“Thanks! I will!” I called back over my shoulder.
“Hey, call me if you find any cute guys while you’re on the island and I’ll catch the next ferry over!” Sarah said, leaning in to my office and winking at me.
“Sure thing!” I said, laughing. “You know how devastatingly handsome those island boys can be, with their rubber hip waders and fishing gear strapped to their backs!”
“You never know…” Sarah said, shrugging, a mysterious twinkle in her eye. “You could run into tall, dark and dreamy anywhere.” She put her hand to her heart and gave a dramatic fake shiver.
I stifled a laugh as a shadow fell across the doorway, revealing a portly man in a gray suit. He almost blended into the gray fabric covering the walls of my cubicle. It was Mr. Peabody, my boss. He cleared his throat loudly, giving the two of us pointed looks of disdain.
“Miss Perkins, may I see you for a moment?” he asked, tapping his fingers on the doorway.
“Of course, Mr. Peabody,” I said, standing, and followed him out the door. I looked over my shoulder at Sarah, with a question mark clearly on my face, and she gave me an “I have no idea” kind of shrug.
Mr. Peabody’s office was down the hall from mine, in the corner of the building. Unlike my generic gray space, he had a window with a sweeping view of the Seattle skyline and the Puget Sound down below. What would I give for a view like that? Of course, that was why I was escaping to the San Juan Islands, to be surrounded by my own view of the water.
Mr. Peabody sat down at his desk, which was facing the door, away from the gorgeous window view. I bet he never even looks out the window, I thought to myself.
Folding his hands across his desk in what I supposed was to be an appealing look, he looked up at me and said, “Miss Perkins, it is my understanding that you are about to take leave for a week.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Then please be so kind as to tell me the status of the Rockefeller account,” he said, leaning in with a direct look at me.
“We are still in negotiations with their marketing exec,” I stammered, feeling put on the spot. This was a huge account for our company, and I had been excited to be assigned as one of the leads for their campaign. But that was over a month ago. Now it was turning into a nightmare, as we continued to argue over which ads would be run and negotiate the contract fees.
“Brad is taking over for me while I am gone. He has been working on the account with me from the beginning, so he knows what is going on with them,” I said quickly, trying to sound reassuring.
“Miss Perkins, I hope that you realize how important this account is to us. Rockefeller Jewelers should hardly be put off in order for you to sit around and sunbathe for a week. Stellar and Sons cannot afford to lose this account!” Mr. Peabody spluttered. He leaned forward, as though to emphasize his disapproval more. “Frankly, I think it is very unprofessional of you to leave, Miss Perkins, especially at such a critical time as this!”
I stared at him, incredulous and unsure of what to say next. Did he just call me unprofessional for taking a vacation? I had worked my tail off at Stellar and Sons for the last three years. The only time I had ever taken off was on Thanksgiving and Christmas. This was my first vacation in three years! There was never a good time to leave, as we were always in the middle of some all-important project or another.
“I assure you, sir, that I submitted my vacation request at the beginning of the year, so it has been on the company calendar for four months. I had no idea that we would be in the middle of such a large project,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm and professional. Mr. Peabody was rolling his eyes, as though what I said didn’t matter in the least. “I can also assure you that Brad will take good care of the Rockefeller project. He can contact me anytime if any issues come up. I won’t be that far away.”
“You better be right,” Mr. Peabody said, pointing a stubby finger at me, “because if we lose this account, it will be on your head. There is a lot at stake here, Miss Perkins.”
I nodded solemnly, a lump forming in my throat. Did he just threaten me? Was my job on the line here?
I couldn’t leave Mr. Peabody’s office fast enough.
Despite my concerns over Mr. Peabody and whether I would have a job to come back to, I couldn’t wait to get home and pack for my trip. Flip flops…check. Sunglasses…check. Laptop…I guess I had better, just in case. But absolutely NO WORKING!
I left my tiny studio apartment and hit the road early the next morning, ready for some relaxation. I didn’t even let the downpour of Seattle rain outside dampen my spirits, but I did grab an extra sweater just in case.
The roads were wet, and I hydroplaned a few times in my beat up little Toyota Corolla, but the gray slowly disappeared the further north I drove. By the time I got to the ferry at Anacortes, it was full on sun, and I knew it was going to be a glorious week.
The line-up for the ferry was pretty full, seeing how it was a beautiful spring Saturday morning and everyone and their dog was heading out to the islands. I ate my breakfast, a container of yogurt and granola, while I sat in the car and waited for the ferry to arrive, watching other passengers taking those dogs for walks. The dogs eagerly greeted each other, their tails wagging, and chased a few seagulls which were either brave enough or dumb enough to try to scavenge from the road. They would scatter noisily when an excited pup came pouncing up to them, but would soon resume their search for goods.
Finally there was a click over the loud speakers and a tinny voice announced that it was time to load the ferry.
Twenty minutes later, I was looking out the window on board the ferry, my Corolla safely stowed on the deck below me. The gentle swaying of the boat helped solidify the fact that I really was here. I was going on a dream vacation by myself, to an island I have never been, and I was going to love every blissful moment of it.
I found the Sunny Acres Inn online, when I was searching out possible island destinations. The web page didn’t have much to it, frankly I thought they could use a little help in the advertisement department, but it boasted of scenic views of the Puget Sound, quaint little rooms, perfect for private comfort, and leisurely access to the owner’s adjacent alpaca farm. I was enchanted. Considering it didn’t cost a small fortune to rent for a week, which was a plus for my meager budget, it looked all the more attractive.
I was contentedly admiring how the sun created sparkling waves on the horizon line when a friendly voice broke my reverie.
“It’s pretty, isn’t it?”
I looked up and saw an attractive guy smiling down at me. He was holding a jigsaw puzzle box in his hands, and the way he was smiling made his dark eyes crinkle a little at the corners. Hello tall, dark and dreamy.
“It is,” I responded, and returned his smile.
“Would you be interested in working on a puzzle with me?” he asked, holding the puzzle box up. “That is, unless you are waiting for someone…” he suddenly looked a little sheepish, like maybe he regretted asking. I could almost see him starting to retreat.
“No! No!” I quickly assured him. “I mean, I’m not waiting for anyone.” I laughed, a little embarrassed at my exuberant response. “I would love to work on a puzzle.”
“How do you feel about castles in Ireland?” he asked, holding the box up so that I could see the picture on the front.
“I love castles in Ireland,” I replied.
He then extended his hand out to me. “I’m Rusty, by the way. Rusty Andrews.”
“Annie Perkins,” I answered, taking his hand in mine. “It’s nice to meet you.”
It was a 750 piece puzzle, with pieces so tiny I had to squint in order to see if the edges lined up. We sat hunched over the table, pulling out all the edge pieces to start on the frame. There were passengers working on other jigsaw puzzles scattered throughout the deck. I had noticed this practice before on some of my other, shorter ferry rides. The puzzles were left here on the boat, and passengers picked up where the last group had left off. I thought it was a little disconcerting, putting so much time and effort into completing something, and then just abandoning it, leaving it to chance that it would be completed by someone else. But the cycle repeated itself over and over. And here I was starting a new cycle over again, with this handsome stranger that I had only just met.
After working studiously for several minutes in silence, Rusty asked, “So, have you been to the San Juans before?”
“No, this is my first time,” I replied.
“You’re going to love it. They are beautiful.”
“I am guessing this is not your first time to the islands, then?”
Rusty chuckled. “No, I live there actually.” I looked in surprise at his crisp button-up shirt and slim dark jeans. I had assumed he was from the city. Rusty laughed again. “Don’t look so surprised!”
“I…I’m not surprised!” I said, but quickly ducked my head so that he wouldn’t see me blushing out of embarrassment.
“Sure you are,” he said, “But that’s okay. Not all of us dress in rubber boots and overalls.” After a beat, he added, “that’s only during the week, anyway.” I smiled. A few minutes later he continued, “So, where are you from?”
“I live in Seattle,” I replied. “I work at an advertisement firm, Stellar & Sons, but originally I’m from Arizona. My parents still live there.”
“Seattle’s a long ways from Arizona,” he said.
“No kidding! I had never seen more than a swimming pool full of water in my life until I moved up here! I can’t believe how gorgeous the Puget Sound is! I love it!”
Rusty smiled. “I know, I love it too. It’s a beautiful place to live.”
We talked more about Arizona. He asked about the desert and weather. He asked about what it was like to grow up there. Before I knew it, there was another click on the intercom and the same tinny voice announced that we were approaching the dock, and it was time to head to our vehicles.
I looked down at our puzzle. We had finished the border and were just starting to piece together some groupings that looked to be part of the corner turrets, built of ancient stone.
“It’s too bad that we didn’t have time to finish it,” I said.
“That’s the beauty of it,” Rusty replied. “It may be mindless entertainment to some, just something to pass the time, but really it’s the chance to work on something bigger than yourself, more than you could ever complete on your own, and create something beautiful with people you don’t even know.”
I looked at him thoughtfully, unsure of what to say. Had we started to create something beautiful together?
I was saved from having to make a response by the announcer repeating the message to gather our belongings and return to our vehicles. I gathered my bag and got up reluctantly.
