A sweeping family saga of long lost love, for readers of Fiona McIntosh and Mary-Anne O’Connor.
From Pearl Harbor to the shores of Sydney, a secret that spans generations could unite a family – or destroy it.
Hau`oli Momona ‘Umi Kumaono
Happy Sweet Sixteen
Honolulu, October 1941
If Charlie Florio could relive one moment over and over again, it would be the instant he laid eyes on Kitty McGarrie. If anyone had told him even five minutes before that his life was about to change for good, that he would never be the same again, he would probably have told them to take a hike.
It was the night of her sixteenth birthday party held in the Persian Ballroom of the prestigious Royal Hawaiian Hotel. He’d only scored an invitation because he was Eddie McGarrie’s pal. He and Eddie had become fast friends from the moment they’d met, even though they were from the opposite sides of the tracks. Charlie’s family was working class, and perhaps even that was a stretch. Charlie was an enlisted officer, Eddie an Annapolis graduate. Eddie’s full name was Edward James McGarrie, son of Rear Admiral Conrad James McGarrie. Everyone knew who Eddie’s father was – it wasn’t a state secret, but his friend had never flaunted his father’s rank. Eddie was just one of the guys.
Stepping inside the ballroom of The Royal Hawaiian was like stepping into a different world. One that Charlie didn’t belong in. He should’ve known that when Eddie roped him in to come to the party it would be a fancy shindig. He agreed without thinking it through and he certainly wouldn’t have said yes if he’d known where the party was going to be held. The first he’d heard about where they were going was when they’d been picked up in a limousine, of all things! That should’ve been his cue to get out of Dodge. Everyone in Pearl, hell, everyone on the whole island knew that only those with serious money to burn could afford to throw a party like this one he’d walked in to. Some might say the event was opulent. Charlie wasn’t one of them. In his opinion it was a waste of money, such a crying shame.
Charlie needed to leave. He had nothing in common with anyone in this room. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t even met Catherine, Eddie’s sister. He guessed she wouldn’t miss his absence – not when she had a whole ballroom at her beck and call. He hadn’t any money on him, but that shouldn’t be a worry. It would be easy enough to hitch a ride back to Pearl. Charlie was about to make a hasty exit when he felt a firm hand on his shoulder. ‘There you are!’ Eddie boomed, and at that moment all hope of leaving, at least for now, was dashed. ‘Come on, let me introduce you to the birthday girl.’
Charlie followed Eddie through the throngs of people, with everyone decked out to the nines – women in their fancy dresses, civilian men in their suits, military personnel in their uniforms. At least in his navy digs he didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. Eddie was wearing them too, but Charlie knew that’s where the similarities ended. He would say hello to the girl, wish her all the best on such a momentous occasion, then the first chance he had, he was out of there.
‘Some party,’ Charlie muttered more to himself, but it seemed that Eddie heard.
‘Nothing but the best for Daddy’s little girl,’ Eddie said proudly, before turning to a group of guys who were circled around a young woman like bees to honey. ‘Hey, Kitty Cat!’
She turned, her eyes and face lighting up the moment she saw Eddie. His friend tended to have that effect on the fairer sex, and whoever this broad was, she was no exception. She was a looker – that was for sure.
‘Edward, perhaps now that I’m sixteen you should stop calling me Kitty Cat?’ she said with a modicum of seriousness. ‘After all, I’m no longer a child.’
The realisation of who was standing in front of them was slowly dawning. This young woman was Eddie’s sister, and she was nothing like the girl Charlie had been expecting.
‘You’ll always be Kitty Cat to me, baby sister.’ Eddie reached out to ruffle her hair, but she anticipated her brother’s action and expertly snagged his wrist.
‘Don’t you dare,’ she said. ‘I didn’t spend over an hour at Miss Violett’s hair salon this afternoon only for you to ruin my hair five minutes into the night.’
‘Over an hour?’ Eddie scoffed. ‘Seems like a total waste of time, if you ask me.’
‘I’d say,’ Charlie said, although secretly he did think that her hair was quite lovely. It was the colour of roasted chestnuts and shone like expensive silk under the ballroom lights.
