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Courtney Milan’s Unraveled:
Bristol. October 1843.
“Well, Billy Croggins, why are you here again?”
The petty sessions had already started when Miranda Darling slipped into the dingy hearing room. She ducked her head and contemplated the floor, trying not to attract attention. She was playing a young lady today: posture erect, eyes cast demurely down, elbows at her sides. A young lady wouldn’t fuss with her hair. Especially not to scratch where her wig drove an errant pin into her scalp. Today, her future rested on her performance.
Nothing new in that. The future was a perpetual burden, weighing her down. Sometimes she felt like one of the acrobats her father had taken her to see at Astley’s as a child, dancing atop a bareback horse. One foot put false on a backflip, and she was like to come crashing to the ground. Like the acrobat, she could only pretend her footing was secure, do her best, and smile for the crowd no matter what came.
There was a bit of a throng today, maybe ten or fifteen men and women arrayed on the wooden benches of the hearing room. Her palms prickled with an edgy energy. She smoothed her hands against the fine muslin of her borrowed gown and counted breaths, until the tension inside her faded to a passive lump of nerves.
The white-haired man at the front of the room—Billy Croggins, he’d been called—didn’t seem nervous at all. His face was red, and he shrugged, unembarrassed, at the question that had been put to him.
“Why, Your Worships, I’m here for the same reason I’m always here. I had myself a little bit to drink.” He raised his hand, miming. “I ended up a bit disorderly. You heard what my daughter had to say.” Croggins flashed an ingratiating grin.
He had nice teeth for a drunkard. Miranda sidled down the aisle and slipped into an empty spot in the front. Billy Croggins had a nice nose, too. His white, disordered hair gave him an air of respectable eccentricity. Useful, if you had no claim to respectability on your own.
Nobody noticed her as she arranged her skirts. All eyes were trained on the unfolding drama, insignificant though the outcome might have been.
These weren’t the quarter sessions, where murderers and burglars would be sentenced to death or transportation. The magistrates here judged little thefts, brawls gone bad, acts of public lewdness. Fines were levied; men were imprisoned for a few days. The stakes were low, and the crimes were interesting only because a neighbor had committed them.
She’d not yet allowed herself to look in the direction of the magistrates. Old superstition, that—one didn’t peek through the curtains at an audience before a performance. That spelled ill luck.
The austere white walls seemed to magnify the autumn chill, but Miranda slipped out of her worn cloak and removed her straw bonnet, taking care not to disturb the blond wig she’d donned that morning.
“What is this?” one of the magistrates asked. “The fifth time you’ve appeared before us?” His voice was familiar. Too familiar.
Damn. Miranda’s hand clenched around the wool of her cloak; she forced it open before the gesture could betray her.
“Right as always, Your Worship,” came Croggins’s cheery reply.
At her immediate right, the clerk sat, his pen arrested over the inkwell. He hadn’t written a thing in minutes.
Miranda leaned over and spoke in an urgent whisper. “Sir. I happened to witness one of the crimes today. The accused is a boy, perhaps twelve years of age—”
He glanced at her, frowning, and then looked away. “Tell me when he’s up,” he whispered gruffly. “I’m busy now.”
He didn’t look busy. The register before him read only: Drunk. Admits he did it. Convicted. Billy Croggins hadn’t been convicted yet, but she couldn’t blame the man for prematurely judging the result.
“If we keep convicting you, why do you keep at it?” This from the judge on the left. He scratched his head. “Turner—what is the punishment, again?”
Turner. So she had recognized that earlier voice. Another flash of nervousness traveled through her, this one tinged with a hint of fear. Still, she kept her gaze trained on Croggins.
The defendant grinned unabashedly. “I wager I know the punishment by now. Ten pounds for the repeat offense, which I haven’t got—and so six hours in the stocks instead.”
“Don’t worry, Billy,” someone called from the audience. “We’ll make sure all the turnips are nice and rotten before we throw them, so they don’t scratch your pretty face.”
The room erupted into laughter.
“Gentlemen,” the florid-faced magistrate in the middle said, “it’s a conviction, then?”
Everyone else shifted to look at the magistrates to the left of the room. It would look out of place if she didn’t follow their lead, and so Miranda raised her head. The three men tasked to hear the sessions today sat behind a heavy oak bench. They were dressed identically: curled, white-powdered horsehair wigs atop and heavy black robes beneath. The man in the center with the red face was the mayor. On his left sat a fellow she’d never seen before. That man’s wig was askew.
“Indeed,” Croggins was saying, “what’s another conviction amongst friends?”
On the right, sitting a good two feet from his compatriots… “Perhaps,” this last magistrate said, “I might ask a few questions before we rush to judgment.”
Miranda swallowed. He was Magistrate Turner—better known as Lord Justice.
His face wasn’t red. His wig was straight. And while the other magistrates were smiling at Croggins’s antics, Lord Justice looked as somber as a crow in his black robes, stern and implacable. She could almost believe the stories that were told about him.
“Always covering the ground, Turner,” the mayor said in exasperated tones. “Very well. I suppose you must have your way. But I hardly see the point, as the man has admitted his guilt.”
Compared with his colleagues, Lord Justice looked like the statue of a magistrate instead of irresolute flesh and blood. He fit the name he’d been given. Justice was hard lines and inflexible resolve. Justice had sharp, mobile eyes, which seemed to take in everything all at once.
Lord Justice, everyone said, could smell a lie at twenty paces. Miranda sat no more than fifteen from him.
Just looking at the man gave her gooseflesh. She’d appeared before him once. Even thinking of the questions he’d asked, the way his eyes had pierced her, made the skin on the back of her neck prickle. And that time, she’d been telling the truth.
“Perhaps,” Lord Justice said, “you could help me understand the events of last night. I’ve heard the testimony from your daughter. But I wish to hear it in your words. How did the fire start?”
“Ah,” Billy Croggins said, “that would be the drunk part of drunk and disorderly.” He smiled winningly.
Lord Justice was not so easily won. He steepled his fingers. “Were you voluntarily drunk? Or did you have your drink forced upon you?”
“I’d be much obliged, Your Worship, if people forced drink upon me. As it were, I had to purchase it like a regular booby.”
The only response to that witticism was a thinning of the magistrate’s lips. “When you were inebriated, you went to your daughter’s house?”
“Yes, and can you believe my own child wouldn’t open her door for me? Told me to go away and come back sober. If I waited for that, I’d never see my grandchildren at all, not ’til Gabriel sounded his trump at the last.”
A woman in the crowd let out a harsh bark of laughter at that, and the mayor hid a smile behind his sleeve.
Lord Justice still found no amusement in the proceedings. He tapped his fingers against the bench. “Was it then you threw the lantern into the woodshed and threatened to burn her out?”
