One second she was standing, the next she was flying. The whack of her body onto the hard wooden floor cracked through Holly, sending peels of pain shooting through her. It ricocheted through the alcohol making everything tilt and then spin dangerously.
“Holly. Holly,” Gabe said only inches from her, still gripping her. “Are you okay?”
“Okay?” Fury overtook her. “Okay.” She kicked to get free of him. “How can I be okay? You just tackled me for crying out loud!”
“I-I’m sorry. I didn’t know what else to do.” He rolled slightly so he wasn’t right on top of her, but he didn’t release his hold on her either.
“Would you… get…” She was kicking and pushing, struggling to get him away from her. Calm evaporated. Fury ripped through her. “Who do you think you are anyway? Get off of me!” Once she was free of him, she scooted away until she came smack against a soft upright cushion. “What do you think you’re doing?”
He was heaving, gazing at her from three feet away. Fear and terror met in his eyes.
She shook her head. “You should’ve let me jump. It would’ve saved everybody a bunch of trouble.”
“Yeah,” he said, oddly sounding like he agreed. “That would’ve been just the highlight of my life to watch you splatter yourself all over the place down there. Oh, not to mention getting to clean it up in the morning. Yeah, that would’ve been excellent.” He leaned up against the slats of the railing and put his head back as he gasped for breath.
Guilt took control, and she let her head fall. Somehow she hadn’t thought of those things. He was right. She should have thought of a better plan. “I’m sorry.” Her head felt like a wrecking ball had taken a solid whack at it.
His wrist rested on his upright knee as his head came up so he could look at her. “Mind telling me what that was about?”
Alcohol swam around in her head, making her wonder what was real and what wasn’t. At that moment her body decided the alcohol had to go. “Oh, no.” She stood. Not solidly, but still she was on her feet. The stairs down looked more like waves than wood.
He scrambled up. “Where are you going?”
“I’ve got to go.” She was stumbling, hoping the next step would catch her foot and not send her pitching down into the darkness. Holding her stomach and her mouth, she knew she had to get outside before her insides came up.
“Holly.” Inexplicably he was next to her as she shoved her way out of the door.
The cold air slapped reality back into her face. “Ugh!” She made it all the way to the side of the outside wall before whatever was in her stomach wasn’t any more. She wretched and wretched again. Her stomach cramped and arched. It was as if her entire body was on full reverse.
Stinging liquid poured out of her in waves. Exhaustion yanked her to her knees. The cold ground felt good, and she felt so bad. It beckoned her down, and she relinquished herself to its pull.
Gabriel stood, hands on his hips, lips pursed watching her. There was nothing he could do. He knew that much, having been in on that fight with himself more than once. The stench crawled up to him, and he put his hand up to his nose to ward it off. It was then that he saw her start to the ground and just as she passed out, he made it to her.
She was covered in stench and heavy as a lead pipe, but he picked her up anyway. He couldn’t leave her out here to freeze. Only then did he realize how little she had on in the way of clothing. It was hardly anything. In the carriage house, he debated bringing everything down, but it seemed easier to take her up. So he climbed the steps carefully. She was no picture of grace, all arms, legs, and dangling head. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
Better of course than had he not been here. Gabe pushed that thought from him. Not tonight. Somehow he had to get her cleaned up and get the mess she’d made cleaned up. The gut-wrenching stench of alcohol that filled the space roiled his stomach. No wonder his mother had flipped out the night he came home like this. He made a mental note to thank her for not killing him that night.
Gently he laid Holly on the couch and stepped back. He reached over and pulled on the light, illuminating just how disgusting the whole thing was. He ran the base of his thumb up the bridge of his nose. “Oh, thank You, God for telling me to stay.” His gaze tripped over to the railing, and a sinking feeling went through him. If he hadn’t been here… With that thought screeching to get through, he scratched his head and turned to get to work.
Nothing about anything felt familiar. The only thing that could adequately get in was how rotten she felt. “Ugh.” Her moan echoed through her head, causing it to pound like someone was whacking it with a hammer. With even the slightest of movements, her stomach heaved and rolled, so she vowed never to move again. As reality began to advance on sleep, she moaned a second time, wishing it would all go away. “Ugh.”
It was a pretty sure bet that no one had ever felt as bad as she did at that moment.
“Morning,” his voice said from somewhere high above her. It wasn’t cheerful and happy like normal. Today it sounded worried and scared.
“Ugh.” She flopped her arm over her eyes to block out the light. Then she squeezed her eyes closed for good measure. Every muscle, every tendon, every everything hurt with an ache that drove right through her ability to move. “Ugh.”
“It’s okay. Just rest,” he said quietly.
Strangely that felt better—to not try to push herself awake. He was here, and she was safe. Those two things she knew, and everything else disappeared.
Her waking brought Gabe up off the loft floor of the carriage house. She was still an outright mess, but at least she was alive. His thoughts began working through the issues that the morning brought with it. How to get her cleaned up and back to the mansion. How to get her on solid footing so she wouldn’t try this again because as much as he didn’t want to admit it, the next time they might not be so lucky.
Carefully, quietly he went about checking the wood in the stove and making coffee. From his vantage point on the ground floor, he looked up into the loft. That railing seemed so very high from here and so very fragile. His stomach flipped at the thoughts of her smashed like the glass that now lay in a small pile next to the broom by the side wall.
Two bottles and a whole lot of pain. It wasn’t a good combination. He wondered again what Steve had done. Whatever it was, he wanted even more to punch him. How could anyone hurt her that badly and then just walk away? It twisted Gabe’s gut to think of that jerk. He deserved to have his face smashed in.
