By Stacy Henrie
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In France at the height of World War I, American nurse Evelyn Gray is no stranger to suffering. She’s helped save the life of many a soldier, but when she learns her betrothed has been killed, her own heart may be broken beyond repair. Summoning all her strength, Evelyn is determined to carry on-not just for herself and her country, but for her unborn child.
Corporal Joel Campbell dreams of the day the war is over and he can return home and start a family. When a brutal battle injury puts that hope in jeopardy, Joel is lost to despair . . . until he meets Evelyn. Beautiful, compassionate, and in need of help, she makes an unconventional proposal that could save their lives-or ruin them irrevocably. Now, amidst the terror and turmoil of the Western Front, these two lost souls will have to put their faith in love to find the miracle they’ve been looking for.
My heartfelt thanks go to the entire team at Grand Central Forever. Thank you for your enthusiasm, for the stunning cover art, and for a beautiful finished product.
A specific and sincere thank you to my editor, Lauren Plude, for her encouragement and her knack for helping me know where to dig for greater emotional depth. My manuscripts are so much better for having passed through her capable hands. Thanks, too, to my copy editor, Joan Matthews, for her meticulous eye on this book and its predecessor.
Thank you to my agent, Jessica Alvarez, for her savviness, support, and foresight. This series, and this book in general, would not have made it off my hard drive without her help.
Thanks to my critique partners Ali Cross, Elana Johnson, and Sara Olds, for their help in all things writerly, researchy, and chocolaty.
To the readers of my Of Love and War series, especially those who’ve eagerly awaited Joel’s story, thank you for your excitement about the Campbell family and those who’ve come into their lives.
Last, but never ever least, thanks to the greatest band of true-blue fans ever: my sweet husband and kids. Thanks for, happily, taking this journey with me.
The more I’ve studied the First World War, the more I’m in awe of those who sacrificed their time and, in so many cases, their lives to serve their countries. In an age when antibiotics had yet to be discovered, when machine guns and tanks and airplanes were new war weapons, and when wounds were unlike any seen previously, the Great War was a distinctly unique period of conflict.
America declared war on Germany in April 1917, three years after Germany, Great Britain, and France first began fighting. Corporal Joel Campbell’s life as an Army soldier in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF)—in the trenches, in battle, and in the hospital—is representative of the roughly two million “doughboys” who served overseas during WWI. The battle in which he’s wounded would have been the Second Battle of the Marne, which occurred between July 15 and August 5, 1918. The war finally ended on November 11 of that same year.
The United States Army Nurse Corps, established in 1901, had more than 10,000 nurses serving overseas during WWI. Though they did not receive military rank until after the war, these nurses were an incredible force for good in nearly all stages of wartime medical care.
An Army Nurse Corps nurse who married or became pregnant—married or not—was honorably discharged. This rule changed in October 1942, allowing nurses who married to remain on active duty at the surgeon general’s discretion for the period of the war plus six months.
While St. Vincent’s hospital is my fictional creation, there were hospitals in France that were run by religious sisters during WWI. Though I did not find any case where Army Nurse Corps nurses assisted in such a hospital, for the sake of the story, I had Evelyn Gray and the other ANC nurses serve alongside the Sisters of Charity at St. Vincent’s instead of in an Army or Red Cross hospital.
The sodium hypochlorite solution created by Henry Drysdale Dakin and Alexis Carrel was a godsend in a pre-antibiotics world. Irrigating open wounds with the Carrell-Dakin solution (or Dakin’s solution) helped keep infection from growing worse and meant wounds healed in less time.
Evelyn’s experience at the evacuation hospital is true to life, with its incessant mud and occasional firing upon by German gunners. Most nurses were eager to serve at the front lines, regardless of the difficulties.
A final note: My heart goes out to the countless women who, like Evelyn, have experienced miscarriage or infant loss. I share your ranks and know the pain and grief, often silent, you’ve known. I hope you, too, have been able to find the loving care and hope that Evelyn eventually did.
For more information about the Great War, the AEF, or the Army Nurse Corps, I recommend the following books, which were invaluable in my research: Intimate Voices from the First World War, by Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis (2003); Over There: The United States in the Great War 1917–1918, by Byron Farwell (1999); and A History of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, by Mary T. Sarnecky (1999).
