“Ever After.” Chapter 2

The next day she woke up early, and because she had packed her running shoes, her black Nike shorts and one of the many t-shirts she had bought on her many trips writing for the magazine, Julia decided to go out for a run. The t-shirt she brought with her had a map of the London underground, from when she had gone over there two years ago.

Back in New York, she had a fitness club she went to every day after work, even during the weekends when she was not traveling. And when she was on the road or away in another country, she always packed her exercise gear in case she discovered some nice trail to run on or just take a walk through.

Despite her years away from La Providencia, Julia still recalled when she would wake up early in the mornings and run along the road until she reached a crossroads that was approximately six miles away from the house and then go back. More than the physical activity, Julia could never get enough of the breathtaking views of the green mountains surrounding the town and the volcano that overlooked La Providencia, like a giant and silent watcher. Impassive, covered in snow all throughout winter and the first months of spring, sometimes delighting the town’s locals with a spectacle of fire in the sky as the still active volcano acted up every once in a while.

Usually, she ran more than six miles on the treadmill, but as she made her way up the hill, skirting around what would later on today officially cease to be her family’s property, she could already feel the strain of the altitude getting to her. That and the warm temperature that she gauged it to be in the high sixties at only eight thirty in the morning.

Julia barely glanced at the house as she ran next to it, her eyes briefly noticing several trucks parked outside the house’s main gate entrance. She would stop by later, before she had to be at the notary’s office, if only to say hello to Esperanza and Joaquin and say goodbye to the house for good.

She ran most of the first half, and decided to walk on the way back. Time had somehow ceased to move in these lands. The agave fields around her had grown in extension, its velvet blueish green color, its spiked arms reaching up to the sky, all reminding her she was in a land rich in flavors and traditions. Julia and tequila were not best of friends, but the best one she’d tried so far had come from here. Cactus were also a common sight around this region, as well as some wild shrubs, and several cattle ranches on both sides of the road.

This time, Julia did what she had been denied last night due to the lack of light. Just as she was rounding up the last curve before the house came into sight, she closed her eyes, already knowing when to open them next. She used to do this each and every time she went out on those runs all those years ago. When her eyelids pulled up, her light brown eyes landed on the breathtaking sight before her. The dark red tiled roofs of the town’s houses, the grey stoned circular roof of the kiosk at the center of the town, the white arches outlining the square around the kiosk, the many palm trees that outgrew the height of the houses and the crooked lines of the pebbled streets as it all stood almost like a secret amid the green mountains, patches of dried land and the volcano around them.

La Providencia wasn’t a big town. Its population was only two thousand people, counting those who lived in the town itself plus those others who had their small cattle ranches on the lands around it. But its prime weather year round not to mention its secluded location made it very attractive to Americans and Europeans who longed to escape the harsh winters that refused to leave before May, and the craziness of their everyday lives.

Some of those Americans had stayed here and settled down. For example, a couple from Michigan had bought the town’s only hotel and from what she had seen on the website and last night, they had transformed it into some sort of boutique hotel which was full year round. Julia had been lucky to find a room this time of year with the town’s founding celebration three weeks away.

Nickleback was streaming through her headphones when she entered the town. She bought a bottle   of water at one of the many small convenience stores with a woman’s name, near the town’s entrance and drank half of it in one thirsty gulp. Almost all convenience stores in the Mexican towns she’d visited, were named after a woman. Some were called Nancy, Susy, Brenda, and so on. It was just part of the local folklore and she always found it curious.

Julia was crossing the town’s square, going around the kiosk with its mural painted on the concave surface of its ceiling, depicting shapes of women in bright, traditional attire, long colorful long-sleeved dresses with flowing skirts in eye-catching colors that reminded you of the richness of the food and scenery in this country: red, lemon green, orange, yellow. Their bodies not fully figured but blurred and bent to the side, their brushed up arms lifting up the skirts from their dresses, dancing to the music coming from the mariachi, painted on one curved corner of the kiosk’s ceiling on the inside.

Though the music in her head was loud, Julia heard someone calling out her name. Stopping, Julia turned her head over her shoulder to see who had called her name. As any other Mexican town square, apart from the kiosk there were several benches scattered around, huge ficus trees that provided some much sought after shade, especially in the middle of the day when the sun could cook you up like a shrimp, and palm trees guarding each corner of the square.

On each sidewalk facing each side of the plaza, forming a perfect square, there were shops that  sold everything from fruits, vegetables, meat, milk, cheese, to cleaning supplies, toys, clothes, etc. Two restaurants as well as one café, completed the commercial section of the town.

