Saguria Canyon offered a picturesque view of everything Gabriella loved about spring in southern California. The golden hue of mule’s ears and deep blue Ithuriel’s spears dotted the lush green grass of the meadow below. In another week, two at the most, life in the canyon would be thriving. Lovers would walk hand in hand, seeking out private trails and stopping for a kiss under the cherry blossoms.
But not me.
Her shoulders slumped. She’d been dating Robert for six months, but the relationship wasn’t going anywhere. At least not for her. The only romance and passion in her life were captured on the pages of her romance novels. And lately even those relationships seemed stale and monotonous.
The blare of a horn broke her reverie, and she turned to wave at Maddy. The heaviness lifted for a moment. Madeleine Jones simply didn’t allow being down in the dumps. Gabriella couldn’t help the grin that spread across her face as Maddy extricated herself from her fire-red Jaguar. Even dressed in oversized sweats, without a touch of makeup, she looked like a movie star or supermodel. She had tied her long blonde hair back in a careless ponytail, and the baggy sweats did little to disguise what everyone called a “curvaceous” figure.
“Helena Gabriella Carson, you look like you’ve lost your best friend.” Maddy grinned and swung into a set of stretching exercises that would have left Gabriella gasping for breath. “And I know that isn’t true, because here I am. Ready? A good four-mile hike will get your blood pumping and your artistic juices flowing. Spring has sprung, and love is in the air.”
Gabriella tried to smile but couldn’t pull it off. “Life is all around me, and yet I still feel dead inside.”
Maddy wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “It’s only been six months, Ree, and most of that you’ve spent finalizing your mother’s estate. Another month and you’ll be back to writing sizzling romance novels for all your fans.”
“I hope so. I finally finished Cold Heart and sent it off to Celeste last week.”
Maddy pulled her toward the hiking trail. “Good. Let’s go find some inspiration for the next one.”
Gabriella followed, thankful the friendship between them didn’t require a lot of small talk. She’d woken up frustrated and angry without an outlet for either. The four-mile trek up the trail might help with the frustration, but the anger was something unfamiliar, new territory through which she didn’t know how to navigate. And she definitely didn’t want to dwell on the reasons behind it.
“Have you thought about going back to school?” Maddy stopped on an outcropping of rock and bent to examine a small stonecrop flower growing beside the boulder. “I love these things. They’re so beautiful.”
Gabriella studied the tiny orange flower clinging to the side of the boulder. It looked lonely and vulnerable. Just like she felt. She wanted to hide it, protect it from the hikers that, like them, would stop on the boulder to enjoy the view. “And like most beautiful things, endangered because people want to possess them.”
Maddy sat on the boulder and patted the spot beside her. “I wondered when that was going to happen.”
“What?” Gabriella sat next to her but moved as far from the edge as possible.
“The anger and resentment.” Maddy shot her a sympathetic smile. “It’s perfectly normal. You gave up two years of your life to nurse your mother. And cancer is a horrible disease. You go through the highs of thinking she’s getting better and then the lows of knowing it’s only a matter of time. Now that your grief is subsiding, other emotions are fighting for control.”
“That’s not…” The truth she didn’t want to dwell on was staring her right in the face. “But I loved my mother.”
“Of course you did. I loved her, too. My favorite childhood memories were made at your house. My mom was always mad at us because we weren’t the little ballerina princesses she wanted. Your mom let us jump in the mud puddles, washed our faces, and gave us a cookie. You have every right to be angry. You were jerked from a life of fun, parties, and friends to a life of seclusion, sickness, and pain. No matter how much we love someone, there’s a part of all of us that’s just a little selfish.”
Gabriella wiped away a tear. “I feel like I’ve changed so much. Like I’m not the same person anymore.” She waved toward the trail. “This is the first spontaneous thing I’ve done in three years. And I almost cancelled it.”
“Necessity always changes people. You were forced to grow up overnight. You went from making decisions about what to have for lunch to how to pay this month’s bills.” Maddy turned to her, her eyes filled with respect. “And you did it, Ree. Without ever making one complaint in all that time. You did it all. Let yourself be angry. Scream occasionally at the injustice of it all.” Maddy grinned mischievously. “Then buy a new dress, get your hair done, and go out for a night of fun and frolicking.”
“It wasn’t all bad, Maddy. I became a bestselling romance author, and I met Robert.”
