No. No? Lenore Kerrigan watched Hans Lubeck’s broad shoulders disappear into the forest of freight. How could he say no? Her students were counting on her. She squared her narrow shoulders. She would ensure her students’ Christmas gifts to the children of Belgium were loaded onto that ship currently docked in Duluth.
Her skin prickled with awareness. From the corner of her eye, Lenore spied two men in coarse clothing standing on the dock. Speculation glinted in their pale blue eyes before they turned to face each other.
Guttural German scratched her ears. Lenore had no doubt they spoke about her. Everyone did. At least, it wasn’t as bad as when she’d first returned two years ago from Miss Pinkham’s Finishing School in Boston. Then the town’s gossip had picked over her character, her eccentricities, and fancy education. Her broken engagement had kept tongues wagging the winter of 1912.
And most of 1913.
If she was ever romantically linked with a man, the gossips would resurrect the scandal.
If she’d learned anything at Miss Pinkham’s, it was to make sure no one would see the pain they caused. No one would suspect the truth. She raised her chin and smiled. The mask settled easily over her face now, although the falseness of it still itched. At least, Père Flambeaux no longer said she had to confess it. Nodding to the deckhands, she turned and re-entered the enclosed deck. She wasn’t finished with Hans Lubeck.
A gull squawked its approval. Waves lapped at the metal hull, gently rocking the boat. The brisk fall wind whistled through and open window, pushing her coat against her body. Her heels clicked on the wooden deck as she searched for him.
Captain Lubeck paused by the ladder to the engine room.
Good. She hoped the sound of her footfalls telegraphed her determination. She clenched and unclenched her gloved hands. “Cap—er, Skipper Lubeck. A word, if you please.”
Shoulders drooping, he stared at the ceiling but didn’t turn.
It was better this way. Whenever his sapphire eyes looked at her, her insides quivered like uncooked pudding. “I believe there may be some misunderstanding.”
He turned slowly and stared at her. His attention stuck on her face. Underneath his ax-blade nose, his lips thinned. He clenched his jaw and the cleft in his chin wiggled.
Not every face could wear a cleft with such panache. Then again, not all men had such a square jaw. Warmth unfurled inside her. She tried to ignore it, but heat invaded her limbs. Sweet Mary, mother of God. Perhaps, she was coming down with an illness. She pressed her glove to her cheek. The leather cooled her skin.
He quirked one brown eyebrow. “Yes, Miss Kerrigan?”
What had she been about to say? Oh, yes. She cleared her throat. “When last I spoke with your uncle, he assured me that ferrying the crate to Duluth would not be a problem. ”
There. She’d said it. Unfortunately, her voice trembled a bit at the end. Hopefully, he would chalk that up to the cold weather.
Hans raked his fingers through his hair. The short chocolate curls sprang back in place as he rubbed the back of his neck. “He didn’t mention any such cargo to me.”
“But I thought…”
His second eyebrow joined the first high on his forehead. “You thought what precisely?”
When she’d spied his boat in the harbor, she’d known it was divine providence. Especially since she’d forgotten to package the toys up last Wednesday for the normal mail run. But if he hadn’t stopped for her crate, why had he docked?
A clang and bark of German echoed around the lower deck.
Oh. Oh! She set her hand against her mouth. How could she be so silly?
She waved away her thoughts. Instead of confessing her selfishness, she distracted him with the obvious. “Your ship is broken, and this is an emergency stop.”
For some reason, the knowledge stoked the fire in her belly. She refused to tease the reasoning from her thoughts.
“If the repairs work, we won’t be in port long. And, I’m afraid, I’m not sailing to Duluth, but to Hamilton, Ontario.” He removed his hand from his nape and rested it on a crate. Long, blunt fingers covered the packing label. A callus raised a bump on the middle finger of his left hand.
He had nice hands. A working man’s hands, not like Dixon’s. She yanked her ex-finance’s name from her thoughts and tossed it aside. Rising on tiptoe, she leaned to the side. His shoulders were so wide, she took a step to see around him.
Two men had removed a long black pipe and were currently screwing several smaller ones in its place. “I don’t think that will work.”
Hans sighed and glanced back at the engine room.
Her insides twinged. She knew what it was like to have things not work despite her best efforts. She placed her hand on his forearm. Hard muscle contracted under her leather gloves. “Perhaps our blacksmith could fix the pipe. Mr. Benjamin is extremely talented.”
Hans stared at her hand.
Tingles raced up her arm. Yanking it back, she clasped her hands behind her back. She must be coming down with something. She hoped it wasn’t catching.
Lines plowing his forehead, he massaged the area she’d touched. “I had thought of that, but the pipes are under pressure and not every farrier could work the metal just so.”
She knew that. Obviously, he was attempting to tell her to mind her own business. Except ladies weren’t supposed to be in business, or have a thought in their heads beyond flower arranging, dinner parties, and fashions. She’d turned herself into such a pattern card of respectability once.
