While the rest of the world reels from World War II, Miller Dreeser remains focused on his obsession born of ambition, and sweet Caroline Bennett, whose heart is as big as her father's fortune. Unfortunately, she's susceptible to Miller's charms and blind to his greed.
A man with a secret that could destroy anyone caught in his web. A woman whose youthful folly could destroy her family and her future. A story that spans two decades, the most defining moments of the 20th Century, and five intertwined lives from America's Greatest Generation.
This suspenseful, page-turning post-war drama is a must-read for fans of historic fiction and Tess Thompson alike.
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Tess Thompson is the USA Today Bestselling and award-winning author of contemporary and historical Romantic Women’s Fiction with nearly forty published titles. When asked to describe her books, she could never figure out what to say that would perfectly sum them up until she landed on Hometowns and Heartstrings.
Part 1: December 1921
Chapter 1: Caroline
Caroline Bennett, nestled into the corner of the sofa in her father’s study, organized a stack of letters into alphabetical order. Degrees of handwriting skills aside, each letter was clearly addressed to Santa at the North Pole from one of the forty‐two children at Saint Theresa’s Home for Orphans. Caroline was cozy in her red flannel nightgown and thick socks, and her legs were almost long enough to reach the floor. A fire crackled behind the metal grid. Fresh fir branches decorated the mantel and filled the room with their spicy scent. Candles flickered on the side tables, casting soft shadows. Outside, December fog sheathed their home so that tonight they lived in a cloud instead of a street in San Francisco where the houses were the size of schools.
Caroline knew there was no Santa. She was twelve now, after all. Her days of childish beliefs were in the past. Her parents were Santa. It was obvious now that she knew. She’d discovered the truth when she accidently saw their housekeeper, Essie, wrapping presents in the same paper that later showed up as gifts from Santa. This new knowledge rested heavily in the middle of her chest. It had been lovely to believe in magic. However, her dismay to learn that her favorite saint was, in fact, fiction was tempered by her delight that this year, for the first time, she would be able to help deliver the gifts to the orphanage. Her stomach did flips just thinking of it. As if that weren’t enough, her mother, Sophie, had entrusted Caroline with a sacred task. She was to help find just the right gift for each child.
Her father, Edmund, hidden behind the newspaper in his large chair with nothing but his long legs visible, occasionally grunted or exclaimed over something he read. He’d missed several Christmases when he was fighting overseas. This was his second Christmas home with them, but Caroline had not forgotten how lonely those days were or the worried tears Mother had shed. Edmund Bennett, as Mother often said, could fill up a room like no other. Without him, the house had seemed empty and less like Christmas, his presents stacked up under the tree for his hoped‐for return, their deepest fear that they would remain unopened. Now, though, Father was safe at home, and Mother no longer cried by the fire while holding his latest letter in her delicate hands.
Caroline settled back into the sofa, placing the piles of letters next to her. “I’ve put them in order, Mother. Are you ready for me to read them now?” Working side‐by‐side with her beautiful mother, Caroline imagined she’d experienced a great transformation from the previous Christmas. She was taller and more sophisticated, and felt almost sorry for her deluded younger self. What a little dolt she’d been, believing that a man could fly around the world in only one night on a sled pulled by reindeer.
Other than telling her parents she knew the truth, she kept mum about this devastating fact. There was no reason her friends should have their belief in magic ruined. Believing in something as wonderful as the idea of Santa made them happy, and it was not her place to take that away from them. The longer one believed, the better.
Essie entered with a plate of sugar cookies, hot chocolate for Caroline, and glasses of sherry for her parents. “Good evening. Some sweets for the sweet?” Caroline grinned, knowing Essie meant she was sweet.
“Essie, you must stop working and retire for the evening,” said Mother. “You’ve been on your feet since dawn.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Bennett, and I beg your pardon, but dawn is an exaggeration.” Essie, only twenty‐five, had come to them four years before as a housemaid but had proven so smart and capable that Mother promoted her to head housekeeper when cranky Mrs. Smith, inherited from Father’s mother, had retired. Caroline adored Essie. She was pretty with brown curls that made Caroline want to pull one to see it spring back into place. Essie was never cross, even with Caroline who sometimes forgot that she wasn’t supposed to run in the house.
The newspaper lowered. Father’s green eyes fixed upon Essie. “Mrs. Bennett exaggerating? Impossible.”
Mother laughed. “No one asked for your opinion, Mr. Bennett.”
Essie patted Caroline’s head, smiling. “Oh, the letters from the children. How wonderful.” At the door, she turned back, tears glistening in her eyes. “What you do for those poor orphans—giving them a Christmas. Could’ve been me but for the grace of God.”
“Thank you, Essie. Have a good rest,” said Mother. “We have a million cookies to make tomorrow.”
The newspaper lowered once again. “We?”
