The prime minister toured Huts 8 and 6 in turn, and there was quite a crowd by the time he came out. Mab saw Osla on the other side and was pleased to see even her cosmopolitan friend goggling at the sight of Churchill. Mab expected the PM to head back to his car, but he hesitated, looking around, before climbing up on some building rubble. Mab’s throat caught, and she found herself pressing closer along with everyone else.
He stood a moment, one hand thrust in his vest pocket. “To look at you, one would not think you held so many secrets,” he said conversationally. “But I know better, and I am proud of you. Here you are, working every day, working so very hard . . . I must thank you all for that.” He stopped, looking down. Mab had heard him speak many times over the radio, had felt his confidence and his sheer force of will, but now he was just a rather short man standing on a heap of debris, clearly speaking around a lump in his throat, and she found tears in her eyes. “You should know how very important your skills are to the war effort,” he went on. “Nothing could be more important, even if so few in Britain know what you are doing.” He gave his sudden ebullient smile, and Mab tingled all the way to her fingertips. “You’re my golden geese, you know. The geese who lay precious golden eggs, but never cackle!”
A roar went up from the crowd, and Mab realized she was roaring too, banging her hands together in applause. If a flight of German bombers had streaked across the sky to strafe Bletchley Park, every person there would have flung their body over the prime minister. Mab would have been at the front of the rush.
He gave a final wave, then stumped off in the direction of the mansion, phalanx of officials closing round him. The crowd lingered a moment, everyone talking excitedly before heads of huts began waving their people back to work. Mab realized she’d left her hat hanging on a tree branch in the middle of the rounders game—dashing to get it, she saw Francis waiting in front of the mansion, smoking a Woodbine. “Waiting on the PM?” she called, reaching for her hat.
“You know what I heard him say to Denniston as they went in?” A smile. “‘I know I told you not to leave a stone unturned recruiting for this place, but I did not mean you to take me quite so seriously.’”
Mab laughed. “We’re a lot of odd ducks here, no question. Oh, no . . .”
Francis raised his eyebrows.
“The brim got crumpled.” Mab held up her new hat—a jet-black, dramatically brimmed take on a man’s fedora, garnet-red silk band round the crown. Mab knew it made her look like a cross between Snow White and the Wicked Queen, and it was probably the last pretty thing she’d be able to buy herself for months. “You have no idea how important hats are to women.”
“Hats aren’t rationed, at least not yet. I’ve sent most of my clothing coupons for the year to my aunt in Sheffield—she’s looking after my sister, and she doesn’t particularly want to, so I keep her sweet with a few coupons in the post. She’ll get a new coat and I’ll make do till next year, but at least I can still get a new hat.” Mab sauntered toward the nearest ground-floor window, settling the hat over her head. She knew she was babbling—what was it about this man that made her feel the need to fill all the silences? “We ladies pinch and make do when it comes to darning stockings and using bootblack for eyeliner, but at least we can top a worn-out ensemble with a really smashing hat. That’s very good for morale, in wartime.”
His voice sounded odd. “Is it?”
“Of course.” Mab surveyed her dim reflection in the window, brim slashing across her forehead. “We can’t do anything about the hours or the shift changes or the airless huts, but we can look smart as we head off to war every day. The Bletchley Park theatrical society is cooking up a song about that for this year’s Christmas revue—I’ve already heard them practicing.” She turned, hands on hips, and sang:
Sophisticated black is de rigueur,
And a smart hat a woman’s cri de coeur!
She finished with a flourish, knowing she couldn’t sing. He was silent, cigarette burning between two still fingers, and her smile faded.
Mr. Gray, I officially give up trying to figure you out. You obviously find my conversation torturous. She checked her watch. “Well, I’ve got to get back—”
She blinked. “What?”
He didn’t repeat it. He stood there in the cold breeze, chestnut hair stirring, just looking at her, and there was no shield of distant amusement anymore. The veils had dropped away behind his eyes, Mab thought, revealing something that blazed like a torch.
