Now, in Once a Warrior, Baker sweeps her fans into an epic family story written against the wars that shaped generations of Americans. A realistic yet sensitive story of love and friendship, courage and cowardice, this powerful saga is filled with rich emotion, high tension and stunning passion.
A triumph of love amid war, of love against all odds, Once a Warrior is as timeless a tale as Casablanca.
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Ste. Genviève, France; 1944
Bonjour, Monsieur." Anne-Marie Gérard spoke calmly even as her heart did a frantic pirouette inside her chest. She had just sat down to lunch with her grandfather when she heard the knock. Thinking it might be one of his patients with an emergency that couldn't wait, or maybe even her cousin, Henriette, with a special treat to spice up their tasteless meal, she had excused herself from the table and rushed to answer the front door.
Now terror whipped into the vestibule on the raw January wind. It curled around her stockinged ankles and clawed its way up her shaking legs. Her palms slickened with sweat, her breath sliced at her throat, and her face grew taut with the dread expectation suddenly coursing through her.
Nearly four years under the Nazi boot had taught her well. The short, stocky man in the pin-dotted overcoat and green fedora standing on the snow-covered step was her worst nightmare come true.
He was Gestapo.
What did he know and how did he know it? Anne-Marie gripped the edge of the door with icy fingers. Had some Judas of a collaborator denounced her? Were the agent's henchmen waiting around the corner to search the house? Or worse, the garage?
The thought of who they would find out there made her ill with fright. Until she reminded herself that the Gestapo didn't normally knock on doors. They knocked them down.
As her panic faded, she found her wits. It was better to show no fear or hesitation. That muchshehad learned in her dealings with the German patrols that routinely stopped civilians and demanded to see their papers. Even a moment's delay in producing one's identity card with its photograph and official stamps could result in a brutal beating. What happened to those who'd either left theirs at home or were caught with forged ones was too horrible to dwell on.
"How may I help you?" Keeping her expression as serene as possible, she opened the door a little wider to prove she had nothing to hide.
"Who are you?" The agent's small round eyes focused on her intently as he grunted his demand in atrocious French. His mouth was thin, his cheeks fat, and his ears came to porcine points at the top. Redness from the cold mottled his pallid skin.
Anne-Marie met his gaze unflinchingly. She refused to cower before this cochon. He and the others of his ilksons of sows, every one of themhad dismembered her family, deported her best friend and defeated her beloved France. Someday he would pay for what he had done, she vowed to herself, but not nearly as dearly as he deserved.
"I'm Dr. Gérard's granddaughter." She was proud of the composed sound of her voice. "And since he has no nurse to work with him, I'm also his medical assistant."
He continued to stare at her, his piglet eyes gleaming beneath the brim of his hat, and she found it amazing that he could go so long without blinking. At the curb behind him idled a sinister black Citron traction avantthe Gestapo's favorite kind of car. The driver, sporting SS tabs on his collar and a swastika armband, kept watch on the road through rimless glasses.
"I want to see the doctor." The agent's hands remained at his sides, hidden in the folds of his overcoat, but his burly shoulders moved menacingly under the heavy wool.
"My grandfather is having lunch, but I'll certainly tell him you're here." She stepped back on legs that were rubbery despite her resolve. "Would you like to wait in the clinic?"
He nodded curtly and pushed past her, into the dimly lit vestibule. His arrogance was such that he didn't even bother to stamp the snow off his feet. He seemed to assume she had nothing better to do than to clean up after him.
Anne-Marie shut the biting wind outside and grabbed her sweater off the corner coatrack. The brown wool cardigan had belonged to her grandmother and had been mended in a dozen places. The new holes in the elbows aside, it helped to ward off the sudden chill that permeated her grandfather's home.
"Which way?" he demanded.
She indicated the door on his right. The one to the left led to the living area she shared with her grandfather. Only when the agent rudely gestured that she should open the door to the clinic for him did she notice that he carried a full bottle of Rémy Martin cognac.
"For the pain," he said in response to her raised eyebrow.
