From the USA Today bestselling author of A Curve in the Road comes a spellbinding novel about one woman’s love, loss, and courage during wartime.
After a crushing betrayal by the man she loves, Gillian Gibbons flees to her family home for a much-needed escape, but when she finds an old photograph of her grandmother in the arms of a Nazi officer, Gillian’s life gets even more complicated. Rattled by the discovery, Gillian attempts to unravel the truth behind the photos, setting her off on an epic journey through the past…
1939. England is on the brink of war as Vivian Hughes falls in love with a handsome British official, but when bombs begin to fall and Vivian’s happy life is destroyed in the blitz, she will do whatever it takes to protect those she loves…
As Gillian learns more about her grandmother’s past, the old photo begins to make more sense. But for every question answered, a new one takes its place. Faced with a truth that is not at all what she expected, Gillian attempts to shine a light not only on the mysteries of her family’s past but also on her own future.
This gorgeously written multigenerational saga is a heart-wrenching yet hopeful examination of one woman’s struggle to survive, perfect for fans of The Nightingale and Beneath a Scarlet Sky.
“Julianne Maclean’s A Fire Sparkling is a beautiful, sweeping tale about love, courage, family secrets and forgiveness that is impossible to put down.” – Jane Healey, author of The Saturday Evening Girls Club and The Beantown Girls
Read an Excerpt
November 29, 2011
The view is wondrous from here, thirty thousand feet above the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between London and New York. As I lay my head back and gaze out at the majesty of sunshine over fluffy white vapors, I take time to ponder all that I’ve learned over the past week and where I will go from here.
In two hours, this plane will touch down in New York, and I will make my way through customs. Then I’ll meet my father, and he’ll take me to my grandmother’s farmhouse in Connecticut, where I’ll deliver information that may upset the balance of an old woman’s life.
My name is Gillian Gibbons, and my grandmother just celebrated her ninety-sixth birthday. Her mind is quick and sharp, but her body has grown frail lately. She’s thin, with bony, blue-veined hands, and she moves carefully when she walks, as if she expects the ground to shift under her feet.
When I think of her that way, it’s almost impossible to imagine how tough she once was, in her younger days, long before I was born. Until this week, I hadn’t known what she’d been through during the war, or what she’d sacrificed. Now I understand how brave she was, how full of life and energy.
Yet, I feel betrayed because of what she’d kept hidden from us all our lives. I’m still not over the shock of it, and neither is my father. But we must forgive her—of course we must—now that we know the full story.
And I must forgive myself, too, for my own mistakes. If my grandmother was able to put the broken pieces of her life back together again, then surely I can do the same.
Lowering the window shade to block out the blinding rays of the sun as it bathes the clouds in light, I close my eyes, hoping to get some much-needed sleep before the captain begins the descent.
PART ONE: GILLIAN
Three weeks earlier
I should have seen it coming—felt the tremors before the big quake. If I had, maybe I would have been ready to act when the walls came crashing down. But my behavior was more in line with a flight response. I didn’t pause to evaluate the situation or choose the best way forward. I simply took off and drove for hours through the night in the back seat of a yellow Manhattan taxicab. Part of me had wanted to keep driving all night—all the way to my grandmother’s farmhouse past Hartford— but I didn’t want to show up on her doorstep at such an ungodly hour. I would have scared my poor father to death, because he lived there, too, caring for Gram. What would he have thought when he answered the door in the quiet predawn darkness and found me standing there with mascara streaming down my face?
Poor Dad. As a daughter, I’d really put him through the wringer. He still worried about me, and I couldn’t blame him. I hadn’t been the easiest kid to raise, especially once he became a single father, widowed after my mother passed away from breast cancer in ’95.
Well . . . that wasn’t exactly how it happened, but it was easier to say than the truth, because she might have been able to survive the cancer if she’d made it through the treatments. But that was my cross to bear, and bear it, I most certainly did.
Tossing the crisp white hotel duvet aside, I pushed thoughts of Mom from my mind, sat up on the edge of the bed, and rubbed my eyes to try and rouse myself to face this day. I hadn’t had that much to drink last night—only two glasses of champagne when the toasts were being delivered—but I felt hungover, nonetheless. Probably because of the all-night tears, mixed with waves of rage. It was a wonder I hadn’t gotten up and smashed something.
