“Is that the girl?” Manuel’s cousin, David, asked when he climbed in the truck.
Manuel’s eyes fell to the side mirror. “Yeah, that’s the girl,” he said, watching Maria’s figure grow smaller as she stood in the open doorway of the stable. He tore his eyes away from her image and scrunched down in his seat, popping his earbuds in. He closed his eyes, not allowing himself one last look at the familiar terrain that had been his home for the last eight years—where he thought he would stay forever. With Maria. When she was ready.
But she was ready now and she didn’t want him. She wanted someone else. Manuel knew he’d lost her the morning she came home in Blake’s fancy car. The way she looked at the newcomer was the way Manuel had always wanted her to look at him.
And then David called with a job possibility that Manuel would have refused to explore if there had been even the slightest chance Maria could love him. But she didn’t and he was leaving.
My Maria streamed into his ears, quietly torturing him as he left River’s Edge behind.
* * *
The weeks blurred together as Manuel jumped into his new job as the vineyard manager at the Rich Earth Vineyard. His new boss, an aged spinster woman named Hilda, kept piling on the work. She’d lived on the land since before Manuel was born, inheriting it from her great uncle upon his death. The vines had survived prohibition and drought and thrived today as one of the heartiest crops in the Sonoma Valley.
Hilda was rough around the edges. Unrefined some might say, but she knew her wine and respected anyone else with as much knowledge. Manuel had quickly fallen on her good side with his hard work ethic. His pure determination to forget his unrequited love had him working in the vines from sun up to sun down. He’d refused every social invitation since he’d arrived, preferring to keep his hands and mind busy with work, which in turn kept the images of Maria and Blake from floating through his mind. He exhausted himself during the day so that at night he wouldn’t close his eyes and see their happy faces.
As the day drew to a close and the harvest party scheduled for the evening loomed closer Manuel felt dread. He didn’t want to go. He didn’t want to smile. He didn’t want to interact. He wanted to work and forget.
“You better go home and get cleaned up,” Hilda said from the doorway of the fermentation room.
It was Manuel’s quiet place. The soft hiss of the grapes transforming was like a sad song that spoke right to his heart. He pulled the long stainless steel aeration stick out of the large vat he’d been stirring. The sweet juicy fragrance seeping into the air.
“Yeah, I’ll go in a minute,” Manuel said, pulling the cloth over the big container again.
“You’ll go now. Cuz I say go now.”
Manuel looked up at his gray-haired boss. She was a sturdy woman with a square jaw and hands that showed the signs of her hard work over the years. The California sun had left her skin parched like the earth.
“Okay,” Manuel said, replacing the rod. “I’ll get going.”
“And you’ll be back on time.” Hilda crossed her arms, her lips rigidly thin. “No excuses about stuff coming up or falling asleep on the couch. This is my party. This is our party. And I want you there having fun.”
Manuel’s jaw dropped open. He hadn’t realized his melancholy was making such an impression on his new boss. She walked toward him, her rubber boots scuffing the floor. A small hole on the knee of her jeans winked at him as she came closer, finally stopping to lean against the empty container next to him.
“David says you’ve had a heart break.”
Manuel only half nodded, not entirely comfortable with her opening up to her.
“Were you two pretty serious?” Hilda’s gray-green eyes held his.
“We…no…we weren’t exactly….”
She nodded, letting him off the hook for further explanation and dropped her eyes to the floor. “One of those one-sided love affairs, then?”
Again, he half-nodded, not wanting to get too personal.
“Had one of those myself once,” she said, opening a door into herself.
Manuel couldn’t imagine her, the heroine of any love story.
“But you get over those. It’s the loss of true love that haunts you forever.” She pushed off the container and dusted her hands on her pants. When her eyes met his again, they were sad and longing, like her loss was surfacing. “Don’t waste your time on what wasn’t, when what will be is still out there somewhere. You aren’t going to find it holed up in here with the grapes or alone inside your house. Have your hurt and then move on.” She turned and left.
* * *
Move on Manuel thought as he parked his truck in the open space next to the tasting room. He wanted to move on, but if it hurt this bad to be let down by a love that never played out then how would he ever survive a love he surrendered himself to? How bad would that hurt? How would he survive that?
He’d been fooled by love once before and didn’t want it to happen again. His heart would forever be guarded.
He stepped out of the truck resolved to put effort into looking happy tonight. To engage for Hilda’s sake, he told himself.
David met him at the door with a bottle of ginger beer.
“Thanks,” he said, taking the bottle and followed his cousin to the outdoor patio in the back that was strung with white lights and lit by candles. Music played from speakers in the corners. Men, women, and families milled around celebrating the end of the harvest and a record setting year.
“You look good,” Hilda said, coming up to him, a half-cocked grin on her face. “Now mingle.” Her face dropped to dead serious as she stepped away, her eyes drilling into him until she disappeared through the door.
Manuel stood against the wall, watching. Sensing the family bonds that coursed through the group. He’d had that feeling before with Victor and Katarina—a sense of family. If he were back in River’s Edge, he’d be in the middle of the crowd, like David was, talking and having a good time with everyone. And watching Maria dance with Blake…ouch, his heart pinched at the image.
He took another swig from his beer and caught a woman leaning in to talk to David, her hair dark and curly. Maria? His heart leapt and he pushed off the wall. Had she come here to look for him? To talk to him?
David pointed and the girl turned around, walking to the open door and passing Manuel. Not Maria. He fell back against the wall. See this is why he didn’t go out in public. He saw her everywhere. The image of her was burned on his heart and every woman he saw that resembled her was a terrible reminder that he was not the man she chose.
Hilda walked out of the stucco building and eyed him standing against the wall. She stomped off to a group of chairs on the other side of the stone patio. The next thing he knew a ripe blonde came up to him, a martini glass in hand. At her close proximity he could tell the blonde hair wasn’t natural, it covered something darker, probably brown, like Maria’s. And those eyes, the same deep brown as the girl he’d left behind.
“Hi,” she said with a smile as bright as her dyed hair. “Hilda says you’re the new guy around here.”
“Yes, I am.” Manuel took a pull off his beer and forced himself to look at her. To look into a pair of brown eyes that he wished belonged to someone else. “I’m Manuel.”
“I’m Anna Maria,” she said.
Of course you are, Manuel thought and downed the last of his beer.
“You want to dance?” she asked, holding out her hand.
Hilda stood in the shadows watching him. “Sure,” he said, setting his bottle on the ground and taking her hand to join the few others that were at the center of the patio moving to the music.
He wrapped one arm around her waist and held her hand in his. This isn’t going to be easy, he thought, closing his eyes and pretending she was someone else—a different Maria.