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Book Jacket

080073050X
Trade Paperback
336 pages
Aug 2006
Revell Books

The Fragrance of Roses

by Nikki Arana

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

CHAPTER 1

 

Angelica reached into her pocket and pulled out her cell phone. Flipping it open, she checked to be sure the voice mail symbol hadn’t appeared at the top of the screen.

Nothing.

They’d said they would call by five o’clock today. She glanced at her watch. It was only 3:40. She placed the phone on the kitchen windowsill, tilting the antenna toward the glass.

Glancing out the window, she could see her daughter, Anica, carefully cutting the zigzags of the crown she was making for her older brother, Manuel. The bright and talented eight-year-old held the yellow construction paper in one hand and cut free-form with her other. Angelica’s lip began to tremble.

The oven beeped as it hit 325 degrees, bringing her attention back to the task at hand. She grabbed a wooden spoon and stirred the chocolate chips and pecans into the cookie dough.

After sliding the cookie sheet into the oven, she walked over to the kitchen table and picked up the two pink party favor bags the children had dropped there on their way from the garage to the backyard.

When Manuel had been included in the birthday party invitation Anica received, Angelica had been thrilled for him. She hadn’t realized he’d be the only boy. When they’d arrived, all the little girls had been making crowns. This was far beyond Manuel’s ability and he soon busied himself with the chips on a nearby table. It wasn’t long before the hostess asked Angelica if she could keep Manuel from “touching everything.” And it wasn’t long after that that Angelica was asked if she could keep Manuel in the other room.

Her answer had been to excuse herself and her two children from the party.

Angelica huffed a sigh. She wished she’d asked more questions before she’d taken Manuel to the party. She picked up the two pink bags and carried them to the counter next to the oven.

Turning back to the window, her gaze rested on her son. He sat across from his sister. He stared through thick glasses, his almond-shaped eyes mesmerized by the flashing scissors. Lips parted in a half smile. Unaware of the difference between this party and the one he’d left. Angelica blinked rapidly and took a steadying breath.

The sound of her cell phone interrupted her thoughts. Grabbing it, she flipped it open. Let them say I got the job.

“Hi, Angelica. It’s Tex.”

 “Oh.” Angelica tried to hide her disappointment. Tex Gaynor was Manuel’s teacher and she often called on Friday afternoons to let her know how the week had gone for him. Angelica volunteered in his fourth-grade class. Still, she and Tex always tried to connect at the end of each week. Angelica appreciated the extra effort and considered the woman her friend.

“Did I call at a bad time?”

Angelica could hear the concern in Tex’s voice. “No. No. I’m waiting for the Sierra Center on Law and Poverty to call.”

“I was going to ask if you’d heard, I’ve got that on my prayer list. Listen, I won’t keep you. Manuel had a great week.”

Angelica laughed. “Manuel always has a great week. The question is, how was it for you?”

“It’s a pleasure having that little boy in my class. And before this year is over, I’m going to find out who he’s talking to.”

Angelica rolled her eyes. Everyone who knew Manuel knew about his invisible companion. The one-sided chattering had started shortly after he was stricken with acute myeloid leukemia, AML, at the age of five. After achieving remission, it seemed to subside. Yet even now, years later, Manuel would often glance up and begin laughing or suddenly stop midstride as if someone had called his name. “Well, if you find out, let me know.”

“Blessings to you, dear.”

Angelica flipped the phone shut and put it back on the windowsill.

For a moment she debated whether or not she should call the Center and ask if they’d made a selection. She hadn’t come to the decision to go back to work easily, but once she started applying for jobs that advocated for the poor, she quickly became excited at the prospects of once again making a difference in the lives of people whom society seemed to care little about.

Manuel’s birth had meant leaving her job as a public defender. At the time, she hadn’t realized it would mean giving up the law career she’d worked so hard for. But that soon became evident. It was only over the past year that her husband’s landscape business had really taken off and the loving support she found at Manuel’s school allowed her to consider returning to work.

