“The days grow shorter, but it isn’t just the season closing in. It’s the long winter of German occupation that looms. Mama makes plans to leave while Papa continues to believe all will be resolved and peace will reign, that we have nothing to fear! I don’t know what bothers me more now–the invasion of my beloved France or the shattering of my illusions about my father. I have thrown away the rose-scented lotion he gave me. Ah, how I loved rubbing that on my arms before bed. But it was from his trip to Germany…”
Elise closed the diary. No more entries. Was that the moment before escape? Stretching as she stood, tired from hours of translation, Elise went to the window, staring into the blue-gray gloaming at steady rain that did nothing but illuminate the grit on windowpanes in need of a good scrubbing. “Rose-scented lotion.” Rubbed on her arms every night. Elise rubbed her own arms as she sighed. Closing her eyes, she wondered what it would feel like to gently, slowly smooth a luxurious garden-perfumed ointment on her limbs before bed, anointing oneself in order to fall into the arms of Morpheus. It seemed, to Elise, like the epitome of luxury, and for a few moments she thought that her own life would find exquisite meaning if she, too, engaged in such a ritual every evening.
But before her dreams could skitter along any further, a sharp slam in the hallway startled her so badly that she jumped. Now she dug her fingernails into her arms with fear, not gentleness, as she slowly turned toward the door, dreading what she would find there, knowing from recent experience what would greet her. She shuddered. She narrowed her eyes as if that would stay the inevitable vision, but she couldn’t keep them from widening when she beheld what she’d feared: the cloud of smoke. Back again. Always the smoke. To haunt her. To tempt her. To beckon her…
Down the hall and around the stairway, she flew, yelling as she went, “Dereck? Dereck! For God’s sake, Dereck, you’re burning something again!” She opened his door, which had slammed shut from the wind coming through his window. He roused himself, following her into the hall. “For the umpteenth time, man, you can’t take a nap after you put something in the oven.” In the kitchen, she growled as she waved acrid smoke away, turned off the oven, turned on the fan, and pulled blackened cookies–at least she thought that’s what they were–out and into the sink. What was this–the fifth pan he’d ruined? Hands on hips, she turned and stared at him through the lifting fog. But his disheveled look, his sleepy, doe-eyed innocence quieted her anger, and she couldn’t help but laugh. He had a speck of flour on his nose. And in his hair. And some of it was even on his jeans, accenting his muscled body. As a top New York chef specializing in French pastry, she had reluctantly agreed to coach him for an upcoming TV cooking contest. His specialty was savory, hers sweet. Looking at him now, though, in his tight-fitting T-shirt, she thought he was the sweetest thing in the world.
“I’m sorry,” he said, running his fingers through his hair. “I put them in…and was going through your great-aunt’s cookbook but…” But it had bored him, and he’d drifted off. But these thoughts he kept to himself as he didn’t want to insult Elise, good, honorable, dutiful Elise, whom he was deceiving, keeping from her his undercover work for the Recovery Agency, a group of ex-Navy SEALS who specialized in terrorism. Because of his cooking skills, he’d been selected for this mission, locating an ex-Nazi who might be partnering now with radical Middle Eastern groups. Lightning flashed and thunder cracked outside. As he saw irritation start to overtake Elise’s usual tolerant cheer, he changed the subject. “Speaking of your great aunt, did you make headway on translating her diary?” Elise had found the journal when they’d both absconded to her family’s New England home to prep for the TV show, and he was hoping it would reveal clues he needed in his search. As she opened her mouth to answer, the lights went out. But glancing out the window, he noticed they were the only house on the street going dark. Not the storm, then. His nerves crackled, and his training kicked in. Seeing a shadow run toward the front door, Dereck grabbed Elise and threw her to the floor just as glass shattered in the hallway and an explosion rocked the house. That diary held a secret all right.
Libby Sternberg’s latest novel, Fall from Grace, has been hailed as “truly a novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review. Get a copy before Amazon runs out! 🙂