“Well, it’s my mother’s recipes, anyway.” Mother tossed a pillow at Father, which he thwarted by once again hiding behind his newspaper. The sound of Essie’s laughter accompanied her clicking heels down the hallway.
Mother held up her pen and paper. “I’m ready, darling. Read away.”
The first was from a boy named Miller, who wanted a telescope so he could study the constellations. Caroline put it back into its envelope while left‐handed Mother, the paper at a slant so she didn’t smear the ink, wrote his wish on the list. Other than Miller’s rather forthright letter, the others had deeper wishes.
Please, Santa, bring me a new family for Christmas.
Santa, bring my mother back to me.
Santa, do you know where my brother is?
After the tenth letter, she couldn’t continue. Tears slid down her cheeks and onto the paper, blurring the ink. “Mother, please. I can’t. They’re too sad.”
Mother set down her pen. The newspaper came down and Father placed it on the table next to him. “Caroline, I know the letters hurt you,” said Mother. “They do us as well. But you must never turn away from truths like these just because it’s hard. It’s your responsibility as a person with so much to understand that many others have nothing and to let it soften you to do good in the world.”
“For whom much is given, much is expected,” said Father.
Caroline wiped her eyes with her handkerchief, then ran her fingers over her embroidered initials. “But why do I have so much when others have so little?”
“We’re lucky,” said Mother. “Because of that we have to serve others as best we can.”
“Love instead of hate,” said Father. “This is what Jesus taught us. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir.” Caroline picked up the next letter. “Dear Santa.”
Chapter 2: Miller
It was Christmas Eve. While sugarplums danced in the heads of the other children, twelve‐year‐old Miller could not sleep, shivering under a thin blanket. An unexpected cold front had come the day before, encasing San Francisco in ice, and the orphanage’s fireplaces could not keep up with the frigid temperatures. Before he ventured from his bed, he listened for the sounds of the other boys sleeping. Norm snored, Wesley murmured pleas to his dead mother, and Timmy made a sound with his lips like he was trying to blow a horn. The other four boys were smaller, and in general, uttered nothing, other than falling out of the narrow beds occasionally and crying until one of the big boys shushed them. One grew tough here. Coddling and sympathy were in short supply. There was no room for softness and sadness. It was only tolerated if it was amid dreams, like poor Wesley.
Miller walked in silent steps to the window, and drew back the curtain. He stood between it and the glass, looking up at the cloudless sky where stars danced in the black night. He wanted to observe them in the silence, to soak them in without distraction because it made him feel as if anything were possible, like there was more to his paltry existence than the chilled room. He gazed for many minutes until he became a star, too. Silver and shining with heat. Last August, the stars shot across the horizon and he caught them in his hands and hung on, streaking across the sky in splendored glory.
Dust tickled his nose and he rubbed it with the back of his hand to keep from sneezing. He shivered as he placed his hand on the glass of the window. A layer of ice had formed on the inside, and it melted under his warm hand. This proved he did exist and was not invisible like he’d been that afternoon. He didn’t care that he wasn’t chosen again. No one would ever come for him. He understood that now. Days of hopeful wishes and prayers were with the stars, out of his reach.
That very afternoon a couple had come at lunch, scanning the children lined up in rows at the tables as they waited for a bowl of lukewarm soup and piece of bread. The couple, wearing tweed coats that almost matched and holding rosary beads, presumably for luck, were looking for a child to take home for Christmas. A gift to themselves, thought Miller, as if the children were toys to be handed about to rich people who had everything already. Their earnest expressions and the way they scanned the children’s faces, like a miracle was about to happen, made him sick. Oh, yes, she’s the one. Thank you, Lord, for our little miracle. A bitter taste filled his mouth, like he’d sucked on a handful of coins. He didn’t try to catch their eyes like he used to. No one wanted a boy his age. There was no point to try to look endearing any longer. He’d predicted they would choose Patsy, the toddler who’d come to the orphanage just the week before, and he’d been right. The woman’s face had lit up like a candle on the Christmas tree the moment she set eyes upon her. “Oh, Frank,” she’d said. “Do you see her curls?” It didn’t take a genius to see that coming. Sweet little Patsy with her chubby fingers and blond ringlets. He didn’t stand a chance.
He’d lived at the orphanage for almost five years, having been dropped there when he was seven years old in an unceremonious delivery by his deceased mother’s only living relative, a cousin with six children of her own and no desire for any further mouths to feed. Before his mother’s death, Miller had lived with her in a dirty, one-room shack at the end of a country road. Memories of the time with his mother came to him in a series of fuzzy images, like overexposed photographs. Uneven floorboards, rough on the bottom of his feet. One window, a crack like a spider’s web and a layer of dirt so thick that day and night were often indiscernible. A table with one chair next to a wood‐burning cooking stove. One time when he was small, he burned his wrist on the stove, reaching for a two‐day old biscuit. Greedy boys get burned. He remembered her voice and the sound of the whiskey bottled as she slammed it on the table. That’ll teach you. It did. After that he knew not to touch, no matter how hungry he was. He slept in the closet. When his mother did her business with the men, he was to stay there with the door closed and be quiet, putting his fingers in his ears to stifle the sound of creaking bedsprings and frightening moans. Sometimes, she disappeared for days and came back only to sleep for hours and hours, murmuring things he couldn’t understand. She did not hug or kiss him like he’d seen mothers do on the few occasions he went into town. Instead, he was smacked or pushed or spanked. He was never sure why.
