The crisp, white, sandy caliche rock dusted into the air with every step beneath her tan, leather cowboy boots. The warm sun kissed her silky, bare caramel shoulders in her white-cotton strapless dress. Walking through the ranch was a comfort for Freya Gama as she grasped onto the tall green weeds and breathed in long, deep breaths. The effect calmed her. Texas twilight was a magical and spiritual time, with the sounds of the summer cicadas filling the air. Thoughts and questions she shared with herself on this walk were sacred to her alone. For some time now, Freya felt beautiful, strong, and confident with herself. She was secure and bold, as if there were nothing she could fear.
Walking back to her ranch house, she was ready for a long bubble bath and a stiff drink of Jim Beam Honey bourbon. Freya stepped into the white colonial house with navy-blue shutters and dark-chocolate wood flooring. She made sure to feed her dogs, Sally Mae, a white, fluffy, sweet, female Maltese poodle, and John Luke, a strong, protective, red-nosed male Doberman. Freya scratched each of them where she knew they loved it best.
“I love you crazy puppies. You like that, don’t you?” she asked, and in their eyes, she saw contentment. She gave each a kiss and started up the dark-chocolate-colored stairs to draw a warm bath in the old pedestal tub. Freya thought, I may be the only woman I know who keeps liquor by her tub. Taking the day’s clothes off, she twisted her hair up into a messy bun, poured herself a drink, and set the amber liquid on the wooden stool next to the antique bathtub. Then she slowly entered the tub, testing the warmth of the water with her toe, then submerging herself into the depths, stretching her long, darkly tanned legs, and wiggling her toes in the soapy water. Reaching for her drink, she sighed with contentment and then took a short sip to get a taste on her lips of the rich, golden-brown liquor in the short rock glass. Freya let out a long sigh and enjoyed herself in her solitude. The tub faced an open window that looked out onto the starry Texas night sky.
Nearly an hour later, Freya relented and pulled herself out of the comfort of the almost-tepid water. She knew it was time to go to sleep. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow. Mondays were like that at her restaurant, La Vida Buena.
Waking up at four thirty in the morning was something she never thought she would actually look forward to, but because she was waking up to do something she loved, the annoying alarm felt like a true blessing instead of a curse. La vida buena in Spanish meant the good life. The restaurant’s interior was elegant in its simplicity. Instead of the traditional bold colors of most Mexican eateries, her restaurant featured white tablecloths, white ceramic plates, and small bouquets of local flowers on each table. Freya emphasized what La Vida Buena meant to her, which was truly memorable food. Every good moment in her life was at the table eating with friends: laughter, discussions, debates, and jokes, all accompanied by great food and a good cocktail. This is the good life. These were the good moments.
All of her passion poured into her unique spin on traditional Mexican dishes. Like the interior, Freya demanded quality and only bought local and organic ingredients from the area farmers around town; it was important to her to support her community. The restaurant served everything from deliciously spicy ranchero sauce for her famous huevos rancheros served with sweet, succulent fruits and sides of thick-cut local bacon for breakfast to savory mole sauce for mole chicken enchiladas or mole de pollo, served with warm tortillas that were soft to the touch and borracho beans cooked to a spicy perfection with thick-sliced bacon and cilantro for dinner. For dessert, Freya loved to bake fresh daily and made homemade vanilla ice cream with a golden apple pie or deliciously crispy golden churros with a dreamy caramel dipping sauce for dessert.
Food is what Freya dreamed about first thing as she woke up each morning and the last thought as she fell asleep at night. She dreamed only about the next day’s menu and what new dish her thoughts might inspire.
With food always on her mind, Freya maintained a healthy workout routine to keep in shape. With the stressful demands of the restaurant, Freya worked out three to four times a week, jogging around her rural neighborhood and lifting weights in her garage. These were times she enjoyed, and as diligent as she was with her restaurant, so, too, was she with her body, inside and out, with nutrition and fitness.
Getting ready for work was never a challenge; she didn’t wear too much makeup. Her natural taste in color palette for clothing included mixing neutrals that reflected her simple lifestyle.
