Read an Excerpt
Rosa Franco closed her eyes and lost herself in the design plan: walls bathed in rich ivory, the subdued elegance of the marble that would edge the fireplace, matching sofas adorned in buttery, cream-colored fabric set off by jewel-toned pillows. It was the pillows that would really put the sprinkles on the sundae, so to speak. They murmured, "Stuffy library? Not at all. Come and sit. You're finally home."
Home. It was the heart of every great room design, to capture the essence of home in the most beautiful way possible. She'd done it with this library. The graphics that scrolled on the laptop in front of her and the paper mockups were just a taste, of course, confirmation of something she already knew.
Spot on, Rosa.
The voice seemed to come from far away. She was still gripped by the magic of her design.
"Yo, sis?" Her twin brother Cy's wild head of dark blond hair swam into view as she snapped back to the present. He was wiggling his fingers in front of her face, as if trying to free her from a hypnotist's spell.
Mr. Charles Frasier, a highly regarded estate planning lawyer, looked extremely uncomfortable perched in a wingback chair in the Dollars and Sense Design showroom, a painstakingly decorated oasis in the charming house Rosa and her brother rented for use as a business and their residence. The lovely old home in Danville, complete with small kitchen downstairs and a cramped living space upstairs, was expensive, but the location was well calculated. One of the wealthiest suburbs of Oakland and San Francisco, Danville was a town that screamed "affluent" and "quaint." It was also convenient to a major freeway and had a median annual income of $129,000 for crying out loud. A suburban haven filled with people like Charles Frasier. The lawyer picked at a dot of lint on his immaculate suit pants. "The design is fine."
Fine? Rosa resisted the urge to correct him. It was more than fine. It was perfect, down to the rich wood bookcases and sleek brass lamp that would occupy a cozy corner. "I'm glad you like it." She flashed him a brilliant smile. "When shall we get started?"
He stood. "That's what I've been trying to explain."
Baggy, the frightening doglike creature that Cy had dragged home the week before, stood and peeked out from his favorite spot behind the curtain. Fortunately, Mr. Frasier did not see him.
They all stared at each other.
Rosa had the inkling that somehow, something had gone terribly wrong.
"We are not going to get started, Miss Franco. Sorry."
"We're not? Why aren't we? What would be the reason for not?" She was babbling. Cy shrugged his wide shoulders, giving her a "Who knows?" look.
Frasier checked his watch. "Yes, well, the design for the library is fine, as I said. That is not the problem. Violet and I have decided to sell rather than remodel. It's a seller's market, and our home in Atherton will do."
His words made sense, they all had the appropriate number of vowels, consonants and such, yet she found she could not comprehend. She'd spent hours. His wife, Violet, loved Rosa's design ideas. It was the big moment for Dollars and Sense, the job that would put them on the map.
"You will be compensated for your time. Good luck." Frasier turned on his Florsheims and walked out the door, leaving a whisper of Drakkar Noir behind.
In shock, Rosa tottered after him, down the front steps.
Danville was filled with people like Mr. Charles Frasier. People who could discard homes as if they were used socks. People like Mr. Frasier, she was convinced, had not spent their childhoods searching for that elusive paradise. Not like Rosa, who had been mesmerized by those strange and wonderful families that stayed in one precious place, decorating their homes with a wash of memories and embellishing odd corners with bits of family history that gave meaning to every last nook and cranny.
She watched Mr. Frasier climb into his pristine Mercedes SL550 Roadster and drive away.
As she sank down on the front step, Baggy snuffled his crooked nose into her thigh, leaving a wet smear on her best pair of pants. He stared at her with his one steady eye, the other wandering off to admire the view somewhere else. She never should have let Cy take that night job at the pet store. So far, they'd collected a dozen unwanted goldfish, an unnaturally angry cat who'd run away the day after Cy brought it home and now Baggy, a dog that was, quite simply, the ugliest animal she'd ever clapped eyes on. It didn't matter to Cy. Ugly or not, nothing helpless would ever be abandoned on his watch.
Maybe that's why Cy stays with you. The thought gave her a stab of pain. Cy was everything she was not, his hair fair and curly where hers was stick straight and black. Softhearted where she was driven to succeed. Athletic. Resilient. Forgiving.
