Things are good in Baltimore, Maryland in 1938. A lot better for some than others, but thankfully the worst of the Depression is over for everyone. And since the rumblings of war in Europe are an ocean away, American democracy, equality, and ‘justice for all’ are safe and secure. And on Thanksgiving Day two very different people meet. Juliana Corbeau is a near perfect example of blue-blood upbringing. She’s a debutant, heiress, and lives in the city’s most prestigious neighborhood. Will Stahl isn’t anything at all like Juliana. He’s a working-class immigrant’s son and lives in a rowhouse. Yet he too is a near perfect example, that of a first-generation American. He’s a scholarship law student who’s idealistic, ambitious, and anxious to make a difference in the world. Neither of them knew it the night they met, but their differences in social class would be the least of their problems. Their unlikely love story begins when Juliana is assaulted, or so it seemed, and Will rescues her. That chance meeting puts them on a path that shouldn’t have led anywhere, but does, and eventually they must confront not only the class distinctions and prejudices which separate them, but also a tragic miscarriage of justice, danger for family trapped in Nazi Germany, and a fateful Supreme Court decision. When the war finally reaches America at Pearl Harbor everything changes again, forcing them to make impossible choices about love, family, justice—and ultimately their very lives.
Wyman Park, Baltimore
(Thanksgiving Day, 1938, at Dusk)
It wasn’t the rustling from the trees on the hill that made Juliana turn her head, it was the suddenness of movement as the man ran out. He looked across the grassy opening to the trees on the other side, up to the crest of the hill, then down to her at the bottom. She took a startled step backward, away from him, and then another. He called out something she didn’t understand and began running her way. Another step back took her off the sidewalk into the softer grass of the Wyman Park Dell. The man was almost to her now.
She realized her danger too late and tried to turn away but the man, a colored man, reached out and took hold of her arms, talking frantically. She screamed, then fell backward. Still holding her arms the man fell too, on top of her, knocking the wind out of her.
At the crest of the hill Will Stahl had just finished helping an elderly woman into her taxi. As it drove away he looked across the street, past the broad steps and Greek columns of the Museum of Art, to the main entrance where the last few patrons were standing in a group. That’s when he heard the scream.
Juliana fought for breath while the man, who’d fallen clumsily, tried to untangle his legs from hers. His shoe scraped her silk-stockinged ankle and his cigarette breath filled her face. With his full weight on her she kept trying to breathe, and he kept talking. She saw his mouth moving, his nicotine-stained teeth and wild eyes, but understood nothing he said.
When Will heard the scream he turned, and in the fading twilight saw a man on the ground struggling with a woman under him. He yelled an alarm to the security guard at the door of the museum and took off down the hill. He jumped off the short stone wall that circles that part of the park and sprinted to them, grabbed the man’s shoulders, and threw him to the side.
Will took a quick glance at Juliana to see if she was hurt and saw that she was breathing, albeit shallow and fast. Looking back he saw her attacker running away until he jumped the stone wall on the far side of the park, ran past the rope swing Will had often used as a boy, then into the woods. He turned back to Juliana and knelt beside her.
“Are you okay, Miss?” Her eyes were closed, her chest rose and fell, but she was otherwise motionless.
“Can you hear me?” He took her hand in his. “Miss! Squeeze my hand if you can hear me.”
He looked her over and saw she was not a woman as he’d first thought, but a girl a few years younger than himself, maybe eighteen or so. Her silk dress was torn at the hem, and below the knee her ankle was bleeding. Her mink jacket was askew and twisted. He reached his free hand under her shoulder, raised her a little from the grass, and held her. After a moment Juliana squeezed his hand, then opened her eyes.
She looked at Will for the first time, and held his eyes for a long moment, looking through the gathering wetness in her own and searching for safety in his.
“Is he gone?”
“Yes. He ran away. He can’t hurt you now.”
Her eyes relaxed but not so her hand, which tightened on his. Her breathing deepened, and became gulps. Tears reached her cheeks and she struggled to keep her eyes focused on him.
“It’s okay, now. You’re safe,” he told her.
Juliana already felt that way, but was grateful to hear him say it. She pulled her hand, still held within his, onto her chest. “Thank you.”
Her eyes, which had seemed light brown to him at first, now seemed more coppery, closer to the color of her hair. She looked as though she wanted to say something else so he leaned closer.
But then he too was grabbed hard from behind, and jerked backward.
“What’s all this? What’re you doing to her?” The security guard had run to the parking lot and alerted the two policemen who’d been assigned to the invitation-only Thanksgiving Day Matisse exhibit.
“I’m not doing anything. A man attacked her. He ran away.” Will pointed where.
“How do I know it wasn’t you?” Will’s plain brown working-class suit looked ordinary and drab compared to Juliana’s tailored silk dress and mink jacket. “A boy like you doesn’t have any business with a girl like her.” He began to pull Will to his feet.
Juliana hadn’t yet realized it was the police and was again afraid, and this time for both of them. She held tight to his hand.
“Are you okay, Miss? Did this boy hurt you?”
Juliana looked past Will’s shoulder toward the voice and saw a policeman’s hat. “No. He helped me.” She looked to Will, then back to the policeman. “Leave him alone.”
The policeman, still suspicious, let go reluctantly. “Get up. Go stand over there.” He pointed where he wanted Will to go. Will shifted his feet but stayed where he was. The other officer reached out. “Here, Miss. Let me help you up. There’s a bench right over there. You can sit and catch your breath.” But Juliana looked to Will, and it was he who helped her up.
Both policemen began asking her questions, which she did her best to answer. Will stepped to the side as the four of them headed to the bench. As they walked he saw people at the top of the hill watching the scene unfolding below. The patrons who’d not yet left the exhibit, a taxi driver who’d been hoping for a fare, and the security guard. Also, oddly off to the side, was a group of teen boys.
Jeff Russell has two grown children, enjoys an eclectic variety of music, is part of a long-standing weekly poker game, and plays a vintage Martin guitar. He lives in Maryland. This is his first novel.