As the dawn breaks, she turns her thoughts to the future, imagining the map of France dotted with stops on her circuit. The main region of her new network is located throughout the Massif Central—the highlands of central and southern France. It is remote and mountainous, and only the locals have a clear understanding of the geography. She had argued with Vera about stationing her in a mountain region.
“Send me back to Lyon,” Virginia had said.
“If you want to be a kamikaze, enlist with the Japanese.”
“Then anywhere else, but not mountains. I can’t face that again.”
“Then that’s precisely why you must.”
Mountains. It’s impossible to articulate what they represent to her. The terror of the crossing in winter—with a prosthetic leg—was bad enough, but add the guilt over abandoning her people, the Gestapo breathing down her neck, and the knowledge the betrayer was still at large, and it crushed her. She had never experienced a terror like she felt on every level during that crossing, but even then, she hadn’t seen with her own eyes the murder of her people.
The air feels as thin as it did in the Pyrenees. It takes her miles to catch her breath. Once she does, she forces her thoughts to her new contacts, a husband-and-wife team, code names Lavilette and Mimi. She knows these people can be trusted. Mimi is the sister of Louis—her dear Lyon recruit. Lavilette is a gendarme—a local French police officer—also working for the Resistance. Louis said if there are Maquis in the region, Lavilette will know about them. If she can find him and get him to trust her, her mission can truly begin.
“When you’re introduced to my brother-in-law,” Louis had said, “tell him you’re the answer to his prayers.”
“That’s quite a thing to say to a new contact.”
“Trust me. The joke’s on me. I once said it to a girl in a bar, and my brother-in-law was there to hear me get rejected. He’s never stopped harassing me for it. It’ll make him trust you.”
Thoughts of Louis lift her spirits. He always knows how to lighten her mood. She recalls one harrowing day in Lyon with him, when they’d gotten word a group of arrested agents were being deported. Louis had used his police car and travel permit to race to one of the stations where the train was scheduled for a stop. Virginia had gone with him and watched from over a newspaper at the station café, holding her breath as Louis didn’t hesitate to flash his badge at an MP, climb aboard the train, and stride through two compartments of Nazi soldiers to the cattle car holding the agents. While making a show of chastising his fellow countrymen for rebellion, he had slipped a file through the bars in a last-ditch effort to help them escape. Then he hopped off the train and winked at her as he walked by, and when she met him across the street at the agreed-upon time, she found a middle-aged barmaid giggling and blushing over him. She can still see the grin Louis had flashed at her. It would do her good to see it again.
When the train pulls into the station at Cosne-sur-Loire, she’s surprised by the absence of MPs. There are only young soldiers here, and the baby-faced, wide-eyed, polite junior lieutenant checking papers looks like he’s just out of Hitler Youth. He scarcely gives her papers a glance before sending her through and wishing her a good day. She doesn’t respond—silence for the enemy is the rule among the French under occupation—but she thinks it’s interesting to find a human among those she considers inhuman. Boys like him are in a special kind of hell.
Cosne is a humble town—rows of simple houses, cramped streets, old women at doorsteps and benches. It hardly appears to be the kind of place harboring secret armies ready to rise, but she trusts Louis and she knows how appearances can be deceiving. She relies upon it.
The map of Cosne she studied is carved in her mind. She makes the left and right turns, following a twisty maze of ever-tightening streets until she sees the house of her destination. It’s dark brown with pale green louvered shutters. There’s a small window in the peak of the roof—an attic—a good place to transmit. She glances up and down the street one last time before approaching the door and knocking. In a moment, a dark-haired, clear-eyed woman bearing a resemblance to Louis opens it, and a young boy—who could be Louis at about ten years old—wearing a dagger on a strap, stands in front of her.
“How long since you’ve had a housekeeper?” Virginia asks.
“It has been a long time,” says the woman.
Louis’s nephew steps toward Virginia when the door is closed.
“Diane?” he says. “You’re not what we expected.”
His mother pushes him on the shoulder, shushing him.
“Colonel Lavilette?” Virginia says, looking down at the boy. “You’re not what I expected, either.”
His laugh, joined by his mother’s, is so sharp—so sudden—it blasts her like a beam of light emerging from black clouds.
