By Saturday night in the loft, the idea of not seeing her on Sunday was causing Gabriel’s brain gears to spin out of control. On the couch, her head lay on his leg as both of them read. He picked his book up slightly to look at her. No, tomorrow without her wasn’t going to work. The question of how any tomorrow without her would ever work tried to get in, but he pushed that thought away.
“So what are you doing tomorrow night?” he asked, the options racing through his mind.
Holly’s book fell to her chest as she looked up at him. “I don’t know. Am I not welcome here anymore?”
He smiled at the teasing tone. “Like I’d ever say that. No.” He moved, and she sat up. “I was just thinking. If you’re into all this praying and God stuff now, it might not be a bad idea to try church.”
He saw the word go through her eyes.
“Oh.” Her gaze fell. She mulled the suggestion for longer than it seemed necessary. “Well, okay.” Then she nailed him with her gaze. “But what about your parents? I don’t think your dad would be too keen on the idea.”
They hadn’t really confronted that issue, and Gabe nodded his understanding. “I think Dad’s a little gun shy where your mom is concerned.”
Holly lifted her eyebrows. “Did you tell him, welcome to the club?”
Gabe laughed. “That’s why I’m thinking we should go to the youth Mass instead of Sunday morning services. At least for now.”
She nodded although he couldn’t clearly tell if he had offended her with that suggestion. “Okay.” Lost in thought, she sat for a moment. “So, will you come pick me up or what?”
Ugh. The logistics of this were enough to give a person a headache. “Yeah. I guess that would be the easiest. I’ll be here about 6:30?”
There was an almost smile. “Okay. I’ll be ready.”
Sunday evening as Gabriel drove through the front gate and waved to Fredrico, the gatekeeper, he realized how many spies there were around. They didn’t mean to be spies, but in reality they were. Nerves slithered over him as he drove up to the mansion. He must’ve been crazy to even ask her. Eventually her mother would find out, or Mr. Teracini, or his father. The list was enough to make him seriously consider turning around.
However, before he had that chance, she bounded out of the house and down the steps. He couldn’t tell if she’d been thinking the same things, or if she was just excited. She hopped into the pickup, her soft blue sundress swirling at her ankles, and the question of what he was doing ran through him again.
Still he couldn’t stop the smile. “Ready?”
Her smile glowed on her face. “Let’s hit it.”
There was no real way to tell if what she was feeling was excitement or fear. When they pulled up at the little church, Holly slid out and let her gaze take in the scene. The white church stood on an incline, rising above the sidewalk and ramp below. There were trees standing guard on either side of the front doors which were dark and edged in black wrought iron.
Fear snapped over her, and a voice deep inside her asked what she thought she was doing here. If her mother ever found out, death would look preferable. She reached up and ran her hand over her other arm. A moment and Gabriel came around from the other side.
His green eyes exuded concern. “You okay?”
Holly’s gaze slid from the church to his, and courage filled her spirit. Slowly she nodded. Then between them, she felt his hand come around hers. It shocked her senses in a way she hadn’t expected. His hand was warm, and the long, smooth fingers curled over hers. Unnerved, her gaze fell to his hand.
Her heart sped up as she looked back up to him, and his smile was more in his eyes than his lips. It stopped her breathing with its depth and compassion. A moment of letting herself fall into the courage his eyes gave her, and then she nodded. The smile transferred halfway to his lips, and he turned for the church, pulling her along.
The climb was arduous, but in no time they had entered the tiny passageway. Inside, the church was stark, hardwood, with very few frills. Still, it was cozy. Up front and to the left the guitarists and singers tuned up and sifted through song sheets. Holly was following Gabriel, being pulled behind him a half step. They got to one bench, and he knelt to one knee reverently. He crossed himself as she had seen him do before, and she made a mental note to ask him about that. Then he stepped back so she could enter the bench first.
His hand had left hers, and she wrapped her arms over themselves, sitting but unsure of what to do or where to look. Next to her, he pulled out a padded kneeler and putting his head down, he made that cross thing again. And then, it was as if he had entered his own little world. She watched him from behind, trying to ascertain what he was doing and why. Yes, he was praying. That was obvious, but as she looked around, she noticed no one else was really doing much of anything. They certainly didn’t look like he did. The question of what he was telling God went through her, and at that moment, she would’ve given anything to hear it.
Then as suddenly as he had knelt, he crossed himself and sat. There was a brush of his lips with his thumb as well that she noticed this time. Once at her side, he only glanced at her as his hand found hers again. His world was so simple to be in. She wished at that moment that the rest of the world would go on spinning and just leave them here forever.
In minutes the choir started, and she stood with the others. It was a good thing for his hand because it steadied her. There were words and prayers she couldn’t really follow. Everyone else seemed to know what to do without much if any of a cue, but all she could do was stand there and take it all in. After only another few minutes, they sat and listened as a reader went to the front and said some words.
That one left, the choir sang, and another came to the front. Holly wanted to ask Gabriel a million questions by that point. Why they did it this way. What were they reading? Who was it reading? How they knew what to sing. It was overwhelming and mesmerizing at the same time. And then suddenly he stood, and not knowing what else to do, she stood next to him.
The man in the long, flowing green robes stepped to the lectern and began reading. Holly tried to follow. It was something about a vine and some branches and what happens if a branch isn’t producing. She wondered if this was tailored for this area of the world. Did they do this reading every time? It seemed so appropriate. Then in a breath it was over, and they were sitting down again. Just the ups and downs were enough to keep her guessing as to what was next.
The man with the green robes stepped from the lectern to the center of the top step. He was probably older than 50 but no older than 60 with darkish hair that had patches of silver in it. For a moment the crowd settled, and then they were still.
“The vine and the branches,” the man said. “We’ve all heard this story a hundred times, but it wasn’t until I went out recently to a vine grower and asked some questions that I learned some very important insights into this reading. You see, I’m new to this area, and vine growing is not really my specialty. So I wanted to find out what Jesus was talking about here.”
Gabriel’s hand slid over and into hers. Holly couldn’t stop the intake of air that caused, but she forced herself to refocus on the preacher.
