A Lodi Christmas
Chapter 5

Copyright© 2019 by AA Nemo

They’re writing songs of love, but not for me. A lucky star’s above, but not for me.

With love to lead the way I’ve found more clouds of gray than any Russian play could guarantee.

- George and Ira Gershwin


Coffee. Yum. Coffee?

Cindy was face down on her bed snuggled under her blankets when she smelled the aroma of coffee. Initially puzzled, she then remembered she had company. La Banda Sage had performed in Sacramento the night before, and Sofía and her personal assistant Amalia had stayed with Cindy rather than return to their apartment near the campus of UC Davis. Sofía had a plane to catch today from Lodi Airport – a chartered plane that would take her to San Luis Obispo airport where she would be met by boyfriend Ian Ward and his parents. Recognizing the growing attachment between their son, a student at Cal Poly, and Sofía, they had invited her to spend Christmas week with the family.

Unable to resist the delicious aroma, Cindy rolled over and stared at the ceiling. Unbidden, memories of those times when Matt had stayed flitted through her mind. He was always up first and got the coffee going, usually before he headed out for a run. Sometimes, she still missed him, especially at night, when she could sleep unconcerned and protected with his strong arms around her, or snuggled against his back with her arm draped over him. She needed his strength after those animals broke into her house to kidnap Jenny. She had never regretted the killing, but early on it had haunted her dreams. Matt would wake her and hold her and reassure her. He cared more for her than she for him, at least that’s how she thought of it, even when they were a steady item around Lodi.

Cindy often wondered what would have happened if she had been less reluctant to commit to Matt. He had asked her to marry him, but she had put him off, and then Jo had appeared, accompanied by their child, Grace. After that, Cindy had no chance, at least that’s what she told herself. What if she’d accepted his proposal before Jo had come back into his life? What if? What if?

Stop thinking about Matt! You’ll drive yourself crazy. That’s over and done, and he’s married to Jo now. There are lots of valid reasons you didn’t accept his proposal. It really was too soon.

It was obvious the day before Thanksgiving three years ago when she saw Jo and Matt together with Grace, that whatever Cindy and Matt had was over. Cindy remembered the looks she’d received when she attended their wedding a couple months later – Jenny was a bridesmaid – some were astonished, some pitying, and some, perhaps a little smug, that the popular and successful Cindy McCabe had lost her man to the blonde doctor, who had shown up one day and taken him without a hint of resistance. She shook her head.

Admit it; there was really no chance once Jo appeared. Matt’s happy now with his wife and child and another on the way, and he’s not tied to the woman who turned into a screaming harridan the day Jayson’s life insurance money arrived. No surprise I don’t date – I’m a three-time loser – first I lost the love of my life, because I was immature, narcissistic and stupid, then that bastard Jayson who put me in the hospital, and finally, Matt who I couldn’t commit to.

I’m thirty with a child I adore and I’ve been loved by two wonderful men, and every man I meet gets compared to those two – a pretty high bar. So count your blessings, Cindy – successful song writer, entertainer and radio host, respected in the community, lots of friends and with enough money in the bank to not have to worry, or have to settle for second best. That’s more than most have. So get your ass out of bed and quit with the second guessing!

Cindy headed for the shower thinking about her upcoming day. Jenny was at the Hacienda – she preferred to think of the new house in those terms, rather than Harrison and Jessica’s home. She had to admit she still had strong feelings for Harrison, but he loved Jessica. Cindy had her chance years ago, and destroyed their marriage when she took off on her quixotic quest to find something more. The shared custody arrangement made it impossible to avoid Jessica, and while Jessica had always been nothing but cordial, Cindy couldn’t help feeling jealous – Jessica had her Harrison, but she had no one to blame but herself.


Showered, and now dressed in fitted jeans and long-sleeve sweater, Cindy followed the smell of coffee to her kitchen where she found Sofía and Amalia. Sofía looked amazingly well put together and fresh, considering the late hour of her arrival the night before. Her hair, like Cindy’s, was in a simple ponytail, but she wore an expensive-looking outfit consisting of a white sweater, dark full skirt, dark tights, and flats. Lost in thought, Sofía stood gazing out the large bay window in the kitchen, holding one of Cindy’s red Christmas-themed coffee mugs in both hands.

