Salve for Souls

Friday, December 15, 2017

ESCAPE THE WINTER! WIN A BOOK AND "FLY AWAY" TO SUNNY FLORIDA

Follow the link to win a book and a virtual vacation in sunny, St. Augustine, Florida, where you can join Liz and Rosa as they encounter mystery, romance and a castle in paradise.
https://www.facebook.com/MillerWords/app/152351391599356/

The Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

LOVE'S SWEETEST REVENGE - CHAPTERS 1-6 - All ALONE IN THE FOREST--OR SO SHE THINKS.

CHAPTER 1

Elizabeth Bertelli loved springtime in New York State, where she lived among pine-scented hills climbing toward the Adirondack Mountains, as if to the heavens. Wearing a jacket over relaxed jeans and a T-shirt, she stepped off the back porch to head out for her morning walk. Having left her phone and all communication behind, she felt unencumbered by life’s demands. She inhaled the country air, that even in April, caressed her face with remnants of winter’s chill.

Usually, Liz (as everyone called her) walked along the rural road with her friend, Rosa. But this day, the singing birds and golden daffodils drew her toward the meadow and woods beyond her home. She thought of painting the scene. Although her art had sold and won awards, it had been far too long since she had picked up a paintbrush.

Pulling her jacket tighter, Liz wished she could leave her sorrows behind. Steve was gone and there was nothing she could do about it. Even the rugged beauty of the area, where he enjoyed hiking and fishing, could not keep him; nor could the rambling old farmhouse Steve's wealthy parents had given them as a wedding gift.

He and Liz were only in their teens when she became pregnant with their twin sons. She gave birth to the boys at 15 and despite her youth, motherhood came as naturally as breathing. But marriage to Steve always felt like a bad fit, as if she were struggling to walk with tight shoes on the wrong feet. Still in her thirties, Liz felt unattractive and alone.

She couldn't go home to her parents, since they had recently passed away. Liz recalled their anger when they discovered her pregnancy. They pressured her to have an abortion or give the baby up for adoption, rather than marry Steve.

We don't like him. He's selfish and immature and we don't want to be saddled with his responsibilities.

Liz dismissed their warnings. She was the accident her parents had in their late forties, when they never wanted children. She always felt like an intruder.

Steve and I love each other, she yelled. I'm not going to kill our baby and I won't give it to strangers. If you try to make me, I'll run away and you'll never know your grandchild.

Seeing Liz's determination, her parents relented and grudgingly accepted her pregnancy, but they never liked or accepted Steve.

In those early days, he would run his fingers through Liz's flowing chocolate curls, compliment her golden-brown eyes, accentuated by a hint of makeup and call her his curvaceous cutie. But the chocolate curls had since been shorn and the warmth had faded from eyes that now reflected only sadness. Liz still had her curves; however, they had become a bit more rounded.

Toward the end of their marriage, Steve would not let her forget that. His icy blue eyes would view her with contempt, while his words stabbed at her heart. I wasted my youth on you. You've let yourself go. Look at you! I don't even want you anymore.

Liz's anger simmered. What right does he have to criticize my appearance? Steve's no Adonis.

Though athletic and muscular when they married, he had packed on the pounds over the years.

I should have suspected something when he began exercising again and losing weight.

Even though Steve was generous with money after the divorce, Liz didn’t see how she could ever forgive him for his cheating. Her mind raged at the memory. How could I even think about him after he left me for that slut?

He and twenty-three-year-old Gloria Hamilton had met at a business convention in the Daytona Beach, Florida, hotel where she oversees social events. Steve had moved to Florida and they were now living together in an oceanfront condominium.

It gave Liz some satisfaction to shed her married name of Cavanaugh for her maiden name, recalling her Italian heritage. Even though her twin sons would always be Cavanaughs, to Liz, the name change was severing her connection to Steve for the way he had severed their marriage vows. The boys also were gone, only they to pursue education, careers and individual lives.

Liz's heart always swelled with pride when she thought of her tall, lean sons. She could see Steve in their faces, but there was not a hint of his deceitful ways.

A recent law school graduate, Steve Jr. (Stevie) had graduated summa cum laude—the youngest in his class. After the prodigy breezed through his bar exam, he was quickly picked up by a law firm. Tony (named after Liz's father, Antonio) followed in his father's footsteps as a chef. He and his wife, Stephanie (Steph) managed a restaurant and had given Liz her only grandchild, Ashley. Each of Liz's sons held an equal place in her heart.

However, the boys lived hundreds of miles away in the Washington D.C. area. That seemed so far, especially after Steve left. To Liz, that is how God seemed too, but also occupied with things far more important than herself, much like her late father, usually out of reach at the office or in front of the television.

When their sons were growing up, Liz and Steve brought them to church whenever they could, especially on Christmas and Easter. When her boys asked if she believed in God, Liz said "yes," but her mind was filled with doubt.

These days it was just Liz and King, the young Rottweiler she had gotten for protection at the house, now too lonely and creaky. Thinking of her affectionate pet, she had to smile. Despite his menacing appearance and bark, Liz had often said if a burglar broke into the house, King would probably lick rather than bite. Liz guessed he was less aggressive because she had him neutered.

She looked toward the house, wondering if she should go back for him. But he was sleeping after recent surgery to correct elbow dysplasia, thankfully discovered early in his life. Deciding to let him rest, she continued on her way, occasionally pausing to admire the emerging grass and wildflowers, such as the dandelion-like coltsfoot and clusters of bluets.

As the house grew distant and the shadows of the woods began to creep over her, it struck Liz that in the twenty years she’d lived there, she had never ventured into the forest alone. An uneasy feeling invaded her thoughts—unseen eyes seemed to be watching.

Trying to put aside her fears, she continued toward the forest, where tall trees swayed against an azure sky. Birds fluttered among the branches, filling the air with their song.

At the edge of the woods, a cold breeze swept in. Liz hesitated, thinking she heard rustling in the brush. In spite of her misgivings, she pressed on.

I can do this. I don't need any man to protect me, she thought, stepping onto the path Steve had kept clear.

Despite him being gone over a year, the path was still free of overgrowth. It followed one of the many old and often crumbling stone walls, winding through the woods of upstate New York. Most, like the wall on Liz's property, stood about waist high.

The walls used to mark properties, she recalled Steve telling her in happier times. The stones that have withstood centuries of harsh winters and neglect, show the handiwork of old-time farmers.

Liz's anger with Steve was never far away.

He's probably cooking for his bimbo like he did for the boys and me, she fumed, wishing she could bash him over the head—or somewhere else—with one of those stones. This would also be for the wandering eye he had throughout their marriage, as well as his affinity for material Liz considered pornographic. She had confronted him about it, but he dismissed her concerns.

Photography and videos are just art forms. As an artist, you of all people should know that.

I hope your pornography's enough for you, because that's all you're gonna get, Liz snarled, stomping out of the room.

Things were never the same for her after that. Good riddance to him!

Liz forced her thoughts back to the sights and sounds of the forest. She realized something had changed. The forest was quiet … too quiet. The wind had stilled. Birds were no longer singing. Liz paused, her eyes darting one way then another. As a cloud moved over the sun, a sense of danger crept over the landscape.

