For readers of Victoria Purman, Kate Quinn and Alli Sinclair comes a poignant story of love, loss, ambition and family set against the dramatic backdrop of the second world war.
Australian sisters Elizabeth and Maggie Cardwell have accompanied their father on his diplomatic assignment to Hawaii where bright blue skies, a radiant sun and the swaggering confidence of flirtatious American sailors make war feel like a distant threat. When the sisters meet the handsome Baker brothers on the sparkling white shores of Waikiki beach, Maggie falls hard and fast for Cody while Elizabeth discovers an easy friendship with his older brother, Tom, under the shared responsibility of chaperoning their wild younger siblings.
But mere days after the Cardwells board a ship back to Australia, Pearl Harbor is attacked and memories of sun-kissed afternoons and beach romance are fast eclipsed by fear and uncertainty.
With the war now very real to them all, the sisters embark on two very different paths that will take them to opposite ends of Australia, threaten their safety, and test their bonds of friendship and family. As the war continues to tear lives and loves apart, neither sister expects to cross paths with the Baker brothers again. But perhaps the pull of fate is even more powerful than the chaos of war …
‘A delicious and tantalising story of star-crossed lovers during a time of great change and danger.’ Mary-Lou Stephens, author of The Last of the Apple Blossom
The wave of white just seemed to keep on coming. Sailors. So many sailors.
They attracted stares of both disapproval and admiration as they sauntered down the busy avenue, chattering and squawking at high volume, reminding Elizabeth of the flocks of white cockatoos that often swarmed around her home back in Australia. The crisp white of their navy uniforms was blinding in the bright Hawaiian sunshine, bellbottoms pressed to perfection, Dixie cups sitting atop regulation military haircuts.
As the mob came closer, almost as one, ten pairs of eyes zoned in on them. Well, on Maggie, anyway. Elizabeth both marvelled and worried at how her little sister seemed to attract men like bees to a flower. Maggie’s honey-blonde hair was curled in perfect waves across her shoulders, left bare by the halter-neck dress she’d purchased that morning which their father would never approve of.
Which was probably exactly why she bought it.
‘Howdy there, little lady,’ one of the sailors called. His greeting was promptly echoed by a multitude of voices and plenty of whistles.
Elizabeth lowered her eyes, intent on walking right on through the gaggle of sailors, but as she came out the other side, she realised she was alone. Turning back, she was unsurprised that Maggie had stopped, and was now surrounded.
‘Well, howdy yourselves,’ Maggie answered, her dimples winking as she smiled flirtatiously.
‘Where y’all from?’
‘Australia! Hot damn, boys, we got ourselves a real Aussie here.’
Elizabeth sighed, trying to rein in her impatience. ‘Maggie, come on.’
‘Maggie!’ the chorus sang out.
‘Sorry, boys,’ Maggie responded, pressing her way out of the circle of admirers. ‘My big sister calls.’
‘Oh, Maggie, you’re breakin’ my heart!’
One of the men called out to Elizabeth. ‘Hey, big sister! Come with us so we can get Maggie a shave ice?’
‘Thank you, but we must be going,’ Elizabeth declined, smiling politely.
‘Aw, come on now, sweetheart.’
‘Bye, boys!’ Giggling and obviously enjoying herself, Maggie joined Elizabeth and they crossed the street, heading back towards the distinctive pink building of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
‘Maggie, you really shouldn’t encourage them.’
‘Oh, don’t go getting all high and mighty, Elizabeth.’ She waved it off. ‘It’s just a bit of fun. You can be such an old maid.’
Elizabeth opened her mouth to object, but closed it again just as quickly, too tired to argue. She understood her sister just wanted to have some fun, but while there was only four-year age difference between them, she often felt the gap was immeasurable.
Stepping into the lobby of the hotel, the girls walked through to the Coconut Grove Lanai and found their parents having tea with the Davenports, an American couple they’d met on the boat from Australia.
Her father dominated the setting. He might not wear the uniform anymore, but every part of her father’s presence betrayed him as a military man. His no-nonsense air that drew respect from people in business or politics. ‘Good afternoon, girls,’ he greeted them. ‘How was shopping?’
‘Splendid, Daddy.’ Maggie leaned down to kiss his cheek. ‘Do you like my new dress?’
Dark, bushy eyebrows knitted together in a frown, just as Elizabeth had expected. ‘I’d like it better if you’d put on that cardigan you’re holding.’
