“We can’t meet here again.” Adjusting her spectacles, Roselle Perrine shifted in the dim light. A single candle flickered on the scarred table of the little cottage. The flame danced and bowed in the draft from the door. When the German soldiers had kicked in the door to search the house, they’d ripped the latch from the jamb exposing the pale wood. Hoar- frost sprayed the glass pane like fine lace and her words misted the air.
“Why not?” Lurking deep in the shadows, Michel Gaspard tucked the notes she’d made highlighting enemy troop movements into his pocket.
Roselle pinched her black shawl tighter over her head. Cold seeped into her bones. The low temperature mingled with her fear. She shivered and eyed the cracked window pane. “The Comité National has given permission for someone else to stay here.”
“Who?” Michel’s head whipped up. The pale light licked his oval face. Stubble deepened the crags of his face, hardened by four months of war.
“A delegate from the Commission for Relief in Belgium is supposed to stay here.” She bit her lip, bracing for his reaction. He never liked to be inconvenienced. His work in the shadows over the last three months only made his temper shorter.
“How could they do that?” His shout reverberated around the nearly empty kitchen.
She winced and her mouth dried. Her gaze skipped outside, searching the darkness for shadows. “Shh. The patrols might hear you.”
“They won’t be by for another hour. The Boches are great ones for schedules.” He spat on the floor then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
Leaning over the zinc sink, she pressed her nose against the window. Cold burned her skin before her warm breath fogged the glass. “The Germans are shifting troops to and from the front. Their time tables aren’t as reliable anymore.”
Hadn’t he read her notes? Or had he just scanned them before forwarding them to General Berner in LaPanne. Roselle rubbed the chill from her arms. If she had to be shot for spying, she would prefer not to be exposed by Michel’s shouting. In the silence, water dripped into the sink, adding a musty scent to the grassy smell of the dried herbs hanging overhead.
Michel growled. “The burgomaster should have made it clear to the Comité National that Belgians need housing, not foreigners of the Commission for Relief in Belgium.”
“The CRB is bringing in food.” Despite the burgomaster and leaders purchasing all the foodstuffs in the commune before the Germans occupied her village, the provisions were nearly exhausted and more people joined the soup lines daily. Roselle shifted closer to the candle and warmed her hands over the flame. “We need food.”
And so much more.
“We have yet to see a grain of wheat from this commission. Antwerp is no doubt getting fat on it, while we starve.” Michel’s slim fingers curled into fists. “We should never have been placed under Antwerp’s authority. Only Brussels understands us.”
Roselle rolled her eyes. The occupation of their country should have made everyone Belgian, yet some persisted with the old alignments. “You know the canals were blocked with debris to slow the Boches’ advance.”
Not that it had stopped the gray-green tide from subsuming everything in its path. The brave Belgian soldiers had held back a million men for days, then weeks, hoping to give the French and English time to arrive and save the country. The Tommies and Poilus had arrived only to retreat along with the remnants of King Alfred’s brave army.
“That was months ago.” Michel shook out his fists. “The Comité National should have sent someone out to clear the canals. I know that Antwerp hasn’t had any difficulty getting provisions.”
Roselle locked her knees to keep from kicking him in the shins. Blaming fellow Belgians wouldn’t accomplish anything. “Antwerp is sending a delegate here. To this cottage.”
“Unacceptable. I’ve already promised the Albrichts they could have it.”
She blinked. He’d always been highhanded, but this… this cottage wasn’t his to give away. “You’ve rented my cottage?”
Yes, he was her contact to those in a free Belgium, but she was in charge of the chateau and the farm behind enemy lines. More than a hundred people depended upon her. She had to balance her patriotic duty with the promises she’d made to her workers.
Michel brushed aside her objections with an impatient wave. “We need trusted people living here to hide the soldiers on their way to Holland. You’ve said it yourself, it isn’t safe to bring them to the chateau given that the German soldiers are bivouacked so close by.”
Outside the window, the nearly full moon plated the flat landscape with silver. Slush covered the fallow fields and ice filled the craters the German bombs had created.
Roselle blew on her palms then rubbed them together. “You should have asked first.” “Why?” Michel shrugged. “You’re always prattling on about how much you have to
do with your sister in Holland and your father—”
Pain lanced her heart. She caught her breath before releasing it slowly. “Have you
news of my father?”
