Lucy squeezes Josh's hand as they walk up to the house. He gives her a confident smile, but he knows she sees through it. He's terrified.
So he keeps his mind occupied, cataloguing everything he sees. The trees, the stonework on the walkway, the color of the siding, the strawberry theme that seems to be everywhere. He expected it on the Sky Diamond Strawberries sign, but on the mailbox? The welcome mat? Stenciled on the shutters? He shakes his head, an amused smile touching his lips.
"What?" she asks quietly. She doesn't ring the doorbell. He suspects she's giving him a moment to collect himself.
Her parents probably know they're out here, too, but if they're anything like Lucy, they're waiting on the bell, too.
"Just enjoying the obvious care with which the house is decorated."
"Ass," she says, nudging him while smiling. "Better keep that snark in check while we're here."
"Oh?" he says, raising an eyebrow. "Your parents aren't fans of the bon mot?"
"They can sling barbs with the best of them—once they know you. Give them a chance to get to know the real Josh, not the one that I once considered making a voodoo doll of."
"What do you mean?" he asks, face a picture of innocence. "That isn't the real me?"
This time she pinches him. "Stop it, I mean it." Then she rings the bell.
He's still surreptitiously rubbing his arm when the door opens. "Lucy!" her mother cries out, wrapping her daughter in a big hug. "You made it!"
Her father takes a turn next. "Were the roads okay?"
"Yes, Dad, no trouble at all. Especially in a sports car."
That turns both parents' attention to him. "Well, hello, you must be Lucy's young man. We're so glad to finally meet you!" Her mother smiles and holds out a hand to shake. He hasn't earned the hugs yet, it seems.
"I'm glad to meet you both as well, Mr. and Mrs. Hutton."
"We've heard so much about you," her father says, his face carefully neutral as he shakes Josh's hand next. Then he winks. "And it wasn't all bad!"
That breaks the tension and there's a burble of chatter as they're ushered in, coats are taken, bags are carried upstairs and Lucy and Josh are ensconced on the couch with promises of coffee or tea, whichever they prefer.
Then they're alone again. "Did I pass?"
Lucy chuckles. "They did let you in the door." He relaxes. Maybe this won't be so bad. Then she says, "But that may or may not be a good thing."
"They spent years hearing about what a terrible person you were, remember. It's going to take a little while to turn that tide of opinion."
"I know. That's why I'm here."
"Yes. You're here. And now they can pick you apart in person instead of from a distance."
Lucy's mother comes in then, bearing a tray. The smile on her face seems kind, but the eyes hold a touch of... fierce protectiveness. Oh boy. To Lucy, he murmurs, "Should I have you taste test the coffee first?"
This time it's a gentle kick under the coffee table.
"Here's your room, dear," Lucy's mother tells him, showing him to the guest room. He's not surprised that they've been placed in separate rooms. "I hope the bed is big enough."
It's not, in fact, he's going to have to sleep curled up, but he's used to it now, spooning against Lucy's tiny frame at night. His suitcase is beside the closet and there are towels and extra blankets stacked on the cedar chest at the foot of the bed. "Thank you, Mrs. Hutton. I'm sure it will be fine."
She pats his arm. "Just let me know if you need anything, sweetheart." He's beginning to suspect that all the terms of endearment just part of her personality. Or she's using them to cover the things she really wants to say. "Dinner will be ready in an hour."
He nods a thank you and she smiles and moves down the hall.
Somewhere down there is Lucy's childhood bedroom. Is the bed any larger? If so, he might not be spending much time in this one. He has to see it. He wanders down the hallway, studying the family photographs. Lucy as a baby, Lucy as a toddler, Lucy as a freckle-faced kid with wild hair, knees stained pink from helping to bring in the harvest. Some of these are on the website, and more familiar to him than his own reflection. But there are ones he hasn't seen, too. Lucy in her awkward prom dress, Lucy at her high school and college graduations, Lucy on the first day of her job with Gamin Publishing. There aren't many after that.
"It's like a shrine to me or something," Lucy says at his shoulder, making him jump. She's poked her head out of her bedroom. "But when you're an only child…"
He wouldn't know anything about that. What he knows is the shrine to his older brother and having a few photos of him scattered among the general family portraits.
