Shouting penetrated the darkness wrapping Gretchen. Despite the fatigue sucking her down, she pushed toward it. Raised voices were always better than the pinching, and preferable to the groping in the workhouse. She forced her eyes open then blinked the world into focus. The scent of glue pots, paper, and chalk filled her head.
Not the workhouse, but a school. She stared at the beams running across the ceiling. How had she come to be here?
“No.” Steel edged the simple word.
Her insides performed a funny dance at the timbre of the man’s voice. She turned her head. The desks in the room dipped and twirled. Bile shot into her throat. The world settled on an even keel with a man’s broad shoulders. She recognized the threadbare coat stretching across his back as the one she’d stolen.
“Maybe we’ll put you on the ice along with the Hun.”
Her skin crawled at this man’s voice. Like oil on water, it slid over her and coated her with filth. Since Germany had invaded Belgium last August, many had treated her with hostility. Didn’t they know that her parents had immigrated to this country to escape the militarization? Couldn’t they see that she was American born and raised? Flattening her hands on the scarred wooden desk, she pushed upright.
Tiny hands patted her legs above her boots.
The kleinkinder! She’d nearly forgotten about the children. Peeking over the edge, she scanned them.
Three-year-old Johan held the infant Ava on his lap. A wool-lined coat kept them both warm.
She smiled at them then straightened.
“I…am…American.” Swallowing the bile souring her tongue, she focused beyond the man’s shoulder. He had been protecting her. Warmth flickered in her belly.
Half a dozen men of all ages and sizes fanned out near the door. A large man pressed hairy fists into a student desk. The wood creaked in the wrought iron frame. A wizened fisherman, crusty and cracked like old salt, clenched and unclenched his callused hands. A burly man with a walrus mustache huffed and shook, as if wanting to take on the Kaiser’s army by himself.
Malice blazed in a sailor’s blue eyes. The barrel-chested man held himself in front of the others and stabbed at finger at her. “You spoke German. I heard it. We all heard it.”
Her protector turned, keeping the men in his peripheral vision. The electric bulbs buzzed in their wall sconces. Yellow light flickered over his crooked nose. It was a nice nose.
“Ja. I speak the German.” Bracing her arms on the desk, Gretchen locked her elbows to keep upright. She mentally smacked herself for the slip. After working for a year in Duluth, she knew better than to speak German. “But I vas born in Missouri. Vent to church there. Vent to school there.”
These strangers didn’t need to know that everyone spoke German in her community. That church services were held in German. That the newspapers and schools were in German. She’d seen the violence against Germans on her journey here. She wanted no part of it. Scooting to the edge of the desk, she swung her legs over the side.
“I vill go.” Perhaps, she still had time to catch the train. She raised her hand and felt along her hair line. Pain exploded inside her skull. Lowering her hand, she checked her fingers. Not too much blood. She just hoped she didn’t have too far to walk.
“Back to Germany?” The sailor spat.
“No. This is my country.” Germany wanted her sons back, not her daughters. Gretchen dropped to the floor. Her knees buckled.
An arm wrapped around her waist, kept her on her feet.
She glanced up.
Her protector held her tight against his body. Muscle played under his thin coat. The scent of wood shavings and snow wafted off his skin. Fine lines radiated from the corners of his blue eyes and moisture darkened the red hair curling at his temples. “Ya can’t stand. Ya’re not leavin’.”
Everywhere he touched was a brand on her skin. This man knew his strength but didn’t use it to bully or intimidate. He was a rare specimen. And not for her. She had another waiting for the children and the dead woman she pretended to be. “I have a train to catch.”
She patted her shirtwaist. Her palms encountered soft fabric, and her heart stopped. Where were her tickets?
Her protector faced her. Firm lips flattened into a slash in his oval face. Wrapping his hands around her waist, he lifted her onto the desk. “Ya’re gonna miss yar train.”
Leaning forward, he reached around her.