“Well, I hope you have a nice stay,” Rusty said, a little awkward.
“Thanks,” I replied, feeling like I was standing at my door at the end of a blind date, wondering if he was going to lean in and kiss me.
“It was nice to meet you,” he finally said, offering me his hand.
I put my hand once again in his firm embrace, my heart sinking a little but unsure why. “You too!” I said, then we each made our way to the stairwell and parted ways.
By the time I got to my car I could have kicked myself. I hadn’t even asked the guy where he lived, what he did for a living, or how he ended up living on an island in the middle of the Puget Sound. He kept asking me questions about my life and I happily obliged him with the details. I cringed when I remembered retelling the story of when my best friend’s older brother pushed me into their swimming pool and I had shrieked and had a panic attack, making an embarrassing scene in front of twenty of my classmates. Her dad had even called the paramedics, thinking that I had gotten injured and broken my neck or something. Why on earth did I tell him that story? I sounded like such an idiot! But we had laughed together and our connection had felt warm and genuine.
I really liked the sound of his laugh.
The vehicles around me roared to life so I started mine up as well, and then followed the line of cars down off the steep ramp and onto the dock.
After following several switch-backs up a steep incline surrounded by trees, I turned a corner to find that I was driving along the edge of a drop-off, with softly rolling waves hitting the rocks far below me. Unable to resist, I pulled over to the first look-out point I could find and got out to see the view. I grabbed my camera to snap a few pictures.
It was spectacular. The stretch of blue water went on for miles and sparkled in the bright noon-day sun. I could just make out the small forms of cargo ships making their slow progress across the blue expanse, and the hazy formation of British Columbia in the distance framed the horizon. Below me the cliff was made up of sharp volcanic rock, discouraging my idea of any beach combing in this location.
I could tell that this island was going to be a photographer’s dream.
One of my favorite hobbies was photography. I loved telling stories through images, which is probably one reason why the graphic world of advertisement appealed to me so much. I had gone head-long into a career which demanded creativity on the spot, thinking that it would be a source of satisfaction and enjoyment, but after three solid years of it I felt more drained than fulfilled. This was why a San Juan Island retreat was just what I needed. Time to rejuvenate and refresh, to relax and release.
I continued down the winding road following the cliff edge, my window open, letting in all the crisp salty air. Soon I was back in the trees and almost to the Inn. I found the turnoff easily and smiled in delight when I saw the large Victorian style house nestled in the bottom of a green valley, grouped with a fading red barn and some other out buildings. There was a crisp white fence surrounding the estate, with a large hand painted sign posted by the gate entrance which read “Welcome to Sunny Acres Inn.”
It was perfect.
I pulled into the drive and followed its gentle swoop to the front of the house. There were flower gardens surrounding the front porch, with rusted antiques placed decoratively in the yard. As I climbed the front steps I noticed a wide porch swing positioned to look out at the fields behind the house. What a magnificent view! I wanted to stop right then and nestle down into the bright blue and yellow pillows lining the swing and enjoy the quiet beauty of the fields and peek-a-boo views of the ocean.
There was a cute wooden sign hanging on a hook by the front door which read, “Come in, we’re open.” The front door opened with a subtle chime onto a large foyer, with an antiqued green-painted desk and beautiful fresh cut flowers. Rich woodwork detailing filled the house, with a prominent staircase in the center of the foyer. To the side, in what evidently used to be the large house’s sitting room, there was a little gift shop. I wandered around the shop, looking at the skeins of brightly colored wool and hand-knitted scarves and hats, covered in intricate and delicate patterns. A few minutes later I heard footsteps coming down the hall.
“Hello!” said a voice behind me, and I turned to see a smiling woman wiping her hands on an apron. She was wearing a stunning indigo colored sweater, her sleeves pushed up her delicate arms revealing a row of tinkling silver bracelets, and her hair was cut in a chic asymmetrical bob, the glistening grey color unexplainably making her face look young and fresh. “You must be Annie! Welcome!”
I reached my hand out to shake her offered, freshly dried hand.
“Yes, I am Annie,” I said, surprised that she would know my name.
“We’ve been expecting you. We knew the ferry docked about thirty minutes ago, so I figured it wouldn’t be long for you to get here,” she said warmly.
“I know that I am a little early for check-in, so it’s okay if you’re not ready for me yet,” I quickly offered. “I was just so excited to come and see the Inn.”
“That’s not a problem,” the woman said, “Your room is all ready for you. My name is Grace. Please let me know if you have any questions during your stay. I will be happy to help you in any way to make your stay more comfortable.”
I thanked her and followed her to the green desk for check-in. Grace had an old-fashioned appointment book which she slid over to me to sign with a vintage ink fountain pen. It felt luxurious to sign my name on the thick creamy paper. I couldn’t resist adding a little flourish at the end of my name, the fluid pen just seemed to beg for it.
After checking in I followed Grace up the grand staircase. I could tell it was old, as the wide wooden steps creaked a little at my footsteps. At the top there was a landing which overlooked the foyer below. Grace led me to the right and took me a few doors down. She unlocked a door which had a hand painted green number two with flowers and vines scrolled around it. When I stepped inside it was like I had stepped back in time. The room was small but inviting, with a white painted iron bed and an antique roll-top desk. The walls were covered with ornate picture frames holding colorful prints of floral motifs, and the bed was covered in a pale blue quilted coverlet and piles of fluffy pillows. Next to the window was an overstuffed chair and ottoman, perfect for sitting and relaxing. A stack of vintage books were piled on a side table next to the chair. Grace led me through the room and opened a door to a surprisingly modern bathroom. It had a beautifully tiled shower and a marble top sink, which was set into a cabinet with pretty curved feet.
“Do you think it will do?” Grace asked.
“It’s perfect!” I cried, thankful that I was going to be staying in a room that was so comfortable.
“Meals will be served in the dining room, which is just down the hall from the front foyer. I have included this week’s menu and times on the desk. If you wish to take your meals with you for the day, feel free to use the house phone and call into the kitchen. You can leave a message with the internal message service. Lunch will be served in about thirty minutes.”
“Thank you so much! I’m sure it will be wonderful!” I said as Grace left me in my room.
I felt myself drawn to the window, and sunk down into the chair placed next to it. The view was both breathtaking and tranquil. Below me were partitioned fields, with animals grazing in the sectioned pieces of land. I assumed they were alpacas, but I knew little about the creatures. Beyond the fields were a row of evergreen trees with a hint of blue water peaking between the branches. I felt that there were ample places to explore here and enjoy the natural beauty.
This place felt like heaven.
After eating lunch, I spent the remainder of the day exploring the grounds of the property. Grace told me I was free to wander around the farm, but asked that I not enter the fenced in areas housing animals. I wandered around the farm, but found that I could not resist heading toward the line of trees at the back which hinted at an incredible view of the Sound. I took my camera, hoping to capture some amazing scenes.
The view did not disappoint. I caught my breath as I made my way through the trees and came up to the rocky edge, which dropped down to the water below. Looking up the beach a ways I could see a small lighthouse on a prominent point jutting out into the water. I knew that I would have to get to the lighthouse sometime this week.
That night I wandered through the house, admiring the details of the rich woodwork, the collection of antique furniture, and the assorted framed photographs which hung in prominent places of the house. I stopped to study a particularly beautiful print of a lighthouse at sunset, placed over the fireplace in the main sitting room. The sky was bathed in vibrant purple and orange hues, while the dark water below looked like it was churning with a violent rush, the spray from the waves crashing onto the black rocks. There was such an intensity in the feelings it aroused in me that it took me off guard. It was almost as though the picture portrayed the fire of passion itself. I could feel the beauty and heat from the sky juxtaposed with the breaking cold and fury of the waves, with the lone white lighthouse, standing alone and fearless in the middle of the chaos. It made me ache for something, but I did not know what.
“My son took that picture,” Grace said quietly behind me, making me jump. I hadn’t realized that anyone was there and I felt a little exposed, having just experienced an intense private moment.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, looking back toward the picture.
“It’s the lighthouse that is just up the beach from us a little ways,” she said, coming in closer. “You should go and see it. There is a pathway that leads from our property along the tree line up the beach.”
“Oh! I will have to check it out,” I said. “Thanks.”
That night I lay in bed thinking about the picture hanging over the fireplace, curious about my intense reaction to it. I was going to have to take a walk along that pathway in the morning to see the lighthouse for myself.
I arose early the next day and got dressed, pulling my hair back in a quick ponytail. I was planning on walking over to the lighthouse before breakfast was served, but was unsure when the light would be bright enough to see it, since we were on the opposite side of the island from the sunrise. Regardless of lighting, however, I wanted to see this alluring structure.
With my camera hanging around my neck and a ratty old sweatshirt on, I skipped down the stairs and out the front door. As I moved quickly around the corner of the house, I almost ran straight into a man who was carrying a large bucket and a box of tools. Both of us startled, I looked up to see the guy that I had met on the ferry.
“Rusty?” I asked in stunned disbelief. I looked down at his muddy rubber boots and torn flannel shirt, trying to take in the difference of appearance.
“Annie! Hello!” he said, looking equally as stunned.
“What are you doing here?” I asked rather stupidly.
