IT COULDN'T have happened at a worse time, but Neville Hawthorne knew he had no one but himself to blame. He was the one who had stopped reading his letters. He was the one who had fled from grief into obsession. Now the consequences of that obsession were coming to roost, and he still had no idea how he was going to deal with them. At least he'd opened the letter in time.
Cold comfort indeed when one is standing at the dock, watching passengers file off the trans-Atlantic steamer, looking for a single young woman, not knowing if she will be recognizable. Neville thought he might recognize her. He had seen pictures, though the last one had been at least three years ago. Young women changed so much at that age.
Then, like the moment between shadow and sunlight, twenty years vanished, giving Neville his sister back to him as she had been when she had left for the United States with her new husband.
There stood a graceful figure, high-held head crowned with thick chestnut hair that defied a fashionable hat's attempt to tame it. There flashed the violet eyes beneath the shadow of the jet-trimmed brim. There in a tidy mourning black frockwas the womanly form that had made Alice one of the acclaimed beauties of her debutante season.
Here again posed the loveliness that had stolen the heart of Pierre Benet--Pierre who had stolen Alice's heart in turn. When the senior Hawthornes would not consent to their daughter's marrying a penniless French physician, Alice had eloped with her Pierre. Soon thereafter the newlyweds had departed for the United States. Neville had not seen Alice since.
Recollection hit Neville as solidly as a physical blow. He would never again see Alice, not even if he made that long-postponed trip to the United States. A letter had arrived six months ago reporting that Alice and Pierre had died in a conflagration that had also destroyed their home. The fire had reportedly been set by savage Indians who had left nothing behind them but charred wood and the arrow-riddled body of the family dog.
The young woman who could not be Alice walked down the gangplank and made her way through the crowd, coming directly to Neville with perfect confidence. Clearly, she had recognized him.
"Jenny?" Neville said, and heard his own voice emerge hoarse and unfamiliar. "Little Jenny?"
"Uncle Neville," she replied, and her voice, sweet, but decidedly American in accent, broke the spell. "It's me, Jenny Benet."
She pronounced the surname English style, not the French "Ben-nay," but Neville heard traces of a French accent incongruously interwoven with the American. Jenny seemed about to say more, but she paused, studying him. Neville wondered what had caught her attention.
He had long ago recovered from the assault that had forced him to retire from the military, but the scars remained. Those on his head were mostly hidden by thick hair not unlike Jenny's own in color and luxuriance, but nothing would hide the ugly slash that began at the bridge of his nose and carried across his left cheek. Although in his mid-forties, Neville had taken care to remain active, and was not dissatisfied with his form. His father had gone to fat long before he reached this age. The limp remained, of course, and the slight unevenness of his shoulders, but these could not account for the strange expression spreading across Jenny's features.
"Uncle Neville," she said at last, "what's wrong?"
"You look," he managed to reply, giving only part of the truth, "so much like Alice. Those portraits your parents sent never did you credit."
Jenny grinned, a wide, open smile that nonetheless held traces of sorrow too fresh to be forgotten.
"I'm glad to hear you say it," she replied. "I always thought Mama was the prettiest lady I'd ever seen."
There was the trace of the French again, on the word "Mama," and hearing it Neville could imagine Pierre bending over his daughter's infant cradle: "Say Mama, little Genevieve. Say Papa."
Now that Neville could separate his niece from that momentary transformation into her mother, he could see something of Pierre in Jenny as well. These traits were less physical: a confidence he'd never seen in Alice until she'd defied everyone for her Pierre, an alert watchfulness that was a far cry from Alice's missish shyness, that disturbing tendency to assess her surroundings and make instant diagnosis. But then, except through her letters, Neville hadn't really known Alice these past twenty years. Maybe Jenny was like her mother in these ways too.
Neville would have been hard pressed to say what was more unsettling, this sudden onrush of memories, or what he knew he must confess in the near future. Neville settled for focusing on the immediate present, knowing even as he did so that he was delaying the inevitable.
"Are you tired, Jenny?" he asked. "I have a suite ready for you at my house, but if you are hungry we can send the luggage ahead, and stop for cakes and tea."
"Cakes and tea," Jenny replied promptly. "I'm too excited to sleep, and scared stiff that once I see a bed I'll drop off and miss my first day in England."
