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Chapter 15

        "Hi!" I said in a friendly but somewhat reserved manner as Jennalee entered the house.
        "Hey," she replied, still smiling in that mixed emotion way.
        We went into the living room and sat down together on the couch, just as we had done for our talk a year before; and just like the year before, Jennalee spoke before I could say anything.
        "All right, Mikey," she began, "before you start whatever you're going to tell me, I want to say a few things."
        "Fine," I replied, still smiling. "Go right ahead."
        "Eight weeks ago, I was pretty sure that you would be proposing to me today, that you would sort out your issues and come to the conclusion that you were ready to be engaged. I've enjoyed this time a lot because I wasn't worried about it.
        "But the past couple of days I've suddenly been less sure, and especially after what you said at the park yesterday, because of the way we can read each other so well. Last night I was thinking back to how you reacted to my proposal hints last spring, and how you’re acting now, and I started getting a feeling that maybe I was wrong about where you are on this. I hope I'm wrong now about THAT, but I want to have a chance to make my case in FAVOR of us getting engaged before you announce how you feel. Just in case that might help your decision, or even change it if it's a close one for you."
        "Fair enough," I responded. "I'm willing to listen."
        She paused at that, and I thought I knew why: if I had definitely been intending to propose today, at that point I would have told her that she didn't need to make such an argument to me. Since I HADN'T said that, it meant, at the very least, that I was still unsure. As she continued to react facially for a few more seconds, I became certain that she was, indeed, thinking those very thoughts.
        I was proud of her for quickly reaching such a logical conclusion, especially since it was a conclusion she definitely didn't want to draw. I had taught her well.
        "OK," she said, breaking the brief silence. There was a subtle but unmistakable change in her demeanor at this point: I could tell she'd perceived that the slim hope she'd been clinging to had turned out to be in vain, and yet she still couldn't quite abandon it completely.
        She took a slow breath and went on.
        "Now, this is pretty obvious stuff, but important. First of all, you do still agree that we're going to be spending the rest of our lives together, right?"
        "Of course!" I agreed emphatically. "Just try to get rid of me!"
        She smiled slightly, then continued.
        "Good. I knew that, but I'm glad to hear you say it again. Second, we're adults now, legally and in terms of where our lives are. We start college in another month. We'll both be working toward our specific careers, not just getting a general education. We're not kids anymore. It's not going to change anything important from this point on, for college or otherwise, if we're engaged. Like you said eight weeks ago, it's a permanent step into adulthood - but so what? We ARE adults!"
        She paused again, and leaned toward me,
        "But most of all, Mikey, for me, being engaged is about our commitment to each other. I want to make that commitment so much! I WANT to have that ring on my finger that tells the whole world that I'm yours and you're mine, forever! I want that because I love you SO MUCH! Isn't that enough? Isn't that more important than anything else?"
        She stopped speaking, clearly fighting back tears. This was all so painful for me to listen to and see, but I knew I had to be strong: I not only had to make my own counterargument, I had to convince her to go along with me.
        "Was there anything more you wanted to say?" I asked, in as gentle a tone as I could. She looked at me for a moment, then shook her head.
        "But you're going to tell me you're not ready, aren't you?" she asked very softly.
        "You've got to try to understand, JJ," I began. "I've thought all this through very carefully. A year ago we both observed that in this relationship you're the impulsive and fun one, and I'm the 'big picture' guy. It's my job to see all the larger implications of what we do at any given time. So that's what I've done. I really WANTED to come to the conclusion you wanted me to find, but it didn't happen. I know it's just not the right thing for us right now. Please try to listen to what I have to say with an open mind, knowing that it's coming from someone who loves you more than his own life.
        "For one thing, you just said that being engaged isn't going to change anything important for college. I disagree. Few people enter college engaged. It would set us apart from most of the other students, and I think a lot of them would find it intimidating to interact with an engaged couple. It would make us seem much more mature than they are, and harder to relate to.
        "But more important than that is what being engaged would do to our own attitudes as college students. Yes, we're officially adults either way, but so are all the other students; but they are also still kids in a way. We're still going to school, still completing the journey to find out exactly who we really are in all the details. So much of the college experience beyond the academics is geared to a youthful attitude. If we make that commitment to each other now, step fully into adulthood before we ever step on campus, it takes away from that. It makes the college experience much more serious for us.
        "When I did the show with you, it turned out to be a revelation to me about feeling like a kid. I'm sure it's a different kind of atmosphere when it's a professional show, where everyone is trying to make a living with a play. Everyone associated with our play was there because it was something they WANTED to do, because it was FUN! The reward was the experience and doing a good job, not a paycheck. All of that is the epitome of a youthful attitude. It was exhilarating to be a part of that!
        "So it all comes back to taking that irretrievable step. I realize now that young adult is a phase all its own between kid and full-fledged adult. It combines some of both. That's how college should be experienced: taking the training for your chosen field seriously, but still enjoying the school atmosphere with a youthful attitude. Getting engaged, making the most serious commitment two people can make to each other short of marriage itself, would inevitably compromise that youthfulness. It would change our college experience, whether you can see that right now or not."
        Now it was my turn to lean in a little closer.
        "JJ," I continued. "I've loved this whole year we've spent together as a couple, being young and in love. I loved being in the play with you. I loved everything we did together. I loved the way every moment of it FELT! And these past eight weeks, fully enjoying summer and each other, haven't they been awesome? Young and in love is so great! I'm just not ready to give that up yet!
