Her heart can’t give him up. Her head can’t trust him.
Everyone Phoebe Monpetit has ever loved eventually abandoned her. Even Gabriel Stephens, the man she thought she’d marry. For the last twelve years, she’s muddled through alone, cobbling a life together.
Gabriel took the first opportunity to escape his family’s constant fighting and rarely looked back. When war explodes across Europe, he learns what his cowardice has really cost him.
This Halloween, he’ll use every trick he can to win back Phoebe’s heart.
Will she keep her true feelings covered, or will she let Gabe unmask her heart?
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Hope’s Point, Michigan
Phoebe Monpetit stumbled onto the boardwalk in front of the bakery. A gust of wind tugged at her woolen coat and a puff of cold air breathed against her high collar. The sky was a robin’s egg blue. Fluffy, white clouds scampered across the horizon. Beyond the row of buildings opposite her, gulls greeted each other in Crescent Harbor. Across from the Ojibwa Hotel, a horse jingled in his harness and nodded in the air.
The wind snapped at the blue awning still running the length of Stephens and Sons Dry Goods and Curiosity Emporium. Dust gathered on the display tables in the rain-spotted windows. Phoebe frowned at the white threads dangling from the tear in the canvas and the empty shelves inside. Where the dirt street met the boardwalk, remnants of last night’s snowfall gathered like yesterday’s forgotten newspaper.
Hanging the basket of empty milk bottles on the crook of her right arm, she rested her hand on the grimy brass door handle.
The sign in the window of Stephens’s Emporium was turned to open. Lights blazed inside. But no one stirred. Was the store even open? It wouldn’t be the first time Mrs. Stephens had forgotten to close up shop since her husband’s death.
And he hadn’t returned from his grand tour of Europe.
But Gabriel Stephens was expected back any day, and tomorrow she might encounter him. She wasn’t ready. She plucked at her out-of-date clothing. Not yet. She wanted to look her best when they met, in case his time on the continent had made him rethink his promises of love. Taking a deep breath, she wrenched open the door.
Bells tinkled above her head and rattled around the interior.
A dust bunny rolled across the dull wooden planks. A cobweb glistened on a stack of straw hats. A dozen canned goods were all that remained on the wall of shelves along the right. Fingerprints marred the glass case displaying the tarnished silver hair brushes on the left. A few bars of French soap held down the baskets on the bottom of the aisle closest to her. Picked over sundries filled the other aisles. Despite the emptiness, the robust scent of coffee, tobacco, and soap perfumed the air.
Taking the scrap of paper with her needed supplies out of her jacket pocket, she slipped the wooden coat buttons out of their holes. The pile of crates and barrels grew as she approached the counter. Glass crunched underfoot and her eyes burned from the cloying fragrance of roses from a broken perfume bottle. Holding her sleeve to her nose, she filtered the air coming into her lungs.
“Mrs. Stephens?” The thick fabric muffled her words and she rolled her eyes. Taking a deep breath, she uncovered her nose and mouth and tried again. “Mrs. Stephens?”
A pot clanged overhead. Then the steps creaked. In the right corner, the curtains concealing the entrance to the private living quarters on the second story fluttered. Mrs. Stephens was coming.
Phoebe retreated from the shattered perfume bottle to stand by a broken snowshoe, under the sign proclaiming Indian Curiosities. She raised her chin. She wasn’t ashamed of her Ojibwa blood anymore than her French blood. Her family had been on this island since before the United States came into being. Before the Stephens family came to Hope’s Point. And she was here on official school board business.
Hinges creaked. A hand batted at the lemon yellow curtain. Then a head appeared. Short golden curls lay against a perfectly formed skull. Matching brows descended over gray-blue eyes. Firm lips hung under a patrician nose.
Her heart faltered and stumbled to find its usual rhythm. The list of supplies slipped from her numb fingers. The neat rows of printing winked at her as the scrap of paper drifted to the ground.
Gabriel Stephens was back.
No one had warned her. No one. On her milk and egg delivery route this morning, she had seen six people and talked to each of them. Yet they had said nothing. It was a small island! The butcher, the baker, and the blacksmith all lived within a stone’s throw of the pier. They had to have known.
