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Under the Radar

Under the Radar

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Under the Radar

valutazioni:
5/5 (1 valutazione)
Lunghezza:
582 pagine
7 ore
Pubblicato:
Apr 12, 2019
ISBN:
9780463944028
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

It’s 1942 and after a sexual indiscretion, US Navy pilot Zachary MacKenzie is sent to serve in the Royal Navy’s submarine service—a shockingly harsh punishment for a man who loves to fly. The submarine is oppressive and frustrating for him, and he’s marked out from his peers, publicly by being American, and privately by his attraction to men.

The only bright spot is the company of his steward, sonar operator Gethin Llewelyn. Despite the differences of rank and background, they’re drawn to each other. Gethin’s integrity complements Zach’s casual joie de vivre, and soon the friendship develops into something much more.

As the threats of war increase, the submarine is plagued by potentially hostile vessels, and circumstances lead them to suspect there’s a spy amongst their own crew. Being forced even closer together as they work for the greater good reveals a new awareness, and Zach doesn’t know what is in more danger, the vessel under his charge or his heart.

Pubblicato:
Apr 12, 2019
ISBN:
9780463944028
Formato:
Libro

Informazioni sull'autore

Lillian Francis. Author of gay romance. Happy Endings guaranteed. Eventually. Lillian Francis is an English writer who likes to dabble in many genres but always seems to return to the here and now. Their name may imply a grand dame in pink chiffon and lace, but Lillian is more at home in jeans, Converse, and the sort of T-shirts that often need explaining to the populous at large but will get a fist bump at Comic-Con. Lillian is a self-confessed geek who likes nothing more than settling down with a comic or a good book, except maybe writing. Given a notepad, pen, their Kindle, and an infinite supply of chocolate Hob Nobs and they can lose themself for weeks. Romance was never their reading matter of choice, so it came as a great surprise to all concerned, including themself, to discover a romance was exactly what they’d written, and not the rollicking spy adventure or cosy murder mystery they always assumed they’d write. Luckily there's always room for romance no matter what plot bunny chooses to bite them, so never say never to either of those stories appearing. Lillian lives in an imposing castle on a windswept desolate moor or in an elaborate shack on the edge of a beach somewhere, depending on their mood. And while they’d love for the heroes of their stories to either be chained up in the dungeon or wandering the shack serving drinks in nothing but skimpy barista aprons more often than not they are doing something far less erotic like running charity shops and shovelling elephant shit. Drawn to the ocean, although not in a Reginald Perrin sort of way, Lillian would love to own a camper van and to live by the sea.

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Anteprima del libro

Under the Radar - Lillian Francis

Prologue

I know it has been over a decade since you’ve needed me in an official capacity, but I like to think your father named me as your guardian for a reason, Zachary. Charles scrubbed a hand over his short hair, the act ruffling strands normally darkened to the colour of autumn leaves by his pomade. Zach remembered quite clearly when Charles had swapped from Brilliantine to Morgan’s Pomade in ’35. Grey had just started to pepper his temples, and Zach had mischievously suggested the product newly arrived from England, which claimed to restore colour. But today the grey hair showed in abundance amongst the auburn, a reminder of the nineteen year age difference between them. Right now, slumped behind his desk, Charles looked his age. All because of Zach.

You were friends, his best friend, Zach said. He hoped he’d earned Charles’s friendship on his own merit, but even at thirty-three Zach couldn’t be certain the camaraderie they shared had its own basis or was simply the result of the promise Charles had made to his father.

In the fifteen years since his father’s death Charles had always been there: mentor, protector, friend. At one point, in his early twenties, Zach wanted to add lover to that list but hadn’t had the nerve to take the risk. Not through fear of jail or isolation. Zach’s family had sufficient money to make both a distant threat and even back then he had enough audacity to laugh off the consequences of unwanted advances. However, the possibility of pushing away the man who had been the major force behind Zach’s decision to follow his father into the Navy, who had guided him through the maze of bereavement, who had given Zach a focus for his confusion about his sexual preferences, albeit unwittingly, well, the thought of risking that had been too great.

Zach had put those early feelings, long gone, down to the insatiable urges of youth and idolisation. Fondness and an intensely loyal friendship had replaced desire as Zach had found his pleasure in other beds. Rarely the same bed. Which brought him back to the situation at hand. He focused on his superior officer—not friend, not in this office—intently.

Well, of course, because we were friends, but your father had plenty of friends in the forces and in society who appeared better qualified to take on the role. You were already old enough to look after yourself, if not legally entitled to your inheritance. I believe your father wanted me to be a mentor, to provide you with a moral compass.