“I’m sure you all have noticed the line in that reading about if a branch does not produce, then it is to be cut off, bound up, and thrown into the fire. It sounds harsh. So, when I went to my vine grower friend, I wanted to understand exactly what this process is about. What I learned on my trip to the vine dresser is this. Long before a branch is considered useless, a vine dresser will do everything in his power to coax it back to health. Far from going down the rows and cutting off anything that doesn’t produce or is not producing enough, the vine growers will go out in search of branches that have suffered setbacks. Let’s say he finds one that is covered in the mud of the earth, the vine grower does not cut it off and throw it out. No, first he lifts it gently from the earth, cleans it off carefully, and ties it up onto one of the supports. He may also give it extra nourishment for a while to coax it back to health.
“Why? Well, those of you who are in the vine growing business know why. It is because every branch is precious. Every single one. And the vine dresser knows that each has the potential of bearing much fruit if it is cared for properly. If he were to vindictively and impulsively cut off any one that had fallen, soon there would be few left and the rich harvest he is hoping for would never come to pass.
“So, every vine is precious in His sight.” He pointed to the ceiling. “Every single one. If you have fallen in the mud, He doesn’t just cut you off and throw you in the fire. He will first lift you up, clean you off, tie you to a support, and give you a chance to feel His power flowing through you again. It is true that apart from Him, you can do nothing, but with Him, ah, with Him, you will bear much fruit so the world will know that He cares for you, that He is working through you, that He loves you so very, very much—even if you’ve been in the mud, even if you thought you could never get out. You couldn’t, but He can. Trust Him to pick you up, clean you off, and give you a support. He will. It was His promise.” He walked back to the two little chairs. “Let us stand.”
And they were back to the up and down thing again. Holly heard not one more word. Not even one. Gabriel had told her that God would give her a second chance if she let Him. What had he said? Something about nothing in her past being bigger than God? As strange as it seemed, it was as if God was speaking directly to her through the preacher’s words. She wondered if Gabriel had come and spoken to the pastor, telling him about her situation. However, before she really had that thought, another sensation filled her body.
She felt it as surely as if it was happening right there in the church. She closed her eyes to its power. There was nothing else to do. Her breathing constricted so that she was almost panting. Tears threatened as she felt herself lifted up, taken up by strong, powerful hands. Warmth spread down her back, starting at her shoulders and heating all the way down. Her chin raised to the feeling of the sun on her skin even as knots of the knowledge of unworthiness knit across her brow.
“God,” she said from the depths of her heart, “are you sure? I’ve done some really awful things.”
It was as if she could see His smile from the depths of her soul. “Oh, little one,” He seemed to say, “you have no idea how much I’ve loved you. I’ve been there through all of it, waiting for you to turn to Me so I could show you how much I love you.”
“But Lord, they tried. Rebecca tried. Emily tried.”
“They were Me calling you back. But don’t worry about that. You are here now. That’s all that matters.”
“But how can You love me? Look at me. I’m a mess.”
She didn’t even question that she heard Him laugh. She did hear it. “That’s not the point, little one. The point is I love you. That’s all that matters.”
“But what will people think? Some of them know how I am, how I’ve been, how I was.”
“Oh, Holly, sweet child of Mine, you do not have to worry about what the world thinks of you. All that matters is what I think, and I think you are perfect just the way I made you.”
“But since then…”
“But what about…?”
“Because I love you. Do you understand that? Because I love you. That’s how. That’s why. That’s all that has ever mattered, and all that will ever matter from now on.” Then He said it very slowly emphasizing each word as it fell from Heaven to her being. “I love you.”
She felt the tears sliding down her cheeks. His love filled her whole soul, spilling out, and splashing at her feet. How could it be that He could love her so much even after everything she had done?
“I love you, Holly,” He said over and over again, filling her spirit with the words. “I love you so much. I’ve always loved you, and I always will.”
Next to her, softly, Gabriel’s hand came over hers, and gratitude to God for him gushed through even the love, expanding her heart with its power. Like a vine now tied to its support, she grabbed on, sniffing back the tears that were flowing freely. When she opened her eyes and looked at Gabriel, the best she could do was smile through the tears. His eyes said he would ask, later. She was sure of it. But would she ever be able to put this into words?
Once again, she closed her eyes. “Thank You, God. Thank You so much.”
The choir started singing. It was about opening your heart to His love, about letting Him in. Holly had to beat back the laugh to keep her joy from finding the air around her. How could anything feel this wonderful? How could she ever have waited so long?
Gabe knew as surely as he was standing next to her that God had done something amazing. In fact, all during the sermon he was praying that she would hear and grab on. God sure had a way with things. In the pickup on the way back to the mansion, Gabe looked over at her, wanting to ask, but not wanting to intrude. She was glowing. It was as if she wasn’t even in the pickup anymore, so he turned his attention back to the road.
At the gate he hated to ask, but he had no choice. “You want me to take you home?”
Surprise jumped to her face. “We can’t go to the loft?”
He smiled. “No, we can. I just wasn’t sure…”
“I don’t want to go back. Not yet.”
With a spin of the wheel, they were headed down the back trail. They bounced over the couple of potholes and pulled up to the carriage house. However, when he shut off the pickup, she only leaned her head back onto the seat. Her gaze was out the front windshield on the eastern sky painted in pinks and purples as the sun sank behind them.
“He’s incredible, huh?” she asked softly.
Gabe knew immediately. He let his heart say it. “Yeah. He is.” Leaving it at that, he gave her the space to be in the moment without his interference.
“Did you always know He loved you as much as you do now?” The question was breathless and deep.
His gaze went from her out to the sky beyond as well. It was like recalling a different lifetime, one that seemed now but a dream. “No,” he said simply. “I had to learn the hard way.”
She nodded. “I wonder if it’s better that way.” Her eyes narrowed on the thought. “If you always knew He loved you, maybe it wouldn’t feel like this.”
Gabe slid his leg over an inch. “No, I think there always comes a point when you realize just how special what He’s offering you is—even if you’ve known Him your whole life.” He traced through his own life. “Take me for example. I was baptized when I was two weeks old, but I didn’t really get any of it until much later.”
Holly shook her head. “There’s so much I don’t know, that I don’t understand. Like that… bap….”
“tized,” he finished for her.
