December 24, 1943

Berlin, Germany

The Countess von Krueger never failed in throwing the most lavish and fabulous Christmas soirees in Berlin – perhaps, some of her guests murmured, the best in all of Europe. This was an old-fashioned ball. The orchestra, hidden behind a massive screen, played waltzes and Beethoven for the whirling dancers. The women wore extravagant gowns that had cost them small fortunes, since most of the materials used were rationed for wartime. The men wore tuxedos and gloves if they weren't in the military, and uniforms if they were.

Everyone seemed to be having a grand time dancing and socializing and sampling the luscious foods that spread out on a table that took up one wall of the gigantic ballroom. The laughter and chatter rose above the music and reached the balconies that overlooked the dancers.

On one of these balconies stood a young woman of about twenty-two. She was, perhaps, the only young woman at this grand soiree who was not dancing, nor was she hanging on the every word of the handsome military men who engaged her in conversation. Instead, she was standing next to the railing, watching the dancers, her gloved hand on the fragrant pine boughs that wrapped the balcony.

She was a lovely girl, by anyone's standards. Black hair was pulled back from her face and tied into a chignon at her nape. A blue sapphire in the shape of a daisy was above her ear, and that sapphire nearly matched the color of her eyes. Her skin was as pale as milk against her blue, one-shouldered gown.

She was watching with great intensity a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman. He wore a gray officer's uniform and tall leather boots. His hair was a graying brown, but his face was unlined and handsome in a stern sort of way. The man did not dance with the dozens of ladies who flounced around the ballroom, only sipped at his brandy and occasionally nodded at someone he recognized.

Ava Lamont, from her perch high above the socializing, took a sip from her champagne then started at the sound of a blast from outside. The ballroom shook. Even the crystal chandeliers tinkled and swayed, but no one below seemed to notice.

"Jumpy, Miss Lamont?"

Ava glanced over her shoulder and found Prince Emmanuel Gagliani smiling at her, a cigar pressed between the tanned fingers of one hand. Even though his demeanor was friendly, his eyes were cold.

"I've been in Berlin for two weeks, and I'm still not used to the bombs being dropped," Ava said in her low, quiet voice.

Prince Emmanuel leaned against the balcony, tapping his unlit cigar on the railing. He gave Ava a searching look. "I've been here six months, Miss Lamont, and I can't say I'm accustomed to it. But I would think that each time you hear a bomb drop, you inwardly cheer. They are, after all, delivered from your Allies."

Ava straightened her spine haughtily, even though a small trickle of warning made her pulse quicken. She looked at the prince coolly and said, "As you know, Your Highness, I do not hold any political affiliations, nor do I care about a silly war. I'm here to work for the ambassador, nothing more."

"So you've said," the prince said in an almost-bored tone. He stood up straight and gave Ava another cold smile. "Have a lovely evening, Miss Lamont."

She watched him leave the balcony and head back downstairs. She gulped the rest of her champagne, letting the sparkling liquid sooth her rattling nerves. She glanced over the railing and saw that her quarry was still by the door that opened onto the veranda. Knowing that this could be her only chance to be introduced to one of Hitler's top advisors, Ava walked quickly the the staircase and descended, not taking her eyes off the man who her presence in Berlin – and her very life -- depended upon.

Before she could reach the ballroom, however, her friend Marcel Montmayne stopped her. He was wearing a plum-colored velvet suit and a hat with a pink plume, making him stand out in the ballroom of men in somber colors.

"Zeus needs to speak with Persephone," Marcel murmured close to her ear. She pretended to find what he said quite amusing and she laughed aloud, as was instructed.

"When?" she said quietly. "I was just about to go talk to General Kurst."

"Right now. As soon as possible." Marcel took her empty glass from her hand and bowed over her fingers. "Just go, dear. I'll make your excuses."

"Thank you, Marcel." Ava smiled gratefully. "I owe you one."

