Authors: June Francis
Torn between duty to her family and a last chance at love…
Busy bringing up her motherless brothers and sisters, romance is the last thing on Lily Thorpe’s mind. But when the handsome preacher Matt Gibson asks Lily to return with him to Australia as his wife, she finds it very hard to say no.
But with rumours of war on the horizon, will she have to choose between her head and her heart?
A story of love and loyalty set against the backdrop of wartime Liverpool.
June Francis was brought up in the port of Liverpool, UK. Although she started her novel-writing career with medieval romances, it seemed natural to also write family sagas set in her home city because of its fascinating historical background, especially as she has several mariners in her family tree and her mother was in service. She has written twenty sagas set in Merseyside, as well as in the beautiful city of Chester and the Lancashire countryside.
Visit June Francis’s website at:
A Mother’s Duty
A Daughter’s Choice
Dedicated to John, my husband,
For having faith in me.
Hatred stirs up strife,
but love covers all offences – Proverbs 10, xiii
Lily Thorpe stood looking over the Mersey, a stiff breeze blowing her dark curls about her face. Her dreamy gaze took in the fussy little tugs ushering out a towering white liner past the line of the docks, which provided most Liverpudlians in some way or other with their livelihood, and out to the open sea. Not so long ago a German airship had flown over the river; some would rather it had stayed away, looking on it with suspicion, but she could understand the Germans wanting to see one of England’s greatest ports, only second in size to London. There wasn’t anything Lily liked more than to come down to the Pierhead where there was always something to see. Even if the ships had not crowded the river, the ceaseless movement of the water had an hypnotic quality that drew her.
Lily was suddenly conscious of the rising wind as oily waves slapped against the wooden landing stage. She took her eyes from the river and looked for her sister and brother. May was not far away. Lily seized her hand and shouted to Ronnie: ‘Come away from the edge! Here’s the ferry coming in.’
Her younger brother ducked beneath the thick metal chains which were supposed to keep the adventurous out and sauntered towards her. He was thin-faced, brown-haired and wiry, but small for his eleven years. ‘Jimmy Gallagher learnt to swim by being thrown in at the deep end,’ he informed her.
‘Well, don’t you be trying it here,’ said Lily grimly. ‘You’ll freeze to death in five minutes.’ She grasped the collar of his jacket and held him firmly.
The three of them watched as ropes, thick as a man’s arm, were thrown from the ferry to a couple of men on the landing stage.
‘Why do we have to watch?’ cried May, who was fairer than her brother and a year younger but who often had more to say for herself. ‘I’m cold!’ She huddled into the well-worn red coat, which her other sister, Daisy, had cut down for her, and stamped her feet.
‘Sea air’s good for you and it’ll blow the cobwebs away,’ said Lily, squeezing her hand. ‘Besides it’s educational watching the ships coming and going. Think of all the cargoes that are unloaded … tobacco, grain for feed and the breweries, timber, sunflower oil for cattle cake …’
‘And think of the places!’ Ronnie’s voice was rapt. ‘Don’t you wish when a hooter blows we could be on one of them ships crossing the bar and heading for the open sea?’
‘I want to go home,’ moaned May. ‘You can keep your ships.’
‘You’re an unnatural Liverpudlian!’ teased Lily, but she turned her back on the river and looked up at the clock on the Liver Building. It really was time to go. ‘I used to yearn like crazy to travel when I was young,’ she mused.
‘Don’t you now?’ asked her brother.
‘Chance would be a fine thing!’ She smiled wryly, considering how her mother dying after May’s birth had stopped her dreams.
They puffed their way up the open gangway to avoid the crowds from the ferry, who in the main were heading for the covered passengerway. The tide was in and below them the water with its distinctive smell of salt, oil and mud surged in the gap between the landing stage and the wall of the Pierhead. Faraway places with strange-sounding names, calling, calling, she thought.
‘I’d like to see the animals,’ said Ronnie. ‘Tigers and elephants!’ He made a trumpeting noise.
Lily shushed him because as they reached the top of the gangway she was aware someone was speaking. The voice was strong, powerful, and spoke the King’s English with a distinct colonial accent. He was obviously new among the Bible thumpers who did their best some Sundays to convert those using the ferries or simply taking a stroll. She paused. He had attracted quite a crowd. She edged her way nearer to the front, dragging May with her while Ronnie followed more slowly. She was surprised to see he was dressed in some kind of habit, and stopped, prepared to listen to what he had to say.
‘We’re not staying, are we?’ said May loudly. ‘I want me tea and I’m tired!’
The preacher’s head turned in her direction and Lily saw he was about thirtyish, with weatherbeaten skin and a mop of wavy bleached fair hair with a funny little tuft that stuck up from his crown. ‘Man – and girl – shall not live by bread alone but by every word of God,’ he paraphrased. ‘Jesus said, come on to me all that are heavy laden and I will refresh you.’
‘I wouldn’t mind some bread right now, wack!’ yelled someone in the crowd. ‘How about one of those miracles like what Jesus was supposed to have done?’
