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Lovely War

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Read the critical darling that Kate Quinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Alice Network,
called "easily one of the best novels I have read all year!" A
sweeping, multi-layered romance set in the perilous days of World Wars I
and II, where gods hold the fates--and the hearts--of four mortals in
their hands.


They are Hazel, James, Aubrey, and Colette. A
classical pianist from London, a British would-be architect turned
soldier, a Harlem-born ragtime genius in the U.S. Army, and a Belgian
orphan with a gorgeous voice and a devastating past. Their story, as
told by the goddess Aphrodite, who must spin the tale or face judgment
on Mount Olympus, is filled with hope and heartbreak, prejudice and
passion, and reveals that, though War is a formidable force, it's no
match for the transcendent power of Love.

Author Julie Berry's critically acclaimed writing has been called "haunting and unforgettable" by New York Times bestselling author of Salt to the Sea Ruta Sepetys and "utterly original and instantly engrossing" by Publishers Weekly.
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Year:
2019
Publisher:
Penguin
Language:
english
Pages:
480
ISBN 13:
9780698157484
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EPUB, 1.97 MB
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		 			 			VIKING

			An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, New York



			First published in the United States of America by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2019

			Copyright © 2019 by Julie Berry

			“I Hear a Rhapsody”

			Words and Music by George Frajos, Jack Baker, and Dick Gasparre

			© 1940 Screen Gems-EMI Music Inc.

			All rights for the world excluding the United States Administered by Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, 424 Church Street, Suite 1200, Nashville, TN 37219

			International Copyright Secured

			All Rights Reserved

			Reprinted by Permission of Hal Leonard LLC

			“As Time Goes By”

			Words and Music by Herman Hupfeld

			© 1931 (Renewed) WB Music Corp.

			All Rights Reserved

			Used by Permission of Alfred Music


Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

			Visit us online at penguinrandomhouse.com

			LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA IS AVAILABLE.

			Ebook ISBN 9780698157484



		Version_1





			 			For Cyrena Davison Keith

and Edith Dudley Gardner,

my grandmothers;

			for Kendra Levin, forever dear;

			and for Phil





CONTENTS




			 				 				TITLE PAGE

			 				 				COPYRIGHT

			 				 				DEDICATION

			 				 				EPIGRAPH

			 				 				OVERTUREDECEMBER 1942: I Hear a Rhapsody

				 					DECEMBER 1942: The Golden Net

				 					DECEMBER 1942: The Judgment of Manhattan



			 				 				ACT ONEAPHRODITE: Hazel—November 23, 1917

				 					APHRODITE: First Dance—November 23, 1917

				 					APHRODITE: The Kiss (Part I)—November 23, 1917

				 					APHRODITE: The Kiss (Part II)—November 23, 1917

				 					APHRODITE: Sleepless—November 23, 1917

				 					APHRODITE: ; The King’s Whiskers—November 23, 1917

				 					DECEMBER 1942: An Interruption

				 					APHRODITE: Caught—November 23, 1917

				 					APHRODITE: A Note—November 23, 1917

				 					APHRODITE: The Tea Shop—November 24, 1917

				 					APHRODITE: Questions—November 24, 1917

				 					DECEMBER 1942: To Forge, to Meld

				 					APHRODITE: A Walk—November 24, 1917

				 					APHRODITE: Goodbye—November 24, 1917

				 					APHRODITE: In Between—November 24, 1917

				 					DECEMBER 1942: First Witness

				 					APOLLO: Carnegie Hall—May 2, 1912

				 					APOLLO: Spartanburg—October 13, 1917

				 					DECEMBER 1942: Intersection

				 					APHRODITE: Royal Albert Hall—November 25, 1917

				 					APHRODITE: Concert, Continued—November 25, 1917

				 					APHRODITE: Torture—November 25–26, 1917

				 					APHRODITE: First Night—November 26, 1917



			 				 				ENTR’ACTE

			 				 				ACT TWOAPOLLO: “I Want to Be Ready”—January 3, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Relief Huts—January 4, 1918

				 					DECEMBER 1942: Second Witness

				 					ARES: Bayonet Practice—January 4, 1918

				 					DECEMBER 1942: Third Witness

				 					Colette Fournier—July–August 1914

				 					APHRODITE: Entertaining the Yanks—January 4, 1918

				 					APOLLO: Wake-Up Call—January 3, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Pathétique—January 8, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Midday Mail—January 9, 1918

				 					ARES: Target Practice—January 7, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Girl Singer—January 12, 1918

				 					APOLLO: The Next Morning—January 13, 1918

				 					APOLLO: At Band Practice—January 13, 1918

				 					ARES: In the Trenches—January 9, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Caught—January 15, 1918

				 					APOLLO: Half an Hour—January 15, 1918

				 					ARES: Under the Moons of Mars—January 9, 1918

				 					APOLLO: Colt M1910—January 16, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Two Letters Arrive—January 19, 1918

				 					ARES: Moving Up the Line—January 20, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: A Headache—January 26, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Stéphane—January 26, 1918

				 					ARES: Don’t Shoot the Dummy—January 30, 1918

				 					APOLLO: Vampire Squad—February 3, 1918

				 					ARES: Rotating Out—February 8, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Two Days’ Leave—February 8, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Concert Night—February 11, 1918

				 					APOLLO: Trouble with Joey—February 11, 1918

				 					HADES: Vertigo—February 11, 1918

				 					HADES: Torchlight—February 11, 1918

				 					HADES: Homecoming



			 				 				ENTR’ACTEThree Trains—February 12–13, 1918



			 				 				ACT THREEAPHRODITE: Gare du Nord—February 13, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Archimedes—February 13, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Café du Nord—February 13, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Saint-Vincent-de-Paul—February 13, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Le Bouillon Chartier—February 13, 1918

				 					DECEMBER 1942: A Kiss Is Just a Kiss

				 					APHRODITE: About Time—February 13, 1918

				 					DECEMBER 1942: An Answered Prayer

				 					APHRODITE: When We Were Young—February 13, 1918

				 					HADES: Midnight Train—February 13, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Valentine’s Day—February 14, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Letting Go—February 14, 1918

				 					Three Trains Again—February 15, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Waiting for Letters—February 19–28, 1918

				 					HADES: Hideaway—March 1–12, 1918

				 					APOLLO: Three Million Notes—March 13, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Note for Note—March 16, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Digging—March 18, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Treason—March 18, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Do You Deny It?—March 19, 1918

				 					ARES: Preparations—February 20–March 20, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Regrouping—March 20, 1918

				 					ARES: Operation Michael—March 21, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: From Paris—March 21, 1918

				 					ARES: Handed to the French—March 21, 1918

				 					ARES: Fog—March 21, 1918

				 					ARES: Jesse James—March 21, 1918

				 					ARES: Sniper in the Snow—March 21, 1918

				 					DECEMBER 1942: Telegram

				 					HADES: At the Beach

				 					HADES: Identity Discs—March 21, 1918



			 				 				ENTR’ACTEAPHRODITE: The Fates of Certain Letters



			 				 				ACT FOURARES: Chocolate—March 24–April 5, 1918

				 					HADES: Disappearing—March 22–25, 1918

				 					HADES: Horse-Race Gambling—March–April 1918

				 					APOLLO: Émile—March 22–April 13, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Any Work Will Do—March 29, 1918

				 					HADES: The Pink Room—April 12, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Cabbage in Compiègne—April–May 1918

				 					HADES: Welcome Home—May 6, 1918

				 					ARES: Spelling the Word “American”—May 14, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: House Call—June 1, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Watching Her Go—June 1, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Spasms—June 1, 1918

				 					ARES: Light Duty—June 3–4, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Hoping It Might Be You—June 4, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Work—June 4–9, 1918

				 					HADES: Let It Be Me—June 14, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Mangled Up—June 14, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Ride to Lowestoft—June 15, 1918

				 					HADES: What Adelaide Needed to Know—June 15, 1918

				 					HADES: James’s Answers—June 15, 1918



			 				 				ENTR’ACTESeaside—June 15, 1918



			 				 				ACT FIVEAPHRODITE: The Battle of Henry Johnson—June 5, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Medical Review Board—July 1, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Mail Delivery—June 29, 1918

				 					DECEMBER 1942: A Possible Ending

				 					The Rest of the Story—July 15–August 17, 1918

				 					HADES: The Royal Albert Hall

				 					APHRODITE: Lazybones—August 20, 1918

				 					APHRODITE: Scars—August 21–September 1, 1918

				 					DECEMBER 1942: Handkerchiefs

				 					APHRODITE: Elevens—1918 and Beyond

				 					Harlem Bound—1919 and Beyond



			 				 				EXIT MUSICDECEMBER 1942: Closing Arguments

				 					DECEMBER 1942: About Time (Part II)



			 				 				HISTORICAL NOTE

			 				 				SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

			 				 				ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

			 				 				ABOUT THE AUTHOR





				And when Hephaestus heard the grievous tale, he went his way to his smithy, pondering evil in the deep of his heart, and set on the anvil block the great anvil and forged bonds which might not be broken or loosed, that the lovers might bide fast where they were.

				So they two went to the couch, and lay them down to sleep, and about them clung the cunning bonds of the wise Hephaestus, nor could they in any wise stir their limbs or raise them up. Then at length they learned that there was no more escaping.

				—from The Odyssey, by Homer





OVERTURE





DECEMBER 1942


				I Hear a Rhapsody





IT IS EARLY evening in the lobby of an elegant Manhattan hotel. Crystal prisms dangling from the chandeliers glow with soft electric light. On velvet couches near the fire, couples sit close, the men in officers’ uniform, the women in evening wear, resting their heads on their gentlemen’s shoulders. Restaurant garçons seat couples at dim tables secluded by faux-Greek marble busts and showy ferns, where urgent kisses may remain unseen.

			The orchestra warms up, then begins the strains of “I Hear a Rhapsody.” A lady singer fills the glittering stage with her amber-colored voice:


MY DARLING, HOLD ME TIGHT

				AND WHISPER TO ME

				THEN SOFT THROUGH A STARRY NIGHT

				I’LL HEAR A RHAPSODY



			She’s not Dinah Shore, but she’s really something.

			A man and woman enter the lobby and approach the front desk. All eyes follow their progress across the Persian rugs. The man, colossal in build and stern of jaw, wears a fedora tipped low over his brow. When he reaches for a billfold from the inside pocket of his double-breasted pin-striped suit, the panicky thought occurs to the desk clerk that perhaps the man is reaching for a pistol. His black-and-white wing-tip shoes don’t look jaunty. They look dangerous. He makes half the men nervous, and the other half angry. He’s the kind of man who could crush you beneath his feet, and he knows it.

			But oh, is he beautiful.

			His lady friend, even more so.

			She wears a tailored, belted suit of deep blue that fits her better than skin. Her figure is the sort that makes other women give up altogether. From the waves of dark hair, coiffed and coiled under her cocktail hat, to her wide, long-lashed eyes peering out through its coy little veil of black netting, down to the seams of her silk stockings disappearing into her Italian leather pumps, she is arrestingly beautiful. Impossibly perfect. The scent of her perfume spreads its soft fingers across the lobby. Everyone there, man and woman, surrenders to their awareness of her.

			The tall man knows this, and he’s none too pleased about it.

			He riffles a pile of bills under the nose of the stammering clerk and snatches a key out of his unprotesting hand. They make their way through the lobby, with the man urging the woman forward as though time won’t keep, while she takes every slow step as though she’d invented the art of walking.

			They carry no luggage.

			Even so, a stooped and bearded bellhop follows them up the stairs and down the corridor. The violent glares from the tall man would have sent others fleeing, but this bellhop chatters as he lopes along on crooked steps. They ignore him, and he doesn’t seem to mind.

