Chapter Twenty Six
Walenstadt, Switzerland, 1946
Viola dipped a toe into the crystal-clear water of Lake Walensee and bit back a cry. “Oh geez, that’s cold. Is it normally this bitter?”
Ida Richter removed her wide-brimmed hat and gazed at the grand mountains surrounding them. “There’s mist around the mountain tops. Winter’s coming early this year.”
The cloudless sky promised a warm day, though Viola could feel the chill in the air. She shivered and sat down next to Ida, curling her toes in the lush grass. “This place is beautiful, Ida. I’ve never felt so relaxed.”
“Walenstadt will do that to you,” she replied with a smile. “Plus, my son’s family is here, so things are a little brighter.”
Viola recalled the uncomfortable days on the ferry as they’d travelled across the Chanel towards France. The rocky waters had only heightened her apprehension. But as they’d established their new life, she’d felt satisfied moving had been the right decision.
Theodore had settled in better than she’d hoped. He woke every morning with a bounce in his steps, eager to pick wild flowers by the lake and make friends with the children in the village. This was a new chapter. The events in London were only memories. Except one.
“I need to write to Mother,” she said. “I feel horrible for leaving her behind.”
“When was your last letter?”
“Six months ago, I think.”
Ida smiled. “She insisted on you leaving, didn’t she?”
Viola picked a daisy and plucked its petals. “She did. Mother is too old to travel long distances. If the Germans couldn’t get her to leave, then I had no chance.”
“Sounds like a strong woman.”
Joan appeared over the crest of a hill, holding a tray of iced water. Wordlessly, she poured the crystal-clear water into three glasses, garnishing them with a lemon wedge. Wiping the condensation from her hands, she said, “Viola, there was a letter for you at the cottage. I brought it down.” She pulled a white envelope from her apron and handed it over.
The breath caught in Viola’s throat when she saw the return address. It was from Beatrice, not her mother like she’d hoped. She hadn’t made contact with the woman since leaving London two years before.
“What does it say?” Ida asked.
Viola skimmed the letter quickly. It was odd to receive correspondence from Beatrice — unless something was wrong. She wrote about the weather and the ongoing cleanup in London, the joy of post-war, and the death of Vernon.
I regret telling you the news over letter, but it’s better you heard it from me now. Vernon died three months ago. The doctors aren’t completely satisfied, but they believe he died from alcohol poisoning. I think he died of a broken heart. He just couldn’t function with what he’d done to you and Kristoff. I tried my best to love and support Vernon as a friend, but the guilt consumed him. He was truly sorry for everything including the fire. His funeral was simple, just as he would’ve wanted. He’s buried in Wellington Park Cemetery next to his parents. When you return to London, we can visit him together.
I got your address from your mother. Gertrude is doing well, but she misses you and Theodore. You’ll be pleased to know her store has never been busier! She’s hired me for a few days a week, so one day I can take over. It’s a blessing I never thought possible.
Viola, I know you and I never saw eye to eye over the years, and I’m truly sorry for all the pain I must’ve put you through. I hate knowing I was the mistress that ruined a marriage and a life. I hope you and I can overlook all of that and become pen pals. Switzerland is very beautiful, and you’re lucky to be there. Please come back to London one day. I would very much like to be friends.
I’m sorry, Viola, for everything.
Viola folded the letter and pocketed it quietly, her blood running cold. Was he really gone? There were times she hated him for destroying her spirit and trust in men. But he was her husband and she couldn’t deny the love she felt for him.
“What did it say?” Joan asked.
She held back tears. “Vernon’s dead.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
Ida reached over and covered Viola’s hand with hers. “Losing a husband, no matter how awful he was, is excruciating. When Ralph died, I lost a part of myself that day. The wound will never heal, dear, but unlike some, you have your son. Keep strong for him.”
Viola thought of Theodore at preschool, dragging the blanket Ida made for him everywhere. He was too young to know his father, and she feared Vernon’s appearance at the flat had left a lasting impression. But he never mentioned him again, nor acted differently the morning after. Theodore certainly had Kristoff’s strength. She didn’t need to worry anymore.
“I’ll be alright. I’ve been through enough these past years to survive anything. If Hitler’s bombs or Kristoff’s death couldn’t bring me down, nothing will.”
Viola said goodbye to Joan and Ida and left the park as the sun dipped behind the snowcapped mountains. Guilt grew inside her like a cancer. She couldn’t shake the image of Vernon from her mind. He’d drunk to numb the ghosts of their marriage. She blamed herself for his death, driving him to despair, which had led to murder. If she had never met Kristoff, would both men still be alive?
