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Enchanted -- Alexis Harrington

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Home by Nightfall

A heartbreaking loss
In 1918, Susannah Braddock’s worst nightmare comes true: her husband, Riley, has been killed in battle in France. Devastated, she turns to her friend and hired hand Tanner Grenfell for support. As time passes and Susannah’s grief ebbs, her friendship with Tanner deepens into love and eventually, marriage. But their newfound happiness is short lived…

A stranger returns
Riley Braddock cannot remember his life before the war. All he knows is the two years he has spent with Véronique, the French woman who rescued him from the battlefield and nursed him back to health. Now the Red Cross is telling him it’s time to go home. But where is home?

An impossible choice
When Riley returns to the Braddock farm, he’s greeted by a wife he doesn’t remember. And though Susannah recognizes him, Riley has come home a different man. Torn between her love for Tanner and her loyalty to Riley, Susannah must make an impossible choice. The only love she’s known…or a future she’s always dreamed of.

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Home by Nightfall
Chapter One

Meuse Valley, Northern France
July 1920

The man worked his hoe along a row of straggling squash plants, loosening the soil and pulling weeds as he went. The quality of this land was more suited to livestock than cultivation. He’d been told that flocks of fat sheep had grazed here before the war.

But there were few animals left around here now, and the earth was scarred and turned and churned. The plants’ fruit was smaller than pullet eggs, and he wondered if another couple of months would really make much difference.

Digging under the July sun made for hot work, and he had to stop frequently, leaning on the hoe handle for support. Overhead, the yellow-blue sky gleamed in the summer heat, and with little vegetation to tether it to the earth, the breeze swirled the dust in the hazy air. Nearby, a cool, shallow stream crossed the property. Pebbles of all earthen colors shone through the clear water.

The old wound on the side of his head still throbbed when he bent over, and his poorly healed leg remained weak, aching if he stood too long. When he looked up from time to time, he could see picket posts and barbed wire in the distance and trenches that had yet to be filled in. They were remains of the battles fought near here two years earlier. In the far distance, a mound that had been a hill was now only a rise. Its top had been blown off by heavy artillery and looked as if the enormous fist of an ancient, angry god had punched it down, scattering debris for hectares. Some beleaguered trees persisted, with leaves erupting from odd, scattered spots on their trunks. A defiant few were robust, while others gleamed like silvery skeletons under the hard blue firmament.

Just a bit closer stood the rusting metal carcass of an ambulance. Most of its useable parts had been picked clean by the neighboring farmers to repair farm tools or patch holes in walls or roofs. Tall weeds and grass grew up through the empty seat frames and around the steering column. He supposed that in another year or two, the landscape might recover sufficiently to conceal the whole thing.

Although he had no memory of it, he had arrived here in that ambulance.

Leaning again on the hoe handle, he heard a motor start up, then saw a car with the Red Cross emblem on its side pull out onto the road. Obviously, it had been visiting this farmhouse. It moved away slowly, and the man at the wheel eyed him, but too much distance lay between them for either to really see the other. Finally, the car rounded a bend in the road and disappeared.

“Christophe! Viens. Prends déjeuner. Ne le laisse pas refroidir.”

His French was not as fluent as a native’s, but he understood that Véronique was calling him to lunch and to come while it was still hot. Turning, he saw her standing in the doorway of what had been a bigger farmhouse. The rest of the structure had been blasted away by a shell during the war. Both he and Véronique had to be careful when they worked the tract—unexploded shells lurked in the soil, as unstable as nitroglycerin. An old farmer farther down the valley had hit one with a shovel last spring and been killed. Another casualty of war, one claimed after the armistice.

Waving to Véronique, he put down the hoe and reached for his crutch, a crude, homemade thing, and hobbled his way across the field toward her. She was a pretty woman, not yet forty years old, and despite losing her whole family to the Great War, she managed somehow to maintain a generous, hopeful heart.

Viens. Manger,” she repeated when he reached her. The sun gleamed on her russet hair, the long part that hung out the back of her kerchief.

“Parles anglais, Véronique.”

She gave him a mulish look. “Non.

“Oui, anglais.”

With an exasperated sigh, she said, “Come to table.”

“Close enough.” He gave her a smile and a peck on the cheek. She smiled, too.

The single room that remained within the stone walls of the farmhouse was cramped but clean, and the roof didn’t leak. He hoped that when his strength improved, the two of them would be able to sort through the rubble of stones outside and rebuild a room or two. Though a relief group formed by the Society of Friends had offered to move them to a village with new housing, Véronique had refused to go. This land had been in the Raineau family for generations; she was the only surviving member of that family, and she was not about to leave it. She had, however, accepted basic furniture—a table and chairs and a bed—vegetable seeds, and the gardening tools they’d provided. When a skinny milk cow wandered onto the property, now seeming as rare as a diamond, they’d captured it and let it graze on what weeds and other scrub it could forage. But if they couldn’t find a way to breed it again, the cow’s milk would dry up.

