The hotel looked out over the Eastern Seaboard, but Rebecca was oblivious to its panoramic view of the ocean. She didn’t even notice the sounds of the waves crashing outside her open window. Her gaze was focused on a painting that hung above the bed’s headboard in her tiny room. It was a cacophony of primary colors that was probably the product of some struggling abstract artist but, to the untrained eye, it could just as easily have been created by an overly excited five-year-old. As for Rebecca, she had no opinion one way or the other as to whether the art was good or bad. She was staring at it, yes. But she wasn’t really seeing it. Her mind was elsewhere.
Her mother, strict and imposing, was under the impression that Rebecca was on a little getaway with her best friend. Her best friend, loving and loyal, would take this secret to her grave. In truth, Rebecca was off on her own for the next two days. It wasn’t so much a getaway as it was a journey of solitude…a necessary reprieve from her daily normal so she could set things right in her heart without interruption.
Tugging her suitcase up to the bed, she unsnapped it and pulled out her bathing suit, robe, and sandals. Ten minutes later, she was ankle-deep in the Atlantic, watching the gulls fly overhead. She wasn’t a strong swimmer and had no intention of going out much farther, but the shallow water was warm and soothing and, for the moment, slowly strolling back and forth was exactly what her soul needed.
It was the middle of the week, and the beach wasn’t crowded, but several other bathers were scattered up and down the shoreline. They were far enough away that Rebecca could just barely make out the drone of laughter and conversation. As she willed her mind to be silent, she soaked in the world around her. There would be plenty of time later to delve into the mental work that awaited her. For now, it felt luxurious to simply be.
Leaving the water behind her, Rebecca spread her robe out on the beach and lowered herself down, being careful to keep her wet, sand-covered feet off the fabric. She wrapped her arms around her bent knees and raised her face to the sun. It was no longer possible to keep her thoughts at bay, so she opened her mind and allowed them free rein. It was time to begin what she’d come here to do.
Three years prior, in the fall of 1943, Rebecca and her mother had been standing next to a small bonfire in their backyard. Rebecca’s trembling hands held a stack of envelopes tied together with a blue ribbon. Tears streamed down her face as she looked pleadingly into her mother’s eyes.
“Girl, you’ve wasted enough time. I’m not going to tell you again.” Her mother’s lips were set in a thin line, and her eyes held no hint of affection. The balled-up fists resting on her hips obliterated any hope for mercy.
Rebecca had always been a daddy’s girl. Her father was warm and funny, and his love for her felt endless. He would never have stood by and let this happen. But a stroke had stolen him from her two years earlier when she was only eighteen, so now it was just her and her mother. And her mother was a harsh woman who either couldn’t or wouldn’t love her the way her father had.
Standing here now, knowing what was expected of her, Rebecca’s stomach was filled with a sour hatred for the woman who had brought her into this world. They’d been together twenty years, but her mother had always been a stranger to her. And now this stranger was destroying the only happiness she had known since before her father passed away.
Rebecca hugged the bundle to her chest. Her voice, quiet and rough from crying, broke the malignant silence between them. “Mother, please. Please don’t make me do this.” She knew it was pointless, but she couldn’t stop herself.
“Young lady, if you don’t do as I said…and right now…I will do it for you.”
Slowly raising the bundle to her lips, Rebecca kissed the ribbon and tossed her hopes for a happy life into the flames. She glared at her mother, who merely nodded, and then Rebecca ran sobbing back to the house.
Wiping tears from her cheeks, Rebecca came back to the present. She stood up, looked out over the ocean, and could tell more time had passed than she realized. From where the sun hung in the sky, it appeared she’d been woolgathering for a couple of hours, and now she was bound to be sunburned. She grabbed her robe, chastised herself for not finding a shady spot, and trudged through the sand toward the stairs to the hotel.
After a bath to soothe her red shoulders, Rebecca put on a yellow floral sundress and straightened the seams in her stockings. She then tied her brown wavy hair back with a white ribbon and wandered down to a diner near the hotel. After ordering a ham sandwich and a Coke, she settled back in her chair and looked around at the other patrons. There was a young couple at a table across the room, and they sat side-by-side with their heads leaning in toward one another. They were talking and smiling, and Rebecca could sense the depth of their romance. It brought a smile to her own face, but hers bore a hint of sadness as her mind traveled back in time.
James had been a marine. Tall and muscular with a sandy-haired buzzcut, he’d approached her in front of the Morehead City Five-and-Dime and asked for directions to the library. As fortune would have it, that just happened to be where Rebecca was heading, so she invited him to walk with her.