Cindy was amused at the contrast with last night. This morning Sofía looked every bit the college girl she was - barely out of her teens. Last night, in front of thousands of screaming fans at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, Sofía strutted in costumes that featured tight shimmery dresses and very high heel pumps, or boots, that showcased her long legs. With her dark hair blown out and her stage makeup she looked five years older. Cindy knew there would be unauthorized videos on YouTube already, but she was confident their promoter Felicity Morgan would have a number of professionally filmed excerpts from the concert on the site soon. Felicity had every show and concert recorded, and fought hard to get the pirated stuff removed as soon as possible.

Dark-haired Amalia, still in pale blue flannel pajamas, sat at the wood farmhouse table with her head down over her coffee, her hair obscuring part of her face.

“Good morning, you two. Sleep okay?”

Without raising her head Amalia grumped, “Not enough. If I didn’t have to get Sofía organized and on a plane to be with her Romeo, I’d be in bed for the rest of the day.”

Ignoring her, Sofía continued staring out the window, occasionally sipping her coffee.

Cindy made her way to the coffee pot and poured a cup. She turned and said, “Sofía, are you with us this morning?”

Amalia looked up for the first time and answered for her, “Ms. Capulet is nervous about spending time with the Montagues.”

Now she’s making an allusion to Romeo and Juliet. Cindy marveled at how far the frightened and homeless teen had come since Matt had intercepted her trying to stow away on the band’s bus after a show in Los Angeles a year ago.

Good thing we kept her.

Sofía turned. “I am not. It’s just, well ... I’ve not spent much time around Ian’s parents and now a whole week...”

Setting her cup on the counter, Cindy walked over to Sofía and took her hands. “Sofía, I’ve met them. They’re lovely people, and I don’t think they’d invite you for a week if they didn’t like you. Plus, Ian’s younger sisters think you’re the most wonderful thing ever.”

Amalia added. “That’s what I’ve been telling her, but I’m just the lowly assistant to Ms. Torres, so she won’t listen to me.” She said the last with a theatrical sigh and a slight smile.

She’s far from a ‘lowly assistant.’ Amalia has made Sofía’s life so much easier, and she’s as protective as a mother bear.

“But Ian’s dad is a retired Navy Captain, and his mother was a famous opera singer in Argentina before they married, and they live in this big house overlooking the ocean. I don’t even have a family, and was raised ... well, if it wasn’t the worst part of LA, you could see it from there.”

“Sofía, it’s not where you come from, it’s where you’re going. You’re beautiful, talented and smart – and only a year away from getting a double degree in math and chemistry. And considering your grades, I expect the admissions folks at Stanford and UCSF medical schools are salivating at the thought you might do your studies there.”

Amalia got up and poured herself more coffee. “Yes, Pi and the Periodic Table are her friends. My favorite is the latest addition, Orgasm.”

Sofía rolled her eyes, “Oganesson.”

“Whatever. It should be in there somewhere. Guess I’ll stick with my other favorites, AU, AG and PT.”

Now it’s Pi and the Periodic Table along with gold, silver and whatever PT is. Oh, platinum. Of course!

“Amalia, nobody likes a showoff!” Sofía tried to look stern but was unsuccessful. Cindy knew how proud Sofía was of Amalia’s academic achievements.

“Anyway, Sofía, you’re rich as Croesus.” Ancient history now? “You could probably buy and sell the Montagues several times over.”

Sofía leaned back against the kitchen counter and asked, “And how would you know that?”

Amalia shrugged. “I don’t, but I think it’s a valid assumption, especially in light of how many downloads each of your songs get. Your last Salsa album went platinum across Mexico, South and Central America practically overnight, and in the US, anything with Sofía and La Banda Sage has turned into pure AU.”

“Now stop it!”

Cindy stifled a laugh.

Amalia grinned. “I can check for you if you like. It’s amazing the stuff you can access with the right programs and the internet.”

