The Lost Valentineby James Michael Pratt
EXPERIENCE THE LOVE STORY AMERICA IS TAKING TO HEART with The Lost Valentine—now the basis for a Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie!
News reporter Susan Allison is looking for the perfect story about true love, though she doubts where such a thing really exists. Neil Thomas, Jr. wants the world to know about his parents’ bittersweet/b>/i>
EXPERIENCE THE LOVE STORY AMERICA IS TAKING TO HEART with The Lost Valentine—now the basis for a Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie!
News reporter Susan Allison is looking for the perfect story about true love, though she doubts where such a thing really exists. Neil Thomas, Jr. wants the world to know about his parents’ bittersweet love story: On February 14, 1944, Caroline Thomas said good-bye to her beloved husband, a Navy pilot sent to the Pacific. For fifty years, she waited for him—until a miracle happened, and she received his lost valentine… In the present day, when Susan and Neil meet, can the story of Neil’s parents bring them together in a love as powerful as she dreams of and he remembers?
“Get out your box of tissues, and rid yourself of all distractions because once you pick up this book, you will not put it down...Fans of The Notebook will enjoy.”—Booklist (starred review)
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- TV Movie Tie-In Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 4.10(w) x 6.60(h) x 0.90(d)
Read an Excerpt
A Love Story
Susan Allison guided the rented Lexus slowly down the quiet, magnolia-lined Pasadena street, her fingernails tapping in annoyance against the console as she tried to read the house numbers passing by. Her body, clothed in a black silk suit, was like a perfectly sculpted ornament on the sea of leather, as if the car’s designers had deliberately added her as a final finishing touch. Susan felt comfortable here, cocooned within the solid steel frame of the Lexus with its immaculate interior, where the turmoil of the city life outside could not penetrate. The world inside this car was the world Susan had built for herself. She felt safe here—safe, but irritated.
If the assignment had been politics, or a Death Row interview, or a trip to Bosnia or Lagos or Damascus, she would’ve gladly dropped everything at the last minute. But this! How could they send her to cover some love story? There were plenty of people who liked love stories, who cared about them, who believed in them. Who made more sense for this chore. For Susan, a story like this was a waste of her time. Fluff. But she had to be in Southern California anyway to put the finishing touches on her health care exposé at their Los Angeles affiliate station, CNTV. So she had agreed to satisfy Craig Warren’s curiosity by checking out this Neil guy before returning to Baltimore. What real choice did she have? No one could say no to Craig.
At the end of the block she found the house. She pulled into the driveway and stopped. A strange feeling stole over her as her eyes took in the white picket fence, the perfectly manicured lawn, the bursting flower beds in front of the house and along the walk, and the magenta bougainvillea over the front door. For a second, she almost lost sight of where she was, of what she had come to do.
At that moment, the front door opened. A man stepped outside into the cloud-shadowed sunlight. Susan forced herself to get out of the car. As she walked toward the house, the brightly colored California poppies along the walkway seemed to bend to brush her ankles. She smiled and gave her hand to the tall, well-proportioned, neatly dressed man waiting to greet her at the front door of this storybook house. “Hi, I’m Susan Allison,” she said.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Allison. I’m Neil Thomas.”
“I hate to start out on a negative note,” she began as he led her inside. She’d hesitated at first, standing on the front step, staring at the yard, the building, the flower beds. They seemed familiar somehow. “But you seem like a nice man, and I want to be honest with you,” she went on, taking a seat on the sofa in front of the bay window, ignoring the packing boxes scattered around the room. “This really isn’t my kind of story.”
He had followed her into the living room, sitting down in the armchair facing her across the coffee table. “I appreciate your honesty,” he said. “You can count on the same from me.”
“Thank you. So tell me your story. When my managing editor saw the article about it in your local paper, he told me not to come home until I came out here to see you. It must really be something.”
“It is. My parents were special people. They were well-loved in this old neighborhood.”
“So you’ve written a story about their wartime romance?”
Neil leaned forward, smiling. “I don’t know about the writing. I did the best I could, but I honestly believe it’s the most inspirational love story you’ll ever hear.”
Susan remained serious. “Great,” she said. “That’s why I’m here.”
“I pieced it together from the letters my parents wrote to each other,” he began, “and from interviews with the people who were there. Perfect love is a lofty goal, but if anyone ever reached it in their lifetime, my parents did.”
Susan almost flinched at the words, shifting her eyes toward the antique crystal clock sitting next to a packing box on the mantel.
“The story spans five decades,” Neil went on. “It’s about promises kept and devotion to cherished dreams.”
