Holly Jacobs hit the off button on the little silver cell phone and sat back into the deep, black leather seat of the black stretch limo. Melancholy settled all through her spirit. Although Boston and her friend Rebecca Avery were just across the country, it felt like the moon would be closer. Rebecca and Emily Vasquez had gotten an apartment together for the summer. By the time Holly got back, it was likely she’d have to find a new roommate—if she did go back. That thought pulled her even lower. Her gaze fell to the expansive floorboards at her feet.
She hated leaving Boston for more reasons than she could name. Of course Boston had its rough patches too, but it was more home than any home she had ever known. Certainly more home than the one she was getting inexorably closer to right now.
Her gaze drifted out to the hills of green covering Napa Valley, California. Tears of unwanted frustration threatened, but she beat them back. She hadn’t been here two hours, and already she hated it. She didn’t belong here. The thought that she didn’t belong anywhere cut through her spirit like a sharp dagger.
The little phone beeped to life, dragging her away from the thoughts. She glanced down at it. With a sigh, she touched the on button and lifted it to her ear. “Hi, Mom.”
“Oh, Holly. Good. So you’ve landed then?”
There was no pause to let her answer, and she didn’t bother to try. She knew there wouldn’t be one.
“Listen, Luke will be at the mansion when you get here, so please try to make yourself presentable before you get here. I hope you’re not wearing jeans. Jeans are so tacky.”
Holly looked down at her butterfly jeans helplessly. Like there was anything she could do about that now.
“And do not bring in that tattered thing you call a purse either. Leave it in the car if you have to. Give it to Rio, the driver. We’ll get it later.”
The sigh said more than she’d been able to so far. “Fine, Mom. Anything else?”
“Yeah, be sure to put on some lip gloss. Not lipstick. Just gloss. We don’t want Luke to think you are a tramp or anything.”
No, that would be your department. Her mind had ways of betraying her at the most inopportune moments. But she said nothing.
“How long before you get here?”
Holly’s gaze slid to the vast expanses of emerald beyond. “I don’t know. I don’t really even know where we are. Everything is just hills of green.”
“Good. Then you can’t be more than 20 minutes out. Freshen up your makeup, and get yourself together. When you get here, I’ll be waiting upstairs. Ring the doorbell, and I’ll let Rosa get the door. That will give you a good entrance.”
“I’ll see you in a few. Be sure to freshen up.”
“Okay.” Ten more words, and Holly signed off. She didn’t want to, but she pulled the little compact out and checked her makeup. Her hair was a wreck, but then what did she expect after missing a flight and having three layovers in various venues from Boston to California? All she wanted was to find a nice, soft bed and sleep for a month.
Nonetheless, dutifully, she dotted the dark circles under her eyes with concealer. Fortunately she had left her small makeup bag in her purse. Her gaze chanced to her purse, and hurt filled her heart. It was a Christmas present from Rebecca the previous year. True, it wasn’t New York stylish, but it meant that someone cared enough to think about her when they didn’t really have to. Yes, transferring to Boston Central was the best decision of her life. Her mother still didn’t understand why she’d transferred—nor why she’d changed her major four times, but that was to be expected.
Her mother never understood. Mostly because she was too busy messing up her own life to get terribly involved in the details of her daughter’s. And now, her mother had hooked up with some rich wine grower from California.
Lovely. Just lovely. It was about as great as her life always turned out. She unclipped her long blonde hair from the back of her head and brushed through it. Thanks to sleeping on floors and in planes, the shoulder length locks hung ugly and flat. There wasn’t much doing to it. She ran her fingers through it once more. It wasn’t great, but it would have to do.
The car slid through the gates of the estate. The two-story Victorian stood stately at the top of the hill, couched in verdant green so lush it was possible it was painted on the ground rather than growing. Holly clutched her purse as her gaze traveled up, up, up the gray and dull rose façade. The grandeur of the place was overwhelming. Her mother had certainly done it this time.
Holly sighed wearily as her gaze dropped to her lap. She hadn’t wanted to come. By some miracle, she had gotten out of it at Spring Break, hoping that by summer this would all be a distant memory. But summer had shown up before the inevitable, and now here she was expected once again to be something she truly hated. More shows to put on to impress everyone so they didn’t get thrown out. More being someone she didn’t even want to know. More hearing from her mother how every single thing she did in life was wrong.
Joy. Joy. This summer should be the best one yet.
“Hey, look.” Timothy Delgado stopped his work to gaze up at the looming gray mansion which looked down on the little garden work shop from the hill above. “The ice princess has arrived.”
Gabriel Cabrales glanced up from his work on the lawn mower that was doing anything but cooperating. Mowing the lawn. It had sounded so easy three hours ago. He beat the edge of the mower with the hammer to dislodge the debris from underneath. “You ought to go up there and introduce yourself. I’m sure she’d love to meet you.”
“Yeah, kinda like her mother, the Wicked Witch of the West.” Timothy twisted a wrench around his finger—the motor he was supposed to be fixing forgotten. It was another of the chores Gabriel should have finished last week, and he would have if his father hadn’t fallen out of line three weeks before. Ever since the heart attack had sidelined his dad, Gabriel had taken over as foreman of the grounds crew. There were only three of them now, which did nothing to make the job easier. Nonetheless, foreman was a job he didn’t take lightly.