At that moment Gabe heard her moan again. He raced up the stairs and grabbed the coffee he had on the hot plate. She sat up just as he got back to the couch, and he set the coffee on the table before sitting next to her. Like a rag doll, she leaned into him. The stench was overwhelming.
“I’m sorry.” The words were ghostlike and hollow.
“Don’t worry about it.” He lifted the cup of coffee and held it for her. “Not the best in the world, but it’s better than nothing.”
She accepted it and took a drink. When she wrinkled her nose, he laughed.
“Told you.” He took a breath to settle the plan. “Tell you what. I can take you over to my folks’ house. You can get cleaned up, and we can get some breakfast there.”
The blanket was around her, and she clutched at it tighter. “I… your folks…?”
He shook his head. “They’re at church, and then they’ll go to my aunt’s house for a while. We’ve got a couple hours. If you want to.” He wasn’t at all sure she would agree, but showing up at the mansion with her in this state was about as ill-advised as showing up at the Super Bowl with a greased pig.
Holly made sure to keep the blanket even when they went down the stairs and out the back to the pickup. He helped her into the passenger’s side which was a good thing because on her own she might never have made it. The engine was loud, and the movement did nothing to calm her stomach. Finally she simply pushed it all away from her mind as if she was watching herself in a dream rather than really living it.
They went out a back way of the estate she hadn’t even known existed. They probably didn’t tell her for fear that she might bolt. As they drove, her gaze stayed on the rolling green hills lit brightly with warm sunshine. It should have been paradise, but for her it was anything but.
At the little house up the winding road a few miles away, Gabriel stopped and got out. She knew he was coming around to help her, and something said she should do it on her own; however, getting herself to actually do that wasn’t in her capability at the moment. Before all that had even gone through her mind, he was at her door with it opened.
She slid out, ducking so he wouldn’t see what he already had. She was an utter mess. There was no need of a mirror for proof. Like a supportive shadow he walked with her to the door and then slid in front of her to open it. The smell of a baking roast hit her and rocked her stomach.
“Here, it’s back this way.” Gabriel seemed so shy and uncertain. He kept his gaze mostly lowered and what little smile there was held only compassion.
Holly followed him down the hallway to the back.
“Here’s the bathroom. There’s new towels up here, and shampoo and stuff in there.” He wouldn’t even look at her. “Oh, and.” He stepped in front of her and over to a room opposite the bathroom. In seconds he was back. He handed her a small stack of clothes. “It’s not much. A pair of sweats and a T-shirt.”
She nodded, feeling the gratefulness, but not being able to express it.
After an awkward moment, Gabriel pointed back toward the main part of the little house. “I’ll just go start some breakfast.”
Again she nodded and watched him walk back down the hallway. He really was nice. Too bad the nice ones never worked out. With a tired shake of her head, she stepped into the bathroom. One look in the mirror brought a disgusted moan. Her hair was a disaster. Her face was worse. No wonder Gabriel couldn’t look at her.
By the time Holly came out dressed in the black sweats and navy Hyde Junior College T-shirt, Gabe had scrambled eggs, toast, and bacon all laid out. The sight of her, fresh and clean from the shower, jolted his already fried nerves. However, now was not the best time in the world to let himself think about things like that.
“You want some milk or orange juice?”
She shrank into her shoulders and tilted her head. “Coffee?”
He smiled without really smiling. “I figured you swore off my coffee after the last time.”
Her smile ran though him like a gas light. “Well, you have a coffee pot now.”
Turning to the coffeepot sitting on the counter, he nodded. “Oh, yeah. Coffee it is then.”
Holly slid into a chair at the table, and he felt her apprehension.
He glanced over his shoulder. “Go ahead. There’s plenty. I’ve also got grape jelly for the toast and more salt for the eggs if you want it.”
She shook her head although he really didn’t see it. “This is fine.”
Careful not to spill anything, he measured out the coffee and got it started as she put a few scoops of food on her plate. When he turned, the only thing he could think was what he wouldn’t have given to have a garden of weeds to focus on. Sitting next to her while he ate could be very hazardous to his mental stability.
“So your…” she started.
“Do you…” he said, then stopped. “Sorry. You first.”
“Your parents are at church then?”
“Yeah. Every Sunday morning rain or shine.” Gabe turned a chair around and sat on it backward. It was good to put some distance between him and certain disaster.
She nodded as she took one small bite of bacon. “You live here then, with your folks?”
“Just ‘til next year when I get out. Then I’ll get my own place.”
“College,” he said, his wrist dangling over the chair back. “Marketing and management.”
“Really?” She seemed surprised by that.
“I’m about 30 hours out.” He let his gaze fall to the table.
He let out a breath. “Then I pack up, get my own place and a real job.”
Her own life seemed to drift from her as she immersed her attention in his instead. “A real job? Working the vineyard isn’t a real job?”
“Oh, it’s work all right. Just not the kind I want to be doing.”
She nodded as she took a small bite of the eggs. “So what do you want to be doing?”
The coffee maker beeped, and he stood to go over to it, feeling her gaze on his back. He liked that she looked more stable. He liked that she seemed more normal. However, he didn’t at all like that she was digging into him and his life. “Well, ultimately, I’d like to own the vineyard, or one like it. But I’d settle for starting as manager on one.” He said it as if it didn’t carry the weight of his world on top of it.
For a long moment she said nothing. “I bet you’d be good at it. Managing, I mean.”
