It was impossible not to breathe, but every time Holly did, they came in little gasps of tears. From the first moment this person had opened the door, she had fought the gasps, but to completely stop breathing only worked for so long. If only she’d had time to carry out her plans before he arrived. If only…
But the plans were the least of her worries now. Suddenly here was this guy, gazing down at her from his stance at the edge of the staircase. Half horrified, half worried, he stared at her. She tried to bury herself deeper into the wall that offered no real protection. Poisonous fear gripped her. In trying to flee from danger, she had run smack into it. This guy, this dark-headed, scruffy-looking, rain-soaked guy looked every bit the part of the psychotic serial killer. He probably had an ax and a grave already dug.
Or maybe, maybe he was trying to find shelter from the rain as well. Maybe he made his home here. Maybe he was a madman escaped from some asylum close by. Or a criminal. Or a killer. Her mind raced through the possibilities, each more frightening than the one before.
She didn’t move. She couldn’t as she stared up at him staring down at her.
“Hey,” he finally said softly. “What’re you doing here?” Confusion, concern, and fear mixed on his face.
Her heart slammed against her chest. She should jump at him, make a break for it, run for her life. However, she couldn’t get a single part of herself to so much as move. She sniffed back the fear and tears. Her will crumpled over them. She shivered and sucked in a breath, desperately fighting to keep sanity with her.
“Hey. It’s okay.” He dropped so that he was sitting on his heels. Dripping wet, he looked almost as wary as she felt. “Who are you anyway? How’d you get in here?”
Diverging emotions slammed through her twining generously with the fear. Shrinking. It was all she could think to do. Shrink back, so far back, she would disappear. Then, maybe he would leave her alone. Then, maybe he wouldn’t hurt her like so many had before.
The fact that she didn’t look like a dangerous criminal eased Gabe’s racing heart somewhat. However, the out-and-out panic etched across her face told him she wasn’t here sightseeing. No, she was alone, and she was in trouble. But what to do, and how to do it? What to say, and how to say it? Mostly, the thing he was worried about was how not to make things worse than they obviously were. There was something terribly unsettling about the look in her eyes.
He slid one foot toward her. “It’s all right. You’re at the Teracini Winery. I promise, I won’t hurt you. Here.” Carefully he reached out to touch her and managed only a brush of her shoulder. She careened backward from his touch, banging hard into the wall. It was just enough though. “Good grief. You’re freezing.”
Ripping off his jacket, he slid a tiny bit closer to her. Those eyes, panicked and wild, watched him like a wary animal. Gently, slowly, he advanced on her. “Really, it’s okay. You’re safe here. Nobody but me ever uses this place.” He slid the jacket over her as his mind kicked into gear. He needed to get her warmed up. That was first.
“Hang on.” Quickly he ducked out from under the stairs and hurried over to the little wood-burning stove on the far wall. With shaking hands and glances back to where she still hid, he filled the stove and struck the match. It flamed to life, but the wood was cold, and he didn’t have much lighter fluid left. It took several tries to get the fire to blaze, but when it did, he shut the little metal door.
Where the fear was coming from, he didn’t know, but he looked around just the same. Panic held him in its grip. He fought through it to think rationally. A thought hit him, and he ran up the stairs. At the top, he didn’t bother to turn on the light. Instead he grabbed the blanket from the couch and a pillow too. Descending, he flipped the tail of the blanket over his shoulder so he wouldn’t trip.
Back at the stove, he lay the items down and turned again to where she was. How he would ever coax her out, he had no idea, but letting her freeze to death didn’t exactly sound like a great idea either. Putting his hands on the waist line of his black jeans, he paused only one more moment to gather his wits and then strode over to the stairs.
This time he stopped where the stairs where head-height. He arched one arm up onto the risers, gazing down at her, assessing what should be his next move. Serious worry drained through him as his eyes once again adjusted to the dim light under the stairs. She was no longer sitting up. Instead, she had tucked herself between the stairs, the wall, and the floor. Worse, lying there, and she wasn’t moving at all.
What to do and how to do it rushed through him again. He assessed the situation, examined it from every angle. He glanced back at the stove now roaring with heat. His gaze slid back to her. That heat did no good if she was wedged into the coldest part of the room.
He breathed in the decision. There was simply no other way. He let his arm drop from the stairs and bent down into the cramped space. “Hey. I got the stove going. It’s a lot warmer out here.” Reaching down, he touched her shoulder, his coat really. It was soaked. Had she not shivered under his hand, he might have truly questioned if she was in fact alive. “You want to come over here? You can get warm.”
The demons swarmed over Holly, pushing her into the fear and collapsing it on top of her. Fresh hurt and terror came with each breath. If she could just stop breathing, stop her heart from beating that next beat. Somehow she could escape the hurt and the fear, which seemed to laugh at her pathetic attempts to get away from them.
“Here. I’ll help you.”
It was strange, so strange to hear those words. Who could help her now? Who could help when she had already given up, surrendered to even the worst that could happen to her? Numbness grabbed her and pushed her under. She didn’t struggle, instead she surrendered to it. She simply stopped fighting.
“Okay. Don’t worry. It’s going to be okay.”
She felt him more than she saw him. His hands, gently probing across her. Fight was gone from her spirit. If he killed her, it would accomplish what she had come here to do just the same. Then inexplicably she was floating, held up by some strong presence. The cold floor disappeared from her understanding.
There was a small bounce. “Just hold on.”
Understanding that she was in fact in his arms, and they were moving was hardly within her grasp. Reality itself seemed a mere dream.
It was only when he had pulled her out of the hole and stepped with her in his arms into the light that Gabe first grasped how beautiful she truly was. Blonde hair, dripping and matted, yes. Mascara streaked. But unbelievably beautiful just the same. Feelings he’d never had before surged through him. He tightened his grip as his gaze traveled up and down her lithe frame. Every inch of her was chilled with the water and the lingering cold from the stones. “Come on. Let’s get you warm.”
