Eric waited anxiously outside Ella’s door, securing his hands in his pockets and trying hard not to pace. When the door finally swung open, his breath was stolen away. Ella was dressed in a classy, sleeveless, black dress. The length was short, but respectable, and showed off her trendy heels. Her hair fell over her shoulders in tempting, loose curls and the only pieces of jewelry that could be spotted were the locket around her neck and the teal bracelet dangling from her wrist. Eric escorted his date to his truck, never feeling more grateful for being given a second chance. As she got in, Ella noticed Charlie perched upon the feeder, more relaxed than she had ever seen him before.
There was a slight breeze on the air that was warm and comforting. Ella rode with the window down as they pulled into an empty parking spot and entered once again into Star Café. Soon after they ordered their drinks, Ella excused herself to the ladies’ room. She paced, stared herself down in the mirror, splashed icy water over her face. There was nothing more she could do to shake the nerves that had been pestering her all night. Finally, she got a hold of herself and took a long, deep breath. “Just exude confidence,” she told herself. After fixing her makeup, dress, and hair, Ella swaggered back into the dining area. As she passed through, she caught the eye of every man in the room. Each of them was awarded a smack or a nudge from their own dates.
Ella took her seat once more, placing her clutch on the table, effectively knocking over a glass of soda that was in its path. The soda raced toward Eric, who took quick action to clean it up. Ella sat there staring at him in disbelief. Did I already ruin what was supposed to be a perfect night?
Eric finally looked up at her and asked, “Are you going to help?”
“Oh! I’m sorry!” Ella hurried to assist, but a waitress beat her to the chase. The young woman enthusiastically cleaned up the mess, even wiping Eric’s pants that, to her displeasure, had escaped the soda. Ella was not pleased with the how attractive the waitress was who was patting down her date in such an uninhibited manner. To her relief, Eric thanked the waitress and shooed her away before she could become further absorbed in cleaning him up.
With a fresh tablecloth and all else in order, Ella and Eric looked at each other and simply began to laugh. They brushed off their latest accident, which was enunciated by a splash of awkwardness, thanks to the waitress. They allowed the rest of dinner to carry on, surprisingly uneventful. As Eric filled the server book with a tip, Ella peaked at the amount and was struck with surprise.
“How much did you just tip her!”
“Forty percent”, Eric replied, nonchalantly.
“Okay,” was all she could think to say; although she couldn’t help but wonder if the rub-down had given the tip a boost.
Eric rose and offered Ella his hand. “Shall we?”
She smiled and led him out of the quiet restaurant and into an even quieter street. The air was warm and gentle. Ella stopped outside the door and watched the stars for a moment while she waited for Eric to catch up. Once he was beside her, she turned to walk back to his truck, but felt a soft hand on her arm that turned her in the opposite direction.
“Are we walking somewhere?” Ella asked curiously.
“We’ll just see where we end up.”
“Oh, Mr. Spontaneous all of a sudden?”
“What can I say? I’m a surprise at every turn.”
“Ha!” she laughed. “You hate to have anything throw you off course. Straight from A to B is all you know.”
“Not entirely. I thought we would wing the next part.”
“Ooo, the ‘next’ part.”
“You didn’t say the second event, which would suggest that we would be moving to the second half of the date. No, no, you said next part which suggests there is more to come later.”
“Maybe,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders.
“And it’s unplanned.”
“I’m impressed,” she admitted.
“Good. That was my goal. We are on a date, therefore I must aim to impress.” Eric stopped walking.
Ella spun around to find him. “I thought we were wandering?”
“But you’ve stopped,” she observed as she stepped over to him in a playful sway.
“Care to join me for a movie?”
Ella looked over to find the town movie theater lit up beside them. She was so wrapped up in their conversation that she hadn’t noticed where they were. “Ahh, dinner and a movie. An old movie no less, since that’s all this theater shows.”
“I know. Lame, right?”
“Classic,” Ella said as she took the arm her gentleman offered.