			They reach their room. Its lock gives way beneath the swift thrust and twist of the man’s key. They disappear into their room, but the persistent bellhop follows them in.

			He clicks the light switch back and forth rapidly. “Bulb must be out,” he says apologetically. “I’ll be right back with maintenance.”

			“Never mind,” says the man.

			“Bottle of champagne?” the bellhop suggests.

			“Scram,” the man tells him. He and his lovely companion disappear down the narrow hallway, past the closet and bath, and into the tastefully decorated suite.

			“As you like,” the bellhop replies.

			They hear the door open and shut. In an instant they are in each other’s arms. Shoes are kicked off, hats tossed aside. Jacket buttons are shown no mercy.

			One might not trust this man, and one might even envy or condemn this sort of woman, but no one can deny that when they kiss, when these two paragons, these specimens of sculpted perfection collide, well—

			Kisses by the billions happen every day, even in a lonely world like ours.

			But this is a kiss for the ages. Like a clash of battle and a delicious melding of flesh, rolled together and set on fire.

			They’re lost in it for a while.

			Until a cold metal net falls over them, and the electric lights snap on.

			“Evening, Aphrodite,” says the stoop-shouldered bellhop.





DECEMBER 1942


				The Golden Net





THE PRISONERS, stunned and blinking, have the squashed and deformed look of criminals who pull pantyhose over their heads to rob a bank. The golden mesh of the net, supple and translucent, presses down upon them with the weight of a ship’s iron chains. It’s a work of exquisite beauty and extraordinary cunning, but neither god appreciates its craftsmanship just then.

			Aphrodite’s lover tears at the net with savage fingers, but its glittering strands hold firm.

			“I’ll skewer you, brother,” he snarls. “I’ll smash your skull like an eggshell.”

			Most people would flee at the malice in that deep voice. But not Hephaestus. He’s not afraid of the massive god.

			“Don’t waste your breath on him, Ares,” says beautiful Aphrodite. She turns a withering gaze on her uniformed husband. “For a hotel this expensive, the service here stinks.”

			Hephaestus, god of fires, blacksmiths, and volcanoes, ignores the jab. He eases himself into a soft chair and stretches his misshapen feet before him on the carpet, then addresses the battle god, who is indeed his brother. Both are Hera’s sons. “Service everywhere has gone down the toilet since your latest war began. All the good men are overseas.”

			“Where they should be.” Ares thrashes again at the golden net. He tries to conjure a weapon from thin air. Normally this would be effortless for him.

			“No point,” advises Hephaestus. “Might as well be mortal, for all the good your power’ll do you. My net blocks you. Can’t have you escaping.”

			Aphrodite, goddess of passion, turns her back upon her husband. He catches her gaze in a long gilt-edged mirror.

			“You disgust me,” she tells his reflection. “Jealous, cringing dog.”

			“Jealous?” Hephaestus feigns surprise. “Who, me? With a wife so loyal and devoted?”

			If his words sting Aphrodite, she doesn’t let it show. She pulls her blue jacket back on over her blouse and knots a fetching little scarf around her neck. “Well, you’ve caught us,” she tells Hephaestus. “Netted like two fish in a stream. What do you plan to do with us?”

			“I’ve done it” is his reply. “Step one, anyway. Put you under arrest.”

			Ares and Aphrodite look at him like he’s mad, which is possible.

			“Step two: offer you a plea bargain.”

			Aphrodite’s eyebrows rise. “Offer me a what?”

			“A deal,” he says. “Renounce this chump, and come home with me. Be my faithful wife, and all is forgiven.”

			The clock on the mantelpiece gets two or three clicks in before Aphrodite begins to snicker. Ares, who has watched for her response, now guffaws with laughter. Too big, too loud, but he’s relieved, and he’s never been a good actor.

			“You think she’ll leave this for you?” He flexes his many (very, very many) muscles. They swim like dolphins under his glowing skin. The removal of his shirt has done glorious things.

			Hephaestus is drowning inside, but he’s come this far and he sticks to his plan. “You reject my offer?” he says. “Then I’m taking you to trial on Olympus.”

			The net, which had lain over them like a heavy blanket, now encircles and encloses Ares and Aphrodite like a laundry bag, while a chain hoists them upward. Their divine limbs, so impressive in marble statues, jumble every which way uncomfortably. The netting bag rotates slowly through the air, like a ham curing over hot coals.

			“What are you doing?” Aphrodite cries. “You put us down at once.”

			“Your court date has been moved up,” answers the bellhop. “Father Zeus will officiate at the bench, and the other gods will form a jury.”

			The goddess of beauty has turned a delicate shade of pale green. The spectacle of the entire pantheon of immortals howling and cackling at her mortification! Nobody knows the sting of gods’ mockery better than a god. And nobody knows your weak spots better than sisters. Those prissy little virgins, Artemis and Athena, always looking down their smug, goody-goody noses at her.

			Bagged like a chicken she might be, but Aphrodite still has her pride. Far better to bargain with her husband in a swanky Manhattan hotel than to quail before her entire family.

			“Hephaestus,” she says smoothly—and Aphrodite can have a brown velvet voice when she wants to—“is there, perhaps, a third option?” She sees her husband is listening, so she presses her advantage. “Couldn’t we just talk this out here? The three of us?” She elbows Ares. “We’ll stay in the net and listen. Ares will behave. Surely we don’t need to drag others into such a private matter.”

			Hephaestus hesitates. Privacy is Aphrodite’s domain. A hotel room practically gives her a home-court advantage. He smells a trick.

			But she does have a point. He, too, has pride to sacrifice upon the altar in hashing this matter out publicly.

			“Let me get this straight,” he says slowly. “You decline your right to a trial by jury?”

			“Oh, come off it,” says Ares. “You’re a blacksmith, for Pete’s sake, not an attorney.”

			Hephaestus turns to his wife. “All right,” he tells her. “We can do it here. A more private trial. I’ll be the judge.”

			“Judge, jury, and executioner?” protests Ares. “This kangaroo court is a sham.”

			Hephaestus wishes he had a bailiff who could club this unruly spectator on the head. But that’s probably not what bailiffs are supposed to do.

			“Never mind him,” Aphrodite tells her husband. “You’re already sitting in judgment upon us, so, yes, be the judge if it suits you.”

			Ares laughs out loud. “Tell you what, old man,” he says. “Fight me for her. May the best god win.”

			Just how many times Hephaestus has imagined that satisfying prospect, not even his divine mind can count. The devious and cunning weapons he’s devised, lying awake and alone at night, plotting a thousand ways to teach his cocky brother a lesson! If only.

			But you don’t accept a challenge to duel with the god of war. Hephaestus is no fool.

			Except, perhaps, where his wife is concerned.

			He produces for himself a bench and a gavel. “This court will come to order,” he says. “Let the trial begin.”





DECEMBER 1942


				The Judgment of Manhattan





HEPHAESTUS LOWERS THE net back to the couch and lets it expand so his prisoners can at least sit comfortably. They can stand up, but they can’t go far.

			“Goddess,” he says, “in the matter of Hephaestus v. Aphrodite, you are charged with being an unfaithful wife. How do you plead?”

			Aphrodite considers. “Amused.”

			Ares snorts.

			“You’re in contempt of court,” Hephaestus says. “How do you plead?”

			“On which charge?” asks the goddess. “Infidelity, or contempt?”

			Hephaestus’s nostrils flare. This is already off to a terrible start. “Both.”

			“Ah,” she says. “Guilty on both counts. But I don’t mean to be contemptible.”

			Hephaestus pauses. “You plead guilty?”

			She nods. “Um-hm.”

			“Oh.” He hadn’t expected this. The clever lines he’d prepared, the scalding words, they desert him like traitors.

			“I’ve disappointed you.” Aphrodite’s voice oozes with sympathy anyone would swear is sincere. “Would it make you feel better to present your evidence anyway?”

			Who’s manipulating whom here?

			She’s not afraid. No amount of evidence will matter.

			But Hephaestus spent months gathering it, so he submits it for the court.

			The lights dim. A succession of images appears in the air before them like a Technicolor film in their own hotel room. The goddess of love and the god of war, kissing under a shady bower. On the snowcapped rim of Mount Popocatépetl at sunset. Cuddling on the shoulder of an Easter Island statue. On the white sand beaches beneath the sheer cliffs of Smugglers’ Cove, on Greece’s own Zakynthos Island.

			“Hermes,” mutters Aphrodite darkly. “Zeus never should’ve given him a camera.”

			If Hephaestus had expected his wife to writhe in embarrassment at this damning proof, he has only disappointment for his efforts. She’s shameless. His brother is shameless. He was a fool to think he could shame either of them.

			The images fade. Silence falls.

			Aphrodite watches her husband.

			Hephaestus’s thoughts swirl. What had he expected? A tearful apology? A pledge to be true? He should’ve known this would never work.

			But he’d been desperate. Even Olympians, when desperate, can’t think straight. Of all the beings in the cosmos, Hephaestus is the only one who can’t pray to the goddess of love for help with his marriage troubles. The poor sap hasn’t a clue.

			“Hephaestus,” Aphrodite says gently, “this trial was never to get me to admit something you know I don’t mind admitting, was it?”

			“You should mind.”

			“Your real question,” she says, “if I’m not mistaken, is why don’t I love you?”

			“It’s simple,” Ares says. “She loves me.”

			Something is apparently hilarious to Aphrodite. Ares’s huge arms fold across his chest.

			She wipes her eyes and speaks. “I don’t love either of you.”

			Ares sits up tall and thrusts out his lower lip.

			“Hephaestus,” Aphrodite continues. He feels like he’s now in the witness stand. “Do you love me?”

			He’s not sure what to say. What’s she doing? He wishes his dumb brother weren’t here.

			“I’ll answer for you,” she tells him. “Of course you don’t.”

			“I . . . That is . . .” Hephaestus stammers. “I’m here because I want—”

			“No one can love me,” she says. “No one.”

			“What do you mean?”

			“That is the price,” she tells him, “of being the goddess of love.”

			Ares’s deep voice breaks the silence. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he says. “The only reason Father Zeus made you marry him was because all the other gods were fighting tooth and nail for your hand. He stuck you with him to avert a civil war. We all wanted you.”

			She shrugs. “I know you all wanted me.”

			Modesty was never her forte, but then, a humble god is hard to find.

			“I’m the source of love,” she says, “but no one will ever truly love me. The fountain of passion, but I will never know a true passion of my own.”

			Ares throws up his hands. “You’re nuts! Have you read Homer? Hesiod?”

			“Goddess,” Hephaestus says quietly, “what can you mean?”

			She gazes into his eyes until he squirms. “You male gods are all rapacious pigs,” she says dismissively. “I grant you, Husband, you’re less horrible than some. You all brag of your exploits. You’re no more loving than an anvil is. Fickle and capricious and completely self-centered. You’re incapable of love. Just as you’re incapable of dying.”

			“You’re calling us self-centered?” replies Ares. “You’re no Florence Nightingale.”

			“You have no idea what I am,” she tells him, “nor what good I do. I know what you think of my ‘silly romances.’”

			She turns to Hephaestus. “I might find a mortal to love me,” she continues, “but that’s worship, not love. I’m perfect. Mortals aren’t meant to love perfection. It disillusions and destroys them in the end.”

			Hephaestus is baffled. Aphrodite has no one to love her? He, the god of fire and forges, has no shortage of ore and fuel. Ares, the god of war, has been enjoying a blood-soaked century like no other in history. Artemis has no shortage of stags to hunt. Poseidon’s not low on salt water.