Suddenly, a loud snap shattered the stillness and a flock of birds launched into the sky, their chirping and flapping wings fading away. Fear tingled up and down Liz's spine as her eyes drifted to a clearing, where a black bear was sniffing the air. Liz thought she saw two cubs in the nearby brush. Her heart pounded in her chest.

Steve's warnings screamed across her mind. Bears have a keen sense of smell. If you see one, don't try to run away. Back away slowly. Yell at the bear. Firmly tell it to leave. Get out of here! Especially beware of a mother bear with cubs.

Then, in one horrible moment, the bear spotted Liz and charged in her direction. In a blind panic Liz also ran, forgetting everything Steve had told her. Though the episode lasted scarcely a minute, time seemed to move in slow motion.

Zigzagging between the trees, she hoped to lose or confuse the bear. However, she could hear it closing in, snapping branches, crunching on the forest floor.

Without thinking, Liz glanced briefly over her shoulder, taking her eyes from the path. In that instant, she tripped on an exposed root and fell, striking her head against the stone wall.

Immediately, the bear was over her. Liz could hear it sniffing and feel its breath, which despite her racing heart and an engulfing dizziness, overwhelmed her with the stench of rotting garbage.

While drifting into unconsciousness she remembered the Lord's Prayer from childhood. "Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be your name." (Matthew 6:9, NIV).

It seemed like only a minute or two later, Liz opened her eyes to see the stone wall beside her.

Her head throbbing, she realized she must have been facedown in the dirt, because she could taste the grit in her mouth. At first she lay still, fearing the bear was nearby.

Maybe it's best to play dead.

After a while, she gathered the courage to look around, relieved the bear was nowhere in sight. As the world came into focus, Liz saw the sun was bright in the sky, as if it were approaching the middle of the day.

I wonder how long I've been here.

Clutching her head, she felt blood in her hair. Then, balancing herself against the wall, she struggled to her feet, spitting out the dirt. As she stood, intermittently taking deep breaths and spewing more dirt, she caught a glimpse of a shiny object wedged between two stones in the wall.

Despite her heart pounding in her temples, she reached for the object and discovering it stuck, pulled it free. A tarnished silver locket and chain was soon in her hand. But consumed with pain and terrified the bear might still be near, she shoved the find into her pocket and stumbled home.


CHAPTER 2

King was waiting just inside the door and looked up at Liz with his head cocked. She petted him. He knows I’m hurt.

An intelligent, obedience-school trained dog, he whined at the door, signaling he needed to go outside to do his duty.

Though she released him into a fenced area of the yard, Liz feared the bear might be lurking nearby and scale the fence to attack her pet. Steadying herself on the doorframe, she watched over King, then called him inside when he was finished.

By this time, her tears were starting to flow. Shaken, she made her way to the bathroom, shocked by her reflection in the mirror. Blood was still oozing from her wound, mixing with dirt on her face. Despite the lightheadedness that made her grip the sink for support, she washed herself and cleaned the wound as best she could. She grabbed ice from the icemaker to hold on the gash.

With her head still aching, Liz called her longtime friend and neighbor, Rosa Ramirez. They had met years earlier, after Liz discovered Rosa was studying cosmetology and would style friends' hair in her home. Liz became a steady customer. More than that, she became close friends with the cheerful young mom, nearly her own age. The two supported each other throughout the rigors of teenage motherhood and matured quickly.

Through a torrent of tears and emotion, Liz did her best to explain what had happened.

"I'm lucky the bear didn't hurt me. Maybe after I passed out, she no longer saw me as a threat to her cubs."

"Did you call an ambulance?" Rosa asked, anxiety in her voice, which hinted of a Spanish accent from her native Puerto Rico.

"Please come," Liz gasped. "I need you with me."

The firecracker, as Liz lovingly thought of her petite, strong-willed friend, was quickly there. Rosa bit her lip, revealing dimples in her cheeks usually accompanied by a smile. Her pretty face was set in a frame of black velvet hair and accentuated by warm brown eyes.

The open flannel shirt she wore over a T-shirt and pants, concealed her well-defined figure and sinewy arms, but fit her persona. Rosa always looked ready for hunting or hiking, and usually was.

She drove Liz to a walk-in clinic and comforted her as they waited. Finally, a nurse called Liz into a room and Rosa went with her. The wounded area was shaved, cleaned and the gash closed. The good news was that Liz did not suffer a concussion. Due to her anxiety and elevated blood pressure, she was given a mild sedative along with an antibiotic to ward off infection.

After being monitored for an hour or so, Liz was released into Rosa’s care.

"I’ll stay with her for the night," Rosa assured the doctor.

On the way home, Liz called her sons, who wanted to drop everything and rush to help her.

"You don’t need to do that," she told each of them, yawning from the sedative. "I wasn’t attacked. The bear chased me. I fell. I’m headachy, but OK. Rosa is with me and you know what a mother hen she is. She’s promised to cook some of her delicious vegetable soup and make ginger tea."

First, Rosa needed to stop by her own house to prepare her dachshunds, Hans and Heidi, to stay alone for the night. She also packed ingredients for the food she would prepare.

Arriving back home, Liz again let King outside, refusing to tear herself from the window until he finished. Taking her antibiotic and an over the counter painkiller, she reclined on the couch with an ice pack on her head. King stretched out on the floor beside her. She reached down to pet him, then gradually fell asleep, resting her hand on his soft fur.

Some time later, the ringing of her phone awoke Liz to the aroma of spices and vegetables from Rosa’s simmering soup. Rosa answered and brought the phone to Liz, whispering. "It’s Steve. Should I tell him you’re resting and can’t talk?"

Too groggy to think, Liz said she would take the call.

Handing her the phone, Rosa returned to the kitchen. Liz managed a hoarse hello. It was followed by an awkward silence, during which Liz remembered that she and Steve had not spoken since they divorced. Incensed by their father's actions, the couple's sons had distanced themselves from him. However, amends were starting to be made.

"Liz?" Steve finally said. "The boys … the boys, um, told me you were chased by a bear and that you fell and hurt your head. They’re really worried."

"Yeah, Liz answered."I’ll be alright."

More silence followed until Steve's strained voice filled the void.

"I um, wanted to make sure you’re OK."

"Yeah, thanks," Liz whispered.

Steve cleared his throat. "Well … I just thought I'd check. Bye."

"Bye," Liz said, switching off the phone.

She then drifted back to sleep. When she again opened her eyes, it was evening and the bouquet of spices still accented the air. The throbbing of Liz’s head had subsided and she felt more alert.

"Hey, big boy," she said, petting King, who had not moved from her side.

Rosa was soon there. "Ah, you're awake, my friend. How are you feeling?"

Liz yawned. "I'm a little better and ready for some soup. It smells so good."

"I’ll come into the kitchen," she said, steadying herself as she stood.

Liz was soon joining Rosa in the large country kitchen with its walnut cabinets and gleaming appliances.

The friends savored the soup and drank the hot tea, breathing in its soothing vapor.

Her mind clearer, Liz was able to provide more details about the bear encounter. She remembered Steve’s call.

"I’m sure the boys put him up to it. I mean, he’s still a liar and a cheat and I'll never trust another man. Your Raúl was a rare exception."