As she stood before the mirror, checking her reflection, Freya noticed her hair had grown out into long, loose brunette waves that curled naturally at the ends. Then she reached up to her eyes with her fingers to check for wrinkles. Seeing some fine lines starting to form, she pulled at the sides of her temples, watching the lines tighten, then loosen when she released the tension. She opened her hazel-green eyes wide, then squinted, then stuck her tongue out. “Oh, well, they come with smiling too much, I guess,” she said aloud to herself.
Freya stood to the side and inspected her body. Her arms and legs were lean and muscular thanks to lifting heavy produce and meat at the restaurant. She also had a little tummy, but that came with testing recipes, she thought, shrugging; she rather liked the look of herself and took pride in her not-so-perfect body. Her thoughts left her when she noticed the time, and she grabbed a pair of black skinny jeans and a faded, black, loose racer-back tank top and slipped them on in a hurry. The weather was supposed to be nice enough for her to ride her black Harley Sportster 1200 motorcycle today, so she grabbed her distressed, brown-leather riding boots, her soft, caramel-leather backpack, and her flat-black Built Well helmet. She traded a few things out of her purse to transfer to her pack, making sure she had the essentials like her phone and iPad, lip balm, and black mascara. Once she was ready for her morning commute, Freya went downstairs to unlock the doggie door for John Luke and Sally Mae. She made sure they had food and fresh water and a bit more attention before she set out.
This morning, she intended to make breakfast for her staff. They were a small but very capable family team. As she rode to the restaurant with the Sportster vibrating beneath her, she decided to make bacon and eggs and a walnut fruit salad, fresh grapefruit juice, and coffee.
Freya parked behind the restaurant and walked through the back, which opened into the kitchen. She immediately turned off the alarm system and started to fire up the kitchen. She unlocked the door to her office and set her things on the black swivel chair in front of her computer. She grabbed the iPod and selected the Romeo Santos radio station; Bachata-style music always got her going for the day. She danced while cooking and singing; her Hispanic heritage was very much a part of her. Even though Freya was half Mexican and half Caucasian, she embraced both sides of herself.
As she danced in the kitchen during morning preparation, she noticed over her shoulder that Chef Sunny was the first to arrive. He was the only person she trusted with the quality of her food. Though he was a quiet, respectable man who kept calm under the stress of running the back of the house, which in the restaurant world meant the kitchen, he expected the same quality and hard work that she did from the staff. Freya smiled and laughed as Chef Sunny caught her in mid-dance.
He shook his head in laughter. “Anything I can do to help, Freya?”
“Yes, Chef. Will you please set the table for our staff this morning?” she said, somewhat out of breath.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said with a smile and went off to start setting up the table.
The bar and front of the restaurant were run by April, the “front-of-the-house” manager. She arrived on time, and Freya marveled at how beautiful the woman kept herself. April wore vibrant, purple hair that was pinned in a fifties-style hairdo, and her fair skin was covered in colorful tattoos of mermaids and fish that had special meanings to her. April was as creative and wonderful inside as she looked outside.
“Smells good in here already! I’ll get the beverages started.” April smiled and shimmied her way out of the kitchen.
The rest of the staff showed up and knew exactly how to set up for the day and start their preshift work. Freya loved watching the restaurant come to life. As she took the food out to the table, everyone came around to eat. Soon, amusing banter filled the room. They poked fun at one another and stuffed their faces. Freya felt herself start to drift up and above everyone. Is this really my life? Did I accomplish all of this?
Freya had come so far from her past. She felt as though her tormented childhood was a nightmare she had finally fled from forever.
They don’t know where I am. I’m fine. I’ll be safe now, she chanted to herself, just as she had every single day since she’d escaped.
Natasha Sanchez knew that she hadn’t always done the right thing. She’d done things where she refused to look at herself in the mirror. Still, there was an awaking inside when she heard the doctor tell her the life altering news.
“Natasha, we have gotten your blood work back and your test results,” the doctor said with a stern face.
“Yeah, so, what’s the news”?” Natasha shifted her weight in the chair.
“I’ll be honest, it doesn’t look good. The cancer has spread from your lungs to your lymph nodes. I am afraid that you don’t have much time.” He folded his arms and looked at her face for a reaction.
“Much time for what?” Natasha didn’t understand as she reached her hand to her mouth to cover her cough.
