A/N: Hello, again! I actually meant to post this Saturday, but my computer was being funky.

First I want to take the time to apologize to anyone I may have offended before I changed the rating on this story. It does contain mature themes, and me trying to dilute them doesn't change that.

Second, HAPPY NEW YEAR!

And third, I very much enjoy reviews, and reward them with sneak-peeks of the next chapter!

C'est tout! Read and enjoy.

disclaimer: mine! wait, sorry, did you say Twilight? oh THAT? damn. nah, that's not mine.


"We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, and somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word has been spoken."
Fyodor Dostoyevsky

~0~

the stranger

Columbus, Ohio; 1917
September

I was married for a month when the pattern began to deviate.

I suppose a "normal" wife would not have noticed it. But it hadn't taken me long at all to realize that I was far from a normal wife. The parade of faces throughout town were not like my own. There were war widows, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, cousins, aunts—all of their faces bore that downtrodden sadness countered by the steel in their expressions and the fierce pride for the boys they had sent to war, boys who returned home in caskets.

If they returned at all.

We were all doing our part—that's what they called it, "doing our part"—to help our boys. And regardless of their age, or the fact that we knew only the tiniest percentage of them personally, that's what we called them: "our boys."

The Sunday dinners with my parents became longer and longer. Mother and I would sit at a loom from a past generation, winding fibers and feeding them through to make blankets. Within three hours, we could make 20 blankets that she would deliver to the town hall every week. The stitching was shoddy, the material lumpy and coarse, but as we were told, every effort helped.

The thought never crossed my mind that perhaps these blankets would help no one, that perhaps they'd fall into the Germans' hands and all our work would have been for naught, that this was really a distraction for the young women in Columbus who could be found roaming the town, quiet and blank, waiting for their sweethearts to come home.

Mostly because I did very little independent thinking anymore.

I didn't have that quiet dignity that I could wrap around me like a cloak, the knowledge that my men folk were off fighting to keep me warm and safe. And that patriotic light didn't shine in my eyes when people spoke of the bravery of our boys and how wonderful they all were.

I hated this war. I hated every reason it had started, I hated every reason it hadn't finished and just kept growing and growing. It was nothing less than monstrous, and I had to gird my opinions, sealing my lips whenever the subject came up in conversation, which was often.

As I said, I was not a normal wife.

Which is why one day, when Charles arrived home half an hour later from work than he normally did, I noticed.

Nothing else was different. He still pulled me by the hair and forced my passive mouth against his. He still found something about which to become furious with me, this time the fact that our meal wasn't hot enough. I was past the point of mentioning that it had only cooled because he'd been late. I took the blows, felt the familiar sting of tears and the dull ache of pain that couldn't be pinpointed to any specific place. He still pushed himself atop me and did as he pleased, still rolled off with a grunt, still slept, still snored.

And as I lay my head on my crossed arms in the bathtub that night, my mind stuck on that one fact.

Charles had been late.

The next morning, I said nothing, dutifully scooping up Charles' breakfast things as he went out the door with a brief, "See you tonight."

But that night, I waited. I watched the tiny timepiece pin that Addie had given me for my birthday last year with hawk-eyes. And when Charles arrived precisely when he always did, I doubted my own sanity.

I waited for that tiny discrepancy in the routine for weeks, but it didn't happen again.

And time went on.

The beatings continued.

And after a while, I forgot all about that half-hour.

~0~

November

"William Dempsey, that better not be you creepin' into the nursery like a thief in the night."

Will, who had been doing just exactly that, straightened and brushed at his clothes in an effort at casualness. "No, dear, I was just…checking the hinge on the bathroom door. It's been squeaking a bit as of late."

Addie didn't bother keeping the smile out of her voice. "Alrigh'. Just checkin'."

I had to chew on my own tongue as Addie and I turned back to our conversation and I could see Will slink past the Dempseys' bedroom door dejectedly. A single glance at Addie's face had me giggling helplessly, falling back on the bed with mirthful delight.

From the kitchen, I heard Will turn on the water and the soft hush of it falling into a glass.

In the next instant, a sharp cry punctured the air, and next the sound of tinkling glass as Will all but threw his cup into the sink, past the doorway faster than I'd ever seen him move. When he returned to their bedroom moments later, he was bouncing a bundle of blue blankets, shushing and making soothing noises at it.

