Love's Bright Tomorrow
Aileen Brogan wants a place to call home. After leaving Ireland for America and losing her father and brother within a year of each other, she feels lost and alone. No matter how hard she tries, she just doesn’t seem to belong in the quaint town of Eagle Harbor. However, Sheriff Isaac Cummings is determined to help her fit in—into town and into his arms—if only she'll say yes to his courtship. But if he knew her secrets, he'd surely rescind his offer.
Isaac is determined to serve the people of Eagle Harbor in a way that will do his family proud, but he’s haunted by past mistakes. When a band of criminals threatens his beloved town’s safety, he doesn’t want to fail the people he loves like he did four years earlier. But if he doesn't turn out to be the hero the town needs, what chance does he have of winning Aileen's resistant heart?
When old wounds reopen, can Isaac and Aileen figure out how to move past their brokenness and find the promise of a bright tomorrow?
Eagle Harbor, Michigan; June, 1884
The dream came in waves, soft and gentle at first. The sun from a hundred different afternoons, beating down until her skin darkened with freckles while she worked the land. The crackle of the fire in the hearth, the sound of her da’s voice. The hunched form of her brother seated at the table with Da, studying the checker board. The feel of potatoes in her hand as she scrubbed them for dinner.
The still form of her ailing da as he lay in the corner, barely strong enough to raise himself on his elbows as he mumbled something at her.
From her position beside her father, Aileen leaned closer inside the hot, stuffy cottage, straining to hear her father’s frail voice where he lay in bed. “What was that, Da?”
Sweat beaded on his forehead, and his face held the gray color of death. “The window. Look out the window.”
Not again. She sat back in her chair. “Later, Da. I’m too busy tending you right now. How about I get another cloth for yer forehead?”
“I told you, look out the window, lass.” The faint words nearly disappeared before they reached her, but his eyes held a glassy sort of determination.
She swallowed her sigh and rose, then headed over to the closest of the cottage’s two windows. She knew what she’d see, had been staring at it since she was four and old enough to push a chair to the window and peek outside.
The rolling landscape of Ireland filled her vision, a vast expanse of emerald fields sloping softly down toward the crystal blue ocean in the distance. Birds swooped above, calling to each other as they scoured the countryside for food, and a hare peeked around the corner of the stable, then hid again.
“Everything the sun touches, it’ll be ours one day.” Somehow Da’s weak voice still traveled across the room to her, as though her going to the window had given him a sudden burst of strength. “One day I’ll buy those fields for meself. One day the land we work will be ours.”
A sheen of tears glazed her eyes. The land wasn’t ever going to be theirs, not when they couldn’t even afford the rent. At this very moment, her brother Conan was in town, trying to talk the land agent into giving them more time to come up with the money.
Money they weren’t going to have this year, not with Da so ill, not with the falling crop prices, not with the surge of rain they’d gotten over the summer. Half their potatoes, turnips, and carrots were rotting from the moisture in the soil.
“Da, we’re not…” She turned back to face her father, the once strong man who’d caught a fever over the winter. Despite his bloodshot eyes and wheezing breaths, his gaze held such hope. She swallowed her words of truth and forced out others instead. “Aye, Da, the land will be ours one day, and you’ll be the best farmer in all of Ireland, ye will.”
And then she was no longer eighteen, but six, standing in the field with her father, her apron full of seeds for planting while the rich scent of freshly plowed soil filled the air.
“Close yer eyes and lift yer face up to the sky.” Her father’s booming voice rumbled from his chest, strong and hearty.
She did as asked, letting the faint breeze off the ocean ruffle her hair and drawing in a breath that tasted of moist soil and salty sea.
“Do ye feel the sun on it?”
The sun’s spring rays kissed her face with their warmth, and she nodded.
“Now open yer eyes and look out over the fields.”
She did so, staring out over the gentle knolls of rich brown earth dotted with patches of green, both of which gave way to blue ocean in the distance.
“Everything the sun touches, it’ll be ours one day.”
Tears streaked her face, and she took a step back from him, then another, until the land behind him blurred, until the towering form of her father disappeared into a swirl of brown and green and blue. It won’t be ours, Da. It won’t. Don’t tell me lies. Don’t fill my head with nonsense. Don’t make me hope for things that will never be.
But he had filled her head with nonsense anyway, and Conan’s too. Every time they worked the fields, every time they took a wagon of vegetables to the land agent to pay their rent, every time they set up a booth at the market to sell their goods. It didn’t matter how old they were, what they were doing, or the time of the year, there was one thing Da never stopped talking about—
Aileen woke with a jolt, the fields of her homeland slipping away as she sat up on the narrow bed and pressed a hand to her heart. It stampeded against her palm like sheep running down a hillside.