"The pain?" she repeated in a strained voice.
"I have an infected tooth." Not seeming to notice her agitation, he eyed her accusingly across the narrow entrance hall. "And your village has no dentist."
Anne-Marie judiciously refrained from pointing out that that was because the dentist and his family had recently been "resettled" in Germany and their house confiscated by the government to pay the "special assessment taxes" levied against all Jews.
The fate of the dentist's daughter haunted her to this day. She could still see Miriam Blum, with her shiny black curls, ripe-olive eyes and that horrid yellow star she'd been forced to wear on her clothing. And she remembered with fondness all the nights that they had slept over at each other's house, closeting themselves in the privacy of one or the other's bedroom to giggle and to gossip and to plan their futures.
But if the rumors about the death camps proved to be true, poor Miriam no longer had a future.
Anne-Marie couldn't look at the man she held partially responsible for that because she was certain that he would see the hatred in her eyes. Instead, she bowed her head in what she hoped he would interpret as submission and, with an after-you gesture, ushered him into the anteroom. It was empty, as it always was in the early afternoon, so he had his pick of chairs.
"I prefer to stand."
Seeing him with his back to the wall and his eyes trained on the window that faced the street, she realized that the agent didn't feel safe from sabotage even in a doctor's office. Yesterday's derailment of that train carrying reinforcements into lower Normandy, which had left three German soldiers dead and a number of others severely injured, must have hit close to home for him. What she felt wasn't triumph, not yet, but simply anticipation of the day when les boches were driven out of her homeland and into the bowels of hell, where they belonged.
"As you wish." Her wartime wooden soles clunked on the bare floor as she crossed to the door. She left it open in case another patient should arrive before she returned. "I'll get my grandfather."
"Tell him to hurry," Piggy directed. "I have a meeting to go to."
Her ears perked up at that. "I'm sure he can see you right away."
In the combination sitting-dining room across the vestibule, Dr. Henri Gérard had just finished his simple lunch of watery bean soup and stale bread and was reaching for his customary demitasse.
The wind rattled the open-shuttered windows, making Anne-Marie grateful for the fire in the hearth that helped to offset the effects of the increasingly severe gas cuts imposed by the Germans. Sick of living in the dark, she had drawn back the silk damask draperies and raised the blackout shade that morning. Then almost wished she hadn't when she saw the dust that felted the furniture and the lint that covered the fading carpet.
Now, as her grandfather looked up from the medical journal he'd been perusing in the gray light, the shame she'd managed to hold at bay came rolling back.
When his wife was alive, Henri had been as nattily groomed as a Parisian boulevardier. A petite woman with the figure of a pouter pigeon and the fussy energy of a mother hen, Yvonne Gérard had sponged and pressed her husband's suit every morning, trimmed his snowy hair once a week, and turned his shirt collars whenever they began to look worn. And after his nurse unexpectedly eloped, she'd rolled up her sleeves and added those duties to the cooking and cleaning chores she had taken such pride in performing herself.
Even a long bout with breast cancer hadn't slowed her down. At least not in the beginning. When the disease finally caught up with her, she fired three maids before finding one who was malleable enough to let her continue ruling the roost from her sickbed.
Her death had so devastated her widower that he scarcely noticed the Germans' lightning-quick strike against France some three months later. When Anne-Marie first came to live with her grandfather, shortly after the blitzkrieg, she'd been shocked to see that his hair had grown shaggy, his collar frayed, and his suit looking like a remnant of the Hundred Years' War. Most distressing of all, however, was the resignationalmost a sense of impending doomwhich dwelled in his rheumy eyes.
It was no better now. Henri was still a shadow of his formerly impeccable self. The maid, after sweeping the dirt under the rug and setting an overcooked meal on the table, had quit. And Anne-Marie lived with the guilty knowledge that she had failed to meet Yvonnne's exacting standards.
"Merde," her grandfather cursed after drinking from the small cup. "This exotic 'coffee' the Germans are sending us tastes more like one of Hitler's stupid chemistry experiments every day."
