Stunned, tears flowed as her world crashed down around her. Once the lawyer finished reading the will, Ann dried her eyes and smoothed her blond hair behind her ears.
“Questions, Miss Ross?”
Unable to meet the attorney’s gaze, she glanced out the window behind his desk. A robin sat on the tree branch outside. Not yet fully emerged, the tree’s leaves looked like green fuzz on the limb. As if sensing movement in the room, the bird fluttered away. Ann turned back to the silver-haired man and sighed. “How long will I be able to live in the house, Mr. Jennings?”
Jennings set the will aside, leaned back, and steepled his fingers before his face. “I’m not sure. The bank began foreclosure with your aunt’s death. Already behind on her taxes, they delayed their action out of respect for her. They will buy the property at the tax auction, so they don’t lose their place then move to take possession as soon as possible. It can take six months to a year.”
“And the money in the trust?”
His fingers tugged at his bow tie. “That begins right away. I can write you a check for the first payment, and then you can expect a regular sum on or about the first of each month. One hundred dollars a month is not a lot of money. It should provide you with a cushion until you decide what to do. What are your plans?”
She folded her hands in her lap. “Father wants me to join him in China. I recently finished nurse’s training, and besides having me close, he needs the help.”
“China’s a long ways away. Getting there will cost a lot. Can your father pay your way?”
Ann hung her head. “No. The Society only provides his living expenses. He has no other funds. Can I take a lump sum from the trust to pay it?”
Jennings shook his head. “Your aunt left specific instructions. The trust is in place for five years but paid out in full if you married and remained in the States for a year. How about your mother’s family? Would they help?”
Ann said nothing recalling the last time her mother and she went to her grandparents’ home one Christmas Eve many years before. Her grandfather answering the door, his sneer before he slammed it in their faces without a word, all because her mother dared to marry outside the faith.
Ann shook her head. “I don’t know them.”
Jennings stroked his chin. “You’re a trained nurse. Work here a while and save money from your wages.”
Ann shook her head. “I’ve applied at all the local hospitals and practices. They all remembered my father and turned me down.”
Jennings hung his head. “Yes, conservative Boston has a long memory I’m afraid. It’s not right to punish children for their parent’s scandalous behavior, but such is the way of the world.”
“I thought about moving to New York or even Washington, but then I would have the added expense of housing. My pay as a nurse wouldn’t cover that.”
“Have you approached the Society that funds your father’s clinic?”
Ann nodded. “They said they didn’t take unmarried women.”
Jennings crossed his arms, scowled. “Might seem logical.” Shook his head. “Did you talk to Mrs. Morgan? She pulled a lot of strings to get your father there.”
Ann shook her head. “Merely her assistant, I believe. I don’t know how I could see her. We don’t run in the same social circle.”
Jennings snatched an envelope from his desk. “I have an invitation to the Society’s Spring fundraiser. She should be there and…”
Ann smiled. “Slip in with that? Hunt the woman down and charm her into taking me?”
Jennings leaned back in his chair. “No. Come as my guest. It’s unseemly for an old bachelor, such as myself, to go out in public unescorted. Gets tongues wagging. I might even help you press your case.” He arched an eyebrow. “I’d consider it a great favor.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Morgan.” The liveried man at the door called out as they entered.
On her husband’s arm, the woman wearing an elegant floor-length gown glided across the floor despite her stocky figure. Dressed in a black swallow-tailed tux, her husband surveyed the crowded ballroom as they entered. His glasses riding at the end of his nose forced him to tilt his back. That and his scowl conveyed the impression he looked down at those surrounding him.
Couples in their path stopped dancing at their approach. The dancers parted, providing the couple a clear way to a table where a white-coated waiter pulled back a chair before standing aside to await their arrival. All smiled at the pair in greeting, with several men making half bows.