Maggie rolled her eyes. ‘It’s so hot, I couldn’t possibly.’
‘Girls, say hello to Mr and Mrs Davenport,’ Mother instructed.
Elizabeth spoke up. ‘Good afternoon, Mr Davenport, Mrs Davenport.’
‘Good afternoon, girls.’ Mrs Davenport smiled. ‘Don’t you look lovely and sun-kissed. Be careful not to get too much colour. Nobody likes a freckle-face.’
Elizabeth lowered her gaze. Sun or no sun, freckles would always be her curse as a redhead.
‘Katharine Hepburn has freckles and I think they’re rather fetching,’ Maggie returned, sending Elizabeth a wink.
‘I’ll call for more tea.’ Mother lifted a hand to attract the waiter.
‘Actually, Mother,’ Maggie said, ‘Lizzy and I are about to get changed and go to the beach.’
‘Very well, but don’t get burned,’ Mother insisted, waving the waiter away again. ‘Your father has organised for us to dine with several naval officers from the Pacific Fleet tonight, so don’t be late.’
‘Blurgh.’ Maggie let out the sound of distaste once they had left the table. ‘I don’t want to sit through dinner with a pack of puffed-up old navy officers. And what’s with that Davenport woman? “Nobody likes a freckle-face”.’ She imitated the woman’s nasal voice. ‘What a witch.’
‘Maggie!’ Elizabeth scolded, but couldn’t stop the chuckle. Her sister had a way with words sometimes. Still, she appreciated the solidarity, and Maggie’s quick thinking that had got them both out of tea with the Davenports. ‘Will you ever learn to keep your opinions to yourself?’
Maggie shrugged. ‘What? It’s not like they can hear me. Just because Daddy is kowtowing to the Americans so they’ll join Australia in the stupid war doesn’t mean I have to be there to see it.’
Thirty years with the Royal Australian Navy, during which he had achieved the rank of lieutenant-commander, had led Robert Cardwell to a life of politics, and that naval experience held him in good stead as he spoke with the elite commanders of the United States Pacific Fleet on behalf of Prime Minister John Curtin. Three years already the war in Europe had raged and it had weighed heavily on Australia. So many of its young men had followed Mother Britain’s call into yet another conflict and, by all accounts, things weren’t going well.
It was rare for the family to travel with Robert on diplomatic trips, but when he’d announced he was going to Hawaii on business, Maggie and their mother had badgered him within an inch of his life to let them tag along for a holiday. Elizabeth had been just as excited but she’d barely had to weigh in thanks to their relentlessness. Still, she was surprised at Maggie’s understanding of the situation.
‘I didn’t know you knew so much about Father’s work here.’
‘I’d have to be deaf and blind not to know what’s happening,’ Maggie tossed back as she stepped into the elevator. ‘I just choose not to get maudlin over it. I want to enjoy our holiday while we can.’
An hour later, they were draping their towels over the hotel sun-lounges on Waikiki Beach. Holiday-makers and locals played in the turquoise waters while surfers tried their luck with the small waves. Further out, tiny sailboats bobbed and cruised outside the reef. The smell of hibiscus and frangipani mixed with the humid, salty air as four local men on an outrigger canoe paddled into shore.
Someone was playing ‘Winter Wonderland’ on a ukulele as the shiny red and green tinsel wrapped around the tall palm trees swayed in the light breeze. To Maggie, this was the perfect paradise.
Unsurprised to see Elizabeth diving back into her book, Maggie removed her sundress and posed on her lounge, scanning the beach beneath the adorable, white-rimmed sunglasses she’d purchased earlier.
Not far from where they sat, a shaggy-haired blond man was teaching a young boy the finer points of surfing. The board was on the sand, and the Adonis-like instructor was demonstrating how to quickly move from stomach to feet without losing balance. Maggie lowered her sunglasses to admire the man a little better, and read the sign on the small wooden shack nearby: Surf Lessons: $1.
‘I want to learn to surf.’
Elizabeth studied the object of Maggie’s gaze and, with a shake of her head, went back to her book. ‘Of course you do.’
Maggie smiled wickedly. She had absolutely no desire to learn to surf. What she had was a very strong desire to talk to the beautiful blond surf instructor and she’d happily sacrifice her perfectly coiffed hair to do it. Besides, she looked sexy with wet hair. If Esther Williams could swim and still be glamorous, then so could she.
