As The Leaves Turn

 

“If you have the time, Mackinac Island is a must-see.”

He stood at the edge of the bench on the boardwalk, his hands in the pockets of his white, Bermuda shorts. Turning around from her spot, she paused, not quite sure how to react to the man standing behind her.

“Excuse me?”

“I just thought I’d give you some sightseeing advice.”

She chuckled, realizing he’d caught sight of her brochure.

“Am I that obvious?” She dropped her hands to her lap as he walked around to the front of the bench.

“Well, you did have a brochure completely spread out in front of you, titled, ‘Things to Do in St. Ignace’.”

“Busted. Yes, I’m a tourist.” She positioned the bridge of her sunglasses snug against her face, breathing in the crisp, fresh smell of the lake waters.

“In that case, welcome. My name’s Brandon. Brandon Walker.”

She cleared her throat, without providing her name.

“So, I’ve always been under the impression that the north woods of Michigan’s upper peninsula were off the grid, but, it seems pretty crowded here.”

Brandon removed his hands from his pockets and clapped them together, looking out toward the marina.

“That’s because you’re here in July. You need to visit in October. The same sights and excursions are available then, but without all the hustle and bustle.” Brandon dropped his arms to his sides, turning to face her. He flashed her a gentle smile, revealing a pronounced dimple. “There’s nothing like St. Ignace in the Fall.”

Her thoughts became scrambled by Brandon’s well-defined physique. His brown, loose curls resting below his ears gently swayed in the summer breeze as his five o’clock shadow accented his face. She felt a mild heat fill her cheeks as she stole a quick breath.

“So, my name’s Grace. I’m just here for a brief visit. Mackinac Island, you say? How do I get there?”

Brandon shoved his hands back in his pockets.

“There’s ferry boats running continuously every day. Or, I could take you tomorrow morning.”

“What? Don’t you think that’s a bit presumptuous?”

Her voice slightly cracked with shock. Brandon lowered his sunglasses slightly to reveal velvet, brown eyes, and held her gaze with a knowing smile.

“Um . . . no. I meant, I could take you there in my boat. I run a charter fishing business. I just thought it might be a nice alternative to the mass of people who’ll be sharing the ferry, that’s all.”

“Oh, of course.” She looked down and tugged at the sides of her flouncy, white blouse. “So, you don’t have a fishing charter tomorrow?”

“Nope.”

Grace scraped her hand through her long strands of blonde hair.

“Well, I’ll probably just take the ferry.” Her eyes flickered up to meet his.

“Suit yourself. It’s nice meeting you, Grace. I gotta go or I’ll be late.”

Brandon made a slight bow toward Grace and gave a mild salute before he began walking down the boardwalk. Grace turned around to watch him leave.

“Late for what?” Her curiosity surprised her.

Brandon turned on his heels and shouted back. “My other job.”

Grace left the boardwalk and walked back to her hotel. From her second-floor balcony, she watched a gaggle of geese darting along the sandy shore. She looked out at the crystal, clear waters of Lake Huron, questioning everything about her life she thought to be true, and wondering why she couldn’t stop thinking about Brandon.

 

———————————————————————————–

 

Her sandals slapped the wood of the boardwalk as she made her way to the marina the next morning. Approaching the docks, Grace was overcome with the noxious vapors of oil and gas as several boats chugged in idle, awaiting the day’s activity. She located the Mackinac Island ferry boat, stopping behind the flock of people huddled near the entrance, waiting to board. She heaved a heavy sigh, recalling Brandon’s accurate reference to the mass of people.

“Morning to ya!”

The jovial voice to her left came from a power boat. Turning toward the boat, her heart skipped a beat at the sight of the sculpted man standing on board wearing a Detroit Tigers hat, denim jeans, and no shirt. Brandon.

“Oh, hey.” She pulled her small backpack tighter to her shoulder.

Brandon put a long-sleeved shirt on, keeping it open in the front. Picking up a rag, he began wiping his hands, noting how cute Grace appeared in her khaki shorts, coral tank top and her floral ball cap.

“My offer’s still good if you reconsider about the ferry boat.”

Grace glanced over to the crowd of tourists lined up on the dock, complete with several young children and a crying baby. She bit her lower lip, as the air horn blasted on the ferry.