What I needed was a shower. After rising to my feet, I padded to the bathroom, where I was grateful for the sensation of hot water flowing over my body, cleansing away the heartbreaking image of Malcolm with that young blonde.
It was difficult to believe that twenty-four hours ago, my life had seemed almost perfect. I had been in love with an amazing man, and I had thought I was about to become engaged—that we would start a family together, and I’d be happy at last. But maybe I wasn’t meant to be happy. Or to be a mother. Maybe the universe was just teasing me, letting me float briefly up to the clouds to enjoy the view from there, only to slam me back down to earth and rub my face in the dirt.
After my shower, I stood at the window of my hotel room, looking out at the gloomy November sky. The wind stirred a pile of dead leaves into a miniature tornado at the edge of the parking lot, then sent the leaves flying in all directions. It was an apt metaphor for my life that morning.
Pulling my cell phone out of my pocket, I bit the bullet and keyed in my grandmother’s number. My father answered after the first ring.
“Gillian?” I was surprised by a strange fervor in his voice.
“Yes, it’s me,” I said. “I’m sorry to be calling so early. I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“Not at all. I’m glad you called, actually . . . because I’ve been up for hours, waiting for a decent time to call you.”
This caused me some concern, because my father wasn’t much of a chatterbox. We weren’t close, and he rarely called unless there was something critical to report.
“Is everything okay?” I asked. “Is Gram all right?”
“Yes, she’s fine. It’s nothing like that.” He hesitated. “But you’re the one who called me. Why don’t you go first? How was the party last night?”
Turning away from the window, I withheld my curiosity and sat down on the bed. “Not great, if I’m being honest.” I paused and chewed on my thumbnail, dreading the idea of telling my father the whole sordid, humiliating account of my devastated love life. “Malcolm and
I had a bit of a . . . disagreement.”
“That’s too bad. What happened?”
“It’s a long story, Dad. If you don’t mind, I’d rather tell you and Gram in person. Could I come and visit this morning? Maybe stay for a few days?”
He grew quiet as he took in what I’d just asked. “It sounds like a serious disagreement.”
There was another pause. “Well, of course you can come and stay.” He lowered his voice to a whisper and spoke close to the phone until the words were almost muffled. “It’s good timing, actually, because I need to talk to you too.”
I frowned. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“Maybe I’m overreacting,” he said. “I don’t know. I need your opinion on something. When can you get here?”
I turned to check the time. “Soon. I’m at a hotel in Westchester. I can hop on a train right now and be there in a couple of hours.”
“That sounds good. I’m glad you’re coming.”
I swallowed uneasily, because I’d never heard my father sound so unsettled about anything—at least not since Mom’s diagnosis. “Me too, Dad. Sounds like we’ll have lots to talk about. I’ll see you soon.”
Eager to get to the train station and find out what was going on at the house, I ended the call and packed up my things.
Something most people didn’t know about me—Malcolm was one of the few—was that I was the granddaughter of an English earl. I never had the pleasure of meeting him, or any of my English relatives for that matter, because Gram had left the UK not long after the end of the Second World War and immigrated to America.
Before that, she was a war widow after her first husband, Theodore, was killed during the London Blitz in 1940. According to Gram, he was a very important cabinet minister in Winston Churchill’s government, in charge of weapons production. Gram had loved him deeply and was heartbroken when he died.
When the war finally ended, she was a single mother with a four-year-old son—my father. Though she had been living with her late husband’s aristocratic family on their country estate in Surrey, safe from the horrors of the war, she eventually fell in love with an American pilot who was stationed at a nearby airfield. That man was Grampa Jack, my father’s stepdad. He proposed to Gram after the war ended and brought her to America, where he worked as a commercial airline pilot based out of Bradley Airport in Hartford.
So that was how my father came into the world—during a time of war, when every moment was precious. All he remembered about that chapter of his life was toddling around the English countryside with a nanny in a black uniform who was kind to him. He recalled only fleeting images of ducks in a pond and stone walls and a gigantic house with servants.
As for his heritage, my father always considered himself to be an American, maybe because the only father he ever knew was Grampa Jack, who was the son of a plumber, born and raised in a farmhouse in Connecticut. The same farmhouse I was heading home to that morning when I stepped onto the train.
