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Abrock

"No Longer A Stranger"

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Okay! So I got permission from the Doc herself to post this here. Because it is, after all, so very verrrry Vanilla.

*Note: This originally began as a fun little fanfic for "The Stranger", but it has since evolved into its own thing, each character becoming something completely different from anyone in any Gerry film, so....read, enjoy.

**EDIT MAY 10th, 2007**

Hey all! I've updated the old posts, because I decided to change the name of the main girl. When I first started writing this, it was before "Mel" became my nickname on GALS, so now the character of "Mel" is now "Lori," because I don't want to give the impression that the character is me. I also changed the first few sections to third person to match the rest of the story. So, read, enjoy!

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So far, the evening seemed to be going smoothly. Lori sat opposite the ruggedly handsome man at a small, round table that was set up in the sitting room. Her fidgety foot, however, would not let her forget how high her nerves were. She hadn’t expected much from a tall, dark, reserved man. After all, nearly all of them she knew refused to toss out crumbs, especially on a date set up by anyone other than them. But somehow, this one was different.

Lori had dinner already made when he showed up to the small pool house, impeccably on time. This was her first surprise, though she let it fall by the wayside. Lack of punctuality varied in all sorts of people. He had plenty of opportunities to prove himself material of her prejudice before the night was over. But so far, he’d knocked every one of those opportunities flat.

“I’m Andrew,” he’d said, his voice deep and edgy, but as tender as any she’d ever heard.

“I’m Lori,” she replied, surveying him. “Well, my full name is Loraine, but I don’t necessarily like it, so…”

“Good to meet you, Lori,” he replied with a slight smile.

His hands were in his jean pockets, not as a sign of relaxation or trying to come across as casual, but rather in a reserved, guarded way. In this respect, Lori might have expected someone with his air to keep his head down, his eyes diverting to the ground. Andrew did nothing of the sort. His eyes met hers every time, blinking delicately and his expression calm.

His eyes were a most unique color, which she picked up on right away. They seemed mostly gray, but with flecks of green that seemed to come and go depending on his expression. They held her attention like no other eyes she’d ever seen, deep-set and intense, yet remarkably warm. At least, they seemed warmer as the evening continued.

Andrew now leaned his forearms on the table with his hands folded, keeping his eyes connected with Lori’s as she told him a story about her family. A slight grin tugged at the corners of his mouth as she spoke, the green in his eyes coming forth a bit, which seemed to present the smile more than any muscle in his face.

They had just finished dessert and were continuing to talk, which Lori found remarkably easy to do with Andrew. When he spoke, she felt as though she didn’t need any dessert…listening to his voice was like biting into creamy chocolate, and she found her ears automatically perking to catch every syllable and breath.

Andrew responded to Lori’s story with a warm smile, his eyes almost completely green now. Lori felt her cheeks grow pink, spreading up to the tips of her ears. She drew in her lips and looked down at her hands in her lap. She was wringing them mercilessly, cracking a few knuckles here and there in the process. Most likely sensing her anxiety, Andrew asked her a question, causing her to lift her eyes to his again. Once there, they were held for another good hour as they entertained each other with stories and jokes, laughing more and more spiritedly.

The evening ended with Andrew helping her clean up, and as he headed towards the door, she hastily asked him if he would come over the next night as well. He hesitated just for a moment, but it was long enough for her heart to jump into her throat and then sink all the way into her stomach, terrified that he would see her request as far too bold.

“Of course,” he said softly, his eyes once again smiling at her.

Lori found herself holding onto a chair to keep from collapsing. They made quick arrangements for when he would come, and then he slipped out the door, closing it ever so quietly behind him.

***

The second evening began similarly to the first. Andrew had entered Lori’s thoughts more than just a few times throughout the course of the day, and she found herself trying to bat them down, knowing that what had happened the night before could very well have be a fluke. She didn’t want to be disappointed if she didn’t have to be.

However, Andrew showed up right on time, just as the night before. He was dressed similarly as he had been before, in a pair of nice jeans and a fitted, solid-color t-shirt. Lori’s hands were shaking as she went to answer the door, and she had to control them even more when she saw him standing there, his eyes alight with a smile. The shirt he wore was sort of pale green in color, seemingly matching his eyes perfectly. At that point, she wasn’t sure if it was the shirt that was bringing out the warm color, or if he was just happy to be in her presence again. She tried not to let herself think it was the latter, once again trying to quell reason for possible disappointment.

Time after time during dinner, Lori was caught off guard by Andrew’s affectionate gaze, staring into her eyes as if gently inviting her in. Lori found herself taking advantage of this, trying to learn as much as she could about him, his likes and dislikes, the full scope of his gentle nature, and anything else she could pick up on. As she did this, she slowly came to realize that he was doing the same with her. But now, instead of being nervous, she felt strangely calm sharing what she could with him.

When they finished eating, Andrew once again helped her clean up. They washed the dishes together, which gave Lori an odd satisfaction. She enjoyed watching him dry each dish and softly ask where each of them went. She grinned widely as he reached one of the top cupboards without any type of footstool, and hardly lifting his heels off the ground. He turned back towards her, saw her expression and furrowed his brow in curiosity, while grinning himself.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Oh, nothing,” she replied unconvincingly, realizing her ears growing red had nothing to do with her hands being soaked in warm dishwater.

“Oh, really?” he asked coyly, cocking his head at her.

“I just love how tall you are.” The words were out of her mouth before she knew what was happening.

His eyebrows rose ever so slightly, while his lips parted slowly. “You like tall?”

“Not all the time,” she replied truthfully, “but it works so well on you.” Lori thought her ears were going to burn because they were growing so hot. Why was she being so thoroughly honest?

Andrew’s eyes shifted shyly to the floor for a moment. When he recovered, he moved towards her, his eye contact unfailing. He was just inches from her when he reached around her and grabbed another dish to dry. All he did was smile warmly at her before he turned to put it away. Lori’s heart pounded hard in her throat, and she swore that it was audible enough for Andrew to hear it. Only when he had his back turned did she dare to take a deep breath and swallow hard.

After they were through with their chore, Lori expected Andrew to leave as he had the night before. Instead, he asked if she wanted to sit on the couch and just talk. In that moment, she couldn’t think of anything she’d rather be doing. They got comfortable on the plush loveseat in the sitting room, both turning towards each other, their knees slightly touching. Their conversation continued to be lighthearted and easy, but their looks towards each other seemed to be growing more and more intense and serious.

The hours flew by, and before Lori knew it, the summer sky had faded away into a thick, warm night, the sky littered with stars. Andrew mentioned this, so she turned to look out the large window, captivated by the calm night and the beauty it held. Then she felt Andrew’s large and warm hands on her shoulders, squeezing them gently. Her eyes fluttered shut, breathing deeply and taking in the sensation of his touch. She reached up and lay her hands on top of his, causing their fingers to automatically intertwine. She moved back a bit as he surrounded her middle with his arms and pulled her into him. Her back rested against his well-built chest while her face lay close to his neck. Andrew let out a contented sigh, which caused Lori’s stomach to flip over with hope.

As every minute passed, she seemed to melt more and more into him while they spoke. His lips brushed against her ear a few times as he whispered things to her. She felt happily comfortable and sleepy as they gazed out the window, their breaths matching.

It was near midnight when Andrew finally said he needed to go. Even though she knew it would be coming soon, Lori couldn’t hide her disappointment. She felt as though she could stay in that moment with him forever. However, she propped herself up as he broke his grip on her. Andrew stood first, then held out his hand and helped Lori to her feet as well. He did not let go of her hand, but held it warmly as she walked him to the door. Before he walked through it, he looked down at her affectionately.

“I’d be honored if you would let me take you out tomorrow night,” he said softly.

Lori smiled without having to think about it. “I would love to. Thank you, Andrew.”

He paused and licked his lips as if thinking something over. Finally he said, “Would you call me Drew?”

She cocked her head at him, a little surprised by the request. “Absolutely, if that’s what you prefer.”

“Well…most people call me Andrew. My friends call me Drew.”

Her pulse pounded in her throat at the word “friends,” even though she counted him as one, and knew that if anything were to happen, she would want that first. But she just couldn’t help herself.

Her feelings must have shown on her face, because Andrew leaned down closer to her and said softly, “Especially those I feel closer to.”

She smiled, color creeping into her cheeks yet again that evening. “I most definitely will, then.”

He returned her smile, squeezed her hands one more time and walked through the door. Lori watched him for a few moments as he walked to the street towards his car. Then she shut the door slowly, leaning against it and sighing breathlessly.

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For the third evening in row, Lori was nervous. She sat in front of the mirror of the pool house bedroom, looking at her appearance. Her makeup accentuated her features, but remained understated, and her somewhat long brown hair held the loose curl she’d given it, but decided not to put it up.

Sighing anxiously, she stood and examined what she was wearing. Drew had called her earlier that day, asking her if it was all right if they went somewhere dressy. She was very excited for the opportunity, since she really hadn’t done anything like that since she was a teenager. But now she was remembering how uncomfortable a formal dress could be. Or at least, how uncomfortable she could feel in one.

The dress she chose was one solid color, a deep royal blue, which was dark enough not to be bright, but a few shades lighter than navy. The dress had a nice cut for her; a scoop neckline, but with a high back; fitted sleeves that were about four inches from the edge of her shoulder; a nice fitting form, but not too tight, down her chest and torso. The dress fell nearly to the tops of her feet, the fabric around her legs a little looser, permitting her to walk comfortably. A slit on the side up just past her knee also helped this along. It was a gorgeous dress and she liked what it did for her figure. But if she didn’t stop twisting her fingers and pacing, she wouldn’t be calm enough to enjoy the evening. She felt like a sixteen year-old who’d been asked to the prom by her favorite crush.

Lori glanced at the clock when the doorbell rang. Once again, he was almost exactly on time. She swung the door open and her breath caught in her chest. Drew stood before her in a light gray suit, the suit coat unbuttoned, and the collar of his white dress shirt also unbuttoned. He wasn’t wearing a tie, but for some reason she just knew he looked better without it. His hands were in his pockets, once again looking a bit shy, but his eyes locked immediately onto hers, their tender expression causing her lips to part slightly.

“Wow,” he said quietly as she stepped out the door, “you’re absolutely radiant.”

“Thank you,” Lori managed to reply. Drew gently took her hand, her stomach jumping slightly at his warm touch, and they walked to his car.

The restaurant sat on the top floor of one of the taller buildings downtown. Lori and Drew had a table next to a bay of windows with a magnificent view of the sky. The late afternoon had long swept away, leaving traces of orange and pink scattered across a few high and solitary clouds. The light in the restaurant was dim, leaving the soft light of the oncoming evening to frame Drew’s face. Lori was beginning to appreciate more and more how handsome he was, and how subtle and quiet his expressions were. They talked easily through their dinner, taking more time to get to know one another. The more Lori delved, the more she was interested. Drew had a remarkable and honest core, even though he seemed very careful. It was apparent to her that he guarded the things close to his heart, and didn’t let anyone unworthy in. Because she believed he was sharing some of those things with her, she felt beyond privileged.

They were through eating, their plates already cleared by the waiter as the sky grew darker. They watched the sky together, commenting on its beauty and stillness, when Drew took her hand from across the table.

Perhaps his gesture gave her courage, but she found herself saying, “I feel like the night sky right now.”

Drew turned his eyes from the view and focused on her. “How so?”

“Just…beautiful and calm, right in her center.”

He leaned forward a bit, caressing her hand in both of his. “Yeah?”

She nodded, smiling. “Absolutely.”

“You’re features must be reflecting your feelings then,” he said softly, reaching up and touching her cheek. She blushed at his touch.

When they finally left the restaurant, the light of day had completely faded from the sky. The night was, once again, clear and full of stars, although they couldn’t see as many being in the middle of the city. When they reached Drew’s car, they both glanced at each other, unwilling for the night to be over.

“Would you like to take a walk?” Drew offered.

Lori nodded. “I would love to. But only if I can leave my shoes in your car.”

He laughed. “Leave your shoes in my car?”

She smiled. “Absolutely. I mean, these shoes aren’t the best for walking, but it’s a warm night…and I like being barefoot.”

“Huh,” he said while nodding to himself. “Well, if you’ll permit me to join you…”

Lori found herself giggling as Drew took off his socks and dress shoes, throwing them in the back of the car with hers. After he locked up the car again, they headed down the sidewalk, hand in hand, and barefoot. As they walked, Lori rubbed his hand affectionately with her thumb, which Drew responded well to. A few people glanced down at their feet curiously as they passed them, but this didn’t seem to bother Drew at all. Lori seemed that she was the only person he took care to look at.

They came upon a park that had a temporary stage set up in the middle of it, but it looked as though whatever had occurred was just barely over. Musicians were packing up instruments, and men and women dressed in black shirts with the word “CREW” written on them were folding up chairs.

“Looks like we missed a party,” Drew commented.

“Yeah. I wonder what was going on?”

Drew shrugged. “Whatever it was, I’m kind of glad it is over…the grass looks quiet and inviting.”

Lori silently agreed with him. They walked across the park to a small hill that sloped down to a duck pond. The cool grass licked at their feet as they moved through it, and a breeze coming off the pond blew scents of flowers into the warm air.

They reached the top of the hill, captivated by the shadows of the trees by the moonlight. The shadows stretched across the balmy ground and created a beautiful pattern on the grass.

“Here,” Drew said, removing his suit coat. “So you don’t ruin your dress.” He laid it down on the ground. Lori nodded her thanks to him as they both settled onto the hillside.

For nearly an hour they sat next to each other, breathing the night air and having a soft exchange of conversation. Every now and then, another couple would walk by, but Lori barely noticed. She was so captivated by how easy and deep conversation with Drew was that the time was once again passing far too quickly. Drew glanced at his watch and said, “We’re probably past park curfew.”

He helped her up, picked up his coat, then stopped and looked intensely into her eyes.

“I’d probably better get you home, anyway,” he sighed.

Her sigh matched his and she nodded reluctantly. They headed back to his car, which also took far too quickly, and before Lori knew it, they had driven the distance to the pool house.

“Can I walk you do your door?” Drew asked quietly as he parked the car.

Lori looked at him affectionately. “That’d be great.”

Drew got out, opened her door for her and offered his hand to help her out of the car. As they headed to the door, Lori noticed that his hand was a bit sweaty; making her wonder if he was nervous, which made her a bit nervous in return.

When they reached the doorstep, they stood and gazed at each other for a few moments.

“I had such a good time,” Drew said softly.

Her mouth became dry as he looked at her, his eyes greener than she’d ever seen. “So did I. Thank you so much.”

He nodded subtlety. “Um…do you have plans tomorrow? I don’t know if you work during the day on Saturday or anything…”

Lori shook her head. “I’m free as far as I know.”

He bit his lip, which caused her to do the same. “I would like to spend the afternoon with you. Can I call you tomorrow morning?”

“Please,” she responded, her lips barely coming together to form the word.

Drew smiled, mostly with his eyes. He then took a deep breath as he gently placed his arms around Lori’s waist, pulling her a little closer to him. Her hands rested on the back of his upper arms, rubbing them affectionately through his white shirt. He leaned his face down slowly towards hers, and she felt all the breath escape from her mouth as she anticipated what was going to happen.

