by Dianne Price
He lives to fly—until a piece of flak changes his life forever.
A tragic childhood has turned American Air Forces Colonel Rob Savage into an outwardly indifferent loner who is afraid to give his heart to anyone. RAF nurse Maggie McGrath has always dreamed of falling in love and settling down in a thatched cottage to raise a croftful of bairns, but the war has taken her far from Innisbraw, her tiny Scot’s island home.
Hitler’s bloody quest to conquer Europe seems far away when Rob and Maggie are sent to an infirmary on Innisbraw to begin his rehabilitation from disabling injuries. Yet they find themselves caught in a battle between Rob’s past, God’s plan, and the evil some islanders harbor in their souls. Which will triumph?
Isle of Innisbraw, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Stay! Don’t go! Maggie McGrath struggled to ignore the words screaming in her mind. She tucked a tissue-wrapped sprig of heather into a fold in her battered traveling bag. Too dry for the fragrance to linger, but she’d put it in a drawer. When the longing for home shredded her heart, she’d hold the fragile, purple buds close to her nose and imagine the sweet scent perfuming the air every summer.
Her fingers trembled as she fastened the bag and looked around the wee bedroom she’d shared with her younger brother, Calum, for over half of her life. His box-bed unmade, sheets and bed plaid in a muddle. A ragged sweater and pair of soiled trousers crumpled on the floor. Tears burned her eyes. Typical of a nine-year-old lad who lived for the day he would be old enough to crew a fishing trawler. Och, she would miss him so terribly.
Heedless of those words still torturing her mind, she pulled the sides of her waist-length black hair into a celluloid clip at the top of her head and dragged her bag into the cramped room that served as the cottage’s living quarters and kitchen.
Her father stood at the small, deep-set window above the sink, his face toward the morning sun colouring the cloudless blue sky with a soft blush of orange.
The bump of her bag over the rough stone-flagged floor seemed to rouse him. He placed his cup of tea on the scarred table and walked toward her, arms outstretched. “Ready are you to be off then, lass?” He enveloped her in a hug, the tweed of his jacket scratchy, yet so familiar, against her cheek.
The soft cadence of the Scots he spoke threatened to crack her resolve. She’d hear only English in Edinburgh. I cannot stay. I have to go. A sigh. “Aye, as ready as can be.”
“I know ’tis hard.” He stepped back and wiped a tear from her cheek. “But in a bit over twa months I’ll join you in Edinburgh.”
She wanted him to beg her to stay, to refuse her opportunity to study at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary’s Nursing School. But why would he? It was her dream, the culmination of everything she had studied for, including four years at a boarding academy on the Isle of Harris where she had learned to speak English as fluently as her father. Hard years, those. Painful raps on her knuckles when she spoke Scots, followed by humiliating mockery from the English-speaking students.
His warm hand rested on her shoulder. “On you come, lass. I’ve a pottle of strong tea waiting.” He poured tea into her mother’s treasured china cup. The burden in her heart lifted a wee bit. It seemed only fitting she embark on her journey into womanhood after drinking from her mother’s legacy. If Elizabeth McGrath had survived the birth of her laddie, Calum, she would have been proud of her daughter.
Maggie added heather honey and milk to her tea and stood in front of the glowing peat fire, shivering from an inner chill no flame could warm. It was already gone 0530. In less than half an hour she would be saying “guid-by” to all she held dear. And how would Calum fare? “Are you certain Calum will be all right staying with Morag and Alec when you leave?”
“Och, the lad’s spent most of every winter with the MacDonalds since you started academy.” Her father settled into his rocker with a grunt of satisfaction. “And he’ll have a bed to himself now, what with their Graham going off to school.”
A few strands of grey invaded his dark brown hair and short beard. When had that happened? It seemed only yesterday he’d rocked her in his lap and sung silly ditties in Scots or the Gaelic to soothe away her tears from a skinned knee or bad dream. That had all changed ever-so-gradually over the years. There was no question he loved her and Calum. But as head of Orthopaedics at the Royal Infirmary, he now spent most of his time in Edinburgh. Only one short three-month visit beginning in August and a weekly radio call the rest of the year to fill the aching void in their hearts.
Her heart cried out to recapture those carefree childhood days when her life revolved around family and friends, this wee stone cottage with its thatched roof, and her beloved green island. But she would be eighteen in a few months—old enough to fall in love, marry, and have her own bairns to rock.
And old enough to voice the one subject she’d never dared broach aloud. “Are you never coming home to open your infirmary permanently?” Maggie choked out the words. “I know what you do is important, but Calum needs a faither, no’ just fishermen who have their own lads.”
