Furber’s prepared explanation for his unexpected arrival proved unnecessary. The staff at the pension were singularly uninterested in the comings and goings of their famous, or rather, infamous, guests, and handed over the key to the suite without even glancing at his papers. The imperturbable façade that Furber had spent the last half a dozen years as a butler perfecting probably had something to do with it, as did the large paper-wrapped package he was carrying.
Once the painting was installed over the fireplace, Furber had a look around. He was intrigued to note that two bedrooms appeared to be in use. From the photographs and news stories that had reached England, he had fully expected to find them Living in Sin. He was a little disappointed–he had eyes, he’d seen the attraction between them. He’d been pleased that Whittaker seemed to have found a reason to be happy. Perhaps the separate rooms were for appearances’ sake, though that would seem to be a pointless exercise under the circumstances.
By the time he heard their voices outside the door–Mrs Whittaker’s delightful laugh, Whittaker’s response, sounding more carefree than Furber had ever heard him–he had straightened their rooms, ironed their clothes and had their favourite drinks prepared.
Furber took a deep breath, straightened his suit and picked up the tray. They didn’t notice him immediately. Mrs Whittaker was gazing up at Whittaker, her beautiful face alight, while Mr Whittaker looked back with unmistakable fondness.
“Welcome home, Madam, Sir,” Furber said urbanely. He had to admit, it was a tad difficult to keep a straight face at the way they both started with surprise and stared at him in wonder. “Would you care for a drink?”
“Why, thank you, Furber,” Mrs Whittaker said, recovering her poise almost immediately and moving forward to take a glass. She smiled at him. Furber was touched to note that she seemed genuinely pleased to see him.
“Yes, thank you, Furber,” Whittaker said, a faint smile tugging at his lips as he took the other glass. He took a seat on the divan, stretching his other arm along the top. “I see you brought the painting.”
Mrs Whittaker looked up and saw the portrait hanging over the fireplace. She smiled radiantly and turned and held out her hand. Furber blinked down at it for a moment, then hesitantly took it. She squeezed his hand, still smiling brightly, just at him. “Thank you, Furber,” she said, holding his eyes and Furber, to his mortification, was aware of a flush of warmth on his cheekbones. He found himself both relieved and strangely disappointed when she released his hand to subside gracefully on to the divan beside Whittaker.
There was tight sensation in his chest. Furber exhaled sharply, and turned to put the tray down to cover his confusion. It was a good thing Mrs Whittaker was so far above his touch, otherwise he suspected he might be in danger of falling a little bit in love with her, and there was no way that could end well.
“You know, when I asked you to forward the painting, I didn’t mean you had to bring it yourself,” Whittaker drawled.
“Oh, hush,” Mrs Whittaker scolded. “So Furber,” she said, “what brings you all the way to the Continent?”
“It was time to move on,” Furber said. “Mrs Whittaker and I agreed to a parting of the ways.”
“Oh lord. It was your dodgy past, wasn’t it?” Whittaker sighed. “She never did approve of my taking you on, and she does tend to hold a grudge.”
Mrs Whittaker leaned back against Whittaker’s arm and raised an eyebrow at him. “You knew Furber had once been arrested?”
“Of course I knew.”
Furber straightened his shoulders, resisting the urge to stand at attention. He wasn’t precisely embarrassed by his past, but the casual way the two people whose opinion he most valued were discussing it was… disconcerting.
“Unfortunately, respectable work is difficult to obtain with a criminal record,” he admitted. “I was forced to resort to imposing on my old commanding officer for a reference. Mr Whittaker was good enough to take me on.”
“Nonsense!” Whittaker made a dismissive gesture. “You were invaluable to me during the war, and you’ve more than proved your worth since.”
“Wait!” Mrs Whittaker held up both hands. “You knew each other during the war?”
“Furber was my batman.”
“Oh.” Mrs Whittaker hesitated. “But you said…”
“No, you’re right.” Whittaker threw back the rest of his drink. “Furber’s not from the village. He was assigned to me after we went to the Front. Never left my side, did you, Sam? Even when I was wounded.”
“No, sir.” Furber said, refilling his glass. “Afterwards you were transferred to HQ.” He smiled reminiscently. “That’s where I met Edith.”
“My, ah, second wife.”
Whittaker reached for the box of Gauloises on the side table. “Rotten of her to fire you after all your years of service,” he said. He removed two cigarettes and handed one to Mrs Whittaker.
“It didn’t come to that. She’d ordered me to destroy the painting, see, so I’d taken it to my room until such time as you sent a forwarding address. Mrs Whittaker found out I’d hidden it and called me on to the carpet. I explained the situation. Unfortunately, things became a bit heated, words were said. Mrs Whittaker took the opportunity to reprimand my ‘excessive drinking’, and I tendered my resignation.”
Mrs Whittaker leaned forward to light her cigarette from the lighter Furber held out, her elegant hand closing briefly over his own.
“Well, since it brought you to us, we are glad,” she said, sitting back and looking up at him with that direct gaze. “Aren’t we, darling?”
“You will stay, won’t you?”
Furber did not permit his relief to show on his face. “Madam is too kind.”
“Well that’s settled.” Mrs Whittaker waved a languid hand in the direction of the drinks tray. “Why don’t you pour yourself a drink?” she suggested. “This calls for a toast, and then you can tell us all the gory details.”
Somehow, despite her American egalitarianism and her previous friendliness, the offer still caught him by surprise. He hesitated, then slid his gaze sideways. Whittaker just blinked slowly, his usual bland expression in place. “You’ll find we don’t stand on ceremony here,” he drawled.
Right. Things apparently really were different on the Continent nowadays. Furber poured himself a stiff whisky, threw it back, and then poured another.
“Now,” Mrs Whittaker said, “Come and sit down and tell us all the news.” She leaned forward eagerly, elbows on knees, her chin propped on her palms, the cigarette, seemingly forgotten, dangling precariously from her fingers. “Did Marion and Hilda take my advice and run away to lead lives of adventure and inappropriate lovers? Are Veronica and Lord Hurst the hottest ticket in town now that John and I are no longer scandalising the wildlife with our bare bottoms? Did Beatrix like the cordon bleu cookbook I sent her?”
Furber took the seat opposite, a bit gingerly. He wasn’t entirely sure what his position here was going to be but he suspected it might turn out to be a wild ride. He was looking forward to it.