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Golden sunlight broke through the thick canopy of trees, still full with their leaves, as Eric Sadler walked across the brick path toward the Sample Gates. Not that he needed to rush. He still had a full day to fill before his new job, lecturer for a creative writing seminar, began. But he couldn’t slow himself down.
I’m not exactly going to run into her here. Eric stopped in his tracks and exhaled. No, he had no fear of seeing Darcy Rogus. Taking a step back from the situation during his two-day drive from Madeline Island to Indiana University, he realized he hadn’t been in love with her. But she served as the perfect scapegoat for his mounting frustrations. His phone vibrated in his pocket. He pulled the phone from his back jeans pocket and answered.
“I was wondering when you’d call to check up on me,” Eric grinned.
“Em made me call. She’s worried about you,” Ed, his best friend, practically growled.
Eric chuckled. They’d been best friends for a long time, and they’d never monitored the others’ whereabouts. But when Ed had reconnected with his childhood sweetheart, Emily, a year ago everything had changed. Emily softened Ed, the big hulking Viking, Eric had first met in the Great Barrier Reef.
“Tell her I’m fine.”
“She won’t listen to me if I do. Here she is.”
“Eric? Did you make it okay? How’s your apartment?” She asked, babbling apparent in the background noise.
He smiled, imagining her brow furrowed in concern, balancing her toddler son Eddie on one hip. His road trip had been long and slow and ended the day before at his furnished on-campus apartment. The scarred furniture, bland paint colors, and stale air had assaulted his senses.
“It’s great, Em. Not as nice as the cottage. But it’ll do.”
“I just finished cleaning up for you. The cottage will be all ready when you come home.”
Home. He took in a quick breath at the word. His new address for the next few months didn’t resemble the cottage he’d lived in on Ed and Emily’s property at all. Pine soaked air filled the cozy home with its windows left wide open in the summer and his front door unlocked year round. “Thanks, Em.”
“And I want you to know. I saw that girl at the coffee shop and I was very curt with her.”
“You don’t need to do that. We weren’t meant to be. She’s happy with Ben.”
“I hate the way she used you to figure that out.”
“Yeah, well, don’t. Don’t fight my battles for me, Emily, at least not this one. She’s moved on and so have I. Besides, I think you and Darcy could actually be good friends, if you gave each other a chance.”
“I will never be friends with that woman.”
Eric chuckled. Emily’s loyalty ran through her to her core. But he knew snubbing two people on an island of less than two hundred and fifty wasn’t sound. Especially when she owned and operated the only coffee shop where most locals congregated at some point in the day. He didn’t need or want stories to begin circulating that he was still hung up on Darcy. Because he did intend to return and he didn’t need his arrival to be any more awkward.
“Oh, Ed wants the phone back. I’m glad you’re settled.”
“Sorry about that,” Ed apologized.
“No problem. I appreciate her solidarity.”
Ed snorted. “She’s loyal first and foremost. But… everything’s okay. Right?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t it be?” The tiny hairs on Eric’s neck stood on end. In three steps, he reached a bench and sank down. His arm gripped the cool iron armrest tightly, his knuckles white, as he prepared for a fight.
“You left town. I thought you’d decided to stay.”
The matter of fact words flattened Eric and he relaxed his grip. Moving to the tiny island in Lake Superior to help out a buddy for a few months turned into falling in love with the beauty and history of the Apostle Islands. Extending his visit month after month, Eric began researching and writing extensively about the history of Madeline Island. His manuscript flowed from his pen during a very long and snowy winter curled in front of a fireplace. He’d begun to even draft out other books he’d like to write and had started to dream about leaping into fiction.
“What can I say? I got an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Eric replied.
“And yet isn’t this the same offer you have refused several times over the past few years?”
“The timing’s never worked out before,” Eric relaxed his grip. Denying the truth seemed pointless. Better to face an obstacle, or best friend, head on. “I need to get this book finished and sold. I can’t really make anything happen in the middle of nowhere.”
And he couldn’t focus with everyone concerned about his love life. Meeting Darcy had never been in his plan. He’d watched too many guys lose their mind and their drive over a girl, he’d sworn never to follow suit. He wasn’t looking for love or trouble. Falling for her, her easy laugh and sparkling eyes, had been inevitable. He just hadn’t understood he’d faced competition until too late, when she slipped through his fingertips like the pebbles he skipped across the lake with Ed’s toddler stepson.
No. He hadn’t needed the distraction, especially when he’d been fervently trying to publish his book. Cold calling publishers and agents, sending query letters and pitches, hadn’t propelled him into the literary world as he’d hoped. Frustrations over his world, his life that always came so easy to him, crumbling in his hands, he’d needed a change. When his alma mater offered, again, the opportunity to teach a semester-long creative writing seminar, he’d jumped on the chance.
Packing up his life and leaving with only a week’s notice, however, took everyone by surprise. Including him.
“Ed, I’m fine. I will be back and I’ll bring a book deal with me. Make sure that cottage doesn’t fall apart while I’m gone, okay?”
“Alright. Sounds good man. Good luck tomorrow.”
Hanging up the phone, Eric relaxed his grip on the armrest and leaned back against the bench, the cool metal against his thin t-shirt making him shiver and shift in his seat. I must be crazy to be here. No. Taking a real, grown-up job might be the first adult choice he’d made since leaving college. But the unease of not knowing what would happen next gave him pause. He’d never been a plan-every-decision kind of guy—until he’d been presented with no other choice. I need to figure out how to get an author platform and get readers to notice.
