Among the Poppies

CHAPTER 30

Gwyn flung out her folded pairs of drawers and stockings for the third time until her fingers hit the bottom of her bag. “Papa! Where did you put that extra box of ointment? I can’t find it anywhere.”

Her father slouched in the doorway of her bedroom, wiping his blackened hands on a cloth. “In the bag, already packed and waiting by the door.”

“The extra bandages, chamomile, oil silk, and carbolic lotion?”

“In the same bag, though I’m more than sure the hospital has plenty in supply.”

Gwyn refolded the discarded garments and stuffed them back into the suitcase. “We didn’t in the field. We had to have our own stock in case.”

“This isn’t the field. It’s London.”

“And London is overflowing with soldiers, so the better prepared I am, the smoother things will go.”

“You think they’ll just allow you to march in and take over a patient? A severely injured officer with an actively retired general father?”

Gwyn snapped the locks closed and cinched the buckle of her bag before looking at him. “I’ll get in.”

Papa tucked the cloth into his back pocket and eased himself onto the room’s only chair with a bone-weary grunt.

“Are you all right, Papa?”

He waved her off with a smile. “Long day under the bonnet with a pair of loosened bolts. Wrenched them into submission, though.”

Guilt pricked her heart. In her time away, gray had streaked its way through her father’s hair and deep lines carved around his eyes. She sat on the edge of her bed and took his calloused hand. “You work too hard.”

“Ah, I wondered where you got it.” He smiled. “That, and the stubbornness to keep going when logic tells you to stop.”

Her gaze dropped to his hands. So large and warm, they had cradled her when she’d scraped a knee and helped her change her first tire. They were as adept at installing new gear shifts as folding in prayer. “You don’t think I should go?”

“I think you have to do what you believe is right.” He lifted her chin with his thumb. “The boy is hurting, in body and pride. It’ll take stubbornness to pull him from it. And as much love as you can give him.”

“He sent me away once. He’ll try to do it again. I know he will.”

“I tried to make the same mistake once with your mother. Mind you, once. She never let me do it again, and I praise God for it every day because I wouldn’t have you if I’d let my pride stand in the way.”

“What do you mean?”

Standing, her father walked to the tiny window that peered across the gravel drive. “She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Thick hair, a touch of auburn lighter than yours, and a quick laugh. Her dream was to travel the world and see the places she’d only read about in all her stacks of books. For some reason, she fell in love with me.”

“Mama was smart.”

Papa’s sad smile reflected in the glass. “Aye, I thought so, too, until she decided to give up her dreams and become a poor mechanic’s wife.”

Gwyn’s fingers curled into the coverlet folded at the foot of her bed, longing for a mother’s touch that she hadn’t felt in years.

“I told her to leave,” he continued, “that I never wanted to see her again, never letting on that my heart was breaking with each word. Tears clouded those beautiful green eyes of hers, the same ones she gave to you, baby girl. ‘Bernard Ruthers,’ she said to me, ‘you are the stupidest man I’ve ever met, but I love you still. Order me away if you like, but I’m not leaving. Marry me now, or I’ll tell everyone you stall in second gear and cheat at cards.’ What could I say to that?”

Crossing to her nightstand, he took the silver-framed picture of her and Mum and extracted the black and white photograph. Gwyn, not more than a year old, sat on her mother’s knee while staring up at the woman who she now looked so much like. Stroking a loving finger over his wife’s hair, Papa flipped the photograph over and handed it to Gwyn. Her mother’s delicate script scrawled across the back in a message she’d never seen.

New List

Take Gwyn to feed the swans on the Thames.

Learn to drive.

Picnic with Bernard under the stars.

Family trip to the seashore.

Watch Gwyn run barefoot on the sand.

Listen to Lina Cavalieri perform at the Crystal Palace.

Many of the items were crossed off with only a few remaining, including the very last one. Never part from the ones I love.

“All this time. I thought …” Gwyn shook her head as disbelief rocked her settled notions.

