Laila squeezed her eyes closed. Pain blazed across her back and bile burned her throat. Rocks and debris pelted her. The metallic scent of blood laced the dirt, crowding her lungs. Gasping for air, she sucked in a mouthful of her hair.
“Mademoiselle Vigdis?” Warm flesh shifted under her.
A mantle of tingles wrapped around her. Rune. For a moment, the emptiness inside her filled. For a moment, her dreams had a foundation in reality. He’d held her hand. Concern darkened his ice blue eyes. And his mouth hadn’t tightened at the corners.
For a moment, he hadn’t minded her company.
Just like that first day in the park.
Her heart drummed the cage of her ribs.
“Laila?” His large hand skimmed her thigh before landing on her hip.
Oh my. She sucked on her bottom lip and choked on dirt. Then inhaled dust. Her body jerked. Her stomach collapsed with each cough. Her breakfast soured her mouth. Please, God, don’t let me vomit. She rolled off his back. On all fours, she crawled through the bent corn stalks.
The heavier clods shattered the stalks of feed. Dust hung in the air, wrapping them in a cocoon and isolating them from the rest of the world.
Rune’s hacking competed with her own. “Cover your mouth. It’ll help.”
She nodded. Her hair escaped her bun. Pins tickled her cheek before they plopped to the ground. Balancing on her knees and one hand, she reached up her sleeve. Lace tickled her fingers. She jerked the handkerchief free and slapped it over her mouth. The scent of lavender competed with the dust.
The whistle of the bombs ended in fading booms. The Earth shuddered, and she braced a hand on the flattened harvest. She wouldn’t fall. The last time she had, she’d taken Rune down with her. His hard body imprinted on her mind. Heat seared her cheeks.
Rune belonged to her sister. She had no business thinking about him. “I’m sorry.”
Sitting up, he held his navy sleeve over his nose and mouth. The dust stratified into exotic layers; dried leaves wafted on the breeze. One stuck to his short blond hair. “I’m the one who should apologize.” The skin at the corner of his ice blue eyes tightened. “I should have followed you, taken the impact.”
“I thought it would fall on the other side of the road.” Wasn’t that why he’d stared up at the sky before they ran?
He frowned and pushed to his feet. “It did.”
“It did?” It felt like it had exploded on top of her. She dragged her attention off him. Tendrils of black smoke unfurled toward the heavens. The impact had snapped several pines in half and sheared limbs off others. The alder hedge bowed in supplication.
Through the shattered pines, men shifted back and forth. Every once in a while, red flames surged toward the sky. Dirt flew from shovels. Men beat the fire with their jackets. Soot stained their faces and sleeves. A black pillar of smoke sullied the golden sunshine.
Overhead, the German aeroplanes waggled their wings before heading back to the Fatherland.
Rune strode toward her. “We’d be dead if it hit closer.”
Dead? Her lungs seized. She didn’t want to be dead.
“Breathe, Laila. Just breathe.”
Stars twinkled in her peripheral vision. Darkness chased the pinpoints of light and the world spun. What had he said? Oh, yes. She sucked in a mouthful of air.
Reaching her side, he crouched on the mat of green. Blunt fingers brushed the hair away from her temple. “You’ve been injured.”
Tingles raced across her skin and she shivered. Why must he always do that? Make her feel special, as if she mattered? He belonged to her sister. Her sister planned to marry him. Laila brushed away his touch, resisted the urge to turn her hand and hold onto him. “It’s nothing.”
“I’ll be the judge of that. I’ve had training.” His mouth firmed. Stubble darkened his clenched jaw.
She studied her boots. Peacock blue trimmed the bottom of her coat. Mud caked the scuffed leather. The lace flapped against her right boot. She leaned forward to tie it. Pain burned up her back and she groaned.
Rune shifted behind her. His curses blistered the air. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I didn’t know.” She froze when his thighs bracketed her bottom. Warm fingers traced the contours of her face before combing her hair over her shoulder. The position was intimate, too intimate. Her heart switched tempo, pounding a savage beat. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her arid mouth.
“Surely, you felt the impact.” His touch danced down her nape, between her shoulder blades.
“I feel it now.” Her insides fluttered like a garden full of monarch butterflies. She felt too much now and must stop. She tried to sit up straight. Mother would be irritated at her poor posture. Thoughts of her parent penned the yearning.
“Take off your coat.” His large hand cupped her shoulder, pinning her in place.
Her insides twitched as her fingers free her buttons. Desire tested its containment. Mother invited Rune to dinner at Sofia’s insistence. Mother would not approve of Laila’s thoughts. Mother wasn’t here. “Is it bad?”
