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City of Jasmine

The desert is a lonely place to begin with. And there’s nothing lonelier than being with someone you loved who stopped lov­ing you first. It ended in the desert, the fabled rocky reaches of the Badiyat ash-Sham, with a man I had already buried once. But it began in Rome, as all adventures should, and it started with a scolding.

“Aunt Dove, dearest, I know you do like to make an en­trance, but driving the ambassador’s car through his wife’s rose garden was a bit much, don’t you think?”

Aunt Dove grabbed the parcel of letters and cuttings for­warded by the British ambassador’s office and began to riffle through them. “Oh, look at the piece the New York news­paper published on our stop in Bulgaria. Wasn’t Tsar Boris a lamb to let us land there?”

She bent over my shoulder, causing her turban to slip a little. She poked it back into place with a stiff finger as she handed me the cutting. “Although I must say, I didn’t like the way that tsar was leering at you,” she said, peering at the photograph. “But I suppose he could have been worse. He has rather a nice moustache, and personally, I would rather take my chances as a Bulgarian tsaritsa than spend another night with those villains in London.”

“Aunt, the Ritz is not run by villains.”

“They made a terrible to-do about Arthur,” she said with a brisk nod to the little green parrot drinking from her tea­cup. “He didn’t mean to make such a mess, but he was startled by an omnibus.” She clucked at him and he put out his little brush of a tongue to drink his tea.

Aunt Dove crumbled a tea biscuit for him while I fixed her with a severe look. “And don’t change the subject. The ambassador’s wife is particularly put out about her roses. She says they’re utterly destroyed and the cost to replace them will be seventy pounds.”

“Don’t fuss, darling. I’ve already spoken to the ambassador. He’s willing to overlook the little matter of the roses if I have dinner with his friend, some American tycoon with money to burn. Apparently the fellow is thinking of sponsoring us. He has a company, something to do with powder—washing powder? Face powder? I forget. In any event, a little charm and a flash of bare ankle ought to do the trick.”

I pursed my lips. “Cynicism is an unattractive quality in a woman, Aunt Dove.”

“So is starvation,” she reminded me mildly.

I sighed and reached for the pile of letters and cuttings. My plan to fly my pretty little Sopwith biplane over seven seas was keeping the wolf from the door, but barely. Reporters adored the story since the headlines practically wrote themselves—Society Aviatrix to Pilot Across the Seven Seas—but newspa­per stories didn’t pay the bills. Our tiny collection of sponsors had to be constantly reassured—a job I left most often to Aunt Dove. I could smile and simper with the best of them when I had to, but it always left a sour taste in my mouth to do it.

At that moment the door opened and Wally, my mechanic and dearest friend, entered—all five foot eleven inches of per­fectly formed English gentleman. He flopped into the near­est chair with a sigh and Aunt Dove poured him a cup of tea.

“I deserve stronger,” he told her with a fond smile.

“Wally, how is my baby?” My beloved plane had suffered a few nasty injuries during our landing in Rome, but if any­one could sort her out, it was Wally. He was officially known to London society as the Honorable Vyvyan Walters, eldest son and heir to the Viscount Walters, but he was never hap­pier than when he’d shed his Savile Row suits for a pair of coveralls and a set of spanners.

“The Jolly Roger is in grave condition,” he told me, his ex­pression severe. I wasn’t entirely surprised.

“But you can save her?” It wasn’t just the trip I was thinking of. I might have bought her secondhand as a means of mak­ing a living but through the journey she’d become something more—rather like an exotic pet that required frequent repairs and devastatingly expensive upkeep.

“I can, but I don’t really see why I should bother if you’re going to be so cavalier with her. I’ve told you before, she’s delicate.

I blew him a kiss. “I’m a brute and you are an absolute prince, Wally.” I threw him a parcel of letters. “The post was waiting for us. If I’m not mistaken, there’s something from your father.”

He groaned. “Doubtless the usual refrain.” He pitched his voice low in a perfect imitation of his father’s plummy public-school tones. “‘Why don’t you settle down? Get on with it already, boy. The title needs an heir. I’d even approve you marrying that Starke woman if it got me a grandson.’”

Aunt Dove shook her head, setting her turban to wobbling. “The older generation can be so unforgiving of the young.” Wally and I exchanged amused glances. Aunt Dove was at least twenty years senior to Wally’s father.

