Authors: Nicholas Sparks
“I’ve never heard of it, but that doesn’t mean anything.”
“You should meet us there,” she urged. “Since it’s your night off, I mean.”
“Okay. Maybe.” I nodded, already knowing I’d be there. She seemed to know it, too, and gave me a brilliant smile before starting back toward the hotel. When she was a few steps away, I called after her.
She turned but kept walking slowly backward. “Yes?”
“Why did you come out to the beach to meet me?”
She tilted her head, amusement lighting up her face. “Why do you think?”
“I don’t have the slightest idea.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” she shouted over the wind. “I love your voice, and I wanted to meet you in person.”
On the way back,
I called in a cheeseburger order to Sandbar Bill’s and grabbed it to go before returning to the public parking area where I’d left my truck. Once I reached my rental condo, I popped it into the microwave to warm up, and it hit the spot. Afterward, I showered and tossed on a pair of jeans, then reached for my phone to check my messages.
There was nothing from my aunt. Recalling her scolding, I instead texted Paige to see how she was doing, asking how her latest Tiffany-replica lamps were coming along. I watched the screen for the dots, but when she didn’t respond, I figured she was probably in the barn with her phone on
do not disturb
With the sky beginning to change colors beyond the sliding glass doors, I picked up my guitar, as my thoughts drifted to Morgan. She interested me, but I knew it wasn’t just her beauty that had affected me so strongly. Her confidence, especially for someone so young, drew me in. But there was warmth, too, and curiosity, and a fierce energy that I could sense even in our limited interaction. She seemed to know who she was, liked who she
was, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if she already had a vision of the future she wanted for herself. I tried to think of whether I’d ever met someone like her, but I couldn’t come up with anyone.
Forcing those thoughts away, I found my mind lingering over a song that I’d been noodling with for the last couple of months. The rhythm—so far—had promise, but I’d been struggling with the lyrics. As memories of Morgan intruded, however, I began to try new phrases and verses, and as I adjusted the opening measures, I felt something click, like the first tumbler falling in a combination lock.
I don’t know how it works for anyone else, but songwriting is a mysterious process. Sometimes a song comes so quickly, I’m a bit shocked; other times—like with this one—the final product eludes me for weeks or months. Sometimes it never feels right at all, but I’ll find myself using bits and pieces in an entirely new song. With any song, however, there’s always a germ of inspiration, that very first idea. It can be a phrase or a snatch of melody I can’t shake, and once I have that, I begin to build. It’s sort of like I’m making my way through a dark, cluttered attic, where my goal is to find the light switch on the far side of the room. As I try new things, sometimes I bump into unseen obstacles and have to retrace my steps, or—if I’m lucky—I’ll take a step forward that just feels
I can’t tell you why it feels right—it’s instinctual, I guess. After that, I try to find the next right thing, and then the next, until I finally reach that light switch, and the song is finished. I know I’m not explaining it that well, but since I don’t really understand it, I’m not sure it’s possible to put into words. The only thing I know with any certainty is that when I’m creating, I generally lose all track of time.
Which is exactly what happened. I had fallen into one of those creative zones when I realized the song was getting
lyrics were about meeting someone who surprises you, and though I didn’t consider it polished by any means, it was definitely a workable first draft.
By then it was half past ten, and I wasn’t tired in the slightest. Remembering Morgan’s invitation, I dressed in one of the two decent button-up shirts I’d brought to Florida, ditched the flip-flops for a pair of Vans, and—force of habit—grabbed my guitar, as well.
The drive to St. Petersburg took about twenty minutes, and with the help of my phone, locating MacDinton’s was easy. Parking was a bit more of a challenge, but I got lucky after circling the block twice and ended up finding a spot a short stroll away. Even from a distance, it was easy to tell that MacDinton’s was a popular watering hole. Outside, knots of people stood around smoking, and I could hear the music blasting long before I reached the doors.
Inside, people were jammed shoulder to shoulder, holding pints of Guinness, shots of Irish whiskey, and long-stemmed cocktail glasses. It was pretty much standing room only, and it was all I could do not to get spilled on by whomever I was squeezing past. Despite the close quarters, people had to shout to hear one another over the music.
