A sparrow perched on the windowsill, bathed in sunlight, singing of its joy in a new day - both of which were stabbing into Ella's brain, even though her eyes were still closed.
She whimpered and pulled the pillow over her face, but it didn't help. The housewarming party for the home she shared with her twin sister had been one for the ages, but she was paying the price.
A click and a creak accompanied the door opening, followed by shuffling footsteps and a pitiful groan.
"Could you just smother me?" Ella muttered to her sister.
"Only if you do me first," Terra answered as she sat down on the foot of the bed.
Ella experimentally lifted the pillow and discovered that her sister had closed the curtains. The light was still too bright, but subdued enough that she felt safe to push the pillow away. She raked her fingers through her dark blonde hair and made a face because her locks were sticking out in every which direction.
A look around through squinted eyes didn't reveal her phone, so she asked, "What time is it?"
"I swear I'm never doing this again."
Terra let out a half-hearted chuckle. "You always say that."
"So do you."
"It was a great party, though."
Ella sat up, though it made her head pound and her vision swim. The lemony smell of furniture polish that lingered in the house after the final marathon cleaning was turning her stomach.
"Have you seen John?" she asked.
Terra pointed at the nightstand and said, "There's a note. It probably says the same thing mine does. They went into town to get us Excedrin, since we didn't have any in the house."
"Guess we should have told them, huh?"
"Guess they should have told us they were going instead of leaving us notes," Terra countered. She started to chuckle, but it cut off in a pained groan as she covered her eyes.
"Time to go, before my head explodes. Do you see my phone?" Ella asked.
Her twin slid off the bed and said, "Here's the cord." When she traced it from the outlet to one of Ella's discarded shoes, she found the phone beneath.
Ella took the phone and tapped out a hasty message to her husband-to-be, "Gone 2 Gma's pool."
With a little help from her sister, Ella crawled out of bed and started through the house. It had once been their great grandfather's - and a family friend's before that - but the family had secretly renovated the place for them when they both announced their engagements. After the work, the downstairs was essentially two apartments joined by a central living room, kitchen, and dining room. The arrangement gave both twins their own space on opposite ends of the house, but acknowledged that they would never be very far apart.
The sunlight streaming into the front room through a huge bay window felt like lasers burning into Ella's head. The state of the room also provided a pointed reminder that they still had to clean up from the party. Salvation was close at hand, however.
The twins hurried as best they could in their delicate state to the front door, across the porch, and down the stairs. The moment their bare feet touched the grass, their headaches began to fade. Caring not a whit that they were dressed in nothing more than t-shirts and panties, they crossed the lawn to the woods.
The trail they followed was one they knew well, and every step along it brought a new surge of energy. Anyone else would have seen nothing more than a wall of trees and undergrowth surprisingly thick for the first week of April. Such was the magic of their great-grandmother's woods that it hid its secrets.
The scent of honeysuckle filled the air. Squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks scurried everywhere. With the symptoms of their overindulgence already nothing more than a memory, the singing of birds was a joyful accompaniment to their walk. Flowers bloomed, adding splashes of vibrant color to the myriad shades of green and brown lining their path. It was a place of peace and oneness with nature that was as much their home as any manmade structure.
Golden sunlight breaking through the canopy and a silvery laugh marked the end of their journey.
"Morning, Grandma. Morning, Grandpa," Ella said - dropping the great - when she entered the clearing.
The dryad Xantina stood amidst the ferns at the edge of her crystal-clear pool waiting for them. Intimately connected to her family, she'd known the twins were coming as soon as they did. She appeared no older than the sisters, and had no shame for her nudity. With skin that shone golden in the light and hair the color of new leaves, she was a stunning and beautiful sight.
"Take away your coverings and come swim with me," the nymph declared, and then turned to dive gracefully into the pool.
Ella was all too glad to do so.
