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Stranger In Paradise
By Barbara Bretton
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneChristmas Day, 1990
The house on Hansen Street had seen many Christmases, but this Christmas would be its last.
The three women climbed the steps to the attic slowly, each one lost in her own world of memory. The Wilson house had been part of their childhood, the one constant in a world that didn't put much stock in stability and continuity.
World War II. The Korean conflict. The tragedy of Vietnam. The old house had borne silent witness to the sorrows and joys of the Wilson family and their friends for more than seven decades. Marriages had taken place in the front parlor. Babies had been conceived and delivered in the upstairs bedroom. Deaths had been mourned at the scarred kitchen table while the room filled with the aroma of percolating coffee and sweet memories.
Decades of change. Years of turmoil. The three women knew nothing was forever, but somehow they'd always believed there would be one exception to that rule, and the Wilson place would endure.
The house on Hansen Street had almost defied the odds. When their neighbors relented and sold their properties to the highest bidders, the Wilsons had held on. When the neighborhood grew narrower and more violent, the Wilsons clung to tradition. The Weavers had sold their home in the early sixties, intent upon seeing the world from their Winnebago, but although the Wilsons wanted to see the world, too, they wanted the security of a home base.
Not even Tom's death five years ago had convinced Dot Wilson to relinquish her home.
Progress, however, was both ally and foe, and in the end it had been progress that was Dot Wilson's undoing. "The house has got to go," said the nice young man from the Department of Housing. "We're putting up a ten-story coop and your property's the last to fall into line."
And so Dot had sold her beloved home to a man with red suspenders and a beeper attached to his belt and was now going to live with her daughter Nancy in Connecticut. "One last holiday," she had told the young man with no humor in his soul. "January second it's all yours."
They had said it would be the death of her. "We'll hire help," said Catherine, ever the businesswoman. "You shouldn't be doing all of that, Mom."
Eighty-six-year-old Dot was having none of it. If this was to be her last Christmas in the house on Hansen Street, she would make certain it was the most wonderful Christmas ever. She scrubbed and polished, waxed and dusted, until every last surface gleamed. She baked fruitcakes and sugar cookies and the gingerbread men her great-grandchildren loved and roasted a giant tom turkey they'd still be talking about at Eastertime.
But there was one thing she couldn't do, and it was why her two favorite granddaughters and her dearest godchild were braving the dusty attic.
"A lot of memories up here," said thirty-seven-year-old Christine Danza Monahan, Catherine's daughter.
Her cousin Linda Sturdevant Morris, Nancy's eldest daughter, gazed around the huge room. "You can almost hear the walls talking, can't you?"
Wilson blood didn't run through Elizabeth Mary Weaver's veins, but that was only a technicality. Liz had been steeped in Hansen Street history from the day she was born. Blood ties were important, but ties of the heart sometimes bound families together even more tightly. Years and years ago, back before the Second World War, her father's brother had been engaged to marry Christine's mother. Uncle Douglas had died somewhere in the Pacific, taking with him her grandparents' hope of uniting the Weaver clan with the Wilsons.
But, as she stood there in the quiet attic with her two dearest friends, it seemed to Liz that the distinction between friend and family grew less important with each year that passed. She had inherited her father's wanderlust and her mother's beauty; and from both of them had come a love of words. Her career had taken her from Bangkok to Borneo and back again, but her heart always brought her back to Hansen Street.
To this house. This musty attic room.
To the letters and diaries in the trunk by the window.
It was all there, all the beauty and wonder and sorrow of life, there in the papers and scrapbooks and photographs packed away with wedding dresses and pressed corsages. Somehow the Wilson attic had become the repository of memories for two families and, in a fashion, of a way of life long gone.
Beauty wasn't all Liz had inherited from her English-born mother. The need for family, for connection, was ingrained in her soul, as much a part of her genetic makeup as the dark color of her tousled hair or the soft blue of her eyes. Fate hadn't seen fit to bless her with husband or child, and so she had taken on the responsibility of historian. It was Liz who had listened to all the stories, Liz who had shared the letters and diaries, Liz whose modern and practical heart yearned for a love of her own.
"Will you look at these?" Christine knelt near the open trunk and lifted a thick stack of letters tied with a faded red ribbon. "Seaman Gerald Sturdevant and Miss Nancy Wilson." Grinning, she handed them to her cousin. "Remember when we used to say our parents didn't think that way?"
Linda's eyes widened as she looked at the yellowed pages written during World War II. "So it's true," she said, her voice soft with wonder. "They really did fall in love through the mail."
"You didn't believe it?" Liz had never once doubted the possibility of such things, although she'd never been fortunate to experience them herself. She liked to believe that somewhere out there was the one man she was meant to love. She also liked to believe, although it seemed less likely with every passing year, that she would one day find him.
"Who would believe it?" Linda countered, her attention riveted on the love letters. "I can't remember ever receiving a love letter in my life. You can't wrap a red ribbon around a long-distance phone call."
"Poor baby," said Christine, rummaging through the accumulated memories in the trunk. "Married to the most handsome man in all of New York City and she's complaining."
Liz knelt next to the trunk. "Over there," she said, pointing at a bundle of pale pink envelopes banded together with a lilac grosgrain ribbon. "That's Aunt Cathy's handwriting." She remembered those letters, so stiff and formal at first as Catherine recovered from the death of her fiancé, then gradually warming into a friendship destined to blaze into love.
Would it ever happen for her, that wonderful moment of recognition where past and present come together to make the future possible?
Christine lifted the stack of letters, then retrieved the thin airmail sheets from her father. "Amazing," she said, with a shake of her head. "All these from a man who's never so much as written a grocery list in all the years since."
Open your eyes, Liz thought. Can't you see the people who used to be? Love wasn't a modern invention. Before computer chips and microwave ovens and VCRs, men and women had fallen in love and married and somehow managed to make happily-ever-after come true....
Excerpted from Stranger In Paradise by Barbara Bretton Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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