had been looking for a soulmate -- not a playmate.

And apparently, so had Jean Smithson. Maybe his mother's tireless praying had, indeed, paid off. Can it be? It's too good to be true.

"I'm so glad to hear you say that," Jim said. He paused to slow and make a safe left turn onto Greenbrier. He licked at dry lips before he spoke again, hoping he could trust this remarkable girl with what he wanted to say. "I've always worried that I was too boring or something. I've never dated a girl who seemed to want the same things I do out of a relationship. Don't get me wrong, I like to have fun, but the right kind of fun. I guess that sounds stupid, doesn't it?"

"It doesn't sound stupid at all," Jean said. "It makes perfect sense to me."

Jim heaved an internal sigh of relief. He still had the feeling that his future hung in the balance with this relationship. It's crazy. I've known her less than a full day. Why do I feel such desperation for this to work out? "I guess that makes you kinda different, too, huh?"

Jean giggled yet again; Jim had grown to love the sound of that girlish laugh. "I guess it does," she said.

"Here we are," Jim said, as Spinning Wheel came into view. "It doesn't look too busy."

"Good. Maybe we can get a booth in the back."

Jim looked at her, a bit surprised, but when she smiled innocently at him he had to grin back, especially when he caught the sparkle in her eyes. He remembered how she'd kicked Ruthie under the table the night before to gain them some privacy, and it made him feel good to realize privacy meant something to her, as well. It tickled him to know she had some spunk. No, make that a lot of spunk.

Jim parked the car at the end of the first row of spaces, fairly far from the door, and killed the engine. He locked his side then opened Jean's door for her. He took her hand as she slid gracefully from her side of the car and helped her out. After locking her door, they walked hand-in-hand into the Spinning Wheel. The setup inside looked predictably much like Papa Bear's Den or the Dairy Barn, with the requisite tile flooring, counter with twisting barstools, tables, juke box, and booths lining the walls. The difference in the Sunday afternoon crowd and the Saturday night crowds at an establishment like Spinning Wheel appeared to be the ages of the patrons. More couples with young children sat at the booths and tables, and even a few of the over-fifty crowd sipped on sodas and munched burgers.

"Different clientele on Sunday afternoons," Jim said.

"Really," Jean agreed. "Families on a Sunday afternoon outing, I suppose."

"Yeah. And we're in luck...the corner booth is empty." Jim pointed to the back corner booth near the jukebox.


Jim walked her back to the booth and seated her on one of the red vinyl cushions, then fished a dime out of his pocket. "What do you want to hear?" he asked, nodding toward the jukebox.

"Oh, something quiet. See if they have Ricky's Lonesome Town. I've always liked that one. Then you pick something you like."

"Okay." Jim mulled over the choices. Luckily, the box carried a large selection of older tunes as well as current hits, so he was able to find Jean's pick. He chose Elvis's Don't Be Cruel for himself, programmed the choices and dropped in the dime. Soon, the gentle strains of Lonesome Town filled the air.

"That's nice, thank you," Jean said, as Jim took a seat opposite her in the booth.

"Now for the milkshake we never got last night. Or would you like something else?"

"I had a really big lunch," Jean said. "Why don't we share a milkshake?"

That sounded good to Jim. Sharing meant being close, and he certainly wanted to be close to her. "Sure. What flavor?"

"Chocolate, of course," Jean said.

Jim grinned. "One chocolate shake with two straws coming right up. I'll be right back."

Jim went to the counter and ordered the largest chocolate shake on the menu. When the soda jerk brought it to him and he'd paid, Jim took two straws and headed back to the booth. Jean had slid back toward the corner of her seat, and she patted the bench next to her.

"If we're going to share, you should sit next to me," she said shyly.

Jim had no objection to that. "All right." He slid into the booth next to her and put the shake on the table.

"Looks delicious," Jean said. She scooted over closer to Jim and put her straw into the shake.

Jim stuck his own straw in and took a long draw. Jean took a more delicate sip, but they both agreed the taste was excellent. As they continued to drink, mostly in silence, they drifted closer to one another, and Jim slipped his arm around her to draw her in close to him. Jean didn't object, and even snuggled deeper into his embrace as they shared the creamy treat.

Their proximity and touching made Jim's heart race. He had a hard time not staring at her lips curled around the straw and not thinking about kissing her right there in the booth. Her body fit so nicely under his arm; it felt natural for her to be there. The skin of her cheek was smooth and soft where it brushed up against his own as they drank. He had been out with girls before who he'd held and kissed, but the feelings had been so different from what he experienced now. Before, the thrill had merely been physical. With Jean, he certainly had the physical thrill, but it went much deeper, as if the feelings sprang directly from his inner heart. He felt at peace. He'd certainly never experienced that with a girl before.

"This is wonderful," Jean said, after a few minutes.

"It sure is," Jim said, and he didn't mean the taste of the shake. He gently stroked her upper arm where his hand rested and Jean seemed to melt herself even more closely to his chest. She slipped her arm around Jim's waist hesitantly, but Jim smiled at her encouragingly, and she tightened her hold on him.

Jim thought he might stop breathing. His head spun with excitement. He took another long draw on the straw, hoping the cool shake would distract him. Unfortunately, he gulped so quickly, his straw shifted in the glass and he drew up more air than shake. A loud shlurrrp interrupted Elvis and broke the romantic mood as well.

Jean looked at him and burst out laughing. Jim's face flamed red. "Sorry," he apologized. "I, uh..." Jim started laughing, too, as Jean's joyful chortling proved infectious. Somehow, Jim knew it was laughter born from acceptance and not ridicule.

"It's okay," Jean's laughter died down to her signature giggle. She patted Jim's knee with her free hand. "I'm sorry, I thought it was funny."

"I guess it was," Jim said. He adjusted his straw and took a more discreet sip. Jean did the same, though the laughter never left her eyes. I could stare into those eyes forever.

"Look over there," Jean said, her gaze shifting as another laugh sounded in the Spinning Wheel, this one decidedly child-like.

"Where?" Jim twisted his head to follow Jean's gaze.

"That little girl," Jean said, nodding toward a table where a family sat, and a little girl, looking to be two or three, ran rings around their table, her dark pigtails wagging as she frolicked happily. Jean giggled. "She hasn't sat still a minute since we've been in here. She's wearing her mother out."

"I wish I had all that energy," Jim said. "I could rack up 300 yards in a game."

"She's a little doll," Jean said.

"Yeah," Jim agreed. He grinned as the mother had to get up and physically track the child down from where she'd run to a booth and started chattering at the elderly couple sitting there. But then he turned his attention back to his own little doll, and caught her eyes. "But I'd rather look at you."

Jean blushed and giggled yet again. She sipped at the shake, now almost depleted.

Jim resumed stroking her arm and moved his face to touch hers again. The feeling of peace and safety with the undercurrent of excitement returned full force. His father's words came back to him from earlier that morning: don't confuse love with desire. Jim looked straight into Jean Smithson's deep brown eyes, and as she looked back, what passed between them settled the issue for Jim. Sure, I desire her. I'd be crazy if I didn't. She's gorgeous. But there's more here. I know it. I can see it. This is pure. This is good. This is...love. Oh, man. I said it. I said it.

"A penny for your thoughts," Jean whispered.

"What's your middle name?" Jim asked, drawing himself back from the depths of her eyes. It's way too early to say the 'l' word out loud.

"What?" Jean looked at him in confusion.

"What's your middle name?"

"Louise," Jean said.

"Jean Louise." Jim said aloud, but his mind continued the thought. Jean Louise Reed. That sounds great. "I noticed that your Dad and Ruthie, and even Dwight called you 'Jeannie.' Is that what you want me to call you, too?"

Jean shook her head and made a face. "That's a nickname I got when I was a little girl. My sister, Ann Marie, got dubbed 'Annie' and I got stuck with 'Jeannie." I'm used to my family and my long-time friends calling me that, but I don't really like it. It makes me sound like a little girl. And I'm not a little girl any more. I'm a woman." She looked into Jim's eyes. "At least that's what you said last night. So I'd like you to call me Jean."

Jim swallowed hard. "Jean it is," he whispered. For always. Jim fought against the overwhelming urge to kiss her. Not in here. Someplace more romantic, so it'll be special. "Let's get out of here, okay?"

Jean nodded. "Okay."

They extricated themselves from their awkward embrace long enough to get out of the booth, but once out, they entertwined their arms once again. The older couple that the rambunctious little girl had chattered at were leaving as well. They smiled at Jim and Jean, who paused to let their elders get to the door first.

"Thank you, dears," the woman said.

"You're welcome," Jim and Jean said together.

The older man opened the door for his companion, and she passed through.

"Come on, youngsters," the man beckoned, waving to Jim and Jean.

"Thank you, sir," Jean said. She and Jim walked through the door.

"Ah, you're welcome," the man said. "My Betty and I were your age once, and we used to walk like Siamese Twins, too." He laughed heartily, let the door go and joined his wife.

Jim and Jean looked at each other and laughed too, especially when the older gentleman made an issue of putting his arm around his wife as they walked toward their car.

"Siamese twins, huh?" Jim said.

"That's what he said. Aren't they cute?"

Before he could agree, Jim caught a blur of motion out of the corner of his eye, and the little girl who had been whirling around inside streaked past him, into the parking lot, obviously chasing the older couple.

"Jim, look!" Jean exclaimed, and almost simultaneously the child's mother called from the doorway, her voice panicked.

"Trixie! Stop!"

"I've got her," Jim yelled. He dropped his hold on Jean, and within two quick strides, his long legs brought him even with the child. He scooped her up safely into his arms. "Whoa there, Trixie," he said, giving the girl's tummy a tickle. "You shouldn't run away from your mommy like that."

The child looked at him, her eyes wide. She puckered up as if she would cry, obviously frightened of this strange man holding her, but Jim gave her his best smile as he turned and walked back to her mother. "See, there's mommy," he said soothingly. "You scared her by running away."

"Oh, thank you, young man," the girl's mother said breathlessly, relief evident on her face. "She's always running away from me like that. She took a liking to that couple, I guess because they remind her of her grandma and grandpa. Thank you so much for grabbing her! I never could have caught up with her."

"You're welcome. I'm glad I was standing out here." Jim tickled the little girl once more before handing her back over to her mother. She is a cute little thing. Trixie giggled and hugged her mother tightly. "She's got a lot of energy," Jim said, as Jean joined him. Jim slipped his arm around her waist.

"You don't know the half of it," the woman said, wrestling with the wiggling girl. "At least not now. But you will one day," she added with a wink at them both. "Thanks again."

"You're welcome," Jim said.

Jim and Jean watched her disappear back into the Spinning Wheel, scolding her tiny daughter, then turned and headed for the car.

"Jim, the hero," Jean teased. "Every time we're together, something dramatic happens. What do you have planned for our next date?"

Jim tried not to flush, but his face burned anyway. For better or worse, their short acquaintance had already had its share of exhilarating moments. It had been no big deal to intercept the tot before she fell or ran into traffic, but it made him feel good inside to know he'd done something helpful. He chanced a look at Jean, and the admiration he saw in her eyes banished his embarrassment and enhanced his feeling of satisfaction. Again, her open, trusting expression and her lovely lips beckoned to him. All he longed for now was a quiet moment so he could kiss her. "Maybe if we just sit in the car and listen to the radio things will calm down," he said.

"Oh, I don't know, if dating you is going to be this exciting, we certainly won't be bored, now, will we?"

"I guess not."

"By the way, you really looked cute holding that little Trixie. You look natural holding a child."

"You think so?"

Jean nodded. "I do. I baby-sit a lot and I watch moms and dads with their kids. You'll make a good daddy. I can tell."

"Thanks." Jim ducked his head, pleased, but a little overwhelmed by some of the topics of conversation he and Jean had engaged in so early in their relationship. It feels like things are moving so fast. But it still feels right. Jim fished his keys out of his pocket and opened Jean's door. Once he'd settled her in, he opened his own side and sat down behind the wheel. "So, do you want to go to the park and walk? Feed the ducks, maybe?"

"Sounds wonderful. Anywhere you're with me sounds wonderful." Jean pierced him with that intense, smoldering, yet completely innocent look that took his breath away. He'd wanted to take her to the park and ask for his first kiss near the fountain, with the sun setting in the distance...but he no longer wanted to wait that long.

"Jean..." he said, brushing her hair away from her face with his right hand. His heart pounded as he returned Jean's intense gaze with one of his own. Something about her eyes drew him in and almost drowned him with their depths.

"Yes, Jim?" Jean leaned closer to him, her eyes still holding his.

"May I...may I kiss you?"

