Authors: Rosie Clarke
Against the devastating Blitz of London, normal life must continue for Lizzie Larch. With Sebastian returning to War, Lizzie must, alone, make a success of her business in order to survive and care for herself and her young child.
Silently, from the shadows, her secret enemy watches and waits, threatening to ruin Lizzie and everything she holds close.
Battling against shortages her hats become more popular, but what of the man she loves? Will he ever return?
What Lizzie knows now is that success can mean nothing without love.
For my agent Judith Murdoch, who has always had faith in me, and for my husband, who looks after me.
I use many books in my research to check facts but much of the background comes from memories of the years after the dreadful wars and things family, friends and my husband have told me.
âWhen shall I see you again?' Lizzie's throat was tight with tears as she looked at the man she loved. âI know you can't tell me where you're going or what you'll be doing and I don't want to know â but you will come home again one day? Promise me!'
âOh, Lizzie, Lizzie Larch,' Sebastian said and drew her to him in a loving embrace, kissing her mouth softly, tenderly, his fingers caressing her cheek as he gazed deep into her eyes. âI love you, my darling, and one day I'll come home for longer and we'll marryâ¦ but don't expect it to be next week or next month or perhaps even next year. I may be away for months, even years. I simply can't tell you.'
âI know. I'm sorry,' Lizzie said. âIt's just that things have been so awful since Harry died â and I've never been so happyâ¦ this Christmas has been the best of my lifeâ¦' Sebastian had insisted on buying a tree and lots of gifts for her and Betty, even though at only a few months old, Lizzie's darling daughter was much too young to appreciate them, but Lizzie had, and the way Sebastian had behaved as though Betty was his own child; it was a promise he'd made her, unspoken but understood. Despite the few times they'd met over the last couple of years, mostly while she was working for Harry's uncle, for Lizzie it seemed as if she'd known him all her life. She instinctively knew that he was the man she should have married, if only she'd waited rather than let Harry rush her into marriage after her aunt died.
Sebastian drew the line of her cheek, his finger trailing down her white throat to the pulse spot at the base. âBe brave for me, my Lizzie, and before you know it all this pain and horror will be over â tell me you understand that I have to do what I'm doing â please?'
Lizzie blinked away the tears and smiled. âOf course I do and I'm being silly and stupid, Sebastian. Go, leave now, before I beg you to stay.'
Sebastian kissed her one last time on the mouth, all the passion he felt pouring into that embrace so that Lizzie felt his need and desire and wished with all her heart that they'd made love. Yet it was by mutual consent that they'd waited, because, as Sebastian said, they really hadn't ever had time to get to know one another, for him to court her â and he'd certainly done that these past few days, taking her everywhere, buying her presents of flowers and chocolates and a beautiful diamond and aquamarine ring.
It was too soon after her husband's death the previous September and the birth of Harry's daughter Betty, for Lizzie to marry again. Although Sebastian was instantly enchanted with the child when Lizzie showed him her beloved daughter, they'd decided not to rush into marriage, or even to bed, because Sebastian wanted Lizzie to get to know and trust him and to feel loved, so he hadn't even asked, but now she wished with all her heart that he had.
Lizzie watched as he went out into the dingy street outside the workshops and got into the sleek black car waiting to whisk him away. He was clearly important to the war effort; she'd realized that even though he'd been able to tell her absolutely nothing of his work â and yet the attitude of people they'd met at the theatre and when dining out told Lizzie all she needed to know. Men in expensive suits, and high-ranking officers' uniforms showed Sebastian the same respect. She'd felt a little shy, because they came from a different world, and yet with Sebastian at her side she'd held her head high and kept a smile on her face.
Perhaps Sebastian was right when he said she had to learn to trust him, because there was a wide gap between her life as a milliner making pretty hats in the East End of London and his as a gentleman and now an officer. Lizzie had dismissed Sebastian's pursuit of her as mere flirtation when they first met, because he liked to flirt with pretty women, and she couldn't accept that she meant more to him than all the others.
âWhy?' she'd asked him once when they were dining at the Mayfair Hotel. âWhy me, when there are so many beautiful women in the world, Sebastian? I'm not exceptionalâ¦'
âMaybe that's why,' he said, and she knew he was laughing at her. âMaybe it's because you kept saying noâ¦'
Glancing at the lovely diamond ring on the third finger of her left hand, from which she'd removed Harry's wedding ring, Lizzie shook her head. It would be ridiculous to let the doubts creep in, especially when she might not see Sebastian for months or even years. A swingeing pain caught at her heart as she faced the prospect of all those lonely days and nights without him, because if she'd ever doubted her own love for him, she didn't doubt it now. She knew she loved him with all her being, and she didn't know what she would do if he didn't return as he'd promised.