The smile on Croggins’s face fixed into place. “Might have done, might have done. Wasn’t thinking so clearly at that point. I didn’t actually burn her woodshed down—just wanted to scare her a little, so she’d show some respect for her father. Besides, it seemed like an amusing thing to do.”
Lord Justice sighed and leaned back. “You see, Billy Croggins, this is what has me worried. Everyone in this courtroom seems to think you’re a jolly old fellow. Everyone thinks you’re amusing. Everyone is laughing. Everyone, that is, except your daughter. Why do you suppose that is?”
“She’s got no sense of humor.”
A few chuckles rose from the audience, but they were weaker.
“Here’s my theory: her two infants were in the house when you tried to burn her out. Maybe she didn’t find a threat to their lives amusing.”
“Aw, it was just the woodshed!”
“It was an outbuilding, within the curtilage and attached to the dwelling-house,” Lord Justice said. His gaze focused on some point in the distance, as if he were reading those words off some page that only he could see. “According to the Statute of George, that’s arson.”
“Arson! But the wood scarcely even caught!”
Lord Justice leaned over the bench. “Arson,” he repeated firmly. “As you didn’t succeed, attempted arson, and as such, punishable by one year’s hard labor. Do you think that might dry you out?”
“Your Worship, I was drunk. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
“Under the rule of Lord Hale, a man who becomes voluntarily drunk is responsible for his actions, the same as if he was sober.”
Croggins glanced about. There was no laughter in the courtroom now. Lord Justice had doused it of all humor. This little display, after all, was just another demonstration of how Magistrate Turner had come by his name.
Miranda clenched her hands together and bit her lip. She could only hope he would not examine her so closely.
“Turner,” the mayor said, “this is the petty sessions. We’ve no authority to consider a charge of arson at a summary conviction.”
“Quite right,” Lord Justice said. “Nor was arson charged in the indictment. But we can dismiss the case and commit him until the Assizes. I’ve heard enough testimony to have him charged when next the grand jury meets.”
It wasn’t Magistrate Turner’s looks that had earned him the sobriquet “Lord Justice.” In the two years before he’d become a magistrate, the petty sessions had convicted every man but one who had stood before them. In Turner’s first six months in office, he’d let more than a dozen people go, claiming the crimes had been unproven. But he wasn’t kind; far from it. He punished the guilty with harsh efficiency.
The Lord part came about because his brother was a duke. But they called him Justice because he was as cruel—and as kind—as the weather. You never knew what you were going to get, and no complaint would change the result.
Billy Croggins licked his lips. “Lord Justice. Please. Have mercy.”
The man shook his head. “The proper form of address is ‘Your Worship.’”
“In any event,” Lord Justice continued, “if the house had truly caught fire, you might have killed your daughter and your grandchildren.” He paused and looked round the room.
He stole the breath from his audience, packed a thousand years of expectation into those bare seconds. If this had been a performance, she would have applauded the perfection of his timing. But this was no play, put on for public amusement. This was real.
Lord Justice looked back at the defendant. He spoke quietly, but his words carried in the waiting silence. “I am having mercy, Mr. Croggins. Just not on you. Not on you.”
Miranda shut her eyes. She’d done this before—stolen down to the hearings at the Patron’s behest and delivered testimony designed to prevent the conviction of a particular defendant. The other magistrates never doubted the testimony of a genteel young lady.
But Turner asked questions. He listened. He heard the things you didn’t intend to say. She’d spoken before him only once—the first time she’d testified, well over a year ago. It was the only time she had actually witnessed the crime in question. He’d wrung every last drop of truth from her then.
She surely couldn’t afford Magistrate Turner’s brand of mercy today.
“I’ll conduct the examination,” Turner said. “Palter—hold Mr. Croggins.”
A blighted silence reigned in the hearing room, broken only by the shuffling of feet.
“Call the next case,” the mayor muttered.
Beside her, the clerk began to speak. As he did, Lord Justice’s gaze traveled over the spectators. His eyes briefly rested on Miranda. It was only in her imagination that they narrowed. Still, she shivered.
Under Lord Justice’s voluminous black robes, he might have been fat or slender. He might have had tentacles like a cuttlefish, for all she knew. His long white wig made his features seem thin and severe. Perversely, all that black and white made him appear almost young. That couldn’t have been the case. A man had to be ancient to deal justice as he did without flinching.
Don’t lie to this man. The instinct seemed as deep as hunger, as fierce as cold. But if she walked away now, she’d lose the protection she so desperately needed. And Robbie… It didn’t bear thinking about. One didn’t say no to the Patron’s requests. Not even when justice threatened.
An officer was shuffling about, bringing to the front… oh, yes. It was Widdy this time.
She’d received her orders less than two hours before. She was to speak on Widdy’s behalf, to make sure that he wasn’t convicted.
She didn’t know why. She was never told why. But she’d asked, once, in a fit of lunacy, and she’d never forgotten the answer the Patron’s man had given her.
In Temple Parish, justice belongs to the Patron, not the magistrates.
At the front of the room, the boy looked fragile and scared. The harsh life of a street-urchin in Temple Parish had broken him long ago. She doubted Widdy’s release mattered except as a symbol, proof that the Patron was more powerful than the law.
She listened attentively as the baker who was prosecuting the case—a florid-faced gentleman by the name of Pathington—railed against Widdy specifically, and all small scourges upon honest sellers in general. The urchin looked confused and desperate against that onslaught.
When the baker had completed an exaggerated recounting of crime, infamy, and a missing half-loaf of bread, it was Lord Justice who turned to Widdy. “What is your name, young master?”
Widdy swallowed. “Widdy.”
There was a pause. The clerk next to Miranda wrote the word, then looked up. “I beg your pardon, Your Worships. Is that his Christian name or a family name?”
Widdy looked beleaguered.
“Well?” the mayor said. “Speak up. Is that short for something?”
“Yes.” Widdy shifted his feet uneasily. A faint chuckle rose from the onlookers.
“Well, what for?”
“I don’t know. Me mam called me Widdy, back when.”
“And what is your mother’s name?”
Widdy looked away.
“Well, boy,” the magistrate in the lopsided wig thundered, “what is your mother’s name?”
Widdy shrunk in on himself. “People called her ‘Spanky.’”
The laughter rang out again, darker and just a little more cruel.
Lord Justice cast a quelling glance over the room. “What did she do?”
“She’s dead,” Widdy replied earnestly. “But she used to drink gin.”
The hearing room erupted at that. Lord Justice didn’t even crack a smile. “Do you have work? A place to stay?”
“I sweep streets, sometimes. I hold horses, when gentlemen go into the shops. That’s my favorite. Sometimes, I deliver billy-dos.”