“I live here,” he said, then laughed. “I guess I wasn’t completely honest with you on the ferry. I do wear rubber boots on the weekend….on occasion.”
I laughed back, but was embarrassed all the same. I wasn’t expecting to see this handsome guy again, especially not now in my grubby clothes and unwashed hair. I groaned to myself, wishing that I had opted to shower before making my first venture of the day outside my room.
Rusty, on the other hand, even in his dirty work clothes looked like the picture of masculine attractiveness. He was wearing a blue baseball cap over his dark hair, and I could see a smudge of dirt on his cheek. I was tempted to reach out and wipe it away, just for the sake of physical contact.
“My mom didn’t tell me that we had a guest this weekend,” Rusty said.
I was a little taken aback. “Your mom? Is Grace your mom?”
Rusty nodded. “Yup, great lady. She runs this whole place like a tight ship.”
“And wait a minute…Am I the only guest here?” I asked. I had noticed how quiet it was and although it was still early spring, not exactly the peak season for tourists, I had still figured there would be other guests at the Inn.
“Yeah, we haven’t had a guest at the Inn for about four months now. Winter is usually pretty slow, but this winter was especially bad.”
“Oh,” I said, not sure what else to say.
“Hey, I need to go and clean up and get ready for church,” Rusty said, starting to move past me toward the front of the house.
“Oh, okay,” I said. Inwardly I was rolling my eyes at my lack of conversation skills. But then he turned around, as in mid-thought, deciding whether to say something else.
“Would you like to come with us to church?” he asked.
I was pleasantly surprised. “Sure! I would love to!” I said. “I will go and get cleaned up myself.”
“Maybe after church I can take you on a tour of the farm.”
“That would be great!” I responded eagerly.
Rusty smiled and went inside the house. This day was looking brighter already.
As I made my way down the grand staircase I saw Rusty and his mom standing in the foyer, along with another older man, who I judged to be Rusty’s father. Grace was fidgeting with Rusty’s collar in an endearing motherly manner, while he stood there patiently and allowed the process to be finished. The other man was not quite so patient.
“Come on, Grace, leave the boy alone,” he said gruffly. “Honestly, you’d think he was going on a date or something.”
“You never know how things could turn out…” Grace said cryptically.
Rusty saw me approaching and grimaced, “Ma…” Grace looked up and saw me at her son’s prompting.
“Annie! So good of you to join us today!” she said cheerfully.
I responded back warmly, “Thank you for including me.”
“Annie, this is my husband Reggie. He manages the farm. Trust me, it’s not often you will see him cleaned up like this,” Grace indicated the graying man standing with a cowboy hat clutched in his hands. He was wearing a western style suit, which seemed incongruous next to Grace’s earthy watercolor skirt and bright jade sweater.
“Don’t mind me,” he said, holding his hand out for me to shake. “I’m just an old hired hand around here. This lady is the one who really runs the show.” Reggie’s manner was gruff but I could make out a twinkle in his dark eyes, just like his son’s.
“And don’t you forget it,” Grace said teasingly, and then turned to indicate her son. “It sounds like you already met Russell.”
I faltered for a brief moment before responding, startled by the name change. “Y-yes. We met on the ferry yesterday.”
“What are the chances?” Grace said, beaming at her son.
I looked at Rusty as well, who was looking more than a little embarrassed at all the attention. Boy, did he look smart in his navy blue suit, made all the more endearing for the slight red that was creeping up his neck.
“Crickey, let’s get going!” Reggie huffed, putting his hat on and heading toward the door. “It’ll be Monday morning before we get to the service!”
Rusty and I made eye contact as his parents rushed out the door, Grace’s silver bracelets leading the way with their bright tinkling sound.
“Shall we?” he asked, offering his arm to me.
“Why, thank you…Russell.”
Rusty’s eyes danced as I took his arm and we trailed behind his parents.
As promised, after church and a delicious lunch that Grace had allowed to roast in the oven all morning, Rusty took me on a tour of the farm. I changed into some jeans before heading out, not sure exactly how rustic this farm was and not wanting to step in any mud piles or piles of something worse.
Rusty met me at the bottom of the stairs. He had also changed into some jeans and a pullover sweater. Man, this guy looked good no matter what he was wearing! My heart fluttered a little when his gaze fell upon me and gave me a warm smile.
“So, have you ever seen an alpaca?” Rusty asked, as we headed around the side of the house and toward the fenced-in partitions.
“Only in passing yesterday. Are they like llamas?”
“Sort of. They are in the same family, but are only about half the size,” he answered.
We approached the field that was closest to the house and leaned on the white fence. On the other side were what appeared to be baby alpacas standing close to their mothers. Their coats had a large range of colors, from snowy white to cinnamon brown to chocolate brown to black. The little ones made a bleating sound, almost like sheep, and the mothers responded with a strange hum.
“The babies are called crias,” Rusty informed me, motioning out to the field. “Some of these are almost weaned and will be separated from their mothers soon, but over there you can see some new ones.”
Rusty pointed to one side of the field where there were a few mothers huddled with their babies. The babies were standing on their own, but didn’t look quite as agile as some of the older babies. Their mothers hummed and clicked, seeming to offer a voice of encouragement. The babies’ coats looked impossibly soft, making me want to reach out and cuddle one.
We moved down to another field where there were older alpacas grouped together, grazing on the short green grass.
“These are the weaned males. They are basically like a pack of teenage boys, so you can imagine what antics they get into,” Rusty said, laughing as we watched a few of them jostle each other for a choice section of grass, humming and clicking all the while.
“Is that why you keep them separate from the teenage girl alpacas?” I asked, giving him a sly look.
A wide grin erupted across Rusty’s face. “Pretty much,” he said, playfully knocking his shoulder into mine.
One of the males approached the fence, evidently curious about his visitors. His coat was a dark chocolate brown, and he had a fuzzy white face framing eyes that looked like big black marbles.
“This is Rascal,” Rusty said, reaching out to the creature. Rascal darted his head forward to get near Rusty’s hand, but quickly pulled it back again before making contact.
“Do you name all your animals?” I asked.
“No, but this guy just seemed to be begging for a name. He’s always knocking over the feed bucket and picking fights with the other boys.”
I laughed. “Sounds like a few boys from another species that I know.” Bending down I picked a bunch of long grass that was growing by the fence. Tentatively I held it toward Rascal, hoping that he would draw a little closer.
“They’re friendly, but a little skittish,” Rusty warned. “Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t take it.”
Rascal must have heard what his master said and felt the need to contradict it, because he approached me in a more deliberate manner than he had to Rusty. I gently shook the stalks of grass, trying to tempt him with their green smell. He bobbed his head a few times, and then finally went in for the bite. Before he could move back I reached out and touched his head. Just as quickly, Rascal pulled back and bobbed his head a few more times, letting out a funny bleat. He came close again, hoping for some more grass but avoiding my hand all the same.
I laughed out loud. “He is so cute!” I cried. “And so soft!”
Rusty chuckled. “Yeah, this boy’s a charmer, that’s for sure. I’m surprised he let you touch him.”
“Barely,” I said, “I wish he would just let me pet him.”
“They never let you do that,” Rusty said, shaking his head. “They may be curious, but they don’t like to be handled at all. It makes it all the harder when we have to shear them.”
“When do you do that?”
“In the spring. We are probably going to do it later this week, actually, before it gets too hot. Maybe you will get to see us in action.”
After exploring the barn and chicken coop we headed back to the house. Not ready to end our time together quite yet, I sauntered over to the porch swing and sat down. There was just enough room for one other person on the seat and Rusty looked at it a little undecided. We would be pretty cozy. He opted to lean against the porch rail and I let out a tiny disappointed sigh.
Looking out at the fields, I sat quietly for a few minutes breathing in the early evening air. As the sun began to set I noticed that the noises that surrounded me transformed. Instead of hearing animals calling to each other, I could hear the wind rustling in the trees that surrounded us and the gentle chirrup of tiny frogs hiding in the grass.
“It’s really beautiful here, Rusty,” I finally said, reluctant to disturb the tranquility of the moment.
“I agree. I grew up here. I was born in this very house, as a matter of fact.”
“Yes. My great-grandfather was an old homesteader, trying to find a place to settle. Finally he found a group of settlers wanting to establish some property on these islands. My great-grandmother was adventurous herself, so she was up for the challenge. Back then, there were no ferries, of course, so this was very remote territory. They settled in this valley, starting small, but they had big dreams. They started the foundation for this house but my great-grandfather didn’t live to see it completed. My grandfather had a great mind for business. He started a few companies here and there, all so he could fund the building of this house, but none of them really took off. Finally he heard a travelling trader talking about the popularity of alpaca fiber. It was highly prized and quite expensive, since alpacas were only raised in South America. My grandfather liked to think outside of the box. He saw a great business opportunity. He invested in enough alpacas to get a herd started, and then began selling the fiber. People around here went crazy! The fiber is so soft, it is compared to cashmere, and yet it is also a great insulator, as good as wool. Everyone had to have some for themselves. He couldn’t produce it fast enough. He was able to complete this house within two years of starting his alpaca herd.”
“That’s amazing!” I said, looking back up at the beautifully crafted home.