Jean smiled and nodded wordlessly. Her eyes said all that needed to be said.

Jim gently pulled her to him, though the gearshift made getting too close a little difficult. But once their lips met, logistics no longer mattered. The taste and feel of her lips made him completely forget where he was and who he was. All he knew was the intense pleasure that holding her and kissing her gave him. After a few breathless moments, they broke their kiss, but only pulled away far enough to look back into each other's eyes.

Jean reached up and touched Jim's cheek, then ran trembling fingers over his lips. He kissed them lightly, then grasped her hand and kissed it again, pressing it against his mouth. Their gaze never wavered, and after only a beat they kissed again, holding each other more tightly, their kiss more passionate, longer, and most importantly, full of promise for what the future would hold for them.


Jim read over the remainder of Jean's heart-felt first love letter to him, the warm feeling he got from the memories of that incredible first date made more intense by realizing what a true miracle it had been that they had found one another. The last line of the letter jumped out at him, profoundly prophetic. I know this is only the beginning for us.

Jim tenderly folded the letter and put it back in its envelope, a knowing smile stealing across his features. We didn't leave that parking lot until 5:15. And we only left then because we knew that if she didn't get home by sundown her father would have had a stroke. But after just that brief time together, we both knew it would be us, together, forever. At age 17, I was hooked for life. Pete's right. He said I was born domesticated, and I guess I really was.

Jim sighed and resealed the letters in plastic. He would have liked to have taken the time to read them all, but he knew he'd never finish the job at hand if he did. But Jim didn't want to pack them in a box to be forgotten. I need a special place for these; somewhere I can get to them easily to read them if I want. Maybe we'll even read some of them tonight. Bring back those memories of when we dreamed of the times we have now. Thank God we can do more than just kiss these days.

Jim knew that Jean kept the letters he'd managed to write back to her during their courtship in a special box in the top of their bedroom closet, so he took the letters and his jerseys he'd laid on the bed, and made his way to their bedroom. He put the jerseys in a drawer, and then fished the box of love letters out of the top of the closet. He didn't open the box, but placed it on their dresser and lay the letters he'd found on top of it. Jim would let her make the call if they should share the same space. My letters are clumsy and stupid compared to her epics, but just like us, I think they should be together.

Jim went back to the spare bedroom, determined to finish this chore up quickly. Finding Jean's old letters had stirred memories and feelings that made him want to make this evening together very special for them both. Maybe I'll take her out to dinner. Wherever she wants. And then we can come back and spend the rest of the evening in each other's arms. He picked up the box closest to him, surprised at how lightweight it felt compared to its size. He shook it and again heard the unmistakable sound of papers rattling. Not more letters.

Jim tore the top off the box to reveal a tangled mismash of newspapers and newspaper clippings. "Oh, brother," he muttered aloud. "Why on earth would I pick a box this big to put these papers in? I must have been in a hurry when I packed these up." He rummaged gently through the box to get a true measure of their volume. "It'll take more than a shoe box, but less than one of these other boxes." Jim thought a moment, then remembered he had a brand new box in the garage that would be exactly the right size -- once he took the eight quarts of oil out of it.

Jim dashed out to the garage and tiptoed through the yard equipment and tools to retrieve the box off a high shelf at the back of the garage. This should be my next project. Getting my garage cleaned up. He opened the box, removed the eight quarts of oil and lined them up carefully on the shelf. After I change the oil. Gotta do that before the fishing trip. He took the box back into the house, pausing briefly at the back sliding door to enjoy the warm sunshine on his face. Man, what a great day. And I'm stuck inside. He forced himself to go back inside, spurred on by the fact that if he finished, he could take a brief nap out on the patio in the sunshine.

"Okay, back to it," Jim muttered to himself. He picked up the large box and started pulling out the papers to organize them into a more coherent system. He put the whole newspapers or newspaper sections in one pile on the bed, and made a separate pile for the loose clippings.

Jim took a moment to look over some of the papers. Most of them were sports sections from local papers that had either pictures of Jim in action or articles that focused on his accomplishments. One in particular caused him to pause and grin, and take a moment to relive a shining moment in his sports career -- the night in his senior season at Westlawn that he gained over 300 all-purpose yards. Between a long punt return for a touchdown, and a spectacular night rushing, he'd been able to amass the large amount of yardage. That game had been a turning point; after that, colleges really started to take more interest in him.

Jim carefully folded the big papers and placed them in the bottom of the smaller box he'd retrieved from the garage. Jimmy'll be interested in seeing these when he's a little older. Pete might get a kick out of them now. I'll make sure I put this box where I can get to it in case I decide to show off my clippings sometime soon.

Jim then started putting the individual articles on top, but when he picked up one very small article, he noticed it wasn't a sports clipping, but a copy of his and Jean's engagement announcement from the Times.

"How'd this get in here?" Jim asked himself. "No telling." He read the small blurb that described his and Jean's upcoming nuptials. The short text didn't begin to describe the circumstances that surrounded that proposal and the events leading up to their wedding.

Jim chuckled to himself. "Boy, they make it sound so easy," he said, with a shake of his head. But I wasn't sure I would make it through that day...


Jim looked into the bathroom mirror, smoothed down a few stray hairs with his comb, adjusted the knot of his tie, then took a deep breath and cleared his throat.

"Mr. Smithson," he said into the mirror, putting the most sincere look on his face he could muster, "I love your daughter. I want your permission to marry her." Jim sighed and shook his head. "No, no, that's too demanding. Try again." Jim squared his shoulders and looked back into the mirror. "Mr. Smithson, you know I'm in love with your daughter. I want to spend the rest of my life with her. But I need your permission."

Jim turned away from the mirror in frustration. "That's not right, either. I'm gonna marry her whether he says I can or not. I don't need his permission." He sighed again, mainly to try to cleanse the butterflies out of his gut. "But I would like his blessing. It means so much to Jean. And it'd be easier to start out a marriage with happy in-laws." Marriage. In-laws. Oh, God, am I ready for this step? The butterflies didn't leave his gut; they seemed to multiply. I want to be with her so much. I love her. I want to marry her. But I'm still scared. Am I really ready to be a husband? Maybe a father, soon?

Jim's knees went rubbery on him, the way he felt after running a set of 20 suicidesin basketball practice. Sweat broke out on his face, and he sat down hard on the edge of his toilet, feeling certain he would throw up at any second. Somehow, thinking about being a husband and a father scared him senseless. But it's what I want. I want to be with Jean for the rest of my life. I know that. Jim swallowed back the onslaught of nausea and took a deep breath. "This is what I want," he said aloud. "There's nothing to be afraid of. Marriage and a home and a family -- that's what I want."

Jim swiped the sweat from his forehead and got to his feet, still feeling a bit shaky. He studied his reflection in the mirror once again and took another deep breath. "This is what you want. To spend the rest of your life with Jean Louise Smithson by your side." What if Mr. Smithson says no? "He won't say no. And if he does, I'll...I'll marry her anyway. Because I love her." What if Jean says no? "Of course she won't say no," Jim said to his reflection. "We've talked about it. Endlessly. For over two years. This is what she wants, too. She's been waiting for you to ask her."

"Jim, son, what are you doing?" John Reed's voice sounded from outside the bathroom door, startling Jim out of his dialogue with himself.

"Uh, nothing, Dad, uh, just finishing up in here." Jim swiped at his hair once more and wiped the last of the perspiration from his face.

"It's almost 2 o'clock," John said, then stopped to cough. He cleared his throat and continued, "Your sister isn't going to be able to keep Jean occupied all afternoon."

"I'm coming out," Jim said. Dad can't shake his cold. I hope I don't get it. Jim opened the bathroom door. His father stood in the hallway, arms crossed over his chest, stifling another cough. In the dim light of the hallway, his father looked a bit sallow, and for the first time Jim noticed that his father's face looked thinner. Man, this might be more than a cold. Maybe he's got the flu.

"Are you all right?" John asked, trying to keep a grin from his face.

"Sure," Jim said, shaking off his worries about his father's health.

"You don't look all right," John teased. "Relax, Jim. Everything's going to be okay."

Jim shrugged. "I know. I'm just a little nervous, I guess."

"That's normal," John said, then coughed again.

"Dad, you need to go to the doctor about that cough," Jim said.

"It's just a nasty cold," John said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Did you hear me say that it's nearly 2:00? By the time you get over to the Smithson's and take care of business, you'll be lucky if you get away before Jane brings Jean back home."

"I know, I know," Jim said, feeling the butterflies kick in again. "I've just got to get my jacket and I can get outta here. I must be crazy for trying to surprise Jean with this. I'm sure she suspects something is up." Jim went to his bedroom and retrieved his sport coat from the closet. He checked the pocket for the velvet-covered box that held Jean's engagement ring. His fingers closed over the small box and he took it out of the pocket.

Jim thumbed the box open. The diamond and its faceted silver band sparkled against the deep blue velvet. He stared into the depths of the gem, letting its inner fire mesmerize him. I wish it was bigger. She deserves so much more. I don't know if I'll ever be able to give her everything she deserves.

"She'll love the ring, son," John said from the doorway.

Jim snapped the lid of the box shut and put it back into his jacket pocket. "I hope so. I just wish..."

"It's a beautiful ring. And Jean strikes me as the type who'd be more concerned about true love than a big diamond."

"Yeah," Jim couldn't help but smile. "Yeah, you're right." He shrugged into his jacket, and his father reached up to straighten Jim's collar.

"You look like a million bucks," John said, giving Jim a hearty slap on the back.

"Thanks. Too bad I don't have a million bucks. Then the Smithsons would happily let Jean marry me."

"Don't you worry about the Smithsons. They're crazy about you. They know how lucky they are to be getting a son-in-law like you. You already have their blessing, whether you know it or not."

Jim shook his head. "You seem so sure."

"I'm sure." John coughed again, but grinned at his only son.

"You've always been my biggest fan, Dad," Jim said. He hoped his father knew how grateful he felt for that unwavering support.

John gave Jim another clap on the back. "That's what dads are for, son," he said, with obvious pride. "You'd better get going."

"Yes, sir. I'll be back...soon, I guess."

"Just keep your mind on your driving, son."

"Yes, sir." Jim gave his father a weak smile and headed down the hall for the front door. "Wish me luck," he called over his shoulder.

"Luck," his father said, trailing behind Jim.

Jim paused as he turned and looked at his father. Is he limping?

"What's the matter, Jim? Stalling won't get it done." John grinned at him again.

"Nothing, Dad." Jim determined that when this evening ended, he'd bug his dad to get to the doctor. "I'm going now."

Jim opened the door and stepped out into a warm, crystal-clear, mid-May afternoon. The sun felt good on his face but made him a little warm in his sport coat and dress slacks. He had purposely picked a Sunday afternoon to propose to Jean, in honor of the day on which they'd had their first official date. At least the weather's good. That part of the plan worked out great.

Jim looked his car over, making sure that the half-day he'd spent the day before cleaning, washing, and waxing it still held. It still sparkled from that labor, and Jim nodded in satisfaction as he opened the driver's side door and slid into the seat. Can't ask the woman you love to marry you with a dirty car.

Jim cranked the car and backed out of the driveway carefully. He gave his father a wave, then headed for the Smithsons'.

As he drove, Jim rehearsed the steps of his plan for proposing to Jean in his head. Okay, Jane's got Jean at the Diabetes Benefit. That's over at 3 o'clock, and it'll take her about a half-hour to drive Jean back home. So I've got to be out of the Smithson's house by at least 3:15. I can do that. Then I'll go back home and recover, then go back and pick up Jean at 5:00. We'll drive to the beach to our spot and I'll propose there. I hope stopping doesn't tip her off. She's already suspicious enough that I'm taking her to dinner at that expensive French restaurant. But she loves French food, and I couldn't very well take her to the Spinning Wheel to celebrate our engagement.

Jim's mind continued to whirl with all the possibilities of things that could go wrong as he drove the final leg of the trip to Bradford Drive. Jean's sister, still not married, had moved out into her own apartment last year, but she often popped into her parents for surprise visits. He hoped she wouldn't be there. Jim loved Annie, but he didn't want her around while he asked for the Smithsons' blessing. And he still had no real clue about what he would say to the Smithsons, so he rehearsed several speeches, none of which sounded adequate to Jim. He sighed. "This is the most important thing you'll ever say to them and you sound like an idiot," he said out loud.

Jim turned onto Bradford Drive, and the butterflies in his gut exploded into a flock of birds. Oh, God, don't let me sound like an idiot. The Smithson's house came into view, and despite his relief that he didn't see Annie's car, he broke into a cold sweat. It's just like the first time I met them. I feel just as sick. The irony of the situation would have amused Jim, had he not been so nervous.

