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LAST ONE HOME by Shari J. Ryan
Release Date: March 22, 2021
Cover Design: MadHat Studios
Genre: Historical Fiction
Trope: World War II, Pearl Harbor
From the author of Last Words, USA Today Bestselling Author Shari J. Ryan brings readers a new, unforgettable novel. Last One Home was inspired by true events of the attack on Pearl Harbor and World War II.
AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOR
THIS IS NOT A DRILL
Piercing sirens led to cries for help. The pungent scents of burning oil would be seared into our memories forever, and the meaning behind loss was incomprehensible on that infamous day in history.
Twenty-year-old Elizabeth Salzberg, a nursing student and strong-willed Jewish woman, lived under the strict guidance of her father, a naval commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Oahu, Hawaii. For the five years following her mother’s untimely death, Elizabeth had struggled to abide by society’s expectations of a woman’s duties. While spending her days preparing meals and keeping a clean house for her father and brothers, Elizabeth desired a more profound sense of worth and purpose in life.
Elizabeth’s dream of escaping the rigorous daily grind was drifting out to sea just before her unexpected encounter with the new handsome lieutenant on base. Everett Anderson, a former Hollywood actor who put his career on hold to serve in the Army is the talk of the town as women gossip over his arrival. Despite the attention, Everett fell for Elizabeth at first sight, but unbeknownst to him, she was the commander’s daughter and off-limits to all servicemen on base.
On the morning of December 7th, 1941, a forbidden romance was the least of Elizabeth and Everett’s worries when they found themselves fearing for their lives as they dropped to the ground beneath the air attack that would wipe out the U.S. Fleet within hours.
Elizabeth saw this pivotal moment as a turning point in her life. An opportunity to join the Army Nurse Corps was the purpose she had been seeking. She knew the country needed her services. This path was in resistance to her father’s wishes and would likely disrupt any future plans between her and Everett, but despite the internal battle to make a life-altering decision, Elizabeth felt an overwhelming need to prove her strength as a coming of age woman at a time when equality was more important than ever.
Could Elizabeth and Everett survive the bloodshed and tears of war, or would one have to come home without the other?
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We approach the front doors of the commissary, but Audrey hesitates. “I’m not sure I want to know what I look like at the moment,” she says, smoothing her hands down the sides of her hair. To be imperfect when walking into a store is what some ladies find to be a sin, but the both of us were in the trenches of an atrocious viral outbreak this morning.
To Audrey’s credit, her hair has slipped from its pins, and the moisture in the air has added an abundance of volume to her barrel waves but upon a closer look, I notice her creamy beige eyeshadow and mascara are a bit smudged, and the lipstick she reapplied several times today has faded to her natural pink pigment. I can only imagine the way I must appear. At least Audrey has dark hair and complementing lashes and eyebrows. The coloring of my features matches the strawberry blonde hue of my hair. I imagine I look sicker than I did an hour ago.
“Let’s cross our fingers we don’t run into anyone we know,” Audrey says, peeping around the outside of the store as if we’re doing something that could land us in hot water.
“Two paper bags might come in handy,” I tease.
Audrey places her finger beneath her chin, appearing to be thinking about my suggestion. “Well, it isn’t the worst idea,” she replies. “At least we still have time before the afternoon rush.”
The commissary is busiest at three unconventional times during the day. For the first two hours, the place fills up with ambitious women, who have a solid plan for the day.
Then, just after lunch, women with children in school try to finish the last of their errands before the kids come home.
The third group arrives just after completing their daily duties. These are the unmarried men who conduct their weekly shopping in increments without a pre-planned list.
Dad detests when I end up at the commissary around the last busy hour of the day. Of course, he’s aware of the unwritten fairy tales that take place at a grocery store—it’s said to be where every fairytale love story begins. I know Dad wants nothing more than for me to find a suitable husband to settle down with, but per his absurd request, the man of my unknown dreams shall not live on this military base.
His explanations have never been clear, why he opposes the idea of me falling in love with one of the qualified young men he works beside daily, but I haven’t argued the point with him since I am in no rush to settle down. Dad doesn’t understand my independent side yet. He feels that a girl my age should fret about their biological clock, but he doesn’t want me to feel that way about a man who might face a deployment at any unsuspecting minute. In any case, I’m not in the same hurry as the others. I don’t believe the world will run out of husbands any time in the future.
