Authors: Barbara Freethy
ONE TRUE LOVE
“To Terry, Always and Forever.”
Windchimes blew in the warm breeze, a robin sang out for its mate to finish the nest before the babies came, and Nick’s guitar played a soothing melody of sleep and love. The porch swing creaked as Lisa stroked her baby’s head, letting the fine strands of black silk curl around her fingers. She pressed the baby closer to her heart. She’d never felt so happy, so complete. Then Nick hit a false chord, a shrieking note that clashed with the springtime harmony. The robins squawked and fluttered and flew away, leaving their nest dark and empty…
Lisa Alvarez jolted awake, her heart racing, her breathing ragged. “It was a dream,” she told herself. “Just a dream.” The pounding on her office door brought her back to reality.
“Elisabeth?” her secretary called.
“Come in,” Lisa said somewhat weakly, still disoriented by the vivid dream.
Her secretary, Marian Griggs, walked into the office with a brightly wrapped box in her hand. “I know you told me not to disturb you, but this just came for you. I thought it might be a wedding present, and well, you know how I am about presents.” Marian set the box down on the desk in front of Lisa and sent her a curious look. “Are you all right?”
Lisa pushed a sweaty strand of hair behind her ear. “I’m fine. I just put my head down for a minute. I was so tired after working all night, I guess I fell asleep.”
“Open the gift,” Marian encouraged.
“There’s no card.” Lisa’s hand shook slightly as she slipped the ribbon off the box and removed the lid. She carefully pulled away the white tissue paper to reveal a charm bracelet that held only one small charm, a pair of gold baby shoes. “Oh, no,” she whispered as she touched the shoes with her fingertip. “Oh, no.” The metal burned her fingers, and she slammed the lid down on the box and took a deep breath.
“What’s wrong?” Marian asked with concern.
“Please, go. Just go.”
Marian looked like she wanted to argue, but then she nodded. “Okay. I’m going.” She walked out of the room, shutting the door quietly behind her.
Lisa took several calming breaths. Why was it all coming back now, when she finally had her life together? After a long moment of indecision, she opened the box once again. This time, she reached for the small envelope lying beneath the bracelet. She slipped it out and opened it.
“Eight years, Lisa. You can push the rest of us away. You can marry this safe, older man, but I will not let you forget her—Robin Nicole Maddux. This bracelet was blessed. If you hold on to it, you will feel the magic. Believe in it now and come home, before it’s too late.”
Eight years, and her mother, Silvia Alvarez, still hoped for a miracle.
When would Silvia learn that there was no magic in the world—only foolish dreams?
Lisa looked at the bracelet once again. It had been blessed by her great-aunt Carmela, who drank tequila for “medicinal purposes” and fashioned jewelry out of gold nuggets she believed were from an ancient Aztec city.
Her mother might believe Carmela was a descendant from the mystical Aztecs and therefore had special powers, but as far as Lisa was concerned, Carmela was nothing more than an old con artist. That’s why Lisa had left the bracelet behind all those years ago—as she had left everything else behind.
Lisa set the box on the edge of the desk and walked over to the window, resting her palms on the windowsill. Below, the streets of downtown Los Angeles bustled with activity, but here in her third-floor office, she was protected from the heat and the smog, the mix of languages, the car horns, the curses, the smells of burritos and quesadillas being sold in tiny taquerias tucked in between the glass and chrome skyscrapers.
She had left Solana Beach, a suburb of San Diego, to come to the sprawling city of Los Angeles, to lose herself in the crowds. It was easy to do that here. Her Mexican/ Irish heritage raised few eyebrows in this city of immigrants. She heard three or four languages every time she stepped on the elevator. No one questioned why her hair was so black, her eyes so blue. No one asked, because no one cared. That was the tradeoff.
For almost eight years she’d lived in L.A.” working her way up from a receptionist in a public relations firm to a senior account executive at one of the most prestigious advertising agencies in Los Angeles. She had changed jobs every few years and apartments almost as frequently, never letting herself get too close or too settled—until now.
In less than a month, she would marry her boss, fifty-two-year-old Raymond Curtis, a man twenty-one years her senior. The age gap didn’t bother her. Raymond was the first man she’d felt comfortable with in a long time. She couldn’t keep running for the rest of her life. It was time to settle down.