‘We can’t come to Hawaii without learning how to surf,’ she insisted and standing from her lounge she held out her hand. ‘I need a dollar.’
Sighing, Elizabeth took one of the green dollar bills from her purse and handed it to Maggie, putting her book aside. ‘This I’ve got to see.’
‘Wish me luck!’
Checking that her new blue and yellow swimsuit was sitting just right, she sashayed across the sand, picking the exact moment the object of her intentions saw her headed his way. Pale blue eyes did a double-take, his mouth dropped open ever so slightly and, just like that, the kid on the board no longer existed.
‘Good afternoon,’ Maggie said once she’d reached him.
‘Afternoon, ma’am,’ he answered with a head nod. So polite. ‘How can I help you?’
‘I was hoping you might teach me to surf.’
His eyes swept her from the perfectly curled hair to the pink-painted toenails. Maggie waited; she was used to men admiring her.
‘Beg your pardon, miss, but you don’t strike me as the sporty type.’
That hadn’t been the response she’d been looking for. Defiant, she lifted her chin slightly to show off her long, slender neck. It was one of her best features. ‘I’m Australian. We’re a very sporty nation.’
‘No kiddin’. Well, you’re in luck. Bobby here’s just about to go out on his own. Let me set him off and I’ll be right with you. Name’s Cody.’
He reached out and she slowly placed her small hand into his. It was warm, and a tingle of attraction skittered across her skin. ‘Maggie. Maggie Cardwell.’
‘Well, Maggie Cardwell, I’ll be right back. Don’t disappear on me, now.’
‘Wouldn’t dream of it.’
He grinned slowly at her unmistakably flirtatious tone before he lifted the board from the sand like it weighed no more than a twig and walked Bobby down to the water’s edge. She studied him closely as he manoeuvred the boy past the first set of small shore waves. Short black swimming trunks hugged his narrow hips perfectly, and she enjoyed the way his back muscles flexed and contracted as he moved the board into position for Bobby to climb aboard. She enjoyed even more watching him stride back up the beach towards her, his tanned chest gleaming in the afternoon sun.
‘Gorgeous day,’ Maggie said as he joined her.
‘Gorgeous.’ He nodded, his eyes tracking across her body again.
It always gave her a thrill when a handsome man found her attractive. She wasn’t a girl who played the shy debutante well, despite constant nagging from her sister that she should be more modest. She figured God gave her good looks and He would want her to use them to her advantage.
‘Let’s get you set up with a board,’ Cody said, heading into the little wooden hut.
She let Cody take her through the basics of surfing, watched as he demonstrated the technique to paddling out and how to snap up from her tummy to her feet. While she had approached Cody under false pretences, she discovered that she was quite enjoying herself.
‘You’re pretty good at that,’ he complimented.
‘I think I’m ready to go out there now.’ She pointed out to where small waves were breaking just offshore.
‘Really?’ His crooked grin was a touch condescending. ‘You might get that pretty hairdo all messed up?’
Her hands went to her hips, eyes narrowed. ‘I didn’t go through all that practice on the sand only to leave without actually trying out the board in the water.’
‘Alrighty then, Miss Cardwell,’ he acquiesced, his surprise evident. ‘Let’s see what you can do.’
‘Maggie! Maggie! It’s time we went!’
Why did it feel as though that was all she said these days?
Maggie, it’s time we left. Maggie, Mother and Father will be waiting. Maggie, put down that surfer boy, you don’t know where he’s been.
The sun was hanging low in the sky, and they were due to meet their parents for dinner in less than an hour. Elizabeth stood on the shoreline, the waves lapping at her feet, trying desperately to get Maggie’s attention. Was she ignoring her on purpose? Frustration peaked when Maggie turned the surfboard and headed back out to catch another wave.
Elizabeth sighed heavily and dug her toes into the soft, cool sand. Why couldn’t she be the one having fun with a young man with someone calling after her for once?
Because Fred is away fighting Hitler.
Shame overwhelmed her momentarily. Fred had been away for eighteen months already, such a long time to be apart. He wrote as often as he could, but even so, he was unable to tell her anything. At first, he’d been sent to Africa, then Greece, and now …? Well, she really had no idea where he was now.
She missed him. She did. But when she saw how much fun Maggie was having in the company of a handsome young man, the loneliness became a terrible ache.