Rosa’s eyes misted at the mention of her late husband. "We had twenty wonderful years together and two great kids. I just wish our boy wasn't so far away with the Army and in such a dangerous place."

Raúl Jr. stayed in touch with his mother and sister through various means. Rosa would wait anxiously for any word from him.

Ten years older than Rosa, Raúl Sr. had succumbed to an undetected heart ailment a year earlier. Their daughter, Laura, was a young divorcée with two small children. She lived nearby and visited often. Along with Liz, she was also one of the few people whose hair Rosa would still style, but she set aside her scissors when her husband died. A substantial insurance policy he had purchased just months before his death, supported Rosa for the time being. It allowed her to pay off the mortgage on her home, easing the financial pressure.

Following a pensive moment, Rosa changed the subject. "You're still wearing the same clothes you wore when you fell. Why don't you put something else on and I’ll pop those dirty things in the machine."

"Good idea," Liz agreed, looking over her dirt-smudged clothes. "There’s also my jacket. I think I threw it over the chair when we got back."

After the dishes were done, Rosa gathered Liz's clothing. When she picked up the jacket, something tumbled out onto the floor.

"What is this?" she asked, picking up the old locket and showing it to Liz.

Liz’s eyes widened. "Oh, I'd forgotten about that. I found it in the old stone wall when I fell."

The friends gazed at the locket as Rosa turned it over in her hand.

"Hmm, it must be an inch-and-a-half in diameter and sterling silver. Look at the beautiful scrollwork."

"How in the world did it get on my property?" Liz said with a puzzled expression. "Steve, me and the boys passed by that wall thousands of times and never saw anything out of the ordinary."

"Do you mind if I open the locket?" Rosa asked.

"Please do. I’m dying of curiosity."

Holding the locket under a living room lamp, Rosa worked carefully until the sections were unclasped, revealing two compartments. One contained a small piece of paper, yellowed with age. The other contained what appeared to be a washed out image cut from a photograph. Moving with care, Rosa cautiously lifted out the paper. It was folded, with minute words written on both sides.

In silent anticipation, the friends held their breath as Rosa unfolded the note, recognizing Spanish words. The ink had faded, making the print hard to decipher.

Liz's enthusiasm bubbled out. "Oh Rosa! What does it say?"

Rosa squinted. "Do you have a magnifying glass?"

"It’s in the desk drawer. I’ll get it."

"Let me. You need to rest."

Rosa strained to read with the magnifying glass. "I think it says, 'Mi Corazón,

Aunque mi vida ha sido amenazada, nada nos puede separar. Pronto estaremos juntos en San Marcos.'"

"What does that mean?" an intrigued Liz asked.

Rosa interpreted. "My heart, although my life has been threatened, nothing can separate us. Soon we shall be together in St. Mark."

For a few moments, the friends were speechless, looking to the letter and each other.

Liz broke the silence. "Those words sound both romantic and intriguing, as if young lovers are running away from danger and plan to rendezvous at St. Mark. Could that be a church, or a city? I think there's a San Marcos in California."

Rosa added that St. Mark is also a book in the Bible, "one of the Gospels."

Suggesting the photograph might tell them more, Liz took it from the locket to examine it under the light. However, any images there may have been, had become obscured.

"I think I see something that looks like a church steeple," Rosa observed.

"Maybe even the chimney on an old house," Liz added.

That instant, the phone rang. It was Liz’s son, Tony, wanting to know how his mother was doing.

"I’m still shaken and have a headache, but I’m feeling better, thanks to Rosa."

Liz told her son about the locket and showed it to him over her phone.

"You know," he said thoughtfully. "I remember my high school history teacher, Mr. Morris, saying people used to hide valuables around those walls. Could have been hidden by a lovesick Spanish teen."

"Well, whatever else might be out there, I’m not going looking for it. That mama bear might be waiting for me, so she can finish the job," Liz said with a shudder.

Tony remembered something else. "This may not have anything to do with the locket you found, but when I'd drive to visit friends who moved to Newburgh, I’d pass a town with Spanish names on motels, restaurants and street signs. It looked old and many of the businesses were closed. I think the town is called Los Pinos. It’s about 150 miles southeast of our house."

Tony then told his mother that he and Steph were planning to fly to Florida with little Ashley to visit with his father and Gloria.

He spoke hesitantly. "I don’t like what Dad did, still he is my father and I’ve decided to forgive him. He and Gloria are crazy about Ashley. She’s almost two now and she deserves to know her Grandpa. Dad and Gloria want to show us the sights and take us to Disneyworld."

Trying to put aside her anger with Steve, Liz told her son she respected his decision. "You do what you think is best," she said.

Liz later asked Rosa if she knew about Los Pinos.

"I've driven by and thought of stopping. I never did because it looked so desolate."

Rosa stayed with Liz for the next two days, leaving only to go home and care for her pets. Although Liz recovered physically, her emotions were a different story. The woods she once loved especially in spring, now appeared foreboding, with danger lurking behind every tree. It frightened her to hear of a bear rooting through a neighbor’s trash.

She trembled. I wonder if it’s the same one.

Bears invaded her dreams. One is on the porch. It's gotten inside. It'll kill me. I've got to get out!

Liz would awake sweating and with her heart racing; actually missing Steve beside her in the huge bed, where she now felt alone and afraid.

Then there was the night when King woke from his bed at the foot of her own, bounding downstairs to bark and growl at the front door. After accessing the security camera on her phone, Liz followed, peeking out into the stillness of her yard, illuminated by the moon and post lamp.

No one is there, she thought, awake and jumpy for the rest of the night.

When her son Stevie called, she mentioned the incident. He expressed concern.

"I worry about you alone in that big house. I know you have King, but as the saying goes, his bark is worse than his bite. Maybe it’s time you sold the place and moved into a condo or gated community."

Although Liz knew her son had her best interests at heart, she was not ready to leave the family home with all its memories, both good and bad.

I’ll get over this, she told herself.

A concerned Rosa stayed in touch, suggesting a couple of days later that the pair drive to the Spanish town Tony had mentioned. "Let's do it tomorrow," she said.

Liz agreed and before the friends set out early in Rosa's car, Liz secured the locket in her purse, just in case someone might know something about it.

She and Rosa first stopped at a restaurant for a hearty breakfast. For the first time since she was hurt, Liz was able to relax and laugh. As the women drove south, past rural areas and small towns, Liz noted the trees were now thick with vibrant green leaves.

"Here it is!" Rosa announced, spotting the weathered, Spanish signs of Los Pinos. After parking the car and getting out to walk around, the women found the town just as Tony had described. With many buildings and businesses abandoned, it had a ghost-town-like atmosphere. The only sign of life was a solitary, white-haired man sitting on a front porch. The women walked over and stood at the bottom of the porch steps.

"Hello sir. I'm Rosa and this is my friend, Liz. We're trying to solve a mystery."

The man leaned forward, cupping his hand behind his ear.

"Come on up, young ladies and sit down," he called a bit too loud, in a Spanish accented voice. "I'm José Torres. Did you say something about a mystery? I enjoy mysteries."

Moving closer, Rosa spoke loudly, making it clear she was asking about local mysteries.

"If you know of any, would you tell us about them?"

"Let me first get you ladies some iced tea," José said with a welcoming smile. "How nice of you to drop by for a visit with Veronica and me. Oh yes, Veronica is my daughter. She's at work now. Where did you say you were from?"