			And his wife, the gorgeous goddess of romance, is lonely?

			“Do you know what it’s like,” she says, “to spend eternity embedded in every single love story—the fleeting and the true, the trivial and the everlasting? I am elbow deep in love, working in passion the way artists work in watercolors. I feel it all.” She wraps her arms tightly across her chest, as though the room is cold. “I envy the mortals. It’s because they’re weak and damaged that they can love.” She shakes her head. “We need nothing. They’re lucky to need each other.”

			“Yeah, well, they die,” Ares points out.

			“Why have you never said this before?” Hephaestus asks her.

			“Why should I?” she says. “Why would you care? You think my work is stupid. You never come out of your forge.”

			She’s right. Not stupid, not exactly. But, perhaps, inconsequential. Iron—there’s something that lasts. Steel and stone. But human affection? Hephaestus, as any Greek scholar can tell you, wasn’t born yesterday.

			Aphrodite still looks cold. She couldn’t be. But Hephaestus breathes at the fireplace, and the logs laid out there burst into sizzling flame.

			Firelight plays across Aphrodite’s features. She tilts her head to one side. “Do you want to see what real love looks like?”

			Hephaestus looks up. Her eyes are shining.

			“Do you want to hear about my favorites? Some of my finest work?”

			“Yes.” Hephaestus’s reply surprises him. “I do.”

			A groan rises from the couch, but the goddess ignores War.

			“I’ll tell you the story of an ordinary girl and an ordinary boy. A true story. No, I’ll do one better. I’ll tell you two.”

			Ares lifts his head. “Do we know these stories?”

			“Barely, if at all,” she says. “You never pay attention to girls.”

			He snickers. “I beg to differ.”

			“I’m not talking about their bodies.” Aphrodite’s eyes roll. “You never pay attention to their lives.”

			“Ugh.” His head drops back. “I knew this would be boring.”

			Aphrodite’s eyes blaze. “I’ll make it easy on you,” she says. “My two stories involve soldiers. From the Great War. The First World War. You’ll know their names and their rank, at any rate. You may find that you remember bits of their stories.”

			Aphrodite’s dark-lidded eyes gaze out into the skyline of a Manhattan autumn evening. The Big Apple’s lights have dimmed, in case of German U-boats in the harbor, or Zeus forbid, Luftwaffe bomber planes from who knows where, but not even a global war can completely snuff out the lights of the City That Never Sleeps.

			Ares watches Aphrodite’s lovely face, and Hephaestus’s grotesque one. For the millionth time, the war god wonders what Zeus intended, forcing these two to marry. What a curse, to be yoked to that monstrosity! All the more tragic for someone so perfectly perfect as she.

			Why, then, does Ares find the hairs on his arms prickling with jealousy? Even now, though the golden net divides the blacksmith from the goddess, there’s something between them. Something he can neither conquer nor destroy. Impossible though it is, a silver thread binds Hephaestus and Aphrodite together, if only slightly, barring Ares from making Aphrodite completely his own.

			But what does he expect? They’re married, after all.

			“Goddess.”

			Aphrodite meets her husband’s gaze. He points his gavel at her.

			“Present your evidence.”

			When she tilts her head slightly, he smiles beneath his whiskers. “Tell your story.”

			Ares rolls his eyes. “Gods, no,” he moans. “Bring out the hot pincers, the smoking brands! Anything but a love story!”

			Aphrodite glares at him.

			“She’s always yammering on,” Ares says, “trying to tell me about some dumb love letter, some random kiss or other, and how long it lasted, and, by Medusa’s hair, what they were wearing at the time.”

			“Goddess?” says Hephaestus.

			“Mmm?”

			“Leave nothing out,” says the god of fire. “Make your tale a long one.”





ACT ONE





APHRODITE


				Hazel—November 23, 1917





I FIRST SAW Hazel at a parish dance at her London borough church, St. Matthias, in Poplar. It was November 1917.

			It was a benefit, with a drive organized for socks and tins of Bovril broth powder to send to the boys in France. But really, it was a fall dance like the one they held every autumn.

			While others chatted and flirted, Hazel glued herself to the piano bench and played dance tunes. The chaperones gushed about her generosity, putting others’ enjoyment before her own. Hazel was neither fooled nor flattered. She hated performing. But she’d rather stick pins in her eyeballs than make awkward conversation with boys. Anything was better. Even the spotlight.

			She thought she was safe. But music draws me like a bee to honey. And not only me.

			A young man sat some distance away and watched her play. He could see her hands, and the intent expression on her face. He tried not to stare, with limited success. He closed his eyes and listened to the music. But even as he listened, he saw in his mind’s eye the tall, straight form of the piano girl, dressed in pale mauve lace, with her dark-haired head lowered just enough to watch the keys, and her lips parted, ever so slightly, as she breathed in time with the song.

			Oh, the minute I saw those two in the same room, I knew it. I knew this could be one of my masterpieces. You don’t find two hearts like this every day.

			So I sat next to James, while he watched Hazel play, and kissed his cheek. Honestly, in his case, I don’t even think I needed to do it. But he had a very nice cheek, and I didn’t want to miss my chance. He’d shaved for the party, the little darling.

			I was jealous of how he watched Hazel, drinking in her music like water and tasting how she dissolved herself in it like a sugar cube. None of the girls whirling by held anything for him. He was a neat sort of young man, very careful about his clothes, as though he dreaded the thought that his appearance might offend anyone. He shouldn’t have worried. He wasn’t exactly handsome, not at first glance, but there was something in those dark brown eyes that might cause Hazel to forget Chopin for a moment or two. If she would ever look up.

			I slid onto the piano bench beside Hazel. She was so absorbed in her music that she didn’t notice my arrival. Of course, almost no one notices me, yet all but the hard-hearted do sense a new mood. Perhaps it’s my perfume. Perhaps it’s something more. When I pass by, Love is in the air.

			Of the young men present, some hadn’t yet left for battlefields. Others were home on leave (medical or R & R). To their credit, the girls were wonderful about those with ghastly injuries, and made the wounded feel like princes. A few lads worked war production jobs in weapons factories. Some saw them as cowards shirking the battlefield, but this crowd of girls welcomed them in good humor. They were practical, these Poplar girls, and they preferred local beaux over absent loves. Some enterprising girls hedged their bets and held on to one of each.

			The young ladies worked in munitions factories and in private homes as domestic servants. Not long ago they’d all been in school.

			And then there was Hazel. She played like the daughter of a duchess, raised under the eye of the finest musical tutors. But she was the daughter of a music hall pianist and a factory seamstress. Hazel’s father pounded the keys at night to keep the wolf from the door, but he taught his daughter to love the masters. Beethoven and Schubert and Schumann and Brahms. She played like an angel.

			James felt her angel music whoosh through his hair.

			Poor James. He was in a predicament. The one girl to whom he’d like to speak carried the party’s entertainment in her hands. To interrupt her would be unthinkable; to wait until the party ended would mean she’d disappear into the crowd.

			She reached a refrain, and I lifted her chin toward James’s watchful face.

			She caught his expression in full. Both of them were too startled, at first, to break away.

			Hazel kept on playing, but she had seen straight through those brown eyes and into the depths behind them, and felt something of the thrill of being seen, truly seen.

			But music won’t keep. So Hazel played on. She wouldn’t look up at James again. Not until the song was over did she sneak a peek. But he wasn’t there. He’d gone.

			It’s the quiet things I notice. Hazel exhaled her disappointment. She would’ve liked one more glimpse, to see if she’d imagined something passing between them.

			Hazel, my dear, you’re an idiot, she told herself.

			“Excuse me,” said a voice beside her.





APHRODITE


				First Dance—November 23, 1917





HAZEL TURNED TO see a forest-green necktie tucked carefully into a gray tweed jacket, and above it all, the face of the young man with the dark brown eyes.

			“Oh,” said Hazel. She stood up quickly.

			“Hello,” he said very seriously. Almost as if it were an apology.

			His face was grave, his figure slim, his shoes shined, and his dress shirt crisp. Hazel watched his shoes and waited for the heat in her face to subside. Did those shoes contain feet like her father’s, she wondered, with hair on top? Stupid, stupid thought!

			“I’m sorry,” the young man said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

			“That’s all right,” Hazel replied. “I mean, you didn’t.” A fib.

			The scent of bay rum aftershave and clean, ironed cloth reached Hazel’s face and made it tingle. His cheeks were lean and smooth, and they looked so soft that Hazel’s fingers twitched to stroke them. The dread possibility that she might act upon the impulse was so mortifying to Hazel that she very nearly bolted for the door.

			“I wanted to tell you,” the young man said, “how much I enjoyed your playing tonight.”

			Now, at least, Hazel had a script. Her parents had coached her over a lifetime of piano recitals in how to respond to compliments.

			“Thank you very much,” she said. “It’s kind of you to say so.”

			It was a speech, from rote, and the young man knew it. A shadow passed across his face. Of course it did, the poor darling—he only had one chance to interact with her, only one thing he could decently say: that he loved her music, that it took him away from this place, from this night, one week before shipping overseas to the Western Front, where young men like him died in droves, and that she, she, had given him this indescribable gift of escape, all the while being so sincere and fascinating in her absorption in the music. Propriety allowed him only to tell her that he enjoyed her playing, when he wanted to say so much more, and the one thing he dared hope was that she would feel how desperately he meant it.

			And her eyes, he now discovered, were wide and deep, rimmed with long black lashes.

			Poor James.

			Hazel knew she’d gotten it wrong. She swallowed her fear and looked into his eyes.

			“Truly,” she said, “thank you.”

			The shadow passed. “My name is James.” He offered her his hand.

			She took it, warm and dry, in hers and wished she didn’t have a pianist’s wiry, muscular thumb and fingers. Incidentally, that is not at all how James perceived her hands.

			“And you?” He smiled. Never mind Hazel; I nearly swooned myself.

			She blushed. If she did any more blushing, her cheeks might spontaneously combust. “I’m Hazel,” she said. “Hazel Windicott.”

			“I’m glad to meet you, Miss Windicott.” James etched her name into permanent memory. Hazel Windicott. Hazel Windicott.

			“And you, Mr. James,” replied the piano girl.

			He smiled again, and this time dimples appeared in his cheeks. “Just James,” he said. “My last name is Alderidge.”

			The stout woman running the entertainment, one Lois Prentiss, came bustling over to see why the music had stopped. An older woman, a favorite of mine named Mabel Kibbey, popped up like a gopher in a hole.

			“Miss Windicott has worked hard all evening,” she said. “I’m sure she’d like a moment’s rest. I’ll play for a spell. I think I know some tunes the young folks will like.”

			Before Hazel could protest, Mabel Kibbey had pried her out from the piano and pushed her toward James. “Go dance,” she said. In a blink, James led Hazel to the edge of the dance floor and offered her his arm. Dazzled by the pink spots on James’s cheeks, just above the dimples, she placed her left hand upon James’s tweed shoulder and rested her right hand in his.

			Mabel Kibbey struck up a slow waltz. James pulled Hazel as close as he dared.

			“I’m afraid I don’t really know how to dance,” confessed Hazel. “There’s a reason I stay behind the piano.”

			James stopped immediately. “Would you rather not dance?”

			Hazel fixed her gaze on his necktie. “No, I’d like to. But you mustn’t laugh at me.”

			“I wouldn’t,” he said seriously. He slid back into the music.

			“When I trip and fall, then?” She hoped this would come across as a bit of a joke.

			He pressed his hand a shade more firmly into her back. “I won’t let you fall.”

			Nor did he.

