I am happy to announce the release of book 4 in the Love’s Great War collection.
A Gift from St. Nick now available on amazon.
Hope’s Point, Michigan
“Can you fix it?” Deep in the bowels of his ship, Skipper Hans Lubeck glared at the engine.
Oil blackened every piece of pipe, piston housing, and wheel except in the places where steam had sprayed from the crack in the condenser line. Water sweated down the metal walls of the engine room. The three-deck ferry boat rode low in the water. Her upper two decks were empty of passengers but full of cargo.
“We got her into the harbor, Skipper.” His engineer, Otto Penrod, swiped at his florid apple cheeks, smearing them with black. His wet, grease-stained overalls molded to his barrel-chest and thick legs. The few wisps of gray hair clung like apostrophes to his pink pate. “I can fix her if we’ve got the parts.”
There was always a condition. Hans pinched the bridge of his nose, hoping to stem his building headache. As for his chances of having the parts… The engine was two years older than his twenty-eight years, and the ship’s owner was wedded to every Pfennig he earned, even if they were now American pennies. If the owner possessed a spare part, it would be a miracle.
Abel Fremont, the engine oiler and wiper, tucked his black rag into the back pocket of his overalls. Mounds of coal filled the partitioned areas fore and aft of them. “I can check for the parts, Skipper.”
Otto raised his gray, bushy eyebrows and his Bavarian accent thickened. “You don’t know what you’re looking for, boy.”
He swung to cuff his nephew upside the head.
The gangly youth ducked at the last second and smiled. “I will once you show me.”
Removing an ivory pipe from his pocket, Otto clenched it between his teeth. He waded through the water the broken condenser had leaked onto the lower deck. “You’d better. I don’t plan to show you twice.”
Following, Abel picked at a pimple on his jaw.
The engine ticked as the metal cooled; water dripped. Gulls screeched over Lake Huron despite the crisp November air. The smell of wet hemp overrode the pungent kick of coal. Outside the square portholes, two mates secured the ropes to the dock. Their low-country German was peppered with a smattering of English.
Tension gripped Hans’s shoulders. He’d have to warn his crew to speak English exclusively when they dropped their cargo in Canada. Since Germany had invaded Belgium, Hans had heard rumors of German-American crews being detained by customs. Everyone on board was of German descent.
Everyone on board was his family through one marriage or another.
Just not his immediate family. He shut down the thought and shook his hands to rid himself from the pain caused by his banishment. No point in rehashing the past. Some things couldn’t be changed. No matter how much he wished.
Boots clomped in the storage areas in the forward section. Frowning, Otto came around the heap of coal and into the engine room.
Hans’s stomach clenched, preparing for the news to come. “How bad is it?”
“Bad.” Otto scratched the matted sideburns ending at his square jaw. “We’ll try cobbling together the few fittings we found, to see if we can get it to work.”
Stepping out from behind his uncle, Abel held up three short pieces of pipe. “We should get the condenser sealed tight.”
Hans mentally added the lengths of the pieces and compared it to the cracked piece. It looked to be inches short. Inches. He rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t think that will work.”
Otto shrugged. “Doesn’t hurt to try. I’ve patched it before.”
But not during November’s rough waters. Not with the ship ladened with maximum tonnage. And maximum profit if he could haul it to Hamilton. He needed that money, needed it to purchase the old ship from his uncle and prove to his father that leaving had been the best choice. Hans sighed. “You can try, but one leak and we stay docked. I won’t have us towed into another port.”
Outside, the cargo ship that had pulled them from the choppy water loaded coal from the neighboring pier.
“What about a small leak?” Otto held his thumb and index finger a quarter of an inch apart. “We made it here. We can get there.”
“No. Absolutely not. Ten ships have already been lost on the Lakes this season.” More, if he believed the reports. Hans arched an eyebrow. The waters had turned treacherous early, providing him with a small window to earn the money he needed before travel on the Great Lakes became impossible. “I won’t risk the ship or her crew.”
“You’re the skipper.” Otto grunted and crossed to his tool box sitting on a ledge above the water. Disapproval splashed the room with every step.
Tucking two pieces of pipe under his arm, Abel polished the other with his oily rag.
Hans strode up the ladder to the middle deck. Disapproval wouldn’t change his mind. Gott im Himmel, it was all he’d known for the last eight years. Leaving the room, he stepped onto the enclosed passenger deck. During the summer, people crowded the twenty-by-seventy foot space. Now, bags of iron ingots, copper in barrels, and lumber filled it. The war effort was good for business.
But how many of his kinsman remaining in Germany would the manufactured items kill?
At least his native country, America, was remaining neutral. Not that it stopped the French and English sympathizers from harassing his extended family in Minnesota. Thankfully his hometown in Missouri remained isolated from most outsiders. Opening the closet near the ladder to the engine room, he removed the cotton string mop.
He glanced toward the engine room.
Metal clanged. Steam hissed. Someone yelped.
The lines weren’t cool enough to dismantle.
Slinging the mop over his shoulder, he headed back.
