A KISS TO BUILD A DREAM ON
by Marianne Stillings
Release date: June 21st, 2016
Publisher: Boroughs Publishing Group
With the world at war for a second time in the same century, Women’s Airforce Service Pilot Rachel Prentiss faces conflicts of her own. Pearl Harbor left her the widow of her childhood sweetheart so now, having lost nearly everyone in her life she has ever loved, she’s done risking her heart. But Rachel hasn’t counted on the attraction she feels toward their handsome new Training Officer, battle-scarred Army Air Forces Captain Jack Lassiter.
As Rachel’s superior officer, Jack works to keep his relationship with her strictly professional. Things take a turn for the personal though when Rachel’s best friend and sister pilot, dies under suspicious circumstances and former Seattle PD detective Jack elicits Rachel’s help to try and solve the mystery. While he finds himself falling for the beautiful lady flyer, he has two terrible secrets that would keep her away from him forever, if she ever found out.
Against the backdrop of WWII, day-by-day, Rachel finds herself drawn closer to loving again than she’d ever thought possible. And when she does finally succumb to Jack’s charms, she realizes not only does his kiss have the power to destroy her best defenses, his is the kind of kiss to build a dream on.
"Flying is a man's job . . ." ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery
The Territory of Hawai'i
Sunday, 7 December 1941
"You're just a girl." The young man glared at Rachel as though he expected her to prostrate herself before him, explain how such a blunder could have happened and beg his forgiveness.
But Rachel did none of those things. Instead, she crossed her arms and remained quiet, simply waiting while the snotty little jerk dealt with the revulsion at learning his flight instructor was a mere female.
Apparently perplexed by her lack of response, the kid huffed out a breath and shook his head. Enunciating each word as though she had a minimal knowledge of English, he pronounced, "You. Are. A. Girl."
"Congratulations," she said with feigned enthusiasm. "You passed the eye test." Her accompanying smile was brief and broadcast no warmth.
Turning away from her new student, Rachel snatched the clipboard from the peg on the wall next to the scheduling desk, checked the registry for his name then hugged the clipboard to her chest.
"Aloha, Peter Reynolds. Welcome to Wakea Flying Service. I am Mrs. Prentiss and as you have correctly determined, I will be your instructor today."
He continued to stare down at her while his face slowly reddened to the same crimson shade as the large hibiscus blossoms indigenous to the islands. Clearly too overcome with rage to utter a sound, his mouth opened and closed like a netted bass gasping for air. Finally, he jammed his fists into his hips. "You - are - a - girl. I'm not going up in a plane with some girl. Everybody knows girls can't fly."
"Neither can boys." She fluttered her lashes. "That's why God made airplanes."
Young Mr. Reynolds narrowed his brown eyes into angry slits. "That's the stupidest thing I ever heard."
"Well, you're young yet, son," she countered. "I have a feeling you'll hear plenty more in the years to come."
Ignoring the boy's mounting fury, Rachel leaned toward him as though she were going to reveal a State secret. "It happened on the eighth day," she whispered. "Airplanes. The Lord was feeling a little playful after that day of rest. Sure, it can't compare with constructing the universe, parting day from night, and forming man and woman out of mud and bone, so airplanes never got the credit they deserve."
"Listen here, lady," he growled. "Do you know who I am?"
"According to the roster, you are Peter Reynolds, age eighteen, and you want to learn to fly."
"That's right," he snapped. "My old man is Walter Reynolds. You'd best not forget that."
Unruffled by this declaration, Rachel tilted her head and gazed at him. "Of Reynolds Shipping? Reynolds Industries? Reynolds You-Name-It-We-Make-It?"
"And then some. Why, my old man could buy and sell Wakea Flying Service a thousand times over. Maybe a million." He made a sweeping motion with his arms. "Maybe even the whole damn island of Oahu. What Walter Reynolds wants, Walter Reynolds gets. And right now, what he wants is an experienced guy to teach me how to fly a plane."
Rachel clamped down on her ripening temper. They'd gotten off on the wrong foot and her sarcasm hadn't helped. That a kid his age would show such disrespect for no reason at all had caught her off guard and put her on the defensive. Sure, at twenty-five, she wasn't all that much older than he, even so, she should have responded in a more professional way and not let her emotions rule her words. A few hours in a confined cockpit with him was really going to be a trial, but it was her job to teach people how to fly, and that's exactly what she intended to do.
