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1. The More, The Merrier
They both looked up, and saw another couple approaching along the empty river path, arm-in-arm. Rowan Anderson, and a man Ben assumed was Pastor Bob. Unless Mrs. Anderson had a bit on the side.
“Oh, no, don’t get up on our account,” Bob tsked, waving a dismissive hand at Ben. “We’re just out on our afternoon walk.”
Rowan smiled her grandmotherly smile. “Honey, you remember Lanie? We’ve been helping her with her son. And this is her….Ben.”
Seriously, no one seemed to know what to call them. Although Ben liked the sound of that possessive title a little too much for his own good, his face heated. “Actually, I – ”
“He’s my boyfriend,” Lanie broke in. She wrinkled her nose slightly, seeming to taste the words. “We’re dating.”
He gaped at her in astonishment.
“Oh, isn’t that wonderful!” Rowan exclaimed, smiling warmly. “What a nice day for a picnic. What have you two been up to?”
Lanie pushed her fingers into Ben’s hair, and looked at them defiantly. “Dirty, sinful things. I’m sure you can imagine.”
Ben choked a laugh and ducked away from her. “Um, no ma’am. We’re just enjoying the day.”
“Talking about BDSM. Do you know what that is?” Lanie tilted her head.
Ben elbowed her. “Lanie,” he hissed under his breath. What was wrong with her? This was a man of the cloth.
Pastor Bob chuckled. “Oh, don’t worry about our girl,” he assured, patting Lanie’s arm. Ben could almost see her hiss like a cat as she pulled away. Bob was unperturbed. “She’s always had a colourful personality. It’s good to see you again.”
“Likewise,” she replied drily, moving closer to Ben and watching Bob warily. Ben’s confused glance down at her was blocked by the defensive dip of her head, but he nonetheless brought a comforting hand around her waist.
“You guys look so happy,” Rowan said warmly. “Don’t you think, my love?”
Bob nodded, with an affectionate smile. “Just like us, when we were first dating. Did you know that Mrs. Anderson and I have been married for almost fifty years?”
This piqued Lanie’s interest. “Really?”
Bob quirked a smile, then motioned to the grass beside them. “May we?”
“Oh, honey, I’m sure the kids don’t want us to – ”
“No, it’s fine,” Ben said quickly, hurrying clear to a space on the picnic blanket. “Here.”
“We met when we were six,” Bob began when they were cross-legged on the blanket. Ben offered him the container of watermelon. With a thankful nod, he offered some first to Rowan, then took a piece for himself. “She’d been living here when Kirkby was just a gas station between Bragg Creek and Calgary. We moved to the farm just across the road from hers, and our families spent a lot of time together. She wasn’t my biggest fan, at first, because I liked to steal her bike every chance I got. But by the time we were teenagers, she couldn’t get enough of me.” He smiled cheekily at her, and she blushed, brushing a strand of white hair behind her ears.
“Did you ever hate him?” Lanie asked gleefully.
They looked at each other, then both laughed. “Now that I think about it, sometimes I did,” Rowan chortled, ruffling Bob’s hair. “He was a real pain sometimes.”
“You hate me?” Wounded, Ben furrowed his brows at her.
“Not like that.” Lanie waved her hand at Rowan. “Like that. Like, in a good way.”
“Don’t try to understand it, Ben,” Bob’s advice was delivered around a mouthful of strawberries. Was he going to eat all of their food? “Women are incomprehensible. The best you can do is try to stay out of the line of fire.”
“That’s right,” Rowan confirmed. “And our Lanie is more formidable than most.”
Lanie swore, suddenly, and three startled faces swiveled in her direction. “I’ve got to go get Dre. I’m going to be late. Quick, tell me why you’ve been married for fifty years.” Her urgency baffled him. Why was this so important to her?
Rowan straightened. “Well, I don’t know, hon. Because we love each other.”
Lanie shook her head impatiently. “No, no. The real reason. Love doesn’t mean anything. Marriage doesn’t mean anything either. How are you guys so decently…happy after all this time? Even when I was a kid, I could tell.”
Bob peered at her intently. “What are you asking, Lanie?”
“You know what, never mind.” She quickly kissed Ben, then stood.
“Lanie, wait,” Bob said quickly. “Just two seconds, okay?”
Impatiently, she crossed her arms and looked down at him.
“It’s because we chose to, Lanie. After we were married, whenever we had the choice, the urge to walk away, we chose to remember the good. And to grow it, and stamp out the bad. It was never easy. But we wanted to keep walking the same path together. Even when it got dark.”
Ben watched Lanie, as she regarded Bob, trying to read what she took from those words. Whether it was what she wanted to hear. He couldn’t tell, though. She shook her head, then turned away.
“I’ll see you at home, Ben, okay?”
She took off, long legs eating up the ground with powerful strides. As always, he admired the grace, the artistry with which she moved. She was a handcrafted marvel.
