Luc plodded down the road. A full moon struggled to pull free of the smoke from the battlefield, miles to the south. The cannonading beat like a war drum. Soon…soon he’d be fighting, too. The war couldn’t end until he rejoined the battle to free Belgium.
The dog cart wheel squeaked with the softness of a field mouse. Madeline winced and glanced about. A blond curl fell on her shoulder like a spill of moonlight.
His nails dug into his palms to keep from reaching for it. He had a fiancée. Somewhere. Funny how this woman would conjure memories of Laure. Madeline was fair where Laure’s hair was unrelieved ebony. Madeline was stocky like a peasant, while Laure was willowy. Madeline wanted to be a nurse to serve others, while Laure…
He cut off the thought. He would not be so disloyal to his fiancée. Laure’s nature was as befitted a lady. His lady—demure, proper and awaiting his lead. All admirable traits for a Baron’s future wife. It was why his parents had picked her for him.
Well, that and her mining fortune.
Luc kicked at a clod, spraying dirt along the road. Funny, he hadn’t minded the arrangement until lately. His side throbbed but he dare not check his injury. His traveling companion watched his every move. If he hadn’t warned her about the need to be quiet, she might still be nagging him for permission to check his side.
His man, Mille, must be treated first. God knew what he would do if Mille’s leg wound had become infected. He had been eyeing the revolver a little too much for Luc’s liking.
“How much further?” Madeline’s whisper swirled on a white cloud. Cold rouged her cheeks and she sniffed.
He plucked at the buttons of his jacket. She had already refused it once. He caught her eye.
She shook her head.
He sighed. He’d hoped she’d eventually see reason and wear it.
“Not much further, Sister.” His moist breath washed over his face then his skin turned clammy. He could handle a little fever. Mille needed help now. Luc scanned the dark silhouettes of the trees clawing at the night sky. Unharvested grain swished against the hedges. Twenty meters ahead, a splintered pine exposed its bloodless innards. They were close. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he mimicked a swallow’s call.
The cart’s wheel squeaked.
Madeline drew up short. The trunk in the dog cart rattled. Biting her lip, she slowly lowered the traces.
A heartbeat ticked by. Then another. Luc’s ears strained against the velvet night and his mouth dried. Just because Mille didn’t answer didn’t mean he was dead. He could have passed out. Or—
A high-pitched whistle shot from the hedge on the left.
“Mille.” Luc darted forward; his injury pulled at his side. “Leopold.”
“Leopold?” Groaning, Madeline lurched forward, dragging the cart behind her. “I thought there was only one man.”
A soft woof accompanied the rustle of leaves. Then a German shepherd’s black nose glistened in the moonlight. The black and brown body soon followed. Tail wagging, the dog trotted down the road.
“It’s a dog.” She dropped the traces and held out her hands.
Leopold sniffed the air then he stilled and pointed his snout at her.
“Come here, boy.” Crouching, she snapped her fingers with one hand. The other fumbled with her skirts.
Luc cleared his throat. “Leopold isn’t a pet. He’s—”
The shepherd loped past Luc, circled Madeline once then snuffled her hand.
The traitor! Luc snapped his fingers. Leopold was a military dog under Luc’s command. He needed to remember it.
Leopold sat in front of her.
“You’re such a good boy.” She offered the dog a crust of bread before scratching him behind his ears.
Leopold held the bread between his teeth while stretching his neck out for Madeline’s attention.
“Lieutenant?” Mille hissed from the bushes.
“Here.” Luc bit off the word and stomped his foot. “Leopold. Come.”
The dog swallowed the bread, tucked his tail between his legs and belly-crawled over.
Smiling, Madeline swiped at the dog hair clinging to her skirt. “We weren’t allowed to have dogs in the clinique. I have missed them.”
“Yes, well.” Luc pointed to the ground by his feet. The canine prostrated himself, his brown eyes shining brightly in the moonlight. “He’s a soldier under my command and must act the part, Sister.”
“Yes, sir.” She straightened her shoulders and her right arm twitched.
Luc’s eyes narrowed. She had better not salute him. He would—
A twig snapped behind him. Mille’s pale face emerged from under the hedge. “You’ve brought a woman?”
“A nurse.” Luc clutched his skull. Was everyone going to question his authority tonight? “I brought a nurse. Sister Madeline Thevenet meet Private Mille.”
“Private Mille.” She turned the cart so it faced her village, then fumbled with the bulging handkerchief at her waist. “Are you hungry?”
“You might want to check my injury before wasting your food.” Mille slunk back under the hedge.
