But finally Ariel admitted she was seeing Ray—"which put me into overdrive," says Denise. The couple denied up and down that they were having sex, insisting they believed in abstinence, but Denise didn't believe them. Having lied herself at that age, she now got busy playing detective. She dragged Ariel to therapy. No progress. Meanwhile, Ariel would sneak over to Ray's house, where they'd mess around, and once they started going all the way, she let him sweet-talk her out of using birth control. She knew her mom had gotten pregnant with her at 19, and she'd swear to herself, and to Ray, that next time they'd use a condom...until the next time came and they didn't. Sometimes she felt a little scared; she was beginning to see in him a dark and aggressive bent. But she didn't tell her mom she was having sex—she couldn't, she says. "I was afraid she'd make me break up with him, and then I'd be afraid of his reaction."
As Denise watched Ariel's increasing involvement with Ray, she started bumping up against her own fears. Oh, she'd brought up the topic of sex, "but it was your basic 'I don't really want to talk about this' uncomfortable," she says. "It wasn't in-depth. And now I'm kicking myself for not being more straightforward. I was just so afraid—of, I don't know, teenage hormones, or that she'd end up pregnant, or worse, with some kind of disease—that it was holding me back."
Finding the text messages, however, finally jolted Denise out of her fears. Suddenly calm, she was able to take action. She gathered her family—her brother, sister-in-law, mother, and husband ("I call him Dad," says Ariel, who has seen her biological father only once). They gathered around and told Ariel they knew what she was up to; that she was too young for this kind of relationship; that they'd loved her first—for 15 years—and knew her best, way better than Ray. They also told her they were pulling her out of her school. She sat there stunned, taking it in. "I was really scared and angry at myself because I'd let it go so far," Ariel says. "But I was also kind of glad that they were intervening, so maybe I could finally get rid of Ray, because he was getting very possessive with me."
Since then Denise has been on guard. For a good year, she kept her daughter on a tight leash, always making sure someone—a grandma, aunt, or uncle—was with her, though lately she's trusted her enough to give her some slack. And Ariel, now 16, has focused on her classes, which she takes online at home. She has a new boyfriend, Ben, a shy, hardworking, loyal animal lover and they've been together for more than a year. Not only is she on the Pill; they also use condoms. "She's having sex, yes," Denise says, "but she's older now. And he's a good kid."
These days, after going through so much turmoil, she and Ariel are close again. "So now of course I probably talk to her too much," Denise says, laughing. "I'll go, 'Ariel, do you know what a BJ is?' Or we'll be watching a movie and I'll say, 'You know that's not really how it works, right? It's not all fireworks and people throwing back on the bed sweaty from a love session. I mean, it's not always that great.'"
"Mom," Ariel will say, "I got it."