He glanced over his shoulder as he poured the steaming hot liquid. “You think?”
“Yeah. You’re patient and hard working. And you do great work.”
Where that assessment came from, he had no idea, but he was grateful for it just the same. He turned and brought the coffee over. “Cream? Sugar?”
“A little sugar maybe,” she said, her gaze anchored to the cup.
Grateful for something to do to keep his insides from shaking completely out of him, he went to the cabinet and brought out the little sugar bowl his mother kept only for guests. Not that they had many guests, but it was one of those things mothers think about. He set it in front of Holly, and she spooned only half a teaspoon out. She stirred as the quiet in the room grew.
Gabe spun the chair and sat down to his own breakfast. How he would ever eat with his insides in knots was beyond him. He scooped out a few eggs and grabbed a piece of toast as if he really thought he could eat it. However, when the plate was full, he stopped cold. Asking now was to point it out that she hadn’t, but he couldn’t eat without it. He shifted the plate just slightly and glanced over at her. “Umm, do you mind if I say grace?”
“Oh.” She dropped her spoon onto the plate with a clank. “I’m sorry. I forgot…”
The calm in his eyes gave no clue as to the turmoil rumbling through his system. “It’s okay.”
She bent her head, and his heart flipped over. He had to drop his gaze lest he get so caught up watching her that he forget how the memorized prayer went.
Quietly he made the Sign of the Cross. “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.” He heaved a breath. “Bless us, O, Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty through Christ, our Lord. Amen.”
“Amen,” she breathed.
He crossed himself again and waited a moment for her to look up. When she did, there was a softness there, a glow that hadn’t been there before. Trying not to stare so as not to make her self-conscious, he picked up his cup and tipped his lips to his coffee. If they could just get through this and get her home…
“You pray a lot then?” she asked so softly he almost didn’t hear.
His gaze betrayed his stern warning to himself and went right to her. “Enough. Most of the time I don’t do a lot of formal praying, but I talk to Him a lot during the day.”
“I’ve noticed that,” she said, nodding. She wasn’t looking at him either, and he couldn’t tell if that was a good thing or not.
In self-defense, he took a bite of eggs and another of toast. It was then he noticed her stirring her eggs rather than eating them. His attention narrowed on it. “My cooking that bad?” He indicated her lack of consumption.
She laughed, kind of. “No, they’re good.” The smile fell altogether, and concern pounced through him. “I just…” Her gaze locked with his. “Why are you being so nice to me?”
The question threw him off-guard. He grabbed his coffee and took a drink to stall the answer lest what came out be too truthful. Finally he shrugged. “You’re a friend. Aren’t you supposed to help friends?”
A scowl dropped on her face. “But you’re a nice guy. Nice guys should take one look at me and run the other direction.”
He set the coffee mug down with a louder clang than he wanted. “Why do you say that?”
Her gaze slid around the kitchen—anywhere but on him.
He waited, the food forgotten. The depth of what she wasn’t saying dragged his spirit down with a yank. “Holly?”
Finally her gaze fell to her eggs. “I’m sorry about last night.”
For something to distance him from the grip of his heart, Gabe forked into a mound of eggs but didn’t eat them. Somehow he knew he had to give her enough space to say what she needed to.
She closed her eyes, and he saw the pain etched there. “It was stupid. The whole night was so stupid.” Disgust for herself twisted her jaw. “I didn’t plan that. Just so you know. I don’t normally go around drinking like that.”
He nodded, wanting her to keep talking, but in truth not being able to formulate any real words to make the ache in her voice go away.
“It’s just… things were going so well with the job and everything. And then…” The words stopped again.
He glanced at her unable to keep himself from it. Blank was clamped firmly over everything else. In the next second he was captured by her gaze.
“Why were you there?” she asked softly. “It was the middle of the night.”
He dropped his gaze to shield himself from every question her eyes were asking. “I sleep there sometimes. I go up and read and just hang out. It’s cool up there. It’s like my own little place. I crashed there last night.”
“They don’t know?”
He shrugged. “I think Dad does, but it’s an old building. No one else even really thinks about it being there. So, it’s a nice place to study or to read, to just be.” Unless suicidal people show up bombed out of their minds. He wanted to know, but he didn’t ask.
She nodded. “It’s kind of cold though, isn’t it?”
“Not if you get the stove going, and there’s a little space heater upstairs if it gets too cold.”
A pause as she absorbed that. She pushed through her own memories of the evening, latching on to his. “So what do you read—when you’re up there?”
Somehow he hadn’t thought she’d even want to know. He shrugged and took a sip of coffee that was now barely tepid. “Lots of stuff. I buy second hand books in the Valley, and sometimes I bum them off other people.”
“Like what?” she persisted. Why she suddenly looked so much more at ease while throwing him totally off his game, he couldn’t clearly get lined up in his head.
How in the world did he get here anyway? She was going to think he was crazy, just like the rest of them did. His gaze followed his cup down. “Self-help, positive thinking, God stuff mostly. Good things to keep me on the right track.”
Her brows furrowed in skepticism. “You read that stuff?”
He nodded although his face was growing hotter by the second. “It’s a way to stay grounded, a way to keep myself focused on doing what’s right instead of what’s easiest.”
“How many books do you have?”
“Fifty? Sixty? Something like that.”
“And you’ve read them all?”
“Most of them. Some I read a while and then pick something else up. Some I get through right away, some it takes me a while.”
She shook her head. “Wait. Wait. You don’t read them all all the way through?”
