The soft greens of summer had given way to the dark browns and oranges of autumn, which had quickly turned into a slippery mass of mud and wet leaves underfoot. But even those colours were long gone now, drowned in the mist that swirled through the camp at night, the now-naked trees and patches of bare, desolate landscape destroyed by the machines of war. He stares out at the trees, the land grey with the bitter hues of impending winter. The temperature had dropped considerably over the past week and the ground had transformed from a slushy mess to a frosty, slippery solid underfoot each morning, a sure sign that snow was on the way.
Early this year, he thinks. Of course. Everything seemed to be going their way – finally – so why not ruin it with a little bit of snow at the start of November?
Snow meant Christmas.
He brushes the thought aside; there was no Christmas for him, or for any of his men. They have a job to do, and no matter how close the end of the war seemed to be – no matter how much they could feel that the tide had turned – it wasn’t over just yet. They still have objectives to achieve, key targets to neutralise, and prisoners to liberate – all of which were crucial to Britain’s success. To the world’s success.
He has nothing much to celebrate anyway.
He wonders if it will snow overnight. He hopes not; snow does not help her or her team. Snow at the wrong time means tracks. He knows they’re trained for it, that they know what they’re doing, but snow almost always makes things harder and he worries.
The way she storms into the tent tells him the meeting hasn’t gone well. ‘Americans,’ she grumbles, as he watches her almost throw the folder down on the makeshift desk.
‘And here I was thinking you were beginning to like them,’ he replies dryly.
‘They want half my team, sir!’ she almost shouts, and he raises his eyebrows at her. ‘And for what will probably be a suicide mission? I think not!’
‘What’s their rationale?’
‘Part of it is that we speak German better than them.’
He frowns thoughtfully. ‘They’re not wrong,’ he says. ‘I’m impressed that they were willing to admit to being inferior in some way.’
She rolls her eyes at him. ‘I won’t allow it, sir.’
She lets out a breath, eyeing him. ‘You knew they’d ask.’
He shrugs. ‘I guessed. They weren’t here for my brigade,’ he says wryly, and she purses her lips.
‘Besides, four of them are on leave for the next two months,’ she says, ‘and this will be their first Christmas in three years. I am not recalling them unless Hitler himself appears down the road!’
He nods as she lets out a huff. He understands the conflict; the longer they stay here, the more time the Nazis have to solidify their position and push back with what little force they have left. Or for their commanders to disappear into the forests, never to be found.
But the mud and the rain and the now-impending snow and the pressure of the end was getting to everyone; he could feel it in his bones, that weariness that brought tension in a camp the size of his. It had been a long, bitter, gruelling war, and there was still much left to do. The powers-that-be had hoped it would be over by the end of the year, but the Nazis hadn’t capitulated quite as willingly as they’d dreamed, and everyone was tired. They needed a break if they were to finish this before the middle of next year.
He watches as she sits at her makeshift desk in her usual uniform and boots, sorting out paperwork and rifling through her things and generally just making noise, and he can’t help but smile a little. He’s as desperate as everyone to rid the world of Nazis and deliver peace for the war-ravaged world they currently live in. He’s seen the refugees, the faces of women and children, desperate for calm and food and peace. She’d been by his side as they’d liberated the first of the camps, where they had begun to discover the true extent of the human capacity for destruction. But the end of the war means she will leave, back to England like him, and out of his life.
The war has made him unspeakably selfish, it would seem, and he feels the pull of shame. He is a one-star General who has fallen hard for this tiny firecracker of a Captain, and he’s only vaguely ashamed of himself. She’s been the only bright light in this war, but even that has been tinged with the shadow of death, the darkness of brutality and deception.
‘Would you do it, sir?’ she asks later, just as he’s leaving the tent.
‘It’s not up to me,’ he says, in what he knows sounds like a cop-out, but is nothing of the sort. She’d run away from home to fight with the Resistance – incredibly successfully, from the stories he’s heard – before ceding to her family’s requests to join something more formal and slightly less dangerous. She has proven how capable she is time and time again, her strength borne of character and personality and experience, and he won’t let her rely so heavily on his advice anymore. He’d taken her under his wing at first, this beautiful, tiny firecracker who set everything in her path alight, but then he’d realised what she was capable of, who she really was without the surname, and he’d started to pull back. She can soar without him now, and he’s ready to watch her do it.
He thinks. He’s not sure his heart can handle it. But he will, because it’s her.
She drops his eyes, turning and fiddling with the paperwork in front of her. ‘You’ll make the right decision,’ he says quietly, and she looks back at him. ‘You always do.’
She gives him a small nod, and he walks away.
‘Are they going to invade every space?’ she groans as she sits down at the table next to him. He raises his eyebrows at her as he looks out the door to the brightly-lit general mess hall, which was, to be fair, considerably fuller and more raucous than usual.
‘They are our allies,’ he reminds her.
‘We don’t need them, sir,’ she spits, and he eyes her. That was patently untrue, and she knew it.
‘Who was he?’ he asks, taking a sip of his beer and deliberately not looking at her. He can feel her eyes boring a hole into the side of his head, so he turns his head slowly to look at her.
She’s furious, he thinks. She might just hit him. But she doesn’t; she just looks down and grasps the drink in front of her. ‘His name was Alexander.’
He doesn’t ask. He can tell how this story ends by the fire in her eyes. ‘I assume he’s been castrated by now,’ he says, and her head flicks around to look at him so fast he worries she’s hurt herself. But then she looks away, and her hand goes to her mouth and she lets out huff and her body is convulsing with silent laughter, and he chuckles with her.
‘Oh, no,’ she says decisively when they go to leave. ‘No,’ she says to the flushed, grinning face of the young American soldier perched on the ladder next to the doorway they’ve just walked through from the Officer’s mess to the general mess. ‘No.’
He stands three steps behind her, arms folded. He’s always enjoyed watching. Besides, she needs to not maim this one, and he knows the warning signs now.
‘It’s Christmas,’ the US Army poster boy says, and her head tilts just slightly. ‘Ma’am,’ the soldier adds after a brief perusal of her shoulders, taking several steps down the ladder to stand in front of her.
‘I don’t care if it’s the rapture, soldier.’
‘It’s just some fun, ma’am,’ he says, and Melbourne’s lips twist as he watches the young man realise what he’s done. The colour drains from the kid’s face as she takes a step towards him, her head lowered just slightly.
‘Hoo boy,’ he hears a soft voice breathe beside him, and he resists the urge to let out a chuckle. Poor Alfred knew all about her temper. The thought makes him glance around; she has an audience. Most of the mess near them had noticed the kerfuffle and were now watching as the scene unfolded.
He’s vaguely pleased. He can hear the murmurs of his own men; those that know her will spread the word, but actually seeing it will set the tone for this group, and for whoever comes through next. They’ll know all about this Captain – this beautiful woman who had more power and responsibility than most of them will ever see – this woman who will take approximately none of their shit.
‘What is your name, soldier?’ Her voice is silky smooth, in a polished-steel kind of way and he’s suddenly glad that this particular voice will likely never be directed at him.
‘Private Aaron Randall, ma’am!’ the boy almost shouts, his eyes fixed firmly on a spot against the back wall. Smart boy, he thinks. He might yet survive.
‘Where are you from, Private Randall?’
‘And how long have you been in Europe, Private?’
‘Fifty P says he’s crying by the end, sir,’ Alfred whispers in his ear.
‘You’re on,’ he whispers back. He knows she won’t, not this time. Not in front of so many of his unit. They’re not out in the field; this is just regular, every day, respect-based discipline. She’s tough – uncompromising – but not unkind.
‘Eight months, ma’am!’
‘And I assume you have a girl back home?’
‘Yes, ma’am!’ The boys voice falters just a little.
‘Would you say she’s pretty, Private?’
‘Beautiful, ma’am!’ Melbourne’s lips twist at the way the boy’s voice betrays his confusion.
‘You haven’t seen your girl in eight months, Private, and you’re hanging mistletoe in an active military encampment that has a grand total of two hundred and seventeen women and four thousand men, five years into a world-wide war.’ She pauses, and the whole room is silent. ‘Would that be an accurate assessment of the situation, Private?’
He watches as the Private mentally panics. ‘No, ma’am.’
‘That’s what I thought,’ she says, her voice ice. ‘As you were.’
The Private remains at attention as she walks around him and out the door, and is still standing to attention when Melbourne makes his way past him, so he claps him on the shoulder as he goes past. ‘Well done,’ he says, not unkindly, and the young man’s shoulders drop.
‘It’s not really his fault he’s American,’ he calls just loud enough for her to hear, and she stops and waits for him to catch up.
‘I will not be swayed by a sprig of hemiparasitic flora that initiates an endless number of socially awkward interactions and forces intimacy on people who would otherwise not even touch each other!’ she cries.
‘Sounds festive,’ he deadpans, and she shoots him a look, and he smirks. ‘Do you think maybe you were just a little severe?’ he says after a moment, stopping to look up at the inky black sky, and he knows without looking at her that she’s rolling her eyes. ‘Eight months,’ he points out.
‘Do you really think it’s a good idea to hang mistletoe here?’ she asks a little incredulously.
‘Not particularly, but again, as you said, five years of war. They could use a little cheer in this hell hole,’ he mutters. ‘It couldn’t really be in a more public place.’ He shrugs. ‘Besides, Christmas isn’t all that far away.’
She narrows her eyes at him. ‘Why are you fighting for this, sir?’
‘I’m not. I’m just preparing you for when you find it up there tomorrow night,’ he says, smirking. ‘You know how Leopold loves the Americans. Goodnight,’ he adds before turning down the makeshift lane towards his quarters.
He’s aware of the rumours, and he doesn’t care. Besides, if they think she’s sleeping with him, Brigadier General William Melbourne, they’ll all likely leave her alone, and he’s more than happy for that. She already cops far more than her fair share for her gender alone.
He knows what they’ll say behind her back, but he thinks it’s a fair enough trade off. She’s eviscerated enough of them and won far too much respect amongst those who know her for anyone to actually believe she’s slept her way to where she is now. Besides, her name gives her away; if it wasn’t sex, it was nepotism, so he’s happy to use whatever he can to protect her that little bit more. She can handle the rest on her own.
And oh, she does.
One of the newer Belgian Captains gets just a little too friendly too frequently one evening; when she makes the mistake of walking under the mistletoe above the door and he follows her, she’s had enough and Melbourne doesn’t even try to stop her. That the Belgian Captain’s limp that lasts for a solid twenty-four hours spreads the message well enough.
When the Belgian Lieutenant-Colonel shouts his tent down, he calls her in and she stands to attention, her face like stone. She’s technically not in his chain of command, her orders coming directly from COH, but it is his brigade and his camp, and she is a Captain and he is a General and she is his responsibility, so he technically does have to deal with it.
‘I want her charged, General!’ the Belgian shouts, and he thinks that a man from a country that had their asses handed to them on a platter by the Nazis four years ago and had been liberated by their allies less than two months ago would have the good grace to be just a little less arrogant.
He lets out a sigh, rubbing at his temple; her face turns from impassive to outraged and he holds up a hand. ‘I appreciate the sentiment, Colonel, and I completely agree.’ Her eyes widen for a moment at him before she looks away, her face flattening. ‘And I’d be happy to provide testimony for your own court-martial, given that I witnessed the incident,’ he adds, and the Belgian starts.
‘For your own man. I assume conduct prejudicial and disgraceful conduct at the very least.’
The Belgian man gapes at him. ‘Of course, I would provide a full and detailed account of the behaviour of all involved to both Commands.’
He watches as the Belgian turns a rather unhealthy shade of red, turning to look at her before looking back at him. ‘She is fine. My Captain cannot walk properly, General!’
‘Then he should learn to keep his hands to himself,’ he replies, his voice hard. ‘Your soldiers are guests in my camp. If I have to deal with this again, I will be reporting to Command that you are unable to maintain a basic standard of appropriate behaviour in your men, Lieutenant-Colonel.’
When the Belgian spits something at her in French before storming out, Melbourne lets out a sigh before sitting in his chair. ‘Where did you learn that particular move?’
Her lips twist. ‘Belgian operative in the Resistance.’
He closes his eyes and tries really hard not to smile. ‘Of course.’
Twelve months earlier
He’s not particularly interested in this new SOE team that has been assigned to his brigade. An experiment in smaller, more independently-controlled teams embedding in larger units, Leopold tells him. Infiltration, reconnaissance, and sabotage.
SOE are a whole different breed of soldier, and in his experience, don’t usually fit in with other regiments. They were outsiders, those who had volunteered for special service combined with the downright unusual in a war zone, but they’d quickly become elite fighting units, tasked with small but crucial jobs.
They were usually arrogant as all hell. Combine that with his testosterone-filled young soldiers, wearied after years of fighting but still keen to prove themselves, and he rubs at his temple.
He just hopes that, whoever this Captain Kent was, he was able to keep them in line; the last thing he needs is fights breaking out. The field hospital, whilst brilliant, was struggling to handle what they brought in every few weeks, let alone injuries borne of testosterone and stupidity.
