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FREE for a few days: light works by Libby Malin

When I first started writing, I used my married name, Libby Sternberg, to pen my first book, a young adult mystery (that went on to become an Edgar finalist). Then, Harlequin bought my humorous women’s fiction (“chick lit” it was called back then), Loves Me, Loves Me Not, and I decided I should write that kind of fiction under a different name so my throngs of YA fans wouldn’t pick it up expecting to find YA. Throngs. Ahem.

Anyway, I wrote that Harlequin book under the name Libby Malin. Thus started my split-personality writing life (I write in different genres — you can read about that here.) Libby Sternberg books are either YA or more serious adult fiction. Light, often humorous, novels are written by my alter-ego Libby Malin.

And Libby Malin has a number of books for free for a few days at the Amazon Kindle store. Libby Malin hopes these freebies generate interest in these lighter works. She’s working on a new one right now, and when it is released (by a publisher, herself, the Man on the Moon), she hopes new throngs snatch it up. More about that release after the serious Libby Sternberg’s new book, Fall from Grace, is published in the
fall.

Here are the freebies available at the Kindle store for a few days. Get them while the price is right — zippo! Click on the titles to be taken to the Amazon pages!

Rodeo Robin Hood: In Texas hill country, an out-of-work
college instructor meets her old crush while working at a Renaissance fair. Sparks fly.

Winning the Beauty’s Heart: A retelling of “Snow White” in the Texas hill country.

Woman with a Parasol: An exploration of a mother’s love.

Smart Cookie: A food network films a group of friends…and lovers…for a restaurant makeover show …what could go wrong?

If you grab one of these freebies, please read and…offer a review on Amazon! Those reviews mean the world to authors and can help others find books you like.


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“Russian Tropics”: A short story

by Libby Sternberg

A SUDDEN SWIRLING breeze blew the sheer curtains by the veranda in a wild dance, and she had to rush to keep the wind from knocking over a delicate vase of Oriental design on a tall wooden stand by the door. Such foolishness to place it there, but Mister Jasperson liked the way the light picked up its deep hues.

She thought all this in Russian, her native tongue, as she moved the stand and its delicate contents to the corner where they’d be safe. Safe, too, from partygoers later that evening. Or perhaps not. She took the vase off its stand and moved it into a glass shelved china cabinet, carefully closing the door, just as the clock in the parlor chimed three in the afternoon. It seemed to come from far away, even though just a hallway and three walls separated them, but she closed her eyes, letting the soft gong trigger memory.

FromHereA snowy evening, dim and gray. A fire roaring to keep her boudoir warm. Her father coming in with a gift for her after he’d returned from a trip to St. Petersburg. The clock chiming, the same velvety percussion floating through the hallways as if time itself were reaching out to tap them gently on the shoulders. Warning them.

That was the last time she saw him. While she’d been still recovering from fever, her mother had bundled her up and given her to the care of her uncle Fyodor, and they’d crossed endless miles of snow-covered fields in a fast-moving sled until the snow melted and mud prevailed and, oh, she had trouble remembering it all, only the awful, gaping sense of loss and fear and hunger. Her parents, absent. Her home, in the past. Comfort and ease, gone. Even the last gift her father had given her—a silly stuffed bear—no more. They’d carried only clothes and jewelry and some other things of value. And by the time they’d reached Istanbul, her Uncle Fyodor had taken most of the valuables and used them, she now assumed, for bribes and payments to get them away from the murdering revolutionaries.

She’d seen him one night in their tiny hotel room, prying the diamonds and rubies from her small tiara, the one she’d worn to court. He’d looked up, embarrassed. His hand had shaken. “Little one, fear not. I shall buy you a new crown some day. Write your mama now.”

And write she did. Letter after letter.

 

Dear Mama,

When will you and father join us?

 

No one had ever answered.

First, it had been on to Sicily, then up to Paris, and then to London, and finally, finally, on a ship to America. At each stop, she’d thought they’d stay and begin what she’d assumed would be the long wait for her parents to find her. And each time they moved on, she would say, “But, Uncle Fyodor, how will Mama and Papa know where we’ve gone?” And he would look at her with such warmth and pity and pat her head and say something like, “They will always know where you are, little one. Their hearts will know. But go write them now just to make sure.”

 

Dear Mama,

It is so hot here in this country of Florida. So hot that I think how much I want to be on a frozen lake midwinter, and you know how much I hated the long winter. If you kiss this letter, know that your lips touch me, as I have dropped several tears on it already. When will you come?

 

And yet, here in this wild and tropical land, in 1933, she still tried to put together pieces of why they’d stayed. Her Uncle Fyodor, bless his soul, had died almost as soon as they’d stepped off the boat. He’d contracted a cough on the journey. And it was but a mere five months later that he was gone. In between gasps, he’d told her he’d intended them to land in New York but something had gone wrong and…. She asked him, on his deathbed, why hadn’t her parents come, too.

And he’d patted her hand—too tired to raise his to her head now—and said, “They loved Mother Russia, little one, and I could only travel with one of you. Your brother and sister—too small,” as if she should understand. Loved Russia more than they loved her? How was that possible?

She was fourteen when he died in early 1920. Now, she was nearing thirty. A Russian royal. Unmarried. Alone. Unloved. Lucky to be alive. Was she?

She watched storm clouds way on the horizon, gathering over the sultry water like a snowy army ready to march. More wind blew. Strange gusts that hurried, then calmed. Weather was coming. Stillness followed by churning. Stillness…then rampage.

She couldn’t help it. She waited. After all these years, she waited. Hoping they’d gone to Paris where so many Russians had settled, or New York. She wrote to refugee centers, Russian enclaves. And she still wrote to them.

“Alexia, did you put the flowers in the parlor? Mr. Jasperson said he wanted the orchids moved there.” Rose, the housekeeper, stood in the doorway, her voice carrying no judgment and yet all judgment.

She turned and smiled, almost curtseying. “I am getting them now. The wind is blowing the curtains.” She spoke in simple sentences, her words still heavily accented. Mr. Jasperson liked her accent.

“Change into a fresh uniform, too, before the guests arrive,” Rose added as she passed her. “Your black one with the white lace.”

Black silk and white lace. The finest things she owned, and they belonged not to her, but to her employer. She’d escaped one commune to live in another, she thought as she rushed to the parlor, the big “living room” on the other side of the house that covered its entire length yet was still not as large as the entry hall to their home in Chelyabinsk. But in this land of wide windows and blowing curtains, clacking shutters and blinds, it felt as large as the ocean.

When she’d lost her uncle, she’d been frozen by fear. They’d been staying in a cheap hotel, so hot it felt as if a fireplace blasted its warmth at them every moment of the day and night, and you could never move far enough away from it to cool yourself.

Uncle Fyodor had been trying to get in touch with someone ever since they’d docked. A Mr. Welch or Walsh, a friend of a friend of a friend of a cousin of a brother of an aunt…it was so confusing, the chain of acquaintances and relatives. This Mr. W owned …stores, restaurants, banks? She didn’t know. All she knew was that her one protector was fading away, and she counted every second as a cocoon against the Horrible—the moment her protector would be gone. In those awful days, she no longer mourned her family. She was consumed by the present fear of losing Uncle Fyodor.

And lose him she did. Gone on a breeze, like this one, a rushing storm coming in from the east, winds so fierce they took rooftops off, and she sat trembling, holding his hand long after its warmth had perished with him.

