The cool, clear night shuddered, then moaned as the fluctuating drone of hundreds of engines eclipsed the silence. A wave of planes like angry hornets slipped through the darkened sky over a city already wearing black in preparation for the inevitable mourning.
She tasted dust and burnt embers in the back of her throat as she hurried through a crowd of stragglers running toward a shelter. A man grabbed her arm, as if to correct her movement, but an explosion nearby made him release his hold and hurry after the crowd. She shifted the valise she cradled in her arms, the pressure on her chest making it difficult to breathe. Fatigue and pain battered her body, both eagerly welcomed, as they disguised the bruise of overwhelming grief. She staggered forward, the blood dripping unchecked from her leg and forehead, the acrid stench of explosives mixed with the sharp smell of death.
Gingerly, she moved through the darkened high street so familiar in the daylight but foreign to her now. The night sky blossomed with fire and scarlet light as the loud bark of the antiaircraft guns answered the banshee wails of the warning sirens. Pressing herself against a wall, as if she could hide from the noise and the sounds and the terror, she closed her eyes. Moonlight Sonata. Someone, she couldn’t remember who, in an underground club perhaps, had whispered that that was what he called the music of the nightly bombings. She’d thought then it had been a beautiful sentiment, that it was a wonderful way to make something good out of something so terrible. But she’d been younger then. More willing to accept that the world still held on to its beauty when everything lay charred and smoldering, with roofless structures like starving baby birds, mouths open to a useless sky.
Another incendiary bomb fell nearby. Another fireball lurched upward. Another building, another home, another life destroyed as the haphazard finger of fortune pointed with random carelessness. The sidewalk rumbled beneath her, causing her to stumble into the street, almost losing hold of her precious bundle. The shrill whistle of an air raid warden rang out, the sound padded into near oblivion by the thunder of the engines above them. The baby lay still as she ran, the partially closed top of the valise protecting him from the ashes that drifted from burning buildings.
She ducked into a doorway to catch her breath, oddly grateful to the fires for lighting her way. Fairly certain she was on Mac Farren Place, she flattened herself against a recessed door, imagining she could hear approaching footsteps coming for her. She needed to keep running until she reached her destination. She wasn’t sure what she’d do after that, but she’d think about it then.
Another wave of planes slithered overhead, the rumble of their engines echoing in her bones. She was tempted to collapse on the doorstep and remain there until dawn or death, whichever came first. But she couldn’t. She felt the heft of the valise in her arms again, a small movement within it reminding her of why she couldn’t give up.
She stood, planting her feet wide for balance and for the false sense of strength it seemed to give her. As the world vibrated beneath her, she clung to that tenuous spark of will that wouldn’t allow her to stop. It pushed her out onto the street again to begin moving as the roar of the next approaching wave of planes galloped behind her.
She hid in another doorway as the planes flew overhead, letting go of their bombs as they neared Oxford Street. Her shoulders and arms ached from carrying the valise. How could such a small thing seem to weigh so much? But she couldn’t stop. Not now. Not after everything that had happened. One more loss would be insurmountable, the largest and final hole in her cup of luck.
Her ears rang from the cacophony of destruction raining down around her, the coppery tang of blood filling her mouth from biting her lip to keep it from trembling. A stray bomb could explode on top of her and her precious cargo regardless of its intended target, the erratic hands of fate never quite sure where to land.
Avoiding wardens and anyone else who would veer her off course, she continued to hurry forward until she reached Davies Street and the square of beautiful Georgian terrace houses now sheathed in black, the windows darkened like sleeping eyes. She knew the house, had been inside it even. Knew that the basement was being used as a private bomb shelter, one complete with electricity and stocked with food and soft mattresses and blankets. But that was not why she was there. She wouldn’t be staying.
The flashing white undersides of an air warden’s gloves beckoned two women dressed as if they’d just been dragged from a party; they stumbled toward him as he guided them to a public shelter. Holding the valise closer, she pressed herself against the wrought iron fence of the house, ducking her face to hide its paleness. When the three disappeared, she moved cautiously along the fence, then unlatched the gate. Carefully taking the steps down to the lower level, she turned the doorknob, not thinking until she did so of what she’d do if it was locked.
The door opened to an unoccupied room, filled only with mattresses and cushions piled against the windows and walls, the flickering firelight from outside showing her a closed door across the room. Memorizing her path, she shut the door behind her, enveloping herself in complete darkness. Soft murmuring voices came from behind the door opposite as she approached. She stopped in front of it and raised her hand to knock, then paused to mouth an old prayer she remembered from childhood to a God she no longer thought listened. “Amen,” she whispered to the dark when she was finished, then brought her knuckles down sharply against the wood.
The voices stopped, and she held her breath as footsteps approached.
“Hello?” A woman’s voice, clear and refined. English.
Her knees almost buckled with relief. “It’s me. Please open the door.”
The door was jerked open, allowing her to see inside the small room with the tidy cots around the perimeter, a small crystal lamp sparkling from the polished surface of a round table with cabriole legs. If she hadn’t been so exhausted, she might have laughed at the absurdity of crystal and fine furniture in such a place, at such a time, when the world above was being smothered with ashes and blood. The person she’d been might have been amused. But she wasn’t that person anymore.
The woman looked out into the darkened street as if expecting to see two other people seeking refuge.
“I’m alone. There’s no one else.”
A look of understanding and grief crossed the woman’s face before she nodded briefly and straightened her shoulders. “You’re hurt,” the woman said, her fine skin glowing like alabaster in the lamplight. Reaching out manicured hands with scarlet nails, she said, “Come in. Quickly. We have a doctor.”