“Billy-dos?” The mayor’s mouth quirked up.
“For ladies,” Widdy explained earnestly. “When they don’t want their words to be seen.”
Skew-wig reached over and nudged the mayor’s elbow. “I believe the boy is referring to billets-doux.” His mouth twitched in a self-satisfied smile.
Lord Justice cut his eyes briefly in their direction, and did not join in their merriment. “Did you take the bread?”
“No, sir. It wasn’t mine.”
“That’s what they all say,” Skew-wig said, shaking his head. “It’s his word against a respectable business-owner. I believe the man who doesn’t carry billy-dos about.”
That was as good an entry cue as any. Miranda took a deep breath, expelling all her fears. Then she reached out and tapped the clerk again. The man jumped, spattering ink, and then caught her eye. She pointed at Widdy, and the man coughed once more.
“Your Worships,” the clerk said, “there is a lady here who claims to have witnessed the whole affair.”
“Where is she?” the mayor asked.
The clerk jerked his head at Miranda. She felt as if she’d been thrust onstage: every eye in the room trained on her. She went from cold to too-hot before she took control of her nerves.
“Your Worships.” It was realistic to let the tremor of her hands show, to drop her eyes from the intensity of Lord Justice’s gaze.
“I saw the events in question. This boy merely watched.” Her words felt almost mushy in her mouth. She pitched her accent somewhere between aristocrat smooth and street-wary, with an added touch of broad country. She needed to hover on the brink of respectability. In this gown, she’d never manage wealthy.
Silence stretched as she kept her eyes on the floor. How many people had stood here like this, hoping for the best? A bead of sweat collected on her forehead. After a few moments—seconds really, although it felt an age—she dared to lift her eyes.
Lord Justice watched her, unblinking, one hand on his chin. If there’d been a hint of softness in his manner toward Widdy, it had evaporated at her appearance. Next to him, his colleague frowned in puzzlement.
It would be a mistake to let the stretching silence drive her to speak. That way lay babbling, and too much revelation altogether. She dropped her chin and contemplated the floor instead.
Lord Justice spoke first. “You saw the entire thing.” It wasn’t quite a question, the way he said it. Still, she bobbed her head in response.
Beside her, the clerk shuffled his feet. “Should she be sworn in?”
Lord Justice gave a negative wave of his hand. “What is your name?”
“Whitaker,” Miranda said. “Miss Daisy Whitaker.”
Her day-gown was serviceable muslin, one that a countrified girl might wear. He’d already taken note of her accent. He glanced to either side of her, and then scanned the room before raising one eyebrow.
“You are here unaccompanied,” he commented.
“My father is a farmer. A gentleman farmer. He’s here for market, and brought me along to town. It’s my first time.” Miranda ducked her head. “I didn’t think it was wrong to come. Was it?” She glanced up once more through darkened lashes, and willed him to see a headstrong girl from Somerset. Someone not used to being chaperoned at all times. Someone who might walk through fields by herself at home. She wanted him to see a foolish chit, so innocent that she believed going out alone in the city was no different than traipsing down a dusty lane.
“I had to come,” she added softly. “He was just a child. Your Worship.”
Lord Justice examined her a minute longer—as if she were a mouse, and he the owl about to swoop down and gobble her whole. “Where do you and your father stay?”
“The Lamb Inn.”
His gaze cut away from her. “Mr. Pathington, in what manner did Master Widdy remove the loaf of bread from your premises?”
The baker who’d made the accusation jerked his head up. “I—well—that is to say, I did not precisely see him take it. But there was no one else about. I saw him; I turned away for the barest of instants. I turned back, and the loaf was gone. Who else could it have been?”
Lord Justice tapped his fingers against the bench. “Precisely how bare was your instant?”
“Estimate how long you stood with your back turned. What were you doing?”
“Counting change for a half-crown, Your Worship.”
Magistrate Turner looked up and away, as if in calculation. “As much as a half-minute, then. You want me to punish this boy, who had no bread on him when he was apprehended, because you did not watch your storefront?”
Pathington flushed red. “Well, Your Worship, I wouldn’t put it precisely like that—”
Lord Justice jerked his head. “In my opinion, the charges have not been proven. Gentlemen?”
“Here now,” the mayor said, “Miss…uh, the miss over here has not delivered her testimony.”
Turner’s lips compressed. “No,” he said shortly. “But there is no need to hear it, as it is duplicative of what we can determine by reason. The lady”—he glanced sharply at Miranda—“need not expose herself.”
“You cannot be serious, Turner. Maybe the boy didn’t steal this particular loaf of bread,” the mayor said. “But surely he is guilty of something. Skulking about bakeries, carrying billy-dos. We can’t just let him go.”
Lord Justice turned to the mayor. Miranda had that sensation once again—that he could have been on a stage, so clever was his timing.
“How curious,” he finally offered. “Here I thought our duty was to decide if the charges before us could be proven. I recall the indictment most particularly, and yet I don’t remember seeing this boy charged with the illegal carrying of letters.”
The mayor flushed and looked away. “Suit yourself, Turner. If you insist on letting the rabble run free, I suppose I can’t stop you.”
A small smile touched Lord Justice’s lips. “You heard the man. Master Widdy, you are free to go.”
Miranda held her shoulders high, not daring to gasp. Still, relief flooded through her. Thank God. He’d not seen through her. This time, she’d scarcely had to talk with him. She’d survived. She felt as if she’d landed a double backflip atop a moving horse, and she could not keep from grinning.
But just as the babble in the room was beginning to grow, Lord Justice held up one hand.
“Miss…” He paused. “Whitaker, you said?” His lip curled.
Miranda’s apprehension returned in full force. “Yes, Your Worship?”
“The Lamb Inn is through the market. A woman shouldn’t walk down those mobbed streets unaccompanied. There are cutpurses loose. And worse.”
“If I leave now, Your Worship, I’ll be back before my father returns.”
He drummed his fingers against the oak bench. “I’ll see you to your lodgings, if you’ll wait a few minutes in the anteroom.”
Oh God. What a ghastly proposition. “Your Worship. I sh-shouldn’t take you from your duties.”
He sighed. “We are in complete accord on that point. Nevertheless.”
Before she had a chance to argue, he signaled and the clerk struck the gavel. The waiting crowd rose to its feet, and the magistrates stood as well. Miranda wanted to run. She wanted to shriek. But she didn’t dare draw attention to herself—not here, not with constables and magistrates both close by.
The clerk hopped to his feet and ran to open the rear door. The other judges turned and paraded out of the room, one in front of the other.
Turner was the last of the three to leave, his black robe swirling about him as if he were a herald of doom. But the clerk held the door open even after Lord Justice passed through, as if waiting for one last judge. And sure enough, from under the bench, a dog pushed to its feet and headed for the door. Miranda hadn’t seen it before; it must have lain quietly on the floor for the duration of the session.
