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Beatriz Williams

Amiens, March 1916

The rain beat steadily through the night and into the meager dawn.

My raincoat had wilted long ago, and still the bitter spray leapt up against my hands from the nearby cobblestones, drummed out the minutes as the congregation chanted matins in the cathedral across the square.

In some distant corner of my mind, I must have recognized the discomfort. The rest of me hardly noticed. I only huddled there on a wooden bench, under the scanty shelter of a green-striped café awning, and studied the cathedral’s west front with trancelike devotion. Inside that soaring space, Captain the Honorable Julian Laurence Spencer Ashford stood with his fellow British Army officers, reciting the psalms and the responses, bowing his head to his Lord. Soon he would rise to his feet and walk through a sandbag-framed door into the dismal wet square between us.

What would I say to him?

A surge of rainfall struck the awning above me and rolled along the cobbles in a wave, flinging itself against the cathedral towers; in that instant, the first low clangs of the bell tolled out across the square to signal the end of services.

I stood up, my heart striking madly against my chest. A few figures began to emerge from the doorway, shrouded by the downpour and the muted light of the early morning hour, and for a second or two I hesitated. I imagined our meeting, and my limbs went slack under a fresh burst of self-doubt.

But then a new and more horrible idea flashed across my brain.

What if I missed him?

I plunged in panic from under the awning and hurried across the square. I hadn’t thought of that. I hadn’t thought I could possibly let his familiar figure slip by me, and yet as the bodies appeared, one by one, I realized the British officers all looked alike. All of them dressed in identical khaki trench coats, all wore the same peaked caps, all sported puttees and dark leather shoes. They were like images from a history book, from a war movie. They didn’t look anything like the man I knew.

But Julian was there. He had to be. On this day, in this town, in this cathedral, he had attended morning services with another officer and walked back to his billet near the train station. It was a historical fact. I anchored myself to that thought: it gave me courage. I scanned the shifting bodies in front of me, bore down determinedly on a man in khaki and stopped him.

“Excuse me,” I said, and cleared my throat. “Excuse me, can you tell me if Captain Julian Ashford attended services this morning?”

He looked astonished, as if a medieval king had leapt off the cathedral façade to address him.

“Please,” I said. “It’s really important. I have a message for him, an urgent message.”

“Yes, he was there,” the man said at last. He turned to the doorway. “He was sitting up front; he should be out directly.” He looked back at me and opened his mouth as though he wanted to say something more, but hurried away instead.

I stood there, letting the chill rain roll down my body, clenching my fists rhythmically against my coat, waiting. A few French officers came out, and then a cluster of nurses; townspeople, all women; a lone British officer, not Julian. He stopped, consulted his watch, stepped aside.

Into the void walked a tall familiar figure.

Julian. He looked exactly as I remembered, and yet so alien. His luminous face, his broad capable shoulders, the little smile curling the corner of his full mouth, the glance upward into the weeping clouds, the hand reaching up to settle his cap more snugly on his forehead: I knew all those details intimately. I had last seen them only a week ago. But it was all enclosed in his uniform, martial and colorless and nothing like the modern clothes in which my memory dressed him. My brain seemed to split apart, unable to process the two images together.

I realized he was walking away, together with two other officers. “Julian!” I called, but the word came out in a croak; I could hardly hear it myself. “Captain Ashford!” I cried, more loudly. “Captain Ashford!”

He turned at that, searching through the crowd for my voice, brow creased in confusion. His companions turned too, inspecting the faces around them, but Julian found me first, picked me out effortlessly from the shifting throng. He cocked his head and watched me approach, not moving an inch, sizing me up, his skin gleaming with rain in the hazy glow of a nearby arc lamp.

He didn’t know me at all.

I’d told myself to expect that, but the sight of his puzzled face still shocked me. It didn’t show the smallest bit of recognition. I was a stranger to him.

“Captain Ashford.” I tried to ignore the sting of his indifference, tried to ignore his beauty, his magnetism, and the shattering love I felt for him. “Do you have a moment?”

He opened his mouth to say something in reply, some demand for more information, but at the last instant his expression shifted from suspicion to concern. “Madam,” he said, “are you quite all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine,” I said, but even as the words left my lips, I realized the blood was draining from my face, that my ears were starting to ring and my knees to buckle under me. Don’t faint, I thought urgently, don’t faint, but already I was pitching forward.

Directly into his astonished arms.


New York City, December 2007

On the morning I first met Julian Ashford, I woke up panting, roused by the excruciating intensity of a dream I could not fully remember.

At the time, with no reason to believe in anything but the concrete and linear, I put it down to anxiety. I often had nightmares before major business meetings, assuming I was lucky enough to catch any sleep at all. They weren’t particularly imaginative. I’d be running late in the morning and find myself stuck in slow motion, as if my arms and legs were made of wire; or else struggling to perform the lead role in a play I’d never rehearsed. Naked, of course.

But this dream was different. It had been submerged not in anxiety, but in a form of panic, so painful it was almost pleasurable. I’d been talking with a person—no, a man. Someone I cared about deeply; someone who cared about me. I’d been trying to explain something important to him, something vital, but he couldn’t understand me.

I squeezed my eyes shut, struggling for details, the quick thrust of my heartbeat banging violently into my eardrums. Who was he? Not my father, not a friend or colleague. No one I could identify. The sense of him was already fading, leaving me abandoned, shipwrecked.

I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling for a moment, and then I threw off the duvet. I showered and dressed and fled to work, but the foreboding persisted, like a vise around my brain, even as I burst free from the subway stop on Broadway and Wall Street and swept up the towering sunlit phallus of the Sterling Bates headquarters, where Alicia Boxer awaited me on the twenty-fifth floor.

An early riser, Alicia; it was her only virtue.

“I mean, what the fuck, Kate?” she demanded, by way of acknowledging my arrival. “Where the fuck did these revenue numbers come from? Nineteen percent in year five?”

She sat at the far end of the bank’s best conference room, surrounded by wainscoting and bamboo shades and peaceful low-voltage incandescent light: an elegant contrast to the Modern American Cubicle theme on the Capital Markets floor downstairs, where I was currently on rotation. The presentation books for today’s meeting lay stacked in front of her on the mahogany table; her venti holiday-red Starbucks cup perched dangerously close to them, scenting the room with vanilla latte.

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