Here was where the hubbub of commerce and fun took place. And judging by the women outside sweeping outside their stores, they were getting ready to open for the day.

When Julia’s gaze landed exactly on the other side from where she was standing, she saw a woman waving at her and walking in her direction. Julia let out a small cry of joy as she recognized one of the people who used to be one of her closest friends in town.

If Sonia Valentino had been beautiful ten years ago, then age had only added to her natural beauty. The sexy and curvy brunette was slowly walking to where Julia remained standing. Julia had to fight the urge to cringe way from Sonia’s beauty. At eight in the morning, she looked radiant in a simple pair of cotton pants paired with a black tank top, and black flip flops showing off her bright red toenails. Her curly hair framed her long face and accentuated her olive skin and dark green eyes.

Julia on the other hand, knew she was a complete mess. White lines of dried sweat sketched crooked lines on each temple, her hair was a tangle of knotted waves under her Yankees cap, with her had-seen-better-days running shoes and a shirt one size too big and shorts that screamed everything but sexy. Not to mention the paleness of her legs and arms that indicated Julia hadn’t been near the sun in a while.

Suddenly self-conscious, Julia wondered if Sonia was aware of the many stares following her trajectory across the town square. Despite they sharing the same five foot seven height, Julia always felt small and plain, compared to her friend. Not that she resented it, she simply was always in awe of Sonia’s confidence.

Though Sonia had inherited her mother’s Mexican beauty, she had also inherited her father’s Italian features, including her flawless skin and beautiful eyes. She was as exotic a combination as the  town she lived in. Her personality as warm as the weather and with a view on life as simple and uncomplicated as the way of life around here. No wonder guys had followed them around whenever she had hung out with her. But Sonia had never let her looks mess up with her head. If only, she had been up for anything the guys from their group, Felix and Raul, suggested every summer they all hung out.

“Oh. My. God. Julia! It’s you!”

Both women hugged each other, Julia forgetting the state she was in after her long run. She felt the weight of those cherished good times settling down on them, as they surveyed each other with eyes shining with genuine joy at seeing each other again after all this time.

“Sonia! You look amazing! Oh, my God. I can’t believe I’m seeing you again.”

“I’ve missed you. We’ve all missed you. The whole gang.”

“It’s been too long, hasn’t it?”

Apart from her heart, Julia had also been forced to leave the only people who had shown her real friendship, behind. Guilt made her feel embarrassed because these people had done nothing wrong yet she had shut them out of her life like they’d been responsible. It occurred to her now that maybe talking to them and sharing her pain would’ve made it easier on her somehow. The only time she spoke to Sonia had been a few months after finding out about Damian, when she’d called to ask her when was she going to arrive to town, like she did every summer. Julia had still been too  heartbroken to consider coming back. Ten years after, she wondered if she had ever healed properly.

“The gang. I know it sounds lame, but I’ve thought about you, too.” And she had, especially when she allowed herself to go back to all the stupid and fun things they had gotten into when she used to come here every summer. All those trips to the river near the town, the time they got so drunk from the beer they snuck from Felix’s house, that it took them twice the time to walk back home.

“So how are all of them doing? Are they still living here?”

“We all are. Raul works with his father supervising the family’s lands. Felix became a computer geek and owns a couple of internet cafes and makes sure everyone’s computers work properly. They are both married and have two adorable kids each. Raul is sure going to pay for his days as the town’s casanova; he has twin girls who are gorgeous and sure to attract the attention of boys when the time comes. Felix has one of each and they both inherited his mess of curly hair and look like miniature copies of him. Magdalena married that couple’s son that were friends with your family, remember?”

“Wait. You don’t mean Jim?” Julia asked, surprised, since at least during the time she had hung out with Magdalena, she had never showed any real interest in Jim.

“The one and only. Hasn’t changed though. Still looks at Magdalena like the sun shines from her ass. Only now she looks back at him. I think he is like an artist, I don’t remember. Still is a very quiet fellow, compared to his boisterous wife. Magdalena now owns that small coffee shop over there.”

Sonia’s finger pointed to a spot to their right, with some black wrought iron tables and chairs outside its closed doors, with a blackboard with the remnants of yesterday’s specials still written in bright orange chalk. The name of the store was in Spanish, “Dulces Deseos” though Julia knew it meant sweet wishes, having picked up a thing or two of Spanish from her many summers spent here.

“And what about you?”

“Well…” Sonia answered showing Julia her left hand and the huge diamond ring and wedding band shining happily from her left finger.