Addie and I grinned at one another.

William Dempsey had fallen in love. Again.

Nolan Dempsey was less than a month old, and already had his father right where he wanted him.

"Can ye believe this one, Esme?" Addie laughed, gesturing at Will. "He'd be sleepin' in the nursery if I'd let him, he would. I can' get him to let poor Nolan be for more'n a minute at a time 'fore he's back in there carryin' 'im and rockin' 'im."

"He loves it," Will said, not bothering to deny this obviously true statement. He joined us on the bed, squeezing between us so we could all coo and tickle Nolan to our hearts' content. And when he finally began wailing, mouth wide open showing soft, toothless gums, Addie smiled. "I know what that means."

Will passed him over to her easily, leaning across her for privacy as Addie tugged down her nightgown. When Nolan had latched on, Will made a few movements and leaned out of my line of sight. I could see Nolan's blanket now draped over them both as he fed.

"Aye," Addie murmured almost unconsciously. "There's a lad."

Nolan's arm thrashed out restlessly, and caught hold of Will's index finger, making my best friend's face light up from within.

I watched this scene, crippled, barely breathing as my heart pounded miserably.

Why wasn't this mine?

Nolan Gair Dempsey had been born at 1:38 p.m. on October 3rd, 1917.

At just past noon, frantic pounding on the door had scared the wits out of me, and trembling at the thought that it was my husband, I steeled myself and opened the door.

"Esme!"

It was a man, breathless, flushed, and sweating, standing on the front steps.

"William?" I laughed with relief.

"You must—Just a moment," he panted, holding a up a single finger. I covered my mouth with my hands to stifle the giggles as he doubled over, hands on his knees, sucking in oxygen as if he'd been underwater for ten minutes.

"What on Earth? Will—"

"I'm sorry. It's just—I ran all the way here and I—" He gasped. "Might I trouble you for a glass of water?"

I scurried inside and procured one for him, grinning broadly as he gulped it down, until his words registered.

"I'm sorry. Will, did you just say you ran here?"

He nodded breathlessly.

"You ran six miles? Just now? Why?"

That seemed to jar him back to reality. He spluttered out the water, pushed the glass back in my hands, and wiped him mouth messily on the back of his arm.

I stared.

"Good Lord! We have to go! We have to go now!"

"Go where?" I was asking, even as he was tugging me down the steps. When I wouldn't walk quickly enough for his liking, he heaved an anxious sigh and lifted me over his shoulder as if I were a sack of potatoes.

"William!"

"You were taking too long!"

I kicked my legs futilely. "Put me down this instant!" He said nothing and trudged forward at a soldier's pace. I flailed harder. "You bleeding blockhead!" I shouted reverting to the insult I had heard Addie use on him more than once in our youth. "Where are we going?"

"Addie's having the baby!"

I froze, mid-flail.

"Put me down. Put me down, put me down, put me down!"

He did so. And as soon as I was rightside-up once again, staring into his panicked face, I reached up and cuffed him soundly on the side of his head.

"Esme!"

I shouted, "Your wife's having a baby and you're here?!"

"God, Esme, that hurt like a—"

"Your wife is giving birth and you're here?!"

I raised my hand to repeat the gesture and had the satisfaction of seeing Will shrink back hastily. "She was screaming for you! She said she wasn't going to push until you got there!"

"So you ran here?!"

"Not the best bit of judgement on my part," he muttered sheepishly. "But she was cursing and yelling and it was just confusing the hell out of me and her and the doctor, and I just had to come get you! And now you have to come, because she said if I came back without you, she'd cut off my—"

"Okay!" I held up my hands. "I'm coming, I'm coming. But did you think about how we'd get there?"

Will's face went blank.

"Oh. No. No, I didn't."

I wanted to laugh at how ridiculous this had become. But it Addie was in labor when Will left, then she would nearly be ready to push any moment. Returning home on foot wasn't an option.

When my eyes fell on the buggy sitting beside the house, I didn't think about the possible ramifications of what I was about to do. I merely I tugged on Will's hand, pulling him toward the stable where the two horses sat chewing placidly at hay in their stalls.

Within an hour, we were back at the Dempsey's home.

"I'll tend to the horses," I said, sliding off the booth.

Will declined, telling me to go inside before Addie had a heart attack.

