Love Remembers. Chapter 6

Luke wasn’t aware he didn’t have his coffee. Just as he started taking a sip of his orange juice, he heard his name being called. His heart stopped beating and his entire body froze in shock. He almost dropped the cup of juice and bag of food to the floor.

“Luke! Luke, wait! You forgot your coffee.”

Annie was now panting, as she quickly caught up with him. She wasn’t certain if he had heard her. One of her arms was extended towards him, holding the steaming to-go-cup in one of her hands. The man named Luke just stood there with his back to her.

“Hey, you’re Luke, right? Here, you forgot this at Maggie’s.” Annie glanced around in case she had the wrong guy. But there was no one else around. It had to be him.

Luke just stood there afraid to turn around in case he was mistaken. But that voice and the way it said his name, it was his wife’s. Only that it was impossible. His wife had been dead for three years now. Unless……Had he somehow died while walking back to his car?

He knew he couldn’t just do nothing while this voice kept saying his name. Half expecting to see some disfigured hallucination of his wife, he turned around very slowly and felt like slamming hard against a wall. The air inside his lungs escaped in one loud whoosh as his eyes widened in disbelief.

There she was, standing right in front of him. Not a ghost with vacant eyes coming back to haunt him but his wife in the flesh, with those beautiful eyes shinning and full of life. Maybe it was the way he felt his own face mirroring the shock he felt at seeing her, because he was sure he heard her sharp intake of breath the moment their stares locked.

At the moment, she was clutching the cup of coffee in one hand while the other went to her chest as she took several deep breaths. It was now that Luke was able to see that maybe it was all due to her run from across the street. The architect saw that his fast pace had taken him almost back to where he had parked his car, a good distance away from Maggie’s Diner.

Again, the rational side of his still functioning brain reminded him that this couldn’t possibly be happening. Maybe he was still dreaming and the morning’s events hadn’t been real: getting up early, driving to Maggie’s, his own remembrance about Alexa. God knew he had those kinds of dreams, about seeing her again, too, often for his own mental sanity.

I’ll wake up any moment now, Luke tried to convince himself. But when the woman before him took another step towards him, he retreated until his back was pressed against the wall behind him.

“Alexa?”

The moment she heard the name, everything inside her froze. A cold sweat ran down her back and she could feel what could only be described as panic take a hold of her body. It didn’t help that even before he uttered that name, Annie had been having a hard time getting air to her lungs and not because of her run from Maggie’s to here.

The reason her heart was beating fast as if she had just run a marathon, had to do with the man currently gaping at her. Because the moment this stranger had turned around to face her, she had felt lightheaded and dizzy. It was as if his eyes were some kind of magic key that opened up a whole array of confusing emotions so strong she could barely breath. She wondered if the gasp she heard before had come from her or if it just had been her imagination.

Still, amid her inner turmoil, she found her voice to answer.  “No, I’m Annie, Annie Parker.”

Luke still couldn’t make any sense of what was going on. His ears were suddenly assaulted by a violent buzzing, almost as if a thousand bees were swarming furiously around his head. Her eyes were moving nervously in their sockets as he detected confusion, annoyance and fear.

He remembered he had always been able to tell what Alexa was really thinking or what she was feeling just by paying attention to her eyes. When she got angry, the green in them became a few shades darker, like staring into a forbidden forest. When she laughed, even though she didn’t want to, in case they were having an argument and she wasn’t ready to let it go, – before reaching her mouth – laughter reached her eyes filling them with such innocence, it was like watching a little kid before a mountain of toys.

When they had made love, Luke’s own defenses would melt away at the raw passion and desire swirling inside them. Those were the moments when she had been at her most vulnerable and innocent self; when she had bared all and showed him the woman she truly was. He had hated when sadness crept into them. Luke despised himself, because he had put that exact feeling along with disappointment in them the last time he had been with her.

He didn’t trust what was happening. In a matter of seconds, his whole world had been turned upside down. He’d gone from wishing he could see her one last time, to actually having her stand in front of him. Only that this must be a trick from his grieving mind. Luke wanted desperately to sit down and try to assimilate all of this. Instead, he used the sturdy wall behind him to support his back.

Behind closed eyelids, his mind compared what he remembered about Alexa with the woman standing in front of him. Aside from the eyes, her hair was the same color, maybe a little bit longer than the last time he saw his wife. A couple of strands had come loose from the band that tied her hair together. She looked the same, still, it was like seeing her for the very first time. She seemed older, more mature yet more cautious of the world around her than when he had first met her. Luke wondered if whatever happened after the accident she clearly survived, was what had put that hesitating look in her eyes. He hadn’t forgotten that this year she would be turning twenty-seven next June.

Her skin was the same creamy white, but for the red spots on her cheeks. Her body, although maintaining the same form, looked more fit and lithe. Despite all the confusion attacking his mind, he couldn’t stop from thinking that if possible, she looked even more beautiful than he remembered.

Instantly, a disarrayed collection of images began to surface: of the fight they had before she left, of the police when they came by to tell him about the accident, of the funeral…….

They all vanished when a single thought popped up inside Luke’s jolted brain: she survived the accident! Now that part of his initial shock was receding, the true meaning of the current situation sent chills up and down his spine.

But……..How could this be? He had been there when the police handed him the only remains they had been able to recover from the charred wreck. Luke had stood over her grave while the symbolic coffin containing nothing descended into the ground. The police had said that everything was gone by the time they arrived………..

Was it possible this wasn’t real and he was already losing his mind?

“Are you all right?”

Her voice startled him. He hadn’t uttered a single word since saying the name. No wonder her tone was edgy and impatient.

“I…..I’m sorry, I guess I just wasn’t paying attention and confused you with someone else.”

“Right……No problem.” After a brief hesitation, Annie insisted. “I’m sorry to say this, but you don’t look that well.”

Luke let out a shaky laugh and replied. “Believe me, I’m far from feeling well.”

At her worried expression, Luke shook his head and managed to pull himself off the wall.

“That’s not what……..Sorry, it’s just….what did you say your name was?”

“Annie, Annie Parker.” She extended her hand. Luke was afraid that if he touched her she might dissolve away. His heart was beating really hard against his chest. In the end, his need to touch her after all this time was so strong, he extended his hand as well.

Annie wasn’t comfortable with this situation. Never mind that she was already feeling disconcerted at her own reaction to this man. Now, as her hand touched his, something flared to life inside her. Something……familiar? Her heart started beating faster as the possibility seemed both unconceivable but not too far fetched either. After all, this could’ve happened to her before.

What disturbed her more, was the way his eyes were examining her thoroughly. They reminded her of someone, while at the same time they made her feel wary of the man in front of her.  Annie pulled away from the contact and just handed him his coffee.

Luke’s hand still pulsed from its contact with Annie’s. It was like he was back at the parking lot again and the same unrestrained rush of powerful emotions flowed between them. He searched her face for any sign of recognition. Nothing. What he did see was that she was visibly put off by the entire situation.

“I have to go. It was nice meeting you, Annie. And thank you for the coffee.” He excused himself in a voice he hoped sounded calm.

“Nice meeting you, too.” But Luke was already hoping into a very expensive looking car parked a few paces away from where she stood. He didn’t even glance her way, as his car sped by next to her on its way to the town’s exit.

Annie tried to walk back normally but almost tripped down as her legs failed to stop shaking. Once she was inside the diner, she let out the breath she had been holding ever since Luke’s hand had clasped hers tightly. There was no denying that her palm still tingled from his touch.

The basic signals of attraction were there. Not that she could blame him. He had a face that didn’t belong in a small town like this, maybe not even in this planet. Her still shaking hands had wanted so much to pass her fingers through that already messy hair of his, it was as if they’d been destined to do that all along. And his eyes were a shade of blue that reminded her of electricity, with a hint of gray, that had her long-forgotten womanly desires go even more crazy.

What unsettled her the most was the way those eyes had surveyed her. Almost as if expecting some sort of reaction from Annie. A reaction that Annie was afraid might hit her any minute now. Thankfully, the only thing happening at the moment was her entire system going back to normal. Of the calm and coziness wrapping her shaking limbs like a warm blanket, as her nostrils filled with the familiar smells of food and coffee and she was soothed by the loud conversations from the breakfast crowd as she entered the diner.

Clearing the strands of hair from her face, she walked over to the cash register where Maggie looked way too curious for Annie to ignore it.

“Everything okay, Annie? Did you catch him?”

“Sure. He uhm….He was in a hurry, so he left.”

“Are you’re sure that’s all? You look a little bit shaken up.”

“I’m…fine. I just…I haven’t eaten anything and you know how I get when that happens.”

Annie couldn’t stop her gaze from landing on the place where Luke’s car had disappeared a few seconds ago.

Maggie followed it with her head and said. “Such a mysterious man, that one.”

“You could say that again.” Annie muttered as Maggie resumed her work behind the counter. Doing a quick scan of the crowd, she spotted Marley. Asking the cook for their usual breakfast food she took two cups from behind the counter and poured some fresh made coffee while she waited for their orders to be ready. She was more than ready to put this nerve-rattling episode behind.

Advertisements

Love remembers. Chapter 4

The next day after her daily morning run, Annie got ready for work. Despite her last minute attempts to come up with an excuse to bail on her own birthday celebration, Annie hadn’t been able to escape Marley as she’d come to her place last night and forced her into wearing the clothes she’d brought from her own store.

In the end, she had ended enjoying herself. If only she could say the same about her two best friends. From the second they stepped into Joe’s, Jack had gone off to chat with some blonde girl and Marley had sat all night seething in her place, and pretending to be listening to whatever Annie was telling her at the time.

Of course, when Marley did the same and found some guy to flirt with, Annie had noticed Jack’s murderous stare as he clearly hadn’t liked the way the stranger’s hand kept caressing Marley’s back the entire time. At least, with her two friends busy making fools of themselves, she had been able to slip out early from Joe’s. All in all though, the night out had helped her shake off the remnants of the nightmare and have a dreamless night’s sleep.

Annie hoped Marley had paid attention when she made plans to meet the redhead at the diner for an early breakfast, before Dreams and Trends opened up for the day. Minutes later, Annie arrived at the diner and decided to go directly upstairs using the side street entrance. There was some paperwork she needed to catch up on before starting work downstairs.

An hour later, Luke Hamilton was entering the same place. He had decided the reason this diner was always full, was because the food was actually good. So, Luke wasn’t surprised that many booths were already occupied at 7:00 a.m. He wasn’t staying, he just wanted coffee. He needed to make some calls to the office before heading to the old library and take a look.

Yesterday’s meeting had been a success. The initial draft he and John had put together had been welcomed by all the members of the town council. Like most of their clients, they had some opinions about certain details concerning the design. They also thought it would be best if Luke saw the old place for himself. It would be easier for him, they said, to see the places where their new library would need to improve design wise. Although Luke incorporated said changes in the initial proposal, it wouldn’t hurt to take a look at the old place, it wouldn’t be a problem in case he had to make some modifications. The real bulk of the project had already been well received by the town council. They agreed to have a meeting with a final proposal ready next week. That would be enough time for Luke to head back and forth to the office and work at it with John in case any changes were required.

He approached the counter and found Maggie beaming at him from behind the cash register. He couldn’t help but return the smile, the gesture feeling foreign on his face. It was weird the way this stranger had managed to break the barrier Luke had built around himself; the one that kept him from developing any sort of bond with the rest of the world.

His own parents had been forced to stay out of his life after his wife’s death. Luke had done everything to push everyone that mattered to him away from his life. He already knew the price you paid when someone you loved was taken away from you. He was dead on making sure he never made the same mistake ever again.

“Hey Luke, good morning! Glad you’re back. What can I get you today?”

“Just coffee thanks, black.”

“Just coffee?” Maggie gave him the same concerned look his mother did on the rare occasions when she visited him. His mother’s said that she was worried at how her only son was living his life. The way his work seemed to have taken over his life and the person he had become since. Johanna Hamilton told him this every time they saw each other, which was not as often as before.

The woman standing in front of him also gave him a determined look. It said she wasn’t one to keep her thoughts to herself, either.

“No wonder you look so pale. Well, I don’t do that just-coffee nonsense. So, just sit over there and I’ll have something special made up for you. And don’t even try to tell me you don’t have time.”

“Okay, ma’am.”

Since there was no point in arguing with her, he sat at the counter and watched the early morning dynamics. The other town council members, Dr. Colburn and Mr. Bennings were there, too. The last one with his wife and whom Luke assumed was his son, Pete Jr., as Mr. Bennings had mentioned him yesterday during their meeting. The young man shared the same big frame as his father, even the same pitch in tone when he laughed. Not to mention he shared the same brown eyes with the woman with her arm tucked under the crook of Pete Sr.’s arm.

Luke returned his attention to the movement in front of him. Maggie was busy yelling some orders at the kitchen cook, while one of the waitresses chatted amicably with a couple seated next to him.

He couldn’t help but think about what his mother said about his life. Luke knew he had become the one thing he swore he wouldn’t be: a workaholic. A man who’s only interest was his work and nothing else. Unfortunately, the circumstances around his life had pushed him right in that direction. Not precisely how he had envisioned his life back when he and John began toying with the idea of having their own company.

Luke had been set on making his and John’s dream become a success, but never at the expense of his personal life. It had been one of his conditions from the start, even before he knew he was going to marry Alexa. No matter how good or bad their business turned out to be, his family would always come first. He had learned that firsthand from his own father. Logan Hamilton, an architect himself,  had always been there during his childhood, helping his mother and never missing any important event in Luke’s life.