“Okay, that rock must be worth more than my apartment’s monthly rent. It’s exquisite. So who’s the lucky guy?”

“Stephan, he is French. I met him one time during the town’s annual founder’s festivities. He was backpacking through the region and it was just love at first sight. Oh well, it was also sex at first sight but once we finished tearing up each other’s clothes, we hit it off and a year later, we got married.”

Julia had to admit that she had missed much in all of her friends’ lives. She felt a pang of regret tug at her heart as she hated herself for not being here for all the happy moments.

Sonia seemed to sense the direction of her thoughts because she said. “I wanted you to be here, but I tried calling your parents’ and they said you no longer lived there and that they didn’t know where to reach you.”

“Yeah, I had to change my address rather abruptly and let’s just say living in Brooklyn was a bit off their usual surroundings. I’m sorry though, I would’ve come back for your wedding.”

“Yeah, you missed one hell of a party.”

Both women smiled as they held each other’s hands. Sonia’s eyes saying the past was the past and she was glad her friend was back, Julia regretting not having been here but grateful Sonia wasn’t one to hold a grudge, unlike her own family.

“So you ended up living here as well.”

“We tried giving Paris a chance, but we both missed the climate and everything. God, I never thought I’d be saying that. Choosing La Providencia instead of the glamour and glitz of a fancy European city. Love can change you in ways you never imagined possible.”

“I bet you don’t regret any minute of it either. So what do you do here?”

“It so happens my husband is a terrific cook, so we opened that small restaurant over there and have been lucky enough to turn it into a nice profitable business. Remember how I used to say that when I had money I would open up a restaurant and a bar? Well, a few years ago a place went up for sale and I just took the plunge. Stephan and myself poured all of our life savings into it and now, well, there’s never a day when we don’t have a full house. It’s amazing. But enough of me.” She waved a hand in front of her and pulled Julia to the bench behind them. “What’s up with you? Boyfriend, Husband, Lover, Divorce, Children?”

It had been so long since Julia had sat down with a friend and shared details about her life. Susan was her only friend back in New York, but since she saw her almost every day, she knew almost everything about her. Besides, their conversations involved work, her books, touring.

Since the fallout with her family, Susan had become like a mother figure. Nevertheless, Julia realized she had longed having someone to talk to. It made her think of Danny and how it must have been for her as well, with no big sister to turn to.

“Where to begin?….. I guess I might disappoint you. My life hasn’t been as eventful as yours or the rest of the gang’s, for that matter. Sadly, I’ll have to answer no to the first at this moment. Never been close to getting me one of the second. Actually, numbers one, two and three are hard to get in New York. So I guess I have escaped the fourth and I don’t have any kids.” She shrugged and continued. “I did, however, become a writer.”

“Seriously? Oh, Julia that’s amazing!”

“It is. I work for this magazine called Mirage, in New York. I get to travel around, write articles, it’s fun.”

“And what about all those stories you used to come up with? Any of those made it into a book?”

Julia considered telling her friend a part of her life no one knew. No one apart from Susan, her publisher and Danny. And her father at some point. It was so refreshing and it gave her a boost to have someone excited about her career. Julia decided she could trust Sonia.

“Yes. They have. Have you ever heard of Kate Morgan?”

Sonia’s reaction was instant. Her green eyes shone like two emeralds and she clasped her hands over her mouth to muffle her gasp.

“No! You’re Kate Morgan? Of course I’ve heard of Kate Morgan. Man, it was you all along? Julia, that’s so great! I have devoured every one of your books. Though most of the times I ended up in tears after finishing them. Not one for the typical happy ending, ha?”

Julia lifted her shoulders and let them fall as if it was no big deal, as if something hadn’t happened for her to extract happy endings and all that it entailed from her stories.

“I just like to write a different type of fiction, that’s all. Though why write about romance when others are the living example of it. I guess there are some exceptions and some can get their happy endings.” Julia tried to keep the bitter taste from her words but it was impossible, not when she’d though long ago she’d had the same things as Sonia.

Sonia’s face softened as she knew very well what had happened all those years ago between her friend and Damian Solis. Clearly time had not healed old wounds. Maybe it was why the characters in her books never really seemed to bother themselves with the mushy stuff.

“It would’ve been nice to know you were Kate Morgan. I’d probably have felt connected to you in one way or another.”  She said in a low voice, all excitement gone from her voice.