She wandered to the local preschool to pick up Theodore. He bounced up to her, grinning, waving a drawing he’d done in the air. For a moment, she froze when he reached for her. He was looking more like his father every day, blessed with the same sunset eyes and golden hair. She was only half a woman without Kristoff, never being able to meet someone else. The wounds were still too raw.
After dinner, Viola climbed into bed and pulled the sheet up to her chin. She had tucked Beatrice’s letter into her underwear drawer, burying it like Vernon’s memory. She couldn’t help feeling guilty over what he may have felt when she’d abandoned him. She had destroyed two men’s lives and nothing could extinguish the pain. Would she ever be able to move on with her life? Viola rolled onto her side and wept until the sun rose above the mountains.
Chapter Twenty Seven
Viola paused in front of the century-old stone fountain in Sverg Square and dipped her fingers into the pulsating water. Clouds of mist circled the air, making her shiver with delight. The grocery shopping could wait for another moment.
Around her, the petite town of Erlach began to stir. Farmers passed in well-worn overalls, carrying baskets of freshly laid eggs; women and children walked hand in hand toward the school bathed in the shadows of the snow-capped mountains. Birds danced in the air, their sweet calls penetrating the idyllic morning. This was what heaven must be like.
Theodore tugged on her hand, pulling her from the fountain. “Ma, I’m hungry.”
Viola blinked back to reality and glanced down at her boy’s sun-kissed face, his golden scalp glistening. “Okay, dear. We have to wait until Grandma Ida is finished with her grocery shopping.”
Theodore’s bottom lip trembled, and Viola prepared for a ground-shaking tantrum. At that moment, Ida exited the grocer’s across the street and handed the boy a Popsicle, pacifying him instantly.
“Just in time,” Viola said with a smirk. “Did you get everything you needed?”
“Yes, I did.” Ida readjusted the paper bags in her arms and squinted against the sun cresting the mountains. “I’m ready to go home. Care to join me for afternoon tea?”
Viola went to answer when a tall, blond man wearing a fedora exited the bakery, capturing her attention. For a fleeting second, he glanced up and made eye contact, then quickly walked away.
“Kristoff?” Viola held her breath, immediately aware of every nerve ending in her body, as if each were a shard of glass. Her heart began to race.
“What is it?” Ida appeared by her side, concerned.
Viola watched the man turn a corner and disappear between two buildings. “My eyes must be playing tricks on me,” she mumbled.
“What did you see?”
“I thought I saw Kristoff.”
Ida inhaled a sharp intake of breath. She placed a consoling hand on Viola’s shoulder. “Honey, grief can be a devil sometimes, allowing you to see things that aren’t really there.”
“He looked at me.”
“Viola, I’ve been living in this village for over three years. I would’ve known if my son was living here.”
“He looked at me,” Viola echoed. “It was Kristoff.”
“Go home. Have some time to yourself,” Ida ordered. “I can take Theodore for the night.”
Still dazed, Viola lowered to one knee and kissed her son goodbye. “Be good for Grandma Ida, you hear me, Theo?”
The little boy nodded numbly, captivated by his Popsicle. Viola handed Ida the boy’s supplies in a bag. “Thank you for doing this. I’ll come and get him in the morning.”
“There’s no rush, dear.”
Viola turned and walked back up the hill towards her cottage outside the village. Once she was out of sight, she dashed through an alleyway and headed for the local inn instead.
Never a big drinker, Viola needed something to calm her nerves. She couldn’t face the darkness of her cottage just yet. It’d been days since her thoughts had fallen onto Kristoff, her mind occupied with her new life. Memories of him would usually surface at night, haunting her, but lately she’d found his face slipping away.
The tavern was busy for a Thursday morning. Local farmers and shop owners bustled around the bar, holding perspiring glasses of beer and chatting happily. War talk still lingered in people’s conversations.
Viola chose a seat at the bar and ordered an apple cider. From her position, she could see the lake glisten under the sun. She shut her eyes and replayed the moment the man exited the bakery over and over again. He looked so much like Kristoff, with the same strong profile, electric eyes and lean body. Was her mind playing tricks on her again? For months after his death, Kristoff appeared everywhere – in the grocer’s, at the doctor’s office, at her mother’s shop. His vision once lingered over the bed as she slept. Viola took a sip of her cider, wondering if he would ever leave her thoughts.
She swiveled on her seat and studied the other patrons in the tavern. Everyone looked happy and relieved to be able to do the things they used to. War was finally over and people could rebuild their lives. Back home in London, Vernon was dead and Beatrice emerged from his ashes as a new woman. Could Viola do the same? Life was moving on.
