Darcy stood shoulder to shoulder with her best friend Charlotte on the upper deck of a ferryboat crossing Lake Superior from Bayfield, Wisconsin to the tiny town of La Pointe. Cold wind whipped against their faces, catching them by surprise in mid-June. They huddled into their t-shirts as hilly Bayfield shrank behind them. Tiny buildings dotted the streets and lamps illuminated the twilight. Darcy had never seen anything more beautiful or terrifying.
“So this is what a nervous breakdown looks like?” Charlotte pursed her lips and shook her head.
Darcy plastered a smile on her face, smoothed her perfectly highlighted hair back behind her ears, and ignored Char. A number of retorts tickled the tip of Darcy’s tongue, but she’d learned how to keep her thoughts to herself over the last few years. That training, courtesy of her job, came in handy even when dealing with her best friend. Darcy turned to look out across the deep, dark water towards the woods along the shores of Madeline Island. She refused to let anything spoil the day—not her own doubts and worries or Charlotte’s opinion.
“Char,” Darcy began, turning back towards her. “Again. This is not a nervous breakdown.”
“Right, right. It’s a sabbatical,” she winked.
Darcy groaned. “No, it’s not. I am still working. This is potentially a promotion, if I prove myself.”
“Well, you’re going to have your work cut out for you from here,” Char shrugged.
Denying the truth seemed futile. She had been relocated to the middle of nowhere. Maybe her boss wanted to teach her a lesson? No, she refused to believe that or even let herself consider it a possibility. Darcy squared her shoulders and took in a deep breath. She would not give in to her fears. It was her time to prove herself and soar; that was how she chose to view it.
“What’s crazier taking a chance for your career or giving up on it entirely?” Darcy raised an eyebrow.
“I am not giving up,” Char crossed her arms over her chest.
“Sure,” Darcy winked, ruffling her best friends feathers in payback and enjoying every moment of Char’s discomfort.
“The scenery is gorgeous. But why here?” Char asked again for the thousandth time since they’d left Chicago.
“It’s close enough to Duluth, and the rent was cheap,” Darcy said with a shrug.
Char eyed her. “Do they even have the internet?”
“Oh ha ha, very funny. Look it’s different then what we’re used to, but I think we could both benefit from it.”
When Char didn’t reply, Darcy added. “There’s only my name on the lease. You can always leave.”
The boat hit the dock at that moment and the girls lurched forward. Darcy grabbed the railing in the nick of time and turned to brace Char. But her friend didn’t need her help. Darcy’s eyes widened as she watched a sinewy arm catch Char by the waist and pulled her back and upright.
“Careful,” the man told her with a smile as he stood her on her own feet.
Char turned to look at her savior and sank down the stairs again. Darcy rolled her eyes and yanked Char back up right.
“Thank you!” Darcy acknowledged from the both of them.
The man, who looked to be no more than thirty-five with dark blonde hair and two-day-old stubble, nodded his head. He carefully padded down the stairs with ease, as if he’d navigated the old boat nearly every day of his life.
“Come on, damsel in distress,” Darcy said elbowing Char. “Let’s get back to the car before we cause a traffic jam.”
They held on to the railings on both sides as they descended the metal staircase. They got into the car and turned the engine over as the ferryboat attendant motioned for them to leave the boat. Their car joined the queue of slow moving vehicles turning down the dock towards Main Street.
“Wow this is pretty cute,” Char replied with much more enthusiasm.
“Not bad for exile,” Darcy agreed.
“AHA! You admit it!”
Darcy chuckled. “I’ll admit nothing. Do you see him yet?”
“Who?” Char feigned innocence.
Darcy rolled her eyes but decided to play along. “Your tall dark and handsome stranger.”
“He wasn’t dark,” Char corrected.
Darcy bit her lip on a retort and let the topic drop.
After passing several restaurants, shops, and a church, Darcy turned left at the end of the street by the hotel and yacht club.
“Keep your eye out for ‘Mondamin Trail,’” she said as she slowed the car to a crawl.
“Do you even see the street signs?” Char asked after passing several dirt roads with no clear markings.
“Ah, yes, look there.” Darcy pointed up to a tree. “It’s carved on little wooden plaques.”
“Geez, at least we got here when it was still light.”
Darcy agreed as she turned right on the narrowest two lane road she’d ever come across.
The forested road curved in a serpentine fashion for a half-mile before it straightened and cleared. A row of four townhomes appeared with a golf course just behind. Darcy parked in front of the garage of the house on the end.
“This is it,” she told Char.
“Let’s check it out.”
