“Blast!” Major James Gunnison hated when things weren’t in their proper place. A good soldier relied on discipline and order and couldn’t carry out his duties when what he was looking for couldn’t be found.
He continued his search in a foul mood, the pain in his knee a constant reminder of what happens when discipline goes lax and order becomes chaos.
To his surprise, the tea canister was where he’d left it earlier that morning, on top of the Welch cupboard next to a single cup and saucer.
He ladled a modest amount of tea leaves——one must economize in wartime——into a chinaware pot and added steaming water from the kettle. The aroma of freshly brewed tea was bracing.
After replacing the lid, he returned the kettle to the stove. The sound of drops of water sizzling on the hob’s surface irritated him and he growled. This was what he’d been reduced to, drinking tea and idleness.
James carried the tray into the Spartan sitting room, a fire popping and crackling in the grate. He used to find the crisp October air invigorating, but now these cold mornings only served as a reminder of the long, dark days of winter ahead.
The cottage was built of stone, with sturdy English oak beams in the ceiling and a fireplace that drew well. The previous resident had left an upholstered chair and ottoman, moth-eaten and soiled, to be sure, but serviceable, and a small oak table——badly stained and scarred.
They were all James needed.
His leg throbbed, stopping him in his tracks. He set the tray on the table and leaned against the chair, gripping the backrest like a vise.
“Blast and blast!” He yanked his handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped the beads of perspiration from his forehead. When the pain finally subsided, he collapsed into the lumpy cushions.
Pull yourself together, soldier. It’s only a bit of shrapnel.
He’d thought a rest in the country would put him right, but the stubborn wound hadn’t improved. The pain tablets provided a respite, but made him sleepy in the middle of the day. He couldn’t very well spend his days napping like some old moggy in front of the fire, could he?
Not with a war on. He ground his teeth, hating how he’d been forced to leave his command in the middle of a campaign. He should be in the trenches taking care of his lads, not here, nursing a blighty wound. A good soldier was, above all, devoted to his men.
James poured himself a cup of tea. The weak brew reminded him of his officer’s club, of cozy London parlors, of civilization. These were the things worth fighting for.
Unhappily, he might not be in the fight much longer. If his wound didn’t heal, the Army would offer him a desk job or even more concerning, a discharge.
A desk job. Bah!
What would he do with a discharge? The military life was all he knew, had known since he was out of knee breeches. He wasn’t ready to pack it in, to retire. He had plenty of good years ahead of him.
If only his leg would heal.
Livinia Pratt put on the blue dress with the old-fashioned Belgian lace collar that had belonged to her great-aunt after whom she’d been named. Yes, they still dressed for dinner at Fairview Farms, even as the world swirled in disarray around them. It was the one thing Livy insisted upon.
Thankfully the dress still fit, although the buttons did strain a bit against the buttonholes, and the waistline could use a letting out——which she would see to as soon as she had a spare minute. There’d be no extra money for a new dress. They were a country at war.
The Great War, some called this horror.
As expected, the Army had taken away most of their livestock, leaving them with Jenny, well into her third decade and no longer fit to pull a plow, and a few chickens to provide eggs for the children. The rest would go to the soldiers.
These things couldn’t be helped. Their fighting men, boys by most accounts, needed to be fed. She’d given the army a good quantity of beef, milk and grain gladly.
When would this horror end?
One must go on. She wouldn’t fail her children. They needed a mother who could be strong.
With her mind unsettled and weary and the day’s work having taken its toll, she arrived at the dining room where the children waited in their chairs around the dining room table. Wyatt——almost nineteen, a man and yet still boyish in his features——held her chair as his father had done. He looked very handsome in his starched shirt and tie. Elizabeth, a year younger, nine-year-old Grace, and eleven-year-old Winifred looked pretty and feminine in chiffon and lace.
As she sat down, her children looked at her with eager faces. Their innocence made her heart ache. She wanted to hold them close and not let anything outside these four walls touch them. Thank goodness Wyatt would return to in his studies at the agricultural college in Wye. By the time he was finished, the war would be over. Livy sheltered the girls from the glaring headlines about the atrocities in Belgium and France. She tried her best to keep the war as far away as possible.
