The year is 1939, and French perfumer Danielle Bretancourt is aboard a luxury ocean liner on the Atlantic Ocean when the declaration of war on the European continent threatens to devastate her beloved family and young children.
Traveling through London and Paris into occupied Poland, Danielle searches for the remains of her family until she is forced to flee to America.
Gathering the fragments of her impoverished family, Danielle begins life anew in 1940s Los Angeles. Through determination and talent, she rises from meager jobs in her quest for success as a perfumer and fashion designer to Hollywood elite. Through it all, the men she loves suffer mounting losses.
As the war continues to rage around the world, Danielle aids the French Resistance in its quest for freedom, and continues the search for her lost son, Nicky.
Set between privileged lifestyles and gritty realities, SCENT OF TRIUMPH is one woman’s story of courage, spirit, and resilience.
Danielle Bretancourt von Hoffman braced herself against the gleaming mahogany-paneled stateroom wall, striving for balance as she flung open a brass porthole. A damp kelp-scented wind whistled through the cabin, assaulting her nose with its raw intensity.
She kept her eyes focused on the horizon as the Newell-Grey Explorer slanted upward, slicing through the peak of a cresting wave. The sleek new 80,000 ton super liner creaked and pitched as it heaved through the turbulent grey waters of the icy Atlantic on its voyage from New York to England. Silently, Danielle urged it onward, anxious to return home.
A veil of salty spray prickled Danielle’s fevered brow, and her usually sturdy stomach churned in rhythm with the sea. Was it morning sickness, or the ravaging motion of the sea? Probably both, she thought, her hand cradling her gently curved abdomen. She gnawed her lip, the metallic taste of blood spreading on her tongue, thinking about the last few days.
Dabbing her mouth with the back of her hand, she blinked against the stiff breeze, her mind reeling. Had it been just two days since she’d heard the devastating news that Nazi forces had invaded Poland?
A staccato knock burst against the stateroom door. Gingerly crossing the room, Danielle opened the door and caught her breath at the sight of Jonathan Newell-Grey, vice president and heir apparent to the British shipping line that bore his name. His tie hung from his collar, and his sleeves were rolled up, exposing muscular forearms taut from years of sailing. A rumpled wool jacket hung over one shoulder. Though they hadn’t been friends long, she was truly glad to see him.
“Is your husband in?” His hoarse voice held the wind of the sea.
“Max will be back soon. Any news?”
“None.” He pushed a hand through his unruly chestnut hair. “The captain has called a meeting at fifteen hundred hours for all passengers traveling on Polish and German passports.”
“But I hold a French passport.”
“You’ll still need to attend, Danielle.”
“Of course, but—” As another sharp pitch jerked through the ship, Jon caught her by the shoulders and kept her from falling.
“Steady now, lass,” he said, a small smile playing on his lips.
Feeling a little embarrassed, Danielle touched the wall for support. Suddenly, she recalled the strange sense of foreboding she’d had upon waking. She was blessed—or cursed—with an unusually keen prescience. Frowning, she asked, “Jon, can the ship withstand this storm?”
“Sure, she’s a fine, seaworthy vessel, one of the finest in the world. This weather’s no match for her.” He stared past her out the porthole, his deep blue eyes riveted on the ocean’s white-capped expanse. Dark, heavily laden clouds crossed the sun, casting angled shadows across his face. He turned back to her, his jaw set. “Might even be rougher seas ahead, but we’ll make England by morning.”
Danielle nodded, but still, she knew. Oh yes, she knew. Anxiety coursed through her; something seemed terribly wrong. Her intuition came in quiet flashes of pure knowledge. She couldn’t force it, couldn’t direct it, and knew better than to discuss it with anyone, especially her husband. She was only twenty-four; Max was older, wiser, and told her that her insights were simply rubbish.
Jon touched her arm in a small, sympathetic movement. “What a sorry predicament you’re in. Anything I can do to help?”
