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Mona Ingram’s Full Circle:

by Mona Ingram
4.3 stars – 7 Reviews

 

Here’s the set-up:

Bella Thompson has news: she’s pregnant. But before she can tell her boyfriend Jeffrey, he shatters her with the news that he’s going to marry someone else. The textile mill, owned by Jeffrey’s father, is the town’s main employer, but textile mills all over the country are losing market share, and Lambert Textiles is no exception. Bella is given a choice: Go to Atlanta and give up her child for adoption, or leave town and raise her child on her own. The choice is clear, and she travels to California, where she settles in Santa Monica. Determined to make her own way in the world and return to Willow Bend on her own terms, Bella puts all her energies into building a successful business with her partner Rafael Vargas. But at what cost? Follow Bella as she struggles to balance her passion for business with the ultimate prize…love.

The author hopes you will enjoy this free excerpt:


Prologue

The private jet had been descending for several minutes now. Bella shuffled the papers she’d been holding and put them away in her briefcase. Trying to study the reports had been a waste of time…a futile attempt to divert her thoughts. She looked across the low table and into the eyes of the man who had been her partner for the past fifteen years. Sometimes it angered her that he could read her so well whereas she rarely knew what he was thinking. Those dark eyes studied her now, and she thought she caught a hint of sadness behind the sweeping black lashes.

The cabin attendant paused between their chairs. “The captain has asked me to inform you that we’ll be landing in ten minutes.”

Bella glanced up at the young woman. “Would you ask the captain if he could circle Willow Bend before we land? I’d like to see it from the air.” The flight would land at a nearby airport, the Willow Bend facility having closed long since.

“Certainly, Miss Thompson.” The attendant nodded and went forward.

Bella looked out the window. “I’ve never seen Willow Bend from the air,” she murmured. “I wonder if I’ll be able to see any changes since the last time I was here.”

Rafael watched her closely but he remained silent; she hadn’t really expected him to answer.

The aircraft made a slight change of course, then dropped one wing and commenced a slow circle around the town. Sun glinted off the river and an invisible hand tightened around Bella’s heart. She forced herself to continue looking and spotted the high school with its adjoining football field and bleachers. A few blocks beyond that was the section of town where she’d grown up but she couldn’t spot the house among the jumble of roofs. On the gentle rise across the river the homes were more stately; here and there swimming pools flashed brilliant blue in the late afternoon sun.

And there it was. The old Lambert textile mill. Silent these past ten years. She didn’t know what she’d expected to feel when she saw it. After all, her father had worked there most of his life and had lost his job along with hundreds of others in the town. She looked more closely. The heavy wire fence that had once encircled the mill was gone. In its place, strategically placed trees and shrubs lifted their leaves to the sunshine. A few cars and several pickup trucks were parked in the newly paved lot. For the first time since leaving California earlier today Bella experienced a surge of excitement. Excitement mixed with apprehension.

“You’re sure we’re doing the right thing?” she asked, uncharacteristically nervous. “It’s such a big step, opening a new production facility.”

“Bella.” She loved the way he said her name. “We’ve been over this many times.” He looked at her and his gaze softened for a moment. “You’re going to give this town a chance to get back on its feet.” He didn’t need to look down at the mill; he’d been here half a dozen times already. “Besides, it’s too late now.”

Chapter One

Twenty years earlier.

It was overcast the day Bella found out she was pregnant. Madonna was singing Papa Don’t Preach on her bedside radio and she gave a strangled laugh as the words filtered into her consciousness. She held the stick in her hand, backed up unsteadily and sat down on the edge of her bed.

The test confirmed what she already knew. The signs had been there for weeks now, but she’d clung to hope the way a man clings to a life raft in stormy seas. And her life was about to get stormy, she knew that for a fact. With one hand on her stomach she rocked back and forth, slowly accepting the reality of her situation.

She wondered what Jeffrey was doing right now. They didn’t see each other every day, but today was Friday, and they usually grabbed cold drinks and went to “their place” by the river; a quiet, sheltered spot carpeted with pine needles. They jokingly referred to it as their love nest, but it was in fact a place where they dared to dream of a future together. It wouldn’t be easy, they knew that. Bella’s mother was a skilled dressmaker who worked at home, and her father worked at Lambert Textiles, whereas Jeffrey was the son of Edward and Judith Lambert, owners of Lambert Textiles and Willow Bend’s largest employer.