“I apologize for my appearance.” Gabe tucked his arms through the sleeves of his woolen jacket. A fancy white label flashed along the sleek lining before he slipped it over his broad chest.
No homemade clothing for him. Phoebe’s mouth opened and closed. Her knees trembled. She was no longer a child. She no longer had a crush on him. Her heart didn’t seem to be listening.
“Now, what can I do—” Adjusting the lapels of his suit, Gabe looked up. He blinked once. “Phoebe?”
Her reply stuck in her dry throat so she nodded.
A dimple winked in his left cheek. The one he always said came out to play just for her. His gray-blue eyes shifted into sapphire as his gaze traveled from her black hair to her muddy boots. “You are looking more beautiful than I remember.”
Desire fanned the banked coals in her belly. Heat licked at her. This shouldn’t be happening. She couldn’t allow this to be happening. Little Bird had warned her to leave the past behind. Phoebe cleared her throat. She would put an end to this nonsense and give her good sense a severe talking to later. “I see you’ve picked up more fancy learning while you’ve been away.”
His brow furrowed and he tilted his head.
Had he become so accustomed to false words that he no longer recognized the fool’s gold in their sparkle? “I imagine the sophisticated ladies of Europe appreciate your flattery, but you should remember, we islanders are plain spoken folk.”
Red suffused his cheeks. A muscle ticked in his jaw. “I was born on the island.”
“True, but you spent half your life in Boston, vacationed at Newport, and rubbed shoulders with royalty.” Her teasing tasted bitter in her mouth. “You’ve washed the island patois from your speech.”
Phoebe’s teeth clicked together. Had she really just repeated his mother? She couldn’t believe it. It must be the shock of seeing him.
A glint flashed in his eyes as they shifted back to gray. “I’ve acquired a new patois. Part French, part German, and a smattering of…” Leaning forward, he dropped his voice. “Italian.”
“Never say so! Oh, the horror. However shall I understand a word you say?” Tears burned her eyes. That was the boy she’d fallen in love with. Never taking her seriously and teasing her out of her bad moods. But they were older now and wiser after a fashion. Their paths had diverged but they could still be friends. And she had to accept the olive branch he offered. Blinking rapidly to clear her vision, she slapped her hand over her mouth in feigned outrage.
He laughed. The deep timber of a man grown and certain of his power.
She envied him that. Among other people, she always felt like a boat at sea with a storm on the horizon and no safe harbor in sight. The cigar band he’d given her as a token of his undying love burned between her breasts and weighted the yarn string around her neck.
Gabe had once made her feel a part of something.
She’d slept the night through warmed by the thought.
Gray eyes twinkling, he stopped laughing to grin. “I’m sure you can understand the French, but how’s your German?”
“I still remember Mr. Lubeck teaching us to count to ten in German.” She couldn’t force the smile. Gabe and his best friend had been in Europe when the war broke out. If the newspaper reports were true, perhaps he was glad the old German shopkeeper had been fired. But how could any country that gave rise to the apple-cheeked, rotund man be so barbaric?
Gabe’s grin reversed into a frown. “Do you know why Mr. Lubeck left?”
She couldn’t tell him the truth. Gabe would get angry at the injustice. His mother needed his strength just now. Phoebe bit her lip and glanced down. Her list stared back at her. She stooped to retrieve it, giving her a chance to think of a reason.
Dropping to his knees beside her, he set his hand over the list. Long tapered fingers smoothed the curves of the letters. “You know something, Phoebe. Please tell me.”
He crooked a knuckle under her chin and raised her face to his. His blue eyes bore into the back of her skull. “Don’t lie to me. Not you.”
Something dark flashed in his eyes.
There and gone so fast she might have imagined it. Tingles sprayed her skin where he touched. Her lungs forgot how to work. Rocking back on her heels, she eased out of his touch. She cleared her throat and held his gaze. “We were worried about you when we got word war had broken out in Europe.”
His lips firmed and his mouth narrowed, but he said nothing.
“The newspapers reported that many Americans were stranded and were being mistreated.” And atrocities of such horror she couldn’t even look at the paper anymore. Shuddering, she wrapped her arms around her waist and rose to her feet. To think he had been there when the German steamroller had flattened one country then another.