The animal, a bit higher than her knee, was a mass of gray-and-white fur. It followed on Turner’s heels, as stately and ageless as its master. It paused when it reached the doorway, and looked back. She couldn’t even see its eyes through all that fur. Still, it felt as if the creature were marking Miranda, ordering her to wait until Lord Justice could see to her. She shivered, once, and the creature turned away.
Just her imagination.
And just her luck that His Worship had chosen today to show a gallant streak. She could not let him accompany her. There was no gentleman farmer, no comfortable inn. There was nothing but her cold garret waiting, and if he knew that the shining blond ringlets on her head were a wig, and her gown a costume…
Miranda swallowed. She didn’t need justice. She needed to get out of the room—and fast.
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Lacy Camey’s The Last Page:
Here’s the set-up:
Norah Johnson is at a crossroads and is in desperate need to heal after a highly publicized breakup from her major league baseball player boyfriend. To escape, she moves to her summer home at the beach with her sister and best friend where she journals, attends therapy and works on her pending clothing line. When a gorgeous stranger finds her lost journal, he seeks to find the author and make her fall in love with him. But is Norah ready to love again? Book 1 in the romantic comedy trilogy of living, loving, and laughing again; a Norah Johnson story.
The author hopes you will enjoy this free excerpt:
My hands shook as I took a deep breath and exhaled. I studied myself in the elaborate, gold mirror hanging on the ivory Mediterranean stone. On any other night, I would have contemplated the stone, estimated the amount of square feet, and judged how nice it might look in the boutique that I was eagerly waiting to open. Or, how amazing the mirror, perhaps full-length, would look in the beautiful, totally chic dressing rooms I envisioned for my future customers.
But my mind was preoccupied.
I looked hot. My brown, silky hair hung in nice, loose waves past my shoulders. My jaw-dropping, black strapless dress-my design-with ruffled detailing at the chest and gathered seams over my tanned skin, and Christian Louboutin heels-I’ll own up to it-made me look like a ten. I’m not a conceited person; I’m just letting you know, I put every effort into ensuring that I looked my absolute best, like any woman would out there trying to win Miss U.S.A. or The Bachelor.
This was a life-changing, pivotal moment. Since I was dealing with a man, the man I loved, the man I wanted to win back, I had to lay all my cards on the table, and I had a royal flush!
Did I mention the dress was formfitting? More like the painted-on kind, yet it was chiffon. No one had a dress like mine. I could hear Jennifer Aniston calling me in the future, wanting the dress for her next movie premiere.
But this time, no matter how good I managed to look even in my own prize-winning design that had landed my current career lead, the biggest lead of my life, I couldn’t calm my nerves even by reminding myself of this amazing accomplishment, one that I definitely did not take lightly.
My nausea made me feel like I was about to perform or give a speech in front of the whole world. I felt like I would vomit any minute! Gross, but that’s my nerves for you. On cue, my mouth started watering, and I knew what that meant-the inevitable would soon follow.
But I couldn’t throw up! Not here. Not now. I took a deep breath and blew out. Closing my eyes, trying to pull it together, I imagined standing on the beaches of… somewhere, Tahiti maybe, although I’d never been there.
I needed to be confident. I am confident.
I needed to pull it together. I can pull it together.
“Pull it together, Norah. Pull it together,” I told myself. Thank goodness, no one else was in the ladies’ room to witness that.
Even with all the energy I could muster, and despite my self-affirming pep talk, I still felt wobbly. I leaned forward against the cold granite. It felt warm against my cool, sweaty palms.
I could do this. I had to do this.
As if a bell from Pavlov’s experiment had rung, I snapped back to reality and looked down into my black Prada clutch in search of my lipstick.
Shimmery? Or sultry red? If I wore shimmery, I’d look relaxed, tanned, and glamorous. If I wore sultry, I’d…
With the thought of sultry, my soul filled with indignant anger at the thought of his sultry seducer, and the fact that she was in the other room. It was all her fault. She was the reason it had ended, the reason I was here in the bathroom in freezing February.
I’ll wear shimmery, I decided.
If this were a movie, you would hear the Ting Ting’s playing, Shut Up and Let Me Go, as I exited, confident, with the footsteps of a determined lioness on a mission. Except, I was thinking, ‘Please don’t let me go. Just shut up and listen and let her go.’
I rehearsed my lines.
“Truett, it’s me. Hi… I know.”
Lame. Of course, it would be me.
“Truett, don’t ask me why I’m here. I forgive you. We can be together.”
I needed to hurry because, standing ten feet in front of me, was… him.
His tall, muscular build fit nicely in an Armani suit. I saw the back of his tanned neck. I felt like I might faint.
Yes, I saw friends trying to warn him of my approach.
Yes, I heard the few rehearsal dinner guests seated at their lavish tables whispering as they took notice of my appearance, along with a few clanks of forks against china plates. The bride, Alicia, was greeting an elderly couple, and luckily God answered my prayers; she didn’t see me. She was as fake as ever. Couldn’t anyone else see through her façade? The fact that she was clearly using Truett’s fame for her instant acting career stardom?
But I knew everyone would soon find out. After, of course, she delivered their baby and joined Tracy Anderson Method workouts.
I saw Truett’s parents and made eye contact with his father; he looked white as a ghost and dropped his wine glass. The swing band and commotion of the excited guests were graciously loud enough, however; no one heard or thought twice about the breaking of the crystal.
Kind of like the way Truett couldn’t care less about the breaking of my heart.
But alas, there he was. There was my goal, the back of a man in a black suit. My bullseye.
One of his genius friends coughed under his breath, “Johnson at six o’clock.”
Another stretched, as he pointed and whispered, “Dude, you won’t believe who’s behind you.”
Then, as if in slow motion, he turned around. I had dreamt of this moment, of him seeing me, saying how fabulous I looked, of me sweeping him off his feet. But that wasn’t the reaction I received.
He cursed. And cursed loudly.
“What are you doing here, Norah?” Before a giant scene could be made, he grabbed me by the arm. Of course, not in a gentlemanly gesture, but more like a reproach of a mother grabbing her seven-year-old by the ear for back talking-and led me to the side of the white tent. Away from the heaters. Away from the few guests who had begun to take notice of Truett’s sudden change in demeanor.
His groomsmen, thank God, had some common sense and tried to block us from the nosy audience. But honestly, I really didn’t care who else saw me there. They all knew the story. If they’d experienced what I had, they would be there, too. Maybe.
“Are you trying to sabotage my rehearsal dinner? I’m getting married tomorrow.” He crossed his arms and let out an irritable, “Geez, you have some nerve.”