In the time it took to stroll the three blocks from the store to the library, Rebecca learned that James grew up in Nebraska, had been in the Marines a little over a year, and was stationed at Cherry Point. While whispering in the library, she discovered his favorite color was green, his favorite singer was Bing Crosby, and his favorite food was fried chicken. By the time they were back in front of the five-and-dime a few hours later, Rebecca realized she was falling in love.
James had to return to base the next day, but he wrote to Rebecca at least twice a week, and he came back to town on every leave. They took the bridge to Atlantic Beach a month after they met and, while staring out across the ocean, James declared his love and gave Rebecca a Marine insignia charm on a silver chain. Six months into their courtship, he learned he was being transferred to the west coast. Rebecca was heartsick, but James assured her nothing would change. And, for a short while, he was right.
“Care for a piece of pie or maybe some ice cream?”
Rebecca jumped and knocked her fork off the table.
“Sorry, miss. I didn’t mean to startle you.” The waitress bent down and retrieved the fork from the floor.
“No, I’m the one who should be sorry,” Rebecca said. “I was so deep in thought I didn’t hear you walk up. What did you ask me?”
The waitress slipped the fork into her apron pocket and smiled. “I just wondered if you’d be interested in some dessert.”
Rebecca looked at her half-eaten sandwich and shook her head. “As good as it sounds, I guess I’m not as hungry as I thought I was. Could you please bring me the check?”
“Of course, sweetie. I’ll be right back.”
The sun was setting, and the walk back from the diner was much cooler than the walk there. Rebecca crossed her arms over her chest and wished she’d grabbed her sweater on the way out earlier. As she approached the hotel, she noticed the same couple from the diner entering the large double doors. Apparently, they were guests there, too. She wondered if they were married or just dating and if their stay at the hotel was one of total intimacy or one of careful closeness. Her times there with James had always been the latter. The temptation was there, of course, but she was protective of her honor, and James respected her principles.
Once back in her room, Rebecca opened her suitcase again and removed a small leather case. She settled back against the bed’s headboard and let the contents from the case spill out onto the spread. There wasn’t much…just a couple of pictures, some movie ticket stubs, and a tiny box.
One of the photos showed her with James at the county fair a few weeks after they met. The other was taken when they were here at the hotel shortly before he left for California. It had been freezing then, and they looked a little silly all bundled up on the beach, but the ocean behind them was as beautiful as ever.
Rebecca ran her fingers over the photos and let her heart remember the thrill of spending time with James, the heartache of having him move across the country, and the despair over having to devastate him with a “Dear John” letter. A letter she never would have written had it not been for her mother.
After the incident in the backyard, Rebecca had been lying on her bed when she heard the screen door slam and her mother’s footsteps coming up the stairs. Her bedroom door was open and she stiffened as the footsteps stopped at her doorway. She raised up on one elbow, wiped her tears, and faced her mother. But she didn’t speak to her.
“Get up now and come down to the living room. The letters are burnt, but there’s one more thing that must be done. And it must be done now.” Her mother didn’t wait for a reply before turning and going back down the stairs. Rebecca sighed. There was nothing left but to follow.
Sitting at her father’s writing desk, she pulled a sheet of stationery from the drawer and picked up the silver fountain pen she’d given him for his birthday shortly before he died. She didn’t look at her mother. She simply sat there with the pen poised over the paper.
“You are going to write a letter convincing that young man that you never want to see him again. He is not to try to contact you, and he is never to return to Morehead City.” Her mother emphatically tapped her finger on the desk blotter as she spoke. “You will tell him you’ve moved on without him and do not want him to embarrass himself by attempting to pursue you. Do you understand? Do you have any questions?”
There was a part of Rebecca that wanted to scream at her mother that she had a thousand questions. That she didn’t understand why her mother was brutalizing her this way…why she was so hell-bent on ruining her daughter’s life. She’d tried over and over to explain that the nights with James at Atlantic Beach were innocent, but nothing she said ever made a difference. Now all she could do was shake her head. The time for pleading and questions was over. Another person – someone more spirited – might have rebelled against the unfairness of it all by slamming out of the house and never looking back. But Rebecca wasn’t another person. She was who she was. Her father had loved her fiercely, but he also instilled in her the importance of respecting her parents…both him and her mother. No matter how horrible it felt, this was the way it had to be. She had to honor her mother.