He pulled her closer to him and stepped the twelve steps over to the stove where he laid her carefully on the blanket. She didn’t fight. She seemed hardly even awake. Holding her head, he reached for the pillow and let her down softly. Then like a precise but gentle tornado, he wrapped her in the blanket. He jumped up and retrieved his coat from the floor where it had fallen. It was still wet, but if he got it dry, it could be of some help.
Bringing it over, he hung it next to the stove. She lay on the floor, sleeping on the ground at his feet. At least he thought she was sleeping. However, right now, he couldn’t tell much of anything about this strange situation. Where had she come from anyway? And why was she in the rain with no shoes? She didn’t seem to even have a coat much less anything to keep herself from the elements.
Gabe shook his head at the puzzle that had no answer. When he did so, a thought tumbled into his mind, and he looked at her anew. Anger welled in him. “Okay, Satan. That’s it. You are hereby cast from this place. You and your puny henchmen are commanded to leave here and go before the throne of the Most High God to be dealt with there as He so chooses. I command you by the Holy Blood of Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior to leave right now. Amen.”
A breath to settle the prayer, and calm took over. He gazed down at her. Warm. He had to get her warm. That was first. His mind struck on the other things upstairs, and he ran up to get them. A rug. Some water, coffee, and a cup. Back down the stairs he came. Concern and helplessness took swings at him, but he wouldn’t let them close. “Satan, I said, ‘Get away.’ You too fear and helplessness. You are banished to whence you came in the Name of Jesus.” As he got to her, he breathed. “God, just show me what to do.”
Floating. It was the only way to describe the sensation that held Holly. She was safe. How she knew that, she wasn’t at all sure. But she was. Her whole body let go of the struggle, and warmth lifted the fear from her. The warmth came from the outside in and the inside out. It felt so good, so unbelievably good that she gave into it, and relaxed as sleep gathered her into its embrace.
Getting her on the rug wasn’t easy, but it was better than having only the blanket between her and the cold floor. That done, Gabe wished he could get her dry. That would help, but he could think of no way to accomplish that, so finally he turned his attention to the coffee.
The hot plate upstairs would be more efficient, but there were two problems with that. One there was no electricity for the hot plate on the ground floor. Two, he didn’t want to leave her here long enough to heat it upstairs. So, with one eye on her, he filled the cup with water and set it on the little metal heating ledge at the top of the stove. That was going to have to work.
He wished he had something for her to eat. Crackers. Bread. Anything. But the work overload of the last few weeks had depleted his time to go to the store, and he hated to trouble his mother to get him things for here. She had enough to worry about. Knowing the coffee would have to be enough, he checked his coat. The outside was drier, but where he had put it around her was now cold and wet. He turned it inside out and hung it to dry again.
Then, as he looked around, he realized that everything he could do had been done. It took a minute, but his spirit pulled him down to the floor next to her where he sat cross legged, six inches from the rug she lay on. She didn’t move, but he could see that she was breathing. Seeing nothing else to be done, he closed his eyes and prayed every prayer he could think to pray.
God had the answers to even this. Of that and only that he was sure.
Warmth. It was the first understanding Holly had as sleep relinquished its hold on her. She opened her eyes and blinked to remember where she was and why. Somehow she had expected to see her dorm room, but this was not her dorm. The ceiling soared high above her, and the space felt huge.
Her breath snagged, and she sat up. With that, the guy standing next to the stove whirled around, his gaze falling on her with concern.
He left whatever he was doing, stepped around her, and knelt next to her. “Hey.”
Somehow she remembered that syllable, spoken like that, but from where?
Soft concern and hope met in his green eyes and slight smile. “Are you feeling better? You had me worried there for a while.”
Memories, dim and hazy, came to the surface. Rain and darkness. Running. The pieces slipped together, in and out of themselves, and horror at where she was and why jumped through her. She sat up, pulling the soft peach blanket up with her, around her, closer and closer as if she could in fact disappear right into it. “Why…? How…?”
“No. Shhh…” He put out his hand to stop her. “You’re okay. You’re in the carriage house at the Teracini Winery.”
Her gaze fell from his face as more pieces dropped into place. The winery. Luke. Her mother. Panic ripped through her body, and she jerked the blanket off of her. “I… I shouldn’t be here. I’ve got to…” She fought with the blanket, but she was wrapped like a burrito in it, and not being able to extricate her trapped feet brought fresh waves of panic.
“Whoa. Hold on a minute. Calm down.” His voice was as soft as his eyes, and her thrashing stopped mostly because it had sapped what little energy she had. “It’s okay. Really. I’ve got you some coffee made. It’s not much, but as cold as you were, maybe it will help.”
He stood and went back to where he had been when she woke up. In seconds he was back, sitting on his heels. “This should warm you up.” He handed her the ceramic white cup. “It always helps me.”
Holly watched him for any sign of danger, but his face was open and honest, offering only. If he was going to take advantage of her, he would’ve done it by now. She accepted the cup and took a sip. Sweet and warm, the liquid slid down her throat. It was surprisingly good. Her attention fell from him to the drink. “Umm.”
His half-smile was the first she had seen from him. “An old family recipe.” He never so much as glanced away as she drank, and halfway to the bottom, self-consciousness began to remind her of how she must look. She brushed the hair from her temple back over her ear. Damp but no longer cold, she knew it was a mess.
“I’m really sorry,” she said softly. “I didn’t realize…”
The smile was brighter this time. “No, hey. No need to apologize. I’m just glad I came back.” He slid to the floor and twined his legs together. Once settled, he simply watched her with no more words.
Her drink was almost gone and rather than finish it, she let it fall onto her lap. There was no bringing her gaze up to his, so she left it on her cup. How warm and cozy this place was entered her understanding, and she glanced back at the stove, blazing full of life. It was comforting and confusing at the same time. How had she gotten here anyway?
“So, are you from around here?” the guy finally asked.
She considered the absurdity of the question. “No, not really.” Then she realized that was kind of a lie. “Well, kind of.” She pushed the hair back. “I’m here for the summer.” Her nod was in acknowledgment, and also to get the words from her mouth. “I’m staying with Luke… Hmm… Mr. Teracini.” She glanced up, but embarrassment dropped her gaze back to her cup. “Only for the summer.”