Their great-grandfather Daniel chuckled as the twins undressed. Once a mortal man, the love and magic of his dryad mate had granted him a body of nature that could remain at her side long after his natural span. Though he had green hair and skin that resembled the bark of a tree, he otherwise looked like a handsome, fit, nude man in his twenties.
"From the way you girls' hair looks, I take it the party was a success," he said.
"The best," Ella confirmed, and her twin echoed her a moment later.
"And the old place is working out for you?" he asked.
"It's perfect," Ella said. "Thank you, Grandpa."
"No need for thanks. I hated to see the place sitting empty," he said, and then snapped a hand up to block the side of his face.
Their great-grandmother's splash still soaked him.
Xantina pouted, "Talk later."
"Yes, dear," Daniel chuckled, and then stood up. "So, while you have company for a while, I'm going to go borrow a newspaper and catch up."
Terra said, "Tell Grandma we said hello," knowing it was his daughter's paper he was going to borrow.
"Will do. Have fun."
Ella took advantage of the distraction. She darted toward the pool and laughed when her sister called out, "Cheater!" A moment later, she hit the water in a flawless dive and surfaced on the far side of the pool. Her sister was only a second behind her, but the splash she launched when she surfaced found only air. Ella popped back up from below the water, and her splash caught Terra full in the face.
It was on.
The girls called a truce several minutes later when they were both panting for breath and laughing too hard to continue. It was then that Ella saw John and Nathan coming down the trail.
They were new to the family secret, and entered the clearing with poorly concealed nervousness. Both sisters had been afraid to tell their beaus about their heritage, and had only found the courage out of necessity when the two friends had proposed to them at the same time at the end of the previous summer.
A nudge from Terra indicated that her sister wanted to play a different game. Careful to address both young men, Ella asked, "Feeling better?"
Nathan revealed his surprise when he answered, "Yeah, a lot."
"How?" John asked.
"Magic," Terra said, and wiggled her fingers.
"Guess we dragged ourselves out of bed and to the store for nothing, huh?" John replied.
Terra said, "Uh huh. Best hangover cure ever."
Nathan laughed. "Can't argue with that."
"So..." Ella paused dramatically, and then finished, "Why are you two still dressed again?"
The boys inevitably blushed. The commonplace nudity of the family was something they weren't remotely used to yet. They did kick off their shoes to begin stripping, though. Ella was used to the state of undress, but that didn't stop her from admiring John as he disrobed - and peeking at Nathan.
They were two of a kind - leanly muscled and well-endowed. They were just as beautiful on the inside as well. John was the most caring, considerate, and good-humored man Ella had ever met. Not for the first time, she thanked her lucky stars that she'd outgrown her fixation on jocks to discover him before someone else snatched him up. Nathan had been a friend to her and her sister all their life, and had patiently waited until the day Terra finally recognized the love hiding right under her nose.
Caught up in a flood of memories - and arousal - she started when her sister whispered, "Hey."
"Sorry," Ella whispered back. The sisters locked eyes, took a deep breath, and then ducked down under the water.
Once below the surface, Ella swam to the right to reverse position with Terra, and then kicked off the bank toward the opposite shore. Once there, they turned to face their beaus. Ella could see in John's eyes that he knew what was afoot.
The twins simultaneously said, "Come on in, John."
Nathan held up his hands. "I know better than to give you any hints," when John looked to him for help. Nathan had always been able to tell them apart.
Xantina laughed, recognizing the game her great-granddaughters were playing. She caught John's eye, which only deepened his blush, and said, "Look with this." She held a hand over her heart, and then lifted it to cover her eyes. "Not with these."
John blew out a long breath as he took the couple of steps through the ferns to the edge of the pool. After filling his lungs with air again, he dived in.
Ella's heart sang when he veered toward her, though she did her best not to show it when he came up in front of her.
Terra's voice held a faux warning when she said, "Are you sure? You're about to kiss my sister."
