There was no such thing as chance. Mama had been telling her that very thing since she was in diapers. "Everything in this life happens for a reason, Ella Faye," Mama had mused on more than on occasion. "We might not know the reason then – in fact, we might never know the reason – but we have to trust that nothing in this life is chance. Everything has a purpose."
Ella had never believed her mother and now, those words nearly brought a sneer to Ella's sore, chapped lips. As she surveyed her surroundings, her line of sight full of bloodied, wounded men that might not make it to another sunrise, Ella struggled to understand how this – any of this – was happening. Were these boys sent here for no other purpose than to die, Mama? Ella paused to read the name on the dog tag that clung to the neck of a young man, barely old enough to have a shadow of stubble across his chin. This one, John Jenkins from Illinois. Was he sent here because he was supposed to die, Mama? If nothing in life is chance, was he born just so he could die here, on this day? Scrubbing her finger over the raised letters of his name, Ella glanced once more at his face before gently dropping his tags back down onto his chest. Her heart heavy with the questions that plagued her, Ella pushed away Mama's words, wiped her hands on her apron, and moved through the tent towards a patient that she might actually be able to help.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and catapulted America into the war, Ella was just past her seventeenth birthday. Up until that very moment when her quiet Sunday afternoon had been torn apart by the steady but frantic words that poured through the radio speakers, the war was just something she heard Pa talk about in passing. Life inside their small but neat brick home outside of the Indiana town of Greensburg was unaffected by the news on the front page of Pa's paper or before Mama's favorite dramatic radio show. Living in a house tucked against the woods and surrounded by farmland that was thousands of miles away from the action meant that it had very little impact on the Lansing family. On that Sunday when it all changed, though, they were sitting around the big table that filled the dining room to near-capacity, eating dessert, drinking coffee, and talking about Pastor George's Sunday sermon. They paid no mind to the orchestral concert playing on the radio; it was just background noise. The signal was scratchy that day, clouds thick between there and where it originated in Indianapolis, but the moment those words, "We interrupt this broadcast…," cut through the calm reverie of the music and blasted into the room, all conversation ceased. Mama, Pa, Ella, and her younger sister, Louise, all sat ramrod still as the news poured in. Ella covered her mouth in shock but even right then, she knew that she wanted to help.
She made her pitch to Pa two days later but he wouldn't hear it. "You're finishing your schooling, Ella. No ifs, ands, or buts. Once you're done, if you still want to help, we'll talk about it. But until you have your diploma in hand, I better not hear another word."
When Pa spoke, his authority was never questioned. Realizing she was never going to win a battle against her Pa, gentle in voice but stern in demeanor, Ella acquiesced. Her determination, though, remained resolute. She sent off for pamphlets on the WACS, the WAVES, and from the American Red Cross. Late at night, Ella would press her ear to the small radio she kept by her bed so that she could hear the war news but not disturb the family.
By late 1942, the war was ramping up in the Pacific and Ella was nearing 18 and the completion of her schooling. Finally settling on working with the Red Cross, Ella borrowed Pa's car and drove to Columbus to sign up as a volunteer the day after she finished school. Three weeks later, Ella said goodbye to that farm on the bend in the road and headed off first to Indianapolis and then to parts unknown.
Now, 1944 was coming to a close. Christmas was just a week away but Ella could barely even focus on what was normally such a happy time in her life. She was, as Mama would have said, "In the thick of things." She had very little time to stop and dream about life inside her family's warm home back in Indiana, the pine scent of the Christmas tree mingling with the smell of hot wax from all of Mama's candles. She hadn't been home in two and a half years. She sent letters as often as she could and Mama and Louise both wrote her frequently. She tried to describe to them first what she'd seen at the Red Cross hospital in England but here, in a nearly deserted town on the edge of the forest in Belgium, Ella was quite unable to find the words to describe what she saw. Instead, she spoke of her nursing friends and the hope that she was doing some good for these poor soldiers.
As Ella wound a bandage around the calf of a soldier who had taken shrapnel and wood splinters deep into his muscle tissue, her mind was on home and the letters that were awaiting her response.
"Do you think I'll get to go home?"
The voice jolted Ella from her thoughts and she glanced back down at the soldier's injured leg. Nodding, she smiled. "Probably. You're scheduled to head to England on the next truck out, after all."
The man was pale from blood loss but at Ella's words, his face reddened and he smiled. "Home," he murmured, his head falling back onto the thin cot. "I can't believe I'll get to go home."
