“Are you freaking kidding me?”
Julia yelled to the angry sky as it lashed at her, while she sat inside her stupid rental car, wondering why the hell she hadn’t gotten the more expensive Malibu the woman at the rental agency had suggested.
This had proved to be the worst day ever. She thought that seeing Damian again and having all those old feelings sifted and prodded was bad enough, but sitting inside her car, as it refused to turn on, delivered the final blow to her nightmarish day.
Julia had been signing along, this time to one of the many songs from her guilty pleasure list on her Ipod, when a pop, followed by a weird wailing sound forced her to pull over to the shoulder of the road. She debated turning the car off or ignoring what she had just heard and keep on driving. Unfortunately, the car made the decision for her and simply died on her while she’d been making up her mind. Then, smoke began to come out from the motor. It took every bit of self control to stop herself from smashing the can of soda she had bought in the store before leaving town, against the windshield.
As if in response to her question, the glare of the lightning illuminated bright silver on the trees around her and the inside the darkened car, before it was followed by an awful grumble, that made her very bones vibrate. The rush of water pouring from the sky and falling loudly on the hood of her car had her banging her head on the steering wheel repeatedly.
She could be in her own apartment, writing, or at the office, which she knew sounded pathetic but right now sounded was better than being here. Instead here she was, stranded in the middle of nowhere, with no cellphone signal and no visible signs of life around her. Her over active imagination made her think of the scenes from those scary movies where the leading actress finds herself in a similar situation just before a crazy psycho decides to chase her through the woods.
“Okay, Julia, just relax. You have survived worse winter storms at Susan’s Connecticut house. Now, all you need to do is think what you are going to do.”
She bent over the passenger’s seat to retrieve her bag from underneath the seat and taking out her Iphone, she unlocked the screen. The confirmation that her fancy phone couldn’t perform a miracle and connect her to the outside world was what made her groan miserably in frustration and exhaustion.
Feeling tired and beat up, she climbed over to the back seat and just lay there. As her mind tried to come up with a better solution than arguing with Mother Nature about her waterworks show, it was a matter of time before the constant tapping of water on the roof of the car lulled her to sleep. A few minutes later, she dozed off.
That was why an hour later, she didn’t hear nor see a black car pull up behind her and the man driving it, get out with real concern printed all over his face.
Damian was relieved to have found her but not sure how to process the warring feelings inside him. The part of him that had learned to hate her during these years refused to accept he could feel worry over a woman who he knew didn’t deserve it. But on the other hand, he couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if he had ignored Esperanza’s pleas and left Julia stranded in the middle of nowhere in this nasty rain. Most importantly, he didn’t want to even analyze this other feeling thawing the contempt he forced himself to feel whenever he thought about her: care.
He was soaked wet by the time he covered the distance from his car to hers. At first, he directed his attention to the driver’s seat and swore under his breath when he realized it was empty. Had she been foolish enough to try and go find help in this weather?
A sudden movement from the backseat sent an unexpected wave of relief through his muscles. A relief which he immediately shut out. There she was, lying in a fetal position, with her knees pulled up to her chest and with her eyes closed. He tapped the window to wake her up.
A noise was interrupting her peaceful massage on the beach. It was annoying. Like there was someone banging on a piece of glass. She didn’t want to open her eyes. Didn’t they have rules as to keeping the noise to a minimum in these kinds of places? The banging became louder and more persistent until she had to open her eyes to tell whoever was interrupting her private session with a hot Swedish masseur, to go away. The only problem was that she didn’t see the beach or the sun like she had thought she would’ve. Instead, she saw the gray back of a front seat and immediately, she remembered where she was.
As her gaze roamed around following the rapping on the window, she screamed so loud, the sound was probably heard all the way back to La Providencia. The silhouette of a man standing outside her car was blurred due to the heavy rain that was leaving crooked transparent lines on the glass. She sat up straight and saw with a fleeting sense of relief, which quickly developed into hot irritation, that it was Damian banging on her window – and by the look of annoyance on his face- for quite a while.
Julia stretched to the front seat and unlocked the car, opening the door on her way back.
“What are you doing here?” She had to almost yell over the roaring storm.
“Oh, you know, nothing like the mother of all storms to take a stroll through the mountains. What does it look like Julia? I’ve come to fetch you back to the house.”
She snorted. “Yeah right. Because you’re worried about me?”