The memory of smells, more vivid than the images, still lived in his nose. Men’s perspiration, wood smoke, whiskey, and the sour smell of his mother. One day, she didn’t get out of bed. Men came to the door, smelling of booze and cigarettes, but once they came inside, they quickly retreated. The scent of something rotting from the inside out replaced the sour odor of his mother. One day she didn’t wake. He stood over her, unsure what to do. Several flies buzzed around her body, and outside, the shriek of a wild bird pierced the quiet. Her white hand, paper thin, hung from the side of a bed. For five days he remained in the shack alone, surviving on the sack of raw potatoes that had been his companion in the closet. Then, one day, a woman came. She held a paper bag over her nose and offered him her hand. It was the first time he could remember being touched without it being accompanied by a beating.
Now, Miller took his hand from the glass, sticking it between his thighs for warmth. The stars were as close as he’d ever seen them, and a half‐moon hung just above the large oak. Not Santa in his sleigh, as some of the younger boys believed. He’d known for years Santa was not real. Just like God, it was a story to make them succumb to authority. Lies told to them by the nuns to keep them placid, well‐behaved. God and Santa are watching. He knew it was all fiction. He told the others. There is no Santa. They were all too young or too stupid to believe him. It wasn’t his problem if the little idiots chose to believe the lies. What did he care? Still, he wondered where the presents came from every year. Surely the Sisters couldn’t manage to buy all of them.
Miller didn’t believe in the birth, death, or rising of Jesus. However, he knew the nuns who cared for them not only believed the stories of the Bible, but wanted the children to believe as well. So, Miller pretended he did, to keep from being smacked with the ruler over the palm of his hand. Who could believe such nonsense? The other children were ridiculous. Who would give up a life in the world for the thankless work of caring for motherless children simply because of a made‐up story in a book?
The rumble of a car’s engine, and, a few seconds later, the beams of light that appeared between the trees, drew his attention. His stomach flipped over in excitement, despite his disbelief in magical fat men. A visitor of some kind? In the middle of the night? Yes, it was a car coming up the lane, headlights like bouncing balls in the dark. The car, black with wide fenders, stopped in front of the orphanage’s front doors, and the sound of the engine ceased, bringing back the silent night. A man in a black suit and cap slid from the driver’s seat and walked around the car to open the back door. Small feet in patent leather shoes appeared first, reflecting light from the lamppost, attached to thick legs covered in white stockings. Then, the rest of a girl emerged. She wore a fur coat and hat and was short and stout, like the teapot in the song the woman had sung to Patsy earlier. Slightly younger than Miller, if he had his guess, but it was hard for him to judge the age of children who were well fed. They always seemed older than his scrawny companions.
The girl’s hands were stuck inside a matching muff, but she shivered despite all her layers. She shifted weight from foot to foot, waiting for whoever was still in the car, her plump face tilted upward, seemingly examining the outside of the building in great detail. Miller pretended to be a statue, hoping she could not see him. A man in a top hat and dark jacket joined her, putting his hand on the top of her head. She looked up at him and smiled. They said something to each other that Miller could not decipher. The man and the chauffer went to the back of the car and pulled out two large boxes. Miller strained his eyes, trying to make out the contents. Packages with bows? Presents for the children. It was not Santa, but this man and his little girl. He was triumphant. He was right. There was no Santa, unless he traveled in a Rolls‐Royce and wore a top hat.
The two men, each carrying a box, and the little girl stepped out of sight, under the awning over the front door. Miller crept from his hiding place, tiptoeing to the door of the boys’ sleeping quarters. He turned the knob silently, and stepped into the hallway. Holding his breath, he made his way to the top of the stairs and looked down into the foyer. Their chauffeur and the boxes were out of sight, presumably being delivered into the common room and placed under the tree, but the man and little girl huddled with Sister Catherine, talking in hushed voices. Miller made out every word. “Mr. Bennett, I was afraid you wouldn’t make it with all the ice covering the roads. Sister Rosie and I have been beside ourselves with worry.”
“Thanks to Mac, we made it just fine. He’s driven in worse,” said Mr. Bennett, taking off his top hat and holding it in two hands. “We would’ve walked if we had to. I cannot disappoint Mrs. Bennett. She was also beside herself with worry.”
“Bless her,” said Sister Catherine. “And who have we here? Is this Miss Caroline?”
