Excerpt from The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Women of Chateau Lafayette

by Stephanie Dray

The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray X
The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray
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  • Published:
    Mar 2021, 576 pages

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One
MARTHE

Chavaniac-Lafayette
The Free Zone
October 1940

I've almost made it, I think, pedaling my bicycle faster when I see the castle's crenelated tower at the summit. I've ridden past yellowing autumn farmland, past the preventorium's dormitories for boys, and past the terra-cotta-roof-topped houses of the village. And despite blistered feet and scuffed saddle shoes, I'm feeling cocky.

As I near the castle proper, I'm no longer worried anyone is going to take what I've carried all this way, which is probably why I'm so surprised to see Sergeant Travert's old black Citro'n parked by the village fountain.

Malchance! What shit luck.

Sergeant Travert patrols our village every evening on his way home. For some reason the gendarme is early today, and having stalled out his jalopy, he's got the hood up to repair it.

I try to ride past, but he notices and waves me over.

My heart sinks as Travert approaches, doffing his policeman's cap, then resting his hand on his holstered pistol. "What have we here, mademoiselle?"

I pretend to be calm while he peers into my bicycle pannier baskets. "Just some supplies from Paulhaguet."

That's the nearest little town, where I bought dried sausage with ration coupons, but I traded on the black market to get sugar, paper for my classroom, and medicine for the doctors at the preventorium.

Black market barters for hard-to-find goods are illegal. I took the risk anyway for a good cause, but I had a selfish motive too. One the snooping constable uncovers with a disapproving arch of his bushy brow. "Cigarettes?"

According to our new leader, Marshal PŽtain, Frenchwomen who smoke-not to mention foreigners and unpatriotic schoolteachers-are to blame for France's defeat.

Personally, I think it had more to do with Hitler.

Maybe it even had to do with military leaders like PŽtain who believed in fairy tales like the stupid Maginot Line to keep us safe. I can't say something like that, though. I shouldn't even think something like that about the Marshal-the man who saved France in the last war, and, as everyone says, the only man who can save us now.

But merde, what smug idiots got us into this war?

Hitler's panzer divisions rolled past French defenses five months ago. The Allies fled at Dunkirk, leaving forty thousand French soldiers to cover their retreat and hold the Germans back. All for nothing. Eighteen days later, we surrendered, to the shock of the world. Like almost everyone else, I was relieved; I thought the fighting would stop and that Henri would come home. But now a swastika is flying over the Eiffel Tower, and France-or what's left of her below the line of demarcation-is neutral while Britain fights on, alone.

Almost two million French soldiers are prisoners of war-including Henri. My Henri. Given all that, smoking is the only thing keeping me sane, so the lie comes easily. "The cigarettes are for the baron."

The gendarme looks over his shoulder at the castle and says, "I took the Baron de LaGrange more for a man who prefers a pipe."

The baron is now the acting president of the preventorium. The baroness trained as a nurse in the last war and has a knack for organization, but unfortunately, women aren't supposed to run anything now, so her husband got the job. And as the founder of an elite pilots' training school and a senator with connections in the new Vichy government, the baron is too powerful to question about cigarettes.

Travert knows it and knits those bushy brows.

For a moment, I think he'll shrug and walk away. Instead, he sweeps autumn leaves off the low stone wall and leans against it. "It gets lonely around here these days, mademoiselle, does it not? Tell me, what does a schoolteacher with such pretty blue eyes do when class is not in session?"

"I lie about eating chocolates." What does he think? There are four hundred sick children to feed at the preventorium-which means growing vegetables, milking cows in the dairy, and helping to raise and butcher pigs.

Excerpted from The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray. Copyright © 2021 by Stephanie Dray. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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