“Mr. Teracini.” It took a moment, but understanding seeped into his features. “Oh, you’re… Oh.” He cleared his throat, and in a single movement, he was on his feet. He stepped over to the stove.
The movement and his reaction confused her. She looked up at him, seeming to hover above her—suddenly detached and distracted. His hand planted on his hip as he worked at the stove.
She wanted to see his eyes, but his back was to her. “Is there something wrong with that?”
“Wrong?” His gaze fell to her but just as quickly went back to his hands. “No. There’s nothing wrong with that.” He shrugged, his hands working in perpetual motion. The metal thing on the stove clanged loud, and he jumped backward slightly. He stood without moving a long, long moment. Then with a heave of a breath, he turned and came back to where she sat. He sat again, but this time he didn’t really look at her. “So, if you’re staying up there, what are you doing down here in the rain?” Brushing off his hands, he caught her in his gaze.
Surprise snagged her before she could look away. It was something about his eyes or maybe the concern on his face. Something she couldn’t really name grabbed her heart and refused to let her look away. “Oh, well… I…”
Valiantly she wrenched her gaze from his. “Things… Things were kind of…” How could she explain to a complete stranger that her life was going down the toilet and all she could do was stand there and watch it? Her gaze drifted to her cup. “I just had to get away for a while.”
Doubt drifted across his face. “And the only place to go was here?”
She couldn’t answer that. It hurt too much.
He ducked his head trying to catch her gaze. “Does anyone even know you’re here?”
The question trailed through her. Who would really care? Slowly she shook her head.
His breath came hard. He scratched the side of his head, which had curls of black so dark they glistened. “They’ll be worried when they find out you’re gone. They’ll be probably call out the national guard.”
Probably, but not for the reasons he thought. “I don’t think they’ll be too worried. Really.”
Anxiety seemed to wrap around him. He scratched at the scruffy black stubble lining his chin. “Still.” He pushed up to his feet and went back to his work at the stove. Glancing over his shoulder, he asked, “Are you warm yet?”
She huddled deeper into the blanket, thankful for it only now. “Yeah. I’m getting better.” She bent her head and took the last sip of the tepid liquid, sorry to see it was gone. Somehow its disappearance brought her closer to leaving this place, and that planted a kernel of dread in her. Her gaze traveled around the space, and although she could hear the tapping of the raindrops on the roof, here was warm and light and safe. She could stay here forever.
The guy strode from the stove to the door and peered out. “It’s letting up a little.” He came back, and his strides were filled with purpose and determination. “We’d better get you home.”
Fear and panic slapped into her. “Home? Do we have to? I… I mean… Can’t I just stay for a little while?”
Gabe knew he had to get her back. They probably had every cop in a six state radius looking for her already; however, something in her voice stopped him. Something he couldn’t name and couldn’t even really describe. A fear, a pleading. It made no sense, but it clung to him just the same.
He strode back to the stove and stood over her, his hands on his hips. His gaze slid to the door. The sensible thing was to override her protest and take her home. However, his gaze fell back to her and knowing came to him. He would take her back. He would find a way to talk her into it so it was her decision. He would, but not right now.
With a sigh, he spun himself onto the floor. “Okay. We’ll stay, but only for a little bit.”
The trust she’d been building in him wavered as her gaze fell to the empty cup in her hand. “It was good. What is it?”
“Coffee with chai tea. It’s to give you strength and energy.”
He liked the miniscule smile that slipped gently to her lips.
“Well, it worked.” Gratefulness was in her eyes when she glanced up at him. Once again he was struck by her beauty. She could easily be on some movie screen somewhere. The thought that she probably was snapped into him. No one that beautiful and that rich stayed hidden forever.
“So, you said you’re here for the summer,” he said, wanting only to know more even though that made no sense. “What do you do when it’s not summer?” The question was soft, an invitation more than anything.
However, her face registered a level of distress he hadn’t expected, but she beat it back almost reflexively. “Um, I go to school in Boston. Boston Central. I’m a junior.”
“A junior? Wow. What’s your major?”
She shrugged. “General studies right now. I don’t know. Every time I settle on something for me, I get my mind changed.”
Confusion traced through him. “Changed? Because…?” It was strange how important it felt to him to know why. After all, this meeting would be the first and last. Still, there was a need to understand twining through him that he couldn’t really explain.
Her gaze stayed on the cup. “I don’t know. I guess it’s hard for someone my age to make good decisions about a whole life. I mean how would I know what’ll be the best in the end?”
His heart lurched for the desperation in her tone. “It’s not about knowing the end. It’s about taking a step. This step. The one in front of you.”
Confusion scrunched her face. “What step?”
That stopped him. “The one in front of you. The one you’re meant to take next.”
She shook her head. “But how do you know what that is? You have to know where you’re heading. Otherwise you’ll get somewhere you don’t want to be.”
It probably wasn’t what he was supposed to do under the circumstances, but Gabe laughed just the same.
“What’s so funny?” There was a base note of hurt in her voice.
“Nothing. It’s not you. I just so remember being there, asking, wondering, never sure of anything.” He shook his head at the memories. “It’s not a fun place to be.”
Holly was captivated but also confused. He didn’t seem that much older than she, so why did he act like her confusion about what to do with her life was a distant memory for him? Was it everything she had feared—that everyone else had something figured out that she was somehow totally missing? “No, it’s not.” In self-defense she shrugged. “But there’s nothing you can do about it, so…” She took a drink of nothing from her empty cup.
It was then that she caught the sense of him watching her intently. The way he was watching, not moving unnerved her. The thought that he was simply an angel come to rescue her in her moment of need only to disappear from sight forever traced through her. She looked up, pulling herself and her pride up with her. “What?”
“You,” he said simply, still looking at her like that.
“What about me?”
For a long moment he didn’t even flinch. Then slowly he shook his head. “You have so much going for you.” He tilted his head toward the door. “Being up there, having the world in your reach, and yet here you are acting like you’re stuck in some run-down life, scared of everything and every opportunity available to you. I don’t get that.”