But this new catastrophe meant she was no longer alone in her despair. A fresh group of refugees was created by the storm—homeless, without loved ones, in mourning and sorrow. Just like her. Authorities found her and found a home for her. At first, an orphanage where she was set to work in the laundry, exhausting days, bad food, and sleepless nights. She began picking up the language then, and she married.

 

Dear Mama,

I met a man at the orphanage church. He is big and stout with red hair. He brings me special foods and always asks how I am doing. I tell him of you and father and little Pytor and Magda. And he listens so well, even when I forget and start to speak in Russian. When you get here, perhaps you can live with us…

 

Rob Saxon, a man with dreams. She did not love him, but, oh, she did love being loved by him. He protected her, made sure she was comfortable, and he only got angry when no baby appeared in the years that followed. Five years. In a small bungalow by the water’s edge where he would fish when he wasn’t using his boats for other things. Running liquor she found out after he didn’t come home one night. He’d gone down in another storm.

The storms always brought change, she thought as she moved the delicate orchids to the airy parlor. Sometimes good, sometimes bad.

***

“Alexia, we’ll have to move the bar inside. Bring the punch bowl. Jorge will get the cart.”

She nodded to the housekeeper and went on to the veranda to start bringing the crystal bowl, not yet filled with sparkling liquid, inside. Hugging it to her gray uniform, she stole another glance at the darkening sky. The army of clouds had advanced. Now it loomed large over the opening to the cove, with only the smallest strip of blue sky in hasty retreat. The wind had picked up, too. So much so that even her stiff skirt danced about her ankles as she walked.

But still, she smiled. It was exciting, was it not, to face the storm?

She moved the heavy bowl to the table in the dining room, its starched white linen cloth caught by the breeze so that the corners flapped as if waving to the room. Four at a time, she moved the glasses, too, until, at the very end of her mission, she watched as the light white cloth on the outdoor table floated away, toward the sea, caught on the wind. No one was there but her. Rose had disappeared to the kitchen; Jorge had not yet come to execute his task.

Off and away the cloth went, sailing over the lush green lawn and the roiling water, so dark and fantastic that it no longer looked real but like something from a painting. She would not tell anyone where it went, and she was confident, in the party bustle, that Rose would not miss it until much later, and then she would be embarrassed not to remember what happened to it and say nothing.

As she placed the last of the punch glasses on the indoor table, she noticed from the corner of her eye that Jorge had entered and now silently moved the bar cart inside, careful not to upset any of the bottles. She scurried to help him, but he shook his head. His manhood would be diminished by aid from a woman. Such a proud man! About her age, with language skills worse than hers. She often felt sorry for him. She suspected it was this pity that kept him from going after her. It was her weapon.

After Rob Saxon had died, she’d thought she would once again be thrown to the wolves. She’d briefly contemplated returning home. The country surely would have calmed down by then. She found a tiny community of other Russians. She started attending the Orthodox church, and she supported herself by cleaning houses. When the bungalow was sold by the bank because payments were due, she moved into a small room, not unlike the one she’d occupied with Uncle Fyodor, and she waited, hoping to meet another Rob, or find another Uncle Fyodor, or hear from her family that they were at last coming. She wrote letter after letter home, telling her mother where to find her, then telling her, no, stay where you are because I will come to you, and then going back to her original plan.

Her idea to go back to Russia was stymied by her own fears. She learned of Lenin’s death. She knew what any change of leadership meant—death, fear, violence. She could not go back now, not until things settled again, until tempers cooled. Where would mother and father have hidden? Or would they have made some bargain with the revolutionaries? Father was good at bargaining. That was the fate she’d settled on, with her strong, capable father giving up land and houses, offering to supply his guidance as the young leaders took over the new duties of governing. Surely they would have seen how valuable his talents were. Surely that would have saved them. She became ever closer to some in the little congregation, especially a woman her age, Ludmilla. Beautiful porcelain skin, dark hair, blue eyes. Cheerful and fun.

She liked Ludmilla so much that she confessed to her one day her royal background and her desire to return home for her parents. She confided her hope that her parents still lived and prospered, they with their important skills, they would surely be necessary in the new Russia.

And instead of sympathy, she received…cold shock. “You!” Ludmilla said, pointing a shaking finger at her. “You, all of you! You killed my Ivan, my Dmitri, my Sasha!” she cried, rattling off names she’d never mentioned before. Names, Alexia discovered as Ludmilla rambled on, of the girl’s brothers and father and beloved fiancé. They’d been killed by the Tsar’s soldiers in a courtyard, with nothing to defend themselves but broomsticks and shovels, Ludmilla screamed. And screamed. A wail so intense, so frightening, that Alexia knew she would act on it. Deport her, perhaps—telling American authorities she was here without proper documents? Alexia was never sure if Uncle Fyodor had handled all that correctly. Alert Russian authorities to come for her here in America? It was possible. Those murdering savages would roam to the ends of the earth to stamp out her line. And now, it was the Ludmillas of the world who controlled the guns, and she who had nothing but a broomstick.

She felt just as unsafe in her little Russian enclave as she had on the journey with Uncle Fyodor. And she knew she’d never go home.

 

Dear Mama,

How I long to hear from you. I can only imagine how difficult things must be. But you must know that I have a comfortable home here and will welcome you—all of you, even our cousins and distant aunts and uncles—once you find your way out of the country. I hope you’ve been safe and fed well, and that my brother and sister will remember me when we meet again. Please, try very hard to leave. You will love this land as much as Russia…

 

But, another storm blew in, not as fierce as previous ones, but big enough to rattle the windows of her little boardinghouse, to cause damage her landlord didn’t want to fix. So she kicked out her tenants, Alexia among them, and closed. Alexia hoped Ludmilla would assume she had perished in this latest rain.

Again, Alexia became a nomad, but this time she was grateful. No need to explain to Ludmilla why she would no longer show up at church. No need to tell anyone anything. She was safe in her anonymity.

It was at that time that she’d gone to the fortune teller. Ludmilla herself had recommended her, had claimed she’d helped her see a brighter future. Desperate for the same predictions, Alexia had visited her, as well, going into a dark closet of a room in the back of an apartment near the fish stalls. The place had reeked of rotting fish, and she’d nearly been sick. The woman had looked at her palms, had tsked and hemmed and hawed and finally said:

“You were born in storm. Storms will guide you. Love will find you in a storm.”

But the next wind blew her here. She’d cleaned the Jasperson estate for the weeks leading up to the storm because their regular maid had gone off to marry. Mr. Jasperson, Rose had informed her, was unsure whether to bring someone on full-time or to keep using her on an as-needed basis.

But Alexia, buffeted by so many winds by now that she was strong and bold, had told Rose that if Mr. Jasperson wanted to hire her, he had better do it soon because she had two other offers she was considering. Within the day, she’d gotten the job.

Of course, by then Mr. Jasperson had noticed her. He’d commented more than once on how pretty she was—her blond hair like wheat, he’d said, her figure like a sculpture, her bearing like royalty. He’d encouraged her to go swimming from the dock and had even paid for a swimsuit. He’d watched her, she knew. Puffing on a cigar, hand in his blue linen jacket pocket, clear brown eyes staring from a pale face framed by light brown hair now beginning to thin. He was nearly twenty years her senior, never married—rumors flew as to why that was so—a tycoon who’d made his money in “this and that.” As far as she could tell, he’d dabbled in anything that would make him money, from selling fine art to investing in films to opening hotels and running factories. Rose said most of his money had come from a factory selling kitchen gadgets, things you needed no matter what, Rose said, even when money was tight.

