Charlotte came swooping down the wide stairs and twirled a few times as she crossed the blue-and-cream checkerboard floor tiles of the vestibule before coming to a halt in front of me.
"What do you think? My seamstress says this pattern was all the rage in Paris last season!"
Her dress was a black-and-white creation with a low-cut back and a split over-skirt that parted in the middle like a tulip. A long string of pearls, knotted in the middle, swung and clacked together as she spun. The whole combination was as daring as Charlotte herself.
"It's exquisite, Charlotte, simply gorgeous. But I can't stay, I'm so. . ."
"I've had another one ordered, but in navy and white. I was about to go with red and black, but I do remember Celia Paggett wore a red and white creation to the . . . what do you mean you can't stay?"
"I'm dreadfully sorry, but something's come up and I need to get back home rather sooner than planned."
That was all Charlotte needed. Grabbing me by the hand, she pulled me into the visitor's parlour and closed the heavy door behind us.
"Tell me everything. Unless someone has died! If someone has died don't say a word! Leave immediately and send me a card. You know what a spigot I am about these things! I shall be crying into my soup and ruin lunch entirely. "
"No, no deaths. Rather the opposite, really. Someone has reappeared among the living."
Charlotte's perfectly sculpted eyebrows rose in delight.
"Is this someone a man, perchance?"
"Tell me everything! Immediately! Quicker if you can."
Charlotte might appear about as sincere as a feather duster, but she was not one to spread gossip. Collect it, yes. Spread it, no. That's why we were such good chums. I knew I could count on her for discretion. Well, mostly.
When I was finished with the tale, she eyed me thoughtfully, squinting slightly.
"Was he one of your. . .you know. . . wartime escapades?"
I nodded. Charlotte knew about my experiences and I'd covered for her several times when she was mysteriously absent at about the same time as a friend of her father's, or a handsome young man about town. She'd done the same for me, although not as directly.
"Oh, Olivia! Ex-lovers." She shook her head, her perfectly marcellated hair not moving in the slightest. "That's really not berries. Once it's over, it is never something that should be rekindled. Polite conversation at society events, a shared box at the theatre, and nothing beyond! Stops them from getting ideas. You know how men are. Have a whoopee and a gasper for afters with them once, and suddenly they think you're their wife."
I couldn't help but smile, an image of the looks of amazement and gratitude on some of the young lads' faces after I'd climbed off of them in the dark of the converted infirmary jumping unbidden into my mind. Far different from anything Charlotte had ever seen on a man's face, I was certain.
She was right, of course. Falling back into something like that was certainly not berries. No matter how I still felt about our time together, James was not someone I should become involved with now. Help him, yes. Get him straightened out, yes. Love him . . . no. I thought not.
"Very well," said Charlotte. "You are excused from staying for lunch. But I insist that you come to tea in a fortnight when you are back in town and we go to the flickers. I am not going to budge on that. I'm simply bursting to wear some of my new hats out somewhere fun."
"Of course you are and I can't wait to see them. Oh, Charlotte, I really am sorry about today."
She waved her hand. "Your wounded come first, I understand that."
At the door, she peered out onto the street hoping to catch a glimpse of James. He was nothing but a dark shape in the car, thank heavens, but her face remained watchful.
Before I stepped out, Charlotte put her hand on my arm.
"Look, I'm well aware you know what you're about, but do be sensible, Olivia, please. Everything was different, more intense, during the war. It isn't. . . it isn't that way anymore. Times have changed. People are different. It's all about living and enjoying yourself today. Don't get caught in the past. For your own sake."
I nodded. And left for home.
A/N If you think Charlotte is just the cat's pyjamas, then why not take a peek at her own story? "Charlotte Wynthorpe and the Case of the Disappearing Diamonds," an Agatha Christie-style comedy-mystery can be found on this same profile.
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England 1921. For fifty handicapped veterans left without home or job after WW1, the only person standing between them and utter destitution is Olivia Altringham. Lacking sufficient funds and a support network, Olivia has managed to keep her vetera...