“To live, Mrs. Gama. We caught this too late. You need to look into hospice care. Start making some serious plans,” he said with a solemn face.
Natasha didn’t say a word; she just left. She stood up and grabbed her backpack; he said words, but she no longer heard his voice. She read his lips: six months, he mouthed. Her brain was on autopilot mode, which made her limbs move. The next thing she knew, she was in the elevator going down to the bottom floor of the hospital.
“Honk, honk, honk,” an annoyed driver repeated over and over again. The driver in front of the honking vehicle rolled down his window to flip him the bird and stuck his head out to look at him. “I can’t move if the car in front of me is not moving, jackass!”
The honking continued, and the man who had shouted threw his hands up in the air, then reached for his cigarettes and lit up. A homeless woman went through the trash can across the street, picking out whatever food she could find, took a bite, then tossed the rest to her scruffy brown dog, which patiently waited at her feet. The sounds of the street traffic and exasperated drivers honking and yelling expletives at one another were exceptionally blaring on this hot Chicago day. Natasha was short of breath but lit up a cigarette, anyway. She took a drag and looked both ways before she crossed the street, letting the smoke wisp out behind her as she exhaled. She’d walked this walk before, but this time, she couldn’t break herself from her tunnel vision, her numbness.
Amelia. This single thought broke her from her numb tunnel. She would find the courage to leave him. She’d find the courage for her daughter, Amelia. How to escape her husband, Saul Sanchez, so that he couldn’t find her and hurt them both—this would take cunning action and careful preparation on her part. Natasha knew he would kill her eventually if she didn’t die of cancer first. She knew if he found her, his rage would consume them, so if she was going to leave, she needed to completely fall off the grid. She wouldn’t tell a soul that she was trying to escape; she didn’t know exactly where to go, either.
As the son of a vicious criminal, Saul was also a disgustingly abusive man. It was no surprise his father was doing hard time for the murder and torture of a young woman. When Saul was fifteen, his father went away to the state penitentiary, right before he’d met Natasha. True to form, his father had passed on everything to his son, from his treatment of women to earning respect out of fear, and last but not least, his criminal knowledge and network.
A chip off the old block, Saul even had a cover job where he worked in construction for one of his father’s friends. His family watched over Natasha while he was away, like wardens of his own personal prison. The only time she was alone was when she was forced to work at the Fox Hole strip club during the day as an entertainer. His mother took care of their three-year-old daughter, Amelia, while Natasha was at the club. Sometimes Saul’s mother would let Natasha take Amelia to the community park across the street. Natasha was young and scared, and after being beaten down, she felt resigned as though this was just life. This was as good as it gets, and nothing more. But after talking with the oncologist, a new reality was beginning to sink in; her cancer had spread too far into her lungs and lymph nodes, and she was running out of time. After I’m gone, who is going to be there for Amelia?
Natasha started secretly saving money a long time ago when she first became ill. She needed to pay her medical bills and knew Saul would not allow her to take away from his cut. So, she explained her decrease in earnings to Saul by telling him, “I’m old news now; the men like the newer girls,” He would yell and scream at her and started pushing her to turn tricks to make up for his loss in money. With the funds she’d already saved, she decided that she would use the money now to make her great escape from Chicago. She knew she had burned her bridge with her sister, Freya, but Freya was the only person she knew that was wholeheartedly good. Natasha knew her sister would show Amelia a happy life, a normal childhood versus the dark life she currently existed in now. Then Natasha’s mind shifted to how she had treated her older sister. She knew Freya didn’t have any reason to do her any favors or even accept the challenge she was going to ask of her sister: to raise her daughter.
There was only one person who knew where her sister was, and he was not an easy person to talk to. He won’t give up her location very easily, especially to me, she thought. Natasha didn’t have anything else to lose. She only had Amelia, and she wanted her daughter safely away from Saul’s reach for fear that when she grew up, he would abuse Amelia the same way he’d abused her.
It’ was another day in wonderful chaos. Time goes by so quick when you’re having fun, Freya said to herself. It was dinnertime, close to closing time, and Freya sat at the bar, sipping a glass of bourbon while filling out the reports and calculating the paperwork of the day. Freya enjoyed working at the bar so she could observe the customers coming in to dine. She also found it better so that if a server or bartender had a problem, she was ready and available to help.