“You thought I made her give her life up. That her dreams of doing great things skidded to an end when she gave into love and wasted away into a quiet life above a garage. Dreams often change to include the ones we love.” He smiled sadly. “I knew I could never explain that to you and have you truly believe me. Oh, I know you would want to, but some things must be experienced before true understanding takes place. When you met William … well, I prayed you would discover it for yourself.”

Gwyn hung her head in shame. “I’m so sorry, Papa.”

“There’s no one to say sorry to, my girl. Only yourself.” He turned away from the window and sat next to her on the bed. “I’ve watched you throw yourself into the same hopes as your mother did. I’ve watched you push down boundaries that threaten to keep you from running, but with all this running you’ve limited yourself from enjoying all of life’s possibilities.” He reached out and grazed his fingertips across her cheek. “William is your possibility.”

Tears scalded the corners of her eyes. Her mother had never been forced to choose which life she wanted. Love hadn’t blocked her path. It gave her a new one. Lightness flooded her heart. She didn’t have to choose either. William was what she wanted. Not one day with him had been boring, and they never would be. But … “He’ll fight me.”

“Of course he will, but when have you ever backed down from one of those?”

“Never.” She grinned with anticipation at the coming challenge. “I could threaten to tell everyone he’s a lousy shot and sits a horse like a girl.”

Papa laughed and threw his arm around her shoulders, holding her close. “Aye, you could, my girl. Worked for me.”

A burst of sniffles filled the pristine waiting room. A girl around fifteen dug into her handbag, pulled out a crinkled handkerchief, and thrust it under her mother’s red nose. A loud honk and the sniffles continued.

Gwyn shifted in her seat to ease the ache in her backside and to shift her view of the pale, bloated faces of the crying family next to her. The heavy double doors swung open as a starched nurse with a headpiece billowing behind her like wings stopped just inside the room. “Mr. and Mrs. Phelps?”

A man and woman jumped to their feet. “Mr. and Mrs. Phelps.” The husband slipped his hand under his wife’s elbow. “That’s us.”

The nurse didn’t blink. “Follow me, please.”

The door swung shut behind them with a thump. Silence weighed like a blanket thick enough to suffocate the room. Gwyn stared at her lap. What was taking so long? The woman next to her began her sniffling again, each nose whistle grating down Gwyn’s nerves.

Shooting from her chair, Gwyn stalked to the bay window at the far end of the room. Outside, rain pinged off the pavement, glittering among the cobblestones like tiny diamonds. People shuffled by on the slushy footpaths, their collars pulled tight and hats angled low to keep the freezing drizzle out. Two weeks to Christmas and not one person carried a shiny package under their arms or a warm smile on their faces. Gloom and destruction had stripped the joy of the season from them.

The door thumped open again. “Miss Ruthers.”

Gwyn’s heart lurched into her throat. This was it.

“Come with me,” the nurse said without emotion.

An unadorned hallway stretched for miles beyond the double doors. The nurse’s flat-soled shoes squeaked over the green and white checked linoleum floor. The overpowering smell of sterilization clogged Gwyn’s throat. How was anyone expected to recover without suffocating first? “Do the men receive time outside? For fresh air?”

“Don’t you think they had enough fresh air over there?”

“I know that some of their lungs, particularly the gassed ones, need air away from the chemical scents of medical supplies.”

“Unlike your field tents, St. Matthews cares for its patients with the best instruments and practices available. Most visitors do not come in waving letters of acquaintances from Earls and Marchionesses. Our visitors must be family.” The nurse stopped at a door and glanced down at Gwyn’s bare left hand. A thick eyebrow arched in contempt. “But with Lady Dowling as a great patron of ours and a third cousin to the Duke of Kent, I see that our sacred rules do not apply to all.”

Any nerves Gwyn had burned away in a flare. “I didn’t outdrive the Germans to come under attack on home soil. Am I allowed to see Captain Crawford or not?”

“These men deserve better than having titles thrown around just so anyone off the street can traipse through here. They deserve respect and quiet.”

The flare inside Gwyn died at the woman’s heart to protect the boys beyond the door. “My friends and I pulled many of these men from the trenches. We’re on the same side, Sister.”

