Would she do more than flirt? She had so much to lose; surely she could not be so infatuated as to forget that? Society did not frown on adultery if it was conducted with such discretion that no one was forced to know about it, but even a married woman could lose her reputation if she was indiscreet. And, of course, a divorced woman, whatever the reason for the divorce, simply ceased to exist. A woman put away for adultery could very easily find herself penniless and on the streets. Someone like Imogen, who had never fended for herself, might not survive.

Charles would not divorce her unless her behavior became so outrageous that he had no choice, if he was to preserve his own reputation. He would simply live side by side with her, but separated by a gulf of pain.

Hester wanted to touch him, but the distance of time and intimacy between them was too great. It would be artificial, even intrusive. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I hope that isn’t true. Perhaps it’s only a momentary thing and it may die long before it becomes any more.” How false that sounded. She winced at herself even as she heard her own words.

He looked up at her. “I can’t just sit by and hope, Hester! I need to know. . and do something. Doesn’t she realize what will happen to her. . to all of us. . if she’s found out? Please. . help me.”

Hester was bewildered. What could she do that Charles had not already done? There was no easy cure for unhappiness that she could produce and persuade Imogen to take.

Charles was waiting. Her silence was making him realize more acutely just what he had asked of her, and already embarrassment was overtaking hope.

“Yes, of course,” she said quickly.

“If I just knew for certain,” he started to rationalize, filling in the silence with too many words. “Then perhaps I would understand.” He was watching her intently, in spite of himself, part of him still clinging to the belief that she could help. “I don’t know the right questions to ask her. She might be able to explain to you, then. .” He tailed off, not knowing what else to say.

If only understanding were the answer! She was afraid it would increase the hurt, because he would see that there was no way to escape the fact that Imogen did not love him the way he had assumed, and needed.

But then perhaps he did not love her with the passion or the urgency that she wanted?

He was waiting for Hester to say something. He seemed to think that because she was a woman she would understand Imogen and be able to reach her emotions in a way he could not. Maybe she could, but that did not mean she could change them. Even if the truth would not help, however, it was a certainty that nothing else would.

“I’ll go to see her,” she said aloud. “Do you know if she will be in tomorrow afternoon?”

Relief ironed out his face. “Yes, I should imagine so,” he said eagerly. “If you go early enough. She may go calling herself, at about four o’clock.” He stood up. “Thank you, Hester. It’s very good of you. Rather better than I deserve.” He looked acutely uncomfortable. “I’m afraid I haven’t been very. . considerate lately. I. . am sorry.”

“No, you have almost ignored me,” she said with a smile, trying to make light of it without contradicting him. “But then, I am equally guilty. I could easily have called upon you, or at least written, and I didn’t.”

“I suppose your life is too exciting.” There was a shadow of disapproval in his voice. He might not have intended it this moment, but it was too deeply ingrained in his habit of thought to get rid of it in an instant.

“Yes,” she agreed with a lift of her chin. It was the truth, but even if it had not been, she would have defended Monk and the life they shared to anyone. “America was extraordinary.”

“About the worst time you could choose to go,” he observed.

With an effort of will, she smiled at him. “We didn’t choose. We went in order to help someone in very desperate trouble. I am sure you can understand that.”

His face softened, and he blinked a little. “Yes, of course I can.” He colored with embarrassment. “Do you have the fare for a hansom for tomorrow?”

With a considerable effort, she resisted snapping. After all, it was possible she might not have. There had certainly been those times. “Yes, thank you.”

“Oh. . good. Then I’ll. . er. .”

“I’ll come and see you when I have anything to say,” she promised.

“Oh. . of course.” And still uncertain exactly how to conduct himself, he gave her a light kiss on the cheek and went to the door.

When Monk returned home in the evening, Hester said nothing of Charles’s visit. Monk had solved a small case of theft and collected the payment for it, and consequently was pleased with himself. He was also interested in her story of the trichobezoar.

“Why?” he said with amazement. “Why would anyone do something so. . so self-destructive?”

“If she knows, she can’t or won’t tell us,” she answered, ladling mutton stew into bowls and smelling the fragrance of it. “More probably, she doesn’t know herself. Some pain too terrible for her to look at, even to acknowledge.”

“Poor creature!” he said with sudden, uncharacteristic pity, as if he had remembered suffering of his own and could too easily imagine drowning in it. “Can you help her?”

“Kristian will try,” she said, picking up the bowls to carry them to the table. “He has the patience, and he doesn’t dismiss all hysterics as hopeless, in spite of Fermin Thorpe.”

Monk knew the history of Kristian and Fermin Thorpe, and he said nothing, but his expression was eloquent. Silently, he followed her to the table and sat down, hungry, cold and ready to eat.

In the morning, Hester went back to the hospital, and found Mary Ellsworth in a great deal of pain as the laudanum wore off. But the wound was clean, and she was able to take a little beef tea and to rest with some ease of mind.

In the early afternoon, Hester returned home and changed from her plain blue dress into the best afternoon gown she owned. The weather was mild, so she did not need any kind of coat or cape, but a hat was absolutely necessary. The dress was a soft shade of bluish green and very becoming to her, although it was certainly not fashionable. She had never kept up with exactly how full a skirt should be, or how a sleeve or a neckline should lie. She had neither the money nor, to be honest, the interest, but now it was an issue of pride not to visit her sister-in- law looking like some poor relation, even though that was exactly what she was. Perhaps that was why it mattered.

It was also possible that Imogen might very well have other callers, and Hester would not wish to be an embarrassment to her. For one thing, it would get in the way of her purpose in being there.

She went out into the dusty street and walked the short journey to Endsleigh Gardens. She did not look at the facades along the London streets. She was barely aware of the sounds of hooves, of the passing traffic or the rattle of wheels over the cobbles and the clink of harness, the shouts of irate drivers, or peddlers calling their wares. Her whole attention was inward, wondering how she could do anything at all to help Charles and not seriously risk actually making the matter worse. She and Imogen had once been close, before Hester’s professional interests had separated them. They had shared many hours together, laughter and gossip, beliefs and dreams.

She had still come to no useful decision when she reached the house and went up the steps to pull the doorbell. She was admitted by the maid, who showed her into the withdrawing room. She had not been there for some time, but this was the house she had grown up in, and every detail was familiar, as if she had walked straight into the past. The opulent dark green curtains seemed not ever to have been moved. They hung in exactly the heavy folds she remembered, although that must be an illusion. In the winter, at least, they would be drawn every evening. The brass fender gleamed, and there was the same Staffordshire pottery vase with late roses on the table, a few petals fallen onto the table’s shiny surface. The carpet had a worn patch in front of the armchair her father had used, and now Charles.

The door opened and Imogen came sweeping in, her skirts fashionably full, a beautiful pale plum-pink which only someone of her dark hair and fair skin could have worn well. Her jacket was a deeper shade and perfectly cut to flatter her waist. She looked radiant and full of confidence, almost excitement.

“Hester! How lovely to see you!” she exclaimed, giving her a swift, light hug and kissing her cheek. “You don’t call often enough. How are you?” She did not wait for an answer, but whirled around and picked up the fallen petals, crushing them in her hand. “Charles said you went to America. Was it awful? The news is all about war, but I suppose you’re used to that. And the train crash in Kentish Town, of course. Sixteen people were killed, and over three hundred injured! But I suppose you know that.” A frown flickered across her face, then disappeared.

She did not sit down, nor did she offer Hester a seat. She seemed restless, moving around the room. She

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