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Something was wrong. The news hadn't reached California yet, but Bertie Moennig knew something had happened. She couldn't pinpoint when she'd decided she wasn't jumping to conclusions, but her instincts had never failed her. She would have to wait and see.
It frustrated her no end, because she didn't like to wait for anything. Still in the midst of this wretched war, she'd grown accustomed to it.
Bertie paused in the noisy workroom of Hughes Aircraft to untie the blue bandana from her head. Her hairnet had ripped this morning, too late for her to get a replacement, and there were strict regulations about keeping long hair restrained.
Now, half of her bun had fallen down over her neck and shoulders. As if this plant wasn't already hot enough! Folks liked to chatter on and on about the wonderful weather in Southern California; those folks must've never worked in a busy, noisy aircraft plant on a sunny day.
Another trickle of perspiration dripped along the side of Bertie's face, and she rubbed her cheek against her shoulder while fiddling with the bandana. She'd take a summer afternoon on the farm in the Missouri Ozarks over working in the heat of this plant any day.
Not that she disliked California. She loved it most of the timethe weather, the ocean, the mountainsbut it could be a challenge for a country girl to get used to the crush of people and traffic, even after living here for eight months.
In Hideaway, Missouri, Bertie would've ridden her bicycle the three miles to work, but here she saw more cars passing by the apartment than she would see in a year back home. The crazy pace of Southern California had shocked her upon arrival and
She winced at the sound of the barrel voice approaching from behind her. Looking around, then up at the department supervisor, Franklin Parrish, she braced herself for yet another earful of complaining.
"Get back to work. And get that hair up," he snapped, looming too close, as he always did. He eyed the blond hair that fell around her shoulders, then his gaze wandered.
Even though he mocked her Ozark accent and figures of speech, he made no secret of the fact he liked her figure well enough.
She tied her hair back on top of her head. "A man in your position should mind his manners, Mr. Parrish," she said quietly, wishing Edith Frost, her roommate, was here. She'd have an extra hairnet.
Franklin leaned closer to Bertie, his face flushed like that of a child who'd been caught snooping in his mother's purse. "And you'd better mind who you're talking to, hillbilly. I can turn you out of here by signing the bottom line of a little sheet of paper."
Bertie met his gaze, trying hard not to show her irritation. After three hundred hours of instruction in St. Louis, she'd been sent here as a trained machinist at the company's expense. If he fired her for no good reason, he'd have to answer for his actions.
"You want these parts to pass inspection, don't you?" she asked. "We still have a war to win against the Japanese, and I aim to help win it." She knew she should smile to take the bite out of her words, but she held his gaze, straight-faced.
Franklin glowered. Bertie nipped on her tongue to keep it from getting her into deeper trouble. Franklin grunted and walked away.
Bertie sighed. Someday, she'd go too far, but she didn't think that day had come yet. Years ago, her mother had tried to tell her that a woman could get more accomplished with honey than with vinegar, but Bertie had found that the two mixed well together. That was especially true for a woman working in a man's world.
Besides, Mom never had depended strictly on honey to get what she wanted. When she was alive, Dad used to brag to the other farmers down at the coffee shop that his wife was full of more sass and vinegar than any plow mule in the county. Just recently, he'd accused Bertie of taking after her mother a little too much.
Those words had made Bertie proud, and it had given her courage to know that she had some of the same strength of character as Marty Moennig.
She felt a pang of homesickness. She missed her father and couldn't stop worrying about him. She'd tried to place this dread in God's hands several times last night and this morning, but her mind kept grabbing it back again. Where was he?
She also missed Red Meyer like crazy, and thinking about him raised her anxiety even more. Though Red was somewhere in Italy, cleaning up after the surrender of the Germans last month, she knew she would feel closer to him if he was back home in Hideaway.
Of course, if Red was back in Hideaway, she'd be there, too. So many memories so much she missed. She wanted to be able to step out of the house and stroll around the victory garden in the backyard. Had Dad even been able to plant one this year? He was all alone on the farm, with so much work to keep him busy.
