Esperanza was already in the kitchen making breakfast. The cook smiled at her and signaled to the familiar platter of fruit, juice and coffee. Julia sat down, and stared at her food. Esperanza had prepared molletes, bread with black mashed beans, melted cheese and tomatoes and peppers. Eyeing her from the stove, the cook asked.
“Is there something wrong? Are you still feeling sick?”
The rest of Danny’s words were echoing inside her head. He said he had gotten a call from Esperanza telling him that she had seen Damian in town with another girl and that it looked serious. Julia was sure of the answer, nevertheless she asked Esperanza. “Did you call the house in New York before I came back that time?”
Esperanza didn’t need Julia to tell her to what time she was referring to. The cook’s forehead creased as she thought back, then she shook her head from side to side and Julia only sighed in disappointment.
“No, mija, I didn’t. Why?”
Julia was about to start telling her about last night when the house phone began to ring. Esperanza went over to the portable phone on the counter next to the stove and answered. Seconds later, she was giving the phone to Julia.
“It’s for you. Sonia.”
She took the phone and said. “Hey, what’s up?”
She grabbed her fork and took a few pieces of papaya as Sonia told her she was heading to the city today and she wanted to know if Julia wanted to come along. It actually sounded like a good plan. It might give her time to go over the recent developments, though she doubted she’d have a solution as to what to do.
“Great. Because you need a dress for the party.”
“Party?” Julia’s hand stopped halfway to her plate of fruit. “What party?” From the corner of her eye, she could see Esperanza’s mouth do an Oh, and then slapping her palm on her forehead, clearly a sign that she had forgotten to tell Julia.
“The party. The one your family used to give every year before the town’s big celebration? It’s this Saturday. Apparently, Damian wants to restore that tradition.”
At Julia’s silence, Sonia added hastily. “I know, I know. I left buying the dress for the last minute but I have been swamped at the restaurant. Anyway, there’s this new fashion mall in Guadalajara and I went to their website and they have really nice stores.”
“I…..don’t know if I’ll be here for that.” Julia was finally able to say.
“Really?” Sonia asked, a hint of laughter in her voice. “That’s the best you can do?”
Julia rolled her eyes and attacked a piece of mango with her fork.
“It’s just Damian never mentioned anything to me. Not that he had to. Maybe he doesn’t want me there.” And that would only mean things between them wouldn’t change just because the truth was out. A sign that maybe her heart and her sister were wrong and all she had left was to go back to New York.
Esperanza waved a hand at her, dismissing her words, and Sonia snorted. “Oh please, you know that’s not true. If that were the case, he would’ve left you and Mr. Cuervo alone the other night. So, I’ll pick you up in an hour, okay?”
Julia had no time to respond because Sonia hung up, leaving her shaking her head, puzzling over the phone. Before Esperanza could say anything she said. “I know what you are going to say.”
“And what would that be?”
“That there’s no way Damian would not invite me to the party.”
“All I was going to say is that you’ll finally be able to fill a dress with something rather than bones.”
“Of course you were.”
“Why did you ask me about New York before Sonia called?”
Julia decided she didn’t need to burden Esperanza with something that didn’t even matter anymore. She took a sip from her coffee before saying. “Oh, it’s not important, I was just wondering.”
Esperanza gave her an I don’t buy it stare, though she said nothing for the remaining of her stay in the kitchen. An hour later, Julia was waiting for Sonia outside, excited about doing what she had never done since living in New York, going on a shopping day with a friend.
“This place is huge.” Julia turned around as she took in the two levels full of shops, apart from the other stores across the street, each one as exclusive and expensive as the next one. Not that that had stopped Sonia from already spending some money in a couple.
“Yes, yes. Don’t change the subject missy. You mean all this time you and Damian were wishing the other dropped dead, when in reality your dad was behind it all?”
“I wouldn’t put it so drastically but yes, all because of that stupid letter.”
Sonia squeezed her friend’s shoulder, hearing the longing for lost time in her friend’s words. Pointing to Zara, they began to head that way before she said. “Poor Danny though, she believed him, too. So what are you going to do now?”
Julia was afraid of this question, basically because she was going to give Sonia the same answer she’d given her sister. “I don’t know. It’s just a lot to process.”
“What? He thought you dumped him because you didn’t want to give up your status. You thought he had married and cheated on you with Sophia, but in the end…”
“In the end he did sort of cheat on me with Sophia.”
“Sweetie, but that was because of the letter.”
