REMEMBRANCE:
A COMBAT! LOVE STORY

By Lois Overton
aka Foxhole Filly
 
 

The pillow, smelling of starch, detergent, and traces of her own perfume was damp against her cheek.  She wiped away a tear with a long, thin finger.  The war had tried its best to hurt her, but she had won.  Here he was asleep beside her.  She brushed a stray wisp of golden hair from his forehead. He opened his eyes and looked at her with those brilliant blue eyes.  "Oh, Chip," she sighed and caressed his cheek with hers.
 
Was it really possible to fall in love with someone after only a first look?  She knew the answer to that question.  She smiled as she found herself thinking about that first meeting.  The day the loving began...
 

As a nurse in a wartime hospital in Paris, Nicole thought she had seen it all.  Maimed bodies, cries of anguish in the night, protests, tears, blood, last rites, prayer, bandages, bodies...bodies and more bodies... all haunted her in quiet times. There seemed to be no end to it. She was an excellent nurse?everyone said so.  But she was all business. She nursed with kind efficiency and never allowed herself the comfort of really getting to know the men whose brokenness she helped to heal. She would talk to them of little things, hold their outstretched hands to ease their fright and pain, and then their names and faces would fade from memory soon after they'd leave her ward.

She was in an environment that did not allow for the safety of long-term anything. Life was too fragile and too fast for that. She had once been able to feel the tears trying to wash away the pain of her spirit being ground away by the miseries of the war, but even those tears had dried. She had learned to push her emotions to the farthest reaches of her consciousness where they lay still and quiet. After almost three years of suppressing all feelings, she couldn't let anyone or anything dredge up those feelings again; it would be too painful. It was the only way she knew to survive, and survival was everything.

"Nicole, how was your weekend?"

"Fine, Connie," she said without looking up from the stack of charts in front of her.

"So, tell me."

"Tell you what?"

"What did you do? Meet anyone? Any prospects? Anything I should know about?"  The younger nurse leaned in closer, draping herself across the desk, hoping to hear all the exciting details.

"No! But then, I wasn't looking."

"Nicole, how can you be in Paris with thousands of young, eligible...not to mention lustful ...men, each looking for nothing more than a good roll in the hay with a beautiful woman? Now don't tell me you haven't noticed these guys would give anything they own to spend a day?or a night if possible?with someone who looks like you." She reached out and touched Nicole's arm. "Please tell me you didn't spend another weekend at an art gallery or reading at a café on the Champs d'Elysée by yourself."

Nicole patted her friend's arm comfortingly. "No, I didn't. I went to the country and found a quiet little inn. Then I did nothing, absolutely nothing, for three glorious days. And I most certainly am not interested in a roll in the hay."

Connie let out a frustrated grimace. "I need to work harder on you, girl."

"And now it's back to work. That's what I'm paid to do...such as the pay is. Any new patients I need to know about?"

Connie checked the clipboard in her hand. "Let's see...There's an amputee on the ward. Bed 3. He's doing OK physically. Mentally...I don't know." The two women walked down the semi-deserted hall toward the 6-man ward. Their starched uniforms rustled, the soft sound of their shoes echoing on the tile floors. "Beds 4 and 6 are both stomachs. Six isn't going to make it. He's in a lot of pain and keeps trying to pull out the IV's. We had to tie him down to keep him from hurting himself. Hated to do it, but..." her voice trailed off. "Then there's the new guy at the end of the hall, room uh..." the nurse rifled through a stack of papers on the clipboard, "here it is...room 229."

Hmm. Private room.  Must be at least a captain."  Nicole grinned at her colleague.  "Too bad he's unconscious."

"Actually, he's just a GI. When they shipped him here this morning, all the beds in the wards were filled.  So, he got a private room. Some guys have all the luck.  It's a head wound. Real bad. He's been in a coma since it happened. They had to take him back into surgery, uh?" the nurse ran a finger down the columns of information until she found what she was looking for,  "two days ago for a shoulder wound."

Nicole looked up from her notes. "Gee, doesn't sound too lucky to me."

"Well, unlike our Private Romeo, this one won't be giving you any trouble. Keep an eye out for any change. Nothing new for the rest of the patients. And now, my dear, they are all yours. Watch out for bed 2, honey. He's feelin' real grabby today, ya know?"

"I'll wear my armor. Thanks for the warning. Now get out of here. I'm sure you have a big date."

"You ain't just whistlin' Dixie. A Captain, no less." Nicole whistled softly in appreciation as the young woman handed over the charts and strode off.   Straightening her cap and sighing heavily, Nicole steeled herself for the smells and sights of the ward. The stench of urine and blood and sweat assailed her as she threw open the doors.  She willed a smile onto her face. She didn't feel like smiling, but the boys needed it.

"Hey, beautiful," the young man in bed 2 called, waving her over with a good arm. His left leg was held in traction, and his left arm was in a heavy cast.

"Good afternoon, Pvt. Hodgkiss. Are we comfortable today?" She approached the side of his bed and examined the system of ropes that held his leg aloft.

"I'm really pretty bad off. I'd feel a whole lot better if you could see your way clear to give me a back rub." The soldier reached out and touched her stockinged leg. She took the hand and returned it to a safe position on his chest.

"Down, boy. I can certainly see you are feeling a lot better." She started to walk away. "You don't need a back rub, you need a cold shower."

"Whooee! I just love it when you talk dirty to me." Nicole shook her head and patted his half-mast leg in the passing, continuing her rounds.

"Washington!" a voice called from across the room. "You don't go messin' with that boy. What you need is a 'real' man."

"I think you are absolutely right, Shorter. I'll let you know if I find a real man."  The ward crowed at her response.

She pulled back the curtains surrounding bed 6, and knew instantly that Connie had been right.  He wasn't going to make it.  The man was rather small. Sweat plastered his light hair to his forehead. Huge drops of it dotted his face and ran down his cheeks. He was so pale and fragile looking he seemed to disappear into the white sheets. A strip of bandaging held each hand firmly against the bed rails. His breathing was ragged and labored. Nicole could hear his breath rattle in his chest. "Won't be long now," she thought.

Speaking softly, she called him by name and spoke the words she thought might comfort him a little. Dipping a clean cloth in the basin of water that stood on the small table beside the bed, she squeezed a small trickle of cool the liquid over his dry, cracked lips. Wetting it again, she pressed it to his face to cool his fever. But she knew that what he needed was beyond her ability to give.

Finally, knowing she had done all she could, Nicole continued her rounds. She moved through the wards from bed to bed and into the rooms that lined the hall. She had reassuring words for this one and a gentle pat for that one. A bandage changed, an IV checked. She always seemed to know exactly what to do?when to give a moment of her time to talk, and when her best nursing skills were required. It was what made her a great nurse. Her proficiency served her well in covering her own pain. None of the patients dreamed Nicole was in need of help herself. With each tick of the clock, she was retreating more and more into a private hell of her own making. Closing off the pain; denying the suffering. Dying to life. Dying from the loneliness.

And then, the only patient remaining to be seen was the one with the severe head wound. That kind of injury was hard to prepare for. It was hard to look at men with half their faces gone.  As she turned the corner outside of room 229, she was shocked to hear laughter. Laughter? Maybe he had come out of the coma.

The door was slightly ajar, and she stood just outside the room, looking in. At first, all she could see was two men in uniforms. They were seated on the bed, one on each side, with the one directly in front of her blocking her view of the patient. Both seated men were about the same medium stature, though the dark haired one was slightly wirier.    The nearer man was fair and his hair was closely cropped. They were engaged in a card game across the bed, their cards strewn across the legs of the man under the blanket.

"I'll take four," the nearer, one said disgustedly.

A deep voice came from the foot of the bed; she had not realized there was a fourth person in the room. "Kirby, don't you ever learn? You're still trying to pull that crap."

"Look, Littlejohn, they're my cards and my rules," the one evidently called Kirby smirked. "What do you think, Caje?" He looked at the dark-haired soldier sitting across from him on the bed.

"You know the rules, Kirby. They haven't changed since day one, and they aren't changing now." He spoke with a French accent, but his uniform was American.

"OK, OK. There's only one person here capable of settling this. What do you think, Sarge?" The two men she could see looked toward the man in the bed. "Exactly my sentiments." Nicole had heard nothing. "Sarge says it's my deck, so I make the rules. Gimme four." Kirby tossed four cards into the center of the bed, and Caje began counting the top four from the deck.

Nicole's curiosity was piqued by now. She stepped into the room and cleared her throat. Three men jumped up and turned toward her, a metal stool at the foot of the bed toppling noisily to the floor. The one she had not seen was definitely not like the others. He was a mountain of a man, 6-5 if he was an inch. He ducked his head somewhat shyly as he realized the nurse had entered.

Kirby gave a whistle, inspecting her from head to toe and offering her a full-toothed smile.  "Well, hello there, beautiful." Nicole might have been uncomfortable with his wolf routine had she not heard it so many times before in this very hospital. "If you're Sarge's nurse, I definitely need to come down with something." He was glad he didn't see any sign she was an army nurse. Otherwise, he'd never be able to ask her out. "Uh, ma'am... He bowed low at the waist but kept his eyes fixed on her as he did so. "Great set of legs," he found himself saying under his breath.

"Down, Kirby," the dark-haired man warned. It was apparent he, too, found her attractive. He smiled at her.

"Well, well, well. What do we have here? A gambling den in our humble hospital?" Nicole playfully questioned, eyebrows raised.

"No, ma'am," Caje gestured toward the obscured patient. "We just came to see the Sarge."

"Yeah," the big one chimed in, "he's our squad leader, and ... well...we're having a friendly game."

"With Sarge," Kirby added, his little-boy demeanor confirming he knew they were busted.

She glanced to the fourth player lying in the bed, partially hidden in the darkening shadows of the room. A combat helmet with camouflage cover was perched on the comatose GI's head, shadowing his face. His still hands were resting flat on his chest, a spread of five cards jammed into his right hand between outstretched fingers. In the other, a large tuft of bills poked out from under his palm. A long, thin cigar was placed between his lips, fortunately unlit.

Approaching the head of the bed, she removed the cigar and held it in front of the men. Caje timidly wrapped his long fingers around it and shyly held it up like an apologetic child with a broken toy. Looking around the room, he shrugged and slid it into his shirt pocket. "Sarge likes cigars...this is his brand, see?"

"Look, we was just trying to make him comfortable. Ain't that right, Caje?Littlejohn?" Kirby's eyes darted between the two soldiers.

The idea of...the image of this crazy scene made her almost drop her clipboard, and she fought to subdue the laughter that tickled her throat. "What in the world did this man do to deserve these lunatics as friends?" she wondered.

She removed the money from the sleeping man's hand; holding it in front of her, eyebrows still arched.

"The pot. The Sarge here was the only one we could trust to hold it," Caje offered.

"I see," she spoke at last. Kirby started to retrieve the wad of bills, but Nicole drew it back. Pulling the cards from the man's hand, she examined them and turned to face the three men once again.

"Sarge's hand," the large man said sheepishly. "Well, we couldn't very well play in front of him and not invite him to join in, could we?"

She cocked her head to one side as she turned the cards, revealing them to the men. "Read 'em and weep, gentlemen."

"Damn!" Caje cried. "Kirby, you dealt Sarge a royal flush. Are you crazy?"

"I believe that means the pot belongs to the Sergeant. I'm sure one day very soon he'll be able to thank you himself for including him in your little game." She opened the drawer of the small, white metal table next to the bed and tossed the roll inside. "Gentlemen?and I reserve the right to alter that title at a later date?explain." The men looked back and forth, each waiting for the others to take the heat. "I'm waiting."  The nurse folded her arms and tapped her toe impatiently.

