Love’s Every Whisper
Victoria Donnelly wants to do something right at least once in her lifetime. With five years of failed courtships behind her and the calendar inching closer to another birthday, she finally finds a way to redeem herself in the eyes of her family. But her plan requires her to return to her home town of Eagle Harbor, where forgotten feelings for a man she can never have lie buried.
Elijah Cummings has loved Victoria for fifteen years. But fishermen’s sons don’t marry shipping barons’ daughters. He knows it. She knows it. The entire town knows it. Resolved to keep his distance from Victoria, Elijah focuses on establishing a much needed life-saving station, risking his own life by rescuing sailors stuck aboard shipwrecks… until he learns she’s about to make an irreversible decision, one she’ll spend the rest of her life regretting.
He knows how to save drowning sailors—but how is he to save the woman he loves from the biggest mistake of her life… without destroying both their hearts in the process?
Eagle Harbor, Michigan; May 1883
The wind whipped off the lake, thrashing the skeletal tree limbs back and forth like a bear tearing through the woods.
Victoria Donnelly stepped onto an ice-encrusted rock and steadied herself. Hard white snowflakes spewed from the sky, pelting her face despite the wide brim of the masculine hat she’d donned. “E-E-E-Elijah. Elijah Cummings!”
She clamped her teeth down on her foolish, stuttering tongue and held her lantern as she surveyed the beach. But with the driving snow, gray sky, and foaming waves of Lake Superior, she couldn’t see more than ten feet in front of her. A sickening wave rose in her stomach, similar to the one that crashed into the rocks and sent icy spray to splatter the bottom of her cloak. Was the Beaumont out there?
Please, God, let them have sought shelter somewhere. Let Father and Gilbert be safe.
She turned away from the lake, though she couldn’t block out the ever-present roar of it, and scanned the rocky beach once more.
Blast her wretched tongue. Why wouldn’t it cooperate? She needed to find Elijah, and she couldn’t even call his name without jumbling her sounds. She always hated her stutter, but times such as this were the worst. Why must her tongue fail her when she needed it so dearly?
She headed toward a large boulder jutting above the others. Maybe if she climbed atop it, she could see the light from Elijah’s lantern—if she could glimpse anything besides the blinding snow and angry, froth-tipped waves.
She stepped onto a wet rock and teetered for a moment before hurrying onto a dry one. How did Elijah search these beaches during storms without falling and breaking his neck?
“Elijah!” she called once more, then set her lantern atop the high boulder and searched for a nook to grab.
“Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
She jolted at the familiar voice behind her, and the heel of her boot slid out from under her. She tried to catch the boulder, but her hand gripped only air. A strong arm wrapped around her ribs, and she fell back into a solid wall of man. What a way to reintroduce herself to a friend she hadn’t seen in three years.
“You shouldn’t be out here.”
“B-but my father.” She struggled to her feet and turned. No wonder she hadn’t been able to find Elijah—snow clung to every inch of him, from his large hat to his woolen coat to the sturdy boots encasing his feet. “And Gilbert. The Beaumont. I th-think they’re caught in the storm, and I knew you c-could help.”
Elijah released her and held his lantern up to survey the roaring lake. The ferocious waves crashing into the beach made her stomach roil. How did Elijah go out on rescues during storms like this?
“Have any other ships made it into harbor?”
“One about an hour ago. They said they almost m-missed the light.”
“Glad they’re safe.” He glanced over his shoulder toward the lighthouse, or rather, where the lighthouse should be. Swirling white and gray obliterated the red brick tower and nearly smothered the orange glow.
Would Gilbert’s ship be able to see the beam from the light in time to turn toward harbor?
A sudden burst of wind ripped across the beach, and she shivered against its chilling force. Elijah reached for her hand, encased in its kidskin glove, and held it up. “These aren’t going to keep you warm.” He jutted his chin toward the dainty little boots Mother had purchased for her in Milwaukee. “Neither are those.”
She pulled her hand away from him. “I w-wasn’t planning to be out long. I just wanted to t-t-tell you about Father and Gilbert.”
Elijah’s gaze moved back to the wide, open waters of Lake Superior. “I know the storm came up quick, but it’s unlikely they’re still out in it. If anything, they would have sheltered up in Copper Harbor.”
She looked out to the lake and raised her hands before letting them fall again. Moisture gathered in her eyes, but she blinked it away. “Th-their steamer was due in three hours ago, b-b-before the storm even started. Please, Elijah. You h-have to help.”
