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|Publisher:||Baker Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)|
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For Such A Time
By KATE BRESLIN
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2014 Kathryn Breslin
All rights reserved.
Esther also was taken to the king's palace.... Esther 2:8
Monday, February 14, 1944
The stench was unmistakable.
Seeping through the walls of the two-story chalet, turning pungent from the warmth of an oil furnace, the insidious odor drifted upstairs to where Stella lay asleep on a window seat. It filled her nostrils and roused her with a jerk; she struggled upright, shielding her eyes against the bright light penetrating the glass.
Dawn. The burning had begun.
Beyond the chilled pane lay the Ceaseless White. Stella gazed out at the endless mantle of snow punctuated by clusters of bare-limbed trees, a handful of farmhouses, and St. Jakob's onion-shaped cupola in the distance. To the west, the nebulous sky grew dark as the stacks of Dachau's Krematorium belched gritty smoke against a colorless sun, permeating the air with a sickening-sweet odor.
She imagined the tiny charred flakes, soaring high, borne off to God Forsaken ...
Despair struck like an angry fist; she grabbed at the sill, feeling dizzy and out of breath as she pressed her bruised forehead against the cold glass. How was it that she still felt anything?
The nausea soon passed, and she turned from the window—away from death—to stare at the austere whitewashed walls that hemmed her in. Not the train, not the Block at Dachau where she'd been held for months, but a room. Her makeshift prison for untold days.
Why was she here ... and why had she been singled out? The repetitive questions preyed on her anxiety as she began the day's ritual of scouring her surroundings for clues.
Uncle Morty once said that a person's possessions spoke much about them. Stella believed their lack often revealed more. This room, for instance, like her dignity, was stripped bare except for a low-slung cot and a nightstand disguised as a battered fruit crate. Nothing else—least of all any frivolous female comforts that might capture her interest. No vanity with ruffled seat, no perfume bottles, lipstick cassettes, or cosmetics to clutter its top. Even the windowpane had felt brittle against her skin, bereft of any delicate lace curtains. With the war in full swing, no silk stockings hung idly over the back of a chair (had there been one) or tumbled from an open dresser drawer (had there been one). Not even a shard of mirrored glass hung on the stark walls. She'd simply been locked away upstairs in an empty room, the fabled Rapunzel in her tower. Except for the hair ...
Hardly a princess, Stella thought bitterly, smoothing blistered fingertips over the new growth at her scalp. She surveyed her spindly extremities—barely discernible arms and legs that protruded from the capped sleeves and knee-length hem of her blue cotton dress. She looked more like the room: an empty husk, lifeless, genderless. Temporary ...
The faint purr of a car's engine drew her attention back to the window. A black Mercedes approached the chalet, cutting a path through the snow that concealed the road. The disjointed white cross of the Hakenkreuz emblazoned its door.
Jew Killers. Stella froze as the Nazi staff car pulled up beside the house. Fragments of memory collided with her mounting apprehension. The gritty-faced Kapo—a Jew trusted by the Nazis to guard their Block of prisoners at Dachau—had stuffed her into the blue dress. The feel of warm wool against her skin as she was wrapped in a blanket and carried. The dark trunk of a car ...
The driver wore the black uniform of the Schutzstaffel and exited first before rushing around to open the passenger door. The man who emerged next stood tall and broad-shouldered in a heavy greatcoat. His presence evoked every aspect of authority. Dominance. Even the cane he gripped in his right hand failed to diminish his aura of power.
He looked up at her window. Stella's heart pounded. Did some intuitive force reveal to him her hiding place, or had he already known? She pulled back from the sill, then quickly changed her mind, meeting his stare.
His face was a canvas of strength—rock-hard features fortified with asperity, amplified by the grim line at his mouth and the tautness of his squared jaw. Features much accustomed to pain. More in giving it than receiving it, she decided.
Beneath his black officer's cap with its skull-and-bones death's-head insignia, eyes of an indiscernible color watched her a long moment. Without looking away, he raised his free hand and snapped his fingers, bringing his driver to heel like a trained beast. He passed his cane to the underling without comment and then strode to the front door.
The bell sounded below, and every nerve in Stella's body screamed. She heard the frantic voice of the housekeeper—her jailer—greet the Nazi.
Pressing chapped palms against her thighs, she was vaguely aware of the dampness of sweat seeping through the thin cotton dress. Her pulse hammered in her throat as the first wooden step leading upstairs groaned beneath his weight. She'd heard about medical experiments performed on prisoners. Was he a doctor? Was that why she'd been brought here?
A key turned in the lock. Stella's body bucked in reaction, launching her to her feet. She became aware of a winded sound, a shallow, rapid rushing of air—and realized it was her own breath.
"Gut, you're awake."
The stout, ruddy-cheeked Hausfrau stood on the threshold. Not the Jew Killer.
Stella's knees nearly buckled.
"You have an important visitor. Follow me downstairs."
Stella didn't immediately grasp the command. Fear rooted her to a spot by the window, a sapling anchored to earth. She could only blink at the sour-faced woman standing at the door.
"Are you deaf, Jude? I said come with me!"