Kirby stuck the cards in his pants pocket. Littlejohn righted the stool and sank down on it glumly.  Finally, Kirby spoke up. "Well, I'm Kirby, this here is Caje, and the big moose there is Littlejohn. Y'see, ma'am, we're all in the Sarge's squad. After a particularly difficult encounter..."

"Particularly difficult," the big one chimed in as the French-speaking one nodded.

"We were given leave for a couple-a days. We decided to come here and check up on Sarge...see how he was doin' and all. The conversation wasn't goin' too well, so we thought we'd invite him to join us in a little game of cards."

"That's it in a nutshell," agreed Littlejohn with a bob of his massive head.

"Very interesting. But now I think your Sergeant needs his rest. It's time to go."

"OK," Kirby turned toward the sergeant. "We'll be seeing you later, Sarge."

Littlejohn bowed his head toward Nicole. "Nice to have met you, sir...uh...Ma'am."

"Tomorrow, Sarge," Caje reached out and gave the sleeping man's nearest hand a pat. The three men excused themselves and left quietly.

Nicole retrieved the helmet from the man's head and followed them to the door. "Uh, gentlemen...I think you forgot something." She held out the helmet.

"No ma'am," Caje responded, nodding back toward the room, "that's his."

She watched them move down the hall, their bodies close together in discussion and laughter, the heavy clap of their boots echoing off the sterile walls. She leaned against the doorframe, musing on the odd sight of these obviously battle-hardened vets showing such an easy tenderness towards each other.

What was it, she wondered, what strange trick had they learned, that allowed them to keep alive the part of themselves that cared about each other, even though they knew that death waited for them every day?  Whereas Nicole had learned to survive by shutting off her feelings, these strong men seemed to be strengthened by theirs.  And it was obvious they did care immensely. Even after they were gone, she could sense their affection for one another permeating the room.

Back in the stillness of the room, she turned the helmet over in her hand. The inside of it was spattered and streaked with blood... his blood. The helmet hadn't saved this man from injury.  It didn't do much for his dignity during the poker game, either. It was all too crazy. It was all too good. The smile Nicole had been holding in check these few minutes rumbled up into peals of laughter she desperately sought to stifle with her free hand. She laughed until her cheeks were wet. She kept picturing the three men perched around the bed... the money and cards in the sleeping man's hands... the cigar... the helmet... She had come to believe she had forgotten how to laugh, but suddenly, there it was, and it burst forth like water behind a broken dam. When the spasms of laughter had passed, she dried her eyes with the back of her hand and returned to the job of taking care of this man in her charge. She felt light-headed and calm and much better now than she had in days.

Nicole placed the helmet on the window ledge and flipped the switch on the light beside the bed, bathing the sleeping man in soft light.  She had seen his face only in the shadows of the helmet and in the darkening room. Since Connie had told her that the head wound in 229 was a bad one, she had been prepared for the worst. Now, taking a closer look, she was taken aback by the sight. The only sign anything was wrong was a bandage covering the left side of his forehead.  Nothing more. He looked as if he were taking a nap and would awaken at any moment.

Staring down at the peaceful figure lying on the bed, she studied his features for more clues that would help her figure out why this ordinary man was so cared for by men he'd led into danger. "I wonder if he would make me afraid?"  Not afraid, she decided.  He would make me respect him.  His face was slack, the little wrinkles around his mouth and deep-set eyes stretched out like pale cracks.  Laugh lines?  No, not that he didn't laugh, but they were probably a reflection of weariness and loss. The weight of responsibility.  It made sense.

"Well," she thought, "he's no pretty boy. But still enormously attractive." His handsomely rugged face was framed by golden, wheat-colored hair that gently fell across his forehead, begging her to push it back. She couldn't resist. She leaned over and pushed it to the side with the tip of a finger. The back of her hand brushed his warm cheek. He didn't stir. Blonde awning eyebrows framed his relaxed, closed eyes. "I wonder what color they are? Blue. Yes, definitely blue," she decided. His mouth was barely closed, his lips full and soft. She wondered if his lips were as kissable as they looked. "My God! What am I doing? Where did that come from? What is wrong with me?" she whispered under her breath as unaccustomed warmth spread through her body.

He wasn't a terribly large man. About the size of his two friends. But his arms, lying at his chest were muscular.  Her eyes followed his thick arms down to his hands. Around the knuckles there were nicks and small scars that continued down his long, fine fingers. His chest rose and fell with his regular, deep breathing. A line of hair peeked over the top of the hospital gown. "Well, his body certainly looks strong and there is no denying he has a very definite 'something' about him," she allowed.

Nicole shook her head to push his image out of her mind and returned her attention to the work of taking care of the medical needs of her patient. First, she checked the drip on his IV and piggyback, making sure the IV site was showing no signs of compromise. It was in good shape, just like he was. "Stop that!"  Next, she took his temperature. Thank goodness it didn't have to be done rectally. She didn't think she could handle it at the moment. She checked his pulse and recorded his vitals on his chart.

Untying the corner of the hospital gown, she revealed the red-stained bandage covering his right shoulder. Carefully removing the dressing, Nicole found a wound that was red and puffy from infection. It was heavily bruised from the probing done in surgery. There was still a good bit of seepage, but it was definitely starting to heal. Good news. She placed a fresh dressing over the wound and taped it to his chest. No need to worry about where to put the tape as the area around the wound had been neatly shaved. "He won't be crazy about that. They never are," she thought.  Finished, she put her hand on his shoulder to reassure him. Even though she knew he couldn't respond, she hoped he might be able to feel comfort.  The flesh twitched slightly as she ran her fingers lightly over his skin, and she could feel the tight muscles underneath.

Yes, there was something about this man whose friends had given up an afternoon of pursuing the women of Paris to sit at his bedside. What made these men give him their trust and tenderness? Why him? Why this man? Nicole realized she was still absently running her hand gently across his well-made shoulder and pulled it back. "What in the world is wrong with me?"

She tied the gown, gathered her things, and hurried from the room, her questionings unanswered. Closing the door, she leaned against the wall and tried to regain her composure.

"Nicole? Are you OK?" a nurse, balancing a stack of charts in her arms called from the doorway across the hall.

"Uh... what, Nancy?" She suddenly realized where she was.

"You look terrible. Are you sick or something?" Nancy put her hand on Nicole's cheek. "You seem to be feverish. I think you should take a break. You're sick."

"No, I'm all right. Not sick. Just confused."

Nancy shook her head quizzically. "I don't understand. What are you confused about?"

"Nothing. Forget it. I'm fine." Nicole hurried off down the hall. In a few more hours, she would be off duty and then she wouldn't have to worry about anything.

*                         *                          *                           *                          *                         *                           *

Through the late night hours, Nicole busied herself recording current vitals on her patients. When she got to the folder marked Room 229, she ran her finger gently over the name on the tab...Saunders, Charles, Sgt. Did they call him Chuck? Charlie? Good grief, she hoped not. He definitely didn't look like a Charlie.  She skimmed over the information regarding the shoulder injury.  The wound was unremarkable... had to be reopened?drain infection.  Further down, she read about the bullet that had been lodged in his brain...how the bullet was removed...all pieces had successfully been removed... some swelling of the brain... Nicole shook her head.  He was lucky to be alive. Now the only question was whether or not he had sustained permanent brain damage. It was a very real possibility.

Shaking herself from her digression, she stifled a yawn and finished recording. The last record was Bed 6, Hemming, Thomas, Pfc. Just as Connie had predicted, he hadn't made it through the night. Some damage couldn't be fixed. Already another broken body had filled his bed. She shook her head.

By the time morning finally arrived, the paperwork was finished. Nicole and the other nurses had begun the routine tasks of the day, bathing, shaving, bandage changing, meds, emptying bedpans. Moving deftly from man to man, she saw to their needs with her usual efficiency. She convinced herself she wasn't avoiding Room 229. She just always managed to find other tasks to do first.

Eventually, she found herself standing outside 229, holding a towel, soap, bowl of warm water, and a shaving kit. It could be put off no longer "He's an unconscious man. I am a nurse. My duty is to tend to his needs...which are? Oh, no? not again. No. Not today, not ever? just get in there and do your job."  Her back ramrod stiff, she pushed the door open with her hip.  "Well, Sergeant are you all ready for?."

"Oh, hey," Kirby mumbled as he gave her a quick nod, then returned to his task.  He was leaning over Saunders' still form, scraping a razor over the sergeant's slack cheek.  A shaving mug lay tipped on the bed and the handle of the foamy brush was clenched firmly in the private's teeth. . The bristle end of the brush bounced as he worked his mouth in concentration, a few globs of watery lather dripping onto the blanket with each movement.  Nicole watched with fascination.

 "You do that quite well, uh...Kirby was it?"

The private pulled the brush from his mouth, not quite sure what to do with it.  "Yeah. Kirby. Say, you were on duty last night when we left, and you're still here today. Don't you ever sleep?"

Nicole removed the brush from his hand and retrieved the mug from the bed, setting them on the tray next to the ones she had brought in.  "Sometimes it seems like I don't. We're short-handed, so I was asked to pull a double shift. I don't suppose you men on the front would understand being short-handed... long hours, no sleep, never-ending work...."

"Nah.  We got the life of Riley out there."  He gave a good-natured grunt and went back to finish the final pass of the blade. She handed him a towel to wipe the sergeant's face. Kirby didn't seem nearly as brash now that he was not in front of the other men. She had a feeling that beneath all the bluster there was a sensitive side. She handed him a small bottle of lotion, and he turned it over in his hand, not quite knowing what to do with it.

"Here, let me earn my pay." They traded places, and she took the bottle from him. Kirby placed the razor on the table and sat down on the end of the bed while the nurse poured a small amount in her hands, rubbed them together, and spread it over Saunders' smooth face.  "I'm curious, Kirby. What in the world are you doing here? Didn't you say you were on leave?"

"Yeah. Y'missed Cage 'n Littlejohn. They just left. Had to get some wine to take back to the guys. We gotta leave late tonight. Guess the war couldn't go on without us."

"Kirby, there's something I don't get." She looked at him, and seeing no stop sign in his demeanor, continued. "Yesterday there were three of you...sitting here in the hospital with a sick buddy. Then this morning, back again. Now you?here shaving him. Most guys would be out finding women and getting drunk. What gives with you three?"

"Well, you see, ma'am..."

"Washington. Nicole Washington. Here, hand me that."  Nicole used the towel to mop up the water and shaving foam the private had managed to dribble all over the sergeant's chest and bedding.

"The fact of the matter, Nicole Washington, is that the Sarge, Caje, Littlejohn and me go back a long way.   Been together since just after Omaha Beach. We went through a lot together. It just seemed more important to be here today than to be hittin' a bar somewhere. I mean, I know the he doesn't even know I'm here, but it makes me feel like I'm doin' something to help him. Right now, he needs all the help he can get." Kirby swallowed hard. "He ain't gonna make it, is he?"

"I don't know.  I honestly don't.  I can tell you that two weeks in a coma after a head wound isn't a good sign.  The longer it takes to come out of it, the less likely he ever will."  She tossed the towel on the tray.

"You know, there are a lot of good soldiers out there, but Sarge is A-number one. The guys would march into hell if he asked them to. They trust him. I... I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him." There was pain behind his words.  He dropped his head and inspected his hands.  "And he's here because of us. Sort of."

Nicole sat down next to Kirby and put her hand on his.  "I'm a good listener. Really, I am."

Kirby breathed deeply, mulling things over. She was a stranger to him, and yet he felt completely comfortable with her. There was something about her sincerity that made him feel he could trust her. Maybe he just needed to talk with someone.

