Lieutenant Lucien Duplan eased the hammer of his revolver into a safe position before pointing the gun at the ground. He hadn’t become an officer of the Belgian army to shoot his fellow countrymen, or women. The lamp in the open window flickered, scattering the shadows across the dead grass beneath his feet. The gunshot wound at his side throbbed.
With her back toward him, the stocky woman stiffened. The shawl covering her head melded with her bulky dress until her shadowy figure resembled a black spirit. The man puffed on his pipe and smoke cast a veil over his coarse features. Neither said a word.
Glancing in the glowing windows, Luc searched for signs of his men. This had to be the correct house. Beyond the lamp, he made out the black beams of the low ceiling and the green bundles of drying herbs. Or had he lost his way? He shook himself. No, this was the right house. She had mentioned treating soldiers and Cocard. The skin at the base of his neck itched. Still, he couldn’t be too careful. “Monsieur Thevenet?”
The old man removed the pipe from his mouth before holding out his free hand. “Lieutenant Duplan?”
The woman inhaled sharply.
Ignoring her, Luc slid his palm against the man’s. Calluses indicated the farmer’s strength. Thank the Almighty, Luc had found the correct house. “My men?”
“Inside.” Thevenet jerked his head to the rectangular farmhouse. “They said there’d be two of you.”
“Mille requires assistance to complete the journey.” And nursing. And rest. And so many other things. Luc sighed. He wouldn’t lose another man. Couldn’t lose another one. Thevenet may not be happy his daughter wasn’t a nun, but to encounter a nurse out here was nothing short of a miracle. “Mille has a leg injury, Sister.”
Luc skimmed her bulky frame and offered her the traditional title of respect although she didn’t wear a nurse’s uniform.
“I have not yet finished my nurse’s training, but have some experience with injuries.” The woman scampered toward the farmer. Turning, she tugged on his sleeve. “Perhaps we should take our visitor inside, Papa.”
She turned her face aside.
Instead of entering the house, Thevenet cupped his daughter’s arm and propelled her forward a few steps into the golden bars of lamplight. “I was just about to take Madeline inside to tend your men.”
Light washed over the soft planes of her cheek, the straight line of her nose and gilded the lush crescent of her eyelashes.
Luc blinked and cast back in his memories. When was the last time he’d enjoyed a lovely, young woman’s company? Never. His fiancée had once accused him of being made of stone. Guess this blasted war had changed him more than he knew. Luc smoothed his hair—caked with mud, the strands refused to lay flat. Next, he hand-pressed the shirt he’d taken from a clothesline he’d passed last week. “How much training do you have?”
She bit her bottom lip for a moment. “A year. But I’ve tended many neighbors before I left for school.”
A true miracle then. Luc scratched the week’s worth of stubble sprouting from his chin. “I’ll need my men to bring Mille here before sun-up.”
Thevenet chewed on the pipe stem. “That may not be possible. We gave them some wine to celebrate their safe arrival.”
“I see.” Luc swallowed his groan. He would have to carry Mille himself. Thankfully, the hedge concealing the wounded soldier was only three kilometers back. A stabbing pain traveled from his side down his leg. He breathed slowly until it disappeared.
“We shall take the wagon.” Thevenet lumbered back toward the rickety vee-shaped wagon. Stalks of harvested wheat waved through the opened sticks of the bed.
Skirts swishing over the grass, Madeline scampered after him. “No! You’ll be shot for being out after curfew.”
He shook off his daughter’s touch. “We must help our Jas.”
The revolver grew heavy in Luc’s grip. Despite her earlier words, Sister Madeline did not seem keen on helping his men.
“I know, Papa.” She grabbed the harness before the graybeard could reach it and hugged it to her chest. “And we will help our brave soldiers. But I will go. I have a pass to be out after dark.”
How had the good Sister obtained such a thing? The cabbageheads were stingy with their passes. Were words the extent of her loyalty to Belgium? Pressing his injured side, Luc straightened. “Perhaps—”
She turned her back to him and shook the harness at her father. “No one would believe I came from the station with a wagon full of grain, I shall take the dog cart.”