A small pot of rich potato-and-leek soup waited on the table with a round of crusty bread and a bottle of wine. How she worked such magic at her stove with so little, he didn’t know. New shops in the nearby village carried staples, but money was still in short supply.

He pulled out a chair and sat down, his injured leg protruding stiffly. Véronique sat across from him, whispered a blessing in French, and crossed herself, the signal that they could begin eating.

The soup was warm and tasty, and his appreciative noises made her smile again. “The Red Cross was here today?” he asked in French. Christophe knew the term Croix Rouge. “I saw their car leave.”

She paused, her soup spoon on the edge of her plate. “While you were working?”

“Yes.”

“And they saw you?”

He shrugged. “I’m sure they did. We watched each other.”

“It was a man and a woman. Americans.”

“I hope they’ll bring help. We should need it.” He corrected his linguistic blunder. “We need it.” He knew that volunteers from the American Red Cross had come around before, checking on all those who had returned to the area after the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The organization had been part of a relief effort as well. “Did they mention the sheep from Algeria that have been promised?”

“No.”

“What did they want, then?”

Véronique was a forthright woman, direct and unsparing of her brandy-colored gazes. But now she glanced away. “They asked about you.”

He’d been pouring a glass of wine and stopped. “Me—what about me?”

“They know you are American, too. They are curious.”

Washed with a formless, uneasy dread, he put down the bottle.

“They wanted to talk to you, but I told them you were gone to the village. I was afraid they might upset you with their questions.”

He shook his head, puzzled by her French word. “I do not understand ‘détresse.’ ”

She touched his arm to make him look at her, and put a hand to her forehead. “Affliger.

Distress. That he did understand. He felt safe here with Véronique.

“They asked where you are from, how you came to be here.”

He tore a piece of bread from the round loaf. “What did you tell them?”

“The truth. I pulled you from that wrecked ambulance beside the road. You were the only one still alive. The driver and the other man—” She shuddered. “The shell destroyed them.” She paused. “It has been almost two years. You still remember nothing?”

“No.”

“They asked if you had identification. But you did not, and I told them so. To me, you are Christophe. That is all I know.”

It was all he knew, too. She had given him that name. He had no other, first or last. He had no recollection of being in the ambulance, of the war, of where he had come from. He knew he was an American soldier, but nothing else. She’d burned his uniform because it had been blood-soaked and full of lice. Trying to remember more—and God knew he had tried—resulted only in frustration and sharp feelings of discomfort. Of incompleteness. Sometimes the effort caused what she called The Strangeness to come over him.

He had made a little home for himself here with Véronique and the pitiful Raineau farm. Although they were not married, they lived as man and wife. How could he marry a woman when he had no last name? Still, the arrangement worked for both of them. He didn’t know if he was in love with her but he was grateful to her for taking him in and saving his life.

“They will come back?”

“Yes, I think so.” She considered him for a moment. She must have heard the apprehension in his voice. “Your mind is better now, though. Better than when I found you.” Twiddling her big soup spoon, she sighed.

“Maybe…maybe now the time is right.”

He looked at her, waiting for her to explain.

Putting down the spoon, she went to a small leather-bound chest that stood at the end of the bed. In there, he knew, she’d managed to keep a few prized family possessions and papers—her mother’s rosary, letters from her brothers before they were killed, a lock of someone’s hair. She lifted the lid, pulled out something, and carried it to the table. Then she sat in her chair and pushed it toward him, a little hinged picture frame. It might have been silver—it was hard to tell now because the metal was black with tarnish and dirt.

“Before I burned your uniform, I searched your pockets to see if I could learn who you are. It is true that I found nothing to identify you. But I did find this.”

With some hesitation, he reached for the frame and opened it. A photograph of a beautiful woman with dark, curly hair lay within. There was no inscription, no indication of who she might be. Her features were so fine she looked as if a sculptor had coaxed her from a block of cool, white marble and brought her to life. But her eyes held warmth and tenderness.

“Do you know her?” Véronique asked.

If he was carrying her photograph, it was obvious that he should know her. But he didn’t. “No.” He dragged his gaze back to Véronique’s sturdy, sun-browned features. “Why didn’t you show this to me sooner?”

A shadow of guilt fluttered across her face. “I—I suppose I was afraid.”