"Well, we'd really been getting hit hard for days. Lots of casualties. Lt. Hanley told us a squad from Item Company had run up against a machine gun nest and got cut to shreds.  Our job was to take it out. No matter how you looked at it, it didn't look good. We was down to the five of us.  You've already met Caje and Littlejohn, and me and, of course the Sarge. You haven't met Doc.  He's the one keeps us patched up.  Then there were four new guys. And they weren't nothin' but green kids. Sarge always hated getting green recruits. They just make so many stupid mistakes. And with that many of them, there was bound to be trouble. But there wasn't nobody else to do the job."

His voice grew to almost a whisper and Nicole could see that in his mind he was back at the front facing the machine gun nest.  "Go on, Kirby."

The private swallowed hard.  "Sarge worked it out how we would go at the machine gun nest in all three directions. That way we had three shots at it.  Me and two new guys were to head out to the right, and Caje with the other two were gonna make their way around the left. Maybe one of us would get close enough to get a grenade in if we got lucky. Littlejohn'd give covering fire up the middle. That's where Sarge was gonna try it." His brows knitted over his pained eyes. "The idea was there might just be enough cover for one man to sneak up and take out the gun before they knew what hit them ...that is if the Krauts didn't see him.

"Things started OK. We moved up on both flanks. That means the sides, ma'am."  Nicole nodded her understanding.  "Sarge had crawled about halfway up and was getting' close to grenade range. Pretty sure they hadn't spotted him yet. He was huggin' the ground pretty close. The Krauts must have been watching the flanks 'cause we were spotted right off the bat.  They opened up. Man, the fire was awful. One of the kids with me took a bad hit.  There was blood and stuff all over the place. The other kid panicked and lit out for the rear like the devil himself was after him. I tried to grab him, but he was out of his mind with fear.  The two kids who'd gone with Caje saw what happened and then they panicked. They ran screaming for the rear. They just stood up and ran. I yelled for 'em to hit the ground, but it was too late. The Krauts mowed 'em down as they ran. They was like rabbits in a shooting gallery. If only the punks had held their positions, they would've been OK, and we'd all have gotten out. Sarge too. The plan was working.  But like I said, you never know with new ones."

For a moment, the story halted.  Kirby rose and crossed the room to the window.  Leaning against the frame, he tucked his hands in his armpits and stared out.  "As soon as those fool kids broke and ran, Sarge opened up and tried to give covering fire.  Before we knew what hit us, the Kraut's had us all pinned down. Nothing was moving against fire like we was gettin'.  Caje and Littlejohn and me still had enough cover we could've crawled out?probably.  But not Sarge.  With the Krauts lookin' down his throat, he wasn't goin' nowhere.  He'd tucked himself in against an old rotted log, but the fire was so thick it was literally blowin' it apart, chunks of wood was flyin' everywhere. There wasn't a thing we could do to help, and he knew it.

"He yelled at us to leave him and get ourselves out.  He ordered us to go, but we couldn't leave him. Caje and me tried moving up but drew down even more fire. I guess the Sarge figured he was dead if he stayed where he was and dead if he tried to get back. I don't know. Maybe he was afraid we'd kill ourselves tryin' to get to him. Not a lot of choices. So all of a sudden, he jumped cover and ran right up the middle?screaming like a banshee."  Kirby snorted.  "Man, it's a wonder he didn't scare those Krauts out of there. We gave support the best we could. He managed to get off a couple of grenades and take out that lousy gun, but ... well, you see what they did to him. Nine men went out and five came back, one of those more dead than alive."

Nicole wiped her eyes as they welled with tears.  "You feel guilty about that? Why? You just did the best you could in a bad situation. What more could you have done? You don't have anything to make up for."

"I don't feel guilty. I just feel bad ...bad I couldn't have done anything. Nah, we didn't come here out of guilt. We came because we respect and...and...care about the sarge. And I think...I know he feels the same about us. But don't you ever tell 'im I said so 'cause I'll deny it. He probably wouldn't believe it nohow."

"Somehow, I think he would. You think he's pretty special, huh?"

Kirby examined a hangnail. "Yeah, special.  Well, I gotta go," he announced suddenly, rubbing his nose nervously.  "Got a date with a very lonely woman. She ain't gonna be lonely when I get through with her." He sniffed again and pulled the toe of a stocking from his pocket, clicking his tongue appreciatively. Then Kirby leaned close to Saunders's face. "You be good. Don't give this young lady too hard a time. And don't you worry, ol' Kirby'll keep the kids in line till you come back." He started to leave, but turned and took a well-worn deck of cards from his pocket. Shuffling through them, he removed the ace of spades and slipped it under the Sergeant's hand. Then he put the rest of the deck back in his pocket. "You can give it back to me later."

"You know, it seems to me the Sergeant is pretty lucky to have such special friends." She squeezed his hand between hers and smiled up at him through her lashes.

"I think I'm in love. Will you marry me?"

"Have a good time, soldier," Nicole smiled.

"Always." Kirby saluted and beat a quick retreat out the door.

Nicole shook her head and chuckled.  She had just turned back to her duties when a nurse poked her head through the door.

"Nicole... you're here. Anything I can do to help? Where can you use me?"

"I'm just about to give the sergeant here his morning.?" She looked at her watch and shook her head, "afternoon routine. I'm a little behind. Could you start meds?"

"Sure. No problem. By the way, Dr. Broughten wants this guy's catheter changed. I was going to do it myself, but since you're here... have fun." The nurse tossed the new catheter kit on the bed and waved goodbye.

"Oh, great!"

The water for Saunders' bath had cooled, so Nicole took the pan to the hallway to get fresh. Her mind reeled. The strength of these soldiers!  She couldn't imagine. And what kind of man merits that kind of loyalty from his men? The more she knew about the sergeant, the more fascinating he became, and the more she wanted to learn about him.

Back in the room, she gently removed the card from his hand and placed it in the drawer with the roll of bills.  Then she reached behind the man's head and untied the strings of his gown.  Unhooking the IV momentarily, she worked the gown over his arms, but she left it lying across his chest for the time being to keep him warmer.

Nicole hesitated before proceeding any farther. Baths were one of the first things she'd learned to do in nursing school. This time, though, it felt different. What was it she was feeling? Timidity? It was hard to imagine.  Anxiety? Well, what was there to be anxious about?  She stared intently out the window.  "I'm acting like a silly school girl, not a professional woman."

"Funny, she thought, "I said woman, not nurse." That was the problem. She wasn't acting like a nurse. She was reacting more like a woman.  "For goodness sake"' her mind cried.  "Just do your job like always and stop thinking about this man."

Rubbing the wet washcloth across the soap to work up a lather, she placed a clean towel under his heavy left arm and glided the cloth over it from his fingertips to his armpit. The arm was as limp as the washcloth. After drying it with the towel, Nicole moved to the other arm and repeated the steps.

She briskly folded down the gown and blanket so only his lower abdomen was covered. Then starting at his neck, she made her way down his chest and belly in long, liquid strokes. After gently damping him dry, she rubbed the oily lotion into his skin, fighting to detach herself. She fought hard not to notice the feel of him, fought hard not to see how his flesh rippled in front of her ministering hands, fought hard not to think of him as a man but as a patient only. "Very nice," she found herself saying aloud. Nicole reached out and gently let her fingers sink in the mass of soft, damp hair on his chest, running the fingertips over the warm flesh. It was nice.

"Back to the task at hand!" she warned herself.

Nicole bent over and brought up his left knee to act as a brace. Cupping her left hand under his left shoulder and right hand under his hip, she gently tipped his body onto several pillows she had placed against his side. With Saunders propped against the pillows, Nicole would be able to wash his back and buttocks. She was getting used to his body by now, and if she just tried not to think, she'd be OK.

Her fingers brushed over scars on his back. She had noted several on his chest, one a fairly recent one slightly above and to the right of the navel.  He had seen a lot of action. Kirby had told how Saunders had offered his life, and she wondered how many of these scars were there because he cared so deeply about those in his charge, taking the dangerous jobs for himself.  She touched each scar as if its story could be read, wanting to know more and more.

Finally, she drew the gown back over his chest and folded the blanket to the end of the bed. 'Just get through bathing his legs. Just do it and don't think about anything.' She would only permit herself to look at him long enough to see where to guide the washcloth as she gave his legs and lower torso a cursory wash-down.

Now all that remained was to change the catheter.

The catheter. The job she had been dreading. Dreading? It wasn't as if she hadn't seen a man before, let alone changed a catheter. This man shouldn't be any different. But he was, and she knew it. Steeling herself, she grasped the edge of the gown at the bottom with unsure fingers and pulled it up.

"There, it wasn't so bad," she told herself, not realizing she had said the words aloud. She hesitated, not quite knowing why she'd stopped with the gown looming over his nude body, her eyes taking him in. She only knew she liked what she saw. She was still holding the gown aloft when a hand shot up, grabbed the edge of the gown, grazing her hand, and pulled it back down. In shock, she looked up to the sleeping man's face, directly into the bluest eyes.

 "Oh, my God!" she cried and fled the room.

In the restroom, she found herself kneeling at the toilet, her stomach wrenching with spasms. At last the nausea passed, and she gingerly made her way to a sink. She splashed water onto her hot cheeks. How in the hell had she ever let this happen to herself?  She was a professional, but she felt more like a "peeping Tom." And to be caught in the act! The heavy numbness of her face gave way to the sting of tears streaming down her face. She had betrayed everything she had ever believed about being a nurse. And yet, she still couldn't stop thinking about him. Even now. He hadn't spoken a word and damned if he hadn't started to dominate her every waking moment.

She cupped the water to her swollen eyes until she thought no one would notice the redness. After straightening her stockings and brushing off her uniform, she headed back to the nurse's desk. Desperately she sought another nurse...any other nurse. She had left the Sergeant naked in bed, and someone still needed to change that catheter. She knew it wasn't going to be Nicole Washington.

The nurse's station was empty. She looked up and down the silent halls. Where were the other nurses when she needed them? Maybe she could just forget it. Then she could have one of the nurses on duty the next day do it. But the doctor had ordered the catheter changed, and in spite of her embarrassment, she was still a nurse. Somehow, she was going to have to take care of it herself.

"Hey," she tried to buck up her courage, "if these guys could face death every day, who was she to complain about a lousy catheter!" Her mind traveled back in memory to Connie's words when she told Nicole about 229.  "'At least he won't be any trouble.' Yeah, right, Connie."

Nicole pressed her ear against the door of 229.  No sounds came from inside. "So far, so good, Mata Hari," she whispered to herself. With the door opened a slit, she could see Saunders as she had left him, partially covered with the gown. He looked the same as he always had. His eyes were closed and he wasn't moving. A sense of relief flooded over Nicole. Maybe his moving hand was just a reaction; maybe it had all been just a dream.

The door creaked ever so slightly as she entered the room. Still no movement. Everything was as it had been all along. Except his right arm was no longer folded on his chest. It was still grasping the edge of the thin gown that covered him. Nicole went to work quickly, wanting to get the job done as soon as possible. This time, in spite of the jelly quivering inside, she was a picture of detached efficiency on the outside.

As she was finishing, Saunders took a deep, sighing breath. Looking up, she could see his eyes were partially open. She felt his intense gaze. Nicole wasn't sure if he was really aware of what was going on, though. She peered closely to see if she could detect any sign of awareness.  If it had been only an unconscious reaction, Saunders wouldn't remember anything that had happened. Good. Or not good. She couldn't decide.  "Sergeant? Sergeant Saunders?  Can you hear me?"  There was no response and the eyes closed tight.

Nicole stepped into the hall as another nurse was coming from the room two doors down. "Carol. Get Dr. Philbeck.  I think 229 is waking up."

The nurse nodded and hurried off, while Nicole returned to her patient.

