Hans froze on the marble floors of the Ojibwa Hotel lobby. After the cold wind blowing off the lake, the warmth inside burned his cheeks and an answering flicker sparked to life in his belly.
Peeking around a wooden box of dry goods, Lenore stood behind the reception desk. Her full lips parted before she boosted the ends into a smile.
Was it his imagination or did her skin seem paler? His imagination. She had no reason to be worried. He was thinking nonsense. His fingernails dug into the knit hat in his hands, poking through the cabling. His overnight bag strap hung heavy on his shoulder. He should have listened to his gut and spent the night on his cold ship. Unfortunately, his treacherous feet had carried him here. To her. Women couldn’t be trusted. Especially beautiful women. He repeated his mantra, but the words weren’t sticking.
His men clomped behind him, reeking of smoke, oil, and winter. Their guttural German swirled around him. His younger cousins glanced from the marble fireplace on the left, to the chandelier, to the cloisonné vases on the narrow tables under gilt mirrors before goggling at the white cloth draped over chairs.
Hans’s attention remained fixed on Lenore. There was something different about her smile…
He tore his attention from Lenore and turned it to the young woman beside her. “Mrs. Stephens.”
Black braids tumbled down the new Mrs. Stephens’s thin shoulders. Straight white teeth flashed behind her tan face and hair pins winked in the flickering light of the overhead chandelier. Her arm wrapped around Lenore’s delicate torso. “This is a lovely surprise. And please, you must call me Phoebe. Mrs. Stephens is my mother-in-law. Besides, we’re practically family after all.”
Wringing his knitted hat in his fingers, Hans blinked. “We are?”
His father didn’t acknowledge him anymore. And since his father didn’t, none of his immediate family did either, only his extended ones.
“Well, of course, we are.” Phoebe leaned against Lenore. Her face scrunched up before the two women began marching around the desk. “Your uncle, Mr. Lubeck, has worked for the Stephenses forever. He even used to teach us German during the slow winter months and tell us all about Saint Nicholas Day back in Bavaria. I used to shiver at his tales of Krampus and feared I would be carried off in his sack if I misbehaved. Isn’t that right, Lenore?”
“You should be carried off.” Lenore ground out before slapping her palm on the walnut registration desk. They both halted. “Gentleman, please warm yourself by the fire.”
Phoebe made odd clucking sounds.
Lenore raised her chin.
The hair on the back of Hans’s neck stood straight up. A strange undercurrent swirled through the room like a deadly riptide. Unless his bearings were off, these two were up to mischief.
But then they were women.
His chest tightened as something akin to disappointment constricted his torso.
Phoebe rocked back on her heels, a soft smile played with her lips. “What brings you to the island, Skipper? My husband said we wouldn’t be seeing you until the Spring thaw. And I know your uncle has returned to Missouri and won’t be back until the December ferry.”
Hans nodded. If his Uncle Dieter had been home, he wouldn’t have sought refuge here. If another hotel had been open, he wouldn’t be here. He kept his focus on Phoebe, yet his traitorous eyes darted to Lenore every other heartbeat. “We had engine troubles out on the straight and had to be towed to the nearest port.”
Here. He would rather have returned to Duluth, but hadn’t been given a choice. His glances at Lenore lingered. He had to find a way to break this spell she’d cast over him.
Lenore swayed on her feet before propping herself against the reception desk. “You want a room?”
He took a deep breath. She didn’t want him here anymore than he wanted to be here. So why did his breath hitch? And why did he have an insane urge to say something to make her smile?
“Of course, he wants to stay. This is a hotel.” Phoebe cupped Lenore’s arm.
Lenore yelped. Jerking her arm free, she rubbed the upper part. “I know this is a hotel. I live here, remember?”
“I remember many things.” Phoebe grinned at her friend. “Do you?”
Hans caught the by-play but couldn’t interpret the hidden meaning. He pushed the thoughts aside. There, he had his proof that Lenore was just like Gerda. Now, he could stop thinking about her. “We just need rooms for the night. My uncle will bring the repair parts on his stop tomorrow, then we should be on our way.”
Or at least the boiler would work and they’d have heat on board. That is if the old skin-flint had the part. He’d said he did when Hans had telephoned him from the Western Union office near the old custom’s house. But the good captain’s words resembled fish tales, they only reflected the truth if one didn’t look too hard.
