Gabriel Stephens stared at the open door of his father’s general store. A gust of cold air rang the bell over the threshold. Visible through the plate-glass window, Phoebe sailed down the boardwalk. He’d give his eyeteeth to know what had just happened. One minute he’d been trying to focus on reading the words on the scrap of paper in front of him while his eyeballs kept darting to the beautiful Phoebe Monpetit.
And then she was gone.
Sweat greased his palms. She really had been here. He hadn’t dreamed her up. He couldn’t let her go. Not yet. Not now. Crumpling the paper in his fist, he sprinted after her. His footfalls pounded the wooden floor. Dust stirred in his wake. Catching the jamb with his palm, he executed a neat turn and raced up the boardwalk. “Phoebe! Phoebe!”
Pausing, she glanced over her shoulder. The brisk wind shelved red kisses in her wide cheekbones. Jet black hair showcased the olive tones in her skin. Ebony eyebrows arched delicately over onyx eyes. She bit her full bottom lip and turned away.
Air left his lungs in a whoosh. She wouldn’t ignore him, would she? Please, don’t ignore me.
Her shoulders slumped under the severe cut of her green woolen coat. Red mittened hands fluttered around her lush hips before landing on them. Very slowly, she spun and faced him. Her smile was as brittle as an icicle. “Did I forget something?”
Gabe slowed so he didn’t close the twenty yards between them too quickly. What was he supposed to say? How was he to get her to stay? How could he chase that loneliness from her eyes?
She tilted her head to the side. Her smile wavered then fell.
Guilt was a horse-hair shirt irritating his skin. He’d put those barricades in her expression. Breaking promises had consequences. He’d learned that from his parents’ contentious marriage. And he’d broken a doozy to Phoebe, all to escape the fighting in his home.
He’d abandoned her after vowing never to leave.
Just like everyone else in her life.
He stopped two paces in front of her and rubbed his arms through his jacket. “Brrr. I’d forgotten how cold life can be when the wind comes off the Great Lakes.”
“We live on an island. The wind can only come from Lake Huron.”
Wonderful! Now she would think he was stupid as well as untrustworthy. And how was he going to change that? By convincing her to spend time with him and earning back her trust. He didn’t know which would be the harder task. He swallowed the lump in his throat. He had to start somewhere. But where? Paper rasped against his sleeve. Her list of required supplies. That’s it. The store! God truly did watch over fools. “I was hoping you would do me a very big favor.”
Stepping back, she frowned. “What kind of favor?”
“I need to get the store restocked.” He inched toward her. Slowly. Heaven help him if she balked and fled. He would never get her back then. She knew every nook and cranny of the island. She could hide from him for years. He had to get her to stay. His heart hammered against his ribs. “We both know Mother won’t apologize to Mr. Lubeck for at least another month. I’m all alone.”
He clamped his lips together, knowing the thought of others being lonely was one of her weaknesses.
She shook her head. A lock of dark hair swept over her cheek before coming to a stop on her shoulder. The straight black tress ended below her waist. “I’m sure you can find someone—”
Her refusal punched him in the gut. He didn’t want anyone but her. Needed her at his side. He’d seen too much in Europe. And knew that she, and only she, could fill the pit hollowing him out.
And he could undo some of the damage his selfishness had done.
“Please.” He held out his bare hand in supplication. Prayers chased each other inside his head. He’d promise anything. Do anything to keep her.
She sighed and trudged toward him. “I can help today and tomorrow, but I do have my work at the school.”
Her lips contorted as if she’d tasted something bitter.
He had an inkling he had something to do with it, but couldn’t puzzle out the cause. He had yet to reach the age when he understood women or their tender feelings. “Since you’re helping me out in my hour of need, I will help you clean the school for the next two weeks.”
She blinked. “You’re willing to clean the school?”
“Why not?” Slipping his hand around hers, he wrapped his fingers around her palm. Her touch was just the right amount of heat. He had an inkling nearly everything about her was just the right amount. “I remember we used to stay after school many times from all the antics you had Jacob, Lenore, and I do during recess.”