Not long after the train pulled away from the station, my cell phone chimed, letting me know I had received a text from Malcolm. My stomach clenched because I wasn’t ready to deal with him yet. I just wanted him to stay away and leave me alone.
At the same time, I was curious as to what, precisely, he wished to say to me. He probably wanted to apologize, in which case he’d be wasting his time because I wasn’t going to forgive him. Not today, and probably not ever, which meant we were over for good.
I blinked a few times, because that was a sobering thought. Not only was I heartbroken over his betrayal, but I was also, as of this morning, a thirty-five-year-old single woman with no place to live. My whole life had just been upended. My boat was sunk, and I was alone, shocked, and bewildered, treading water in the middle of a great big lonely sea.
I took a few deep breaths before I finally tapped the little green icon to read his message.
Hey. Where are you? I’m worried. Are you okay?
I bristled over the fact that he had chosen not to mention his infidelity the night before. As if it had never happened. As if I’d had some sort of personal crisis that had nothing to do with him.
Setting my phone down on the empty seat beside me, I ignored his message and turned my face toward the window, where houses passed by in a fast rhythm that matched the clackety-clack of the train along the tracks.
I tried to relax, but my phone chimed again. I shook my head with frustration and decided to switch off my ringer and ignore all messages for the duration of my journey. But when I saw that he had written a much longer text, I couldn’t resist the urge to read it. I suppose something in me wanted to see him grovel.
I can only assume that you’re ignoring my messages because you’re angry, and I understand. I deserve to be ignored, or worse. I feel terrible about what happened, and I still can’t believe I was that stupid. I don’t know how to tell you how sorry I am. I was in hell last night after you left, and this morning it’s worse. Please come home, Gill, so we can talk about this. I need you to know that it wasn’t me last night. I don’t know who it was—some stupid, idiotic fifty-year-old having a midlife crisis on his birthday. But now the party’s over and you’re not here and I can’t imagine my future without you. Please respond. Tell me there’s hope, or at the very least, tell me you’re okay so I won’t worry that you’re lying in a ditch somewhere.
Clenching my teeth, I actually growled my frustration out loud.
Then I quickly typed in a reply.
I’m fine and I appreciate the apology, but please don’t text me again. I’m not ready to talk to you yet. I need time to myself. If you text me again, I won’t reply.
I hit send and realized, after the fact, that I’d just given him hope by suggesting that I might be ready to talk to him eventually.
Maybe I would, but only to gain closure, because I didn’t think I’d ever be able to forget what I’d seen the night before. Nor would I be able to trust him again, and trust was very important to me.
I couldn’t exactly call Gram’s Connecticut farmhouse home, because I’d been raised in a rent-controlled New York apartment, which I had moved out of during college because I couldn’t bear to look at the bathtub where my mother had died. But when the cab pulled onto the treelined driveway that led to Gram’s century-old white clapboard house, I was grateful to retreat to a place that felt familiar, where I felt safe. It was a good spot to lie low for a while and avoid dealing with Malcolm.
Sitting forward slightly, I peered out the cab window at the thick carpet of leaves along the edge of the drive. In contrast, the front lawn was beautifully groomed, raked recently by my father, no doubt. He loved yard work, which had been part of the allure when he finally decided to sell our apartment and move here to care for Gram after she fell and broke her hip a few years back and needed help while she recovered. She was fine now, but he’d decided to stay.
The taxi pulled to a halt at the door, and I paid the driver. Dad stepped onto the covered porch.
“Hi.” He descended the wooden steps to greet me as the taxi drove off. “It’s good to see you.”
Most fathers would hug their daughters in a moment such as this, but Dad and I weren’t like most fathers and daughters. There was a small emotional gully between us—which neither of us liked to acknowledge—so the first few seconds were always awkward.
“Let’s go inside,” he said, insisting on carrying my suitcase up the steps. I followed, gazing nostalgically at the weathered gray porch swing where Gram used to sit with me and play checkers.
I entered the house and smelled fresh coffee brewing in the kitchen.
Glancing into the living room, I spotted Grampa Jack’s faded green recliner, still in the same corner as always, and Gram’s wicker basket full of knitting supplies—balls of colored wool and two needles sticking out of a half-completed project draped over the basket handle. Probably another small woolen hat for the children’s cancer ward at the hospital.