He stroked his beard, avoiding her gaze. Was he considering an excuse—perhaps something familiar, that he told himself every day to assuage his guilt?
She shouldn’t allow such words to ruin her last moments at home. Leaving her untasted tea on the table, she dashed to the door, pulling it open with a jerk. Even the pervasive scent of the heather covering the towering slopes of Ben Innis and tumbling in purple splashes down braes and over hillocks brought no solace as she raced to the low, dry-stone wall separating their croft from the path which ran across the high, flat top of Innis Fell.
Tears pooled in her eyes, blurring the harbour below and the Minch stretching to the horizon, its waves capped with white horses whipped to a gallop by the brisk morning breeze. What if the rumors of an imminent war with Germany came true? Everyone on the island was talking about Hitler’s invasion of Austria. Would he be satisfied to stop there or would he want more and more until all of Europe erupted into flames the way it had in the last Great War? Calum was too young to serve, but what about Graham MacDonald, Mark Ferguson, and the other lads on Innisbraw? Their ruddy-cheeked, innocent faces swam before her eyes. How many would die? How many would never come home to take up sheep or cow crofting or fishing with their fathers?
Her father came behind her and his strong arms pulled her against his chest. He rocked her back and forth for a moment before speaking. “I canna leave my work yet, Maggie. I’m on the brink of perfecting a new technique for repairing compound fractures. Mebbe when you’ve finished your training we’ll come back together. I’ll need a nurse at our infirmary, and in the meantime, Elspeth and Hugh have promised to write often.” He squeezed her shoulders before his steps faded away on the scudding breeze.
Maggie bit her lip to keep from weeping aloud. She couldn’t bear to hear the names of her two dearest friends when she wouldn’t see them for at least two years. Elspeth NicAllister had been her surrogate mother since Calum’s birth. Hugh MacEwan, the island’s minister and other anchor in her life, had never been too busy to offer words of encouragement or scriptures to give her guidance.
Och, Heavenly Faither, please help me be strong, for You planted the need to help others in my heart. Help me remember the honey-sweet scent of the heather, the sound of the sea sooking on the shore, the tumbling burns and shaded glens, even the plomping rain and skailing winds of winter. But most of all, give me the faith that I’ll come home to Innisbraw someday.
Edenoaks Air Base, England
Early May, 1942
“You gotta have a death wish.”
Colonel Rob Savage steeled himself against the pleading eyes of Major Dennis Anderson, his second-in-command. “The mission’s set. It’s a go whether you approve or not.” Rob untangled his long legs from the barstool, waved at the fug of cigarette smoke clouding the teeming officer’s club, and shrugged into his A-2 bomber jacket. “I’m going to catch some shut-eye. Wheels-up at 0400.”
Den snagged his sleeve. “Let me fly cover for you. A single-plane strike over Metz is suicide.”
Arguments flew through Rob’s mind, each as hollow as his bones. Suicide? No way. Pushing the odds against surviving the war? Yeah, he’d give Den that, but he’d never dodged his commitment, no matter the risk. Every bomb dropped on German-occupied territory brought them closer to victory.He shot Den a thumbs-up. “I’m counting on you to lead the group to that alternate target tomorrow.”
Den returned the good-luck gesture. “Somebody needs to watch your back. At least I tried.”
Rob grunted. Knowing Den, he hadn’t given up. He’d be at the Liberty Belle’s hardstand in the morning, trying to talk his way into flying right seat. “See you at Interrogation tomorrow. That cot’s calling my name.”
A grin split Den’s flushed face. He leaned closer, Old Spice shaving lotion marking his territory like a feral tomcat on the prowl. “Who needs cot-time when there are enough nurses here to make a man drool?” He smacked his lips and exchanged winks with a nurse carrying two beers away from the bar. “Or are you going to spend the rest of your life married to an airplane?”
Not again. When would Den stop trying to set him up with a date? Sure, he wanted a family to replace the one he’d lost so long ago. But a world torn apart by war had a nasty way of putting the kibosh on most dreams, and his awkward attempts at social conversation were harder work than planning strikes and flying lead.
He reached for his beer and took a swig, gaze sweeping the officer’s club. From the radio, a band belted out “Chattanooga Choo Choo,”while loud, boisterous officers packed the Nissen hut, drinking beer, sucking on cigarettes, and openly ogling the nurses sitting at their own crowded table. Was it always this noisy?
It’d been a mistake to hope to relax before hitting the sack. The morning’s bombing strike had him so tied in knots he’d be lucky to clock a couple of hours sleep before briefing his crew.
His crew. Nine good men—like family—whose survival depended on him. Oh, God, don’t let me fail them. Den’s poke in the ribs interrupted his dark thoughts.
