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The Daring Girls of Guernsey: a Novel of World War II
by Gayle Callen
From USA Today bestselling author Gayle Callen comes a fascinating historical novel of three courageous young women who aid a desperate British spy during the German occupation of Guernsey Island in World War II.
In 1940, Germany seizes control of Guernsey without a fight – but not without resistance. Innocent young teacher Catherine is forced to house a German officer. Shrewd waitress Betty seeks to elude the persistent Nazi determined to conquer her. And courageous nurse Helen cares for her patients – both British and German – while hiding a British spy in her seaside cottage.
Their fight against the injustices being enacted on their island home brings the women, the spy, and their enemies together in one night that will change all of their lives forever. Though none of them could foresee that the battle they fought that night would reach across time to 1997, when the tragic fallout ensnares Helen once more.
“The compelling, gripping, authentic story of three brave women living under the German occupation of Guernsey Island during WWII. I savored every page!” ~ NY Times bestselling author Maggie Shayne
"The story kept me turning the pages, from beginning to end … Though there was tragedy and suffering as there is in war, there was also hope. The story touched my heart and kept me enthralled throughout the book." ~ Sahar's Honest Reviews
“A well-written and fascinating story.” ~ an Amazon reviewer
"This book was absolutely wonderful. Gayle Callen always writes great characters, and Daring Girls is no exception. The whole book kept me on my toes!" ~ an Amazon reviewer
(The following is the property of the author and Oliver Heber Books and cannot be copied or reprinted without permission.)
“It’s true, dear. Someone is trying to kill me. Oh, how lovely, you brought chocolates.”
I gaped at my grandmother, Helen Coleridge, lying in her hospital bed. She looked smaller than the last time I’d seen her, with a cast on her leg and a bruise on the left side of her face. But behind wire-rimmed glasses, those green eyes still regarded me steadily…expectantly. Her wavy white hair was cut short, the laugh lines around her eyes and mouth were a little deeper. I handed her the box of chocolates, feeling bewildered and sad. Were my parents right—was Grandma starting to lose it?
She lifted the cover of the box and closed her eyes as she inhaled the scent of chocolate. “You Americans do know how to make chocolate, no matter what anyone says.”
“Grandma, you’re an American, too.” Had she even forgotten that she’d left the UK behind after World War II? Not the UK, I quickly reminded myself. Grandma would always frown as she reminded me that Guernsey Island was a dependency of the Crown, not a part of the United Kingdom.
“I know I’m an American, Chelsea.” Instead of eating a chocolate, she regarded me with eyes that turned from teasing to sober, even as a monitor continued to beep behind her head. “But I do wish your parents had kept my concerns to themselves. At twenty-two, you are too young to be involved.”
For a woman everyone was worried was losing her mind, Grandma certainly remembered my age correctly. My tense shoulders loosened a bit, and I sat down on the edge of the bed. A nurse came in to check the monitor, and the beeping disappeared. Smiling, the nurse left with an apology.
“Grandma,” I said, “I’m not too young. At my age you were living under German occupation.”
She ignored that statement and ate a chocolate.
“My parents only told me because they’re worried, and I pried it out of them.” I leaned closer and lowered my voice, trying to keep my eyes from watering as I said gently, “You fell down the stairs. It can happen to anybody.”
She gave me a smile. “Of course you’re right.”
She took another bite as I frowned in confusion. “So now you’re just backing down? You told my parents you couldn’t return to your house because someone was trying to kill you, that you needed help finding someplace else to live.”
“That was a mistake, weakness on my part. I don’t need anyone’s help selling my house.”
“Selling your house? You’ve lived there all your married life!”
“You’re right, that will be too suspicious. And I certainly don’t want to put you or your parents in danger.”
In danger? I had to struggle to keep my lips from trembling, even as my eyes stung. But Grandma didn’t sound like someone who was losing her mind. Shouldn’t she sound vague, distracted? Instead, she was confident and calm, like always, no different than during our weekly phone chats. Erie PA and New York City were far enough apart to make it hard for me to visit. I went to audition after audition, trying for my big break, and she loved hearing about it.
