The last months of Miriam Rosen’s life, the land of her adopted home appeared to grieve. Dressed in somber shades, it seemed poised to receive her. Dust to dust.
Drought-cracked earth sent showers of lacy grit swirling down Main Street to film the windows of McLean’s Department Store. Farmers paced fields of wilted seedlings, caps pushed high on foreheads that folded and relaxed like accordions with each passing cloud. Foreclosure rumors rippled through town, rising and falling with the air pressure and edging ever closer to the Amberley Cooperative Bank. Then one June morning everything changed: Miriam closed her eyes and the skies opened.
Many in town believed the gentle rains that followed were her doing – a final benediction in a lifetime of shared blessings. As crops were planted and harvested, neighbors spoke of Miriam’s humble manner and the quiet way she’d lived. They lamented that she’d died childless, all her family lost during that great war that had broken Europe and been the making of America. Now in the twilight of their lives, her closest friends feared that one day soon Miriam would be forgotten. They didn’t know Miriam Rosen would be remembered for generations, that her story would intertwine with those of other women and seek the light like ivy on a ruin wall.
A rising wind ribboned its way through Boston, clearing a pathway for the rain that began to fall as Cate Saunders boarded the bus. She caught the local just before 5 a.m., grateful for an aisle seat until she saw the split vinyl oozing muddy-colored filling and heard the snores of an old man slumped against the window. With a mental groan, she spread her jacket on the seat and thought of the road ahead.
People said it took courage to start a new life, but Cate knew differently. Leaving Boston wasn’t courageous; it was simply the only option once her home bore a black-margined foreclosure notice. That last day in the house she’d entered as a bride had seemed so unreal. Stripped bare of memories, the empty rooms had held only echoes of the woman she’d been. The life she’d lost. Packing up the last of her belongings, Cate had marveled that sorrow could fold within itself so compactly. Then she’d locked the front door and stood staring at the key while a lone blue jay gave a sharp cry from the empty birdfeeder near the street. Only then had she thought to look one last time in the mailbox. There’d been a slim envelope inside that held the promise of work a hundred miles from all she knew.
Dear Ms. Saunders,
It is with great pleasure that we write to accept you into our program–
Program. More like menial work – what her grandmother would call ‘honest labor.’ Still, it was the only job offer she’d received and it would give her the means to rescue her belongings. Cate thought back to those final moments in the storage facility’s caged enclosure. A tunnel of furniture and waist-high boxes had wound its way toward a patch of bare concrete – her darkened past leading to a hard, cold future. Yet one could write the scene another way. She’d packed the boxes so carefully, and taped them closed with a determined hand, as if by doing so she could keep the memories they held fresh and unspoiled by time or distance. An Easy-Bake Oven, broken beyond repair; her first teddy-bear, bald and missing a leg but still able to coax a smile; a dog-eared copy of Charlotte’s Web her husband had read to her the winter she’d caught the flu; the little trinkets they’d bought in Boothbay Harbor that first summer in Maine. Useless junk to anyone else, but the flotsam of her life. To get it back she needed a job and a home. Then she could unpack the past.
While rain slapped the roof and the windows teared in response, the bus moved from a shrouded world to one knit through with grey shadows. Gradually, the sky brightened and colors that had drifted into the margins hurried home – brown to yellow, navy to red. A hulking mass hugging the road became a brick wall, and from muddy blobs yellow forsythias emerged. Darkness always gives way to light just as winter melts into spring. Cate’s husband had believed that – had believed in hope and resurrection. She’d tried to. After his death, she’d sought comfort in the faith that had sustained him, even pouring her heart out to their parish priest who had responded with platitudes about the Divine plan. Her blood had boiled before she cursed herself for a fool. It didn’t matter what the priest believed; all that mattered was that John had faced death without her.
As a sob rose in her throat, Cate caught sight of a lone birch tree silhouetted in the pearly light. Rain beat against its unprotected bark, shredding the creamy surface into long strips that the wind sent swirling. The elements might have twisted the solitary tree into a caricature of itself. Instead, it stood defiant – its own forest. She turned in her seat, catching sight of the silvery shape out the back window before it merged into the fading landscape. When it did, a sigh escaped her and the storm loosened its hold.
The bus exited the highway onto a country road that wound its way along a river just being painted awake. “Amberley!” the driver called out, making a sharp turn and pulling to a stop. The first to disembark, Cate watched the wrought-iron streetlights lining Main Street wink out one by one as flaming sunlight crested the hills surrounding the western Massachusetts town. Its golden glow fell on rain-dampened streets and curbside planters filled with pale yellow narcissus. She bent to inhale their sweet breath before a slapping sound pulled her gaze skyward to where a flag played tug-of-war with the morning breeze. Iconic small-town America: a place of undefeated dreams and forgiven sins, she captioned the scene. And because it all looked so fresh and unspoiled, for the first time since she buried the remains of her husband, Cate allowed a flicker of hope to stir her heart.