Sofía shook her head in wonder. “I think you’ve been hanging around Teri Metcalf too much.”

Cindy was puzzled. “What? What about Teri? I thought she was Jessica’s IT person.”

“Oh, she is, but did it ever occur to you to ask how they keep a full time IT person employed if all they did was to fix computers and keep the household systems up and running, especially if that IT person is a computer whiz?”

Cindy didn’t have an answer for Sofía, but her thoughts went in a direction she didn’t like. She remembered when Matt was chief of Jessica’s security, he spent a lot of time doing background checks on employees and potential employees and, as she recalled, others, including people who sought to visit or do business with Jessica.

Amalia was silent for a change.

Sofía continued, “And Teri really works for Xena Skarlatos.”

Yes, that stands to reason. Xena’s as paranoid about security as Matt was when he was working for Jessica. Of course, Matt’s pretty much the same now with his own security and protection firm. His rising star is a computer geek named Josh Mercer who came out of Cal Tech. These days Teri and Josh seem connected at the hip.

Cindy looked at Amalia. “So hypothetically, if someone in the Willets-Brandt household was interested in my net worth, or that of Ian’s parents, Teri could provide that information?”

Amalia looked chagrined but nodded. “Hypothetically, yes.” She went to the coffee pot and refilled her cup. “Busy day. Guess I’d better get in the shower...”

“Amalia, before you go, remind me of my schedule.”

Amalia turned to Sofía, and consulting her ever-present tablet said, “Okay, brunch at Hacienda Brandt.” She looked at the kitchen clock. “We should be ready to leave in about thirty minutes. Meagan Black, who’ll be your security for the week in San Luis Obispo, will pick us up here. Your plane will be at the Lodi airport at eleven. They’ll be ready to depart as soon as you and Meagan arrive.

“I’ll drive you both out there in Tom’s truck – he and Rashmi will be at the Hacienda sometime this morning before heading for SFO later today for their trip to London. Since I’m going back to Red Bluff it makes sense that I take his truck back to the ranch. Makes it convenient for me since I rode down with Sofía last night – or I should say this morning - my truck’s up there at the school anyway. As soon as you lift off I’ll text Ian and let him know your arrival time in San Luis Obispo.” She paused. “Anything else before I get in the shower?”

Sofía shook her head. “I think that covers it.”

“Amalia, you’re certainly welcome to stay here for Christmas.”

“Thanks, Cindy. Jessica made the same offer, but I promised the girls I’d be at the school for Christmas.” She looked at Sofía, and said teasingly, “Even though their benefactress will be absent.”

Benefactress? Cindy shook her head. This girl has come a long, long way. A year ago she hardly spoke anything but barrio Spanish if you could get her to talk at all. She never said, but I suspect being silent and staying out of sight was a big part of her defense mechanism when it came to her mother and her mother’s long string of boyfriends. When was the last time I even heard more than a word or two in Spanish from her?

Of course, she’s living with Sofía and Rashmi now and going to the community college in Davis. The way she soaks up knowledge and her determination to make Sofía proud has given Amalia lots of incentive to excel. I’m a little surprised she hasn’t picked up a British accent from Rashmi, although I have noticed certain British terms and phrases have crept in. These days she goes to the ‘loo’ and she rides in the ‘lift,’ instead of the elevator. And Felicity only encourages her!

She’s even cut her long black hair to emulate Rashmi, or was it Valeria, both of them sporting stylish pixie cuts. Of course, most of the young women in Jessica Brandt’s orbit sport short hair like Jessica. Even my own hair is half as long as it was when I arrived in Lodi. I’d probably go shorter too if it weren’t for people thinking I’m following Jessica. Damn! There I go again making decisions, or not making decisions, based on Ms. Perfect, Jessica Brandt. Why can’t I just accept that I can’t compete, especially as far as Harrison is concerned? She has him and he has her – end of story!

‘School for Christmas,’ for Amalia was the Magdalena School. Sofía was the founder and indeed the benefactress, although it was supported by several other people and organizations. It was located on several hundred acres in the Lassen foothills; on what was formerly a working ranch east of Interstate Five just northeast of Red Bluff.