And the surfer was handsome. And young. A few years younger than her, she guessed. Twenty-one? Or twenty-two, perhaps? His blond hair fell in messy, sun-bleached waves to his shoulders, and what broad shoulders he had. All that surfing, she supposed. Lifting those long, heavy surfboards for tourists would keep those muscles taut. She imagined he was popular with all the tourist girls who visited Waikiki Beach, but right now, he had Maggie’s undivided attention and the two of them were riding the waves like old friends.
She was surprised at how quickly Maggie had picked up surfing. It had been a long time since her sister had put her mind and energies into anything other than imitating movie stars and their hairstyles. She’d skipped her way through the last few years trying one job and then another, choosing to spend most of her time going to the pictures. She pored over the latest issues of Women’s Weekly magazine to discover the latest gossip out of Hollywood, and to find dress patterns that their mother could help her sew. Their mother indulged Maggie because she didn’t believe her girls needed to work; her only aim was to marry them off to successful husbands.
When the war broke out, Elizabeth took a job as a clerk at the Commonwealth Bank as positions were vacated by men joining up. When Fred enlisted and was sent overseas, she did her best to understand what was happening in the war. With each of Fred’s letters, she studied maps of Africa and Greece to try and discern the approximate whereabouts of his unit from the little information he gave her. Whereas Maggie only knew where Paris was because that was where all the best fashion houses were. She couldn’t blame Maggie for not wanting to get mired down in all the horrific details out of Europe but in equal measure, Elizabeth couldn’t understand Maggie’s attachment to such frivolous things when the world was fighting for its very survival.
As the pair surfed towards shore, she waved her arms. ‘Maggie!’
‘Like trying to herd cattle on a tricycle, ain’t it?’
Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder at a man who’d strolled up. He was in a sailor’s uniform, like every second man in Hawaii seemed to be. She was about to ignore him when he spoke again.
‘I’m Cody’s brother, Tom.’ He offered his hand, his dark blue eyes twinkling with mischief despite his polite manner.
She took his hand warily. ‘Cody?’
He pointed out to the ocean. ‘The guy teaching your sister how to surf. I’m the responsible older brother. Just like I imagine you’re the responsible older sister of … Maggie, is it?’
‘And does Maggie’s more responsible sister have a name?’
‘Oh, yes. Elizabeth. Sorry.’
‘No need to be sorry, darlin’. Elizabeth’s a fine name.’ He finally let go of her hand but kept on grinning until Elizabeth couldn’t help but smile too. ‘I know what it’s like, trying to bend ’em to your will.’
‘I’m not trying to bend her to my will,’ she shot back. ‘I’m just trying to get her to come back to the hotel before my parents send out a search party.’
Tom nodded and put his fingers to his mouth. She blanched at the loud whistle, but it worked. The two surfers looked their way, and Tom waved them in.
‘I’ve always wanted to be able to do that,’ Elizabeth admitted with a smile of admiration.
‘It’s easy,’ Tom said. ‘I can teach you.’
‘Oh, no, I … I’m sure it’s not the proper thing for ladies to do.’
He leaned in, lowering his voice. ‘I won’t tell anyone.’
Maggie and Cody rode up onto the sand and the topic was dropped.
‘Maggie, come on. Mother and Father are expecting us in an hour.’
‘Ugh,’ Maggie groaned. ‘Dinner with dull old men.’
‘I’ll take you to dinner, Maggie,’ Cody offered, with a wink Elizabeth found a little too forward.
‘Forgive my brother.’ Tom shook his head. ‘He was brought up on a farm. Literally.’
‘Oh, please, Elizabeth,’ Maggie begged. ‘I can’t spend another night with Daddy’s horridly dreary friends. All they talk about is war.’
‘What do you expect them to talk about?’ Elizabeth asked, turning to head back to their lounges. ‘Come now. We must go and get ready.’
Tom kept stride with her. ‘Elizabeth, what my brother is so ineptly trying to say is it would be an honour for Cody and me to accompany you ladies to dinner and perhaps a movie this evening.’
‘Oh, yes!’ Maggie squealed with excitement.
‘Thank you, but you don’t have to do that,’ Elizabeth said.
‘Come on, Red,’ Cody tossed in.
‘Don’t call me Red.’ She’d always been self-conscious about her hair and she loathed that nickname.
‘Oh, fiery Red.’ His grin frustrated her all the more. ‘Live a little. You’re in paradise.’
Tom intervened once again. ‘Are you staying at the Royal Hawaiian?’
‘Yes,’ Maggie jumped in.