But he has his orders, along with a message from Combined Operations Headquarters telling him to play nice, so he’ll do what he’s told. It should be interesting, if nothing else. All he’s told about Captain Kent is that the Captain has a special skill set, and can speak both French and German fluently.
She is quite literally nothing like what he’d expected.
‘Captain Victoria Kent reporting in as ordered, General!’ she barks, saluting him as her men stand to attention behind her.
Well, then. Special skill set indeed.
‘Welcome to B camp, Captain,’ he says, ignoring the almost gaping stares of the men around him at this Captain who was a woman. They knew nothing of Special Operations Executive; all they saw was a female Captain in command of fifteen men.
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘Lieutenant Paget here will show you and your men to your quarters. I’m sure you’d like to clean up after your journey.’
‘Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.’
She was beautiful, his mind supplies unhelpfully. And the fire in her wide blue eyes and the hard set of her mouth tells him that she had learned long ago that beauty was a blessing and a curse in a war – a world – dominated by men. But she wouldn’t be an SOE Captain if she wasn’t brilliant and tough as nails.
‘I cannot believe they’ve made a woman a Captain,’ Conroy sneers a little while later, and he’s just about to berate the obnoxious Major when someone speaks behind him.
‘General Leopold felt that your men weren’t up to completing the required task, Major, so he sent me,’ she shoots back, and they all stand there in shock for a moment. He glances at Conroy’s face, and the look of shock is comical, but he cannot laugh at this.
‘Captain,’ he warns, and she nods once.
‘My apologies, General. Major,’ she replies, sounding anything but apologetic. He catches Alfred’s eye and nods minutely at her, and Paget scrambles over to where she stands.
‘Captain, would you like a tour of the camp? It’s large, easy to get lost.’
‘I would appreciate that, Lieutenant. Thank you,’ she says, catching his eye and nodding.
‘Who does the skirt think she is?’ Conroy splutters when she’s gone.
‘A Captain, Major.’
‘I don’t care who she is, she’s—
He knows what’s coming and he doesn’t want to hear it. ‘She is a Captain in His Majesty’s Army, and you will not speak of fellow officers in that way in my camp, Major. Am I clear?’ he says firmly, and Conroy stares at him for a moment before nodding.
‘Yes, sir,’ he bites out, and Melbourne nods before turning back to his desk.
It had started already, he thinks, the fights. He’d anticipated trouble, but nothing like this. She was trouble personified.
She’s SOE, handpicked and better trained than most of the men in his camp, and a woman. But only he knew that first part; all they would see was the woman.
Well, at least the trouble would be interesting.
‘Intel was right - it is another camp,’ she tells him. ‘Harry got close enough to see the fences and towers.’ He stares at her in dismay for a moment – how many of these camps were there? – before closing his eyes. Of all the work they’ve done, of everything, it’s the camps that do the most damage. The images are burned into his mind, returning unbidden in the moments between waking and sleeping.
After the first, she’d quietly suggested that they request an increase in Chaplain numbers to help the men; maybe they’d all get to sleep more than an hour at time.
They’re not even in Germany yet.
‘He thinks it’s one of those transit camps, which means they’ll have records if they’re anything like the others.’ He can see the glint in her eye; he feels the same. ‘The town is practically empty, by the looks of the photos,’ she says, pointing down at the aerial shots on the table in front of them. ‘There’s likely no one in this area here, either – there’s nothing but open fields,’ she points out, and he knows what she’s thinking. ‘There’s no moon tomorrow night, sir,’ she adds, and he eyes her, thinking. He knows that look all too well – he’s seen it a lot over the past year.
She hands it to him with a smug look. ‘Harry will take lead.’
‘Two nights in a row?’ he asks, skimming the paperwork in his hands before looking up at her.
She tilts her head slightly. ‘Rule is three, sir.’ He shoots her a look. ‘He’s angry.’
‘We all are.’
‘Harry’s best when he’s angry.’
He sucks in a long breath before letting it out slowly. This is their job, to get in and out quickly, gather what they need, dispatch who they needed to, and they were good. She was good. ‘Reconnaissance only,’ he says. ‘Silence.’
‘You’re going to get your wish,’ he tells her two days later, holding up a piece of paper. ‘We have orders to push the line forward twenty miles, and take the camp and the town.’ She smiles at him triumphantly. ‘Your unit’s intelligence was enough to convince them that we need to secure that camp and the train line.’ And that’s the biggest compliment he can give her, he knows. That she and her unit have served their country, have contributed, have done something worthwhile and good.
Her face firms. ‘When do we move?’
The camp, like the others they’d liberated so far, was completely free of soldiers, the guards having fled days earlier. The five hundred prisoners greet them like they’re angels sent directly from heaven, and he thinks it’s the best and worst part of the war. The relief and elation on the emaciated faces will never leave him. It will never leave any of them.
The town is similar, and after the remaining few townspeople ascertain their good intentions, they’re quickly welcomed with open arms. It’s about the only time he’s grateful for the tiny Belgian contingent attached to his brigade; it’s amazing what a fellow countryman means to people who’ve been occupied by foreigners for years.
It’s her unit’s intelligence, her careful planning and execution of the operation that has led to this success, and so he’s more than happy to tell her Well done, Captain at the first available opportunity. He can’t help but smile at her satisfied grin.
But any kind of success is an excuse to celebrate, and so the mess that night is almost riotous. He can’t help but laugh along with most of them. They deserved it.
When his eyes meet hers across the room much later that night, after not enough alcohol and too much laughter, something flashes in them and he can’t look away, and he watches as her face falls into something more serious as she stares back at him, holding his gaze until he’s forced to look away by Palmerston’s question. He doesn’t name it, the emotion he feels and is reflected back at him in her eyes, but he knows she sees it on his face too.
He’s fought it so hard, pushed her away in his mind time and time again, but nothing he did ever seemed to keep her out for long. It didn’t help that she shared their officers’ tent, along with the other officers, and so was quite literally impossible to physically remove from his eyesight for good chunks of most days.
That, and he actually liked her. She was fiery but funny, and sharp as a tack, and he genuinely enjoyed her company. She had a million questions, desperate to learn everything she could while she was there from him – someone, he’d realised a little while in, she respected. She took no rubbish from anyone, often giving far more than she received, and it had kept most of them off her back. All of this, combined with the success of her first mission, had set her up well: he’ll never forget the look on Major Conroy’s face when she’d returned, her team intact, all objectives achieved and with seven bottles of wine and an apology that they didn’t have more, but they could only carry one each.
He’d quite enjoyed winning that bet, and the smile she’d given him when she’d learned he’d bet on her success had just about set his heart on fire. He never bet on anything or anyone, but Conroy’s sneer of derision had irked him just enough that time.
She’d gotten under his skin, thought his defences, this beautiful firecracker of a Captain with bright blue eyes, and so he’d just decided to roll with it. Nothing could happen, and nothing would. There was no way in the world she would ever return his feelings anyway; she was young and beautiful, and he was old and jaded – it would never even cross her mind.
But oh, the look she’d just given him tells him that he was so wrong.
When he looks back at her later, she’s smiling and laughing with her team and he watches her for just a few seconds, and it’s a mistake: she feels his eyes on her and she turns to look at him, her face soft but wary, and he drops her gaze, waiting a minute before saying his farewells to the men at his table and leaving quietly.
‘General! Where are you going?’ he hears from behind him, and he turns, shooting her an amused look. ‘You should be celebrating. You’re always telling me it’s important to set a good example for your men, sir,’ she says in a rush.
He shakes his head. ‘Too much to do,’ he says. ‘I need to make sure that paperwork you found gets to Leopold.’ It was a flimsy excuse, and they both knew it.
‘Tonight?’ she asks, narrowing her eyes slightly.
She frowns at him.
‘As you say, I need to set a good example for my men. In everything,’ he adds deliberately at the end, before turning and walking away.
She hasn’t learned, he quickly realises, that her job is no longer with the Resistance; that she is the leader of her team, and that she can’t join every operation they run because she feels like it. She’s young and beautiful and he knows how the Resistance uses its women, but that is not her life now. Her responsibilities are different; she has a team, people to lead and take care of. Not only that, but she is a woman in a war zone, and a French and German-speaking one at that, and she is both an extremely valuable asset and a massive liability in the field. He has no doubt that each and every one of her unit – of the bulk of his brigade – would eventually cave under torture, if they were torturing her.
They’ve had this conversation several times, and each time she’s listened with a half-mutinous look on her face, and he knows that she doesn’t like what he’s saying. But she eventually promises that she will only join operations where she is necessary, and he leaves it at that.
When Harry appears at his door mid-morning with news that the half of his unit that had departed yesterday is late returning, he’s confused.
‘Where is Captain Kent?’
‘She’s with them, sir.’
He blinks at the man, stopping himself from questioning further. He’s already done enough by not knowing she was a part of the operation, let alone asking why.
‘Six hours. Estimated return time was 4am.’
Six hours, his mind screams, and he forces the panic down. Focus.
When they return another four hours later, the snow is falling and it’s freezing and he’s beside himself with worry. They’ve never been this late before. The scheduled time for their operation was twenty-hour hours.
They’d been gone thirty-four.
‘General!’ he hears Harry shout in the doorway and he flies out of his office. She’s standing there in the middle of the street, the rest of her unit behind her, absolutely covered in dirt and hay, half-frozen and eyeing him warily and alive.
He experiences the full range of emotion; sheer and utter relief right through to barely-contained rage in a few seconds. ‘My office, Captain!’ he shouts, turning on his heel.
He’s almost shaking, he realises as he storms into his office – he has to get this under control before he opens his mouth, so he takes a breath, runs his hands through his hair, leans on the side of his desk.
He hears her enter the room, and he lets outs the breath slowly and quietly. ‘Why did you join that operation?’ he asks quietly, looking up at her pale face, her dirty cheeks and nose pink with the cold.
‘It required someone who spoke German, sir,’ she says, and his fists clench.
‘Four of your team speak German,’ he replies, his voice as measured as he can make it, and she blinks at him before her face contorts with anger.
‘Milo is injured, Arthur is still sick, and the other two haven’t had a break in weeks!’
‘Why are you sending them all out together at once?’ he shoots back, and she recoils at the insinuation that she wasn’t doing her job properly.
‘I don’t. Milo was due to go next,’ she grates out. ‘But it’s difficult to walk four miles with a newly-sprained ankle, sir.’
‘You should have postponed the operation if you did not have the necessary personnel,’ he says, and he sees the muscles in her jaw clench.
‘I had the necessary personnel--’
‘You are not personnel!’ he shouts over her, and she flinches. Her hands curl tighter into fists, and her lips flatten. ‘You are an asset. You are not to put your safety on the line unless you have no choice! You could have been captured or killed!’
‘I would die with my team!’
‘That’s what I’m afraid of!’ he cries, and her eyes widen and her mouth drops open a little, and oh, this is it. This is why, he thinks – this is why the rules exist. Because she’s more important to him than anyone in this camp and he is absolutely compromised. He closes his eyes, dropping his head slightly.
She says nothing, just staring at him, and he forces himself to meet her anguished eyes. Her face is flushed and she’s filthy, but she’s magnificent and precious and alive.
‘Are you injured?’ he asks, and she shakes her head.
‘Is any of your team injured?’
‘A group returned to the farmhouse,’ she says, her voice shaky. ‘It wasn’t as abandoned as the aerials suggested. There were four of them; collaborators. We had to wait until they went to sleep.’ He nods dumbly. ‘I’m sorry, sir,’ she says almost evenly, and he nods again.
‘Go and clean up.’
When she’s gone, he collapses into his chair, head in his hands.
He’s never seen her actually drunk. He doesn’t think she has been the entire time he’s known her, and it’s a wise decision; her team would look after her, but as she’d so happily told the young US solder: five years and almost four thousand men. But here she sits, after midnight, and she’s probably just the right side of tipsy, he thinks, as he watches her. She’s almost alone now; the mess is completely empty, as it should be. She shouldn’t technically be here – curfew was half an hour ago now – but he’s not going to quibble.
Harry has seen him come in; he claps her shoulder as he stands, stepping through the door with a quick salute and quiet General, and so he walks towards her.
‘Captain,’ he says, watching as she turns to face him, before standing to her feet. She stares at him, her eyes wide and bright in the muted light, and the way she blinks owlishly at him before her face erupts into a grin makes him want to smile.
‘Yes,’ she declares after clearly giving it some thought, and his lips twist.
‘Perhaps you should retire for the evening,’ he suggests, and she takes a step towards him.
‘I don’t want to sleep!’ she says a little more jubilantly than perhaps entirely necessary. ‘We should be celebrating. We’re almost in Germany!’
He can’t help but smile a little at her enthusiasm. Tipsy Victoria was just like Captain Kent, only happier. And she deserved to be happier; combined, the Allied forces had taken a little over a hundred kilometres in less than two weeks, and they were now set up on the wrong side of the German border. He knew Command had hoped to have the war over by Christmas, but now he thinks they’ll just be happy that they’ll likely be somewhere on the right side of the German border by mid-December. There was still a hell of a fight on their hands.
‘Yes, we are,’ he says quietly, glancing around the empty room just to be sure that there was no one left, and she takes another step towards him.
‘It’s almost over,’ she says quietly, and her face falls.