Standing in front of her, he cupped her cheek. “The village where we stayed surrendered without a single shot being fired.”
Her face warmed when he swept his thumb over her cheekbone. She pulled away from him. Perhaps their friendship should be a distant one. It was safer that way. “I am glad. Père Flambeaux has remembered you and Jacob Kerrigan at Mass since August.”
Gabe’s lips twitched. “I bet mother loved that.”
“I’m sure it gave her some comfort. She was worried. We all were. Two of our favorite sons were in harm’s way.”
“We’re Americans.” Gabe lowered his hand to his side. Her list of supplies dangled from his other one. “President Wilson has made our neutrality abundantly clear. The only reason we stayed so long was to help Mr. Hoover in securing passage for others, whose guides had deserted them. Jacob traveled to Belgium to help with its relief, or he would have come home with me. Everyone was most cordial to us. I even met a few folks who respected our wishes to remain clear of the European War.”
“Just a few?” Phoebe ran her finger down a postcard of Father Marquette Park. Dust coated her finger. She quickly wiped it on her coat.
“They are at war and suffering. Both sides think that America will bring the thing quickly to an end.” He shrugged.
“Yes, but whose side? Walk a block on any city street and the loyalties shift. As for the papers… The famous Nellie Bly has gone to Germany to see the war for herself and raise sympathy for their cause. While another reporter has gone to Antwerp to speak for le petit Belge. ” Phoebe felt like she stood on the beach as the tide raced in, the ground eroding beneath her boots. Only the solid limestone of Hope’s Point was certain. “I don’t think our country could survive supporting one group over another. I already heard of a lynching of a German man in Chicago by Anglophiles and reports that the police won’t do anything about it.”
“It is a tragedy, Phee.” Gabe’s eyes narrowed. “But what does that have to do with why Mr. Lubeck left my mother in her hour of need?”
Phoebe closed her eyes. She had forgotten that stubborn streak of his. It had probably grown as wide as his shoulders.
He sighed. “Mr. Lubeck didn’t leave. Mother fired him.”
“He’s staying above the blacksmith’s. Mr. Benjamin found ever so many jobs for him to do while the season was with us.” Few people had paid the old man any mind. But there had been a couple fights in the salon during the August heat. “He’s willing to come back, if your mother apologizes.”
Gabe snorted. “I have barely seen my mother in the last twelve years, but the woman in my memories wouldn’t apologize if her life depended upon it.”
“She was worried about you. People say things they don’t mean when they’re worried.” Phoebe set her hand on his forearm.
Corded muscles felt like warm steel under his jacket. “We both know my mother is very conscious of her place in society. I’m certain she sees firing Mr. Lubeck as her patriotic duty.”
“America isn’t at war.” But there was a ring of truth to his words. Yet, why did Phoebe still rate so far down his mother’s list? Her father had been French. Also an injured party in the European War. One standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the English.
“Given that the majority of hoteliers are of English stock, this is her chance to stand in solidarity with them.” He slanted her a glance. “Guess you’re great friends now. What better way to scheme her way into island society than making friends with a descendant of one of the men who traveled with Father Marquette when he discovered Hope’s Point.”
If only. Phoebe’s skin was too dark for many drawing rooms. Not that it mattered. She was happy with her life. She jerked her hand off his sleeve. “I was sorry to hear about your father’s passing.”
Would Gabe have come home if his father hadn’t suffered a stroke and died? She’d bite her tongue off before asking. She had no claim on him. None. Why couldn’t her heart remember that? She should leave. Now, before she did something foolish. She backed toward the door.
He trod slowly after her, never closing the distance nor widening it either. “Thank you. I visited his grave when I arrived last night. The snow was a blanket of diamonds, glistening in the light of the quarter moon. Winter was his favorite time of year.”
Glistening diamonds. He really had changed. Phoebe’s heart tightened inside her chest. “I remember. He said he could finally catch up on his reading.”