Over the last couple of years Sofía had worked with Harrison’s sister, Natalie, to set up a charitable foundation called Bloques de Construcción (building blocks). The foundation bought the property and funded the private school, which took girls - currently twenty-four of them, ages eight through twelve - out of the LA Barrio and gave them an education which emphasized the basics along with teaching them life skills.

The girls, mostly Latinas, were what Sofía sadly described as ‘throwaways’ – some orphans, but mainly the product of indifferent and impoverished single mothers. The school had opened its doors last summer. Sofía and Amalia had spent the weeks prior, mainly working through the local Catholic charities in the worst parts of LA, to identify candidates. The Magdalena School would provide no-cost education, along with room and board, until the girls graduated and hopefully went off to college (scholarship included) or into the workforce or military (2-year stipend included), with an option to go to college later.

The school was anything but traditional – at the center of the campus was the Ranch House, a building that had for years housed the families that lived on the ranch. It was now remodeled, enlarged and updated. It contained the large commercial kitchen and dining facility, a large common area with a stone fireplace and the only television on the premises, four classrooms, plus science and computer labs, and a small health clinic.

Around the Ranch House were four mini ranch houses which each held accommodations for six along with a common room for relaxing and group study. Of the twenty-four girls in residence, there were five sibling pairs, and there was even one set of three siblings. Another house was home to the headmistress, Mrs. Raniger, a widow, and two in-residence teachers. Four more mini ranch houses were under construction. Magdalena had a waiting list of over a hundred, with more added all the time.

Sofía seemed stung by Amalia’s comment about her absence. “Don’t start, I feel guilty enough about not being there. I’m flying off in a chartered plane, with a bodyguard no less, to be hosted by wealthy people in a big house overlooking the ocean, while those girls spend Christmas at school because for the most part they don’t have families...” She looked like she was about to cry.

Amalia moved from her place in the doorway back into the kitchen and took Sofía’s hands. “Sofía, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t tease you. It’s because of you that those girls have any kind of family this Christmas. They have each other and they’re safe and cared for. None of them would rather be anywhere else this Christmas.” Amalia paused, fighting back tears herself. “And neither would I.”

Sofía hugged her. When Amalia stepped back, she kept hold of Sofía, and said, “And after what you did last night after the concert...”

Amalia noticed Cindy’s puzzled expression and turned toward her. Wiping her eyes, she said, “After the concert, instead of riding back with Rashmi and Tom, she got on the bus with the girls and for two hours, all the way back to Red Bluff, we sang Christmas carols and other songs and the girls just couldn’t believe it was happening. And when we got to the school, she visited each of the houses and made sure they were tucked into bed. Those girls got front row seats at a La Banda Sage concert, but the Christmas present they’ll always remember will be spending two hours with Sofía on that bus to Red Bluff.”

“Sofía, that’s wonderful. I knew you were going to visit the school, but I had no idea. No wonder you were so late getting in.”

Amalia looked at Sofía. “You don’t need to be there the next few days. Go and enjoy your time with Ian and his parents. The staff and I have lots of things planned, starting with a slumber party in the main lodge on Christmas Eve. We’re going to pop popcorn and make s’mores and watch Christmas movies on the big screen.

“None of the girls has ever done anything like that before. Think about it. Last Christmas they were lucky to get a decent meal, and that was probably served in a church basement or homeless shelter. And presents? Not much chance. Even if they got something from some charity, if it had any value, someone would have taken it before they got home – if they had a home.”

Amalia smiled but a tear leaked. She looked at Cindy. “Last Christmas, because of a miracle, I was here.”

She paused, swallowed, and got herself back under control. “So it’ll be an adventure for me and the other girls, and on Christmas morning there’ll be presents to open, thanks to you and Sofía and La Banda Sage and the rest of our wonderful supporters. Then we’ll go to Mass at Sacred Heart and the cooks have promised a special brunch. And the foreman said if the weather was good he’d bring a few of his gentlest horses and we could go riding...” Her voice trailed off and she grabbed several tissues from the box on the counter.