Maddy stood up and dusted off her sweats. “The writing I totally get, but Robert is something you’re going to have to explain to me. He’s the most unromantic, emotionally unresponsive man I’ve ever met. He’s not right for you, Ree, and I wish you could see that before it’s too late.”
Gabriella searched for words to defend Robert but came up with nothing. She’d been thinking the same thing before Maddy arrived. Her cell phone saved her from having to respond. “It’s Celeste. Should I take it?”
Maddy chuckled. “Definitely, and put it on speaker. I love her accent and the way she always calls you Helena. She sounds like one of those old movie drama queens. I can just see her with her long cigarette holder, waving it around as she exclaims, “But, Helena, darling…”
Gabriella placed her fingers across her lips, mumbled “Shh,” and pressed the speaker button. “Hi, Celeste.”
“Helena, darling, we simply must talk about this manuscript.”
Gabriella bit her lip to stop the giggle rising in her throat as Maddy waved her imaginary cigarette in the air.
“The story, as always, is superb. But, darling, where is the passion? The spice? Our readers want to feel their blood boiling and their toes curling.”
Gabriella’s phone beeped another call coming in, and she turned her back to Maddy. If she kept watching her, she’d break down in fits of laughter that Celeste would never understand. “I have another call coming in, Celeste. Send it back and I’ll work on it.”
“All right, darling, but don’t forget we have a deadline. Your readers are waiting, and waiting readers are fickle. If you make them wait too long, they’ll simply move on to someone else.”
“I’ll make it so hot the paper sizzles. Bye, Celeste.” Gabriella hit the end button and glared at the number ringing in. Robert knew she was hiking with Maddy this morning. And she really didn’t want to deal with his weekly dinner reservation confirmation at the moment. Maddy leaned over her shoulder and said, “Let it go to voicemail.”
She let it go to voicemail and faced a grinning Maddy.
“Darn it, you didn’t give Celeste time to say, ‘cheerio, darling.’”
Ignoring her, Gabriella dialed her voicemail and listened to Robert’s droning voice. “Wanted to give you a heads up. We can’t get reservations for Girando’s until tomorrow night, so we’ll cancel tonight, and I’ll see you tomorrow at seven.”
She’d forgotten the phone was still on speaker until Maddy piped up, her voice filled with disgust. “You should play that for Celeste. Maybe then, she’d understand why there was no passion or spice in your writing. That guy would have a heart attack if you even mentioned blood boiling or toes curling.”
She shook her head, biting her lip again to stifle a giggle. She lost the battle as an image of Robert’s prim and proper face popped through her mind, and she laughed aloud. He would have a heart attack if she mentioned wanting him to “curl her toes.” “Stop it, Maddy. Robert’s a good man, and I was lucky to find him. He’ll make partner by next year.”
Maddy snorted again and took off walking. “You’re selling yourself short.” She leveled a stern look at Gabriella. “Again.”
The trail grew steeper, and the two fell into a comfortable silence. Gabriella tried hard to concentrate on the haunting sounds of the songbirds in the trees and keep her breathing even, but Maddy’s words continued to nag at her. Why am I with Robert? She was fond of him, and their relationship didn’t take up a lot of her time. Dinner once a week, a movie on the weekend sometimes followed by a half hour of hand-holding and Robert telling her about his latest case. He’d explained his need to work almost every night and weekends. If he was going to be a Supreme Court justice within five years, there wasn’t time for anything else. Until now, that had been enough. Caring for her mother and writing had filled the lonely hours from dusk until dawn.
She hadn’t realized how deep into her own thoughts she’d gone until she bumped into Maddy at the top of the trail. “Sorry.”
“There’s something I need to tell you.” Maddy walked a few feet off the trail, putting space between them. “I’m leaving for England next week. I’ve been offered a partnership in a clinic there.”
Gabriella’s heart skipped a beat as a strange tightness seized her chest and loneliness settled over her. Maddy had been her best friend since first grade. She couldn’t have survived without her to lean on the last two years. And she certainly would never have submitted her first manuscript to Capricious Books without constant prodding. She’d been more surprised than anyone had when Capricious not only bought the manuscript with a modest advance but also offered a contract to purchase her next four novels. The extra money had allowed her to hire help with her mother, and over the next twenty-four months, she’d managed to publish two more books.
