Letters From Homeby Kristina Mcmorris
Chicago, 1944. Liz Stephens has little interest in attending a USO club dance with her friends Betty and Julia. She doesn't need a flirtation with a lonely serviceman when she's set to marry her childhood sweetheart. Yet something happens the moment Liz glimpses Morgan McClain. They share only a brief exchange--cut short by the soldier's evident interest in Betty--but… See more details below
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Chicago, 1944. Liz Stephens has little interest in attending a USO club dance with her friends Betty and Julia. She doesn't need a flirtation with a lonely serviceman when she's set to marry her childhood sweetheart. Yet something happens the moment Liz glimpses Morgan McClain. They share only a brief exchange--cut short by the soldier's evident interest in Betty--but Liz can't forget him. Thus, when Betty asks her to ghostwrite a letter to Morgan, stationed overseas, Liz reluctantly agrees.
Thousands of miles away, Morgan struggles to adjust to the brutality of war. His letters from "Betty" are a comfort, their soul-baring correspondence a revelation to them both. While Liz is torn by her feelings for a man who doesn't know her true identity, Betty and Julia each become immersed in their own romantic entanglements. And as the war draws to a close, all three will face heart-wrenching choices, painful losses, and the bittersweet joy of new beginnings.
Beautifully rendered and deeply moving, Letters from Home is a story of hope and connection, of sacrifices made in love and war--and the chance encounters that change us forever.
Kristina McMorris is an award-winning author and graduate of Pepperdine University. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two sons. Letters from Home is her first novel.
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Letters From Home
By Kristina McMorris
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Kristina McMorris
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJuly 4, 1944 Chicago, Illinois
Silence in the idling Cadillac grew as suffocating as the city's humidity. Hands clenched on her lap, Liz Stephens averted her narrowed eyes toward the open passenger window. Chattering ladies and servicemen flocked by in the shadows; up and down they traveled over the concrete accordion of entrance steps. The sting of laughter and music drifted through the swinging glass doors, bounced off the colorless sky. Another holiday without gunpowder for celebration. No boom of metallic streamers, no sunbursts awakening the night. Only the fading memory of a simpler time.
A time when Liz knew whom she could trust.
"You know the Rotary doesn't invite just anyone to speak," Dalton Harris said finally. The same argument, same lack of apology in his voice. "What was I supposed to do? Tell my father I couldn't be there because of some dance?"
At his condescension, her gaze snapped to his slate gray eyes. "That," she said, "is exactly what you should've done."
"Honey. You're being unreasonable."
"So it's unreasonable, wanting us to spend time together?"
"That's not what I meant." A scratch to the back of his neck punctuated his frustration, a habit that had lost the amusing charm it held when they were kids. Long before the expensive suits, the perfect ties, the Vitalis-slickening of his dark brown hair.
"Listen." His square jaw slackened as he angled toward her, a debater shifting his approach. "When I was asked to run my dad's campaign, we talked about this. I warned you my schedule would be crazy until the election. And you were the one who said I should do it, that between classes and work, you'd be—"
"As busy as ever," she finished sharply. "Yes. I know what I said." With Dalton in law school and her a sophomore at Northwestern, leading independent but complementary lives was nothing new; in fact, that had always been among the strengths of their relationship. Which was why he should know their separate activities weren't the issue tonight.
"Then what's the problem?"
"The problem is, anything else pops up, campaign or otherwise, and you don't think twice about canceling on me."
"I am not canceling. I'm asking you to come with me."
Liz had attended enough political fund-raisers with him to know that whispers behind plastered smiles and greedy glad-handing would be highlights of the night. A night she could do without, even if not for her prior commitment.
"I already told you," she said, "I promised the girls weeks ago I'd be here." The main reason she'd agreed, given her condensed workload from summer school, was to repay Betty for accompanying her to that droning version of Henry V last week—just so Dalton's ticket hadn't gone to waste. "Why can't you make an exception? Just this once?"
He dropped back in his seat, drew out a sigh. "Lizzy, it's just a dance."
