The Homefront Series: Stranger in Paradise
Before they became The Greatest Generation, they were young men and women in love . . .
The year is 1953 and London is throwing the party of the century. Even though the ravages of World War II are still visible throughout the kingdom, the world is gathering on the Mall to celebrate the coronation of England's beautiful young queen.
For almost ten years, journalist Mac Weaver has been far from his New York home. America has changed since the war ended and he wonders if there's still a place for him in the land of backyard barbecues and a new Ford in every driveway.
However a chance encounter with beautiful English reporter Jane Townsend is about to change his life forever. As the new monarch waves from the window of her fairy-tale glass coach, a homesick Yank and a lonely Brit fall in love.
One week later, Mr. and Mrs. Mac Weaver board the Queen Mary for New York and a guaranteed happily ever after future in the land where dreams come true.
But there are dark shadows on the horizon that threaten Mac and Jane's happiness and family scandals that just might tear them apart . . .
"This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny." --Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Mac Weaver hadn't seen a crowd like this since V-E Day eight years ago. He'd led off yesterday's story with that statement and he could lead off today's story with it as well. Hundreds of thousands of jubilant British subjects crowded the narrow streets, all vying for a glimpse of their brand new queen. They were a good-natured group, even those who believed the monarchy should go the way of the dinosaur, a group banded together by centuries of tradition, generations of civility, and years of war. A far cry from the chaos he'd experienced in Korea just three short months ago.
"Shove over, yank," said a wiry reporter in a Harris Tweed jacket. "Can't expect me to see over a skyscraper."
"Sure thing." Mac stepped back and let the English reporter move in front of him.
"Grow them tall in the States," the reporter said over his shoulder. "Texas?"
"Same thing, isn't it, yank?"
"Yeah," said Mac with a rueful laugh. "In a way it is."
When you were three thousand miles away from home, it really didn't matter what state you were from. As it was, Mac stood out like a 6'3" sore thumb as he waited in front of Westminster Abbey for the procession to arrive. An All-American sore thumb.
He thought like an American, he moved like an American, he talked and joked and worked like an American. Hard to believe he hadn't been back home in over seven and a half years. He patted the ticket in the inside pocket of his battered trench coat. Well, that was about to change. Last night he'd managed to pull some strings and book passage on the Queen Mary. In less than a week he'd be back in New York where he belonged.
That was, if he belonged anywhere at all.
One of the drawbacks to being a foreign correspondent was the fact that you spent a lot of time in hotels with room service dinners and tattered guidebooks for company. Not that he didn't enjoy the life of a rolling stone. He'd never given a hell of a lot of thought to things like families and permanence. His folks had enough permanence for the entire Weaver clan. Les and Edna had been in the house in Forest Hills for almost forty years and, God willing, he knew they'd be there another forty more. And if his kid brother had lived, Mac had no doubt Doug would have followed suit.
Someone in the Weaver family had to blaze new trails and see the world and that someone was Mac. His first job had been as a cub reporter for the New York Daily News and his coverage of a major garment district fire had attracted notice. One thing led to another and before he was twenty-five, he was working in the Paris office of the New York Times. Then the war came and duty called. His reputation as a journalist had cushioned Mac from the worst of it. He'd been in danger--but not too much danger. He'd smelled the gunfire--but not up close. He'd covered the war but he'd never really been part of it.
When his brother died, Mac wondered why in hell the Almighty had chosen to take Doug's life and spare his own. But, of course, there were no answers to that question--at least none he could come up with. So Mac drank a lot and swore a lot and wrote some of the best war stories of his career while he was drinking and swearing.
Those stories had made his name and now, eight years after the Allies' victory, he was still riding high on them. He could probably parlay his credits into another few years on the foreign beat but he knew when it was time to hang up his passport and move on. Of course, that wasn't the entire truth. His bureau chief had made it patently clear that Mac's presence was getting to be a bit of a problem.
"It's not that we don't respect your work, Weaver," the old boy had said during their last meeting. "It's just that the higher-ups think it's time for a change, what with the problem in Korea almost over and all that."