The dancing resumed once the couple seated themselves. While her husband gave the waiter their order, Mrs. Morgan scanned the room, nodding her head without expression as others smiled or waved a greeting. She turned to her husband as he removed a cigarette from a gold case. “I don’t see Johnathan anywhere. I hope he hasn’t forgotten.”
“He’ll be along, I’m sure.” Her husband placed the cigarette in a stubby holder. He lit it and exhaled a puff. “I believe he had an important appointment and would come straight from there.”
She fanned herself with a menu while glaring at her husband’s cigarette. “Oh, I wish you would take that filthy habit outside!”
“As you wish, my dear.” the man stood then strode out an open door behind them.
As she watched him go, another woman scurried to her side. After taking the just-vacated chair without invitation, she put her mouth close to Mrs. Morgan’s ear. “Oh, Gwen. Did you hear the Bush girl is getting married next week? It’s only been a month since she broke off the engagement with Johnathan, hasn’t it?”
Gwen scoffed. “Lottie, that little harlot was not good enough for my boy. I never approved of her and her bootlegging father.”
Lottie put her hand to her chest. “A lovely girl, I am sure it broke Johnathan’s heart.”
“Frankly, he didn’t seem to care. I wonder now if he proposed to get me off his back. He needs to find a suitable match before we leave for China. I am not getting any younger, and it is about time I had grandchildren to spoil.”
Mr. Morgan returned, leading Ann. “Gwen, I am not sure you remember her, but this is Dr. Charles Ross’ daughter, Ann.”
Gwen’s eyes narrowed as she studied the young woman at her husband’s side. “Yes, I remember you. It’s been years, though. I was a close friend of your mother. Her death saddened me. Would have come around to see you at the time, but I was away checking on our missions. I was pleased to assist your father in joining us. He found the move convenient.”
Ann smiled and nodded. “He was grateful for the chance and speaks highly of the service the mission provides both physically and spiritually.”
Mr. Morgan turned to Ann. “I understand that the chaplaincy had to move because of the bombing, but your father, the brave soul, kept our beacon lit tending the victims.” He nodded to his wife. “Gwen here is going over in a few weeks herself to see what our people might need and make sure they’re safe. In fact, Ann tells me she just finished nurse’s training. She’s yet to secure a position perhaps you could persuade her to go as well. I’m certain her father could use the help.” He turned to Ann. “Right?”
“Well, apply at once, dear girl. I am sure we can arrange it. You can travel on the same ship as me.” Gwen turned to the woman seated next to her. “Right, Lottie?”
Lottie leaned back looked down her nose at Ann. “She has applied, and, as I explained, we could not accept unmarried women in the missions.”
Gwen tossed her head back and glared at Lottie. “Oh, I am sure we can make a particular case here.” Gwen turned to Ann. “Why don’t you come tomorrow for tea. We can discuss it then. I am sure we can make satisfactory and proper arrangements.”
Mr. Morgan nodded. “That makes sense. She would join her father. That seems proper.”
A young man appeared next to Ann. Dressed in a swallow-tailed black tuxedo and his hair slicked back, bowed to the ladies at the table. “Sorry, I’m late, mother.’ He turned to Ann and held out his hand. “Father, who is this exquisite creature?”
Ann nodded as his father introduced them.
Gwen clutched her son’s hand. “Johnathan, Miss Ross, might join us on your journey next month. She is coming tomorrow for tea, why don’t you join us. I am sure you might address concerns or questions a person of her age might have more readily than I.”
Johnathan nodded. “I will try to make it. Excuse me. I must say hello to some chums at the bar.”
“Well, thank you, Mrs. Morgan, I will see you tomorrow,” Ann said as she left.
“This might be the opportunity I have been looking for,” Gwen whispered to Lottie.
Lottie batted her eyes. “You mean? But…”
Gwen gave a dismissive wave. “Yes, the scandal with her father and his little free clinic for women. Given time and a change in name, who would remember her association with that unpleasantness? She’d be perfect for Johnathan.”