She turned to look at him with eyes the colour of the water that lapped the sandy shores of Waikiki Beach. She arched a perfect dark brow and smiled, bemused. ‘Oh, you do, do you? And whom may I ask are you?’
Charlie opened his mouth and closed it again, words somehow escaping him Catherine, this is my pal Charlie Florio. Florio, my little sister and woman of the hour, Catherine.’ Eddie made the introduction as Charlie cleared his throat and extended his hand.
‘Pleasure to meet you, Miss Catherine.’
She snared his gaze and placed her delicate hand in his. The moment her skin touched his a shot of electricity travelled up his arm. He had never been so captivated by a woman in his life. Correction, she was a girl, barely sixteen, and she was Eddie’s sister and a Rear Admiral’s daughter. Any one of those reasons was enough to heed caution, but put them together and it was a sure-fire death warrant.
‘Oh, Eddie!’ A rather buxom blonde in a teal number came bounding towards them and literally wrapped herself around his friend. ‘You simply must ask me to dance!’
‘Sure, want to dance, Penny?’ Eddie obliged with an easy smile. The blonde squealed her delight and dragged Eddie towards the dance floor as the band played a Glenn Miller number.
It was only after they’d left that it dawned on Charlie that Catherine’s hand was still in his. She must have had the same realisation, because she looked down shyly and a lick of pink tattooed her cheeks. ‘I’m … ah, sorry …’ he fumbled and went to pull his hand away, only for Catherine to stop him.
‘Wait,’ she said quickly. ‘Do you think …’ She bit her bottom lip and Charlie had to use all of his willpower not to dip his head and take that full lip between his teeth.
‘Do I think what?’ he prompted when she stalled.
She drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly. ‘Well, since it’s my birthday, I would really like for you to ask me to dance.’
He should say no. He should just politely decline and do what he originally planned to do – leave. But somewhere between those eyes, those lips, that hair and that dress, he lost all common sense. It was only one dance and it was her birthday after all. It would be downright cruel to refuse a girl a dance on her sweet sixteenth. Surely, no harm could come of one single dance?
It was the beginning of the end. Later, Charlie would look back on that day, that moment, and know that if he had to do it all again, there wasn’t a single thing he would change.
Kitty’s heart beat so loudly it was rivalling the bass drum of the band her father had booked after searching low and high. For weeks she had been dreading this night, but now, she didn’t hate it as much as she thought she would. In fact, the arrival of a certain sailor had lifted her mood considerably. She had seen him the moment Eddie had called out to her, she had seen the way his eyes drank her in little by little. It wasn’t the first time a guy had looked at her, but it was the first time that she had felt something – a tiny fluttering in her stomach, unlike anything she’d felt before, and it both terrified and excited her.
And now, as he led her towards the dance floor, where her guests (only half of whom she actually knew) were cutting the rug, she hoped her hands weren’t shaking visibly. Moreover, she hoped her legs were steady enough that they wouldn’t give way as they danced.
Kitty was grateful for the buoyant swing beat of the song and that they were dancing the Lindy Hop and not something slower like a waltz. Somehow, her legs didn’t fail her and Charlie was a wonderful dancer. He was tall, which was lucky for her because at just under five seven (and that was without heels) she often found it rather awkward when her partner was the same height or shorter than her. But there were no such worries with Charlie. He seemed to be the perfect partner and every time he put his arm around her waist (albeit too briefly) her heart skipped a beat.
When the dance was over, Kitty stood rooted on the spot, her breathing ragged from exertion, her cheeks flushed. Charlie’s eyes clapped onto hers and all of a sudden the air was thick with the promise of a thunderstorm. Somehow the whole world around them stilled and it was just the two of them. The moment felt … magical. That was the only word to describe it. Charlie took a step towards her, reached for her hand and opened his mouth.
What was he about to say? Would he ask her to dance again? Kitty held her breath in anticipation. She inched closer, not liking the distance between them, and then she waited. Charlie seemed to hesitate, as if the thought weighed on his mind and required more thinking. She rather wished he didn’t. Kitty wanted him to ask her to dance again. And again. In fact, she wouldn’t care if she didn’t dance with another man all night. Kitty had never been a khaki wacky kind of girl, but Charlie could change that.