Squaring her shoulders, Lenore sidled to her position behind the desk. She shoved aside the crate of groceries and slapped a red leather book onto the top of the desk. “We have three rooms still open. Will that be enough or would you each prefer separate rooms?”
Hans mentally tabulated the cost. His savings was shrinking by the minute. He would never earn enough to purchase the ship and return to his father’s good graces. “Three will be acceptable.”
“I should return home.” Phoebe clasped her hands behind her back and sashayed toward the front doors. “It’s almost tea time.”
Lenore cleared her throat and glared at her friend. “I’ll see you tomorrow at the school’s Thanksgiving program.”
Phoebe’s dark eyes twinkled as she passed him. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
Stepping aside, Hans caught the hem of a dust cover with his boot. Fabric ripped. Rich maroon-colored upholstery appeared in the rent. Embarrassment heated his cheeks.
His men uttered a few guffaws before smothering them with coughing.
Phoebe clapped her hand over her mouth and rushed for the door.
Lenore’s ebony eyebrows arched over her brown eyes, and her raspberry lips formed an ‘o’.
“I—I’m sorry.” Hans kicked his boot free and stumbled backward. When Phoebe exited, a gust of wind whipped through the room, causing the flames in the fireplace to leap. “I can fix it.”
He raked up the coarse fabric until it bunched under his hands. Gott in Hemmil, he hadn’t felt so foolish since he walked out with Gerda. He consigned the thought to the fire.
“You don’t have to fix them, Skipper.” Lenore’s eyes crinkled in amusement, but her smile was soft with understanding. “They needed to be replaced anyway.” She swept her raven hair off her forehead before opening the book. Ducking, she removed a silver inkwell from under the counter and set it next to the register. “Why don’t you gentlemen sign in, while I inform my parents of your arrival?”
Wadding the dust cover into a ball, Hans tucked it under his arm and strode the ten feet to the desk. He reached for the pen.
Lenore held out her hands. “My mother will thank you. She’s wanted to order new covers for ages.”
With a sigh, he set the ball on the counter. “You can add it to my bill.”
He regretted the dollars, but he was responsible for the damage. He never shirked his responsibilities. No matter what anyone thought.
“I don’t think that will be necessary.” Lenore spun on her heel and faced a rack of narrow cubbyholes on the wall opposite him. Reaching inside the three along the bottom corner, she removed a key from each nook. The dark metal keys had a different shell attached to their ends.
The generosity surprised him. Should he protest?
Heels tapped on hardwood. Keys jingled. A moment later, Mrs. Kerrigan emerged from the hallway on the left. Gray striped her black hair. Her button nose, generous mouth, and pointed chin matched her daughter’s. Her pale face lit up when she surveyed his crew. “I thought I heard voices but believed it was only Phoebe and Gabe with my order. This is a pleasant surprise. I hope you’ll be joining us for Thanksgiving dinner. My husband and Gabe shot the largest deer I’ve ever seen on the island. They think the seven of us can eat it all.”
“Thank you for inviting us, but we should be sailing tomorrow.” Hans set the pen nib against the line on the paper. The metal left a trail of black ink as he signed his name.
“Oh, that’s such a shame.” Mrs. Kerrigan smoothed the gray fabric of her overskirt. “Tomorrow is the dance after the school program. We could use a few more handsome gentlemen to squire us through the reels and polkas.”
His crew stirred restlessly. Most Germans enjoyed a good polka.
Most Germans didn’t stumble over their feet as soon as the accordion wheezed its first note. Hans stabbed the pen in its holder. “We have a shipment to deliver, ma’am.”
“Of course, you do.” Mrs. Kerrigan stepped to the side. “How thoughtless of me. There’s only a month or so before the Lakes become frozen over. Although with this unseasonably warm weather, it might last until January.”
Hans nodded. The forty degree afternoons and humidity caused pea soup fog. As if hearing his thoughts, the lighthouse horn blared low and long.
Gesturing to the hallway, Mrs. Kerrigan inclined her head. “I’m afraid we’re dining en famille today, gentlemen. But I can guarantee the lamb stew is hot and plentiful and the soda bread is still warm from the oven. If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you where to clean up.”