“Not unless you can perform a miracle.” Jon’s rough fingers felt warm against her skin, and an ill-timed memory from a few days ago shot through her mind. On Max’s encouragement, they’d shared a dance while Max spoke to the captain at length after dinner, and Danielle remembered Jon’s soft breath, his musky skin, his hair curling just above his collar. He’d been interested in all she had to say, from her little boy to her work at Parfums Bretancourt, her family’s perfumery in France.
Danielle forced the memory from her mind, took a step back out of modesty. “I had a bad feeling about this trip from the beginning,” she started. She caught sight of herself in the mirror, her thick auburn hair in disarray, her lip rouge smeared against her pale cheek. She drew her fingers across her cheek, straightened her shoulders, and went on. “We’d planned to take care of our business in New York, then return to Poland to close the chateau. After that, we were to join Max’s mother, Sofia, and our little Nicky in Paris, for a brief visit with my family before returning to America.”
“Why didn’t you bring Nicky with you?”
“I wanted to, but he’s so young that Max thought he’d be better off in Paris with my family.” Why, oh why, had she agreed to leave Nicky? Max had made it sound so sensible. Wincing with remorse, she fought the panic that rose in her throat. “But now Sofia’s terribly ill, her last cable said that she and Nicky haven’t even left for Paris.”
Jon wiped a smudge from her cheek and said quietly, “Danielle, they’ve got to get to Paris as quickly as possible.”
Mon Dieu! she thought. They hadn’t realized Sofia was so ill. ‘It’s just a cold,’ her mother-in-law had told them as they left. What if Sofia isn’t well enough to travel?
The ship pitched, sending the porthole door banging against the paneled wall. Shifting easily with the vessel’s sharp motions, Jon caught it, secured the latch, then turned back to Danielle. “Max told me he thinks he has your immigration to the States sorted out.”
“That’s right, a senator from New York helped us secure a financial partner. Max plans to reestablish our crystal manufacturing facility there by the end of the year, but now, the workers he’d like to bring—” Her voice hitched as she thought of what their friends and family faced.
“You’ve done the best you could, Danielle.” But even as he spoke, his gaze trailed back to the sea, his eyes narrowed against the sun’s thinning rays, scanning the surface.
She matched his gaze. “Anything unusual out there?”
“Could be German U-Boats. Unterseeboots. The most treacherous of submarines. Bloody hell, they are.” He moved toward her, and leaning closer he lifted a strand of hair, damp with sea mist, from her forehead. “If I don’t see Max, you’ll tell him about the meeting?”
“We’ll be there.” She caught a whiff of his salt air-tinged skin, and as she did, a vivid sensory image flashed across her mind. A leather accord, patchouli, a heart of rose melding with the natural scent of his skin, warm, intriguing…then she recognized it—Spanish Leather. But the way he wore it was incredible. She was drawn in, but quickly retreated half a step.
His expression softened and he let her hair fall from his fingers. “Don’t worry, Danielle. The Newell-Greys always look after their passengers.” He left, closing the door behind him.
She touched a finger to her lips. Jon’s casual way with her sometimes made her uncomfortable. Fortunately, Max was too much the German aristocrat to make a fuss over nothing. And it was nothing, she told herself with a firm shake of her head. She loved her husband. But that scent…her mind whirred. Fresh, spicy, woody…she could recreate sea freshness and blend with patchouli.
Abruptly, the ship lurched. Cutlery clattered across a rimmed burl wood table, her books tumbled against a wall. She braced herself through the crashing swell, one hand on the doorjamb, another shielding her womb. She pushed all thoughts of her work from her mind, there were so many more urgent matters at hand. Her son, their family, their home.
When the ship leveled, she spied on the floor a navy blue cap she’d knitted for Nicky. He’d dropped it at the train station, and she’d forgotten to give it to Sofia. She pressed the cap to her cheek, drinking in the little boy smell that still clung to the woolen fibers. Redolent of milk and grass and straw and chocolates, it also called to mind sweet perspiration droplets glistening on his flushed cheeks. They often played tag in the garden, laughing and frolicking amidst thicketed ruins on their sprawling property. Oh, my poor, precious Nicky. The cherished memories enveloped her with sadness.
