rearranged the roses slightly, collapsing one altogether and having to pick up more petals. Then she shifted one of the candlesticks on the mantelpiece to align it with the one at the opposite end. She was quite clearly in the last sort of mood for a confidential discussion of any kind, let alone on a subject so intimate as a love affair.

Hester realized what an impossible task she had undertaken. Before she could learn anything at all she would have to reestablish the friendship they had had before Hester had met Monk. Where on earth could she begin without sounding totally artificial?

“Your dress is lovely,” she said honestly. “You always had a gift for choosing exactly the right color.” She saw Imogen’s quick look of pleasure. “Are you expecting someone special? I should have written before I came. I’m sorry.”

Imogen hesitated, then rushed on, speaking rapidly. “Not at all. I’m not expecting anyone. Actually, I’m going out. It’s I who should apologize, leaving so soon after you have arrived. But of course I’m delighted you came! I really should call upon you; it’s just that I’m never sure when it will be convenient.” There was too much enthusiasm in her voice, but she met Hester’s eyes only momentarily.

“Please do,” Hester responded. “Let me know, and I shall make certain I am at home.”

Imogen started to say something, then stopped, as if she had changed her mind. In a way they were like strangers, and yet the bond that tied them together made it more uncomfortable than had they known nothing of each other.

“I’m pleased you called,” Imogen said suddenly. Now she looked directly at Hester. “I have a gift for you. I thought of you as soon as I saw it. Wait, and I shall fetch it.” And in a swirl of skirts she was gone, leaving the door open, and Hester heard her feet lightly cross the hall.

She returned within minutes, carrying an exquisite trinket box of dark wood inlaid with gold wire and mother-of-pearl. She held it out in both hands. It looked vaguely Oriental, perhaps Indian. Hester could think of no reason why it should have made anyone think of her. She hardly ever wore trinkets, and she had no particular connection with the East. But then, perhaps to Imogen the Crimea was close enough. Regardless, it was a charming thing, and certainly expensive. She could not help wondering where Imogen had come by it. Had it been a gift from another man, and so she dared not keep it? It was hardly a thing she would buy for herself, and it was certainly not Charles’s taste, nor his extravagance.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, trying to put a warmth of enthusiasm into her voice. She took it from Imogen’s outstretched hands and turned it slowly so the light shone on the inlaid pattern of leaves and flowers. “I can hardly imagine the time it must have taken someone to make it.” She looked up at Imogen. “Where does it come from?”

Imogen’s eyes widened. “I’ve no idea. I just thought it was pretty, and sort of. . full of character. That’s why it seemed right for you; it’s individual.” She smiled. The expression was charming, lighting her face, bringing back the shared moments and the laughter of only a few years ago.

“Thank you,” Hester said sincerely. “I wish I hadn’t allowed preoccupation with other things to keep me away so long. None of them were really important, compared with family.” As she said it she was thinking of Imogen, but more intensely of Charles. He was the only blood relative she had left, and suddenly she had been forced to see that he was far more fragile than she had realized. She thought of Monk, and how alone he was. He said nothing, but she knew he ached to have ties to a past he understood, roots and a belonging. Family gave you bearings, an anchorage in who you were.

Imogen turned away and started to speak in a rush. “You must tell me about America. . on another visit. I’ve never been to sea. Was it exciting, or terrible? Or both?”

Hester drew in breath to begin describing the extraordinary mixture of fear, hardship, boredom and wonder, but before she could say anything, Imogen flashed her another brilliant smile and then began rearranging the loose cushions on the sofa. “I feel dreadful not asking you to stay to tea,” she went on. “After you’ve come so far. But I’m due to call on a friend, and I really can’t let her down.” She raised her eyes. “I’m sure you understand. But I’ll call on you next time, if I may? And we’ll exchange news properly. I know you’re terribly busy, so I’ll send you a note.” Almost unconsciously, she was urging Hester towards the door.

There was no possible civil answer except to comply.