She froze. Would he harm her now? Use the opportunity to take liberties?
When he straightened, he held two slips of paper between his fingers.
The tickets! She snatched them from his grip and pressed them to her bosom. “I go now.”
She could make the train. She had to. She just had to know what time it was. She’d check at the station. Train depots always had clocks. She scooted forward.
Her protector bracketed her thighs, caging her in his arms. His fingertips were less than half an inch from touching her. “Ya will stay.”
“I vill go.” Gretchen struggled to remember how to breathe, and her throat tightened. Would he strike her now for questioning his orders? She raised her chin and stilled her trembling. The Quicks hadn’t managed to break her spirit after nine months in the workhouse. She would not let this man do so either.
“Ya and yar children are near done in with cold.” His blue eyes locked on hers. Compassion dwelled in their azure depths. Regret and pain tightened the delicate skin. “If I hadn’t found ya, ya coulda died.”
Her brain clicked. He was not threatening her, and he wasn’t angry with her for defying him.
He was trying to protect her.
She clutched the tickets in her hand. “I have someone vaiting for us.”
“Let her go, Kian. We don’t need anymore trash cluttering our island.”
Gretchen winced. She wasn’t trash. She had two hands to work. She’d done more than her share at the poorhouse. Straightening, she shifted to tell the burly sailor so.
Her protector, Kian, mirrored her actions, blocking her view. “Didn’t know where ya were bound when I found ya. Ya’re on Hope’s Point. Across the ice from Saint Ignace.”
Across the ice? She’d been carried to where she’d started? Her stomach growled. Her feet throbbed. “Then I’d best start again, ja?”
Kian shook his head. “Winds a blowin’. Storm’s comin’.”
Her shoulders sagged. She wasn’t going to be able to cross the ice. She would miss her train. Glancing down, she stared at the tickets. Useless as the paper they were printed on.
“I’ll take ya tomorrow.”
And she’d be stuck in Saint Ignace, with no money and two children. The police could send her to the poorhouse. This one could be worse. Dropping the tickets, she scrubbed her hands down her face. Maybe if she reshaped her features, she’d be someone else without such problems.
“I’ll buy ya a ticket, too.”
She eyed his worn cuff and the missing buttons on his shirt. His red hair needed a trim and his skin had grown gaunt over his cheekbones. He hadn’t any money to spare either. She shifted on the desk. “I can vork.”
His mouth quirked. “Not much call being it’s winter and all.”
Winter on an island. If her brother learned she was still alive, she would be trapped here. He would send her back to the workhouse or kill her. She shuddered.
“Take her back, Kian. And stay there with your no good family.” The sailor stepped away from the doorway. “Murderers, the lot of you.”
Kian stiffened and his jaw slackened.
Gretchen shoved aside his arm and slid off the desk. The floor bucked underfoot, but she remained standing. The blow to her head must not have been too strong. Then again, she always had a thick skull. Six steps carried her to the sailor.
“This man is a goot, Christian man.” She pointed to Kian, then glared down her nose at the sailor. “You are not.”
The sailor’s barrel-chest inflated and his nostrils twitched. “You little—”
“Miller.” A man interrupted. Although spoken softly, the word cracked like a whip in the air. “There’s a ship in the Coast Guard station that needs attention. I suggest, you snap to it.”
Miller, the sailor, growled. Whiskey fogged the air around him. “No one will miss you if he kills you like he did his last whore.”
Gretchen stumbled back a step. Whore? Kill?
Hands closed around her shoulders, steadying her. The scent of wood and snow banished the alcohol fumes. Kian. His body heat flamed up her back. “Who ya sayin’ I killed, Miller?”
After shifting her so she could lean against the table, Kian faced the sailor. Tension rippled across his shoulders and tendons corded his neck.
Violence shimmered in the air. Her stomach roiled.