She shook her head. “I can’t. I have to go.” For the first time, she relaxed her hold on the valise. Setting it down, she picked up the baby, his soft body stirring sleepily in her arms. Pressing her lips against the smooth forehead, she smelled deeply, the stench of the torn night erased by the sweet scent of new life. She lifted her head, then handed him over before she could change her mind and be the ruin of them all.
The woman’s pale eyes widened with surprise, then understanding, as she accepted the child, pressing him against her chest, an unasked question dancing in the air between them.
“I’ve got to go back. He . . .” Her arm gestured aimlessly. “It might not be too late. . . .” Despair escaped from her chest and filled her mouth.
“But you can’t leave. Not now. There’s a raid. . . .”
“I have to. There’s no one else.” A sob caught in her throat. “I have to try.” Her eyes moved to the squirming bundle, but she dragged them away.
The woman hadn’t reacted to the news except for a quick intake of breath. With studied composure, she said, “But you’re hurt. Surely you can wait five more minutes.”
“No.” She shook her head. “I’ve already stayed too long.” She took a step back to emphasize her words. “I think they might be looking for me.”
“All the more reason you should stay here. We can keep you safe. We can help you get the proper papers. . . .”
As if the woman hadn’t spoken, she said, “You’ll take care of the baby?”
“Of course. But—”
The woman looked so lovely standing there with the light prisms sparkling against the wall behind her as she held the baby. She’d done the right thing, coming here. “Be safe,” the woman said. “But this won’t be good-bye. We’ll see each other again, when this is all over.”
“I hope so,” she said, allowing her eyes to rest on the pale moon of the baby’s cheek for just a flicker. She took another step backward. “When this is all over.” She turned and let herself out of the second door and back into the wounded night.
She passed through the gate and hurried toward the street corner and paused, getting her bearings, knowing only that she had to keep running. Just for a moment, she allowed herself to close her eyes, to see the baby’s face again one last time.
A high, keening shriek split the air around her, jerking open her eyes. Her chest heaved from the percussion of the bomb hitting the building across the street, bricks and glass and plaster being thrown into the air like the discarded toys of a petulant child. Something hard struck her in the back between her shoulder blades, throwing her against the pavement, knocking her to her hands and knees. The stray thought of how she’d never be able to repair the damage to her clothing trickled across her brain as she watched the debris falling in slow motion around her, a lit piece of floral wallpaper drifting down and extinguishing itself on the sidewalk.
She struggled to stand, pain radiating like fever, the bleeding scrapes on her palms and forehead merely an afterthought. Her right leg buckled under her, her knee bending in a way it wasn’t intended to. No, no, no. Not now. Not like this. Sucking in her breath, she began to crawl back to the shelter, a fading glimmer of self-preservation driving her forward, defeat nipping at her heels.
Darkness danced behind her eyes, seductively calling to her. She fought it as she pulled herself up on the gate, reaching for the latch, forcing herself to stay conscious as she felt for the release. Propelling herself forward with her elbows, she tumbled down the steps, her body landing against the door with a thump, her face turned toward the sky in silent supplication. For a brief moment she imagined she was walking in sand, the sound of a distant ocean teasing the air. Home. It was there, as it always had been, just beyond her reach.
Please. The word echoed inside her head, but her lips remained mute as the darkness overcame her and the sky above screamed with a thousand unanswered prayers.
(c) Karen White, Berkley/Penguin Random House, 2021. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
New York Times bestselling author Karen White weaves a captivating story of friendship, love, and betrayal that moves between war-torn London during the Blitz and the present day.
London, 1939. Beautiful and ambitious Eva Harlow and her American best friend, Precious Dubose, are trying to make their way as fashion models. When Eva falls in love with Graham St. John, an aristocrat and Royal Air Force pilot, she can’t believe her luck—she’s getting everything she ever wanted. Then the Blitz devastates her world, and Eva finds herself slipping into a web of intrigue, spies, and secrets. As Eva struggles to protect her friendship with Precious and everything she holds dear, all it takes is one unwary moment to change their lives forever…
London, 2019. American journalist Maddie Warner, whose life has been marked by the tragic loss of her mother, travels to London to interview Precious about her life in pre-WWII London. Maddie has been careful to close herself off to others, but in Precious she recognizes someone whose grief rivals her own—but unlike Maddie, Precious hasn’t allowed it to crush her. Maddie finds herself drawn to both Precious and to Colin, her enigmatic surrogate nephew. As Maddie gets closer to her, she begins to unravel Precious’s haunting past—a story of friendship, betrayal, and the unremembered acts of kindness and of love.
About Karen White
With more than 1.8 million books in print in eight different languages, Karen White is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of 23 novels, including the popular Charleston-set Tradd Street mystery series.
Raised in a house full of brothers, Karen’s love of books and strong female characters first began in the third grade when the local librarian issued her a library card and placed The Secret of the Old Clock, a Nancy Drew Mystery, in her hands.
Karen’s roots run deep in the South where many of her novels are set. Her intricate plot lines and compelling characters charm and captivate readers with just the right mix of family drama, mystery, intrigue, and romance.
Not entirely convinced she wanted to be a writer, Karen first pursued a career in business and graduated cum laude with a BS in Management from Tulane University. Ten years later, in a weak moment, she wrote her first book. In the Shadow of the Moon was published in August 2000. Her books–referred to as “grit lit” (Southern Women’s Fiction)–have since been nominated for numerous national contests including the SIBA (Southeastern Booksellers Alliance) Fiction Book of the Year.
When not writing, Karen spends her time reading, scrapbooking, playing piano, and avoiding cooking. Karen and her husband have two grown children and currently live near Atlanta, Georgia with two spoiled Havanese dogs.