The clanging of the hammer on metal shook right through him. Still he hit it all the harder. The job, normally manageable, had morphed in the last two months into the worst job on the planet. It started when the Ice Queen showed up, and it had gone down hill from there. In fact, he was sure his father’s heart attack could be directly attributable to her arrival.
“Well, lookie what we have here.” Timothy leaned on the door of the work house which was shrouded by the vast trees towering above them.
Gabriel was positive Mr. Teracini had no idea the house could be seen so plainly from here. If he did, he would surely have constructed a concrete barrier to keep them out in the past four years since he had become the owner.
Timothy straightened, his eyes growing wide. “Wow. She may be an ice princess, but she sure is easy on the eyes.”
Wiping the grease and dirt from his hands, Gabriel joined his friend at the door. Although they were more than a 150 yards away, the sight whipped his breath from him. Clothed in a pure white flowing top, fitted and then flared jeans, the ice princess brushed the sun-kissed blonde hair from her angelic face. Of course she was beautiful. You had to be to fit in up there.
Disgust drained through him. “Come on, Delgado. Since this is as close as you’ll ever get to her, you might as well get some work done while you gawk.”
However, Timothy didn’t move even as Gabriel went back to the mower.
“They say she’s a debutant from Boston. I bet she has a boyfriend. You know one of those jerks who will kick dirt in your face just to show you he can.”
“Like it matters.” Gabriel hit the mower with a clang, and a chunk of dirt fell to the ground underneath. “Girls like that won’t give guys like us a second look—if they bother to give us a first look.” Exasperation over all the work they had to do and that he was the only one actually working overtook him. “Tim! That motor ain’t going to fix itself you know.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.” Timothy shook his head, but his gaze never left the blonde up the hill. “She sure is pretty.”
“Well, you’re going to be pretty broke if you don’t get to work. I’ll personally tell Mr. Teracini to dock you for looking at his new stepdaughter when you should be working.”
Timothy pushed away from the door. “Oh, boo-hoo. Why do you always have to be so work happy?”
“Because being work happy is the only way I’m ever going to graduate from being out here with the lawn mowers and you guys to being up there.” Gabriel nodded toward the mansion.
Tim’s laugh was sardonic. “You are such a dreamer. Gabriel and his dreams of owning the place one day.” Timothy bowed low. “It’s such an honor to be working with the future owner of Teracini Winery. Hey, Gabe, when you own the place, can I say I knew you when?”
The taunts crawled through Gabe’s gut. They didn’t believe him, but someday, he would be up there, on the top of that hill, in that mansion. He would show them all.
“Ms. Linda, Miss Holly has arrived,” Rose, the middle-aged Hispanic housekeeper, called up the steps.
Holly stood awkwardly in the entryway, fighting not to fidget. The stairs curled three steps one way, banked another six steps at an angle to the first ones and then disappeared up the opposite direction to the unseen floor above. The mahogany hardwood floor at her feet shown so brilliantly, the sun made it resemble a mirror. In the center of the entry a little table stood on a rose and cream circle rug. Topped with a white vase of flowers, the table shown with the same glow as the rest of the room.
“Holly, Darling.” Her mother swept down the stairs, floating more than walking. Dressed in a white silk pantsuit with white gauze trailing from her shoulder, she looked like a 40’s movie star making her grand entrance. “I’m so happy you made it.”
That should’ve been obvious. Holly shifted feet, not wanting to break her mother’s grand entrance but embarrassed by it just the same. “Hi, Mom.”
Her mother slid up to her, kissed first one cheek then the other. However, before she let her go, she whispered, “Call me ‘mother.’ It sounds better.”
“Oh.” The gasp was involuntary. Holly had to shake out of the shock to get more out. “How are you Mother?”
“Splendid. Come, let’s sit in the parlor.” Her mother linked her arm through Holly’s and turned her. “Rose, would you please tell Luke we’re in the sitting room?”
Rose bowed slightly. “Yes, Ma’am.”
Linda breathed in the statement. “Ma’am.” She ducked her head secretively to Holly. “Isn’t it wonderful? Oh, darling. I’ve fixed us for real this time. I mean look at this place. Isn’t it gorgeous? Oh, and look at the ring he gave me.” She held out her hand upon which sparkled an oval rock. “Isn’t it fabulous?”
There were so many questions Holly wanted to ask. She started with the most obvious one. “What happened with you and Dan?”
Horror coursed through her mother’s features. “Dan? What does he have to do with this?”
“Hello. You were married to him. Remember?”
Her mother waved a French manicured hand at her dismissively. “He was a rung I outgrew.”
The sitting room featured a fireplace, more mahogany furniture, and full rose-colored carpeting. They hadn’t made it to the wine-sheen couch when there was a noise behind them. The transformation of her mother’s turning was truly difficult to comprehend. She almost literally became a different person.
“Oh, Luke, darling. I’m so glad you could tear yourself away for a few minutes.” She spun Holly with her and presented her. “This is my beautiful daughter Holly Marie.”
Never, not one single time had Holly ever felt so much like a trophy.