Mr. Jasperson was nicer than Rob, sweeter. He smiled more, for one. He loved to laugh. And he could sing. When he had friends over, he would often be at the piano while one of his guests played, and he would sing beautiful songs in foreign languages—Italian mostly, she recognized. And she knew they were opera arias, even if she didn’t know the names of the pieces or the operas themselves.

Once he sang in Russian—an awful accent, many mispronunciations—and she’d tried very hard not to giggle as she’d gone in and out of the room serving this and taking away that. He’d noticed. And afterward, after all the guests had gone, after Rose was abed and Jorge to his own home, he’d sat on the veranda in the sultry night and reached for her hand.

“You are of the Romanov family, are you not?” he’d whispered into the air, blowing smoke toward the sea. “Perhaps a distant relative?”

But she had learned when to speak and when not. So she’d said nothing. She’d thought of Ludmilla and wondered if word had carried here through some invisible communication, the telephone perhaps, or a wire, or even strangers delivering flowers and food.

He’d looked up at her, his eyes shining in the torchlight surrounding the patio. “You’re trembling. Don’t be afraid, Alexia. We’re both refugees, you and I. I can take care of you. Dear girl, marry me.” He’d been very merry that night, but in a forced way, drinking heavily, which was not his habit. Had someone broken his heart?

She’d remained still. And again, no words passed her lips. By this time in her life, she’d determined she wanted to marry again—but this time, for love. She didn’t care about material things as long as she was comfortable, as long as fear didn’t lurk by her door. She wanted love, the warm, embracing sunshine of it, everything that had been ripped from her when her uncle had ripped her from her bed to escape.

So she said nothing to this man, wondering what she should do. She pondered running away. But then she thought: he wants you, Alexia, so give yourself to him. You’ve done it before with a man you didn’t love. And then you can still wait for the man who will marry you and you will love. The one who will come with the storm.

On another warm night—the nights in Florida were always so warm, so snug and hot, sometimes unbearably so—she’d been bold. She’d slipped into his bed, under cool satin sheets, and she’d waited for him, waited to give herself to him.

When he’d come in and seen her, in the shadows, not turning a single light on, when he’d seen her in the blue moonlight, he’d inhaled sharply and said, in a shaking voice: “You think this is what I want?”

And he’d made love to her, but it had been a task, an act not of love for her as much as gentle pity. She’d seen on his eyelashes the crystal drops of tears when she’d left his bed, and she’d been red-faced with embarrassment for weeks after until he finally put her mind at ease.

“Come, sit,” he had said after breakfast out there on that veranda, with warm, silky breezes coating the air with the salty taste of the ocean. She’d looked to and fro, and he’d assured her Rose was in the kitchen and wouldn’t disturb them.

“It saddened me to get crossways with you,” he’d begun, looking into her eyes with such concern she feared he’d cry again. “I didn’t mean for you to think that I expected…favors. So I will offer the proposal again along with this promise. If you agree to marry me, Alexia, I will accept that alone as your gift to me, along with any kindness and simple affection you can muster. I do not expect physical devotion but I would expect discretion. Don’t answer me now. And whatever your answer, your secret and employment are safe.”

That had been one year ago. And since then, she’d dusted and swum and lived in comfort in this house, in a small room off the kitchen. She’d done her job, she’d enjoyed his parties, his food, and she’d wondered how long she’d have to wait until a love came along, a love blown in by a storm. Would this be the one?

She’d wished she had someone to talk to about Mr. Jasperson, but she was afraid to confide in Rose and certainly wouldn’t divulge anything to Jorge, and she’d stopped going to church. She lived her quiet comfortable life, happy to feel secure on this raft floating in time, each second to the next, wondering… She had written to her mother, of course.

 

Dear Mama,

A very sweet man has asked for my hand in marriage. But I’ve not accepted, waiting now to hear from you. I do not think I love him. I do not know. I wait for a sign. If you came and met him, perhaps you could tell me what to do…

 

The pace picked up as the party time neared. Caterers arrived to work under Rose’s direction with the food, and a barman came to mix and serve drinks. A pianist sat at the baby grand and started playing. Alexia recognized him not as a hired help but as a friend of Mr. Jasperson’s, a man who was often about, sometimes staying over. She smiled at him, and he smiled back.

But as she moved silver trays of caviar and cheeses and fruits and cakes to this table or that, as she followed Rose’s instructions to turn on this light or turn off that one, as she tied back curtains and closed shutters, the storm built.

Sunset was now hidden behind the swarming clouds, and rain began to pelt the house and grounds as if someone were deliberately attacking them with barrels of water. The phone rang again and again, and finally, after only a half dozen guests had arrived, Mr. Jasperson himself came into the parlor, dressed in such a dapper way, as always, in pure white linen, a little wrinkled from the damp, but smelling clean and bright, a soft blue shirt and matching handkerchief in his pocket. He looked around and said to no one in particular, “I’m afraid this is it for the duration, darlings. Everyone else is too cowardly to strike out.”

That seemed to make things merrier, however. And once his announcement was out of the way, the pianist struck up a rousing tune, all banging and fast syncopations, and a couple danced.

She remembered to change into her good uniform, and was pleased to see him smile at her when she reentered the parlor in black and lace, a fresh cap pinned to her hair. Someone wondered if they should turn on a radio to hear weather reports, but Mr. Jasperson said there was no point to that since they weren’t about to escape the weather, were they?

With so few to tend to, he insisted that the servants indulge themselves, as well, so Rose and Alexia and Jorge, as well as the catering and bar staff, all joined in a champagne toast to the “twilight” and were told to eat their fill.

It was near midnight when the mood changed from frivolity to apprehension. So fast was the transition that she realized it had only been a veneer of jollity that had coated the night prior to this moment, with the looming fear just below. The lights went out, and then there was a deafening crash and glass splintering. They all ran to the veranda to see that a chaise longue had been thrown by the wind into a window. But if this weren’t foreboding enough, they also saw that one of Mr. Jasperson’s neighbors had lost his roof—or part of it. The section facing the ocean had peeled away, and slate pieces were blowing round and round in a vortex overhead, as if called upward by an unseen wizard’s hands.

Mr. Jasperson hurried through the wind and rain to the neighbors’ place before anyone could stop him, and a few moments later, he returned, drenched and rumpled but with the elderly couple who lived next door under his wing.

“This place is a bit sturdier,” he said in explanation to the surrounding crowd.

And Alexia wondered: Do I love him after all, this hero?

The party was over, or at least the devil-may-care part of it. They still rallied as one, but this time with boards and nails, sealing up windows to keep shattering glass away, and Rose was told to fetch candles and kerosene lamps for the parlor. Once Rose and Alexia had a comfortable glow going, Mr. Jasperson proceeded with more announcements.

“No one is going home until this passes,” he said calmly. “And we’ll all huddle together here, in this room. Food is plentiful. Drink in abundance. And my library is available to all,” he said, gesturing to the many bookcases surrounding the walls. His voice almost demanded calm, and she knew everyone took some measure of comfort from it. He’d changed into a dry jacket and still looked every bit as stunning as he usually did. Alexia’s admiration grew.