If he only knew… Calm acceptance of her rotten life wrapped around her. “I’m not like you. I don’t have it all figured out, and why should I when I just figure out what I want only to be told that’s not good enough?”
“Not good enough?”
Anger filled her chest. “I wanted to work this summer, to earn money, my own money, you know? But noooo. That’s not good enough. I shouldn’t be working. I should be… what? Going out with some jerk I don’t even know because he’s got great prospects?” She snorted ruefully. “Yeah, that’s just what I want to be doing.”
His gaze fell into concern. “So if you want to work, why don’t you?”
“Because I’m a prisoner. That’s why. They won’t let me get a car. No car. No job. No job. No money. No money.” She sighed. “I’m at their mercy.” A single silent tear threatened, but she sniffed it back. “They’ll probably make me stay too.”
“At the end of the summer. Mom never wanted me to go to Boston in the first place. This’ll be a good excuse to get me back where she wants me to be.”
Grasping his ankles, he scowled. “I’m not following.”
“The money. I don’t have it. They do.” She shook her head. “I worked last semester, and I’ve gone the scholarship route, but my ‘parents’ always make too much money.” She laughed at the irony. “Not that my mom and I have a dime to our name.”
The scowl deepened. “How so?”
Holly glanced at him, realizing she was actually saying all these things—these things she had been thinking for half her life—out loud. The hurt drained through her. “My mom is real good at finding guys who think they love her, until they get to know her, and then…” She leaned her head to the side without finishing the thought. “They always have a lot of money, and she tells me we’re set this time. But it’s always the same thing, and then we’re back on the streets until she finds somebody else.”
“The streets?” He actually sounded concerned.
Sheepishly she glanced up. “Okay, not the streets, but it feels like it. I hate living like that—never really knowing if tomorrow is going to be the moment that everything changes… again.”
“You really think they won’t let you go back to school?”
The sigh came from her toes. “I don’t know what to think anymore. Five months ago I’d only heard of Napa Valley in Geography class. Now I’m living here.” The shake of her head held despairing acceptance of her situation. “That’s why I wanted to get a job, so maybe I could control something about my life, so I could make a decision, and they would have to go along with it.” The laugh was hollow and filled with resignation. “Guess that worked.”
He sat for a long moment, gazing at her with those green eyes that were both deep and compassionate. “That’s why you were out here, hiding in the shadows.”
It was as good an excuse as any. She shrugged. “I was trying to figure out my options.”
The nod told her he knew more than she really wanted him to. “And what did you decide?”
What did she decide? Good question. Two hours before she knew what she had decided. Now she wasn’t at all sure. “That I don’t want to live like this.”
He nodded again, fully comprehending the statement. “So don’t.”
That slammed her to a full stop. “Don’t? That’s easy for you to say. You don’t know what she’s like.”
The screaming match on the front yard that was more screaming and less a match drifted through Gabe’s mind. He knew very well how unreasonable her mother could be, but he wasn’t going to tell her that. “Well, that may be true, but I do know one thing. Nobody can make your choices for you unless you let them.”
She laughed softly. “Now you sound like Rebecca. My roommate. She’s always saying stuff like that. ‘Holly, make your own decisions. You are not your mother. You are you. Be you.’” She sighed. “It always sounds so good.”
“Your roommate’s smart. You should listen to her.” Holly. Holly. The name traipsed across his heart with little tap shoes. It fit her. Yes, it definitely fit. As he gazed at her, the only thing Gabe wanted to do was to say something that would make everything in her world right. “I may not have everything figured out, but I do know that living your life to please someone else is a one-way ticket to a lot of hell. You have to make your own decisions. If they understand and love you, great. If not, then they only loved the mask you were wearing anyway—not the real you. You’ve got to be brave enough to show them who you really are and dare them to make their decision based on that.”
The fire in the wood stove was dwindling down to nothing. It was time to make a decision—more wood or go home. He stood and went over to it. He snapped open the little door and poked at the embers with the little steel post. In half an hour the chill would retake the space.
“It’s time to go, huh?” Holly asked behind him.
Gabe turned only enough to glance at her. “Only if you want.” Although he wasn’t watching, he felt her stand. When he glanced back, she was only a foot from him, still wrapped in the blanket. The once-rain-soaked blonde strands on her head framed her face now completely dry. Heart-stopping. It was a good word for her.
To keep himself and his thoughts from running away with that word, he turned back to his work.
“Thank you,” she said softly.
He tried to shrug, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t dismiss her gratefulness so easily. Instead he turned to her, and his smile was for real. “I’m glad I could help.”
A misty-drizzle was all that remained as Holly slid out of the passenger side of his pickup. She stood on the cold, soggy ground still reluctant to leave. “Thanks again.”
He smiled and nodded.
It was strange how much she wanted to freeze this one moment, just to look at her angel because there was still a part of her that said this would be the last time she would ever see him again. Knowing she was being ridiculous standing in the rain looking at him, she nodded. Her gaze snapped to the front door of the enormous house. “Can you stay until I get in?”
Somehow she knew he would. With an intake of breath, she slammed the door, crossed her arms in front of her, and trudged through the remnants of the storm. Under the porch, she tried the front door. A tiny snap and it opened. She waited, listening. Nothing. Quietly she turned and waved to him.
He raised his hand, paused a moment, and then turned and backed down the driveway.
Feeling his departure, Holly stepped inside, shut the door, and pulled the little white lace curtain from the sidelight. The car’s taillights slid into the night, stopped at the gate, and then disappeared altogether. Her mind slipped through the events of the evening. Evening? It began to dawn on her just how late it might be. With that thought, she abandoned the window and rushed up the stairs.
The room, dark but for the small amount of light coming in from the still-open balcony doors, had an eerie feel to it. The curtains blew in the now-soft, damp breeze. Shivering, she ran to the doors and shut them, securing them tighter even than they would lock. The shadows in the room loomed large and ominous. Nothing at all like the haven she had found by a little wood-burning stove in the middle of nowhere.
Shaken by the reinvasion of the feelings of earlier, she flipped on the light next to her bed. It was then that she saw the clock. 1:32. Shock snapped into her. They’d been talking for hours. Guilt for keeping him out so late drifted through her. Then a thought smashed into her. His name.
