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 Honourable 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 an 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 traveller 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 finalised," I reminded her, a trifle waspishly.
Aunt Dove went on. "Shame they never gave him a nice little honour 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?"
I did not faint, but I must have been green enough to frighten Wally into shoving my head between my knees until I was breathing normally again. He held me there for at least a quarter of an hour, his hand firm on the back of my neck.
"I'm fine," I said to my knees, my voice sounding marginally stronger. I tried again. "I am fine, really."
"I don't believe you," he said, narrowing his eyes at me. "How many fingers am I holding up?"
"I will hold up a very particular one if you don't let me sit up," I warned him. He sprang back and I eased myself to a sitting position. "You must be worried," I told him. "You didn't even scold me for saying something unladylike."
"I don't think I've ever seen a face go that colour," he replied. "You were positively green."
"What colour am I now?"
He screwed up his eyes. "A sort of yellowish parchment-white. Not very becoming, if I'm honest. Now, what's this about ghosts?"
I handed over the snapshot. Wally stared at it, his mouth agape, and after a long moment passed it back. "Where did it come from?"
I shrugged. "There was no envelope. It was simply stuck in with a bunch of letters and cuttings."
"It means nothing," he said firmly. "It must have been taken on one of his expeditions before the war. You said Gabriel was always haring off to parts unknown before you married him."
"Turn it over," I instructed.
He furrowed his brow as he read the inscription on the back aloud. "'Damascus, 1920.' Why the devil would Gabriel be in Damascus?"
I swallowed hard. "I think the better question is why would Gabriel be in Damascus five years after he died?" Wally rose and went to the drinks tray. A moment later he handed me a whisky and poured another for himself. "Forget the tea. Strong drink is the only solution."
I obeyed and took a deep swallow, grateful for the burn of it.
"What would he be doing in Damascus?" Wally repeated. "Did he have any connection with that part of the world?"
I nodded. "He was born there. His father was rather high up in the army, posted to the consulate in Damascus when Gabriel was born. And then Gabriel went back to do a brief season of digging there when he was at school studying archaeology." I paused. "I'm not wrong. It is Gabriel." It was a statement, but he understood what I was asking.
"It certainly looks like the photographs I've seen of him. Perhaps someone put on that inscription for a bit of a joke?a cruel one," he added. "But people can be spiteful and Gabriel did make rather a lot of enemies in his time. A man cannot be that handsome and successful and still be universally liked. Mark my words, it's a vicious prank and nothing more."
I peered at the photograph more closely. "I don't think so. Look at the corners of the eyes very closely. There are lines there he didn't have. And there's something about his jaw even under that disgusting beard. It's firmer, it's?" I scrutinised the jaw through a thicket of untidy hair. "It's resolute…" I said, hesitating. "I've always wondered, you know."
"Whether he was actually on the Lusitania. I know it sounds mad to even suggest it. He was on the passenger list. People saw him on the ship once they'd put to sea. And they never recovered a body, so of course, I believed it when they said he'd been lost. At least I think I believed it."
"But, darling, why wouldn't he have been on the ship?"
"I don't know. I just keep thinking of him the last time I saw him, when he left me on that steamer in Shanghai. The whole expedition to China had been such a disaster, I kept telling myself it had to get better but it never did." I faltered. Wally knew the whole story. He'd been treated to it once during a maudlin night with too much gin and too little sleep. I told him everything?how Gabriel and I had met at a New Year's Eve party thrown by my friend Delilah, how we had eloped that very night. I described the romantic dash up to Scotland and the hasty wedding. It was our very own fairy tale.
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.