Of course you aren’t. His blunt answer upset her, but she ignored the pain and glowered back at him. “Look, why don’t you get back inside that fancy car of yours and just leave me alone? I don’t need you.” Anymore.
“Just get in the car, Julia.”
Damian wiped his wet hair from his face in a clear sign of desperation and put his head through the open door while heavy drops stained the seat. “Why do you have to make things so difficult?”
“Why are you still standing there?”
“Look, you obviously didn’t get the sudden need to spend the night out here in the middle of a storm. I’m guessing the car broke down.”
“So what if it did?” She countered. “I said I don’t need you. I can take care of myself, I’ve been doing it for quite some time now.”
Because he felt really stupid yelling at her through the open door, Damian groaned getting in. He slammed the door and sat next to Julia who had moved all the way to the other side as if she were afraid to touch him.
“It’s been a long day, Julia. So why don’t you do us both a favor and just get in my car. As I recall, you aren’t the expert when it comes to cars.”
“How can you be sure? Didn’t you just say back in La Providencia that all you ever knew about me was an illusion, a lie?”
He clenched his fists as she threw his own words back at him. Wanting to refrain himself from lashing back at her and get into another fight, he counted to ten inside his head. Before she could say anything else, he shifted his body so that he could face her. He cupped her face in his hand when she was about to turn her head in the opposite direction. The contact with her skin sent a jolt through his body. Wary of his reaction, he pulled back and pierced his stare on her.
“Listen. The reason I’m here in the middle of a damned storm is because Esperanza sent me for you. She had this feeling you were in trouble. She and Joaquin wanted to come looking for you. Joaquin’s car is in the shop and since there was only my car left, I came instead.”
“Right, because you wouldn’t want them messing up your fancy interiors?”
“No, that would be you honey, remember?”
“Don’t you dare call me honey.”
They sat, daring each other to say something else. Both were breathing hard and Julia could feel her lungs being plagued by his scent, pure male mixed with the dangerous smell of rain that only added more allure to a man she needed to hate in order to survive.
It was Damian who finally said, a little bit more conciliatory. “We both care for Esperanza and Joaquin. The least you can do is come back with me so they can be reassured you are fine. The house is big enough, as you well know, you can stay in one of the rooms.”
Damn it, Julia thought. Stupid car, stupid rain, stupid everything. She wanted to say there was no way in hell she was staying in the same house as he was, but not having found a room at the hotel was the reason she was stuck inside the tiny confines of the car, plastered to the door, trying not to touch him.
“What about the car? What if they try to steal it?”
“Julia, this rain is going to continue through the night. I seriously doubt someone will venture out here in this weather just to steal a car that doesn’t even start. I’ll arrange for the town’s mechanic to tow it back and then he can have a look at it.” He answered, his tone neutral for the first time since seeing each other again.
“Fine.” Julia didn’t see the point in arguing with him. “I just need to grab my bag and my things from the trunk. I hope you don’t mind me getting your fancy car all wet.”
“Just get inside.” The brusque, annoyed tone was back.
“I need my things from the trunk.” She insisted.
“I’ll get them.”
Julia have him the car keys and grabbed her bag from the front seat. She opened the door and ran back to his car. She heard him closing the trunk of her car and saw the light from the backseat of his car as it lighted when he opened it to put her things inside. Somehow, Julia had gotten very close to the edge and her foot wobbled until she felt it slip on the muddy soil.
It all happened so fast. She lost her balance and could already see herself tumbling down the steep hill, banging on the trees, dying before she could stop. The choked sound she emitted was a mixture between fear and shock, but before she completely lost her footing, a pair of strong arms snaked around her waist and pulled her back.
For an instant, her fear dissipated leaving her only aware of the strong body pressing against her back. Damian’s breath warmed the side of her neck and for an instant, she allowed herself to close her eyes and remember what it had been like to be held like this by him in the past. But as soon as the memory formed in her mind, it was abruptly pushed away when Damian’s muttered curse vibrated inside her ear.
Like when he’d taken her arm before in town, and when he’d touched her face inside the car, Damian felt like he had been sucker punched. Her labored pants were an echo of the gut wrenching fear he’d experienced, when he’d seen her lose her balance. There was also that annoying blunt desire that wanted to do anything to prolong the contact with her body.
She would’ve been killed falling down the steep hill had he not reached her in time.