“Um, sure.”

“Great. It’s just about a twenty-minute ride. I’ll take you under the mighty Mackinac Bridge first, then the island. I’ll show you around when we get there, if you’d like.”

“Okay, I guess.” Grace nodded with a tight expression, rubbing the back of her neck.

Brandon reached out to help her inside the boat, creating a mild flutter in her chest at the touch of his hand. She settled into the chair opposite the driver’s seat, clutching her backpack. The boat sped forward and began to glide through the water, splicing the oncoming waves.  She looked out onto the horizon, and with a deep breath, declared herself to be completely mad.

While Brandon finally secured the boat to the dock, Grace looked ahead of her on the island. Brandon followed her line of vision.

“Not too crowded yet, but just wait. It’ll be packed in a couple of hours. I need another cup of coffee. There’s a great little coffee shop around the corner. C’mon.”

Brandon led Grace to the quaint shop around the corner, decorated with wood pallet walls and hanging barn lights.

“How do you like your coffee?” Brandon motioned for Grace to sit across from him.

“Um, you know this is not a date, right?”

Brandon chuckled.

“Um, and you know this is just a cup of coffee, right? So, why don’t you tell me what brought you to St. Ignace?”

They gave their orders to the waitress. Brandon leaned back in his chair, arms folded in front, as Grace provided a bit of personal history. She lived in Chicago, grew up there, and always wanted to attend one of the summer workshops at the Crooked Tree Arts Center in Traverse City. So, she finally did. Brandon noted her sky-blue eyes sparkled when she spoke about art.

“My three-day workshop was called, ‘Winning with Watercolor’. I loved it—learned a lot. Then, I thought since I was so close, I’d check out St. Ignace for a day.”

“So, you’re an artist. Impressive.”

Grace felt a flush across her cheeks. No one had ever referred to her as an artist. She went on to clarify she worked as a gallery assistant, though she hoped to one day have her work be displayed.

“You know they have an artist in residence program right here in St. Ignace?”

“Really?” Grace was a bit taken aback. “No, I didn’t know that.”

“Did I hear you say you’re only here until tomorrow?”

Grace nodded.

“Then, we’d better make the most of our day.”

She studied Brandon as he began dispensing facts about Mackinac Island and its history. He seemed confident and comfortable all the time, which she envied. It was a relief to have something to busy her jittery hands when the coffee arrived. She sipped her Cappuccino in silence as Brandon began his verbal tour guiding.

He explained the only access to the island was by boat or small plane and that no motorized vehicles are allowed except for service vehicles. The island hosts the famed Grand Hotel, old historic buildings, museums, and specialty shops.

“There’s lots of ways to enjoy the island.” Brandon took a large gulp of his black coffee. “You can bicycle, ride a horse, hike, enjoy a horse drawn carriage, or walk.”

Grace straightened up in her chair, folding her hands in front of her.

“Brandon,” she said, clearing her throat. “Since we’re going to be spending the day together, I think you should know I have a boyfriend back home. In fact, we’re almost engaged.”

“Okay—that’s great. I am curious though–how one can be ‘almost’ engaged?”

“Well,” Grace said, tapping her coffee mug. “I just mean we’ve been together a long time and we’ll probably be engaged soon.”

“Ah, but he hasn’t proposed yet?”

“No.” Grace suddenly felt foolish. “You don’t understand. Trust me, it’s in our plans to marry. Eventually.”

“Of course.” Brandon leaned forward. “So, does this almost fiancé have a name?”

“Dexter.”

Bandon held her gaze for a moment, flashing a weak smile that made her shift in her chair.

“So, tell me a bit about Dexter, your future husband.”

Grace explained Dexter worked downtown as an insurance adjustor. His parents lived in Lincoln Park.”

“Lincoln Park, eh?” Brandon interrupted with a mild chuckle. “So then, you must be marrying for money.”

“No, no. Not at all.” Grace protested. “He’s just . . . nice, you know?”

No, Brandon didn’t know, but he figured it didn’t matter. It wasn’t any of his business.

Grace went on to say how Dexter worked long hours—sometimes too long, and when he wasn’t working, he was working out.

“How about you?”, Brandon said. “You’re obviously in great shape. You must be a fitness guru too.” Grace’s slender curves had not gone unnoticed by Brandon.