        "A year ago our parents told us to not rush ahead too fast with our relationship, to enjoy being young while we still can. They were right. We're a year older, we're heading for college soon, but we're still young, and we can keep fully enjoying it for a while longer. I want to do that. I don't want us to look back in a few years and see that we finished growing up too soon, and start regretting what we did.
        "We can always decide, at any point, that we're ready to be engaged and go ahead with it; but once that ring is on your finger, the door between childhood and adulthood closes and locks, and we can never go back. Are YOU really sure you're ready for that? The beauty of waiting is that you don't have to answer that question now. You don't even have to think about it."
        I leaned back again, indicating that I was finished, and waited for Jennalee to respond.
        "I understand what you mean, Mikey," she said softly after a few seconds. "But yes, I AM ready. I want to be engaged to you more than anything else in the world, and I'm ready to pay any price in lost youthfulness or future regrets that it might cost me. I've thought about it a lot too. I'm not sure you're right about engagement necessarily forcing us to be COMPLETELY grown up, but no matter what it means, I'm ready for it."
        She stopped, closed her eyes for a second and gave a little sigh, then continued.
        "But it's not fair for me to try to impose that on you when YOU'RE not ready. I want it to be a completely joyful experience for both of us when it happens. For your sake, and OUR sake, I'm willing to wait until it can be that way. We'll do it your way, and I won't ever complain or bug you about it. I'll try my best to keep feeling young, so we can both keep fully enjoying our lives together."
        She paused, then took a deep breath and let it out. At the same time, I was managing to keep my smile small, even though I was rejoicing on the inside: I was succeeding in my mission.
        "Um..." she continued tentatively. "Can I ask...do you have any idea how long you think you might want to wait?"
        "Well," I replied. "Logically we would get married after you graduate. So maybe get engaged a year before that?"
        "THREE YEARS?!" Jennalee exclaimed in dismay.
        "Maybe two, maybe two," I added quickly. "I don't want to set deadlines, though. Let's just take things as they happen. We'll know when the time is right."
        She bowed her head, took another deep breath and let it out.
        "I love you forever, Michael Davis, and nothing will ever change that," she muttered, "but this is SO not what I was hoping for." She looked up at me and smiled just a little. "It's so ironic: I was always the impulsive, immature one, and you were like a kid-going-on-35; but now we seem to have reversed our roles. I'm ready to be an adult, and YOU want to stay a kid."
        "We have the rest of our lives to be grown-ups," I replied, taking her hand. "Staying kids a little longer won't be so bad. I'm pretty sure that before long, you'll find you actually like it." I stood, and pulled her to her feet. "Two or three years from now, when we ARE finally engaged, you'll look back and realize that I was right." Still holding her hand, I gave her a brief but affectionate kiss. "Thank you SO much for being so understanding. I'm not the least bit surprised about it, because that's you, but thanks. It means a lot to me. It means EVERYTHING to me."
        "It's OK," she replied, still smiling a little. It was clear that she still very much wanted to be proposed to today, but that her love for me was stronger than even her desire to be engaged. I knew that when she had said she was willing to wait for my sake, she had really meant it. I had known beforehand, beyond all doubt, that she would feel that way.
        "So then, you think you can force down a little food?" I continued. "I made a reservation for us at a nice restaurant in the Big Town. We've got an anniversary to celebrate, after all! Engaged or not, that's a pretty special occasion." I was still forcing my smile to stay in control, even though I was celebrating in my head: I had pulled it off! I had convinced Jennalee that waiting to be engaged, waiting two or even three years, was the best thing for us, and she had accepted it gracefully. Not happily, of course, but I hadn't expected that. I hadn't even wanted it.
        "Sure," she replied, smiling a little more. "I'm still very glad and thankful that we're a couple. I wouldn't ever trade you for anything." It was clear that she was reconciled to what we had decided, and was ready to get back to being happy together. That was exactly where I wanted her to be at that moment.
        We continued to hold hands as we walked across the living room toward the front door. Suddenly I stopped, released her hand and turned to face her.
        "Oh," I said, "you know, there was one more thing I meant to bring up, because it's another good reason for us to wait."
        "C'mon, Mikey!" Jennalee replied in obvious annoyance, not even meeting my eyes. "You got your way. You don't need to pile on like this."
        "Hey, you know I wouldn't do that!" I replied. "I'm only bringing it up because it's something for you to look forward to. It's about your engagement ring."
        She looked at me, obviously interested in spite of herself.
        "See, the thing is, I've made some decent money the last few years doing tutoring, but I'm still a kid just out of high school. If we wait two or three years, I'll be able to save enough to get you a better ring than I could possibly afford now."
        Fighting as hard as I could to keep my face, voice and movements completely under control for just a few more seconds, I very casually reached into the left front pocket of my sport coat, pulled out a small box, flipped open its hinged lid, and held it out so Jennalee could see the contents: a ring with a single diamond in a simple but beautiful setting.
        "Maybe something like this one," I said.
        I had managed to say the words in a completely calm, totally matter-of-fact tone, exactly the way I had wanted to, exactly as I had practiced. As if the ring had no real significance at all, as if pulling it out at that moment had been the most natural thing in the world.
