She had never wanted to fall for him. Warning bells had echoed like a tornado siren at the tiniest thought of him, cautioning her to lock the cellar of her heart and dare not venture from its safety lest she be whisked away in a deadly twister of emotions.
For months she had been careful to heed the warnings. For months she had meticulously guarded that cellar door. For months she had felt the twister raging closer ... and closer ... and closer.
A moist pillow and many a desperate prayer had become her nightly companions as of late. Lord, please ... help me to maintain my focus on You ... on Your work. On my Christian psychology degree. Anything but him.
Anything but him.
Ashley absently pulled the straw up and down through the lid of her Subway lemonade. When had it all started anyway? When had her grip loosened? When had her fingers uncurled from the handle of her feelings?
Almost without her permission, a tender smile of admiration etched its way across her face.
She envisioned his ever-present smile as he propped the class door open for her when her arms were crowded with a backpack and a stack of books. “Bit of an overachiever aren’t you?” He’d teased.
She saw the gentle patience in his ocean blue eyes as he helped her with her psychology course, and heard the passion ring in his voice during debate class and Sunday night Bible studies. She felt the laughter tickle her ribs and steal her breath whenever he evoked hysterics from a lunch table full of college friends.
He was everything she had ever prayed for in a man. And that’s what terrified her the most. The last thing she wanted was to get caught in a web of romance.
The door opened and Ashley glanced up from her drink. There was Devin, standing slightly to the side, his muscular arm holding the glass door open as a smiling young woman entered before him. Ashley felt another smile crawl across her own face. That was Devin – always the gentleman.
Devin spotted the table where she was sitting and waved, that contagious grin lighting his countenance. Ashley waved back, her heart pounding as if she’d just done a series of jumping jacks.
She studied his easy, confident stride as he crossed the yellow tile and plopped into the chair across from her.
“Saved us the best table I see.” He slapped the table’s surface and then tapped out an impromptu drumbeat.
Ashley giggled. “Only the best for my favorite college buddies.” She tilted her head. “Hey, speaking of whom, where’s everybody else? Weren’t Eddie and Victoria coming too?”
“Yeah, they just texted me a minute ago. Said they might be a little late and that we could go ahead and get our sandwiches.” He gave a slight wave of his hand. “Dominique’s already getting hers. Complained that she was starving the whole way here.”
A whisper of doubt blew steadily against the surface of Ashley’s heart. “Dominique?”
“Yeah,” Devin shot her a confused look. “Didn’t I introduce you guys?”
Ashley shook her head.
“Oh,” he shrugged, “Guess I’ll do it now then.” He turned in his seat just as a golden-haired, college-age woman stepped up next to their table with a Subway bag in her hand. It was the same girl he’d held the door open for earlier.
“Hey, there you are!” Devin gestured from the girl to Ashley. “Dominique, I’d like you to meet my friend, Ashley. And Ashley, this is my girlfriend, Dominique.”
All the bustling sounds of the restaurant suddenly faded while the world spun into slow motion and froze to an agonizing stop.
His ... “Girlfriend?”
“Yep. Just started dating, actually.”
“As of Valentine’s Day. You romantic hunk, you.” Dominique playfully shoved his shoulder, and he grinned at her.
A tangled knot of nausea wrapped itself around Ashley’s stomach as she noted the helpless admiration in Dominique’s Devin-fixed eyes.
And there among the fresh smells and the happy green and yellow haze of a simple Subway store, Ashley felt it happen. The very thing she had fought against for so long.
The cellar door was ripped from her strength-zapped hands and the dreaded twister swirled her into a fog of uncontrollable anguish.
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