"Get a grip, Jim. It's not two and a half years ago. You know them now. You like them. They like you. It's okay." Jim pulled into the driveway, put his car in park and killed the engine. He took a deep breath. "You can do this. Think about Jean and being with her."

Jim got out of the car and patted the box in his pocket for reassurance. He walked to the front door and rang the doorbell. When he didn't get an immediate response, his panic level accelerated. What if Mr. Smithson's taking a nap? That'd be just great. I sure don't...

The front door opened, interrupting Jim's thoughts. Mr. Smithson looked up at him, obviously surprised. "Well, hi, Jim," he said. Mr. Smithson glanced at his watch. "Aren't you a little early? Jeannie's not here -- she's still with your sister."

Jim swallowed. "Yes, sir, I know that. I'm not here to see Jean. I'm here to see you and Mrs. Smithson."

"You are?" Mr. Smithson frowned in apparent confusion, then looked Jim up and down. He seemed to consider Jim's semi-formal attire for a moment, then his expression changed, and he stiffened slightly. "Oh. Oh, you are. Well, come on in, Jim."

"Thank you, sir." Jim stepped inside the home that had become as familiar as his own. He felt comfortable here, accepted and loved by the Smithsons. The friendly surroundings helped him relax marginally.

"Marge, Jim's here," Mr. Smithson called. "Come in the living room."

Jim watched Mr. Smithson sit on the couch, rather than in his favorite overstuffed chair. He never sits there. He must suspect something.

"Why, Jim, dear, what a surprise!" Mrs. Smithson came in from the kitchen, all smiles. "And don't you look nice!"

"Thank you, Mrs. Smithson," Jim said.

"But surely you remember that Jean went with your sister to the benefit," Mrs. Smithson said, frowning. "She's not here."

"Yes, ma'am, I know," Jim said.

"Jim's here to talk to us, Marge," Mr. Smithson said. Jim thought his voice sounded strained.

"To us? Jim, is something wrong?"

"Oh, no, ma'am. Nothing's wrong."

"Come sit down, Marge, and let the boy say what's on his mind," Mr. Smithson patted the sofa cushion next to him.

"All right," Mrs. Smithson looked worried, and her husband took her hand. "Sit down, please, Jim."

"If you don't mind, I'd rather stand," Jim said, even though he felt like he might pass out any minute. He forced himself to unclench his fists, though he couldn't decide what to do with his hands. Jim clasped them in front of him, but thought that looked too much like a choir boy, so he jammed them inside the pockets of his slacks.

Both of the Smithsons looked at him expectantly. Mrs. Smithson's expression held concern, but Mr. Smithson seemed almost sad. Jim swallowed hard and prayed he wouldn't faint in the middle of his speech.

"Mr. and Mrs. Smithson," he said formally, already hating how forced it sounded, "I...well, I think you know how much I love your daughter. Jean, that is," he amended. Stupid, of course they know you mean Jean! "We've been dating now for two and a half years, and I can honestly say that I love her more and more every day. She's an amazing woman, and she's everything I've ever wanted or ever dreamed of in a...." Okay, just SAY it. "...a wife."

Mrs. Smithson put her free hand over her mouth, and tears gathered in her eyes. Jim had to look at the floor for a moment to keep from being swallowed up by her emotion.

"I want to spend the rest of my life with Jean," Jim said, lifting his head. "I love her, and I promise you that I will always love her, provide for her, and protect her, and be faithful to her. I can't see myself in the future without her by my side." Jim paused for breath, and when neither of the Smithsons spoke, he plunged on. "I'm not rich, or famous, but I love her more than anything in the world. I want to marry her and have a family with her, and I sure would love to have your blessing. So, I guess I need to say, I've come to ask for Jean's hand in marriage." Jim took in a deep, trembling breath and waited. I hope that made sense.

"Oh, Jim!" Mrs. Smithson cried, and burst into tears, which unnerved Jim completely.

"Now, Marge, why are you carrying on like this?" Mr. Smithson asked, patting his wife's hand. "You knew this day was coming. We've been expecting it for some time now."

"I know," Mrs. Smithson sniffed. "I know, and I'm so happy! This is a mother's dream come true."

"Then stop crying, for Pete's sake!"

"Just hush, Dan, and let me cry. This is a special day." She sniffled again and wiped at her eyes.

"Marge, we've been married for twenty-four years and I still don't understand why you insist on crying when you're happy. It just doesn't make any sense." Mr. Smithson sounded exasperated, but he wrapped an arm around his wife's shoulder and kissed her on the cheek.

Jim stood awkwardly watching the interchange between his future in-laws. His heart still pounded in anticipation of an answer. He waited, his mind racing, his stomach churning, and praying he wouldn't have to collapse in a heap on the floor to get the Smithsons' attention again. Between the heat, the anticipatory excitement he'd felt for the past few days and the stress of the moment, Jim really did feel faint. Don't pass out. Don't pass out.

After another few anxious moments while Jim stood suspended between a tension-filled reality and oblivion, Marge stopped her sniffling, smiled and said, "Dan, dear, you haven't answered Jim yet."

"I guess I haven't, have I?" Dan Smithson turned back to Jim. "Sit down, Jim, before you fall down. You don't look so good, son. Marge, maybe you should go get him some water."

"I'm all right," Jim said, but he sat down heavily in Mr. Smithson's usual favorite chair, grateful to get off his feet. He looked at Mr. Smithson expectantly.

"You sure you don't want any water, Jim?" Mrs. Smithson asked.

"No ma'am, I'm all right, really." Except your husband won't answer me. What's the problem here?

Mr. Smithson sighed and gave Jim a crooked smile. "Relax, Jim. You know, what I told Marge is true; we've been expecting a visit like this for quite a while. I've watched you turn from a fine kid into an even finer young man over the years." Mr. Smithson paused and chuckled. "I told Marge after that first Sunday I met you that I hated you immediately."

"Sir?" Jim asked, confused.

"Dan, you're terrible," Mrs. Smithson accused, as Mr. Smithson's chuckle became a laugh.

"I said that because I knew you were going to be the young man to take my baby girl away from me," Dan explained. "Don't ask me how I knew. I just did. And I know you love Jean. That's obvious by the way you treat her, and treat us; the respect you show us all. One day, you'll be a father, and you'll understand just how important that is."

Jim nodded.

"Another thing that you'll understand one day is the fear a father has for his child -- a daughter especially, falling in love with the wrong person, making a tragic mistake. A mistake that can ruin her whole life."

Jim's heart lurched and the dizzying feeling swooped over him again. Does he think I'm the wrong person? That I'm going to ruin Jean's life?

"And even if they find the right person," Mr. Smithson continued, looking straight into Jim's eyes, "rushing into something too soon can also be a mistake."

We're not rushing! We've dated two and a half years! And we're not getting married tomorrow. Jim felt despair rising in him.

"So I want to ask you this -- have you and Jean discussed a date?"

Jim swallowed and cleared his throat quietly. He put a damper on his irritable fear and tried to work moisture into his cotton-mouth so his voice wouldn't squeak. "Nothing definite, sir. But we were thinking about a year from now, as soon as I'm finished with my junior year."

Mr. Smithson's expression lightened some. "Oh. So you do plan on finishing school?"

"Of course," Jim said quickly, hoping he didn't sound disrespectful. "That's important to both of us. And if we marry next May, Jean can finish her second year at junior college. That's important, too."

"Good," Mr. Smithson nodded. "I agree that's very important. Now my next concern. You providing for my daughter and future grandchildren. Are you still considering being a police officer?"

"Yes, sir," Jim said. Not only considering, I know that's what I want to do.

"They don't make much, Jim."

"I know, sir. But neither do firefighters, or teachers or coaches, which are the other things I've considered. Well, unless you hit the big-time in sports, and I don't see that happening to me. And at least with being a police officer, I have a chance to advance in rank. Teachers don't have that type of opportunity. And firefighters have to live away from home for several nights at a time."

"It's a dangerous job, Jim."

"I'm aware of that, Mr. Smithson. But I think it's a rewarding job, worth the risks. I've always wanted a profession where I could give something back -- help people. I've thought about it a long time and I'm sure that law enforcement is the route I want to go."

"You've talked to Jean about this?"

Jim nodded. "Yes, sir. We've discussed all the pros and cons. I think she understands the difficulties. And she's willing to live with them."

"How are you going to support yourselves during your last year of school?"

"Well, sir, you know all my tuition and books are taken care of because of the football scholarship. And I can work full time all summer until football practice starts again. I won't play any other sports, so I can work part time again after the season. And Jean can work a part-time job to help out." Jim had rehearsed this speech a lot, so he felt comfortable saying it.

"Where will you live?" This came from Mrs. Smithson.

"There are some one-bedroom apartments on campus for married couples. They're reasonable, and in a nice location. They'll be fine for us until I graduate. I'll be able to walk to class, so Jean can have the car if she needs it."

"Sounds like you've really thought this through," Mr. Smithson said.

"Yes, sir, we have. I wouldn't propose to her if I didn't think we could survive financially. We really want to get married, but we realize that we need to wait just a little longer. Jean tells me a year to plan a wedding isn't unreasonable."

"Oh, no, it's not. It's just about perfect, in fact," Mrs. Smithson said. " It gives us plenty of time to plan a beautiful wedding."

"And I want her to know that I'm serious about the things we've talked about," Jim said. "I want her to be mine. I want to put a diamond on her finger, even though we'll wait to marry."

"Have you formally proposed to her?" Mr. Smithson asked.

"No, sir. I'm planning on it tonight. That is..." Jim paused and searched Mr. Smithson's face, "if I do have your blessing?"

Mr. Smithson smiled at him. "Yes, Jim, of course you do. Marge and I couldn't be happier. We've come to love you just like you were our own flesh and blood. I know you'll be a good husband for my Jeannie." He stood and extended his hand to Jim.

Jim took his first stress-free breath since entering the Smithson's house. He grinned and stood, shaking his future father-in-law's hand. "Oh, thank you, sir, thank you! I will, I promise you that!"

Mr. Smithson's smile widened. "I have no doubt of that, Jim. Welcome to the family, son."


"Mr. Smithson always knew how to put me through the ringer," Jim said to himself as he looked over the engagement announcement again. "I think he got a kick out of trying to get my goat. He still does. But I know how to take him now." Jim lay the announcement on the bed, hating to throw it away. But he knew that Jean had several of these placed in various albums and keepsake boxes around the house, and every relative they could think of had one, too.

Jean's so good about saving things and making them look nice. It's a good thing, because I'm sure not. Jim looked around at the remaining rotting, overstuffed boxes and laughed. "You're sure not. It's a darned good thing she said 'yes' that night. For more reasons than one."


Jim rang the doorbell to the Smithson's house for the second time that day and waited for someone to answer. He stifled a yawn and stretched his back as he waited. Not sleeping last night's about to catch up with me.

This time, Mrs. Smithson answered the door, her face draped in a smile. She reached out and hugged Jim, knocking him slightly off-balance. He managed to keep his feet and returned the hug.

"This is so exciting!" Mrs. Smithson said in a stage whisper. "Are you nervous?"

"Uh, no, not really," Jim said, gracefully extricating himself from Mrs. Smithson's exuberant hug. He knew Jean wouldn't turn him down; but he did worry if he would be able to surprise her. "You haven't told her I was here, have you?"

"Certainly not! I wouldn't spoil the surprise for anything. This is so romantic. Poor Dan's had to hide in the bedroom, though. He's having a harder time than I am keeping it a secret."

"Do you think Jean suspects anything?" Jim asked.

"No. I think she hopes you'll ask her every time you go out, dear, but I don't think she thinks anything special about tonight." Mrs. Smithson laughed, then added, "Other than the fact you're taking her to a fancy restaurant."

"I told her we were celebrating the end of the school year and me being done with exams. I hope she bought it."

"I think she did. Come on in and I'll tell her you're here."

Jim followed Mrs. Smithson into the living room and took a seat on the couch.

"I'll go upstairs and get her, Jim."

"Thank you." Jim said, then reflexively stuck his hand in his pocket to check that the ring hadn't fallen out somewhere. Now to get her to the beach without her catching on. I really want to surprise her. She knows I'm going to ask her, but I hope she's not expecting it until later this summer. Jim smiled to himself as he tapped his fingers on the velvet box. I can't wait to put this ring on her finger. I want the world to know she's off the market for good. She's so beautiful, I can't believe she's mine.