His men marched in pairs after the older woman. His engineer muttered under his breath and cast Hans the evil eye.
There was a lecture in his future. Plucking the keys from the desktop with one hand, Hans rubbed his forehead with the other. Maybe if the ship was fixed early enough, he would allow them to stay a few extra hours. But Hans would stay on his ship. His gaze cut to Lenore before he followed his men into the hall. He would be eating with her family. With her.
Hans had half a mind to return to his ship. His feet refused to turn.
Lenore set her hand on the bundle of clothing on the desktop. Hans had blushed, actually blushed. She set her hand over her stomach, hoping to soothe the odd flutter. Heaven knew, Dixon had never blushed. In fact, he’d become angry when his opinion had been challenged.
She’d tempered her arguments at first. Then, she’d stopped debating the point. After all, she’d been the envy of all the girls at finishing school.
Then she’d been the laughingstock.
She yanked the cover off the desk, caught the stray ends and crushed them between her hands. So Hans Lubeck had apologized? And he’d offered to pay for the damage. That didn’t make him different than her ex-fiancé. That slack jaw and wide-eyed expression when he’d seen her was shock at finding her behind the desk. She’d bet her new coat and hat, he’d have given anything to register with her father instead of her.
Stuffing the torn cover under her right arm, she shot her buttons out of their holes with her left. Cool air washed over her suit as the blue wool parted. She peered down the hallway.
Hans paused on the threshold of the kitchen and glanced back.
Lenore’s mouth dried. Would he return? Did she want him to? She slapped on her smiling mask then dropped it. Phoebe would know if Lenore didn’t honor her dare.
Hans jerked his head once, then disappeared inside. The door swung shut behind him, leaving a band of light spilling over the parquet floor.
Air left her lungs in a whoosh. She was safe. Safe? Yanking open the coat room door, she stepped inside the rectangular room. Her heart was perfectly safe. Hans Lubeck didn’t want a woman with business sense. He probably wanted one to host parties, clean house, and do all the drudge work. Just like every other man on the planet.
Well, she had the hotel and was perfectly happy to pay someone else to do the tedious things that kept a house running. Dropping the torn dust cover, she kicked it into the corner then shrugged off her coat and hung it up. It brushed the wood paneling unleashing the scent of cedar.
Boards creaked outside.
Lenore froze. Had he returned? Her body warmed with the thought. Sweet Mary. She was being silly. Ridiculous. Sucking on her bottom lip, she crept to the open door.
Using his index finger, her father pushed his wire-rimmed glasses up his nose. Salt and pepper hair lay against his skull. Da grinned when he spied her. His blue eyes twinkled as he rubbed his ink-stained hands together. An orange wool sweater peeked behind his black vest and suit coat. “We have company tonight.”
“I know.” Closing the door, she leaned against the gleaming wood. Cold leached through her emerald wool dress. “Skipper Lubeck had to be towed into port due to an engine leak.”
Her father scratched the shadow of a beard on his chin. “Their misfortune is our luck. Now, you’ll have something to distract you.”
Distract her? Was she two year’s old? No, she was twenty-one. She didn’t need a distraction from her past. She needed people to forget it. Her fingernails dug into her palms. But they wouldn’t. Not today of all days.
Frown lines appeared in Da’s forehead. He pulled an embroidered handkerchief from his pocket and removed his glasses. “I would think you would appreciate the company. I’m sure the skipper and his crew have many stories.”
Bending his head, he focused on polishing the lenses.
The skipper. Hans. No, not Hans. Hans Lubeck. She couldn’t afford the intimacy of his Christian name in her thoughts, especially when coupled with Phoebe’s dare to let some man closer. She squeezed her eyes closed, forcing both from her thoughts and donned her familiar mask. The smile was stiff on her cheeks. “I’m certain the subject of his towing to shore would be exciting.”
Da cleared his throat. “I’m not sure he’ll want to talk about that.”
Which is why it would be a perfect topic for conversation? He wouldn’t want to linger too long at the table, and she could escape to her books. Three new novels to open, and no school work required grading. Some of the stiffness went out of her cheeks. She’d win her dare without risking anything. “I’m sure everyone will want to hear about it. And just think how many times we can retell it while the harbor is frozen.”