“Where’s Gram?” I asked, noticing how quiet it was.
“At the nursing home. It’s Saturday, remember?”
Gram had been going to the nursing home every Saturday afternoon for the past twenty years to play piano for the residents—mostly show tunes from the 1930s and ’40s. I found it amusing whenever she told me how much she enjoyed playing for the “old people,” when she was over ninety herself.
I followed Dad into the kitchen.
“Are you hungry?” he asked. “There’s some leftover chicken in the fridge, or I could make you a grilled cheese.” Food was always a good icebreaker for the two of us.
“I’m fine. I just had a salad on the train, but that coffee smells good.”
He poured me a cup and handed it to me. “So. Let’s start with you. What happened last night?”
“Oh God. It’s a nasty story.” I sat down at the table. “I’m embarrassed to even tell you about it.”
“Don’t be. I’m sure I’ve heard worse.”
“Maybe. I don’t know. Anyway. As you are aware, last night was Malcolm’s fiftieth birthday party. At the Guggenheim.”
“Sorry I couldn’t make it.”
I waved a hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about it. Actually, it’s probably best that you weren’t there because . . .” I paused and stared down at the coffee in my cup and wanted to sink through the floor. “Because I caught Malcolm with another woman.”
It was a tasteful way to describe what I’d seen—the man I wanted to marry with his pants down around his ankles, bouncing a naked blonde on his lap. In an empty screening room in the basement of the Guggenheim. While a party was going on.
Dad made a pained grimace. “Oh dear.”
“Yeah. She was a fashion model.” I sat back. “One of the ‘fresh new faces’ from the latest marketing campaign for his cosmetics company.”
That wasn’t the only company Malcolm owned. He was CEO of several successful corporations, including an international gaming company, the Reid Theatre on Broadway, and a multinational investment firm. He also owned a massive share of Manhattan real estate. Add to that his charitable donations to dozens of worthy causes—including the non-profit organization where I worked—and he was a man who, in certain circles, was sometimes referred to as a god.
“When I saw them together,” I continued, “I just bolted. I ran straight out the door and flagged down a cab. Then I went home to our apartment, packed a suitcase, and walked out.”
Dad sat down across from me. “Have you talked to him about it? Did he have anything to say?”
“Oh yes. He followed me home and begged me not to leave, but I didn’t want to hear any pathetic excuses, so I took off and went to a hotel. He texted me this morning while I was on the train and apologized again, but I just can’t forgive him.”
My father regarded me intently. “What did you see, exactly? Was he flirting with her, or—”
“Oh no, it was way beyond flirting. I caught them . . . how shall I say it? In the act. Malcolm with his pants down, literally. You get it.”
“Ah.” My dad’s eyebrows lifted as he studied the coffee in his cup. “Not so forgivable, then.” He patted my hand from across the table without ever looking me in the eye.
What an uncomfortable conversation to be having with one’s straitlaced father. On top of that, we were never very good at expressing our emotions around each other, for reasons that had nothing to do with Malcolm. I wished Mom were still around.
“So here I am,” I said, exhaling heavily, “with no place to live until I figure out what to do.” I swirled my coffee and watched it settle. “I’ll look for an apartment, but it’s going to be a tough transition from a Fifth Avenue penthouse to whatever I can afford on my salary. But I’d rather live in a dump than go back to Malcolm.”
“At least you have a steady job,” Dad reminded me. “You’re self-sufficient. And I hope it goes without saying that you can stay here as long as you need to.”
“Thanks, Dad. That’ll give me some breathing space until I can find something.”
The wind gusted outside the kitchen window.
“Do you have anything in the way of savings?” he carefully asked.
“I do. Quite a bit, actually, because Malcolm always covered our living expenses. I put some away with every paycheck. Maybe I saw this coming. I don’t know. I just thought I should have something socked away for a rainy day.”
“Good for you.”
My cell phone chimed, and I reached for it in the pocket of my jeans, then shook my head. “It’s him again. He’s not giving up.” I sat back and read his text.
Gill, I can’t stop thinking about you. Please respond and tell me when I can see you. I need to apologize in person so that you can see how sorry I am. What happened last night was messed up. It was the biggest mistake of my life. Please believe me. I promise nothing like that’s ever happened before and I swear it’ll never happen again. It makes me sick just to think about it. I regretted it the second it started happening and I hate myself. Please respond. Give me another chance. I love you and I can’t live without you.