He walked her to the window and said, “Two for National Treasure, please,” with a wink to the attendant.
“Here you are,” came the young voice from behind the glass.
“Thank you, Jimmy,” Eric said.
“You know him?”
“Not at all,” Eric answered as he led Ella through the lobby.
As they walked by, Ella didn’t notice Jimmy send a thumbs-up to the girls behind the refreshments counter.
“Drinks?” Ella offered.
“I think we’ll be fine,” Eric denied her request and continued to escort his date into the screen room.
The two took their seats and, only seconds later, popcorn and drinks were delivered to them.
“Thank you?” Ella said, as she scrambled to put the pieces together. Finally, she turned to Eric with accusing eyes.
“What?” he asked.
“This wasn’t spontaneous at all, was it?”
Eric tossed some popcorn into his mouth and smiled. “I may have stopped by earlier and negotiated with the kids up front.”
“Yeah? What did that bribe cost you?”
“Oh they aren’t cheap, and they know how to haggle.”
“I knew it!”
“I knew you couldn’t last a minute without planning our date!”
“Well, as I said before, my aim is to impress you. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do on dates?”
“No, what you do on dates is lead the other person to believe you’re someone you’re not so you get a second date and a third date and eventually a relationship―which is when you show your true self.”
“Odd hearing such a thing coming from a woman. Well, from you. I’d believe my ears if I heard Lilly say it,” Eric laughed. “Do you really believe that?”
“I believe that’s what some people do.”
“But not you, right? Because I like who you are so far.”
“Well, then I guess you’ll have see if you get to the relationship stage,” she teased. “But I must say that I was impressed with your willing spontaneity.”
“Yeah, until I found out it was faked.”
“Well, will you take the real me on the first date?”
She looked him over. “I don’t know. We’ll see how the movie goes.”
Just then, the lights dimmed and the action-packed previews filled the room with noise.
Once she had her fill of popcorn, Ella signaled to Eric that the rest was his. Still nervous and fidgety, Ella secured her purse on her lap, holding onto it with both hands. Eric set the popcorn down and gently pried the purse loose, setting it on the seat beside him. He then reached back and linked his hand with hers. They smiled at each other briefly before returning their attention to the movie, but Ella could not focus on the prominent screen before her. I wonder if my palms are sweating, she wondered. Would he feel it if they were? What would he think? The more she wondered, the more she worried. Then she considered that worrying would force her palms to sweat more, which only made her worry more. Ella’s mind wandered in these relentless circles until, finally, the screen dimmed and the lights along the walls came back to life.
“How did you like the movie?” Eric asked as they walked again in the moonlight on the way back to his truck.
“It was good,” Ella said.
“You’re glad you’ve seen it before, aren’t you?”
“Yes! I couldn’t focus, I have never been so anxious while watching a movie,” she was relieved to admit.
Eric laughed. “Same here.”
Ella felt herself relax again. “So... What’s the next part of the date?”
“Is there one? I hadn’t known.” He laughed off the devil stare she sent to him. “You’ll just have to wait and see.”
“Just give me a hint.”
“No, no. Anticipation is key.” He grabbed her hand and led her back to the restaurant parking lot. Once they reached the truck, Eric opened the door and helped Ella in. He climbed into the driver’s seat and started the engine.
“Lovely night,” Ella commented, hoping their date really wasn’t at its end.
“Hold that thought.”
They headed out of town a bit. Ella knew the roads well, but could not figure out where Eric was taking her. They weaved in and out of the curves, surrounded by darkness and trees and an occasional lonely house. The truck finally came to a stop before a gate that blocked the entrance to a park.
“What are we doing here? The park is closed.”
“Come on,” Eric said as he hopped out of the truck and ran to get the door for his date. “Ready? It’s quite a hike.”
“Lead the way,” she said, accepting his hand to hold. The road ran up a steep hill and was protected from the moonlight by thick surrounding trees.