Ava hurried out the door and to the street, where she hailed a cab, even though she knew it would cost her dearly on count of the rationing of gasoline. She gave the driver the address to her apartment and paid him handsomely when they arrived within minutes. She made sure no one was following her before she entered through the heavy gate in front of her building and ran up the stairs to her flat.

The connection on her phone was no worse than usual when she dialed and said, "This is Persephone. I'd like to speak with Zeus, please."

When her boss came on the phone, his voice was gruff but Zeus, in his typical way, got right to the point. "Persephone, there's bad news. A preliminary report from the Vichy government in France says that they have arrested more than twenty-thousand resistance fighters in the past three months. They're calling them terrorists." He paused. "Magellan and Taboo have been arrested."

Ava sat down hard in a chair next to the phone, her mouth open in disbelief. Magellan was a debonaire young man with an easy smile and Taboo was a dark-haired woman whom Ava had shared a room with while they were all training together. She had become friends with both of them, even though they didn't really know anything about each other.

"What can we do?" Ava whispered. Then she realized that the connection was getting worse, and she repeated her question.

Zeus sighed and she could imagine him tapping his fingers on his big, battered desk. "There isn't anything we can do, Persephone. Keep working."

When Ava hung up, her heart was heavy. She quickly undressed and pulled on a robe, then called her maid Ingrid to put more wood in the stove.

She curled into one of her cozy chairs and tried to read, but her mind wouldn't stay focused on the novel. She was getting more and more frustrated as the days passed. Her presence in Berlin was raising a few eyebrows and a whole lot of questions, and she still hadn't met General Kurst, which she had to do before anything else could be accomplished.

Being an American in Nazi Germany was not the easiest thing to do, Ava realized. She expected a transfer any day now, since the American ambassador in Germany was now fearing for his life and acting as a clerical worker at his office was becoming more and more difficult. Ava knew her cover would be blown in a matter of days. There were far too many people mistrustful of her, no matter how many times she insisted she claimed no love for her country.

But she did, and that's where the problem was. Ava loved her country, her president and the men on the ground, on the sea and in the air who were fighting the Axis powers. So that's why she was so willing to work for the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, when a gentleman spotted her and thought her perfect for the job. She was young, attractive, willing to die for her country, and she could speak French, German, Spanish, Italian and some Russian. She had some typing skills already, knew how to shoot a gun from working on her father's ranch, and was cool as a cucumber under pressure – at least on the outside.

Needless to say, Ava Lamont passed her training tests with flying colors and was given the distinguished title of American spy. Ava preferred to be called 'agent' because it didn't sound so treacherous.

Now she was in Berlin with the assignment of meeting General Heinrich Kurst and finding a way into his good graces. If she couldn't, then she was supposed to try to get him alone long enough to slip him some truth serum and get some answers out of him about Hitler's next big plans.

However, it had taken Ava this long to simply get invited into the grand parties of the upper crust of society. Her first party had been a bust and she had nearly blown her cover when Prince Emmanuel Gagliani caught her snooping around in the cellar of their host. She pretended to be looking for the wine cellar, saying she'd heard so much about it, but the prince obviously didn't believe a word of it. Now he watched her every move with calculating eyes, making Ava tremble and remember the tales of spies who had been captured and subsequently tortured to death.

"Miss Ava, would you like something to drink?" Ingrid said, jarring Ava from her dark thoughts.

"Oh, no thank you, Ingrid. I'd better get to bed, since I have to get up for work in the morning," Ava said.

"But Miss Ava, tomorrow is Christmas! You can't go to work on Christmas!"

Ava had completely forgotten the holiday. A stab of regret went through her. She hadn't seen her family in months, and this was the first Christmas she'd ever spent apart from them. But that was just more of a reason to go to work in the morning, Ava told herself.

She smiled at her maid as she headed to her bedroom. "Boss's rules, Ingrid. I have to work Christmas." She paused in the doorway. "But you go ahead and take the day off. Have a nice holiday with your family."