All the soldiers he’d helped sat in a line against the wall. Campaign with his blown off ear. Van der Groot and his shattered arm. Van Allen and Evrard with their charred neck and cheeks. Even Alain with his side wound. None had been tended as of yet.
They were lost in an ocean of injured.
Not only soldiers waited in the hospital either. The lower levels were crammed with noncombatants.
Alain folded his arms over his gut. “I don’t know, Captain. Riding in that motorcar at thirty kilometers per hour was almost worth getting shot.”
Nuns in white habits fluttered up and down the halls like restless spirits. They ordered their fellow nurses in blue in harsh whispers.
Near an arched window at the end of the hall, an old man in baggy trousers mopped up puddles of crimson. The air reeked of disinfectant, cordite and blood. Younger men and boys on the cusp of manhood carried the seriously injured on wooden litters toward the surgery at the end of the hall.
Some men moaned. Others sat in a stupor, oblivious to their surroundings. A few crumpled in rasping heaps on stretchers. Blood soaked their sunken chests. A nurse stooped near the prostrate man in front of Rune. After making the sign of the cross, she closed the dead man’s unseeing eyes and covered his face.
Evrard scratched his singed beard. Liquid oozed from the blisters on his red cheek. “We’re the lucky ones.”
Rune grunted. Lucky to reach Antwerp or to have minor injuries? Both. Although for how long, he didn’t know. But he intended to make it as long as possible. The Uhlans needed to pay for what they’d done to Belgium.
Rune intended to deliver a payment in lead personally.
Scratching his cheek, Alain winced when he encountered the weeping cuts near his jaw. “You gonna sign up with the Lancers?” He pointed to a hunched man leaking his life’s blood into a sky-blue and yellow uniform. “Or the guards?”
Trimming his nails with a knife, the soldier in a green jacket and scarlet breeches stuck his bandaged leg into the aisle.
Rune would go wherever the need was greatest. “Probably back to the forts. I know how they work.”
“You want to see the action.” Alain leaned his head against the grimy wall behind him and closed his eyes.
Rune snorted. He’d seen action in Africa. “I want to convince the Uhlans to return to the Fatherland.”
The men he’d helped nodded. The Lancer shuddered and expelled his last breath. Rune glanced away. The Lancer had done his service. Rune needed to do his.
Evrard picked at a blister on his neck. “We’ll be there beside you, Captain.”
Rune pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes before wiping away the grit.
Night crowded the windows. The thud of distant explosions punctuated the darkness like the throb of a persistent toothache.
What would it take to get the Germans to stop? Could they keep up the action all night? Of course they could. The soldiers were nothing but cogs in a giant war machine. Rubbing the kinks in his neck, he shook off his fatigue. He had things to do before dawn, and he couldn’t do anything here. “I’m going to find out where to enlist.”
He hoped he wouldn’t have to start at the bottom again.
He hoped he wouldn’t encounter any of his late wife’s paramours.
Across the aisle, the Guard stopped shearing his fingernails and looked up. “See Colonel Steiner below. He’ll take you. He’ll take anyone.”
“Much obliged.” Rune shoved away from the wall. The Guards would do. He stared down at the men. “I’ll be back later.”
Alain waved him away. “Go find a café and have a drink later.”
Evrard jabbed a snoring Van Allen in the gut. “Go find a willing woman later.”
Rune sauntered away. “Yes, sirs.”
Walking down the hall, he stepped over feet and outstretched limbs. The stench of ether grew as he approached the surgery. In the room on his right, nurses in blood-stained aprons scrubbed operating instruments until they gleamed before another sister dropped them into pots. Steam fogged the room.
Further along, a door opened. A gray-haired woman leaned her weight against a cart. It didn’t budge.
“Allow me.” Sidestepping, Rune clamped down on the edge and jerked.
The cart lurched forward with a squeak. The bloody sheet covering the cart peeled back at the corner, revealing a mass of twisted and broken limbs.