She would not do so again.
“It wouldn’t hurt to try.” She clamped her mouth shut. She had been speaking to him, not to herself. If a man couldn’t accept her for who she was, then she didn’t want him.
No. She didn’t want a man.
She liked her life just as she’d arranged it. Between her days at the school and her evenings and weekends working in her parents’ hotel, she filled her time with purpose and meaningful activities.
Hans drummed his fingers on the crate. “Thank you for the idea, Miss Kerrigan, but if you have nothing else to add, I have work to do.”
Mortification settled deep in her belly. Sweet Mary, but he was attempting to get rid of her. Did he think she’d developed tender feelings toward him, like half the outsiders did? She forced her arms to her sides. “My apologies for keeping you.”
Turning on her heel, she marched down the aisle between the neatly arranged cargo. She hadn’t been on board for a social call, but business. And even if she hadn’t swore off men, Hans Lubeck would be the last man on earth she’d want to woo her. And if he ever implied otherwise, she’d put him firmly but politely in his place.
Her heart was closed to romance. Forever.
A brisk wind blew Lenore away from the harbor. Men tipped their hat to her when she passed the customs house. The boats of the United States Revenue Service lay upside down on the ramp.
Keeping her smile firmly in place, she nodded to the workers but didn’t stop to chat as she had in the past. Instead she turned onto Crescent Street, following it along the curve of the harbor.
Two and three-story wooden buildings towered over the wide dirt road. The breeze hummed along the telephone and electric lines swaying between tee-shaped wooden poles. Canvas awning lay curled against business facades, waiting for May and the tourist season. Bright-colored shutters protected the windows of the island’s closed hotels.
With the tourist season over, the city was nearly deserted. The dark windows of the curiosity shoppes, the art gallery, the opera house, and the confectionaries stared back at the empty street. The scent of pine drifted along the wooden boardwalk.
Despite the sting of cold, Lenore kept her chin up. She had no reson to be ashamed. The crate would be shipped out next week. There would be other boats to Belgium. She didn’t need Hans Lubeck.
From inside the fudge shop on her left, someone rapped on the window. Mr. Blodgett invited her inside with a wave of his butter-covered hand. Behind the gold stenciled letters, he dropped pecans into the chocolatey goo on the marble surface.
She waved back and pointed down the street, toward her parents’ hotel. She didn’t wish to speak to anyone. They would ask about the toys. She couldn’t admit to another failure.
Mr. Blodgett’s round tummy jiggled under his red-and-white striped apron. The white chef’s hat listed over his cocoa-colored hair when he leaned forward and raised a cube of fudge.
Her stomach growled. Instead of slowing, she tapped the watch pinned to her jacket and soldiered on. She would get her candy at Christmas like the rest of the island, not before. She hadn’t earned it. Yet.
Mr. Blodgett popped the piece in his mouth and chewed. Arm muscles wiggled flab as he worked the nuts into the fudge before it hardened.
Passing the bakery, she waved to the Bakers and ignored their invitations inside as well. She wanted to be alone. As usual, her encounter with Hans Lubeck unsettled her. A good book would take her mind off him. She had two or three stacked on the nightstand in her room, and she hadn’t even cracked the spines.
The door to the Stephens and Sons Dry Good and Curiosity Emporium burst open. Her best friend, Phoebe Stephens, stumbled onto the sidewalk and grabbed her gloved hands, dragging her inside. “Caught you.”
Lenore’s mask slipped and her smile turned genuine. Forget her book. She was tired of being alone. What she needed a real friend to take her mind off things. Stepping inside, she filled her lungs with the aroma of starched fabrics, coffee beans, and tobacco.
Canned and dry goods filled the shelves along the walls, reaching all the way to the pineapples on the pressed tin ceiling. One of the three rows in the center of the store remained empty, but crates near its base indicated it wouldn’t stay that way for long. Bolts of lightweight fabrics and assorted notions occupied one end. Hair ribbons, jacks, baseballs, and unpainted toy soldiers filled baskets surrounded in evergreens.
Lenore recognized some of them as the newer version of the collection for the Belgian children. Her face muscles stiffened. She mustn’t fail them.
Phoebe tilted her head to the right. A lock of black hair escaped her coronet of braids, to dangle nearly to her waist. “What’s wrong?”
Lenore opened her mouth but no words came out. What could she say? What couldn’t she say to her best friend? But to relate her troubles would bring suffering to Phoebe’s life. Newly wed to the love of her life, Phoebe deserved her happiness. Lenore’s teeth clicked together.
Obsidian eyes flashing, Phoebe set her tan hands on her hips. “I will tease the truth from you one way or another.”
