He looked skeptical.
“Right now I share digs with Sally. Before that, there were some dreadful cousins in Montreal who didn’t want me. Before that, my godfather let me stay with him while I did the Season.” Osla shrugged. “My mother has a permanent suite in Claridge’s, where I’m de trop if I stay longer than a night, and my father died years ago. I couldn’t tell you where home is.” She smiled, very bright. “I’m certainly not going to get in a flap about it! All my friends who still live at home are dying to get away, so who’s the lucky one?”
“Right now?” Philip’s hand curled against her waist. “Me.”
They waltzed in silence for a while, bodies moving in perfect ease. The dance floor was sticky with spilled champagne; the band dragged. It was near four in the morning, but the floor was still packed. No one wanted to stop, and that included Osla. She looked over Philip’s shoulder and saw a poster pinned to the wall, one of the ubiquitous victory posters that had sprouted like mushrooms all over London: WE BEAT ’EM BEFORE, WE’LL BEAT ’EM AGAIN!
“I wish the war would get going,” Osla said. “This waiting . . . we know they’re going to come at us. Part of me wishes they’d just do it. The sooner it’s begun, the sooner it’s over.”
“I suppose,” he said shortly, and moved so his cheek was at her hair and they weren’t eye to eye anymore. Osla could have kicked herself. All well and good to say you wished the war would kick off when you, being one of the gentler sex, wouldn’t be the one fighting it. Osla believed everyone should fight for king and country, but she was also aware that this was a very theoretical position when you were female.
“I do want to fight,” Philip said into Osla’s hair as though reading her mind. “Go to sea, do my bit. Mainly so people will stop wondering if I’m secretly a Hun.”
“Three of my sisters married Nazis. Not that they were Nazis when they first . . . Well. I’d like to shut up the fellows who think I’m slightly suspect because of the family sympathies.”
“I’d like to shut up the ones who think a dizzy debutante can’t possibly do anything useful. Do you go to sea soon?”
“I don’t know. If I had my way, I’d be on a battleship tomorrow. Uncle Dickie’s seeing what he can do. It could be next week, it could be a year.”
Make it a year, Osla thought, feeling his shoulder firm and angular under her hand. “So, you’ll be at sea hunting U-boats, and I’ll be banging rivets in Slough—not too shabby for a silly socialite and a slightly suspect prince.”
“You could do more than bang rivets.” He gathered her closer, not taking his cheek from her hair. “Have you asked Uncle Dickie if there’s anything at the War Office for a girl with your language skills?”
“I’d rather build Hurricanes, get my hands dirty. Do something more important for the fight than bang typewriter keys.”
“The fight—is that why you finagled your way back from Montreal?”
“If your country is in danger and you’re of age to stand and defend it, you do so,” Osla stated. “You don’t cash in on your Canadian passport—”
“Or your Greek passport—”
“—and bunk out for a safer port of call. It’s just not on.”
“Couldn’t agree more.”
The waltz ended. Osla stepped back, looked up at the prince. “I should get back to my digs,” she said regretfully. “I’m knackered.”
Philip motored Osla and the yawning Sally back to Old Windsor, driving as ferociously as he danced. He helped Sally out of the backseat; she gave his cheek a sleepy peck and negotiated her way across the dark street. Osla heard a splash and a yelp, then Sally’s voice called back sourly: “Mind your shoes, Os, there’s a lake in front of our door . . .”
“Better put my boots back on,” Osla laughed, reaching for her diamanté buckles, but Philip swung her up into his arms.
“Can’t risk the glass slippers, princess.”
“Oh, really, now,” Osla hooted, settling her arms about his neck. “How slick can you get, sailor?”
She could almost feel his grin as he carried her through the dark. Osla’s boots and evening bag dangled against his back, hanging from her elbow, and he smelled of aftershave and champagne. Philip’s hair was mussed and sweat-damp from dancing, curling softly against her fingers where her hands linked at the back of his neck. He splashed through the puddle, and before he could set Osla down on the step, she brushed her lips against his.
“Gets it out of the way,” she said, flippant. “So there’s none of that terribly awkward will-we-won’t-we on the step.”
“I’ve never had a girl kiss me just to get it out of the way.” His mouth smiled against hers. “At least do it properly . . .”
He kissed her again, long and leisurely, still holding her off the step. He tasted like a blue, sun-warmed sea, and at some point Osla dropped her boots into the puddle.
At last he set her down, and they stood a moment in the darkness, Osla getting her breath back.
“I don’t know when I’ll go to sea,” he said at last. “Before I do, I’d like to see you again.”
“Nothing much to do around here. When we aren’t banging Dural, Sal and I eat porridge and muck about with gramophone records. Very dull.”
“I don’t imagine you’re as dull as that. In fact, I’ll wager the opposite. I’ll lay odds you’re hard to get over, Osla Kendall.”
Any number of light, flirtatious replies sprang to her lips. She had flirted all her life, instinctively, defensively. You play that same game, she thought, looking at Philip. Be charming to all, so no one gets too close. There were always people angling to get close to a pretty brunette whose godfather was Lord Mountbatten and whose father had bequeathed her a massive chunk of Canadian National Railway shares. And Osla was willing to bet there were many more people angling to get close to a handsome prince, even one tarnished by Nazi brothers-in-law.
“Come see me any night, Philip,” Osla said simply, playing no games at all, and felt her heart thumping as he touched his fingers to his hat and walked back to the Vauxhall. It was the dawn of 1940, and she had danced in the New Year in a boiler suit and satin sandals with a prince. She wondered what else the year would bring.
Mab was doing her best to disappear into her library copy of Vanity Fair, but even Becky Sharp flinging a dictionary out a coach window couldn’t hold her attention when the train leaving London was so crowded, and when the man in the seat opposite was fondling himself through his trouser pocket.
“What’s your name?” he’d crooned when Mab dragged her brown cardboard suitcase aboard, and she’d shot him her iciest glare. He’d been forced off to one side when the compartment filled up with men in uniform, most of them trailing hopefully after a stunning brunette in a fur-trimmed coat. But as the train chugged north out of London, the compartment emptied of soldiers stop by stop, and when it was just Mab and the brunette, the fondler began crooning again. “Give us a smile, luv!” Mab ignored him. There was a newspaper on the compartment floor, tracked with muddy boot prints, and she was trying to ignore that too—the headline screamed Dunkirk and disaster.
“We’re next,” Mab’s mother had said as Denmark fell, Norway fell, Belgium fell, Holland fell, one after another like boulders rolling inexorably off a cliff. Then ruddy France fell, and Mrs. Churt gave even bleaker shakes of the head. “We’re next,” she said to everyone who would listen, and Mab nearly bit her head off. Mum, would you mind not talking about murdering, raping Huns and what they’re going to do to us? It had been a terrible row, the first of many once Mab had tried to persuade Mum to leave London with Lucy. Just for a while, she said, and Mum retorted, I leave Shoreditch feetfirst, in a box.
And that row had been so bad, it was just as well that Mab had received this odd summons a week ago about a post in Buckinghamshire. Lucy didn’t really understand she was going away; when Mab had hugged her tight that morning before departing, she’d just put her head on one side and said “’Night!” which meant See you tonight!
I won’t be seeing you tonight, Luce. Mab had never been away from Lucy overnight, not once.