This is my fifth novel for Dreamspinner, but I’ve had a couple of years off from writing lengthier things — I had a PhD to finish, which ate up way too much of my time! In some ways this, more than any of my previous novels, is the story I’ve always wanted to write. Its setting, an RAF squadron at the time of the Battle of Britain, has preoccupied me since I was about eight years old. I was always fascinated by the sheer diversity of characters, from hundreds of nations, who came together for that fight: Brits and Irishmen, Poles by the thousand, Indians, Africans, Americans; middle-aged married men from posh families; working-class kids just out of school, and, yes, gay men. Appropriately, this story is an ensemble piece, where most of my previous stories concentrated very much on the main figures in the romance. There are several romances at work in this story, and the outer frame is really the love that develops between all the men in Jeff Riley’s squadron. The premise is that Jeff’s old commanding officer has put him in charge of a bit of a misfit gang of ace fliers who don’t take well to discipline, and Jeff’s worried about what he’ll have to work with, but by the time they’ve flown together for a few intense months, they’ve banded together in more ways than one. I became very attached to the characters in this novel, and in time I’d like to revisit them.
About the novel:
Irishman Jeff Riley left the Royal Flying Corps in 1918, hardened by war. He survived those harsh years with the help of his quick-witted English friend, Sean McClean, although Jeff would never want to admit it. When the Battle of Britain erupts in 1939, he’s once again drafted and forced to leave his flourishing commercial pilot career and join a new squadron. Although another war disrupts his life, he’s not disappointed to find himself reunited with Sean.
Jeff is attracted to many of the men in his new squadron of misfits. Never before has he seen such a diverse group assembled for a single cause, including Jimmy Dupont, a handsome, strong Texan who joined the Royal Air Force to help the war effort, and his constant companion Filip, a young and talented Polish airman. It’s evident from the beginning that there’s something special about the connection between Filip and Jimmy, but as time goes on, Jeff feels himself not alienated by it but drawn into it.Jeff tries to focus on staying alive, but he’s only human, and there’s more to life than survival. There’s also loving, and Jeff can’t get by without it, especially when any day could be his last.
The main landing strip ran alongside the row of hangars, beyond which an incongruously rustic bench still sat, shoved up against the outside of the cottage that was now Jeff’s headquarters. The earth beneath the bench was soft, overripe with summer rain, but the way it squelched under the soles of Jeff’s boots was oddly appealing, a guilty pleasure entirely
inappropriate to his station. Jeff rocked his feet against the mud and watched the Hurricanes draw in.It was almost seven. The face of Jeff’s standard-issue watch glowed palely iridescent in the dawn light. It felt later, but that was a feeling Jeff had been used to since the old days of being rolled out of bed at five by a batman—no longer provided—such that seven o’clock was comfortably time for elevenses. Now there was nobody to wake him but his own alarm clock, but Bernet had tapped on his door at six to say a troop transport had arrived with a number of officers in it, and after that he’d felt indolent in his pajamas.
McClean was leading the Hurricanes. Jeff knew as much without asking, recognizing his handling of the machine as easily as he might have recognized his loping stride or the way he had of holding cigarettes awkwardly between thumb and two fingers, like a six-year-old child clutching a first pen. McClean was not supposed to be leading the Hurricanes because he was a squadron leader now, and the current word from HQ was that squadron leaders were supposed to stay on the ground, but Jeff was frankly unsurprised. If a squadron like Jeff’s had existed twenty years ago, McClean—tall, handsome McClean with his dazzling smile—would have been the cocky, stubborn feather in its cap.
The wheels of the leading plane kissed the ground lightly, neatly, with the efficiency of long practice, and the machine had barely come to a halt before the top was thrown back and McClean popped out of it like a grinning jack-in-the-box. “Riley!” he yelled, brash over the roar of the engines, and Jeff laughed. The earth squished messily under his heels.
“Shouldn’t you be flying a desk somewhere?” Jeff demanded as McClean came toward him over the turf at a rolling jog.
“Shouldn’t you be briefing some lunatics somewhere?” McClean shot back, pulling off his gauntlets and tucking them into the pocket of his bomber jacket. “The rest of your cartload of bad apples arrived while you were still in your pit, lazybones.”
Jeff snorted. “Thanks. No, I know. Bernet is arranging it now. I’m briefing them all at nine.” He sighed heavily. “Not that I have the foggiest clue what to say. I mean, are they meant to know why they’re here, or what?”
“I have a sneaking suspicion”—McClean helped himself to the crumpled cigarette packet in the pocket of Jeff’s tunic—“that blokes like this’ll know exactly why they’re here, whether they’re meant to or not.” He shrugged. “So you might as well come clean, for my money. They’ll have more respect for you if they know you know what they’re capable of.”
“Deception and espionage, you mean?” But McClean was right, naturally. Jeff snatched the fag packet back and shook out a cigarette of his own. “Larcenist.”
McClean laughed. “Hey, I’ve run out!”
“There’s a village five miles that way. Get some more,” Jeff suggested. “God knows I’m going to need a smoke after I’ve dealt with this lot, blast ’em.”
“Substance dependency,” McClean said solemnly, “is how we win our wars, old mate. Best get a big box, hand ’em round. Works on dogs.”
Jeff blinked. “Passing round cigarettes works on dogs?”
McClean rolled his eyes and slung his scarf over his shoulder. There was a flurry of movement behind him, a cluster of damp and rather frazzled-looking young officers moving in a herd toward the Hurricanes’ mess building, and McClean took a step toward the melee himself, shaking his head. “You know what I mean. Give me a ring when you’ve briefed them, will you? I want to know how bad it is.”
He had the audacity to wink before he turned to catch up with the rest of his flight, the sadistic bastard. Jeff sighed and pushed his toes back down into the mud, taking a final moment to luxuriate in the simple pleasure of it yielding to his boots, easy. Uncomplicated.
“God,” he muttered, huffing out smoke through his teeth, “I’m going to kill that bastard Raymond. If this lot don’t see me off first.”
I’m giving away 2 copies of In Balance With This Life. You can enter the giveaway here: