Read Sentimental Journey (Home Front - Book #1) Online

Authors: Barbara Bretton

Tags: #World War II, #Women-HomeFront, #Romance

Sentimental Journey (Home Front - Book #1) (4 page)

“You make it sound like you’re forty years old,” she said with an amused laugh. “You can’t be more than twenty-two.”

“Twenty-five,” He glanced down at her. “Last month.”

She grew silent. He wasn’t anything like the boys she had grown up with. Even after boot camp, Douglas hadn’t had this sharp edge, an edge that went beyond anything the army taught its men. With Johnny you had the feeling he actually looked forward to battle, as if he had something to prove. Something that couldn’t be proved any other way.

She wondered if he had a girlfriend, but knew she would seem terribly rude and forward if she dared to ask such a question. But she could ask her dad later about Johnny’s background—in a very casual way, of course. Not that she was interested for herself, naturally, but try as she might she couldn’t quite conjure up an image of the type of girl he would keep company with. A brash and overbleached blond? A flamboyant redhead? Or would he go against type and favor a “girl next door”?

The image of Johnny sweeping this imaginary sweetheart into his arms popped into her mind, and she felt her cheeks redden as she tried to push the unbidden—but quite intriguing vision from her mind.

* * *

Catherine Wilson was one of the prettiest girls Johnny Danza had ever seen. Tom had told him so, but Johnny knew that fathers often thought the homeliest daughters were as beautiful as Hollywood stars. In this case, however, Tom hadn’t even come close to describing just how lovely his older daughter was. And she didn’t seem stuck on herself, either, the way so many pretty girls were. Why, she was even blushing just because he was admiring her!

Johnny glanced down at the diamond chip sparkling on the ring finger of her left hand. Too bad some other lucky guy had already spoken for her. It would be nice to know a girl like Catherine Wilson was waiting for you to come home....

He stubbed out his cigarette in one of the sand-filled canisters lining the wall.

“That’s some great music they’re playing,” he tossed out, doing his best not to notice the sweet smell of her perfume. He didn’t believe in making a play for another guy’s girl. He was a lot of things, but he wasn’t a bastard.

Catherine nodded, her dark blond hair swinging gently with the movement of her head. “I can’t believe I’m standing here listening to Harry James in person.”

“Makes you feel like dancing, doesn’t it?”

She gave him a sideways look, her clear blue eyes sharp and questioning.

He felt a rush of blood redden his throat and cheeks. It was a safe bet he hadn’t blushed since he was eight years old, when the head of the orphanage caught him lobbing spitballs in church. “I’m pretty good at jitterbugging.”

She grinned. “So am I.”

He reached for her hand. “Let’s cut a rug then, Cathy.”

What he really wanted was to hold her in his arms, but the music was jumping, and before long so were they. He loved the way her skirt twisted about her knees when he spun her out. He also loved the way her eyes sparkled as the tempo increased and they were almost flying with the music. He’d picked up a few tricky moves when he was down in Georgia, and Tom’s daughter managed to keep up with all of them—and show him a few in the bargain.

“You
are
good,” she said, panting, as the music faded.

He tugged his uniform jacket back into place. “So’re you.” The lights dimmed and a smoky romantic ballad swelled around them. “Want to go back on the floor?”

She shook her head. “Thanks, anyway, but I think I’ll sit this one out.”

“‘Moonlight Serenade,’” he said. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”

“I know it doesn’t, Johnny, but I should see what my sister is up to.”

He watched as she drifted back into the crowd. She was taller than many of the women there, and it wasn’t hard to keep her in sight as she threaded her way through the knots of servicemen and dancing couples jammed into the Canteen. She carried herself straight and proud, her bearing almost military.

Shaking his head, he lit up another cigarette. Both of them were New York born and bred, but you’d never know it. The rough sound of his Brooklyn neighborhood flavored every word he uttered, while Catherine sounded as if she’d been brought up in some fancy Park Avenue apartment instead of a house in Queens.