‘You look disappointed,’ he replies, turning and walking back towards the door. It would do nothing for them to be found alone, and her tipsy, in the middle of the mess sometime after midnight.
‘No. Yes,’ she says, and she frowns up at him as they reach the doorway. ‘I’m not disappointed that the war will be over,’ she says. ‘I just don’t want to go home.’
He nods slowly. He knows exactly how she feels.
‘I don’t want to leave you,’ she whispers, and she’s suddenly very, very close, and she glances at his mouth, and oh, she can’t do this. Not here, not now, not while she has whatever alcohol she’s been drinking coursing through her veins.
She cannot want him.
The air is electric between them, and all he’d have to do would be to lean down, move his head just slightly so she could reach his lips with hers, and--
‘I think we cannot always have what we want,’ he says quietly, haltingly, each word wrenched from his mouth by his duty to his country and his love for her. He takes a step backwards, his eyes focused on her shoulder – anywhere but her mouth, her eyes – and his hands resting on her upper arms to stop her from moving.
And when he does eventually force himself to look at her eyes, his heart breaks in his chest at what he sees.
Her mouth, which had dropped open just a little, was now closed, and she was swallowing, dropping his gaze and looking down. She steps back and he lets her go automatically, watching as she turns and flees out the door.
When he tips his head back, rubbing at his neck, he sees that damned mistletoe hanging above him again, above where she’d been inches from kissing him, despite the fact that they were a hundred and fifty miles from where it had first gone up, and he curses whoever sent him the Americans.
They’ve always gotten on well. He’s never presumed to underestimate her, and she’s only ever given her entire being to the cause, and they’ve found this easy comradeship as her SOE team hides in his brigade as they have done for a solid twelve months now. They’re both surprised that they’ve been left alone this long, but they’re effective, and they work, and he’s argued to keep her and her team more times than he can count.
He’s not going to win this time.
They want her team in newly-retaken Greece. The tide has turned, and they’re clearly winning. It won’t be long now – months, not years. But the SOEs in the Mediterranean are exhausted after months of hard fighting, and they need rotating. They’re talking about re-designation as Commando units and something about the Channel Islands, and why on earth they want to take her little team from the border of Belgium and Germany where they were pushing forward every week, taking new ground and liberating towns and gathering ridiculous levels of intelligence and evidence as they push harder and harder towards Berlin, he cannot understand. But the orders are coming from far above him this time, and there’s a strange sense of finality to them, and he’s pretty sure he knows who’s behind it.
It’s when he throws his hat across his new office, courtesy of the small, now-abandoned Belgian town they’d just moved through, after another fruitless meeting with Leopold and Peel, that he knows he’s in far, far too deep.
She appears in his office late that night when he’s already downed two glasses of the whiskey he keeps for special occasions, and the dim light can’t hide the desperation on her face.
‘My team doesn’t want to go,’ she admits quietly when she’s done ranting and raving about the incompetence and meddling of her uncle and Peel and anyone else she can think of, and he hears what’s she’s actually saying. I don’t want to go.
He looks across the room at her wide eyes, and the anguish on her face makes him realise just how attached they’ve become, how much they’ve broken all the rules and how stupid he was. He was endangering her career, her reputation, potentially the whole outcome of the war on his emotions.
‘I know,’ is all he says, his voice sharp and biting, and she stares at him for just a moment before turning and walking away.
‘There are thirty special forces units – two are in North Africa, babysitting Tobruk and El Alamein. Surely they can send one of those! And they’re closer – it will take us weeks to get there from here. We have to cross half of Europe and two different seas!’
He doesn’t ask how she knows about the whereabouts of other SOE units. ‘They wouldn’t have requested you if they didn’t think your team was the best for the job, especially not given the distance.’
She glares at him. ‘Do you really believe that, sir? Do you really think this is about military operations?’ He doesn’t answer. ‘Leopold asked,’ she says quietly.
‘Asked what?’ he replies flatly. He knows what she would say. The rumours would have reached them long ago, but he knew Leopold was smart enough to know what was idle chatter and what was more.
He must have decided that it was more. He wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
She eyes him and he shakes his head. ‘We don’t have the whole picture; there are so many fronts now, all around Europe and in Asia. And your team’s record speaks for itself.’
‘But we’re successful here!’
‘And they need you there!’
‘Don’t you want me to stay?’ she fires back, but there’s an undercurrent of hurt there, and her choice of words says it all. It shouldn’t be about him wanting her to stay, about her not wanting to leave him. It should be about orders and duty and units and regiments and command structures and it’s so far beyond that, and it’s going to get her into so much trouble if she keeps this up. She’s been nothing but a model operative for years – she wouldn’t have made Captain otherwise, nepotism or not – but now there are feelings, emotions involved, and it’s all falling apart.
He won’t let her do this. This ridiculous war will be over soon enough, and he won’t let her ruin these last few months of her career because she likes him.
‘Orders exist for a reason,’ he bites out, and she stares at him, her face contorting with hurt. But he watches as she steels herself, her face flattening and her eyes hardening, and he wants to reach out and touch her and apologise—
‘Yes, General.’ She doesn’t look at him as she strides past him and out of his office.
He reads the telegram in front of him and blinks several times, and oh, he’s angry with her. She’s obviously been communicating with London and her uncles and probably the rest of her rather extensive and well-connected family and she’s going to ruin her entire career if she keeps trying to get her own way like this. ‘Paget, find Captain Kent.’
She’s in his office minutes later, and she won’t meet his eye, instead standing to attention and staring at a point somewhere to the left of his head.
She hasn’t stood to attention like this for him in almost a year.
‘It would seem your orders have changed, Captain.’
‘Yes, sir,’ she replies flatly.
‘You’re to investigate a possible camp near the town of Hinzert, about forty miles south-south-east of here.’
‘This says you’re to remain here once you’ve completed that operation and await orders.’
He lets out a sigh and drops the paper on his desk. ‘Do I want to know?’
‘I don’t understand, sir.’
The whole sir thing is starting to really grate and he resists the urge to yell. ‘I think, Captain, that the consequences of lying to a superior office is court-martial,’ he says slowly, watching her as her face falls infinitesimally, just enough for him to notice, and she lets out a breath. He takes a step closer.
‘What did you say?’ he asks, and she finally looks at him.
‘That my work here was too important.’ But this would not have swayed her uncle, he knows, so he waits. ‘That I knew what he was doing and why.’ He blinks and glances down at her shoulder just to escape the blue of her eyes. ‘That it was an aspersion on his own character to think that I would do such a thing.’
He closes his eyes and drops his head. Leopold didn’t suddenly just decide that their relationship wasn’t appropriate out of thin air; he must have heard something, seen something, been told something, and he’s very obviously acted on that something.
And something clicks and he walks over to his desk, rifling through the paperwork until his finds it. ‘Captain Albert Coburg,’ he reads, and she looks away guiltily, and oh, there it is. The real reason she’s still standing in front of him and not halfway across France by now. ‘Captain Coburg should arrive sometime in the next week, and is to join your unit, under your command,’ he says, and she won’t look at him.
‘He’s from my uncle’s wife’s family. They fled to Britain before the war,’ she explains after a few seconds. ‘They have requested that he receive training from the best SOE team we have.’ By the time she reaches the end of the sentence her voice is just a whisper, and he understands now.
Coburg is a distraction.
‘Excellent,’ he mutters. His suspicions are confirmed: he’s now entirely sure he’s inextricably involved in her family’s chess game, and he does not like it. He’s avoided promotion like the plague in order to stay in the field and avoid these kinds of entanglements, and yet here he is, burying himself deeper into this one.
‘I assume he can speak German?’
‘Better than English,’ she says, wincing slightly, and he grimaces.
‘He’s your responsibility,’ he warns, and she nods. ‘Keep him out of trouble.’
‘It won’t be a problem, sir.’
He stares at her until she finally looks up at him warily. He can feel the anger seeping out of him, and he desperately tries to cling to it, but he can’t. She looks almost ashamed. He wonders briefly how much she fought to stay because of him, but decides quickly he doesn’t really want to know.
‘I’m pleased your unit is staying, Captain. You’re an asset to the brigade,’ he says slowly, and the corners of her mouth curve just slightly into something like a smile.
‘Thank you, General.’
But then he arrives, and everything changes.
He thinks that Leopold has been stuck in his office for far too long; a Major-General never escorts a Captain through a camp, and certainly not the day he arrives. The look on the faces of the men as they walk down the street tells him all he needs to know; this boy is going to suffer for his existence. He doesn’t particularly care.
He hears her sigh at his elbow, and he glances at her. ‘I thought you were to meet your Uncle when he arrived?’ he asks, as they walk up the street towards the disaster waiting to happen.
‘Briefing,’ she says, and he looks at her; they haven’t been on an operation in four days. She just blinks innocently up at him.
‘General,’ Leopold greets as they arrive at the mess, and he nods. ‘Captain Albert Coburg, assigned to Captain Kent’s team.’
And he’s no more than a boy, this Captain he’s now stuck with – she’s stuck with. His hair is too long and his nose far too high in the air and he looks far too soft to be a Captain in the British Army in this particular war, he thinks. Nepotism strikes again.
‘Captain,’ he says, greeting the younger man, who gives him a crisp salute. ‘At ease.’
‘Thank you, General,’ the boy replies. ‘Captain,’ he says, nodding to Victoria who is still standing next to Melbourne.
‘Captain,’ she replies flatly.
‘Shall we have lunch?’ Leopold says.
‘You haven’t changed,’ he hears the boy tell her in German as they eat, and he can feel his hackles rise as he pretends to listen to Leopold’s conversation with Palmerston.
‘It’s been nearly twelve years,’ she says incredulously in English. ‘Of course I’ve changed.’
‘True,’ he says. ‘You’re not as chubby.’
She turns to look at the boy, and the set of her jaw is so familiar to Melbourne, and he almost lets her go, but Leopold is sitting right next to her, and he meant what he said when he told her he was pleased she was staying. ‘Captain,’ he says a little more loudly than normal, looking at the boy. ‘Captain Kent tells me you speak German.’
‘Yes, sir,’ the boy replies a little sullenly. ‘My family is originally from Germany.’
‘I’m surprised they haven’t sequestered you at Headquarters. They’re always looking for reliable German-speakers,’ he says lightly, and Albert’s eyes shift away from him for a moment.
‘I have been, sir,’ he says. ‘I requested a field posting.’
‘Oh, so this is your first time in the field?’ he asks, and when Victoria turns and buries her head in her shoulder, pretending to cough, he bites his cheek to stop himself from smiling.
‘No, sir. I spent six months at El Alamein earlier this year.’
‘So the first time at the front?’
Albert face contorts. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘Ah. Well, it’s a good thing you’re with Captain Kent. She’s one of the best,’ he says, smiling lightly at him, and she throws him such a dirty look that he almost raises his eyebrows at her. But Albert is all but glaring at him, and he tells himself the possessive look he knows is in his eye as he stares down the new Captain Albert Coburg is simply the look he’s perfected over the past year to protect her, not his heart shining out through his eyes.
He barely sees her alone anymore; Albert has firmly attached himself to her side, and it’s irritating him more than he wants to admit. He cannot deny that Albert is rather good-looking, in a tall, brooding sort of way, and despite all her anger and derision, he sees it in her eyes. The attraction.
He watches helplessly from the sidelines as they bicker and argue, but there’s this undercurrent to it, and when the boy stands just a little too close to her one day, his tall frame towering over her tiny one, he finds himself wishing rather viciously that she’d just punch him in the stomach. ‘Captains,’ he calls instead. ‘Whilst I’m sure whatever it is you’re arguing about is vitally important, could you please do it elsewhere?’
They both chorus Yes, sir, and she glances at him before looking away as soon as their eyes meet, and he blinks. She looks almost ashamed, he thinks, and the jealousy burns at this confirmation of her feelings.
He’s on edge, tired. The last push hadn’t achieved the desired results, and he’d lost a number of men. It was all feeling hard again, frustrating and painful. Dark. He’s aware he’s becoming snappish; even Alfred’s avoiding him when he can. He doesn’t particularly care. This war will be over in a matter of months and then she’ll be gone and he can return to who he was before she so rudely interrupted his calm existence with her fire and bright blue eyes.
‘General!’ he hears as he’s about to enter his office after dinner, and he lets out a sigh before turning to see her behind him. He waves her in as he steps inside the building and out of the cold.
He looks behind her when he stops. ‘Where is Captain Coburg?’
‘Who cares?’ she mutters, and he shoots her a look. ‘He’s cleaning his boots, sir.’
‘At eight o’clock at night?’
‘Albert’s fun like that.’
He believes her, but he’s still sore from the past week. ‘I’m surprised you’re not with him,’ he says, and she frowns. ‘I was under the impression he was quite attractive; this would have been the perfect opportunity.’
‘What?’ she almost splutters.
‘Well, you certainly stare at him for long enough during the day.’ And that’s done it. He can’t keep his face neutral enough – he’d been arrogant to think he could have – and her lips curl in anger.
‘Why would you care, General?’ she bites out, and the anger flares brightly in his chest.
