Paradise

By: Judith McNaught

Dedication


Anyone who is closely involved with me when I'm working on a novel could tell you that it requires certain things to maintain any sort of relationship-including incredible patience, extraordinary tolerance, and the ability to believe I'm actually working when I'm staring off into space.

This novel is dedicated to my family and friends who possess those traits in abundance and who have enriched my life beyond measure:

To my son, Clayton, and my daughter, Whitney, whose pride in me has been a tremendous source of pleasure.

And relief.

And to those very special people who offered their friendship and then had to bear more than their fair share of the burden of that friendship-especially Phyllis and Richard Ashley, Debbie and Craig Kiefer, Kathy and Lloyd Stansberry, and Cathy and Paul Waldner. I couldn't ask for a better "cheering section" than all of you.



Acknowledgments

To Robert Hyland, for a lifetime of enormous favors.

To attorney Lloyd Stansberry, for providing me with countless answers on the legal technicalities involved in this novel.

To the extraordinary department store executives across the nation who shared their time and expertise with me, and without whose assistance this novel could never have been written.





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 Oakland Memorial Hospital, 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;



McNaught, Judith: Paradise

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,"

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