Jim relaxed into the comfortable cushions on the sofa and closed his eyes briefly, taking a momentary break from the whirlwind of emotions that had enveloped his life today. Already exhausted from studying for and taking finals, and playing two baseball games during the week, he'd hardly slept the night before, imagining the possibilities of today. During most of the day, even during church, he'd been so nervous, dreading speaking with the Smithsons for the blessing of the marriage, that he'd been wound up tight as a piano wire. He couldn't remember a word of the morning sermon. With the ordeal of talking with his future in-laws at last behind him, the day had become a blur of excitement: sharing plans with the Smithsons'; recounting the afternoon's events with his father, then Jane. And now, anticipating the most exciting moment of his life to date, he felt himself sorely in need of a moment of peace and quiet.

Man, I'm tired. What a day, and it's not over yet. I owe Jane a lot for helping me pull this off. Maybe Jean will have an idea of something I can do to say thanks. I can't believe, that in just about an hour, I'm going to be engaged. I can't wait to see Jean's face...I hope this goes off without blowing the surprise! This couch is so comfortable. This is one time when I don't mind if Jean isn't quite ready to go. I could use a minute to get myself together.

As he'd done most of the day, Jim rehearsed his proposal to Jean in his head. He could see himself on one knee, with the sun setting in the Pacific, the surf lapping up against the shore, the diamond gleaming in the fading light...

Somewhere between his vision of the lapping surf and asking Jean to marry him, Jim fell asleep on the Smithsons' couch.

A gentle shake and a familiar voice roused him from his nap.

"Jim? Jim, honey, wake up."

"Umm? Huh?" Jim blinked his eyes in sleepy confusion and tried to regain his bearings.

"Boy, I can tell you're really excited about our date tonight."

"What?" Jim opened his eyes fully to see Jean standing over him, frowning. "Jean? Oh, Jean, honey, I'm sorry!" He struggled to sit up, horrified to realize he'd fallen asleep. "What time is it?" I can't have lost the light for the beach!

"Relax, baby, it's okay," Jean's frown changed into one of her patented sexy smiles that made Jim's heart race. "You've had a hard week, I know." She sat down and wrapped her arms around him.

Jim struggled to look at his watch even as he returned her hug. "I don't want to be late," he said.

"Jim, it's not even five fifteen,"Jean said. "We've got plenty of time to get to the restaurant. Now how about convincing me you're really awake?" She leaned in for a kiss.

Jim managed to move his jacket sleeve enough to confirm that he hadn't slept the daylight away. Only 5:12. Okay. I'm still on schedule.

"Jim!" Jean said, with the exasperated edge to her voice that Jim knew meant trouble if ignored. "What's the matter with you? Don't I even get a kiss?"

"Uh, what about your parents?" Jim asked, looking over his shoulder.

"They're both upstairs. Daddy has a headache and Momma is checking on him, and who cares, anyway? They've seen us kiss before." Jean leaned in even closer.

Jim tightened his embrace around Jean and gave her a warm kiss. "Better?" he asked when it ended.

"A little," Jean said, "but you're still distracted or something. You haven't even mentioned my dress." Jean disentangled herself from Jim's arms and stood. She pirouetted in front of him, arms extended. "You like it?"

Jim finally took a moment to really look at his soon-to-be fiancee. He'd been so sleepy on her arrival, and then so panicked, that he hadn't even noticed how she looked. She wore a dress he'd never seen before, a sleek, black, off-the-shoulder dress that clung to her every curve. The neckline plunged just low enough to be enticing but not risque, and the skirt revealed plenty of Jean's shapely legs. She'd even styled her hair differently, having pulled the coppery strands away from her face, then had it cascading in curls down her neck and back.

Boy, I'm wide-awake now. She looks like a princess. "It's great," he told her. "You look fantastic! How'd you get your hair so curly?"

"It wasn't easy," Jean said, giving the curls a flip so that they fell over her bare shoulder. "Especially since I didn't have a lot of time after the benefit. Do you like it?"

"Do I ever," Jim said, overcome with the urge to run his hands through the tangle of curls. He stood and pulled her to him again, giving her another kiss as he gently stroked her shining, softly curled hair. I can't believe this perfect girl is mine.

Jean responded warmly and eagerly to his kiss. She pressed up against him, wrapping her arms around him to draw them into an even closer embrace. Jim had no objection to that, and he deepened the intensity of their kiss.

Jim almost lost himself in the intimate moment, as usual, overwhelmed by Jean's passion and sensuality. But when she suddenly moved her hand in the general direction of his jacket pocket, he quickly recovered himself. He broke the kiss and gently pushed her away before she accidentally felt the box in his pocket.

"We'd better go, hon," Jim said.

"Jim, are you sick or something?" Jean asked, looking rather miffed and confused at once.

"No, I'm fine, why?"

"You're acting weird, that's why. First you fall asleep on the couch, and then you seemed to barely even notice me. And I've never known you to give up on a kiss so easily."

"I'm sorry, baby," Jim apologized. "I'm still a little tired from the week, that's all. And I'm excited about dinner. So let's go."

"Jim, our reservation isn't until seven-thirty. We have plenty of time. Why don't you sit down and relax a minute, since you're so tired."

"I wanted to drive up the coast a little further and go to our spot before dinner," Jim said, hoping he sounded casual.

"Jim, I'm hardly dressed for the beach," Jean said, pointing to her formal attire and especially her high-heel pumps.

Jim hadn't considered that Jean would dress so formally for dinner and probably not want to go to the beach at all. Her shoes especially concerned him. Those heels won't navigate the rocks and sand well at all. "Well, honey, can't you take a change of shoes?"

"A change of shoes? Jim, I spent a lot of time putting this outfit together. I wanted to look special tonight, since you're taking me to Antoine's."

"Believe me, honey, you look fantastic," Jim took her hands in his and gave her an appreciative look. "I want tonight be a special evening for us. We don't splurge like this very often." Jim gave her his best puppy-dog look. "I really would like to go to our spot on the beach before dinner and just watch the sunset. And we can kiss without being afraid your parents will walk in on us." Come on, Jean, don't fight me on this.

"Jim Reed, don't give me that look," Jean said, apparently trying hard not to be moved by his charms.

"Aw, honey, the beach will be so nice this time of year," Jim said, not giving up on his pleading look.

Jean rolled her eyes. "You're impossible, James Allen Reed. Okay, we'll go to the beach. But I'm not changing my shoes, so maybe we should watch the sunset from the car."

"We'll see," Jim said, smiling. He leaned down and gave her a quick kiss. I'll carry you down there if I have to! "Let's go, baby."

"Just a minute, Mr. Impatient. I've got to get my wrap and purse and tell momma and daddy we're going," Jean said.

"Okay, I'll wait."

"You'd better!" Jean hurried up the stairs.

Jim reached again for the box in his pocket. His catnap had refreshed him and now time couldn't move quickly enough. So far, so good. It won't be long now.

Jean returned quickly, and as she came down the stairs, Jim developed an even greater appreciation for the dress and how she looked in it. She couldn't look more perfect for tonight. How did I get so lucky?

"Okay, I'm ready now," Jean said. She took the arm Jim offered her -- the one away from the side that held the ring.

"Let's get moving," Jim said.

"I can't keep up with your many moods tonight," Jean said as Jim ushered her out the door. "First I find you sleeping and now you're all revved up."

"Well, now that I'm awake and see how sexy you look, I can't wait to get you alone."

Jean laughed. "Now that's the Jim Reed I know. And, by the way, you look great, too. I told you that shirt and tie would be perfect together."

"You've got great taste," Jim opened the car door for Jean and helped settle her in. "I guess I'll keep you around so you can make sure I meet current fashion standards."

"Gee, thanks," Jean said, when Jim slid into his side of the car.

"What can I say? You've got the knack for it." Jim cranked the car, but before putting it into gear he pulled Jean close for another kiss. "I love you."

"I love you."

Jim grinned at her. "Find us a nice, romantic song," he said, then backed the car out of the driveway.

Jean fiddled with the knobs until she found a station she liked, then she scooted closer to Jim and rested her hand on his leg. Jim took his right hand off the wheel briefly to give it a squeeze.

"Tell me about the benefit," he said. "Did you have fun?"

"Oh, I had a great time," Jean said. "It was nice to spend some time with Jane. It was kinda sad, though."

"How's that?"

"I never realized how many children and young people had diabetes. And I guess I never really realized how dangerous it can be. Jane told me about how sick she got before she found out what was wrong."

"She was practically in a coma by the time Mom and Dad got her to the hospital," Jim said, remembering that frightening day with a frown. "I remember being scared to death."

"She had to give herself an insulin shot while we were out. I watched her do it. I can't believe how brave she is about that."

"You really watched?"

"Sure. It looked like it hurt, but she hardly even blinked."

"I can't believe you watched."

"Why? Haven't you ever seen her do that?"

"Well, once." Jim said.

"Only once?"

"Once was enough."

"What, are you scared of needles or something?"

Jim didn't answer.

"You are! You're afraid of needles! What do you know? After two and a half years together, I finally learned something new about you."

"Well, uh, don't spread it around, okay?" Jim fought against a rising flush on his face. "I have a reputation to keep up."

"You're secret's safe with me," Jean said, then giggled.

"Don't laugh at me, I can't help it. I've always had a thing about needles. I think some doctor traumatized me when I was little. It's buried somewhere deep in my subconscious."

"You get dangerous when you take a psychology course," Jean said with a laugh.

"At least there's no needles in a psych course."

"Hey, speaking of doctors, Jane said your Dad is sick. Does he still have that cough?"

"Sure does. I've been buggin' him to go to the doctor, but he keeps insisting he's just got a stubborn cold."

"Maybe so."

"Thing is, he's not sneezing or anything. Just coughing. It's weird. And he just doesn't look right, you know? But he's going over to Jane's tonight for dinner, and she said she'd try to talk him into going."

"Maybe he's afraid of needles, too," Jean teased.

"Okay, now I'm sorry I told you if you're going to keep bringing that up."

"So, I can't needle you about it a little bit?" Jean laughed at her own joke.

"Oh, please," Jim groaned.

"I'm sorry, love," Jean said. She stretched her neck and gave Jim a peck on the cheek. "I'm in a really good mood. I'm so excited about going to Antoine's. I love French food and we don't get to have it very often."

"That's because it's so darned expensive. Now, if we could find a fast-food French restaurant, we might get it more often."

"A fast-food French restaurant? Jim, that's so silly. Somehow I don't think escargot or crepes suzette would work at a burger joint."

"Anything's possible in LA, honey," Jim said.

"I guess so."

Jim found himself both excited and relaxed as he drove them toward the beach. He and Jean talked about everything from the last episode of Bonanza to Jim being able to increase his hours at work. He and Jean had always been able to talk to each other effortlessly, easily, about anything and everything. That aspect of their relationship had done more than anything to assure Jim that he and Jean would be together forever. Their easy conversation relaxed him; the prospect of the proposal excited him.

As they left the congestion of the city behind them and headed north on the Coast Highway, Jim took his right hand from the wheel and draped his arm around Jean, who snuggled closer to him. Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers played on the radio, its rich harmonies weaving a romantic mood in the car as the sun just began its descent into the Pacific. This is just about perfect. This is a night I'll remember forever.

They rode in a comfortable silence for a while, enjoying the quiet music and each other's closeness. Jean rested her head on Jim's shoulder and Jim kept his arm wrapped around hers. A deep feeling of peace and contentment stole over Jim, as it always did when he held Jean close. I'm going to feel like this for the rest of my life. How did I get so lucky?

Several miles, a few quiet snatches of conversation, and twenty minutes passed, and Jim reached the turn that would take them to "their" spot on the California coastline. They'd found it quite by accident the first summer they'd dated, during a lazy-day drive in search of a quiet spot for a picnic and a swim. They had wanted to escape the noisy, crowded beaches closer to the city and had been willing to trade some convenience for privacy. This spot, well over a half-an hour out of the city, had filled the bill nicely. Still nicely sandy and with enough surf for a good swim, the site sported several small rock formations that offered privacy and a shield from the access road. Jim and Jean often found themselves alone there, which suited them fine, but when they did see others about, it usually came in the form of another young couple like themselves, or a solitary person jogging with a dog, or an older couple out for a leisurely stroll.

Jim hoped with all of his heart they would be the only ones around this evening. "We're here," he announced softly, as he parked the car in their usual spot, just off the road, under a sparse copse of trees.

"Looks like we're alone," Jean said, lifting her head from Jim's shoulder.

"Uh huh. Perfect." Jim wrapped his arms around Jean and gave her a long, passionate kiss.

"That was nice," Jean whispered, when they broke their kiss.