In Spanish, which José was better able to understand, Rosa told him where they were from and again, why they were there. Without another word, he went into the house and returned with the refreshing tea.

Liz began rocking back and forth on a porch swing, while Rosa settled into a comfortable, cushioned chair. She again asked José about any unsolved mysteries or murders he might remember.

Lifting the locket from her purse, Liz showed it to the kindly gentleman. She opened it to retrieve the note and photograph, carefully unfolding them.

José squinted. "I'm sorry dear. Those words are too small for these aging eyes."

"Allow me," Rosa said, holding the note to the sun as she read, partly from memory.

For the next several minutes, José sat silent, as if probing the deepest recesses of his memory. A montage of fact, folklore, confusion and clarity emerged.

"Oh let me see," he said, tapping his fingers on the armrest and speaking in a mix of English and Spanish. "Way back when, some viejo (old man) wandered into the store, I mean forest, and never came out."

José leaned forward, glancing left and right and whispering. "I don't want to scare you señoras (ladies) but some kids were chased by Bigfoot back there. They ran out of the woods, yelling and crying. Oh yeah, Um, years and years ago, skeletons were found there. People have seen ghosts. Have you? I have. Around that time, some Latino who worked in a restaurant in Los Pinos fell for una chica rubia (little blonde) from somewhere else, south of here—no, north of here. I worked in the restaurant too. What was it called?"

"Don't matter," he said with a wave of his hand. "Anyway, la rubia's (the blonde's) parents didn't like the guy because he was Puerto Rican or Cuban, or maybe she already had a boyfriend they liked better. They could have shot him or maybe Bigfoot got to the kids because no one ever saw them again. There were also husbands who left wives, wives who left husbands and kids who ran away from home."

He paused. "Almost everyone except Veronica and me has moved away. Veronica's my youngest … and my wife Milagros is gone."

Sadness clouded the mature face as José became more lucid. "I never expected Milagros to go first. This used to be a popular place for Spanish people from the city to come and have fun. That was long ago. Now everyone's too busy."

Following another prolonged silence, José shook his head. "I'm sorry, the stroke I had makes it hard to remember. And there are some things I want to forget."

Not wanting to pressure a man their senior, the women engaged him in casual conversation. As they got up to leave, Liz wrote her phone number on a piece of paper.

"If you remember anything else, please call me."

"I will. I will," he nodded.

Stopping for a leisurely lunch on their way home, the friends discussed what José had said.

"Maybe we can find out more by doing some research in libraries, historical museums and online," Liz suggested.

Over the next couple of weeks, they followed up on this, however, turning up nothing. Recalling the mention of "St. Mark" in the letter, the women dropped by a St. Mark's church in a neighboring town. Even though the priest there appeared to be at least sixty, he said he never heard anything about a young couple who may have fled there years ago, to escape some danger.

As the friends drove home, Rosa made a suggestion. "Let's give that stone wall on your property and the area around it, a more thorough search. I'll bring my metal detector."

When Liz cringed, Rosa tried to reassure her. "I'll be with you and we can take King."

Liz swallowed hard. "I'll need some time to work up the courage. That bear could be waiting."

"I understand," Rosa said. "We'll put that on hold—for now."


CHAPTER 3

As spring gave way to summer, life fell back into its routine and the locket was all but forgotten in Liz's dresser drawer. Wanting to recapture the creativity Steve's betrayal had stifled, she went to the upstairs room she kept as an art studio and turned on some music by Chopin for inspiration. However, no inspiration came and Liz could only stare at a blank canvas.

Empty, just like my life, she sighed, turning off the music and leaving her studio, feeling defeated.

Due to her extensive knowledge of art, Liz had always felt enriched by connecting with art communities in surrounding towns. Now even that did not entice her.

Concerned about their mother living alone after the bear incident, Liz's sons called daily. Finally, Tony, Steph and little Ashley visited before leaving for Florida.

"I'm so happy to see you," Liz cooed, scooping little Ashley into her arms.

"Gwanma!" the curly-haired, brown-eyed child exclaimed, planting a wet kiss on Liz's cheek. No sooner had Ashley's feet hit the floor, than she ran toward a sleeping King. Quickly lifting his head, the dog escaped upstairs to find peace and shelter on top of Liz's bed.

Steph gave a rough laugh, characteristic of her personality. "We'll be staying here about a week, Mom, if that's OK. And wouldn't you know, we're heading to Florida in the summer. This is the only time we can get away from the job."

Liz drew her daughter-in-law into a hug. "I'm glad you're here. Stay as long as you want."

Although Liz didn't care for Steph's tattoos, body-hugging clothes and occasional salty language, she recognized her kind heart. The sandy blonde with a trim figure was a loving and attentive mother. Her good head for numbers was also an asset at the restaurant where she complemented Tony by overseeing the finances.

Throughout their stay, the house buzzed with activity. There was a brief respite when the couple left Ashley napping in her grandmother's care and walked to the area where Liz had fallen. However, everything was as peaceful as a landscape painting, with no sign of a bear.

"Just like I remember it from my childhood," Tony told his mother.

One afternoon, Rosa invited everyone over for one of their all-time favorite ethnic dishes--pasteles, a Puerto Rican meat pastry, usually reserved for special occasions. Rice, beans and maduros (fried, sweet plantains) were on the side.

Rosa had shut her dachshunds in another room but their whining could still be heard.

"They're terrible beggars and I don't want them bothering everyone during dinner," she said with a smile.

When the food was served, even Tony the professional chef was impressed.

"The pasteles are cooked to perfection and I know it took a lot of work. If I ever have my own restaurant, I'll hire you to cook and pay you well," he half-joked, smacking his lips.

Rosa laughed. "Thank you, sweetie. But to tell you the truth, I only cook this on holidays or when my children insist on it. And that's how I think of you and Stevie, Steph too—like my own kids. When I'm alone I eat instant dinners, sandwiches and salad."

"Yummy! Yummy!" Ashley cried out, holding up her plate. "More please."

"There's always more for you, precious," Rosa said warmly. "But save room for dessert."

All eyes focused on the flan dripping in caramel that Rosa had taken from the refrigerator. When the sweet custard was served, everyone savored each forkful. Ashley asked for more of the flan as well, and with her little belly full, her eyelids grew heavy.

As the visit came to an end, Rosa sent some of the food home with Liz and the young family.

Their last day with Liz came too quickly. Only then, was the locket remembered.

"Can I see it, Mom?" Steph asked.

"You sure can," Liz said, retrieving it from her dresser drawer.

Steph inspected the scrollwork under a magnifying glass. "Oh yeah, Tony sent me a picture from his phone. It looks old and it could be valuable. Might be a good idea to have it appraised."

Liz meant to show her daughter-in-law the message and photo inside the locket, but their attention was diverted when Ashley woke from her nap, wet and cranky.

After the family was gone, peace returned to the house and King jumped down from Liz's bed to rejoin life.

Rosa again raised the subject of exploring the area around the stone wall with a metal detector.

"Only if you bring your rifle," Liz insisted, recalling Rosa's many trips with her late husband, to hunt deer for the venison she would prepare.