Patting him on the leg, Ella turned toward the familiar sound of the approaching Jeep that brought injured soldiers from the front lines to this small Army hospital in the rear. Staffed by Army doctors, nurses, and the Red Cross assistants, of which Ella was one, the hospital provided basic care and assistance to both the wounded and their caregivers. They were far enough away from the action that Ella was shielded from the absolute carnage of war but what she saw – the missing limbs, frostbite and trench foot, the gaping holes where eyes had once been, the blood that seemed to run in rivers at times – was enough to make her collapse if she had been weaker willed. Determination thrummed through her, however, and that desire to make a difference propelled her on. As she approached the Jeep, she noticed that one of the soldiers on the stretcher in the back had already expired. Sadly shaking her head, Mama's words about chance floated back to her for a second before she turned her attention toward the other man on the back of the vehicle. His eyes were closed and she noticed that freckles dusted his chapped cheeks. His brown hair was shaggy, falling slightly over his forehead and it signaled to Ella that he had been on the front lines for quite a while. He had full lips and Ella caught herself staring at them for just a moment before she searched for visible signs of an injury. It wasn't until she glanced at his left arm that she saw the bloodied bandage. "Bullet to the bicep," the medic informed her.
"Take him into the tent."
The two medics hopped from the front seat of the Jeep and effortlessly lifted the stretcher, carrying it into the weather-worn triage tent that was emblazoned with the international symbol of the Red Cross. Ella glanced at Doctor Phelps and shook her head, signaling to him that she would assess the soldier's injury before she needed him.
Once the medics were gone, Ella unwrapped the bandage covering the soldier's wound. Her fingers glided along but she was careful not to jar the muscles beneath the man's skin and do any further damage. Once the wound was exposed, Ella was relieved to see that it was actually relatively small. The bullet had pierced the front of his bicep and, lifting his arm, she discovered that it went out the other side leaving a clean, unobstructed tunnel through his arm. Relief skated through her as she grabbed the necessary supplies and began to clean the wound. She said a tiny prayer of thanksgiving that this one wouldn't need surgery and was sure to survive. Just as she was rewrapping his wound, he began to move. Ella knew that injured men usually came out of their stupors confused and scared so she quickly moved to stand beside his shoulder, her hand soothing him with small strokes across his forehead. As his eyes fluttered open and then closed again, Ella shushed him. "It's okay. You're at the Red Cross hospital. You've taken a bullet to the arm but you're going to be fine. The bullet went clean through so you'll be right as rain in a few days."
The man nodded, his head moving slowly. Ella could tell that he was weakened due to blood loss and her eyes darted around until she spotted where the wet washcloths were waiting. Grabbing one from the basin, she chunked the ice off of it and ignored the burning from the cold as she wrung it out and then placed it on his forehead. His breathing had evened out again; he was out. Confident that this particular soldier was going to be just fine, Ella signaled that he was ready to be moved inside before she went to meet the Jeep as it returned with yet more wounded.
Hours later, Ella was shaking off the bone-jarring cold that had seeped into every part of her body due to serving in the triage tent that day. Just as she was sitting down to a bowl of vegetable soup that would nowhere near compare to Mama's, dark clouds rolled in from the east and the snow began to fall again. She glanced out the window of the building that used to be a dry goods store and was now a temporary mess hall and watched as four Jeeps, laden with injured soldiers, headed toward the old warehouse that now served as a hospital. Sighing, Ella pushed away from the table, her soup untouched, and threw on her cape before she darted out into the snow toward the tent. The nurses currently on duty looked surprised to see her but Ella waved away their concerns, saying simply, "You look like you could use a hand."
For twenty minutes, Ella assisted the nurses as they assessed the wounded and moved them into the hospital and once things were calm again, she excused herself and slipped into the building. The warmth of the big room surrounded her and she let out a relieved sigh before she noticed the injured solider that had come in earlier, the one with the bullet through his bicep, was now sitting up and glancing around from a temporary cot by the door.
"You're awake," Ella said as she approached him.
The man turned his eyes toward her, catching Ella off-guard with their unique color. They were neither brown nor green nor gold. Flecks of all three seemed to blend and merge in a mosaic of color unlike anything she had ever seen. Swallowing, he nodded. "My arm hurts like hell, though."