She and Jeffrey had been together since the spring, when he’d broken up with Angela Sterling. At first she couldn’t believe that Jeffrey was interested in her; she didn’t consider herself beautiful like many of the other girls, or sophisticated, like Angela. She smiled to herself, recalling how she’d been so nervous around him at first. But as the days got warmer and she began to know him better she relaxed and accepted the fact that he was interested in her…in what she thought and had to say. The sex had been a natural extension of their growing affection for one another. Bella thought of it as “making love” even though Jeffrey had never used the same term. Come to think of it, he’d never called it anything. She glanced at her watch. He’d be getting out of school and wondering where she was. She’d made an excuse for missing school this afternoon, saying she had a Doctor’s appointment. She’d never lied to him before, but he’d forgive her for this when she told him the news.

Another nervous spasm gripped her stomach. She’d better go find him and get it over with…the longer she waited, the harder it would be. What would she say and how would he respond? Oddly enough, she didn’t have the faintest idea.

She shoved all evidence of the pregnancy kit in her bag, checked her appearance in the mirror and crept downstairs. A murmur of voices reached her from the dining room…or it used to be the dining room before her mother converted it to her workshop and consultation room. When Mom had mentioned a bridal fitting this afternoon Bella had sighed with relief. It was the perfect opportunity to sneak in the back door, go upstairs, and do the test.

The back door closed quietly after her and she went through the gate at the back of the yard and down the lane that ran along the back of the properties on this side of town. Clouds were scudding across the sky and she shivered, even though it was the warmest part of the day. Within minutes she was approaching the river, and her steps quickened.

Jeffrey’s car was parked in the usual spot, partly hidden behind some bushes a quarter of a mile from where they usually met. Her pulse quickened as she pictured him there, sitting on the blanket he always brought, waiting for her.

He wasn’t there, and the blanket wasn’t spread out under the pines. She opened her mouth to call, and then spotted a flash of color down by the river. He’d been wearing her favorite shirt this morning; pale blue denim. She took a few more silent steps on the pine needles and paused for a moment to drink in the sight of him. Dark brown hair curled at the back of his neck, and what she could see of his skin was bronzed with an early summer tan. He bent and picked up a handful of stones, sorted through them and started to skip them on the tranquil waters of the slowly-moving river. Watching him she frowned; his movements were jerky and un-coordinated. Something was bothering him. Maybe his father had been on his case again; asserting himself was a constant battle for Jeffrey. His father expected him to take over the business, but Jeffrey wanted to be a veterinarian. Bella had a feeling his father would win that battle.

She took a few steps closer and he seemed to sense her presence. He turned slowly and she could see at once that he was troubled. Dark smudges of color under his eyes gave him a haunted look and as his gaze met hers the ground shifted beneath her feet. Did he know? Her fingers unconsciously clutched at her bag.

“Jeffrey?” she said tentatively. “Are you okay?”

He looked at her for a long moment, then shook his head. “No,” he replied, his voice little more than a whisper. He closed the gap between them and took her hand. “Come on, let’s go sit on those big rocks” he said, drawing her along the bank of the river. “We have to talk.”

She followed him, heart pounding in her chest. This wasn’t the way this conversation was supposed to go. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. He was definitely stressed. As a matter of fact, he didn’t look anything like the Jeffrey she knew.

He settled her on a flat rock and sat down across from her. When he finally raised his eyes he looked at her as though trying to memorize her face. Prickles of apprehension crept up Bella’s spine.

The silence lengthened until she could no longer stand it. “What is it?” she asked, knowing instinctively that the answer would change her life. Even more than it had already been changed today.

“There’s no easy way to tell you this, Bella.” His gaze met hers for an instant, then shifted away. “I’m getting married.”

Bella must have heard wrong, because she thought he said he was getting married. “I’m sorry, what did you say?” Her voice was surprisingly calm, but her heart was thundering in her chest.

His eyes closed for a moment. “I’m going to marry Angela.”