Class was a funny thing, he thought. You either had it or you didn’t. No doubt about it: Tom’s daughter Catherine had it in spades.

Johnny grabbed himself a beer and raised it high in salute to her absent fiancé. Maybe he didn’t know the guy’s name, rank and serial number, but he knew something even more important: Catherine’s fiancé was one lucky man.

* * *

Back in Forest Hills, in a storefront on Continental Avenue, Catherine’s future was being decided.

Stuart Froelich, Western Union supervisor, took off his wire glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose, then continued to paste the message together.

We regret to inform you that your son, Private Douglas Weaver, died in battle 29 May 1943 in the Aleutian Islands.

Being the bearer of bad news was rotten enough; bringing bad news to friends was more than he thought he could stand. His own daughter, Susan, had gone through school with Doug and his girlfriend Cathy Wilson. His photo albums were filled with snapshots of the three of them in school plays, at the junior prom, on graduation night.

Dear God
, he thought as he folded the telegram into an envelope.
Give Edna and Les the strength they need to accept this
.

And help Cathy to get on with her life.

* * *

Tom’s friends were really a swell group. Dot thoroughly enjoyed listening to their stories about boot camp and how her husband had withstood their merciless teasing with remarkable good grace. It helped, this putting faces to the names of the men who would go into battle with the man she loved.

“Gotta hand it to Tom,” said Johnny Danza as he waltzed her around the crowded dance floor. “We razzed him pretty bad about being the oldest recruit around, but he laughed along with the rest of us.”

“That’s my Tom,” she said, tears welling up despite het easy laughter—He can take it as well as dish it out.”

“A real nice guy,” said Johnny, shaking his head. “Don’t meet too many guys as nice as him these days.”

I won’t cry! There will be plenty of time for tears once Tom leaves tomorrow
. She swallowed hard and gently steered the conversation in a less emotionally dangerous direction. “I’m glad you and Tom will be together....” She hesitated. “Well, wherever it is you’ll be out there.”

He nodded but said nothing, simply swept her into a more intricate pattern of dance on the floor. She could see the raw emotion on his strong-boned face, and she averted her gaze to afford him a private moment to recover himself. For all his toughness, Johnny Danza had a soft quality. It pleased her to see that, to know that her husband would be there with this young man, who perhaps would ease his way along the rough road ahead.

“We will be seeing you at breakfast tomorrow morning, won’t we?” she asked as he twirled her around the crowded floor.

He had a wonderful, boyish smile that made her maternal instincts leap to life. “I, uh, Tom told me about it but I, uh, I wasn’t sure you’d want a stranger there....” His words drifted off with an embarrassed shrug.

“You listen to me, Johnny Danza! I make the best pancakes in New York City and you’re expected to be at the table at 8 a.m. sharp. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am!” He gave a quick salute. “You’re tougher than our drill instructor.”

“And don’t you forget it!”

The waltz came to an end, and Harry James announced a fifteen-minute break to a chorus of good-natured boos from the crowd.

Johnny saw Dot back to the table where her husband sat, still talking with a group of soldiers, each of whom had the wide-eyed look of a visitor on his first trip to New York. For a moment she considered asking each and every one of them over for a pancake breakfast, but because of shortages due to the War effort, she knew neither her pantry nor icebox held enough food to accommodate them all. She would, however, give Private John Danza a breakfast to remember.

* * *

He was watching her, Johnny Danza was. Catherine was acutely aware of his gaze on her as she danced with soldiers and sailors. Time and again pretty hostesses with bright smiles would try to engage him in conversation, but he turned each one away with a shake of his head. How could she listen to the GIs’ stories and laugh at their jokes when her attention was drawn back time and again to the darkly handsome soldier standing near the bar, his deep blue gaze firmly locked on her?