She tried a smile. “Are you joking with me?” That seemed quite a bit more likely than getting a marriage proposal from a man she hardly knew.
“No,” he said, flicking the cigarette away. There was an odd note in his voice, as if he were as confused by the offer as she. “Marry me.” Bemusement in his tone or not, his gaze was steady.
“I—” How she’d dreamed of this moment, when some gentleman whose boots Geoff Irving and his filthy friends weren’t fit to lick would make her an offer. She’d thought she’d be in command of things, having nurtured her suitor along a steady procession of milestones until he was brought to the precipice and thought it was all his own idea. Francis Gray hadn’t hit any of the milestones. They had gone on three dates, and Mab had done 90 percent of the talking on all three occasions. “Mr. Gray—you’ve caught me by surprise.”
“It’s ridiculous, really,” he said. “I’m sure there are far younger and more pleasant fellows making you offers. Still, I’m throwing my hat in the ring.”
“. . . Why?” Mab heard herself ask. “You don’t know me.” But he did, she thought. All the talking she’d done, he’d listened. She was the one who didn’t know him, much as she’d tried.
He was silent nearly an entire minute, gazing at her as if he could see through her. He started to speak, then fell silent again. He reached out, touched the wing of her eyebrow, touched her cheekbone, touched her lips. “I know you.” He wound a strand of her hair around his fingers and tugged her closer. She could have pulled away, but she let herself sink against him instead. Such a light kiss, to leave her so pinned in place.
“Marry me,” he said, lips still brushing hers.
“Yes,” she heard herself whispering back into his. Her heart wasn’t fluttering in her chest as she’d thought it would; it thumped slow and hard, as if too astonished to speed up. Francis Gray, war poet and Foreign Office official, had proposed marriage. She had said yes.
She tried to catch her breath, collect her thoughts. Who knew what had swept those curtains of polite distance away from his eyes and made him blurt out a proposal, but who cared? Three-day wartime marriages blossomed all over Britain. She’d have been an absolute fool to turn him down; he was everything she’d dared to hope for in a husband, and more. Kindness, courtesy, education, career . . . maybe he was a little older, but that meant he was steady, established, not some callow boy. Perhaps she didn’t know him very well, but she had the rest of her life to figure him out.
It was all so much more than she had hoped for.
His fingers untangled from her hair, picked up her hand instead. Turned it, looking at her long fingers lying across his broad palm. “This isn’t very good timing,” he said, and gave a short laugh. “Next week I’m being sent to America.”
Mab blinked. “America?”
“Washington, DC. I’m afraid I can’t say anything more, but I’ll be overseas for months.”
He hesitated, and Mab could tell it wouldn’t take much to be married within the week, before he left. To say Let’s run up to London and get it done! Servicemen and their girlfriends did it all the time, squeezing a wedding into a two-day leave. Mab nearly suggested it but bit her tongue. She was not going to race down the aisle without a few cautionary checks first; she’d known too many girls in Shoreditch who’d married in haste and repented at leisure. “We’ll do it when you get back,” she said, giving his hand a squeeze. “Just promise you’ll meet my mother and sister before you go.”
If she was hoping to bring Lucy into her home as a married woman, she had to see how Francis responded to that idea and how he got on with Lucy. If he put his foot down on it, well, that was that. But she didn’t think he would. He was going to love Lucy, and she’d have every advantage in the world: snow-white socks and a day school blazer and a pony . . .
“Damn it.” Francis glanced over his shoulder. There was motion at the door of the mansion as the ministerial party began to move outside. “Ten more minutes, that’s all I ask.” He looked up at her. “It will be a bit of a wait for you. Overseas post being what it is, I don’t know how often I’ll be able to write.”
“As long as you let me know when you arrive safe,” she said softly. Worry was already clutching hard in her stomach. Surely diplomats went back and forth across the Atlantic all the time; it wasn’t like the convoys, getting targeted by German wolf packs. He’ll be perfectly safe, she told herself. As soon as he came back, they’d be married. This man was going to be her husband. She’d make him the best bloody wife in Britain.