Bella couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Angela Sterling?”

“Yes.”

“But why?” She could hear the plaintive tone in her voice, but she didn’t care. It was a fair question, and she deserved an answer.

He lowered his head into both hands. “She’s pregnant,” he mumbled. “I found out last night when she came over to the house with her parents.”

This wasn’t happening! Bella leafed through a calendar in her mind. “But how can that be?” she cried. “You broke up with her months ago. How come you’re just finding out now?”

He sat up, his gaze darting around before landing on her face. “She asked me to drive her home after football practice one day last month and we…I…” The words started to tumble out. “She wanted to get back together; she was begging me and I was saying no, but she…” He blushed. “She got me at a weak moment, and we had sex.”

The silence was broken only by the sound of a bumblebee and the river lapping against the shore. “You had sex,” Bella repeated slowly. “While you were supposed to be with me. And now she’s pregnant.”

He nodded.

“And you’re going to marry her.” She had to make sure she wasn’t dreaming.

She stared at him and it was as if she were looking at a stranger. How could he do this to her? Strangely enough, she could actually picture him marrying Angela. “And how does Angela feel about all this?”

“I don’t know.” He raked his fingers though his hair. “No, that’s not true. Actually, she seems quite happy about it.”

Bella could imagine the triumphant look on Angela’s face.

“I’m sorry, Bella.”

“I’ll just bet you are.” Where had that come from? Within the space of a few moments she’d found a backbone she didn’t know she had. She stood up and grabbed the bag that held the confirmation of the life growing within her. “You know something, Jeffrey Lambert?” She stuck her face inches away from his. “You’re not only a cheat but you’re a spineless asshole.” She climbed the bank until she stood over him. “You may think you’re sorry now, but that’s nothing compared to how you’re going to feel when I get through with you.”

“What do you mean?” He looked genuinely concerned.

“Don’t worry. I’m not going to divulge our little secret. But some day I’m going to make you pay for this. I don’t know how or when, but trust me, you’ll pay.”

He looked at her as though she’d grown horns. And maybe she had. She gave him one last look then turned and walked away. It wasn’t until she got closer to home that she started to shake. How could she have gone from loving him to hating him in the space of seconds? It had been surprisingly easy, and she had the feeling that she’d need every ounce of anger she could dredge up to help her though the next few weeks.

Chapter Two

“You told him you’re going to make him pay?” Her friend Carla made a face. “What kind of stupid threat is that?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Carla. I was just so disgusted by his admission that he’d had sex with her.” Bella had changed her mind about going home and was sitting with her best friend in Carla’s back yard.

“What did you expect? He’s a guy.”

“What about you and Ethan? You wouldn’t say that about him.”

“That’s different.” Carla paused. “We’re different. I mean, who’d ever think an Italian American and an Irish American could get along for this long without any major battles?”

“It’s been known to happen. Besides, we live in the south. It might be a different story if we lived in New York or something.”

“Ethan wants to go to New York.” Carla picked up her lemonade and studied the condensation rolling down the sides of the glass.

“Whatever for?” Bella had never considered leaving Georgia.

“Two reasons.” Carla put down the glass and looked steadily at her friend. “First one is that he’s got the acting bug and he knows he has to go to New York if he’s going to pursue it seriously. The second is that he doesn’t have confidence in the future of the textile mill.”

“Really?” Bella turned Carla’s words over in her mind. “What makes him think that?”

“He works in shipping, remember? He sees how much raw material comes in and how much finished product is being shipped.” She paused, watching her friend carefully. “He doesn’t think the mill has more than a few years left. He says this town is going to be hit hard when it finally closes.”

Bella spoke her thoughts. “My Dad’s always said that having only one major industry in a town is a dangerous thing.” She glanced at her friend. “It’s like that study we did in Economics this year, isn’t it?”

“Yes.  Our family bakery will be affected, but it will survive; people still need to buy bread. It’s families like yours that will really suffer. Your dad works for the Lamberts and your Mom’s business depends on people with money.” Carla took a large swallow of lemonade. “Speaking of your Mom, does she know about this?” She gestured to Bella’s stomach.

“No, and I don’t know how I’m going to tell her.”

