Love's Unfading Light
Tressa Danell is finished with men—from the wastrel who left her a widow, to the smelly trapper who keeps proposing, to the banker who wants to repossess her bakery. Every hour is spent working to pay off her late husband’s debt and keep a roof over her son’s head, though it’s doubtful she can do both for very long. But one thing’s certain—she’ll never be beholden to a man again.
Tired of living in a small town that blames him for actions his father committed ten years ago, Mac Oakton is scheduled to leave Eagle Harbor. So why does the pretty widow at the bakery keep tugging at his heart? He can’t get involved in her predicament when he’ll only be around for two more weeks.
But when Tressa’s burdens overwhelm her, they both face a decision. Can Mac set his own plans aside to help? And can Tressa accept his support if that means giving up her independence . . . and being obligated to a man again?
Eagle Harbor, Michigan, June 1880
“I said no.” Tressa Danell scowled at Finley McCabe, whose rancid breath wheezed across the bakery counter that stood between them.
He wore faded doeskin trousers and a shirt so old and sullied she could only guess what color the fabric had originally been. “But Tessa—”
“Not Tessa, it’s Tressa.” The mere sound of her first name on his lips—or at least its mispronunciation—nearly made her wince. “I’m Mrs. Danell to you.”
Mr. McCabe’s lips twitched into a frown beneath his droopy gray mustache. “Now see here, it isn’t fitting for your betrothed to be calling you by your surname.”
Becoming his betrothed was about as likely as ice forming on the harbor in June.
The door opened, dinging the little bell that sat above the entrance to Tressa’s bakery. Good. Maybe Mr. McCabe would leave her alone if she had a customer to attend. She looked over the display of bread, muffins, and cookies toward the front of her shop.
Except it wasn’t a customer. Mr. Ranulfson, owner of Eagle Harbor’s one and only bank, stood just inside the doorway.
Her shoulders slumped.
Mr. McCabe moved to the side of the counter and gripped her hand with his dirt-encrusted one, then dropped down on one knee. “Reckon I need to clarify my intentions a bit.”
She glanced at Mr. Ranulfson and tried to tug her hand away, but the wizened trapper had a grip as tight as a sprung bear trap. “Mr. McCabe, if you could kindly—”
“Tessa Danell, I’m asking you to be my wife. I promise to love, honor, and cherish you for the rest of my days. Plus I’ll leave you my cabin to settle in after I’m gone. And old Nellie. I know my Nellie girl don’t look like much, but the nanny goat’s good for milking.”
Heat started in Tressa’s chest and worked its way up her throat. She stared down at the top of Mr. McCabe’s head, bald with little flakes of skin waiting to fall off the moment he scratched his scalp.
Behind him, Mr. Ranulfson cleared his throat and took a few steps farther into the bakery, his polished three piece suit declaring him a regular dandy amid the rough and tumble town of Eagle Harbor, Michigan.
“We could be hitched by tomorrow night.” Mr. McCabe spoke as though the other man wasn’t in the bakery. “What do you say, Tessa?”
“It’s Mrs. Danell. And my answer is the same as it was yesterday.” And the day before that, and the day before that, and the day before that. What had she done to make this man think she’d marry him? “No.”
“Now see here, a man’s only going to ask so many times.”
“It doesn’t matter how many times you ask; I’m not going to say yes.” Which he should well understand considering this was somewhere near the thirtieth time she’d turned him down. She tugged on her hand again, but he still wouldn’t release it.
Mr. Ranulfson pretended to examine the crack in the mortar above the window. Why was he acting as if this was a private moment between her and the trapper? Surely he didn’t think she should consider the offer.
Or accept it.
“The way I understand things, you don’t have much choice.” Mr. McCabe drew her hand to his mouth. His chapped lips scraped against her skin as he forced a kiss. “You’re needing a man now that Otis is dead. I’ll make you a good husband. I promise not to go down to The Rusty Wagon and gamble or head up to Central and visit girls the way yer husband—”
“That’s enough.” She yanked her hand, finally getting Mr. McCabe to release it. The entire town might know of Otis’s indiscretions, but there was a difference between knowing and speaking.
“I’ll gladly take the boy in too, might even teach him some trapping.” Mr. McCabe’s knees popped as he stood.
“No.” The word emerged rough and raspy.
“Well then, I’ll be seeing you tomorrow.”
Tomorrow? She rubbed at her temples, which had started throbbing the moment Mr. McCabe opened the door to her bakery.
