Madeline dunked her hands in the bucket hanging from a nail on a post. Frigid water stung her skin. Flakes of brown floated on the liquid inside. Picking up the bar of lye soap, she scrubbed her hands, paying careful attention to her fingernails.
In the barn around her, chickens scratched and pecked at the hay-covered floor. An old nag dozed, her yellow tail swishing at the buzzing flies. A brown and white goat ate the straw near an empty stall. Four empty stalls. One where Mille and Luc slept, while she and her brother bedded down out here. Four stallions and Uncle’s prized mare exchanged for a piece of paper and a German colonel’s signature.
Paper wouldn’t harvest the wheat before it rotted in the fields.
Nothing would bring back her parents.
The soap slipped from her hands and plopped into the bucket. Bloody water splashed her apron, diluting the crimson dots she’d earned while treating Mille’s wounded leg. Mama and Papa were dead. Stars twinkled in her peripheral vision. She clung to the post. An iridescent bubble slipped down the back of her hand, popped when it hit her cuff.
But something had changed her brother.
With his thin arms wrapped around his body, Mathieu lay curled on top of a mound of straw. Blond hair flopped over his round cheeks. He stared unblinking at something no one else could see.
She blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. He’d been like that when she’d found him in the orchard. Two hours hadn’t changed him.
Cold air swirled around her ankles as the barn door banged open.
Her bones rattled inside her skin. Heart pounding, she set her hand over her chest and her gaze flew to the opening. Watery sunlight glinted off bare skin. Luc. Steam rose from the pails hanging from each hand and created an otherworldly haze around him. She caught her breath.
“You shouldn’t be out in the cold without a shirt.” Her attention traveled over his gilded muscles to his tapered waist. Crimson marbled the freshly cleaned skin but she couldn’t tell much about his injury from this distance, and he’d refused to allow her a closer inspection. Yet. She skimmed the trousers hanging from his slim hips and stopped on his bare feet. “You don’t want to turn your fever into pneumonia.”
“My apologies.” Hooking his foot around the door, Luc pulled it closed after him. “I didn’t want to finish my toilette until after you’d seen to my side.”
Madeline plunged her hands into the cold water. Suds formed a scum on the rusty water. “You’re not preparing any more excuses to prevent me from treating your wound?”
“I’ve watched you clean and stitch Mille’s leg.” Luc stalked silently across the barn. “You’re more than capable to tend me.”
“Thank you.” Heavens above, he was quiet. The hair on her nape rose. Then again, he had to have been to avoid the Boches this long. Too bad stealth hadn’t protected his men. Why had a villager betrayed them? Couldn’t he see the army was the best hope Belgium had to reclaim her independence?
Stepping into the lantern light, Luc paused beside Mathieu. “How is your brother faring?”
“No change.” She bit her lip. If only she’d completed her nursing studies, she might know how to help him. As things stood… Her shoulders sagged. As things stood, she could do nothing. Taking her hands from the bucket, she flung off the water.
Nothing rarely helped anyone.
Unless they were dying. Her knees shook, threatened to collapse. She couldn’t lose Mathieu too. She just couldn’t.
Setting one bucket on the dirt floor, Luc lifted the dirty pail of water off the hook and exchanged it for the one in his other hand. “Is he still responding to your commands?”
“Yes.” Tugging the towel off another peg, she dried her hands. Her fingers caressed the tatted lace finishing the edge. Mama’s work. Her vision swam.
He raised his palm and moved it toward her.
She closed her eyes and counted heartbeats until he caressed her cheek. She needed his strength, his determination. She’d faced the Boches, hid from them and stitched up his friend because he needed her to. Where would she be when he left?
And he must leave. His presence endangered them all.
And she mustn’t grow to depend on him. She opened her eyes.
Suspended centimeters from her jaw, his hand shook, then his fingers curled. Tendons roped his forearms before he lowered his arm. “Just stay close to him. He’ll need you once he comes out of his stupor.”
She blinked. “You’ve seen this before?”
Luc’s lips firmed and he studied the dirty water.
She rested her hand on his forearm. Sinew played under her palm. His fever quickly heated her skin. “Luc?”
“Yes.” Pulling away, he strode to the door.
She chased after him. “When? What’s the treatment? How long does the stupor usually last?”
He kicked the door open and hurled the bucket contents onto the mud outside. The wood banged against the side of the barn before bouncing back. He caught the door before it slammed home and eased it into place.
Tension bunched his shoulders. Slipping around her, he set the empty bucket on a peg above the barrel of oats, then hung his head. “Yes, I’ve seen it.”