“Ha!” Carla gave a short, disbelieving laugh. “She knows.”

“No she doesn’t.”

“Bella Thompson. Listen to yourself. Your Mom may have had only one child, but she knows what it means when she hears you puking your guts out every morning. Trust me, she knows.”

Bella placed a hand protectively over her stomach. “Do you think so?”

“Oh, yeah,”

Bella looked at her friend thoughtfully. “Assuming you’re right, it will make it easier to tell her.”

“Look, kiddo. I know you’ve only had a couple of hours to think about this, but do you know what you’re going to do?”

Bella had thought about little else. “First of all, I’m going to go to Doc Farnham and get it confirmed.”

“No, no, no.” Carla shook her head emphatically. “Definitely the wrong move.”

“What do you mean?”

Carla scooted forward on her seat. “Listen to me, Bella. We live in a small town in the south. It may be the nineteen nineties, but this is a conservative town where people gossip for a living. Your Dad works for the mill and your Mom takes in sewing.” She sat back and waited for her words to sink in. “I agree that you have to go to a doctor for a check-up, but not here. Not in this town.”

Bella looked at her friend. “How do you know all this?”

Carla shrugged. “My cousin Maria.”

“Oh.” Bella vaguely remembered the abrupt departure of her friend’s cousin.

Carla put a gentle hand on her friend’s arm. “Go home now, Bella. Tell your Mom before your Dad gets home. It’ll make you feel a lot better.”

Bella gave her friend a lopsided smile. “When did you get so wise?”

Carla shook her head. “I just wish I could be of more help.” She squeezed Bella’s arm and let it go. “Call me if you need me, okay?”

* * *

“Bella, could you come in here please?” Her mother called her as soon as she stepped through the back door.

“Hi, Mom.” Bella stood in the open French doors that separated her mother’s workspace from the rest of the downstairs. “How was your day?”

Her mother waved a hand impatiently. “Sit down, dear.” She pushed her chair back from the sewing machine. “Are you pregnant?” Her gaze moved to Bella’s stomach. “I want you to tell me the truth.”

“Yes, I am. How did you know?” It was a stupid thing to say, but she hadn’t expected such a frontal assault and needed time to think.

“I’ve heard you in the mornings.” Her mother looked away, out the window. “Have you confirmed it?”

“I did a pregnancy test today.”

Her mother looked startled. “Where did you buy the test? Not at our CVS, I hope.”

Carla had been right; it was starting already. “No, Mom. I bought it last weekend when I went to the mall near Atlanta with Carla.”

“Does she know?”

“Yes…she’s my best friend. I told her I was going to go to Doc Farnham and she warned me against it.”

“Yes, she would,” her mother said vaguely. “After that business with her cousin Maria.”

“You knew about that?”

“Bella, this is a small town.” Her mother paused, took a deep breath. “A very small town. People talk.” She looked up. “It’s Jeffrey, I suppose.”

Bella nodded. It was evident her mother had been thinking about this.

“Have you told him?” Her mother’s eyes narrowed.

“No.” It was Bella’s turn to look away. She spoke dispassionately. “I went to meet him after I took the test. I’d planned to tell him, but he had some news of his own.”

Her mother waited.

“He’s going to marry Angela.”

“Angela Sterling?” Her mother had made several items for Angela’s mother, wife of the town’s leading attorney. “I got the impression that they broke that off a while ago.”

Bella continued, dry-eyed. “They did, but according to Jeffrey, they had some sort of an encounter last month and now she’s pregnant.”

“What a mess.” Her mother pressed the fingers of one hand into her forehead. “Don’t these young people have any restraint?”

“Was it so different in your day?” Bella surprised herself, but held her ground.

Anger flared in her mother’s eyes, but soon subsided. “No, I suppose not.”

They sat in silence for a few moments, each lost in her thoughts. Finally her mother spoke. “There’s a church in Atlanta that has a home for unwed mothers. I think you should go there.”

Bella studied her mother. She couldn’t blame her, really. Willow Bend was a small town, and a pregnant daughter reflected badly on any mother. “Is that what you want?”

“It’s what I would prefer, yes.” Her mother couldn’t meet her eyes.

