For the past three weeks I’d been planning Livvie’s party, and for the last one she’d been trying to weasel information about it out of me. I'd spent more time on her birthday preparations than I had on buying Christmas presents for my parents. They were both easy to buy for, but this had to be special. This was her first party ever, and I wanted it to be something she remembered forever.
I'd wrangled Jackie into helping me, because I'd wanted her opinion on things she thought Livvie might like. We'd come up with some great ideas, and I couldn't wait to see the expression on her face at the party tonight. I'd invited Ryder, Rachel, Livvie's friend from Joe's Diner, and of course, Jackie. I'd also invited my friend Marcus, whose grandfather was one of my residents. He was a few years older than me, but we'd somehow developed a friendship over the last nine months. After I'd told him my plans, he was totally on board.
"Are you sure you won't tell me what you have planned?" Livvie pleaded from the passenger seat as she batted her eyelashes and folded her hands as though in prayer.
This had been killing her. She'd begged, pleaded, and even tried to seduce the information out of me, but I'd held strong despite how difficult she'd made it.
"You're just going to have to be surprised," I sing-songed.
Livvie huffed and collapsed back in her seat, arms crossed over her chest, a cute pout on her face. "If I weren't so excited, I'd be really annoyed with you. I hope you know that."
I couldn't help but laugh at her antics. "You're adorable when you're pouty like that."
Finally, we headed down a narrow gravel driveway spotted with random potholes and grassy patches. I dodged and swerved the holes and slowed down at the dip.
"Where the heck are we?" Livvie asked, glancing around at the field we were now passing through. I took the curve and around the bend of trees stood an old farmhouse. Several cars were parked in the yard. I spotted Ryder's piece of junk, and Marcus' SUV. The girls said they'd find rides here, so I hoped they arrived already.
"This is my friend's grandparents house. He's letting us borrow it for the day."
Once parked, we held hands and made our way across the grass, up the wooden stairs of the deck that have seen better days, to the front door. Someone answered the door within a minute.
"Welcome. You must be Gareth, and this must be the birthday girl," a tiny, gray-haired woman greeted us with a smile. This must be Marcus' grandmother.
I nodded respectfully. "Yes, ma'am, this is Livvie."
She stepped back and gestured for us to enter. "Please, call me Lilian."
Heavy footfalls come down the hallway as we shrug out of our jackets. "Thank you so much for letting us have the party here. I really appreciate it."
"You're so welcome, dear. It's not every day an old gal like me gets to see someone celebrate their first birthday party." She turned to Livvie just as Marcus arrived. "Happy birthday, young lady. I hope it's everything you wished for."
"Thank you, ma'am." She ducked her head with a blush.
"Livvie, this is my friend Marcus."
He reached out to shake her hand. "Happy birthday."
I clapped my hands. "Okay, who's ready to celebrate?"
"I know I am," Lilian hooted. I couldn't describe this feeling as I watched all the expressions cross Livvie's face. Her eyes were lit with excitement, but there was also a nervous energy about her. My nervousness mirrored hers. Were my ideas stupid? That was what made me feel ill. That she'd think the party was childish and stupid. A heavy weight settled in my gut as we strode through the house toward the backyard where we'd set everything up yesterday. Marcus had come by this morning and made sure that nothing had fallen over and to be here when the trailer arrived.
First Lilian, then Marcus stepped through the back door, and I let Livvie go in front of me. I'd wanted to see her expression, but this was better.
"Surprise," voices shouted as soon as we got outside.
"Oh my god." I still understood her words despite being muffled behind her hands covering her mouth. Fingers crossed, I glanced at Livvie to see her expression. Tears pooled in eyes that crinkled along the edges. Her gaze darted around the whole backyard as everyone gathered around us to wish her a happy birthday. She dropped her hands and the biggest smile I'd ever seen spread across her face. She laughed and hugged everyone and then she turned toward me.
