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"You're late. Again."
Georgia Williams nodded at her supervisor as she dumped her bag in her locker and slipped into her nonslip clogs. Yes, she was late. Again.
Her whole day had gone to hell the moment she'd woken up. An annoyed landlord. A sick baby. A message on her machine from the sister whom she hadn't spoken to in years. And a car that had started spewing smoke on the highway. It was the type of day that made a person want to get back in bed and forget that the world existed.
"I'm sorry." She didn't even bother making an excuse. There was no use in explaining anything to "Nurse Ratched." The woman did not appreciate excuses, no matter how valid they were.
"That's the third time this quarter, Georgia." She tapped her clipboard. "If it happens again, I'm going to have to write you up."
Georgia nodded again. It was best not to point out that she was only four minutes late and that she often stayed well past the end of her shift to make sure her patients were settled. Nurse Drill Sergeant wouldn't care.
The woman had been on her case since she started working at Jericho Military Medical Center. And she wasn't sure why. It wasn't that she didn't pick on the other nurses, too. She treated them all like soldiers in her army. They weren't allowed to have a hair out of place, a shoe that was scuffed or an opinion that didn't agree with her own. She demanded perfection in everybody but she seemed particularly keen on pointing out Georgia's faults.
Georgia should be used to that by now. Taking orders from an unyielding, all-knowing ruler. She'd been taught to be obedient, to be seen and not heard, but for some reason her supervisor's superior attitude made her bristle. And a small part of Georgia wanted to rebel, to tell the woman to take her clipboard and shove it where the sun didn't shine.
But she couldn't do that. Going against the grain was what got her in trouble in the first place.
"I understand, ma'am," she said instead. "I'll try not to let it happen again."
Her sour-faced supervisor nodded, satisfied that Georgia was truly contrite. "See that you don't. I'm leaving for the night. I expect you know what you have to do."
"Yes, ma'am." Other areas of her life might be disastrous, but she took pride in her work. Taking care of other people was what she had been raised to do. "I'll get to it right now."
"And please pay special attention to Lieutenant Howard. He was just transferred here a few hours ago and he hasn't woken up yet. He'll need his bandages changed."
"I will." She brushed past her boss and escaped the locker room, eager to begin her shift.
"Hello, Miss Georgia," one of the soldiers called from his opened room. She smiled and waved back to the private as she headed to the nurses' station.
When she first entered nursing school she never imagined that she would end up in a military hospital surrounded by young men. Her father would be appalled.
The only men an unmarried female should be around are the ones in her family.
And it was a rule he made sure they followed. Georgia and her sister were homeschooled while her brothers got to go to the local public school. They were made to wear long skirts or dresses that fell to their ankles while their brothers' clothing was never questioned. They were to be home before sundown, while their brothers got to stay out all hours of the night.
Their father was a minister, "a man of God," he called himself, but no other female who belonged to their church had to follow those rules. Only Georgia and Carolina, and Georgia learned firsthand what the punishment was for breaking those rules.
She checked the charts of her patients. It was after 7:00 p.m. For the rest of the evening it would just be her, a doctor and an orderly on duty in this ward. But even though the night staff was skeletal, the patients were never more than they could handle.
The hospital grew quiet during the night, almost peaceful. All the visitors had left. All the patients had been fed. All the occupational, physical and speech therapists had long ago delivered their services. And even though the ward was filled with grievously injured patients, they didn't require much care beyond the occasional dose of pain medication or a cup of water. Most of them only wanted a kind word. It was easy to get lonely there. Sometimes she would turn a blind eye when the ones who were able to move left their rooms to visit others during the night.
She understood a little about being lonely. She grew up in church. Around hundreds of parishioners. At choir practice on Tuesdays, bible study on Wednesdays and dinner on Thursdays. But all that had ended when her father found out that she was pregnant.
"Hello, Georgia." Dr. Allen placed his hand on her back, distracting her from her thoughts.
"Oh, hi, Greg," she said softly. She never felt comfortable around the handsome young doctor. He was a nice man and was never anything but courteous to her, but she could barely look him in the eye.
"I heard Bitchy McGee was giving you a hard time about being thirty seconds late for your shift."
She shrugged, embarrassed that news had spread so quickly. "I was late. I guess she didn't have a choice."
"You're a good nurse, Georgia. You don't deserve her crap. Try not to let it bother you." He patted her back.
"Thank you, Greg." She smiled at him, trying not to shrug away from his touch. "I'm going to get to work now. She might be lurking around the corner."
"Okay. I've been working a double. So I'm going to try to catch a few hours of sleep. I'll be in the break room if you need me."
She nodded and they went their separate ways. She stopped in every patient's room just to check on them.
It never got easier. She'd worked in a hospice facility for a short while and every day she went into work knowing that those people were going to die. They had cancer and Alzheimer's disease. They were old and frail and had no hope of survival, and yet seeing that daily wasn't as disheartening as seeing the men on her ward. They were more like boys, really. The youngest nineteen. All had been in their prime a few months ago, strong, healthy, patriotic. And now they were here. Some of them missing limbs, some who were blinded, all of them with scars. At least one night a week one of them would wake up screaming in the grips of some nightmare, reliving whatever horrible thing they saw while they were overseas.
It made Georgia think of her youngest brother. He was nineteen now and the last time she'd seen him he had been preparing to join the army. Even though she hadn't spoken to him in years, she hoped that he'd avoided this fate. Being stuck in the hospital was no life for a young man. Georgia hadn't considered herself a pacifist before, but the longer she worked at Jericho Medical the more she hated war.
"Hello, Miss Georgia. How are you this evening?"