“I know, but still. I don’t know. How can I know that he won’t…….”
“Cheat on you again? You can’t. Although, I do remember distinctly that the man was nuts about you.”
“Yeah, there’s never a good reason for cheating. Have you seen him since?”
“No. And I really don’t want to talk about it now. Not when you have already bought something and I am still empty-handed.” Julia forced a change of subject and much to her luck, Sonia gave up and gestured her toward the Spanish store.
There was electronic music blaring all around the busy store. Women were going through the racks of clothes, while the store attendants moved their feet to the rhythm of the song, while folding shirts and sweaters.
Sonia guided her friend all through the store, pulling out shirts, trousers, a couple of jeans, skirts, some t-shirts, a pair of shoes, a nice blue cotton summer dress with thin straps, plus some other stuff. Finally they made it to the formal wear section and it was there where Julia found the dress.
It was elegant yet not too welcome to the Oscars elegant. It was a simple long black silk dress with straps and a V-neck. It had a red sash that went around below the waist, which ended in an x at her back but that managed to leave most of her back bare. Julia was pleased when she found her size. Her friend was already behind her with the perfect pair of black medium high heeled sandals in her hand.
Julia laughed as Sonia kept urging her to come out, as she waited outside the changing room. And she was pleased when her friend stared at her open mouthed when she finally came out.
“Oh. My. God. Julia, that’s the dress. Oh, you look so hot. Okay turn around, I’ve got to see the back.”
She did as she was asked, holding up her loose hair with one hand while she watched her friend’s reaction from over her shoulder. Sonia only bobbled her head up and down, all the time saying. “Uhum, uhum, that’s perfect.”
“You think so? Isn’t it too…….out there?”
“No, Julia it is not. It’s perfect. You should be proud, all that exercise has paid off. You have a body. Just look at you.” Sonia stood up and went to stand behind Julia in the mirror. “You look gorgeous.”
“Really?” Julia turned this way and that again, having to agree with her friend.
But would Damian think she’d bought this dress to……to what? Rekindle their long-lost relationship? Would he notice her? Did she want him to notice her, after all this time?
As if listening to her worried thoughts, Sonia said gently.
“Don’t over think it. If he notices you in this dress then it means he’s a man. If he doesn’t, then maybe it’s time you both moved on, for good.” Sonia lifted a brow. Julia nodded, suddenly afraid it was the latter, their only choice.
“Too damn bad Magdalena went all responsible on us and couldn’t come today. Okay, let’s go. Sadly, I did come here for work.”
Sonia had informed her before driving away from the house, that she also had to check out some new guy who might be doing all of the restaurant’s stationery, like new menus, business cards, receipt pads, and so forth. The printer was here in the city and Sonia had suggested Julia stay here hanging out, while she went to meet this guy. Then, she would come pick her up before heading back home. Of course, Julia had ran back inside to get her MacBook so she could do some work of her own while waiting for her friend.
After paying more money than she ever had in her life, at least since living on her own, Julia and Sonia, who had not bought one but two possible dresses for the party, found a free sofa in the outdoors area of a Starbucks. Sonia sat for a few moments before she left Julia on her own.
Julia hoped Sonia would come back soon, so she decided to just get a grande mocha frapuchino. Immediately, Julia got to work on shaping up the information about La Providencia for the magazine.
Damian checked again the list on his Blackberry to make sure he had everything he needed, or rather what his son would need. The night he had gone to town to get Julia from Sonia’s restaurant, he had received an email from Sophia informing him they would be arriving earlier to town. Lucas, his son, according to Sophia, was ecstatic since both his parents had always told him stories about La Providencia. The kid was eager to get to see the town with his own eyes. That and that it was the first time he had ever gone on vacations. Though either Damian or Sophia would take him around North Carolina or the time Damian and his father took him to Disneyland, it was the first time he would get on a plane and go to a foreign country.
The house was ready, but in all the stress and confusion about Julia and work, he had forgotten to get some kid appropriate sheets for his son’s room, as well as a couple of surprises so he could play with. His son loved Legos and it was something they did together. Damian had bought two challenging ones. One was a boat and the other, the Death Star from Star Wars, that would certainly keep father and son occupied during the remaining of the summer.
He was tempted to buy his son another pair of crocks for when he ran around the house or played in the pool, when he saw Julia sitting outside Starbucks. Her eyes were glued to the computer while her fingers danced across the keyboard.
