A Fumbled First Meeting Doesn’t Derail Attraction in an Excerpt of Carley Fortune’s “Meet Me at the Lake”
Beach-read season is fast approaching, and while there’s a slate of new books due out this summer, POPSUGAR is ready to bask in the sunshine and cool waters with Carley Fortune, once again. Fortune is the New York Times bestselling author of 2022’s #Booktok fave, “Every Summer After,” and has penned a follow-up to her hit debut called, “Meet Me at the Lake,” due out on May 2. “Meet Me at the Lake” is a romance seeped in nostalgia and focused on chance encounters and how forgiveness can have life-changing effects – all told across two timelines: one day and one summer, 10 years later. As the title suggests, the one-that-got-away romance takes place in lake country. Keep reading for a POPSUGAR exclusive sneak preview of a second-chance at love in Fortune’s “Meet Me at the Lake.”
Two Sugars was only a few blocks from the station – not far enough for the music to wash away my guilt or make me forget about the resort and the responsibilities waiting for me there. My past waited for me back home, too. The Huntsville High rumor mill was once powered by Fern Brook – banks gossip. Years had gone by, but I knew people still thought of me as That Girl – the one who’d gone off the rails. With any luck, the coffee shop would be busy enough that my mind would switch to autopilot by the time I pulled my tenth shot of espresso.
I walked east, jostling through the horde of tourists at Yonge and Dundas. I liked its tackiness – the concrete, flashing bill – boards and the double-decker tour buses – but I loved how there were people everywhere, and not a single one was looking at me. Every day, one hundred thousand people crossed the intersection, and in that madness, I was a perfect nobody.
I told people I was from Huntsville, but it wasn’t totally accurate. The resort was far outside town, on the rocky shores of Smoke Lake. Coming to Toronto for university felt like moving to the moon. I wished I could play space explorer forever.
I turned up my music, rolling my shoulders forward then back as the sun found my neck. The temperature was supposed
to set a record high. Toronto was at its best in June. The patios and parks spilled over with unbridled early summer giddiness. In June, a hot day was a gift. By August, it would be a burden, and the city would reek of stewed garbage.
I’d dressed for the heat in a pair of frayed jean shorts, and a tank top under a short-sleeved blouse I’d found at Value Village. It was flowy and sheer and had a tiny brown floral pattern I thought was stylish in a nineties way – you could hardly see the yellow stain near the hem.
A row of metal newspaper boxes stood guard outside Two Sugars, and I grabbed an issue of “The Grid,” the free alt-weekly I liked best, before pulling on the door. It was locked. Confused, I yanked on the handle again, then pressed my nose to the glass. The coffee shop was my favorite place in the world, and it was empty except for Luis. The smell of wet paint licked my nose as soon as he opened the door.
“Why are we closed?” I asked, taking my headphones off and stepping inside. I stopped at the sight of a black-and-white painting covering one wall. “What’s this?”
“What’s this?” Luis pointed at my head. “A trim.”
He snorted. “That’s not a trim. You cut off all your hair.” He smiled. “I like it.”
I tugged at one of the short strands at the back-it was barely long enough to hold between my fingers. I’d had it done after my last shift, before Whitney arrived. Considering my hair had been well past my shoulders, it was a big change.
“I don’t remember asking your opinion, but thanks,” I said. “So what’s going on in here?”
“You didn’t know about the mural?” Luis folded his arms across his impressive chest. Other staff members had come and gone at Two Sugars, but the two of us had worked together for three years.
“Well, we have a mural now. Or we almost do.”
I looked around. The artist appeared to be missing. “And you and I are playing babysitter?” I guessed.
“One of us is. I’ve been here the last couple of days.” He pulled a small key ring out of his pocket. “It’s your turn.”
I stared at Luis. Spending hours alone with some random stranger, having to make conversation – the idea was almost more repellant than public speaking. “No,” I said.
“Yes,” Luis replied in singsong. “I’m going to the island. I’m meeting friends at the ferry in half an hour.”
I growled out a “Fine” and took the key, then threw my stuff onto a table and wandered closer to the mural. “So where’s our Michelangelo?”
“He went to grab something to eat,” Luis said. “He should be done by early afternoon, and then you can take off. We’re closed until tomorrow.”
I could survive a few hours. I had a joint in my bag and plans to smoke it in the alley after I was done. I wanted to walk through my city and back to my place in Little Italy.
“Do you like it?” Luis asked.