Livy sniffed. “Grace, take the dog to his kennel.”
Grace’s angelic smile turned into a frown. She didn’t protest but pushed back from the table. The spaniel jumped from her lap and followed her out of the room.
“I told her you’d be cross about the dog,” Winnie said. Only two years older, she seemed infinitely wiser.
“I’m not cross,” Livy ladled out the soup from her mother-in-law’s chinaware tureen and handed her a bowl, “but as you well know, your father disapproved of animals in the house.” In truth, she would’ve done the same at that age and with the equivalent result.
“Did you know there’s a new resident at the Ashers’ gamekeeper’s lodge?” Elizabeth took her bowl.
“Really?” Wyatt’s brows came together. “The place is barely inhabitable.”
Elizabeth turned to her brother. “He’s Gwendolyn Asher’s uncle, just returned from the front. They say he’s a major.”
“By Jove, a real major? I’d surely like to meet him.”
“He’s recovering from a battlefield wound, and not inclined to want company, I’m told,” Elizabeth answered. “In fact, people say the old boy is rather a curmudgeon.”
Livy wondered why the major chose to recuperate in the lowly cottage rather than the Ashers’ lovely home. She would ask Gwendolyn at the first opportunity. It seemed unworthy of her friend that she’d let her uncle stay secluded in such primitive conditions.
“No doubt he has been through a great deal and needs his privacy,” Livy replied. “We should not criticize. Indeed, we owe him our thanks.”
“No other family, I presume,” Wyatt said.
Elizabeth scoffed. “Apparently none that will have him.”
“That’s quite enough,” Livy said. She didn’t mind their curiosity about the new arrival, but she wouldn’t tolerate unkindness.
Wyatt opened his mouth to reply when Grace returned, skipping as she came into the room. Noticing how all eyes were upon her, she slowed to a walk. When she reached her chair, she pulled a long face directed at her sister. Winifred, for her part, didn’t respond, and Livy hoped this would be the end of hostilities.
After everyone had been served, Livy bowed her head. Wyatt rushed through the prayer. Livy said amen and spread her serviette across her lap. Thankfully the subject of the major and his wounds had been set aside. Livy didn’t wish to talk about the war.
“Leek soup again?” Elizabeth grimaced.
“Indeed.” Livy reached for her spoon. “We are grateful to have plenty of them to eat.”
“I love leek soup.” Winifred picked up her spoon and slurped the first spoonful.
“Must you be so indelicate?” Elizabeth frowned. “It’s not lady-like to make such noises at the table.”
Winifred glared at her sister. Livy continued to eat her soup. The battle with Winnie to act like a lady wouldn’t be won in one day.
Elizabeth modeled herself after her grandmother, a Londoner, who possessed exquisite manners and expected everyone to follow her example. The girl’s patience with others was always razor thin, and she locked horns with her sisters more often than Livy would like.
Winnie put down her spoon. “Mother would be very displeased to know you entertained Mr. Morehouse while she was helping old Tom in the orchard.”
Elizabeth’s dark eyes shot daggers at her sister.
Livy hadn’t thought Mr. Morehouse so bold to attempt a rendezvous with Elizabeth here at Fairview.
“I hope you told him to come back at a more appropriate time,” Livy said.
Elizabeth turned sharply to face her mother. “I invited him in to tea——I only wanted to be hospitable. Redding had come down from London, and I couldn’t very well turn him away.”
“Who joined you for tea? Wyatt, did you?”
“’Fraid not, Mother. I spent the better part of the afternoon in the barns.”
Livy returned her gaze of her oldest daughter. “You two were alone?”
“How alone could anyone be in this household?” Elizabeth emphasized her remark by turning an accusing frown upon Winnie and Grace.
Livy was determined not to let the girls argue at dinner.
“Winnie, no one likes to hear tittle-tattle,” Livy said.
