Emily felt herself flush at his mention of meeting new people,
as her thoughts were immediately of James.
“I loved being in New York, and this wonderful city. The people will rebuild it. Everyone seems to be making plans.”
“It would be exciting to be part of it, to help San Francisco get back on its feet.”
“Will, I’m so worried about the Farringtons. What if . . .” She couldn’t bear to finish the sentence.
“If Mr Allbright was able to track me down, then surely he’ll be able to find them. When I got his telegram, it said I was to make a reverse charge telephone call. The countess had told him to find out where I was. It was like magic, Em! There I was in Chicago, talking to a man in New York! He might have been in the next room, it was that loud and clear.” He shook his head. “Just loony!”
She smiled, amused by the American expression and the slight accent that Will had picked up.
He looked into her eyes.
“Of course we hope the Farringtons are all right. But right now, all I can think of is that you’re safe.”
“I’ve been very lucky, and the people here have been so kind and generous. You must meet Cheng Tao – he was the cook in the house the Farringtons took here. When the earthquake hit, he wouldn’t leave the house until I was safe. He brought me here.”
“Then I’ll be grateful to him for the rest of my life,” he said softly.
He reached out and pulled her close, hugging her against his chest the way he had when they’d played together as children and she’d fallen over and banged her knee.
Emily let herself sink into his arms. He would always be her friend, she knew that. But could it ever grow to be something more? Perhaps her long-held romantic dream had come to an end. A heavy emptiness seemed to settle inside her.
Then, from across the field, she saw two men carrying a stretcher. She stiffened, her blood running cold as she thought of James. Slowly, she stood back from Will’s embrace.
“What are your plans now?”
“They’re desperate for relief workers here. We need to find the Farringtons, and then . . .”
He trailed off, and Emily felt strangely relieved that he hadn’t finished the sentence. Very soon, she could be going home to her family. Would Will be going home, too? Why did she feel so strange and confused?
“Will, can we talk more tomorrow? There’s someone I must see, a friend who is very ill.”
“Who is it, Em?”
“I – I’ll explain tomorrow,” she stammered.
“There’s so much I want to tell you,” he said quickly. “I never realised how much you mean to me. It feels like a miracle, finding you.”
He reached out to her again, his roughened hand cradling her face, and she felt something quiver inside her.
“Thank heavens you’re safe,” she whispered. But then she saw another group of stretcher-bearers making their way to the Red Cross tent.
“Will, I’m sorry, I must go.”
But her words were smothered. He pulled her to him once more, this time his hands running through her hair and down her back as he held her close and his mouth caressed her lips. Emily felt herself trembling as she gave herself up to the magic, wanting it to go on for ever. The blissful wonder of her first kiss. Will’s kiss. And then, at last, they drew apart.
She looked up at him, her head and heart a whirlwind of love, amazement and uncertainty. Wordlessly, she squeezed his hand, then she turned and hurried back to the camp to find Cheng Tao.
At last Emily and Cheng Tao reached the Chinese encampment, and he led her into a small tattered tent. The air was filled with the scent of incense and pungent herbs, steeping in bowls of steaming water.
At the back of the tent a tiny, wizened woman kneeled beside James, who lay on a pile of mats and blankets. She was sponging his face, her movements slow and methodical.
Emily could see him tossing in his fever and she gasped.
“We must get him to hospital, Cheng Tao!”
He looked gravely into Emily’s face.
“The doctor’s disease is very contagious. My people are devoted to him, and trust him. He respects our medicines, and he has shown us that some of your western ways can be of help to us. This is our way of giving thanks. We will make him well.”
She knew she must respect his wishes, but her heart pounded with fear. She walked to where James lay and knelt beside him. His skin was yellowed and beads of sweat were forming on his forehead almost as soon as they were sponged away.
Stirring, he slowly opened his eyes.
“Emily, my sweet girl, is it really you? I thought I might never see you again.” His voice was hoarse and rasping and he seemed to drift, his eyes closing.
“James, I’ll come to see you every day.”
If only she could convince Cheng Tao that they must get him to hospital, without insulting him or the brave people who were risking their lives.
“Come away now, Miss Emily,” Cheng Tao said, gently pulling her to her feet.
Then James opened his eyes again.
“Emily, you mustn’t come again. I couldn’t bear for anything to happen to you.” His eyes seemed barely to be focusing. “If I survive, please will you . . .?” He trailed off once more into a fevered sleep.
Cheng Tao took her arm. They slipped out and made their way across the Chinese encampment. Emily’s eyes filled with tears. What had James been about to ask her? The thought of a world without him felt unbearable, not just for herself, but for all those whose lives he’d touched.
Affection, devotion, love. What did these words mean? All she knew was that her heart was overflowing with the intensity of her feelings for him and also for Will, the two men who, in their different ways, were part of her soul.
Through her anguish and confusion, somehow she found herself filled with gratitude and wonder. There were many kinds of love, and everywhere, people of strength and spirit surrounded her. She gazed up to the starlit sky and, whispering a prayer, she gave herself up to hope and to trust.