The Red Door

Chapter 1

November 1918, Hobson, Lancashire

She stood in front of the cheval glass, the long mirror that Peter had given her on their second anniversary, and considered herself. Her hair had faded from shimmering English fair to almost the color of straw, and her face was lined from working in the vegetable beds throughout the war, though she’d worn a hat and gloves. Her skin, once like silk—he’d always told her that—was showing faint lines, and her eyes, though still very blue, stared back at her from some other woman’s old face.

Four years—have I really aged that much in four years? she asked her image.

With a sigh she accepted the fact that she wouldn’t see forty-four again. But he’d have aged too. Probably more than she had—war was no seaside picnic on a summer’s afternoon.

That thought failed to cheer her. She wanted to see joy and surprise in his face when he came home at last. The war was finally over—the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Yesterday. It wouldn’t be long now before he came striding over the hill and up the lane.

Surely they would send the men in France home quickly. It had been four long lonely unbearable years. Even the Army couldn’t expect families to wait beyond a month—six weeks. It wasn’t as if the Allies must occupy Germany. This was, after all, an armistice, not a surrender. The Germans would be as eager to go home as the British.

Peter was some years younger than she, for heaven’s sake—though she’d never confessed to that, lying cheerfully about her age from the start. A man in his midthirties had no business going to fight in France. But of course he was a career soldier, fighting was what he did, in all the distant corners of the Empire. France was nearly next door; it would require only a Channel crossing and he’d be in Dover.

She had never gone with him to his various postings—Africa, China, India—to godforsaken towns whose names she could hardly remember, and so he’d bought her a map and hung it in the sitting room, where she could see it every day, with a pin in each place he’d stayed. It had brought him nearer. One year he had nearly died of malaria and couldn’t come home on leave. That was the awful winter when Timmy died, and she had been there alone to do what had to be done. She had expected to lose Peter as well, sure that God was angry with her. But Peter had survived, and the loneliness had been worse than before, because there was no one in the cottage to talk to except for Jake.

He’d sent her small gifts from time to time: a sandalwood fan from Hong Kong, silk shawls from Benares, and cashmere ones from Kashmir. A lovely woolen one from New Zealand, soft and warm as a Welsh blanket. Lacey pillow slips from Goa, a painted bowl from Madeira, its flowers rampant in the loveliest colors. Thoughtful gifts, including that small but perfect ruby, set in a gold ring he’d brought back from Burma.

She had asked, on his next leave after Timmy’s death, to go with him to his next posting, but he had held her close and told her that white women didn’t survive in the African heat, and he’d resign his commission before he’d lose her. She had loved him for that, though she would have taken her chances, if he’d asked.

She had kept back a new dress to wear for his homecoming, and each day now she must wash her hair in