“Well,” Grace said. “I stay in shape and all, but I don’t work at it nearly as much as Dexter would like me to. I just don’t see the point.”

Brandon looked away, slightly rolling his eyes.

“What about you? Is there a special girl you’re dating right now?

Brandon chuckled, shaking his head.

“Nope. Not currently dating and not planning on ever dating again.”

“Never again?” Grace wrinkled her forehead. “You wish to be alone the rest of your life?”

“Oh no, not at all. I just don’t believe in the whole dating scene—it’s a waste of precious time and energy. I just think if two people know they want to be together, then . . . they should just be together.”

“I see,” Grace set her jaw in a smirk. “You’re pretty direct. Don’t you think it’s a bit more complicated than that?”

Brandon looked upward, pausing.

“Not really. Think about it. Wouldn’t you agree that most people know rather quickly if they’d like to be with someone?”

With a sudden blush, Grace stared down at her coffee mug.

“Well, we should get started on our island adventure. The best way to experience the island’s beauty is by tandem bicycle. It’s eight miles around the entire island. C’mon, you can tell ‘Dex’ you got your exercise for the day.”

If anything could forcibly bring two people closer together, a long tandem bike ride would do it. For a smooth ride and to prevent crashing onto the side of the road, it was imperative for Grace and Brandon to communicate with each other. They had to learn how to move together, to sense each other’s rhythms, and speak up when either one needed to change pace.  Following a bumpy beginning, which included Grace suffering a nasty bite from a horse fly, they finally fell into a groove and became increasingly more comfortable with each other every mile.

Conversation began to flow freely as Grace bubbled about her love of art and how she’d participated in sidewalk chalk events and downtown paint-outs, hoping to somehow become noticed. Brandon talked about the few fishermen, such as himself, that stay in St. Ignace year-round, finding it necessary to do odds jobs during the brutal winters in St. Ignace, and how beautiful the lake is when completely frozen.

“This island is beautiful, Brandon. So, when did you move to St. Ignace?”

“Born and raised here.”

“No kidding?” Grace’s eyes widened.

“Yep. My dad owned and operated a fish hatchery, so many days I was out on the water before the sun came up, and often long after the sun went down.”

“So,” Grace continued. “What was your reason for staying?”

Brandon pedaled in silence for a long moment before answering.

“I never saw any good reason to leave.”

A faint smile crossed Grace’s face as she reflected on how nice it must be to be completely content with where you are.

Upon finishing the eight-mile trek, their stomachs signaled a necessary lunch break. Brandon led the way to the island’s “Bridge Side Bistro”, which provided a bird’s eye view of the lake with Mackinac Bridge towering in the distance. As they made their way to a table, Brandon noted the sweet, vanilla musk that laid down a light track wherever Grace walked. Sitting before her, a faint smile swept across Brandon’s face as he took in Grace’s loose-braided, long pigtails with wisps of stray hairs on both sides framing her soft face. A slight heat rushed to Grace’s cheeks as she could feel his eyes on her.

“Well,” Grace broke the moment. “I’m starved. Everything on the menu looks great!”

Grace wasted no time when the waitress arrived.

“I’ll have the Arugula salad with candied pecans, green apple and blue cheese.” Grace snapped her menu shut, handing it over to their waitress.

“See?” Brandon flashed a wide grin. “You can be decisive.”

He calmly folded his menu, nodding at the waitress as he handed it to her. “I’ll have the grilled avocado tapas with the roasted tomato salsa. Thank you.”

Brandon’s confident ease made Grace slightly uncomfortable. And, what did he mean by his comment about being able to make a decision? With a short breath she set her shoulders back, attempting to dismiss her thoughts.

“Please excuse me, Brandon.” On second thought, perhaps a brief change of scenery would be helpful. “I’m going to freshen up—I’ll be right back.”

“Sure.”

As she stood, Brandon caught sight of the half-exposed sketch pad emerging from Grace’s backpack.

“Grace . . . may I?”

Grace followed his line of vision to her sketch pad.

“Go ahead.” She shrugged her shoulders, biting her lower lip. “I’m afraid there’s not much to see.”

She handed the pad to Brandon and set out for the ladies’ room.