No, it's not. It's more than that. I have to know I can depend on you! Her throat fastened around her retort. Explosions of words, she knew all too well, could bring irreversible consequences.
She grabbed the door handle. "I have to go." Before he could exit and circle around to open her side, she let herself out.
"Wait," he called as she shut the door. "Sweetheart, hold on."
The sudden plea in his voice tugged at her like strings, halting her. Could it be that he had changed his mind? That he was still the same guy she could count on?
She slid her hand into the pocket of her ivory wraparound dress, a shred of hope cupped in her palm, before pivoting to face him.
Dalton leaned across the seat toward her. "We'll talk about this later, all right?"
Disappointment throbbed inside, a recurrent bruise. Bridling her reaction, she replied with a nod, fully aware her agreement would translate into a truce.
"Have a good time," he said, then gripped the steering wheel and drove away.
As she turned for the stairs, she pulled her hand from her pocket, and discovered she'd been holding but a stray thread. The first sign of a seam unraveling.
In the entry of the dance hall, Liz stretched up on the balls of her feet to see over hats and heads. Her gaze penetrated the light haze of smoke to reach the stage. There, uniformed musicians played from behind star-patterned barricades of red, white, and blue. Flags and an oversized USO banner created a vibrant backdrop, Americana at its finest. In front of the band, her roommate Betty Cordell and two other women shared a standing microphone, harmonizing the final notes of "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree."
The audience broke into applause.
"Swell." Liz groaned. She'd missed Betty's entire debut.
Correcting her presumption, the trio jumped into another jingle.
"Thank God." Though not a particularly religious person, Liz figured it never hurt to offer a small token of appreciation to the Almighty.
Now to find her other roommate, Julia Renard. Despite the teeming room, it took only a moment to spy the girl's fiery, collar-length curls, her ever-chic attire.
Liz wove through the sea of military uniforms and thick wafts of Aqua Velva. Ignoring a duet of catcalls, she slid into the empty chair next to her friend. "I'm so sorry I'm late."
"Let me guess," Julia ventured in her honey-sweet voice. "Mr. Donovan lost his dentures, or Thelma refused to take her pills, convinced you're trying to poison her."
Liz edged out a smile.
"You know, it wouldn't kill you to get off work at a decent hour. You're making the rest of us look bad." She used her thumb to wipe something off Liz's cheek. "So, is Dalton parking the car?"
Liz tried for a casual shrug. "A political thing came up at the last minute." Again trailed her statement as the unspoken word.
"Oh," Julia replied. Not even her glowing smile could hide the sympathy invading her copper eyes.
"It's fine," Liz insisted. "I can't stay long anyway. I've got an essay on Hawthorne due Friday."
Julia nodded, then detoured from the awkward pause. "Hey, I think I still have notes on Hawthorne from last semester. Want to borrow them?"
"Sure, thanks," Liz said, before considering the source. "Unless you've got doodle designs covering the actual notes."
Julia scrunched her mouth, pondering. "Well, there might be a few...."
Liz couldn't help but giggle. If past lives existed, Julia had to have been an elite fashion designer with a permanently attached sketchpad. A keen knack for sewing served as further proof, as showcased by their roommate's new dress.
"Speaking of which." Liz motioned toward Betty. "You've really outdone yourself, Jules." In the center of the crooning trio, the blonde sparkled in the form-fitted garment matching her ocean blue eyes. The fabric and buttons were so dazzling, Julia had obviously purchased the materials herself. No doubt the dress was already Betty's favorite. From the exquisite sweetheart neckline to the elegant flow around her hips, every stitch perfectly flattered her hourglass curves. "Rita Hayworth?" Liz guessed at the inspiration.
"Yep," Julia said proudly. "From the gown in Blood and Sand. Except I shortened it to the knee, and improved on the sleeves."
"You're amazing." Too amazing to waste your talent solely as a homemaker, she wanted to say. But there was no need traversing that well-covered territory.
"It was nothing." Julia blushed, waved her off. "You want something to drink?"