Rosa was a different design altogether. She thought about her father and the last time he'd called. She'd refused to speak to him. Cy had gabbed on just as if the man had not betrayed them on the cusp of their sixteenth birthday. She had no time for their father's excuses. All that mattered was making her business thrive, to show herself and the world that, this time, failure was not an option.
"I can't understand this," she said to Baggy, who had insinuated his ten-pound body under her elbow. "I made a business plan."
Cy stuck his head out the front door. "What should I make for dinner? Or do you want takeout?"
"We can't afford takeout," she grumbled. "I've got the marinara reheating on the stove. I started it before Mr. Mercedes canceled us."
"Oh, huh. Marinara."
"What's wrong with my marinara?" The answer was quite simple; their mother wasn't alive to help her make it. The memory of those glorious pots of sauce bubbling on the stove were almost tangible, the smell of the crushed rosemary that had grown in a cracked terra-cotta pot seemed to permeate the air even now. Frank Sinatra music had usually played in counterpoint to the gurgling of the sauce, and more often than not, her father's deep baritone warbled a harmony.
Rosa put Baggy down, supporting the awkward creature until he got all his legs working in unison. "Do you remember how Mom used to plop the tomatoes into boiling water and they'd sort of pop out of their skins?"
"I tried that, but it didn't work." She swallowed against a sudden thickness in her throat. "I squished them with my fingers."
"That's okay," Cy said, joining her. "Mom wouldn't mind."
"And I didn't have any fresh garlic so I used a lot from the jar."
Her voice dropped to a near whisper. "And I left out the wine."
She could still hear their mother adding a splash of red to the marinara and a much bigger splash into her own glass. One glass, followed by another.
She hadn't realized she was crying until Cy embraced her, the only other person in the world who could understand. "Cheer up, kiddo. Not everyone is gifted in a culinary way."
Wiping her eyes on her sleeve, she gently elbowed him away. "Our business is failing, we have rent due at the end of the month and zero, count them, zero clients, and you're going to tell me my marinara sauce is bad?"
He flashed his effervescent smile. "Not bad, just aggressive."
She would have smiled if she had the energy. Instead, she put into words the worry that had plagued her the most in the past four years. "I should have tried another law school." It was ridiculous. No other school would take her after she was kicked out. She swallowed the shame of it. Cheaterthat's what they'd thought of her. Heat rose to her cheeks. But she wasn't a cheater, just a naive girl who'd been stupid enough to put her future in the hands of the wrong man.
Cy laughed, a boisterous, rolling chuckle. "Right. You hated law school, remember? Even if the thing with Foster hadn't happened, you spent every moment of the case-analysis lectures imagining what the room would look like with pine paneling and silk drapes." He hopped down the steps, reaching for a leaf that graced the spotless front path. Not surprising. Cy could stay still for no more than three minutes, barring sedation.
But law school was where the successful people went, the ones who were going to make something of themselves. The image popped into her head before she could stop it. Pike, the golden boy from high school. Privileged and perfect, or so she'd thought until the accusation from her father turned him into her enemy. Pike's derisive laughter still rang in her ears from one particularly horrific day when her mother had shown up at the high school three months into Rosa's freshman year, wearing only a bra and panties, clutching a bottle of whiskey and waving to everyone as if she was queen of the British Isles.
Then, like petals borne away by a fickle wind, her high school friends weren't her friends anymore.
And Pike finally had his revenge.
Rosa combed her hands through her hair and groaned. It wasn't the time for a stagger down that blighted memory lane.
The mailman pulled up and Cy trotted off to greet him, engaging him in conversation about their shared passion, the San Francisco Giants. There would be nothing but bills and a myriad of credit card applications, as if they needed any more opportunities to climb deeper into an abyss of debt. Cy thumbed through the stack as he came back up the walk, tearing open an envelope in that messy way that bugged her to no end. She looked at Baggy who now lay on his back, one eye fixed dreamily on her.
"Baggy, I admire your ability to stay calm while all around you is turning to poop."
"Rosa," Cy said, his eyes riveted on the letter in front of him.
"Unless it's a paying client, I don't want to hear about it."
"Uh, I think you do."