From the back alleys of town, to the side streets, to the open fields, Virginia follows Mimi and her son. The terrain has been moving upward and, while Virginia can barely catch her breath, the mother and son show no signs of slowing. It’s hard to be a young woman whose acting as an old woman is starting to feel real.
As they continue, the air begins to feel impossibly thin; it’s becoming a noose. A vision flashes before her eyes. The Pyrenees.
Virginia is aware her memories are trying to come alive—like they did at the market—and she doesn’t know how to stop them. Disoriented, she panics, stumbling and falling on a mound of earth. There’s a small face in hers.
“Are you all right?” the boy says. “Did you see something bad?”
“Give her space,” says Mimi.
“Maman, she’s scared.”
The boy is coming more clearly into view.
“You’re safe here,” he says.
“I know,” says Virginia, finding her voice. “I’m having a bad memory.”
“Oh,” the boy says. “Like a nightmare.”
“A little. But I’m awake.”
“What’s the nightmare?”
“Boy, give her space,” says Mimi, kneeling. “You know how it is for people in war.”
You know how it is for people in war.
It’s such a simple sentiment yet it slips something in Virginia’s splintered mind into place. Head clearing, Virginia pulls herself to standing. While the boy appraises her, Mimi simply waits for her nod, and they continue toward the forest.
Virginia thinks back to the psychologist’s questioning before this mission. The OSS wanted to see if she was mentally fit to return.
Do you have nightmares?
Sudden, unexplained rage?
Times when you seem lost in the past?
No, she’d lied. Lies for a living. Every day, a lie. If only she could lie to herself.
The trees ahead are large and heavy with the damp air, their tops obscured by fog. The scent of pine is rich around them. Virginia keeps close to Mimi and her son; they follow no path, and she would never be able to find her way if she lost sight of them. On and on they walk until the trees and underbrush thicken to walls around them. At the mossy banks of a stream, Mimi stops and makes a high-pitched whistling sound, like that of a gray wagtail. Soon, a strapping man appears from behind a fir tree, a broad smile on his face. He leaps across the stream and pulls Mimi into him. She wraps her arms around his neck and kisses him. The boy joins them, throwing his arms around his parents.
Virginia stands in awe. Or is it envy? Or terror? With such an abundance of love, there is much to lose.
Mimi pulls away from the kiss and whispers in the man’s ear. He turns his attention to Virginia, looks her up and down, and frowns. After a long moment, he whistles across the stream. A slim man of about thirty years of age appears with a board, which he uses to make a bridge for the group to cross. They go even deeper into the woods until a clearing appears.
It takes Virginia a moment to spot them. They are filthy, slim, and feral, standing on rocks and between trees, camouflaged in dark clothing. The whites of their eyes give them away one by one. With each new man she sets her gaze on, her heartbeat quickens a little faster, her hope rises a little higher.
She has found them.
(C) Erika Robuck, Berkley (an imprint of Penguin Random House), 2021. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
In the depths of war, she would defy the odds to help liberate a nation…a gripping historical novel based on the remarkable true story of World War II heroine Virginia Hall, from the bestselling author of Hemingway’s Girl
France, March 1944. Virginia Hall wasn’t like the other young society women back home in Baltimore—she never wanted the debutante ball or silk gloves. Instead, she traded a safe life for adventure in Europe, and when her beloved second home is thrust into the dark days of war, she leaps in headfirst.
Once she’s recruited as an Allied spy, subverting the Nazis becomes her calling. But even the most cunning agent can be bested, and in wartime trusting the wrong person can prove fatal. Virginia is haunted every day by the betrayal that ravaged her first operation, and will do everything in her power to avenge the brave people she lost.
While her future is anything but certain, this time more than ever Virginia knows that failure is not an option. Especially when she discovers what—and whom—she’s truly protecting.
Women’s Fiction Historical [Berkley, On Sale: February 9, 2021, Trade Size / e-Book, ISBN: 9780593102145 / eISBN: 9780593102152]
About Erika Robuck
Erika Robuck is the national bestselling author of Receive Me Falling, Hemingway’s Girl, Call Me Zelda, Fallen Beauty, and The House of Hawthorne. She is a contributor to the anthology Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion and to the Writer’s Digest essay collection, Author in Progress. In 2014, Robuck was named Annapolis’ Author of the Year, and she resides there with her husband and three sons.