"Uh huh," Jim agreed. He gently trailed little kisses down her jawline, then down her neck, enjoying the softness and delicate scent of her skin. They wound up kissing again, but Jim reluctantly ended it. I'm going to lose the light if I don't get her down to the beach. "Let's go down to our spot, honey."

"Oh, Jim, really, can't we just stay here?" Jean asked, tracing Jim's lips with her finger. "I can see the sunset from here, and it's so nice having the music."

"Just for a little while, please, baby? You know I like hearing the surf and feeling the breeze."

"But my dress and shoes..."

"I'll carry you," Jim said. He opened the door and got out, not waiting for any other objections from Jean. Jim opened the trunk and took out the quilt he kept in the trunk for their trips here, draped it over his arm, and opened Jean's door.

Jean scowled at him and sat with her arms crossed. "You are the most stubborn man on the face of the earth. When you get your heart set on something, you don't let go."

Jim gave her the puppy-dog look again and smiled his most disarming smile. "My heart's set on you, baby."

Jean rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. Don't try to sweet-talk me like that. If I ruin my shoes or this dress, I'm not going to forgive you." Jean slid across the seat and let Jim help her out of the car.

"Not a chance, love," Jim said. He swept Jean up into his arms.

Jean squealed as her feet left the ground. "Don't hurt your back!"

Jim laughed. "Honey, I bench press twice your weight and wrestle with mean ol' linebackers six months out of the year. Carrying you a few yards isn't going to hurt my back."

"Then don't drop me," Jean said. She held onto Jim's neck as he walked over the uneven ground toward their special spot.

"I wouldn't dare."

Jim picked his way carefully over the sand to the rock formation where they loved to spend their time. His own slick-soled shoes didn't offer much in the way of a purchase on the uneven rocks. He stumbled on a loose stone and Jean squealed again, but he kept his footing and managed to make it to the cozy alcove without incident.

"See? We made it. And I brought the quilt so you won't get your dress dirty." He set Jean down and unfolded the quilt over a large, flat rock so they could sit. "Come on honey, and sit here next to me." Jim sat down and patted the quilt beside him. He extended his hand to her.

Jean smiled at him and took his hand. Jim helped her to sit down, and she delicately smoothed her dress as she settled in next to him.

"Honey, you really do look incredible tonight," Jim said. "Not that you don't always, but I can tell you went to extra trouble to look great tonight." And you'll be so glad you did!

"Thanks." Jean snuggled up close to Jim. "Like I said, tonight's special."

You don't know just how special. "I hope it's everything you want it to be, baby." Jim hugged her close and stared out over the Pacific, where the swollen orange sun hung suspended just at the horizon. "Look at that sunset. Where else but California can you have a view like this?"

"It's beautiful," Jean said.

"Second only to you, honey." Jim tilted Jean's face toward his and claimed her lips in a fervent kiss.

Jean responded to him with equal fervor. They held each other close as the kiss intensified and stretched into long moments of pleasure. Jim savored the softness of Jean's skin and the comfort of her curves as they caressed each other. He entwined his hands in her hair and stroked the silken strands. The sheer luxury of that sensation fanned the flame of passion inside of him. Jim dreamed of the time when every part of her would belong to him and there would be no boundaries to their love; no limitation to his expression of his desire for her.

Jean gently pushed him away, far too soon for his tastes, and leaned breathlessly against his chest. "Oh, Jim," she sighed, "I love you."

Jim didn't stop stroking her hair. He pressed his lips against her ear and whispered, "I love you, too, baby." Jim kissed her ear, then her neck, and finally kissed her bare shoulder, planting featherly light kisses along her collarbone. Jean shivered beneath his touch, and whispered his name again. Her hands rubbed his back sensuously and she molded herself even more closely to his body. Knowing that she obviously desired him as much as he wanted her made him feel more of a man than any feat he'd ever accomplished on the football field or the basketball court. Each time they were alone together it took all of his strength, all of his restraint, all of his willpower not to beg her surrender to him. Or worse, to take advantage of her. He loved her so much that he deeply wanted her, but because of that love, he would never hurt her, or ask her to give more than she really wanted to give. Even as he kissed her, the need to put that ring on her finger to concretely show her the depth of his love drove him to cut the passionate moment short.

Jim ended their embrace, and moved Jean away only far enough to look into her eyes. As he explored their deep brown depths, he saw love and longing there, reflected in her gaze. Jim found himself breathless, as well.

"Jean," he said, his voice husky with desire and emotion, "You are the most amazing, wonderful, sexy, desirable woman on earth. I love you more than I can possibly ever say."

"Jim, I..." Jean began in a whisper, but Jim, anxious to propose, placed three fingers gently over her lips. Jean's eyes widened, but she stopped talking and looked at him expectantly.

Jim kept his voice low and intense. "Jean, I know we've talked a lot about the future and being together, about getting married and having a family. We've imagined our dream home and watching our children grow up to be doctors or the President, and talked about growing old together and sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch when we're too ancient to move."

Jean smiled at him, and her eyes continued to search his face. She nodded, and Jim continued.

"And it's been fun talking about it. Dreaming together has been wonderful. The more we talk about it, the more I know that a future with you is what I want. I want to sit in a rocking chair next to you when I'm eighty years old. I want to paint the bedrooms together in our dream house. I want you to be the mother of my children. But honey, I'm tired of just talking about it. I actually want to do something about it. I want to prove to you that I love you more than life. I want to prove to you that all of my talk hasn't been empty words." Jim disentangled his hands from Jean's hair and stood up. She looked at him in puzzlement, but when Jim took her hands and slowly lowered himself to one knee in front of her, her mouth dropped open and her eyes widened.

Jim took a deep breath and swallowed hard, his heart pounding with excitement. "Jean Louise Smithson, will you please marry me?"

Jean gasped, and said, "Oh, Jim! Oh, Jim!" She squeezed his hands hard. Jim squeezed back, then disengaged one of his hands and retrieved the blue velvet box from his pocket. He held it in the palm of his hand so she could see it.

Again, all that got past her lips was "Oh, Jim! Oh, Jim!"

Jim couldn't help but laugh. "Is that a yes?" He flipped the box open with his thumb, revealing the glistening ring inside.

Jean gasped again, then squealed, as she gaped at the ring. Her grip on Jim's hand tightened to an almost vice-like strength. "Oh, Jim! Oh, yes, Jim, of course, yes! Yes, I'll marry you!" Tears gathered in her eyes, but her face held a radiant smile.

Jim grinned, and even though he'd been sure of her answer all along, somehow, hearing her say it lifted a burden from his heart. He felt light-hearted and giddy as a child, but grown-up and serious at the same time. She's mine now. Forever.

"The ring is so beautiful, Jim! It's just the one I wanted!" She held out her left hand and wiggled her fingers, clearly ready to see the piece of jewelry on her own hand.

Jim carefully lifted the ring from the box and took her hand. He gently placed the diamond on her third finger, looking straight into her tear-filled eyes as he did so. "I promise I will love you for the rest of my life, Jean. I'll always be faithful. I'll always protect you, and take care of you, and spend every day of my life making you happy."

Jean's tears spilled over then, and Jim found himself emotional as well. "Oh, Jim! This is the happiest day of my life!" She threw herself into his arms, almost knocking him off-balance. But he recovered, and crushed her to himself in a fierce embrace as she sniffled in her happiness.

"Jim, we're going to be so happy," she whispered. "I'll be the best wife in the world, I promise! I love you so much -- I can't wait to be Mrs. James A. Reed."

Oh, that sounds wonderful. Mrs. James A. Reed. Jean Reed. "Mrs. James A. Reed. I like the sound of that," he whispered back.

Then they kissed again, a long, heated, intense kiss, perfect to seal the promise of a long and happy future together. When they finally stopped for air, Jim felt weak from the moment. "Jean," he husked, "let's forget about the restaurant. Let's drive to 'Vegas and get married tonight."

"Nothing would make me happier than to be your wife this minute," Jean whispered back, "but you know we can't do that. Our families would never forgive us." She kissed Jim on the cheek and traced the outline of his jaw with her finger. "And besides, we can't afford it."

Jim blew out his breath in a sigh, then took a deep breath to help regain his emotional equilibrium. "You're right, of course. You can't blame me for trying, though. I just..."

"I know, baby." Jean stopped him with a brief kiss. "I know how hard it is for you. Believe me, I know. Because it isn't easy for me, either."

Jim gave her a grateful look. "You're so strong, honey. I don't know how I ever lived without you."

"We're strong together," Jean said, with a little shake of her head. She moved her arm from around Jim and held it out so she could look at the diamond sparkling on her finger. The fading light of the beach didn't do the gem justice, but it shone nonetheless. "And we're going to be together for always." She looked up at Jim. "We just have to be patient a little while longer."

Jim nodded, and caressed her hand, turning it so they could both look at the ring. "That looks great there. Now I can tell everyone that you're my fiancee, not just my girl."

The sparkle in Jean's eyes outdid the one coming from the diamond. "Fiancee! Oh, I'm engaged, finally! I'm so excited, I can't wait to tell everybody! Momma and Daddy....oh!" She gasped. "What about Momma and Daddy? Daddy'll freak out."

"No, he won't," Jim said. "He already knows. While you and Jane were at the benefit, I went over this afternoon and got their blessing. They couldn't be happier. Your dad didn't have a headache, honey -- he was hiding from you so he wouldn't spoil the surprise of my proposal."

Jean's mouth dropped open and she swatted at Jim's arm playfully. "You rat fink!" She exclaimed with a laugh. "How long have you been planning this? And you even got Jane in on it. I didn't know you were so sneaky!"

"Well, honey, I had to think of some way to surprise you. We've talked so much about getting married, I knew it wouldn't be any real surprise, but I had to try and catch you off-guard somehow. I thought about all the different ways I could get the ring to you, but none of the silly ideas appealed to me. I finally decided I just wanted it to be us, at our spot, and then I wanted to take you to a wonderful, romantic restaurant. I wanted this to be a night that you would always cherish."

"You could have proposed to me at center court of the gym at half-time of a basketball game and I still would have cherished it," Jean said.

"I actually considered that," Jim said, chuckling, "but then I would have had to have waited until December and I didn't want to do that."

Jean laughed with him and stared at her ring again. "This was perfect. Just perfect." She kissed Jim quickly, then stood up. "Let's go, honey. I want to go call momma and tell her! And then I want to call Annie. And Ruthie. And Janet. Oh, I'm so excited, Jim, I can't stand it!" Jean spun around, still admiring the ring. "It's so beautiful and I'm so hap-oh!" One of Jean's skinny heels stuck in a crack in the rock, and she lost her balance.

Jim grabbed for her as she fell, and he managed to snag her by the upper arm to keep her from falling to the ground, but too late to keep her from rolling her right ankle over painfully. "Honey!"

"Owwww, my ankle," Jean moaned, clutching at Jim's arm for support.

"Don't move, honey, and let me get your shoe loose." Jim held tightly to her, and leaned down to extricate the heel from the crack in the rock. Jean sucked in a painful breath as her foot popped free. "I'm sorry, baby. Here, sit down." Jim helped her back to her seat on the quilt. He knelt down and examined the rapidly swelling ankle.

Tears trickled down Jean's face as Jim gently probed the injury. "Is it broken?" she asked, her voice choked with pain.

"No, I don't think so. It looks like you sprained it pretty bad, though. It's already swelling. It must hurt like the dickens." Jim kissed it lightly. "I'm so sorry. I should have insisted you wear other shoes."

"No, it's my fault," Jean sniffled, wiping at her face. "I shouldn't have been dancing around on these rocks in these shoes. Owwwww."

Jim sighed. "We'd better get you to the hospital and get it checked out. We can drive back to..."

"Hospital?" Jean stiffened. "Are you kidding? And miss my French dinner? No way!"

"Jean, baby, you've got to get this ankle wrapped and elevated. Trust me on this. I've had a few of these in my life, and it's only going to get worse if you don't take care of it."

"You said it wasn't broken," Jean said. "I'll just take some aspirin and I'll be okay."

"Jean, don't be ridiculous. I'm not a doctor. It might be broken and I just can't tell it. And besides, even if it is sprained, they can be worse than breaks sometimes. They take a really long time to heal. You need it wrapped and you need to have it elevated with an ice bag or something. And you'll need crutches if you're going to get around. " Jim eyed the ankle with concern. It seemed to have doubled in size even in the brief moments they'd been talking. Oh, man, what a way for this proposal to end. This stinks.

"Jim Reed, I am not going to spend the evening celebrating my engagement in a hospital emergency room!" Jean said with considerable snap in her voice, though Jim could still hear the pain there. "We're going to have our romantic dinner no matter what."

"But Jean, honey..."