France, May 1918
Evelyn Gray breathed in the briny smell of the sea as she fingered the five shells in her gloved palm. One for each year without her father. From beneath her velour hat, she peered up at the gray sky overhead. The cool temperature and the possibility of rain made her grateful for the warmth of her Army Nurse Corps outdoor uniform, with its dark blue jacket, shirtwaist, and skirt.
“Nurse Gray, come on.” One of the other three nurses down the beach waved for her to join them in their walk along the shoreline toward the white cliffs in the distance.
Sighing, Evelyn turned in their direction. She wasn’t in any hurry to rejoin their conversation. The other girls on leave with her were full of talk about home and families and sweethearts, while she had only her aging grandparents waiting for her back in Michigan. As for a beau? Her lips turned up into a bitter smile. She’d been too busy with nurse’s training to worry about any of that.
She lifted the first shell—a smooth, white one—and tossed it into the sea. “I still miss you, Papa,” she said as the seashell slipped beneath the surface of the water.
Five years today, since you left us. She could easily picture how he’d trudged up the porch steps that afternoon after tending to a patient—he’d never established a doctor’s office in town, preferring instead to make house calls or take visits in their home. He hadn’t looked well, but Evelyn’s medical knowledge at seventeen wasn’t what it was today at twenty-two. She still wasn’t sure if he himself recognized the signs of the coming heart attack.
Tossing the second shell into the water, she swallowed hard against the flood of memories. She’d gone upstairs to make sure he was lying down and found him on the floor next to the bed, already gone.
She rid her hand of the third, fourth, and fifth shells in quick succession, then brushed the granules of sand from her gloves. The wind and the ache in her heart brought salty moisture to her eyes, but she straightened her shoulders against both. No one else needed to know what day it was or how much the loneliness tore at her.
Evelyn whirled around to find an American soldier watching her from a few feet away. He wasn’t overly tall, less than six feet, but his handsome face, broad shoulders, and dark eyes were an impressive combination and made Evelyn’s pulse skip from more than being startled.
“I didn’t mean to disturb you.” He smiled, looking anything but apologetic. “Beautiful view.”
The way he said it, she knew he wasn’t talking about the ocean. Evelyn didn’t blush, though. She was used to lingering looks and flirtations from the wounded soldiers at the hospital where she worked. Some, like this young man, were quite handsome; others were sweet; and a few pressed her to keep in touch once they left the hospital. But Evelyn put a firm stop to any such nonsense. She wouldn’t break the rule forbidding fraternization between nurses and enlisted soldiers.
Being a nurse was demanding enough; doing so while pregnant or with a venereal disease would make it twice as difficult. Not to mention she would be discharged if it were discovered she was with child. No, nursing was too important to her, and to her grandparents, to throw her job away for some soldier. Nowhere else but in a busy hospital ward, performing her duties, did she still feel close to her father.
Time to catch up with the other nurses.
Evelyn turned in the direction of the cliffs and started after the girls. They’d managed to cover quite a bit of distance while she lingered behind. To her dismay, the soldier fell into step beside her.
“I’m Private First Class Ralph Kelley.” He held out his hand for her to shake. “And you are?”
“Not supposed to talk to you,” Evelyn said in her firmest nurse’s tone. “You know the rules, soldier.” She tried to maintain a brisk pace across the beach, but the stones and sand underfoot made it difficult.
He chuckled as he lowered his hand to his side. “You on leave?” he asked, doggedly ignoring her rejection. “With those other nurses?”
She refused to answer, but his next question caught her off guard.
“Do you collect pebbles? I saw you picking some up earlier.”
How long had he been watching her? Heat rose into her cheeks at his intrusion upon her private mourning. “I need to go.” She attempted to outdistance him again, but his feet kept tempo with hers.
“Have lunch with me.”
The request, spoken in an almost pleading tone, halted Evelyn’s retreat in a way his earlier attempts at charm hadn’t. She circled to face him. Perhaps a gentle rebuff would serve her better than her usual abrupt one.
Before she could say anything, he spoke again. “I can’t say I don’t make it a habit of talking with nurses.” He gave her a sheepish smile as he removed his cap and fingered the olive drab wool. “But you looked like you could use a friend back there. Like there was something weighing on your mind.”