Grandpa had died ten years before, and Grandma had retired from the nursing career she’d resumed when my mom was in school. She still enjoyed her garden and reading books and going on day trips with her church group.
But now she’d fallen down the stairs. And look at the bruise on her cheek! She didn’t have a concussion, but surely something was rattled in there.
I reached for the frail hand that had come to rest on top of the closed box of chocolate. “Tell me why you think someone is trying to kill you.”
I willed her to meet my eyes, even as she stared at the window shades or the bland painting on the wall, anywhere but at me.
“Will you pour me some water, Chelsea?”
I reached for the little plastic pitcher on her tray table and accidentally knocked it over. “Damn!”
Franticly, I moved two books and the box of tissues out of the way of the spreading puddle, revealing an envelope underneath. It was dripping wet and already sliced open, so I pulled the letter out and unfolded it to dry.
“Give me that,” she said suddenly.
But it was too late. I read:
Catherine died. You’re next.
A shiver of unease chilled me. No signature, just a newspaper clipping taped to it—an obituary.
“Grandma?” I said, surprised at how weak my voice sounded.
“Just a joke between friends,” she assured me. “We’re of the age that all our friends die, and we wonder who’ll be next, that’s all.”
I threw some napkins onto the puddle and sat down on the edge of the bed. “You think someone pushed you down the stairs. Is this letter the reason you believe your fall wasn’t an accident?”
She pursed her lips for a long moment, but I was going to be patient if it killed me.
“The letter isn’t the initial reason, no,” she finally said, her voice quiet but earnest. “I felt the hands on my back just before I fell.”
“I don’t want to involve you, Chelsea, I’ve told you that.”
“It’s too late—I’m involved. I want to help. I’m not a child. Didn’t you say I’m the exact age you were when the Germans landed on Guernsey Island all those years ago?”
She frowned. “You believe me?”
Her clear eyes searched mine. This wasn’t a woman who made things up, and she wasn’t losing her mind—I didn’t need a letter to convince me of that.
“Of course I do! Tell me what’s going on, please. I want to help.”
She gave a long sigh and lowered her gaze to the letter. “That’s the obituary of a dear friend of mine, Catherine Chastain. Though I moved away from Guernsey after the war, we always stayed in touch by letter and phone. We even visited each other several times. There’s a bond you cannot break, after what we went through. She died last week, bless her soul. The obituary says she died at home surrounded by her family, which gave me peace. But after that letter? I don’t know what to think.”
“Would someone want to kill her? And kill you?”
She gave a tired smile. “They might. Things happened in the war, my dear. We all made choices in hopes of surviving, some of which we regretted. It’s a long story, but one I’ve been waiting your entire life to tell you. I don’t want to wait anymore, even though you might not like what you discover.”
She looked at me with such intensity that I actually gulped.
“I want to hear it,” I said.
I had a premonition that everything I thought I knew was about to change.
With a deep sigh, she leaned back against her pillow, her gaze wandering slowly to the window. “The sky looked just this overcast on the day the Nazis arrived on Guernsey Island.”
Saint Peter Port, Guernsey Island
At first, Helen Abernathy didn’t recognize the sound of marching feet. She’d been focused on the overcast sky, wondering if she’d made a mistake leaving her umbrella at home while she shopped on High Street along with other women frantic to secure supplies in case the worst happened. The breeze was warm, the scent of jasmine soothing. Palm fronds swayed in the nearby park. For once there weren’t German planes flying overhead on their way to bomb Britain. War encroached on their island like a tightening noose trapping them between Britain and France. France had fallen just a few weeks before, the only country between them and Hitler’s Wehrmacht.
As she looked through a window at the long queue of women inside the grocer’s, she heard that sound again, distant, like the drone of a bee you’re wary of but can’t see. She found herself touching her mother’s brooch pinned just above her heart, as if to give herself comfort. It was a tiny sprig of flowers, and it never failed to cheer her as it reminded her of her parents, who’d gone to heaven just two years before.