The band launched into a slow waltz and her heart soared. Surely he would ask her now?
‘May I have this dance?’
The words came, but not from Charlie’s lips. It took her a moment to realise that they came from someone standing to her right. Stunned, Kitty turned to see a man with a beaming smile awaiting her response. She blinked as if that would make him disappear, but to no avail. It took her a moment to place a name to the face.
‘Lieutenant Walter,’ she finally said.
His smile widened. ‘Yes, may I have this dance?’ he repeated, his gaze dipping to her hand still clasped with Charlie’s. ‘Do you mind?’ Within seconds Charlie receded, an unreadable expression flickering across his face.
‘Not at all,’ Charlie said, nodding to Lieutenant Walter before disappearing into the crowd.
After her dance with the lieutenant finished, Kitty’s dance card was full for the rest of the party. Seemed that being a Rear Admiral’s daughter and the birthday girl would do that. She encountered her fair share of dead hoofers and as the hours passed, she found herself looking around the ballroom, searching for him again, but there was no sign of Charlie. By the end of the night, Kitty deduced that Charlie was long gone. Her heart sank and she instantly berated herself. She was being foolish. Why did she care if he had left? It didn’t matter, did it? It wasn’t as if she was likely to see him again. With the rumblings and rumours of the United States entering the war sooner rather than later, her father made mention of sending Kitty and her mother to Australia to stay with her mother’s sister, Iris. If he followed through with the plan, they would leave in a couple of months, the day after Christmas.
Kitty didn’t want to believe that the US would enter the war. And even if they did, surely there was no reason to banish her to Australia? Surely they were the safest in Hawaii. Kitty loved it here on the island. Her family was originally from San Diego, but they had moved to Hawaii five and a half years ago. She never wanted to leave. Not to go to Australia, nor did she want to return to San Diego. As far as she was concerned, Hawaii was home.
The sound of her full name had Kitty snapping out of her own thoughts. She turned to see a pair of light blue eyes looking at her and immediately her stomach swarmed with butterflies.
He hadn’t left. He stayed.
‘You’re still here,’ she gushed and immediately she felt like a fool. She must’ve sounded like a stupid schoolgirl.
That’s because you are a stupid schoolgirl.
And Charlie was a sailor; Charlie was a man.
‘I couldn’t leave, not just yet anyway.’ He smiled and her insides turned somersaults. Her brain must’ve been following suit because all she could utter was a mumbled, ‘Why?’
‘Because it’s close to midnight and it would be awfully rude of me not to wish you a happy birthday.’
Kitty scanned the ballroom till she found the clock and confirmed that the witching hour was upon them. ‘That’s … mighty nice of you, and please, call me Kitty – all my friends do,’ she managed to say when she untied her tongue.
Charlie took her hand and lifted it to his lips. The moment the kiss touched her skin, Kitty felt as if her whole body was aflame.
‘Happy birthday, Kitty,’ he whispered.
Kitty would remember that moment for years and years to come. As the clock chimed twelve and the day heralding her sixteenth birthday came to an end, Kitty McGarrie fell in love.
Sydney, November 2016
Sunlight intense and bright flooded the room, piercing her head like a sharp knife. Her skull throbbed and pain consumed her. She squinted, turning away from the offensive glare, but it did little to stop the agony.
‘She’s waking up,’ said a voice from somewhere close by and soon she felt a slight squeeze of her hand.
‘Gran, can you hear me?’
She opened her mouth, words lodged in the bottom of her throat.
‘Gran?’ The voice was familiar and yet, so foreign. Why couldn’t she talk? Where was she? With the absence of memory, fear gripped her and her heart pounded loudly. The sound thundered in her ears, intensifying the pain on the right side of her head.
She opened her eyes again, slowly this time, and saw the face that belonged to the voice. The girl’s eyes were like her own and confusion compounded.
‘Where?’ she slurred after frantic, repeated attempts.
‘You’re in hospital. You had a fall. Do you remember?’ The words were spoken slowly, carefully, threaded with concern.