Ella glanced at the bandage, happy to see that not much more blood had seeped through. Focusing on his tired face again, she asked, "Would you like more morphine. We can move you into a bed now, too. A few have been freed up. You're definitely stable and to remain that way, we need to get you immobile, medicated, and rested. I don't want that getting infected." Ella nodded at his injury for emphasis. The man looked down at his wound and then over at what was left of his bloodied shirt and sighed. "Yeah, okay. I think I can get up. But no more morphine. I need to get back to my men and I sure as hell can't if my head is spinning from morphine."
Ella pursed her lips at him but nodded. Offering him her arm, he stood on shaky legs and placed his hand on her forearm. Despite the fact that he was injured and still weak, the man moved with steady gracefulness as Ella led him through the cluttered room, between rows and rows of beds. Once they reached the far wall, Ella spotted a bed in the front corner, the white sheets clean, crisp, and turned back, ready for a new patient. Guiding him toward the bed, he sat down on the edge with a grateful huff and then glanced up as another nurse darted toward him, her eyes on his blood stained clothing. Dropping a hospital gown on the edge of the bed, she looked pointedly at the man. "Put that on."
The man glanced at the thin gown and then grinned sheepishly up at Ella. "Thanks." His voice was gruff and dry, prompting Ella to immediately bring him a glass of water. He gulped it down in three heavy swallows and then glanced again at the gown. "I guess I'll get changed."
Nodding, Ella began to turn away. She skidded to a stop, though, when she felt a tug on the long, brown-black braid that hung down her back. "Thanks again, ma'am," the man said. His voice was stronger now, his vocal chords soothed by the water. It was deep and there was a drawl that told Ella he hailed from the south. Smiling, she turned back at him. "My name is Ella. I'm assigned to work inside here and not at triage tomorrow so I'll see you then. In the meantime, eat what they give you and get plenty of rest. And don't be afraid to take some morphine." When he began to protest, Ella shook her head, "You'll still get back to your men in due time."
"Yes, ma—Ella." He grinned as he corrected himself and then stuck out the hand of his uninjured arm. "The name's Andrew, by the way. But you can call me Drew."
"I know. I saw your dog tags earlier, Sergeant. Get some sleep." Ella released his hand and shot him a comforting smile before she turned on her heel and marched from the building.
The next morning, Ella was awake long before her shift started. Sharing a second floor bedroom with five other nursing assistants meant that steady, uninterrupted sleep was a rarity. They all worked different shifts and were always coming and going. Unwilling to climb from her bed, Ella turned to face the wall as she let her eyes drift closed again. Drew's face popped into her mind and Ella smiled, letting out a sigh as she huddled into the covers. It wasn't often that she found herself attracted to a patient but this time, she admitted, it was impossible. There was just something about those eyes, not to mention those freckles.
Two hours later and in a fresh uniform, Ella walked into the hospital. After shaking the snow off her cape and hanging on a peg by the door, her eyes surveyed the scene as she looked to see if anyone needed her immediate assistance. Satisfied that everyone was either well taken care of or still sleeping, her eyes slid over to the far wall. Her breath caught in her throat when she found Drew's eyes on her and she smiled, her cheeks heating with awareness. She made her way over to him and saw that a half-eaten piece of toast still remained on his tray. "How are you feeling today, Sergeant?"
"Drew," he corrected, and then answered, "I'm better today. I took your advice and had a shot of morphine last night. I slept through the night but I'm still sore as hell this morning." His face colored and he peered up at her with one eyebrow arched. Ella couldn't help the laugh that escaped her throat as she patted his shoulder. "Don't worry about swearing in front of me. I'm from the country and I've been working for the Red Cross, tending our injured fighting men for well over two years now. I've seen and heard it all."
Drew glanced at her hand on his arm before following it up to her face. "Where are you from?"
"I'm from Tennessee," he told her, "but you probably know that since you read my tags."
Nodding, Ella straightened the blankets around his legs. She felt Drew's eyes on her as she fidgeted with the corner of the sheet, trying to get it just so. When she lifted his gaze toward his, he asked, "Do you miss home?"
"You bet. I miss my Mama's cooking and my Pa's hugs more than I can tell you. I even miss my sister and she was nothing but a pain in the behind most of the time."
Drew snorted and nodded. "I miss real food. I can't even remember the last time I had a steak with a baked potato and all the trimmings. I even catch myself thinking about steak so much that my mouth waters. How sad is that?"