His friend sat at the piano again, this time playing softer, sweeter melodies aiming to soothe, Alexia thought. Others relaxed on couches and chairs. Some read, some dozed. But a fretful unease settled on them, and it reminded her of the times on her journey when she’d wondered when it would be over. Even if it were a horrible ending, an ending seemed preferable to the waiting.

As she watched Mr. Jasperson, Alexia realized two things: she’d never uttered his first name, and she loved him. He was so strong, so gentle, so capable and honest and good. And he’d asked to marry her. How foolish she’d been to demur! She could hardly wait to give him her answer now, but he never seemed to be alone. Her heart was bursting with the realization, and she wanted desperately to share it with him, the object of her attention. The fortune teller had been right: the storm had blown in her love.

***

About three in the morning, when the clock tolled its gentle score once again, she thought she finally had her chance. Most were sleeping. The winds seemed to be abating. The night watch would soon give way to the hope of daybreak.

Alexia awoke from a light slumber, shaking free of a shawl someone had placed on her shoulders as she’d slouched in a chair in the far corner. Perhaps he had put it there, looking out for her as he’d always done. She rose on rabbit-quiet feet and glided through the room of sleeping souls, searching, letting her eyes adjust to the dim light of one kerosene lantern in the middle of the table.

She didn’t see him, but she heard him, humming, in the next room. The veranda! Of course, he would be there, facing the storm boldly, fearlessly, a centurion guarding his charges.

She hurried to the door, and yes, he was there. He was still now, hands in his pockets, staring at the churning sea and buffeting rain. Her heart pounded as she started to take one last step, a ballet dancer ready to leap to center stage, to take her place in the spotlight, where she’d always belonged.

But then…another guest intruded, coming from a chair, languorously rising, like the dawn itself. She recognized him. His pianist friend, a bit younger, and sadder, a man who’d always seemed to her to be stealing some of Mr. Jasperson’s cheer, warming himself by it. And he crossed to him, placing his hand on his arm.

“Paul,” he said – Paul! That was his name! Paul Jasperson. She’d heard him called that, of course, but she’d never said it. She mouthed it in the night air. Paul. “I can’t delay. My train leaves in the morning. At least, I assume it’s still a go.”

“I know.” Mr. Jasperson—Paul—straightened, as if this were a blow. And she realized this party had been a going-away fete for the guest, his friend.

“I…wish….” Paul said, and his voice was so slow and mournful, each word its own universe, that Alexia felt a catch in her throat, as if she were saying the words.

I… wish. They were filled with all the longing she herself had always felt, the hope and fear and body-twisting ache of yearning for love and home. I wish, Mama, that you would write back. I wish you could be here with me to share this wondrous land, to see what I have seen, to hear and taste…

“I wish you didn’t have to go,” he said, and swallowed.

Yes, oh, yes, how she hadn’t wanted to go. She’d wished she could have stayed with her family. She’d wished the world in its storms didn’t rupture and break and shatter things. That tenderness was valued, that even enemies could stand in awe of it and leave it be, a thing as delicate and beautiful as the orchids Mr. Jasperson loved.

And then, to Alexia’s astonishment, the two men embraced, and she felt, hidden just beyond the sheer curtains, envious, wishing it was her enjoying that moment of purest affection, of strength and…passion.

“What will you do?” the man asked Paul.

He shrugged. “Live.”

The other man laughed bitterly. “Is it living to be without me?” When Paul didn’t answer, he went on, his words cutting her. “Like that little Russian princess, you mean? Pretending? For God’s sake, Paul, we might not be able to live in the open, but we can live together.”

At that, Paul’s head turned, and she could see his eyes shine in the light. After a pause, he said. “Don’t make fun of her. She still thinks…she’ll find them.”

“Good god, man. You still waste postage on her letters?”

“Every single one,” Paul responded.

“Letters to the void.”

“Maybe.” He paused again. “I like to think of them as prayers. I can’t and won’t stand in their way.”

Eternity passed.

Dear Mama, she saw herself writing, I thought you were still alive. I thought…this man loved me, body and soul. Oh, Mama…

Her fist flew to her mouth to choke the sob that gathered there. Who knew this secret she’d cherished? Who’d given it away? Who’d betrayed her, embarrassed her, humiliated her?

She swayed with the acceptance of this truth, the breath knocked from her chest.

She stayed until they left the veranda, leaning against the wall, sliding slowly down until she crouched, as if hiding.

She was hiding. She’d been hiding all these years, first from the Bolsheviks, then from the Ludmillas, and always from the truth.

She swallowed a thousand tears. She lived a thousand lives. She wondered how her family had died and hoped it had been quick. She thought of Paul knowing…and knowing she’d refused to believe they were gone, and how he’d protected her from that. Prayers, he’d said. What had she prayed for in those letters?

And then she crept outside and lay on one of the chaise longues herself, as still as she had been when uncle Fyodor was dying, living in each second so as to forestall the worse thing yet to come in the next second, floating once more on that barque between unknowables, exhausted from the effort not to see what was ahead.

The air calmed. The day began to break, a thin pink ribbon of a saving battalion of light come to rescue them from the armies of the dark, raging night.

Her eyelids fluttered, she dozed again and then woke in full sunlight.

Mr. Jasperson stood by her chair.

They’ve all gone home,” he said to her. And he offered her his hand.

You and I are refugees, he’d said.

She looked into his eyes as she stood.

She was of royal lineage. They often married with no love.

And maybe this was a different form of love, after all. His heart and body would never belong to her. Great pity for him swamped her, and she wanted to protect him with the gentle sweetness he’d shown to her. They could cling to each other, refugees, on their raft of pure tenderness. Perhaps that had been her prayer, to find a fellow exile like him.

Yes, she said to him in Russian, I will marry you. I will keep your secret if you keep mine.

He understood…something…he smiled, whispered her name, and kissed her hand.

About this story: This is the final story in a three-tale book, From Here, available on Amazon, written under the name Elizabeth Malin. I was inspired to write this story after reading of where some Russian royalty ended up when escaping the revolution. I was surprised that some landed in Florida. That lit the spark for me as Alexia came to life in my mind.

Libby Sternberg’s book of sin and redemption, Fall from Grace, will be released by Bancroft Press September 2017.

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More favorite stories with faith elements

Not too long ago, I shared my thoughts on my favorite novels with faith elements: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, and Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. That post is here. 

Let me add to that list, and include a movie we recently watched.