She sees it in his face. "Sorry. If it helps, it can be a real pain in the ass sometimes."
"Is that why you're such a pill, then?" he asks, mock matter-of-fact.
She pretends to pout, but her eyes sparkle. "Get in here, I'm going to make you pay for that." She pulls him into her room and shuts the door, pressing him into it with a soft thump.
She pulls him down to kiss her and he lifts her up to meet him. She slides her hands down his chest and hooks her fingers into his waistband. Is she going to try to get in a quick one before dinner? In her childhood bedroom? He can feel himself growing hard already.
"Lucinda," he murmurs. "Maybe we should have stayed in a hotel…"
With a whine, she pulls away. "I know. But they insisted. They want to get to know you." She takes a step back, smoothing her pants. Then she lifts her hands and twirls around in a circle. "Welcome to the main exhibit, starring me, circa age 16."
He gets a good look at the room for the first time. It's less emo boy band posters and stuffed animals and more mini-library. There are bookshelves from floor to ceiling on three walls, even surrounding the wooden headboard of a twin bed. There's even a shelf of honor for a row of Smurfs figurines. "Wow, this is—"
"—not what you expected?"
"It's what I should have expected. You told me the story of how you chose your career, after all."
She runs a hand along one of the shelves, her eyes going distant with memory. "I helped build these with my dad. He let me design them—I researched the sturdiest types of wood, picked out the lacquer, chose the length and depth of each shelf…" Her voice is wistful as she talks. "If I wasn't a renter, I'd do the same thing at my place."
"I love them," he says, pulling her into him and kissing the top of her head. He decides right then and there that when they get their own place together, she'll have this again. His stomach doesn't even flutter at the thought. He's known he wants her beside him forever before they even kissed for the first time. "Makes it feel like home."
Then he kisses her again on the mouth, this time slowly, filled with promises for more to come when they get a chance. She pulls him to sit with her on the edge of her tiny bed, and threads her fingers through the spaces between the buttons on his shirt, pulling him closer. She's always so greedy for his touch, so impatient. He loves that; he loves her. He wants to just forget this dinner, forget the excruciating small talk he's about to endure. But he'll do it for her—he'd do it a thousand times. After all, she did it for him at his brother's wedding.
He skims his fingers over her thighs, a thumb dipping between, and she gasps into his mouth. "Josh..."
Maybe they do have time. "Is the door loc—"
Knock knock knock. "Lucy?"
Lucy breaks off the kiss with a muttered curse. "Yes, Mom?"
"Dinner's going to be ready in fifteen. Will you tell that boy of yours that the bathroom is down the hall if he wants to wash up?"
"Boy?" he mouths while she answers, "Thanks, Mom, we'll be down in a few."
She kisses him once more before standing. "I'm going to get changed before dinner into something with a little room to expand. I can't stay away from the strawberry-rhubarb pie." Conspiratorially, she adds, "You should consider doing the same, even if it means an extra couple hours at the gym."
She sends him back to the guest room. It's not until he's pulling out a comfortable sweater and pair of forgiving khakis that the word "boy" hits him again. And then "young man," "dear" and "sweetheart." Her parents haven't used his actual given name since he's arrived.
Dinner is lovely—chicken, salad, green beans and pie. Nothing fancy but all delicious and filling. And though he expects it, there's no interrogation over his life, his new job, his past, his family... nothing. Just pleasant conversation about the weather, the strawberry forecast for the season, and what books Lucy has been reading. She's always reading something. Her parents listen with rapt attention.
He's kept his rapt attention on other things. The way her mother says, "Please pass the salad dressing, dear," when she talks to him, but "Lucy, can I trouble you for the salt?" for her daughter. "You like the Red Sox, sport?" from her father to him, but "You have to come see how the Earliglows are flourishing, Lucy. It's a bumper crop!" to her. He remembers Lucy telling him that when they were mad at him—more mad, anyway—they used to call him any name beginning with J except for his actual name. But this isn't that. He frowns, but smooths it out before anyone notices.
