Authors: Barbara Bretton
Tags: #World War II, #Women-HomeFront, #Romance
Johnny stared at her in amazement. “What color were her eyes?”
“I don’t know, but her lipstick was Max Factor’s medium red.”
“She didn’t look any better than you, Cathy.” Catherine started to tell him he was crazy, that she couldn’t hold a candle to truly fashionable ladies, but she caught herself at the expression in his eyes. A warm feeling that had nothing to do with the balmy spring weather filled her heart. “Thank you,” she said instead.
They angled across the street and into Central Park. “Where to?” asked Johnny as they set off down the path. “The lake, the carousel, the zoo—”
“The zoo!” she exclaimed. “I haven’t been to the zoo in years!”
The zoo was exactly as she remembered it, small and delightful and filled with memories of her childhood. The balloon vendors, whose wares had been sacrificed to wartime production, weren’t around, but the peanut sellers still plied their treats along the pathways. Johnny bought two paper bags of the salted nuts, and Catherine stripped off her gloves and proceeded to feed the pigeons who flocked around them in obvious delight.
By the boating lake they sat together on a wrought-iron bench and watched the lovers in their rowboats and the little children whose paper and wood skiffs glided across the smooth water.
Johnny let go of her hand and her heart sank—until she realized he was about to drape his arm about her shoulders. She could feel his heat through the fabric of his suit. His fingers rested lightly across her shoulder, grazing her collarbone, tantalizing her with a thousand promises. She was aware of every breath he took, every movement of every muscle. Once she turned to watch a little girl run after her puppy and her breasts brushed against his side. The heat inside her body matched his own.
“Have you ever ridden the carousel?” he asked as a private nurse in her crisp white uniform and sleek navy blue cape walked by, pushing her tiny charge in an elegant English baby carriage.
“No,” she managed, acutely aware of the picture they made as they sat there.
, she thought.
People probably think we’re lovers
He grinned at her and she felt the pressure on her shoulder increase. “Feel like horseback riding?”
She grinned back, heart soaring. “I’d love it!”
The carousel was back near the entrance at Sixtieth Street and they raced down the path. Catherine was gasping for breath when they reached the elaborate and beautiful merry-go-round with its painted ponies straight out of a fairy tale. Johnny bought two tickets and the moment the carousel came to a stop, they went to claim their steeds.
Catherine fell in love with a glorious palomino with a mane of golden curls and eyes bluer than the April skies overhead. How to climb aboard her mount was the question of the moment, but Johnny came to her rescue. He put one hand on each side of her waist. She could feel the difference in strength on his right side, but he swept her up into the air and deposited her sidesaddle on her painted pony as if there was no problem at all.
He swung himself onto the horse next to her. The touch of his hands on her waist lingered, and she couldn’t keep from anticipating the moment when the carousel stopped and he would sweep her into his arms again and help her dismount. Round and round went the carousel as the giddiness inside her heart grew. How hard it was to tear her gaze away from him. His neatly combed hair was tousled now by the breeze; she could almost feel its silkiness against her cheek, smell the fragrance of the hair tonic he used. How commanding his profile was, with his cheekbones high and pronounced, his straight nose and strong proud chin.
The carousel slowed to a stop. Her horse halted at the highest position off the ground and she waited, her breath caught, as Johnny jumped from his own horse and came to fetch her. Her skirt rode up an extra inch and she felt the heat of Johnny’s gaze on her exposed flesh. His shoulder brushed her bare knees as he gripped her once again by the waist. The contact was intimate, as thrilling as it was unexpected. He swept her from the horse and held her, suspended, for a long and painfully sweet moment with his breath warm against her bare neck.
“We can ride again,” he said, his voice low for her alone.
“We could,” she said, her gaze lingering shamelessly on his mouth, the curve of his strong jaw.
“Or we could just stand here.” His words were a caress, lingering, seductive.
“I’d like that, too.”
She felt as if they were enclosed in a world of their own, a magical place that had never existed before that moment, a haven where—
“Hey! Whaddya doin’? Posin’ for animal crackers?” A woman’s Brooklynese voice shattered the spring air. “Either get on or get off. I got my eye on that horse.”
There was nothing to do but laugh. Johnny set Catherine firmly on the ground. She resumed normal breathing. But that moment, that magical wondrous moment, still lingered.
They cut across the grass, past the skating rink, then again followed the footpath back to the Fifty-ninth Street exit. The Plaza Hotel, looking for all the world like an enormous French château, set down in the middle of Manhattan, bustled with activity as fashionably dressed men and women nodded their way past the liveried doorman.