The little girl curtsied. “Yes, ma’am. My mother let me come this year. I had to beg her. Because of the roads, she was worried Mac would crash the car and we’d all be lost forever. Well, that and this year I learned the truth about Santa, so Mother allowed me to help shop for the gifts.” She had a clear, almost musical voice.
Sister Catherine chuckled. “I’m sorry to hear about Santa, but I’m glad you’ve come and that you didn’t crash.”
“Caroline and her mother spent many hours shopping for what they hoped would please the children,” said Mr. Bennett. “They were appreciative of the letters to Santa with their specific requests. I think we managed to find everything.”
Caroline tugged on her father’s sleeve. “No, Father, we didn’t. We couldn’t find mothers and fathers for them. They had that in their letters.” Her voice had the shaky quality that happened when girls were trying not to cry. Girls in the orphanage were crying all the livelong day, so he knew. “I’m so very sorry for them, Sister.”
“Ah, well, God has a plan for them all,” said Sister Catherine. “So don’t you fret.” She turned to look at Mr. Bennett. “Edmund, without your contributions, we would surely have shut down by now. We can’t thank you enough.” She gestured toward the door. “Now, you best be off before it gets any colder.”
They exchanged several other pleasantries, but Miller had stopped listening. I’m so very sorry for them. The fat little brat. How dare she pity them? He filled with anger, the kind that raged like the color red, burning his face as if he stood before a great fire. How easy it must be to have everything in the world, sipping cream from a silver spoon. He hated her. Gripping the spokes of the railing he imagined kicking her face, stomping on her fingers until she cried.
The chauffer had come back to the foyer. Mr. Bennett said they must go now, and Merry Christmas, and God bless, and all the other absurdities people said on this fake day. Sister Catherine followed the men out, but Caroline, falling slightly behind, looked up to where he crouched by the railing. Her eyes widened. She stared at him. He stared back, not daring to move, for fear she would betray him. Then, in a moment of genius, he put his finger to his lips to indicate she must be quiet. She nodded, put her finger to her lips, and slipped out the door. He ran back to the boys’ room on tiptoes, his toes cold and achy, and went to the window. Caroline climbed into the car first, followed by her father. Miller watched their car turn out of the driveway and head down the road until it disappeared from sight.
The next morning, like the other children, he opened his present. It was a telescope, just as he’d asked for. There were also blank notebooks for all of the children. Sister Catherine encouraged them all to keep journals or use it as a place to put their mementos. “If you write down your thoughts and feelings, your life will have clarity and purpose.” He wanted to laugh. What mementos, clarity, or purpose did any of them have exactly? He kept the question to himself. Last time he’d been cheeky, Mother Maria had smacked his knuckles with a ruler until she drew blood.
That night, he sat in bed, running his fingers over the velvet fabric that covered the outside of the journal pages and envisioned the little girl and her father. With a pen he’d found on the floor in Mother Maria’s office and had stashed under his mattress, he wrote on the first page.
December 25, 1921
This is Miller Dreeser. I am here even though no one sees me. Someday I will be visible. I will be like Edmund Bennett and wear fancy clothes and have more than enough to eat.
When he wrote it down, he knew exactly what it was he wanted. Perhaps Mrs. Bennett understood something he hadn’t.
Chapter 3: Caroline
Christmas Eve, her parents surprised Caroline when they said that, yes, she could accompany her father to drop the gifts at the orphanage. The roads, slick with ice from the unexpected freeze, made the journey slower than expected, but Caroline didn’t mind. Sitting next to Father in the backseat of their car, she was a princess dressed in her new dress and stockings, plus the delightful fur coat Mother had let her open early so that she might wear it for their festivities tonight. She wanted to wave to her imaginary subjects like she’d seen photos of real princesses do. She closed her eyes for a moment, imagining that she was adored by the masses. Father wore his top hat and formal evening suit. She wriggled closer to him and lay her cheek against the rough material of his jacket. “Thank you for letting me come, Father,” she said. “I feel so grownup.”
“I’m delighted to have such a worthy traveling companion.” He kissed the top of her head. “But don’t grow up too fast.”
When they arrived, Father said she could come inside with him to meet Sister Catherine. Once she was out of the car, she stood, looking up at the building that loomed large and almost creepy in the dark. She suspected it was cold inside and shivered despite her fur coat. The stars above shone with an intensity she had not seen before, as if the heavens acknowledged the awesomeness of this night before Jesus’s birth. She was about to follow Father inside when a movement in one of the upstairs windows caught her eye.
Was it a boy, standing in the window? She couldn’t be sure, but it appeared to be an outline of a boy. She looked away. It was strange to be watched. Dread washed over her. She shivered. Don’t think of it. Pretend you didn’t see him.