I pushed my hair back from my forehead.
“What’s he saying?” Dad asked.
“He’s apologizing and begging for another chance, but I can’t do it. If it happened once, it’ll happen again, right?”
He let out a sigh. “I don’t know.”
Continuing to ignore Malcolm’s message, I set my phone down on the table. “Did you and Mom ever cheat on each other?”
“Good Lord. Never.”
I gestured toward him with a hand. “Well, there you have it. Either you’re a cheater or you’re not.”
I inclined my head, curious. “You don’t sound so sure. Am I wrong?”
Dad shrugged. “Sometimes you think you know someone, but maybe it’s impossible to really know everything about a person, even someone you love. Maybe good people—the very best people—are just better at keeping secrets.”
I frowned at him. “What are you talking about, Dad? Is this what you were referring to on the phone?”
He turned his gaze toward the window over the sink and stared at the glass, as if transfixed. “I found something in the attic yesterday, and I don’t know what to make of it.”
“What was it?”
He finally looked at me. “I think you should take a look at it yourself, and then . . .” He couldn’t seem to finish the thought.
“And then what, Dad?”
“I don’t know. Let’s just go up there before I have to pick Gram up at the nursing home. She finishes at three.” He checked his watch. “We have about an hour.”
“Okay.” More than a little curious, I drank the last of my coffee and stood up from the table.
It had been years since I’d set foot in my grandmother’s attic. The last time was probably before Mom died, when I still considered it an adventure to climb the creaky stairs with Grampa Jack and make a private clubhouse out of sheets draped over old pieces of furniture and stacks of boxes. I’d beg him to tell me ghost stories until I screamed and ran back down the ladder.
There was always something wonderfully haunting about Gram’s attic. Maybe it was the cobwebs and dead houseflies on the windowsill. Or the way the wind howled through the eaves, and the entire house seemed to creak like an old ship at sea. Or maybe it was the smell of the place—the damp wood and boxes of musty old photo albums that contained pictures of people who were long gone from this world.
Gram’s attic was exactly how I remembered it—with exposed wooden beams overhead and sunlight filtering in through cracks in the walls, although the space seemed much smaller now. The old wicker rocking chair still stood under the window. I recalled, as if it were only yesterday, how I used to tie a string to the leg and pretend that a ghost was rocking it back and forth. Anything to scare Grampa Jack.
“I came up here yesterday,” Dad said, “thinking I’d add some insulation because they say it’s going to be a rough winter, but then I got caught up in some of the memorabilia.”
I glanced toward the large trunk that contained Gram’s wedding dress from her first marriage—a gorgeous Gatsby-inspired gown of silk chiffon with Chantilly lace. I used to try it on when I was young, and Gram never seemed to mind. The same trunk contained Grampa’s brown leather flying jacket from the war and all his medals for bravery, as well as a shabby old stuffed bear that belonged to my father when he was a child. The bear’s name was Teddy.
There were other dilapidated cardboard boxes on tables. They were full of books, magazines, and photo albums. Some had a few rare photos from Gram’s life with her first husband in England at the start of the war. But most of the albums contained pictures from her postwar existence here in America, with Grampa Jack.
Dad pointed at the smaller antique sea chest on a shelf in the corner. It was always locked, but I knew what was inside because Gram had opened it for me when I was twelve. She also showed me where she kept the key—in a drawer in her bedroom. She never said a word when I snuck into her room and borrowed the key, then played dress up in the attic with the jewelry inside that special chest.
My mother had whispered to me once that they were gifts from Gram’s first husband, the Englishman, and that she would have felt guilty wearing them after she married Grampa Jack.
I’d asked Mom if Gram’s first husband was the true love of her life. Mom said she had no idea because Gram never liked to talk about him.
“It’s in the past now,” Gram always said and skillfully changed the subject to something far removed from the war, like plans for whatever holiday season was approaching.
I met my father’s fretful gaze in the attic and felt a rush of unease as I crossed the loose floorboards toward the small chest, which stood on a shelf by the rocking chair.