The children whimpered. Dropping to the floor, she scooped them up in her arms and held them close. Moisture dampened her sleeves as she scuttled backward. She had to hide them somewhere, some place safe.
Miller pounded his meaty fist into his fleshy palm. “Everyone here knows you killed your wife.”
The sailor looked behind him for confirmation. The original handful of by-standers had dispersed, leaving only two men in business suits and another blond-haired sailor in a navy peacoat. Miller shrugged at the defections, but his barrel-chest seemed to shrink without the support.
A muscle ticked in Kian’s jaw. “My wife drowned when her boat capsized. The Coast Guard’s job is ta save her.”
Little Ava threw her arms around Gretchen’s neck and mewled. Johan buried his face in her chest. Humming, she glanced about the room. Paper flowers dotted the walls near writing samples and faded magazine pictures. Three men blocked the door, leaving only the window as a means to leave. Gretchen sidled closer to it. Perhaps, if it wasn’t frozen shut, she could exit that way.
Miller drilled his finger into Kian’s chest. “She couldn’t be saved. She’d been knocked upside the head and killed before being dumped in the water.”
The blond sailor shook his head. “The mainsail had broken. She was injured then. It was an accident.”
“Murderer!” Miller shouted.
An elderly woman strode into the classroom. She held a wash basin between liver-spotted hands. Steam danced above it, smelling strongly of eucalyptus. “That is enough, Mr. Miller. You will comport yourself with dignity and speak in a moderate tone, or I will evict you from my classroom.”
“I’m leaving. But I’ll see justice done.” Miller spun on his heel. He plowed toward the men in suits before side-stepping and stomping from the room. The windows rattled in their panes as a door slammed.
A slim dark-haired woman sashayed into the room, carrying a stack of clothes. She kissed the older man in the business suit. “Dad. Gabriel.” She smiled at the younger man, then paused beside the wiry, blond sailor. “Thank you for bringing reinforcements, Hans.”
Rising on tiptoe, she kissed Hans on the cheek.
Hans blushed. “The doctor sailed out of here yammering about a German invasion. I thought I might need some familiar faces to calm everyone down.”
“Well, no harm done by the doctor’s outburst.” The woman squeezed Hans’s hand before patting the pile of fabric in her arms. “Let’s see what we can do to get these children clean and dry.”
Everyone was looking at her. Gretchen backed into a wall and wrestled her breathing under control. Would they lock her up again?
Hans hooked his arm around the woman’s waist and tugged her back. “You’re scaring her, Lenore.” He switched to German. “It’s all right. You’re among friends here. No one will hurt you.”
Gretchen clamped her lips together. This had to be a trick.
“That’s right.” The young man in the business suit, Gabriel, nodded. “We have our share of knuckle heads, but I loaded baskets of food and blankets onto Kian’s sleigh. We mean you no harm.”
Could they really mean it? Her stomach grumbled.
Johan raised his eyes to hers. “I hungry.”
“And cold, I bet.” The older woman collected two dainty teacups from the warm stove in the corner of the room. “I’ll make some tea and cookies while you clean up.”
The woman Lenore inched closer. “There’s fresh diapers and clothing for the children. I even found a dress that should be warmer than yours.” She held up the bundle of clothing. “They were going to be sent overseas, but when there’s a need in our own community, well, I think that’s more important, don’t you?”
Tears stung Gretchen’s eyes and her nose tingled. She’d always believed people should take care of those who needed it. She’d practiced it everyday when she’d lived at home. Yet, no one in her community had stopped her brother from locking her in the workhouse.
The older man, Lenore’s father, in the business suit scraped the useless train tickets off the desk. “I’ll see if I can get you a refund on these.”
Nodding her assent, Gretchen swayed on her feet. They were being so kind. What would they want from her?
Three strides carried Kian to her side. “Ya need ta sit. Give ’em ta me.”
He held out his hands for Johan.
She tightened her hold on the three-year-old. The little boy had learn not to trust.