“But we sail in just a few weeks. What would people think if they rushed into a marriage like that?”
Gwen sighed. “It might not happen before we sail, but together on a long ocean voyage?” She arched an eyebrow. “Who knows?”
Lottie snickered and patted Gwen’s hand. “That’s true. Shipboard romances often blossom, and I am sure if things get out of hand, your young man will do what is proper. After all, ship’s captains can perform legal marriages.”
“You’re right. And by the time we all return, everyone will forget about that scandal with Jonathan and that Bush girl.”
Not to mention the others, Lottie thought to herself.
“Got another cross-town fire, lad?”
Russ Lamison ignored the doorman’s jibe as he rushed down the hotel steps. At the curb, Russ hailed a cab. When it pulled over, he jerked open the car’s door for Chaplain Frillman bolting down the stairs.
In Singapore for a week and a half waiting for the ship that would take them on to Burma, trouble rose daily. The British Colonists had not welcomed these rowdy young men. No single hotel could accommodate the entire group, so they stayed in different spots around town. During this shore leave, Chaplain Frillman, the group’s designated leader, shuttled through the city. His mission, settling disputes caused by his exuberant charges loose in an unfamiliar culture with too much money.
Frillman turned to Russ as the cab pulled away from the curb. “Lamison, I don’t understand why you hang out with me on these little excursions. You should be out seeing the sights, exploring this beautiful city.”
Russ shrugged. “Sir, maybe I’m a hick, but there are too many things here that might get me in trouble. I wanna tell my wife everything. I’m afraid I might get caught up in something I wouldn’t want her to know. Hangin’ with you lets me see the town and keeps me out of trouble.”
“How long you been married?”
“A little over a year, sir.” Russ studied the scenery through the window of the speeding car. “What I’ve seen so far’s made me sure I’m right. Where we headed now?”
Frillman grimaced. “The British won’t let our boys use the local golf club. Claim they’re too rowdy. Two of our boys got offended, got drunk, and played an indoor version in their room. Not sure what this little venture will cost. Yesterday’s disaster at the Savoy cost the company over five hundred dollars.”
Russ shook his head. “We weren’t supposed to be here this long. Thought at most a day before we caught the next boat to Rangoon.”
“Lotta things aren’t working out as planned. I’m curious. Why’s a newlywed wanna run off to China and leave a new bride?”
“For me, it was money. In the Air Corps, I got thirty dollars a month. With this deal, I get three hundred. It’s only a year. Me and Marie figure with that kinda money plus what she can save teachin’ we could build up a nice nest egg. Might even have enough to start a business or buy a house.”
“You’re not here because you feel a need to save the Chinese?”
“I’ve seen the newsreels and stuff. Japs are doin’ some awful things, that’s for sure. Even saw one where a Jap shot a little kid. Couldn’t been more’n one or two. Marie screamed when she saw it and talked about how awful it was for days.” Russ shrugged. “So, yeah. I’d like to think we could stop all that.”
“Have you met Claire Chennault?”
“No, sir. But I’ve heard a lot about him. Been here advisin’ the Chinese on air tactics for a few years. Heard when he’d got decent pilots and planes his people have done pretty good. Is that why Roosevelt let him form up this bunch?”
“You mean the American Volunteer Group?”
“Yeah. Figure we can kick the Japs outta China?”
“Russ, that’s all stuff that’s out of my realm. Politicians have lots of reasons for doing what they do. What they tell you may differ from what’s true.
Russ nodded. “My Dad used to say the same things.”
Russ said nothing at first. Unsure how the Chaplain might react to his father’s drunkenness or the fact he killed himself and his mother in a car wreck. He sighed. “Yeah, he and my mom both died when I was thirteen.”
“I’m sorry. As for kicking the Japs out of China, I’m afraid that will have to wait. But for now, our purpose is to keep the Burma road open. That way, the supplies can keep flowing to Chiang Kai-shek, and he can run the Japs out himself.”