“I can’t help but think of how proud my great-grandfather would be, looking down on what this property has grown into. He had such grand dreams, but I bet he couldn’t have even imagined all this.”
I smiled, thinking of how amazing it would be to have such a connection to one’s past.
After a brief pause, Rusty continued. “Of course, this wasn’t always an inn. My mother was the mastermind behind that evolution. Unfortunately, it was out of necessity. Although we are still producing plenty of fleece, it is harder to sell now. People are more interested in synthetic fibers because they are so much cheaper to make. It was becoming too difficult to run the farm, and my parents were afraid of losing the entire property. Converting it into an inn helped bring in just enough extra revenue to keep everything afloat.”
“You said that I have been the only guest all winter and things have been slowing down. Is everything still okay with the farm?” I asked, concerned about this amazing family property.
“Well, that’s actually why I was on the mainland last week and met you on the ferry. I was meeting with some investors, hoping they would be willing to keep us going.” Rusty looked down at his hands, fidgeting with his thumbs.
“So what happened?”
Rusty shrugged, trying to look nonchalant but not quite succeeding. “They weren’t interested. I’ll just have to come up with another plan.”
I unconsciously stopped rocking the swing, a sudden idea grabbing hold of me.
“Rusty, if your inn was booked full of guests every weekend, would that be enough to keep the farm running?” I asked, my excitement difficult to contain.
“Well, yes, but…”
I interrupted him. “Do you know what I do for a living? I work in advertisement! I know there are ways that we could help promote this amazing place! We could get it so full of guests your mother won’t even know what hit her!”
A smile crept across Rusty’s face as realization dawned on him, until finally it reached those dark dancing eyes.
We put our heads together and started to make a plan.
That night at dinner Rusty and I discussed our plans for revamping the advertisement for the inn. Reggie was skeptical it would work, but Grace was overjoyed at the prospect of more guests. Frankly, I couldn’t tell how much of her enthusiasm was for their business success and how much was over the fact that Rusty and I would be working so closely together. Grace was definitely a little matchmaker.
I went to bed dreaming about the new graphics we were planning for the inn’s website, in addition to the staging for a photo shoot while I was on location at the inn. Rusty had some really great images of the house in different seasons with some beautiful photos portraying life with alpacas, but he hadn’t really utilized them on the website. They were all taken on actual film, something I hadn’t used for ages, which meant they needed to be scanned into the computer. A friend had helped him set up the website, a very basic page with a nice picture of the inn, but he didn’t really know how to navigate the page or what features are common in popular sites today.
When I asked Rusty about his negligence with his most valuable marketing tool his face turned a little pink. I tried not to smile at his embarrassment, it was so cute, and finally he admitted that he was still pretty “old school.” They had only had internet access at the inn for the last few years, when it became apparent that it was a needed asset for the inn.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll show you everything that you need to know. It’s not that hard, really, just takes a little time to play around with it and experiment. You’ll get the hang of it.”
I got up early the next day to get some of my own shots of the property in the morning light. The sun was just starting to peek through the trees, creating a natural filter with the light and casting its hazy beams across the valley. It made for some perfect portrayals of the main house and fields. I walked up the road a ways to get the best angle and could see Rusty and his dad working out in the fields with the animals. Different than the sounds of the afternoon or evening before, the sounds during my walk were still muted in the haze of the morning. It almost felt irreverent to disrupt the quiet with the crunching of my sneakers on the gravel road from each step. The pictures were worth the effort, however.
Thirty minutes later I was sitting across the dining room table with Rusty and his parents. Grace had served up a hearty breakfast on the side board and everyone was digging in. The smell of hash browns and country sausage filled the room, making my mouth water before I even took my first bite. That woman knew how to cook. Was there anything she couldn’t do?
“Do you usually eat your meals with your guests?” I asked the table in general. This seemed like a strange and impractical practice, but I thought that I already knew the answer.
Reggie guffawed. “Heck no! Usually Grace confines us to the little table in the kitchen. We aren’t allowed to sully her perfect spread in here.”
I smiled when I saw the twinkle in his eyes directed toward his wife. They were certainly an odd match, but somehow it worked. I could tell that she smoothed out his rough edges, and he probably brought a whole lot of liveliness to their house. I wondered what it had been like to grow up with them as parents.
“I do not confine you,” Grace protested, giving her husband a playful slap on the arm. “I merely suggest that our guests would appreciate their privacy.”
“Well, I would eat in the barn, as long as they pay me to use our house,” Reggie said, shrugging.
“What are you talking about? You eat in the barn all the time! I have to boot you out of here nearly every day just to get some peace. I bet little Missy is wishing you were out there right now sharing her meal.” Grace cried, but I could tell she was having fun with him. I couldn’t stop myself, I was laughing out loud. Rusty was shaking his head at his parents, but he had a broad smile on his face.
“Who’s little Missy?” I asked.
“She’s our cat,” Rusty explained. “She was a stray that wandered onto the farm one day a few years back and just never left.”
“I can’t get rid of the dang thing,” Reggie huffed. “She stays because we are stupid enough to keep feeding her.”
“Don’t let him fool you,” Grace leaned sideways to tell me. “He loves that mangy little thing. Once we couldn’t find her for several days. She usually comes to the doorstep every night for food, but she just didn’t turn up. Reggie went out searching for her for two nights in a row.”
“Aw, what was I supposed to do, let her starve?” Reggie said, scraping the remains of his breakfast around his plate. “She could have been eaten alive out there.”
Grace gave me a knowing look, one that said, “I told you so,” and I giggled.
Against Grace’s protests, I helped her clear up the dishes and take them into the kitchen, insisting that I could do my part as a guest, if they were going to share their meal with me. Rusty hung around awkwardly for a few minutes, straightening the tablecloth on the table or moving the salt and pepper shakers from one location to another. I would turn and smile at him periodically and he would give me a sheepish grin. Finally he approached me and said, “I know that this is supposed to be your vacation, and I've taken up a lot of your time with this website business, so I thought you might want to see more of the island today. If you would like, I could take you on a first-hand tour, but if you would rather explore on your own, I totally get it....”
I looked at him in surprise. “That sounds great! There is still so much I haven’t seen yet and I bet you know all the best places. But please don't feel obligated to take me. If you have other things you need to do I understand.”
"No!" he quickly interjected. "I want to take you, that is if you would like to go...."
I smiled at him as his voice trailed off. His self-conscious hesitation was endearing and I was secretly excited about the prospect of spending the day with him.
"I would love to," I replied and he beamed back at me.
I noticed that Grace had a pleased expression on her face as we left the room together.
Our first stop was a tiny town called Roche Harbor, one of the oldest settlements on the island. The town was set into the side of a steep embankment, with a row of historic homes and shops lining the brick-paved road and wrapping around a picturesque marina full of modern boats and yachts. We parked the truck and got out to explore. I was immediately drawn to the water. We followed the wooden dock out to where all the boats were moored.
The day could not have been more gorgeous. The sky was such an intense blue, without a cloud to be seen. I felt transported to another world as I looked up at the sky, soaking in the sun, and my legs tried to get accustomed to the moving dock. Looking down into the water I was stunned with how crystal clear it was. I could see the rocks which were nestled in the sand far below my feet, and even a few fish. The color of the water was incredible, a hue that I had never seen before. It wasn’t exactly turquoise, it had more green in it, but it reminded me of a brilliant gem stone.
We wandered around the marina for a while, admiring the elegant white yachts and sail boats tied up next to some bedraggled old fishing boats, their painted exteriors sun-bleached and pealing from many years out at sea.
Standing at the end of the pier I looked again at the water and took in a deep breath.
“I can never get enough of the water,” I sighed. “There’s just something about it. It is so soothing and calming. Just smelling it makes me feel like a different person.”
“I know what you mean,” Rusty replied. “It can be therapeutic for sure. It can also be cold and violent. That’s something I’ve learned from growing up here. You think it is your friend one minute, and then the next it is a rolling powerful force to reckon with. I love it anyways, though. Maybe for the fact that it can change so much. You never know what you’re going to get.”
I looked at him curiously.
“Actually, it’s like that in the desert as well,” I said softly. “Most people don’t see it as a morphing, changing landscape, but it is. It is different every day. It is also very beautiful. Some of the most amazing sunsets I have ever seen were in the desert hills. You think of it as only hot, but the evening rolls in and everything changes color and turns cold. The creatures all come out once the sun is gone and it is a whole new world.”
“I would love to see it for myself one day,” Rusty said, looking back out at the water.
Just then a peel of bells rang out over the water, echoing around the sunken marina. We turned toward the hill on the edge of the water and saw a tiny white church and steeple nestled into the trees. After ringing out twelve gongs the bells continued to play, starting in on a hymn, “Amazing Grace.” The beautiful chiming reverberated off the water and boats around us, making it feel like we were standing in a sacred place. I was mesmerized.
“Do the church bells ring like that every hour?” I asked Rusty.
“They ring on every hour, but only play music at noon. They usually play three or four hymns.”
“It’s magical,” I said softly, absorbing the music into me as I looked back out onto the water.