He sucked in a breath and jerked his hands back. Lord in Heaven. There must have been dozens of pieces…
Leaning forward, the sister smoothed the cover back in place. “Thank you for your assistance.”
Nodding, he swayed on his feet.
She rested a hand on his arm. Concern darkened her brown eyes. “There is coffee downstairs.”
“Thank you.” Coffee. Downstairs. The words bobbed on the mush inside his head. What did they mean?
Stooping, she checked the wrist of an injured soldier then patted his hand. “I’ll send the curé over to tend your needs.”
Curé? Why did the man need a priest? Rune blinked.
The soldier whimpered. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. He was dying.
The Germans had done this. Rune would avenge the poor man’s death. He would avenge them all. But first, he had to find Colonel Steiner and join up. Fingernails digging into his palm, he strode to the end of the hall and turned right into the stairwell.
Holding her skirts in her right hand, Laila stepped onto the landing.
He stopped so quickly his boots squeaked. His heart slammed against his breastbone. Something was wrong, horribly wrong. Was it her injury?
She glanced up at the sound. Tears left trails through her dusty cheeks. Daubing her red nose, she stared at him from behind swollen lids.
He caught his breath.
Emerald eyes sunk into the bloodshot background.
Someone had hurt her. Broken her spirit. He’d kill the man, rip him in two with his bare hands. Rune shook with restrained violence. She mustn’t see it, mustn’t fear him.
“You’ve been crying.” He raised his hand and cupped her cheek. His thumb swept over the damp, soft flesh.
For an instant, she closed her eyes and leaned into his palm.
He wanted to pull her to him, wrap her so tightly in his embrace, nothing and no one would ever hurt her again. “Tell me.”
Unshed tears sparkled like crystals on her red lashes. “They… My father… My mother…”
He waited a second. Then two. She didn’t continue. A growl prowled his throat and became trapped behind his clenched teeth. “What about your parents?”
“It’s horrible. Despicable.” She clamped her lips together. Her nostrils flared. Anger burst across her high cheekbones. She stamped her foot.
Ducking his head, he hid his grin. His little red-headed terror was fighting back. His blue coat draped over her thin shoulders. His gaze skimmed her body and stopped on the tapestry suitcase in her hand. She hadn’t had that when she’d exited Madame Wiebke’s touring car hours ago.
Cold snaked down his spine.
“You’re not planning to return to Brussels, are you?” His mouth dried. She’d have to break through Uhlan lines to reach the city. Only God in Heaven knew what the Germans would do to her if she tried.
He crossed his arms over his chest.
She wouldn’t get that far. He’d make sure of it, even if he had to tie her to the bedpost.
“Return to Brussels?” Hashmarks puckered the skin over her nose. “Why ever would you think that?”
He jerked his chin toward the bag in her hand. “Most folks don’t pack for a trip to the hospital. Unless…” His brain chugged to life, offering another explanation. God, he could be such an idiot. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize your parents were patients here.”
The image of the cart’s contents flashed in his mind and he shivered. He hoped her mother and father remained in one piece.
“I wish.” Laila’s jaw thrust out.
He reared back. She wished her folks were in the hospital? Most people only went to such places to die. What was he missing? “Your sister…”
Laila set her free hand on her hip. “Do stop frowning at me.”
Ordering him about. Being contrary. The old Laila had rebounded gloriously. And he wasn’t a wit more enlightened about the source of her pain. That would have to change. He scrubbed a hand down his face. He shouldn’t get involved. Laila Vigdis could upset all his plans. He’d seen her safely home; he didn’t owe her anything else. “Perhaps, if you start at the beginning.”
Apparently, his mouth hadn’t received the telegram.
She exhaled slowly. Strands of red hair fluttered against her forehead. “Well, I arrived home to find Father’s townhouse in disarray.”