All sorts of customers made their way through the etched glass doors of Vitelli’s Grocery that March morning. A group of old men affectionately referred to as ‘the boys’ arrived when the ciabatta rolls were still steaming. Gathered around the bakery counter, they sipped espresso, nibbled almond cookies, and debated the merits of this or that athlete. Then commuters trickled in to fill take-out containers from the salad bar and buy ready-made sandwiches of pepperoni and provolone; mozzarella and salami; or grilled eggplant. Farmers with wind-lined faces and muddy boots fingered unlit cigarettes and drank black coffee. Tourists gripping guidebooks that listed Vitelli’s as the only authentic Italian eatery within a hundred miles made their way up and down the aisles, filling their baskets with mascarpone cheese, jarred peppers, farina flour, truffle oil, and wedges of ricotta salata. Stay-at-home moms parked their baby strollers beside the outdoor produce stalls, scrutinizing the basil, arugula, porcini mushrooms, and artichokes as they chatted with their neighbors.
Vitelli’s owner, Sheila Morazzo, had spent a lifetime in retail. Adept at reading body language, she could anticipate both what her customers wanted and how much they’d pay for it. It was rare for her to look up from the oak counter behind which she’d built a catering empire and find herself at a loss. But when the front door closed behind a rail-thin figure in a well-cut suit, Sheila was stumped. It wasn’t the close-cropped blonde hair or waif-like face that puzzled her, but a restive quality about the young woman that put Sheila in mind of an animal ready to bolt given the first whiff of danger.
When the coffee grinder roared to life and the scent of espresso filled the air, the woman who held Sheila’s interest relaxed and closed her eyes in appreciation. She paused at the cheese display, her pink-stained lips pressed together before she reached out a slender hand to sample the pungent Gorgonzola. Then she tried Asiago and provolone. Sheila turned away to chat with a customer and when her eyes found the stranger again, she was settled at one of the bistro tables that hugged the front windows. Chewing her lower lip in concentration, the woman studied the laminated menu before pulling out her wallet and glancing inside. At the look of relief on her face, Sheila felt a lump rise in her throat. Once I was as lost as she is. But I found myself in this place. Maybe she will, too.
Sheila’s gaze swept the room and she mentally cataloged all that needed doing. The grocery was crowded, there was a line forming before the register, and the salad bar needed tidying. But first things first. Blowing Coco Chanel bangs from her eyes, Sheila caught a glimpse of the silver that threaded her hair and suppressed a smile. She was beginning to resemble the grocery’s founder, Rosa Vitelli. Rosa had been her mentor and friend, and as much as Sheila tried to mirror the woman’s kindness, she feared her efforts fell short. And now dear Rosa had gone to her reward. Still, perhaps there was a way. Pulling off her apron, she made her way across the flagstone floor. “I’m Sheila Morazzo,” she said to the stranger. “This is my place.”
“Cate Saunders,” the woman responded, her shadowed eyes skimming the room. “I didn’t expect to find a gourmet grocery in a small town like Amberley. And you’ve got a café, too.”
“My customers insisted,” Sheila confided, taking the seat opposite and tapping the marble-topped table. “Seems that drinking cappuccino at the counter may be good enough for Italians, but Amberley folks prefer to sit and relax over their coffee. And dessert. We’ve got a full bakery – breads, pastry, cookies and cakes,” she said proudly. “Plus there’s a deli and take-out counter with lunch specials every day. Today’s are a spinach and sun-dried-tomato calzone with a green salad, or Sicilian meatballs with raisins and pine nuts. Over saffron rice, of course.” After a beat, a look of embarrassment stole across her face. “Sorry. I’m always selling; it’s an occupational hazard of the self-employed. So tell me, what brings you to Amberley?”
“Work. I’ll be training as a home care aide.”
Sheila exhaled loudly. “Caregiving is tough.”
Cate stiffened, as though sensing in Sheila’s sympathetic voice a tinge of disbelief. “I can do it!”
“Oh, I’m sure you can,” Sheila said even as she tried to imagine the fragile-looking beauty bathing patients and emptying bedpans. Cate’s soft hands weren’t those of a manual laborer, yet she’d clearly fallen on hard times, for the job she’d taken paid barely nine dollars an hour. She couldn’t live on such a salary – not without help.
“Helen Doyle hired me,” Cate said, a note of contrition in her voice as though she regretted how defensive she’d been earlier. “She mentioned Vitelli’s; that’s why I stopped by.” Recounting her meeting at the hospital earlier that morning, Cate explained how kind the nurse had been.
