Authors: Lucy Oliver
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #War, #Historical, #Military, #Historical Romance, #Romance, #vintage, #wwII, #Spitfire
Risking It All
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
Risking It All
COPYRIGHT © 2014 by Lucy Oliver
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or The Wild Rose Press, Inc. except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
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First Vintage Rose Edition, 2014
Digital ISBN 978-1-62830-247-9
Published in the United States of America
To Grandad, for all your stories about Spitfire planes. We miss you. X
15th June 1942—Shore-Lee airbase, England
“...additional Supermarine Spitfires will be dispatched to Malta within weeks.”
“Heck,” Barbara said. “I hope we don’t lose any of our boys.”
Lynne Cecil pushed her plate away. The pilot opposite had frozen, fork halfway to his mouth. Why didn’t someone turn the BBC broadcast off? It wasn’t helping morale.
“We’re losing enough men already,” she said. “Derek has asked us to see him before we start work and I just know it’s another dressing down.”
Barbara exhaled. “It’s so frustrating. I can understand why they blame us, but it’s not our fault. We’re getting those planes up as soon as the alert comes in. We simply can’t do it any faster. What are the other airbases doing that we’re missing?”
Lynne shook her head, her stomach clenching; it was terrible knowing that men were dying in the skies because the planes weren’t getting scrambled in time. As Head Radio Operator, it was her duty to get them up into the air.
“Do you want tea?” she said, tucking a strand of reddish-blonde hair under her cap.
“Please.” Barbara handed over a tin mug. “It’ll have to be quick though, I’m due back at the control tower in ten minutes.”
Lynne crossed to the serving hatch, her RAF-issue black shoes squeaking on the cheap lino.
“Refill?” the woman behind the counter said.
“Please, Lily.” She peered through a small window—criss-crossed with peeling tape—at the distant airfield. A row of Spitfire planes huddled on the ground, khaki paint blending with the yellowed grass.
Lynne looked at the sky, clear and bright blue. How long would it be until the next attack? She hated the wait between raids; it was what had driven her to enlist as a wireless operator, despite her mother’s pleas to stay home. But life wasn’t about balls and debutante dances any longer; it was about rationing, bombs and the threat of invasion. England was her home and she would do her bit to defend it.
Outside, a man whistled, striding past the window, swinging a leather flying helmet in his hand. Thick, wavy hair rippled under the breeze and a trace of moustache shadowed his face. The pilots liked to look older, but she wasn’t fooled. Through her headphones, on the nights when the air glowed yellow and planes fell like hailstones, she heard the pilot’s whispers—for girlfriends, mothers, for God Himself, to save them from the hell of their daily lives.
And they had reason to be afraid, because recently pilot losses had been high enough for the top brass to visit the airfield. Wanting answers, Lynne listened carefully to the lecture given by the Group Captain about camouflage and not switching their lights on, before he departed, leaving her still in despair about why they were suffering so many casualties.
With a clank, Lily put two cups of hot tea on the counter.
“Thanks.” Lynne picked them up and went back to her table.
“Coming to the dance tonight?” Barbara said, taking her drink.
Lynne glanced at the planes waiting in the summer haze. “All right, I fancy a bit of fun. It’s been a hard week, this one.”
A bell rang and chairs pushed back. She checked her watch; it was time for her team to head to their desks, but she had a couple of minutes yet. Glancing around the mess hall, she gave a warning nod to a couple of her girls who were deep in conversation with the pilots. Often, they got distracted. She never got involved with the men herself—it was heart-breaking enough when the planes crashed. She wasn’t going to add to that by falling in love with one of the flyers.
“Everyone’s going out tonight.” Barbara nudged her. “Even you might meet a chap.”
Lynne smiled. “After the war, I’ll look then.”
“But at this rate, there’ll be none left.”
Lynne sighed, nausea rising from her stomach; she didn’t want to return to work, to add more planes to her list of the missing.
The door to the mess hall opened, sending a welcome shaft of light into the dim room, followed by a man in RAF blue. A stranger. Lynne narrowed her eyes. No, not a stranger.
“Crikey,” Barbara said. “Look at him.”
“Close your mouth, you look like a codfish.”
In the light, he was taller and broader across the shoulders than he used to be, fitting the RAF uniform like a model on a recruitment poster. Billy Jenkins. It had been three years since she last saw him. What was he doing here? And why was he wearing an RAF uniform? Her mother was certain he’d transferred to Special Ops.
He wove through the rows of trestle tables and chairs, a mug swinging from his fingers. Placing it on the counter, he glanced out the window while Lily filled his cup and pushed it back towards him.
Lynne jerked her gaze away from his long back and firm bottom. The other girls in the room were staring, mouths open. Barbara wasn’t though. Barbara was looking at her, brow creased as if she suspected something. She couldn’t know anything, surely? Lynne had never mentioned Billy.
He had been her first love. First, unrequited love—her cheeks flushed as she remembered her humiliation. Well, she wasn’t staying to make polite conversation with him. If she crept out while his back was turned, he wouldn’t see her.
The chair scraped on the floor when she pushed it back and she froze, but it was too late. He turned and stared straight at her, his blue eyes widening and mouth falling open. Trapped, she gazed back, blood speeding through her chest, heating her skin.
Picking up the cup, he strode over. “Lynne,” he said.