They headed down Fifth Avenue, where beautiful women in elegant day wear carried parcels neatly tied in bright red ribbons. Men in suits vied for sidewalk space with boys in uniform, who stumbled over their own shoes as they gazed at the sights that only New York had to offer.
Not that Catherine or Johnny noticed any of it. Something magical had happened back at the carousel—their friendship had made the final, inevitable turn into romance. The city fell away from them, becoming only a backdrop to the enchantment that held them both in its thrall.
Johnny felt as if he were walking on air. For almost two years he’d dreamed about a day like this, never believing Lady Luck would smile on him.
Well, not only had Lady Luck smiled on him, she’d handed him the keys to heaven in the bargain!
Catherine was smart, compassionate, headstrong—and probably the loveliest girl he’d ever known. And she didn’t seem to realize how beautiful she was. Heads turned as they strolled toward Times Square, and his chest swelled with pride as he saw the looks of envy on the faces of the guys they passed.
Funny thing, though. He used to think the best thing in the world was to have a beautiful girl on his arm, the kind of girl who caused a commotion everywhere she went. To his surprise, he’d discovered that while being with a beautiful girl was every bit as wonderful as he’d imagined, it was even better to be with a beautiful girl who had brains.
Who’d have thought it? War had changed him; that was a fact. He’d gone off a cocky hotshot with a failed marriage under his belt and a heckuva lot of bravado. He came home a cocky hotshot with a failed marriage under his belt and a different view of the way things were. He’d been put to the test and come out aces high. He’d never figured himself for the hero type, but when push came to shove, he’d found the courage and compassion to do the right thing. He’d paid a price—the partial paralysis of his arm was proof of that—but if he had it to do all over again, he’d save Tom Wilson’s life even if it meant losing his own.
Whaddya know? Johnny Danza, the orphan kid from Brooklyn, was a better man than he’d figured. A nice thing to find out on the afternoon of your twenty-sixth birthday.
He looked down at Catherine, at her honey-colored hair sparkling in the sunshine. A swell way to spend the afternoon of your twenty-sixth birthday, walking hand in hand with the girl you loved.
Not that he was ready to say those words yet. They kind of scared him. Each time he thought he was ready to give Cathy the letter he’d written from his hospital bed, his feet turned cold as ice and he stuffed it back into the drawer of the nightstand. He’d made one mistake when he was young and lonely, and he wasn’t about to make another one. Especially not if his mistake could hurt Catherine. That was the one thing he would never do.
Today, however, was nothing but blue skies and sunshine as they turned onto West Fifty-second Street. Fancy night spots that featured good food, good drink, and the best dance music in town lined both sides of the street. In a few hours the sounds of laughter and boogie woogie would spill from the windows and doors, bringing the entire neighborhood to life.
In his breast pocket were two tickets for
, burning a hole right through the fabric. He’d bought them a few weeks ago, meaning to ask Catherine to go with him. But the big war hero had trouble screwing up his nerve, and it wasn’t until this morning, in a do-or-die moment, that he’d finally asked her to spend the day with him. She still didn’t know about the tickets to the Broadway musical. He hoped she liked surprises.
* * *
Catherine loved surprises.
“We could see a movie,” she suggested after a turkey dinner at Toffenetti’s. “
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
is playing right around the corner.
“I have a better idea.”
Johnny slid the pair of tickets under her dessert plate, and when she saw the word
she almost swooned.
Thirty minutes later they made their way to the elegant old theater. “What wonderful seats,” Catherine said as they settled down in the eighth row center. “How did you ever manage them?”
Johnny grinned and ducked his head. “It’s not hard when you buy them two months ahead.”
“Two months? You bought these tickets two months ago?”
“Yeah, well, it’s kind of a special occasion.” He met her eyes. “My birthday.”
“Oh, Johnny!” Before she had a chance to consider her actions, she leaned close to him and planted a kiss on his cheek. The slight scratch of stubble against her lips sent a thrill of excitement up her spine. The soft brush of her mouth against his cheek made Johnny’s head spin.
Finally the house lights dimmed and the theater went dark. Catherine held on to Johnny’s hand as the orchestra launched into the overture. In no time they were swept up in the story. The romance of the land. The colorful characters battling the odds. But most of all, the love story of Laurie and Curly.
It was the way he looked at her as if she were a gift from heaven. The way she appeared so delicate and lovely in his brawny arms. The way they tried so hard to pretend that what was happening wasn’t really happening at all. When Laurie and Curly sang “People Will Say We’re in Love,” the truth of their words pierced Catherine’s heart and she had to avert her head to keep Johnny from seeing her tears.