Jean crossed her arms and scowled at Jim. "I can be just as stubborn as you are, Jim Reed. I'm not going to the emergency room and that's final."

Jim scowled back at her. "Well, I'm the one driving the car," he said. "And I can't let you go around with a hurt ankle like this. We're going to the hospital."

Jean's scowl deepened. "Jim Reed, if you love me and you want me to keep wearing this ring, you'd better take me to Antoine's like we planned. I will not let a stupid little accident ruin this evening!"

"That's not fair, Jean. I love you, and I want to celebrate, too, but you're hurt! You can't eat dinner with your ankle like this."

"Hmmm, let's see. Seems like I remember you playing an entire half of a basketball game on a bum ankle last year. If you can play basketball, I can sit in a French restaurant and eat dinner!"

"I had a trainer freeze spray and wrap the ankle before I went back out there, Jean. It's different."

"Then we'll stop at a drug store and get one of those bandage things. You can wrap it. I have aspirin in my purse. I'll be fine."

"Jean, don't ask me..."

"Please, Jim, darling," Jean softened her tone and stroked the top of Jim's head with her hand. "I promise you that after dinner, I'll go and have it looked at. But I really want to just go to Antoine's and have a lovely romantic dinner first. Please, honey?"

Jim sighed and ran his free hand through his hair. How could he deny her that wish? "All right, if you think you can take the pain, we'll go have dinner first. But you can't walk on this ankle. I'll have to carry you, even in the restaurant. Can you handle that?"

Jean brightened. "I can handle that. I promise, Jim, it'll be all right. Just a couple of hours won't matter."

"I know I'm going to regret this," Jim said, sighing again. He stood, then gathered his financee up in his arms, then somehow managed to grab the quilt of the rock and drape it over his shoulder. "Come on, let's get some aspirin in you and then find a drugstore so I can wrap it up. I hope I don't do any more damage to you."

Jean smiled through her discomfort and kissed Jim on the lips quickly as he made his way back to the car with her. "You won't. I love you, baby. Thanks for doing this for me."

"I hope you'll thank me tomorrow, when you're in a ton of pain and your dad is trying to shoot me for not taking better care of you," Jim said, but he couldn't help but smile back and give Jean a kiss in return. He felt guilty for letting her sweet-talk him into doing something he felt would be a mistake, but he always had a hard time saying "no" to her. Why do I get the feeling it's going to be this way with us the rest of our lives?


"Well, I wanted an evening we'd always remember," Jim laughed aloud, thinking about the events of that day. "And she still can sweet-talk me into doing things I really don't want to do." He shook his head, thinking about how the evening had ultimately ended. We couldn't find an open drugstore, and it turned out she didn't have any aspirin in her purse. But she made me carry her into Antoine's anyway. She charmed the socks off our waiter and wound up with an ice bag and a velvet-lined chair for her ankle, aspirin, and a dinner on the house. She had half the patrons in there coming over to take a look at the ring. What a gal I married.

"What a gal, indeed," Jim said aloud. "It didn't turn out the way we planned that night, but Jean didn't let that throw her one bit." And our planned wedding date didn't work out right either. That was something else she took right in stride and turned into something wonderful. His thoughts turned morose as they snaked down the pathway that led to one of the darkest hours in his life; one that he never would have survived without Jean by his side.


Jim muscled yet another one-hundred pound bag of horse feed from the handtruck to the shelf, then straightened and stretched to ease the kinks out of his back. He had two more bags to move before he'd have to take the handtruck back to the warehouse dock to bring in five more. Jim swiped perspiration off his forehead with the tail of his t-shirt and blew out a breath before bracing himself to lift the next bag of feed. He placed it on top of the previous three with a grunt, then went ahead and grabbed up the last one and slung it on top of the pile.

That job done, Jim grabbed the handle of the truck and walked back toward the dock. Boy, this place needs a forklift in the worst way. And I don't even need the weight room since I have a job lifting this stuff for hours. But the money's good, and Jean and I'll sure need it this time next year. Despite his fatigue and aching back, thinking of Jean instantly cheered him. They'd been engaged now for only three weeks, but Jim's mind constantly wandered to the future, after their marriage, calculating their financial needs and planning for it. So, in addition to increasing his hours at the Farming Supply Warehouse where he worked part-time nights during the school year, he'd taken a full-time day job at a construction site doing odd jobs like mixing concrete, loading steel beams, and running errands. Dan Smithson had helped him line up the construction job, no doubt as worried about his daughter's financial future as Jim.

Jim opened the door to the loading dock and relished the cool night air that enveloped him as he pulled the handtruck outside. He stood and looked up at the darkened sky, disappointed that even in the middle of the night he couldn't see any stars. Stupid pollution. Again, he took a moment to wipe some perspiration from his face and cool down from the stifling heat inside the warehouse. He fished his watch out of his jeans pocket and checked the time. One-forty. Man, I hope I'm outta here on time. I need to get cleaned up before I go to the hospital.

Hospital. The very word sent a chill down Jim's spine and caused his breath to catch in his throat. I can't believe Dad's having surgery tomorrow -- I mean, today. God, please let everything be okay. He's got to be okay. That was as far as Jim wanted to think about the surgery. Just as he had done since his father had been admitted to the hospital three days ago, Jim pushed the thoughts of his father's condition out of his head. His sister Jane had tried to talk with him about it -- what the chronic cough, the recent weight loss and lack of energy might mean for their father, but he'd refused to discuss it with her. Jim was having a hard enough time trying to deal with the doctor's enigmatic words, "We saw . . . something . . . on the x-ray of the lungs. We need to go in and check it out. Tomorrow." It had happened so fast, and the doctor's unspoken sense of urgency scared him witless.

Exploratory surgery. Exploring for what? Jim's throat constricted and he swallowed down the sick feeling that consumed him each time he thought about the surgery. Forget it. Do your work. Jim rolled the handtruck up the ramp into the truck that held at least twenty more 100-pound bags of feed. He attacked the pile with determined grit, focusing all his energies onto loading the bags. The harder he worked, the less he had to think.

Jim loaded and unloaded the handtruck twice more, then spent the rest of his shift rearranging shelving to make room for a large shipment of seed coming in the next day. He played every mental game he knew to avoid thinking of what the next few hours would bring. He finished his six-hour shift and left work at 4:00 a.m., sweaty, dirty, and nearly exhausted.

Jim drove through the near-deserted streets of Los Angeles toward his home. He took mostly side roads so he could avoid sitting at traffic lights. He met very few cars on the drive, not an unusual occurrence, but he'd hoped for more activity to take his mind of his father. He did drive past an LAPD black and white, and the officers seated inside gave him a long look before apparently deciding Jim posed no threat.

Jim watched the black and white in his rear view mirror and soon it disappeared from view. That'll be me one day. I wonder if I'll like my partner. I wonder what it'll be like wearing a gun. Wonder if I'll ever have to shoot anybody. I hope not.

Jim let his mind wander more toward that anticipated future. By the time he became a police officer, he'd be married a couple of years and probably be ready to start a family. He'd have more responsibility than he'd know how to handle. A wife. A home. A kid. Bills to pay. A job that would require nothing less than his best day-in and day-out. Am I ready for all that? Maybe not. But I've got time. I'm a year from being married and at least two more from the Police Academy. If I can even get in.

Jim sighed as he turned onto his street. "Don't borrow trouble," he scolded himself. "Get through tomorrow before you start worrying about the future." He sighed again as his childhood home came into view. "Of course you didn't leave a single light on, you doofus."

The sight of the darkened house reminded him that his father wasn't there, but in the hospital, and all the frightening possibilities pounced on him with a vengeance. He fought once more to push all of it to the back of his mind, concentrating on centering his car perfectly in the driveway. He parked the car and got his house key ready, still inwardly chastising himself for forgetting to leave at least the porch light on.

I guess I'm ready for a wife, for sure. Looks like I need somebody to look after me. These days I'd forget my head if it wasn't hooked on up there. Jim managed to make it to the front door and get inside without tripping over an unseen obstacle, and instinct took over once inside, enabling him to find the light switch with ease. But even the light couldn't chase all his anxiety away.

As he readied himself for a much-needed shower, the quietness of the house pressed in on him, bringing his fears back to the surface. Jim longed for Jean's steady, calming, comforting presence. He'd seen her only briefly at the hospital earlier, but they hadn't been able to spend any time alone. He always felt better with her in his arms. Somehow, her touch and quiet voice could soothe him in ways nothing or no one could. Even though they weren't yet married, Jim still felt incomplete without her next to him.

Thank God she'll be there with me today. I don't know if I could stand it if she wasn't with me. Everything's going to be all right. It's got to be all right.

Those words became Jim's mantra as he showered, changed, then drove to the hospital to spend time with his father before they took him off to surgery. The shower had revived him, but the closer he got to the hospital, the more the fears and worry threatened to choke the breath from him. When the massive building came into view, Jim had to swallow back a surge of nausea.

"I hate this place," Jim muttered, as he pulled into the hospital parking lot and took his choice of spots in the near-empty area. It had been in this same hospital, just over three years earlier, where he'd learned of his mother's death. Now he had to deal with being in the hated building on a daily basis until his father recovered. And he WILL recover. This is nothing. Nothing.

Jim locked his car and walked into the quiet hospital. He took the elevator up to the 4th floor, and made the convoluted journey from the waiting area to his father's room. Jim was the only one moving in the cold, sterile corridors. Most of the patients still slept, and the nurses congregated at the nurses' station, apparently busying themselves with paperwork and quiet gossip. As Jim walked by, one of them spoke to him.

"You're a little early, aren't you, son? It's not even 5:30."

Jim stopped and gave the nurse a forced little smile. He liked this particular nurse -- Betty Grayson -- because she always talked straight with all of them and could do it with kindness and compassion.

"Yes, ma'am. I wanted to have some time with my Dad before they took him down to surgery. Do you know if he's awake?"

"He is," Nurse Grayson said. "The orderly just finished shaving his chest."

"I bet he loved that," Jim said, knowing how much he would hate having to have that done to him.

"Let's just say he wasn't real happy about it. But he'll be happy to see you. You'll have a few minutes before the other prep work begins. Some of us will be in and out, and Dr. Bergstrom will be by to talk with you before he scrubs in."

Jim nodded. "Thank you."

"Try not to worry. Your father's in good hands."

Jim nodded, though her encouraging words came far too late. "Thanks."

"If you need anything today, you just let me know."

Jim nodded and moved to the door of his father's room. From inside he could hear his father coughing, something he did far too much for Jim's liking these days. It rattled ominously and resonated from deep within the chest. It made Jim's blood turn cold, and he paused for the spasm to pass before giving a gentle rap on the door with his knuckles. When he heard his father say, in a strangled sounding voice, "Come in," Jim pushed the door open.

"Hi, Dad," Jim said, pushing his worries aside and forcing a smile.

"Well, hi, son. What are you doing here so early?" John cleared his throat, but returned Jim's smile.

Jim shrugged and moved to the side of the bed. He tried not to notice his father's pallor, or how his cheekbones stood much more prominently from his face than they had only a month earlier. "I wanted to beat the rush," he said, hoping his father couldn't hear the nervousness in his voice.

John Reed looked at Jim with a sharp eye. "You haven't had any sleep, have you?"

"No, sir, but I'm all right. I had to work right up 'til four, but I got a shower and I'm wide-awake."

"You can't keep up this pace, working all the time, coming here, and no sleep," John growled. "You'll be in a bed next to me."

"I'll catch some z's while you're sleeping after the surgery," Jim said. Somehow, his father always managed to steer any conversation away from himself and how he felt. It had always been that way, but had gotten worse after his mother's death.

"See that you do." John scratched at his chest. "Take a look at this," he said, pulling his hospital gown down a piece so that Jim could see his freshly-shorn chest. "How's this for some humiliation?"

Jim couldn't keep a smile off his face at the sight of his father's hairless chest. "The nurse said they'd shaved you, Dad. I'm sorry."

"Yeah, me, too. Slicker'n a baby's butt. And what's really gonna be bad is when it grows back. I'll be scratching like an ol' bear."

"At least it's in front so you can reach it."

John managed a small laugh. "Small favors, eh?"

"Something like that."

John looked at Jim critically again. "Sit down, Jim. Relax."

Jim really didn't want to sit down. He wanted to stand close to his father, to be there for him, and to offer what little comfort he could. Jim sure didn't want his dad to figure out how nervous he felt; but his father had always been able to read him like a road map. A thousand words and feelings welled up inside, but they log jammed in his throat when he tried to say something reassuring. So, rather than make a fool of himself, he just sat down in the chair next to the bed.

"So, everything all right at the house?" John asked.