Thinking about his family, and inevitably about what he lost that horrible night when Alexa died,  made him go back to when he first met her. It had been during the summer, when he’d been back home from college. His mother had asked him to run some errands for her. He’d been driving distractedly through the parking lot, his mind full with the idea his best friend, John, had pitched to him a week ago, that they should open up their own architect’s office after graduating. Which was why Luke failed to notice the old beat-up red Corolla backing out from a parking slot. The car slammed right into his, causing him to curse and get out of his car ready to lecture the other driver for his carelessness. But when Alexa stepped out from the car and took off her sunglasses, Luke felt a punch to his stomach and a ball of fire erupting inside him the second Alexa’s amazing and fiery eyes sent daggers his way.

Her eyes were summer green, shining back at him much in the same way a lily pond did when the sun’s rays caressed its surface. She had long wavy brown hair that fell to her shoulders and that due to the effect of the strong sun’s rays shining down on them, glowed a deep brown red, like wood catching on fire. It had matched her own fuming temper.

For a moment, his mind had gone completely blank. He had seen many beautiful women before, even dated a few, but the one standing in front of him took his breath away. Luke had already taken in her slim figure and her toned legs exposed under denim shorts. But up to that moment, the real element that completed her unusual beauty had been covered. Now that he had the full image of it, he couldn’t take his eyes away from her.

She looked like a nymph, a creature that didn’t belong in a parking lot in the middle of a fender bender but in the same setting her eyes reminded him of. Deep in the woods, free and undisturbed. Luke knew then and there that he had fallen under her spell. Which was why after they had sorted out the whole insurance mess, he did whatever he could to make her stay with him a while longer. When it came time for her to leave, Luke asked her for her name to which she answered rather indifferently “Alexa Dunston. But I’m not interested.”

Nevertheless, he later found out she worked at a coffee shop right in front of where they had had their accident and after convincing her he wasn’t some sort of jerk who wanted to take advantage of her, she agreed to go out on a date with him. The rest was history, they dated for over a year and the second he graduated from college, at the same time he and John were beginning their company, he had asked her to marry him.

Alexa had been twenty-four when they got married, attending community college, doing an administration’s degree, because her dream back then had been to one day own a bookstore. And it had been Luke’s dream to be the one who helped her fulfill her dream. But the problems in their marriage began just a few months after moving to their new place back in Stamford, and from then on, Luke would make mistake after mistake before he made one that cost him not only his marriage but the life of the woman he still longed to see every night in his dreams.

The bubbly laughter of one the waitresses at the counter pulled him back from his reverie. He felt his entire body shaking from the memory. It had sneaked up on him without any warning. Usually he was able to fend off any thoughts about Alexa but somehow the comforting vibe of this place had lowered his defenses.

Luke was grateful when he saw Maggie carrying his bag of food. He needed to get the hell out of this diner and bury himself in work.

“Here you go, Luke. Scrambled eggs with bacon and a side of hash browns, some toast and fruit and orange juice. Coffee is good, only when it is combined with good food.”

“Thank you, Maggie. How much do I owe you?”

“Oh, don’t bother. As you weren’t planning in having anything other than coffee, it’s on the house. Call it a welcome gesture from the town.”

“I really don’t think that’s necessary.”

“Sure it is. Now, I expect to see you back here. Might do you good to meet the rest of the town.”

“I came to work Maggie, not to mingle.”

“Maybe it is time you did both, don’t you think?”

Luke nodded, sure if he tried to refuse he would end up banging his head against the steel counter. He put his wallet back and took the food bag from Maggie. He would eat in his car before he headed to the old library and afterwards, he would drive over to check out the piece of land where the town council planned to build the new library. He and John had already seen it in pictures but Luke wanted to see it personally so he could start picturing how their initial plans would play out.

“Thanks again.”

“No problem, see you around.”

Just as he was outside, Maggie noticed he had left his coffee. In that same instant, Annie was coming down from the office.

“Annie, dear. Would you be so kind and take this coffee to that man who’s crossing the street? His name is Luke.”

“Okay, sure. I’ll be right back.”

Annie stepped out into the cold morning air, scanning across the street until she saw him. She started to run and remembered Maggie had said his name was Luke, so she called out to him.

Love Remembers. Chapter 3

Luke Hamilton was a very successful man. He was seen as such by the people inside his business circle as well as some of his company colleagues. He had started his company four years ago and in a very short window of time, had become – along with his business partner John Stevens- two of the most sought out architects in Stamford.

Most newborn companies like his own, made it big inside the competitive world of architecture after many years of zero recognition and some didn’t even make it through their first year. The factor that differentiated Luke’s and John’s company from the rest, was that from the beginning they had impressed their clients with their innovative designs and their not so square interpretation of architecture. There was another thing that had to be factored into their success equation: almost since the beginning, this dream had become Luke’s sole focus in life.

Unfortunately, that situation hadn’t been his choice. More over, it had been his only way to stop him from losing his mind with grief and bittersweet memories. Before Luke knew what he had gotten himself into, he had chained his every breath to the success and thrive of this company. Not that he minded the way it expanded more with each passing year, but he would’ve been content to succeed at a slower pace if that had not meant having to lose his heart in the process.

The architects, John included, who had started working with him from the beginning had known a different side of the man. An easygoing, relaxed and dedicated young architect, for the right reasons, to his passion. He even used to be a man who loved to laugh. Unfortunately, it wasn’t something he did anymore. What people witnessed today was the hard and cold character of a man who had been touched unjustly by tragedy. A man who had watched his soul rip apart to pieces little by little, until even he forgot the man he used to be. The vibrant blue inside his eyes had ceased to spark with life. Instead, it was as cold and vacant as the frozen up waters of the Arctic ocean and its dark and lifeless depths.

Rumor had it that all his staff was half-scared to death of him. The truth was he was barely in his office anymore, choosing instead to work onsite at their numerous projects. Clients perceived him as competent and as the face of a company who would deliver a job well done, but they also knew you didn’t get on Luke Hamilton’s bad side, or offer him any kind of pity for his tragedy. The architect in him would argue until he proved his point and the grieving widower would simply walk away.

Those who knew him, and had known him before the tragedy of losing his wife, better described him now as emotionless. It was painfully obvious the man was constantly running away from any type of emotion that might wake him up from the prolonged numbness surrounding his heart.

With a hard, calculating expression that only enhanced his striking good looks, Luke Hamilton stood outside Maggie’s Diner fighting off the impatience and the mother of all headaches threatening to make an appearance on this chilly January morning.

His business partner, John Stevens, hadn’t had to tell him twice about this small town project about building a brand new library, for Luke to jump at the opportunity to go away on work and not be home for his wife’s three year anniversary. Even after all this time, Luke still couldn’t fathom being anywhere near anything that reminded him of the life he used to have and how he had singlehandedly destroyed it all because of his own stupidity.

Maggie’s Diner was located on Main Street, in the small Connecticut town of Creek Valley, right in front of the train station. He had brought his Land Rover instead, figuring he would rather use his car to move around than deal with the bitter weather. The diner was located at street level. Luke could see there were three more stories as well. The building was painted in a light beige, except for the shutters at the upper levels that were a darker brown and the very last story which was a light shade of green, suggesting that it was some sort of attic. The lowest level had several windows overlooking the sidewalk, with some green and beige checkered curtains. Painted with bright yellow letters on one of the big windows, was the name Maggie’s Diner. To Luke’s trained eye, it looked like the building had been a house in the old days.

There were some chairs and tables that were covered in white plastic on the sidewalk. He assumed that once spring and summer hit the town, the sidewalk outside the diner would be busy with people wanting to eat outside. For the time being, winter was in full mode. The twinkle lights that still hung from the window panes and from one of the light posts closest to the diner, were a clear reminder of the past holidays.

Despite the fact some thought of him as ruthless, Luke considered himself a very patient man, especially when it came to landing and securing a new job for the company. But he forgot the farther away you got from a relatively big city, as Stamford, small town life reminded you not everyone liked to run through life at a fast pace. Or that not anyone was running away from it.

After having stopped by the town council’s building an hour before, he was frustrated at his futile efforts to talk to the people in charge of the project. According to the plump woman that he assumed was the receptionist, it was lunch hour. The town council only gathered for a couple of hours in the morning before going back to their own jobs. The receptionist had also said that most of them went to Maggie’s for lunch.

He surveyed the three story building and glanced at the big windows. Apparently, all the town had lunch at this place. The tables that faced the street, were full and the noise that spilled out whenever the door opened, was an indication that lunch had to be one of its busiest hours.

He might as well have something to eat, and maybe find out if he could talk to the people in charge of the library’s project, so he could get to work and keep his mind from going back to a grave with an empty casket waiting for him to visit for the first time in three years.

As he stepped inside, a couple of men vacated the table nearest to the door, so Luke sat down not noticing the few curious glances thrown his way by several of the locals. A young woman came by with the menu and after reciting the day’s special, left him alone to survey the menu and his surroundings.

Maggie noticed him the minute he walked through the door. She was sure he was an out-of-towner, but his clothes and his body language didn’t put him in the sightseer or antique buyer category. Definitely not a tourist. The way he sat down, impatient, his eyes darting around the diner, told Maggie he was a very busy man.

She’d seen him staring from the outside in, as if debating very much if it was worth his time stepping inside her small diner. The brief moment he had looked her way over by the counter, she had seen his curious eyes scanning the place. She was aware of the sadness and coldness they seemed to convey. Those emotions were part of him. As someone who knew people, she recognized an unbearable burden weighing down on him.

His clothes and the car that he drove in, gave him away as being a city guy, maybe New York or  some other big city nearby like Stamford. The rest of him wasn’t half bad. From where she was standing she gauged him to be six foot. He had a lean and well built body, that filled perfectly well the black trousers and blue dress shirt he wore. He had dark brown hair, which looked ruffled, as if he constantly passed his hands through it, framing his face and accentuating the paleness of his skin. The shape of his face was long, with sharp strong features, prominent cheekbones and a defined set jaw. The breathtaking look was complimented by a pair of electric blue eyes that showed a hint of gray around the edges.

Her own curiosity was getting the best of her, so instead of fighting it she told the girl who was minding that section that she would take that table. The waitress wasn’t surprised at Maggie’s request. After all, as the owner of this establishment, she was supposed to mingle with customers every now and then.

“Hello, sir. Are you ready to order?”

She registered the brief flicker of surprise on his face before he returned his attention to the menu. She had been right about the eyes. The pain in them was heart piercing. There was no trace of warmth in them, as if his sole purpose was to warn people not to get close to him. Well, Maggie Rogers had enough warmth to fight off that coldness.

After looking at the lunch section of the menu, he closed it and set it on the table before looking at her.

“I’ll have the cheese burger and coffee, thank you.”

“Sure, no problem. I’ll be right back with your food.”

“Excuse me, miss?”

Maggie stopped and turned again to face him. “Oh please, call me Maggie. What else can I get you?”

“Okay, Maggie. I was hoping you might be able to help me. I went by the town council offices before and was told that every member was here having lunch. I really need to speak to them. But as I was also told, they tend to extend their lunch break more than an hour.”

“Yes, that’s the curse of living in a small town, I suppose. Well, that’s them over there.” She pointed to a table at the center where Dr. Colburn, Mr. Andrews and Peter Bennings where currently deep in conversation.

“If you don’t mind me asking, what business do you have with them?”

“I think it’s better if I talked to them directly. Thank you. I suppose I’ll have to wait then.”

She smiled at him. This was one of the times that being in the council came in handy. He was clearly annoyed, but then again, every person who came from the city always found it strange that the town seemed to pause its activity at lunch hour. For some strange reason, she was beginning to  be intrigued by this man with the sad eyes.  He certainly could use a friend, even if his stiff body language implied otherwise.

“Or you could talk to me. Let me introduce myself properly. My name is Maggie Rogers, I own this place and I happen to be the fourth member of the town council. Nice to meet you.”

Luke’s eyes took in the woman standing in front of him. As a man, he could tell that Maggie Rogers was still a very attractive woman. Her lean figure clashed with the type of food served in this place. Ironically, her white hair only added a sense of elegance to her otherwise simple small town appearance. Those light brown eyes never looked away from his own careful inspection.

He stood up and introduced himself properly. He only hoped Maggie didn’t mind taking a break from her own business to deal with his.

“Luke Hamilton, I am one of the architects that you scheduled a meeting with about the new library project.”

“That’s right. Although I remember we talked to a man named John.”

“He is my partner. I hope it is okay I came instead of him. We had other projects he had to see to.”

“No, I don’t mind at all. But please,” Maggie gestured to the seat, “sit, sit. Let me get the rest of the council and we can start that meeting.”

A few minutes later, Luke and the rest of the town council had moved to a larger table and were discussing his plans for the library. Besides Maggie, the other town council members included the town’s doctor, Dr. Colburn, the owner of the hardware store he’d passed this morning, Mr. Bennings and the librarian, Mr. Andrews, who was currently the manager of the place.

Dr. Colburn was a man in his sixties, with a kind of mad-scientist look due to his fine, thin salt and pepper hair that seemed unwilling to rest in one place at a time. Mr. Bennings, or Pete Sr. as he introduced himself, was a bear of a man, with arms so thick and strong Luke considered asking him to join them when the construction for the library began. He looked like he didn’t mind a hard day’s work. He liked to laugh, which he did on numerous times, the sound of it like a lion’s roar that echoed throughout the diner’s walls. And Mr. Andrews, a quiet man, a few inches less taller than Luke, with silver-rimmed glasses, bald, and certainly the most enthusiastic of all three, about the town getting a new library.