Susan was struggling to keep her attention focused.
“Wait. I’ve got a better idea,” he said, as if he’d sensed her reaction. He opened the box containing his writing, reached in, then extended a few pages across the coffee table toward her. “Here. Why don’t you read this much? If you don’t want to hear the rest of it after that, we’ll shake hands and go our separate ways.”
Susan couldn’t look him in the eyes now, afraid that she wouldn’t be able to restrain herself from saying what she really thought about this story. But she did have a job to do, plus he seemed so sincere. She finally accepted them, laying them on the sofa beside her without saying a word, oblivious to the awkward silence.
“It’s only a few pages,” Neil said, rising. “Why don’t you take a look at them while I make us some coffee?”
As he headed into the kitchen, Susan sighed and picked them up.
February 14, 1994
Amtrak’s Union Station, Los Angeles,
It had been exactly fifty years since she’d seen him. He was home on leave, a U.S. Navy pilot, before shipping out to the fight that was raging in the Pacific. To her, he epitomized the word handsome, especially in his white dress uniform, his jet black hair combed in that carelessly meticulous Clark Gable way. A perfect toothy smile complemented the blue eyes that held her as easily as his muscular arms. But beyond her physical attraction, she was drawn to Neil most by his tenderness, his thoughtfulness, his wit. He made her smile through gloom; he laughed at his own mistakes and bad luck. “Bad luck can’t be all bad,” he’d say, “since I’ve never really had any luck at all.”
She loved his ready solutions to problems, the way he worked at something until he had it. She felt loved, not only for all the little things he did for her, but because he made her feel wanted and needed.
It wasn’t just this place, the old train station, that made the flood of memories return, but the fact that they had touched each other for the last time here, before his train had pulled away. Then, as always during the few short months they’d been together, his touch had been magical, like nothing she’d ever experienced before. When Neil held her, she felt safe. The world seemed right.
The old woman imagined she could see him there, just as he had been then, waving to her as he boarded the train.
Caroline clutched his last letter in her hand as she walked through the glass doors into the massive lobby of the old depot on Alameda Street. The station was cathedral-like, a California Spanish colonial architecture with a Catholic mission flavor, the ones built by Catholic priests in the late seventeen and early eighteen hundreds that dotted the California coast. It felt like home to her.
Union Station had been brand-new then, when she’d entered these doors to send her husband off to war. It seemed even larger now, now that it was so empty. Now that the crowds had diminished. She liked it that way, though, as if her special place was theirs alone, this place that seemed frozen in time.
She shuffled past the photo gallery on the lower walls of the fifty-foot-high lobby, under its massive beams and huge candelabra lights. The subdued glow of overhead lighting mixed with the light from outside. The shafts of light streaming in made the polished mosaic-tile floor glisten enticingly, inviting visitors to linger and gaze at the photographs.
The old photos, encased in glass-covered frames, displayed a history of the years of construction, especially the war years. Union Station was running at peak capacity for travelers, especially soldiers embarking into the unknown.
She stopped as she always did in front of the last photo on the north wall, by the old ticketing area, which was now closed. There it was: mobs of soldiers. Sailors, marines, their girls, heading out to gates G and H, and the tunnel leading to track number twelve. She was there, in the picture, if one looked hard enough. At twenty-three, with twenty-five-year-old Neil. He was turned to one side, looking down at her.
A photographer had captured the moment. She had relived it over and over again. She ached for him now as she reached her aged hand out to gently caress the old glass-covered photo, as if in touching it she could erase the fifty years that separated them.
But today she was happy. He would come today. She knew he would. She had seen the swallow in the window yesterday, and she held his last letter now.
The royal red roses he’d planted all those years before had survived. They’d bloomed early this year, as they had the day he went away, on their first wedding anniversary, the 14th of February 1944. It was a sign that he hadn’t forgotten, that he would come for her. Even if it was only a dream, she would be happy to be so deluded.
She stared at the photo, with one last hard look, remembering how heartbreaking it had been to finally say good-bye.
She hadn’t made it easy for Neil. He’d tried to leave her gently. She remembered being an emotional wreck. As she thought back to that day, she imagined hearing his voice again. She closed her eyes to savor the memory, pretending to touch him. Mentally, she was a girl once more, revisiting the past, saying “good-bye.”
February 14, 1944—Valentine’s Day
Union Station, Los Angeles, California
“Come on, honey. I know it’s hard. It’s hard for me too,” Lt. Neil Thomas said, tenderly holding Caroline’s tearful face between his hands. By sheer fate, it was their first wedding anniversary, as well as the day that he was leaving for war.