“I don’t even know what that means, but it’s like on one hand I want to know all of it, and on the other, I know it really doesn’t matter. All that matters is how much He loves me.”
The center of Gabe’s heart filled with gratefulness to God for saving her life. His thoughts slid back to the moment of seeing her under those stairs, and a whisper of thanks went through him. “It’s funny how knowing that changes so many things.” His own past slipped into his memory. It hurt to remember he’d ever been so lost. “And how hard it is to learn and accept sometimes.”
“I know. Why didn’t I listen a year ago when Rebecca tried to get me to go to Bible Study? And why did I all of a sudden get it when I came here?”
“I think sometimes,” Gabe said slowly, wondering how deep he was allowed to go, “we have to get to the bottom of thinking we can do it ourselves. We have to come to the end of our power before we will accept His help. For some of us, that takes more than a few knockdowns. Sometimes it takes a few knockouts.”
Her gaze turned to him, and in it he read so much. “Thank you.”
The smile brushed through him. “It wasn’t…”
“I know. It wasn’t you.” Serenity drifted through her gaze. “But you didn’t take off, you didn’t run. You let Him shine through you. That was you. It was you being willing.”
He knew well what she was saying. A light in the darkness could make all the difference. “I’m just passing on the gift that was given to me, and one day you’ll pass it on to someone else.”
“I hope so,” she said softly. “I hope so.”
For two weeks Holly had been living in God’s love, and it was truly amazing. The fear which had once clung to her every move had been banished. The one night she’d come back from the loft to find it hanging around in her room—telling her this couldn’t last, telling her it would never work, telling her it was silly to even think it was working now—she had banished it like a bat knocking one out of the park. It felt great to know Jesus was standing with her against the forces that had controlled her life for so long.
She had finished This Present Darkness and Grace Walk. She was now deciphering The Ragamuffin Gospel. It wasn’t always easy around all of Gabriel’s markings. Some of them cracked her up. Some intrigued her. Twice they had spent an entire evening discussing two pages he had marked so much they were all-but unreadable.
Her spirit was opening up in ways she hadn’t been able to even think possible before. Prayers in the morning, reading, being with him in the evenings—each experience was blessedly tailored to the exact lesson she needed right then.
Even the shower for her mother, which she had dreaded like the plague, went off so smoothly, Holly knew she wasn’t the one running this thing. She couldn’t be. If it had been her, she would have been reduced to tears by her mother’s best friend Judy’s snide remarks about her current employment situation.
“Well, now you getting that job was awfully convenient, wasn’t it?” Judy had asked over her punch glass.
“Yeah,” Holly said, truly without thinking about it, “especially after Mom practically locked me in my room to keep me from getting one. It was sure a good thing there was one so close.”
Judy sneered at the reply and slunk off. What Holly felt wasn’t even pride. It was gratefulness.
She stirred the punch a bit more. “Thanks, Holy Spirit.”
And so it was the Sunday before the big day the coming Saturday. Holly’s whole being was focused on getting through dinner and out to the loft as fast as she could. She didn’t even see the wild pitch coming at her.
“So I guess you and Jean Paul have made plans already,” her mother said over her soup.
Holly choked on the potato. “Plans? For what?”
“For what. The wedding of course. Will he be here early, or is he coming for the rehearsal on Friday?”
Wow. It was completely unbelievable how speechless one person could be. The trains of thoughts smashed one into another, sending cars hurdling through brain air. “Oh. I don’t know…” A lie was right there, winding its way into being when suddenly she stopped it with a whack. She pulled herself up, holding courage to her. It felt like stepping out into nothingness. “Actually, Jean Paul and I broke up.”
Her mother spewed the soup in her mouth back into her bowl. Quickly she grabbed for her napkin and dabbed at her mouth, grasping for ladylike and missing by a mile. “Broke up? When… when did this happen?”
“A while back. We just weren’t right for each other.”
Across the table, Holly felt her mother look at Luke. “And when were you planning on telling us this?”
Holly shrugged as she took a sip of her soup. “It’s not national news. We tried it. It didn’t work. No reason to get upset.”
It took her mother a full minute to get anything else out. Remarkably Holly’s nerves were on full stand down. There was no panic anywhere in her.
“So you’ll be dateless for the wedding then? How will that look?”
Luke set his water glass down. “Like she is a young woman who is charting her own course in the world.”
She smiled at Luke gratefully even as the craziest thought in the world attacked her. “Who says I don’t have a date?”
Both gazes found her as she ladled more soup into her mouth. True, she hadn’t made church since that first time, but they were planning to meet later in the loft. The thought that Gabriel might tell her no, or worse, laugh in her face brought up a bit of trepidation, but she was out of the boat walking on water. This was no time to look back.
“Who is he?” Luke finally asked. “Do we know him?”
Holly demurred. “It’s not really finalized yet. I’d hate to say something, and it not work out.”
“Ah.” Luke raised his chin in understanding. Then he lifted his glass to her. “Well, I for one think this mystery man is very, very luck indeed.”
The smile was easy, even under the glare from the other end of the table.
“Hey, girl,” Gabe said when he heard the door squeak open and her steps begin up the staircase. “What took you so long? I was starting to get…”
The words trailed into oblivion as up the stairs came every dream he’d ever had. Normally she wore minimal make up and raggedy jeans. Tonight it was obvious she had done more than throw whatever on.
“Wow.” He sat back on the couch, his eyes going wide as he let his gaze take in the full picture of her. The make up, not heavy but enough, brought out the pink in her cheeks and her full red lips. Her sleeveless white top sparkled in just the right places setting off the black pants and the silver belt. The transformation was incredible. He surveyed her slowly, first trying to get his brain to believe his eyes and then trying to figure out what it all meant.
Nervously, she ran her red fingernail up and to her hair. She looked on the verge of running, and Gabe’s brain caught up with the rest of him. He swallowed all the comments and sat back, hoping he could sound semi-normal through the shock.
“So are we reading, or do you have other plans?” The thought that she might in fact have other plans slammed into him. Maybe Steve had come back, and she was coming to tell to let Gabe know she wouldn’t be coming over any more. Concern slapped into him hard. If she did have other plans, what then?
“No, I don’t have other plans.” Her gaze fell to the floor, and a slow step at a time she approached the couch where she sat down primly on the other end. His gaze followed her every step and then all the way down.