Why on earth had she ever listened to Nancy and worn this ridiculous powder-blue dress? Every movement she made sent the skirts twirling up over her knees, brushing against her thighs in a most disconcerting fashion. And he noticed—she
knew
that he noticed. She grew conscious of the way her hair swung over her shoulder as she danced, of the sound of her own laughter, the warm air heating the skin bared by the sweetheart neckline. And all because a man was watching her dance....

Ridiculous! she thought as Johnny flashed her a grin from across the room. She was acting like Nancy, getting all flustered because a man was looking at her. If he wanted to be so bold, she’d simply pay no attention to him. No attention at all.

* * *

Nancy couldn’t help but notice the way her dad’s friend Johnny watched Catherine. It didn’t matter if her older sister was on the dance floor doing the lindy hop with a marine from San Diego or chatting in a corner with a group of British sailors, the dark-haired private from Brooklyn never took his eyes off her.

Nancy sighed and reached for her third—or was it her fourth?—7-Up. Oh sure, she’d had her share of attention from homesick GIs that night. Her friends would be pea green with envy when she told them tomorrow about the cute fellows she’d met and danced with. Of course, any girl who was younger than Edna Mae Oliver or skinnier than Kate Smith was a star in the eyes of these frightened young men. But with Catherine it was different and always would be.

Old ladies talked to Cathy while they waited for a bus. Elderly men tipped their hats when she walked by. Nancy’s GI pen pal Gerry would probably be just like the rest of them, falling all over himself for one of her sister’s smiles.

She watched as Private Danza threaded his way through the crowd, his sights set squarely on Cathy. Nancy wondered if anyone would ever look at
her
that way, as if she were the center of the universe?

It was so unfair! Cathy already had a beau. Douglas loved her more than anything, and that diamond on Cathy’s finger was proof positive that, after the war was over, their future would be just so much velvet. Boys tended to think of Nancy as a pal. Someone to go ice-skating with or take to a ball game, but very few boys looked at freckled redheads the way Johnny was looking at Catherine right now.

Nancy had felt so excited just an hour ago, filled with the sense that anything at all could happen in a magical place like the Stage Door Canteen. Somehow she had believed that talking to movie stars would change her life forever. Now she knew that the place might be magical, but she was still the same old Nancy she was back on Hansen Street, and not even Tyrone Power could change that. Maybe having a paper-and-pen romance was the best possible world for someone like her.

When she sat down later to write to Gerry Sturdevant, she would describe the music and the laughter, the movie stars and the sense of excitement in the air, and through her words she’d make it all come alive for Gerry there on the other side of the world.

“How ’bout a dance?”

She looked up into the big brown eyes of the dreamiest fly-boy she’d ever seen. “Me?”

He made a show of looking around the room. “Don’t see anybody else sitting there with you.” He held out his hand. “Come on. The music ain’t gonna last all night.”

“You’re right.” She stood up and took his hand, her melancholy mood falling away from her like an old coat. The music wouldn’t last all night, but the memories of her evening would be with her forever. “Let’s dance!”

* * *

The ten steps to the Weavers’ front door seemed like a hundred to Stuart Froelich as he trudged up to ring the bell.

His right arm hung limply at his side, the telegram dangling from his fingers like a lowered flag of surrender.

Laughter floated out through the open window, laughter and the sweet sound of Dorothy Collins’s voice as she sang “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”

“Let’s have a hand for the little lady,” said Snooky Lanson. The audience applauded.

Stuart rang the doorbell.

Chapter Three

Catherine did her best to enter into the spirit of things. She joined her mother and father at the big table they shared with myriad boys and men who would be sailing away with her dad come tomorrow morning. A guy from a potato farm way out on the eastern end of Long Island told a funny story about his first trip to the big city, and Catherine found herself laughing heartily along with everyone else at the soldier’s wide-eyed tales of his adventures on the subway.

“Mind?”

She looked up to see Johnny Danza standing next to her. He motioned toward the empty space on her bench.

“Not at all,” she said, scooting over to make room for him. “Please sit down.”