Uh-oh. He’d known he should never have gone down this path. He couldn’t even look at her. “Not always.”
“But aren’t you supposed to? Read them all the way through I mean.”
They were definitely careening toward how weird he really was, and nothing in him said that was a good idea. “That’s what I always thought too, but sometimes a second book fills in holes the first book left. A lot of times they almost go together, like they were written to be read at the same time.”
Holly corkscrewed her face. “That makes no sense.”
Gabe hunched over his empty plate, wanting only to find a way out of this discussion. These types of conversations never panned out the way he thought they should. Everyone who knew anything about him thought the way he lived was completely weird. He couldn’t explain it to them, but he couldn’t not live this way either. “I know. I’m weird. It’s just… I don’t know.” He narrowed his gaze trying to see the way to explain it that wasn’t really there. “For a long time I lived thinking I had to break the rules to live outside of them. But then when I really found… well, God… Life opened up in a way I’d never even knew was possible.” He laughed hollowly at himself. “Weird. I know.”
But she wasn’t laughing. “How do you know which books will… go together?”
Seriousness crashed in on him followed in the next second by the understanding that she wasn’t laughing or making fun of him. “I don’t, really. I just pick out the one that feels right.”
“And how do you know what feels right?”
Oh, boy. It was much easier to live than to explain. “I just… know. I don’t know. I can’t explain it.” He let out a breath. “It’s like going to the closet to pick out what to wear. Sometimes you just know.”
Holly considered that. “And you read, what? Two books at a time? Three?”
He wasn’t breathing anymore. “Sometimes I’m reading six or more at a time. I pick up the one I’m drawn to and I read that. Then the next night I may pick up a different one. It just depends.”
“So what are you reading right now? Like what, ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’?”
Gabe laughed. “No, I used to read those kind, but I don’t really anymore.”
Exasperation that she kept asking crept through him. “Because they’re about what man can do.”
She tilted her head. “As opposed to…?”
He took a breath because his heart jumped at the question. “What God can do?” He put his fork down and looked at her plate. “Do you want any more? Eggs? Toast? Coffee?”
Holly looked into her empty cup. “Coffee would be good.”
She could tell the topic made him nervous, but it was impossible to let it go. He was so fascinating. He lived with his parents, slept in a cold loft because he liked to read books about God. Not to even mention his ability to make the world beautiful or to make her feel like there was hope. She wanted to know how he did it, but the closer she got, the farther away the answer seemed.
Gabriel grabbed three empty dishes from the table and headed for the coffee pot on the back counter. When he came back, he poured the steaming liquid into her cup without looking at her. She looked up at him, grateful for every simple moment they spent together.
“Thank you.” Her heart meant far more than the coffee.
His gaze locked on hers. Rugged and strong, he stood there in the morning sunshine like a mirage that’s far too good to ever be true. A moment and then another, and he shook out of the spell. “Uh. Hmm.” He backed up. Then he reached up and scratched the side of his head. “I’ll just get these…”
He started collecting the dishes, clanking them together loud enough for people in Los Angeles to hear. Dishes in hand, he went over to the sink and turned on the water. Holly watched him, mesmerized by the quiet depth in his hazel eyes and the shaky, unsteadiness that permeated him when he looked at her like that.
She stood and stepped over to where he was doing dishes, impressed that he wasn’t afraid of even this kind of work. In fact, work seemed to be woven through him like a tough cord. The dishes clanked as he put them in the little dishwasher. She took a sip of coffee. “So, you didn’t go to church this morning.”
Guilt slid over her. “Because of me?”
His gaze snatched hers again as he straightened from the work. “God will understand.” He went back to putting the pans in the dishwasher. “Besides, I can always go tonight.”
That stopped her. “Tonight?”
“There’s a teen Mass. I don’t do it real often because I like going with Mom and Dad in the mornings, but I can hit that one later.”
Holly took a sip. “So church is a big deal to you then?” She knew she was digging, but letting it go wasn’t an option.
“Yeah. I go every week, and sometimes during the week if I get off early enough.”
She laughed slightly. “What’re you, trying out for the priesthood?” Then the thought that maybe he really was torched through her. If so, she was making an idiot of herself.
“No.” He put the skillet in the dishwasher and then the detergent.
Well, at least the answer was no. She breathed an absurd sigh of relief. Taking a sip, she waited for him to answer further. However, he didn’t. “Why not? You seem pretty keen on all the God stuff.”
He shut the dishwasher door and pushed the button. “Not my calling.” Grabbing the dishrag, he went to wipe off the table.
Her gaze followed him. Why did it feel like dragging a hairball out of a cat to talk with him about this—especially when it seemed to be the very essence of who he was? “How do you know that? That it isn’t your calling?”
Back at the sink, he washed the rag out, looking busier than the task required. “I just know. It’s like the books. I can’t explain it. I just know.” He glanced at her. “You finished with that?”
She looked down at her empty cup. “Oh, yeah.” Handing it to him, her gaze followed his every movement as he washed and then rinsed it. “I wish I could do that.”
Surprise jumped to his eyes. “What? Wash a cup?”
He didn’t look at her, didn’t even move. “You do.”
Confusion slid through her. “No, I don’t…”
“No, Holly.” Gabriel turned to her, his hands still on the edges of the sink. He drowned her protest with one look. “You do know. You just choose not to follow it.”
Her confusion morphed into anger. She put her arms over themselves in front of her. “You say that like you know anything about me, about my life.”