She hadn’t even thought to ask his name. How insane was that? You meet the nicest guy in the world, he almost literally saves your life, and you don’t even get his name? “Real smart there, Hol. Brilliant.” In her defense she had hardly been in the right frame of mind to meet a guy. It wasn’t like she’d had the beauty queen thing going at the time either.
When she stepped into the bathroom, just how hideous she was shocked the last of her sanity from her. Mascara streaked down her face, and her hair… Oh, her hair! The humidity had worked its black magic. It was pancake flat from root to tip. “Ugh.”
Still she smiled at the thought that even like this, he hadn’t run screaming for the exits. No, he had sat there on a cold, damp stone floor half the night as if he had nothing better to do than save her life. The thought that she might never see him again brought an ache to her chest. As she pulled at the brush, she offered up a prayer of thanksgiving and protection for him.
He was an angel. Of that she was completely sure. So it made sense that God would know of the good deed and suitably repay it without her even asking. Nonetheless, she made the request anyway—in case God had somehow missed it. “Please tell him thanks for me, God. Whoever he is.”
Gabriel pulled up to the little house. Exhaustion yanked his eyelids down even as hunger gnawed at his stomach. He crawled out of the pickup and trudged through the rain-dampened air. Quietly he let himself in and went about the business of cleaning up, eating, and getting ready for bed. Six o’clock would come awful early in the morning.
He climbed into bed, but once he had taken a breath, thoughts of her invaded his system. Her. Holly. He ratcheted his head down on the pillow to get comfortable, but as soon as he grew still, the thoughts were there once more. The pain, buried so deeply in her eyes, haunted him. She had said she was at the carriage house because of the job thing, but was that all? And what if he hadn’t gone back tonight? What if he had talked himself into just going home?
A shiver went through him along with a knowing of how dangerously close to the edge she was walking. That she needed help was clear, but that she had anyone to help was much less clear. “God, Holly is really in a bad space right now. Please send Your angels to protect her.”
Then another thought streamed through that one. The sense he had acquired over the past couple years on these things was rarely wrong, and even when it was, it couldn’t hurt. He closed his eyes and tried to picture her lying in bed. His heart lurched at the understanding that she as again alone. Alone was the worst place to be when the demons got a hold on your life.
Cold, hard determination sank into him. “Okay, Satan, you cannot have her. You and all your henchmen are hereby cast out and away from Holly. You may not go near her. You are cast out by the Holy Blood of Jesus Christ, crucified, died, and risen. You are sent to His throne to be dealt with there as He sees fit. Go now. You are banished away from Holly.”
The darkness of the night held reign for one more moment. Then he breathed. “Jesus, rush Your holy angels into the void. Bring her peace and joy but mostly hope. Fill the void with hope, Lord…” His thoughts began to drift. He rolled over and put his arms around the pillow. “Be with her, God. Tonight, tomorrow, and forever. Amen.”
Holly didn’t bother to turn out the little light beside the bed. Life was comforting with the soft yellow glow emanating from it. She lay down fresh from her shower and was asleep in moments.
When the alarm beeped to life, Gabe reached over and hit it with one hand, not moving a single other portion of his body. He felt like he’d been in a title match with Muhammad Ali. Slowly he dragged himself up and out of the bed. His eyes were super-glued to his eyelids. It took extra effort to get them to begin sliding normally. Wiping his eyes and then his chin, he heaved a sigh, pulled himself to standing, and trudged into the bathroom down the hall. It would be a long day.
Holly ate a small muffin. She wasn’t very hungry. True, she should have slept past seven, especially after the night before, but for some reason she couldn’t sleep. Instead she had gotten up, put on her jeans and her maroon Boston Central sweatshirt. After eating her breakfast she told Rosa she would be out in the backyard. She hadn’t explored much of the place at all because she had spent most of her time locked in her room. Today would be different even if she had to wrench different from same herself.
She might not be able to make every decision for herself, but there were some that were still within her grasp. This one, how to spend her days, was one of those. She stepped out the sliding door that led out to the pool area. The tepid humidity of the pool mixing with the night’s rain invaded her lungs. So different from Boston.
Her hands came up to her arms to ward off the early morning chill. At the far edge of the pool there was a little trellis covered in leaves and tiny white flowers. She walked over to it aimlessly. The vines arched high over head as she stepped through the threshold of the little entry another step. However, one step on the other side of it, she stopped, spellbound.
Winding in pathways in either direction was a small stone walk lined with every color flower imaginable. Never had she seen anything like it. Her heart carried her forward as much as her feet. The garden was mesmerizing, gorgeous, breathtaking. Each flower was not only placed for maximum color emphasis, but the heights all complimented the others as well. It was like an artist had taken his brush and painted the scene.
She thought about her camera and what it would be like to capture this beauty on film, but the camera was in storage back in Boston—waiting for her return that might never come.
Pushing those thoughts aside, she moved deeper into the dream, absorbing it, mesmerized and yet fully comprehending. She didn’t think about how she was going to get back. She didn’t care. Only experiencing more of this place entered her mind. The path meandered to and fro, never really straightening but not difficult either, which was a feat considering how closely many of the plants grew to it. At intervals she stopped for no other reason than to have more breaths to take it all in. The fragrances themselves were heady. Gardenia mixed with jasmine filled the dew-soaked air.
All cares began to wash from her, and she closed her eyes to just experience it all in a new way. The moment slid into another before she opened her eyes and continued down the path. She could live here forever and never tire of it.
Deep, deep into the garden, she sensed that the flowers and now trees would soon give way to some type of structure. What it was, she couldn’t really tell, but she was drawn there inexorably just the same. The tree cover grew thicker. It was then that she heard the bubbling. Faint, yes. But there just the same.
Brushing past a tree around a bend in the path, she came upon a small pond. Not six feet in diameter, the water nevertheless started at the top of a fall of rocks, sliding downward to the pool below. She stepped toward it and noticed the few fish darting back and forth in the water at the bottom. Strange how captivated she could be by a few fish in a small pond, yet she was.