“The two of you have a special connection,” Rowan commented, dreamy once again. “I haven’t seen her in a long time, but the last time I did, she was a terrified mouse of a girl. It’s so good to finally see a spark in her.”
“I’m sorry if she was rude,” Ben muttered.
They laughed. “Oh, Lanie’s always been rude,” Bob said conspiratorially. “But finally, she’s not a scared dog backed into a corner, snapping at everyone. She seems happy. In her own way.”
“I think I love her,” Ben mused, even though he didn’t know them. Somehow, he felt like he could talk to them. They had an easy, parental air about them. Lilah and her brother had been lucky to have them. “But I’m not really sure what to do about it. The timing is always so wrong for us. I feel like I’m just waiting for the next disaster to hit. Or for me to do something to completely ruin it.”
He still couldn’t believe all that had happened the night of Dre’s sleepover. The horrible things he’d said to her in the morning.
“Just be careful, Ben.” Pastor Bob leaned back on his hands. “Lanie’s been through a lot, and it might be hard for her to trust you.”
He sighed. “Yeah, that’s for sure. She didn’t even trust me to set the table until now. Well, this isn’t a table. But that’s the sort of thing that seems to bug her. And I don’t know when to push and ask more, and when to respect her privacy.”
“Always respect her privacy,” Rowan chimed in. “But you can let her know that you care, and that you’re there to listen if she wants to talk. Just be there for her.
Rubbing the back of his neck, he looked away. “I guess you guys believe in God, or whatever.”
Bob’s dark eyes sparkled. “Most days. What about you?”
He ignored that. “Do you believe that he brings people together for a reason? I keep thinking I might be deluding myself that I can be there for her and Dre. How can someone like me be what they need? But I can’t leave.”
“Why do you want to leave?”
“Because I don’t deserve them. Not even a little.”
He wasn’t sure what Rowan saw in his face, because he didn’t even know that he was about to cry until she scooted over to him, and wrapped him in a hug. For a moment, he was stunned, but then he brought his hands up, and hugged her back, wrapped up in her floral, old-lady perfume. Though he was at least three times her size, he felt so small, once again.
“Lanie didn’t stick around for the rest of our story,” she said, taking his face on her hands and wiping his tears with her thumbs. “Do you want to hear it?”
Sniffling and staring hard at the stony, dark river, he nodded.
Rowan took his hand. “When Bob and I were dating, he proposed to me at our senior prom. But I turned him down, because I was going to go to school in Australia. He wanted to stay in Alberta, and go to Bible College like three generations of Anderson men had done before him. We were apart for five years.”
“I wish I had gone with her,” Bob sighed.
“And to this day, I wish I had stayed. Because I wasn’t leaving just for school. I was scared, and didn’t believe I could be with a future pastor. That was the only reason. And because of that, I regret each of those five years, even now.”
“Wherever you choose to take things with Lanie, don’t do anything out of fear,” Bob advised. “All that leads to is regret.”
“Won’t I regret it if I make a mistake?”
“Well, use your head, man. But it’s also a mistake when you’re being called to take a leap of faith, and you try to take the safe path down, instead. By the time you get to the bottom, the opportunity will probably be gone.”
Had Ben been called to a leap of faith when she’d been belly dancing in the window at midnight? By the time he’d gotten on the same page, she had checked out a completely different book once again.
“Is there a mistake you’re particularly worried about?” Bob tilted his head.
Ben chewed his lip, his face heating. He couldn’t talk about this with a man of God. What would the Pastor think?
“Ah, hon.” Rowan patted his foot. “We know how young couples are. You don’t have to be embarrassed about sex with us. We’ve given lots of really great counsel. Do you have any questions?”
Like he was twelve, or something. “I know how it works, thank you.”
His unintentionally peevish tone didn’t even make her blink. “All I meant is that it seems to be tearing you up, and we can help.”
Bob leaned forward, taking his other foot. Ben wasn’t sure why, but he felt comforted, despite his unease. He wasn’t sure what to feel.
“Ben, sex is a beautiful gift from God.”
“We’re not having sex!”
They gave each other a knowing look. “Alright, hon,” Rowan soothed. “It’s none of our business. Not at all. We’re sorry.”
“No, it’s fine.” He sighed. He hadn’t talked to anyone about this other than Lanie, and the two of them kept getting distracted every time they brought it up. Or started arguing. “I made a vow of abstinence last year. I got into some real trouble, and sex was ruining my life, along with other things. I guess I had like, a revelation, or something? I didn’t want to keep living that way. I wasn’t the kind of man I wanted my future wife and children to look up to. I made a promise to…God…that if he could lead me to my future wife, I’d stay clean, sober and chaste for a year.”
They seemed baffled. “So, are you waiting for a year, or are you waiting for marriage?”