        Jennalee initially reacted to the sight of the ring only with slightly amused curiosity, which was exactly what I'd intended, exactly what I'd been working so hard toward. Her reaction at that moment was the final confirmation that she was now completely off guard, absolutely convinced that no proposal would be coming for a long time. Through a year of planning and months of execution I had successfully maneuvered her into the perfect psychological position for the surprise of a lifetime.
        "Hey, that's just like the one I tried on at the jewelry store!" she said with a slight smile of almost reluctant interest. "That's EXACTLY the kind of ring I...wa..." Her voice trailed off as the analytical part of her mind that I had helped her develop suddenly kicked into gear. Her face froze for a couple of seconds in that little grin, her mouth hanging open. Then her expression quickly morphed into one of confusion as she continued to stare at the ring. I was pretty sure I could read in her marvelously expressive face the exact words she was thinking: Wait a minute - WHY DOES HE HAVE THAT??
        Suddenly she tilted her head up for a second to look at my face, then back down to look at the ring, then back up to look at me again. By this time my control had broken completely, and my smile was so wide I was almost chuckling.
        Jennalee exhaled loudly as her face changed again, this time to an expression of intensely astonished happiness. She took a deep breath, then let out a long, loud scream of such pure, unadulterated joy that it instantly brought tears to my eyes.
        The scream was immediately followed by a series of loud breaths, about a second apart, as if she were trying to laugh but was too overwhelmed with shock to do it correctly.
        I was suddenly afraid that she might be starting to hyperventilate; so, still holding the open ring box in my left hand, I quickly took her left hand in my right, went down on one knee, and launched into the speech I had been writing and rehearsing for weeks. As soon I started to speak, Jennalee's breathing began to return to normal, obviously because she was focusing on my words.
        "JJ," I began, struggling to control my own emotion so I could speak clearly, "one year ago today I learned that one of the most wonderful things that can ever happen to a person is when they want something very badly, become convinced that it isn't going to happen - and then suddenly and seemingly miraculously, it happens after all. You gave me a moment like that when you told me you loved me and became my girlfriend, just when I had pretty much abandoned all hope. Since we both knew from that very first day as a couple that we were going to get married someday, and that as a result a conventional proposal would be somewhat anticlimactic, I decided before that day was over that the best way to make my eventual proposal to you really special was to use the occasion to give you the kind of magical moment you had given me."
        Tears were streaming down Jennalee's cheeks as I spoke, and she was visibly trembling with excitement and happiness.
        "Based on your reaction to all this," I continued, my smile widening a bit, "I think it's safe for me to conclude that I've accomplished what I set out to do. If it isn't obvious already, the truth is that I don't really feel the way I told you I did before at all. I actually agree with you completely: I'm as ready to be an adult and as anxious to make this commitment as you are; and right now I can't wait one more minute to see this ring on your finger!"
        My emotional control was beginning to slip, but somehow I managed to maintain a steady voice just long enough to say the words I'd been dreaming of saying for years:
        "Jennalee Joy Morgan, will you marry me?"
        "YES!" she sobbed loudly, "YES, YES, YES!"
        With tears now running down my own face, I released Jennalee's hand just long enough to pull the ring from the ring box and slip the box back into my pocket. Then I took her hand again, and gently slid the ring onto her finger.
        She stood there for a few seconds just looking at the ring on her hand and crying in pure joy, obviously savoring a sight that she had been longing for, a sight that only two minutes earlier she had fully believed she wouldn't get to see for a long time.
        Then she looked back at me, grabbed my arms and tried to pull me to my feet. She was so emotionally overwhelmed she couldn't exert nearly enough force to do this, but she didn't need to. I quickly rose under my own power, and Jennalee moved her body gently up against mine and slowly put her arms around my neck. I'm sure she wanted to throw herself onto me, but again, in her state of shocked happiness she just didn't have the strength. I wrapped my own arms around her and held her tightly.
        "Thank you, Mikey!" she whimpered, "Thank you, thank you, tha-" Then her emotion took over completely, and a moment later we were both sobbing together. As we cried and hugged, Jennalee began finding her strength again, and her embrace got tighter and tighter.
        My crying stopped before Jennalee's, but even after she was in control again too, she kept holding me tightly for another minute or two, undoubtedly just continuing to enjoy the knowledge that her dream had really come true, that I now officially belonged to her, and she to me.
        Finally she released her hug, so I did too. She eased back just far enough so she could look into my face and place her hands on the outsides of my shoulders. She was still in a state of astonished joy, but had regained enough control to be able to talk coherently.
        "Part of me wants to be mad at you for fooling me like that," she said emotionally. "But I can't! I'm too happy! I'm engaged! I'M ENGAGED! WE'RE ENGAGED!!" Suddenly she threw her arms around my neck again and actually started jumping up and down with excitement and happiness. I hugged her back and we jumped up and down together. "WE'RE ENGAAAAAAAAAGED!!!" she shrieked as we bounced. Then she stopped jumping and just held me tightly again for a minute or so, obviously giving herself a chance to regain control of her excitement. Finally she released me and backed up a step so we could talk face to face again. When she spoke, there was still considerable emotion in her words.
        "I'm just...so happy!" she proclaimed, chuckling slightly. "I didn't know it was POSSIBLE for a person to be this happy!"
        "I knew you'd feel that way, that was the whole purpose of the exercise," I responded with a big smile. "It took a lot of planning and effort, but it was all so worth it to see you so happy right now."