‘Great. We can meet you at the bar in the lobby in an hour?’ He turned back to Elizabeth. ‘I promise you will be perfectly safe with me and my brother.’
‘Elizabeth, please?’ Maggie begged.
‘Fine.’ She gave in with a shrug. ‘But don’t get your hopes up, Maggie. You know how Father is about strangers.’
Cody laughed. ‘Don’t get any stranger than the Baker boys.’
Forty-five minutes and at least ten outfits later, Maggie was finally ready. She wanted to look her best for Cody. He was so sweet and good-looking, and she’d got that telltale sign from him as they’d surfed together all afternoon. Men were quite transparent when they were interested in a woman. She never understood how some girls couldn’t seem to tell; men really weren’t that hard to figure out, as far as she could see.
Smoothing down her white dress with large pink and red hibiscuses, she wondered if it was too formal. But it was brand-new and she’d yet to wear it. It was a pity the brother and Elizabeth had to come along. She couldn’t even remember the brother’s name. Oh, he had a look about him too, she supposed. It was still easy to tell they were brothers, though his blue eyes were not as pale and his hair was darker, and he reeked of honour and duty. Perhaps he and Elizabeth would hit it off and leave her alone with Cody.
The Baker boys were already at the hotel bar when they arrived. Cody looked so handsome all dressed up in a white short-sleeved shirt and long pale blue tie that matched his eyes and showed off his tan. The brother was in uniform again, his complexion paler, no doubt from too much time spent in the depths of whatever ship he came from.
‘Hi, Maggie,’ Cody said. Maggie warmed as his eyes wandered admiringly over her, but jealousy reared as he did the same to Elizabeth. ‘Hey, Red.’
‘Cody.’ Looping her arm through his, Maggie dragged him away from their siblings towards the bar. ‘Buy me a pina colada.’
‘Maggie, you’re not old enough,’ Elizabeth’s voice followed closely behind.
‘I’m old enough in Australia.’
‘This isn’t Australia.’
‘Sorry, Maggie, Elizabeth’s right. You ain’t twenty-one yet.’
Cody taking Elizabeth’s side had Maggie seething, but she accepted the virgin pina colada just as her father and mother arrived.
The brother—dammit, what was his name again?—stepped forward and offered his hand to her parents. ‘Sir, Ma’am. I’m Petty Officer Tom Baker, and this is my brother, Cody.’
‘Gentlemen.’ Her father was cordial and shook their hands in turn.
‘Cody and I met your lovely daughters on the beach this afternoon, and we wondered if you might allow us to take them to dinner and a movie this evening?’
Maggie had a feeling the brothers had worked out between them that they had more chance of success if Tom did the talking.
Suspicion and distaste coloured her mother’s expression. ‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea,’ she said, her brow furrowing further with every word as she eyed the two men.
Maggie used her most polite and sincere voice. ‘Please, Daddy.’
‘We’ll take good care of them, sir,’ Tom interjected.
Sure her parents were about to say no, Maggie sent Elizabeth a look of desperation. Her sister hadn’t done anything to plead their case. Suddenly, Tom stood to attention and saluted.
Maggie turned to see two senior officers approaching. ‘Petty Officer Baker,’ one said, accepting the salute.
Her father shook hands with the officers. ‘Commander, do you know this young man?’
‘I do. I’m his XO on the USS Oklahoma. At ease, Baker. What brings you here?’
Tom relaxed his stance a little, but still looked stiff as board to Maggie. ‘Sir, I was just asking Mr and Mrs Cardwell if it would be alright for me and my brother to take the young ladies out this evening.’
The American officer nodded. ‘Commander Cardwell, Petty Officer Baker is a good sailor, a hard worker and I believe he is an honourable man. He’s a gifted electrician, headed for the naval academy. Isn’t that right, Baker?’
‘That’s if we don’t go to war first,’ the officer added. ‘I believe you can trust him with your girls.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ Tom said.
Her parents exchanged questioning glances. Mother’s expression said she wasn’t convinced. ‘Ten o’clock,’ her father declared finally, pointing at Maggie. ‘And not one minute more, young lady.’
Squealing excitedly, Maggie threw herself at her father, hugging him tightly. ‘Thank you, Daddy.’
He extracted himself from her awkwardly, setting her back at arms-length. ‘Yes, well. Good. Enjoy yourselves.’ He turned to the officers. ‘Shall we go in to dinner?’
‘Nicely done, bro,’ Cody said quietly as the older group moved away.
