Leopard Eyes
88,000 words
Romantic Suspense

When Sylvie Le Claire agrees to become a spy in occupied France during World War 2 she has no idea how many roles she will have to play–from a mute, brain damaged young woman, to a Parisian prostitute.

 

After her mother’s death in a bombing and a disastrous love affair, Sylvie and her sister Simone are recruited to return to the French village of their birth to become operatives of a British organization, the SOE. Sylvie pretends to be mute to deflect suspicion as she carries out her dangerous assignment.

 

She falls in love with Andrew, the leader of their network but does not start an affair with him for reasons she is afraid to disclose.

 

Sylvie’s strength and integrity is tested after Andrew is shot and Simone is arrested, causing her to rely on her newly found courage to save herself and whomever else she can.

Chapter 1

September 1942

My

Chapter 1

September 1942

It was different this time. Perhaps it was the rapid blinking of the contact that made me suspect that this was no ordinary exchange or the way his fingers trembled when when he scratched under the dog’s collar while placing the message. I recognized him. We had engaged in this charade before, but on those other occasions he never made eye contact. This time he stood up and looked straight at me, tipped his hat, turned and walked away.

It started out ordinary enough. At the usual time, between half past three and four o’clock my sister and I left the cafe on the pretense of taking the dog for a walk around the village. When the contact was sighted, she would stay at the corner as a lookout. She would either take out her mirror and put on more lipstick, or speak to whomever might be passing by if she thought it was going to interfere with the handoff. It was either the young man, or a woman pushing a pram, sometimes an older man leaning on a walking stick that approached me. They always did the same thing—leaned down to ostensibly pet the dog and in the process, placed the message under his collar.

Why did the young man look at me? Was he simply being polite?  Why was he so nervous?Did he know I was pretending to be mute, that it was my cover, the thing that deflected suspicion?

The dog trod on my foot. My sister caught up with me, took my elbow and pulled me along like an unwanted appendage. I stumbled on the cobblestones. Didn’t she remember I was supposed to be slow and unsteady when I walked? My thick glasses that obscured my face slipped down a little in my haste to keep up with her. We rounded a corner and the village doctor nearly collided with us. She recovered and leaned toward him, one graceful hand on her narrow hip.

“Forgive me, Mademoiselle Le Claire, I didn’t see you and you sister there.”  He looked up from a sheaf of papers he held.

“Not at all doctor, the fault is mine. Going home so early?”

He stared at her like all the men. “Just on my way to see a patient.” He cleared his throat and pulled at the knot of his tie. “And how is your sister? No seizures lately I hope?”

“Oh no she’s doing quite well, thank you.” She tipped her head to the side, causing a lock of her hair to fall over one eye. “Don’t let me keep you doctor. Perhaps I’ll see you later in the café.”

The file dropped to the ground. My sister lifted her skirt above her knee before bending to help retrieve them. She handed him a few papers, but not before she brushed his hand with hers.

“Thank you, Mademoiselle.” Dots of sweat were on his forehead.

She laid a manicured hand on his arm. “Call me Simone.”

He looked at the ground but the smile that graced his lips made his bland face almost handsome. Before he could answer, she got to her feet, grabbed my hand and urged me along the footpath. Simone squeezed it harder than necessary until we turned the last corner. As soon as the   doors of the cafe closed, she dropped it and pointed to a broom. “The floor needs sweeping.”

She turned on her heel and ascended the stairs leaving me with all the work as usual. The dog stood beside me and didn’t move at all as I retrieved the message from underneath his collar. I pressed the bit of fabric into my palm. The cleaning could wait, for there was a sense of anxiety that presented itself as a flutter in my stomach. The message. I had to know about the message.

What should I do? If only Andrew was here to decrypt it. I would insist he tell me what it said this time, instead of leaving me in ignorance.

Simone could probably not give me the answers that I sought but I followed her up the stairs anyway desperate to get rid of the sense that something was wrong. Her room was at the end of the hallway. When I opened her door she was sitting on her bed smoking a cigarette, her legs crossed at the ankle. “What is it Sylvie? I told you the the café needs sweeping.”

I moved a heap of clothes aside and sat down beside her. “There’s something going on. Something different. I think it has to do with those pictures you took.”

She shrugged one shoulder. “You could be right. I’m sure Andre passed along the information as usual.” She inhaled deeply from her cigarette and blew it out away from me. “I hope it was something useful. I would hate to think those things I endure from Heinrich are all for nothing.”

I swallowed back the nausea that the memory of that frantic hour I had spent underneath Simone’s bed invoked. “That’s what I’m worried about.”

“Why?” She tapped my hand. “You’re not making any sense. I thought that’s what’s what your Colonel Hastings wanted us to do when he recruited us as operatives in this bloody war.”

Operatives. That was his euphemism for what we really were—spies. I took in a breath and let it out slowly. “But Simone—-“

“I don’t know what you’re fretting about.”  She stubbed the cigarette out in an ashtray on her bedside table. “No one suspects a thing about you, Sylvie. They all think you’re the little village idiot not able to speak, suffering from seizures. You even have Papa fooled not to mention the doctor.”