“Well, Holly, it’s very nice to meet you.” Luke, a tall, handsome, dark-haired man in his early fifties bowed gallantly, taking her hand with him. He kissed it, completely grossing her out. When he straightened and let her go, she had to force herself not to wipe his kiss off her hand. “Please, please. Have a seat.”
Holly followed them to the little enclave and sat in the wing-backed chair. Luke and her mother sat right next to each other on the couch, and she tilted her gaze downward at the thought of Dan. How could her mother shift gears so quickly, seemingly never so much as looking back?
“So, tell me about school,” Luke said, laying his hand on her mother’s. The gesture made Holly sick, and his thick Italian accent wasn’t helping. He sounded as pompous and full of himself as he looked.
“Oh, I’m out for the summer.” She nodded for no real reason. The smile hurt. “Summer break.” The nodding was getting annoying even to her. She looked around. “Nice house.”
“Why thank you. It came with the estate when I moved from Italy.”
The comment gave her the opening to ask the question she’d been thinking since he’d first walked in. “So you’re not American then?”
“Holly!” Her mother’s sharp rebuke stabbed into her.
“No, no. It’s okay, Linda,” Luke said. “I have done business in the States for many years. In fact I’d been looking for a winery to buy for almost ten years. When this one came available, I jumped on it. I’m now a dual-citizen—Italy and the United States.”
How nice for you. Holly fought to restrain the words so they wouldn’t find the air. Her foot bounced as she searched for something else to say, but nothing was coming.
“Did you have a good trip?” Luke asked.
The look her mother turned on him yanked sarcasm from her. The only reason Linda was in the room was to show off her daughter to her fiancé and her fiancé to her daughter. The pretense was stifling.
“Oh, didn’t mom tell you?” Holly caught the look her mother shot her, but she continued just the same. “I missed the connection in Chicago, so I had to go through Dallas and then Albuquerque. That’s why I’m such a mess.”
Luke’s smile was hardly condemning. “You are anything but a mess, my dear. But you must be exhausted. Did Rio bring your bags in?”
“They’re at the front door.” Holly stood, and the two of them followed.
The nod Luke gave her held hardly any real movement. “I’ll call Yuri. He can take them up.”
Her mother raised her eyes to make sure Holly was suitably impressed. However, Holly’s head was starting to send nausea signals to her stomach. She wasn’t at all sure if it was because she was hungry, tired, or just sick of life.
Luke called for the maid who appeared almost immediately. “Rosa, will you call Yuri to take Holly’s bags up to the first guest room?” Luke turned to her as Rosa bowed and departed. “You will have a full bath, and a full suite to yourself. Enjoy. And if you need anything, please feel free to ask.”
How about a bag to throw up in? However, she simply nodded. He bowed as it seemed they all were wont to do and strode off down the hallway. The moment he was out of sight, her mother linked arms with her and squealed in a whisper.
“Isn’t he dreamy? Ugh. I knew the first time I saw him this was going to work.”
Holly removed her arm from her mother’s. “I’m shot, Mom. Can we talk about this later?”
With her usual flair, her mother looked at once frustrated and hurt.
It was a pattern Holly had learned long before. “No, Mom. We’ll talk. I promise.” She put her fingers into her hair which felt like a dry weed. “I’m just a mess right now.”
The shoulders slumped. “Fine.”
“So, how is it?” Rebecca asked over the phone.
Holly collapsed on the yellow daisy bed and sighed. Even the warm bath in the claw-foot bathtub hadn’t washed away the melancholy. “Wonderful. Isn’t it supposed to be wonderful? He’s rich. Mom’s in love. What’s not wonderful?”
Rebecca paused, clearly searching for something to say. “Did you talk to her about the job?”
“Huh. She was too busy showing off.” Holly rolled to her stomach and twined her feet behind her. “Man, I wish I was back in Boston with you guys.”
“You and me both. We’ll be praying for you, okay? Don’t let her get you down. This is your life. Remember? You get to choose now.”
If only it was that easy.
“Miss Holly.” The knock on her door brought her full up. “Dinner is being served.”
Holly spun to sitting in one motion. “Oops. Gotta go. Tell everyone hi for me.”
“Will do. And Holly, we’ll be praying.”
“Thanks.” She clicked the off button and let the phone drop to the bed. She was going to need more than prayers. Pushing up off the four poster bed, she traipsed to the door and down the stairs. At the entryway she listened and followed the noises to the formal dining room. Clearly the mahogany thing was a staple of this house. The mahogany furniture in the dining room was set off by celery green walls and gold decorations.
“Holly! Oh, my.” Her mother jumped up from the table in horror. In seconds she shoved Holly into the hallway. “What are you thinking? This isn’t proper attire for dinner.”
The proprietary tornado hit her so fast, she was taken totally off guard. She looked down at her clothes which were nothing out of the ordinary. Her nicest jeans and a fitted, purple top. It wasn’t like it was Las Vegas showroom material. “Proper…?”
Her mother leaned in menacingly. “First of all, you’re late and now you show up looking like trailer trash. What are you trying to do—ruin everything?”
“Linda?” Luke called from the dining room.
“Just a moment, Darling.” In hushed but urgent tones she targeted Holly. “Don’t you have anything but jeans and T-shirts?”
“You know what I mean. Now get up there and change, and do not let me see you in those again. You hear me?”