Her stomach knotted. Had the malady not ended well? She glanced at her brother. Mathieu had eaten the bits of beef she’d fed him, so he wouldn’t starve. And other than a few cuts and bruises, he appeared healthy. She sucked her bottom lip into her mouth. Damn this war.
Standing in front of her, Luc braced his legs apart. Frown lines bracketed his mouth. “At Liège. The fort was under siege. At first, the shells didn’t do too much damage to the reinforced concrete, but then the enemy brought in bigger cannons, bigger shells.”
Releasing her lip, she sucked air into her lungs. Why was he talking of battle? Mathieu wasn’t a soldier, and the Germans had marched through her village weeks ago.
“Those explosions…” Luc’s brown eyes glazed over as he turned inward and looked at the events playing in his mind. “They blew everything apart—the walls, the ceiling, men. Day after day. Night after night.” He shuddered. “You can’t blame a man for wanting to leave. Even if the only place he can run is deep inside himself.”
“No. No, you can’t.” Cold snaked down her spine. Luc had a reason for sharing his story. Did she want to know it? She shook her head and took a step back.
He caught her hands, stopping her retreat. “Mathieu may have been told to hide, but the need to help his parents would have overcome that.”
“He saw.” Oh Merciful God, he’d seen their parents executed. No seven-year old should ever see that. She twisted in Luc’s grip, wanting to go to her brother, to sweep the memory away.
Holding her tight, Luc nodded once. “You’ll need to stay close to him once we leave here.”
“Yes. Yes. I understand.”
“If he snaps back to us while we’re traveling, he could lead the Germans right to us. The Boches will investigate screaming.”
“Wait. What?” She tugged on her hands. Her knuckle popped. “We’ll be here, at Uncle Cyprien’s. And even if the Germans did barge into his house, we would never give you away.”
His dark eyebrows met in a vee over his nose. “You can’t stay here.”
She opened her mouth.
Luc set his finger to her lips. “If they find Mathieu alive, they will kill him.”
“They won’t find him.” Tingles radiated across her cheeks and she reared back. “We’ll hide him.”
He jerked his hand away. “My men were hidden away.”
And they were betrayed. The truth punched her in the gut. If Mathieu was discovered, her aunt and uncle would meet the same fate as her parents. “Where can we go?”
“Holland? But the Boches have closed the border.”
“I’ll get you through.” Luc delved into his pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper. “Your aunt’s sister will take you in, both of you. You’ll be safe.”
Safe? Did such a place exist anymore? “What about my home?”
Mathieu was to inherit the farm. Papa had worked so hard to make certain her brother had a future. If they fled, the Germans would confiscate it. The Avis in Brussels had proclaimed as much.
“The Boches can’t pick up the land and move it. It’ll be here when the war ends.” He cupped her cheek. “Mathieu needs to be alive to work it.”
Yes, he did. But Holland was kilometers away, and the Germans would be hunting them the entire journey. Closing her eyes, she leaned into his palm. “Can we make it?”
“We’ll travel at night. Stick to the woods. Upon my honor, I will take you to Mollenputten.” His thumb swept over her bottom lip before he pulled back. “I made it here from Liège, didn’t I?”
“Yes.” She pinched her bottom lip. But to leave her home… Her attention stuck on Mathieu’s still form. She had to put her brother’s needs before her own. It was up to her to protect him. “Will he recover if we leave here?”
“I don’t know. Maybe distance will bring him back.” Luc picked up the bucket. Steam writhed over the water. Pivoting, he strode to the stall he shared with Mille.
She tugged a red horse blanket from the stall and draped it over her brother. He didn’t move. Crouching, she tucked it around his body then smoothed his hair out of his face. The cowlick flopped it back. “Do you want to go on a trip, Mathieu? An adventure?”
A fly landed on his cheek but he remained immobile.
She shooed it away. Her pass had expired. Mathieu didn’t even have one. She’d never been beyond Brussels and now she’d have to travel to another country. Kissing her brother’s forehead, she fell into the past, when he was safe. “We’ll be safe in Holland.”
Please, God, let it be the right choice.
Rising, she stumbled to the post and removed the lantern. She reached the stall just as Luc lowered himself to a pallet of straw.
Soft snores fluttered past Mille’s lips. He muttered in his sleep before rolling to his side and clutching the quilt.
“Don’t worry. You’ll get used to his snores.” Luc switched on the electric torch. Contorting his body, he poked his finger in his wound.
“You’ll never heal if you keep disturbing it.” Shaking her head, she sank onto his pallet. Straw crinkled under her legs. The scent of carbolic stung her eyes. Waves of heat radiated off him, carrying the smell of soap toward her. She set her hand over his and directed the beam of the torch to his wound. “Can you hold it steady?”
