The following Saturday we bumped into him coming out of the grocery store. I would have walked right on by but of course Amy had to stop and say hello.
“Hi there,” she waved and called out merrily.
“Hi yourself.” He playfully tugged one of her twin ponytails.
“Where's your dog?”
“Afraid I had to leave him home today. I didn't think folks would appreciate him lumbering down the sidewalk or running through the store.”
Amy hung back when I tried to usher her out the door. “Are you going on a picnic?”
He let us go ahead of him. I noticed the bucket of takeout chicken under one arm and a six pack of pop under the other.
“Sort of. Well, I was really just going down to watch the boats on Lake Charleston and have my lunch.”
“Mmmm. I like chicken.” Amy's nose twitched at the enticing smell wafting from the cardboard bucket.
“Amy.” I gave her a prod.
“You and your mom are welcome to join me. I have plenty.”
Amy looked up at me eagerly. “Can we? Please?”
The man stopped walking and for some crazy reason so did I. We stood there in front of the Good Value market, the afternoon sun shining down on us.
He was a good head taller than I and perhaps three or four years older. His arms were nicely tanned below rolled-up shirtsleeves and he wore faded jeans. Under the blue gaze of his eyes, I flushed warmly and hugged my bag of groceries more tightly.
“If it's that we haven't been properly introduced, I'm Mike O'Brien.” He shifted the pop so he could stick out his hand.
I just looked at it a moment, then accepted the gesture. His hand was big and rough and warm.
“Katherine,” I said as his fingers closed briefly over mine. “Katherine Mitchell.”
“May I call you Kate? You look more like a Kate to me.”
Did I? With my plain brown hair pulled back I wasn't sure I looked like anyone. But I nodded.
“I take it you live in Charlevoix year-round?” He started walking again. Amy skipped alongside.
“How can you tell?” I gave him a sidelong glance.
“Oh, you just look as if you belong here, rather fresh and outdoorsy, like someone bred in the north country. There's something special about the north country, gives a person that healthy glow.”
I had to laugh. “That's funny. I just moved here six years ago. Where are you from?” In a small town, I was certain I would have seen him before.
“Actually, I just started working in this area a few weeks ago. I'm from Mackinaw City. Lived there most of my life, except for the years at Michigan State.
Most of my growing up years had been spent on a farm in southern Illinois. I suppose that was one reason why winter here stretched on interminably for me.
We reached the parking lot and stopped by my car. “So would you like to join me?” He nodded to the bucket of chicken.
Amy tugged on my arm. “Please, Mama? You said we might take a walk to the park today. I want to see the boats.”
“Come on, Kate Mitchell,” Mike O'Brien said. “It's a nice day. The boats are lovely on the lake. In the middle of winter you'll wish you had.”
“Okay,” I finally gave in. Amy whooped with glee.
An hour later, the chicken consumed, we sat by the lake while Amy played on the nearby swings. Before us lay Lake Charlevoix, shimmering crystal blue in the September sunlight. A few sailing diehards skimmed across the rippled surface in their bright catamarans.
“That was good.” I wiped my fingers on a paper napkin and stuffed the leftovers in the empty bucket. “Thank you for sharing with us.”
“You really did me a favor.” Mike leaned casually against a nearby oak tree. “I've gotten a little tired of eating meals alone lately.”
It was difficult to imagine him being alone. He was much too good-looking and friendly.
“You said you've only been working here a few weeks?” I curled my legs beneath me in the grass.
He continued to stare out at the water. He had a strong profile with a determined chin that jutted forward. I thought the he was a man who would never be dissuaded once he wanted something.
“That's right, since the day after Labor Day.”
It seemed an unusual time of year to be starting a job around here. “What sort of work do you do?” I asked.
“I'm with the state forestry service. I'll be heading up to the Upper Peninsula next month to winter at the Porcupine Mountains.”
“You're a ranger then?
I wasn't surprised to see him nod. With his tanned and rugged face, he certainly looked like a man who spent a great deal of time outdoors.
“I'll bet you love your work. Getting to be out in the woods all the time. I love the woods almost as much as the beach.”
In spite of my not liking the winters up here, I had truly enjoyed the camping Pete and I had done the first years of our marriage.
“There's a lot more to my work than just being in the forest.” Mike rubbed his hand over his chin. “Some of it can be pretty trying at times, like teaching folks to respect our natural resources, not to run rampant over them. They don't all value forests the way we do, but you're right, Kate.” He rested his blue gaze on me. “I do enjoy my work.”
“Pete did, too. He was a biology teacher.”
“How long has he been gone?”
It wasn't an intrusive question, because somehow I think he'd known all along there was no man in my life, in spite of the wedding band I still wore.
I felt no hesitation in answering. “A little over a year.”
“You still miss him.”
I shrugged. “I suppose it gets easier as time goes on, and I do have Amy.”
We sat quietly for some moments and I found myself wondering how he had known. “What made you ask us to share your lunch? I mean, how did you happen to...”
“Just a hunch, but my hunches are usually right.” He smiled in a slow, persuasive way. “I have a hunch now that if I ask you to have dinner with me tomorrow night you'll accept.
Coming from another person, the remark might have been conceited, even arrogant. Coming from Mike O'Brien, it wasn't, and I had to admit it---I liked him.
I liked the way his hair, a light burnished brown, curled carelessly back from his wide forehead, touching his collar in back. I liked the way he smiled so effortlessly, as if he smiled a great deal. I liked the deep blue color of his eyes.
I had a hunch I was going to prove his hunch right. “I don't know if I can find a baby sitter,” I hedged.
“Bring Amy along. If we go early enough, we can take a ride. I'll show you some places where the trees are already starting to change.”
After a moment of thought, I agreed to go, and Mike smiled again.
When Amy and I walked back to our car, I felt a curious warmth inside that had nothing at all to do with the bright sunshine streaming down that afternoon.