CLARA LEHRER twisted the loose strand of cotton from the hem of her skirt around her finger clockwise and then anticlockwise. It was a simple enough motion, but one she had clung to since the cell door slammed behind her, trapping her in darkness.
She had no idea how much time had passed since she’d been taken into custody. While her captors supplied her with food and water, it came at irregular intervals, and a guard stayed with her while she consumed it by the light of a small candle. Clara hadn’t bothered trying to make conversation and, to be honest, was quite relieved when none had been forthcoming. She had heard stories from friends within the Resistance about what happened to prisoners of the Gestapo and seen enough of it firsthand when she’d treated those who had escaped.
This was merely a temporary measure while Herr SS Standartenführer Holm planned his next move. Clara wasn’t foolish enough to believe she was a valuable prisoner because of her known association with the Resistance. No, she was merely a pawn in a much larger game of chess. Holm wanted Clara’s younger brother, Kristopher, in custody. As soon as he was found or Holm decided she was of no further use, she would be quickly shipped out to a detention camp and probably never seen or heard from again.
“Kit, please be safe,” she whispered under her breath. If he had any sense, he’d be out of Berlin by now. Kristopher’s world had turned upside down since he made the decision not to allow his work to fall into the wrong hands. While a brilliant scientist, he was sadly naive about how much things had deteriorated as this war progressed.
Clara closed her eyes, remembering the last time she’d seen him. Michel had brought Kristopher to her, seeking medical attention for the bullet wound in her brother’s shoulder. She hadn’t missed the way they’d reacted to each other. Kristopher had strong feelings for Michel, and if she wasn’t mistaken, it was mutual. When she’d told Michel, the undercover Resistance agent, to keep an eye on her brother, she hadn’t expected that to happen.
She smiled. It wouldn’t be just the need to keep his work out of Nazi hands that would motivate Kristopher to survive this war, but his desire to keep Michel safe.
She shook her head. Unfortunately, knowing Kristopher, that desire could also work against him. He had a tendency to put himself at risk to protect those he cared about. Although Michel was very capable, he and Kristopher would need all the help they could get.
The door to Clara’s cell swung open. She blinked against the sudden light. To her surprise, Margarete Huber stood framed in the doorway. Her arm was bandaged and in a sling, no doubt from injuries sustained in the recent Allied bombing of the area. The original premises used by the project had been badly damaged, so much so that Holm had relocated with his men to Gestapo Headquarters.
“Fräulein Dr. Lehrer,” Margarete said, inclining her head in greeting. She held out her hand. “Allow me to express my apology for the way in which you’ve been treated. I can assure you I had no idea you’d been left here.”
I’m sure you didn’t, Clara thought, but she took Margarete’s hand and allowed herself to be led from the cell. “I hope the man who was brought in with me was not left forgotten,” she said. The young Allied soldier had a gunshot wound to his leg. Clara had been assured he would be taken somewhere where he would receive medical treatment.
“Of course not!” Margarete seemed surprised. “He is recovering from surgery and then will be transported to a suitable location.” She shook her head. “Our families have known each other since we were children. I am shocked that you would think such a thing.”
“My apologies,” Clara said in the same tone Margarete had used when speaking to her a few moments before. “These are trying times, and we all find ourselves reacting to things to which we are not accustomed.”
Margarete smiled again. Clara suppressed a shiver. She’d never liked Margarete or the way she’d hovered around Kristopher over the past few years despite his continued rejection of her advances.
“Exactly,” agreed Margarete. “Herr SS Standartenführer Holm has asked me to speak with you, as he is busy for the moment.” She sighed. “Sadly there is still no word about the whereabouts of your brother or the traitor with him. Finding Herr Dr. Lehrer and the information he carries is our priority. We are concerned for his safety.”
“All we can do is to continue to hope he is safe,” Clara said, not about to confirm or deny whether he and Michel were traveling together.
