Lucy frowned. “Mum wouldn’t mind?”
“No.” Mab’s mother hadn’t been able to hide her relief at the idea that she wouldn’t have to shepherd another child all the way through to majority. No, I don’t mind if you take her on, are you mad? Mab had no doubt her mother loved Lucy in her brusque way, but she was past fifty and tired. She didn’t really want to keep trimming bangs and scrimping for shoes. “Mum won’t mind,” Mab assured Lucy now. “We’ll go see her every week, but you’ll be living here with me.”
“After the war.”
“Would he live here too?” A glance through the door, toward where Francis clattered in the kitchen downstairs.
“Yes, he would.”
Lucy frowned. She was wary of all strange men, and Mab wondered in a surge of bleakness if that was something she’d unconsciously passed to her daughter. “He’s a very nice man, Luce. You’ll like living here with us.”
“It’s not London . . .” In Lucy’s short life she’d been uprooted from London and sent to Sheffield, then shuttled between the two depending on the ebb and flow of German air raids—Mab could tell the idea of yet another upheaval was making her daughter balk. But Lucy kept looking at that window seat, exactly the right size for a little girl to curl up in while drawing.
“Let’s call this your room,” Mab said, and led Lucy downstairs.
Francis and Osla had set the table in the kitchen for lunch—a pot of tea, cold sandwiches, an eggless sponge pudding with raspberry jam. Osla, bless her, was chattering pleasantries while Francis quietly poured tea. He gave Lucy a proper cup, not just nursery tea with hot water and milk, and on her chair Mab saw the flat box he’d been carrying earlier. “That’s for you, Lucy,” Francis said, sipping.
Lucy pushed back the lid, looked into the nest of tissue paper . . . and her face flushed pink. Mab had never in her entire life seen a child look so happy. “Oh,” Lucy breathed, and lifted out a pair of tiny, glossy, knee-high riding boots.
“For when you start riding lessons,” Francis said. What he must have spent in clothing coupons and favors for such a gift! “There’s a riding school not far away.”
Mab looked at her daughter, hugging her new boots and glowing like a small sun as she whispered a shy, ecstatic thank you, and felt her heart shatter. I love you, she thought, looking across the table at her husband. How I love you, Francis Gray.
The air-raid siren went off long after midnight.
Osla jerked awake. It took her a moment to remember she was sharing one of the ground-floor bedrooms of Francis’s Coventry house with Lucy. They’d all played backgammon and charades, then turned on the radio and listened breathlessly to reports of joint Allied landings in North Africa. Once Lucy was drooping, and Mab and Francis on the point of going up in smoke if they didn’t get some time alone, Osla suggested heading to bed.
Now the air-raid sirens wailed outside.
“Lucy, wake up—” The little girl was still sound asleep on the other side of the bed. How many air-raid sirens had a child of the East End heard by 1942? Lucy probably didn’t bother waking up for anything less than five hundred Junkers overhead. But Osla hadn’t faced an air raid since the Café de Paris had been blown to pieces all around her, and fear rose thick and foul in her throat as she fumbled for her shoes and flung her coat over her nightdress. Don’t panic, she told herself, scooping up the sleeping Lucy and stumbling out into the pitch-dark corridor.
“Mab?” Osla called. A bone-humming drone sounded above—were bombers here already? Osla groped to the front door and flung it open. Outside the darkness was thick enough to choke on, pierced by finger-beams of searchlights stabbing at a roiling, reddened sky. Osla saw something metallic flash through one of the searchlights—a plane. A German bomber, piloted by some fresh-faced Luftwaffe pilot who was right now doing his best to blow Osla and Lucy and the rest of Coventry to cinders. She felt a stab of hatred so silver-bright it nearly staggered her, and then she heard footsteps down the stairs, Francis in trousers and shirtsleeves, Mab wrapped in his coat.
“There’s an air-raid shelter a quarter mile down the road,” Francis said, sounding so blessedly calm Osla’s pulse steadied. “Safer than the cellar . . .” And they were all piling out through the tangled garden. Francis struggled into his spare coat as Mab tried to take Lucy, but the girl clung to Osla like a limpet, still mostly asleep.
“Leave her,” Osla gasped. “At least she’s quiet.” Mab put her arm around Osla, squeezing in fierce, wordless love, and they joined the flood of people thronging the icy street: a child dragging a panicked dog, a woman with a kerchief over rag curls, a man with pajama bottoms stuffed into wellies. It was not really loud yet; it was all labored breaths and shuffling feet, muffled cursing and droning engines. Osla’s stockingless toes scraped inside her shoes; her arms ached supporting Lucy’s warm, solid weight. She could see flares drifting down like fireflies from the planes, lighting the ground for strikes from the air, and she thought of Philip at Cape Matapan, lighting the enemy cruisers for strikes from the sea. As near murder as anything could be in wartime . . .
Lucy stirred muzzily, but Osla tugged the blanket back over her head. “We’re playing a game, darling. You’ve got to keep quiet as a mouse, that’s the game—”
“Almost there,” Francis said as the crush grew thicker. He had one arm around Mab and his other hand grasped Osla’s shoulder, calm and reliable, and Osla had her panic firmly gripped between her teeth. The imagined air-raid shelter gleamed like a beacon: a cozy underground place where everyone would share blankets, someone would have a flask of whiskey, and maybe they’d sing “Could You Please Oblige Us with a Bren Gun?” until the all-clear sounded. It would be nothing like the Café de Paris.
Then Francis’s hand tore away from Osla’s arm as a crowd of young men pushed through the throng, shoving ahead at a flat run. Jostled, Osla’s foot missed the curb and slewed sideways. Pain shot clear up to her knee. She fell, managing to twist to one side so she didn’t crush Lucy as the two of them hit the street with a jolt. Osla’s entire body vibrated as though she’d been slammed through the windscreen of a car. Lucy yelped, fighting free of the blanket.
“Lucy!” Mab’s voice, high and panicked. Osla couldn’t see her friend. The night was black and red, people streaming in all directions.
“Lucy, here—” The world tilted and spun, but Osla levered herself up, lunging to grab hold of the little girl. Her fingers locked round that tiny wrist. “Stay with me, sweetheart—”
A vast percussive whump sounded, and Osla heard the shatter of exploding windows. For an instant she saw the blue flash of the explosion that had torn the Café de Paris apart, torn her dancing partner’s lungs from his chest—and she flinched, fingers springing open.
In that moment, Lucy wrenched away and fled into the night.
Lucy!” Mab’s throat was raw with calling. She nearly fell over a chunk of masonry in the street, staggered upright, and rebounded off a woman dragging a human chain of children toward the air-raid shelter. The din was deafening; bombs fell, smoke billowed, screams rose, but Mab could hear nothing, see nothing, that wasn’t Lucy. How could a child surrounded by three adults disappear in an instant? Her daughter had slipped into this rushing torrent of panic and bombs and disappeared like a minnow into white water. “Lucy!”
“Mab—” Francis’s hand like a steel band over her arm. “Get to the shelter, let me look for her.”
She didn’t even answer, just tore away and shoved further up the street, panic rising red and clawing in her chest. Osla reached out with one shaking hand, the other clapped to her face, which had been scraped raw against the street. “Mab—” Blood ran through her fingers. “We’ll find her, I promise, we’ll find her—”
“Why didn’t you keep hold of her?” Mab snarled. She would have struck Osla if Francis hadn’t seized her again.
“You two look here, I’ll see if she’s making for the house.”