He shook his head. “I don’t have to. I just know how we all are. We know what to do. God tells us what to do. He puts it in our hearts, whispers it to us, telling us what we should do, but most of the time we’re either so into doing things our own way or so scared of listening that we don’t do what we know we’re supposed to.”
Anger was quickly turning to annoyance. “Oh, yeah, and how are we supposed to know this stuff? What do we have, God telepathy or something?” She hated the sarcasm, but she couldn’t stop it.
His gaze fell from hers. When it lifted back up, there was no fight, only an unexplainable peace. “Something like that.” He pushed back from the sink. “We’d better get you home.”
Home. It was the first she had thought of it in hours, maybe even days. She didn’t want to go, but she didn’t know how to tell him that. “I guess so, huh?”
The drive back was quiet as Gabe sat on his side, trying to figure out why she wouldn’t just leave well enough alone. She didn’t want to know, her defensiveness told him that, and yet she kept asking. Why?
Worse, his spirit felt like it was in an all-out battle. He told her he knew and yet being with her threw all knowing out the window. If the situation were different, if she was just someone he’d met at school, then maybe. But he, of all people, knew there was no real chance of a relationship with her, and that was killing his chances at staying logical and tranquil with her around. Even surrendering to God was becoming a challenge like it never had been before. How could he surrender when he knew by doing so, he would surely get his heart smashed?
“You want me to take you up front?” he asked, barely glancing over at her. Looking at her too much was a bad idea.
She shrank into the circle of her shoulders. “Why don’t you take me to the work shop? I can walk up from there, tell them I’ve been out walking or something.”
He didn’t want to understand, but he did. “You got it.”
When Holly got out of the pickup and looked up the hill at the big house looming there, her knees threatened to buckle underneath her. How was she ever going to make them believe she’d gotten up early to go out walking? Still there wasn’t a better excuse. She tucked her hands under her arms and did a passable job of disappearing from the scene altogether.
He shut off the truck, apparently planning to go into the shop to do some work.
“Well, thanks,” she said, scuffing the toe of her flip-flop on the ground.
His smile wasn’t much of one. “No problem.”
She wanted to stay. Everything in her wanted to stay, but she couldn’t, and she knew it. She swiveled her gaze up the circle drive to the mansion. It looked like it would take days to climb. Teasingly she shot a glance over at him. “Pray for me?”
He never even flinched. “Always.”
Why he said it, Gabe would never have been able to explain, and yet even as the word came from his mouth, he knew it was true. She was always with him, always in his thoughts and running through his prayers. As dumb as that sounded, she was twined within the fabric of every moment he now lived.
And now she was walking away from him, up the hill that would take her back to her real life. He watched, unable to tear his gaze from the unshapely drape of her borrowed clothes. Even they didn’t hide how beautiful she really was. And yet she didn’t know how beautiful she was. She wanted to destroy herself because others had confused her to the point that she believed lies that no one else even believed.
Smaller and smaller she got as she rounded the far edge of the driveway. He should get to work, should do something, but he couldn’t. Not until he was sure she was safe. There was an absurd thought that she might turn around and wave, acknowledge him still watching her, but she never did. At the apex of the driveway, she turned and climbed the steps. Not that he expected her to ring the doorbell, but a knife went through him when she simply opened the door and walked right in.
Yes, they each had their place in the world, and neither place had space for the other. With renewed determination, he turned for the work shop. If he ever wanted to get out of here, he needed to keep his mind on productive pursuits, not on dreams that could never come true.
Holly had hoped with everything in her that she could get in and get up to her room with no one the wiser. However, luck was not on her side, halfway up the stairs, she met her mother coming the other way.
“Well, well,” her mother said, sounding far too happy for Holly’s frayed nerves. “Are you just getting in?”
“Umm, yeah… I…” The words ‘went to for a walk’ were supposed to follow that statement, but it never got that far.
“Ooo, so where’s Jean Paul? I didn’t hear his car.” Her mother tried to look past her to the driveway. “You should have invited him in for brunch.”
“Oh.” Holly slid her finger to her ear. “He had to get back. He’s got a paper due this week.”
Her mother’s face fell in consternation. “That’s too bad. I’d really like to talk to this boy that my daughter is so crazy about.”
Crazy about. There was a good way to put it. “Maybe some other time.” She started to climb again. “I’m going on up. I’m exhausted.”
There was a knowing in her mother’s eyes. “Exhausted. That’s a good sign.”
The implications rolled through Holly’s stomach, twisting it in unnatural positions.
“Maybe I’ll have Luke call and invite him for our going away night Thursday. I’m sure he’ll want to see you before we leave.”
Leave. The trip. Paris. The words pummeled her like punches. How could every single decision her mother made for her life be so utterly wrong? “Oh, no. Umm, Mom.” She spun on the words. “He’s really busy. And it’s such a long drive.”
Still her mother waved her off. “Long drives are nothing for a young man in love.”
Holly sighed in resignation. Why did she even try?
True to his word, Gabriel spent most of Sunday and Sunday night praying for her. Whatever had set her off hadn’t been resolved, and it made him more than a little uneasy to think of what she might do if Steve showed up again. It was becoming more and more of a challenge not to get boiling mad at the mere thought of her oafish boyfriend. Who did he think he was anyway? Someone needed to set that guy straight.
Gabe was ripping weeds out of the soil under the philodendrons Monday morning when he heard the footfalls. How could that sound make his heart feel like fists against a punching bag?
“Morning,” Holly said softly.
He glanced back at her and smiled. “Morning. You bring your work gloves?”