He was beginning to be seriously concerned. “Okay. So what’s the deal then? You look like you’re headed out to the Country Club.” It wasn’t him talking. It really wasn’t. It was the shock or maybe the fear, but it wasn’t him.
“I just…” She looked at him for a split second and then turned her gaze away. For a moment nothing came, and then she closed her eyes and heaved a breath. She stood and walked over to the railing, a move he didn’t like at all. His gaze followed her to where she stood, looking over.
Finally, he could take not knowing no longer. “Holly?” He stood, going to her as what would happen with his heart paled in comparison to whatever she had to tell him. At the railing, he took hold of her elbow and turned her to him. When she still wouldn’t look at him, he tilted his head to be able to see into her eyes. “Hey, what’s going on?” His hands were on her bare arms, and she made no move to shake them off. Fear slammed his heart against his chest. “Whatever it is, it’s okay. You can tell me.”
She glanced at him and shook her head. “This wasn’t supposed to be so hard.” Her eyes searched his for courage and assurance that she wasn’t about to make a huge mistake.
He willed peace into his gaze and heart. It wasn’t easy. “Hey, it’s okay. Just say it.”
Her eyes fell closed, and she blew out another long slow breath. When her eyes came open again, she was gazing right into his soul. “I want you to go with me to the wedding.”
The words hit him like a one-two punch. For one moment he couldn’t move at all. It was as if his brain and body had flash frozen. He couldn’t have heard her right. Slowly his hands dropped from her arms. “The wedding? Me?” He took a step back, turned from her, and ran his hand through his hair. She couldn’t be serious. The wedding? His heart rammed into his ribs so hard it hurt. If he showed up at that wedding, her mother would call the cops, not to even mention what his father would do or say.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Holly said from behind him. “Believe me, I know, but it’s a really big day for me, and when I think about it, I can’t imagine anyone other than you being there with me.”
Utter disbelief seeped into every fiber of his body, and when he turned back to her, the fact that she was Miss America didn’t help. “You can’t be serious.” He tried to laugh it off, but it didn’t work. To show her how crazy this was, he held his hands out and looked down at his clothes. “Look at me. I’m the handyman, the groundskeeper. I’m beer and pretzels not Dom Perignon and caviar.”
“I don’t care about that, any of it.” Her eyes shimmered with unshed tears as she pleaded with him not to say no. “I’m going to need all the encouragement and strength I can get that day, and I want my best friend by my side.”
“Best…” It should have been the biggest compliment of his life. Instead, he shook his head to keep himself from letting hope get a grip. “Holly, this is crazy. I can’t go with you. How would it look? What would people say?”
She shrugged. “Doesn’t matter.”
“Doesn’t matter?” he asked incredulously. “Are you kidding me? Of course it matters! Those people have a code of honor, and me showing up isn’t in it.”
A moment and she pulled herself up and lifted her chin. “Well, I don’t care. If they judge you because of your clothes or because of what you do for a living, then they don’t really know you, and that’s their problem.”
Helplessness overtook him. “But…”
“Look,” she said, sounding more emphatic than he’d ever heard her, “I want you to go with me. Okay? Now, if you don’t want to go with me, fine. Tell me that. But don’t turn me down because of what some stuck-up, conceited snobs have to say about it. Let them talk. That’s about them, not about us.”
Us. His mind spun with the word. “What about…?”
He nodded unable to get all the fear into words.
Holly shrugged. “She can deal with it. Remember that verse you read me the other night about how God judges each of us not on the merits or failures of our parents but by our own actions? Well, she’s my mother. She’s not my keeper. This is my life, not hers.”
Had he only known this moment would come, he would never have read that verse to her. “Holly. Come on. Really.” He laughed a short laugh, hoping she would abandon this craziness. “Look at you. I can’t show up looking like me. I look like the Hunchback compared to you.”
Concern went through her eyes. “You’re kidding, right? Don’t you get it? I’m standing here because of you. Because of you I’m not splattered all over that floor down there or lying in some coffin somewhere. Do you really think I care that you’re not showing off your tan from Bermuda?”
His protests ran smack into her sincerity and the fear in her eyes.
“If you don’t want to go with me, tell me that,” she challenged and then stood waiting for his answer. “Just say it, and I’ll drop it and never ask again.”
Of course he wanted to go with her. That was the only thing he was certain of in this whole situation. In fact there was nothing he wanted more. But was wanting it enough to trump every obstacle standing in their way?
“Are you sure about this?” he finally asked in partial surrender.
“I would’ve have asked if I wasn’t.”
He closed his eyes, trying to get ‘No, I don’t want to go with you’ to come out. He was as crazy as she was even to consider this. Still, his heart wouldn’t let him say what he knew he should. After a moment he opened his eyes and scratched the side of his head. “Well, okay, as long as I can go on record with the fact that you are certifiable for even thinking this is a good idea…”
Hopeful joy sprang to her eyes. “Is that a yes?”
He shook his head. “I can’t believe I’m saying this. That’s a yes.”
“Yea!” She literally jumped in the air twice clapping. When she stopped, she looked up. “Oh, thank You, God. Thank You. Thank You. Thank You. Good job, Holy Spirit.”
Gabe corkscrewed his face. “Hey now, no fair ganging up on me.”
“Hey, I’ll take all the help I can get.”
Holly had done it so many times, she didn’t even think about it. Quietly she let herself in the front door and climbed the stairs. She opened her bedroom door with no sound at all. What she really wanted to do was scream her happiness to the world. Instead she’d have to be content to wait until tomorrow to phone Rebecca.
Two steps into the room, however, she stopped at the odd chill that permeated it. It hadn’t felt this cold since…
“Where’ve you been?”
The yelp of fear leaped from her just as she reached for the light on the nightstand. She yanked it on and spun around.
Next to the bathroom door sat her mother on the little vanity table chair. She stood, slowly, regally, menacingly. “I said, ‘Where have you been?’”
Fear pummeled into Holly, but she stepped through it and over to the balcony doors, standing open. She grabbed them and shut them. Then she turned. “What do you care?”