Barbara gave a sharp intake of breath.
“William,” Lynne said. She would be polite, not give him the satisfaction of knowing he’d hurt her.
“Since when did you call me William? And look at me, please.”
Barbara stood up. “See you later!”
“Wait,” Lynne said.
Her friend hurried across the mess hall and Lynne cursed. Billy sat down and put his cup on the table. It was tea, grey and thin. The Billy she knew would never have drunk it; he’d have thrown it away and pulled a flask of spirit from his pocket. Now she watched him lift the mug to his mouth and, with a slight twitch to his lips, gulp. Thin lines traced from his eyes and the corners of his nose.
“I thought you were in Special Ops,” she whispered.
His mouth tightened. “No, I’m a pilot.”
She nodded. Her mother often got things wrong. He looked at the emblem sown to her jacket.
“An officer,” he said.
“Do you talk to the aircrew?”
“Yes. What do you fly?”
Of course, he would choose Spits, the glamorous and lethal single pilot fighters. Through her two-way radio, she went with them into battle, directing them towards the enemy planes, and when they plunged to the earth, the men’s screams filled her headphones. Why couldn’t he have done something else? But Billy had always been reckless, the one who jumped off high walls and leapt into deep rivers. He never would have chosen a desk job; he had no fear of death.
She looked at his shadowed eyes and set mouth, the broad, freckled hand gripping his cup. It trembled with a muscle spasm. He was no longer an exuberant, spirited youth. She swallowed and blinked, snatching her bag from the floor. He must not see her cry.
“Stay,” he said, and put his hand on hers.
Lynne jumped. His fingers were warm, palms slightly calloused.
“I haven’t long, I must get back to work,” she said. “Are you here permanently?”
He shook his head. “I’m normally at Biggin Hill, but we’ve lost too many planes in bombing raids. I didn’t know you were in the RAF. I thought you were safe at home.”
“While other people fought?” She slung her bag over her shoulder. “Good luck.”
“You think I need it?”
She gave a tight smile and strode across the mess hall. Reaching the door, she had an urge to look back to see if he was watching her. Stupid, why would he be? He made his feelings clear three years ago.
“Who’s your friend?” Barbara said, looking up from her desk in the corner of the control tower.
“Someone my brother knew,” Lynne said.
Through the large windows of the control tower, Spitfires and Hurricanes gleamed under the bright sun. Returning pilots in their leather jackets and boots shuffled back from the airfield, shoulders slumped, faces white. The new team would be finishing their meal, finding their gloves and helmets, heading out to the planes.
Billy might be among them. It was lucky she’d met him in the mess. Seeing his name on her flying lists would have jolted her and in this job, you couldn’t make mistakes. Dropping her handbag on her desk, she checked the controls of her large radio unit, then straightened the headphones, paper and pens. Her ability to stay calm had taken her from a trainee radio operator to an officer, but how calm would she be directing him into the path of enemy fighters? This was why she never got involved with pilots.
“Are you practicing the jitterbug?” Barbara said.
Lynne sat down and sank her head into her hands. She remembered the heat of the summer night, the swish of her new crimson dress and the burn of her cheeks as Billy led all the other girls in turn onto the dance floor, except her. Her brother’s best friend and a frequent visitor to the house, he’d always chosen her for his tennis partner and served her sandwiches when they picnicked.
She read too much into it. The night of the party, he was a cold stranger to her, and a stranger she didn’t want to know. They were young, probably too young and maybe he knew that. With time, they might have regained their former closeness, but war was declared and everything changed. Billy joined up and she hadn’t seen him again.
“Ready, Lynne?” Barbara said. “Derek awaits.”
She jumped and glanced at her watch. It was time for her meeting and time to forget Billy. She had more important things to worry about. Grabbing a pad and pencil, she followed Barbara into the small office partitioned off from the rest of the control tower.
Her boss, Derek, sat behind his desk, fingers pressed together. “Delayed, girls?” he said. “As if you weren’t in enough trouble.”
“Sorry, sir,” Lynne said, pulling down her skirt before she sat. It was an automatic gesture with Derek, whose eyes had the seeking power of a chain radar station.
“Now you’re quite comfortable, I want to know what you’re intending to do about the unsustainable pilot losses. Not much seems to have changed since our last meeting and I don’t want the top brass back down here.”
Lynne tensed. It was her friends dying; how dare he suggest she was complacent about it? They were doing everything they could, but the bombers were in position before their fighters could get high enough to attack.
“We aren’t getting the reports fast enough from Operations,” she said. “Without prior warning, there’s little we can do.”
“You’re getting the same notice as every other airfield, but they’re managing to get the planes up in time, and you are not. As Head Operator, Miss Cecil, I expect better.”
“Now get out. I’ll see you again on Friday and if things haven’t improved, you’re both out of a job.”
Face burning, Lynne strode from the room, banging the door behind her. What could she do? They were scrambling the pilots as fast as they could, but dozens of planes were being shot down each day. Was it her fault these men were dying?
“We’re doing our best,” Barbara said, staring at the floor.
“But he’s right,” Lynne said, dropping back into her chair. “Shore-Lee is a death trap for fighter pilots.” She rested her head in her hands, blinking away tears. Maybe she should resign. But would her replacement be able to do any better? If she couldn’t see where things were going wrong, a new recruit wouldn’t be able to either.