Her parents should have been worried. Their servants had left their daughter along the side of the road. “They were worried when the butler and housekeeper pulled up without you.”
“No, of course not.” She pursed her lips. “I don’t think they realized I hadn’t arrived yet.”
Her parents should be horsewhipped. Laila was as much their responsibility as their other daughter, Sofia. Despite being older, Laila needed their protection more. She was too honest, too trusting, and too damn beautiful.
“Will you keep interrupting or can I finish?”
An ache built at the top of his skull. Rune pressed his index fingers against his temples. Hadn’t he promised to avoid Laila Vigdis? How many times did he have to remind himself that she was trouble? “By all means, finish.”
Then he could leave. His feet took root in the wooden hospital floor.
She jerked the lapels of her coat. Her bottom lips wobbled. “They…they want me to marry. They picked him!”
He rocked back. Laila married? She would no longer terrorize him when he called upon the Vigdises. She would no longer threaten his plans. He waited for the relief to release his body. Instead a live electrical wire seemed to touch his system. “No. Absolutely not.”
If her parents hadn’t even realized she wasn’t safe at home with them, they had no business choosing a mate for her. She may put up a brave fight, but he’d seen the vulnerability, the tenderness, and the pain caused by their harsh words and indifference.
A smile teased the corners of her cherry-ripe lips. Her eyes widened. “No?”
“No.” Setting his hand on her shoulder, he stooped down until their faces were level. He knew she worried about her age, feared that no man would want her. But she was wrong. And he would prove it to her. “Absolutely not.”
“But you haven’t even heard—”
“Captain!” Alain’s shout bounced down the halls.
Holding up a hand to the private, Rune kept his attention on Laila. “If you’re desperate to marry, I’ll arrange something. Invite some men, some gentlemen I know, and you can pick from them.”
Although at the moment, not a single man worthy of Laila came to mind.
Her jaw swung open before her eyes narrowed. Her teeth clicked together. “I’m not desperate.”
“Good.” He swept his finger under her chin. Such soft skin. How did she manage it? “Then you can make a rational decision. Too many strong emotions often cloud judgment.”
He knew that all too well.
Red suffused her face and she emitted an odd choking noise.
“Captain Lambert!” Alain called again. “Colonel Steiner is here.”
Steiner? How did he know that name? Ah, yes. The Guard had said the officer was looking for men. Rune glanced from the rigid man in green and scarlet to Laila. Damn. Exactly the position Rune never wanted to be in again—choosing between the military and a woman.
But this wasn’t any woman. This was Laila.
She flapped a hand at him. “Go. Belgium needs you.”
He eyed the vein pulsing at her temple. Given her anger, she didn’t understand his need to reclaim his honor, his place in the Army. They would both be happier when she married. Someone else. His gut told him he was mistaken. His gut could go hang on a telephone pole. “I’ll talk to your parents and fix everything. Just give me a minute and I’ll escort you home.”
She jerked her head once and stared at her muddy boots. “And we’re going to talk on the way.”
Of course they’d talk. He needed to know if she held any particular traits in aversion. Pivoting on his heel, Rune strode down the corridor.
The Colonel of the Guard met him after three meters. Gray streaked the officer’s jet hair. Fine white lines radiated from the corners of his brown eyes. A red welt bisected one tan cheek. He thrust out his callused hand. “Captain Rune Lambert of the Brussels Garde civique?”
“Formerly of the Brussels Garde civique, Colonel.” After aborting his salute, Rune slid his palm against the superior officer’s. The handshake was strong and firm, but not crushing like some commanders he’d known. Rune could follow this man into battle. “I resigned when it became apparent the city would capitulate.”
The man jerked his head once. “I served with your father in the Congo. He was a good man. A fighter.”
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Rune groped for the right words. He had so few memories of his father. Mostly just fragments of events—a deep laugh, drunken singing and the scent of gunpowder. Although the sensations were always stronger when it rained. “Thank you, Sir.”