“But he’d always made time to take us out in the sleigh.” Gabe’s eyes lost focus as he looked into the past. “The walks in the woods, those faint glimpses of deer, moose, and bush wolves. You and Lenore Kerrigan would always stay close to the sleigh, while Pa, Jacob, and I foraged for pinecones and birds’ nests.”
She’d never felt afraid when they had been together. Sometimes, she’d imagined the five of them to be her family. She set her hand over the ring under her chemise. Her mother was dead. Her father had deserted her for a new wife and family a thousand miles away, and had never told her half-brothers and sisters about her existence. And when she’d turned sixteen, her grandmother had left to summer alone with her people. A people that viewed Phoebe as too white. No point in feeling sorry for myself.
She took a steadying breath. “Yes, well, perhaps I should go.”
Gabe held up her list between his index finger and thumb and shook it. No dirt marred the neatly trimmed fingernails. A callus appeared on the middle finger of his writing hand. Unlike in his youth, the tanned knuckles remained free of cuts and bruises. “Don’t you want me to fill this?”
She nodded then shook her head. “I can pick it up tomorrow. You and your mother should celebrate your first day back.”
“Mother has gone to announce my return to all and sundry.” He flicked his wrist then focused on the paper. His lips moved as he read.
Phoebe rubbed her nose to cover her smile. That habit hadn’t changed.
“What are you cleaning to need so many supplies?” Brow furrowed in confusion, he looked up.
“I clean the school.” She straightened. And the school board’s salary would allow her to buy more chicks and piglets in the spring, maybe even another milk cow. Many of the hotels would purchase her eggs and milk. Who knows, maybe she could even buy a fancy store dress, gloves, hat, and parasol at the end of next summer.
Gabe’s eyes widened in surprise. “You clean the school?”
“Yes, and I’m well paid for it too.” Phoebe raised her chin. She was lucky to get the job. Most folks on Hope’s Point had nothing to do during the winter months after the tourists had returned home.
He blinked and shuttered his expression. “What happened to old Bessie?”
“She said she couldn’t take another island winter and moved south with her son and his family.” Phoebe’s stomach cramped. Gabe didn’t approve of her job. Not that it mattered. It was good, honest work. A strand of hair came loose from her coronet of braids and tickled her cheek. She raised her hand to tuck it behind her ear and caught sight of the chapped, reddened skin of her fingers and palms. A laborer’s hands. Her nose prickled. She wouldn’t feel ashamed. She wouldn’t.
“Will you keep me company while I fill your order?”
She trapped a yes behind her teeth. “I should be getting home. There’s so much I need to do before Gigi returns to the farm today.”
His head snapped up. “Your grandmother left you alone?”
“I’m twenty years old, not two. I can manage.” Phoebe smiled. Although that first summer, she nearly caught their log cabin on fire. “Besides I’m not alone. I have old Thom.”
Gabe flashed his dimple. “Mother let me give him to you because he was the runt of the litter. I knew you would see him through that first winter.”
She remembered, too. It had been her first gift ever. “He’s the best mouser on the farm and is always bringing me the heads of his latest kills. He’s certainly no longer a runt but the king cat of the barn.”
And her faithful companion. Her only friend after Jacob and Lenore Kerrigan left the island to continue their education. Most of the townsfolk were friendly, but it wasn’t the same. And she couldn’t risk another heartbreak after Lenore left when they were sixteen. Thankfully, she had returned two years later and their friendship had picked right up.
Gabe scratched his freshly-shaved chin. “I would like to see the old puss.”
Her mouth dried. He’d have to come out to the farm for that. After all the palaces, castles, and fine homes he’d seen, he would see the old homestead as squalor and mud. She couldn’t let him come. “I’ll bring him by sometime. Maybe tomorrow morning when I pick up the cleaning supplies.”
“It’s good to have you back. And see you. And have you safe.” Mon Dieu! She was rambling. She had to leave. Now. Twirling on her heel, she sped toward the door and the outside. She would be safe from him outside. At home, there’d practically be the whole of the island between them. Once at the cabin, she’d take herself firmly in hand and rid herself of her foolishness once and for all. She threw open the door and rushed outside. “Goodbye.”
Forever. Until her heart learned its place, she couldn’t risk seeing Gabriel Stephens again. Ever.