“Are you gonna propose to Josie or not?” Alicia demanded.
I closed my eyes. It felt as if my heart was doing cartwheels inside my tightening chest.
“Palmer, did you hear me?”
“I heard you just fine.” I knew it was a mistake to call my sister. Alicia wasn’t one to hold back on sharing her opinion. She knew how I felt about Josie, and as my big sister, she was determined that I not let Josie leave town without letting her know how I felt about her.
“Then answer the question. Are you going to tell Josie you’re in love with her?”
My sister and I had been raised in Alaska in a tiny town above the Arctic Circle. We were homeschooled, so I didn’t have a lot of the exposure and experiences most kids get for social interaction. I wouldn’t give it up for anything, though, except for my lack of certain skills. Alicia made it sound easy to lay one’s heart out on the chopping block with the big chance of it getting axed.
The problem is, I’ve never been anything even close to what one would consider romantic. I leave that to those city boys. I am a man, an Alaskan man; fancy, romantic words are as unfamiliar to me as a pumpkin-spice latte. I’ll admit, when it comes to sweeping a woman off her feet, I’m about as dense as a guy can get, and I’ll certainly never be the kind of man who recites poetry. Living up here in the Alaskan wilderness doesn’t help. Ponder is miles from what most people would consider civilization. Northeast of Fairbanks and close to the Far North region of Alaska, Ponder has a population that swells to three hundred in-season when the lodge is in operation. In the wintertime, these numbers drop to a few hearty men and women, and only a handful of families.
Alicia reminded me that it was now or never. I could do without the clichés, especially when my gut was in knots. Even the thought of telling Josie that I loved her and wanted her to stay in Ponder had me breaking into a cold sweat. This felt worse than the case of flu I had last year.
Although the fishing and hunting lodge brought in a fair amount of traffic in-season, single women were few and far between here in Ponder. The only women I’d happened to meet in the last several years were those employed by the lodge, or those I met on my infrequent trips into Fairbanks. Most of the lodge employees were college students and so flighty and immature that I didn’t pay any attention to them.
All that changed when Josie Avery arrived.
She was in her mid-twenties and had been hired on at the lodge as the chef for the season, which ran from May through the end of October. The minute I saw her, I knew she was different. The first thing I noticed was that her phone didn’t come attached to her hand. The next time I saw her, she was reading a book. She stopped me cold when she happened to glance up and smile at me. Her eyes brightened, and I swear I could have drowned in her warmth. The sunlight had broken through the trees and landed on her like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Her hair was long and dark and flowed over her shoulders. She wore jeans and boots. I hardly know how to explain what happened in that very moment. I know it sounds nuts, but I felt something physical, like someone had hit me. The impact was so hard and strong that I stumbled back a step.
From that time on she was it for me. It didn’t take me long to learn that she was intelligent and sensible, and had a great sense of humor. I was comfortable with her in ways I had never been with any other woman. I found I could talk to her with an ease that I’d never felt before, even with my sister.
Okay, to be honest, it didn’t hurt that Josie was beautiful. I mean, her beauty was hard to deny. She had pretty eyes and she was just the right size, not too skinny. One thing Alicia taught me a long time ago was that women didn’t take kindly to men talking about their bodies. To top it all off, Josie was good at what she did, and the food at the lodge had never been better.
Jack Corcoran, the old geezer who supplied the game to the lodge, had started to eat dinner there nearly every night. We’d become friends over the years, and I would join him, something I hadn’t done much of in the past, until Josie’s arrival. The Brewsters, who owned and operated the Caribou Lake Lodge, noticed me stopping by for dinner, and guessed the reason for my more frequent visits. They purposefully set Josie’s schedule to give us more time together in the evenings, allowing me to introduce her to the beauty of Ponder and the Alaskan wilderness. I’d taken her hiking and searching for the Alaskan blueberry. We’d stumbled upon the low-bush cranberry as well and were able to pick enough for a wonderful sauce she’d used with moose meat. Just recently we’d lain under the stars and watched the Northern Lights flash-dance green highlights across the sky. Josie had gasped at their beauty. I barely noticed the wonder of it all, unable to take my eyes off her.
We’d had such good times together, Josie and me. When Ponder held its annual fishing derby during the Fourth of July celebration, Josie, who had never fished before, caught the winning fish. Beginners luck, she claimed. I was thrilled for her.
Most of all, Josie and I enjoyed our short evening hikes. With up to twenty-two hours of daylight in the summer, there was always plenty of time to explore the tundra after she’d finished her duties at the lodge.
I found her easy company, which quickly led me to thinking about how good it would be if she made Ponder her home with me. I knew enough about Josie to realize we’d get along great; we already did. A man gets lonely and housebound when the weather reaches as low as fifty degrees below freezing. Now that I was closing in on my thirtieth birthday, it was time, as Alicia repeatedly reminded me, that I thought about marriage and starting a family of my own.
Jack didn’t want to see Josie leave, either. Jack had lived in the area for so long, he’d become part of the scenery. If you went to the dictionary and looked up the word sourdough, most likely you’d see a photo of Jack, not only because of his appearance, but because he was the legend behind the sourdough starter that kept all of Ponder in homemade bread year-round. In addition to supplying the wild game, Jack had been hired on at the lodge as a hunting guide. He took parties into the wilderness, camping two and three days at a time, giving tourists a real Alaskan experience. In his spare time, he panned for gold, although he’d never struck it rich the way he’d hoped to.
Josie had wanted to try her hand at it, too, and we’d spent an entire day in a fruitless search. While we might not have dredged up any nuggets, I felt that I’d found my biggest treasure in her.