Heels tapped the outside dock then thudded on the gangway. His men working outside fell silent.
The hair on the back of his neck stood up. Who had boarded his ship?
A shapely silhouette reached across the aisle, heading toward him.
Hans’s chest tightened and cold misted his forehead. A woman. Here. He hoped some male relative accompanied her. In his culture, women didn’t gad about unescorted. When they did, they made him uncomfortable. He scanned the deck, looking for another silhouette. She was alone. The mop head hit the deck.
A brisk breeze carried the scent of coal, tar, and lilacs onto his ship.
He closed his eyes for a moment. No. Not her.
The tapping of heels grew louder. Even, measured steps that had no idea what they did to red-blooded males.
Why couldn’t outsiders do business the German way, only between the men? A shadow shaded his eyelids. The fragrance of lilacs overwhelmed everything else. With a sigh, he opened his eyes. His heart hammered his ribcage.
Miss Lenore Kerrigan stood in front of him. Hair, black as a raven’s wing, formed a tight knot of curls at her nape. Red kissed her alabaster cheeks and generous lips. Her brown eyes widened and her smile slipped. “Young Mister Lubeck.”
She knew his name? Well, he’d be a monkey’s uncle. Despite delivering the mail to her family’s hotel for the last two years, they hadn’t exchanged more than directions and thank yous. He preferred it that way. Women were dangerous creatures. Hans drew himself up to his full five foot ten inches. Using the extra two inches to his advantage, he looked down at her. “It’s Captain Lubeck, Miss Kerrigan.”
She blinked. The smile expanded until her eyes twinkled. “That must be confusing as there are two captains.”
His cheeks heated with embarrassment. His ship’s engine wasn’t the only thing faulty. Thankfully, his mind would be orderly once Miss Kerrigan left.
Her brow wrinkled under the white fur trimming her hat. “Or are there more Lubecks, besides you and your uncle, sailing the Great Lakes?”
“Just the two of us.” Although there were plenty of relations. Motion at the doorway caught his attention. Two of his deckhands pressed their noses against the glass panes near the gangway to get a better look at Miss Kerrigan. Hans glared at them before returning his attention to her. “The crews call me skipper to avoid confusion.”
He doubted it. No one could ever confuse Lenore Kerrigan with another woman. No other woman could hold a candle to her. Worse, she treated everyone cordially and bestowed that smile upon them.
There was something off with her smile.
Yet, he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. The mystery would drive him mad. Clenching the mop, he eyed the ladder to the engine room. Ten more feet and he could escape. “My uncle’s ship won’t dock again until next week.”
“Oh. Oh!” She set her slender fingers over her full lips.
Hans couldn’t be here that long. He could ferry two shipments in that time. Hans needed to convince his uncle to bring over the condenser parts earlier. He doubted the small island of Hope’s Point had the correct fitting. He needed that money. One. Two. Hans prayed she’d leave. Willed her to, with everything in him. Three. Four. Fi—
Her heels tapped the ladder rungs. Not receding, but following him.
With slumped shoulders, he waited for her to join him on the watery lower deck. She wouldn’t permit him to escape.
“Cap—, er, Skipper Lubeck.”
He didn’t face her. Despite the unpleasant smell of the engine room, she wasn’t going away. “Why don’t you have your father telephone my uncle and straighten out anything that needs to be straightened?”
He mentally slapped himself. Now, he sounded as if he hadn’t finished the eighth grade.
“My father?” Turning sideways, she slipped between him and the coal bins near the cooling boiler. Water lapped at her polished shoes, and her breath ruffled the white fur collar of her ankle-length blue coat. “What does my father have to do with anything?”
Hans strangled the wooden mop handle. “As owner of the Ojibwa Hotel, I imagined he conducts all business matters.”
As men should. At least that was the rule in his culture. But the Kerrigans were of Irish stock. They could have peculiar notions of a woman’s place. Her perfume certainly gave him peculiar notions.
Her smile stiffened then crumbled entirely. “I see.”
Hans didn’t know what she saw, but it wasn’t pleasant. He slapped the mop onto the engine room’s floor. Water splashed across the inch-deep puddle, forming tiny ripples across the bigger wave.
She tapped the tip of her black shoe against the deck, sending arcs of droplets toward the broken engine.
His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. Obviously, she wanted him to say something, but for the life of him, he couldn’t fathom what it could be. He peeked at her from the corners of his eyes and swished the saturated mop along the deck. “If your father calls Duluth, I’m certain a message could be relayed to my uncle.”
“I’m sure it could.” Biting the tip of her leather gloves, she tugged them off long tapered fingers. “But neither the hotel nor my father has business with your uncle. I do.”
Hans fixated on her hands. He’d bet they were soft. Where he grew up, women didn’t have soft hands. Theirs were callused from cooking, cleaning, and helping around the farm whenever needed. They were also sturdy, not so willowy that a strong gust would snap them in half.
Lenore Kerrigan was unlike any woman he’d ever met.
And he had to avoid her.