"Yes, sir. It's fine."

"You mailed off the power bill?"


"Are you able to keep up with the laundry? Are you getting enough to eat?"

"Dad, I'm fine," Jim said, wondering why his father seemed so obsessed with mundane details.

"With all the manual labor you do, you need to eat. Keep up your strength."

"I promise, Dad, I'm eating."

John Reed coughed again, and Jim tried not to react, even though it took all his acting skills to keep a neutral face. When the coughing spasm passed, John said, "I want you to go stay with Jane and Phil while they keep me locked up here."

"Aw, Dad, I don't need to do that. It'd put them out too much."


"My hours at night are so weird -- I don't want to bother them at four a.m. when I come in from the warehouse. I'd rather stay at home."

"The doc said I won't get to come home for at least another seven days. I don't like the idea of you going home to an empty house in the middle of the night."

"But that's all the more reason for me to stay at the house. Someone needs to be there to take care of things. Get the mail, leave lights on, you know, stuff like that."

"You know if you get lonely or hungry, you can always go to your sister's."

"I know, Dad. Stop worrying about me. You just concentrate on getting well and getting out of here."

John shifted in the bed and opened the drawer in the table next to it. He reached in and pulled out a small ring of keys, then held one up in particular so Jim could see it.

"What's that?" Jim asked.

"This is the key to the lock box. It's got all the important papers in it. Insurance and burial policies, the will..."

"Dad!" Jim protested, but his father shook his head.

"You know where I keep it, don't you, son?"

"Dad, stop it!" Jim stood up from the chair and paced across the room. His father's words terrified him beyond comprehension. "Don't talk about things like that."

John pinned him with a look and he said sternly, "Things like what? Son, things happen sometimes, and we have to be prepared, whether we like it or not. Now tell me, do you know where I keep the box?"

Jim had to swallow hard before he could answer. He could feel himself start to tremble and he stiffened to keep the shaking at bay. "Yes, sir. I know."

"Then take the keys and keep up with them."

"Dad," Jim said, his voice barely a whisper, "nothing's going to happen. Just put the keys in the drawer, and I'll...I'll know where they are if I need them." I'm not going to need them. I'm not. Please, God.

John's look softened, as did his voice. "All right."

The door opened then, and Nurse Grayson and an orderly came in the room, arms full of medical paraphernalia. "Time for more poking and prodding, Mr. Reed," Nurse Grayson said cheerfully.

"Oh, great," John said. "Just what I was looking forward to." John dropped the keys back in the drawer and closed it.

"Why don't you step out for a few minutes?" Nurse Grayson said to Jim. "There's a little coffee room down the hall. Go have a seat in there and have a cup of coffee, and I'll come get you when you can come back in."

Jim nodded. He needed to get away and regroup for a minute, anyway. "Dad, I'll..."

"Go on, son."

Jim left the room quickly, but he took only a few steps down the hall before he stopped and leaned up against the wall, his emotional defenses worn down to almost nil. He dragged in a deep breath that clawed the inside of his chest on the way down, trying to settle himself. Dad thinks he's going to die. Why else would he talk about burial policies and his will? What does he know?

Jim ran a hand through his hair and blew out the breath he'd just sucked in. Surely he's wrong. He's just being cautious. He's...

"Jim? What's going on?"

His sister's voice dragged Jim back from his thoughts. He quickly snapped his body off the wall and stood up straight as Jane and her husband Phil joined him.

"Nothing. Nothing." Jim said. "The nurses are doing something to Dad, so I had to step out here."

"Why do you look so funny?" Jane asked. She stepped up and gave Jim a hug, which he returned.

"Gee, thanks," Jim said.

"You had a funny look on your face, that's all."

Jim shrugged and tried to look casual. "Just trying to find the coffee room the nurse told me about. I think it's down this way. Want a cup?"

"No," Jane shook her head. "How long before we can see Dad?"

"The nurse said to wait in the coffee room and she'd come get us. She had a lot of stuff in her hands, so no telling how long it'll be."

"How's he doing this morning?" Phil asked. "Is he nervous?"

Jim shrugged again. "Maybe a little. We didn't have time to talk much." He couldn't bring himself to repeat what they had discussed.

"I don't mind telling you that I'm nervous," Jane said. She twisted the strand of pearls that hung around her neck as if to emphasize her statement. "So much can go wrong. And I'm so worried about what they're going to find."

"Stop talking like that," Jim said irritably. Her words stirred up the fears that he'd tried so hard to control, and his voice rose a notch in volume as he reacted to the stress. "Nothing's going to go wrong. And they're not going to find anything bad. I wish everybody would just stop talking about all this bad stuff!" I don't want to hear any more.

"Take it easy, Jim," Phil said.

Jim scowled at his brother-in-law, unwilling to let go of his irritation.

"Jim, I don't mean anything bad," Jane said softly. She put a gentle hand on Jim's arm. "But surgery's a big deal. Especially what they're going to do to Dad. You do understand how serious this is?"

"Of course I do," Jim said, lowering his voice back down to a more reasonable level, but still angry. "I'm not an idiot."

"I didn't say you were," Jane said. "But you've been refusing to talk about it, so how am I supposed to know what you're thinking or feeling?"

"What I think is that everybody's jumping to conclusions," Jim said, heat in his voice. "Everybody's got him in a grave before the surgery even starts!"

"In a grave...? Jim, don't be ridiculous."

"Nobody's saying Dad's going to die," Phil seconded. He put an arm around Jane's shoulders. "But any surgery's risky, and everyone's just making sure that we all know the risks."

"And apparently, we all understand them," Jane said, with a significant look at Jim.

Jim nodded and swallowed down his anger. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess we do." Jim dropped his head a moment, took a breath, then looked his older sister in the eyes. "I'm sorry I yelled at you."

Jane slipped away from Phil's embrace and wrapped Jim up in another hug. "It's okay," she whispered, as Jim returned the hug.

"I guess I'm scared, too," Jim admitted, holding onto his sister's embrace. He decided again not to tell her about the conversation he and his father had just had about the lock box. No need in adding to her fears.

Jane rubbed his back comfortingly. "I know, little brother. But we'll get through it."

The nurse and orderly emerged from their father's room then, and Nurse Grayson caught their attention. "You can go back in now," she told them. "The doctors will be up any time now."

"Thank you," Jane said to her. She took Jim's hand. "Come on, let's go in while we still have some time."


Phil herded Jane and Jim ahead of him and they all headed back into John Reed's room.

"Hi, Dad," Jane greeted him cheerfully. She walked to his side and gave him a kiss.

"Hi, sweetie," John grinned, rather weakly, Jim thought, but returned his daughter's hug and kiss.

"They're not treating you very kindly this morning, are they, Dad?" Phil asked, and shook John's hand.

"More like a human pincushion. I'm not sure there's anyplace left to stick, especially after they put in this IV thing." John hefted his left arm that now had an imbedded IV needle taped into place. A thin tubing led to a glass filled with clear fluid hanging on a hook at the head of the bed.

Jim took one look then averted his gaze quickly. He took a deep breath and wiped sweaty palms on his pants. That looks...painful.

"They said my surgeon is on his way up," John said, then fell into another coughing spasm. When it passed, he sank back into his pillows, looking utterly exhausted.

Jim studied the floor, unable to watch his normally robust and energetic father so ill. He sent up silent prayers that the surgerywould uncover a curable condition and he could be treated. It has to turn out that way. It has to. I can't accept anything less.

"Yes, that's what the nurse said," Jane said. She sat down in the chair Phil pulled over for her, then slipped her hand through the railing to grasp her father's.

John cleared his throat again, then gathered his children's gazes with one of his own. "Well, before he gets here, and while you're all here together, I have something I want to say to all of you." John waved Jim closer to his bedside.

Jim moved closer, his heart hammering. What's this about? Not more doom and gloom. I can't take it.

"Dad, you don't have to make any speeches," Jane said. Jim could hear the anxiety clearly in her voice.

"It's not a speech. Just a family chat. Remember, we used to have family chats all the time when you both were younger."

"I remember," Jane said.

"Your mother was good at orchestrating those chats," John said with a small laugh.

Jim couldn't help but smile, thinking about those times spent as a family, usually around the kitchen table, talking about anything and everything. School, sports, planning family outings, even making decisions about family finances together -- those were times Jim would cherish forever. Some of the strongest memories of his mother came from those moments spent together. I miss her so much. She should be here, holding Dad's hand.

"Yes, she was," Jane said. She flicked her gaze over to Jim briefly before looking back at their father.

"I'm not as good as she was at those things," John said, "but I think I have a fairly captive audience, so here goes." John took a deep breath. "I'm going to be out of it for a while, kids, so I want to make sure we're all on the same page before I ship out to la-la land. First of all, Janie, I want you to keep an eye on your brother here." John stabbed a finger at Jim, who shook his head and rolled his eyes in response. "He hasn't had any sleep all night, and I seriously doubt he's eating properly, either."

"Dad, please, I'm all right," Jim said.

"And since I'm liable to be in here at least another week, he's going to be home alone, and I'm not real happy about that," John went on, ignoring Jim.

"Dad, I'm a big boy, now," Jim said. "It's okay."

"I know you can take care of yourself, Jim. I also know that many times you don't take care of yourself. I just want your sister to be aware."

"Dad, don't worry, I'll make sure he's all right," Jane said. "And Jean will help, too. So don't give that a second thought."

"All right, I'll consider that handled. Now, the second thing." John stopped for a cough, then took another deep breath. "I've already talked to my doctors about this, and now I'm telling you. No matter what the outcome of this surgery is, I don't want to be lied to. We haven't said what we're all fearing; we've danced around it and hinted at it, but no one's come right out and said it. I might have cancer."

Cancer. Jim shivered as the dreaded word echoed in his mind and seared a path of fear through his soul. A death sentence. Pain and suffering. Oh, God, please don't let it be!

Jim gripped the rail of his father's bed and held it like a lifeline.

"Dad, don't say that," Jane said.

"Somebody has to. The doctors say they can't tell by the x-rays and that's why I'm getting the surgery. But they wouldn't be moving this fast if it wasn't something serious. The doctors also told me that they'll probably have to send samples off for a pathology report and that might take three days to return. But I get the feeling that they'll know what they see in there. And I do not -- I repeat, do not want to be lied to."

"Dad, " Jane said, with a catch in her voice, "we'll do what's best for you."

"Hearing the truth will be the best for me. If I'm really sick, I need to know. I have things I need to do. Plans to make. A family to consider. You're married, Jane, but Jim's not on his own yet and that makes a big difference."

"Oh, Dad, please stop talking like that," Jane said. Tears slipped from her eyes and Phil put a comforting arm around her.

"Don't cry, princess," John said. "I don't mean to upset you. I just need to know where I stand. I don't need coddling; I need to know the facts."

Jim had to blink back his own tears. His father had pierced right through all of Jim's emotional defenses and dug out the roots of his fear. Seeing Jane give in to her emotions put him off-balance as well. Despite the unpleasantness of the conversation, though, he completely understood his father's request. The honesty between them had been the most sacrosanct aspect of their relationship. Now all he wanted to do was to give his father the small measure of respect and comfort he asked for. "Nobody will lie to you, Dad," Jim said. The words barely came out of his cotton-dry mouth. "I promise."

John nodded. "That's good enough for me. And that being said, I don't want you worrying about me. You don't have to stick around hovering over me, either. That's what they've got nurses for."

"Don't be silly, Dad," Jane said. She wiped at her eyes and sniffled. "You know we want to be here."

John shrugged. "Suit yourself," he said, then he laughed, as both Jim and Jane expressed some dismay at that statement. "I can't believe, as old as you two are, I can still get your goat. My acting skills must still be pretty sharp."

"Dad, you're terrible," Jane said.

Jim didn't say anything, but tried to smile at his father. He didn't feel like joking around or even making small talk. The worry still ate at him, and Jane had been right -- he'd avoided thinking about it until it had come up and slapped him in the face. I'm not handling this well. I wish Jean was here already. God, I just wish this day was over.

"I love you all very much," John said, suddenly sobering. "You being here means a lot to me."

"We love you, too, Dad," Jane said. "And you know there's no place we'd rather be than here."

"Yeah," Jim seconded, unable to say anything else. This scene had become far too emotional for his liking.

Jim was relieved by a knock at the door. But when it opened to reveal the Reed family physician, Dr. Greenbaum, and another doctor, the relief vanished, replaced by that leaden feeling of dread that had been Jim's constant companion for days.