			James, in fact, was a fine dancer, not showy, but graceful. Hazel wasn’t, but she was musical enough to find the beat. James supplied the dancing. She only needed to follow along.

			I sat next to Mabel Kibbey on the bench and watched. This dance could be a beginning, or an end, depending on a thousand things. Could they speak? Would one speak too much? Or say something stupid? Should I do something?

			“They’ll be all right,” Mabel said, casting a glance my way.

			“Why, Mabel Kibbey,” I whispered, “can you see me?”

			She flipped the page of her music. “I’ve always seen you,” she said. “You’re looking especially well tonight.”

			I gave her a squeeze about the waist. “You’re a darling.”

			She twinkled. “It’s nice to know you’re still here for the young people,” she said. “This dreadful war. How they need you now.”

			“Not only the young.” I nodded in the direction of a spry older gentleman, seated across the room. “Would you like me to make you an introduction tonight?”

			Mabel laughed. “No, thank you.” She sighed. “I’ve had my day.”

			We both saw, then, a faded wedding photograph, an empty chair, and a gravestone.

			“Who’s to say you can’t have another day?” I asked her.

			She reached a repeat and flipped her page back. “You go see about Miss Hazel.” So I did.

			They had covered the basics: She was eighteen. He was nineteen. Hazel, only child, from Poplar, daughter of a music hall pianist and a seamstress. Done with school, practicing full-time and preparing to audition for music conservatories. James, from Chelmsford, older brother to Maggie and Bobby. Son of a mathematics instructor at a secondary school. He, himself, worked for a building firm. Or had, until now. He was in London, staying with an uncle. Here to see about his uniform and kit, before reporting for duty in a week, to be stationed in France.

			The war.

			You had to walk into the room then, Ares. A final ending, a permanent goodbye.

			Yet you were the reason everyone was there. The war was in every sermon, every street sign, every news report, every prayer over every bland and rationed meal.

			And so James went from stranger to patriot, hero, bravely shouldering his duty to God, King, and Country.

			Hazel went from stranger and pianist to reason why the war mattered at all, symbol of all that was pure and beautiful and worth dying for in a broken world.

			When I found them, their heads were nestled together like a pair of mourning doves.

			James, the soul of politeness, wouldn’t dream of drawing Hazel too close on a first dance. Which was not to say he wouldn’t like to. But Hazel, baffled by finding herself so safe and warm in the arms of this beautiful young man, realized, when the song ended, that she’d been resting her forehead against his cheek. That cheek, she had wanted to caress, and now, in a way, she’d done it. She began to be embarrassed, but as the other dancers applauded, James cradled her in his arms, and she knew she didn’t need to apologize.

			Lois Prentiss began to boom out her thanks for all who’d made the evening a success, but Mabel Kibbey, with a wink at me, cut her off by starting a new song, even more tender than the first. While other couples jockeyed to find partners, Hazel and James found each other wordlessly, having never broken apart, and danced the entire dance, their eyes closed.

			If I couldn’t knit these two together by the end of a second dance, Zeus might as well make Poseidon the god of love, and I’d go look after the fishes.

			I could have watched them forever. By this point many eyes besides my own were watching Hazel Windicott, a well-known commodity in the parish, as famous for shyness as for music, dancing with the tall young stranger. When the song ended, and she opened her eyes, she saw James’s face watching her closely, but over his shoulder there were other faces, whispering, wondering.

			“I need to go,” she said, pulling away. “People will say . . .”

			She flooded with shame. How could she betray this moment to fear of others?

			He waited openly, calmly, without suspicion.

			What did she owe to other people anyway?

			“Thank you,” she said. “I had a lovely time.”

			She looked up nervously into his dark brown eyes. You’re wonderful, they said.

			So are you, her long-lashed eyes replied.

			“Miss Windicott—” he began.

			“Call me Hazel,” she said, then wondered if she ought.

			The dimples returned. She might melt. Other people didn’t matter. Let them gossip.

			“Miss Hazel Windicott,” he said, “I report for training in a week.”

			She nodded. “I know.” He’d already told her. It was so unspeakably awful. Already lads she’d known had died in the trenches.

			James took a step closer. “May I see you again before I go?”

			She chewed on this shocking proposal. This was not the way of things. Introductions, chaperones, supervision. Parental permission at each step. Large ladies like naval battleships prowling the seas of church socials, scouting for improper hand-holding and clandestine kisses. The war had relaxed propriety’s stranglehold, but only somewhat.

			James stewed. He’d said too much. Moved too fast. The thought made him sick. But what choice did he have? He had only one chance to get to know Hazel Windicott, the piano girl.

			“May I?” he said again.

			Hazel’s father appeared in the doorway.

			“How soon?” she asked James.

			He smiled. “As soon as possible.”

			“How much?” asked Hazel.

			The smile faded, leaving only that intent gaze in its place. “As much as I may.”

			It was time for Hazel to demur politely, make her excuses, thank him for serving the Crown, and break away from this doomed solider boy. It was definitely time to say no.

			“I’d like that.”

			She smiled, the first time she’d smiled for this stranger. James’s poor heart might’ve stopped beating then and there if he weren’t young and healthy.

			Hazel give James Alderidge her address. When she felt fairly certain the eyes in the room had moved on from gawking at her, and her father had fallen into chitchat with other arriving parents, she reached up onto her toes and gave James a kiss on the cheek.

			James Alderidge didn’t know it was the second such kiss he’d received that night. He only knew he was in grave danger of heading off to the Front as a soldier in love.

			The thought scared him more than all the German missiles combined. Should he pull back? Should he cut this fantasy short, and not seek out another encounter with the piano girl?

			Music. Lashes. Lilac-scented hair. The light grip of her lips in a brief kiss upon his cheek.

			And, once more, the music.

			What he should do, James decided, and what he would do, had no bearing upon each other.





APHRODITE





The Kiss (Part I)—November 23, 1917





IF THAT KISS caused James a night of agonizing wonder, of delicious bafflement, he was not alone. For Hazel’s part, the bafflement was wondering what on earth had come over her, and the agony was dreading what James must think of her. She, Hazel Windicott, who never looked at boys! The respectable, serious-minded young lady who spent hours each day practicing piano, who kept her head while other girls did . . . whatever it was that other girls did. Would this James think she was the sort of girl who went about kissing young men upon first acquaintance?

			She walked home with her father, buttoning her coat collar close around her neck. The night was unusually cold. Her left arm still remembered resting itself upon James’s arm, and her right hand remembered holding James’s hand. Her body remembered moving in time with his, and being pulled closer as the last song ended.

			“Did some dancing, did we?” observed her father. Hazel was mortified to discover that she was acting it out, holding out her arms toward an imaginary James. So much for secrets.

			“Mrs. Kibbey thought I ought to,” she said. Blame it on Mrs. Kibbey, will you? Weak!

			Her father, a tall man with long arms and legs and fingers, and deep grooves carved into his cheeks, put an arm around Hazel’s shoulders.

			“Mrs. Kibbey’s right,” he said. “You need to live a bit more, my girl, and have fun. Not just stay cooped up with old folks like your mother and me.”

			She leaned her head against her father’s shoulder. “Don’t be silly,” she told him. “You aren’t ‘old folks.’”

			“Tell that to Arthur,” her father said. “Arthur” was the arthritis that plagued his wrist and knuckle joints. “I mean it, Hazy. You should spend more time with people your age. Just promise me you won’t fall in love with a soldier boy. You don’t need your heart broken in two.”

			She nodded. She couldn’t exactly look her dad in the eye just then. And she certainly wasn’t about to make any promises.

			For pity’s sake, she scolded herself once more. You are not in love with that boy. You’ve only just met him tonight, and danced two dances. People who talk of falling in love after just one meeting have their heads full of pillow down.

			Why, then, had she kissed him on the cheek?





APHRODITE





The Kiss (Part II)—November 23, 1917





WHY HAD HAZEL kissed James on the cheek?

			This was the question tormenting James as he circled St. Matthias’s block. Up Woodstock Terrace, along East India Dock Road, down Hale Street, along High Street, and back. Breezes off the Thames brought the cry of seagulls and the clang of the dockyards. Up ahead, the lights of Poplar twinkled.

			Was it a sisterly sort of thing? Surely that was all the kiss meant: Do not hope for more, you strange stranger. Here is where my view of you begins and ends: platonic goodwill. Patriotic gratitude. Here’s a quick little peck to prove it. Now goodbye.

			He groaned. He’d heard of things like that. Girls who went about bestowing kisses on soldiers in their khakis on train platforms, and on new conscripts at recruiting stations.

			There was the spot. Right there, upon his cheek. He ran a finger over it.

			He passed by a couple that had taken advantage of a deep, dark doorway for some kissing of the type Lois Prentiss would certainly veto. It reminded him of that one smile, lighting up Hazel’s lips, making him wonder how kissing them would feel.

			What was the matter with him?

			The war, he decided. The war had addled his senses. The war had driven the whole world to the brink of insanity. Hasty war weddings and fatherless war babies and last-minute love. The whole cheap, flimsy spectacle of it.

			But he closed his eyes and remembered, once more, the feeling of holding the piano girl in his arms.

			He could still see her father holding her coat for her, and steering her out through the throng. Wild horses couldn’t persuade James to shadow their footsteps home. It would be indecent.

			Her address. Would she have shared it if she thought of him in a strictly friendly way?

			When he’d passed the kissing couple three times, he headed home. He crossed East India Dock Road and came to Kerbey Street, which led to his uncle’s flat. He glanced at theatrical playbills and navy recruitment banners. When signposts revealed that Kerbey Street had met Grundy, he stopped.

			The corner of Grundy and Bygrove, Hazel had said. Second floor, above the barbershop.

			Surely she’d be home by now. Asleep in bed, no doubt. What harm was a little detour? He’d merely note the location. He ought to get a haircut anyway. Perhaps tomorrow he could return for a trim, and while he was there, he might . . . what? Knock on her door?

			The utter impossibility of it all hit him.

			He could take a look. His motives were pure. He wasn’t spying. He only wanted to see the kind of curtains behind which the piano girl lived her luminous life. He would innocently imagine her asleep on a soft pillow, her lashes delicately tangled together, her long hair spread about her, her slim hands playing Chopin in her dreams.





APHRODITE


				Sleepless—November 23, 1917





HAZEL WAS FAR from asleep. She’d changed into her nightgown and unpinned her hair. She sat on a low divan beneath her bedroom window, wrapped her arms about her knees, and looked out upon the street. In the upstairs flat, the two spinster Misses Ford played their gramophone recording of “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice.” It was much too late for opera. Hazel didn’t mind.

			James Alderidge. A nice name. One could certainly do worse.

			Had she danced two dances with a stranger, and kissed him on the cheek?

			She pressed her own burning cheek against the cool, damp windowpane.

			Who would’ve thought, on this utterly normal day, that before bedtime her brain would be scrambled like an egg? She’d only gone to play as a reluctant favor to Mrs. Prentiss, just as she’d gone that afternoon to the Poplar Hospital for Accidents to play for the recuperating soldiers.

			James Alderidge. He was heading off to the war. Training, then trenches. That would be an end, not only of their acquaintance, but, very possibly, of his life.

			Or, the end of his life as he knew it. Already there were honorably discharged men to be seen, coming and going, in wheelchairs, missing legs. With sleeves tucked into jackets to hide missing hands. With hideous, disfiguring scars where shrapnel had torn their faces.

			She knew this, of course. All of Britain knew what a terrible price young men paid each day to stop the wretched Kaiser. That evil, stupid, horrid man who’d unleashed his army like a dark flood across Europe.

			The thought of that fearful price carved into the face of the boy with the dark brown eyes filled her own eyes with tears. So she failed to notice the figure on the street corner, gazing up at her bedroom window.





