Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig

“We could call it One Last Night of Music,” suggested Miss Cooper, and then looked alarmed at her own words. “I mean, not the last night of music forever. Just the last night of music on the ship.”

“Yes, yes. Ava, if you would come with me?” Mrs. Rutherford gathered up her files, gesturing to Dr. Stringfellow, who served as assistant director of the Unit as well as their primary medical authority. “And Dr. Pruyn?”

Emmie felt her tension lighten as Julia turned to go. She loved Julia, she did. They were first cousins, practically the same age—except that Julia had been born six months earlier, first in that as she was in everything. Emmie had always suspected that she bored and frustrated Julia, but it was hard to tell. Julia kept herself to herself, twisting back her emotions as tightly and adroitly as she did the golden coil of hair at the back of her head, not a strand out of place. Julia’s mother, Aunt May, was just the same way. Emmie had always been a little terrified of Aunt May, who lived an exotic, continental existence, returning to New York every so often to drop Julia at the rambling brownstone on East Thirty-Fourth Street “to be a sister for Emmaline.”

And they were sisters—of sorts. Sisters who loved each other even when they didn’t understand each other very well, which was most of the time.

Feeling guilty, Emmie called softly, “You will sing at the concert, won’t you, Julia? No one has a voice like yours.”

Her cousin gave her a curt nod of acknowledgment before following Dr. Stringfellow out of the room.

Emmie could feel Kate looking at her. “She means well.”

“Hmm,” said Kate, which was Kate’s way of disagreeing entirely.

“Come,” said Emmie, hooking her arm through Kate’s, feeling obscurely cheered. She knew that “hmm” of old. It had been six years, but Kate was still the same Kate, and there was something reassuring in that. They said blood was thicker than water, but she had always felt more at home with Kate than with Julia, even if Julia came of the same Knickerbocker stock and Kate from what her father called “those people.” “I’ll show you our cabin. Don’t expect terribly much. It really is pretty dire.”

“It can’t be worse than my room in Boston,” said Kate as Emmie pushed open the door.

“I thought it was a very nice room,” lied Emmie, groping her way through the darkness until she bumped into a berth, sitting down with a thump that made the springs squeak. The portholes had been boarded over, casting the cabin into permanent gloom.

“It was a dreadful room,” said Kate, and suddenly they were both laughing, as if they were eighteen again, and not twenty-eight and on their way to a war zone. “Be grateful it was, or I’d never have agreed to come.”

“I’m so glad you did,” said Emmie honestly. “It makes it all feel less . . .”

“Mad?” suggested Kate, lowering herself carefully onto her own berth.

“Daunting,” said Emmie.

They were quiet for a moment, the dark room close around them. Why didn’t you ever visit? Emmie wanted to ask. Why didn’t you write?

They had never stopped being friends; they had simply stopped being friends who saw one another. She had known Kate was busy, that Kate had to get her own living, but she couldn’t help feeling a bit hurt all the same. Her mother would have been so happy to help, to give Kate a job as her own secretary. They might have gone on as they had been.

But, of course, all things changed. Emmie knew that. It had been an impulse that had taken her to Kate’s boardinghouse in Boston. They needed a woman who could drive and who spoke French, and Kate could do both.

But that wasn’t the real reason. The truth was that she’d wanted Kate there because she’d felt in some obscure way that if Kate were with her, nothing would seem quite so large or terrifying. Kate would make everything all right, just as she had back in their days at Smith when nothing was so bad it couldn’t be cured with hot cocoa brewed on a gas ring.

“Do you remember the cocoa parties we used to have?”

“I doubt there’ll be much cocoa in France,” said Kate quietly.

“You’re probably right.” Of course Kate was right. She was simply making a statement. It wasn’t a rejection; it was Emmie’s own sensitivity that made it feel like one. “I heard someone asking the steward for white sugar. He shrugged and said, c’est la guerre.”

“I imagine la guerre covers a multitude of things,” said Kate. Emmie heard the springs squeak as Kate reached up to lift the heavy knot of her hair off the back of her neck. “I take it back. It is even hotter in here than in my room in Boston.”