‘Yes, thank you, Petty Officer Baker,’ Maggie added in a mock-formal tone. ‘You can be quite persuasive. I’ll bet there’s some girls who would find all that polite military stiffness attractive. Quite possibly my sister is one of them.’
‘Maggie!’ Elizabeth scolded.
‘I rest my case,’ Maggie giggled and took Cody’s hand, leading him out of the hotel.
After the movie, they went for burgers at a popular café in Waikiki and then down onto the beach. They removed their shoes to walk on the sand, still warm from the sunny day. Strategically placed torches burned orange along the frontage of the luxury hotels, casting long shadows down to the water’s edge. The waves lapped at the sand, low and slow, and Elizabeth breathed in the ocean deeply, content. She had to admit, it was one of the most enjoyable evenings she’d had in a long time. Tom’s relaxed manner and a keen intellect meant that she’d been able to forget about the war, which was so very much in the forefront of everyone’s minds back home.
Up ahead, Maggie swung her sandals in one hand, Cody’s hand in the other. They’d barely let go of one another since the picture theatre. Elizabeth sighed, loneliness a hollow pit in her stomach.
‘You don’t have to keep your eye on them,’ Tom said.
Elizabeth was glad Tom had mistaken her envy for overprotectiveness, but still, she cast her eyes down to the sand, her face alight with embarrassment.
‘You’ve had that same expression on your face all night,’ he added. ‘Don’t worry, Momma Bear. I warned Cody. He knows he’s taking out a respectable lady.’
‘Oh?’ she said. ‘What sort of girl does he usually take out?’
Tom chose not to answer that, and while she couldn’t fault him for being loyal to his brother, it reminded Elizabeth they didn’t know these men very well.
‘Anyway, it’s not Cody who we should be concerned about,’ she said with a shake of her head.
Tom laughed. ‘Has she always been so … confident?’
‘Only since she could talk.’
He laughed again, and she couldn’t help but smile. ‘Since she discovered boys … well, you can just imagine how easily they come to her.’
‘She’s a pretty girl,’ Tom said. ‘So are you, Elizabeth.’
She felt the heat creep up into her cheeks again and looked away down the beach. She’d never been comfortable with compliments. ‘I’m afraid she’ll get herself in trouble one day, though,’ she said, watching Maggie and Cody, now walking ankle-deep in the water. ‘With the wrong man.’
‘And you think Cody is the wrong man?’
She met his eyes. That loyalty was shining bright now.
‘No, I didn’t mean Cody necessarily,’ she said. ‘Just … someone. I just wish she’d be less impetuous. Everything has come too easily for Maggie. She needs to learn that the world doesn’t revolve around her. That it can be a cruel place.’
He looked down at her, his blue eyes dark with intent. ‘Take it from someone who didn’t have it easy; the longer she stays in that happy bubble, the better. You should wish for that.’
Maggie was singing now, the lyrics of ‘For All We Know’ drifting up the beach. Tom had stopped walking and Elizabeth glanced back. His expression was wistful, sad almost. Maggie twirled in her white dress, the red and pink flowers incandescent in the moonlight as she sang the lyrics at a slower cadence than The Andrews Sisters’ version.
‘She sure can sing, I’ll give her that.’
Elizabeth had heard Maggie sing so often, she barely took notice anymore, but she could see how others would think she sounded wonderful.
‘That was our mother’s favourite song.’
‘Was?’ she asked carefully, picking up on his use of the past tense.
He snapped out of his trance and swallowed heavily, his Adam’s apple bobbing. ‘She died. Seven years ago. Influenza.’
‘I’m sorry.’ She couldn’t imagine losing one of her parents.
‘Dad went shortly after.’ His voice hardened. ‘He drank himself to death. We had a ranch in Texas. I was going to take it over. I’d always wanted to be a cattle rancher. We’d survived the dust storms of the early thirties only to find out Dad had been drinking away what little profit we made. Cody was going to go to college, but without the ranch …’ He broke off abruptly, looking away. ‘Anyway. We managed to sell the ranch for way less than what it was worth, paid back what debts we could and left town.’
Cody and Maggie had moved away from the water and were swaying in each other’s arms beneath a palm tree. Tom sighed with what sounded like exasperation. ‘And now all he does is chase pretty girls and surf all day long.’
Elizabeth didn’t want to think about Cody chasing girls while he was currently holding her sister. ‘How did you end up in the navy?’ she asked to change the subject.
