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He was a stage prop in his own life.
Now that was enlightening realization. Bryce Grantham eyed the darkening sky as he turned off the highway and took the small county road. Trees clawed tearing hands at the sky, the wind picking up enough that it moaned in rising protest through the branches. The shriek was audible above the music, even when he flicked up the sound.
He'd forgotten what it was like up here in late October.
The north woods held a special kind of melancholy this time of year. Gray skies, falling leaves, naked branches, and deserted roads. No more tourists, no more summer cabins full of life and light, nothing but a vast engulfing silence and autumn dying into the chill, inexorable grip of winter. Most of the places were shuttered, roof supports put in under the rafters to handle the heavy snow load, the boats hauled out of the water and beached, covered with canvas like gray shrouds, lining the shores of cold lakes that would eventually freeze into thick silent ice packs.
There, I'm all cheered up, Bryce thought in grim amusement as he guided the SUV around a turn, the wheels humming on the wet pavement. It was misting, just enough to get everything wet but not enough for windshield wipers. A soliloquy on the bleak state of his surroundings wasn't going to improve his mood any more than the lackluster meeting he'd just attended in Wausau.
A long, boring-as-hell day with a bunch of similar boring-as-hell colleagues, and a cold, lonely night ahead. What more could a man want?
Food, he realized. A man could—and he did—want food.
All sarcasm aside, he was hungry, and the lunch provided had been little more than catered lasagna, wilted salad, and generic garlic bread. A stop at the grocery store might not have been a bad idea before he headed for the cabin. It was too late now and all he could hope for was some canned food still on the shelves when he got there, and if that didn't pan out, he had a case of beer in the back of the car.
He hadn't drunk his dinner since college—not even during the thing with Suzanne—but this just might be the night.
With his first stroke of luck of the day, he caught sight of the little tavern on the corner of the last intersection before he turned for Loon Lake. He'd assumed it would be closed already for the season, but a beer sign glowed in the window and the lot held six vehicles, most of them pickup trucks or four-wheel drives. Bryce pulled the Land Rover in next to a battered Ford Ranger and got out, turning up his collar against the whip of the wet wind. At least he could get some pizza, if he remembered correctly. The frozen variety, cooked in a little electric oven behind the bar, but he really wasn't too picky at the moment.
For a man who thought he wanted solitude, he was surprised to find he craved the warmth of light and human voices.
This trip wasn't set in stone, he reminded himself sharply as he held the door for another refugee who also hurried to get in out of the weather. The young woman shivered as she slipped past him, giving him a fleeting smile. "Nasty out," she murmured. "And it's just going to get colder, isn't it? I hate winter."
If so, she should probably choose somewhere else to live, but Bryce smiled back, grateful himself to be out of the blustery elements as he followed her into the place, hit at once by the smell of food and the yeasty scent of spilled beer. In the corner, Willie Nelson wailed out a lament from the jukebox, and three men in flannel shirts sat at the bar, idly talking. Several of the other tables were occupied also, and the two of them drew cursory looks, but everyone went back to their drinks and murmured conversation.
He said politely, "Yeah, northern Wisconsin isn't the best place if you don't like the cold."
"You're telling me. And I don't." She shivered again and looked around as if picking out a table. "Like the cold, that is. It seeps into your bones up here. If I didn't have to be here, trust me, I wouldn't be."
Even a little wet and windblown, in a padded coat appropriate for a blustery October evening, she was very pretty, he realized in an offhand sort of way. Dark hair cut in a clean swing at the line of her jaw, blue eyes, very little make up because she really didn't need it, blue jeans hugging nice curves. Young. Early to midtwenties maybe.
Bryce glanced back at the doorway. No one else had arrived with her as far as he could tell, and given how few people were in the place, if she'd been meeting someone, surely the person would have said something or motioned her over.
He was actually a little shy with women most of the time—too damn shy according to Suzanne—but to his own surprise he found himself saying in a perfectly normal voice, "I was going to have a beer. Can I get you one too?"
She hesitated, her gaze assessing enough that he wondered how he measured up. He needed a haircut one of these days but had been putting it off, so his hair was probably a little on the shaggy side, his leather jacket slick with rain, his expensive tailored slacks and Italian loafers out of place in a roadside tavern. Still he must have seemed harmless enough because she gave an almost imperceptible nod. "Actually, that'd be great. Thanks."