"Very well," Neville said with an amused smile.
Needless to say, they couldn't leave immediately. Jenny had left her traveling companions rather abruptly when she glimpsed Neville in the crowd on the dock. Now she had to return, make her apologies, introduce Neville, and all the rest. Happily, her companion--a married woman, coming to visit her brother and his wife--was eager to be away with them, so beyond making vague promises to call, there was no added impediment.
Neville thought this was a good thing. Given what he had to tell his niece, an audience would be rather awkward.
A few words to his footman, and arrangements were made for Jenny's luggage. Then Neville hailed a cab, and gave the address of a hotel whose tea room was very popular with locals and visitors alike. He thought it would be easier to tell Jenny what he must there, away from his house and its current uproar.
At least, he hoped it would be. Looking at Jenny, and noticing the lively curiosity with which she was regarding every aspect of London traffic, he wasn't at all certain.
Once they were seated in a private corner overlooking the room, with tea and iced cakes set before them, Neville felt he must begin his confession.
"Jenny," he began, but fate wasn't going to make this easy for him. There was a rustle of heavy silk skirts, and a throaty, melodious voice addressed him.
"Sir Neville, how delightful to see you. I thought you had already departed."
Without conscious volition, Neville rose to his feet.
"Lady Cheshire," he said, bowing over her hand. "May I present my ward, my late sister's daughter, Genevieve Benet? She has only just now arrived from Boston. Jenny, this is Lady Audrey Cheshire."
Lady Cheshire was a handsome woman in her late twenties. She wore her raven locks drawn up into a complicated arrangement that drew attention to her green eyes. The green of those eyes was echoed in the pale silk of her gown, a fashionably lace-trimmed creation in the French style, with a heavy bustle and a rather daring neckline.
Jenny made her curtsey as neatly as could be wished, but the quick glance she darted toward her uncle left Neville quite certain that she had not been so awed by this introduction that Lady Cheshire's reference to Neville's departure had escaped her.
"I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss Benet," Lady Cheshire said, apparently unaware of the undercurrents her words had stirred. "Or do you prefer 'Jenny'? Americans are so much more relaxed than we stuffy English."
Jenny gave an exquisitely noncommittal smile. "Whichever pleases you, Lady Cheshire."
Lady Cheshire raised one elegant eyebrow the slightest amount before turning to indicate the two people who waited politely in her wake. "May I introduce my own companions?" Lady Cheshire said. "Sir Neville, I believe you know Mrs. Syms. Miss Benet, Sarah Syms. Sarah, Miss Benet."
Sarah Syms had the horsey features so common in the English upper class. She was grey-haired and rather plain, with a wiry figure that suggested she kept herself active. This impression was borne out by how her pale blue eyes darted with lively interest between Neville and his niece.
"And Captain Robert Brentworth," Lady Cheshire continued.
Robert Brentworth was a well-built, muscular man who towered over everyone present. His skin was darkly tanned, making his deep blue eyes seem more vivid by contrast. Although his brown hair and mustache were a trifle too coarse to be fashionable, and his features were too regular to be striking, he radiated a vitality that made him undeniably attractive.
Jenny seemed to think so, for her gaze lingered on him for a moment beforeshe glanced over to Lady Cheshire as if attempting to assess the pair's relationship.
Neville wasn't about to explain. Audrey Cheshire was the widow of Lord Ambrose Cheshire, a noted Egyptologist. Husband had been easily thirty years senior to wife, and so no one had been terribly surprised when he had predeceased her. Audrey had nursed her husband most devotedly during his final illness, but as soon as etiquette permitted her to put aside her widow's weeds, she had apparently put aside all memory of her husband as well.
Robert Brentworth had been an associate of Lord Cheshire's, but it was rumored that his devotion to his friend's widow had more to do with her copious personal charms--and possibly the fortune Ambrose had left her--than with any loyalty to Lord Cheshire's memory.
Though Neville had dared hope that Jenny's presence would stop Lady Cheshire's prying, he was disappointed.
"So when do you leave?" she asked archly.
"Within the week," he replied.
"That's very wise," she said. "Dear Ambrose always said that the weather was the greatest opponent for a venture such as you intend. I always found it difficult to believe how cold and snowy England was when we were abroad."