A snort escaped Zach completely against his will.

I’m well aware I have failed dramatically in that regard. Charles sighed. "Your father knew the reason why I never married, beyond the excuse that my career came first. He once told me he appreciated my dignified acceptance of my inclinations, and implied I could teach you the same tolerance and discretion, if necessary."

That took the wind out of Zach’s sails. My father knew—

He suspected we might be kindred spirits. Charles cut off Zach’s admission, his gaze sliding over Zach’s shoulder to the closed door of his office. You need to learn to be more circumspect. I appreciate you take your pleasure where you can find it. With whoever appeals to you. A product of the jazz age I suspect. Your father and I fought a war so you would have the freedom to break the law in such a way. Charles shook his head. I must confess I never expected to have to do so again, but there you are.

We’re not at war, Zach said, mainly to appease his friend. The moment America joined the Allies with the war effort Zach would be there. The only reason he’d yet to volunteer for an overseas service was because, with an ailing mother and his sister heavily pregnant, he didn’t want to be too far from home.

Officially, no, not yet. Anyway, we are getting off topic. The subject at hand is your discretion or the lack of it. Your reputation as a Lothario is legendary, Charles cast a disparaging—or was that disappointed—glance in Zach’s direction, although I suspect greatly exaggerated. If that is your intention, to create such a persona to disguise your true nature, why sabotage yourself?

Resisting the urge to squirm in his seat, Zach felt as if he’d been stripped naked, as Charles managed to tear away years of deflection and disguise with one well-constructed sentence and a disapproving glare.

Nothing to say, Lieutenant Commander?

Damn, he felt like a rookie again. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth making speech impossible even if he’d known what Charles wanted him to say.

"Sorry, Ch—sir. You’re right, it was stupid. I was stupid. It’s not like I’m even attracted to him."

Hellfire, Zachary! Charles’s fist slammed into the desk, making Zach jump. Shut the hell up!

I’ll apologise.

Apologies won’t be enough, not this time. The anger seemed to seep out of Charles, leaving him slumped behind his desk. He reached for his pen, toying with the cap. And you can’t buy his silence either. His family has more than enough money and the influence to back it up.

More than yours now. Charles didn’t say it explicitly but the truth of the statement was there. Zach’s family hadn’t lost everything, but the Wall Street Crash had halved their fortune. The last decade had seen an internal tightening of their belts even if outwardly society would notice little difference.

"You could have gotten away with seducing the Major’s wife. Yes, he caught you with your arse in the air, but he would have kept that quiet. He’s had to before. She has an unfortunate weakness for uniforms. Very unfortunate considering they live on base. Where you made a mistake was asking him to join in. Charles sighed heavily; the weight of the problem Zach had caused almost visible in the bow of his shoulders. What possessed you to do such a thing?"

I felt empty, Zach mumbled, unable to deny the truth. Empty in his soul as well as his body.

What…? Don’t! Charles snapped before Zach could open his mouth to explain how badly he’d wanted that full feeling, the weight and power of another man behind him.

You can’t help yourself, can you? Charles flicked open the manila folder on his desk, the sepia tones of Zach’s smiling face clipped to the inside cover. I can only protect you if you don’t give people the ammunition to shoot you with. This time you’ve damn well loaded the gun and handed it to him.

The expression on Charles’s face told Zach just how serious the situation had become. What the hell was going to happen to him? Demotion? Hell, they could kick him out of the service. Even if he could avoid charges the shame would kill his mother.

The Major has made it clear he’ll tell anyone who will listen that you propositioned him. You’ll become a target, unable to command the respect of your men. Anyway, he wants you punished.

Punished? How?

A desk job. Here, where you can watch your former team head out under another leader, spend your days under a cloud of suspicion. With a war on the horizon there will be talk, of losing your nerve, cowardice. Words that will rankle and make you lash out. Hush. Charles cut off Zach’s protest before he could get a word out. I know you, Zachary. That would kill you inside. Make you even more reckless than you are at the moment. At least flying allows you to tame that beast for a few hours.

Zach’s stomach churned at just the thought. I can’t sit behind a desk all day.

I know. I’ve come up with a plan to soften the blow…a little.

Soften the blow?