“Your coat is ruined.” He skimmed her back. His touch was warm through her silk dress. Tendrils of pleasure alternated with the needles of pain.
“That’s alright. It’s two years out of fashion.” Laila glanced over her shoulder. A tear rent the gauzy sleeve in two.
Furrows marred Rune’s high forehead. His hand jerked out scarlet-tipped shards of wood. Catching her eye, he winked at her. “Then you’ll have an excuse to purchase a new one. In green to match your eyes.”
He knew her eye color? Of course he did. He noticed little things about everyone. It was how he made them feel unique. She believed him once; she couldn’t afford to do so again. She already pasted the pieces of her heart together. There might not be enough pots of glue to fix it next time.
His fingers tightened on her shoulder. “Who knows, you might even convince your parents you need a new wardrobe.”
She shuddered. A wardrobe meant more social rounds, more chances for her mother to be disappointed. “Heavens no. I’ll just ask Sofia for her coat from last year. Papa bought her a new wardrobe in Paris last month.”
“I hope this blouse isn’t from Paris. I don’t think it can be repaired.”
“Oh, no. I don’t need a Parisienne wardrobe.” She plucked at the simple collar. Soft cotton cushioned her fingertips. Perhaps she could repair it. After all, no one would see the patches in the back.
“I thought every woman wanted a wardrobe from Paris?”
“It would be wasted on me.” According to Mama, her social skills were nil. Along with her chances to hook a husband, even with her tidy dowry.
He paused. “How so?”
“I’m four and twenty. Far from the first blush of youth.” Far from the malleable bride most men wanted. Of course, Mama had despaired of her since she’d turned thirteen.
“You’re also a man.” Laila drew her legs up to her body and rested her chin on her knees.
“Nice of you to notice.” His words tangled with a train of chuckles.
Heat filled her cheeks and raced down her neck. She noticed too much. “I just meant that I’m of an age where men no longer see me as marriage material.”
“Your sister has plenty of beaus. Why not take one of her extras?”
Laila squeezed her eyes closed. Because she wanted someone of her own. Someone who would look at her like most men regarded Sofia—with desire. “I would never do that to Sofia. Since she came along, she’s taken Mama’s attention from me.”
And her faults. Not that Mama didn’t list them to all and sundry. Laila hadn’t minded until Rune. Small wonder, he’d shifted his attention to her beautiful younger sister when he’d come to call.
“I hadn’t realized Sofia was so noble.” Removing the hand from her shoulder, he shifted it to the small of her back. “This one is larger and may hurt.”
Pain accompanied the tug on her back, and tears sprung to her eyes. Laila breathed slowly in and out. In and out.
“It’s bleeding a bit.” Fabric and stalks rustled as he shifted closer. Pressure dulled the throbbing near her wound. “May I use your scarf as a bandage?”
Laila tugged the silk at her neck. The scarf glided across her nape, echoing Rune’s touch from earlier. She pushed such foolishness aside. Her sister favored him. “Sofia is noble. She convinced Mama to stop pushing her suitors at me.”
For that alone, dinners, musical events and balls became bearable.
Rune’s warm breath stirred the fine red hair on her cheek. Deft fingers wrapped the scarf around her waist twice before he knotted the ends. “Why would a man need to be pushed at you?”
Scrubbing her hand down her face, Laila tamped down the zing racing through her veins. He didn’t mean it like her heart wanted. “You’re an incorrigible flirt.”
He shifted to her side. Instead of his habitual smile, his lips were turned down a little at the corners. “We’re not talking about me. I asked why men would need to be pushed at you.”
Planting her hands on the flattened stalks beside her hips, she rolled to her feet. Pain plucked her back like a harp. She could manage physical discomfort. It was the unreachable hope of his casually cruel remarks that did the real damage—conceived the dreams that would never come true. She swayed.
Leaping to his feet, Rune cupped her elbows and propped her up. His fingers stroked her scalp and trailed to the lengths of her hair. “The dizziness will pass soon.”
She didn’t want it to end. She wanted to stay just like this. Forever. She buried her nose in his lapel, inhaled the scents of sunshine, pine and the spiciness that defined Rune. She rested her palm against his chest. His thick jacket prevented her from feeling his heartbeat.
A moment passed.
“We should return to the road.” Rune eased to the side. His arm embraced her shoulders. “I’m sure your butler has returned for you by now.”
“He’s probably halfway to Antwerp by now.” Laila’s empty hands tumbled to her sides. She clutched at nothing before she stilled them. “He and Madame Tait were most anxious to open our pied-à-terre. Papa does like everything just so, and they were concerned they wouldn’t be able to find his favorite port.”
