Le Coeur de Lion |
|Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 |
In the kitchen of Le Coeur de Lion, Katrine and Nicolas were talking quietly when the outside door was pushed open, and a cold January wind ushered in a woman bundled in a winter coat.
Despite the reason for the visitor's early morning arrival, the club owner smiled, always glad to see her friend. "Good morning, Brigitte," Katrine called from the table where she and the handyman sat. "Come join us."
The small, red-haired man sprang up to help the new arrival dispose of coat and scarf. Their removal revealed a woman in her late twenties who was several months pregnant. She brushed curly dark hair back from a pretty, olive-complexioned face with chocolate-colored eyes.
"Thank you, Nicolas," Brigitte Trouillé said, bestowing a tired smile upon him. "It gets harder every day to do the little things."
He blushed. "I am always at your service, Madame Trouillé. I'll hang up your coat and heat up some milk for you and the little one." After offering a small bow, he disappeared into the next room.
Noting the grimace on Brigitte's face, Katrine laughed. "He means well, you know."
The younger woman sighed as she sat down at the table. "Yes, but I despise warm milk."
"It will be good for the baby."
A sneer twisted the attractive features. "And that is a reason for me to drink it?"
The club owner reached across the table to enfold one of her friend's hands in her own. "Ma belle," she said, "this is a terrible thing you've been forced to endure. But this baby is an innocent, too."
"How can any German be innocent?" the other woman replied angrily.
"This baby shall be French, not German, if you will it," Katrine said. "You must forget the father and love the child."
"It isn't so easy to forget a man who has crawled all over me at night for years," Brigitte spat out.
Sympathy flickered across Katrine's face. "It won't be forever, I promise you," she said earnestly. "We will drive the Germans out and free our country. Free you."
Tears glistening in her dark eyes, Brigitte shook her head. "You think it will be over then, Katrine? You think our fellow villagers will happily accept me and this bastard child? Do you think they will forget who the father is? We will be lucky if they don't kill us!"
"I will not let that happen!" The club owner stood and rounded the table to embrace her friend. Katrine's heart ached for this woman who'd had to endure so much, beginning with the death of her young husband when their son was only a year old. "I will not let them hurt you. And they will not want to once I tell them what you have done for them."
Brigitte buried her face in Katrine's shoulder, crying silently.
Anna stood unseen in the doorway leading from the front of the club to the kitchen, watching the two women embrace. She had heard enough to know Madame Durr had been right, that Brigitte Trouillé was as much a victim of the invaders as Anna's parents had been. But unlike them, she suffered still. Shame suffused the young maquisard.
"Ah, Mademoiselle, good morning, good morning."
Anna glanced over her shoulder to find Nicolas hovering behind her.
She nodded her head. "Monsieur."
"Come to join us, then?" he asked brightly, unease evident in the way he fidgeted.
Aware that she made the small man nervous, she smirked. "Indeed."
"Well, enter, enter," he said, gesturing toward the kitchen.
Anna turned and stepped through the doorway. The other two women had separated, though Katrine Durr still stood by Brigitte's side, one hand on her shoulder.
"Yes, come in, Anna," the club owner agreed.
Though there was no hostility in Madame Durr's tone or face, neither was there any of the usual welcome. Anna caught a startled look from Brigitte, who contemplated her friend and then the maquisard with a frown.
"Nicolas," Madame Durr said, "please find Thomas and ask him to join us."
"But I was going to heat some milk for Madame Trouillé and get something for Mademoiselle Durr," he protested.
Anna, who was leaning against a counter, shifted uneasily. It still bothered her to be called by that name, as if it attached her to the club owner in some indefinable, yet unsettling, way.
The club owner smiled indulgently at him. "I promise to attend to both ladies if you will find Thomas for me. It is important to begin our meeting."
"Important, yes." Nicolas repeated, more cheerfully. He puffed his chest out. "Yes, I'll go immediately."
"Thank you," Madame Durr said gravely, with only a slight tremor.
The small man bustled away.
"How warm would you like your milk, Brigitte?" the older woman inquired, eyes teasing.
"Do not make me kill you, Katrine," her young friend replied, face serious. "Maman would not approve."
That drew a laugh. "Coffee, Brigitte?"
"If you had it," came the sarcastic reply, "I would kiss your cheeks and drink it from a wine glass."
"Mine is better than the brew of burnt orange rinds you usually drink, is it not?" her friend retorted. Like most of her countrymen, the younger woman made a substitute beverage from whatever she could. Real coffee could only be purchased on the black market. An ersatz coffee was selectively doled out by the Germans, however, and the commandant often bestowed extra portions upon his favorite nightclub owner.
"Yes, yes," Brigitte admitted with a grin. "I accept your generous offer of 'coffee.' But shouldn't I be the one fetching drinks, being your master chef?"
Brigitte Trouillé had begun cooking at Le Coeur as a cover for her frequent meetings at the club. By January 1944, however, food had become much scarcer in France than in the early days, and the services of a master chef were not in much demand.
"I think I can remember how to handle coffee," the club owner replied dryly.
The easy affection between the other two women twisted something inside Anna. The pain sharpened as Madame Durr glanced her way, all humor and affection gone.
"May I get you coffee as well, Mademoiselle?"
"No," she replied shortly. "I need nothing."
The club owner frowned. She held Anna's gaze, but the maquisard was determined to give nothing away-nothing more than she already had-and the other woman finally broke the contact.
"Why don't you two go into the front room? We can speak in there. I will lock the kitchen door and get the coffee."
Anna didn't bother to reply but simply headed toward the other room. At the door, she hesitated, then stepped back, holding it open for Brigitte.
The pregnant woman paused, eyes widening. "You're holding the door for me?"
"As you see."
The blonde sighed. "Why what, Madame?"
"Why are you being polite? You never have been before," Brigitte said suspiciously.
Anna gritted her teeth, already regretting the impulse. "Do you wish to enter or not?"
Brigitte Trouillé gave the maquisard a final, distrustful glare before walking through the doorway. The minute the door had swung shut behind them, however, she turned on Anna.
"What have you done?" she asked harshly, though she kept her voice low, obviously not wanting anyone else to hear.
"What?" Anna asked, nonplussed.
"Katrine is upset," Brigitte accused. "You're the one who's upset her. I want to know what you have done."
Attempting to rein in her temper, Anna said nothing. Why had she bothered to be nice to this woman?
Brown eyes narrowed. "You will not hurt her," she warned fiercely.
"Hurt her?" The maquisard sneered. "No one could hurt Madame Durr."
Brigitte's mouth dropped open, and she stared at Anna. Recovering, she said, "I've never liked you, maquisard, but I hadn't thought you stupid-until now."
Anna's jaw tightened. "Be careful," she ground out.
The brunette stepped forward and lifted a finger toward her opponent's face. "No, you be careful, Mademoiselle. You have the power, God knows why, to hurt one of the most generous and caring people in this world. She is strong in many ways; she has to be. But she's made a place for you here-and in her heart. And that means you can hurt her badly."
With that, Madame Trouillé walked away.