Sheila nodded in understanding. People trusted Helen Doyle’s gentle strength for it had been born of all those years she’d spent caring for her mother. When asked why she chose the career she did, Helen had once said that becoming a healer was a natural choice for someone whose life had been shredded by illness. Was that Cate’s story? Did she hope to heal some internal wound through the work she’d chosen? “Helen and I grew up together,” Sheila explained. “Her friendship got me through some tough times. I’ve sweet memories of her watching my back.”
“Sweet memories,” Cate repeated in a flat voice. “Yet even the sweetest memories can bring pain. Why is that? And why do some memories seem to steal away into the night, while others push forward at the oddest moments? But only for a moment and then they fade.” She raked a hand through her cap of hair. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said that. I don’t even know you.” An embarrassed flush stained her cheeks. “I didn’t really sleep last night. I’m not myself.”
“No need to apologize,” Sheila said, casting about for a way to change the subject. “So you like to read?” She gestured toward the bag of books on the floor.
“Yes,” Cate replied, the tension in her eyes lifting. “Novels mostly.”
“Cookbooks are my weakness,” Sheila confessed, leaning forward conspiratorially. “I’ve dozens of them. I love finding old ones at yard sales. I always turn to the stained pages first. Those are the most interesting.”
Cate nodded. “The more dog-eared and beat up, the more a book was cherished. Those in good condition may fetch more money, but they weren’t valued –not in the ways that matter.” She shrugged her thin shoulders. “Then again, there’s nothing like the smell of new books. Or that soft creak when you open them for the first time; it’s like holding a newborn.”
When Cate sighed wistfully, Sheila teased, “That’s the enraptured look my husband gets when I make lasagna.”
“Books are friends that never let you down.”
“Unlike people, you mean?”
And just like that, the veil that had shifted momentarily fell back into place, and the sorrowful air that had begun to dissipate as they spoke wrapped itself around Cate once again. At the uncomfortable silence that followed, Sheila motioned to her assistant and ordered pastry, explaining, “It’s St. Joseph’s Day, so we’ve éclairs with custard. That’s the tradition.”
“No, no thank you. I’m just having coffee,” Cate protested.
“On the house,” Sheila said. “Call it a business expense.”
“Business?” Cate asked, her face guarded.
“Yes. I’m looking to rent out an apartment upstairs and I’m guessing you need a place to stay. It was Miriam’s—” A familiar ache gripped Sheila’s heart and she rushed on, “It’s nothing fancy, mind you; just a one-bedroom.”
“What’s the rent?”
“Rent,” Sheila repeated, buying time while she turned the matter over in her mind. “To tell you the truth, I haven’t given it much thought. Umm, three hundred maybe?”
Cate’s sky-blue eyes lost their glint of excitement. “Oh. I can’t afford three hundred a week. Thanks anyway.”
“No, no, not a week. A month. The rent’s three hundred a month. And it includes utilities.”
Cate frowned. “That’s not very much. What’s wrong with the place? Are there bugs or something?”
Sheila bristled. “No! Nothing like that! The rent’s low because I hoped you could help me out a bit around here.”
“Well, I don’t live on the premises so I need someone on site. Oh, there’s a security system, but it’s not the same thing.”
Cate cocked her head, considering. “I’m a stranger. Why rent to me, allow me to look after your business even in a minor way? Why trust me?”
“I’m a good judge of character. As is Helen. And I think you can turn your hand to whatever’s needed. That you’d be willing to.” Sheila hesitated before adding, “You look as though life’s dealt you a lousy hand, but you’re playing it anyway. You’re still in the game.”
“Fair enough,” Cate conceded, “and close to the mark.” Then she pulled out her wallet and held it open. “Three hundred and forty-two dollars.” She swallowed hard as though the words had a bitter taste. “That’s all I’ve got. Enough for coffee as a treat now to celebrate my new job, but not enough for a deposit. I don’t get paid for a week and they won’t give me an advance on my salary – I already asked. So I can’t rent anything now. I’ve figured out that if I stay in a B&B until I get my first paycheck, I’ll be okay. Maybe after that—”
“Oh no! There’s no need to give me a deposit!” Sheila cried. When Cate opened her mouth, doubtless to protest that she didn’t want charity, Sheila rushed on. “Normally I would ask for one. But if Helen recommends you – and I’m betting she will – it’s not necessary.”
Indecision warred with relief on Cate’s face. Finally, she said, “Oh–okay.” Then, as if to seal the deal, she sampled the éclair that had sat before her while they talked. Her eyes closed in appreciation and Sheila felt a surge of warmth, for she’d learned long ago that life’s challenges are best confronted on a full stomach. “This is fantastic,” Cate enthused, wiping her plate clean of all but crumbs. “As good as anything you’d find in Boston or New York.” When Sheila glared at her, she amended, “Better. It’s better, actually.
“Nice save. And if you think that’s good, wait until you try my tiramisu.”