"Sergeant Saunders.  You are in a hospital.  Can you hear me?  The doctor will be here any second now."  She brushed his cheek with her hand.  "You are going to be fine.  Do you understand?"  There was no further response.

Dr. Philbeck entered briskly and set about examining the sergeant.  Finally, he jotted a few notes on a small pad.  "Well, it's possible that he's waking up." He hesitated and then shook his head. "But I don't think so.  I just don't see any change in him," he told Nicole.  "Look, I've seen this kind of thing before.  Patients in a persistent vegetative state often exhibit spontaneous movements.  They open their eyes?they grimace?I've even seen them cry.  Give every sign of waking up but just never quite do.  What were you doing when he opened his eyes?"

"I was changing his catheter, sir," Nicole blushed, hoping the doctor didn't notice.

"Ah, well, that's probably it.  Response to uncomfortable stimulus.   Not uncommon.  Just keep an eye on him for any change.  But don't expect too much.  I really don't see much hope for him."  The doctor turned on his heel and left.

Nicole felt like crying. What had he called it?  Persistent vegetative state?  It was all too horrible to imagine. Just the sound of it made her shiver. But the doctor was probably right. Much as she might want things to be different, in all likelihood, Saunders had spontaneous movements and nothing more.

She picked up the clean hospital gown lying at the foot of the bed. She threaded his arms through the armholes then reattached the IV once more, inspecting the tubing with several flicks of her finger here and there. Finally, she was beginning to feel more like the nurse she was supposed to be. The last thing she did before leaving was to pull the blanket back up across his chest and tuck it under his armpits.

"Sorry.  I scared you," a raspy voice stopped her as she reached for the door handle.

Nicole's heart jumped.  It was the first time Nicole had heard his voice, and it thrilled her in spite of its raggedness and her embarrassment. Her heart pounded as she turned to face the man who was the cause of this turmoil she was feeling.  "It's all right, Sergeant. We nurses are made of stern stuff." Fighting to keep the quiver out of her voice, she placed her hand reassuringly on his forearm. "I'm just glad you're awake."

"Where am I? I don't remember how I got here."

"You are in Paris. In a hospital. You were wounded in action a few weeks ago."

He groaned slightly and brought his hand over to touch the heavy dressing on his shoulder, then lifted it to his head. She stopped his hand midway and put it back down on the blanket. "You received a head wound. I'm going to get a doctor. I'll be right back."

"My men!  Where are my men?  I've got to get to my squad," he cried, suddenly agitated.

She brought her face in closer to him so he could see and hear her better.  She struggled to keep her voice even while being in such close proximity. "It's all right, Sergeant."

He was breathing hard with exertion, struggling against the fog.  "Caje, Littlejohn... where's Kirby.  Gotta help 'em."

"Caje, Kirby, and Littlejohn are fine, Sergeant.  They were here to see you yesterday and the day before.  I talked to them. You don't remember because you've been in a coma since it happened."   Nicole watched him intently as she continued to reassure him with her quiet words and washed the sweat from his face with a damp cloth.  Saunders' clamped his eyes shut as he tried to stop the throbbing in his head, moaning. Then he seemed to get quiet again. "Would you like something for the pain?" Nicole asked. But it was a wasted question. The sergeant was already out again.

Pain. He had spoken, and he had been in pain. Not only the pain of his injuries, which were substantial, but pain for the friends for whom he cared so deeply. She wasn't sure why, but his man mattered to her. Why he had wormed his way beneath the hard shell she had erected to protect herself from feelings exactly like the ones she was feeling.  But for now, there was nothing else she could do for him, so she hurried to find the doctor.

*                         *                          *                           *                          *                         *                           *

Carrying the replacement IV bottle and putting on her most serious nurse's face, Nicole tried to appear calm and relaxed as she entered Saunders' room, hoping he would be asleep, yet fearing he would be. He seemed to be asleep. Damn.

Stretched on her tiptoes to reach the top of the IV pole, she heard him stir. Saunders was looking up at her through half-lidded eyes.

"What time is it?" he asked in the same groggy voice as before.

"7:00 in the evening. Uh?that is?uh," she looked at the ceiling while she made the mental calculation, "Eighteen hundred."

The edges of Saunders' mouth turned up slightly.  "Nineteen.  Nineteen hundred."

"I never can keep it straight.  I don't know why the army can't use time regular people can understand". She smiled. "You've been asleep a long time. Don't you have a watch?"

"I did, but ...now... I don't know."

The nurse opened the small bag that held the few possessions he'd had on him when he'd been taken to the field hospital, and after a few moments of rummaging, she pulled out a watch which was caked with dried blood.  "Here, let me clean it up. I'll be right back."  Her hand touched his arm before she left.

Saunders blinked, trying to focus his mind as well as his eyes.  The woman.  There was something about her. But everything was lost in fog. He sensed a familiarity with the woman, but couldn't quite put his finger on what it was. Every time he opened his eyes, she was there. Yet, it was more. There was some snippet of memory?something that wouldn't quite come to him. Thinking that hard made his head throb.

When Nicole returned, she set the time and slipped the watch onto his left wrist. The scent of her perfume filled his nostrils and he felt her nearness in every nerve of his body.  He tried hard to swallow, but his throat was dry and felt swollen.  Nicole offered him a drink and held it while he took several small sips.

"You have a name?"  Saunders whispered.

"Washington."

"Well, thank you, Mrs. Washington."

She leaned over so he could see her and smiled at him.  "Miss. Miss Washington. Can I get you anything? The doctor said you could have something to eat as soon as you were fully awake?some light broth perhaps?"

Nicole's fuzzy face was hovering right above his. Blinking, he brought her more into focus.  Her eyes were green. Definitely green.  And her pale, yellow hair surrounded her face like a halo. "No, I'm not hungry. Thanks."  A groan escaped as he tried to adjust his position in the bed.  His muscles were weak and almost useless.  Any movement of his shoulder made him acutely aware he was in worse shape than he wanted to admit.    "Guess you can get tired lying here so long, huh?" he panted, running his hand through his hair and letting it plop weakly back on his chest.

"I'll tell you what." She picked up the lotion. "Let me help you roll over, and I'll give you a backrub. It's a service we provide to all our boys."

He looked skeptical. This might lead to trouble.

"Really. Just ask any of my patients. It helps to keep the muscles loose and prevent bed sores."

Without waiting for a response, she rolled him over onto the pillows she placed beside him, and drew down the blanket to the curve at the bottom of his back. She tucked the blanket in around him.  Warming the lotion in her hands, she sat on the edge of the bed and began rubbing it onto his shoulders in large arcs, then down his spine and up again. "Oh, yeah," he thought drowsily, "I'm definitely in trouble."  The moves seemed somehow familiar to him. Was it her touch or was it her?  It was like some distant memory he couldn't quite latch onto... couldn't quite remember. He moaned softly.

"Oh, God, did I hurt you? I'm so sorry.?"

"Huh uh. Feels really good.  We could use these on the front. You have no idea how much.  Every platoon should be equipped with a nurse to give back rubs."

"I'm glad it's making you feel better."

Neither of them spoke after that. Her hands traced large, languorous lines and patterns in his flesh. His breathing was relaxed and easy. He might even be falling asleep. She closed her eyes and concentrated on her hands...the feel of him... the smell of the lotion melting into his skin? the sound of his deep breathing. She was so lost in her own thoughts she had no idea she had sighed heavily or that he was aware of a change in her breathing.

Somewhere in Saunders' memory, he recognized...something...but what?  Why couldn't he remember? He'd felt her touch before.  Of that, he was sure.  He had seen her smile.  It was all so familiar and yet all so new.  Then in a flash of memory, he saw her blushing embarrassment and the way she had looked at him. He remembered how they had met before that morning.  He smiled to himself.  She was an enigma...on one hand so self-assured and yet so vulnerable at the same time.  Saunders found it enormously attractive.

"It's all? right," the Sergeant's foggy mind reasoned. "She seems to know me? to want?." What did she want?

With effort, he rolled onto his back; her hands were now resting on his chest. It had been so long since he'd been with a woman. Saunders put his good hand behind her head and drew her down to his lips. Startled at first, she pulled back. The woman's eyes reminded him of an animal trapped in the headlight. What had he done?  Whatever had led him to think that this was what she wanted? It was all a terrible mistake. Saunders was about to apologize for his impertinence when Nicole shushed him with her lips.

This time, there was purpose. She was leaning across him on the bed, trying to avoid his bad shoulder.  Throwing caution to the wind, he wrapped the arm around her with a groan that was dampened by the lack of space between their lips and held her tightly. The sergeant's lips were as warm and tender as Nicole had imagined they would be.

There were voices outside the door and a cough, and Nicole pulled away, hastily straightening her hair and uniform. Saunders could do nothing but lie in bed, frustrated. A tall, thin nurse carrying an IV bottle stepped into the room quietly. Nicole was standing at the IV pole pretending to be adjusting the tubing.  She turned. "Yes, Rita?" her voice rose in pitch as she struggled to gain control.

Rita looked confused. "What are you still doing here?  Weren't you supposed to be off duty over an hour ago?"

"Yes, I was uh?just finishing up here," she stammered as she wiped the corners of her mouth with her fingertips.  " I'm done here now anyway."  She cast a polite smile at the nurse in the doorway.

Rita surveyed the soldier in the bed and then the departing woman. The nurse winked at him.  "Git 'em, tiger" she said with a click of her tongue and followed Nicole out of the room.  Saunders winced and put his hand to his aching shoulder, a satisfied smile on his face.

*                         *                          *                           *                          *                         *                           *
 
 

When Saunders awoke the next morning, it was with a sense of anticipation.  How much longer would it be until he saw the intriguing young woman known only by an ID badge, which read Washington?   "N. Washington, RN."  He found himself wondering what the N stood for.   Probably Nancy. Nancy Washington. Nellie?  Maybe Nelda, or Naomi, or ...what other names started with N?  Narcissus? No. That was a flower. Finally, his head began to ache, and so he stopped trying to think.  He had been offered medication, but refused it, considering that he wanted to be fully conscious when Nurse Washington came in. Missing her was something he had no intention of doing.

He was surprised to find himself so attracted to the woman.  He was usually more cautious about anything beyond "fling" material, and this woman was definitely beyond fling.  He was immensely attracted to her.  Who wouldn't be?  She was attractive enough, but there was more to N. Washington, RN than looks. Something about her demeanor.  The way she moved and spoke with an air of confidence.  The way she laughed easily.  The way her smile lit up the room. The way she made him feel ... how did he feel?  He couldn't quite find the words. Just thinking about her, left him smiling broadly.  That was when the nurse walked in.

She was carrying a breakfast tray, which she set on a table.  This most certainly was not Nurse Washington.  This nurse was stouter, and whereas Washington's hair was a radiant blonde, this one's was rather nondescript brown.  She was not frowning, but her face wasn't alive like the other's.

"Breakfast," she announced flatly in a voice that echoed off the bare walls.  "Got some nice milk toast here. It's not much to look at, but it'll make you big and strong again.  Not going to be too easy to eat 'cause the doctor wants you flat on your back.  No sitting up just yet.  Maybe we'll try it tomorrow.  You know it just takes a while to bounce back from doctors pulling a chunk of metal out of your head."  She chuckled at her own humor.  "Do you want me to feed you?"  She tucked a cloth around his neck.  He shook his head.  The nurse walked to the door, and then turned to him.  "I'll be back in a little bit.  Then we'll have a nice bath.  It will make you feel human again, won't it?"