He offered her a tight smile and a glimpse of teeth yellow enough to match his tobacco-stained beard—teeth inside a mouth he’d expect her to kiss if they wed.
A shudder ran down her spine.
He squashed his hat atop his head and headed toward the door, the cheery bell tinkling behind him as he left.
She rubbed her temples again and turned to Mr. Ranulfson. “I’m sorry for that…” Display. Fight. Misunderstanding. What word to even use?
The banker took a strawberry pie from the shelf. “You should consider his offer, Mrs. Danell.”
Why did everyone assume she needed another husband? She’d made the mistake of getting trapped in a marriage once, and she wasn’t fool enough to make it again. “I don’t need anything Mr. McCabe has to offer.”
“Have you recovered your money then? Did Sheriff Jenkins find who stole it?”
A hard lump formed in her throat, and she shook her head. She hadn’t even bothered to tell the sheriff about last week’s robbery. If the man hadn’t lifted a finger to find who had taken her money the first two times, he wasn’t going to help with the most recent robbery either. Was it good or bad that she’d only had eight dollars taken this last time? If there was one benefit to having no money, it was that whoever robbed you couldn’t steal very much.
Mr. Ranulfson dug around in his pocket for some change and set two dollars’ worth of quarters on the counter beside the pie. “Do you have the money to pay your mortgage?”
“I can pay this month’s, but I don’t have enough to catch up, no.” Though the eight dollars that had gone missing last week certainly would have helped.
Mr. Ranulfson sighed so hard he almost ruffled the curtains on the opposite side of the storefront. “I’d like to work with you, Mrs. Danell. Truly I would. I’m not in the habit of turning people out of their homes the moment they fall on hard times, but neither can I ignore your situation forever. Another month has passed, which means you now owe me another ten dollars for June’s payment. You haven’t paid on your mortgage since February, so that brings you up to fifty dollars even.”
“If not for being robbed, I would have been able to pay you.” She wouldn’t let tears flood her eyes. She wouldn’t.
“But I still need you to make back those payments, and it’s time we set a date. Say August first? That gives you two months to get things caught up.”
Where was she going to come up with so much? She wrung her hands together, keeping them behind the counter so Mr. Ranulfson couldn’t see. “And if I don’t have the money by then?”
“I’m sorry, but I’ll have to take back your building.” His voice was gentle, understanding even. Like he’d done this hundreds of times before. Like he’d perfected just how to deliver such news while keeping the person indebted to him from flying into a panic or rage.
She glanced down at the tips of her boots, peeking out from beneath a faded mourning dress she’d purchased secondhand. If it weren’t for her son Colin, she might just let her building go to the bank and start again elsewhere.
Of course, having a little money saved to leave town and buy a bakery somewhere else might be a good idea, too.
“You should know that Byron Sinclair has been spouting off about the fishing boat Otis bought last year.” The banker stuck a hand in his pocket and jingled some change as he spoke. “You do know about the boat, don’t you?”
She’d kept from getting teary earlier, but she couldn’t stop her cringe now. It happened automatically, much like a yawn at bedtime or a deep breath on a crisp autumn day. Yes, she knew of the fishing boat Otis had lost in a game of whist at The Rusty Wagon a week after buying it. She had no money to pay what was owed on that either.
The change jingled again—probably just some spare coins, like the ones he’d used to pay for the pie. Never mind that those very coins could make the difference between her keeping the bakery or losing it.
“I wish I could tell you Sinclair had forgotten all about the boat, but I assume you’re better off being warned. He’ll try wringing money out of you one way or the other.”
“Thank you for the warning.” She forced the words over her tongue, though she couldn’t think of much to be thankful for at the moment.
Unless the fact that Mr. Ranulfson wasn’t turning her out of her home this afternoon counted.
“I best be off then.” He picked up the pie and turned for the door.
“Wait.” She grabbed the money box beneath the shelf, retrieved eight dollars, and scooped the quarters he’d just given her off the counter. “At least this can cover June’s payment.”
It was probably better to give him the money before the robber returned. Because after three robberies, there was no point in telling herself that he wouldn’t be back or that next time she’d find a hiding spot he wouldn’t find for the money.
Mr. Ranulfson held out his hand for the meager pile.
“I’ll get more, I promise.”
The slightest hint of compassion glinted in his gray eyes, and he sighed again, softer this time. “I hope you do, Mrs. Danell. I’d hate to turn you out of this building, but I don’t see any other way.”