Victoria’s words ran like icy Lake Superior water through Elijah’s veins. Not someone else I know. Please, God. Not even Gilbert Sinclair. This town wouldn’t be able to handle another death at the hands of the lake.
Or maybe he was the one who couldn’t handle another. “You’re certain the steamer left on time?”
She swallowed, the strained muscles of her creamy throat barely visible in the blowing snow. “Y-yes. F-father and Gilbert telegraphed Mother from Marquette last night. They meant to leave on the Beaumont this morning.”
He nearly cursed. If Gilbert Sinclair’s fancy new steamer had left Marquette by noon, it should have arrived before the storm. Had something else gone wrong? And what exactly did she think he could do about it? It was one thing to rescue men from a ship he knew was floundering. Taking his crew into dangerous waters to search for a vessel that could be miles away was quite another.
Victoria stared up at him, wisps of dark brown hair escaping from beneath her wide-brimmed hat. At least she’d had the sense to wear a good one of those, and a warm fur cloak, but her fingers and toes had to be well-nigh frozen. “Your father and fiancé probably harbored somewhere along the coast and are waiting out the storm.”
Victoria’s chin came up. “Gilbert’s n-n-not my f-fiancé.”
Yet. Though this was no time to start arguing about his choice of words.
Just then, the bell clanged. Not the constant ringing that warned ships of fog, but three short chimes, a pause, and then another chime: the signal call to the life-savers.
“Maybe that’s for the Beaumont. Come on.” He grabbed her lantern off the boulder she’d been absurdly trying to climb, snuffed it, took her other hand in his, and started crossing the slippery rocks.
How long had it been since he’d held her hand? A decade maybe?
The bell clanged again. Confound it. In the three years he’d been making these rescues, he’d never once gotten distracted. Now he couldn’t keep his concentration for ten seconds.
“D-do you think F-f-father will be all right?” Worried shadows haunted the soft skin beneath her hazel eyes, the same hazel eyes that stared back at him from his dreams every night.
Double confound it. If only he had a moment to stop and take her in his arms, whisper that everything would be fine, hold her until she stopped trembling.
But she wasn’t his to hold, and he could hardly promise everything would be fine in a storm like this. “I don’t know, but your father and Gilbert, they’re good sailors who know these waters. They’ve got a better chance than most.”
He should drop her hand. Continuing to hold it was doing ridiculous things to his heart, despite the barrier of her thin, inadequate gloves. But he couldn’t quite manage to let go. “Quickly now.”
They scrambled over the last of the rocks and climbed onto the lighthouse lawn. Above, the usually strong beam of the tower’s light quickly diffused into the swirling snow. He raced with Victoria over the lawn toward Front Street and the sandy beach that rimmed the harbor.
“There.” He pointed toward the shadow of a lifeboat pulled up alongside the surfboat his crew was preparing for launch. “Maybe your father’s already ashore.”
She heaved in a breath, and her grip tightened on his hand. “It’s not the Beaumont’s. Gil’s dinghies are shorter than that.”
She was familiar enough with Gilbert’s ships to recognize his dinghies in a snowstorm?
Something tightened inside his chest. He’d known it was coming, that someday the woman he’d loved for as long as he could remember would marry another. He’d prayed every night it wouldn’t be Gilbert Sinclair, but evidently God wasn’t interested in answering that particular request.
“Do you still have a knack for nursing? Can you help those sailors to the doc’s?” He pointed toward the snow-shrouded shadows staggering around the unfamiliar lifeboat on the beach. “Take them to the new doc, Harrington. Not Dr. Greely.” Greely was probably slumped over on a bar stool at the moment.
The fog bell chimed again though he was probably the only rescuer not at the surfboat. He dropped her hand and bent his head against the wind, starting forward.
She caught his arm and pulled him back. “Promise you’ll do whatever you can for Father and Gilbert.”
He put his hand to her wind-burnished cheek, never mind that he had no business doing such a thing.
A tear spilled onto her skin, freezing into a perfect drop before it reached his glove. “Please.”
“I’ll look for them as we head out, but if I don’t spot the Beaumont…”
She dropped her head, staring at some unseen speck on the storm-ravaged grass. “I understand.”
“Victoria…” But he didn’t have any words of comfort for her, not with the wind whipping at them, the bell calling to him, the roaring waves carrying off half their words. So he crushed her against his side for one brief, sweet moment.
Then he let her go—just like he’d been letting her go for the past fifteen years.