Fingering the brass plate with an engraved figure of a lady in a Regency gown, I said, “I already know what’s in here. It’s full of jewelry from her first marriage. She always kept it locked, but she showed me where the key was when I was little. She kept it in her bedroom.”
“She showed you?” He seemed surprised. “Well, she must have been up here recently, because she left the key in the lock. I have it right here.” He reached into his pocket and produced it, then unlocked the chest and raised the lid to reveal pearl and gemstone necklaces, bracelets, and a velvet ring box, all sitting in a tangled pile on a bed of rose-colored satin. “I assume this is what you know about?”
“Yes. I used to call it the treasure chest. Mom said all of this was given to Gram by your real father.”
I couldn’t understand why this was such a disturbing discovery for my dad. Shouldn’t he be happy about it? Not just for sentimental reasons, but because it was probably worth a fortune. His real father was the son of an earl, after all.
“I know about that,” he replied, “but there’s something else in here that I don’t think anyone knows about. I doubt Grampa Jack ever knew.”
I regarded him with interest. “What is it?”
He indicated a satin-covered button at the bottom of the chest and pushed it sideways with his thumb, which took some effort. Suddenly, there was a clicking sound, and a secret drawer popped open.
“Wow,” I said, taken aback. “I never noticed that before.”
The drawer was disguised by the brass fittings along the exterior of the chest. I moved to examine it and pulled it fully open, but it was empty.
“There’s nothing in it,” I said.
I ran my finger along the smooth wooden interior and found a ribbon that lifted a false bottom. There, beneath it, were some black-and-white photographs. I withdrew them and frowned, understanding at last why my father was so troubled by this finding.
“Is this Gram?” I asked. “And how in the world did you discover this?”
“I don’t know. I guess I always had a funny feeling about this little chest when I was growing up—something about the way she was so protective of it. And then, when I saw the key in the lock yesterday . . . I couldn’t help myself. I was curious, so I fiddled around with it.”
I flipped through all four photographs of my sweet, loving grandmother in her younger days, looking vibrant, blonde, and beautiful, like a 1940s movie star. She appeared to be blissfully happy with a handsome young officer from the war.
But this man was no ordinary officer. Nor was he my English grandfather, Theodore, who had worked with Winston Churchill in London. This man was a German Nazi, and clearly, they were in love.
My eyes lifted, and I stared at my father with confusion. “Who is this guy?”
“I don’t know. But flip the pictures over.”
I did as he asked and saw what appeared to be my grandmother’s handwriting on the backs of each one. They all said the same thing:
April in Berlin, 1940.
“That’s just after the war started, wasn’t it?” I asked.
“Yes. Germany invaded Poland in September of ’39, and then Britain declared war immediately.”
I felt a sickening knot of dread in my belly, because I knew what my father was thinking.
“Dad . . .” I shook my head. “I’m sure that this man isn’t . . .” I couldn’t even bring myself to say it.
“My real father?” he finished for me.
I swallowed uneasily. “Of course he isn’t. Gram was married to that English aristocrat. We have pictures of them together, and I’m sure I’ve seen that old marriage certificate at some point. And you spent the first few years of your life at their country estate in England. You have memories of it.”
“I do remember it, but . . . where is that marriage certificate?” He moved to the larger trunk that contained Gram’s wedding dress and Grampa Jack’s medals. Dad raised the heavy lid and withdrew a large envelope with all sorts of musty-smelling documents from the war years—ration cards and Gram’s identity card and a pamphlet titled “Make Do and Mend.” He carefully unfolded an extremely delicate, yellowed piece of paper and handed it to me.
“See?” I said. “This says Vivian Hughes and Theodore Gibbons were married in England in November of 1939.”
He pointed at the photographs. “Then what was she doing in Berlin the following April with a German Nazi? Just look at those pictures. Whatever was going on between them wasn’t platonic. You can see it as plain as day.”
I moved to the window to study the pictures more carefully in the light. In one of them, Gram and the German officer were seated together in an art deco–style nightclub with an orchestra playing on the stage in the background. The German’s arm rested along the back of Gram’s chair, and he lounged comfortably, with one shiny black boot crossed over his thigh. Gram looked glamorous and radiant in a white gown with sequins, her shoulder-length blonde hair curled in a fashionable wartime style. The German wore a slate-gray officer’s uniform and appeared to be a highly decorated officer with Nazi medals and various insignia. I couldn’t deny that he had been a strikingly handsome man with fair hair and pale blue eyes.
