"Owen, this is Miranda Lewis." Claire gestured at me. "She's new in town. Isn't that nice?"

He leaned against the fudge case and drummed his fingers on the top of the glass. His dark eyes were difficult to read in the café's low, gold light, but I thought he seemed wary. Suspicious. I shivered.

"By yourself this morning?" Claire asked Owen.

"Jenny has to work."

A Viking with a girlfriend—a girlfriend named Jenny, not Brunhilde.

"Owen, bless his heart, helps me with my dogs on his days off," Claire told me. "I don't know what I'd do without him. I have six Great Danes, you know."

"You have six dogs?"

"Yes," Claire said, with an embarrassed chuckle, "six Danes, all named after the English Romantic Poets."

"You mean like Keats? And William Blake?" At her nod, I ticked off the names on my fingers. "Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley..."

"And Wordsworth," Claire said. "You must be a poetry buff!"

"Or an English major," Owen interjected, taking the coffee Claire handed him. His voice was a low rumble.

"I'm not an English major," I said.

A phone rang in the back of the shop. Claire dashed off to answer it, leaving me standing at the counter with the Viking. I told myself to leave, or at least step away from him, but I didn't move.

"If you're not an English major, what are you?" Owen asked, sipping his coffee, his dark eyes fixed on me.

"I'm..." Before Rhys, I was a bartender and a painter. But since then? "I'm nothing," I said. Absolutely nothing.

The golden eyebrows creased together. This was obviously as close as he got to having an expression. "Nothing?"

"I used to work in a coffee shop," I said. "Though it wasn't nice, like this."

Annette would be there by now, slamming muffins out of their trays onto the scratched steel counter and shouting at Steph and Lizzie to open up the registers. Soon, she'd be wondering where I was.

"And I'm not going back there," I added, although I had no idea why I was telling him this.

"What was wrong with it?" he asked quietly.

Whenever the other girls thought I wasn't listening, they talked about Rhys. Wasn't he so hot, and wasn't it too bad he was with me, though they had heard some things....  

"It wasn't the shop, really," I said. "There was other stuff."

Owen ducked his head in a nod that I found strangely reassuring, as if he understood.

Suddenly, he straightened up from the counter. At his full height, he loomed over me, and I took an involuntary step backwards.

He was staring over the top of my head at the customers behind me. Two of the women at the café table squirmed nervously in their seats, but the woman in the middle—the one who had made a face at me—screwed on a smile and gave him a tiny wave. "Good morning, Owen!" she chirped. "I hope you haven't had any problems so far this spring?"

"Nothing worth mentioning."

Though she kept smiling, her eyes narrowed as if she didn't believe him, or didn't want to. She wanted him to have problems, the better to gossip about them.

At the prickling hairs on my neck, I realized Owen must have seen me frown at her, because his lips had curved into a very small smile. The sight made me hot and cold at the same time. I couldn't be around him anymore. He was too big, too scary, too striking.

I tore my gaze away from him just as Claire walked back behind the counter, humming to herself.

"I should be going," I told Claire. "I've got to meet with my, um, new landlord."

At 7:30 on a Sunday morning. Good one, Miranda.

"Well, that's nice!" Claire said, her smile puzzled. "Hope to see you back here soon."

I edged around Owen, painfully aware of his presence, and slipped outside into the cold morning. All I wanted was the comfortable familiarity of my car, and the beloved books and art supplies I'd packed carefully in the trunk.

"Wait. Miranda."

Owen stood on the café's front porch. He let the door swing shut behind him, cutting off the café's warm gold light. In the silver mist, we could have been the only two people in the world.

He came towards me in a few long strides. My hands were shaking. To distract myself, I rummaged in my handbag for my cigarettes. I had one left. It would be my last, because I didn't have enough money for another pack. I lit it and took a trembling drag, waiting for Owen to ask me who my landlord was, or where I was staying.

"You haven't been here before, have you?" he asked.

I shook my head, trying to mask my relief.

"You look sort of familiar," Owen said.

I knew we'd never seen each other before—I would have remembered seeing a Viking wandering around New Haven. Maybe it was just the exhaustion, but something about his deep voice or his reserved, economical gestures felt familiar, too, as if we'd known each other too long ago to remember.

"I must just have one of those faces," I told him, taking another drag. My nerves started to steady.

"No. You don't." His dark eyes lingered on my lips, the curl of my hair around my neck, my unzipped jacket. He cleared his throat. "Why are you here? I mean—what brings you to the island?"

The truth was I had no idea. I'd passed plenty of quaint New England towns on my long drive to Maine. I could have chosen any of them.  

"I had to leave where I was," I told Owen. "And this island seemed nice."

He gave a short, mirthless laugh, and I flushed.

"You don't like it here?" I asked.

"Me? No. Well," he amended, "the woods are all right." He nodded at the towering pine trees surrounding the small parking lot. "What are you going to do now that you're here? Another café job?"

"I'd rather go back to working in a pub. I used to bartend."

I used to do a lot of things.

"My friend Andy said something about his place looking for wait staff. It's called the Widow's Walk. He's the assistant manager. It's not bartending, but...." He shrugged, while the breeze ruffled his hair and brought me the sweet vanilla scent of his coffee.

"Oh. Okay. Thank you." I could have hugged him for giving me a tip on a job, even if it would have been like hugging one of the pine trees. "Why is it called the Widow's Walk?"

"Bill—the bar's owner—has a strange sense of humor."

"Oh, good," I said, with a tired smile. "I'm okay with strange."

"Then you'll like it here," he said, but even as he said it, his expression shaded back into severe, and his eyes grew even harder to read. "I'd better go."

He didn't wait for me to say good-bye. He crossed the lot, his footsteps crunching on frosted gravel. When he reached the pine trees alongside the café, he slipped into their dark boughs without a sound.





******


Thank you so much for checking out Set Me Free! I hope you enjoy spending time on Fall Island as much as I do. :-) Please do let me know what you think with a vote or a comment. I'd love to hear from you!

~London


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