Anna stood rooted by shock. I have a place in Katrine Durr's heart? Her mind scrambled over the evidence of the past few months, trying to reconcile what she had experienced with the claim. It was true that Madame Durr had taken Anna in, protected her from the Germans, and established a cover for her at Le Coeur.
But last night... She closed her eyes, again seeing the gun in the resistance leader's hand, knowing if she made the wrong move or said the wrong thing that the other woman would shoot her. Would she have been so ready to kill me if I truly meant something to her?
Katrine backed through the swinging door into the front room, balancing a pot of coffee and several cups on a tray. She found the members of her resistance cell awaiting her in silence. Brigitte and Nicolas were seated at one of the large tables, the brunette tapping her fingers impatiently against the wooden surface. Anna lounged at another table across the room, feet propped on a chair, arms crossed. Thomas stood sentry at the front door, watching the others.
Burying a sigh of frustration, the club owner crossed the room and placed the tray on Brigitte's table.
"Thomas," she said as she began setting out cups and saucers, "please lock the door and join us."
"It is already done," he responded, though he double-checked the lock before complying with the second half of the request.
Katrine pulled out a chair at the table and turned to Anna. "Mademoiselle?"
The maquisard hesitated, then rose with obvious reluctance.
"Thank you," the club owner said quietly as Anna slipped into the chair. The younger woman glanced up, surprise evident in her pale blue eyes before the familiar shutter fell. She nodded brusquely and drew her gaze away.
It's better this way, Katrine reminded herself harshly, forcing down her emotions.
The coffee served, Katrine took her seat at the table, between Anna and Thomas. Four pairs of eyes watched her as she considered how best to begin. Thomas, of course, knew what had occurred, so it was to Brigitte and Nicolas she had to speak. Despite everything, the resistance leader didn't want to exacerbate the animosity between Brigitte and Anna nor did she want to set off an alarm about the maquisard. But what choice had the woman left her after last night?
"We have a decision to make," she began at last. "Anna has brought us information about a German arms shipment that will pass through Ste-Claire tonight. She wants to destroy the train. We must determine whether this is something we should, and can, do."
Nicolas and Brigitte stared at her, clearly stunned. She couldn't blame them; Ste-Claire's small resistance cell had never contemplated an act of this magnitude.
The handyman's shocked expression turned anxious; Brigitte's suspicious. The brunette gazed at Anna then shifted brown eyes back to the resistance leader. "How did our...compatriot...get this information?" she inquired bitingly.
Anna answered. "I entered the German headquarters last night and discovered the information in the radio room."
Brigitte's eyes hardened. "Is this why you asked her to get the layout of the building from me?" she demanded of Katrine. "Why didn't you include me in the planning? I might have been able to help." She swept a hand over her stomach. "Or do you consider me past the stage of being useful?" Bitterness laced her voice.
The resistance leader hesitated, fighting her reluctance to admit that Anna had lied to get that layout and had endangered them all by sneaking into German headquarters. Feeling Thomas's gaze upon her, she met his eyes. His opinion was clear: Brigitte and Nicolas deserved the truth. How else could they evaluate the situation? How else could they be prepared to protect themselves? She had a duty to them.
"It wasn't something I planned," Katrine replied at last, keeping her tone neutral. "She went without my consent or knowledge."
"What?" Brigitte exclaimed. Her hands clutched the edge of the table, and she leaned toward the maquisard. "Are you trying to get us all killed, you maniac?"
If the brunette hadn't been seven months pregnant, Katrine was certain she would have leapt over the table and strangled Anna. The older woman resisted the impulse to intervene, knowing Brigitte had a right to her questions-and her anger.
Anna picked up her coffee and took a long sip before returning the cup neatly to its saucer with a click. Only then did she deign to answer her accuser. "No. I'm trying to get the German pigs killed. Do you object, Madame Trouillé?" She drawled the last, mockingly.
Exactly how the maquisard had meant that question Katrine couldn't tell. But it was painfully obvious how her friend had interpreted it: as one more accusation that her body and her loyalty lay with the invaders.
"You, bitch," Brigitte said in a strangled whisper. "I would gladly slit the throat of every German soldier in France. And my blade would still be sharp enough to bury in your heart."
Brown eyes blazing with hatred locked with cool blue ones. No one moved.
Time to regain control. Katrine opened her mouth to speak, but Anna's calm voice broke the silence first.
"Then you agree to my destroying the train, Madame," she said to her adversary. Not a question.
A sneer crossed Brigitte's face. "Particularly if the fuse is short, and you are the one to light it."
"Stop!" Katrine said, smacking her fist against the table. Everyone, except Thomas, flinched. "This gets us nowhere!"
Brigitte sat back in her chair and crossed her arms, angry eyes still on the maquisard. Anna, however, ignored her opponent, gaze on Katrine, left eyebrow lifted in arrogant inquiry.
"We will discuss this plan and its possible consequences in more detail before anyone decides what to do-or lights any fuses," the resistance leader said sternly. "Mademoiselle?"
The maquisard nodded. "At 12:30 tonight, a train loaded with armaments will stop for 10 minutes in the village before heading south. It won't be difficult to lay charges on the tracks a mile south of here and blow it up." Forestalling the obvious question, she added, "I have done this before; I know what I'm doing."
"Why?" a nervous-looking Nicolas suddenly asked. "Why expose ourselves to destroy a trainload of arms? Won't there just be more?"
Anna rolled her eyes, but Katrine said, "It is a fair question."
The maquisard swallowed whatever she might have said and answered. "Even the Germans, Monsieur, cannot produce armaments forever. Eventually, they will run out of resources. The sooner that happens, the better. There are also the Allies to consider. We know they are coming to help drive these beasts from our home. The fewer arms there are to be used against the Allies, the greater our chance for victory."
"The Allies?" Brigitte spat out. "We have been promised their aid for the past two years. Yet these mighty rescuers have yet to appear."
"They are coming," Anna replied evenly. "For their own sakes, if not for ours, they can't let the Germans win."
"They will come," Katrine agreed. "You know the information we are providing paves the way, Brigitte," she added gently.
The brunette said nothing, face still stormy.
"There's one more reason," Anna continued. "Destroying the train and its cargo will hurt the Germans. It will remind them that they do nothing here with impunity. Because of their actions," she said, eyes turning to Brigitte, "because of everything they have done to us, their lives are forfeit. That is the message we will send them with this act."
Brigitte Trouillé met the blonde's gaze and something sparked in her brown eyes. Her chin lifted, and she nodded slowly before pushing herself awkwardly to her feet.
"Destroy the train," Brigitte said.
"There will be repercussions," Thomas interjected. "The Germans will want the saboteurs. We'll be at greater risk."
Brigitte faced him. "I'm tired, Thomas, of being afraid," she said vehemently. "I'm tired of letting them dictate my every move. Of having to accept their insults. Aren't you?"
Katrine watched her second in command, knowing that as a black man he had had to endure the almost unendurable from the racist invaders. There had been several incidents in which his freedom and life had hung solely upon the goodwill Katrine had with the Germans. Occupied France was no place for a man of color, and the resistance leader wondered, not for the first time, why he hadn't been able to flee the country ahead of the invaders.