Staring down at the canyon below, she concentrated on the lush green pasture before pasting a smile on her face and turning back to Maddy. “You’re going to be a great doctor and therapist, and this sounds like a wonderful opportunity for you.” Her smile faltered as she took in the stiff stance and set jaw.
“Cut the crap, Ree, and come with me. There’s nothing to keep you here now that your mother is gone. You can write anywhere. Remember all the nights we sat up talking about the great adventures we were going to have? The places we would see? After England, I’m going to Africa.” Her light blue eyes darkened. “It’s not too late. We can still have those adventures. You should be living romances with exciting men, not writing about them. This isn’t you. Robert isn’t you.”
For a moment, the old feelings of excitement threatened to emerge, but two years of penny pinching to afford her mother’s expensive pain medications after insurance denied her claims had created a sensibility she couldn’t overcome. Even with the advances and sales of her books, she’d barely managed to keep them out of bankruptcy. “We’ll see.”
The trip back down the trail was much more somber than their past trips, the parting in the parking lot quicker, as if both were anxious to put distance between them. “Call me, and we’ll celebrate the night before you leave.”
Maddy waved at her as she pulled into traffic. “Next Wednesday, then.”
Gabriella watched the car until it was out of sight. They had planned the hike to ease her feelings of loss and hopefully jumpstart a new life and overcome her writer’s block. Instead, she felt more miserable than before. She opened the car door then sighed and climbed behind the wheel. Maddy was sailing off into the spring of her life, leaving behind the cold, stark winter that had suddenly enveloped Gabriella.
Gabriella pulled into the driveway of the two-story ranch that had been home for as long as she could remember. Robert was pressing her to put it on the market, but she couldn’t bring herself to part with it yet. Even if she was acting foolish and sentimental, that was home, and right now, she needed that comfort more than she needed a suave apartment in the city.
Exiting the car, she smiled at the elderly woman next door waving to her. “Hi, Mrs. Finley. How’s George doing today?”
“Tolerable, missy, but the day is still young. Got something for you.” She held up a package and a long white envelope. “Mailman made me sign for both. Hope it ain’t nothing bad.”
Gabriella walked the short distance between the houses and took the package and envelope. She recognized her mother’s longtime friend, Suzanne Johnson’s, return address on the package. “Well, this one is from a friend, so it shouldn’t be anything bad.” She flipped the envelope on top of the package, read the law firm’s address, and shook her head. “And this one is hopefully an inheritance from a long-lost relative I didn’t know I had.”
Mrs. Finley guffawed. “If that’s true, it’s a shame they didn’t die before, when poor Helena could have used the money.”
Gabriella smiled and waved her hand again. Mrs. Finley had been a godsend during her mother’s final days. The only thing more prominent in her personality than kindness was nosiness. “I’ll let you know later.”
She closed the door and placed the package and letter on the credenza. First things first. She poured a glass of wine and kicked off her walking shoes as she studied the two items. Package or letter? Her sense of curiosity won out, and she ripped the paper from the package.
Gabriella opened the box and lifted the tissue paper to find a folded sheet of her mother’s stationery lying on top of a leather-bound book, with the words “Helena’s Diary” burned into the cover. A cameo picture of her mother at an early age had been placed in the center. Fresh tears started as Gabriella rubbed her thumb back and forth over the picture. She swiped away a tear before unfolding the paper.
My sweet child, if you are reading this, then I have gone home. I asked Suzanne several years ago to send you my diary and a small package after my death. I hope my diary will bring you comfort and inspiration. Do not think too badly of me. I was in many ways like you—impulsive and just a tad on the wild side.
There is also a small package in the box. Inside, you’ll find the key to the diary as well as a locket. Forgive me, Ree, for asking this, but the locket must be returned to its rightful owner. Once you’ve read the diary, you’ll understand.
I had hoped we could do it together, for I did not mean to leave you alone so soon. Tell Armand I loved him.
Gabriella rummaged through the remaining tissue until she found the jewelry box. She studied it for a moment before lifting the lid. “Oh, my God,” she whispered. The locket was the most beautiful piece of jewelry she’d ever seen. She lifted it carefully from the box and examined the intricate design. Two hearts surrounded by tiny jewels overlapped the word “forever.” If the jewels were real, the locket would be worth a fortune. Unable to contain her curiosity, she opened it, careful not to dislodge the two pictures. Her mother’s picture could easily have been her own face looking back at her at age sixteen, but the other picture caused her breath to catch and her face to flush as dark and mysterious eyes smiled up at her from the most handsome face she’d ever seen. If this was Armand, no wonder her mother had loved him. She held it for a moment and closed her eyes. She could almost hear the whispered words of young lovers. The urge to write hit her. Inspiration in a flood of heat induced shivers. Celeste had wanted passion and spice. She’d found it. All she had to do was write it.