Liz only intended to stay for three songs, four tops. But some coffee to ripen her brain for a long night of reading wasn't a bad idea. "A cup of joe would be great."
"Coming right up."
As Julia headed toward the snack table by the stage, Liz settled in her seat. She massaged the tension out of her palms and returned her attention to Betty. In a seasoned motion, the girl tossed her finger-waved mane off her shoulders. The bounce of her hips succeeded as a diversion from her moderate singing ability, evidenced by the front line of awestruck troops, her ideal audience.
Leave it to Betty. Up there, living carefree, without regrets. No academic pressures, no parents' expectations looming overhead—
Jealous souls will not be answered. The passage interrupted Liz's thoughts, one of many Shakespearean quotes she had memorized from her father's personal tutorials.
"One quote for every sun kiss," he would say during the lessons that ended far too soon.
Now, glancing down at the constellation of freckles on her arms, Liz recalled those long-gone days. She considered the morals her father had passed along, and wondered how different their lives would be if only she'd abided by them.
"What the hell are you up to now?" Morgan McClain demanded as his brother ducked behind his back.
"Don't move. Need you to cover me." Charlie raised his shoulders to his sandy blond crew cut.
When Morgan glimpsed the silver flask in his brother's hand, he shook his head. Charlie wasn't the only enlisted man at the dance calling for "liquid reinforcement," just the only one daring enough to dip into his supply ten feet from the volunteers' snack station. Luckily, the herd of GIs standing around them at the foot of the stage offered plenty of khaki camouflage. Or at least Morgan clung to that hope as his brother choked on the drink. Whiskey, from the smell of it.
"Hurry up, will ya?" Morgan told him. Typically, he would have voiced his disproval, but with Charlie's tension over tomorrow's departure vibrating the air, he decided to let it go. So long as the kid didn't get carried away.
"Ahh, much better," Charlie rasped, emerging from the protective shadow. He stepped up behind a couple of GIs from another outfit, both of them wolf whistling at the platinum blond singer on stage. "Sorry, fellas"—Charlie clapped them on the back—"but she's already agreed to mother my fourteen children."
"Don't fool yourself, shorty," the tall guy spat out. "You wouldn't know how to use it even if you could find it."
Charlie straightened, adding a few inches to his compact stature. "Hey, at least I have one, spaghetti bender."
"What'd you say?" The Italian GI angled his head over his wide shoulder.
"You heard me." Charlie took a step back. He rocked from side to side, dukes raised like Jack Dempsey.
As usual, Morgan would have to shut him up before a bigger guy's right hook beat him to it. "Zip it, Charlie," he ordered, then regarded the Italian. "Don't pay him any mind. It's his first day out of the loony bin." Not a stretch to believe, considering the mismatched challenge.
The GI's mouth twitched, from either amusement or agitation. To be safe, Morgan gestured to the stage and said, "Don't look now, but I think that red-hot tomato's got her eye on you, pal." The sentence launched the soldier's attention back to the bombshell, where it stuck like glue.
Except for the instigator.
"So help me, Charlie," Morgan muttered, "if you weren't ... my ... if ..." The lecture dissolved at a vision beyond his brother's shoulder. Across the room a petite beauty sat alone, swaying to the music. Strands of chestnut brown hair slipped from the knot at the nape of her neck, a frame for her heart-shaped face. Creamy skin, feminine curves, full, rounded lips. Each feature was no less than eye catching, but it was the way she moved—like wheat in a summer breeze—that mesmerized him.
"Hey, you okay?"
Morgan heard the question but didn't realize it was directed at him until a fluttering object broke the trance: a wave of Charlie's fingers.
"Huh? Uh, yeah. Yeah, I'm fine."
Charlie swept a glance over the room, tracing the distraction. Soon a gleam appeared in his hazel eyes. "Aha, I see ..." He twisted around and declared, "Gentlemen, we've located our primary target. We're goin' in."
Before Morgan could object, his brother began pressing him through the crowd like a restive racehorse into the starting gate. GIs whooped, whistled, and hollered "attaboys" in his direction. If he retreated now, the razzing would only worsen.