Brandon took a sip of water, sat back in his chair, and began surveying the thick, bound pages boasting an array of detailed drawings, seemingly coming to life with each turn of the page. A rustic cabin nestled in the woods by a lake, a still life painting of a blue, artisanal vase housing an arrangement of wildflowers, sketches of children’s faces held in laughter, a beautiful young woman with flowing, long hair . . . with a tear rolling down her cheek. Brandon leaned in toward each page, slowly shaking his head.

Upon her return, he gently handed the sketch pad back to Grace and just stared. Her eyes narrowed.

“What’s the matter?”

“Grace.” Brandon leaned toward her, sliding his chair closer to the table. “Your work is really good.”

Grace waved him off as she shuffled her feet beneath her.

“No, really. I’m serious. Your attention to minute detail, your exquisite shading techniques—you’re very talented.” He leaned back in his chair, folding his arms in front of him. “Dex must be so proud.”

Grace swallowed hard. She’d never heard such affirming words from Dexter.

“Well, it’s not really his cup of tea—but that’s okay.” Was it? She suddenly wondered.

Their food orders arrived and they began eating in awkward silence; well, awkward for Grace. Finally, Brandon broke their silence with another one of his many questions.

“So, do you like the city life, then?”

Grace finished chewing her bit of food before answering.

“It’s not my first choice of where I’d love to live. I mean, to be honest, I grow tired of my scenery mostly consisting of steam exhaling through manhole covers, but it’s okay.” As soon as her words left her lips, she regretted having spoken them.

“So, why would you live there if you don’t love it?”

Grace raised an eyebrow. Brandon raised one right back.

“Ah, of course. Dex.”

Brandon slowly tilted his head to the side, pausing to examine her. As she looked at him, she suddenly felt as if his eyes were penetrating her very soul. At that moment, she wanted him to eat his food. Sing. Shout. Anything but look at her the way he did. Her brow furrowed as if she were working through a puzzle only she could see.

“You obviously have something to say, Brandon. What is it?”

Brandon looked down, finishing the last bite of his lunch. Without looking up, he spoke with a gentle tone.

“Grace. You’re beautiful, talented, sexy, and fun. It just surprises me you’re so willing to compromise on things that mean a lot to you. In my book, relationships are all about accepting each other for who they are and celebrating that. I just wonder if Dex is celebrating you, that’s all.”

Speechless, Grace pushed her finished plate forward as her eyes brimmed with tears.

“Oh Grace, I’m so sorry. Sometimes I don’t know when to keep my mouth shut. I was clearly out of line. I didn’t mean to upset you.” He reached forward and squeezed her hand resting on the table.

“I’m sorry. C’mon, you must see the rest of the island before you leave tomorrow. Let me show you the museum and a few shops before I take you back, okay? I promise I won’t talk, like, at all!”

A faint smile cross Grace’s face as she rose to her feet and nodded.

Contrary to Brandon’s little promise, he continued to talk throughout the rest of the afternoon. Grace had the distinct suspicion he was doing so to ease her tension, which she gladly allowed. Brandon pointed out historical facts about St. Ignace at the museum. As they browsed gift shops, he talked about ice fishing and snowmobile racing. As they stopped for an ice cream break, he told her all about the immense beauty of the Hiawatha National Forest, reminding her once again there was nothing like St. Ignace in the fall.

Grace really wasn’t upset that Brandon spoke his mind earlier. She was more upset about the gnawing churning in her gut she was now feeling, questioning the extent of which his words may be true.

Many tourists had left the island by late afternoon, leaving room for evening dinner crowds and horse-drawn buggy rides. Grace could still smell the clean sandalwood of Brandon’s cologne as he took her hand and led her back into the boat. Caressed by a gentle, warm breeze she watched the fading sun cut a ribbon across the waves on the lake, while Brandon’s words reverberated in her mind.

“Thank you for a lovely day.” Grace pulled the strap of her backpack over her shoulder as she stood on the boardwalk. Brandon finished tying down the boat and hopped off the dock to join her. He stood before her, removing his hat.

“The pleasure was truly all mine. Grace,” he paused. “I don’t want your visit to end on a bad note. So, as my way of apologizing once again for making you feel uncomfortable earlier, I’d like to treat you to dinner.”

“Oh, I don’t think so.” Grace looked upward, shaking her head.