Her fingernails dug into her palms. Papa been dressed for a balmy day when she’d
last seen him. At first, the Boches had taken him hostage to ensure their troops’ safe conduct through the village and the commune. Three weeks later, the burgomaster and some of the other leaders had returned. But not her papa.
He’d been transported to Germany along with so many other men.
“We heard that he was transferred to Ruhleben Camp in Germany. It’s cleaner than most.” Michel studied the flame.
Loss stitched her side, and Roselle stuffed her fingers in her mouth to keep from screaming. Her papa was in a prisoner of war camp? “What about his medicines. His heart…”
His heart had been failing at home, and he often forgot to take his pills. How would he manage?
“Madame Wiebke has arranged for someone from the Red Cross to look after him.”
“Madame who?” Roselle wracked her mind searching for the connection to the Red Cross. Her only acquaintance with that name was a horrid gossip who bent the ear of Queen Elisabeth at court.
“Wiebke.” Michel smiled. His teeth showed white in the candlelight. “Yes, the Madame Wiebke who tattled about our little kiss when your papa wasn’t looking. The old girl is deep in the intelligence game with General Berner, going all the way back to their days in the Belgian Congo. I wouldn’t be surprised if she knew we are here at this moment.”
Roselle retreated from the window. The old gossip had seemed to know things as if she possessed a preternatural sense. “And she’s making certain my father receives his medicine?”
“Naturally.” Michel didn’t meet her gaze. “I told you they would take care of him if you helped us.”
Her skin itched. She hadn’t needed to be blackmailed. She knew her duty as a Belgian. Squaring her shoulders, she switch her train of thought back on track. “I appreciate her efforts, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Comité National has already promised this cottage to a CRB delegate. We cannot continue to meet here, and I cannot house soldiers or the Albrichts in the cottage.”
Papa had been part of the Comité National. He would want to support the work, especially as it supported Belgium.
Michel shook his head. “Write to the Comité National and tell them the place isn’t
She lifted the prince nez glasses from her nose. Hadn’t he been listening? “The
delegate is already on his way from Antwerp.”
“When is he due to arrive?”
Shifting aside her shawl, she angled the watch pinned to her bosom toward the light.
Ten past midnight. Only the patrols and spies were about. And those, like Michel who had to work in the dark so as not to be deported. “Yesterday.”
Michel snorted. “No delegate is coming. Antwerp lied to keep our share of the provisions.”
“I don’t think so.” Roselle curled and uncurled her numb toes in her boots. As soon as she arrived home, she’d unthaw them with a hot water bottle or hot brick wrapped in flannel. Or both. “The CRB is sending delegates to the region. Mr. Hunt wants to ensure the Boches don’t take a single grain of rice. The American and Spanish consulates are responsible for the food.”
“Hunt is a newspaperman, not a businessman. I don’t trust these Americans.” Michel double-checked the notes she’d given him. “And they obviously don’t trust us, or they would allow us to distribute the food without their interference.”
Roselle held her hands in front of her stomach. Mr. Hunt, head CRB delegate in Antwerp, had been very charming and sincere in his desire to help. So had his two assistants for that matter. And yet…
“How did the Comité National know that the cottage was empty, anyway?”
She drew in a steadying breath. She’d hoped Michel wouldn’t ask, but should have known better. He’d always noticed the little things—her hairstyle was ugly, her new dress didn’t flatter her thick waist, or her spectacles were dirty. “I may have mentioned it when I had asked Monsieur Franqui if he or his committee had any information about Papa.”
Michel had been fighting for his regiment then. Or at least, she’d believed he had been among the troops defending Antwerp. Now, she wasn’t so certain. And a big part of her didn’t want to ask. She heard rumors that the Germans tortured people for information.
Shaking his head, he pinched the bridge of his nose. “Your father shouldn’t have left you in charge.”
Her jaw dropped open. He had to bring that up now? “Not only have I been running things by Papa’s side since I was young, but I also attended agricultural school in England. Besides, you know Felix is too young.”
And her little brother was very young mentally.
“Your sister’s husband should have stayed.” Michel’s lip curled at the idea of someone shirking their duty.