The game was over when he looked deep into Ella's eyes and said, "I'm sure, Terra."
Ella threw her arms around him and kissed him hard.
One last quiver shook Ella when she peeked out of the bathroom at John sprawled on the bed amidst the tangled sheets. They hadn't remained long at the pool after the boys had arrived, and the twins had pulled their men straight to the bedroom upon returning to the house. In the grip of a burst of energy after recovering from several intense orgasms, she could see that John was experiencing quite the opposite.
"You aren't asleep, are you?" she asked.
He started and turned toward her to answer, "No."
"Liar," she said, and then laughed. "Come wash up. We still have to clean up from the party and take a shower before it's time to go to your Mom's for dinner."
John let out a pitiful groan as he did so, but he sat up and slipped out of the bed. Ella stopped brushing her hair to admire his body - and more specifically his manhood swinging with his steps. She made eye contact and licked her lips when he had nearly reached her.
He shuddered and said, "Stop that."
"I don't want to," she teased, and then slapped his butt as he walked into the bathroom.
John grabbed a washcloth, but before wetting it, he leaned down to splash water on his face. The sight made Ella's sex tingle, and she had to force herself to look into the mirror before she dragged him back to the bed. She chuckled at his gasp when he put the washcloth to work between his legs.
"Oh," she said, remembering something, "Did you get that recipe from your mom?"
"Yeah. I forgot. It's ... Uhm ... I think it's on the dresser."
"Yours or mine?"
Ella turned her head back and forth, decided her hair was good, and put down the brush. "Hurry up. I'm going to go get dressed."
"Okay. I love you."
She moaned from the chill that his initiating that exchange caused. "Love you, too."
In the bedroom, she opened a drawer to retrieve a pair of panties. She reached for a bra, but then changed her mind. They weren't going anywhere for a while, and she didn't feel like needlessly enduring the discomfort of having her large breasts confined. She was straightening from pulling on her panties when John walked into the room with his eyes fixed on her.
"What?" she asked, covering her breasts in a false display of modesty.
"You just look beautiful."
She crinkled her nose and smiled. "Good answer."
He went to his dresser while Ella selected a pair of shorts and a top from hers. Once dressed, she walked over to give him a peck on the lips, and then looked for the recipe.
"That's it there," he said, pointing out a folded piece of purple paper.
Ella picked it up, but read the flier it was written on before turning it over to look at the recipe.
"From my aunt Carolyn's church. They're trying to raise money for this church camp they run. I went there a bunch of summers," he explained.
Recognizing the name God's Green Earth Campground, she asked, "Is it by the state forest?"
"That's the one. Something about the property taxes."
Her brow knitted when she turned to him. "I didn't think churches had to pay taxes."
"The church doesn't own the land. The lady who does always let them use it, but she ended up in a nursing home a couple of years ago."
"That's so sad," she said as she turned the paper over.
"Yeah. I guess it's a lot of money. My aunt's been busy trying to organize fund-raises."
"So, that's why I haven't met her yet?" It was a question she'd been meaning to ask for a while, because his aunt Carolyn was essentially a second mother to him. His mother had been in a bad car accident when he was little. She had spent almost a year in the hospital, and the better part of another recovering enough to have him in the house with her full-time. He had lived with his aunt during those couple of years.
"Yeah. A lot of it is on weekends, so she's always had plans when I called."
Terra interrupted by hollering from down the hall, "A little help out here?"
"Keep your pants on," Ella yelled.
Terra came right back with, "Put yours on and move it, Sis."
"We could always sneak out the window," John suggested as he wrapped his arms around her from behind.
"Mmm ... Tempting, but we'd have to come back eventually."
Ella sighed, spun in his arms, and kissed him. As their tongues slipped over each other, Terra loudly cleared her throat from the front room, and Nathan laughed. Ella pulled back from the kiss and playfully growled before going to face the task at hand.
John buried his face in the arm of the couch and groaned.