Color crept into Lori’s cheeks as Drew’s mouth touched hers. His lips were wet, warm and slightly open, causing her heart to pound twice as fast. Drew let the kiss linger, which let Lori take in the full feel and taste of his lips, determined not to forget. She breathed in his scent and the warmth of his breath, feeling as though nothing else could be so wonderful. His fingers curled a bit and softly clutched the small of her back with sweet intensity.

They slowly pulled away, their eyes opening and immediately locking onto each other’s. After a moment or so, Drew pressed his cheek against hers, his lips at her ear. Lori’s eyes closed again in bliss.

“Till tomorrow,” he whispered, gently kissing her ear, which caused her skin to prickle.

Drew waited until Lori was safely inside before heading back to his car. She watched him out the window as he approached the driver’s side. Before he got in the car, he tipped his head back and gazed at the sky, taking deep breaths.

She watched until he drove off, then settled herself down on the loveseat, opened the blinds of the large window and gazed at the sky herself. Lori licked her lips, remembering everything she could from that perfect kiss. She sighed happily and closed her eyes, hoping with everything she had that it would repeat itself.

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The day began a bit earlier than they originally planned. Drew called Lori around nine in the morning, first off apologizing if he’d woken her. She told him he hadn’t, which was true…she’d woken up about a half hour before, and had spent that time lying in bed and listening to the sounds of the morning through her open window, thinking of the night before.

By ten o’clock, they were in Drew’s car heading just out of Moab with the intention to hike around Arches National Park. There was significant cloud cover when they arrived at the park, hiding the hot desert sun with a hint of a cool breeze, which was ideal for what they intended to do.

They visited a few of the arches that were accessible by car, hiking around a few of them, sitting together and watching families with small children run around and chase each other. Because it was too warm to really cuddle, they stayed connected through holding hands. The ice seemed to have been permanently broken through their kiss the night before, causing them to be able to laugh and joke with each other without feeling any tension.

After an hour of exploring the park, they drove to the trailhead of Delicate Arch. Crowds were already beginning to hike it, but it didn’t bother Lori, nor did it seem to bother Drew. They hiked the steep trail together, gazing at the view of cliffs and desert all around.

Delicate Arch sat on the edge of a swooping sandstone bowl, which they had to cross to get to the freestanding formation. Lori gripped Drew’s hand a little tighter than usual as they neared the cliff behind the arch. He looked down at her curiously.

“Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” she replied, wiping sweat from her brow. “Just a little…nervous. Heights do that to me.”

He nodded with understanding, looking beyond the arch. “Do you want to go?”

She shook her head. “No…I love it here, it’s just a bit…” she looked up at his handsome face. “I think, as long as you’re here, I’ll be all right.”

Drew smiled, secured his arms around her waist and kissed her on the cheek. Slowly, Lori’s fear of the cliff began to melt away as they took in the view together. She hardly took notice of any other group coming through and taking pictures in front of the arch, even when they moved every now and then to stay clear of someone’s shot. After a little while, the bowl was becoming too crowded not to notice, so the two headed back down the trail, talking about the magnificent view as they went.

When they reached the car, they drove throughout the park and found a fairly secluded spot, where they set up the lunch Drew had made. The food hit the spot perfectly. They sat there for a little while longer, continuing to talk and laugh. Lori just couldn’t get enough of Drew’s gentle expressions, kind nature and fresh sense of humor. She was beyond amazed that this wonderful man wasn’t already taken, and wondered what she had done to capture his interest.

As they drove back, she said, “You know…I haven’t used that pool much. Might be soothing after hiking all morning.”

Drew looked over at her with a hint of a grin. “You sure?”

“Oh yes, quite soothing,” she replied, even though she was pretty sure that wasn’t what he was asking. He had proven himself a gentleman time and time again, and she didn’t want him to feel like he was imposing.

***

Lori sat at the edge of the pool in her bathing suit, her feet soaking in the deep end of the ridiculously blue water. The early morning clouds had cleared, leaving the sky rather blue and the sun quite bright and warm. She closed her eyes and turned her face to it, feeling its warmth while remembering the events of the morning. A hint of a smile grew on her face as she thought merely about being with Drew. She felt remarkably safe in his presence, even when they weren’t in physical contact. Just feeling his presence seemed to be enough, although she was equally happy that it didn’t stop there.

The sliding glass door opening caught her attention. Drew walked through it in a t-shirt and his swim trunks. When their eyes locked, neither of them could suppress a smile. As he moved towards her, she realized he had something in his hand.

“I saw the sunscreen on the counter,” he commented as he sat down next to her.

Lori let out a laugh of disbelief. She had put it there so she wouldn’t forget it. But apparently she was a little distracted, causing her mind to wander from such a necessity.

“Would you like me to put it on your back?” he asked quietly. Lori could feel her skin already starting to prickle, just from him asking the question. She nodded with a smile, turning her back to him as he put some in his hand.

It took her every bit of willpower Lori had to breathe normally as Drew placed his warm hand on her back, easily and smoothly spreading the lotion across her exposed skin. When he got to her shoulders, he gently gathered her hair and placed it over her shoulder, then began rubbing with both of his hands, gliding across the back of her neck and around to her throat. His touch was so incredibly tender that she found herself closing her eyes and taking a deep, satisfying breath.

Drew chuckled softly behind her. “I take it I’m doing all right?”

Lori’s face flushed when she realized how she reacted. She turned around when he was done, her smile still on her face. “You do all right,” she said teasingly.

All he did was smile back, his incredible eyes nearly swallowing her whole.

“Okay, your turn,” she finally said.

Drew broke his gaze and swiftly removed his t-shirt. Lori had to brace her arm on the ground; afraid she might tip over into the pool. Drew was by no means a bodybuilder, of which she was grateful for, but he certainly kept himself in shape. The sun seemed to outline the shadows of his muscles quite well. She was a bit embarrassed that she was noticing in such detail, but she couldn’t help herself.

Drew sat patiently as she rubbed the lotion on his back, taking the opportunity to run her fingertips over every muscle, but yet taking satisfaction in the fact that he was still soft to the touch.

After they had sufficiently covered themselves in sunscreen, Drew looked at Lori and said, “You know the best way to get into a pool…”

“Just jump right in?”

He nodded.

“Well then,” she said, “you could always jump in and test it for the both of us.”

Without another word, Drew slipped into the deep end and completely submerged himself. Lori put her legs back into the water; watching Drew fall to the bottom of the pool, then push off, reemerging right in front of her. He ran his hand over his face to wipe off the excess water, and then placed both his hands on either side of her, resting on the deck of the pool.

“Water’s good,” he said softly. His chest rested against her shins as he looked up at her, the green in his eyes coming forth once more. He seemed to find a foothold in the water as he pushed himself up a bit so he was almost at eye level with her.

“Hi,” Lori breathed as his middle settled between her knees.

“Hi,” Drew replied, just as affected as she was. He lightly rubbed her calf while leaning in slowly, once again touching her lips with his. Her face flushed deeply, his taste and scent even more wonderful than it had been the night before. She ran her hand through his wet hair, her fingertips aware of every little sensation. Her breath quickened as he caressed her neck, the water from his hand rolling slowly down her back.

When they finally broke, Lori took a deep, refining breath as she looked at him, in that moment appreciating everything he was.

“Ready to come in?” Drew asked quietly.

Lori smiled widely, which Drew returned, as he secured his left arm around her waist, holding her to him. He then pushed away from the wall, lowering them both into the water. His arm remained around her as he kept the two of them afloat. Even though it was a balmy day, Lori still thoroughly enjoyed how warm his body was next to hers, and the security she felt in his arms.

They spent most of the afternoon in the pool, every now and then reapplying sunscreen lotion, and using each other to do so. Every time, Drew’s magnificent touch sent shivers of joy through Lori. And yet, she never had to worry about his hands roaming to inappropriate places, he being the gentleman that he was.

The afternoon was slowly closing into evening, yet the sun was as hot as ever. Lori stood in a shoulder-deep area, her arms folded on the pool deck as she stared at the late afternoon sky, watching how it slowly lost its rich color to eventually give way to the night. As she did, she heard Drew swim up behind her and place his hands on the deck next to hers, his arms encircling her. She rested against his warm chest as he gently kissed her ear, his lips slowly brushing across the top, down the rim and finally settling back behind her ear completely, exploring her skin. Her skin prickled all the way down her back as she caressed his hands. After a minute or so, she turned around to face him, her arms folding easily around his neck.

“I have an idea,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“If you’re not busy, I’d like to make you dinner. I can go home and shower, then come back with everything I need.” Drew bowed his head a bit, turning up his eyes to look at her, as if submitting to whatever decision she made.

“I’d love that,” Lori said with a smile that was probably too big, but she didn’t care and she doubted Drew did either.

“If I leave fairly soon, I’ll be back here at about seven or so…does that work?”

“Perfectly.” Except the part where you leave, she added in her mind as she looked into his eyes and rubbed the back of his neck.

Drew’s slightly embarrassed grin and flushed cheeks told Lori that her thoughts had actually become her words. Her mouth dropped open as she realized this.

“Wow, that just came out of her mouth, didn’t it?” she laughed nervously.

Drew continued to smile and bit his lip in what looked like an unsure manner. Lori found herself holding her breath, waiting to see what he might say. But instead of replying, Drew put his strong arms wholly around her, and held her tightly to him. Lori closed her eyes in delight, feeling her body pressed against his wet skin. As his breath warmed her neck, she became ever more aware of how well he held masculinity and tenderness in perfect balance.

“I’ll be back at seven,” he said quietly in her ear. He then pulled away from the hug, kissed her lightly, and pulled himself out of the water.

(Some pictures of Delicate Arch)

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With her stomach full and her mind at ease, Lori lay on a lawn chair on the far end of the pool from the house. She watched the sky set itself on fire with the yellow, pink and orange that danced across it, the sun getting ready to set. The colors were soft, warm and inviting, like a comforter wrapped around the earth. She took a deep breath and savored the thick, warm air that had a hint of blossoms and cedar in it. Next to her, the pool water lay still, with the exception of a skeeter that landed in it every now and then, creating a ripple and leaving a small wake behind it while it skimmed across the surface.

Drew worked quietly on the other end of the pool, cleaning up the dishes and table that had been set out for their dinner. He turned out to be more than just a decent cook. He barbequed chicken breasts with lemon, tossed a green salad with sliced grapefruits and avocados, and whipped a fruit and yogurt parfait that melted delectably in Lori’s mouth. As they ate, she took every opportunity to enjoy the soft light of the early evening on his face, his lines of age and experience actually softening his expression. Their conversation turned into a serious discussion about life, and she was amazed at his quiet wisdom and strength, something that he held with reverence, seemingly untainted by pretense.

After their meal was over, Drew gently stopped Lori from cleaning up, softly suggesting that she relax by the pool.

“Tonight’s completely on me,” he said with a smile.

As she watched Drew from the lawn chair, Lori thought about his genuine nature, how he never seemed out to impress, but just to be comfortable with her. She sighed, trying to fight down the emotion rising in her throat. Thinking about his lack of pretense made her feel a bit guilty, knowing she wasn’t nearly as free of it. Perhaps his natural way came from past experiences, or perhaps he was just always that way. But she had a suspicion that his guarded nature came from trial and error, and perhaps a foremost broken heart or two. Another wave of emotion hit her, thinking of what he might have been through, and hoped that one day he would be comfortable telling her about it.

Lori looked back up at the sky, the colors fading by the minute. She began to feel so comfortable that her eyelids were drooping, threatening a nap. She tried to keep them open, but the warm air wrapped her like a blanket, enticing her into a world of dreams.

Lori’s lazy thoughts were interrupted by a pair of warm and familiar lips connecting with hers. Without opening her eyes, she sunk herself into the kiss, Drew’s whiskers softly tickling her skin. His masculine hands took her own, their fingers gently entwining. When they pulled apart, she finally opened her eyes to see his handsome face smiling down at her. Drew was sitting on the edge of the lawn chair, still grasping her hands.

“Did I nod off?” she asked.

“I think so.”

“How long was I out?”

He shrugged. “Maybe five minutes.”

She nodded. Only then did she notice music softly filling the air, with the unmistakable voice of Frank Sinatra crooning to it. There were speakers set up outside, working from a stereo in the house, but Lori hadn’t used it the whole time she’d been there.

Drew looked slightly amused as she noticed the music. He rubbed her hands affectionately, his eyes gentle and comforting. “Would you dance with me?”

His soft voice nearly melted her on the spot. She sat up a little more, smiling at him as he helped her stand. He led her to a more open spot on the deck and they assumed a traditional position, her left arm around his neck and his right arm around her waist. Their free hands were joined as they swayed softly to the music, taking time to gaze at each other without saying a word.

In Drew’s eyes, Lori saw what seemed to be his world in one expression. There was definite happiness, but layered with melancholy terms, expressing a wounded longing that seemed to overcome him. For a brief moment, Lori found herself a bit scared that she couldn’t be someone to soothe those wounds; that she wouldn’t be up to the task to fulfill the longing. But then an equally frightening thought took over, that perhaps he wasn’t expecting her to be the one to do that. Maybe he already figured she may not be up to it…or perhaps he was using the silence to search for her strength and ability. What would happen if he didn’t find it?

“Is everything okay?” he asked softly, causing her to come out of her thoughts.

Lori blushed a little, realizing that her worry had probably come out in her expression. “I’m great,” she managed to get out.

Drew rubbed the small of her back with his hand. “You sure?”

Lori swallowed at his tender expression, a smile growing on her face. “Absolutely.”

He leaned in and gently kissed her cheek. She drew her face closer to his neck, taking in his wonderful scent of masculinity and tenderness, which was mixed with just a touch of cologne. Her heart began to pound as she realized just how good she felt in his arms, and she instantly knew that this was either going to be the best thing that ever happened to her, or it was going to be the worst heartbreak she would probably ever experience. She silently chastened herself for leaping too far into the future, determined not to let the “what ifs” ruin the incredible day they’d had thus far.

The track ended, and before Lori knew it they were swaying to “The Way You Look Tonight.” She let out an audible gasp, which caused Drew to laugh lightly.

“You approve?” he asked.

“I love this song,” she replied, pulling back and looking at him.

“I know,” he said softly. “You mentioned it before.”

Her mouth fell slightly open. Now that she thought back, she had mentioned it, very casually…on their first date. That was before she knew he was interested…before she even knew she was interested. Her stomach turned over in delight as she looked at him, unable to do or say anything else. Their hands detached as they closed the distance between them, her arm wrapping around his neck, and his wrapping around her middle, pulling her close to his warm body.

Lori closed her eyes dreamily, lightly tickling the back of his neck. She could feel the goosebumps forming on his skin, and she smiled, knowing she’d found a sensitive spot. Drew responded by running his fingers up and down the small of her back, right on her spine. Lori giggled involuntarily as the shivers covered her skin. His laugh matched hers, turning his tickling into a warm rub with his palm. He then leaned his face closer to her neck, rubbing the slight scruff of his chin softly on her throat, near her left ear just below her jaw line. Her breath caught in her throat as chills covered her from the tips of her ears all the way down to her toenails. After a few moments, he turned his lips onto the same spot, kissing her gently and unobtrusively. Her eyes fluttered shut, holding onto his neck and taking in every sensation possible.