“Dare you to dance with that teensy bee-u-tiful nurse in the RAF uniform.” The redhead rocked back on his barstool. “That’s what I call a babe.”
Rob drained his pint. “Then you dance with her. The gossip mill’s busy enough without adding the base commander to the mix.”
“But she’s just your type, Bucko. You know, serious looking, kind of uncomfortable, sitting on the edge of her seat like she’s about to run—just like you at every dance at the Point.”
Frowning, Rob turned to look. And froze. The lieutenant’s black hair, pulled into a bun above her gray-blue uniform collar, caught the overhead lights and sparkled like raindrops on wet tarmac. His fingers itched to loosen the pins and watch it spill down her slim back. Pale skin, delicate nose—and the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. He’d signed the papers placing her on-loan from the RAF, yet he couldn’t recall seeing her around the base hospital. A yearning he’d thought long buried threatened to weaken his resolve, and a bitter taste flooded his mouth as he looked away.
Den waggled his eyebrows and flapped his arms. “Chicken. I double-dare you.”
“Enough.” Rob growled. Refusing a double-dare would deal Rob a crushing defeat in their ongoing game of one-upmanship.
Besides, she might get his mind off that bombing strike.
He stood, unzipped his A-2, loosened his tie, and wove his way between the tables. Mouth dry as an empty fuel tank, he tapped her shoulder. “Care to dance?”
She stiffened and turned, gaze darting to the silver eagles on his shoulders.
He never fraternized with someone under his command. What if she refused? Then he’d get what he deserved—a red face and another foot added to that stone wall he’d built around himself.
“Och, no, but … thank you,” she stammered, cheeks flushing.
One of the nurses nudged her. “What’s the matter, Maggie? You Scots only dance with men wearing skirts?”
He tried a smile, nearly succeeded. “Well?”
A brief nod.
He pulled her to her feet and led her silently to the crowded dance floor. She really was tiny. At six-five, he was accustomed to towering over women, but the top of her head didn’t even reach his shoulder. He turned and placed his arm around her, hoping his tense body didn’t reveal his unease. Hard as it would be, he’d have to initiate the conversation. “So, um … Leftenant Maggie, how do you like being here at Edenoaks?”
She averted her eyes. “’Tis very interesting.”
That tickled his funny bone. Must have been around Den too long. “Interesting? That’s not much of an endorsement.” Emboldened, he stooped over and said into her ear, “What’s the matter? Find us Yanks a little hard to stomach?”
She recoiled. “Och, no, Colonel.”
He opened his mouth to comment on her charming burr when she spoke up.
“I … I’d best be going. I’ve drawn an early shift and I—”
“I’m only teasing, Leftenant.”
How stupid could he be? She’d offered him a perfect out and he’d thrown it away. Why could he conduct a briefing and argue bombing strategy with two-and-three-star generals, yet fail to untie his knotted tongue when talking to a woman?
Those blue eyes met his. “Only teasing, were you?”
The unspoken challenge in her slight smile dissolved the icy splinters of fear in his chest. He clasped her hand tighter as their feet moved to the slow love song, “The Nearness of You.” The softly crooned words washed against the stony shore of his heart. The scent of warm honey dislodged another stone. He leaned closer, his chin brushing her forehead. “Your hair smells sweet.”
“’Tis heather. A friend at home makes the soap and sends it to me.”
Her voice, soft and warm, reminded him of a breath of summer air in an open cockpit. “And home is … where?”
“Innisbraw. I’m certain you’ve never heard of it.”
He tasted the word. Innisbraw, a fitting name for a village folded into the heart of mist-shrouded hills. “You’re right. But it has to be somewhere in Scotland where the heather blooms wild and a good friend makes you soap.” His labored breathing eased.
The nearness of you.
“Aye, ’tis a wee island. That’s where the Innis comes from. ’Tis one of the Gaelic words for island and braw is Scotssag for fine, even beautiful, in a rugged sort of way.”
“And what’s the word for ‘fine and beautiful,’ in a more refined way?”
“Bonnie.” Her shy whisper and downturned eyes brought a frisson of hope. Did she long for someone too?
The lilting Scots rolled effortlessly from his tongue. “Then, ’tis bonnie you are, Maggie, lass.”
The music crescendoed, faded, and died.
She looked up at him, those blue eyes with their violet depths calling him to dive in.
Could he muster the courage to seek her out later? Perhaps—if he survived the mission. He squeezed her hand before leading her back to her table. One last touch to treasure.
The nearness of you.
“Thank you, bonnie Maggie, for the dance. I hope to see you again. Soon.”