"Oh, you're adorable," Ella said while patting his back and looking at the album of childhood pictures his mother had brought out.
The clean up from the party had gone quickly. For the most part, it involved straightening up the clutter and sorting the recyclables. Once the partygoers had reached a certain point of inebriation, the difference between the bins had escaped them. After sweeping the floor, there was even time to get a little studying done before going to John's house for dinner with his mother.
"Your first birthday," Ella said while looking at the last picture on the page. He was sitting next to a cake with a single candle, and wearing a huge grin.
Her face full of barely contained mirth, John's mother said, "Turn the page."
"Oh god," John groaned without lifting his face from the couch.
Ella burst into laughter when she saw the next picture of John with his foot in the cake. Tears welled up in her eyes from the one that followed of him desperately trying to stick his frosting-covered foot in his mouth.
John finally sat up and - his voice dripping with sarcasm - said, "Thanks, Mom. I really appreciate this."
Ella leaned against him and laughed even harder.
John's mother smiled sweetly. "Well, honey, she needs to know what she's getting into. What sort of mother would I be if I didn't prepare her for the kind of trouble you get yourself into?"
"One who was still on the Christmas list," he muttered.
Ella caught her breath and tried to say, "I'm sorry," but only managed to finish part of the sorry before she snorted and fell into another fit of laughter. After a few seconds, she composed herself enough to say, "I'm sorry. I can't help it."
He shook his head, sighed, and slipped his arm around her.
His mother said, "I'm sure she has plenty of embarrassing pictures. Just ask her mother the next time you're over there. This is a special time for mothers to get even for all the times you made us want to pull our hair out."
That brought Ella up short. It was worse than that. Her parents had video. She looked at John and knew she was in trouble when a positively evil grin spread across his face.
"But for now, it's your turn," his mother said, and flipped to the next page in the album.
Ella chuckled when she saw a picture of him red-faced and scowling as a doctor examined his ear with an otoscope.
"He's never liked going to the doctor," his mother said. "Speaking of which..."
"I take it that means you haven't gone?"
He stood up and said, "No, I haven't got around to it. I'm going to the bathroom."
"You haven't been since your senior year checkup," she called after him. She shook her head when he ignored her. "Him and doctors."
"Would you like me to get him to go?" Ella asked.
Her expression brightened and she asked, "Would you?"
"I'll have him in before next week's over," Ella promised, and then winked.
"You are an angel," the older woman said. "He's still on my insurance, and I'll pay for anything it doesn't cover, so don't let him use that as an excuse."
The doorbell rang and John's mother frowned. "Who in the world could that be?"
"Want me to get it?" John asked as he returned to the room.
"No, no. I've got it," she said, and then went to answer the door. When she opened it, she said, "Oh, Carolyn. This is a surprise."
"Hey aunt Carolyn," John called out, and waved to her.
Ella's heart turned to ice when she saw the woman's features tighten.
"Come in," John's mother said.
"You're busy. I'll come back some other time," his aunt responded, and turned to leave.
"Carolyn," his mother chided under her breath.
John stood up and said, "Aunt Carolyn?" When she didn't respond, he hurried toward the door. "Aunt Carolyn, wait."
John's mother shut the door and turned back toward the couch. Her expression spoke of both shame and pain when she tried to explain, "Ella ... I..."
"It's about me," Ella guessed.
The older woman took a deep breath and nodded. She walked back to the couch and sat down. "My sister's very religious. She..." Her voice trailed off, and she was once again unable to speak.
Unfortunately, it wasn't the first time Ella had encountered that particular brand of prejudice. "She thinks I'm a heathen who's leading him into sin."
"I'm so sorry," John's mother said, her voice quavering. "I've been trying to talk sense into her, but she just won't listen."
"I understand," Ella said. When she heard the sound of a car door, she looked at the window and could see John's shadow on the curtain. His shoulders slumped, and he sank down onto the porch swing in front of the window.