He squinted, always trying to remember, never quite sure what exactly he’d promised in his haze. “Um…both? I’m seeing what happens after a year, and if still don’t have any prospects, I might keep waiting. I was pretty out of it from withdrawal when I made the promise. I want to cover my bases, just in case God is real or whatever. But it’s causing problems with me and Lanie. I’ve had a few near misses…and I’m realizing what a weakling I am. That’s why I don’t feel like I deserve Lanie and Dre. Or anyone.”
Bob nodded. “Well, I can attest to that difficulty. As a Jesus nerd, I also waited until marriage. And it’s not easy.”
“Yeah, but it’s probably easier to not even start than to have something and give it up. I mean, by the time I almost got myself killed, I was going through two or three partners per day. And then I stopped cold turkey.”
Bob looked insulted and put a defensive hand on Rowan’s arm. “Hey! I had my work cut out for me. I mean, look at her!”
Ben studiously avoided doing that.
Rowan gave Bob a gentle shove, and he continued on with a chuckle. “It doesn’t just end when you’re married, Ben. There’s going to be dry spells. Times when you’re angry with each other. Or just apart for some reason. And even when times are good, there’s always going to be temptation. Another woman. Even work. Things that are going to try to pull you away from the vows you made. By what you’ve just told me, you’re going a long way toward learning self-control. If you’re truly trying to prepare yourself for marriage, and your future children, then a one-year promise is nothing compared to the decades of promise-keeping and temptation you have ahead of you. Even if you don’t get married, this time will have immense value for your life.”
Ben hadn’t thought about it that way. “But what if I mess up? What if I give in?”
Bob shrugged. “Then you start over. Try again.”
Ben stared. “Aren’t you supposed to tell me that I’ll go to hell?”
“Unfortunately, I don’t direct that traffic. But even if you don’t believe in God, what’s the alternative? You mess up, and then…? Give up forever?”
“Well, no…” Confused now, he rubbed his temples. “But it can’t be that easy.”
“Who said anything about easy? Starting over can be the hardest thing you’ll ever do, next to keeping a promise in the first place. You’ll probably have to evaluate what happened. Try to fix any damage you’ve done. But if you give it another go, you’ll feel that much better when you reach your goal.”
“Did you two ever mess up?” He didn’t want to know, but there was no one else he could ask.
Bob glanced at Rowan. “Well, not all the way, but yeah, we definitely pushed the boundaries at times. But let me tell you, if you do wait, there will be nothing like that first time. It will grow deeper and better with time, but the first time is just…magical.”
Rowan nodded. “As soon as people make a promise, temptation grows. But more than that, like I said, there’s been decades of temptations for both of us since we’ve gotten married. It’s not a box you check off, and then never have to deal with again. It’s not about your promise – it’s about what you want it to say about you.”
“Lanie said something to me like that.” It was making a bit more sense now. He smiled wryly. “But for a while, she wasn’t making it easy for me.”
“It’s not about her, Ben.” Bob’s forehead wrinkled, and he looked worried. “Self-control isn’t about what the other person is doing. You have to choose, whether she’s on your side or not.”
“How did you get through it?
“A lot of prayer, my friend. I can teach you a few, if you’d like.”
Ben shrugged. “We’ve been doing okay, and talking through it. That BDSM thing that Lanie said, we were just – ”
“Discussing safety, empathy and limits?” Bob guessed. Ben’s jaw dropped. “We don’t live under a rock, Ben. We talk to lots of people in our field of work.”
Rowan rubbed his back. “God does bring people into our lives for a reason. Not always the reason or person that you want, and sometimes we never know why, but he talks to us in his own way. If you have more questions about that, you should come by one of these Sundays. You’d love our church, I think.”
“I used to go to it, actually,” he informed them. “I was on the worship team for almost two years. Backup guitar.”
“That must have been before our time, then. We’ve only been here for fifteen years.” Rowan snatched a blueberry.
“Yeah, it was in senior year.”
“Well, maybe one day you could come and play for us. Have you kept it up?”
He sighed at the painful memory of his guitar bursting apart underneath him. “I did for a while. But my guitar got destroyed in Somalia. I think it’s still there, actually.”
“Well, you’re welcome to ours, at any time. Weekends are insane, but I’m usually at the church during the workday. Come in whenever you want. Bring a sandwich.”
He felt a little uncomfortable at the repeated attempts to get him to go to the church. He really didn’t need those memories right now. “Yeah, I’ll think about it. Anyway, I should get going. Dre will be wondering where I am. Are you done?” He motioned to the container of watermelon, which was now empty.
“Yes. Thanks for the snack.” The cheekiness in the pastor’s expression was perplexing, but he and Rowan helped pack everything up. Ben hefted the basket over his shoulder, just as his phone rang. Lanie.
“Hey. Sorry, I just packed up and – ”
She cut him off, her panicked shriek sending chills down his spine. “Dre! He’s missing!”
It sounded like the dishes and glasses that he’d so carefully packed for their outing shattered when the picnic basket crashed to the ground. The Andersons shouted after him as he took off, but he didn’t even look back. He wasn’t a runner, but he ran now, not even realizing that he had forgotten his shoes.
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