An instrumental song was the next to come on, at which point Drew took his lips away from Lori’s throat, looked in her eyes, then quietly placed his forehead against hers. Their faces were so close and equal, and the warm spot where their skin touched seemed to emote every tender feeling between them.

“I’m not sure where this is leading me,” Drew said with what seemed like great difficulty.

Lori could feel a lump forming in her throat, knowing that they had to talk about it at some point. “I don’t either,” she replied with hardly a voice.

“I love being near you,” he said, his voice wavering a bit. Lori had to bite her lip to hold down emotion.

“And I you.”

He sighed softly. “I really didn’t expect…” his voice trailed off.

“Neither did I,” she replied quietly.

“I don’t know what I’m able to handle,” he said, his voice quite serious.

She pulled away a bit and looked into his eyes. “I don’t want to force you into anything.” Her stomach jumped at her own words, at how bold she’d been. The last thing she wanted was for him to walk away, but she knew she couldn’t be happy in a relationship if he wasn’t.

Drew sighed, his face clouded with emotion. “I haven’t let myself try for a long time.” The look in his eyes broke Lori’s heart. She was sure she’d just seen another fragment of his loneliness, another hint as to why he was so guarded. Everything in her wanted to ask why, why he felt he needed to protect his heart, what had happened to him in the past to drive him to a fairly solitary life. But she kept the question inside. She knew that he would tell her if and when he was ready.

Despite the uncertainty on his face, his eyes pulled and folded her into comfort, as if holding every emotion of hers in a tight embrace. This gave her the courage she needed.

“I want to try,” she said softly. “Even if it isn’t easy. I want to know you better…your happiness and your pain.”

Drew looked touched beyond words. The green in his eyes came forth once more as he brought his hands to her face, cupped it gently and met her lips with his. The kiss was soft and slow, every nuance and touch full of emotion and longing beyond any kiss before. Lori gripped his middle with intensity, enjoying his warm hands running up and down her neck.

When they finally pulled away, she saw a film of tears in Drew’s eyes, which caused a few of hers to run over into his hands. He wiped them away and pulled her to him again, holding her warmly and securely.

They continued to dance slowly, holding onto each other and enjoying conversation. After about an hour or so, Lori felt herself becoming drowsy, which she resented. She was having such a good time that she hated to see it end, especially since the night air was so inviting.

“You’re getting awfully sleepy,” Drew commented as her head rested on his shoulder.

Unable to stifle a yawn, she replied, “Yeah…looks like I’ve been having a tad too much fun today.”

He gave a slight chuckle and then whispered, “Hold on tight.”

Lori did so, gripping onto his neck while he swiftly scooped her up into his arms. He carried her into the dark, quiet house, taking a moment to hit the power button on the sound system, and headed for her room.

Once inside, he lay her down on the bed, removed her sandals and placed a blanket over her. Even though she was dropping off a bit, Lori saw Drew’s exhaustion as he stood.

“You’re too tired to drive,” she said, a little worried.

He blinked sleepily. “I’ll be all right.”

She reached out and took his hand. “Stay here…stay with me.”

The light was dim, but she could see the tenderness coupled with trepidation in his eyes as he thought it over.

“Are you sure?”

Lori nodded, her eyes once again closing. “You can leave whenever you need to, but…please stay for a little while.”

Without another word, Drew sat down on the edge of the bed, pulled his shoes off, turned off the lamp, and lay down next to her. He secured his strong arm around her while his body lay warmly next to hers. He kissed her softly behind her ear, which caused her to smile serenely one last time before she fell asleep in his affectionate embrace.

***

Lori’s eyes fluttered open to the sound of rain on the windowpane and distant thunder. She managed to focus on the clock, which told her it was nearly six in the morning. Her heart leapt as she felt Drew’s arms still around her. His breath was warm and steady on her neck, every muscle relaxed and still. She rubbed his forearm affectionately, enjoying his warmth against her, and the safety she felt in his embrace.

After a few minutes, Drew stirred, to which she rolled over to face him. His eyes opened slowly, and then focused in on hers. His mouth stretched slightly into a sleepy smile as he rubbed her arm.

“Good morning,” he breathed.

“I think so,” Lori replied just as softly, running her fingers through his slightly tousled hair, causing it to be more so.

His smile widened a bit. “What time is it?”

“Almost six.”

His eyebrows lifted slightly in surprise. “Wow. Here I thought I’d sleep for a couple of hours and be good to go.”

“You must have been tired.”

“Or just comfortable.” He stroked the side of her face with his fingertips, his expression suddenly becoming serious. “You’re still okay that I stayed?”

Her heart began to beat just a little faster. For some reason, she was quite nervous discussing this. “I’m the one who asked you to.”

“I know. But you were tired, and…we’d just had a great evening together.”

Lori swallowed, even though her throat was now quite dry. “True. But I’m still glad you did.”

He blinked delicately, continuing to trace patterns on her cheek with his fingertips. “I never want to do anything that will make you uncomfortable.”

“I wasn’t, I promise,” she replied. Then another thought came to her. “Were you?”

Drew’s serious expression didn’t change, but the green in his eyes sharpened a bit with emotion. “Not at all. It felt wonderful to hold you while you slept.”

A deep blush crept up Lori’s throat and into her cheeks. The sincerity in his voice was undeniable, filling her with pleasure…but also some anxiety as well. Her pulse continued to get faster and faster, which caused her to take a deep breath so she could calm herself down. She needed a clear head.

In her efforts to come to that state, she figured she must have look flustered or worried, because Drew stopped caressing her face, withdrawing his hand as well. His eyes didn’t leave hers, but a crease of worry came across his features.

“Did I say something…?” he began.

“No, you’re fine,” she quickly said. “Just trying to clear my head.” She smiled reassuringly.

His expression of concern didn’t leave, however. He searched her eyes as a silence fell between them. After a few moments, he said, “Maybe we should get up.”

Lori agreed, not wanting to leave their position, but she also knew it would help her think clearer. They left the bedroom completely, and settled on the couch in the sitting room, much like they had a couple of nights before. Their position was the same as it had been then, facing each other with their knees slightly touching. Only this time, Drew gently took her hand, their fingers entwining.

“We’ve only known each other a few days,” he began. This immediately made Lori nervous, not sure where the conversation was headed.

“But in that time,” Drew continued, his eyes still locked with hers, “I’ve come to feel quite close to you.” He visibly swallowed. “That never happens to me.”

Lori’s lips parted slightly as he spoke, not sure how to respond. Because she was a fairly open person, it was pretty easy for her to feel close to someone even after a few days…provided the connection was there. On the other hand, that normally didn’t include romantic relationships. It usually took her quite a while to become interested in someone that way.

“I’m amazed at how comfortable you make me,” Drew said, rubbing her fingers affectionately.

“I’m happy I do,” she replied, caressing his forearm. “And I’m amazed at how safe I feel with you.”

His eyes became a bit more intense. “I’m glad. Like I said, I don’t ever want to make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe.” It was his turn to take a deep breath. “I’d probably better not spend the night again.”

Lori nodded, knowing he was right, and glad that he was the one to bring it up. It’s true, she was the one to ask him to stay and sleep next to her. Because they were both so tired, she was pretty content that nothing else would happen, but she slowly began to realize that it hadn’t been the wisest choice. After all, they had only known each other a few days, like he said.

Drew scooted a bit closer to her. “Can I continue to see you?”

A smile broke out on her face, half in delight, and half in amusement. As if he even had to ask! “Of course, I won’t hear of it not happening.” Her grin widened.

Drew smiled warmly, leaned in and kissed her softly and simply. That familiar warmth Lori had come to know from Drew crawled up from her stomach into her throat, the taste of his lips lingering on hers.

“I’d probably better get home,” he said when he pulled away. “Can I see you sometime later today?”

“Whenever you can,” she replied. “My schedule is pretty open.”

“Mine too. I’ll call you to make sure, though.”

“Okay.” After another kiss, he gathered his things and headed out the door.

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Lori lay on the couch later that morning, the window next to her slightly open. She breathed in the scents of the summer rainstorm as she remembered every moment she’d spent with Drew. Butterflies filled her stomach as her memory flew over every look, touch and kiss. She knew she was hopelessly infatuated, but she was also trying to keep her reasoning open. After just a few days, there was no way it could be love…mutual respect and like, yes…but love? She doubted it. However, she was most definitely open to the possibility of it turning into such.

Her mind then wandered to what could possibly be in Drew’s past to keep him closed off. Lori flinched at her thoughts, cursing herself for her curiosity. He would tell her if and when he felt comfortable, she was fairly certain of that. There was no need for her brain to think up scenarios.

Lori got up, took a shower and made herself breakfast, then spent most of the morning watching the rain that didn’t seem to want to stop. A few times she thought about picking up a book or turning on the radio, but there was no need for it. Her thoughts and the rhythm of the rain were enough to keep her company, though she found herself wishing for Drew, wanting to recline in his arms and chat with him.

When the phone rang at about noon, she tripped over the coffee table trying to get to it and nearly sprawled out on the floor. Trying to recover from her blunder, she took a deep breath to compose herself before she picked up the phone.

A half hour later, Drew showed up at the door, his hooded jacket nearly soaked through just from running from the street to the house.

“It just won’t stop pouring,” he commented as she let him in.

“Tell me about it,” she replied as she took his wet jacket off him. “Here, I’ll throw this in the dryer.” She headed to the laundry closet in the hall, threw the jacket in the dryer, started it up and rejoined Drew in the entryway. “Sure is a nice change from the heat, though.”

Drew smiled warmly, which made her melt…again. “True enough,” he said softly.

Without really having to think about it, she pulled him into her arms, stood on her toes and kissed him. He responded well, holding her tightly to him, his lips caressing hers affectionately. When the kiss broke, he placed his forehead against her own.

“Hello to you, too,” he said.

They settled on the couch where she had been earlier, watching the rain and chatting, just as she had hoped for earlier. Each time she was with him, the easier it became to talk to him. About an hour later, they made lunch together, and settled on the living room floor against the sofa to eat. Lori took her first bite of her sandwich, and then glanced over at Drew…his eyes were focused on her with a hint of…sadness? She cocked her head with a raised eyebrow.

“You okay?” she questioned.

He looked away and nodded, taking a small bite of his sandwich, then put it down. He turned to face her, his arm on the cushion of the couch.

“I just feel I need to say a few things,” he said softly. Lori felt a nervous twinge in her stomach, knowing it could be a number of things. Quickly, she quieted her inner voices asking the “what ifs,” turned to face him as well, and looked at him expectantly.

“Lori, when we were set up,” he began, “I almost bailed. I’ve been set up so many times, and I was frankly sick of it.” He swallowed nervously, but kept eye contact. “Something told me to keep the one with you, though.”

Nervous warmth spread through her stomach and into her fingers. “I’m certainly glad you did.”

He smiled shyly. “Me too.” He then sighed deeply, diverting his eyes to the ground for a minute, as if he was trying to recapture his words.

“I have to tell you,” he said, barely above a whisper, “I was more than usually skeptical about this set up.” He bit his lip.

Lori felt a bit of a sting, but tried to ignore it. “How come?”

Drew sighed. “Because of your age.”

It was no secret that Lori and Drew had a fairly significant gap in their ages. To some, seven years wasn’t a whole lot, but Lori knew better when it came to life experiences. Seven years could be a lifetime for some, and she knew that Drew’s premature flecks of gray in his temples were no coincidence.

Lori nodded, trying to convey that she understood and wasn’t put off, but Drew continued anyhow. “If I could explain…I’ve been set up with a lot of women closer to my age. I was very unpleasantly surprised at their lack of maturity. Not to say that I’m perfectly mature, but…” he sighed, reaching for her hand that was also resting on the cushion, their fingers entwining. “I just couldn’t believe how shallow they were. The things that were important to them had no substance. It made me wonder if they had any real goals, if they really knew what it was to live…to be happy.”

He stopped, his eyes diverting to the ground. Lori immediately saw the melancholy expression come over his countenance, the one she’d seen so prominently the night before. She squeezed his hand, trying to offer comfort and support, hoping that’s what he needed.

“You’re different from those women,” he continued, locking eyes with her again. Incredible warmth spread throughout her through his words and his eyes.

“I naturally thought that it would be worse with someone younger,” he continued. “But then I got here…and I was just amazed at how genuine you were.”

Lori laughed lightly. “I was really quite nervous.”

A smile hinted across Drew’s lips as he moved a bit closer to her. “How so?”

She shrugged. “I wasn’t really that excited for the date either, to be honest…Heather told me briefly what you were like, and I imagined a guy who gave one word answers and never initiated conversations.”

Drew laughed to himself. “Yeah, I can see how she might have construed that. I am definitely a bit more withdrawn that your normal guy.”

“But…you weren’t really with me,” Lori said, trying to keep her eyes on his. “I was so pleased when we had meaningful conversations.”

He licked his lips slowly, as if in deep thought. “I’m not like that with many people. A lot of people find me kind of dull…because I’m so introverted and keep to myself.”

“Drew,” she said softly, inching closer to him still. “You’re anything but dull. I don’t know if I’ve ever known someone so…quietly fascinating.” She meant it, too. Every expression in his eyes revealed a deeper side of him, something rich and meaningful, and the fact that she’d been let in to some of it honored her.

Drew’s brow creased, the green in his eyes sharpening with more emotion…although Lori wasn’t sure what kind. Something about it was incredibly sad and she felt as though her heart would break. She covered their joined hands with her other one, rubbing his fingers and palm in an effort to comfort.

His eyes misted over a bit at her gesture. He then brought his other hand up as well, rubbing her forearm affectionately. He cleared his throat and said, “I don’t open myself up to people, normally.”

Lori took a deep breath, knowing it was time to ask about his past, but still quite afraid to. However, she could always initiate it, and if he didn’t want to tell her yet, that was his decision, and she would respect it.

“Why is that?” Lori asked softly, trying not to pry.

Drew broke eye contact with her, looking at their joined hands. “I guess we do that to protect ourselves.”

She bit her lip, knowing she would have to press further. “Why do you feel the need to protect yourself?”

Drew fell silent, continuing to rub her hands, his eyes still diverted from hers. He finally looked up at her, conflict in his eyes. “Lori…I know I need to tell you this. I know I do. But…” he sighed. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Listen, why don’t we finish eating…and then we’ll talk?”

She nodded, not knowing what else to do. They let go of each other’s hands, finished their food and cleaned up in virtual silence. Lori could feel her heart thumping in her throat, wondering if she would be ready for whatever he had to tell her.

Once again, they settled on the loveseat, Drew immediately reaching for her hands and lacing their fingers together. This helped calm her nerves, knowing he wanted her to know about his past, knowing that he trusted her with it.

“Lori,” he began, “I…I’ve been pretty much out of the social scene for nearly ten years. I’ve been set up so many times in the last five that I’ve started saying no to my well-intentioned friends. But really…these friends don’t know me as well as they think they do.” He swallowed hard. “I was married,” he said, barely above a whisper.

Lori felt an element of surprise…but yet it wasn’t a shock. She could easily see him as a family man…but there was obviously more to his simple statement. She squeezed his hands with encouragement.

“I guess I was a bit young,” Drew continued, his voice growing softer all the time. “At least, I think I wasn’t ready for it. But I loved her so much.”