“We certainly liked your proposal, and you have captured what we want for our new library. A bigger space but nothing over the top. As you can see we are a small town, and as much as I love it, simple is what we do best.” Maggie said. The rest of the town council members nodded in agreement. They soon began bombarding Luke with questions about budget, estimated time of construction, the possibility of him using local hand labor as well as some other suggestions to the initial proposal Luke and John had sent over two days ago. Even if handling such a meeting in the middle of the lunch crowd at a diner was a bit unorthodox in Luke’s point of view, by the end of their meeting as Luke headed back to his car to drive back to Stamford, he was glad he would have something to occupy his mind for the next eight months or longer, depending on how fast they were able to get the necessary permits to start excavating and laying down foundations for the new building.

Love Remembers. Chapter 2

She may have escaped Mr. Bennings’s air-depriving hug but Annie certainly didn’t have any other choice as the entire diner broke into a loud and cheery “happy birthday to you” the second she entered the place. It didn’t matter if it was just six in the morning. The diner was filled with all of those who had to take the train before leaving for work or others like Dr. Colburn or Mr. Andrews, who made it a habit of eating almost every meal at Maggie’s, plus the rest of the waitresses. Their beaming faces were enough to warm Annie up to returning their smiles and to relax.

“Oh, you guys! Thank you!” Annie exclaimed feeling a bit embarrassed and humbled at the same time. Marley was the first one to give her a hug. And then taking out a small black velvet box from one of the pockets of her jacket, she handed it to Annie.

Marley Smith was one of Annie’s best friends. She was a six foot exotic creature, taller than Annie’s five foot six frame. Her hair was long, a combination of brown and red that looked like exquisite silk falling down behind her back. Her skin was so pale, that when summer came and she and Annie went by the Mayfield Lake or to the beach to lie under the sun, the final result was more freckles and no tan whatsoever. Plus, she had a body that was long and slim, yet with enough curves to have the men in town stare at her longer than necessary.

The redheaded woman was the owner of the small but very profitable women’s clothing store in Creek Valley, Dreams and Trends. Annie met Marley for the first time when Maggie took her to her store. Then, it had been just a matter of time before a friendship blossomed between the two women.

They couldn’t be more different, like oil and water. While Marley was the outgoing, loud, straightforward and confident one, Annie was the quiet, shy and insecure one.  Although Annie had a very hard time opening up to strangers, – a trait that she suspected she had inherited from her previous self – there had been something in the way Marley welcomed her and just shared with her details about her life, as if they’ve known each other for years, that made it impossible for Annie not to like her. She suspected that Marley, too, had been in need of a friend who really listened and accepted her for who she was. Both women brought a certain balance to each other’s lives, and in their own unique personalities, had come to respect and care for each other very deeply.

“Marley……they are beautiful.” She beamed at her friend and showed everyone the shiny silver moon shaped earrings that her friend had made for her. Apart from being a very successful business woman, Marley was also an amazing jewelry designer. Her pieces were seen in almost every young woman and not so young around town. She had started selling them only last year at the store. To Annie, it had been one of her most brilliant ideas so far.

“Hope you wear them tonight when we go out to celebrate.”

“Right.” Annie had forgotten that somehow her friend had convinced her of hitting the local bar for a few drinks after her shift.

“I gotta get back to the store but I’ll stop by your place tonight and don’t even think about coming up with an excuse. I can already see your brain trying to come up with one.” And with that, she gave her another hug and rushed out.

Maggie, the owner of the diner and the woman who had saved her life, was next and handed her a card and a big brown paper bag. When she opened it, Annie found a quilt made with patches of fabric.

“So that you can curl up in your bed and never be cold honey.”

“I love it, thank you.” Without saying a single word, both women stared at one another and in that silence conveyed how they felt for each other. Annie hoped she would always be able to show Maggie how thankful she was for taking her in and loving her as if she were family.

Maggie was so proud of Annie. There were days when she wished she still lived with her, but she was also glad the scared look that had been there after her accident had vanished from her eyes. Annie deserved to be happy. But Maggie worried that the brunette’s life was confined to the diner, the library, her apartment and Marley’s store. Hopefully, her moving out could be seen as a sign that Annie was ready to do more.

Mr. Andrews, the library manager, gave her another paper bag and when Annie reached inside, her hand came up holding three books that she had been meaning to order from the Internet.

The first one was supposed to be an interesting yet light and different biography on Marie Antoinette, by Antonia Fraser. Marley had urged her to just watch the movie but Annie preferred to have all the details that sometimes didn’t make it to the big screen. Next, there was Stardust, by Neil Gaiman and the newest Nora Roberts’ romance.

“Oh Mr. Andrews…..you didn’t.”

“Lucy saw you browsing the Amazon site the other day at one of the library’s computers, so I just ordered them myself.”

The library was another one of her favorite places. Despite the books that she constantly bought online, her room was always filled with at least four or five books from the library. Fiction, romances and thrillers were among her favorites. She liked writers like Nora Roberts, Julie Garwood, plus her all time favorite Jane Austen, plus James Patterson, Stephen King and another of her favorites, Gregory Maguire. But her tastes also ventured to the non-fiction realms. She especially liked biographies, it was good to know others did remember their lives, history books; she even enjoyed reading those travel books from National Geographic. For someone who had decided she would never venture outside from the comfort of her small town, it was a treat to read about the customs and amazing and breathtaking scenes and sites found throughout the world.

Because of the library’s lack of space, they were planning to relocate it. Apparently the town council had already hired a firm from Stamford who would do the job. Maggie mentioned to Annie the other day they were expecting one of the architects to drop by any day now to have their first meeting. Annie hoped that whoever he was, he would be able to preserve the sense of community that you felt every time you entered the current place.

“It is perfect, everything is. All of you just by being here.” And because her voice broke at those last words, she just closed her eyes and took a deep breath before tears could escape from her eyes.

“And you haven’t seen my gift yet!” Jack said from behind, as he came in with a small box covered in gift wrap with a big pink bow on top.

Jack Baker, her other best friend in town, came around the counter and planted a huge kiss on her lips. Annie was aware of the stares from several of the single women, locals and tourists, who were having breakfast at the diner, as they glued themselves on Jack. Not that she could blame them. The first time she’d met Jack Baker, a couple of months after starting her job as a waitress here at Maggie’s, she’d been mesmerized by his looks, too.

Because of his job as an upholder of the law, his looks reflected the seriousness of his work, although Jack’s personality was light and carefree. He liked to tease Annie, something she’d had a hard time getting used to in the beginning. To Annie, her relationship with Jack was that of a brother and a sister. After their disastrous attempt at a date, they’d discovered they were better for each other as friends.

Still, any woman would appreciate his good looks. He had dark brown hair, always cut short with a few ends sticking up at the top. When wearing his uniform it gave people a sense of familiarity and comfort. But outside the job, it made women swoon over him. His face was easy on the eyes with the shadow of a beard, which she suspected he left it that way to give him a more mature image.  The real magnet though were his honey-colored eyes. They had a hint of green, that shone whenever he laughed. Which was often. Annie had also been first row witness to the effect that smile had on other women. It was no secret Jack Baker enjoyed dating on his time off. But Annie knew he had a serious thing for Marley and vice versa, even if both were, too, damn stubborn to act on their feelings.

As she tore open the paper, she saw a box of chocolate Teddy Grahams and a picture they took last Christmas of Jack, Marley and herself outside Marley’s brand new house.

“Oh my God, you made copies of this?”

“I did. I gave Marley hers yesterday and mine is at the office.”

Annie noticed the way his jaw clenched when he said Marley’s name. She would bet anything that visit ended in another fight between them.

“Thanks.” She just pressed her lips into a barely visible smile, not wanting to upset him by asking what had happened.

“No problem. Hey, I’ll see you later at Joe’s, okay?”

“Okay.”

Because it felt right, she held on to him a little while longer before he kissed her forehead and left the diner. From the corner of her eye, Annie saw some of the women give her dagger looks before they resumed eating their breakfast. Several town members congratulated her before she was free to get back to work.

As soon as the crowd had gone back to their tables, Annie took all of her presents upstairs to the office. Five minutes later, she came back because one of the waitresses had called in sick, so she wanted to help pick up the slack during the morning rush. As she came behind the counter to grab a pad and pen to write down orders, it was impossible for her not to look back to the first days when she started working here.

Maggie had given her the job as a waitress and by the end of her first two weeks, Annie had managed to drop at least five trays and mix up a dozen orders. But no one ever snapped at her, not even Maggie. The owner of the diner tended to do so every now and then, especially when some of the locals came by after having had a drink too many at Joe’s or when one of the girls found time to flirt during her shift.

Nowadays, she had another job at the diner besides waitressing. Just last year, Maggie had begun to get her more involved in the management of the place. Annie was now the one in charge of things such as ordering up food supplies and making sure they got them in time, making sure all of the kitchen equipment was working correctly and if not, scheduling timely maintenance visits, as well as making sure the staff got paid. Her time now was split between the upstairs office and downstairs.

Waitressing had helped her in getting to know the town. At first, it had been frightening since almost everyone had wanted to know about her and where she came from. Thanks to Maggie though, she came up with the story that they were related and had come here to live with Maggie. Also, she found it very hard the first couple of months to fight her timidity and insecurity, as well as her initial hesitation that maybe someone would recognize her and would force her to give up her newfound life in Creek Valley.

As time went by and no one gave signs of knowing her, not even the swarms of tourists that came in every season, Annie felt better and would become the person much of them saw today. A woman who kept very much to herself outside work, but that always had time to put down her tray and talk with whoever was seated at her section.

After three hours, another of the waitresses came by to give a hand and Annie went back upstairs to deal with some pending supply orders.

So when the town’s newcomer stepped inside the diner, Annie was deep in paperwork, unaware her life was about to change drastically.

Love Remembers. Chapter 1

Prologue

The nightmare was always the same.

As always, the world outside was pitch black, except for the two beams of light that cut through the endless dark as she drove the road before her. The wipers on the windshield moved furiously as the rain outside poured with no mercy. She wasn’t afraid of the rain, but she truly needed to get away from what she had left behind. Her final destination wasn’t important, since she was pretty sure she didn’t have one. She only needed to get away.

The road was slippery because of the water that turned into a treacherous, invisible sleet of ice the moment it landed on the road. Despite the car’s heating, her body couldn’t stop shaking. The knuckles of her hands were pale white as she tried to control both the car and her own emotional storm.

Scared. Sad. Disappointed. Heartbroken. All these feelings were wreaking havoc inside her, blurring her vision with tears of despair. A sensation of deep loss that hurt even more, because she had experienced it at some point before, leered at her from the seat next to her. But just as she was trying to remember when, thunder boomed outside breaking the darkness with a silver streak, causing the windows to shake and the memory to scatter away. Her breaths were coming out in loud sobs as she glided the car down the narrow road. She didn’t remember why, but deep down her instincts made her press harder on the gas pedal.

She was too distracted, trying to calm herself, that she didn’t notice the pronounced curve coming fast at her. But there was nothing she could do as she felt the car skid dangerously to the protection barrier next to her. Her foot stomped hard on the brake pedal but instead of stopping, it caused the car to swerve, until she felt the impact against the protection barrier.

All of a sudden, the world around her became a blur of dark and rain, as the car failed to stop and began its dizzying descent down the hill. Her head hit the window hard. She was so sure this was the end, she stopped screaming. Instead, she closed her eyes and prayed for the madness to stop.

……

With a sudden jerk, Annie Parker woke up. Her bedroom was quiet, except for her loud attempts to get air into her lungs. Her legs and arms began to throb from the aftershocks of the nightmare. Taking more deep breaths, she tried to calm her agitated heart.

Dragging both hands through her tousled hair, she turned her head to the bedside clock and saw it was already four fifty a.m. Her alarm would go off in five minutes. Annie groaned but got out of bed and hunted down her clothes to change for her regular morning run.

A few minutes later, Annie stood in front of the mirror as she finished layering up against the winter weather outside. She tied her rich chocolate brown hair into a ponytail, like she always did when she ran. She liked the kick of feeling the wind on her face, especially during the winter months.

With eyes a shade of green that reminded her of the emeralds her friend Marley usually worked with when creating her jewelry, she surveyed her own reflection. The woman mimicking her gestures as she traced her own fingers along her face, looked normal. The only problem was that Annie wasn’t normal. She was different. Not a freak, although she sometimes felt like one, but just different in a very crucial detail. Contrary to her friends, or the people she knew, Annie couldn’t remember anything about her life, at least the one she knew she had before arriving here to Creek Valley. She couldn’t even remember what her real name was.

Annie had amnesia caused by her head getting banged up pretty bad during a car accident, but also due to severe emotional trauma, as the doctor had explained to her during her time at the hospital. The night they brought her to the hospital she would wake up to discover she didn’t have a clue why she was there, and that everything about her had been pushed away into some dark corner surrounded by a thick wall which she couldn’t tear down.

She had begun to exist as Annie Parker three years ago after the accident. An accident whose last horrible moments she went though every time they decided to darken her dreams. The nightmare had been the only thing that her screwed up brain had been able to recover from that place where the rest of her life was now locked away. There was still a gap between the last moments of the nightmare and the next time she opened her eyes. Annie’s new set of memories would begin with the blurred moments from after she had somehow crawled out from the car and up the hill, before she was found and taken to the hospital.

Annie closed her eyes and felt her body shudder, as she could still feel the pain and confusion the woman she used to be experienced before the car went tumbling down the hill. It troubled her more than she cared to admit that the nightmare had come again. Maybe it was because today was her birthday, or at least that’s how she liked to call the day she came to Creek Valley.

In a sense, it was her birthday, or rebirth day. There’s was no doubt in her mind that if she hadn’t gotten herself out of that car in time, she would not be standing here today. Like a phoenix, she had risen from the ashes and been reborn. Although she was still afraid of spreading her wings and flying high.