        "You didn't really mean any of that, huh?" she asked rhetorically. "You had me completely fooled. I was totally sure I was going to be waiting a long time to be wearing this." She held out her left hand so we could both look at the ring again.
        "Well, the part about how much I enjoyed the last year together was true, obviously," I replied, "but the rest was just to set up the surprise. I needed to present a case that I knew wouldn't change your mind, but that sounded credible enough that you could believe I believed it myself; and then I had to act it well enough to convince you. That was the part I was very unsure about, even after graduation night and the next day."
        Her eyes went a little wider.
        "That was all acting too?" she asked in amazement. She shook her head. "Yeah, I guess it would have had to be!"
        "All part of the plan," I assured her, "and somehow I managed to pull it all off."
        Her mind was working much better now, and she suddenly put her hand to her mouth and gasped loudly.
        "And that wasn't an accident when we just HAPPENED to be passing by that jewelry counter, was it?" She laughed and shook her head again. "Oh my goodness, we were actually shopping for my engagement ring that day, and I didn't even know it!"
        "I had to find out exactly what kind you wanted, and your ring size," I replied, "and I had to do it in a way that would still allow me to seem reluctant to propose later. Thanks for being so cooperative, by the way. I had a back-up plan in case you didn't take the bait, though I was kind of iffy about it, but I thought there was a high likelihood you would jump at the chance to give me another reminder that you were expecting a proposal soon. Obviously I was right. You did everything I was hoping you'd do."
        "And those times when I mentioned getting engaged and you didn't react with any enthusiasm, and yesterday at the beach when you said you wished we could go on forever like that, all those little things?"
        "Uh-huh. And suggesting the day after graduation that I would very possibly come around by our anniversary, so you'd be able to fully enjoy this long fun period, and only in the last couple of days bringing the doubts back in so you'd start remembering all the other stuff again. That was part of the plan too. You're a very perceptive person, plus you know me extremely well and can read me very accurately. I knew that if I suddenly started acting reluctant to get engaged on our graduation day, or even just a short time before that, you would almost certainly see through it and know that something was up. So I carefully planted those little seeds in your mind whenever I could, confident that when the finale was drawing near you would remember them, and those memories would make my story considerably more believable. Apparently that part of my strategy worked too."
        "It was brilliant! All of it!" Jennalee declared. "And the best surprise EVER! I mean, I would have been very happy about you proposing to me even if I'd seen it coming a mile away, but to have it come completely out of nowhere like that just when I was sure it wouldn't happen for a long time...well, I can't even describe how incredible I feel right now! I guess this must be something like how you felt a year ago, and finally understanding just how good I made you feel then makes me feel even better now!" She paused for a moment. "Wow, I'm actually trembling again, I'm so happy! In fact, I want to bounce around again!"
        "Hey, why not?" I asked. I took her by her forearms and starting jumping up and down, and she immediately grabbed my forearms too and began jumping with me. "WE'RE ENGAAAAAGED!" I cried out, and then Jennalee joined in with me as I yelled it again while we continued to bounce around like little kids.
        Finally we fell into each other's arms laughing, and held each other tightly for a minute or two. Then we separated so we could see each other's faces again. I could see at that point that while she was still excited and very happy, the initial shock from the surprise was finally wearing off, leaving her a little calmer and more in control of herself than she'd been previously.
        "You know what," I observed, "that wasn't very grown up of us, was it?"
        "Well, we can't expect to be totally grown up right away, even though we ARE engaged," Jennalee replied.
        "Certainly not," I agreed. "You were right about that, of course: the truth is that childhood and adulthood really aren't as black and white as I argued before when I was making my fake case not to get engaged. We can always keep a little of the innocent, fun-loving kid alive inside of us. In fact, that's actually a good thing, as long as we don't compromise any of our adult responsibilities."
        "I'm glad you think that!" Jennalee declared. "I actually had no intention of ever completely abandoning that part of me; but at this point, I do feel MOSTLY like a grown-up. I'm ready for being an adult now."
        "Me, too," I agreed. "Especially after having taken these past eight weeks to largely concentrate on just having fun. That was also an important part of my plan in and of itself, by the way. One of the three reasons I chose today to propose."
        "What were they?" Jennalee asked.
        "OK, first of all, you were expecting me to propose on graduation night, so there was no way I could surprise you then; so I had to set it up for a later time. Then there was the fact that this date was already our anniversary of becoming a couple, so I thought it would be appropriate to have it become a double anniversary for us. Plus, the eight weeks between the two was a nice period for us to have one more long chance to have fun like kids before we got engaged and entered college and had to really start thinking like adults most of the time. Sort of a last farewell to our childhoods, you could say. I'm glad it worked out that we could have that."
        "Aw, you're right, Mikey," Jennalee replied. "It was perfect, I'm glad we had that too. Your whole plan was perfect. It gave me a moment I'll remember forever. I'll never forget how I felt when I suddenly realized what you having that ring really meant."
        "I'll never forget how you looked at that moment!" I chuckled. "And that scream of joy! My all time favorite sound forever. I'm just so glad I was somehow able to be a good enough actor to fool you. I wasn't at all sure I could, given what an acting genius you are. If you hadn't taught me as much as you could about acting to help me play the judge better, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
        "You were really good, Mikey," Jennalee acknowledged with a big smile. "You obviously learned a lot from me, and I'm very proud of you for that. Thinking about it now, though, I'm pretty sure I would have figured out something was wrong if I'd been at all suspicious. For example, if I'd been in your place, I would have had a more apologetic attitude from the beginning of our talk today. I think I would have noticed that, and probably other things, if it wasn't for the simple fact that you're the most honest person I've ever known. It's just never occurred to me, for as long as I've known you, that you might ever do something to deceive me."