Jerry Brewster, who owned the lodge along with Marianne, his wife, specialized in fishing on the lake. When summer arrived, you’d find Jerry out on the water every day, as he knew all the best spots. The lake was a tributary of the Copper River, where some of the best salmon in the world could be found, and a great hunting area. Folks loved the expertise that both Jerry and Jack had, and paid a high price for the privilege of hunting and fishing with them. People would take the passenger ferry to get to and from the lodge during the fishing and hunting season—the only way in and out of Ponder unless you could afford a seaplane. Come winter, before the lake froze over, Jerry put the boat in storage, and those who were not going to stay for winter took the last passenger ferry out. After that, a ski-plane made infrequent stops at Ponder, landing on the frozen lake.
With only a few businesses and families in the vicinity, we had everything a small wilderness town needed, including two taverns and two churches. The town balanced itself out that way, I suppose. I loved the peace and quiet and had made a good life for myself on beautiful Caribou Lake in the small town of Ponder.
“Have you listened to anything I’ve said?” Alicia asked.
“Uh . . .”
“That’s what I thought. In case you’ve forgotten, Josie is leaving for Seattle first thing in the morning.”
Like I’d forget what day it was. I’d started to ask Josie to marry me a dozen times or more in the last couple days but could never get out the words that I wanted to say. Now it was down to the last night, down to practically the last minute.
“I know.” Already I could feel the tension building up inside me.
“Are you seriously going to let her go?” my sister harped.
Much as I love Alicia and her two kids, I didn’t need her to remind me that the clock was ticking away when it came to Josie and me. Pressuring me to make my move wasn’t helping. Alicia was right about one thing, though. I shouldn’t have put it off as long as I had, but my rationale was simple: I was afraid, and with good reason. Josie had plans; she had a job waiting for her in Seattle. She had friends and family there as well. While I loved her and wanted to make her my wife, I wasn’t sure that was enough to convince her to stay. I’d put off popping the question until it was either propose now or watch her leave come morning.
Besides, the reason I’d waited this long was because I knew if I’d asked too soon, and she didn’t accept, then it would have been awkward for both of us for the remainder of the time Josie had at the lodge. So I’d held off. It made sense at the time. Little did I realize how much pressure I was putting on myself to convince her to stay and to marry me by delaying it until the last night. I guess I’d hoped she’d be so madly in love with me that she wouldn’t want to leave. If that was the case, it wouldn’t be hard to convince her to stay.
“You have a lot to offer a woman, Palmer,” Alicia continued, once again interrupting my thought process. “For all you know, Josie could be impatiently waiting for you to say something.”
“Just do it. You love her, right? Make your move.”
My move. That was a laugh. The most Josie and I had done was hold hands and kiss like it was the end of the universe. Those kisses rocked my world. And they were hot. Sizzling hot. I had to assume she enjoyed our kissing, too, because we both looked forward to the times we could be alone. I might not be a mind reader when it came to women, but I saw the light in Josie’s eyes when we were together, and I could live on one of her smiles for a week or longer. We had spent hours together over the past six months, and outside of our individual jobs, we were inseparable. I had grown to love this woman, and I could only hope she felt the same.
Josie claimed my beard tickled her lips. I offered to shave it off for her. That was a mighty big sacrifice for me, but she shrugged and said it wasn’t necessary. That made me think she wasn’t open to sticking around longer than required, but I’d never know unless I asked.
“We’re going for a walk after dinner,” I told Alicia. “I plan on proposing then.” It didn’t help knowing that her suitcase was already packed. For the last week our conversations had revolved around her life in Seattle. It seemed she could hardly wait to get back. She talked endlessly about the job that was waiting for her. This was a huge opportunity for her. These chats weren’t the most encouraging discussions for me. Every time Josie mentioned Seattle, my stomach tightened.
“Promise you’ll call me afterward.”
“Maybe.” I wasn’t making any such commitment. It all depended on how it went with Josie. If she turned me down, then I doubted I’d be in the mood to talk to anyone, including my persistent sister.
After my conversation with Alicia, I took time off to think everything through. I work as a master swordsmith, forging swords and other weapons from metal. I’d been working at my craft from the age of sixteen, when I became an apprentice. Because I was homeschooled, I’d earned enough credits to graduate early. College didn’t interest me. I’m a man who needs to work with his hands, not just his brain.
Currently, I was creating a replica of a Civil War sword. It was an important commission, as the job was bringing in more money than any other project to date. I was fortunate enough to make a living doing what I loved. I worked most days in my workshop with my forge, hammer, and anvil. My needs were simple, and my work had gained a growing notoriety.
Since this evening was my one last shot with Josie, I had to do it right. Because I got tongue-tied every time I attempted to bring up the topic, I figured my best chance was to write down what I wanted to say. That was the only way I could ensure that I didn’t forget an important point.
I was sitting at the kitchen table with my dog, Hobo, an Alaskan husky, who was sleeping at my feet while I composed a list. I was about halfway through making my notes when Jack showed up. As usual, he didn’t bother to knock.
Glancing up from the table where I sat in my kitchen, he looked like he’d lost his best friend.
“No,” Jack replied, pulling out a chair and sitting down across from me. “The lodge is closing.”
“It closes every year, Jack. That’s nothing new.”
Jack shook his head. “But Josie . . . she’s leaving. She’s the best cook they’ve ever had here.”
I never understood how Jack managed to keep his weight down. I swear my friend ate as much as a grizzly bear.
Copyright © 2018 by Debbie Macomber. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.