My dad also had fair hair and blue eyes.
But so did Gram.
In another photo, they posed next to a shiny black Mercedes convertible with flags on the front grill, which suggested the vehicle was assigned to someone with a very high rank. They were gazing into each other’s eyes and smiling. Again, the German was in uniform, his black boots polished and gleaming.
The most disturbing photo of all, however, was one of my grandmother lying on her belly on an unmade bed, a half-empty bottle of whiskey in her hand. She was gazing into the camera with a playful, seductive glimmer in her eyes and no makeup, her hair in disarray. She wore nothing but a white chemise with one strap falling off her shoulder. The morning sun shone brightly through white sheer curtains, creating a square patch of sunlight on the foot of the bed, washing out that section of the photograph.
In the last one, they sat on a horse in a meadow of wildflowers. There were snow-capped mountains in the background. The officer wore plain clothes—a plaid shirt and denims. I wondered, with more than a little fascination, who had taken the picture. What sort of day had it been? Was this before the war? There was nothing written on the back of that particular picture. Was there laughter and joy? They certainly appeared to be happy together.
“How can this be?” my father asked, interrupting my thoughts. “What was she doing in Berlin, having a love affair with a German Nazi, when she was supposed to be married to my father in England? And the date . . . you can’t pretend it’s not suspicious.”
I flipped one of the other pictures over and did the math in my head. April 1940. My father was born in March 1941, eleven months later.
“This doesn’t mean he’s your father,” I said. “We don’t know where she was at the nine-month mark.”
“But it’s clear that she was with this man and in love with him shortly before I was conceived. I don’t know why or how that was possible when Britain and Germany were at war, but there it is in black and white. And what makes it hard to stomach is that she’s been hiding this secret all these years, and even Jack couldn’t have known the truth. Otherwise, those pictures wouldn’t be hidden in a secret compartment in a locked chest in the attic.” Dad cupped his forehead in a hand. “Oh God, this means I could be the son of a Nazi. Lord knows what crimes he committed. What if he was in charge of an extermination camp and ordered the deaths of thousands of Jews? I might have his blood running through my veins. And how could Gram have loved such a man?” He gestured toward the pictures. “It’s clear that she did love him. You can see it in her eyes. It makes me feel sick.”
I moved closer and laid my hand on my father’s shoulder. “We don’t know anything for sure, and even if he was your father, you have nothing to do with any of this. You’re a good man, and you weren’t part of whatever happened back then.”
“But if we’re related,” he argued, “and my own mother . . . how could she have kept this from me? Was she ashamed? Because she must have known what he did, what he represented, what side he was on. If not at the time, then at the end of the war when it all came out. And she was married to another man. That alone is enough to change everything I ever believed about her. You know what I’m talking about, Gill, after what Malcolm just did to you. How is it possible I never knew any of this? How could she have hidden this from all of us? Grampa Jack especially?” His face was flushing with color. I wished he would calm down.
“Maybe it’s not what it looks like,” I suggested. “I take it you haven’t asked her about it?”
“No. I just can’t believe it, because she was like a saint as a mother, and Jack was a hero in the war, risking his life to fight Hitler. I can’t imagine what he would have done if he’d found these pictures.”
I worked hard to speak in a relaxed tone. “We still don’t know what this is. Maybe there’s some other explanation, like . . . maybe she was a spy, and her husband sent her to Berlin to seduce this man. I mean . . . who has a chest like this with a secret compartment? It’s very James Bond.”
“Now you’re making fun.”
“No, I’m not, because that kind of stuff really happened, you know. There were lots of female spies during the war.”
He looked up. “I know there were, but not my mother. She would have told me about that.”
I took a step back, not wanting to remind him that he’d just finished saying that maybe it wasn’t possible to know everything about a person—even someone you loved. Maybe good people are just better at keeping secrets.
Dad checked his watch. “We should get going. I have to pick her up at the nursing home.”
“I’ll come with you,” I replied, “and then we can ask her about this.”
Dad shook his head, as if he dreaded the idea of bringing it up. “I don’t know how we’re going to do that.”
“We’ll just show her the pictures,” I replied, “and see what she has to say about them.”