The pain in his eyes was palpable. Lori’s chest constricted as she tried to control her own emotions. Concern furrowed between her eyes as she moved closer to him, rubbing his knee affectionately.

“What happened?” she asked softly.

He smiled ruefully and shook his head. “She left me. Six months after we were married.”

Her mouth dropped open. How could anyone leave the wonderful man that sat next to her? Lori then reminded herself that she didn’t know everything about him…but she couldn’t help giving him the benefit of a doubt.

“Why did she…?”

Drew shrugged, disengaging one of his hands from hers to run it fitfully through his unruly hair. “She wasn’t happy. One day she just…up and left. I plead with her like a fool to stay…promising to change whatever it was, do whatever she needed…” he began blinking heavily as tears escaped his incredible eyes.

“She never told you?” Lori uttered, tears coming into her own eyes.

He shook his head. “No, never. She cut herself off from me; never spoke to me unless she had to. Legalities, mostly.”

Lori shook her head in complete shock at how any woman could do such a thing.

“She taught me how to guard myself, since she had done it with me.” Drew looked at Lori with years of silent pain in his eyes. “I haven’t really been able to break that since.”

Overcome with what he was telling her, Lori cradled his face in her hands, leaned in and kissed him softly. The kiss was very modest at first, until he tightened his grip around her waist, his mouth becoming a bit more insistent on hers. In his kiss, she felt his need for healing, something that made her a bit nervous. He had been through more and had deeper scars than she. How could she be one to provide for such a need?

With their lips still connected, Drew pulled Lori into his lap as he held her closer. Lori could taste his tears running down his cheeks and onto his lips. They gave her the ultimate feeling of bitter sweetness. She began to lose her breath as the kiss intensified even more. She moaned quietly as Drew pulled away from her lips and kissed the front of her throat ever so lightly. She settled into him, laying her head on his shoulder while he hugged her to him.

“I’m so sorry, Drew,” Lori whispered, kissing his ear. “I know I don’t know you as well as I’d like to yet…but I just can’t imagine how any woman could ever…”

“I was naïve,” Drew said, delicately cutting her off. “Thinking that she loved me enough…that we could work it out…”

“You were right to expect that,” she said, lifting her head to look at him. His eyes were still significantly wet. “You don’t decide after such a short time that you don’t love your husband anymore and just move on…”

“I don’t think she ever really did love me.”

Lori felt something sharp and twisting in the pit of her stomach as she looked at him. His protective shields seemed to be completely gone; his chin trembling and tears pouring relentlessly out of his eyes. How could someone tell him that they loved him…when all along it was a lie? The thought made her physically ill. At that point, she didn’t care if she was capable or not…she wanted to help soothe his wounds.

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An hour after Drew revealed some of his past, the two of them sat together on a leather sofa in the small den in the back of the house. It had a more than capable entertainment system with a plasma big screen and surround sound. Lori hadn’t really used it as of yet, since she preferred a book or music to television.

But now, in order to cheer up their afternoon, Drew and Lori found a mindless DVD and put it on, Drew settled into the corner of the couch with Lori nestled warmly against him. He stroked her upper arm almost absentmindedly, now feeling comfortable enough to do such a thing. He sighed to himself, not focusing on the television one bit, his mind racing a mile a minute. Even though it felt right and he didn’t regret it, he still couldn’t believe he’d told Lori what he had. He thought a permanent wall had gone up around that part of his past, making sure that no one would know beyond those who had been involved. At the time, it seemed like such a good idea, that if he pushed the memory far enough from him, it could no longer hurt him. Over a couple of years, that wall extended to nearly every aspect of his life, depriving him of real friends that truly knew him. The social circles he was involved in usually came from work, a group of his happily married peers who seemed to take pity on him, wanting to save him from his miserable, lonely state.

If only they’d known just how satisfied he was with a solitary life. His feelings for any type of relationship were pretty much numb. Even with his family…his parents, his two siblings…he hadn’t opened himself up to them in a long time. They were still “close,” in a way…he still saw his family on a fairly regular basis, he laughed and joked with them, but he was still closed off. His hopes, his dreams, his fears and his regrets…all shut tight and locked up from prying eyes.

Because Drew was pleasant and a gentleman, he attracted friends in the workplace, even though conversations never went particularly deep, at least on his side. And whenever they seemed to get too deep with the other party, he immediately bailed. The last thing he wanted was to feel a close bond…and then have it yanked from him, tearing out more of his heart that had already been damaged beyond recognition.

But then came Lori. In less than forty-eight hours of knowing each other, she had found a way into his heart, and nestled herself in there. As they continued to get to know each other, he felt the familiar weight of having someone really matter in his life. He knew he loved his family, but because he’d closed himself off for so long, they had quit trying to pry him open. Though Lori hadn’t tried to pry him open…she had simply knocked on the door and patiently waited for a reply. From the moment he’d walked through her door, he knew something was different about her. Her eyes held a strange experienced innocence. He knew that very description was a contradiction, but he couldn’t find any other way to explain it. She was open and willing, giving and receiving in their conversation over dinner, yet he knew by the way she spoke that she had enough life experience and hurt to keep her feet on the ground. Most of the women he’d been set up with had been pampered most of their lives, used to getting what they wanted when they wanted. Drew was never quite sure why his coworkers, who were intelligent and caring individuals, insisted on setting him up with such characters. It was true; most of his set-ups had been downright knockouts, model-worthy faces and toned bodies in some cases. Of course Drew didn’t object to a pretty face, or a woman who kept herself in shape. But their eyes were empty of compassion and genuine interest, which took away from their outer beauty.

Drew remembered that Lori had actually blushed over dinner when he smiled at her. It had been a long time since he’d seen that. Drew knew that he was a fairly handsome guy, and he did his best to keep himself in considerable shape, which only helped his naturally favored physique. He’d caught girls gawking at him in the past, which flattered him a little, but the look in their eyes had no trace of what he secretly craved…and yet had continued to deny himself.

But the night he and Lori first met, he recognized what he’d been craving, waiting patiently in her blue eyes…and it caught him considerably off guard. She didn’t look him up and down while licking her lips like some other of his blind dates had, their raking stares asking for something that he was not willing to give. Lori kept her eyes on his, listening to him with interest and returning with stories of her own, which kept the two entertained for some time. When Drew was getting ready to leave that first evening, his mind was reeling with what had just happened, still trying to digest the feeling he got when he looked in Lori’s eyes…when she asked him to let her treat him once more. He remembered pausing, and thinking back it seemed as though he was hesitating, but in reality he was caught off guard again, taking a few moments to process her request. She wanted to see him again? Was she actually…interested? That thought scared and intrigued him at the same time.

The next night took every expectation of his and tossed it to the wind. He’d thought that perhaps their first date had been a fluke…a connection that you think you have with someone, only to find out later that it was skin deep…just like the rest of his friendships. But as they continued to converse over dinner, he actually felt butterflies in his stomach and the tips of his ears grow warm whenever she smiled at him. He found himself opening up more to her, getting beneath an artificial layer, which she returned. When their meal was over, he knew he couldn’t have the evening end with merely helping her clean up. He was surprised when she accepted his offer to relax and talk on the sofa. The hours flew by as their conversations deepened. When he first reached out and pulled her to him…he couldn’t believe how he’d felt. It was as if a rubber band had been tightening in his stomach for years, stretching inconceivably as the evening wore on…but then snapped as soon as he had her in his arms, spreading an amazing amount of emotion throughout his entire body. He remembered letting out a satisfied sigh, not able to hide how good it felt to hold a woman again. And not just any woman, but someone he felt a strong connection to.

He’d wanted to kiss her when he first showed up at her door the next night for their formal dinner, but was glad when he decided to hold off trying until he took her home. It made it even more special that way, having another evening of memories to draw upon. Again, he’d forgotten how good it was to kiss a woman, being able to lose himself in those moments of intimacy. Every kiss since then had felt just as good…if not better. Something inside him had reawakened; a yearning for a close companion to hold and tell everything to.

And yet, his fears that Katie had left him with also surfaced. Even as Lori leaned against him lazily, he worried that at anytime she would decide that he wasn’t worth it. He’d told her things, things that he hadn’t told anyone in years, but she didn’t judge him for it. She still held him and kissed him, wanting to be close to him. At the same time, he knew by her eyes that she didn’t take the issues lightly, that she wasn’t just hanging onto him to have someone there, or to satisfy some girlish crush.

Drew stared blankly at the television as his mind reeled, and tried once again to get interested in the movie…but it just wasn’t working.

“Is it just me,” Lori suddenly said, “or is this movie really bad?”

Drew looked down at her in surprise, because she’d put his thoughts into words. “Not just you at all. I can’t seem to get into it.”

“Mind if we turn it off, then?”

Drew smiled. “Not at all.”

Lori grabbed the remote next to her, turned off the system, then sat up a little and turned to Drew. “So much for that, huh?”

“Truth be told, my mind was completely elsewhere.”

Lori smiled widely. “So was mine. What was that movie even about?”

Drew shrugged. “Who knows.” He leaned closer to her. “Who cares,” he whispered, then kissed her softly. When they pulled away, he stared intently into her eyes, something sparking his memory. The night before when they were dancing…he sensed a worry in her eyes, something that had been silently nagging him ever since. He’d asked her if she was all right, and she’d assured him she was…but what could it have been? Perhaps it was just the general worry of entering a relationship, as they had talked about a little bit later? Yet it seemed more than that, somehow. Now when he looked into her eyes, he saw that same look of worry. And even though it was mostly masked by her good mood, he could still see it. Drew swallowed.

“What is it?” Lori asked quietly after a few moments of silence. She felt his eyes searching her deeply, not sure what he was looking for. It didn’t worry her, somehow…just made her curious.

Finally, Drew gently cupped her face with his hands. “Tell me more about you,” he nearly whispered.

A smile tugged at the corner of her eyes. “What do you mean, exactly?”

“I’m not sure…just tell me about you. Hopes, fears, dreams…I just want to know so much.”

Lori felt a warmth in her stomach that spread to her limbs as he looked at her. His sincerity was without question. Her mouth grew dry, not knowing how to respond to such a request.

“I…um…not quite sure where to…?” she stumbled.

Drew laughed lightly, knowing he had put her in a difficult spot. “Okay, um…tell me something you really love to do. Something that maybe you don’t get to do that often.”

Lori licked her lips in thought. “Okay, let me see. I don’t get to go on night hikes very often.”

“Night hikes?”

“Yeah. Hiking in the middle of the summer at two in the morning…being up in the mountains when the sky is completely clear, the stars and moon shining without city lights to dull them, and the air fresh.” Her eyes fluttered shut as she described it, the images dancing across her eyelids. “There’s nothing else like it in the world. It’s a place where I can feel at absolute peace…no matter what’s going on in my life.”

Drew watched her with wonder, his adoration for her deepening as she revealed something so personal to her. He took her hand and squeezed it, encouraging her. “How come you don’t get to do that very often?” he asked quietly.

Lori sighed, opening her eyes. “Because I’m a girl. That’s really the only reason. It’s not safe to hike by yourself, let alone at night…especially if you’re not a guy. You don’t find too many people willing to hike so early in the morning.”

Drew nodded in understanding. “Good point.” He then swallowed, forcing himself to plunge forward. “Would you allow me to accompany you sometime?”

A smile that could not be stopped spread across Lori’s face. “Gladly.” She moved closer to him, rubbing his upper arm. “Now it’s your turn. Something you like to do but don’t get to do very often?”

Drew met her eyes with all the tenderness he could muster. “How about this…what we’re doing right now?”

Lori thought she would drown in his eyes, which were now a deep green. Her lips parted slightly at the emotion in them. She didn’t know what to say, but it occurred to her that she didn’t really need to speak a word. He seemed so content just to sit and be with her, sharing their innermost thoughts with each other. She kept her eyes on his; silently letting him know that she loved their time together as much as he did.

“I’ve forgotten how wonderful this kind of thing is,” he continued softly. “The past few days have been amazing. I want you to know that.”

He pulled her into his arms, kissing her tenderly at length. When their kiss broke, Lori nestled into him, feeling warm and drowsy, her eyes closing in happiness.

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When Drew pulled into his driveway, it was nearly midnight. He sighed to himself, realizing that he was going to be quite tired the next morning at work. But for all intents and purposes…he really didn’t mind.

Despite the rain still pouring down, he walked at a normal pace to his door, letting the water run down his face and neck. He unlocked the door of his small, ground level flat, shutting the door behind him, locking it, and kicking off his shoes like he did every evening when he returned home. He flipped on the switch for the entryway light, staring at the silence. His place was modest and only had two bedrooms, one of them really too small for anything but an office or storage, yet the apartment suddenly felt incredibly large and empty. The silence that he usually craved felt like it was crushing his ears. He needed the sound of laughter…of female laughter…

Running his hand through his wet hair, he moved to his bedroom, changed into a pair of dry sweats and a t-shirt, at first intending to get right into bed. But he hesitated, realizing he wasn’t tired. Instead he grabbed a paperback he was currently reading and sprawled out on the living room couch. He pushed play on his small CD player, listening to instrumental rock, his favorite thing to read by. But as the minutes ticked by, he realized he couldn’t get into the story. His mind kept wandering to Lori, wondering what she was up to, if she was asleep or awake…if she was thinking of him. He rubbed his face liberally with his hand, trying to focus his mind on the book. But it was fruitless. He was horribly infatuated.

The butterflies in his stomach were too intense to ignore. He found himself grinning stupidly as he thought about Lori kissing him, holding his hand and simply being with him. Her touch was pure affection, nothing wanton or manipulative. He felt like a young teenager again, having his first major crush on a girl. Only this time…the girl reciprocated.

Drew shook his head fiercely as a bitter memory entered his mind. He didn’t want to think about Katie. She was gone and it was all for the best. But as his mind flew over his teenaged years, he couldn’t help remembering the first time he laid eyes on Katie. He was fifteen and she sixteen, a grade apart and yet in the same English class. She was beautiful, there was no doubt there. Quite outgoing, as sure of herself as any teenaged girl could be, popular with just about anyone she came in contact with. While many of her friends snubbed those in the so-called lower social groups, Katie befriended everyone and anyone. Drew was intensely attracted to that.

As it turned out, so was just about every other guy, especially the ones her own age. Drew always sat back and admired her from a far. He was known as the tall, good-looking, yet shy and broody kid in the back of the class. It wasn’t until years later that he realized many girls his own age had been quite taken with him, but he never noticed. He was too focused on the unattainable Katie. She did talk to him on occasion, always remembering his name and saying hello to him in the hallway. But she was always linked with some other boy…usually some big shot on the student council or a sport’s hero.

Drew attended her class graduation, for the off chance that he’d get to speak with her. He did briefly when the ceremony was over, and was surprised to see her sobbing. Every other graduate was leaping for joy, huge smiles never leaving their faces.

Some had a few tears of emotion in their eyes, yet Katie was crying hard. Drew wished he’d made the connection then…it would have saved him a world of heartache.

Why am I thinking about this?” he said aloud. He’d done so much to close down those memories throughout the years, but ever since Lori came into his life…she’d stirred up all sorts of emotions. He supposed the positive couldn’t come back without the negative as well.