Darcy locked the car the moment she exited.
“Is that really necessary?” Charlotte asked.
“Come on, are you worried Smokey the Bear is going to steal your phone?”
“Hey, you can take the girl out of the city,” Darcy mumbled.
Char rolled her eyes.
Darcy entered the code into the lockbox on the front door, retrieved two sets of keys, and let them both in.
“Wow, this is big,” Char appreciated as she stepped over the threshold.
The main floor consisted of a powder room and open dining room and kitchen that overlooked the family room half a flight of stairs below. The well-appointed room opened onto the golf course with a stunning view of the yacht club and lake through the trees lining the green.
“I call the master,” Darcy called out as she raced back to the main floor then up the stairs to the second level.
Two bedrooms and a bathroom sat off the hall on the front of the house while a large master bedroom above the family room had the same magnificent view. A small Juliet balcony set with a bistro table and two chairs beckoned for morning coffee. Char joined her five minutes later.
“This view is amazing,” Charlotte sighed.
Darcy nodded her agreement.
“Should we rock paper scissors for this room?” Charlotte teased.
“Ha, not on your life. I’m paying the rent. I get the master.” Darcy giggled.
“Fine, I’ll take the room across the hall.”
Darcy rolled her eyes. “Yeah, sorry, I know I’m really putting you out.”
“It’s okay. I can handle it,” Char winked.
Before Darcy could offer a retort, the doorbell rang.
“Are you expecting someone?” Char asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I’ve been here for like ten minutes. Who would I be expecting?”
Char shrugged and followed behind.
Darcy opened the door to Char’s savior from the boat.
“Hi, I wanted to introduce myself. I’m John. I live next door.”
“Oh hi, wow, small-world,” Darcy said, glad she hadn’t been the one to collapse.
“Please come in,” Darcy continued.
She didn’t often get a chance to tease Charlotte, the girl who never seemed to put a foot out of place. Torturing Charlotte with the good-looking man she’d quite literally fallen for was too good to pass up.
“Can I get you a glass of water? If I can find the glasses?” Darcy asked as John sat at the table.
“That would be nice, but please don’t make an effort. I know you just got off the ferry.”
Darcy opened cabinet after cabinet, finding nothing she needed. She continued with her search, using the guise to watch the pair at the dining table. Charlotte sat mute and John smiled. Darcy’s mouth dropped open in shock. She had never seen Charlotte at a loss for words.
“Sorry, I couldn’t find anything,” Darcy said, moving to join them.
“I’m Darcy. Darcy Rogus, by the way.” She extended her hand to his and shook it. “This is Charlotte. Do you live here full time?”
“No, no. I come up in the summer for a few months break every year.”
“Nice,” Darcy nodded, unsure what to add.
Would it be rude to ask him if he worked? Or what he did that he could take off so much time annually? Darcy thought.
“And you?” He asked. “Are you moving here full-time?”
“Just for the summer. I’m working on a few projects for my company up here for the next few months. And Charlotte,” Darcy nudged her friend hard, “is enjoying her last summer before the final year of law school.”
“Wow, law school. Good for you,” he nodded his approval.
“Thanks,” she muttered.
Darcy stood, realizing she needed to give Char space. “I need to bring in a few things. In fact, I think I have a box with cups in it. If you don’t mind?”
“Of course not, but please let me help.”
“Oh no, no. I’ll be a minute tops. And Char always asks much better questions than I do.”
Darcy walked away, hoping that her leading statement might wake up her friend. It seemed to do the trick. She heard the lilt of Char’s voice as she opened the front door and stepped outside to retrieve her suitcases and cooler from the car.
Darcy breathed in deep once she crossed over the threshold. The pine soaked air filled her lungs and gave her a slight energy boost. It might be the middle of nowhere, as Charlotte had noted. But at least it was beautiful, and she could think of a lot worse places to be. Darcy lugged the cooler to the front door and left it there before grabbing her three suitcases out of the car. For the amount of clothes and shoes she’d packed, she’d been impressed by her own skills of consolidation. But lugging them up the stairs would not be easy.
Darcy opened the front door and easily lifted the cooler onto the hardwood floor before struggling with her bags. John, of course, leapt up from the table to be of help.
“Oh thank you so much!”
“My pleasure,” John smiled. “Can I carry these up the stairs for you?”
“That’s okay. Just inside the door will work for me.”
“Are you sure?” John prodded.
“I’m on my way out. Would you both like to go get a bite to eat or for a drink? The Beach Club has a full menu and a well-stocked bar.”
Charlotte looked at Darcy, her eyes wide and pleading.
