The doorbell chimed, announcing the arrival of her guests. She reached the top of the landing as Serena ushered Norm and four young men into the foyer.
"Hiya, Charlie. I'd like you to meet a coupl'a my old buddies," Norm drawled. "I thought we could all just spend the afternoon talkin' about flyin' n' stuff." Norm grinned at Charlie, who took his hint to stay relaxed and let him ease into the business at hand.
"Gentlemen, welcome. It's always a pleasure to meet Norm's friends. Shall we adjourn to the terrace?"
She gestured back towards the terrace and led them through the spacious living room and out through a pair of leaded glass French doors. One of the visitors, a stocky older man, whistled in appreciation as he looked out over the gardens.
"That's quite a garden, Miss Steele. It rather reminds me a bit of home." It was clear from his accent that "home" was somewhere in Britain.
"Thank you. The landscaper is particularly fond of maze gardens and couldn't resist. And it's Charlie." She held out her hand in greeting.
"Oh lord, where are my manners? Must be livin' out here on the frontier that's done away with all the social niceties," Norm chimed in, his accent thickening noticeably. Everyone laughed and Norm did the introductions.
"Gentlemen, this is Charlie Steele, as you know. Charlie, this misbegotten lot are some of the best in the business and I'm honored to count them as friends and colleagues." Norm had dropped the hayseed accent and Charlie could tell that she was in for an afternoon of serious business. They poured themselves drinks from the cart and settled down comfortably.
"Howard Easton herewe call him 'Sonny'fought in the Great War. Started out as a kid flying a crop-duster and got pretty good at handling his machine at really low altitudes and through tight spaces. He's one of the best marksmen I've ever seen. I don't think there's a gun he can't shoot."
During the introduction, Charlie watched the expression on the face of the tall rangy Midwesterner. He seemed to have a permanent scowl etched across his features and she wondered if he was uncomfortable. When she looked into his slate-gray eyes, she realized that she had only seen such grim determination in the eyes of other returning veterans, men who would never be able to escape the horrors they had witnessed on the killing fields of France and Germany.
Howard Easton extended a slender, work-hardened hand. In a soft-spoken voice, he said, "Pleased to meet you, Charlie." The handshake was strong, brief, and business-like. She sensed that this was a man who preferred to let his actions speak for him.
Without waiting for Norm, the next man jumped into the conversation.
"I'm James Hale, ma'am. Call me Jimbo." Charlie heard a trace of New England in his accent. She was a little surprised that she liked him right awaynot in a romantic way, but rather like a rakish younger brother who is always getting himself into scrapes and fast-talking his way out. Hale had a twinkle in his blue eyes as they shook hands.
Norm grinned at Hale. "Jimbo here can fix just about any engine. He also developed quite a taste for blowing up bridges and bunkers overseas, but he hasn't been able to find a big need for that back home."
"These two here," Norm continued, gesturing at the remaining two men, "are our imports from across the Pond. This bouncy guy is Colin Carter. We call him 'Lightning.' He's got the fastest hands I've ever seen. Definitely the guy you want with you in a dark alley."
Carter blushed slightly under his freckled complexion and brushed his unruly red hair off his forehead. Green eyes appraised Charlie with a direct gaze. "Just so you know right up front, Miss Steele, I don't have a problem with taking orders unless they're stupid. If they're stupid, I'll be telling you so in no uncertain terms."
She took a sip of her iced tea, continuing to look hold Carter's gaze. "Fortunately, Mr. Carter, I never give stupid orders."
Carter threw back his head and laughed with delight. "I think we'll get on just fine, Charlie."
The fourth man had been sitting back in his chair, watching the interaction. He possessed striking, classical good looks: straight dark hair, warm brown eyes, a slightly aquiline nose, and a cleft in his chin. Charlie pictured him in a maroon smoking jacket with a pipe and a glass of brandy. And probably a hound asleep at his feet, she thought. She was not surprised to hear the voice of a British aristocrat as he rose from the chair and walked over to her, kissing the hand that she extended in greeting.
"Terrence Devonshire, Miss Steele. It is indeed a pleasure to make your acquaintance." What she did not expect was the rapid shift in accent as he continued to talk. "Ow, ya fell for that one right enough, lass. Terry Potter is me name, just a bloke from the docks. None'a that posh stuff's fer real." He grinned at her as he settled back into the chair.
"Well, Mr. Terrence Devonshire-Potter, welcome to Hollywood. Something tells me you'll fit in just fine in this town."
"Merci, Mademoiselle Steele, c'est un vrai plaisir pour moi." Devonshire-Potter began rambling in a perfect Parisian accent as Norm broke in on the antics.
"Charlie, Terry here has got a hundred voices and disguises, some of which he perfected while enjoying the hospitality of the Kaiser. Lucky for him no one could tell that he wasn't born in Vienna, or things mighta' gotten ugly. Now, if he could just stay away from the baccarat tables and the beautiful dames, he'd be a lot better off."
"Well, old bean, I'd certainly be a lot richer, but I'm afraid I just cannot resist a sure thing." Devonshire looked at Charlie with open admiration and more than a hint of interest. She arched an eyebrow and cocked her head slightly, as if questioning his intentions.
"Well, Charlie," Norm interjected, "I've filled the boys in a bit on our plan, but I think we'd all like to hear the rest from you." Now's my chance, she thought to herself. If I'm going to save the Knights, it starts here.
"Gentlemen, if you'll follow me." Charlie rose and beckoned the five men to accompany her. Drinks in hand, they crossed the spacious living room and the foyer to another wing of the house.
When Charlie first conceived of the Hollywood Knights, she turned one of the guest rooms into a combination office and war room, filling it with maps, charts, file cabinets, a large desk, and an immense table that dominated the center. She could tell that the flyers were impressed with the amount of data, and she sensed that they were beginning to realize that she was more than a pretty little rich girl who was flying around for thrills.