Drew suddenly awoke to a large thunderclap, shaking him of his bearings. He looked around the room a bit confused, his book slightly crumpled beneath him. He rubbed his eyes and looked at the wall clock…four in the morning.

He groaned, pulling himself from the couch and shutting off the floor lamp. In the dark, he carefully moved towards his bedroom and collapsed on his bed. Slowly, the events of the evening began to return to his mind. After he left Lori’s, he’d been reading on the couch…or rather, been trying to read…when he must have fallen asleep.

Unfortunately, now sleep left him completely. He lay awake in the dark, thinking more about the time he’d spent with Lori. After their attempt to watch a movie, they talked for a bit before she fell asleep in his lap. He took the opportunity to stroke her hair while lying back and enjoying the soft sounds of her breathing. His heart ached then, remembering what it was like to hold a woman while she slept, something he had also had the privilege of experiencing the night before. He’d been completely honest with her; he hadn’t felt uncomfortable at all. She’d felt like a dream in his arms, and he had the sweet knowledge that she’d requested him to stay. It wasn’t until the next morning where he realized it probably hadn’t been the best decision. He had experience with physical intimacy, but he didn’t know if she had. Although his view of such was probably somewhat jaded, he thought ruefully, considering his one and only partner had been a woman who hadn’t even loved him.

He closed his eyes tightly at the emotional pain that surfaced. He remembered the nights he agonized over what could be wrong with him…why Katie rarely responded to him as a lover…physically and emotionally. The first couple of weeks of their marriage were physically intense, but then it faded away with nothing else to replace it. At first he thought it could have been inexperience on both their parts…but as he spoke with some of his married friends, he slowly realized that wasn’t the case. So many times after those first two weeks Katie had refused to look at him when he made love to her. The closer it got to the end of their marriage she shunned his touch after the fact, lying wrapped up in the blankets on her side of the bed. He ached to hold her, shower her with kisses and words of endearment…but she flatly refused.

“Go to sleep, Andrew.”

That phrase had shattered his heart and spirit. Its delivery was unbelievably cold. He clearly remembered the night she’d said it to him. He’d been so desperate to hold onto her love that he’d done everything he thought might please her, laying his soul out on a platter for her to do with what she would. Tears from dread of losing her ran down his face in droves as he kissed her neck and shoulders, making love to her as tenderly as he knew how, trying so hard to keep her. But when he finished, her look was as cold as stone. Her eyes weren’t the slightest bit warm, and the usual rosy glow in her cheeks had completely given way to a pale complexion. He saw in her eyes the thing he feared the most…indifference.

Telling him to go to sleep was the last thing she’d said to him that night. And she’d used his full name…she’d called him Andrew. Andrew. She’d even denied him the intimacy of calling him the name he preferred. He knew that night that it was over, even though he tried to deny it to himself in the weeks to come.

Drew covered his head with his pillow, pounding on it with his fist. Why did he let these memories plague him? It was a decade ago...he was young and foolish, living in a high school dream. When Lori kissed him, he felt something deeper than he ever felt with Katie. Lori wanted to know him, his likes and dislikes, his dreams and fears…things that he was never able to really share with Katie. He had tried, Lord knew he tried, but she never really received them. Not in the way Lori received them.

Yet he had to remind himself that he had still only known her a few days. He’d heard of whirlwind romances before, wondering how two people could instantly click and date. He always scoffed at the idea, but here he was, practically living it. But he wouldn’t let it spin out of control, not if he could help it. Especially since he’d been emotionally numb for a decade. This new influx of feelings was quite invigorating, but he knew he couldn’t let it sweep him away. He had to keep his feet on the ground.

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In the bright light of morning, Lori rode Cougar, a brown Arabian gelding, across the soggy landscape. Mud splashed up onto her and the horse, but Lori hardly cared. It was a fresh morning, the rain clouds completely gone and the air supremely clear from Sunday’s storms. Cougar cantered along gracefully as Lori held the reigns loosely, letting him take some freedom. They finally reached the end of the land, coming upon the timber fence. Lori slowed Cougar to a trot, then a walk, turning him in circles as they slowed.

“Good boy, good boy,” Lori cooed, patting the side of his neck affectionately. Cougar was a stubborn two year-old that had given his owners plenty of grief. He’d originally been born to a less-than-desirable breeder, one that sought to break instead of train. When the Keiths bought Cougar, they had their hands full with other horses, some Arabians, others Morgans and Quarter Horses, ones that were being trained for competition. None of the Keith family had the time for a horse such as Cougar. The Keiths, a middle-aged couple and two teenaged sons, were excellent horse trainers, but they simply had no one to look after the troubled Arabian.

Through a few family connections, Lori found out that the Keiths were looking for someone to keep their hands full with Cougar, giving him the attention he deserved. They hired Lori for the summer, giving her a generous pay, and boarding in their old pool house. Their estate had grown through a particularly talented brood of horses, causing them to build a bigger pool connected right to their home. The old pool house was a good fifty yards away from the mansion, which gave Lori her privacy. It was a nice set up…she worked with Cougar ten hours a day and had weekends off. Although Cougar had been quite the challenge, Lori found every day full of exciting obstacles, which the two of them conquered together.

Lori finally stopped Cougar, dismounted and rested up against the fence, holding his reigns and stroking his snout. She kissed him lightly on the nose, patting his neck proudly.

“Who’s a handsome boy?” she said softly. Cougar lifted back his head a bit and snorted. Lori laughed. “That’s right. That would be you. I’m so proud of you, boy.”

She pulled some oats from her jeans pocket, which Cougar munched on gratefully. After a minute of taking a long drink from her water bottle, Lori mounted again and steered the Arabian back towards the stables. As she rode, she couldn’t help but imagine Drew’s arms around her…holding her tightly as she steered the horse. He had admitted that he didn’t have much experience with horses, and she promised to take him on a ride sometime. She couldn’t use Cougar, of course…he was still too young and only trusted Lori at that point. But she was sure the Keiths would let her borrow one of the older horses for a day. Perhaps Frodo or Honey…or perhaps even Sanders, the gentlest mare in the stables.

As the cool morning air whipped across her face, Lori remembered her last parting with Drew. They had stood in the front doorway, staring at each other affectionately while the rain continued to pour outside. They talked very little, but when they did, it was low and incredibly tender. Realizing it was quite late, Drew finally pulled her to him and kissed her, their affection deepening as they held onto each other. She melted in his arms, her breath quickly escaping her. When he finally left, she stumbled back into the house, overcome with so many wonderful emotions. As she snuggled into bed that night, she wondered again if she was falling in love…and she had to conclude that she was.

The thought had scared her, as it still did that morning. But she couldn’t help it. She’d never known anyone like Drew, and she’d never felt such a connection to someone she was dating. Even though she rationalized that it had only been a few days, she still had that warm assurance that he was a good match for her.

The morning continued on rather slowly as Lori continued to work with Cougar. She was to meet Drew at about six, and even though she loved her work, she wanted so much to be with him. Finally, the afternoon hit, in which Lori hosed Cougar down trying to clean his coat of the caked mud. It took longer than expected to clean and groom him, and before she knew it, it was almost five. She released Cougar into the geldings’ paddock, knowing that he would dirty himself up again, but at least the cleaning had taken up a lot of time.

Rushing back to the house, Lori looked at her dreadful state. She too was caked in mud, her boots barely recognizable and her lower jeans completely covered. Flecks of mud had flipped onto her shirt and face throughout the day as well. She quickly jumped into the shower, scrubbing herself thoroughly to get rid of the dried earth and sweat of the day.

***

Drew held a blowtorch, his goggles down, the strap anchored to the backwards baseball cap he wore. He paid no attention to anything else, including his co-worker Jack who stood off to the side, as he welded the two pieces of steel. When the job was accomplished, Drew shut off the torch and pulled the goggles up onto his forehead, examining his work. Jack cleared his throat.

“Hey, Andrew.”

Drew looked over and nodded his head to acknowledge him, then focused back on the job.

Again, Jack cleared his throat. “Hey, um, Andrew. Look, I gotta ask you something.”

Drew looked up calmly, removing the goggles from his forehead, wiping the sweat from his brow. “Yeah?”

Jack shifted uncomfortably on his feet. “Listen, I didn’t want to bug you about this, but Heather’s gonna make me sleep on the couch if I don’t ask, she’s been nagging me for a few days now…”

Drew smiled. “Just spit it out, Jack.”

“Okay. She wanted me to ask you about your date with her friend Lori. You did end up going, didn’t you?”

Drew nodded, his face straight and expressionless.

Jack raised his eyebrows. “So? How did it go?”

Drew shrugged. “Fine.”

Jack rolled his eyes. It was the same answer he gave every single time. “Look Andrew, did you even give her a chance? Heather thinks really highly of Lori, she’s not like the girls you accuse of being airheads, she…”

Drew smiled to himself as Jack went off. He was doing this on purpose to bait Jack, though he wasn’t sure why. Maybe he just didn’t want to admit that one of his blind dates had turned out to be more than fine…more than great, actually.

“…and if you were a jerk to her, Heather’s gonna hear about it and I’mgonna get the lip about it, even though I…”

“Relax, Jack,” Drew finally interrupted, not being able to hide his smile anymore. “Okay, first off, I’m never a jerk to the girls you set me up with.”

“A jerk, indifferent…whatever you want to call it.”

“Don’t worry, I was neither. Heather was right, she’s very…well, she’s quite amazing, actually.”

Jack lowered his brow in confusion. “What?”

“I said she’s amazing.”

“I heard you…I’m just confused. You told me the date was ‘fine’.”

“And so it was. The second date was even better.”

Jack laughed in disbelief at what he was hearing. “A seconddate? As long as I’ve known you, Andrew…I don’t think you’ve ever gone on a second date.”

Drew shrugged. “You’re probably right.” He pulled his goggles back over his eyes, looking to work some more. He was growing uncomfortable at the conversation. Of course he wasn’t ashamed of his relationship with Lori, quite the opposite. But he didn’t want Jack delving into anything too personal. Despite how much he’d opened himself up to Lori over the past few days, he knew he couldn’t very well do it with anyone else.

“Hang on, Andrew,” Jack said suddenly before he started up the torch, “You’re telling me that you went on a second date? Do you have plans for another one?”

Drew looked up at Jack and sighed, resigned. He pulled off his goggles once more. “Okay, I might as well tell you…Lori and I really hit it off. We’ve spent time together every day since that first date.”

Jack’s mouth hung open in even further disbelief. “Wait…as friends, or…?”

Drew looked back down at his work. “I’ve kissed her,” he said quietly.

“You what??” Jack exclaimed with a disbelieving grin. “You’ve gotta be kidding! So, are you guys dating then? How far have you taken it? Do you…”

“Jack,” Drew said suddenly, looking up at him. “Listen, I’d rather not delve into anything. You can tell Heather that we’re dating, because we are. But if it’s all the same to you…I don’t want to describe everything.”

Jack held up his hands in compliance. “Enough said, friend. And I have a good feeling that Heather will want to reward the messenger of this news.” He licked his lips and walked away grinning.

Drew continued to weld, his face flushing as he thought about the affection he and Lori had shared since their first date. He couldn’t wait to see her again that night. She’d expressed an interest in seeing his place, perhaps having dinner there and such. He knew he would have to rush home and clean up a bit before he picked her up, but luckily his living habits rendered his flat fairly clean anyway.

Suddenly, as he remembered and daydreamed, he began to feel nervous. What if this relationship turned out like the one with Katie? He remembered being on such a high when he and Katie began dating. Even though it was four years after high school ended, he had still felt like an awkward teenager, as she’d brought out those primal feelings in him.

“Lori isn’t the same,” he said under his breath. Lori responded to him in such a different way. Sure, Katie had kissed him passionately, and he had loved it, considering it made his head spin. But Lori…she didn’t kiss him just to kiss. There was always something far more meaningful behind it; a depth he never knew existed in a kiss. She had to be genuine in her affection.

The time came for him to head home. As he drove, more memories of heartache plagued him, dragging down his mood. He turned on an upbeat CD, trying to get his mood back up, but the melancholy undertones wouldn’t leave him. He’d shut out his memories for years, until he told Lori the story. Only then had all the details come flooding back.

“Stop it,” he said aloud to himself. “Lori is not Katie, she’s quite the opposite…”

Yet another voice reminded him once more…it had only been a few days. And Katie had seemed pretty great to him all throughout high school.

Stop it,” he said again. Why couldn’t he just take it one day at a time? There was nothing wrong with that, and that seemed to be the prescribed method anyway. Still, there was fear that his heart would not recover if things went badly yet again…

***

Lori lay on the couch, wrapped in Drew’s hooded jacket that she’d forgotten to give back to him the night before. She found it in the dryer as she did some laundry, remembering she’d thrown it in there after he’d arrived through the rain. Lori decided just to wash it thoroughly, and now lay sleepily with it around her as if it were Drew’s own arms. The jacket was ridiculously large on her, the sleeves well past her hands and the end of it reaching almost to her knees. Its size spoke of his height and slender, yet well-built form, one she disappeared into every time he held her close.

Her mind reeled as she thought about how good she felt in his embrace. She wondered how it was possible that his ex hadn’t felt the same. Lori was sure that women admired Drew wherever he went, but his failed marriage had crippled him for nearly a decade. How had she gotten so lucky, then? Why had she been the one to catch his eye?

A soft knock on the front door brought Lori to her feet, suddenly fully awake. She opened it to find Drew standing before her in a pair of blue jeans and a heather gray t-shirt, one that fit just right in complimenting his build. He smiled warmly when she came into view, then his lips parted in an amused manner.

“Nice jacket,” he commented.

“Oh…” Lori said, a little embarrassed. She removed it and handed it to him. “Found it in the dryer, I guess you could have used it last night after you left…”

He held the jacket to his nose. “No, you see…it’s a good thing. Now it smells like you.” He put the jacket over his arm and leaned in to kiss her.

“Shall we go?” Drew asked after Lori locked up. Lori smiled and took his hand, walking to his car. The evening was quite warm, as the temperature had reached the upper nineties during the day, leaving a musty warmth as the sun descended in the sky.

The car ride over was a little quiet, both not quite sure what to say. Lori gazed at the view as Drew concentrated on driving, not sure why he couldn’t think of anything to say. They pulled into his driveway, Drew opening the car door for her. They walked hand in hand through the front door still without words exchanged.

Lori stood in the entryway, looking around at Drew’s flat. Instead of overhead lights being on, floor lamps gave the front room a soft glow and east-facing windows had the blinds pulled up. The décor was definitely masculine, but without a hard edge…the overall feeling of the place warm and comfortable…just like Drew.

Drew stood with his hands in his pockets as Lori quietly surveyed. “Well, this is it,” he said.

She turned to him with a smile. “It’s very you.”

He cocked his head at her a bit. “Is that good or bad?”

She slipped her arms around his middle, causing him to remove his hands from his pockets and pull her close. “Definitely a good thing,” she replied. She then looked up at him, removed her arms from around his middle, and wrapped them around his neck. She leaned up and kissed him, but differently than she had before. Drew felt her mouth a bit harder and more insistent on his while she caressed the back of his neck. The newfound passion in their kiss ignited his own, remembering what it was like to really want someone beyond an innocent kiss or touch. He found himself having to rein back, not sure how far Lori was willing to go…not sure how far he was willing to go.