        Suddenly her smile faded, and then her face assumed an expression of shock.
        "But now you HAVE!" she continued in amazement. "You LIED to me! Oh, Mikey, this changes EVERYTHING!" She began to breathe a little faster as she looked at me, and fear and pain joined the shock in her beautiful face. "I mean...a relationship is based on trust, and now...how can I ever trust you again?"
        Her emotions were so real and compelling that I reacted instinctively with my own shock, and then panic. No, NO, THIS CAN'T BE HAPPENING! I thought rapidly. I wanted to scream. I was no more than a second away from falling to my knees and begging for her forgiveness when my intellect suddenly intruded on my internal emotional reaction, and I quickly realized that within the contexts of our relationship and the conversation we'd been having, what Jennalee had just said made no sense whatsoever.
        With a force of will I pulled back my emotions, put as good a smile on my face as I could muster, and said, "You don't really think that!"
        Her only immediate reaction was an increase in the pain and fear in her face, accompanied by a slight lean backwards to emphasize her fear.
        Then a moment later, her face dissolved into a huge smile, and she giggled loudly.
        "Of course not, silly!" she chuckled. "But I had you for a second there, I could tell! You gotta admit, THAT was good acting!"
        I let out a deep breath that I hadn't even noticed I'd taken. "It was indeed!" I agreed, my smile now more genuine. "You put my performance today to shame with that one. I guess I had it coming, though; and just for the record, even though I know you agree it was for a good cause this time, I promise I'll never lie to you again. So are we even now?"
        She responded by wrapping her arms around my neck and kissing me, a kiss that continued for some time. When it finally ended, she tucked her head into my shoulder and kept hugging me.
        "I love you, Michael Davis," she said emotionally. "I love you so much, even more than I did just an hour ago. You know, I MUST be an adult now, because there's no way a kid could ever love someone as totally and deeply as I love you at this moment."
        "I feel the same way," I replied with just as much emotion. "God gave me a really good mind, and hopefully I'll use it to accomplish some very good things in my life; but you ARE my life. I'd be nothing at all if God hadn't brought us together, my angel. My precious one." I released my hug, put my hands on her shoulders and looked into her radiant, smiling face. "My FIANCÉE!" I concluded triumphantly.
        "MY fiancé!" she replied, taking my face in her hands. "Oh, that feels so wonderful to say, doesn't it?" Suddenly she grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the door. "We've got to tell people!" she exclaimed. "Starting with my mom!"

Chapter 16

        Jennalee and I quickly crossed the street and entered her house. She told her mom the good news, showed her the ring, and then we each hugged her.
        "A year ago, I told you not to be in a hurry to get engaged," Mrs. Morgan said to Jennalee. "I think you'll agree now that you weren't ready yet. Since then you've grown a lot as a person, and I'm extremely proud of you for that, as I've told you before. You and Michael have also proven beyond any doubt that your love for each other is real and permanent. I'm very glad you two waited, because now you clearly ARE ready. I'm so happy for both of you! Congratulations!"
        "Thank you, Mrs. Morgan," I replied. "That means a lot to me."
        She smiled at me for a moment.
        "You know, there was another house I was looking at when we were going to move eight years ago. I seriously considered it before finally deciding to move here. That turned out to be one of the best decisions I've ever made - not because of the house, but because you were living across the street. You're the best thing that's ever happened to Jennalee, Michael. You've been making her and her life better ever since the day you two met, and I can't ever thank you enough for all you've done and continue to do for her."
        "Wow," I said softly, genuinely moved. "That's so nice of you to say. It's all been my pleasure, believe me, and if anything she's done more for me than I have for her, so I really can't take too much credit."
        Mrs. Morgan looked at me for a second. "I think you're a bit too humble sometimes, Michael," she said, "but all things considered I guess that's not a bad flaw to have. Anyway, I would say, 'Welcome to the family,' but you and your parents have been like family to us for a long time already, so that's not really necessary."
        "I agree," I replied. "Hey, would it be all right if I call you 'Mom' from now on?"
        "Of course it is!" Mrs. Morgan answered happily. "I'd be honored."
        "Thanks again, Mom," I said as I put my arms around her and gave her another big hug. "Especially for moving here!"
        After Jennalee had also hugged her mother again, we finally left for the restaurant, to celebrate both our anniversary and our engagement. Before we left town we made a brief side trip to Angelica's house, after Jennalee had called her to make sure she was home. As it turned out, Dewayne was there too, which saved her another call later.
        When we arrived, Jennalee and Angelica immediately shared a big, excited hug, while Dewayne and I first shook hands as he congratulated me, and then with shrugs and smiles engaged in a hug of our own. Jennalee and I switched hugging partners, and then finally she showed Angelica and Dewayne her ring. A group conversation followed, with Jennalee and Angelica soon doing most of the talking, just because they were the most excited.
        As always, I was delighted to see how close Jennalee and Angelica had become. Even though they would be attending different colleges, I had no doubt that they would maintain their friendship for many years to come, if not for the rest of their lives.