“What happens when I get there?” Bella was fairly sure she wouldn’t like the answer.

“You’ll go there as soon as you start to show, and live there. You’ll get medical care, and have your child in the hospital adjoining the facility.” Her mother twisted a piece of fabric nervously. “And after the child is born, it’s given up for adoption.”

Bella nodded. “And then I come back here, like nothing happened?”

Her mother looked up, startled. She obviously hadn’t thought that far ahead. “Yes, I suppose so.”

“No.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said no. I’m not giving my child up for adoption.” Her voice started to rise, but she made no effort to lower it. “How could you suggest such a thing?”

“Lower your voice.” Her mother looked nervously out the front window. “People will hear you.”

“That’s what this is all about, isn’t it?” Bella leaned toward her mother, her voice low and steely. “It’s about making sure people don’t find out. What about me?”

Her mother lifted her head. “You lost your rights when you had sex with that boy.” She stood up and walked toward a side window. “Your Dad and I have talked it over and he’s left all the decisions up to me.” She turned back to Bella. “You either agree to this, or you’re on your own.”

“Just like that?” Somewhere in the back of her mind, Bella admired her mother’s determination.

“Yes. Just like that.” Her mother braced herself against the back of the chair, and Bella noticed that her hand trembled slightly. “There isn’t any other way.”

“All right.”

Her mother took a step forward. “You’ll go to the home?”

“No, I’ll go out on my own.” Bella tried to speak calmly. “But I won’t wait. I’ll go within a couple of weeks.”

Tires crunched on the gravel at the side of the house. “Your father’s home. I’d like to talk to him alone, if you don’t mind. Dinner will be on the table in half an hour.”

* * *

Carla sat on her bed, legs crossed in the lotus position. “So where are you going to go?” Bella had gone to Carla’s place after dinner, relieved that Ethan was in rehearsals for a play.

“I’m not sure yet, but Mom suggested Florida. She seems to think that I’ll need fewer clothes if I go somewhere warm. Plus, I think she wants to be close by when her grandchild is born.”

“Those are good reasons.”

Bella shrugged. “I suppose so.” She was quiet for a few moments. “I’ve never lived on my own before, but for some reason I’m not afraid. I figure if I leave soon, I can get a job for a few months. You know, get settled.”

“What are you going to do for money?” Carla had a good head for money; she’d been paying the bills and doing the banking for the bakery for the past several years.

“Mom’s going to pay my bus fare and give me two thousand dollars.” She looked at her friend. “Is that very much?”

Carla raised both eyebrows. “Not really. You’ll have to pay a month’s rent in advance, and some places want another month as a security deposit. You’ll have to find a job right away.”

“I’ll find something. I’m not worried about that. I’ve even been thinking about getting two jobs, so I can put some aside for when I have the baby.”

Her friend’s eyes filled with tears. “You’ll let me know if you need help, won’t you?”

It was a struggle, but Bella didn’t give in to tears. “You know I will.” She checked her watch. “I’d better get going. Ethan will be here any moment to pick you up.”

Carla walked her to the door. “Remember, I’m driving you to the bus station in Atlanta.”

Bella gave her friend a quick hug. “I remember. Thanks for everything.”

Chapter Three

“I can’t believe you’re actually leaving.” Carla looked around the bus terminal. “Look at all these people!” She brought her attention back to her friend. “I want to remember you here, Bella, so I’m not going to walk you out to the bus.”

Bella tried not to show her relief. “I was hoping you’d say that. Let’s say goodbye and get it over with.” She had a tight hold on her ticket, but her stoicism was starting to slip away. “I’ll contact you as soon as I’m settled, I promise. And as for you, I want to know right away if you and Ethan go to New York. Okay?”

Carla nodded, unable to speak. She pulled her friend into a fierce hug and then turned and walked away. At the outside doors she paused and turned. Tears streaked her face, but she smiled, waved a hand and then disappeared into the brilliant sunshine.

Bella gave a sigh of relief. One more hurdle crossed. She looked up at the departures board, even though the ticket seller had told her which bay to look for. Then she looked down at the ticket in her hand. Los Angeles. Not telling Carla where she was going had been difficult, but the change of plan was something she had to do on her own…an act of defiance, perhaps. She’d write to both her mother and Carla as soon as she found somewhere to live.

