On a foggy August morning, Tessa Harlow had finally tired of her long wallow on the Santa Cruz beaches. Leaving her father’s tidy little bungalow as she did every morning, she carried her breakfast down to the surf: a mango fresh from the local grocer, a hunk of sourdough bread, and a hefty cup of tea she bought from the stand on the corner.
Settling on the sand, she skimmed the thick outer skin from the mango and bit into the buttery flesh, mopping the juice from her chin with a bandana. The tea was hot and milky, sweet with real sugar, and the bread—while not quite as tangy as San Francisco sourdough—complemented the mango perfectly.
A woman walked purposefully along the water’s edge, her calves showing ropy muscle. Gulls wheeled overhead. For the first time in months, Tessa wished for her camera. She would shoot the isolated piles of homeless men sleeping on the buffalo grass, and the boats bobbing in the distance, and maybe even the stack of mango skins on the sand.
It was time to get back to her life. She walked to the edge of the waves, dipped her right hand in the water, and washed her face and the fingers sticking out of the turquoise cast on her left arm. Letting her skin dry in the air, she sat back down with her cell phone and a sheaf of papers she’d printed out yesterday at the Internet café near her father’s house. Luddite that he was, he didn’t have a computer of his own, and Tessa had lost hers in a river three months ago.
Three months. The weeks had gone by in a wash of aqua and pale gray, deep-blue afternoons that she spent reading whatever she found at the laundromat or the local youth hostel—battered thrillers, dog-eared romances, ancient sagas. Whatever.
Three months. For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost. In Tessa’s case, the nail was a spider that had crawled into her bed in the Rocky Mountains and bitten the sole of her left foot. Not such a big thing, ordinarily. It wouldn’t have been this time, if she had paid attention to it right away.
Or if the rain had not been quite so persistent, so unexpected.
Or if the deluge had not softened the earth so completely that a tree fell sideways, taking the trail and her entire tour group down the mountain.
Or if the river had not been quite so high.
Or if . . .
Oh, so many details. For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost, and Tessa washed up on the beach here in her father’s land.
Lately it had begun to creep into her mind that she couldn’t exactly live this way. Her wounds, if not healed, were at least pretty well scabbed over. Mostly she could sleep again. Mostly she’d stopped having panic attacks and flashbacks. She had not purchased a new camera, but she would. Much as Sam, her surfer father, would love to have Tessa join him in his aimless drift, sooner or later she needed to explore the memories that had surfaced when she nearly drowned in Montana. Yesterday she’d spent a couple of hours online exploring the town she wanted to visit and had assembled a pitch for her boss.
Flipping open her cell phone, she dialed his number. “Hey, Mick,” she said when he answered. “It’s Tessa. How are you?”
“Well, hello to you, gorgeous,” her boss said. “It’s so good to hear from you. How are you?”
“Definitely getting there.” She traced a long mark on her foot. “They gave me a new cast last week, this one only up to the elbow, and my foot should be a hundred percent before too much longer.”
“I’m glad. How long do you wear this cast?”
“Only another four weeks or so.”
“That’s terrific. Is it tacky to ask when you might be coming back to work?”
“I’m not up to a tour yet.” Maybe she wouldn’t be again. “But we have been talking about the economy and the fact that overseas travel has been so expensive that we need to set up some food and hiking tours in the U.S., right?”
“True, true. You have something in mind?”
“I do.” Tessa shook hair out of her eyes. Too long. She hadn’t cut it in nearly a year, and the humid salt air made it curl. “Have you ever heard of Los Ladrones?”
“New Mexico?” She heard his skepticism. “Pretty rustic for a foodie tour, isn’t it?”
“Some of it. But Los Ladrones is a very chichi spot these days, lots of Hollywood types drifting north from Santa Fe and Taos.” She leafed through the pages in her lap. “A lot of really good restaurants—like, more than a dozen high-end places—and a big organic farm with a vegetarian cooking school, kind of new, small, but getting some attention.”
“Huh. Sounds intriguing. What else?”
“On the weekends there’s a big market in the plaza, with local artisans and all that, and there’s a café that’s been written up a couple of times, in Food and Wine and—” She scowled, flipping through her notes. “Can’t find the other one. Anyway, it’s on the plaza, called The 100 Breakfasts Café.”