“Does the fact that I’m your mother not even register with you any more? Look at me, I’m beating my brains out here to make a nice life for you, and what do you do? Disrespect me at every turn, take advantage of our hospitality. Is this how you repay me?”
Holly strode over to her desk. “This isn’t about repaying you, Mom. This is about me living my life, my way.”
“What? Running around doing God knows what with God knows who?”
God knew very well, and Holly was proud of that fact. She turned and faced her mother. “If you must know, I was out with Gabriel.”
There, it was out. The fireworks could officially start.
“Gabriel?” Her mother’s face fell into dark confusion. “Who is Gabriel? One of Jean Paul’s friends?”
It was so funny that Holly laughed. “No. He’s about as far from Jean Paul as you could get.” She knew what the next admission would bring. She wasn’t worried for herself, but she said a quick prayer for Gabriel and his family. “He’s on the grounds crew.”
“The grounds… He’s the groundskeeper?” The words tilted on the fury.
“One of them. We’ve been seeing each other for a while now, at night and in the morning in the garden.”
“You’re sleeping with the groundskeeper?”
It was the strangest thing because Holly only thought of being with Gabriel someday in some far away place where they could be together for real. She’d never asked, but she knew instinctively that he wasn’t a summer fling kind of person. “I’m not sleeping with anyone, Mother. Gabriel is my friend, and I intend to keep it that way no matter what you say.” She reached for the dagger. “In fact, we’re going to the wedding together.”
What she expected was nothing compared to what came. “Over my dead body. You will not show up with that trash to my wedding!”
Holly squared her shoulders. “Then maybe I just won’t show up at all.”
Fiery arrows shot out of her mother’s eyes. “You wouldn’t dare.”
With a shrug, Holly turned back to straighten the papers at her desk. The letter from Boston Central that she hadn’t yet opened stared up at her. Her class schedule, but she pushed that thought out and with one more tamp, turned back for her mother. “What difference does it make? In a month I’ll be going back to Boston anyway, and you can spin whatever lies you want to about me.”
“I forbid you to see him ever again.”
Holly actually laughed. “Like you forbade me from getting a job? Like you forbade me from going to Boston? The forbidding thing doesn’t work anymore, Mom. I’m me. I’m Holly. I don’t need your permission to be who I am anymore.”
“You are a selfish little wench.”
Funny how the barbs didn’t even hurt. As she looked at her mother, what she saw was Satan losing a battle he had thought he’d won a long time ago. “If you don’t want us there, that’s perfectly fine, Mom. We’ll find somewhere else to be, but if I’m coming, I’m bringing Gabriel.”
“We’ll see about that.” With that, her mother stomped out of the room. When she was gone, Holly sighed. She hated that her mother didn’t understand, that she questioned every motive her daughter had and every move her daughter made. Still, Holly understood now that she had no control over that. Her mother made her own decisions; she no longer spoke for Holly.
Quietly she got ready for bed. Gabriel would’ve been proud of her—if he wasn’t horrified. When the light was off, she looked up at the ceiling. “God, guide my steps with Gabriel and my mom. Give us all peace. Amen.”
“I hear you’re bringing a date Saturday,” Luke said the following day.
Holly had assumed he would say nothing since he hadn’t until nearly four o’clock. However, with that one sentence her hopes fell into good luck with that. “Yeah. I don’t think Mom is too thrilled.”
He leaned on her desk. “I kind of gathered that. So this boy is the groundskeeper here?”
She couldn’t read his tone, so she nodded. It was important to her that he didn’t think the horrible things her mother already did. “He really is a nice guy, Luke. He works hard, and he’s really smart. He’s even going to college…”
Luke laughed. “You don’t have to sell him to me. Gabriel and his father have been here since before I arrived. They are very humble, hardworking people.”
“But he’s not rich.” Then she corrected herself. “Not like money rich anyway.”
He slid his leg slightly. “There are many more things in this life than being money rich. Believe me.” He thought for a minute and then pointed at her. He stood from the desk and sat in the chair across from her, touching his finger to his bottom lip thoughtfully. “Have I ever told you about my father?”
Holly shook her head, wondering what that had to do with anything.
Luke nodded as he put the story together in his head. “My father was a ship builder. We were not rich growing up. We hardly had ten lira to our name, but my father taught me about how to work hard and how to believe in what you are doing. He would ask me every day who I had helped that day and why. He wanted me to learn to work hard, but he also wanted me to see something other than wealth as important and worthwhile.”
The words stopped as Luke gazed up and around at the house. “I think he would be impressed with what I’ve managed to accumulate, but he’d be more impressed with the lives I help by using my skills and my love of wine to help others. Do you know how many people this winery employs?”
“Seventy-two,” she answered, having seen the reports.
“Seventy-two. That’s 72 families who have food on their tables and a roof over their heads. That’s not a boast. That’s a responsibility, and that’s what I see in Gabriel and his father too. They care about doing a good job. They care about those around them. They may not have great material wealth, but they are wealthy were it really counts.”
Hearing him talk like this, Holly wanted so badly to ask him why in the world he was marrying her mother—the queen of take all you can get and squash anyone who gets in your way. However, she was too grateful to put those ugly words into the air. “So you don’t mind then?”
“Mind?” Luke stood. “I think you’ve made a fine choice. Now, what did I come out here for? Oh, yes, the lot numbers of last year’s crop.”
The rest of the week Holly did her best to stay out of her mother’s way. It wasn’t terribly hard because the whirlwind of getting ready for the wedding had shifted into full-gear. The ceremony would be at the gazebo and the reception by the pool. Although Holly joined Gabriel for weeding in the mornings, the truth was his mind was too preoccupied with the coming events to do too much talking or praying.
He seemed much more nervous than he ever had, and when she tried to ask about it in the loft, he told her they were all working overtime trying to get things ready. He assured her it had nothing to do with her or her offer, but she wasn’t at all sure she believed him.
On Saturday late in the afternoon she stood at her mirror, turning slightly to observe the off the shoulder deep indigo dress. It was held up with two faux diamond straps and had an undulating neckline with sleeves that dropped off each shoulder. She examined her hair which was parted on the far side and swept back into a tight ponytail. It wasn’t salon styled like her mother wanted, but that was okay. It suited her and the dress.
The cell phone on her bed beeped, and she snatched it up. “Hello?”