* * *

Exhausted from the past ten days she slept much of the way to Dallas, where she switched buses. She washed up in the restroom, and then ordered breakfast in the restaurant, covertly watching the other passengers. Singles, couples, mothers with children; each had a different story, and she realized that hers was just one among many.

She was surprisingly content to let the hours and the countryside roll by. New Mexico, with its unique landscape was oddly appealing and before she knew it they had crossed into California. Here the names were more familiar and she sat up straighter, fascinated by the golden light that streamed through the windows of the bus. More passengers started to board, and at Indio her luck ran out; an older woman took the seat beside her. Smelling faintly of lavender, she clutched her bag in her lap with both hands.

“How far are you going, my dear?”

Bella was startled. It was the first time anyone had spoken to her other than food vendors or bus drivers since she left home. “Ah…I’m going to Los Angeles.”

“Terrible place.” The woman gave a small, almost imperceptible shudder.

“Why is that?” Bella didn’t really want to engage the woman in conversation, but she might as well hear what she had to say.

“It’s so spread out. You have to have a car to get anywhere.”

“Oh.” Bella hadn’t considered that when she’d impulsively bought her bus ticket, but it was too late now.

“But there are lots of lovely towns up and down the coast.” She fussed with her bag. “I live in Van Nuys. My son is coming to get me.”

“Do you have any suggestions?” Bella turned part way in her seat. “I mean for me…small towns?”

The older woman thought for a moment. “Santa Monica is nice; it’s not too far from Los Angeles if you’re thinking of trying to get into the movie business.”

“Heavens no, not me.”

The woman tilted her head, gave her an appraising look. “I don’t know why not. You’re quite attractive, you know.”

“I am?” Bella pulled back. No one had ever called her attractive before. “Thank you, but I don’t think that’s for me.”

“Good for you. Got your feet planted firmly on the ground, then.”

“I hope so.”

The woman fell silent and Bella realized she’d nodded off to sleep. As the bus drew closer to Los Angeles, the reality of her situation started to sink in. It would be shortly after noon when she arrived, and she had no place to stay. She made another snap decision. If there was a connecting bus headed for Santa Monica, she’d take it.

* * *

The Los Angeles terminal was overwhelming, but she finally found a helpful ticket seller who gave her instructions on how to make the final connection. When she stepped off the bus in Santa Monica she gave silent thanks to the older woman who’d suggested that she come here. Dizzy with fatigue, she studied the ads in the bus terminal, and checked into an inexpensive motel a few blocks away. She didn’t even shower before falling into bed.

* * *

Bella slept for twelve hours and awoke feeling rested and confident. A different clerk was on the desk and she approached him with a smile. “If you were looking for a furnished apartment to rent, how would you go about it?” she asked.

He gave her a quick once-over. “I’d probably check the ads in our local newspaper first. Rental agencies can be expensive.” He handed her a map. “Here, you’ll need this.”

Bella sat in a sunny corner of a fast food restaurant and studied the newspaper. Several studios were advertised, but they were too far from the center of town, and she wanted to save every penny she could by walking. She was about to give up when a small ad caught her eye. With trembling hands, she put a coin in the payphone and waited for a response. Ten minutes later she stood before a small single story home on a shaded side street. A wide veranda faced toward the street, fronted by flowerbeds blooming with riotous color. She opened the gate and walked tentatively up the steps. Before she could knock, the door was flung open and a small, dark-skinned woman greeted her warmly. She looked to be about five months pregnant.

“You must be Bella,” she said, holding the door open. “I am Sofia. Sofia Alvarez.” Dark eyes looked her over carefully. “You are looking for a rental?”

“Yes, I am.” Bella said, taking in the impeccably clean house. “You said it was over the garage.”

Something moved behind the woman’s eyes. “Yes, it used to be my husband’s hobby room. Come, I show you.”

Sofia stood back proudly and gestured for Bella to enter.

“This is lovely!” Bella couldn’t believe her eyes as she explored the small space. “Everything looks new.”

“You would be the first tenant,” said Sofia proudly. “The construction was finished last month, and I’ve been furnishing it slowly.”