A few days later, the women set off down the trail, each with a shovel. In the lead, Rosa wore the rifle strapped over her shoulder. Sandwiched between Rosa and King, Liz carried the metal detector. Dried vegetation crunched beneath their hiking boots as they walked beside the stone wall. Although the area where Liz had fallen was only about a hundred yards from her house, it seemed miles away.

Prior to the bear incident, Liz would have been admiring the beauty of the forest in summer bloom. Now, her nerves were on edge and she jumped at every sound and movement.

At last, they reached their destination, where Liz rested the metal detector against the wall. With King panting in the heat, she retrieved a small bowl and water bottle from her backpack to pour him something to drink. He lapped it right up.

Unloading their gear the friends went right to work, moving the metal detector along the wall and ground, to probe and dig when something registered. They uncovered an old beer can, a few bottle caps and some dirt-encrusted coins, their dates unreadable.

"I hadn't realized there was so much human activity out here in the woods," Liz remarked. "But my house is over a hundred years old and I've been told there was once a barn on the property."

After a while, they paused to lean on the wall and sip some water.

"Let's head back," a jittery Liz said, wiping her brow. "I'm getting tired, it's too hot and the woods have lost their charm for me."

Also sweating and uncomfortable, Rosa observed her friend's distress.

"Yeah, maybe we should be getting home. We can always come back another day."

Then something caught her eye.

"Look over there," she said, pointing several yards into the woods where rays of sun illuminated a mound of stones about two feet high and wide. "Do you see that pile of stones?"

Liz squinted through the trees and shadows as the pile came into focus. "I do! Where did that come from?"

For the moment, curiosity overcame Liz's fear. The women and dog made their way through tall weeds. They surveyed the mound.

"Someone must have put these here," Liz guessed. "Those stones didn't just come together by themselves.

"It looks like some sort of marker and it must have been here a long time, because the bottom stones have sunk into the ground," Rosa added.

Liz bent to pet King, who was sniffing the large stones. "I can't believe I never noticed this before. It could be something my boys put together as kids."

"There's only one way to find out," Rosa said, retrieving the metal detector.

By the time she got back, King had laid down in the shade of a tree. For the next hour, the friends alternated between moving rocks, digging holes and resting. As time wore on, exhaustion began to overwhelm them and they had only a couple of old bullets to show for their efforts.

"From hunters I guess," Rosa said, digging in one area she had a feeling about.

Liz held her tired back. "When you're finished there, let's pack it up and go home. I doubt there's anything here besides a pile of rocks."

But after some vigorous digging, the shovel struck something hard. Rosa peered down the hole, expecting to see a rock. Instead, she saw what looked like a metal box.

"Liz, Come here!"

She hurried over to stare down the hole in disbelief.

The friends worked to free their discovery from the earth. Liz was soon holding a rusted box, while Rosa attempted to open the latch. At first, it would not budge, but finally she was able to raise the lid, revealing what appeared to be a letter, along with several tarnished silver coins.

Rosa lifted one out, turning the coin over in her hand. "It's French and it says Louis XV. Looks like it's from the 1700s."

Liz was reaching for the letter, when suddenly, King leaped to all fours, barking and growling. Liz gasped, clutching her chest.

Bear! The word screamed through her mind.

Grabbing her rifle, Rosa aimed it in the direction where King was barking. He took off running into the woods and the women watched the brush swallow him.

After a few minutes, Liz called him and he returned, panting from the heat. Liz's hand trembled as she poured him more water.

"He was probably chasing a rabbit or a ground hog," Rosa said, trying to calm her shaken friend.

"Or a bear," Liz injected. "Let's go home. I've had all I can take. I'm feeling hungry and dizzy. I need to eat."

As soon as they got back in the house, Liz dished out some already prepared tuna-vegetable salad for Rosa and herself. King also ate, then went outside to do his duty. After watching him from the window, Liz called him quickly in. He stretched out on the cool tile of the kitchen floor.

Rosa was her energetic self. "Let's check out what's in that box."

With some food in her system, Liz felt renewed.

Spreading paper towels on a coffee table, the women inspected their "loot," first the dirt-encrusted coins found around the wall. After the dirt was brushed away, their dates came into view.

Liz had some knowledge of coins because her father had collected them and it was one of the few ways she could communicate with him.

"Look at this silver Liberty Standing quarter from 1930. And these two pennies from 1943 are steel, when copper was needed for the war effort."

The friends turned their attention to the metal box. They sat on the edge of their seats as Liz opened it and picked up the note, written in English with some occasional French. Liz read aloud and Rosa was able to utilize her knowledge of Spanish to translate the French.

Mon amour, (My love) even though you have taught me to speak and read Spanish, adding to what I learned in school, I still feel unsure about writing it. However, whatever language I use, it is one of love, for I love you so. Please accept the valuables I have included. They are my share of coins passed down through our family. I know you are not comfortable taking money from me, but perhaps it will help us escape to the shadow of our castle in the sun, where someday, we shall make a beautiful life for ourselves. You survived oppression. I pray you also survive Robert and his lies. We both know the truth, that the little one growing inside me was conceived in love. God willing, others shall know it too.

Mon cœur est à toi. (My heart is yours.)

Liz and Rosa studied the note as a couple of puzzle pieces came together. The friends looked at each other knowingly and Rosa put their thoughts into words.

"Like José told us, the guy is Latino, she's not and she's pregnant. Maybe that was a problem to someone."

"Why the French coins and French words?" Liz wondered aloud. "And who is Robert? It sounds like he's somehow a threat to the young man." Could Robert be the girl's ex-boyfriend or a relative?"

"Apparently our hero wasn't able to find the box," Rosa surmised. "Maybe Robert got to him first."

While returning the note to the box, Liz noticed something tucked under a piece of felt. She pulled out a faded photograph of a Queen Anne style home and what appeared to be a palm tree in the background.

"This can't be New York!"

Turning the photo over, she saw the words, "Our dream."

"I'm really starting to care about these kids," Rosa said, staring at the photo. "I wonder what happened to them."

Rosa caught herself. "Kids? Who knows how old they are by now or where they are."

The friends tossed around some possibilities about what might have happened. "For some reason the young lovers couldn't retrieve the locket and box. Maybe they couldn't because Robert was after them. Maybe they ran away together. Maybe Robert killed the young man and she ran away alone—or worse, Robert killed them both. Didn't José say skeletons were found in the woods?"

Rosa rolled her eyes. "Yeah, but how much of what he said can we believe?"

Liz shuddered at the thought of another horrible possibility. "I hope they weren't killed and buried on my property. But why would that even happen here? Could one of their families have lived nearby—maybe in my house?"

They had run out of scenarios when Liz decided to rest her brain by checking her phone for photos Steph said she would send of the Florida vacation.

"Here they are!" she squealed, calling Rosa over to view the pictures and videos of a trip to Disneyworld. "Isn't this sweet? Look at Steph holding the baby on the carousel. And here's Ashley with Mickey Mouse!"

Other images showed the family at Daytona Beach. There was Steph sitting at the water's edge with Ashley and a video of Tony holding the child as he waded into the ocean. Ashley squealed with delight as waves crashed around them.

Liz was grateful that Steph had been considerate enough to exclude Steve and Gloria from the mix.