“Neither is there any word about the escaped prisoners.” Margarete led Clara into what appeared to be some kind of office. Two heavily armed SS soldiers stood on duty outside the door. They nodded at Margarete as both women entered. The door remained open behind them. The room had no other exit. “I don’t suppose you have any information that could help us find them? Their associate was not particularly forthcoming despite SS Obersturmführer Reiniger’s best efforts to ask nicely.”
Reiniger was a bully who enjoyed inflicting pain. Clara hoped Palmer hadn’t suffered too much.
“No, I don’t,” Clara replied. Margarete could be asking for one of two reasons. Either Reiniger still hadn’t located Matthew Bryant and his men, or they were already in custody and the question was a test of Clara’s loyalty to the Third Reich.
“That’s a shame,” Margarete said softly. She poured a glass of water from the pitcher on the table and handed it to Clara. “It would make things go so much easier for you if you cooperated.”
Clara took the glass. Her hand shook, although her voice was even. “If the reason for your civility is to persuade me to give up my brother, Fräulein Huber, you’re wasting your time. I have no idea where he is or even if he is still alive.”
KRISTOPHER LEHRER peered at himself in the small oval mirror Michel handed him. Although he knew the face looking back at him was his, it gave him a shock to see himself with darker hair. For a moment, he thought he’d seen something of his father in his reflection, but pushed that thought to one side. The news of his father’s death still hurt, although it hadn’t changed the fact they would have never agreed about the decisions Kristopher had made before he’d left Berlin. “It’s… different,” he said finally.
“That’s the idea,” Michel Faber said. He ran his fingers through Kristopher’s now dark brown hair and picked up the scissors. “I did like you as a blond, mon cher,” he said quietly.
“It will grow out, but hopefully not too soon.” Kristopher placed the mirror on his lap and pulled the old towel around him. “Do you think it will be enough? I still look like me.”
“The Gestapo are looking for a blond scientist,” Michel told him. He began cutting Kristopher’s hair, altering the length and style into something more appropriate for a man in the German Army. “People see what they expect. Once you’re wearing your uniform, and if you don’t draw too much attention to yourself, hopefully luck will stay on our side.”
“What about you?” Kristopher twisted around to look at Michel when Michel’s hand stilled. “You haven’t changed your appearance, and Holm and his men know what you look like.” Michel’s hair was dark blond, and he had striking brown eyes with a hint of green to them. Kristopher loved Michel’s eye color, especially the way the green seemed to deepen when they made love.
“You’re their target, Kit, not me.” Michel shook his head. “The files they have on record are for the original Obergefreiter Schmitz, not me. I suspect it is one of the reasons my cover was compromised. Holm was already suspicious, and my identity papers, while good, would not have stood up to scrutiny once he compared them to Schmitz’s. We did not look anything alike, and he was a lot younger than me.” He shrugged. “We worked with what we had at the time because we had no choice.”
“We don’t have much of a choice with this either.” Kristopher turned around again so Michel could finish the task at hand. “When you’re done, I’ll trim your hair for you too. It’s grown somewhat since we arrived at St. Gertrud’s.”
They’d been hiding in the attic for over two months, only venturing outside at night, and then not going any farther than the pond at the back of the convent. The trip from Alexanderdorf to Switzerland was a long one, fraught with danger. It would be foolish to attempt it before Kristopher’s wound was fully healed. They had escaped one close call, shortly after they’d arrived, when SS Obersturmführer Reiniger had searched the convent. In his nightmares, Kristopher saw Michel tortured and heard himself screaming for Reiniger to stop, that he’d tell Holm anything he wanted. He couldn’t let that happen.
One life for thousands.
Could he sacrifice the man he loved to save others? He knew he might have to, although he wasn’t sure he could. He’d take a bullet himself first, but if they were both caught and he was killed, then Michel’s life would also be forfeit. Michel was useful as leverage, as a hostage to ensure Kristopher’s cooperation. Nothing more.