“What did you do?” A man’s voice invaded the darkness.
“I didn’t do nothing. It fell all on its own.” Another man’s voice joined the first, this one a little deeper.
Were the men downstairs in the bakery? Her gaze found the door to her room, and she stared at the handle. The fear in her chest rose into her throat, so thick and suffocating she nearly choked.
“Clean this up, and be quick about it.”
No, the voices weren’t coming from downstairs or the hall outside her room, but from the alley. She moved her gaze to the window, and her stampeding heart slowed a wee bit. That was normal enough, wasn’t it, voices outside the window? Truly, she had nothing to be alarmed about. People could use the alley at any time of day or night.
But in nearly a year of renting rooms above the bakery, she’d never been awakened by people behind the building.
Should she go to the window and look? What if they were trying to break in?
Her heart pounded anew, and she twisted her sweaty hands in the tangled sheets.
There was a time that the idea of strangers forcing their way into her room seemed unfathomable, but someone had broken into the bakery just this past winter. A chill swept through her despite the muggy heat filling the room. The perpetrator had been caught, aye, but another man could attempt the same.
More talking sounded from the window, where the gauzy curtains fluttered in the nighttime breeze. The voices were lower now, more secretive, more … suspicious.
Probably because they were trying not to wake half the town. Aye, that was the reason the men outside were being quiet, not because there was something sinister going on.
“Hurry before someone sees us.”
Or maybe not. She glanced down at the sheets tangled around her lap, then at her pillow, still bearing the indent of where her head had lain. She’d not be able to sleep now. Shouldn’t she at least try to figure out what the men outside were doing? Drawing in a shaky breath, she shoved her covers down and swung her legs over the side of the bed.
Humid air, unusual for so early in the summer, surrounded her. The thrum of blood in her ears was so loud it nearly drowned out the voices as she crept toward the window. She paused by the wall, her back pressed to the white plaster, then drew in a steadying breath before she peeked outside.
The silver moon slanted a shaft of light between the buildings and into the alley, where a group of men clustered beneath her window. There were more than two, but how many? Four? Five? It was hard to tell given the way thick shadows cloaked almost everything in sight.
The men appeared to have a large crate that had somehow split open. Two of them picked up objects shrouded in shadow and set them into a second crate which appeared to be loaded onto a handcart of some sort.
It almost looked like they were dockworkers taking cargo to the warehouse. Except dockworkers didn’t work at night, and the pier and warehouse were several blocks from the bakery. There’d be no need to haul cargo this far from the beach. She attempted to swallow the lump stuck in her throat, but it lodged there, unmovable.
Two more men approached from the direction of the harbor, pulling their own handcart. “What are ye still doing here?”
Irish. Aileen sucked in a breath. That voice was unmistakably Irish.
“Ye take much longer and someone’ll spot us.”
It was too late for that. She twisted the fabric of her nightdress in her hands.
“We’re hurrying the best we can.” One of the men below moved to pile things into the open crate. “Just be careful of that there rock so your crate doesn’t topple as well.”
Two more men with a handcart approached from the opposite direction. “Only one more load left. We’ll see you at the wagon.”
The wagon? What were these men doing that needed a wagon? And why use the alley instead of the road that ran along the front of the building? Aileen leaned a bit closer.
Two of the men passed the ones working to clean up the spill, then hurried down the alley toward the harbor. Through the patchy moonlight, she could just make out the shadowed forms heading to…
Not the harbor.
Had they stopped at the back of the bank?
She gripped the molding beside the window. Surely she wasn’t watching the bank being robbed.
She glanced down at the objects littering the alley. Could it be money? It seemed too heavy, but maybe the bills were bundled together.
She shifted nearer the window. If she could find a spot where the moonlight reached the ground, maybe she could see—
One of the men jerked his head up in her direction.
Her heart thundered against her ribs, its beating so loud the workers below likely heard it.
The man stayed where he was, his head still angled up. She shifted back just a bit, then froze.
He didn’t move.
She shifted another little bit, then paused again. Silence filled the street below. The next time she moved, she shifted far enough that the wall blocked the man from view.
“We need to be done. Now. Get a move on it,” a terse voice echoed from below.
She didn’t know how long she stood there, her back pressed to the wall, her chest heaving with frightened breaths she didn’t dare let all the way out. It might have been minutes or it might have been hours before footsteps thudded on the packed earth of the alley. If the handcart moved, its wheels gave nary a creak.