The corners of the preacher’s mouth lifted. ‘Do you just happen to have five loaves and two fishes, brother?’
Lily smiled. ‘You could see if the Isle of Man boat’s in? Perhaps you could do something with a kipper?’
There was a ripple of laughter.
He looked at her and the expression in his eyes was amused. ‘A challenge!’ he shouted.
But before he could say more an elderly woman said, ‘Oh leave him alone! He’s got a lovely voice and I like listening to it. Yer a load of heathens, the lots of yous. A trip to church’d do yer all good, only it would probably collapse with the shock.’
‘Yeah! Lerrim speak,’ shouted a young voice this time. ‘Aussie, aren’t yer, mate?’
‘My dad was Liverpudlian!’
A cheer went up which Lily joined in. She was enjoying herself.
‘We have a hungry little girl,’ said the preacher, his expressive eyes reaching out over the crowd. ‘And what can I do about it?’ He did not wait for them to answer but from the pocket of his habit took a brown paper packet. The crowd fell silent, watching him open it. ‘Inside I have what I’m told is a genuine Scouser bacon buttie!’ He flourished it in the air before stepping down from his soapbox and approaching May.
‘Lil, I wanna go to the lav,’ she whispered, jiggling from one foot to the other as he drew near.
‘You started this,’ said Lily, having a fair idea what was on the preacher’s mind. ‘You’ll just have to wait.’
The Australian stopped in front of them and pulled away a piece of the sandwich and held it out to May. She hesitated.
‘Take it,’ murmured Lily, squeezing her hand. Her sister did as she was told. ‘Eat it.’ May obeyed.
‘What about you?’ said the preacher, whose grey eyes possessed a warmth and intensity that Lily had never seen before in a man.
‘Thank you.’ She smiled and took a piece. ‘Not quite how Jesus did it but I think I get the point.’
‘I’m glad I’m not wasting my time.’ He smiled and they continued to stare at one another. Roman Catholic, thought Lily, what a waste of a man.
He moved on to the next person. ‘Got me own butties, mate,’ Lily heard the man say, and took them out of a pocket and opened them, offering half of one to the person next to him.
May tugged on her hand. ‘Lil, I really do want to go to the lav,’ she whispered.
Reluctantly Lily moved away, but she was remembering how, when she was Ronnie’s age, she had been fired to carry the gospel overseas to sunlit lands. Maybe living in Liverpool had a lot to do with it? The river and religion could not be ignored. People travelled to and from the port; some settled, bringing with them their own particular brand of faith, often challenging that of those whose families had lived in the port for generations. Her family had never been drawn into what her father’s brother, William, called tribal warfare. He was a Nonconformist and worked hard and he and his sister Dora followed the faith in their own way. Her father, though, said all religion was airy-fairy and caused nothing but trouble. Her mother, who’d been Welsh and had once been strong Chapel, had hushed him, saying good-humouredly, ‘Do you want to be hit by a thunderbolt?’ ‘I’d like to see it!’ he had replied, but had not argued when his wife had the children baptised in the local parish church so they could go to its school just five minutes’ walking distance from the dairy. After she died he never set foot in church again, however, but found his spiritual, and temporal, nourishment from a bottle.
Lily sighed as she considered her life. Sometimes she still dreamed about those faraway places, and of a man who could match up to a picture she carried in her head. Someone who was tall, dark and handsome, who could be gentle and strong, generous but sensible with money, with a sense of humour and no conceit, who knew exactly what he wanted out of life. She knew it was a tall order, especially as she was nearly twenty-five and still had responsibilities that tied her to the family, but she had not yet given up all hope.
Lily set fire to loosely balled newspaper, watching the flames sear a charred path through Herr Hitler’s nose before the chipped firewood caught. Her gaze wandered to the rattling kitchen window, misted with condensation, and she imagined the sun blazing down on scorched earth and a man in a pith helmet, short-sleeved shirt and shorts that revealed sunburnt muscular legs. In an instant an image of the priest at the Pierhead flashed into her mind and she wondered what his legs were like under his billowing habit. She smiled wryly, shook her head and washed her hands before fastening a white apron over a hand-knitted blue jumper and tweed skirt. She dragged one of her brother Ben’s caps over her dusky curls and pulled on an old mackintosh. Yesterday had been her birthday, and she was conscious of time running out.
‘Lovely day, Lil,’ said Ben as he slipped past her and opened the door. He was three years younger and possessed the same colouring as her but was burly and stocky.
‘You need glasses.’
He grinned and side by side they raced down the wet, slippery length of the backyard, past the cool room to the shippon. Lily pressed the electric switch and light dazzled on whitewashed walls, revealing the cows tethered in the stalls. Brother and sister began to shovel grain into the feed boxes.
‘What d’you think of some Methodist leaving £60,000 to the Anglican Cathedral fund and his wife only £520 a year?’ said Ben, glancing at her.
‘Strange! Perhaps he’s trying to buy his way into Heaven like some used to hundreds of years ago?’ Lily put down the shovel and tied the cow’s tail to its leg before turning her cap back to front. ‘Doesn’t say much for his wife, though.’