“I understand.” And she did. It was a business decision. Clear and logical. She made them every day when dealing with her bakery. It only made sense that a banker would do the same.
Oh, how had she ever gotten to the point of becoming the poor business decision? The liability rather than the dependable asset?
“Good day.” Mr. Ranulfson turned and walked to the door.
“Good day.” She mumbled, though there had been little good about it. Or any other day over the past three months since she’d been robbed and Otis had died.
Then again, there hadn’t been much good about her days before Otis’s death either—except for their son, Colin.
She rubbed her throbbing temples once again. How was she going to come up with forty dollars by August first?
No, it would be fifty dollars by then, because she’d owe the bank for July’s mortgage too.
She blinked her tired eyes, eyes she wasn’t about to let grow moist with something as useless as tears.
The bell above the door tinkled, and in came Mrs. Fletcher and Mrs. Kainner. She plastered a smile on her face as the women each picked out a muffin and left. If only the two dimes they paid was enough to appease the bank. But if nothing else, they would help purchase more flour.
Wiping her hands on her apron, she headed back into the kitchen. A glance inside the flour sack that had once held fifty pounds told her she only had enough left for two days of baking.
She squeezed the flour in her hand and watched it drift back into the sack. This two-story bakery was supposed to guarantee her a place to sleep and some income. Not a lot, but enough to provide a living for her and Colin since the wages Otis had earned logging disappeared quickly after he returned from the woods every spring.
Now she had little hope of putting a decent meal on the table and giving her son a dry place to sleep come August.
But what was she to do? Stop baking?
She reached for the sourdough rising on the counter, plopped some into a clay mixing bowl, then sifted some flour.
Maybe Mr. Ranulfson was right and she was a fool for turning away Mr. McCabe. The old trapper would be dead in another decade, two decades at most, and that would give her time enough to raise Colin and see him situated.
Unless Mr. McCabe got her with child.
She dropped the sifter into the mixing bowl with a clunk. Even if she had to work twenty-hour days until her fingers were raw and her back ached, she’d find a way to provide for her son that didn’t include a yellow-toothed man’s bed.
“Is Colin here?” The back door to her bakery sprung open and in bounded Leroy Spritzer, his face streaked with dirt and his dirty blond curls hanging into his eyes.
“Yeah, where’s Colin?” Martin Spritzer followed his older brother inside, his bare feet padding across the floor of the bakery.
Tressa wiped her hands on her apron. “I thought he was at the beach with you.”
Leroy shook his head, which allowed his bangs to flop enough she could almost make out the green of his eyes beneath. “He never came.”
“We stopped by the general store to see if he was sweeping the porch, but he wasn’t there neither.” Martin blinked up at her, his overgrown bangs were parted to one side and didn’t obscure his eyes.
“Perhaps Colin’s playing with someone else?”
Leroy shrugged. “I s’pose.”
But that didn’t make sense. Colin wouldn’t go off and find other friends if Leroy and Martin were waiting for him. She walked to the door and peeked into the alley.
No sign of Colin. Where could he be?
“Can you tell him we’ll be at the beach when he gets back?” Leroy tromped up behind her.
“Are you certain you didn’t see Colin somewhere about town?”
Both boys nodded, their too-thin faces earnest as they watched her.
“All right then.” She wiped her suddenly sweaty palms on her apron once more and attempted to focus—on Leroy and Martin, not her missing son. “You said you’re going to the beach? You know not to go into the water without an adult there, right?”
“Ma says Cliff’s old enough to watch us.” Martin scuffed his big toe against the bakery floor. “She don’t let us go in the water without him.”
Yes, the oldest Spritzer son was nearly an adult now. “That’s fine then.” Tressa scanned the alley once again before bringing her gaze back to rest on the boys. “Oh, before you go, I’ve got some extras for you to take.”
It’d make more sense to send the food with the boys now rather than walk to the Spritzer house later. If one could even call the weathered shack with quarter inch gaps between some of the wall planks a house.
Leroy spread his fingers and held his hands up. “Ma says she don’t want no more of your extras.”
Tressa ran her eyes down the boys’ thin faces, arms, and legs. Their shirts hung loosely on their shoulders, and if not for the strings tied around the waists of their short pants, both pairs would fall to a puddle on the floor.
Everyone in town knew Ruby Spritzer struggled to keep food in the bellies of her nine children. Or maybe it was ten children? Eleven? The handful of times she’d stopped by the Spritzer house, she’d never gotten a good count. The children popped in and out of everywhere, never still long enough to count. Perhaps lack of food was only part of the reason why the children were all so thin and the other part lay in Ruby not remembering which ones had eaten and which ones hadn’t.
But why would she tell her children not to take any more food? “Well, I suppose it’s always best to obey your ma.”
The boys looked at each other and then nodded slowly, their eyes as round as dinner plates.
“But I’m wondering if you two are hungry for a snack. Did your ma say anything about eating snacks at the bakery?”
They looked at each other again before Leroy shook his head. “No, ma’am.”
“It just so happens that I’ve got some leftover bread and a little jam.”
She served three customers during the time it took the boys to eat in the kitchen, and in the end, the Leroy and Martin left with a loaf and a half of bread, her last jar of jam, and a dozen cookies minus however many they managed to scarf down before they made it home. Tressa scanned the back alley once more as they disappeared around the side of the bakery. Still no sigh of Colin. Had he found another little job to do around town in exchange for a coin or two?
She walked around the back of the bakery, along the white clapboard side, and out to the front. Her little boy’s auburn tresses didn’t bob along Center Street either. She’d go in for a minute, mix up the bread dough and set it to rising, then look for him.
She hastened through the storefront and back into the kitchen. He couldn’t have gone far, could he? And in a town the size of Eagle Harbor, someone had certainly seen him.
Though that wasn’t exactly comforting given that half the town wouldn’t talk to her.
Even so, there had to be a simple explanation as to Colin’s whereabouts, and once she knew where her boy was, she’d laugh about how worked up she’d gotten.
But at the moment, her hands were so damp they struggled to hold the flour sifter, and her heartbeat grew more pronounced with each quickening thump.
She reached for the wooden spoon sitting in a canister with her other utensils and yanked it free.
The entire canister toppled onto the counter, sending spoons and whisks flying while the rolling pin clattered to the floor.
Oh, just what she needed when she should be searching for Colin. She gathered the spoons and forks and a wire mesh strainer from off the counter and shoved them back into the canister, then she stooped to pick up the spoons and whisk on the floor.
Where had the rolling pin gotten to? She dumped the dirty utensils into the sink and got down on hands and knees. Traces of flour from that morning’s baking dusted the floor along with a glob of muffin batter she must have spilled earlier. The rolling pin had managed to settle against the back wall beneath the counter. She dodged the stickiness and crawled under the countertop before grabbing the pin.
The back door to the bakery burst open. “Ma!”
Her head came up—thump!
The mixing bowl teetered precariously on the edge of the counter. She shot out a hand, but—smash!
A cloud of fine white flour plumed into the air, the glob of sourdough landed on her lap, and chunks of broken pottery clattered across the floor.
She might as well take the rolling pin and beat herself on the head for good measure. Except her head already throbbed at her temples and where she’d smacked it against the counter.
“Ma, what happened?” Colin crouched down and peered at her, his hair mussed from running and his forehead drawn into a furrow of little wrinkled lines.
“You’re here.” The pounding in her chest slowly lessened. “Leroy and Martin said they couldn’t find you.”
“’Course I’m here. Where else would I be?”
“Is everything all right?” An unfamiliar voice filled the kitchen. Then footsteps thudded against the uneven floorboards and a pair of man’s boots appeared beside Colin.
Tressa ran her gaze up, up, up. Past the man’s legs and waist and shirt and neck until she stared into a face with a faint golden beard lining its cheeks and chin. Her eyes finally met a pair of tan ones filled with laughter.
Her cheeks burned. Of all the ways to meet someone.
She scrambled up from her place on the floor, which only sent a fresh plume of flour wafting from her apron and the blob of sourdough tumbling to the floor with a splat.
A booming guffaw filled the small kitchen, followed by her son’s tinkling laughter.
“Did you hear that, Ma? It splatted like a mud pie.”
Perhaps so, and a ten-year-old boy would probably think that funny, but did the stranger have to laugh at her? She took a step back from the muck at her feet and bumped into the counter behind her. Her elbow collided with the bag of flour, and much like the mixing bowl, it toppled toward the edge.
She reached for it, but the stranger grabbed the sack before it fell.
Wedged between a chest that seemed too wide to belong to a living, breathing person and the counter, Tressa looked up at a man tall enough to reach up and touch the ceiling if he so wished. “Ah . . . thank you.”
He smiled, and faint lines wreathed his eyes—lines that indicated he still wanted to laugh at her. “You’re welcome.”