There were no waitresses at the Pit Stop. Bryce went to the bar and asked for two drafts of Old Style, paid the bartender—who looked like a lumberjack right down to his bristly beard—and when he turned around, found the young woman had selected the table in the corner farthest away from the door. Good choice; he didn't want the blast of cold, damp air every time someone came and went either. Bryce carried their drinks over and set hers down in front of her, but held on to his for a second. "Mind if I sit here too, or are you expecting someone?"
Bold for him. Maybe all of Suzanne's cutting remarks had had an effect after all.
That was kind of hard to decipher. No, he shouldn't sit? Or no, not expecting someone?
So much for his attempt at being a little more outgoing. He stood there like an idiot, trying to decide if he needed to make a strategic retreat, until the young woman noticed his dilemma and laughed. "Sorry, I didn't really answer that well, did I? Out of practice, I guess. Please, sit. I'd like the company."
He pulled out one of the rickety chairs, trying to ignore the wobble of legs probably attached to the base in the 1950s. The scratched surface of the table also dated back decades, and over time people had etched their initials in spots. His companion fingered her glass of beer—it was in a plastic cup actually—and looked at him.
Of course. This was when he was supposed to make witty conversation and wow her with his intellect, but chances were he'd just bore her to tears.
Been there, done that.
Gorgeous eyes, he thought, luminous, dark in color, more indigo than anything, framed in wet lashes. Now that she'd taken off the shapeless parka, he could see that she wore underneath it a shirt in a soft pink material that clung to her breasts. "I get the impression you are not a native. You live close by?" he asked, trying to sound conversational.
"I'm a grad student from Madison actually. I'm up here doing a research project."
"Beautiful area." He took a sip of beer and continued. "My family has had property on Loon Lake for years."
"My place is only a couple of miles from there. I rent a cabin, which considering half of them are deserted this time of year was harder than you might think. I had to find one that was winter-proofed enough I wouldn't turn into an icicle by mid-November. I expect to be here until spring."
"What sort of research?"
The jukebox clunked and started as some man in a checkered shirt and Brewers ball cap put in some change. His choice proved to be Patsy Cline proclaiming her state of mental health, but actually, Bryce had always liked the song, aside from the melancholy message.
Everyone was a little crazy in some way in his opinion.
The young woman across the table sighed. "You had to ask, didn't you? It's pretty boring really, unless you are getting a master's degree in biology with a focus on northern aviary species, in which case we in the field find it fascinating, actually."
"Birds. Ornithology … exactly. I'm here to study the winter habits of nonmigratory North American birds for my thesis."
It had been awhile since he'd smiled spontaneously. "I see."
"Told you so. Boring, huh?" She drank more beer and watched him over the rim of her cup. "Why are you up here?"
"I think I have you outranked in the boring department. I came up for a technology conference in Wausau. I thought a few days at my parents' place might be a nice change."
"My family used to have a place here too. They sold it a few years ago."
"Hey, it happens," Bryce commented, with regret recalling how little his family used the lake cabin now. "My parents go to Florida or the Caribbean in winter. Someplace where it's warm, not forty degrees at night in the middle of July sometimes, and has beaches. I can't say as I blame them. I'm still wondering why I decided to come up at this time of year myself." He paused and then added, "I'm Bryce, by the way."
"Melissa," she offered.
"Nice to meet you." He was easily ten years older. At least. But what did it matter? It was just a drink in a small tap in the middle of nowhere.
"Same here. I hope you're staying for at least a few days."
Bryce stopped in the middle of a swallow of beer, not sure how to interpret that comment. Patsy Cline crooned from the jukebox, two of the patrons—local guys from the way they joked with the bartender—started a game of pool, and Melissa just looked at him with that same engaging direct stare.
Was she flirting? It seemed like it … at least maybe a little bit. It wasn't that women didn't flirt with him—they did—but he had a habit of keeping himself out of social situations since the divorce.
He was pretty good at avoidance. It was a honed skill, and it had ruined his marriage if you listened to his ex-wife. So, since he had no idea how to respond, he just didn't. "I was thinking of getting a pizza," he murmured.