“Are you sure you don’t want to just meet me at the loft?”
She laughed. “Maybe we’ll escape right after they say their vows.”
“I can’t talk you out of this?” He’d never sounded more nervous.
“I promise,” she said, knowingly. “I’ll protect you.”
“That’s comforting.” He sighed. “Okay. I’m here. Now what?”
“Meet me at the front door.” She snapped off the cell phone and pitched it to the bed. “God, be with us.”
There simply were no words to describe getting out of that pickup and walking up to the front door. Gabe wasn’t even breathing. True, he was moving, but he had no idea how. His brain hurt from lack of oxygen or from fear, he couldn’t tell which. He readjusted the tie at his neck, snapped out his sleeves, reached up, and rang the doorbell. What greeted his sight when she opened the door almost made up for all the nerves.
With wide-eyed shock, he gazed at her up and down. This had to be some kind of elaborate dream. “Wow. You look… amazing.”
And as if by some magic, she smiled and amazing went flying off the charts. “Thank you.” She raised an eyebrow. “You’re looking pretty amazing yourself.” She reached for his elbow. “Come on.” Dragging him in, she shut the door.
Gabe put his hands in his pockets. They were so sweaty, he didn’t trust them anywhere else.
She linked her arm through his and leaned toward him. “I’m so glad you came.”
“Holly, you’re wanted for pictures in the garden,” Rosa said, ducking in. “Miss Judy is about to have a fit.” She ducked back out.
“Miss Judy?” Gabriel asked, wide-eyed with the fear spiraling inside him.
“My mother’s best friend and matron of honor.”
That did nothing to calm the fear. “Oh.”
“Come on before they have a meltdown.”
Gabe allowed himself be led through the house into and through rooms he had never even seen. The house was truly huge. On the other side of the living area, Holly slid the pool door open. The sunshine beyond was just beginning to cool. It would be a nice evening for the wedding. As they strode around the pool, Gabriel mentally checked everything. He’d been out here not three hours before making sure everything was perfect, and now here he was again—not as the help this time but as a quasi-guest. It was a weird shift to make.
“Oh, Holly, thank goodness,” a tall lady in a pink taffeta said, appearing at the trellis. “You need to get out here. They’re doing the family pictures.”
Although the nerves were about to take him under, Gabe noticed how Holly never even sped up. She was moving to her own commands now not everyone else’s, and he smiled at that understanding. Arm-in-arm they crossed under the trellis into the garden. How many times he had seen that garden, he had no idea, but it had never looked like this. Darius and Tim had spent the day stringing up tiny sparkling lights from one end to the other. Coupled with the explosion of color from the flowers, the effect was breathtaking.
Holly leaned over to his ear. “Good thing we’ve been weeding.”
He looked at her in awe. “Yeah, no kidding.” However, his gaze stayed on her as her beauty overtook everything else. Only when they went past the pond and out into the open area of the gazebo did he retrain his gaze to the surroundings. The gazebo was lit with those same pinpoints of light. It was truly gorgeous in the fading West Coast sunshine.
“Finally you’re here.” Her mother, regal in her white satin gown, motioned to Holly from the gazebo. “Come on. We’re ready for you.”
Letting go of Gabe’s arm, Holly gazed at him for a second that stopped his heart. “Don’t run, k?”
He needed the reminder. “Smile pretty.”
Like she could get any prettier. He watched her walk over, and take her place on the gazebo steps next to her mother and Mr. Teracini. They really made a lovely picture. Gabe rubbed his nose as anxiety grabbed him, and he faded back into the leaves of the tree. He watched as they took four pictures and then broke up to get ready for the service.
“Gabriel,” Holly called from the gazebo. She motioned for him to come over, and terror grabbed hold of him. She had to be kidding. But still she was waving him over with a smile, and he really couldn’t pretend he didn’t hear her.
His steps had never been slower, or his reluctance as great. Had he walked all the way to China, it wouldn’t have felt as far. When he was finally by her side, it was all he could do to keep himself from fidgeting right out of his shoes.
“Luke, Mom, this is Gabriel Cabrelos. Gabriel, Luke and my mother.”
Without pause Mr. Teracini held out his hand. “Gabriel, it’s nice of you to come.”
“Sir.” Gabriel shook his hand. Then he turned to the Ice Queen. He held out his hand, hoping she wouldn’t freeze him in place. “Ma’am.” For the longest moment of his life, she didn’t move.
“Gabriel.” Her hand was as cold as her eyes.
“Thank you for letting me come,” he said, stepping back beside Holly and putting his hand on her back. “It’s an honor. Really.”
Holly was looking up at him with pride. He could feel it, and he needed that look more than she would ever know. Yet he couldn’t look at her lest they all guess everything that was in his heart. If he could just keep this nice and on the surface, maybe his heart had a chance at surviving.
“Linda!” Judy hissed from just beyond the chairs. “The guests are arriving, girl. Get in here.”
“It’s show time,” Luke said. Then he held his hand out to Gabe once more. “Thank you for coming.”
Gabe shook his hand and then watched Luke give Holly a hug. The truly happy smile on her face made his heart happy as well.
“Love you, sweetheart.” Luke kissed the top of her head.
Holly soaked the love in. It was plain to see how much she needed a stable father figure in her life. Gabe was glad she had someone as solid and kind as Mr. Teracini to be her stepfather. She deserved that. When she stepped back, she smiled at the older man. “Thank you.”
“Thank you,” he said. His gaze traveled over them to the arriving guests. “And now, if you’ll excuse me.” He stepped past them and down the gazebo steps.
Watching him go, Holly put her arms over herself. “Man, I wish this one would have a prayer of working.”
Gabe’s gaze went to her with concern. He wanted to ask, but he didn’t have the heart. After a moment, her gaze met his. She smiled, and in that smile he read it all—the hopes of the past crushed, the let downs, the tears. She knew going in it wasn’t going to last, and it was killing her.
Putting her hand on his arm, she stepped past him. “Come on. Time to shine.”