A warm puff of breath feathered across her cheek, much different from Mr. McCabe’s sour exhalations. Then the man reached across her and placed the bag of flour on the counter against the wall, seemingly unfazed by how his chest pressed into her side.
The small movement gave her room enough to step away from—
Another round of laughter filled the kitchen.
She didn’t need to look down to know what she’d just stepped in.
Cheeks burning again, she clamped a hand to her hip and glared at the man. “Who are you, and why are you in my kitchen?”
“I, um . . .” A chortle choked off his words.
“He’s Mr. Oakton.” Colin spoke through a snicker, one that died when she turned her glare on her son. “The lightkeeper.”
“Oh.” After living in Eagle Harbor for a year, most of the townsfolk had wandered into her bakery at one time or another, but not this man. She would have remembered, what with the way he towered above them like an oak tree.
“Assistant lightkeeper,” Mr. Oakton managed. Then he pressed his lips together as though doing so could somehow hide his urge to start laughing again. “But not for long. Got a shipyard down on Lake Huron my friend and I are buying.”
Colin wiped at the flour that had settled onto his face. “He walked me home.”
“Walked you home?” She narrowed her gaze and ran it down Colin. Red cheeks, slightly mussed hair, bright eyes, working arms and hands and legs. Why did her ten-year-old boy need someone to walk him home?
“Here, Ma. Remember how I said I’d bring you a quarter for sweeping the porch at the general store? I got two.” He held the coins out, the hope in his eyes shining. “Maybe we can buy a chicken from the Markhams, or a rabbit from Mr. McCabe next time he comes ’round?”
Something large rose in her throat and she glanced at Mr. Oakton. What kind of mother did this big, hulking man think she was, sending her ten-year-old son off to work?
But she hadn’t sent him. He’d found work on his own.
Because he felt the strain of my debts.
She rubbed at her head, the ache growing worse rather than lessening. What a terrible mother she was turning out to be.
“What’s wrong, Ma? Should I give the quarters to Mr. Ranulfsonn instead?” Colin looked at the coins she’d yet to take, then back at her, the joy in his eyes starting to dull. “You can do whatever you want with them, I promise.”
“I . . . .” She took the money. The stranger still stood by the counter, his tall form and broad shoulders taking up too much space in a room that had never seemed small before. “I think we best give it to Mr. Ranulfsonn.”
Or maybe use it for flour. Yes, that’s what she’d use the money for, flour so that she could keep baking. She simply wouldn’t think about how long it had been since she’d tasted chicken, or even a rabbit.
“Did you sell a lot of stuff today?” Colin spun on his heel and dashed into the storefront. “I’ve been praying you would.”
Tressa pressed her lips shut, not wanting to destroy yet another of her child’s hopes.
“Well, did you?” Colin called from the other room.
“A handful of people stopped by.” She simply wouldn’t confess no one bought anything.
“Oh. It kind of looks like there’s lots of bread and muffins left.”
And cookies. Plus a pie.
She took a step toward the storefront, only to have the heel of her ankle boot squelch against the floor. How could she have forgotten her shoes were coated in sourdough? She bent and undid the trio of tiny buttons at the top of her worn shoes, feeling Mr. Oakton’s gaze on her back all the while.
Oh well. The stranger had already seen her sprawled on the floor and covered with flour. There was little reason to stand on ceremony. She set the shoes aside, leaving the mess of flour, sourdough, and broken pottery to clean up later, and preceded into the storefront in nothing but her stockings.
If the back of her neck burned a little while he watched her, it was hardly the worst thing that had happened today.
“Sure looks like you’ve got lots to choose from.” Mr. Oakton’s boots clunked against the floor behind her. “I was just thinking how we need a couple loaves of bread back at the lighthouse. And maybe some muffins for breakfast in the morning.”
Colin turned from where he stood in front of the display counter and sent the lightkeeper a smile that caused his freckles to scrunch up on his cheeks. “Really?”
“That’s all right.” Tressa twisted her hands together. “You don’t need to . . .”
But the man was already moving to survey her shop.
Did he take one look around the room and understand everything? The empty, dusty shelves that lined most of the small store? The baked goods no one was buying? The plates of marked down food from earlier in the week?
She stared down at her apron, covered in wasted flour and soiled from the sourdough blob. She’d sunk her every last penny into this bakery. If she didn’t make things work, she had nowhere to go and nothing to offer her son . . .
Except for a blanket on the floor of Mr. McCabe’s cabin.
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