And then, it was all coming back to her. Losing her footing, grasping for the rail, missing, tumbling down the stairs. ‘The fall,’ she managed with effort. Her tongue felt thick against the roof of her mouth. She blinked, once, twice; the room came into focus slowly as did the realisation that the girl holding her hand, somewhat tightly now, was her granddaughter.
‘Kit,’ she breathed out.
‘I’m right here, Gran. You gave us quite a scare.’ Kit’s voice soothed her, but the girl’s eyes shone slightly and immediately a pang of guilt hit.
‘I’m … sorry.’
Kit’s brow creased, marring her youthful face. ‘Don’t be silly, you have nothing to be sorry about. You had a fall, but you’re awake now, you’ll be on the road to recovery in no time. Dad’s just gone to get the doctor.’
Her granddaughter’s words were full of hope. She wanted to tell her not to make a fuss, not to concern herself with an old lady.
‘You shouldn’t be here.’ Her voice was croaky, laden with more emotion than she intended.
‘Where else would I be?’ Kit laughed.
‘You should be out there, looking.’
‘For what?’ Kit asked, puzzled.
‘But I don’t understand.’
‘Did I ever tell you the story about how I met the love of my life?’
Kit knew the answer to this question. It was a rhetorical one, really.
‘How you and Grandpa met? Yes, you’ve told me many times.’
William Bennett was her late husband. A man she had married and bore four sons to. He was, on the whole, a good man but he wasn’t the love of her life.
‘No, honey, I’m talking about Charlie.’ Her eyes were heavy, closing at their own will. ‘I met him the day of my sixteenth birthday’.
Catherine had fallen asleep again. Kit Bennett watched her for a while, trying to ignore the anxiety gnawing at her stomach. Never had she seen her grandmother so frail. She may have been ninety-one but no one called Catherine Bennett ‘frail’. She was known for being as sharp as a tack and her dry wit made her seem far younger.
But three days ago something had happened. It had been raining for days and the stairs that led to the back porch were slippery. She must’ve been heading to put her bin out – that was according to Roy, her next-door neighbour who’d found her by a trail of strewn garbage. Catherine had slipped and fallen head first, hitting her head on the concrete. She’d called out for help and it was by sheer luck that Roy had heard her. The torrential rain had caused a leak in his roof and he was going to the back shed to grab his ladder when he’d heard Catherine.
According to Roy, Catherine was still conscious when the ambulance arrived, even telling the paramedics who were trying to get her on to the stretcher that she didn’t need any help. Kit had smiled when Roy recounted this – it was so typical of her grandmother. But by the time they reached the hospital, Catherine had lost consciousness. The prognosis was grim. Because of Catherine’s age, operating on her wasn’t an option. Tests showed there was bleeding on the brain, doctors were telling them that it could go either way. If she woke up and continued to make progress, then maybe she would recover. Kit’s father had called her just before lunch on the day of the fall and two hours later she was on a plane heading to Sydney. But then, Catherine had woken up – even if it were only briefly. The doctor had told them that while it had been a good sign, not to get their hopes up. ‘Catherine still has a long road ahead, and that’s provided the swelling goes down. It might be prudent to think that given her age, a full recovery may not be on the cards.’
His frankness annoyed Kit. She wanted to tell him that he didn’t know Catherine Bennett, that it would take more than a little slip on the stairs to keep her grandmother down, but then Kit’s gaze fell to the dark purple, almost black bruise that covered the right side of her forehead. It not only blemished her grandmother’s beauty, but it reminded her that even Catherine Bennett wasn’t invincible.
Anxiety returned, gnawing again, and Kit stood up and felt the ache in her back from sitting down for far too long. She made her way to the window and pulled aside the curtain, watching as dust particles danced in the sunlight. Outside the world was abuzz with the rigmarole that was Monday morning; cars sat bumper to bumper in peak-hour traffic. The sky was almost cloudless save for a few wisps that only added to its beauty. It was a picture-perfect spring day – almost identical to the one six weeks prior when Kit was last in Sydney for Catherine’s birthday. The thought of Catherine’s birthday reminded Kit of what her grandmother had said earlier.
‘I met Charlie on the day of my sixteenth birthday.’
Who the hell was Charlie?