He raised his brows.

She folded her work-roughened hands on the table in front of her. “I thought you might see her and…” She looked away, unable to finish the sentence. But subtlety was not one of her talents, and Christophe thought he knew what she’d feared.

“You worried that I’d remember her and want to leave.”

“I did.”

“She could be a sister or a cousin,” he offered.

She gave him a knowing look and shook her head. “This woman is so young and beautiful.”

“I have nowhere to go, Véronique. I don’t know anything that happened to me before I woke up here.”

“Still, she must be someone very dear to you that you carried her photograph into battle and saved it from being destroyed by bombs and rain.”

Bombs and rain. Sometimes when the subject of his military service came up, his vision narrowed and darkened, as if he were looking down a long, black tunnel.

L'étrangeté.

The Strangeness.

It happened now.

Véronique, the ramshackle room—everything in his immediate surroundings blurred and became indistinct, until his consciousness faded away completely.

*~*~*

“Christophe—”

He looked up at the woman calling him and recognized Véronique on the floor beside him. At first her form was hazy and thick, as if he needed eyeglasses. Then both she and the room sharpened, and he found himself sitting on the stone floor in a long rectangle of afternoon sun. His right hand made a fist, as if he were gripping something that wasn’t there. Anguish marked her handsome face.

“I passed out?” he asked in English.

But she only looked worried and puzzled. “Comment? Je comprends pas.

He groped for the French words. “Did I faint?”

“No, it was as always—The Strangeness. Oh, God, your eyes were open, but you could not see or hear me. You made peculiar gestures and cried out.”

“What did I say?”

“The same thing every time this happens. Wheep! Wheep!

Weep. He still had no idea what that meant. “How long?”

“I don’t know. A few minutes.”

He looked at his fist, opening and closing, opening and closing. It was an odd, useless action he caught himself performing even at times when he was aware and alert.

He didn’t remember any of what had happened just now. But when these fits—and he could think of them no other way—overtook him and he regained consciousness, he was overwhelmed by fatigue and had to lie down. Not only that, this time he had landed on his injured leg, and now it throbbed with pain.

“Come along, I’ll help you to the bed.”

Using his overturned chair and Véronique’s support to stand, he managed to limp to the bed they shared on the opposite side of the small room.

“Do you want a glass of brandy?” she asked, pulling the sheet over him.

But he was asleep before he could answer.

*~*~*

Late the next afternoon, Christophe sat on a weathered bench outside with his back resting against the warm wall of the house. His crutch leaned on a ragged trellis that was covered with some kind of flowering vine. The climbing plant provided a bit of shade, and the sun fell on him with a gentle, dappled hand.

A few reddish-brown chickens pecked at the ground in the yard, their low-voiced clucking a comfortable, homey sound.

He had recovered from yesterday’s fit, as much as a man in his condition could recover. Falling on his leg hadn’t done it any good, though, and made working in the field impossible today. He liked to stay busy—it kept his mind occupied. When it wasn’t occupied, all he could do was think, and now he had something new to ponder.

The photograph.

From time to time, he took the woman’s photograph out of his shirt pocket to look at it, wondering who she might be. Whenever he held the picture, if Véronique was nearby he’d feel her eyes on him.

During the night she had made love to him with a desperate urgency that surprised him. It had been nothing like the comfortable, companionable intimacy between them that he’d grown accustomed to. She had murmured, “Je t’aime,” but she’d said it right after her climax, and though his memory was nearly useless, he knew that people tended to make all sorts of declarations at such moments. She’d never told him she loved him before, so he wasn’t inclined to put much stock in it.

Now he rested here, his foot propped on a box, the photograph in his hand, and he watched Véronique through half-closed eyes as she hung the wash. Stringing the clothesline for her had been one of the first jobs he’d done here when he was well enough to get around. He’d run the line from the side of the house to a post he’d managed to set, and except for his clumsiness, he’d dug the posthole as if it were something he’d done all his life. Some other life.

He looked at the photograph again. Who was she? How did she know him, this alabaster beauty captured by the photographer’s skill? More importantly, who was she to him?

Honeybees buzzed among the flowers on the vine, and the smell of supper cooking floated to him from the open door. Véronique’s hips swayed with the motion of her work as she bent to pick up the clean, wet laundry from her basket and drape it on the line. Her russet hair, braided today, swung from side to side in a soothing rhythm.

Peace did not come easily to Christophe, but this was a peaceful moment.

Except for his right hand flexing on his thigh.