Steph introduced the final gallery as their St. Augustine trip. Liz and Rosa pored over images of the young family waving from a sight-seeing trolley, as well as visiting a wax museum and an old Spanish Fort.

"This is the Castillo De San Marcos," Steph explained. "It was built by the Spanish in the 17th century. It's a national monument and the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States."

There were photos and videos of the couple and baby strolling along a walkway atop the fort, posing in watchtowers and waving from ancient cannons deployed around the wall. Additional photos showed the fort at a distance. Liz stopped short, pointing to a tower.

"Wait a minute. That looks familiar. Could it possibly be the same one we saw on the picture in the locket?"

Rosa blinked. "It sure looks like it! Maybe San Marcos isn't a church, but the Castillo De San Marcos, the 'castle' where our young couple dreamed of making a beautiful life for themselves in its shadow."

Liz compared the older image with the new. "I can't believe what Steph sent just today, matches a picture hidden on my property for who knows how long. It must mean the young lovers' dream house is near the fort, their castle in Florida's sun."

When the telephone rang, Liz had to tear herself from the pictures.

"Hello."

An accented voice replied. "It's José. I remembered something."

"Hello José. I'm glad you called. You said you remembered something?"

"Please speak louder, dear," he shouted, making Liz's ears ring. "I can't hear you."

Liz raised her voice. "Can you hear me now?"

"Thanks dear. I can."

Motioning Rosa over, Liz put the phone on speaker.

After Rosa said hello, she and José exchanged a few words in Spanish and he explained in English. For the most part, he was coherent.

"I was talking to another viejo (old man) here about the silver thing you showed me. He also remembered jóvenes (young men) coming here from the city and Puerto Rico to work in the restaurants, like I did."

José suddenly laughed. "They called me "El Viejo." I was in my thirties, older than everyone else. Anyway, one of these fellas got a gal pregnant. She was a gringa and I don't know why she was here, but my friend said her real boyfriend, or was it her parents, found out and shot the kid."

Liz's mouth fell open. "Can you remember any names?"

"No dear … and I'm sorry. That's the best my friend and me could remember between us."

"Thank you," Rosa said. "You've been very helpful."

After everyone said goodbye, the friends' excitement bubbled out. Grabbing each other's hands, they danced around the room and joyfully shouted, "We're going to Florida!"


CHAPTER 4

The friends made plane reservations to leave for St. Augustine in a few weeks. Motel reservations were also made, as well as arrangements for their pets to be cared for at a kennel. Liz arranged for a trusted local family to keep an eye on their homes.

However, as the departure day drew near, Liz grew increasingly anxious.

She called Rosa. "You know I hate to fly. Steve would fly to business meetings and I'd rarely go with him. That made it easier for him to cheat. That's how he met Gloria."

Hearing her friend blame herself for Steve's infidelity triggered Rosa's deep sense of justice. "Don't blame yourself! Lots of men travel and remain faithful to their wives. The marriage breakup was Steve's fault. Not yours!"

"That's what I keep telling myself, Rosa," Liz said, her voice sad and far away. "And I'm getting along just fine without him. I used to dream of having a perfect marriage, a house with a picket fence and a man who loved me. The divorce has shown me that was only an illusion …. Those things aside, I still hate to fly."

Thinking Steve was not worth any more of their words or thoughts, Rosa tried to reassure Liz that statistically, flying is safer than driving and that her many flights back and forth to visit her parents and sisters in Puerto Rico, had all been safe and uneventful. "I fall asleep."

That night, sleep did not come easily for Liz. She tossed in her bed, staring at the ceiling. Concerns about the flight mingled with disappointment that Tony, Steph and the baby would not be in Florida when she and Rosa arrived. And although St. Augustine was about 60 miles north of Daytona Beach, where Steve was living with Gloria, their presence seemed to spread like a stench.

Liz considered getting up and trying to paint something, but with so much else going on, it no longer seemed like a pleasure—just another thing to do.

She stared at the ceiling. Where is God when I'm hurting?

As always, he seemed far, far, away.

Liz was just starting to drift off to sleep when King, sleeping nearby, roused to give a couple of muffled barks. He settled down until Liz heard distant thunder. Frightened by storms, King jumped up beside Liz.

The storm moved fast, its fury rumbling closer and louder. Rain pelted the windows as lightning flashed. King whined, pressing himself to Liz, as if trying to burrow under her.

"It's OK boy," she said, trying to calm him. But she felt herself growing fearful also, and there was no one to reassure her. Then suddenly and almost simultaneously with a clap of thunder, what sounded like two gunshots pierced the night.

Shocked into action, King jumped down to bark, adding to the tumult. For an indiscernible amount of time, Liz could only lay frozen, feeling her heart race. As the storm faded into the distance, she called Rosa. Even though it was 1 a.m., Liz knew the disturbance had likely awakened her friend.

"Rosa," Liz blurted without saying hello. "I heard gunshots. Did you hear them?"

"When was this?" Rosa asked, concern rushing into her voice.

"Maybe a half hour ago during the height of the storm."

"I didn't hear anything other than the thunder," Rosa said thoughtfully.

She paused, not wanting to dismiss her friend's fears. "It's not that I don't believe you, but do you think it could have been a clap of thunder? It might have been a car backfiring. What about Mr. Carter with his old beat up tractor? Maybe he needed to move something out of the rain."

Liz had been thinking of calling the police, but decided against it. I've been letting my imagination get the better of me lately, especially after being chased by that bear. I need to come to my senses.

"You're right," she finally said. "It was probably something like that. I mean, who would be out shooting at night during such a violent storm?"

"You sound frightened. Do you want me to come over and keep you company until morning?" Rosa asked.

Liz's voice was strained. "Thanks, but I've got to get used to things like this, because I never again want to depend on a man to protect me. That's King's job."

By this time, however, King was back on the bed nestled close to Liz, fast asleep. It was nearly 4 a.m. before Liz fell asleep too.

She awoke to singing birds and sunlight dancing on the walls—so unlike the previous night, that she wondered if the storm was but a dream. A glance out her window at puddles in her yard and branches blown from trees confirmed its reality.

King followed her downstairs as she prepared her morning coffee and let him outside to take care of business. As she watched from the window, she relaxed, inhaling the rich aroma of fresh coffee. All at once, King bolted to an area of the fence nearest the woods and began to bark viciously, leaping on the chain-link fence.

This startled Liz. She stared in his direction. Does he hear something?

Thinking she saw a black lump beside the woods, she called King inside and got Steve's binoculars from a closet. From her window, she scanned the area. What she saw made her feel faint. She put down the binoculars to support herself on a chair.

That looks like a dead bear! It must be the mother bear. She came looking for me.

Memories of the bear encounter came crashing back. Her hand shook as she called the police, then Rosa.

Realizing she was still wearing her nightgown, Liz hurried upstairs to throw on some clothes, and then wait by the door. Living just up the road, Rosa arrived first, rushing from her car and placing a comforting arm around Liz.

"I'm sorry I tried to explain away the gunshots."

"You were being a friend," Liz said. "You were trying to reassure me."

The police car soon pulled up and a young police officer got out. Liz and Rosa went to greet her and introductions were made. With Rosa at her side, Liz told the officer about the gunshots she heard during the storm and the dead bear she spotted near the woods. The young woman noted the information.