She stood, watching them as if she never had to move from this space ever again. It was then that she thought about him. Her angel from the night before. She let the tree next to the pond hold her up as her mind slid back to his face and his eyes. Kind, compassionate, concerned. He truly was a gift she hadn’t deserved.
And now he was gone. A piece of the trance broke away from her, and she pushed to standing once more. She turned her steps up the path, leaving the little pond behind. One could so get lost in this place, get lost and never return. At the last bend in the path, a second path converged from the opposite side of the garden. She wondered what amazing moments were on the other side.
Walking slowly, she made it to the point of the convergence before she saw it—a gazebo. Tan wood standing straight and tall as the morning sun broke full into the garden. The steps leading into the gazebo were flanked by more flowers, and the trees that had concealed its presence gave way so that the sun shone all around it. As if pulled there, Holly went to it and stepped up the first step, her hand on the railing. It was rustic in a way that little around here was. But it was perfect nonetheless.
Mesmerized, she stepped around the space, feeling the rightness of the wood and looking up into the thatch work trellis of the roof. After one trip around, she sat down, her back to the garden so she could take in the vista that dropped before her. Verdant green stretched from horizon to horizon and rolled right off the end of the earth beyond. The vineyard.
Of course she had known there was one, but she’d never even thought to ask to see it. Prior to this moment she’d had no desire to see it. Now it held her like the hand of God Himself.
Gabe saw her the moment she broke from the confines of the path next to the one he was working on. He saw the movement, looked up, and like a dream come to life, there she was. She never saw him, never so much as looked back to the other trail. Instead, he watched as she climbed into the gazebo, looking like a goddess escaped from Mount Olympus.
Here, in the radiant sunshine, she seemed even more ethereal than she had the night before in the firelight. Strange, she’d been here at least a couple days now, and he hadn’t seen here out here even once. And now, suddenly, here she was. He considered not breaking into her contemplation time; however, he did want to know how she was doing and to be near her if only for one more moment.
Pushing himself to standing from the flowerbed which he was weeding, he stepped quietly over to the gazebo. He was almost to the steps when his heart would let him stay silent not one second longer. He leaned inward. “Morning.”
The greeting startled Holly for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which that she was lost in the trance the place had put her in. She spun around and gasped in happy surprise. A smile spread from her heart to her lips. “Morning.”
He returned the smile, his even, white teeth showing clearly amidst the dark stubble on his jawline. It was clear he had shaved, but it hadn’t done much good. The persistent shadow gave him a rugged, outdoors look that tugged at her heartstrings. However, the joy of seeing him here, of having the chance to say thank you, and the fact that he wasn’t an angel she would never see again pushed the physical attraction aside.
“I…” She glanced around. “Um, what’re you doing here?”
Sheepishly he held up the gloves that were no longer on his hands. “Working.”
Thoughts twined through memories. “Oh.” Comprehension slammed into her, and she glanced from him back into the garden. “Oh. I… I’m sorry. I didn’t know…”
The moment slid into two.
“’s okay. I just thought I’d come over and say hi.” The smile in his eyes fell into understanding. “I’ll just get back to…” He motioned over his shoulder.
For one more second the stampeding thoughts held her, but when he turned and started off, she punched them back with one hit. Five running steps and she was back on the ground. “Wait!”
A modicum of surprise crossed his face as he turned to her. Just that and her heart hit the accelerator. There was something about him that threw whatever she was going to say out the window, smashing it into a bazillion pieces somewhere outside of her consciousness. To stand there and look at him, knowing he was for real overtook even the knowing she should be saying something.
A sparkle of amusement jumped into his eyes as he looked at her. “Yes?”
As much as she wanted to, she wasn’t following. “Yes what?”
He laughed outright at that. “Yes, you said, ‘wait,’ and then you didn’t tell me why.”
“Why. Oh, yeah. Why. Umm…” She yanked thoughts up that had no connection to anything. Searching for something so she wouldn’t look like a complete idiot, she finally found one thing she really did mean to say if she ever saw him again. “Umm… I didn’t catch your name. You know last night at the…”
“Carriage house,” she said, nodding. Then how odd that sounded smacked into her. “That’s your name?”
There was no hesitation in the laugh. “No, that’s the name of that building, where we were. My name’s Gabriel Cabrelos.”
Appreciation for the name and for him slipped into her as she held up her hand. “It’s nice to meet you Gabriel.”
He shook her hand, and she had never felt so much warmth and security in any previous introduction. He stood looking at her for one more moment, then the half smile returned. “Well, I’ve got to get back.” He motioned over his shoulder.
“Oh, yeah. Yeah, of course.” She nodded, but it was mostly because the rest of her wouldn’t move.
After one more small smile, he turned back up the path. Seeming not to realize that she was rooted to the spot, not moving, he dropped to his knees under a knot of brilliant red flowers that grew in clumps with their greenery holding them like a lover. She watched him, partly because she couldn’t move and partly because she was so fascinated.
How many minutes slid by into eternity, she didn’t know, but finally the trance drifted from her, and Holly stepped toward him again. Nearly standing over him, she watched as he moved to a set of taller, white flowers atop long slender stems. “What are you doing?”
With one eye closed to the sun at her back, Gabriel looked up. “Weeding. There never seems to be a good time to get it done once the day really starts, so I try to get here early and do a little each day. It’s easier that way.”
Concern traced through her, and she glanced up the walk. “Why? Why get here early if you don’t have to?”
His almost smile did funny things to her heart, but then he dropped his gaze and moved to the next set of flowers. “It gives me time.”
Where the intense fascination came from, she didn’t know, but he had her transfixed. She stepped the two steps forward , mirroring his movement. “Time?”
His glance told her the questions were hitting a bit closer each time. However, when he went back to the weeding, moving another four feet down the walk, he answered. “Time to think… and to pray.”
Pray. The word slammed her backward. Her face fell into a scowl of annoyance and disbelief. “You get up early to come out here and work so you can pray?”
He had accumulated a little pile of weeds none of which were more than two inches high. He picked them up and scooted them along with him. “Yeah. Nobody else is up yet, so I have the garden all to myself. It’s nice.”