The problem in Korea. That said it in a nutshell, didn't it? You couldn't go around telling everybody that the Emperor had no clothes before they finally asked you to look the other way.
Besides, the strangest thing had happened: he was homesick. He was tired of fighting, tired of running, tired of seeing young men die. All the lessons we should have learned during the last war seemed to have been put aside like yesterday's news. The players may have changed, but the script was still the same: the perennial struggle to see who is king of the mountain.
America's isolationist days had disappeared with the first bomb dropped on Pearl Harbor. There was no turning back to the days of smug security, sure in the knowledge that we were inviolate. With power came responsibility. With prosperity came ambition.
We overstepped our bounds. We made mistakes. Mac wrote about them. The McCarthyites read about them and made a note of his name. And that was why it was time to move on.
This time moving on meant moving back to where it had all begun: New York City. His hometown. For weeks now he'd had the feeling he was on the verge of something big. Something exciting. Something different from anything he'd ever done before. An adventure. He didn't know what it was exactly, but he knew it was right around the corner, if he only knew where to look.
He'd seen everything and done everything there was to do. Two wars. A broken engagement to a lovely Frenchwoman who wanted more out of life than a well-used passport. He knew the inside of every bar from London to Beirut and back again. There was nothing left to explore--nothing, that was, except the country he'd left behind. London, however, was a demanding mistress. If you looked closely enough, you could still see the scars of war on the magnificent old city but those scars only added to her lustre and brilliance. He'd done his best work there in London, written his best stories, seen the best that mankind had to offer. His admiration for the British people was boundless. Their bravery was the stuff of which legends were made. Not that Mac had committed any acts of bravery himself. Bravery required a certain involvement and Mac had danced through most of his life avoiding exactly that.
It hadn't taken Amy Sterling, his home town girlfriend, long after V-E Day to figure that out for herself. I need someone who's there for me, Mac, Amy's letter had said. Someone who'll be there when I need him, not running all over the globe...
Well, Amy had gotten her wish. She had a husband and a house and three kids. Rumor had it she went to PTA meetings and drove a Ford station wagon and made the best apple pie in Richmond Hill. And if she ever thought about Mac it was probably with a touch of pity that he was all alone.
You'd think he'd have learned, wouldn't you, by the time he found Suzette. But, no. Same mistakes. Different continent. Suzette and her husband Bernard lived with their children in a chateau in the Loire Valley.
Even his rowdiest friends had all settled down into marriage and their own personal baby booms while Mac covered everything from murders to movie stars to coronations. "You've got the life, pal," they'd said when he'd gone home for a visit in 1946, all hail-the-conquering-hero. "No mortgages for you. No dirty diapers and two a.m. feedings for our Mac." Mac Weaver shoveling snow in the driveway? Not on your life. Punching a time clock in some dreary office? You've got to be kidding.
Mac Weaver with someone who cared about him?
Sorry. Can't help you there, Mac.
Maybe it was the thought of going home that was getting to him. For thirty-five years being alone hadn't bothered him. Lately, however, he'd begun to feel the pinch of time as he watched colleagues go home to wife and kids while he spent his nights in pub after pub, bemoaning the state of the world.
Or maybe he'd seen one war too many. Sure as hell nobody had been ready to go to battle again so soon after the end of World War II. It had been hard to tackle the issue of Korea. First of all there was the question of nomenclature. Washington balked at the word "war." "Police action" had a certain arrogant cachet while "conflict" implied a battle of words not weapons. The carnage he'd seen had been anything but a war of semantics.
Once again a generation of young men were laying down their lives and this time it was difficult to figure out what they were fighting for. Europe was still struggling to recover from the ravages of World War II--and starting to wonder if they should watch their eastern borders as the USSR gathered strength and purpose.
Panmunjom. The Yalu River. Inchon. Places that had been unknown three years ago were on every tongue today. The fledgling United Nations was stretching its wings with this conflict and Mac didn't have a hell of a lot of confidence that the outcome would be what everyone hoped for.