A move, To England, as a British citizen volunteer. You can thank your mother and her insistence she retain her British subject status. With your dual nationality I’ve managed to pull a few strings with a friend at the Admiralty—

What’re the British Fleet flying these days? Still the Swordfish or that old Hawker Osprey? Tell me they’ve got Spitfires? Zach said, barely unable to contain his excitement. He shouldn’t appear too eager; this was meant to be a punishment. I’ve always wanted to get—

"Will you let me finish? He wants you to suffer. Charles dropped his gaze to the folder and made an exaggerated play of shuffling papers around. Cold tendrils of fear gripped Zach, twisting his stomach into knots; if Charles couldn’t even look at him then this had to be bad. My friend can get you an interview but you’ll have to convince them of your worth. You’re a Rhodes scholar and those two years at Oxford should stand you in good stead with the top brass over there. Plus you have skills they can use or shape to their own needs. I can see no reason why they wouldn’t accept you."

That rankled. The implication he might not pass an interview. Despite the need for contrition, Zach bristled. I’ve been flying for over a decade, since before I even joined the damn Navy. Been on aircraft carriers almost as long. Why wouldn’t they want me on one of their ships?

The sweep of Charles’s brown eyes barely settled on him but it was still long enough for Zach to register unfathomable sadness and regret.

Far too easy I’m afraid, son. Even if the feeling of dread hadn’t already been creeping down Zach’s back, that familiar endearment in these surroundings would’ve sealed his fate. Barnard’s evil. Having you gone isn’t enough. He needs to know you’re suffering. If you’d just fucked his wife…

The profanity shocked Zach more than anything else they’d discussed in the last thirty minutes.

I don’t understand, sir. If it’s not ships… Zach let the question trail away as his brain slowly caught up with the only possible explanation.

Bernard doesn’t even want you to see the sky, let alone fly in it. I’ve managed to swing you an interview for an officer’s position on a submarine. You’ll need to go through training to be certain you’re suitable for the environment but you can’t even think of failure. I’m not the only one with contacts in the Admiralty. Barnard will know if you back out of this deal and he’s made it clear you’ll have no life to come back to, if you do. I’ve called in every last favour I have to ensure your freedom. I’ve nothing left if you fail.

Freedom. It didn’t sound like freedom. A submarine. Even repeating the word in his head, Zach’s internal voice cracked a little.

But, Mom and Fay?

I’ve spoken to your mother, she agrees it’s for the best. I’ll look after them both. Hopefully better than I’ve looked after you.

But…submarines.

Charles dropped his gaze, concentrating on the cursive swirl of his signature. He blotted the ink carefully and then held the sheet of paper out, the dissolution of Zach’s life as he knew it shaking faintly in Charles’s grip.

You’ve a week to get your personal business in order. You’re expected in Portsmouth, England on the 17th of September.

Chapter One

Seven months later

A strong wind blew in from the south, whipping the waves of the Solent into white peaks, then slamming them into the harbour wall and sending sprays of water into the air. The fine mist dampened Zach’s skin as he continued staring out to sea. He’d barely moved in the last half hour and to any onlookers it would appear as if he carried out a lonely vigil. Not that there was anyone to see, not on a chilly evening like this. The Brits he’d come across so far were a hardy breed, but even they would be curled up in front of the fire by now with a mug of tea.

The wind changed direction unexpectedly, whipping Zach’s blond hair back across his forehead. In this weather even the Brylcreem couldn’t tame it. With a haircut scheduled for tomorrow, his hair would soon be trimmed into something more suited to a Naval officer. Or at the very least something short enough to survive several months at sea. He’d heard stories of Navy barbers during his training and had no intention of going to anyone on board for a cut.

Encroaching dusk and increasingly inclement weather had darkened the sky earlier than he’d expected. Shielding his eyes with a hand to keep away the worst of the spray, Zach squinted in the direction of the shadowy hulks until he once more located the one that interested him.

Waves lapped at the edges of the grey mass lying low in the water until it merged with the gloom of sky and sea. Distinguishing the true shape and scale of the vessel—difficult even this close up—would be impossible from the air. Not that anyone would be bombing tonight; only a fool would attempt to fly in this weather and, while the men of the Luftwaffe were the enemy, they were still pilots, with an aviator’s respect for the elements. At least, Zach hoped so.

Having pinpointed the vessel he’d come to the docks to appraise, Zach shifted his stance in order to get a clearer view. This turned his back to the wind, affording him a degree of protection from the worst of the weather. Lowering his arm, Zach tugged at the hem of the wool jacket of his newly-purchased rig. His fingers tightened against the heavy blue material as he surveyed the submarine that would be his home for the next few months.

