If it’s not Gilbert’s insane jealousy over his former fiancée’s new marriage, it’s his addiction to pain killers and gambling that thwarts Gil’s own happiness. Worse, Gilbert’s mother, Evelyn, continually reminds him of what he lost when he pushed Annemarie away. Under Evelyn’s critical eye, Mary fights to believe in her worth, wondering if she will ever be enough.
As Mary longs for the day when Gilbert will finally let go of the past and learn to love her as she loves him, she realizes that the only way to open Gilbert’s heart is to whisper her goodbyes . . . and pray God will bring them back together.
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By Myra Johnson
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Myra Johnson
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Hot Springs, Arkansas Saturday, June 14, 1919
Searing sunlight assaulted Gilbert Ballard's burning eyes. He rubbed them furiously, cursing both the brightness and his battered heart for the wetness sliding down his face. Stupid to have stayed this long. Stupid to have come at all.
But no. He had to see for himself, had to be convinced beyond question that the girl he'd once pledged his heart to—the girl whose heart he'd broken—was utterly beyond reach.
Annemarie Kendall. Now Mrs. Samuel Vickary. And all because of Gilbert's own pride. His foolishness. His arrogant, self-serving, pain-induced idiocy.
Groaning, he drew his gaze away from the happy couple beaming from the steps of Ouachita Fellowship Church and concealed himself behind the glossy leaves of a magnolia tree. A physical craving rolled through him, every nerve screaming for the deliverance one morphine tablet could bring. Not an option, though. He'd sworn off the stuff after promising Mary he'd kick the vile addiction.
He'd gladly settle for a stiff drink instead. Although how much longer he could count on alcohol's availability remained uncertain. With hard liquor already in short supply thanks to wartime bans on production and sales, on July 1 the Wartime Prohibition Act would shut down all bars and saloons, denying him even the solace of a frothy mug of beer.
"Drinking yourself into oblivion's no less a sin than losing your soul to drugs, Gilbert Ballard." Sweet Mary McClarney's chiding tone sang through his brain like the voice of reason it was.
And he would listen. With God's help, at least this once, he would listen.
He climbed into his blue Cole Eight Roadster and drove away before anyone at the church across the street could notice him. Somehow, some way, he had to purge Annemarie Kendall—Annemarie Vickary—from his heart once and for all.
He sped through town, dust flying as he left the paved streets for rougher roads. If he could drive far enough, fast enough, he might outpace the unrelenting emptiness that had haunted him since the war. Those weeks lying in a French field hospital, then the voyage home on the U.S.S. Comfort, had given him plenty of time to think. Plenty of time to conclude he'd never be the husband Annemarie deserved, to vow he would not consign the woman he loved to marriage to a cripple.
As if to spite him, the stump of his left leg began to throb. Slowing the car, he reached down to massage his thigh. The fit of his newest prosthesis had eliminated the worst of the discomfort, but it didn't stop the recurring phantom leg pain. Sometimes invisible flames tortured his nonexistent foot. Other times he imagined a thousand needles stabbing his calf. Today, it felt as though giant pincers squeezed the entire length of his leg.
He swung the steering wheel hard to the right and jammed his foot on the brake pedal. The roadster lurched to a stop at the side of the road, while the grit raised by his skidding tires swirled through the open windows, nearly choking him. Stifling a spate of coughs, he patted his shirtfront, fumbled through his trouser pockets, felt along the underside of the automobile seat. Just one pill ... one pill ...
Sweat broke out on his forehead. He lifted trembling fists to his temples. How many weeks now had he been off the morphine, and yet his body still betrayed him!
Mary. He needed Mary.
By force of will, he steadied himself enough to get the automobile turned around and aimed back toward Hot Springs. Mary would be at the hospital now. He pictured his dimpled Irish lass's flame-red riot of curls spilling from her nurse's cap as she made her rounds. If he could wheedle a few minutes alone with her, lose himself to her tender touch, she'd drive the demons away.
