“Thank you for your help in stowing the awning, Mr. Baker.” Gabe opened the door of the emporium. Outside the dusk pressed against the electric street lamps. Store windows turned dark.
Mr. Baker hefted the fifty pound sack of flour over one shoulder and balanced the crate full of requested dry goods on his hip. “Glad to help. It’s what we islanders do for each other. Look after each other.”
The baker peered at Phoebe over his wire-rimmed glasses. Flour dusted his thick smoke-and-ash-colored hair.
Phoebe’s cheeks heated with embarrassment. Practically all three hundred year-round residents had shopped today. Each had cast pointed looks in her direction while inquiring after the war news. Mrs. Stephens would not be pleased to have her son’s name linked with Phoebe’s. She just hoped the older woman wouldn’t send him away again.
“Are you sure I can’t help you carry that home?” Gabe flipped the sign in the window from open to closed.
Mr. Baker snorted. “We just live next door, son. Remember that if you need us.”
Without another word, the baker ducked under the door lintel and headed up the boardwalk.
Leaning against the door, Gabe threw the locks and rested his forehead against the polished wood frame.
Her chest tightened. He looked so exhausted. His features had become more pinched as visitor after visitor asked for details on German atrocities in Belgium and Northern France. She shivered. Even if he hadn’t known many, he’d said enough to give her nightmares. Bowing her head, she eased the apron halter around her neck. “We’ve accomplished much today.”
Her body warmed with satisfaction. And they made a good team, with him lugging everything out of the stockroom, repacking requested supplies in crates, and leaving the displays to her.
On the wall behind her, gleaming wooden shelves showcased a supply of canned goods. Everyday items formed neat pyramids on the polished countertops. Her reflection superimposed over the hardware offered behind glass. More goods, cloth, rope, and luxury soaps stocked the two gleaming aisles and spilled over into the birch bark baskets on the floor underneath.
She frowned at the three-foot stacks of straw hats on the oval end cap. Whatever could have possessed Mrs. Stephens to purchase so many? Perhaps, they should be stored in mothballs until the tourists arrived next June.
Straightening, Gabe shook his head. “Everyone wants the violence and hate.”
She hung the apron on a peg. “It is in all the papers.”
Wasn’t violence and hatred the language of war? Goosebumps raced up her bare arms. It was the chill. Gabe hadn’t fed coal to the boiler in hours. The stream of shoppers and gossipmongers had been nonstop since ten that morning. It was nearly five now.
And time for her to leave.
Gigi would arrive home soon. Her grandmother would be expecting supper to be on the table. She would be upset if Phoebe wasn’t home. So would Midnight, her milk cow. Phoebe had much to tell her bovine friend.
Gabe’s eyes narrowed. “Are you leaving?”
“It’s getting late. I have to get home.”
He frowned then shuffled over to the door to the apartment upstairs. “I’ll see you home.”
She bit her tongue lest common sense tell her to refuse his offer. His mother was bound to learn Phoebe had been helping in the store all day. Gabe escorting her home wouldn’t do anymore damage. Especially when Mrs. Stephens disliked her already. Besides, his company would deprive any visitors their ghoulish need to rehash the war and its suffering.
Gabe returned with her coat and jacket over his arm. He’d donned a houndstooth suit coat and a bowler. A green scarf wrapped his throat. The long ends trailed down his back.
She’d knitted that for him when he’d entered Harvard . Had he remembered? Probably not. Why would he? They were just friends. A fact her foolish heart kept forgetting. Her attention shifted to the dusty bottles of perfume and cologne.
Gabe handed her the suit jacket then held open her coat. She leaned into the wool interior and fell into a cloud of his butter-rum aftershave. His strength stood tall against her back. When he smoothed the wool over her shoulders, she sighed.
“I set your coat on the radiator for a minute to warm it.” His peppermint breath washed over her cheek.
Oh, boy. Perhaps, she should insist on walking home alone. Her fingers fumbled with the buttons. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure.” He inhaled deeply before stepping back.
The room was colder without him nearby. Foolish thoughts. Foolish girl. She jerked her red mittens out of her pocket and stuffed her hands inside.
Gabe struck a match. The sulfur scent rose on the wisps of smoke. He quickly set the flame to the lantern wick. The red and orange teardrop doubled in size before he removed the match and blew it out. Metal squeaked as he lowered the globe, protecting the light of the kerosene lantern from the wind. “Ready?”
No. “Yes.” She headed to the back room. Grit crunched under her boots. She’d sweep the floor when she returned on the morrow. She practically floated to the outside door. He would still be here tomorrow.
After turning off the interior lights, Gabe locked the door behind them. Phoebe practically radiated nervousness. He understood the feeling. Logic told him to give her time to become used to his return. Logic had taken a ferry to the lower peninsula. Today, it had been like they’d never separated at all.
She’d chased the dark memories to the shadowy corners of the shop and resurrected the good times he’d forgotten.
But the talk of war had obviously distressed her. She’d gasped, fumbled on the ladder, and plunked down cans every time he’d mentioned the fighting. But there hadn’t only been soot and ruins. There’d been moments, precious moments.
“Don’t you need a jacket?” She turned up her collar and stared down the alley toward her farm on the west side of the island.
“I’ll be fine.” He lifted the lantern from the barrel by the door and turned down the flame. The electric lights blazed along the shore past the railroad hotel on the bluff. “I boarded the ship with only one small suitcase. The porter was horrified.”