"I've had it here before. It's frozen," she warned, still toying with her glass, a small smile on her mouth. "Not too tasty. But there aren't a lot of choices around here. Merrill and Rhinelander have more options, but this is much closer."
"I'm desperate," he admitted with a slight shrug.
"Bachelors often are. For that matter, I'm still technically a starving college student. There have been times when I thought frozen pizza was ambrosia."
He liked her laugh. It was sweet and easy. She looked like a college girl in the stylish jeans and simple clingy blouse.
How did she know he was a bachelor?
No ring, you idiot. When would he get used to the missing gold band on his left hand?
"School isn't without its sacrifices," Bryce told her, meaning it. "I remember undergrad and grad school all too clearly. But how much better is that than having no clue as what you'd like to do? Though I do have to admit I design software because I think I'm pretty good at it, but I am still not sure it's how I want to spend my life."
So fucking true. All of it. A degree from MIT, good money, nice house: all just bullshit if a person went to bed alone every single night and felt like the day was … wasted. People cared about him, he knew that. But so few of them were involved in his day-to-day existence. It made a difference.
"Life is short," he added, his voice quieter than he intended.
"And for the birds." His companion laughed and raised her glass.
"In your case, that's the truth," he agreed, finishing off his beer. "Want another?" He gestured at her glass. "I'm going to get one and order some food."
"Sure. Thanks. It's a short drive home."
He got up and ordered a sausage pizza and another two drafts. The burly man behind the bar grunted something, took his money, and Bryce went and sat back down. Outside it had begun to rain in earnest, the sound loud on the tin roof. That sound reminded him of childhood.
One of the other patrons left, and just that brief opening and closing of the door let a waft of cold, damp air touch them even in their corner.
"It's getting worse out," Melissa remarked, her lashes lowered as she stared at the small windows, the glass running with moisture, the rattle of the wind audible. "I hate nights like this."
"Introduce me to the person who likes them."
"I suppose that's true. It just gets so dark up here." Slender fingers smoothed condensation off her glass. "It sounds corny, but I thought it would be a romantic ideal … you know, cabin in the woods, solitude, the works. But the only reason I'm in this tavern right now is because it is a lot more lonely that I imagined. I mean, I love to read. I think I had this idyllic notion of quiet woods and nights with nothing to do but finally read David Copperfield from cover to cover. You know, catch up on the classics and actually get in eight hours of sleep, that sort of thing."
The tip—just the pink tip—of her tongue touched her upper lip and wiped away a bit of foam from her drink.
"That's why I went to grad school. I thought I might write a novel one day."
"Really?" She looked interested. "What genre?"
"Literary." He gave a negligent shrug. "It hasn't happened yet."
"I'm intrigued. I'd like to know more about you and the book."
Bryce had a moment of doubt. Was he being propositioned? By this pretty girl such a short time after they met? He eyed her face over the rim of his glass and decided he had no idea. That said a lot about his level of sophistication when it came to the opposite sex. There were signals; he just didn't know how to read them exactly.
It made him feel awkward, but he'd never been good at the game, not even before he was married. He was too serious … maybe that was it. The way his brain worked, he liked a straightforward explanation for everything.
Straightforward? Was that even possible with women?
"Pizza." The proprietor walked over, plunked the cardboard circle on the table, and handed Bryce a couple of napkins.
Not exactly four-star service, but the pizza was hot, and for what it was, it looked edible.
"Help yourself." Bryce pushed one of the napkins toward her with a slight grin.
"All right." She smiled back, and she definitely had a pretty smile.
As bleak as the evening had turned outside, Bryce didn't even mind the bland taste of the pizza or the vague stale smell of spilled beer in the air.
As they ate, she told him about attending the University of Wisconsin in lighthearted snippets of small talk, and they both drank their second beer.
It was over way too quickly.
"I'd better go. The weather sucks." She stood and reached for her jacket. She probably was right. The raw night wasn't getting better. After a small pause, she offered her hand. "It's been nice."
"Sure." He no longer felt quite as comfortable just because of the music, lights, and people all around them, and he needed to leave too. It was full dark now. The cabin would be ice cold.
