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Book Jacket

0800730496
Trade Paperback
320 pages
Jan 2006
Revell

In the Shade of the Jacaranda

by Nikki Arana

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

1

Angelica Amante Perez looked at her watch again. Thirty seconds had passed. The next two and a half minutes could change her life forever.

She walked to the living room, staring at the plastic stick from the pregnancy test kit, her heart racing. One minute had passed. No line. No red line to stamp across their lives, canceling everything they’d worked toward.

She laid the plastic stick on the coffee table and walked to the large window that faced the street of the little subdivision. The roses her husband had planted to climb the archway framing the small entry to their home in Valle de Lagrimas were in full bloom. She could see the pruning shears half hidden at the base of the arch. Since the day the bush had first bloomed, Antonio had never failed to rise before she awoke, cut a rose, and put it on the little table next to her side of the bed. It was often the first thing she saw when she opened her eyes. He loved her with a purity and devotion the first year of marriage had only deepened. She thanked God every day for the man He had brought into her life. Angelica walked back to the couch.

The sound of the phone ringing jarred her. Mother. She hadn’t returned either of the calls that her mother had left at her work the day before. She put her hands over her ears. If only she’d turned the answering machine on before she’d started the test.

She counted the rings. If she didn’t answer, and the machine didn’t pick up, her mother would show up on her doorstep in twenty minutes. . . . She ran to the kitchen.

Mixed emotions surged through her. “Hi, Mom”

Her parents didn’t understand why she’d chosen to marry Antonio instead of the bright, young attorney who’d pursued her. Even now, after almost a year and a half, they still didn’t accept him. Thankfully, they kept their thoughts to themselves when he was present, but she’d heard the rude comments of others who moved in their circle—how the Mexican was lucky to marry the only daughter of the wealthy heart surgeon Benito Amante. Angelica knew the truth. She was the lucky one. What Antonio gave her, money couldn’t buy. A rock solid partner. A man of honesty and honor. A man who understood her . . . a man who loved her. He didn’t deserve their ignorant judgments, but the arrival of a baby would surely lead some to whisper how Antonio had trapped her and managed to tie himself to her family forever.

“Angelica, I was getting worried. Didn’t you get my messages?”

“Just a second, Buddy’s barking to get in.” Angelica stepped to the glass slider and pulled it open. The tricolored sheltie looked at her, waiting for permission. “Hurry up.” She nearly caught his tail in the door as she slammed it shut. Taking a deep breath, she returned to the phone.

“Sorry. I should’ve returned your call. But I haven’t had a free moment since we got back from Mexico.” Angelica turned, leaning her back against the counter, her eyes taking in the big kitchen. The down payment on the house had been a wedding gift. At least that’s the way her parents had presented it. It was really their way of reminding her she was still a white, upper-class Amante, even though she’d married a Mexican. Reminding her appearances mattered. Reminding her that somehow their love for her was tied to her meeting their expectations for her life. She was their only child—born years after they’d been told her mother couldn’t have children. It was almost as if, after waiting all those years, they wanted what was due them.

Antonio had recognized the gift for what it was and refused to accept it. He was determined they would make their own way. Angelica agreed with her husband. His wisdom and integrity were the very things that had drawn her to him, but she also loved her parents and knew it had hurt them when she’d married. Finally, to keep peace, Antonio had agreed to accept the money, not as a gift, but as a loan. The difficult compromise between her proud husband and her demanding parents had left both parties dissatisfied. It had also left her to figure out how to make the payments until Antonio’s business created income. She clenched her jaw.

And now this. A possible pregnancy. She hadn’t breathed a word of her fears to her mother. It would only upset her. Instead of seeing it as the early arrival of the most precious gift a married couple could receive, her mother would see this as interfering with her daughter’s promising career. She would see it as an unplanned and unnecessary financial obligation the young couple was in no position to take on. Her mother would see the red lines as pointing the way to a downward spiral.