Neville managed a polite enough reply, but could feel his jaw hardening around the things he wanted to say. Perhaps Lady Cheshire detected his irritation, but perhaps she was only aware that she had forced her company on them as long as was polite.
"I must let you drink your tea before it cools," she said, as Captain Brentworth stepped forward to escort her on her way. "I was simply so surprised to still see you in England."
She turned to Jenny.
"Delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss Benet."
"The pleasure was entirely mine, Lady Cheshire," Jenny replied, and Neville was quite certain there was an ironical gleam in those violet eyes. "Mrs. Syms. Captain Brentworth."
They parted company with appropriate insincerities, and Neville managed a swallow of tea while Jenny settled her cumbersome skirts.
"Well, Uncle? You are going abroad?"
"I was about to tell you," he said rather stiffly.
She raised her rose-painted tea cup and sipped, neither helping nor hindering his explanation.
Neville found himself saying rather more than he had intended. "Your parents' deaths, that was the start. I had long meant to visit Alice in her new home, tosee with my own eyes the life she described so vividly in her letters. As you know, I never made the journey. First, there were my responsibilities to the army. Then other things intervened. My parents had need of me; the weather was unfavorable; the political situation ..."
He couldn't bring himself to mention his own recuperation from the injuries that had been inflicted upon him on that dark night, the events of which still haunted his nightmares. He told himself that Jenny had experienced enough suffering without his inflicting his own upon her vicariously, but he knew the truth was that he didn't want to dwell on those memories. The time when the doctors had nearly amputated his leg had perhaps been the worst, but there had been too many others nearly as bad.
Jenny's expression remained neutral. She refilled his cup, then her own, took an iced cake from the plate between them and waited.
"I resolved," Neville went on, "that I should not make the same mistake again, live to regret a promise unfulfilled. I began making arrangements for my return to Egypt."
"Egypt!" Jenny's exclamation held delight and surprise. "Oh, Uncle! When do we leave?"
Neville had not expected this. Indignation that he would leave her so soon after her arrival, anxiety for her own place in his absence, these he had considered, but not that a young lady ending one voyage would relish the prospect of another--and there was no doubt that Jenny relished the prospect of this one.
"I had not intended to take you with me," he began, cut to the quick when he saw the disappointment dim the deep violet of her eyes. "Jenny, I shall not remain in the cities. I know that Cairo has quite a well-established European community, but I would not be able to squire you about--even if I still knew anyone. It has been many years since I lived in Egypt."
"Cities?" Jenny replied. "I would like to see them. Cairo is Arab, of course, the Mother of Cities they call her, though I would rather see the pyramids and the sphinx. Alexandria has a more European pedigree than Cairo, and should be quite sophisticated. Yet Luxor that was Thebes of the ancient Egyptians, perhaps Abu Simbel, Karnak, Kom Ombo ... Those are the places I yearn to see with my own eyes."
Neville blinked, and Jenny laughed, her momentary disappointment forgotten.
"Didn't you know that Mama used your letters to make me take an interest in geography? Your accounts of your travels, the trinkets you sent, the picture postcards, all made those places real and alive. I read tons about wherever you were. I was so sorry when you left the Egypt and returned to England."
So was I, Neville thought, but said nothing.
"I mean," Jenny went on, faltering slightly as if she had read his thoughts. "I mean, England was still exotic and Scotland sounded wonderful, but they weren't Egypt or India or Greece or wherever else."
Neville found his tongue.
"Alice did mention that she shared my letters with you," he said, "but I don't think I ever realized to what use she turned them--or what an avid student she had created."
"Now doesn't that beat all," Jenny said. "And here I am thinking that you know you're my greatest hero, right up there with Mr. Lincoln, who I do admire highly for what courage he had freeing the slaves and preserving the Union at such a terrible cost to himself. Mother must never have told you. She could be so very English, you know."
Neville realized that he'd been completely in error to ever equate his sister and her daughter. Alice would never have spoken this freely to a man she had just met--even an uncle whose letters she'd read for years. Indeed, Alice probably would have gotten all tongue-tied at the prospect of meeting one of her heroes. That was one of the reasons her romance with Pierre had caught everyone off guard, and why Father had thought that simply forbidding Alice to see Pierre would be enough. Neville had a feeling that forbidding Jenny to do something she desired would be about as useful as telling the sun not to shine.