        Time soon forced us to cut the conversation short so Jennalee and I wouldn't be late for our dinner reservations. After goodbyes and more hugs all around, we at last departed for the Big Town. During the drive Jennalee was busy on her phone, calling as many relatives and friends as time permitted to tell them about our engagement. She was still almost bubbling with happiness and excitement, and I was delighted to continue to see it.
        Finally we arrived at the restaurant, and were escorted to our booth. (I had specifically requested a booth rather than a table, so Jennalee and I could sit close together on the same side, instead of in separate chairs; and I had further specified that I wanted one of the booths in a particular section of the dining area.) As we were looking over our menus, our server arrived.
        "Hi, I'm Jodie!" she said cheerfully. "I'll be your-" She stopped suddenly as Jennalee lowered her menu. "Hey!" she exclaimed excitedly, "You're Jennalee Morgan! I saw you in 'Hello, Dolly!' I'm gonna be a senior at Lincoln High here this year, and I'm an actress too! In fact I found you on Twitter and Facebook after I saw you, and I posted on your Facebook a few times. Jodie Hemphill, remember?"
        "Oh, of course I remember!" Jennalee replied, looking, as she always did at these moments, a little embarrassed but very delighted. "Your posts were VERY nice! I got a bunch of wonderful posts and Tweets during and after the run, but yours were some of the very nicest. You really are a good fan, and I appreciate it, just like I said when I replied to you."
        "Oh, thank you!" Jodie exclaimed, blushing a little. "You know, playing Dolly is one of my dreams, I've been trying to talk our drama teacher into doing it at our school next spring. So when I saw in our paper that your school was doing it, I kinda wanted to see it, but I hadn't made plans yet before I saw the review when you opened. Then I knew I really HAD to see it. So I went that night, and you were SO GOOD! I liked it so much I got a bunch of us from Drama Club to come with me to see it again the next week. I even got one of the DVDs when they came out. If I ever do get to be Dolly myself, I'm gonna try to play her just like you did!"
        "Thank you very much!" Jennalee responded. "But you shouldn't try to just copy what I did. You need to bring some of your own personality to a role like that, and emphasize your own particular abilities. If you just copy someone else, whoever it is, you won't seem natural."
        "Wow, that's good advice, thank you so much! Wait'll I tell the other kids in Drama Club this fall that I got acting advice from Jennalee Morgan! Oh, I'm sorry, I should do my job! What can I get you tonight?"
        We placed our orders, then Jodie took our menus and backed away, looking at Jennalee for an extra second before turning to go relay our orders to the kitchen.
        Jennalee immediately turned to me.
        "Michael Davis," she stated accusingly, "there is NO WAY we just happened to end up at this restaurant with that waitress!"
        I laughed. "Hey, we've run into fans of yours many times. It could have happened randomly!" Then I chuckled contritely. "But you're right, of course. After she made those very nice posts I checked out her Facebook, where I learned she worked at this restaurant. It really is a very good restaurant, by the way, so it was worth the drive here just for the food; but I thought meeting one of your biggest fans would be another nice touch to add to this very special day. It WAS luck that she happened to be working tonight, though, and that she's a server at a good restaurant like this at all, for that matter. Or maybe not. Maybe God planned it that way."
        "You are truly amazing, Michael," Jennalee chuckled, shaking her head. "I'm so blessed. There can't be a more wonderful, thoughtful, devoted boyfriend - excuse me, FIANCÉ! - in the whole world than you are to me. Thank you so much for everything!" She looked upward. "And thank you too, Lord!"
        I looked upward myself and said, "That goes for me too!" Then I looked back at Jennalee. "And as I've said before, if I AM everything you say, it's only because I have the love of the most wonderful lady in the world to inspire me. Thank YOU for everything!"
        We continued to smile lovingly at each other for a few more seconds. Then I put my arm around her and we snuggled up together, with Jennalee setting her left hand on the edge of the table so she could look at her engagement ring while we waited for our orders.
        The food was delicious, definitely worth the drive. Throughout the meal Jennalee was positively glowing with happiness. She repeatedly gave me her most loving smile as we talked and ate, and I don't think more than two minutes ever went by where she didn't pause for a few seconds to look down at her left hand: apparently she was so delighted to be engaged to me that she had practically fallen in love with the ring too. Knowing I'd made Jennalee so happy made ME happier than anything else ever could.
        When Jodie returned with our check after dessert, she also had a blank notebook with her.
        "Um..." she said to Jennalee very shyly, holding out the notebook and a pen, "Could I please have your autograph? I think the reviewer in the paper was right about you becoming a star someday. I hope you'll remember that I was one of your first fans."
        "Of course I'll sign that for you!" Jennalee replied. "I'm flattered that you would want me to! I won't forget you, either."
        She took the notebook and pen, and I watched as she wrote,

'To Jodie,
If you really believe in yourself and work hard,
anything is possible.
Follow your dreams to the end,
just like I'm going to!
Jennalee Morgan
PS I really hope you get to be Dolly!'

        "Thank you so much!" Jodie said happily after she got the notebook back and read what Jennalee had written. "I don't know why you came here tonight, but I'll always be glad you did!"
        "Actually," Jennalee responded, holding out her left hand, "Michael and I are celebrating our engagement."
        "Really?" Jodie exclaimed in amazement. "Wow, congratulations! And that ring is really nice!" She looked at me. "You're a lucky guy, you know!"
