Among the Poppies

CHAPTER 5

“But where will you get the autos?” Papa shut the valve on his oil can and spun around with eyebrows drawn. “Even as a duchess, the purchase price of five would set her back years in debt. Not batty, is she?”

“No.” Gwyn screwed the new headlight into place and arched her aching back. After her week-long training camp at Lady Dowling’s sprawling country estate, the jolts of potholes and hairpin turns still rattled in the memory of her bones. “You know how rich people are with their money. They don’t have to worry about stashing it under the mattress for a rainy day like we do.”

Papa shook a wrench at her. “I won’t have my daughter scampering off with a woman who can’t manage her own money, duchess or not. Wars aren’t fought with money. If she thinks she can just throw a fistful in the Kaiser’s face and all will be well, then she better think again.”

“She’s a marchioness.” Gwyn snatched the wrench from him before it went flying then tapped the headlight wires into place. “She owns two of the autos, the other three are donated from her friends. She’s turned them all into first-class ambulances.” She stepped back and admired her work. “You’d be proud to sit behind any one of those wheels.”

He harrumphed. “Not me sitting there, it’s you. In France. During battle. And no daughter of mine will trust her life to some rust bucket that shimmies apart under the first pothole.”

“Lady Dowling’s chauffeur took me on a private tour of each auto. We checked them from fender to exhaust whistle, and each one received the Ruthers’ stamp of approval.”

“I wasn’t there to give it.” Papa mumbled, turning back to his oil can.

Gwyn slipped her hand over his shoulder and squeezed. “But you taught me everything you know.”

“Aye, I know it.”

“Everything will be all right. I promise.”

He wrinkled his reddening nose to the side and sniffed. Hunching his shoulders, he poured fresh oil into his can. “What about these other drivers? Qualified, or rich girls who think because they’ve ridden in the back of a Rolls Royce, they can drive one?”

Gwyn pulled out a low stool and eased onto it. “Every girl there knew her radiator hose from her gasket. Of course, most of them only knew one or two models, the ones they drove at home, so I had to explain the differences and locations of things in the models they hadn’t seen. They’re a bright group, though, eager to learn and quick to not repeat mistakes.”

“And you’d take charge?”

She nodded, digging out a dried sliver of grease from under a nail. “Only because I have the most experience. I may have to give them a rundown on more in-depth repairs once we get there.” Her hand stilled as a terrifying thought popped into her mind. “I wonder if Lady Dowling has spare parts at the ready.”

“Make sure you get them.” Papa topped off his can and slid it back into its place on the shelf. “War-blown roads are bound to cause bent axles, slipping clutches, and worn bearings. It could take weeks or months to get them shipped across the Channel.”

“I’ll send her a note first thing in the morning.”

Gwyn sighed and leaned her head against the wall, inhaling the pungency of oil and rubber. Lady Dowling’s home smelled of fresh lavender and beeswax, beautiful scents to awaken to, but—in the darkness of her private bedroom—Gwyn had longed for the familiar scents of grease and metal.

“Still think she’s too mad to take a bunch of naïve girls over there.” Papa slapped a glob of wax onto the Renault’s fender and worked it into dull circles.

“Is that your only concern? You think Lady Dowling belongs in an asylum?”

“Wouldn’t be a proper father if that was my only objection. There’s a little thing called a war exploding across the Channel.”

“Papa, we’ve gone over and over that.”

“Only because I don’t think it’s sunk into your thick skull yet.”

A smirk pulled at her lips. “Hmm, wonder where I got that from?”

“And then there’re the men.”

Her smirk disappeared. “They need help. There are too many of them for us to take care of here. Imagine how bad it is over there.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about.” He paused mid-stroke to fix her with a stare. “I’m talking about the lonely ones, the ones with wandering hands, the ones who haven’t seen a respectable girl in months.”

Heat flamed up her cheeks. “I know how to handle those. The Red Cross Sisters taught us how before we started at hospital.”

“Darling girl of mine, this is war. In a foreign country. Lonely men can be desperate.”