“No, you don’t understand. I’d like to treat you to dinner, but not with me—I won’t be there. I’m working tonight anyway. It’s just, well, I personally know the chef at what’s heralded as the best sports bar in the area. You’ll not enjoy a better, more authentic meal anywhere else. Just show up anytime this evening and I’ll make sure you’re well taken care of.”

Grace pressed her lips into a fine line of anxiety. “Oh, I don’t know.”

“Honestly, Grace—you can’t say you’ve truly been in St. Ignace until you’ve tried some fresh Whitefish, or Yellow Lake Perch. Here’s a card for the Driftwood sports bar—it’s just down there, across the street. Enjoy yourself. Oh, and have a safe trip back home.”

With that, Brandon turned on his heels and walked away. Just like that.

 

———————————————–

Grace meandered down the road for three blocks until she reached her hotel. Upon entering her room, she tossed her backpack on the bed and opened the sliding door to encourage a lake breeze. As she sat on her balcony overlooking Lake Huron, she breathed in the smell of fresh wind and lemons and pondered if she should go to the Driftwood for dinner. She probably should go. After all, it was such a kind gesture and Brandon would probably find out if she refused his offer. She certainly didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

Studying the clarity and patterns of the sandstone around the edge of the water before her, thoughts of Brandon consumed her mind. Brandon. A good man. Handsome, strong, confident, funny . . . kind. He easily brought her to laughter. He made her feel good about herself. When he held her gaze, she could feel her palms sweat. And his smile? Well, his smile made her heart thunder.

In the process of trying to decipher the effects Brandon seemed to have on her, Grace made a stark realization. Dexter hadn’t called her once.

Grace showered and put on a simple sundress, adding a light touch of makeup. Making her way to the Driftwood sports bar, she couldn’t ignore the strange quivers in her stomach.

 

———————————————–

 

“You must be Grace.” The waitress greeted her inside the door.

“How did you know?”

“That’s easy.” The waitress smiled. “Your beautiful hair, of course. Right this way.”

The waitress ushered Grace to a seat by a window overlooking the boardwalk, the smell of cooked fish wafting in the air. Glancing out at the marina she chuckled, knowing the comment about her hair could only have come from Brandon. The Driftwood was a general sports bar, however, judging by many of the pictures on the wall and various memorabilia, there was a definite affinity for baseball. The overhead televisions hummed a game between the Orioles and Angels as she studied the menu and sipped some water. Hmmm. Yellow Lake Perch, deep fried with fries, or, fresh, great lakes Whitefish baked on a maple wood plank surrounded with duchess potatoes and a vegetable.

As the waitress approached her, Grace slapped her menu on the high-top table.

“I’ll definitely have the Whitefish.”

“Excellent. There’s a woman who knows how to make a decision! You won’t be disappointed—it’s delicious. Our chef is the best around.”

“So I’ve heard.”

Brandon’s comment from earlier that day suddenly flashed across Grace’s mind. So, you can be decisive. That’s what he’d said. A deep breath escaped her lungs as she frowned. She was certainly proficient in deciding on menu choices, but perhaps not as skilled at deciding anything else in her life.

Grace enjoyed a delicious meal as she watched boats coming and going from the marina across the street. The sun began to fall behind the horizon, painting the sky shades of pink and red. Ice clinked gently in her glass as she wondered what Brandon was doing at that moment. Where was his other job? Perhaps, if she took an evening walk around her surrounding territory, she might find out and run into him. Then again, what would be the purpose of that? She was leaving tomorrow morning—never to see Brandon again.

“Are you finished here?” The waitress broke her concentration.

“Oh, yes. Thank you. It was delicious. This has been such a treat. Would it be possible for me to thank the chef in person?”

“Why, of course. I’ll send him out.” The waitress gathered up most of the dishes and started to turn toward the kitchen.

“So, I have to ask.” Grace stopped her. “Do you, by any chance, know Brandon Walker?”

The waitress paused, squinting her eyes with a smirk.

“Honey, everyone knows Brandon.”

The waitress disappeared into the kitchen. Grace folded and smoothed her napkin on the table, continuing to watch the sunset. Just as she folded her hands, resting them in her lap, she felt a gentle tap on her shoulder. She turned to her side to see none other than Brandon standing before her. He was wearing a chef’s hat.