The wedding really was lovely—much better than the Justice of the Peace thing with Dan, the Vegas escapade with Jack before that, and the church thing with Peter that even Holly barely remembered. After all, how could you get any better than sunset overlooking a vineyard? Still, Holly knew as they said their vows that her mother would try. Some day she would try to top even this. There was a hollowness in Holly’s spirit, a space that happiness couldn’t quite reach. That place knew her mother meant nothing of what she said. They were empty words. Nice and romantic, but still empty.
When the minister said Luke could kiss his bride, there was applause, and Holly clapped but with no real feeling. And then it was over. Luke and her mother walked up the aisle. It was the beginning of the end. She knew that in every part of her. The clapping subsided, and people began to file out toward the pool area.
Gabriel turned to her, and his smile told her he knew too. “That was nice.”
“Yeah, nice,” she said. Her gaze dropped from his. “How long do we have to stay before we can leave?”
Concern and disbelief ripped to the surface. “Holly.”
“I know. I know. I’m kidding.” She glanced at the departing guests. “I think.”
There was hardly a smile. Looking at her with barely concealed worry, he stepped out and let her out as well. He stayed right there next to her, close enough to be there, but not close enough to look gaudy. She liked that about him. He never pushed. Protected, supported, encouraged, yes. Pushed, no. They walked slowly back through the garden.
“It really does look nice out here,” he said, gazing around at the flowers.
“Wonder why.” Holly’s heart lifted for the first time in over an hour. “It is beautiful, you know.”
His green eyes wrapped hers in compassion and gratefulness. “I had lots of good help.”
It was crazy, she knew, but she couldn’t help herself. She let her hand fall between them to search for his. The second his long fingers wrapped over hers, she wanted nothing more than to skip the reception. Why was it imperative that they hang out with these people they didn’t even know? Why did she have to be here when it was so obviously her mother’s night in the spotlight? But she knew. They wouldn’t leave. They couldn’t.
Crossing into the pool area which had the lights circling it as well, they didn’t stop until they were on the other side of the twinkling pool. People jammed into every inch of the space, and Holly suddenly knew why her mother wanted the pool area for the reception—it was smaller than the garden, so it looked more crowded. Anger and embarrassment to be put in the middle of such a charade traced through her. How did she keep ending up here? She took her hand from his, depressed that she had dragged him into her nightmare. He didn’t deserve this. Why had she thought bringing him here was a good idea? It wasn’t a good idea. It was a selfish idea.
She considered apologizing, but that might be bad etiquette. Worse, he might ask, and she might have to explain, and right now she couldn’t chance putting what she was feeling into words.
Time stretched through itself. It was awkward standing there, being there but not having anything to do. Across the way Luke and her mother were cutting the cake, toasting each other, smiling for the camera. It was hard not to think all the thoughts that came at these moments. How long? What next? When? Why? How?
Only the details were lacking in how the whole thing would end. Dread began its slow creep into her spirit. Her gaze fell from the happy scene in front of her that was ripping her heart out with each passing second.
“Would you like some punch?” Gabriel asked, leaning closer to her, clearly searching for something to do.
She shrugged. “Sure.” She followed him around the pool never allowing herself to really attach to the moment. At the punch table, he took two small glasses and handed her one. A sip of the tart lemonade style punch made her pucker. “Wow. That’s some serious punch.”
“Better than my coffee,” he said as he tipped his own cup up.
The laugh attacked her without warning. Had she had lemonade, she would’ve spewed it all over everything. Instead she whacked his arm.
His laugh joined hers as he put the cup to his lips. “What? Am I lying?”
She shook her head. “No. Your coffee is pretty awful.” Her spirit began to uncoil.
He tipped his cup at her. “Like I said.”
The waiters now had the cake and were striding through the milling crowd serving it. One waiter came by them.
Holly waved him off. “No thanks.”
“Me either,” Gabe said just as music filled the area. Near the cake, Luke took his bride into his arms, and they began to dance. Even Holly had to admit they looked happy.
For a moment she watched them. Then she turned to Gabriel, not wanting to put more memories of the futility of this night into her brain. “So tell me about school. What are you taking this semester?”
The question threw him for a moment. He scratched his eyebrow with his thumb. “Oh, well I’ve got a couple of senior electives, final management classes, that kind of thing.” He swirled the lemonade and crushed ice in the glass. “You?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t really declared a major yet. I think I’d like to teach preschool or kindergarten, but that’s not very glamorous.”
Playful skepticism slid across his dark features. “Are you kidding? I’m still in love with Miss Russo.”
Intrigued, she turned to him. “Who’s Miss Russo?”
“My kindergarten teacher of course. Oh, man. She was the greatest ever. Finger painting, story-telling, tag— my kind of woman.”
Holly laughed and pushed him good-naturedly. “You nut.”
“What? I’m serious. She was awesome.”
She knew he was kidding, but still, it was nice to know he didn’t dismiss her dream outright. Others at the reception began to drift out to dance. Holly watched them, wishing but knowing he wouldn’t ask. Anchoring her arm across her body, she took another sip. They were here as friends. Friends. That was it. She turned slightly away from him to watch the others.
It was a beautiful night. The sky had faded to soft navy, and there was only a hint of a breeze drifting through the festivities. It would’ve been absolutely perfect had it been just the two of them and the possibility of being together for real in their grasp.
Moments and more moments piled up. Then suddenly, Gabriel turned to her. Without really asking, he took her glass from her hand and set it on the table with his. Then he turned back to her.
“Holly?” He put out his hand.
Butterflies jumped to life in her stomach. “Yes?”
His green eyes glinted with amusement. “May I have this dance?”
Never would she ever have even had the guts to pray for this. Carefully she laid her hand in his. “I’d be honored.”
He led her a few steps away from the table and turned gallantly. His hand on the small of her back was warm and gentle, pulling her to him. She put her arm up to his shoulder, and at first told herself she needed to keep her distance. With no effort his movement started hers. Her gaze slipped to his, and everything else vanished. The music moved through them, over them, around them, caressing them in its softness.
The admonitions in her vanished as he pulled her ever closer. Her breathing fell through her heart as she suddenly found herself in the only space she’d ever truly wanted to occupy. Knowing it was a dream but wanting only to hold onto it forever, she closed her eyes and melted into him. The feel of him holding her, guiding her as if she had to do nothing other than follow was incredible.