Angelica rubbed her forehead. “I’ve got twenty cases stacked up on my desk, and I’m trying to finish fixing up the guest room for Maclovia. She arrives tomorrow. I was going to try to get to the office for at least an hour today and review some depositions.”

“If you’d accepted one of those offers you got from the big San Francisco firms, instead of taking that job at the public defender’s office, you’d have an assistant.” Her mother let a few seconds pass before continuing. “And there’s no reason for you to be bothered with that guest room. If you would’ve let me send Maria down there to help you, you could’ve taken a nap this afternoon and been rested for our dinner tonight.” Angelica waited through another carefully placed pause. “Why isn’t your husband helping you? He doesn’t have anything else to do, and it’s his grandmother.”

Angelica could hear the disapproval in her mother’s voice. Her stomach knotted. Why couldn’t her parents be happy for her and accept Antonio as the man she’d chosen to spend the rest of her life with? “He went to the community center to his English class.” Her grip tightened on the phone. “He’s studying hard to learn enough English to find work.” She looked at her watch. Three minutes and fifteen seconds. “Mom, I’ve got to run. Anything you want me to bring tonight?”

“No, honey. Just yourself.”

“Love you, Mom. We’ll see you in a little while.”

Angelica put the phone in the cradle, then turned and walked to the living room. As she reached for the plastic stick, her hand was shaking. She felt like she was observing her own life from some distant place.

Two lines.

One in the control window, one in the result window.

“A baby. I’m going to have a baby.” She sank down onto the couch, staring at the stick. Two red lines, as clear as two red flags.

She picked up the little white paper that came in the early pregnancy test. “Over ninety-nine percent accurate.”

She sat in lonely silence. It wasn’t that they didn’t want children; it was just that the timing couldn’t be worse. She was pursuing her career as a public defender for Sierra County. Her boss had assured her, one more year of work as impressive as her last one, and she would be promoted; she would begin litigating felonies. Experience she needed. She straightened her back and ran her hand over her stomach. Eventually, she hoped to open her own firm and specialize in advocacy for the poor. Something she was passionate about after being fired from her job in New York when she had refused to exploit a legal loophole that allowed big produce companies to deport Mexican laborers like Antonio without fair compensation for their labor. Although she had lost her job, she’d never regretted the career-ending decision. But it had left her financially strapped, and she and Antonio had agreed—children would come when they were financially stable. That was how it was supposed to be.

Now what would Antonio say? He had just received his permanent visa and was trying to start a gardening business. It was important to him to be able to provide for his new family. He’d grown up in Mexico with nine brothers and sisters and had lived in abject poverty. He’d vowed to give his children the life he’d never had.

She knotted her hands together. “Oh, Lord God, where are You? Why this? Why now?” A flood of emotions washed through her. “A baby.” She whispered the words again.

As gentle as the brush of an angel’s wing, a sweet joy swept over her. She blinked a few times. For a split second she seemed to be looking through a gossamer veil. She rubbed her eyes, probably just the blur of tears. “A baby!” She slowly closed her eyes, pressing her hand lightly on her stomach, imagining for a moment what lay beneath her fingers. The darkness that had shadowed her vanished, and something encircled her, luminous but elusive, something powerful and pure and beautiful. She wanted to open her eyes, but she didn’t want to move, to intrude on the magical moment. Ever so slightly, she lifted her lids, half expecting to find someone present with her. But she was alone in the room. A smile came to her lips, and warmth glowed in her cheeks. She was suddenly filled with peace.

Antonio. She needed to find him, to talk to him. Angelica grabbed her purse and keys. “Buddy, watch the house.”

As she pulled the door shut, she saw Buddy, still standing facing the couch where she had been sitting, his bright, shoe-button eyes focused on the empty space, wagging his tail, as if greeting some unseen visitor.

Angelica paused. His ears were quivering as they sometimes did when he heard something before she could. “Buddy?” He turned at the sound of his name. “See you later.”