"Let's start over, shall we? We can begin by you calling me Rachel." She gave him a reassuring smile. "Looks like the two of us are facing similar dilemmas. Your father wants you to learn to fly and my boss wants me to earn my paycheck by teaching you to fly."
The boy let out a breath, but said nothing. He avoided looking her in the eye but stared at the ground as though all the fight had gone out of him.
"Regardless of your father," she said quietly, "you want to learn to fly, don't you?"
Shoving his balled up fists into the pockets of his khaki shorts, he shrugged and lowered his head. He was a nice looking kid, his skin a healthy tan, his hair streaked blonde by the tropical sun. With his abrupt change in demeanor, he looked a lot younger than eighteen.
"Yeah, well, see, my old man says that flying's the cat's meow and since I'm gonna join Reynolds Industries after I finish at Harvard, I need to cultivate hobbies that make me interesting." He raised his head and shyly met her gaze. "To top it off," he added, his lips forming a sullen pout, "my hot shot big brother is a pilot. Since Ace is good at it, I have to be good at it, too."
"Does Ace think you should learn to fly?"
"Nah. Just my old man. My brother, well, actually, Ace is my half-brother." He shrugged. "Mother was a widow with a kid when she married Father. Ace was close to thirteen when I was born. I think I was one of those, uh, unexpected developments, if you know what I mean."
Rachel suppressed a grin. "What does your mother think about your flying?"
"No idea." Hands still in his pockets, he shrugged again. "Never knew her. She died . . . having me."
Rachel fought the impulse to reach out and hug the boy. Instead, she looked him in the eye and said softly, "I'm so sorry." She pressed her lips together for a moment then said, "Mine did, too."
A few moments ticked by while they each let their grief and guilt dissipate, then Peter said, "Being so much older than me, Ace was always away at school or something. He doesn't like my dad much, so he moved away and stayed with some of Mother's family, but when I did get a chance to see him, he was swell. He's really smart and good at everything . . . and I'm not good at . . . um, anything."
Rachel's heart squeezed. In a matter of seconds, this kid had managed to transform himself from snotty little jerk to an abandoned puppy in desperate need of being petted and told he was the best puppy that ever was.
She swallowed and pressed on. "So you're only taking flying lessons because your father wants you to measure up to his stepson?"
Peter huffed out a breath. "The thing is, I'm only in Hawai'i for Christmas break. I'll be heading back to the mainland in January, so I guess I don't see the point. Besides . . ." He halted mid-sentence and seemed to debate whether or not he should continue.
"Besides, what, Peter?" she urged gently.
"Besides . . ." he mumbled, "it seems really hard. Ace is your man when it comes to flying."
"Ace isn't my man for anything, and never will be. He's not here. You are, and from where I stand, you're pretty keen yourself, kid."
She wanted to hang her head in shame. She'd misjudged him. He was just scared, over-shadowed by his brother and intimidated by his father. "You know what? I think your hotshot big brother can go take a flying leap for all I care." She arched a brow. "How about I take you up, introduce you to the sky, give you a bird's eye view of Oahu and then you can decide whether or not you're cut out to be a pilot. Deal?"
He lifted his shoulder in a small shrug. "Aw, don't blame Ace. He's great. Really."
She wrinkled her nose. "Okay, if you say so. Do we have a deal?"
"What about my old man?"
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
His mouth formed a chagrined smile. "Doesn't change the fact you're a girl."
A glint of humor in his eyes, he said, "You're sure God invented airplanes?"
"Absolutely," she chirped. "I'll bet you think there are only ten Commandments, too. There was one more, but He ran out of room on the tablet."
"An eleventh commandment." He eyed her with friendly suspicion. "Thou shall not be an idiot toward lady pilots?"
She nodded. "Look, if it'll make you feel any better, I learned how to fly my first year in college, too, when I was just about your age. Within a year, I'd earned my instructor's license. So I'll take you up and you'll see just how easy it is." In her most sarcastic tone, she added, "I mean, flying must be easy, right, if a girl can do it?"
"Yeah." He laughed. "Must be."
As they headed toward the flight line, she waved across the tarmac to her friend, Gracie Abbott, who was in the process of escorting her own early morning student toward one of Wakea's small squadron of bright yellow Piper J-3 Cubs.
"You're safe with me, Peter," Rachel promised. "Haven't lost a student yet." When they stopped next to a pretty little Cub, she set her hand on the fuselage and gave it a caress, much as she would a beloved pet. "This is our girl right here. Cubs are called the Model T's of the Skies because they're so uncomplicated and easy to fly. Affordable, too. You don't have to be, eh-hem, a Reynolds to own one."