The woman stared at Gwyn long and hard. With a deep breath, she turned on her heel and pushed into the ward. “This way, please.”

It was like any other ward Gwyn had been in, only nothing shook. Each bed was filled with occupants dressed in white cotton bandages and light blue pajamas. They watched with open curiosity as the women passed. Gwyn had heard that female visitors never came to the burn ward—too many of them ran out screaming in hysterics at the sight of the men.

The nurse stopped at an empty bed and frowned. She turned to the man in the next bed. “Where is Captain Crawford?”

“Left about ten minutes ago.” He nodded his burned chin towards a door at the back of the room. “I can figure where he went.”

“Where does that lead?” Gwyn asked.

The nurse sighed. Apparently, this wasn’t his first absence. “To the garden. He’s been warned not to go out there alone.”

She started for the exit, but Gwyn caught her arm. “Please let me.”

“He won’t come.” The man peered at her through half-hooded lids. “I think he’s trying to drown his sorrows in pneumonia.”

Gwyn grinned, buttoning the top buttons of her overcoat. “Lucky for me, I have a talent for dealing with stubborn men.”

“Doesn’t sound too lucky for the captain.”

“Not a chance.”

Rain dribbled through his hair, wetting his pajama top as it slipped down his neck. William shivered. He should have brought a blanket, but the only ones they kept in the ward were those itchy dog creations. If he asked for anything else, the nurses got suspicious. How could they expect him to stay inside, suffocating under the stench of death and rotting skin all day?

William shoved away from the pole and skimmed his hand over the porch rail, dashing raindrops onto the bricked courtyard. The water plopped into the collected puddles, fanning into tiny rings.

Stinging from the icy specks, he buried his hands deep in his pockets. Was it raining in France? How many of his men had the fortune of a roof over their heads, such as he did now? No shelter, no food, and barely enough material to cover their backs. He gazed across the courtyard, bleak and piled with gray slush. His own no man’s land. Except this one wasn’t dotted with purple and blue bodies buried in the frozen ground.

His stomach churned with helplessness. Why me, God? Why take me away from my men when they need me? What good can I do from here? Part of Your master plan, is it? If she hadn’t left me that Bible—

No. He wouldn’t think about her. The hole in his heart was too singed. Every peal of feminine laughter, every light touch to his forehead, every ambulance that drove by was like dousing his insides with kerosene.

The door creaked open behind him. Delicate footsteps picked their way over the ice.

“Ten more minutes,” he said. “I needed fresh air.”

“Ten more minutes and your lungs will freeze out here.”

The hole in his heart blazed to life. He gripped the rail until it shook, ready to splinter under his fingers. “What are you doing here?”

“Someone needs to drag you out of the rain when you don’t have sense enough to do it yourself.”

The desire to turn and face her assailed him like a mass of bullets targeting his heart. He grit his teeth against the urge. “I mean here, in London. At St. Matthews.”

“Did you think I wouldn’t come after you?” Her voice, so soft and low, caressed the weary flames around his heart. “Or did you actually assume your stubbornness would deter me?”

“Clearly, I underestimated your desire for disappointment.”

“William.”

The sweet plea shattered his control. He turned to face his doom. She was even more beautiful than his dreams recalled. Dressed in deep green that turned her eyes to emeralds, and her lustrous mahogany hair tucked up under a daintily propped hat, she was the image of a Christmas angel.

Sand coated his throat. “What are you doing here, Gwyn?”

She stepped towards him. Oh, how he wished she hadn’t. The red of her lips begged him to forget swearing her off. Despite the cold, he knew how warm they would feel.

“I came to take you home,” she said.

“My family is not in residence for the time being, and the nurses won’t allow me to discharge into my own hands. Seems they think we’re all incapable of taking care of ourselves.”

“You’ve been discharged into my care for transport to the hospital in Great Malvern. You don’t need specialized treatment anymore, just rest away from all the big city commotion.”