APHRODITE


				The King’s Whiskers—November 23, 1917





THERE IT WAS. The barbershop. The King’s Whiskers. James smiled. Hazel Windicott lived right above the King’s Whiskers. Did that make her, perhaps, a nose?

			The joke was so bad, it made him snicker.

			The dark windows of the second-story flat mirrored, dully, the orb of a streetlamp on the corner. A light on the third floor silhouetted a gramophone. He heard strains of a plaintive opera song. Mezzo-soprano. Very romantic.

			But there was no hint of Hazel Windicott. Had she told him the wrong address?

			He rounded the corner and stopped. The piano girl leaned against her window, lost in thought. James saw long hair spilling down her back, and the neckline of a white nightgown.

			Her reverie rooted his feet to the ground.

			By day, this corner would ring with the sound of Hazel’s piano playing. That lucky barber, Mr. King’s Whiskers, got to hear it all day long, over the sound of mechanical clippers.

			James Alderidge, he warned himself, you only met her once. You don’t know her at all. And you’re a fool.





DECEMBER 1942


				An Interruption





“HE’S RIGHT ABOUT that,” Ares says. “This tale is dull is dirt. Boy meets girl, they dance a bit, and moon about each other. So what? Nothing’s happened.”

			Aphrodite’s eyes narrow. “Everything has happened.”

			Ares rolls his eyes. “Get to the real doings,” he says. “Get to the Front. The killing fields. That’s where war stories happen.”

			“Who asked you?” inquires Hephaestus, diplomat.

			“I’m not telling a war story,” says Aphrodite. “This is what I do, and how I do it.”

			“Go on,” Hephaestus says. “I’m curious.”

			“Then you’re a sap,” the god of war replies. “Here. I know this story. Two sheltered souls meet, boom—they get the hots for each other. They think they’ve invented romance. They gad about for a few days, then he heads off to war. It’s terrible, boo-hoo, he misses his girl, she misses him. They write letters at first, until the trenches turn him from Loverboy into Kid Trying to Keep the Rats from Eating His Face Off. She does some volunteer work”—Ares affects a sneer—“in a brave attempt to be like the boys abroad and do her measly bit. She cries into her pillow, wondering why the letters have stopped. Time passes. They both change. Tragedies pop up like boils. They blame me for their problems. Et cetera.”

			If Ares were mortal, the look Aphrodite aims his way would char the flesh off his bones.

			“Are you finished?” asks the goddess of love.

			Ares doesn’t bother to answer.

			“Thirsty, my dear?” asks Hephaestus. He conjures a martini glass filled with ambrosia and causes it to appear in Aphrodite’s open hand. She seems surprised, but she takes a sip.

			Hephaestus fluffs a pillow from the bed and arranges it behind his stooped shoulders. “I’m not here because I’m dying to hear from you, warmonger,” says he. “I want to hear my wife.”

			Ares laughs. “Are you taking love lessons from mortals now, blacksmith?”

			“You could stand a few yourself,” says Aphrodite.





APHRODITE


				Caught—November 23, 1917





JAMES THOUGHT HE’D get away without Hazel seeing him.

			But Hazel saw him.

			I may have had a little something to do with that.

			As I say, I wasn’t interfering, but the whole scene, the street corner, the lamppost, the shadows, the gentle opera spilling down from above, the ruffled nightgown—what was I to do? I’m an artist.

			I directed her gaze down to the street. She pulled back from the window when she saw someone standing there. When she saw his head turn away, she leaned in closer.

			It was James Alderidge.

			Should she mind that he was there? How could she mind something so marvelous?

			At the sight of her, his face lit up. He raised his hand in a half wave, then jammed it into his coat pocket and hurried on up the street.





APHRODITE


				A Note—November 23, 1917





YOU IDIOT, you idiot, he told himself. Peeping in windows? She should call the coppers on you.

			A creak behind him made him stop.

			He turned to see Hazel’s face leaning out the window, with ropes of long hair dangling below her shoulders. “Pssst,” she said, and dropped something white onto the pavement. Then she pulled the casement shut and disappeared.

			James found the white thing amid the bits and bobs of rubbish littering the street corner. It was a folded piece of paper. James had half expected a lace-trimmed handkerchief. But this wasn’t blooming Camelot, and he was no knight.

			He stepped farther into the street, closer to the streetlamp, and opened the note.

			Eight a.m. tomorrow, it read, in a tall, precise, vertical hand. Letters like the stems of musical notes. Coffee at the J. Lyons tea shop on Chrisp Street at Guildford.

			James Alderidge looked up at the now-dark window and grinned. Miss Hazel Windicott was no longer in sight. Swallowed by the darkness. Could she see him? He didn’t know.

			But I knew. You’d better believe she could.





APHRODITE


				The Tea Shop—November 24, 1917





SINCE SOME PERSONS, who shall remain nameless, seem impatient with the depth of detail I devote to this pair in their heart-fluttering first hours of finding each other, I’ll pass over the drama of James’s and Hazel’s sleepless nights, their ridiculously early hours of rising, and their anxious dress and grooming, silent to avoid waking uncles and parents on a sleep-in Saturday morning. I will spare my critics the excited nausea that gripped the young darlings’ stomachs as they made their way out into a London morning to find J. Lyons tea shop. I will make no mention of the constant rapping of doubt—the fear that this something, which they hoped was something, was actually nothing, that they’d allowed their feelings to fizz and froth for absolutely, positively nothing.

			It wasn’t their fault that they fizzed and frothed. They could no more scold themselves into indifference than they could will themselves to stop breathing.

			It was time for James and Hazel to get properly acquainted. Time to see if the magic of music and moonlight and graceful movement were all that they had shared, or if a grimy gray London dawn and a cheap cup of coffee could make them feel the same way.

			J. Lyons tea shops are scattered all about London. James’s illogical dread was going to the wrong one. He arrived well before eight o’clock and, finding Hazel not yet there, paced the street. At eight he entered the shop, sat on a bench, crushed his hat, smoothed it, and crushed it again.

			Hazel was late. Not surprising, given that her journey went as follows:

			She would walk a block, then turn around and walk back, then retrace her first steps and go a little farther, than panic and scamper back toward home base. By the time she reached J. Lyons tea shop, she was perspiring under her sweater and blouse, even though the morning was chill and damp. So, holding her breath as though that might somehow compel James Alderidge to do the same, lest he notice any body odor, she entered the tea shop.

			James leaped to his feet. That looked too eager, he realized, so he stiffened. He hadn’t a clue what to do with his face.

			Hazel saw him jump up in a spasm of obvious disappointment, then grimace in disgust.

			She knew it. She smelled terrible. She looked terrible. She was terrible. And inviting him to meet her here was a terrible, terrible idea. She kept her hand on the doorknob and tried to think how to escape. Her parents need never know. It would be as if it had never happened.

			James’s heart sank as he watched her panicked expression. She was even more adorable by morning light, in everyday clothes. But clearly, she wanted to flee. What could he say to relieve her distress and let her know she was free to leave?

			“Good morning.” He smiled by reflex. It’s what one does when one says “Good morning.”

			“Good morning.” She held out her hand. It was what one did when one said “Good morning” at a tea shop to someone whom one doesn’t hug or kiss.

			But she had kissed him. Oh, mortification!

			He pressed her hand between his. He smiled again, and Hazel forgot about fleeing the tea shop. The scent of bay rum may have had something to do with it.

			“Table for two?” I said.

			They followed me to a secluded corner table. James pulled the chair out for Hazel and hung her coat in the doorway. There was only one free peg, so he placed his own coat over hers. It made him blush. He took his seat opposite Hazel.

			I love this boy. In a purely spiritual sense.

			“I recommend the lemon cake,” I said, and handed them menus.

			The serving girls were slow that morning. These two maybe-lovebirds-maybe-not teetered on a knife’s edge, and if I didn’t get them seated at a table, there was no telling what might happen. So I took shape in the form of a matronly, middle-aged table server. How it pained me to adopt the joyless uniform of the J. Lyons waitresses, I can’t begin to express. But I do make sacrifices.

			No, I don’t consider that cheating, interfering, or manipulating. I was only doing what a competent waitstaff ought to have done. Sometimes fates hang in the balance over matters even more trivial than a waitress flirting in the back with a pastry chef.

			Hazel and James studied the menus as if their very lives depended on it. Safer than glancing at each other. I sent a little puff of attraction wafting back toward the kitchens, to keep the real waitress chummy a bit longer with Mr. Pastry Chef, who was making roses with a frosting pipe. This forced me to serve a few other customers as well, but I armed myself with a self-replenishing pot of hot Colombian coffee and made everyone’s morning that little smidge better. One stout, bald gentleman, in particular. I think he suspected there was more to me than met the eye, the old rascal. He’d been a bit of a Romeo once, several belt sizes ago.

			I swept back toward James and Hazel. They’d relaxed into conversation.

			“Excuse me,” Hazel told me very earnestly. “We don’t see lemon cake on this menu.”

			It was all I could do not to giggle. “It’s today’s special,” I told her.

			“I wonder how they got the sugar,” Hazel mused. “Rationing’s so tight.” She turned to him. “Shall we order some, then, James?” Just like that, he became a first-name friend.

			“It sounds delicious, Hazel.” He turned to me very seriously. “Two slices, please.”

			My pretty little pets, having a nursery-room tea party for two. The little boy, playing grown-up man for his girl. The girl he hoped would be his girl. You see why I love my work, don’t you? Why it’s not a career, it’s a calling?

			I returned to the serving table, conjured giant slabs of cake, and served them. The bald gentleman tapped me on the elbow to order some. Before I was done, I’d served cake to four tables. Compliments of the goddess. With the Great War in its fourth year, Britons needed cake.

			James and Hazel faced the new predicament—do they eat in front of each other, at the risk of spilling crumbs or blobs of lemon curd? Then again, if they didn’t eat, they must talk. How does the old Gaelic ditty go? O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road, and I’ll be in Scotland a’fore ye? Hazel took the high road, cake, and James took the low road, speech.

			“I’m so glad to see you again,” he said.

			He was in Scotland a’fore her.

			Well, there it was. He’d skipped the preliminaries. There was no turning back now.

			His words caught Hazel with the tines of her fork still in her mouth, and a very large bite of cake melting on her tongue.

			“Mmph” was her elegant reply.

			But there he was, all brown eyes and kindness, waiting patiently, watching her face as if he could watch it forever. Her wide eyes drank all this in, and she managed, by a miracle, to swallow the cake without choking.

			“Me too.” She remembered her napkin. “I mean, you too. Glad to see you.”

			She was, and there was no hiding it.





APHRODITE


				Questions—November 24, 1917





IT’S NOT EASY, overseeing love in its toddler phase. It’s a noisy, chattering, babbling thing. Listening closely would turn me old and gray, except that, of course, I don’t get old or gray. But it’s still an effort, though also a joy, to follow all they say, and all they don’t. For example:

			What made you go to the dance last night, where you didn’t know anyone?

			Imagine if you hadn’t!

			Do you always play piano at dances?

			Or do you dance with other lads?

			Tell me about Chelmsford.

			I’ll bet the girls are prettier in Chelmsford.

			How long have you studied piano?

			How is it that a girl this talented is eating lemon cake in a tea shop with a bloke like me?

			What do you do in the building trade?

			Do heavy beams ever fall on builders and kill them?

			Who’s your favorite composer?

			Please have one. Don’t be a musical ignoramus.

			Do you have a gramophone?

			Smile again. Just like that. Wish I had a photograph of that to keep in my wallet.

			Tell me about your parents.

