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The main character in my latest novel (Chateau of Secrets) was attending the
de Caen when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. In her youth, Gisèle was rather complacent about what was happening outside France, but nine months later, when Hitler takes Paris, her world is turned upside down. Here is the opening chapter of Chateau of Secrets, the night everything changes...
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June 1940 (Agneaux, France)
Candlelight flickered on the medieval walls as Gisèle
Duchant stepped into the warmth of the nave. The shadows in the sacristy were
the only witnesses to her secret—no one but she and Michel knew the same small
room that stored the vestments and supplies for their family’s chapelle was also a hiding place.
She slid the iron gate across the entry into the
sacristy, and after locking it, she set down her picnic hamper—emptied of its
Camembert cheese and Calvados—and turned toward the pews.
Five women from Agneaux, the tiny commune at the top
of the lane, knelt before the altar, the sweet fragrance of incense blending
with the smell of cigarette smoke on their clothing. For centuries, women had
visited this chapelle to plead with
the Almighty to protect their husbands, sons, and brothers as they fought for
France. Now they battled in prayer even as the men they loved defended their
country against Hitler and his ploy to assimilate the French people into his
Gisèle slid her fingers over the amber rosary beads
around her neck, gently fingering the ornamented handle of the brass crucifix
in the center. A cross that was also a key.
The words of her university professor echoed in her
mind. If a secret was powerful enough, her philosophy professor had declared
from his lectern, it could demolish an entire army. Or shatter the heart of a
The narrow pew creaked as she knelt beside it.
Looking up at the crucifix that hung above the altar, she crossed herself and
then whispered, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name.”
Her mind wandered as the familiar prayer tumbled from
The healing powers of a secret intrigued her, the
layers that sheltered families and nations alike. A secret could destroy, like
her professor said, but it could also shield a family. Like the tangled hedgerows
of brushwood and bramble that fortified the nearby city of Saint-Lô, a secret
could keep those you love from destruction.
When did a secret cross over the gray wasteland
between protecting one you loved and destroying him?
Last month Prime Minister Chamberlain had evacuated
all the British troops he’d sent to France, along with a hundred thousand
French soldiers. Michel had been among those evacuated at Dunkirk, and Papa
thought his son was safe in England.
But Michel had snuck home after the evacuation, and she
prayed God would forgive her for her trespasses, that her secret effort to save
her younger brother’s life wouldn’t become a mortal sin.
The women whispered prayers around her, and like many
of them, she couldn’t confess her sin to anyone, not even to the priest who
came once a week to preside over mass. With the world in turmoil, they all had
to guard secrets to protect the men they loved.
Aeroplane engines buzzed in the distance, and she shivered.
The German bombers flew over them almost every night now, showing off their
power for the citizens of Saint-Lô. Her country refused to be intimated by
Candles rattled in their bronze holders.
“Deliver us from evil,” she whispered as the planes
passed overhead. Then she repeated her words.
Unlike Austria and Denmark, France would fight the
When the drone of engines settled into the night, the
village women silently slipped out the door. Gisèle rose to attend to her
Just as she was the keeper of Michel’s secret, she
was the keeper of the Chapelle d’Agneaux. While other aristocratic women
attended their formal gardens or antique collections, her mother had
painstakingly cared for the chapelle
for two decades. Instead of remembering her mother at the cemetery beside the chapelle, Gisèle liked to remember her
inside these walls. When she was at the château, she unlocked the door of the chapelle every morning so villagers
could pray, and every night she blew out the vigil candles and swept the stone
Outside in the courtyard, the misty breath of the river Vire stole up and over the stone walls of the chapelle and the turrets of the medieval château that stood before
her, the home of the Duchant family for more than three
hundred years. While her family had lost sons and daughters to the guillotine
during the revolution and to the wars that were waged across France, this
fortress of stone towers and secret tunnels had sheltered many of her ancestors
through wars and storms. It had been a solace for her mother. And for her.
Gisèle quickly crossed the gravel courtyard and
hurried into the foyer of the Château d’Epines. Sliding off her red suede
pumps, she padded across the marble floor in her silk stockings, the handles of
the picnic hamper clutched in her hands. If she could store the hamper before
she saw her father, she wouldn’t have to lie to him.
She snuck past the staircase that spiraled up to the
second floor and the entrance to the drawing room, but before she reached the
door to the kitchen, her father called her name. Then she heard the heels of
his sturdy Richelieus clapping across the marble floor.
She dropped the hamper and kicked it to the edge of
the antique console table.