She picked up her purse to put his cap inside, then paused to look at the photo of Nicky she carried. His eyes crinkled with laughter, he’d posed with his favorite stuffed toy, Mr. Minkey, a red-striped monkey with black button eyes she’d sewn for him. At four years of age, Nicky was an adorable bundle of blond-headed energy. A streak of fear sliced through her. She stuffed the cap into her purse and snapped it shut.
The door opened and Max strode in, his proud face ashen.
Danielle turned. “Jon just left. There’s a meeting—”
“I know, he is behind me,” he said, clipping the words in his formal, German-accented English. He smacked his onyx pipe against his hand, releasing the sweet smoky scent of vanilla tobacco.
Jon appeared at the door. “Shall we go?”
The muscles in Max’s jaw tightened. He slipped his pipe into the pocket of his tailored wool jacket. “I need a drink first. You, Jon?”
Max pushed past Danielle to the liquor cabinet. As he did, he brushed against her vanity and sent her red leather traveling case crashing to the floor, bottles bursting from within, smashing against one another.
“Max, my perfumes!” Danielle gathered the hem of her silk dress, and sank to her knees. The intoxicating aromas of jasmine, rose, orange blossom, bergamot, berries, vanilla, cedar, and sandalwood surged in the air, jumbling and exploding in her senses like brilliant fireworks. She sighed in exasperation. She knew Max hadn’t meant to destroy her precious potions, but she wished he’d been more careful. Now there was nothing she could do but pick up the pieces. With two fingers, she fished a crystal shard and a carnelian cap from the jagged mess. “Max, would you hand me the wastebasket?”
Instead, he turned away and reached for the vodka. “Leave it, Danielle. The cabin boy will see to it.”
Jon crossed the stateroom and knelt beside her. “Are these your creations?”
“Yes, I blended the perfumes at my family’s laboratory in Grasse. The case was Max’s wedding gift to me.”
Max poured a shot of vodka. “Get up, Danielle. And for God’s sake, open the porthole. That stench will kill us.”
Anger burned in her cheeks, but she said nothing. She angled her face from Jon and continued picking up slippery shards, though she was glad for his help.
Jon rested a callused hand on hers, sending a shiver through her. “These are beautiful works of art, Danielle. Max told me you were once regarded as the child prodigy of perfumery.” He took a sharp piece from her. “Don’t hurt yourself, I’ll send someone to clean this up while you’re gone.”
She caught his eye and mouthed a silent thank-you, then rose and opened the porthole. A gust caught her long hair and slapped it across her face, stinging her flushed cheeks. Staring at the ocean, a sudden thought gripped her, and she spun around. “Jon said there might be U-Boats out there.”
Max paused with his glass in mid-air. “Impossible.”
“Anything is possible.” Jon brushed broken crystal into the wastebasket and straightened.
Danielle arched an eyebrow. “Is that why we’re zigzagging?”
Jon shot a look at Max. “Smart one, your wife. I’ll grant you that, Danielle, but it’s just a safety measure. U-Boats aren’t a threat to passenger liners.”
Pressure built in her head. “Like the Lusitania?”
“That was a long time ago,” Jon said. “A disaster like that couldn’t happen today.”
“And why not?”
“There are measures to ensure against such errors,” Jon replied. “In times of war, every captain checks Lloyd’s Register to compare ships. It’s obvious that this is a passenger ship, not an armed destroyer. It’s virtually impossible to make such a mistake.”
Her mind whirred. “But you said anything is possible.”
“Today, there are rules of war,” Jon said. “An initial shot across the bow must be fired in warning.”
Max tossed the vodka down his throat and gave a wry grin. “Is that why you have been holding court in the stern, Jon?”