Feeling safe with the armed officer, Liz walked out to the woods with her and Rosa. As they approached the animal, its rain-soaked fur gave off a foul odor like that of a wet dog, but more pungent. The stench made Liz queasy.

The officer looked over the bear. "See that bloody area. It's been shot in the head."

Despite her fear, Liz remembered the cubs she saw with the mother bear and expressed concern that they may now be alone in the forest.

"I don't think so, ma'am," the officer replied. "I'm pretty sure this one's a male."

She continued. "We've gotten several complaints lately about nuisance bears from people living along this road. The bears have been getting into trash and they've killed a couple of cats, so I'm really not surprised that even in last night's storm, someone got fed up and shot this one."

"What can be done to keep nuisance bears away?" Liz asked, her brow furrowed with worry.

The officer answered. "We're asking people to keep their trash in bear proof trash cans, or garages or basements until trash day, to keep grills clean of food odors, or bring them inside and to remove bird feeders. But sometimes people get careless and everyone suffers, including the bears."

After telling Liz the shooting would be looked into and that someone would come around to take away the bear carcass, the officer drove off. A while later, a county truck arrived and the carcass was taken, much to Liz's relief.

Rosa stayed for breakfast and after the dishes were done, she decided to take a quick walk to the stone wall.

"I don't expect you to come with me, though after you told me about this latest bear, I brought my rifle. It's in the car."

From the safety of her porch, with King at her side, Liz watched her friend disappear into the woods with her rifle over her shoulder. Unable to relax with Rosa out of sight and in possible danger, Liz stayed put until Rosa emerged, fifteen or so minutes later. She walked briskly, as if she had something important to say. Reaching the porch, she rushed up the stairs to show Liz pictures she had taken.

"Look at this. Someone dug two holes near the wall. The larger one is about two feet deep; the smaller one maybe half that. I'm wondering if someone got wind of us finding valuables in that area and wanted to see what they could steal. It's also possible that something incriminating was dug up so we wouldn't find it. When the bear interrupted that process, it paid with its life."

Liz gave a shudder. "So might we if we keep snooping around that wall. This could be a warning. As far as I'm concerned, whatever or whoever might be buried there, can stay there."


CHAPTER 5

Even the glass of wine Liz drank before she and Rosa boarded the airplane to Florida, could not quell her fears. As the plane raced down the runway, Liz closed her eyes and gripped the armrest. She did not know what she feared more, flying or bears and gunshots on her property.

Of the items she and Rosa had found there, Liz decided to take the two old photographs—one of the Castillo de San Marcos, the other of the Victorian home. After cleaning and polishing the locket, she packed that as well, telling Rosa, "Our mystery woman has been waiting a long time for this. Maybe we can find her."

If she is still alive, Rosa thought.

The friends also called José, to see how he was doing. Rosa suggested that they not tell him about their Florida trip.

"Aside from your boys, Steph and the priest we spoke to at St. Mark's Church, he's the only person who knows about the things we found. I don't think your sons or the priest would tell anyone and I don't believe José means any harm. Still, we can't be sure who he told, other than the man who remembered a shooting. And José does talk very loud. If he was in a public place, the wrong person could have easily overheard. Because of that and recent thefts in our area, it's best that few know our homes are empty."

Rosa's concerns about José were not unfounded. "Oh sure, I've been asking around, trying to help you girls," he shouted into the phone.

These things played on Liz's mind as the plane climbed steeply into the clouds. Seeing the tension in her friend's face, Rosa tried to set her mind at ease.

"I know we'll be just fine and we'll have an enjoyable vacation."

Once it gained altitude, the plane cruised smoothly all the way to Florida. It landed at Jacksonville International Airport, where the women picked up their rented car to drive to St. Augustine.

With Liz still jittery from the flight, Rosa took the wheel. The friends were soon driving south along the interstate.

They admired the lush vegetation and brilliant blue sky highlighted by layers of clouds accented in hues of scarlet and gold. Beams of sunlight poured through the clouds.

"It looks like the portals of heaven," Rosa said, glancing at the sky. "I almost expect to see angels—or my Raúl."

Liz gave her friend's arm a supportive touch that conveyed what words could not. As they drove, she took pictures of the trees and sky to paint when she returned home.

"This inspires me. And I haven't felt inspired in a long time."

Hungry after having only a small bite to eat on the airplane, the women stopped at a restaurant for a leisurely lunch. Afterward, with their stomachs full and their minds switching to a more relaxed, vacation mode, Liz and Rosa continued to St. Augustine. They drove past the fort on their way to the hotel, where they had reservations for a week. One of the factors in choosing it was its nearness to the fort.

"Look at those massive bastions with the watch towers," Rosa exclaimed. "How majestic! I can almost hear the canons firing at enemy ships in the bay."

"Our young lovers called it their castle. Their dream home was in its shadow," Liz said, her voice trailing off. "But, it's probably been a long time and the old house might be gone."

They continued along the busy street, bustling with shops, pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages and trolley cars.

Liz pointed out a picturesque bridge with four Mediterranean style towers. Lion statues "guarded" the entrance.

"That's the Bridge of Lions. It leads to the beach area."

Rosa pulled into the motel's parking lot. "Could this be where the old house stood? Seems like we're about the right distance from the castle."

"I hope not, Liz sighed."How sad it would be to have your dreams bulldozed. But however this turns out, I'm glad we came to Florida. For the first time since my 'bear scare,' I'm starting to unwind …. Anyway, I'm sorry for being such an emotional wreck lately. I know you've been through a lot too."

"No need to apologize," Rosa said warmly. "Since we were kids raising kids, you've always been there for me. This trip will do us both good."

It was 3 p.m. by the time the friends settled in their room. Tired from a hectic day of traveling, they decided to visit the fort the next morning.

"I think it opens fairly early," Liz said. "Even though I don't want us to push ourselves while on vacation, I'm dying of curiosity, so let's get there at least before lunch."

When morning came, the two lingered over a tasty restaurant breakfast, then drove to the fort, arriving at about 10 a.m. Wearing protective hats, sunglasses and sun-block, they were ready for a day in Florida's summer sun.

The fortress' ramparts loomed larger as they approached along a walkway. "It's like we've been transported back to old Spain," Liz said, after she and Rosa paid their admission and crossed a drawbridge. "Of course it has this drawbridge over a moat."

Rosa nodded. "It feels so medieval."

The women continued through a passageway to a courtyard enclosed by massive walls made of coquina stone, indigenous to the area. Among the rooms built into the fort, was a chapel. The friends were drawn inside and Rosa paused before an old stone altar. She gazed up at the arched ceiling.

Rosa whispered in reverence as she would in her church sanctuary. "There's peace and a presence here. I love grottos and this has the feel of one. It's easy to imagine candles flickering by those stone walls and young soldiers kneeling in worship."

After Rosa paused to pray silently, the friends went into the courtyard to climb a stone stairway leading to a wide walkway atop the fort, where cannons were on display. Looking east, it viewed the Matanzas Bay, an inlet from the Atlantic Ocean. To the west, it viewed the city of St. Augustine.

Diamond-shaped bastions extended from each corner of the fort and each bastion was crowned with a guard tower. The friends walked into the tower at the northeast corner.