Johan opened his arms and leaned toward the man.
Jealousy pierced her. The little boy had taken months to trust her, yet he accepted Kian without hesitation after a mere hour or so.
Tucking the boy under his arm, Kian cupped her elbow and guided her toward the older lady. “Clean. Eat. Leave.”
Gretchen glanced at him from under her lashes. Her vater had been a man of few words, as well.
Lenore hurried to the older woman’s side. “You needn’t stay, Kian. Mrs. MacAdams and I will see to them, then get our visitors settled at the hotel until tomorrow.”
Kian’s fingers tightened.
Gretchen drew up short. “I cannot afford a room.”
She didn’t know how she would ever repay their hospitality.
Mrs. MacAdams lifted Ava from Gretchen’s arms. Cooing softly, she laid the babe on the spread out coat.
Gretchen stared at her empty arms.
“There won’t be a charge.” Lenore flapped a graceful hand. “My parents own the hotel. With only the family living there, there’s plenty of room.”
“No.” Kian set Johan next to his sister, then worked on the wooden buttons holding the threadbare coat closed. “I found her. Brought her here. She stays with me until I take her back.”
This stranger wanted her? Gretchen’s lips parted. What did it mean? Did he need someone to cook and clean for him? She’d gladly do it, anything for a safe place to stay for her and the children.
Lenore shook her head. “Kian, I don’t—”
“Yes. That’s good.” Hans tugged Lenore toward the door. “I’ll let everyone know.”
“Hans—” The willowy Lenore dug in her heels.
“Come, wife.” Hans scooped her into his arms and slid through the doorway. He bent and whispered in her ear.
“Oh. Oh!” Lenore looped her arms around her husband’s neck. “That’s wonderful.”
Gabriel stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “If this is what you want, I’ll make sure no one bothers her.”
Kian’s eyes narrowed. “Just for the night.”
“As you say.” Gabriel’s mouth twitched before he left the room.
Gretchen’s chest tightened. Just for the night. She had no place here. Not that she needed it. Her place was at the end of the upper peninsula. If she could convince them she was a dead woman. Dropping to her knees, she cleaned Ava and changed her diaper.
Mrs. MacAdams placed a dress knitted from yellow yarn on the floor. Knees creaking, she pushed to her feet. “I’ll check the tea.”
Kian wrung water from his cloth, then tested the heat of it against his skin. He cleaned up the three-year-old with practiced strokes.
“You have kleinkinder?” Gretchen slid the dress over Ava’s head. Such soft yarn and delicate stitches. The babe would look like a fairy princess. Had she ever had anything so fine? She eased booties on the tiny feet, then ran a knuckle along the babe’s arches.
Ava grinned, showing two top teeth.
Kian shook himself. “Four.” He dressed Johan quickly and efficiently without pausing to play. “Four children.”
He also had a dead wife. Perhaps, he wanted Gretchen to help him for the night. It was a small price to pay. She could pretend she had her own kitchen, her own house, her own place in the world. She tucked the babe into her coat and new knit cap.
Mrs. MacAdams bustled into the room. Her long skirts trailed behind her. “I’m afraid I used up the last of my tea.” She held up two metal lunch pails. “We’ll wrap these up to use as foot warmers on the ride home.”
Did the old woman believe Kian was a killer? Gretchen shook her head. She’d been around killers in the workhouse. They had a feral quality lacking in Kian. She ran her hand over the dark green wool dress. Would she be allowed to keep it?
“Why don’t you change, dear?” Mrs. McAdams shambled toward the hallway. “We’ll get the little ones all settled in the sleigh.”
Gretchen bit her lip. Should she leave the children alone with these strangers?
Kian cradled one in each arm. “Bring the clothes. Wear the coat.”
He left her alone in the school room.