He made a conscious effort to relax his hand and then let his eyes close. As soon as he did, he heard the sound of a car trundling down the pale road that led to the house. He looked up and saw a dusty vehicle with a red cross painted on its side, the same one that had been here yesterday. Behind the windshield sat two people, a man and a woman, maybe the same ones Véronique had talked with. He glanced at Véronique, who’d stopped her work to watch the car, and he was gripped again by a sense of foreboding.

The vehicle, a rattling, noisy machine disrupting the countryside quiet, pulled up to the house not more than thirty feet from him, scattering the chickens. The man and woman got out. They both lifted a hand in greeting.

Bonjour, encore,” the man said to Véronique.

Oui, bonjour.” The woman repeated the greeting. They were both dressed in well-made work clothes, the quality of which Christophe was not used to seeing around here.

The man approached him. “You are the one called Christophe?” he asked in French. His accent marked him as a foreigner, just as Christophe’s own probably did. This one sounded like he was from the Midwest.

“I am.”

“You are an American,” he said, this time in English. He was a homely man but had a kind face that reminded Christophe of a reliable old dog.

Still, he eyed the old dog with suspicion. “Oui, pourquoi?

“I’m John Bennett and this is Miss Poppy Weidler,” he said, indicating his companion. Miss Weidler smiled at him and came a step or two closer. “We’re with the American Red Cross, and since we’re working in this area, we’ve been asked to be on the lookout for an American soldier whose family is trying to find him. He vanished during the last days of the war and no one is sure what happened to him, not even the army. The family is very anxious about him.”

Christophe shaded his eyes with one hand and replied in English too. “There are probably a lot of soldiers missing. Are you searching for all of them?”

Bennett looked a little uncomfortable. “No, but this man’s father has, well, connections in Washington, DC, so it was easier to get word of him to us.”

“Maybe he’s dead.”

“Of course, that’s an unfortunate possibility,” Miss Weidler agreed. “But we heard about you from some of the local farmers and thought we might check as long as we were out this way.”

Véronique had stopped her work and now listened intently to this conversation, although Christophe wasn’t sure if she could understand it. She’d been so stubborn about refusing to learn English; he didn’t know how much she’d picked up from him. But he sensed her anxiety as she stood there, a wet pillowcase clutched in her hands.

Bennett said, “Ma’m’selle Raineau, here, said your name is Christophe. Is that your given name?”

“You might say that. She gave it to me.”

“But what is your name, then?”

“I don’t know. I have no memory of it. I arrived here in that.” He pointed at the remains of the ambulance sitting off the road. “I had a slash in my temple and a bad leg wound. I don’t remember anything.”

“So your family doesn’t know where you are,” Bennett affirmed.

Christophe shifted on the bench. “I don’t know that I have a family.”

Miss Weidler came closer now and gestured at the photograph in his hand. “Who is that? She’s lovely.”

Christophe had forgotten that he’d been holding it when they drove up. He snapped the frame shut, beginning to resent their questions and their intrusion. Why had they come to upset the fragile equilibrium he’d worked so hard to grasp and hold on to here?

“May I look at it?” Miss Weidler asked.

“No.”

“I’m sorry, I know it seems rude.”

He tightened his grip on the tarnished frame. “Not just seems.”

Miss Weidler persisted. “I don’t mean to be nosy, really I don’t. But sometimes photographers put an imprint on their work, their name, a town,” she replied, extending her hand.

“There is nothing printed on it.”

“Please.”

If he humored her, maybe they’d both go and leave him in peace. With a deep sigh and some reluctance, he handed her the photograph.

She took it and studied the picture. “Hmm, no inscription that I can see.” He expected her to give it back. Instead, with prying fingers she removed the fragile, water-stained image from its holder.

Christophe lurched to his feet, his injured leg giving a tremendous throb. “Hey, what the hell are you doing?”

Véronique rushed forward, now wringing the pillowcase as if she wished it were Poppy Weidler’s neck. “Vache stupide!

Bennett glared at Véronique but Miss Weidler ignored the insult and said to Christophe, “It might help you—and us.” She turned the picture over and from her expression, a person would have thought she’d discovered the key to the Rosetta Stone. “Ah, here we go.” Bennett crowded in. She peered at the writing, her thin, pale brows raised. “ ‘To my beloved—’ ”

Christophe snatched the photograph away from her and read the rest of the fine, elaborate script written in brown ink. Then he turned it over to study the face again. Oh, God… 

Tsk, too bad. It isn’t the name of the man we’re looking for. But is this your name?” Miss Weidler asked, pointing at the dedication.

He looked up at the efficient, self-satisfied Red Cross workers, then shifted his gaze to chalk-pale Véronique. His throat turned as dry as sand and he swallowed hard. “I don’t know.”