December, 1918


It was hours since Christina Charlotte (Charley, to friends, and some acquaintances) Rankin last ate, and she was a very, very hungry young woman. The air tonight was very unkind, and unkinder still to demobbed VADs who have forgotten how cold it really was back home, after being in France, which to her, was slightly warmer.

And this particular auxiliary nurse had another problem. She was one of many young women who took no chances during the war, because they never knew when they would next see their beau.

If they ever would.

So, Charley, like any other love-struck young woman who weren't exactly street-smart, she gave in to desire. And she suspected that she was with child.

After getting the door slammed on her face by a maid employed by her lover's wife, Charley thought of another place to go. Her dear friend Katherine Ludlow had a little home outside London, one which she inherited from her late grandmother, who died during the war, and while Katherine was working for the Red Cross. They have bumped into each other in St. Nazaire in 1916, and caught up with each other.

"Here, Charley," Katherine had said, as she pencilled in an address on a small piece of paper. "If you ever need a place to bunk in, you're always welcome. But don't expect it to be like Tarleton Keep, although Granny made sure that her little place had mod-cons."

Charley only wondered how she managed to keep that slip of paper, with all the upheaval of war. Maybe because she knew it would be her home henceforth, as her family knew nothing of her whereabouts. Because her family probably gave her up for dead. After all, she disappeared without a trace.

But she still knew what happened to her family. She had friends who keep her informed. Her older brother David was invalided home. Daddy was still alive, and so was Mummy. Her younger sister Lilly ended up marrying the man that she, Charley, trying to avoid marrying. Patrick Fitzwaring was a decent man, but Charley didn't love him. Lilly, however did. Head over heels, in fact. And it seemed that her running away was a blessing in disguise, since Fitzwaring had a large and prosperous estate in Ireland, and he seemed to return Lilly's affections. And who wouldn't? Lillian Hermione Rankin was a sweet, pretty, charming, vivacious young woman whom everyone loved, including her now missing older sister, who was not unkind, not unfortunate looking, and possessed of a keen intellect and a good sense of humour.

The suitcase in Charley's hand seemed to get heavier and heavier each passing moment, and she was hungrier and hungrier. She needed to get lodging soon, and warm, filling food, and that was far away from her.

If only I wasn't such a nitwit and ate at the pub instead.

To her relief, Charley found a nearby bench, one near a lamp post, whose light was burning steadily. Faint with relief and hunger, she opened a satchel she had brought with her, and took out a box of chocolates, ones she'd bought at a brief stop to Calais. She wondered how Mr. Clavèl managed to keep things of pre-war quality, especially since France was heavily damaged by war. Her thin fingers quickly untied the ribbon, and made quick work of the confectionery, as the rain fell over her.

Andrew had gotten used to living a solitary life. After his divorce in 1917, he kept mostly to himself. He still communicated with his friends; without them, he would have instantly lost his sanity and gone suicidal. Alexandra was a pretty, young thing, much too charming to be with a boring old plodder like him.

He was only thirty-three the day the Armistice was signed. But he felt old.

What made it more galling was that Alexandra left him for his younger brother Alasdair. The pain would be less sharp if it had been someone else. But no, she had to go and succumb to his brother's charms. Alasdair and Alexandra ran away and got married in Gretna Green two weeks after the Armistice.

Andrew was in for a very grim Christmas. He didn't feel like spending it in Dovecote (it was what his parents named their home—his childhood home, heaven only knew what possessed his parents to give it that name). Also, he was in no mood for a Christmas celebration. He had a myriad things to do; a list as long as his arm. First, was to find staff. Someone who can act as a valet and butler, a housekeeper, a maid, and a cook. Then again, with all the war casualties, it would be hard pressed to find an able-bodied man. He would have to content himself without a valet and a butler. Andrew sighed, realising that he would also have a problem looking for a housekeeper, a maid, and a cook, as women have also worked their bit during the war. If he had a wife, she would have taken care of these things.

But now, of course he didn't. And doubted she would if she hadn't left.

At least Andrew had work to drown himself in. Gray's Inn welcomed him back in the afternoon with open arms; he was their "star" barrister, and the members—now mostly old fuddy duddies, with a handful of young men received him with great joy. He could see Peter Pryce with a patch over his left eye, Nigel Cransworth with a wooden leg, James Ennisfield in a wheelchair, but with a countenance so cheerful that other people felt surprised that he should still want to work, yet admire him for it. Elliot Clay had a glass eye, and William Findlay walked with a limp, like Andrew did.

Was the fighting all worth it?

All the able-bodied men, so full of promise, now six feet under in places not their home. Unadorned, unvisited. And possibly forgotten in a year's time. Those who survived didn't come back in one piece. Faces disfigured, self-confidence in shatters. Arms, legs, hands, feet—amputated, and with it, hope.

God, I'm beginning to sound like Wilfred bloody Owen. But the chap's got a point though, God bless his soul. What irony, to die a week before the end of the war.

Andrew's thoughts, however, were interrupted by a knock on the door. Cursing mildly, he rose and opened it. There stood a young woman, around eighteen or nineteen. He couldn't make out the rest of her features. Finally, in small, frightened (it seemed to him she was) voice, "Please sir, can I seek lodging for a night? I got lost—and it's too late to get anywhere else. It's not exactly a joke being lost while lugging a heavy suitcase."

The girl was well-spoken, and her voice spoke volumes. Andrew imagined her to be someone educated by a governess. Or sent to a boarding school, if her parents were progressive enough to let her seek higher education.

"Sir?" the female voice asked. It had a tinge of disappointment, and she bent to carry her suitcase. With movement that surprised both of them, Andrew took the suitcase from her. "Do come in. That's some rain."

A grateful look lit up the girl's features as she walked into the house. It looked warm and cosy. "Oh, thank you so much, sir. By the way, I'm Charlotte Rankin. People call me Charley, whether or not they're friends." Charlotte Rankin offered a small, slim hand, which Andrew took, and shook firmly. "Andrew Farnsworth, and you're welcome. Have you eaten anything?" Charlotte grinned sheepishly. "To be honest, it has been hours since I ate anything. But…I can…recompense, truly, I can." Andrew helped the young woman off her coat and hat, revealing her delicate prettiness and a simple outfit of a blouse and skirt. But he said nothing. "I suppose it's not necessary, Miss Rankin. And you may call me Andrew." he said later.

A simple meal was laid out on the table—mashed potatoes, sausages, and peas. For pudding, there was treacle tart. Charley wondered how the treacle tart was procured, as sugar was rationed heavily near the end of the war. She wondered how the man managed, since he seemed to be living alone. Or perhaps he was married, and his wife was out of town.

"I do hope your wife doesn't mind me staying here, Mr. Farnsworth," Charley said rather shyly. Her host shook his head. "I'm not married. Divorced, actually. My wife left me for my brother."

"Oh," Charley said. "I'm sorry. That must be terrible for you."

Andrew Farnsworth shrugged. "I've had a year to be accustomed to it. How about you? A beau you're waiting to be demobbed?"

Charley shook her head. "He's demobbed, all right. But he wasn't who I thought him to be. Turns out, he was married." She heard Mr. Farnsworth making a sympathetic noise. "I'm sorry," he said finally. "That must have been tough."

"A shock, to be honest. I really had no idea. Please let me help you wash up. To make it up for disturbing your peace." Charley said. She noticed that he had finished his meal when she looked up.

"Not at all. Sometimes, the silence can be quite deafening. I'll do the washing up, thank you."

"Well, let me clear it up for you, then. Please?" Charley asked.

"If you insist," Andrew said. Charley nodded, and proceeded to clear the table.