Audrey, however, doesn’t feel the same. She is sure there is a shortage of men, or at least decent ones, and she’s worried all the other women will sweep them up first. Audrey has been on the prowl for quite some time. I watch her wandering eye whenever we’re out, inspecting every potential bachelor with a romantic fantasy swirling around in her mind. More times than not, she finds something wrong with each eligible man she spends over five minutes with. If I’ve told her once, I’ve told her a thousand times to quit being so fussy, let loose, and have a little fun since we’re only twenty once in life, but my words go in one ear and out the other.
As we were hoping, the commissary is somewhat empty. The store clerks have realigned all the buggies and hand-held baskets to prepare for the next rush of customers. Audrey and I each take a basket and loop the metal handle around our arms.
“I can take care of your items. You shouldn’t be carrying so much weight around after upchucking your breakfast, Lizzie.”
It would be awkward to gallivant around the store without a buggy or a basket. No one comes in here to browse, and I don’t know if I’ve met a woman who has left this store with less than a handful of items. “You’re overreacting, Audrey. As you can see, I’m fine now.”
Audrey sets her gloved palm on my cheek. “Dear, you are still white as a ghost. I insist you allow me to help. You know, it’s all right to take a hand when offered sometimes.”
“Well, I know better than to argue with you, so I appreciate your kindness. Thank you. I won’t put much in my basket,” I assure her.
While strolling through the aisles, the memory of why we came here in the first place nearly slips my mind. Though by the sight of Audrey’s basket, she hasn’t forgotten a thing. Soup. That’s right. She has more than enough ingredients to boil a pot of soup.
“Oh, just one more thing that will fix you up. You can’t have soup without crackers when you’re sick. Then we’ll be ready to check out,” Audrey says, holding up a finger and pivoting on her heels. I drag my tired legs behind her but stop when I hear a hushed conversation from the next aisle over.
“Shirley, did you notice who is here?” a woman asks.
I peer over to Audrey, curious if she caught wind of the nearby chatter. The crease between her eyebrows confirms she heard the same whisper, so we lean our ears in toward the stacked shelves, hoping to catch more of what might be juicy gossip.
“Who on earth are you talking about, Greta?” The discussion becomes harder to hear but continues from just a few feet and a wall of coffee grounds away. If only I could get another foot closer, I could find out what they’re saying. But if I lean in any further, I may become one with the shelves of tin canisters.
“Evidently, Everett Anderson is relocating to this base.”
Everett Anderson. The mention of this name is so startling that I lose my balance. No matter what I try to reach for, it falls with me. Even though Audrey lunges for my arm as a last attempt to prevent what’s about to happen, I only end up pulling her down too.
A round of crashes, clangs, and shrieks blare through the store as the shelves moan and croak, tilting into the next aisle. I thank the heavens above when the display shelves catch on the surrounding ones, keeping the racks from falling to the ground. Only the shelf-lined products fell, but they landed right on top of the poor ladies who were having a private chat.
Once I’m able to right myself, I rush to the next aisle with my hands cupped over my mouth. “I am so deeply sorry for falling into the shelves. Ladies, is everyone all right?”
I reach over to the shoulder of the woman closest to me. Her right palm is on her chest and the other hand is against the shelf that was about to crash down. The second woman is already frantic about working to tidy up the mess of cereal boxes.
“Goodness, gracious. I am terribly sorry. You see, I had become ill earlier and my dear friend Audrey was trying to collect items to make me a pot of soup. I must have fallen dizzy again. How embarrassing,” I continue gabbing, hoping one of the two will say something, anything at all.
“You scared me silly.” The woman isn’t much older than me, but by the wedding band outline beneath her brown fitted gloves, I assume she’s a housewife shopping during an off hour. “Gerta,” she says, introducing herself as she removes her hand from her chest.
“Gerta, again, I apologize for frightening you. I’m Elizabeth.”
“Oh sure, now I know why you look familiar. I’ve seen you around,” the other woman, who I suspect to be Shirley, states. “You are Commander Salzberg’s daughter, yes?”
My instinct is to shush her, so no one else in this store hears our conversation. Though, it would serve me right after eavesdropping.
“Yes, I am—his daughter,” I reply as if insulted by the question.
“I’m Shirley. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Elizabeth,” she says.
