The library was quiet enough that Susie didn't feel bad about snatching a few quiet moments to read. London was on edge—was always on edge, with a war on—but there was always peace, and a book was always an escape. She was absorbed enough in her choice for the day that she didn't realize someone was standing in front of her until he cleared his throat.
Susie saw the uniform before she saw the man, but uniform or no uniform, it was impossible not to recognize Tom Byrne's red hair. He was still handsome, a welcome sight, but she had no idea why he was there. “You're in France,” she said, and wanted to take it back right away, because it was obvious he wasn't.
Tom took that as an invitation and sat himself in a chair next to her. “I'm on leave.”
Susie took the awkward silence that followed to wonder, briefly, what her mother would say when Susie told her who she'd happened to run into. Hannah Rabinovitch was happy to welcome Olive, but she'd said a few times that Tom spent too much time bothering Susie in a way that threatened a lecture about courting gentiles. “On leave and not at Heslop?”
He shrugged. “Drove up when Ollie told me you'd planned to be here today. I wanted to see you.”
“I'll be back home tonight,” Susie pointed out.
“I didn't want to see you tonight. I wanted to see you now.” Tom sat back in his chair, as easy there as he seemed to be everywhere, but Susie knew him well enough to recognize the tightness in his face, the tiredness in his eyes. Minna had shared his letters with the neighborhood, and they were always cheerful, full of him poking gentle fun at the men of his regiment, but all the women knew that letters didn't say everything. “A man goes off to war and expects to come back and have everything the same as when he left.”
“My volunteering is the same,” Susie pointed out, and sighed at him when he frowned at her, the relieved part of the reunion apparently over. “I'm happy to see you, Tom, of course. But what do you expect me to say?”
“I don't know. I had romantic notions of you being swept off your feet, I suppose.”
Susie gave him a moment to consider that. She wasn't the kind of woman to be swept, at least not on the outside. She wasn't the heroine of one of the novels she liked to pick off the shelves during her breaks. Even if Tom had wanted, for whatever reason, to have a romantic reunion, she wouldn't have known how to do it. “Any word from any of the other boys from the neighborhood?” she inquired.
“George acquitting himself well, apparently, and—damn, I don't want to talk about that. We could talk about that over dinner at Heslop, which I am here to invite you to, we've already sent over to your parents and to Mersham. I hope it will be a celebratory dinner.”
Susie frowned. “Well, of course it will be. You're home, of course your parents will want to celebrate.”
“No, I mean—I practiced this while I drove up. When a man's away, he thinks a lot about what he wants to come home to, and Susie, I want to come home to you at the end of this war. Will you—could you see your way clear to marrying me?”
It seemed she wouldn't be telling her mother about the conversation after all. Susie pushed her spectacles up her nose and then finally remembered to mark her place in the book. She would not, she suspected, have time to get back to it, with that on her mind. As soon as it was mentioned, it was an arresting image, the one of being Mrs. Byrne, one-day mistress of Heslop Hall, and most important of all, Tom's wife. He'd paid her special attention, after the first few parties after she was out when he seemed to do it as a matter of obligation, but she hadn't dreamed that he was serious. Tom Byrne wasn't serious about much in his life—only his family, really. He couldn't be serious about this, not really. It was just just his way of reaching out and wanting any soldier's dream of life at home.
“I don't think that's a very good idea, do you?” Susie asked, as gently as she could. Even if it were a good idea for him, it wasn't for her. Her grandmother, and thus her parents, would never countenance such a marriage, no matter how much they enjoyed the friendships around the neighborhood.
Tom frowned, and then shrugged, a little rueful. “I had to ask. Now, are you about done? Want me to drive you back down in time for dinner?”
She would be leaving a little early, but some of the other volunteers had sweethearts in uniform. Once they saw Tom, obviously on leave, they would understand her asking to go. “I can be ready very soon, if you'll excuse me,” she said, and went to collect herself for a moment in private.
When the armistice was announced, Susie was quietly at home, which felt wrong. The papers and the radio talked about celebrations in London, and her parents forbade her usual trip to the library, in the event of celebrations, but within a week, she was back to them, and nothing else seemed to change.
“Why won't Tom come home?” Ollie asked one shabbat a few weeks later, when she'd come to light their candles. “I know he's okay, he's not like ...”