He liked his battles clearly defined, with good guys and bad guys, and an ending like one in a Hollywood B-movie. When you can't even call a war, a war, you're in big trouble. He'd made reference to those feelings in a column three months ago and, before he knew what hit him, he found himself transferred back to the European beat.
At least with a coronation, there was no doubt about who the good guy was, not when she wore a frilly white dress and a crown of diamonds and emeralds and rubies. Leave it to the Brits: they bitched and moaned about the obsolescence of royalty in the nuclear age, but give them an occasion to break out the glass coach and the high-stepping horses, and they came out in number to cheer their monarch on.
All you had to do was look around at the faces in the crowd and you'd see he was absolutely right. The wiry reporter in front of him was probably from a working class family in Birmingham. That gent over by the bobby had Oxford written all over his aristocratic face and a blood line bluer than the Danube. Charwomen mingled with society grande dames--at least the grande dames who hadn't received an invitation from the Queen. Rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief. They were all represented in the throng. School kids, young mothers, beautiful women with glossy black hair tumbling over their shoulders--
Wait a minute. His gaze returned to the vision jockeying for a front row position in the dense knot of people near the bobby. . . . she'd smell like rose petals in the spring . . . her voice would be gentler than a summer rain . . . Small, delicate features in a fine-boned cameo of a face framed by a silken cascade of lustrous waves. If she topped five feet two, she was lucky. . . . candlelight and soft music . . . she'd step into his arms, her head resting against his chest as they danced . . . It was a wonder she hadn't been trampled by the mob. In New York, she would have been flattened in a minute.
But this wasn't New York. This was London. Girls with porcelain skin like that didn't live in Queens or Brooklyn. Her eyes are blue, he thought, ignoring the roar of the crowd and the clip-clop of horses' hooves approaching. Cornflower blue . . .
"Hey, yank! Where you off to? The queen's about to arrive." Mac no longer cared. He pushed his way into the crowd to meet the woman of his dreams.
Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, wife of Prince Philip of Greece, the Duke of Edinburgh, mother of Prince Charles and Princess Anne, was about to be crowned as Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, and Jane Townsend, loyal subject and hard-working newspaper reporter, could think of nothing but her feet.
And why shouldn't she? Stylish shoes were dreadful things, really, but Jane had never been one to sacrifice vanity for practicality. For three days now she'd been running all over London, from Covent Garden to Downing Street to Hyde Park, covering the story of Queen Elizabeth's coronation and she had come to one very important conclusion: high heels were the devil's own invention. She glared down at the feet of the male reporters who flanked her on both sides. Sensible brogans. Casual Italian loafers. One enterprising soul actually wore field hockey shoes.
She sighed. It was a man's world. No doubt at all in her mind. She wondered how successful Lowell Thomas or Edward R. Murrow would have been had they been forced to track down their big stories while wearing two inch heels.
Not that she was about to stop wearing her fashionable shoes. When you were only five feet one and one-quarter, you did everything you possibly could to gain an extra inch or two in stature and sought to repair the damage later with a long soak in a hot tub and the fortification of a dry martini. But even with the dreadful high heels on, she still was having one bloody awful time getting a glimpse of the avenue in front of the Abbey.
For all she knew, Lillibet, as the new queen was known to her family and friends, was doing a jig right there for all the world to see.
All the world, save Jane Townsend.
Not that it came as any surprise to Jane. She had known coming back to London would be difficult, at best. If it hadn't been for the grand nature of the event, she would have told Leo to cover the story himself. She was too practical a girl to write about fairy tales and happily ever after. She knew there were no happy endings. You didn't lose your mother when you were a little girl of six and believe in nursery stories for very long.
It seemed to Jane she had done her best work on the very first day of the festivities. The sight of families camping out along the sidewalk with blankets wrapped around them against the chill drizzle called to mind the darkest days of the war. Families had huddled under blankets then too, down below the street in the underground stations. Instead of fireworks, it had been the Luftwaffe lighting up the night sky with terror. Her brother, dead on the beaches of Normandy. Her father, lost in an air raid not two blocks away from where she was standing right now. The streets were filled with ghosts of friends long gone and Jane marvelled that she had let her editor convince her to return to the city of her birth. Even the Queen wasn't enough to erase the feeling of sorrow inside her heart.