“You wanted to see me?” He flashed a generous smile. Grace’s mouth dropped open.

“Well, I’ll be. This is your other job?”

“Afraid so. I’ve found the second-best thing to catching fish, is cooking them.”

“I’m so surprised.” Grace brought her hand to her chest. “It was delectable. Brandon, you continually amaze me.”

“Hope so.”

“Well, I’d really like to reward your exquisite work and pay for my meal.”

“Not possible. It’s my treat.” Brandon brought his heels together and nodded. “Compliments of the chef.”

“Very well then, thank you. I guess I’d better get going. I’ve got an early start tomorrow morning.”

Grace rose from her chair, retrieving her small purse. Brandon noted how her long, silky hair fell around her like a curtain. She turned to face Brandon.

“Mr. Brandon Walker, thank you . . . for everything.”

As she took a step to leave, Brandon stopped her.

“Grace, will I see you again?”

The air closed in around her throat as Grace held Brandon’s gaze. How could she answer that? She couldn’t deny the thought of returning to St. Ignace had crossed her mind, but her mind still searched for a logical reason for her thoughts.

Brandon searched Grace’s face with pensive eyes.

“Grace, please tell me I’m not as forgettable as your silence is making me feel.”

Although he stood inches away from her, she could feel a line of heat between them as if they were touching.

“Brandon, of course not. I mean, you’re great. How could anyone forget you? It’s just—I don’t know how to answer that question.” She dropped her gaze to the floor. “I’m sorry.”

Brandon clapped his hands together, lightening his tone.

“Hey, no worries. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. Listen, it’s been a true pleasure getting to know you. I wish you the very best.”

Without hesitation, Brandon pulled Grace to him and held her in a warm embrace. Lost in the moment, she stretched her arms around him, feeling the muscles of his back. Finally, she stepped back, breaking their hug.

“I gotta go.” She smiled a soft smile, pulled her purse around her shoulder, and walked out the door.

Brandon removed the water carafe from Grace’s table, noticing the sweet scent of her delicate perfume that still hung in the air. As he glanced out the window, he caught glimpse of Grace crossing the street and a sudden tightness filled his chest. A feeling he suspected wouldn’t be going away anytime soon.

Darkness hugged the sky on her brisk walk back to her hotel. Upon entering her room, Grace busied herself as much as possible. She packed her belongings, organized her purse, vigorously brushed her hair, and turned the television on, just for chatter. She determined herself to think of anything else besides the strong, warm arms of Brandon Walker.

Grace rose early the next morning after a restless night of sleep. After checking out at the front desk, she brought her suitcase and backpack out to her car. As she slammed the trunk of the car shut, she felt as though someone was watching her. She slowly turned to the guttural, thrumming sound of an idling motorcycle. Brandon.

At the edge of the hotel parking lot near the road sat Brandon on his motorcycle, his arms folded in front of him. No motions were made, no words were spoken. Brandon and Grace just . . . stared. Finally, he flashed Grace his killer smile, retrieving his helmet from the handle bar. After fastening the straps, he gently waved, revved his engine, and cruised down the road out of sight.

Grace set out on the road for the six and one-half hour drive back to Chicago, irritated. Why did Brandon show up like that? His presence just messed with her already-confused mind. She wondered why she felt confused in the first place. Erratic thoughts flew wildly around her head, like a trapped parakeet in a closed room. She turned her attention to thoughts of Dexter, examining him throughout the entire drive home. Did he support her artwork and her dreams? Would he always want her to be more athletic? Why did Dexter sometimes make her feel as though she annoyed him? Would he ever want to move away from a big city? Was he happy with her? Was she happy with him? A sharp ache stung her chest as she asked herself one final question.

Was Dexter her lighthouse, or was he the storm?

 

————————————————————-

 

Crimson leaves crunched beneath her feet before she walked inside the room and found a place to sit. Her knee bounced up and down as she opened the “Driftwood” menu, then snapped it shut again. She already knew what she wanted. In fact, she could hardly contain her excitement. She felt like a kindergartner on her first day of school . . . not exactly sure what to expect, but anticipating it to be something good. Her fingers flexed to the beat of her racing pulse.