Giving silent thanks that she had managed to close the living room door before his words took wing and settled in the wrong ears, Anne-Marie walked purposefully to the lace-covered table. "You have a patient."
"Already?" His bristly gray brows drew together in a confused frown as he glanced at the mantle clock above the blue-and-white tiled fireplace. "Can't a man even be allowed"
"May I clear the table now?"
Something in her sharp tone of voice must have alerted him to the fact that this was no ordinary patient. He nodded and sat back in his chair, the nasty demitasse all but forgotten. Seeing the soup stains on his tie, she reminded herself to spot-clean it before he returned to the office.
"Gestapo." She deliberately clattered the china as she whispered the word.
"Here?" he hissed, his voice filled with dark history.
"In the anteroom."
"But ... why?"
"He has a bad tooth." Ignoring her own growling stomach, she tucked the piece of bread she hadn't eaten into her skirt pocket for the wounded Royal Air Force pilot whom she was hiding with neither her grandfather's knowledge nor permission in the garage. "And extremely bad manners."
"Anne-Marie ..." Bony fingers which had once been steady enough to perform the most delicate of surgeries but which now trembled with age and fear clasped her wrist with surprising tenacity. "You weren't rude to him?"
"Of course not."
When he nodded in relief, she felt a sharp twinge of remorse. Her grandfather had lost so mucheven his raison d'être, it seemedthat it was only natural he was afraid. Not for himself, of course, but for her and for the rest of his family.
And perhaps of what was yet to come.
It was common knowledge that the Allies, led by the Americans, were going to invade Europe sometime this coming spring. Summer at the latest. The question was, where would the invasion begin? Convinced that it would come at the narrowest point of the English Channel, the Germans were now concentrating panzer and infantry divisions at the Pas-de-Calais.
But Anne-Marie believed that the débarquement might well come elsewhere. She had already learned the code name of the operation, Overlord, from the forbidden British radio broadcasts she listened to in the attic late at night. And the pinprick sabotage pattern by French resisters against German communication and transportation systems, while not yet of a scale to unduly alarm them, made her think that the Allies were planning to attack the coastal batteries behind the beaches at Normandy and move inland from there.
Which could eventually place Ste. Geneviéve in the path of their advance, if not in the thick of battle.
"You mustn't keep your new patient waiting, Grand-père." She gently extricated her wrist from his grip. "He has a meeting to attend."
And if she was lucky, she thought, he might just have some important information to impart under the influence of that expensive cognac.
Anne-Marie pulled down the blackout shade on the winter-white moonlight flooding into her drafty bedroom, then turned to her cousin with a preoccupied smile. "I'm sorry, Henriette, I didn't hear what you said."
From her kneeling position on the double bed that they were sharing tonight, Henriette Bohec's eyes glittered excitedly in the chamberstick's flame that had lit their way up the dark staircase. "I said, I'm going to kiss the first American soldier I see!"
The thunderous snores emanating from their grandfather's room, directly across the hall, precluded an immediate response on Anne-Marie's part.
Cupping a protective hand around the flickering candle flame, she crossed to the door her cousin had carelessly left open and shut it with a silence born of practice. At twenty, she was only four years older than the giddy Henriette. Given the danger she'd faced of late, however, she sometimes felt one hundred and four years older.
Tonight was one of those times.
Satisfied that they wouldn't wake their grandfather, she leaned back against the doorframe with a heavy sigh. After scrubbing the office and washing the dinner dishes with the gritty gray soap that was going to be the ruin of her hands, she had dusted and swept the living area and banked the fire for tomorrow. That she had hours to go before she slept only added to her exhaustion.
Absorbed in her own thoughts, Anne-Marie didn't realize that Henriette was still waiting for a reply to her earlier statement until she caught the girl's expectant gaze in the wavering candlelight.
Straightening, she said the first thing that came to mind. "And if the soldier kisses you back?"
"Sticks his tongue in my mouth, you mean?" Henriette's horrified tone said that she hadn't thought before she spoke.