Audrey scurries around the corner, eyeballing me as if she lost a small child two aisles away. “There you are. I thought you might have gotten sick again.” At least her words place extra merit on my tall tale. “You see …” Audrey chuckles while catching her breath, “Elizabeth, here, got wind—”
My interruption is abrupt, keeping Audrey from completing her sentence.
“Of a fleeting smell that knocked me off my feet,” I say. “Thank goodness Audrey caught me before I went down.”
“A smell?” Shirley repeats. “What in the world could smell so awful?”
“I—uh, there was an open can of sardines—”
Audrey gives me a hard side-glance with yet another motherly glare.
“Anyway,” I snicker, while corralling as many items into my arms as I can hold. “I’ll take care of this. You ladies have a lovely afternoon now.”
“Oh dear, don’t be a fool. We’re all okay, and if there’s one thing we’re efficient at, it’s cleaning up messes,” Greta says with what sounds like forced laughter.
Does anyone want to be good at cleaning? It doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment, but this is the stuff women say to one another as a testament to their achievement of being an outstanding homemaker. Being proficient in tidying up disarray makes me extra sure that marriage is not something I want to rush into.
“Ladies, ladies, is everyone good here? I was searching every aisle for where the racket came from.”
The four of us stand here doe-eyed, with rather senseless gazes toward the man standing just a couple of feet away. My mouth falls ajar, and I’m not sure if I can remember how to use my manners now.
The long-winded sigh expelling from my lungs doesn’t help the situation, but—his smile, it’s as white as it appeared on film and in the magazines. Everett’s alluring hooded eyes glisten, but I didn’t know they were a minty-green until now, and his hair is the color of coffee and milk, which differs from the inky black strands I assumed he had. The coloring in the magazines makes everything look a little different. This man is even taller and broader than he appeared—far more handsome than Hollywood depicts.
“Ladies?” he questions, sounding unsure of himself this time. I realize a full minute must have passed since he already asked us if we were okay. It’s obvious we are all star-struck, standing before this familiar man in his unfamiliar army pinks and greens uniform. He must have joined the Army Air Corps. The branch is brand new, and the uniforms are different—quite striking, in fact.
“Yes, yes, we are just fine. Thank you so much for checking on us … Lieutenant,” I respond after inspecting the rank patches on his sleeve. “I’ve been a big, old klutz today, and I knocked a few items off the shelf. One minute I’m minding my business and then there was a—a smell, and suddenly, everything came crashing down. I sure know how to make a big uproar.” I shouldn’t have been the one to answer his question, since I’m likely the only one of the four who has a nasty habit of talking in circles, but it’s too late.
“You knocked over the entire row of shelves,” Audrey mutters between her pressed lips.
Everett inspects Audrey then the other two women before returning his jewel-like eyes to my big mouth.
“The entire row?” he counters.
“Well, not, as you can see.” I wave my hand at the cereal boxes as if my arm is a magic wand.
“We—we th—thought it was a rumor that you were living on the base now,” Greta says, stuttering through her words.
I cannot convince myself that Everett Anderson, a Hollywood heartthrob, is standing here in the commissary on this tiny island. The odds are almost unreal.
“A rumor?” He chuckles at the statement. “No, more like a secret. I was quiet about my move and the decision to switch careers over the last year. I don’t believe everything needs to be public knowledge.”
“You left Hollywood to join the Army?”
“The Army Air Corps,” I correct Shirley.
“Yes, Ma’am. Hollywood doesn’t fulfill a man’s desire to protect and defend his country.” I’m not sure how someone who must have everything could still feel a lack of accomplishment. “Ladies, if I may—could I ask a small favor of you?”
The four of us say, “Yes,” in melodic harmony.
“Do you think you could keep my whereabouts a secret? The other fellas don’t seem to know who I am. At least it seems most of them don’t. I’m enjoying the freedom from fame.” A wry smirk grows along his perfect lips, as if he’s shy about his reputation. His cheeks even blush a little. He sure is something. A dreamboat, as I’ve called him in the past.
“Of course,” we agree, repeating each other once again as we all nod our heads at the same second.
It’s only a matter of time before he’s spotted by someone who recognizes him, but with as kind as he was to search for whatever trouble he thought was going on here, the least we can do is keep quiet about our encounter. “It was nice to meet you all.”
I know my imagination plays tricks on me now and again, but his last glance before roaming away was most definitely toward me.