"I love you so much," she exclaimed before diving into my arms. Warmth settled deep inside my chest at her happiness. The scent of her coconut shampoo filled my nose as I hugged her close.
"I love you too," I whispered in her ear. "Now, let's go celebrate."
We all headed to the small party tent where a long table had been set up. Several pizza boxes were stacked in the middle. Off to the side was a giant, inflatable bounce house, and I'd ended up finding someone who had a gentle, retired horse, which was currently tied to a fence under the shade of a tree. I'd looked at pony rides, but they were too small for grown ups, even ones as slender as my Livvie.
"Pass the pepperoni, will ya?" Ryder asked around a mouthful of pizza. Rachel kept throwing sly glances in his direction, but he wasn't paying her any attention. In fact, he kept watching Jackie out of the corner of his eye. I was staying far away from that.
For about an hour, we all sat around the table, eating pizza and drinking pop with music playing in the background. Eventually Rachel gave up on Ryder and dragged Marcus from his seat to make him dance with her. Livvie threw her head back and laughed at the antics, and my heart swelled. I leaned over and nuzzled her neck. "I hope you're having a good time so far."
Her smile grew bigger. "This has been the best day ever. Thank you so much."
"Wow, and we've only had pizza so far. There's still more to come, including cake. C'mon, let's go check out Matilda. I bet she's excited to meet you."
I helped her out of her seat and we strode over to where the horse stood. Fearless as ever, Livvie walked right up to her and started petting her and whispering softly to her.
"Thank you, Mr. Jackson, for bringing Matilda over here."
"Of course. She's missed having someone to ride her now that my granddaughter is off to college."
I watched as he helped her mount the horse, and with control of the lead rope, they walked around the yard, with Livvie sitting tall and proud on top. Her facial muscles had to hurt from all the smiling she was doing. I left her to have fun while I went back and helped clean up the leftovers. It would be a while until we were all ready for cake and ice cream anyway.
"Thank you guys for being such good sports and helping me put together this party."
Ryder clapped me on the back. "You know I'd do anything for you. Besides, who doesn't like free pizza?"
I flipped him off, and he laughed. The five of us sat there watching Livvie ride Matilda, until eventually, she started squirming and readjusting her seat. She waved Mr. Jackson over and spoke shyly to him. He just smiled and helped her dismount. Her legs were a little wobbly as she walked back over to us after giving the horse another pat. She slowly lowered herself onto the seat, wincing as she did.
"Holy cow. Who knew my ass would hurt so much after such a short period of time on a horse? Still, totally worth it. That was so much fun. I've always wanted to ride. Mr. Jackson said he'd give me some horseback riding lessons if I wanted them. I think I'm going to take him up on it too. Matilda was such a sweetheart."
"I'm glad you enjoyed it."
Her eyes were lit up. "Boy did I ever."
The rest of the evening flew by. We all hung out and played cards. Livvie, Rachel, and Jackie all jumped around in the bounce house until they collapsed in utter exhaustion. Night came, and we all sat huddled around the bonfire Marcus has started earlier. I dropped a kiss on her lips. "I'll be right back."
I hurried inside and pulled the cake out of the fridge. Carefully, I stuck nineteen candles in it, and then grabbed the lighter. As soon as I hit the back deck, I lit them all and strode across the yard, the light from them flickering and guiding my path. Everyone started singing as soon as they saw me.
"Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, dear Livvie! Happy birthday to you!"
Tears shimmered in her eyes at my approach.
"Happy birthday, Livvie. I love you."
She mouthed 'I love you' to me and then leaned forward and blew out all of her candles. It took her two tries to get them all, but she finally did. Cheers erupted from the gang. We all rose and headed back to the party tent. Livvie stood next to me and leaned her head on my shoulder.
"Now it's been the best day ever," she whispered.
I wrapped my arm around her and pulled her close to my side. I vowed that every birthday from now and until forever, by the end of each night, she'd tell me that it was the best day ever.