“And you’re sure you only want four hundred a month?”

Sofia nodded. “From the right person, yes.”

“Well, I’d love to have it. When could I move in?”

“It’s ready now. Why should you pay for a motel room any longer than necessary? Come, I’ll get your details and give you the key.”

* * *

The small apartment had been well thought out. The kitchen opened to a small living area, but it was perfect for her needs. The bedroom was at the rear, and a small balcony overlooked the back yard. Bella couldn’t believe her good fortune. She dragged her suitcases up the stairs and unpacked quickly, eager to take possession.

After unpacking, she explored the kitchen. It contained a set of dishes for four, as well as basic utensils and a new set of pots and pans. She closed the cupboard doors, leaned back against the counter and started a mental shopping list.

“There’s a grocery store three blocks that way,” said Sofia, pointing the way. “You can probably get everything you need there.” She hesitated, hand over her stomach. “You are welcome to join me for dinner tonight. I was going to make quesadillas, and it’s no trouble to make for two.”

Bella wasn’t sure how to respond. “That’s really kind of you, but…”

“Please come. It’s your first night, and I’d like to welcome you.”

“Okay, then. I’d enjoy that.”

“Good, see you around six.”

* * *

Bella walked slowly to the grocery store. She would be careful about how much she spent, but she had the added cushion of the money her father had given her before she left home.

“I want you to have this,” he’d said, catching her outside one day. It appeared that he was fighting back tears. Bella was stunned; she’d never seen her father get emotional before. He’d clutched clumsily at her hand, passing over some folded bills. “Are you sure you’re going to be all right?”

“I’ll be fine, Dad. Really.” She’d given him a quick kiss on the cheek and tucked the money into her pocket. “And thank you. I’ll come back one day and make you proud.”

He pulled her into a quick, fierce embrace. “I know you will, Girlie. I know you will.” And then he’d turned away, headed for his workshop in the garage.

Bella had counted the money later that night. He’d given her twelve hundred dollars. It was a lot of money for a family that didn’t have much to spare, and she vowed silently that one day she would pay him back.

* * *

“Wow!” That was great.” Bella stood up from the table and began to clear the dishes. “I’ve had quesadillas in restaurants at home, but they were never this good.”

Sofia beamed with pleasure at the compliment. “You don’t have to do that,” she said, struggling to rise. “You’re supposed to be my guest.”

Bella glanced pointedly at the other woman’s stomach. “It’s the least I can do. When are you due?”

“December.” Sofia made it to her feet. “Shall we sit out on the porch and have some iced tea?”

Bella gave her a stern look. “You just tell me where it is, and I’ll bring it out.” The two women had chatted about inconsequential things during dinner, but a bond had been formed, much to Bella’s delight.

“I guess you’re wondering about my husband.” They’d settled at the end of the porch where they were more likely to catch the evening breeze.

“I did wonder, yes.”

Sofia looked up at the rustling palms. “He was a policeman. We came up to Los Angeles from Juarez, where he was in the drug squad.” She paused for a moment, lost in thought. “He was part of a combined task force with the Los Angeles police. They were closing in on one of the big drug importers, but somebody must have tipped them off. There was a shootout, and my husband and two other officers were killed.”

“I’m so sorry.” Bella didn’t know what else to say. “I can’t imagine what that must have been like.”

“No.” Sofia was silent for a moment. “I still look up sometimes, thinking that I hear him in the house. It still doesn’t seem real.”

“Do you think about going home?”

The other woman looked startled. “No. I can’t go back there. His cover was that he was transferred to Guadalajara. You know, to protect his family. But I wouldn’t want to go back even if I could.” She looked at Bella and smiled. “This is my home now. I like it here and I have a good widow’s pension. It’s not a lot, but the house is paid for.” She gave a shy smile. “The other officers on the squad took care of hiring the workers to renovate your apartment and the department paid for that.”

Bella shook her head. “And I thought I had it bad.” The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them.

“You are alone, yes?” Bella noticed how Sofia’s language slipped once in a while when she was unsure of herself. It was charming.

“Yup. I came as far as I could without leaving the lower forty-eight.”

Sofia took a drink of iced tea. “Someday you will tell me about yourself. But I think not tonight.”

