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Max touched the pad of her whitegloved thumb to her index finger. White. Six months of black, and now one day of white.
Tudor portraits with flat, serious faces lined the walls of the meeting room. Had wars been more straightforward in the Tudor period? Max specialised in Vikings, but surely the Tudors had called their wars wars, not police actions.
The President of the Society of Antiquaries cleared his throat. 'And now the primary business of the meeting, a paper entitled "Viking Age Settlement Patterns in the North Sea Region: Cardigan, Newport and Fishguard", given by fellow Professor Stephen Seaborn.'
As the lights dimmed and the slide projector whirred to life, Max fixed her gaze on the blur of Professor Seaborn's glasses. She would not think of George. This related to her work, her professional life. She folded her hands precisely, as the first slide clunked into place. By the third, she dug in her handbag uselessly for paper as she disagreed with every statement Professor Seaborn made. How had he made professor with this pitiable level of interpretation of Viking artefacts? She shouldn't have packed her bag for the theatre. Her father silently passed her a handkerchief, so she forced herself to sit still for the rest of the talk, knotting her fingers around the crisp linen.
The lecture ended, with coughs and rustlings, and the lights rose. Max shot her hand up, but the President called on every ungloved male hand rather than hers.
'As we are running a bit late, I believe this should be the last question.' He indicated an academic from Cambridge. That professor didn't ask a question at all — he droned about his own work, neither Viking nor Welsh. The speaker got away with no challenges. She handed her father his handkerchief.
'Sherry?' her father asked. 'What was your question?'
'Questions.' They stepped into the marbled entry hall from the formal meeting room. 'Specifically about methodology, to begin with, and then his interpretation of ...'
They both turned, but the elderly gentleman bearing down on them clearly wanted her father. She let her hand slide from her father's sleeve and crossed the brass lamp embedded in the floor. She threaded her way through fellows whose suits smelled of stale wool. Professor Seaborn eventually would make his way into the other room. George would tell her how boring the whole thing was and demand they leave to find alcohol other than sherry.
The books here languished behind glass doors. She hadn't had the nerve to try them, but they must be locked. She had visited the library upstairs, to check a few things for her PhD, but tonight was the first meeting she'd attended. Observed. She did not take part. The Society did admit female fellows, but she was too young, too junior. The steward, resplendent in a blue and red coat, pointed out the sweet, medium and dry sherries, deepening from straw to dark honey in the small stemware. She stripped off her gloves and selected a glass of dry.
'I believe you wanted to ask Professor Seaborn something, Miss ...?'
'Doctor,' she corrected, almost before she registered the slow cadence of his Southern accent. The way the question didn't lilt up as high as it would from a British man. 'Max Falkland.'
'John Knox.' He picked up a glass, sweet. His lips pursed as he sipped.
She hid a smile. 'Mister or doctor?' His erect posture suggested he'd seen military service, but that encompassed the vast majority of men in their late twenties she met. The grey suit implied that his service had finished.
'Are you a fellow?' Beyond Mr Knox's elbow, Max saw Professor Seaborn come into the room, surrounded by other fellows. 'Mr Knox ...' She glanced back as he replaced his glass, his hands tan against the white tablecloth. Did she have to carry every bit of the conversation? If she could ease away from the table ... but his fingers closed around a silver cigarette lighter. Thick fingers, with clean, broad fingernails.
'He said you always had questions.' A small smile cracked his serious face.
'I beg your pardon?'
'Maxine.' Very few people called her Maxine, and only one would be here. Edward, her PhD supervisor, reached between them to pick up a medium sherry. 'What did you want to ask? Seaborn could have been your external examiner, you know. Have you met him? Did your father bring you?'
'Excuse me,' Mr Knox said. His fingers brushed her arm so lightly she thought she imagined it, and then Mr John Knox was gone.
Edward did not fall into the unwashed archaeologist category. His suits were as neat as Mortimer Wheeler's, and his reputation for far better manners with his female students had certainly been borne out across the three years of her PhD.
'Now, have you sent out your thesis to publishers yet?' Edward asked.
The crowd around her seemed entirely made up of men in their fifties or over, and not one stood as tall as Mr Knox.
'I don't need a job. I need ...' She bowed her head, but fought to keep her shoulders straight. She could be looking down at the table, the crisp white cloth.
'Everyone goes down a bit after they finish their PhD. And you have had a difficult time.'
'No more than lots of people in the war.' She blinked at the dampness that was not tears. 'Do you know that man I was just speaking to?'
'You need to do something. Apply for a job. Establish a routine.'
'I wonder who he came with.' Guests could attend a Society meeting only with an introduction from a fellow. And introductions were minuted. She'd written her own name in the book next to her father's, her sloping M so similar to his. But the book had been taken into the meeting.
'Maxine, you've been a very promising PhD student. Are you really just going to subside into your parents' home and eventually marry some worthy man who won't be able to talk to you properly?'