The sharp words freed Stella's invisible fetters and she shuffled forward, swallowing the bubble of terror in her throat. In deference lay my survival, in deference lay my survival ...
"Your kind brings nothing but trouble," the housekeeper hissed before turning to leave.
Stella ground her teeth to keep silent. She wasn't surprised at the woman's hostility. Even the word Jew had become dangerous to utter. Deadly.
Following the Hausfrau downstairs, Stella felt panic escalate with each step. She fought it the only way she knew how: by lulling herself into a languid state that had so often shielded her sanity. She became oblivious to the gold-gilt lithographs framed along the stairwell and the moan of warped wood beneath her bare feet. Dust particles swirling in a shaft of winter sunlight from an upstairs window went unnoticed.
When pain from a protruding nail on the step finally jarred her benumbed state, Stella blinked and stared down at the blood oozing from her torn flesh. Her chest tightened with flashes of memory. Bloody hands ... gunshot ...
Like an ill-wakened sleeper, she raised her head to glare at the housekeeper. What was the point in deference? She was already dead inside. Did it matter what they did with her body?
Fear and disgust flashed across the other woman's face before she hastily resumed her descent. Stella followed, determined to buoy her defiance with each step—
Until she came face-to-face with him.
Terror sank its claws in deep. As the housekeeper fled to the safety of the kitchen, Stella clung to her last shred of newfound courage and focused on the man before her. He swiftly removed his hat, the brim pitching flecks of snow against her cheek.
From the window above, she'd imagined him much older. Stella was surprised to see that, up close, he was nearer in age to her own twenty-three years. His thick russet hair, shot through with gold, lay close-cropped against his head, while eyes—a vibrant shade of green—studied her with open curiosity. "Good morning, Fräulein."
Startled by his deep voice, Stella teetered backward on the step. He caught her bony wrist to steady her. When she tried to wrench free, the gloved fingers held firm. His dark brows rose in challenge. "I trust you're feeling better?"
The ice from his brim numbed her cheek. Stella fought for calm as she glanced from his arrogant face to the imposing grip on her wrist. She could smell him—new leather and pine, the dampness of snow.
"I can assure you that you're quite safe here."
Safe? Her free hand fisted at her side. How often had that word been used, that promise given and broken at Dachau?
The snowflakes melted against her skin. Stella raised her fist to wipe at the wetness; his hand was faster, and she flinched at the contact of soft leather against her cheek. Would he beat her now for being weak, mistaking the water for tears? Or maybe criticize her first?
But the Jew Killer did nothing, said nothing. Even his touch felt surprisingly gentle. She watched his gaze drop to the hand still in his grasp. In that he took care as well, as one by one he uncurled her clenched fingers. Turning her hand over, he assessed the bruises on her knuckles and joints.
Stella's fear battled against his oddly comforting touch. The heat she could feel through his leather glove made him seem almost ... human.
The raw fury in his eyes shattered the illusion. "You have my word," he said mildly. "While you are here, no one can harm you."
Clicking his heels together, he offered a curt nod. "Allow me to introduce myself. Colonel Aric von Schmidt, SS Kommandant to the transit camp at Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia."
When she made no response, he added, "Lucky for you, on my way to Munich I stopped at Dachau to see my cousin Frau Gertz. I also chose to visit the camp while I was here and oversee the first transfer of laborers into my command."
An effort to smile died on his lips. "You see, I'm relatively new to my post, so I can hardly afford mistakes. Nor am I a man who tolerates them. When my sergeant informed me that one body from the train's manifest was unaccounted for, I decided to track it down myself. Care to guess who it was?"
Stella shook her head, too afraid to speak.
"No? Well, here you are—proof of my good deed. And if you're wondering why I didn't put you on that train, it was due to an inconsistency on your papers. They state you are Aryan, Fraulein Muller. So you will explain to me now why they have been stamped JUDE."
Stella lowered her head to hide her resentment. The false identification papers Uncle Morty had purchased for her in secret from Berlin had done nothing to save her. She'd spent the past several months living in quarters unfit for livestock. She'd worked outside in the cold, wearing thin rags and wooden clogs several sizes too big. Not even stockings to protect her feet from chafing or frostbite. And hunger—the Nazis had tried to starve them all.
"Answer me!" he snapped at her, all pretense at politeness gone.
Stella's head shot up as she choked on her fear. "Gestapo ... at the checkpoint ..."
"Gestapo did this? Why?"
His eyes narrowed on her. Stella's panic exploded. "He wanted to ... tried to ... I wouldn't let him ..." She struggled against his grasp. "Please ... not my fault ...!"
"Enough!" His grip was like iron. "I told you that you are safe here. Why do you think I brought you to my cousin's house?"
Stella quit her struggle. The fact that he'd gone to such lengths to save her came on the heels of realizing he wasn't a doctor. Instead of feeling relief, a cold shiver crept up her spine. What did he want? She tried to recall further details from that night, but could remember nothing prior to her awakening days before on the cot upstairs.
