A Fire Sparkling
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"Plot twists and fabulous characters - Best WWII book I've read in a long time!"Jody Burns - Amazon reviewer
"Spellbound. I could not put this book down. Best book I have read all year."Jamie P. - Amazon reviewer
An Amazon Charts and Washington Post bestseller.
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.
Release date: August 1, 2019
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Print pages: 424
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A Fire Sparkling
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?”
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