Max looked up. He'd never said so much about her. 'I'm promising?'
'That's what you took away from that? Look, I'm sure it's your duty to carry on the line or something, but you could have a real academic's life. I'm going to Denmark for fieldwork next month. Victor Westfield may be there too — come with us. It'd do you good to get out of the library.'
'I can't carry on the line.' The clap of Professor Seaborn's hand landing on Edward's shoulder obscured her voice. Max concentrated on the sherry pooled in the bottom point of her glass as Edward and Professor Seaborn exchanged pleasantries and compliments. A grey sleeve joggled into view behind Professor Seaborn, but the suit adorned a man who had to be nearly ninety.
'Stephen, may I present Dr Falkland? Newly minted, no corrections,' Edward said.
Max finally got to raise her issue with his methodology, but before she and Professor Seaborn could progress to a dispute over interpretation, someone tapped her arm. A definite tap, not a brush.
'Your mother will be cross if we're late for the curtain,' her father said. 'Hallo, Edward.'
'You must be very proud, Lord Bartlemas.' They both smiled, and for once, the smile went all the way to her father's eyes. That hadn't even happened when she came home after her successful viva.
'Now, we must go.' A coat hung over her father's arm. He'd taken some other woman's coat, and now he'd have to put it ... but the champagne coloured coat was hers. Not the black one she'd worn all winter long. This grosgrain silk suited late spring, with its freshness of air. And her mother had insisted. Max forced her own polite smile, even for the man who knew nothing about interpreting Viking archaeology, and then she crossed the brass lamp again. Her father pulled the heavy wooden door open, and they stepped out into the cool evening air.
'You disagreed with everything he said.'
'I believe his name is his name. And the title wasn't too bad.' Her father held the pale coat out for her, and the fabric settled over her arms. 'We could walk.' Sitting in the meeting, sitting in the taxi, sitting in the theatre.
'Don't be ridiculous. Besides, we'll be late.'
'And Mother would fuss.'
She stayed silent as they walked over the paving stones of the courtyard of Burlington House and out onto Piccadilly. The lights of Fortnum and Mason blazed. Bottles stacked in the window promoted new liquid shampoos, ones her mother no doubt already owned. Something had turned up in her bathroom, but she hadn't read the package yet. Only her shoes remained black. Max had tried to refuse wearing mourning in the first place. But now ...
'Max?' Her father stood next to an open taxi door. 'Coming, darling?'
She slid into the taxi and her father climbed in beside her. 'Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, please.'
'Off to that South Pacific, are you? My missus wants me to take her,' the taxi driver said.
'We're meeting mine there.'
Even the thought of Nancy Falkland being called anyone's 'missus' couldn't raise a smile.
'Max, there were other questions that couldn't be asked. And someday you'll give a paper, and not long after that you'll be made a fellow.'
Max nodded. They sat in silence. 'It's not that. I, I didn't recognise my coat.'
Her father gave her hand three slow pats and a squeeze. 'Hmm. I wonder, would we be the first father-daughter pair of fellows in the history of the Society? No, surely Frederic Kenyon and Kathleen have beaten us.'
She let him talk about taking on the obligations of being a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, while she leaned into the taxi's upholstery and stared at the lights of Shaftesbury Avenue.
'Do you know anyone named John Knox?' she asked. 'American. Southern.'
'The tall chap you were talking to over sherry?'
'Was he tall?'
'You noticed the accent but not his height? Nothing wrong with fancying an American. Worked for me.' Her father laughed, a real laugh that eased some of the stress out of her shoulders, far more than his squeeze of her hand had.
The taxi pulled up outside the theatre next to the full-sized posters of Mary Martin washing her hair. Vivian had brought the Broadway recording to London, so Max already knew all the songs. She had heard them over and over again in Vivian's flat while Max tried to coax the first words out of the sticky-fingered Bobby. She had ambitions for her godson to start speaking with basic archaeology terms, or at the very least 'Max', rather than the chorus of 'Nothing Like a Dame'.
Her mother she had no trouble recognising, despite her periwinkle blue coat. With her blonde hair coiled high, Nancy Falkland had managed to make mourning look stylish. Back in colour, she looked beautiful.
'You're late,' Mother said. Her grip on her husband's hand mollified the slight scold.
Dad consulted his wrist. 'Eight minutes to the curtain. Plenty of time.'
'Oh Max, all those lovely new clothes and you wear grey.'
'Your magazines say grey is in this season,' Max said.
'I thought you'd want to wear colour again.'
Max followed her parents into the theatre and up the stairs.
Why had they picked a wartime piece set in a hot country for their first outing? She laughed along with the audience at the dancing, but the chorus boy soldiers' fake New York accents grated. Nothing like ... John Knox. Mr John Knox. Her parents both went to the lavatories at the interval, and she went to the bar to order drinks. In the queue, with 'Some Enchanted Evening' soaring in her mind, she idly listened to the chatter around her.