Heat gnawed up the back of his neck. The last person he expected to make decisions for him was Gwyn. She knew the sense of helplessness and worthlessness of having someone else dictate your next move. “You did all this behind my back? I assume you pulled a few strings to arrange this. Throw in a marchioness’s name, perhaps a baron’s?”

“Lady Dowling and Lord Somerset were most eager to help. Lord Somerset has even offered his home for convalescence until you’re fit to return to your own.”

“I have no intention of returning to Great Malvern or depending upon the pity or charity of others.”

Hurt flickered in her eyes despite the brave smile. “The country air can do wonders, you’ll see.”

“Can it give me back the skin shredded down my body?”

Her smile flattened to a sheet of ice. “So that’s it, is it? You want to rot away here and feel sorry for yourself.” She shook her head, catching mist in the burnished curl grazing her jaw. “I’ve known you to be many things, William Crawford, but a pathetic coward was never one of them.”

“You expect me to trot along behind you like some obedient pup after you went behind my back?”

“I came prepared for the fight I knew you were going to pick with me.”

“If you’d stayed away like I said, there wouldn’t be a fight.”

“You were wrong to order me away, and deep down you know it. You’re using these surface wounds to cover the true hurt inside.”

He laughed. As harsh as nails against metal. “Hurt? What could I possibly hurt for inside?”

“Your lost friend. Your men. Your duty cut short. The need to prove yourself worthy.” She moved closer, the glint in her eye softening. “I fought the same battle, and it turned out useless. Every day over there, I was trying to prove myself, but God had a different adventure in mind for me.”

“You think God tore me up and ripped away the only life I know because He’d rather me skulk away to the country?”

“Perhaps He needed to get your attention.”

“And this is how He does it?” William ran a hand over the roughly patched skin along his cheek and neck. “So much for mercy.”

“Our definition varies widely from His.”

“Like tossing that man in the belly of a fish?”

She smiled faintly. “Would you rather that have happened to you?”

“I’d rather none of it happen.”

“But it did happen. Terrible as it was. I came too close to losing you.”

He turned away, ashamed that the longing in her voice echoed the longing in his heart. Snow began to fall. The lacy bits of fluff drifted down from the gray sky, dusting the roof and stone benches. He was amazed that something so simple could cover such ugliness. If only it covered all things. “You don’t need me. You shouldn’t want me. Not like this.”

“But I do need you. And I want you exactly like this.” She cupped his scarred cheek, pulling his face around to hers. “Makes you look more dashing. I’ll have to beat off the other girls with a stick.”

“Don’t count on any takers. Women may want a war hero, but not one who resembles a hunk of meat prematurely thrown off the fire.”

Gwyn rolled her eyes. “If you keep talking like that, I’ll take a stick after you.”

He pulled away. The warmth of her touch evaporated on a puff of frigid air. “I admire your devotion, as misguided as it is, but you’re wrong to think I can give you what you deserve. What happened to traveling the world without fetters? You think living the quiet life in the country is going to make you happy? You’d be miserable, and worse, regret that you never broke free when you had the chance. I won’t sentence you to that kind of life.”

“And shoving me away won’t do the same for you?”

“It’s a chance I’m willing to take.”

“Well, it’s the wrong one.” She balled her hands on her hips. “These past few months have been the most miserable and lonely of my life. All the hopes and dreams I have for life mean nothing without you to share them with. I’m half a shell. I need you to make me whole again.”

William gripped the rail as her words battered his defenses. His entire life had been devoted to duty, but after seeing his shrapnel-marked and battered body, the fighting forces no longer saw his worth. He’d believed the lies feasting on his misery, never imagining he’d commissioned Gwyn to the same fate. When he’d found those poppy petals in her Bible, he’d nearly ground them to dust for the hope they’d once represented. What a selfish fool he was.

Fresh snow swirled in the air and kissed the tops of his hands, blanketing the uneven backs with pristine whiteness. He could no longer tell the scarred from the smooth.

“Did you mean this?”

He turned and stared at the leather-bound journal in Gwyn’s hand. All this time, he thought it lost somewhere in France. “Where did you get that?”