Opening her mouth to protest, she decided against it. She wasn’t helpless. This wasn’t her brother committing her to the workhouse. These people meant her no harm. They were good people. She quickly shucked her two damp dresses and slipped the new one over her head. The soft green wool hung loose at the bodice, and the hem scraped the floor. She smoothed the lace cuffs and collar. It was the nicest dress she’d ever owned.
After bundling the damp clothes, she grabbed the coat. A touch of vinegar would take the smell out. Her heels tapped on the muddy wood floor of the foyer. Leaning against the door, she pushed it open. Cold drilled through her and she quickly stuffed her arms through the sleeves.
Gray clouds chased the blue from the horizon. Swirls of white drifted from the frozen lake. Fat flakes danced and twirled in the wind, veiling the town across the white park.
On the bottom step, Mrs. MacAdams stomped the snow from her boots. “You best hurry up, young lady. The storm will be a nasty one. I feel it in my bones.”
Gretchen rushed down the half-flight of stairs.
Mrs. MacAdams stopped her with a hand on her arm. “Kian is a good man. He’s not had an easy time of it, but I expect you know what that’s like.”
“Ja.” Gretchen jerked her head once. Women obeyed the whims of men while men were yoked by fate. She suspected Fate offered options she’d been denied.
Kian waited for her by the sleigh. Snow dusted his shoulders. He murmured to the black stallion in the traces and ran his mittened hands over the scarred flanks.
Four baskets sat in the sleigh-bed along with a lump under a yellow and red quilt. Two little faces stared at her from the gap.
The man was giving her and the children the blankets and warmth while he shivered in that threadbare coat.
No, she wouldn’t have it. She shrugged out of his coat and pushed it at him.
Shaking his head, he flashed his palms. “Wear it.”
He may be stubborn, but she was of German stock. She could wear down mountains with her determination. “I vill stand here until I am covered vith the snow, or you vill vear it and I vill use the blankets.”
“Stubborn.” He stuffed his arms into his sleeves then buttoned it up. He jerked his head toward the sleigh then offered his hand. “Ya promised.”
“Ja.” She slid her hand into his. There was strength there. More than he showed to anyone. She stepped aboard.
He held on for a moment longer.
Her skin tingled, and she warmed from the inside out.
Clearing his throat, he released her.
Working quickly, she slipped under the blankets and pulled the children onto her lap. Heat radiated from the metal lunch pails near her thighs. Adjusting the fabric, she protected the kleinkinder’s faces from the elements.
Kian draped the fabric so only her eyes peeked out, then clipped the blanket in place with a clothespin. After one last glance, he trudged to the horse’s head. The sleigh jerked forward, then glided over the snow covering the park.
They turned eastward, away from the sun and headed up the bluff. Victorian homes rose from the sides of the street. Ice and frost dusted their gingerbread accents. Snow mounded circular turrets and square towers. Vibrant paint peeked out of cedar and pine forests.
Only the wealthiest of folks lived in such a house. Was her protector rich? Would she once more rub mahogany rails, polish brass finials, or wash blood red transoms? With his wife dead, she could pretend his house was hers. She could pretend to be wanted.
He turned at a towering pine. A blue house peeked at her from the woods. Cedar bark topped the pitched roof in the center of the house. Paint peeled from the white railing of the wraparound porch. Dirty panes absorbed the light where the shutters had gone missing.
Everything could be easily fixed. Her fingers itched to scrub it, plant flowers in the barren window boxes. She’d add a rope swing to the big pine. A wooden swing on the porch. She’d bet the backyard would be ideal for a garden.
This would be a wonderful place to raise children.
Ava and Johan could go to the school near the park. They could attend all the way to eighth grade. Maybe even high school.
The front door opened and a woman stepped out. She tightened the shawl around her shoulders and raised a hand in greeting.
Kian waved back. The horse increased its pace.
Gretchen caught her breath. Kian’s wife may be gone, but this place already had a new mistress. She tamped down her disappointment. There was no point in pretending this was her house. She and the kleinkinder didn’t have somewhere to call home.
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