I observed from a sofa every session as the men did their exercises with the ball, occasionally warning them to mind their injuries when they became too keen.
Again and again, my eye was drawn back to James. It was his height and the length of his torso that first captured my attention, but it was his smile that kept it. A wide, honest smile without a trace of artifice or guile that never failed to reach his deep-set, dancing eyes. Despite his battle experiences, he seemed strangely. . . I wasn't sure what. Innocent wasn't the right word, and neither was pure. James was . . . an open book.
Soon I found myself looking at him as a man, not as one of the men. Nor, indeed, as one of the injured despite the bandages and his careful movements.
I could easily imagine his large, slender-fingered hands grasping my body as he caught and tossed the exercise ball, his body arcing over mine as he bent over his paper, concentratedly penning his creative exercises. His dark hair, his narrow face, his long, long arms, my fingers tingled to reach out and caress all of him.
None of those sensations were new, even if with James they were rather overwhelming.
While I could thank the endless summer garden parties and galas (and my friendship with Charlotte) for all of my early experiences with men, the war brought unforeseen and clandestine sexual opportunities to my doorstep.
And unknown burdens.
In the spring of '15, I had started my first affair with a sunny-haired Lancashire lad called Theo.
Theo had been blinded by mustard gas and was assigned to us for a few months while he slowly regained his sight. He had had no idea what I looked like beyond what I told him, and the thought of being explored by a man who could only feel my body awoke in me a feeling of power that was new and thrilling.
It had been an incredible feeling to hitch my skirts and place his hands on my legs, watching as he slowly felt the contours of my thighs. I had him in the palm of my hand and all the exploratory games I devised for us were about my decisions and testing out what lengths I could drive a man to. Poor Theo was normally beside himself with desire before I finally reached for the condoms and settled myself onto his lap.
I had never been watched over closely. Agatha had not seen child-rearing as her area of responsibility and my French governess had been more interested in reading sordid romances and nibbling chocolates than in making a real lady out of me. For the most part, I had been allowed to indulge my curiosities as I saw fit, running wild all over the estate and getting stuck in wherever my fancy took me. As long as I was well-behaved and groomed at supper, said please and thank you, no one was overly bothered about what I did.
As for Father, he seemed to have mentally replaced me with a son for the most part, and therefore had never seen the point in chiding me over niceties.
But in '15 Father had been in the process of leaving for India, and I had assumed my carefree days would be over. An estate steward would be appointed in his absence who would keep an eye on me and tattle all of my actions to him in a long list. And what would that look like, written in ink on crisp stationer's paper?
Theo was my last chance for a little bit of excitement before the seriousness of war and control took hold.
But Father had not appointed a watch-dog as steward, he had appointed me. Dropping all of the responsibility onto my shoulders and absconding to a warmer, more peaceful, climate.
I was twenty-four years old then, with a good name and a decent education, but with precious little idea of my own skills and abilities. Or what real responsibility was. I was overwhelmed for a while and had to tread water like a drowning woman to keep up with everything.
"You're getting boring, Olivia," Charlotte had said, pressing a hand to her forehead. "If I have to hear one more lament out of you about dealing with the War Office, or sheep illnesses, or the best way to grow a cabbage under adverse conditions, I shall simply burst. Say something amusing immediately or I shall ply you with whisky until you do! I'd advise you not to test me on this."
The only pleasures beside books I'd had time for were secretive, one-go-only "mercy rides", as I came to think of them.
It was fairly easy to slip into the Infirmary, into the section where the the lads slept who were cured enough of their injuries to be sent back to the front. A slip of the sheet, a few kisses and a slow, virtually silent posting up and down in the naked moonlight that streamed in through the windows, and I would leave to the sounds of thank you, Miss, I'll never forget this, thank you, kiss me one more time before you go, Miss, I thought I'd die before this happened, please Miss and thank you, echoing in my ears.
And then there was James. Throughout the "Talking Cure" sessions as the men were speaking, I was always aware of him. I listened to what he said more closely and made mental notes. His openness, his interest in the ideas behind the therapy, his enthusiastic, exuberant attitude was irresistible.
I found myself wanting him. Not just his body, but his . . . optimism, his happiness.
He'd been timid at first, not sure if he was really allowed to kiss me. Leaning in, he would suddenly halt and search my eyes for the all-clear to proceed, only to halt again right before finding my lips. He never seemed to realise how teasingly seductive his shyness was.
We met in the library where I'd select books for him to take back to the Infirmary to read. He wanted to talk more, discuss the ideas instead of reading about them alone. And he made me laugh, really laugh, with his jokes and clever quips. I had not had a reason to do that for ever so long, and I was smitten.
Smitten, and drawn irresistibly to the bright spark that was James Davis.
Then one afternoon, I'd locked the library door and undressed him for the first time on the chaise lounge. Taking his hands in my own, just as I'd done with Theo, I'd shown him where to touch me and how. I could see in the look on his face that he'd been imagining that moment as often as I had been, wanting and straining ardently towards it. I don't think I've ever been happier than when I lay naked in his arms.
James was a fast learner, eager and discreet, and I'd had no reason to regret any of my stolen hours with him.
YOU ARE READING
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...