Kristopher had always known the weapon potential of the energy source he’d helped design. When he’d joined the project, it hadn’t been a priority. Even after the war began, most believed Germany would soon achieve victory. That and the fact the uranium enrichment was going slower than planned would have made it impossible to get a bomb ready in time to be used. Kristopher still remembered the relief he’d felt upon that discovery. When had everything changed? Dr. Kluge had led him to believe that side of the project had been discarded. Finding the letter in Dr. Kluge’s papers from the Nazis stating they were working together had woken Kristopher to the reality of the situation.
He should have listened to his nightmares far sooner. Despite Kluge’s reassurances, Kristopher should have realized that far more money was made available for their research than most were aware of. It had been too easy to stick his head in the sand and chant the mantra to himself that they were working for the advancement of science and the good of the Fatherland.
It was only now he’d finally had the time and distance to think everything through that he realized just how much of a fool he’d been. Michel had shaken his head and voiced his disbelief that Kristopher could have been so unaware of what was going on around him. Kristopher had found it difficult to admit, not only to himself but to Michel, that he’d chosen to be unaware. He had clung to the idea that surely, even if such a weapon were to be built, no one would ever use it. He’d always believed that, deep down, people were good, but now he wasn’t so sure. Although David’s warning had been a turning point in Kristopher’s life, Michel was right. David—an old friend, and a Jew—had risked his life to reiterate what Kristopher already knew but tried to ignore.
Not only had David disappeared soon afterward but now Kristopher and Michel were being hunted, both because Kristopher knew the final formulae needed to make the weapon a reality and for a murder they didn’t commit.
He bit his lip. If Holm discovered the truth about Kristopher and Michel’s relationship, he wouldn’t need any excuse to arrest them. One man was not allowed to love another, let alone enter into a sexual relationship. Their slim chance of a future together would drop to zero, as would their life expectancy, if they were sent to a concentration camp.
“You’re thinking too much,” Michel said. He laid down the scissors, walked around to the front of the chair, and pulled Kristopher into his arms.
Kristopher leaned into Michel, the towel slipping from his shoulders to fall to the floor. “There’s a lot to think about,” he whispered. “You’d think with the time we’d spent here it would stop going around in circles in my head, but it hasn’t. Not at all.”
“You wouldn’t be you if it had.” Michel kissed Kristopher’s forehead. “I’d hope that you’d at least moved on from your feelings of guilt, but I’d be wasting my time, wouldn’t I?”
“Yes.” Kristopher didn’t see the point in lying.
Spending time in close proximity like this meant they’d got to know each other very well. They’d talked a lot, not only about their hopes and dreams but about their regrets. They both had them. Michel had told Kristopher he figured most men their age did, especially with the war going on around them. Too many people had died already, too many good people had given their lives for a cause they believed in. Surely it all couldn’t be for nothing?
“The past is done, mon cher,” Michel said. He lifted Kristopher’s head and kissed him deeply on the lips. “We can’t change it, but the future is still unwritten. That, we do have a chance to influence for the better.”
“Is it for the better?” Kit asked. He caressed Michel’s cheek, the stubble of his lover’s beard rough under his fingertips. “What happens when we get to Switzerland? What do you think the Allies will do with this weapon once they have it? They’re just as desperate to win the war.”
“You may be right,” Michel admitted. “I really don’t know. But all we can do is take this one step at a time. For now, I’m more worried about getting you somewhere safe. The longer we stay here, the more we risk Reiniger deciding to come back. We made him lose face in front of his superior when we left him tied to that tree. He is a man who holds a grudge, and he won’t rest until he has the opportunity to take revenge.”
“I don’t know how you put up with him for all those months you were undercover.”
“We all do what needs to be done.” Michel smiled and placed his hand over Kristopher’s. “Some might wonder how you’ve put up with me these past months. I’m not always the best of company, and these walls are beginning to make me more than a little claustrophobic.”