Beaten and defeated, Holly’s head fell. “Yeah.”
Her mother squared her shoulders and shook back her hair-sprayed stiff light brunette hair. “The answer is, ‘Yes, Ma’am.’”
What could she say as her shoulders slumped forward? “Yes, Ma’am.”
It was after ten when Gabriel pulled out of the front gate. The mowing was done by no small miracle. He shifted in the seat of the old, beaten up brown and gold Chevrolet pickup. His mind slid down the list of things to do until exhaustion took over even that. He let out a breath and ran his hand from his forehead to his chin.
His curly black hair was caked with dirt and grime. No wonder Timothy thought he was crazy. But Timothy didn’t know—not all of it anyway. As headlights went the other direction down the winding road, Gabriel fought to settle his surging spirit. It was crazy to tell them the things he knew deep inside, about the signs he’d received, about the things he had read. They wouldn’t understand. Worse, they would think he was insane. Sometimes he wondered if he was. How else could anyone explain the things he saw, the things he now understood almost as an instinct?
The pickup chugged into the driveway of the little house, and Gabe killed the engine. He slid out and made it all the way to the sink just inside the back door when he heard the shuffling.
“Gabriel, I thought you would be home hours ago.” His mother, a woman well into her sixties, hunched by the work load she had carried her entire life, appeared in the doorway. “Your supper is cold.”
Gabe grabbed the towel to dry his hands. “It’s okay, Mom. I can heat it up.” In very few steps he was at the microwave. That was one thing about a small house, there was only a modicum of stress getting from one room to the next. “Is Dad in bed already?”
He popped open the microwave and shoved the plate into it. Beep went the button.
“He’s supposed to go back next week, you know.”
“Yeah, I know.”
His mother spun her arms over themselves. “Do you think that’s a good idea?”
The whirring of the microwave gave way to another beep, and he took the food out. Without bothering to move more than to get a fork, he started eating. “Do you think it’s a good idea?”
She sighed. “You’ve seen him. He can barely get from the chair to the kitchen. How’s he supposed to run a whole operation?”
It was a good question, and in it he heard the unspoken plea. “Well, if he needs more time, I could talk to Mr. Teracini. We could probably handle it a while longer.”
This time she shook her head, and Gabriel was starting comprehend what she wasn’t saying.
“He’s just so weak, Gabriel. Not like he used to be.” She paused, soft dreaming touched her voice. “No, not like he used to be.” The dream snapped, and she looked up. “He’ll be 71 next month, you know. 71.”
Gabe tried to push the thoughts of his parents’ age away as much as possible. He was their surprise child, their one and only, conceived long after they had stopped trying because it was declared hopeless by every doctor they’d gone to. That’s why they’d named him Gabriel because Gabriel was the angel who had brought the good news of a child not only to Mary but to Elizabeth as well.
It was a story he had memorized. One that had always made him feel special, hand-picked, hand-sent. Yet now the lonely years ahead stared him in the face. At 24, he was hardly more than a teenager. The thought of losing one or both of his parents frightened him in ways that few things did, and he spent a good deal of energy trying not to think about it.
But there were times, like this one, that denial was not an option.
“Well, what’s the money situation if he does quit?” Somehow that question catapulted him into full-fledged adulthood.
Her faded green eyes, so much like his until age and wear had taken their toll, fell closed. “It’s not great. We’ve got some social security we can count on, but it’s not much. Of course the house is ours, but… well…” She shrugged. “I guess we’re lucky to have made it this long, but how are we going to live now? What will we do if he cannot work?” The gray covered head shook slowly. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
Careful not to make noise, Gabe set his plate on the stove, stepped to her, and put his arms around her. “It’s okay, Mom. We’ll figure something out.”
“I told you this was a good idea.”
It was barely 10:30, and already Holly was annoyed and frustrated. She’d spent most of the night either crying or trying not to, neither of which did much more than give her splitting headache. So it was with even less enthusiasm that she had agreed to this outing—shopping with her mother. Joy of joys.
“Oh, this is perfect for you.” Her mother held up a black dress that hung off the hanger from two thin straps.
Concern traced over Holly. “I don’t…”
The dress landed in her hands.
“At least try it on. It doesn’t hurt to try it on.” She scooted hangers this way and that. “Oh, here’s another one.”
For something to do, Holly looked down at the price tag and stopped cold. “Mom! We can’t afford something like this!” She glanced around the store lest someone see them and think they were considering shoplifting the items. They certainly couldn’t pay for them.
Her mother waved her off. “Don’t be silly. We’re not paying for it.”
Utter fear dropped over her, and she looked around for the arrival of the police. “Mom!”
“Oh, Holly, don’t be such a drama queen.” Her mother picked up another dress, surveyed it, and put it back. “I have Luke’s credit card. Here. Here’s another one.”
“Start with those. I’ll bring you some more if I find something.”
“But what?” The ice in her mother’s determined eyes froze her protests. “For Pete’s sake. Stop acting like a child. Get in there and try those on. We have a lot of other stores to get to, and I want to be home at a decent hour.”
“May I help you, Ma’am?” A model thin woman walked up. “Could I get you a dressing room for those?”
