Ever After. Chapter 28

Again, Julia woke up alone. Though this time she knew the why, though she wasn’t sure of the where. There was movement outside, as a couple of men were clearing the last of the rental tables and chairs from the party from Saturday. There was also a lot of muffled sounds coming from the town.

Julia got out of bed and put on her discarded pajama. She walked over to the balcony, stepping outside. Joaquin waved at her as he supervised the work from the other two men. She waved back. Her palms shaded her eyes and she saw the distinct structure of a ferris-wheel as the rest of the mechanical games were being set on a courtyard one street away from the main square.

The fair always arrived the Monday before the town’s celebration which was this Wednesday and left until the Sunday after. Her head turned around and she thought of the little boy who’d arrived yesterday. Perfect timing.

Julia stayed there for a while, before getting dressed in her washed and dried bikini, a white linen skirt, a black tube top and white open toed shoes. She braided her hair and let it fall over her right shoulder.

Downstairs, there was no sign of father and son. There was only Esperanza who informed her Damian and Lucas were going to be out most of the morning. Although she felt a pang of disappointment that she had not been invited, she shrugged it off as she enjoyed breakfast. Julia distracted herself by sharing with the cook about their day at the river and about her new temporary job at Sonia’s restaurant.

Esperanza decided to pamper her with a platter of pancakes, with fresh chocolate chips and strawberries. Julia ate half of them eagerly. They lingered in the kitchen another hour or so, before Esperanza announced she would be going with Joaquin to town. The gardener wanted to inquire about the state of Julia’s rented car, and his wife wanted to run some errands.

Though she was annoyed by it, part of her shivered with apprehension by staying on her own in the house. Esperanza assured her they wouldn’t take long and Julia said she would be fine. Besides, the cook had no idea of their visit to Chief Ramos nor about the threats to her life. They would know eventually, if Chief Ramos decided to mention it to them.

With the house all to herself, Julia took advantage of the quiet and decided to work from the table under the shade next to the pool. She went back to the notes on the town and added her day at the river, plus what she’d seen this morning from her balcony, adding her own memories of the fair when she was younger.

After that, she opened the file she’d been working on yesterday and plunged herself into it, her mind drifting away to the plot of her story. Whisper Mountain was in her line of sight, in the background with the volcano and other mountains, the sun glinting off their greened faces and rugged stony features.

The golden-green palm trees around her rustled occasionally with the welcome breeze that visited the garden, as she continued to write on a roll. The only time she paused was to plug her laptop when the warning of low battery flashed before her eyes. Julia took that distraction to glance around. She decided she would give her writing another hour, before going for a quick swim. And maybe make herself a snack. As she glanced at the time, she wasn’t surprised she’d been here more than three hours.

Still no sign of Damian and Lucas.

Her hour extended to an hour and a half. It was empowering to be able to write the stories she’d always dreamed of telling. Not that Julia didn’t feel a connection to her previous ones, but it was time people out there knew who Julia Andersson was, and what was inside her mind.

With that thought still fresh inside her head, Julia opened her email and wrote a brief message to Susan and Zack, telling them about the new story she was working on plus the idea about using her real name and having everyone know who Kate Morgan really was.

She was typing the last words of her email when she realized she wasn’t alone anymore. As she  moved her gaze from the screen to the entrance of the terrace, she saw Lucas. His hair was ruffled and windblown as yesterday, and his eyes no longer studying her with care, just giving her a small dosage of that intensity his father had.

“Oh, hey.”

“Hi.”

Lucas remained at the edge of the terrace, his flushed cheeks a sign he had been out in the heat for a while now. Julia wondered where his dad had taken him.

“How’s it going?”

“Okay. My dad took me to see some cows and then to meet my grandma Maria. She’s nice. She said I look like my dad when he was little.”

“I bet you do.”

“We had breakfast there and then dad showed me the fair. He promised that if I ate dinner he would take me. I asked him if you could come and he said we should ask you. Do you want to come with us to the fair?”

Touched, Julia clicked send and closed her laptop. With her hand, she motioned Lucas to come sit next to her; his legs dangled from the seat.

“I’d love to, but I have to help a friend.”

“Oh.” Lucas lowered his eyes, his enthusiasm faltering some. Julia felt bad and tried to come up with a solution. “But tell you what. Maybe I can take a small break and I’ll ride a game with you.”