They’d even suggested she catch the train. She would have had to, if she’d arrived home any later from her morning work.
He guided her across the ruined harvest nearest the bomb’s epicenter. “Surely, you take precedence over a comfort.”
Most unlikely. Even Sofia had difficulties pulling Papa’s attention from his business. And port was part of Papa’s business. He sequestered associates in his study for hours at a time, running through many vintages.
Rune’s baritone drew her attention back to him. Why did her sister have to favor him? She had so many others to choose from.
His dusky eyebrows met in a vee over the bridge of his nose. “Wouldn’t your father send the car back for you?”
“He won’t know that I’m gone.” Lifting her wool skirt, she scrambled through the hedge ahead of him. Alder branches snatched at her ankles before she reached the road. Cobblestones were buckled along the paved ribbon, attesting to the bombs force. “Once Mama and Sofia are at the townhouse, he’ll go directly to the factory.”
“Then your mother,” he chuffed. “She’ll send the car back for you.”
“Oh, she’ll be lying down before afternoon callers arrive. Mama’s health is most delicate.” Laila’s actions had caused her mother to take to her bed on more than one occasion. Heaven only knew how Mother would react to this little upset.
Reaching her side, Rune stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Then Sofia can wake her and tell her.”
“Oh, gracious, no.” Had he always been this tall? Laila took three steps for his two. Pedestrians slowly streamed back onto the road. On the left, peasants dragged their possessions along on foot. Those with wagons and carts moved to the right. “Sofia won’t do that. She’s used to covering for me when my… strolls take longer than they ought.”
He slanted her a glance. Disbelief thawed the ice in his eyes. “Surely, given the circumstances, she’d worry and want the car to return for you.”
“Well, of course, she’ll worry. But she’ll stick to our arrangement.” A cloud scuttled across the sun and shadow cloaked the road. A chill traveled down her spine. Looking up, she scoured the sky for aeroplanes. None. She rubbed her arms and ignored the sting across her back. “We’ll make it to Antwerp before dinner, won’t we?”
A low rumble sounded on her right. Rune’s jaw thrust forward. His hands had left his pockets to form fists at his hips.
“Did you just growl?” Men didn’t growl. Of course, Rune didn’t normally look as if he might bend steel rails. Even his gait had changed from his habitual swagger. Now, each footfall pummeled the street.
He glared at her. “I’ll find you a ride.”
“Us.” She hugged herself tighter. “If you’re walking, I can walk, too.”
“I’m not the one who’s injured.” His fingers made short work of his buttons then he shrugged out of his uniform coat. “And you’ll do as I say, no arguments.”
“They’re just scratch marks.” Warm wool enveloped her. His spicy scent quickly followed. Sighing, she breathed it in. What would it be like to be in his embrace, not as a friend but a lover?
“Sweet Jesus, you can’t even stand.” He fisted the coat lapels, dragging her toward him.
She stared at the soft cleft in his chin before following the curve of his jawline. Even his ears were nice.
“Your eyes are unfocused.” One hand released her and dove into her hair. His fingers skimmed her scalp.
Her eyes ricocheted inside her skull. She hissed through her teeth.
“A very nice goose egg there.” He flashed two fingers in front of her nose. “How many?”
She blinked them into focus before rearing back. The coat tightened around her. “Two.”
“Can you walk?”
“Yes, I can walk. I’m not an invalid.” She twisted inside the coat. The wool cocooned her.
His eyebrows lowered. “You were unsteady a minute ago.”
A moment ago, she’d been lost in his scent. Laila stopped struggling. Good heavens. This was her punishment for yearning for him, her sister’s favorite suitor. Embarrassment burned through her. “I’m well enough now.”
A curlew called out from a pine bough.
A handful of green needles showered his shoulders. The sun came out from behind its cloud and caressed the angles of his face with golden light. Such a masculine brow and caring eyes. Her attention trailed lower. His mouth was nice, too. A little generous on the bottom, but still strong. What would it be like to…
She leaned closer.
Rune cleared his throat. “I’ll find you a ride to the nearest hospital.” His voice had dropped and thickened. His fingers flew over the buttons of his coat. “If they can take us both, then fine. If not, you’ll go alone.”
Stuffing her arms through the sleeves, she opened her mouth.
He laid his index finger on her mouth. “No arguments.”
Tingles fanned out from her lips. This attraction she had for him couldn’t be wrong, not when it felt like this.
His gaze dropped to her mouth. His pupils expanded until they were ringed in pale blue. Muscle bunched under his white shirt. A suspender twitched when he leaned forward.