And true to his word, the moment I entered, I could hear Addie's screaming.

"Where is ESME?!"

I heard the doctor pleading, "You're going to have to push, Mrs. Dempsey."

"Don' ye be tellin' me what to do, ye lousy—"

"Addie!" I cried, throwing open the door to the bedroom.

"Esme!" The word was a wail of relief.

Addie sat propped against the headboard, cushioned against what I guessed to be every single pillow in the Dempsey household. Her hair was a fiery mess, her face beaded with sweat, her eyes wide and panicked, and a blanket draped over her bent knees. I couldn't remember seeing her look quite as scared as she did in that moment, holding her arms out beseechingly. I ran in to them without thought.

Will skidded into the room to sit on her other side. "Will!" she sobbed, squeezing his hand.

Dr. Godwin looked up to nod at us curtly in thanks, before turning his attention back to his patient.

"Now that the gang's all here, so to speak, it's time. Adelaide, push."

And push she did amongst the cacophony of encouraging words, curses, shouts of pain (as Addie squeezed the living daylights out of Will's right hand), and firm instructions from Dr. Godwin. Addie pushed, again, and again, and again until the cries filling the air were no longer hers, but those of her newborn son.

I watched, as through a foggy glass all the events that followed.

Addie's triumphant, exhausted laughter.

Dr. Godwin's assessment that the baby was indeed a boy.

Will's excitement about cutting the umbilical cord, so much that he dropped the surgical scissors twice before he managed it.

Dr. Godwin wrapping the bloodstained baby in towels and handing him to a nurse I hadn't noticed before to be cleaned, and the nurse returning to place the infant in Addie's waiting arms.

Will standing beside her, gazing in wonder at the angry pink writhing bundle.

Addie murmuring a single word ("Nolan.") and Will's fervent approval of the name as he pressed an awestruck kiss to her temple.

His words, like an oath, a pledge of allegiance to the both of them: "I love you. God, how I love you."

And my own bittersweet smile, my own burning jealously formed like a knot in my breast, my own tears at the miracle, at their happiness, at my misery.

On the spot, it was decided that I would be baby Nolan's godmother. It certainly made sense. I loved him as if he were mine. And if I let my mind wander too far down that road, as I often did as in that moment when sleepy, full Nolan was passed to me to cuddle and hug his softness, to smell that sweet baby smell, to play with the wisps of dark red atop his head, I wished he were mine.

Discovering both the buggy and me gone when he arrived home. Charles had thrashed me worse than he ever had before. That night I was too broken to even attempt to fix supper, and either out of mercy or disgust at my wounds, he did not force me to.

I smiled through the sharp sting of my split lip, lying beside him in bed and deciding that it had been completely worth it.

~0~

After my visit with the Dempseys, I walked home to start dinner.

Daydreaming about pudgy infants, I didn't even realize that the soup was burning.

Or that it was close to 9 o'clock.

Charles was late.

He didn't arrive until 9:12, entering the house as if nothing was out of the usual. I had dinner hot and waiting for him, accepted his forceful, habitual kiss and punishment for whatever misdeed he had conjured up today as I did every night, and we went to bed. He got his fill of my body, rolled over, and fell fast asleep.

I crawled out of bed, and went to the bathtub, as always.

Running it over and over in my head a million times, I could not understand why this turn of events made me so inexplicably…happy.

~0~

December

Nolan Dempsey had to be the most spoiled child in Columbus. Between his parents, Will's aunt and uncle, the Murphys, and myself, he was loved, carried, and coddled beyond any reasonable amount.

I was at the Dempsey house almost every day, my heart crying a little at the smile of recognition in Nolan's tiny face when I arrived.

Addie and Will fairly glowed with their new parenthood and I fought back my envious urges to allow myself to be happy for their happiness.

Charles's mysterious late nights had continued, much to my unexplainable delight.

And then, one night, he simply did not come home at all until the next morning.

At first, I had been at a loss. Would he expect breakfast on the table in the morning? I had risen early, prepared his eggs and sausages, watching the walkway with anxious eyes to know when to begin reheating them.

When he arrived, he offered me no explanation, no apology, no expression at all that would indicate that anything was amiss.

A few nights passed with him arriving at his normal time, and then the late nights began again.

It both confused and ridiculously pleased me.

