Standing in the gloaming, Laila waved from the stoop in front of her parents’ pied-à-terre. Along the wide avenue, bunting of black, yellow, and red waved from her neighbor’s stately homes. A guard stood on the corner, a bayonet fixed on his carabine.
Across the street, an officer in the green and scarlet of the Antwerp Garde Civique drove away Monsieur Konrad’s brand-new Silver Ghost. Swiping a tear from his puffy eye, he shrugged inside his somber banker’s togs. “C’est la guerre.”
In the distance, bombs exploded like a persistent heartbeat.
She flinched, slapped her hands to her chest, and ducked behind the acacia. The Boches couldn’t be in Antwerp already, could they? How had they breached the string of forts from Lierre to Ruppelmonde? The hedge’s long thorns scratched her exposed wrists. In the silence between detonations, gulls screeched over the nearby Scheldt river.
Monsieur Konrad flashed his fleshy, square palms. “Easy, Mademoiselle. Our brave sappers are leveling the homes, churches and buildings between the two outermost rings of forts. If the Prussians want to charge our redoubt, the Uhlans will have to cross open space. Our soldiers will drive them back.”
Rising, Laila nodded. The fortifications at Antwerp were impregnable, everyone said so. But how did Monsieur Konrad know of the military’s plan? Could he be a spy? She’d heard rumors of agent provocateurs in Brussels. Why would this city be different?
“Tell your folks to fly the nation’s colors before nightfall.” He jerked his chin to the plain white facade of her parents’ townhouse. “We must show the King and Queen our support.”
“I will.” Even if she had to fashion one herself.
After checking the gold timepiece hanging off his protruding belly, Monsieur Konrad stuck his hands in his pockets and headed toward the center of the city. Darkness settled around her.
Laila swiped her damp hands on her coat. Rune’s coat. Hugging herself, she inhaled the faint spicy scent of him. She would see him when she returned it. When she unbuttoned the sides, the hem nearly reached her ankles.
Should she wait until tomorrow to return his coat or should she do so tonight?
Mother would be too upset by the move to leave her room. Father would be tending to business matters. And her sister, Sofia, would never tattle on her. Besides, Laila knew where Rune planned to be tonight—the hospital near the Avenue de Kaiser. Guilt crept across her skin like the feet of a thousand insects. If Sofia asked where Rune was, Laila would tell her. If she didn’t…
Laila technically wasn’t doing anything wrong. Turning on her heel, she opened the walnut door to her house and entered the reception hall.
Trunks and portmanteaus hemmed in the receiving table. The mirror above it reflected an empty blue and white vase. A dusty cloth covered the crystal chandelier dangling from the second floor ceiling.
Her lone tapestry bag sat apart from the stack of cases of her father’s favorite port. Over the musty smell of a disused house, her nose detected bread baking and meat roasting. Thank heavens, the butler and his wife, Madame Tait, arrived safely.
Unbuttoning the coat, Laila crossed the marble floor. Pain warmed her back. A good long soak in the tub should solve her problems. The swish of her skirts herded dust bunnies toward the curved staircase at the back of the hall.
A cough sounded from the parlor on the right. The door creaked open a sliver. Visible through the crack, Madame Tait tugged the covers off the burgundy, lion-footed sofa. Dust billowed and glittered in the light cast by the electric wall lamps.
Laila scooped up her bag as she passed. She would take her things to her room. The servants had enough to do.
A man’s shout blared into the hall.
Oh, dear. Father was upset. Things must not have gone well at the factory. She paused near the base of the staircase. At the back of the house, the door to his study stood wide open. Electric bulbs laid a patch of light onto the hall floor.
“But surely, dear Papa, the National Redoubt will withstand even the German steamroller.” Sofia’s musical voice drifted like song lyrics.
Laila bit her lip. If her sister had to resort to that tone, Father must be in a rage. Laila set her bag on the bottom step. She should help her sister in soothing their parent. She could do that much as penance for flirting with Rune.
Not that he’d paid her much attention once he’d fixed her hair.
She patted the coronet of braids. Still not a hair out of place. Mother should be pleased, even if she despised the provincial patina of the coiffure. She would hate the coat, though. And Sofia might suspect to whom it belonged.