They said nothing for a while, then Julia grabbed her friend’s hand and looked her straight in the eye. “I know it’s late, but I’m sorry for the way I handled the situation with you and the others. I guess I thought the more distance I put, the faster things would be better again. I should’ve known you would’ve helped me get through it faster.”

Sonia stared back, unwavering, until finally, her lips curved into an understanding smile. She hugged Julia even tighter than the first time. Both women let some tears of regret for the time lost slide down their cheeks. Sniffing and rubbing the remaining tears from her own green eyes, Sonia got up and motioned her head towards her restaurant.

“I know the rest will be thrilled to see you. You should come by later to the restaurant. We have this kind of tradition that we gather for lunch every Saturday with all of our families. Unless you have other plans?”

“Well, I do have to be at the notary’s at four to sign the last papers of the house. I am sure you know I had to sell it.”

Julia felt the hole that had been carved inside her chest when Brian had informed her the only solution to pay off her father’s debt would be to sell, widen. She hated having to say goodbye to that house, despite its bittersweet memories.

Sonia’s face twisted in anguish as she remembered that the house was not the only thing Julia had lost recently.

“Oh Julia, I’m so sorry. I heard the news about your father. Stephan was the one to tell me about the house. But you loved the place, why are you selling it?”

“I have to, Sonia. My dad’s financial situation wasn’t what it used to and my mother refuses to deal with it. Plus, there’s Danny to think about. Apparently, my dad did leave that covered, her education. But if I didn’t do this my mom would’ve suffered not only financially but personally, you know how she feels about scandal and status. My father losing a property to the bank would’ve been a horrible setback in my mother’s social sphere. The house here was the only viable solution to stop that from happening. Not that she is sad to see it go.”

“You sound like you had no idea. What happened between your father and you?”

“It’s complicated. I really rather not get into it. Let’s just say what made me happy made him ashamed of me.”

Sonia patted Julia’s shoulder and she said. “Julia, you could never do anything to shame anyone. He just had his own ideas, but I am sure deep down he was proud you made something of yourself.”

Because she refused to let the hurt his rejection still caused her, ruin this moment with Sonia, Julia shook her head and said noncommittally. “Maybe. Anyway, it is done. As of four this afternoon, the house will belong to someone else. I only hope whoever the new owner is, he’ll make it beautiful again.”

It occurred to Julia that Sonia might’ve heard rumors about the new owner. Looking up to the white  walls from the house, – almost like a white castle overlooking the town -, that were visible from this part of town, she asked. “You don’t happen to know who the owner is, do you?”

“You don’t know?”

“No, it’s all been this huge secret. I’ve dealt with the buyer’s lawyer this entire time.”

Sonia bit her lip, grateful Julia’s attention was focused on the house. “No, I mean all we’ve heard around here is that it is this really rich business man from the States or Europe, but so far no names.”

She knew she could tell her the one rumor she’d heard from her mother, that the new owner was a man who had lived here before but who had gone away ten years ago. Sonia wasn’t sure herself if it was the same man who had betrayed Julia, but she decided she would keep her suspicions to herself. No doubt Julia would flee if she heard that name again.

“Well, I guess I’ll find out soon.” Her gaze dropped down again from high up the hill to her friend.

“I should really go and wash up. But lunch sounds like a plan. I’ll meet you around one?”

“Sounds fine by me. Hey, how long are you staying for?”

“Just today. I leave as soon as the papers are signed.”

“Oh, too, bad. I thought you were going to stay for the town’s party.”

“I can’t. I have to get back to work.”

Which wasn’t true. Susan had given her three weeks to deal with her personal stuff. Only Julia couldn’t and didn’t want to stay. Ironically, after ten years, she wasn’t ready.

“Oh, okay, then. Well, I’ll see you later.”

Before Sonia could resume her walk to the restaurant to start cooking for the day, she stopped and called to Julia over her shoulder. “Hey, what about Esperanza and Joaquin?”

“They’re staying. The new owner promised me they would be taken care of. Kind of cool of him. Who knows, maybe he’ll let me visit some other time. See you later.”

Julia crossed the square and went inside the hotel. Unaware of the many glances thrown her way, most from the locals who had heard about her dad and about the house. Only one man didn’t feel sorry for her. As he surveyed the woman he had last seen more than ten years ago behind dark glasses, he thought destiny was a bitch when the same woman who’d hurt him was strolling through town, unashamed that her decisions had cost him. He had overheard she wasn’t staying in town. He didn’t mind, he had been planning to go to New York anyway. If only to keep an eye on her after she received the first of many surprises he had in store for her.

Julia Andersson had no idea a father and a house were not the only things she would lose.

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