“What? Are you going to make me weed cactus?” She sat down on the walk next to where he was working, but she didn’t get to work, only sat drinking her coffee. “Looks like you’ve made some progress.”
There was a medium-tall pile of weeds already next to him.
“Summer time. The weeds always catch up with me. I’m probably going to have to get Darius and Tim out here this week to make a clean sweep of the place.”
She set her cup down, slid over next to him, and started pulling weeds. “Darius and Tim? Are they the two who do the pool?”
The fact that she knew anything about the grounds work slid through him. “No, I do. Why?”
Puzzlement crossed her face. “Really? That’s weird. That day I was out by the pool two guys showed up, and I really don’t think one of them was you.”
“Oh.” Now Gabe remembered the day in question. “No, that was them. I couldn’t get to it. At least I thought I couldn’t, but they kind of got…” His brain caught up with his words.
“Yeah. I know.” She smiled, an apology behind it. “She can be that way. She acts like she owns the place.”
The thought of their respective places in life knifed into him. “Well, she does, doesn’t she?”
Holly didn’t reply for a moment. “They’re not married yet.” She shrugged. “And once they are, it’s only a matter of time.”
There it was again. The instability. The fear of having to be uprooted again. He yanked a weed out with particular vengeance. “I bet that gets old.”
“Never being sure about the future, about what happens tomorrow.”
She shrugged. “You get used to it.”
That, he doubted. He could see the reining in of trust and confidence. She knew it could all be gone tomorrow, and so she was hedging all of her bets today. His prayers found a new dimension. “Maybe that’s what I like about this.” He swept his hands in front of him and then sat back and put his hands on his angled thighs. “It’s the same. Once you learn the cycle, you know what comes next.”
She continued weeding. “Must be nice.”
He looked over at her and snagged for several seconds. “Yeah, it is.”
Thankfully her mother had been out shopping all day. Holly worked as fast as she could, knowing this would be her last day. The moment her mother found out about her job, the job would be over. It wasn’t wholly clear that she would even be welcome in Napa at that point, but she tried not to think about it. It was just depressing, and with everything in her, she was trying to stay away from that emotion.
At dinner her mother was in fine form, and Holly ate silently, wishing she knew how to pray a little better. This was an illusion, a total and complete illusion that would soon evaporate like boiling water. The illusion wobbled dangerously with the mention of Jean Paul.
“Holly, did you tell Luke how much fun you had this weekend with Jean Paul?” Her mother had a way of sounding thrilled about exactly the memories that made Holly sick. “They went to the beach together.”
It was a leading statement, meant to get Holly to fill in the details.
“Yeah,” she said, swallowing the roast duck with great difficulty. It was dry and tasted like cardboard. “It was great.”
Luke smiled at her. “I’m glad. Jean Paul is in need of a settling influence. My sister will be thrilled.”
“So, Holly,” her mother asked, gazing at her hopefully, “do you see a ring in the near future?”
A ring? It was so patently absurd she almost spit her soup across the room laughing. No. There would be no ring. There probably wouldn’t even be another date if she had anything to say about it. Not that she would have to make that decision. After Saturday, he was probably hot and heavy with Carly. “Uh, I don’t know. Maybe.”
It wasn’t the ringing endorsement her mother wanted, but it was the best she could do.
After only a second of concern, her mother squared her shoulders. “He will ask. Don’t you worry.”
Two dates. A guy who hardly knew she was around except to show off to his friends? Yeah, she was going to hold her breath for that one. “If you say so.”
As crazy-bizarre as the idea sounded, Holly couldn’t get it to leave her alone. The possibility that he was out at the carriage house pulled her heart and soul out onto the balcony. But what would she tell him? She wasn’t running tonight. Not really. Tonight she just wanted to be with him, to feel that peace for another fleeting moment.
She turned and looked back into the room, partially trying to talk herself out of it, and partially looking for a good enough excuse to go. Then she thought of it. Pushing from the railing, she went over to the little dresser. Rosa had brought them up earlier—washed and ironed. And really, who ironed sweats and a T-shirt?
The decision settled in her. Without another thought she strode to the balcony, tossed the clothes down to the ground far below, grabbed the trellis, and climbed down. This was crazy, but her heart knew it was right.
Peace at any price is not real peace. Trying to maintain peace when it is only a façade is not real peace. It is a denial of the truths of a soul, a belief in a control that is not truly available. To gather false peace with no truth underlying it is to hold to an illusion that will eventually be discovered because no illusion can ultimately stand the illumination of truth. Only that peace which would withstand full illumination is real. This is the real peace known by a rich soul who has surrendered his life to the light, banishing the illusions in favor of only those things that are truth.
The squeak of the door brought Gabe up off the back of the sofa. He needed this part about peace because if he allowed the truth to reach his mind, he would’ve had to confess that peace was very far away. He almost sat back, berating himself for being so jumpy, but in that moment he heard her voice.
“Gabriel? You up there?” She sounded hopeful yet unsure.
He stood slowly, laying the book aside, and walked to the railing. The picture of her standing there at the door, haloed by the soft moonlit night raced through his heart. “Yeah. I’m here. Come on up.”
Seeing him up there, hovering, made Holly sense the angelic quality she had perceived to emanate from him from the very beginning. She ducked, closed the door behind her, and started up the stairs. Flashes. Broken images of climbing these stairs in the dark assaulted her. She closed her eyes to block them out, beating the pain back as well. She didn’t want to feel the pressing of the fearsome darkness that had so clouded her soul when she had last climbed these steps. Still it followed, taunting her.
