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The dream woke me.
My eyes snapped open and I blinked up at an unfamiliar popcorn ceiling. Sunlight shone in stripes across it as it streamed through the half-cracked blinds on the window above my bed. I counted the stripes until the memories of the dream abated and my sweaty palms dried.
“He’s not here,” I muttered to myself.
The fear melted away.
I smiled, flipped over onto my stomach, and reached for the cord on the blinds. I jerked hard and the blinds shot upward. More sunlight beamed in and momentarily blinded me. Scrambling to my knees, I unlocked the window and slid it open. Fresh June air washed over me and carried in the scent of fresh baking bread from somewhere in town, pine trees, and the distinct smell of the Sinclair Inlet.
Everything here in Port Orchard, Washington felt crisper than back home in Tennessee. As I leaned on the windowsill and looked around, I was reminded of how remote this town was compared to where I came from. Morristown, Tennessee never felt isolated. The horizon stretched on for miles in every direction. But here in Port Orchard, the horizon gave way to the rise of mountains and dense forests to the south and west. That had been part of the appeal in running here.
I needed a change of scenery. A change of everything. A fresh start. A jumping-off point.
And today was my first day in a new town.
Birds chirped and flitted from the rooftops of the businesses across the street from my loft apartment. I’d scrambled to rent a place before leaving Tennessee. This apartment had been one of the few available in Port Orchard, a town I discovered mostly consisted of locals who’d been born and raised here. There were rental properties available but most were single family homes with rent I could not afford.
I happened upon this place by accident when I was getting desperate and getting close to throwing in the towel and picking a different town. This apartment was on the main street in town called Port Orchard Boulevard. It ran from south to north, right down to the marina, and was peppered with old family-owned businesses, like the print shop downstairs with glossy prints in the display window of the scenery in Port Orchard. The old couple who owned the print shop also owned the four apartments upstairs, and lucky for little old me, one had just become available when I was about to stop looking.
I sent over my deposit to secure it and flew out of Tennessee three days later.
Now, less than a week later, I was here, and it didn’t feel close to being real.
I tore my blankets off and padded barefoot to the stack of moving boxes piled up in the corner by yet another window. This apartment had a ton of natural light. I tore open the box and rummaged around for my coffee press. It had to be in here somewhere. I’d gotten in so late last night and been too exhausted from flying and catching a ferry from Seattle to Port Orchard that I hadn’t even bothered to go through my stuff, which had arrived six hours ahead of me.
But now I desperately needed coffee.
I tore into a second box but found no coffee press. I’d packed in a hurry and didn’t have time to write on the cardboard what was in each box, so I found boxes of clothes and toiletries and everything else but what I needed.
Sighing, I planted my hands on my hips and looked around. I had a lot of work on my hands to get this place in order.
The apartment wasn’t a showstopper by any means, but it was mine, and it was the first time I’d ever be living on my own in all my twenty-nine years.
My bed sat in the sunniest part of the apartment under the largest window that looked over Port Orchard Boulevard. I had views across the street of other old apartments with long skinny balconies overflowing with flowers and greenery. Down below, businesses had their doors propped open. Sidewalk signs invited passersby inside for refreshing iced coffees, ice cream cones, swimsuits on sale, and summer clothes and accessories.
Inside, about five steps from the end of my bed, was a small closet that would just be able to contain all my clothes. The only other room was the bathroom, which was quite tiny with old plumbing and a shallow tub with a showerhead that sputtered water in uneven bursts.
My kitchen was a mere two cupboards on the lower section and a fridge. I’d have to buy a hot plate to use as a stovetop and possibly a microwave. There was no dishwasher, but that would be just fine because it was only me here.
The walls were a soft yellow that I didn’t love but didn’t hate either. Maybe a few months down the road, after I had a job and hopefully some money in my pocket, I could paint it something fresher and more my taste.
The pine floors were in desperate need of sanding and staining. An artist must have lived here prior to me because there were several paint stains all over the place—there were so many I could have played paint by numbers on my floor.
None of the inconveniences bothered me at all. I was happy to be here and ready to start my new adventure.
But no adventure could begin without coffee, and that settled it. My first task of the day was to find a good cup of coffee in my new home town.
I stripped out of my oversized band tee and changed into a pair of khaki shorts, a white T-shirt, and comfy walking sandals. I tied my blonde hair up in a messy bun to keep it off the back of my neck. It was a warm morning. After brushing my teeth (thank my lucky stars I’d been able to find my toothpaste), I stepped out of my apartment and stood on the small balcony out back. Down to my left were the three other doors of the other apartments. Music trickled out of an open window and followed me down the stairs to the back lot of the building. I circled around to the front and looked from left to right.