The perceptive observation took her by surprise, and she fell back a step. Could there be more to this soldier than his ladies’ man demeanor? Her earlier feeling of isolation welled up inside her, nearly choking her with its hold. “It’s the anniversary of my father’s death—five years today.” The admission tumbled out, despite the voice of reason screaming in her mind to keep walking away. “I’ve been thinking a lot about him lately.”
“Do your friends know?” He nodded in the direction the other girls had gone.
Evelyn folded her arms against the battering breeze and shook her head. “I didn’t want to spoil their time away from the hospital.”
“That’s rather generous.” He cocked his head to study her. “Will you at least tell me your name?”
She could feel her defenses crumbling beneath the sincerity in his black eyes. “It’s…um…Evelyn. Evelyn Gray.”
Hearing his deep voice intone her name brought butterflies to her stomach, and the smile he offered afterward made her heartbeat thrum faster. When was the last time she’d felt this way? Probably not since she and Dale had kissed after high school graduation. Dale Emerson had been her first beau, until he moved to Sioux City, Iowa, and Evelyn had put all her time and energy into becoming a nurse. Last she’d heard, Dale had graduated from medical school and was serving as a surgeon at the front lines.
“I discovered a place yesterday that serves excellent fish,” he said, his tone coaxing. “If you like fish…”
Despite her best efforts to stop it, a smile lifted the corners of her lips. “I think I’d like anything that wasn’t cooked at the hospital. Our food there isn’t much better than Army fare, I’m afraid.”
Private Kelley laughed; it was a pleasant sound. “I owe it to you then, to at least provide you a decent meal while you’re on leave.” His expression sobered as he added, “Especially today.”
Evelyn glanced over her shoulder at the three nurses far down the beach. She ought to refuse. But logic was growing less and less persuasive inside her mind. For the first time in months, she felt valued and important. This soldier’s genuine notice and concern soothed the loneliness she wore as constantly as her nurse’s uniform.
She pushed at the sand beneath her shoes, her lips pursed in indecision. Could any real harm come from simply sharing a meal in a public place? At least she’d be spared having to listen to the other girls prattle on about their big families and parents who were still alive. She would only be trading one conversation for another.
Inhaling a deep breath, she let her words slide out on the exhale. “Let me tell them I’ll meet up with them later.”
He grinned and replaced his hat on his head. “I’ll wait right here for you.”
Evelyn moved with new purpose toward the retreating group. She called to the girls from a distance to avoid any questions. The three of them turned as one. “Go on ahead without me. I’ll meet up with you before supper.”
They glanced at one another, then one of them shrugged and waved her hand in acknowledgment. A sense of freedom rolled through her as Evelyn retraced her steps to where Private First Class Ralph Kelley stood waiting.
“All set?” He extended his hand to her.
Evelyn stared at it for a long moment, then placed her fingers in his palm. With a smile, he tucked her hand over his arm and led her away from the beach.
You’ve become skin and bones since you came here, Evelyn. And no wonder; you eat like a bird.” Alice Thornton waved her fork at the half-empty plate Evelyn had slid aside. “If my mother were here, she’d try to fatten you up. Unlike the hospital cook, apparently.”
Evelyn smiled, despite the queasiness in her stomach. She could imagine Mrs. Thornton—a rotund, matronly version of red-headed Alice—chasing her down with a ladle of stew in hand. Alice talked a lot about her family, particularly her three beanpole brothers who never put on pounds no matter how much they ate, much to their mother’s chagrin.
That wasn’t Evelyn’s problem. The morning sickness that plagued her, even now in the middle of the day, prevented her from stomaching much of any meal. But she certainly didn’t plan on telling Alice that.
Almost of its own volition, her hand rose to rest against the middle of her white nurse’s apron. The tiny life inside her could only be ten weeks along by now, but her own life had been altered just the same. Would anyone else notice her lack of appetite, as Alice had, or her frequent trips to the bathroom?
Alice turned to chat with another nurse seated near them, giving Evelyn a moment to herself. She slipped her hand beneath her apron, into the pocket of her gray crepe dress, and felt the letter tucked there. It brought instant calm as she withdrew the folded slip of paper. Though the letter had arrived less than a week ago, she had Ralph’s words memorized. Still, she liked to see the bold strokes of his handwriting and read the reassurance behind the words he’d penned.