“Yes, please,” her mother replied, “and I’d like a Penigree, strawberry, on ice with a straw.”
There was truly no end to this nightmare.
“Mr. Teracini, Sir.” Gabriel knocked on the boss’s door. He’d already done as much of the not-terribly dirty tasks he could do, and before he jumped into the others, this one had to be taken care of.
Mr. Teracini waved him in even though he was on the phone. “Yes, Thursday. Okay. Thank you.” He hung up. “Gabriel, it’s nice to see you. How’s your father?”
His hands didn’t know what to do, and he fought to keep them settled in front of him. “Well, Sir, that’s what I came to speak with you about.”
“Please, have a seat.”
He didn’t want to for fear of getting dirt on something someone would have to clean; however, he also didn’t want to be rude. So he sat. He swallowed the lump lodged in his throat and plunged forward. “My father… Well, my mother is concerned. It seems Dad isn’t quite back to his old self quite yet.”
“I’m… I’m not a doctor, but the heart attack really knocked the blocks out from under him.” Gabe shuttered at the cliché as well as the thought. “I just… We’re not sure that he’s, you know, ready to come back full time yet. But…” He couldn’t continue. Asking seemed as perilous as not asking. “Well, to be honest they are pretty tight for money right now, and I was wondering if maybe Dad could come back. You know, on a part time basis or something.”
“Are you still planning to go back to school in the fall?”
The question smacked him hard. “Well, I was, but… Let’s just say I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
Mr. Teracini nodded, considering. “What does your father have to say about this?”
Gabriel’s gaze fell to his hands. “I haven’t really told him yet. I told my mom I would talk to you first.” He lifted his gaze, and pride alone kept it up. “I know it would be easier on you to hire someone else—maybe for both our jobs, but I also know that my father has served on this grounds crew for almost 50 years, and if there’s any way…”
A moment and Mr. Teracini nodded. “As long as your father needs a job, he has one on the Teracini Winery as do you.”
The news could hardly have been better. “Thank you, Sir.” He offered his hand hoping it wasn’t too dirty. “Really. This will be very comforting to them, I’m sure.”
Mr. Teracini smiled. “You’re quite welcome.”
In three minutes Gabriel was out of the house and headed to the work house. It was time to make sure Mr. Teracini didn’t regret his decision.
How they had collected so many bags in the span of five hours Holly had no idea. It was incredible how her mother could spend money that wasn’t even theirs. Water through a sieve came to mind.
“I’ll have Yuri bring the bags up to your room,” her mother said as the limo pulled up to the front of the house. “So you don’t have to trouble yourself with them.”
Trouble yourself? It was like her mother had taken lessons at an English finishing school since their last meeting. “Fine.”
“Oh, and tonight, wear that powder blue dress for dinner. Luke is sure to be impressed with it.”
The weights dropped atop her. “Fine.”
Eating was the last thing Holly wanted to do. She had never put this much makeup on for a date much less for dinner, and yet she did want her mother to be proud of her—or at least not disappointed. True, that was asking a lot, but living in la-la land, a girl could always dream.
When the knock came, she stood from the vanity. The strap heels wobbled under her feet. Her only thought was she hoped she didn’t face plant down the stairs. That would really impress her mother. Thankfully she made it to the dining room in one piece. Her mother looked up, and for one moment she looked almost happy her daughter was on the planet.
Luke followed her gaze and smiled as he stood. “Holly, you look lovely this evening.”
It was a compliment, and she felt it squirm through her. She hated being noticed. “Thank you.” She took her chair as Luke took his. At that moment she caught her mother’s gaze. Gesturing slightly, her mother motioned her up straight. Holly complied although her mother looked less than pleased with the effort. It was going to be a long meal.
“He said Dad can come back on part time, and that we’ll work around it,” Gabriel said to his mother as he stood in the kitchen, eating his supper.
“Work around what?” The booming voice at the door opposite the room jerked his attention to it.
He glanced at his mother for help but realized he was on his own. His father, once a towering giant of a man, was still an imposing spirit although his body wasn’t as intimidating as it had once been. Whether it was he had shrunk or Gabriel had grown, Gabe couldn’t tell. Slowly Gabriel set the plate down and cleared his throat.
“I went and talked with Mr. Teracini today. He wants you to come back part time when you’re ready.”
“Part time? Why part time? I was planning to go back on Monday.”
The deep end was getting deeper. Gabe chanced going out a little farther. “Yeah, I know, Dad, but with the summer coming and your condition…”
“My condition? I’m not dead.”
“Yes. And we’d like to keep it that way, Carlos,” his mother said quietly. Pleading entered her voice. “Please, listen to Gabe. He’s a smart boy. He only wants what’s best for you.”
The massive hands, leathered from years of working under the sun, wound under his arms. “Best for me? Like what—being put out to pasture?”
Gabe let out a frustrated sigh. “No, Dad. Come on. I just think you need to slow down a little, spend some time with Mom.”
“Your mother is plenty capable of seeing after herself.”
Honestly, Gabe wasn’t so sure about that either, but he chose not to say it. “Okay. Then how about this? You come back part time for a couple weeks, see how it goes. If you want to go back to full time then, I’m sure we could arrange that.”