Between the mass of bodies, she caught sight of a blond haired man, talking candidly with a woman. The same feeling of familiarity overcame her. She got off her seat and pushed her way through the crowd.
She grabbed the man’s arm and spun him around. “Kristoff.”
The stranger looked irritated by her intrusion, jerking his arm away. “You have me confused with someone else.”
Viola’s cheeks warmed with embarrassment. “I’m terribly sorry. Please excuse me.” She ran out of the tavern and headed for the lake where she collapsed on the shore. She wept into the damp sand, her fingernails digging into the earth. She felt so foolish to believe Kristoff was alive.
For two years, her heart suffered with loss, but she had her doubts. She never saw his body, relying on the fire warden and coroner’s reports to appease her. But why would he show now? She assumed her mind was still trying to make sense of what happened.
“Are you alright, miss?” A man’s voice cut through her sobbing. “Do you need any help?”
She glanced up and stilled, her entire body running cold. “Kristoff, is that you?”
Chapter Twenty Eight
The man from the bakery hovered over her, his face creased with concern. He wore the same fedora hat and a long, tan coat. His familiar sunset eyes borrowed deep into hers, unsettling her soul. It couldn’t be.
They stared at each other, unmoving, listening to the sound of the water lapping on the shore. Viola remained frozen in the sand, wondering if she had completely lost her mind. The stranger was the perfect apparition of her beloved Kristoff.
His voice snapped something inside her, like a light being switched. She scrambled from the ground and leapt into his arms so forcefully he stumbled backwards. He lifted her off the ground in a big embrace.
“Oh, my. Is it really you?” Viola wept, holding onto him tight, fearing he would slip through her fingers.
“Yes, it’s me, my darling.” Kristoff peppered soft kisses along her neck, mouth and cheeks. He smelled sweet, clean and real. He was real.
They stayed in a entwined embrace for what seemed like an eternity. The entire world melted away until it was only them. Viola didn’t want to move, fearing if she did, Kristoff would vanish.
“How is this possible?” she breathed into the nook of his neck. “For two years I mourned you. I was a living death. My heart was broken.” She pressed a kiss to his lips. “Why didn’t you make contact?”
He brushed the tears from her cheeks lovingly. “I was in an English hospital up until six months ago. I was in bed when I heard the glass smash in the flat. I ran downstairs and saw the living room alight. There was an explosion and I was knocked out. I woke up in hospital. I didn’t know who I was. I had some form of amnesia.”
“Why didn’t you write?”
“Sweetheart, I only found out who I was only recently.” He smiled weakly. “Besides, I thought you would’ve remarried by now. I heard about Vernon’s death. I knew he was responsible for the fire.”
She slipped from his arms, keeping her hands enveloped in his. “How long have you been living here?”
“A few months. I’ve been living under an assumed name.”
“Do you know your mother lives over the crest? She’s been suffering as badly as I have.”
Kristoff’s caramel eyes dimmed. “I see her sometimes in the village. I just can’t face her.”
“Her boy died. She would give anything to see you.”
He swallowed. “Sometimes it’s best to let some ghosts stay dead.”
A warmth filled Viola’s belly when she entered his embrace again. The most intimate part of her ached as she looked over her shoulder towards the village. “Do you live nearby?”
Kristoff smiled knowingly and laughed. “My darling, the years apart have been hard on me too. But I don’t intend to disrespect you.”
“I want you.”
“I thought a woman as beautiful as you would be married by now.”
Viola kissed him. “No one could ever replace you.”
Kristoff led her to his quaint cottage by the lake where they made love until night fall. It was if their bodies had never parted, united and forever. Viola lay in the warmth of Kristoff’s arms, satisfied he was back for good, her angel. She didn’t want to move from the bed. She glanced at the clock on the bedside table. “I better get going home. Theodore will be waiting for me.”
“Theodore, our son?”
Viola pressed a kiss to his collarbone. “He has grown into a wonderful child. He’s a spitting image of you. It took me a long time to accept him because he reminded me of you.”
“Does he know about me?”
“He knows of you, but he’s still too young to understand.”
Kristoff climbed out of bed and dressed, leaving Viola tangled in the sheets. “I should see my mother. I have so much to say to her.”
“No, not yet,” Viola insisted. “It’s too early. In her eyes, you’re still a ghost. You know, I’m trying to comprehend if you’re really here or just a figment of my imagination.”
Kristoff smiled and rejoined her on the bed. At that moment, as Viola admired his earthly scent and electric eyes, she knew her prayers had been answered. Whether it was God or some other unearthly power, she knew she was finally getting what she deserved. “I will love you until my dying breath,” she said. “Never leave me again.”
Kristoff kissed her passionately. “Go to Theo. I will be waiting for you.”