‘It’s important to keep morale up, fraternisation down.’ It was low, even for him, and he regrets it as soon as it’s left his mouth, but he can’t take it back. He thinks she’s going to throw something at him, but then the light catches her eye as she tilts her head just a little at him, and his face softens.
‘I’ll be sure to keep that in mind, General. Good night, sir,’ she grates out before turning and fleeing his office.
He’s officially had enough when Leopold appears at his door a few days later. ‘Melbourne,’ he greets him, and he resist the urge to let out a sigh.
‘General. You’ve come a long way, sir.’
‘How is Captain Coburg settling in?’
He’s going to be stretchered out if he continues to speak German at her in front of the men. ‘He’s adjusting, sir,’ he says. ‘It would be helpful if he spoke English more.’
Leopold nods. ‘I will speak to him.’
‘I don’t think that’s necessary, sir,’ Melbourne replies. ‘I’m sure he’ll figure it out.’
Leopold eyes him. ‘I transferred Captain Coburg here for several reasons,’ he starts, and he does not want to have this conversation, but it would appear that Leopold does and thus he has no choice.
‘Yes, sir?’ he replies, feigning interest.
‘He needs training in the field, and Captain Kent’s record speaks for itself. Her team is very capable.’
‘Captain Kent is an excellent operative, sir,’ he replies, and Leopold eyes narrow slightly.
‘Yes. But she is also twenty-six, and her priorities are shifting,’ he says.
Melbourne frowns. ‘The Captain hasn’t mentioned anything to me, General.’
Leopold’s eyes definitely narrow at that. ‘Her initial foray into the war was not sanctioned by her family, and her position in your brigade is a compromise. She wishes to see the world, to do her part in the war, and for Britain.’
He knows this. ‘Like so many.’
‘Her family feel that she has had her time in the sun, shall we say, and that it is time for her to return to England and to her duties.’
‘She is royalty; eleventh in line for the throne now, Melbourne.’ He knows; she’s been more than desperate to keep that gem a secret from as many as possible. But eleventh was a long way down that particular line, especially in this day and age. ‘She needs to settle, get married and have a family,’ he says, and Melbourne blinks. ‘I am hoping that Albert will convince her of this.’
He’s known this all along; it was more than obvious. But to hear it directly from Leopold’s mouth hurts in a way he hadn’t anticipated. ‘I’m sure Captain Kent will make the decision most appropriate for her, sir,’ he says. ‘But I’m not sure what you wish me to do, General.’
‘Convince her to return to England, Melbourne.’ And he says it so bluntly that Melbourne stares at him.
‘I think you overestimate my influence, General.’
‘I do not think I do. I have seen the way my niece looks at you,’ he replies knowingly, and Melbourne shifts on his feet. He’s had approximately enough of this.
‘General, if you wish to make a report, please do so. But otherwise, I respectfully request that you do not cast aspersions on those under my command without evidence,’ he shoots back, his voice hard, and Leopold stares at him.
‘Victoria is not under your command, Melbourne,’ he says. ‘Unfortunately,’ he adds, turning and walking out of the office.
She’s hesitant around him, nervous. There’s an awkwardness, a tension to their relationship now that he hates; he just wants the air cleared and for things to go back the way they were before all of this complication. But it cannot, and he cannot, and he lets out a long sigh. It’s all his fault anyway.
Despite the fact that Christmas is so close, barely three weeks away, and the air has a sense of festivity and excitement about it, they’re still a large active military unit on the edge of enemy territory in a war and, thus, there’s always an undercurrent of tension.
The boy has voluntarily spoken German one too many times in public and he’s not at all surprised when it’s Coburg who throws the first punch. He does not want to get involved but given that it happens almost right in front of him, he finds himself striding up to where she’s standing between the two angry men who are being held apart by two of her team.
‘Captain! What is going on?’ he shouts. She turns to him, automatically straightening.
‘Nothing I cannot deal with, General,’ she bites out, staring daggers at both men. ‘I apologise that you were troubled, sir.’ He looks between the two soldiers, and he thinks it’s probably not the kind of nothing he can just leave to her to deal with. ‘Captain Coburg has learned his lesson,’ she adds, and he raises his eyebrows. He looks from her to the boy, whose lips are curled in something that’s almost a snarl, and no, he’s not letting this go.
‘Private,’ he says quietly, walking up to his soldier, who is still red in the face. ‘Would you care to explain why Captain Kent here is being forced to deal with your behaviour?’
‘The Captain insulted me in German, sir!’ the young man barks, and Albert twists in the arms of Harry, who is fairly easily holding him back.
‘I did nothing of the kind,’ he shouts. ‘He insulted me!’
‘Enough!’ he shouts. He doesn’t care. As far as he’s concerned, he agrees with her – the boy had it coming – but he cannot have his men throwing punches whenever they’re offended. He looks between the two of them, and then at her. ‘Captain Kent, please deal with your officer.’
‘Yes, sir,’ she growls.
‘Private, restrain your temper. Save it for the Nazis, or you’ll find yourself in far more serious trouble.’
‘Yes, sir!’ the Private responds.
He walks away without a backwards glance.
She appears at his office door later that night, and he waves her in, only glancing up.
‘I’m sorry about Albert, sir,’ she says, and he nods.
‘He’s your problem, Captain.’
He lets out a sigh, before leaning back to look at her. ‘Is he a problem?’ he asks deliberately, and she shakes her head.
‘Our grandparents were cousins,’ she says, and he looks at her. She doesn’t look up. ‘I know why he’s here.’ She eventually looks up at him, her eyes wary, and he stares right back. ‘They want me to go back.’
‘Yes,’ he confirms quietly. He wonders if she knows what else Leopold has planned.
‘It’s not going to work,’ she declares. ‘I’m not leaving until the war is over.’
He says nothing. He would send her home too if he had the choice, especially after this week. The casualty lists were growing in leaps and bounds, and while his brigade is unaffected by the most recent fighting, he knows that their time will come.
‘Neither am I,’ he half-jokes, and her lips twist a little.
‘No. Sir,’ she adds on at the end, and he deserves that, he thinks, the sir. But it’s late, and he’s tired, and she’s looking at him with those eyes that he wants to drown in.
‘Get some rest,’ he says gently.
‘You too,’ she replies softly as she leaves.
He wonders how many more of these dinners they’ll be forced to endure where Leopold appears and tries to play happy families. One day he’s going to say something he regrets.
This one is blessedly short; Leopold has to return early that night. Albert has disappeared somewhere, and he excuses himself as Leopold prepares to leave. But he’s become forgetful in his desire to get the hell out of there, and he’s left his gloves behind on the table. He’s just walking back through the mess, and before he rounds the corner, he hears them, Leopold’s voice loud in the almost-silence of the cavernous room.
‘As his commanding officer, Albert’s happiness is your problem, Victoria,’ Leopold says in German. ‘Perhaps you might spread some festive spirit with a kiss,’ Leopold half-jokes as Melbourne rounds the corner and he sees him point up at the mistletoe in the doorway. But his mind translates the General’s words too slowly, and he’s around the corner and all of ten feet away when he hears her respond.
‘I’ll kiss a man under that mistletoe when hell freezes over,’ she grinds out in German.
He goes to stop, his steps faltering, but it’s too late; she’s seen him. Their eyes meet, and oh, it hurts. She drops his gaze, before quickly looking back up at Leopold, but it’s too late – Leopold has realised there’s someone behind them, and he turns. ‘General,’ he says, frowning.
Melbourne resists the urge to point out that most would consider this forest on the edge of a war zone a fairly convincing version of hell, and it most certainly was frozen, but he doesn’t know if Leopold has read his file closely enough to know he speaks German and he certainly doesn’t want him finding out right at this particular moment, so he forces a polite smile on his face.
‘Gloves,’ he says, holding the offending items up in explanation. ‘Good evening, General, Captain.’
The look on her face haunts him all the way back to his quarters and he curses himself. This was his fault. He was no better than any of them who had broken her heart.
It was an occupational hazard, dying. Or being captured. They live with the threat every moment, more so every time they leave camp, push forward further into Germany. But they’d been lucky so far; the fighting had been brutal in the first half of the year and he’d found himself ordering more telegrams than anything else. It had been soul-destroying. But these last eight months he’d only lost a handful of men, and she’d lost none, and although he’d worked so hard not to become complacent, they’re all still surprised when it happens.
He’s had this tension in his gut that he’s been carrying around for hours now, ever since he’d watched her and her team depart on their latest operation. Something was going to go wrong.
And it all goes pear-shaped about as quickly as he expects.
The latest camp they’d liberated had yielded the same as previous ones: emaciated, drawn faces shining brightly with the idea of freedom and food, a few skeletal bodies left unburied, and copious amounts of paperwork abandoned after harried and poor attempts at burning.
But when two of the prisoners tell two of his men that they think the Commandant is taking refuge in a farmhouse only two miles north-east, he knows what they will say.
COH approved. Retrieval.
‘I’m going,’ she tells him, and his head flicks up. ‘Andrew and James are on leave, and I’m not sending Albert on his own,’ she explains, shaking her head.
He doesn’t like it, and he know she can see this, but really, he can’t say much. This has the potential to be a difficult operation. ‘Are you sure Captain Coburg is ready?’
She purses her lips. ‘Yes, sir,’ she seemingly decides. ‘He has done well enough on the last few operations.’
‘Well enough,’ he repeats.
‘He’s still new. Fitting in.’ He really, really doesn’t like the fact that the boy has her back, but she still has the rest of her unit there, and he has to trust her on this.
‘Take care,’ he says, and she nods.
‘Thank you, General.’
When Alfred appears at his office early the next morning, he knows something’s wrong just by the look on his face. ‘Captain Coburg has returned with four of Captain Kent’s unit,’ he says. ‘He’s injured.’
Before his aide has finished his sentence he’s out the door and striding down to where he knows they will have driven in. ‘Captain, report!’ he shouts, and Albert’s head spins around to him. Melbourne stares at him; half of his face and most of his shirt is soaked in blood.
‘It was an ambush,’ he says. ‘They were ready for us. Two men down.’
‘Where is Captain Kent?’
Albert’s eyes widen. ‘She isn’t here?’
Oh, the rage blinds him, and he takes a step forward and grabs the boy by the collar. ‘You left her behind?’ he growls.
‘We were separated. She was with Harry,’ the boy blurts out, his face contorting with pain. ‘Permission to return—’
‘Denied!’ he shouts, letting go of his collar. ‘Operations, now.’ He turns to the rest of her team.
‘Sir, permission to return—‘ the one he recognises as Milo says, and he understands the desperate edge to his voice, the anger.
‘You need a plan first,’ he shouts.
It takes a little over an hour between Albert and the rest of them to find out what happened and how many of the enemy there were left, and then to work out where she and the remaining two members of her unit might have gone and how best to execute some kind of rescue.
If they were still alive, and free.
He pushes the thought down ruthlessly. She was alive, and free, and needed rescuing.
The rest of her team and three sections are ready to go in another twenty minutes – they also cannot allow that Commandant to disappear – and he paces his office as he waits. It’ll be at least four hours in transit alone, and he thinks he’s going to lose his mind with worry. He prays. He hasn’t prayed in years, decades, but he prays now. Whatever he can do to save her, he’ll do.
He’s surprisingly unprepared for Leopold to storm into his office two hours in.
‘What happened, General?’ he demands, and Melbourne blinks at him.
‘Captain Coburg left Captain Kent and two other members of her team behind during an operation that did not go as planned,’ he says evenly. He doesn’t care enough right now. He doesn’t have enough energy left to deal with this.
‘He would not do such a thing!’
‘I recommend speaking to the Captain directly, General,’ Melbourne replies flatly.
‘He is sleeping. He has sustained some serious injuries, and I cannot believe—’
‘He left them behind!’ he yells, and Leopold blinks. ‘The remaining uninjured members of her team and three sections are scouring an area three kilometres’ square, in the hopes that they have somehow managed to escape, General.’
He watches as Leopold visibly shrinks, breathing heavily. ‘I’m sure the Captain did what he thought was best under the circumstances,’ he says haltingly.
‘Yes, I’m sure he did, sir, given his age and experience,’ Melbourne fires back, and he’s done with this. He can’t play these games. There was far, far too much at stake now.
He’s so beyond compromised he can’t see the wood for the trees. He’d almost sent himself out as part of the team to find her, but Edran’s quiet We will bring them back, General, had been enough to remind him of his own responsibilities.
‘I will be staying here tonight. Please inform me of any developments.’
He watches as Leopold hesitates, glancing at Melbourne before turning and walking towards the door. ‘I will wait in the Officer’s mess.’
Thank God. ‘Yes, sir.’
His knees almost give out in relief when Paget comes flying in the door just after dawn, shouting that they were back, they were alive, they’ve got them, sir.
He strides down to the entrance to the camp, and he can see her there, her team flanking her as they walk up the street, and he stops, swallowing the emotion that is threatening to overwhelm him at the sight of her.
She’s filthy, her hair muddy and her uniform and neck covered in blood, but he thinks that the bulk of it can’t be hers; she appears fine otherwise, walking slowly but purposefully. But she’s alive, and safe, and he closes his eyes. He sucks in a deep breath, looking down at his feet, forcing his heart to stop racing and to calm down, before he steps out into the street to greet them. He’s just close enough that he can see her cheeks and the tip of her nose are pink with the cold, and she has a decent cut on her forehead.