To her though, it didn’t matter if she didn’t have a clue when her real birthday was, either. Let alone if she should be celebrating her twenty-seventh year of life or if maybe Doctor Colburn had been wrong in his assessment when he first met her. According to the town’s doctor, he had calculated her age to be around twenty-four, three years ago. It didn’t bother her that much really, this date was supposed to be more than just adding years. It was about celebrating her time here and she was going to try and do just that.

Annie concentrated again on her reflection in front of the mirror hanging from the bathroom door and stared straight into her own eyes. Even though she couldn’t remember, she was pretty sure her outer self hadn’t changed, too drastically. But still, it wasn’t enough to stop that weird sensation that the person she had become after leaving the hospital was some sort of intruder in this body. Like the real her was caged somewhere and at times she could sense her eager to break away from her confinement.

It was like that book she had read, Irish Tales by William Butler Yeats. One of the many stories talked about the changelings, children or sometimes grown ups who were snatched up from their homes and replaced by an identical looking copy. Only that the real person would be forever lost in the world of the “good people” and the one that remained would eventually waste away and die.  That’s how she felt, especially after going through the dreaded nightmare. As if the person she used to be got snatched away by whatever emotional trauma she had experienced prior to the crash. The real reason behind her mental block that didn’t want her past recollections to come back.

Unfortunately, that lost woman and the memories that accompanied her would always remain that way. Annie recalled the decision she had taken three years ago. A decision she took the day after having had her first dream. Whatever had made her leave in such a state of distress wasn’t worth digging up, even if that meant letting go of the first twenty-four years of her life.

The sacrifice was probably, too much, but never again did she want to feel as lost as she always did when driving that car. She was happy now and she intended to remain so for a very long time. If she had to live with the guilt of feeling like an intruder, then it was a small price to pay.

After finding a cap to cover her head and ears and putting on her fleece jacket and gloves, she went down the stairs and stepped outside.

Annie had been running ever since the accident. At first, she had stuck to the physical therapy the doctor had ordered. Eventually, she had started going out for walks to strengthen her muscles, but as she felt stronger, she began to discover the relief that came when she ran. Annie enjoyed having that hour to herself and her thoughts. After going through one of her dreams, she usually pushed herself even more so that by the end of her run, there would be nothing on her mind but the consciousness of the delicious spurts of pain waking up along her body.

Few people were up this early in the morning, especially during January, when the temperature at this time of day could sometimes be in the high forties or lower. The solitude of her morning ritual would give her the opportunity to unwind before tackling the day ahead. Her senses began to fill in with the welcoming smell of snow in the air and the nakedness of the American elms, quaking aspens and paper birch trees, as they shivered next to her. Almost as if they longed for the warmer days to give them back their beautiful covering. Annie knew once spring and summer kicked in, it would all be a festival of color, and the town would disappear under an umbrella of light and dark greens.

The sounds of a town stirring up and preparing for another day, the sight of the familiar buildings, their colors and textures, and the taste of her own breath as it began to quicken in time with her pace, were soothing. At that moment, all her morning wariness disappeared and instead she was possessed by a deep rooted feeling of belonging. Not only to the town around her but to the people who lived within its limits.

Having no memory of the past was an advantage. Because she now had accumulated enough memories that only brought a smile to her lips every time she thought about them. Few people had the opportunity of starting over, and had the luck of doing so around people that genuinely cared about them. Annie did consider herself fortunate and for that she was determined to enjoy this day like it was the real thing. Even if today was a lie, January had been the month that brought her here,  she owed it to herself to make the most of it.

Annie usually liked to run though Main Street and then through the more quiet streets where all the big houses were lined up. Creek Valley was a small Connecticut town near the big apple. Its inhabitants were mostly big families, whose fathers and mothers either worked in other neighboring towns or all the way in New York. There were also retired couples, and those who had a summer house near the beach, and who came to Creek Valley starting June.

When she was in the mood and she could spare more time before getting ready for work, Annie liked to head to the Little Creek Woods Park, on the southern part of town, and run along the many different trails, sometimes going as far as Mayfield Lake right in the middle of the park. Other times, especially during the summer, she would go directly to the lake and take a blanket, food and a good book and lose herself for hours.

Today though, seeing as she needed to be at the diner by six, Annie decided to stick to Main Street. She passed Maggie’s Diner which was located right in front of the town’s train station. Which was a prime location since not only was it right in the middle of Main Street, but locals always liked to step into Maggie’s while waiting for their train and it was the first place tourists saw when they stepped off of it.

Then as she got farther away she passed the hardware store, a couple of antiques shops, an arts and crafts store, the pharmacy and the town’s fancy wine store, Vins du Ciel, until she made it to the small public library.

On the other direction, there was a hotel, several more stores, a couple of art galleries, a real estate office and her best friend’s charming boutique, Dreams and Trends. Annie’s apartment was located right above it. Enough places to keep their small town of Creek Valley bustling with activity even during the winter when the beach was not a plausible option, until summer came and families invaded their streets.

It was an attractive spot for tourists looking for a cozy getaway during the winter or for a relaxed, calm spot to spend spring or summer. There were others, the outdoorsy type, that would come every year to do either camping, hiking or biking around town and the permitted areas deep in the woods. It was enough to let this small town continue to exist.

It made Annie feel safe, guarded, but at the same time curious of what she would find if she ever ventured outside it. She loved hearing the stories of when Marley used to live in New York, of Central Park, the New York City Public Library, the museums, Soho, the whole energy of a city she only knew from other people’s tales even though she was merely an hour and a half away from it. It was difficult for Annie to not wonder if her real home had been in the city, or maybe in some of the neighboring towns around Creek Valley.

If her own will couldn’t stop the inevitable and she recovered her past, would she have the courage to go back wherever her home was? To just leave her life in Creek Valley and try to pick up her old life where she had left it?

Just as she did with the nightmare, she put these questions at the back of her mind. Today was not the day to dwell on her past decisions or on things that might or might never happen.

An hour later, she was back at her apartment and coming out from the shower. With a towel wrapped around her body, she was almost done drying herself, when she noticed the light flashing on her answering machine. She pressed the play button and heard Maggie’s voice wishing her a happy birthday and asking her to arrive on time for work at the diner. That call only meant one thing: her friends were planning something. Annie didn’t mind much but never enjoyed being the center of attention, at least during her life here anyway.

With a resigned sigh, she put on a pair of jeans, her long sleeved thermal underwear, a brown cashmere turtleneck sweater over it and her usual worn-out white Converse sneakers. Marley would probably have a fashion fit, like she always did. But Annie couldn’t possible see herself handling trays of hot food in a pair of stilettos, or high heeled boots, like the ones her friend loved wearing and even sold at her store. Like her life here, Annie preferred to surround herself by the simple, quiet and non attention calling details.

Grabbing her jacket and apartment keys, Annie locked her door and went down the stairs. The entrance to her place was located to the side of Marley’s store’s main entrance.

Doing a quick detour before going to the diner, Annie stopped by the hardware store to have a quick word with Peter Bennings, the owner and official handy man for the whole town.

“Hey, Mr. Bennings. Good morning.”

“Hey, Annie! How’s it going? How’s the new place working for you?”

Annie had recently moved to her new home. She had been living with Maggie since her arrival at the Valley. As her responsibilities had grown in the diner, she was able to save enough money to rent the space above Marley’s store, one of her two best friends in town. It wasn’t much but it had been Annie’s first move towards trying to rebuild her life and make it her own.

Because of her unusual situation, Annie had no official paperwork, no social security, nothing. She had had them at some point, she imagined, but after the accident she had had to rely on her other friends in town to help her lead a normal life without prompting any questions from the rest of the town. Especially since she wasn’t going to go on digging through her past.

Since Maggie had been the one to give her a job, Annie had had no problem trying to come up with references, and the money she earned at the diner was given to her directly. But when she’d shared her desire to move to her own place, Maggie had set up a new savings account under her name and  Annie had and still used it to save the rest of the money she didn’t use to pay rent and the rest of her bills. Although sometimes she indulged in some book online shopping, which caused her income to stretch thin before payday was due.

As to her apartment, since Marley was the owner of the building, she was her landlord. Annie had no problem there. Dr. Colburn, took care of all her medical issues even though she hadn’t stepped inside the town’s clinic since the last days of her recovery sessions with the physiotherapist. Doctor Colburn had been the one to tend to her injuries after the accident when Maggie found her lying on the side of the road.

Her other best friend in town, Jack Baker, the town’s sherif’s deputy, who also knew about her past or lack of thereof, and made sure she didn’t encounter any legal obstacles. Not that Annie had tried to break away from her comfort zone. She didn’t own a car so she had no need for a driver’s license and since everyone in town knew her and assumed she was some sort of relative of Maggie’s, they trusted her. Her library card had been issued using Maggie’s home address and since Mr. Andrews, the manager, was a regular at the diner and member of the town’s council along with her boss, there had been no questions asked.

Which was why Annie worked hard everyday at giving back some of that trust even if at first, she had been terrified when people came up to her and started a conversation. Things were different now.

“It’s just fine, perfect.” Annie said, smiling back at Mr. Bennings.  “Actually, I wanted to know when were you going to come by and put up those shelves.”

Annie was proud of her place. When she moved out from Maggie’s, she had felt like all the young kids that went to the diner each summer and talked about going away for college. Despite their natural excitement at going away, she also detected a hint of anxiousness in their excitement at the idea of being on their own and far away from their families. Maybe she wasn’t going away to study but she had certainly felt the same.

The apartment’s layout was simple, like her wardrobe and much of her life in Creek Valley. It had a small kitchen right next to the entrance, bordered by a simple white oak countertop where she barely sat down to eat, since she had most of her meals at the diner. There was a small ancient looking fridge, a four burner stove, a white sink that she was sure was as ancient as the fridge, and several cabinets, all from the same wood as her countertop. There was a big window over the kitchen sink where she liked to gaze down to Main Street and watch the people walk by.

The living room constituted the central part of her apartment. Much of the length of the space was occupied by the navy blue futon Annie bought at a flea market last year. The room was complimented by a low height coffee table and a couple of indoor plants scattered around. To the left side opposite the kitchen, was the entrance to her bedroom. As the rest of the apartment, it wasn’t, too, elaborate. It had a queen-size bed, a dresser and an already built-in closet with enough space for the few pieces of clothing she owned. It also had a bathroom to one side complete with a shower. Again, it wasn’t much, but Annie had chosen each piece of furniture that now dressed up her place. And it made her feel proud her herself.

It’s not that Maggie had been complaining of her living at her house, but Annie had to start taking care of herself and not rely on her boss as much. And Maggie had understood that; but she had been a little bit sad the first month after Annie had moved out. Just like every parent was, when their kids finally left their house.

Even though she was already settled in at her apartment, there was one thing that she had left for the very end. The wall on the left side of the main entrance door was currently bare. Instead of buying any of those prebuilt book cases, she wanted to take advantage of the vastness of the wall and put some wooden shelves, so that she could display her books on them. The only problem was that she had zero knowledge in that area – somehow she doubted that carpentry was one of the things that she couldn’t remember how to do- so she had decided to leave it to the expert and that was Mr. Bennings.

During her long recovery, when she had to stay in bed, she found that reading was a thing that calmed her. It had become one of her passions and the three boxes full of books, plus most of the library books she had already read, were a testament to that. One of the advantages of her own place was that she would be able to give the books she owned the proper space they deserved. Maggie’s house was small and sometimes Annie wondered, if her books would have ended up pushing her out of the basement room that had been her own until last Christmas.

“Well, right now, I’m a little bit swamped, but I’ll make sure to stop by the diner later.”

Peter Bennings had big, rough, meaty hands. He was really tall and a bit chubby in the face and stomach. He had thin, sandy blonde hair that looked ready to fall off his head if the wind blowed, too, hard. He was married to the lovely Carla, who worked in the hardware store alongside their only son Pete Jr. The Bennings used to live in New Jersey, but after Peter Sr. lost his job, they decided they needed a change. They made the choice of coming with their little baby Peter to Creek Valley and start a new life. Maybe Annie wasn’t the only one to make Creek Valley a place to start over.

“Sure, there’s no hurry.”

“You don’t want anything fancy, right?”

“Nope. As long as they don’t clash with the general vibe of the living room. I was thinking it would be best if we used the space on one of the walls in that room.”

“It might work.” Mr. Bennings scratched his chin. “Don’t worry, Annie. I promise you’ll be number one on my list as soon as I’m done at the deputy’s house. Jack has some trouble with the stairs on his front porch, so he’s been pestering me all week to go to his place.”

“I’m in no hurry. Jack’s stairs are an accident waiting to happen. Besides, we all know when it comes to home improvement, he kind of sucks.”

Mr. Bennings’ amused roar echoed all through Main Street. He had had several experiences undoing Jack’s ill attempts at fixing stuff.

Because Peter Sr. was looking at her funny, she said goodbye and retraced her steps back to get to her work. Not that she hated being congratulated on her birthday, but being caught in one of Mr. Bennings’ embraces felt like your lungs were being deprived of air. She knew she could postpone it until Christmas.

“Oh! Happy birthday!” The handy man yelled at Annie a little too late. She was already, too, far for him to catch up to her.

Whimsical mommy files: When “oh okay turns into oh crap!”

When you get pregnant, the first thing everyone tells you is how much your life is going to change. And although it is something obvious, since there is a new human being joining your family, the whole process of your life changing since the moment you have your baby in your arms can be seen in one of two ways: amusing or horrible!

I decide, most of the times, to choose the former, although there are times when it can be pure hell trying to cope with this thing called motherhood. And traveling with a baby is no different. Ever since my son was born nine months ago, we have taken a couple of trips that have been both fun, interesting and downright a living nightmare, especially when poop and a plane full of people is involved.

