“Honestly,” Edward said, crunching a piece with a decided lack of table manners, “is this not the finest thing you’ve ever tasted?”
“The finest?” she asked doubtfully.
He waved this off. “It’s bacon. How can anything in the world seem bleak when one is eating bacon?”
“An interesting philosophy.”
He gave her a cheeky grin. “It’s working for me right now.”
Cecilia gave in to his humor and reached for a piece of her own. If bacon truly equaled happiness, who was she to argue?
“You know,” she said with a partially full mouth. (If he could dispense with proper table manners, then by heaven, so could she.) “This actually isn’t very good bacon.”
“But you feel better, don’t you?”
Cecilia stopped chewing, tilted her head to the side, and considered this. “You’re right,” she had to admit.
Again with the impertinent smile. “I generally am.”
But as they cheerfully munched through their breakfast, she knew it wasn’t the bacon that was making her happy, it was the man across the table.
If only he was truly hers.
I normally wait to receive a letter from you before writing my own, but as it has been several weeks since we last heard from you, Edward insists that we take the initiative and begin a missive. There is little to say, though. It is astonishing how much time we spend sitting about doing nothing. Or marching. But I assume you do not wish for a pageful of contemplations on the art and science of marching.
—from Thomas Harcourt to his sister Cecilia
Haarlem was exactly what Edward had expected.
The infirmary was just as rudimentary as Major Wilkins had warned, but thankfully most of the beds were vacant. As it was, Cecilia had been visibly horrified at the conditions.
It had taken some time to find the man in charge, and then more than a little wheedling to convince him to go through the records, but as Wilkins had predicted, there was no mention of Thomas Harcourt. Cecilia had wondered if perhaps some of the patients had not been logged in, and Edward couldn’t really blame her for asking—the general level of cleanliness did not inspire confidence in the infirmary’s organization.
But if there was one thing the British Army never seemed to muck up, it was record-keeping. The list of patients was just about the only thing in the infirmary that was spotless. Each page in the register was organized in precise rows, and each name was accompanied by rank, date of arrival, date and type of departure, and a brief description of the injury or illness. As a result, they now knew that Private Roger Gunnerly of Cornwall had recovered from an abscess on his left thigh, and Private Henry Witherwax of Manchester had perished of a gunshot wound to the abdomen.
But of Thomas Harcourt, nothing.
It was a very long day. The roads from New York Town to Haarlem were terrible and the carriage they’d procured wasn’t much better, but after a hearty supper at the Fraunces Tavern, they were both feeling restored. The day had been considerably less humid than the one before, and by evening there was a light breeze carrying the salty tang of the sea, so they took the long way back to the Devil’s Head, walking slowly through the emptying streets at the bottom of Manhattan Island. Cecilia had her hand tucked in the crook of Edward’s elbow, and even though they maintained a proper distance from one another, every step seemed to bring them closer.
If they were not so far from home, if they were not in the middle of a war, it would have been a perfect evening.
They walked in silence along the water, watching the seagulls dive for the fish, and then Cecilia said, “I wish—”
But she didn’t finish.
“You wish for what?” Edward asked.
It took her a moment to speak, and when she did, it was with a slow, sad shake of her head. “I wish I knew when to give up.”
He knew what he was supposed to do. If he were playing a role on the stage or starring in a heroic novel, he would tell her that they must never give up, that their hearts must remain true and strong, and they must search for Thomas until every last lead was exhausted.
But he wasn’t going to lie to her, and he wasn’t going to offer false hope, and so he just said, “I don’t know.”
As if by silent agreement, they came to a gentle stop and stood side by side, staring out over the water in the fading light of the day.
Cecilia was the first to speak. “You think he’s dead, don’t you?”
“I think . . .” He didn’t want to say it, hadn’t even wanted to think it. “I think he is probably dead, yes.”
She nodded, with eyes that were filled with more resignation than sorrow. Edward wondered why that was somehow even more heartbreaking.
“I wonder if it would be easier,” she said, “knowing for sure.”
“I don’t know. The loss of hope versus the certainty of truth. It’s not an easy judgment to make.”
“No.” She thought about this for a long moment, never taking her eyes off the horizon. Finally, just when Edward thought she must have given up on the conversation, she said, “I think I would rather know.”
He nodded even though she wasn’t looking at him. “I think I agree.”
She turned then. “You only think? You are not certain?”
“It has been a disappointing day,” he murmured.
“No,” she surprised him by saying. “To be disappointed one has to have expected a different outcome.”
He looked over at her. He didn’t need to ask the question out loud.
“I knew it was unlikely we’d find word of Thomas,” she said. “But we had to try, didn’t we?”
He took her hand in his. “We had to try,” he agreed. And then something occurred to him. “My head did not hurt today,” he said.
Her eyes lit up with joy. “Did it not? That is wonderful. You should have said something.”
He scratched his neck absently. “I’m not sure I even realized it until now.”
“That is just wonderful,” she said. “I’m so happy. I—” She rose onto her tiptoes and laid an impulsive kiss on his cheek. “I’m very happy,” she said again. “I don’t like seeing you in pain.”
He brought her hand to his lips. “I could not bear it if our roles were reversed.” It was true. The thought of her in pain was like an icy fist around his heart.
She let out a little chuckle. “You made a fine nurse when I was ill last week.”
“Yes, but I’d rather not do it again, so do stay healthy, yes?”
She looked down, in an expression that almost seemed shy, and then she shivered.
“Cold?” he asked.
“We should go home.”
“Home, is it?”
He chuckled at that. “I confess I never thought to live in a place named for the devil.”
“Can you imagine,” she said, her face starting to light up with a mischievous smile, “a house back in England named Devil’s Manor?”
They both dissolved into laughter at that, and Cecilia even glanced up at the sky.
“Watching out for thunderbolts?”
“Either that or a plague of locusts.”
Edward took her arm and nudged her back on the path toward the inn. They weren’t far, a few minutes’ walk at most. “We are both relatively good people,” he said, leaning in as if imparting a juicy piece of gossip. “I think we are safe from biblical intervention.”
“One can only hope.”
“I could probably withstand the locusts,” he mused, “but I cannot be held responsible for my behavior if the river turns to blood.”
She snorted out a laugh at that, then countered with “I myself would like to avoid boils.”
“And lice.” He shuddered. “Nasty little bastards, if you pardon my language.”
She looked over at him. “You’ve had lice?”
“Every soldier has had lice,” he told her. “It’s an occupational hazard.”
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