Her mother thought she had chosen Raymond because she wanted a father figure, but Lisa had stopped looking for a father years before. Patrick O’Donegan had taken off two days after Lisa’s birth, knowing his family couldn’t accept a child who wasn’t pure Irish.
In truth, Lisa didn’t feel Irish or Mexican. She felt alone. Her mother said she’d been born with an insecure chip on her shoulder.
Maybe so. After all, her father had taken one look at her and run screaming for the hills. Was it any wonder she always anticipated rejection?
As Lisa turned, her gaze was caught by the sudden fluttering of a bird outside the window. The bird had a bright orange chest and a gray coat. An American robin. Lisaswallowed hard as the bird settled on top of the streetlight just a few feet from her office window. She couldn’t imagine how the bird had come to be here, amidst the concrete, the buildings and the smog. She closed her eyes against a wave of memories. But in her mind she could see another robin, a tall tree, a budding nest and Nick holding their baby … no, she wouldn’t remember.
A knock came at her door, and Lisa opened her eyes. The robin had disappeared. Perhaps she had simply imagined its appearance. With a sense of relief, she turned away from the window as her fiancé entered the office.
“I’m back,” Raymond Curtis said, offering her a broad smile.
Raymond was an attractive man with thin brown hair, graying sideburns, and a narrow face. Of average height, he had a lean, wiry look that came from hours of exercising. A noted clotheshorse, he had a closet full of suits and ties for every occasion. Today, he wore his trademark charcoal gray Armani suit, which he fondly referred to as his “pitch” suit. Judging by the smile on his face, his latest pitch had gone well.
“How did it go?” Lisa asked.
“Exceptionally well.” He kissed her on the cheek, then set a box of cereal down on her desk. “I hope you like graham cracker cereal with marshmallows.”
“Can’t say I’ve tried it.”
“It’s new, and the Nature Brand people want to launch the cereal with print, radio and television ads. This is going to be great, Elisabeth.” His eyes lit up at the prospect of landing a big new client. “I need an initial proposal, campaign strategy complete with various slogans and artwork four weeks from today. We’re competing with one other firm, and we’re talking million-dollar account.”
Lisa stared at him in amazement as he rattled off a hectic schedule of meetings and appointments with the Nature Brand people. “Raymond, have you forgotten? We’re getting married in four weeks.”“I know.” The light in his eyes dimmed slightly. “The timing isn’t the best.”
“That’s an understatement.”
“This account is too good to pass up.” He smiled persuasively. “The wedding details are pretty much set. All we have to do is send out the invitations.”
Lisa’s eyes drifted over to the box of invitations sitting on her credenza. The engraved ivory cards still needed to be addressed, sealed and stamped. She tucked a strand of her hair behind one ear.
“I wouldn’t say that’s all we have to do, Raymond. I still have the final fitting of my gown, presents to buy for the bridesmaids you insisted we have, last-minute decisions about flowers, and—”
“Let Mrs. Carstairs handle it.”
“I’m still not comfortable with a wedding consultant planning my wedding.”
Raymond laughed. “That’s her job. Look, I know I’m asking a lot, but this account is just what we’ve been waiting for, especially since losing Bailey Brothers to Beverly Wickham earlier this year. This one will put us back on top.”
“Is Beverly competing for Nature Brand, too?”
Raymond tugged at the knot in his tie. “Unfortunately, yes. There’s one other thing. The honeymoon.”
Lisa stared at him with dismay. “You’re not planning on cancelling the honeymoon?”
“No, of course not.”
“Good, for a minute there …”
“Just cut it short a day or two. If we get this account, Monty Friedman, Nature Brand’s CEO, has asked that we meet the week after our presentation to work out a detailed game plan. I can put him off until Wednesday or Thursday, of course.”
“Of course,” Lisa echoed with a sigh.
“Once we have the campaign up and running, we’ll take two weeks off and go wherever your heart desires. What do you say?”
What could she say? She couldn’t deny Raymond the opportunity to land a big account. The agency was more than just a job to him. It was his life—hers, too. “All right,” she said.
“I knew I could count on you. So, what have you been up to today?” Raymond glanced at her desk, immediately zeroing in on the package. “Hey, what’s this? Did we get a wedding present already?” He reached for the box before she could stop him.
“No. It’s not a wedding present. It’s—”
“A bracelet.” His gaze turned puzzled as he looked into her eyes. “Baby shoes?”