The warm, chocolaty smell of the baking cookies told her they were ready and convinced her to wait on making the call. Right now, her son was the one who needed her.

Angelica fanned the cookies with her hand, looking over her shoulder. Out the window she could see that Manuel was wearing his crown and Anica had almost finished hers. Angelica gingerly picked up the hot cookies and dropped three into each one of the party bags.

“Mama. Mama.” Manuel barreled through the sliding glass door, one hand on his headpiece, one hand splayed in the air. “My crown.”

“Here my king . . . and queen.” Angelica handed each of the children a party bag. “Let’s go out and sit on the lawn, shall we?”

“Yes, my lady.” Anica made a sweeping bow.

Suddenly, the music from the cell phone began to play. Angelica ran to the kitchen window. “Anica, take your brother out. I’ll be there in a minute. This is that important call Mommy’s been waiting for.”

Oh, Lord, You know the plans You have for me. I pray this job is in Your will. She flipped the phone open. “This is Angelica.”

“This is the nurse at Dr. Pearson’s office. Dr. Pearson has received Manuel’s blood work back from his physical. He’d like you and your husband to come in.”

In past years the doctor’s office had never called and asked them to come in . . . unless something was wrong. The woman’s words reminded her, with sickening clarity, of a similar call she’d received five years before. “Is something wrong?” Angelica’s heart began to race.

“Dr. Pearson will discuss it with you when you come in. When can you meet with the doctor?”

“I . . . I don’t know. My husband isn’t here.” Angelica tried to quell the panic she felt rising in her chest.

“Do you think you could come in this afternoon?”

“Uh. Yes, of course. We’ll be there.” Angelica pressed the End button, then pressed 1 to autodial her husband. “Please answer.” She began pacing. The call went into voice mail. “Antonio, please call me, it’s important.”

Angelica knew Antonio always left his phone in the truck while he was working. She hesitated, then flipped the phone back open and pressed 2.

“Amante residence.” It was Martha, Angelica’s parents’ housekeeper.

“Is my mom or dad there?”

“Just a moment.”

How much should she say? She didn’t want to alarm them. They adored their grandchildren and had been as devastated as Antonio and Angelica by Manuel’s battle with leukemia.

“Hi, honey.”

“Mom, could you come down and watch the kids for a couple of hours? I’ve got some things I need to do.”

“Is something wrong?”

After years of discord, she and her mother had become close during Manuel’s illness. She should have known her mother would sense something was up. “No, I just need to go find Antonio. He has an appointment he doesn’t know about.”

“Your father and I will come down. Maybe we’ll bring the kids home. Dad was going to barbeque. They could swim while we get dinner ready.”

“That would be great, Mom. Thanks.” Angelica disconnected and tried to reach Antonio again. No answer. She closed her eyes a moment and took a deep breath, then walked to the slider and opened it.

“Hey, kids, Grandma and Grandpa are coming and you’re going to the ranch.” She wished she were going to the ranch for the afternoon. The magical place of her childhood. The place she had met and fallen in love with Antonio. It was as much a part of her life as the earth and sky. Instead, she would be spending the afternoon in a doctor’s office, praying that the doctor’s news about Manuel would not be life threatening.

Both children jumped up and ran to the house, cookies and party bags forgotten. They were going to Regalo Grande.

 

Arms folded across his chest, Antonio narrowed his eyes slightly as he listened to the young man who worked for him.

The man continued in his native language, the dialect of the Mexican campesinos. “The baby keeps trying to come early. The doctor says my wife must stay in bed and take her medicine.”