He did nothing for a moment, taking in her concentration, the way she twitched her lips and then as if realizing she’d made a mistake, shake her head and attack the keyboard with more enthusiasm.
It made him think of their situation. Where did they stand now that he knew she hadn’t dumped him and that she knew the truth about Sophia and Lucas? He had wanted to see her this morning but with the coming party, he knew this was his only day to run his errands.
Damian continued to stare at Julia, who was totally immersed in her work, not even bothered by the toddler on the other table next to her, crying because his mother took away the wooden stick he had picked up from the floor. He had to admit that his hesitation had also had to do with the fact that he knew it wouldn’t be easy to start over again.
Despite the revelation about the letter, Damian was sure Julia still saw his sleeping with Sophia as a betrayal. And there was Lucas. Not that Julia would blame the child. On the contrary, it was just that he had his son to consider. Certainly, Benjamin Andersson had done one hell of a job in breaking them apart. But was the damage permanent?
The small bag he carried inside one of the bigger ones from the department store said part of him believed they could restore it. That and the acceleration of his pulse as he began to walk her way. His stomach did a flip when she looked up and her eyes displayed surprise, pleasure, then hesitation until she blinked them away and all that was left was a pair of brown eyes following his approach.
Julia was sure it was because she had been totally caught up in her description of Whisper Mountain’s legend, that had the pulse in her neck throbbing excitedly, the second she looked up and saw Damian staring at her. He did so with a certain fascination. It occurred to Julia he’d probably been standing there a while, watching her work. The thought made her blush.
It also made her feel self-conscious yet interested in what he thought. Was he proud she’d chosen the path she wanted or had he just been surprised to see her here as well? Whatever it was, Julia closed her computer when Damian reached her spot. With the bag he was holding, he motioned to the dress covered in plastic and another bag where they’d put her shoes and the many other clothes Sonia insisted she buy.
“I see you’ve been busy today.”
“Yes.” She grabbed her hair and pulled it to one side over her shoulder. “Sonia needed to come to the city. She said she still had to buy a dress for the party on Saturday.” Julia couldn’t help but lower her eyes, expecting Damian to confirm he didn’t want her there. His next words though, had her staring back at him.
“I’m sorry. I forgot to mention the party. I’ve been kind of busy and well, I think we can both agree things have been confusing for us. I would be honored if you came.”
Her pulse racing, Julia said. “I’d love to go.”
“I’m glad Sonia brought you here. From what I can see, you already found a dress.”
“I did. And some other stuff I don’t need, but have you ever tried arguing with Sonia?”
“Is it the same as arguing with you?”
“Very funny. But yes, I guess it is.”
Julia chuckled and invited Damian to sit down. Though she noticed his pause before dropping his bags to the floor and taking the chair opposite her. It was then she also noticed the names of the stores he’d gone to, one being the huge department store inside this shopping mall and the other one a toy store she had passed with Sonia on their initial tour of the place. She tried to hide it, but she felt her smile falter and she tried to focus her stare on the movement around them.
Julia took a sip from her frappuchino as Damian kept his eyes on her. There wasn’t contempt in them anymore. Instead, she saw an intensity as if he was trying to figure her out. Maybe he wanted to know what had changed between them since last night.
Julia had to admit she wanted to know the same thing.
Like a shooting star in a dark blue sky, the faintest flicker of those strong feelings they had shared lighted his eyes, but when he blinked it went away. That didn’t keep the goosebumps from traveling up and down her arms.
“You look like you’ve been busy, too.” Julia commented casually on his numerous purchases. “I failed to see your car this morning. I assumed you had gone to work.”
“I did. Then I remembered I needed to run some errands. Not that I enjoy spending my day shopping.”
“Well, you are a guy, I’d be surprised if you did.”
Julia hated how they sounded so restrained, circling around the edge of the pressing issue they needed to discuss, yet neither wanted to be the first to take the initial step. Wary, she decided she wouldn’t be the first one. They sat without saying a word to each other, until Damian eyed her computer and asked. “Work?”
“Sort of. I mean yes. I am writing about La Providencia for the magazine. I mean, since I am here and all, might as well make use of my time.”
“What have you written so far?”
“Oh,” Flustered, not used to having anyone else apart from Danny and Susan ask her about her work, it took her a few heartbeats to answer. “Well, I wrote a little bit about my own history with the place. Its charm with foreigners, the legends surrounding Whisper Mountain. I was about to write about this funeral I went to the other day. I’d never been to a funeral where there’s a guy who brings soda and a bottle of rum and another one of tequila.”
