“Ever After” Chapter 8

Julia stirred and then hugged the pillow under her arms closer to her cheek. The texture of the pillow covering felt cool against her face despite her hogging it like her life depended on it. In fact,  her entire body didn’t feel overcrowded by heat, it felt liberated. When she turned on her back to stretch, her eyes flew open in alarm. No wonder her body felt so liberated, so cool, she was naked.

“What the hell?”

She peeked under the covers and saw she wore nothing but the suit she’d been born in, twenty-eight years ago. Panicked, she scrambled up straight pulling the simple white, crisp bed sheet tight around her body. She pushed her tousled hair out of her face with one hand as she attempted to make sense of her situation. Suddenly, the jumbled moments from last night after Damian had brought her home began to resurface until she remembered all.

Esperanza had basically dragged her directly to the shower and had taken the clothes she’d come with, the ones she’d worn yesterday plus her running shorts and shirt down to the tumble drier, since the overnight bag she’d brought had been soaked through as well. Julia now recalled she’d found a white robe hanging inside the bathroom.

Apparently, Damian had been busy moving stuff in.

Joaquin had been right about the sinks, at least the one in her room was different. It was one of those white marble vessel sinks with thin blue lines around the edges, set up on a wooden surface. Unwillingly, she decided the change had been good.

The same could be said for the furniture inside the room. Julia wondered if Esperanza had put her in what used to be her old room on purpose. Her brown eyes did a scan of the room, as the sun cast a warm golden glow on the floor next to the window. Besides the bed, the mesquite dresser was an addition as well as the small sitting section right next to the window at the other end of the room.

Her old bed was gone, replaced now by a new queen size mattress, with a black wrought iron headboard and footboard, which raised the bed several inches from the ground. Julia had had to literally climb up to bed last night.

The rumpled robe on the floor was a sign she must’ve decided sleeping in the nude would be a good idea, especially with Damian a few feet away. Not that he would care. He’d made that perfectly clear last night.

And why was he pissed off at her? Was he mad she was still standing and not pinning for him? What had he expected? Julia to dissolve into a puddle of hormones the second she saw him, like she   had tried very hard not to do yesterday?

Realizing she needed to figure out her next move – no way was she going to stay here another night-  Julia pulled away the sheet and she climbed out of bed. Spotting her dry clothes folded neatly on one of the wicker chairs next to the window, she grabbed her shorts and shirt and dry underwear and went to the bathroom to take a quick shower. Fifteen minutes later, as she fussed with her wet hair she slid her feet inside her dry sneakers and headed downstairs.

The smell of coffee plus the sound of something sizzling from the kitchen had her realizing she hadn’t eaten anything since yesterday at lunch. Only before she could make a dash for the kitchen, Damian emerged from the office she assumed he had turned into his own. He stopped abruptly, clearly having forgotten about his last minute guest.

There was a flicker of appraisal as he did a quick scan of her attire while Julia fought the urge of pulling her long, London underground shirt with her hands to cover her long legs, as Damian’s dark brown eyes lingered a second longer on them.

Since she was crashing what was now his house, she squared her shoulders and said. “Good morning.”

Somehow her over polite tone brought back the dark and unwelcome feelings that for some reason he harbored against her, because he pressed his lips together before replying. “Good morning.”

Thinking that was the most they were going to exchange in a way of conversation, Julia turned around to go into the kitchen, when Damian said from behind her.

“They brought your car here early this morning. They said they could fix it here in town but this being a heavy tourist season and all, it might take them awhile. I took the liberty of calling the rental company in Guadalajara and they said they had no available cars left, nor did the other agencies.”

“Oh.” She answered, disappointed.

Of course there weren’t any cars for her to go back to the safeness of her life.

Approaching her slowly, Damian stopped just inches away from her and said in a low voice. “You came in a very busy season.”

“Really? And whose fault is that?” Julia challenged him, whirling around and lifting her chin with narrowed eyes.

Up close like this, Julia was very aware of his height and of his body. Gone was the boy that had caught her attention in the middle of a busy and noisy town square. In his place was a man that if only, was making her heart beat ten times faster than what it used to do when she’d been sixteen, and seventeen.