Peter snorted a laugh. "In that case, my old man will buy me 365 of 'em. One for each day of the year. So you better make sure nothing goes wrong today."
Smiling, Rachel glanced around. The sun gleamed above the eastern horizon like a coin tossed into a silken blue sky. "It's a beautiful morning. Paka'a has sent us a friendly breeze. Clear skies, sunshine, gentle trade winds. Great little airplane. Eager student. Superior instructor." She began climbing up into the cockpit. "On a great day like today, what could possibly go wrong?"
Something was wrong.
Not with Peter - he'd been swell, thoroughly excited with everything about flying, and no case of the queasies, either.
Not with the Cub - her little engine chugged along like a Chattanooga Choo-Choo.
Even so, something was definitely amiss - she just couldn't pinpoint what it was.
She turned slightly in the forward controls seat. Over her shoulder, she shouted, "You okay back there, Peter?"
"Am I," he yelled. "This is terrific."
"You've been in a plane before, haven't you?"
"Well, how did you get to Hawai'i?"
"The SS Lurline." Laughing like a happy little kid, he added, "But from now on, I'm only sailing through the skies. I never knew flying could be so fun."
Rachel felt her shoulders relax a little. "In that case, welcome to the troposphere, Ali`i Reynolds."
They'd taken off from John Rogers Airport, just a few miles from Pearl Harbor, and flown west until they reached the coast, then banked to starboard and followed the shoreline up and around until they were over Kahuku Point, the northern tip of Oahu. From there, she'd swung the Cub south, straight across the island, down to Pearl Harbor and onward for an aerial tour of the burgeoning town of Honolulu.
Peter Reynolds turned out to be a pretty nice kid - all said and done - and it was clear he was thoroughly enjoying his first plane ride. Even so, she still couldn't brush aside the feeling that something awful was about to happen.
She shook her head to clear her thoughts. Normally a dyed-in-the-wool optimist, she didn't know where the feeling of doom and gloom had come from, especially when her life was so utterly fantastic. Not only did she enjoy a sense of independence most gals had never known, her health was tip-top, and back home on the mainland, there was dear Uncle George, the seaside cottage she'd grown up in, her best pal, Izzy, and a group of lifelong friends she'd do anything for.
And she was married to the extremely handsome Lt. Steve Prentiss, USN - a boy she'd fallen for the first time she'd seen him sitting crossed-legged opposite her in Mrs. Walsh's primary school classroom. He'd sent her an impish smile, and she'd turned away, her nose in the air, her lips tight in feigned scorn.
They'd been seven years old, and virtually inseparable ever since. Married at eighteen, they'd only been parted long enough for her to attend college classes, while Steve joined the Navy. When he was sent to Pearl two years ago, she'd come, too. Lately, they'd been trying for a baby; so far, though, no luck. But that was okay - "practicing" held its own rewards.
To call her life in Hawai'i "Paradise on Earth" was an understatement.
Peering out to starboard at the lush tropical forest four thousand feet down, she allowed the sight to soothe her nerves. The Cub's shadow looked like a sparrow flitting rooftop to rooftop across the houses lining the narrow dirt roads that wound through the emerald landscape like bits of brown twine. Ahead, fields of sugarcane gave way to Pearl Harbor and beyond that, the Pacific Ocean, sparkling as though it were made of crushed sapphires every shade of blue imaginable, then sprinkled with diamond dust.
"We're not going home yet, are we, Mrs. Prentiss?" Behind her, Peter's voice sounded decidedly disappointed.
"It's Rachel, remember?" she shouted. Pleased she'd made a convert, she added, "And no, not yet. Just below us is John Rogers, the airfield we took off from, but if you'll look past that, you can see Ford Island in the middle of Pearl. And see those vessels lined up around the island? That's Battleship Row."
"Golly. Will you look at that. Do you know much about the battleships?"
"Just the Arizona. My husband is an officer on board. Another is the California, but I don't know all their names." She gestured to port. "Just ahead is the Navy Yard and beyond that, Hickam Field. I'm not sure, but I think both the Army and Navy keep planes there. Mostly bombers like Boeing's B-17s. They're nicknamed Flying Fortresses because of they can withstand attacks and can inflict heavy damage. There are some fighters down there, too, I think."