        "I do feel VERY lucky!" I stated. "In another way, though, I consider myself blessed, not lucky. I believe God meant for Jennalee and me to be together, and He should get the credit for it, not pure chance."
        "Aw, that's nice," Jodie replied. "Well, anyway, you take good care of her, now!" She looked back at my fiancée. "And thanks again, Jennalee! You totally made my night. Heck, you made my whole SUMMER!"
        As we walked back to the car a few minutes later, Jennalee said, "It really was cool to meet Jodie, even though having someone gush over me like that is a little embarrassing. It was worth it, though. Thanks for going to the trouble to set that up."
        "You'd better start getting used to that kind of reaction," I replied. "I've been completely right about you and acting so far, and I don't see any way that someone who's as talented and charismatic and all-around awesome as you are isn't going to end up famous."
        "Wait a minute," Jennalee responded, "you're supposed to make sure I DON'T get a big head about this stuff, not inflate my ego more!"
        "That's true," I acknowledged. "However, I also promised you today that I'd never lie to you again; and the truth is, you ARE awesome, in just about every way possible!"
        "All right," Jennalee shrugged, "but if I turn into a prima donna someday, it's on you!"
        "Well, your sweetness and humility are part of your awesomeness," I replied. "So I'll just make sure you keep on being you, because as long as you're doing that, you'll always be nice."
        "You're probably right," Jennalee said with a big smile as we reached my mom's car, "That should work!" She looked at the car, then said, "Hey, that reminds me, we haven't told your parents yet! Let's get going!"
        I drove Jennalee to my house. My parents were back by then, so we went in and told them the news, and Jennalee showed them her ring. There were hugs all around, and blessings from my parents, who agreed with Mrs. Morgan's earlier statement that we were ready now for being engaged. When Jennalee and I thanked them, she called them 'Mom' and 'Dad,' which clearly delighted them.
        "Forgive me for saying this," my father added, "but I hope you'll give engagement some time now too, and not be in a rush to get married, since you're just starting college."
        "We'll take that under advisement," I assured him. After another round of hugs Jennalee and I left the house, and I walked her across the street to her door.
        As we arrived on her front porch we suddenly looked at each other, and in perfect unison we loudly said, "I love you!"
        We both burst into laughter, and then leaned together and put our arms gently around each other as we laughed.
        When the laughter had begun to subside, we separated so we could look at each other.
        "Wow," Jennalee said, still chuckling a little, "it took us a whole year to say it together like that again. Of course we hardly ever do that game anymore."
        "You know what?" I replied. "As much fun as it's been sometimes, I'm thinking maybe we should retire the 'I Love You Game' now, as another symbol of our crossing over into the adult world. It would be rather fitting that the last time we ever played it, we got it exactly right."
        Jennalee nodded. "I think that's a good idea too. We may have technically become adults when we each turned eighteen, but as you've pointed out, getting engaged is a full and permanent step into real adulthood. Some things should change because of that, so I'm ready to let go of the 'I Love You Game.' On the other hand, as we both agreed, we don't have to give up ALL the kid in us. So partly in the interests of that, I'm gonna keep calling you 'Mikey' in private!"
        "Well, I should hope so!" I chuckled. "I would never want you to stop calling me that, no matter how grown up we feel or how old we get. I hope you're prepared to be called 'JJ' forever too!"
        "Absolutely!" she agreed. "Some things need to change sometimes, but other things should never change, including our nicknames." Then she brought up her left hand so we could both see it. "Or this," she continued, suddenly speaking in a more thoughtful and emotional tone. "This ring being on my finger will never change either." She looked at me and smiled. "Thanks again so much for putting it there, and for the great surprise that came with it. I'm still so excited and happy about being engaged to you that I feel like I could bounce around again like we did right after you proposed! I'll probably feel that way every time I look at my ring for a long time to come. Maybe even always. It was such a great idea to propose like that, so much better than if you had just done it normally. I could never thank you enough, Mikey!"
        "You're very welcome!" I replied. "By the way, give yourself some credit too. It was only because I was completely sure that your love for me was much stronger than even your desire to be engaged that I was willing to pretend that I didn't want to propose to you yet. Even for the sake of a great surprise I would never have done that if I'd thought there was the slightest possibility of it damaging our relationship. So your deep and unassailable love for me made what happened today possible as much as anything I did. Thanks again so much for loving me like that!"
        "You're welcome too!" she beamed. "Oh, and what you just said reminds me: I was thinking earlier that one of the best things about all of this was finding out that we hadn't really had our first major disagreement after all. I feel so good about that, and it makes me want us to never, EVER have any kind of real argument again. I suppose that's not realistic though, huh?"
        "Hey, with God all things are possible," I replied. "I mean, we'll probably disagree on something important once in a while, especially after we're married; but if we stay focused on God all our lives and constantly seek His guidance and blessing, we might just be able to keep those situations from turning into genuine arguments."
        "And if we keep totally believing in each other, and in US, of course," Jennalee added. Then she smiled widely. "But there's no question about that, is there?"
        "None at all!" I confirmed, smiling back. "We'll ALWAYS have that."
        "Or, as a great guy I know once put it," she continued, as her smile grew even wider and more loving, "'Forever and ever!'"
        "Forever and ever!" I nodded in agreement, as my own smile widened more too. "You know what else?" I added. "After an entire year of being a couple, the thrill of knowing that you love me STILL hasn't even begun to wear off. I'm starting to think that that's another thing that will last forever."