Drew was the first one to pull away, although with great difficulty. His mouth was open as he fought to catch his breath. Lori’s gaze was caught on his, her expression the same.

“I’m…sorry…” Lori stuttered. “I just meant to break the ice a bit…I didn’t mean to…”

“Melt it?” Drew finished for her, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

Lori swallowed hard and nodded, unable to keep from smiling as well. Drew kissed her lightly on the forehead, rubbing her back as he held her.

“Should I get started on dinner?” he asked softly.

“Good idea,” she sighed as she leaned against him. She then broke from his grip and looked up at him again. “Can I help?”

“If you’d like.”

She took his hand and squeezed it. “I’d love to.”

Despite the awkwardness that followed their kiss, they found themselves chatting incessantly as they prepared dinner together. Drew told Lori about Jack, and his reaction to the news of their first date.

“No doubt there will be a message on my machine when I get home tonight,” Lori laughed, shaking her head. “Heather’s been trying to set me up for ages.”

“Even before you moved down here?” Drew asked as he peeled a potato.

“Yeah. We went to the same high school, and whenever she had a boyfriend, she always tried to set me up. Same thing happened when we both went to college. Of course it stopped when she married Jack and they moved down here…but when she found out I was moving down here as well…”

“So, you did the blind date thing a lot as well?”

Lori paused in chopping carrots, lost in though for a moment. “You know, I think she was only successful a couple of times in getting me to go on one. Both times were kind of awkward, though. You’re the first one she actually got me to go out with since I’ve been down here. I finally ran out of excuses.”

“I’m certainly glad you did.”

Lori blushed. “Me too.”

It began to grow dark outside as they finished dinner, once again cleaning up together. Lori thought it was strange how good she felt just washing dishes with him. And this time he was a little more playful, standing behind her at the sink and reaching his arms around her to dip his hands in the dishwater. His chin rested comfortably on her shoulder, his breath warm on her neck. It took them a little longer to wash the dishes that way, but neither cared as they caressed each other’s hands in the soapy water. When they finished with the last dish, Lori spun around and faced him, putting her soapy hands on his neck and kissed him quickly.

Drew stepped back in surprise as Lori escaped, giggling at her prank. She stood on the other side of the kitchen, ready for some kind of retaliation.

“So, that’s how it’s going to be, huh?” Drew asked with a shrew grin. He inched towards her, his hands and neck dripping with soapsuds. He suddenly stepped forward quickly, causing Lori to dart out of the kitchen into the front room. Drew followed. Lori ran around to the other side of the sofa, which Drew practically hurdled with his long legs. Surprised as his feat, Lori lingered a moment too long, and found herself wrapped in his strong arms just as she tried to run again. Drew spread his wet hands over her neck, causing her to struggle, yet weaken with laughter at the same time.

“Hey, where did the gentleman go?” she asked in between bouts of laughter.

“I think you smothered him to death with soap!” Drew replied, laughing quite hard himself.

Lori spun around in his arms, looking up at him. “I never!” she exclaimed playfully. But then their playful manner turned into an intense stare between the two of them. Drew leaned in and kissed her, their passion increasing with every passing second. He took a moment to break away as they settled on the sofa, falling into each other’s arms and their lips connecting once more. Drew tentatively slipped his tongue between her lips, but she accepted it, allowing him to explore her mouth. He’d forgotten how wonderful it was to kiss intimately, but he felt something more with it…Lori’s passionate reciprocation. And it wasn’t just to get a kiss…it was something infinitely more.

In a quick moment, just as Drew feared he might lose his head, Lori suddenly pulled away from the kiss, moving out of his arms. Drew felt a familiar pain rise into his throat as his arms were suddenly emptied of her. She did, however, continue to gaze at him, her mouth slightly open to regain her breath.

“Drew,” she began, her voice trembling.

Drew felt his heart drop like a stone at her tone. He’d frightened her…he was sure of it. He’d let his passion overtake him and he’d pressed her. He chided himself inwardly for his stupidity, because he certainly hadn’t meant to push her into anything.

“I’m sorry,” Lori continued. “I can’t…I mean, I didn’t mean…”

Drew shook his head. “Lori, no…I’m the one who should apologize, and I do…I’m so very sorry.”

Lori covered her mouth with her hand in a nervous gesture, her eyes glistening a bit. When Drew noticed the oncoming tears, he looked down in shame, his ears growing hot. He didn’t know what to do with himself if he’d hurt her. After a minute or so, the silence between them became unbearable. Drew finally looked up, finding Lori still looking at him. Her tears had receded, and apparently none had spilled. He let himself take comfort in that, and said, “Can we talk?”

Lori nodded, bringing her hand away from her face. Drew held up a finger to signify for her to wait a moment. He went back to the kitchen, dried his neck and hands with a dishtowel, and grabbed another dry one, which he brought back so Lori could dry herself off too. He settled on the couch, turning towards her but keeping a safe distance between them.

When Lori didn’t say anything right away, Drew realized he would have to take the initiative. He cleared his throat nervously and said, “Lori, again…I am so sorry. If I put you in an awkward position…if I made you feel uncomfortable at all…” He paused as she shook her head.

“I’m not quite sure how to put it,” she said, her voice still a little shaky. “Um, when you stayed over Saturday night…I was in such a comfortable place that I wasn’t worried about anything, but tonight…” She rubbed her hand over her face, trying to gather her thoughts.

“Did I scare you?” Drew asked quietly.

Lori removed her hand from her face, her lips slightly parted and concern marked between her eyes as she looked at him. “Drew…” she said as softly as she could, “of course you didn’t. I never feel anything but safe with you.”

Even though Drew wanted to hear those words, he wasn’t quite sure he believed them. But perhaps he could draw out more information before he questioned it.

Lori began wringing her hands as she spoke. “It’s just…Drew, you’ve been married before. You have certain experiences that I don’t.”

Drew gulped, knowing they would have to talk about this sooner or later. “I wondered. I mean, I thought that maybe you hadn’t, but…I wasn’t sure.” He winced inwardly, hoping he hadn’t offended her in some way.

“You were right,” she simply stated, easing his fears a bit. “Drew…truth be told, you’re the most attractive man I’ve ever dated. And I mean that in every aspect.”

Heat spread up through Drew’s cheeks up to his ears. He glanced down in embarrassment, partially because of her comment, and also because of the fact that he was blushing so fiercely. He didn’t know if anyone had ever told him something like that.

“You’re, well…the whole package,” she continued. “Kind, caring…I relate to you so well, and you’re just downright handsome.”

Drew looked up at her, his face growing redder by the minute. Lori smiled ever so slightly at his blushing.

“But that presents a problem for me,” she continued. “I’ve made a promise to myself. I want to reserve that certain physical part of a relationship for when I’m truly committed…for when I’m married.” She swallowed, wondering how he would react.

Drew’s blush weakened a bit as he convinced himself to keep eye contact. “Lori,” he began, his voice soft and even, “I can’t begin to tell you how much I respect you for that. I think it’s great.”

Lori let out a quick breath and smiled slightly, relieved at his answer. Although something told her that he wasn’t finished, so she braced herself for the rest.

“I did the same thing,” he continued. “Katie and I waited until we were married. We got married pretty quickly, so it wasn’t extremely difficult, but I’d always hoped I would be able to wait. And I didn’t regret it.” He glanced down again, rubbing his hands together nervously. “But there’s something I want you to know.” He clenched his teeth. He’d thought about his painful past the night before, not wanting it to resurface again. But he’d only told Lori the basic outline of what had happened. To truly understand him, she would have to know more.

Lori scooted closer to him, if a little tentatively. She took his hand and caressed it in both of hers. “Please tell me.”

He sighed, trying to keep his emotions in check. “I told you that Katie, my ex, never really loved me. The thing is, it was apparent in so many aspects of our lives, and towards the end, it was very apparent when we made love,” he gulped, willing his emotion to stay down. “I guess I can’t even call it making love…because there was no love on her end. I gave her my all, and she refused to return even a fraction of such. But here’s the thing, Lori…when I kiss you, I feel something I never felt from her…true reciprocation.”

She continued to embrace his hand. “How so? Did she not…kiss you back?”

He rolled his eyes. “Oh yeah, she kissed me back. She really liked to kiss. But it wasn’t until much later that I realized her emotion wasn’t in it. She loved the physicality. I mean, when we were first married…” he paused, not sure how to state it.

“Go ahead,” Lori encouraged softly.

“When we were first married,” he continued, his voice taking on a shaky quality, “she was just so interested in the sex. She didn’t care how it came; she just wanted it to come, which I thought was so strange. I’d heard of that happening, but it’s usually the guy who’s like that. Whenever I tried to make it into something more emotionally intimate, she seemed…bored with it. But then as time went by, everything about me bored her.”

Lori’s mouth was slightly open in surprise. When he finished, she shook her head absentmindedly with a hint of disgust. “How could she put you through that? Why couldn’t she find some heartless guy to…?” Her questions were rhetorical, but Drew found himself wondering once again what the answers were. He’d wondered that for the last decade.

“See, that’s what makes you so different,” he said. “You connect with me on an emotional level, and it’s been so amazing Lori…you’ve unlocked a part of me that’s been dead for so long.” He moved closer to her, taking her face in his hands, stroking her soft skin with his thumbs. “You’re so incredibly beautiful,” he nearly whispered.

Tears threatened Lori as she stared back into his eyes that were once again a startling green. She raised her hands and rubbed his wrists as he continued to cup her face.

“That first kiss in the doorway tonight,” he continued, “I remembered that certain physical passion…something else that I’ve fought hard to kill since the divorce. Only this time it was coupled with intense emotion…and a desire that’s never been properly fulfilled surfaced.” He sighed, taking his hands away from her face and lowering them to his own lap. “Lori, I’m so sorry that I let that run away with me. Like I’ve said before, I never want to do anything that makes you uncomfortable or feel unsafe.” He leaned in a bit for emphasis. “And I mean anything.”

Lori didn’t know what to say. She was incredibly touched by his honesty. She could only imagine the pain he’d gone through in his marriage, never receiving the kind of love he more than deserved. Again, she questioned in her mind how anyone could do that, especially to the wonderful man that sat next to her.

When Lori didn’t respond, he took her hand, squeezing it gently. “Are you sure I didn’t frighten you?”

She looked him in the eyes, doing her best to comfort him. “No, you didn’t. I think the feelings I had scared me, and the possibilities scared me…but not you. I knew that if I wanted to stop…that you would honor that.” She leaned in, swallowing hard as she posed her next question. “If I hadn’t stopped…would you have?”

He sighed, not sure of the answer himself. Would he have? The emotion and passion between them had been so intense, he wasn’t certain. What was he to say? He decided to just be honest with her.

“In truth Lori…I don’t know. I would hope so; I really, really would hope so. But like I said before, it reawakened something in me…a longing that…” he hesitated, then decided not to pursue the thought. “Let’s just say that I’m glad you pulled away. And I promise to not let myself be swept away like that again.” He placed his forehead against hers. “I honor and respect you, Lori. I never want that to change.”

Lori sighed with relief, her eyes tearing up a bit. She leaned in and kissed him, very lightly and sweetly. When they pulled away, they decided to pull out a board game to keep themselves occupied. As they played, their light chatter came back, the mood once again relaxed. After a few games, it was near eleven, to which Drew drove Lori home. He once again walked her to the door, kissed her at length, but making sure to keep his passions in check. They made plans for the following night as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

After Lori was safely inside, Drew walked back to his car a bit unsteadily, as every emotion in him wanted to fly everywhere at once. After he pulled into his own driveway once more, he leaned his head on the steering wheel, thanking God that he hadn’t blown it. Because he was certain that he was falling in love.

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The temperature was already in the eighties when Lori went to the paddock to retrieve Cougar at six in the morning. She yawned widely, not really having proper rest the night before. Not only had she gotten home fairly late from her date with Drew, her mind wouldn’t stop reeling as she lie awake in bed. Her discussion with him after their soapsuds fight had been extremely important and pivotal for them as a couple. She was relieved that he didn’t expect her to do anything she wasn’t willing to do. She’d already figured that, but his reassurance just helped everything along. And yet, she wondered what the future would hold for the two of them. She had two more months of working for the Keiths, then what would happen? She’d originally planned to go back to her hometown and find work there, because that’s where all her friends were.

Lori had just graduated from college in May with a bachelor degree in animal science when the opportunity to train Cougar arose. Her original plan was to find a position as a veterinarian’s assistant, working the usual nine to five hours, making pretty good money for a single woman. However, she jumped at the chance to train Cougar, because that’s where her true passion lay. She loved horses above all other animals, having working with them since she was a small girl. Her parents never owned any, but after sensing her love for them after a family trip that included horseback riding, they signed her up for riding lessons at a local stable. She took to the lessons with dedication that was unusual in one so young. Throughout junior high and high school, she worked in stables taking care of the horses for some extra money.

When the time came for college, Lori decided to go into animal science just in case she wasn’t able to care for and train horses for a living. She’d taken longer than average to achieve her four-year degree, taking a semester off here and there to extend summer training jobs. Now, just a month away from her twenty-seventh birthday, she had a plethora of opportunities before her. She secretly hoped that the job with the Keiths would extend that way, but there were no promises of that. If the job ended in September as originally planned, she would most likely have to move back to Northern Utah. Until a week before, that hadn’t been such a big deal. But Lori now found herself extremely anxious to stay in Moab.

Cougar could often be a hard one to catch, but luckily that morning he was compliant, allowing himself to be cornered. Lori sleepily led him to the small, round paddock, a rope over her shoulder and a long whip in her free hand. After hooking the rope to his bridle, she stood in the middle and started Cougar trotting around the paddock, keeping the long whip just behind his legs. She continued on autopilot, having him walk, trot and canter, not really paying attention to anything else around her.

“Morning, Lori!”

Lori shook out of her dream-like state, registering the salutation. Walking up to the paddock was Carson Keith, her employers’ seventeen year-old son. He was leading his ten year-old Quarter horse Duke, a sleek gelding as black as coal. Duke was as gentle as they came, but also quick as a whip, both physically and intellectually. Lori knew that Carson had trained Duke since day one, making him completely his horse. When she first arrived on the ranch, Carson let Lori ride Duke. She remembered it as one of the smoothest rides she’d had in a long time. Carson was proud of Duke, as well he should be.

“Hey Carson,” Lori replied sleepily, keeping Cougar going so he wouldn’t grow nervous. Cougar was very wary of the other horses, especially some of the older ones.

“How’s this boy doing?” Carson asked as he approached them, taking off his cowboy hat.

“He’s doing well,” Lori replied with a bit of pride on Cougar’s part. “He’s taking well to a rider.”

“Well, of course he is,” Carson replied. “He may be a horse, but he knows a pretty girl when he sees one.”

Lori laughed, but was at a loss for a comeback. She was simply too tired. “So, where you heading this morning?”

“Just going to take Duke for a quick ride before I work with some of the younger horses.”

Lori nodded. “Cool.” Again, she wasn’t able to think of anything else to say.

“So, uh, you taking Cougar for a ride after you warm him up?”

“Yeah, probably just around the ranch.”

“You think he’d ready for something outside of the ranch? Duke and I could wait and come with you.”