I studied the mural. The artist had made a fun-house version of Toronto’s skyline and waterfront. Everything was a bit distorted – the CN Tower was tiny, clutched in the claws of a raccoon. Toronto was getting off on itself lately, and this type of trendy city pride was everywhere: on T-shirts; on posters; even on my tote bag, which was designed with a map of Little Italy, its street names forming the neighborhood grid.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It seems kind of . . . basic?”
“Ouch,” a deep voice said behind us. I turned around slowly.
Dressed in loose blue cotton coveralls was a guy around my age, holding a paper take-out bag. He was extraordinarily tall and held himself even taller. His mussed black hair fell just past his ears. His nose was a touch on the long side, but it suited him.
“This is our Michelangelo,” Luis said.
The guy’s jaw and cheekbones were angular, almost sharp. I didn’t know where to look, there was so much of him, and it was all very . . . nice.
“Your basic Michelangelo,” the guy corrected. I dropped my gaze. He was too pretty to look at directly. He wore a pair of tan work boots with neon pink laces.
I dropped my gaze. He was too pretty to look at directly.
“I usually go by Will.” He stuck out his palm. “Will Baxter.”
I stared at his large hand and then met his eyes. They were as dark as an oil spill.
“And you are?” Will asked after a moment, dropping his arm to his side.
I glared at Luis, irritated. Guys this hot were the worst. Cocky, self-absorbed, dull. Plus, he was tall. Hot plus tall meant he’d be completely insufferable. I bet the only thing this guy struggled with was finding pants that fit properly. Luis made a little wave as if to say, He’s fine.
Will raised his eyebrows, asking for more.
“Brookbanks,” I told him, running my fingers behind my ear to tuck my hair in place, only there wasn’t enough hair to re- arrange.
“Sorry to hear you think my work’s basic, Fern Brookbanks,” Will said with exaggerated cheer, “because I believe you’re stuck with me for the rest of the day.”
I gave him a tight smile.
“Well, kids, I’m gonna split,” Luis said. “Will, despite first impressions, Fern won’t bite.”
“Hey,” I said. “I’ll see you Monday.” Luis kissed my cheek, then whispered in my ear, “He’s a doll. Be nice.”
I locked the door behind Luis, feeling Will’s eyes on the side of my face.
“Tell me why you don’t like it.”
He took a muffin out of the paper bag, peeling off the parchment. My stomach gurgled. I’d made Mom’s pancakes as a special goodbye breakfast for Whitney, but that was hours ago. Will broke the muffin in half and held out a hunk.
“Thanks,” I said, shoving it into my mouth. Lemon-cranberry.
We turned to face the wall. Everything but the right-hand corner looked finished.
“The raccoon’s fine,” I said. When he didn’t respond, I peered up at him. He was better looking at close proximity. His bottom lashes were an exaggerated curve, as black as the lake at midnight. They were long and delicate, kissing the skin below his eyes, and the contrast with his splattered, saggy work gear was weirdly thrilling. I studied the mural again. “It’s not terrible.”
His laugh came out of nowhere, popping like a firework. It was delight made acoustic. “Tell me what you really think.”
“It’s just not what I would have chosen. It’s so different in here than it was six months ago.” My boss had decided the space needed “modernizing.” The beat-up cherrywood chairs were now molded black plastic. The turquoise walls had been painted white. There were no more Renoir posters.
I made the mistake of looking at Will again. The way he watched me with fascination made me uneasy. “Not a big fan of change?”
“I liked the way it was before.” I pointed to a corner by the window. “We had this old orange velvet armchair there, and all these Nigella Lawson cookbooks.” Hardly anyone looked through them, but Nigella was our thing. “There were wooden beads hanging over there.” I gestured to the doorway that led to the prep kitchen.
The wall Will was painting once had a large corkboard over the milk and sugar station, where people tacked flyers for piano lessons, missed connections, knitting circles-anything, really. Last year, one of our regulars proposed to his boyfriend by pinning up a sign that read, I love you, Sean. Will you marry me? He’d cut vertical strips into the bottom, each with the same answer: Yes.
“It used to be cozy in here. It’s like a totally different place now,” I said. “It’s so . . . stark.”
“I know what you mean,” Will said, brushing muffin from his chest pockets. There was a plain gold signet ring on his pinkie. “Every time I come back to Toronto, it’s changed a little. Sometimes more than a little.”
“You don’t live here?”
“Vancouver,” he said. “But I grew up here. And yeah, it’s always evolving. I don’t mind it, though.” He pushed a slice of hair off his face. “Whenever I’m home, I have the chance to get to know the city all over again.”
“How romantic,” I said, deadpan. But his words hit my bloodstream like an espresso shot.
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