‘Welcome home, Captain,’ he says, and she gives him a heavy salute.
‘Thank you, sir. I apologise for being late. Thank you for the assistance,’ she says, her voice weary as she waves at the soldiers coming in behind her, and he shakes his head.
‘Report to the hospital, Captain. Briefing later.’
She nods wearily, and he nods back, before she walks past him and down the street. ‘Well done,’ he tells the section commanders when they tell him the Commandant is also on his way to the hospital – on a stretcher.
When he returns to his office, he sinks into his chair and drops his head into his hands, and lets the tears fall onto floor.
He’d been right; she was fine, barring a number of cuts and bruises, and she’s unnervingly quiet during the debriefing.
She’d lost two men of her fifteen.
She barely meets his eye the entire time, her expression a familiar combination of anguished blankness. She needs time to process, he knows, so he lets her be. Her team will look after their own, and he’ll check in soon enough.
It’s late, and he’s tired, and when he strides into his office he almost doesn’t see her in the corner, curled up in a ball and hiding in the darkness behind Alfred’s desk. It’s been three days, and he’s barely seen her. He’d just started to really worry.
‘I’m sorry,’ she whispers, looking up at him. ‘I just wanted somewhere quiet and I didn’t think you’d mind.’
He gives her a small smile, before lowering himself to the ground next to her. He says nothing, just waiting for her to speak. He knows she will, eventually.
‘We could hear the children screaming,’ she whispers after a good few minutes, and he closes his eyes briefly. ‘They were crying for their parents.’ She’s silent for a moment. ‘The aerial photos never showed evidence of children. We would never have… it would have been different…’ she trails off.
‘Of course,’ he says, and she goes quiet again.
‘I didn’t see it. I should have seen it,’ she says, and he’s confused, so he waits. ‘He was hiding in the tree by the entrance,’ she says, and he nods. ‘Freddy never even saw it coming. None of us did.’
‘You did your best,’ he says, but he knows it’s not enough. It will never be enough.
‘They still died. It was my job to protect them, and I couldn’t.’
‘Yes,’ he says, and she turns to look at him through her red-rimmed eyes. ‘You cannot go through years of open war without losing people under your command,’ he says. ‘They knew that. And you know that.’
‘How do you do it?’ she asks, her voice broken.
He lets out a huff. ‘You remember that there are people who are still relying on you. The rest of your unit – they still need you to do your best. The people in those camps need us to do our best.’ She stares at him, and he gives her a small smile. ‘It’s harder when they’re close to you,’ he admits.
She looks away, and he sees a tear roll down her cheek. ‘I understand now when people talk. I wish it was me,’ she says. ‘I wish I had died instead.’
‘Yes,’ he says, and she turns to look at him. ‘I did too. You do, when you feel responsible.’ He lets out a huff. ‘When my wife and son were killed by the first bombs, I blamed myself. They were only in London because I was stationed at the War Office,’ he says. He glances at her; she’s still staring at him. ‘I fell apart. But then I realised after a while that I would be letting everyone else down if I gave in. I couldn’t help my family, but I could help other families. So I picked myself up and kept going.’ She lets out a shaky breath. ‘It’s not easy, but you can do it. You must do it.’
She eventually nods, leaning her head back against the wall.
After a few minutes, her head is resting against his shoulder, and he knows he’d stay there on the dirty wooden floor all night if she wanted him to.
Alfred knocks on his door a few days later. ‘Captain Coburg, requesting to speak with you, sir,’ he says, and Melbourne lets out a sigh.
‘Send him in.’ He’s been waiting to see what the boy would do.
‘General,’ he says, standing to attention, his right arm still in a sling.
‘I would like to request a transfer to a different unit, sir,’ he announces, and Melbourne’s eyebrows rise slightly. ‘I believe that I have lost the confidence of my unit and thus cannot lead effectively.’
I’m not sure you ever had it, he wants to say, but it’s not entirely true. He’d been arrogant, the boy, and he’s learning his lesson.
He has half a mind to refuse his transfer, make him work it out, but that would likely be more pain that it’s worth, he thinks, and he suspects the boy would just go over his head and move anyway. ‘How is your shoulder?’
The Captain blinks. ‘It is sore, but healing well, sir. Thank you, sir.’
‘You did nothing wrong, Captain,’ Melbourne says after a moment, and it’s the truth. For all his shouting and abuse, the boy had made a difficult decision, and he believes him when he says he thought he was doing the right thing.
‘Thank you, sir,’ he replies, and Melbourne can tell he doesn’t believe him.
‘You made a sound decision, given the situation.’
‘I should not have left them behind, sir,’ he grates out, and Melbourne lets out a sigh.
‘It’s very easy to judge ourselves overly harshly in hindsight.’ But it’s done, he thinks. ‘I think perhaps it would be wise for you to choose your own posting, Captain,’ he says, and the boy’s eyes flick down to his.
‘Do you know where you’d like to go, Captain?’
It’s Christmas Eve, and the camp is buzzing with festive spirit.
The only music coming through the radio in the mess is various Christmas songs and carols, and someone had managed to find holly nearby, so it decorated just about every public – and private, he’s sure – space. The large tree in the mess was decorated with whatever they could find that was vaguely festive; tins cut up into stars, cardboard bells, and even some tinsel. The weather had finally decided it was cold enough for eight inches of snow a week ago, and they have a nice, thick blanket of it now. It’s not ideal, really, but he doesn’t mind that her team are stuck at camp for now. It’s the little snowmen that were appearing all over the camp – on the roof of his office, of all places – that make it clear that her team – and some of his own men – are bored. Well, at least they’re finding things to celebrate, he thinks.
He sees her later that night in the mess with her unit, and he smiles: she’s laughing again. He hasn’t seen her really laugh in almost two weeks, and it fills his heart with a lightness that had been missing for months. Her face transforms into a vibrant but soft kind of beautiful when she smiles, his firecracker of a Captain who was slowly finding her spark again.
‘It’s late, Captain,’ he says quietly behind her, much, much later, from where she’s standing at the entrance to the Officer’s mess, looking out the other door at the snow that was lightly falling. She spins around and gives him a small smile.
‘It’s Christmas, sir,’ she says.
‘It is, now,’ he agrees, glancing at his watch. ‘Merry Christmas, Captain,’ he says with a smirk, and she grins.
‘Merry Christmas, General.’
He looks out at the snow. Now is as good a time as any, he thinks. She’s going to hate him at any point for this; why not Christmas? ‘Has Captain Coburg told you he’s leaving?’
He’s been thinking about this for a while, ever since the boy appeared at his desk with his request, and if the past seven weeks have taught him anything, it’s that he’s in love with her, his firecracker, and he will not survive this war if she doesn’t. ‘Perhaps your Uncle was right,’ he starts, and she blinks at him. ‘Perhaps it would be best for you to return home with Captain Coburg.’
She takes a step back from him, her mouth dropping open slightly, shaking her head, betrayal written all over her face. ‘While you still can,’ he adds gingerly, his eyes landing on the still-healing cut on her forehead. ‘Between us and the Americans, the war will be over by July at this rate.’
She’s silent and he can’t look at her, can’t see the hurt on her face that he knows will be there.
‘Why are you so desperate for me to go?’ she asks, and the way she says it makes it sound like she knows the answer. He lets out a tiny huff; he’d thought her over this, beyond these feelings. Clearly, he was wrong; the look in her eye is the same one he’d seen only weeks ago in this same spot, he realises with a pang of guilt.
She cannot want him.
When he says nothing, she takes a step towards him, and she’s very close now. Her eyes are piercing, and he blinks at her before glancing down at his feet.
‘What are you afraid of?’ she asks, and oh, if she knew. He was afraid of her dying. Of witnessing her lifeless body returning to the camp. Of never finding her body.
He’s terrified that she’s serious; that the look in her eye is exactly what he thinks it is.
‘Many things,’ he replies. ‘Having to sign off on that telegram to your mother,’ he admits, deliberately meeting her eyes again.
‘Is that it?’ she asks quietly, and he lets out a breath.
‘No,’ he whispers, but they can’t do this. She can’t. She cannot tie herself to him. She can’t do anything like this, and his mind is spinning. ‘Please,’ he pleads, his voice rough. ‘There are rules. They exist for a reason.’
‘Albert said you almost hit him when he came back without me. I think maybe it’s too late for the rules,’ she points out, and he lets out a huff. She wasn’t wrong. ‘You keep saying war will be over soon,’ she adds softly after a few seconds, and he looks up at her.
After the war.
He shakes his head. ‘You have your whole life ahead of you. I wasn’t even supposed—‘ He stops, cursing his tongue and the beer and exhaustion and emotion that had loosened it. It had made sense in the second his mind supplied the reason and the reason had come out of his mouth, but oh, regret.
‘Supposed to what?’ she asks before he can speak again, and she’s staring at him, her brow furrowed in anger.
‘I wasn’t supposed to be here,’ he says. ‘I never expected to make General,’ he lies, looking at her, and she’s shaking her head at him, her face a mix between horrified concern and sheer anger, and he knows she’s seen right through him.
‘Don’t ever say that again,’ she says breathlessly, pointing her finger at him and shaking her head. ‘Don’t,’ she says, choking on tears, and he curses himself.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says quickly. ‘I shouldn’t have said that. That wasn’t fair.’
‘You shouldn’t have said that because it shouldn’t have been the truth!’ she cries.
‘It’s not now,’ he tells her, fixing his gaze on her. He lets out a breath. ‘The past year has reminded me what I’m fighting for,’ he says. He sucks in a wobbly breath. ‘You – you reminded me.’
She stares at him for a moment before she takes a deep breath and exhales, and his brain belatedly registers the determined glint in her eye.
‘I think you love me,’ she says breathlessly, the way she says it tells him she’s sure. He stares at her, her blue eyes piercing.
‘Yes,’ he admits quietly. There was no point in saying anything else; there was no point in lying to her. She knew already.
‘I love you,’ she whispers, and something in him breaks.
‘I know,’ he whispers back, not trusting his voice to be any louder. ‘You shouldn’t.’
‘I’m tired of people telling me what I should think about my life outside the British Armed Forces,’ she says, and when he closes his eyes, he feels her place a tentative hand on his cheek, her thumb brushing across his cheekbone. Her hands are so warm and soft and he should be pushing her away, but he’s been so desperate for this, so desperate for her touch, her love, that he can’t, so he reaches up to cover her small hand with his. ‘Please,’ she whispers.
He sucks in a shuddery breath before opening his eyes. She’s so close now, and his traitorous, complicit mind reminds him that they’re standing in the doorway of the Officer’s mess, and this might be the only opportunity he gets to do this. He glances around quickly; the mess is deserted. It’s just the two of them.
‘It’s Christmas, and our little corner of hell seems very frozen to me,’ he says slowly, glancing upwards. He watches as her eyes follow, and he can’t help but smile at the way her mouth drops open and her cheeks pink a little and she looks back down at his chest, before she gathers her courage and meets his eye, all in the space of a couple of seconds. Her hand drops from his to his chest.
‘Very frozen,’ she agrees, glancing at his mouth, before he closes the distance between them and presses his lips to hers. Her lips are soft and warm despite the cold, and he pulls back slightly after a moment to look at her. Her eyes blink open, and he feels the corners of his mouth turn up slightly at how dazed she looks. He thinks he probably looks the same.
She glances at his mouth again, her hand sliding up from where it was still pressed to his chest to his neck and she’s pulling him down to kiss her again and he’s absolutely more than happy to oblige. He’d forgotten how wonderful it felt to kiss someone who loved you.
He eventually pulls back, pressing his forehead against hers, his hands stroking her upper arms gently as she presses her hands against his chest.
‘I’ve decided that the mistletoe can stay,’ she says.
‘There’s that Christmas spirit,’ he chuckles, and she’s giggling, and his heart is beating loudly in his chest.
She’s not going to like this, he knows, but there really is no other way. He is a General and she is a Captain and whilst she’s technically outside his chain of command, it’s still very much frowned upon, and dangerous. It wouldn’t be wise, and heaven help either of them if it got back to her uncle. Or her mother.
He doesn’t think she will mind the compromise. ‘We can’t do this now,’ he says gently, and she pulls back and nods.
‘We wait,’ she almost announces, and his face softens at the tiny hint of fear in her voice. As if he wouldn’t wait for her, he thinks. He’s not giving her up now unless she wants it. ‘And I’m not going anywhere,’ she tells him, and he gives her a small smile before leaning forward to press a soft kiss to her cheek.
‘I don’t think it will be a long wait,’ he whispers in her ear, and he feels her shiver in his arms.
When he sees her the next morning, she looks tired – he’s not surprised, given that they’d finally separated sometime around 1am – but happy. The shy half-smile she gives him when he sees her across the mess at breakfast makes his heart soar, and he returns it before dropping his gaze and schooling his features into something more appropriate for a General who definitely should not have spent some considerable time the previous evening kissing an SOE Captain under the mistletoe just a few feet away.
‘Merry Christmas, General,’ she calls, and he looks back up at her.