For some reason the whole idea threw Holly’s spirit into disarray. The fact that anyone would get up early, to go to a job that involved getting dirty, so they could pray seemed to her quite ridiculous, and not really too sane at all. At her feet Gabriel suddenly sat back on his heels, looked at his watch, dusted his gloves, and stood.
Holly’s mind was still struggling with their conversation and it stumbled forward, lurching from the conversation to him and back again.
“Well,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’d better be getting. The guys will wonder where I am.” He pulled his glove off and extended his hand to her. “It was nice to see you again, Holly.”
She fought to get her hand up through the thoughts crashing into themselves. “Yeah. Yeah. You… You too.”
With half a wink, he smiled. “Have a nice day.”
“O… okay. Thanks.”
And with that he swooped down, picked up the weeds, turned up the walk, and disappeared around the first curve. That she hadn’t really been breathing invaded her consciousness, and she let the air out in a whoosh. He was so together, so different than the others she’d ever met. Okay, the praying thing was a little weird, but she knew people at school who did that, and they weren’t so bad. However, praying had never been in her repertoire. She could count the number of times she’d been in church on one hand not using four fingers. She pushed that memory down and away.
A smile lit her face as she turned up the now sun-drenched walk. It was going to be a good day.
“Been playing in the dirt again I see,” Darius McIntire, the third member of the grounds trio, said as Gabe entered the work shed.
Gabe pitched the handful of weeds into the large, black trashcan and went to his desk. That hour was supposed to center him, to get his thoughts away from her and the night before. That worked. He looked at the schedule that had been made up by his father a month before the attack. That’s the way things had always been done around here. His father had been here so long, he knew what needed to be done months in advance. Although Gabe had been here for ten years, he’d never bothered to learn the job months in advance until now.
“Darius, you and Tim will start out in the pool area today. Clean the filters, run the pool cleaner, check the chemical levels. I’m going down to the entrance. It’s starting to look kind of shabby.”
“The pool?” Darius asked. “But I thought…”
“Yeah, well you’ve been promoted.” Prior to that moment the pool had always been Gabe’s responsibility. In fact, it was his entry into working here. They needed a pool boy, and his father happened to have a 15-year-old with large amounts of time on his hands. That was until today.
He couldn’t afford to lose focus any more than he already had. “Those wood ties on the entrance may need some real help, and last I checked you were frightening with a nail gun.”
Tires sounded on the gravel outside, and both of them looked up.
“There’s Tim,” Darius said. “I’ll get the stuff in case we need extra.”
Gabe nodded, and Darius stepped into the other room. He let out a breath and put his fingers to the top of his nose. The lost sleep was definitely catching up with him.
“Hey, boss,” Tim said, striding in. “What’s up?”
“You’re late. Again.” Gabe continued to look over the day’s work, imbedding it in his memory. “Punch in. You and Darius will go up to the house and clean the pool.”
Tim jerked to a stop. “The pool?”
In frustration Gabe looked up. “Is that a problem?”
A look of complete surprise jumped to Tim’s face. “Oh, uh, no. Not a problem.”
“It’s going to be a glorious day,” Holly’s mother said, breezing into the sitting room.
Holly had taken refuge there because she was so tired of the walls of her room. At least these walls weren’t bright yellow.
“I think we should go out and enjoy the pool.” Her mother sat on the wing-backed chair. Actually she more perched there. It annoyed Holly. “You haven’t even seen the pool yet. It’s beautiful.”
The word pulled a smile from her.
“Come on, what do you say?”
Was there ever a question?
As he hammered on the enormous wooden planters that would have to be replaced at some point, Gabe struggled to keep his mind either on the task or on his worry about his father. There had to be some way to talk his dad out of coming back to work full time. The look of abject terror on his mother’s face wrenched across his heart.
Bits and pieces of the future in various kaleidoscope-like versions turned through his mind. If something were to happen to his father, it would be up to him to support his mother. But how could he do that and go to school too? He was only three semesters from graduation. The thought of having to quit now was paralyzing. That would be the death of every dream he’d ever had.
It would mean being locked here forever just as his father had been. The regret for a life his father could have lived snaked through his consciousness. He’d heard the stories. All the stories. A talented place kicker, his father had been on the fast track to play in the NFL—until a late and dirty hit had sidelined his dream forever. In one second his leg was shattered by the on-coming helmet. He didn’t even finish the semester.
Two years later with a distinct limp he had married his high school sweetheart. It was the start of a long, slow road that had meandered through life to this point. There was really nothing remarkable about either of his parents’ lives since then. His father worked his way up to head groundskeeper at what had then been Whitaker Vineyards. His intense work ethic and deeply ingrained perfectionism made him a natural manager. The love and understanding of nature came later.
By the time Gabriel was six, he was spending most of his days following his father around the gardens, learning about the relationship of the plants, the beauty and yes even the joy of bringing that beauty forth from the earth. However, as he had gotten older, that fascination waned as other things became more important to him. Girls and sports took over his life—much to the chagrin of his father.
The battles were legendary, at least around the Cabrelos household. He played every sport he was allowed in high school except the one he most wanted to play. They said he was a natural quarterback. He had the skills, the vision, and the moves. The only thing he didn’t have was his father’s blessing. And so he had played everything else, never really excelling although his energy and practice skills were second to none.
Upon graduation he had set his sights on college. The plan was always to go two years at the little university right there, and then to make a name for himself as a walk-on to the basketball team or the soccer team at a big name school. However, between working to meet the tuition payments and studying every other waking hour, that plan went the way so many others had before.
And now here he was, three semesters away, and no real defining, immediately within grasp dream. Sure, there was the “in the future” dream of coming back to own the place, but Gabe was beginning to sense that’s all it would ever be—a dream.
He bent into the work—pushing and nailing, trying to get the ancient structure to hold just a little longer. The last thing he wanted was to have to request money to rebuild the thing. Ten more nails and he stood back, satisfied that it wouldn’t fall apart at least for now.
