ECHOES: Secrets Series #3
Bethany House Publishers
About the Book
The whimper came, no more than a note of longing --- or fear --- in a child's throat. Sofie reacted instinctively, each nerve pulled taut. But when she opened her eyes, there was no warm, damp cheek, no tiny brow wrinkled with sleep-swept worries. She sank back as sorrow, marrow deep, found a familiar fit.
Her wrists stung with memory. The damp bed sheet weighed on her chest like water, pressing her down, rising over her chin, despair so complete it became a force. Shaking, she stared up at the darkness, refusing to give in. Chi ha dato ha dato. What's done is done. She could not turn back time, or change one detail of what was, or what had been.
She got up and went into the bathroom. The faucet squeaked; the pipe clunked. Water sputtered, then rushed with a rust scented stream. Memory pressed again as she stepped over the side of the tub, red-stained water lapping. She turned, and the sting of hot spray drove it away.
After drying her hair, she pulled it into a ponytail, dressed in gray cashmere cardigan, charcoal slacks. Black camel coat, blue and turquoise scarf. She slid her black chenille gloves down the banister of the inner staircase and stepped out to the street her family had lived on for three generations. Belmont. Little Italy of the Bronx. Each shop, each curb familiar; each face knowing too much. A blessing and a burden.
Fog issued from her mouth. Brittle frost crunched beneath her feet. The biting January wind stung her nose. But it wasn't far, just around the corner, a couple of blocks. Shivering, she climbed the steps to the church and slipped inside the massive doors to the sanctuary scented with polish and prayers.
The bands around her chest loosened. Her muffled steps carried her midway down the center aisle, where she knelt among the donne anziane in their black scarves and thick stockings.
Mariana Dimino clawed her way, pew by pew, to the place where Sofie knelt. She paused, her eyes a portal. "Finchè c'è vita c'è speranza," she murmured.
Where there's life, there's hope. Sofie let the words penetrate, grateful for the gift. Hope was precious, to be neither hoarded nor spent lightly. And so was life.
The thought resonated as she walked back to her family's apartment building, noting each detail of her surroundings, her cocoon. She felt a metamorphic stirring. It was time for change. She'd go straight up to Momma and --- Her cell phone vibrated.
She answered, but no one responded. Whoever was placing the calls waited each time for her to answer, stayed on the line as long as she did without ever saying a word. No breathing or threats, but the silence unsettled her more.
The number was blocked, so she could not return the calls. Could it be someone she had counseled? She'd given none of them her personal number, though she was reachable through the hotline. If they'd gone to the trouble to get it some other way, why wouldn't they say what they wanted?
"I'm not sure what you're hoping to accomplish by this. If you need something, say so."
"If you won't tell me, I can't help you." She disconnected and looked back over her shoulder. A prickle itched along her neck, the feeling of being watched. Her tendons tightened, even though she guessed it was only a shade from the past.
She went into the hall and navigated past bicycles with training wheels, basketballs, skateboards, snow boots, and other kid clutter. So many children in this building, and she their favorite auntie, with no kids of her own to distract her. Nicky cried upstairs, and her sister Monica hollered for Bobby to quiet him, not even noticing the irony.
Sofie smiled. She'd miss this boisterous scene. She loved them all. She just couldn't stay there anymore. Mariana Dimino's words had awakened her. She'd been going through the motions, lost in a semi-sleep of doubt and regret. But she was alive, and there was hope that she could squeeze through the familial cocoon that had shielded her for the last six years and force strength into her wings.
She climbed the stairs to the second floor. Momma was up; she could tell by the scorched aroma leaking into the hall. This would be the first tug, the hardest squeeze. She rapped the door, and her father let her in as he left for work. "See ya, Pop."
He tapped her shoulder in passing. It would be better to let Momma get used to the idea without Pop's concerns piling on. Even before Tony's death, Momma had done everything she could to keep her chicks near. Only Lance had flown the coop, his restless wanderings a constant concern for the woman wiping off the kitsch-cluttered counter.
The open window let the smoke out and the cold in. Black soggy crumbs littered the sink, where Momma had scraped the charred surface from the toast. Chunks clung to the drain like flies.
"Don't worry, Momma. Pop's glad for a full stomach."
"You think Lance would say so?" Her mother shook the towel over the sink and hung it on the rack.
Lance would try hard not to say anything, but if any woman could look inside her children, it was Doria Lo Vecchio Michelli. Lance and Nonna Antonia had run the restaurant downstairs and provided feasts for the family for years. Both wonderful cooks had suffered Momma's kitchen handicap with considerable restraint, but she knew.
"Why are you thinking about Lance, Momma?"
"I always think about Lance. I think about all of you. I worry." She wiped her hands on the apron nipping into her shapely waist. Momma had assets, Grazie a Dio. Pop knew what he was getting and what he wasn't.
Sofie drew a breath. "I'm leaving."
"You just got here." Momma ran the cloth under the water and squeezed it out.