She skimmed the pale skin until she reached a red, angry gash dividing his upper body from his lower. No scab formed on the fringe of the wound. She might have to cut the dead tissue away to promote scabbing. “It’s from a gunshot, isn’t it?”
“The Boches thought a helping of lead would improve the taste of the sausages I stole from them.”
Pulling the sponge from the bucket, she wrung out the hot water. The wounded soldiers she’d met had also joked about being shot. Perhaps the sense of humor was issued with the uniform. “I can’t believe you stole from the Germans.”
“They’re stealing from us.” Luc jerked his chin to the stall next door. “I’ll bet that stall used to have a fine horse inside.”
“True.” She swiped the sponge over the curve of his ribs, then lower, skimming the top of the injury. Pink skin rimmed the gash. She applied a little pressure.
He sucked in a breath, sunk his belly.
“Sorry. I need to check to see if the tissue is still viable.” The skin turned white then pink when she released it. Blood trickled from the raw tissue.
“And is it?”
“It appears so.” She rinsed the sponge a few times before returning to the injury. Oh, bother. The bottom disappeared into his waistband. Tossing the sponge into the water, she reached for the rope holding up his pants.
He jerked back and caught her hand. “What are you doing?”
“I need to lower your pants.” Heat flooded her face. “I—I have to see all of the injury.”
Luc gritted his teeth. “I’ll do it, Sister. You just stay by my side, not over here.” He blocked off his groin. “This area doesn’t require your attention.”
She opened and closed her mouth before she found the words. “I am a trained nurse. I have treated men before.”
“Yes, well, you don’t need to treat me there.” A blush flooded his chest before traveling up his neck and filling his face. “It’s working just fine.”
Heat shimmered inside her and something sparked to life. She packaged it up. She would not allow him to impugn her professionalism. Nursing was a respectable profession. “Just expose the entire wound, please.”
He jerked on the rope, knotting it in his haste. Muttering, he pushed the torch in her hand then untied it. With a wiggle and a tug, he revealed the rest of the gunshot and the curve of his buttocks.
My, but the stable was warm. Instead of fanning herself, she set the torch down, retrieved the sponge, and cleaned the rest of his side. Pink skin all around. “How old is this wound?”
“Two nights.” Luc kept his hand in front of his privates. “No, three.”
“It should have begun healing by now.”
“I’ve been picking at it. In case it needed stitches.”
Did it need stitches? It looked shallow enough to heal on its own. Curse her incomplete training. Should she stitch it or shouldn’t she? After rinsing the sponge with water, she dipped it into the carbolic solution and daubed the wound.
Hissing, he wiggled farther away, exposing more of his bottom.
She never really noticed a man’s bottom before. But his was very nice. She held the sponge in place for a moment longer.
Her thoughts scattered and reformed. “Um, no, it’s just a graze. I don’t think it needs stitches, do you?”
He frowned at the sponge. “If you don’t think it does, I suppose it doesn’t.”
Good, he agreed with her. She unrolled a length of bandage and cut it, then folded it into a thick pad. “I’ll wrap it tightly and that should stop the bleeding, then it can heal properly.”
Luc tapped the back of his head against the stall. “Do it.”
She swapped the sponge for the padding. A spicy scent overrode the smell of soap and carbolic. Luc’s scent. What nonsense. Men didn’t have a scent. “Can you hold it in place while I secure it?”
He pinned the pad in place with two fingers.
She snatched up the bandage and unrolled it across his flat stomach. Her fingers brushed his smooth skin and his bunched muscles. Smooth, yet hard. How strange that she never noticed before. Leaning forward, she wrapped the bandage around his back. Soft chest hair tickled her cheek. Goosebumps ebbed and flowed down his chest with every breath she took. She rocked back and forth as she wrapped his abdomen.
She froze. “Am I hurting you?”
She turned her face to his.
His gaze locked on her lips. His pupils dilated, devouring the color of his eyes. “Please.” He inched closer. Peppermint perfumed his words.
She loved peppermint. Licking her lips, she could almost taste it.
He jerked back, banged his head and swore. “Just finish it, Sister.”
Her hands shook. She fumbled with the knot twice before tying the bandage. What had just happened? What was happening to her? A hummingbird seemed to have taken flight inside her. Perhaps she was becoming ill.
Madeline jumped to her feet. Kicking up straw in her wake, she fled the stall. Sleep, she needed sleep. Then everything would return to normal and she wouldn’t feel so odd.