Two women, two countries. Nothing in common but a call to fight.
A heart-stopping new novel based on the extraordinary true stories of an American socialite and a British secret agent whose stunning acts of courage collide in the darkest hours of World War II.
1940. In a world newly burning with war, and in spite of her American family’s wishes, Virginia d’Albert-Lake decides to stay in occupied France with her French husband. She’s sure that if they keep their heads down, they’ll survive. But is surviving enough?
Nineteen-year-old Violette Szabo has seen the Nazis’ evil up close and is desperate to fight them. But when she meets the man who’ll change her life only for tragedy to strike, Violette’s adrift. Until she enters the radar of Britain’s secret war organization—the Special Operations Executive—and a new fire is lit in her as she decides just how much she’s willing to risk to enlist.
As Virginia and Violette navigate resistance, their clandestine deeds come to a staggering halt when they are brought together at Ravensbrück concentration camp.
The decisions they make will change their lives, and the world, forever.
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Violette is shaken awake, Tante Marguerite's wild-eyed face inches from hers.
Disoriented, Violette feels a stab of panic. Did Tante discover what Violette did last night?
"Why so early?" Violette asks her aunt, keeping her voice as innocent as possible.
"For once in your eighteen years, Vi, obey," says Tante. "Pack!"
Tante Marguerite hurries to wake Violette's eight-year-old brother, Dickie.
With a sinking feeling, Violette realizes the day she's been dreading has come. She and her little brother are being sent back to London.
The siblings have been staying in France with their mother's sister to give Maman space to mourn their littlest brother, Harry, who died last year from diphtheria. Violette and the rest of her family had grieved Harry hard and fast, but even after months passed, Maman could barely tread water.
In spite of war making fire of the French horizon, Violette has no desire to return to London. France is her mother's home and Violette's dearest love. She's spent every summer of her life here, and half her school years, and knows it's where she belongs.
"I don't want to go," she says.
Ignoring her, Tante tells Dickie to dress at once.
Violette is about to argue, but the look of sheer terror on Tante's face silences Violette. Her aunt is not one for hysterics.
Violette looks out the window and sees a flurry of motion on the street. Refugees pass, with trunks and valises and frightened children loaded on carts and on goats' backs and whatever else they could find. A distant rumble calls Violette to action. She throws back her sheet and pulls their suitcases from the closet. She stuffs her clothing, toiletries, and magazines into one. As she heads for Dickie's drawers to pack his suitcase, Tante grabs Violette's arm.
"Une valise. And your passports. Hurry!"
Violette rolls her eyes but obeys, putting her and Dickie's necessities into one suitcase and dressing as quickly as possible. While Tante leaves them and bangs around the kitchen, muttering about someone getting into the cupboard, Violette sneaks out of the house and to the shed. She pulls open the door and looks for her pilot, but he's gone. She'd think she dreamt him if it weren't for the heart he drew for her on the dirt floor.
Last night, Violette had snuck out for a midnight bicycle ride, when she'd stumbled across a Belgian pilot sleeping along a ravine. She'd poked him awake-scaring him half to death-and once he calmed, he explained he'd been shot down and lost his crew. He was trying to make his way to Spain so he could get to London and back in the air fighting Nazis. Violette had set him up in Tante's garden shed with a blanket, half a loaf of bread, directions south, and prayers for his safe travels.
Violette touches her chest and sighs. Resolved, she hurries back to the house. Once she escorts Dickie safely back to London and places him in her mother's arms, Violette will find a way back to France to do whatever she can to fight the Nazis.
If Violette stares at the gulls gliding overhead, she can remove herself from the chaos. She imagines looking down on the dock at Calais from a great height, from heaven.
Does it look like a pretty, breezy day, a single ship remaining on the quay, a line of merry travelers waiting to board? she thinks. Is this how it looks to God? Is that why he doesn't help?
Dickie's sweating hand jerks Violette back to where they stand among a mass of weary, frantic travelers. He sobs so hard he shudders for breath. He's been crying since they dragged him from the house and pushed him on the crowded train. They had to walk the last kilometer of the journey because the tracks were blown out by the Luftwaffe.
A terrible growling sound starts. Violette again lifts her eyes to the sky. These are not gulls coming in, but Heinkel bombers, flying so low she can see the pilots. As soon as they're overhead, the shooting begins. Great splashes erupt from the water, coming closer and closer, until the first blast hits the crowd along the dock. Luggage and limbs erupt in a red spray of fire and blood. Violette watches in shock, and her gaze finds a little girl of no more than five lying in the sand, whose dead glassy stare matches that of the dolly in her arms.