His hair was still wet from his morning shower, his face clean from any overnight stubble, and his hands hanging loosely at his sides. Damian seemed to be examining her as well because for a second, Julia was surprised to see the inexplicable hatred he felt towards her vanish and simple curiosity take its place. She was aware of the way his eyes studied her face, how they were trying very hard to see past her.

But what made Julia’s breath catch in her throat was the sudden spark of desire flare bright inside his eyes, some of it igniting something inside her she really didn’t want to feel ever again. Not for him anyhow.

As if he could see her struggling with bottling up the flow of long buried emotions, Damian’s face hardened, causing Julia’s spine to stiffen.

He seemed to open his mouth to counter her question but reconsidered. Instead, Damian only shook his head and mumbled a quick goodbye to Esperanza who had witnessed the whole exchange. Minutes later Julia heard the sound of crunched gravel and assumed he’d gone for the day.

From the way the older woman exhaled in relief, she had probably expected the two of them to bite their heads off. Julia went to sit at the counter and took the mug of coffee Esperanza put before her. She closed her eyes as the kick of caffeine counteracted her jittery insides. Damn the man for still having any type of effect on her. Not willing to give him or her disloyal heart any more thought, she opened her eyes again. Esperanza was busy taking down a plate from the cupboards next to the stove and serving whatever she had prepared on the pan still set on the stove.

Julia let out a small sound of delight as she saw Esperanza had made her favorite dish: two eggs sunny side up, on top of two fried tortillas drowned in spicy red salsa and a small serving of beans. They were known here as huevos rancheros. Julia would ask for them almost every day when she used to come with her family. The old cook added a huge glass of orange juice and a cornucopia of fruit: papaya, watermelon, mango, banana, all displayed on a talavera platter, typical Mexican ceramic work, in the center of the counter.

“Eat.”

“Esperanza, this looks amazing. No chance that you might want to come back with me to New York?” Esperanza only nodded to the fruit in front of them and Julia used her fork to eat some.

“Man, this is delicious.” She said in between bites. “You can’t find papaya or watermelon like this anywhere in New York.”

“So you must finish it all. You need to put some meat on those skinny arms of yours.”

“If you keep feeding me like this, I think I might end up bouncing back to New York.”

Esperanza drank from her own cup of coffee. She always had her breakfast with Joaquin before he set off to work outside.

“I hear you’ll be staying with us for a while. Good, you must stay for the founder’s celebration.”

“Not that I have a choice. The stupid papers I was supposed to sign yesterday were all wrong, or so Damian said. It’s not like I got a chance to read them. For all I know, this is his sick idea of torturing me.”

Esperanza didn’t comment, just gave her a measuring stare, then broke eye contact and continued with her work around the kitchen.

“The only problem now, is there’s no room left in town.” Julia soaked the tortilla with the yolk and salsa, chewed, swallowed it down with some juice, then said. “It is why I was driving back to Guadalajara.”

“Of course there is room.”

“Is there? The lady from the hotel said they were completely booked for the next weeks.”

When Esperanza said nothing, Julia groaned and shook her head. “No way. I’m not staying here. This isn’t my house. Plus, your new boss is a jerk. Believe me, I get enough of that back home.”

“It’s been ten years mija.” Esperanza reminded her.

“So? It doesn’t mean that what he did doesn’t count anymore.”

“But…”

“But nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.”

Before the older woman could say anything else, Joaquin appeared from the dinning room entrance and took off his hat, making a bee line for the fruit and taking a few slices of mango with his hands.

“Julia, you sleep well?”

Color rose into her cheeks as she recalled the state in which she had slept. She only nodded, pretending to be busy chewing.

“The rain did definitely make the heat rise up.” He fanned his face with his straw hat.

“I am going to be busy down at the fields.” He leaned down to kiss his wife and like she had with her friends, Julia felt a pang of envy for what they had and what she would never have. Not unless she took a risk, one she didn’t want to take.

It was only then that what Joaquin said registered in her brain and she asked. “Fields? What fields?”

He motioned to the almost empty platter of fruit. “From where all that came from.”

“You’re serious?”

“You should take her.” Esperanza suggested, though Julia felt uneasy by the excited gleam coming from Esperanza’s eyes.

“Would you like to come?” The gardener’s eyes lit up conspiratorially.