“You’ll never dry the floor that way.” With a sigh, she shoved her gloves in her pocket then tugged the mop from his grip. Lifting the saturated rope head, she wrung the strands with her bare hands, sending the water into a nearby bucket, then swished the string mop over the boards. “Haven’t you ever mopped before?”
Otto froze, wrench on the pipe above his head. Standing on his right, Abel opened his mouth in shock. Water dribbled from the loose fitting and saturated his sleeve.
Placing himself between his engineering crew and Miss Kerrigan, Hans faced the woman. “Yes, I’ve mopped before.”
His mother hadn’t birthed any daughters. He’d had to help his mother when she needed it, until his two younger brothers could take over.
She swished the mop between his boots without touching them then wrung the head out again. “Then you must be out of practice.”
Hans planted his fists on his hips. A German woman would not be so insulting. Gerda would— He shoved the thought out of his mind.
Running the mop along the base of the wall, she smiled.
His traitorous lips quirked. She was trouble. He had enough without her adding to it. He tried to school his features into a scowl.
Her grin didn’t slip a whit. “Perhaps, you’re only pretending to be unskilled to lure some unsuspecting woman to do your bidding.”
Otto snorted. Abel covered his bark of laughter with a cough.
Lure a woman! Embarrassment scorched Hans’s cheeks. To even think such a thing, the woman must be daft. He avoided women ever since Gerda, avoided stepping out with any female no matter how many were thrown at him from his well-meaning relatives. His mouth opened and closed but he didn’t utter a sound.
Lenore worked her way across the sanded deck, leaving only a thin skin of water on the wood. “If you wish to be useful, you could empty the pail.”
Clamping his lips together, he hefted the nearest bucket. Dirty water sloshed inside, but he didn’t spill a drop on his way upstairs. He wouldn’t give the harridan a reason to criticize his carrying skills. At least, he could get away from her for a few moments. The handle bit into his palm as he stalked across the enclosed deck to an open porthole and tossed the water out.
On the dock, his deckhands scrambled away from the lower portholes and pretended an interest in the coils of rope. Nodding to them, he returned below deck to the engine room. Hans only wished his mechanics had as much restraint. They stared openly at Miss Kerrigan as she finished the last swipe.
Hans cleared his throat. He didn’t know why they looked. Otto was married, and Abel engaged to one of their own. Must be the oddity of her beauty.
Her arms shook as she wrung the mop one last time. Not a single drop marred her long coat, but her hands had turned red from twisting the strings. “There. That’s better.”
Guilt caused the skin between his shoulder blades to itch. He was responsible for ruining perfection.
Before he could reach the pail, she picked it up. “Do be careful in the future, gentlemen.” She waved the soggy mop head at Otto and Abel. “Perhaps, a bucket hung just so would prevent you from ruining my hard work.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Abel quickly scooped up the nearest one and pressed it against the boiler pipes.
Hans shook his head. She was a menace. Water would pour onto the deck as soon as Otto worked the pipe free. Hans just hoped neither man would scald his skin in the process. And to help ensure it, he would escort Miss Kerrigan out of their line of sight. Without saying a word, he eased the mop from her hand and set his other against the small of her back, guiding her toward the ladder to the middle deck.
His fingers tingled where he touched her through her layers of clothing.
She caught her breath then let it out slowly and scrambled up the ladder.
A moment later, he joined her on the middle deck. “You said you had business with my uncle?”
“Yes. Very important business.” She glanced over her shoulder. “School business, of a sort.”
He guided her to the utility cabinet and set the full bucket and mop inside before shutting the door. “I don’t have any books onboard.”
In fact, he hadn’t been scheduled to stop at the island. He wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the engine trouble. Returning his hand to the small of her back, he ushered her through the maze of cargo toward the gangway.
Red suffused her cheeks, and she squirmed under his touch. “I’m not expecting a delivery. I’m sending items out.”
Hans eyed the open doors. Once he delivered her outside, he could get the scent of her from his lungs and clear his thoughts. “You have a shipment?”
He didn’t care that he repeated her words. At least, he formed complete sentences. In English.
“Yes.” When they entered the open air deck, she dug in her heels and stopped. She jerked her gloves out of her pocket. “I have a crate of toys for the poor children of Belgium that needs to go out right away.”
Poor Belgian children? Hans bit his lip. He’d seen the notices in the papers calling for Americans to contribute to Belgian relief, but what about the other countries? Everyone suffered during wartime. Why was no one thinking of them?
She tilted her head. “There is a ship in Duluth sailing for Belgium in three days.”
Her smile returned.
He felt the pull of it down to his toes and wanted to succumb. Glory be, how he wanted to give in. But he couldn’t. His compass guided him in another direction.
“No.” He dropped his hand and wiped the feel of her from his palm.
She blinked, her mouth open as if waiting to emit more words.
“I’m sorry, Miss Kerrigan, but I cannot take your shipment. Good day.” After a quick bow, he pivoted about and marched back toward his engine room. He had to leave. His future depended upon it. For his sanity’s sake, he would avoid her while he was stuck on the island.
Available now on amazon