“Thank you! That’s all you have to say is thank you?” she fumed, snapping down the folder she carried with reverberating force.

“All I did for her, she only says ‘thank you!’! I despise the whole lot of them!”

Turning the corner, an instant and charming smile radiated her perfectly made-up countenance.
“Why, Mrs. Coleman, wonderful to see you,” she graciously greeted the customer, moving easily into her professional mode. Bubbly and efficient, she launched through the day, never giving vent to the dissatisfaction that gnawed a layer down.

Tossing her sleekly shining mahogany hair, she fluidly answered her cell as she perused the file at her desk.
“Darling, I was expecting your call much earlier.”              

As she listened to his response, her mind scanned ahead to what she’d wear and had to accomplish to meet him at the scheduled 7:00. Critically eyeing each lacquered nail, she was pleased to see they met with her approval.  Dropping her cell into her open bag, she lifted her slim frame from the desk and stretched, conscious of the apprising glances of the office girls, aware her well-endowed figure had no rivals there.

She arrived at the bar punctually, turning heads as she glowingly made her way to the table. Tan and svelte, she carefully kissed Scott, keeping lipstick intact, and amiably greeted Tom and Sadie. Slipping into the booth, they exchanged social pleasantries. Casually, the drinks unraveled the stories of the day, moving them into dinnertime at their reserved table.

“I recommend the chicken basil linguine. It’s out of this world!” Scott assured the group.

“How do you know that Scott? You’ve never had it when we were here before.”

“Maybe not, Sam, but I’ve had it and it’s wonderful”

“When, Scott, just when did you have it?”

“Okay, Sam, let’s see,” he said, rolling his eyes, “I think it was that time Mark and I came here together awhile back.”

“Oh no, Scott. No! That’s not right. You told me you and he only had drinks and the spinach dip appetizer. It wasn’t then!”

Tom and Sadie shrunk back, embarrassed, aware there was nothing they could do to halt the interrogation going on before their eyes.

“Okay,” Scott lamented, “Maybe it wasn’t then, I don’t know exactly when, but I’ve had it and it’s remarkable. You might want to try it.”

“Okay, right! Try to change the subject! It still doesn’t explain when and who you were with that you ordered that entrée,” she blazed.

The evening passed, a series of cat and mouse interrogations, before they embraced Tom and Sadie, making their “it was so good to see you “ remarks and departures. The New Mexico sky was vivid with quiet stars so uninvolved with the drama light years away. Scott followed her home along the winding roads of Santa Fe, to her flat-roofed Southwestern style home. The cool elegance of her home welcomed them and it was almost immediately that they slipped between the Egyptian cotton sheets of her bed.

Even in the most intimate of situations, she found the old demon doubts rising in her throat and consuming her mind, kisses notwithstanding.

Later, she broached the subject of his past four days in New Orleans and the questioning began again. Why didn’t he answer his phone when he was there? Why wouldn’t he answer his cell, but only respond with text messages? What was with that? Who went with him? Oh really! Now he was leaving for St. Louis, to be gone all the weekend and she wasn’t invited? Again, why?

There were no satisfying answers, and her sleep was fretful. The morning reconciliation did little to relieve her deep doubts, but she let it lie for now and kissed him hungrily, searching his eyes for the passion she felt for him. Lean and tall, he pulled her close and assured her she was the only one, then glancing at his watch, bounded down the steps, and was gone.

Entering her home, she automatically went into “straighten and clean,” rinsing the fine china coffee cups, wiping the toasted muffin crumbs from the marble counter, taking a paper towel to the spill on the beautifully tiled floor. In the bedroom, she opened the woven blinds to the light, as she began to straighten the rumpled bed, plumping and smoothing the luxuriant bedding,

Perhaps it was the scent of Scott’s cologne on his pillow, but an unforeseen ripple ran through her and at that moment, she collapsed inside, as though the pillow had rent asunder and every feather exploded like Humpty Dumpty, never to be put together again.

A shrill and keening wail came from deep within, and even though she was dismayed at the cry, it persisted; gaining momentum like a roller coaster on a steep downward spiral. She was sucked into a place so dark and deep, she knew she’d die. No one could go here and live to tell about it!  How long it lasted, she wasn’t aware. When the last wave dissipated, she found herself miserably wretched, swollen-eyed, and head throbbing; all of these results being the very least of her problematic situation. The very worst was the abject fear, the formidable giant blackness that held her in its unrelenting grip.

Samantha’s mind kept scrambling, thinking, reeling, trying to figure something to do, somewhere to go, to gain some semblance of sanity. Somehow she knew she could put herself back together again, of course! And yet, it wasn’t happening. Nothing was as it was before. This was overwhelming madness, and at that moment she knew where to go, and now!

“Maria!” she gasped, “Oh, Maria!”