First, the novels:

MV5BMTgzODAwMTUyMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDY5NTQyNw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1254,1000_AL_An omission from my February list is Kathryn Hulme’s wonderful novel The Nun’s Story, which is, of course (considering its topic) drenched in faith. I’ve reviewed this book on my blog before (the post is here) so I’ll summarize the reasons I love this novel. First, it provides you with fascinating details of the life of nuns living in strict communion with each other and God. But second, it contains a story of a woman’s struggle with how best to live her life as she thinks God wishes her to lead it. And what a struggle it is. The protagonist, Sister Luke, has a keen intellect and desire to serve those less fortunate. But she finds herself called on to suppress these abilities in the name of obedience to her order at times, and this creates an inner battle that resonates with those of us outside the walls of a convent. Hulme herself was not a nun, but her story seems to have been influenced greatly by the life of her dear friend, a Belgian woman who’d been a nun before World War II. The book was made into a movie that never fails to draw me in when I find it turning up on TCM, with Audrey Hepburn in the role of Sister Luke. Unfortunately for readers, seeing the excellent movie might be the only way to access the story. Literary rights to the novel have been hung up in confusion over who controls them. It’s hard to find copies of the book itself.

secondchanceloveMy list of favorites with faith elements also leads me to include a novel from the “inspirational” genre: Second Chance Love by Shannon Farrington. First, about this genre: inspirational novels meet certain bookseller requirements. They contain no cursing or euphemisms for cursing, no references to God except in respectful and faith-based ways, no salacious material or anything even close to it. They are clean stories that sometimes don’t even contain a lot of references to religion, but do carry an acknowledgment that the characters are Christian believers…or become them over the course of the story. Second Chance Love is a historical, set in the Civil War in Maryland, and while it tells a charming love tale about a widow and her late husband’s brother finding each other, it also contains fascinating history about what happened in Union states after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Maryland was one such state where people still owned slaves. To end this practice, the people of Maryland had to pass a law freeing the slaves there. Ms. Farrington’s handling of this contentious slice of history was well-done. I’ve reviewed the book before (here), and I recommend it as an example of how inspirationals can be interesting, good reads. The novel is a love story on two levels: between hero and heroine and between neighbors learning just what “loving one’s neighbor” requires of them.

large_large_kRKHK5fZ06W5GglemFAcfTJO7k3Now, on to movies: I’m including this category because my husband and I finally got around to watching Risen this past weekend (appropriately, considering it was Easter weekend). The story is something of a procedural mystery as Roman tribune Clavius (Ralph Fiennes) is tasked with finding out what happened to Jesus’ body after his crucifixion — in order to prove he did not rise from the dead, as his followers claim. Clavius interviews apostles, Mary Magdalene, the guards at the tomb, all with a world-weary attitude that telegraphs his desire to move on to his next assignment or…more appealing to him…some peace. He finds the latter at his search’s end. Some critics have said this movie preaches to the converted, but even so, it’s powerful as it shows just why the disciples were so afraid after the crucifixion and makes the Easter story come alive. It might not appeal to nonChristians, but it beautifully illuminates the great story of Christian belief for those who have heard it countless times.

Libby Sternberg’s novel Fall from Grace will be released by Bancroft Press September 1, 2017. If you’d like a chance at receiving a free ARC (Advance Reader’s Copy), comment below and be sure to include your email address! She will choose one US commenter at random by Monday, April 24.

 

 

 

 

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No April Fool’s Joke: FREE “After the War” and Extra Chapter!

It’s free, it’s free — again! I’m offering a two-day giveaway at Amazon Kindle of my 1955 family saga After the War. Mark your calendar and download it, Friday, March 31 and Saturday, April 1. 

And, if you’ve already downloaded and read this book, here’s an extra: I’ve penned an extra chapter for it that tells you what happens to some of the characters in the book more than ten years later! If you’d like a copy of this chapter, just email me at Libby488 (at) yahoo (dot) com, and put “extra chapter ATW” in the subject. I’ll send as a PDF!

After_the_War_Cover_for_KindleHere’s what’s new with this book: I redid the cover, and I tweaked the prose a bit, getting rid of a few phrases here and there that were either repetitious or clunky. Let me tell you, it’s a humbling experience to reread one’s work after it’s been published. Ask any author. We cringe when we crack open the spine of an ARC (advance reader copy) to proofread one last time before printing.

I’m excited to offer this book for free again because it has something in common with my new release coming out this fall, Fall from Grace (Bancroft Press, September 2017). While After the War is a historical and Fall from Grace a contemporary, they both share faith elements, where religious faith plays an integral part of the story, motivating characters to do both good and…not so good things.

So, get crackin’! Head on over to Amazon on the free dates (March 31 and April 1) and get your free Kindle editions of After the War. When you’re finished, email me for the extra chapter!

 

 

 

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FREE for a short time: After the War

Three and a half years ago, I self-published the novel After the War. You can download it to your Kindle for a short time for free. Go here to grab a copy.

After the War was the first story I’d ever thought of writing. It just took me years–a decade?–and many published books to get this first tale into print.

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Maybe the new cover? Maybe not?

I’m offering it for free for several reasons: first, I hope readers will grab it, read it, like it and post a review; second, I’m getting ready to redo its cover and even go through the novel to see if I want to make any refinements, so think of this as a going-out-of-print (temporarily) sale; and third, it is a story with faith elements, and I’m getting ready to have another book with faith elements, Fall From Grace, released this fall by Bancroft Press.

The faith elements in After the War center on the characters of Margaret, a nun, and her sister-in-law, Paula–their struggles with religious rules and with love, both Christian and romantic, ten years after the end of World War II. Margaret (Sister Francis Marie) suffers a nervous breakdown that puts her in the psychiatric wing of Johns Hopkins, while Paula looks for ways to start pre-baptismal counseling so she can convert to Catholicism before her husband discovers she’s not Catholic, after all.

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Maybe the new cover? Maybe not?

When I first wrote After the War, I had a different title in mind: The Conversion of Paula. Pretty clever, huh? Luckily, I dropped that and focused instead on a simpler title: Margaret. That changed, too.

As I pondered how to tell you more about the story, I thought maybe just sharing my note to readers at the end of it would sum it all up best. I’ve added a few details to help explain the story and left out some spoilers. After you read it, let me know which cover design you like best. Thanks in advance!

Dear Reader,

When I first penned this story, it focused exclusively on Paula and Margaret, two women whose approach to life and whose histories were almost direct opposites. Paula, despite her good upbringing, was to be a Mary Magdalene character, while Sister was something of a zealot for whom faith and religion meant rigid adherence to a set of rules. I wanted the book to be an exploration of their approach to faith, Paula’s springing from a desire to be loved and love in return, and Margaret’s coming from a desire to feel safe.

But as I wrote it and rewrote it—I started it years ago and returned to it over time—other characters called out to me to tell their stories. The nurse Kate, who ministers to Sister in Hopkins, for example, had always been a part of my tale but way in the background, her struggle with what to do with her life after accepting widowhood playing out only in relation to Sister Francis Marie’s travails.

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The old cover: I’m not sure the nun picture works so well.

Dr. Kaplan’s point of view as Sister’s psychiatrist hadn’t been in early iterations of the novel, and Father Al, the priest whom Paula consults with, hadn’t made an appearance at all.

As I included more about Kate, however, I realized I had to share more about Dr. Kaplan. And I also realized I couldn’t very well write a book that touched on faith issues and not include something about the priest to whom Paula goes for baptismal instruction.

This is when the book’s overarching theme deepened and diverged from my original goal. My initial objective, in fact, became less attainable for me as I realized I didn’t want to write a theological discussion on faith and certainly didn’t feel qualified to pen one even if my inclination was there. I wanted to show how ordinary people dealt with the doubts and assumptions about their faith, if they had any at all. I wanted to show them wrestling with their beliefs as many do today.

Each had had their faith tested, in large and small ways. But in some way, each test was related to…the war.

All the characters had, in some significant way, been affected by the war. As I wrote their stories, the book became about that effect and their reactions, their accommodations to life after the war. Intertwined is the story of faith, but binding it all together is that “after the war” theme.