			Look how neat you are. I’m so glad you’re not one of those grimy sorts.

			Tell me about yours.

			Do they know you’re here with me? Is that all right?

			Do you think you’ll ever play at the Royal Albert?

			I could talk to you all day.

			Why not? I’ll bet you could.

			I’d be there in the front row.

			If you could build any building at all, what would it be?

			Oh, why do you have to be heading off to the Front? Why now?

			Do you know where you’ll be stationed in France?

			I’m sorry. Forget I asked you that.

			Do you speak any French?

			I know you can tell I’m afraid to go. Will you despise me for it?

			Do you need to get back home soon? Got anything going on today?

			Please, no. Don’t leave me yet. We have so little time.

			Let’s go for a walk, all right?

			When do I get to return the kiss you gave me?





DECEMBER 1942


				To Forge, to Meld





ARES LOUNGES UPON the couch, underneath the golden net. Aphrodite has a faraway look, and a soft expression.

			Her husband watches her. A tear shines in her eye. These mortals do something to Aphrodite. But what? They sound to the blacksmith god like any two mortals among millions.

			Until he remembers the surge of awe, of rightness he feels when he raises a red-hot sword from his forge. This is what he was born to do. To make, to meld, to master heat and iron with all their power and all their resistance, and bring forth works of usefulness and beauty. If it made him fiery and unbending, how could he not become something like the iron in his forge?

			The ecstasies and the wounds of love were Aphrodite’s work. Forging passions was what she was born to do. She, too, was a melder, a mistress of fire of a different sort, working in materials more powerful and resistant than carbon and iron. And what did that toil do to her?

			If he’d wanted a goddess of hearth and home, of safe domesticity and simple loyalty, Hephaestus could’ve married Hestia. Maybe he should have. She was single, and by all accounts the cooking was good.

			But Hestia could never be . . . Aphrodite. There’s no going back once you’ve known the goddess of love. There is no forgetting. No moving on. No letting go.





APHRODITE


				A Walk—November 24, 1917





I FELT LIKE a mother watching little Junior toddle off to school for the very first time when those two exited J. Lyons tea shop, huddled together against the cold gray morning.

			They took Guilford Street to Upper North Street till it became Bow Common Lane. “This way,” Hazel said, “I’ll be less likely to run into anyone I know.”

			James’s face fell. “Am I a secret, then?”

			Hazel glanced sheepishly at him. “Secrets are fun, aren’t they?”

			He said nothing, but tipped his hat low over his eyes.

			“I’m sorry,” Hazel said after a moment. “I’m new to all this. You shan’t be a secret.” She grinned. “Just last night, Father said I ought to live a little.”

			James wanted to hug the man. “If I’m not a secret,” he said, “what am I?”

			Hazel’s mind raced. What to say? What words might tumble out in spite of her?

			Horses and wagons, noisy motorcars, hawkers, bickering children, haggling shoppers all passed by them on the street, but Hazel and James might as well have been alone on a desert island.

			“You’re a brand-new piece of sheet music,” she said slowly, “for a song which, once played, I’d swear I’d always known.”

			“Always known” meant something, didn’t it? Clever, clever girl.

			She turned her face up toward his and waited for proof that she’d said too much. Opened her heart too much. If his heart had wanted to meet hers halfway, surely he would’ve smiled.

			Or had he, only just?

			“A piece of sheet music, am I?” he teased. “Makes me rather flat, doesn’t it?” The joke was so terrible, it was perfect.

			“I prefer gentlemen who are sharp” was her quick reply.

			She got the joke! Of course she did. “There’s nothing ‘new’ about me, Miss Hazel Windicott,” he told her. “I’ve been rolling around Chelmsford for years.”

			She shook her head. “No, you haven’t,” she said. “You sprang from the ground.”

			“No,” he said simply. “That was you.”

			Both of them realized, then, that Hazel’s two hands had found their way inside James’s. The discovery took them both by surprise. Neither remembered having done it.

			They hadn’t. That was me. I wasn’t about to be idle, now, was I?

			And, no, that was not interfering. Hazel’s hands were cold.

			James looked down at the numb fingertips pressed between his own, and instinctively folded the whole bundle under his coat, to the warmth over his heart.

			Perhaps, for James, it was his heart, but for Hazel, her hands had just been placed over the muscular chest of a handsome youth who, it seemed, had played an active role in the building trade this past summer. A series of little explosions began firing throughout her brain, and spread quickly elsewhere.

			She snatched her hands away—I won’t deny I was irked by this—and groaned.

			He closed the distance between them. “What’s the matter?” he cried. “Are you all right?”

			She shook her head. “Who are you?” she said. “What are you? I go to a dance, and suddenly I’m sneaking off to meet a young man, and saying things to a perfect stranger that I would never, ever say.” She tapped indignantly at her collarbone. “I am a nice, quiet girl who plays the piano. Mostly for old ladies. And you’ve got me—”

			“Kissing a chap you just met on the cheek?”

			She covered her eyes with a hand. “Did you have to say that?”

			He gently pried her hand away. “It’s all I’ve thought of since.”

			Hazel’s innards writhed like Medusa’s hairdo.

			I whispered in her ear. “Don’t be afraid of him, Hazel.”

			“I’m afraid of you, James Alderidge,” she told him, the naughty girl.

			He backed away, palms raised in surrender. The look of dismay on his face broke my heart. Hazel’s, too.

			“No,” she said. “You’re a perfect gent. I’m afraid of me when I’m with you.”

			“Come with me tomorrow,” he said. “To the Sunday concert at the Royal Albert Hall.”

			“All the way over there?”

			He shrugged. “What, is it far?”

			She shook her head. “You really don’t know London, do you?” She looked up into his dark brown eyes and blinked at all she saw there. She smiled and nodded. “All right, then.”

			His dimples flashed. He bent and kissed her forehead.

			“There,” he said. “We’re even. Feel better?”

			Hazel made her choice. She could be who she ought to be with James. She decided instead to be that terrifying person who she evidently wanted to be.

			It was the dimples. Empires have swiveled on less.





APHRODITE


				Goodbye—November 24, 1917





JAMES WALKED HER to a corner within sight of the striped barber’s pole outside the King’s Whiskers. Neither of them knew how to say goodbye.

			“Tomorrow,” he reminded her. “The concert. We can get some tea after, maybe?”

			“When should we meet?” She chewed her lip. And what do I tell my parents?

			“Let’s meet at one o’clock. Right here.” He glanced at her. “So I’ll get tickets?”

			She nodded. “Get tickets.”

			It was time to part. They both knew it. Neither moved.

			“What’s your Sunday morning like?” he asked her.

			“St. Matthias’s. I play for the choir,” she told him. “The organist is . . .”

			“Overseas?”

			She nodded, then shook her head. “He died there,” she said. “So he’s not there, but he is, because he’s buried in Flanders.” She couldn’t meet his gaze just then.

			He understood. He tried to lighten her mood with a spot of poetry.

			“‘If I should die, think only this of me, that there’s some corner of a foreign field . . .’”

			“‘. . . that is for ever England,’” Hazel muttered. “It’s rot.” Don’t die.

			“It’s all right,” he said. “I’m all right. About going.” A lie and a truth, becoming every minute more of a lie. “So many have gone, and if I don’t . . . Somebody’s got to stop the Kaiser.”

			What could she say? That she wasn’t all right with him going? Not one bit?

			James tried to break the silence. “Was he a good organist?”

			“Not especially.” She wrinkled her nose. “At his memorial, you’d have thought he was George Frideric Handel himself.”

			The rest of the day stretched before James as a yawning chasm of Hazel-lessness. He longed to bury his face in her neck. Even if it was wrapped in a scratchy wool muffler.

			But that was too soon, too much to ask of a girl he’d known less than twelve hours, a girl with whom he’d shared two dances and a cup of coffee. (Excellent coffee, but still.)

			So he squeezed her hand. “Guess I’d better be moving along.”

			She bowed her head. “You’ve got loads to do, I’m sure.”

			Would he kiss her? Hazel waited to see. Did she want him to? She tried not to stare at his mouth.

			So pretty. She was so, so pretty. At first it was the music, and then her eyes, and her hair, but now he saw how entirely adorable she was. He should be beating off other lads with a stick.

			Kiss her, I told him.

			With a curled finger he gently, quickly brushed her cheek and the tip of her nose.

			Leave now, or you never will, he told himself.

			“Till tomorrow,” he told her. He turned to go.

			No kiss. “One o’clock!” A brave attempt at sounding like she cheerfully didn’t mind not being kissed. I wasn’t fooled.

			There was no point in resisting or explaining it away. James wasn’t sure what he dared call what he felt, but he knew his happiness belonged to the piano girl. Whether she would take and keep it safe for him, or not.





APHRODITE


				In Between—November 24, 1917





HAZEL RETURNED HOME to find her parents had stepped out for an errand, so no awkward confessions were needed. Not yet. She sat at the piano for a good long practice session. Just the solid, practical remedy she needed after twelve hours in the clouds. But she trailed off in the middle of pieces and stared out the window. What was James doing now? She made ridiculous mistakes. She played maudlin, sentimental ballads. She was hopeless.

			James was little better. He went with his uncle Charlie to an army supply depot to purchase his uniform and kit. Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag and smile, smile, smile. The constantly sung war ditty spun through his head. An oily old salesman listed all the trench ailments he’d need products to prevent or treat. Trench foot. Lice. Bitter cold. Incessant damp. Rats. Mud. Shrapnel. Hunger. Gangrene. Venereal disease.

			James wanted to vomit.

			“Never mind,” James’s uncle said over a cafeteria lunch. “You may end up in one of the colonies. Or you could have domestic duty.” Uncle Charlie had seen service in the Second Boer War, but not combat. Supply and transport.

			“Besides,” he added, “the Americans will be coming over as soon as President Wilson gets ’em recruited and trained and fitted out. Maybe this year it’ll be over by Christmas.”

			Unlike 1914. Everyone thought so then.

			“How was the dance last night?” his uncle said. “Dance with any pretty girls?”

			James looked at the floor. He felt his uncle’s eyes on him.

			Uncle Charlie chuckled. “Met someone, did you?”

			There was no need to answer this, so James didn’t.

			“Good for you,” his uncle said. “You’re about to report. You deserve your bit of fun.”

			James winced at this. Miss Hazel Windicott was no “bit of fun.” He finished his food quickly, thanked Uncle Charlie, and left to wander about London. He ended up at the cinema, alone, watching a mediocre film, until it ended and he could go home and go to bed.

			Hazel’s evening involved a lecture with her mother. An army chaplain, sharing inspirational stories about how God watched over the British faithful at the Front.

			Just not our organist, Hazel thought.

			Her father was at the Town Hall, which was the name of the Poplar theater and music hall where he played Saturday night. When the lecture ended, Hazel walked her mother home, then stopped in at the Town Hall to pass the evening with her father.

			“It’s no place for a young lady,” her mother protested. “Your dad won’t be pleased.”

			“I’ll turn pages for him,” Hazel assured her mother. “I’ll stay right on the bench.”

			And she did. It was a cozy night, tucked in next to her father in his bowler hat, striped shirt, and bow tie. His flying fingers embellished “Bicycle Built for Two,” “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am,” “Burlington Bertie from Bow,” and, of course, “Tipperary.”

			Hazel knew her father’s way of playing would make Monsieur Guillaume, her instructor, queasy, but she still loved watching him. When she was a tiny thing seated on his lap, her daddy had played with his long arms encircling her, as though his curly-headed girlie wasn’t blocking his view. The spread of keys seemed flexible under his spell, full of bounce in the sprightly, giddy tunes popular with the stars of the music halls.