Turning he caught the awesome view of the mansion gracing the top of the hill, dominating the entire surroundings. With a swipe he picked up his tools and trudged off into the trees for the work shop. It would be noon soon, and there was still a list of tasks to be accomplished before then. There always was. That list never ended.
He made a pact with himself to make it to the carriage house to do some reading tonight. Thoughts of her invaded his mind, but he batted them away. She was not his concern nor his fantasy. She was Mr. Teracini’s soon-to-be stepdaughter. Period. Hanging onto that knowledge was the only way to keep himself from wishing otherwise.
“I do not believe it!” her mother hissed in revulsion.
They hadn’t been poolside for five minutes when the two guys showed up. Holly hadn’t felt especially comfortable in the bikini bathing suit her mother had picked out and insisted upon during their shopping spree. Now she felt downright naked. She picked the magazine up higher, wishing it was the size of a large bath towel. Sitting on the lounge chair, she wiggled to get all of herself behind it, knowing they were looking, and hating every second of being ogled.
“Just a second. I’ll take care of this,” her mother said, swinging her legs off the side of her chair. The show was obvious for anyone willing to look.
Holly didn’t want to look, so she picked the magazine up higher. This was embarrassing for so many reasons she couldn’t name them all.
“We’re supposed to clean the pool,” the tall black guy said. “Mr. Cabrelos sent us.”
“Well, Mr. Cabrelos doesn’t own the place, does he?” her mother asked shrilly. “We are enjoying the pool right now, so you’ll have to come back and do your little dirty work later.”
The condescension made Holly cringe. They were just doing their jobs.
“You go back and tell Mr. Cabrelos he needs to check with me before he sends you again. My daughter and I are not interested in being stared at by the help. Do you understand me?”
To sit there and listen to it hurt. Holly squirmed, knowing they were looking ever more intently because her mother had called attention to her.
“We’re sorry, Ma’am,” the little Hispanic guy said. “Would it be possible for us to come back say in an hour?”
“Well, I don’t know.” The flouncing was enough to make a person physically ill. “Why don’t you have your boss call after lunch, and we’ll see.”
They actually bowed, and Holly cringed at the sight. The Hispanic guy tipped his straw hat. “We’re sorry to have bothered you, Ma’am.”
“Well, you should be. Now get out before I have you both fired.”
The black guy looked over to Holly. “Sorry, Ma’am.”
It felt like a punch. “It’s okay.”
The glare her mother sent her way would have scalded a cat. She turned the anger back on them, sending them scurrying for the side gate. In seconds they were gone. Her mother stepped back to her chair. “Ugh. It’s so hard to find good help these days.”
The fact that the two of them were sitting in the work shop when Gabe walked back in tromped through his thoughts. “I thought I told you to go clean the pool.”
Darius stood first. “Yeah, well, we ran into the Dragon Lady, and she changed your plans.”
Fury cascaded on him as he put up the tools on the wall. “Oh, great. Now what did she say?”
“Something about having you call to schedule the pool cleaning with her from now on.” The shifting of Darius’s feet told Gabe he knew how perilous this conversation could be for his future here. “And that we’d both be fired if we didn’t leave.”
The frustration leaped from Gabe’s throat. “Fine. We’ll get on with everything else, and I’ll try to get back up there sometime today.”
Tim stood from where he was leaning on the desk. “Well, at least it wasn’t a total bust.”
“Oh, yeah, how’s that?” Gabe’s attention was already back on the schedule and how to get everything done before the other two left in five hours.
“We got to see the Ice Princess in her bikini, and man, is she hot!” The full intent of Tim’s words hit Gabe like a brick.
“Yeah, too bad she’s Dragon Lady’s daughter,” Darius said, joining the mental oogling. “She is fine.”
Gabe shook his head. “Hello. Could we get back to getting something done? Unless you all want to stay late with no pay.”
Instantly they snapped to attention. It was everything he could do to keep his wits about him as he divvied up the remaining work. If he could just keep his mind on work, everything would be fine.
When her mother had called an end to the mandatory sunning session, Holly fled inside, slipped into her room, and locked the door. Never had she been more humiliated. However, as she let other memories in, she knew that wasn’t quite true. Resignation touched the edges of her spirit, and she had no willpower left to beat it back.
She went into the bathroom and changed into her jeans and T-shirt. At least that felt normal, like everyone else, not calling attention to herself. She brushed her hair, purposely keeping her gaze from her own eyes. She didn’t need the reminder of how far down the morality chain she had slipped.
If pole-dancing was required to get a leg up on the scale her mother was measuring them by, Holly was quite sure she’d be signed up by sunset. Back in her room, she sat on the bed, then swung her legs up. She felt like a crab trapped in its shell. Seeing no better option, she curled up on the pillows and drifted out. The late night and early morning meeting coupled to push sleep over her.
Gabriel called the main house at two and got permission from Rosa to clean the pool—if he hurried. There was really no need to add that admonition. Lightning was slower. He knew the steps by heart, even knew every corner to cut, and he took them all lest she appear to derail his headlong dash through the day.
The sun was beating down, heating everything in its path, and several times Gabe had to wipe the sweat from under his hat. Only the first week in June and already the sun was intent on committing murder. He would have to get water when he got back. However, those thoughts were only fleeting as his body flew through the motions of cleaning the pool.
In no more than thirty minutes it was done, and he didn’t even glance back at the house as he let himself out the back gate. With a sigh of relief, he strode off, already planning and replanning the rest of his day.
Holly hated this part. She really and truly did. She dressed in the soft pink cashmere sweater and white pants. Why supper had to be so formal she had no idea, but she had learned. It was. And if she wanted to eat, she had to follow protocol.
At the table, she said a polite, quiet hello to Luke, and took her seat. She pulled the napkin from the table just as her mother swept in.
“I’m so sorry I’m late. I was on the phone with the airlines. It is nearly impossible to book last minute to Paris. They have all these restrictions now.” She sat regally at the opposite end of Luke.
“Oh, who’s going to Paris?” Holly asked innocently.
Her mother took a long sip of her deep burgundy wine before pulling her napkin out. “We are, silly.”
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2007