And yet she stood there, perfectly still, as though if she moved an inch someone would burst through her bedroom door and haul her away. When her hands finally stopped trembling and her breathing calmed, she shifted to peek out the window. The night that greeted her was as still and dark as the burial shroud that had covered her father back in Ireland.
What should to do? She wasn’t about to step foot outside the building now to alert the sheriff, not with strange men about. Morning would be here soon enough, and she could go then.
But what if that man had seen her? Would the robbers realize she’d turned them in?
Isaac Cummings twisted on his bed and groaned. What had possessed him to hang a bell pull outside the sheriff’s office below his apartment?
Well, besides the part about wanting Eagle Harbor to be a secure town where people didn’t fear for their safety.
But he also wanted sleep. Was there anything wrong with that? He cracked an eyelid to glance out the second-floor window where the bell hung.
Morning. Kind of. He yawned and rubbed his eyes. Though after a night of staying up late to break up three different bar fights, the faint pink hue spreading across the sky shouldn’t count as morning.
He groaned again. Putting a bell up had seemed like a good idea when he’d done it. But the bell had lost its appeal on the third morning after it had been installed, when Mrs. Kainer had woken him at four-thirty to help search for her missing cat.
He sighed and forced himself out of bed, then reached for the shirt hanging over his bedpost. Please don’t tell me someone’s dog is missing.
Though in truth, being woken up for a lost dog would be better than having someone be in danger.
“Sheriff Cummings, are ye in there?”
That voice, he’d recognize it anywhere, lilting and soft and unmistakably Irish. A voice he’d like to hear more than just at church on Sunday or when they happened to see each other around town. He shoved his arms through his shirtsleeves, then thudded across the floor while he started on his buttons.
He stuck his head out the window, revealing only the top of his shirt as he worked to button the bottom half. “Miss Brogan.”
She looked up at him, her rich red hair shoved hastily into an updo that looked as though it might come falling down any second. Even in the early morning light, her face and hands were the color of fresh cream.
“What’s wrong?” He furrowed his brow, his heavy eyelids suddenly having no trouble staying open. “Did someone break into the bakery again?”
“Nay.” She glanced around the empty street, then twisted her skirt in her hands. “Let me in. We need to talk.”
“I’ll be down in a minute.” He turned and grabbed his trousers hanging on the bed post, then pulled them on along with his boots.
What was so wrong that Aileen couldn’t tell him through the window? This past fall there’d been a rash of robberies, and someone had broken into the bakery where she lived, leaving her an eerie sort of message.
But the man responsible had been caught just after Christmas and was now sitting in jail for the rest of his life.
Outside of the weekly drunken brawls at one of the town’s two bars, Eagle Harbor had been quiet until about a month ago, when a bit of vandalism had started. So far he’d dealt with ink being poured onto Mrs. Ranulfson’s dress while it hung on the line, Mr. Foley’s wagon bed having an ax taken to it, Mrs. Kainer having a rock thrown through a window of her boarding house, and a dead mouse on Mrs. Runkle’s doorstep.
Though that last one might have been a cat.
Had someone vandalized the bakery? He strapped on his holster and gun and headed downstairs into the sheriff’s office below his apartment, then hurried across the wide plank flooring and slid back the deadbolt.
Aileen wore a white shirtwaist and plain blue skirt. With the unusually pale shade of her face, the smattering of freckles across her nose and upper cheeks stood out like charcoal against snow. She twisted her hands together and looked around the empty street before stepping closer.
“Miss Brogan, what is it?” He nearly reached out to grip her hands, to see if he could stay the trembling, but stopped himself. Last time he’d tried reaching for her when she was upset, she’d jumped away from him so quickly she’d sent both herself and a chair crashing to the floor.
“I... th-think someone robbed the bank.”
He nearly choked. A bank robbery? In Eagle Harbor? He glanced around the street that suddenly seemed too still and peaceful, then stepped out onto the porch, pulling the door shut behind him.
“Let’s get Deputy Fletcher.” Fletcher could keep her safe, question her, and then escort her home while he and Deputy Granger had a look at the bank. “Tell me what you know on the way.”
He extended his arm to Miss Brogan, then started down North Street, a sick feeling twisting his stomach. He had his savings in that bank, as did his brother Elijah, and just about everyone else in town. The thick forest that rimmed Eagle Harbor offered too many places for criminals to hide. If someone truly had robbed the bank, he and everyone else in town would likely never get a lick of their money back.
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