The little girl shrank from the rebuke but didn’t protest.
“As for you,” she addressed Elizabeth with as much calm as she could muster. “We’ll talk about this later.”
Elizabeth squared her shoulders. She’d disobeyed Livy on the subject of Mr. Morehouse again. A girl of seventeen had no business in the company of a man who hailed from London and was twice Elizabeth’s age.
They knew nothing of his family or his reputation. What kind of man accepted an invitation to be entertained at a home with the parents absent? Not a gentleman, obviously.
Elizabeth could be shockingly naïve.
Satisfied she’d quelled all dissent for the moment, Livy took the soup away and delivered the beef left over from Sunday’s dinner to their plates, along with some boiled potatoes and swedes.
The little girls picked at their food. Livy was tempted to correct them but didn’t wish for another argument, which would no doubt end in a renewed display of petulance. Mealtime was family time, and Livy was determined that they all be agreeable.
She did make allowances. Her children had experienced tragedy in their young lives, their father’s untimely death, and now this terrible war.
Wyatt’s face was creased into a frightful frown. He’d been quiet most of the meal. His plate remained untouched.
“Is the roast all right?” Livy asked him.
“Yes, Mother.” He smiled weakly. “I’m not very hungry.”
Wyatt didn’t look sick, Livy decided. What could be the problem? His appetite was always so keen.
“Should I be worried?”
Wyatt cleared his throat.
Oh dear, Livy thought. There is something wrong.
“Mother, I wish to speak to you about a matter of importance.”
“Very well.” She put down her fork. “You have my complete attention.”
Her son regarded her with woeful eyes. “I’m not going back to school for the Michaelmas term.”
“I beg your pardon?” Livy found his unexpected announcement alarming.
Wyatt lowered his gaze.
Livy glanced at Elizabeth, believing her son might have confided in his sister. Elizabeth shrugged, looking bewildered. Whatever troubled Wyatt was a complete mystery. What could have brought on this sudden decision?
Livy turned back to Wyatt. Every now and again she would see glimpses of his father——the set of his mouth, the strong jaw, the ears that were one size too large for his head. She could imagine Charles now as her son prepared to make an important announcement.
“I’ve joined the Army.” He spoke with pride, and to Livy’s dismay, finality.
The declaration brought a gasp from Elizabeth. Livy shuddered as if she’d been hit by a sudden blast of cold air.
“Just this afternoon.” Wyatt’s words came out in a rush. “I went into town and signed up.”
“Don’t be a silly goose,” Elizabeth said in strident tones. “You can’t be a soldier. You promised Father you’d take a degree in agricultural economics.”
Wyatt rounded on his sister. “I know what I promised.”
“Who will run the farm? We are short on laborers, as you well know,” Elizabeth said.
“Mother has Fairview well in hand. The harvest is almost done and in the barns. As for the winter chores, there is old Tom Martin and his grandson to help. They can manage what’s left of the livestock and do the repairs that need to be done.” His tone was defensive, but he’d obviously known what their arguments would be.
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes. She was very good at putting her brother in his place. “What will we do when spring comes?”
Wyatt straightened. “The war should be over by then.”
“How can you be so sure?” Elizabeth snapped.
Wyatt ignored her and turned to address Livy. “Mother, it is my duty to serve, and I want to go. You and the girls will get along splendidly I shouldn’t wonder. Aren’t women all over England pitching in and doing a man’s work?”
Livy folded her serviette into small squares. “That is not the point. It’s all been decided what you should run the farm when you’ve finished your studies.”
Wyatt snorted. “Am I not to have a say in the matter?”
The air seemed to have gone out of the room, making breathing difficult. How could her only son have gone against her wishes and done this grievous thing? This was not the boy she had borne and raised. He was somebody else, a stranger living in her son’s body.
“What has caused you to be so impetuous?” Livy asked.
“The Miller sisters came up to me in town and gave me a white feather,” Wyatt said. “They called me a coward and told me I was shirking my duty.”
“How very stupid of them,” Elizabeth countered.
The little girls were thankfully silent.