Over and over she repeated the name as she scrambled into her jeans and pulled a soft peachy sweater over her head. Slipping into supple leather sandals, she rushed out the door, into her Lexus, and departed in a swoosh.

Automatically she drove, intersection after intersection, to the outskirts of Santa Fe. Climbing the hill past the Opera House, she headed towards Espanola, New Mexico. There was no way to call or contact Maria, but Samantha knew she’d be there in her small home near Tres Piedras, less than two hours from Santa Fe.

So near and yet so far away. It might as well be a different world, thought Samantha. How could she live so near this pillar in her life and let the years go by as they had without seeing her? A note here and there was all she had given in too much time to remember. She could be gone! The thought stunned Sam, and the tears flowed again at the imagined grief and loss of the only flotsam she had found to cling to.

No, she realized, Maria was still there and still Maria. Sam would have been contacted by Maria’s family if anything had happened of import. Steadying herself again, she stayed in the right lane, letting traffic fly past, busy people on their important errands. Samantha drove through Espanola, crossing the Rio Grande, and winding on the two-lane highway towards Tres Piedras.

Carefully, she watched for the turnoff that led her down the rutty dirt road to Maria’s adobe home. Four crawling miles later, she arrived at her destination, Maria’s humble home, built on a small mountain side in the foothills of the Brazos Mountains; hills compared to the mighty Sangre de Cristo range in the east. Multi-colored hollyhocks and sweet peas brightened the fenced yard and a garden was producing a green banquet of beautiful vegetables. A burgeoning tub of brilliant red geraniums spilled more color in a crimson blaze of glory.

Leaving her vehicle, Sam froze. What was she going to do? What was she going to say? What was she doing here? After all this time?

The screen door opened and she emerged , shrunken, and so much smaller than Sam remembered. Brown and weathered, soft gray hair, and ecstatically smiling. “Mi dios! Mi Sami, mijita!”

There was no turning back. Sam was embraced by those loving arms, then finally escorted into the sunny, clean kitchen. She found herself at the worn, smooth wooden table sipping strong coffee Maria had placed in her hands, breathing the fragrance of sweet peas in the table’s center, a breeze ruffling the curtains at the window. Maria was proudly telling her of how her son had put screen doors on her front and back doors, so now she could have the fresh air without all the bugs. “How wonderful is that?” she finished the story, laughing with great satisfaction.

Without waiting for a response, she launched into another story, updating her Sami on each of her children, and most wonderful grandchildren, regaling her with family stories, replenishing her coffee and Mexican sweetbread.

“What you don’t eat? I made this myself?” she scolded Sam, eyeing her keenly.

“I know, Maria, I love it, it’s just like I remember. It’s just that I. . .” and then she faltered and became silent. She couldn’t look into those sharp brown eyes which saw everything. She didn’t know what to say and the tears slid once again, but this time, silently.

Maria waited quietly, her only movement being to place a box of tissues within Sam’s reach. Sam found, once again, she couldn’t stop the tears; where they all came from she had no idea, and that there were so many was bewildering. Finally, Maria, took Sam into her strong arms and told her, “Enough! That’s enough! No more tears now. Let’s talk this out.”

Stroking Sam’s thick hair as she had when Sam was a girl, soothed and calmed her as only Maria could.

“Oh Maria!” she was finally able to gasp. “Everything is ruined! My life! Everything!”

She began explaining, telling Maria of her impressive job, her lovely immaculate home, her jealous co-workers, the unappreciated gift she had given at work, and then of Scott. Especially, she related her prize story of the trophy Scott, his handsome and charming good looks, his business acumen and powerful business connections. She described their first meeting and all the intricacies of their budding romance which had begun so sweetly and now was as sour as an old dishrag.

Sam’s throat was already hoarse from her vocal and heartrending cry earlier that day; but she still talked on and on, letting a deluge of thoughts and feelings flow, after years of being apart.. There was so much a chatty little note here and there had never managed to convey.

There was nothing to hide with Maria. She could tell Maria anything and everything, and she did just that, holding nothing up her sleeve. Then, it came again, that abjectly black fear that had overwhelmed her in Santa Fe.

“It’s over! Everything’s over!” she sobbed. “What will I do, what will I do?”

Once again Maria comforted her, and when Sam calmed down, Maria, firmly told her, “I see no problem here. What is the problem you are crying about? What is all this that everything’s over? You’re here aren’t you? So, we know for a fact everything is NOT over!”

“But, Maria, don’t you see?” Sam gasped.

She hadn’t expected this. Her refuge, Maria, had thrown ice cold water right in her face!

“You of all people, have to understand!”

“Okay, mijita, you tell me if I’m understanding this right,” replied Maria with a wry smile. “You are rich and beautiful and have fallen in love with a man who has much money and is everything you’ve always wanted. Am I understanding this, mijita?”

“Well, yes, ” Samantha warily agreed.