“Sure.” She said, tentatively. Then, thought oh what the hell, it beats staying here being followed by unwelcome memories.  She added. “Let me just brush my teeth and I’ll be back.”

Julia took her empty plates to the sink but Esperanza refused her offer to do the dishes. “No, no, you go. You can help me later.”

Julia kissed the cook on the cheek and headed upstairs for her room. After she had brushed her teeth she found her Iphone and scrolled down her contact list until she found Magdalena’s number.

The phone rang two times before a man’s voice answered.

“Hello?”

“Oh, Jim, hey. It’s me, Julia Andersson.”

He paused a long time. She cleared her throat and said. “Is this a bad time?”

Finally, Jim said. “What? Oh, no, sorry I was just distracted, that’s all. What can I do for you?”

“I was wondering if your wife was around.”

“She is. So are on your way back to New York?”

“Not necessarily. I am actually still in town. I had some car trouble and had to stay.”

Jim said nothing for a while, and Julia got the impression this piece of information took him by surprise. Before he could say anything though, her friend’s voice boomed from the background as she called “Baby, who is it?”

“I’ll leave you to her, then. Nice talking to you Julia. So, I’ll guess we’ll see you around?”

“God, I hope not. I hope I can leave as soon as possible.”

“Oh…okay.” He replied, seemingly confused.

His voice was replaced by the bubbly Magdalena as she said. “Julia? Don’t tell me one slice of my mango pie and you are gonna start calling me everyday?”

“I was actually wondering if you would like to come and live with me. Ditch your prefect, totally devoted-to-you husband and come with me.”

“As cute and good-looking as you are you are not my type, girl. So, what’s up?”

“I had some sort of car troubles, plus there was a problem with the papers yesterday. So, I am basically stuck here until either the car or the papers come through. And I am suspecting neither will, not soon anyway.”

“Sorry you’re stuck with us.” Magdalena sounded somewhat hurt.

Julia flinched and tried to amend her use of words. “It’s got nothing to do with you guys. I’m sorry, I guess that sounded a little too bitchy. It’s just….”

“Damian? Yeah, Sonia filled me in on the whole deal about the house. I seconded her suggestion of beating the crap out of him, though it would be a shame to make that gorgeous man ugly.”

Julia smiled and went on. “Anyway, I was wondering since you are going to be stuck with me for a while, if you have any room in your house so I could crash. I promise I won’t take much space and I’ll do my own bed, wash my dishes though I won’t offer my cooking services unless I want to kill you and Jim.”

Magdalena’s rich and sultry laugh made her realize if only having to stay longer would mean enjoying her friends, then she could hack it. If only Damian wasn’t part of the equation.

“Oh, I am sure you won’t take much space. And I’m glad you love me enough to not want to kill me, but I’m sorry sweetie, I have no room. Some friends from my parents are coming later today.”

Deflated like a balloon, Julia went over to one of the wicker chairs by the window, the breathtaking view of the town and the volcano behind it, plus the palm trees and ficus and bougainvilleas scattered around the back garden not enough to lift her spirits.

“Do you know if Raul or Felix or Sonia have room?”

“The guys have a full house and Sonia is having some French friends from Stephan over.”

“Great.” Julia muttered.

“Wait a minute, where are you right now?”

“At the house. I had to stay here last night.”

“Oh…” Magdalena abstained herself from saying more. Julia sighed and asked. “What?”

“Nothing. Just thinking it must be weird to be….you know, in the same house with him. Though I only got snippets of what happened. From what Sonia told me yesterday, you are no longer head over heels in love with him, right?”

“Right. It’s a long story. Let’s just say he is the reason I no longer believe in happily-ever-after.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.”

There was a slight pause before Julia said. “Fine, I guess I am gonna have to endure being here. And I’ll have to do it wearing the same thing everyday.”

“Oh, well that has a solution. I’ll call Sonia and will meet you in a couple of hours outside her restaurant, okay?”

Like going with Joaquin to these mysterious fields, it beat staying behind with feelings she rather ignore for the rest of her life. She agreed and then hung up.

Joaquin was already waiting for her when Julia came outside. Not sure where these fields were located, she followed him as he went for the entrance gate and pushed it open. After closing it again, they crossed the road and began walking on an uneven path until they reached a barbed wire fence with a chained gate. He took a set of keys from his overalls and unlocked the gate. They walked next to cactus, thorny shrubs like the ones she’d noticed on the side of the road, and mesquite, until the path began to descend.