The boy, Carlos, had just turned eighteen when Antonio had hired him only a month before. Antonio never had more than a three-man crew. Santos and Pepito had been with him for years, but he always filled the third spot with “a neighbor.” That was what he called the men who often crossed his path in need of help, and even more desperately, in need of hope. He’d begun the practice years ago when the owner of a rival lawn care company had needed a helping hand. That was how he chose to honor the God who had blessed him so mightily with a wife he loved with every fiber of his being, two children who were the joy of his life, and a business that continued to grow each year. By keeping Christ’s second great commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Antonio had read the situation when he’d interviewed the young man, though Carlos had given him only the barest personal information. Yet another boy becoming a father before he had become a man. Becoming responsible for a family before he’d become responsible for himself. A second-generation Mexican whose parents had probably come illegally and lived in poverty, as they had in Mexico. They believed their children, born in the United States, would seize the opportunities available here. But Carlos, like so many of the children of migrant laborers, had grown up in third world poverty, in a parentless home, without the culture or communal support of a Mexican village. And now, without a job, the opportunities of America would not be about what he could give to the country of his birth, but instead, what he could take from its treasuries.

And so Antonio had hired him, knowing he was taking a risk, knowing Santos and Pepito would raise their eyebrows and shake their heads, knowing that whatever the boy lacked in integrity and commitment to the clients of Affordable Lawn Care, Antonio must be prepared to make up.

Shoulders slumped, a trace of panic in his eyes, Carlos knotted his hands into fists. “She is out of her medicine, Señor Perez. That is why I need my check before Monday.”

Antonio knew the story was true. He and Angelica had stopped at the couple’s tiny apartment one Saturday to see if they’d like to join them in church on Sunday. Carlos’s wife, hair tangled, face pale, and swollen legs extended, had sat, unmoving, on the only piece of furniture in the room, a worn couch. Antonio and Angelica had stopped again the following Saturday with food, and Angelica helped the young woman bathe and fix her hair. Angelica’s commitment was as deep as Antonio’s, to reach out to the poor Mexicans, who were the brothers, sisters, and children of “his people.” People he knew well. People he had grown up with in the fields near Guadalajara. People living the life he was born to and had only escaped by the grace of God.

Antonio’s face softened and he dropped his arms. After a moment’s thought, he smiled. “You’re in luck. A man called me this morning. He had some trees that need pruning. He wants it done tomorrow, before his company arrives tomorrow night. Since it’s short notice and the weekend, he offered to pay me extra.”

“Really?” Hope crept into Carlos’s eyes.

“Really. And I’ll pay you tomorrow when you finish. You’ll have the money you need, and more when you get your paycheck on Monday. I’ll bill for the work and when he pays, we’ll be even.”

Carlos’s face broke into a smile. “How can I thank you, señor?”

Antonio put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “When your child is born, take your family to church on Sundays.”

Carlos avoided Antonio’s eyes and color rose in the young man’s cheeks. Stepping back, he put his hand out. “Deal.”

Antonio grasped the boy’s hand and gave it a shake. “Now go finish the weeding. Tell Pepito I’m going to the next house to get started.”

Antonio watched Carlos as he strode across the lawn to finish his work. A man who needed pruning done had called that morning. But Antonio had declined the job. His schedule was full. He was working six days a week, from early morning until late at night as it was and didn’t need more work . . . but Carlos did. He sighed and glanced heavenward. Under the circumstances, it was the “neighborly” thing to do.

Antonio jumped in his truck and checked his watch. He’d been pushing himself all day, hoping to carve out thirty minutes to stop at the jewelry store and make the last payment on Angelica’s ring. Now was as good a time as any.

As he drove to the mall, he went over in his mind every detail of the anniversary dinner he was planning. This would not only be a celebration of twelve years of marriage, but he would finally be able to give Angelica diamonds. It was something he had dreamed about since the day they were married. But every penny he’d made, he used to support his family or invested it back into the business. Angelica’s parents were more than willing to help out financially, but Antonio had never permitted it. Personal gifts to his wife or the children were fine, but providing for his family was not.

He had admired the “eternity” ring in the jewelry store window for over a year. But it wasn’t until ten months ago that he finally decided there was only one way to come up with a down payment. He sold his guitar. That had given him enough cash so that payments could be set up on the balance, which he faithfully paid at one hundred dollars a month. He was proud that he was making his last payment early.

Just as he pulled into the parking lot his cell phone rang.

“Sí?”

“Antonio, where are you? Carlos said you went to the Allens’. So I drove over here to the Allens’ house.”