She was hardly breathing when she got to the top—not for the climb but for the all-out battle to erase every bad thing that had ever happened in her life. It seeped into her with a damp chill. Nonetheless, with everything in her, she wanted to be that for him—the angel he deserved, pure and hope-filled with no bad stuff anywhere around. It hurt that she never would be. She tucked a blonde strand behind her ear. “Uh, sorry to bother you. I just wanted to bring these back.” Holding the clothes out to him, she let her gaze plummet to the wooden planks at her feet. “Thanks.”
He held out his hands and took them, gazing at her in the way that unnerved her. In the red T-shirt with the dark unbuttoned shirt over it, his soft gaze touched the middle of her heart. Those eyes, like two pools of deep compassion, held out understanding that gripped her with a respect she didn’t deserve. He would never look at her like that if he knew.
Suddenly she had no idea what to do. The silence between them had stretched too long. She stuck her hands in her back pockets and glanced back down the stairs. The floor below seemed fathoms and fathoms away. “Well, I guess I’d better… go.”
His nod was slow and delayed. “Oh, okay. Yeah, of course.”
Not wanting to impose on his sanctuary anymore than she already had, she turned and put her hand out for the railing.
“Unless,” he said, stopping her with the word. “I mean, I’m sure you have tons to do, and everything, but…”
Holly turned back to him, hoping he was asking what she thought he might be. Her heart surged in her chest, wishing, hoping that she wouldn’t have to leave just yet.
Gabriel half-smiled, hopeful but hesitant. “You could stay a little bit… if you want.”
Overwhelming gratefulness filled her. She looked at him and met his half smile with one of her own. Not trusting her voice, she nodded. With his other hand full of clothes, Gabe put his hand out to her in invitation. Holly came back up the stairs and stepped past him into the loft she’d been in but had never really seen.
“Wow. This is nice.” She sat down on the old, threadbare couch and let her gaze take in the room. It wasn’t huge exactly, but the space above and below made it feel much bigger than it truly was. A single light dangled from the high ceiling above, fully lighting the immediate loft, but leaving the far side of the carriage house in shadows. As she perused the area, her gaze fell upon the half bookshelf standing to the side and back of the couch. “Are these your books?”
She stood and went to the bookshelf. It was crammed with books of every shape and size. “Man, you weren’t kidding.” She sat on her heels, running her hand over the spines, taking them all in. They held the key to him. She was sure of it.
Reverently she reached out to touch one stack on the second shelf down. Tilting her head, she read the titles. This Present Darkness. The Ragamuffin Gospel. Grace Walk. Grace Rules. “And these are all about God?”
“More or less,” he said from behind her.
Her gaze slid down the five shelves once more. “Wow. I can’t imagine reading this many books. You must be a fast reader.”
“You get better, the more you do. I was terrible at first.”
“Really?” She picked one up. This Present Darkness. She thumbed through it. It was hardly kindergarten reading material. The print was tiny, and there were several hundred pages in it. Her knee was cramping from the awkward position, and without really thinking about it, she turned her leg and sat down cross-legged.
Laying the first book on the floor beside her, she pulled another one out. The Ragamuffin Gospel. However, when she opened this one, the first thing that broke through her understanding was the incredible amount of markings on the pages. She laughed. “Wow. This one must’ve really been second hand.” She continued looking through it. There were pages that were hardly legible for all the markings.
“No, that was the first one I really started with. I go back to it a lot.”
Holly glanced up at him and then tried to read some of the writings in the margins, tilting the book first one way and then the other. “I don’t understand. You write in them?”
He shrugged. “It helps me remember the good parts.” There was a hesitation, but she was too enthralled to notice. “Sometimes it’s like I kind of have a conversation with the book as I write in them. It’s like the author and I are sitting down talking.” He reached up and scratched the back of his head. “Pretty weird, huh?”
“Oh.” She hadn’t really heard the question. “No. Not really.” She laid that book down and grabbed another one. It was like wanting to drink all of the ocean at one sitting. Grace Walk came off the stack next. She opened it and again there were markings. “So you write in all the books you read?”
“Only the good ones, but then, those are the only ones I get through.”
“And you’ve read all of these?”
“Yeah, a couple times.” He crossed his arms and shifted feet. “It helps me remember.”
A desire so deep it swept everything else away whipped through her. She read one sentence. Then another. Then a paragraph. Reading, but feeling somehow immersed rather than simply decoding words. How long she sat like that, she wasn’t at all sure. But the words were fascinating even if she couldn’t clearly grasp their depth.
“You know, you don’t have to sit over there in the dark,” he finally said. “The couch is a lot more comfortable.”
“Oh.” She looked up at him like she’d forgotten he was there. “Do you mind?”
He held his hand out for her, and she laid her hand in his. It was rough but strong. He pulled her to her feet and instantly stepped back and away.
“Hmm.” He cleared his throat as he ran the hand that had been in hers across the back of his neck. With unsteady movements, he went over to the little coffee table and moved the books on it.
Holly grabbed up the three books she’d been looking at and stepped over to the couch. Somehow the darkness by the bookcase was less intimidating. Nonetheless, she didn’t want to be rude after he’d been so nice to offer her a seat, so she sat down, pressed herself against the far side, stacked the books beside her, and opened the top one.
It was the big one with no markings. She flipped it to the first chapter and pushed her hair back to start reading.
Carefully he sat on the other side of the couch and picked up his own book from the coffee table. There was something so cozy about this, but at the same time it was completely weird. Here she was, sitting in a damp loft, with a guy, reading—of all things. Rebecca would never believe this one. However, Holly had hardly gotten that thought through her head when reading really kicked in, and she forgot the present reality and let herself fall into the story in her hands.
