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Cherished Wings (Return to the Home Front Book 1) by Tracey L. Dragon (1)

Chapter 1

February 2013

Reaching into her sweater pocket, Sara Kennedy fingered the metal Navy wings she’d accidentally discovered between the folds of an old flannel nightgown tucked neatly away in her grandmother’s dresser drawer. The metal pin felt cool in her hand—a mysterious object that had begun to fascinate her. Her grandfather had not served during World War II because of flat feet, and no relatives she knew of were in the Navy. So, who did the wings belong to and why had Grams kept them for so long?

Sara swallowed back tears as she gazed at the face of her grandmother, Frances Kennedy, asleep in the hospital bed. Her dull-gray hair, short and flat, lay lifeless against the pillow. The psoriasis that had plagued her grandmother for most of her life had left a quarter-sized, pink patch on the left side of her lined and wrinkled cheek. Her slight snore punctuated the somber room. A nurse entered and turned down the dials on the machine beside the bed, silencing the ever-constant beeps. Sara could have kissed her.

“Hey, girl.” Sara’s younger sister, Lynne, dressed in her patterned scrubs, entered the room and hugged her around the neck. “How’s she doing?”

“About the same. She’s been asleep since I’ve been here.” Sara reached over and moved her trench coat from the vacant chair. “Here, take a load off and tell me how your day went.”

Lynne plopped down wearily. “Long. I’m exhausted and my feet are killing me.” She heeled off one of her imitation Dr. Scholl’s orthopedic clogs and thrust a foot beneath her. “It’s good to sit down. I haven’t had more than a fifteen-minute break today where I managed to inhale lunch and give you a call. A couple of emergencies came in.”

Sara shook her head. “I don’t know how you do it. On your feet all day taking care of sick children, emotionally, I’d be a basket case.”

“It’s not usually as tough as today. We were shorthanded is all, and with the two emergencies back-to-back, everyone needed to pitch in.”

“Girl, I admire you.”

“Me?” Her sister shifted forward in her seat. “I’m a nurse in a rural hospital while you are the CEO of your own publishing firm.”

“It’s not as impressive as it sounds.”

“Yeah, right. You escaped small town USA for the Big Apple. You’ve lived overseas and now own your own business. What’s to admire?”

“Believe me, it just sounds that way.”

“Okay, whatever you say.” Lynne rolled her eyes at her.

“All right, all right, maybe . . .” She held up her thumb and forefinger a half-inch apart. “. . . a little bit impressive.”

Her sister crossed her arms, raised a perfectly arched brow and nodded toward her grandmother. “She glows with pride every time she speaks about you and whatever your latest achievement is. She is incredibly proud of you. We all are.”

Blinking back tears, Sara glanced away and stared out the window. “I’ll never forget the day I left town. I said goodbye to everyone, but Grams was nowhere around. I found her in the backyard hanging up wash. She said she didn’t want to watch me leave. I hugged her and told her I’d be back, but she just shook her head at me and said, ‘No, you won’t.’ And she was right, of course, I never made it here for more than a few days at a time every couple of years or so.”

“She wouldn’t want you to feel bad.” Lynne reached over and squeezed Sara’s hand. “Of all of us, you were the one always restless, wanting more out of life than Albion had to offer. I believe she thought you were the most like her.”

Sara choked back her response. She’d gotten more than she’d bargained for when she moved away. She had her wings good and clipped in the process, and she was honest enough to admit she was now too afraid to try and spread them again. “I think I always believed Grams longed for more than the narrow existence her life had to offer. I’m glad I was able to provide it for her, even if it was vicariously.” Thinking of wings, Sara reached into her pocket then gave the pin she had discovered at her grandmother’s house to Lynne. “What does this look like to you?”

Her sister turned the wings over in her hand, lips pursed. “An old military insignia worn by somebody in the Navy, most likely a pilot is my best guess. Where did you get it?”

“At the house tucked between the folds of an old flannel nightgown in Gram’s dresser.”

“Hmm. That’s strange.” Her sister glanced at the metal pin again.

“Who do you suppose it belonged to?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s something she picked up at a yard sale and later tossed in her drawer.”

That scenario didn’t pass muster with Sara. Not the way she’d found the wings placed between the folds of the nightgown. They didn’t just happen to fall there.

Lynne set the pin on the hospital table and shrugged. “I guess it’s a mystery we’ll probably never solve.” She glanced at her wristwatch. “Did you eat dinner yet?”

“No.” She swallowed. “I didn’t want to leave her alone.”

“I’ll sit with her awhile. Why don’t you go down to the cafeteria and get something to eat? I bet you could use a good meal.”

“I think I will if you don’t mind. I skipped lunch, and I could use a break.”

At five o’clock the cafeteria was nearly overflowing. Sara paid for her meal and turned to search for a seat. The only table was in the far corner of the room. She made a beeline for it hoping to head off anyone else.

Focused on the booth, she didn’t notice the man to her right. As she neared her goal, she sensed a presence veering toward what she now considered her table. She picked up her stride and set her jaw with determination. She’d be damned if she’d easily give up the only available seat. She reached the table first, plopped down her tray, and ignoring the looming shadow, slid onto the cool vinyl seat thereby staking her claim. Then feeling churlish at her petty victory, she glanced up apologetically and almost swallowed her tongue.

Shit. He was gorgeous. Simply gorgeous. All six-plus feet of him. The amusement in his stunning blue eyes made her flush.

“Mind if I join you? There doesn’t seem to be any vacant tables.”

Flustered, she waved at the empty bench. “No, it’s fine.”