Seeing a glint in Maria’s eyes, she waited to see if Maria really did understand the situation.

“He’s lying to you and cheating on you and you’re sure of this. You know it in your heart, and you know your heart does not lie to you, so it’s he who’s lying to you, not your heart! Do I get that right?”

“Yes. Yes.” Sam agreed again.

Put this succinctly, she knew she was right in all her suspicions. She was not crazy as Scott so often reminded her.

“Then, I don’t see a problem here! None!” Maria retorted intensely.

“But, Maria!”

“None!” Maria interrupted her. “Do you hear me, there is no problem here! What could the problem be that would cause such tears?”

“Don’t you see? I’ve lost him. I’ve lost everything!” replied Sam inconsolably.

“What have you lost? A man who lies to you and cheats on you. He wants his cake and he wants to eat it too; lots and lots of cake, all kinds. You are just one more flavor to an appetite like his. Rejoice! You know it, and you can be happy to take yourself off his menu! This is a happy thing. This is not a problem, not a problem at all!” Maria assured her forcefully.

“But,” Sam faltered, and stopped.

There was nothing to argue here. Maria had thrown the dart and smacked the golden balloon straight on. It was popped, totally deflated, never to be a shiny bouncy balloon again.

“I see, I really do see,” Sam realized. “But now what? What do I do? How do I go back and go on with all of them looking at me and laughing that I lost him? It’s not just losing him, it’s more than that. Something’s not right with me, I have everything and I’m still not happy.”

Teary-eyed, Sam looked quizzically at Maria.

“I’m happy right here, right now. I’m happy here with you, drinking your coffee, being right here. But, when I get back, I’m not the same. My co-workers hate me, I feel it, and I can’t say I’m friends with any of them, not really. So, I go back to an unhappy place and unhappy life and I can’t bear it, I just can’t!”

“Oh my little Sami,” Maria responded, “what does it matter if others like you? The question is do you like them? You are only responsible for you. You bought this co-worker girl a nice gift, but when she thanks you it is not enough? What did you want her to do, kiss your feet? What were you expecting?”

Maria’s eyes burned into her own and Sam had no answer. Her mind was scampering in every direction, questioning her deepest motives, seeing what she really didn’t want to see. The intensity of Maria’s gaze did not diminish and Sam continued her own soul searching.

“Oh, God, Maria! I’m as deep as a dried out puddle. I have no soul, no depth, no heart! None!” she cried desolately, aghast at her discovery!

“On no, querida, this you cannot say. To admit one has no heart is to see with one’s own heart. So, you see, you do have heart! Heart enough to see and to admit what you’ve admitted to me, that is a big thing. Very big!”

The old lady gently laughed. Laying her wrinkled, brown hand on Samantha’s young, smooth hand, she stroked it lovingly, and continued, “Now that you see what you see, look at yourself kindly, with only love. Anger at oneself is no less poison than to be angry at any other! See yourself with eyes of love, only love. For what you give, you receive. It is a law. If you wish for love, you must give love, not because you wish for it, but because it is the power!”

Now her voice had risen in intensity, and Samantha felt a shock of force, knowing this truly was so.

“You remember when you were little how you watched Star Wars over and over, mi Sami? Oh you loved those movies! When I put you into bed at night, you would tell me, ‘May the force be with you!’ You remember that?”

Samantha laughed at the memory of days long ago. The lightness of the moment, the release from the pit of fear, was bliss itself. To actually laugh again the same day she knew, positively, she was going to die; now that was a dichotomy!

“Remember,” Maria continued, “always remember, the Force is Love itself. There is no power like it. It was love that created this world, and only love will set you free of all the pettiness you have been experiencing. So, walk love, be love, for it is the truth of who you are. The very truth, querida, the very truth.”

Sam sat in silence. In the outside courtyard bees were buzzing around the brilliant flowers, but it seemed distant and so faraway. The warmth of the sun, the love that shone in Maria’s infinite brown eyes, the tiny particles that danced in the shaft of sunlight lying on the table, all intertwined. It was a golden moment, astounding and imbued with mending comfort.

The rest of the day flew, laced with laughter and memories, tortillas and chili, and a meandering walk up the hillside to view the sky flush red, pink, orange, and lavender, as the giant star flashed its glory before disappearing to light the other side of the planet.

Hugging Maria close to her heart, Sam felt she would break the small woman’s bones, she could not hug her well enough or long enough! Maria patted Sam’s cheek, and smiled a knowing smile. “Now go!” she chided, “It is well past an old woman’s bedtime and you won’t be home before midnight! God go with you, mijita!”

The trip back home to Santa Fe was in every way the opposite of the trip to Maria‘s. Sunday found a new and different Sam awake at noon, having peacefully slept over eleven hours.