And she would, too. Lenore had never been able to keep any secret from her friend. “I—”
“Phee, my love.” Gabriel Stephens emerged from the stockroom. Golden haired and blue eyed, he kept his attention focused on his new bride.
Phoebe glowed in his presence.
Lenore’s stomach cramped. She took a calming breath. They deserved their happiness; she was wrong to be jealous. And yet…
Phoebe squeezed Lenore’s hand. “Yes, Gabe, you may now unpack the crates.”
“Truly?” He rubbed his hands together in anticipation as he rushed around the counter to the opening.
“Truly, but first say hello to Lenore.”
Gabe blinked then shifted his attention to her. “Hello, Len. You’re looking well.”
For all the enthusiasm in his statement, Lenore might as well have been a doormat. Why couldn’t she have found a man with eyes only for her? “Your time in Europe did wonders for your charm, Gabe.”
He rolled his eyes, before bussing her cheek in a brotherly kiss. “Considering you always take Phee away from me, you’re lucky I didn’t throw a frog at you.”
He wrapped his arm around his wife’s waist and pulled her against him.
Lenore swallowed the bitterness flooding her mouth. These were her childhood friends. “Where would you find a frog in winter?”
“And how would you catch it?” Phoebe rested her cheek against his chest.
He winked down at her. “I know someone who is mighty talented at catching frogs.”
“Gabriel, I—” His mother entered the display area from the back room, holding a ledger in one hand and a pen in the other. “Oh, Lenore. I didn’t see you there.” The petite woman surveyed her from white fur cap to black buckled shoes.
Lenore braced herself for the criticism. “Mrs. Stephens, I see Gabe is teaching you how to balance the books.”
Mrs. Stephens nodded. “It is quite fun, dear. And speaking of fun, you look quite fetching in your new coat and hat. I knew you would when your mother ordered it.”
“T—thank you.” Her son’s marriage had mellowed the woman. Lenore stood a little straighter. “I wasn’t expecting such an extravagant birthday present.”
But she did love it. She smoothed the fur cuffs.
“It’s not every day a woman turns twenty-one.” Mrs. Stephens removed a piece of fuzz from the blue wool sleeve before picking up Lenore’s hand. “Are these the gloves your brother picked up for you in London?”
“Yes.” Lenore exhaled as the older woman skirted the issue of her age and moved onto the topic everyone talked about: the European War. “Mr. Hoover is allowing my brother, Jacob, to work for the Commission for Belgian Relief.”
Although, her left out more details than he mentioned. Whatever he continued to see filled the white spaces with unmentionable horror. She hoped he didn’t become sick from the strain. She hoped the packages she sent cheered him as well as the children.
Mrs. Stephens chewed on the end of her pen. “He’s still mentioned during church services, as are all the suffering people.”
Phoebe patted her husband’s chest before straightening. “Your mother’s order is ready, Len. Why don’t I help you carry it home?”
Gabe shifted, angling his body toward the wooden box on the counter. “I’ll get it.”
“Gabriel.” His mother poked him on the shoulder. “You are with Phoebe twenty-three hours a day. Let her spend time alone with her friend.”
His lips parted in shock.
Rising on tiptoe, Phoebe kissed him on the lips. “Lenore has a secret she’s trying not to tell me. I’ll be back before my grandmother arrives for tea.”
His hands curled into fists at his sides and his breathing quickened.
Lenore hugged herself. If they had been alone, that kiss would not have been so chaste. Dixon had never given her more than a peck on the cheek. At the time, she’d foolishly thought it gentlemanly of him.
Shaking out his fingers, Gabe crossed to the counter and lifted the box. “It’s heavy.”
Phoebe eased her fingers under his, bearing part of the weight. “Then I’ll carry one side and Lenore the other.”
He jerked his head once in acknowledgement.
“Come along, Gabriel.” Mrs. Stephens pointed her pen toward the storeroom. “The bell will ring if any customers arrive while you explain how the credit accounts are entered.”
Lenore relieved him of the rest of the box’s weight. “I promise I won’t keep Phoebe long.”
Gabe pulled his watch from his vest pocket and glanced at the glass face. “One hour and fourteen minutes until tea.”
“I won’t be late.” Phoebe blew him a kiss as she walked beside Lenore.
Lenore blew at the bit of fuzz hanging from her hat. With Phoebe close, the past couldn’t creep in through the silence.
The shadows stretched across the street when they reached the boardwalk. Night came early during the winter months. Already, the North Star twinkled in the dove-gray sky, ready to guide all sailors home. An image of Hans Lubeck and his cleft chin wavered in her mind’s eyes. She banished it.
Phoebe nudged the box. “I’m sorry.”
It bumped against Lenore’s hip. Her thoughts cleared. “Sorry? For what?”
“Because seeing Gabe and I together upsets you. Especially this time of year.” Phoebe raised her hand before Lenore could speak. “I know Dixon Cadbridge hurt you, Len.”