Mick was silent, and she gave him space to digest. In her imagination, she could see him sitting at his desk in Santa Monica, drawing cartoon faces down the margins of a yellow legal tablet. “All good stuff, Tessa. What else can we do with it? Hiking? Rafting? There’s gotta be some outdoorsy stuff in the mountains of New Mexico.”
“Yeah, yeah, absolutely. There are hot springs, and a pilgrimage trek that goes to a famous shrine on the mountain, and a river, and a big lake up in the trees. It’s also one of the oldest towns in the area, which means really old, like 1630 or something. A lot of history.” She shrugged. “I can send you all the notes in email. You can give it some thought.”
“Tell you what—send me the notes, but I’m onboard if you want to do the research. It’s worth a week. Look around, see if you think it might actually work for our demographic.”
She nodded, drawing a big heart in the sand beside her. “Excellent. I’ll get out of here tomorrow if you want.”
He chuckled. “Little stir-crazy, sweetheart?”
“Mmmm. Could be. I mean, how long can a person just lie around on the sand?”
“I’m glad. If this is viable, maybe we can get it on the schedule for next year. We have the new catalogs going out in late November.”
As clearly as she could remember, today was August 25 or 26. “I’ll email you the reservations and flight info this afternoon.”
“Good. Welcome back, babe.”
“Thanks.” She hung up and sat with the phone in her palm, feeling both anxious and relieved. It was time. Time to get moving again. Time to open the Pandora’s box of memories that had been haunting her since the Montana debacle.
Now to break the news to her dad. She gathered her flip-flops, her book, and her straw hat. Dressed in an embroidered Mexican peasant blouse and a pair of baggy capris that were so faded they no longer had a discernible pattern, she headed for the boardwalk.
Her father, surrounded by his three rescue dogs, was repainting the menu at his margarita shack in a careful, elegant hand. He’d studied calligraphy at some point and took pride in his lettering. She loved getting cards in the mail from him. “Hey, kiddo,” he said. His voice was as gravelly as a gizzard. “You’re back awfully early.”
When Tessa was a child, Sam had been everybody’s favorite dad. She felt sorry for other kids, who had to go home to somebody normal or—this being coastal California, after all—a pothead who couldn’t keep his sentences straight. Sam was neither. He’d made his living as a magician, so he could do a billion tricks, and his vagabond life meant he had a store of adventure stories he told at random, and he could make a grilled cheese sandwich exactly right, with the bread turned just barely crispy, light golden brown. In his pockets, he carried Tootsie Roll Pops, which he gave away when you skinned your knee or got in a fight or fell for some whopper of a fish story he told.
This little margarita shack had been his dream for a long, long time. Tessa had helped him buy it seven years ago out of money she’d saved over a ten-year period. “Like Elvis,” he said with his sideways grin. “Buying a house for his mama.”
Sam surfed most mornings, talked all afternoon and evening with whoever stopped by Margaritaville. He wasn’t much of a drinker himself, a help if you owned a bar.
This morning he wore long shorts and bare feet and a loose, ancient Hawaiian shirt. His skin was tanned even darker than Tessa’s. He’d recently shorn his steel-gray hair into a crew cut, making him look younger than his sixty-two years, and it was a rare woman who could remain immune to the twinkle in his eye.
“I have something to tell you.” She sat down on one of the stools in front of the bar. “I got a phone call. A job offer.”
“You ready for that?”
“I won’t be leading anything. Just doing some preliminary research for some possible food tours in New Mexico.”
“New Mexico?” He dipped his brush into shamrock-green paint. “Whereabouts?”
He put the brush down, but not before she saw a faint tremor pass through his strong brown hands. “That’s a bad place.”
Tessa raised her eyebrows. He believed that your animals reincarnated, that the Great Spirit sent messages via feathers, and that there was magic in drums.
She believed in none of those things. “C’mon, Dad.”
“I’m serious,” he said in his drawl. “There are bad spirits there.”
“Dad. Bad spirits?”
His lips twitched beneath a thick, glossy mustache that he wore without the faintest self-consciousness. “That’s where you fell in the river when you were little.”
Excerpted from The Secret of Everything by Barbara O'Neal. Copyright © 2010 by Barbara O'Neal. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.