I’m still in shock at your news of the baby. I find myself thinking at odd times of the day, even in the middle of a battle, that I’m going to be a father. I am going to do right by you and the baby, Evelyn. Not like my own father. As soon as I get leave again, I’m coming to the hospital there and we’ll get married. I know you’ll be discharged after that, being married and all, but you won’t have to worry about what to tell your grandparents anymore. You can tell them you got hitched in France and came home to have our baby.
I miss you and think of you every day.
“Did we get mail today?”
Alice’s voice broke into Evelyn’s reverie. Startled, she glanced up in confusion. “Mail?”
Her roommate pointed at the sheet of paper in Evelyn’s grip.
Evelyn quickly folded the letter and shoved it into her pocket, away from Alice’s curious gaze. “Oh, I’m not sure. This is from last week.”
“Is it from your grandparents?”
Though she wanted to answer in the affirmative, Evelyn wouldn’t lie. She hadn’t heard from either her grandmother or her grandfather in several months. Their declining health made returning Evelyn’s missives difficult.
“It’s from a…friend,” she hedged. She steeled herself for more questions, but thankfully Alice accepted the response with a nod.
Evelyn hadn’t yet broached the subject of the baby or her inevitable homecoming in her letters to her grandparents. She’d wait until she and Ralph were married. That way when she told them, she would be breaking the news as a new bride and not an unwed mother. What would that shock do to them? She was hopeful they’d like Ralph—that his charisma would eventually win them over as it had her. The thought of his larger-than-life personality filling the too quiet house where she’d grown up brought a smile to her lips.
“Better hurry up.” Evelyn stood and picked up her plate. “I heard Sister Marcelle is doing a round of ward visits today or tomorrow.”
Alice frowned and scrambled up from the table. “In that case, I’ll skip the rest. Sister Henriette is likely to tell her that I yelled at Sergeant Dennis good and long this morning. But honestly, the man refuses to rest.”
Evelyn’s smile flattened into a frown as she followed Alice to the kitchen. She’d noticed the way Sergeant Dennis watched Alice. The man was clearly captivated by the younger girl and would go to great lengths to garner a response from her—even if it was a good scolding. Evelyn could only hope her roommate would remain blind to the man’s attention. Alice didn’t seem the type to disregard the rule forbidding nurses and soldiers from fraternizing, but then again, Evelyn hadn’t expected to break the rule herself. Not until she’d met Ralph.
A torrent of French greeted them as they set their dishes beside the kitchen’s enormous sink. The hospital cook stood at the back door, shaking her spoon at a dark-headed youngster.
“S’il vous plaît?” the boy entreated.
“Non pas de pain,” the cook responded. She slammed the door in the boy’s disheartened face and muttered under her breath. Throwing a pointed look at Evelyn and Alice, she returned to her table and began whacking dough with a stick.
“Come on, Evelyn.” Alice retreated back toward the entrance to the large dining hall. None of the twenty nurses at St. Vincent’s liked spending much time in the kitchen with the cantankerous cook.
“I’ll be along in a minute. You go ahead.”
The moment her roommate left, Evelyn took both the half-nibbled rolls from their plates and discreetly put them into her free pocket. While she might not be able to stomach much food, that didn’t mean someone else should go away hungry. She retraced her steps to the dining hall and let herself out one of the hospital’s rear entrances. A welcoming breeze loosened bits of her dark hair from underneath her nurse’s cap. Evelyn tucked them back and eyed the sky. Gray clouds overhead promised rain.
Before her, the back lawn of the hospital extended long and wide, bordered by forests of beech and oak trees. The hospital itself had originally been a château, rebuilt in the 1860s and bequeathed to the Sisters of Charity. The living quarters for the hospital staff stood to her left in what had once been the orangery and beyond that sat an ancient stone church. Though different from the clapboard building she’d attended as a child, she couldn’t help wondering each time she saw the old building how many weddings, funerals, and services had been held within its rock walls. Would it see another hundred years’ worth of worship and poignant moments or fall, ravaged by the war like so many other towns and villages?
Out of the corner of her eye, Evelyn caught sight of black hair as the beggar boy rounded the hospital. “Wait! Attendez!” she called out as she jogged after him. “Please, wait.”
He stopped so suddenly Evelyn nearly ran into him. Large black eyes peered up at her from a dirt-smudged face. They looked neither sad nor angry, but resigned and weary, though the boy couldn’t be more than six years old. That wizened look constricted Evelyn’s heart more than the other signs of poverty about him—the cuts on his shins and the disheveled state of his shirt and trousers.
