The First Night
Even though they’d been deployed for over a year, all the nurses in the 64th Evacuation Unit still swooned when Captain Joseph Klein entered the ward.
Then he opened his mouth to bark out orders that were only mildly softened by his rich Texas drawl, and they remembered that he was a by-the-book Army surgeon and not some star of the silver screen.
That still didn’t stop Lieutenant Ruth Mencher from letting her eyes linger on him a bit longer than her mother would deem proper. Like the rest of the nurses in her unit, she found him attractive with his golden hair and sky blue eyes. Unlike the other nurses, she didn’t shrink back from his seemingly cold, detached demeanor. She’d seen past that during the days since the D-Day landings where they worked together until the wee hours of the morning saving lives of GIs. Exhaustion revealed the competent and caring surgeon who valued each life on the operating room table as much as his own, the warm man beneath the icy officer.
From that moment on, she’d formed a soft spot in her heart for him.
Too bad he treated her with the same authoritarian indifference as he did the other nurses.
“Lt. Mencher,” he said as he flipped the chart of one of the men in the shock unit, “Cpl. Munoz needs a unit of blood.”
“Yes, sir.” She crossed the aisle, checking the wounded man’s IV site to make sure it could handle the next transfusion before moving to his dog tags to verify his blood type. “When you get a chance, you might to look at Pfc. Stanley’s wound. It’s been oozing all night, and he might benefit from some plasma.”
Cpt. Klein looked up from the chart, regarding her in a way that would have made her colleagues wither. “Are you giving me orders, Lieutenant?”
Ruth lifted her chin. She may not have been a doctor, but she’d been in the wards long enough to anticipate the needs of her patients. “No, sir, just making an observation.”
Something in his countenance changed. His lips twitched ever so slightly, as though he found her amusing. It wasn’t the first time he’d reacted this way to her. But he heeded her advice and checked on the wounded soldier. By the time she finished hanging more blood for Cpl. Munoz, the doctor was signing off on the orders. “Lt. Mencher, another unit of plasma here.”
She smiled, holding his gaze when she captured it. “Yes, sir.”
They stared at each other for several breaths, an unspoken challenge passing between them. She searched his eyes for a flicker of acknowledgement, admiration, anything that would let her know he saw a difference in her compared to the other nurses. A sign he returned a fragment of her attraction.
His eyes warmed for a second, and her pulse quickened.
Then he turned away, the usual sharp edge returning to his voice as he moved to the next ward. “Carry on, Lieutenant.”
Joe collapsed on his cot and rubbed his eyes. After months of living in tents, it felt wonderful to have a solid roof over his head. The hospital had been stationed at the former Belgian Army barracks in Malmédy for a little over a month, and he raised a silent prayer they’d be able to stay here through the winter. They’d already seen a record number of trench foot from the bitter cold outside, and it was only the beginning of December.
He glanced at the calendar by his bed, ignoring the saucy pin-up girl who winked at him above the numbered days. December 10, 1944. If he were home, he’d be lighting the first candle for Hanukkah at sunset. Instead, he was only a few miles from the German front line and the enemy who’d willingly execute him the minute they learned of his faith.
Which, of course, turned his thoughts to Lt. Ruth Mencher. Bold and brassy with a thick Brooklyn accent, she made no attempt to conceal she was a Jew. She even went as far as to wear a small Star of David under her blouse right next to her dog tags. She was a good nurse—probably the best in the unit—but he couldn’t help but wonder if she’d been turned down for Chief Nurse because of it.
It was another reason why he kept his religion so closely guarded. He didn’t want to be turned down for Major just because he was a Jew.
His gaze traveled up to the pin-up girl. He could almost picture Lt. Mencher in her place, wearing a midriff-exposing two piece white bathing suit, hip jutted out, her rounded buttocks transitioning into shapely thighs. He’d seen the model’s teasing expression on Lt. Mencher’s face more than once, and if they’d been back home, he might have taken her up on her invitation. She was a looker, from her dark brown hair and intelligent eyes to her full pouty lips that were the shade of ripe cherries even without lip rouge.
But out here in the war theater, he dared not cross that line. He outranked her. He needed to maintain that boundary between them that separated doctors from nurses. He had to dismiss his desires for the good of the unit and the men whose lives hung in the balance every day.
That still didn’t stop him from dreaming about her when he closed his eyes.
The savory smell of fried potatoes wafted down the hall, reviving memories of Hanukkahs past. He rose from his cot to find the source. His colleague, Capt. Michael Sawyer, was coming down the hall with a plate in his hand.
“Where did you get that,” Joe asked, pointing to the stack of latkes smothered with applesauce.
“Lt. Mencher was making them in the galley. Says it’s part of some Hanukkah tradition. All I know is that they’re a million steps up from B rations.” He held the plate out to Joe, sending those mouth-watering aromas his way. “Want one?”
He shook his head. “I’ll go down and see if she has any left.”
“You’ll have to get in line. There’s a crowd in there. Some of the guys from the 44th even came over to sample some.”
Joe moved toward the small kitchen housed in the barracks, each step tightening his stomach. He longed to sample the latkes, to enjoy the holiday traditions without fear, but caution held him back.
The closer he got to the kitchen, the louder the sound of voices became. Mike wasn’t joking about the crowd. A few dozen people crowded into the galley, a mix of officers and enlisted. Their infectious joy called to him, wrapped around him like a net, and pulled him closer.
Lt. Mencher stood at the stove, minding four frying pans of sizzling oil. A menorah sat in the window with two candles burning brightly out into the cold winter’s night. One of Glen Miller’s songs played faintly in the background, but the conversation drowned it out.
“Hey, Capt. Klein’s here,” one of the men said, pushing the others aside to make room for him.
Lt. Mencher looked up from the stove and gave him a warm smile that made him forget about everyone else in the room. “Decided to grace us with your presence, sir?”
“I actually smelled something good coming out of this kitchen for once.”
“Good doesn’t begin to describe it,” Lt. Swanson, one of the nurses, replied. “Ruth is determined to stuff us full of these pancakes.”
“It’s the first night of Hanukkah.” She pulled some the latkes from the pan and sprinkled them with a pinch of salt before adding a dollop of applesauce from the open tin beside the stove. “I figured we needed a little celebration here.”
She squeezed her way through the crowd with the plate and fork, stopping on front of him. “You should have one, Capt. Klein. They’re made using my bubby’s recipe.”
Before he could answer, she’d cut into the latke and stuffed his mouth with the still warm pancake. The rich oily potatoes mixed with the sweet applesauce and brought treasured memories of his childhood to the forefront of his mind. He closed his eyes and savored the moment. “These are quite good, Lieutenant.”
“I’d bartered with one of the girls in the 95th for a bottle of good Italian olive oil,” she replied, her voice easily mingling in harmony with his memories. “I’ve been holding on to it just for the occasion.”
“I’m surprised it made it this far.” When he opened his eyes again, his gaze immediately zeroed in on her lips, and words failed him.
Lt. Mencher’s grin widened. “Hanukkah Sameach, sir.”
She pushed the plate in his hands and returned to the stove.
Joe backed out the crowded kitchen, still clutching the plate, and returned to his room. He sat down on his cot and ate them slowly, his mind never wavering from the woman who’d made them.
Spending too much time with Lt. Mencher could be dangerous for his military career, but tonight, he was glad to have her in his unit.