Kristopher pulled Michel onto his lap and kissed him, cupping the back of his head to hold him close. “Je t’aime, Michel,” he whispered when he finally broke the kiss.
“Ich liebe dich auch, Kit.” Michel’s skin was flushed. He was breathing heavily. “Do you know what you do to me when you do that?”
“Tell you ‘I love you’ or kiss you?” Kristopher teased. Michel speaking the same words in German never failed to make Kristopher’s breath hitch.
“Both.” Michel reached for the buttons on Kristopher’s shirt. He shuffled forward on Kristopher’s lap, his cock straining against the material of his trousers. Michel groaned. He finished undoing Kristopher’s buttons and slid the shirt from his shoulders, kissing across his shoulder and nipping at the skin. “After we leave here, I won’t be able to touch you like this. We’ll have to be very careful so no one suspects.”
“Perhaps one of these safe houses will have a room with a lock?” Kristopher suggested. He ran his hands up and down Michel’s back. Whenever they made love, he couldn’t help but think it might be their last time together.
He glanced toward the trap door, making sure the lock was still secure.
“You’re still thinking too much.” Michel silenced him with another kiss. He pulled Kristopher’s undershirt over his head. Michel licked his lips. “You’re beautiful, Kit,” he murmured. He dipped his head and ran his tongue over one of Kristopher’s nipples. It hardened under his touch. Kristopher bit back a gasp. He threaded his fingers through Michel’s hair.
“Oh, oh.” Kristopher tried to force himself to think, to tell Michel that no, he really wasn’t, but he couldn’t get the words to form.
Michel began to undo Kristopher’s belt and then reached for his fly. “I want a future with you. I want to still be with you when we’re old and gray.” Michel closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, Kristopher saw a familiar desperation there. “I’m yours. For as long as we have together, I’m yours,” Michel promised.
“Touch me. Please.” Kristopher yanked Michel’s shirt and undershirt from his trousers and caressed the bare skin beneath. “I want you.” Michel slipped his fingers beneath Kristopher’s undershorts. Kristopher scrunched the material of Michel’s shirt with one hand, his knuckles white. “Oh God. There. Yes. Right there.”
“Right there?” Michel’s voice was breathy, barely above a whisper. Kristopher reached down and fumbled with the clasp on Michel’s belt. Once undone, he yanked down the fly and the white cotton material beneath it.
“I want you. Now.” Kristopher began stroking Michel, slowly at first, then speeding up. Michel mirrored the rhythm and touched Kristopher the same way. They both withdrew their hands at the same time and rocked against each other, thrusting, bare skin sliding against bare skin, their movements getting faster.
Kristopher moaned loudly. Michel leaned in and kissed him, muffling the noise, exploring Kristopher’s mouth with his tongue. He thrust frantically against Kristopher, his body going rigid as he lost control. Michel broke the kiss and buried his head against Kristopher’s shoulder. Kristopher followed a moment later, clinging to Michel, holding him close.
“We’ve made a bit of a mess,” Kristopher said shakily, glancing down.
“Just a little,” Michel agreed. He smiled softly. “I do love you, Kit, with everything I am.”
“I know you do,” Kristopher whispered. “I love you too.” He traced Michel’s lips with his fingers. When he smiled like this, it was as though nothing lay between them, as though Kristopher could see into Michel’s very soul. If someone had told him a few short months ago that he’d ever feel like this about someone, he wouldn’t have believed it. While it wasn’t the first time he’d felt sexually attracted to another man, this wasn’t the same. This was more than just lust; it was too emotional, too deep to be anything but the love he knew it to be. He didn’t speak the words lightly. They came from his heart.
“You—” Whatever Michel was about to say was lost when a familiar loud creak reverberated through their attic room. Someone was coming up the stairs.
Michel placed one finger over Kristopher’s lips to quiet him before slipping off his lap and grabbing a cloth. He dunked it in the basin of water by the wall, squeezed it out, and threw it in Kristopher’s direction.