Ollie still didn't quite understand Geoffrey's death, or why it was so hard to find footmen for Heslop, or why Mersham Manor was mostly shut up. Of all the households in the neighborhood, the Rabinovitches' had changed least, without men working in the house. Perhaps that was why Ollie liked to visit so much. “Tom is fine,” she said, because Ollie looked unsure when she trailed off. “He's just helping to make sure everything is going to be okay.”
“If you're sure,” said Ollie, dubious, and Susie assured her that she was, even if it was easy to be nervous. Armistice was a blessing, after years of horrible war, but she couldn't believe anyone was safe until she saw them. Lady Westerholme had just been by days ago, crying over a letter about Rupert, who wasn't well enough to write himself yet. Rupert, who was the earl.
Susie was as reassuring as she could be with Ollie, but as the weeks passed, she found herself thinking of Tom more and more often, wondering and worrying.
Still, when the knock came on the door, she wasn't expecting it to be him. There hadn't been any letters, there hadn't been any word at all, but one of the maids came trotting up to knock on Susie's room, breathless, wide-eyed, and said that Mr. Tom Byrne was there to see Susie, if she'd like to come down.
She wasn't given to nervousness, but Susie had to wait a minute from sheer relief. Tom was safe. He was back, and he'd come to see her. He would spend some time with her, confide what he could bear to confide, offer to drive her up to London the next time she went even though her parents would never agree for her to do it unescorted. Maybe he would propose again. He had a dreadful tendency to do that when he was home on leave, as though Susie was enough to anchor him to home with her sheer practicality. Though now that he was free, perhaps he would stop.
She didn't plan to accept him, since he had no sense about the matter, but she still wasn't sure if she wanted him to stop proposing.
When she made it down to the parlor, where one of the maids was waiting primly in a corner, as though anyone still cared much about the old etiquette after the war, Tom shot to his feet. It was strange, seeing him in civilian garb again, a nice valet-pressed suit and not his uniform. “Father kept me home or I would have been here sooner,” he said, as though she'd said a dozen things already.
Susie smiled at him. “Hello, Tom. I didn't know you were back at all. For good, I hope? We've all been anxious for your return.”
“Yes. I'm back.”
“Won't you sit down?” Tom continued standing there, hands anxiously clenched. “How long have you been back? I thought news would pass around the neighborhood right away.”
He waved a hand. “A few hours.”
And his father had kept him at home. “Ollie must be ecstatic,” she said regardless. “And Hugh too.”
“And are you happy to see me safe and home?”
“Of course I am.”
Tom beamed at her, and Susie wondered, not for the first time, when her approval had begun to mean so much to him, and his happiness to her. Asking seemed so embarrassing that she was likely never to get the answer from his side. “Good. Then, in that case, I'm here to ask a question.”
Susie sighed. “You really shouldn't.”
“I have to try, I just helped win a war and have returned safe. This may be the best chance I get, and it would extend the air of celebration. Susie, will you marry me?”
The maid made a stifled noise in the corner, and Susie wondered just how much she could bribe the girl to keep her from telling the whole household, and specifically Susie's parents, about that particular question. Either they would question her sanity for refusing him or deny him the house in hopes of marrying Susie to someone inside the faith. Or both. “You should just enjoy being home,” she said firmly.
When she'd refused him on his leaves, Tom just sighed a little, bowed his head, and changed the subject. This time, he didn't lose his smile. Peace was, it seemed, good for him. “I just thought I should try,” he said, and turned the subject to the dinner party Minna was planning to throw to welcome him back to the neighborhood.
Perhaps it was one last try. Or Tom being honorable and letting her know that it wasn't all the desperation of the war that made him propose. Quite likely, either way, he wouldn't propose again.
Susie told herself she was relieved.
It was Tom's birthday party, and he was roaring drunk. Heslop had been packed full of people, fellow officers from the war and young ladies from around the neighborhood, and Tom had asked specially so Susie had, with reluctance, showed up. The young ladies, who knew that she and Tom were friends, first hinted that she might support one or another of them as the next Lady Byrne, and then when she didn't do that at all, decided they hadn't got much use for her. She had, instead, had a lovely conversation with Minna, but Minna was the hostess and couldn't stay with her all night.
When Susie slipped away for air, she couldn't say she was surprised that Tom found her. He had an unerring habit for finding her whenever she might possibly be alone, and it seemed that extended to when he was drunk too. “You aren't avoiding me, are you?” he asked, leaning against the nearest wall in a pose that he probably thought looked insouciant but which she suspected was more for balance.