“How about you, padre? What brings you here?”
Frillman chewed his lip as he pondered Russ’s question. “Main thing that drew me here was the way the Chinese have been treated.”
“By the Japs?”
“Mostly them now. But in the last two hundred years they’ve been exploited by a lot of countries. Even our own.”
“You been to China before?”
“As a missionary. Came here to save souls, but found that the Chinese already had pretty good souls. Just needed defending.”
“But a minister in an outfit goin’ to war?”
“Clergy have accompanied armies for centuries. In fact, they have been warriors themselves.”
Frillman nodded. “Besides the basic necessities and care for the equipment, you guys will need your spirits supported. The men here fight a great evil. It will wear them down. Push some over the edge. My job will be to make sure their humanity remains intact while they do this job.”
“But how did you get with this outfit?”
“Met Chennault. They needed a Chaplain for this wild bunch, so I volunteered.”
Russ grinned. “Lot more to your job than just conductin’ prayer services.”
“I’ll say. But it’s God’s work.”
As the taxi stopped at the hotel stairs, Frillman hopped out, sparing Russ further questions then rushed up the stairs.
“I can’t say how long this might take,” the Chaplain called over his shoulder as Russ paid the driver. “I’ll meet you down in the lounge when I’m done.”
Thirsty, Russ headed for the bar. Not every establishment in the city served soft drinks the Americans preferred. Eager for a Coke, he hoped he might get lucky here.
Inside the saloon, two others from the group sat at the bar. Engrossed by the photos, arrayed on the counter, they failed to notice Russ until he leaned over their shoulders.
Russ’s jaw dropped, and his eyes opened wide as he viewed the naked women posed as if inviting seduction. “My God, guys, where did you get those?”
One looked up with a triumphant grin. “Took `em ourselves.”
Russ scowled then nodded at the photos. “And these women came and took their clothes off for you?”
The other nodded as he picked up his beer. “Yeah, we ran an ad in the local paper. Said we’re Hollywood talent scouts lookin’ for the most beautiful women in Singapore. A contest. The winner gets an all-expense-paid trip to Hollywood and a screen test.”
“That’s not all.” He winked at Russ. “Most did us some extra favors. Wanted to show us all their skills.”
Russ winced. “But how about the winner?”
One chuckled while the other turned back to Russ. “Told `em we’d mail `em the results next week.”
Russ shook his head. “But, we’re due to sail out of here before then.”
“That’s the idea, Lamison. In a week, we’ll be gettin’ our asses shot off by the Japs. These snaps will ease the pain.”
Frillman appeared at the door and beckoned to Russ. As he turned to follow the Chaplain, one shouted after him, “Holler if you want prints for yourself.”
Frillman frowned, looked back at the men at the bar. “What was that about?”
Russ shrugged. “Oh, they took pictures of local scenery and wanted to know if I wanted prints to send home to Marie.”
Frillman stopped. “Huh, I might want some for my family too. Hang on. I want to see.”
Russ took Frillman’s arm. “Um, sir. Shouldn’t we better get back to the hotel? Might get another call.”
Frillman gave a dismissive wave as he pulled away from Russ’s grasp. “A man needs to think of himself. This babysitting can wait for a while. Might be nice to get a glimpse of the area’s better sights. I’ve missed a lot with all these shenanigans.”
Russ’s stomach churned as he followed behind, unsure how the Chaplain might react. Frillman approached the two men at the bar. They did not notice him until he peered over their shoulders. Their jaws dropped, and they flinched nearly toppling off their stools as Frillman reached over them. He snatched a photo from the counter and examined it. After setting it back on the bar, he turned to Russ, “Nice shots, but my wife would have no interest in them. Come on, Russ. We need to find out who else has run amok.”
As he followed Frillman out of the bar, he looked back with a sheepish smile at the two men. They shook their heads and laughed. The next morning, they sailed for Rangoon.