“Eh, don’t bother,” Lori replied. “I think I’m going to give him another week before I do that. Besides, I think Duke scares him a bit.” She slowed Cougar to a walk, keeping him moving until Duke would be gone.

Carson nodded. “Got you. Maybe next week then.”

Lori shrugged. “Sure. I’ll see you, Carson.”

“See you.” Carson replaced his hat, leading Duke away from the paddock.

Throughout the morning, Lori remained distracted as she worked with Cougar, thinking about Drew, their conversation the night before, and what had led up to it…two very amazing kisses. She knew without a doubt that had she not stopped, it could have easily become something much more. That thought scared and excited her at the same time. When Drew slept next to her on Saturday night, she felt so comfortable and happy, but not necessarily aroused. But now…she didn’t know what to think of it all. As the day progressed, she thought about and overanalyzed every feeling she’d felt since she met him. She hated her tendency to do so, but she couldn’t help it.

Finally, when she released Cougar back into the gelding’s paddock in the late afternoon, a realization hit her. She had a wide variety of feelings with Drew, all of them positive. Everything she thought of when she thought of romance seemed to be there. As well as when she thought of friendship. Of course, all of those elements still needed to flourish, but she found herself grinning from ear to ear as she thought of the possibilities for their relationship.

***

Drew and Lori sat almost bored in a dark movie theatre with maybe ten more patrons. Drew had his arm around Lori, the two of them staring somewhat blankly at the screen. There wasn’t much at the theatre to being with, and Drew was convinced that they’d picked the most uninteresting film in the lot. Without thinking, he let a wide yawn escape him. Lori turned to him in amusement.

“Bored?” she asked quietly.

“Oh no, not at all,” he poorly lied. Lori raised her eyebrows, challenging his answer. “Okay fine…yeah, I am.”

“I kind of am, too,” Lori admitted. “Do we just not do well watching movies?”

Drew laughed. “I’m beginning to think that.”

They eventually decided just to leave, considering the movie had only cost a buck for each of them. Hand in hand, they walked through downtown, just as they had after their formal dinner the week before. Only this time they were more relaxed, speaking easier in each other’s presence. They stopped at an ice cream parlor, ordering exotic flavors and eating across a small table from each other.

They laughed together, commenting on the flavors and indulging themselves a bit. When some ice cream spread across Lori’s lips, Drew took the opportunity to kiss the cream off of them. Lori blushed, and then laughed as she noticed a group of teenagers rolling their eyes at them.

Just as they were getting ready to leave, a middle-aged couple walked into the parlor and noticed Lori.

“Hello Lori!” the man said, approaching the table with his wife in tow.

Lori turned and was surprised to see her employers. “Hi!” she replied enthusiastically. She really liked the Keiths, although she rarely got to see them, as they were both busy.

“Ice cream is always good after a hard day’s work, isn’t it?”

Lori smiled. “Yep. John, Marilyn, this is Drew.”

Both shook Drew’s hand heartily, causing Drew to smile.

“Drew, these are the Keiths, my employers,” Lori added.

“Pleased to meet you,” Drew said.

“So, Drew,” Marilyn said, “are you a friend? Boyfriend?”

Drew glanced down and blushed at her forward question. He looked up at Lori for guidance, wondering what she would call him, and found Lori grinning.

“Boyfriend,” Lori replied without hesitation.

“Now Lori, I wasn’t asking you,” Marilyn teased.

“What she said,” Drew replied with an embarrassed smile.

Marilyn nodded, seemingly in approval. “I didn’t know you were dating someone, Lori.”

Drew and Lori looked at each other, both smiling a bit shyly. “Well,” Lori said, “it’s a pretty recent development.”

“In that case,” John said, “we should have the two of you over for Sunday dinner. What do you say?”

The young couple continued to look at each other, both shrugging in compliance. “Sounds like a plan,” Lori finally said.

“Good to hear. Well, you’d be fools to pass up Marilyn’s cooking anyway. Seven o’clock?”

Marilyn nodded. “Yep. Looking forward to it.”

After Lori and Drew left the parlor, Drew glanced back at the glass door, getting one more look at the Keiths. He turned back to Lori and took her hand.

“Looks like you’re working for a couple of great people.”

Lori nodded. “I am. They’re a great family. Their two teenaged sons are also trainers…both brilliant as well.”

Drew nodded, wishing for the first time in his life that he knew something…anything…about training horses. “So, when are you gonna take me on a ride?”

Lori pursed her lips. “I think Sunday would be prime…I’ll just have to ask the Keiths about it, I’m sure they’ll let us use one of their older horses.” She smiled at him. “One that’ll be good to you.”

“As in your protégé wouldn’t?”

“Cougar? Oh no…he just barely got used to me.”

“Well, he knows a pretty girl when he sees one,” Drew said, hugging her around the waist.

Lori laughed. “Flirt.”

He kissed her on the cheek. “Only for you, you know.”

She kissed him back on the lips, then they continued down the street, still hand in hand.

“Do all men use the same lines?” Lori asked.

“Huh?”

“That whole thing about Cougar knowing a pretty girl…that’s what Carson said to me this morning.”

“Carson?”

“One of the Keith sons.”

“Really? How old is he?”

“Seventeen.”

Drew threw his head back and laughed. “Wow, you attract all ages!”

“Attract? He’s seventeen!”

Drew continued to chuckle. “Yeah, and I was seventeen once…I remember checking out the ladies in their twenties.”

Lori lightly slapped him. “Oh, come on…he’s just a kid, he was trying out a line.”

Drew shrugged playfully. “Maybe…maybe not. Guess we’ll see on Sunday, huh?” He let out another laugh, causing Lori to hit him again, letting out a laugh of her own.

***

Saturday morning found Lori and Drew catching a bus to the top of a paved trail in a nearby canyon, both wearing rollerblades, a helmet and protective pads. On their backs were camel pouches for easy access to water. Next to horseback riding, rollerblading was Lori’s favorite form of exercise. She was delighted when Drew said he had a pair and a set of gear, just that they hadn’t been used in a few months. Thinking he could definitely use the exercise, Drew pulled his out, dusted them off, excited to share something else in common with the girl that had suddenly come into his life.

They started out slowly, warming themselves up before they hit the downward slopes, because then, they would have to be quick around bends and dodging joggers. They chatted as they did so, still happy just to be in each other’s presence. The rest of the week up to then had been good, taking turns spending time at one another’s house, making each other dinner and just taking the time to let their friendship cement. As much as they were attracted to each other, they knew it would never go anywhere meaningful without that.

The pair of them gained speed quickly as the trail sloped a bit, passing the runners on the trail, and even some of the bikers taking it slower. Lori took the lead, coasting once they hit a steeper slope. The wind whipped against her face, cooling the sweat that formed on her brow. The slightly uneven pavement vibrated underneath her feet, causing her to push off and skate harder. They hit a patch of new pavement as the canyon descended steeper still. The road forked, Lori taking the lower trail to avoid an unnecessary incline. To her surprise, Drew suddenly appeared in the air in front of her, landing on the pavement with a bit of a grunt, but keeping his balance and continuing forward.

“Show off!” Lori called to him while grinning. Drew slowed a bit until Lori was coasting by his side.

“That wonky piece of trail makes a good jump,” Drew replied matter-of-factly, yet grinning as well.

“I think there are a few more of those down this way,” Lori said, her heart pounding for an adventure. “What do you say? Should we take them all?”

Drew tapped his wrist guards together. “I didn’t wear this gear for nothing.”

Lori raised her fist triumphantly. “So be it! I challenge you, Sir Andrew!” She pushed off past him, taking the slope at breakneck speed. Drew laughed heartily, pushing off himself and following her path.

The two worried more than a few people, zigzagging through walkers, runners and other skaters, taking every makeshift jump that came their way while flying at top speed. They didn’t always land expertly…but they managed to stay on their feet.

“For the love!” Lori exclaimed when one of her landings nearly sent her into a bush. Drew managed to catch her before she did, but barely able to steady himself before the pair of them hit the pavement. They stopped for a couple of minutes, laughing so hard that they nearly fell over anyway. Fortunately, they managed to gain their composure, and once they were steady, they were off again.

The next few jumps came in quick succession, Lori leading with Drew right behind her, both getting better with their form while landing, so they were at least able to maintain their speed. Others on the trail continued to stare as they skated by, but for the first time in a long time, Lori didn’t care. She knew they weren’t expert skaters, so they weren’t out to impress anyone. They were there to have fun and spend time together.

A particularly large group taking it slow on bicycles, complete with children, suddenly appeared as they rounded a corner.

“Gah!” Lori shouted, weaving her way through just in time. She heard Drew shout something similar behind her, but didn’t hear a crash, meaning he must have gotten through. When she was a bit steadier, she looked back to check on him, and sure enough, a few moments later, he was at her side again.

The trail evened out as they reached the mouth of the canyon. Both were too tired to actually skate anymore, so they merely coasted until they came to a stop near a random picnic table. They both collapsed on the bench, side by side and facing the trail.

“Been a long time since I’ve done that,” Drew said while still trying to catch his breath.

“Same here,” Lori agreed. Both of them were silent for the next minute, desperately sucking water out of their camelback straws. Lori then took off her helmet, undid her ponytail and ran her hand through her very disorderly hair. Drew unlatched his helmet as well, his hair still adorable though sweaty and disheveled. Lori made a face.

“No fair,” she said.

“What?” Drew asked.

She smiled at him. “Nothing.” She leaned over and kissed him. Even the bitter taste of sweat on his lips caused her to blush with delight.

They remained on the bench for a few more minutes, trying to regain the strength to make it to Drew’s car that was parked a mile down the road. Just as Lori bent down to grab her helmet off the ground, she heard her name being called from the trail.

“Hey, Lori!”

She looked up, taking a moment to focus on the source of the voice. Two men on bikes were riding towards her and Drew, the one in front wearing sunglasses. She stared for a moment until she realized who it was.

“Oh…my…” she said under her breath. Drew looked over at her, immediately noting that her surprise wasn’t exactly pleasant.

The men stopped when they reached Lori and Drew, the one in front removing his sunglasses. He had a smile on his face.

“Um…hi Jason,” Lori greeted in bewilderment.

“How are you, Lori?” Jason replied, every pleasantry on his countenance.

“Good.”

Drew glanced peculiarly at Lori, wondering what the problem was with these two men. The one called Jason looked about in his late thirties, while the one behind him looked about Drew’s own age. The latter leaned his forearms on his handlebars, looking slightly bored.

“What you guys doing out this way?” Jason asked.

“I’m…working here for the summer.” Lori replied flatly.

“Is that right? How’s that going?”

“Good,” Lori said again, her demeanor just civil enough.

“This is my brother, Jeremy,” Jason said, motioning to his companion.

Lori gave a polite nod to Jeremy, who replied with the same. “This is Drew,” Lori said to Jason, unconsciously moving closer to Drew.

“Hi, Drew,” Jason greeted with a smile.

“Pleasure,” Drew replied, not sure if he meant it or not. What was wrong with Lori? Why did Jason seem to throw her off?

“What are you guys doing down here?” Lori asked, barely able to get the words out as a nicety.

“The whole family is vacationing. Sarah and I have the kids here and everything…well, everyone has their kids. I think you guys passed us a bit ago.”

“You were the big family on bikes?” Lori asked.

“Yep.”

Figures, Lori thought to herself. It figured that Jason helped make up the blockade that nearly made her and Drew crash. She tried to keep that very thought from showing on her face.

“So, you two headed back up the trail after this?” Jason asked.

Lori shook her head, looking at the ground while unconsciously pawing the soil with her skate. “No, we gotta car about a mile down.”

“Okay, cool. Well, it’s good to see you, Lori, and nice to meet you, Drew.” Jason then motioned to his brother and the two pushed off, turning around and heading back up the trail towards their family. Lori barely got a “bye” out, and Drew just watched as the scene before him ended.

When Jason and Jeremy were safely out of earshot, Drew turned to Lori with a questioning look…only to see her face pale and her eyes glistening.

“Are you okay?” he asked, concerned.

Lori’s face tightened with anger, her lips trembling as she wrung her hands. She merely glanced at Drew before she looked back at the ground, harshly cracking the joints in her fingers.

“Lori,” Drew said softly, gently laying his large hands over hers, causing them to relax a little. He was finally able to take them in his, leaned closer to her face and kissed her on the forehead. Lori took a trembling breath and let out a sigh.

“Can we go now?” she asked quietly.

Drew bit his lip, knowing something was terribly wrong, but if she didn’t feel comfortable talking about it, he didn’t want to push her.

“Of course we can,” he replied softly, gathering the rest of her gear and helping her on with it. They skated in silence the rest of the way, Lori staring at the ground most of the time. Drew glanced over at her periodically, wondering if he should stop her and coax her to tell him what the matter was. Ultimately he decided to wait until they were back in his car…maybe then she would be more open to telling him.

They reached the car, putting their gear in the trunk and putting their shoes back on, still in silence. Lori still kept her head down, refusing to meet his glance. The tension in the car was unbelievably thick as Lori stared out the passenger window, and Drew gripped the steering wheel in uncertainty.

“Lori,” he finally said, “what is it? Why did that guy…why were you so…?”

“So what?” Lori asked quietly, still staring out the window.

Drew bit his lip, trying to choose his words carefully. “So put off by him?”

Lori shook her head and said, “It’s nothing…he…it’s nothing.”

Drew’s jaw tightened, unsure if he should press the issue. After all, she had gently coaxed him to tell her about Katie, why couldn’t he do the same? But for some reason, he felt a deliberate wall being thrown around the topic. He suddenly felt sad, wondering why Lori didn’t trust him with it.

They continued to drive in silence, Lori’s eyes never leaving the landscape. Drew tried not to glance at her too often, but he couldn’t help it…something was going on inside her and he wanted to know what, and especially if he could do anything to help.

As Drew fought with himself, he soon realized that they were at the Keith’s ranch, and he was pulling up to the front door of the pool house, just as he had several times in the past week and a half. He stared at the steering wheel for a moment, wondering what he should do. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Lori was now looking at her hands in her lap, playing mindlessly with her fingers. Something about her action appeared as a chink in her armor, causing Drew to put the car in park. He didn’t turn off the engine quite yet…he had to see how she would react.

He took off his seatbelt, turned his body slightly towards her and rested his hand on her shoulder.

“Will you talk to me?” he said as gently as he could muster.

Lori’s chin trembled slightly, but Drew still saw it. He squeezed her shoulder affectionately while she seemed to fight an inner battle. After a minute or so, she finally turned to him, the skin around her eyes flushed as tears began to glisten in them. She rolled her eyes in disgust of herself, turning her head from him again, covering her eyes with her hand. Her face contorted, trying desperately not to lose it.

Drew leaned in and gently kissed her on the cheek. “Can I help you inside?”

Lori swallowed hard, taking deep breaths and then nodding, successful in keeping her tears back. Drew stopped the engine, gathered her things from the trunk and escorted her to the front door. She let them in, wandered to the loveseat and sat down, still staring at her hands in her lap. Drew set her things by the sofa, considered for a moment what to do, and then knelt down before her.

“Lori,” he said gently, taking her hands, “can I help?”

