London, England, March 1943
"Come on, Cassie," Ginny called, popping her head into the ward. Ginny had her coat on already.
Cassie pocketed her letter to her fiancé and grabbed the long, grey coat Phillip had given her one Christmas, she couldn't remember which. All such memories now fell under "Before The War." She took a last look around at the ward's patients.
New soldiers were coming. Where on earth were they going to put them?
Cassie and Ginny's replacements greeted them on the way out. The four women had time for only the most cursory of hellos as Cassie and Ginny rushed to the ambulance truck with Doctor Marshall.
The doctor—a kindly, middle-aged man with a full head of grey hair—looked older than his fifty-two years. Every day, Cassie seemed to see new lines on his face.
The morning was bitterly cold, and being in the truck offered no real relief. Rationing forced choices between mobility and heat; unfortunately, the gas had to be reserved as much as possible for simple mobility.
If anything, Cassie felt colder in the truck. That could have been because she was sitting still. She flexed her fingers and toes in an effort to warm her blood.
"How many do you think this time?" Ginny asked.
Dr. Marshall sighed. "Twenty is what the wire said."
Twenty? Cassie tried to do the mental rearrangements of her ward, but found she could fit no more than two or three. Four if they pushed some of the beds against the wall. She hoped the other wards had more room, but by the look on Ginny's face, Cassie knew she'd have trouble, as well.
She braced herself for the cold again and thrust her gloved hands in her pockets as she hurried to the ship, which was already unloading its human cargo. The slap of icy wind certainly worked to make her more alert. By now, they were well acquainted with the ship's physician and the rest of the crew. Manners were sacrificed in the name of efficiency as they helped the ship's hospital staff load the wounded onto the ambulances.
Cassie looked them over quickly as she worked. Some were bandaged so completely she could see no more than slits for their eyes and holes for their noses and mouths. Burn victims, she thought, but apparently still alive. Were they in pain? Cassie swallowed the bile that rose in her throat.
Others of the wounded still bled through crude battlefield bandaging. Their skin had a yellowish tinge that worried Cassie. A surge of resentment welled up in her. These men weren't going to last long, but as long as they did live, they would take up beds the hospital couldn't spare.
Shame on you, Cassandra Atherton! She ground her teeth and reminded herself that as long as these men breathed, there was still hope.
One man looked practically grey as they jostled him onto a gurney, and Cassie felt her resolve waver.
"This one. Damn rank's what's saved him. He's a captain. BEA." The ship's physician shivered, sweating despite the chilly weather. "Won't be long for him, but at least these limeys won't be able to say we didn't do all we could for the poor bastard."
British Eighth Army.
Cassie looked down at the English captain. He was eerily still; the lift from the ground into the truck would probably kill him. Bandages blindfolded him, and the grey blanket flapped against his chest. His dark hair blew off his forehead in the icy wind.
Cassie tucked an edge of his blanket farther under a broad shoulder to keep the coarse, grey wool tight against him. Dark eyebrows came together, but she saw no other movement. She sent a prayer up to the heavens as a pair of sailors lifted him into the ambulance, and then another as she and her aide eased him back down in the ward.
"Harrison?" Cassie asked as they settled in the captain beneath a window.
With his bandages on, he shouldn't mind the sunlight, when it decided to appear.
Dr. Marshall nodded. "His father is Stephen Harrison."
Recognition clicked in Cassie's mind. Stephen Harrison ran many businesses that contributed to the war effort, but none more important than his iron works. The family could claim both industrial success and nobility.
She looked at the captain again. He certainly could have bought his way out of service. Men like this, like her Phillip, who fought despite being wealthy enough to avoid it, were especially heroic.
The doctor sighed. "He's lost a lot of blood. Surgery won't even be an option if we can't replace that. But we're so damned low, I can't see how we're going to manage it. Be lucky if he lasts the night."
Cassie shivered. She knew well that the blood supply was reaching critical levels.
"Tomorrow, I'll ask around one of the other hospitals and see if I can get any more but . . . ." Dr. Marshall shook his head, giving the captain a last glance before leaving the ward.
After the initial examinations of the new patients, the ward quieted down. Cassie picked up the captain's jacket from the foot of the bed. She ran her fingers over his medals and looked back at him. He was exceptionally tall; his long body took up the entire length of the bed. From what she could tell, he was handsome.
Cassie wondered if he had a sweetheart or a wife. Her eyes fell on his hands, scarred from old injuries. No ring. Would anyone miss the poor man if he died tomorrow? She hoped so. She couldn't imagine a lonelier fate than to die alone in a hospital among strangers with no one to grieve one's loss.
Cassie jumped, startled out of her thoughts by Pvt. Jimmy Carver's southern twang. She turned and gave him a sad smile. His color was better, despite the dark circles beneath his blue eyes.
"Twenty new arrivals," she told him, placing a hand on his forehead. All traces of his fever were gone.
"Sheeit," he drawled.
"Well said." She'd long since learned to ignore the more colorful expressions that were a regular part of a soldier's vocabulary, particularly when they were in pain.