“Wait,” Ella said once they reached the halfway point. She took her heels off to make the climb a bit more friendly. “Okay,” she grabbed Eric’s strong hand and, with a skip, started up the road again, following her date’s lead.
“On this steep and rocky climb? Safer than heels, my friend.”
At the top of the hill the road leveled off into a parking lot. The green areas of the park could be seen off to their left, spotted with pavilions and picnic tables. Eric led Ella to a bench placed at a lookout point. She could not believe the view. A deep ocean of stars expanded in all directions, as if it was reflecting the sparkling lights from houses and street lamps laid out in the valley below.
“Wait here,” he said before he ran to a pavilion not too far off. Eric climbed onto a table inside the pavilion and reached high into the banisters above. Ella watched as he returned to her side with a duffle bag in hand.
“What is that?” she asked when Eric returned.
“A surprise,” he said, pulling out a couple sodas and a blanket, which he threw over the back of the dirty bench. “My lady,” he said, offering his hand like an old time gentleman. Ella accepted and stepped onto the bench seat and sat upon the blanket. Eric wrapped another blanket around her shoulders, then set the bag gently upon the seat and took his place beside her. Ella could not hide her ever growing satisfaction with this night.
“What?” Eric pried.
“Nothing. I’m just becoming a fan of you planning out the little details.”
“Ah, coming over to the dark side are you?”
“Well, the best advantage you can have over an enemy is to know them.”
“I see. You’re familiarizing yourself with me just so you can take me down. Is that right?”
“That’s right,” Ella answered.
“You’d better just hope I don’t win you over before then.” He nudged her playfully.
Ella breathed in the fresh air, inviting the sweet scents of the night into her lungs. “This is a great spot.” There was no place she could think of that could compare to this place or this moment. “So calming; breathtaking.”
“Yes it is,” Eric said as he gazed at the beautiful woman before him.
“Wow, trying to meet your corny quota?”
“How am I doing?”
“I’d say you’ve missed some opportunities, but you can be proud of that one. I’d give it a ten.”
Eric laughed. “I am so glad you reacted that way. I hate it when they do things like that in movies and the girl gets all giddy.”
“I know! It’s like the guy’s easy way in. And it just sounds so ridiculous.”
They both laughed before slipping easily into the silence and joy of the night. A cool, gentle breeze pulled Ella tighter into Eric’s arms. Peep frogs sang a sweet song. Fireflies danced around, creating the illusion that the couple was floating among the stars.
“Do you remember giving me the necklace?”
“Technically, I gave it to your mother.”
“Nope. Mine.” They laughed. “What does the inscription on the back mean? I-M-H-A-M-A?”
“That was something my father used to say to my mom. It was actually her locket.”
“Did she mind you taking it for me?”
“She didn’t know. Dad did. He didn’t mind.”
“Oh. So, what do those letters stand for?”
“In My Heart And Mind Always.”
“Wow. That’s deep for an eight year old.”
“Yeah, well,” he said. “I needed something to hold the clover.”
“And there goes all the romance.”
Eric laughed uncertainly. Am I in trouble, or is she joking? he wondered.
“It’s okay. We were kids,” Ella said, and Eric held in a sigh of relief so it wouldn’t be so obvious.
Eric stepped carefully down from the bench and held out his hand. “May I?” Ella took his hand and slipped into her heels before stepping onto the concrete. Eric reached into the bag and made something click.
“What was that―”
“Shh.” He wrapped one arm around Ella’s waist and held her hand in his as music emerged from the bag.
“Ooo,” Ella said, raising her eyebrows in delight.
“Romantic, right?” Eric joked.
“Very. Is this―”
“Very romantic, indeed. You’ve done well to impress me, sir.”
“Good, now we can leave,” he said as he quickly turned to walk away.
“I’m just kidding.” With a gratified smirk, he swept her up in his arms again and they resumed their dance. “I would mean it now, you know.”
