Jesse hid a bemused smile behind his tilted cowboy hat. He knew eight-year-old Beth had a big crush on him because, every time he turned around, she was there—two steps behind. If he unconsciously shifted directions too quickly, he had to be careful not to step on her or knock her down. He really didn’t mind though; he knew Beth still hurt and missed her mother. It had only been a few months since she and her cousin moved to the ranch. If he was able to cheer her up, even just a little, it was worth it. Jesse did his best to be patient when she asked her million questions a day…every day. Elizabeth seemed to have a built-in sonar concerning him. He could be anywhere on the ranch, at any given time, and she would somehow find him.
This hot afternoon Beth had found him in the dank barn where he was brushing the dried mud from his horse’s coarse tail. Along with being hot, it was as humid and sweltering as a sauna.
Although it was a little cooler in the barn, there was absolutely no breeze. Elizabeth was quiet at first, but Jesse could tell by the way she fidgeted with her hair and stubbed the hard-packed dirt with the toe of her shoe that she was trying to build up the courage to say something important.
He turned and hung the brush up on a nail that jutted out of a nearby post, barely missing the swish-snap of the mare’s tail as she popped a horsefly off her tender belly.
Jesse lifted his cowboy hat and raised his arm to wipe the sweat off his forehead. He leaned his back against a nearby beam, folded his arms in front of his slightly youthful, but already well-built chest and crossed his booted legs. And waited. He saw her take a deep, lightly shuddered breath, “Jesse, will you promise to wait until I grow up before you get married, just in case you might want to marry me?” Beth spoke without pausing. It was as if she had rehearsed it a hundred times and was determined to say it all before she chickened out. Her vivid blue eyes shimmered with hope and her cheeks flushed with embarrassment, but she raised her chin and stared him straight in the eyes as she waited for him to answer.
Jesse knew his eyes widened slightly before he could master his surprise. He fisted his hand to his lips, coughed a little, and cleared his throat. He didn’t answer at first. He didn’t quite know how to answer such a loaded question. Then his eyes crinkled at the corners and his stance relaxed. Her honest request was so innocently sweet and her eyes were so full of hope. He knew he would rather rip off his right arm than hurt her feelings. He tugged on her long dark ponytail, chuckled softly, and nodded his head, “That’s a promise, pumpkin.”
“And, you don’t break promises, do you, Jesse?” Beth spoke with more statement-of-fact than question.
Again Jesse’s eyes widened slightly. He gazed sightless above Beth’s head then turned his eyes back to hers, shook his head slowly back and forth, “No, I don’t. That is one thing I’m determined to never do.”
After he answered, Beth didn’t say anything else. She just nodded once and, with her shoulders straight, turned, and walked away. As soon as Beth was out of sight, Jesse lifted both hands in bafflement, “Why didn’t I just dance around that?” “Maybe because you want to see the woman she grows into.”
Jesse walked back over to the post, picked up his brush, and returned to currying the horse.
Jesse lived at the ranch with his brother, Jordon, and his wife, Susan. The large ranch had been in Jordon and Jesse’s family for four generations. Their dad retired early from the ranch life and signed the ranch over to him and Jordon. Jesse could have traveled with them but he had always been extremely close to Jordon and chose to stay with him. To Jesse, his parents seemed more like his grandparents and Jordon, who was 13 years older than he was, always seemed more like his parent. Then Jordon met and married Susan, whose whole nature was motherly and protective.
Jesse loved his beautiful sister-in-law. Susan was God-fearing, loving, and usually sweet tempered; and the rare times that Susan did lose her temper…Jesse always found a way to make himself scarce.
Elizabeth, or Beth, as most everyone called her, was Susan’s sister and Cody, a 10-year-old boy with red hair and unusual deep copper colored eyes, was their cousin. Cody had lived with his widowed aunt and Elizabeth since he was two. He moved in with them after his own mother, his aunt’s unwed sister, was killed in a boating accident. Now, since that gentle woman passed away, Elizabeth and Cody lived at the ranch.
Jordon, Susan, Elizabeth, and Cody lived in the main house—a large two-story ranch style house. Earlier that year Jordon had built a small bungalow and connected it to the back of the house through the breezeway. Jesse really wanted to move into it. At first Jordon said no because he was uneasy, knowing he wouldn’t be able to keep up with all Jesse’s comings and goings. After much begging, Jordon finally agreed on a trial basis.
Although Jesse loved his older brother and had a lot of fun with him, Jordon could be very stern at times. Jesse thought he was grown being 16-years-old, but Jordon apparently thought otherwise. Jordon still kept a firm hand on him. He was a lot more lenient now that Jesse was older, but it hadn’t been that long ago that Jordon had taken him to the barn for something other that currying the horses.