Whilst the move from US Navy lieutenant commander to British, no, Royal Navy lieutenant was a step down in command, his accent rather than his service change was more likely to cause surprise amongst his new crew members; possibly talk and rumours too. Zach had his story off pat now, he’d told it so many times, and would ride out any rumours in the same way he’d dealt with the tales that chased his unexpected relocation to England.

Hopefully some of the rumours would be quashed by his country’s official entrance into the war several weeks before Christmas. And didn’t thoughts of that still have his guts churning, his ire hot, and his dander up. He’d mourned the loss of his countrymen in a pub full of Brits by drinking too much Scotch, and prayed none were known to him personal while he shed a tear in his bunk later. He’d asked, begged, pleaded, with Charles by telegram, even putting in a transatlantic call to his mother to tug on parental heartstrings, hoping someone would agree to bring him home to fight but no one would listen. By then he’d already passed basic submarine training ready for his Perisher course in the New Year; no doubt any request to the Admiralty would’ve been denied too.

Now Zach, having successfully completed the submarine command course—albeit a truncated version of the Perisher designed to get new officers into suddenly vacated positions in wartime—could claim to be a fully qualified lieutenant, and the chances of returning to the U.S. service he loved appeared to be diminishing with every minute.

He ran a finger under the starched collar of his shirt and mentally reviewed what he’d learnt in his twelve-week training. He wouldn’t even get a chance to implement all his new knowledge; the submarine he’d been posted to already had a captain, and Zach would hardly be put in charge of a tub on his first duty. What right-minded service would put a newly-minted officer in charge of a submarine and fifty or so lives? Not the Royal Navy, that’s for sure. Besides, Zach didn’t want that kind of responsibility.

He had no doubts about his competence. He hadn’t got to the position of lieutenant commander in the US Navy Air Arm by questioning his own abilities, but he was used to seeing the sky, flying in it. How would he cope with life on a submarine?

No privacy or popping out for a walk, little chance to see the sky unless they were running at sea level.

The lack of water. Zach rubbed a hand over his chin. Maybe he should consider growing a beard.

A crew of sweaty men living on top of each other in a cramped, confined space, with barely enough water for a perfunctory wash in the mornings. Zach could just imagine the overwhelming smell, the scent of male musk unhindered by perfumed soaps and any form of female interaction once the freshly laundered clothes had been worn once or twice.

I’ve no complaints about that. Zach allowed himself a grin.

He reined himself in, although his lips twitched as he gave himself a stiff talking to, almost hearing Charles’s voice in his head. Now Zachary, thoughts like that are what got you into trouble in the first place.

He rubbed his fingers firmly across his jaw line, calluses catching on the rough stubble of his five o’clock shadow. The bruising might have subsided months ago but the memory of the major’s fist impacting with his jaw still made him wince.

It wasn’t his thoughts that got him into trouble but the way he acted upon them. See, Charles, I’m learning.

Zach shivered and fumbled at the collar of his jacket with cold fingers, turning the material up to keep the chill off his neck. The warmth of a spring day in Portsmouth invariably departed with the last of the day’s sun. The wind whipped more strongly around him now, bringing with it the smell of salt and diesel; he knew he’d taste both if he dared lick his lips. As the lingering dusk gave way to darkness Zach felt an overwhelming urge for a roaring fire and the hot soup he knew was waiting for him back at Mrs McCaffrey’s boarding house.

He shrugged on the coat that had been hanging over his arm. No one had seen fit to tell him how cold and wet a British fall could be—although apparently there was no guarantee the summer would be any drier—and the overcoat had been his first purchase when he’d arrived in Portsmouth on a wet and windy day last September. It had been invaluable once he’d transferred to Scotland for his Perisher training.

He missed his leather flying jacket. Worn in, the soft leather moulded to the shape of his body, and the weight lay comfortably on his shoulders like an old friend. Or a protective shield. But it was an impractical garment for a British winter, something he’d packed on impulse but only served to remind him of all he’d lost. It would go into storage at his lodging house along with the rest of his belongings.

Taking one last glance at his new vessel, he settled his cap on his head—regretting the decision to take it off in the first place when it plastered his damp hair against his scalp—then turned and left the curved wall of the harbour behind him. Rounding the corner of one of the storage units, his head bowed against the wind, he collided with something warm and solid.

The impact forced the breath from his lungs in a long whoosh of air.

Are you all right?

The voice in the darkness sounded concerned, but dusk brought the criminals out in the shadier parts of town. The total blackout in place around the docks, to protect them from enemy attack, and the possibility of saleable pickings would entice any number of delinquents to risk the guards.