“Danny telling his subway story again?” Danza asked, pouring himself a beer from the pitcher on the table. “I must’ve heard about the A train fifty times in boot camp.”

“It’s a funny story,” she said, defending the young recruit. “Just because we grew up riding the subways doesn’t mean they’re not confusing to a country kid.”

Danza took a large swig of beer: “I’m not making fun of the kid, Cathy. You don’t have to get so defensive.”

She grew aware of heat flooding her cheeks. “I’m not getting defensive.”

He arched a brow and grinned. “Sure you are.”

She laughed despite herself. “Well, maybe,” she said after a moment. She’d been off balance all day, as if her feelings were running one step ahead of her mind. Listening to Danny’s story, she’d found her emotions careening like a roller coaster. Laughing one moment, verging on tears the next. Was she the only one in the room who understood how terrifying the world out there was?

One of the soldiers, a fellow from Nebraska named Harold, launched into a gory tale about his cousin who was killed at Pearl Harbor while playing tennis with his fiancée. Beads of sweat broke out behind her neck and along her temples, and she shivered.

“Cold?”

She looked at Danza and shook her head. “Someone must have walked on my grave.”

“So you’re as superstitious as your old man?”

“Not quite as bad as Daddy, but close.” The Pearl Harbor story was awful, but the one about Guadalcanal was even worse.

“What a gloomy conversation,” Dot said, her voice painfully cheerful. “Can’t we talk about something else?”

Catherine thanked her mother silently. The men gamely tried to steer their talk away from blood and guts, but in moments they were speculating about what dangers awaited them at the front. Danza rested a hand on her shoulder and she turned back toward him.

“That’s my favorite song they’re playing,” he said, his tone easy. “Dance with me?”

She hesitated. Jitterbugging with a handsome soldier was one thing; dancing close as the strains of “Moonlight Becomes You” tugged at her heart was something else entirely. “I—I don’t know if...”

But he wasn’t waiting for an answer. He was on his feet and reaching for her.

“... lambs to the slaughter...” she heard her father say as she took Johnny’s hand. “Those poor GIs didn’t stand a chance.”

No
, she thought, escaping with Johnny onto the dance floor.
I’m not going to think about anything but the music
.

Danza threaded his way through the couples jamming the floor until he found a secluded spot to the right of the band. He stopped, then opened his arms to her, and for an instant Catherine hesitated. She had danced with a score of soldiers that evening and not given it a second thought. Why on earth did she find the notion of stepping into Danza’s embrace so difficult?

The moment he drew her close and they began to sway to the music, she knew. How long had it been since she’d been held this way, her cheek nestled against a muscular shoulder, her skin registering the warmth of another body? Her hand felt natural in his; the way he held her was both comfortable and exciting. It wasn’t hard to imagine away the dozens of couples who shared the floor with them. It wasn’t hard to imagine away the brash kid from Brooklyn. Douglas had held her like this once, a very longtime ago. She’d felt his strength and sensed his power, just like now. That wonderful feeling of being close to a man—

No!
She wouldn’t think like that. It was disloyal and unfair to the man she loved. She willed herself back to reality and favored Johnny with her brightest smile. “Where did you learn to dance like—”

“Quiet,” he said, his voice gruff but warm. “Just dance.”

* * *

Much as Johnny wanted to take credit for the way Catherine Wilson melted into his arms, he knew exactly what was going on. She wasn’t dancing with him; she was dancing with her fiancé, the lucky SOB who’d one day make her his wife.

He’d had a lot of experience playing second fiddle in his life, fighting against a world that had little time for him—an abandoned kid who’d spent his childhood being kicked out of one orphanage after another.

Funny thing, though. This time he didn’t mind coming second to the man she loved. He didn’t stand a chance with her and he knew it. Even if her guy was out of the picture, Johnny knew the chance of someone like Catherine Wilson giving him more than the time of day were about as good as his chances of spending the war Stateside.