“I confess, you’re on to me, old boy. But seriously, we’d have time to signal to a Nazi vessel that we’re not armed.”
Nazis. A horrible thought gripped Danielle. Her pulse thundered in her ears. “Max, you know what the Nazis are doing to Jews in Germany.”
“The Polish army is not yet defeated, my dear.”
Nausea swelled within her. “How can you be so calm? My mother is Jewish and that makes Nicky one-quarter Jewish. You know the German law, you know what the Nazis could do to him.”
“He is just a child.” Max looked weary. “You were raised in your father’s faith, you are Catholic. Nicky was also baptized. How would the Nazis find out anything different?”
But she knew they had ways. And for the hundredth time, the same thought haunted her. Oh, why did I leave Nicky? And how is poor Sofia?
Max glanced at Jon. “We should go now.” Max walked to the door. Without turning he paused, his voice thick. “I am sorry for your perfumes, Danielle. I am sorry for everything.”
She caught her breath. Max seldom offered an apology. To him, it was a sign of defeat. A feeling of dread spread through her.
Jon opened the door, held it. She snatched her purse and followed Max through the door way.
Other passengers jostled past in the crowded corridor and Danielle could smell fear rising in the air like a heat wave. “Rotten Krauts,” they heard someone say. She saw Max stiffen.
When they came to the open air promenade deck, Danielle glanced out over the stormy sea, but she could see little in the murky mist.
Jon followed her gaze. “We’ve got a heavy fog rolling in.”
The moist air held the scented promise of rain. “It’s so dim,” she said. “Jon, why aren’t the running lights on?”
“We’re blacked out for security reasons.”
They arrived at the first class lounge where tense passengers crowded shoulder to shoulder. Jon excused himself to take his place at the front as the owner representative. A hush spread when the grim-faced captain approached the podium.
“Thank you for your attention,” the captain began. “Two days ago, Hitler’s Nazi Germany violated a European peace agreement. Now, through the miracle of wireless, we have a reply from the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.”
He nodded to a crew member. The loud speakers crackled to life and a nervous murmur rippled across the room.
England was on the airwaves.
The radio announcer was speaking about Poland. “Blitzkrieg,” he called the German attack. “Lightening war,” Max said sadly.
“Oh, no.” Danielle clutched her pearls, squeezed her eyes against hot tears and turned her face against Max’s chest.
Max slid a finger under her chin and lifted her face. “It’s my fault, I should have already relocated our family.”
The radio crackled again. “And now, Prime Minister Chamberlain.”
“This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by eleven o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us.”
Chamberlain’s voice sounded burdened, yet resolute. “I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently, this country is at war with Germany.”
A collective gasp filled the room, and Danielle felt her stomach churn again as the broadcast continued.
At its end, the captain stepped aside and Jon took his place at the podium. “Tomorrow, when we arrive, all German and Polish passengers will be required to remain in England.” Jon’s voice boomed over the murmuring tide. “Newell-Grey agents will be available to assist and accommodate you. We shall keep you informed as we receive additional information.”
Danielle pressed a hand to her mouth. Who knew it would come to this? A sudden clamminess overtook her, and now her nausea returned with unbridled force. She bolted through the crowd for the outer deck. She reached the railing, leaned over, gulped for air. The wind whipped her yellow scarf from her neck.
Max followed, and Jon rushed after them. They stood gazing through the shifting fog into the bleak waters below. Max draped an arm across her shoulders and looked across at Jon. “Her sickness is much worse with this pregnancy.”
“It’s okay, old girl, give it up,” Jon was saying, his eyes fixed on the ocean, when he suddenly stopped. His face froze.
A sleek, narrow wake rippled the surface.
“What the—” began Max.
“Get down,” Jon bellowed. He leapt across them, his powerful body crashing them to the deck.
In the next instant, a violent impact shot them across the deck. An explosion ripped into the bowels of the great ship. Screams pierced the haze, and the ship’s massive framework buckled with a deafening roar.