Did I head down to the water or up toward the more residential areas of town? I decided closer to the water was better and hooked a left.
A lot of people were already out and about at this time of the morning. It was just after eight o’clock. My sandals slapped against the soles of my feet as I made my way downhill and followed the smell of freshly baked bread. About three quarters of a mile down the hill lay the marina. It was speckled with the white sails of sailboats as well as fishing boats and personally owned speedboats. If I got a little closer, I’d be able to see people water skiing and tubing with friends and family.
My nose led me to a cafe about three blocks from my apartment. The door was propped open like almost every other business on the street, and when I stepped inside, my mouth immediately started to water.
There were three people in line ahead of me which gave me time to scrutinize the menu to make sure I made the right choice. An iced coffee with almond milk called my name, and I was about to ask one of the young women on the other side of the bar what smelled so good when a masculine voice stole my attention.
I looked over my shoulder as a man talking on his cell phone stepped into the cafe.
He was much different looking than most of the men in Morristown. That was for sure.
He had shoulders earned from hard manual labor. I could tell. They were broad and solid but not too bunched up around his neck like some beefcake who had earned them in the gym. He’d done this through work. Through everyday routine. His hands were so big I couldn’t see the phone held to his ear, and even if I could, it might have disappeared in his dense, dark beard. His dark eyebrows were pinched so tightly together they looked like they were one, and I could tell he was frustrated as he dragged a hand down his face and shook his head.
“You’re not listening to me,” the tall, dark, and handsome stranger said. His tone suggested he’d been on the phone for some time already and had been saying the same thing over and over. “I don’t give a damn about how these bastards are working so quickly. I care that they aren’t being held to the same standard as my company. Do you know how many permits I need in order to do business here?”
Whatever the person on the other end of the line said wasn’t what he wanted to hear. He continued shaking his head as he listened, and when he started to reply, he was interrupted.
His voice increased in volume and I looked away and tried to pretend like I wasn’t listening. He was having a bad morning. Maybe I could do him a favor and share some of my joy because this was the best morning I’d had in years. Four of them, to be exact.
When it was my turn to order, the stranger behind me was still on the phone. He’d lowered his voice, perhaps because other people in the cafe were shooting him scolding looks, but he didn’t notice when I asked the barista to use my twenty-dollar bill to cover his order. I ordered my iced coffee and a cheese and onion scone—the culprit that had drawn me in here on smell alone—and stepped aside so he could order.
I waited at the end of the bar with the other customers while the stranger hung up his call, placed his order, and blinked in surprise when the barista told him it had been covered by me.
He looked up at me. I lifted a hand and offered a small wave and a smile.
He approached, his large boots thumping on the tile floors. “That was nice of you,” he said, and he sounded like an entirely different person. All notes of anger in his voice were gone. He had a warm voice, like honey and molasses, and it suited him. “Thank you. I’m sorry you had to listen to me venting in your ear.”
I waved off his concern and shrugged one shoulder. “Oh, no worries. I wasn’t listening.”
He raked his fingers through his thick dark hair, and I tried not to let on how attractive I thought he was and instead watched the baristas steam milk for other coffee orders and pour espresso shots over ice for mine.
“You’re new in town,” the handsome stranger said.
“I am. I just got in yesterday.”
“Permanent or just visiting?”
The barista set my drink on the bar and called out, “one large iced coffee with almond milk, no sweetener.”
I stepped forward to retrieve it and stirred it up with my straw before smiling up at the stranger. “Gotta run. See you around?”
He nodded. “Welcome to Port Orchard.”
He was the first person to say that to me. I grinned and made for the door. “Thank you!”
Back out in the morning sun, I tilted my face to the sky and closed my eyes. My smile still stretched my cheeks and made it hard to purse my lips around the straw. I sipped the iced coffee. It might have been a placebo but I was absolutely certain it was the best coffee I’d ever tasted.
I’d only been in this place for eighteen hours and it was already starting to feel like I belonged here—like it had been waiting for me nestled amongst the dense pines and spruces for all these years. Perhaps I would find more here than I ever imagined. Perhaps Port Orchard had more to offer than just fresh air and a clean break.
As I headed down to the marina, I hoped I would bump into the grumpy but handsome stranger again.