Livy’s heart broke to hear him speak so solemnly. The locals believed he lacked the courage to be a soldier. She could see how miserable that made him feel.
“I do understand,” Livy said, trying to be supportive. She unfolded her serviette and spread it across her lap. “The Miller girls were wrong to criticize.”
“I fail to see how you could object to me going. The country needs fighting men.”
“Mother, do something,” Elizabeth said. Her tone contained an element of Livy’s own panic.
Livy fought to keep the tremor out of her voice. “Wyatt, you won’t be eligible for a few more days. Do give what you are proposing careful consideration.”
“I have, Mother.” He stared at her with defiance. “Don’t you see? If we all don’t get in the fight, then no one is safe.”
Much as Livy appreciated the sentiment, defending the homeland and all he loved was noble and fine, she would not let him take this course of action. She had lost a husband. The Army had taken away her livelihood. She would not sacrifice a son.
“I understand you don’t feel you’re helping the war effort by staying up at school,” Livy said with a calm she didn’t feel. “As you know, farming is very important to feeding the troops. You can take a leave of absence from school and serve your country here at Fairview.”
Wyatt’s shoulders fell. He made no attempt to hide his unhappiness. “I cannot stay here while a war wages on in Belgium and France.”
Livy grasped her shaking hands together and put them in her lap. “We all need to serve. Your duty is here.”
Wyatt exhaled noisily.
Elizabeth wore a smug expression.
The little girls squirmed in their chairs.
Livy could weep from frustration. He’d gone and enlisted without discussing it with her first. Why the subterfuge? The answer was obvious. He’d known she would have tried to dissuade him. He’d known she would have worn him down, made him promise to reconsider.
“I have made my decision,” Wyatt said, sitting taller. “The deed is done. I signed a contract. I cannot take back a promise.”
Livy averted her gaze. Wyatt was not asking for permission but telling her his decision. He was growing into a man and hoping to take his place among other men.
The world was intruding and she’d no way to stop it.
Livy blinked back tears, fighting to regain her composure. She wouldn’t let the children see how frightened she was. “Doesn’t this stew smell delicious?”
She pierced a fork full of beef, her concentration on the brown sauce dripping on to her plate.
The clatter of silverware on china was the only response.
Livy had tossed and turned all night trying to think of a way to appeal to her son to give up the notion of joining the army. It wasn’t too late. There must be a way to undo what Wyatt had done. In a fatherless family, a farm boy his age could be exempted from service.
Wyatt was so very young and impressionable. Well-intentioned villagers had influenced him. They’d called him a coward, but they were mistaken.
Didn’t she depend on Wyatt more and more to fill his father’s shoes? Hadn’t he shown an abundance of courage since Charles had died?
The farm needed a man’s firm hand. Wyatt must take charge. How could he if he was away in France or Belgium or some other foreign land?
Yawning, she descended the stairs and went straight to the kitchen. The sun poured in from the windows.
Wyatt came in the back door and sat down at the breakfast table. He didn’t look at her. He didn’t wish her good morning with his usual cheerfulness.
Livy was bereft that there should be this tension between them.
“Would you like a fried egg?” It was the only thing she could think to say.
“Porridge will do.” He poured his own coffee, added a splash of milk, and studied his cup.
Livy returned to the sink and looked out the window. She loved this land and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Was she being selfish? Or was she being protective as any mother would be?
“I’m sorry to have been so abrupt with you last night at dinner,” she said, turning around, facing Wyatt adult to adult. “Only you took me by surprise.”
Wyatt spread his serviette across his lap. “There never seemed to be a good time to discuss the matter with you.”
She affected a smile. “Have I been so neglectful?”
Her son shook his head. “No, Mother.”
The strain in his voice was palpable.
Livy changed the subject. It seemed the prudent thing to do. “Your birthday party is shaping up to be rather a splendid affair.”
“Thank you, Mother, for all you’ve done.” Wyatt managed to smile.
“Now you eat a good breakfast. There are a hundred things to do before Saturday.” Livy filled a bowl from the pot of porridge on the cooker and brought it to the table.