We spent a pleasant half an hour reading letters and passing around cuttings from assorted newspapers. I perused the last with familiar irritation. “My God, they don’t even try to be original. It’s always precisely the same thing—‘Explorer and aviatrix Evangeline Merryweather Starke is engaged in a heroic attempt to fly her biplane, the Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter called the Jolly Roger, across the seven seas of antiquity. Mrs. Starke travels with her aunt, the legendary Victorian traveler Lady Lavinia Finch-Pomeroy, last surviving daughter of the 7th Earl of Sheridan, her mechanic, the Honourable Vyvyan Walters, and Lady Lavinia’s pet parrot, Arthur Wellesley. Mrs. Starke’s late husband was Gabriel Starke, explorer, mountain­eer and archaeologist of note, tragically lost in the Lusitania disaster.’” To my disgust, beside the photograph of Aunt Dove and me in our slim leather aviatrix suits was a picture of Ga­briel taken just before our marriage. I tossed the clipping to Aunt Dove for her inspection.

“Hmph,” she grunted, looking at Gabriel’s photograph. “I always said he was far too handsome for his own good. It isn’t helpful to a man’s character to have a face like that.”

She wasn’t wrong. If he’d been a sculpture, Gabriel Starke would have been a masterpiece, created by a genius in a lei­surely and generous mood. Each of his features had been beau­tifully moulded with an extra stroke of grace from a master’s hand. From the most startling blue eyes I had ever seen to a chin marked by a decisive cleft, he was unspeakably gorgeous. It was irritating beyond measure.

Aunt Dove sighed. “I always thought he looked like a ser­aphim, you know, one of those noble warrior angels, all fire and muscle and unearthly beauty.”

I pulled a face. “If Gabriel Starke was an angel, I assure you he was a fallen one.”

She peered closely at the article and looked up, blinking.

“Ought they to call you a widow, dear? After all, when Gabriel died you were in the process of divorcing him.” She passed the clipping back and I looked down at the image of the man I had married in haste. The photographer must have annoyed him. He was wearing an expression I knew quite well. The sleepy drop of the eyelids meant he was immensely bored, but the upward quirk of the well-shaped lips meant he intended to make his own fun, most likely at someone else’s expense.

“He died before it could be finalized,” I reminded her, a trifle waspishly.

Aunt Dove went on. “Shame they never gave him a nice little honor after he died. A tidy KBE on his gravestone and you might have been Lady Starke.”

I ignored her as I crumpled the clipping into my fist. “I ought to have gone back to my maiden name. If I travelled under ‘Merryweather’ all of this Starke business would be forgotten.”

Wally snorted and crumbled up another biscuit for Arthur.

“Oh, don’t, Wally,” Aunt Dove ordered. “He’s getting fat as a tick as it is.”

Wally moved to take the plate away, but Arthur dropped his beak smartly and nipped him just hard enough to draw blood.

“Feathery bastard,” Wally muttered, sucking his finger.

“Damn the kaiser,” Arthur said, bobbing his head in sat­isfaction. He applied himself to his biscuit and Aunt Dove threw up her hands.

“Very well, but don’t complain to me if you get indiges­tion,” she warned him. She shook her head. “It never does to argue with parrots. They might speak, but they simply never listen.

She glanced at the clock and rose, gathering up her letters.

“Lord, look at the time and I’m dining with a Savoyard prince tonight. I think I might have been engaged to him once.”

“You think?” Wally asked, his eyes popping.

Aunt Dove smiled sweetly. “Eighteen seventy-eight is a bit of a blur, dear boy. That’s the year I discovered absinthe. Now, you children have a lovely evening and don’t wait up. Come along, Arthur.” He flapped to her shoulder and then up to the top of her turban, narrowly avoiding the enormous paste emerald brooch she had used to pin the thing in place.

They left in a cloud of feathers and musk perfume, and Wally turned to me. “Is it very wrong that I want to grow up to be your Aunt Dove?”

“In that case, growing up has nothing to do with it,” I said, flipping through my letters. “She still thinks she’s twenty, exploring the world as a Victorian adventuress. It’s never oc­curred to her that time has marched on. Heavens, here’s some­thing from the fuel company.”

“What do they want?”

“I daren’t open it. The last bill was just too ghastly. I’ll look at it tomorrow and maybe I’ll be lucky enough to lose it be­fore then.” I tossed aside the bills and read out the most sala­cious snippets of news from home to Wally.

He stretched out his long legs and laced his hands behind his head, offering an occasional comment on the gossip. “I cannot believe Delilah Drummond has remarried so soon after throwing over poor old Quentin. The sheets weren’t even cold before she said ‘I do’ to that Russian princeling—” He broke off. “Evie? What is it?”

I stared at the photograph that had just fallen from the pile of cuttings. My hand felt cold, colder than any living hand ought to feel.

“Evie? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost,” Wally said.

“That depends,” I said in a small, hollow voice. “Do ghosts photograph?”


Copyright © 2014 by Deanna Raybourn.

City of Jasmine
by by Deanna Raybourn