He smiled, and she was happy to see the lighter side of him again. ‘Now, there’s a story. After we lost the ranch and left Texas, we set out for the west coast. We picked up odd jobs along the way, not really knowing where we were going. Eventually, we ended up in Los Angeles. We camped out in our van by the beach and Cody met these guys who taught him how to surf. They were planning a trip to Hawaii, filled Cody’s head with dreams of blue water, waves and hula girls.’
‘How old was he?’
‘Seventeen. What can I say? We’d had a tough run of it so I indulged him.’ Tom shrugged. ‘We managed to get work on a ship bound for Honolulu. Cody didn’t do much work, but I really enjoyed it. I loved learning about the electronics of the ship and was amazed by all that open ocean, and this old landlubber rancher suddenly developed a love for the sea. Ain’t that a kick in the head?’
Elizabeth smiled. She glanced back to check on Maggie with a twinge of envy as Cody placed a hibiscus behind Maggie’s ear. He certainly knew how to romance a girl.
‘So when we arrived here in Hawaii, Cody surfed and got work teaching tourists how to surf. And then I enlisted in the navy. I figured one day I might get to the naval academy.’
‘I’m sure you will. You seem very driven.’ She watched Cody lean in and whisper in Maggie’s ear, making her giggle, before he kissed her cheek. ‘It’s too bad our siblings don’t have the same drive.’
‘I envy him sometimes.’ His admission surprised her and her expression must have said so. ‘It must be nice to be so carefree, so relaxed, so sure that everything will work out for the best. That’s what he always says when I ask him what he’s going to do with his life. He says, “I don’t need to make plans, Tom. I’m just riding the wave of life and seeing where it takes me. That’s the beauty of it. Everything will work out. You’ll see.”’
Elizabeth huffed. ‘That’s easy to say. But what will he do if America gets pulled into the war?’
‘Not if. When.’
She met his eyes and saw that he was dead serious. ‘You sound so certain of it.’
He nodded slowly. ‘It’s just a matter of time, and not much time at that. Talks with the Japanese can’t be going well. We blocked their access to oil, and President Roosevelt has no intention of letting them have it back since they signed a neutrality pact with Germany.’
Elizabeth sighed. ‘I guess that’s why my father is here, talking to the Pacific Fleet commanders. If Japan gets into this war, no one has any doubt that Australia would be at risk. Our troops are all fighting in Europe and the British are struggling to protect their own borders. We would need America to help protect Australia from invasion.’
‘Rumour is the Philippines would fall first.’
She was shocked. ‘Surely the Japanese wouldn’t be so brazen as to attack a United States territory without provocation?’
‘It’s just rumour,’ Tom repeated with a smile she could see was meant to put her at ease. ‘And what about you, Elizabeth?’
‘What about me?’
‘You haven’t told me much about yourself.’
‘There isn’t much to tell yet.’
‘Yet? So you have dreams and ambitions?’ he asked, picking up a pebble and skimming it across the calm, dark surface of the Pacific Ocean. ‘I’ve told you my hopes of one day entering the naval academy. And we know Maggie wants to entertain the world.’
She shrugged. ‘I guess my dreams are the same as any other woman. Marriage and children.’
‘And have you found the man to help you with those dreams?’
‘I think so.’ Even as she said it, she wondered if there was a letter waiting for her at home. ‘His name is Fred. He’s fighting overseas.’
‘Yes. He’s been gone a long time.’ She didn’t like to think about Fred over there. Her imagination always ran away with her if she started to obsess over where he might be and what battles he might be facing.
‘I bet you miss him. How did you meet?’
‘I was in my last year at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College. That was a few years before war broke out. I went to a school friend’s house one weekend. Laura Phillips. And her brother Fred was there.’ She smiled at the memories. They’d all gone to the zoo at Taronga and spent some time at the beach and at the end of the weekend, he’d asked if he could see her again. It all felt so long ago. ‘He lived in Sydney and I in Canberra, so it was hard for us to be together. We didn’t want to marry young so we just continued to meet up when we could. We had to travel a lot. We were just beginning to talk about marriage when the war broke out. He was sent to Africa.’
‘That can’t have been easy, having your fiancé sent so far away.’
Elizabeth shook her head. ‘It’s not easy, but he was proud to go and do his part. He didn’t exactly ask me to marry him before he left. He’s too careful, too measured for that. He said we would get engaged when he comes home from the war. If he comes home from the war.’