Luc ground his teeth together. He couldn’t afford pessimism. Neither would he lose another man, not to the cold, or his wounds, or anything else. “He’ll eat.”
She tugged her valise out of the cart and marched toward him, swinging the bundle from her fingers. “You might want to set the example, Lieutenant.”
Luc rolled his shoulders. At least his man hadn’t lost his sense of humor. Crossing to the hedge, he found a thin spot. Branches scratched his wrists as he parted the limbs and walked through. “Patch him up so we can leave before the Boches return.”
“Last patrol came through about an hour ago.” On the right, Mille wiggled out from under the hedge. The bandage swelled the skin above his knee. His pant leg flopped like broken wings when he shimmied lower. “Another one should be through in thirty to forty minutes.”
The shepherd slunk toward Luc before disappearing under the hedge. Leaves flitted to the ground as the dog settled in.
Madeline’s fingers brushed Luc’s. Holding the valise to her chest with her other hand, she frowned at the hedge. “If you hold one side, I can hold this one.”
Luc leaned forward, holding back more branches with his forearm.
She hopped over the thick base. The hedge snatched at her skirts, lifted her hem, and exposed one slim ankle.
Heat spiraled through him. Damn fever.
Fabric tore. She sucked in a breath, stumbled a few steps then found her footing. Dropping her valise, she reeled in the fabric and poked her fingers through the six centimeter gash just above the hem. Sighing, she flung it to the ground and shook out her skirts. “At least Madame isn’t here to see the sad state of my dress.”
“I’m sure she wouldn’t mind a little tear. After all, you are attending to an injured man, Sister.”
“You don’t know Madame.” Her dress mushroomed up around her as she sank to the ground. Sure movements jerked on the ties of her valise. “Our dress code was strictly enforced. Cuffs had to be changed quite promptly to prevent spreading infection.” Lifting the valise lid, she rooted around the interior. “When were you injured?”
Luc plucked a scrap of wool from the hedge before joining her. “He was injured at Liège.”
She froze. Her mouth opened and closed twice before she spoke. “But that was over two months ago.”
“His wound was attended to right away. Then we had to evacuate.”
“I see.” She lifted her hand from the suitcase. Metal rasped and moonlight gilded the electric torch.
“We held our fort for six days after the main one fell.” Jaw thrust forward, Mille worked up onto his elbows. “Then the magazine exploded. We had no choice but to leave.”
Those that still lived. Luc’s skin itched. And they were so few in number… The injured that couldn’t leave had manned the last Maxim machine gun to give the rest of them a chance.
“Burgomaster Max printed the German demand that we surrender. The Boches praised your defense, said we’d fulfilled honor’s requirements, then told us to behave. Like we were recalcitrant children.” She fiddled with the battery seconds before light shot out of the bulbous glass lens in the front of the silver reflector.
Raising his right hand, Mille shielded his face. “We didn’t, did we?”
“The King would never surrender.” Luc grabbed the lantern and shut it off. “Do you want to draw the attention of the entire Boche army?”
She lurched for the torch, hooked the handle and tugged. “I need light to see his wound.”
Luc wrapped his hand around hers, stilling the fight. “If we’re spotted…”
Her skin softened under his palm. “I know. But Mille said we have about another half hour or so.”
“Light can be seen from kilometers away.” He swept his thumb along the back of her hand.
She sucked in a breath.
Mille cleared his throat. “You could just leave me. I’m sure I already have blood poisoning.”
Closing her eyes, she turned her face to the moon. “Give me your jacket.”
“Now, Sister?” Luc’s hold tightened. This had to be a trick for her to regain the electric torch. She hadn’t wanted her father to shelter his men, after all. She might be on the Boches’ side. He’d heard the stories.
She tugged her hand free of his and reached for the buttons of her coat. “Between your jacket and my coat, both I and the light should be covered.”
“Of course.” His shoulders sagged. He hadn’t really believed she was a traitor. Yet, he couldn’t be too careful. He was responsible for his men. He’d promised to lead them back to the fight.
Shrugging out of her coat, she spread it over Mille’s legs then reached for the torch and shoved it under the cloth. “I’ll turn on the lamp and get into a comfortable position. Drape your coat over any gaps.”
Mille flopped back on the ground. “You should just leave me.”
She shook her head. “Were you on the stage before taking up the colors?”
Laughter bubbled past Luc’s lips. He swallowed it down, felt the foreign sound shred his throat on the way to his stomach.
Mille crossed his arms over his chest. “I thought nurses were nice.”
