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The London House
Author:Katherine Reay

The London House

Katherine Reay



Dedication

MBR and MMR—

Thank you for the most extraordinary research trip.





Epigraph


We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.

—Alan Turing, from “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”



Prologue



17 October 1941



Caro hugged Martine, whispering close to her ear. “I won’t be back. It’s too dangerous. Christophe is a threat to you now. You must see that. He’ll take his chance when he needs the money or the protection. He will turn you in.”

“Schiap keeps me safe.”

Martine had grown thin in the months since Caro left France. Her light auburn hair, usually pulled back into a neat chignon, hung loose. Her eyes, usually assessing and sharp, looked worn and narrowed with suspicion and fear.

Caro sensed Martine didn’t believe the lie she offered. She also knew how hard it was to lay down those lies. She had once believed them as well—that because Elsa Schiaparelli controlled every design, button, stitch, and memo; dotted every i within her domain; and directed her growing empire with swift efficiency, she wielded the same control outside it—and that her power was good, fair, and honest.

“Schiap’s gone. Anything she offered you is gone. This place?” Caro gestured to the four walls of the small workroom and beyond them to encompass every inch of the ninety-eight-room mansion that held the House of Schiaparelli. “It’s open because the Germans allow it to be so. They are the ones offering protection because their wives shop here. And it won’t last. Don’t be naive.”

She shoved the pouch, a thick canvas sack filled with seventy-five thousand francs, into Martine’s shaking hands. “Take this money, pay your contacts, then use the rest to get out. I’ve given you names and now you have money. Hurry and get it done.”

Tears filled Martine’s gray eyes. She pushed out a whisper. “This is my home.”

Caro gripped her shoulders hard. She could feel every bone. They’d grown more pronounced and Martine’s thick wool dress no longer hid their sharp angles. “Not now. Maybe someday again, but you have to live to see it.”

Martine cringed and tried to pull away.

Caro tightened her hold on her friend’s fragile frame. “Get to Spain. Use my name as your sponsor for the British. Promise me?”

A light shifted outside Martine’s workroom window. She clutched at Caro’s arm. “You need to go. Christophe is on security tonight. He’ll be back soon. That cut?” She looked to Caro’s covered forearm. “He’ll do worse now. Without thought.”

Martine dropped her voice and moved closer to Caro as if needing to whisper, despite their being the only two in the small room. “He’s open now. He flaunts their gifts, his new power. He—” Martine pressed her lips together, unable to finish her sentence.

“Collaborates.” Caro supplied the final word.

“It’s a dirty word, a dirty thing.”

“You’ve made my point.” Caro stepped even closer. “You’re running out of time. He will turn you in to the Germans. The stories of what they are doing to Jew—”

“Arrêtez.” Martine stiffened and wrapped her arms around herself. Her dress looked to swallow her small frame. “Do you think I do not know?”

“I’ve stayed overlong.” Caro studied her watch. “I’ve got to leave. I have somewhere I—” She stopped. “Use the money for your contacts, but save enough for you. Do you understand?”

“This is my home,” Martine repeated, shaking her head as if willing the changes in Paris and in life to disappear. Tears spilled down her cheeks. “I will try. I will—”

Caro hugged her friend tight. “Promise me, because I can’t come back. I need you to promise me.”

Martine nodded into her shoulder.

It was enough. It had to be.

Caro stepped out of Martine’s sewing room and into the salon’s back hall. The walls were covered with years of first draft sketches and photographs of gowns, workers, and opening shows. It was her favorite spot in the entire mansion.

For all the glitz and glamour encased within the House of Schiaparelli, this narrow hall, with original drawings pinned into the plaster and photographs of the seamstresses, designers, and mannequins who worked there, told the true story. It embodied the life of the House—Schiaparelli’s brilliance as well as the dedication and dogged determination of the team that supported her.

Caro stopped at her favorite drawing. Not the infamous Lobster Dress nor the design of Schiap’s famous perfume bottle. The Butterfly Dress. A soft, delicate creation from 1937 that embodied hope, life, and love in a whisper of pale-pink silk.

She slid the sketch from its pin. She had purchased one for Margo from the first batch stitched. Perhaps, she thought, Margo would like the drawing as well. Perhaps she’d wear the dress. Perhaps she’d believe in herself again and let in hope, life, and love once more. Perhaps . . .

Missing her twin . . . remembering . . . distractions dulled one’s senses. Caro blinked to focus her mind and bring herself back to the present.

A second late.

An unseen force hauled her to the ground.

Splayed on the cobblestones, palms cut by gravel, she looked up to Christophe’s cold, chiseled face. His eyes glinted like ice in the watery lamplight.

“I thought I got rid of you last time,” he growled.

“You’re rid of me now. I came to say goodbye to Martine. We were friends. Only friends.” In her fear, Caro realized she was offering unnecessary information. She silently chastised herself as she scrabbled backward, out from beneath him. “You’ll never see me again.” She rose and stepped back.

He lunged for her. His hand completely encircled her bicep and sent tingles down the length of her arm, numbing her fingers.

“Non.” He pushed her toward the courtyard’s entrance. “The Carlingue will get you this time. There’s good money in traitors.”

Caro pulled back. Her leather soles slipped on the cobblestones and she lost her footing. Christophe counterbalanced her move, hauling her upright and forward.

The French Gestapo, the Carlingue, was as brutish as the German iteration—perhaps more so in an effort to impress their occupiers. But what was worse, they would know her. Christophe would tell them exactly who she was and what she was. A prize.

This was why Dr. Hugh Dalton had not wanted her involved. This was why Sir Frank Nelson asked her to stop.

If she hurt the war effort . . . if her loss or death was used to promote anti-British propaganda . . . or worse, if she was tortured and the Germans publicized it for ransom, power, position, or trade concessions . . . To hurt the British effort and morale was more than she could bear.

Caro twisted in Christophe’s grip again. He squeezed tighter, to the point she thought her arm might break.

What had she done?





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