“Then they can keep their desperation, and I’ll keep a crank under my seat.”

“Unless it’s that captain coming to call. And don’t act like I don’t know about him.”

Her hand curled around her wrist as if the touch of William’s fingers still lingered there. “He did not follow me to London. I told you.”

Her father’s stare drilled her to the bone. “I know you’re occupied with things other than men, but someday that will change. You can’t run on this wild streak forever, and I won’t leave you alone.”

Gwyn rolled her eyes. “Oh, Papa.”

“Yes, Papa. And as your papa, it is my duty to see you taken care of after I’m gone.”

“You shouldn’t worry so much. Maybe after the war, with my driving experience, they’ll hire me permanently for city transport with proper pay. I can drive one of those mass transit buses around Buckingham Palace and wave to the king as he stands on the front stoop with his morning paper. If I’m not racing through the skies doing barrel loops to my next port of call, that is.”

“For now, you worry about potholes in France, and we’ll trust the rest to God.”

Gwyn shot off her stool. “You’re really letting me go?”

His strokes slowed over the bonnet, the cloth bunching between his stained fingers. “You’ve inherited your mum’s spirit. We didn’t have the means to go far, but I couldn’t clip her wings any more than I can yours. They’ve always spread far beyond these old garage doors. This is your chance.”

“So that’s it? Our little bird is flying the nest?” Cecelia stood in the doorway, fists on her hips and eyes narrowed. “You’ll just leave with some stuffy old dowager?”

Lady Dowling was the last person Gwyn would consider stuffy, but there was little use to mincing words now. “This is my chance to finally go somewhere, at least until it’s safe to travel again after the war, and my father has agreed.”

“Of course he agreed. He never tells you no.” Cecelia clamped a hand over her mouth and shook her head. “I’m sorry, Ruthers. I overstepped my bounds.”

Papa didn’t flinch. “Did you need something, Miss Cecelia?”

“I need to go into town tomorrow, but …” Cecelia stared at

Gwyn for a long moment, her thin blonde eyebrows drawing together. “But I believe my plans have changed.”

Gwyn knew that tone. Nothing but hare-brained scheming ever came of it. “What do you mean, changed?”

A smug smile crossed Cecelia’s angelic face. “If you think you’re getting into the excitement all by yourself, then you better think again. You’re not the only one who gets what she wants.”

Disbelief crashed over Gwyn like an avalanche. “Miss Cecelia, you don’t belong in France.”

Cecelia batted an unconcerned hand in the air. “I know, I know. Dodge the shells, rescue the wounded. Do we not work side-by-side at hospital? Why should we not work together over there?”

“Because you don’t have an interest in going over there.”

“Well, I do now.”

Gwyn hiked an eyebrow. “And what’s prompted this change?”

“I told you. I won’t be left behind.”

“That’s hardly the right reason to—”

“I’ve decided. Now I need to make up my father’s mind, which shouldn’t be too difficult considering his nose is so far stuck behind a newspaper he doesn’t notice anything beyond the racing tickets.”

“You’ll need Lady Dowling’s permission before you start anything.”

“A quick note with a generous donation of tires and medical supplies should remedy that.” Cecelia looked straight past Gwyn. “And Ruthers, I do require the car tomorrow. I’ll need to find new outfits proper for the trenches. Ten o’clock, shall we say?”

Gwyn’s mouth flopped open. “Cecelia!”

Cecelia waved over her shoulder as she marched down the drive. “I’ll pick you up something too, G.”

Cecelia Hale under shell-filled skies. The girl couldn’t go a day without a scented bath and three-course meal. What was to become of them?

“She thinks this is some kind of garden party.” The worried pits around her father’s mouth deepened. “Talk her out of it. Baron’s daughter or not, I won’t have her endangering you.”

“Have you ever tried talking her out of anything? It’s pointless. Threats and tears don’t work either.” Gwyn sighed, rubbing her fingers into her temples. At least she’d have a fine dress should the Jerries take them. “Papa, you might want to start praying a little sooner. The angels will have their workload in heaps.”