By Margery S. Stewart
Synopsis: Joanna, widowed when her children were small, courageously works into a profitable business selling Boston-baked beans and bakery goods. Her neighbor, Abigail Smith, as a partner, gives much hard work and good advice. Joanna, placing the welfare of her children first, buys a comfortable home from Kent Taylor, a writer, acting temporarily as a real estate agent. In order to attend a P.T.A. meeting, Joanna breaks a date with Kent before he leaves town. Joanna and Abigail open a number of new shops and Joanna finds her life enriched with many new friends and the abiding love of her children. Kent Taylor returns from an assignment in Europe and asks Joanna to marry him.
Abigail brought in the Monday breakfast of scrambled eggs and Sunday’s leftover rolls, toasted. She eyed Joanna’s unfinished orange juice, and guiltily Joanna drank it.
“You need it, all the gallivantin’ you’re doing. Wreck your health. That’s what you’ll do. Won’t be able to travel come Wednesday, be planesick.”
Joanna flushed. “I’m engaged, Abigail. An engaged woman doesn’t just sit in a corner and sew.”
Abigail nodded and passed salt and pepper to Joanna. “He certainly ain’t one to do his courtin’ in the front parlor. Doesn’t he believe in homes?”
Joanna ate her toast without butter. “He likes to go places, and he knows so many people. There’s only another two days until our wedding, then we’ll be out from under foot and you can run the house the way you want it.”
“And after your marriage will you be settlin’ down?”
“Why …” Joanna paused and stared into space. “I’ll settle down, until he gets back, and then I think I’ll never know what each day holds, Abigail. They’ll be like Christmas packages, a surprise in every one.” She lifted her fork and put it down. “That’s what it has been like for me, with Kent here. Christmas. Every day there have been silver and ribbons and holly and parties… by the way, we’re having an extra super party tomorrow night. Kent’s sister is giving it. You’re invited. I think I’ll get a new dress for it, a white dinner dress and high-heeled, gold slippers.”
Abigail snapped her fingers. “I knew there was something I had plumb forgot. Penny. She wants a new dress.”
Joanna lifted her brows. “I just bought her a wardrobe.”
Abigail looked pained. “If you would stop going through us as though we were smoke, you would find out something about your family … something like Penny is in love.”
“Penny? She’s a baby!”
Abigail said patiently, “Sixteen is no baby. The child drifts around like a zombie. Tom. Tom. That’s all I hear. She wants a black satin creation she saw downtown.”
“Black satin? At sixteen?”
Abigail patted her beautiful hair. “She’s afraid she’s not grown up enough. Thinks she needs some fixin’ up for this Tom person.”
Joanna rose and gathered up her dishes. “Bless the child. I know what I’ll do. I’ll call the school and tell them I want her to meet me downtown on important business. We’ll go shopping, Penny and I, for something really swishy and appropriate.”
It seemed to Joanna that everything that happened these days assumed a special importance. It meant a new tale to tell Kent, for his deep interest and his laughter. She told him about the shopping expedition.
“You should have been there, darling. It was funny. Penny, so grown-up and patient and tactful, trying to steer me into buying her an impossibly glamorous dress, and myself, being very young-point-of-view and patient and tactful, trying to steer her into buying something young and becoming.”
“Who won?” He reached for her hand.
Joanna chuckled ruefully. “A tie, I would say. She did get a simple dress, black velveteen with white collar and cuffs … and her first lipstick.”
Kent roared with laughter at Joanna’s dismay. “But she’s way behind most girls in the matter of lipstick.”
“This is the first time she’s wanted to be grown-up. Oh, Kent. It’s hard to let them go.”
He turned out to avoid a truck.” That’s what I’m here for. When your children have repaid you by going away … I’ll still be around. We two. Not lonely … not lonely, ever.”
She caught her breath and turned to him. “Let me look at you. Sometimes I can’t believe that we are going to be married. That I’m not going to walk all alone into the years ahead. Oh, Kent! I love you so.”