In truth, though she considered Thomas a close friend, she didn't know much about him. He had shown up at her club one day in 1938 and asked for work, giving his name as Thomas Roche. The surname was a false one, she assumed, for although the man spoke French flawlessly, he had the faintest of accents, suggesting he wasn't native born. But there was nothing else false about the man, who possessed a bone-deep integrity and sense of loyalty. Wherever Thomas had come from originally, Katrine had been grateful more than once during the past six years that his journey had brought him to her door.
She watched him closely as he considered Brigitte's question and saw the muscle clench in his jaw.
"I agree," he said.
"Thomas?" Katrine asked, needing to be sure.
"I vote to sabotage the train," he said.
She turned to the last member of their group. "Nicolas?"
He swallowed but straightened in his chair. "If everyone else is willing to risk it, I will, too."
Should I let this go forward, Katrine wondered, let those I've tried so hard to protect risk their lives for this? She searched their faces, hoping for an answer there. As usual, Nicolas appeared somewhat nervous, Thomas impassive, Brigitte angry and sad. Yet she saw a difference. In their eyes, their postures, they radiated a subtle defiance where none had existed before.
She took a deep breath. "Then let us prepare ourselves."
In the basement of the nightclub, Anna stood over a wooden table examining the plastique explosives, detonators, and firing mechanisms that had been retrieved from two cavities hidden behind some loose bricks in the wall.
"Will there be enough?" Madame Durr asked quietly from her position at Anna's right side.
"Adequate," the maquisard answered shortly, fighting the urge to remind the resistance leader that only weeks ago she'd chosen to ignore Anna's advice that they buy more explosives. In truth, there was enough here for the job tonight, but the younger woman would have preferred more on hand for future needs. Who knew what the war might bring?
"There is more than one type of firing mechanism here, yes?" the resistance leader asked.
"Well, which should we use?" the older woman continued, sounding exasperated at the brief answers.
Though tempted to further irritate her companion with another one-word reply, Anna relented. "This," she said, touching a slender, copper tube, "is a time pencil fuse. You squeeze it here to break an ampoule inside. When the acid destroys the wire holding the striker, voila! " Anna exclaimed, throwing her hands up. "No more German train!"
The resistance leader considered the information then peered up at Anna. "How reliably can you predict the time delay?"
"Usually, fairly well, but not in this cold. The lower the temperature, the longer the delay, but I won't be able to predict how long."
"So we can't plant the explosives and be safely away before the train comes because we can't be sure they would go off at the right time."
"Then why," Katrine Durr inquired acerbically, "are you explaining it to me?"
The younger woman flushed. Because you wanted to impress her with your knowledge, didn't you? an internal voice mocked.
Strangely, the thought awoke a memory of home. As Anna had grown older, the boys and young men of her village had frequently attempted to impress her with their skills, their strength, and their wit. She had never encouraged it, had tried to ignore it, but they had persisted. It had been annoying-that awkward and unwanted courting.
Courting? The idea froze her. But that would mean.... No, that isn't how I feel. And she's a woman. Shouldn't that make a difference? She thought it should, but what did she know of such things? She had never been romantically interested in any male she'd met. A few disappointing kisses-motivated by curiosity-that she had exchanged with one boy in her village were the extent of her experience.
But something about Katrine Durr drew Anna, stirred feelings she couldn't define. Could they be...?
No, that's ludicrous. It was just that all these months she had felt useless and out of place. Everything she had gone through, all her hard-won knowledge and skill, had been nothing here. But tonight she had the chance to do something important. To prove her worth.
Since when have you cared so much about proving yourself to anyone? the voice taunted. And it's not just anyone, is it? It's this woman. Why is that, Anna?
"Mademoiselle?" Madame Durr asked impatiently.
The younger woman started in surprise and scrambled to remember what they had been discussing.
Playing for time, she asked, "How did you get this equipment?"
Madame Durr looked at her oddly, but answered. "About a month before you arrived, two resistance fighters from another town showed up at my back door. They had been searching for an Allied drop of arms that had gone off course. They found part of it near the woods outside Ste-Claire. But the area was crawling with Germans, so they waited until nightfall and brought it here. They said they'd be back for it, but." She shrugged.
Anna nodded grimly. The men had probably not made it out alive.
"And now that I've satisfied your curiosity, perhaps you'll satisfy mine and tell me what devices we're using tonight?" the older woman asked dryly.
Relieved to be reminded of the question, the maquisard picked up another piece of equipment. "Tonight, we'll use this radio remote. I can move back to a safe distance, but I still will need to be there to set off the explosives as the train travels over the section of track we choose."
She glanced over at the resistance leader, catching the worried look on the other woman's face.
"What about German pursuit?"
"If the soldiers on the train aren't killed or badly injured, it will still take them time to react."
"And those in Ste-Claire? They will see the explosion and investigate."
The maquisard nodded. "I will be quick. My escape route will be planned around their probable route."
"Your escape route?"
"You're not going alone," Katrine said firmly. "I've told you this."
"I know," Anna said, struggling to keep the resentment out of her voice. "But there's no reason for anyone else to be there for the detonation. It will be safer if only one of us stays. And I'm the logical person."
"No," the resistance leader said, tone brooking no argument. "We do this as a group. You, Thomas, and I. Things could go wrong. You might be injured and need help."
"Then let him go with me," the maquisard countered. "We don't need three."
Dark eyebrows rose. "Do you think me incompetent, Mademoiselle, or is there another reason you'd prefer I not go on this mission?"
Because you could die. The sharp pain of the thought bewildered Anna. What has she done to me? The maquisard clenched her fists and focused her eyes on the explosives. Katrine Durr is just another human weapon to wield against the beast, no different from me or any other resistance fighter. People die every day in this struggle. It's the price we must pay.
So be it. Not looking at the other woman, Anna said, "We should leave early enough tonight to scout out the best place to plant the explosives."
"I've found the place." The voice came from the top of the stairs leading into the basement. Brigitte Trouillé stood there, flourishing a rolled length of paper. She started slowly down the steps, holding carefully to the handrail with her free hand.
Anna rolled her eyes in exasperation. Couldn't the little chef stay in the kitchen? Was she trying to hurt herself? The maquisard moved forward, meaning to offer a hand, though she was sure the brunette would shoot-or stab-her before accepting it. But the club owner brushed by and offered her own assistance.
"Brigitte," Madame Durr chided, stepping up to take hold of her friend's hand.
"Katrine," Brigitte answered, pausing on the stairs to meet the other woman's eyes.
After seconds of this silent exchange, the club owner sighed. "All right, ma petite, show us what you have."
Brigitte smiled. She descended the last few steps and released the helping hand with a small squeeze. After catching her breath, she moved to unroll the paper across the top of a couple of crates, revealing a map of the area.
"Here," the brunette said, pointing to a spot about two miles south of the village. "The train crosses a bridge."
"That's right," the resistance leader said. "I'd forgotten."