Violette feels as if a gun has gone off in her head. Though Dickie is almost as tall as she is, she lifts her little brother in her arms and races toward the dock. With Tante at Violette's heels, they push through scores of French, Belgian, and Dutch refugees making for the last ship out at one o'clock. Violette and Dickie will be given preference because of their British citizenship, but they have to get to the Royal Navy destroyer first. If they miss the boat, Maman will never recover.
Tante keeps up with Violette, plowing a path through the crowd with the suitcase. Sweat soaks through Violette's dress to her jacket. The voices around them are angry, scared, and speaking many languages. The sailors look panicked. They've stopped checking passports. With just a few yards to go, a gendarme in the French police closes the gates and locks them.
"No!" screams Tante.
At the barricade, Tante bangs the bars, begging, while Violette scans the fence for an opening through which she might squeeze Dickie.
As the next wave of bombers arrives, the crowd drops to the ground. Tante continues to beg, from her knees. When Violette sees the planes taking aim farther down the docks, she stands with Dickie and moves toward the gendarme and the remaining sailor. Dickie has stopped crying and stares blandly before him. Tante joins Violette.
"Please," Tante says, grabbing Violette's cheeks. "Look at my beautiful, British niece. Will you leave her to the filthy boches? Do you know what they'll do to her?"
While the sailors pull off the lines, the gendarme looks from Violette to Dickie to the remaining sailor and back. Violette knows she can take care of herself, but Dickie is defenseless. Violette looks up, imploring the men with her large, violet eyes, the ones that inspired her name.
The gendarme looks back at the sailor and receives a curt nod. He unlocks the gate and pulls Violette and Dickie through.
Amid Tante's crying and well-wishes and the angry shouts of the crowd, Violette runs to the ship with Dickie. She forgot their suitcase, but there's no time to go back. A sailor helps them aboard, and when the one from the gate follows and they push off, Violette kisses him on both cheeks.
The passengers are instructed to go belowdecks, but Violette refuses. She won't allow them to get trapped if the ship gets hit. She'll swim back to shore with her brother if necessary.
The destroyer accelerates. The waters roil and churn. The wind blows. They're not traveling straight, but in sharp zigzags, like a tacking sailboat.
As the bombers return, Violette covers her brother's body with her own and prays as she never has.
Le Perray, France
At dawn, a rumbling sound draws the American woman and her French husband out of bed, to the window. Buses file past the house where the couple are billeted. At first glance, the buses appear empty, but upon closer look, they can see the silhouettes of many small heads.
"Paris is sending away her children," Virginia says, touching her stomach.
She hasn't yet told Philippe her suspicion, and she doesn't know how or when she will. Her cycle, which usually runs like clockwork, is four days late. They've longed for a baby since the moment they got married, three years ago, but knowing Philippe is about to join the fighting, Virginia thinks he'll be crushed with worry. Not only that, with war erupting, her mother has been begging Virginia to return to the family home in Florida, but she refuses. If she's expecting, she knows her argument will lose weight.
Philippe comes up behind his wife, wrapping her in his great arms.
"The poor bébés," he says. "How has it come to this?"
Refugees have been on the march for days through the village where Philippe's cavalry unit is stationed. The pair are in a lovely house on the main street, where an officer's wife keeps them in a set of beautiful, well-equipped rooms. Virginia has been following Philippe and his men like a lamb from town to town, creeping toward the front. Both of them know she'll be able to go only so far, but they refuse to face the truth. Until the river of weary refugees began running, Virginia could pretend she and Philippe were on a second honeymoon, touring French villages, enjoying each other in the growing warmth and lengthening days of spring. Right or wrong, they have resolved to live only in the moment. There's no other way to live in war.
Virginia turns her back on the scene out the window and stands on tiptoe to kiss Philippe. Philippe's late father was French, but his mother is British, and that side of the family is where he gets his height. Virginia presses herself into Philippe, noting the soreness in her breasts through her nightgown, wondering if she should tell him. It's his thirty-first birthday, after all. The words are on her lips to share the news, when a banging at the door to the sitting room outside the bedroom makes them jump.
"Sergeant!" comes the voice. "Maréchal d'Albert-Lake?"