“Not as much as I love you. You’re all I have. You’re … my world.” He drew up before her house. “I’ll call for you tomorrow, around eight. My sister has taken the town apart for food and flowers … It’s going to be nice.”
“I can hardly wait.” She lifted her face for his kiss. “Tomorrow night, Kent.”
Joanna knocked for the third time on the bathroom door. “Penny, do hurry. I’m supposed to be ready by eight.”
Penny’s high, clear voice, “But Mother, I have to be ready by eight, too, and I can’t get my hair right.”
“Fix it in your room.”
A deep sigh of resignation. “Oh, all right, Mother.” The bathroom door opened and Penny came out. Joanna caught her breath. The lipstick had done something for Penny, taken her out of childhood, into the mysterious land where young girls live. The bright color brought out the beauty of the clear, childish skin, the brown eyes, the dark cloud of her hair swinging silkily on her shoulders.
Joanna felt a sudden shyness before this lovely stranger. She wished, fleetingly, that she could run back to the past and find again the little girl Penny. Sally, with her curly blonde hair and her big blue eyes, would be pretty, but she would never own her sister’s sweet, dark loveliness. Penny gave Joanna a brief hug in passing. “Oh, Mother, isn’t life simply magical?”
“I must see this paragon you’re dating,” Joanna said.
She rushed in and out of the tub and dressed swiftly. The white dress was the most becoming thing she had ever owned. She put on the gold slippers and went downstairs.
Penny whistled. “You lookout of this world, Mother.” She was sitting on the hassock, her slim hands clenching and unclenching on the velveteen skirt.
Joanna bit her lip. How well she remembered the pangs that went with a first date, the clammy feeling of inferiority. “Rest assured, Penny, you’ll look as swish as any of them. Where is the party to be held?”
“I don’t know. It’s just … a party, I guess. Mother, are you sure I don’t look babyish in this collar?”
A car stopped. Penny sprang to the window, her face flushing. “It’s Tom! Quick, Mother. How do I look? Is my hair right?” She did not wait for an answer but ran to the mirror above the little table in the hall. She opened the door on his ring.
Joanna sat very straight, trying to beat down the chuckles. I must look very friendly, she thought. The poor lad is probably in stitches of fright, too.
Penny brought the boy in, her eyes dwelt on him, soft with adoration. “Mother, this is Tom … Tom Nichols.”
“Oh!” Joanna felt as if she would be sick. She stared at the boy, his dark, curly hair, his clear, thickly lashed eyes, his clean young mouth. Incredible that this should be the drunken boy who had lurched into her at the “Green Lady.” The “Green Lady!” She had a swift vision of dancing girls … Penny’s age, and the smoke and the raucous laughter. But surely this was different.
She wet her lips. “Where do you plan to spend the night hours?” Flippant, not the frightened mother speaking.
The boy shrugged a gray tweed shoulder. “Here and there. The crowd has things planned.”
“I’ll run upstairs and get my coat.” Penny said. She had spent hours wondering if she should have it ready in the living room, or if it would look as if she didn’t really care whether she went or not, if she left it upstairs.
For a wild moment Joanna thought of fainting … of putting her hand to her heart and complaining of a sudden devastating pain. She said dully. “Wait a minute, Penny. I don’t believe you’ll need your coat.”
“Mother!” Penny came close, her eyes large with anxiety.
Tom stirred impatiently. “The gang is waiting for us, Penny.”
Joanna said dully, “They will have to wait. Penny cannot go.”
“Oh, Mother!” The young agony was like a knife hurled into her heart.
Joanna turned to Tom. “You see, I was with Kent Taylor, at the “Green Lady.” You were … well, intoxicated. I … I … can’t let Penny go to such places. She means too much to me.”
She saw Penny’s white, imploring face lifted to Tom’s. They were against her, youth, laughter, the sweet, hot call of adventure allied against her age and experience and her love.