‘Merry Christmas, Captain. I trust Father Christmas was good to you?’
Her lips twist. ‘I think he’ll have some catching up to do when this is all over,’ she says, mock-frowning, and he can’t help but smile at her audacity. The officer’s mess was almost full, and despite the fact that they were all talking and laughing and generally enjoying themselves, there was always someone watching her. He quirks an eyebrow at her, and he watches as she bites her cheek.
That evening, she’s standing in the doorway, and he sees Alfred glance up at the mistletoe, and his eyes narrow in interest. He wonders what she’ll do.
‘Ma’am,’ Alfred says, getting down on one knee in front of her and holding out his hand. ‘As it is Christmas, may I request the pleasure of a kiss under the mistletoe?’
He can feel the officers behind him tense in anticipation; it hadn’t been all that long since she’d made her feelings on the matter very clearly known. He just smiles to himself. ‘Only because you asked so politely, Lieutenant,’ she replies rather imperiously, looking down at him, and she holds out her hand. The officers roar with laughter as Alfred takes the proffered hand and presses a kiss to the back of it. When Alfred stands and bows to her, she can’t keep in a giggle at the silliness of the whole thing. Her eyes meet his as she laughs, and he smirks at her.
Much later, when all is quiet, he’s standing in the snow, ignoring the cold to savour the last of the Christmas spirit that had pervaded the camp all day. He has something to celebrate this year.
He starts as he hears her voice call from behind him. He turns, but she disappears into the mess, so he frowns and follows her.
When he steps into the general mess and turns, she’s standing under the mistletoe again, biting her lip and he glances around the at the tables and chairs. It’s empty, as it should be; curfew was half an hour ago.
‘Last chance for now,’ she whispers coyly, and he smirks at her before taking a few short steps and kissing her soundly.
It was going to be a long wait, he thinks. He prays the war ends soon.
8 May 1945
When the report comes through, they’re camped outside the city of Brunswick.
He stares at the telegram in in his hand, the young messenger positively vibrating with excitement in front of him.
He stares at the men around him before nodding. ‘It’s over,’ he says. ‘They signed the unconditional surrender this morning,’ and there’s a stunned silence while everyone processes his announcement, that the war was over.
They’d been waiting for months, pushing relentlessly towards Berlin, and it had seemed never-ending. He thought for sure when the Russians took Berlin they’d hear something almost straight away, but it had dragged on for days.
He looks down at the map on the large desk in front of him, the little coloured flags and circles and pencil marks all now almost redundant, and back up at the men who were now laughing and shaking hands, and all he can think about is her.
But he has an announcement to make, so he shakes the hands of the officers around him before walking out to where Alfred was standing and looking at him, wide-eyed. He just nods slowly, and he thinks Alfred will spontaneously combust if he doesn’t do something, so he sends him to find a megaphone.
He watches with a smile as the camp slowly erupts in celebration in front of him. They’ve been waiting for months for this, years, and they deserved every moment of celebration. He turns and heads back into the command building where someone has cracked open a bottle of whiskey and everyone is laughing and drinking and he feels his shoulders sag in relief.
It was over.
He doesn’t know what to do. He wants nothing more than to hold her in his arms, press kisses to her lips and face and anywhere else he can, but he finds he’s terrified.
He hasn’t seen her in three months.
The thought that she may have changed her mind haunts him in those moments before he sleeps, when she fills his mind. He wouldn’t blame her, and he wouldn’t be surprised. She was young and beautiful and he was well past his prime at forty-five.
But she’s in Paris still, and he can’t leave now, so if she wants to see him anytime soon she will have to make good on her promise, and she will have only found out a few hours before him at the earliest. There was no sense in worrying now, he thinks, and he tries desperately to push her to the back of his mind.
So when Alfred tells him that there’s an urgent message for him in his office twenty minutes later, when everyone has spilled out onto the streets, he thinks nothing of it and heads for his office.
It’s the last straw for her uncle, he thinks, when she returns to camp unconscious and on a stretcher.
It’s the last straw for him.
She’d come through the war relatively unscathed up to this point; cuts and bruises, mostly, but this? He was a career General, and this was war. He’d seen his fair share of fighting in two world wars now, but he’d never seen anyone he loved more than life itself injured so badly.
They hadn’t let him see the bodies of his wife or his son.
They’d taken the town, were just rounding up the last of the stubborn German soldiers, when the shell exploded. He realises later that he’d heard it, but in the cacophony of gunfire and shelling and the distance he was away from the main fighting, it was hard to distinguish anything. It’s Palmerston that tells him. ‘One hundred and fourteen casualties, sir. The only officer injury is Captain Kent,’ he says. ‘She’s on her way back now.’
Melbourne’s vision blurs for a moment, and he swallows. ‘How bad?’
Palmerston grimaces. ‘There was an unexploded shell, sir. Report says a wall collapsed on top of her and two of her unit.’
He blinks. As much as he wants to, as much as everything in him screams to get in a truck and head back to the Hospital, he can’t. He has a job to do here. He cannot be so obvious.
‘Right. Keep me informed. I want regular updates,’ he tells Palmerston, who nods. ‘Someone should cable Leopold when we know more,’ he adds.
It’s hours before he’s back at the camp, and despite the messages coming through telling him that she will recover, that she has some broken bones and other wounds, he tells his driver to drop him at the hospital. The doctor tells him – from far enough way that he can’t really see her, because he’s not sure he’s prepared for that right now and not in front of the doctor – that she’s sedated; she has a badly fractured arm and leg along with a ridiculous number of cuts and some substantial bruising, but, barring any complications from the head wound or other surprises, he anticipates a full recovery. ‘She will be out of action for quite a while, General. I would say a minimum of two months,’ the Doctor warns, and he nods.
She was alive. She would recover.
He warns the grateful Doctor about a possible visit from on high, and walks back down to his office on autopilot.
He cannot think about this. He has to finalise the line, communicate with the other Generals, solidify their position in the town and surrounding countryside. So he pushes the thought of her lying unconscious only a few hundred feet up the road to one side, and concentrates on finishing this damned war as quickly as possible.
He hears Leopold’s voice from the door a little while later. ‘Melbourne,’ he calls, before stepping outside. He can feel the eyes of the other officers in the room on him and he lets out a small sigh and follows the older man. ‘I have been to see my niece,’ he starts, and Melbourne nods. ‘She is sedated but the doctor anticipates a full recovery.’
Melbourne frowns at nods. ‘Yes, sir. I was advised the same.’
‘She will be out of action for some time.’
‘I feel it would be in the best interests of her unit and of Victoria herself if she were reassigned for her recovery.’
He should have seen it coming, but he didn’t, and it hits him like a punch to the stomach. ‘That’s a matter for COH, not me, sir,’ he manages to get out.
‘I am aware, General. I’m merely informing you as a courtesy.’
‘Have you informed Captain Kent, General?’ he asks pointedly, and Leopold’s eyes narrow. They both know he hasn’t; she hasn’t really been conscious for more than a few minutes in the past twenty-four hours.
‘I will speak with her when she is ready.’ He nods. He already knows what her reaction will be.
He thinks that as much as it will kill him to see her go, as much as she will hate him for it, he’s on Leopold’s side in this one. He knows she is trained for this, chose this life, and he would not force to do anything she didn’t want to do, but he doesn’t think he can do this again.
‘I anticipate Captain Kent will show some reluctance to the idea,’ he says, and Melbourne thinks that’s the understatement of the year.
‘Captain Kent is an excellent officer. She will obey orders, sir,’ he says, and Leopold eyes him.
‘Yes, she will.’
She’s finally awake enough for visitors later that week, and he’s both desperate and terrified to see her.
When he comes around the curtain, she’s lying so still he thinks she’s asleep. He takes a moment to just look.
She has bruises all up her exposed arm, bright purple and red things, and he can see the blue-purple tinge around her eye socket where she’d hit the ground, and she has a rather nasty graze on her cheek. But it appears that the arm she’d flung up to protect herself had copped most of the impact, because the rest of her face seems mostly fine. He lets out a shuddery sigh. He can guess what the rest of her looks like just based on that arm alone.
It had been so close. Too close.
But then she moves, and he thinks she’s heard him. ‘Captain,’ he says quietly, and she turns her head gingerly on the pillow and smiles at him, and his chest almost caves with relief and love. ‘It’s good to see you awake,’ he says with a small smile, and he moves to sit in the chair next to the bed. It’s good to see you alive. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘They’ve given me morphine,’ she says weakly, and he nods, smiling. ‘It’s working.’
‘I’m glad to hear it.’
‘My uncle was here,’ she says, and he drops her eyes.
‘He said he’s going to request headquarters reassign me,’ she says, and he can hear the desperation in her voice. ‘I don’t want to,’ she whispers, and he watches the tear slip from her eye onto the pillow.
‘I know,’ he replies gently. ‘But you can’t do anything here until you’re recovered.’
‘I can plan,’ she argues. ‘Harry can lead.’
He gives her a brief, rueful smile. ‘Harry’s a lieutenant.’
‘They can promote him,’ she argues, and he just holds her gaze until she looks away. ‘You think I should go,’ she says bitterly.
‘No,’ he says, and she turns to look at him. His voice is full of emotion and she blinks at him. ‘I do want you to be safe.’ He feels the familiar tightening of his throat and he swallows. ‘On that, I agree with your uncle.’
‘I will be safe here.’ He just looks at her with raised eyebrows, and she turns away from him, letting out an angry sigh. ‘Please,’ she whispers. ‘Don’t send me away.’
‘I could never send you away,’ he replies honestly, his voice low and gravelly, and he swallows again. ‘It’s not my decision.’ Another tear slips from her eye, and when he reaches up to wipe the tear track away, she closes her eyes at his touch. ‘I’m sorry,’ he whispers.
‘When?’ she asks, not looking at him.
‘It’ll be a week or two yet. When you’re fit to travel.’
They sit in silence for a moment before he glances around, but the curtain they’ve put up for her privacy shields her from most of the room, so he leans back slightly and takes her good hand in both of his, softly stroking the back of it. She turns to look at him, eyes drowsy, and he holds her gaze for a moment before lifting her hand to his mouth and pressing a kiss to her fingers. ‘I love you,’ he whispers, gently placing her hand back by her side before standing and walking away.
He visits her the night before she’s scheduled to leave. Harry has packed her things for her and they were piled at the end of her bed, and it was all so final that he feels a flare of anger.
He doesn’t want her to leave.
She’s in bed when he arrives, but he suspects she’s not asleep; he hasn’t visited her all day, and she would be waiting for him. He stands at the edge of the curtain for a moment, just watching her. She was beautiful, even with all her angry red and purple and yellowing bruises and cuts, and the twin casts on her arm and lower leg. He thinks he’s never loved her more, this beautiful firecracker of a Captain, but it’s an aching, painful feeling. She’s going away.
She must sense him there, because she turns to look at him, before pushing herself up awkwardly on the narrow bed with one arm. He walks over to move her pillow so she can lean against it, and she mumbles quiet thanks.
He sits on the chair next to her, but neither of them say anything for a while. He leans with his elbows on his knees and fiddles with his hat, and he can hear her toying with the scratchy hospital sheets, and he has no idea what to say.
‘I’m going to Paris,’ she says eventually, and he nods.
‘Intelligence,’ he says. ‘I’m surprised you weren’t assigned there from the start.’
‘I refused to join if they were going to stick me in an office,’ she explains, and he nods, his lips curving up just slightly. Of course. ‘I wasn’t leaving the Resistance to sit behind a desk.’
‘We need people stuck behind desks,’ he says. ‘People behind desks break German code.’ She eyes him. ‘I’m glad you weren’t stuck behind a desk,’ he admits quietly, and her face softens.
‘Me too.’ She toys with the blanket in front of her. ‘I’ll miss you,’ she admits.
I’ve missed you for the last two weeks, he thinks. ‘I’ll miss you too.’
‘I don’t think I’ll be able to write.’
‘No,’ he says with a rueful smile. ‘It might raise a few eyebrows,’ he says, and she smiles. ‘But you’ll be able to keep an eye on your team from there.’
‘Yes,’ she agrees, nodding. ‘And on you.’
‘I’ll be fine,’ he says. ‘I don’t get to see action anymore. Too old,’ he half-jokes.
‘Too important,’ she counters strongly, and he smiles and shakes his head at her vehemence. ‘Stay safe,’ she whispers after a moment, and he looks up to see her eyes are glassy.
‘I will be fine,’ he says, swallowing and taking her good hand in his. ‘You stay safe. Recover.’
‘I’ll be in Paris,’ she half-laughs. He just hums, grimacing, and she giggles at him.
They fall silent quickly again, and he just wants to hold her, to tell her it’ll be okay, that he will be fine, that he’ll do everything he can to win this ridiculous war and return to her as fast as he possibly can. He wants to pull her into his arms and shelter her from everything that would ever hurt her. But he can’t, so he settles for rubbing the back of her hand gently.
She covers a yawn after a few moments, and he smiles and places her hand back in her lap. ‘Sleep,’ he says gently. She shakes her head, and he knows she just doesn’t want to say goodbye.
He doesn’t want to either.