He was trying to sound insouciant too, and failing at that just as badly. Mostly he sounded anxious. “Of course I'm not. But it's your birthday, and everyone deserves the chance to talk to you.”
“It's my birthday, though. Shouldn't I get what I want?”
He was suddenly quite close, and Susie swallowed. “What do you want, then, Tom? I'll come inside and dance with you if you want, but I don't think you can two-step in this state.”
“You know what I want,” he said, and took her hands. “I want you at my side when I have these parties, not halfway across the room. I want everyone to know I want you there, I want—you, Susie. How many times have I asked you?”
Susie's mind, confronted with Tom's earnest and imploring gaze, gave her a prompt catalog of every time he'd asked: on his leaves, sad and hoping for some kind of home. When he returned, full of hope. At a picnic, when he came to pick up Ollie when her bicycle wheel broke on her way from from her house, and twice at parties much like the one they were at, though he hadn't been so drunk at either of the others. “Eight, I believe,” she said.
“Nine, then. That's three times three. It must be the charm. Will you marry me, Susie?”
“You are very drunk. I'm not going to believe anything you say when you're this drunk.”
“I haven't been drunk the other eight times,” he pointed out, but he was smiling at her.
Since she'd met Tom, she'd heard he was stubborn, and seen the evidence of it as well. Minna had told her, during the war, about one time when Tom was twelve and George had convinced all the neighborhood boys to climb a tree, and how Tom had fallen out three times and they discovered the last time that he'd been climbing with a broken collarbone. She just had to hope that when it was his life of happiness at stake, he would be more sensible. Until then, she would have to be sensible for him. “Still,” she said, and left it there.
Tom had some patience, at least. He didn't press her again right away. He'd been letting weeks or a month at a time lapse between his proposals. Just enough time for her mother to discuss her prospects and Susie to wonder if it wasn't best to ruin Tom's life after all. Instead, he smiled a little more broadly, with just the edge of wickedness to make her think about Rupert and trees again. “Well, if you won't marry me, it's still my birthday, and I think I'll claim a forfeit.”
“What do you mean?” Susie asked, and then he was kissing her.
When he pulled away, a breathless moment later, Susie had to turn away to polish her spectacles, because she had no idea what else to do. A moment later, when she put them back on, Tom was still watching her, satisfied, his eyes dark. “There,” he said. “Now it feels like a birthday.”
All her words had deserted her completely, and possibly her sense with it. If he'd proposed again then, she wasn't sure she would have been able to say no. “Happy birthday,” she said eventually, and he laughed and escorted her back into the party, where she was sure that everyone, and most especially Minna, knew exactly what her pink cheeks meant.
It was a miserable day in late winter, and Susie was just wondering if she could get away with not leaving her house until spring came again when Tom came driving up the lane.
“It's that boy again,” her father said with disapproval, as he'd taken to doing whenever Tom showed up, even if the disapproval had grown less since her grandmother passed away. She'd managed to keep his proposals from her parents by spending most of her book money on trinkets for the maids, but that didn't mean there were no suspicions.
“Tom is my friend,” she said, as collected as she could be. It was true, and even if he was courting her, against all sense and good judgment, it still would be true. “I'm sure he's just here to visit.”
“Just a visit,” said Leo Rabinovitch in the tone that his wife might say “Just a spoonful of mousse” in if he asked for one at dinner, and went to fetch Susie an escort, since as he'd said many times before, he didn't have the patience to listen to young people and their nonsense.
Tom was in a fine mood when he came in, shaking Leo's hand on his way upstairs, greeting the maid waiting with Susie by name, and asking after her mother while Susie explained, a little bemused, that she'd gone to Maidens Over on some errands. “It's a terrible day to be outside,” she said when they finally sat down, with the maid just near enough to eavesdrop. “What couldn't wait until a nicer day?”
“Well, you. But also, I got a letter from Rupert.”
Tom had been worried about Rupert and trying not to show it for months. His recovery had been long and difficult and the neighborhood only got news of him from his mother, in short bits and not often. Rupert had been too weak to write for a long time, and grieving for her husband and elder son, his mother couldn't often bear to visit his bedside. “That's wonderful. How is he?”
“He thinks he'll be coming home in just a few months,” said Tom, with a smile. “He has some good news he doesn't want to share until we can meet, but he'll be back.”
“As the earl. Does he say how he feels about it?”