Saunders winced at the word bath.  He wasn't so sure he was interested in making the acquaintance of this woman in such a personal way. Suddenly, there it was again. That feeling of knowing something but not knowing.  Something about the word bath flooded him with unrecognizable memory, but it still wouldn't come.  He tried tasting a bit of the hot cereal, but just the taste of it made his stomach turn over and he dropped the spoon back into the bowl. He concentrated on remembering the details of the night before, when the pretty nurse and he had kissed.  He had certainly enjoyed it, and he wanted to remember every detail.  He wondered if she had as much as she appeared to.  All night he had slept fitfully. Perhaps it was because he was in pain, but on the other hand, it might be because he was looking forward to seeing her again.  But she wasn't there, the other nurse was. "Washington must be angry I kissed her.  That's why she's staying away," he figured.  "But she returned my advance in a pretty significant way."  It certainly didn't seem like the nurse had minded being kissed too much.  As a matter of fact, she seemed to enjoy it.  So why isn't she here?  The Sergeant was beginning to feel panicked at the thought, wondering if he could even trust his fuzzy thinking.

The nurse returned with his bath water, and took note of the nearly full tray.  "Sergeant, you have not been a member of the clean plate club.   How are we ever going to get you back on your feet if you refuse to eat?  Well, we'll just feel a hundred percent better once we've had a nice bath."

Saunders swallowed hard.  She had worked the gown off his arms and whipped it off his body before he knew what hit him.  When she came at him with a soapy rag and reached for the blanket, he grabbed the cloth with his good hand and clamped the blanket against his body with his sore arm.

"It's all right, nurse.  I can handle this part myself.  Got to stay in shape, you know." he smiled at her, trying hard to be charming.

"Oh...well, OK. You go right ahead, and I'll be back in a few minutes.  I need to change this IV anyway. You sure been through a lot of 'em."  She headed for the door.

"Uh...there was a nurse on duty yesterday," Saunders ventured. "I ...vaguely remember her... and I wanted to thank her for ... being so kind to ...to my friends when they were here.  I believe her name was...uh...something like Washington?  Is she here today?"

"Nicole?  No, I don't think so."  She eyed him curiously, a hint of a wry smile.  "This is usually her area, but she worked a double shift yesterday. Today is her day off.  You can thank her tomorrow morning.  That's when she comes on duty again."  The nurse turned toward Saunders.  "Now are you sure you can handle your own bath? "

"I'll be fine.  Don't you worry about it." Relief flooded over him.  First, he had learned her name was Nicole.  Nicole Washington.  Second, he had managed to avoid a very embarrassing bath.  Slopping cool water everywhere, he bathed himself and then attacked the gown, discovering that putting it on with only one arm and lying flat on his back was next to impossible. By the time the nurse had returned, it was hopelessly twisted up and the sergeant was drenched in sweat.

"Here, let me have that.  You're as bad as my Joe.  Never could do anything right."  She straightened it with one deft flick in the air and slipped his hand into the sleeve opening.

"Joe your husband?"  Saunders grunted as she lifted his shoulder, worked the gown underneath, and tied it behind his neck.

"Was.  Killed at San Pietro.  You hear tell of San Pietro?"

Saunders nodded.  He knew San Pietro quite well.  Without warning, a fresh wave of knifing pain and nausea assailed him.  This time he didn't turn down relief and allowed the nurse to administer morphine.  After a few moments he had fallen into a fitful sleep, and he remained groggy and half-asleep the rest of the day and into the night.
 
*                         *                          *                           *                          *                         *                           *
 

Saunders was awakened by the sound of music.  Sleep still held him, but he was finally able to shake it and open his eyes a crack.  The light in the room made him wince.  At last, the swimming room came into focus.  His head cleared significantly when Nicole came into view.  She was humming quietly as she placed a small pot of fresh flowers on the windowsill next to the helmet. Her pale hair shone in the sunlight that streamed through the small window.

"Those are pretty," he said quietly, hoping she wouldn't notice the slight quiver of anticipation in his voice.  "Where'd they come from?"

"Promise not to tell?"  He nodded. She came close and whispered secretively,  "My landlord's flower bed.  I'm hoping he won't notice."  Saunders was acutely aware of her nearness.  He was intoxicated with her radiant smile and playful eyes that met his gaze, steady and direct.

"Thanks. They're nice.  But...why?"

"Well, since the doctor has decided to leave you in a room by yourself where things will be quiet, I thought you might get lonely?might need something to cheer up this place.  Actually, I got tired of coming in here and looking at that horrible view out the window.  It was very self-serving."

"Oh, I see."  He looked as if he wanted to say more, but stopped short.

"I understand you had a bad day yesterday."

"Not so bad," Saunders lied.

Nicole examined the food tray lying untouched on the table. "You didn't eat again.  You know, if you ever want to get out of here, you have to start eating.  Otherwise, you'll stay on this liquid diet," she tapped the IV bottle. "How about trying some toast and coffee?"

He scratched his forehead with his thumb. "How about I try some later. Promise."

"Good enough."  She had been stalling long enough.  "Are you ready for your morning bath?"  He suddenly felt self-conscious and shy, not knowing exactly what to do.  Nicole came over, reached behind his head, and untied his gown, but she did not remove it.  "Here is your soap and wash rag."  She set the bowl of warm water on his belly.  "A bit of activity will do you good.  If you need any help, I'll be back in a while. I'll help with your shave."  He found himself attaching significance to the smile she wore as she swept out of the room.  Maybe she wasn't angry with him, after all.

By the time Nicole returned a short while later, Saunders was already starting to miss her. She set something at the foot of the bed.  "Well," she announced, her voice rising, "good news. The doctor has said it's time to get rid of that catheter."

She set the washbasin aside, and then with no further conversation, she performed her task with as much efficiency as she could muster.  The Sergeant was aware that beneath her efficiency there was a definite tremble in her hands. He tried to maintain a measure of detachment himself, staring at the ceiling and thinking about battles with Krauts, but the evidence was his mind was on Nicole. And the evidence in her blush was just as great that Nicole noticed.

Finally done, Nicole seemed relaxed again. She lifted an elongated metal bowl from the end of the bed where she had left it, and she placed it on the table beside him.  "This, sergeant, is for you.  I assume you know what to do with it. It's going to be a while till you can get out of bed. Then she produced a cloth bundle.  "Here, I think you'll be more comfortable now."  She revealed a pair of cotton drawstring pajama bottoms. "Do you need help putting these on?"

Saunders took them appreciatively. "I'm feeling pretty good. I think I can handle it." She laughed behind her hand as she watched him wriggling under the covers.  "Ahh," he sighed as soon as he was done.

"And now, Sgt. Saunders, the hard part.  The doctor wants you to gradually get your legs back.  So today, let's just see if we can't sit up for starters."

"Hey, that I can handle.  I've been sitting up since I was a baby."

Nicole put her arms around the sergeant and helped him into a sitting position.  He leaned heavily against her. In spite of her nearness, in spite of the scent of her, he concentrated on the task of just staying upright.  The nurse swung his legs around so they dangled over the side of the bed. It was the first time he'd been off his back in weeks. He was a conditioned soldier, but the effort of just sitting left his head swimming and drumming, and he was panting with the exertion.  His stomach churned, and he was wracked with heaves.  It took all his powers of concentration to avoid toppling to the floor. "I guess I need to go back for baby training," he puffed.

Nicole mopped the sweat and cooled his head with the cloth from his bath. "It's ok.  You're doing fine.  Just breathe easy," she comforted. Just the thought of this obviously strong, proud man being reduced to total helplessness wrenched her heart. Unable to ease his suffering, she could only sit with him and hold him.

"I think that's enough," she finally announced, wiping back a tear.   "We'll try again later. Just take things one little step at a time."  Gratefully, he lay back on the bed and let her cover him with the blanket, too weak to help.  The cool cloth was left on his forehead as she cleaned up where he had been sick, and then she stepped away to prepare for his shave. Under other circumstances, he would have enjoyed the experience of being shaved by her, but at that moment, he felt totally exhausted and allowed her to minister to him without comment. Finally, he slept.

*                         *                          *                           *                          *                         *                           *
 

Over the next few weeks, Nicole went about her duties. When she was in his room, they laughed a lot and talked of many things.  It was friendly, and yet Nicole kept an emotional wall between them. Whenever Saunders tried to get any closer, she immediately changed the subject or found a pressing reason to leave. Nicole always kicked herself afterward. Nothing was ever mentioned about what had transpired between them. It was as if the kiss had never happened. Nicole was ready to scream with frustration.  She wished for anything that would end the silence about the matter.  But it was something that she couldn't do.  Saunders assumed that what he thought had happened between them had been in his mind only, and so he didn't press the matter.  They both moved through the days, feeling something unspoken growing between them and wanting more, yet unable to do anything about it.

He gradually progressed from dangling his legs off the bed to standing to taking a few steps in the room.  He never dreamt that merely sitting, let alone walking could be such a major undertaking.  Eventually, though he still weakened quickly, he was able to move about on his room on his own.  His shoulder had knit nicely and the only residual effect of the head wound was the headaches. At times, they were merely moderately annoying.  Many times, however, they ripped into him with a ferocity that left him sweat-drenched and panting.  Usually there was little Nicole could do to ease the pain.

One day, Nicole was changing the sheets on the bed.  Saunders was finishing changing his pajamas when he was attracted by the sounds of shouting and laughter.  Moving to the window, he spread the venetian blinds with two fingers and watched a group of children chasing each other through the spring air.  The first buds were jutting from the tree branches, and the world was greening up.  He held the pajama top in his fist, and his bare chest made it difficult for Nicole to concentrate on her work.  She could only think about how nice it would be to be run her hands through the generous hair on his chest.  She fought the urge by concentrating on making the best hospital corners ever.

Saunders picked up the helmet, which had lain untouched on the ledge since the afternoon of the card game.  Its cover was frayed and faded. Dried blood coated the liner and webbing. He touched the dark spots, then touched the bandaged wound on his head as he remembered that day when he had watched young men in his care cut down, and he had been unable to help them.  There were memories of fear.  Not just the fear of death, which was always present in combat, but fear for his squad. Fear he hadn't done enough or not well enough. There was the memory of a pain in his shoulder and a sudden bright light that bored into his head.  The memory of the blackness.  The memory of the soft voice he heard through the dark. Her voice.

He leaned back against the window and sighed heavily, deep in thought as he stared at the green and warmth on the other side. "Hard to imagine," Saunders said absently, not speaking to anyone in particular.

Nicole responded without turning from the sheet she was folding up and tucking under. "Hard to imagine what?"

"That there's a war going on.  It seems so peaceful out there. And a little way from here, my friends are fighting for their survival, maybe dying.  And I can't do anything to help."

She moved around to the near side of the bed, her back to him, and smoothed the blankets.   "I know.  It must be horrible out there on the front."

"You can't imagine. I feel guilty sometimes, being here...safe... away from it all.  I should... be with my squad."  A headache was beginning to form and he massaged his temple.

Nicole noted the change in his voice and glanced back at him.  "Another headache?"

"Uh huh."  He continued to knead his forehead and clamped his eyes shut as if the dark would keep the pain at bay.  It was going to be a bad one.

"Well, it's not like you are here on vacation, you know. This isn't a country club, and it hasn't been all fun for you.  As a matter of fact..." she turned to continue and saw his misery.

Saunders cried out in pain as he slid to the floor. His hand grasped for support and noisily clattered down the venetian blinds, popping each one in succession on the way. He sat huddled against the wall with his hands to his head, trying to squeeze out the pain.

"Oh, God," he cried, his eyes wild with agony.

It was the worst Nicole had seen him.  She felt helpless to do anything.  Dropping the pillow on the floor, she ran for help. Connie was down the hall.  Nicole called for her to get morphine as quickly as possible. The nurse responded to the immediacy of Nicole's voice.