The moment Everett Anderson is out of sight, the four of us fan ourselves as if we have been slaving over a stove for hours.
“How are we supposed to keep this a secret?” Gerta asks. I’m not surprised she’s the first one to ask since she was the one who started the initial whisper of gossip to begin with.
“I’m sure it’s the least we can do for a gentleman giving up his freedom for our country,” I say. Acting superior to other women on base isn’t a wonderful quality, but I should protect this innocent man and adhere to his plea of silence.
“Right, absolutely,” Gerta agrees with a hint of snideness along her pinched smirk. “I’m glad you are all right, and I’m all right. All of us are fine and dandy, so I suppose we should get back to our womanly obligations now. Have a good day, ladies,” she says, taking Shirley by the elbow while brushing past us.
When a moment of quiet and clarity returns, I realize how under the weather I must look after my day with a group of vomiting children, and Audrey—her hair is still a mess. I run my fingers beneath my eyes, hoping my mascara hasn’t smudged too much, but my finger is far from clean when I check for damage. Audrey cups her hands around her hair and her eyes grow wide.
“Of all the days and times,” she says with wide eyes, “we run into a famous picture person looking like this?”
“Well, I’m positive we left a lasting impression on him,” I reply.
“We would have been better off with paper bags, Lizzie.” Audrey pats her hand down the sides of her hair once more and reclaims the basket from the floor. “I still need to grab the crackers. Why don’t you meet me at the checkout counter?”
With my empty basket, I allow my eyes to wander while making my way up to the front of the store. I bet he already left. He seems like a man who knows what he wants and can find it fast. Although being new to the base, I can’t imagine he knows his way around the store all that well.
I peek down the aisle across from the checkout counter, finding the area empty. However, when I turn back to the space in front of me, I find a life size display of Spam. The store clerks stacked all the cans to perfection. They are set into a solid column, one on top of another until I stumble into it. I catch the two falling from the top, grateful to be spared of another mortifying situation. Of course, my gratitude must not have been loud enough as several more cans of Spam fall while I attempt to replace the first two.
“Audrey,” I call out, trying to keep my voice down so I don’t attract any extra attention. “Sweetie, could you give me a quick hand?” My question doesn’t sound as calm as I intended.
“It seems you aren’t having a splendid afternoon.”
I clench my eyes and grit my teeth into a smile. Mr. Hollywood is behind me, witnessing another ruckus. He takes the cans I’m holding against the display and places them back in their proper spots before straightening another few that might fall. “Are you sure you’re okay, Miss?”
“Oh yes, I’m swell. Today has been a day for the birds, that’s all.” And now I’m staring at this man like a hungry lion waiting for supper. I don’t stare at men like they are gods of the Greek world. I don’t believe in drooling over sweet talk or perfect smiles. Plus, if I did, and I met him here of all places, Dad would close the door on the subject and the guy quicker than I could accept a date.
With nerves firing through me like short circuits, I pull my hands away from the display, hoping it’s safe to move without causing more damage. Then I watch Everett’s gaze float across my left hand.
“Say, I’m new around here. By any chance, would you have any interest in joining me for dinner? Maybe you could share a few tips about this island?”
I suppose this is how it’s done. This is how a man asks a woman out. I wouldn’t know because of the relentless fear that half of this base has for Dad, but I am certain Lieutenant Anderson isn’t familiar with Commander Salzberg. Not yet anyway.
I can’t help but allow my distraught stare to fall to the floor between us.
“Lieutenant, it’s kind of you to ask, but I don’t think—”
“You are already someone’s girl,” he says, assuming what I was about to say.
I lift my head and stifle a soft laugh. “Oh, no, I’m nobody’s girl, but I’m afraid you might not find my company to be in your best interest.”
It isn’t hard to understand the reason his dark shaped eyebrows are almost touching each other. “I apologize for not understanding, but I’m sure you have a good reason.”
It isn’t a good reason at all. I would love nothing more than to join the Everett Anderson for dinner, but I would have to break rules—rules I have chosen not to flirt with before.
“Well, maybe I’ll see you around sometime.”
“That would be lovely,” I reply.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shari J. Ryan is USA Today bestselling author. She lives in Massachusetts with her wicked awesome husband, and two wild sons who fill her life with non-stop comedy.
With a life full of love, writing, drawing, TV binging, reading, and Starbucks, Shari is living her best life.
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