Honoring those who have served their country in war, most focus on those who have fought on the battlefields. But one group’s heroics under fire have slipped through the pages of history, a group whose blood and sweat were left in operating rooms and hospital tents, a group whose heroism has seldom been measured.
For nurse Gwen Spencer, fighting battles is nothing new. An orphan sent to live with a vengeful aunt, Gwen picked coal and scrubbed floors to earn a living. But when she decides to become a nurse, she steps outside the boundaries of her aunt’s demands…and into a world of her own making.
Leaving her hometown for France, she helps doctors mend thousands of brutally injured Doughboys under primitive conditions. Amid the chaos, she volunteers to go ever forward to the front lines. Braving bombings and the madness of men crazed by the hell of war, she is stunned to discover one man she can love. A man she can share her life with.
But in the insanity and bloodshed she learns the measures of her own desires. Dare she attempt to become a woman of accomplishment? Or has looking into the face of war and death given her the courage to live her life to the fullest?
Excerpt: Copyright, Jo-Ann Power, 2013. All rights reserved.
When she did return to the tent, she had Colonel Scott in tow. She’d told him nothing except their German was now awake, aware and spoke English. She thought it best to let the officer discern the veracity of the man.
“Nurse Spencer tells me you speak our language. Might I ask you where you learned it?”
“At my mother’s knee, Colonel. Captain Adam Fairleigh, His Majesty’s Forces. Forgive me, sir, I would greet you appropriately but our erstwhile nurse has strapped me to the bed.”
“Then you must need restraining,” Scott replied. “What the hell is this that you say you’re with the Brits?”
“I am, sir. I am attached to General Pershing’s staff, Chaumont.”
“As what? How do you speak Hun so well and why in God’s name are you in one of their uniforms?”
Fairleigh arched both brows, looking at the short American down his very elegant straight nose. “Liaison to the American Commander, sir. Since December. I speak excellent German because my maternal grandmother came from Saxe-Coburg, the same principality as our late Prince Albert. I speak German, sir, as well as I do English. Before the war, that was no crime, but an asset.”
“I see. And how do you come by this uniform?”
Their patient was no longer so quick or cocky. “I took it off a dead man.”
Gwen swallowed hard at the savage image of this man removing clothing from a corpse.
“I had managed to crawl across a zone where they were not shelling. I thought if I could reach one of their forward trench lines, then I—”
“Preposterous. How did you get that far in your own uniform?”
“I went in peasants’ rags. Our lines abut an old village where only a few huts still stand.”
“Why discard your rags for a German captain’s uniform?”
“Well, sir, he was not only dead but conveniently my size.”
That shut the man up.
Gwen could only marvel at this creature in the bed.
“When I came upon their trench, I could hear their conversation below. Luck was with me. That bunker was a communications center. If I could get in there, I might learn quite enough to make my mission worthwhile. Of course, I couldn’t do that, couldn’t speak German to them and have them believe I was one of them if I wore French farmer’s culottes, could I? So I crept around…among their dead whose bodies they had not retrieved.” He stared at the American with blank eyes. “I happened upon the captain who seemed my height. Then I waited until night fell and—”
He halted, regarding Gwen once more. “I buried my rags and crawled into their trench. They accepted my story. I was privy to their orders that were to move their gun emplacements. Then, as you can expect, I was stuck with them, considered one of them. I had to run with them. I had no opportunity to escape until two nights later when the French opened a barrage in our sector.”
He lifted a hand, let it drop to the sheets. “I managed to hang back when they retreated with their line. I set out to No Man’s Land and prayed to Christ I’d find my way across to French lines. This took me…I’m not clear. A night. Two?” He shrugged. “Here I am.”
“Who is your American liaison in Pershing’s staff?”
“Colonel Samuel Rustings.”
Scott nodded, a hint of a smile curling his lips. “I see.”
“I gather you know him.”
“Same class at West Point.”
“Well, then. If you telegraph him, he will verify who I am and my mission. He knew I went out, you see.”
“A man from headquarters is already on his way here.”
“We thought we had ourselves a Heinie.”
The man’s mouth quirked in bitterness. “Sorry to disappoint you.”
“Oh, you’ll do, sir. What did you say your name was?”
Gwen noticed that Scott had not addressed him by his rank.
“We’ll see what our man from Chaumont has to say about you. In the meantime, my private is outside the tent.”
Fairleigh inclined his head in acknowledgement of his warder.
“Nurse. Finish up here. Untie him. ”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“Good day, then.”
When Scott had departed, Fairleigh regarded her with appraising eyes. “What is your name?”
“Nice name. Spencer.”
“Thank you.” She pulled her cart closer to his bed. No matter who he was, he was to be made whole as efficiently as she could.
“I am sorry, Spencer, for being an ass.”
She saw on his face honest contrition. Unaccustomed to apologies from those who insulted her, she had no reason to trust the value of his. Yet she gave him credit for the courtesy of it. He had done such a brave act. What kind of man would do as he had done? A fool. An opportunist. A man who saw this was work which he and he alone was best suited for? Was that hubris? Cunning? Or duty? If indeed, he had done it. If he hadn’t lied.
“Spencer, I am grateful for your help. Please do patch me up. I’d hate to lose my hands because I lacked good manners.”
He was making conversation to heal their rift. She picked through her gauze looking for the needle she had misplaced when she had left him. Brusqueness served her where experience did not. “Lie back then and be good.”
“Chilly. Do you they teach you to be frosty like that in America?”
He feigned a shiver.
She fought a smile. “Put that spoon between your teeth. This needle will hurt.”
“I wager it will hurt less than your German. You should have warned me that it was so bad.”
“Careful.” Fingering her needle, she began to thread the eye. “You need me to be gentle as I sew. Besides,”—she could taunt him now that he was rational and at her mercy—“I doubt I’ll ever sing with you again.”
“I will endeavor to ensure you do.”
His attempt to charm her flattered her. She would do well to ignore it. “This is war, sir. Neither of us has the time.”
“Then sing to me instead.”
“When I put my needle in your skin, I will hear you sing and off key, too.” She threatened him, hiding all the humor his compliment inspired. “The spoon, sir. Now!”
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