She hurried to the car. Antonio would be on his way home by now. She’d driven him to the class and helped him register, but they’d agreed he’d walk home since she needed to spend some time in her office.

About a mile from the house, she saw him. Pulling up, she opened her window. “Need a ride?”

He bent down and rested his arms in the opening. “Sí, señorita.”

His deep tan accented his even, white teeth and broad smile. A few strands of black hair shadowed one eye. She brushed them away from his handsome face and smiled at him. “Love you.”

He pulled her hand from his face and kissed her fingers. “I love you too.” He spoke the words carefully, deliberately, trying to hide his accent. It touched Angelica. He wanted so much to fit into her world, to make her proud of him. Everyone had been shocked when she had married the illiterate, Mexican man who took care of her father’s horses. But she hadn’t wavered. She knew this was the man God had for her. And though Antonio didn’t know of the Bible’s commandment for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, it was a truth in their marriage.

She straightened. “Get in.”

As she watched him walk around the car, her mind began to race. The enormity of what she was about to tell him gripped her. She shouldn’t just blurt it out sitting in a car stopped in the middle of the street. She gripped the wheel, trying to gain control of her emotions. The oaks. She would take him to the oaks. The place on her parents’ ranch, Regalo Grande, where he’d first held her in his arms.

The door slammed. Antonio put on his seat belt and turned to her. “Qué pasa?”

“What do you mean, what’s the matter?”

“You come for me.”

“I just wanted to go for a ride.” She put the car in gear, avoiding his eyes.

“Really.” He studied her face. “Nothing more?”

She tried to keep her voice casual. “No. No. Nothing more.”

“Your hands white.” He touched her knuckles.

Even though he pronounced the words carefully, she could hear concern in his voice. “Let’s drive up to the oaks.”

He raised his eyebrows, then nodded.

Angelica stepped on the gas. “How did you like the class?”

“Difficult.” He opened his binder.

She glanced at the page. She could make out large, uneven letters. He’d never had any schooling. And after her trip to Mexico, where the government required him to go to get his visa, she’d learned the exacting price of poverty in his country. The poor had no education, no opportunities, no way out.

She’d hoped to help his family. But her father’s failed business venture the previous year, to develop a new transplant drug that would stop organ rejection, had drained the family’s assets, including most of her trust account. Her father still practiced as a heart surgeon and had managed to salvage their big home and twenty-five acres of the ranch, but she had given up most of what she had been gifted through the estate over the years. She hadn’t minded. She was glad her parents could maintain their lifestyle. At twenty-six, having graduated from Hastings College of the Law magna cum laude, she’d felt perfectly capable of making her own way. That seemed like a lifetime ago. Now she was committed to a demanding job, to being a wife who supported her husband, a partner in a fledgling business, and the mother of an unborn child. She swallowed the lump in her throat.

“Looks like you’re making progress.” She nodded toward his binder.

When he saw her looking at the page, he closed the cover. “I will.” His face filled with resolve, his voice certain.

“Just think, your abuela will be here tomorrow.”

Antonio’s expression softened. “I am the first child. She help care for me. Now I help care for her. I will find work soon.”

Lord, please help him. Antonio was a proud man, and she knew how important it was to him to find work. Especially now. They’d decided yard work would be his best option. His job on her father’s ranch had disappeared when her father sold his breeding stock as part of the liquidation of his assets. Then her father had made it clear Antonio should find other work. Even though he spoke little English and had no transportation, Antonio had started looking the day they returned from Mexico. When she’d returned home from her job that first day back, she had found he’d visited both of their neighbors to see if they wanted to hire him. Though they had expressed no interest, he’d learned from one of them that she had hired a gardener in the past but was dissatisfied with his work. He had convinced the neighbor, Mrs. Dupre, to let him maintain one of her front flowerbeds free for one month. If she liked his work, he thought perhaps she would hire him. Angelica smiled, remembering his confidence. “Soon I have a good business,” he’d said.