"That's usually how it happens." Even though Anne-Marie's own experience with kissing was rather limited, her "advanced" age gave her voice the ring of authority.
Henriette mulled that over for a moment before declaring indignantly, "If he uses his tongue, I'll slap his face!"
"That hardly seems fair." Anne-Marie realized she was sweating in spite of the cold that permeated her room. Both she and Henriette wore knitted shawls over and ribbed stockings under the voluminous, high-necked nightgowns they'd taken turns donning in the small bathroom next to their grandfather's office. Unbeknownst to her cousin, however, Anne-Marie had kept on the skirt and blouse and wool sweater she'd worn today. "First to kiss your liberator and then to slap him."
Henriette yawned, too tired to argue the point, then scrambled beneath the feather coverlet. She had bicycled the five frigid kilometers from her parents' farm to the village earlier that evening and was planning to go home tomorrow morning. But not before consuming her share of the eggs she had packed in straw and smuggled in her saddlebags to supplement the Gérards' usually meager breakfast of bitter ersatz coffee and tough, gray bread.
Candlelight projected Anne-Marie's well-padded shadow onto the whitewashed wall as she followed her cousin to bed.
To look at them lying side by side, one would never guess they were the daughters of siblingssister and brother, in factbecause they were polar opposites.
Where Henriette's dark coloring reflected their Breton heritage, Anne-Marie's Alsatian roots on her mother's side had lightened her hair to the shade of wild honey and her eyes to clear amber. Their lack of resemblance didn't end there. Henriette was short and top-heavy, partly due to nature and partly due to a lifelong diet of cream and butter and cheese, while Anne-Marie had been able to eat from morning till night before the strict wartime rationing set in without gaining an ounce on her taller, more slender frame.
"I think I'll offer the American a glass of Papa's Calvados instead of a kiss," Henriette said in a sleepy voice.
"That certainly sounds less troublesome." Anne-Marie blew out the candle, plunging the room into complete darkness, then crossed herself and clasped her hands together.
"What are you doing?"
Henriette chuckled drowsily. "For Guy Compain, I presume."
Anne-Marie's blood froze in her veins. "What makes you say that?"
"Papa told me that he saw you two coming out of the woods near the lake yesterday."
"Did he seem to think we were doing something wrong?" she asked in a careful voice that betrayed none of her sudden anxiety.
"He said you appeared to be arguing." Henriette took most of the coverlet with her when she turned onto her side, giving Anne-Marie her back. "A lover's quarrel, perhaps?"
Anne-Marie repressed a shudder of revulsion at the very idea of sleeping with Guy Compain. He was brave and uncompromising, she would grant him that, but he was also short and pimply and gauche. The fact that he was one of the few men over the age of eighteen still living in the village instead of doing forced labor in Germany made him, she supposed, a logical paramour in Henriette's innocent eyes.
"Actually, we were discussing Descartes." She affected a reflective tone as she rolled onto her opposite side so that she was lyingliterally and figurativelywith her face to the wall.
"Who?" Sixteen-year-old Henriette was more interested in getting her hands on the latest issue of Pour Elle than she was in reading the words of some long-dead philosopher.
"'Cogito, ergo sum'," Anne-Marie prompted.
"You know I failed my Latin examination."
"'I think, therefore I am.'"
Enjoying herself at Henriette's expense was cruel, but Anne-Marie continued, embroidering a tale that rivaled the Bayeux Tapestry for complexity. If nothing else, she decided she would bore her cousin to sleep. "And then, of course, there's the whole question of mind over matter."
"Do you believe the world exists, or is it only an illusion of our senses?"
"I didn't realize Guy was so serious," Henriette admitted after a moment's pause.
He wasn't. At least not about things like philosophy. In fact, he'd hated school and often bragged that he'd been expelled for writing BBC messages from the exiled General Charles de Gaulle on the blackboard during lunch break. Far be it from Anne-Marie, though, to correct Henriette's erroneous impression.