Somewhere along the line, however, Charles had ceased to seem even remotely able to tolerate my presence. His beatings grew more and more unexplainable, unpredictable, and frequent. And even when I lay there sobbing softly—more out of habit that necessity—he didn't seem satisfied as he once had. He took out his frustrations on our furniture, our dishes, the walls, and more often than nor, left the house before returning less than two hours later, reeking of alcohol.

I'd noticed he drank more now, too. Cleaning, I'd found stashes of whiskey and gin underneath the sink where I kept the bleach. I could smell it on his clothes, his breath, surrounding him in a haze wherever he went.

The snow was falling on Ohio endlessly now, and there were times I fervently hoped that he simply wouldn't return, caught in a random, unexpected blizzard.

After my… duties one Tuesday evening had finished, he had rolled away, yanking up his trousers in agitation and glancing back at me disgustedly as though I had done something awful. He had snatched his hat from its hook and slammed the door shut behind him, never speaking a single syllable to me.

When he didn't return home at all once more, I fell asleep with a smile on my face.

The next morning, I fixed his breakfast as I had before, standing vigilant as a Buckingham palace guard at the window looking for him in the sea of white. I waited until noon, then dumped his plate into the waste bin, too nervous myself to hold anything down.

So went lunch. And dinner. And breakfast the following day.

I was too frightened to leave the house until the third day of his disappearance.

I scrubbed the house from top to bottom, changed sheets I had tossed fitfully on the prior two nights—fearful of a late-night arrival from him.

On day four, I thought it safe to venture out once more. I stayed late at the Dempseys', arriving back at home and anticipating being beaten within an inch of my life.

But Charles wasn't home.

Day five dawned and the bizarre excitement within me turned to disbelief.

~0~

Walking the sidewalks in Columbus, I tried hard not to stare at the men I encountered. There were hardly any young men in the town anymore. Those that were there held jobs at the factory or were convalescing, their arms in slings, crutching around on wounded joints.

All of the stores were now operated by either old men, or women. A bleak cloud had settled over the town, and I found it to be drastically different from the Columbus I had known as a child. Even now, with the sun shining softly in the winter sky, with the slow melting in gutters and the streets devoid of waste, I could not call it beautiful.

Wrapping my shawl more firmly around my shoulders, I passed the theatre, the deli, the supermarket, the hobby shop, looking for a youthful face, and found none.

I had become increasingly adept at concealing what occurred behind our house's closed doors, increasingly proficient at the subtle smoke and mirrors that would distract from any traces of it. But the last few days had definitely helped, so that when the older ladies nodded at me in passing, my smile was genuine and simple.

I don't even know what I thought I would do in town—a bit of sleuthing to discover my husband's whereabouts, perhaps? I thought watching the chimneys of the factory belch smoke and smog into the atmosphere—or even why I wished to know so badly. The longer he was gone, the happier I would be.

As if struck by epiphany, I did an about-face, ready to enjoy the rest of Charles's sabbatical while I could.

I passed the whitewashed brick of the bank and was suddenly drawn to stare at the alleyway between it and the law office beside it. Despite the meager sunlight offered at 2 o'clock on a winter afternoon, the gap between the two buildings was dark, damp, and vaguely smelling of rotten cabbage. And just as I wondered what had gotten my attention about this particular alleyway in the first place, from the dark sounded another broken moan.

Curiously, not even thinking about the possible consequences, I tip-toed nearer. "Hello?" I called plaintively.

When the pained noise came again, I didn't think twice about stepping fully into the darkness. "Hello?" I asked again as my eyes adjusted. A thin layer of ice coated the ground here where the street men hadn't bothered to clear as they did every morning, and my feet skidded so that I had to catch myself against a wall. Hands braced against the brick for balance, I inched deeper into the alley, my eyes falling on a heap of brightly colored fabric.

A woman.

I took in the gaudy makeup now smeared haphazardly across her face and mixing almost undetectably with the blood from her lips and forehead, the rich material torn completely in certain areas, a stack of yellow hair covered in mud, and the choker around her neck with the smallest pink ribbon at its center.

My cheeks burned.

Prostitute.

The morality campaigns in larger cities of the past decade had done little to cut down on the amount of gambling and drinking and prostitution within them. In the days before the war, there had been sermons about them, posters, political rallies about these "bad women" who were endangering the morality and spirituality of our men.