        "I still feel that way too," she agreed, "and I can't see any reason why that feeling should ever stop for either of us, as long as we don't want it to."
        "Then we'll just have to keep not wanting it to!" I declared.
        "Deal!" she confirmed.
        We stood there for a few seconds, continuing to smile at each other in silence, both of us simply enjoying the wonderfulness of the moment, of the day, and of just being together.
        Then Jennalee's face turned serious.
        "Hey," she said, "I just realized that we haven't talked yet about WHEN we're going to get married." She smiled again. "You've been the man with the plan in all of this, Mikey. Do you have any ideas about our wedding?"
        "I wasn't going to bring that up tonight," I answered. "I figured this day would be full enough already without discussing that topic too. Since you asked, though, I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that I HAVE given the matter some thought."
        "Ooh, cool!" she replied happily. Then her serious expression returned. "You said today that logically we would wait until I graduate from college. Please tell me that wasn't something you actually DID mean!"
        "No, of course not!" I said emphatically. "That was just to provide lots of time for the pretended delay of our engagement."
        "So when DO you think we should get married?"
        "Well, my thought is that this date has been special to us for the past two years. So I say, why not make it special three years in a row?"
        Jennalee's face lit up, and she jumped into my arms.
        "That's PERFECT, Mikey!" she exclaimed excitedly as we hugged. "Not too soon, so there's plenty of time for planning, but not too far away! And in the summer between school years! I love it!"
        "I had a feeling you would!" I replied as we ended the embrace. "It even falls on a Saturday next year, so it's the ideal day of the week for a wedding."
        "It's a perfect idea, and the perfect end to a perfect day!" Jennalee said happily. "Thank you again. I love you so much, Michael Davis, my wonderful fiancé!"
        "I love you too," I said. I took her gently back into my arms, and we shared a long, passionate goodnight kiss. Then we separated, and Jennalee opened the door and stepped into her house.
        "See you tomorrow!" she said as she began closing the door, her happiest, most radiant smile lighting up her beautiful face.
        "I can't wait!" I replied with a big smile of my own.
        After the door closed I paused for a couple of seconds, listening carefully.
        Suddenly I heard a loud squeal of pure joy, and the sound of rapid impacts on the floor of the front hallway: as I'd guessed she might, Jennalee had taken another look at her ring and spontaneously broken into a happy dance.
        I chuckled with delight, then did a quick little happy dance of my own on my way off of the porch as I began my short walk home.
        It had been a truly amazing day, and an awesome official start to the rest of our lives together.

Epilogue - The Present and the Future

        I walked across the street whistling, feeling like I wasn't even touching the ground. All the wonderful images of that day kept passing through my head, pictures of Jennalee being amazed and excited and happy. I was buoyant, elated. I had pulled off everything exactly as I had planned, and given Jennalee a moment and a day she would never forget. I thanked God over and over that everything had worked out so well.
        I went to my room and got ready for bed. It wasn't my normal bedtime yet, but I didn't feel like doing anything else that day. So I just relaxed on my bed, the thoughts of my fiancée's happiness still flowing through my head.
        Then another thought occurred to me. It was from the previous winter, when Jennalee had pointed out that sometimes I got my mind locked onto something and blocked everything else out. I wondered why that thought had come to me at that moment.
        Then I realized something.
        I saw that for several months, my mind had been locked into planning and carrying out my mission to give Jennalee the most wonderful surprise of her life, to make my proposal a moment she would remember joyfully forever. I had been focused on making Jennalee happy, had pictured her reaction to the carrying out of my plan over and over as I labored on the details of it.
        Then today, after everything had worked out - if anything, even better than I had hoped for - I had been drinking in Jennalee's happiness and enjoying it tremendously.
        The problem with all of that was that in the whole proposal scenario - planning, carrying out and results - I had been thinking almost exclusively of Jennalee and her happiness.
        And now, as I reclined on my bed contemplating all of it, I saw that I hadn't yet given myself a chance to be happy purely over what I had gotten out of all of this myself.
        That was when it fully hit me.
        "I'm engaged," I whispered. Then I said it louder: "I'm engaged!" Then louder still: "I'm engaged to Jennalee! I'm engaged! We're engaged!"
        I suddenly leaped off the bed and began jumping up and down, just as Jennalee and I had done together after my proposal.
        After years of waiting and hoping, after two years where hope virtually vanished, after the rebirth of hope and another year of waiting and planning, my dream had come true at last: Jennalee Morgan had agreed to become my wife.
        I was finally engaged to my dream girl!
        I collapsed back on my bed, breathing hard more from excitement than exertion, completely engulfed in pure joy, tears in my eyes. Even though I'd known for a full year that Jennalee and I were going to be getting engaged, the knowledge that it had actually happened was now overwhelming me. For a long while I continued lying there, simply enjoying the incredible feeling I was experiencing. I was in no hurry at all for the moment to end. It just didn't seem possible for life to get any better.
        Then I sat up, because I'd suddenly realized that life still COULD get even better, that there was still one more dream left to be fulfilled.
        I didn't regret the outburst I'd just had at all; but I saw now that in the world where that last dream could come true, jumping around and screaming like a little kid had no place.
        I had become an adult, and I needed to start fully thinking and acting like one.
        Because I wanted to be ready for the moment when that final dream would come true: the moment when I would be watching Jennalee Morgan coming toward me down the aisle of our Church, wearing her wedding dress.

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