Amalia looked at the big kitchen clock. “Oh my, I really need to go get ready.” She turned and fled the kitchen.


Sofía dabbed her eyes as they watched her leave.

Cindy turned to Sofía, “She’s really amazing, isn’t she?”

“Yes...”

“Seventeen going on thirty.”

Sofía nodded and smiled. “Yes, and lots of people underestimate her because she looks so young, and sometimes she still acts like a kid, but she’s growing up fast.”

“They underestimate her at their peril,” Cindy agreed.

Sofía looked at Cindy. “Remember the night Matt found her in the luggage compartment of our bus after our show in LA?”

“Oh, yes. Pretty hard to forget Matt in that parking lot carrying Amalia as we came out of the back of the theater. And then Felicity came out and took one look at Amalia, and all of us standing around, and said, ‘Get her on the bus’.”

Sofía spent a few seconds looking out the window gathering her thoughts. “She was dressed in raggedy jeans and a thin sweater – not near warm enough even for LA, especially in December, and she looked so pitiful, her head buried in Matt’s chest, sobbing and clutching the front of his shirt.

“She told me later she was so frightened when Matt pulled her from the luggage compartment she just collapsed as he picked her up. She kept waiting for him to beat her or yell at her and send her on her way, but he was so strong and he felt so warm, and he didn’t do any of those things. It’s sad that up to then her only experience with men was abuse.”

Cindy added. “I remember she was so thin it was scary. She’d been living on the streets for a few months by then and it appeared she never got enough to eat even before that. Her mother’s new boyfriend made it pretty clear what he wanted, and one day after school she shoved a few things into a backpack – not like she had much – and left.”

Sofía said softly, “Allí solo por la gracia de Dios.”

Over the last couple of years Cindy’s Spanish had improved markedly. “Yes, but for the grace of God, that could have happened to you.” She took Sofia’s hand and said, “But it didn’t, and now you can help other girls like Amalia.”

“But there are so many.”

“There are twenty-four fewer, twenty-five when you count Amalia, and soon there’ll be room for a dozen more.”

They both stood in the kitchen and sipped their coffee, lost in thought. Cindy knew that ‘but for the grace of God’ applied to her, too. Where would she be now if Jayson had seriously hurt her during his tirade in Reno? Or worse, what if he had simply performed the encore and their lives had continued as before?

She couldn’t imagine she’d still be married to him, but how long would it have taken for her to make the break? By then, would it have been too late to make amends to Jenny and Harrison and Natalie? Life without Jenny would have been pretty bleak, and even bleaker without her circle of Lodi friends.

Trying to lighten the mood, Cindy said, “Do you think Amalia has put on another growth spurt?”

Thinking about it Sofía said, “Yes, a year ago it was Amalita, but now she’s grown so much...”

“She doesn’t let anyone call her that any longer, except Matt, of course.”

They both smiled. Cindy continued, “She’ll always be his Amalita and she wouldn’t want it any other way.”

“She told me, she’s in love with him.”

“Did you tell her to get in line?” They both laughed.

That December night, on the bus coming back from the concert in LA, Matt had held the sleeping girl on his lap for the five hours it took to get back to Lodi. When they arrived in the early hours of the morning, Cindy volunteered to take the girl ‘temporarily’ until they could figure out what to do with her.

Cindy had often wondered what she could have been thinking in taking in this stranger – this girl from the streets of LA. The truth was that she saw Amalia for what she was – a frightened and half-starved sixteen year old who was so desperate to get away from her life on the streets that she would stow away in a compartment under a bus. Of course, Jenny took to her immediately and Amalia to Jenny. ‘Temporarily’ lasted for six months, but Cindy couldn’t have been happier as she watched Amalia blossom.