They went inside. Sister Catherine greeted them and they chatted for a few minutes in the foyer, which seemed no warmer than outside. They were about to go when she happened to glance up. A boy crouched low at the top of the stairs, looking down at them. His eyes, the color of coal, stared at her, unblinking. She was about to say something to him when he put his finger to his lips. He didn’t want her to speak and let it be known he was there. Perhaps he would get in trouble for being out of bed. She nodded, to let him know she understood, and followed Father out the door.
After their late‐night delivery, Mac drove them to the Christmas Eve mass at their local parish. Mother arrived before them and had saved them seats near the front. Like Easter, every seat in the church was taken, forcing men to stand in the back of the church in clumps. Women were dressed in their finest: long, flowing dresses slack at the middle and head pieces with plumes in rich colors. The men were in dark suits, holding fedoras in their hands. The air smelled of incense and ladies’ perfume. A silence fell over the parish as the service began, but Caroline didn’t pay close attention. Instead, she prayed for the motherless children with so much silent vigor that she worried it might be apparent to others. When she looked around, though, between the kneeling and the chants and the story of Jesus’s birth, no one seemed to notice her. She was safe and warm, with more gifts waiting under the tree than most children had in a lifetime. Since the Santa letters, her world had opened. There were children without hope, without a family or a home. She could not stop thinking of them and their letters. Haunted by the phrases in the letters, a heaviness had settled onto her shoulders over the last few weeks. And tonight at the orphanage, the boy standing at the top of the stairs had hollow cheeks that matched his empty eyes, like nothing good had ever filled him, neither food nor love.
As Christmas Eve Mass ended, however, she had sudden clarity. Guilt. She was guilty. For whom much is given, much is expected. Mother and Father conducted themselves in a manner worthy of the directive to their daughter. Yet, somehow it didn’t feel like enough. She was a child of privilege. There were others who suffered, while she, Caroline, thrived. She could not understand why. Kneeling in the pew one last time, she vowed to God, “I will do my best to lessen the burden of others, however I can. Please show me the way.”
After Mass ended, she accompanied Mother and Father to their club for a late supper. Garlands hung in the windows. A massive tree near the fireplace, decorated with shiny bulbs and red bows, made the lobby smell of pine. In the dining room, a band played Christmas music. Waiters walking around with trays, gave her parents glasses of champagne, and the three of them were enveloped into a swarm of friends. She held on to her mother’s hand, afraid to be swallowed by the crowd. Ladies’ bare shoulders glistened under the lights, and their perfumes made Caroline’s eyes itch. She stifled a yawn. Her bladder was full. “I have to use the ladies’ room, Mother.”
“All right, darling. Meet us in the dining room,” said Mother, waving to a friend standing across the room.
The ladies’ lounge was quiet compared the bustle of the lobby. An attendant with skin the color of dark tea stood near the sink. Caroline said hello, politely, as Mother had taught her, before finding an open toilet. She closed the door and sat, delighted to empty her bladder. Voices of two women outside the door reached her. Caroline recognized her friend Elizabeth’s mother by her unusual voice. Mrs. Beale had a particularly low timbre for a woman. It could be mistaken for a man’s. When she mentioned this to her mother one time, she had pretended to puff an imaginary cigarette and told Caroline she must never smoke, as it made you sound hoarse and gave you wrinkles. This was one of Mother’s strange notions. No one else seemed to believe this, as most women smoked. Mrs. Beale was almost never without a cigarette dangling from one of those long holders, the ash always about to drop. “Goodness, did you see the size of Caroline Bennett?” asked Mrs. Beale.
“It’s such a shame. Terrible thing to have a beautiful mother and be so homely. And fat! My God, it’s like she ate her twin.” Caroline did not recognize this brittle voice that sounded like squeaking curds. “Do you think she was adopted?”
“I suppose it’s possible. It’s hard to believe she came from Edmund and Sophie,” said Mrs. Beale.
Caroline stood, pulling her stockings up and her dress back into place, shivering. She should have kept her coat and hat on. It was frigid in the club, like it had been in the orphanage. She walked out to the dressing tables where the two women sat, looking at themselves in the mirror. I will stand in front of them. Make them see me. Shame them for their cruelty.
Mrs. Beale’s eyes met Caroline’s and she made a circle with her mouth. She held a lipstick in her hand, but did not use it, like she’d forgotten it was there. “Caroline, what’re you doing here so late? Elizabeth’s home in bed.”
“My mother and father allow me to stay up as late as them on Christmas Eve. It’s important to my mother that I attend Mass.” Caroline’s voice shook and her cheeks were damp. Had she been crying without knowing? She pulled out her handkerchief from the little pocket of her dress and patted under her eyes.
The other woman’s eyes skirted to Mrs. Beale, then back to Caroline. She looked properly ashamed. They knew she’d heard them. Good. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Beale.”
“Merry Christmas, Caroline. Give my best to your mother.”
Caroline washed her hands at the basin. Her fingers were like sausages and her cheeks as round as apples. How had she not noticed before? Her thighs pressed against each other. She pushed into her middle, feeling several rolls there, like jelly. She was fat. The attendant handed her a towel. After she was finished drying, Caroline handed the attendant a coin. Good manners were important, Mother always said, and these poor women work for tips only.