The phone rings in the middle of dessert, and his ears perk up when her mother mentions her plans for the weekend. "Oh, I don't think we can, Becky, we've got Lucy and her new beau over for a visit. What about next weekend?"
"What's wrong?" Lucy asks him quietly, setting down her fork after devouring her slice of pie.
He didn't think it was showing on his face, but Lucy knows him better than anyone. "Nothing, I'll tell you later." He's not sure yet whether he's just imagining it.
He gets a tour of the farm the next morning, her father talking up a storm about this varietal or that, her mother showing off her latest hybrid failure, proud as if it had been a success. Lucy shows him the treehouse she had as a kid, and they chat pleasantly with a group of pick-your-own customers. A few neighbors come over to talk to Lucy, since she hasn't been home in ages. And though he always gets introduced, it's always "Lucy's boyfriend" or "Lucy's special guy" or the like. They have to be running out of epithets by now.
Finally, he snaps. "It's Josh, my name is Josh," he says, pumping the latest curious neighbor's hand. "Joshua Templeman."
"Nice to meet you, Joshua," the neighbor says, giving Lucy's dad an odd look.
"Of course," her dad says. "Silly of me not to say. We feel like we already know you so well."
But he never actually says the name.
"They what?" Lucy asks when he explains.
"They never say my name. Not even the wrong versions of my name you told me about." Is this some sort of country-style snubbing?
She screws up her face in thought. "It just has to be a coincidence. Surely they can't be doing it on purpose."
He gives her a narrow look. "Just how mad at me were they before?"
"It was mostly my dad—"
She winces. "Pretty mad. I am their baby girl, so wrongly treated by my evil coworker." She dances away before he can retaliate.
Well. Even if she doesn't see it, he thinks he knows how to fix it. And if this doesn't fix it, nothing will.
And if nothing will... He doesn't want to think of what it would mean then.
Dinner that night is on him, the nicest place in town, which is actually pretty great. All artisanal and locally-sourced, but in a non-pretentious way. "Oh, you didn't have to, my boy," her dad says, and Josh gives Lucy an I-told-you-so look behind his back.
He snuck away in the afternoon, ostensibly to pick up some toiletries he'd forgotten. And now the box is burning a hole in his pocket. When the dessert comes, he picks up his wine glass and raises it high. "I'd like to make a toast."
Lucy raises hers, a smile growing on her face. She has no idea what's coming. Her parents give each other an uncertain look but raise their glasses as well.
"To Mr. and Mrs. Hutton, for welcoming me into your home, despite everything you've heard about me. And to Lucy, the love of my life, who accepted me even though I used to make her life hell."
"I had a part in that, too," she demurs.
"Lucinda Elizabeth Hutton, would you make my life heaven..." Her mother starts to cover her mouth in overjoyed surprise, her father's eyes go big. Lucy's mouth drops open. He pulls out a small box from his blazer pocket and holds it in front of him. Not a ring box, just a small gift box. He pauses for effect. "...by accepting this…?" He lifts the lid.
She blinks. Then cranes her neck down to look inside. "A… key?"
"To my place. Will you move in with me?" She doesn't answer for a long moment, seemingly frozen in place, and he starts to sweat. "You're always over there anyway, it's closer to work, you'd save a lot of money on rent, which means you could come home to visit a lot more often, and… there's plenty of room for bookshelves."
Lucy unfreezes then plucks the key out of the box. "Of course I will." She pulls him toward her by the collar and kisses him soundly, so soundly that the room starts to spin a little. When she lets go, she murmurs, "You haven't lost your evil touch, you know that?"
"Gotta keep you on your toes," he replies, the smallest of smirks on his lips.
Then he feels a heavy clap on his back. It's Lucy's dad. "Joshua, my boy, what a great idea! I hope this means we'll see both of you a lot more often!"
Lucy's mom gives him a kiss on the cheek. "I knew you were the right one for her, dear." She turns to Lucy. "Didn't I say Josh was 'hopelessly in love' with you?"
"You did, Mom," Lucy agrees, holding the key up to the light to read the tiny inscription. The annoyed look she gives him is worth the extra fee. It reads: SHORTCAKE.