He pulled a deep breath. Adjusting his tucked necktie, he imagined introducing himself; he got as far as his name when a red-haired woman joined the brunette's table. A growing audience. His shoes turned to cinder blocks. He raised an arm to stop his brother, who swooped under and pounced into place, blocking the women's view of the stage.
"Pardon me, ladies," Charlie said. "We're in dire need of your assistance."
"Why? You lost, soldier?" the redhead teased.
"Not anymore." He grinned, sporting his dimples. "Now that I've found my way to your heart."
When the gals exchanged incredulous looks, Morgan considered sneaking away, preserving his dignity while the possibility remained. But the mere sight of the brunette's profile locked his knees. Unbelievably, she was even prettier up close.
"Wait a minute," Charlie went on. "I think we've met you girls before. You're Gor and Geous, ain't ya?" Their lack of response didn't faze him. "All right, what are your lovely names, then?"
Nothing. Just blank stares.
"Afraid I'm not going anywhere till I know." Charlie crossed his arms and waited, a rare showing of following through.
The brunette released a sharp sigh. "Fine. I'm Liz, this is Julia, and you're leaving."
Morgan pressed down a grin.
"Leaving?" Charlie repeated. "How could I, after finding the two prettiest gals in the city?"
Julia shook her head. "Has any of this actually worked on a girl before?"
"She means a human girl," Liz added.
"Ouch!" Charlie stumbled backward as though her insult had struck more than his ego. "You sure know how to hurt a guy." For the pathetic come-on alone, Morgan could think of a worse punishment.
"Goodness me," Liz exclaimed, hand on her chest. "Where are my manners?"
"Not to worry, apology accepted." Charlie's assurance drove straight through her sarcasm, arching her brow. "Besides. I owe you an apology as well, for not introducing myself properly."
The situation was deteriorating. But it wasn't too late. If Morgan moved now, blended into the crowd, he just might escape the quicksand of humiliation. His brother could find his way back on his own.
"My name's Charlie," he said as Morgan edged away, "but good friends and peachy gals like you call me Chap. And this dashing gentleman over here is my brother, Staff Sergeant Morgan McClain."
Staff sergeant? Morgan bristled at the lie, and found himself trapped by their gazes. He held his breath, arms at his sides, as if preparing for Saturday inspection.
Liz stretched her neck over her shoulder, curiosity forcing a peek. With Morgan's charcoal black hair and olive complexion, she questioned if he and the fair-skinned knucklehead were actually brothers.
"Evening," Morgan said, the word barely audible. A fitted service shirt outlined his broad build. His facial features were of the average sort, but he had an allure about him, an unnamable quality Liz couldn't dismiss.
"Hi," she replied as Charlie continued.
"Honestly, ladies, here's our situation." His serious tone implied a change in strategy. "You see, me and Morgan, we're leaving for war soon. As two of the U.S. Army's finest, we'll be fighting on the front lines. So without much time left to live, I've got just one thing I'm wishin' for." He knelt, presenting Julia his palm. "To dance with this red-haired knockout before I go."
"Sorry, Casanova, but I'm already spoken for." She held up her left hand to display her engagement band. Daily polishing, since her fiancé's fleet shipped out a month ago, kept the gold shiny as new.
"Well, then ..." The gears clearly cranked away in Charlie's mind. "How 'bout a dance to celebrate your engagement?"
Liz replied for her. "How 'bout we celebrate when your squad tosses you overboard?" She heard Morgan quietly laugh, a second before his brother directed his plea to Liz.
"C'mon," he said. "Is this how you thank a man who'll be risking his life for your freedom?"
She felt a smile threatening to surface. "If you got these lines out of a book from the drugstore, you should really get your nickel back."
"Hey, I'm just trying to save your friend Julie, here, from years of guilt. Imagine the headlines: 'Soldier denied a final dance ... dies for his country ...'"
Excerpted from Letters From Home by Kristina McMorris Copyright © 2011 by Kristina McMorris. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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