Then he began to pace, unable to stand still. He always did that when he didn’t want to think about the problem at hand.
I reached out to stop him and, as my hand touched his arm, he flinched. He closed his eyes and sighed annoyingly. “Well, what do you want, Norah?”
What do I want? I want you! I want us together again.
But standing there, staring into his cold, hardened eyes, I felt like an alien had abducted the man who used to love me, an alien from the used-to-be planet of Pluto, because it was the coldest one. His heart was clearly frozen, iced over. Feeling nothing. Looking at me as if I were the antichrist or something.
He was so different from the Truett I knew. He loved me. He was enamored with me. In the four years we dated, he never acted as if I annoyed him. He was clearly under a witch’s spell.
Everything in me wanted to rip him to shreds and claw his eyes out. The fire in my chest felt like heartburn, as if I was about to have an anxiety attack. But practice and rehearsing paid off. So my rehearsed speech, which my best friend in the world, Chloe, who was waiting in the car for me had heard me say over and over, went to good use.
Be calm, collected, my subconscious reminded me.
I will appear calm and collected. He will remember what he loved about me, that I had class, and I was always collected. I would appear as if nothing fazed me. It was me, not her, who would be the perfect, overly-exposed wife of a mega-athlete superstar.
And on that note, I was ready to say it. I lifted my chin with perfection.
“Truett, I forgive you,” I said ever so tenderly, yet matter-of-factly.
“What?” he asked, irritated. “You forgive me?” He laughed an utterly horrific, patronizing laugh. As I stood there, my insides screamed for me to stay composed.
I felt as if I was in a presidential debate and the ugliest jab had been thrown, yet I remained unfazed. So I continued with my mission.
“Look, please don’t marry her. You’ll make the biggest mistake of your life.”
He put up his hands in protest. I could tell I was running out of time, so I quickly got to the most important part.
“I forgive you. We can work on us. We can make us work. You don’t have to marry her just because she’s pregnant.”
Now this was the part where the beautiful music was supposed to start playing, like in the movies. Perhaps Coldplay’s Fix You, where his eyes were supposed to fill with tears, and he would open his arms and embrace and kiss me, telling me I was right. That he was glad I came. That he had been praying to God all day for a sign because of his own apprehensions, showing he was supposed to be with me.
Then we would leave together as the entire wedding party and guests watched in aghast bewilderment.
If only life were like the movies. Let me be the screenwriter.
Before I could even get to the good part and tell him, “Listen, she’s using you. Don’t you know anything about her? Don’t you know this, don’t you know that?”
He bluntly said, “No, Norah.” He said it sharply like someone would say if they were a prime candidate for anger management counseling. “You made the mistake by walking out on me when I needed you most to go to Milan.”
“But I didn’t walk-”
He didn’t want to hear it. It was too late.
“Get her out of here,” he said to Lewis, the Yankee’s second basemen. He turned back to me. “Get out of here, because if you don’t leave-”
Suddenly, that little piece of me that lurked deep inside in that little corner crevice of my heart, that piece that so wanted to give him a piece of my mind, suddenly came unfolded.
“If I don’t leave, then what?” Okay, my plan of remaining calm and cool went out the window. Suddenly, everyone in the room, as if they were all a part of a rehearsed, synchronized swimming team, placed their forks and drinks down and looked my way. I felt as if I were in the Twilight Zone. And for crying out loud, the band even stopped playing!
You could have heard a cricket.
My question sat in the thick, quiet air waiting to be answered. Angrily, he turned and walked away. He snapped his fingers, and the band began to play again. People whispered. Picture phones snapped. Paparazzi hiding in the bushes flashed their hot bulbs at me.
And with that, I was escorted from the premises. As I walked away, my heart pounded with adrenaline. The man I loved with my whole heart, the man I was supposed to marry, the man I was supposed to build a fairy-tale life with-we were supposed to be the next Posh and David Beckham!-had left me for another woman, a pregnant woman.
I was left to pick up the broken pieces of my seemingly never-ending broken heart, as the rest of the country had the lovely privilege of reliving my awful breakdown on TMZ, E!, US Weekly, and every other media outlet. And I felt like I had nowhere to hide.
Then, I woke up.
But it wasn’t all a dream. I awakened with my head pounding and spinning. Where was I? It all felt blurred. As I continued to lie there in the comfort of my Tempur-Pedic cloud, I knew I was either in Dubai again, or in my bedroom. My familiar alarm clock, which read 9:30 a.m. in red letters, reminded me I was home.
I was home.
I sat up slowly. I could smell the sizzling bacon I guessed my mother was making. Suddenly, I didn’t feel very well. I quickly ran to my bathroom and threw up. I wallowed my way to the sink and, as I splashed my face with cool water, Chloe entered and sat down on the toilet. Good thing she didn’t know I had just thrown up.
In her perfectly trained nurse-like way, she asked, “Are you okay? You don’t look so good. Pepto? Sprite helps. So does ginger beer. Pregnant women drink that a lot. Of course, the non-alcoholic kind. But it’s not like that matters or anything, because you’re not pregnant. So…” I watched her come to the sudden realization of saying the extremely sensitive word, pregnant. As in, Truett was marrying a pregnant woman!
“Oh, sorry. Oops.” She bit her nails, obviously wishing she could retract her words.
For a second, I felt like saying something in regards to the pregnant women drinking beer, but I just didn’t have the energy. Not only did I feel like I had been hit by a train, with my entire body aching, I felt like one must feel after competing in a triathlon-unable to move.
My mouth was parched. I opened my mouth to speak the first words of the morning, but she beat me to it.
“Your mom is bringing you a tray. We heard you get up.”
I slowly turned, leaning against the counter. Am I really awake? Did this really happen?
“It was like an elephant was stomping across the room.” As soon as she said the words, like a woman in a crazed daze, I walked back to my bed and fell facedown on the bed like a ton of bricks, sinking into the duvet.
Then, I spoke my first words of the day, or rather, screamed them in pure agony.
“He’s getting married today!” My muffled, scratchy, desperate declaration was the most pitiful thing imaginable. And then my elephant tears poured.
“Aw, Nor, I’m so sorry.” She came over and sat down to pat my back. Just then, my mom and dad walked in with a tray holding breakfast, coffee, and orange juice.
The embarrassment! Forget the day when your training bra was found, or your first box of tampons. I was crying like a second grader with a tantrum, and I was a grown woman. I did not feel like being on display!
My mom sat opposite me and ran her fingers through my hair as I continued sob. Dad set the tray on my nightstand and cleared his throat nervously. He didn’t do well with tears and hated to see any of his girls cry. He muttered under his breath about what a jerk that Truett Mason is.
