by Melissa Price
Age is just a number—right?
That’s not her first thought when four-time Oscar winning actress Katarina Verralta meets the younger Julia Dearling. Caught in a monsoon, the movie star exits the dark desolate interstate in search of someplace to eat and stay for the night.
Julia Dearling, owner of the Starlight Diner, is stranded in her desert parking lot with a bygone battery and the memory of her newly dead relationship. When Katarina pulls in, neither of them guess that their life is about to turn upside-down and inside-out.
In a town as big as a noodle, Desert Bluff has no motels. So Julia serves dinner to Katarina at the diner and then offers up her sculpting studio as a place for Katarina to stay.
Drawn together in the night, their intoxicating romance begins. But when age is front and center and fame is at stake, the closeted movie star must face her reckoning.
Smile Number Seven promises that second chance every true love deserves.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Most people admit to having an ultimate screen idol—that one movie star they consider to be drool-worthy. But could anyone ever imagine meeting and falling in love with that person in real life? Isn’t that what the Freebie-5 list is for? For the fantasy of having the opportunity?
A simple writing exercise years ago had me wondering what would happen if a young unknown woman met her much older movie idol by chance and then sparks flew.
Fast forward to a few years ago when Bella Books had a call for submissions for their Happily Ever After anthology. I dusted off those seminal characters who had never left me, and I crafted the short story titled, The Desert Diner.
Once I’d finished writing it however, I realized that a much deeper journey was about to begin. One in which the older, closeted, Oscar-winning Katarina Verralta would have to face a self-reckoning if she was to ever attain what had always eluded her—true love.
Several years Katarina’s junior, Julia Dearling takes the leap of faith with her because what could possibly go wrong? Right?
The plot for Smile Number Seven was born.
Together, Katarina and Julia told me their story as they navigated the chasms of age, culture, and lifestyle. They didn’t disappoint.
In their world, the myriad differences ultimately became meaningless in the face of a once-in-a-lifetime love.
By the end of Smile Number Seven, they had delivered and sealed their unique brand of happily ever after.
But what I hadn’t realized until the end of Smile Number Seven were two very important things: 1.) An entire universe can grow from a seed, and 2.) After all the years that Julia and Katarina had inhabited the same story file, they must have gotten to know each other really well."
Pin’s Reviews - A great Hollywood romance novel that goes straight on my re-read list. The book was practically a page-turner with very good pacing…Fifty chapters and 95,000 words led from a fateful encounter in a California desert through a beautiful clandestine 26 years age gap love story with a few twists and turns towards a very satisfying ending. Add to that some drama, a plausible main conflict, grand romantic gestures, an entourage of secondary characters, great dialogue, a nice dose of humor... and you have an awesome read which I could easily recommend to all romance fans.
The story is told from both Katrina and Juliette’s point of view, which in this case I think was very important to do, especially with the ups and downs from both sides. The pace was perfect and gave enough at the end that I felt the characters got their happy ever after.
This book has a few great tropes but my favourite is the age-gap romance. It really added a lovely extra element to the story. I loved Julia’s character best. She was so loving and forthright. The idea of this beautiful creature being hidden in the closet was just damn sad, but don’t you worry, she holds her own.
For that singular moment, Katarina Verralta held her breath—ignored her racing heartbeat that rippled across the space-time continuum. I’d trade two of my Oscars for this one! she thought.
From the list of names the presenter read, all she heard was, “Katarina Verralta for Allies of Night.” On the edge of her seat, she watched the actor pull the card from the envelope in slow motion. The name he repeated belonged to someone else.
The next instant would turn out to be her least appreciated performance of the year—the one for which no gold statue was at stake. Katarina convincingly cheered for her rival’s Best Actress win.
If I’d been this good on-screen, I’d be walking up there right now! she thought.
Katarina smiled and applauded vigorously. She wondered how many cocktails it would take to erase the words from her brain: “And the Oscar goes to Britney Cavell.” Like the incessant ding of an unanswered phone, the name echoed in her head. Cavell.
From her front-row seat, Katarina watched Cavell cradle the Oscar, then produce an on-demand tear that segued brilliantly into her rehearsed visage: feigned humility.
Katarina grunted. Jesus, I taught her that expression! Just keep smiling.
Cavell ended her acceptance speech with a nod to her competitors, singling out Katarina, “who I grew up watching and emulating. I share this with you, old friend.”
The camera that broadcasted that moment around the world captured a cutaway star-shot of Katarina’s ebullience—as Oscar-winning as Cavell’s.
The bitch just had to throw the age shots at me. “Old friend!” Grew up watching me? You’re 39, for god’s sake, not 19!
Katarina responded with Award Ceremony Smile Number Four: plasticine encased in polyurethane, it beamed delight with a dash of nostalgia.
From the seat to her right, her assistant Gigi patted her leg and applauded her graciousness. The actress waved to her worldwide audience through the camera lens, but on the inside this amounted to making a disappointing cameo in someone else’s blockbuster film, briefer even than the screen time of a supporting role.
Katarina scanned her costars from Allies of Night who had won Oscars for their work and smiled her seal of approval—the dethroned queen lauding her subjects with a nod. Suddenly, her Spanx felt very tight, the Versace gown strangled her ample breasts, and the theater temperature baked her two layers of makeup. She tossed back her long chestnut-brown waves and used Award Ceremony Smile Number Two to hide her broken heart.
Katarina toughed-out the Best Picture category, counting down the moments until she could leave. Upon her exit from the Dolby Theater, she signed some autographs and posed for the paparazzi.
“Katarina, Star Cable News. How about an interview?”
Katarina pivoted and smiled for the camera. “Sure, call my publicist,” she said in a throaty alto Italian accent.
“Katarina, look this way!” another photographer called out.
Then, “Miss Verralta, over here.”
One after the next, a hundred stuttering clicks delivered the message that the world still loved her. She knew how to dazzle in the lights—she’d grown up studying photos of every movie icon, and their class and style in Hollywood’s golden age.
“Look! It’s Britney Cavell!” a fan blurted out.
In a swarm, the colony of worshipers followed the clique of photographers; admirers surrounded Cavell, leaving Katarina Verralta a red carpet orphan.
Gigi had her limo timed perfectly; the door was open and waiting. Katarina paused before getting in. She filled her lungs with Hollywood night air and observed the parade of camera-ready faces vying for their moment in the press. The crowd swelled outward toward Cavell, with fans reaching, calling out to the Oscar winner from behind the barricades.
Britney posed, signed a few autographs, and searched into the near distance until her eyes met Katarina’s.
“Get me out of this quicksand,” said Katarina, turning away quickly for the refuge of her limo.
“Here.” Gigi offered the actress a glass of champagne.
Katarina waved it away. “Pour me the hard stuff,” she said as the limo pulled onto Hollywood Boulevard.
Gigi had the vodka waiting. “You were the one who deserved that award, Rina. Britney Cavell is nowhere near your caliber.”
“Thank you, Gigi, but I pay you to say that.”
Gigi took a swig of the champagne Katarina had declined. “Fine. But this time I mean it. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve snubbed you two years in a row. Everyone knows you’re the biggest draw at the box office, and the world loves you.”
Katarina downed the vodka. “A lot of good that did me tonight.”
“Shake it off. We’re going to have some fun at the studio after-party.”
“I think I’d like to skip that. I don’t want to see Britney Cavell again. Ever.”
“Honey, you’re the star of your movie. You can’t bail.”
“Okay, one hour. That’s it. Then I’m out of there.”
They rode in silence most of the way until Katarina’s cell phone rang. Gigi pulled it from her purse. “Right on cue. It’s Cavell.”
Katarina took the phone, turned it off, and handed it back to Gigi. “There. One problem solved.”
The following morning, Clay Hart drifted into Katarina’s kitchen bright and early at noon. As usual, he entered through the sliding doors from the lush garden that led to the pool house he occupied. “Morning, Gigi.” He smiled and reached for the coffee pot.
“You’re a ray of sunshine this morning,” Gigi answered from her seat at the table.
“You jealous that I met Harry Orlon last night?”
Gigi chuckled. “Met the man named by People magazine as the sexiest man alive? I’d say you two did more than meet.”
Clay winked at her. “He just left the pool house.” Clay poured coffee into his mug, added a tablespoon of heavy cream, a heaping teaspoon of brown sugar, and two shakes of organic cocoa powder.
“Really?” Gigi said, amused.
“Really,” he replied matter-of-factly.
“So…was this but an Oscar-night dalliance, or are we seeing Harry again?”
Clay laughed. “I don’t know about you, but I am.” He planted his slight five-foot-nine frame opposite her and took a long sip of coffee. “Nectar of the Gods.”
“Not the South American gods. Where is she and how is she doing this morning?” he asked.
“How would I know?”
“You’re her personal assistant.”
“Well, you’re her personal manager. Since it’s noon and we haven’t seen her yet, maybe she needs to be managed. Again—your domain.”
“Managed and perhaps ‘assisted,’” Clay smiled. “This is going to take a combined effort. She was so bummed last night. Poor baby. Rina poured her heart into that role. And I believe it was her best performance since Spinning the Light.”
“I agree. I’ve never seen her that despondent. What if something’s really wrong? She’s upstairs in her suite and we would never even know.”
“Maybe I’d better go check on her,” said Clay.
“I’ll go. You look like you could use a little more time to rejoin the living.”
“You’re a kind soul.”
“We’re just a good team, Clay.”
“I’ll get up in a minute and make the queen a remedy.”
~ ~ ~
The assistant climbed the two levels above the kitchen in the five-story Malibu mansion. The entire top floor was a home within a house—the sprawling private suite fit for a movie star of Verralta’s stature.
Gigi entered the suite and crossed the marble foyer. She stopped and surveyed a sitting room so tidy that it was lifeless, sterile—even if adorned with expensive trinkets from her boss’s travels. The tiled terrace bowed outward around the hillside, and on a clear day, a seat on the Roche Bobois ultra-modern couches afforded a view that reached across the expanse of sapphire Pacific to Catalina Island.
She tapped lightly on the bedroom door but heard no response. After rapping harder a second time, Gigi drew open the door one inch at a time.
“Rina?” she whispered into the blacked-out room. “Rina.” She stepped across the threshold, pressed the button on the wall, raising the electric shades enough to be able to take in the disarray of debauchery.
Unforgiving daylight highlighted the woman, who, sprawled across her bed, lay surrounded by evidence of the excesses of the night before. Strands of her luxurious chestnut waves were plastered across her face, stuck to her cheeks with makeup she hadn’t removed.
“Rina, wake up.”
The actress didn’t stir.
Rina shot straight up to a sitting position. “Huh? What?” She lifted her sleep mask and peered at Gigi with startling green eyes that nested above her prominent cheekbones. “Go away.”
“Not an option. What the hell happened up here last night?”
“My head. My stomach.” Rina groaned, falling back onto her pillow, leaving the mask resting on her forehead.
“You’re hungover.” Gigi picked up the trash can and surveyed the debris on the floor. She flourished the first of several candy wrappers. “So then, this was the appetizer? Dark chocolate, 55 percent cacao. Really? Domestic?” She shook her head in disapproval.
“I was slumming,” Rina moaned.
Gigi dropped it into the can and reached for the next one two steps away. “Imported Belgian dark, 75 percent cacao. Now we’re getting somewhere.” Another toss into the trash. “Here’s a nice change of pace.” She read from the empty box. “Chocolate swirl ice cream dipped in a hard chocolate shell.” She sighed. “Rough night.”
“I know, I know. Don’t remind me.” Rina hugged her pillow, holding it tightly against her abdomen. “Alcohol would have been more forgiving.”
Gigi hovered, advancing her position until she stopped at the night table. “Chocolate chip cookies. Nice, there are two left out of the entire bag.”
“Move away from the cookies!”
Gigi dropped the remains into the can.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Okay, give it up, Rina.”
“Give what up?”
The assistant held out her hand. “What’s under your pillow?”
Gigi stared down at the actress until the silence forced Rina to look at her.
“Fine!” Rina groped underneath the pillow and tossed over the box of chocolate-covered cherries.
“And that pillow?”
Rina sneered at her before tossing her the package of unopened mini-chocolate cakes.
Gigi swept it all off the bed into the can and sat. “Jesus! Are you finished wallowing?”
“Don’t make it worse. I already feel like shit.”
“Honey, you know that chocolate is a cruel mistress. We’ve been down this road before and it never turns out well. What happened to throw you off this cliff?”
“I had to leave the after-party. The more Cavell drank, the meaner she became—even threatened to out me in the press. I wanted to smack her. But then I imagined all of the online photos, headlines, and TMZ profiles. So I left and came home.”
“You mean you punished yourself instead of the person who deserved it. Do you think you might come back to the land of the living anytime soon?”
“Why, what did you have in mind?” Rina dusted the cookie crumbs from her blue silk pajamas.
The assistant softened and smiled. “How about we start out slow? Come down to the kitchen.”
“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Gigi.”
“Of course you don’t. Clay’s downstairs whipping up one of his magic potions. Now, up with you. Go wash your face—and peel off those false eyelashes already. See you downstairs.”
“But you were supposed to find me in bed with my Oscar this morning.”
“I know.” Gigi sighed. “Cavell’s a bitch. Yada yada. Now get up.”
* * *
Katarina entered the kitchen to see Clay standing at the counter blending a detox cocktail for her.
“There’s my girl,” he said. “Here’s a little something to help you flush out all that sugar.”
“Gigi ratted me out, huh?” She cinched her silk robe around her trim waist and took her seat at the kitchen table.
He waited a moment, then placed a glass of the concoction in front of Rina and sat quietly opposite her.
“I’m so disappointed, Clay.”
“I know, honey. Me too.”
“I poured my heart into this role.”
“I know you feel it way worse, but I thought that we’d own the world today.”
“I know you understand,” she added. “Don’t think for a moment I don’t appreciate all the things you do to keep me desirable.”
He patted her hand and smiled. “Let’s be clear—you’re desirable enough without me. We’ll get it next time,” he said softly.
Rina took a sip of her drink and crinkled her nose on the swallow.
Clay chuckled. “I know, but trust me, you’ll feel much better after you drink it.”
Her full lips curled upward on the right. “Well, I certainly can’t feel much worse.”
“There’s no second-guessing this,” Clay began. “Who knows why she was chosen over you.”
“The Academy isn’t to blame—my performance in Allies of Night was.”
“That’s crazy talk,” he said. “Your performance was flawless.”
“Then it was me. Whatever it was about me that just didn’t break through to that level of runaway excellence.”
“Don’t you think you’re being a little hard on yourself?”
“Perhaps it’s time someone was.”
“Britney Cavell can’t compare to you, so you shouldn’t ever measure yourself against her.”
“I don’t care anymore.”
“Since right now. Or maybe since about the fifteenth cookie.”
“Rina, what is going on with you?” he asked. “You’ve been off lately.”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m getting stale—irrelevant. Old. Even though the camera filmed my good side last night, on the large screen I just looked…old! An actress in her fifties in Hollywood might as well be a hundred.”
“You can’t be serious about being irrelevant. And you look like you’re forty.”
“I am serious.”
“Irrelevant actresses don’t get nominated for Best Actress awards. You’re in good company. You have one more Oscar than Streep, and she’s lost more times than you. Including last night. This is just the sugar dive talking.”
Rina stared off into the distance wistfully. “I love Meryl. And I am younger than she is…Gigi, make a note for me to call her.” She snapped back to the moment and looked at Clay. “I need a change. As much as I hate how I feel, maybe there’s a valuable lesson in this.”
“We don’t have to talk about it right now, and I know it’s a little soon to be asking, but have you given any thought to what you’d like to do next?”
“I’ll wait to see what I get offered—considering I didn’t win.” She shut her eyes, gulped the concoction, scrunched her face after finishing it, and then opened her eyes. “Rehab!” she blurted out.
Clay laughed. “For what? You don’t do drugs. You drink only socially…”
He laughed harder. “You want me to find you a chocolate rehab?”
“I don’t care what kind of rehab. I need to get away from all of this for a while.” Her gaze drifted over the room and then to Clay’s eyes when he spoke.
“Would you like to go home to Italy? Maybe visit your mother? How about a cruise? I’ll charter a boat in the Caribbean and you can float around.”
She stared at him with Blank Expression Number Two—pursed lips and no blinking. “No, I don’t want to go to Italy. The last thing I need right now is my hypercritical mother telling me why I lost and then everyone clamoring to get something from me. And I can’t just float around, Clay. I need to get rid of this feeling.”
“Don’t think I don’t know that you just shot me Blank Expression Number Two. What feeling?”
“The feeling of being…me. Of living a cloistered life—always under a microscope. The feeling of getting old—the fear of becoming irrelevant. You want more?”
“Wait a sec. Somehow you think rehab for a nonexistent addiction will fix that?” Clay stood and kissed Rina on the top of her head. “Why don’t you go shower and dress, and we’ll go shopping on Rodeo Drive. You can buy me something expensive. That always makes you feel better.”
“Nice try.” She smiled up at him. “I’m afraid not even Rodeo Drive could fix what’s wrong with me today.”
“I’m not going to let you sit here and wallow.” He pulled out his cell phone and placed the call. “She needs you in one hour,” was all he said before he disconnected. “Maribelle will be here soon.”
“I can’t believe you called my trainer.”
“You always feel better after Maribelle.” He thought for a moment. “All you do with her is work out, right?”
“Clay! I’m not interested in Maribelle.”