“Hrumph.” Frustration poured from the sound. “I’ll be there at 6:30 Monday morning, just like always, and don’t you go doing me no more favors. You hear me?”
Gabe deflated under the helpless stare of his mother. “Yes, Sir.” What more could he say?
Holly was up with the sun. Today was the day to start making her own way in the world. Exactly how she was planning to do that with no transportation was less than clear, however, so the first hurdle was to secure a car. It didn’t have to be fancy. If it ran, that would be enough for her.
She went downstairs and searched the house until she found her mother on the couch in the sitting room. “Mom, can we talk?”
“Oh, Holly. Wonderful. I was just thinking about you.” She held out her hands for her daughter, a gesture Holly knew meant they were still in fantasy land.
Carefully she sat down, bringing her courage with her. Searching for a starting point, she wound a piece of blonde hair over her ear.
“Now, we haven’t had a chance for a real mother-daughter talk yet, have we?” Her mother put her arm around Holly. This was getting worse. “So, do you have any prospects on the horizon? Someone I don’t know about? Someone you haven’t told your mother about? I’m sure the boys in Boston are just lined up at your door.”
“Yeah.” Sarcasm dripped from the statement, but it was clear her mother never heard it. “Lined up.”
“So, are there any really good ones? Doctors? Lawyers? Engineers?”
Holly squirmed. “Not really, Mom.” A string of anything-but-doctors, lawyers, and engineers floated through her mind. There was the jerk who’d tried to kill her. The one who’d left bruises on her arms that she had to wear sweaters for a month to cover up lest Rebecca see. And then there were the really scary ones that she tried never to think of again. “Listen, Mom, I was thinking I need to get a job this summer, you know to pay the bills…”
“A job?” Her mother sat up in absolute horror as if that was the worst suggestion she had ever heard. “What on earth do you need a job for?” She smoothed the arm of the soft gray sweater Holly wore. “You are sitting in the lap of luxury. Who in their right mind would be thinking about a job?”
“But, Mom…” The argument of making her own way, opening up options, choosing her own path—all those things she and Rebecca had stayed up for hours discussing were whisked away with a toss of her mother’s hand.
Suddenly her mother stopped as if struck numb by an idea. “Wait a minute. Wait a minute.” She shook her finger at her daughter. “I think I have just the thing. Sit right there.”
Holly was in too much turmoil to question it.
“Luke,” her mother called into a room just down the hallway, “could you come in here a minute please?” When she returned, a cat’s meow couldn’t have been smiling any wider. “This is it. Shh. Shh.”
There was no telling what her mother was up to, but already, she didn’t like it.
Luke strode into the room, his presence commanding attention from all those present. “Is something the matter?”
“No, Luke.” Her mother wrapped herself next to him. “I just had the most wonderful idea.” The wide eyes—they were the downfall of every man Linda Keller had ever laid them on. “Didn’t you say your nephew was in San Francisco this summer on an internship?”
Immediately Holly’s oh-no alert system screamed to life.
“Yes, Jean Paul is working at the ambassador’s office, why?”
Jean Paul—with an Italian accent and all. This could not get any worse.
“Well,” her mother said, looking at Holly leadingly. “Jean Paul is about Holly’s age, right? And from what you’ve told me he’s unattached.”
“Ah.” Luke lifted his chin in understanding and glanced at Holly. “You are quite the matchmaker, my dear.”
“I just want Holly to be as happy as we are.” She reached up and kissed him, a move that sent Holly looking for a safe, non-disgusting place to put her gaze.
“Well, then, I will call Jean Paul this evening, and see what we can set up.”
“Oh, thank you, Luke.” Again with the kissy-face. And then he strode out. Her mother practically hopped in the air. Clapping her hands without really making any noise, she bounced to the couch. “Isn’t it wonderful, Darling?”
The hug was crushing. “Yeah. Marvelous.”
A soft mist had begun to fall several hours before. Undeterred, Gabriel reached into the backyard pond for the filter and cleaned the leaves from it. Backyard. Right. It was the third backyard of the estate. The one that wasn’t the pool or the gazebo. He checked the pump, cleaned the top filter, and replaced one of the blue bulbs in the water. Timothy and Darius, the other two on the ground’s crew, had left two hours before, but that was the difference between them and him.
They left when the clock said to. Gabriel left only when the sun would no longer cooperate. Granted tonight that might be earlier than usual what with the low-hanging gray clouds, but he had three more things on his list before he would even think about clocking out. Only then would he call it a night.
“Tell her, Luke. Tell her what you told me about Jean Paul.” Her mother indicated whatever it was with her fork.
“Oh.” Luke chewed the roast duck thoughtfully. “Well, he’s in graduate school at UCLA, working on a masters in Political Science. He’s working at Ambassador O’Quinn’s office this summer as an intern. I believe he is up for a position at the London Embassy when he gets out, but that’s just one of his many options.” He took a drink of dark red wine.
The food tasted like cardboard. London? Why would she want to live in London? And worse what would that do to her own schooling?
“He comes from a very good family in Italy. His father is a fifth generation count, which of course, makes Jean Paul a count as well.”
Her mother was about to grin out of her face. “Did you hear that, Holly? A real live count.”
Doors to futures she would never see slammed closed inside her, and she jumped involuntarily with each one. They hurt to hear.