“He is a jerk,” I muttered, as I rolled over and sat up. “He’s a jerk!”
“Yes,” Mom agreed. “He’s a horrible person, Norah. But we love you very much, and that man doesn’t deserve your beautiful heart.”
I looked around at the pitiful scene, Mom on one side, bestie on the other, Dad in the doorway, and for the first time, I noticed what I was wearing and how I looked-tank top and undies. Oh, no. I jumped out of bed and grabbed the robe draped over the chair next to my bed.
“We just wish you would have told us you were going, honey,” Mom said, unfazed by my lack of clothes.
I tied my robe and sat in the chair. Too dazed to even form a thought, I laid my head back and closed my eyes.
The next few months looked like this:
Wake up at, well, one or two.
Shuffle in my slippers to the coffee pot and grab a pop tart if my stomach could handle it. If not, I simply ate toast and drank Sprite. I was a ball of nerves.
Shuffle my way to couch. Cry. Moan. Watch TV.
Mom or Dad, or my sister Maycee try and make conversation with me. Say something about how pretty the day is, and maybe we should go out. Or how fabulous this new shampoo is, and maybe I should give it a try. Yeah, not washing your hair for seven days straight might attract some of those comments.
All the while, I looked like Adam Sandler in the movie, Click. I was there, but not really there. But, instead of time flying by in an instant, like it did for Adam, time dragged for me.
Chloe had to fly back home, naturally. My ten pieces for my line were due in eight more weeks, and I had nothing to show for it. I was beginning to see the need for great robes, however.
Then, my parents stepped in.
It all happened like this.
I was perfectly miserably-happy watching a Basketball Wives rerun. I think I had seen that particular episode um, maybe three times, after, of course, seeing every episode, every season, as well as every other reality show available on Bravo. As I lay there curled up in my fleece blanket, Dad took a seat in the chair next the couch.
“Sweetie, it’s time for a change.”
Like a sad dog who never got to go on walks anymore, I glanced his way, again with the Click daze. “Sweetie pie, starting next week, you’re starting therapy.”
“Therapy?” I gawked at him.
“Yes, I’m tired of seeing my bright, aspiring fashion designer so defeated. We Johnsons don’t let life get us down. Why, when I was in my fourth year residency program competing for that one spot with Dr. Chinagens, I-”
I blocked out everything he was saying and averted my eyes to the women lunching and drinking Champagne after a day’s worth of shopping. That was supposed to be my life. And I was supposed to be in the new reality show, Baseball Wives. No, that wasn’t technically a show yet, but I just knew it was the next sport franchise reality show. It had to be! At least, before Hockey Wives, or Soccer Wives. Baseball had to be next. And I was supposed to be the fabulous one with the design line, and chic boutique and…
“And that’s why Maycee had the great idea of you two living in the summer home together because, not only is it near Dr. Hood, but…” and his voice became softer and softer in my brain. I was getting good at shutting out the world. But there was only one thing I couldn’t shut out-how I felt.
Oh, wow. The women lunching were getting into a fight, and one was pouring an ice bucket over the other woman’s head. I wished I could pour an ice bucket over that scum-sucking, bottom-feeding, tramp of a woman, Alicia.
One week later.
“Why are you here, Norah? Tell me about yourself,” were his first words to me.
There I was. Vulnerable. A mess. Broken!
“Tell you why I’m here?…” I said slowly.
Let’s see…where do I even begin? Great question. Yes, I knew that was the standard question a therapist asked a new client. Before I could even answer, my memory reverted to that chilly February evening. I closed my eyes and swallowed. Even though it had been three months ago, I felt like it had just happened last night.
“Have you ever woken up and found it was all a dream?”
He nodded slowly. Yet, in that nod, I just knew he was analyzing everything.
“I just woke up from my worst nightmare, except it wasn’t really a dream. And I feel like I’ll never wake up again, per se.”
He nodded again, with great understanding.
I looked into his warm eyes. He made me feel okay. I could tell him, and he could help me. I desperately needed help. I just wanted it to all go away.
“I was on the verge of getting engaged to…”
“You’ve heard of him. Truett Mason. Pitcher for the-”
“New York Yankees,” he finished.
“Yeah.” I exhaled slowly.
“Sorry.” He cleared his throat and repositioned himself in his big leather chair. “Kind of a big fan here. Go ahead.”
Ugh! Was there anyone in the entire world who was not enamored with the illustrious Yankees or, furthermore, their star pitcher? Didn’t anyone know about his former girlfriend who practically held his entire world together for him? I knew I could keep going with my rabbit trail thoughts, so I stopped and focused.
“Listen, I’m serious. I just want to be able to trust you not to go to the media. To not-”
“Norah. Patient-doctor agreement. There is no fear of that. You can trust me.” He smiled. “Or you can sue me and make lots of money.” He leaned forward and folded his hands.
Not funny. I didn’t know what to say.
“I just…” I took another deep breath. “Want to be me again. I’ve experienced recently, let’s see… betrayal, cheating, pain, sadness, disconnect, loneliness, disappointment, not being myself, feeling stuck in a rut.” I said all of this in one giant breath, as fast as Speedy Gonzales. “Really, I’m a normal, happy, successful woman.” I smiled my charming, plastered smile.
Again, that nod. What was it with therapists and nods? I hated silence so I continued, “I’ve been to Milan for an extensive, elite, completely exclusive fashion internship. I’m about to launch my own line because of that internship, well, after I show my financial backer the remaining ten pieces, which are not created as of now, and here I am facing this…” I searched for words to explain it.
“Massive roadblock.” I just want my broken heart to heal! I screamed inside. Just fix me already!
Gosh! This was going to be hard to explain! “I wish there was a cord you could plug into my mind and preview it all like a sitcom off of iTunes, and call it a comedy, preferably. I’m at the point where I’m ready for some comedic relief. And then be able to say, ‘And that’s why I’m here!'” I laughed nervously. Is this guy going to talk? Give me advice?
But, maybe on another planet where species are more advanced, he would have just read my mind, understood everything, and had the perfect solution for me, and so that therapy would be a one-time visit.
“Here’s what you do. Here’s how you can be yourself again. Here’s how to push the delete button from your mind and erase your awful memories.”
But who was I kidding? It’s planet Earth. We’re human. It’s 2011. Time to face reality…
And then, finally he spoke.
“You know, it’s okay. Just keep talking. You don’t have to tell me everything at once,” he explained.
For the next two hours, I tried my absolute best to relay to him everything. Afterward, he gave me gentle instructions to journal every day, take walks, and relax.
I replied, “But I can’t relax, I have this line I’m supposed to produce. My entire career hangs on it.”
“I understand,” he said kindly.
Uh, he understands what a line involves? Designing, creating, sewing, cutting, stitching, working. Functioning!