Caroline found her parents near the entrance to the dining room. A pain stabbed her stomach, yet she was ravenous, like she hadn’t eaten in days. “Mother, will they have pudding?” Pudding and cream. Butter spread over rolls. A thick cut of roast beef. Thinking of the meal ahead made her mouth water, but with that feeling came shame. She was a fat girl, like a pig. No one should have to look at her.
“I believe they will,” said Mother. “I’m famished.” She held out her hand. “Come along, darling, let’s eat.”
The next afternoon, she and her mother stood in front of the mirror in her dressing room. They both wore their new Christmas dresses, matching dark blue taffeta. Mother, slim and tall, smiled into the mirror. “I suppose it’s a sin to love these dresses as much as I do.”
Caroline didn’t answer. She stared at herself in the mirror. Mrs. Beale was right. Caroline had been adopted. Perhaps from the orphanage when she was too young to remember? Why else would she look so different from her mother?
“Mother, did you find me at the orphanage when I was a baby?” She met her mother’s gaze in the mirror.
Mother turned away from the mirror to look directly at her. “What would make you think such a thing?”
“Because I’m fat and you’re not.” She pinched the sides of her face. “And I’m homely and you’re beautiful.”
“You’re most certainly not homely or fat.” Mother’s blue eyes, the same color as the sapphire necklace around her slim neck, filled with tears. “I don’t want to ever hear you say that again, do you understand?”
“Other people say it,” said Caroline.
“What other people?”
“Elizabeth’s mother. I was in the powder room at the club last night and she was in there with another lady and she said, ‘It’s such a shame about Sophie’s daughter. She’s such a homely thing.’ And the other lady said, ‘Yes, and fat as a little piggy. It’s hard to believe she came from Edmund and Sophie and maybe she’s adopted.’ Or, something like that, anyway.” Caroline looked at the floor, trying not to cry. “It doesn’t bother me, though, Mother, because I want only to be good and smart. I don’t care that I’m not pretty.”
Mother knelt on the floor, taking Caroline’s hands in her own. “Listen to me, my love. You’re beautiful inside and out. No one, not even awful Anna Beale, can take that from you. She was feeling particularly mean because her husband has made a bad business deal and they’ve lost their fortune. It was probably the last time they’ll ever be at the club. When people are bitter or disappointed, they’re often mean to others.”
“Oh, darling, I don’t know. It’s easy to be kind when your life is filled with security and love, as mine has been. Anna Beale was feeling spiteful because she’s jealous of what we have, and it made her unkind. But you, my sweet girl, despite what those women said, look exactly like me.”
“I do?” Was Mother lying to spare her feelings?
“Yes, look here now.” Mother lifted Caroline’s chin to look into the mirror. “Do you see? Same blue eyes.”
It was true. The color of sapphires, Father always said.
“And do you see our noses? Same little upturn on the end. See there?”
Yes, it was like a button on the end of their noses. On Mother it looked fashionable, like everyone should have one. Mrs. Beale was probably jealous of her mother’s nose. She had a long, pointy one, and skin the texture of tarnished leather despite layers of powder.
“And our hair is the same.” Honey blond with curls, although Mother’s was piled on top of her head in an elaborate arrangement, whereas Caroline’s hung in a bob at her chin. “So is our skin. Your father says we have skin like butterscotch candy.” Mother kissed the top of her head. “Someday you’ll grow taller, like me, and you’ll become slimmer. I was just like you when I was your age.”
“Yes, really. And do you think I’m ugly?” asked Mother.
“No. Not one bit.”
“So, there you have it.” Mother stood. “Now, come along. Your father will think we’ve run off to the circus if we don’t go down for dinner.”
She took Caroline’s hand as they entered the dining room. “I have a surprise for you.”
“Julius and his father are going to spend Christmas with us. They’ve come up from the beach.”
Julius and his father, Doctor Nelson, lived at the beach all year around, not just during the summer like the Bennetts. Occasionally, they came up to the city to stay with her family. Like tonight! Her heart leaped with joy when she saw them, all thoughts of Mrs. Beale slipping from her mind. Julius and Doctor Nelson sat at the table with Father, both dressed in suits. How nice Julius looked. He waved and grinned at her from across the room. Julius. Everything was always better when he was there. She glided across the room, newly light. He looked older than when she’d seen him at Thanksgiving with his light blond hair, bleached from the sun, slicked back and smoothed with pomade. Both men and Julius stood as they approached the table. Mother put both hands out to Doctor Nelson. “So lovely to see you.”
Doctor Nelson kissed her hand. “Thank you for having us.”
“You’re looking quite well,” said Mother. It was true. Doctor Nelson looked rested and healthy, less thin than the last time they’d seen him.