Dr. Greenbaum greeted them all, then introduced the other doctor as Dr. Bergman, who would perform the surgery. The two physicians spent several minutes giving a rather clinical outline of what the surgery would entail and what they could expect. Then the surgeon excused himself so he could scrub in, and Dr. Greenbaum became more informal, giving them some reassurances and engaging in small talk. He then left when Nurse Grayson came in to give his father his pre-operative sedative.

It didn't take long for the sedative to take effect. Jane was the first to hug and kiss her father and whisper "I love you," before allowing Phil to lead her from the room.

Jim moved to the head of his father's bed. He reached down and grasped his father's hand and gave it a squeeze. John returned the squeeze with a weak one of his own. "Everything's going to be fine, Dad," Jim said.

John's eyes started to close. "I...know," he whispered.

"I'll be here when you wake up."

"Good..." John's voice trailed off as the drug claimed him.

Jim kept hold of his father's hand. "Love you, Dad," he whispered.

Jim didn't expect an answer, and he got none. But Jim stood vigil by his father's side, holding his hand, until the orderlies came in to transfer him down to surgery. Jim moved aside and watched the orderlies move his father to the surgical gurney, then wheel him out the door.

Jim squeezed his eyes shut and willed back the tears that sprang up there. Go with him, God. Please just let it be all right.

He took a moment to collect himself, then joined his sister and Phil in the corridor. They made their way to the elevator and took the two-floor ride in the elevator in silence, then followed the signs to the surgical waiting room.

It surprised Jim to see others sitting in the area this early. A worried-looking young couple sat huddled in one corner while a toddler sat at their feet, playing with a squeaky toy. An elderly woman occupied a chair across from the couple. She held an open Bible in her lap and appeared to be praying. Yet another three chairs held two men and a woman, all middle-aged, who sat quietly talking. I guess we're not the only ones worried about someone we love. I guess I don't think about all the sick people in the world.

Phil settled Jane in a chair facing the couple with the toddler, then sat next to her and grasped her hand. Jim took a chair on the other side of Jane and slouched his tall frame into it. As usual, the scale of the chair didn't accommodate his long legs, so he stretched them out, trying not to hog too much of the aisle. Again, as usual, Jim couldn't find any position that felt comfortable to him. He couldn't quite suppress a sigh of frustration. Waiting almost three hours is going to be bad enough, but these chairs are terrible.

Jane patted Jim's knee and gave him a sympathetic look. Jim shrugged and shifted once more. He tried to distract himself by watching the toddler who played contentedly on a blanket at the feet of who Jim assumed were his parents. I think that's a boy. It's wearing boy clothes, anyway. The child chewed on the squeaky toy for a bit, then would pound it on the blanket as he made gurgling noises. The toy, which looked like a blue donut, would squeak intermittently, with a high-pitched, loud noise that quickly started to grate on Jim's nerves.

Jim shifted again and glanced at his watch, mortified when the timepiece indicated only five minutes had passed since he'd sat down. This is ridiculous. Why isn't Jean here yet? His arms ached to hold her close, hoping that her nearness could wipe away his worry.

When the toy squeaked three more times in quick succession, Jim got to his feet.

"Where are you going?" Jane asked.

"Just to walk," Jim said. He stepped into the tiled hallway and started pacing. He carved out a pathway between the elevator and the carpeted waiting area. He counted exactly fifty-eight tiles between the two points, and it took him twenty-seven full strides to make the trip in one direction. He located every coffee stain and dent in the floor, and counted all the smudges on the fading wallpaper.

Still, all that activity didn't help him feel one whit better. It only succeeded in making his already tired legs feel like rubber.

"Jim, if you don't stop that pacing, you're going to wear yourself out," Phil said, after Jim had spent about fifteen minutes on his personal racecourse.

"I can't sit still," Jim said, trying not to let his brother-in-law irritate him. Somehow, Phil always managed to get under his skin, even when he was nice. The continually squeaking toy didn't help.

"Jim's always been antsy," Jane said, not unkindly. "I should probably warn Jean."

"I think she's figured it out already," Jim said, as he turned for another walk toward the elevator.

This time, Jim's trip to the elevator had a productive ending. When he made his sixteenth full stride, the elevator bell dinged, and when the doors opened, Jean came out.

Jim's heart leaped, relieved to finally have the woman he loved by his side. He made his already long strides even longer to reach her more quickly. "Jean, hi."

"Jim, honey, I'm sorry I'm so late," Jean said, as she rushed toward him.

Jim wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into a tight hug. "You're here now, baby. That's all that matters to me." Jim felt the knot of anxiety ease slightly as Jean's embrace worked its usual magic.

"Are you okay? How long has your dad been in surgery?"

"They took him down about a half-hour ago. The doctor said the surgery would be somewhere around three hours." Jim spoke quietly in her ear as he held her close and stroked her hair.

"You didn't answer my question. Are you okay?"

"I'm a lot better now that you're here." Jim tilted her head up for a quick kiss.

"There was a wreck on Olympic and traffic was backed up for a mile or more. That's why I'm late."

"There's always a wreck on Olympic," Jim said. "Especially at rush hour."

"Daddy was really upset; he was going to be so late for work."

"He brought you in?"

"Yeah. Come on, honey, lets go sit down." Jean looked up at him, her eyes full of love, sympathy and concern. "You look exhausted, baby. Did you get any sleep last night?"

"Well..." Jim hedged.

"I didn't think so. I can see the circles under your eyes. Come on, let's go sit down and you try to rest and stop worrying."

"These chairs so uncomfortable. And I don't know if I can sit still."

"Let's try." Jean took his hand and they walked back to the waiting area.

"Jean, hello," Jane said.

As Jean greeted Jane and Phil and settled down to chat, Jim stood with his hands in his pockets, jingling his change, and shifting his gaze from his family to the baby across the way who still worked over the squeaky toy. He only half-listened to the conversation Jean carried on with Jane and Phil.

Three people walked into the waiting area then, and Jim had to move aside so they could pass by to get to a bank of chairs on the far wall. Jim watched the people, an extremely elderly woman and man and a middle-aged woman, sit down. They seemed as nervous as he felt, and again Jim wondered at the number of people facing the uncertainties of the illness of a family member.

Jim dragged his attention back to his family when he felt Jean's dainty hand grasp his forearm.

"Jim, sweetie, please sit down," she said. She gave a gentle tug on his arm and he let her guide him toward the chair next to her.

Jim plopped into the chair, biting back a sigh. He put an arm around Jean and pulled her as close to him as he could. He needed her steady strength. Jean placed her hand on Jim's leg and patted it reassuringly.

"Relax, honey," Jean said in a soft whisper. "Everything's going to be all right."

"God, I hope so," Jim sighed. "Dr. Greenbaum seems to think this surgeon is good."

"I'm sure he's a wonderful surgeon. Your doctor wouldn't have recommended him otherwise. You said Dr. Greenbaum's been your family's physician for twenty-five years; you know he wouldn't steer you wrong." Jean spoke firmly, rubbing Jim's leg for comfort.

"Yeah, I know, I know. It's just..." Jim leaned in closer to her and lowered his voice. "Dad seems so spooked about it. I think he's convinced he's got cancer. He told us this morning that if he did, he didn't want to be lied to."

"Oh, baby, this is so awful for all of you," Jean said. "I'm so sorry."

"Yeah, me, too," Jim said. He brushed Jean's temple with a light kiss. Saying the word 'cancer' had unnerved him. His Dad had been right -- no one had voiced the dreaded word aloud, but apparently everyone feared that would be the diagnosis. The signs were all there, but Jim refused to accept it. I won't believe it. I can't. It has to be something else. It has to be.

"Jim, honey, stop it," Jean said. She pressed firmly on Jim's knee. He hadn't even realized he'd been rapidly bouncing his leg up and down out of nervousness. "You're wearing yourself out."

"Sorry." Jim shifted in his chair. "I can't stand this waiting. It's only been a little over thirty minutes, and I'm already a wreck."

"Let's take your mind off it, then."

"How?" Jim asked, waving his free arm expansively toward the waiting area. "It's kinda hard to forget why we're here."

"I know you can't completely take your mind off it, but if we talk about something else, maybe you can relax just a few minutes." Jean opened her purse and pulled out a small pink and white book that Jim recognized as her "wedding organizer."

"Jean, honey, I'm not in the mood to make any decisions about the wedding," Jim said.

"You don't have to make any decisions, love," Jean said. "Just let me show you some things. I did a lot of work yesterday, but I haven't had a chance to tell you about it."

"Oh, okay. Look, I'm sorry I'm crabby, Jean," Jim said, but Jean stopped him.

"It's all right. I understand. And I'm only showing you this so you won't dwell on the surgery." Jean leaned over and kissed his cheek.

"I love you, hon," Jim said. "You show me what you've been up to."

Jean opened the little book and beamed up at Jim. "First of all, it's only 339 days until we get married," she said.

"That many?" Jim asked. "Sounds like a long time to me."

"You'll be surprised how fast it'll go, we have so much to do."

"I hope so. So, what's up next?"

"Momma and I made an appointment with a wedding planner for next Tuesday afternoon," Jean said. "She's a friend of a friend we know at church. She's going to bring samples of invitations, ideas for flowers, decorating, and recommendations for musicians, caterers, photographers and all that really hard stuff."

"Sounds expensive," Jim said.

Jean giggled. "As long as Daddy's willing to pay, I'm not complaining. And she'll make choosing all these things a lot easier. And she'll have so many connections right at her fingertips that I'd go crazy trying to locate."

"Okay, that sounds good."

"It is, believe me. And yesterday, we went to a couple of bridal salons and looked at dresses. I tried on a few but I didn't find any I liked enough to buy. But I did find a couple of bridesmaid's dresses I liked, and I've definitely decided on baby blue as the primary color for the wedding. I'm still trying to decide on accent colors, but I think the wedding planner will help with that."

"I like blue," Jim said.

"I know," Jean said, with a smile.

"So when do I have to start doing anything?"

"Soon. You did get in touch with all your attendants, right?"

"Yeah, I thought I told you that."

"You did," Jean flipped a page back in the book, "last week. But I was just double-checking."

"Probably a good idea."

"Now, I want your input on a lot of things, too, honey. I want your opinions on the invitations, the flowers, the music, the food..."

"Honey, I told you, whatever you want is fine with me. You tell me what to do and when to show up."

"But it's your wedding, too, Jim. I want it to be perfect, and I want you to be happy, too. I'd hate to plan a menu and you not like any of the food!"

"Jean, I hate to tell you this, but I doubt I'll be thinking about food on our wedding day." Jim gave Jean a little squeeze. "Besides, I'm planning the most important part anyway."

Jean blushed and elbowed Jim in the ribs. "You're terrible," she accused.

"No, just truthful," Jim said.

"So, are you going to tell me where you're taking me on our honeymoon?" Jean asked.

"Nope," Jim shook his head and arched his eyebrows at his fiancee.

"You mean 'not right now,' right?"

"I mean never."


"Uh huh. It's a surprise." Right now it's a surprise to me, too. I don't have any idea where we'll go. Jim couldn't help but grin as Jean's expression went from playful to irritated.

"How will I know how to pack if you don't tell me where we're going?" Jean asked.

"Hey, it's our honeymoon. You won't need clothes."

"Jim!" Jean slapped Jim on the arm. Her voice carried enough so that some of the people in the waiting area turned to look at the both of them.

Jean's blush deepened and she covered her mouth with her hand. "Sorry," she giggled.

Jim felt the burden on his heart lighten slightly. Jean had been right -- talking about the wedding had diverted his gloomy thoughts for a short time. Hearing her patented giggle reminded him of the future he had to look forward to with her and reassured him that she stood beside him no matter what the outcome of the surgery today. If she's with me, I can get through it.

"When the time comes, I'll tell you everything you need to know about what to pack." As soon as I figure it out myself! "Trust me."

"All right, I will," Jean smiled and gave him a peck on the cheek.

"Good. Now, when do I have to go get fitted for a tux?"

"Oh, not for a long time. After Christmas. After Tuesday I should have a much better idea of a timeline. I'll write it all down for you."

"Sounds good to me." Jim stretched his legs and yawned.

"Poor, tired, baby," Jean said soothingly. "Why don't you close your eyes and grab a nap?"

"I will later, while Dad's sleeping it off this afternoon. If I go now, I might not wake up."

"Can I get you something to eat? Maybe some coffee?"

"Nah, not now, but thanks. I'm all right for now."

"All right. Just let me know if you change your mind." Jean patted his leg again, then put the pink wedding organizer away.

They sat in silence for a while. Jim watched the toddler across the room, who now had grown tired and lay quietly on the quilt on the floor, eyelids drooping. I'd better quit watching him or I'll be nodding off, too. The lady with the Bible continued her reading and praying.

Part 3