“They left for Holland, then traveled to England where he enlisted.” Leaving her pregnant sister in a foreign land. But then, the war was supposed to be over by Christmas. She doubted anything would be settled within a week. Including this argument. “I can manage the estate.”
Since no ships could penetrate the British blockade, the business had shut down when Antwerp had fallen. She and her brother were free to locate to the chateau while refugees lived in the pied-à-terre.
“You shouldn’t have offered the cottage.”
She ground her teeth. This was one of the reasons they had not made a match despite their parents’ wishes. “I’ll handle the matter with the American when he arrives.”
How? She didn’t know. But Michel was correct, this house should act as a weigh station for soldiers.
“Will you flirt with him?”
And that was the second reason. She refused to tolerate his jealousy any more. “That’s it, exactly. I’m sure this naïve young American will fall for my charms, and I’ll have him eating out of my palm. Maybe I’ll even enlist him to help us.”
“Don’t.” She held up her hand, palm facing him. “It’s been a long day and I need to return home before Felix wakes and searches for me.”
No one in the chateau knew of her clandestine activities. Everyone’s lives depended upon their and the Boches’ ignorance.
Paper crinkled. Michel set three dirt-stained envelopes on the scarred tabletop. “Deliver these while you’re about your charity work.”
Letters from soldiers—Mot du Soldat, some sweethearts and parents will be very happy to receive word from their lovers and sons. Her fingers pinned the creased papers to the table. Warmth radiated from them. “I will.”
A hinge squeaked.
Roselle’s heart fluttered in her mouth. She had that sound memorized from visiting this place as a child. “Someone just came in the gate.”
Someone was here. She wanted to check the front window, but her feet remained glued in place. Grabbing the envelopes off the table, she folded them in her fist. What if they are Germans?
With a small puff of air, Michel blew out the candle. Smoke curled in the pale moonlight. He skulked toward the back door. “Answer when they knock. Tell them you are waiting for the new delegate.”
She glanced at her hand. The letters glowed like a beacon. The Governor-General had forbidden mail from entering Belgium under pain of death. As for soldiers’ letters…
She swayed on her feet and swallowed the lump in her dry throat.
Footsteps crunched on the gravel by the front door.
Michel eased the back door open, peered out, then glanced back at her. “Roselle?” “Go.” She shooed him with the envelopes. He was a Belgian soldier, a jas, and had
no passes. If he were caught, they would both be executed. “I have my papers. This is my property. I’ll be safe.”
Not that those things had protected anyone during the initial invasion.
Without another word, Michel slipped outside and shut the door behind him.
Her ears strained in the silence, desperate to decipher the newcomer’s identity. She
winced at the scrape against the outside wall as Michel crept between the hedges and the cottage. At least, he didn’t curse. Perhaps all would yet be well.
Perhaps there was a troop of Boches outside.
Her legs trembled. Should she re-light the candle? Should she hide? Hide. Mon Dieu! The letters. They must not be seen. She held them between her teeth, freeing her hands. Working in the dark, she felt along the coarse stones of the fireplace. Her aunt had shown her the loose stone once, a secret compartment to hold money so her uncle didn’t drink it away. The rough surface scratched at her palms as she worked her way down. Where was it? Where…
A stone moved.
Using her nails, she grasped it and wiggled it free. Sweat beaded her forehead. Her blood thrummed in her ears. Faster. I must work faster. The stone came free with a scrape that was as loud as a gun shot. Would the Germans knock or just barge in? Holding the stone under her armpit, she jerked the letters from her teeth.
Someone rapped on the door.
She froze. Foreboding weighted the air. No one kicked in the door. No one pounded again. But the Boches who’d arrived at the chateau had knocked politely as well. A heartbeat later, she shoved the letters into the hole then rammed the stone back in place.
The knock sounded again—louder this time.
After dusting her hands on her coat, she removed a match from its safe and lit it. The stench of sulfur accompanied the burst of light. After lighting the candle on the table, she lifted it and held it as a shield in front of her. She must answer the door. All over Belgium, the Germans moved into property abandoned by their owners. The enemy would not get her cottage or her chateau.
She stepped into the parlor.
The front door banged against the wall. A man’s wide silhouette filled the opening. Behind him, moonlight glinted off the spikes on German helmets.