Returning to Saunders, Nicole dropped to the floor beside him and did the only thing she could.  Wrapping both arms around him, she held him close to her.  She stroked his hair and rocked him there on the floor, shushing him gently while he groaned, every ounce of energy suddenly drained from him. Connie arrived with a small vial and a hypodermic needle.  It didn't take her long to figure out what was going on. Nicole looked helplessly as her friend knelt down and held the man's arm, injecting him. For a while, the only thing that could be heard was Nicole's reassurances and the soldier's pain.

"Thanks, Connie."

"Let me help you get him into bed," Connie offered.

"No, I don't want to move him yet. The pain goes away faster if he keeps quiet.  I'll stay with him. It'll be OK.  Just hand me the spare blanket off the bed."  She opened up the blanket and laid it over the shivering soldier.

"Nicole, do you know what you are doing?"

The nurse shook her head.  "No idea whatsoever."  Saunders' breathing began to even out, and the groans became murmurs.  Finally, he was sleeping, exhausted. Nicole looked up at the other nurse and then down at the man on her breast. She rubbed the back of her fingers across his moist cheek.  "I'm just going with my heart.  I can't help myself. I don't know how?I don't know why.  But I love him."  There.  She had finally said the words.

"And how does he feel?"

"I don't know. It doesn't matter. All I know is how I feel.  He's here now, and I'll be here for him as long as he needs me."

Connie touched her arm. "Honey, you're playing with fire. He's a GI.  He comes in, we make him better, and he moves. Fun to play with, but don't expect long-term commitment. You know the rules. What happens when he has to leave?  And what are you going to do right now about your other patients while you are in here holding his hand? "

Nicole looked at her friend.  "I'm not even on duty today.  I told Maryann I'd take this one and she has the rest.  I've been in here pretending to be on duty.  I do it all the time."

"Nicole, what are we going to do with you?  All these months I haven't been able to get you to look at a guy.  Then this soldier comes in, and you go off the deep end."

"It wasn't exactly like I planned it. Things just happen sometimes."  A shiver wracked Saunders' body, and she tucked the blanket around him.

"Well, I sure do hope you know what you're doing," She squeezed Nicole's hand and left.

For a long time, Nicole just held Saunders.  He was resting so quietly she could scarcely tell if he were alive.  The morphine had done its job.  She leaned against the wall for support.  Her back should have been cramped and tired from sitting on the floor, but she numb to the discomfort.  Actually, she felt blissfully contented.  She tried to imagine what it would be like to be with this man, remembering back to the kiss a few weeks before before.  She could still feel it on her lips.  At the time she had thought there was something in the way he kissed her which said he had felt something too, but then nothing had been said or even hinted at since then.  She thought she might have been wrong.  It was all so mixed-up in her mind.  Nevertheless, it all felt right at that particular moment.

When Saunders stirred and shifted position slightly, Nicole pulled him more tightly against herself.  She pushed back a stray tuft of hair plastered to his forehead and tested his temperature with her cheek.  He was warm, but didn't seem feverish.  From time to time, he was talking with someone. Mostly it was unintelligible. He murmured of a white rook and two kings or some such nonsense.  Then, he said her name.  It was quite clear.  He called out the name Nicole.  Then again?.  A third time he started, "Nicole, I..." and the rest faded into incoherent muttering.

She could feel the beating of his heart drumming against her.  Finally, her arms growing weary, she picked up the pillow, which had been dropped when the attack came, and she placed it on her lap for his head. As he slept, she stroked his hair and face.  And waited quietly, wondering what was going to happen to her now.

Several hours later, Saunders opened his eyes. He smacked his lips, his mouth dry from the effects of the drug, and for a while it was as if he weren't aware of her presence.  Thunder rumbled in the distance, and rain pelted the window.  In the flashes of lightening, he looked into her face and knew what had not been said for many weeks. He pulled himself into a sitting position in front of her, rubbing his eyes and temples as he tried desperately to clear his head. His shoulders sagged limply as he sought to regain his strength. He and Nicole were face to face.  "I thought I was dreaming," he whispered.  The woman, unable to speak, was mesmerized by his eyes. He sighed, "I'm in trouble.  Big trouble."

"The morphine has helped and you're getting better. Let me get you into bed."

Saunders reached for her face.  "Morphine can't help my kind of trouble."  Pushing his fingers into her hair, he held her head while he moved his face closer.  Nicole couldn't breathe.  Closer.  And closer until their lips barely touched. Her heart was pounding.  Then there was no space between them, and it was as if every dream she ever had was fulfilled in that moment. She became an active participant, returning kiss for kiss and embrace for embrace.  After long minutes, they separated, remembering where they were.  Wrong place, wrong time, but with an unspoken promise that when the time was right.?
 

A timid knock sounded at the door, and Connie poked her head in. The Sergeant was in bed and Nicole was sitting on the side of the bed reading to him by the mellow light of the bedside lamp. "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts," Connie said and produced a tray with a pair of steaming mugs and two plates with pie.   "I thought you could use something since your dinner tray was never picked up."

Nicole took the tray from her friend and kissed her lightly on the cheek.  "You're a good friend, Connie."

Before Nicole could get away, Connie whispered, "You're positive you know what you are doing?"  Nicole nodded her head, smiling.  Connie noted she had a special radiance that night. "Maybe you do know. Go for broke, honey."

Nicole put the tray on the table.  "Well, Sergeant, which will you have?" Standing in front of him, she held up the two plates for his inspection.  "We have apple, and we have peach.

"Neither.  There's only one thing I want."  Putting his hands around her waist, he pulled her to him and kissed her temptingly while she balanced the plates.

She pulled away from him, teasing,  "You'll spread germs that way."

"We all have to go sometime."

Nicole put down the plates and handed him a steaming cup of coffee. "Here, this'll cool you off.  And since you've given up the right of choice, I choose the peach pie."  She settled herself back on the edge of the bed. And you keep your hands to yourself, Sergeant Saunders," she threatened him with the tines of her fork.

He took a swig of coffee and lit a cigarette.  Do you think you could call me something besides Sergeant Saunders?  It's OK for the squad, but you don't exactly qualify."

"Hmmm.  I don't know anything else to call you.   What do they call you at home? Charles? Chuck?"  He shook his head.  "Charlie?"  He shook his head again, wincing.  "Thank goodness," she whispered. She waited for him to respond.

"My family and friends call me Chip.  You know like 'Chip off the old block.'"

"I like that. Am I a friend?"

"You could be."  He put down his cigarette and coffee. Then he took the plate and fork from her and put them on the tray, gazing into her eyes the whole time.

"Chip Saunders, what are you up to?" it was the first time she had used his personal name, and it felt good.

"I've always hated being called Chip.  Funny, coming from you I almost like it." He took her hand in his, folding his long, thick fingers over her tiny ones and kissed her hand.  A long, slow kiss while he looked up at her through his heavy, blond brows.

Nicole moaned.  "We are both in such terrible trouble."

*                         *                          *                           *                          *                         *

The Sergeant progressed rapidly, thanks in part to Nicole's nursing skills and part to his strong desire to get out of the hospital.  Each evening after her shift, Nicole brought coffee to his room. Often they just sat side by side on the bed, pillows protecting their backs from the cold metal bars of the headboard, and talked.  He was still having difficulty focusing well enough to read very long without headaches, so sometimes Nicole read to him.  She was particularly fond of poetry, and Saunders loved listening to her voice.

At last the day came when Doctor Rutledge announced that the sergeant's time with them was over.  Saunders was to be transferred to a convalescent hospital for a couple more weeks' recuperation, and at the end of that time, they would decide if he were fit to return to the front. Nicole approached the doctor with a proposal to offer Saunders a medical leave.  He had spent a long time in hospital and needed time in a more restful environment.  She would make herself available to personally monitor his medications. Helping his mental state might actually be more beneficial to him as a soldier, she reasoned, than being cooped up on a ward somewhere. She'd guarantee that he got more exercise and he'd be physically fit.  Not to mention that it would free a bed for a soldier who needed it more. The doctor agreed to her logic.  He also couldn't turn down her pitiful begging.

Saunders jumped at the offer, and the next day, true to his word, the doctor had secured a 2-week furlough for the soldier.  Now that the war was winding down, things like furloughs were easier to secure. At the end of the two weeks, he would report back to Dr. Rutledge for a final physical and then would either be sent back to the war, or he would be sent home.

When Nicole heard the news, she immediately started making plans of all the things they could do.  Suddenly she stopped and looked at him seriously.  "Where will you stay?"

"I was kinda hoping I might bunk with some of the guys at the camp outside of town."  Nicole's face could not hide the disappointment.  "Or maybe I could get a hotel room.  Or maybe I know someone with an apartment who could put me up for a couple of weeks."

She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him happily. "Yes, yes, yes, yes!  I thought you'd never suggest it.  When can you leave?"

"As soon as my papers are processed.  You know how the army is about speed."

"Well, let me see if I can do anything to speed things up."

When she returned, she pulled a clutch of papers from behind her back.  "You...are a free man, Chip Saunders."

Within an hour, Saunders was walking into the sunshine for the first time in over a month.  He stopped a moment to soak up the warmth and feel the cool breeze on his face.  The trees were heavily budded and everyone seemed to be out enjoying Paris.  Nicole suggested a taxi, but the sergeant insisted on walking.

They stopped at an outdoor cafe where they made quick work of a bottle of wine, their heads close as they laughed and talked. A woman and a man at the table next to them smiled over at them made a quick toast to them. The woman rubbed her swollen belly as she said something to Saunders and Nicole in French.

"I want a lot of children," Saunders suddenly announced.

"Excuse me?"

"I want a lot of children.  I love kids. I come from a big family.

"Well, I..."

"The kids here have suffered so much because of the war.  I don't want our kids to ever have to suffer like that," he said pensively.

"Our kids?  As in yours and mine?"

"Would four be too many, or maybe six?"

"Uh..."

"My dad always said kids are what a man leaves behind to show he was here."  He took her delicate hand in his big, strong ones and kissed it. "Can we go to your apartment?   Nic, I've waited so long to be completely alone with you. I don't want to wait any longer."

Nicole smiled shyly. He should have known she'd go anywhere with him. Wordlessly she took his hand and led him from the restaurant.

Twenty minutes later, Nicole led Saunders into an aging stone building, up the steps to the second floor, and down a short hall to an old carved wooden door. Removing a set of keys from her pocket, she was about to enter when he stopped her. Unlocking the door, he swept her into his arms and carried her inside, pushing the door closed with his foot.

"Chip, careful.  Your shoulder."

"My shoulder is fine.  It's all healed."

"Chip, I..." he smothered her words with his lips.

He set her down, and they stood facing each other.  Nicole reached up, running them up his chest to his neck and brought his face down to her.  Slowly they explored each other's bodies, their hands roaming freely.  Their clothing fell to the floor, and finally Saunders lifted Nicole in his arms and carried her to the bed.

"Chip, I've never made love to anyone."  Nicole whispered.

"I'm sorry, I... I..." he struggled to find the words, "I didn't..." Saunders froze, then started to pull away.

She clutched his hand and pulled him back.  "I didn't tell you to make you stop.  I just thought you should know."  She put his hand to her breast and whispered, "Please...don't stop."

They fit together well.  Line to line, curve to curve.  It was impossible to tell where one of them ended and the other began.  They melted into one another until there was but one being, one heart beating within. Everything except the power of the moment slipped away.   There was no war, no hospital, no death, no dying.  Their lovemaking was like a flower unfolding in the morning warmth, fresh and new and vital.  And when their passion rose to a fever, they gave in together.  Afterward they slept, he behind, breathing in the fresh-washed scent of her hair and cocooning her in his protective arms.