“I don’t think most people have. Then again, it reminds you that life goes on even if you’re saying goodbye to someone you loved.” He eyed her intently, it was unnerving.
Was that how it was for him, in a manner of speaking? He’d already said goodbye to her?
“I suppose. Oh and I’m planning on writing something about the party, all of the festivities before the big day. I am hoping to persuade the gang to go to the river this weekend, that’s another sight people enjoy when they visit La Providencia.”
“I look forward to reading it.”
Damian clenched his jaw as he wanted to shake them out of their polite answers. Julia gave him a faint smile and went quiet. The sound of her stomach had her turning red and putting her arms around her waist.
“Have you eaten?”
“No. I am waiting for Sonia.”
“Oh, okay. Well, I am on my way out. Do you want to catch a ride back with me? I’ll even throw an early dinner at that Italian restaurant I saw on my way here.”
Even though she wanted to say yes, what came of her mouth was. “Thanks, but I think I should wait for Sonia. She said she wouldn’t take long.”
If she didn’t know him better, Julia could swear she saw his face crease with disappointment. Was he trying to reach out to her? Probably he was just making up for not telling her about the party.
“I understand. Well,” he stood up and as he bent to gather the bags he’d been carrying, Julia’s phone began to ring. As she picked it up, they waved a silent goodbye and Damian began to make his way to the parking lot. He would eat when he got home.
“Sonia, hey. So are almost on your way back, because I am starving.”
“You haven’t eaten anything since I left two hours ago?”·
Had it been two hours? Julia frowned. Whenever she was writing she lost track of time.
“Well, you better. This deal with the printer will take longer than I’d anticipated. Besides, Stephan called me. We are low on supplies, so I must head to Costco, too. I don’t think I’ll be back for another three hours or more. I’m sorry. I know we said we would have something at one of those fancy restaurants but work is work, I am afraid.”
“Look at you Ms. Responsible. I guess I can wait.” Or she could accept Damian’s offer and take a ride back home with him. Julia told Sonia about bumping into Damian at the mall and his offer. Her friend couldn’t have sounded more pleased. Julia could feel her grin on the other side of the line.
“Go! I’m still going to be a while. Just go with him. I’ll see you later, okay?”
“You’re sure? Because I can…”
“For the love of God, Julia just go with the man. Don’t be stupid. I’ll catch you later.”
“Okay. Okay. Bye.”
Julia barely had time to put her stuff away and run out to the main square, before she found Damian a few feet away, headed for the parking lot.
Cursing the bags she had to juggle with her two hands, plus her laptop case and purse, somehow Julia made it before Damian disappeared inside the elevator.
“Damian!” She shouted, breathless from making sure she didn’t trip or drop her laptop or her bags.
He stopped and turned around.
“Hey. Sonia called. She said she’ll be busy for another three hours. I thought, if the offer still stands, if I could ride back home with you. I mean, to your home.”
Damian looked like he wanted to correct her on her last comment but he simply nodded in agreement. After proposing they put their stuff inside his car, they came back up and walked to the Italian restaurant he’d suggested before. For a while, as they were making their way to the restaurant, Julia wondered if he would hold her hand like he used to every time they were together. It didn’t come as a surprise, that she wanted him to.
“It’s nice to know you do eat more than just quesadillas.” Damian glanced sideways at Julia as he maneuvered his car along the curvy road across the mountains to La Providencia. The same road where Damian had first gone to her rescue. So much had transpired between then and now. Would they be able to move forward or toward their own separate ways? Was it as easy as Danny said?
“I do eat. You just haven’t seen me eat when I have dinner with Esperanza and Joaquin. I swear, I literally lick off the plates after my second serving.”
“You do look better than when you first arrived.” Damian admitted.
Julia turned to stare out the window, avoiding his sidelong glances. The truth was she felt better, but like she’d told Joaquin, this wasn’t her home anymore. Still, she couldn’t stop the ache around her heart as her imminent departure as the town’s celebration drew near loomed in the air. Because once the chaos and excitement from the town’s celebration ended, Julia was sure her car and the paperwork would come through fast.
“So, tell me what it was like.”
“What was what like?” Julia leaned her head back on the headrest and felt like going through an enchanted forest, the fleeting rays of gold making their way through the heavy foliage of the giant guardians protecting it; the trees were at least twenty feet high. She expected to see some magical creature walk before them in the middle of the road. Or maybe the Princess who never threw herself off the highest part of the mountain on the back of her true lover’s black stallion.