			And, oh, they were stars. One after another, the performers claimed the stage and the hearts of Poplar. They performed, they bowed, they took an encore, then they dashed offstage to a car waiting in the alley to zip them off to the next nightclub to perform again. The most popular might sing or dance or joke or pantomime a dozen times and more in a night. In garish costumes, in army officers’ uniforms, in cutaway coats and gleaming waistcoats, and glittering gowns. And, for some of them, in blackface.

			The blackface performers brought down the house. “Look at the crazy coon!” women would shriek. “Sing it again, darkie!”

			But Hazel’s father didn’t like it. When the men painted black performed, his mouth hardened and he stared at the ivories. Normally the man didn’t ever seem to need to look at the keys.

			“Your father’s a coward, Hazy,” he told her. “It’s wrong, what they’re doing. It’s disgusting. It’s unchristian. If I were a man, I’d quit in protest.”

			She took his hand in hers. “What would you do then?”

			“That’s just it,” he told her. “I’m a coward. I support this trash to pay my bills. Remember, we’re all God’s children. Be braver than I’ve been.”

			Hazel couldn’t fathom a scenario that would require such bravery of her. But she would remember her father’s words before long.





DECEMBER 1942


				First Witness





“I’D LIKE TO call my first witness,” Aphrodite tells the judge.

			Ares pulls a pillow over his bare chest. “You’re not summoning mortals here, are you?”

			“Get ahold of yourself,” she tells him. “Your Honor? May I?”

			Hephaestus wonders what he’s agreeing to. An escape plot? A ploy to summon help? But she’s come this far with her story. He’s curious. He nods.

			She glances out the window. A bright streak of light arcs in the sky. Moments later a knock sounds at the hotel room door.

			“Come in,” calls Aphrodite.

			The door opens, and a tall man in a pin-striped blue zoot suit strolls in, lithe and athletic. He sports a wide fuchsia necktie, loose at his collar, brown-and-white Oxford shoes, and a white fedora tipped low over his brow.

			There’s an awful lot of male perfection in that hotel room all of a sudden. The newcomer is a stunner of a specimen. Greek profile, muscular frame, golden glow. He’s got it all.

			He surveys the captive pair and snorts with laughter. “I can’t begin to imagine what’s been going on here.” He holds up his palms. “But I don’t judge. I do not judge.” He notices Hephaestus’s gavel. “Apparently, you do, though.”

			He doffs his fedora to Aphrodite. “Evening, sis.”

			“Good evening, Apollo,” she says. “A spectacular sunset tonight.”

			“Nice of you to notice.” He bounces on the bed a few times, testing its springs. “So what’s going on, anyway?”

			“A jealous husband’s tribunal,” declares Ares. “His wife chose the better man.”

			“Go dunk your head,” adds Hephaestus.

			“She’s telling a story,” Ares tells Apollo, “to explain to him why she’s ditching him for me. Why Love loves War, so to speak.” He feels clever. A rare occurrence, off the battlefield.

			“Have you heard a single word I’ve said?” snaps Aphrodite.

			“‘Why does Love love War?’” echoes Apollo.

			“That isn’t the question at all,” Aphrodite protests.

			But Apollo is intrigued. “I’m crazy about War.”

			Ares wrinkles his nose. “Well, this is awkward—”

			“Some other time, perhaps,” Apollo says with lazy grace. “I didn’t mean you.”

			“There’s no coliseum big enough to hold your two egos,” mutters Hephaestus.

			“Athena’s more my style,” Apollo explains. “Fierce, fair, fantastic. War, wisdom, and craft. We’d be perfect. Artsy and hip. Bohemian but grounded. Think of the little godlings we could make.”

			“Forget about it,” says Aphrodite. “Athena’s not falling for you or anyone. Believe me.”

			“I’ll win her over yet,” says Apollo. “But, to your question, what’s the attraction of War?”

			Hephaestus raps his gavel. “Overruled. Don’t care.”

			Apollo strokes his chin. “There’s plague. During the last war, my so-called Spanish influenza was a triumph. Reaped twice as many souls as your ‘Great’ War, Ares.”

			“You’re proud of that?” demands Hephaestus.

			“It’s not the body count, Volcano God,” says Apollo. “It’s the terrible beauty of a massively destructive force. When Poseidon shakes the earth and tsunamis wipe out the coastline, it’s something to see. You loved Mount Vesuvius. Admit it. You took pride in Pompeii.”

			Hephaestus tries to look modest. “They’re still talking about it, two thousand years later.”

			Apollo shrugs. “We’re artists.” He conjures a platter of grapes, figs, and cheeses, digs in, then addresses Ares. “Don’t tell me you didn’t glory in the Battle of the Somme. Or Verdun. You were drunk on blood.” He offers him the platter. “Snack?”

			“You’re a fool,” says the god of war.

			“All I’m saying”—Apollo is still chewing—“is that my little flu virus, in its own microscopic, contagious way, was a thing of beauty.” He smacks his lips. “Annihilation has its own je ne sais quoi. We’re all guilty of it. So spare me the sermons.”

			“I’m not guilty of it,” says Aphrodite. “Destruction has nothing to do with me.”

			The male gods stare, then explode laughing. Aphrodite turns her back on them all.

			“Then there’s the poetry,” says Apollo. “Another reason to love war. Why, in the Great War . . . Not since the Trojan War has a conflict inspired such verse. Here, let me recite for you—”

			“No!” Three divine voices sound together, for once in perfect accord.

			Apollo looks genuinely surprised. “You don’t want me to?” He plucks a ukulele out of the air. “Well, I’ll be darned. Anyway,” he says, “there was the music. The Great War lit a musical fire that engulfed the world.”

			“We were just talking about that,” says Aphrodite.

			Ares frowns. “No, we weren’t.”

			“We were about to,” the goddess says. “Apollo, I summoned you here to tell your part of a particular story.”

			“Which story?” Aphrodite looks intently at him, and he nods. “Oh. That story.”





APOLLO


				Carnegie Hall—May 2, 1912





COME WITH ME to Carnegie Hall.

			It’s May 2, 1912. The Great War is still two summers away.

			James Reese Europe’s Clef Club Orchestra is about to perform, to a sellout crowd, a “Concert of Negro Music.” The audience is packed in like well-dressed sardines.

			For the first time ever in America, black musicians will perform black music at a major concert hall. An orchestra of over a hundred performers will play brass, winds and strings, banjos and mandolins. The Clef Club Chorus, 150 voices, packs in, as does the Coleridge-Taylor 40 voice choir. Ringing the back of the stage are ten upright grand pianos. Ten.

			The audience, black and white, waits for the show to begin. They’re about to hear a sound so new, so energetic and rhythmic and harmonic, so syncopated, so alive, that music will never be the same. This sound will reverberate around the world—following, though nobody knows it yet, the drums of war.

			The ten pianos must be a joke, some people think. What could the Clef Club Orchestra possibly want with ten pianos?

			They’re no joke to fifteen-year-old Aubrey Edwards, seated behind the third piano from the left. I’d had my eye on him since he was still sucking his thumb. One of the youngest musicians on the stage, Aubrey’s got the confidence of ten pianists. Give him enough fingers, and he play all ten of those instruments at once. There’s nothing about harmonies Aubrey doesn’t understand.

			The fathomless darkness of Carnegie Hall gapes at him like a gigantic mouth, waiting to devour him, piano and all. The footlights, lower teeth. The wooden stage, a tongue. Each balcony, another row of fangs.

			He hopes his parents and his sister, Kate, are out there somewhere. No telling if they got tickets. When Aubrey arrived, lines were already wrapping around the block. Young as he was, and not carrying an instrument, he had to work to persuade the door guard he was in the band.

			The other pianists take their benches. The orchestra’s so keyed up with excitement, you can smell it. The air is heavy with cologne and the wood-and-brass-and-oily-velvet smell of instruments.

			The conductor, James Reese Europe, takes the stage. A giant of a man in a glittering white tuxedo. The audience bursts with pent-up applause, like a tidal wave rolling through the auditorium and rippling up its balconies. Silence falls. The time is now.

			Even Aubrey’s confidence falters for a moment, then. How does “The Clef Club March” begin? When do they modulate? His fingers freeze. He’s going to ruin everything. Jim Europe’s going to kill him. Uncle Ames, who taught him to play, will kill him twice. He’ll never play in Harlem again. He wipes the sweat on his palms off onto his gray trouser legs.

			Then Aubrey sees sweat shining on Jim Europe’s face. He’s not the only one nervous. Europe’s peculiar eyes bulge behind his thin-rimmed glasses. It always makes his glare intense. Tonight it’s ferocious.

			Europe raises his baton. The entire room takes one deep breath.

			Music explodes that night in New York.

			Nothing, nothing like this has ever echoed off an elite concert hall’s carved walls.

			The audience includes critics, reviewers, professors, performers. The city’s musical elite. They’re swept up in the flood like everyone else. They’ll talk of this night for years.

			Here is a new musical phenomenon. Not songs written for black musicians by white composers. Not humiliating parodies that grope for a laugh, joking at the black singers’ expense. Black composers and lyricists, black musicians, excellent in their own right. Not merely excellent, but daring and vibrant and wholly original. J. Rosamond Johnson and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Harry T. Burleigh and Will Marion Cook. Paul C. Bohlen, and of course, James Reese Europe himself.

			From the moment the music takes off, Aubrey Edwards never stops grinning. All his jitters peel away. His wrists are limber, his elbows loose. He’s fueled by the crowd’s excitement.

			Attitudes explode, though the evidence would yet be long and slow in coming. Black music would begin to command not only popularity but respect for its originality and power.

			For James Reese Europe and his Clef Club Orchestra, the night is a triumph. The orchestra gave and the audience received, and their rapport swelled to a crescendo of its own.

			Aubrey Edwards fell in love that night. Not with piano; he’d always loved that. With performing. With audiences. If he could have his wish, he’d play for crowds every night for the rest of his life.

			I heard his wish, and I blessed it.

			Aubrey Edwards would have his wish at a price, following Jim Europe around the world, performing all the way to the gates of hell, in the killing fields of France.





APOLLO


				Spartanburg—October 13, 1917





COME WITH ME now to Spartanburg, South Carolina, five years later. It’s October 13, 1917, a hot autumn night. The people of Spartanburg are gathered to hear an outdoor concert. White soldiers from the training camp come in uniform. White civilians come in plaid shirts and flowered skirts, clutching cold beers and glasses of sweet tea to keep cool while they listen to “colored music.”

			“Colored,” of course, isn’t the word they use.

			The Clef Club Orchestra is no more. In its place is the Army Band of the Army National Guard, 15th New York Infantry Regiment, with Lieutenant James R. Europe conducting a goodwill concert for the people of Spartanburg, home to the army training base Camp Wadsworth. Goodwill indeed.

			Moths flutter at streetlights. Silhouetted against a purpling sky, the band tunes their instruments in squawks and scales and riffs. The sound is a discordant mess, but pregnant with anticipation: from this chaos, order and excitement will come.

			Aubrey Edwards twiddles drumsticks between his long fingers. He is tense, apprehensive about surviving this concert. The 15th New York goes to bed at night wondering if they’ll wake up to morning reveille, or to a midnight lynch mob.

			The 15th New York Infantry, an all-black regiment, came to Camp Wadsworth for combat and weapons training after basic training at Camp Dix in New Jersey, where Southern soldiers hung NO COLOREDS ALLOWED and WHITES ONLY signs on buildings.