She put on the puffy coat and they walked out together. Her vehicle was a somewhat battered Jeep that had ice crystals on the windshield. Melissa swore softly, the sound whipped away by the wind. "It's getting icy. That's the worst."
"Be careful." What a banal thing to say, but Bryce couldn't think of anything better. "The roads will be slick."
She nodded, her ebony hair brushing her jaw, and gave a small wave as she dashed to her car.
He unlocked the door of the Land Rover, cold rain pelting his head, plastering his hair to his skull, and he slammed the car door closed against the icy deluge.
Car started, defrost on … but he found the faint glaze on his windshield wasn't going away without a little help, so he sat a minute or two, startled when he heard a knock on his window. It was Melissa, and when he rolled down his window, she said quickly, "I swear this is not some kind of reverse line, but my car seems to be dead. I can't even get it to turn over. That makes me really nervous."
Well, he supposed it wasn't a night to get stranded. "Let me try."
"That's sexist, but at this point, I'll take you up on it."
She was right, he thought as he eased out of his car, ran around with his collar up against the bleak wind, and got into the front seat of hers. It had been sexist. She could turn the key as well as he could apparently because he had no better luck. The lights worked, so it didn't seem to be the battery, and that was about the extent of his skill with cars.
"I'd suggest a tow truck," he said apologetically.
Melissa huddled in the passenger seat. "Great. I guess I'll run back inside and see if someone can tell me who to call."
"I'll wait." It seemed like the right thing to do, and if he wasn't smooth, at least he liked to think he was a nice guy.
"You don't have to." In the dim illumination, he saw her bite her lip and then nod. "But thanks. I'd appreciate it, actually."
She disappeared back into the lights and warmth of the little tavern and he made the pilgrimage back to his own car, happy to see the defroster was taking care of the film of ice on the windshield. By the time Melissa emerged from the bar again, ten minutes had passed. Instead of heading to her vehicle, she opened the passenger side of his car and slipped into the seat. A cell phone was pressed to her ear, but she flipped it shut with an unhappy sigh.
"I had to leave a message," she explained, her eyes luminous in the semigloom. "Can I ask you to possibly give me a ride home? It's only about ten minutes from here."
"Sure." Though he had absolutely no objection, he was a little startled. He was, after all, a stranger.
It must have been obvious because she said, "The tow truck will take awhile. It might not even happen until tomorrow. I have experienced the vagaries of the local service before. I need a new car. Since I can't buy one tonight, you seem nice enough and we pulled in at the same time. There's no way you could have done anything to my car because you haven't been out of my sight. I have mace in my purse, by the way."
He sensed she was only half joking, so he chose to be amused, not insulted. "Noted. Where to?"
She gave him directions and, luckily, it was on his way. He pulled out of the lot, driving slowly because the road held a treacherous gleam he'd seen before. Around them the woods gathered like a secret army, closed in ranks, the few remaining leaves clinging to the otherwise naked branches, the sound of crisp rain drumming on the car. It was dark in only the way it can be in the northern woods; hushed, secretive, shrouded, and distant. They passed a few turns, the road glistening, the beating rain a steady presence. Then abruptly, Melissa said, "Here."
Bryce braked. "Here?"
"Yes. Second drive."
He wouldn't have even known it was there but he caught it, a gleam of gravel, and he turned in at the last second, the car sliding just a little. "Whoa."
"I wish I'd left the lights on now." She gathered her coat a little closer.
He came to a stop and there was only a glimpse of a dripping roof and blank windows, but she was right, it was damned dark "Want me to walk up with you?"
"No need. Remember my mace?"
"I'll stay and make sure you get in safely. And if you ever want to share another cardboard pizza, let me know."
There. That was an understated come-on in his opinion.
Melissa paused, one hand on the door. "I just might. You have a cell phone?"
He did, in his pocket, and he fished it out. By the dashboard light she slid up the cover and expertly started pushing in buttons. Then she handed it back. "My number, programmed right in."
Then she slipped out of the car. He waited patiently until lights flickered on in the windows of the square structure.
Maybe, he thought as he backed up the Rover, this trip was a good idea after all.
Copyright © 2013 by Katherine Smith