However, this post relates to our latest trip with our son to the beach. So let’s begin. There is one question feared especially by moms, because even though we ask it, we know the answer and it is never a good one. And the question is “Did you bring…….(insert something that you really had to have during your trip). When you start your trip asking that question, you know there will be a couple of things you’re gonna have to run to the closest store and buy. My question was: “Did you prepare the bottles we are going to use on the plane in case he gets fussy?” There is always a blank look that follows and the feared answer: “no, I thought you did.” Or “You didn’t tell me to do it.” Before my yoga days, I probably would’ve had a meltdown and ruined the beginning of our trip. However, I took a deep breath, yelled at my husband in the comfort of my mind, and simply let out a breath and said “Okay…..”

Needless to say, I had previously packed a new can of formula in my suitcase so it was just a matter of opening it and filling up the bottles I also remembered to pack in my diaper bag and just get a bottle of water.

Now, I live in Mexico so I know that when I travel to the U.S I have to take everything even up my last medical check-up because that’s how it is for us to get through immigration. Anyway, when traveling inside Mexico, you only have to have a valid I.D and that’s all. So there we were, entering the airport, waving goodbye to my father in law who gave us a lift, when I decided to ask this very funny question: “Do you think we need something for the baby to pass through security?” My husband immediately answered: “Yes, I suppose.” And after my very long panicked pause, he turned to look at me and he asked the now infamous question: “Did you bring some I.D for the baby?”

Now, apart from the birth certificate, which is not something I carry around in my bag, and the passport which was at the Mexican immigration office being renewed (oh yes, because apparently when you have a baby his or her passport must not expire within six months or less from the date you want to travel……) I had absolutely nothing but the love of my heart to say that this baby was my son. Of course, I saw myself showing the airport security guy the thousands of photos I have taken of Matias since his birth. And then, looking inside the diaper bag, almost as if the birth certificate was going to appear by magic between the diapers, I found his vaccination certificate. Unfortunately, said certificate was empty but for the signatures and stamps from the hospital from the shots that Matias’s has taken up until now.  So we filled it up while we were in line and hoped of the best.

Apparently, you don’t need anything when you travel on a domestic flight, which worked on our favor but which got me thinking how easy it is for someone to travel with a stolen baby…..

So we finally were on the plane, a rather bumpy ride but good all in all and short, thank God. We landed in Cancun and went to collect our bags. Then, after almost everyone from our flight had gone with their bags, I knew my bag had not arrived. Now, this was not the first time this happened to me, but usually, you get over your annoyance and just say “oh, okay” and just wait for the bag to arrive. However, when you have a baby and you are the one who packed the baby’s food and clothes, instead of saying okay, you just mutter under your breath “oh crap.” Especially when you hotel is in the middle of nowhere, and it is not that easy to go and buy what you need. And if the hotel has a store or something, you end up paying a lot! Not to mention we had a wedding and my dress was in there.

The nice man on the baggage claim counter promised us my bag would arrive that same night on a later flight and would be sent to the hotel. The night passed, and nothing came to the hotel. The next day when I called the airport, they were like “we don’t have any bag with that description” which to me translated to “we have no freaking clue as to where your bag is.” Fortunately, my bag turned up at the end, I spent 80 dollars getting my hair done which went kaput the second I stepped into the hot warm air, and spent even more buying a bathing suit for the baby, for me and sunblock, which I also had in my lost bag.

Certainly, the second you have a baby your life will never be the same but as long as you try to see each experience as an adventure……ish type of situation, it will all go down a lot easier.

Until next time…

Ever After. Chapter 35

A telephone was ringing insistently outside her office. The sounds of cars and conversations drifted through the open window, creating a new rhythm as it mixed up with the music from the Itunes playlist she’d put on her laptop, while proofreading the articles that would come out in their next issue.

Her travel column would come out in the next issue and she’d already reviewed and approved the layout with the pictures she’d taken on her trip. While at the clinic, Julia had incorporated the details about the town’s celebration, though she omitted her near death experience from it.

The phone stopped ringing and she could hear Susan’s voice as she took the call.

It had been five days since she’d come back from La Providencia. Her life had gone back to normal or at least as normal as it was before La Providencia. Her ribs were still healing though she no longer felt any pain, and her face was bruise free.

The only difference now was she didn’t go home to an empty apartment. Well, most of the times.  Julia and Danny were enjoying being roommates, especially since they hadn’t lived under the same roof since Julia had gone off to college. Danny was still working as a hostess at the restaurant. Only now, she was busy with rehearsals as she’d managed to get a part in an off Broadway play. Danny said it wasn’t the musical theater she wanted to do, but it would give her an opportunity to hone on her acting skills and it was a good beginning for her career.

The rest of her life though, was the same. She went back to work mode, dedicating her time to the magazine and to the launch of her next two books. Julia and Zack were in the final revision of her  latest manuscript, her first romance novel. The first manuscript she’d sent to Zack while on La Providencia would also come out under her own name, though it would come out later, gauging the response of her first attempt at romance. Zack had suggested she might like to keep her pseudonym for her more dramatic stories.

The book was set to come out at the end of the year. It would be with that book that people would know who Kate Morgan really was. It made Julia anxious. Yet deep within, she was genuinely excited for this new chapter in her life as a writer.

Regretfully, work, time and distance were not doing a good job of keeping Damian away from her thoughts. Especially at night, when Julia would recall the way he had gathered her close, or how the world had seemed to stop when he made love to her. The memories hurt but unlike last time, she didn’t push them away. She simply let them accompany her in her sleep, leaving her drained and a bit shaky the morning after.

Though she rarely went back to that night at the warehouse, Julia still thought about Magdalena. After many failed attempts to reach her at her house, she’d emailed Sonia asking her about their friend. Sonia wrote back saying Magdalena had taken upon Sonia’s parents’ offer to stay in Italy for a while. Jim’s trial wouldn’t be held until the end of the year so her friend didn’t need to be around until then. Sonia also mentioned Magdalena would be testifying against Jim.

Guilt still sneaked up on her but Julia prayed that wherever she was, her friend would be able to rebuild her life.

The only thing she did allow herself to think about that night was what Jim had said about her father’s regret and the fact that he’d bought one of her books. With the help of Zack and Susan, she got her hands on another copy of her first novel and together with Danny, they had gone to the place where their father was buried. She had sat on the ground next to Danny and had taken them both through what happened in her life after leaving school and moving to Brooklyn. It had felt as though her dad had been there with them, and Julia got lost in her own recount, telling him everything she’d told Damian that night at the library. But she had also let the tears of anger fall when she recriminated him what he’d done to keep her apart from Damian and how he had used Danny to accomplish his scheme. In the end, Julia told her father that if things had gone differently and if he were still with them, she knew with time she would’ve forgiven him and moved on.

Both daughters had also started to send emails or call their mother at home. Though she still refused to talk to any of them, Julia wasn’t going to let things sort themselves out on their own like she had hoped would happen with her father. At least this time, if the relationship with their mother didn’t mend, it wouldn’t be for lack of trying from hers and Danny’s part.

And as for Jim’s dad, Julia did some digging of her own and found out her father had done nothing wrong. If only, he’d been incapable of keeping a guilty man from jail. Maybe what Jim’s dad had said about her father being distracted was true, but something in Julia relaxed when she knew for certain her dad, despite his many flaws, had remained a good lawyer until the end.

A knock on her door brought her back to the present. When she lifted her head from what she’d been reading, she saw Susan leaning on the frame with her eyes studying her intently, like she’d been doing since she’d come back from La Providencia. The same look Danny had given her when she’d arrived to their apartment and she’d asked what had happened.

Although Susan knew what had happened to her during the town’s celebration, Danny didn’t. Julia saw no reason why to worry her sister with something that hadn’t come to worse in the end.  Only that neither her boss nor Danny knew the real reason for her coming back. All she’d said was that the paperwork had come through and she’d wanted to come back. That she’d missed her job, Danny and that her life was back here in New York. Unfortunately, Julia suspected neither women had believed her.

“Julia, there’s a call for you. It’s that notary from La Providencia.”

Julia rolled her eyes up to the ceiling. Ever since coming back, Mr. Ruiz had been phoning her at work almost every day. He never said what he wanted just that Julia had to go back because there was a problem with the papers she’d signed. Julia refused every time, hoping the notary would desist and find some other way to fix the situation. But as Susan waited, she worried the notary wouldn’t give up that easy.

“Why can’t he just leave me the hell alone?” She groaned.

“I don’t know, but unlike the other times, he does sound like his life depends on it.”

“Fine. I’ll take the call here, thanks Susan.”

But Susan didn’t leave her office. She stayed where she was as Julia picked up her phone.

“Mr. Ruiz. It’s Julia.”

“Ms. Andersson. I’m so sorry to call you again, but please you must come back.”

“God, what the hell is wrong with you people? I have a job. I can’t take off just because someone forgot to put a freaking coma.”

Julia listened as the poor notary explained, vaguely, that it was imperative she go back to La Providencia. Because it did sound like he would jump off Whisper Mountain if she said no yet again, Julia let out a defeated sigh and agreed. When she hung up, Susan was still leaning against the door frame.

“Susan, I’m sorry but if I don’t go he won’t stop calling.”

“It’s fine.”

“I just feel bad about leaving you on the lurch again.”

“Hey,” her boss and friend shrugged. “don’t worry. Besides, your piece on La Providencia was your best piece ever.” Another shrug of the shoulders, “I guess you were really inspired.”

Julia could see the challenge in her boss’s face as she wanted Julia to talk about Damian. Julia only smiled.

“I just have a personal tie to the town, that’s all.”

“Uhum.” Susan nodded, her lips curving upwards.

Julia ignored her and went back to the article she’d been reading. Susan left after she said over her shoulder. “Have a nice trip.”

It took Julia the rest of the afternoon to arrange her trip for the next day. Though she begged Danny to come with her, her younger sister insisted she couldn’t skip rehearsals or take time off from work.

**********

This time, as she drove out from the sierra, it was still daylight. Julia had rented a BMW. Oh yes, she made sure she didn’t go cheap this time and rented a better car. She even made sure the woman at the rental company knew that if this car broke down on her, they would have to find a freaking helicopter to come and get her because she really couldn’t stay this time.

Her car cruised next to the house, with its closed gates, the overflowing flowers around the wall moving with the breeze outside, almost as if greeting her back. But she wasn’t back, she was going to get this over with once and for all.

Julia parked the car under the shade of a palm tree and stormed into the notary’s office ready to let him know she didn’t appreciate being dragged from New York to here on some legal technicality.

Mr. Ruiz was sitting at the same desk he’d been three weeks ago, though this time he swallowed when he saw her make her way furiously to his desk. He shook her hand, his a bit clammy and pulled out the same folder where the papers she had signed had been the last time.

“I really hope this is the last time you make me come all the way down here, Mr. Ruiz.”

“Yes, yes. It’s just you forgot to take your copy, and we didn’t want to risk losing it by sending it over by mail.”

“Excuse me?” Of all the things she’d been expecting to hear this was definitely not one of them. Her face must’ve expressed her confusion because the notary cleared his throat and opened the folder to where she’d signed. Her name appeared under the words owner.

“What the……..this is wrong. Oh, okay now I get it, I signed on the wrong spot, right?”

“N-n-no, Ms. Andersson. The property is yours.”

“But that’s a mistake. I mean how…….”

“Mr. Solis came by after what happened at the warehouse and asked me to make the change. The house is yours.”

Julia’s mouth opened and closed but no sound came out. She closed her eyes while she pinched the bridge of her nose before words were able to form.

“I don’t understand.” And she didn’t. Why had Damian made this sudden change when it was clear the house would be perfect for him and his family? Or was it part of his plan, to go back to his life in North Carolina and leave the house to her?

“Mr. Solis asked me not to say anything.”

“Did he now?”

Julia snatched the folder from Mr. Ruiz and stormed out back to her car. She drove out of town in the direction of the house.

Her tires shot a dust of dirt as she braked the car outside the gates, not bothering to go all the way in. The wooden gates were unchained and she went inside. Julia marched purposefully across the gravel path. She was halfway down the path when the front door burst open and a tiny person shot out in her direction. When Lucas reached her, he hugged her by the legs and Julia had to bend down to keep from falling on her back.

“Julia! Julia!”

“Hey, Lucas.” No matter how upset and baffled she was about Damian’s decision, Julia hugged the boy back and stayed like that for a while. God, she’d missed him so much. And she said so. “I’ve missed you.”

“Me, too. Why did you go?”

“I…….it’s complicated.”

“But you didn’t even say goodbye.”

“I………” but a deeper voice boomed behind him. “Lucas.”

Julia had been too focused on Lucas, she’d missed his dad following him out of the house. She straightened and like every time she saw him, her heart beat with love and her entire body warmed up. Damian’s dark eyes stared at her, touching her very soul just like he’d done when they’d made love for the first time. It took a lot of strength not to forget the reason why she’d left and run to his arms. Instead, Julia let go of Lucas and waited for Damian to continue.

“Son, you should go back inside and finish packing your stuff. Your mom will be here shortly.”

“Okay.”

Before running back to the house Lucas did something he hadn’t done. He pulled Julia back down and kissed her on the cheek. The gesture was so unexpected and so touching, Julia felt a tremor around her heart. She gave him another bear hug before letting him go back inside.

Damian simply stood there, a guarded expression on his face. Julia decided to go directly to the point.

“Damian, what is the meaning of this?” She waved the folder in the air.

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t play games with me. It says here the house is mine, and that’s not what’s supposed to say.”

“Well, it is. It’s yours, Julia.”

“But you bought it.” She said, exasperated.

