Billy had been gone for days and Shen hadn’t heard from him. Even when Hannah said that sometimes there were areas in the field where there was no phone service, it didn’t help.
Luckily, the bustle of the day’s activities helped distract Shen, as did her talks with her mother via Skype, even on days when her mother wasn’t quite sure who Shen was.
When Shen told the care center staff that she might need some extra time to pay for her mother’s bill that month, they assured her that it had already been taken care of. “Mr. Preston notified us when he was in Dallas that he would take over the payments.”
That news was a blessing and a concern. Sure, she was relieved of the responsibility. But she didn’t like the idea of someone picking up the tab for her. Was he feeling sorry for the poor, pitiful working girl Shen? Was this a way of paying for their hot night together? Also, she wondered when Billy had gone to Dallas. Had he been there in the past week? If so, why hadn’t he at least called her? Surely they still had phone service in Dallas. Maybe she had misread the signals and she was merely the pick-of-the-season.
During breaks in the day, the adults watched cable news to learn that the virus was indeed hitting much harder than originally reported. On-air reporters and their interviewees were wearing masks. Words like COVID-19, coronavirus, social distancing, quarantine, isolation, ventilators, first responders and essential were becoming all too familiar. Major events were being canceled. Stores and businesses were closing. While New York City was bearing the brunt of the crisis, North Texas and Houston were hot spots with daily numbers growing. So far, the rural areas of Texas were relatively calm, but it only took one person to infect a whole community. Government officials were sending mixed messages. Some said to safeguard this way; others said to go in a different direction. Within a matter of weeks, the world had turned into a rudderless ship moving at warp speed. In Pappy’s Place, the children and adults were kept busy with their assignments and daily chores. The mission was to create as normal a life for the youngsters as possible.
Still, every update hit Shen especially hard — her lovable Lochinvar was out there in this ever-changing war zone trying to help others threatened by an invisible enemy. While she had known him less than a month, she longed to hold him in her arms to keep him safe. The world was in chaos and she felt helpless and alone, especially at night when everyone had gone to their rooms.
To shake off that feeling of late-night anxiety, she started a nightly routine. After she helped Bertie clean up and saw her to her cottage, Shen would get into one of Billy’s old T-shirts and her robe and read on their make-out couch. Girlfriend would lie on the floor next to her. The dog had become her shadow during these days of waiting for their Billy to return.
On the fifth night Shen was so tired, she fell asleep, only to be awakened by, “Well, did you miss me?”
Leaning over the back of the couch was Billy. She reached out to him and started crying.
“Whoa, are you crying because you’re sad I’m back, or because you’re glad to see me?”
“Are you okay? Did everything go all right? I didn’t know if…”
“It didn’t look good at first. With oil prices tanking and the virus getting everybody scared, I had to do some fancy finagling for my people around here as well as in West Texas and Louisiana. Those Cajuns were really hit hard with both the virus and the oil bust. Told ‘em that they’d all stay on the payroll and that I’d established credit at the grocery stores for them. Then when the stores started running low on food, I found an old college pal who is a supplier and had some food hauled in. You might say that I’m now in the grocery business. So, you really missed me?”
“You are positively hateful. Can’t you tell?”
Shen couldn’t hold back her feelings any longer, “Yes, I missed you more than air to breath.” It was obvious that this time she wasn’t kidding.
Billy walked around the couch and leaned down to her. She thought he was going to kick off another make-out session. Instead he hoisted her over his shoulder and started walking upstairs. Just then Ham arrived from a late-night shift at the hospital. Passing the pair going upstairs, Doc shook his head and laughed, “G’night, Billy. G’night, Shen.”
Instead of taking her to her room, Billy headed in the opposite direction to one of the master suites, where he plopped her down on his bed.
Shen wasn’t going to let him get away with this Rhett Butler tactic. “When was the last time you took a shower? You’re covered in dust. And what’s that growing on your face — tumbleweed?”
He took a look at himself in the mirror and nodded. “You know, missy, you’re absolutely right. A shower might be a good idea.”
He went into the bathroom and Shen could hear him turning on the water. She smiled with self-satisfaction that she had won that one. Returning, as he waited for the water to get hotter, Billy made a production of stripping off his watch first, followed by his boots and socks and finally his belt. There he stood in a worn black Henley shirt and light blue jeans with hands on hips before Shen.
Instead of being pleased with his performance, she didn’t look happy.
“Do you seriously think you can just drop in and haul me up to your bedroom when I haven’t heard a word from you all week? I didn’t know if you were in some hospital on a ventilator or just trying to avoid me after the other night.”
“Shen, stop it. You’re not the only one in this relationship. You’re gonna have to trust me. I knew you were safe, but I had a responsibility to take care of people who rely on me. And by the way, have you ever considered how you’ve screwed me up? Can you imagine how hard it was to be away from you? No matter where I was, thinking of you and us made me happy. Missing you almost drove me crazy. I knew if I heard your voice or that you missed me, I would have dropped everything to be with you. On the other hand, if I had called you and you’d blown me off, I would have lost it. To put it simply, my dear, missing you was tearing me apart. Shen, I can’t believe you could ever love me as much as I love you.”
Standing up and looking at him, she said, “Well, Billy boy, you need to become a believer.”
With that he removed her robe, picked her up in both of his arms and walked straight into the shower.
With the water pouring down on them, he held her chin in his hand and said, “We’ve both been miserable this week, so let’s get some things straight. One, we’ll always be honest and trust each other. Two, we’ll have as many kids as you want. Three, I will never abandon you like your dad did. Four, we’re getting married two weeks from tomorrow. Any questions?”
Shen’s eyes grew wide. This wave of marching orders had momentarily caught her off guard. “As a matter of fact, I do have a couple of questions. Did you ask me to marry you, or are you just taking it for granted that it’s a done deal? And what’s the big rush?”
Billy’s demeanor changed. He wasn’t giving orders. He just looked at her and pled his case, “I’ve waited my whole life for you and I’m not wasting any more time. I’m asking you to marry me.”
Shen hesitated. She knew she was dealing with a man who was used to having his way, and now he was making himself totally vulnerable to her.
“No,” was her answer.
Now a startled Billy looked away, trying to figure out how he had failed. Had he said the wrong thing? Had he misunderstood her feelings?
Shaking her head in disapproval, Shen looked up at Billy with a twinkle in her eye continued, “I am not going to tell our grandchildren that their grandfather proposed to their grandmother in a shower.”
“Good lord, woman, you’re absolutely right. Let me try again so as not to worry those unborn Prestons.”
“I’ll give you a second chance, since you’re evidently new at romancing a lady. Think about it.”
With that she kissed him on the cheek, walked out of the shower, put on her robe and went to her room.
Billy was a happy man. She really did know how to play him. And how he loved being played by this woman.
… to be continued Friday, July 3