Fact was, she worried about both the men in her life. News of Red hadn't come often enough to suit her lately. He'd stopped writing to her. Just like that, the letters had quit coming. She was pretty sure the Army hadn't suddenly stopped sending soldiers' mail home.
Charles Frederick Meyer didn't like being called anything but Red. With a head of brick-colored hair and a blue gaze that looked straight into the soul, he was strong and kind, and quick with a smile or a joke.
Bertie could usually spend much of her workday thinking about him, dreaming of the time they would be back together again. That was easier to do now that the war with Germany was over.
But if he was out of danger, why wasn't he writing?
Red Meyer stared out the train window at the lush Missouri Ozark landscape, nearly lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the passenger railcar. The train took a curve, and he got a better look at the cars ahead of him. Four cars he tugged one of the envelopes from his left front and pulled two folded pages from the raggedly slit top. he unfolded the sheets and looked at the handwrit
didn't read the words right off. He didn't need to. He had this letter memorizedmaybe not every single swirl and dotted i, but he could see an image in his mind Moennig leaning over her stationery, chewing on the her pencil, eyes narrowed. It had been her first letter to and it was well nigh three years old. The smudges and corners of the pages showed how often he'd handled Ivan, was the one who'd dared them to hop that train in the first place.
We've been friends for so long, Red, I can't imagine going on without you. You can make me feel better no matter how bad things are, even with Mom's funeral only weeks past. I don't know how I'd have gotten through it without you.
He squeezed the pages between his fingers and stared out at the passing countryside. He couldn't remember a time when Bertie wasn't in his life, whether she was socking him in the mouth for picking on her in their Sunday school class, or kissing him goodbye twelve years later at the train station, chin wobbling, eyes promising more than he'd ever dared ask of her. A future.
He looked back down at the letter, swallowing hard as he recalled her face, her voice, the love he'd held on to for so many long, hellacious months.
Red, you remember that talk we had on our first real date? You should, since it's only been a couple of months. You told me you'd always thought you'd end up a bachelor, because you never thought you had anything special to offer a woman in marriage. But you are somebody special, and don't let anybody ever tell you different.
His eyes squeezed shut. He'd never loved her more than he did right now. She'd been so true to him all this time. Her letters they'd been his lifeline. Her love was what kept him going and kept his determination strong to do the right thing by her, though it was the hardest thing he'd ever have to do.
I've heard they treat soldiers rough in the Army, but you're strong enough to take whatever they throw at you. Don't you forget you're more of a man than most men ever even dream of being. You've got more heart in you than anybody I've ever known, and you'd make a fine husband. The woman who marries you will never be sorry. Just make sure you get home alive to get married.
I'll be waiting here for you, and I'll be writing so much you'll probably get tired of reading my letters. If anything happens to you, it'll be happening to me, too, so you'd better take care. You have both our lives in your hands.
If he'd smiled at all during these past three years, it had only been because of her. Oh, sure, he'd let himself joke with the guys, or at least chuckle at their jokes, but it was because thoughts of home kept him goingthoughts of Bertie.
He didn't pay any attention to the man in Marine uniform coming down the aisle, until that man plunked himself down in the empty seat next to Red.
"On your way home, soldier?" came an awfully familiar voice.
Red's head jerked up. He looked with surprise into the face of his good friend Ivan Potts, in the flesh.
Before Red could say anything, Ivan had him in a bear hug and was thumping him on the back so hard it felt like Red's spine might snap in two. The man had the muscles of a plow horse.
"I didn't know you were on this train 'til I caught sight of your face in the window when we went around that last curve." Ivan's grin showed the contrast of his white teeth against dark-tanned skin. "Thought it was you, anyway." He rubbed his knuckles over Red's scalp. "Can't miss this color, Charles Frederick."
"Well, if this don't beat all." Red tucked the letter back into his pocket, trying not to let it catch Ivan's attention. He shoved the cane out of sight beneath his seat with his foot. Happy as he was to see one of his closest friends alive and whole, he wasn't ready to do any explaining. Not yet.