Her face contorted again, and this time the tears made it to her eyes. They spilled mercilessly down her face, and she unconsciously pulled at her hands so she could shield herself. But Drew wouldn’t have it. He did let go of her hands, but he cupped her face with his own, taking the liberty of wiping away her tears. Slowly, he moved up onto the couch, taking her in his arms and laying back into the corner. He could feel her fighting sobs, and he was of a mind to tell her it was okay to let go…but at that point, he felt he just need to hold her and be silent. When she was ready, she would speak. She’d done that for him…now it was his turn to do it for her.

As she lay against him, he felt her breathing start to calm. A moment later, she spoke in a slightly shaky voice, “Jason used to be my best friend.”

Knowing she was starting to tell him the story, Drew perked his ears and rubbed her back, doing his best to calm her.

“He was more like a big brother,” she continued. “We used to do a lot of things together. I would even do things with his wife and kids…like I was a part of the family. He was my best confidant. I used to tell him everything, just about. He was a great listener…and was always very protective of me, just like I was his little sister.”

She took a deep breath and sighed, her voice wavering again. Drew repositioned himself a bit so he could look into her eyes. With a look, he urged her to go on. Lori understood it, but hesitated anyway. Drew continued to rub her back affectionately, doing everything in his power to let her know he was there for her.

“We started to pull apart a little about a year ago…slowly at first, and it wasn’t really noticeable until one day I realized I had stopped telling him things. It bothered me, and I didn’t know what to do about it. Then the differences turned to tension. Looking back, it was a pivotal point in my life; I was going through a lot of changes. I don’t think he liked all the changes.”

“What?” Drew said before he could stop himself. “People change, what did he expect…?”

“Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t trying to keep me from growing or anything. But I picked up some habits that he didn’t like…nothing life-altering, just things that got to him.”

Drew still didn’t understand, but decided to let Lori continue.

“I hit a streak of bad times,” she said. “A darker side of me came out, and when Jason recoiled a bit at my behavior, I accused him of not being a true friend.” She sniffed, raking her hand over her face. “That’s when we had it out.”

Drew tightened his grip on her as she took deep breaths, preparing herself for the crux of the story.

“He threw accusations right back at me…saying I never really trusted him, because every time I hit a bad skid, I would take it out on him and question his friendship.”

“That sounds a bit unfair,” Drew offered, trying to comfort her.

“He was right.”

Drew loosened his grip a bit, looking down at her. Lori sat up, turning to face him. “He was absolutely right. I did that on many occasions.” A few more tears escaped down her cheeks.

Drew cupped her face with his hands. “Lori…”

“You have to believe me, Drew. It pulled threads here and there in our friendship, it really did, and it was my fault. But then his accusations got worse…when I tried to apologize, he told me our relationship was splintered and would never be the same again. Told me I’d become someone he didn’t even know, and questioned if he ever really knew me at all.”

Lori placed a trembling hand over her eyes. The sight of her tears struck Drew, making him feel horribly helpless. He cared so much for her, and it broke his heart to see her cry, knowing she was hurting. And still, the pieces didn’t seem to come together completely for him, why it had hurt her so much.

“The thing is,” she continued quietly, “I put so much on that friendship. Jason knew me better than just about anyone. And for him to tell me that he didn’t know me…ever…” She collapsed against Drew, sucking in her breath as another sob started.

Drew held her tightly, rocking her gently. He sighed to himself as realizations hit him. Lori was more like him than he originally thought. When she invested in a relationship, she didn’t hold back, throwing so much into it. So when she was rejected…she was rejected hard. He closed his eyes as he felt tears misting. They really were alike in that aspect. It humbled him, knowing that Lori had a relationship shatter, yet she hadn’t shut herself off from the world. Most likely his was still the worse of the two, but that didn’t matter. Lori still trusted and opened up her heart. It had nearly taken a crowbar for that to happen with him.

“I’m so sorry,” Drew said gently, stroking her hair.

Lori gained a bit of her composure back. “After that, I told him I was walking away from those accusations. He told me he was glad, because he could no longer invest in a friendship with me, that it was too hard…and that he was tired of getting nothing in return.” She sniffed loudly, blinking her tearstained eyes against his chest. “That was five months ago. I hadn’t seen him since…until today.” She snorted indignantly. “And now he’s acting like nothing’s happened.”

“Probably just his defense mechanism,” Drew said. “Men are weird that way. Want to shove it in the past, like it never happened.” He propped her up a bit so he could look into her eyes. “That’s how I lived my life for a decade. Wanted it to disappear.”

“I’ve certainly wanted mine to.”

“I know.” He stroked the side of her face. “And if he thinks that there’s not anything worth patching it up for…he’s sorely mistaken.” He kissed her simply and slowly.

Lori leaned back against him, holding onto him tightly. “I get so afraid of people leaving me.”

“Yet you continue to trust, Lori,” he said softly, “and I think that’s wonderful. I wish I were more like that.”

She laughed a bit sadly. “The broken hearts do wear, though.”

“You can say that again,” he said quietly. Though in his understanding, he still couldn’t see why anyone would leave someone like Lori behind…someone he cared for more and more each passing day. He put his lips closer to her ear. “Anyone who can’t see how incredible you are…they’re just fools. You’re…you’re just so wonderful.”

Lori broke from his grasp a bit, sitting up and looking at him, looking a little surprised, yet pleased at his sentiment. Drew suddenly felt his mouth grow dry staring into her eyes, his heart pounding quite hard. He parted his lips to speak.

“Lori, I…”

He stopped. He wasn’t sure what to say. He wanted to tell her that he was falling in love with her, that he always wanted to be by her side, to protect and take care of her. But his words caught in his throat. What if she didn’t feel the same? After all, it was still early in their relationship, was it a good time to say it? What if she wasn’t ready to hear it, even if she was thinking the same thing? He sighed in spite of himself, wanting so much to speak these words to her…but he lacked the strength.

The moment passed, leaving the two of them to stare each other. Lori finally broke it by leaning in and kissing him. She caressed his neck lovingly, to which he pulled her in a little closer. When they broke the kiss, Drew leaned his forehead against hers. Again, he failed to speak, but at that moment neither of them needed words, just a mutual understanding and affection.

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*bump*

Something new coming soon. :smile:

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Somehow I keep Finding these wonderful romantic stories....So Much to read...so Little time..!!.

This is great.. I am really enjoying it...Though I am a fan of the sensuous being written out before my eyes.. It's nice to close your eyes and dream along.

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Aww, thanks, Micky! :wub:

Here's some more:

----------------------------------

As early evening began to set in, Drew and Lori walked hand in hand across the large property to the Keith’s house. Lori was a bit nervous, even though she got along with the family very well. She hadn’t been in their house very often, but that didn’t bother her much, since she wasn’t really comfortable with large houses. The Keiths certainly were down to earth enough, but the thought of going into the house made her a bit uneasy.

“You okay?” Drew asked simply, squeezing her hand.

“Yeah,” she replied, looking straight ahead. “I guess I just don’t know what to expect. I feel like I’m bringing a boy home to meet the parents. Yet they’re only my employers.”

Drew nodded. “You ever done that?”

“What?”

“Brought a guy home to meet the parents?”

“Once when I was about nineteen or so.” She looked up at him and grinned. “I think it scared him off.”

Drew matched her smile. “Well, you’re not getting rid of me that easy.”

She squeezed his hand. “Good.”

John Keith answered the door with a booming welcome. He gave them “the grand tour” as he called it, but as he did, Lori became much more relaxed. She’d forgotten just how comfortable their place could be. Sure, they had leather furniture, but the décor was draped with all sorts of colors…mostly warm colors. The ceilings were vaulted, but in fact they weren’t nearly as high as most posh places.

As they entered the den, fourteen year-old Kevin Keith was lounging while playing a video game.

“Hey Lori,” he said without taking his eyes off the screen.

“Kev, this is Drew, Lori’s boyfriend,” John said.

“S’up,” Kevin replied, still glued to his game.

John rolled his eyes at his guests. “Never a moment wasted from the game.” He led Drew and Lori to the sitting room near the dining room.

“So, Drew…tell me about yourself.”

Knowing this was coming, Drew took in a deep breath, trying not to be too obvious about his nervousness. “Well, I um…I’ve lived here for quite a few years now. I’m a welder.”

“Is that so? Where you originally from?”

“Arizona, just outside of Phoenix.”

John sat back with a smile, indicating to Lori that he wasn’t going to be tough on him. After all, Drew certainly wasn’t a young man with a boyish crush. The flecks of gray in his hair told John that he was far more mature than that.

In the middle of casual conversation, Carson came into the room and looked a little startled to see Drew and Lori there.

“Oh, hey, hi…” Carson said.

“Hey Carson,” Lori replied. She gave Drew a rub in his palm to warn him not to say or do anything. Drew caught it…and did his best to keep from smiling.

“Carson, this is Drew,” John said.

Drew let go of Lori’s hand briefly to shake Carson’s, and then automatically took Lori’s hand again after the fact. Watching him carefully, Drew did notice Carson’s surprise increase at his action.

“Drew’s Lori’s date tonight,” John explained. Carson sat down with the group as John continued the conversation, but he didn’t say much.

During dinner, after Marilyn had gotten her fill of information from Drew, Kevin decided that Drew was far more interesting than he originally gauged, and wouldn’t leave him alone with questions. Lori was secretly pleased, because of Kevin’s fairly reclusive behavior when it came to strangers. She hoped that Drew wasn’t put off by it, however. But the more he talked with Kevin, the more Drew seemed to be enjoying himself as well.

Carson remained quiet until a brief lull in the conversation between Drew and Kevin.

“So, you uh, work with horses at all?” Carson asked.

“Afraid not,” Drew replied. “I’m a welder…probably been on a horse about, twice in my whole life.”

“Huh. So, how did you and Lori hook up, then?”

“Blind date,” Lori replied with a slight grin. “I know Carson, go ahead and mock me.”

Carson shrugged. “Guess they work sometimes.”

Before Lori could reply, Marilyn pulled her into a conversation, leaving Carson and Drew to each other.

“Lori says you’re an excellent trainer,” Drew offered.

“Been doing it all my life,” Carson replied, a hint of pride in his voice. “My horse Duke wins all sorts of prizes.”

Drew nodded in appreciation. “That’s great.”

“So,” Carson said, leaning forward. “You up for riding after dinner here?”

“Lori mentioned we could probably do that, yeah.”

“No doubt she’ll put you on Sanders…she’s a well-tempered mare, you know…for beginners.”

Drew bit his tongue, smiling and nodding pleasantly at Carson. He knew without a doubt that Carson was challenging him, but he wouldn’t give into playing games with a kid half his age. Carson continued to talk, boasting about his achievements as a trainer and rider, making sure he peppered his stories with a few of Lori’s achievements as well. Mostly, Drew was amused, but as the minutes wore on, he found himself more and more irritated with Carson.

“Has she told you her full name?” Carson asked.

“Yes,” Drew replied quietly, trying to keep himself from pulling out the big guns. He knew he could easily best Carson, but he felt it beneath him.

“Loraine,” Carson continued with considerable pride.

This finally caught Lori’s attention.

“What’s that?” she asked Carson.

“Just telling Drew your full name,” he replied.

Lori looked Drew over quickly, noting the amusement in his eyes and irritation in his tight jaw.

“He already knows it,” she replied to Carson, catching his eyes in a deadlock. “And I thought I told you that I would rather not be called that.” She tried to sound like she was joking, so the family wouldn’t think anything of it. But Carson got the message.

“I’m so sorry,” Lori said as she and Drew headed to the stables after dinner. “I didn’t realize he was going to be such a pain in the butt.”

Drew laughed it off. “Don’t worry. He was just trying to show me up. I told you he had a thing for you.”

Lori smiled and shook her head. “Teenagers…why can’t he have a crush on some girl he goes to school with?”

“Well, why go for them when there’s a mature, talented girl living in the old pool house?”

Lori gave him a playful glare and slapped him on the arm. “You watch it, mister.”

The entire family had also decided to join the ride. In no time, Lori had a very anxious Drew on Sanders’ saddled back while she mounted Honey. Kevin, still quite fascinated with Drew for some reason, helped Lori instruct Drew while he rode Jacks, his own young gelding.

John and Marilyn rode side by side on their respective horses and eventually left the property, having some time to themselves. Carson rode Duke throughout the property in a full canter, no doubt trying once again to show off for Lori while showing Drew up. But Drew was far too focused on learning how to properly ride while in an enclosed paddock. Lori rode beside him, encouraging him while Kevin barked out some orders.

The sun was setting when Lori and Drew finally headed for the pool house. Lori was quite proud of Drew…even though he was clearly nervous on the horse; he did well for his first riding lesson. They collapsed on the couch in the front room, both quite tired from riding. After a few minutes, Lori got up and dug some ice cream out of the freezer for the both of them. They sat enjoying the dessert while just chatting.

“Looks like John and Marilyn approve,” Lori commented.

“Do I pass the parent test, then?”

“Well…I guess they’re sort of a pretest. My real parents live in the northern part of the state.” She paused. “What about yours?”

“My parents?”

“Yeah…they still in Arizona?”

Drew nodded. “Yeah. Still in the same hometown.”

“Do you think…?” Lori began, but then stopped. She didn’t want to presume that she might meet his parents one day. They hadn’t really talked about becoming too serious…looking at a long-term relationship. Lori knew she wanted to marry someday, but…would Drew even consider remarrying? After everything his first wife put him through? Lori shook herself mentally. I really shouldn’t be thinking that far ahead.

“Do I think…?” Drew repeated, looking a little confused.

“Well…I was just thinking. If they’re ever in town, I’d like to meet them.”

Drew nodded pleasantly. “Absolutely.” Inside, however, he was a little disappointed. He really wanted to take her home to meet his folks, and was almost hoping that she would suggest that. But instead she took the safe route, offering to meet them if they should ever travel to Moab. Perhaps she was only doing it for his sake, trying to gauge their level of seriousness. He couldn’t blame her for that…he found himself avoiding conversations that might ask where their relationship was headed. Perhaps he just didn’t want to scare her off?

That had to be it. He knew he was falling in love with her, but he had to proceed with caution. After all, he certainly wasn’t without issues himself. He couldn’t tell her he loved her until he was certain she was ready for it.

The awkwardness of their conversation quickly passed, and before they knew it, it was nearing midnight once again. Drew kissed Lori tenderly at the door, and then headed outside to his car. Lori watched him like normal, then closed up the house, and got ready for bed. As tired as she was, she figured it would be easy for her to fall asleep.

Famous last words.

She tossed and turned for nearly an hour, her brain refusing to shut off.

(awkward place to end for now, I know...but bear with me. :smile: )

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Ah man...and here I thought someone else had actually read the last section.....

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Hey! A guy's reading my stuff! w00t!

Thanks Gabe! :dance3:

~Mel

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Abrock,

I really, really LOVE this story, will you be adding to it? Please don't leave me hanging...................!!! :confused:

::D: ::D: ::D:

:gerryholic: :igotgals:

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Well then! That's just the motivation I need to keep going. :smile: :cool:

I'm having work and homework problems from hatis right now, but I'll jump back on this, I promise!

~Mel

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:bump:

:freshvanilla:

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:bump:

AGAIN. I really need to get on this!

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soon, please??!! :kisswink:

Edited by mags2

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