But he knew. He felt the truth of the song in his own heart and he gently stroked her hand. The hand that had once worn another man’s ring.
There’s a chance for us now
Maybe this can be more than a dream
They didn’t talk much on the way home. The meaningful lyrics still echoed in their heads, and they simply held hands and walked slowly down Hansen Street, happy to be together on such a beautiful night.
They went in the back door; the entrance to Johnny’s basement apartment was off the mudroom near the kitchen. The house was quiet and the room was dark. Catherine fumbled for the light switch, but Johnny covered her hand with his.
“Wait a minute,” he said, stepping close to her.
“I was going to make us some cof—”
“No.” He touched his forefinger to her lips. “Not now.”
His mouth covered hers, sweet and light as a springtime breeze. The pressure of his lips against hers was pleasurable, and she sighed as his hands slipped around her waist and held her close. She closed her eyes and placed her hands, palms flat, against his chest. The steady beating of his heart thudded against her fingers and she registered his heat.
She heard a creaking from the hallway, the squeak of footsteps on the stairs. “Johnny, I—”
He again touched her lips with the tip of his index finger.
He kissed her again, more deeply this time. He slid his tongue along the place where her upper lip met her lower one, then slipped it inside her willing mouth. She opened her eyes for an instant, almost as if she had to reassure herself that this was really and truly happening, that she wasn’t asleep in her bed and dreaming about what would never be.
This is real
, she thought, heart soaring.
Johnny feels the same way I do!
The silky motion of his tongue against hers set off sparks in her, and it took every ounce of willpower at her command to break away.
“Someone’s coming,” she whispered, reaching for the light. Before she could flip the switch, he cupped her chin in his hand and whispered something low and tender. When she turned on the light, he was gone.
As it turned out the interruption was a false alarm. Catherine stood motionless in the silent kitchen, aware only of the beating of her heart and the taste of Johnny on her lips.
The basement apartment. All she had to do was go downstairs and tap on the door and—
No. They were right to stop. Their responses to each other were so intense, so dangerous, that she dared not imagine where they might lead.
And so she did what she was supposed to do, what she had been brought up to do. She climbed the stairs to her room alone. The light was on under Nancy’s door and Catherine tiptoed swiftly by and on down the hallway. She didn’t want to see her sister or her mother. She didn’t want to answer questions about her date with Johnny. She didn’t want to say or do anything that would diminish the magic, turn the extraordinary into the mundane. The night belonged to her and to Johnny, and she wasn’t ready to share it with anyone else.
She had a quick bath, brushed her teeth, then, wrapped in a cotton quilted robe, padded back to her room. Her bed was turned down, the quilt folded at the foot, her pillows fluffed and ready. A cup of hot chocolate sat on her night-stand, along with a note from her mother and an envelope addressed to her.
“Hope you had a wonderful evening, honey,” said the note. “Thought you might enjoy this. Talk to you in the morning. Love, Mom. P.S. This letter came for you in the afternoon post.”
She sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at the envelope. Johnny’s unmistakable scrawl. Her heartbeat accelerated until she could scarcely breathe. Hands trembling, she opened it, then unfolded the two sheets of paper. They were separate letters. The first said:
I wrote this a long time ago. I didn’t have the guts to send it to you. Didn’t even have the guts to finish it. I still don’t, but somehow that doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is that you know how I feel about you.
A goodbye, that’s what it was.
It’s been nice but
... She took a deep breath and unfolded the second letter.
December 1, 1944
I’ve written this letter over and over in my head for weeks now. For a while I didn’t know if I’d ever have the chance to put these words on paper, but now that I do, I’m wondering if it’s such a smart thing, after all. But by now I guess you know I’m not always the brightest guy around. I tend to shoot off my mouth first and think second, so why should this be any different?
I’m writing this from a hospital in England. How I got here isn’t real important. I’m going to be fine. But being here has given me a chance to think—not something I’ve done a lot of in my life. You may not like what I’ve come up with, but here it goes: I think I’m in love with you, Cathy.
I know you’re probably ready to throw this letter in the junk pile, but hear me out. I don’t know what this means or if there could ever be any kind of future for us, but since the first moment I saw you in your blue dress, you’ve been part of me. I can tell you everything we said at the Stage Door Canteen. I can remember how you felt in my arms, the way your hair—
I’m not asking much, Cathy, just that you give me a chance. The war won’t last forever. Someday soon I’ll be back in New York and
That was all there was to the letter, but each word became part of Catherine’s heart and soul, and when she finally fell asleep sometime near dawn, she believed there might be a future for them after all.
* * *
“Will you look at them?” Dot peeked out the back window the next afternoon and sighed. “I knew it. I knew it from that very first night.”