“I rang his apartment this afternoon and left a message. He should call me back this evening.”
“I’m thinking Friday would be good. Don’t you think?” her mother asked.
Friday. That meant in less than 48 hours she would be out trying to impress a count who hailed from half a world away, so she could spend her life smoozing to make him happy enough not to throw her out. Yeah, it was an exciting thought. The lump in her gut grew.
“I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. You would be perfect for Jean Paul.” Luke lifted his fork to her. “He is partial to blondes, especially the lovely kind.”
It was supposed to be a compliment, but it felt like a rock to the gut both for the reason he meant it and for the way he was looking at her. Holly nodded, trying to lift her head but failing. She knew she should thank him—kind of like a slave thanking the master for a flogging. However, she just couldn’t get the words out.
“Maybe he can take you to some fancy restaurant in San Francisco. Like the Garrison. Oh, Luke. Remember our first date there?” The swoon could have been an act or maybe not. It was impossible to tell. “That was a night I’ll definitely remember.”
The implication was too much for Holly. She dropped her fork to her plate with a clatter and pushed the chair back. The sudden noise and movement startled her mother.
“Is something wrong, Darling?”
“Hmm. Um, no.” Holly stood, clutching her hands together. Struggling to hold it together, she forced one hand to push her hair over her ear. “What would be wrong?” Beating back the tears, she got a tiny smile on her face. “I’m just a little tired from today. I think I’m going to…” She pointed to the door, stepped that direction, and then fled through it. Her breath stung her lungs which suddenly felt like clenched fists. Blinded by the tears, she raced up the stairs and into her room.
When the door closed, quiet attacked her. She fought to get air, but it was choking out the top of her in gasps. Who was she anymore? And how had she gotten here? Her life wasn’t hers any more nor were her choices. No, if she stayed, they would suffocate her with their plans, their schemes, their map for her life. It had been this way forever, and now it was clear it always would. The only thing that made any sense at all was to leave, to get away.
Resolve slipped through the tears, and she crossed over to the small balcony doors. Slipping them open, she stepped out. There was a trellis. Not a great option, but in this moment there were not great options.
Had she thought about the chill, she would have shivered, but she didn’t think about that or anything else. Down. It was her only thought. She swung one leg over the hard concrete railing and onto the trellis. A tiny squeal jumped from her as suspended, she swayed two stories above the ground. Don’t think. Just go. One foot. Two. Down. Inexorably down. If she snagged her shoe, it would all be over. The vine clung in snaking paths up the criss-crossed diamond trellis slowing her progress but only a little.
Five feet from the ground, she felt the insanity of this undertaking crowd over her, but by the time she reached the ground, fleeing once again took over. Leaving the house and her impossible life behind, she ran, stumbling through the darkness. That it was raining now seeped through her consciousness, but she ran on undeterred. There was no destination. Not one she could name anyway.
Jean Paul. No choices. Her future narrowed to only one that she hadn’t even known existed. In some small recess of her mind, sense whispered that if she didn’t like him, she didn’t have to stay, but the rest of her knew better. The second her mother heard the word “count,” all other options ceased to exist. She would be given to him, and it didn’t really matter who he was or what he was like.
The soft ground gave under her feet pulling at her shoes and slowing her headlong rush into the nothingness. Frustrated that even they prevented her escape, she kicked them off, wrapped her arms around herself, and stumbled forward. Tears and raindrops slid down her face—hot and cold mixing in indistinct patterns, but she hardly felt them. They were outside the thoughts twining through her.
She ran and ran, ran until her legs were screaming for her to stop. Her heart thumped hard in her chest. Then stopping with a jerk, she fought to stay on her feet as her legs swayed dangerously. When she looked back in the direction she had come, sheets of gray rain mixed with the darkness shielding even the outline of the house from her.
Pain ripped through her. Pain at being utterly and completely alone in the world. Pain at being sold out by her own mother… again. Thoughts of those long ago nights, trapped and terrified, ripped to the surface, and she gasped at their fury. No! She would not give into them. She would not let them have the power again. She would not.
Her gaze traced up to the sky as icy fingers of rain snaked down her hair and neck. For a moment she let the pain have its way with her. Then, her gaze dropped and a few hundred feet in front of her, she caught the hazy outline of a very tall structure. Her legs felt like runny Jell-o, but she forced them forward, slogging through the mud and chillingly cold rain. The closer she got, the taller the building got until it towered above her. The door was probably locked tight, but just the same she reached for it.
Heavy, but it opened. A few inches, a few more, and she slipped inside—a shadow melding with the shadows. The darkness inside enveloped her in its inky embrace, and unhinged from reality, she welcomed the ability to totally vanish from life. For long moments she simply stood, leaning on the door, not really caring what came next. But the demons that had dogged her every life step to that point knew, even here, the most painful images to bring up, the ones that would send knives of ache slashing through her battered soul. Flashes of moments—long since gone, but never really forgotten bubbled up from unseen depths.
They caught her in a grip so cold, it was no match for the chill of the rain. She shuddered at the thoughts and images, her will to continue fighting collapsing into them. The chilly fingers so familiar and yet so horrifying snaked through her spirit. Tired engulfed her with a vengeance, and her eyelids raised against it. She had to sit down before she fell.
