Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig



But Maud poked Kate in the arm, hard. “Oh, there’s your friend! Miss Van Alden! Yoo-hoo! Miss Van Alden! So good to see you!”

Kate bit her lip, knowing she should say something, should correct Maud, but Emmie was already upon them, dispensing goodwill and dropped hairpins with equal abandon. “Oh, how nice to see you again, Miss . . . Er! Isn’t it lovely to be here?” Kate could tell Emmie hadn’t the slightest idea who Maud was, but Kate knew Emmie would never hurt Maud’s feelings by saying so. “Kate!” Emmie folded Kate in a hug that smelled like their room at Smith, lavender sachets and cocoa powder and Pears soap. “You’re here! You’ll have to come see our cabin—I’ve given you the bed by the window, but the steward tells me it will be awfully hot with all the portholes closed so we might want to sleep on deck tonight.”

Emmie’s hair, that indeterminate color between blond and brown that looks gray in the wrong light, was already frizzing out of its pins, frothing around her face. She shook the strands out of her eyes, like a horse shaking its mane.

“You’re losing your pins,” said Kate, sticking one back in for her.

“I know,” said Emmie ruefully. “I expect I’ll be entirely shed of them by the time we get to France and have to wear my hair in a long tail and all the Frenchmen will make mock of me.”

“‘Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down,’” said Kate without thinking, slipping back years in a moment. They’d put on Henry V together their junior year, bit parts both, but the dialogue had become part of their personal lexicon. Any use of the word mock meant an immediate recitation of the tennis ball speech.

“What are you on about?” demanded Maud.

“It was our junior play,” offered Emmie in her conciliatory way. “Henry V. The tennis ball speech.”

“A very long time ago,” said Kate, before Maud could ask her if she played tennis. It felt like a different lifetime. Back when she and Emmie had been inseparable. Back when Kate still thought she was one of them, could be one of them. Back before Newport.

How do you like the latest charity case?

So long ago, but those casual words still stung.

Maud asked Emmie, just a little too avidly, “Did your people come to see you off?”

“My father and three of my brothers came—that’s why I was so long, Kate, or I would have found you sooner.” Emmie was unconsciously twisting her handkerchief between her fingers as she used to, at Smith, when she had to do a recitation. “My mother wasn’t able—there were so many meetings—you know how it is. So many committees! But she sent a basket, all full of woolens and wooden toys for the children. And my father brought sherry and crackers!”

“What kind of crackers?” asked Liza with interest.

“DeWitt’s, I think,” said Emmie. “There’s also a twenty-pound box of Bailey’s candy and some other things. My father said he’d rather thought we would need them, off in no-man’s-land. He was only joking, of course.”

“We’re hardly going into the trenches,” protested Maud.

“Oh, no, he means it as a joke, really. He says he feels quite small in the face of our nerve.” Emmie paused, looking a bit uncertain. “And it is marvelous, isn’t it? To be going abroad and doing something about this horrible war?”

Or about one’s trousseau, thought Kate, but didn’t say it. Emmie had assured her that there had been an extensive vetting process for applicants, including a written questionnaire, reference letters, and a doctor’s note. Perhaps Maud had been a mistake. Or perhaps the mistake was Kate’s, letting herself get swept up in one of Emmie’s schemes after all these years, when she was old enough to know better.

Debutante nonsense, her mother called it. Good enough for those that don’t have to worry about getting their living.

But this was work too. She might not be paid for it, not exactly, but the Unit was covering her room and board, and how else was she ever to see France, even a France at war?

“But I nearly forgot!” Emmie gave her head a little shake, losing another pin in the process. “Mrs. Rutherford asked me to help gather everyone together. We’re to meet in the saloon. I’m meant to be chivvying everyone. Shall we?”

“We haven’t much choice, have we?” said Kate. “Unless we mean to swim to shore.”

She’d meant it as a joke, but it came out a little flat. Maud looked at her just a little too hard, with those bright eyes that saw too much.