She shot to her feet. "No, really, Cy. If it's bad news, I just can't take any more right now." She began to pace. "I've got to think of a way out of this, or we're flat-out ruined. Do you understand me?" An acrid smell drifted into her nostrils a moment before her brain filled in the pertinent details. Kitchen. Marinara. Stove. Burning!
With a shriek she ran into the kitchen just in time to see the lid blow off the pot, showering the stove and Rosa with hot, red sauce. She did not have time to indulge the pain as the sauce ignited on the burner, followed by the potholder Cy had left too close to the heat.
Smoke billowed. Sauce bubbled. Rosa scurried around, swatting at the flames with a heavy kitchen towel. When the fire was out, she turned wearily to her brother, sauce spatters on the front of her shirt, the smoking potholder in her hand. She stuck a finger in the sauce and tasted it. "You're right. On top of everything else, my marinara is horrible."
Cy stood there, still clutching the letter, a look of complete shock on his face. "Put down the potholder, sis. You're not going to believe this."
Rosa was still in a cloud of disbelief the next morning as she guided her Nissan along Highway 92, Cy sitting next to her with Baggy curled across his lap. She relished the sight of the Pacific Ocean crashing against the rocky shore as they made their way to the tiny coastal town of Tumbledown, just south of Half Moon Bay. The population on the official sign read 314, but that had been erected before the birth of twin boys to the town's dentist, she'd been told by her almost-aunt, Bitsy, the last time she'd visited. A min-iscule country store served the basic needs of the seaside community, along with Tad's Bait and Tackle, which also sold ice cream in the summer. Small houses in a variety of styles and conditions dotted the landscape. A series of ramshackle farms offered opportunities for city slickers to do everything from picking pumpkins to cutting their own Christmas trees, depending on the season.
The faded, striped awning outside Julio's Book Shoppe flapped in the breeze, just as it did in Rosa's memory. She'd spent a summer crammed into the tiny shop with the corpulent Julio, working the counter and shelving books. Julio's was likely the only bookstore in the civilized world where books were arranged by the author's first name.
"I nearly froze to death in Korea," Julio proclaimed many times, wide face gleaming with sweat. "Did something to my brain. Since the fifties, I can't remember last names for anything."
In Julio's store, patrons would find Ernest Hemmingway's masterpieces snuggled right up to Eugene Fitzwater's Guide to Forest Mushrooms.
She shook away the wave of nostalgia. "Are you absolutely sure about this, Cy?"
"Like I said the first sixteen times, Rosa, I'm sure."
Her heart kept up its rapid staccato, as it had from the moment Cy told her the news. Her tiny decorating business, the humble Dollars and Sense Design, had won the lottery, or more specifically, the chance to enter the Great Escapes magazine contest. Ten teams, ten different locations and a budget of five thousand dollars. The winner scored a photo spread in Great Escapes and the gaggle of clients that would go with it.
"Tell me again," she said.
Cy rolled his eyes and ran a hand through his mop of blond hair. "Bitsy called me three weeks ago and told me her very own Pelican Inn was one of the locations. She insisted that I enter our business in the contest and, whammo, a miracle occurred. We were actually selected."
Rosa shook her head. "I can't believe it."
"They probably liked the sappy emotional angle."
"What sappy emotional angle?"
Cy raised an eyebrow. "We spent three years of our lives here when Dad went AWOL. Bitsy might as well be a relative."
Rosa nodded. No need to say the rest. They both knew Bitsy had had no business taking in two abandoned teenagers when their father took off, indulging in one of the strange fits of wanderlust that had seized him since their mother passed away at the beginning of their sophomore year. It was not the first time he'd left. Manny Franco might have been trying to escape the overwhelming responsibility of raising two motherless teens. Or it could have been an inability to handle his own grief. In any case, they'd awakened shortly after their sixteenth birthday to find a pile of money on the table and a scrawled note.
Gotta get away for a while. Take care of each other. I'm sorry. Daddy
A "while" had stretched into days, then into months and finally years, with only occasional phone calls and quick visits, their father's behavior growing more and more bizarre with every passing year. His last text to Cy was six months ago, indicating he was in the Southwest fossil hunting in the desert with a bunch of college kids. It did no good to remind him he was an insurance investigator, not Indiana Jones. He'd lost something when their mother died, and Rosa was sure he would spend the rest of his life trying to find it.