Our next stop was a sculpture park with a variety of large-scale pieces of art scattered around a field and pond. We enjoyed the delicate beauty of some, the abstract bizarreness of others, and the overall embracing of different forms of expression. I took a few pictures of Rusty mimicking a statue that looked like a free-form illustration of modern dance and movement. I was laughing so hard I could hardly hold my camera steady.
“You’re a natural!” I called out to him, as he posed again by a larger than life portrayal of a red horse, saluting like an army captain but leaning lazily on the horse’s rump.
I then had to take my turn by sitting on top of a bronze alligator and taking a bite from a spoon that was as large as my futon at home.
“Come see this one,” Rusty said, pulling me by my hand around the far side of the pond. There was a figure of a woman made in white granite, the flowing lines of the piece subtle and graceful. You could only just make out her form, as though she was draped in a sweeping veil, but her softly chiseled face was clearly visible. She was looking down with a demure expression, her hands clutched together at her chest.
“This one has been here for a while,” Rusty said. “I have always liked it. My mom is friends with the artist. She has lived on this island for years.”
I stepped up to the plaque nestled in the grass and read the title of the piece, “Patience.”
“It’s beautiful,” I said. “Are most of the artists local?”
“Yes, most of them live somewhere in the Puget Sound, and there are a number who live out here in the San Juans. The park is always changing because the pieces that are displayed get sold periodically, and they bring new ones in. Of course, they are pretty pricey, so some of them are here for a long time.”
I marveled at the thought of an ever-changing and evolving park.
“I’m glad that this one is still here,” I said. “It seems like something that needs to be shared, rather than secreted in someone’s back yard.”
“I agree,” Rusty said.
I noticed that he was still holding my hand, from when he led me over to this corner of the park. I gave his hand a little squeeze to tell him that I approved and my stomach did a squishy turn when he playfully squeezed it back.
Next we visited the separate English Camp, nestled in a picturesque lush bay, and the American Camp, situated on the southwest tip of the island. Both were relics from the 1800’s when English and American troops were disputing over water boundaries. The American camp was built on one of the last natural prairies of the Puget Sound, with long flowing grasses and a fierce wind. We also saw a number of wildlife there, including foxes and rabbits. I squealed out loud when I saw two little black eyes peering at me from the long yellow fronds of grass. A small black fox emerged looking at me curiously, and then slipped back into the cover of the field.
Our final stop was at the same high lookout point which I had stopped at on my way to the inn on that first day. The view was incredible, with a fierce wind blowing the salty air into my face and hair. We watched the water for a while, hoping to catch sight of a whale.
Looking down at the volcanic rocks piled up at the water’s edge, Rusty pointed out a huge brown sea lion sunbathing on the rocks.
“Want to get a closer look?” he asked, and I nodded my head eagerly.
Rusty took my hand to help me down the jagged rocks. I wasn’t as nimble as he was, but his hand in mine gave me the extra support I needed to jump from rock to rock and maneuver down a few steep inclines.
Finally we got close enough that I could clearly see the sea lion’s whiskers twitching as he snorted every few minutes. Rusty stood behind me, his hands bracing me on my hips, supposedly for some extra support in our precarious location, but I probably could have managed fine without it. I did not complain, however. Feeling him so near was exhilarating. It was also distracting, as I couldn’t get my attention to focus clearly enough on my camera and its settings. I took a few token shots of the seal but I knew they wouldn’t be that great. It didn’t matter.
The sea lion opened his eyes lazily and turned in our direction, his big brown eyes taking in the curious visitors. In a movement that was just as unconcerned he let out a loud snort and turned his head away from us, repositioning himself on the rock to continue to soak in the sun. We laughed at his complete lack of concern.
The way back up the rocks was easier than the way down. Rusty kept a tight hold of my hand and carried my camera for me so that it wouldn’t bang against the rocks as I scaled the steeper areas. When we reached the top I turned around to see where we had just been and I was amazed at how far down we had climbed. I never would have been brave or secure enough to do that on my own.
“That was incredible!” I said as Rusty handed my camera back to me. “I’ve never seen a sea lion so close before. That guy was huge!”
“I don’t usually get that close to them, but you made me feel more brave than usual. I had to save face, after all.”
“Yeah! But you had me in front of you like a shield! Nice bravery there!” I gave him a light-hearted shove.
“Hey, I could have taken him in a second!” Rusty said, flexing his bicep in an impressive display of male macho-ism.
“I think it’s time to go,” I dead-panned in response, heading for the truck, but I added over my shoulder, in what I hoped was a somewhat flirtatious manner, “You coming, Rambo?”
How had my life become so encumbered with things that felt so consuming and urgent at home, but which lost their importance or meaning while I was surrounded by such tranquil beauty? I thought a lot about my job, how it had taken over every aspect of my life. True, I loved the nature of what I did. Channeling my creative energy while I worked was exhilarating. It made me feel as though I could accomplish something larger than life, to create an image or expression which had the potential to be seen by countless people and hopefully impact them in a positive way.
But as I sat and thought, breathing in the tangy air, I wondered if the price was too high. For all the wonderful and impactful things that I could accomplish, what had I given up? I hardly ever saw my parents. I rarely went out with friends. I certainly did not date. I had sacrificed my relationships. With the easy excuse that the first years on the job are presumably the hardest and most consuming, I had written off my relationships without even batting an eyelash. And now, three years later, I discovered that the uphill track in a busy firm never slows down or gets easier. The more successful you are, the more you must give up. Was this what I really wanted?
After one of my walks out to the lighthouse, I wandered back to the inn. The sun was starting to set which meant that it would soon be time for dinner, and I hoped it would also mean that I might catch sight of Rusty again. I entered the dining room and was surprised to find Grace at the table laying out an assortment of skeins of what looked like wool, but what I now knew to be alpaca fiber. She was bundling the tightly rolled skeins in brown paper wrappers. On the table was a rainbow of beautiful colors, in addition to the natural shades of the fiber.
Approaching the table I fingered the delicate yarn and was once again impressed with how soft it was. Grace smiled at me as she worked.
“Are all of these from your animals?” I asked.
“Oh yes. They are all hand spun and dyed,” she answered proudly.
“Who does all of this?”
“Why, me of course! We will be shearing tomorrow, so I will have my hands full with all the new fiber to spin.”
I was stunned. For some reason I hadn’t imagined that all of this would be done on site, and all by one very industrious woman.
“I try to come up with new colors each year. Usually they are just variations of dyes that I have already used, but I like to experiment,” she said. I watched her as she rewound a skein that had come undone. Her hands were remarkably graceful as they twisted the yarn around, hardly betraying her age.
I noticed she was wearing another luxurious sweater, this one a dramatic v-neck in an intense variegated orange and pink. To my surprise I noticed little flecks of turquoise peaking out here and there, creating a unique and vibrant illusion.
“You make all your sweaters, don’t you?” I asked, comprehension dawning on me.
Grace looked up in surprise, her long turquoise and silver drop earrings swinging from her movement.
“Of course! I wouldn’t be wearing someone else’s!”
I chuckled at her reaction. Shaking my head, I said, “Rusty is right, Grace. You really are amazing.”
Grace smiled and looked back down at her work. After a brief pause she spoke, still focused on the yarn in her hands. “That’s not the only thing Russell is right about…”
I waited for her to continue, but when she didn’t I prompted her, “What do you mean?”
Still not looking up, she said, “Well, you for example.”
Finally lifting her bright green eyes to my face, she set her yarn on the table.
“Russell is positive that this little project of yours is going to work, it’s going to keep this farm running. But I don’t know that it will work because we have anything more special to sell than anyone else. I know that it will work because of you. You are like magic in this house.”
I was caught off guard by her words, but couldn’t tear my eyes away from her intense gaze.
“I have seen how Russell looks at you, how he can almost sense when you are about to enter the room. There is something special about you, Annie, and I am glad that you are here.”
Grace reached across and touched me lightly on the arm. Looking down at her left hand I saw the intricately designed silver ring encircling her finger, a cascade of swirls and flourishes, almost like waves in the ocean. For Grace, it was a symbol of a lifetime of love and commitment, of passion and the ever-present necessity of change. I thought it was remarkably sensitive and romantic that Reggie would use such a ring to link himself to his soul mate, for the ring was an accurate description of her.
Looking her in the eyes again, I said with conviction. “Rusty is right, this plan is going to work. We are going to keep this farm running, but not because of me. There is something magical about this place. I felt it the moment I pulled into the drive. It comes from a beautiful setting, a rich history to share, but mostly I think it comes from you.”
When I went outside the sun was barely starting to peek over the top of the trees. I welcomed its warm rays, since the air still held the nip of a cool spring morning.
Rusty and his dad were giving directions to four men, who were hired to come and help with the shearing. The goal was to have all seventy-five alpacas sheared by lunch time, a pretty lofty goal for only two men, but attainable with the added four.
The men set up a large mat for the animals to lie on, then gathered them one at a time. Two would help the alpaca lay on its side, while the other two strapped bungee cords around its feet and stretched the animal out securely. A man stayed on each end of the animal, keeping them from moving and getting injured. Rusty typically stayed at the alpaca’s head, holding it secure and stroking it if the animal seemed agitated.