Jordon demanded respect and to be obeyed. Jesse overheard Susan heatedly inform Jordon one day that he was hardheaded, set in his ways, and chauvinistic. And Jesse, who thought he was standing unseen, was grinning, and nodding his head in agreement. That was, until Susan swiveled her glare, pointed a finger toward him, and said, “ And you’re acting more like your brother everyday, Jesse Bately.”
Jesse had a feeling that Jordon was going to be a lot stricter on Elizabeth than he would be on either him or Cody, but he also knew that Elizabeth would have him wrapped around her little finger in no time. Well, the more Jesse thought about it, Elizabeth already had all of them wrapped around her little finger.
As Jesse continued brushing the horse, he thought about Elizabeth and Cody and smiled.
They both had two complete different personalities. Elizabeth was mischievous and always getting into trouble, and Cody was a watchdog who was always trying to keep her straight. The two were very close, though, more like brother and sister than cousins. He was glad they came to live with them; he planned to do his best to teach them things. He already taught them how to ride the horses Jordon gave them and he planned to take them blackberry picking tomorrow.
Eight years later
“ Sophomore! Yes! ” Beth said to herself as she made the “yes” gesture, a quick downward jerk with her fist. She was in high spirits about being in 10th grade but she was even more excited in knowing that, in a little more than two months, she would become sweet 16. She wasn’t sure if she would fit the traditional sweet part of the saying, but she would be turning 16
nonetheless. With her new school supplies all stuffed in her new backpack, she headed through the throng of energized students and slamming lockers to her first class. Before she walked through the door of her first class, she inhaled a steadying deep breath, catching a lingering smell of the freshly painted white walls.
It was only a few days after school started that Beth began to distance herself away from her old friends—friends she had gone to school and church with all her life. She still loved them and always would, but she was beginning to find that life boring now. Beth knew her old friends would never do anything wrong and she didn’t want to be a bad influence, so she began pulling away from them. She wanted to do some of the exciting things the other girls at school were doing.
The most popular girls in school began giving Beth a lot of attention. She met t
People were always mistaking Beth to be much older than she was. She could easily pass for 18. Her body was filling out as that of a young and woman leaving behind the skinny little girl she once was. Beth was 5”8’ and weighed 120 pounds. The dark brown hair she had as a child had now turned into a silky black, which made her eyes, which were several different shades of blue mixed with slits of silver and surrounded by heavy black eyelashes, that much more vivid.
She had a brilliant smile with straight white teeth and full ruby tinted lips.
At Susan’s encouragement, Beth agreed to enter one of the school’s talent shows. Tonight she was scheduled to sing and play the piano. Beth had mastered the piano years before and her voice was angelic. Moreover, she was used to singing in front of people. She had sung in front of the whole congregation at church for years. However, this night, Beth was so nervous she was biting off and spitting out all of her fingernails. Her family was there to support her; but, instead of helping her nerves, it made them worse because Jesse was there also. Beth hardly ever saw him anymore. Two years after she moved to the ranch, he moved out of the little bungalow and into a dorm. His college was only three hours away and he came home most weekends and holiday; but, when he did come home, he was either working on the ranch with Jordon or out with his friends and wild women.
However, Jesse was here tonight and the main reason for her anxiety. She had sung for him several times in the past and it never bothered her, but tonight she wanted to play and sing better than she ever had before. Beth wanted Jesse to be proud of her.
When they announced her name, Beth walked across the waxed scarred-up hardwood floor of the stage to the old brown piano. The boisterous audience all quieted when she sat down. The piano sat at an angle where she could see out into crowded audience. Before she started playing, she made a purposeful look in Jesse’s direction. When she found him, she smiled slightly and began to play. The song was a love song she had secretly written for him two years earlier.
After Beth finished singing, she carefully walked down the steep steps, praying the whole time, she wouldn’t fall and break her neck. She made her way between the backs of chairs and rows of knees to sit with her family who had saved an empty seat for her. The crowd was still clapping when she sat down between Susan and Jesse. “Honey, you did great!” Susan said as she pulled her in for a tight hug. Jordon leaned over, winked, and gave her a thumb’s up. Three more talents did their acts after her. Beth was so nervous could hardly breathe. When the speaker finally began announcing the winners, her palms were sweating and her heart was racing so fast she could actually see her shirt move with each thump. Jesse put his arm around her, pulled her close, and whispered in her ear.
“You better breathe or you’re going to pass out. Don’t worry; you did great!” Laughter laced his voice. When Beth glanced up at him, his eyes were twinkling.
“Yeah, Beth, I didn’t hear you mess up one time,” Cody piped in from the other side of Jesse.
The words had barely gotten out of his mouth when she was announced the first place winner. Beth squealed and jumped in Jesse’s lap and hugged his neck. “I can’t believe I won!”
“I didn’t doubt it for a minute,” Jesse said with assurance.
“Yeah right, you were nervous, too. I saw you bobbin’ your knees like you do when you get nervous.”