"But, Jenny," he said as gently as he could, rather overwhelmed by his newly acquired status as hero, "I do not intend to stay in any of those cities. Doubtless I will pass through some of them, but I am not touring. I have ... business to undertake."
"In the desert?" Jenny asked, and the glow in her eyes diminished not a whit. "I should like to see the Egyptian desert--camels, jackals, ruins of ancient temples. I think the Egyptian desert would be far more interesting than our American versions."
Neville was determined to nip this romanticism in the bud. "Camels are foul creatures--bad tempered and smelly. Jackals are not nearly as romantic as timber wolves, nasty scavengers that they are, and ruins are not at all what you might expect from the picture postcards."
Jenny dismissed this with a wave of her hand.
"Camels can't be worse than jack mules, and scavengers aren't nasty. They're useful. As for ruins, well, I've seen some that the old-time Indians left back home, and most of that's mud bricks, bits of stone tools, and busted pots. I liked that just fine, so I don't figure Egypt could disappoint."
Neville thought furiously, hunting for any way out other than bald refusal, a thing he already had reason to believe this pert American miss would find offensive.
"Jenny, my expedition is entirely male. It would not be proper for you to travel in such company."
Jenny shrugged. "I'm sure that where it will matter there will be some woman about, and I'll just attach myself to her if needed. If there's no one around to care, well, then, who will care?"
There was a certain logic to her argument, but Neville refused to be seduced. "Currently, my expedition is very small--myself and two other men. Only one of those men is married, and so could be expected to understand a woman's needs and temperament. You ask a great deal of two bachelors."
Jenny didn't press the point, but Neville didn't think this was because she had resigned herself to remaining behind.
He had been planning on leaving Jenny because he had assumed she would want to remain in London. After all, there were the autumn and winter social seasons yet to come. She would be novelty enough to be invited to numerous balls and fetes--she might even land a good husband.
Still, if Jenny really wanted to accompany him, perhaps he could hire some army wife to assume the role of chaperon once he went into the field. Neville did feel rather bad about abandoning the girl so soon after her arrival, and this would ease his conscience and let him settle her where she could at least tour the museums and local ruins. A compromise might be best.
"Woolgathering, Uncle Neville?" Jenny asked, her tone amused. "I've asked three times. Who are the other members of your expedition?"
Neville could think of no reason not to answer.
"The only one traveling with me from England is Stephen David Holmboe, a linguist whose specialization is the ancient Egyptian language. In Egypt we will be met by Edward Bryce, a soldier with whom I once served. He has local contacts, and will be quartermaster for our group."
And military support, Neville thought. No need to tell Jenny that, though, nor explain Eddie's peculiar lifestyle over there.
"Linguist and specialist in the ancient Egyptian language," Jenny mused aloud. "And a quartermaster. And going away from the cities. That sounds like you're going treasure hunting."
"Not precisely," Neville replied frostily.
"I'm sorry," Jenny apologized quickly. "I've rubbed you raw. I forgot. Treasure hunting's not good form any more, is it? People don't hunt for treasure. Theysearch for antiquities that will reveal to us knowledge about lost civilizations. Seems to me the thrill would be about the same."
Neville shook his head in mock chagrin.
"You're not responding like a proper young miss," he said. "Where are all the cries about snakes and spiders? Where are the warnings about the risks we shall be taking? Where the desire for iced drinks and the newest fashions?"
"Drowned at sea," Jenny answered promptly. "I heard enough chatter about fashion to make me ill. Half the women on board were fretting about whether their gowns were too provincial. The other half were already sure that their gowns were and were gloating over plans to visit the best shops as soon as they were ashore. I could tell you enough about bustles and the new debate over appropriate colors to make your head ache."
"No doubt," Neville agreed.
He noted that despite her efforts at self-control, Jenny had been forced to pat back a yawn.
"Come along, my dear," he said, helping her to rise. "We can talk more later. I can't have you falling asleep into your tea."
Jenny smiled sheepishly.
"Thought I could hold it back," she admitted, "but I'm bushed."
Neville settled with the shop, then handed Jenny into a cab. She fell asleep almost before the cab had rattled into traffic, her head drooping trustingly onto his shoulder as her mother's had twenty years before. The jet beads trimming the crown of her hat trembled with the motion of the cab, tickling Neville's cheek a little like tears.