She took the small key from the box and placed it with the diary. She wrapped the locket in tissue paper before placing it back inside the jewelry box. Right now she wanted a hot bubble bath, a cool glass of wine, and her favorite, if only, pair of silk pajamas. She would read a portion of her mother’s diary, and then she would start writing The Locket.
Two hours later, armed with a plate of cheese and crackers and a glass of tea, she curled up on the sofa and opened the diary. A note for her was on the first page.
My sweet Gabriella, please honor one more wish from your mother. Please do not read the last page until your wedding day.
“Oh, Mom, how could you?” She fought her instincts to turn immediately to the last page and smiled to herself as she nibbled on the cheese and studied the childish handwriting beneath the note.
May 1st, 1956
Her mother would have been twelve years old, which explained the cameo picture on the front.
We have new neighbors. Daddy called them fur-en-ers, and I asked Mom what that meant. She said not to pay Daddy no never mind, ‘cause he was pred-just. I wanted to ask what pred-just meant, but she was busy so I climbed my favorite apple tree and watched them move in. They sure had a lot of boxes. And they must be awful rich. Momma called their car a limo or something. It was long and black. Almost fell out of the tree when I saw HIM.
The page ended there, and Gabriella wondered if the “him” was the good-looking boy in the locket. Excited, she turned the page.
Momma baked a cake, and we’re gonna go meet the new neighbors. I didn’t even complain when she made me wear my Sunday dress and shoes. And she brushed my hair until it was all shiny.
Thought Momma was gonna pass out when we stepped inside the big house. She grabbed me and whispered, “Don’t you dare touch anything.” Mrs. Ruiz was nice and invited me and momma to have a cup of tea and a slice of Momma’s cake. I sure wanted one, but then HE came in. His momma told him to show me the horses. He took my hand and led me to the barn. I can’t remember what kind of horses they had. My hand was tingling, and my heart was beating so loud I couldn’t hear him. I’m such an idiot. He probably thought I was deaf and dumb.
Gabriella felt the urge to laugh at and cry for the little girl with her first big crush. She continued to read, enthralled by her mother’s short paragraphs detailing a budding friendship. Armand had been two years older than her mother but never treated her like a child. Instead, he had welcomed her questioning mind once she’d finally found her voice, encouraging her to learn Spanish and teaching her to ride horseback. A growing infatuation and adoration filled the next year.
Gabriella finally closed the book well past midnight. Yawning, she placed it on the coffee table just as her gaze fell on the still-unopened envelope. She’d actually forgotten about it. Now or morning? If it were good news, she would lie awake thinking about it, and if it were bad news, she’d lie awake thinking about it. She could almost hear Maddy’s teasing voice. “Every great adventure in life starts with a sealed envelope.”
Reading her mother’s diary had washed away the day’s disappointments. She could use a little adventure. She crossed to the credenza, picked up the envelope, and opened it before she could change her mind. Gabriella pulled out the single sheet of letterhead, her eyes growing huge as she read. She was never going to sleep tonight.
Dear Ms. Carson,
My client, Armand Ruiz, has heard of your mother’s recent passing. Pursuant to an agreement with your mother, he requests that you visit him in Madrid. He asked me to implore you to make the trip quickly, as his health is deteriorating and there are urgent matters for the two of you to discuss. If not for his health, he would have made the trip to America to see you and pay his final respects to your mother.
I have taken the liberty of purchasing airline fare, as well as tendering a sum of money to take care of any needs you may have prior to leaving America. Should the dates be impossible for you, please contact me immediately. Otherwise, we will expect you by the end of the month.
J. Eduardo Martinez
She refolded the letter and slipped it back inside the envelope. Presumptuous of the lawyer to believe she would just drop everything and rush to Madrid at a moment’s notice. Still, she couldn’t stop the stirring of excitement. She’d always wanted to travel.
Madrid in springtime. She flushed as she remembered the handsome face and dark eyes. Maybe someone was out there who could make her blood boil and her toes curl.