"I don't think John will."
The car outside fired up and drove away. Ella saw him drop his head into his hands, and instinctively stood up to go to him. She wasn't the only one, though.
John's mother smiled at her and said, "Go," as she sat back down.
"Are you sure?" Ella asked.
"Yes. I'm right here if you need me."
"Thank you," Ella responded. It meant a lot to her that his mother would set aside her maternal instincts - especially in light of what had just happened.
He dropped his hands and sat up straight when she opened the door, but she could still see the anguish in his face. "Are you okay?" she asked as she sat down next to him and took his hand.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
He winced. She wasn't surprised.
To save him the pain of trying to explain, she said, "Your mom told me what was going on."
"She knew? Why didn't she say anything to me?"
"I don't know for sure, but she said she was trying to talk to your aunt. Maybe she hoped she could fix everything before you knew anything about it."
His voice tight and carrying touches of anger, he said, "She should have told me."
"Maybe, but what's done is done. She was just trying to protect you - and me, I guess."
He closed his eyes for a second, and then said, "I'm sorry. This is ... It's..."
She squeezed his hand. "It's not your fault. I'm more worried about you than I am about what she thinks of me."
"I don't understand," he said, shaking his head. "I thought she'd be happy for me. It doesn't make any damn sense."
"I know. Maybe she just needs time?"
"I don't know," he sighed, looking out at nothing.
"Why don't we go back inside? I know your mom is worried, and it's getting a little chilly out here."
"Yeah. Okay," he answered, his voice distant.
Ella stood, still holding his hand, and he rose with her. As soon as he was on his feet, she pulled him close and cradled his head on her shoulder. "I love you."
"I love you too."
She held him for a minute or so more, until he lifted his head. After giving him a kiss on the temple, she led him back inside.
Ella awakened to the soft morning light filtering through the curtains. She turned to look at John and saw his brow was furrowed. He'd had a rough night of tossing, turning, and muttering in his sleep. She reached out to caress his hair, and smiled when she saw his features soften.
Not wanting to wake him, she slipped slowly out of the bed, straightened her nightshirt, and crept out into the front room.
"How's he doing?" Terra asked.
Once John had fallen asleep, Ella had gone straight to her own lifelong rock of support - her sister - and told her what happened.
"It was a rough night. He didn't sleep very well," Ella answered as she looked out the window and toward the woods.
"How about you?"
Ella sat down next to her sister on the couch and answered, "I'm okay. Just drained." Seeing that Terra was fully dressed, she asked, "Are you going somewhere?"
"Breakfast with Mom. Is there anything at the house you want me to grab while we're there?"
"Nothing I can think of."
"I told her you probably wouldn't feel like coming, but..." She lifted her eyebrows in a silent question.
"I don't want to wake John, and I want to be here when he wakes up."
"Okay." Terra held out her arms in invitation, and the twins hugged. "I'm only a phone call away. Mom said to tell you the same thing."
Terra nodded toward her end of the house. "I'm going to go see if Nathan's out of the shower."
"Tell Mom I said I love her."
Knowing Nathan would have questions as well, Ella decided to head back to her bedroom and let her sister answer them. The flier with the recipe on it caught her eye as she walked in, and she pursed her lips in thought. There was something about the campground that she could almost remember, but it was escaping her.
It was something to take her mind off of things, so she sat down at the desk, grabbed her tablet, and did a search for the name. A website popped up in the results, and when she clicked it, she knew what had been lurking at the edge of her consciousness.
The campground went to great lengths to be green. Almost all of the small amount of power the place used was solar generated. The cabins had been built from salvaged lumber. The lake was never treated with any sort of chemicals, and only the relatively small swimming area was cleared of moss and cattails. Decades before Ella was born, the owner had replanted a part of the forest lost to an arson fire, and it now thrived.
