Paradise (Second Opportunities 1) - Page 1

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  • Chapter 1

    December 1973

    With her scrapbook opened beside her on her canopied bed, Meredith Bancroft carefully cut out the picture from the Chicago Tribune. The caption read, Children of Chicago socialites, dressed as elves, participate in charity Christmas pageant at OaklandMemorialHospital, then it listed their names. Beneath the caption was a large picture of the "elves"—five boys and five girls, including Meredith—who were handing out presents to the kids in the children's ward. Standing off to the left, supervising the proceedings, was a handsome young man of eighteen, who the caption referred to as "Parker Reynolds III, son of Mr. and Mrs. Parker Reynolds of Kenilworth."

    Impartially, Meredith compared herself to the other girls in the elf costumes, wondering how they could manage to look leggy and curvy while she looked ... "Dumpy!" she pronounced with a pained grimace. "I look like a troll, not an elf!"

    It did not seem at all fair that the other girls who were fourteen, just a few small weeks older than she was, should look so wonderful while she looked like a flat-chested troll with braces. Her gaze shifted to her picture and she regretted again the streak of vanity that had caused her to take off her glasses for the photograph; without them she had a tendency to squint—just like she was doing in that awful picture. "Contact lenses would definitely help," she concluded. Her gaze switched to Parker's picture, and a dreamy smile drifted across her face as she clasped the newspaper clipping to what would have been her breasts if she had breasts, which she didn't. Not yet. At this rate, not ever.

    The door to her bedroom opened and Meredith hastily yanked the picture from her chest as the stout, sixty-year-old housekeeper came in to take her dinner tray away. "You didn't eat your dessert," Mrs. Ellis chided.

    "I'm fat, Mrs. Ellis," Meredith said. To prove it, she scrambled off the antique bed and marched over to the mirror above her dressing table. "Look at me," she said, pointing an accusing finger at her reflection. "I have no waistline!"

    "You have some baby fat there, that's all."

    "I don't have hips either. I look like a walking two-by-four. No wonder I have no friends—"

    Mrs. Ellis, who'd worked for the Bancrofts for less than a year, looked amazed. "You have no friends? Why not?"

    Desperately in need of someone to confide in, Meredith said, "I've only pretended that everything is fine at school. The truth is, it's terrible. I'm a ... a complete misfit. I've always been a misfit."

    "Well, I never! There must be something wrong with the children in your school...."

    "It isn't them, it's me, but I'm going to change," Meredith announced. "I've gone on a diet, and I want to do something with my hair. It's awful."

    "It's not awful!" Mrs. Ellis argued, looking at Meredith's shoulder-length pale blond hair and then her turquoise eyes. "You have striking eyes and very nice hair. Nice and thick and—"

    "Colorless."

    "Blond."

    Meredith stared stubbornly at the mirror, her mind magnifying the flaws that existed. "I'm almost five feet seven inches tall. It's a lucky thing I finally stopped growing before I became a giant! But I'm not hopeless, I realized that on Saturday."

    Mrs. Ellis's brows drew together in confusion. "What happened on Saturday to change your mind about yourself?"

    "Nothing earth-shattering," Meredith said. Something earth-shattering, she thought. Parker smiled at me at the Christmas pageant. He brought me a Coke without being asked. He told me to be sure and save a dance for him Saturday at the Eppingham party. Seventy-five years before, Parker's family had founded the large Chicago bank where Bancroft & Company's funds were deposited, and the friendship between the Bancrofts and Reynoldses had endured for generations. "Everything is going to change now, not just the way I look," Meredith continued happily as she turned away from the mirror. "I'm going to have a friend too! There's a new girl at school, and she doesn't know that no one else likes me. She's smart, like I am, and she called me tonight to ask me a homework question. She called me, and we talked about all sorts of things."

    "I did notice you never brought friends home from school," Mrs. Ellis said, wringing her hands in nervous dismay, "but I thought it was because you lived so far away."

    "No, it isn't that," Meredith said, flopping down onto the bed and staring self-consciously at her serviceable slippers that looked just like small replicas of the ones her father wore. Despite their wealth, Meredith's father had the liveliest respect for money; all of her clothing was of excellent quality and was purchased only when necessary, always with a stern eye toward durability. "I don't fit in, you see."

    "When I was a girl," Mrs. Ellis said with a sudden look of comprehension, "we were always a little leery of children who got good grades."

    "It's not just that," Meredith said wryly. "It's something besides the way I look and the grades I get that makes me a misfit. It's—all this," she said, and made a sweeping gesture that encompassed the large, rather austere room with its antique furniture, a room whose character resembled all the other forty-five rooms in the Bancroft estate. "Everyone thinks I'm completely weird because Father insists that Fenwick drive me to school."

    "What's wrong with that, may I ask?"

    "The other children walk or ride the school bus."

    "So?"

    "So they do not arrive in a chauffeur-driven Rolls!" Almost wistfully, Meredith added, "Their fathers are plumbers and accountants. One of them works for us at the store."

    Unable to argue with the logic of that, and unwilling to admit it was true, Mrs. Ellis said, "But this new girl in school—she doesn't find it odd that Fenwick drives you?"

    "No," Meredith said with a guilty chuckle that made her eyes glow with sudden liveliness behind her glasses, "because she thinks Fenwick is my father! I told her my father works for some rich people who own a big store."

    "You didn't!"

    "Yes, I did, and I—I'm not sorry. I should have spread that around school years ago, only I didn't want to lie."

    "But now you don't mind lying?" Mrs. Ellis said with a censorious look.

    "It isn't a lie, not entirely," Meredith said in an imploring voice. "Father explained it to me a long time ago. You see, Bancroft & Company is a corporation, and a corporation is actually owned by the stockholders. So you see, as president of Bancroft & Company, Father is—technically—employed by the stockholders. Do you understand?"