She suddenly and vividly remembered a French soldier who had taken great amusement in teaching her to swear in his language. Then he'd died.
She checked the bandages around the stump of Jimmy's left wrist.
"Good thing I'm not a lefty," he'd joked when he awoke after the surgery. But then he'd proceeded to sob in her arms.
He'd be going home in a few days and not returning to duty. Cassie thought that was a good thing, but Jimmy was less than enthused to be pulled out of the fight.
She placed a paper cup with water in his hand.
The ward matron, Sally Norwich, walked in with the clipboards and slid them into the slots at the end of the new patients' beds. Cassie gave her updates on a few of the patients.
Nurse Norwich wasn't the conversational type. She nodded curtly, gave Cassie her instructions, and then left.
Captain Harrison was Captain Edward James Harrison. The second son to Stephen and Susan. He had a brother, Eric, and a younger sister, Wilhelmina. Cassie scanned the address given for his parents and made a mental note to send them word of their son. He'd suffered significant damage to his chest and eyes from an explosion during an ambush. The prognosis was bleak.
Cassie sighed, put the clipboard back on the end of his bed, and moved up to check his bandages.
A hand shot out and gripped her arm, making her yelp. She looked down and saw Captain Harrison tremble with what appeared to be growing ferocity.
Oh dear. He must be going into shock.
He pulled her arm so hard she fell on him.
"It's all right," she whispered, trying to pull back, fearing she was hurting his wound. She touched his face and whispered. "It's all right, Captain. You're safe. You'll be all right."
He went slack and fell under the blanket of unconsciousness. She felt a lump of emotion. She feared she'd just told him a terrible lie.
* * * * *
Cassie ran a damp cloth quickly over the captain's arms and legs. This sad attempt at basic cleanliness was now the norm in the ward. The immodesty of her job still brought heat to her cheeks, but she tried not to let it keep her from doing her duty. Even gaunt as he was, the captain was well made. Muscles that were now slack still hinted at power. She imagined that when healthy, as tall as he was, Captain Harrison was an imposing figure.
The wound on his chest was infected, and his breath had a frightening wheezing quality. A dusting of dark hair on his chest led to a fine line of dark hair down his abdomen and on down to the thatch of black hair at the base of his member, which lay dormant. A long gash ran down the side of his thigh, and there was a pucker of skin that Cassie recognized as an old gunshot wound. He'd survived much.
He groaned as she ran the sponge filled with warm water over his shoulder. She found herself murmuring incoherent, soothing things to calm him.
Dr. Marshall had told her the other hospitals were low on blood as well, but they hoped to get more in the next few days.
Cassie feared the captain wouldn't last that long. She'd sent a wire to his family, who'd escaped the city early on in the war. They'd responded quickly, begging the hospital to do what they could for James. His father promised to donate hundreds of thousands of pounds if his son lived.
Money wouldn't help their son.
She tried to spread her focus to the other patients, but her concentration kept shifting to the captain. She told herself that it was because he was clearly the one in most dire need. The other soldiers in her ward were doing better, and the new arrivals were stable at least. But the captain . . . Cassie sent a prayer up to God to keep him alive until they could get more blood.
She didn't know if the captain had a sweetheart or not, but she liked to think that if, God forbid, Phillip was injured, some kind nurse would do everything they could for him, as well.
The next day, she got a letter from Phillip. She clutched it to her heart, relieved he was still all right. She tried to ignore the fact that the date at the top read over a month ago.
Night is falling here and it's quiet. When I can hear myself think, my thoughts invariably turn to you. I'm taking advantage of the lull to write to you. Who knows when I'll be able to again? Damn this war. I hope you are well, sweetheart. It seems that every new mission is pulling me further and further away from you. I tell myself that every mission, every day brings us closer to victory, which will bring me closer to coming home to you, to the day when we can stand before God and say our vows to become man and wife.
Until then, I fight on, carrying your sweet face in my pocket, next to my heart. The other soldiers do the same. They call their pictures their good luck charms.
Know that you are in my thoughts. Give my love to my parents and yours.
The letter gave Cassie an idea. She went to the laundry room and had to shout above the whir of the machines. Margaret, the head laundress, pulled Cassie back out into the hall so they could hear each other better. She was a sweet, redheaded, older woman who'd lost both her husband and her son in the war. Cassie couldn't imagine being able to function after such a loss, but Margaret seemed made of stern stuff, a woman used to life's hardships. Cassie thought maybe keeping busy helped her.
And the good Lord knew, the duties in the hospital ran everyone off their feet.
"Sure, dear. His clothes are folded right there on the table." Margaret pointed to the long, white table on the opposite side of the machines. The captain's clothes were folded and tied in a paper parcel, as if already prepared to be mailed to his loved ones.
"There weren't any pictures or mementos, were there? In the pockets?"
"Pictures, no. Why?"
"Well, I was just thinking, perhaps if he could hold on to a picture of a sweetheart or someone special to him, it might aid in his recovery."