Shrugging out of the garment, Laila draped it over the marble bannister. Dust and grime streaked her skirts. She bit her lip. Perhaps she should change first. Little would be gained if she helped to calm Father but enrage Mother. She returned to the stairs and mounted the first riser.
“I’ve heard the soldiers talking.” Papa clipped off the ends of his words. “The German guns smashed through the fortifications at Liège. Antwerp may not hold.”
Oh, dear. She’d better hurry. She shook out her skirts as she climbed. A halo of soot and dust coated the maroon carpet around her boots.
“Your father is correct.” Fatigue slurred Mother’s sentence. “We must take precautions to protect the factory and our livelihood. Since the King made his fool-hardy proclamation, the Kaiser may not honor his word to compensate us for our losses.”
Laila froze on the dimly lit stairs. Her nails bit into her palms. How could her mother associate King Alfred’s defense of their nation with foolhardiness?
Father cleared his throat. “Two of my associates in Berlin have offered their sons as candidates. By tying our business to theirs we will expand.”
“Profit from the war, Papa?” Her sister’s shadow glided over the threshold to their father’s study.
Laila smiled. At least Sofia knew where her loyalties lay.
“By all means. But, I will not marry a Prussian shopkeeper.” Sofia’s silhouette studied her fingernails. “Unless he has a title.”
Laila’s jaw dropped and she sank until her bottom touched the tread. How could she? How could they? Gripping the baluster, she pressed her face into the opening between the slats. Her line of sight tunneled into the study. She would be safe on the staircase. She would be safe standing directly in front of them. They rarely noticed her.
Father lumbered into view. His gold watch chain swung over his corpulent belly. “You will do—”
Mother shuffled closer. Her claret-gown hovered above the polished ebony boots. “Now, Husband. Sofia is correct. Her beauty will fetch a very nice title.”
Laila bit her lip. Her eyes burned. When had her family become so mercenary?
“My associates don’t have titles.” Father stalked deeper into the room and disappeared.
Sofia lifted her chin. A white feather quivered in her upswept ebony hair. “Then let them marry Laila. She doesn’t do anything for the family.”
How could she? Laila sucked in a calming breath. Her sweaty palms slid down the baluster.
Mother beamed at Sofia. “A German shopkeeper’s son wouldn’t know how awkward that girl is, and, with her in another country, we won’t have to suffer her embarrassing episodes.”
Laila flinched at her mother’s indictment. How could they turn against her like this? How could they betray their country?
Father stormed toward her mother. “If Laila marries before October First, I won’t have a chance to get control of her dowry.”
Mother tsked. “I don’t know what your mother was thinking to leave her money to that awkward child.”
Father smoothed his hair. “She should have left the funds in my care and not Hartman and Flag’s.”
Money over nationalism. Money over family. Money over her. Swiping the tears from her eyes, Laila raked the coat from the railing and stuffed her arms through the sleeves.
“The answer is simple, Papa. Delay Laila’s wedding until October.” Sofia flounced onto a chaise lounge. Her slippers thudded to the carpet. “I’ll convince her to sign over the dowry to you, and that the marriage to a Prussian will save us all. Laila loves helping people.”
Air left Laila’s lungs. How could her family hold her in such contempt? Maybe she spilled a few glasses of punch, stumbled during a few dances, and said the wrong thing to Father’s associates, but they were her parents and sister. Weren’t they supposed to love her?
Surely, she was worthy of love.
Rune’s blue eyes stared back at her from her memory.
The children at the orphanage spoke of Rune Lambert. Of the success he’d made of his life and of the endless obstacles he’d overcome to rise in the ranks. He could help her.
Jerking her bag off the bottom stair, she rushed toward the front door. No one blocked her path. No one stopped her. No one cared enough. She choked on a sob and slipped out the door. Closing it gently behind her, she fled down the stoop to the sidewalk.
The guard on the corner jerked to face her.
Another on a ladder stopped replacing bulbs in the streetlamps to watch her.
She didn’t slow. She had to reach the hospital before her family decided to search for her.