Bella was grateful for the other woman’s understanding. “Not tonight.”

They sat in the gathering darkness, comfortable with each other.

After a few minutes, Sophia spoke. “I suppose you’ll look for a job.”

Bella gave her a faint smile. “I was just thinking about that. I don’t really have many skills, but I’m confident I’ll find something.”

And she did. Within a week, she was working full time at a fabric store, with an evening shift at a fast food outlet. Sophia waited up for her every night and they shared a glass of iced tea while Bella told stories about the day’s customers. As the months slipped by, they formed an unbreakable bond of friendship. And then one night she came home to a strange car in the driveway. Every light in the house was on, and she ran up the front steps.

She opened her mouth to ask what was happening but was forestalled when she heard the cry of a baby from the back bedroom. Sofia’s friend Consuela bustled out from the bedroom. “Is a girl,” she announced, a broad smile on her face.

“And Sofia?” asked Bella. “Is she all right?”

“She’s fine. She say for you to come in when you get home.”

Bella paused at the door to the bedroom. Soft light from the bedside lamp fell on her friend. Sofia held her new daughter, eyes luminous with unshed tears. “Come, look,” she said quietly. “She’s beautiful, no?”

“Hello Valeria.” Bella knelt down beside the bed and looked up. Sofia nodded; she’d finally settled on the name just a week ago. She reached out and stroked the tiny hand with its perfect fingernails. “She’s beautiful,” she murmured.

Sofia’s eyes remained focused on her daughter. “She has her father’s nose,” she said softly. Her eyelids started to droop and she shook herself awake. “I’m getting tired,” she said apologetically. “It’s been a long day.”

“How was it?” The women had speculated about what childbirth might be like.

“Not too bad.” Her eyes softened. “You’ll see.”

Bella pulled back. “You know?”

Sofia reached out a hand and stroked Bella’s cheek. “Si, I know. We can talk about it later.”

 

* * *

“Our children will grow up together.” The women were sitting on the front porch, the cradle between them. It seemed to Bella that Valeria grew every day while she was away at work. “That is if you stay here.”  The last was said hopefully.

Bella brushed a fly away from the baby. “That’s something I haven’t allowed myself to think about too much,” she said. “I mean, I’ve thought about it, but I haven’t tried to make any decisions.”

“Do you want to go back to your town in Georgia?”

“No, not really.” Bella picked up her iced tea and pressed the cool glass against her forehead. “How would I explain coming home with a baby? That’s the reason I left in the first place, so nobody would know I’m pregnant.” She placed a hand over her stomach; it was becoming a familiar gesture.

“Does it make you sad to think that you can’t go back?”

“I thought it would, but it doesn’t.” Bella stopped to consider her reply. “My parents love me, but we’re not what you’d call a close family.” She looked across at her friend to see if she understood. “You know what I mean? “My mother never told me I looked nice, or anything like that, and my Dad was kind of distant. I think I miss my friend Carla more than anything, but she’s moved to New York with her boyfriend. So I guess California is my new home.”

“Have you been to a doctor yet?”

“Yes. I went to the clinic last week. She said I’m disgustingly healthy.” Bella tapped her fingernails against the side of her glass. “I’m a bit concerned about the cost of going into the hospital for the birth, though. What made you decide to do it at home?”

Sofia shrugged. “My mother was what you call a midwife. I never considered any other way, even though I have medical coverage through Eduardo’s pension.”

“Do you think I should try it?”

“You’d have to make up your own mind about that, but Consuela is wonderful, and if she thought anything was wrong, she would call for an ambulance.”

Bella cringed. “That’s not going to happen, is it?”

“No, of course not.”

* * *

Sofia was right. The birth of Bella’s daughter took only a few hours, surprising even the experienced midwife.

Bella held her daughter to her chest. “I love you,” she said fiercely, kissing the tiny face, hands and feet. “And I will make sure you know that every day of your life.”

Sofia watched her indulgently. “Everyone says we should enjoy them now, before they start to talk.” Her gaze went to Valeria, who was lying on a quilt on the floor.

“Not me.” Bella shook her head. “I can hardly wait ’til she starts talking.”

 

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