"Hmm, no. But there was this small book in his pocket," she said, turning back inside and pulling a small black book from inside the parcel. "At first, I thought it was The Good Book, but it's only one of those Shakespeare books. Who understands those English?" She rolled her eyes.
Cassie took the package and the book, and opened the inside cover. The dedication was from his sister Wilhelmina. Not a sweetheart, but maybe it could still help.
There was a section, on one of the floors in the hospital, where the nurses slept when working overnight. Cassie wished she could have a place of her own, a real home of her own, but that would happen when she and Phillip were married. Until then, she would stay where she was needed. When not on overnight duty, she and Ginny roomed together in a nearby flat.
She spent most of the morning helping the other patients. Some were well enough to walk around, but as it was still too cold to brave the out-of-doors, Cassie walked with them up and down the hall.
She helped feed those who couldn't feed themselves, and she helped some of the soldiers write letters to their families. Her favorite part of her duties was getting to talk with them and learn about their lives. She thought it helped them to have someone to tell their troubles to or to just be there to share a joke and a cup of coffee or tea. Knowing them made it harder when they left or passed, but Cassie felt that little bit of human interaction was too important not to make the effort.
They were still waiting to hear on the blood supply.
The captain hadn't woken up yet, nor made a sound beyond that initial groan. His face remained grey.
She wasn't able to sit down until noon. Even then, she felt guilty leaving her patients alone to have lunch with her fellow nurses. When she returned, the first patient she went to was the captain.
Cassie sighed and checked his IV. She reached under the bed, where she'd placed his clothes, and pulled out the volume of Shakespeare.
She loved Shakespeare. She loved the musical flow and passion of the words, and the beautiful pictures he'd painted in her mind while she'd sat in school.
She rested on a small stool by his bed and read, hoping the flow of words would reach the captain somehow and inspire him to fight. She smiled to think that such a man, a soldier, would carry Romeo and Juliet around in his pocket.
She was transported as she read, imagining herself and Phillip as the doomed lovers. Some of the more passionate passages made her cheeks warm, as they hadn't quite reached that point yet themselves. Phillip was a gentleman and had more respect for her than to try and take liberties, even if she sometimes wanted him to. But no. Marital privileges would be more special if they waited for their wedding night, as they should.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the captain's hand move off the edge of the blanket, drop off the mattress, and hang there. She rushed forward and took it, to lift it back onto the bed.
He squeezed her fingers. Her heart jumped. The movement, the sudden sign of vitality, stunned her.
She moved her gaze to his face. His expression was tight, as if in pain. His mouth moved. His lips were dry.
She took her free hand and dipped her fingers in the pitcher of water she kept on the windowsill, where it would stay cold yet nearby. When she ran her fingers across his lips, they parted.
He sighed. The gasp of air against her fingers sent a strange shiver up her arm and into her chest, making her belly tighten with a disturbingly strange sensation.
His face relaxed. He'd fallen under again.
She stared at him for a long time and realized she was holding her breath. She took a long, shuddering inhalation.
He was fighting. He was fighting to live. But how much longer could he hold on? How much longer would he last if he didn't get the blood he needed?
* * * * *
Cassie couldn't sleep that night. She stared up at the ceiling and thought about the captain. She didn't understand why he so occupied her thoughts, why she was so troubled by his condition. She cared about all the soldiers in her care, but this captain—who hadn't spoken a word to her, who hadn't even opened his sightless eyes to her—for some reason, she was determined this man should live. She tried to search in his manner for something that might remind her of Phillip, something to explain her preoccupation with a stranger.
She found nothing. Nothing other than she must do everything she could to make sure he lived. She was a nurse. It was her duty. Simply that. She would only give herself a headache trying to attribute more reason to it.
She'd give him her own blood if she could. She sat up in bed so swiftly she nearly slid off the thin mattress. She had an outrageous idea. Insane. But one she would try, none the less. She rushed back to the ward in her stockings, careful not to make too much noise. She picked up the clipboard off the footboard of the captain's bed. She checked his blood type against her own.
A perfect match. She shuddered uneasily, hoping this would work, and put her plan into action. She took her blood and filled a few vials, then used it to replace the blood he was lacking. She couldn't explain the compulsion to save him, the urge to do something so risky for him when she'd never considered it for the other soldiers.
The next morning, his skin wasn't as grey, and he had some warmth to him again.
"That is one tough, lucky son of a—" Dr. Marshall seemed to remember Cassie's presence and caught himself. "Gun."
Cassie just lowered her head and smiled.
The next night, she did it again. As the days passed, the small bite of pain as the needle pulled her blood through the thin tubing into his veins was worth it as she watched the color return to his face.
She read to him during the day and gave him her blood at night. It was like a secret between the two of them. When she thought about it, she felt guilty.
A few times, she almost told Phillip what she was doing, but for some reason, she didn't. Maybe because she knew he would scold her for putting her own health at risk. Yes, that was why she didn't tell him. But she was kept busy enough during the days ahead that she didn't really consider whether the blood loss was costing her anything physically.
At least, not until she fainted.