“I can see him in you.” Colonel Steiner rubbed the stubble on his chin.
He could? Rune blinked, but couldn’t recall his father’s face. After a year in the orphanage, he’d forgotten his mother’s too. Or maybe he’d blocked it out. “Thank you, Sir. I hope this means you’ll consider me for your regiment.”
“If you’ll answer one question for me, Captain.”
Rune held his breath until darkness edged his vision. Here it comes—the old scandal about his late wife and her string of lovers. He should have known some in Antwerp would remember. After all, his demotion had come from the highest levels. God in Heaven, could the Colonel have been one of her paramours? Rune squared his shoulders. He’d been innocent of the charges then; he was still innocent. But now, he had the courage to stand up for himself. “Yes, Colonel.”
“Rumor has it you accompanied Laila Vigdis into Antwerp.”
Rumor’s name was Private Alain. Rune’s neck itched. He knew better than to scratch it, or look at the private. Both were signs of guilt. And neither he nor Laila had done anything wrong. Was his reputation the reason for her parents deciding to marry her off?
Damn his late wife. Six years after her death, and she was still hurting people. If he could, he’d resurrect her just to throttle her for involving an innocent like Laila.
He raised his chin. “The Vigdises were in too much of a hurry to reach Antwerp when they saw Private Alain and myself along the road.” Bitterness flooded Rune’s mouth. He wanted to spit but too many wounded crowded the hallway. “Instead they told us to hail the car with their oldest daughter and servants.”
The colonel nodded.
Obviously, the officer knew part of the story already.
Rune’s stomach clenched. He’d earned his commander’s respect before, he’d do so again, provided he was given the opportunity. “L— Mademoiselle Vigdis was rearranging folks in the Spyker when the Germans began their bombing. The car took off, leaving her in my care.”
“And what did you do with her?”
Swallowing the bit about her injuries, he kept to the main points. “Once the danger had passed, we returned to the road to Antwerp. Not more than half an hour passed before we were hailed by Madame Wiebke.”
“Estelle Wiebke?” The colonel’s eyes crinkled. “So the old girl left Brussels, eh.”
“Yes, Sir.” Although, Rune had never met anyone brave enough to call the old lady by her given name. She’d always been Madame while he was growing up and probably would remain Madame until she died. At least to him. “Madame dropped Laila at Rue des Escrimeurs before motoring us to the hospital.”
The Colonel’s salt and pepper eyebrows rose.
Rune chewed on his frustration. He’d done nothing wrong. Neither had Laila. “There were two Lancers and a carabineer that will confirm my story.”
“Yes, well, the words of four soldiers wouldn’t be enough against the wealth and power of the Vigdis family.”
Rune squared his shoulders.
The corners of the colonel’s mouth tilted up. “But you have Madame Wiebke to vouch for you. Not even the Vigdises would gainsay Estelle. They wouldn’t dare. When Estelle confirms that the last time you saw Mademoiselle Vigdis was on her very own doorstep, that is the end of the matter.”
Rune’s gaze cut to the stairwell where Laila waited. Anyone could spot her. Confirm they saw her talking to him. The Vigdises were powerful enough to end his career for good. Her sad, green eyes stared at him from his memory. “That was the last time I saw the lady.”
“Good. Good.” Clasping his hands behind his back, the colonel headed toward his injured man. “Report at the Grand Hotel at seven a.m. I think I know how you can be of use to me, Captain.”
“Thank you, Sir.” Rune strode toward Laila. He’d secret her out of the hospital, then escort her home. He stumbled over his boots. Maybe not. Maybe he’ll find a taxi and send her home. Yes, a taxi would be best. No one would slander her reputation if she arrived in a taxi.
And his commission wouldn’t be jeopardized.
Turning into the stairwell, he drew up short. His coat hung on the bannister. But only the scent of lavender remained of Laila.