"This is where Tony, Steph and little Ashley took some pictures during their recent Florida trip," Liz said.

As she and Rosa moved on, another site looked familiar.

"Steph was over there, holding the baby on that cannon."

The friends continued walking, taking pictures, videos and admiring the panorama. Liz paused to scan the town through a small pair of binoculars she had taken in her purse. She looked over the houses.

"I'm trying to find our young lovers' dream home. I see lots of older houses that could possibly be it. And who knows if it's been remodeled or even, like we said yesterday, if the old place is still standing."

Liz offered Rosa the binoculars and she scanned the buildings below. After a while, she stopped to wipe her brow. "We need to drive around for a closer look, just not now. I'm not used to this heat. It's getting to me. Let's go back down to a shaded area."

The women found that in the soldiers' dormitory. Primitive by today's standards, the solitary room consisted of a fireplace and rows of straw mattresses, where the soldiers slept. There were also mysterious words engraved on a wall, thought to be carved by the Spanish troops. But their meaning has been lost to time, and no one has been able to interpret their message.

"Imagine," Liz said. "That writing has been there hundreds of years and seen by thousands, if not millions of people, yet their meaning remains a mystery."

Rosa paused to reflect. "The atmosphere in this old fort and city is electric with mysteries and secrets. I'm hoping we can solve the one that brought us here—what happened to our young lovers and their baby?" CHAPTER 6

The following day the friends took a trolley tour of the city, passing charming old homes along the way. Some were similar to the house in the photograph discovered on Liz's property, but never quite the same.

"We'll have to take that drive and go looking for it," Rosa said, her gaze following an elegant Queen Anne. Like many of the homes, it was sheltered by the moss-draped boughs of a sprawling oak tree.

"They are all paintings waiting to be put on canvas and stories waiting to be told," Liz said dreamily, taking pictures and videos.

Relaxing in body and soul, Liz listed to the conductor describe the sites and attractions. As they passed grand structures, such as Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church with its spires and copper dome, Liz took videos, wanting to capture every angle for later study.

With several trolleys running continually like a bus service, passengers could disembark and re-board at any point along the route. The conductor described a naturally occurring phenomenon called the Love Tree.

"It's actually two trees that have become one, an oak that has grown around a palm, as if in embrace. The oak is symbolic of a groom and the palm a bride, enclosed in his love and growing out of his heart. According to legend, if you kiss your love under the tree, your romance will never end."

This piqued the friends' interest and they got off the trolley for a closer look. They discovered the Love Tree inside a white picket fence enclosing the front yard of a cozy cottage.

Graceful boughs extended out from the yard and the friends stood in their shade.

A wistful Rosa gazed up through the sturdy branches.

"The conductor said the tree is the site of many proposals and weddings. It's so romantic—two trees that have become one and the groom wrapped protectively around his bride. Raúl and I had that kind of love."

"I guess that's something I'll never know," Liz sighed.

"Oh gee," Rosa gushed. "I'm sorry for bringing up Raúl. I didn't mean to make a comparison. I was just thinking out loud."

"You have every right to say what you did," Liz replied. "It's the truth."

Next stop was a local winery, where the friends toured the facilities and enjoyed a wine tasting.

They also stopped to admire the one-time Hotel Ponce de Leon, now Flagler College. Fascinated by its ornate Mediterranean architecture and landscaped gardens, Liz paused to draw a quick sketch in the pad she kept handy. Meanwhile, horse drawn carriages clipped-clopped by on the street.

Liz was busy enjoying the sights when she realized something amazing. Since she and Rosa had arrived in Florida, except for her brief episode of regret at the Love Tree, she had not wasted a single thought on Steve.

She told Rosa, who patted her on the back. "I'm proud of you, girl."

The friends hopped another trolley for a ride to the old city gates at the heart of the city's historic district, with its pedestrian mall, galleries, shops and restaurants. By day's end, they were exhausted.

Yawning, Rosa plopped down on her bed in their motel room. "Tomorrow we'll go to the beach. We can't visit Florida without swimming in the ocean. But let's leave early. Remember how hot it was at the fort."

The following morning, the well-rested friends drove from the mainland, across the Bridge of Lions, to the golden sands of St. Augustine Beach.

Wearing their bathing suits, they walked toward the inviting ocean.

"Ow!" Liz exclaimed after removing her sandals and stepping onto the hot sand.

She slipped her feet quickly back into the sandals. Even so, her soles burned as she and Rosa spread their beach towels near the shoreline. They sat and Liz extended her feet to cool on the moist sand.

Once the burning subsided, she and Rosa laid back, lulled by the hypnotic roar and hiss of the waves. Sandpipers scurried to peck at the tiny creatures the sea served up for them.

Finally, Liz stood, stretched and waded into the ocean.

"The water here is nice and warm," she called to Rosa, who was soon at her side.

For about an hour, the friends surrendered their troubles to the soothing rhythm of the sea. The mid day sun was blazing as they got out and spent more time lounging on their towels.

"Let's head back to the motel," Liz said. "I'm starting to burn up."

Rosa nodded. "Me too. We'll shower, then eat lunch."

Liz stood to brush the sand off. "If we're feeling up to it after lunch, let's drive around in our nice, air-conditioned car to look for our young lovers' dream house."

Later, refreshed by their showers and with the flavor of a tasty soup and salad lingering on their palates, the friends got in the car to begin their search. Liz slid behind the wheel, starting the engine and cranking up the air conditioner. In the passenger seat, Rosa held the picture of the old house, studying its features, such as a picket fence, upstairs and downstairs wrap-around porches and decorative lattice.

She suggested a course of action. "The young lovers said their dream house was in the shadow of the fort, so how about we start close and if we don't find it, branch out?"

"Sounds good!" Liz said, driving from the parking lot.

Rosa was pleased to hear the cheerfulness in her friend's voice. It was something she had not heard enough of since Steve had rejected her for another.

Occasionally, the women would stop in front of a house that resembled the one in the photograph, but it never matched up. They expanded their search, moving out from the fort. After what seemed like many streets and a long time, they realized they had gone too far.

"We're no longer in the shadow of the fort," Liz said, her tone dejected.

As they paused at a red light, Rosa could see the cloud of sadness returning to her friend's face. This search, Rosa realized, was about more than finding an old house and answers to a mystery. It was also about Liz and herself finding renewed purpose after they lost their husbands—Steve to infidelity and Raúl, to heart disease. She blinked back the tears and forced the words from her mouth.

"I think we should give the area around the fort another search. Maybe there's a street or two we missed. After all, this is unfamiliar territory."

Liz's weak nod conveyed discouragement.

Despite a nagging fear that she was giving her friend false hope, Rosa tried to speak with confidence. "Let's do it!"

She prayed silently, God, help us find this old house. It would mean so much to Liz and me.

This time, the friends approached the fort from a different angle. Liz turned down one street, then onto a dead end where there was a mix of older homes and new. She drove to the end of the block, where the fort could be seen in the distance.
"Wait!" Rosa exclaimed, studying one home in particular through her window. "There's the house! It's the last one on the block, in the shadow of the castle."
*What secrets and mysteries might be waiting inside the old house? Find out more.
Ebook ONLY $2.99: http://mwbooks.me/revenge
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