But she didn’t feel cheered today, not as that strange sound became louder and louder, until she thought the ground would begin to shake. Her heart pounded in matching tempo, and she gripped her purse to steady her trembling.
Around the bend in the street, between the two- and three-story stone buildings, a division of German troops marched toward them. Helen hadn’t even known they’d landed on the island.
It felt as if the world around her stopped, everything out of focus except for the soldiers in grayish green jackets with black equipment belts around their waists, dark helmets protecting their heads, marching in perfect formation, legs extended forward with showy precision.
She’d known they would come—it was all anyone talked about, especially after the Luftwaffe had bombed Saint Peter Port harbor, killing dozens, destroying a long line of lorries brimming with tomatoes, their major export. Helen’s seamstress had died while waiting for her husband’s fishing boat to return to the harbor; farmers across the island had had their season’s crop obliterated. Helen had rushed to the waterfront, hoping her nursing skills could help.
Tens of thousands had fled the Channel Islands both before the bombing and afterward, leaving Guernsey a shell of itself, stores abandoned, fields left fallow. Now it looked like their fears had been justified.
Helen stiffened as they came closer, their marching boots louder, the ground trembling before them. An old man stumbled back against the wall and gasped, and Helen imagined she saw his memories of the Great War flashing in his stunned eyes.
Everyone around her scattered out of the street, pressing back against the stone walls or fleeing inside as the Germans approached, looking so tall and formidable. There were no smirks—it wasn’t necessary, and the soldiers knew it. They’d conquered the islands without a battle, without a soldier lost.
They came abreast of her, six across in the narrow lane. She swallowed convulsively, trying to hide her emotions, praying that she could be brave. Her island had been invaded, and no one knew what would happen next. There were whispers of what the Germans had done to remote villages in Poland and Czechoslovakia, men killed, women raped. Guernsey had no defenses, no weapons, unless you counted kitchen knives or shotguns for hunting. What islander would be foolish enough to fight against the most powerful army on the continent?
Britain obviously did not consider the Channel Islands worth fighting for; they’d taken their weapons and left. Bitterness was like bile in her stomach. Ever since the bombing of Saint Peter Port, she’d woken up several times a night, convinced she’d heard that low threatening drone of approaching planes, but it had only been the sea crashing against the cliffs beneath her cottage.
The last of the German division passed by, their marching footsteps fading, and an eerie silence permeated the street. Then by ones and twos, islanders emerged from the shops and stared in fear at the backs of the German soldiers until they were out of sight. Several children ran to follow them, and Helen almost reached for one—but what was the point?
At least there’d be no more bombings now that the Germans had arrived, she thought with irony.
Their little island paradise was theirs no more.
Helen drove to her friend Catherine’s house on the edge of town, realizing she’d forgotten to buy the wine she’d meant to bring in her shock at the German invasion. The Braun household was a second home to her, especially after Helen’s parents had died. They were a real family, loving and bickering even as they welcomed her. She and Catherine had been the best of friends since childhood, roaming the seashore for shells all summer, and playing football with girls when the boys wouldn’t let them. Catherine was everything Helen wasn’t—red-headed, vivacious, and outgoing, the first to make a new friend, with the ability to see the best in everybody. Though Helen was used to living alone, it would be good to be among people almost like family to her after the day’s frightening events.
No one answered her knock. After a minute, she tried again, but the curtains didn’t even ripple. This wasn’t like the Brauns, and the fear welled back up inside her so quickly. Mr. Braun was an electrician at the airport—had he been there when the Germans arrived? Had something happened to him?
She ran down the steps and around the side of the house to the garden, the favorite retreat of the family. She thought she’d try the back door, but to her surprise, she found the Brauns gathered near the lush June foliage beyond the swings. They looked around guiltily when they heard her coming, then sagged with relief.