They could not afford to be caught with any clue as to what they’d just been doing. Not even by someone they perceived to be a friend.
Another creak sounded a few moments after the first. Two of the stairs leading to the attic were loose; it was an early warning someone was approaching. Kristopher cleaned himself quickly and yanked his trousers up, ready to dive toward the hidden room. He was still fastening them when he heard the lock being opened on the other side of the door.
“Oh Lord, thou hast searched me…,” Sister Magdalene called out the beginning of the psalm that was their agreed code phrase. Kristopher heaved a sigh of relief.
“I’m sorry,” he mouthed. Every time they made love, there was a chance they would be discovered. Despite the sisters’ work with the Resistance and their support for their “guests” so far, Kristopher did not want to either see or risk a less than favorable reaction to the intimacy he and Michel shared. Emotions tended to run high over a person’s beliefs. Hell, Kristopher had been no better about his views on certain subjects until recently.
Michel merely shrugged and shook his head. He refastened his fly and called out in the direction of the door. “My apologies. I’m unlocking it now, Sister.” They often locked it from their side too when they were sleeping. Sister Magdalene had suggested it, as it would give them more time to get to the hidden room. It was easier to miss the telltale creak of the stairs when not awake. Although the fact it was locked from the inside would be a giveaway someone might be there, it was better than the alternative, and it was easy enough to argue the stiff old lock was beyond a woman’s strength. She’d told them that for two men, they took a “surprising amount of naps for ones so young.”
Sister Magdalene’s gaze lingered on Kristopher for a moment, and then she smiled. “Hair gets everywhere when you cut it, doesn’t it? It’s very sensible of you to remove your shirt before you started, although I wouldn’t stay like that for too long. The convent furnace is old and not as efficient as it once was, and February is a cold month. Enjoy the heat while you have it.”
Kristopher blinked several times before replying. “Yes, it does, and we will.” He was never quite sure how to take Sister Magdalene’s comments and wondered occasionally just how aware she was of what went on under her roof.
“Thank you, Sister,” said Michel. He’d managed to get his shirt tucked back in, although a few buttons were still undone. “The walnut dye you supplied has worked well.”
“It should last a good while too, although you may have to reapply it, depending on how long your journey takes.” She glanced at Kristopher. “Take care to keep your beard trimmed, as that will draw attention to the difference between the dye and your natural color. The equipment is set up to take your photograph. You should have the papers tomorrow. I must admit, I will miss both of you.”
“Is there any word of my sister?” Kristopher asked. Sister Magdalene had known Clara when she’d first started working at the hospital and had promised to make discreet inquiries.
“As far as I know she is still in custody. I’m sorry. Security is very tight around Gestapo Headquarters in Berlin, but I will let you know if I hear anything further before you leave.” Sister Magdalene sighed. “I pray for the end of this war every day. Too many lives have been lost and too many families separated.”
“Thank you,” Kristopher said. Each day he hoped and prayed that Clara was all right. He’d been shocked when he’d discovered she was a part of the Resistance movement in Berlin. Reiniger had taunted him with the knowledge she was in custody when he’d tried to get Kristopher to give himself up. But once he was discovered, her usefulness would be at an end. The best way to protect her was to evade Holm and his men and to complete what he’d set out to do and get the formulae he carried in his head to the Allies.
“Thank you for everything you’ve done,” Michel said. “We know how much of a risk you take in harboring us here.”
Sister Magdalene shrugged. “We do what we can to help those in need, Herr Schmitz. It’s what we’ve always done, and I don’t see why we should change that now.” She peered at Kristopher. “Your shoulder has healed well. You’re moving it much better than you were when you first came to us.”
“It is a lot better,” Kristopher admitted, “but I get a few twinges with the cold weather.” He’d expected that. Although he didn’t possess his sister’s medical knowledge, he had listened to her talk about her work since he was a child and had picked up information that way. She’d also given him some basic first aid training in case he ever needed it. On the run across Germany disguised as a medic was not the way she’d most likely intended him to use it.