She was the only one who could.
* * *
"Time for your medication, Corporal Donovan." Mary McClarney filled a water glass and handed it to the frail young soldier in the bed. As he swallowed the pills, she frowned to herself at his sallow complexion. Possible liver involvement? Something the doctor should follow up on.
With a thankful nod, the corporal handed her the empty glass. "You're an angel of mercy, Nurse McClarney."
"Aye, and don't be forgettin' it." Mary winked as she made a notation on the corporal's chart.
"Will Dr. Russ be making rounds soon?" The soldier shifted, one hand pressed to his abdomen. "I wanted to ask him why I've still got this pain in my side."
"Postsurgical soreness is to be expected." She lifted his pajama top and gently peeled back the dressing where the surgeon had repaired a bowel obstruction earlier in the week. "Your incision looks good, though—healing nicely."
"Yeah, but ... I don't feel so well. Kinda nauseous, you know?"
"I'll see what we can find to calm your stomach." With a sympathetic smile, Mary glanced at the watch pinned to her smock. "However, I fear the good doctor may be a tad late this afternoon."
"Nearly forgot—Chaplain Vickary's wedding." Corporal Donovan gave a weak chuckle. "The padre's sure been floating on air lately."
"Indeed. Everyone on staff is happy for him." Perhaps Mary most of all—if only she dared hope the chaplain's marriage to Annemarie Kendall meant the end of Gilbert's obsession with his former fiancée.
Mary sent an orderly to fetch warm tea and soda crackers for the corporal, then gave him a reassuring pat on the arm before continuing her rounds. Best to keep busy. Best not to think about Gilbert or wonder how this day affected him.
As if she could keep from wondering! Even as she went about her nursing duties with all the necessary attention to detail, an invisible force tugged at her spirit, dividing her will, drawing away pieces of her heart in an unrelenting search for Gilbert, always Gilbert.
"Miss McClarney." The snapping tone of Mrs. Daley, chief nurse at the Hot Springs Army and Navy Hospital, glued Mary's shoes to the floor.
"Yes, ma'am?" Gripping the medicine tray she carried, Mary inhaled slowly between pursed lips and turned to face the gray-haired tyrant. What now? Had Mary failed to properly dispose of a soiled bandage? Left a syringe uncapped? Overlooked a vital notation on a patient's chart?
Mrs. Daley dropped a folded sheet of paper on Mary's tray. "A message for you from Reception. Please don't make me remind you to keep your personal affairs separate from hospital work."
"Yes, ma'am." Mary curtsied before she could stop herself, although it seemed only fitting, considering Mrs. Daley's imperious nature.
The woman gave Mary an odd look before pivoting on her heel and marching away.
Anxious to learn who'd sent the message, Mary hurried into the work area behind the nurses' station and deposited her tray. Please, Lord, don't let it be about Mum. Mary's mother's chronic bronchitis often left her weak and short of breath. If she'd taken a turn for the worse ...
Fingers trembling, Mary unfolded the slip of paper.
Meet me at the oak tree. Please.
No signature. Not so much as the sender's initials. Only seven simple words rendered in the manly scrawl that never failed to set her insides aquiver.
Her nerves hummed with the compulsion to rush from the hospital and straight to Gilbert's side. In every stroke of the pen, she sensed his need, his longing, his pain. She should have expected that today, of all days, he'd need her most of all. She should be glad of anything that drove him into her arms.
If only it were anything but his despair over losing Annemarie.
Well. With more than an hour left on her shift, she couldn't exactly march out of the ward and hope to escape the wrath of Mrs. Daley. She certainly wasn't of a mind to risk her career—her livelihood—at the whim of a hazel-eyed rogue who'd drop her in a moment if there were a ghost of a chance he could reclaim his lost love. Let Gilbert Ballard stew in his own juices awhile longer, and maybe one of these days he'd realize Mary McClarney was not a woman to be trifled with.