Caroline tried to look happy, but it was no use. “I don’t want you to go. I’m afraid, Neil. Hold me,” she pleaded as they clung to each other.
The attendant was opening the metal doors at gates G and H leading into the tunnel. “First boarding call for Union Pacific Number 71, departing for San Francisco at track 12 in thirty minutes. Nonpassengers may accompany ticketed passengers to the tracks.”
“Come on, Caroline. We’d better go,” Neil prodded gently after the third call. Caroline tightened her grip on his arm, pressed against him even closer, but allowed him to lead her into the tunnel.
They walked along slowly with others, passing several boarding ramps to other tracks. The tunnel was overflowing with soldiers and their girls, an ocean of heartache in an uncertain future.
“The tunnel of love,” Neil whispered in her ear. When Caroline raised her sad brown eyes to his, he pointed to the couples standing along the walls, kissing, repeating what he had just said. “The tunnel of love,” he breathed, then pulled her to him in a long embrace.
“I love you,” she said, laying her head against his chest.
“I love you, too,” he whispered. He took her hand, then turned to face the tunnel. Moisture was welling in the corners of his eyes.
At the base of the long boarding ramp, Caroline stopped abruptly, suddenly feeling as though her legs were weighted to the floor.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” he asked. “Are you afraid I can’t fly well enough to get through this and come back to you?”
“No, it isn’t that,” she replied, fighting back the tears. She struggled to go on, but the words wouldn’t come. Finally, almost inaudibly, she said, “I’m trying, Neil. I’m really trying. I’m just afraid that…”
They held on to each other at the foot of the concrete ramp as others passed by, oblivious, caught up in their own misery.
Caroline fought to regain control of her emotions, then finally gave voice to her fear. “I’m afraid if I let you go now, I’ll never see you come back through this tunnel for me.” She looked into his eyes, searching for some kind of assurance, a sign that her fears were imagined.
“I know,” he said quietly. He gazed at her as if he were trying to imprint every detail, every feature of her face into his memory.
Seeing the pain in his eyes, Caroline knew he understood. She threw her arms around his neck and held him tighter than ever before.
“I’ve got to go, Caroline,” he said sadly.
“Just one minute more,” she pleaded, pulling herself out of his embrace. “I have something I want you to take with you.” She reached into her bag, pulled out the envelope, then placed it in his hand. “It’s a Valentine. For our anniversary. It’s fragile. You’ll need to take care of it.”
Neil tore open the envelope and pulled out the card. Inside was a crushed red rose, a perfect rose from their garden. When he spoke again, his voice was choked with emotion. “I’ll come back before next Valentine’s Day, Caroline, I promise. I’ll bring this back to you. Safe and sound. Just be here.”
* * *
When Susan joined me in the kitchen a few minutes later, she sounded different, less sure of herself. The pages were still in her hand.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“What’s that?” I asked, pouring the coffee, trying to ignore the power of those questioning green eyes. “What is it you don’t understand?”
“Your father and mother’s anniversary was on Valentine’s Day.”
“He promised he’d return by the next Valentine’s Day—so did he?”
I smiled. “You’re just going to have to read the rest of the story.”
She leaned back against the counter, crossing her arms thoughtfully. “They seem like genuinely warm people. I couldn’t help seeing Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart,” she offered.
“I understand,” I replied softly. “Around here, they were a legend really. Why don’t we take our coffee with us, and I’ll show you around the place? My mother was very proud of her rose garden.”
* * *
It had begun to rain. Susan was late for her plane. We’d lost track of time, talking for over an hour about the story, my mother’s old stately Victorian home and her rose garden, and about ourselves. Susan seemed attentive to every detail of the house. I had showed her the photographs hanging on the walls, my mother’s pictures, especially the one of my father in his uniform, aboard ship, holding the Valentine card in his hand that my mother had given him in the station. Susan studied the old photograph, but made no comment.
She finally agreed to read the story. When I handed it to her, she accepted it graciously, but tossed it into her leather attaché case and snapped it shut as if she were relieved to be locking it away. Now it was time for her to go.
We were standing at the base of the porch under the trellis in the rose garden. We’d met little more than an hour ago. Susan turned to look at me. She obviously had something to say.
“This house has a feeling to it. It feels—I don’t know. Like there’s a life to it.” She seemed to be weighing her words. “It’s a wonderful place. This probably sounds silly, but I can almost feel the love your mother put into it. What would you think about shooting the interview here? I mean, if you don’t have to be out immediately.”
I was surprised she’d felt the need to ask. “Of course,” I said. “I own this house. I’m on no one’s schedule but my own.”