After my wedding night, prostitution ceased being a merely distasteful practice, but instead one of the most masochistic activities I could conjure up. I had long since stopped believing that any woman truly enjoyed sex, being groped and pulled and prodded like livestock at an auction.

And since the war had begun, prostitution had entered its heyday in the big cities that served as army hospitals for the wounded. Father Daniel called them locusts, luring in the "poor boys who had seen the horrors of war and could not think clearly enough to know better."

We heard talk of it occasionally in town. All the girls had heard the scandalous stories told by older, better traveled girls, and we could spot a tramp if ever necessary.

But until this moment, I had never seen one before.

Her plump lips, bleeding on the left side, emitted another groan. I could now see the bruising on her arms and chest (amply shown in the style of dress she was wearing despite the frigid air), her legs faintly blue, even through the sheer stockings and the heel on one shoe missing.

And my first thought was not to run screaming in the opposite direct, to alert a matron in town of just what I had seen.

My first thought was that she had to be freezing.

I slid closer and knelt beside her. At the first touch of my hand to her arm, she moaned louder than ever. I yanked it back as though I'd been burned, noticing for the first time that this arm was twisted at an odd angle, held away from the rest of her body. "Sorry, sorry. I— That must have been painful, I'm sorry."

She whimpered.

Hearing that tiny noise, I was hit with stunned recognition of the familiar cuts and bruises lining her upper body.

I murmured gravely, "A man did this to you."

At first, there was no acknowledgement of my words at all. Then a single tear slid down her rouged cheek.

I was horrified, blinking rapidly and picturing myself in the over-the-top gown with stage makeup, lying in an alleyway, broken. I thought of all the people who could see her like this, even in broad daylight, and pass her by without a single shred of pity.

I stood quickly, suddenly sure of what I had to do. She needed help. And if I didn't do it, who would?

"You— Just— Just don't go anywhere, all right? Just stay there." My mind snidely offered that there wasn't anywhere for her to go, should she even be capable of real movement. "I'll— I'll be back. I will come back for you."

I had endured beatings for much less, after all. And that thought alone justified my use of the buggy, abandoned in Charles' absence, once more. Anxious with worry about this woman, this stranger who could be any number of other horrible things on top of her profession of choice, I urged the horses faster and faster until the buggy rolled to a halt in front of the alleyway.

Any sunlight was now completely blocked by the shadow of the buggy, but inside the alley, I could hear the woman murmur fuzzily.

I skated on the melting ice toward her, kneeling alongside her in the mud.

"All right," I said carefully, my hands hovering over her body, looking for a place I could touch her with the least amount of pain. "The buggy is just there, about seven or eight feet away. I'm going to try to lift you, but you'll have to help me a little, all right?"

I sighed when she did not react at all, then saw her white teeth gripping her lip tightly and the way her bloody hands clenched so that the knuckles turned white. I took it as a sign of her being amenable to my plan, sliding one arm under her neck to wrap around a thin, pale shoulder, and the other to sling her good arm over my shoulder so that she was in a sitting position.

"On the count of three," I said, more to myself than her. "One… Two… Three!"

I began to stand, and her shocked scream was one of sheer agony. When her weight went dead against my side, I knew she had lost consciousness. And while it was probably better that way, the past few months had rendered me more or less useless, physically. It took me close to twenty minutes to drag her body back to the buggy, and another half hour to lift her onto the bed of it.

When I climbed back onto the box, my arms were shaking from exertion and I could hardly hold the reins in my hands. I was sweating something awful underneath my shawl, and drawing curious stares from the women passing on the streets. I smiled tightly and clucked at the horses until we were bumping and jostling back to the house.

~0~

This was utter stupidity.

I could hardly stand to imagine the sort of punishment Charles would inflict upon me should he come home to find what I had done.

And yet, none of this knowledge deterred me even the slightest bit as I lifted the blonde head slightly to slid a pillow beneath it.

I'd created a makeshift bed for the woman on the floor of the living room beside the fireplace, hoping to warm up both of our frozen limbs. It had taken me another hour of panting and cursing to move her from the buggy, up the steps, and inside, wading through the snow as I hefted her half steps at a time and trying to keep her from getting any more soaked than she already was.

When we finally crossed the threshold, I was ushered up a hasty prayer at the ceiling, and went on my hunt for every blanket and pillow I could find.

