Christopher hears Sylvia’s voice first. It is as undeniable as a clap of thunder. Swimming up from a dark place of heat and cold and shudders and shadows, he blearily opens his eyes, an involuntary response to a sound more familiar even than the rattle of shells. Sylvia.
“You will let me see my husband!” There is a clatter and a crash, as though Sylvia has overturned something in her anger, and Christopher closes his eyes and hopes fervently it is just a hallucination. “You’re his mistress, Miss Wannop, but I am his wife in the eyes of God and men. Now, let me by!”
No such luck.
Christopher steels himself for another of Sylvia’s tantrums, but no such whirlwind comes. Rather, his wife appears wan and tired, but she is as fierce as ever. Framed in the doorway like a lovely glimpse into another world, Sylvia’s face is dark with concern. “Christopher,” she says sharply, crossing the room so fast her skirts flutter like the wings of birds. Valentine appears behind her, consternation written on her brow.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t stop her –”
“Of course you couldn’t,” he replies wearily, letting his gaze absolve her of blame. “Sylvia does as she pleases.” Sylvia, however, seems almost amused.
“That admonition would sting more if I wasn’t aware my forthrightness was something you secretly admire,” she retorts absently, placing a cool hand on his forehead. Christopher shivers, and pretends violently to himself that is just the coolness of her skin that strikes him to the core. “You’re burning up,” she declares. “Has the doctor been?” Valentine frowns. Christopher wells up with sympathy for her, trapped between a rock and a hard place. Or between an irresistible force and an immovable object, as it is. “Well?” Sylvia demands, and unthinkingly Christopher reaches out to catch her hand in his own. Be gentle, his touch says to her, the steps of an ancient wordless dance; the unspoken language between husband and wife.
Christopher feels Sylvia’s dainty hand contract, just once, as though in shock, and then she strokes her thumb over his knuckles. Very well, she replies with that flutter of her thumb, and the thing she had not meant to say the moment he had first touched her: I am amazed. You feel like heaven. Please don’t stop.
Christopher takes his hand away and with some effort focuses on Valentine, who is looking between the husband and wife as though following a tennis match. Christopher’s heart goes out to her. So brave, attempting to bridge the divide between Christopher’s heart and his duty, and so close to succeeding, yet so far. “I called for the doctor,” Valentine says uncertainly, her hands knotted in her dress. “He said he’d be along presently.”
“And how long ago was that?” Sylvia asks crisply, and Valentine flushes.
“Three hours ago.” Christopher waits for the storm. Sylvia does not tolerate either tardiness or ineptitude. And he is not disappointed. Sylvia whirls, her hands on hips, pinning poor Valentine with the liquid fire of her eyes. Delirium does make something of a poet of a man, Christopher finds himself thinking. Deliriously.
“Three hours?” Sylvia echoes. “Unbelievable. This is the chit you threw me over for? And then you have to go and contract the blessed plague, of all things. Well. All I can say is that you get what you pay for. Don’t send a girl to do a woman’s job, Christopher.”
“You will not speak to Miss Wannop in that fashion, Sylvia,” Christopher says tiredly. Sylvia glares.
“Any other time, I would fight you on that,” she snaps. “But you are ill. Sleep, Christopher. I’ll arrange for a doctor.”
The doctor arrives half an hour later, his round face harried. He swiftly diagnoses a severe case of influenza, although thankfully not the dreaded Spanish variety that strikes with such mercilessness. The physician mops his sweaty brow with a stained handkerchief; Christopher eyes it with an inner wince. “That woman of yours,” the doctor murmurs as he presses his fingers to Christopher’s pulse. Christopher arches a brow in silent question, and the older man flushes red. “She’s a handful,” he says candidly. Christopher shrugs.
“Valentine’s a good girl,” he says absently, fighting back sleep as his eyelids droop. The doctor’s face clouds over for a moment.
“I meant Madame Tietjens, sir,” he says hurriedly. Christopher’s eyes pop open. “Told me on the telephone she’d have me ruined if I didn’t see you immediately. She said I’d never get another patient in England if I didn’t get myself over here with some haste.”
“I do apologise,” Christopher says, and he means it, even against the faint sting that he is once again apologising for Sylvia’s distinct lack of courtesy. Yet there is the glow of warmth that Christopher tries and fails to ignore, that Sylvia had been so concerned for his wellbeing that she had threatened one of London’s most eminent physicians. “I take it my wife is a patient of yours?” he enquires to be polite, but the other man shakes his head.
“No, sir. I was not previously acquainted with Madame Tietjens.” The doctor packs up his bag, a faint smile coming over his face. Christopher knows well enough that smile, the dreamy of eyes of a creature that finds itself suddenly in Sylvia’s thrall. He has been there himself, once, long ago. “I thought I’d get here and meet a dragon. But she’s…” The poor man trails off, and Christopher knows how he feels. The dichotomy of her, silk over steel, savagery wrapped in the illusion of sweetness. “Well. She’s.”
“A force of nature,” Christopher offers dryly, and the man nods fervently.
“But very concerned about you, sir.”
“I doubt that,” Christopher replies, ignoring the man’s expression of surprise, and closes his eyes as the doctor shuts the door behind him. There are muffled voices, and Christopher is unsurprised when the click of heeled shoes come toward him, and then the thump of knees on the floor. “Sylvia.”
“Hush,” she says with trademark impatience, and places her hand on his brow. “You need to rest.” Christopher does not bother to open his eyes. He can see her in his mind as clearly as if he viewed her with his eyes.
“It is only influenza,” he replies, and Sylvia’s hand slips down to cup his cheek. Christopher opens his eyes then. The tenderness in her touch is both unfamiliar and like coming home, and she hisses lightly through her teeth at the heat of his skin.
“There is a fever in your blood,” Sylvia says. Perhaps it is the delirium, or the silent worry in her exquisite face, but Christopher raises his hand to touch her own, her slender fingers, her wedding ring.
“You are the fever in my blood,” he replies on a whim, and sees the shock written over her skin and the sadness in her smile. But there is no halting the rising tide of sleep, not when his body is exhausted from his illness and his heart is set at unconscious ease by Sylvia’s touch.
Golden hair and gentleness, and how he loves Valentine, for the harmony of her soul and the balm of her touch after the senseless horror of war. Yet it is not his mistress that haunts him in the twilight land of sleep where all is possible and nothing is as it seems. In his dreams, Sylvia is a sylph and a naiad and a succubus, a temptress garbed in the raw beauty and power of nature. She sits in the Groby tree and sings down at him, wildflowers in the red devastation of her hair.
Won’t you come up to me, Christopher? And would he could to say no. Yet he climbs the tree and join her in the branches, the charms clinking on the breeze, here in the place he thought the war could never touch. You’ve been away for so long, she tells him, and takes his hand.
Valentine sees the smile on his face as he sleeps, and sits snug and smug in her certainty that Christopher dreams of her.
But Sylvia, miles away and curled around her memories to keep her warm?
Sylvia knows better.