A chilly breeze picked up, rustling the leaves and shaking loose a few still-green leaves; a reminder on a warm day that autumn loomed. The hint of a wood burning stove somewhere in the distance tickled his nose and Eric rubbed a hand across his face. Heels clicked against the bricks in the path, and turning his head to the right, he watched a determined redhead stalk past. Wearing a figure hugging black dress and heels, she held her chin up and shook her hair down her back, not noticing the man gazing at her. She sashayed past neither aware nor concerned about his presence. Eric marveled at the measured pace of her steps, her pumps belting out a tempo to make a metronome jealous. And in an instant, she’d passed him, walked ahead through the gates, and disappeared into the coffee shop just across Indiana Avenue.
Curiosity made him push off the bench and follow her. Jogging through the crosswalk at the intersection, the door jingled overhead announcing his arrival. He breathed in deep the bitter smell of roasting beans as he queued in the short line. She stood at the cash register, a person in between them in line. Eric stood a little too close to him for comfort, straining to hear her name, her order, or anything about her.
What am I doing? He took a step back, watching as the man’s shoulders in front of him relaxed. Swallowing the lump in his throat, Eric put his hands in his jeans pockets. Crazy, creepy stalker? No, that didn’t suit him. Catching sight of a beautiful woman and being immediately intrigued by her? That felt all too familiar, especially given the setting. His undergrad years had been plagued by one beautiful woman after another crossing his path.
“Can I help you?” The barista asked.
Eric snapped to attention, he’d been staring at his shoes, shuffling ahead absentmindedly.
“Yes, black coffee and a croissant please.”
“For here or to go?”
Staring straight ahead, Eric didn’t look at the barista in front of him. Instead, he focused on his peripheral vision and caught sight of the woman, reaching across for her drink in a to-go cup. He had his answer.
“To go please,” he smiled, pulling his wallet out of his back pocket and swiping his coffee card without further conversation.
The barista turned to pour his coffee, and in his peripheral vision, Eric watched the red head step away from the counter. Eric reached his hands out to the barista, the heat of the paper cup warming one hand, the bag containing the croissant crinkling in the other. In three steps, he traversed the tile floor, his driving loafers gliding over the smooth surface, and reached the door. Stepping in front of the woman, he pulled the glass door open wide for her, allowing her to pass, the bell overhead alerting everyone in the shop to his moment of chivalry.
Smiling in response, the woman stepped through the open door and continued past. Eric froze, his hand still holding the door open. Something about her now that he’d seen her, the wide set green eyes, the beauty mark on her cheek, and the perfect cupid ’s bow of her mouth jogged a memory. Did he know her? And, more importantly, had she even looked at him? Another breeze picked up, blowing an old wrapper from the sidewalk into the store and chilling several patrons sitting next to the doorway.
“Sorry,” Eric muttered. He walked out the door, letting it shut behind him.
A piece of paper fluttered towards him, grazing the sidewalk before a gust flattened it against his legs. Eric bent to pick up the sheet and ran to catch up with the woman.
“Hey!” he called out but she didn’t stop or slow. Eric picked up his pace and caught up with her a few doors further down. Reaching out a hand to graze her shoulder, the scent of warm cotton, as if she spent an afternoon asleep in the sun, swirled about her.
Turning to face him, she looked first at the hand and then at his face. Did he scowl? Was he frowning? He relaxed, dropping his hand and smiled at her, anxious to brighten her cheeks again after the sudden pallor. She looks like she’s seen a ghost. And yet, something about her seemed so oddly familiar too.
“Hi, did you drop this by any chance?” He flourished the paper rather stupidly in front of him.
Her brow furrowed and she reached out a hand. Eric offered her the sheet of paper and she grabbed it, scanning the few scribbled lines quickly. Shaking her head, she handed the sheet back to him and her fingers grazed his. A current of electricity sizzled from his fingertips down the back of his hand.
“No, that’s not mine,” she returned, quickly dropping her hand.
Putting his hand back in his pocket, Eric found himself at a loss for words. What should he say? He’d followed her, he’d sought her out, and yet… Why? Even he wasn’t sure. Standing in heels, she seemed to be about a head shorter than he was. How tall would she be without shoes? He’d never dated anyone under five five, he’d always hated having to stoop to kiss. But for her, the girl with the flame colored hair and the sparkling jade eyes, he’d make an exception.
“Are you a student?” he offered, hating the question the minute it left his lips.
Of course, she’s not a student. What nineteen year old wears a dress like that? Her hourglass curves squeezed into the skin-tight dress further accentuated her trim waist. But the demure, lady-like length that reached her knees and covered her shoulders, gave her sophistication. She was a woman who knew how to dress herself, not some girl unsure of herself.
“No, but thank you for thinking I am,” she replied, her cheeks turning a delightful shade of pink and her lips pressed together, like she tried to hold back a laugh.
“Do you want to get a coffee?”
To that comment, the woman did laugh, the sound light and joyful.
“I mean we could sit on a bench and drink our coffees together now. I’m willing to share my croissant?” He held the bag aloft.
“Tempting,” she bit her lip. “Is it chocolate?”
“Too bad.” Her pink tongue darted out across her lower lip. “Maybe another time.”
“Sure,” he shrugged his shoulders disappointed.
“I’ll see you around, Eric,” she replied before continuing on down the street.
She knows my name. His shoes turned to cement and stuck firmly to the sidewalk, unable to lift his feet to follow after her again. Who is she?