“Cool.” His face brightened.

“Where’s your dad?” Julia scanned the garden for any sign of Damian.

“Working.” His eyes diverted and stayed on the crystal clear water of the pool.

“I’m sure he’ll hurry up.”

“I hope so because I want to go into the pool, but he made me promise I wouldn’t go in without a grown up around.”

Julia could understand the kid’s impatience. It was no fun being a kid with this huge pool and the heat and having to wait until a grown up came to supervise. But wait a minute. She was a grown up. And she’d been planning on taking a swim anyway.

“If you want to, I could go in with you.”

“Really?” There was such hope in his tone Julia only stood up, took his small hand in hers and  together they went inside the house where Lucas ran hurriedly up the stairs to change into his swim trunks, and grab the sun block his mother had packed for him. Julia grabbed her own lotion and two fresh towels and didn’t have to wait for the boy because he was already out of her room jumping from one foot to the other.

They put their stuff on one of the sun beds and Julia made sure she covered him in cream, until he was all white from head to toe. After she did the same, they went into the shallow end and they moved to the deep end, where the water covered Julia right below her shoulders. Both her hands were holding on to Lucas while he kicked and splashed them both.

“I know how to swim.”

“Oh, okay.”

“And I know how to dive, too. Dad showed me.”

“My dad showed me, too, when I was your age.” She ignored the discomfort and longing that talking about her dad awoke inside her, and let go of Lucas. He swam perfectly all the way to the edge of the pool, pulled his body out from the water and walked to the deep end.

It was so endearing to watch his face as he prepared for his dive. He was putting as much concentration as any diver in the Olympics before a dive that would put him in the run for the gold medal.

Lucas put his knees together, then lifted his arms and pointed his hands straight like an arrow, bent his legs and dived, head first legs last. Julia was impressed and wondered how many attempts had it taken father and son before the little kid had gotten it right. It certainly had taken her many belly-dives before being successful.

When the boy emerged from under the water, Julia’s hands instinctively shot out to grab him, and though he’d proven he could float and swim, Lucas didn’t refuse.

“It’s your turn.”

“My turn?” Another thing she hadn’t done in years was dive.

“Yep. That’s how I do it with Dad. But he always asks me to sit on the edge when he does it.” Lucas rolled his eyes like every kid does when one of his parents stops being cool and starts acting like a worried parent.

She wasn’t so sure about this. Besides what if this thing she was wearing just fell off? Not only would she embarrass herself for the rest of her life, but she’d be giving Lucas a pretty good story for his little friends back home. Yet, she’d promised to swim with him and all that it entailed.

Dutifully, he followed her to the edge of the pool and sat while his feet splashed in the water. Julia went to stand at the same spot where Lucas had jumped. She felt stupid but she mimicked his preparation. It was like she was ten again, her face furrowed in concentration, hoping she would go head in first and not stomach first.

She took a deep breath and dived. When her head hit the cool surface of the water, she yelled in victory, mentally. Before emerging, she made sure everything was where it was supposed to. Only when she rubbed her eyes clear of water, there wasn’t just one pair of legs splashing inside the pool, but two. Though one pair brought flashbacks of a tangle of legs in bed.

“I think that was pretty good. What do you say, son?”

“She did okay.” Both father and son flashed her that crooked smile, Julia felt winded.

“Damian.” She breathed his name. “I hope it’s okay I let Lucas go into the pool.”

“He knows there’s always got to be a grown up, so it’s okay. Though I did tell him he shouldn’t bother you because you were working.”

Lucas’s wince gave him away.

“He didn’t. I was just wrapping up anyway. And….” She swam to where father and son sat, “that dive was more than okay.”

“I’d give it an eight.”

“An eight? Are you nuts? It was way over ten.”

“I’m not so sure.” Damian got up and went to the other side of the pool. He didn’t have to resolve to her exaggerated preparation, and barely splashed any water as he dived in clean, his lean, long body an arrow before being swallowed by the transparent blue of the pool.

“Damn it.” Julia muttered and then covered her mouth when Lucas giggled.

Lucas’s dad emerged and without warning, came behind Julia and wrapped his arms around her waist. Her stare searched nervously Lucas’s face for a negative reaction but the boy only announced it was his turn.