“The important thing is for you to take the pressure off. From what it sounds like to me, you’ve worked hard all four years in college, worked even harder in this internship, and endured a life-changing crisis. Your heart is broken; now you need to heal. Part of healing is simply resting. Think of this as healing after an open-heart surgery. What does one do? One doesn’t overly exert themselves. So my order for you for the next couple of weeks is journal, walk, relax, do something new, watch your favorite movies, and just relax.”
Um, one also doesn’t deserve this awful pain.
Just relax? Does he know my personality? Does he know about my career?
As if he could read my thoughts, he added, “Often, our best ideas come to us out of a rested soul.”
A rested soul. Not heart, but soul. So I was supposed to heal my heart and let my soul rest? Isn’t my heart my soul? I furrowed my brows in confusion. I’m not a dense person, but couldn’t one just heal without getting all philosophical and multi-dimensional?
“We are beings composed of mind, body, and spirit. Each component works in unison to create optimum harmony in one’s health. We need balance in all three,” he continued, as the perfect therapist would say. I wondered how many times he had told his patients that. Considering his gray hair, his robust belly, his classic sweaters, and the pictures of children and what seemed to be grandchildren on his shelves, I guessed he had said it thousands of times.
“Yeah, about that. Is there like some sort of special happy pill I can take?” I smiled with all the charm I could muster.
He laughed genuinely, then swiveled around in his chair and pointed to the vast collection of diplomas and awards hanging on his wall. “As you can see, I’m a psychologist, not a psychiatrist. Besides that, I tend to lean on more of the holistic side of healing and treatments.”
He turned back around. “Trust me. You’re in good hands. You’re in a good place. You being here. You being at the summer home with your sister. You have great support. You’re going to do just fine. More than fine. You’ll see.”
I had been living in the summer home for two weeks, and it wasn’t too bad. It was actually a progression, as I went from the sliding around in my slippers to flopping around in Tory Burch flip-flops.
I had my thrice-weekly sessions with Doctor Hood, and was reminded again to journal constantly and to take walks. But still, no matter how beautiful it looked outside, I found myself feeling lackadaisical about walking and exercising as Dr. Hood had suggested. I just felt like doing nothing, extremely not like me!
In college, I had been extremely athletic and always on the go. Of course, I had been extremely a lot of things pre-heart wound, pre-open heart surgery.
And I was reminded again to try something new, which was something I hadn’t done yet, but was planning on doing. And lastly, I was told to, oh, to love myself.
To love myself.
“Of course, I love myself,” I told Doctor Hood in one of my sessions when he had asked if I loved myself. But as I said those words, I knew I was struggling with the thought, “Why did the man I loved, my soul mate, cheat on me with such a skank?” Yes, I guess such thoughts can wreak a little havoc on one’s self esteem, more than one realizes. Yes, I guess Dr. Hood had his PhD for a reason. He could psychoanalyze, but not give me medicine. Oh, well. I did love myself, but I could love myself a lot more, considering the circumstances.
Anyway, I had to journal. And journaling, really journaling, required being alone with my thoughts.
The last thing I needed was to be alone. Yet I had to be alone to write and “think about my feelings.” Now, this absolutely did not make sense to me. Why think about feelings more than I already had to feel them? But, I desperately wanted to heal and move on, so I was doing everything Dr. Hood had told me to do. Maycee and I had already watched like fifteen movies. I was actually getting my color back from laying out in the sun. But there was an aching feeling in the pit of my stomach about the last pieces of my fashion line that were due in seven short weeks. Our giant sitting room, surrounded on three sides with floor-to-ceiling glass, had been hijacked by every fashion magazine imaginable, as well as my sketches, fabric pieces, the sewing machine, my empty coffee mugs-that is, the coffee mugs Maycee overlooked when she tried to clean. She was such a neat freak, and it drove her crazy that the room was so messy. But she never said anything to me. She already felt too sorry for me-a card I might use a few more times with her.
The only problem with such a messy room was trying to keep it off limits to the adorable puppy my insightful parents, who seemed to be always ten steps ahead, had bought for me in an effort to raise my spirits. Did I mention the puppy was a little high-maintenance? Yeah, just a tad. She was beautiful, though, a Teacup Pomeranian, who chewed everything. All of my heels were on lockdown. I put up a giant makeshift safety gate to keep Coco out of the most important room in the house, my creating room. That was after she almost destroyed a dress I was working on. But, the little tear she chewed in it actually worked out for the better, giving the dress a more eclectic character. I decided maybe she liked fashion. So, I spent an entire day-yes, instead of journaling, or walking, or working on my creation, or trying something new-sewing her the most perfect little doggie outfit. No one would look as fabulous as Coco. She wore doggie couture. I guess you could say that was something new. Doggie Couture. Maybe that counts.
After I made her first outfit, I decided to make a few more, as well as a luxury dog bed, one covered in silk. It was just so much fun. It was effortless. The hours flew by as I listened to music, harmonizing with the hum of my sewing machine. I had an energy to create, but to create for my dog, not my nine remaining pieces.
That wasn’t like me. I normally had things done ahead of time, way ahead of time. I had practically half a year to prepare my line, ever since I had come home from Milan. But considering the circumstances, I was slightly sidetracked. I had a plan, though. I would create two fabulous pieces each week for five weeks, then have the remaining week to modify.
It would all work out.
Since Maycee was off for the summer from teaching, her days were pretty methodical. Get up, breakfast, lay out in the sun, read, come in, eat, go out and tan, read, run, write on her iPad, check on me, eat, then we would watch a movie while I interjected with sobs, comments about the jerk in the movie, or the horrible cheater. Then I would rant about how all women should just join a union or something against cheaters. I was seriously super close to calling Elin Woods or starting a YouTube Channel-Women Unite against Male Athlete Cheaters. All the while, my wonderful sister never told me to stop feeling or stop saying anything. She would just smile and pat my feet, as we kept watching whatever it was we were watching.
Yes, I know. I had a great support system. I was truly thankful.
Sister, cute dog, summer home… oh, and my parents came by a few times a week with tons of food, still concerned about the weight I had lost when I literally couldn’t stomach anything besides toast, saltine crackers, and Sprite. But, hey! I was gaining it back.
Things got a lot better one morning.
There I was, up early, trying to journal since I had kept putting it off with puppy duty, sewing, sketching, and watching movies. It was the day before my next session with Doctor Hood, and I had nothing written in my journal to show him. I was tempted to Google “journal entries to show therapist” because I didn’t want to feel. Finally, I decided to get down to business and write. Live with Regis and Kelly was on the TV, with Nick Lachey as the guest host, since Regis was on vacation. Kelly was asking her energetic questions, the ever-so-perfectly-enunciated-word-questions, like, “So-is-this-your-first-marathon?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “It served as great inspiration for my latest album. I-”
I need inspiration for my line! I whined inside. My anxiety grew, and I started sketching a dress in my journal.