She reached the bar and opened her patent handbag, but a male hand placed a tumbler in front of her. An inch of smooth brown liquid filled the glass.
'I'm sorry ...'
'It's already ordered, miss.' The barman turned to the couple behind her.
Her handbag's snap resonated too loudly. She closed her numbed fingers around the glass. Maybe her father ... but he always ordered her champagne at the interval.
'My apologies that it isn't Oban.' John Knox placed just the correct amount of pressure on her elbow to steer her away from the bar, then immediately withdrew his hand. 'Still, better than sherry.'
'You chose your sherry poorly.' She sipped the whiskey. 'Thank you.' Without touching her, he guided them — shepherded her — through the crush of people to a small gap against the far wall. People simply shifted out of his way. He placed his own glass, also whiskey, on the narrow ledge next to them.
Max clenched her glass. 'Who are you, Mr John Knox?'
Handsome, in his way, if you liked square-jawed, blue-eyed men with perfectly done dark hair. Max had seen — had danced with — too many of them in New York to find them attractive.
'Just an American in London.'
'Who knows my preferred whiskey.' Nor did he judge her for drinking it.
'And that your plane is a Beechcraft Bonanza, and you have a strong line in asking questions.'
'Yet I know nothing about you except that you are Southern. Virginia?'
'North Carolina.' The small smile emerged again. 'I can share, see? You should drink your whiskey. The intermission won't last much longer. Still driving the DB2?' He reached into his coat pocket. 'Cigarette?'
'Your sources didn't tell you I don't smoke?' The case went back in his pocket. 'You should, however, if you wish.'
'Darling, your father is at the bar.' Her mother's perfume announced her presence a half-second before her soft touch landed on Max's shoulder. 'Oh, I beg your pardon,' she said smoothly, although Max knew not a modicum of a chance existed that Nancy Falkland had not noticed that her daughter was speaking to a man.
'Mother, John Knox. Mr Knox, my mother, Lady Bartlemas.'
'It's very nice to meet you, ma'am.' He reached towards her hand, but her mother turned it into a shake.
'I like to shake hands with fellow Americans. How do ...'
'I, ah, encountered Mr Knox at the Society of Antiquaries this evening.' And now he was here. Buying her a drink.
'I knew your son, ma'am. I was very sorry to hear about your loss.'
Max's glass froze at her lips. Her car, her plane, her whiskey. He knew George.
'Thank you,' her mother said, pitch perfect as always. Her father arrived, carrying only two glasses of champagne. He'd noticed too.
'Darling, this is John Knox. He served with George.' Nancy managed it without a hitch in her voice. Max could not have. The lights dipped for the end of the interval.
Dad shook his hand too. 'Very nice to meet you. You must join us for supper afterwards. It would be nice ...' Her father trailed off for only a second. 'It would be good to talk.'
Max stared at John Knox's shoes. Tie shoes, not those new slip ons, and highly polished. The way 'sir' left his lips so sharply, he certainly had served. But he was old enough to have served in the real war, not the police action her brother had gone off to.
Her mother sipped her wine. 'Are you enjoying the play?'
The lights dipped again, and people pressed towards the theatre doors.
'Shall we meet in the lobby?' her father asked.
It was settled around her, in a quick blur. Did he smile a goodbye? He certainly murmured good evening, his Southern accent dripping over the soft, barely pronounced g. When her back was finally towards him, she tossed back a huge swallow of the whiskey. Its burn soothed her.
'He seems charming,' Mother said.
'You think most Americans are charming.' Her father corralled her mother's drink and returned it to the bar. Max placed her tumbler beside their flutes.
How did they not rage? Shout? How did they just move on? Her friends did too, the other pilots in the Air Transport Auxiliary. Six of them had lost their husbands and kept on flying. But that was a proper war, not like ... She took a deep breath and climbed the stairs behind her mother's swaying skirt. Maybe her mother gripped her father's hand a little too tightly as they proceeded along the narrow walkway towards the theatre doors. Max glanced over the railing, as always. The first time she flew, she'd felt this same frisson from her childhood, looking down the three storeys to the lobby floor below. The smallness of the enormous adults. Tonight she saw perfectly sculpted hair above broad grey shoulders. A slight pause to light a cigarette, to place a hat on black hair, and then polished shoes walked out the front door.
Max rose while the audience still applauded. George had no one to rescue him in Korea. No Emile. How much better to have him come home with some Korean woman? Max shook herself, the tiny silver tips on the shoestring bows on her bodice tinkling almost imperceptibly. She slid into her coat as her father held her mother's blue one.
'He's quite handsome,' Mother said. 'Polite.'
'Emile?' Max asked.
'Mr Knox, silly.'
'Your mother will have you engaged before the evening is out, Max.'
'I'm not interested in him!' Her mother's quick glance told her she'd spoken too sharply. 'He didn't tell me. About knowing George. He just kept talking ...'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cold Crash"
Copyright © 2017 Jennifer Young.
Excerpted by permission of Cinnamon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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