It seemed her life had changed in the span of an instant, and this man, this Jew Killer, took credit for the act. Yet Stella had no recollection of him. Nor did she feel gratitude. "I don't understand. Why did you bring me here?"
High on the foyer wall, a Black Forest clock ticked the seconds. Stella held her breath, every nerve attuned to the man's response.
This time his smile reached its destination. Dazzling white, its unexpected warmth surprised and unsettled her. Only his somber green eyes dampened the effect. "Do I need a reason, Fräulein?" A pause. "Very well, I wanted an explanation and you've given it—more or less. I know the Gestapo's breed of men, so I can fill in the blanks." He eyed her a long moment. "Trust me when I tell you that you are not the first to fall victim to their pranks."
Stella's throat tightened with anger. Her experience at the hands of the Gestapo had hardly been a mere joke. She swallowed her ire and said, "And now ... what will you do with me, Herr Kommandant?"
"Fatten you up like a Christmas Gänsebraten, for a start." He glanced at her spare limbs. "Soon you'll return to the pretty dove I imagine you once were."
Stella looked away. Was he toying with her? Morty once told her that her beauty would save her—a "changeling," he'd called his young niece, Stella's blond hair and blue eyes a rarity among their people.
Her uncle had been wrong. Beauty was dangerous, a liability for someone desperate to remain obscure in a crowd, inconspicuous to the eyes of soldiers.
She turned to him, this time her bitterness unchecked. "Christmas goose or fatted calf, both meet the same end, do they not, Herr Kommandant?"
The muscle at his jaw clenched. Too late, Stella realized her foolish outburst. Horrified and amazed at her own audacity, she braced against the expected Consequence. Surely he would beat her, or worse—
The force of his bellow nearly knocked Stella back. He continued to hold her in his grip until his cousin appeared cautiously from the kitchen.
"Get her a coat. We're leaving."
Frau Gertz bobbed her head like some peasant to a feudal lord before she rushed toward the closet. Stella could only watch, frozen in place. The colonel promised she would be safe ... here. And now they were leaving.
The Hausfrau returned with a coat disguised as a frayed white shawl.
"Have you any shoes, Fräulein?"
He sounded impatient. Stella gaped at her bloodied feet, her mind seized by more forgotten memories. Someone at Dachau had taken her shoes, her clothes ...
She knelt naked in the snow, her soul seared with humiliation, her body numbed by cold. Faces streaked with dirt and pity surrounded her as though she were some freak in a carnival. Soon guards dragged her away. Her flesh burned with pain, then fear. Fear for the little hands shoving a bundle in her direction. A blouse ... little hands in danger ... crying hands ... struggle with the guards ... the crack of a rifle ...
Images ripped through Stella like shards of glass. She hunched forward, dizzy with pain, her eyes shut against the brutal past.
"I will not ask you again!"
The colonel's frighteningly cold voice sounded a thousand kilometers away. She clawed her way up through the terrifying haze and struggled to recall his question. Shoes ...
"Gone," Stella managed to say before her knees buckled. She collapsed toward the floor just as he caught her and hauled her against him. She made a puny attempt to push away, but his strength clearly outmatched hers. Exhausted, she slumped against him, only vaguely aware of the shawl being placed across her shoulders.
She cried out in protest as he lifted her into his arms. That seemed to fuel his anger. "You fed her while I was away, didn't you?"
"Oh, she ate." Frau Gertz's blunt fingers bunched in the folds of her white apron. "She ate food enough for three people! Then she threw it up on my floor. Now she refuses anything but broth."
The Hausfrau shot an accusing look at Stella, as if demanding corroboration. Stella's face heated. She'd been so hungry. Afterward, she'd sworn that no one, especially this nasty woman, would ever again witness her humiliation. So far, the broth seemed safe enough.
"What about clothing, cousin?" The colonel's tone held an edge. "I had assumed that for the week I left her in your care, my money would more than compensate you for your trouble."
"But you said to use discretion," the Hausfrau whined. "How could I go to town and buy new clothes without the tradesmen asking questions? She is so much smaller than me—"
"I'm done with excuses! Now give her your coat, and shoes for her feet. Schnell!"
His bark sent her running back to the closet. She returned with a voluminous black wool coat and a pair of dirty pink house slippers. "My other shoes are still at the cobbler's...."
Her voice trailed off. The colonel was staring at the boots on her feet. The Hausfrau looked alarmed. Stella felt a spurt of vindication. "Please, cousin."
Before she could utter another plea, he swore and snatched up the clothing. He wheeled around and departed with Stella, leaving a startled Frau Gertz in his wake.
Outside, his driver held the car door open. Once the colonel deposited Stella against the seat, he offered her the coat and slippers. She took them before scooting to the far end of the car. His hulk-like frame followed her inside.
The engine of the Mercedes roared to life while heat blasted from vents in the car's dashboard. Stella bit back a blissful sigh as she hugged the borrowed coat to her chest. Casting a surreptitious glance at the colonel, she found herself caught in his steady, impenetrable gaze.
Excerpted from For Such A Time by KATE BRESLIN. Copyright © 2014 Kathryn Breslin. Excerpted by permission of Bethany House Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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