By the time the lease was signed a few hours later, Sheila had outfitted the apartment with a basket of food, linens, towels, and some mismatched furniture. She left her new tenant to settle in and entrusted the running of the grocery to her assistant. Then she hurried across the street, a plan forming in her mind.
Cate Saunders’s blue eyes took on a grey hue when she was troubled, but on that first day in Amberley, they were the color of a placid sea. By gradual degrees, her new life was taking shape, for in the course of only a few hours she’d enrolled in the hospital’s home care aide training course and found a place to live. Standing in the center of her apartment, she drank in the silence and wondered who else had called the four small rooms home. She made a mental note to ask her landlady. Or perhaps not, for her new home was a clean page on which she would write–what? That she didn’t know was to be expected after all that had happened. That on many days she didn’t care what the future held was harder to explain, especially to well-meaning strangers. When she’d revealed that she couldn’t provide an emergency contact for she hadn’t any family, Sheila’s brow had creased with concern. In the pregnant silence that followed, the rooms that had welcomed Cate with warmth and light seemed suddenly sepia-toned. Then it was as though she heard John’s voice say that the apartment was a charming place to rebuild her life. Rebuild herself.
Cate’s gaze traveled over the mullioned windows, paneled walls, and pumpkin-pine floors as she mentally redecorated. There was just enough space in a corner of the living room for the writing desk John had made; her grandmother’s rocking chair could go near the front windows; and, the hooked rug would brighten up the floor before the wood-burning fireplace.
She walked into the kitchen where vintage metal cabinets held a few groceries and a set of dishes Sheila had told her to consider her own. The small bathroom beyond boasted a stained-glass window, and was dominated by a claw-footed bathtub that looked too inviting to resist. In the bedroom, a window seat looked down on a well-ordered garden sprinkled with terra-cotta pots of spring bulbs that flared with color. Gravel pathways divided raised beds where neat rows of seedlings were just beginning to poke their way through the chocolate-brown soil. Birds chirped and bees hummed as a marmalade cat made its way along a stone wall before pausing to stretch in the afternoon sun.
The scene’s balance of light and shadow, sound and stillness, was so iconic that it seemed plucked from a novel. Only on the written page could life be so idyllic, its rough edges smoothed and tapered. Or so it had always seemed to Cate. Books are safe, a voice in her mind whispered, the one she’d heeded before love had found her. Before John had found her.
Orphaned at a young age and raised by a grandmother plagued with health problems, Cate had been a lonely little girl who’d found escape in books. Setting her solitary childhood games against a backdrop of Gothic landscapes, medieval bedchambers, and Georgian drawing rooms, she’d peopled her imagination with the heroines of romance novels and mysteries. Luckily, her grandmother had shared Cate’s passion for literature. And memoir. Convinced that, ‘Life is in the telling’, she’d encouraged Cate to keep a journal. And tell stories.
The morning she turned ten, Cate had run downstairs in search of her favorite lemon cake only to find an old typewriter sitting on the kitchen table. Beneath a pink satin bow tied around its carriage there’d been a single sheet of paper with the words “FOR NOVEL WRITING” typed in capital letters. Determined that the characters in her mind find their way on to the page, Cate had pounded away on the Remington’s black and gold keys, breathing life into strong-willed heroines who fought off rogues and found everlasting love amid the drafty castles and windswept moors of Cornwall and Scotland.
Although in time the typewriter found its way into a closet, Cate’s dream of becoming a writer had survived childhood. But not John’s death. Since losing him, she’d consigned her literary hopes to the midden heap. Yet words still sought her out like hungry children, leapfrogging over each other to arrange themselves into a tempting turn of phrase. Every now and then, she surrendered to their pull and dipped into the unsullied mind of the child she’d been. She did so that first afternoon in Amberley. Standing in her new home, Cate found herself thinking that old buildings speak a language all their own. They don’t surrender their secrets easily, so care must be taken when translating the subtle creaks of an empty room into something that could fill a page. Surely, the give-and-take between the rising wind and the window frame was a conversation of sorts. One had only to listen with an open heart to hear the old timbers stretch and sigh.
A change in the light caught her eye, and she looked over to see a shaft of sunlight strike a bookcase shoehorned into the corner of her bedroom. There were a few paperbacks on the top shelf and she wondered how they could have been left behind by the previous tenant. It was akin to forgetting one’s children! Just the sight of those dusty, dog-eared covers made her heart beat faster in anticipation. Reaching out with eager hands for the forgotten books, she read the titles: The Woman in White, Moll Flanders and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Tragic women all, but had circumstance destroyed their lives or had it been the choices they’d made? A writer might argue both sides, but a woman who’d sent the man she loved to his death knew the answer.
© 2016 All Rights Reserved
Excerpted by permission of Kensington Publishing Corp.