“I’ll have the Whitefish.” Grace blurted out her order before the waitress had a chance to greet her.

The waitress smiled, perplexed.

“I’m so sorry. It’s just, well, I know what I want!” Grace took a deep breath and cleared her throat. “Also, can you tell Brandon that Grace is here?”

“Who?” The waitress’s head flinched back slightly. “Um, I’m pretty new here, so I don’t know who Brandon is.”

“Oh, that’s okay.” Grace folded her hands together. “Just tell them in the kitchen—they’ll know who I’m talking about.”

“You got it.” The waitress disappeared around the corner. Grace took in a long breath as she glanced out at the marina, the brisk breeze sending orange and yellow leaves tumbling through the air. She closed her eyes and took a long, calming breath.

“Excuse me, ma’am?” The waitress interrupted her thoughts. “I’m sorry, but there’s no Brandon here.”

“What?” Grace’s thoughts swirled. Where was he? Was it his night off? Did he still work there? Was he still in St. Ignace? Where was he?

Flustered, Grace fidgeted with her fingers while tapping her foot. A sudden, empty feeling filled the pit of her stomach. She breathed in hard through her nose and looked up at the waitress.

“On second thought—I think I’ll pass on dinner. Thank you anyway.”

Grace couldn’t get out of the restaurant fast enough. Walking to the marina she surveyed the anchored boats, looking for Brandon’s. Many of them looked alike, and she hadn’t paid close enough attention three months ago. What if she couldn’t find him?

Grace aimlessly wandered up and down the main street of St. Ignace, pulling her coat snug around her body as the brisk evening breeze began to bite. The aroma of smoked spare ribs poured out from a nearby barbecue shack, and the gift shop windows all displayed arrays of fall decorations, autumn knick knacks, and winter clothing. She walked for what seemed like hours before returning to her hotel.

“Excuse me, Miss Montgomery?”

The clerk stopped her as she passed by the front desk.

“Yes? That’s me.”

“I have a message for you, ma’am. Right here.”

The clerk handed Grace a light blue envelope with her first name written on the front, along with a solitary, yellow rose. She politely thanked the clerk before dashing around the corner near the elevator to open the envelope. The message, short and to the point.

“Grace,

I’m so glad you’re here. Meet me tomorrow morning at 9:00 a.m. at the first parking lot of the Hiawatha National Forest, near the Roaring Fork trail head.

Fondly,

Brandon”

So, maybe he hadn’t been at the “Driftwood”, but someone obviously got word to him that she was here. Grace lay in her hotel bed that night in pitch darkness. She stared at the dark ceiling above her, gently tapping her fingers on the bedspread, wondering . . . what now?

Directing her car onto the gravel parking lot, she took in the sight of brilliantly colored leaves against an azure, morning sky. His motorcycle was parked at the far corner. Stepping out of the car into the crisp, invigorating air, she tightened her hiking boots and zipped up her jacket, scanning the front edge of the trail heads. Roaring Fork. Taking a few steps forward, she spotted the sign. But where was Brandon?

With a sudden, sick lurch in her stomach, she began walking forward onto the Roaring Fork path. Brandon instantly appeared ahead of her, coming from the opposite direction. Her heart thumped against her chest when she spotted his handsome physique wearing dark blue jeans, a gray quarter-zip wool sweater, and a bright blue shirt underneath.

“You found me.” He flashed her a wide grin, walking toward her.

Yes, Grace thought. I found you. A tingling in her chest signaled a mild disbelief that she was there in the north woods of Michigan’s upper peninsula once again, with Brandon.

“So, why did you make me come out here?” Grace opened her hands as they continued walking toward each other.

“I wanted to see if you would really show up.”

“Oh Brandon, I need to say something.” Her heart raced. “I’ve come all this way–I need to tell you why I’m here.”

They finally caught up to each other and without hesitation, Brandon enveloped Grace in a big hug.

“Shhhhhhh.” Brandon put his finger to Grace’s lips. “Come with me.”

Brandon boldly took Grace’s hand as they set out on a mild hike toward the lake.

“Keep your eyes open. Some of the best wilderness is found off the coastline outside of Lake Huron.”