Rosalie, a young, beautiful hostess, was like a little sister to Freya. Her long, kinky, curly black hair came in part from her half-African-American, half-Mexican heritage. She loved Mexican food and would come to eat with Freya after her high-school day ended and did her homework with Freya’s help. Freya liked how easygoing she was and how she had a bright energy about her, and her megawatt smile was extremely contagious to anyone near her. So Freya offered Rosalie a job after her high-school graduation. Rosalie worked part-time while she was attending college online.
Rosalie walked over to Freya and did a coughing nudge to get her attention, then said in a steady but hushed tone, “There’s a very fine gentleman sitting at table twelve that Max is serving, and he keeps glancing in your direction like he can’t keep his eyes off of you. Now, I know you’ve been living in some sort of nunnery for a while, but girlfriend, it is time to get out of there. And besides, if you don’t talk to him, I’m callin’ dibs. Just sayin’.” She raised her eyebrow at her and pursed her lips, then strutted off back to her hostess stand and pulled out her economics textbook to catch up on some reading.
Freya did an awkward-as-hell turn to see this fine gentleman who couldn’t keep his eyes to himself. When her eyes located table twelve, she nearly fell off of her barstool. From her vantage point, he was not only fine but fit with burly shoulders and arms. Rosalie didn’t lie. His slightly curly, chestnut-blond hair complemented his warm, tan skin and his honey-brown eyes. He had a five o’clock shadow covering his strong, structured jaw. His lips were full and soft. Her eyes moved to graze his neck, and through the v of his shirt she saw…and I am going to stop myself, she thought. Freya, you don’t need this. When you truly let people in, they hurt you. It’s OK not to have someone. She’d been telling herself this for years now. Never too close, never too personal. They can’t hurt you as long as they’re at a distance. So don’t even start.
After successfully returning her focus back to the work at hand, she heard footsteps coming in her direction. From her peripheral vision, she saw the same shirt she’d torn her eyes away from earlier was only ten feet away and coming nearer. She shot a look at Rosalie and widened her eyes, an unsaid plea for immediate intervention.
Rosalie snapped her head back toward her economics book as if she’d suddenly found something fascinating.
Freya felt like screaming at her. Be a distraction! Save me! But it was too late. He closed the distance. I smell man; it smells so good…No! She scolded her inner sexually frustrated self.
“Hi, ma’am. I just wanted to thank you for the food. The grilled pork chops were the best I’ve had in a while. The way you used the garlic and chipotle spices on it was genius.”
He held out his hand to her for a handshake. She stared at it briefly, not willing to touch him. Then she came to her senses and placed her hand in his, instantly feeling the pleasant, warm shock she was trying to avoid.
“My name is Carson. Carson Hunt, ma’am.”
Even though she was perched on a barstool, she found herself looking up into his brown eyes. He’s so tall…And his voice, she thought. He has a sweet, Southern drawl, sexy, strong, and calm. Am I talking? No, Freya you’re not.
“Uh, you’re very welcome. I’m glad you enjoyed them. I’m Freya. Freya Gama.”
He held her steady gaze with a warm smile. Then she felt her face flush, so she swiftly pulled her hand away and broke their gaze. Freya quickly wrapped up her paperwork in a hurry and finished her drink in one awkward, drippy gulp. She smiled at him.
“It was nice meeting you, Mr. Carson. Ah, I mean, Mr. Hunt. I hope you have a good evening.” She was pretty sure she couldn’t have possibly left faster without being blatantly rude.
Freya decided to leave the closing up to Chef Sunny and April that evening. Walking out of the restaurant’s back entrance at a speedy pace, she stopped herself, leaned against the white-brick wall, took in a deep breath, and closed her eyes. No man had had that much of an instant effect on her before. No, just go home.
She mounted her bike, kicked the kickstand back with her left foot, pulled the clutch lever on the left handle, and pressed down on the left gearshift pedal. The bike growled to life. She buckled her helmet onto her head, revved up the engine, and looked both ways before she left the parking lot. She looked forward to the freeing journey home.