“Parlez-vous Anglais?” she inquired. She hoped he spoke English. Her French was still quite rudimentary, despite the months she’d spent in his country as a nurse.
He cocked his head and nodded.
“Wonderful. What’s your name?”
“Loo-ee. Louis Rousseau.”
Evelyn smiled. “Bonjour, Louis. I’m Nurse Gray.”
“Got any coffin nails or chocolate?”
She bit back a laugh at the familiar term for cigarettes. “You learned English from some soldiers, didn’t you?”
Louis shook his head. “Ma grand-mère taught me the English. But ma mère takes our vegetables into the market and sometimes the Americans buy some. She didn’t sell much yesterday. I was trying to beg some petit de pain off that tête de chou. That cabbage-headed cook. But she just say ‘non, non.’”
The brief glimpse into the boy’s day-to-day life made Evelyn all the more grateful she’d taken the uneaten food to give him. While she understood the cook and her staff had to keep an entire hospital from going hungry, Evelyn still believed a little kindness in these dark times was equally important.
“Tell you what, Louis. I didn’t finish all my bread today and I’d like you to have it.” She removed the rolls, which were slightly squished now, and held them out to him.
His eyes widened as he stared at the bread, then at her.
“Go on. You can have it.”
He carefully took the rolls from her. One he bit into at once, but the other he held in his free hand. “Ma mère can eat this one. Merci.”
A flood of emotion filled her as she watched him lean against the hospital wall to eat the meager meal. He was clearly famished, but he ate the bread slowly. Watching him, her thoughts turned to the life growing inside her.
Perhaps the baby would be a boy—a little dark-haired fellow with an impish glint in his black eyes just like his father. She could imagine her and Ralph and their child, and hopefully the other children that would follow, sitting on the porch of her grandparents’ house—her house—laughing and sipping lemonade. The loneliness she’d experienced since her father’s death would disappear, and the large, empty house would be filled with laughter and life and people.
She’d always envied those of her schoolmates with large families and two living parents. While she never doubted the love her father and grandparents felt for her, she still used to pretend she had a whole slew of brothers and sisters—a complete family. Soon, that dream would be realized. Once she and Ralph married, she would be a wife and eventually a mother, with a family of her own.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” she asked Louis, reluctant to return indoors. The heat and smells inside the hospital made her nausea worse.
Louis shook his head. “It’s only me and ma mère.”
Did Louis long for more family as she did? “Where’s your father?”
The boy lowered his gaze to the grass. “He was a soldier…but he got killed last year.” His brow pinched with sorrow, the same emotion tugging at Evelyn’s own heart. So many men gone…
Losing her father had been devastating, and she hadn’t been a child. Even now, there were countless moments when she missed him with an intensity that made his death feel as fresh as yesterday. The similarities between her and the young boy poking at the ground with his big toe ran deeper than she would have guessed.
Squatting down in front of Louis, she rested her hands on his thin shoulders. “My father died, too.”
“Was he a brave soldier like mon père?”
“In a way. He was a doctor, so he helped people fight battles of illness and disease.”
Louis lifted his chin to look her in the eye. “How’d he die?”
“His heart stopped working one day.”
“Et votre mère?”
And your mother? Seventeen years without a mother still hadn’t erased the longing Evelyn felt whenever people asked. “My mother died when I was five years old. But she’d been sick for a long time.” The word cancer settled on her tongue, but she swallowed it back. The boy didn’t need to know and probably wouldn’t understand the whole ugly truth about her mother’s condition.
Louis’s brow furrowed. “Who takes care of you?”
The inquiry was said with so much seriousness that Evelyn didn’t dare laugh. She chose not to say “myself,” despite its being the truth. She’d been taking care of herself, more or less, since her father’s death. But she recognized what Louis was really asking. Did she have any other family or was she all alone in the world? She cringed inwardly at the thought of having no one. “My grandparents are waiting for me back in America.”
Her answer seemed to satisfy him.
“I’d better go,” he said, wiping the crumbs from his mouth with his sleeve.
Evelyn stood. “So should I. Do you live close by?”
- On Sale
- Dec 16, 2014
- Page Count
- 384 pages