Just be thankful the shrapnel got your scalp, not your face.
Mother’s words rang in Corey’s ears as he swept his dark hair over the scar on his forehead. The last thing he needed were flashbulbs documenting his battle scars.
“Stop messing with it.” Mother shepherded Corey away from the mirror and toward the black and white world of the Hollywood after party. “You can’t keep avoiding the press. They’ll want to know your story and about your next picture. Answer them and get it over with. And stop thinking about her.”
Corey yanked at his tie as Mother lingered to communicate with occasional shutterbugs. Once, he had adored the chattering voices and endless tide of followers. Now, they suffocated him … much like the tie at his neck.
Stop thinking about her.
An impossible command, that. Ever since returning from the Pacific, owing his life to a mysterious, vanishing woman, she was all he could think about. She was the only part of the entire war that felt human.
Corey took a breath, banished the thought, and pushed open the French doors. Flashing lights greeted him, accompanied by the deafening chatter of guests. In the corner, a band played alongside a crooner in a suit, silver microphone reflecting the bustling world around it as partiers swayed and flirted on the dance floor.
Heart in his throat, Corey rested his hand against the banister, gaze sweeping the crowd.
She could be here, and the thought of seeing her unnerved him. He’d extended an invite to every nurse who’d been stationed in Manila, hoping she would come. Yet, even if she did, how was he to know? He knew nothing but her voice and the spirit of an angel behind it.
His stomach groaned, earning a sly smirk from a starlet as she floated by. Reaching for a flute of champagne from a passing server, he descended onto the main level.
Co-stars reached out to greet him and starlets batted thick lashes, but it all felt empty. Superficial, somehow, as if he’d left his purpose behind on Manila, in the arms of an angel.
A woman stood near the refreshment table, gathering finger food onto a plate. She gave him a brittle smile as he drew alongside her. Corey returned the formality, conscious of the flashbulbs going off around him, and set his glass down as he reached for a plate.
Most likely, the starlet awaited flirty banter, but Corey didn’t oblige. Not now. Not with the public eye on him for the first time since his return home.
Setting a carrot against a stack of crackers, she reached for the punch bowl ladle. Her elbow sent his flute flying, the cool liquid drenching his suitcoat. He leapt back, food flying from his plate, as the woman let out a yelp.
“Oh no!” Her black eyes widened, and she covered her mouth with opal gloves. “Let me get you something for that.”
Corey couldn’t help but laugh. “No worries. I’ve seen worse.”
“I’m sure.” Her hand moved to her throat. “But I feel awful. Please. Just … one moment.” Nearly tripping, she backed straight into the rear of a man bending down to fetch a fallen glove. She squeaked and whirled as the man jerked upright. “Oh! I’m terribly sorry.”
“I’m terribly sorry.”
Fingers in his blood-soaked hair.
Bombs illuminating a sky pierced with stars.
“I’m terribly sorry.”
A flashbulb went off, jerking him back to the present. Safe. Breath slammed out of his lungs, hope speeding his pulse. His eyes searched for the woman. Gone. Just the tail of her sequined dress slipping around the corner.
“Wait!” Corey dodged past photographers and celebrities. She couldn’t be far ahead. “Wait!” He descended the stairs of the villa, dark cobblestones echoing his footsteps as he crashed into the kitchen.
She whirled, towel in hand.
Chest heaving, Corey stepped closer, worried he was wrong. Desperately hoping he was right. “Were you there? That night?”
The woman hesitated but said nothing.
The silence was agonizing, far more than the angel’s voice that haunted him in his dreams.
“Please,” he said. “I have to know.”
A coy smile twisted her full lips. “Know what, Private?”
Her voice flooded his senses, and the fist in his chest relaxed. Eyes burning, he could only manage a smile as all the pent-up frustration left him in a single laugh. “It’s you.”
She beamed, a twinkle in her dark eyes. “I suppose it is.”
He faltered, words lost to him. In all his dreaming, he never imagined he’d get to this point. So, now that he had, what could he possibly say? Laughing at the foolishness he felt, he smiled. “I wanted to thank you.”
“No thanks needed.” The towel twisted in her hands. “I would’ve done it for anyone. Not just…”
Hollywood’s Prince Charming.
The words died on her lips, but he heard them just the same. Corey blew out a breath, startled at the significance of this moment. How changed things were. Once they had been nurse and soldier against a world in chaos.
Now they were two strangers laughing beneath drying vegetables in a dark kitchen while music streamed down steep gray stairs. The war had been over for a while. But, finally, with her in front of him, it felt as though it was finally over. Like curtains closing across a silver screen.
“Corey! There you are. Come, speak to the press. I can’t hold them off any longer.”
They turned to see Mother waving him over, the cigarette between her teeth nothing compared to the fire in her eyes.
Corey grinned. “A moment?”
Her lips flattened. “All right, but make it a quick one.” Then she was gone.
He inhaled the tangy spices of the kitchen before returning his gaze to the woman before him. “I should like to know the name of the angel that saved my life. If you’re willing.”
With a slow smile, she extended her hand. “Angelica.”
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