"Oh, I don't know," Ella said as she sat on the end of his bed, "I think that's normal. This—" she motioned at the hospital and then toward her Red Cross uniform, "—this isn't normal. All of this. Everything. It's..." Her voice trailed off as she searched for the right words. Drew, however, knew what she meant. "If I weren't in the presence of a lady, I'd say exactly what it was, but since I am, I'll just agree."
Silence lingered between them before Ella realized that she was breaching one of the main rules of her assignment: don't engage the injured men in conversation that veers from discussions about treatment, recovery, or small talk to boost morale. The thought jolted Ella into action and she pushed herself from his bed, turning to adjust the pillows behind his head. Her braid brushed over his shoulder and he tugged at it, just as he had the day before. Ella's cheeks burned immediately and she backed away, suddenly aware of herself and of Drew and of their surroundings. Tucking her hands behind her, she bobbed her head. "I'm here for 12 hours today so let me know if you need anything, okay?"
Nodding, Drew's eyes closed. "Thanks, Ella. I'll see you later?"
Swallowing against the nervous knot that seemed to be clogging her throat, Ella nodded and then dashed toward the head nurse to be briefed on the day's agenda.
Throughout her shift, Ella caught herself watching Drew. Sometimes, her eyes would drift to him and she'd find him asleep, curled in an awkward position due to his aching arm. Other times, she'd glance in his direction as she moved from one patient to another and find his eyes on her. She would immediately blush each and every time, her pink cheeks turning downright crimson when she saw him laugh at her reaction. He left her flustered and by the time she had managed to get everyone fed, their bandages changed, their medicines administered, and tend to the various needs of the forty patients inside the large space, nearly half of her shift had passed. Her eyes darted around the room and once she was satisfied that Nurse Beckett was sufficiently occupied, Ella made her way over to Drew's bed. He sat upright, flipping through an old issue of Life magazine, which he put aside as soon as he saw her coming.
The grin he gave her when she stopped at the foot of his bed was disarming. The skin around his eyes crinkled and it made his face impossibly more handsome. Ella discovered that she had to search for her voice and when she finally asked him how he was feeling, she mentally berated herself for how very breathy and silly she sounded.
Drew seemed not to notice. Shrugging, he glanced at his arm. "Fine. Tired. Wondering how my guys are." Lifting his gaze to her face, he asked, "I'm gonna get to go back to my men, right?"
Ella moved along the edge of the bed and was soon unwinding the bandage around his bicep. She studied his injury with care, her brow furrowing as she assessed the holes in his arm. Satisfied, she grabbed the healing ointment and gently swabbed it around both the entry and exit wound, apologizing softly as he hissed in pain. As she wrapped a fresh bandage back around his arm, she smiled. "You'll get to return to your men. You're going to be sore and have weakness for a while, though. And even though you'll be out in the elements, you have to do everything you can and keep this dry. I don't want it getting infected and turning gangrenous or you could lose your whole arm!"
A horrified look crossed Drew's face but he nodded, his face turning glum. "I'm going crazy in here. Do you think I could go outside for a while? I'm not as weak today and if my arm wasn't throbbing like a son of a bi—a son of a gun, I mean, I'd feel fine."
Ella bit her lip to keep herself from laughing at his verbal blunder and after a moment of contemplation, nodded her approval. Drew's face broke out into a grin but it lasted only for a second before it slid from his face. "Uh… are there extra pants lying around somewhere? Because as much as I want to go, I'm not going with my ass hanging out."
Letting her laughter free, Ella nodded. "Hold on, let me see what I can find you."
Twenty minutes later, Drew was situated in a chair outside so that he could get fresh air. Ella's cheeks were still flaming and, as she changed the sheets on his bed, she kept replaying how their arms had brushed against hers as she had helped him slide on the trousers she'd found for him. He'd kept his hospital gown on until the pants were securely around his waist and she knew it was because he didn't want to embarrass her. Ella told herself that she was immune to the male form but with Drew, she knew that was probably not the case. Just remembering the way his bare shoulders had looked before he'd draped the rough wool blanket over them as a makeshift coat made her cheeks burn brighter. I have to get myself together, Ella thought. This reaction is ridiculous. As she tucked the sheets back in and made sure the bed looked crisp and inviting, she fought the urge to go outside and check on him. Getting attached was the worst thing she could do. Well, she corrected herself, more attached, that is.