Cindy had considered adopting Amalia, but a few months later Jessica’s attorney, Joe Foss, offered a solution. Just before her seventeenth birthday he petitioned the local court to have Amalia declared an emancipated minor. Cindy had attended the in-chambers hearing in Sacramento and was very proud of a confident Amalia as she told the judge about her life in LA and then answered the judge’s questions. Jo Archer also spoke in her behalf, and with Amalia’s permission, she told the judge about the therapy sessions and progress she had made since their first meeting some months before.

Harrison had also appeared and told the judge that he was tutoring her and she was preparing to take the GED exam after being conditionally accepted by Woodland Community College in Davis. Finally, Sofía told the judge that Amalia would be living with her while they both attended school. The judge granted the petition. Before they left her chambers the judge had autographs from both Sofía and Cindy for her daughters.

After the hearing and a celebratory emancipation and 17th birthday lunch, Amalia signed an employment contract with Sofía to be her assistant. The idea had been germinating for a few months and Valeria had taken her under her wing. Amalia had shown herself a quick study and had formed a strong bond with Valeria, and interestingly enough, with Valeria’s grandfather Rafael Ramirez. She also became a fixture around the Brandt-Willets household. And of course there was Matt. If Matt was in the vicinity there was Amalia, especially the Saturday brunches at the Hacienda, where often as not, she could be found sitting snuggled with Matt on one of the porch swings that dotted the veranda. Frequently, they were joined by a napping Grace or by Jenny or both. Jo had confided that she approved, knowing how important it was for Amalia to have strong positive male role models.

“Sofía, is Amalia dating?”

Sofía shook her head. “She would claim she’s too busy taking care of me and helping at the school, but in truth, she’s like Valeria, boys at the college just don’t measure up to her male role models.”

Cindy nodded her understanding. “Matt, Harrison, Tom Moore, and Tom’s dad, Jim.”

“Yes, and Ramón, too.”

Cindy considered that statement. “I guess that should be obvious. When she’s around Valeria, Ramón is there, too, and these days he’s probably as protective of Amalia as he is Valeria.”

Sofía smiled. “He complains, but not too hard, that he now has to watch over las cuatro mosqueteras, Valeria, Amalia, Luna, and Mariam.”

“The four musketeers?” Cindy laughed. “He’s right. When we get to the Hacienda for brunch this morning you can bet they’ll be together, and Ramón will be somewhere close by.”


Cindy refreshed their coffee and then sat on one of the cane-bottom chairs at the kitchen table. “Sofía, come sit down.”

Sofía sipped her coffee and sat across from Cindy, looking pensive.

“All right, now tell me what’s going on.”

Sofía paused and then said, “I think Ian’s the one...”

“And?”

When Sofía didn’t answer Cindy asked, “You think he’s the one, or he is the one?”

Sofía shook her head. “I don’t know.” Neither said anything for a few moments, and then Sofía asked, “When did you know with Harrison?”

Surprised, Cindy had to think. “I really don’t know. Harrison was a couple years ahead of me in high school. I made the cheer squad and he was the quarterback. I had a huge crush on him, but so did just about every other girl in the school, and when he was a senior he was dating the smartest girl in the school. She was valedictorian, but then she went away to college, somewhere in the East, and he stayed in Missoula at the University so he could help out on his parents’ ranch.

“All I know is she broke up with him. I’d see him around town when he’d come into the coffee shop where I was working, and he was always polite and he’d say hi to me. Sometime in the fall of my senior year he came in for coffee, and we got to talking and he asked me out.” She paused. “I don’t know if I ever thought about him being the one, we just were together from that point on. We married right after I graduated.”

Cindy stared into her coffee cup. “I thought I had the ideal life – I was married to the high school quarterback, we had a little house not far from campus, we were pretty popular. I enrolled at the community college - mostly voice and composition - but I also took the basics, too. Sooner than we planned, Jenny came along. I loved Jenny from the moment I laid eyes on her, but I had no idea how hard it is being the parent of an infant.

“Harrison had an ROTC scholarship which paid for school, but that also meant that he was gone to some kind of Army training about half of every summer, which I didn’t like, especially since I was a single mom during those times. And what I really didn’t like was the fact that Harrison was at his parents’ ranch almost every weekend helping out. Actually, most weekends we were all there. I grew up on a ranch. It seemed every year it got harder to make things work, and when my dad died while I was in high school, my mom immediately sold out and moved into town. I missed my dad, and I often felt guilty that I was happy we didn’t have to live on the ranch any longer.”