“What the hell were you thinking? Wait, you weren’t.” He literally growled at her.
“You know, if it bothers you so much you could’ve just stayed there and all your problems would’ve been solved.” And maybe even mine. The words were out before she could think. The sky above them was split by silver lighting and Julia saw the baffled expression on his face before darkness engulfed them again.
“Get in the car.” Was all he said afterwards.
He opened his door and slammed it shut the minute he was behind the wheel. Julia tried to move quick but her legs were still shaking from what could’ve happened. Once inside the car, she hid any sign of distress when instead of facing ahead, she leaned her head back to the window and waited until Damian turned around back to La Providencia.
Julia was aware she was drenched from head to toe, and without turning to look at Damian she said. “Do you have a towel or something? Your car is going to end up a mess because of me.”
“Would you stop worrying about the fucking car?”
“I am just saying. Don’t go all psycho on me tomorrow if your fine leather seats are ruined.”
This car was worth more than her monthly rent. Not that she was suffering financially. Her books were giving her a nice cushion for her not to worry about money issues. It was just that ever since separating herself from her family, she had decided it was best to save her money instead of spending it. In fact, she could easily afford to live in a nicer place, but her studio was just what she needed.
After that, neither spoke during the forty minutes it took them to reach the lighted outer wall of the house. As if waiting under the rain for their return, the gate opened immediately and even before Damian had turned his car off, Joaquin was already opening Julia’s door holding an umbrella big enough to cover all three of them. Julia took out her things and hooked her arm with the gardener’s as Damian declined the offer to walk with them. Instead, he ran ahead of them, standing in the doorway and waiting for Julia and Joaquin to reach the house. Esperanza came running out of the kitchen as if she had been standing by the window this entire time.
“Oh, Julia, what happened?”
“My car broke down.”
“I knew something had gone wrong. Come, let’s get you out of these wet clothes.” Esperanza ushered her upstairs. Julia glanced briefly over her shoulder only to catch Damian’s impassive stare following her up the stairs, until they disappeared from view.
Damian stood there with Joaquin by his side. The old man gave him a knowing look as if he could sense what he was really feeling.
“She’s fine, it’s a good thing you went to look for her. It surely put my wife’s mind at ease.”
Damian said nothing. Joaquin kept on talking. “Not that she ever needed to be saved or anything. Julia has always learned to get up on her own. I know it’s not my business but maybe when the time comes, you two should sit down and talk.”
Aware of the way Damian’s face tensed, the gardener decided to say a few more things before retiring to bed.
“I’m sure that she feels grateful this place went to a man who will take good care of it. This house is very much like the young woman upstairs. When you are on the outside you feel intimidated by its huge walls, preventing you from entering. Once you cross over, the first impression you get of the house is of it being out of reach.
“You just need to step inside to see that it is like any other house. It has strong foundations and the necessary rooms to accommodate the people it needs, to fill it with life. It’s simple but beautiful at the same time. And like its garden, if you don’t tend to it, it will never really thrive. As much as some of its plants try to grow without any help, they need the care and love of someone to bloom. It seems she has been on her own for far too long, trying to be that wild plant growing on its own. Sooner or later, she’ll understand that she can’t and shouldn’t be doing it alone.”
Joaquin left Damian standing alone, confused about what Joaquin had said. Something struck him as peculiar. Julia had mentioned something about being on her own, and now Joaquin had spelled out the same. Why?
There was also the implication behind Julia’s words after he had grabbed her, nagging at him. Why should he care if she thought him capable of hurting her? If experience had taught him anything, it was she who was capable of inflicting the ultimate pain, a clean cut across his heart.
He decided he, too, needed to get out of his wet clothes and went upstairs. He noticed Esperanza had put Julia in the same room that had been hers when this house had belonged to her family. Though he had never set food inside the property, Damian knew which one had been her room because Julia had described it to him. Her favorite spot, if he recalled correctly, had been right outside on the balcony where she enjoyed sitting for hours writing whatever stories she had carried inside her head at the time.
Damian couldn’t deny it made him edgy to have her a few paces away from him. He slammed the door to his room shut and went directly for the shower. Definitely this day had not turned out as he’d imagined it, ever since Julia had sent her lawyer to check him out. Then again, life and plans when they came to Julia, had a tendency to not working as he would’ve liked them to.