Ella revealed the subtle smile, his smile. Her cheeks warmed and her eyes sparkled. As the notes floated on the air around them, Eric pulled her in close and slowly pressed his lips to hers. Ella sank into him. She floated away in his arms and the world around them disappeared. When Eric pulled away and looked into her eyes, all he could do was imagine that he had stumbled into a dream.
“Sorry, I know you’re not supposed to kiss on the first date, but I couldn’t help myself.”
“Did you hear that?” Ella said, putting her hand to her ear.
“That ′ding′ sound. I think you just met your corny quota.”
Eric laughed and Ella laid her head on his strong shoulders as the music continued to play. The night was quiet, the breeze gentle. Ella could think of nothing more romantic as they danced beneath the stars. For the first time since her mom had passed, Ella felt at home.
The next morning, Ella awoke with a smile. A bright red gerbera daisy lay upon the pillow next to hers. She leaned up in bed to find and healthy breakfast of cereal, grapefruit, and a glass of milk was prepared on a tray. Doc’s Son lay at her feet, snug as a bug. Shaking away the sleepiness, Ella ate, dressed, skipped down the stairs, and headed into work. Once the shop was open and ready to take on the day, she left it in Sarah’s hands and walked out with the usual pile of deliveries on the noisy, shaky cart.
Her first routine stop was Francy’s boutique. “Good morning!” she said with a glow, as she carried in the fresh carnations.
“Oh, is it that time again?” Francy said as she turned around to face her visitor. “I am anxious to smell these beauties―” She almost didn’t recognize the woman before her. “Ella. You look different. Did you get your hair done?”
“No,” Ella sang.
“Maybe because you left it down today? It really looks lovely.”
Francy’s daughter entered from the back room. “Hey, El!”
“Hi, Denise. How are ya?”
“Not as good as you look,” Denise said.
“Doesn’t she look different?” Francy asked her daughter.
“Oh, don’t poke your nose in people’s business, Mom. El, I have a great piece you’d love.”
As Denise showed off her latest necklace of bright greens and blues, Francy continued to brood over what was so out of place with this lovely girl.
“I love this! My favorite color combination. You know, I―”
“-Can’t buy it now, I know,” Denise said, finishing Ella’s sentence.
“Right, but I will stop in later. Thanks ladies! Have a fantastic day!” With that, Ella twirled out of the boutique.
“I still can’t place it,” Francy said. “What is so different about her?”
Denise looked at her mother, wondering what her years of experience had left her with. “She had sex,” she said. “Apparently, really great sex.” Denise left her mother to ponder over this while she went back to work.
“What?” Francy wondered, still confused.
Ella swept in and out of Boxer Brother’s Hardware barely noticing the current arguments raging in the shop, although she left quite a curious impression on the two brothers inside. While Mary basked in the temporary moment of silence that the guest left her with, she silently cheered for Ella and her lucky fellow. Although, it wasn’t long before the voices of the old men rose once again.
Each of the shop owners to follow was left equally dumbfounded by Ella’s presence this morning. The young woman was radiant, more so than they were used to; and the overall feeling around her had changed somehow. She was exuding happiness so much so, it made them all want to drink it in with her.
Finally returned to her own shop, Ella found James, accompanied by a delicious store-bought coffee, ready to work. Or, at least, ready to act like it. As soon as his eyes fell upon his friend, James set down his drink and demanded details.
“Oh no. I can’t believe you did this and didn’t call me the moment it was done.”
“How was he? Oh, I bet his muscles could break you in half. So was it slow and affectionate, or wild and full of passion?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t toy with me, El!” James said, as he chased her around the shop. “I want to hear it all.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. We had a wonderful time last night―on the date!” she emphasized. “And then he took me home. He was a perfect gentleman.” Ella turned to a vase with nothing but greens and began to fill it with colorful wildflowers. She had every intention of keeping the events of the prior evening to herself but, just then, in walked her secrets’ worst enemy.
Lilly took one look at Ella and simply said, “Truth-Time!”
“Oh, man! Why did you have to do that!”