“Monday, you can start looking for work again. We’ll keep studying for your driver’s license. Maybe you can try the test one day next week.”

“Sí, señorita.” He gave her a salute, then winked at her.

They were nearing the ranch. She could see the red tile roof of the big hacienda she’d grown up in atop the ridge. Just where the long, winding driveway intersected the road, she pulled over.

Antonio looked at the dashboard gauges. “Problema?”

She switched the engine off, leaving her hand on the key longer than necessary. Right now, Antonio’s life was full of their dreams. He was still in the free and benevolent place of hope and a future. As soon as she took the key out, all that would begin to change for him—for her. She drew a deep breath and pulled the key from the ignition.

“Come on.” She unfastened her seat belt and opened the door. “I don’t want my parents to know we’re here.”

Antonio’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly, but without a word, he got out.

“We’ll see them later tonight. Follow me.” She could see her horse, Pasha, through the oaks, prancing around the pasture and whinnying. His standard greeting for Angelica. “Pasha must have heard my car. I hope he doesn’t give me away.”

Angelica grabbed Antonio’s hand, and they walked down under the oaks. She led him along the stream to the place where they’d sat late one night when he’d first come to the ranch—where she’d fallen asleep in his arms—where she’d fallen in love with him.

“Please. Sit right there.” She pointed at the big oak branch that had fallen by the water.

He sat on the branch and pulled her onto his lap. She felt the heat of his body, the muscled firmness of his arms locked around her. “What is it, Angelica?” His eyes rested on hers, attentive, intimate, giving her just what she needed.

She hesitated. The words she chose would change all the plans they had made over the past year and a half. Her toes curled in her shoes. “We’re going to have a baby.”

“Baby?”

He drew in a sharp breath, and she dropped her head, not wanting to see his face as grim reality set in.

“Say it again,” he whispered, pulling her to him.

“We’re going to have a baby.” She turned her face into his shoulder and bit her lower lip, fighting for control.

He stood, scooped her into his arms, and spun in a circle. “Dale gracias a Dios.” He looked at her. “God is good.” He set her on her feet and kissed her. “Thank you.” Then he knelt down in front of her and put his hands on her hips. Speaking directly to her tummy, he said, “Welcome, little one.”

Angelica began to giggle and covered her mouth with her hands. Antonio’s love for his unborn child brought tears to her eyes. What more did a child need to thrive? A weight lifted from her shoulders, and she became aware of her surroundings for the first time. The oaks, the stream, the sunny spring afternoon . . . a man who adored her. They would work through this, together.

Antonio stood, then placed his hands on her shoulders and held her away from him. Looking at her, studying her. Then tenderly he ran the tip of his finger over her cheekbone and down the oval of her jaw line, as if tracing fine art. He tilted her chin toward him and kissed her. Deep emotion always moved him to touch her face . . . on their wedding night . . . now.

“Antonio, the timing’s all wrong. We don’t have much savings, and you’ve just started your business.”

He put his finger on her lips. “Shh. This is the way of life, my Angel. No worry, God is with us.”

As they drove home to get ready for dinner with her parents, clouds began to fill the April sky, and the bright day became somber. The joy she’d felt began to fade. She looked at her watch. In three hours they would be having dinner with her parents. She dreaded telling them. Would they accept that this was just the way of life? A drop of rain splashed on the windshield.

 

Antonio stepped out of the shower, wiped the steam off the mirror, and tied his towel around his waist. “Hi, Papa,” he said to his reflection. He shook his head slowly. “I can’t believe it. I’m going to have a son.” He picked up his razor and began shaving.

He thought back to the moment when Angelica had told him. When she’d first said it, he’d felt an impression. He couldn’t say why or how, it was just a knowing. God was giving him a son. When she’d said it the second time, he was filled with certainty. It would be a boy, a special boy. But he had felt a check in his spirit. . . . He should not tell Angelica yet.