Taking a deep breath, Rebecca put pen to paper and composed an unequivocally persuasive farewell. More than once while writing it, she had to turn her face away to avoid staining the stationery with her tears.
Rebecca set the photos down and wiped her eyes. Picking up the little box, she gently tossed it back and forth and let her mind wander over all the times she and James had laughed and danced and reveled in each other’s company. She pressed her fingertips to her lips as she thought back to those kisses full of love and desire. Then she lifted the lid from the wooden box and took out the charm that rested on its velvet lining. The chain was gone…having been broken when her mother, in a fit of rage, tore the necklace from around Rebecca’s neck. Now, the only things she had left from that relationship were her memories, a few mementos, and the tiny charm James had given her when he asked her to be his girl.
But she wasn’t his girl anymore. Her mother had seen to that. And while a part of her would never forgive her mother’s cruelty, she couldn’t deny that what came next was much better than anything she could have hoped for.
As life tends to do, the world moved on after Rebecca’s mother sent that letter. She’d done it herself because she didn’t trust her daughter to follow through. If James ever did try to reach out, Rebecca never knew about it. It wouldn’t have surprised her, of course, if he had and her mother intercepted his attempts. But what was done was done, and she set her mind to moving past it.
A couple of years after ending things with James, Rebecca was chatting with some girlfriends in a coffee shop when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned and found herself staring straight into a pair of sparkling blue eyes. They seemed to possess a bit of mischief, and the attractive young man attached to them introduced himself as her future husband. Rebecca was vaguely aware of her girlfriends’ giggles as she peered up into that semi-serious face. She furrowed her brow and tilted her head, but she said nothing. Frankly, she was at a loss for words. He smiled, gallantly kissed her hand, and walked out of the shop. Rebecca stared after him, completely dumbfounded. She’d halfheartedly dated a few men since James, but this was the first person to truly pique her interest. Now he’d all but vanished and she had no clue who he was.
The small accounting office where Rebecca worked was right across the street from the coffee shop, and she’d eaten her lunch there every day since the encounter with her mystery man. She hadn’t been able to get him off her mind, and she felt both excited and pathetic over the fact that she kept coming here in hopes he’d return looking for her. On the fourth day, when she’d just about convinced herself that she was wasting her time, she looked up as the bell rang above the door. There he stood. Thick dark hair, a rather sheepish grin, and those remarkably bright blue eyes. He strode quickly over to her table.
“Is this seat taken?” he asked.
“No, but I’m just about to leave. My lunch hour is almost over.” She didn’t have to be back for a good fifteen minutes, but she didn’t want to seem eager.
“Oh, well, uh, okay. I just wondered if…” All the bravado from the other day had disappeared. Now he didn’t even seem to be able to form a complete sentence.
“Listen, I really should go.” Rebecca started to get up but the man gently placed his hand over hers.
“Wait. Don’t go yet.” He was actually blushing. “Look, I’ve been trying to get back here for days to see if I might run into you, but my job’s had me working out of town. I just got back this morning and took a chance you might be here. I think I’m still sort of stunned, though, that you truly are. Here, I mean.” He flashed a broad smile, and Rebecca felt her resolve melting away.
“So,” she said. “What exactly is it you do that kept you out of town for days?”
“I’m a reporter for the local paper. And a photographer, too.” There was that sheepish grin again.
“Impressive. I’ll have to start reading the news. But seriously, I really do have to go.” Rebecca stood and grabbed her purse. The man got up and stepped aside.
“Before you leave, I’d like to properly introduce myself.” Then, as if he feared she’d flee before he could finish, he inhaled deeply and rapidly blurted out, “My name is Alexander Reeves. My friends call me Alex. I work at the paper like I said, and I live in an apartment above the five-and-dime. I like to fish, I play the mandolin, and I don’t go to church every Sunday, but I do go sometimes.” He paused to take a breath and then said, “Oh, and I’d very much like to take you to dinner. This Saturday, if that works for you.”
Rebecca couldn’t help but laugh. She hadn’t been this drawn to a man since James, and it felt nice. Reaching inside her purse, she drew out a pencil and notepad. She scribbled something and tore off a sheet. “Here,” she said, handing him the note. “This is my address and phone number. You can pick me up at six.” She left the shop and was halfway across the street when she realized she hadn’t even told him her name. Well, she thought. I suppose he’ll figure it out.