Anna studied the map. It was a bit farther than she'd planned; they'd have to move faster to avoid pursuers and reach Le Coeur safely. But the site was good. The fall from the bridge would cause even more damage to the train, and the bridge itself would have to be rebuilt before the Germans could run any more arms south through the region.
"Good work," the maquisard said briskly, lifting her head to look at Brigitte.
Clearly shocked, Brigitte finally managed to say, "Thank you."
Anna nodded and turned to the resistance leader. "I will get the materiel ready to transport. We should leave sooner, since we have farther to travel."
"Agreed," Katrine Durr replied. "I'll tell Thomas."
The full moon seemed far too bright and the crunching of frozen grass too loud to Katrine as she followed Anna across the open field. For the first mile and a half of their journey, they'd been able to hike through the relative safety of the pine tree woods that began just outside Ste-Claire. But that cover had run out, and they were forced into the open as they traversed the last half-mile to the bridge crossing.
Katrine tried to ignore the slight aching pull of the pack she wore, knowing she carried the lightest of the three packs. She had seen the maquisard split most of the materiel between her own bag and Thomas's. A protest had sprung to the smaller woman's lips, but she had quashed it. As fit as Katrine considered herself, there was no doubt that the other two were capable of bearing greater loads. And it was Anna who had the experience in this type of mission. The resistance leader had to trust her to make the right decisions. It wasn't easy, Katrine acknowledged wryly, relinquishing control after all these years.
A stumble over a hole in the field reminded Katrine to pay attention here. If I could only move like she does, the resistance leader thought ruefully, eyes on the woman ahead of her. Anna possessed a strange, menacing catlike grace that carried her swiftly and surely over the frozen terrain.
The memory of a moonlit alley flickered through Katrine's mind. Three months ago, on a crisp October night, she had stepped outside the back of the club for a breath of air. She had been leaning in the recessed doorway when she heard the crash of metal against stone, followed by a curse in German. Before she could react, a dark figure had flowed swiftly and silently past her position, headed toward the alley's mouth. Moonlight glinted off the blade of a knife. Yet it wasn't the weapon that had mesmerized Katrine and kept her frozen in place; it was the deadly grace with which the stranger moved. The sound of a slap and little Pierre's cry had broken Katrine out of her paralysis. Belatedly realizing the stalker's intent, the club owner had acted.
And almost got myself killed.
Her eyes were drawn again to the other woman and a realization struck her. Anna belongs out here in the open, not caged within the walls of Le Coeur de Lion. No wonder she risked everything to escape, even for a single night. It saddened her, that truth.
Then they arrived at the edge of the shallow ravine over which the bridge stretched, and there was no more time for such revelations.
The explosives had been planted on the bridge, and the three resistance fighters waited a hundred yards away in the ravine. Overhead, the perfect sphere of the moon glowed white and billions of stars spilled their flickering light across the midnight sky. Anna leaned against the one side of the ravine, head tilted back, staring upward. As a girl, she had often sneaked out of the house at night to lie in a nearby field and peer up at the stars and moon. Brilliant and untouchable, they had stirred an indefinable longing within, one so intense at times that it had been like an aching wound. She felt an echo of that longing now and closed her eyes to shut out the brilliance above.
In all the years with the maquis, she had rarely allowed herself to think of her former life, except to nurture the hatred the Germans had instilled within her when they murdered her parents. But since coming to Ste-Claire, she had been helpless to stop the memories-or halt the awakening of unwanted feelings.
She opened her eyes to stare at Madame Durr, who sat a few yards away, next to Thomas. The resistance leader had her arms wrapped tightly about herself, shivering. I told her not to come, the maquisard thought, clamping down on any sympathy. She's not equipped for this kind of mission. Not that the other woman had complained once during the night or hindered them in any way, Anna admitted grudgingly. In fact, the resistance leader had insisted on climbing the bridge supports to plant her share of the explosives. Anna had had her doubts, but the older woman had proved a surprisingly agile climber.
Thoughts of the bridge brought her mind back to the mission. Retrieving a small flashlight from her jacket pocket, she turned toward the wall of the ravine for additional shelter, then held the light close to her left wrist and flicked it on. 12:10. Another 30 minutes and the train would be pulling out of the village. As she shut off the flashlight, she noticed Thomas was approaching her, and she rose to meet him.
Voice low, he said, "I believe, since there's time, that it would be wise to scout back along our trail a short ways. Make certain there are no surprises."
She tensed. "It's too risky. If you're seen."
"No one will see me," he interrupted.
Anna shook her head. "You don't know that. Anyone could be out there."
"Precisely," he countered. "Better to know now than when we are running for our lives."
"No," she returned, fearing the exposure might bring attention they couldn't afford before the train was blown. "You..."
"Is there a problem?" Katrine Durr had approached while Anna and Thomas were arguing.
At first neither combatant spoke, then Thomas replied, "We disagree about whether I should go."
The older woman's eyes settled on Anna. "Why?"
Does she think my German cohorts are about to descend on us, to arrest her and Monsieur Roche in the act? Anna thought bitterly, gritting her teeth. Ah yes, I forgot, for a moment, that I'm not to be trusted. Fine, let the man go. If someone should see him and bring the soldiers down on us, so be it.
She didn't bother to look at the resistance leader. "No more than 15 minutes, Monsieur."
"Agreed," he said. With a final nod at Madame Durr, he climbed quickly up the side of the ravine and disappeared from view.
The older woman turned back to Anna. "You didn't answer me."
Still angry, the maquisard said nothing.
"Why didn't you want him to go?"
Goaded, Anna replied harshly, "Because I don't trust him."
"You don't trust him?" There was shock in the husky voice.
"No," she responded, darkly satisfied. Did the woman think only she and her friends had the right to distrust others?
"You think...what do you think?" Bewildered.
That your friend's a German spy, Anna wanted to say, to strike out at this woman who confused and...hurt ...her.
But it wasn't true, and she wouldn't say what wasn't true. "He might be seen by someone and alert the Germans. Unlikely perhaps, but possible. Carelessness has gotten more than one resistance fighter killed."
Madame Durr said, "I see. Why didn't you say that, then, when I first asked?"
"Because you and he had already made up your minds. And," she paused, then continued bitterly, "I got tired of having my motives questioned...of your suspicions."
The other woman was silent for several moments before she spoke. "Do you think I wanted this, Anna? Do you think I wanted to hold a gun on you, afraid...," her voice broke slightly, "...afraid I would have to kill you?"
The resistance leader took a few steps away, then turned back to face the younger woman. "But your actions left me no choice." Anger suffused her voice. "I have a duty to Brigitte, Thomas, and Nicolas, to the others with whom we fight. I couldn't throw it all away for." She stopped abruptly.
Heart racing, mind in turmoil, Anna stepped toward the other woman, who stood still and silent in the moonlight. "For what?" she asked urgently, wanting to understand what was happening between them, what had been happening, she realized, for months.
"Anna." But whatever the resistance leader might have said was lost in the sound of a train.
It's too early! the maquisard thought. And Thomas was out there.
"What's going on," the resistance leader asked roughly.