“Of course,” Hester said with forced warmth. The opportunity to learn anything was slipping away from her, and she could think of nothing to keep it. One moment, as she held the trinket box, she had felt as if the old friendship was there, and the next they were strangers being polite and trying to escape each other. “Thank you for the box,” she added. “Perhaps I could come back for it at a more convenient time?”

“Oh!” Imogen was startled. “Yes. . of course. I hadn’t thought of you carrying it. I’ll bring it one day.”

Hester smiled. “Come soon.” She opened the withdrawing room door, and giving Imogen a light kiss on the cheek, she walked across the hall just as the maid opened the front door for her, bobbing a half curtsy.

The following morning Hester went into the City to report on her visit, and at shortly after ten o’clock she was in Charles’s offices in Fenchurch Street. Within minutes he sent for her and she was shown to his room. He looked as stiff and immaculate as he had when he visited her, and his face was just as pale and shadowed by lack of sleep. He stood up as she came in, and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, inviting her to take the chair opposite the desk. He remained standing, his eyes fixed on her face.

“How are you?” he asked. “Would you like tea?”

She wanted to reach across the gulf between them and say something like “For heaven’s sake, ask me what you want to! Don’t fidget! Don’t pretend!” But she knew it would only make it more difficult for him. If she tried to express any of her feelings, or break his own concentration of effort, it would delay the moment rather than bring it closer.

“Thank you,” she accepted. “That’s most thoughtful.”

It was another ten minutes of polite trivia before the tray was brought and the clerk left, closing the door behind him. Charles invited Hester to pour, then at last he sat back and looked at her.

“Did you visit Imogen?” he asked.

“Yes, but not for very long.” She was acutely aware that his eyes were studying her face as if he were trying to read something deeper than her words. She wished she could tell him what he so desperately wanted to hear. “She was about to go out, and of course I had not told her I was coming.”

“I see.” He looked down at his cup as if the liquid in it were of profound interest.

Hester wondered if Imogen found him as difficult to talk to as she did. Had he always been this stilted about anything that touched his emotions, or had Imogen made him this way? What had he been like five or six years ago? She tried to remember. “Charles, I don’t know what else to do,” she said helplessly. “I can’t suddenly start visiting her every day, when I haven’t done so for months. She has no reason to confide in me, not only because we are no longer close, but I am your sister. She must know my first loyalty is to you.”

He was staring out of the window. Neither of them had touched their tea. “Just as I arrived home yesterday, I saw her leaving. She didn’t notice me. I. . I stayed in the cab and told the driver to follow her.”

Hester was too startled to speak. And yet even as she was rejecting the thought, she knew that in his place she might have done the same thing, even if she had hated herself for it afterwards. “Where did she go?” she asked, gulping and struggling to keep her voice level.

“All over the place,” he answered, still looking out of the window, away from her. “First she went through a string of back streets to somewhere near Covent Garden. I thought at first she was shopping, although I can’t think what she would find there. But she went into a small building and came out without anything.” He seemed to be about to add something, then changed his mind, as if he thought better of saying it aloud.

“Was that all?” Hester asked.

“No.” He kept his back to her. She saw the rigid line of taut muscles pulling his coat tight. “No, she went to two other places, similar, and came out again within twenty minutes. Lastly she went to a street off the Gray’s Inn Road and paid her cabbie off.” At last he turned to face her, his eyes challenging. “It was a butcher’s shop. She looked. . excited. Her cheeks were flushed and she ran across the pavement clutching her reticule. . as if she were going to buy something terribly important. Hester, what could it mean? It doesn’t make any sense!”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. She would like to think Imogen was simply visiting a friend and had perhaps looked for an unusual gift to take to her, but Charles had said she appeared to carry nothing except her reticule. And why go in the evening just as Charles came home, albeit a trifle early, but without telling him?

“I’m. . I’m afraid for her,” he said at last. “Not just for my own sake, but for what scandal she could bring upon herself if she is. .” He could not say the words.

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