Before jumping, Lucas waved at his dad and shouted. “I think you beat Julia because she said damn it.”

Lucas jumped, and Damian leaned close to her ear and said. “So I won?”

“Not a chance. I was just warming up.” The challenge in her voice had him smiling against her sensitive skin on the side of her neck. It tingled when he placed a light kiss before saying. “Oh, in that case….”

They played for another couple of hours in the pool. Once the diving competition had cooled down leaving Damian as the undisputed champion, Lucas had gone inside and gotten a beach ball his dad must’ve bought this morning in town. They attempted a match of waterpolo before Julia and Lucas both announced they were starving. They had a late lunch by the side of the pool and father and son headed off to shower while Julia enjoyed some time under the afternoon sun.

At five, Julia went inside the house, cleaned up, and changed into a pair of jeans and a cobalt-blue cotton top and her running shoes. She was going to be on her feet for several hours and flip flops were not the best option when managing trays and going back and forth from the bar and kitchen to the tables.

At six, Damian and Lucas were dropping her off at the town square. Before leaving the car as Julia was reaching for the door handle, Damian grabbed her face and gave her a brief but incendiary brush of the lips. Again, she waited for a sound of complaint from the back, but all the kid did was ask her if she would be able to go to the fair with them as she’d told him earlier.

Her mind, scrambled from the kiss and from Lucas’s ease with their display of affection, took a while to give him a response. In the end, she asked them to meet her at eight outside Sonia’s. Thinking ahead, Julia gauged she would be able to take twenty minutes to roam around the mechanical games with Damian and Lucas.

That seemed to make the kid’s day and Damian’s smiling stare seemed to say: “See, he really likes you.”

She waved them off and headed for work.

It was past midnight when Sonia shoved her out of the restaurant, followed by Felix who offered to give her a ride up to the house. In the black of night, the town was still buzzing with excited conversations around them, as some took advantage of the last rides of the night at the fair and ate some late night snacks at some of the food stands already invading the streets. By tomorrow, access to town would be limited and traffic would be chaotic.

Her own time at the fair with Damian and Lucas had been fun. They’d picked her up at eight. Sonia had given her only twenty minutes, so they had time for one ride and to play some games on the booths that circled the fair.

She and Lucas got on the ferris wheel, while Damian waved from the ground. The three of them won a number of prizes as they rolled marbles up a wooden table with holes and numbers at the top, threw darts at a board with balloons and fished inside a small pool with wooden fish with tiny hooks on their backs.

Damian gave her one of the stuffed animals they won and Lucas chose the rest to split between him and his mom. The mention of Sophia caused a crack around her feel good shell, although she managed to have a good time for the rest of their time together.

They reached Felix’s car. He opened the passenger door and she got in. It was a car that screamed little kids. There were tapes of children’s music in between the two front seats. Two stuffed animals that must’ve been orange and red at some point, gazed at her under layers of dust and dry mud from the floor at her feet. The back was as disorganized as the front, with some empty cookie wrappers scattered on the seats.

Felix noticed her inspecting the inside because he cleared his throat as he closed his door.

“Yes, I know. It’s a mess, but I swear we had it cleaned this morning. But we took the kids back to the river and well……”

“It’s fine. It’s this new side of you I’m happy to witness. Your kids are amazing.”

“Thanks.” He said with a proud father’s smile.

“You seem to be getting along with Damian’s kid.” Felix commented as he pulled away and began the short drive up to the house. “I saw you three coming back from the fair when I stepped out for a while, to get some air. That kitchen is like a damn sauna.”

“We are getting along. He’s such a sweet and smart kid. There’s nothing not to like about him.”

“Uhm.”

The unclear sound had her narrowing her eyes at Felix.

“What?”

“Well, kids have great instincts. I’m sure he figured you out from the start. But there’s something else. You have this innate warmth about you. I always thought you’d be a terrific mom.”

“Really?” His admission both surprised her and somewhere inside, filled her with joy.

“Yes. You tell amazing stories, so what kid wouldn’t love that. There’s also how you are with others. You make time for them. I saw it with Danny, whenever she needed you, you would be there. It was the same for the rest of us.”

His hands tightened on the steering wheel, and Julia suspected there was more. She stayed quiet until he finally said. “I don’t understand why you didn’t think we could’ve been there for you when you needed it the most.”