An emergency with a recovering surgical patient whose stitches ripped open diverted Ella's attention for over an hour and by the time she had a chance to catch her breath, Drew was back in bed. She could tell that his trip outside had worn him out because, even from a distance, it was evident that he was in a deep sleep. She checked on the patients around him and finally stepped up to his bed. Standing just long enough to notice the way his lashes fanned against his cheeks, she ignored the tremor in her body and turned away to head to her room. Her shift was over and she was nearly as exhausted as he was.
"Ella, are you okay?"
The question made Ella jump and she swiveled her head toward her roommate, Ruth, and nodded her head. "I'm fine."
Ruth dropped onto the bed next to Ella and stared out the window with her. Snow was coming down in wet, heavy clumps, the early morning light dimmed by the thick cloud cover. Her shift at the hospital tent wasn't due to start for a few hours and she hated the way she mourned the fact that she would not be working in surgery that day.
Ella felt Ruth's hand stroke along her back and Ella sighed, pulling her knees up to her chest. "I'm having a melancholy day is all."
Ruth let out a peal of laughter and wound Ella's long tresses around her fingers. "Are you sure it doesn't have anything to do with that handsome soldier with the bullet holes in his arm?"
Eyes widened with shock, Ella turned toward her friend, her mouth falling open and then closed again as she rapidly shook her head from side-to-side. "Why…why would my mood have anything to do with a patient, Ruth? Really!"
Ruth seemed undeterred by her argument. "Because we gossip, honey, and we've heard all about how much time you spent by his bedside yesterday."
A guilty look crossed over Ella's features and Ruth smiled and squeezed her shoulder. "It's okay, El. We're all young and some of these boys are darn pretty to look at. That one, especially. I've never seen a man who seemed so strong and stable yet like a little boy at the same time. It's due to those freckles, I think."
The corners of Ella's lips turned up into a smile. "Those freckles are unique, yes."
"Barely noticeable until you're right up on him," Ruth murmured.
Ella slumped against her knees and stared out at the falling snow again. "I shouldn't feel this way."
With another squeeze to Ella's shoulder, Ruth pushed herself from the bed. "I'm switching shifts with you today. You're in the hospital today. I'll take the tent."
Jerking her head toward her friend, Ella gave her an uncertain look. Ruth shrugged. "This war is awful, honey. You've found a bright spot. You should enjoy it as long as you can because face it, it's not gonna last."
Her parting words made Ella feel both hopeful and sad at the same time. She was right. Drew was a bright spot - a very fleeting one.
When Ella stepped into the hospital, she immediately locked eyes with Drew from across the room. He nodded at her and she raised her hand in brief greeting before turning away to talk to the head nurse. Soon, though, she was walking toward his bed and he was watching her every step. When she made it to him, he flashed gave her a wide smile. "Saw the doc this morning. He says I can go in another few days. I'm apparently lucky that it was a small caliber bullet because I'm healing pretty fast already."
Suppressing her disappointment at the thought of him leaving, Ella beamed at him and began to straighten the sheet around her legs. "That eager to get back to it?"
"I'm going crazy here," Drew admitted, his voice dropping low and quiet. "Too much time to think about what I miss." His eyes moved over her face when he added, "And about what I can't have."
Ella met his eyes and when he smiled at her, the thudding of her heart in her chest nearly took her breath away. She remained composed, though, because she was a trained nurse and knew better than to show her emotions. Carefully dropping her eyes to intently study the drab green of the blanket draped across his legs, her voice was the only thing that showed her nerves to be jangled. "I've…I've learned it's best to try not to think about what you can't have. At least until this war is over, anyway."
When Drew didn't respond, Ella pulled her eyes from the bed and glanced up at him. His gaze was dark, hooded, and completely unreadable. After a beat of silence passed between them, Drew shrugged. "That's easier said than done."
The call of her name jerked Ella's attention away from Drew and their awkward conversation. Looking across the room, she spotted Nurse Beckett waving her arms frantically. After quickly glancing over her shoulder at Drew one last time, she murmured, "I'll see you later," and darted toward her waiting supervisor, relief coursing through her at escaping that dangerous conversation.
The next several days flew by. From the numbers of wounded arriving at the hospital, Ella knew that the fighting seemed to be increasing and the influx of injured men ran Ella ragged. The flow of the wounded never seemed to slow; the snow never seemed to stop coming down. Amidst all the carnage, though, Ella always found time, at least twice a day, to steal away a few minutes at Drew's bedside and talk with him. He was getting much stronger and, even though the doctor's wanted him to remain in the hospital for much longer, he was insistent that he was healthy enough to return to his men. Ella knew he would leave in a matter of days and she tried to ignore the tightness in her chest every time she thought about looking over at his bed and finding it either empty or filled with a different soldier, one who didn't have gold-flecked eyes and a smattering of freckles across his nose.
