Authors: Julie Carobini
The breeze carried the minty scent of eucalyptus, and I couldn’t resist ducking down the path. On occasion, before or after particularly busy weekends, I liked to meditate or pray in that chapel beneath the forest where I was headed now. The air hung cooler along the shady path, and I took my time, inhaling the fresh scent and letting the stresses of this week filter out of my worry zones and into the brush at my feet.
A rapid flapping of wings caused me to flinch, then laugh, as a hummingbird whizzed overhead. All the money in the world couldn’t replace this heady feeling of stepping through a natural wonderland. This is what my ex-boyfriend Justin never understood. Or it’s what he had forgotten along the way. For him, the business had become the means to an end—his wealth. Well,
wealth until Tish and her father’s money showed up.
If Justin’s bus bench ads and truck fleet were any indication, he may have found a measure of success with Oasis Designs, but did he still have that spark that drew me to him like a moth to a candle? He used to drag me into the greenhouses at school and give me endless rundowns on the propagation of new plantings. The glee in his face over learning more about how plants grew and prospered reminded me of Blakey’s the day he finally learned to tie his shoes. All out, abandoned joy.
Justin had lost that and though I had to fight the bitterness of his betrayal at times, I had begun to understand that had we stayed together, I too would have lost something meaningful to my life.
As I rounded a sweeping curve along the pathway, my breath caught. It always caught at this point because the children became so mesmerized. They anticipated what they would find at the other end when light flooded their eyes and curiosity had overtaken them. I slowed my pace, lingering in the quiet rustling surrounding me, knowing that something pleasing awaited on the other side, yet somehow wanting to slow its arrival. A crisp twig cracked beneath my heel. Water flowed through a nearby stream that had dug a meandering swath through the hill on its way to the ocean. I inhaled another deep breath and stepped into the morning’s sunlight, refreshed and hopeful.
I opened my eyes expecting to see the grand cross rising alongside the pines. Instead, my gaze landed on two people wound so closely together that not a crack of light could pass between them. “Squid?”
A high-pitched gasp disrupted the breezy quiet and I recognized her as the woman Squid had introduced me to at the diner. Peyton.
Squid yanked his arms from where they’d been adhered to Peyton’s body. I let my eyes flit away. “Callie, what are you doing here so early?”
I pulled my gaze back to him in time to observe Squid shoving both hands into the front pockets of his jeans. Peyton fumed at me, while smoothing her hands along the short length of her tankini dress. I shrugged, raising both palms. “Came to, uh, pray, but didn’t realize anyone was here.”
Squid’s face reminded me of a hairy tomato as we stood there the three of us, no one quite sure how to ease the awkwardness that bound us.
Peyton rolled her eyes and huffed. “I need a latte.”
Squid slid a compliant glance her way, his shoulders bowed. “It’s all yours,” he said with a nod of his head toward the stone circle at the base of the cross. He slowed as he passed and spoke with a low voice. “Saw the paper. I’ll send Luz for you if you want to stay here and pray for awhile.”
They left, Peyton marching ahead of Squid as he followed dutifully behind. I exhaled a full breath and looked upon the outdoor chapel. Lowering myself onto a cold rock, I realized that the wondrous moment of finding this place at the end of that twisting, shaded path had ebbed.
I blew another sigh, like a balloon that had been untied. Squid had this annoying way of using doublespeak. Hadn’t really noticed that trait until now. It might work when trying to help children dissect real meaning behind a person’s words, but when he used it on me, I vacillated between offering him my gratitude and suggesting he jump off the nearest cliff.
And what about him? What was it with men who found tiny, impatient—and
—women so attractive? Peyton had nearly stomped her petite and pedicured little toes when I’d appeared, messing up her early morning romance.
Justin’s girl-toy made a similar maneuver once when I showed up at Oasis Designs to clean out my desk. Instead of toe stomping, she tapped them continuously as if hoping I’d grow tired of her petulance and leave in a hurry. Didn’t she realize behavior like that only slowed me down?
The cross stood unmoved before me, urging me to focus my mind on something other than the confusion that men and their quest for toys and prominence could cause.
Have I got it all wrong, Lord?
After contemplating awhile, I picked myself up, no longer as enthused as when I’d wandered over here, but ready to take on whatever God had planned for the body of campers eagerly anticipating their weekend ahead. Somehow I hoped he had plans for me as well.
REDMOND TOOK A SEAT in the plush, black armchair Suz had picked up at the dollar store one town north of Otter Bay. When he did, a dusting of stale smoke floated through the office. “Let’s get this started.”
Redmond Dane and Gage had spoken face-to-face only one time before. That rainy night the formidable developer stumbled into a coffee bar in Westwood after having a monstrous argument with his ex-business partner. Unknown to Redmond, Gage had just been laid off after having negotiated two high-end design projects, including one for a reality star in the Hollywood Hills. He discovered that his boss had planned to use non-licensed contractors and pocket the extra profit. What should have been a celebration was instead a caffeine-bender for Gage before heading home to his apartment overlooking The Getty Center. He planned to sit and stare at the museum’s outer walls until he figured out what to do next.
Opportunity showed up before he left his counter stool.
As Gage walked around his desk, ready to lay out the Kitteridge project design for Redmond’s approval, he hoped to live up to the expectations of the man who had hired him on the spot for this project. Although they had never worked together before this, they were both aware of each other’s reputations. Destiny brought a tipsy Redmond and a discouraged Gage together that night in the coffee bar. They also both knew that Redmond’s former business partner waited on the sidelines, hoping for failure, which meant that Gage’s client had much to lose. As did he himself.