“Okay, just checking in case I need to protect you.” He turned to leave.
“Find me that rehab, Clay.”
“You were serious about that?”
He scratched his head. “One chocolate rehab coming up, I guess.”
A creature of habit, Julia Dearling always counted her tips and cleaned up at the end of the night. Tonight, however, her manager, Cass, took over the evening ritual of closing up the Starlight Diner.
Cass gave Julia the once-over. “You’re not going out on your date dressed like that, are you?”
“No, I brought a change of clothes.”
“Those sexy new jeans that show off your ass?”
Julia grinned. “Maybe.”
“Go change for your date. Nicki’s going to be here soon, and you know how she hates waiting.”
Julia checked the time. “Damn, she’ll be here in five minutes.”
Cass looked up when the Mustang’s headlights reflected off the diner’s window. “She’s early.”
Julia grabbed her knapsack. “Keep her busy,” she said as she raced for the ladies’ room. Julia washed her face and changed into her new sweater and jeans. She freshened the eye shadow that Cass had said made her eyes appear even bluer, and while looking in the mirror, she wished that the bridge of her nose wasn’t quite so high. Julia hastily brushed her long brown hair, put on some lipstick and blush, and stepped back from the mirror to see how it all came together. “This will have to do.”
Barely one breath after, she reentered the dining room. “Hi, sweetie, I’m ready,” she said with a hard exhale.
Dressed in black jeans, cowgirl boots, and a suede jacket over her custom-made shirt, Nicki strode over and met Julia midway. “I missed you,” Nicki said. “You ready to go?”
“What movie are you going to see?” asked Cass.
“Allies of Night,” Julia replied excitedly.
“The Katarina Verralta movie?”
“Uh-huh. I wish we didn’t have to wait so long for movies to make it all the way out here to the desert. Especially her movies.”
Nicki rolled her eyes. “I must really like you to agree to see a sappy chick flick.”
Julia laughed. “You do like me! It’s not a sappy chick flick. G’night, Cass.”
“Have fun, you two,” she replied as they left.
Nicki started the car, leaned in, and pulled Julia close. They spent the next minute kissing before Julia fell back into her seat.
“Whoa, that’s some hello kiss.”
Nicki grinned. “I’ll say.” She exited the lot onto the desert two-lane, heading for the only nearby town with a theater.
“How was your day?” asked Julia.
“Stellar. I sold two newer cars and made a bundle on them. That’s the seventh sale in three days.”
“You’ve built a good reputation, Nicki.”
“Customers are coming from as far away as the Arizona line. The word is out!”
“Is it enough?”
“Does owning a used car dealership make you happy?”
“I’m pretty happy right now, Julia. I made a lot of money this week.”
“That’s great. But that wasn’t what I meant.”
“Are you going to get all deep on me now?”
Julia smiled. “N-no. Let’s just go enjoy the movie.”
“I want popcorn—I’m hungry.”
Julia reached into her knapsack and came up with a freshly wrapped turkey sandwich on rye.
Nicki glanced away from the road. “Is that for me?”
“Yes, I’m starting to get the hang of dating you. You change your mind every ten seconds. When you called today, you said you didn’t want me to bring food to the movie for you—so I brought something anyway.”
Nicki’s hand crept across the console and caressed Julia’s thigh, stroking it gently. “You’re the best.”
For the twenty-minute ride along the dark back roads between the two sleepy California desert towns, Julia found it hard to take her eyes off of Nicki, so confident and sexy in her tomboyish style, with her short black hair with the long bangs that fell across her eyes. And that lanky swagger she had—as much sensual as it was anything else. Finally, she looked away. “Oh! We’re almost there. How fast were you going?”
“This new Mustang is sweet, isn’t she? You ought to let me put you in something newer than that junker you drive.”
“Maybe,” said Julia. A car’s a car, she thought.
“I mean if we’re going to be dating, I can’t have my friends thinking that I’d let you drive something like that.”
“You care what your friends think about my car?”
“It just doesn’t look right, you know?” Nicki pulled into the parking lot of the Indian Rock Theater.
“I’ll let you know when I can afford a car payment.”
“If business keeps up the way it’s been going, I’ll just give you one.” Nicki pulled into a parking space. “Even the worst car on my lot would be a step up.”
“I don’t really want a different car.”
“Sure you do. Everyone loves a new ride.”
They walked to the theater entrance; Nicki, as usual, was five or more steps ahead of Julia. If I stopped walking, I wonder how long it would take her to figure out I’m not beside her.
“Two for Allies of Night,” Nicki said, tossing a fifty through the cashier’s window. She took the change and handed it to Julia. “Why don’t you go get some popcorn or whatever and I’ll find some seats.”
“You mind sitting midway up and on the aisle?” Julia answered.
Nicki smiled. “See you inside.”
A few minutes later, Julia juggled her popcorn and drink as she entered the sparsely populated theater. Her eyes had to adjust to the light before she found Nicki—who was all the way up in the second to last row and in the center seats. She sat next to her and whispered. “I don’t like sitting in the middle of a row.”
“There’s no one else in the row,” Nicki whispered back.
“How about farther down?”
Nicki issued an exasperated sigh. “Whatever.”
Julia extended her hand to keep Nicki in her seat. “It’s fine. Really.”
Julia handed Nicki her sandwich as the movie theme began. Then, forsaking her surroundings, Nicki, and even herself, she sank down into her seat and allowed herself to be pulled into a montage of opening scenes set to a rich and melodic score. It transported her over the aerial expanse of Paris, soaring above the Seine and red clay rooftops. The ominously gray city, saturated beyond wet, was foreign to Julia in every way.
The camera zoomed in gradually to and through an old window of an ornate building as gray as the sky, as old as winter. The woman in the bed within opened eyes so mesmerizing that Julia thought they alone were worth the price of admission, mutable green eyes that the press had rightly said rivaled Sophia Loren’s. To Julia, Katarina Verralta’s beauty was unmatched—even by the likes of Charlize Theron, although Theron was younger.
Julia watched, immersed, as Katarina Verralta fell in love on the big screen again, like she had in so many movies before. This time around, the woman in the story put her life in jeopardy in a World War II movie about spies, saving her lover—and becoming all the wiser for having loved.
Once, about midway through the film Julia glanced over at Nicki, only to discover that she had nodded out. By the time the house lights came on, though, she was wide-awake and eager to leave. Julia, on the other hand, wished she had another minute, or an hour, to savor all the emotions the film had evoked in her. It had made her both happy and sad—happy that she’d spent the evening devouring Verralta’s classic beauty and extraordinary talent, and sad that the film had ended.
Julia turned to Nicki as they approached the car. “How did she not win the Oscar for this picture? It’s one of her best performances.”
Nicki shrugged, then yawned when they got back into the Mustang. “Sorry, that film put me right out.” She chuckled. “Guess you can call that movie a snore.”
Julia remained quiet, replaying in her mind the scenes between the lovers—how they had craved each other’s touch, had vowed their undying devotion. She wondered what it felt like to have that—someone who’d look at her that way. To love someone so much that all she ever thought about was her kiss or maybe the way she spoke her name.
“Right?” Nicki said.
Julia snapped back to reality. “Huh? I’m sorry. I was thinking about the movie.”
Lingering still in the world of the film, Julia thought about the most beautiful woman God had ever created and how she had portrayed falling in love. She glanced over at Nicki, who while cute and tomboyish, lacked the soft sensuality that oozed from a seasoned and elegant woman like Katarina Verralta. Knowing it would be fruitless to try to persuade Nicki to appreciate what she did about the movie, she simply said, “I’m too tired to discuss the film. Mind if we do that some other time? It’s been a long day.”
“No, babe, not at all.”
They rode in silence for twenty minutes until Nicki turned onto the road that led to Julia’s ranch—the Y2, which her father had named for her and her sister. Julia hopped out, unlocked the gate, and waited for Nicki to drive through it before getting back into the car.
“Don’t you want to close the gate behind me?” asked Nicki.
“Not tonight, sweetie. I’m tired. I think I just want to go to bed.”
“And you don’t want me in that bed next to you?”
Nicki rolled up to the house and Julia didn’t give her the chance to put the car in park. She leaned over and kissed Nicki’s lips. “Speak with you tomorrow,” she said with her fingers on the door handle. “Will you…?”
“I’ll close the gate on my way out.”
“Good night, and thanks for the movie.”
“Sure, but next time I get to choose. Prepare for a Terminator marathon.”
Nicki waited until Julia was inside, and then her tires kicked up the driveway dust as they spun out.
Julia entered the house, poured a glass of pinot grigio to keep her company as she lay down by the small fire she built in the fireplace. There, she replayed the luscious textured scenes of a stormy Paris night and the way they had made her feel. Followed by a replay of the close-ups of Katarina Verralta in bed with a sheet barely covering her breasts. She fell asleep by the fire holding onto that vision.
Julia met this sunrise astride Lightning, unencumbered and on her own terms. She rode toward a daylight that cast its first shadows on her. Lightning’s hooves clopped against the taupe earth, straining to reach the far end of the trail. Midway up the hump of mountain on the distant side of the ranch, Julia scanned the disc-shaped lenticular clouds that hovered above the peak like a UFO.
She contemplated the expanse of desert below her and took comfort in the creaking of saddle leather when she shifted her weight. The early morning chill, made brisk by the breeze of a trot, carried the scent of morning mesquite and damp desert. Is there anything better than this? She took a deep breath and savored it before patting the side of the horse’s neck. “Come on, boy, time to go back.”
Lightning lazily swayed from side to side as he descended the elevation, while Julia reflected on her movie date with Nicki. She was glad she had spent the night alone. Had she invited Nicki to stay, she would have missed the intimacy of this ride and the sunrise, which surely never would be duplicated.
She breathed in the moist woody aroma suspended in the air around her and thought again of the rainy Paris scenes in the film she had just seen, daydreaming about visiting Paris, feeling the rain, falling in love. I doubt Paris in the rain smells anything like morning mesquite, she thought. She clicked her tongue. “Come on, Lightning. That diner doesn’t run itself.”
~ ~ ~
When the lunch rush at the diner ended, Julia poured a cup of coffee and sat at the counter. She yawned and rubbed her eyes. “I don’t know how I’m going to make it to closing.”
Cass passed her with an armful of bussed dishes. “Wild night on the ranch with your girlfriend?” she teased.
“I sent her home.”
Cass deposited the dishes in the rubberized container. “Really?”
Cass leaned against the counter. “You two have some kinda spat?”
“No. I was tired and I didn’t want to miss my sunrise ride.”
“I’ll bet Nicki wasn’t happy about being dismissed like that.”
“I didn’t dismiss her.”
“I know you—yes, ya’ did. I don’t think she’s heard the word ‘no’ very often. A lot of girls would like to go out with her.”
“Thanks for the reminder.”
Cass poured a cup of coffee and took the seat next to Julia. “What’s the problem?”
“I’m thinking about last night. Shouldn’t I know by now if I’m head over heels for Nicki?”
“You’ve only been dating for a few months. People don’t just fall in love at first sight.”
“Sure they do.”
Cass smirked. “You’ve seen too many Katarina Verralta movies.”
“You can never see too many Katarina Verralta movies. Isn’t the beginning of a relationship usually when your excitement about it is off the charts?”
“I guess,” said Cass.
“You don’t think Nicki’s a little stuck on herself?”
Cass nodded. “A bit overconfident, I’d say. But it’s not like she doesn’t have reason to be. She’s good lookin’, is a lot of fun, makes a great living…” She paused.
“But there’s something missing,” Julia interrupted.
“If this is love, it doesn’t feel the way I thought it would. I thought I’d feel more…I don’t know—special.”
“You’re pretty special to me, girl,” Cass offered.
“Obviously. We’ve been best friends since eighth grade!”
“What do you mean you don’t feel special?”
“I don’t know. I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s me, not her. She was so sweet last night, she even offered me a new car.”
“The woman offered you a car and you don’t feel special?” Cass raised her eyebrows and stared at her. “Do you think maybe your standards are a tad high?”
Julia rolled her eyes. “She seemed most concerned about what her friends would think of me driving a forty-year-old car. When you put it that way, though, I sound like a bitch.”
“Never. No one could ever call you that—not even you. Maybe you’re overthinking this and need some time. She’s pretty crazy about you.”
“You’re right. I’m reading too much into the little things. Like at the movies and at other times, when she asks what I want and then does whatever she wants to anyway.”
“Not everyone’s as sensitive to the needs of others as you are, Julia.”
“Not everyone’s been where I’ve been.”
Cass gave her a light pat on the back. “You’re always waiting for that other shoe to drop—not that you don’t have your reasons, girl. For now, why don’t you just try to enjoy the moment? If you want to go rest up for the dinner rush, I can handle things here until you get back. Besides, Jimmy is working with you tonight, so he can close up and you can get out early.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Nope. I still need to rotate the perishables in the cooler before we open for dinner.”
“Okay.” Julia stood, took off her apron, and fetched her purse. “See you later.”