Finally, it was Christmas Eve. The fact that it was such an important holiday had little impact on the fighting – it continued to rage on. That evening, a special dinner of baked ham, scalloped potatoes, and rolls was served to the patients as well as the hospital staff. A change of pace lightened the mood of everyone and a few rousing carols broke out as Ella made her way from one bed to the next, tending to the patients. The joviality of it felt nice for once. No, it was nothing like spending Christmas Eve at home, where she and Pa would go chop down the tree and then they'd decorate it while they listened to Christmas music on the radio. The lightheartedness, though, was edifying, at least for a little while and Ella needed it.
When her shift was over, she was slipping her cape on over her uniform when she heard her name being called. Turning around, her eyes scanned over the room until she spotted Drew walking toward her, fully clothed.
"Drew? Why are you out of bed?"
Drew stopped in front of her, a smile on his handsome face. Ella peered up at him expectantly and he shrugged. "Doc says I can head back to the line tomorrow as long as I keep my wounds clean and dry. No sense in staying in bed tonight if I'm just leaving in the morning."
Ella's heart plummeted into her stomach at the idea that as early as tomorrow, Drew would be back in the middle of the fracas, in danger once again. She faked a smile and glanced up at him, trying to force happiness into her voice. "Well, that's what you wanted, right?"
Drew nodded. "Yes, ma'am, I've spent far too much time in this place, even if the view was pretty nice." He winked at her and Ella blushed, glancing away. A beat of silence lingered between them until Drew said, "I know you're heading out. Can I walk you home?"
Ella glanced out the window by the door into the dark night. "It's cold and snowy out there."
"Yeah," Drew countered, "and I'll be back out sleeping in it tomorrow night. It won't hurt me." Nudging her shoulder with his, he added, "C'mon, let me?"
Unable to resist him, Ella bobbed her head. "Yes, of course."
Drew pulled the door open and ushered Ella out. The snow was coming down in tiny, fluffy little flakes that made Ella long to be in front of Pa's woodstove with a cup of hot cocoa and her favorite quilt thrown over her lap. The stab of pain in her gut that she always felt when she longed for home hit her hard and she nearly flinched before she pushed it away again and breathed in the freezing Belgian night air. She walked in silence, Drew strolling next to her, for a few steps before she laughed. "It's not very far, Drew."
Stopping, Drew shoved his hands into his pockets and met her eyes. "I know. I just wanted a chance to see you outside of those four walls and thank you. You took real good care of me."
"We all did," Ella scoffed, but Drew was insistent. "No, ma'am, no one took better care of me than you did. That means a lot. And now I can go back to the line and tell all the guys about the pretty little nurse from Indiana that sure helped a guy feel better fast."
Ella tilted her head and gazed up at him. Even in the dim light emitted by the buildings, she could see the twinkle in his eyes. She ached to reach out and smooth her hand along his strong jaw. If they were back home and meeting maybe at the soda counter or at the five-and-dime, they'd flirt and laugh and eventually go for a piece of pie. Here, though, all Ella could do was swallow, drop her hand, and resume walking.
Just a minute or so later, they were stopping outside the door that led to the staircase to her room. She shifted from one foot to another and forced a happy smile on her face as she leaned against the door frame. "Thank you for walking me, Drew. You should probably get back inside and soak up all the warmth you can because you're going to need it come tomorrow."
Drew's eyes shifted back toward the hospital before he looked at Ella. She waited for him to say something but instead, he moved in and pressed his mouth against hers. Ella let out a shocked little squeak before her hand settled on his shoulder, her fingers curling into his coat as she kissed him back. Even as their lips moved against one another and she inhaled the clean scent of him, she knew that this simple kiss was only going to add to her heartbreak once he left in the morning.
When they parted, Drew grinned at her sheepishly and then took a step back. "G'night, Ella. Get inside and get some sleep. I'll see you before I leave, okay?" Reaching for the long braid that was hanging over Ella's shoulder, Drew gave it a quick tug and then spun on his heel to walk away. All Ella could do was nod, her cheeks pink with the shock that still reverberated through her body. Finally, she murmured a quiet goodnight before slipping inside the door and up the stairs.