Besides, her real concern was her uncle. She didn't trust him. And with good reason. Not only did Henriette's father drink too much, but when the Calvadosthe potent apple-pulp brandy he brewed from the trees on his farmhad finished dulling his senses, he talked too much.
"Did your father say anything else about Guy and me?" she inquired casually.
"Only that your mama and papa would roll over in their graves at such a liaison," Henriette mumbled into her pillow.
Tears stung Anne-Marie's eyes at the mention of her parents, who'd been killed during the June 1940 invasion. One day while she was shopping with a girlfriend near Rouen's Place du Vieux Marché, the square where Jeanne d'Arc had bravely died at the stake, a German bomb had hit their home and it had burned to the ground. Cringing in a doorway across town as the sirens wailed and the Stukas swept down, she hadn't known that it was already too late for her mother and father and a younger brother who'd been confined to bed with a touch of flu. Her dear, sweet Pap had come home from his law office for lunch and to check on him.
By nightfall, she'd been both an orphan and a refugee in a world turned upside down. Her immediate family was dead, the old Norman house of her birth had been flattened, and longtime neighbors were preparing to live without any sanitary facilities in cellars and in hovels made from blackened beams and planks. The next day she'd fled the rubble of Rouen with only the clothes on her back, joining the long line of defeated people plodding south, bypassing numerous other burned-out villages and praying that her father's younger sister would take her in.
But her aunt was a farmer's wife with four sons and a daughter of her own to feed. And her uncle, who had just received notice that the Germans were requisitioning his wheat harvest, had emphatically said "No more!" Her grief-stricken grandfather, however, had gladly welcomed his son's only surviving child into his home. Anne-Marie had lived with him ever since, earning her certificate from the local lycée and her keep by helping around the house and assisting him in his office.
It was the perfect "cover" for her Resistance work.
Resisting the Germans was, in fact, a family tradition. When the Prussians invaded Alsace in 1870, her maternal grandparents, who were determined to remain French, had moved to Caen, where her mother was born. And when the "war to end all wars" broke out in 1914 and France found herself crossing swords with Germany yet again, her father, a law clerk in Rouen, had sallied forth.
Now it was her generation's turn to answer the bugles of patriotism resounding across the land, and Anne-Marie was proud to be one of the partisans who'd rallied to the call.
She'd been careful to keep her grandfather in the dark about her activities with the local Resistance. What he didn't know, after all, wouldn't hurt him. But by agreeing to serve just this once as a passeurone of the people who moved downed Allied pilots and Jewish refugees across occupied territories to safetyshe had put him in jeopardy as well.
Still, she had decided it was a risk worth taking. Because if she'd known then what she knew now, she might have been able to help Miriam Blum.
Anne-Marie crossed herself again and said a silent "Amen." Outside, that bright bomber's moon shone down upon a village where all but one slept under a patchwork quilt of snow. Inside, Henriette's soft, steady snores and their grandfather's louder ones echoing from across the hall told her that her prayers had been answered.
"What's the matter?"
Shivering as much from nerves as from the bitter cold, Anne-Marie turned to the wounded RAF pilot crouching in the ditch beside her. After checking to be sure that both Henriette and her grandfather were sound asleep, she'd sneaked down the stairs and out the door of the house. Her "lodger," whom she'd alerted when she slipped into the garage while gathering wood for tomorrow's fire, had been lying in wait in the loft above her grandfather's coupe.
"I hear something," she whispered now in the English she'd learned at school.
"The German patrol?" he asked on a cloud of breath.
"They're not due back for twenty minutes." She'd managed to glean the timing of their new schedule while the Gestapo agent's bad tooth was being pulled. While she was at it, she'd filched a small glass of the cognac he'd anesthetized himself with before submitting to the painful extraction. She'd poured some of it into a snifter for her grandfather. The rest she'd used to disinfect the pilot's nasty leg wound before they'd set out from the village on foot.
The seconds dragged by as they listened intently. A twig snapped. Ice-crusted leaves rustled. Then an owl flapped out of a tree, showering them with snow.