Mr. Braun straightened slowly, stiffly, his usual cheerful grin absent. Dirt speckled his knees and hands. His eyes usually lit with gladness upon seeing her, as if she was one of his own children, but now he frowned and shook a finger at her.
“Helen Abernathy, what are you doing out on the roads this evening? Don’t you know how dangerous it is?”
Behind him, Catherine winced and mouthed an apology, throwing her dirty hands wide. It wasn’t a true conversation if Catherine’s hands weren’t moving constantly.
“I was invited to dinner,” Helen said, dismayed. “What are you all doing back here? I was scared to death when no one answered my knock.”
“Don’t you know that the Germans have landed?” Mr. Braun continued with outrage. “They took command of the island as if they owned it! They sneered down at those of us just doing our job.”
“I was on High Street when they marched by,” Helen said.
With a gasp, Catherine started to cover her mouth with both hands, then seemed to notice the dirt. “They’ve left the airport and come to town?”
Mrs. Braun, short and plump, cried out softly and buried her face in her apron.
Her eight-year-old son Timmy gave his mum a worried glance, but when he looked at Helen, she saw the excitement he couldn’t hide. “What did you see? What did they do?”
“They just—marched with precision,” Helen said lamely. “I think they wanted to scare us, and it worked. But what are all of you doing right now?”
The Brauns exchanged nervous glances.
Catherine loudly whispered, “We’re burying the silver. Want to help?”
Regardless of how overwhelmed she was feeling, Helen wanted to join in, anything to help them all believe they were doing something against the Germans. Timmy handed her a spare shovel, and she set to work alongside them. They didn’t have all that much silver, but the ground was hard, and the light was failing. By the time they’d put several small boxes into the ground, replaced the dirt and the squares of grass, then leaned on their shovels in exhaustion, they could barely see each other.
“Come inside for supper,” Mrs. Braun told Helen.
She was so hungry it was easy to agree.
The family trooped inside, but Catherine took Helen’s arm and pulled her back, then burst into tears. Helen enfolded her in a hug, and they stood there, trying to find some comfort in their long friendship, the way they always knew what the other was thinking.
At last, Catherine’s quiet sobs lessened, and she pulled back to tug a handkerchief out of her sleeve and blow her nose.
“Better?” Helen asked gently.
“No.” But she was almost smiling as she spoke. “I’m glad you’re here.”
They sank down onto the swings they’d used since childhood and looked at each other.
“I didn’t think the Germans would invade,” Catherine said after a long silence. “Foolish of me, I know.”
Helen sighed. “We certainly kept hoping we’d be spared.”
“I feel so…selfish, as if it shouldn’t happen to me, when it’s happening to so many people in so many countries.”
“You’re not selfish.”
“I am! I won’t be able to receive letters from George—see how selfish I am?”
“You were dating—of course you’re worried about him.”
Catherine let out a sigh. “He was never going to love me, and I didn’t love him. Even his last letter only seemed polite. But…oh, Helen, I just thought I’d live a normal life, get married, have children.”
“You’re going to do all of that.”
“See how selfish I am? I’m upset a war interrupted all my grand plans.”
Helen gave her friend an indulgent smile. Of the two of them, Catherine had always been the one to think about her wedding. She had a trousseau begun with pretty linens she’d embroidered; she had the music picked out for the church service. Weddings—marriage—were something Helen didn’t let herself think about too much. She’d been focused on nursing, on supporting herself after her parents’ deaths. And knowing her mother wouldn’t be able to help her plan? She didn’t even want to think about it.
“Ignore me,” Catherine said. “I will get used to our new situation. Maybe it won’t last long.”
Helen doubted that, and she could tell by Catherine’s distant gaze, that she didn’t believe it either.
Soon they were called into dinner. Once the five of them were seated at the table, they all bowed their heads to say grace, and the war suddenly felt very real. No more Help me keep my temper, Lord, or I had unkind thoughts about my teacher. Now it was: Let them treat us kindly, Lord. Keep us safe as the war comes to Guernsey.