She didn’t say it was because our father was drunk most of the time but I let it go. A confrontation with the last thing I wanted to start with Simone. It never did any good. She turned to me half closed eyes. “Now if you’re through complaining the café still needs sweeping.”

The message was still in my sweaty palm. I put it in the pocket of my jumper and busied myself with sweeping, the feeling of unease still dragging at me, making my movements slower than usual.

The cafe was nearly full by nine o’clock. There was a rumor in the village that the savory pastries we served contained meat, but as it turned out, it was only a rumor. There were ten tables positioned around the room filled mostly with locals. No one wanted to venture very far into the country any more with the curfew in force. Simone was behind the bar pouring drinks, our father beside her, a glass in his hand as usual. She carried on as normal, our earlier discussion apparently forgotten. She had changed into a more formal dress, the lines of it plain to better show off her figure. She was the only one who wore stockings and high heels.

She approached the table next to the one I was clearing. The tray contained only one glass of wine. Madame Broussard, the village gossip, sat there with a commanding air and took the drink from her hand before my sister could place it in front of her. Simone turned around and brushed my sleeve as she passed by. She dumped the tray on the table I was wiping, her lips in a thin line of irritation.

“Sylvie, my dear, leave that and come over here.” It was the Broussard woman, her voice loud and strident.

I looked up from my task, but kept the perpetually blank look on my face and didn’t move toward her. She held out her hand, beckoning me as she would to a dog. “Come on, poor girl.”

I did as she asked and shuffled over to her. She took my hand in her large one, patting it with the other. Her expression of curiosity did not match her words of concern.

“Simone needs to comb your hair, my little Leopard Eyes. You work so hard in the cafe.”

I bit the inside of my cheek, a burning in the center of my chest. “I remember you as a little girl, so sweet, so smart, and now…” She still had hold of my hand.

A presence was behind me, a sense of warmth that radiates from another human body, but before I could turn, a hand was on my shoulder, and from the first pressure of the touch, I knew the identity of the person. At last…at last he was here. The heat from a stifling flush burned from the base of my throat to my forehead, remembering three, no four nights ago when we played cards together and he was drunk and … something happened while I was asleep. What?

Bon soir, Madame.” His warm breath tickled my neck, and I caught a scent of whisky.

“Ah, Andre, I was just talking with your sister.” She laughed at herself. “What a fool I am. I mean to say that I was talking and she was… well…”

His hand slipped from my shoulder to the curve of my waist where he pressed his fingers upward in a seemingly causal gesture. “Yes, Madame, our Sylvie is having a good day today according to Simone. Yesterday was not as good for she had one of her fits.”

He was teasing again but I could do nothing as he pinched my skin through the fabric of my blouse and maintained the pressure, holding me captive.

“Oh no, Andre, do tell me about it.”

“It was one of her bad ones. Thankfully the dog alerted Simone.”

The constraint of his fingers lightened into a caress before he released me and sat down at the table opposite her leaving me standing there.

“How dreadful.” She leaned forward, her eyes wide.

“The poor girl was on the floor foaming at the mouth again. She didn’t hurt herself, thank God.”

Madame touched the beads of the rosary she was wearing around her neck and pressed her palms together. “I suppose it’s God’s will that Sylvie is the way she is. Your family must bear the burden.”

He nodded then looked up at me. “It’s all right, Sylvie, you can go back to your work now.”

I didn’t move until he gestured toward the neglected table, then shuffled back to my task, still listening to my brother and Madame Broussard. He was flattering her, she was responding. They were laughing and I wanted to hit both of them over the head with the tray.

An advantage to wearing such cumbersome glasses was that I could look at people without them knowing it. I scrutinized Andre as I slowly moved the dirty glasses and wiped the table. He was dressed more formally than usual in a tie, a well worn shirt, and a tweed jacket but he always matched his colors with a sense of style that was sadly lacking in the village of Sainte Victoire. I watched as he leaned toward her, smiling as he brushed his hand through his thick, wavy hair, one dark lock refusing to be smoothed back. It curled over his forehead in the shape of an S.

He stood up, holding the fat hand of the Broussard woman. “Good night, Madame. I must be going. I’m playing cards and I’m feeling very lucky tonight.”

“Be careful, my boy, it’s nearly curfew.”

“I have a way around that, Madame.”

I was distracted after I finished loading the tray, so didn’t take care as I turned. I collided with someone. One glass wobbled precariously at the outer edge of the tray and would have fallen if not for the quick reflexes of the man who caught it. It was Andrew. I pressed my lips together. It was so difficult to remember not to talk.

He took the tray from my unsteady hands and carried it for me. I shuddered as I passed the bar. Simone held a cigarette that was being lit by Heinrich, his Nazi uniform immaculately pressed. He didn’t give me even a cursory glance as Andrew followed me into the kitchen.