Her bare feet scraped across the stone hard floor. Cold, she was sure, but she couldn’t really feel it. Feeling anything escaped from her consciousness. She moved with no real destination, no real understanding even of where she was. Blackness hovered in every space of everything around her. It was comforting in a strange way. It felt almost as if she literally no longer existed to the outside world.
Hand outstretched, she walked forward until she found a wall of rough stone. That and only that, and she let the pain and darkness pull her down. The tears slid from her heart even as her body found the hard, cold floor. Gasps of tear-laden hopelessness streamed from her. There was nowhere to go from here. No where. She couldn’t walk out. She wouldn’t go back. Here was the only place left. Crying in the dark. Letting the pain spill from her onto the cobblestone floor.
Lying down, she let herself stop fighting. Stop fighting the pain. Stop fighting the grief, the trying and the failing, over and over again. Loss upon loss. Never good enough to hold them. But just good enough to attract their unwanted attention. It was all she had come to expect from life. All she had come to expect from herself.
“Why, God?” she whispered into the darkness, but even that was unfair. She hadn’t spoken to Him in 22 years. What made her think He wanted to hear from her now? Grief overtook her as her hold on even the thread of hope that God might still care slipped from her grasp.
And she cried. Pressing her fist to her nose and shaking with each new wave of grief, she sobbed, for no other reason than she could do nothing else. The tears snatched every shred of hope left, soaking each one.
Slowly, in small incremental moments, breathing and sanity returned. At least it felt like sanity. It was something. Something. A way out. She let the idea take her for a moment, and for once, it held out the promise of peace. Final peace. Peace she had never really had. Her eyelids fell closed, and she pushed them open with great effort. This finally was an answer.
She sat up, sniffling although the tears had all-but stopped. In mere moments “if” was no longer the question. The question now was “how.” Options floated through her. A gun would be the fastest and easiest except she had no idea where one was. Pills would work too, but there was no way to get them even if she knew what might work. What did that leave? A car in a closed space? A fall from a really high place?
Lightning cracked above her, and through the tiny windows of the structure, she saw the outline of a staircase arcing above her. There was no way to know if it was even safe. Then she laughed at the thought.
A deep chill sliced through her, and she shivered at its intensity. She had never been so cold in her entire life.
Going back was ridiculous. Gabe had told himself that ten thousand times as he drove through the sheets coming down horizontally to the pickup. A book was not worth this. And yet, he hadn’t read in four days. A new habit takes hold at seven days and is established by 21. He knew that from every motivational book he’d ever read, and he’d read many of them.
The temptation to let it go just one more day clung to his spirit, but he wouldn’t give in to it. Not now. Not ever. The vision of what he was meant to do in this life was too intense, too clear as was the opposite trail that led off into a life he had almost gotten by default. Letting his life slide in that direction again was too sickening to think about.
At the carriage house, he killed the engine and then berated himself for that. Stupid. He would be right back. But he’d already done it, so he left it off, reached for the door handle, and made a break for the huge, heavy wooden door beyond. Unfamiliarity smacked him when his hand found the handle. The door was open—not a lot, but it was. There was no reason for that door to be open. No one came out here anymore.
Shrugging the rain off his shoulders and the fear from his spirit, he ducked inside. Dark as usual. He reached over and pulled the little light, illuminating the stairs. The single bulb blinked on, and he stood for a moment, looking, waiting, watching. But nothing moved. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he started up the stairs. Which book should he get? The one he was reading but was only marginally interested in or the new one he’d gotten from Marvin over the weekend? It was funny how even now at odd times he would receive a package from his former mentor and how those packages always had a way of turning his life at just the right moment. It was a pattern Gabriel had learned to trust.
Then, seven steps up, he heard it, and his steps stopped instantly. He turned to look back down the stairs. Something wasn’t right. It wasn’t a definite sound or even movement. More a feeling. His movements slid into slow motion. Concern slipped into his spirit. “Is somebody here?”
The sound of his voice ricocheted off the rounded, stone walls around him. His gaze darted side to side, back and forth, searching for the unseen. The little light overhead swung, sending the shadows ducking and weaving through each other. Foreboding slid through him. Something wasn’t right. Then he heard it, for real this time. A small, soft intake of air.
His steps turned, and he headed back down the stairs, one at a time, slowly. Listening. Senses taking in everything. At the bottom, he let his hand stay on the railing one more moment. He stopped again to listen. It took a moment, but there it was again. Soft, but definitely there. “Who’s here?”
On the hard stone floor, he moved along the staircase toward the sound. When he got to the arch of the stairs over his head, he stooped down and gazed into the shadows slicing the cobblestone under the stairs. He squinted to see better. Indistinct and shadowed, he saw it nonetheless. A figure, huddling there, hiding, not moving.
Gabe’s mind raced with the possibilities. A vagabond seeking shelter from the storm? A criminal hiding out from the authorities? Before he could get all the possibilities reasoned out, his eyes adjusted to the dim light. What told him first what he was looking at—his head or his heart—he would never have been able to say for sure. But in one giant sweep, he knew this was no vagabond. It was a woman. Wet, crumpled, and terrified, with wide, terrified eyes looking right at him.
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2007