As the first light of morning crept over the windowsill, Saunders awoke, contented and happy, that she was still there with him. It was hard for him to believe this incredible woman was here with him, sharing his pillow.   Her body felt comfortable snuggled against him.  He leaned his head into her, burying his face in her hair and neck.  She responded sleepily with a low moan of contentment, but did not stir. When he slipped a hand under the covers and began to caress her thigh, however, she awakened.  Turning to face him, she responded with kisses and caresses of her own.

*                         *                          *                           *                          *                         *                           *
 

What had seemed like an eternity of days passed all too quickly.  Saunders and Nicole filled every moment with each other.  She made him see Casablanca twice, and she cried through the end each time.  They explored quaint, out of the way shops where they found gifts to take back to Louise, his mom, and his brothers.  They made lunches of wine and cheese, and took them to a grassy spot near the Seine. They stretched out on a blanket in the shadow of Notre Dame's magnificent flying buttresses and watched the other young lovers enjoying the warm spring of Paris.  She took him to the Louvre, and he took her Montmartre where he had her portrait drawn in pastels.

Nicole borrowed a car and drove them into the country to the peaceful inn she had discovered.  They slept late, took long walks through the green countryside, and ate at a small cafe where a lone violinist who knew only one French ditty provided the entertainment. And always there was the lovemaking. Neither could get enough of the other.

Saunders' impending transfer was not a subject that was addressed, but it was always there.  As the end of the second week approached, it became obvious they would have to discuss their future plans. But neither of them wanted to cloud their idyllic holiday.  By the time they returned to Paris on Sunday, neither one was saying much, and there was a definite tension.

Finally, Saunders broached the subject.  "Nic, we've got to talk." He was sitting in an easy chair.

"I don't want to.  Not if it's about what I think it is," she said from her perch on the windowsill.  She wouldn't look at him, but continued to look out the window, seeing nothing.

He lit a cigarette.  "Ignoring things won't make them go away.  Tomorrow when I go in for my examination, they'll tell me where I'm to be sent."

"How can they even hope to send you back into the war?  What about the headaches?  How do you get through those on a battlefield? Are you going to be able to lead your men when you have to be on heavy pain medication when they strike?"

"I haven't had so many in the last week.  They aren't as bad as they used to be. Besides, we have medics along."  He snubbed out the cigarette and came up behind her.  Putting his hands on both sides of her neck, he massaged her tense muscles.

"Who will stop the pain?  I won't be around to do it for you.  Who will help you?"  Her eyes welled uncontrollably with tears.  "What will I do without you?"

"Maybe they won't even approve me for combat. They could just decide to send me home.  I just don't know what to expect.  I won't know until tomorrow.  These people have our lives in their hands, and we just have to believe we'll get through it all right."

"I'm going in with you."

"No, you promised Connie you'd drive her to the pottery shop just outside of the city.  She's looked forward to spending some time with her best friend.  It's just going to be one dull, long day for me, tests and sitting and all. You know how long the army takes to do anything.  Besides, you promised to pick up a pitcher there for my Aunt Claire.  Remember?"

"I'm in no mood to go shopping, but I don't seem to have any choice.  Promise me you'll tell them you're still having really bad headaches, and not go pulling that  "I can take it" routine."

"I promise."   He punctuated his pledge with a kiss.  "And now, we have better things to do than sit around here doing nothing but being gloomy.  Hey, even if I have to go back into combat, just remember, 'We'll always have Paris, schweetheart.' "

Nicole broke into laughter through her tears, "That is, without a doubt, the worst Humphrey Bogart I ever heard."

*                         *                          *                           *                          *                         *                           *
 

Returning from her day with Connie, Nicole was barely able to carry all the packages without dropping them. She was obviously excited. "Chip, I had such a good time," she cried as she hurried into the apartment. "You wouldn't believe the bargains. I found the perfect pitcher for Aunt Claire. It's used, but Limoges." She sat down on the floor at his feet and began carefully unwrapping packages, holding up a medium sized blue ceramic milk pitcher. "Isn't this beautiful?"  Saunders barely acknowledged her presence; he just sat and smoked.  She showed him several other finds, but he looked at none of them.  She tried to put it out of her mind, attributing it to mood or being tired form a long day at the hospital.  Busying herself in the kitchen, she warmed the food left over from dinner the night before.  "How did your appointment go with Dr. Rutledge?"

"Fine." Silence.

"Fine?  That's all you can say?"

"What do you want me to say?  It went fine.  He released me.  That's all."  He pounded out the stub of a cigarette.

"He released you?"

"I can't go back to combat.  Not with the headaches.

Nicole breathed a sigh of relief.  She waited for him to continue.  When he didn't, she shook her head.  She'd never seen him this way.  She came up behind him and kissed his neck, waiting for him to respond.  But he didn't.  He seemed cold and distant.

"Well, that's fantastic news...  isn't it?"

Saunders raised a glass of beer and downed it silently.

"Chip, what is wrong?  Are you so disappointed you can't go back to the war?  Is that it?  Haven't you given enough?"  He didn't speak and her voice became more desperate.  "Is something wrong?"  She came around to the front and seated herself on her knees in front of him. There was something in his eyes she didn't like. A coldness she had never seen before.  He lit a cigarette, but she took it from his hand and dropped it in the beer.  Still he said nothing.   "For crying out loud.  Speak to me!"

"Not now, Nic"

"Chip Saunders...what is going on?  Tell me now."

"You aren't going to like it."  Nicole watched his face for some sign of where it was going, but she was unable to read him.  He was stony, refusing to look at her.  "Back home, there was a girl I was seeing.  We were pretty close."  He heard Nicole suck in her breath.  "Very close.  I got a letter today.  It's... I might as well be honest with you.  It's from my girl back in Cleveland."  Nicole's heart was pounding.  She thought it might rip through her chest. "My fiancé."

"Your...but you never said anything about.?" The words stuck in her throat.

"We'd gone together for several years before I got sent over and planned on being married as soon as I got back.  I hadn't heard from her in a while, so I wrote and suggested maybe she'd be happier on her own.  That was shortly before I got wounded.  I assumed everything was over."

"Oh, God."  Nicole felt an overpowering urge to run from what she knew she was about to hear.

"My mail got lost somewhere between hospitals.  It just caught up to me. You know how the army is. There were about five letters from her. Seems it was all a misunderstanding. She still loves me.  Nic, I'm being sent back to the states to finish my recuperation.  I have transport for the states tomorrow."  Nicole waited for the other shoe to fall. "I'm marrying Janet."

"Janet?"

There was a long silence.  Finally, he spoke again, " I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you."

"You're sorry?  You tell me the whole time you have been making love to me you've been engaged to a girl back home and you're sorry?"  Her voice was soft and hurt.  He'd expected anger. "Chip, how can you sit there and pretend we meant nothing?"

"I never said it didn't mean anything.  It was ... fun.  It was exciting.  You're a great girl."

"Fun?"  Tears cascaded down her cheeks.   "Is that what you call it?  Fun?  I don't believe you.  Something isn't right.  Please tell me what is going on."

"I'm marrying the girl I gave my heart to a long time ago.  You and I...it was a mistake.  It shouldn't have happened."

"It was a... when you said you loved..." her voice caught as she choked down tears.

"I guess a man'll say a lot of things in a moment of passion. Look Nic, Combat can get you down. You face dying every day. Life gets cheap.  You need something...not something back home, but something here and now to hold onto.  We were great together in bed, but Janet and I go back a ...a long way.  We have a history. We've been together for a long time.  Wartime romances aren't meant to be permanent"

"Is that what it was?  A wartime romance?  A fling?  Oh, God!  How could I have trusted you?"

"Nicole..." Saunders stepped toward her and tried to take her hand, but she pulled back angrily. He wiped his hand on his pant leg nervously.  "I owed you the truth. What else do you want of me?"

"I want you to go to hell."  She stormed out of the apartment, slamming the door closed behind her.

He followed her to the door, but didn't open it. He didn't try to follow her. He listened to the sound of her footsteps disappearing down the steps.  He reached out to touch the closed door.  It hadn't gone well at all.  What had he expected?

"Goodbye, Nic," he whispered.

*                         *                          *                           *                          *                         *                           *
 

Several hours later, Nicole stormed into the apartment.  Saunders was putting the last of his things into a faded green duffel. "I thought maybe you weren't coming back," Saunders noted, only turning enough to acknowledge her presence.  "I'm packing my gear. I'll be out of your hair in a few minutes."

She picked up a ceramic lamp from the desk and flung it across the room.  It shattered against the wall, spraying the room with pieces. "Chip Saunders, you lying son of a bitch."

Saunders looked at her intently. Her face was red and wet with tears.  "Nasty temper you have there.  You should learn to control it."  Her hand flew out and landed resoundingly across his cheek, leaving a red print on his face.  He made no effort to stop her or avoid the blow. "Look, Nic, I don't blame you for being sore. I deserved it. It was a crummy thing I did and all.  I should have been honest about having a fiancé.  I'm sorry if I hurt you."

Nicole collapsed on the floor in a heap, all energy drained.  She buried her face in her hands and sobbed.  Not a girl kind of crying tantrum, but the kind that came from the far reaches of despair.  The Sergeant looked down at her for a few moments, not sure what to do; then he stooped beside her and ran his hand over her shining, blonde hair.  It was like spun gold and soft as usual.  Sighing heavily, he turned his face away, thankful she was unable to see the pain in his face. "Nic..."

"Don't Nic me.  I don't want to hear any more lies.  You aren't going home to your girl.  You're going home to die."  The room was silent except for Nicole's strained breathing.   "Oh, God!" she whimpered.

Saunders took her face in his hands and pulled her against him, burying her cries in his chest. His shirt grew wet with tears. His strong arms were wrapped around her, and he held her more tightly as she lost herself in her grief.  He rubbed her hair and rocked her there on the floor just as she had once done for him.  Squeezing his eyes closed, he lifted his face toward the ceiling and shook his head.   It wasn't supposed to happen like this.  He was supposed to play the heel, make her hate him, walk out, and she would get over it.  Now she had traversed the emotional minefield he had carefully laid.  Made it hard.  Too hard.  Over and over Saunders whispered, "It's going to be all right."  Even though he knew it wasn't.

"God, Chip, why didn't you tell me?  How long have you known? "

"I just found out today," he shook his head in disbelief.  "They told me they were so sure they had all of the bullet.  The x-rays were supposed to be routine.  They never expected to find that damned little piece of shrapnel buried in there."

"So why the lie about a fiancé?  Why didn't you just tell me?  Did you care for me so little that you could disregard my feelings totally?"

He looked down at her.  "I was thinking of your feelings.  Nic, when we started this we thought we had a future together.  Well, I don't have a future.  Better to end it now.  Before things go too far."

"Before things go too far?" she looked up into his incredible eyes.  "I love you.  How do I go any farther than that?"  She retreated back into the safety of his chest.

"How did you find out?"

"I went to the hospital because I didn't know where else to go.  Connie said you'd been there this afternoon.  She said something was wrong, and that I should talk to Dr. Rutledge.  I pretended I needed to know ... as your nurse.  He told me everything."

"Now you know, but it doesn't change anything."

"Well, it had better change something.  I didn't waste good tears on nothing."

"Look, Nic.  There's a little piece of metal in my head, and it can't be fixed.  One of these days it's going to move.  When it does, it's over. There's nothing you or I can do to change that fact or give me one minute more.  It's a no-win deal.  I...I...can't do it to you.  If I live a couple of months, it would be a miracle.  It might just as easily be a couple of minutes.  But either way, the result is going to be the same."