She gazed into the distance for a few seconds remembering those days, before she spoke again. “Sofía, this is all old news, and I think you already know most of it. None of my history applies to you – well, maybe the lessons. I got married at eighteen. That was too young. When I was eighteen, introspection was not my strong suit.” She smiled ruefully.

“I’d spent my life reacting to things. I guess like most teens, but I never asked myself what I wanted. I thought I loved Harrison. I’ve come to realize I probably love Harrison more now than I did before.” Cindy looked across the table. “Odd, isn’t it?”

Sofía shook her head slightly. “No, not odd. You’re both older and have experienced more of the ups and downs of life. Harrison’s no longer a college boy working on his parents’ ranch, or a young Army officer having to leave you and Jenny to go off to war. You’re both different people. He’s still handsome as ever, but now he’s primed for success as the CEO of a growing talent agency. I expect he’s always been a great father.”

“And a wonderful caring husband.” Cindy sipped her coffee, trying to mask her emotions, before softly adding, “He was always a wonderful caring husband and father...”

They sat in silence for a few moments. Finally Sofía changed the subject, “Do you remember the first time we met Ian?”

“Of course. That show we were doing for the USO at the Navy base in San Diego last Christmas. He was so quiet – the other three escorts, well, they tried to impress us.”

Sofía grinned. “It was fun to see Krista twist them around her little finger!”

“And then you got Ian to overcome his shyness.”

“Yes, and he was so cute in his sailor suit, I couldn’t resist.”

“I’m sure former Petty Officer Ward would not want you to tell anyone, especially his father, the Navy Captain, that he was ‘so cute in his sailor suit!’”

Sofía laughed. “You’re right, but he was!”

“How’d you get him to talk, anyway? I don’t think you ever told me.”

“Oh, I just batted my eyes at him and asked him what he did, and then he told me he was a nuclear propulsion engineer on a submarine.”

“And?”

Sofía thought for a moment. “Actually, I was interested and he was perceptive enough to know it was real, and then he didn’t talk down to me as he explained how it all works. It’s really just a way to make steam ... What?”

Cindy smiled at her friend. “I thought we were talking about Ian.”

“Oh. Sorry. Sometimes I get carried away with the science.”

“And that’s what makes you so attractive to Ian – well, other than your great legs!”

Sofía blushed slightly.

“Sofía, I’ve seen the two of you together more than once. He loves you, and that’s a great start, but lasting relationships require a whole lot more.”

Cindy thought about her relationship with Matt. “Even if you love him, you have to ask what it is you want to do. In the fall you’ll most likely be in medical school in San Francisco or Palo Alto. He’ll be at Cal Poly two hundred miles away. How’s that going to work? And what about your singing career? So far, you’ve managed to balance your studies with your performing, primarily because we limit the number of shows we do. That schedule works best for all of us, because we do have lives outside La Banda Sage, but medical school will be an order of magnitude more difficult than college.

“Then there’s the Magdalena School. It’s getting ready to expand again. Mrs. Raniger is a wonderful headmistress, but I know you love being a part of the lives of those girls. How will that fit?

“Also, Amalia loves you and working for you, but eventually you’re going to lose her to the school. With her love of every sort of knowledge,” Cindy smiled, “especially the esoteric, I fully expect her goal is to teach there. For that she’ll need a teaching certificate, which requires a college degree. Most likely, when you start medical school next fall she’ll have a tough decision to make – stay on with you as your assistant, taking on more tasks that you’ll be too busy to do, and trying to juggle classes, or stay behind to work on her degree at UC Davis full time.”

Sofía looked surprised, and shook her head. “I hadn’t looked that far ahead, or considered what Amalia would do. I guess I just figured she’d go with me...” She gave a wan smile. “I’m having a hard time envisioning being anywhere without Amalia to take care of me.”