While the alpaca was stretched out, Reggie came in with a huge set of electric clippers and started shearing the animal. He followed a rhythmic pattern across the animal’s side, moving in even lines. The coat would then lift off in an almost solid piece, and Grace would gather the fiber and collect it in canvas bags. Reggie would then continue shearing along the animal’s legs and neck until it was ready to be turned. The men would pick up the alpaca together and place it on its other side, allowing Reggie to complete the job.
When the body was completely sheared of all its fiber, the men allowed the alpaca to sit up and Reggie gave them each a real haircut. He carefully shaved around their ears and trimmed the top to give them a polished look. When they finished with Rascal I couldn’t help but pop in to get a few pictures.
“I think he’s ready for a glamour shot,” I said, and Rascal was ready to comply. He looked at me with such an intelligent look in his eyes, that I thought for sure that he was saying to me, “Can you believe what they’ve done to me?” Reggie had kept a smart little lock on the top of his head, giving him a coiffed bad-boy look. He was adorable.
I was amazed at how quickly the entire process took place. I could tell that it was a well-orchestrated event, one that had been practiced for many years. Reggie certainly was an “old hand,” he knew exactly what he was doing. His helpers knew it as well, they quickly fell into a pattern, shearing each animal in under five minutes.
As I watched them work, I couldn’t help but watch Rusty and his dad’s interaction with the animals. Rusty had such a gentle and reassuring manner, speaking in low tones and caressing them on the neck and face. Reggie would stroke them across the belly and side as he was shearing them, which I was sure was his way of expressing his love for them.
The older alpacas were easy. They were accustomed to the routine and typically laid down on the mat without a fuss. The younger ones were a different story, however. They would buck and kick, squirming their heads around, trying to break free of their confinement. I watched as Rusty would link their heads under his arm and walk with them to the mat, talking to them in soothing tones. The youngsters almost immediately calmed down. If they were still fighting their constraints as they were lying on the mat he would hold his hands on both sides of their faces, stroking their muzzle and talking to them some more.
Once the animals were released they jumped up and joined their friends, all huddling together like wobbly naked children. I couldn’t help but laugh at how pathetic they looked, their skinny little bodies exposed to the world.
“Look how skinny they are!” I cried, as Grace joined me for a moment watching the younger group as they were herded back into their pen. “They looked so fat before, but I guess it was all just fluff!”
Grace laughed. “Yep. Their coats are deceptively thick. We get between three to ten pounds off of each animal, depending on their size.”
“Seriously?” I was incredulous. I looked at all the canvas bags full of fiber which were being stacked up around us. The amount of fluff was overwhelming.
Grace started carrying the bags toward one of the outbuildings, stacking them against the wall inside. I started to help her, knowing that many hands made light work.
“Do you spin and dye all of this fiber?” I asked, looking at the huge pile of bags which resembled pillows. We could have a serious pillow fight in this barn, I thought.
Grace shook her head. “No, we sell most of it to vendors, but I like to keep a fair amount to play with. It keeps me busy all year.” I have a workshop in this building, where I do most of my spinning and also work with the dyes. It is a messy business. I frequently have purple or red hands, or some other crazy color, when I am experimenting with the dyes. I wear gloves, but it still soaks through.”
I tried to imagine Grace’s beautiful hands tinged with a rainbow effect. The thought was too incongruous with how I pictured her now.
“I would love to watch you while you worked with the yarn,” I said. “I bet it’s amazing to watch.”
“Well, I guess that you will have to come back for another visit then,” Grace said, with a twinkle in her eye.
“I guess that I will,” I answered quietly, and followed her outside to help her finish bringing in the bags of fluff.
After lunch, Rusty and I sat down in the library to work more on the website. I uploaded the pictures that I had been taking of the inn and the farm onto my laptop and we scoured through them together, selecting the best shots and sorting them into groups. I had taken a number of pictures of Grace the day before with her brightly colored yarn. I had even coaxed her to pull out some sweaters and other projects to showcase. They looked like bright water color paintings, their shades and hues blending and fading, accenting and contrasting. I was mesmerized by the caliber of her work. I knew that incorporating this aspect of the farm, the sweet little gift shop with all its beautiful accessories, and possibly even creating an online store for her to sell her yarn from, would be an important addition to the website.
In addition to the beautiful grounds and property, I had quite a few pictures of the men working, and I was embarrassed that Rusty would see so many of just himself in there. Image after image of him: the sunlight streaming through his hair, his face crinkled in a laugh as he was reaching out to Rascal, or him fixing one of the fence posts, a look of concentration and effort etched on his face as he was lifting the post to level it, or him taking his baseball cap off and wiping his brow, looking off in the distance. I hadn’t realized that I had taken so many of just Rusty. I began clicking through the images quickly, praying that Rusty hadn’t noticed the large number of them.
“I think that we’ve got a lot of possibilities here,” I said, hoping to cover up my embarrassment.
“You’ve got a great eye, Annie,” Rusty said, indicating the screen on my laptop. “Your pictures seem to tell stories. Like this one…” He pointed to an image of his father leaning on a shovel, his pants and boots covered with dirt. His large black cowboy hat shaded his eyes, but I could still see the sense of pride in the expression on his face, tinged with an anxious concern, as he looked out at the field. “You captured my father well. He is so proud of the heritage his father and grandfather left him. This farm means everything to him. Those animals are more than just a means for survival or paying the bills. He knows each one of them individually, their temperament, their favorite treats. He is terrified that he is going to lose this property, although he will never show it or say it out loud. But I can see it in the expression on his face right here, and the way he is looking out at the farm.”
Rusty’s voice broke a little.
“Thank you for helping us with this, Annie,” he said softly. He cleared his throat, trying to sound more controlled. “Like I said, you have a great eye.”
“So do you,” I faltered. “I’ve seen some of your images hanging around the house.”
He looked a little sheepish. “They’re nothing, really. It’s just a hobby. And I can’t do any of this technical stuff like you can.”
“No, I’m serious,” I insisted. “Your pictures move me. There’s one in particular, the one hanging in the sitting room over the fireplace. It’s beautiful.”
Rusty was looking at me. His face was so close to mine. We had both been pouring over the images on the screen and I hadn’t realized how close together we were sitting.
“I know which picture you are talking about,” he finally said, after what had seemed like an eternity of quiet, looking into his clear brown eyes. He lifted his hand and gently swept a lock of hair that was falling into my face, tucking it behind my ear. I stopped breathing as he held his hand there a little longer than was necessary. “I like that picture too.”
Our faces were now only inches apart. As I looked deeper into his eyes I could see tiny flecks of green that sparkled in the light which was streaming in through the window. It was the same green which I had seen the day before, when Grace was talking to me so intently. His hand gently cupped my cheek and pulled me in closer, making my heart pound in my chest. I closed my eyes, anticipating the sensation of his lips on mine when suddenly my phone erupted with Steve Perry’s high pitched croon. “Don’t stop…believin’...hold on to that feeeelin’!”
I had always liked that Journey song before. Now, cursing under my breath, I fumbled for the phone in my back pocket. Rusty drew away. That ring tone was definitely going to have to go.
“Hello?” I almost barked into my phone, not even looking at my caller ID.
“Hello? Annie? This is Brad.” My co-worker’s faltering voice trembled on the other end of the line. My stomach sank and I let out a groan.
“Hi Brad,” I said, my voice flat and resigned. Rusty shot me a questioning look, and then politely tried to act like he wasn’t listening to my conversation.
“Annie! We are in serious trouble here!” Brad’s voice started rising in pitch and volume. “Rockefeller Jewelers are not agreeing to any of our contracts! They are saying that we haven’t given them anything that they want to work with! They are threatening to pull out and go somewhere else! Peabody is going insane!”
Now my stomach had dropped so far I didn’t think it was even attached to my body any longer. “What do you mean? They liked the last pitch we made! Are you sure they aren’t just trying to play hard ball?”
“I’m sure, Annie. They are serious. They are threatening to walk and Peabody is livid! He wants you here tomorrow.”
I tried to take a few deep breaths. I can handle this, I told myself, hoping that I would believe it.
“Okay, Brad. It’s going to be fine. Tell Peabody that I’m on it. I will be there tomorrow. We will make this happen.”
I could hear Brad on the other end of the line starting to make incoherent sounds, like maybe he was hyperventilating.
“Brad!” I practically yelled into the phone. Rusty gave up trying to look like he couldn’t hear what was going on. “Listen to me! It’s all good! I’ve got an idea and they are going to love it! Tell Peabody that I’m on it!”
The sound of labored breathing filled my ear. Ugh, he was such a lightweight! Finally I heard his little whimper, “Okay, I’ll tell Peabody. We’re good. You’re on it.”
“Alright, thank you Brad. I will see you tomorrow. Now go and get a Diet Coke or something,” I said, rolling my eyes. I could see Rusty trying not to smile, but it was immediately replaced with a thoughtful look on his face.
My irritation with Brad’s reaction quickly turned to serious panic after I disconnected from the phone call. What was I going to do? I told Brad that I had a great idea, one that would solve everything, but really I had nothing. I was just trying to appease him and Mr. Peabody. Rockefeller Jewelers had seemed genuinely interested in my last campaign pitch. I had thought that they were just dragging their feet over contract issues. Now the realization hit that not only was I about to lose the largest account of my career, but I may also be on the verge of losing my job. I dropped my face into my hands and let out a long moan.
