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By Georgia Evans
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2009 Rosemary Laurey
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGloria Prewitt, district nurse and werefox, all but wobbled off her bicycle seeing the doctor's car parked in front of Mother Longhurst's cottage. Given the longstanding coolness between Alice Doyle and old Mother Longhurst, the reputed village witch, Gloria was agog with curiosity and tempted to park her bicycle and toddle up to the front door on some pretext. The war gave so many excuses: checking on blackout, it was so easy, after all, to a miss a chink where light could escape, reminding about first aid training or evenings knitting comforts for the troops.
But Gloria was running late already, and she'd see Alice later. Right now she had to get up to Cherry Hill Farm. Old Mrs. Longhurst had scalded her arm with boiling jam a week earlier and the dressing needed changing.
Gloria saw nothing odd about the common surname. Brytewood was full of Longhursts and plenty of other old, established families. Old and odd, Gloria often thought. Not that she could talk. The good residents of Brytewood would crack their false teeth if they ever discovered the district nurse went furry at intervals and roamed the woods and downs as a bushy-tailed fox.
One person suspected she was more than she appeared and Gloria was making darn sure he never, ever, got a glimmer of herother nature.
As she rode across the village green and up toward Cherry Hill Farm, Gloria wondered what on earth Alice was doing. Had old Mother Longhurst really called her in professionally?
"It worked, I see."
Alice stared. Mother Longhurst was a witch but, "How did you know that?" Did the knife of petrified wood give off a magical aura?
"You're alive, aren't you? If it hadn't worked, you'd be dead."
So much for a magical aura. Alice wasn't that sure she believed in them anyway, whatever her grandmother claimed. "Yes, it worked." Killing a vampire wasn't normally part of a county doctor's day, but needs must as the saying went. It was 1940 after all and with Britain under daily threat of invasion, everyone had to do their part.
That her part entailed disposing of an antisocially and destructively bent vampire spy was just her unfortunate luck.
"What happened?" Mother Longhurst asked, taking the knife from Alice and wrapping it in a tattered cloth. "When you got him, I mean?"
Just what Alice did not want to relive but she was alive because of the witch's help. "The vampire disintegrated." After bleeding all over her. "Just crumbled into a pile of dust and muck." It took ages to clean the mess off the gravel drive.
"Always wondered what would happen, or even if it would."
"You weren't sure?" Dear heaven! She'd put her faith in an apparently untested magical implement. Oh, well. It had worked and that was what really mattered.
"Dear me, no! I've never had cause to use it, nor did my mother. Although my old grandmother used to talk about a vampire in these parts, back in the time of the fourth George. She was the one who passed the knife on to me. Glad to know she was right and it did what it was made for."
So was Alice.
"Did your grandmother make it?" She couldn't tamp down her curiosity. Much as the knife revolted her, not the least for the way it seemed to absorb the vampire's blood, she couldn't help her rather morbid fascination.
Mother Longhurst had a really nasty cackle. Showed her missing teeth too. "Her? Never! Alice, you might be a doctor with letters after your name and all, but you know nothing about these things." That, Alice was more than ready to concede. "This knife," Mother Longhurst indicated the bundle on the table, "was made long before my grandmother was born, long before any of the trees in Surrey were acorns or conkers. Long before recorded history. They say it came down from the Druids."
A few days earlier, Alice would have politely scoffed at that anointment. Now, she just nodded. "That accounts for the strange runes and hieroglyphics on the handle?"
"Maybe." The old woman seemed to clam up, pulling the bundle toward her. "But it's served its purpose."
"I might need it again. I think there's another vampire in the area." Think? She was pretty darn certain. She'd taken him into her surgery and called an ambulance for him. Before he disappeared.
Mother Longhurst shook her head. "You'll have to find another way. This knife is spent. Will be decades, maybe a century or more, before it has power again."
Smashing! "It won't work again?"
"Not for you, doctor. Not for you. Maybe not for anyone alive now. You had it when you needed it. Now it awaits the next time."
"Back hidden in the apple tree?" Despite her disappointment, Alice was curious.
"Maybe it's time to pass it on." Alice was not going to ask how or where. Knowing one witch was quite enough, finding there were half a dozen in the village would really ruin her day. Or week. "There's a witch over in Bringham, I might just hand it to him for safekeeping," Mother Longhurst mused. "Better see if he's to be trusted first. There's strong magic in that knife."
A point Alice would never dispute. "Thank you for lending it," she said, as she stood. "You're right I wouldn't be standing here without it." And hoped to high heaven the other one was long gone. Bombs and air raids were quite enough.
"You did well, young Alice. You and that young man of yours. When's the happy day?"
She'd been asked that question at least ten times a day since the news of her engagement rippled across the village. "Soon. We just had banns posted, in case Peter gets posted somewhere else, and we hope his family can get up from Devon."