I’m fine, Zachary answered brusquely, stepping back and extracting himself from the steadying grip on his biceps. With his dignity the only thing damaged by the contact, he brushed himself down, his posture disinterested and dismissive, but he remained wary. If anything should happen to him no one would notice—except maybe his landlady—until he failed to report for duty in several days’ time. He refastened his coat more securely around him; the contact had loosened one of his buttons, causing it to fall open.

Sorry, sir. I should watch where I’m walking. An accent declared his companion wasn’t local to the area. Soft, lyrical, foreign to Zach’s untrained ear. And there was deference in the tone that hadn’t been present previously. That got Zach’s attention. He glanced up, raising his gaze the several extra inches to look his rescuer full in the face. Shrouded in darkness made deeper by the shadow from the brim of the man’s hat and his bowed head, Zach could make out nothing of the stranger’s features. The figure stepped around him, passing through a sliver of moonlight too quickly for Zach to register anything other than the glint of the moon in his eyes.

Relief he hadn’t been robbed or worse swept over him, leaving a sense of foolishness in its wake that he would never admit to aloud. Embarrassed, Zach realised he hadn’t enquired after the stranger’s wellbeing. In fact, looking back, he’d been downright rude. He glanced over his shoulder, intending to call out, but the figure had already been swallowed up by the shadows.

Not wanting to be caught by someone who might actually have unsavoury intent, Zach headed towards the exit. As he lengthened his gait, he wondered what the man could have been doing hanging around the docks. Zach was more than aware that certain types plied their trade in shadowy corners and dark alleyways, but the stranger strode away from him without any hint of impropriety.

Zach’s hand searched out the money in his pocket, fingers closing around coins warmed from nestling in the crease of his hip. More than enough to pay for what he wanted. Needed. Awareness crawled under his skin and his step faltered. Anyone watching would have been hard pressed to notice, but Zach knew.

However, in the length of a stride Zach made his decision, the right choice, but knew how close he’d been to returning to the harbour wall to search out the man’s solid warmth. He’d barely seen him, shadow broken by the odd dappling of moonlight. Yet he’d been left with the lingering impression of slate grey eyes and a soft lilt to his voice which, coupled with the man’s extra few inches of height over Zach, could have made for an interesting encounter.

Willing partner or business transaction, Zach didn’t care. A memory lingered, of strong fingers gripping his arms, pressing into his muscles even through the layers of coat and jacket. He would happily pay for the privilege of that man at his back.

Only the echo of Charles’s disappointment stopped him from following the path his thoughts had taken. He couldn’t afford to be caught. He’d used up his last chance. If he disgraced himself again, he would face the consequences alone.

Chapter Two

The train deposited Zach at Gosport station and he made the final leg of his journey on foot. The slow stroll took over an hour but he’d anticipated that, planned on it, to truly appreciate the fresh air and freedom for the last time in months. His stomach did a giddy swoop: part nerves, part excitement.

A couple were kissing several feet away from the sentry box guarding the entrance to Fort Blockhouse. As they were in his path, Zach dodged past them and ignored the pang of jealousy that flared within him at the public show of affection. Knowing it was something he’d never experience with someone he cared about, he pushed it away, burying longing under lust and the chase for sexual gratification. Zach wondered if the departing officer had yet to deflower his flame-haired beauty. The chaste nature of the kiss implied not. It could have been the fiery colour of her hair, long and wavy, in the style of Veronica Lake, but the girl seemed less demure than the kiss.

After flashing his credentials to the guard Zach set off to HMS Dolphin and the dock where the submarine was moored. Within moments hurrying footsteps echoed behind him.

Morning. Slightly breathless in his attempt to catch up with Zach, the young man who’d been saying goodbye to his girlfriend sidled in beside him and tried to match Zach stride for stride. Lieutenant Timothy Noble. Everyone calls me Ginger.

Of course he was a lieutenant; his rig looked as fresh and unyielding as Zach’s own, and all of the crew apart from the senior officers were already on board, victualling the submarine for their journey.

Zachary MacKenzie. Zach. Stopping, Zach shook the offered hand, getting a good look at his companion now he no longer had a girl attached to his lips. Young, maybe mid-twenties, his cheeks covered with freckles, and copper-coloured wayward hair that no pomade or tonic would tame. Coupled with what Zach had seen of the girlfriend, their children would no doubt be redheads. Provided they both lived long enough to have any.

You’re the American. I heard we were getting a Yank on board. A blush swept quickly over Ginger’s cheeks, covering his freckles. No disrespect.