Girls like Catherine were special. Their hair always smelled like apple blossoms in the spring. Their laughter sounded like silver bells. And the guys they loved never got their hands dirty earning a living. Hell, if he hadn’t joined the army, Johnny was hard-pressed to figure what he would be doing right now. He was smart but uneducated. He understood business and the way things operated, but no one was likely to give a chance to a guy who’d barely made it out of eighth grade. Guys like him worked with their hands and were grateful for the chance.

But the army—and then the war—made everything different. He had a place in the world, for however long it lasted. He was young and healthy and strong, and that counted for something these days. The uniform gave him respect, something he’d never known before. Maybe when the war was over he’d go back to being a nobody on his way to no place, but for now he was important and that was all that mattered.

Like right now on the dance floor. It didn’t matter that this time tomorrow he’d be on a troop ship somewhere in the Atlantic. It didn’t matter that her heart belonged to someone else. For as long as the music played he could hold Catherine in his arms and pretend the world was his for the taking. And if she wanted to pretend he was the man she loved, well, Johnny was smart enough to know a good thing when he saw it. He only wished it never had to end.

* * *

The party moved from the Stage Door Canteen to the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station. Dot, Catherine and Nancy begged off on trying the slippery sea creatures, but Tom and Johnny and a few of the other guys manfully did their bit to deplete the oyster population.

From the Oyster Bar they trooped over to the Automat, where they fed nickels and dimes into the appropriate slots and ate their fill of apple pie and hot coffee. Even there at the lowly Automat, handsome men in uniform squired beautiful women in silks and satins. They helped themselves to plates of macaroni and cheese as if they were fancy steak dinners with all the trimmings, and not one of them seemed to notice they weren’t at the Stork Club.

The air crackled with a reckless kind of excitement. The world was an uncertain place, fraught with danger at every turn. Some people coped with that danger by grabbing life with both hands and shaking every last drop of happiness out of it. Men like her father and Johnny Danza pursued that danger, confident in their ability to conquer the enemy and return home triumphant. Her mother pretended the danger didn’t exist, while Nancy drank it up and turned it into the stuff of teenage dreams.

For Catherine it was all too real. She wished she could curl up under her covers and not wake up until the war was over and Douglas was safely back home and life was the way it used to be before names like Bataan and Corregidor became part of everyday conversation.

The Wilsons parted company with the other GIs at the subway station. The night was still young and New York was a city made for handsome bachelors in uniform. The Folies Bergères had opened just two nights ago and there wasn’t a red-blooded American male who wouldn’t love to watch the show girls in their skimpy costumes parade across the stage.

Nancy shook hands with her father’s new friends, while Dot hugged each and every one of them. Catherine couldn’t help but notice that she gave Johnny Danza an extra-big squeeze and whispered something in his ear.

The guys were a little shy with Catherine and she had to take the initiative and extend her hand to them in farewell. Johnny, however, wasn’t shy at all. He caught her hand then spun her close to him as if they were back on the dance floor, and before she could protest, he executed a quick dance step that turned her indignation into laughter.

“Take care of yourself,” she said, planting a sisterly kiss on his beard-roughened cheek.

“You, too.” His eyes lingered briefly on her mouth, and for a moment she wondered if he was going to kiss her. A grin flashed across his lean face, then he pressed his lips quickly to her forehead.

Instantly—absurdly—her eyes filled with tears, and it was all she could do to blink them back before she embarrassed herself right there in front of everybody.

“No one’s paying any attention,” he said, brushing a tear from her cheek.

“My father,” she managed, glancing over her shoulder to make certain nobody was watching them. “Please take care of him, Johnny.” She met his eyes and saw compassion in them, and understanding. “If anything happened to him...”

“Nothing’s going to happen to him,” said Johnny. “I’ll make sure of it.”

Believe him
, she thought.
Believe him or you’ll go crazy
. She started to thank him, to tell him how much his words meant to her, when her dad popped up at her elbow.