Suz stepped into the office with a stocked coffee tray. She bowed out of painting at Callie’s house this morning, insisting instead on stepping in as Gage’s assistant during his important meeting with his lone client. Gage waited as she set a large mug before Redmond on the side of the desk. “Coffee?”
The older man, his skin blotched and uneven, furrowed his brow. “Thought you’d never ask.” Despite the steam rising from the top of his mug, Redmond guzzled down half the coffee, then cleared his garbled throat.
Suz refilled his mug. “I’ll be in my office if you need me.”
Gage thanked her, watched her leave, then turned to address his client. “I think you’ll appreciate the project’s cohesive transition from man-made to natural surroundings.” He used a fat pencil to guide Redmond’s eye through the design set spread across his desk. “I’ve woven in the natural elements you requested, offering organic styling while keeping with the quintessential beach town design.”
Redmond stroked his chin. “Hmm.”
Gage pointed out the shape of the buildings that flowed with the natural curve of the land, the cantilevered decks that provided views of the borrowed landscape, the plans for radiant heat in the floors and solar for everywhere else. Intact within the multi-use complex were places of refuge where dwellers could wander outside the confines of their condos and offices and sit among the pines and sustainable landscape—which included a wildlife pond to attract native and migratory birds and a rain garden added after Gage had stumbled across the miniature one near Callie’s home.
Gage knew better than to talk too much, so he paused, giving Redmond a chance to collect his thoughts and formulate his comments and questions. Much like he did the night they met, when Redmond, slightly inebriated and wholly angry, offered Gage the chance of a lifetime—to design this property. He had been sitting at that counter that night, drinking a frothy latte in a tall glass, assessing his future, when in blew Redmond and his plans for Otter Bay.
Gage couldn’t give his landlord two weeks’ notice fast enough.
Gage stood by, waiting for Redmond to review the design he had been toiling over for weeks. He figured there would be many questions. More often, there would be inappropriate suggestions, the classless kind that made a designer’s skin freeze and cause a chill deep in the bones.
Gage had already determined to answer all of Redmond’s comments without cringing—at least visibly—at suggestions that would undoubtedly run counter to his design. This was the part of the project that could try an architect’s confidence, when clients might look beyond the skill and vision of a particular design and be offended by what they see, mainly Gage believed, because they could not picture what the architect had drawn. Cockiness had ended his career once before, however, and that piece of history was never far from his mind.
Ultimately Gage knew he must walk that line between fighting to keep the design as he saw it and giving Redmond enough of what he wanted to secure the project’s ultimate construction.
He held his breath, wondering if Redmond’s silence indicated that they were about to head into battle.
But all Redmond did was peer up at him, a silver Cross pen poised between his thumb and fingers, a question in his high brows. “Sign at the top?”
No questions? Not even a rogue comment or scoff? Gage hesitated, knowing he should be leaping with relief. Redmond’s reaction was highly unusual. So much so Gage was momentarily stunned like when handing a cashier a five-dollar bill for a cup of coffee and receiving eighteen dollars in change.
Gage mentally righted himself. “Yes. At the top.” Gage understood that a verbal acceptance was more typical at this stage of the design process, but wariness had settled over him and he chose instead to allow Redmond to sign the set on his desk, thereby creating a paper trail.
After scrawling a large RD in the designated space, Redmond stood and handed Gage an orange business card with a woman’s name and phone number printed in fancy script.
“Thanks,” Gage said, still perplexed over the brevity of their meeting. “Who is this?”
“Call her.” Redmond shuffled toward the door. “She’ll be doing an artist’s rendering of the design for a full page ad my staff will be placing in the local papers over the next several weeks. We’ll also be posting an oversized sign on the property. She’ll make your sketches so attractive the town’ll be begging us to develop that land.” He gave Gage a pointed stare. “You’ll want to put those construction documents on the fast track. The council wants to see them within a week.”
Gage stood, ready to balk, but Redmond put up a hand. “I’ll see myself out.”
Gage lowered himself into his desk chair, exhausted. Rocking back and forward, wincing at the squeak, he attempted to sift through an onslaught of varied emotions.
I knew it was too easy.
Redmond hadn’t even mentioned SOS or the picture of Callie in the paper, almost as if neither existed. By signing off on the Design Development and hiring an artist renderer, Redmond seemed to imply that everything was moving forward as planned.
Except that he only gave Gage a week to draft a complete set of drawings for both permit and construction. Impossible.
Suz appeared in the doorway and leaned against the frame. “That was fast. Did he sign off on the project?”
“And? This is good news. Right?”
“Right.” Regardless of the worries that hammered him, Gage gave his sister a thumbs-up and watched as she slipped away, beaming.
He tucked his elbows into his ribs and leaned on steepled fingers. If he had a drafting staff, plenty of time, and not a doubt in the world, then Gage would have no trouble admitting that this meeting had gone wildly beyond his expectations. Without all of that? It felt more like he stood on a precarious, rickety swinging bridge over a churning and unreliable current. And what worried him most was that a young mother and her little boy clung to that bridge with him.
The campers arrived in rambunctious spurts, dragging sleeping bags and over-stuffed suitcases off their buses and into tight-fitting cabin quarters. Giggles and shouts whizzed around camp, and the few times I ran into Squid, he was doing his big brotherly camp director thing—tossing footballs to the kids, proclaiming his favorite sports teams, asking campers if they were here to have F.U.N.—that sort of thing. Otherwise, he ignored me.
My work was fairly light that first night. No overbookings to worry about or ill children—although one first-time camper had to fight off a wave of homesickness. One hour and two ice cream sandwiches later (hers and mine), she blended back in with her group, which had begun to play the night’s game: “Rock? or Sand?”