Slowly she let go of everything—the hurt, the concern, the past, the future. The present, this present, being in his arms was enough to anchor her to this one moment. Gratitude for everything he had done for her flowed through her spirit. The talks, the prayers, all of it. She wanted to tell him, to thank him, but how could she? How could she ever put it all into words?
The night wrapped around them as the emotion of how utterly perfect this was and how much she wanted it never to end jammed into her throat. How she’d even gotten lucky enough to spend even one magical summer with him was beyond her. The lights relinquished their hold on them as they swayed from the lights of poolside to under the roof overhang. That was okay. She didn’t want to be front-and-center anyway. This was about them, not everyone else. For this one blessed moment they were together, and nothing else in the whole world mattered.
At that moment, his lips brushed her shoulder, warm and soft. Her insides jumped at the feeling. It should have scared her, shocked her, made her want to flee. However, not one of those things was anywhere in her. Instead she wanted only to give her whole life, her whole self to him. He wouldn’t hurt her. She knew that to the depths of who she was, and so knowing her body wasn’t in jeopardy, her spirit had the freedom to say no or yes. And the answer in every part of her was yes. Not kind of yes or maybe yes, but please yes.
His hand on her back and his other wrapped over her hand tightened. She had known about her attraction for him for some time, but somehow she had convinced herself the feeling wasn’t mutual. But with him holding her like this, it was impossible to hang onto that illusion.
She pulled back slightly, wanting to see in his eyes what she felt him saying with the rest of him. His gaze met hers, and suddenly she was falling through the forever she found there. The way he was looking at her… It wasn’t so much desire as love that she saw, and it pushed unfettered hope all the way to the top of her heart.
His eyes fell closed as the magnet of his lips pulled her toward him and him toward her. A breath melted the last bridge between them as she willed his lips to hers.
“Gabriel. Gabriel Cabrelos. Is Gabriel out here?” The high-pitched, anxiety-laden voice split through the moment, sending them both careening backward.
Holly backed up so fast, she almost lost her balance. Dazed, Gabriel stepped back too, shaking his head and only barely managing to keep his arm around her. He ran his thumb under his bottom lip although there was no way lipstick was there as it had never actually touched hers.
Just then, true panic sliced through his eyes as Rosa, the maid, came racing up through the crowd which turned with her approach to see what the commotion was about. “Gabriel! Gabriel. Oh, I’m so glad I found you.” She was winded to the point of breathless.
Unnerved concern went through his eyes. His hand dropped from Holly and reached out to the older woman. “Rosa, calm down. What is it? What’s the matter?”
“It’s…” She gasped the air in. “It’s your father, Gabriel. Another heart attack.”
The entire world cracked like a shot around Holly.
“What?” Gabriel’s panic transferred directly to her. “When? Where are they? Is Mama all right?”
“Yes, your mother’s with him. She called. They came and got him in the ambulance.” Fear and compassion met in the center of the small lady’s voice. “They’re on the way to the hospital right now.”
This was bad, Holly knew it. She looked to Gabriel for an indication of what came next.
“Okay.” He nodded, formulating a plan. “Then I’ll meet them there. If she calls back, tell her I’m on my way.”
Rosa nodded, taking in the instructions.
Memories of his memories flashed through Holly. She was still sorting through them when he turned to her.
“Holly.” Unbelievably there was an apology in his eyes.
Determination flowed into her and right through her voice. “I’m going with you.”
His gaze snapped to the all others standing around looking at them. “No, you don’t have to. You should stay.”
However, no was not an answer. She laced her hand through his. “No. I’m going with you.”
He probably would have argued had there been time, but there wasn’t. Finally he half-shook, half-nodded. “Fine.”
Together they started toward the doors pushing through those looking on with curiosity. Just as they got to the doors, Luke and her mother broke through the crowd.
“Where do you think you’re going?” her mother asked with hate twining the question.
“Is there a problem?” Luke asked right over the top of her.
“It’s my dad.” Gabriel looked like a trapped animal as his glance took in each of them in turn. “He’s had another heart attack.”
Her mother scoffed at the statement, and Holly’s fist curled at her side.
“That doesn’t mean you have to go, Holly,” her mother said. It was more of a demand than a request.
“I’m going,” she said simply, and she tightened her grip on his hand.
“Of course. Of course, you should go.” Luke stepped back and put his arm around her mother. “Let us know if there’s anything we can do.”
Gabriel bowed. “Thank you, Sir.”
Holly heard the emotion crack into Gabriel’s voice, and her gaze went to him with concern. She put the hand that wasn’t in his to his shoulder. “Come on. We need to get there.”
It was at that moment that Holly felt the support role shift from him to her. He had been there at her worst moment, and now it was he that was losing the battle to stay rational and in control. With a breath she accepted the responsibility for somehow getting him from here to the other side. “We’ll let you know as soon as we know something.” And then she turned him through the doors.
The whole night had been surreal. From seeing her for the first time to holding her in his arms, dancing to a rhythm they both felt, it had all seemed like a dream. But suddenly here he was, not in a dream but a nightmare. At the pickup Gabe watched her race to her side and get in. There was something about that, her getting into his beat up pickup looking like a movie star who should be walking down a red carpet, that felt so wrong.
In the pickup himself, he fought to get rational into him. “You really don’t have to go with me.” He started the pickup but didn’t back out. “I hate to drag you away.”
Firm resolve shown in her eyes. “I’m going.”
He wanted to argue. At least most of him did. She didn’t have to shift her life around because his had tilted. She didn’t have to drop everything to go with him. But there was a part of him that clung to her being right there at his side. As much strength as he was afraid this could take, it was comforting to know she was there to lean on. He put the pickup in reverse and backed out carefully. Weaving in and out of the other cars, he took his mind off her and concentrated on doing what had to be done.
As they got to the highway, his mind went through every scenario of what might have happened. He said a soft prayer for his mother to hold up until he could get there. Thoughts raced over thoughts and began overtaking sanity. He should’ve been there. He should’ve stayed home. He never should have…
At that moment the soft, smooth hand that had held his so many times in his dreams drifted over his on the steering wheel. Emotion overran his heart as he clutched onto her and glanced toward her.
She held his hand, not saying anything, but just to let him know she was there. It was the single greatest act of friendship and love of his life.
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2007