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Chapter 27

Gretchen awoke in a panic. Disoriented in time, confused in space—but, mostly, petrified by a memory.


Her eyes sped to the door. Closed. For a moment, she was relieved. There was nothing in the door to say that her memory was false. She remembered closing that door, on a smiling face.


Still—


She sat up. Her eyes scanned the room. That act of long-practiced vigilance brought back a measure of calm. Her family was piled all over the floor, clustered in little heaps, arms and legs entwined in sleep. The automatic snuggling of people for whom winter was a familiar assassin. Even in midsummer, the feel of another body—warm, warm—brought a primordial sense of safety.


Smiling, Gretchen looked down. Her own baby was cradled in her arm. Wilhelm was still fast asleep. To her left, Annalise pressed herself against Gretchen's hip, reacting to the sudden absence of a shoulder. To her right, Gramma did the same. Muttering, now half-awake with the light hold on sleep of the elderly.


Gretchen's eyes went back to the door. The memory poured back in, demanding, insistent.


I must know!


As gently as possible, she disentangled herself from the others. Gramma awoke fully, then. The old woman was obviously confused and disoriented by their surroundings. Gretchen handed Wilhelm to her. Automatically, Gramma took the baby. The familiar act brought reassurance.


Gretchen arose and stepped to the door. She could hear the faint sound of voices coming from the corridor beyond. No words, just voices. She hesitated.


I must know. Firmly, decisively—almost frantically—she opened the door.


There were four young men there. Sitting easily, their backs leaning against the opposite wall of the corridor, legs stretched out before them. They had obviously been engaged in cheerful but quiet conversation.


The suddenness with which Gretchen opened the door startled them. Four faces jerked toward her.


She saw only the face in the middle. Smiling, now; beaming, now; rising to his feet; coming toward her—so eagerly—smiling, smiling. Green eyes like spring itself. Life, enlarged by spectacles.


Gretchen almost collapsed from relief. Shakily, she leaned against the doorframe, clutching it with a hand. A moment later, she was enfolded in his arms.


Safe.


 


She had noticed, without wondering at the reason, that one of Jeff's friends had hurried down the corridor as soon as she appeared from her room. A minute or two later, he returned. With him came several older people.


Two of them, Gretchen recognized—the duchess and the war leader. To her relief, they were both smiling broadly. Gretchen had been half certain that the powerful figures in Jeff's world would ban his marriage to such a one as she. Then, seeing the face of the young woman who accompanied them, her jaw almost dropped.


She had never seen one before—they had all been banned from her town long ago—but she had no doubt at all.


A court Jew—here?


That the woman was Jewish, Gretchen was certain. Her features, her skin tone, her long black hair—so curly!—fit the descriptions she had heard. And men always said Jewesses were beautiful, which she most certainly was.


That she was a court Jew, Gretchen was not so certain. She knew very little about noblemen, and princes and kings, and the life of their courts. But who else would have such poise?


Gretchen brought her surprised reaction under control immediately. She had no personal animus against Jews, and she had no desire to offend the woman. Leaving aside whatever influence the Jewess might have in the American court in her own right, Gretchen was quite certain from little subtleties in body language that the Jewess was the war leader's concubine.


The duchess arrived first, arms spread wide in greeting, and Gretchen lost her self-composure again. The duchess was hugging her!


Gretchen couldn't understand most of what the duchess was saying. She recognized many of the words, but the sense of them was simply gibberish.


"—get you some—garble—first thing! Can't have you—garble—laugh—in a robe! Then—garble—help us. Garble—need good men but—garble—wheat from the—garble (chaff?)."


The Jewess began to speak, translating the duchess' words. Her German was excellent. The accent was a bit odd—Dutch? Spanish?—and the intonation far more cultured than anything Gretchen was accustomed to, but she understood perfectly.


The words themselves, at least. The content of the words was insane.


 


Everything that happened that day was insane. And the next day, and the next. Gretchen obeyed, of course. She had no choice in any event, and the constant presence of Jeff kept her reassured. True, her husband to be was every bit as crazed as the other Americans, but Gretchen was learning to trust those green eyes. Very much.


By the fourth day, the day of her wedding, Gretchen would be reconciled to her new reality. And why not? There were worse things in the world than losing your mind and going to heaven. Much worse.


 


 


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Framed