Now, hours later, I stabbed at the fire with the poker, glancing back at the slumbering woman, and wondering what sort of trauma had to have happened to her to put her in this situation, to put her in this occupation in the first place.

She was cocooned securely in the wool blanket from my bed, and beneath that, one of my thicker nightgowns. The basin of water beside her was a murky brown, swimming with the traces of blood, makeup and mud I had gently sponged off her face and whichever parts of her body I could reach without undressing her completely. The little mouth, pink and vulnerable, looked so young and sweet in sleep. It was a paradox, juxtaposed against the angry red of the cut on her cheek, and the scrape on her forehead amidst the myriad other bruises.

And suddenly the dark eyes were wide open, staring blankly at me. There was no surprise in the gaze, no fear or confusion or sadness. It was devoid of all emotion besides acceptance.

I turned fully, pressing a hand to her unmarred cheek to feel for a fever.

"No fever at all." I kept my voice bright and open, not wanting to frighten her with the heap of questions that lay in my mouth, ready and willing for the opportunity. "You're lucky, you know."

The unsettling stare broke as her eyelids slid down.

"No, no, no. Speak to me," I murmured, scooping up the wet cloth and touching it to the wound on her forehead. "You mustn't sleep any longer."

She winced at the touch, a good sign. "Aidez-moi," she whispered brokenly.

My mind connected the foreign words to the scant French I had learned from books in my youth. "Parlez-vous l'anglais?" At her shaky nod, I continued: "I am helping you. I promise it. Keep talking," I said a bit louder when her brown eyes threatened to flutter closed once more. "Tell me anything. Your name. How old you are. What type of flower is your favorite."

"Je m'appelle Noelle." She gasped and broke off as I applied the disinfectant. "I 'ave eighteen years. I like ze daffodils." Noelle had to pant for a few seconds to regain the air she had used on the choppy words. "Et vous? What are you called?"

"Esme," I responded, dabbing the salve against her largest bruise.

"You are very kind woman, Miss Ayz-may."

"Thank you, Noelle."

"Me, I should not be 'ere. In your home."

She looked so miserable with shame. "I think I'm able enough to be the judge of that."

We were quiet for a long time, almost half an hour, before she spoke again. "Why did you do eet?"

I wrung out the bloody rag in the basin and set it aside to look into the puzzled blue eyes as I spoke. "Because you needed someone to help you. And because I needed someone to help."

"Je ne sais pas comment vous remercier." She laughed, and sound was far more bitter than that of any normal adolescent. "What can I even say to zat? 'ow do I give my thanks to a woman who can take in a…a girl like me? I am…I am a—"

I kept my voice soft. "I know, Noelle."

"You know! Vous savez que je suis putain, and still, you—"

"Yes."

She seemed even more confused than before. "Zen I do not understand."

I did not reply for a long time, both of us settling back into an uncomfortable silence. "Noelle, will you tell me about yourself?"

"I was born in France. My sister and I, nous etions les jumelles. Twins," she clarified at my puzzled look. "When I had ten years, Martine, my sister, she died."

Sympathy was swift and staggering. "I'm sorry," I whispered.

"C'est la vie." There was no sadness in her voice, just grim resignation. "It was long time ago."

"How did you come here? To Columbus?"

"France, she was not safe anymore. My papa died when les Allemagnes, ze Germans, come to France. Papa did not like ze Germans. He said zair language was disgusting. He was a soldier. My muzzer and me, we were so proud." She smiled slightly in remembrance. "His general wrote to us. He was on trip to get ze supplies, him and ze uzzer soldiers. Zey were attacked, Papa was shot in ze stomach."

The Germans had invaded France in 1914 and Britain and France, being allies, had struggled against them through 1916, and were perhaps even now fighting against them. I myself would not know. I couldn't bring myself to even look at the newspapers and the longs lists of names, names of boys I knew and ones I did not, some of them with the words "injured" beside their names, others marked "dead" or even worse, "missing; presumed dead."

"My muzzer," Noelle continued, "said we must leave right away. We could not even bury my papa. Zey could not get to his body."

Here was emotion, still raw and tender, making her eyes water and her eyes flutter quickly to bank down fresh tears.