When I realized this was what I was writing, I thought, “of course.” As a Baby Boomer, I grew up in the late 1950s and 1960s. World War II was still a tangible event, still something that hung over my parents’ lives and that of my friends’ parents, as well. My father’s army uniform (he served in the Philippines after the bombs were dropped) hung in our basement. He’d met my mother when he was stationed at a camp near her Indiana home. My friends’ fathers had served, some in combat. I often felt, in fact, that those years were like a long, warm summer after a bitter cold—and deadly—winter. I might not have experienced the war, but I lived through the collective sigh of relief afterward.

So the “after the war” theme felt natural and real to me, as much a part of this story as Paula’s struggles with love or Margaret’s wrestling with her vocation.

A few words about Margaret’s convent life: I researched the life of nuns in various convents as I wrote this story, and I’m very grateful to Sister Ann Marie Slavin, OSF, for her insights and help. My research provided me with bits and pieces of the convent life in which I wanted to place Margaret. But the Order of Sisters in my novel, as well as their specific Rule, is entirely fictional, and not based on any particular convent or its Rule.

Libby Sternberg

So, that’s the story! I hope you pick up a free copy and enjoy this story, the first one I ever contemplated writing.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

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Favorite novels with faith elements

The Wall Street Journal’s Saturday book review section (which is excellent, by the way) runs a regular feature called “Five Best,” five one-paragraph reviews of books that aren’t new releases, all on one theme, chosen by a writer who might have a book coming out (or just released) that touches on the theme. For example, today, February 18th’s theme is “novels of political protest.”

I always enjoy that column and have ripped it out more than once to save for later book purchases.

Because I have a novel coming out this fall that deals with religious faith (Fall from Grace, Bancroft Press — you can read more about it here), I’ve been thinking of what I’d include in a list of favorite novels with faith elements. Here are three, for a start:

The first, and most recent, one that comes to mind is Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead (2004). Like all the novels on my list, I’ve read this more than once, and it never fails to move me. Set in 1956 at the end of Rev. John Ames’s life, it consists of a letter he writes to his young son to explain his family, his history, his relationship with God. The climactic moment of this novel is a quiet scene that creeps up on you as you realize that you, too, might have had moments of singular grace such as this, but hectic schedules and the duties of daily living could keep you from recognizing them. One of the most profound scenes in the book, though, occurs fairly early in the story when John relates a tale of his abolitionist preacher grandfather being confronted by his son (the narrator’s father) about his activities. “I remember when you walked to the pulpit in that shot-up, bloody shirt with that pistol in your belt,” the father says, “And I had a thought as powerful and clear as any revelation. And it was, This has nothing to do with Jesus. Nothing. Nothing…” Keep in mind that the grandfather was on the right side of the Civil War battle, yet his son justifiably chastises him for using his pulpit to push for war.

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1944) has been a go-to for john_15_12_love_one_another_poster-rac0d4c53566348458f59796e03c63b1a_au58_8byvr_512me over the years for quiet, even nostalgic introspection. You don’t have to be British to feel the bright sunny pre-war mood of the upper-class characters in this tale of an aristocratic Catholic family in Anglican England. Although I’ve reread the story many times, I still have trouble remembering plot points as the various Flyte family members marry, separate, marry again, and reconcile over the years. The climax is, as in Gilead, quiet, yet breathtaking in its impact as the estranged husband of Lady Marchmain returns to Brideshead to die and be reconciled with his faith.

J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey (1961) immediately appealed to me on the first reading, even though its characters were as removed from my own experience of life as the author’s most famous protagonist, Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye. Caulfield never grabbed my attention or sympathy, though, because he, with his upper-class New York wealth and advantages, seemed like, well, a spoiled ungrateful brat. But while both Franny and Zooey come from that same kind of background, they always appeared to me to be more humble about their place in life, more thankful. And Franny’s inner torment is universal. This book, originally two short stories printed in the New Yorker, is odd in that it consists mostly of long conversations between Franny and her brother Zooey, as he tries to coax her back to living when she suffers a breakdown of sorts as she confronts how empty her life is. While faith discussions are sprinkled throughout the novel, it is Zooey’s patient explanation of who an unattractive “Fat Lady” really was in their now-deceased brother Seymour’s life that lights up the tale: “And don’t you know — listen to me, now — don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”

Let me know your favorite novels with faith elements — I’d love to add to my list!

___

Fall from Grace by Libby Sternberg (Bancroft Press, Sept. 2017; ISBN: 9787-1-61088-205-7): When Eli Baine, son of celebrity evangelicals, is caught using a prostitution ring, he has to relearn early faith lessons to find his way back to family and true Christ-like love.

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Justice: A short story

“Justice” by Libby Sternberg

Five of us gathered around the holidays at a midtown restaurant. We’d met each other ten years ago at a conference and hit it off, getting together for drinks and meals during the three-day event, discovering we shared an outlook on life, something ill-defined, maybe just a general happy-warrior skepticism.

We were a mixed group of friends, some married, others not, two in arts-related fields, one a lawyer, myself a financial manager, a fifth an executive suite member of a large conglomerate. Not spring chickens—at least one of us was near retirement age, others creeping there.

Tina, the director of a small arts consortium, always played major domo for these holiday festivities. She’d put the first one together after discovering we were all living in the same city or near it—not New York, but cosmopolitan enough. We’d considered asking spouses, and actually did an evening get-together one year to accommodate their schedules. It had been a stilted party, and we’d happily gone back to the midday long lunch.

unknownTwinkle lights sparkled in nearby decorations. Real pine wreaths with bright red bows filled the eye, their brisk woodsy scent wafting our way when hurried waiters stirred the air. Music that harkened back to happy childhoods played.

We were on dessert and coffee and after-dinner drinks when Mark, the executive, told a story of estrangement, how his daughter was becoming more distant now that she was married, and how he thought it was karma because Mark himself had been less than affectionate with his own parents as they’d aged, and felt he’d not been with them enough at the end of their lives.

We all tsked over his harsh self-judgment, and offered consolation and suggestions for a deeper relationship with his daughter. We told him he deserved it.

We’d met at an affirmation conference, after all, one of those fads corporations got swept up in, team-building quality improvement practices and the like. The techniques had long lost their trendiness, or been absorbed into human resources tactics. Even if we’d mocked the proceedings at the time, we’d developed our own booster club of sorts with communication over the years, and these holiday gatherings.

Mark’s stories led to more, tales of people we knew who had reaped undeserved rewards and others who’d deserved success yet were denied it.

Tina, swirling a brandy and staring at the tablecloth, confessed to feelings of great jealousy about a writing acquaintance whose work Tina had edited—she was an aspiring novelist herself and had done some freelance editing on the side.

“She’s not a good storyteller,” Tina said slowly, her mouth twisted in that rueful smile of painful recognition. “And barely has command of language. I really helped her shape her first book. It sold—received critical acclaim, made the charts….”

We pressed her for the author’s name, but she wouldn’t divulge it, either out of integrity or fear, I don’t know.

Gary, the publishing house marketing director, patted her hand. “Five books. That’s the max she’ll get. I’ve seen how it works. Her editor will do what you did with the option clause book, and maybe the next one, and then the author will get full of herself, turn something in that’s so subpar the house might not want to publish it. But they’re invested in her, so they will…and she’ll fade from view.”

“Justice,” I remarked, giving a nod.

Mark, whose spirits were now buoyed by our words about his daughter, tapped the table. “So rare to see that happen, though, isn’t it? Real justice.”