"Give us a smile now, will you, lovey?" A rosy-cheeked man with a big fat cigar winked at her. "No need to look serious on such a splendid day."
Hah! Jane fought down the urge to kick him in his stubby shins. There was nothing like a lecherous old man to bring one back to the matters at hand. If she didn't return home to Liverpool with a smashing feature story, her editor would have her head on a silver platter. Leo Donnelly had handed her the plum assignment of the century and there Jane was, dithering on about her sore feet and thinking longingly of a warm bubble bath and a cool martini.
Your job is all you have, Jane. See to it you don't lose it, as well.
She uncapped her fountain pen and opened to a fresh page in her spiral-bound notebook. "Sorry," she said as she elbowed the woman on her right. "A bit cramped here."
Describe the atmosphere, Leo had said. Our readers want to know all the details. Well, unless the readers of the Liverpool Times and Tribune were wildly interested in word portraits describing the backs of men's suit coats, Jane was in a great deal of trouble.
Think, girl, think. Certainly there was something she could say. She'd already described the noise (loud), the weather (drizzly and cold), and the footwear (varied). Leo had said Jane and Lillibet had a lot in common. Jane had laughed at that until she gasped for breath, but now she was desperate enough right to investigate that notion.
The brand new queen was twenty-seven.
So was Jane.
Elizabeth had lustrous dark hair and Wedgwood blue eyes.
So had Jane.
Elizabeth also had a handsome prince for a husband, two blond and beautiful storybook children, and the crown of the British Empire.
So much for comparisons.
Family. Didn't it always come down to that in the end? That endless chain of relationships, bound in blood and bone, that defied the years and the wars and the onslaught of modern life.
Family. The one thing everyone had.
Everyone, that was, except for Jane. Her family was no more than a memory now, a distant memory of love and caring that had disappeared from her life before she was old enough to fully appreciate just how important it was. All that was left of the Townsend clan was Jane, unmarried and destined to remain so, and her dotty Uncle Nigel who wiled away his days in the Oxford library writing his masterwork on Leo Trotsky and catering to his bon-bon loving wife. Jane had been three years out of London before Leo knew she'd even left.
She sighed and fished her coronation schedule from her pocket.
A roar rose up from the crowd and she craned her neck to see if the queen had finally arrived at the Abbey. She tapped the shoulder of the reporter in front of her. "May I?" she asked, gesturing toward the front of the knot of correspondents pressing against the wooden barricade.
He gave her a look generally reserved for insects and other pests and she wished the rest of his ginger-colored hair would fall out.
"Bloody hell," she swore under her breath, grateful that no one could hear her. How on earth would she ever finish this story for Leo if she couldn't see? A bobby with a cheerful face winked at her from his post a few yards away. Flirting was well and good but if he really wanted to be of assistance, he could part the crowd like Moses parted the Red Sea and let her get a look at what, if anything, was happening in front of the Abbey.
A low male voice rumbled in her ear. "Got a problem?"
She turned, looking up into the dazzling green eyes of an extremely handsome stranger. Tall, strong, with shoulders wide as the Thames. An American, she thought. You rarely found men like that in England, men who looked as if they'd spent most of their lives outdoors chopping down trees or climbing mountains, or whatever it was that healthy, red-blooded American males were purported to do. She gave him her best smile. "If you happen to have a step ladder with you, I'd be forever in your debt."
"Can't help you there," he said, grinning in the way most Americans in her acquaintance liked to grin. "Left my stepladder in my hotel room."
"More's the pity," Jane murmured, aware that the top of her head barely reached his collarbone.
"I have an idea," he continued, those forest green eyes never leaving hers. "Afraid of heights?"
She shook her head. "Fearless, I'm ashamed to admit. Not terribly ladylike, but true."
The expression on his face told her he found her more than satisfactory. A warmth started sliding upward from her toes. He extended a bear paw of a hand. "Mac Weaver. The New York Times."