“Stockbridge. The Third.” Her fiancé had always been proud that his parents had lacked the imagination to give him a different name. Not that she cared. It had been two years to the day.
Shrugging off the correction, Phoebe stepped off the boardwalk and into the street. “But I know there’s a great love out there waiting for you. I know you can find someone who will look at you the way Gabe looks at me.”
Lenore’s nails dug into the wood box through her gloves. “I’m happy with my life just the way it is.”
“Liar. You want to be loved. Who doesn’t?”
Wanting it and receiving it were two different things. Lenore shivered. “What if the man who will love me is fighting in Europe and is killed?”
“What if he’s someone you’ve already met, and you refuse to see it?” Phoebe pinched her jacket closed with her free hand.
“That’s highly unlikely.” She’d grown up with practically everyone on the island. They were an extension of her family, not husband material. Most of the men couldn’t even talk to her without stammering. She couldn’t imagine spending the winters with a man who blushed every time he uttered a syllable.
Hans Lubeck hadn’t blushed.
Well, maybe a little. But she had been teasing him about his mopping skills. And he had formed whole sentences in her presence without tripping over his tongue. But he didn’t approve of women working in businesses, even family businesses. And he and his crew were a tight clan.
Just like Dixon’s Beacon Hill cronies in Boston.
Adjusting her hold so she could lead, Phoebe climbed the stoop of the wraparound porch of the Ojibwa Hotel. “I dare you to be nice to the first man who isn’t from the island you meet tonight.”
Dare her? They were hardly children. “I’m not twelve anymore.”
“Then you’re yellow for turning me down.” Phoebe wrenched open the white front door.
“I’m no coward.” Single-file, Lenore followed her inside.
The marble floor was slick underfoot. White cloths draped the chairs and tables in the open lobby, but a fire crackled in the stone fireplace on the right. No one stood behind the polished walnut desk to welcome them. No decorations adorned the carved bannister leading to the upper floors. The summer staff had long since fled to their upper peninsula homes. The locals had gone home to prepare for the Thanksgiving festivities in two days.
At least, her work at the school kept the silence at bay.
“Not every man will use you the way Dixon Stinkyford did.”
“That’s because I won’t let one.” Dixon and his friends had created endless opportunities for her to embarrass herself in front of his parents and family. And she’d foolishly risen to the occasion at his urging. She hadn’t believed half of what she’d said, but he’d convinced her against her better judgment. She changed to suit him, like she’d been taught at Miss Pinkham’s school.
“I’m bringing you a chicken feather tomorrow.” With a heave, Phoebe set her end of the box on the counter. “Because that’s what you are. A chicken.”
Lenore levered her side of the grocery box into place. Anger roiled through her. She jerked off her gloves and slapped them on the counter. “What do you know about risks? You were engaged to Gabe at nine and loved him since First Grade.”
Phoebe had it easy. She didn’t know what it was like to not fit in, to try so desperately to belong, she’d practically sold her soul or had her head turned by the first boy she’d met. Tears swam in Lenore’s vision. Why couldn’t she be that lucky?
“I gave Gabe his ring back two days before we married.” Phoebe wrapped her arm around Lenore’s shoulders.
“But you loved him.” Lenore blinked. How could this have happened? Phoebe and Gabe’s fairytale ending was the one thing that gave her hope.
“I did. I do.” Phoebe’s pin plopped to the floor as her braid uncoiled from around her head, and she trembled. “But he wouldn’t let me help him. He kept trying to wrap me in cotton wool to protect me. He still does. But his mother and I are working on him.”
Lenore hugged her friend. She’d been willing to give up Gabe? How had she found the courage to risk so much? How could Lenore do any less? “I won’t change who I am for any man.”
“Nor should you, but there’s happiness in most compromises.” Releasing her, Phoebe tugged a handkerchief from her sleeve and patted her wet cheeks.
“If I do this and nothing comes of it, you won’t dare me again, will you?” Lenore dug her hands in her pockets for her handkerchief.
“Not as long as you’re happy. Besides, I don’t want Dixon Strudlebridge to think he’s so wonderful you didn’t get over him like that.” Phoebe snapped her fingers.
Lenore blew her nose. If Dixon ever learned she was still unmarried, he would think she was pining for him. The lout. She tugged on her brass coat buttons. “Dare accepted. I’ll be nice and open to being wooed by the first man to walk through the front door. Provided he isn’t an islander and is of the appropriate age.”
She still had some standards.
Phoebe thrust out her hand. “Deal.”
Lenore pumped her hand once. “Of course, you know there probably won’t be a stranger on the island until May.”
The door knob rattled.
Her heart thumped in her chest. No. It couldn’t be. It had to be the wind. It had better be the wind.
The brass knob turned. The door creaked open.
Hans Lubeck doffed his hat as he walked into the lobby.