Christmas Day was supposed to be quiet. Ella expected to stroll into the hospital and get to say a tearful goodbye to Drew before he hopped into a Jeep and headed back to the front lines. When she arrived, though, there was chaos everywhere. An American offensive had been underway since two days before and casualties were climbing rapidly. The whole room seemed foggy as Ella raced from on patient to another. For a while, she kept Drew in her peripheral vision. At one point, she saw Ruth speaking to him and she had the strongest desire to stop what she was doing and join her friend but her duties took precedence and when she looked over again, Drew was shaking Ruth's hand as he stood up from his bed, fully clothed in a fresh uniform and new boots. As Ruth walked away, Nurse Beckett called for Ella, the urgency in her voice lending her no time to dawdle.
An hour later, when things had slowed and the influx of patients was no longer frenzied, Ella washed the blood from her hands, threw her soiled apron into the basket, and tied on a new one as she made her way toward Drew's bed. Even from a distance, she could tell that she was too late. His bed was now empty and freshly re-made, ready for a new patient to settle in at any time. Her heart fell, her vision going blurry with tears as she realized that she hadn't been able to say goodbye.
She stood ramrod still in the middle of the room, her gaze on his empty bed, until she felt a pair of arms cradle her shoulder. From the smell of the rose water wafting her way, Ella knew it was Ruth without looking up. "He's gone," she whispered.
Ruth squeezed her tightly in a hug and kissed her temple. "I know. He told me to tell you goodbye and that he'd never forget you."
The tears Ella seemed to have been holding back for days, maybe even months, finally burst through like a broken dam and she swiped at them as they trailed down her cheeks, hot and angry. "All I wanted was a chance to say goodbye."
Ruth shushed her and shoved a clean handkerchief into Ella's hand. "Go up to the room and get yourself together. I can handle things until you return."
Ella wanted to protest but deep down, she knew she needed time to grieve her missed opportunity. She took the handkerchief and bustled through the room, stepping out into the snow without the benefit of her cape. The bone-chilling air jarred her as she made her way toward her room but she couldn't muster the energy to care. Drew was gone and she hadn't even gotten to say a proper goodbye. As she let herself into her room, Mama's proclamation that everything happened for a reason floated through her mind. With a guttural sob, Ella collapsed into a chair and swiped at her tears. She was never going to see Drew again. He'd taken a piece of her heart and she was never going to get to see his handsome face again. Meeting Drew had been nothing more than happenstance. There would be no more conversations or stolen glances or the hope of a smile as she walked through the hospital door. For once, Ella could honestly say that Mama was utterly, completely, one hundred percent wrong.
On January 25, 1945, the Germans finally retreated and the battle was over. Ella worked to get the rest of the injured soldiers ready to be transported to England and then, once the last man had left, they began packing up the hospital. She wished that they would tell her it was time to go home but she knew that as long as this awful war continued, she would be needed. There would be more injured men to care for, more pep talks to give to boost morale, more unseeing eyes to close before a sheet was pulled up over the body. Her final thought as they drove away from that makeshift Belgian hospital was that she hoped that Drew was safe no matter where he ended up. Even though she'd never see him again, she wanted him to get home to his family.
Christmas Eve, 1945
Her first Christmas at home.
Ella sighed contentedly from the backseat of her family car as Pa navigated the snow-covered gravel roads toward home. She had arrived back home from Europe on Thanksgiving Day and, a month later, she was still adjusting to life. The last Christmas she'd spent with her family had been just weeks after the awful war had started and now Ella was hoping she could ease back into her pre-war life. Everything felt different, though. Louise was 18 now and talking about going to college. Pa and Mama had profited greatly during the war years thanks to their grain farm and they were planning on expanding their farming operations to possibly include some livestock.
Ella, though, really had no idea what she was going to do. Her years as an assistant nurse with the American Red Cross had taught her that she had a deep, abiding passion for helping people. She couldn't even begin to describe to her family what she had experienced in Europe while she'd been gone and she knew that she'd come home changed but her spirit was intact. During the long voyage back to America from England, Ella had contemplated going to nursing school and now, that idea was still as appealing to her as anything else. She had her whole life in front of her. And thanks to the many men she'd helped heal, as well as those that she had helplessly watched die, Ella knew not to take anything for granted.
"Kitten," Pa said from the front seat. "Your mother decided that since it's your first Christmas home, you get to pick what we have for supper tonight. Do you know what you want?"