I eventually spotted Morgan and her friends at a table near the back. They were surrounded by several guys, whom I guessed to be in their late twenties or early thirties. They were young professional types, wearing designer-label shirts and jeans and clunky watches. As I approached, I could see them calculating which girl was going home with which guy. I suspected they wouldn’t be thrilled by my appearance. Right on cue, when I was a few feet away, two of them spotted my approach and began to puff up like the roosters strutting around on my farm.
One of Morgan’s friends must have noticed, because she
squinted up at them, then tracked their stares to me. Eyes widening, she leaned toward Morgan. Morgan listened intently before suddenly turning to me with a wide smile.
She immediately jumped up and elbowed her way past a pair of guys, hustling toward me. That was enough to silence the entire group for an instant, but I didn’t care, as all I could see was Morgan.
Gone was the beachy look that I’d seen earlier; instead, her long wavy hair was fashionably styled, and she wore just enough makeup to accent her high cheekbones. Her eyes were framed by a touch of black liner and long, mascaraed lashes; she wore a dark, luscious red lipstick that emphasized her full mouth. Her white sleeveless top was paired with a short black skirt and soft black suede boots that reached just above her knees. Her friends, I noticed, were equally stylish and groomed.
she mouthed, waving when she was close. Even though she was almost shouting, I could barely hear her. “I wasn’t sure you were going to come. When did you get here?”
“Just now. How about you?”
“About an hour ago.” She put her hand on my arm, sending a warm tingle up my shoulder. “C’mere. I want to introduce you to my friends.”
Back at the table, she introduced me to Stacy, Holly, and Maria. As I waved a greeting to them one by one, none of them bothered to hide their curiosity and scrutiny, making me wonder what Morgan had said about me. When Morgan pulled me down to the seat next to hers, the two guys closest grudgingly made room. One of them, shouting extra loud to be heard, announced that the last time he was at MacDinton’s, a huge fight broke out near the bar, and he was one of the people who’d broken it up.
I smiled, thinking he might as well have said
Did I mention
I’m the strong, heroic type?
But I said nothing. The girls didn’t seem impressed, either; three of them leaned toward one another, ignoring him, while Morgan motioned to me with her finger, prompting me to lean closer.
“What did you do after leaving the beach?” she shouted into my ear.
“I had dinner, took a shower. Wrote a song. Then I came here.”
Her face lit up. “You wrote a song?”
“More like worked on a song that’s been stuck in my head for a while. I finished, but I’m not sure it’s fully cooked yet.”
“Is that normal for you? To write one so fast?”
“Will you play it at the show tomorrow?”
“It’s nowhere near ready for that.”
“Any specific inspiration?” she asked.
I smiled. “It’s hard to say exactly. Surprises in life, meeting you…”
“Meeting me?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I’m not always sure where exactly they come from.”
She searched my face. “I want to hear it.”
“Sure. Just let me know when.”
“How about now?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Now? You want to leave? What about your friends?”
She swiveled in her seat, glancing toward them; Stacy, Holly, and Maria were engrossed in conversation, ignoring the guys who were still fighting to remain of interest. Turning back to me, Morgan waved a hand. “They’ll be fine. How did you get here? Did you Uber?”
“I have a truck,” I said, surprised again at how quickly Morgan seemed to take control of the situation.
“Then let’s go,” she said. Standing, she swung her bag from the
back of her seat, then leaned toward her friends. “I’ll see you all back at the hotel, okay? We’re going to take off.”
I watched their eyes flicker between us, startled
One of the guys crossed his arms, clearly disgusted.
“You’re leaving?” Maria said.
“Don’t go!” Holly pleaded.
“C’mon. Stay with us!” Stacy urged.
By the way their eyes raked over me, I guessed they were concerned about Morgan leaving with a relative stranger.
But Morgan was already circling the table and leaning in to hug her friends one by one. “I’ll text you guys,” she said. “I’ll be fine.” Turning to me, she asked, “Ready?”