The sight of her father in his brown cardigan and
trousers, the familiar scent of applewood and tobacco, usually comforted her,
but tonight the fear in his blue eyes wasn’t familiar at all. Papa—known in
France as the esteemed Vicomte Jean-François Bouchard Duchant—was never
She clasped the pumps to her chest. “What is it?”
His gaze wandered toward the tall window by the front
door, like he was seeking solace from the chapelle
outside as well.
“Hitler—” His voice cracked, and he hesitated as if
he hadn’t yet digested the news he bore.
“Papa?” she whispered.
“Hitler has taken Paris.”
Her shoes clattered on the marble and she stumbled backward
as if the tiles had shifted under her feet. Her hands flailed, searching until
they caught the banister.
Paris was a great city, the greatest in the world.
How could it bow to a lunatic?
“But the war—” she stammered. “It has just begun.”
Papa’s shoulders dropped. “The government in Paris .
. . they decided not to fight.”
She squeezed the iron banister. How could the
Parisians refuse to fight?
If the French resisted together, if they refused to
cower . . .
They had to resist.
“What will happen?” she whispered.
“Phillipe is coming to drive you south, to the manor in Lyon.”
“I don’t care what happens to me.” Her voice
trembled. “What will happen to France?”
He hesitated again, like he wasn’t sure he should
tell her the truth. He might still have thought her twelve, but she was
twenty-two years old now. A graduate of the prestigious Université de Caen. She was certainly old enough to know the
She willed strength into her voice. If he thought her
strong, perhaps he would be honest. “You must tell me.”
He seemed to consider her words before he spoke.
“Hitler won’t stop until he takes all of Europe.”
She released the banister to pick up her pumps, her
hands trembling. “I can’t go to Lyon.”
Compassion mixed with the fear in his eyes. “We must
leave. Hitler seems determined to take London next, and his army will march
through here on their way to the port at Cherbourg.”
She rubbed her bare arms. Lyon was ten hours
southeast. “If they’ve taken Paris, it won’t be long before the Germans take
“Perhaps.” Papa tugged on the hem of his cardigan.
“But Phillipe can take you to Switzerland before then.”
Hitler’s appetite for power seemed insatiable. He’d
taken much of Europe now, but she doubted conquering the rest of France and
even London would satisfy the German führer.
With the French government refusing to fight, they needed courageous
Frenchmen—former soldiers like Michel—to stop him.
But nine years ago, before
her mother died, she’d begged Gisèle to care for Michel. Even though she was
just a girl, Gisèle had sworn, on the crucifix of her mother’s rosary, that she
would give her very life to watch over her brother. Michel may have been
nineteen now, but he was just as headstrong as when he was a boy. How could she
protect him from an onslaught of the German army and their bombs?
Papa rang a bell. “Émilie
will help you pack your things
for the trip.”
Seconds later their housemaid rushed into the hall,
her white apron tied over her black uniform and her graying hair pinned back in
a neat knot. But instead of stopping, Émilie rushed past Gisèle to the front
door, a valise clutched in each of her hands.
Papa called out to her. “Where are you going?”
Émilie set down one of her bags. “My sister just called
from Cahagnes. German tanks are moving through the town.”
Papa swore. Cahagnes was just thirty kilometers away.
As the door opened and then rattled shut, Gisèle
slipped on her shoes. Before she left, she had to warn Michel that the Germans
“You must pack your things,” Papa said as he glanced
at his watch. “Phillipe said he would be here within the half hour.”
Her chest felt as if it might explode. The Germans
might kill them if they stayed, but she couldn’t leave without telling her
brother. He had to flee as well.
“I need more time,” she pleaded.
he said tenderly as he reached for her hand, imploring her. “It is not safe for
you to stay here any longer.”
Her heart felt as if it might rip into two. How could
she make him understand without revealing Michel’s secret?
He nudged her toward the steps. “I will meet you in
Still she didn’t move. “You must come with us, Papa.”
“I will follow soon, after I hide the silver and your
mother’s jewelry. If they arrive while I’m here—” He cleared his throat. “The
Germans won’t harm a member of the aristocracy.”
She nudged her chin up. “Nor will they harm his
A siren wailed and the floor shook from more
aeroplanes sweeping low in the valley. Hair bristled on the back of her neck.
Papa turned her shoulders toward the stairs. “Hurry,
“You don’t have a choice.”
She knew he was afraid that he would lose her, just like
he had her mother, but if she left right now—
She feared they would both lose Michel.