“Yes, well.” Da stuffed his handkerchief in his breast pocket.
Lenore widened her grin to show her eyeteeth. Just once she wished they’d ask about her ex-fiancé and the broken engagement. Instead, her parents never brought it up, they only alluded to it. Anger writhed through her like a fire-breathing dragon. Were they so ashamed that she’d cancelled the big Christmas affair that they’re pretending it never happened? “Did you open a new bottle of brandy for Mam’s fruit cake?”
And her misery celebration tipple. She’d imbibed that first night back. And the one after that, and the next one until she’d consumed the whole bottle. She repeated the celebration last year. She’d planned to skip this year, but maybe she should rethink it. Especially, since she couldn’t scream or break things. Training to be a lady had only a little to do with it. Her pride wouldn’t let her.
“Yes.” He hooked his eyeglass frame around his ears and stared over her shoulder. “Why don’t we bring the groceries into the kitchen?”
The kitchen, where the distraction was? She’d skip that excitement, thank you. “I gave them keys to three rooms, Da. One of which I’d stripped last night and need to make up before our guests retire for the evening.”
With the staff gone for the winter, she had plenty of busy work to make certain she fell into bed every night too exhausted to even dream. Dreams were useless anyway.
His shoulders bowed. “Most of the sheets are hanging in the ballroom.” He jerked his chin toward the doors opposite the fireplace. “I’ve stoked the furnace so they should be dry by now.”
Guilt pinched her insides. He looked so defeated. Placing her hand on his arm, she rose on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. “I’m well, Da.”
“So you keep saying, Daughter.” He kissed her back before catching her eye. “But your smiles are as brittle as the ice in the harbor.”
And she felt as much as the ice did. Nothing. Just the way she liked it. She patted his hand. “I’ll be in to dinner just as soon as I finished making the skipper’s bed.”
That flicker of heat turned into a tiny flame. Turning on her heel, she strode toward the ballroom. Maybe if she walked fast enough, she could blow it out. She liked her life just the way it was. Just because she agreed to be wooed by Hans Lubeck, didn’t mean she’d be caught
Or that he’d want to catch her.
The brass knob was warm under her palm. Twisting it, she shoved open the door. It swung toward the wall, and she lurched forward to catch it. Any display of temper would upset her parents. After all, they sent her to that finishing school to turn her into a lady. Ladies didn’t get angry. Public humiliation had taught her that.
Steam hissed through the pipes. Da must have opened the valves for upstairs. Good, she could work in a warm room. White sheets hung in rectangles along the ropes Da had strung from the picture rails. The scent soap and bluing swirled around her as she crossed to the front of the room. Four irons heated on the radiator, and a pail of water sat on the board spanning two wooden workhorses.
She paused by a stack of pressed and folded sheets before selecting two, then added a matching towel to her pile. On her way out of the room, she tugged two pillowcases from the line. Slightly wrinkled from being put through the wringer, they would have to do. Besides, she wouldn’t want the skipper thinking she’d gone to any trouble for him.
Escaping through the side door, she turned left heading toward the main stairs.
You’re avoiding the skipper.
This way is faster. She lied. Hooking her hand on the bannister, she swung around and mounted the stairs. Her heels tapped loudly on the bare steps. At the top of the stairs, the furled runner leaned against the wall, prepared to be taken to the coat closet for storage. Electric lights blazed in the wall sconces along the walls. Despite a large area rug hanging over the double doors leading to the new guest wing, a frigid wind whistled around the woven material.
Lenore shivered. Mayhap she and Da should hang another rug on the other side to better keep out the cold. She blew warm air into her palm. The smell of stewing lamb and herbs grew stronger as she neared the end of the hall. She paused. Voices drifted up the servants’ staircase. Good, their company was still below stairs. Gliding on tiptoes, she hurried to the second door near the end.
Masculine laughter echoed in the stairwell.
Hans Lubeck wasn’t the only man at tonight’s dinner. Perhaps, she should choose a seat near his old uncle. She set her hand on the glass knob and turned it. The door eased open on silent hinges, and she stepped inside.
Hans stood across from her. A clean blue shirt and navy sweater draped the wrought-iron footboard. Water glistened like diamonds in the blond hair spanning his broad chest. His bare chest.