She'd just convinced herself to ignore Gilbert's pull on her heart and go on about her work when footsteps sounded behind her. Certain it was Mrs. Daley come to chide her for shirking her duties, she tried to look busy sorting medicine vials and hypodermics.
"Ah, Miss McClarney. Just the person I was looking for."
She recognized the familiar baritone of the kindly Dr. Russ, and relief swept through her. Turning, she stifled a surprised gasp to see the doctor was now beardless—and, dare she say, even more handsome than before. She offered the tall man a shy smile. "Back from the wedding festivities already, sir?"
"Duty calls. I stayed long enough to see the happy couple off in style." The doctor laid a chart on the counter between them and ran his finger down the page. His breath smelled faintly of strawberries. "You were the last to check on Corporal Donovan, I see."
"Yes, I gave him his three o'clock pills on schedule." Mary bit her lip. "Is there a problem, Doctor?"
"I hope not." Dr. Russ stroked his chin, looking almost surprised to find no facial hair beneath his fingers. He must have shaved only this morning, no doubt a concession to his best man duties. "You noted he's still having abdominal pain. Did you check his surgical incision?"
"Perfectly fine and healing nicely."
The doctor glanced again at the chart. "Your notes also say he looks jaundiced. When did you first make that observation?"
Mary flicked her gaze sideways as she weighed her answer. "I'd have to say it's been a gradual thing, sir. Yesterday I thought it might only be the light, but this afternoon the yellow tinge to his skin and eyes seemed more pronounced. I knew you'd want to be informed."
"Good work, Miss McClarney." Dr. Russ's eyes twinkled with an approving smile. "Your sharp eye might well have saved Corporal Donovan's life."
"Really, sir?" Mary's face warmed. She stood a little taller. "What do you suspect?"
"Not sure yet, but if his liver is failing, the sooner we start appropriate treatment, the better his chances." The doctor's jaw flexed as he perused the chart. He glanced at Mary. "Are you in the middle of anything pressing?"
"Well, I ..." Mary looked away, guilt tightening her chest as she crumpled Gilbert's note and stuffed it into her pocket. Hadn't she already made up her mind on that score? She cleared her throat. "Sir, if you'd give me five minutes to finish putting away these supplies—"
"Perfect. While you do that, I'll make a list of medical conditions I'd like you to research for me."
"Research? You want me to ..."
The doctor was already scribbling on the back of a wrinkled envelope—by the looks of it, from a wedding invitation. "Go to my office and look through my medical reference books. You'll find pen and paper in the desk."
A thrill of anticipation sped Mary's movements as she emptied her supply tray. Taking Dr. Russ's list, she marched past the nurses' station, barely acknowledging her friend Lois's confused stare.
But she couldn't ignore Mrs. Daley's stern glare when the wiry chief nurse blocked her path. "Exactly where are you off to in such a hurry, Miss McClarney? I certainly hope that cryptic message you received wasn't your lover summoning you to another tryst."
She should have known Mrs. Daley couldn't resist peeking at Gilbert's note. Still, the woman's accusation cut deep—and far too close to the truth. Mary squeezed her eyes shut briefly while she formed a careful reply. "Lieutenant Ballard is not my lover." And certainly not in the tawdry sense Mrs. Daley's tone implied. "I assure you, ma'am, I've the utmost respect for hospital policy and would never jeopardize my position in the Army Nurse Corps."
"I sincerely hope that is true, young lady." The woman hiked her chin. "Now, hadn't you best get back to work? I'm sure you have plenty to do right here on the ward."
Mary couldn't resist a haughty look of her own. "As a matter of fact, I'm off on an urgent errand for Dr. Russ. A patient's life could be at stake."
That silenced the old biddy. Lightness returning to her step, Mary brushed past Mrs. Daley and strode to the exit. She marched along the connecting breezeway and into the elegant, Swiss chalet–style administration building, where she finally reached Dr. Russ's office on an upper floor.