That’s when Jonah, the oldest among us, a dashing man with white wavy hair who worked for one of the most prestigious law firms in town, spoke up, so softly and slowly that many of us at first didn’t realize, over the din of holiday cheer, that he was talking.

No, he wasn’t just talking. He was spinning a tale, and being in good spirits, I believe some—maybe all—of us thought he was telling one of those long, complicated jokes at first, the ones with deliciously sharp punch lines that required a good intellect to understand, so that when you laughed heartily at its ending you were also patting yourself on the back for being smart enough to get it. We happily anticipated that moment of self-congratulation.

But, no, he wasn’t telling a joke.

“I knew a man,” he was saying, “some of you would recognize his name. He was very successful, started in retail, in the executive suite, right after graduation. Father was on Wall Street. Fifth generation Harvard, then Wharton. All the right connections.”

We nodded our heads. We knew such men, and all of us started trying to guess who this fellow was as he continued, but Jonah, like Tina, kept his protagonist’s identity a secret.

“Affable guy,” Jonah said, snagging the waiter for another glass of wine. “Well liked.” He laughed. “The curse of being well liked—no one wants to bring you down!”

He finished the wine before him and set the empty aside, waiting for its replacement.

“You need to give him a name,” Tina said, lightness back in her voice, regret gone. “A pseudonym.”

Jonah grinned. “What do you suggest?”

“Bertrand,” Mark said.

“Poindexter,” I chimed in. I had a dislike of moneyed families with names like Poindexter in their genealogical charts.

“Roger,” Gary said with authority. “Nice, solid name for someone well-liked.” And so it was Roger.

“Roger became vice president of, well, something like…” And here he mentioned a national chain of upscale stores we all recognized. Was this where Roger had really worked? “Did very well. Or rather, the stores did well.”

“I love them! Shop there all the time,” Tina interrupted. “High quality, good prices, wonderful service.”

“Exactly,” Jonah concurred. “All true before our Roger took over. But he made the mistake of thinking these attributes were due to his hard work, that the stores’ successes were due to his marketing expertise.”

“Happens all the time,” Gary interjected. “Some new MBA comes onboard with shiny spreadsheets that illustrate what we’ve all been doing all along, and he thinks he’s the root cause of all that is good. My god, the number of times I’ve seen a new marketing manager do that—I usually avoid those meetings now. Have a ‘conflict’ on my schedule.”

“Yes, precisely,” Jonah repeated. “That was our Roger’s problem, too. Thinking he was inventing the wheel, and filled with pride when it rolled merrily along. Headhunters came after him, and he moved to, something like…” And here he named a specialty brand that was wildly successful in its niche with a creative CEO. We were impressed.

“As you can imagine, he did well there, too.”

“How could he not?” Tina asked. “That product sells itself.”

When Jonah’s wine arrived and he took a sip, Gary filled in the obvious. “Let me guess. Our Roger thought again that success was due to his great work.”

Jonah laughed. “Oh, yes, to his showing up when he did. If you recall, that company went through a great sales and stock spike. It coincided with young Roger’s arrival on the scene.”

“Are you now going to tell us that Roger was really a nincompoop?” I asked, eager to hear the denouement, the moment of justice, when failings are unveiled.

Jonah shook his head. “No, no. He wasn’t stupid. Just…misled. By unmerited opportunities. By good looks. By…oh, people being nice to him. He wasn’t an ogre. Nothing mean-spirited about him.”

“So, what next? He gets caught with his hand in the till? Goes to jail?” Tina asked, as if secretly taking notes for a mystery she would write.

“Nothing so dramatic,” Jonah said. “Well, not then, at least. He did quite well at his job and moved to another, and this, too, was a case of being in the right place at the right time. An etailer on the cusp of making it big.” He held both hands up and shrugged, and we mentally filled in the story. More success, more rewards.

“All right, Jonah, you have to give us the payoff,” Gary groused. “Nice guy finishing first. Where’s the conflict?”

“Oh, be patient,” Jonah said good-naturedly. “Our poor hero finally met his match. He was lured to a department store that wasn’t doing well that needed a turnaround guy—”

“Oh, no,” I said, knowing where this was going. “Poor Roger. He thought those other successes…”

christmas24“Were all due to his smarts,” Jonah said. “But they weren’t. And he’d never had his mettle tested. Never had to be accountable for his mistakes. Because, god knows, he made them. Everyone does. But in his previous jobs, successes were carried in by the bushel, and mistakes were swept up in the dustbin. He didn’t know…” He trailed off, a faraway look coming to his eye.

Tina leaned in now, a detective on the case. “I think I know what department store chain we’re talking about here,” she said, and gave the name of one that had failed spectacularly many years ago, a hallowed name in retail that had gone under.

The story came back to us all, and we started tossing in the details, fast and furiously, telling the tale ourselves.

“…he wouldn’t wear the suits the store made. Kept a rack in his office to use for press conferences,” Mark said after snapping his fingers in remembrance.

“He fired a third of the staff,” Gary offered, “and redid the layout. My god, I remember going in one during that, and it was a mess. And staff…they bristled with resentment.”

Tina smiled. “I used to shop there regularly.” She laughed. “Thanks to him, I discovered other stores!”

I had my own memory, as well. “He was skewered in some business paper. A columnist speculated he was a mole for the competition.”

Jonah nodded to each remembrance. “He was using his experience at his other employers to build what he thought would be success. But, as you know, those other corporations had different…gestalts.”

We all nodded now, thinking to the brands, the specialty marketing of each of the man’s past employers. How easy it was for us to see the disaster looming. We shared our memories of that, too, of reading articles about the impending collapse of the company, of the stock nose-diving, of rancorous board meetings, scandalous revelations about sales numbers. It had played out over the course of just three years. And at the end of it…

“What happened to him?” I asked. No one had heard of the man’s fate, I was sure. I read the business papers regularly and didn’t remember a word about his after-collapse future. “Golden parachute, if I recall.”

Tina snorted and crossed her arms over her chest. “That’s hardly justice.” Yes, that was the original topic. Justice. Just rewards. Or punishments.

“He did well financially. No CEO doesn’t,” Jonah said, stating the obvious. “Might have ended the job in ignominy, being ousted by the board, excoriated in the press, but he had a multi-million-dollar severance deal, and he cashed out his stock before the company went belly up.”

“So,” said Mark indignantly, “where is the justice in this story? I thought we were sharing those kinds of things, not…just another one of these fat cat does well after ruining lives tales.”

“Rich guy becomes richer,” added Gary, “despite his failures.”

“Failures writ large,” Jonah said lowly. “So large that he disappeared. Word was he ran off, changed his identify. Wife divorced him—not much of a marriage really, as phony as his life had been, which he discovered when he began his descent. No children, thank goodness, to share the pain. Even with no pre-nup, he still made out well. Flew to one paradise after another, considered buying his own island. He had the money. Didn’t need for a thing. Couldn’t quite figure it out—how it had all gone south. And he was just waiting for a time to rebound. For a long time, he thought it was just wrong place, wrong time.”

“He’d experienced the opposite, so why not?” Gary asked, obviously liking the symmetry of the situation.

“But it…wore on him. That sense he’d messed up. He couldn’t avoid it. He started retracing his steps, so to speak, trying to figure out where he’d gone off course. Oh, he still thought he’d find that it wasn’t his fault, but…” Again, Jonah held out his hands, palms up. “And then, something pushed him outside of all he knew. He fell in love.”