Old Mother Longhurst shook her head. "They won't. Best go ahead and marry him while you can. Things are too uncertain these days to wait."
Since she'd actually been thinking along those lines herself, Alice just smiled.
"They won't be up this side of Christmas, you go ahead and marry him. Once you have a little one in the cradle, then they'll come. You mark my words."
She didn't want to. For Peter's sake, she wanted his family there, but his mother had been awfully lukewarm about it on the phone. "We'll see. Thank you again for the loan of the knife." "The village should be thanking you and that young man of yours."
"The village had best not know. There'd be flat panic if the news got out that vampires were rampaging across the North Downs."
Mother Longhurst let out another loud cackle. "Would liven up the place a bit!"
Between bombs dropping, falling in love and dispatching vampires to wherever vampires went when they disintegrated, Alice had quite enough excitement to keep her going for a long, long time.
Alice had the door open when Mother Longhurst added, "If you and your intended need any potions, you know where to come."
Alice restrained the smirk. So far she and Peter had done very nicely without.
Starting the old shooting brake that her father before her had driven across the countryside, Alice headed toward a row of cottages on the outskirts of Brytewood village. Seems two members of the Boyle family were coming down with mumps. Just what the village needed with a new batch of evacuees expected.
Mrs. Longhurst's scalded arm was healing nicely but just as Gloria was leaving, Julia, one of the land girls, came in with a bloody hand from too close contact with a scythe. After cleaning the wound, telling Julia she was darn lucky to still have hand and fingers attached and dispatching her with Tom Longhurst to the hospital to get it stitched, Gloria was on her way home.
Until she was flagged down by a young woman in one of the farm cottages.
"Nurse, I hate to bother you but two of my evacuees have this awful cough. I was thinking of calling the doctor in but then I saw you leave the farm and I thought I'd ask you to have a look at them."
"Of course. It's Mrs. Grayson isn't it?" She'd been one of the host houses when the evacuees first arrived. She'd taken two children and their mother, if Gloria remembered rightly.
"That's right, nurse! Fancy remembering!" Mrs. Grayson's smile welcomed but did little to ease the weariness in her face. "If you'd have a look at them. I'd be so obliged."
"Of course!" Gloria propped her cycle against the house and went into the open door. The kitchen was warm and cozy, a pot simmered on the old-fashioned black stove, a kitten slept on the hearth rug and a baby napped in the pram in the corner. The scent of baking added to the feeling of well-being.
"That's my one," Mrs. Grayson said, nodding toward the pram. "I hope he doesn't get it too. The other two are proper poorly."
Gloria followed her up the narrow stairs. The back bedroom looked out on fields and the downs beyond, but was chilly compared to the warmth downstairs. The two little boys snuggled together under ample covers. They would be better for the warmth of a fire but the fireplace was blocked. No doubt to keep out the drafts and chill from the chimney. Both boys wore clean pajamas, the sheets were crumpled but ironed and the room was neat and tidy. Mrs. Grayson did right by her evacuees.
"Here we are, boys, Nurse Prewitt was passing and said she'd have a look at you."
"Hello," piped up the younger one who'd been lying down while his brother read from a tattered copy of Dandy.
"Wotcher, nurse," the elder said, "I'm Jim and this 'ere is me bruvver Wilf," he went on, clearly identifying his East End origins.
"How are those coughs, then?" Gloria asked, perching on the edge of the bed. "Bothering you?"
"Not all the time," Jim replied, "but when it comes it's awful bad. Hurts my chest, it does. Don't it, Wilf?" Gloria popped a thermometer in Jim's mouth and turned to his brother for corroboration.
Wilf nodded and pulled himself to sitting. "Gets on me wick it does," he said, as great hard, dry rasps shook his little chest. "Sorry," he got out between coughs before he bent almost double with a fierce burst of paroxysm of coughing and he upchucked all over the bedclothes, the floor and the thin rug on the floor.
"Oh gawd! I'm sorry!" he said with a weak wail.
"Never mind, Wilf," Mrs. Grayson said, "I'll get you cleaned up."
Gloria hadn't the heart to leave her to it, not after Jim bit the thermometer in shock and the baby downstairs decided he was missing the fun, and started crying.
By the time the two boys were washed and changed, their bed made up with fresh sheets and the baby settled, to say nothing of making sure Jim hadn't swallowed the end of the thermometer, Gloria was only too ready for home. She even declined the offer of a cup of tea.
"I'll definitely ask Dr. Doyle to call," she told Mrs. Grayson.
"Whooping cough, is it? I remember my younger brother having it."
"Can't say for sure, the doctor will make a diagnosis, but keep them warm, and if it gets any colder, you might want to think about moving them down into the parlor and lighting a fire there. If you can spare the coal."
"I thought of that. I'd bring them down here but I'm scared my baby will catch it."
It was probably inevitable. A worry too. The baby wasn't more than eight or nine months. "What about the boys' mother?" Wilf was nowhere near school age. Surely she'd come down with him?