“And I thought medical professionals were supposed to diagnose disease not the patient. Apparently we were both mistaken.” Flipping up the edge of her jacket, she ducked under it. A switch clicked and light stretched across the grass.
Mille gasped like a landed fish.
If her mouth kept him fighting, Luc would encourage her to talk often. Now to the problem at hand. To cover the seepage, he’d need to split his jacket in two. Good thing the fever kept him warm. Luc clasped the garment in both hands.
“Hmm.” She dragged her suitcase partially under her coat, then fluffed her skirts to block out the right side.
Luc draped his jacket over the remaining seam.
“Hmmm?” Mille rose on his elbows. A beam of light darted toward the hedges. “Is it bad?”
“It doesn’t smell like gangrene, um, blood poisoning.” Her elbows tented the coat, sending sparks of light this way and that. Scissors snipped. “I’ll know more once I remove the bandage.”
Setting his hand on the other man’s chest, Luc pushed Mille flat.
“She’s sniffing me.” Mille closed his eyes and clamped his lips together.
Luc winced. They hadn’t bathed in days. Their body odor might mask the stench of rot. No, he mustn’t think it.
The switch clicked then Madeline wiggled free of the coats. Strands of hair floated around her head, catching the moonlight. She blew them out of her eyes before studying her bloody fingers. “You’ve broken a few stitches, and the skin is red, but I don’t see any sign of infection.”
“Are you certain?”
“Yes. Yes, of course.” She rubbed her hands in the grass before stopping. “I’ll disinfect the wound with carbolic then bandage it up.”
Mille cracked an eye and peered at her. “What about the stitches?”
“Once we return to my home, I’ll fix them.” She pushed back a stray hair. “The light will be better.”
Luc’s gut clenched. She was lying. But about what?
Her hands shook before she set them on the ground and she pushed to her feet. Dead grass flaked off her skirt when she raked it up her leg.
Look away. Luc’s gaze fastened on the trim ankle before traveling up the slim calve.
Mille! The man shouldn’t be looking at her legs. Rising to his knees, Luc whisked up his jacket and used it to block the soldier’s view. White shimmered in Luc’s peripheral vision along with the delicate webbing of lace. He swallowed. Hard. “What do you think you’re doing, Sister?”
Her skirts twitched. “You don’t think I carried the medicine in my valise, do you? The Boches have been requisitioning everything of value.”
“Including…” The rest of his words stuck in his dry throat as a curve of her thigh came into view. A nun. She was promised to be a nun.
“Medicine. They raided our clinique within days of arriving. Naturally, we hid most of our stores. But when they ordered us to close, we divvied up the supplies before heading home.” Nimble fingers disappeared into the snowy linen and emerged with a brown bottle. She tilted the label toward the heavens. “Ha! I thought I’d put it there. Now for the bandages.”
“Seems a shame to waste such fine garments.” Leaning back on his elbows, Mille sighed. His line of sight tracked over the protection of the jacket right to her thigh.
“Oh!” She stumbled back a step and slapped her skirts down.
Luc tossed the jacket into the other man’s face. “Private Mille.”
He reached for the covering to bare his face.
“Keep it in place until the Sister is finished attending you.” Luc infused steel in his voice. Madeline deserved their respect not their gawking.
“Yes, sir.” Mille sank to the ground. The jacket slipped.
Luc righted it before rising. “I’ll see if your trunk contains anything we can use as bandages.”
“But—” She raised her hand and stepped forward.
“I insist.” Shoving aside the branches, he stormed through the hedge. No way she would ruin such delicate lace. He’d give her the shirt off his back first.
Kicking free of the alder bush, he stumbled on the road. He glanced left then right. Shadows. Darkness. The damn German army could be upon him before he spied them. Wiping his damp hands on his pants, he stomped to the cart and yanked on the straps.
Throwing open the lid, he caught it before it could slam against the side of the cart. Moonlight puddled on the snowy linens inside. His fingers glided across the lace tatted collar, the intricate embroidery on the bodice, and tiny sleeves of the night gown. Roses grew from the two pillowcases. A length of cream silk streamed between his fingers. Sweet God in heaven. Did all nuns wear such things under their habits?
He caught his breath and jerked his hand back.
Leopold growled. Sticking his nose out, he peered to the right and bared his teeth.
Germans! Luc lowered the lid of the chest and searched the road. The red eye of a cigarette glowed in the darkness. Damnation! He’d forgotten the curve in the road. Sprinting for the opening, he dove through. Twisting at the last minute, he hit shoulder first. Pain blanked his vision as he rolled to his side then scrambled to his feet. “Boches.”
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