It gave her an idea. If she contacted the various conservation groups her family supported, she might be able to help raise the money to save the campground. It certainly fit the bill as a place worthy of protecting from a government takeover.
And it might help convince John's aunt she wasn't the devil's temptress after all.
With a plan in mind, she closed the browser and put the tablet down just as John stirred.
"Morning," she said as he blinked the sleep out of his eyes.
He stretched and echoed, "Morning."
"Want some breakfast? Some homemade apples and cinnamon oatmeal, maybe?"
He smiled, which heartened her, and answered, "That sounds good."
"I'll go get started then."
She had just finished dicing the apple when John walked into the kitchen - still in his boxers. "Where did Terra and Nate take off to this early?"
"They're having breakfast with Mom," she answered. "We have the whole house to ourselves for a while."
"Do they know what happened?"
She held up a chunk of apple, and he opened his mouth to accept it. As he crunched, she said, "I couldn't not tell Terra. She knew something was wrong the moment we walked in the door last night."
"That's okay. I get the sister thing. I just wondered."
"You know she won't press you about it, and I don't think Nathan will either."
He leaned against the island counter where she worked and said, "I know. I don't even want to think about it. I just want to forget and move on. Nothing we can do about it, anyway."
She knew it wasn't going to be that easy, but could sense that for the time being, it was what he needed to try to do. "You could get the oats out for me. They're in the second cabinet."
He squeezed her butt before going to fulfill that request. She was up in the air about whether that was a good sign, or whether he was trying to convince himself everything was all right.
They talked as they cooked, ate, and washed the dishes. The conversation ranged from college, to friends, to television shows ... Anything except what had happened the night before.
Then, when they finished brushing their teeth, he moved in behind her and pulled her close. She could feel his hardness against her butt and gasped from the unexpected advance.
Between kisses on her neck that gave her shivers, he said, "We've got the house to ourselves. Want to take advantage of it?"
She was fairly certain he was trying to bury his feelings, but it was hard to argue with his choice of ways to do it. Rationalizing in an aroused instant that the intimacy would do them both good, she gasped, "Yes."
For the rest of the day, John acted as if nothing had happened. It worried her just as much as if he'd remained withdrawn and distant, though she did her best not to show it. Someone he thought of as a parent had disowned him, and she knew that wasn't something anyone could shake off in a day.
Once they split up on campus to go to their first class the following day, she sent an email about the campground to her aunt Kia, who handled most of the contacts for the family. If her plan worked, he might not have any feelings to suppress.
A little over halfway through the lecture, her phone vibrated. She brought up the message from her aunt, which read, "Can you give me a call?"
Ella answered, "In class, but I'll call you between, in about fifteen minutes."
Once out of the room, she made the call. When her aunt picked up, she asked, "So, you got my email?"
"Yes, I got it," her aunt answered. "I'm afraid I have bad news."
"I saw one of the fliers for an ice cream social a couple of weeks ago and looked up the campground. When I saw how they operated, I floated the idea of supporting them to a lot of the local organization chapters. Nobody will touch it with a ten-foot pole."
Ella stopped in her tracks just outside the building and asked, "But ... Why?"
"It's too closely associated with the church."
"What's that have to do with anything?" Ella asked while stepping out of the way of the crowd emerging behind her.
Kia sighed. "You know how polarized things are. All it takes is disagreeing on one issue, and all the places where you agree don't mean anything."
"It's so stupid," Ella spat in frustration.
"I'm with you," Kia said. "That's not all, though. Once I found that out, I put together a donation from the family and sent it to them. They returned it unopened."
With the defeat she felt creeping into her voice, Ella said, "They wouldn't take the money because it was coming from us."
"That's what I have to assume. The stupid is going both ways."
"Just wonderful," Ella muttered.
"Don't be down on yourself. Your heart was in the right place. You can't help it if everyone else's heads are up their behinds."
Ella winced, because she wasn't really thinking about the campground as much as finding a way to get into the good graces of John's aunt. "Thanks for trying, anyway. I have to get to class."