"I was so scared to get on ze boat. So scared. Ze Germans, zey shoot everyzing in ze water. Zey did not care if we were just a poor muzzer and her girl, no. Maman died before we come to America. Ze doctors, they say she had a bad heart, but me, I know she had good heart. Is why she die, because her heart missed my papa.

"When I got off ze boat, in New York, I did not know what to do. I did not know anyone in America. My English was not very good, you see. A woman, she saw me and she told me I could live in her house. Big house. I had never seen a house so big. Zair were many girls living zair. I zot zey must be like me. And zey were. Girls from Poland and Austria and places I had only heard of but never been to. Madame Black, she gave us all clothes so beautiful and bright, and I was so grateful."

She angled her eyes up at me uncertainly. "I do not zink it would be…would be right for me to tell you the rest."

I knew the rest, I knew of the Madames who trolled the piers, just waiting to use young girls like Noelle fresh off the boat, unsure and frightened in the new world they had come to in hopes of escaping the horrors plaguing their homes. I knew of how they took the girls into their big boardinghouses converted into brothels, and how the girls had no say in the matter.

"Please, Noelle," was my reply.

"One night, I had been at ze house for a week, Madame she came in my bedroom, and she asked me if I liked it zair. And of course I did. I had hot food, and a warm bed, and zings could have been very bad for me, and zis is where I came instead. And she was pleased. And zen she told me I would have to start earning all zose zings. And I said I would cook and clean, whatever Madame wants. She laughed at me. She opened ze door and zair was a man zair. I do not even remember his face. I asked if zis was her husband, and she laughed again. She told me zat I had to take good care of him, and if I did not, he would tell Madame, and she would not let me be in ze house anymore. I did not understand. Zen Madame left, she shut ze door. And ze man… He… He…"

Noelle began to sob, openly, fully. Overcome, I pulled her head into my lap and ran my fingers through the strands over and over as I felt the material of my dress become drenched in her tears. I let her cry, let myself cry for her and for me.

I tucked the blankets around her after her sobbing quieted and I looked down to find her sleeping once more, her face blank and innocent and exhausted all at the same time.

I still had no idea how Noelle had come to Columbus, so far from New York City, but that was her story to tell me whenever she wished. I still had no idea what I would do if Charles walked in at that exact moment.

But I watched as the firelight flickered across her skin, casting dancing shadows on the marks on her face, and I cursed the people who had caused them—from the German soldiers to the Madame to the man who had put her in that alley in the first place—and feeling weak and shaky, crawled into bed myself.

~0~

I dreamt of him that night.

And unlike all of the other nights that I dreamt of him, visions of him growing dimmer and dimmer as time wore on, tonight he was clear as day, glorious and golden as if it were our first meeting all over again.

We were sitting in The Spot, the sun shining through the leaves in patches, both of us facing the big tree where I could see my initials carved alongside Will and Addie's. His long, lean legs were cross negligently at the ankle, booted in the finest leather my mind could imagine, and he leaned back on his elbows, tossing back his slightly too long hair and slanting warm golden eyes up at me.

"Are you well, Miss Platt?"

The voice always made me quiver. Tonight, even more so that usual, I felt its warmth seep through me, so that when I gave my customary reply, I actually meant it. "Just fine, Dr. Cullen."

His gentle smile made me sure that this was the correct answer. "I'm glad to hear it."

"Addie had her baby, you know. A boy."

Dr. Cullen's face was genuinely delighted, dazzling me even out of my periphery. "How wonderful. And his name?"

"Nolan."

"Nolan." Coming from his mouth, even the solitary word sounded melodious.

"She's well," I added, anticipating his next question. Dr. Cullen always inquired about Addie, and next about Will, and then my parents.

Never did he ask me about my husband.

"And you have a new friend, as well?"

I didn't question how he knew about Noelle. He always seemed to know these things, well before I mentioned them to him. "Yes. She's been through so much."

"As have you."

Astonished, I gaped slightly, and turned my head to face him. "Please. Don't lie to me." The wise, soothing stare both frightened me and made me tremble with want.

"I— Yes."

Nodding once in understanding, Dr. Cullen plucked a small purple flower from the patch beside him and, leaning across and stealing my breath in the same neat gesture, pushed it through a lock of my hair and behind my ear effortlessly. He smoothed the stands he had disturbed and murmured quietly.

"Soon, Miss Platt. Soon."