“Sure. That sounds great!” Darcy replied.
The trio walked outside. Darcy locked up the house and made her way over to the car. John and Char remained on the stoop.
“Aren’t we going?” Darcy asked.
“Sure. I usually walk there. It’s a quick trip along the cart path,” John pointed back towards the golf course behind the house.
“Yeah, probably,” Darcy agreed. “But I’d prefer to drive, at least until I’ve had a day to drive around myself and explore. Do you want to walk there and we’ll meet you? Or do you want a ride?”
“I’ll walk. You need to drive back towards the ferry dock and the restaurant will be on your left.”
“Great. See you there,” Darcy replied before getting in the car. Char hesitated.
“Come on Char, let’s go.”
Her best friend got into the car as John’s figure retreated around the side of the house.
“He seems nice,” Darcy began.
“I like him,” Char said breathlessly.
Darcy fought to hold back a snicker. “I gathered that. Just, you know, be careful. We don’t know this guy and you seem to be falling pretty hard for him.”
“Am I obvious?”
Darcy chuckled. “Yeah, Char. It’s obvious. You look like a cartoon.”
Charlotte frowned, furrowing her brow in consideration.
“Reign it in a little bit. Be cool,” Darcy cautioned.
“Yeah, okay,” Char took in a deep breath. “I never act like this around guys.”
“And it has been very entertaining,” Darcy chuckled. “For me at least. But we will be living next door to him all summer.”
“You’re right,” Char agreed as the car parked in front of the Beach Club.
Darcy watched as Char pulled her shoulders back and lifted her chin in determination. Darcy smiled and followed her inside. John waved from a booth along the wall overlooking the lake.
“Great view!” Darcy complimented as she slid onto the bench next to Char.
“It’s nice here. Especially in the summer, it’s fun to watch the ferries go out and come back.”
“Is that what we can expect to do here?” Darcy asked. “Watch the ferries?”
John chuckled. “We have a couple bars too. But most people come here to enjoy the outdoors and relax.”
A waitress came by and took the order then and quickly returned with a round of Leine’s for the table.
“To a great summer,” Char toasted, raising her glass.
“Cheers,” John and Darcy replied in unison.
“So you’ve been coming up here for a while?” Char asked.
Darcy took a sip of her beer, happy to let Char take the lead.
“I have been here nearly every summer of my life. My mom bought the townhouse next to yours when she was pregnant with me. Nearly all my childhood memories with my brothers have taken place on this island.”
“Brothers?” Char asked.
“Four of them. I’m the oldest.”
Darcy’s eyes involuntarily went wide.
“Your poor mother,” she muttered under her breath.
He grinned at that and Darcy grimaced, realizing how carelessly she’d spoken.
“She probably should qualify for sainthood, having five boys in ten years,” John replied with a conspiratorial wink.
Darcy had no reply other than an ill-timed gasp. Luckily, Charlotte’s burgeoning legal skills kicked in.
“Are you still close with them?” she asked.
“My brother Ben is my best friend. He’s the second son. We live in the same condo building in Minneapolis. But my other brothers… It’s complicated.”
Char and Darcy nodded.
John took a thoughtful sip of his beer. “Ben is actually coming up to join me for a few months. He’ll be here by the end of the week.”
“That’s nice,” Darcy replied by rote.
Dinner arrived as Darcy finally worked up the courage to ask the question she couldn’t stop thinking about.
“I hate to be rude John, I’m just terribly curious. What do you do that you can take off time every summer?”
“You haven’t figured it out?” he asked surprised.
“No,” Darcy shook her head.
“I’m a high school English teacher.”
Darcy felt her jaw drop. “Really?”
Char elbowed her hard. Darcy’s behavior had turned abominably rude. She shook herself out of her state of shock.
“Sorry. I’m very surprised.”
“I can tell,” he winked.
“I think Darcy is trying to convey that if you had been a teacher at our high school, she might have actually gone to class,” Char teased.
“I hear that a lot,” John said with good humor. “And since you asked me, you won’t mind if I return the favor?”
“No, not at all,” Darcy replied smoothly. “I work for an auction house in Chicago. I’ve been sent up here on something of a trial basis, to see how many big estates I can find and land.”
“What does that mean?” John asked as he leaned forward, placing his crossed arms on the table.
“The toughest part of the business is finding something to sell. If I can find some, then I get a raise and a promotion.”
“And if you can’t?” John prodded.
Darcy bit her lip. “Then I’m out.”