“I know. But I wanted it for the wrong reasons. I realized this house belonged to you, it always has.” He stepped closer, but he didn’t touch her.

“Damian, this is insane. I can’t have this. I don’t live here. I live in New York. I can’t possible take care of this place.”

“Is that why you left?”

His question threw her off guard. Because she didn’t want to tell him the reason why, she adopted a defensive attitude as she said. “That’s none of your business.”

“Just answer the question, Julia.” He countered, amused.

“You’re unbelievable. Here,” she shoved the papers at his chest, “I don’t want it. You keep it. I’m fine with you owning the place.”

“Oh, I know. You said so in that note you wrote in the book. Seems that’s how we like to end things between us. With a letter. But you still haven’t answered my question. Why did you leave?”

Julia didn’t have time for this. But judging from the unwavering scrutiny of his stare, he wasn’t going to let her go until she answered his question.

“I saw you, that day when I left the clinic. I saw you with Sophia and Lucas. I knew you’d decided to stay with your family. I get it, facing near death experiences makes you think about the things that matter the most. There, I don’t know why you wanted to hear something you already knew.” Julia let out a tired breath.

Damian lifted his hand and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. The simple touch made her eyes go wide, but she didn’t move away. He didn’t have to know he still affected her, he might feel bad for her or something.

“I can’t believe that after what happened to us, you would let assumptions get in the way.”

“No, this time no one said it to me. I saw it with my own eyes. Plus, you hadn’t gone to visit me at the clinic and when I saw you, I knew you’d taken a decision. I get it, really. You don’t have to worry about me. Just please, fix this.” She gave him the folder.

“Oh, well in that case.” Damian said, noncommittal.

“What?”

“If you think you know everything.”

Damn him, why was he being so difficult? It had been his decision not hers. She’d just made the next logical choice and now he was giving her a hard time, even mocking her about it?

“I do. Besides, you just said Sophia is on her way, and by the sound of it, it looks you’re about to go away on a trip.”

“A honeymoon, actually.”

Unbelievable. Yes, there had been no hard feelings this time when she decided to leave but did he have to rub it on her face? And why the hell was he smirking?

“Oh, well, there you go.”

“I thought you wanted us to be together.”

“You’re unbelievable. You think just because I’m in love with you I would’ve agreed to be your honey on the side? Well, you thought wrong pal.”

“So you do love me?”

Julia felt like screaming at his deranged words.

“Look, Damain. Have fun at the honeymoon. I’m really happy for you. I am. I have to go now.”

But his hand caught her arm and made her turn around to face him.

“I don’t think Steve would like that.”

“What the hell are you talking about? Who is Steve?”

“Steve is Sophia’s husband since five days ago.”

It was like someone had kicked her in the stomach and had left her breathless. Sophia’s husband? But, but….

“But I thought…..”

“Like I said, you let assumptions get in the way. What you saw that day was Sophia happy because Steve had proposed. And Lucas was even more excited because Steve had promised to take him to Disneyland with Sophia, for their honeymoon. And well, because I had my own reasons to be happy as well.”

Damian paused, his hands now caressing Julia’s arms. There was something in his eyes she couldn’t  read, it gave her goosebumps that exploded up and down her arms.

“I didn’t go back to the clinic because I had to travel to Guadalajara then to Mexico City, and then I had to go back to the States. I thought Esperanza told you.”

“She…..she did.” Julia could feel her face turning bright red.

“I was planning in throwing you a welcome home party the day you got out. Also, I was planning in giving you this.”

Julia’s mouth dropped all the way to the floor as Damian put his hand inside his pocket and took out a small black velvet box. Julia thought she was going to faint and could hear her heartbeat drumming loudly inside her ears.

“Oh my God. Damian…..”

He took her free hand and said.

“That day at the warehouse I did think about what was important, about my family. You’re it Julia, you and Lucas. I’m in love with you. I’ve been since that day I saw you across the town square and have been ever since, even when I thought I hated you. You’re the most amazing, intelligent, sweet, beautiful woman I’ve ever known. I want you to be my family.”

There were so many things going on inside her Julia couldn’t make her brain do its part and produce a decent answer to what she’d just heard. He hadn’t gone back to Sophia and he loved her. God, was this really happening?

“I’ve been apart from you for far too long. I don’t want to be anymore. This time it’s just us Julia, we decide.”

Damian opened the box and took out the ring with a single square cut ruby which rested on a white golden band. It reminded her of the necklace he’d given her. It was bright red, and just as intense and unique as her love for him was. It was the color of her heart, the heart that had always belonged to him.

“I want to marry you, Julia Andersson.” He gave the box to her. When Julia continued to stare like an idiot at the ring, he whispered. “You might want to give me an answer now. Esperanza, Joaquin and Lucas are about to break the window from pressing their faces too hard, and I’m pretty sure Esperanza has Sonia on the phone waiting to tell her your answer.”

Julia lifted her head and indeed, saw three faces staring at them from inside Damian’s office.

“You mean they all know you’re…….I mean that you want to…..”

“Of course. I thought you would come back on your own. But if you hadn’t done so today, I would’ve gone to New York and made you see reason. I’m afraid I might’ve been a bit harsh on Mr. Ruiz, annoyed he hadn’t made you come back. I guess I was more annoyed you hadn’t done so on your own.”

“Oh my God.”

Her world was reeling. A damn of joy overflowed inside her. She was shaking and she wanted to jump up and down. She’d gone back in hopes of rebuilding her life, but the truth was her life was here with him, or anywhere as long as he was with her.

“Julia?” It was cute to hear the tremor in his voice.

“I wanted to come back. God, I dreamt of you and this place every night. Nothing felt the same, whatever had brought me joy before didn’t, it all felt empty, dull.”

She saw the question in his eyes, the anxiety that made her smile before exclaiming. “And yes! Yes! I want to marry you, too. I love you.”

Julia let him put the ring on her finger and from inside the house they both heard the shouts of victory.

He kissed her with such passion and need, Julia felt the papers drop to the floor. When he broke the kiss he grabbed her face with both hands and said.  “I can’t promise you happily ever after, because I’m sure I’ll want to bang my head against the wall because you, Julia Andersson can also be very stubborn. But I promise you it will always be us.”

“And that’s what I want.”

And she did. As she let herself be kissed again by him, Julia thought what she wanted from Damian was only ever after. The happily would be up to them to achieve, but as long as they had each other, Julia knew they’d get it as well.

Epilogue.

“Damian, Damian! It’s here!”

Julia screamed through the open living room doors before heading out to her bench near the edge of the garden. The town of La Providencia was majestic, quiet, and gleaming like a jewel as the sun caressed its rooftops and the church’s dome. It didn’t matter it was December, the sun never failed to come and brighten life in this town.

She ripped the package and placed the discarded wrapping on the side. She read the note from Susan and Zack as they told her they missed her, and that the magazine was not the same without her. Julia still wrote certain pieces for it, and had to travel to New York occasionally. Only her traveling days were behind her, especially now.

They also mentioned they had loved the way the book had been done and were sure it would be a success once it went out before Christmas.

Julia held the hardcover in her hands and smiled as she saw her name Julia Andersson, and above,  the title to her first romance novel, Whispers from the Mountain. Thanks to the pictures she’d used for her article on La Providencia back in August, the cover artist had made a sketch of the outline of Whisper Mountain, and had inserted the figure of a woman in a white dress, the wind lifting up the skirts of her dress, with her hair billowing in the back, as she stared out at the horizon.

It was beautiful.

“I hope you autograph the first copy for me.” Damian circled around the bench and sat next to her. Julia shifted her body so she could rest against his chest, while she stretched her swollen ankles, and caressed the small bump on her belly. Julia and Damian were expecting their first child. She was pretty sure she conceived the day when he proposed back in September.

“I did something better, here.” She gave the book to Damian. He read the words written on the second page:

To my husband, the love of my life and why I have a reason to write about love.

“You never told me.”

“I wanted to surprise you.”

He kissed the top of her head, then turned the pages all the way to the back where her picture, with the town of La Providencia and Whisper Mountain in the background, accompanied her author’s information.

When Susan and Zack had come down for the wedding which took place a month after Damian proposed, days before her twenty-ninth birthday, they had the idea of using the town that had inspired her story to shoot her author’s picture.

Under it, it said:

This is Julia Andersson’s first romance novel. Though, she’s been around the book scene writing under the name of Kate Morgan, responsible for bestsellers such as Tears of Despair and Before You Left. She’s also a writer for Mirage Magazine.

She lives with her husband, and son, in the small town of La Providencia, in Mexico. 

The End.

Ever After. Chapter 34

Paramedics tended to her and took her on a stretcher like the one that had taken Raul away, to the town’s clinic. They were pondering taking her to the city but the rib fracture had been minor and it hadn’t caused any serious internal damage. The pain was a bitch though, but Julia was put under pain medications and ordered to stay at the clinic for three weeks.

Much to her dismay, Esperanza made sure she didn’t move so much as a finger, as the cook took it upon her to babysit Julia the entire time. Which she appreciated, but the confinement was driving her crazy.

She gave her statement to Chief Ramos the following day, and with the evidence found at Magdalena’s house in Jim’s computer, plus the letter and the guy from the scorpions confessing Jim had approached him and given him money to do the deed, they had enough to put him away.

Julia didn’t let her mind wander to Jim. Whatever happened he would be locked away and would never hurt her again. Nor her friends. Raul had been discharged three days after the warehouse incident. Both he and Felix stopped by, first to pretend to be mad she hadn’t said anything about the threats, and second, to shower her with flowers and cards their kids had made for their auntie Julia. The endearing name with which the kids referred to her made her realize she could’ve taken their fathers away from those children. But Raul and Felix forbade her to blame herself for something that wasn’t her fault and that didn’t happen in the end.

The same couldn’t be said about Magdalena. Julia hadn’t heard nor seen her after the horrible event. She’d already tried her house a couple of times and had begged Sonia to ask her to come to the clinic. Part of her understood that Magdalena was going through a hell of a time, coming to terms with Jim’s sudden insanity that had pushed him over the edge. Just like Raul and Felix, another part of her couldn’t stop from feeling like she’d caused this as well.

Sonia did come to be with her, usually before opening up the restaurant, with contraband food like quesadillas, guacamole and tacos. They talked and Sonia recounted how unnerving those hours of waiting for news had been. She also gave her a hard time for keeping the threats to herself.

Even little Lucas came to see her during her second week at the clinic. Julia assumed his mom had brought him, but she didn’t come in with him. He was carrying one of the stuffed animals he’d won at the fair when they’d gone together. It was the first time Julia saw him hesitant and wary around her. She assumed it had to do with the IV-line hooked to her arm for the pain medication, plus the blueish spot next to her mouth where Jim had hit her, or just her pale parlor or the fact that he was freaked out she was in a hospital. Kids hated hospitals.

“Hey, you okay?” She asked, as Lucas had barely stretched his hand to put the stuffed animal on the bed, his eyes telling her he rather be some place else.

He nodded his head.

“This looks way scarier than it is.”

When the kid only stared down at the floor, she patted the space next to her on the bed and said. “You know what would be cool? A story. I’ve been able to come up with tons while lying here doing nothing. Maybe you’d like to hear one and tell me if it’s okay.” Julia waited, expectantly for Lucas’s response. Just when she thought he might just bolt from the room, he lifted his head and she could see tears shining inside his dark brown eyes.

“Hey, hey, what’s wrong? We could…we could do something else. I’m sorry….” Julia struggled for words but Lucas’s next ones surprised her.

“I don’t want to hurt you again.”

“What do you mean?” She asked, baffled.

“That man said he was your friend, and my dad’s, too.” Lucas’s lower lip quivered. Julia opened her mouth to say something but Lucas continued. “I told my dad he had to open the surprise after the fireworks, because the man said so.”

“Oh, sweetheart.” Julia didn’t want to cry. She swallowed back the tears of tenderness for Lucas, as he dabbed bravely at his eyes trying to dry his own tears away from his face. She moved to the other side of the bed, and patted the space next to her again. “Hey, come here.”

This time Lucas went to the empty side of the bed and climbed up using the chair next to the bed. He lay down and rested his head on her shoulder. Julia winced a little as her middle body was still a little bit sore, but used her hand to stroke his hair.

“What happened is no one’s fault.” Though her voice came out with conviction, she wished she could believe it herself. “Sometimes people make choices that end up hurting others. But they always end up paying for their bad actions. Neither you, nor your dad nor even I can control what other people do.”

“Is he going to hurt you again, or dad?”

“Nope. He won’t.”

“Okay.” One of his tiny arms came around her stomach and hugged her. Julia knew it was insane since she’d been with Lucas for a few days but she loved this kid already. She had known and part of her had resented his existence, yet now she felt a kind of unselfish love flow inside her. They stayed like that for a while. Julia kissed the top of his head and then said. “So how about that story?”

*********

Yes. Everyone came and visited, everyone except Damian. He stayed with her the first night, after the local surgeon had stitched up the cut above his eye. After that, she hadn’t seen him around. According to Esperanza he’d had to go to Guadalajara and Mexico City to oversee the opening process of Summers. He’d also been busy with meetings with the local farmers and apparently, he’d gone back to Charlotte to see his father.

However, two weeks had passed and she hadn’t heard a word from him. Part of her rationalized he was probably drowned in work. Besides, what did she know about running a family conglomerate?

But another part pushed doubt into her mind and heart. What if almost dying had made Damian see he had other things to live for and with? Like his son and the mother of his son?

The truth was he hadn’t exactly asked her to stay. He’d simply mentioned she would be free to head back to New York soon, since the notary had promised the papers to be ready the Friday after the town’s celebration. Of course, that had been two weeks ago. Julia had no idea what was going on outside the walls of the clinic, never mind if the Andersson property was one signature away from officially belonging to Damian Solis.