“I know. It’s all different now, I promise.”

“I’m glad.” He paused. “So you and Damian, ha?”

“Yeah, another thing that’s different.”

“Listen. I only heard the rumors and like you do with them in this town, I basically ignored them. Whatever did happen it’s clear you were able to resolve it. I’m happy because you obviously love the guy. I only want to let you know that if you ever need us to kick his ass, then say so and don’t go running away.”

Julia chuckled and hooked her arms around her friend’s neck.

“Thanks.”

By then, Felix was pulling outside the wooden gates of the house. His eyes glanced down to the sorry furry things at her feet and he muttered. “I swear we washed them last month but it’s like my kids need their toys to be filthy. Here, let me throw this to the back.”

When he picked up the toys, Julia’s eyes noticed there’d been something hidden under them. When she was able to make out what it was, her blood stilled and her heart gave a panicked start, as she stared wide-eyed at the cap and sunglasses on the floor.

The flash of the driver inside the truck before he charged towards her, had a strangled scream fighting to get out from her mouth. Felix was regarding her with caution and when his hand reached to grab her arm, she jumped and used her free hand to get the door handle.

“Hey, hey, what’s up?”

Chief Ramos’s suggestion that one of her friends could be involved pounded inside her head. This was stupid, why would Felix want to hurt her? And besides, he had had no problems with her father. At least, when she’d spent her summers here. Who knew what had happened in her father’s life during the years they didn’t talk to each other?

Her words scratched her dry throat when she offered a quick excuse.

“I……just remembered I had to send something to my agent. She’s gonna kill me.” Nice way of putting it, Julia thought.

“I’m sure it won’t be that bad.” His eyes had followed where her scared ones still lingered.

“Are you sure that’s it? You look kind of freaked out.”

Julia groaned inwardly. This is nonsense. My friends aren’t trying to kill me. Still, Julia pushed the door open and jumped out from the car, almost losing her footing. Felix leaned over to her side waiting for an answer.

“I guess I’m tired, too. Sonia can be really bossy.” Her voice shook.

“Yeah, she can. Though she’s always been that way.”

Felix gave her another puzzled look but Julia waved him goodbye.

“I’m fine really. Thanks for the ride.”

She slammed the door and all but ran into the house. Once inside, she leaned against the entrance door and slid down to the floor, her trembling body collapsing to the floor, her hands shaking.

Was this how it was going to be until the real person behind the threats was caught? Would she see something that reminded her of the different nasty episodes and scream wolf every time? If this kept up, she wouldn’t have to leave town to alienate her friends. If they ever knew she suspected anyone of them of trying to hurt her, she would hurt their feelings. They were her friends, for God’s sake. Felix had two kids, a wife, he was happy, he wasn’t going around planning on how to murder his friend, right?

It took her more than five minutes and several deep breaths before she was calm again, or at least more able to face Damian in the off chance he was awake waiting for her. Julia entered her room and found Damain in her bed, fast asleep, his naked chest slowly rising and falling. She stood for a moment, watching him sleep, overwhelmed again by the lies that had kept hem apart, and by their newfound relationship. Would it last?

She quickly went inside the bathroom, stripped off her clothes and put on her pajamas. She brushed her teeth and performed all of her nighttime ritual before stepping out from the bathroom. The extra minutes were heaven sent to finally to appease her scared mind.

The moment she slipped under the covers, Damian’s arm reached for her and she let herself get lost in him. Half asleep now, he neared closer and started rubbing her stomach then the length of her legs until it was very much clear he was no longer asleep. Julia welcomed his touch and did the same, the contact what she truly needed to scare the last traces of unease away.

They made love slowly, tenderly. Her sighs and his murmurs making her feel safe, his exploring touch making her feel cared for, cherished and for a fleeting moment, she thought, loved. Afterwards, she lay cradled against him, her breathing matching his, until she drifted away.

In her dreams, she saw a glimpse of what it would be like to be like this with Damian for the rest of her days, until a dark cloud taking the shape of a dragon, much like the one from the story she told Lucas, made it all go away. She fought hard but when its claws ripped her heart out, her scream pierced her dreamworld, and the Julia in the dream laid lifeless at the dragon’s feet.

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