By the time she pulled into her driveway, she was almost over the tingling encounter she’d had with Mr. Carson Hunt. Now she was just happy and relieved to be home with her pups. Walking into her home, she leaned down to her dogs to accept their loving, sloppy kisses.
“Mi vidas! Mi corazons!” In their excitement upon seeing their master, the two threw themselves onto their backs so that she could rub their bellies. She thought, tomorrow is another day and quickly put away her things. Both dogs waited by the back door, knowing their routine.
She picked up their favorite ball and asked, “You guys ready to play?” It was a rhetorical question. Their tails wagged in barely contained anticipation. She opened the door to the backyard, and they bolted out after her. She threw the ball to them well into the evening. John Luke and Sally Mae ran through the tall grass and hopped over each other, trying to get the coveted prize. After the sun had started to set, she was ready to take a hot bath with her buddy, bourbon. Trying to fall asleep as her head hit the pillow, she thought only of food. I’ll make some yummy pan dulce conchas for tomorrow’s breakfast, and maybe have a carnitas taco special with a spicy mango salsa. Before she knew it, she was fast asleep with sweet culinary dreams.
Working the cattle on the John H. Ranch worked up a hunger. Carson Hunt had heard about the great food at La Vida Buena in town and decided to give it a try. It’s all the ranch hands would talk about. Apparently, the upscale Mexican cuisine was really good, so he figured he’d take a shower and head into town to try it out. You can eat only so many frozen pizzas, he reasoned with himself.
Carson was a strong, quiet man. He never really saw himself settling down and having a family. He hadn’t met anyone special enough yet, though he came from a happy family. His parents were still together and in love and he’d seen that growing up, but for him, he felt like he was still searching for something. He wanted to experience life firsthand on the road and travel. He’d been drifting from state to state, ranch to ranch, always leaving on good terms with a good reputation in case he found himself back there again.
After his shower, he pulled on some clean, dark jeans and slipped on his dark-brown distressed-leather cowboy boots. He pulled a soft-cotton gray T-shirt over his sore muscles. Working the ranch kept him in great shape, like an extreme daily workout. Still, he found the need to run every other morning to keep up with his cardio. Carson hopped into his white Chevy Silverado, turned on the radio, and Kevin Fowler’s song “Hard Man to Love” played. He turned it up and enjoyed the ten-minute drive into town.
As he pulled up to La Vida Buena, in the middle of the old town of Bandera, Texas, the eatery stood out as a clean, modern, white building with a black-trimmed door and an oversize black, cast-iron handle. It didn’t quite look out of place, he thought. But the restaurant reminded him of a white stone among brown pebbles.
His stomach grumbled, reminding him of just how hungry he was. As he walked to the restaurant, he smelled the fresh mint and jasmine that were planted outside in square, black-metal planters. Inside, the hostess greeted him with a stare in her eye that was very familiar to him. He smiled.
“Just one, please,” he told her and followed her as she nearly bumped into a table corner. He sat down and looked up at Rosalie, who was still holding the menu in her hands. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said, reaching it.
“Thank you, sir.” She didn’t move a muscle.
There was a long pause. Carson squinted his eyes and looked down at the table and giggled.
Rosalie snapped back to life in front of him and tried to recover her composure. “Here’s your menu. Max will be your server. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask. Enjoy your dinner, sir.” Rosalie turned and left him, smiling, and walked over to the bar.
Carson studied the menu. Everything looked so good: pollo con mole with charro jalapeño beans, steak-stuffed chile relleno, red-snapper fish tacos with cabbage and a chipotle sauce. But what really caught his eye was the chipotle-garlic-rubbed pork chops with crispy papas fritas.
While Carson was engulfed in his menu, he looked up to see a gangly blond boy standing in front of him. He looked barely old enough to drive. “Hello, sir, my name is Max. I will be your server tonight. Can I start you off with a sweet tea or beer?”
“I’ll have a Shiner Bock,” Carson ordered.
“Excellent choice, sir.”
“You know your beers, do you?” Carson doubted he was old enough.
The kid smiled at him. It was obviously a common reference to his young appearance. “I’m twenty-two. My uncle owns a microbrewery and specializes in dark lagers. I sort of grew up around beer, but in a good way.”
Carson was impressed. “You’re a lucky man.”