After they all sat, she squeezed Julius’s hand under the table. “I’m happy to see you.”
He grinned. “Me too. We’re staying the night and everything. I brought you a present.”
“I have one for you, too.” Mother had found an archery set for him. Ever since they read Robin Hood, they’d both become obsessed with archery. She couldn’t wait to see his face when he opened it. They had played Robin Hood and Maid Marian many times on the beach, with driftwood as the bow and arrow. “I didn’t know you were coming.”
“Me either. Father surprised me this morning.”
“Has it been lonesome? Christmas without Father was awful.”
Julius looked down, as if studying his plate with great intent. “Yeah. For my dad mostly.”
Julius’s mother had left them last summer. Caroline learned of it listening at the door of Father’s study. Mother’s voice, sounding strangely shrill, had spoken the unthinkable. “She disappeared into the night. With a man.” Julius’s mother had left her child and her husband? How was this possible?
She and Mother had gone over to see them that afternoon with dinner. Essie had arranged the meal in a basket with a colorful tea towel. Would the beautiful display make someone feel better when their wife or mother had left them? Caroline doubted it.
Doctor Nelson had answered the door, looking just the same as he always did, dressed in a light suit and tie, his hair groomed so that the little ridges from his comb showed. Julius looked different, though. He hadn’t combed his hair, and his face looked pale and pinched under his tan. His eyes were bloodshot. He’d been crying. One other time he’d cried, but that was when he broke his arm. Other than that, he was tough. But this? This was too much.
Julius took her into the kitchen while their parents talked. He pointed to the note, still on the table. “There it is.” His eyes, flat and dull, would not meet her own.
I’m sorry, but I’m slowly dying here in this place. I was not made to be a small‐town doctor’s wife.
Why had they left the note on the table? Caroline would have burned it in the fireplace, along with any photographs of the woman’s selfish face.
“Remember how I always tried to get her to laugh,” he asked. “She never thought I was funny.”
“You are funny.”
“Not funny enough.” He picked up the letter and stuffed it in his pocket. “She’s not coming back. My father thinks so. He hasn’t said it, but I can see by the way he’s acting like everything is normal. But I know she’s not. I saw her leave last night. She assumed I was asleep, but I was awake, reading Robin Hood again, and I heard a car pull into the driveway. I went to the window and I saw a car and this man get out. It was him. She ran to him. She couldn’t get away fast enough.”
How dare she leave Julius. Caroline’s stomach burned. She wanted to smack something or throw an object at the wall. No, she wanted to throw an object at Mrs. Nelson. That was it. She wanted to hurt her like she’d hurt Julius. Mrs. Nelson was cruel and selfish. She tried to imagine her own mother leaving, but it was unfathomable. She would never do it. Mrs. Nelson would be sorry. It was one thing to leave a husband, but how did a mother leave a little boy, especially one like Julius? Caroline understood for the first time the phrase “May she burn in Hell.” The last time Caroline had seen Mrs. Nelson was just last week. It was the middle of the afternoon and she was bent over the sink, inspecting something. She had not looked up when the children came into the room, nor had she responded when Julius said they were going into town and could he get anything for her.
He cried, later, sitting on the beach, and she had wrapped her arm around his waist and let his head rest on her shoulder, his tears mixing with the seawater on her shoulder.
“Let’s throw the letter into the sea,” she said. “We won’t ever think of her again.”
“All right.” They stood together. She took his hand as they walked to the place where the waves crashed onto the shore. Julius retrieved the letter from his pocket and crumpled it into a ball. He threw it hard toward the water. There was no breeze to deter its course as it sailed through the air and fell into a breaking wave. They did not see the paper that broke Julius’s heart again, but they both knew because of the time they had spent in the very same surf that it was pulled under the surface now, tossing this way and that until it would be carried out to sea, ultimately disintegrating into fish food. And yet, it was not enough to wipe away her memory. Caroline saw her in the shadows under Julius’s eyes.
Since that day, Mother had made sure to include him in everything at the house. Doctor Nelson was often away at night doing house calls or delivering babies, so Julius would stay in their guestroom. “You’re family now,” Mother said to Julius one night. “Family isn’t always blood. Sometimes, when you’re lucky, you get to choose who you want for your family.”
Now, the waiter, dressed in a black tuxedo, put a small plate in front of her. A sliver of toast with a dollop of caviar and sour cream on top. “Are you going to eat that?” Julius whispered in her ear.
Caroline giggled. “Mother says it’s a delicacy.”
“How’s Essie?” asked Doctor Nelson.
His question yanked Caroline from her conversation with Julius. Why was he asking about Essie? She darted a look to her mother, who held her small appetizer fork in midair. Caroline squeezed Julius’s hand under the table and pretended to be absorbed in her food. If the adults realized they were listening, they might stop talking.
“She’s fine,” said Mother.
“Why do you ask, old man?” Her father’s voice held a hint of teasing.