None taken. Was that your girlfriend at the gate?

Fiancée. My Rita. She’s lovely, isn’t she?

Lovely. If you liked buxom curves and wavy hair. When Zach settled for a woman, he preferred them flat-chested with short bobbed hair—how he missed the flapper girls of his youth. He didn’t need to be Freud to explain his choice and changed the subject. "There she is, the Taranis. Our home for the next few months."

Several other officers gathered on the jetty and Zach strode over to introduce himself, aware of Ginger trailing along behind him.

Ah, the Yank, a tall blond said. How’d you manage that? Damn unusual to find a foreigner in the service.

Zach had hoped to make it up the gangplank before having this conversation. Dual nationality. I’ve family in Scotland, an elderly uncle, and when my obligation there ended I volunteered. Finished my Perisher course about a month ago.

Well, good to have you aboard. I’m Carter. This is Moore. He indicated the much shorter man on his left. Albert Moore, but his friends call him Albie. And Captain calls him Number One.

You’re first lieutenant?

Lieutenant, Albert Moore stressed the pronunciation—lef-tenant—then shrugged. The men will take the piss with the loo-tenant business. I’m surprised they didn’t beat that out of you at training.

"Old habits. So you’re the first lef-tenant?"

Last time out under the captain. No guarantee I will be again.

Carter’s snort of derision made his view on that perfectly clear.

Is it your first duty in submarines too? Lieutenant Carter asked, the question directed towards Ginger, who’d taken a position on Zach’s left, seemingly in awe of the other officers.

Zach caught Ginger’s frantic nod in his peripheral vision. Not that their status as freshly minted officers wasn’t obvious from the newness of their uniform jackets. Or the tight grip Ginger kept on the strap of the kit bag slung over his shoulder. Zach could do nothing about the fabric of his own rig—God knows, he’d tried—but he dropped his kit bag casually at his feet in imitation of the more experienced officers.

Moore continued the tale their arrival had interrupted. It made little sense when a moment later, Carter burst into laughter, but Zach figured he’d missed too much of the story for the punch line to have any impact.

Moore immediately started in on another story and Zach took a moment to study them. They seemed an odd couple. Carter: tall and slim, with blond hair visible under his cap, and a handsome face despite the wire frame glasses. A tidy moustache, a tone or so darker than his hair, gave him the look of a matinee idol. Moore: short, ruddy faced, and, Zach noticed in a brief moment when he removed his cap to swipe at his brow, with a severely receding hairline. Yet it was Moore with all the stories of wine, women, and song, while Carter listened and laughed at these tales, the occasional comment hinting at prior knowledge of his companion.

These men had obviously served together before and were comfortable in each other’s company. Something to be thankful for, since they would all be sharing the small wardroom and any animosity would be greatly magnified once they’d been at sea for a while.

Especially since their last companion, introduced by Moore with a dismissive wave of his hand as Lieutenant Grace, seemed a bit of an odd fish. Sullen looking and already sporting a thick beard, he occupied a spot some distance from the rest of them. He’d said nothing since Zach’s arrival. It could’ve been a case of shyness manifesting itself in a brusque manner, but there was something else that bothered Zach. Maybe it was the way his uniform looked worn in but didn’t hang quite properly across his shoulders. An illness or injury could be responsible for the bagginess across the shoulders, but surely didn’t explain the shortness of the sleeves, which barely grazed his wrists. Without staring, Zach watched Grace’s eyes dart around, his gaze never resting in one place for too long. Maybe his demeanour could be attributed to nerves.

Zach turned his attention back to Albie Moore, laughing along with the others at the end of a story about a nun, a wet dog, and a beard.

Talking of which, the old man will have your guts, Moore gestured to Carter’s face. Risking a charge so early on. If you weren’t going to grow a beard, why didn’t you get rid of the ’tache?

My little lady loves it. Says I remind her of Errol Flynn. Carter raised a hand to smooth thumb and forefinger over his moustache, a glint of gold flashing in the sunlight drawing Zach’s attention to the ring on his finger.

You know the Navy won’t love it. Lose it as soon as you can. Moore sighed. Are you married, MacKenzie?

No.

Never found the right girl? Or just like to play the field. Moore winked, a cheeky twinkle in his eye and for a moment Zach could see what had ladies falling at Moore’s feet, even if only half his stories were true.