Anne-Marie breathed a sigh of relief and then whistled softly in a pre-arranged signal. When a gnomelike figure rose out of the ditch on the other side of the road, she stood on cramped legs and gave the pilot a hand up. "Follow me."
The road they needed to cross was coated with a thick, slick layer of ice, making it hard for the limping aviator to keep up with her. Normally the crews of shot-down Allied planes escaped back to their bases through northern France, near the Belgian border. The Gestapo had recently infiltrated the Resistance network that repatriated them, however, so he'd been passed farther south by a friendly railroad man and was being flown back tonight.
"You're late," Guy Compain scolded, raising his wrist to check his cheap steel watch as they approached. He was Anne-Marie's age but had taken to wearing little boys' shorts, even in winter, to appear too young for forced conscription. So far, the Germans had been too busy trying to capture the more illustrious Resistance leaders to bother with some village idiot who didn't have enough sense to wear long pants when it snowed.
"Sorry, old chap," the Englishman gasped, "but I'm a bit wobbly on the pins."
"The leg wound he received when his plane went down is infected." Anne-Marie had switched back to French for the explanation. She slid a supportive arm around the pilot's waist and motioned for Guy to do the same on the other side. "Since my grandfather won't have any sulfanilamide powder until the Lysander comes, I poured a little cognac on it and gave him some aspirin for his fever."
"Let's go," Guy snapped.
He hadn't wanted any part in helping the pilot escape, which was what they'd been arguing about when Henriette's father had seen them coming out of the woods. Too dangerous, he'd declared, reminding her that they would automatically be given the death penalty instead of a prison sentence if they were caught. It was too late to back out now, she'd countered. The pilot was here and he was hurt.
Guy had finally relented when Anne-Marie urged him to remember Miriam Blum, on whom she'd always suspected he'd had a crush.
Moonlight guided the slow-moving trio's path. A copse of trees lay straight ahead. On the south side was a lake where the villagers swam in summer; on the north, a large field that had been cleared of snow so the small British Lysander could land.
Silent as ghosts, several other figures came out from behind the trees. Like Anne-Marie and Guy, they were all dressed in dark clothes and knit caps. One carried a Sten gun, which had been delivered in a previous drop, while the others created a flare path with their obstacle lights.
Tonight's mission was the partisans' most daring to date. Their supplies were usually dropped with black parachutes on moonless nights. Since this was their first pick-up, though, they'd decided to risk exposure instead of a crash.
"I hear ... the plane." Now that escape was so close at hand, the fevered pilot began to shake.
"You'll be home soon." Anne-Marie kept a tight hold on him, finding that his weakness somehow gave her strength.
On the ground, everyone watched anxiously as the Lysander approached the makeshift airfield they'd prepared. They'd been warned that timing was of the essence in an operation of this sort. Once the plane landed, they would have three minutes to unload the precious cargo it carried and to get the wounded pilot aboard before it took off. Any longer than that and the German patrol might spot it and sound the alarm.
"Vite, vite!" Guy reminded them to hurry in a harsh whisper.
The instant the tiny aircraft came to a stop on the four hundred-yard runway, the waiting réseau members got to work. Outgoing "mail" diagramming the location of railway depots and bridges so the Allied bombers could further disrupt the Germans' supply routes went on, while medical supplies, boxes of ammunition and orders for continuing the clandestine sabotage of Nazi travel came off. Last but not least, the injured aviator was made as comfortable as possible in the cramped interior.
Then, before the Lysander even lifted off, the partisans vanished into the night as quickly and quietly as they had earlier appeared.
What People are Saying About This
An incredible war romance that brings the reader two beautiful love stories within the backdrop of the hell of war. Ms. Baker deserves awards from both the romance and the realistic war genres as she provides the near ending of the year with quite a double wallop. -- Painted Rock Reviews
Thank heaven for small presses and independent spirits. Otherwise, readers would be cheated out of a fine novel spanning two wars and two equally engaging romances. It's worth a reader's while to seek out Once a Warrior! -- The Romance Reader