"Is it even six in the morning?" Virginia whispers.
Philippe hurries to pull on his uniform. While he buttons his shirt, Virginia grabs his blue cap with the red stripe from the nightstand. Philippe strides over to allow her to top him off, kisses her forehead, and rushes from the room, leaving the door slightly open in his haste. Virginia creeps across the floor and eavesdrops from the shadows.
"Why haven't your men reported for duty?"
Virginia bristles, looking through the crack to see who berates her husband.
"My apologies," says Philippe to a haggard general. "We were not told to expect you."
"Everything's falling apart. Men abandoning posts. Not enough uniforms or weapons. It's pandemonium."
Virginia is filled with dread.
"First, Poland," the general says. "Now Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg. We're next."
Philippe leaves, and Virginia hurries back to the window to watch him escort his superior to the house where the region's commander is staying. They soon disappear and, sure enough, in the slowly moving tide of refugees, there's a sprinkling of soldiers. Filthy, shell-shocked, disoriented men are mixed throughout the throngs, moving away from the action.
"No," she whispers.
Where are they going? If they aren't fighting the enemy, what can this mean?
Virginia thinks of Philippe's grandmother at the family estate in Pleurtuit, near Saint-Malo. His mother, in Paris. Their own Paris apartment, and the country house they've just had built, thirty miles north of the capital. They call their little love nest Les Baumées-balm, respite, sanctuary from the world-their happily ever after. Will Les Baumées be safe from the Nazis? Will any of them?
Of all times to get pregnant, she thinks.
She runs to the bathroom and gets sick.
Lighting a cigarette, Virginia forces a smile, trying hard to pay attention to Philippe’s words.
He updates her on news of the soldiers woven into the tapestry of refugees. The villagers have been giving them side glances and cold shoulders all day, but Philippe assures her the men are not deserters-not exactly. They got lost in the chaos of retreat. Their commanders abandoned them, and they're trying to find units to join. Philippe has a good hold on his men here and will be able to assimilate the new arrivals. Virginia is relieved to hear it, but her mind is not entirely on war.
"Honeybee," Philippe says, placing his large hand over her small one, where her fingers drum the table. "Are you all right? You haven't touched a morsel."
They celebrate Philippe's birthday at Au Coq de Bruyre, a charming restaurant with outdoor seating at the town's hotel. The stone walls are thick with climbing vines, and their plates are full of roasted chicken, lemon-rosemary potatoes, and asparagus, on which they've splurged knowing the days of such eating are likely coming to a close. The light of sunset saturates the village in lavender, but the beauty and serenity of the scene remain apart from Virginia. She feels as if she's a black-and-white image on a painted canvas. Philippe stares at her a moment longer. Then he sets his brown eyes as stern as she's ever seen them and throws his napkin on the table.
"That's it," he says. "As your husband, I order you to return to Florida."
Virginia can't help but giggle. It's the first time she's done so in days, and it releases untold tons of pressure from her chest. He jerks back as if she's slapped him.
"I've allowed this American free will of yours to run rampant for too long," he continues.
Her giggle has turned into a laugh.
"In France, women obey their husbands," he says.
Amid her amusement, he throws up his hands and then crosses his arms over his chest, but a grin soon breaks the faux stone veneer he tried to put on his face. Virginia stubs out her cigarette and lays her hand over Philippe's arm.
"That was adorable," she says.
"I tried." He shrugs.
"It was a good effort. But it isn't war that's made a bundle of nerves of me."
"Then what is it? For the first time, there's something between us I cannot access."
She won't keep the secret from Philippe any longer. Besides, maybe the news will inspire him with even more will to come back to her, if one can will such things in war. A lump forms in her throat, preventing her from speaking the words, so she takes his hand and lowers it to her belly. It takes him only a moment to understand. He pushes back from the table and lifts her into his arms.
Virginia regrets telling Philippe about her suspected condition. He was already worried about their impending separation; now he’s in agony.
Yesterday he saw Virginia picking flowers in the garden and begged her to lie down. Then he came upon Virginia polishing Madame's silver and asked her to sit while attending to chores. Virginia doesn't feel at all tired, and she hasn't gotten sick since the day the general arrived to warn Philippe. If anything, she feels energized. She has new purpose-something to protect and fight for. It's not as if she's asked to drive ambulances like the women in uniform heading toward the front. Now she's worried Philippe's mind will be too much on her and the baby to attend to his duties.