She stared as her own hand disappeared into his. "Jane Townsend. Liverpool Times and Tribune."
He started to laugh. "Leo Donnelly's an old drinking buddy of mine."
"Leo Donnelly," said Jane, "is everybody's old drinking buddy, Mr. Weaver."
She looked at her hand, still hidden within her grasp. "Jane."
His grin widened, but he released her hand. She was almost sorry he'd given up so easily. "Trust me?"
"With my life," she said solemnly, aware of the twinkle that must be in her own eyes.
"On the count of three," he said, placing a hand on either side of her waist. "One...two...three."
Her breath rushed from her lungs in a gasp of utter surprise. One moment she was standing there on the ground, and the next she was swept up into the air and deposited on his shoulder.
"How's the view?" he asked, one hand against her right hip, holding her steady.
"Perfect." It took a gargantuan effort to remember why it was she found herself up there in the first place. Oh, yes. The Queen. "I think I see her coach in the distance!" She pointed down the road. "If you look closely, you can see the crimson and gold harnesses on the Windsor greys."
"What's a Windsor grey?"
She explained about the elegant horses bred for royal use only, but her mind was only partially engaged. His light brown hair was thick and shiny, bleached in spots by the sun to the color of golden wheat. He didn't slick it down with hair tonic like the men she knew or have the barber clip it close to his head. In fact, it looked as if he paid his hair little attention, except to keep it clean and have it trimmed now and again. It brushed the collar of his mac and the urge to run her fingers through the unruly tendrils almost overpowered her.
Almost, but not quite.
Gathering what was left of her wits about her, Jane launched into a spirited explanation of royal esoterica that must have sounded absurd coming, as it did, from a woman seated atop a strange man's shoulder.
But Jane was nothing if not accustomed to maintaining her composure in untoward situations. You didn't live through six years of war and not learn how to cope.
"I see her!" Mac Weaver sounded like a kid in his excitement. He whistled low. "Will you get a load of that coach? I'd trade my MG for that baby in a minute."
"My Uncle Nigel would say that coach represents all that's wrong with England today."
Mac Weaver's shoulders shook with his laughter. "Your Uncle Nigel would love my pal Danny. Danny's a devout Leninist, although you don't say that too loud in the States these days."
"Uncle Nigel's a Trotskyite," said Jane, praying she wouldn't fall from her perch. "If he had his way, he'd hand out the crown jewels in Picadilly Circus." Uncle Nigel had been the Townsend family's pet eccentric, a quasi-socialist professor at Oxford whose opinions on politics and religion usually ran counter to everything Jane believed in. Now he was all the family she had left and she loved him despite their differences.
Of course, Nigel steadfastly refused to attend the coronation. "Rubbish," he said, looking up from his textbooks and his sherry. "Girl should be ashamed, giving into tradition that way." Jane, however, had the feeling that even curmudgeonly Nigel Townsend was peering out the window of his flat, hoping for a glimpse of the pomp and splendor.
The crowd erupted in cheers of "Long live the Queen!" when Elizabeth II turned their way and gave a royal wave of her hand. Jane--cynical, practical Jane--found herself cheering along with everyone else as the coach moved past them.
"So you don't agree with your Uncle Nigel." Mac Weaver said once the cheering died down.
Jane quickly smoothed her hair and tried to regain her composure. "I'm afraid I'm a staunch capitalist with a soft spot for royal tradition."
"I like a woman with respect for tradition."
I like a man with green eyes, she thought. "You can put me down now, Mr. Weaver."
"Mac. I said you can call me Mac."
She bit back a smile. "You can put me down now . . . Mac."
"Why not?" she countered. Dear God, he was an attractive man. He rather reminded her of a fair-haired Clark Gable, all-American swash and buckle, tempered with a dash of European flair, although he'd probably be the first to disagree. Americans so rarely wanted to admit to anything as suspect as style.
"Pretty obvious why not, don't you think, Janie?"
"Janie!" She started to laugh despite her best intentions. "No one has ever called me Janie before."