Wyatt picked up his spoon. “Could I ask one favor?”
“Would you invite Major Gunnison?”
Livy set the bowl in front of him. The request wasn’t unusual. Everyone within miles had been invited. She should’ve thought of it herself.
She resisted the urge to brush a lock of hair out of his eyes. “If that is your wish, I will send the major an invitation straightaway.”
Livy left Wyatt to finish his breakfast in peace and went to her room. Why not include Major Gunnison on her guest list? She couldn’t abide anyone being alone and it was the tradition of their community to welcome strangers.
Whether the major would accept or not, she wouldn’t venture to guess, but she wouldn’t deny Wyatt this simple request.
Livy checked the clock on the mantel shelf. Mrs. Heath would want to see her about the menu for the birthday banquet. A few other details had yet to be decided on before tomorrow’s fete.
Livy sat down at her desk, opened the middle drawer, and took out a sheet of her best writing stationary.
She stared at the blank piece of paper. Perhaps she’d been too quick to agree to include the major. Having Major Gunnison at the party would be a reminder of what they’d all like to forget.
Would the conversation focus on battles and campaigns and everything else connected to the war? Most certainly, they would have opinions they wished to share. Was it so wrong to leave such topics to another day?
Another consideration made her hesitate. She worried the evening might be too strenuous for a man home from the battlefield. They could be a boisterous lot. Her neighbors and friends would have an abundance of questions.
All the major required was a quiet place in the country where he could heal, maybe even forget, for a little while, what he must return to. Would a room filled with curious strangers be asking too much?
She opened the bottle of ink and picked up her pen. She would leave the choice of attending to the major. Wyatt would be disappointed if he declined, but he would understand.
A soft knock at the door interrupted her.
“Come in,” she answered, turning from the desk.
Mrs. Heath stood in the doorway, her notebook in her hand. “I’m at my wit’s end about what to serve for the dinner.”
“We still have a few chickens left,” Livy said.
“We need the eggs.” Mrs. Heath sighed.
“Yes, we must be mindful about having enough eggs. This is a very special occasion. What will serve as a substitute for meat?”
“Indeed, we will have to be creative.” Mrs. Heath sat primly in the side chair as she always did.
They’d known each other for nearly twenty years. Livy had been a bride when the housekeeper came to Fairview. Charles had insisted. Hiring a housekeeper was one of the many improvements he’d made to the farm.
Mrs. Heath had been patient and wise. In the intervening years, they’d shared the good times and the bad. They’d become friends and even confidants.
“I can’t believe Wyatt will be nineteen,” Mrs. Heath said.
“Nor can I. He was such a good baby.” She remembered those early days well and wished sometimes that she could return to the past.
“He’s grown into a fine young man.”
“I’ve raised them to be independent, and now when they are ready to spread their wings, I am shattered.”
“To be expected.”
“Yes, well...” Livy fought back tears, appalled at how she could fall apart so easily.
Mrs. Heath looked at her hands. Livy had made her uncomfortable with her show of emotion.
“I’m sorry.” Livy cleared her throat and straightened. They all needed to be strong for each other in these most trying of times.
“It is not an easy task to let them go, but we must. They are not ours to keep.”
Livy exhaled, the full weight of Mrs. Heath’s pronouncement was a heavy burden to bear.
“Mrs. Pratt, are you all right?”
“Yes,” she answered. “I was thinking about what I will do without Wyatt here on the farm.”
“He’ll be finished with his studies by June,” Mrs. Heath replied.
Livy didn’t know how much her housekeeper had been told. She didn’t need to explain how her heart would break if Wyatt left them.
“We will carry on until then, won’t we, you and I?” Livy said.
“Indeed, we will,” Mrs. Heath replied without a trace of doubt.
Livy drew strength from such sentiment. She signed the invitation and placed it in an envelope.
“I have another invitation ready for the post,” Livy said, in control of her emotions. “I’ve written Major Gunnison asking him to attend Wyatt’s birthday party.”