Julia sat on the edge of the bed waiting for Esperanza as the cook received last minute instructions from the doctor. Though he would’ve wanted to keep Julia here for a few more days, Julia was hours away from scratching the walls and pulling her hair out from pure boredom. Though what she’d told Lucas during his visit had been true. Her mind and her fingers had been busy with her latest story. Hours of doing nothing but sit in bed had produced more than one hundred pages which had been sent to Zack. Julia was still waiting for him to give her any feedback.

Julia needed to get out. Especially to sort out the future, at least where Damian and she were concerned.

Esperanza, who’d taken permanent residence in the room, appeared out on the hallway. Julia got down from bed and joined her. Esperanza tried to hook an arm around her waist but Julia shook her head. “I can walk, really.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive. Really, let’s just get out of here. I’ll heal better up at the house.”

“Okay.” Esperanza sounded far from okay but guided Julia to the outside. The sun was high up in the sky, a fireball instantly warming her skin. The sky was a sapphire blue so bright and clear, Julia thought she could get zinged by its power only by reaching her hands out.

They walked on the sidewalk, past a few houses and small convenience stores, then down the street to the main square. At first it was like stepping into a whole new world. Gone were the small stands that had cluttered both the street and square. There were no colored papers hanging from the trees and the calm and lull around her made it possible for her to hear the sound of a radio being played far away. There were only a couple of people walking by with bags of fresh vegetables, cartons of eggs and gallons of milk, both of whom waved at her and Esperanza.

The cook stopped. Julia thought Joaquin would be waiting for them but was grateful for the opportunity to stretch her legs and reacquaint them with movement after two weeks of inactivity.

“What’s up?”

“I just remembered there’s nothing at the house.”

“Oh, well I don’t mind hanging out here.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. Don’t tell her this but Sonia’s enchiladas are not as good as yours. Good food will help me recover sooner.” Julia winked at Esperanza and despite the bright day, her face was shadowed by doubt and worry.

“I’ll be fine. I mean, what are the odds there is more than one person wanting to kill me?”

Esperanza didn’t seem to find her comment amusing, so Julia placed one hand on the older woman’s shoulders.

“I’m kidding. You go and take your time. I’ll just wander.”

Instead of answering, Esperanza kissed her forehead and squeezed the hand on her shoulders. Then, the cook took off across the square and disappeared on the other side of the kiosk.

Julia lingered on the sidewalk some more and was about to cross the street to sit down on one of the benches around the kiosk, when the sound of laughter wafted through the ficus leaves and reached her ears. She recognized the sound and was about to make her way towards it, when the sight before her had her stopping on her tracks.

Rounding the other side of the kiosk from where Esperanza had disappeared, was Lucas’s head floating in the air. His body was perched on his father’s shoulders and his smile a beacon of happiness that rivaled the sun’s rays. His father, Damian, was as happy as his son the same as the woman walking next to him with her arm circled around Damian’s waist.

A single word popped into her head, the meaning of it not less harder on her: Family. There it was, a happy family. Just because hers was wrecked, it didn’t mean she had to go on doing the same to others. She’d already destroyed Magdalena’s, maybe not directly, but her choices were the reason the man Magdalena loved had gone mad. Then, there were Felix and Raul, and she, too, had almost destroyed their respective families. It was time she let go of stupid fantasies and grow up.

Despite the circumstances that had given them the opportunity to be together, Damian’s and Julia’s time had passed. Many things had transpired in between to ignore them, no matter how right it had felt to be in his arms again and let herself be swept away by the love she’d never stopped having for him. There would be no hatred this time, no lies, just reality.

The picture before her eyes made something in her heart break, but it gave her the answer to the question she’d thought about at the clinic. Damian had already decided what to do with his future and that included his family. There was no room for her, and she accepted it, though it didn’t make the pain of it less strong. He would dedicate himself to his family just as he’d been doing for all this time. Only now, it looked like he would try and give his son the complete picture, his mother and father together. Almost dying had changed his priorities and now Julia had to focus on hers.

With what she had to do next flaunting its nasty face before her eyes, Julia stepped inside one of the open stores and waited until Damian and his family crossed from the square and reached the corner of the street where she was, before they disappeared down to Damian’s old house.

Julia walked perpendicular to where she was, and didn’t think twice when she went inside the notary. Mr. Ruiz sat at his desk, talking on the phone. When he saw her he motioned for her to take a seat. Five minutes later, he was walking around the desk and shaking her hand.

“Ms. Andersson, it’s good to see you are all right.”

“Thanks.”

“I’m sorry for what happened.”

“Yeah, well. I’m okay and that’s all that matters.”

“May I offer you something to drink or…”

“No.” She interrupted him. “I don’t have much time. I understand the papers are ready, Damian said they would be after the town’s celebration. I know he requested he be here when I signed them but I must go back today. I’ve already stayed more than enough. So, if you could just give them to me so I can sign them and be on my way.”

“Maybe I should call Mr. Solis.”

“There’s no need. All that’s missing is my signature. You can attest that it was me signing. Please, Mr. Ruiz.”

The notary looked worried but went back behind his desk. He pulled open a drawer and a folder with the paperwork. Silently, he passed the pages and indicated where Julia had to sign. She didn’t bother to read, she just moved the pen across the paper, the scrawling of the pen like the ripping of the few hopes she’d harbored about herself and Damian.

When she was done, she thanked Mr. Ruiz and headed out without one backward glance.

It was as if destiny itself and this town were ready for her to leave. Against doctor’s orders to take it easy and rest, she went up to the house using the shortcut, and though it took her longer than normal to walk up and around the hill, there was no one when she got home.

As she crossed the gravel path to the main entrance, she saw Damian’s truck and tried to ignore the pang of hurt at remembering their day at the river. Giving no room to second thoughts, she went upstairs and pulled out the bag she’d brought with her several weeks ago and packed only the clothes she’d come with that day. There was no time nor space enough for her to take the rest. She took out the necklace Damian had given her and left it on the dresser.

On her bed, just as she’d asked Susan, lay a package. The day after the party, Julia had written to her agent and asked her if she could send her a copy of the first book she’d ever written. When she opened it, a sense of longing enveloped her; she would’ve loved to see his expression when he found it. She went over to the wicker chairs after grabbing a pen from her laptop case. She opened the book and wrote:

Dear Damian,

I thought you might want to have this, hope you have time to read it.

Julia’s hand hesitated on the paper, before she continued writing.

Thank you for everything you did for me, for saving my life. I’ll be forever grateful. I know you’ll take care of this house. It needed someone like you. I’m glad it was you who brought it back from forgetfulness.

Tell Lucas I’ll miss him very much.

She dried the tear from her cheek before it stained the paper, then she concluded her letter by writing:

Take care, Damian.

Julia.

God, she wanted to say with love, but this was better. At least this time the letter had been written by her and she spoke nothing but the truth. Well, part of it anyway.

She went to Damian’s room and put the book on his bed, along with the necklace. Afterwards, she packed her laptop, found her passport and her bag. With one final glance and sigh that ached around her heart, Julia closed the door to her room and went down the stairs.

The keys to her car were in the kitchen on the counter next to the keys to Damian’s truck.

Julia put her stuff in the trunk and got inside the car. The house was no longer hers, it was already official, and she experienced a mixture of nostalgia mixed with gratitude as she surveyed the white walls and bougainvilleas adding splashes of color all around. Whatever happened, and wherever she was, this house would always be in good hands.

She backed away from the garage and drove through the open gates. Julia got down, closed the gates and with tears in her eyes, she left La Providencia, hoping this time around distance would help her move on. Even if that meant always loving the man and the land she was saying goodbye to.

Ever After. Chapter 33

“Drop the gun, Jim.”

Damian crouched from the upper balcony that ran on each side of the walls inside the warehouse. From his position he could see Julia’s body face down on the ground, and Jim’s body with his right hand held straight out with the gun. Even from here, Damian could tell Jim’s hand had begun to shake. He clearly had not anticipated the interruption.

Still, when he spoke his detached voice sent a torrent of cold sweat down his spine. When Julia’s head moved slightly up to try and locate where his voice was coming from, Damian felt himself breath ever since Raul had pointed at the abandoned warehouse, where they used to have their high school dances.

“If it isn’t prince charming himself. You know Damian, I really thought you’d be strong but it’s amazing what good sex can do to you. One tumble with this one and you’re all over each other again. Too bad. I was enjoying the whole revenge angle. You know, buying the house from where Benjamin Andersson himself never let you set foot in. I mean, if you think about it, Benjamin Andersson treated you like crap, or so I’ve been told by Madgalena. And then there’s the whole tortured lovers tale, so dramatic.”

He could see Julia squirm as she continued to lie down there. Damian continued to move from the open window where he’d climbed in, to the stairs that led to the bottom floor. The entire upper floor was covered in dust, there were some scattered old wooden rotting chairs and rusted metal hinges  and broken glass from the windows.

When they’d gotten to the warehouse, Raul had pointed to a side wall, where a mount of branches, mud and trash no one had bothered to clean up, stood just high enough for them to reach the hole for the missing window. Damian had been all for storming through the front door but Raul made him see that any brusque movement and Jim might kill Julia, if he hadn’t hurt her yet.

Raul had circled around the other way opposite Damian while Felix had stayed out waiting for Chief Ramos and his men.

“Put the gun down Jim. I’m sure we can talk about it.” His voice sounded steady, confident, but inside Damian was hanging by a thread. Just the sight of a gun pointed at Julia had his stomach rolling with nausea.

“Oh, don’t you worry. We’ve talked about it. Dear Julia and myself. And she knows now why she has to die.” Jim walked over to Julia and pulled her to her feet, the sudden change of position sending sharp knives of pain into her upper body.

“Damian?”

“It’s okay, Julia. Everything is going to be okay.”

Damian had already reached the stairs and was making his way down, without making a sound. Jim’s head kept moving right and left then up as he tried to locate his position.

Finally, Damian was in the same floor level. He had no cover except the walls that lined each side of the stairs. He needed to get Jim away from Julia.

“Are you really willing to risk your life for her?” Jim pushed her in front of him, using her now as a human shield in case Damian had not come alone. Julia struggled under his hold, the labored breaths coming from her igniting a need to protect her so strong, Damian had to ball his fists before doing anything stupid.

Jim waited for a reply. When none came, he carried on. “You really think she’s going to stay with you? The guy who cheated on her ten years ago? You think Julia will give up her brand new found success as a writer, her lifestyle in New York just to come and waste away in some God forsaken town? Oh and let’s not forget, to become the unwilling mother of the child product of your infidelity. I have to say that was genius. Too bad that instead of using your brain now, your using your dick. That is going to get you killed as well. Guess I won’t be the only one who’ll be without a father.”

“Damian, just go!” Julia said, frantic. If something happened to him she’d never forgive herself.

“Yes, listen to her.”

“Oh, we’re not going anywhere.”

Oh my God. Julia felt Jim’s hold falter as Raul’s voice resounded around them. Though part of her was relieved they’d found her, she was afraid either of her friends, because there was no way Felix hadn’t come to, would do something stupid and end up getting hurt.

“If it isn’t the rest of your lame friends. You really know how to manipulate people Julia. After neglecting them for ten years, they are now going to die because of you. Many children are going to grow without their fathers it seems.”

Jim moved to the center of the room. Julia spotted a movement from the corner of her eye and she felt herself almost faint when Damian stepped out from the shadows, his hands up in the air. His stare never leaving hers, while he stole several glances towards Jim and the gun he now he held against her temple.

“Damian.”

“I’m here, Julia.”

In that instant, when their eyes found each other, Julia saw Damian was trying desperately to find a way out. Julia hoped that the defeat she felt wasn’t visible in hers.

Pearls of sweat were glistening from Jim’s forehead. It was obvious Jim wasn’t as stable as before. He was nervous and it was painstakingly clear he hadn’t factored in the interruptions. Damian dreaded he might feel cornered and start shooting at them, maybe even killing himself in the end.

Jim shoved Julia aside. She landed on her knees, where she stayed on all fours, her eyes going wide in horror when Jim aimed the gun right in the middle of Damian’s chest.

“No, Jim, please.” She begged. “This is just between you and me.”

But he didn’t say anything back. Julia felt the scream logged inside her throat. She had to do something, anything. Only that someone beat her up to it. It all happened so fast, the sequence of events developed in a blur inside her mind. She barely had time to react.

From somewhere above them, an object came down flying through the air, hitting Jim on the head,  causing his stance to wobble and for the gun to drop from his hand. The metallic object clattered noisily on the floor. She held her breath as she saw Damian go for it.

Damian didn’t even think. He simply launched himself towards the gun. His grip tightened around the weapon but Jim’s body landed on top of him, as the deranged man had recovered quickly from the knock to his head. One side of his temple was starting to bleed, and tiny drops left crimson splotches on the floor as both men began a struggle for the gun.

Julia couldn’t move. Her muscles had locked down from sheer shock. Both men panted and cursed as they continued to struggle and roll on the floor, each time the gun falling from one or the other’s grasp. An aggressive dance of fists as Damian broke Jim’s nose and he in return cut open above Damian’s eyebrow.

“Stop it!”

Julia urged her muscles to respond. But just as she was balancing back on her toes to stand up, Jim used his knee to ram it into Damian’s groin. The guttural sound that came out from him told Julia he wouldn’t recover in time. He curled into a ball as Jim stood up and kicked him in the stomach.

Julia went back to her knees and crawled over to where Damian lay, his face contorted in pain. The blood from his eyebrow slid down the side of his eye.

“Fucking bastard.” Damian panted.