“Torpedoes,” Jon shouted. He crushed his hand over Danielle’s head and cursed under his breath. “Stay down.”
An icy burst enveloped them like a sheet and soaked them to the flesh. Danielle gasped in terror.
Another explosion rocked the ship. Wood and metal twisted with a grating screech as the ship listed to the starboard side, rolling like a wounded whale. The ship’s structure groaned and folded under her own weight, frigid salt water poured into her open wounds.
Jon struggled to his feet. “Take my hand, Danielle, we must reach the lifeboats. This way, Max.” Jon dragged Danielle behind him. “Nazi bastards. This is preposterous, just like the Lusitania.” Suddenly he stopped, and pulled his shoulders back. He turned to face the dazed crowd behind him.
“Attention.” Jon’s voice rang with urgent authority. “We must proceed quickly and calmly to the lifeboats.”
Amidst the chaos, people turned to follow.
Danielle reached for Jon’s hand again, stumbling on something in her haste. Mon Dieu, that smell! She put her other hand to her nose, caught her breath, wiped stinging water from her eyes and blinked. A woman she’d met just yesterday lay bloodied at her feet. She smothered a scream, then reached down to help the woman.
Jon caught her arm. “Don’t, it’s no use, Danielle. She’s gone.”
“No, she can’t be,” Danielle cried. She’d never seen a dead person before. Except for the blood soaking the deck beneath her, the woman appeared merely unconscious. Then she saw that the back of the woman’s skull was gone and she started to retch.
Jon shoved his handkerchief into her hand to wipe her mouth. “Keep going!”
Soon they came upon a lifeboat that dangled above them like a toy.
“Max, give us a hand, we haven’t much time.”
Water poured over the rail and mixed with the dead woman’s blood, sloshing across the deck and staining it a deep crimson. All around them people slid across the tilting deck, screaming in hysteria. Danielle lost her balance, along with one leather pump that tumbled into the pandemonium. She kicked off her other shoe and clung to the railing.
Jon and Max began to toss life vests from the boat into the crowd.
Danielle’s heart raced at the sight of the life vests. “Are we…are we going to sink?”
Jon’s jaw twitched. “Just put on one of these.”
“But I can’t swim.”
“You won’t have to if you’re wearing this.”
Despite her panic, Danielle fumbled with the strings on the vest. Jon and Max worked feverishly to free the lifeboats. Within moments, several crew members arrived and began to herd women and children into the boats.
Max checked her knotted vest and kissed Danielle while the first boat was lowered. “You go now. I’ll see you soon.”
Jon motioned to her. “Get in,” he roared.
She glanced at the lifeboat and terror gripped her chest. She’d never liked small crafts, had nearly drowned off one when she was a child. “Max, I can’t.”
“I’ll be right behind you, my love.” Max pressed her close and kissed her again.
Jon grabbed her arm. “Danielle, people are waiting.”
“No, Jon, I–I can’t get into that boat. I’ll stay with Max.”
“Bloody hell, you will.” Jon’s eyes flamed with urgency, startling her. “For God’s sake, woman, get your wits about you. What happened to your famous French courage?”
Max threw Jon a wary glance, then nodded to her. “You must go now.”
Indignant, Danielle jerked her arm from Jon. “I’ll show you courage.” She stepped into the boat, barefoot, still clutching her purse.
Just then, a man with a sobbing toddler rushed toward them. “Please, will someone take my boy?”
Danielle thought of her own little boy, shot a glare at Jon. “I will.” She reached for the frightened child.
“His name is Joshua. You will take care of my boy?”
“I give you my word.” She prayed someone would do the same for her Nicky, if need be. She hugged the sniveling child, sweet with a milky smell, to her breast. Joshua was the same size as Nicky and it was all she could do to keep from sobbing his name.
Jon gave the signal and the lifeboat plunged into the choppy water, jarring her to the bone.