Her eyes fluttered closed.
An engine rumbled, then a horn honked.
Rune sucked in a breath and stiffened.
Stepping back, Laila finished buttoning his coat around her. Small wonder lust was a sin. She’d almost wronged her sister. Sofia deserved better. And she deserved someone who liked her. Just her. Not someone who liked everyone.
Rocks crunched as the motorcar eased to a stop. Two soldiers occupied the back seat. In the front, another slumped on the passenger side.
A woman fidgeted behind the wheel. A cream scarf fluttered at the sagging skin of her throat. White curls peeked out from under the hat that resembled a plaid Brioche. When she raised her goggles, a fine line of grit delineated the protected skin from the exposed. Madame Wiebke.
The biggest gossip in all of Belgium. Laila locked her knees to keep from collapsing. Had the old woman seen her nearly kiss Rune? Would word of the indiscretion reach Mother and Sofia?
“Captain Lambert?” Madame Wiebke sucked her ivory dentures behind her wrinkled lips.
Rune bowed at the waist. “Madame.”
“Deserted the Garde Civique, have you?” She drummed her gloved hand on the cream-colored door.
How dare the old gossip say such things! Laila shifted in front of him. “He hasn’t deserted his post.”
He rested his hand on her shoulder before easing in front of her. “Since Brussels isn’t to be defended, I thought I would join those who are willing to fight.”
Laila elbowed him to the side. “Belgium needs her sons to fight for her freedom and independence.”
Madame Wiebke nodded. Her loose jowls sprung free of her scarf and shuddered. “Belgium needs a miracle. Maybe you’re it.” She jerked her head toward the back. “Climb aboard.”
Rune hooked his arm through Laila’s and dragged her forward. “I’ll be fine walking, but please take her. She’s been injured.”
She jerked on her arm. “This is nonsense.”
“Both of you, get in.” Madame Wiebke sucked on her teeth.
Laila crossed her arms and dug in her heels. “I can walk. He needs to join the fight.”
“Laila Vigdis, do you wish me to tell your mother of your behavior?” Madame Wiebke’s black eyes glistened like raisins in suet.
Laila’s shoulders bowed. Mother wouldn’t let her leave the house for months, maybe the entire war, if not the rest of her natural life if word of that near kiss spread. “No, Madame.”
She trudged to the car.
The soldiers in the back shifted to make room for her.
Lurching forward, Rune threw open the door. Dimples flashed in his bristly cheek. “You’ll take her to the hospital?”
“Nope.” Madame Wiebke smiled. “You will. Climb in Captain, we need to be gone before the damn Boches return with their bombs.”
He shook his head. “There’s no room.”
Laila eyed the white upholstery. Less than half a meter. A soft drone scratched her ears. Two silver planes approached from the West. She eyed the space again. They really wouldn’t fit, unless… Her mouth dried.
Should she? Did she dare?
“Make room.” Madame adjusted the levers on the dash. The engine changed tempo.
“You heard her, Captain.” Laila pushed on his back. “In.”
He didn’t budge.
Darn the man and his muscles.
“Ladies first.” He shifted to the side.
She shuffled behind him then pointed toward the sky. “You first. Unless you want to take our chances again.”
Shading his eyes he looked up. A muscle ticked in his jaw. “You’re a terror.”
Her heart shrunk in her chest. It was better if he wasn’t nice to her, better if she forgot him. He was destined for great things. She’d seen his dreams of command that day in the park. Her sister would make sure he achieved them.
Laila could only hold him back.
He climbed into the car and plopped down on the seat. After sizing up the centimeters of free space, he eyed her waist then hips. “You’re not going to fit.”
“We’ll make do.” Stepping inside, she slammed the door behind her. She kept one hand on the back of the driver’s seat and tiptoed over his large boots. Just as she reached a clear spot, the motorcar lurched forward.
She pitched backward.
Rune’s hands encircled her waist and dragged her onto his lap. “Guess we do fit.”
The other soldiers grinned. “Nice catch, Captain.”
Her insides turned molten. No! No! NO! She mustn’t give into temptation again. She plucked at his fingers. “This is most improper.”
Red locks whipped in front of her face, obscuring her vision.
“What’s improper is your hair.” Madame Wiebke shouted above the grind of gears. “Fix it. I can’t be accused of chauffeuring a bunch of soldiers and their doxy. My reputation couldn’t stand it.”
Rune’s body tensed. “No one would ever mistake Laila for anything but a lady.”
But she wasn’t a lady. Laila hung her head. And after this bit of news made its society debut, she wouldn’t have a reputation. Period. It might have been worth it if only he’d kissed her.