“And I know she feels the same. You’re going to have to have that discussion soon. You’ll have to ask her about her priorities, and let her know you think her future lies with the school taking care of dozens of girls rather than just you. Of course, you’ll always be attached to the school.”

“I don’t want her to feel like I’m rejecting her; she’s had enough of that in her life already.”

Cindy nodded thoughtfully. “Yes. How about this? After you have your discussion, and she has some time to reflect on her future, and if that future is to continue her studies at Davis and to live with Rashmi – which has its own appeal – then you propose she pick her replacement. Have her do it sooner rather than later so she can have an understudy. Amalia might know someone already. She could also talk to Valeria and Mariam.”

Sofía nodded, considering what Cindy had recommended. “And if she wants to stay with me?”

“Then you respect her decision, and the two of you figure out how she can still be your assistant while pursuing her own dream. Amalia’s only seventeen and has lots of time, but you’ll have to be careful that with your new schedule you don’t overwhelm her and keep her from moving forward.”

Sofía sighed. “You’re right.” She paused, looking sad. “I’m going to encourage her to stay and get her teaching certificate. I’m really going to miss her, but that way she’ll still be with Rashmi and she’ll be able to spend time at the school. Why does life have to be so complicated?”

Cindy took her hand. “It becomes complicated when it involves people we love.”


They sat in silence for a few minutes, before Cindy spoke again. “I’m not saying that you and Ian can’t have a successful relationship starting now, but you’re only twenty-two. There’s lots of time. Ian’s not going to go anywhere, and La Banda Sage is made up of women who love to play together and we’re happy to work around your schedule if you choose to continue. In the years I’ve been with the group we’ve only had Ava leave, and that was because she got married and pregnant. But she still sits in with us and works as a backup if someone gets sick, so she’s really not gone. Of course we’ve been through lots of boyfriends...”

Sofía laughingly interrupted, “Especially Krista!”

“Yes. And there’s been only one divorce in the group. And in that case, it was a good thing.”

Sofía frowned. “Yes, it was.”


They sipped their coffee, and finally Cindy said, “Tell me what you love about Ian.”

Sofía looked puzzled, and then thought about what Cindy had asked. Finally, she smiled. “He’s very smart, and he’s funny, and I love the way he smiles.” She was silent for a few seconds more. “He listens, and he thinks before he talks.”

“And he loves you?”

Sofía got a dreamy look. “Oh, yes.”

“What else?”

She paused then said, “I love his calmness. When I’m with him, and he has his arm around me and I put my head on his chest we don’t have to talk. He just holds me – we can just be still with each other.”

Cindy just looked at her friend for a few seconds. Sofía just described the perfect man for me!

“And he doesn’t mind if you’re a super estrella?”

Sofía shook her head. “I’m not a super star. But he doesn’t mind; actually, I don’t think he thinks about it much. He knows my goal is to be a doctor and a research scientist.”

“So you’d be working side by side in a lab somewhere?”

She smiled. “That would be harder, since he’s interested in the properties of energy at the sub atomic level, while I’d be working on cellular biology.”

“And you both have many years of education in front of you.”

Sofía looked down. “Yes.”

“And how does Ian match up with Matt, your first big crush – the man who still makes you weak in the knees when he puts his arm around you?”

Sofía quickly looked up. Cindy gave her a ‘stop’ gesture. “And don’t even try to deny it.”

Sofía sighed. “Okay, he still does, but Matt’s a héroe de acción.”

“An action hero?”

She nodded. “He rescued me from a very bad person, and changed my life.”

And mine.

“And I love him for that, but he’s a restless spirit. His security business is perfect for him because he gets to keep on protecting people, and he’s recruited people who are sheepdogs like he is. Jo’s perfect for him, too.”

“Yes, she is.”

“I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Matt, but it’s Ian’s serenity that makes us such a good match.” She quickly added. “It’s not like Ian’s some wimpy nerd – he’s strong and he works out, but he’s just got this inner peace that makes me want to be with him. Matt will save and protect people one at a time, but Ian wants to save the world with new forms of energy.”

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