She did nothing ordinary or habitual that day. She did box Scott’s belongings without a tear, and penned a brief note that simply said, “I wish you well, Sam.” Nor did she turn her cell phone on until she drove to work Monday morning. She was loathe to do anything that would take her from the golden place she had experienced, for truly she did not wish to return to how it was before. Never that!

Aware of the office’s penchant for gossip, Sam purposefully had the errand boy fetch Scott’s box from her vehicle and mark it for delivery to him. There were arched eyebrows and furtive glances, but she found no irritation in them, but a sweet sympathy of understanding.

“My oh my!” she said in wonderment, “Now this is peace. May I have it forever!”

She chose Leslie, the one she had in the past found most distasteful, and invited her for lunch. Listening as she munched her sandwich, Sam was amazed she had ever found anything negative about this girl! She was just right exactly the way she was. Who would have ever guessed?

She saw all of her co-workers in a new light, accepting them as they were. She found herself amazed as she realized each one was perfect in their way. Maria’s rose-colored glasses made it a marvelous world! She was delighted to find they each played their part, like any actor in a movie, each one unique.

Two nights later, Scott was at her home thunderously angry and belligerent. As he ranted and raved, scarlet in hue, she wondered what she’d ever seen in him! Ever! Had she been seriously wanting a life with this stranger? The smell of burning rubber lasted only a short while after he screeched away; and she found life went on, oh so fine, without him in the picture.

Every third weekend found Samantha with her beloved Maria. It was her first determination to never let this lifeline be lost in the shuffle of her busy life style again. Their time together was always a time of rejuvenation, a renewal that kept her feet firmly on the golden path she wished to walk.

Each visit Maria would question Samantha if she’d found another special man in her life and Sam’s answer was always the same, “I’m not looking, Maria, he’s going to have to find me. I’m learning to love myself, just like you said, and love will find me when the time’s right.”

Then, came the surprising morning Carlotta informed her with wide eyes, “Mr. Marshall wants you in his office at 4:00 on the dot!”

Looking around, Sam sensed this request was on the top of everyone’s “tidbit of the day.” She smiled at Carlotta and said, “Well, I’ll check my schedule and see if I can make it.”

Carlotta’s horrified expression was classic. After all, no one would actually dare turn down an imperial appointment with Mr. Marshall.

Laughing , Sam assured her, “Just kidding, Carlotta!”

Once she began her days work, she began to wonder herself. Her mind started into that old mode, What have I done or haven’t done, could it be that Simmons account thing...what? But, then she let it go. It would be whatever it was, and she’d cross that bridge when she came to it, not try to cross it before it had even materialized.
She had a mound of work to attend to, lunch with the new girl, and then the afternoon list to accomplish even faster than usual to make the 4:00 with Mr. Marshall, that aloof being who ran the ship from an almost unapproachable vantage point. Mr. M. the girls called him, and it was only recently Sam learned the “M” was not for Marshall, but for “Mysterious.”

“How appropriate!” she’d laughed when Leslie confided the acronym they had for their remote boss.

Four o’ clock found Sam ushered into Mr. Marshall’s office, feeling apprehensive as she settled in the chair across from his desk. It’d been almost three years since the Christmas party where she’d nearly thrown herself at his feet, quite humiliating at the time. For months she’d considered him a prize worth vying for, but his disinterest was unfaltering. She’d not interacted with him this closely since that totally forgettable night. Soon Scott had captured her attention, history now, and here she wonderingly sat.

Brad Marshall was magnetically attractive with an athletic build. She noticed his dark hair had a few more salty streaks, as he apprised Sam with steel gray eyes. Candidly, she gazed back in the silence.

Okay, Sam thought, Stalemate! What‘s going on here?

She sat as quietly as he, and felt her nervousness fade, replaced by an intuitive glimpse that this man was not at ease himself! And for what?

“Well?” Sam finally spoke, breaking the silence, “You requested this appointment?”

He cleared his throat, “Ms. Winters, Samantha, I did. I appreciate you being here and punctual, which you always are. I’ve noticed a positive difference in the office, which I find is definitely attributable to the difference in you. It has been going on for some months  now.”

He sat back, relaxing, and continued with a few examples of the changes he had noticed and appreciated in the office, thanks to Sam.  He continued,  “I thought, being this is your last appointment of the day  that I would like to make another appointment with you, as I am very interested in the catalyst you've become for positive change.

I have dinner reservations tonight at 8:00, and hoped you would like to join me and we could get to know each other, if you don’t have plans?”

Looking into his probing eyes, Sam’s heart trembled. The connection that flowed between them felt startlingly magical.  Brad Marshall was a soul with a pure agenda. This meeting was nothing she had ever imagined, and she had the feeling this was going to be  something to tell Maria for sure!

It took a few heartbeats before Samantha responded with a serious  heart, "I don't have plans for tonight, and I can‘t think of anything I‘d rather do.”