“No.” And that said a great deal, with the way Tom's face twisted up as he said it. They all worried about Mersham, if Rupert would be able to keep it, if the neighborhood would fall apart without it. “But he doesn't mention a sale either. So perhaps we'll be able to keep them around.”
“Perhaps,” she agreed, because she wanted it to be true as much as he did. “It's very good news.”
Tom tapped his finger against his chin and grinned at her, and Susie knew what was coming. He didn't propose every time he saw her, but she was beginning to recognize when he would. Good news from Rupert was certainly a reason as far as he was concerned. “We could share some good news with him in return, if you like,” he offered. “You know Rupert would be ecstatic. Can I tell him you've agreed to marry me, and he ought to be my best man and we'll have an engagement dinner as soon as he's back?”
“We shouldn't take Rupert's rightful attention away from him,” Susie said. “I'm sure he'll be happy to see you even without that news.”
Usually, after a proposal, Tom excused himself fairly quickly, to let them both recover, or at least changed the subject. This time, he laced his fingers together and watched her, and she thought of the few snatched kisses they'd had, the ones she wouldn't deny and sometimes sought out even if she did intend to keep saving him from a marriage that she could only imagine bringing him pain in the future. “Do you know why I keep proposing to you?” he asked.
Susie blinked, because she hadn't wondered, in so many words. She'd assumed it was just Tom's usual dog-with-a-bone stubbornness, and his fierce honor that wouldn't let him admit she was wise for putting him off. She wasn't aware that he had any idea about either of those things. “Why, then?” she asked.
“It's because,” Tom said, “you've never actually said 'no.'”
Susie wasn't expecting Tom. He'd regretted that he wouldn't have enough time to see her in between delivering Ollie to her fitting and the dreaded luncheon at the Ritz, but there he was, walking in and sighing with relief when he laid eyes on her where she was repairing a few books whose spines had been broken by careless patrons.
“There you are,” he said on a sigh, like he'd been searching for her all over town instead of finding her just where she was expected to be.
“I wasn't expecting you,” she said, since there was really no sensible response to that.
Tom frowned. “You don't mind, do you?”
Normally, Tom was impossible to shake, and would never have dreamed that he might be unwanted anywhere, much less with her. But then again, he was careful about her and the library, and how often he interrupted her work there. He knew it was real work, that it mattered to her, so while he took advantage of visiting her without chaperones when he could, and she was always glad of his visits, he didn't come every time, and he listened when she said she couldn't talk long. “I don't mind,” she assured him, “as long as you tell me how you got the chance to get away.”
He beamed at her, all right with the world again. “Ended up driving that new maid from Mersham up to town for her day off—the one who gave Ollie the hedgehog, you know?”
“Alexander? The whole neighborhood has heard about Alexander as much as they've heard about Ollie's dress. So she offered to take Ollie in exchange for the ride?”
“Yes. So I've got some time before the dreaded luncheon.” He sighed and sat down near her. Susie glanced at the other women working quietly in the library, but none of them objected. They were used to Tom, and she was still working. “You'd think that Muriel would have some charming friends, fellow nurses perhaps, but I don't have high hopes.”
“Well, Muriel ...” Susie trailed off, because there was very little she could say about Muriel that was positive. She knew viciousness when she saw it, no matter the pretty face it hid, and had known since the engagement dinner that Muriel had no love for her, and that she wouldn't be received at Mersham while she was its mistress, that the fondness her mother and Minna and the dowager countess had for each other would be lost with the next generation.
“She'll loosen up, won't she?” Tom said, without much hope.
“Maybe,” Susie agreed. And maybe she really would someday drink a cup of champagne in celebration, or allow a little informality. But that didn't mean she would make Rupert happy. Or any of them.
Tom sighed. “I want him to be happy. I know he's happy to be saving Mersham, but he can't make a whole life out of that. And he'll never admit he doesn't want Muriel after all, if it comes to that.”
Susie had never once known Rupert to go back on his word, and she didn't expect his marriage to be the first time. “He'll still have you.”
“Much good that will do him. Or me.” Tom ran his hand through his hair, disarranging it, and Susie suppressed the urge to fix it for him. “Especially today.”
“It's a few hours. How bad can it be?”
“Awful.” He grinned at her, sudden and bright. “You know, it occurs to me that my day might go a little easier if I could ask the bridesmaids to congratulate me on my new engagement. What do you say? The neighborhood should get to celebrate a happy wedding as well as Rupert's.”