He studied her for a moment as if sensing her reluctance. “You sure? I can wait for another place to clear.”

“No, it’s okay. I’m just in a hurry, and I don’t have a lot of time to chitchat.” Sara cringed at her rudeness.

“Got it. No idle chitchat.” He put his tray down and took a seat. “Does that include introductions?” Humor laced his voice.

Damn the man. Sara bit down on her lip to keep from smiling. She reluctantly stuck her hand out. “Sara Kennedy.”

“Paul Anderson’s the name.” His hand engulfed hers. “Pleased to meet you.”

Sara picked up her fork and attempted to ignore the hunk sitting across from her then set it down again. “I’m sorry.” She glanced over at Paul. “I’m not usually so rude. It’s been difficult with my grandmother ill. I don’t want to leave her for long.”

He reached for his coffee mug and took a sip. “I get it, believe you me. My Uncle Johnny’s in the last stages of cancer. I hero-worshiped him as a kid, still do. It’s been pretty hard to watch him suffer.” His glance shifted to the window, his mouth set tight.

They ate the rest of their dinner in a comfortable silence, each trying to finish their meal quickly.

Sara took the last bite of her lasagna and picked up her tray. “It’s been nice meeting you, Mr. Anderson,” she said, then strode off without a backward glance.

“Same here, Red,” she thought she heard him mutter but couldn’t be sure over the din of the cafeteria.

She returned to her grandmother’s room not thirty minutes later to find her awake and speaking with Lynne. Sara tossed her purse aside and rushed to the bed to kiss her cheek.

“Sara,” Gram’s weak voice rasped. “You’re here.”

“Of course.” Sara reached for Gram’s hand and blinked back the tears threatening to slide down her cheeks. “Where else would I be while you’re in this dreadful place?”

Her grandmother squeezed Sara’s fingers then her lids closed again, obviously exhausted.

“Sorry,” Lynne said. “My cell died or I would have called you.”

“How long was she awake?”

“Only about ten minutes.”

Sara glanced down at the bed, disappointed she’d missed the opportunity to speak further with her grandmother. Hopefully, she’d have another chance.

Lynne got up and slid into her coat. “I best get going. I’ve dinner to fix and kids who need help with their homework.”

Sara walked her to the door and gave her a hug. “Tell Kevin and the boys hello for me.”

“Will do.” Lynne squeezed Sara back then left the room.

Sara returned to Gram’s side, hoping her grandmother would wake again and give her a chance to speak with her. She plopped down beside the bed and took her grandmother’s fingers in hers. She lightly stroked the coarse, dry hands that had comforted her when her parents had been killed, spanked her when she had been naughty, and kept her well-fed when she was hungry. They were hands of strength and character, shaped by the trials and tribulations they had endured.

Sara glanced at her own hands, although much younger and smoother than her grandmother’s, they were similar in size and shape. Not so different, really. Gram’s hands bore her scars on the outside. Sara’s were deeper under the skin.

A slight whisper punctured her thoughts. Grams. Unable to understand her words, Sara leaned forward placing her ear closer to her grandmother’s lips. “Jack.” Sara thought she heard but wasn’t sure. Sitting back again, she noticed her grandmother’s eyes were focused on the table in front of her.

Gram’s wrinkled hand turned over and opened.

Sara glanced from the upturned palm and followed her grandmother’s gaze to the tray table in front of the bed. Ah, the wings. She reached over, picked them up, and placed them in Gram’s hand.

Her fingers closed around them.

“Jack, who?” Sara couldn’t help but ask.

Her grandmother’s lips formed into a semblance of a smile as she drifted back off to sleep.

Sara stayed with Grams for a while, passing the time by answering emails and trying to focus on a manuscript she was reading. She had just decided to pack up and leave when her grandmother spoke to her.

“Snooping through my things, were you?”

Sara’s cheeks heated. “I’m sorry if you’re upset. I wasn’t intentionally nosing through your stuff. I was just cold and needed a flannel nightgown.” She found herself rambling like a child caught with her hand in the proverbial cookie jar.

“And I can tell you found one.” Gram’s lips quirked up into a smile—a gentle one. The one Sara remembered from her years growing up with this wonderful woman who often said to her when she’d made a mistake. “There’s no use crying over spilt milk.”

“It’s fine.” Her grandmother fingered the pin she held in her hand. “I’m glad you did. Now that you have, I’ve one request.”

“Anything,” Sara responded without hesitation.

“I’d like to be buried with it.”

“Grams,” she began to protest.

“Now dear,” her grandmother interrupted her. “Please don’t make this any harder than it is. I’m old and it’s my time. I’m ready.”

Sara blinked back tears as she fought a hopeless battle to contain them. She covered her face and struggled for composure. When she thought she could speak without weeping all over again, she asked the woman who meant everything to her, “Will you tell me about the wings? About Jack?”

Her grandmother’s lips firmed into a line as she gave Sara the look—the one that penetrated the skin to the tender flesh below. Then she sighed. “I haven’t spoken about Jack to anyone in over fifty years, and I wouldn’t now, if I didn’t think it’s a story you need to hear.”

Sara slid her chair as close to the bed as possible, short of climbing into it, to keep Grams from straining her voice. Once settled as comfortable as she could get in the hard hospital furniture, she reached for her grandmother’s hand. “Ready, whenever you are.”

Gram’s face softened and for a moment Sara could have sworn her grandmother appeared young again like the images in the black and white photos still at the house.

“It happened so very long ago,” her grandmother began. “It was 1943 and we were at war.”