“Major Gunnison?” Mrs. Heath’s forehead creased.
“He’s staying at the gamekeeper’s cottage over at Asher Hall. He’s Mrs. Asher’s uncle.”
“So I’ve heard.” Mrs. Health made no additions to her sparse comment. For some reason, she chose to keep her opinion of the major to herself.
“Wyatt asked that I invite him.”
“Very well.” Mrs. Health opened her notebook. “I will post your letter straightaway.”
Livy heard the tone of caution, even disapproval. “Is there something about Major Gunnison that I should know about?”
Mrs. Heath shifted slightly in her chair. “Only he was rather abrupt with Iris Bellwether when she and her daughter paid a call to welcome him. Made them feel inadequate.”
“Not very likable, is he?” Livy remembered what Elizabeth had said at dinner last night.
“It’s not my place to say.” Mrs. Heath averted her gaze.
“We must make allowances,” Livy said. “After all he’s been through on the battlefield.”
Mrs. Heath nodded. “What he must have seen...” She could not finish.
She’d been widowed by an Afrikaner’s bullet in the Transvaal. Mrs. Heath carried her own pain, had endured more than her share of sacrifice.
“I cannot imagine. How could anyone?” Livy shivered. Now Wyatt wished to join the major and the rest. At times, it seemed the entire world was unraveling before her eyes.
How would they ever get through it?
A commotion outside diverted Livy’s thoughts. She rose to peer out the window. A black Daimler, the boot piled high with cases, had stopped at the front steps.
“My mother-in-law has arrived,” she said.
“Would you like to continue this discussion at a later date?” Mrs. Heath asked.
“Yes, I must go and greet Mother Pratt. It won’t do to leave her unattended.”
Mrs. Heath rose from her chair and picked up the invitation. “I’ll send up a menu for your approval.”
Livy’s relief was immediate. “That would be lovely.”
“Will there be anything else?”
“Not for the moment.” Livy smiled. She didn’t want Mrs. Heath to worry. “I am grateful to have you to depend on.”
Mrs. Heath acknowledged the compliment with a nod, and then exited, a model of enviable efficiency.
When James spotted the chatty postman coming up the path, he hobbled inside the cottage and shut the door. The man whistled as he opened the stubborn gate and walked up the path. A letter dropped through the postal slot but thankfully the postman didn’t knock.
“What is this?” James mumbled as he picked up the envelope and saw the return address.
Mrs. Livinia Pratt, Fairview Farm.
Looked like an invitation. Dinner or a garden party so he may be introduced to the locals.
Bah! He was in no mood for a party.
He tossed the envelope on the table and slumped into his chair. The effort cost him a streak of searing pain from his knee to his thigh. He propped his leg on the ottoman. Convalescence was overrated, in his opinion.
These minor flesh wounds were only a matter of the mind overcoming the demands of the body.
James glared at the missive on his side table. Other neighbors had stopped by with words of encouragement. He hadn’t let them in. Hadn’t he told Gwendolyn in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want company? Hadn’t he made his preferences perfectly clear?
Why did their persistence exasperate him so?
He picked up the envelope and tore it open. The writing was all swirls and curlicues. He inhaled the scent of lavender.
Just as he’d suspected, Mrs. Pratt had sent him an invitation.
The woman explained the occasion was her eldest son’s birthday.
In other circumstances, James would’ve begrudgingly accepted such an invitation. Not that he wanted to attend. He hated parties, but his attendance would be required as a regimental officer and a gentleman.
This time there were practical matters to consider. He’d no means to get there and wouldn’t impose any more on his niece and her husband. Even if he could find transportation, he hadn’t brought any formal attire.
He rose clumsily from the chair to search for ink and pen. He found neither.
“What the blazes!”
James had no choice but to walk up to Gwendolyn’s house for supplies. He could perfectly well manage the half-mile walk to the Hall. In fact, fresh air and exercise were exactly what he needed. He picked up his hat and squashed it on his head, ready to do just that.