Maycee walked in and poured a bowl of cereal.
“Oh, he’s so hot!” she observed, as she leaned against the counter.
“Yeah, I miss Jessica and Nick!” I said sadly, as I worked on the sketch of a strapless dress.
“Yeah, but I love her with Eric Johnson. He seems like he’s always protecting her in the pictures, and they just seem like more of a match. They seem like companions. Maybe soul mates!” Maycee shrugged and dropped her spoon in her bowl. The clank was loud.
“You know, that’s exactly what I need!” Her face was bright, excited.
“You need an Eric Johnson?”
“No silly. Norah, that’s it. We’re running a marathon. You see-”
Uh, oh. I knew what this meant.
“No, no, no,” I replied, in uneasy protest that escalated to a stammering absolute,
“No! I’m supposed to walk, not run! Dr. Hood said-”
“Exactly! Aren’t you ready to take long strides and heal? Running will speed up the process!”
I shook my head. Was she trying to use psychology on me? Because it was working. I was actually considering it.
“I’ve got to get my books out to my agent this summer. Running will shake up my brain! I haven’t done something like this in years, not since I went hiking in Costa Rica in college.” Her eyes went to the ceiling. “I miss adventure,” she said, like an old person missing the good old days. With finality, she added, “Let’s do it. You’re doing it.”
I don’t have a choice, I realized. When my sister said I was doing something, it always meant I was going to do it.
It was a trend set early in my life. I was four. She was seven. She wanted to play dress up, be in a play, do this, do that; I was always drawn in. I didn’t mind it. I actually liked her initiative. Life with my sister was like an adventure. That was why she was so proud of me when I went to Milan on my internship, because it was such an adventure.
I remember sharing my excitement with her when I found out I got in, a spot among the chosen twelve from thousands of other applicants across the world.
“Oh. My. Gosh. I’m so inspired to write a novel about this. I’m so coming for research,” she had said. New adventures always inspired her. That was one reason why I thought her being there for the summer with me was almost as beneficial for her as it was for me. She hadn’t pushed out a book in three years. She was a New York Times best-selling author. I knew deep down that what kept her mentally and creatively blocked was that blood-sucking boyfriend of hers, Josh. No, he wasn’t a vampire. He couldn’t hold a candle to Edward Cullen, but he did have the pale part down and could seriously benefit from a nice spray tan. He also wore the solemn, blank stare all the time. I guessed that was compliments of a doctor’s residency program, our father’s residency program. I always speculated that there was something fishy with that, like maybe he was using my sister, but I could never tell her that.
“Yes,” She interrupted my train of thought.
Oh, she agrees? He is a blood-sucking vampire? He is just using you for his residency spot with dad?
“Yes, we’re running. I’m looking it up right now!” She left to get her iPad. Her voice echoed down the hall. As I watched her leave, her blond ponytail bounced back and forth. I admired her silk pajama shorts with fuchsia flowers and realized three things: I love silk; my sister is perfect. Like she needs to run. And three, I seriously hoped it would rain so there would be no running!
Or would that last part even alter the plans? My sister would probably want to run in the rain. Even more adventure.
Just then, our doorbell rang, and I sighed. Saved by the bell.
“Are you expecting anyone?” I yelled, as I stomped to the door. “It better not be another shamefully awful reporter!” I had had quite a few paparazzi try and follow me, but Dad had given them a piece of his mind that they would never forget, a.k.a. including the threat of not only a restraining order, but of “his people” who “knew people” who “knew people” from Jersey who would pay them a nice visit. That got them pretty quiet, fast. After that, I finally felt free from the press. No more paparazzi.
But, no. It was not a feared reporter. When I opened the door, there stood Chloe, the best girl in the entire world, besides my sister, of course.
Chloe and I were like Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. We were totally twins in our sorority house at UT Austin. We were the best of friends. No, we didn’t look like twins but I swear, we knew each other’s thoughts.
She was dressed in yellow rain boots, cut-off denim shorts, a plaid shirt rolled up over her arms and belly, showcasing her perfectly tanned skin. Her auburn hair with its perfectly placed highlights tumbled down her shoulders.
I squealed with delight. “Chloe!” I hugged her. “You’re here! What the heck? And you’re in rain boots! Look at this outfit.” I laughed.
“Listen, it seriously is raining a few miles out. Heading this way, it looks like. And I was cold. And well, it’s summer, and I know it’s East Coast here, but hey, a girl just has to wear shorts when she’s worked so hard on this tan and these legs!”
“Oh, thank God,” I muttered.
“You said rain is heading this way. Thank God! Maycee wants me to train for a marathon with her. Come in, silly!” I motioned for her to come in.
She walked through the marble entryway and checked herself out in the antique mirror that covered an entire wall. “I just love antique, floor-to-ceiling mirrors.” She adjusted her flannel shirt. “Oh, marathon, huh? Guess that means I’ll be training, too,” she said in little girl fearful apprehension as she followed me to the kitchen. “Would you look at this place? Look at the view.”
Windows from floor to ceiling in the kitchen, living room, and sitting area were framed with cedar wooden beams, giving the home a French country vibe. The summer home really was a sight to new guests and even old guests, like me. I loved it and appreciated the view daily.
“Very inspirational here. I can see why you and Maycee just love being here.”
I led her to the kitchen bar, and she sat down and placed her bag next to her.
Coco ran in with the excitement of a new guest.
“Look how cute this little pup is!” She bent down to pick her up as Coco profusely licked her face. “And look at her precious collar! In calligraphy! And her adorable outfit! You have such style, Norah. Did you make this?”
“Of course.” I smiled proudly.
She touched the fabric, admiring the feel. “Is this satin?”
“Yep.” Her expression said it all. “I know, a bit overboard, but I wanted her to enjoy the soft feel. She’s my baby, after all. Girl, when I have a real child, you know she’s going to be dressed like a princess! Coco is the closest thing I have right now.”
“Wow. Well, this is impressive! Coco’s wearing Coco couture,” she said in a baby voice, and kissed Coco on the head. Coco wagged her tail harder.
“Thanks.” I smiled like a proud mother. Coco Couture. I liked it. I really felt maternal toward the little puppy, as if my life had suddenly taken on new meaning. I hadn’t taken care of an animal in years, but my heart would instantly warm just at the look of her. She needed me, depended on me, and I was determined to take the best of care of her. She was going to be the best-dressed dog in the world with my fashion designs. Funny, how when you started taking care of something, it did something inside of you.
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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:
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.”
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?”
“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.”
“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.
“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?”
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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”