The only problem was, as much as I wanted to be successful with the Rockefeller campaign I really did not want to leave the island. At home, everything was fast paced, requiring immediate attention and aggressive action. The world was different here. Everything was in slow motion: the people, the cars, the animals. This relaxed pace altered my perspective. What once seemed so vital and demanding now seemed trivial and unimportant. I found myself wondering if it really was the end of the world if I lost this account.
But I could lose my job too, not just an account. That was not an option.
Rusty found me sitting on the porch swing a little while later, after I had gotten off the phone with Mr. Peabody.
“How’s it going?” he asked, breaking me from my stunned stupor.
“Oh, fine I guess,” I said. I didn’t really know how I was doing. I was feeling so confused over the difference between these two opposite worlds. I loved how I felt on San Juan Island, at this tranquil little inn. But this was only a vacation. This wasn’t real life. My life was in Seattle, and I needed to succeed with this account in order to pay for my bills. Next month’s rent money wasn’t going to suddenly appear in my bank account. I was going to have to earn it.
“Is there anything you want to talk about?” Rusty asked. After a tentative pause he slid onto the porch swing next to me. We gently swung the bench in unison and the swaying motion was a strange sort of comfort. It was a deep-down root-based comfort, like a forgotten memory that has been hidden since the time that memories were first created. Our legs were touching on the cozy seat but neither of us moved to separate them.
“I am going to have to leave tomorrow,” I said softly. I didn’t want to say it, it was already obvious since Rusty had been in the room when I was talking to Brad. But I felt like it needed to be said regardless.
There was a long awkward pause.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Rusty said, offering me his hand.
Without even thinking about it, our feet seemed to lead us in the direction of the lighthouse, which had become my favorite haunting place over the last few days. We walked along a pathway which wove between red-barked trees until we found a nice place to sit on some rocks. The gentle lapping of the water on the rough rocks below created a soothing backdrop and I tried to breathe in and absorb the tangy air, willing it to calm my shattered nerves.
“Tell me about when you took the picture of the lighthouse, the one hanging in the sitting room,” I said, turning to Rusty. “It’s hard for me to imagine the water ever being that rough. It has only been calm and peaceful since I have been here.”
Rusty leaned back on his hands, his eyes on the lighthouse and the water below. “It was a really stormy evening,” he started. “The wind had been going crazy all day, with immense dark clouds in the sky. It looked like there was going to be a big storm. I was feeling reckless. I wanted to be right in the middle of it, feel what it was like to be surrounded by something so powerful.”
Rusty paused for a moment, thinking about that night.
“At that time, I was being rebellious with my father, with the farm, with our way of life. I felt trapped on this island and wasn’t sure it was where I wanted to be for the rest of my life. My two older brothers had already moved on, one was in the Navy, the other lived with his wife and two kids near Seattle. I felt like it was expected of me to be the one to stay, because neither of the other boys had. I didn’t feel like I had been given the choice, and I resented it.”
Rusty pointed down to a jagged outcropping of rocks close to the foaming water. “I was standing about there when I took that picture. It was dangerous and stupid. The water was coming in so fast, crashing on the rocks around my feet. I knew that at any moment a wave of water could come in and sweep me off my feet. I would either be carried out to sea or bashed against the rocks. But as I was surrounded by the rolling and crashing of the waves, the surprising power and violence, I began to feel connected to the water. I know that sounds funny. I don’t understand it myself, but it was like the water spoke to me. It knew the turmoil and emotions that were crashing inside of my heart. It knew that I had to let go of my fears, the fear of being trapped but also of not knowing what my true destiny was, and the possibility that I was missing out on a spectacular dream.”
Rusty motioned toward the sky above the lighthouse.
“The sun began to set and as it did so the sky seemed to catch on fire. It turned a brilliant orange, with bursts of yellow and red, surrounded by intensely purple clouds. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The water around me was so cold and harsh, but the sky was nothing but heat and fire. Just when I didn’t think the colors could be any more intense, the light at the top of the lighthouse flicked on, a lone little white light in the middle of the storm.”
“Suddenly I didn’t feel afraid or alone. Even though I could connect with the ferocity of the churning water, I could also connect with the warmth and beauty of the sky. I could connect with the solidarity of a little lighthouse that had stood there for a hundred years and weathered more storms than I could count. I could direct my inner passion and warmth, my dependability and commitment toward something I loved: my family. What was important to them was important to me. It was standing out on those rocks when I decided that I was going to stay, and I have never looked back or regretted it, because it was my decision to make.”
I took his hand in mine, wanting to convey to him my appreciation for the significance of what he shared with me, but not knowing what to say.
Rusty looked into my eyes, seeming to search for something. “So tell me, Miss Annie Perkins, why are you here?”
“I…I don’t know,” I said, looking down at our intertwined fingers. “I thought that I knew before, but it is all confusing now. I thought that I wanted just a little vacation, but now I don’t know what I want…”
The sun was beginning to set, casting a warm glow on everything around us. I looked into Rusty’s eyes and watched the green flecks seem to alight with fire. He leaned in closer to me and gently brushed his hand across my cheek until he was winding my hair between his fingers.
“I know what I want,” he whispered. And then he kissed me, pulling me close with a gentle touch. My heart was pounding so loudly in my ears that I could no longer hear or feel the movement of the water and wind around me. As I responded more to the kiss and his touch, his lips became more urgent and we wrapped ourselves in each other’s arms, letting the fire that surrounded us in the sky burst inside with a greedy passion.
Rusty was the first one to speak. “I’ve been wanting to do that ever since I met you on the ferry,” he said, wrapping his arms around me again and holding me tight. “Something about you has entranced me.”
“I don’t want to leave,” I whispered, nuzzling my face into his neck. “I’m not ready to say good-bye.”
Rusty stiffened slightly.
“But you are…saying good-bye.”
“I have to, Rusty. I don’t have a choice. I have to get back to work. My boss and my co-workers are counting on me.”
“I know,” he said, pulling away gently. “You have a job to do. And so do I.”
We stood up and brushed the dirt from our pants. I offered him my hand and together we walked back to the inn, but not before I turned one more time to watch the fire in the sky mellow to a luscious violet.
I arose early the next day, planning on catching the first ferry to Anacortes. When I descended the staircase I found Grace waiting for me in the main sitting room, knitting another one of her creations by the fireplace. She got up when she saw me, a sad smile on her face.
“I guess you are off then,” she said, coming forward to take my hands in hers. “I wish that your stay had been longer. You must come back again for another visit.”
A lump was starting to form in my throat. I hated good-byes. I pulled her close for a warm embrace.
“Thank you so much for everything,” I said, wishing that I could convey to her all that I felt, but it was impossible. I turned to leave but hesitated at the front door. My heart sank a little. As much as I hated good-byes I had wanted to see Rusty one last time, even for just a moment. Looking briefly over my shoulder at the empty foyer I realized that it was probably for the best. Our relationship, if you could call our brief encounter a relationship, would never be able to go anywhere. We led such different lives.
I felt like I was walking away from a beautiful dream. It was passionate and sweet, but a dream nonetheless.
I loaded my bags in the car and started the engine. Turning in my seat to back out of the driveway I almost ran right into a man who had stepped behind the car. It was Rusty.
He came over to my window and leaned in. I noticed that his face was already sweat-stained from working on the farm that morning.
“I hope you don’t think that you can leave without saying good-bye,” he said, a smile on his mouth which didn’t quite reach his eyes.
Pushing him out of the way in order to open my door, I practically jumped into his arms, wrapping myself around his neck. He returned the embrace with arms that were solid and warm. I did not want to let go, but he pulled back.
“You better get going if you’re going to catch the first ferry,” he said reluctantly.
“Yes, I know,” I responded, stalling. He leaned in for a final kiss. It was different than our shared kiss the night before. It was light and simple, but with a promise of what could have been.
I re-entered my car and put it into gear to leave, but before I could start backing up Rusty handed me a large manila envelope.
“I hope that you found what you needed here,” he said softly.
I began to ask what he meant but he was already heading toward the house. I looked at the time on my dashboard clock and cursed to myself. I was going to have to scramble if I wanted to make that ferry. The next one wasn’t for another several hours and I needed to get into Seattle as soon as I could for my meeting.
I backed out of the long drive, pausing to look back at the house for a brief moment before I pulled out onto the road. Rusty and Grace stood on the front porch, watching me go. I gave a little wave, which they returned, and then I left.
I barely made it in time. It wasn’t until my car was parked and I was sitting at a window on the top deck of the boat that I pulled out the envelope that Rusty had given to me. I caught my breath as I pulled out what was inside.
It was a copy of the print that was hanging over the fireplace at the inn. The lighthouse in the storm. The package also included a note hurriedly scribbled. “You always have a choice,” it read.
I stared down at the print in my hands. I knew what I wanted, but now to do what I had to. I pulled my laptop from its case and got to work on my presentation for that afternoon.