Her lips thawed into a real smile.
His insides simmered. Oh, boy. He might be in a bit of trouble.
“If we stand here holding hands much longer, the townsfolk will talk.” She squeezed his hand.
For a moment, he almost dared her to let the townspeople talk. He wanted everyone to match them. But what if she didn’t? Jacob had said his sister, Lenore, and Phoebe had busy social calendars. Perhaps, Phoebe had a beau. Gabe glanced up and down the street. If she did have a suitor, he wasn’t very attentive.
“Yes. Absolutely.” He squared his shoulders and escorted her to the store.
Although the top of her head barely reached his chin, she matched him stride for stride.
He walked a little taller. Curtains stirred in the windows of the stores that remained open for the islanders. If Phoebe did have a suitor, he would rue the day he took her for granted. Gabe would make certain of it. He paused to allow her to precede him inside then pulled the door shut.
Hot water gurgled in the radiators. The overhead electric lamps buzzed.
Gabe nearly gagged on the heavy scent of dry goods. Coffee, in particular, always recalled his mother’s bitter recriminations, his father’s ineffective apologies, and the waves of anger and helplessness.
Stopping in an open space, Phoebe spread her arms wide, turned her face up to the lights and spun slowly in a circle. “I love the smell of this store.”
He blinked. Never, ever would he have expected to hear those words from her. They’d spent most of their summers in her grandmother’s teepee on the wooded part of their farm. “But you love the Outdoors.”
Even today, she smelled of cedar and pine.
“I love the indoors, too.” Smiling, she stopped her spinning. She bit the tip of her red mitten and pulled it off, then repeated the technique with the other. Her skin was the color of strong English tea with lots of milk.
He loved that drink.
Stuffing her mittens in her pocket, she slid the hand-carved wooden buttons free. Each rosette bobbed as the coat parted, revealing her green woolen dress underneath. “And I love the smell of this shop, in particular.”
“Why?” His stomach turned at the thought of running the store.
“Because of all the items from exotic locales.” She shrugged off her coat. Victorian puffed sleeves ballooned around her narrow shoulders. A cameo of a fish carved into a pearlescent shell clung to her high collar. The generous folds of her skirt covered her scuffed boots.
His mouth dried as he surveyed her middle.
The tailored jacket emphasized her narrow waist, full bosom, and rounded hips. The pictures she’d sent in her letters to him hadn’t done her justice. Neither had his imagination or his dreams of her.
She snapped her fingers. “Gabe? Are you listening to me?”
He shook off his inappropriate thoughts. Phoebe was a lady and his friend. He would treat her as such. “Sorry, I’d slipped away for a moment.”
She quickly shucked her jacket and laid it atop her coat on an empty display area. Then she unbuttoned the tight sleeves around her forearms. Veins wrote in delicate blue script across her pale wrists. “And I won’t ask you about your thoughts.”
“I hope not!” His body temperature soared. He forced cool air in and out of his lungs. She wasn’t baring anything current fashions didn’t already show. But this was different. She was different. He glanced behind him. Through the glass windows, he scanned the boardwalk. Empty. Perhaps he should lock them safely inside so no one else could see her exposed skin.
“I stopped reading the newspapers because news of the war was so horrible. I can’t imagine what it had been like to be there.”
War. She’d been talking about the war. Relief effervesced inside him.
She neatly folded the snowy linen to her elbows.
He licked his dry lips. Her skin looked like silk. Would it feel as soft? Would it…
“How do you wish to proceed?”
He watched her full lips move, but his ears seemed to have stopped working.
“Gabe?” She tapped her toe. “How do you wish to proceed?”
He planted himself back in the business sphere. A field he’d studied at Harvard. He knew these answers. “I thought we would open the closest crates, put the contents on the shelves, then after everything is unpacked, I’ll fulfill the orders I have waiting.”