“Yes, I am. I’ll be right back with your order.”
Max nodded. Carson smiled and nodded in thanks.
When Max came back with the Shiner, Carson finally decided to go with the pork chops, though it was a tough decision. He reasoned if the food was as good as the guys said it was, there would be many other opportunities to come back and try more. As Carson took in the ambiance, his eyes wandered to the bar, where he saw a woman. His eyes drifted farther along the bar but immediately returned to her. She stretched and untied her long ponytail. He watched her long, loose, brunette hair fall down past her waist. She ran her hand through her scalp and shook her fingers, causing her locks to shimmer in the candlelight. He was mesmerized, and then she took a long sip of the golden-brown liquor in front of her and continued to type on her small laptop.
The aroma of a savory, hot meal coming his way was the only thing that tore his stare away from her. He decided to dive right in as soon as Max departed. After the first bite, he thought to himself, This is the way pork chops should taste, so juicy, and these french fries are perfect. They were lightly salted and served with a spicy, garlicky ketchup, so full of flavor. He truly enjoyed his meal and took his time, though he couldn’t help but steal looks of the intriguing woman at the bar between bites. He caught a glimpse of her smooth face and bright-white teeth when she conversed with the bartender. He focused on her left hand with his eyes and noticed that she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, and her face was so naturally beautiful, she didn’t need makeup at all. He hated the fact that he was checking out a woman while eating, but he couldn’t resist. From his table in the corner of the cozy restaurant, he saw she had full, pink lips.
Max soon came to check on his guest. “How is everything?”
“Can I have a glass of whatever she’s having?” Carson was curious as he pointed to Freya sitting the bar.
Max nodded. “Anything else?”
“And a slice of the apple pie and homemade vanilla ice cream.”
Max soon returned with the warm pie and semi-melted ice cream, as well as the golden-brown liquor in a short rock glass.
“Yes, sir? Is there anything else I can get for you?”
“Who is that woman sitting at the bar?”
“Oh, that’s Ms. Freya Gama. She owns this restaurant, sir.”
“Thank you, Max. I’ll take the check.” Carson lingered a little more with his dessert. He bit into the flaky crust and felt his teeth melt into the sugary, cinnamon apples, then quickly scooped up the melting vanilla sauce.
The ranch hands weren’t kidding. The cuisine was excellent. Anyone could tell this woman had a passion for food. He decided he had to meet her. He didn’t really have much to lose, anyway.
Natasha somehow had to get to her Uncle Luis. She needed to come up with a way to get him to tell her where Freya was living. It wasn’t going to be easy. So, as she waited to go on stage next, back in the empty dressing room strewn with bright, tawdry costumes, she found herself saying to her own image in the mirror, “Hi, Uncle Luis. I know I’ve stolen from you and treated you with much disrespect, that I have no right to even speak to you. But I have cancer, and I’m dying, so can you please tell me where my sister is staying, so that I can save my daughter that you don’t even know I have? Yeah, no, that’s not going to work. I need to write a letter to him. Maybe he’ll meet me at the club so that I can talk to him face-to-face.”
Then she began rummaging through the grungy room, much like the rest of the club, in search of clean paper and a pen. After finding something suitable, she wrote:
Dear Tio Luis, Please read this letter all the way through. I really need your help. You’re my only hope. I know that I do not deserve any of your time. I know now what I have done and how I have mistreated you, but I need you to please help me this last time and meet me at the Fox Hole Club on Perkins Street on Wednesday, anytime. It’s so important that you come alone, and do not tell anyone you’re meeting me.
She slipped the letter into the outgoing mail with the front desk before she was called to the stage. When the music started, she was lost in herself. She was good at catching the rhythm and swaying along. No one ever complained. Maybe dancing was the only thing she enjoyed in life besides her daughter. It definitely wasn’t the kind of dancing she wanted to be proud of or wanted to do, but she loved being lost in it for the ten minutes they required her onstage.
Cigar smoke and spilled cheap liquor filled the air. She felt the way the club smelled: grungy and dirty. An oversize man had paid for her services before her act was over. All she thought about was the money, not the trick. The money, she would save for Amelia. Once her dance was through, she snapped back to reality and reluctantly went to him in the dark corner of the club.