He had known what his wife meant when she’d said the timing was wrong. Angelica knew his heart and his desire to provide for his children. It was his responsibility. He respected her need to work and achieve. It was part of who she was. But it didn’t absolve him of his duty to his family. This news meant he would spend every free moment looking for work and he would study harder. He would begin tonight. Dios, I trust You. Give me the strength to accomplish what is before me.

Angelica stuck her head around the door. “You about ready?”

“Un momento.” He splashed aftershave on his face.

“I’ll put Buddy out for a minute, then we’ll go.”

Antonio watched Angelica walk from the bedroom. “That woman is strong with men and have no patience.” A grin tugged at his lips.

“You about ready?”

He could hear Angelica calling from the living room. He fastened his belt buckle and grabbed his blazer.

“Wow. You look handsome, señor. That was worth waiting for.” She gave him a peck on the cheek, then ran out the door in front of him.

On the drive to the ranch, Antonio thought about his in-laws. They were good people. They’d given him a job when he’d desperately needed one. And though he knew they did not think him worthy of their daughter, they still included him in their family.

Surely a baby would change everything. Angelica’s mother would probably want to care for the baby every day. He hoped that wouldn’t cause a problem with his grandmother. It sometimes did in Mexico, with the first grandchild. Later, when there were many, all eyes and hands were needed, and everyone was happy.

As they headed up the drive of Regalo Grande, Angelica pushed the button in her visor. The massive, black wrought-iron gates swung open. As they neared the house, Pasha began to gallop up and down the fence line. She honked her horn. Two short beeps. He pranced and tossed his head in response.

She pulled in front of the arched stucco entryway and parked. As Antonio reached for the door handle, he felt her hand on his arm.

“Antonio.”

There was something hidden in her voice. He turned to her, watching her as she spoke. “I’m so excited about the baby.”

He nodded, waiting, studying her beautiful face as she struggled to find words. “Um . . . it’s just that I’m not sure if my parents will be as excited as we are.”

Why would she say this? “Of course they be happy. Very happy. This big news.”

“It’s just that we haven’t been married very long. We didn’t plan children so soon. They might think we should’ve waited.”

There was something she wasn’t saying. As if this were a wrong thing and they should apologize. “We did wait. God no wait.”

Tenderness filled Angelica’s face. She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “Maybe you’re right. I’m just being silly. Let’s go give them our big news.”

They got out of the car, and as they walked through the entryway to the front door, he wrapped his hand firmly around hers. His thoughts returned to her face, to her eyes cast down, the unnecessary fingering of her hair, the tone of her voice, the tenseness in her shoulders, as she had spoken of her concern. He knew her well. She often expressed her feelings without words. She was quick to reveal her mind but slow to reveal her heart. This was one of the reasons he loved her.

What wasn’t she saying? The kiss on his cheek . . . there was something more . . . something . . . it was him. This was not about the baby, it was about him! He felt a wave of heat sweep over his face. Angelica’s parents did not think him worthy.

Angelica opened the front door and called out. “We’re here.”

“Come on in. I’m in the living room.”

They walked down the hall to the spacious front room. Antonio stepped aside as Geniveve Amante embraced her daughter.

“Ben, they’re here,” she called down the hall. “Your father’s opening the wine.” She gave Antonio a quick smile.

“Have a seat.”

Antonio turned at the voice behind him. Benito Amante had two bottles of wine tucked under his arm. The big man’s steel gray hair, penetrating eyes, and the self-assuredness that came with his medical degree could be intimidating.

“Good evening, patrón.” Antonio extended his hand.

“Good evening, Antonio.” As they shook hands, Antonio noticed the man’s eyes were on his daughter. It was obvious her father loved her deeply, yet Antonio rarely saw him hug her or her mother. Perhaps his many years as a doctor had taught him not to show people what he was feeling for them.

“Drink?”

“I’ll have a Diet Coke, Dad.”