“’Splain it to me! Tell me all about last night.”
“Ugh, alright! We went to dinner, a movie―”
“Quiet, if you want to hear this.” Ella gave the two her best ‘mom look’ and they instantly simmered down to let her continue. “He took me dancing under the stars, then we…” she looked up at the audience that stared back at her with anxious curiosity. “We went back to my place, where he kissed me at the door and left.”
The gaping mouths remained anxious for more. “That can’t be all that happened,” James finally said.
“It’s not,” said Lilly, piercing through Ella with her striking blue eyes.
“That was the truth!” Ella insisted. She looked away at the floor and coyly twirled a bright pink ribbon around her fingers. “But he did come back.”
“Now we’re back on track!” James said excitedly.
“I opened the door and, without a thought, we were in each other’s arms.”
“Does he have strong shoulders?” James pleaded.
“What about his hands, does he have nice hands?”
“Could he pick you up?”
“And swing you around like a toothpick!” Ella and Lilly started at the strange man before them, wondering what sort of intricacies he enjoyed in the bedroom. Seeing the two women staring back at him, James’ excitement dissipated. “Just wondering how strong… that’s all.”
Recovering from this awkwardness, the story continued. “So, I was leading him back to the bedroom and I accidentally―”
“Oh no,” Lilly dreaded hearing what happened next.
“-led him right into the bench at the end of my bed.”
“What do you mean?” asked James.
By now, Lilly was covering her face as if sheltering herself from Ella’s embarrassment. “Don’t ask. I don’t want to know.”
“He tripped and when he fell, his head hit my dresser. The bottom of the dresser. You know... where the leg sticks out, all decorative and―”
“-Dangerous!” Lilly finished the sentence. “How do you keep bringing such horror upon this poor man!”
“I don’t know! I couldn’t believe it. But, we did recover.”
“He still slept with you? Bashed head and all?” James wondered at the magnificence of Ella. “I have to say, El. If you were a man, I would have to see what all the fuss is about.”
“We didn’t sleep together. I got him a bag of ice, then we lay on the bed and talked all night long.” Leaning against the counter, Ella reminisced on the night with a smile. “It was really wonderful.” She looked up to find that her audience was left disappointed and a bit achy. “Alright, I know it didn’t go exactly as we would have liked, but we learned a lot about each other.”
“Do you even think about other people when you do these things?” James said, arms crossed and eyes glaring.
“What did I do?” Ella smirked.
“Stop smiling. You have no right to look so satisfied.” James took Lilly by the arm and led her away.
“What?” Ella laughed. “It’s romantic!”
“It’s lame!” came their response in unison.
Ella finished out most of the day, but snuck out early for the first time in her history of running the shop. She skipped happily into the boutique and went immediately for the necklace that Denise had shown her earlier that day.
“Well, hello again,” Francy said with a mischievous smile. “How are you? How are you feeling? Good, I would assume?” She leaned over the counter with raised eyebrows and winking eyes as she asked these questions. She was sure to keep eye contact with Ella as if trying to send a message without words.
Ella stared back, wondering what could have gotten into the woman. “Fine… thanks? I just came back for the necklace I saw today. The one Denise showed me.”
“I’m sorry, dear. That was purchased just this afternoon. I would have Denise make you a new one, but those beads were specially ordered.”
“Oh,” disappointment threatened her tone, but she quickly recovered. “Well, let me know when you have anything else in that color come in.”
“Sure thing, sweetie. Now you just run along and have a good night.” Francy flashed her teeth in a wide smile, her eyes following Ella out the door.
Ella wandered cautiously onto the sidewalk, curious about what had come over Francy.
Upon her arrival at home, Ella found a wrapped gift at her doorstep. Opening the small card attached to the box, she read the words allowed. “Thought this would suit you. Eric.” She opened the box and pulled back the tissue paper. A shiver of joy spread through her body. Delighted, she found a mirror and held the green and blue necklace up to her neck.