It was all very well for Sebastian to claim that bad pennies always turned up, as he had so often in the past when he'd visited Oliver's showroom, and the workshops where Lizzie had learned her trade as a milliner, but they both knew that during a war anything could happenâ¦ but then, Lizzie acknowledged, people were dying on the home front too. Only a few streets from here and, a few hundred yards from her friend Beth's mother's home, a young woman and her two small children had died in one of the first of the constant raids London was now enduring. Since then a great many people had met their end in the smouldering rubble left by Hitler's bombs, particularly in the industrial heart of the city. The destruction over the Christmas period had been so bad that every street seemed to have been hit and there were piles of rubble everywhere. Yet she couldn't allow herself to dwell on the fear that Sebastian would not return to her.
Lizzie knew that she had to get on with her life. Sebastian's love would help her to be brave and endure all the hardships as she waited for him to return. In the meantime, it was nearly the New Year, 1941, and Beth's family was expecting her to have dinner with them on New Year's Day, which was also Beth's brother's birthday and would be a double celebration, because he was home on leave from the Army. Ed, Lizzie's right-hand man in the new workshops she'd set up to design and make her beautiful hats, had been invited too and she knew he was looking forward to it, because he led a rather lonely life now that his wife Madge was dead; she'd been an invalid since the birth of her stillborn child, but he'd loved her and missed herâ¦
For the sake of her friends, Lizzie must carry on and be cheerful, even if it did feel just at this moment as if her heart had been brokenâ¦
âI like the look of that,' Beth said as she stopped by Lizzie's workbench, that morning, watching while she shaped her latest creation for
Lizzie Larch Hats
, the fledgling business she had begun some weeks after Harry's uncle had sacked her from his workshops. The straw boater was pale blue, a simple flat crown with a small brim; trimmed with a contrast ribbon and a large satin bow. âIt's just my colour tooâ¦'
âYes, I know.' Lizzie smiled. She dearly loved Beth, who was like the sister she'd never had. They'd met when they'd both applied for a job at Bert Oliver's workshops and been fast friends ever since. âI had you in mind when I started this, Beth â it would be nice as a going-away hat for your weddingâ¦'
âIf I ever decide to get married,' Beth said ruefully. âBernie asked me again last night, Lizzie. I don't know what to do.'
Beth's lover Mark had been in the merchant navy and died at the very beginning of the war. Ever since the twins were born, Bernie, her boss at the munitions factory, had been asking Beth to marry him, but she wasn't sure of her feelings.
âYou're happy the way you are, living together at the house with the twins, and working here â aren't you?' Lizzie finished smoothing the bow and leaned forward to set the hat on Beth's head. âLittle present to cheer you up, love. Wedding or no wedding.'
Beth preened before the long cheval mirror. âYou always know what suits me, but you must let me pay something, Lizzie. You give me far too much as it is.'
âI like to give you presents. Until now I never had anybody to spoil and nothing to give,' Lizzie told her. âIt's nearly spring so think of it as an early Easter present. I wish I could tell you what to do for the best, love, but I don't honestly know. My marriage to Harry wasn't perfectâ¦' She shook her head, remembering Harry's jealousy and the way he'd forced himself on her in anger during a drunken night, because he'd thought she was flirting with his friend Roger. Harry's behaviour had forged a wedge between them and things had gone downhill after that. For a while he'd stayed away, not coming home when he'd had leave from serving with the RAF and Lizzie had been glad of it, but then, just before their daughter was born, she'd wanted to try and make it up with him. Her letter had brought the desired response and he'd promised to come home on his next leave, but his car had left the road and hit a treeâ¦ and his death had brought back all the sorrow and waste of those months apart. Then Sebastian had come back into her life for a few glorious days at Christmas and she'd known what her heart had told her for months, that he was the man she loved but since then all she'd had was the occasional postcard from Scotland to say he was all right â but Lizzie knew he wasn't there. He was somewhere else doing secret work for the government. The postcards were just for reassurance; he'd told her to expect them, because while they kept coming it meant he was still alive.
âThat was a big sigh,' Beth looked at her oddly. âI know it's only a few months since Harry was killed, Lizzie, but you are all right â aren't you?'
âYes, of course I am,' Lizzie assured her. Harry had been killed the previous September and she'd given birth to her daughter a few hours later in the midst of an air raid. Now it was almost April 1941 and her grief had become just a vague ache that lingered. âHarry and I hadn't been close for a while, as you know. Besides, I'm lucky to have such good friends â you, Ed and your mum. She's so good to us, Beth, looking after the children so that we can both work. And there's Sebastian, of courseâ¦'