Nancy mumbled something and continued pouring the cream off the top of the bottle of milk. She was as happy for Catherine and Johnny as her mother was, but must she hear about it nonstop? There were other things going on in the house on Hansen Street, other romances that nobody seemed interested in hearing about.
She sighed and patted the tiny bulge in the pocket of her linen skirt. What would they say if they knew Gerry had asked her to marry him? That he’d sent her his high-school ring as a pledge of commitment, to be replaced by the real thing the moment he stepped back on U.S. soil? Would anybody even care?
She poured the last of the cream into the pitcher then placed the paper lid back on the milk bottle. She put the pitcher and bottle into the icebox, then wandered upstairs to her room. Gerry’s letters were tied with a red velvet ribbon and tucked in her lingerie drawer. So many hopes and dreams captured on paper and growing closer to coming true. Letters didn’t lie. You couldn’t write to someone every day for more than three years and not learn an awful lot about him. She bet she knew more about Gerry Sturdevant than most wives knew about their husbands after twenty years of marriage.
She’d been honest with him about herself, too—warts and all. She’d been vain and sweet and generous and selfish, scared and lonely and every other emotion in between, right there in black and white for him to read.
And he still loved her!
It would be nice if her mom and sister could be happy for her, too, but in the end it really didn’t matter. All that mattered was Gerry and the future she knew they’d have together.
* * *
Catherine didn’t mention the love letter and Johnny didn’t ask if she’d received it. She bumped into him on her way home from church the next morning, and in the light of day it was hard to believe she had been swept into the arms of such a handsome man.
Or been kissed by him...
“I like that,” he said, tugging playfully at the brim of her best spring hat.
“I like your smile,” she said.
Oh, God, what on earth had possessed her to say something as forward and silly as that? She blushed furiously, but the embarrassed yet pleased twinkle in his blue eyes made up for it.
“Had trouble sleeping last night,” he said as they walked side by side down Hansen Street.
“Me, too.” She hesitated. “I kept thinking about the play.”
His glance thrilled her down to her toes. “Not me. I kept thinking about you.”
Her lips still registered the sweet pressure of his mouth. She was acutely aware of his closeness, of the way his arm brushed against hers, of how deeply she wished he would link his strong fingers with hers.
“That was the best birthday I’ve ever had,’’ he said as they passed the Weavers’ house.
“You should have had a party,” she said, looking up at him. “And a birthday cake.”
He shrugged. “Never had either one.”
“You’re kidding!” She couldn’t imagine having twenty-six birthdays without any acknowledgment.
“Not a lot of celebrating in orphanages, Cathy.”
She touched his forearm. “I forgot, Johnny. I’m sorry.”
Idiot! How can you be so insensitive?
Not everyone had been as lucky as she and Nancy.
“Doesn’t matter. Yesterday made up for it.”
Her breath caught as he took her hand in his. “I still think you need a birthday cake.”
He grinned. “Yeah?”
“Definitely! And I’m going to see that you get one.”
* * *
At first Johnny didn’t believe it was happening. She’d said she was going to make him a birthday cake, but a lot of people say a lot of things and most of those things never happen.
He should have known Catherine was different. She’d disappeared for a few hours that afternoon and he’d heard all sorts of noises coming from the kitchen, accompanied by some tantalizing aromas.
Mrs. Wilson served the usual Sunday dinner of roast chicken, gravy, mashed potatoes and string beans, and he was about to get up and help clear the table when Catherine put her hands on his shoulders and pushed him back down into his seat. “You stay there,” she cautioned, eyes dancing with mischief. “We’ll bring dessert out.”
He sat there listening to their laughter floating out from the kitchen. He knew it had to have something to do with his birthday, but he figured on rice pudding with a candle in the middle of it. Not for a minute did he expect the big beautiful chocolate cake with fluffy white frosting and a dozen skinny blue candles burning brightly around the edges.
Their off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” sounded better to him than the voices he’d heard last night at the theater. Especially Catherine’s.
She placed the cake down on the table in front of him. Her thick honey-colored hair was gathered in a ponytail and tied with a pink velvet ribbon. “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” she said, her voice soft as summer rain.
A lump formed in his throat. Years and years of being alone, or wishing for things he could never have, and now... He struggled to maintain his composure.
“Make a wish!” Nancy cried as Mrs. Wilson set out the dessert plates and forks. “Make a wish, then blow out the candles.”
He looked at the birthday cake, then at the women standing around the table. Make a wish...
He met Catherine’s eyes. She smiled at him, a private smile. The kind of smile a man dreams about. He made his wish.