As James slogged up the hill to Asher Hall, the pain in his knee cut like a serrated knife against the bone. He planted his stick in the soft dirt, every step a challenge, determined not to yield to his wound’s tyranny.
A rock under the shade of a poplar provided a place to rest. He sat. A wren flitted to a branch overhead, looking concerned.
“You needn’t worry,” the major told her. “I’m perfectly all right.”
It was a lie. He’d thought he was getting better but, in his foolishness, this walk had made matters worse. The half-mile should’ve been child’s play. The constant throbbing in his leg convinced him he’d taken on too much.
Bloody nonsense. He wasn’t an invalid and shouldn’t act like one.
The chug of a motor claimed his attention. The noise carried from the direction of the estate.
As he struggled to his feet, a motorcar came over the hill. Puffs of dust followed it.
The klaxon blared. The driver had seen him. The motor slowed and then stopped.
Gwendolyn was behind the wheel. She shifted the gear into neutral and poked her head out the window. Every time he saw her, he marveled at what a splendid young lady she’d become.
“Uncle, how delightful. Are you paying us a visit?” The feather in her hat bobbed as she spoke.
Her sunny disposition reminded him of her mother. Judith had always radiated warmth and caring in her expression and her manner. People were drawn to her laughter. She’d been the perfect debutante, and suitors had lined up at her father’s door.
Gwendolyn was waiting for his answer with brows arched.
“Actually, I am in need of some paper and a pen,” he said.
“So, you wish to correspond with someone?”
He’d no doubt she was teasing him. “I wish to respond to a birthday invitation.”
“Do you mean Wyatt Pratt’s birthday? I’m so pleased Livinia has invited you.”
“Unfortunately, I cannot attend.”
“Why ever not?” She eyed him as he leaned on his stick. “Ronald and I would be happy to pick you up in the motor if that is your concern.”
“I thank you for the offer, but circumstances…”
“Circumstances?” She’d interrupted because she needed particulars. What excuse could he give that she wouldn’t pester him with additional questions about his injury?
“Suffice to say I’m not prepared for a formal evening.”
“Fiddlesticks. You could borrow one of Ronald’s evening suits. I’m sure my housekeeper could alter the coat and trousers to your satisfaction.”
She’d set her mouth. Her gaze bore into him, daring him to say no. This was the Gunnison side showing through. They all were a stubborn lot.
James shouldn’t have hesitated.
She smiled triumphantly. “I’m so glad you changed your mind. Don’t trouble yourself with a response. I will telephone Livinia and let her know you accept and send the tailor around for your measurements.”
“Hold on. I didn’t say I would go.”
She wasn’t listening. She ground the gear into first, slipped the clutch, and was off, driving down the middle of the road.
Remarkable how these young people were always in a rush, James decided. He headed back to the cottage, cross with himself for having been so easily persuaded.
He’d not been able to say no to her mother, either.
By the time he reached the front garden, he was hot and thirsty. He loped up the path to the door, trying to ignore the pins and needles digging into his knee with each footfall.
The cottage was thankfully cooler. He tossed his hat on a wooden peg and made his way into the kitchen. The hob had gone cold. The stone pitcher for water was empty. The well in the back garden seemed miles away.
Tinned beans were all that was on offer in the larder. Beans it would be for his noon day meal. He opened a tin and stared at the thin, pinkish sauce. The sight made him grimace.
He was a soldier. He’d eaten worse.
He set the tin on the table and slumped into a rickety wicker chair, exhausted.
A neighbor has asked him to a birthday party, a local affair for her son. She wished to include him, a stranger, in an evening of frivolity.
He’d plenty of excuses for refusing, but Gwendolyn wouldn’t hear any of them.
Make no mistake. It would be the first of many invitations, some out of kindness and others out of curiosity.
The locals would seek reassurances. He’d none to give. They would ask about any progress on the front. How could he tell them progress was measured in inches and the blood of soldiers? That the dead were too many to count?
That the war meant to last a few months showed no sign of ending?
He couldn’t. Nor would be try.
James pushed the tin away, his appetite gone.