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Overseas(5)
Beatriz Williams

“I beg your pardon, madam,” Julian said and then turned to Warwick, speaking next to his ear in a stern whisper he evidently thought me too far gone to overhear. “Where the bloody hell else can I take her? It’s pouring rain; the cafés aren’t open yet. She’s no streetwalker, that’s clear.”

Warwick snorted.

“For God’s sake, look at her. You’ve never seen a prostitute”—Julian spoke the word in such an undertone I could only guess it—“with a face like that.”

“You’re mad, Ashford. She might be a damned spy, for all we know.”

“Rot. Where’s your humanity, man?” He turned back to me. “You’re quite sure you can walk?”

“Yes,” I said, taking a step. Strength was beginning to return, now that the immediate shock of meeting him had receded, but the nausea still lingered.

“I’ll help you. Come along; it’s not far. The landlady has a parlor, quite private and suitable until you’re well enough to continue.”

“I…” I nearly refused him, but then I remembered this was why I was here: to win his sympathy, to gain his trust. “I’m so sorry to trouble you,” I said instead, and the words sounded alien, unlike me.

“Here we are, then,” he said, guiding me forward with his arm. “Be decent for once, Warwick,” he added, “and see about that doctor. Hamilton, you’ll help him, won’t you?”

He assisted me across the square and down a side street, not saying anything except for the odd short warning about loose cobbles and sidewalk edges. I stumbled along as if in a dream; or maybe it was a dream. It certainly seemed like one, walking down this street, in this bleak unfamiliar war-ridden French town, with the rain crackling icily down my coat and Julian’s right arm encircling me from behind.

“Just around this corner,” he said, so close I could smell the faint musk of his shaving soap. I had to dig my fingernails into my hand to keep myself from responding, from leaning into him, from slipping my own arm around his waist.

A door appeared in front of me; Julian opened it and led me into a cramped hallway. “Madame!” he called out. “Madame, s’il vous plaît! Come along with me,” he said, drawing me through a doorway to the left.

A private parlor, he’d called it. Dignified words for such a room; private it might be, but the bare floorboards and sparse furniture and meager coal fire felt inhospitable to the point of grimness. A single electric lamp cast a dim circle of light into the gloom; outside, the storm rattled angrily against a pair of darkly curtained windows.

“Let me have your coat; it’s quite soaked through,” Julian said, leading me to a squat provincial sofa with decades of morning visits worn into its burgundy upholstery. I unbuttoned obediently and felt his hands on my arms, behind me, drawing the sleeves away. He folded it once, lengthwise, and laid it on the back of the sofa. “Now, do sit down. You must. I’ll just find the landlady and have her bring a tray.” He disappeared through the doorway.

I dropped into the sagging cushion and tried to gather my wits. A week had passed since I’d arrived in this century, a week of confusion and alienation and hard physical slogging, making my way from the middle of England to war-torn France. I’d had to learn everything from pounds, shillings, and pence to the proper technique for securing a hat with a single long pin; I’d borne all of it under the bruising weight of an impossibly profound grief. And my brain was at last getting used to it all—to the foreignness, of course, but also the unexpected fact that it was so… ordinary. Strange, without all the modern machines and clothes and conveniences, and yet familiar. Bread tasted like bread. Rain fell as wetly as ever.

Julian was still Julian.

But young. Good grief. The physical differences were subtle enough: the hair a shade lighter, the skin more dewy; the face perhaps rounder, less chiseled. The distinction lay more in his expressions, his manner. He wore that unmistakable air of command about him, of course; he’d probably had it since infancy, and the experience of captaining a British infantry company had only intensified the instinct. But here, now, it combined with eagerness, artlessness, less ease and practice. He hadn’t quite celebrated his twenty-first birthday, I remembered. I was an older woman to him.

A dangerous line of thought, of course. With unnerving immediacy his golden body rose above mine in the summer twilight, so perfectly authentic that my head bowed before the vision and a heavy weight seemed to press the breath from my chest. I twisted brutally the ring on my finger, forcing my brain to detach, to distract itself with practicalities. No modern expressions, I reminded myself. Tuck in your feet. Posture.

I was going to throw up.

I cast about for a container of some kind, and spied a chipped blue-and-white vase on the windowsill. I staggered over and grasped it just in time.

“My God!” Julian’s voice exploded from the doorway in alarm.

I sagged against the window, my throat burning: bile and humiliation.

2.

I disliked Paul Banner for a number of reasons, but primarily because he was always hitting on me.

He wasn’t blatant about it. That I could have shut down pretty easily. No, his style was smarmier, sneakier, so I couldn’t quite pinpoint just where he’d crossed the line. He’d show up at my desk, for example, and take me out to lunch under the pretext of giving me career advice, but it would still have the nauseating flavor of a date with your lecherous rich uncle. I’d spend the whole time waiting miserably for his hand to show up on my knee, while he probably spent the whole time working up the nerve to do it.

“Katie,” he said now, materializing at the edge of my cubicle and taking a long look down the front of my shirt, “let’s debrief.”

It was just after two o’clock and I was about to crash. I’d had about four hours of sleep the entire weekend, and Charlie had just treated me to an enormous greasy Reuben sandwich—my favorite—from the deli around the corner, to settle accounts over the Alicia incident this morning. It sat in my stomach now in a warm planetary mass, drawing my eyelids downward with the force of its gravitational pull. I could hardly think straight. “Debrief?” I repeated.

“Well, you know, that was kind of an odd situation, back there in the meeting.”

I feigned innocence. “How so? By the way, how did everything go?”

“Good. Great. I think they liked me,” he said modestly. “Let’s grab some coffee. You look like you could use it.”

I couldn’t argue there. I sighed and reached for my bag. “Charlie,” I called over, thinking someone should know where I was going, just in case, “we’re just grabbing a quick coffee downstairs.”

He looked up from his computer screen and took everything in. One eyebrow elevated. “Sure, dude,” he said. “Bring me back the usual.”

One of the benefits of working at Sterling Bates, in my book, was the coffee shop next door. According to the office coffee bores—you know, the ones who drone on about Arabica versus Kenyan beans or whatever—Starbucks was crap, but it suited me just fine. It was a place to go when you were sick of the cubicle; at Sterling Bates we used it constantly as our de facto casual meeting space. Any financial journalist wanting an easy scoop, or for that matter any unemployed taxi driver looking for a stock tip, just had to sit in that Starbucks with a newspaper and a latte and keep his ears open.

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