And then he blew out the candles.
* * *
Catherine and Johnny did their best to keep their feelings a secret at Wilson Manufacturing, but trying to hide new love is an impossible task. They glowed with it, warming everyone who came near. It was a pleasure to have something new to talk about in a world that was sick to death of war, and everyone, even Harry Barnes and his ilk, couldn’t help but be affected, if only for a moment.
Everyone, that was, except Eddie Martin. From the start he’d made it clear Johnny wasn’t his favorite person, and to Catherine’s regret, Johnny hadn’t done anything to help change that situation. Johnny was many things, but tolerant wasn’t one of them. Catherine had tried to explain Eddie’s problem to him, but he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—understand. No matter that Eddie had spent the better part of three years trying to get into the army; all Johnny saw was the end result.
And that end result was the saddest thing of all. The war was winding down, and with it went Eddie’s hopes of ever serving his country. There were so many things Catherine wanted to say to him, but Eddie had erected a wall of liquor around himself that she couldn’t breach. He called in sick more times than she would tolerate from any other employee, but still she tried to look the other way. He was in pain and she wouldn’t do anything to make that pain any worse.
There were times she felt that she’d somehow failed Eddie. Her life had changed drastically since Johnny exploded into it that Christmas Eve, and perhaps she’d been less of a friend to Eddie than she could have been. When she’d broached the topic with him a few days after her first real date with Johnny, Eddie had brushed off her attempt with a wave of his hand.
At least she’d tried, but it just didn’t feel as if she’d done enough.
But of course there were many other things to think about those first days in April. Allied tanks were pushing toward Berlin while the British swept eastward across the Westphalian plain. The Russians took Danzig and invaded Austria while, in the Pacific, six task forces were operating off the Ryukyus.
And then there was Johnny. She made dinner for him twice, elaborate affairs made possible by the extra ration coupons she had begged and borrowed from friends and neighbors. They went to movies at the Forest Hills and the Elmwood cinemas, but rarely remembered what they saw. Kissing in the balcony was as much fun at twenty-three as it had been at sixteen.
Catherine worked an hour late on the second Thursday in April. Johnny was waiting for her at the front gate of the factory. He had long since run out of his army-issue Camel cigarettes and was smoking one of the roll-your-own brands most civilians had been reduced to.
He brushed a lock of hair back from her forehead. “You look tired.”
She nodded. It had been a long day, one filled with personnel problems. “You didn’t have to wait for me.”
He grinned. “Sure I did.”
“I’m so tired I’m asleep on my feet.”
“I can take care of that.”
He swept her up into his arms and she shrieked with laughter. “Johnny! Put me down! Someone might see us.”
“Let them.” He kissed her on the lips, right there in the middle of the street. “I missed you today.” He’d spent most of it out on an excursion to western Long Island to talk with a Mr. Levitt who had some ideas for constructing housing in what were expansive potato fields.
She ducked her head as he went to kiss her again. “Johnny, please! What if one of the workers sees me?”
He put her down but he didn’t let her go as they headed toward the subway. “Isn’t it about time we went public?”
“I thought we agreed that wasn’t a good idea—at least, not at the factory.” Being the owner’s daughter was difficult enough; being Johnny’s girl would be impossible.
“You won’t be at the factory forever.”
Her heart bumped up against her rib cage. “I won’t?” It was a struggle to keep the emotion from her voice.
He took her elbow and guided her down the subway stairs. “You hear what’s happening out there,” he said as he dropped a nickel into each of the two turnstiles. “The Nazis are practically done for, and it won’t be long before the Japanese are in the same boat. Your dad’s going to come home one day soon, Cathy, and want his office back.”
She bit her lip and kept her gaze fastened on the steps as they hurried down another flight to the platform below.
You dope, Catherine
, she thought as she blinked back tears. Here she’d been imagining Johnny was about to propose marriage, and all he wanted to talk about was the war coming to an end. She didn’t pay much attention to his words. All she knew was that he wasn’t asking her to marry him—and that she was more disappointed than she’d have ever imagined.
It was a little after six-thirty when the train slid into the station at Continental Avenue.
“Mom and Nancy are going to a church supper with Aunt Edna,” Catherine said as they strolled toward home. “Maybe we should stop at the deli and get some bologna or something. I’ll make us sandwiches.” She stifled a yawn.
“I have a better idea.” He steered her back toward Continental Avenue. “How does the T-Bone Diner sound to you?”
“Like the answer to a prayer.” The thought of doing anything even as energetic as spreading mustard on a slice of rye was dreadful. “They have the best egg-salad sandwiches in town.”