“No?” He set his fists on his hips. He knew what he was doing. He’d gone to school just to learn how to run and expand the family business.
“No.” She combed the free lock of ebony hair from her shoulder, coiled it into a tight knot, and secured it on her coronet of braids with a pin. “You will find all the orders that need filling, then starting in the storeroom in the back, you’ll begin filling them all at once by using the empty shelves.”
Gabe eyed the narrow passage between the crates of goods waiting to be stocked. He couldn’t even see the storeroom. “It would be easier to work from the front to the back.”
“I imagine it would.” She slipped between an empty barrel for flour and one for oats, then ducked under the dusty counter. “But the older stock is in the back and should be moved first. Just like your father had you move the older cans to the front when you stocked the shelves.”
For a moment, he pictured his father standing beside the rolling ladder handing Gabe shiny cans of peas. He’d been seven and working for a brand new pocket knife. “How did you know?”
He hadn’t worked in the store for over a decade.
“You’re father told me.” She removed a dusty apron from the peg on the wall and ducked under the strap. “He always smiled when he spoke of them. I was a poor summer substitute for you. But he was proud that you had made so many friends, who invited you to spend your vacations with them.”
Gabe’s fingernails dug into his palms. His dad had been proud of him? He never knew. And he didn’t have many friends other than Jacob Kerrigan. Gabe had been desperate not to come home. Ironically, he’d seen the trip to Europe as his last enjoyment of peace before returning. He’d no sooner set foot on the continent when the ArchDuke had been assassinated. God must have a sense of humor.
Her eyes filled with concern, but she didn’t say a word. Instead, she reached under the counter and pulled out a tin of wood polish, a thick feather duster, and a cotton cloth. The tin and cloth fit into her apron pocket. The duster was secured in her tied apron strings. “I’ll start dusting the shelves and set the old cans on the counter for you to fill the orders. Work crate by crate, and bring the leftovers to me to stock.”
He nodded and shrugged out of his jacket. “My father must have taught you a lot about the business during those summers.”
“He was lonely.” Metal rattled when she dragged the rolling ladder to the shelf closest to the window.
Gabe didn’t think he was the only one. “I’m sorry.”
Turning her back to him, she climbed to the highest shelf. She hooked an elbow around the rail, then used her free hand to drop the cans to a lower shelf.
She wasn’t going to acknowledge his apology. He wasn’t going to let it go. “I promised I wouldn’t leave you alone, but I did. Worse, I convinced Jacob to enroll in the school with me.”
Depriving her of two friends. He was a cad.
She uncapped the tin and sniffed it. “Hmmm, lilacs. Did you know Mr. Lubeck gave me his recipe for furniture wax, but mine never smelled as wonderful as his.”
Smooth, experienced movements made short work of the cobwebs and dust of the top two shelves.
He crossed his arms over his chest.
Phoebe slapped at a cobweb. “We were children. I didn’t blame you.”
She should. His father had given him the opportunity to return after that first year. Two weeks had been his limit. Not even Phoebe could keep him here. The silence at school had been too seductive. Now it was a rusty blade in a new razor. The cuts it left were deep.
She relocated the cans on the next shelves to lower ones.
Gabe quickly closed the distance between them. Her skirt brushed his shoulder as he shifted the cans to the countertop. Over the scent of lilacs, he breathed in the woodsy fragrance of her.
“You are supposed to be working on those orders.” One leg stuck out behind her, providing balance as she scrubbed the far corners. “People will be stopping in to see you, and you could use the opportunity to make a few sales.”
He eyed the trim ankle, the shapely curve of her calf, all encased in a black stocking. Perhaps, he should flee temptation. “I’ll do that.”
Shoving his shaking hands in his pockets, he strode to the back room. He had to earn back her trust. Without trust, he couldn’t act on this thing between them. And, by golly, there was something between them.
Something worth fighting for.
Something he intended to win and protect. For as long as they both lived.
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