"It's got to be another train." Anna said, facing the tracks, straining for any sight of the train. "Listen, it's coming from the wrong direction." It was headed toward Ste-Claire, not away.
"What do we do?"
"Pray no one looks out and sees Monsieur Roche strolling across the open field," Anna replied sarcastically. "Or sees us," she added. "Get down!" Unceremoniously, she pushed the older woman onto the frozen ground.
The maquisard lay beside Katrine Durr, the cold seeping through the layers of clothing and into her bones, waiting. No one in the train should notice the explosives, not in the dark and with the train rolling by so quickly.
But it wasn't moving quickly, she realized as minutes passed. The clacking of its wheels was slowing down. Finally, the train screeched to a stop just before the bridge.
A hand grasped Anna's arm, startling her.
"Any idea what's going on?" A calm murmur, much calmer than Anna felt. The younger woman lifted her head enough to shake it and put a finger to her lips.
Time stretched with agonizing slowness, then the sounds of men's voices drifted to the two women. Anna edged toward her companion and placed her mouth close to an ear. "I'm going to find out what's going on. Stay here. If anything happens to me, get out of here."
The resistance leader gripped Anna's arm as if to keep her there. But a moment later, she released the hold and nodded.
Hugging the side of the ravine, the maquisard moved in a half-crouch toward the train. By the time she reached the bottom of the bridge, cold sweat was running down her back. The men's voices had grown louder as she approached, and she remained crouched in the ravine, hoping she could discern what they were saying without having to risk exposure.
An infant's cry startled her. Within moments, it was followed by the cries of other children. What the hell are children doing on that train? A cold hand squeezed her guts as a horrible suspicion entered her mind. No.
Almost against her will, certainly against her better judgment, she began a creeping ascent of the ravine, praying her suspicions were wrong. At the top, she raised her eyes just above the edge, knowing this was stupid even as she did it.
The soldiers stood some four cars down, smoking. With a curse, one of them turned abruptly and headed away from the ravine. The glow of a cigarette arced through the air as he flung it from him. Stopping in front of a boxcar, he lifted his rifle and smacked the butt against the wooden side.
"Shut up, beasts," he cried in badly accented French.
The second soldier, who had followed, said in German, "They will be quiet soon enough, Hans. Let them cry while they can."
Hans shrugged off the hand grasping his shoulder. "I hate these filthy Jews. I must have enraged someone to be given this assignment."
The second soldier took a final drag on his own cigarette then tossed the butt down and ground it underfoot. "Perhaps we both will get a better posting after we dump this cargo."
"If we ever get to the Fatherland!" Hans replied angrily. "What's taking so long?"
"Calm down. As soon as they get the switch fixed, we'll go. Or do you want to smash into the train that's coming this way soon?"
Anna couldn't make out the grumbled reply-but she had heard enough. She fought against the rage in her gut, against the desire to kill the Germans and free the people in those boxcars. It would accomplish nothing, she knew that. God, she knew that. Other soldiers aboard the train-and there would be others-would massacre the prisoners as they fled. Any who did manage to escape that field would most likely freeze to death tonight or be hunted down tomorrow. No, freeing them would only condemn them to certain death. At least, where they were going, perhaps they had a chance.
And there was another reason, she admitted. An attempted escape would put Katrine Durr at still greater risk. Anna wouldn't-couldn't-do that.
The maquisard had to get back to her companion, but the soldier Hans was facing the ravine, talking to his partner. She feared that any movement might catch his attention. Then a child cried out, and Hans swung back to the train car and raised his rifle butt again. Heart pounding, Anna dropped down the bank. At the bottom, she fought a wave of nausea and set off down the ravine as quickly as possible. The cursing and smacking of the rifle pursued her as she fled. By the time she reached the other woman, her breathing was ragged.
"What is it?" the resistance leader murmured as Anna crouched down beside her. "What's going on?"
"There's something wrong with the track switch ahead; they're waiting for it to be fixed," Anna replied, reluctant to reveal the rest.
The older woman frowned. "But what is that soldier doing?"
Anna hesitated. But there was nothing to do except tell it. "Trying to shut the prisoners up."
In the moonlight, she could see the older woman stiffen. "What prisoners?"
"My God," Katrine Durr breathed. "I'd heard, but I didn't want to believe..." She was silent for several moments, then she raised her head. "Are there children on that train?"
Anna nodded reluctantly.
The cursing grew louder suddenly. It triggering something in Katrine Durr: Before the maquisard could stop her, the resistance leader was scrambling up the ravine. With a silent curse of her own, Anna followed. Thankfully, the other woman halted at the top to peer over. Anna edged up next to her.
The soldier Hans was clearly in a rage. Despite the protests of his companion, he had reached up to slide back the outside bolt on the train car and shoved it open. He clicked on a powerful flashlight and swept it across the inside of the boxcar. Anna heard a gasp from the woman beside her, and she bit down on her own response. In the sweep of the light, they could see people packed together like so much valueless cargo.
"We have to help them," Katrine said, husky voice determined.
The maquisard swiveled her head to stare at the other woman. "There's nothing we can do."
"You said you'd never let another French child suffer. That train is full of children."
The desperate recklessness in the older woman shocked Anna. Katrine Durr had always been the one in control, the one to preach caution, to support safety before heroics. Only the urging of Thomas and Brigitte, Anna believed, had convinced the resistance leader to agree to this mission. Yet even then she had continued to insist on every precaution. But there was nothing cautious-or even sane-in what she now proposed.
"We can't save them," Anna reiterated." We'd only get ourselves killed." Risking exposure up here, knowing she was losing an argument she had to win, the maquisard began to feel her own desperation
"We have to do something. We can't just let them be taken away," Katrine said, almost pleading.
Before Anna could reply, a shout came from the train. Three figures burst from the car, knocking both soldiers to the grounds. The escapees began running across the field, toward the ravine-and the women hidden there. Anna lunged toward Katrine. Her momentum sent them tumbling and sliding down the dirt slope, with the younger woman praying that the sound would be covered by the escape.
They hit the bottom with a jolt, Anna on top. They lay there gasping for air, listening to the shouts and the pounding of runners.
"Damn you, let me go," Katrine whispered urgently. "Those may be children."
Anna steeled herself against the plea and the desperate flight above. "No."
Suddenly, the resistance leader bucked, throwing her surprised captor off. But before Katrine could get completely to her feet, Anna tackled her again, smashing her to the ground. For the next several moments, the two women battled silently, as the yelling and sounds of escape and pursuit drew nearer. More German voices joined the chaos. Other soldiers from the train, Anna thought, in a distant part of her mind.
Shots rang out, followed by cries of pain. The women froze. Footsteps, half-running, approached, then stopped.
"Are they all dead?" A German yelled from farther away.
A single shot shattered the night.
Anna felt Katrine flinch, but the woman beneath her made no other movement.
"Now they are," came the satisfied reply. "Is the boxcar locked?"
"Yes," the questioner was closer now.
A third voice spoke. "What did Hans think he was doing? Why didn't Fritz stop him?"
"Hans is a hot-tempered fool, and Fritz has never been able to stop him from doing stupid things."