Returning her attention to the airfield below, a bright yellow Cub identical to her own had banked and begun its descent to the landing strip adjacent to Rogers. It could be Gracie and her student, or for that matter, any of the other Wakea instructors in the air this morning.
As she watched the other Cub descend to three thousand feet, she suddenly realized what was bothering her - a constant, low drone that seemed to be growing louder, more urgent. Her skin prickled and she felt anxious all over again. Within the space of the next heartbeat, anxiety bloomed into fear. The noise was menacing, predatory, as though she had done something to anger a swarm of hornets and their one collective thought was to overtake her.
"Rachel?" Peter yelled. "What's that sound? Is that normal?"
"I - I don't know. Planes . . . behind us. They're probably some more B-17s staging in from the Mainland, but really . . . I just don't . . ."
Even as the words left her lips, a plane came into her peripheral vision at an altitude about five hundred feet above her to starboard. Then another appeared to port. She could hear a third directly overhead at twelve o'clock, and as she looked anxiously about, the sky filled up with white airplanes, all of which bore a familiar symbol on their fuselage and wings - a brilliant red ball - the Rising Sun. She'd seen it on ships in the harbor, and the National Geographic a few weeks ago featured an article and photos of Imperial Japanese aircraft. These planes looked to be like the ones she'd read about - Mitsubishi A6M Zeros - but before she could fully process the implications, the sky about her was split by a violent rat-a-tat-tat emanating from the plane to her starboard.
The Cub ahead of her exploded in flames.
Her breath caught, her heart stopped, her eyes fixed on the ball of fire that had been a Piper Cub . . . a pilot . . . a student. She could do nothing but watch as the flaming wreckage spiraled down and down and down like a child's toy trapped inside a writhing black tornado.
"No." she choked. "Oh, God, no." Beyond that, any other words lodged in her throat.
Dozens of Zeros had already passed her and now approached Pearl Harbor. As they reached it, sleek, shiny objects began dropping from the bellies of the Zeros, falling toward the harbor, to the ships - toward Battleship Row where unsuspecting sailors would still be sleeping.
Steve. Steve was on the Arizona. Was he awake yet? Would he be safe? Dear God, please, please, please protect him.
The first bomb hit one of the ships, igniting it into spikes of fire and rockets of black smoke. And then another bomb hit and then another and then another.
She wanted to cry, but didn't dare. Steve would be okay. He would. He was smart and strong and brave. Yes, he would be fine.
Right now, her primary focus must be getting her student safely out of the sky . . . immediately.
"Rachel." Behind her, Peter was yelling hysterically. "What are they doing? What . . . what the hell is going on?" His boyish voice cracked in terrified shock and dismay. "What's h-happening? Who are they? Why are they d-doing this?"
Finally finding her voice, she shouted, "It's the Japanese."
"Are they g-going to k-kill us? Rachel?"
"No." She set her jaw. Through clenched teeth, she bit out, "They are not."
Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to focus on the task at hand - Land this plane . . . land this plane. She'd promised Peter he'd be safe with her, and by God she would keep that vow.
"Hang on kid." she ordered. "Keep your head down and just hang the hell on."
Nothing she had ever done prepared her for this moment. She had no idea what to do or how to do it. All she knew was that she had to evacuate the sky . . . land the plane . . . take cover.
Beyond those three primal thoughts, her brain was unable to function.
An image of Steve's face flashed before her eyes, and she forced herself to ignore it. If she gave way to her emotions now, all would be lost.
Uncertain of their exact location, she pushed the Cub into a sharp dive, aiming for the first piece of land she could see through the hellfire and haze. What appeared far below wasn't a runway, but it was flat and that was good enough. All around her hundreds of Zeros flew on, apparently no longer caring enough to bother with one lone Piper Cub when they had so much bigger fish to fry.
Tears threatened again, but she quickly blinked them away and got on with it.
Her hands shook as the Cub's wheels slammed into the ground. The plane bounced once, twice then skidded to a violent stop. As landings went, it was an artistic failure, but if getting out of the air was her goal, it was a roaring success.
By the looks of it, she'd landed on Ford Island, smack in the middle of Pearl Harbor. Sirens screamed as buildings on the island and ships in the harbor, wracked with explosions, threw glass and metal and men into the sky.
Above their heads, the Zeros flew at various altitudes in crossing patterns as though weaving an ugly tapestry in the sky. Some of the planes dropped from formation, peeling away to come in low, strafing the airfield, buildings, and defenseless men racing toward their planes or battle stations.
In the yellow Cub, Rachel and Peter were sitting ducks - she had to get her student to safety.