“After you left your home.”
Julia’s head whirled in Damian’s direction, taken aback by his interest. He saw the reaction as it played across her face because then he said. “Never mind. I don’t suppose it is something you like to think about now.”
She pressed her lips together, feeling the edge of her teeth sink in the flesh of her lower lip. In all honesty, she often went back to those days, especially when she was having a writer’s block day and she’d remember everything she’d gone through to get to where she was now. She sighed and answered his question.
“I don’t mind. It’s just other than the voices inside my head, I haven’t talked to anyone apart from my friend/boss/agent Susan about it. I mean, not even Danny.”
Damian waited until Julia continued. His eyes were on the road but everything else was in tune to the woman sitting beside him.
“Like I told you last night, when I left home I had nothing. Well, I had all that money saved from when I was planning to come back here and you know stay. Though half of it was spent on plane ticket and bus ride from Guadalajara to here.” Julia didn’t have to say why she’d bought a one way ticket at that time. Uncomfortable with the direction of her words, she shifted in her seat and continued.
“Anyway, after crashing with those friends I told you about and finding the job at the diner and the place to live, I just focused all of my spare time on writing.
“It wasn’t easy. I had to go to a Starbucks and sit with my computer, since I couldn’t afford the Internet. I mean I could’ve but all of my money was going to paying for writing workshops at NYU. I had no one. It was like the minute my father shut the door in my face, all those who had said they were my friends just turned their backs on me. The first couple of months after working at the diner, I swear I was this close to calling home and telling my father he’d been right. That I was wasting my time and I’d do anything to go back home.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Because I would start writing and forget about everything else and I’d be happy, that’s why. Anyway, after a year of miraculously not throwing up at the sight of the food served at that horrible place, I went to this class. It was a five week course on fiction writing and there was Susan Jones, renowned literary agent. As she told us during our first day of class, she was about to start her very own magazine. A kind of Vanity Fair meets New Yorker meets Vogue meets In Style. A kind of magazine a mom, a teenager, a CEO could pick up and be informed with articles on current affairs but learn about other stuff like movie reviews, book reviews, which I love doing, reviews on unknown restaurants, fashion, social responsibility, and of course, places to visit. Which is what I write in my column.”
They had driven out from the maze of curves inside the mountains and were twenty minutes away from the town. Damian wished he could prolong their time alone to hear more about her stories as she struggled to make it as a writer. A part of him was amazed at how she’d gotten through the rough patches in her life. And another part of him was angry that he hadn’t been there to share every good and bad day with her, every step of the way.
The realization that came next was like a splash of cold water. If nothing would’ve happened and she would’ve come back and found him, who was to say she would be where she was now? What if by sacrificing everything to be together, Damian would’ve denied Julia the chance to live her dream? What if they would’ve ended up going their separate ways because she would’ve resented him for abandoning her dream?
He certainly wouldn’t be doing what he was doing now. He wouldn’t have had Lucas, who became his joy in life from the second he was born. Would he have sought his father out anyway? Damian knew the answer was no. If he hadn’t been about to become a father in desperate need for help, he would’ve remained alienating his father. He wouldn’t be where he was now. It wasn’t because of the money, but things would’ve not turned out like today, when he was about to embark on a project that would help many farmers get a better life.
He was too immersed in his own musings that he failed to understand Julia’s next question. “Have you gone there, too?”
“To all these places I was telling you about just now. The places I’ve visited while working on the magazine. I swear Damian, you still do that thing you used to, when I would be telling you something and then I’d ask you about it and you would go all ‘I was just thinking about you, babe.’ When in reality you were just distracted.” Julia imitated his voice. Not being able to help herself , she burst out laughing in the end.
“I thought you hated it when I called you babe.”
“You called me that when you were driving me down to the clinic.” Her tone lowered. She shuddered at the horrible memory.
“You heard that?” Damian glanced at her, incredulous.
“I…..yeah, I did.”
“Well, I was hoping you’d get mad and snap out of your I’m walking towards the light act.”
“Well, it worked. Thanks again for that.”
“You’re welcome. Believe me, it’s not something I would like to go through again.”
“Trust me, me neither.”
“So what about these places you were talking about?”
They chatted amicably the rest of the way. Damian loving how Julia became the girl he used to know, but embellished by the woman she was now. Just like Joaquin had said about the house, with just a little work and care, Julia was blossoming the way the house was now, after it had been abandoned and neglected for years.