The earthy smell of the damp earth combined with fallen leaves had a calming effect as they walked together on a trail lined with large clusters of honeysuckle bushes, still boasting their hardy leaves. The surrounding trees paraded leaves of vivid orange, plum, and gold colors, breathtaking amid the crisp, autumn morning. The sweet smell of pine permeated the air as they finally reached the outskirts of the lake.

“Okay, here we are.” Brandon dropped Grace’s hand. “Now, we’re looking for a specific tree along the shoreline with a profound, crooked branch.”

“What are you talking about?” Grace squished her eyebrows together. “Brandon, I really want to tell you why I’m here.”

“In a minute, I promise. Bear with me. Help me find that tree.”

Grace pressed her lips into a fine line as intermittent brushes of lake mist tickled her cheeks. They both walked a few steps in different directions, searching for the crooked tree. Grace stumbled upon a stately Maple tree whose leaves had transformed into a brilliant red. A large, sturdy branch protruded off to the side of the tree, extending sideways.

“I think I found it!” Grace squealed.

“Yep, that’s it. Nice work.” Brandon rushed over to where Grace was standing. “Now, please be patient for just one more minute.”

“But Brandon,” Grace began to plead.

“Grace,” He interrupted. “One more minute, I promise. Then, we will talk.”

Grace stood back, folding her arms in front of her as she watched Brandon begin to dig up a small hole underneath the beginning section of the crooked branch. As perplexed as she was, she knew it would do no good to demand an explanation in that moment. Brandon finally stopped, pulling forth a small, tin box from the earth. Grace leaned forward, edging closer to Brandon and the box. Brushing dirt and twigs off the box, Brandon stood before Grace with the box in his hands.

“What in the world is this?” She wrinkled her nose.

“Well,” Brandon began to explain. “In this box is something I’ve wanted to share with you for three months.”

“How did you know I’d come back?”

“I didn’t,” Brandon said. “Grace, tell me now. Why did you come back?”

“Oh, Brandon,” she said. “I . . . I . . . well, I finally made some decisions in my life, and well . . . oh, good grief!” Her heart fluttered as her words jumbled together, attempting to explain herself while fighting off the collision of emotions overwhelming her. Finally, she released a heavy sigh and met Brandon’s gaze, a soft smile filling her face.

“Brandon, I’ve come to an important realization.”

“I’m dying to know. What is it?” He narrowed his eyes, focusing intently on Grace.

“I’ve made a significant discovery.” A slight chuckled escaped her lips. “The thing is, Brandon . . . I’ve come to realize that you are the lighthouse rather than the storm.”

Brandon pressed his lips together in a hard, obvious swallow.

“And,” she continued. “I’ve been waiting for three months for you to kiss me.”

A wide grin crossed Brandon’s face as he began to open the small, tin box.

“Good things come to those who wait, Grace.”

Once the box was open, he pulled out a yellow piece of paper, folded up into a small square. Putting the box on the ground, he carefully unfolded the paper, holding it open.

Grace clutched her hands together in eager anticipation. Brandon took one of Grace’s hands, intertwining his fingers with hers. Blowing out a long breath, he smiled before he read the contents of the yellow piece of paper.

Beautiful Grace,

Come back to me and you will see

That you’ve become a part of me

You’re in my thoughts and prayers each day

And I’ve been empty since you went away

I know you’re not like all the rest

You’re a fine treasure

With you, I’m blessed

So, come back to me and you will see

That you and I are meant to be

 

His gaze was steady as he took her hands in his. Her eyes wrinkled with pleasure as she blinked back tears.

“Now,” Brandon said. “I don’t think we should wait any longer.”

The world around her suddenly fell away as Brandon pulled Grace closer to him. As he gently guided her long strands of hair away from her face, he breathed in the sweet fragrance of her familiar perfume. He framed her face with his palms, a light breeze tickling the leaves around them. He leaned in and began kissing her soft lips. Grace returned his kiss with an eagerness that made her head spin.

Grace savored the woodsy aroma of Brandon’s sweater as they relaxed in a warm embrace. Interlocked at the sides, they walked down to the water’s edge, looking out at the fresh, choppy lake waters.

“You were right, you know.” Grace squeezed Brandon’s side as he put his arm around her.

“Oh yeah? About what?”

Grace leaned forward, stealing another kiss, her eyes beaming.

“There’s nothing like St. Ignace in the fall.”

 

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