Tom shuffled uneasily, “Aw, gosh, Mrs. Niels. We were just having fun. We didn’t mean anything. I promise not to touch anything tonight. What will the bunch say if I turn up without my date?”
“What will they say about me?” The cry was torn from Penny’s heart.
Joanna ran her fingers through her hair. What to do? If she sent Tom away, it would take years before Penny would trust her again. She might not bring her friends home, she might tell them to meet her elsewhere. It was obvious Penny was in love with the boy. First love, but real enough.
Joanna lifted her face.
Tom said, “Gee! I wouldn’t let anything happen to Penny.”
“I can’t let anything happen to her,” Joanna said and smiled. Suddenly she looked at them. “Listen, would the gang mind changing places to go? I mean, how would they like to come here? We’ve a brand new batch of records, we can roll up the rugs, and I’ll make you all a lunch you’ll never forget. What about it?”
They looked at each other, Tom and Penny. Joanna read their faces. They knew she would not let Penny go. To go without her meant loss of face to Tom. The only solution was to make the best of a bad bargain.
“We’ll stay. We’ll make the gang think we thought the idea up ourselves.”
Joanna was weak with relief. “Good for you! And by the time you get finished with one of our parties, you’ll not be able to wait for the next one.”
“Okay! I’ll run and get the others.” He grinned at Penny and patted her arm. “It’s all right,” he said.
The doorbell rang. Joanna turned to it. Kent. Kent! She went to the door and opened it.
His eyes deepened when he saw her. “Beautiful,” he said. “Are you ready, darling?”
“Kent … I can’t go.” She drew him with her into the kitchen and explained.
He waited patiently until she had finished, but she saw his eyes growing colder and the sharp lines that came when he was angry springing up on his forehead.
“Can’t you come with me, and let the youngsters have their own party?”
“No. No, Kent. I have to stay here … see that it is a success. A terrific success. So they will want to meet here, again and again. It has to be more fun than the ‘Green Lady,’ or any of those places.”
He slapped his hat against his side. “Second place. I’ll always take second place to the children. I’ll be glad when we are back East, so I can have you to myself for a while.”
Joanna straightened her shoulders. She felt bowed to the earth under the weight of this burden, and though Kent stood before her, she was already lonely, the chill of it on her heart. “I’m not going back East with you, Kent. I can’t leave Penny now.”
He dropped his hat and put his hands on her shoulders. He shook her. “Not going with me? What stupid thing is this? Of course you’re going with me! I need you.”
“Penny needs me.”
“You promised you would come.” He dropped his hands. “Joanna, you can’t give your life to your children. Your whole life. You have a right to happiness.”
Joanna said heavily, “Only if it doesn’t interfere with their lives. Oh, Kent, believe me, this is hard to say, but you don’t really need me, not as Penny does. There wouldn’t be a moment of peace for me. This is my job.”
He said savagely, “Your job! What pay will it give you? They’ll leave you, Joanna. Every one of them will leave you. Penny is going now. She’s running away into her own life. You can’t stop her.”
“No,” Joanna said. “I wouldn’t want to stop her. But I must help her into the kind of life that will be rich and rewarding. Oh, I’ve heard about interfering mothers. I’ve read that we have no right to interfere in our children’s lives, but I don’t believe it. Should I spend sixteen years perfecting a thing of beauty and then close my eyes while the world takes over? Did I leave her alone when she learned to walk, or did I help? She’s in love, Kent. To go away and leave her alone now would be like giving her a stick of dynamite to play with, hoping she wouldn’t find matches.”
Kent picked up his hat. He said wearily, “I can see that staying would be utterly useless, and talking even more so.” He looked about him. “A home. Well, I’ll be too busy fora home for a long time to come.”
Joanna watched him go, his head held arrogantly and high. Then she turned and went heavily upstairs. She took off the gold slippers and the white jersey gown and found a blue dress and an apron. Penny was waiting alone for the return of Tom and the gang.
Joanna went to her and held her close, feeling Penny stiffen against her.”It’s going to be all right, Penny. Believe me. It’s going to be all right.”