Ella grinned and peer at the back of her father's head. "Vegetable soup, with big chunks of beef and some cornbread on the side."
Pa chuckled and nodded. "I figured that's what you'd say. What do you think about going to cut down our Christmas tree after I drop your Ma and Louise off? That way, she can get supper on and we'll come home, eat, and then decorate the tree."
Ella nodded her approval vigorously. She loved cutting down the tree with Pa; it was one of her favorite parts of Christmas.
The occupants of the car settled into a comfortable silence as they rounded the last bend near home. When the house came into view, Pa slowed the car and said, "Hmm, seems we have a visitor."
Ella looked out the window and sure enough, there was a black sedan sitting at the edge of the yard. "I don't recognize the car."
Pa seemed greatly confused by the strange car in their yard and when he pulled their automobile to a stop behind it, he emerged quickly. Ella, her mother, and her sister all stepped from the car, their eyes on the unfamiliar vehicle. When the door opened and the driver stepped out, Ella let out a gasp. All eyes turned toward her but she could only focus on the twinkling hazel eyes staring back at her.
"Ella." His voice was shaky but he grinned broadly as he stared first at her and then glanced at her family that stood a few feet away, clearly gaping.
Tears clouded Ella's vision but she swallowed and blinked a few times before stepping closer to him. "Is it really you? How did you find me?"
Drew shoved his hand into the pocket of his overcoat and produced a small scrap of folded paper. He extended his hand to Ella and she took it gingerly. Once she unfolded it, her eyes settled on her name and home address, written in Ruth's neat, orderly pen. Glancing at Drew, her gaze was questioning.
"Right before I went back on the line, I asked Ruth if she thought I should write you. She gave me your address and said I only should if I made it home alive. So I stuck your address down in my musette bag and carried it with me until the war was over. And then I took it with me when I got back to Tennessee last week."
Ella was overwhelmed with gratitude toward her friend and intended to put a call into Ruth's home up in Chicago as soon as she could. Now, though, she smiled at the handsome former soldier who seemed to stand tall and proud in his shiny black shoes and his charcoal gray overcoat. A look passed between them and Ella felt her heart thump inside her rib cage. Then, remembering that she had an audience, she cleared her throat and turned toward her family. "Pa, Mama, Louise, this is Andrew Allen. Sgt. Drew Allen. I took care of him in Belgium when he took a bullet through the arm during the Battle of the Bulge."
Pa gaped at Drew for a moment before he stepped forward, clasping Drew's hand in his and pumping it hard. "Nice to meet you, soldier. And thank you for your service."
Drew shrugged, clearly uncomfortable by the scrutiny he was under. When he looked back at Ella, he had a lopsided grin on his handsome face. "I know it's not a good time, being as how it's Christmas Eve and all, but I just got home a week ago and I really wanted to see you. I took a chance on coming here but I'm not about to interrupt your holiday so gonna go. I saw a hotel in town and I—"
Ella swiveled around and looked at Mama, who was grinning at Drew. "You've come a long way to see my daughter, young man, and nothing would thrill us more than if you spent Christmas with us. There's plenty of room and you're more than welcome to stay."
Drew's mouth fell open and then snapped shut again and he nodded, "Yes, ma'am. Thank you, ma'am."
Mama seemed sure that the conversation was over because she spun on her heel and marched toward the house, Louise following at a slow pace behind her.
Pa put his hands in his pockets and gave Drew a steely look. "I trust that you're a gentleman?"
Drew bobbed his head, his eyes on Ella. "Yes, sir. I wouldn't have it any other way."
Smiling now, Pa put his arm around Drew and nudged him toward the car. "C'mon then, son. Ella and I were about to go cut down the Christmas tree but we'd love it if you joined us."
"That'd be great." Drew glanced at Ella and their eyes locked. Smiling, Ella held out her hand and Drew took it as they walked toward the car together. When he opened the door so that Ella could climb in, he winked at her as she moved past him and then tugged at her long braid. Ella's face bloomed pink as she settled into her seat, a grin on her face. Drew slid in beside her as Pa climbed in front. Minutes later, they were moving back through the snow-covered countryside again. Ella couldn't wipe the happy smile off her face even as her mind spun, wondering what Drew's arrival meant. Mama had always said that there was no such thing as chance but right then, with her hand firmly clasped in the hand of a man she never thought she'd see again, Ella was inclined to finally believe her.