He stands, leaning down and pressing a kiss to her forehead. When he pulls back, he sees a tear slip down her cheek, and it kills him that he’s made her cry. ‘Don’t cry,’ he whispers. ‘Please.’ He sits on the edge of the narrow bed and holds her hand gently in his. She looks up at him, glancing down at his mouth, and he knows what she wants, so he leans forward and presses a kiss to her lips. She kisses him back with something like desperation, leaning forward to wrap her arms around his neck, and he returns her fire with his own, his hand at her cheek, until his mind reminds him that he’s still in the hospital and anyone could walk around the corner at any moment. He pulls back, leaning his forehead gently against hers, and they’re both breathing heavily.
‘I’ll see you before you go in the morning,’ he tells her quietly, pulling back to look her in the eye. ‘And the war will be over in no time, and then I’ll come and find you in Paris.’
‘I’ll find you,’ she says. ‘It’ll be easier for me; you’ll be at the front. When they declare the war over, I’ll find you.’ And she’s so determined, so fierce, his firecracker Captain, that he believes her.
He wonders as he walks back to his office what could possibly be so urgent that he needed to attend to it right now. The war was over, for goodness’ sake. Couldn’t they just celebrate for a few hours? But Alfred had insisted, so he’d left his whiskey with a jubilant Palmerston – along with a stern warning that it had better be there when he returned – and made his way down the bustling street, filled with the sounds of celebration, to the now-familiar building that housed his office.
He’s lost in his own little world when he steps up the few small steps, so he doesn’t look up until he’s a good few feet into the darkened room.
She’s standing in his doorway, her eyes wide, biting her lip, and he freezes as the wave of emotion crashes into his chest.
He stares at her for a moment as she takes a step forward. He knows that glint in her eyes, has known it for months, close to a year and a half now. It’s determination.
There are people everywhere outside, everyone is milling about and cheering; the mash of colour and noise echoes into the now empty room, but all he can see is her blue eyes coming towards him. She throws her arms around his neck when she reaches him and he lifts her up and spins her and she squeals and laughs and he thinks he’s not heard a more beautiful sound since his son’s laughter all those years ago. He holds her tightly, so tightly to him, burying his face in her neck, in her hair, and he has to tell her, again, what she means to him, now that he’s almost, almost free to, so he whispers it like a mantra into her skin. I love you. I love you. I love you.
He knows she can hear him by the way her hands grasp at his hair and her arm tightens across his back.
He can feel her trembling in his arms, thinks he hears a sob, so he pulls back, his forehead against hers, and her hands are still in his hair. ‘I love you,’ he whispers, and her body convulses in a sob, and the tears burn his own eyes.
‘I love you. Oh, I love you,’ she says between sobs, and then she’s pulling him tighter, angling her head up towards his and so he lifts his hands to cradle her face, wiping at the wetness on her cheeks with his thumb, before kissing her gently.
‘Don’t ever leave me again,’ she whispers when he pulls back, before kissing him firmly, desperately.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘I’m sorry. I wanted to protect you. I couldn’t lose you,’ he says, his voice broken by his own tears, and she lets out another sob.
‘I know. I know. I just…I couldn’t…I wanted to be there,’ she sobs, and he pulls her to his chest, holding her tightly.
‘It’s over now,’ he says. ‘It’s over. I’m safe. We’re safe,’ he mumbles, pressing kisses into her hair, and he can feel her breathing slowly even out against his chest.
‘How did you get here? And how did you get leave?’ he asks, as he suddenly realises she’s here in his camp in the middle of Germany, and she’s meant to be almost 500 miles away in Paris.
‘When the Russians took Berlin a week ago, I hopped aboard a transport train,’ she says, shrugging a little. ‘I told the Colonel when I first arrived that when the end of the war was close, I would be needed here. That I had some unfinished business,’ she says, blushing a little, and he can imagine how that conversation went. ‘I’ve been here since yesterday afternoon, but I wanted to wait,’ she adds shyly, and he stares at her in wonder, this beautiful woman in front of him, before tilting her head back up to kiss her gently, tenderly, pouring as much love as he can into each movement of his lips.
‘It’s over,’ she whispers when he pulls back a long while later, looking up at him, and her eyes are wide with wonder. He nods slowly and the words are out of his mouth before he can stop them.
‘Marry me,’ he breathes, and her mouth drops open before she lets out a breath, and he thinks she’s going to say no and he’s so stupid and oh—
‘Yes,’ she says, nodding, her eyes wide. ‘Of course. Yes! Yes.’
He stares at her, his own mouth open, and she’s smiling at him, laughing, and he has no idea what to say or do, but she wants to marry him, so he kisses her again.
It’s much later, and she’s sitting next to him in the mess and he has to resist the urge to touch her. She’s here and alive and completely recovered, she assures him, and she’s going to marry him and everything is perfect in this moment, and he wonders how he came to be so lucky.
He can’t really hide his happiness, he thinks, so when Palmerston looks at him with a raised eyebrow when she suddenly appears at their table – Captain Kent! What a nice surprise – he just shakes his head warningly at him.
They loosen curfew that evening, and so when they finally leave the mess, it’s late, but there are still people milling about, so he can’t really do anything much but walk with her in the general direction of her quarters on the excuse that he has to get something from his office.
When they reach the building that houses his office, she looks around and smirks at him before quickly running up the steps and into the building. He follows her, and she’s got her arms around his neck and is kissing him in the dark before he knows what’s happening. But he’s a more than enthusiastic recipient of her kisses, so it’s a long while before they break apart.
Eventually, though, he can see that she’s exhausted, so he presses a kiss to her forehead and tells her to sleep.
‘I’ll be here in the morning, Captain,’ he jokes, and she smiles.
‘So will I, General,’ and her face falls just slightly, and it takes him a moment to catch up.
It’s time, he thinks, so he pulls her close to him and rests his forehead against hers. ‘Goodnight, my beautiful Victoria,’ he murmurs, and she sucks in a breath.
‘Goodnight, William,’ she whispers after a moment. ‘I like that.’
He smiles. ‘I like it too.’
‘Let’s elope,’ she whispers breathlessly at his office door the next day, and he blinks at her. ‘When you get leave next – I have an apartment in Paris,’ she says, her eyes wide.
He’s not sure what the correct answer is here, but he’s fairly sure whatever he says is going to get him into trouble with someone.
He suspects her Uncle doesn’t know she’s here, but he’s entirely sure he does not want him to find out along the grapevine, so he stands and shuts the door behind her. ‘How long do you anticipate it will take your mother to forgive you?’ he asks, looking down at her, and her face falls a little.
‘I don’t care,’ she mutters, glancing away, and he frowns. ‘She’s half the reason I left in the first place.’
‘Oh,’ he says. But he thinks it will go better for all of them if she doesn’t suddenly turn up married to him at her next family gathering.
Besides, he has his own dreams here; ones he hopes she’ll share. He frowns a little, and looks down at his hands. ‘I was rather hoping you’d like to get married at my family home in England,’ he starts, and her mouth drops open a little. ‘Besides, you don’t even have a ring,’ he points out.
She glances down at her hand. ‘That’s not important,’ she says, fiddling with her ring finger as she stares at him, and he can’t tell what she’s thinking.
Maybe she’s regretting saying yes. That would make sense, he thinks. It was all rather rushed and sudden and they were high on emotion, and he should never have asked her.
It’s not really occurred to her, he thinks, about what a life after the war would actually look like. She would be his wife. The wife of a General.
He needs to give her an out.
‘Of course,’ she says before he can speak, closing her eyes and swallowing, shaking her head once, and he thinks she’s beating herself up a little. ‘I didn’t think. Of course you want your family there,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry.’
He has to resist the urge to take her hands in his, but he can’t not touch her, so he reaches forward and brushes her hand with his before glancing out the window of his office to the open room where Alfred and the others were working. She follows his gaze before looking back at him and nodding once.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says quickly. ‘We can talk about this later. I shouldn’t have interrupted you.’
He grabs her hand as she turns to leave and she stops. ‘I don’t want to rush anything in case you…’ He can’t say it, those words that have been rattling around in his mind since he awoke at 3am in a mild panic, so he swallows, and looks down. ‘Yesterday was—‘
‘Don’t you…Are you…’ she interrupts before trailing off, taking a step backwards towards the door, her eyes wide and her face wary and he blinks. She drops his gaze, and oh, he’s done it now.
‘I want to marry you,’ he says quickly, and she stares back at him. ‘I just don’t want you to regret anything,’ he says haltingly, staring at her boots.
She takes a step towards him again. ‘I don’t regret anything. And I won’t,’ she says lowly, and her voice has that edge to it, that one that he’s so familiar with. He believes her when she sounds like this, and his heart stutters in his chest a little. He looks up at her, his mouth curving into a little smile, and she slowly smiles back.
‘I haven’t told anyone,’ he announces, and she looks at him, her eyes narrowing a little, and he raises an eyebrow.
‘Neither have I,’ she says, and he purses his lips thoughtfully.
‘I’ll write to my sister in London,’ he says, and she frowns at him. He’s now one hundred percent sure where the eloping idea came from.
‘I will write to my mother,’ she says resignedly.
‘Leopold will be here in two days,’ he ventures, and her head shoots up, her eyes wide and she shakes her head. ‘Fair enough,’ he says, his lips twisting. He’s not entirely sure he wants to be around when she tells her Uncle – the next person up in his chain of command.
But she cannot avoid it forever, and neither can he.
‘I need to leave Friday night,’ she says, and he nods. ‘I promised I’d be back in a week.’
He gives her a rueful smile. ‘I don’t know when I’ll see you again,’ he says, and she frowns at him.
‘Can you come and visit me?’
‘I can try,’ he says. ‘I am rather overdue for some leave, and Paris suddenly sounds very appealing,’ he says, his voice low, and he smiles as her cheeks pink and she looks down, biting her lip.
‘We can wait,’ she says softly. ‘I’d like to get married in England. At your family home.’
His heart swells in his chest, and it’s all he can do to stop himself from standing and pressing a kiss to her lips, and he can see it on her face too.
Oh, it was going to be a long wait. But then a thought hits him, and he narrows his eyes slightly at her. ‘Perhaps we can do both,’ he says, his lips twisting a little, and her eyes brighten. ‘Perhaps we should do both.’
The war was over, but clearly the message hadn’t reached everyone, because there were little pockets of annoyingly dangerous resistance everywhere, and it was his job to deal with their section of the line.
He’s also on edge for another reason – a reason that comes flying through the door to the building in what is clearly a rage.
‘How dare you?’ Leopold shouts, and everyone in the room turns to stare at Leopold, and then at him.
‘General,’ he greets. ‘Shall we continue this conversation outside, sir?’ The walls of his office are paper thin, and he think Leopold is less likely to hit him outside, so he walks to the door and holds out his arm.
Leopold just stares at him, and he happily holds his gaze; he will not allow her uncle to say whatever he’s going to say about him and her in front of his men. Leopold obviously decides the same, storming out the door.
He strides down the street to a small patch of grass that his men had been using as a miniature cricket pitch, and turns to face Leopold.
‘How dare you?’ Leopold shouts. ‘Who do you think you are?’ Melbourne watches as he paces. ‘I heard the rumours, but, like a fool, I dismissed them as rubbish. Your conduct had been exemplary and I was quite sure you’d left your womanising ways behind. Clearly I was wrong!’ He says nothing. He’s not getting into a screaming match with her uncle. ‘She is twenty-seven and you are forty-five!’ Leopold cries before stopping and staring at him for a long moment, breathing heavily. ‘You are not worthy of her!’ Leopold finally shouts in his face, and he nods.
Leopold stares at him. ‘Then why have you asked her to marry you?’
‘Because I love her.’
‘You cannot marry her!’ he finally shouts, and Melbourne’s face flattens.
‘That is not your decision, sir,’ he says quietly.
‘I will destroy you,’ Leopold threatens, and Melbourne nods. He had fully expected this. He had known the moment his lips had met hers under that mistletoe almost five months ago that loving her would cost him his career. It was a sacrifice he was more than willing to make.
‘I have no doubt you will.’ Leopold blinks at him. ‘You will not change my mind.’
‘You won’t!’ a voice cries from the side of him, and they both turn to see her running towards them. He closes his eyes for a moment. He had hoped she wouldn’t find them; it was part of the reason he’d led Leopold out of his office and down the street. ‘I meant what I said, Uncle. If you do anything – you will never see me again,’ she growls from where she’s standing next to him, her feet planted wide, her hands curl into fists, clearly ready for a fight. He wonders briefly if this was her childhood. ‘And neither will Mama.’ They both stare at her at that, but she holds Leopold’s gaze. ‘Don’t you dare.’
Leopold’s face contorts with fury, and he mutters at her in German. ‘You aren’t thinking straight, Victoria. He is a womaniser with a history of seducing famous women. He has clearly seduced you.’
‘He has not! He has barely touched me,’ she cries in German, and he winces a little. ‘He was the one who wanted me to go back to England. He was the one who told me to go to Paris when I was injured. He has only ever wanted what was best for me!’ she shouts. ‘I wanted to elope. He insisted that we tell you and Mama first!’
Leopold’s eyes flick to him at that.