"Let them explain themselves to the captain. We don't have to worry about it."
"Come. They're waiting to move the train."
"What about the bodies?"
"Leave them. There's no time."
The rest of the conversation was lost as the soldiers hurried away.
Anna felt Katrine move against her, pushing to get up.
"Wait," the maquisard murmured.
The train began to move and then it was gone, picking up speed toward the village.
"Let... me... up." The words enunciated evenly.
There was nothing to be said. Anna untangled herself from the other woman and stood. Katrine Durr rose slowly and walked to the side of the ravine, limping slightly. An alarm went through the younger woman. God, had she hurt her?
Belatedly, Anna scrambled after the other woman, who was already climbing out of the ravine. By the time the maquisard reached the top, Madame Durr was nearing the figures lying motionless on the ground. The resistance leader knelt beside the first body. Anna came to stand beside her, swallowing against the stench of blood and feces. If by some unlikely chance she survived the war, she doubted she would ever forget the smells of violent death.
A light clicked on, alarming Anna, who dropped quickly to her knees to block the small glow of Madame Durr's flashlight from the direction of the train. But she said nothing, seeing the grim set to the other woman's face in the light.
A man, probably in his early 30s, lay on the ground, eyes open, unseeing. He was clearly dead, but a delicate hand moved to his throat, feeling for a pulse. After a few moments, the resistance leader shut off her flashlight and rose. The next body was face down, and the smaller woman struggled to turn it over. Silently, Anna added her strength to the task. This time the light revealed a middle-aged man. Again, Katrine Durr checked for a pulse, then clicked off the light.
She limped to the last body, which lay on its side, knees drawn chestward as if in pain. With infinite gentleness, she rolled this much slighter figure onto its back. The light clicked on. Not a child, but not yet a man-nor would he ever be. The maquisard felt it like a blow when the resistance leader raised her head, eyes accusing.
A twig snapped behind them. Anna whirled up from her crouch, gun out.
Thomas held up a hand. "What happened here?" he asked.
Madame Durr made no reply, still kneeling beside the corpse, light on his face.
Anna reached down to take the flashlight from her and shut it off. The other woman released it without a word.
"What happened?" Thomas inquired again, this time directing his question to Anna.
Emotionlessly, she recounted the events.
"What now?" he asked, once she had finished. "Perhaps it's too dangerous to stay and we should abandon this mission."
"No." It was the first the older woman had spoken since climbing out of the ravine. "We complete our mission. It is the...least...we can do for them." One slender hand indicated the bodies.
"Let me finish it, then," Anna said, speaking directly to the resistance leader, who hadn't looked at her. "You two start back."
Katrine turned to her. "I have told you," she said, anger evident, "we do this together."
"That was before you were hurt," the maquisard rejoined. "You won't be able to move fast when we need to."
Thomas stepped forward and placed a hand on Katrine's arm. "You're hurt?"
Before the older woman could answer, Anna said, "Her leg. She's limping."
"How?" he asked.
"I threw her to the ground."
A gun appeared in his hand, pointed toward the maquisard. "Explain."
Impatiently, the resistance leader said, "Put that away. She was...worried we'd be seen. And I'm all right now."
The distant sound of a train approaching ended further argument.
"Come," Katrine Durr said, "let's finish this."
At the word from Anna, Katrine flipped the switch. A loud boom rent the air, and the sky lit up in a grotesque, momentary parody of daylight as the bridge exploded. The train, which had been halfway across, bucked up slightly and then collapsed into itself. Metal screeched and sparks flew as boxcars twisted and derailed, falling sideways off the bridge and into the ravine, pulling cars still on either side of the buckling structure down with them. Then more explosions concussed the air as the armaments began to explode, tearing the train into pieces and spewing forth a swarm of deadly projectiles.
Anna propelled Katrine to her feet, urging her after Thomas, who already was scrambling up the ravine. Then they were out and running across the field. The resistance leader ignored the twinge of pain in her leg, knowing she couldn't afford to slow.
By the time they had made it across the open field and into the temporary shelter of the woods, her lungs were on fire. Still moving quickly, she stumbled over an exposed root. An iron grip on her arm prevented a nasty landing fall.
"Careful," Anna admonished her.
Katrine didn't bother to reply as she shook off the other woman's hand and set off after the dimly seen figure of Thomas.
Time distorted as the nightmarish flight through the dark woods continued. Drenched in sweat and trembling from the cold-and fear-Katrine listened to the rumble of military vehicles headed to the scene of the explosion, the occasional German shouts, and the frantic beating of her heart. At one point, the enemy seemed almost on top of the saboteurs, as the road ran close to the woods for a stretch. Neither Katrine nor her companions spoke, but the already exhausting pace increased.
A numbing eternity passed before they finally reached the northern outskirts of Ste-Claire. Since the explosion had come from the south, they'd circled around to the village's northern side, hoping there would be no soldiers there. Unfortunately, the Germans were leaving nothing to chance.
The three resistance fighters crouched near the edge of the woods, listening as an officer spoke forceful to a group of soldiers. Katrine felt a tap on her shoulder and glanced back to find Anna beckoning. Katrine and Thomas followed the maquisard back into the woods for several minutes before she stopped.
"He's telling them to spread out and search the woods," Anna said softly, "that the 'criminals' could be anywhere. He says if they let us slip by, they will answer personally to the commandant."
Hearing the news, Katrine's first thought, oddly enough, was of Jacques. I shall be seeing you sooner than expected mon ami. It was somehow comforting; she had missed him greatly.
Then an idea flickered as she remembered her childhood friend, and a small smile crossed her face. Of course. She touched her companions' arms and pointed to the pine trees above them. Not waiting for a response, she jumped to grab the nearest branch and levered herself up.
As a girl, she had been reluctant at first to follow Jacques into the trees and up the rocky hills he liked to climb. Her determination not to be left behind, however, had eventually defeated her fear. And she had discovered an exhilarating freedom in defying gravity and reaching for ever greater heights. Even after they'd become adults, even after they had failed as lovers, she and Jacques had continued to climb together, each understanding, as no one else did, what it meant to the other. Then the Germans had come, and Jacques had left. And she had stopped climbing. Until Brigitte Trouillé had asked for her help: The night after Katrine had made her first contact with the resistance, she had slipped through the back streets of Ste-Claire and into the woods-to climb.
As she ascended now, the resistance leader heard a whispering of pine needles nearby and assumed her companions had wisely chosen separate perches. They had a better chance of staying hidden that way. She had just settled into place as high in the tree as safely possible when she heard voices and the loud rustle of bodies nearing her position. Arms hugging the trunk, cheek pressed against the rough bark, she froze.
Lights strafed the woods and the ground around Katrine's refuge. But evidently it hadn't occurred to the soldiers to look up-yet. After several minutes spent investigating the area near the resistance fighters' hiding places, the German moved further into the woods. Despite the almost overwhelming urge to move, she let the minutes tick by. Finally determining that the men were really gone, she began her descent.
A shout pierced the woods. Startled, Katrine lost her balance and began to fall. Desperately, she grabbed for a branch. Her right hand closed around rough bark, and her body jerked to a sudden halt, wrenching her shoulder. She swallowed a cry of pain.