Zach had no qualms about lying to his new roommates; he had stories galore to trot out at a moment’s notice to deflect attention, but the sound of footsteps on the gangplank saved him from digging into that stash just yet. He turned, finding a bearded man not much taller than Moore surveying their group. The scrambled eggs on his cap peak proclaimed him as important, but the extra gold braid on his jacket cuff revealed him to be their captain.

Carter and Moore snapped to attention and saluted; Zach followed suit barely a breath later, but Ginger, with his arms still full of his kit bag, made an excruciating ten seconds seem to last an hour. In his peripheral vision, Zach didn’t notice Grace move an inch, not so much as a straightening of the spine or a languid salute.

The Captain returned their salute with an amused expression. Ah, the rest of my wayward crew have deigned to grace me with their presence. How good of you to join us now the hard work has been done.

Carter and Moore grinned at the good-natured scolding, so Zach took it as the Captain’s normal greeting and smiled as their commanding officer continued. He nodded at Moore, and greeted him. Number One. The Captain’s gaze slipped quickly over the rest of the group. He frowned. Have a word with Carter, please.

Already done, sir.

The Captain nodded as though he expected nothing less. Torpedoes loaded and provisions stocked. Just the vegetables to arrive, I told the crew at breakfast this morning. And here you are. Let’s get you settled then we’ll be ready to up anchor. He stepped off the narrow gangway. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Captain Franks. Let’s get under way, gentlemen, shall we.

As a new officer Zach knew he’d be one of the first aboard, but he’d no idea whether Ginger was senior to him or not.

Zach hoisted his bag on to his shoulder just as Ginger stepped forward. Guess I’m first, Ginger announced with a flush of colour that momentarily hid his freckles. Two steps up the gangplank and his bag caught on the rope; Ginger jerked at it and nearly pitched his cap into the drink.

Zach followed at a distance, safe enough to avoid any Ginger-shaped disasters. He couldn’t work out which of the surprising number of officers would follow him. Training led him to expect only four officers, with his own role in the control room. His curiosity piqued, he wondered what post the extra officer would fill, or which of them would turn out to be the spare part. Ahead of him, Ginger disappeared through the aft end hatch and, as Zach followed, Carter whispered, Remind him to take his cap off. Preferably without braining himself.

That answered the question of seniority. Zach nudged Ginger and made a show of removing his cap and tucking it under his arm. He paused long enough to ensure Ginger got the message then glanced over Carter’s shoulder, surprised to find Moore behind him. It must have shown on his face, because Carter turned too.

Heh? Albie’s been in the mob since ’35. Grace must have been at it forever.

Before he could question Carter’s assumption based on how uncomfortable Grace seemed for an experienced Naval officer, something hit Zach’s foot and he glanced down. A potato nestled against his shoe. He bent to retrieve it, throwing it back to the submariner— another short man—at the open torpedo tube door. At five foot ten, Zach felt like Gulliver in Lilliput.

Thank you, sir.

At least that’s what Zach thought he said. The man had an accent thicker than anything he’d heard since his Perisher training at Scapa Flow. The crewman grinned and tossed the vegetable into the torpedo tube. Zach’s gaze followed the arc of the potato where it joined thousands of other potatoes, carrots, swede, and parsnips. He hoped he’d covered his surprise, but doubted it from the way the man’s smile widened.

When Captain Franks came aboard, Zach tore his attention away from the unusual larder and watched as the captain removed his cap to reveal a full head of blindingly white hair. Captain Franks gestured to the area they were standing in. Despite the noise and vibrations, this is probably one of the more private parts of the vessel, being cut off from the wardrooms and messes by the engine and motor rooms. Consequently, we offer the berths in this end to the longer-serving men.

They moved through the aft end torpedo bay to the motor room.

Word of warning, Captain Franks said as Ginger lifted his foot to step over the ledge. It caused the young lieutenant to lose his balance as he turned back, and he would’ve stumbled had Zach not grabbed his elbow. Captain Franks didn’t seem to notice; he addressed the party, his body position making it clear his next comment was directed to Zach, Ginger, and Lieutenant Grace. Maybe Grace had come from surface ships and this was his first time on a boat too.

Always go through this room with your hands in your pockets. Zach glanced at Moore and Carter, whose hands were already jammed into the pockets of their trousers. This rule applies to men and officers alike, including myself. Would hate for anyone to touch one of the live connections. Shorts out the boat for starters, and the smell of burning hair is a bugger to get rid of.