I drove straight through to Seattle and my office downtown. I was ready for my presentation with Rockefeller Jewelers, but would it be enough? Bracing myself for the most important meeting of my career to date, I marched into the conference room where Mr. Peabody, Brad, Sarah, and a few other co-workers were preparing for the meeting. When they looked up and saw me I could see a distinct sense of relief fill their faces.
“Well, Miss Perkins, do you have a presentation ready for us?” Mr. Peabody asked briskly.
“Yes, I’m ready,” I said firmly, and an almost audible sigh of relief passed around the room.
Sarah slid over next to me as everyone finished getting the equipment and displays set up in the room.
“So, how was it?” she whispered, her eyes twinkling. “How was your trip? I didn’t hear anything from you, so either you had terrible cell service or you had a reeeally good time!”
I winked at Sarah and said, “What do you think?”
“Well, from the looks of your rosy cheeks and the smile on your face, I’d say that those island boys weren’t too disappointing.”
The door opened and a procession of five stern-faced executives from Rockefeller Jewelers entered the room. Here we go, I thought.
After several minutes of formalities the meeting got down to business. We were seated around a long conference table, the jewelry reps sitting shoulder to shoulder looking decidedly difficult to please. Mr. Peabody turned the floor over to me for my presentation.
I stood slowly, willing my heart to stop racing. This was my moment to shine.
I turned on the projector which was set up in the room, tapped a few keys on my laptop, and a series of images began to flash on the screen behind me. It was a time lapse series of images portraying a bustling city, a never-ending stream of people and vehicles moving from day into the night.
“We are all part of a busy, bustling world,” I said, indicating the scene flashing behind me. “In all our impersonal rushing around, there is something which gets lost along the way. As human beings we have a need to feel connected.”
A series of sappy romantic images flashed on the screen, looking like a Valentine’s Day advertisement with teddy bears and hearts.
“But when we find that person that is perfect for us, knows us inside and out, gives us the intense personal connection which we are craving, the sweet and subtle message of love that is portrayed in the majority of advertisements doesn’t feel like enough.”
A new series of time lapse images flash quickly on the screen, with bursts of bright and intense color. A green bud transitioning to a brilliant purple bloom. A beach with magnificent rolling waves crashing violently on the shore. A burst of magma erupting through the cracks of volcanic rocks.
“We want more than a simple expression, because what we feel is so much more than simple! What we want is passion!”
More series of images of blooming flowers and nature in intense motion flashed behind my back on the screen, moving faster and faster. The colors were vibrant and alive. Everyone’s eyes were glued onto the screen, and some of them even had their mouths slightly open. I noticed Sarah looking at me with a knowing smile and a raised eyebrow. Either this was a really great idea or it was a huge mistake! But there was no going back now!
“What we want is to feel. What we crave is to experience intensity. I propose that we start a new jewelry line that will help people discover their passion, whether it is something new and exciting, or igniting a flame that has been sizzling on low for thirty years. We can appeal to young and old alike, because passion speaks to everyone.”
Several heads started bobbing subtly. The execs from Rockefeller Jewelers exchanged sideways glances to gage the others’ reactions. I knew that I almost had them. At last the final slogan appeared on the screen against a dramatic backdrop of an exploding orange and gold sunset, with huge purple clouds billowing across the screen.
“FIND your passion. BE her rock. LIVE your dream. Rockefeller Jewelers.”
All was quiet for a moment, it felt like eternity. I could see the executives soaking in the idea, spinning it around in their heads, playing with the thought. They turned to each other murmuring quietly amongst themselves. None of my co-workers made a sound, waiting to hear their reaction.
Finally the head executive spoke, leaning forward in her chair.
“Miss Perkins, we like your idea. It has an edginess to it that appeals to Rockefeller Jewelers’ clients. Let’s meet again next week to review the campaign again and solidify our thoughts together, after we have had more time to marinate in this idea for a bit.”
My team stoically shook their heads in approval, not wanting to appear overly excited.
“Very well Natasha,” Mr. Peabody jumped in, rushing forward to shake her hand. “We will be contacting your office to set up the next conference.”
We waited until all five executives exited the room and finally let out a sudden “whoot!” Everyone grouped around me, issuing high fives and patting me on the back.
Sarah gave me a huge hug and cried, “You did it, girl!” Then she leaned in and whispered, “You have soooo much to tell me!”
I was hearing rumors around the office of a big promotion coming my way. Even Mr. Peabody hinted at the possibility of some “exciting new changes on my horizon.” Funny thing was, though, that I was not nearly as excited about the possibility of a promotion as I would have thought. Wasn’t this what I had been dreaming about, a fast-paced lifestyle and a prestigious career? That was why I had moved to Seattle three years before, after all.
But now all I could think of was rolling green fields, crisp white fences, and the unmistakable tang of salty air. That, and a pair of warm brown eyes, with green flecks gleaming in the sun.
I wondered what Rusty was doing right at that moment. I looked at my desktop for the time—it was just shy of four o’clock in the afternoon, almost quitting time. Rusty was probably working out in the field, helping Reggie with the animals. Grace was probably making her plans for a delicious dinner, having set her knitting aside to feed her two men.
I missed them. It was strange to think how close I felt to that family, when we had only been together under the same roof for one week. There was something warm and inviting about them, making me feel as though I had always known them.
I felt something more when I thought of Rusty, however. An ache which was so bittersweet, followed by an irresistible urge to smile and giggle foolishly to myself occurred whenever I would allow myself to daydream, remembering the feel of his arms wrapped around me, or his hand in mine, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes when he smiled, and his laugh.
I hadn’t spoken to Rusty since our final good-by in his driveway. I had been so busy with work it was difficult to find the time to call. But it was more than that. I didn’t really know what to say.
“Thank you for a lovely week. Too bad I already have a life and career in Seattle. Maybe I will see you next year,” didn’t really sit well with me. Plus it wasn’t actually how I felt.
“I miss you. I want to be with you. I think I am falling in love with you.” That was the honest truth.
But Rusty also hadn’t called me either.
I was daydreaming about that first kiss in the shadow of the lighthouse and setting sun when Trina, the assistant who ran our division’s schedules, popped her head into my cubicle.
“You have a new client appointment in the conference room, Annie,” she said in her sing-song voice.
I turned to look at her in surprise.
“A new client? You know I don’t have time for a new client while I’m still working on the Rockefeller account. Why don’t you give them to Sarah?”
Trina just gave me a smug little smile.
“Trust me,” she said. “You’re going to want to keep this one for yourself.”
I made my way to the conference room to meet with my new mystery client. When I opened the door, I gasped in surprise. There was Rusty, with a bouquet of orange and purple tulips in his hand. He was looking at me with a shy smile on his face, as though he wasn’t sure what my reaction would be to his visit. I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say.
“I’m looking for some professional help on an advertisement for my family’s business,” he started slowly. “I heard that you’re the best.”
I stood at the door, my hand still on the doorknob. He looked so nervous, so different from the Rusty that had taken me in his arms on our last night together. I melted on the spot. “Do you always bring flowers to your prospective business associates?” I asked coyly, my eyes never leaving his.
“No, but I do bring them to prospective girlfriends, err, I mean, I would….” He trailed off uncertainly, and I let him off the hook with a laugh.
I quietly shut the door and walked into the room.
“And could this prospective business associate/girlfriend expect to receive certain privileges?” I asked walking right up to him, placing my hand on his chest.
Rusty raised an eyebrow. “I am certain that privileges could be negotiated. What are your terms?”
He slid his arms around my waist, pulling me in tight. That was more like it.
“I’d say this prospective business associate/girlfriend would need to come visit your family business to make a proper advertisement,” I said, wrapping my arms around his neck and running my fingers through his hair. Oh my gosh, I had just been dreaming about doing this very thing!
“I concur,” he responded, looking down at my mouth.
“I’d also say this prospective business associate/girlfriend should have access to a certain pair of lips whenever she deems it necessary.”
Rusty kissed the tip of my nose. “I think that could be arranged.”
He leaned in for a kiss, taking my mouth on a sweet and intoxicating ride. Oh, I remembered those lips, those arms. It felt like coming home.
We broke apart and Rusty played with my hair, wrapping it around his fingers while still holding me close. “What are we going to do?” I asked him, serious now.
“I don’t know,” he replied, and then took my face in both his hands. “But I do know that I found something special with you, and I think it’s worth investigating a little more.” He kissed me again, hard and deep. The conference room and my work on the Rockefeller account all disappeared from my thoughts. Everything was focused on this moment in time, standing here with the man that I was starting to fall in love with. I didn’t know if a relationship with Rusty was going to work, but just like he had said, it was worth a try. He made me feel things that I had never felt before, made me long for sensations I hadn’t even known existed. He was my here and now.
“We’re only a ferry ride apart,” I said, after we had paused in our embrace for breath. Rusty was passing his lips down my neck, causing a tingly thrill to run through me. “And I think the island is good inspiration for my projects.”
“Besides,” Rusty said, standing upright and handing me the bouquet of beautiful spring flowers, a twinkle in his eyes. “I think that Rascal misses you.”
“Well, we mustn’t disappoint Rascal,” I said lightly.
I knew that I had made my choice, and I wasn’t looking back.