John nodded but Char’s eyes had glazed over again as they always did when Darcy explained her job. She loved her job, but she’d realized it could be quite boring for others. Darcy could spend all day carefully handling objects, photographing and measuring them, writing down their description in minutiae, and spending all night researching the history of the piece. But she’d never met anyone outside of the field whose eyes didn’t cross after ten minutes of talking about it.
“I’m sorry, it’s boring, I know,” Darcy hastily replied.
“No, no, it’s not at all. It’s interesting. I’d never thought about that field before, to be honest.”
“I hear that a lot,” Darcy smiled.
“I’m sure,” he nodded.
“Char’s much more interesting.”
“You are?” John quirked an eyebrow.
“I think she’s exaggerating. Law school has ruined me.”
“I can’t read anything without analyzing all the ramifications. It can be a bit annoying, actually.”
“It sounds helpful. But if it’s really too much for you, I could set you up with a summer reading list. We could discuss the books and maybe I could help you find pleasure in literature again.”
Char smiled broadly. “I’d like that.”
“Excuse me for a minute,” Darcy told the pair.
Under the guise of needing the ladies room, she snuck over to the bar to give Char and John a moment alone and pay the bill. She could tell that the two of them had connected. Something tangible existed between them after only a few hours.
Darcy sighed as she signed the credit card receipt. Envying her friend served no purpose. She held no jealousy towards anything about Charlotte. Darcy had a hard enough time getting close to someone after a few dates, let alone a few hours. Charlotte embraced her vulnerabilities and seemed to jump at every chance, both romantic and otherwise, that came her way. Darcy couldn’t seem to trust her instincts enough to do that.
Watching Charlotte and John together felt different to her, even as an observer. Maybe she was projecting her own feelings onto them? She felt ready for something of her own. Had it already been three years since James?
She rejoined the table as John and Char were both caught in a fit of laughter. Darcy mustered up a smile of her own. Tiredness settled over her suddenly. She needed rest.
“Are you ready to go?” Darcy asked, not even sitting back down.
“Sure,” John replied, getting out from the booth.
A flash of disappointment shadowed Char’s face.
“Let me just get the bill,” John said moving towards the bar.
“No need, I took care of it,” Darcy told him.
“It’s the least we could do after you helped with the luggage.”
“That was nothing. But maybe I can take you both out on the lake tomorrow?”
Darcy looked at Char. Char smiled in pure delight.
“We would love that,” Darcy agreed.
“Of course. So I’ll see you tomorrow morning, how about eleven in the morning?”
“Sounds great,” Darcy answered, replying for them both as Char had suddenly gone mute again. “See you tomorrow.”
John nodded at Darcy but turned to Charlotte. “See you tomorrow.”
She mouthed “bye.”
Darcy restrained herself from rolling her eyes or grabbing Char and yanking her back to reality. But she did turn and leave with Char quickly catching up.
“That was nice,” Darcy whispered as they reached the car.
“Mmm hmm,” Char agreed dreamily.
“Even for a serial dater like you, this must be a new record for falling head over heels.”
“Ha ha, very funny. I’m not head over heels.”
“I’m only teasing,” Darcy rushed to assure. “I think he likes you too.”
“We’ll see,” Char said with a shrug. “You know, not every relationship has to be serious. It’s perfectly okay to have something more casual.”
Darcy swallowed her groan. She envied her friend’s attitude about dating but not the lectures.
“I’m just saying,” Char continued in a higher octave, “fun, flirty flings are fundamental.”
“Your fantastic alliteration not withstanding,” Darcy chuckled. “I don’t see it that way. Why bother if it isn’t serious? Why date someone if you don’t see a future? Why put yourself out there?”
“I don’t want to start this fight again,” Char sighed. “But I have to say that being vulnerable isn’t a crime. And there is always something worth learning, from every relationship.”
Darcy’s cheeks burned and her eyes widened at the insinuation.
“I didn’t mean like that! Everything isn’t sexual!!” Char giggled, smacking her friend on the arm. “Although…you know… It’s nice to pick up a few things now and then.”
Darcy fought to keep her arms at her side but she longed to cover her ears and hide. Char had been her closest friend since college, but talking about her intimate life—or lack thereof—with anyone made her squeamish.
“Look,” Char grabbed her by the shoulders and forced her to stop. “Don’t be in a rush to discount someone because they don’t immediately check everything off your list, okay? You can’t expect perfection and you wouldn’t want it either. Give people a chance, even if you can’t see it in the long-term. Let someone surprise you.”
“Fine,” Darcy bit out through clenched teeth. “But can we please stop talking about this?”
“For now,” Char agreed.