He held out the crook of his arm.
She glanced at it for a moment before slipping her arm through his. “I’m certain he was accustomed to people traveling light. You were fleeing a continent at war.”
“You’d think so. But many a passenger had a hand truck full.”
She trembled against him. “You don’t have to talk about it.”
“I want to tell you.” He needed her to understand. The war had sharpened his vision.
Her grip tightened as they strolled down the alley.
Beyond the houses to the north, the blacksmith shaped metal. The forge breathed hot air. Red embers twinkled in the fading light before turning to ash. The ocean crashed against the sandy shore and the lighthouse on Round Island swept the dark waters of the lake.
It had been a night like this when he’d left. It was fitting it was a similar night when he’d returned. Funny. He hadn’t realized he’d missed it until he’d found it again. “War is horrible. Everyone suffers. But there’s also something else there. A mother tucking her baby close to her side while they sleep at the depot waiting for a train that doesn’t come. A father carrying a skinned-kneed son on his shoulders. Dogs trotting next to their masters. Little girls playing pat-a-cake while perched on a wagon holding all their possessions.”
They crossed the street and took the boardwalk opposite the railroad hotel. Electric lights flickered in the street lamps. White fence delineated the brown lawn of the Grand Palais hotel. The Grecian columns stretched along the front of the hotel. Workers secured shutters over the window as they planned to shut down for the winter.
An owl hooted over the incessant tapping of a woodpecker, searching for a meal in the electric and telephone lines.
Phoebe leaned against him. “You gave away your belongings.”
He shrugged. “I didn’t need them as much as others.”
And yet he was the poorer one. He had no one. Or thought he had. But snapshots of Phoebe had filled his wallet. Thoughts of her had traveled with him throughout Europe and school before that. He’d given up counting the times he tried to turn to her and share his new discovery.
“You always did want to be the hero.”
And yet, he hadn’t played that role for the one person who needed him the most. He’d taken the easy way out just as his ancestor had all those years ago. Maybe his mother was right. Maybe he was a disappointment to everyone who loved him. “Phoebe.”
“I’m not the little girl you left behind, Gabe. I’ve been taking care of myself for years. I’m good at it.” She released him and skipped ahead, allowing the shadows to swallow her.
Gawd. Instead of carrying him to shore, his words were the undertow dragging him back out to sea. Twisting the knob, he turned up the flame on his lantern and raised it.
A cathedral of maples, elms, and pines formed a roof over them.
Phoebe danced at the edge of the darkness. Bending here and there, she gathered bunches of orange, red, and yellow leaves. “I don’t want you to feel sorry for me.”
“I don’t.” Sorry was the last thing he felt when he looked at her.
“Or guilty, either. I’ll admit I missed you when you went away, but I got over it. Lenore and I made new friends. Girls mostly.” Phoebe plucked a few brown leaves from her bouquet and flicked them into the underbrush. “By then, we all thought boys were yucky.” Her white teeth flashed in the darkness. “You see, even if you hadn’t left and taken Jacob with you, we would have stopped playing house in the tee-pee, or hunting for bird’s nests in the woods, or fishing.”
Gabe heard her words but detected the heavier notes inside them. Lenore had written weekly to her brother, Jacob, and his best friend had shared the contents. Phoebe had been friendly with all the girls, but she’d only played with Lenore.
Gabe’s leaving had taught Phoebe not to trust anyone.
He would teach her that he could be trusted again. “If I had stayed, I imagine I would have put a frog down your back or dipped your braids in the inkwells.”
She whirled about. “Don’t be ridiculous. You could never catch a frog.”
He laughed. Some things never changed.
Hair pins pinged to the dirt road. Her braids gradually unwound from her head and dangled down her back. She was returning back to nature as she skipped. “Come and help.”
He loved her freedom, loved that she shared it with him. He snapped off a maple branch with a handful of flame-colored leaves.
Dancing in the penumbra of light, she whistled like the birds of the forest—cardinals, blue jays, and chickadees.
She would have hated the crowded streets of Europe. English misses had their color washed out of them by the constant rain. German fräuleins were too constrained. French ladies too free in their flirtations. And Italian signorinas too temperamental.
Gabe stooped to pick up her pins as they fell out. He’d have to court her slowly, like how he gathered her pins.
Gradually, the woods thinned. The bright moonlight spilled across the water. The dark silhouette of her farmhouse stood in a clearing. A light flickered to life in the kitchen window.
“Oh dear! Gigi is back.” Gripping her bundle of leaves in one hand, she sprinted for the house.
Holding the lantern steady, Gabe ran after her. He would explain that he’d been at fault for Phoebe’s late return and spare her grandmother’s ire.
He reached the garden gate.
Phoebe ducked inside. A shriek quickly followed.
Gabe’s heart stopped. She was in trouble. The lantern handle bit into his palm. He burst through the door, fist raised.
A stooped figure stirred the ashes to life in the fireplace at the end of the room. Phoebe’s leaf collection carpeted the floor. Flames licked the neat stack of wood in the hearth. The light blazed enough so he could see Phoebe in the arms of a copper-skin Indian. Then she rose on tiptoe and kissed the stranger’s cheek.
No wonder she hadn’t wanted to hear his stupid stories. Setting his branches and pins on the counter, he rushed out of the house and back into the woods.
Phoebe Monpetit had already given away her heart.
And it wasn’t to Gabe.
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