Jesse laughed out loud then. “I guess I was, but I still knew you were going to win.” After everyone in her family hugged and congratulated her, she walked back onstage to get her trophy. When she came back down, she had to pose for the 100 pictures Susan wanted to take of her. Beth made sure she took some with Jesse, although she had books full of the two of them taken at different holidays.
They were all walking toward the exit when Beth stopped. “I’ll be right back. I want to talk to my friends a minute.”
“Okay, but don’t be too long,” Susan said.
Beth only found Becky and Annette.
“Beth, we didn’t know you could sing and play so beautifully. You did great!” Becky said for the both of them. “Hey, do you want to go shopping with us at the mall Saturday?”
“Yeah, I want to go, but I’ll have to ask permission first.”
“Girl, don’t ask,” Becky said with a flip of her wrist. “Just tell them, ‘I’m going to the mall this Saturday with my friends. I’ll probably see you around six o’clock.’”
“There is no-o way my dad would tolerate me speaking to him like that,” Beth said shaking her head. “But don’t worry; I know how to maneuver him into letting me go. He’s actually more lenient than my sister is. Oh, don’t get me wrong, he can be very strict at times, but I usually end up getting everything I want. What time are you leaving?”
“We want to be there when the stores open, so around 10 a.m. There is supposed to be a big sale at the mall. The one thing I picked up from my mom is the love of sale—shopping. My mom can afford anything she wants; but, if it isn’t on sale, she won’t buy it. I think we’ll have a good time. We’ll show you how to get the best bargains,” Becky said. “Also you can tell your dad if you want that my mom will be going with us.”
“No, Julie, my sister, is going to take us. You like her, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I like her, I don’t know her very well, but she seems like a lot of fun,” Beth said.
“Well, I’ve got to go. Everyone’s waiting on me. I’ll call you later.” As Beth was walking away, she had a funny feeling. It was almost as if her conscience was warning her she was getting in way over her head. She had never talked back or lied to her sister or Jordon. Yet her new friends seemed to think nothing of it.
Jordon was hesitant when Beth asked if she could start going places with her new friends. He told her he didn’t know any of them or their families. Susan didn’t like the idea of Beth abandoning her old friends. It worried her that Beth had stopped going to church with her. She always had some excuse not to go. Susan didn’t want to make Beth do all the things she was raised to do, but she had hoped Beth would find a love for the strict standards she had come to love. Susan always had the promise she made their mother in the back of her mind. She was trying to do her best in fulfilling it—to raise Beth and Cody as her mother would have done.
However, she felt as if she was failing miserably. Susan also felt that, by forcing Beth, it would make her more rebellious than she was already becoming.
Susan knew that she had failed God many times—like the time she was jealous over Jordon.
She knew she would most likely fail again; nevertheless, she still could not help wanting to protect Beth from the things she knew could hurt her. Although Susan did not feel at ease with the idea, in the end she and Jordon both gave in and agreed to let her go. She told Beth she better behave and they wanted to meet these young ladies pretty soon if she was going to be hanging out with them.
Two of the girls were seniors and had their own cars. One of the girls was Becky’s sister, Julie, and the other senior was Tammy. Annette and Jana were juniors and she and Becky were sophomores.
They were all beautiful girls and fun to be around. Julie was the boldest. Tammy was laid-back, not the one to initiate anything but willing to do whatever anyone else suggested. Annette was the most cautious of the group and Jana was the clown who usually had them all laughing.
Beth liked Becky the most. She guessed it was because she had known her the longest and they were in the same grade. However, Becky was just as daring and bold as her sister, Julie.
Their first trip to the mall together was a blast. The mall was crowded with people walking in every direction with bags hanging off their arms. The aroma of cookies baking in on
When they dropped Beth off, everyone but Julie got out to meet her family. They ran into Cody as he was coming out of the front door. Beth was almost sure Cody knew all her new friends. She was about to tell him hello and ask him if he remembered them, but stopped short with her mouth half-open. The angry narrowed eyes Cody stabbed at her warned Beth not to make any reintroductions. Beth knew Cody was furious with her having anything to do with her new friends. Ever chance he got he reiterated how she was going to end up getting into trouble hanging out with such ‘trash.’ And knowing Cody, if she gave him the least opportunity, he would probably say something insulting.
She hurried everyone past him to where Susan and Jordon were. Jesse, as usual, wasn’t home. Jordon was in the recliner with a newspaper lying over his face. Beth would never understand how he slept with the smell of ink and paper right in front of his nose.
Susan was sitting on the couch beside him reading a book. A vanilla candle burned on top of the fireplace mantle giving off a welcoming fragrance. She put her book down and stood as soon as they entered. Jordon fought a few moments with the squawky handle on his antique recliner
—recliner he refused to get rid of, before he was finally able to get out of it.
“Susan, Daddy, this is Tammy, Annette, Jana and Becky. Susan, you should remember Becky from last year. She was in most of my classes, and she was with us when we went on the class trip to the museum. Girls, this is my sister, Susan, and her husband, Jordon, who I call