For several heartbeats, she hung there, pulse racing, trying to catch her breath so she could swing up and grab hold of the branch with her left hand. Before she could move, however, the German officer appeared beneath her, his flashlight flickering around him. Fear shot through her as she swayed only a few yards above this new threat.
He stood beneath the tree, head cocked slightly to the side, as if listening for something. Had he heard her? Was that why he was just standing there? Move, damn you. Though she feared for herself if she fell now, she feared betraying the others more. Hold on, hold on. There was no choice. But the pain in her shoulder was worsening, and her right hand had begun to slip.
A soldier ran up to the officer and spoke quickly, pointing back in the direction from which the shouting had come. The officer nodded, and the two of them hurried deeper into the woods.
Thank God. Teeth gritted against the pain and fatigue, she managed to swing up enough to grasp the branch overhead with her free hand. Hand over hand, barely hanging on each time her right shoulder had to take her full body weight, she moved until she could place her feet on a lower branch. When she finally reached the trunk, she leaned against it for a few precious moments, shaking and breathing raggedly. But there was no time for this. Forcing back the pain and fear, she descended. Seconds after she had touched the ground, Anna and Thomas joined her. Silently, they made their way out of the woods and into the village.
Katrine led them through the alleyways and side streets. It wasn't the shortest route to Le Coeur, but she knew it to be the safest. The pain in her leg and shoulder were worsening, but the discomfort proved a welcome distraction, shielding her from feelings that threatened to overwhelm her.
At last the three of them reached the relative sanctuary of Le Coeur. As Katrine reached for the knob of the back door, it opened, startling her. Fortunately, it was the worried, but friendly face of Nicolas that greeted them not. Once all were safely inside, the handyman locked the door. A lantern lit the kitchen, its telltale light prevented from escaping the room's only window by a dark curtain.
"I have hot coffee," Nicolas said quietly. "I thought you might need it."
The club owner's only desire was to slip away to her rooms, where she could bathe and collapse into bed. But this man, too, had risked much by agreeing to their plan and had kept vigil for their return.
"Thank you, Nicolas," she managed to say. "It's just what we need. I shall take mine to my rooms, if you'll be kind enough to pour me some."
A smile answered her. "Of course, of course, Madame."
"I, too, would appreciate some coffee," Thomas said.
"Mademoiselle?" Nicolas asked of Anna.
When no answer came, Katrine glanced over to where the maquisard stood and found the pale blue gaze fixed on her. The older woman turned away, unwilling to deal with what had happened out there between them.
"We'll all have some, Nicolas," the club owner said.
Though Katrine accepted the offered cup from the handyman and carried it to her rooms, she didn't touch its contents. Instead she poured herself a brandy, which she took into the bath with her. By the light of a candle she washed, then lay back and soaked, the heat soothing her injuries. Abandoning the tub once the water began to cool, she dried off and slipped into a nightgown. Then with bone-deep weariness, she climbed into bed, desperate for the oblivion of sleep.
Ten minutes later, she was slumped in a chair in the sitting room, sipping more brandy. Shadows from the few candles she had lit flickered around her. Despite the bath, she still felt unclean. How could soap and water scrub away the stench of death, fear-and guilt? She closed her eyes, seeing again the faces of the dead men, remembering the fearful crowd of human beings packed into the boxcar. Men, women, and children who had been torn from their homes and even now, as she lounged in comfort, rode the rails to almost certain death.
Ah, God! She leaned forward, resting an elbow on her thigh and holding her head in her hand. Tears stung her eyes, but she refused to give way to them. I should have done something. Surely there was something I could have done?
And whom else might she have saved in the past years if she hadn't been so cautious, so determined that Thomas, Brigitte, and Nicolas would survive the war? If she had been willing to take more chances...
A soft knock sounded at the door, interrupting her thoughts.
Probably Thomas, checking up on her. He had cast several worried looks her way as she had limped toward home, right arm cradled in her left hand at times.
The knock came again, and she sighed. He'd just persist. She set down her glass and rose, tightening the sash of her blue robe.
For half an hour after her hasty bath, Anna paced in her room, trying to decide what to do. Katrine Durr had been hurt badly. In the final blocks before they had reached the nightclub, Anna had been afraid that the other woman wouldn't make it. The limp had worsened, and it was clear that somehow she had hurt her shoulder as well.
Someone should check on her. Anna was certain Thomas would do so. And Madame Durr would undoubtedly prefer his company, the maquisard thought, remembering with pain that accusatory stare. But what if Thomas, exhausted himself, didn't check on her?
Able to bear it no longer, Anna donned a clean shirt and trousers and made her way to the club owner's door. She raised her hand to knock, then hesitated. Why do this? Her presence wouldn't be welcome. But she needed to assure herself of Madame Durr's well being. Once that was done, she would go. It was time-past time-for her to go.
Resolved, she knocked. When there was no answer, she tried again. The door swung open, and Katrine, dressed in a silk robe and gown, stood in the doorway, a look of surprise in her eyes. "What do you want?" she asked brusquely.
The younger woman flinched at the tone but stood her ground. "To talk to you."
"In the morning," Katrine replied shortly and began to close the door.
Anna blocked it with a hand. "Now, Madame."
The club owner's jaw tightened, and she glared at the younger woman for several seconds. But when Anna showed no sign of leaving, Madame Durr sighed and stepped back to gesture her visitor in.
"Thank you," Anna said as she entered the room.
Katrine made no response. After shutting the door, she limped past the maquisard to an end table by one of the chairs and picked up a brandy snifter, which she quickly drained. From the bottle next to the glass, she poured another drink, not bothering to offer her uninvited guest any.
After taking a long sip, the older woman turned to face Anna, who had stopped in the middle of the room. "And so?" Katrine said mockingly. "I thought you wanted to talk, Mademoiselle."
"Are you all right?"
Two eyebrows rose. "You barged into my room and demanded an audience to ask me that?"
Anna lifted her chin. "Yes."
Katrine shook her head. "Go to bed, Mademoiselle. We'll exchange pleasantries about my health and the weather in the morning."
It stung-having her concern thrown back in her face. "I don't 'exchange pleasantries,' " she responded stiffly. "You were hurt. The maquis take care of their own."
"But no one else, yes?" The club owner responded sharply.
Despite what had happened on that frozen field, Anna hadn't expected such open contempt. Trying to keep the hurt from her voice, she asked, "You truly think I didn't care about those people?"
Katrine shrugged and deliberately took another long swallow of alcohol. "Perhaps you did. But not enough, apparently, to risk yourself."
Anna's eyes flashed. She closed the distance between her and her accuser. "Do you call me a coward, Madame?"
The club owner tilted her head back to look up at the woman who towered over her by several inches. "I don't know what to call you-or think of you. A day ago you risked everything to sneak into German headquarters on a hunting expedition. Then you told me that it was time to stop playing it safe, that retaliating against the Germans was the most important mission we had."