“You think everyone would think our wedding would be a happy event?”
Tom seemed to understand that her curiosity was honest, because he dropped his teasing grin and took her free hand, the one that wasn't holding the book glue. “I think everyone wants us to be happy, and that it wouldn't take them much at all for it to lead to them being happy too. Please, Susie. Let me make you happy?”
She wanted to. She really did, wanted to build a life together, give in and make him happy and herself while she was at it. Every time she said no, she wondered why she did, but then she saw Tom again and she remembered that loving him meant making sure he really was going to be happy. If his love for her was made up of his stubbornness and honor, it would break both of their hearts in a few years. “You already make me happy, as my friend,” she said. It was even true. “But I'm not going to marry you just to save you from Lady Lavinia.”
“Cruel,” he accused, and stood up. “I'll go check in on them now, I suppose. Can't take that long to try on a nice dress, can it? At least I'll have Ollie at the Ritz with me, if you won't defend me.”
Susie laughed. “She'll be delighted, and the whole neighborhood will hear about that too. You don't need me, with her around.”
“I always need you,” he said, serious, smiling. “I won't press my luck twice in one day, but when I look at Rupert with Muriel and me with you … I know who I'd rather be, and who I'd rather marry.”
And with that, he left her breathless and perilously close to dripping book glue onto the table.
When Tom showed up the day after Rupert didn't get married after all, Susie's parents exchanged one long look, sighed, and left her alone in the sitting room, not even a maid for company. They'd seen each other a little in the time intervening, but Tom had been quiet, sad and angry about the state Muriel had left Ollie in, and nobody had been feeling very celebratory.
“That was quite a wedding yesterday,” she said lightly when he came in. “I wish I'd been there on that trip into the folly, no one can talk about anything else.”
“I'm only glad that someone did something about it.” He smiled at her. “Did you know? Rumor had it that your father might have helped Proom.”
Her father hadn't said anything, but Susie knew when her father was feeling smug about a secret, and she'd thought it might have something to do with Rupert's wedding. Though she could never have imagined what actually happened. “I wouldn't be surprised if the rumors were true. Please, sit down. I'd love to hear it all firsthand.” Tom sat. “Though first—is Ollie better at all?”
He lost his smile, which was answer enough. “Maybe a little, knowing Muriel is gone—to America, I believe, if you can imagine, with some horrible doctor—but my parents are still worried. We'll have to see. And I wish Anna were still here, because of how much she helped Ollie before, but there's no sign of her and Rupert won't talk about her.”
“We know her name now, and surely between Hugh and Peter being school friends and Ollie knowing the way to the Russian Club, we could find her.” Susie frowned, and offered something rash just because Tom wasn't. “I could invite her to stay with me. She seems like a good woman. Surely if she knew Ollie wanted her, even with Rupert … and maybe Rupert would understand better then, whatever happened.”
“Rupert is too damned stubborn, if you'll pardon the language. But you're sweet to think about it. Maybe you could write her, if it doesn't get better?”
Susie wanted to smile over the thought of Tom calling anyone else stubborn, but instead she just put her hand on his knee. “Of course. And if Ollie will see me, I have no reason to love Muriel either.”
“Susie,” he said, and then stopped with a thoughtful frown on his face.
It was a familiar expression, one she'd seen eighteen times before, and Susie sighed and shook her head. “I've already said yes. Are you going to spend our whole marriage asking me to marry you? That could get tedious very quickly.”
Tom smiled reflexively when she spoke of their marriage and then went right back to looking serious. “I'm just going to ask once more, and this time I'm going to ask if you want out of it.”
Susie drew back, shocked. “What?”
“Muriel never did it for Rupert, and then it was almost too late. You said no so many times. I think I want seventeen agreements to make up for the refusals, or to reassure me after them. Did you mean it? Or was it all about what we were seeing and how worried we were?”
“I wouldn't have said it if I didn't mean it,” she said. “And it wasn't about Rupert or anyone. It was about what you finally said, and me letting myself. I'd wanted to say yes the first time you asked, but it never seemed like a good idea. Now I think it's silly not to try.”
“Then you'll marry me?”
“Yes,” said Susie, and kissed him, though it was hard with how much they were both smiling. “But I'm not going to say so seventeen times.”
Tom's smile was as wide and bright as it ever was when he'd been issued a challenge, but it was a challenge that Susie didn't think she would mind losing.