With her leading the way, we squeezed through the bar to the exit. As soon as we stepped outside, the cacophony dropped off, leaving my ears ringing.
“Which way to your truck?”
“Just around the corner.”
After a few steps, she shot me a sidelong look.
“My friends obviously think I’m crazy for doing this.”
“I noticed that.”
“But I was kind of tired of that place, anyway. It was too noisy, and those guys at the table were a little too into themselves.”
“Even so, do you think leaving with me is a good idea?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“You don’t really know me.”
She tossed a length of hair over her shoulder without breaking step. “You’re a farmer from North Carolina. You grow tobacco, heirloom tomatoes, and raise organic cage-free eggs, and in your spare time you write music. You’re here for another week and a half and you’ll be playing at Bobby T’s tomorrow, so pretty much everyone knows exactly where you’re going to be if you try anything funny. And, besides, I have Mace in my bag.”
“Like you implied, a girl can’t be too careful. I grew up in Chicago, remember? My parents made me promise to be cautious whenever I went out at night.”
“Your parents sound like very smart people.”
“They are,” she agreed.
By then we’d reached the truck, and I uttered a silent thanks that I’d wiped down the dusty seats before my trip. Keeping a truck clean on a working farm was an impossibility. As I unlocked it and started the ignition, she surveyed the interior.
“You brought your guitar with you? Like you knew I was going to ask?”
“Let’s go with that,” I said. “Where to?”
“Let’s go back to the Don. We can sit on the sand behind the hotel, where we hung out earlier.”
As I turned onto the road, I caught sight of her texting. Unlike me, she used both hands, like a miniature typist. I was more of a single-finger texter. “Letting your friends know where we’re going?”
“Of course,” she responded. “And your license plate,” she added. “I took a picture before I got in.” When she finished, she lowered the phone. “Oh, by the way, I googled
after talking to you today. I didn’t realize there were so many different kinds. How do you know which ones to grow?”
“Research, like anything else. There’s a guy in Raleigh who is kind of the world expert on heirlooms, so we met with him to find out what types grow best in our area and what flavors to expect. We spoke to other farmers who grew them, to learn the ins and outs, and then met with potential customers like supermarkets and chefs and hotels. In the end, we started with three varieties, and we’ve added two more.”
do you mean you and your parents, or your brother…?”
“My aunt,” I said. I wondered how much to tell her, before finally deciding to just come out with it. “She’s kind of like my mom. My mom died when I was little and I never knew my dad, so my aunt and uncle raised my sister and me. Then my uncle ended up passing away, too.”
“Oh my God!” Morgan’s shock was evident. “That’s terrible!”
“It was hard,” I admitted. “Thank you. So, anyway, my aunt and I run the farm. Not alone, mind you. We have a general manager and a lot of employees.”
“Where does your sister live now?”
“Paige lives at the farm, too—actually, we still live in the house we grew up in—but she’s an artist.” I told Morgan about the Tiffany-replica lamps. From the visor in my truck, I pulled out a photo of Paige holding one of her lamps, which I had printed from my phone. When I handed it to Morgan, our fingers brushed.
“Wow! It’s so pretty!” She tilted her head, studying the photo. “She’s pretty, too.”
“There’s always a wait list for her lamps,” I went on, with a trace of pride. “As you can imagine, the lamps take a long time to make.”
“Is she older or younger than you?”
“Six years older. She’s thirty-one.”
“She looks younger.”
“Thanks. I think. But how about you? Tell me about you.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Anything.” I shrugged. “How would you describe your childhood? What are your parents like? Do you have brothers and sisters? What’s it like to grow up in Chicago, especially considering you have to carry Mace when you go out?”
She burst out laughing. “Lincoln Park is very safe. It’s kind of
a fancy area. Big houses, big yards, big leafy trees. Ridiculous decorations for Halloween and Christmas. I camped out in the backyard for a slumber party once, though my dad did stay on the porch all night. It wasn’t until I was older that my mom and dad bought the Mace, and it had more to do with me going off to college and to frat parties or whatever.”