"Good. That'll be my name for you."
She started in surprise. "Your name for me?"
Those green eyes of his twinkled wickedly. "I know we have a language barrier, but I think my meaning's pretty clear."
"A pet name?"
He shrugged and she clutched at the top of his head for support. "Pet name, nickname, whatever you want to call it."
"I thought pet names were the offshoot of familiarity."
She blushed as she became aware of his hand against her thigh and the fact that his mouth was no more than six inches from her ribcage.
"Hard to get much more familiar than this, Janie."
"Point well-taken. Now put me down."
"I don't think so." He shaded his eyes with his free hand and looked out over the crowd. "There are more coaches coming."
"The Queen's coach was the last one."
"What about Princess Margaret?"
"She's in the Abbey."
"The Queen Mother?"
"Prince Philip? Her kids? Her best friend?"
"Put me down, Mac."
"I'm enjoying myself."
"And I'm pleased indeed, but we're attracting attention." "Doesn't bother me."
She caught the eye of the handsome bobby who'd smiled at her before. "I could have you pinched for kidnapping."
"You needed my help. I was just doing my duty as a red- blooded American male faced with a damsel in distress."
He wasn't listening to her. Not even a little bit. What's more, he didn't care. Normally Jane was quite proficient in putting young men in their places. This, however, was not your average young man. Mac Weaver was older and wiser and, heaven help her, a great deal sexier than the boys who usually tried to chat her up for a date. Jane was used to being in control of most situations and this lack of control was intensely frustrating.
"If I put you down, you won't take off, will you?"
She gestured regally toward the crowd swarming about them. "Mercury couldn't take off, as you put it, through this mass of humanity." Good. She sounded aloof, as if she were studying for her O levels.
Again the feel of his large hands encircling her waist. Again the rush of delight as he lifted her into the air. Slowly he lowered her to the ground and she held her breath as her belly, her ribcage, her breasts brushed against his muscular chest. Dangerous . . . very, very dangerous . . .
Say thank you and goodbye. That was exactly what she would do. Polite, but detached. Courteous, yet distant. She had work to do, after all. And so, she imagined, did he.
But the ground beneath her feet didn't seem as steady as it had a few minutes earlier and the air smelled somehow sweeter and the word "goodbye" never passed her lips. Instead she stood there, fiddling with her notebook and pen, the touch of his hands still palpable against her waist, while he studied her.
"You're older than you look, aren't you?"
"That's an impertinent question." A pause, then: "How old do I look?"
His fair brows slid together in a frown. "Twenty. Twenty-one." Again that wicked gleam in his eyes. "Barely legal."
She struggled to retain her English composure. His intent was all-too-clear. And all too thrilling. "You're right, Mr. Weaver," she said. "I am older than I look."
"Same as the queen," he said with that American grin.
"And there all likeness ends." She felt off-center, suddenly ill-at-ease and eager to call a halt to this craziness. "I must be off," she said with a businesslike nod of her head. "I've enjoyed the conversation." Put one foot before the other, Jane. He isn't for you.
"The conversation doesn't have to end, Janie."
The way he said "Janie," as if he liked the feel of her name against his tongue. Nobody had ever said her name like that before. Maybe no one ever will again . . . "My story," she said, knowing he would recognize the excuse for what it was. "I have a score of details to investigate before the recessional back to the Palace."
"So have I."
Her heart sank. Tell me I can't go . . . tell me you won't let me leave . . . "I won't keep you."
"I know of a pub not too far from here where we can have a draft and compare notes."
"Say yes, Janie." He reached for her hand. "Something's happening. Don't let it end before we find out what it is. Let's give it a chance."
She wanted to tell him he was crazy, that only mad dogs and fools believed in love at first sight--but then he hadn't mentioned love at first sight, had he? It had been her own thought, her own realization, that brought about the trembling deep inside her heart. Things like this don't happen, her usual logical self proclaimed.
Unfortunately, the logical Jane Townsend was no longer listening. "Yes," she said, putting her hand in his. "Let's."