Whipping off her goggles, she motioned for Peter to do the same. Then she flung the door open and ordered, "Out. Now."
An unexpected grin lifted the corner of Peter's mouth. Shouting to be heard above the pandemonium, he yelled, "Not without my pilot." then reaching for her arm, he jumped, taking her with him.
The moment they hit the ground, he released her arm only to grab her hand, as together they took off at a dead run toward a hangar about a hundred yards away.
She tried to shake off Peter's hold, but he only tightened his grip.
"Let me go." she yelled. "Can't run as fast as you . . . holding you back . . . go."
He didn't reply and he didn't let go of her hand. Instead, he propelled her along with him at such a pace, she was sure there were times her boots never touched the grass.
As they neared the hangar, behind her, the drone of an approaching Zero blotted out all other sounds. Rapid-fire bullets bit into the ground around her feet, kicking up pellets of dirt and rock as the plane zoomed past them, barely fifty feet over their heads.
And still they ran. They ran until she had no breath left in her lungs and her thighs felt as though they would snap.
When they reached the yawning hangar door, they darted inside, scurrying for a corner like prey animals trying escaping a voracious beast.
Her eyes closed, her head down, she gasped for air, sucking in huge breaths trying to regain her equilibrium. Finally, she was able to speak. "Peter?" Her voice was shaky, but at least it worked. "Y-you okay?"
Opening her eyes, she turned toward him. He'd slid down against the corrugated metal wall, his long legs out in front of him. He held both his arms across his stomach.
He lifted his chin a bit and smiled into her eyes. As her gaze took him in, she felt a moment of confusion. He hadn't been wearing a red shirt, had he? She thought it had been light blue, but now it was . . .
Words would not come and even if she'd spoken, they wouldn't have been heard above the hammering of her heart.
No. No no no no no . . .
Her first thought was an odd one - blood was so bright, so very red. She'd never noticed that before. And there was so much of it.
The sobs came then, though she wished she could've stopped them. From the looks of it, he'd caught at least a dozen bullets down his back and legs. They'd pierced his body, leaving angry holes as they'd exited through his chest and thighs. Her vision obscured by tears, she tried desperately to cover his wounds with her hands.
She lifted her head, turning toward the empty space of the hangar. "Help." she shouted, frantically looking around for someone to aid her, only to be met by the smoky haze trapped inside the building like a choking fog. She shifted, trying to spot a first aid kit, a rag, something, anything, to stop Peter's bleeding.
Inside the hangar, all was quiet while the chaos continued to unfold outside. There was nobody here to help her - even if she could find someone, what could they do? She looked down into Peter's pale face.
He could not die.
This could not be happening.
They'd been flying, soaring over the earth and sea and now . . . this was a nightmare, wasn't it? This simply could not be.
Through the hangar door, more clouds of smoke scudded inside, saturating the thick air with a rancid taste, stealing the oxygen away; making her labor for breath. She coughed, gagged, coughed again.
When she could speak, she moved close to the young man's ear. "Stay with me, Peter," she begged. "Please stay. I'm going to try and find something to stop the . . . the . . ."
Her voice faded into a wordless whisper. It was an empty promise. There was nothing. Most especially, there was no time. He'd bled too much.
His cool fingers curled around her wrist and she forced herself to look into his eyes.
He was dying . . . and he knew it.
"S'okay," he rasped. "Had fun. Good day." His lips tilted in a boyish grin and she felt her heart crack. "Thanks, lady pilot." His eyes were red from the smoke . . . and the tears.
"Peter? No," she sobbed. "Oh, no, sweetie, please . . . please don't go . . . don't . . ."
His lids drifted down as though he were sleepy. He said nothing more. That little smile still tilted his lips.
She tried to find a pulse in his wrist. Nothing. Placing shaking fingers against his throat, she found it, but it was faint, and slow.
Sliding down next to him, she lowered her head to his chest and slipped her arms around him, holding him close. The blood from his shirt quickly dampened her hair, her cheek, but she didn't care. She listened for his heartbeat. Still there, but slower, weaker.
"Stay with me, Peter," she pleaded, though her words were only air and had no substance.
She lay there with him in the hangar, in the corner, her head pressed against his chest. Crying softly, she listened to the ever-slowing thrum of his heart.
Closing her eyes, she envisioned a great bird flying away and away, its wings beating the air as it soared toward the distant horizon, high above the mountaintops until it crested the hill… and was gone.