Alex did figure it out. He knocked on Rebecca’s door promptly at six. He’d actually arrived a good ten minutes earlier and had been lurking just beyond a tall bush until it was time to pick her up. Rebecca knew this because she’d been ready at least fifteen minutes early and had been peeking out her bedroom window. She watched as he stood out there kicking pebbles. One hand was shoved deep in his pocket, and the other held a beautiful bouquet of daisies. She was tempted to go on out and tell him it was okay to be early but, for reasons she couldn’t explain, Rebecca found his efforts to be johnny-on-the-spot quite charming, and she didn’t want to break the spell.
At the sound of his knock, she hurried to the door before her mother could answer it, and she slipped out onto the front porch.
Alex held the flowers out to her. “I hope you like daisies. I don’t know why, but you just strike me as a daisy kind of girl.”
“Thank you. I do like daisies, and these are especially pretty.” Rebecca didn’t want to go back inside and risk running into her mother, but luck was with her. There was a half-full pitcher of water on the table next to the porch swing. “I’ll just put them in here for now and find a vase after I get home.” She plopped the flowers into the pitcher and turned back to face Alex. “Shall we?”
“We shall,” he said as he rested his hand under her elbow and led her down the steps. “I hope you don’t mind walking. My car has a flat. I thought maybe we could go down by the water to Becker’s Inn. If you don’t think it’s too far to walk, that is.”
Rebecca slipped her hand into the crook of his arm and said, “Not too far at all.”
Becker’s Inn was the first of many, many dates. Alex and Rebecca ate lunch together often, went to dinner at least twice a week, went to the movies almost every Saturday night and, several times, they found themselves having impromptu picnics in the park a couple of blocks from where Rebecca lived. Alex was witty and self-deprecating and, as the weeks turned into months, Rebecca found herself falling head over heels for this wonderfully shy reporter. And, miracle of miracles, even her mother seemed to approve.
One day after coming back from a Sunday drive, they settled down into Rebecca’s porch swing, and she asked him how he’d managed to come up with the nerve to introduce himself the way he did back when they first met.
“Honestly?” He sort of chuckled. “I almost didn’t introduce myself at all. I’ve never been one to just go up to a girl and start talking. But when I saw you, I knew you were special. Much too special for me to simply pass by. I’m still not sure what I was thinking when I said what I did, but it was the only thing that came to mind.” He took her hands in his and gazed into her eyes. “It still comes to mind. A lot.”
Rebecca blushed but didn’t look away. “Alex, what are you saying?”
He was blushing now, too. In one swift move, he slid off the swing, dropped to one knee, and pulled a ring box out of his pocket. He popped it open, revealing a dainty white gold ring with a modest diamond set between two small sapphires, Rebecca’s birthstone. “What I’m saying is…or I guess, what I’m asking is…Rebecca Parker, would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
Rebecca had everything loaded into the car before daybreak. She strolled around to the back side of the hotel and gazed out over the vast ocean one last time. The sun was rising up out of the water as though being slowly lifted by some invisible string. Her heart had lifted, too. Just like all those letters that had been tied up with blue ribbon, Rebecca had tied up the memories of her time with James. The letters were gone. That relationship was gone. And, now, so was the pain. She was finally able to tell James goodbye, and it was time to go home. As she walked back to the car, she dropped the little leather case – with all of its contents – into the waste bin next to the hotel.
Driving back over the bridge to Morehead City, Rebecca felt only excitement about the life that spread out before her. She’d hated the fact that she couldn’t give Alex an answer to his proposal right away. But she knew she had some emotional housecleaning to do before she could agree to be his wife, and he didn’t question her when she asked for a little time to get her thoughts in order.
It wasn’t that she was unsure about her feelings for Alex. She knew she loved him, and she never once compared him to James. They were two entirely different people from two entirely different chapters of her life. It was just that she needed to shake out those old thoughts and let them go. Her love for James had been real, but it never fully took root. Her love for Alex was deep and strong and ran through the very marrow of her bones. Even though it had been painful to lose James, she’d learned she could live without him. But the very idea of not having Alex in her life was utterly unthinkable.
Now, as she cruised along, she held her left hand up over the steering wheel and imagined that lovely ring on her finger. The ring Alex had so thoughtfully chosen specifically for her. The ring that would join them together forever. There wasn’t a doubt in Rebecca’s mind that the life she was heading for was the life she longed for. She had no regrets.
James was her put-to-rest past.
Alex was her bright and beautiful future.
And it was a future that sparkled even more radiantly than the brilliant North Carolina sun.