A bubble of laughter rose from Zach’s chest, but a quick glance around at his fellow officers had him clamping his mouth shut. Carter and Moore regarded the Captain with an expression of polite interest that implied they’d heard it all before. Ginger looked petrified, his eyes wide and a touch on the wild side, as if this latest revelation had pushed him over the edge—hardly surprising considering how clumsy he’d been so far. And Grace…well, actually there’d been no change in his demeanour; he still wore a dour, disinterested expression.

Zach’s amusement died but the laughter couldn’t be so easily stifled. It caught in his throat, emerging as an undignified snort from his nose. The entire party swivelled around to glance at him.

Sorry. Zach flashed a quick smile, happy to see it returned on four of the five faces; even if Ginger looked as if he’d soiled his undergarments on Zach’s behalf. Zach kept his gaze level and made a show of thrusting his hands into his pockets.

Shall we continue? Captain Franks said, as a couple of ratings loading cabbages stopped their work to stare at Zach.

With a nudge in the back from Zach, Ginger stepped over the lip into the motor room and Zach followed, certain Carter would be right behind him. Zach pulled his elbows in close, mindful not to brush against any of the equipment and panels, and thankful Ginger had the foresight to do the same.

Once clear of the threatening tinder-box, they moved quickly through the rest of the submarine—including the control room where he would be in charge, the heads, and the galley—until they reached their wardroom. Ginger paused at the doorway.

In you go. You can survey the rest of the boat at your leisure. Captain Franks’ voice carried from the rear of their procession. Ginger and Zach stepped over the threshold. When Carter joined them he headed directly for the bench seats and pulled a table down from the wall, settling the piece of fold-away furniture in place with ease.

They all slid onto the seats, Captain Franks taking the final space and spreading out. Zach was pressed thigh to thigh and shoulder to shoulder between Carter and Ginger, with his kit bag crammed under the table between his feet. Although the wardroom housed six, it would be a damn tight squeeze if they all happened to be there at the same time.

Captain Franks dropped his cap onto the table and leant back, surveying his team. Zach tried to exude a confidence he really didn’t feel in the cramped, constrictive quarters.

Your wardroom, gentlemen, a bunk and locker each. You’ll notice six berths, that’s a spare for me if I want it. Don’t worry, I tend to sleep in my cabin in the conning tower. It’s closer to the bridge if I’m required in the night. Captain Franks smiled widely, showing a set of perfect teeth that could only be dentures.

Now to jobs and watches. Lieutenant Grace will be shadowing me, so he’s not on the watch schedule and will spend most of his time on the bridge. Any questions?

Zach glanced briefly at Moore and Carter. They looked as confused as he felt, but, unsurprisingly, said nothing.

The Captain continued. Good. Lieutenant Moore will talk you through the schedule but we’ll be running an eight-watch period system. Four regular four-hour watches and four two-hour watches. The extra two-hour watches will be slotted in to the night watch.

Two hours? Zach frowned.

Sorry to interrupt, sir, but in training we were told night watch would be four hours?

All heads turned in Zach’s direction and he fought the urge to shrink back into the seat at the mixed looks of surprise and shock.

Would you rather sleep six hours or four, MacKenzie? In fact, we could make it twelve-hour shifts across the board. We are at war you know.

Six, Zach said with a false confidence that barely covered the almost inaudible groans from his fellow officers.

I’m glad that meets with your approval, MacKenzie, since I only have thirty years Naval experience. Where was I? Ah yes, if the situation warrants it I’ll change the watch rotation to standard pattern or even wartime rotations, if necessary. However, as things stand we’ll be running a two-hour, reduced crew night watch. My vessel, my rules. The intensity of the stare sent in Zach’s direction clearly told him not to argue further. If you have a problem with that, lieutenant, then I suggest you take it up with the Admiralty when we hit the next Naval port.

No problem at all, sir.

He turned his attention back to the group as a whole. Tell your men permission to cease shaving is granted across the board. In fact, it’s encouraged. Anyone wanting to shave will need to find an inventive way to go about it. I’d rather have water for tea than be surrounded by smooth chins. Captain Franks reached for his cap and slipped from his space at the table. Instinctively, everybody spread out and Zach felt he could breathe easier. Carter, deal with that abomination on your lip. The rest of you make yourselves comfortable for the moment. Number One, I’ll let you know when the men are ready for introductions. Grace, with me. MacKenzie. Noble. Get settled in, although I notice your more experienced colleagues have already bagged their berths.

As the Captain and Grace left Zach cast his gaze around the wardroom. Two kit bags swung from the handles of the berths furthest away from the table. He stifled a sigh as he realised the best berths had probably been taken.

* * * * *

Desperately trying to quell the urge to shift from

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