‘You will not change my mind,’ she growls in English. ‘You will either support me, or you will not see me.’
Leopold grunts at that, looking from her to Melbourne, and let out a huff.
‘Your mother is going to be distraught,’ he tells her in German.
‘I have already written to her.’
Leopold throws his hands in the air and walks a few steps away. ‘I will not protect you,’ he says in English to the two of them, holding his hands up.
‘We have done nothing wrong, sir,’ Melbourne says, keen to deflect Leopold away from her, now that he can.
Leopold lets out a snort at that, but says nothing. ‘You are throwing your life away,’ he tells her in German, and she shakes her head slowly.
‘No, Uncle, I think my life is just beginning.’
When Leopold looks between them, Melbourne can see that he’s still furious, still wants to beat the crap out of him, but there’s a kind of resignation to it. ‘You cannot marry yet anyway,’ Leopold hedges.
Melbourne pipes up. ‘You will receive an invitation. It will be up to you to accept or decline, sir,’ he says.
He watches as Leopold heaves a sigh, and he knows the man isn’t done. He’ll do whatever he can to stop this, to prevent them from making things official, but he’s played all his cards for today. The conversation is over, for now, and he feels Victoria’s hand squeeze his as Leopold shakes his head and turns to walk away.
But he cannot resist. He knows Victoria knows – they’ve had enough small conversations in German, just for him to keep it up – but he’s now one hundred percent sure that Leopold either hasn’t read his file thoroughly enough, or has simply forgotten. He glances between the two of them.
‘Is now a bad time to mention I speak German, sir?’
He doesn’t particularly love Paris. But as she stands in front of him, her words committing her to him for the rest of their lives, he thinks he’ll grow fonder of it.
She’s somehow managed to get one of her old dresses sent over from London, and her hair has been done by her cousin – she has an endless number of cousins, he thinks – and his heart had stopped in his chest when she’d appeared at the door of the little church. He’d taken her to the best restaurant he could find on a recommendation from one of the officers in his brigade, but they’d spent most of the meal eyeing each other with considerably more hunger than their food.
Her soft, pale skin sings to him.
It’s late when they return to her apartment, and he can’t resist as he stands behind her at the door, so he lifts one hand to her waist and pushes her hair aside with the other and touches his lips to the soft skin just below her ear. Her fingers fumble with the keys she’s been fighting with for the last couple of seconds, and the slightly shuddery breath she lets out spurs him on, so he trails soft kisses down her neck.
‘If you keep doing that, I’m never going to get this door open,’ she mumbles breathlessly, stumbling over her words as his hand curls further around her waist. So he presses himself against her back and reaches around to take the keys from her hand and push them into the lock.
She pushes the door closed behind them and yanks him towards her, and he goes more than willingly. As he presses hot kisses to the taut muscle where her neck meets her shoulder, slowly unzipping her dress as she moans softly and scrabbles at his shirt buttons, he thinks he’s pleased he’d arranged his two weeks’ leave before they’d told Leopold.
Leaving her had been agony.
Finding a telegram on his desk telling him to report to Allied Headquarters in Frankfurt awaiting him when he returned to the front two weeks later hadn’t been a surprise. He’d been waiting for this.
He’d warned her before he’d left that this was coming; that Leopold would make good on his threat and was likely going to have him charged with something – anything – and removed back to London for court-martial. He’d spent quite a while showing her just how much he loved her when she’d just shrugged and said that it would make planning their English wedding easier.
‘Reporting as ordered, sir,’ he says when he’s shown into Leopold’s office. He can see Wellington standing to the side out of the corner of his eye, and he wonders why Leopold has decided on audience for this. Surely he doesn’t want the particulars of Melbourne’s behaviour with niece made that public. But then again, perhaps he just wants a witness.
He schools his features into the detached mask he’s perfected after two decades of military training, his eyes finding a point just over Leopold’s shoulder.
Leopold merely stands, walking over to stand in front of him. ‘General, thank you for coming.’
‘Yes, sir.’ As if I had a choice, he thinks.
‘Now that the war is over, General, have you given any thought to your future in the British Armed Forces?’ Leopold drawls, and Melbourne resists the urge to let out a sigh. He would play the game; no point in drawing pistols at dawn. It was over now; he had secured his prize, and was about to pay the price for it. He’s not even remotely interested in fighting.
‘Yes, sir.’ He does let out a small, rather theatrical sigh. ‘I’m tired, sir. I’ve been in the field a long time. And I have other priorities now, sir,’ he adds, and Leopold, to his credit, barely flinches.
‘Yes,’ Leopold says, turning and walking away. ‘I must congratulate you on your recent marriage, General,’ Leopold says, and his heart stops in his chest.
He wonders how he found out. She wouldn’t have told him, and it seems a little much even for Leopold to have someone scanning all the registrations of marriage in Paris.
But he cannot betray anything, not in front of Wellington, so he forces his face to remain calm. ‘Thank you, sir.’
‘I imagine that you’d like to return to England with your wife,’ Leopold continues, and his mind has just enough room left after his panic that he registers that Leopold’s voice is remarkably even for a man who had spent half an hour tearing strips off him about this very topic only months earlier.
‘You’re getting a second star, Melbourne,’ Wellington interjects, and Melbourne blinks.
‘You’ll be assigned to the War Office,’ Wellington adds. ‘Eventually, when all this rubbish is finalised, we want you out at Sandhurst, getting that going again.’
His heart is pounding in his chest, but he has to be calm. ‘Thank you, sir,’ he says.
Wellington lets out a snort. ‘Breathe, man. You look like you were awaiting your execution.’ He can’t help it as his eyes flick to Leopold’s, whose own eyes are shooting daggers at him. He bites his cheek; he must remain calm, as much as the ridiculousness of this particular situation is creating bubbles of laughter in his chest.
‘Yes, sir,’ he says, forcing himself to relax, letting his hands drop to his sides and turning to look at Wellington.
‘We’re going to promote Palmerston to Brigadier. He’ll take over your brigade in October, if you think he’s up to it,’ Wellington adds.
‘Yes, sir. Palmerston is good choice.’
‘Excellent,’ Wellington says, before stopping and looking at him with a confused frown. ‘I didn’t know you were engaged, Melbourne.’
He deliberately doesn’t look at Leopold; he can feel his gaze boring into him. ‘It was rather quick, sir. Only a few months.’
‘Ah. Well, excellent news. Excellent timing,’ he says, nodding at him, and he thinks Wellington is being genuine; he was there when the first bombs dropped on London and destroyed what was left of his life.
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘Who’s the girl? Do I know her?’
His eyes flick to Leopold, who is glaring daggers and shaking his head very minutely. ‘Ah, I don’t think so, sir. But I’m sure you’ll meet her eventually.’
When he’s leaving a little later, Leopold offers to walk him out and he can’t really decline.
‘I want you to know that it was not my decision,’ the Lieutenant-General tells him, and Melbourne nods once. ‘But I did not fight it too hard.’
‘Thank you,’ he says gratefully.
Leopold eyes him as they reach the door. ‘I did not do this for you, Melbourne.’
Of that, he’s very well aware. ‘Yes, sir.’
He thinks hearing her tear-filled voice down the phone line is worth the exorbitant cost of a brief call from Frankfurt to Paris.
He’s holding her in his arms in their bed in the house in London he hasn’t seen in literally years, and he thinks that life doesn’t actually get any better than this.
‘We should probably start planning,’ she mumbles into his neck, and he smiles.
‘Brocket is ready when you are,’ he says, and she lifts her head to look at him, her sleep-drowsy eyes blinking and widening with excitement.
‘Can we go this weekend?’ she asks, and he smiles at her. Perfect, he thinks.
‘It’s wonderful,’ she breathes, and he eyes her. He thinks she’s telling the truth. Her family is royalty around the world, her mother living in a literal palace – his comparatively small family home in Hertfordshire was definitely a step down. ‘I love it,’ she tells him as they stand out on the little bridge over the lake at the back of the house, and he wraps his arms around her from behind against the cool breeze. ‘I wish we could live here permanently.’
She turns in his arms. ‘Did you think I wouldn’t?’
He frowns and shrugs. ‘I wasn’t sure.’
‘How could you not be sure? It’s perfect,’ she says, turning again to look at the house and pressing herself back into his chest.
‘It’s a bit late, but I also wondered if you’d like this,’ he says, holding up a gold ring with a sapphire on top and diamonds around it in front of her, and he feels her suck in a breath.
They’d exchanged plain gold bands originally, more for the symbolism than anything else, and whilst he hasn’t been able to wear his until recently, she’s been wearing hers since the day they married in secret in Paris. When he’d asked, she’d said she told whoever asked a version of the truth; that her new husband was a soldier at the front, and she was waiting for him to come home.
But now it was time for her to have something more appropriate, more worthy of her, his beautiful wife. ‘It was my mother’s,’ he says. ‘She died a few years ago.’
She turns, staring at the ring, and his own throat tightens when he sees the tears in her eyes. ‘It’s beautiful,’ she says, and he holds her left hand in his, slipping the plain gold band off and the new ring on in its place. He smiles smugly when it fits her tiny fingers perfectly. She stares down at it and back up at him before reaching up to kiss him.
‘Now all you need to do is pick a date,’ he whispers in her ear a while later, when she’s leaning against him and looking up at the house again.
She turns again, and she’s smirking. ‘I have.’
Christmas Eve 1945
He hasn’t seen the house look this festive in more than a decade; not since long before the war, back when his life had some semblance of normality.
But his wife and his sister have outdone themselves, and the house is covered in various family Christmas decorations, along with holly and ribbon – how they got red ribbon in the current rationing he’ll never know, but he assumes her family had something to do with it – and it’s perfect.
She’s perfect, as she walks down the make-shift aisle towards him for the second time in a year in a beautiful, dark red dress, and he thinks he’s the luckiest man on the planet.
Later, once the ceremony is done and they’re stealing two minutes to themselves in amongst the meeting of new family members and polite smiles, she drags him back into the large ballroom where they’d held the ceremony and under the little archway that was wrapped in holly and other greenery.
‘Did you notice?’ she says breathlessly, and he frowns at little at her.
‘That you look beautiful?’ he asks, pressing a soft kiss to her lips. ‘Or that you’re gorgeous in that dress,’ he adds, pressing a kiss to her jaw. ‘Or that you have done an incredible job of transforming our home?’ He can’t help but smile at her sigh when he kisses her neck.
‘Our home,’ she mumbles. ‘I like that.’
‘Me too,’ he says, smiling at her and she grins back before shaking her head. ‘No, none of that,’ she says, and he blinks. She looks up at the archway, and he follows her gaze, and there, in the middle, interspersed with and hidden by the other greenery, is mistletoe.
He can’t help but laugh at her as she giggles.
Chapter 8: Epilogue
When he arrives home, she’s standing in the entranceway with a smile he learned long ago means trouble.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Christmas Eve 1946
When he arrives home, she’s standing in the entranceway with a smile he learned long ago means trouble.
‘Good evening, husband,’ she says, as he puts his briefcase down and leans forward to press a kiss to her lips.
‘Good evening, wife,’ he replies, smiling down at her as she wraps her arms around his neck. ‘What are you up to?’ he asks after a moment, encircling her waist with his arms, and she blinks innocently at him.
‘Why do you assume I’m up to something?’ she asks, and he smirks at her.
‘I know that look,’ he says, and she starts laughing, burying her face in his chest. ‘I have known that look for a long time now. That look meant trouble for Brigadier General William Melbourne, and it means trouble for me.’ She pulls back, still grinning, and looks up. When he follows her eyes, he sees it, hanging from the light high above them.
He chuckles at her, shaking his head, and she giggles again. ‘Now you have no excuse not to kiss me.’
‘Do you think I need an excuse to kiss my wife?’ he asks, narrowing his eyes at her, before leaning down to press a kiss to her cheek. ‘Or want one?’ He presses kisses down to her jaw and then one to her neck, and he feels her shiver.
‘Not really,’ she says a little breathlessly, and something possessive rises up in his chest at the sound, and he kisses her neck again.
‘Good,’ he mutters against her skin, and she lets out a huff. ‘I will admit I am surprised to see in our house – what was it – a little sprig of flora, brought by the Americans, that forced awkward intimacy on people who wouldn’t normally touch each other?’ he says, pulling back to look at her, and he chuckles as she pinks.
‘Well,’ she laughs. ‘I am a little attached to it. Look at what it’s brought me,’ she says, and her eyes are so full of emotion, so adoring that he has to look away.
‘Yes,’ he agrees.
‘And it’s about to bring something more,’ she says quietly, and he looks up at her, confused. The way she bites her lip and looks at him almost nervously confuses him until she’s half-smiling at him and a thought pops into his head and oh.
He stares at her, his heart suddenly racing, and she nods.
She’s going to have a baby. Their baby.
When he refocuses on her eyes, she’s smiling gently, like she knew this would be big for him, and he lets out a breath.
‘We’re going to have a family,’ he murmurs, and she nods.
He pulls her close, resting his forehead on hers. ‘A family.’
When he kisses her again, he thinks she’ll have to send an apology to that poor American soldier from Vermont.
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed it - let me know what you think!