Lisa swallowed hard as she stared at the gold charm bracelet swinging from his fingers. In her mind, she saw another man’s hand, heard another man’s voice.
“I wonder what other charms she’ll get over the years, a baseball bat, a mitt, a basketball,” Nick said with a laugh, his curly brown hair still mussed from his daughter’s restless fingers, his light green eyes twinkling with pleasure.
“She’s a girl,” Lisa replied.
“She can still be an athlete.”
“Like her dad.” Lisa felt Nick’s strong arm slide around her waist.
“Or a writer, like you. In fact, she can be anything she wants to be.
As long as she’s happy.”
“Oh, Nick, you make it easy to believe in the impossible.”
“I don’t believe in the impossible. I believe in you—in us.”
Lisa closed her eyes. Damn that bracelet. She didn’t want to remember.
“Elisabeth, what’s wrong?”
She took a deep breath and opened her eyes. “Nothing is wrong. The bracelet is a gift from my mother. Something old for luck.”
Raymond didn’t look satisfied with her answer. “You did tell her we’re not planning on having children, didn’t you?” he asked, worry running through his usually placid brown eyes.
“Yes, but my mother doesn’t hear anything she doesn’t want to hear. My father was gone for ten years before she admitted he might not be coming back. The woman is the queen of denial.”
“Elisabeth, I raised a son, and I don’t want to do it again. Frankly, I was never good at being a father. Just ask Ray Junior, if you don’t believe me. He’s twenty-five now, and I still don’t know what to say to him.”
Twenty-five! His son was twenty-five, only six years younger than herself. When she’d been in the first grade, Raymond had been having a child. Lisa took another deep breath. The age difference didn’t matter. They had the same goals now. That’s what was important.
“I don’t want children,” she said. “I don’t need to be— a mother.”
He looked deep into her eyes. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely, positively sure.” She refused to let any doubts creep into her voice.
He glanced down at the bracelet in his hand, fingering the tiny gold baby shoes. Finally, he set it back in the box and checked his watch. “What time are you meeting Mrs. Carstairs?”
“Five-thirty at the bridal salon,” she replied with a sigh.
Raymond sent her a curious look. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” She hesitated. “Don’t you think it would be better to have a small, intimate wedding?”
“How small would you suggest?”
“You and me and two witnesses,” she said hopefully.
“Don’t be silly. I have family, friends, business associates. I want to show you off. Every time I see you I thank God no one snatched you up before now.”
Lisa’s heart stopped. She had to tell him. She’d been trying to for days, but the right moment had never arrived.
She stopped as the intercom buzzed, feeling both relieved and annoyed by the interruption. She reached over and picked up the phone.
“Maggie Scott on line one, Elisabeth,” the receptionist said. Lisa hesitated. Maggie Scott—another voice from her past. Why were they all coming back now—when she finally had her life under control? “Tell her I’ll be with her in a minute.”
“Problems?” Raymond asked.
“It’s an old friend of mine, Maggie Scott. We grew up together in Solana Beach. We used to be best friends.”
“Used to be?”
“She got married, had kids. I moved away.” Lisa waved her hand in the air. “I guess we drifted apart.”
Lisa nodded, knowing they hadn’t just drifted apart. She’d turned her back on Maggie, the same way she’d turned her back on her mother and …
“Stop by my office when you’re done,” Raymond said, turning toward the door. “We’ll discuss our plans for the weekend. Monty Friedman has invited us to a party tomorrow afternoon. Everyone will be there. It will be a good opportunity for you to meet the key players.”
“Okay,” Lisa replied, her mind more on Maggie than the upcoming party. She was suddenly filled with a sense of foreboding. The past was catching up to the present, and she wasn’t ready yet.
Maggie Scott pulled the phone cord around the corner of the desk in the upstairs hall, searching for a quiet place to talk. She could hear her thirteen-year-old daughter, Roxanne, practicing cheerleading routines in the living room with three other giggling, adolescent girls. Her eight-year-old son, Dylan, was playing Sega Genesis on the television in the family room, yelling “Victory!” every time he knocked out a warrior. Her five-year-old daughter, Mary Bea, was having a tantrum in her bedroom. Even with the door closed, Maggie could hear Mary Bea crying, her sobs intermixed with defiant shouts of “I don’t like you, and I wish I had another mommy!”