“Sister Paulette found it under your bed after you left. She thought I might know how to get it back to you. Did you mean it?”

How many nights had he lain awake with ghostly images marching before him, the whites of his enemy’s eyes stark against the darkness? His only relief had been putting pen to paper and capturing every curve of Gwyn’s face and strand of dark hair. It kept him sane in the midst of uncertainty, and she was offering it to him again.

“You didn’t really want me away, did you?”

The pain in her soft words unraveled the last bit of string holding his tightly-bound control together. “I never wished to be away from you. I’d rather stand in front of a firing squad than lose you because of my stubborn pride.” He held his hands out in a helpless gesture. “I refused to become a millstone around your neck.”

“How could your heart ever be a burden to me?”

Her green eyes blazed into his soul, shattering past his shield wall and scorching the wretchedness he’d wallowed in for months. Months without her. Could her sweet words be true? Did he dare to hope for happiness reaching out to him after an absence so long? His pulse galloped, and he sucked in a steadying breath. “Is that what you truly wish for? My heart in all its mangled brokenness.”

“It is more precious to me now than ever before.”

“You laid claim to it a long time ago. You and no one else.”

“Good. I have no intention of sharing.” She cocked her head to the side. “You don’t plan on running out on me again, do you? Because with those flimsy slippers, you won’t get far.”

“Who else would take me?”

“You’re only giving into me because you don’t have any other prospects? With that kind of declaration, I think I’ll leave you to Sister What’s-Her-Name and her squeaky shoes.”

With a toss of her head, Gwyn turned for the door. William grabbed her elbow and pulled her around, locking her against his chest. The feel of her against his still-tender injuries rippled pain down his body, but it was a pain he was willing to suffer for all eternity to have her so close.

“I don’t want squeaky shoes.” He pulled the pins from her hat and tossed them to the ground. He dug his fingers deep into the hair curled at the nape of her neck. Her warm skin pulsed against his hand. “I want you, running barefoot in the field with the sun in your hair and the wind at your back. I want to hold you every night knowing you belong only to me, and—someday—when we’re old and gray, and after I’ve taken you to every little dot on the map you wish to see, I want you to tell me that there’s no place on earth you’d rather be than in my arms.”

A slow smile tilted her full lips as she wrapped one arm around his neck and cupped his scarred cheek with the other hand. “I can tell you that now.”

“You’re going to that flight school. I don’t care how long I have to wait. No arguing.”

“Yes, William.” Her fingers glided over his marred skin, tingling it to life. For the first time since waking up in hospital, hope flared within him. He could live again. With this woman, he could do anything.

He touched his forehead to hers. She closed her eyes and sighed. The hope flared to desire as his lips caressed her eyelids, silky cheeks, the curve of her jaw, and the outside of her lips. “I think I’ve loved you since the day I saw you buried under that rusty old car.”

The sigh rumbling up her throat caught. Her eyes flashed open. “You think?”

“Well, I had to do a little recalculation when I discovered you aren’t overly fond of horses.”

She moved to speak, but he cut off her outcry with a kiss filled with all the passion he’d locked away. Curling his fingers around the back of her neck, he slanted his mouth to capture the exquisiteness of her. She pressed into him, responding with the same eagerness that set his heart galloping. He clung tight, afraid to let go should she slip away and steal the peace of love flooding his soul.

Ahem.”

William jerked back, cracking the moment like a pick to ice. Sister Squeaky Shoes glared at them from the open door.

“I wanted to make sure the snow didn’t swallow you.” Her eyes narrowed. “I can see now the two of you would melt anything before it had a chance to take you captive.”

Unfazed, Gwyn nuzzled her head under his chin. “I’m quite happy with my current captor.”

“So I see.” Sister notched her chin. “Perhaps he might release you to allow the doctor a quick exam before he signs the discharge papers. And inside if you don’t mind. We don’t need the good doctor catching pneumonia.”

With a queenly sweep of her flowing white habit, the good sister made her leave to the elegant cadence of squeak squeak squeak.