It was pouring now, but only a few drops of rain were filtering through the roses overhead, glistening on her dark silken hair and the soft skin of her face. She looked toward the bed of flowers along the drive.
“You must’ve been very happy growing up in this house,” she said.
“We were. We were very happy.”
Her next words seemed to tumble out. “This is the house I dreamed of as a little girl. When I first saw it, I could hardly believe my eyes.” She stole a glance at my face. “When the pipes were leaking in our apartment, when we came home and found someone had picked the lock with a bobby pin, or when I watched my mother hang the same worn-out curtains in the new kitchen every time we moved, I’d climb under the covers at night to dream that we lived in a house just like this. A house with its own mailbox, its own front and backyard, its own flowers. This is that house.” She stopped then and looked down at her keys.
I wasn’t sure what to say. “I’ve decided to sell it. Too many ghosts here. Wonderful ghosts. Family ghosts. But ghosts just the same.”
I had explained to her how my sweetheart Diane had died less than three years ago. I’d lost two of the most important people in my life, my mother and my wife, within twelve brutal months of each other. I hadn’t talked to anyone about my feelings before, not even my children, but it had slipped out so easily in the last hour. “I guess I feel it’s time to move on,” I finished.
“I’m sorry,” she said simply, then quickly changed the subject. “Listen, I’ve got some more research to do before we move on this. I’ll need to contact Colonel Jackson and set up an interview with him. I also want more details on the Japanese soldier’s story. We have a bureau in Tokyo, but it’s still going to take some time.” She extended her hand. I took it. “I’ll get back to you next Monday. My boss is really excited about this.”
I nodded. She turned and ran for the car, holding her attaché case over her head against the rain. I stood transfixed for a moment, watching her move across the lawn. I caught up to her just as she opened the door.
“I guess you’re anxious to get back and spend the weekend with your family,” I ventured, holding the door open as she slid behind the wheel.
She popped the car in gear. “I guess if you call Daisy, my cat, family—then, yes,” she said, and shut the door.
I stood in the rain with my hands in my pockets, feeling foolish, watching her back down the driveway, then onto Marengo Avenue. As she turned the corner, she waved. It was a small gesture, but I was grateful for it. I waved back.
A flicker of emotion went through me as I walked back to the house, a feeling I wasn’t ready for. I consciously pushed it aside, and my thoughts went back, as always, to Diane. Everything here reminded me of her. We had spent twenty-five years together, working hard, striving to make something of our lives, watching our children grow. My parents had only one year together, but it had been enough to last a lifetime. So why was I feeling so empty now?
Oblivious to the rain, I walked along the side of the house to the porch steps, and ran my hand along the smooth stem of a budding rose. The barbs were still tender, not sharp as they soon would be. I frowned as the question resurfaced. Could I find a love again like I had known?
It was time to leave the thorns behind and reach for the new growth. I had allowed my todays to slip by one by one, unnoticed, as though they didn’t exist. I was ready for a fresh start, in a place without roots, where the phantoms of the past would no longer haunt me. Even the specters of love are ghosts.
* * *
Driving back to the airport, Susan considered the man she’d just met, remembering the sincerity in his face as he told her about his story. A true believer, she thought.
She wasn’t ready to admit to herself that the pages had filled her with an unfamiliar warmth, that she’d wanted to dive head-first into the world of Caroline and Lt. Thomas.
Pulling up to the Hertz office near LAX, Susan quickly pulled her thoughts back to the present. Within minutes, she had turned in the rental car, checked in at the gate, and was settling into a first-class seat on the plane, anxious to get back to work. Noticing only three or four other first-class passengers, she felt a sense of satisfaction in the fact that at age thirty-one, she’d earned her place with CNTV’s American Diary. Her mother would’ve been proud.
Take care of yourself, her mother had always told her. Men can only be counted on to put themselves first, then abandon you. It was the lesson of Susan’s childhood. Never rely on anyone else, especially a man, to get what you want in this world.
As the plane prepared for takeoff, its engines roaring, Susan opened her attaché case. It was going to be a long flight and she had plenty of work to do.
Neil Thomas’s story was sitting on top. She gathered up the pages and looked at them. A strange sensation ran through her as she gazed upon his name. She stared into the page and couldn’t help but recall the time she spent with him at the old home.
With a deep breath and a sigh, she began to read.
Copyright © 1996 by James Michael Pratt
Meet the Author
James Michael Pratt is the author of several other books, including the bestselling novels Paradise Bay, Ticket Home, and The Lighthouse Keeper. He lives along the Wasatch mountain range in Utah.
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