Tina snorted again. So much for her romantic stories. “Oh, man, when are you going to get to the good part—where he loses his riches?”

Jonah laughed. “No, no, don’t rush me. He fell in love,” he repeated. “With a woman ten years younger and a world of experience away. A woman who…had shopped in that store.”

Now Tina groaned, joined shortly afterward by Gary. “So what? She found another store, no doubt.”

“Yes, yes, she did. But her sister had worked there. And she’d lost her job, of course, when the whole thing went under. And she was a single mom, one kid. And she ended up with a bad sort. He…well, he treated her badly.”

There was more to that. We could all see it in the way Jonah scowled, as if he didn’t want to mar the holiday mood, even a discussion of bad deeds, with something grimmer.

“Go on,” Tina nearly whispered. “Tell us about his big love.” She said it cynically, as if we were to soon learn this new love was just a fortune hunter. Yes, I believe we all thought that.

“He met her on a layover. One of his jaunts to some tropical getaway. She was a waitress in Miami. The usual thing, flirtation, banter, trying to score. But she was a different sort of girl. Oh, not that she played too hard to get. She was just…refreshing. Refreshingly honest. Not a bit of guile in her.” He looked at his drink. “She knew he had money. He didn’t hide that. He liked to treat her. But she didn’t like to feel bought. She even had a long talk with him about it, about how she had to work hard to resist that part of his ‘charm’ because, if she was honest with herself, she knew it was a draw, to know that he could provide for her. Everyone likes to feel cared for, she told him.”

“So, what happened? With the bad sort she ended up with?” Mark asked.

“What?” Jonah looked confused, then clarity dawned. “Oh, no, not her. Her sister ended up with the bad sort.”

“She was the single mom?” Gary asked.

“Yes. She’s the one who’d lost her job. And when…Roger…found out, well, you can imagine. He was mortified. Should he confess who he was—”

“He used an alias?” Tina asked, sounding disgusted.

“No, not…then. She just didn’t follow corporate…shenanigans. She had no idea he was the CEO of the company that had led to her sister’s…problems.”

Disappointment fell on me as I thought I got it—an obvious ending. “So when did she figure it out? After she’d taken him for all he was worth?”

Jonah heaved a sigh and bit his lip. “Taken him for all he was worth. You mean money, of course.” He looked up, eyes watery, brow creased. “Justice would seem to require he lose everything, wouldn’t it?” No one spoke, but he knew we agreed. “He didn’t lose a penny. Not a single penny. She gave back everything he’d given her—every piece of jewelry, every diamond, sapphire, ruby and gold and silver. Every trinket, every piece of clothing. It cost her, too. She had it all packed up and shipped to him.”

“How did she find out?” Tina asked, again on a whisper, her fingers curled around her brandy.

“Her sister. She might not have followed business news, but her sister knew the name of the bastard who’d ruined her life. And she let Roger’s lover know. It was the last thing she told her.”

“The last thing?” Now Gary’s voice was the one low and hesitant.

“Before her criminal boyfriend killed her—the sister. Shot her in a drugged-up rampage.”

“No!” Both Mark and Tina voiced it at the same time, the word that was also on the tip of my tongue.

“He felt…he felt…as if he’d been the one pulling the trigger. That the sister had only taken up with the guy because she was hard up, after losing her job…”

A jumble of voices, Tina saying it wasn’t his fault, Gary concurring, Mark sympathizing, and I, I was agreeing with them all.

“Is that how it happened – the breakup?” I asked.

“Yes,” Jonah said. “No. I mean…yes, that was the final closing of the door. The night before that…that event… when she’d found out who he was, she’d refused his … proposal. He’d come to her that night wanting forever. She’d come wanting never.”

There was something in his tone, something timeless, something resigned, accepting.

“No hope at all? Never heard from her again?” I pursued.

He shook his head. “He tried to reach out to her. Couldn’t find her. She changed her number. Her job. He hired a PI…”

“Oh, man…” Tina.

“She wanted him never to find her.”

wpid-3120682842bb85936e64z“But he did.” Tina again, Tina the storyteller herself, who could pick up on the tone of a statement. I thought she was off, but Jonah’s face and then his words indicated it was true.

“The PI tracked her down. She was still in Florida. She met and married someone else within five years…”

“A poor but noble schoolteacher,” Mark said.

“No, a minister,” said Gary.

“Or a penniless writer,” Tina offered.

Jonah laughed, but there was no real joy in it. “A widowed father of three, owner of Pizelli’s,” he said, and we instantly inhaled, laughed with him. A very successful national pizza chain. “Good man, too, if you’ve read about him. Self-made. But no backwoods hick. Cultured, even plays piano. Came close to finaling in the amateur Van Cliburn…”

“Get out!” Tina said, unbelieving.

“Nope. All true. She did better than she would have with Roger. Married a real man of accomplishment. Was cared for, provided for, got an instant family—she’d wanted family, you see—and he even took in her nephew, since his mom was gone now. Last I heard, they were quite happy together.”

“But not Roger,” I said, now getting it. He’d not lost his fortune. He’d lost something dearer. His true love. “Did he marry?”

“No. He told himself he would. Had plenty of opportunities. And he didn’t go around making scenes pining for her, so it wasn’t a matter of no one measuring up…”

“But no one really did, did they?” Tina supplied the sad reality in her voice, one that recognized true romance.

“No, no one did.”

“Did he lose himself in drink?” Gary asked, looking for the obvious story answer.

“Nope. Became a success in another field. Respected. Even had an honorary degree bestowed on him. Still jets off to tropical paradises. Still has friends and family who love him. He’s a wiser man now, though, not so full of himself.”

“But he wasn’t really full of himself before,” Mark interjected. “I mean, from the way you tell it, he just didn’t know, he was just blind to his …inadequacies.”

“Yes, he was blind. And he had his eyes opened. Painfully. To how his failures rippled out to affect others. He was a careless man, he discovered. A thoughtless man. Not a cruel one. Just a thoughtless one.”

The restaurant was empty and hushed. Waiters were clearing tables and resetting them for the evening crowd. Light, yellow and dim, poured through the wide street level windows. Shoppers scurried by, hurrying to find Christmas bargains, last-minute gifts.

I studied Jonah. In the ten years we’d gotten together, he alone of our group was the most difficult to get to know. His background was…fuzzy. Although he was a lawyer, I was aware it was a second career, and he’d been sent to the conference where we’d originally met because he was one of the newer members of his firm, even though he was older than most of the lawyers on the masthead. He’d divulged that over drinks our first night.

He was affable, always willing to help if you needed it—he’d given Tina an introduction to the chair of her board, helping her land her job, and he’d done favors, big and small, for the rest of us we only found out about in passing.

But whenever I thought of him, I never imagined him as…happy. I thought of him as going through the motions, somehow, living a life that was required of him rather than one he had chosen. A life with friends. But no deep love.

I mentally conjured up the few pictures of the “Roger” in his story from the articles that had appeared at the time of the store chain’s failure. Yes, yes…the patrician profile, the thin lips, blue eyes…

He was Roger, there was no doubt about it. Did the others know? I looked at each one. Of course they did. But his secret, such as it was, was safe with us, a holiday gift of confession and atonement.

____

Libby Sternberg’s new novel, Fall from Grace, a tale of sin and redemption, will be available from Bancroft Press September 2017.

 

 

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