It was really hard to concentrate with Holly, the beauty queen, sitting on the other end of the couch. Gabe wanted to ask what she was doing here, if she was playing some kind of game with his mind or what. It couldn’t be that she was really interested in books. Were girls like her interested in books?
He thought back to high school, but there was so little of that time he’d wanted to remember that little details such as this hardly had a chance to stick. In frustration, he forced himself to focus on his own book. It was best to just let her be and concentrate on his own stuff.
The world does not hold out real peace. The world’s peace is a fake peace that says, “You will be at peace if you have… the newest car, the biggest bank account, the largest house on the block… if you just had your debt paid off or your house paid for… if you only had a better education or your own business…, then you will be at peace.” Tragically, those who get these things often find that peace has not arrived with their latest acquisition. Instead, peace is now, once again, out there, only now it’s somewhere else. Poor souls chase the rainbows of acquisition—acquisition of wealth, fame, and things. They have bought into the lie that peace can somehow be attained from something outside themselves.
This is not true, of course. Real peace is about where you are with yourself and recognizing where your greatest desires meet your greatest opportunities. Not some day. Not when or if… But right now. These desires are not the desires of the world, but those whispers of your being that God has planted deep in your soul to be your guiding force in showing you what your life is meant to be. They are what both shows you the next step and lets you take it in perfect confidence, knowing He has already ordained this moment long before you got here.
As you find these desires and begin to honor them for what they are showing you, and bringing you, you will stop chasing the false rainbows of the world and start believing in the you God created. You will begin to realize that most mountains are in your mind and most impossibles are only impossible because you say they are. Rich souls allow God to decide what is impossible. Poor souls think they know what is.
Gabe breathed that in and re-read it. Rich souls allow God to decide what is impossible. Poor souls think they know what is. Furtively he glanced over the book at her. She had pulled her feet up under her and was leaning both on the back and on the armrest of the couch. For all outward signs, there was no awareness of the outside world in her at all.
A soft gratefulness wafted through him. Maybe she was meant to come here. Maybe there was a purpose for their paths crossing. Quietly he closed his eyes and put his head back on the cushion. “God, show her what she’s missing. Fill in the pieces so she sees You. Give her You, God. She needs You so badly.”
Holly had long since lost track of time. It melted away like ice on a warm summer’s day. She turned yet another page, lost in the story, in the idea that there were angels standing at the ready to protect and defend against the demons stalking every move the characters made. It was like some giant chess match, influenced by the people’s choices but carried out on a plain mortals never see.
Halfway through that paragraph, motion on the other side of the couch attracted her attention. She glanced over, yanked back to reality by the understanding that he was still there. It was then that she noticed he was not reading. Instead his head was back, his eyes closed, his breathing soft and rhythmic. Holly lowered her book, enjoying the chance to simply watch him sleep. He seemed so peaceful, like he always did.
Her heart yearned for the peace his soul exuded. She noticed the book in his hands and tilted her head to read the title. True Power & Real Peace. She almost laughed out loud as she wondered if he had that one memorized. Feeling the hazy dream of being in a place so perfect slip over her, she laid her head on the couch back, watched him for a moment more, and then went back to reading.
The dream was so real. As the heaviness of reality began to press back in on him, Gabe shook his head and rubbed his eyes. Being with her, it was always such a good way to sleep. However, when he yawned the dream away, his gaze found hers looking at him.
She smiled that angel’s smile which made his heart dance. “Good morning.”
Panic both at how many hours might have passed and at her actually being here with him broke over him. “Morning? I haven’t been asleep that long, have I?”
Quietly she laughed. “No, not quite.”
He rubbed his eyes again. “What time is it anyway?” He picked up his arm and moaned. “Midnight? Why didn’t you wake me up?”
“I was afraid you might make me give the book back.”
Gabe pulled himself up from the couch and stacked his three books on the coffee table. “Mom’s going to kill me.” He sensed the hesitation that clung to Holly, but he didn’t really understand it—nor did he have time to contemplate it.
Slowly she stood as he gathered up the books and put them on the bookshelf. She followed him, making him feel the enormity of her presence in the loft. “Here.”
He turned, and she handed him two books. Then she held up the third.
“I’m kind of…” She didn’t finish the sentence, and there was something in her eyes he couldn’t quite read. “I mean… It’s your book and everything.”
A gear at a time his brain jerked into gear. “Oh, yeah. No problem. Take it.”
“I’ll bring it back. I promise.”
He spun to the bookcase, nerves and heart jumbling all the logic circuits in him. “Don’t worry about it. I won’t be reading it any time soon.”
“Are you sure? I’d hate…”
“Hey.” He turned back to her, wishing he wasn’t so flustered. His hand reached up and brushed across the tangled, matted hair on his head. He really needed a shower. “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”
At 2:30, Holly had to force herself to put the book down and turn off the light. The shadows in her room always brought a shivery chill to her. It was as if they had a life of their own. Now, she realized, they probably did. She felt the little fear demon huddling over in the corner, waiting for her to sleep so he could spin the web of darkness all over her in her dreams. She pulled the covers up to her chin and then over her head. Yes, it was comforting that there were warring angels from God out there, but they were in the loft—not here.
Breathing was like lifting a giant anvil up from her chest. She couldn’t wait for 7 a.m. to arrive. To be with him and the angels that surrounded him. They always had a way of chasing away all of her demons.
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2007