“It’s time for me to move on, I suppose,” said Doctor Nelson.
“I see no reason not to,” said Father. “Everything’s been taken care of legally.”
“You’ve been a good friend, Edmund. I thank you for your help.”
“Every man needs a good attorney at least once in his lifetime,” said Father.
“If only it were only once,” said Mother.
“I understand Essie will be at the house on Christmas day,” said Doctor Nelson.
“She’s a live‐in, so yes,” said Mother. “But you knew that.” Her mother’s voice was teasing as well. “I don’t suppose you’re intending to steal my housekeeper?”
“Something like that,” said Doctor Nelson.
Caroline looked over at Julius. His eyes twinkled back at her.
“Essie?” she whispered. “And your father?”
“He hasn’t said a word to me.” He continued to whisper.
“We’ve been corresponding since Thanksgiving,” said Doctor Nelson to Mother. “She’s terribly worried you’ll mind.”
“Doctor Nelson, I’m quite aware of your correspondence. She may be clever, but she’s not able to hide everything from me,” said Mother.
“Do I have your permission?” asked Doctor Nelson.
Caroline looked up at her mother. She smiled, looking extremely satisfied with herself. “As much as I hate to lose her, she does not belong to me.” She stabbed a piece of toast with her fork. “However, she’s like family to us, so you’re forbidden to hurt her.”
“I wouldn’t think of it,” said Doctor Nelson.
“Let’s have a toast,” said Father, picking up his champagne glass. “To new beginnings.”
Caroline and Julius toasted one another with their glasses of milk. “Merry Christmas, Julius.” She smiled at him.
“Merry Christmas, Caroline.”
Chapter 4: Miller
In the days following Christmas, Miller thought of the Bennetts often, and not just when he used his telescope. Despite the pleasure the gadget gave him, it made him hate them more. It was nothing to them, this gift. Yet, to him it was the difference between wanting to live or not, from having something to look forward to or nothing but flat, dry hunger day after day. For this he hated them. To the Bennetts, it was not a dent in their wealth or their existence. They had anything and everything they wanted. This kindness was just a way for them to feel less guilty about it. People didn’t do something for others unless they were getting something for themselves at the same time. He knew this after living in the orphanage for so long. The kids lived by this rule: I’ll give you this, if you give me that.
He made it his mission to learn everything he could about Edmund Bennett. He asked Sister Catherine if he might read her discarded newspaper each day, hoping to find mentions of the Bennetts in the paper. She was delighted, for he had shown little interest in anything academic, and Sister Catherine was a kind soul who loved the children, even when they were too old to be endearing. He understood this, especially in the stark contrast to some of the others, who smacked the children’s hands with rulers for the smallest offense. Sister Catherine was the first to teach him that kindness was a weakness one could easily exploit.
The first article he saw in the paper was about Edmund Bennett opening a center for veterans of the Great War where they could visit with one another, play games, and have refreshments. Miller cut it out and pasted it in his journal. In the weeks and months to come, he continued to cut and paste several more articles. It seemed the family was always doing some good deed. He cut around the edges of the photograph carefully to make sure he captured the entire article and photograph.
That March, he saw the Bennetts again. The Sisters had taken the children out for the day, a rare treat, to have a picnic at a park, even though the weather was chilly. Miller had found a long stick and declared it a gun. Timmy found another stick, shorter and less satisfying, and they played cowboys and Indians, running and shouting, until they came upon a vendor selling peanuts and popcorn to a well‐dressed family of three. Miller stopped, his stick midair, surprised. It was the Bennett family. They stood before the cart, steam rising above their heads. Caroline was dressed in a brown coat and hat, as the sky was dark and moody, threatening a downpour. Miller shivered in his jacket with the holes in the elbows, the cold catching up to him now that he stood motionless. An insect of some kind had caught Timmy’s attention, leaving Miller alone to watch them.
The Bennetts—Edmund, Sophie, and little Caroline—out for a stroll in the park. He saw it like a headline in the newspaper, like so many he’d seen in the society section of the newspaper in recent months.
Mrs. Bennett was slender, only reaching Mr. Bennett’s shoulder in height. He could not see her face because she wore an enormous hat. Caroline pointed to a bag of peanuts right in the middle of the cart. “I want that one, please, Daddy.”
Edmund, a large man, might have been intimidating, but he was not. At least, not at this moment when he was looking down into the eyes of his ten‐year‐old daughter. “If that’s the one you want, you shall have it.” He turned to his wife. “And you, my dear? What will you have?”
His wife murmured something that made him laugh. He paid for the purchase and offered each of them his arm, and the three walked away together. They did not notice him. He was invisible.
I want that. I want what he has. I want to be him. That night he wrote in his journal.
March 28, 1922
I saw them in the park. Caroline wanted peanuts, so she got them. I want peanuts and all the rest of it, too. So, I will marry Caroline someday. I will become like Edmund Bennett. No one can stop me.