"I mean I'm going away."
"Madonna mia." Momma pressed a hand to her heart and turned. "Going away? How can you go away?"
Sofie sighed. "I need to."
"What about school? You worked yourself ragged."
"My dissertation's been approved. I can write it anywhere, check in by phone and electronically."
"But…" Momma's face darkened. Her hand slid to her throat. "You found them."
Sofie shook her head. "No, Momma. It has nothing to do with Eric." They both knew she lied. In a sense every day, every moment, every decision had to do with him. "I just need a change. I can't keep waiting for something that isn't going to happen."
"It never should have."
She wouldn't argue. All conventional wisdom came down on Momma's side of the scale. But even with all the pain that had followed, she could not wish it hadn't. "I need to move on."
Momma wrung her hands, but on that point they agreed. "Then go to Lance. He'll look out for you. You look out for him."
At thirty, she shouldn't need her little brother to look after her. He was only now finding his way. But it was as good a suggestion as any, and the other side of the country might be just far enough to forget.
Miraculous. There was no other word for it. In the still of the morning, Lance had reached out. Bathed by the golden shaft of sunlight in the dormant Sonoma garden, Rese had taken his hand.
After their strife and disappointment, that small connection felt huge, extraordinary. It was more than he'd expected from Rese Barrett, the woman who'd infuriated and intrigued him, the one he'd given up for a cause, who even now doubted his sincerity, his fidelity. He drew her close, tucked his finger under her chin and raised her face, knowing better but unable to stop the magnetic draw of her mouth.
Her lips parted. "I hope you're not burning that frittata."
He jolted back to reality. This was Rese, and if he thought he was off the hook that easy, he could fagedda-bout-it.
"Have I ever burned anything?" Besides his bridges, time and again.
"Now isn't the time to start."
He threaded her fingers with his. "I won't."
She reached up and touched the moisture under his eyes. The breeze had almost absorbed it, but not quite. He wasn't sure where the tears had come from or why, hadn't really known they were there. Before, he'd have made excuses. Now, well…
"Lance, last night…"
He looked across the garden. "I guess God wanted to do something." Her stoic face was more than half skeptical. "It wasn't me, Rese."
"The baby's palate was cleft."
He nodded. "The lip looked split."
"Well, then it wasn't." He spread his hand, recalling his shock when he'd lifted it from the baby's face. Maybe bad light or panic had made them jump to conclusions. Or else God had done something amazing, something heartbreakingly beautiful and terrifying.
Whatever the case, it wasn't a place he could stay. Too sublime, as the psalmist said. He needed something real. "Let's take the Harley for a spin."
"Star can feed the troops."
She sighed. "Lance…"
"Just a ride." He needed the road, the speed, the distance. He needed her, but didn't say so. "Baxter can chaperone."
At the sound of his name, the spaniel-retriever mix trotted over and stuffed his nose between their joined fingers.
"That would be animal endangerment."
He rubbed the dog's head. "We'll let him decide."
Rese snorted. "As though he has anything like free will where you're concerned. As though anyone does."
Star stepped through the doorway, her head a white-blond blizzard after the drug-crazed hacking she'd given her hair in the Bronx. He didn't know who had held her prisoner and fed her the cocktail that had left tracks on her waifish arms, but he could see the healing that had occurred here at Rese's Sonoma villa. Not as dramatic and instantaneous as Maria's baby, but real and lasting he prayed.
She rested her forearm across her head and asked, "Is breakfast ready?"
"Nearly." He no longer expected to solve the problems of the world, just to make his piece of it better if he could and get through each day without messing up too bad.
Rese stepped back. "Come inside, Lance."
* * *
In the warmth of the big stone kitchen, Rese studied the still-nameless newborn. From his shaggy black hair to his swaddled legs, Maria's baby lay in Lance's forearms, giving off a sweet, yeasty aroma. He had his young mother's flat, square face and low forehead, and his small dark eyes looked up at Lance as though he had all the answers in the world.
Maria, ravenous after last night's delivery, devoured her meal as though she might not receive another. Lance didn't tell her they weren't revoking her meal card. He obviously enjoyed the gusto with which she inhaled his food.
Beaming at the baby in Lance's arms, Antonia cooed, "Such a good strong boy."
How could she know that, when the baby did nothing but stare at Lance? Behind them, Star placed a filled plate on a tray, along with a glass of juice and a foamy latte. Mom wasn't coming down?
This was hardly the uncomplicated environment Rese had envisioned when she'd brought her mother home from the mental health facility, but it wasn't good for her to isolate from the real world. She'd better check in. "I'll take it up."
"That's all right." Star lifted the tray. Somehow she had become Mom's primary caregiver; Star, who'd once believed a dead mother better than her own supremely selfish one. Of course, Mom had not really been dead. That was only the lie people had told to the daughter she'd attempted to kill.
With a sigh, Rese took a bite of the savory frittata and gave Lance the appreciative smile he expected. For him, a meal was more than food in the stomach. It was a cultural event of connection, acceptance, and relationship. His cooking made that comprehensible.