‘And so you wait,’ Tom said solemnly.
She looked up at him. ‘No.’
‘I mean, yes, I’ll wait for him,’ she said. ‘But in the meantime, I want to join the WRANS.’
‘Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service,’ she explained. ‘It’s very new, and women in the navy aren’t allowed to travel overseas. But there are jobs for women. There’s factory work, of course, mechanics and engineering for those women who have that type of skill. But there are other roles too, like signallers, telegraph operators, secretaries. It doesn’t sound like much and I enjoy my job at the bank but … I want to do my part for the war. Something other than knitting socks and packing care parcels.’
‘I imagine care packages from home are pretty important to the soldiers.’
‘Of course they are. I don’t mean to belittle the good work of the Red Cross or the CWA, but … I want to do more. I need to do more. My father was in the navy, you see.’
‘So you’re joining the navy to make your father proud?’
‘My father doesn’t believe women should be in the service, any service. My mother agrees, but I’m hoping eventually I can convince them that this is what will make me happy.’ She wanted to do something useful, something she could look back on and be proud of.
‘And Fred?’ Tom asked. ‘What does he think about his future wife going into a factory to build planes or bombs?’
Elizabeth sighed. ‘He agrees with my parents. He believes I should keep the home fires burning and let the men take care of the war. A lot of men feel that way.’
Tom shook his head. ‘If the women didn’t do some hard labour back on the ranch, we’d never get anything done. Their contribution to working on the land is vital. I think it’s vital in wartime, too, to let women do their bit.’
‘I agree. Australia is a very small country, population wise. Women must do their part while the men are away fighting or the country will grind to a halt.’
‘I can’t see how women in the workforce is anything but a good idea. Surely there’s enough work for everyone.’
‘You say that because America has become quite economically sound in the last few years. Australia is still struggling after the Depression. Jobs can be hard to come by.’
‘I say the job goes to the best man—or woman—for the job,’ Tom said firmly. ‘Without gender or race entering into it.’
She smiled, impressed. ‘You do surprise me, Mr Baker. I somehow expected you to be … less progressive.’
‘I’m glad to disappoint you, ma’am.’
It felt good to have someone on her side. She didn’t fight with her parents the way Maggie did, but it didn’t mean she was any less frustrated that their plans for her only included marriage to the right man. She wanted to marry Fred—she did—but she wanted something for herself first. Was that so much to ask? Before she settled down with a husband and three children. That was Fred’s number—he had it all worked out. She’d go from being under her father’s instructions to her husband’s instructions.
When do I get a chance to be my own woman?
Her dreams weren’t wild and crazy like Maggie’s …
She looked around. Where was Maggie? She’d been so caught up in herself, she’d forgotten she was supposed to be keeping an eye on her sister.
Tom pointed. Their walk had brought them right to the beach entrance of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, its distinctive façade glowing pink under the lights. Two palm trees stood as sentinels to the pathway that led to the hotel and there was Maggie, leaning up against the tree, Cody’s hand on her cheek, his lips moving lightly across hers.
Elizabeth opened her mouth to call out, but Tom put his hand on her arm and shook his head.
‘It’s just a kiss,’ he said, his voice soft.
She should have stopped it, should have turned away at least and given them some privacy, but she didn’t. Longing rose up inside her, stronger than before. Cody kissed with so much passion, like a fire had been struck inside him, that Elizabeth felt the envy welling inside her take a sharp turn. Like a voyeur, she stared as the attractive surfer boy kissed her sister and she was swamped with heated desire.
‘Are you alright?’ She jumped at Tom’s voice, her face flaming at having been caught staring. ‘You looked so strange all of a sudden. Are you feeling alright?’
‘I’m just tired,’ she said, her voice small. She checked her watch. ‘Maggie!’ she called from the distance, not wanting to get closer. ‘Maggie, it’s almost ten.’
Maggie did as she was told for once. With one last kiss for Cody, without even waiting for Elizabeth, she headed up the path to the hotel without a backward glance.
‘Thank you for a lovely evening,’ Elizabeth said, holding out her hand for Tom to shake. Cody joined them, his eyes glassy, fire still glowing in the ice blue. When his eyes met hers, the burning low in her belly flared and she struggled to look away.
‘Night, Red,’ Cody said, the teasing tone still there.
Elizabeth walked up the path through the Coconut Grove, her legs wobbly, as though she was the one who’d been kissed.
Available 8th March 2023