As they began to go down and around the hill, Julia was able to glimpse rows and rows of ditches with evenly spaced lemon trees planted lengthwise, plus some other plants she couldn’t quite identify. One had leaves like tiger claws, in a dark green. Joaquin followed her gaze and said. “Those are watermelons. Over there we have cucumber, mango, banana, papayas and the rest are lemons.”

They continued to circle around until they reached several men who were busy picking up lemons while others were inspecting the rubber hoses, which Julia noticed ran the entire length of each ditch.

“What’s that?” She pointed at the men and the rubber hoses.

“That’s how we get water to each plant. Each hose has a series of holes that water the plants. Damian came up with the idea. Less expensive than installing some fancy irrigation system.”

“Damian?” Julia blinked twice in bafflement.

“This is his land.”

“That’s impossible.” Julia blurted out.

Joaquin waved his hand at one of the men who yelled something in Spanish to him before he answered. “It’s not. He bought it a year before your father passed away. He called me and wondered if I’d be interested in helping him get the land ready, and plant the trees.”

“So you knew about him buying the house, didn’t you?” Julia asked in disbelief, already knowing his answer.

“I did.” Joaquin lowered his eyes.

Julia scoffed and crossed her arms across her chest. Joaquin lifted his head and added. “He has big plans for this town. He plans to use local hand labor and then sell what comes out of here in his family’s business.”

“Family business?” Julia asked. Now she was even more confused than before. First, he has enough money to buy her family’s house, then he buys a pretty huge chunk of land and now he has a family business?

“His family owns the Summers chain stores. His father is….”

“Phillip Summers.” Julia finished for him. “Oh my God. That’s why he was able to afford the house.”

Julia moved around the field, not sure what to make of this new piece of information. Then, it clicked. Brian had met Damian’s lawyer and supposedly Damian himself and had come back saying how he was a well respected business man from an important family.

Damian had never revealed to her who his father was, just that he had left her mother, though he still sent money to help her. Not that he’d needed his father. Maria Solis, had been both mother and father to her son and a damned good one if Julia remembered correctly.

At least, he was now able to offer his wife and son a good life, Julia thought grimly.

The pang of pain infuriated her so she squinted her eyes at the gardener and said. “Well, good for him.”

Joaquin noticed the contempt dripping from her words and offered. “It was why Esperanza and myself were able to stay in the house. We had some extra money from what Damian is still paying me to do. I know you have your problems but maybe if you two talked and…”

“And what? He can explain why he cheated? No, thanks. Look, Joaquin if only I am glad he helped you but that doesn’t change things.”

Joaquin hesitated, as if wanting to add more, but shook his head. “I have to stay and deal with some things. If you continue to follow the path you’ll be in town.”

“It’s fine. I have to meet with Sonia and Magdalena anyway. I have to buy some clothes since I don’t know how long it will be before I can go back home.”

“You used to say this was your home.” The gardener reminded her.

“Not anymore.” Julia hated the finality of her answer but it was the truth. She didn’t belong here, probably never had.

She turned around to leave but Joaquin said from behind her. “Why? Just because the house is no longer yours it doesn’t mean you can’t stay.”

Julia shook her head. “I have a job to get back to, Joaquin.”

“And is New York the only place where you can do it?”

“Well………” She could lie and say yes, but Joaquin had been nothing but honest with her, her whole life. Julia pressed her lips together before completing her answer. “No, but that’s my home now. I am happy there.”

The gardener considered her answer for a while before saying. “If you were, you would look happy.”

Julia was taken aback by his statement and blinked twice before she could muster a reply. “Many things have happened in the last few days. I haven’t been myself lately. It doesn’t mean I have to change my address.”

“I bet you haven’t been yourself since you decided never to come back.”

Surprised by his blunt words, a sudden spurt of anger made Julia snap. “And your boss had everything to do with that. I have to go.” Julia took a couple of steps then stopped. Without glancing back at the gardener she said. “I’m sorry, but this is no longer my home. I’ll see you later.”

She walked away, her shoulders hunched, not liking how part of her agreed with Joaquin.

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