“I think I’ve wasted enough time with this nonsense.” Jim had the gun again in his hands but instead of shooting at them he whirled to the direction where Damian had come from and pulled the trigger. The fatal sound shook Julia to the bone. Her face bleached when she saw Raul fall to the ground, as he’d probably been waiting to sneak up on Jim.

Had he moved out of the way in time or had the bullet gotten him?

Raul’s cry of pain was followed by a “son of a bitch.”

“Raul? Oh, God, are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” His voice sounded strained and for Julia at least, the fact that she got a response was a good sign.

Jim didn’t seem put out by this, though instead of walking over to where Raul lay, he came to stand mere inches away from where Julia was next to Damian. He aimed the gun at Julia and said. “Say hello to your father in hell for me Julia.”

Damian moved his body to shield hers and didn’t flinch away when his stare collided with Jim’s manic one, before a trigger was pulled.

A shot was fired. Julia felt Damian’s body tense as she shut her eyes. Afterwards, she was thrown into a cone of silence. She saw red and shiny dots dancing inside her closed eyelids; images of Damian’s lifeless body swirled inside her mind. Then, from some faraway place, the echo of someone calling her name mingled with male moans of pain, followed by the cold, hard surface shaking under her. It took several more shakes for Julia to realize it wasn’t the earth that was moving but her body. Someone was shaking her by the shoulders while they called her name urgently. The moans continued.

He’s hit. He hit Damian, he………

“Julia. Julia. Open your eyes.”

That voice. It was what made her open her eyes and find Damian’s dark pupils fixed on her. The blood from the cut above his eye was drying up. Her eyes skittered down to inspect his body but there was no visible red stain that indicated where the bullet had entered. He was kneeled down in front of her, the faraway voice finally connecting with his mouth moving.

Dazed, Julia said nothing but turned her head around. It was in that instant she noticed the commotion going on around her. Paramedics were taking Raul out from the warehouse through the only entrance. There was a stain of red on his left arm below the shoulder. When her mouth opened and a strangled sound came out, Damian eased her worry.

“He’s fine. The bullet just grazed his arm. He’s going to be fine.”

Julia continued to take in the scene before her. Felix stood a few feet from them, next to Chief Ramos. Felix was shaken up, and his eyes did, too, wander to their friend being carted away. When his eyes found her, he gave her a feeble smile, and she returned the gesture.

The second man next to him, Chief Ramos watched over as another couple of paramedics treated Jim, who was on the floor. His flailing arms impeding the paramedics to get a look at his calf. That was the source of the moans.

Damian saw the question dance in her eyes, and he said. “Just before he fired his gun, Ramos came in from behind and shot him in the leg. Jim fell down and the police with Felix stormed into the warehouse. It’s over now Julia.”

Maybe it was the many emotions that had ripped her apart in the last few hours. Fear, anger, shock, then back again to fear when she thought she’d lost Damian. The tears rushed out and she didn’t bother to diminish the sound of her sobs. He simply let her put her head on his shoulder while his hand caressed her back, and said over and over again. “It’s okay, it’s okay. We’re okay.”

Ever After. Chapter 32

God, she felt awful. Her back hurt and wherever she was, wasn’t helping with the pain. It was cold, hard, and she could feel the side of her arm being prickled by the uneven protuberances from the rough surface under her.  Her right cheek also felt like it was being exfoliated with rocks. It hurt.

When she tried to open her eyes her whole head did a nosedive and she closed them again.

But deep from within her mind, a tiny dot of light began to get closer and closer, like the light from a train as it enters a tunnel and is fast approaching. The light suddenly exploded behind her eyes and the force of the memory, like a freight train out of control, crashed right into her. All that had happened since coming out from Sonia’s, going with Jim to his truck and then the last conscious thought she had before going down.

Why?

Julia now had the who, but still couldn’t comprehend the why.

Just as the three letters of his name materialized inside her head, her eyes snapped open. With a  blurry vision, she did a quick scan of her surroundings, her sight eventually clearing though she didn’t recognize anything. It was so dark she could barely make out the wooden beams across the ceiling above her.

The air was a mixture of stale air, abandoned and hot, as if the structure had garnered the heat from the day and kept it enclosed. She concluded the ceiling must be made of aluminum. There appeared to be some plastic chairs and tables piled up in the corner nearest her. There were also some old rusted tractors next to those chairs and tables. There was a second floor, like a balcony, that surrounded the rectangle shape of the space where she was; pieces of railing were missing at intervals. Finally, her eyes found what she was looking for.

At the center of the room, Jim sat on one of those plastic chairs. Though there was no light, Julia knew his stare was locked on her slumped body. As she began to stir, slowly, she winced in pain when the sensitive skin on her wrists burned against the brush of plastic. He must’ve bound her hands with one of those plastic cords they use nowadays after inspecting your bag at the airport.

When she tried her legs, they were not bound but they were numb.

Where the hell am I?

Was she even still in La Providencia? Panic sprouted claws around her heart as the possibility of being in some other place where no one would find her, formed. She whimpered, but the sound was drowned as somewhere far, a series of explosions intertwined with the booming of music coming from the town square.

I’m still in town!

Though that didn’t help her much.

Who knew Jim had taken her? Damian probably thought she was stuck among the tumult of people, and her friends all thought she was with Damian. They’d all notice her absence all too late.

“I was afraid I would have to carry on without you.” Jim’s almost friendly tone scared her more than if he would have screamed at her. She struggled with the restraints on her hands, and let out another whimper of pain when the tight plastic cut through her skin. Since her legs were free, she moved them and sat up. When she did, her head felt like it would explode like the fireworks from the town.

From her new position, she searched frantically for a way out or something to defend herself with, though her current situation with her impaired arms would narrow down her chances considerably. God, she was going to die.

The fireworks’ roars continued to lance the hollowed silence around her. Her heart’s rhythm skittered, and a cold and damp sweat made the back of her black dress shirt cling to her back. Again, the reality of her situation hit her. She had to get out of here. However, before Julia could stand up, Jim made a tsk-tsk sound, reading her intentions.

“I wouldn’t attempt anything foolish if I were you, Julia.” The friendly tone was still there, almost condescending, but with an edge of nervousness. Jim sounded more than eager to get this over with.

Then, the last word on her mind before being put down replaced any other thoughts currently parading inside her mind. Without wasting another minute she asked. “Why?” She rasped. Her throat fell like a jar of dirt.

If she was going to die, then she sure as hell deserved to know the reason why.

“I’m not surprised you don’t know. I mean, you’ve been so engrossed in yourself these past ten years, you had no idea what was happening outside your bubble of egotism.”

“You mean with my father?”

Jim laughed, its sound as disturbing and skin scrawling as nails scratching on a blackboard.

“Yes. And with the rest of us. Like your father, mine wasn’t as thrilled to learn I wanted to marry a woman who came from this town. And like you, I was stubborn and went against his wishes and married Magdalena.”

“So you cut all contact with him?”

Julia was impressed by how steady her voice sounded all of a sudden. It was like knowing what lay ahead had given her a weird sense of serenity.

“I did. I hadn’t spoken to him for more than three years. But then, at the end of 2008 all the scandals about Maddoff and similar frauds were sprouting like flowers at every corner. Someone pointed the finger at my father. So, what did he do? He went to his longtime friend, Benjamin Andersson, for help.”

“I’m guessing this is the part where you tell my why the sudden urge to kill me?”

“Look at you, sassy in the face of death.”

“What can I say, I’ve never done what others expect of me.” Julia jutted her chin forward and though her insides were shaking like jello, she wasn’t going to give Jim the pleasure of seeing her fall apart.

“My dad went to your father and while preparing for his trial, your father confided in him. He told him he regretted how things had gone between you two.”

“You’re lying.” Her stomach knotted.

“I’m not. Though he didn’t say exactly what things. My dad says he rarely spoke of you after you left your house.”

Julia’s own surprise at Jim’s words transformed into mild irritation.

“That’s what they told you? That I left?”

For a split second Julia saw a pause, a hesitation go on inside Jim’s blue eyes. Julia took the chance and added. “He kicked me out. They both did. I had no choice but to leave.”

Then the hesitation turned to surprise and a mocking laughter erupted from him. With his body still shaking from it, Jim cleared his throat and said.

“Oh boy. I mean, I knew your dad wanted you to be a lawyer but to kick his daughter out because she didn’t go his way, wow. If only your dad had had the same balls to defend my father, you wouldn’t be here now.”

Was that was this was all about? Julia’s mind began to go through the heap of memories, anything that would help her understand. Suddenly, a little bell went off inside her head as it picked out the winner.

Danny had said their dad had lost some big case. That big case had to have been Jim’s dad.

“My father…….the big case he lost, it was you dad’s.”

Jim leaned towards her. He brought his elbows to rest on his thighs and it was then that Julia saw the gun in his hand. It was all she could do not to gasp, but she did recoil farther away. Jim grabbed his head with both hands and then stood up. Julia felt her heart jump all the way to her throat and her sudden bravado deserted her.

“Yes. My father and I had just started talking again. He saw how the estrangement between you two was affecting Benjamin so he phoned me before the trial. And as we reestablished contact, my father would complain your father was not the same shark in the courtroom he’d been before. He was distracted, and in the end his distraction cost my father his liberty and then his life.”

“His life?” The spacious room around her began to feel too crowded with her, Jim and his gun. While Jim made his way to her, Julia’s eyes moved in their sockets as they searched for anything she could use to her advantage. But what would be the point? She’d be dead before she managed to start running. There was no place she could hide for cover. Right now, what she had to do was to keep him talking. It might buy her enough time for a miracle to happen and someone to come looking for her.

“He killed himself a few months before your father died. He couldn’t take being locked up. And why should he have? He was innocent. Your father’s own guilt cost me my father. But since he is gone, it is you who’ll pay the price. If you only had stuck with the plan then my dad would still be alive.”

Before she could anticipate it, Jim kneeled down in front of her and slapped her with his free hand. The shock plus the impact had her tumbling down to the floor. Julia tasted the metallic flavor of blood as it trickled from the side of her mouth. Then, Jim’s leg shot outward and connected with her stomach and Julia swore she heard something crack inside her.

“You and your father ruined it all. I had my father back and he died because of you.”

Julia groaned, tears of pain falling down her cheeks. She tried to move but Jim’s hand grabbed her by the hair and made her get up on her knees. He pulled her hair back so she could look at him and what she saw froze her all over.

Gone was the kind, quiet boy she’d known. The same man who would look at Magdalena with eyes so full of love, it made her heart bleed for the woman as all they had in them now was pure hate. The Jim with his hand fisted in her hair, was beyond reason. Because only someone who’d lost his mental sanity would blame her for an event which she had nothing to do with. Not that she blamed her father, either. Despite their estrangement, he’d always been a good and thorough lawyer and if Jim’s father had been sent to jail then it was because he truly had been guilty.

The pain shooting from her head brought her to the present. This time, the barrel of the gun tried to dig a hole through her temple. Jim’s breathing was coming out fast. Julia couldn’t stand the pain from her ribs, but she had to keep him talking.

“How?” She asked, hoarsely.

“How what?”

“How did you know I was Kate Morgan?”

Fortunately, he lessened the hold on her hair and slammed her back against his legs.

“Oh well, you’re gonna love this. When my dad went to see your father at his firm, he noticed this book by a woman named Kate Morgan standing just next to a frame that had a picture of you and Danny. My father never asked him though but he made the connection immediately.”

When she gasped, he laughed again, enjoying the shock this news was having on her.

“It seems daddy dearest did read your stories after all. Too bad he died before you were able to make up.” He pouted his mouth and tugged harder on her hair. The mocking tone making something inside her flare with indignation.

“Afterwards, it was easy to find your New York address. And then just as I was getting ready to fly to New York and finish this, my adorable wife comes rushing into my study to tell me her long time friend Julia Andersson was back in La Providencia. And even better, we were all going to get together for lunch.”

“That must’ve pissed you off.” Julia said in between clenched teeth. Her anger had now gone back to insurmountable pain and that throbbing fear at the back of her head that she would spend her last moments alive with a total psycho.

“At first, I was just curious to see what had become of you. Of course, when you didn’t even remember me all I thought was, well she hasn’t changed much, she is still as conceited and as selfish as the rest of her stupid friends.”

“But what about Magdalena, don’t you love her? You’ll break her heart if you do this.”

“Shsh, shsh.” He bent down to whisper in her ear. “Don’t you worry about that. I have it all planned out. She thinks I’m in New York right now. Some urgent call from my publisher in New York. Trust me Julia, by the time they find your body, I’ll be already back with my beautiful wife to provide me with a believable alibi. I even printed a confirmation number and left it conveniently there in the house. Believe me, Magdalena won’t know about any of this and we’ll move on with our life and hey, get started on those babies.”

“You’re sick, Jim.”

He chuckled and thrust the gun between her shoulders. “No, Julia I’m not sick. I’m just mad. You know people never really now what sparks that need to kill, for revenge. For me it was being denied the chance to have a relationship with my father again.”

“This…….this won’t bring your father back.” She’d begun to shake, the final moments were so near she could feel her lungs enjoying their last drags of air before dying.

“No, but it will give me a sense of justice. Now you won’t get a chance to get your life back just as I didn’t get a chance to get mine back with my father. But this has gone for so long now, in a few moments Damian is going to open that little surprise I sent him and he’ll wonder where you are.”

He thrust her against the floor, the skin on her right cheek getting scraped on the cement floor. Her shoulder got banged up and she closed her eyes as she heard the click of the gun.

All at once, these images of her childhood, Danny, of the first time she came here to La Providencia, her friends, meeting Damian, the fights with her parents, the plans she and Damian had made, her first book, everything until last night when she made love to Damian, accompanied her in her last minutes.

I love you Damian.