Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig

Liza swiped at a lock of blond hair that clung damply to her cheek. She had a Dutch doll sort of prettiness, all red cheeks and slightly bulging blue eyes. “Well, yes, but if we leave them out to ripen . . .”

“Where? Have you seen the cabin yet? I swear, the Black Hole of Calcutta has nothing on it.” To Kate, she said, “Are you rooming with Miss Van Alden?”

“Yes, and with a Miss Cooper. I haven’t met her yet.”

“Class of ’14. She seems nice enough. You really ought to have gone to the luncheon, you know. It was terribly inspiring.”

“We’re going to have a killing time!” put in Liza. “I mean, it seems like a very good group.”

“Except that doctor woman.” Maud gave an exaggerated shudder. “So mannish. Have you met them yet? There are two of them, a senior doctor and a junior one. The junior one’s all right, at least, her hat was very pretty, but the older one—I half expected her to try to worm me on the spot! I swear, I saw castor oil and carbolic in her eyes.”

“We met them all at the luncheon,” put in Liza helpfully.

“Yes, I got that.” Kate was beginning to feel as though she’d turned up at an examination having missed the first month of classes; she hated coming in at a disadvantage. She hadn’t even known there had been a luncheon; Emmie had come to beg her to join after the Unit had already been assembled, to fill a gap made by someone’s leaving. She was, as usual, an add-on. An afterthought. “What made you decide to join up?”

Maud waved her hand in a way calculated to show the engagement ring placed carefully over her glove. “Oh, Harry’s unit is sure to be sent to France—Harry and I were just engaged this spring—and I heard they’re not giving wives passes anymore. So this way, I get over there on my own. And it’s only for six months. So how bad can it be? With any luck, we’ll have some time in Paris before we go wherever it is we’re going. I promised my mother I’d shop for my trousseau.”

“Won’t they be rather short of everything?”

“It’s Paris,” said Maud, as though that explained everything. “Oh, is that your old nanny come to see you off? That woman over there. She seems to be trying to get your attention.”

“Where?” Following Maud’s careless gesture, Kate saw a familiar hat at the base of the gangplank, her mother’s very best hat, the one she wore to baptisms and wakes. Her mother was trying to push her way through the mass of humanity streaming down and away from the boat; a porter stopped her, pointing her away.

“Poor thing; that was the last whistle. Didn’t you hear it? They’ll never let her on now. Still, it was sweet of her, wasn’t it?”

Maud’s voice buzzed in Kate’s ear; Kate rose on her tiptoes and tried to wave, but her mother was remonstrating with the porter and didn’t see Kate, didn’t see that Kate had seen her. She’d come. She’d come despite it all. And they were turning her away.

“They never do realize we’ve grown up, do they, these old nannies? Mine still comes from time to time and tries to wipe the cookie crumbs off my face.”

The porter was quite firm. Kate’s mother shrugged and turned, looking back over her shoulder at the boat. Could she see her? Or was Kate too small a speck, way up high on deck? If she could just get down to the gangplank—

Kate looked distractedly at Maud. “Would you excuse me? I must—”

“They’re putting the gangplank up now. Oh dear, look at that frantic man. Like a picture of the guilty swain, don’t you think? But that collar! And did you ever see such a gaudy bouquet? I wonder who it could be for. Not that it matters now. He’s too late, poor man.”

Too late. Kate strained to see through the crowd, to try to catch one last glimpse. It was a scrum down there, all the visitors who had been shooed off the boat milling about, getting in each other’s way. Her mother, never tall, was impossible to spot, was probably already halfway back to the El.

Had she come to give Kate her blessing? Kate would never know now. She craned her neck, but it was hopeless. She could have wept with frustration. Why did it always have to be this way? Always just missing each other?

“Oh, there’s Harry!” announced Maud, waving wildly. To Kate, she said graciously, “I’m sorry you missed your nanny.”

That wasn’t my nanny. Kate opened her mouth to say it. She meant to, truly.