“Might as well save your goodbyes, honey,” he said to her. “Your mom’s invited Johnny for a farewell breakfast tomorrow morning. You’ll have plenty of time over pancakes to say goodbye to this wolf.”

Danza’s shrug was good-natured. “Can’t blame a guy for trying, can you? I haven’t met too many like your daughter, Tom.”

“And never will again, most likely.” Tom winked at the kid from Brooklyn. “Just you remember that she’s taken.”

Danza could have protested. He could have told Tom that his daughter was worried sick about him, that she’d asked him to look after her father, that she wasn’t even his type. What he did, instead, endeared him to her forever. “Yeah, Tom,” he said, “I guess some guys have all the luck.”

They rode home on the subway in silence. The car was empty, save for a few shift workers on their way to factory jobs in firms like the one her father owned. Nancy dozed with her head resting lightly against Catherine’s shoulder, while across the aisle their parents talked softly, voices mingling with the steady rattle of the steel wheels against the tracks.

Strange, but somehow Catherine felt sorry for Johnny. Oh, he was filled with bravado and bluster, but beneath it all, she glimpsed a real person. A person she liked. In the ladies’ room at the Canteen, Nancy told her that Johnny had been a foundling, who spent his childhood being shipped from one orphanage to another until he finally kicked over the traces and worked his way west. Nancy didn’t know what had happened to bring him back to New York again, but she was certain a broken heart had something to do with it.

Of course Nancy was certain a broken heart was the reason for everything she couldn’t understand. It was one of the benefits that came with being seventeen. The other benefit was the ability to sleep on the subway. Catherine had to gently shake her younger sister awake when the train finally rumbled into the station at Continental Avenue, then assist the drowsy girl up the cement steps to the street.

The summer sky was a swath of black velvet sequined with stars. The afternoon’s intense heat had given way, cooled by breezes blown in from the waters that surrounded Long Island. Catherine could smell the sea in the distance, that salty, briny tang that conjured up dreams of exotic ports with names impossible to pronounce. One day, she thought, Nancy would probably send her a postcard from Tahiti and Timbuktu. Wanderlust raced through Nancy’s veins; Catherine wanted to set down roots. She wanted the life that her mother and Douglas’s mother took for granted, a life of security and happiness and love.

Half a block ahead of their children, Dot and Tom strolled along hand in hand, looking for all the world like young lovers.

“I’m going to miss Daddy.” Nancy’s voice, young and tremulous, broke the stillness. “Aren’t you?”

Catherine draped an arm about her sister’s shoulders. “Of course I am. But remember what he said—it’s up to us to be cheerful for Mom. She has enough on her mind.”

They turned right onto Hansen Street. The yellow glow from the gas lamps, remnants from another, more graceful era, bathed them in light.

Nancy looked over at Catherine. “Awfully quiet tonight, isn’t it?”

“I guess Saturday nights aren’t what they used to be, Nance.” Her words came easily enough; unfortunately, so did a burning lump of fear that settled in her chest. She and her sister had grown up on this street. On a night like tonight their neighbors would be relaxing on their respective stoops, or gathering on the Weavers’ porch to argue about the Dodgers. They certainly wouldn’t be locked away inside their houses as if they were afraid to be out on the street after dark.

“Maybe it’s the dimout,” she said, more to herself than Nancy. “Maybe everyone decided to go to a film....”

And then she saw it. The Weavers’ house was ablaze with light, and through the lace curtains she could see a knot of people in the parlor. Dot and Tom stood at the curb, stiff and straight as tin soldiers. Nancy grabbed Catherine’s forearm. Catherine barely registered the sharp pinch of the girl’s nails on her bare skin. In some hidden part of her soul she knew the truth, had known it for days but had refused to acknowledge it. This time, however, there was no turning away.

There on the front step stood Edna Weaver. Her plain dress was covered with a gingham apron and her hair was knotted atop her head. If she lived another thousand years, Catherine knew she would never forget the look in that gentle woman’s eyes.

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