“Unfortunately none of us have any control over the weather,” Sister Magdalene said. “My poor joints are already looking forward to the spring.” She turned to go. “Sister Claire has been making bread, so there will be that to go with the soup for supper tonight.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” Michel said. “Her bread is delicious.”
Sister Magdalene chuckled. “You are very polite. The poor dear means well, and I must admit I’ve tasted worse.”
“So have I,” Michel told her, “but the experience was one I’d prefer not to dwell on.” He waited until she’d left the room before continuing. “You should change into your uniform, Kit. The sooner the photograph is taken, the better. I’ll feel happier once we have your papers.”
“Do you think we’ll need to leave earlier than we thought?”
Michel shrugged. “There’s no reason to think we will, but I’d still prefer to have your papers before our transport arrives, just in case there are any problems.”
“I could still be Brother Dominic, if there was no choice,” Kristopher pointed out. It was the identity he’d used to flee Berlin.
“We got away with that once. I don’t want to risk it again. Holm is no fool, and there would have been a reason he sent Reiniger to search for us here. The Oberfeldwebel who stopped us at the checkpoint might have said something in his report that made Holm suspicious.”
“Your papers have the same name on them you were using with Sister Brigit at the Klosterkirche. Isn’t that just as dangerous?”
“Sister Brigit knows far more than just my false identity, so if she is arrested, that is the least of our problems.”
Michel shrugged, but Kristopher knew the motion was to hide his fear that might happen. Sister Brigit had been a good friend to them, and Michel had already lost his brother and a close friend, among others, to this war.
“As with all false papers, they won’t stand up to too much scrutiny, but we work with what we have. Yours won’t either. Nevertheless, I figured as I already have a set of papers with an identity Holm won’t be looking for, it makes sense to use them. That way too, we only had to worry about getting yours.”
If they were caught at the convent, any papers would be useless, so there hadn’t been a great rush for them until needed. They’d hidden Kristopher’s original papers. He’d have to convince their contact in Switzerland of his identity some other way. The formulae in his head would go a long way toward that; he was a valuable commodity.
Kristopher shook his head. He didn’t want to think about that right now. One day at a time. He’d told himself that ever since their arrival here. He’d have to deal with the fallout of what he’d done with the Allied authorities soon enough. For now, he and Michel were still alive and together, and that was what mattered.
He walked over to the bed and the uniform lying on it. “Let’s get this over with,” he told Michel. “Very soon I’ll be Paul Reichel, and you’ll be Michel Werner, and we can’t be anyone but two soldiers traveling together to rejoin their unit. This could be the last time we have the luxury of just being us, Michel. Let’s make the most of it.”
Michel silently slipped his arms around Kristopher and rested his head on Kristopher’s shoulder. “I like that idea.” He turned Kristopher to face him. “Whoever you’ll pretend to be or need to be, you’ll always be Kit Lehrer to me.”
“I’ll hold on to that thought.” Kristopher smiled. He caressed Michel’s cheek. “You need a shave, my love. Let me do it for you?”
“After supper?” Michel smiled and his eyes lit up. He’d shaved Kristopher when his shoulder was too sore to do it himself.
“Yes, unless there is something else you’d prefer to do?” Kristopher couldn’t help but grin. He nodded toward the chessboard set up near the window.
Instead of answering with words, Michel kissed Kristopher, long and deep. When he broke the kiss, he leaned his forehead against Kristopher’s, both of them breathing hard.
“I’ll take that as a no to the chess, then, hmm?”
“Your reputation as a brilliant man is not without good reason, I see.” Michel returned Kristopher’s grin, ran his hands over his buttocks, and then let him go. “Get dressed, mon cher.” He looked Kristopher up and down and swallowed. “Let’s not waste the little time we have.”