Monsieur Thevenet prodded the valise on the ground with his muddy boot. “That does not require a cart.”
She raked off her headscarf. “If the Jas is injured, I will need something to carry him. The dog cart is perfect. As for my baggage… Do you still have that old trunk?”
The graybeard nodded.
Luc planted his hands on his hips. His side twinged at the contact with his knuckles. He was an officer in His Majesty’s service, how had he lost command of the situation? “A moment, if you please, Monsieur. Sister.”
Thevenet scratched his mustache. “You’re not proposing stuffing the soldier into the chest?”
Madeline waved his words away. “Certainly not, Papa. The Germans are searching all the baggage. The wounded man can lay on top of the chest and hide underneath the hedges when a patrol passes.”
Luc stiffened. He’d decide where he and his man hid. “Now, see here.”
“I’ll get the cart.” Thevenet spun on his heel and marched toward a low-slung barn perpendicular to the house.
Bouncing on the balls of her feet, she faced Luc. “Now, then, let me see to that wound.”
Her long, slim fingers danced over his injured side.
Tingles mingled freely with the ache engendered by the contact. Reigning his body in, he brushed aside her touch. She was a nurse for pity’s sake and already wary of the disrespect some offered healing sisters. “My man first, Sister.”
Lamplight sparked off Madeline’s brown eyes before she narrowed them. Her full lips pursed and her fingers curled into fists. “Untreated wounds can become infected. I don’t have enough experience in treating infections.”
“Thankfully, neither I nor my wound plan to strain the bounds of your experience.”
She flashed the whites of her eyes.
Thevenet trudged out of the barn dragging the dog cart behind him. Wood clattered against wood between the squeaking of the wheel.
Closing his eyes for a moment, Luc shook his head. With a sound like that, the entire German army would be upon them before they traveled ten meters. “I will carry my man back here.”
“If you could have carried him, you would have.” Madeline tossed her head, sending her blond curls bouncing, and stomped to her father’s side. “The cart is faster.”
Impertinent for a woman. Small wonder she hadn’t become a nun. They were obedient. Luc ground his teeth together.
Thevenet rolled the cart back and forth, gouging furrows in the dead grass. “I’ve greased the axle. Give it a minute and it’ll be silent.”
On the next push, the cart emitted a soft growl.
Madeline eased into her father’s spot. Grasping the narrow shafts in her hands, she leaned forward. Her sabots slipped on the ground. Her tongue sticking out between her teeth, she inched forward. “The trunk is heavier than I expected.”
She wouldn’t have to worry about it for long. Luc would pull the cart. Holding his injured side, he retrieved the valise on the ground and strode forward.
“Yes, it’s heavy.” Thevenet nodded. “We’ve stored a few things inside for safe-keeping. I took out most, but left in the linens. Even the Boches wouldn’t believe a woman would haul around an empty trunk.”
She snorted. “Of course they would. The Germans have pilfered everything of value from the baggage.”
Luc’s grip tightened on the handle. Damn Germans. Why couldn’t they have respected Belgium’s neutrality? He closed the gap between himself and Madeline.
She veered away. A saucy smile curved her lips; it didn’t reach her eyes. “Your man first, right?”
Thevenet covered a bark of laughter with a cough. Ducking his head, he hurried toward the barn.
Heat burned up Luc’s neck as he traipsed after her. He didn’t enjoy having his words thrown back at him. What man did? He set her valise on the scarred trunk. “I can pull the cart, Sister.”
“So can I.” She swerved back onto a path to the gap in the hedge. “And I’m not injured.”
Luc crossed his arms. “You’re the most disobedient nurse I’ve ever met.”
Grunting, she tugged the cart onto the rutted road. Her white teeth glowed in the darkness. “Hush now. The Boches could be anywhere and you’re loud.”
He clamped his lips together. Three kilometers never seemed so far.
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