Sometime later she was grateful to realize that during the time she spent researching diseases of the liver, thoughts of Gilbert hadn't interrupted even once.
* * *
Traffic sounds and exhaust fumes wafted up the hill between the bathhouses lining Central Avenue. Propped against a spreading oak tree within sight of the Army and Navy Hospital wing where Mary worked, Gilbert mopped his brow with a handkerchief already damp enough to wring out. He checked his watch. Again. Five minutes more, and he'd have waited a full hour. Did Mary purposely keep him cooling his heels, or couldn't she escape the old hag of a chief nurse?
Obviously, Mary wasn't coming. If he had a lick of sense, he'd march—make that limp—to his car and go home.
Someone called his name just as he reached the long flight of steps leading to where he'd parked his roadster on Reserve Avenue. Leaning on his cane, he turned.
A young, dark-haired nurse waved from the path as she hurried toward him. "Wait, Lieutenant, please!"
She looked familiar ... a colleague of Mary's, perhaps? He racked his brain for a name but came up empty. Which wouldn't surprise him, even if he'd known her for ages. Ever since a whizzbang—a shell from a German 77mm field gun—found him at the Marne, he did well to remember his own name.
White smock billowing, the nurse nearly mowed him down in her rush to catch up. She caught his wrist and clambered for breath. "I'm ... sorry. ... Didn't want you to ... get away."
"Not likely, considering the death grip you have on my arm." He stared pointedly at her white-knuckled hand.
With an embarrassed gasp, she released him. "You must think I'm crazy." Tucking strands of nut-brown hair into her bun, she gave a nervous chuckle. "See, I was just getting off work when I noticed you under the tree. I figured you must be waiting for Mary."
Gilbert hesitated, his jaw shifting to one side. This woman could very well be one of Mrs. Daley's spies.
"You don't remember me, do you?" The young nurse smiled coyly. "I'm Lois Underwood. Mary's friend."
"Lois. Of course." He only wished he could honestly say he remembered her.
"Anyway, when I saw you out here, waiting just forever on this hot summer day, I felt awful for you." Lois dropped her voice. "I guess Mary didn't tell you she's doing special research work for Dr. Russ."
Gilbert bristled at the name. Army surgeon Donald Russ had been Gilbert's physician aboard the Comfort, then later transferred to the Hot Springs Army and Navy Hospital. Rather too conveniently for Gilbert's taste, considering the role the man had played in keeping Gilbert and Annemarie apart.
With a muted groan, he edged sideways, forehead pressed into his palm. When would he get it through his thick skull? The only person responsible for losing Annemarie to Samuel was Gilbert himself.
"Are you all right, Lieutenant?"
He lowered his hand to see Lois Underwood staring up at him with a worried frown. "I'm fine. And you can drop the 'Lieutenant.' The Army mustered me out months ago."
"Honorable discharge. I know. You're a hero, Lieuten—"
"Stop, will you?" With an apologetic sigh, he added, "Just call me Gilbert. Please."
"Really? Well, thanks!" Lois beamed as if he'd just presented her with the Medal of Honor. "I guess that means we're friends, right?"
"Certainly. Any friend of Mary's ..." An automobile horn tootled at the intersection below, reminding Gilbert he just wanted to go home. Except now, he had this image in his head of Mary and Dr. Russ, the two of them ensconced in his cozy little office—doing research.
He hammered down the surge of jealousy threatening to blow the top of his head off. The green-eyed monster had destroyed his life once before. He wouldn't let it win twice. "Look, Miss ..." Blanking again. Not good.
"Lois. Lois Underwood. Like the typewriter. No relation, of course." Her laugh jangled like a tin can filled with marbles.
Excerpted from Whisper Goodbye by Myra Johnson. Copyright © 2014 Myra Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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