* * *
Even though she wanted to nap, Julia couldn’t resist the tug from her sculpting studio when she got home. The natural midday light in the casita was a welcome change from the harsh bright bulbs she sculpted by at night. She’d spent many a late night holed up in that casita molding and shaping her visions, losing track of time until dawn pierced the skylight. Stocked with all her basic needs, the casita was her adult version of a tree house for her private club of one, a place where the world outside could be held at bay. She changed into the sweatshirt she wore when working and uncovered her latest work-in-progress.
Julia selected her knife and sliced through the next layer of malleable clay—studied it—ran her fingers across its smooth surface until her hands knew how they would continue to build the head and face. Holding the double-edged sculpting tool with the medium blade, she carefully finished carving the outline of the first human bust she’d ever sculpted.
Each painstaking stroke of her cutting tool shaped another long strand of wavy hair, as organically as if the knife was a comb. Building the chiseled cheekbones and nose, she added bits of clay shaping the slope from beneath the nose to the full lips.
The angle of light coming through the skylight had drifted far from when she had started. She glanced up at the wall clock.
“Dammit, I’m late!” Julia hastily covered the bust. She scrubbed her hands, changed into her work clothes, and headed back to the Starlight.
“Sorry I’m late, Cass,” she said when she came through the door.
“Did you catch a good nap?” Cass leaned on the counter and tallied two checks.
“I wound up in the studio the whole time.”
Cass chuckled. “I swear, you should just move into that casita. You’re always in there sculpting.”
Julia stowed her purse beneath the counter and smiled. “I had the urge to continue working on my new piece, and honestly I couldn’t wait.”
“You carving another Arabian horse? I like those the best.”
“Not a horse.”
Cass removed her apron and patted Julia on the back. “I’m heading home to plant myself on the couch in front of the TV. Jimmy, you’re closing tonight.”
“Why?” said the young man. “Julia’s here.”
Julia stared at Jimmy and then at Cass. “You know, I’d prefer closing tonight,” she said. “Which means, you get to do all the clean up, Jimmy.”
“Me and my big mouth,” he said as he went to wait on the table of four he had just seated.
After the dinner rush came and went, Julia counted the cash and managed the receipts while Jimmy mopped the floor. She only glanced up when headlights reflected off the large window of the closed diner.
“Jimmy, please unlock the door and let Nicki in.”
“Sure,” he said leaning his mop handle against the wall.
Julia gathered the cash that she was in the middle of counting and walked back toward the private office. “Tell her I’ll be out in a couple of minutes.”
As Julia counted the last pile and entered the amounts into her ledger, her office door opened.
“Hi, beautiful,” said Nicki.
“Oh, didn’t Jimmy tell you I’d be right out?”
Nicki crossed the room and kissed Julia on the lips. “Yes, he did. But I couldn’t wait to see you,” she smiled.
“Give me one minute or I’m afraid I’ll mess up.” She checked her totals and placed the cash in the bank deposit bag. Julia walked to Nicki, sat on her lap, and put her arms around the woman. “Sorry about last night but…”
“It’s okay, Julia. I know what it’s like to work a long day and then go out afterward. Truth is, I didn’t have much energy myself last night. Sorry I fell asleep at the movies.”
“No worries. I’m off tomorrow. Would you like to come out to the ranch tonight? We can go riding in the morning.”
“I would, but I have new inventory coming in very early tomorrow. Why don’t we just plan on getting together this weekend?”
“Great.” Julia smiled at the thought of spending more time in the studio until then.
“I’m putting you on notice to make sure you take off the two days after my birthday party.”
“The diner is closed on Sunday and your party is Saturday night, so we’ll have the day afterward.”
“No, take Monday off too in case we want to…”
“I can’t just take off, Nicki. But let’s not worry about it, we have a few weeks to work it out.”
“You’re getting someone to feed the horses so you can stay over, right?”
“Already handled,” Julia said politely.
“We can sleep in, make love. You could serve me breakfast in bed.”
Julia laughed. “Sounds like you’ve given this some thought.”
Nicki pulled her close and gave her a lingering kiss. “I always give us a lot of thought.”
“Breakfast in bed, huh?” Julia teased. “Maybe you should serve me breakfast in bed for a change.”
“I’d love to bring you breakfast in bed. You like your toast light, medium, or dark?”
They both laughed.
“I’m going to take off,” said Nicki. “I just wanted to stop by and kiss you good night.”
Julia stood. “Thanks, that’s so sweet of you to come all the way out here for that.”
“Thanks for noticing. Night,” she said and left.
Julia gathered her things and put the deposit envelope in her knapsack. She turned off the light when she left the back office. Cass is right. She does care about me.