A sneer curled Katrine's lips. "You seemed more than willingly to kill Germans and blow up trains to strike back but not to free innocent people. Why is that, Mademoiselle? Perhaps you agree with the Germans that Jews are not really people?"
Fury, familiar and darkly reassuring amid the increasing turmoil of unexplained emotion, surged through Anna. She stepped forward angrily, meaning to grab the other woman. No! an internal voice commanded, stopping her. This isn't some enemy you have to strike back at. This isn't someone to hurt. Walk away.
But walking away turned out not to be an option.
Though the maquisard had halted her angry advance, Katrine Durr had already reacted by stepping back. A small cry escaped her lips as all her weight came down on the injured leg. It buckled under her, and the club owner collapsed, the brandy snifter slipping from her hand to shatter on the floor.
Anna sprang forward. Moments later, she found herself seated on the floor, cradling Katrine's slender body across her lap.
"Are you all right?" she asked anxiously, looking down at a face etched with pain and weariness.
Tears began trickling down Katrine's cheeks. She averted her face and covered her eyes with a hand.
Anna's heart caught, and without thought, she gathered the other woman close. The body against hers stiffened.
Not knowing what else to do, Anna began humming a lullaby her mother had sung to her long ago-in another life-something to chase away the nightmares. Gradually, the stiffness dissipated. But the silent grief continued, as Katrine wrapped her arms around the younger woman and pressed her face against one strong shoulder.
Holding her charge securely with one arm, Anna lifted her free hand to gently stroke the tangled auburn hair. She hardly recognized herself in this role of comforter, could not remember feeling this aching tenderness for anyone before.
She'd never had a real friend. As a child, she hadn't been like other girls, hadn't fathomed their desires or imposed limits. As she had become a woman, the boys who had played with her, and once seemed to accept her, had set her apart, wanting to treat her as something she wasn't. In the maquis, she had fought beside men who had entrusted her with their lives as she had entrusted them with hers. Yet even these comrades in arm had expected her, when the missions were over, to be someone else. Of all the people she'd met, only Jacques had seemed to accept her as she was. But it had seemed too late, by then, for friends, and she had turned away from what he offered.
Then Jacques had sent her here, to Katrine Durr. Almost from the beginning, Anna had been wary of this woman, had sensed that she posed a threat. Not until this moment, however, had Anna understood that the threat was to her heart.
Katrine finally moved, pulling back from Anna's embrace enough to peer up at her. Gray-blue eyes were red and a bit embarrassed. "I didn't mean to...shatter...on you. I don't think I've ever done that before. Thank you," she continued softly, "for your kindness."
Anna gazed at the other woman, not knowing what to say. She looks so fragile. Before this night, the maquisard would never have thought of Madame Durr as fragile-or vulnerable. Without conscious thought, she raised her hand and ran her fingers gently over one soft, tear-stained cheek.
A startled look crossed the older woman's face, and her gray-blue eyes searched Anna's. The maquisard froze as she realized what she had been doing. Then a smaller hand wrapped itself around hers, and Katrine brought Anna's palm to her lips.
Flame seared through the younger woman's body, burning past her heart and down between her legs. She gasped, having never experienced anything like it before.
The low voice, even huskier than usual, sent shivers tingling along her spine. Anna looked down at Katrine, who was watching her, a question in her \eyes. What was the woman asking? Anna didn't know. But she knew her answer: She bent her head and captured the other woman's lips with her own.
This kiss was a firestorm, raging through her and enflaming all her senses. She could feel the soft mouth beneath hers begin its own hungry demands, lips parting and tongue tangling with Anna's. Firm breasts pressed against her chest, nipples hardening beneath the silk. An intoxicating scent of lavender and musk enveloped her. When her lips abandoned Katrine's to wander down the slender throat, Anna heard the other woman moan.
Overwhelmed by the sensations, the maquisard didn't realize for several moments that Katrine was speaking and attempting to push her gently away. Anna's instinct was to tighten her hold and never let go. Reluctantly, she pulled back, still cradling the smaller woman in her arms. She's so beautiful, Anna thought, gazing at the classic features.
"You take my breath away," Katrine said in a low voice, reaching up to cup one cheek.
"Is that a good thing?" Anna asked seriously.
The older woman smiled. "Oh, Anna, it is an amazing thing." The smile slipped away, though, as Katrine asked in turn, "And for you, is it a good thing?"
How do I answer that? Holding Katrine, kissing her, felt good, but it frightened Anna, too. There would be something to lose now. As the silence stretched on, worry began to shadow the club owner's face, and she attempted to pull away. Anna tightened her hold. "Yes," she said urgently, "this is a good thing." And in this moment, it was.
Wanting nothing more than to kiss the other woman again, Anna bent her head but was stopped by a hand against her chest.
"If you kiss me again, Anna, I won't want you to stop."
"I don't want to stop," the younger woman answered fiercely.
Katrine laughed, eyes sparkling. "Neither do I. But in truth, I think we'd better for a couple reasons."
Anna frowned but asked, "What are they?"
"For one, I am hurt," Katrine replied matter-of-factly. "And I'd rather be in better shape...for you."
"I'm sorry," the younger woman said, guilt descending. "I'm sorry for hurting you when I..." A hand covered Anna's mouth.
"You didn't hurt me intentionally." Katrine sighed and looked away. When her gaze returned to Anna's, it held guilt and regret. "I...went crazy out there, not being able to help those people. I endangered us all-and I hurt you. You injured me because you were saving me; I injured you because I couldn't save them. I'm sorry, Anna, I'm truly sorry." Tears glistened again in her eyes.
Anna stroked Katrine's face. "It's all right. Please don't cry." A thought occurred to her, and she looked at the other woman slyly. "If you're really sorry, you can kiss me and make it better."
The club owner laughed, sounding surprised and delighted. She blinked away the tears and leaned up to kiss Anna's cheek. "Better?"
"No," the younger woman replied, scowling.
Katrine caressed Anna's face and smiled at her. "I'll make it better soon, I promise. But now you must help me up, so we can go to bed." Then hastily added, "Separate beds."
Anna sighed but gave in. She helped Katrine to her feet and provided support as the older woman limped into her bedroom, very aware of the feel of the small body against her own.
"Do you want anything, before I leave?" Anna said, when Katrine was finally beneath the covers.
"Just this." She pulled Anna's mouth to her own. Before the kiss could get out of control, Katrine released her. "Get some rest."
Reluctantly, Anna straightened up, trying to regain control of her breathing. "Good night, then...Katrine."
"Good night. Would you blow out the candles on your way out?"
"All right." Anna paused at the door and glanced back. "You said there was another reason we should wait."
Katrine's smile was both gentle and teasing. "I may be wrong-because you certainly are an incredible kisser-but I think you don't have much experience in this...arena. Yes?"
A fiery blush painted Anna's face, and she was unable to speak.
That response seemed enough. The older woman continued, "I don't want this to be rushed. I want you to be comfortable."
Anna gathered herself together enough to respond before she fled, injecting a bit of her usual edge into her words. "There is nothing about being with you, Madame, that is the least bit comfortable."
A soft laugh followed Anna out the door.
Continue to Part Five