"She's up in London. Her own mother got bombed out last week. I told her to bring her back down here if she liked, we'd squeeze in somehow. I'm waiting to hear from her but I don't have the phone so she has to call Madge White next door but one. The boys got sick just after she left. I didn't tell her. Thought she had more than enough on her plate but now I'm not sure. If they're really ill ..."
"Why not wait until the doctor sees them tomorrow?" The boys were in a clean house and well cared for. Many were far worse off. "Just keep them warm and give them children's aspirin to bring their temperatures down. Do you have any?"
"Only the adult, but I cut them in half and mash them up with a spoonful of jam. It works. Or will as long as I have jam. Couldn't make as much as usual on account of the sugar. I should have gone down to Whorleigh's in Brytewood. He seemed to have plenty."
For a price beyond Mrs. Grayson's pocket. What went on under the counter in the village store was really a scandal. "Let's hope they're well before your store of jam runs out. And now, I really must be off."
"Thanks for stopping, nurse. Don't know how I'd have coped with all that on my own."
Perfectly well, if a bit more slowly, Gloria guessed. "The boys are lucky to have you."
"They're not much trouble. Not like some of the evacuees I've heard of. Mrs. Smith down the lane had two girls who were crawling with lice and stitched into their clothes. Would you believe it?"
Gloria would. She'd seen plenty of it when the first wave of evacuees arrived.
She'd been longer at the Graysons' than she'd realized. Now the days were drawing in, it was almost dark and she hated cycling the lanes with the miserable shaded light that the blackout required. As if an enemy plane up how many hundred feet would see the flicker of light from a bicycle.
But she wasn't about to break the law.
Keeping as close to the edge as she dared, without risking landing in a ditch, Gloria followed the lane as best she could. A long gap in the hedge showed she'd reached the heath, and when she sensed the trees ended, she guessed she was somewhere near the munitions camp. They were keeping a very tight blackout after the trouble a few weeks back.
Soon the road pitched downhill sharply and Gloria readied for the first bend. She wobbled a little in the dark, even considered getting off and pushing her cycle but the sooner she got home the happier she'd be.
The second bend undid her. If she hadn't been so engrossed in avoiding the hedges, she'd have heard the car engine coming behind her. As it was, by the time the narrow beam of shaded lights caught her, it was too close. The driver steered sharply to avoid her, but clipped her back wheel.
She went over the handlebars and ended up in the damn ditch after all.
The car stopped, narrow slits of headlight angled in her direction.
"I'm frightfully sorry," a voice called in the darkness.
So was she.
And damp and muddy into the bargain. She was going to have to wash her uniform when she got home and dry it in front of the stove. "Can you help me out?"
"Absolutely! I've a torch in the car. Hang on a tic."
He was back in moments, the unshaded beam of light wavering in his hand, in complete contravention of blackout regulations. As the light glanced over her face, the man gasped. "Stone the crows! It's Nurse Prewitt!"
Her rescuer (and attacker come to that) had the advantage there but his voice was familiar. "Yes, it is. Could you give me a hand?" The ditch was deeper than she'd expected.
"Righto! Let's get this off you first."
A weight was lifted off her shoulder and she realized her bicycle had landed on top of her. "That feels better."
"You'll feel a whole lot better still when we get you out of there." She grabbed a pair of strong hands and scrambled up the side of the ditch on her knees but when she tried to stand, her right leg buckled under her and she cried out in pain.
"Damn!" She forgave herself swearing. "I think I've done in my ankle."
Before she barely finished speaking, he'd scooped her up in his arms. Nice strong arms at that. Rubbing her face against the twill of his mac wasn't part of the plan, but she did it anyway, leaning into him as his arms held her close. He smelled of hard-working male and fresh air. Her heart gave a little flip and another.
Come off it! This feeling helpless had to be affecting her nerves. She was used, quite literally, to standing on her own two feet and was most definitely not going whoosy over the first strong man who picked her up. Ridiculous!
She gave a little giggle, which he probably took for impending hysterics. He stiffened and held her very carefully. "Better get you on dry land."
Good point, her legs were cold and wet and she was probably dripping all over him. Whoever he was.
He sat her on the bonnet of his car and in the weak light from the torch still somehow in his hand, she looked down at her ankle. Her foot hung crooked.
"It's broken." Just what she did not need with new evacuees due any day now. And she'd torn her stockings. Where was she going to get another pair? She couldn't cycle into Dorking with her leg in a cast.
"You look bad. Is the pain awful?"
She looked up at his face. Small wonder his voice sounded familiar! It was the supervisor from the plant. The absolutely dishy man that half the single women in the village (and a few of the married ones) were constantly mooning over. And he'd had his arms around her! "Mr. Barron!"
Excerpted from Bloody Awful by Georgia Evans Copyright © 2009 by Rosemary Laurey. Excerpted by permission.
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