			When Spartanburg learned a black regiment would be stationed at Camp Wadsworth, the governor of South Carolina went to Washington to lobby the government not to send black soldiers into their state. Spartanburg’s mayor, the son of a Confederate soldier, told a New York Times reporter, “With their Northern ideas about race equality, they will probably expect to be treated like white men. I can say right here that they will not be treated as anything except Negroes. We shall treat them exactly as we treat our resident Negroes. This thing is like waving a red flag in the face of a bull. . . . You remember the trouble a couple of weeks ago in Houston.”

			I know you remember Houston, Ares. It was practically a one-night war. A white police officer had entered a black woman’s home without a warrant, searching for a suspect. When she protested, he beat and arrested her, dragging her from her home though she wasn’t fully dressed. When a black soldier saw this and tried to intervene to defend the woman, the white policeman pistol-whipped the black soldier, seriously injuring him. The men of the beaten soldier’s regiment, learning no consequences would befall the white policeman, felt abandoned by white police and army officials. They saw the abuse as a last straw in a long string of injustices. So they marched into the city. Soldiers and civilians died in the shooting that followed.

			This concert is trying to prevent another Houston. To prove that black soldiers aren’t all mutineers or murderers. Aubrey Edwards and his fellow musicians feel they’d better smile and play like their lives depend upon it.

			Private Aubrey Edwards, now twenty, is a few inches taller, a good deal broader, and substantially nimbler on the piano. He wants to take the ragtime world by storm and leave his mark on the new world of American jazz. He already sees his name in lights.

			His rhythmic sense is mature for his age as a musician, and his improvisation is crazy-wild. Sometimes too wild, thinks Lieutenant Europe, who became his piano tutor once Aubrey surpassed his uncle Ames, but Europe can see that this wild kid is going somewhere. He doesn’t mean the trenches of France.

			But that’s precisely where Aubrey’s going, if General Pershing can figure out what to do with a black regiment. Who’ll command them? Who’ll fight alongside them? It’s a problem.

			America has finally joined the Great War. Germany’s torpedoing of American ships has awakened the sleeping giant, and the Zimmermann Telegram didn’t help matters any. Americans who’d wanted to leave Europeans to their own destruction now sing a different tune.

			Aubrey enlisted in the regiment that spring, along with his pal Joey Rice and most of their friends. For music dreams, not dreams of soldier’s glory. He’d be paid to play ragtime with Jim Europe all over Europe (“they named it after me,” as Jim liked to say). Practically a professional musician! Of course, he’d have to shoot a rifle in the bargain, too.

			Playing with the soldiers’ band sounded better than dressing like a toy soldier every day to operate the elevator at a high-rise office building in Midtown Manhattan. It had been the best job he could find after leaving school. But there are only so many times you can smile and wish “Good morning” to white men in suits who don’t answer, nor even look at you, before you start to question your own existence. If he stayed here, he might push elevator buttons for the rest of his life. Coming back as a veteran soldier—maybe even a war hero!—he’d have a future. And if he didn’t come back from “Over There . . .” Well, he just would. That was all.

			There’s only one piano available for the concert on the green in Spartanburg, and Private Luckey Roberts is playing it. So Private Edwards doubles on percussion. Baritone Noble Sissle sings, all swing and eyebrows and charm, and the white ladies melt. He’s a handsome devil, but a black one. So they melt, but only up to a point, especially if their husbands are watching.

			The 15th Army Band is a smash hit in Spartanburg. They might be insulted by shopkeepers during the day, kicked into gutters by town toughs, even threatened by mob attack from an Alabama regiment, but the 15th New York National Guard band’s music is just too good to ignore. Spartanburg can’t help clapping its hands and tapping its feet. Younger folks break out dancing, right on the green. They don’t want black musicians in hotel lobbies, but blowing a horn to Jim Europe’s up-tempo beat is fine and dandy.

			Yet danger still hovers like a sparking storm cloud. Aubrey, who could drum blindfolded, sees pretty girls dancing. He’s been cooped up with men and only men for weeks, and he’d like to take a second look. In New York, he could, but here? No pretty face is worth swinging from a tree.

			His mother’s letters are full of urgent warning. She grew up in Mississippi. She knows about lynching. Aubrey wonders if he’ll die in his country before he ever gets the chance to die for his country. Either way, he’d rather not.

			The concert ends, and the soldiers march in perfect military form back toward their barracks. The crowd drifts home. Anger’s been appeased, but only for tonight. Another week, and tensions will overflow. The army, hoping to prevent a race riot, will decide there’s no good place in the States to put them, and no English-speaking outfit anywhere along the Western Front that will serve beside them. So they’ll hand them off to the French Army like a goodwill offering. No, toss them like a hot potato.

			No, lob them like a hand grenade.





DECEMBER 1942


				Intersection





“NOT,” ARES SAYS, “that I would ever object to hearing a story about a soldier, but how did we get from a British girl and her soldier boyfriend to this piano-playing American recruit? Did I miss something?”

			“Their stories intersect,” Apollo explains. “Soon.”

			Ares shrugs. “I mean, not that it matters to me.”

			Of course not.

			“Want me to stick around, Goddess?” inquires Apollo.

			“Certainly,” she tells him. “There’s so much more to tell. We’ve only barely begun.”





APHRODITE


				Royal Albert Hall—November 25, 1917





AT ONE O’CLOCK, Hazel Windicott went down to the street, circled the King’s Whiskers, and made for their doorway meet-up. In her stomach lurked a silent fear: James wouldn’t be there.

			She almost missed him. He leaned against the doorway where they’d spoken before.

			“Look at you,” he said.

			“I can’t, unless you’ve brought a mirror,” she told him.

			Somehow it was harder, not easier, to meet each other again, this third time together, now that they knew each other a little better. More wonderful, but more unsure; there were no more polite formalities to hide behind. No script at all. The poor darlings.

			“Let’s get out of here,” James proposed, and Hazel seized his hand and dragged him down the street at a run. “Hold a moment.” He laughed. “You’re in better trim than I am.” She wasn’t, really, but between laughing and running, James could scarcely draw a proper breath.

			He pulled a train schedule and a map from his pocket. “All right, then, Miss You-Don’t-Know-London-Do-You,” he said. “I’ll have you know that I’ve got matters all figured out.”

			“Oh?”

			“S’right. We’ll head up to the train station at Bow. From there, we’ll take the District Railway to Gloucester Road”—he squinted at his notes—“and we’ll take the Piccadilly Line one stop up, to Kensington High Street. From there, we walk to Hyde Park.”

			“Impressive, my Man About Town,” said Hazel.

			“None of that, now.” Dimples again.

			They reached the station, bought tickets, boarded the train, then collapsed into seats. The train pulled out, and London slid by. James watched the skyline. It was the more gentlemanly option than staring at Hazel.

			“You notice every grand building, don’t you?”

			“Do I?”

			“What sorts of buildings do you favor?”

			No one had asked him that before. He looked to see if she was merely struggling to make polite conversation, but she watched his face with open curiosity. She really wanted to know.

			“Of course I like the grand old buildings. The guildhalls and churches and government palaces.” He turned toward her. “But what really interests me is less, oh, showy, and more useful. Take hospitals. Ever since the war, we haven’t had near enough. They could be bigger, too, and more modern. Better plumbing and wiring. I’ve been reading about it.”

			“Will we need such hospitals after the war ends?” asked Hazel.

			“You mean, if it ever does.” He immediately regretted it.

			She laid her hand on his arm. “Don’t say that. It must.”

			He risked a look into her eyes. “I was a kid when it began,” he said. “I have to remind myself life was normal once. Cousins gathering over Easter holidays. Summer visits to my gran on the coast. Playing at the beach. Making castles in the sand.”

			Hazel, with neither siblings nor young cousins, saw this rosy picture wistfully.

			“One older cousin died in the fighting at the Somme,” he said. “The other lost a leg.”

			Hazel leaned against his shoulder. “What were they like?”

			He stared out the window. “Footballers.” He smiled sadly. “Will was light on his feet. Mike was quick. You should’ve seen them.”

			“The war must end before long,” said Hazel. “They can’t be insane enough to let it last forever. Besides, the Americans are coming. I expect the Germans are terrified of them.”

			He laughed ruefully. “I suppose a German’s at least as tough as an American. But the Americans will have the numbers on their side, once enough of them get here.” He sighed. “I wish a couple million would arrive this week. If the war ended Saturday, I wouldn’t have to go.”

			Hazel threaded her arm through his elbow.

			“Let’s hope they will come,” she said. “Millions on Monday. Millions on Tuesday. Extra millions on Wednesday.”

			He smiled, but his eyes were sad. “I’m a coward, aren’t I?” he said. “Now you know.”

			She reached up and pulled his chin to face her. “Not a coward,” she said firmly. “You’d like to live, and who wouldn’t?” She smiled. “I’d like you to live, too.”

			Her face was so near, and her eyes so warm. It took all of James’s self-command not to kiss her, there on the train. Not like this, he told himself. Not here.

			“All right, then.” He managed a smile. “For your sake, I will live. Since you want me to.”

			Why wouldn’t he kiss her? Hazel tried not to mind. Her gaze kept sliding down to his inescapable lips.

			“I do want you to live,” she said. “Hurry on back, and build those hospitals.”

			“Not only hospitals,” he said. “Factories. Warehouses. Apartments. With the train lines expanding, there’ll be a need for more homes, schools, more communities along the routes. The building magazines all say so. If, after the war, I could study architecture . . .” He caught himself. Surely he was putting the piano girl into a coma of boredom. “Sorry. Listen to me nattering on!”

			“I am listening,” she said. “I think it’s marvelous. You should have an ambition.” She frowned. “I wish I had a clearer one myself.” She gazed out the window at drab buildings abutting the tracks. “In Poplar there are awful slums, down near the docks. St. Matthias’s runs charities for dockworkers’ families. But I suppose selling jam at bazaars and old books at jumble sales won’t fix anything, will it?”

			“Not unless you’ve got an awful lot of books and jam.”

			They only just barely caught the conductor’s announcement that they’d reached Gloucester Road. After changing for the Piccadilly Line, they got off at Kensington High Street and followed the press of bodies into the slanting afternoon light. Grayish, wintry-green Hyde Park led them to the Royal Albert Hall, which loomed like an ocean voyager. They joined streaming throngs of concertgoers at the entry doors, then climbed flight after flight of stairs, to the level just below the gallery at the very top.

			Hazel marveled at the drop beneath them, past two tiers of balconies, to the stage below.

			“I’m sorry these were the best seats I could get,” James said.

			“Don’t be silly,” she said. “This is breathtaking.” She peeped over the rail. She swallowed. “How high up are we?”

			“Best not to think of it.”

			James helped Hazel out of her coat, then eased out of his and sat. Spectators up at this level were fewer and scattered, so they were, for all intents, alone. With four thousand other people. He felt all arms and hands, with no place to put them, and a terrible dread that he might wrap them around Hazel and not let go. He jammed his hands under his thighs.

			Hazel watched the flood of humanity streaming in. She commented on the size of the grand piano and the number of seats for the orchestra. She was never dull, never bored. Always alert and interested. He thought of all he’d said on the train. He’d never spoken at such length to a girl who wasn’t a relative. He could talk to Hazel all day, all year, for a lifetime, forever.

			Hazel gestured to the music hall. “How would you like to have built this little place?”

			“Little!” He looked about the vast room. “Designing it would’ve been fun,” he said. “All that weight to support, and no columns to block the view. But I wouldn’t be one of the chaps on the scaffolding, plastering ceilings. Not for the Crown Jewels.”

			She laughed. “I don’t like heights much, either,” she said, “but for the Crown Jewels, I think I’d give ceiling plastering a try.”

			“You’re braver than I am.” He grinned. “You shou