“What about you, Antonio? A beer?”

“No. Gracias. Nothing.”

Angelica took a seat on the couch that faced the big picture window and its expansive view of the Sonoma Mountains and the valley they embraced. The lush green of the spring hills could be seen, even at twilight. Her mother sat down beside her. “Here, Ben. Sit by me.” Mrs. Amante patted the empty cushion next to her.

“Let me get Angelica’s Coke.”

Antonio took a side chair.

Mrs. Amante poked Angelica with her elbow. “Look at Pasha tearing around down there.”

“He’s excited I’m here. We haven’t been riding in ages.”

“He’s been excited all day. He was doing that this afternoon.”

“Really?” Angelica shifted in her seat.

Benito handed Angelica her drink and took the seat next to his wife. “So, Antonio, have you found work yet?”

“Dad, he just got his visa so he can work.”

Antonio waited for his wife to finish speaking. Answering for him was a habit she’d developed when he couldn’t speak English. That wasn’t necessary now, and he gently reminded her by answering himself. “I look for work, and I go to school, learn English.”

“Antonio’s planning to start his own landscape maintenance business. I’m going to do the books. I’ve got QuickBooks on my computer at home.”

“Angelica, don’t you have enough to do with your job?” Mrs. Amante looked at her with impolite eyes.

“It’s easy, Mom. I keep our checkbook and bills on there anyway. We figure he can get started with about three thousand dollars. We’re going to invest our savings in his business.”

Antonio nodded proudly in Angelica’s direction, then glanced at her parents. They stared at their drinks with frozen faces. Before they noticed him, he looked casually away, out the window, his heart heavy.

The visit continued. Antonio didn’t understand everything that was said, but he joined in when he could and tried to use only English words he was sure of. Finally, Maria announced that dinner was served.

Antonio spoke in Spanish to the woman who kept the house and cooked for the Amantes. “Good evening, Maria. I’ve been waiting all day for your good food. Thank you.” She and her husband lived on the ranch, in what had been the bunkhouse when Benito Amante still had breeding stock and show horses.

They ate in the formal dining room. The patrón took his place at the head of the table, and Mrs. Amante sat at the opposite end. Antonio and Angelica sat in the middle, facing each other. Gold-rimmed plates and tall, thin glasses that sparkled in the candlelight were part of each place setting. Antonio never felt comfortable with all the extra forks, spoons, and knives that were a part of these formal meals. He knew each one had a special purpose, and he managed, but he couldn’t help thinking of Maria working in the kitchen and having to wash them all, late at night.

“So, Antonio, your grandmother arrives tomorrow.” Benito buttered a roll.

“Antonio was her first grandchild.” Angelica answered for him.

“Now many grandchildren, and their children,” he added.

“Well, I’m glad you two are waiting to start your family.” Mrs. Amante smiled at Angelica.

Under the table, Antonio slid his foot over and tapped Angelica’s toes.

“Yes, that was the plan.” Angelica took her knife and began to cut her meat.

“Was?” Benito looked at her and laid his fork down.

Mrs. Amante’s eyes widened. “Angelica?”

Seconds seemed like minutes. Angelica raised her head and looked at Antonio.

She needed him. . . . Antonio stood up. He walked quickly around the table, stood behind Angelica’s chair, and put his hands on her shoulders. His mind was racing. What could he say? He didn’t know much English. What if he said something stupid and embarrassed her? He closed his eyes a moment. Dios, give me words.

“Mr. and Mrs. Amante.” He nodded at each of them.

Benito folded his arms across his chest.

“You are my father- and mother-in-love.”

Angelica reached up and patted his hand.

“This is my wife, and I love her. We are proud to tell you we are having a baby . . . a boy.” He kissed the top of Angelica’s head, then walked back to his chair and took his seat.

Caught up in the joy of the moment, he lifted his water glass. Then he tipped his head, first to the patrón, then to Mrs. Amante.

No one moved. No one spoke.