Her teeth chattering, Danielle looked back at the great ship. She was taking on water fast. All around them lifeboats crashed into the sea amidst the most heart-wrenching wails she’d ever heard.
She strained to see through the fog and the frantic crowd, but couldn’t spot Max or Jon. The Newell-Grey Explorer, the fine ship that bore Jon’s family name was giving way, slipping to her death. For a moment, the ship heaved against the crushing weight of her watery grave, the thundering din of her imminent demise deafening.
Danielle’s eyes were glued to the horrific scene. Suddenly, she remembered something Jon had once told her and she thought, I will not die like this. She turned to the young crew member with them. “When a ship goes down, the force can suck others down with it. We’ve got to get out of here!”
He seemed dazed with shock and made no reply.
Frustrated, she turned to the elderly woman next to her. “Here, take little Joshua, hold him tightly.”
Another woman let out a cry. “But what will we do?”
“We’ve got to row,” Danielle shouted. “Who’ll help me?” She had watched her brother Jean-Claude row often enough. Surely I can manage this, she thought desperately.
A stout Irish woman spoke up. “I’ll be helping you, that I will, dearie. I might be third class, but I be a first class rower.”
“Good.” Danielle’s resolve hardened and she moved into position. She tucked her soggy silk dress between her legs, its dye trailing green across the white deck, and grabbed an oar. The smell of musty wet wood assaulted her senses.
“Together, now stroke, and—no, wait.” When she lifted her arms to row, the life vest bunched up around her neck, inhibiting her movement. She glanced at little Joshua and realized he had no life vest. She tore the vest strings open, shrugged out of it, and gave it to the elderly woman. “Put it on him.”
“All right, now stroke,” the Irish woman called. “Steady, and stroke, and stroke.”
Danielle pulled hard against the oars, struggling for rhythm, though splinters dug into her hands and her thin sleeves ripped from the strain.
They were some distance out when she looked up. The immense ship, the jewel of the fleet, gave one last, mournful wail. Within seconds, the proud, gleaming ship conceded defeat; she disappeared into the Atlantic blackness, leaving only a burgeoning swell of water and a spiral of smoke in her wake.
Where’s Max? And Jon? Did they make it off the ship? Danielle felt like her heart was being ripped out of her chest. She couldn’t watch anymore, she turned her back to the ship, suddenly numb to the cold.
And there, in the distance, she saw it. A strange vessel was breaking the surface. As it crested, she saw on its side in block print the letter “U” and a series of numbers. A U-Boat. Treacherous, Jon had said. And deadly.
Danielle narrowed her eyes. So, this is the enemy, this is who holds Poland—and my family—captive.
A scorching rage seized her heart and sent her trembling to the boat’s edge, her hands fisted white. Look at them, surveying their handiwork, the bastards! Steadying herself on the bow, she cried in a hoarse voice into the gathering nightfall, “Someday, there will be a day of reckoning for this. C’est la guerre. And I’ll never, never surrender.”
“You tell ‘em, dearie,” yelled the Irish woman. As Danielle and the other lifeboat occupants stared at the U-Boat, a mighty force began to gather below them. Silent as a thief, a swift undersea current drew water from beneath the bobbing craft.
Danielle sensed an eerie calm.
She turned and gasped.
A wall of water, born of the wake of the Newell-Grey Explorer, rose high behind them.
The wave crashed down, flipping the lifeboat like a leaf. Grappling for a handhold, she screamed, then plunged into the swirling current. As the lifeboat completed its airborne arch, she saw an oar hurtling toward her. She tried to twist away, but the crack stunned her to her core.
Her moans for help were muffled as she sank into the frigid, murky depth. Dazed, she flailed about, desperate to swim the short distance to the surface, but her disjointed efforts only sucked her farther into the unrelenting sea. At last, she felt nothing but the icy claws of the Atlantic as her breath gave way and she slipped into darkness.
Copyright© Jan Moran. All rights reserved.