"Sorry, sweetie. Goodbye."
Ella said her goodbye and ended the call. At first, having her idea go down in flames so quickly left her despondent. It wasn't long before a spark of determination ignited and began to grow, though. She wasn't going to give up so easily.
During her next break between classes, she called her father. With his connections as a state senator, she hoped he might be able to do something from the government side.
"Hello, Ella," he said when he picked up the phone.
"Hey, Dad. Are you busy?"
"Only busy banging my head on the desk. Trying to get anything done at the statehouse since we lost our super majority is frustrating, to say the least."
That made her second-guess what she was about to say, but she went ahead and asked anyway. "I was wondering if you could do me a favor?"
"There's this campground called God's Green Earth that's having problems with property taxes."
He interjected, "That's the one we tried to send some money to and they sent it back, right?"
"That's it. I was hoping there was something you could do."
"I could look into it, but if they wouldn't take our money, I don't think they're going to let me do anything else to help them, either."
She had been so dead-set on finding another way that she hadn't even considered that before jumping into the plan to call him. He was right, and she knew it. The church - or John's aunt - didn't want their help, and nothing was going to change that.
Remembering the earlier conversation with Kia, she decided to actually do the right thing. The campground had an earth-friendly ethos that she appreciated, and there was no way of knowing who would end up with the land if it was foreclosed upon for unpaid taxes.
"Maybe there's something you can do without letting her know it's you?" she asked.
Confused, he asked, "Her?"
Ella blushed and corrected her Freudian slip, "Them, I mean."
"I'll make some calls. I looked at the website, and it's a nice place. I'd hate to see them lose it."
"You're welcome, honey. I'll let you know if there's anything I can do."
"Love you. Bye."
The disappointment followed her through the day, right up until she met John for lunch. Simply seeing him was enough to brighten her spirits, but it also reminded her there was a way she could earn some points with at least one member of his family.
It was time to convince her fiancé to get his annual checkup.
She waited until they were done eating, and then scooted closer to him on the wall where they were sitting. He slipped an arm around her, and she leaned against his shoulder.
"Why don't you want to go in for a checkup?" she asked.
"Ah crap," he said, and then chuckled. "Mom's bringing out the big guns. She put you up to this, huh?"
After his earlier reaction, she'd expected more resistance. She still thought he was overcompensating for the blow his aunt had delivered, but she pressed on.
"No, it was my idea. I have a pretty good reason to want you to stay healthy." Then she held up her engagement ring for emphasis.
He shrugged the shoulder she wasn't leaning against and said, "There's nothing wrong with me. What's the point of spending a bunch of money for some doctor to tell me what I already know?"
"It's not going to cost you anything. Your mom already told me you're on her insurance and she'll pay for anything it doesn't cover. You never know. The whole point of getting a checkup is to catch things you didn't know were wrong early. You know I go twice a year."
He sighed. "I don't know. I've just never liked doctors."
"Will you do it for me? Pretty please?" she said, and then affected a pout.
"That's not fair."
She could see his resistance faltering and hear it in his voice. As he'd suggested earlier, she decided to bring out the big guns.
"If you go, I'll give you something much better than a lollipop for being a good boy."
"Ella!" he gasped in surprise when she squeezed his manhood through his jeans.
Still caressing him in full view of anyone who might look their way, she said, "Just say yes."
"Okay, I'll go."
"Get your phone."
A couple of minutes later, he had an appointment for the next day, right after class.
As soon as John's name was called and he walked through the door, Ella sent a text to his mother. "At the doctor. He just went in."
Her response arrived a few seconds later. "Bless you! Did you tell them to lock the back door so he can't sneak out that way and escape?"
Ella had to fight hard to hold in her laughter when she read that. She replied, "He won't get very far very fast. I have his phone and the keys to the car."
His mother's next message read, "And his heart. Thank you again."