"How did you know it was me?" she asked Tobias Clark as she entered his room. The lance corporal had been blinded in an explosion and had recently undergone his fifth surgery to restore his eyesight. So far nothing had worked. But he was one of the sweetest boys she had ever met and had the highest spirit among all the men on the floor.
"Because you always smell like sugar and baby powder. You're the best-smelling nurse in this whole dang hospital."
"You can thank my daughter for that," she told him as she made sure his bandages were snug. "I swear I get more powder on me than I do on her bottom. It's why I'm such a mess all the time."
"I know you're not a mess, Miss Georgia. You don't have it in you."
"How do you know that, Tobias? You've been talking to somebody?"
He grinned at her, his pretty white teeth making the room seem a little brighter. "You know you're our favorite thing to talk about during the day."
She was jolted by his statement. "Why?"
"Because everybody has fantasies that the sweet little night nurse will turn naughty and make their dreams come true."
"Lance Corporal Tobias Clark! I cannot believe you just said that to me."
He flashed her another grin. "That's how I know you're never a mess, Nurse Williams. Because even though I can't see you, I know every inch of you is a proper Southern, church-going lady."
She shook her head but smiled in spite of herself. "See how much you know. I haven't been to church in years."
"And yet I know you pray every night, Miss Georgia. I know you pray for us."
She was speechless for a second. God and she weren't exactly on good terms at the moment. But she did think about the boys every day. She wished them well. She hoped for the best. It may not be praying, but it was the next best thing. "I pray for your mama. I'm not exactly sure how she put up with you for all those years."
"I'm her favorite, but don't tell my sister that." He turned his head toward her and was quiet for a moment. "If this operation don't take, I'm going to get me one of those dogs. Maybe even if it does take I will. I saw those therapy dogs on TV once. They're pretty damn cool. You think they'll let me have one?"
"I think so," she said quietly, suddenly feeling heavy about this boy coming to terms with never being able to see again. "I know there's some information about it somewhere in the hospital. I could find it and read it to you tomorrow. Would you like that?"
He smiled at her. "Yes, ma'am. It will give me something to brag about to the boys the next day."
Georgia squeezed his shoulder. "It's past ten o'clock. You need to be getting to sleep now."
She left his room and continued on to the next to find that serviceman sleeping. He would be leaving soon. He was one of the so-called lucky ones, only here because he got an infection after being shot in the arm. No permanent damage. No loss of limb. But he was one of the ones who woke up screaming sometimes. Post-traumatic stress disorder, they called it. The infection he could recover from. She wasn't sure how long it would take for the invisible scars to heal.
She entered the room across the hall, trying to shake herself out of her morbid thoughts. She was depressing herself tonight. Maybe it was time to look for another job. One in a maternity ward. Or a school. Her soul might feel lighter if she was handing out ice packs instead of tending to wounded soldiers. But she needed the money. She needed to give her baby girl a better life, and working nights here paid more than any other nursing job in the county.
A slight moan alerted her to the patient in the room, and Georgia froze when she saw him.
Lieutenant Christian Austin Howard. The man she had been warned about.
She wasn't sure why her hands trembled slightly when she set her eyes on him. He was just so large. Bigger than any man she had ever seen. As he was lying down, she couldn't tell exactly how tall he was, but it had to be well over six feet. And yet it wasn't his height that caused her feet to become rooted to the ground. It was his width, his broadness, the way he made the bed beneath him disappear. The way he made the room feel smaller even though he was unconscious.
His face was harsh, with a wide jaw and a long straight noseplenty of hard angles. His brow was furrowed as if he was deep in thought. Everything about him screamed commander. Obey me.
He reminded her of a sleeping liona powerful body under golden skin, with hair so dark blond it was nearly brown. He was terrifying. Some might say ugly, but she wouldn't describe him that way. There was something about him that made her not want to look away.
And he was burned. She hadn't noticed at first, but he was and it was disfiguring. The left side of his face, his cheek and jawline had taken most of the impact from the blast.
She had heard about him. About them. He was a war hero around these parts. He had led a unit that had been surprised by a rocket attack. The gossip was that he'd refused to be pulled off the field until the medics had seen to his men first. Still, he was only one of the three men who had survived. Ryan Beecher had been here before they'd sent him to Texas to be with his wife. Beecher had awoken with no memory at all. The final marine had escaped with no injuries and had never stepped foot in Jericho Medical.
Lieutenant Howard moaned again, scaring her. Reminding her that she had come in here for a reason. Her cheeks burned. She had been working here for eight months and had seen it all. Men who were hurt far worse than Lieutenant Howard, but she never had been unable to peel her eyes away from them.
"I could have stopped it," he croaked out. Georgia jumped at the sound of his voice.
He's just dreaming, you idiot. You're not afraid.
Still she made no move to get closer to him. She checked his chart, checking the last time he had been given medication.
But it seemed Lieutenant Howard wasn't going to let her get away with standing still.
He started to move, to thrash in his sleep. She took a step forward without thinking. The skin grafts. They must be kept very still. He could ruin any chance he had of healing.
She walked around to his good side and placed her hand on his shoulder to find his body rock hard and burning hot. She wanted to pull her hand away, but she knew it would be wrong. "Hush," she said, trying to comfort him into stillness. "You're not alone."
She squeezed his shoulder and murmured nonsensical things. The things she might say to her daughter when she was fussy. He turned his head toward her words. He calmed, and then he opened his eyes and blinked at her. He had the most brilliantly colored glass-green eyes. Her hand trembled again.
"Hello, Lieutenant." It was all she could think to say. "Are you the angel of death?"
"I'm no angel. God wouldn't have me."
"I'm not dead." He said those words as though it was unbelievable to him. "No, sir. You aren't."
He looked away from her for a moment, then went back to drilling his bottle-green eyes into hers. "Would you mind killing me?"