She got up and washed her plate at the sink. Maria brought hers over, uncertain what to do next, though the wet circles on her shirt were an indication. Rese told her, "I'll wash it." The words meant nothing to the Hispanic girl, but she used them anyway.
Maria turned back to Lance, her eyes wonder-lit. He smiled, reducing the girl to mush. Rese shook her head as Maria padded back upstairs to the room originally furnished for guests at the inn, and Lance followed with the infant.
Maria didn't seem to realize she was allowed in the rest of the house, even though Lance had told her she was. She was used to being crammed into a single room. At least instead of six men, she only shared this one with her baby.
Rese turned back to the sink and scrubbed the frittata pan in the hot sudsy water.
Moments later, Lance's breath warmed her neck. "Yes."
She tensed. "Yes what?"
"I want kids."
"What?" Had he forgotten his ninety-year-old grandmother sitting at the table? By Antonia's chuckle neither one of them had. But then his whole family aired their private matters for all to hear.
"You asked me in New York how I felt about kids." He turned her around. "Now I'm telling you."
"You hold one baby --- "
"I've held tons of babies."
She expelled a hard breath. "Can you see I'm washing dishes?"
"You look good in suds." He circled her waist with his arms, and her heart took off running. His magnetic gaze turned her to putty, worse than Maria. Amusement deepened the corners of his mouth. Why was he so infuriatingly charming?
Lance Michelli made her feel and think and do things she'd had no intention of doing. He'd broken through her insulation and made her care --- not just for him, but his family, his friends, even her own friends in a different way, and most of all herself. He'd shared his faith, his strength, his doubts, his weaknesses. She was so seriously in love it hurt. And it was the hurt she couldn't get past.
His phone rang. With a sigh, he answered it. "Sof. How you doin'?" He raised his brows at his grandmother. Antonia, too, seemed surprised.
It must be his sister Sofie, the only person in his family who hadn't shared her life story --- though the one thing she had confided haunted.
"Yeah, sure," Lance said. "Let me call you back." He disconnected and turned. "What would you think of Sofie coming out?"
"Maybe stay awhile."
Stay. In addition to him and his grandmother, Star and Mom and a teenage mother and her baby. She'd thought she wasn't running an inn! Thought she'd made that clear. But it didn't matter what she thought. Lance always found a way around.
"Isn't she in school?" A doctoral program no less. Sofie's focus had seemed as tight as her own. She couldn't want to leave that.
"Her dissertation's been approved. She can write it here, then go back to defend it."
"Oh." Rese rubbed her temples and did a mental room check: Star in the Rain Forest, Mom the Rose Trellis, Maria and the baby in Jasmine. Her own suite was downstairs off the kitchen. Since Lance and his grandmother were in the carriage house, that left Seascape for Sofie. Or she supposed Sofie could room with Antonia as she had in the Bronx, and Lance could be back in the room where he'd started --- that fateful day he'd walked onto her work site with his earring and his swagger and the cross of Christ tattooed on his shoulder blade so he'd never forget to carry his own.
"It's kind of a big deal, her asking." Lance rubbed his palms together. "She hasn't left home since… for a long time."
Rese nodded. Another mouth, another bed. Lance was used to chaos. He fed on it. She was used to solitude, and while she didn't exactly feed on it, at least it didn't overwhelm her. Now she felt like a Jenga tower with one more support beam removed.
"I'm sure she'd kick in something toward expenses."
Or not. Lance was generous, as she'd seen with the change bowl back in his Bronx apartment. He and Chaz filled and Rico drained. Lance wasn't employed at the moment, but with all he did at the villa, he earned his and Antonia's keep many times over.
Dad's life insurance paid for Mom's care; Star applied her trust money from the heiress mother she despised. For Antonia's part, there was still a cellar full of Prohibition-vintage wine, valued up to a couple thousand dollars each bottle. Maria had yet to contribute anything except the infant everyone doted on.
Rese didn't mind being the only one with an actual income. She'd worked since she was just a girl tagging along to Dad's renovations. He'd developed her skill, and she'd made it her craft. Her life.
Buying the villa to renovate and run as an inn had been a knee-jerk reaction to his accidental death. An ill-fated attempt to fulfill his dream of a bed-and-breakfast --- a dream he would never have actualized either. They weren't people persons. Yet she was being asked to provide shelter to one more wayfarer.
Of course, with Sofie in the last available room, she could honestly say no to any more strangers. Relieved at the thought, she nodded. "Okay."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure." Renovating priceless old buildings took her away and provided hours alone in her zone. The physical labor helped her breathe. Dad's tragic death had almost destroyed it, but little by little she'd reclaimed her birthright. If Lance wanted another body to tend at the villa, it was fine by her.
Excerpted from ECHOES: Secrets Series #3 © Copyright 2017 by Kristen Heitzmann. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House Publishers. All rights reserved.
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