"So we're not entitled to be happy for 2 minutes, let alone 2 months?  How can you be so selfish?" Those words jarred his mind.  Nicole sobbed, "I wouldn't trade one day of knowing you for a lifetime spent without you.  Don't you know I've loved you since the first day I saw you?"

"Don't, Nic.  It only makes things hard."  His own eyes were moist.

"Dammit, I want to make things hard."  She held his face in her hands, watching him intently. "You either love me or you don't. It's as simple as that.  If you can honestly say you don't love me, then get the hell out.  Otherwise, you'd better be prepared to hang around for a while."

"What am I going to do with you?"  He held her close, smelling her perfume, her hair, her body.

"For starters, you could marry me.  I'm not the kind of girl who can just live with a man.  I need commitment.  Even if it isn't forever. You're not going to lie around waiting for the end.  At least not while I'm around.  We're going to live as if we have all the time in the world and be grateful for what we have been given.   Maybe we won't have tomorrow, but I won't give up on today.  I won't."  She reached up and kissed the red mark where her slap and landed on his face.  Her hands were all over him.  "Make love to me.  Make love to me now."

She covered him with kisses, and they both stirred.  "Nic, I..."

"Please love me."

"God, I do love you."   Saunders laid Nicole back on the rug.  Before either of them could think, they were removing each other's clothing in a heat beyond stopping. "So are you going to marry me?" she whispered in his ear.

His face was buried in her neck and he looked up.  "Right now?"

"OK we can wait till tomorrow."  She pulled off his pants.

*                         *                          *                           *                          *                         *                           *
 
 

Two days later, they stood at the foot of the steps leading to the Chaplain's office. Nicole was wearing a light green suit she had bought before the war but had found little opportunity to wear. She was smiling and radiant.  She carried a nosegay of violets she had picked from a street vendor.   She adored violets.

Saunders thought to himself how happy she looked. But did she have any idea at all what she was doing?  He knew someone had to stand up and do what was right.  "Nic, we can't go through with this.  It's wrong."

"Are you saying you don't love me?"

He shook his head.  "You know better than that."

"Then how can it be wrong?  What would be wrong is for two people who love each other to pass up the happiness they deserve."

"But for how long?"

"For however long we have.  It will have to be enough."

"I love you."  He kissed her.

"Will you two please get in here, or are you going to make us wait forever?" a familiar voice called.  Caje was standing in the doorway.  He stepped forward, and there were Kirby, Littlejohn, and someone Nicole did not recognize.  Taking the steps two at a time, Sarge rushed to them, grinning widely.  The men hugged and slapped each other on the back.

"How did you...?" Saunders questioned.

"We heard you were getting hitched and one thing lead to another.  Hanley pulled some strings and got us a 24 hour emergency pass."  Caje said.

"How is the Lieutenant?" Saunders asked.

"Bossy as ever," Kirby added.  "He had hoped to make it, but he had to take some green recruits somewhere and do something or other."

The Sergeant remembered his bride-to-be at the bottom of the steps, and he hurried back to retrieve her.  Pulling her up beside him, he introduced her to Doc.

"I've heard so much about you from Chip. He's a lucky man to have all of you as friends."

They went inside, and Saunders handed the Chaplain the paperwork.  "Miss Washington, do you have someone to stand up for you?"

Nicole looked at Kirby, her eyes twinkling.  "Would you be my Maid of Honor?"

"You gotta be kidding," he backed off. "William G. Kirby ain't no ?no.?"

"Have a heart.  Please?" Nicole begged, utilizing her feminine wiles.

"Aw, Jeez."  He looked around furtively.  "You guys promise you won't tell anyone?"  The others nodded their assent, knowing the whole time they would never let him off the hook.

"Caje?  Will you stand up with Chip?" Nicole asked.

"I'd love to...Chip," he responded.  Saunders rolled his eyes.

After a simple ceremony, the newlyweds took the soldiers to a small restaurant where they had eaten several times.  With the wartime shortages and all, the meal was a plain one, but there was laughter and the wine flowed freely.  Each of the men took his turn dancing with Nicole to melodies played on a tinny piano.  She was smiling and happy.  Saunders couldn't take his eyes off her.

Doc turned to Saunders while she was dancing with Littlejohn. "You're a lucky man, Sarge.  She's OK in my book."

"I'll drink to that," Caje added, raising a glass.

"You'd better take good care of her," Kirby ordered. 'Cause if you don't, I just might have to take her away from you."

"Not a chance, Kirby.  Find your own girl."

"Just what are you gentlemen talking about?"  Nicole put her arms around her husband's neck and, bending down, gave him a very long kiss that had the others staring with their mouths hanging open.

"As a matter of fact, we were talking about you."

"Do I get to kiss the bride?"  Kirby requested.  He grabbed her around the waist and planted one on her lips before she could say anything. "Are you sure you want this big lug when you could have a real man?"

"I found my real man. And I'm not giving him up.  Now I want to dance with him."   The pianist had just started to play "As Time Goes By."  Nicole melted into Saunders's arms as he led her to a small space between the tables.  Neither of them spoke.  They didn't have to.  His right hand was on the small of her back, exerting just enough pressure to keep their bodies in close contact. Saunders drew her right hand to his lips and kissed it.  Then he moved to her lips. The soldiers at the table stared admiringly at the couple, each lost in his own thoughts about the possibility a man could come all the way to France to fight in a war and end up with a wife like Nicole.

Saunders and Nicole begged their leave early. When they rose to depart, Caje grabbed Nicole and kissed her on both cheeks. He held out his hand for the Sergeant to shake it, but Saunders was having none of that.  He grabbed the Cajun, and embraced him firmly, knowing he would never see this friend again. Littlejohn, Doc, and Kirby followed suit. Each of the five soldiers found their eyes moist. The four returning to the front knew in the morning they would once again be in the way of danger, but their Sarge was through. What they had begun on the beaches of Normandy was over. None of them suspected how final the good-by was.  With nothing more to be said or done, the couple left.

Although it was some distance back to the apartment, Nicole and Saunders decided to forgo a cab and walk down by the Seine.  Hand in hand, they wandered somewhat aimlessly.  The streets were dark and quiet, lit by the brilliance of the spring stars.  Resting on a bench, they listened to the Seine lapping at the stone wall.  They kissed in the darkness and held each other.  Saunders wrapped her in his arms to keep her warm in the chill air, but Nicole never once complained of being cold. She fell asleep against his shoulder.  He felt the rhythm of her breathing, and his own fell in sync. He sat through the night watching her sleep, cherishing every moment he had with her.

A bird scolding its mate in the tree overhead woke her.  She stretched and sighed contentedly, surprised that the sun had just come over the horizon. Her new husband bent down to kiss her forehead, her eyes, her nose, and then her lips.  "I love you Mrs. Saunders. That sounds good, but sorta funny."

"Funny?"

"I never thought of anyone except my mother as being Mrs. Saunders."

Nicole laughed.  "I want to meet her.  And Louise. And your brothers. When can we go?"

"I don't know.  When we have time.
 
Time.  Such a fickle word.  She didn't want to think about time.  Not yet.  In spite of her brave words, she was feeling a sense of dread about what was to come. Looking at her husband, she could see he had the same thoughts.  She stood and pulled him to his feet.  They were both stiff from a night on the bench.  He took her in his arms right there and kissed her deeply.  An older couple was watching them from the bench next to theirs.  They smiled, probably remembering what young love was like.  Hurrying back to the apartment, the newlyweds celebrated their wedding night all day. And into the next.

*                         *                          *                           *                          *                         *                           *

He lay on the bed with his eyes closed.  His breathing was somewhat labored and it was punctuated with small moans.  She had placed a cool, wet rag on his pounding head in hopes she could assuage some of the pain. She didn't know if he was better or whether he was just willing himself to control it.  She sat on the edge of the bed and dipped the rag into the basin of water once again, reapplying it to his brow. They both sensed time was short.

Saunders opened his eyes and stared into her worried face.  She could still get lost in their blueness, but she could see something more, the pain that clouded them. It bored into his head until he wanted to scream for it to stop.  But it also reminded him he was still alive.  And right now, being alive outweighed everything else.

"Come here, you."  Saunders patted the bed next to him and motioned for her to lie next to him. The bed moaned only a slight protest at the added weight.   Wordlessly, she stretched out beside him, burrowing close while she could, as he held her in the crook of his arm.  With his hand, he caressed her face.  "God, Nic, you're incredible."  He pulled her to him and kissed her with unexpected passion.

Nicole rested her head on his chest, trying to imagine what it would be like without him.  She couldn't. She kept her face from his eyes so he would not see the tears welling up, only to be lost on his chest.  But he knew.  And there was nothing he could do to make things any easier for her.  He had tried to warn her.  And now it was too late.  They had hoped for months but only got a few precious weeks.

He touched her and she trembled, responding by slipping her hand under the covers.  "Maybe you ought to stop that," he whispered, "unless you are prepared to deal with the consequences."

She glanced down. "Well, its one way to keep you alive."  Her levity broke the tension.

"You're peeking again."

"Listen, Buster.  Let's get one thing absolutely clear.  I don't peek.   Mrs. Chip Saunders never peeks.  She looks."
His body tensed for a moment, and she could tell the pain was searing him once again.   When the spasm passed, she kissed him gently, and when his breathing became more normal, she moved her head onto the pillow so they were nose to nose.

 "I'm sorry Nic.  I should have stopped this before it started.  I knew it was wrong.  It wasn't fair."

"Not fair to whom?  Me?   I don't regret anything.  Not one moment.  Don't you ever suggest it."

"Thank you for that."

"I want you to go to Cleveland.  Meet my family.  Tell them it's OK. Tell them I've never been happier than I am right now."  He reached into the pocket of his shirt and drew out a worn card.  The ace of spades. He put it in Nicole's hand and folded her fingers over it.  "See that Kirby gets it."

"Sweetheart, when you're feeling better you.?" she started. Then she realized the time for pretense was past. "I'll see he gets it."

For the rest of the day and into the night, she lay with him, bathing his head with kisses wiping the sweat from his face. And in the morning, the sun dappled the walls of the apartment in soft light, and she was still holding him. When he stirred, she kissed his forehead, his eyes, his nose, his lips.  He looked at her intensely, caressing her cheek with his once-strong hand.  "At least we'll always have Paris, schweetheart."  His breathing was labored. "God, I love you."   And he was gone.

*                         *                          *                           *                          *                         *                           *

A short, sharp cry of discomfort brought Nicole back from her reverie.   She blinked several times to clear her eyes, which had moistened with the flood of memories.  She looked down at the hand clasping hers, its tiny, perfect fingers encircling her pinkie and holding on for dear life.  "Don't be afraid.  I'm not letting anything happen to you.  I wrote your grandmother right after I found you were on the way.  She wants us to come live with her in America. So as soon as we can travel, I'm taking you to meet her and your Aunt Louise and your uncles in Cleveland."

She looked down. His eyes were wide open, though slightly crossed, and he seemed to be taking in every word. He sighed heavily and his eyes grew heavy.  She thought he was going to sleep, but then he opened his eyes wide and they seemed to be looking directly into hers. There was a familiarity in those clear, blue eyes, the blond hair peeking over his forehead, the way his mouth tipped slightly on the right side.  She knew his face.

Her eyes filled once more with tears and she smiled wistfully. "I wish he had known about you."  She felt warmth spreading over her, as if she had suddenly been enfolded in tender arms.  She wasn't alone.  He was here with her.  With her and the small miracle wrapped in her arms.  He was in both of them and always would be.  "Darling, you didn't know it, but you did leave something behind that said you were here," Nicole whispered.

She lightly caressed the silken shock of pale hair with her fingertips.  She kissed his forehead, nose, eyes, mouth.   "And now, Chip, let me tell you about your father."