A couple of rambunctious children in the waiting room convinced Ella that trying to study wasn't likely to be productive. So, she left her books in the bag and hit the internet on her phone. A page collecting funny postings from all over the internet caught her attention, and the minutes rolled by.
Before she knew it, the sound of someone saying John's name caught her attention. She peeked through the reception window and saw him in front of the counter on the other side of the door. Ella put her phone away, slung her purse over her shoulder, and stood up.
"You're all set to go," the woman at the counter said. "Take this across the street to the lab. We sent over all your information, so check-in shouldn't take long."
When he emerged, Ella kept the question she had to herself - but only long enough to exit the building and see that nobody was close by in the parking lot.
"What was that about the lab?" she asked.
John shrugged and answered, "Just some test the doc was going on about. I said okay so I could get out of there."
"What kind of test? Blood work or something?"
The sudden flood of color in his cheeks caught her off guard. "It's nothing important," he answered evasively.
Once again, she waited. They were only a few steps away from the car, so she held back until they reached that relative haven of privacy.
He proved he knew her just as well as she knew him when they both closed their car doors a few seconds later. He let out a resigned sigh, ran his fingers through his brown hair, and told her what he was trying to dance around, because he knew he wasn't going to get away with it.
"Okay," he began, "My uncles on Dad's side both have low sperm count, so the doctor is trying to get me to go get tested."
"That's pretty important, I think," she said, and then laid her hand on his leg. "To both of us. You are going, right?"
He let his head thump into the headrest and sighed again.
"What am I supposed to do? Go over there and tell them I'm there to jack off in a plastic cup?"
Ella had only been thinking about it in the abstract, and his words brought home the reality of how the sample was obtained. "Okay, I see your point," she admitted. "Can I see that slip the doctor gave you?"
He pulled it out of his pocket and passed it to her. As soon as she looked, she knew that it was of no help. It plainly stated that the doctor was requesting a semen sample. She had hoped it would be written in some sort of medical code. There was no way he was going to be able to walk up to the reception counter and hand over that piece of paper to a woman without dying of embarrassment on the spot.
An idea popped in her head. "How about this? You stay here, and I'll walk over there and talk to them. Nobody will see you, and if there's anyone we know there, I'll come straight back without saying anything."
"I ... I guess," he answered with nothing resembling conviction.
Ella cupped his cheek in her hand, turned him toward her, and kissed him. "Try to relax."
He didn't have to say, Easier said than done. She could see it in his eyes. Remembering she had his phone, she pulled it out of her purse, brought up the page she'd been reading in the waiting room, and handed it over.
"Check this out. It's funny," she told him. "I'll be back in a few minutes."
With that, she laid the keys on the center console in case he wanted to roll down the windows or listen to the radio, and climbed out of the car. Upon crossing the road, she observed the lab carefully. She meant to keep her promise. If she saw anyone who knew them, she wasn't going to embarrass him by bringing up the test where they could hear.
All was well when she reached the door. She didn't recognize anyone in the waiting room or behind the reception desk. What she had never expected was that she was nervous as she walked up to the counter.
"Can I help you?" the receptionist asked.
"I was wondering if I could speak to someone about a test my fiancé is supposed to take here."
"What kind of test?"
Ella tapped her fingernails on the counter, trying to come up with an answer for that as her cheeks warmed.
A woman in a lab coat stepped in behind the receptionist and said, "I'm one of the technicians. Why don't you come back, and we can talk in private."
Relieved, Ella said, "Thank you."
The woman pointed and said, "Through that door right there."
Ella walked through the door and the woman introduced herself. "I'm Lauren. We can use this consultation room."
"That's a beautiful name." She opened the door to the room and gestured for Ella to enter.
The technician closed the door behind them. "Do you have a doctor's order? That might be easier than explaining why you're here."
"Yes, it's right here," Ella answered, and retrieved it from her purse.