Into the reverent silence, Timmy’s young voice piped up. “My brother will stop those Jerries! He’s back from Dunkirk. Helen, did you hear how he was rescued?”
Helen nodded, and saw Mr. and Mrs. Braun exchange a glance full of fear, quickly hidden. Catherine’s middle brother Richard had enlisted the moment he turned eighteen the previous year. Though his family was proud, Helen knew they never had a worry-free moment. Catherine often showed Helen his letters, with occasional lines blacked out, but full of patriotism and excitement. When Helen thought of Richard putting himself in danger every day, she could only remember him as a boy who’d tried to sneak a kiss from her when he turned sixteen. And now that boy was a soldier.
The British army hadn’t tried to stop Hitler from taking the Channel Islands, and Helen felt another spasm of anger. No one had defended them, and they had to keep themselves safe.
How were they supposed to do that?
Most of the young men had gone, ten thousand of them from the islands. Helen and Catherine had each been dating men before the war started, but they had volunteered and shipped out. Their letters were less and less frequent. There’d been no love, no promises, and Saturday nights had been so quiet of late.
What would they be like now?
“This is all Chamberlain’s fault,” Mr. Braun said as he passed the potatoes.
“No war talk at dinner,” Mrs. Braun said automatically.
Her husband gaped at her. “We’ve been invaded! Today!”
She blinked at him, and Helen saw that she was trembling.
“Of course I know that,” Mrs. Braun murmured. “It’s a silly rule anyway.”
Mr. Braun covered her hand with his. “It’s not. It’s just…impractical now, my dear.”
She nodded, biting her lip, even as she passed a platter of mutton.
“Take some, Mum,” Catherine said quietly, pushing the platter back.
“Oh, of course.” Mrs. Braun took a small slice and slid the platter back.
“A prime minister should look to his country’s welfare,” Mr. Braun said, as if he hadn’t been interrupted. “Instead Chamberlain practically welcomed Hitler to help himself to Austria, then much of Czechoslovakia.”
“Dad, you know Chamberlain tried to negotiate peace between Hitler and the other countries,” Catherine said.
“Pshaw. He believed everything Hitler told him and backed down.”
“It’s very easy to look back and see what should have been done,” Catherine insisted. “At the time, no one wanted war. But now we have it. It seems our new prime minister, Mr. Churchill, sees the enemy for what he is.”
“Perhaps, my girl, but I’ll have to wait and see. He let our islands go quite easily—what else will be sacrificed?”
They ate in silence for long minutes.
At last Mr. Braun sighed. “Helen, I hope you’ve tried to prepare the best you can. My wife has been buying so much food.”
“It’s difficult to leave my patients,” Helen said. “But I did manage to shop the shelves bare at the grocer’s yesterday, thinking they’d be replenished. How long will that last with the Germans keeping British ships away?”
“Surely they have to feed their own men,” Catherine said. “They won’t let us all starve.”
Her words fell into a heavy silence.
“Helen, you shouldn’t live on your own so far from town,” Mrs. Braun said, twisting a napkin in her hands.
Helen put on a bright smile. “But won’t the town be where the Germans are? I won’t let the Germans think they can bully us out of our homes.” Quietly, she added, “And my home is…it’s the only thing I have left of my parents. Why would they come to the boring countryside? I won’t let the Germans take it from me, and they’ll find that difficult to do if I’m living there.”
Mrs. Braun looked at her husband, but he was staring out the window as if he expected the Germans to storm the house. And he might very well be right, Helen thought. Fear shot through her belly, and for a moment, she feared she’d eaten too much and that her stomach would rebel.
But no. Her life was changing in ways she’d never imagined—she had to meet it head on. While Allied soldiers met Germans on the battlefield, it was up to civilians to do their part on the home front. While the rest of Britain put up blackout curtains and rationed food, Guernsey Island would be living side by side with the enemy.
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