“I’m in my truck. I’m coming there.” He knew his wife well. He could hear the controlled tempo of her voice. She was upset. “What’s wrong?”

“Manuel’s doctor called and said that the blood tests they took at his physical came back and they have to talk to us.” Her voice trembled. “They want us to come in right away.” He could hear her ragged breathing. “Antonio, I’m so scared. I can’t go through this again.”

“Don’t be afraid. We don’t know anything yet.” A wave of nausea swept through him. He closed his eyes, willing it away. “His cancer has been in remission for almost five years. There’s no reason for it to come back, Angel. I’ll come home right now and we’ll go talk to the doctor.”

“Please hurry.” The connection ended.

Antonio put the truck in reverse and stepped on the gas, narrowly missing a car parking next to him.

As he drove, his thoughts returned to the hell he and Angelica had lived through when Manuel had been diagnosed with cancer. Though it had been years ago, the fear embedded in that word was as powerful now as it had been then. How many nights had he awakened, slipped from his bed, and driven to the hills that surrounded Valle de Lagrimas, to pray for his son in solitude? Begging God to spare Manuel’s life. How many times had he called God to account for His promises? Demanding the truth of His Word be made manifest in the situation.

A knot of uneasiness formed in his chest.

And how many times while holding his son, who was too weak from the chemo to open his eyes, face splotched with petechiae from constant vomiting, had Antonio, for just a moment, allowed himself to contemplate the enigmatic truth . . . there was only one truly perfect healing. And it was not found on this earth.

Antonio gripped the steering wheel and shifted in his seat. He immediately rejected the thought. As he had then.

Turning down Mountain View Drive, he could see Angelica sitting on the front porch of their house. Before he could put the truck into park, she was opening his door. As he pulled the key from the ignition, he felt her press into him. Turning toward her, still sitting, door flung open, he pulled her into his chest. He stroked her hair as she sobbed.

Pressing his cheek against the top of her head, he squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his jaw. He must be strong for her. There would be time for his tears later. He said nothing, letting her cry. Finally, her breathing began to steady.

He cupped her face in his hands and kissed her tears. “Are you ready to go?”

Angelica nodded silently.

Antonio pulled her into his arms one more time, holding her for a few seconds.

“Let’s go.”

“Let me go get my purse.”

As Angelica walked to the front door, Antonio heard her cell phone ring. She stopped and turned toward him as she answered.

“Yes, this is Angelica.” The color drained from her face. “Yes, we’ll bring him right in.” She flipped the phone shut. She tried to put it in her pocket, but it slipped from her fingers to the ground.

Antonio stepped out of the truck and picked it up.

“That was the oncologist’s office. They want us to bring Manuel in so they can do a bone marrow biopsy.”

Her gaze held his.

As the moments passed, she began to straighten.

Lifting her chin, she drew a deep breath. “We’re going to fight. And we’re going to win.” She turned on her heel and went into the house.

Throwing her phone on the truck seat, Antonio slipped behind the wheel and shut the door. As he started the truck, Angelica’s cell phone started playing music.

He stared at it. The music continued to play.

“Hello.”

“Is Angelica Perez there?”

“She’s not available right now, could I take a message?”

“Tell her that the Sierra Center called . . . and congratulations.”

 

It was him.

The woman whispered a prayer of thanks as she watched the boy through the traffic of Guadalajara’s busiest street. Mama Rose had been right. He was becoming a handsome young man. Leaning as far as she dared from behind the parked car, she strained to catch a glimpse of his face. But he was hidden from her by the hordes of people on the crowded hospital sidewalk, their legs and hands veiling him from her view.

She could see his good leg was tucked under him, his other leg a straight stump. In a stilted, awkward motion, he used his hands to push himself along on the wheeled board toward the Cruz Roja.

She longed to run to him, to hold him, to beg him again to forgive her. No matter that he had said he hated her, no matter that he had cursed her and wished her dead.

She loved him.

He was her son.

______________________________________________________________________

Used with permission of Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.