It was our rule never to speak to each other unless we were in the privacy of my room but I had to find a way to tell him about the message, to make sure he would come to me later. I gripped his shoulder harder than I intended. He raised one eyebrow, then leaned close to my ear.

“Midnight.” It was a whisper that left the echo of his breath that lingered even after he was gone.

The dog nudged me with his muzzle so I pushed some scraps of food together and gave it to him. I stayed in the kitchen until all of the voices had faded except for my father and Simone.

They were at one end of the bar smoking, him with a drink in his hand, she holding an ashtray he sometimes forgot to use after the third or fourth glass of wine. I started cleaning the tables with a rag. They barely looked up, and when my father did he smiled benignly but averted his head as if the sight of me caused him some immense pain. And perhaps it did.

Had they moved at all? The only difference was the level of the wine in the bottle that had decreased from full to empty. I had interrupted some kind of discussion but since I was already in the room, they didn’t bother to lower their voices.

“But, Simone, she was the smartest girl in the village. I can’t believe this is my Sylvie.”

It was the familiar conversation that usually followed too much wine. “Papa it was the fever. She never recovered, she never spoke again and the fits she had during the illness never went away.”

“You could have told me when she first fell ill. Why did you have to lie to me?”

“I’m sorry. I thought it would hurt you too deeply. That’s why I didn’t tell you about it.” She pushed the empty glass away from him. “Now, go to bed, Papa.”

He got unsteadily to his feet, gripped the bar and kissed Simone on both cheeks. “Good night, my dear.”

No such kissing for me, just a slight pressure on the hand that held the rag and a halfhearted embrace. “Good night, Sylvie.”

After we were alone Simone lit another cigarette not paying any attention to me. Her only contribution to the cleaning was when she tipped the full ashtray into the bin and gestured that she was also going to bed.

Simone was the beautiful younger sister. She was long waisted and had just the suggestion of defined hips that extended to the top of her slender thighs and calves that tapered into slim ankles. Her shoulders were narrow, her breasts as small and firm as a girl barely out of pubescence, while my figure was definitely an hourglass. My eyes were overly large, greenish with gold flecks while hers were dark brown. Her hair was the same color and hung past her shoulders in thick finger waves. My hair was thinner, a dirty shade of blonde and tended to frizz with the weather. Despite the fact that she was definitely our father’s favorite, and by far the more attractive, she never made me feel inferior, verbally anyway. Occasionally her expression gave her away.

I finished my work. The clock was at half eleven. The curtains were drawn against the large windows for the blackout, and the only light came from a lamp on the bar. I ascended the stairs to check on the other two. It was only necessary to walk ten steps or so down the hallway. That was long enough to hear soft snoring coming from my father’s room and music from Simone’s phonograph coming from her’s.

I retraced my steps to the bottom of the staircase where the dog was waiting for me. I let him out, leaned against the open door and felt the brisk night air dry the perspiration on my face. When he was back inside I closed the door, secured the lock and descended to the cellar which contained the wine racks and my room.

It was a small enclosure, hardly large enough to be called a bedroom but it afforded a good view of the street from the casement window, and of course the back entrance. The best part was the fireplace in which I kept a fire most months of the year because the room had no electricity and was colder than the rest of the building. As I lit the candles, the dog circled his rug in the corner several times as was his routine and settled down, his shaggy head resting on his large paws.

The feeling of foreboding returned as I began my ablutions. The glasses came off first, then the skirt and blouse. I washed quickly from the basin to which I added a dash of Simone’s perfume. I put on my nicest slip and a sheer dressing gown instead of my usual practical cotton one. My hair was the problem. No matter how long I brushed or fussed with it, the waves would not tame and it always ended up looking unkempt. I gave up and finished with some red lipstick stolen from Simone’s generous cache, blotting it twice to remove some of the color. I was no beauty like her, but at least I no longer looked like the poor wretched creature Madame Broussard thought I was.

The soft knock came to the hidden door.  The breath caught in my chest. I could feel my heartbeat in the back of my throat. He was still wearing the tie and jacket although the former was loosened, the knot hung past the first button of his shirt. His eyes traveled down my legs but without the usual smirk. Everyone in the family called him Andre but I preferred his English name. “Andrew.” I barely got the word out. “The message.” I gripped his warm hands. “You have to decipher the message.”

 

This is the first chapter of the book. Please tell me if it captures your interest and makes you want to read more.

Showing 4 comments
  • Lisa Falzone
    Reply

    Great first chapter, and very cool website !!!!

  • Dan Alatorre
    Reply

    I love it! This is a great website, too! You are kicking ass, Annette!

  • Alan Gillette
    Reply

    Hi Annette, Sorry this took so long I have really been under the weather. I read the first chapter, it really moves along. I do have some suggestions but don’t want to give them publicly. So if you could send me your e-mail address that would be great. Thanks Alan

  • Libby
    Reply

    Just one chapter and I am hooked, wanting to read more.

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