The Secret of Everything
In this spectacular new novel, Barbara O’Neal delivers a generous helping of the best in life–family, food, and love–in the story of a woman’s search for the one thing worth more than anything.
At thirty-seven, Tessa Harlow is still working her way down her list of goals to “fall in love and have a family.” A self-described rolling stone, Tessa leads hiking tours for adventurous vacationers–it’s a job that’s taken her around the world but never a step closer to home. Then a freak injury during a trip already marred by tragedy forces her to begin her greatest adventure of all.
Located high in the New Mexico mountains, Las Ladronas has become a magnet for the very wealthy and very hip, but once upon a time it was the setting of a childhood trauma Tessa can only half remember. Now, as she rediscovers both her old hometown and her past, Tessa is drawn to search-and-rescue worker Vince Grasso. The handsome widower isn’t her type. No more inclined to settle down than Tessa, Vince is the father of three, including an eight-year-old girl as lost as Tessa herself. But Tessa and Vince are both drawn to the town’s most beloved eatery–100 Breakfasts–and to each other. For Tessa, the restaurant is not only the key to the mystery that has haunted her life but a chance to find the home and the family she’s never known.
Read an Excerpt
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
On a foggy September 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 beneath foggy skies, she skimmed the thick outer skin from the mango and bit into the buttery flesh within, 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 pile of mango skins on the sand.
It was time to get back to her life. She walked to the edge of the waves and 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, leaving Tessa awash 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 100 percent before to 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 US, 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 hair made it curl. “Have you ever heard of Las Ladronas?”
“New Mexico?” She heard his skepticism. “Pretty rustic for a foodie tour, isn’t it?”
“Some of it. But Las Ladronas is a very chi-chi 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 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 Cafe.”
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 church 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, a famous church.” 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 on board 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 catalogues going out in late November.”
As clearly as she could remember, today was the 25th or 26th of August. “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 pair of baggy capris that were so faded they no longer had a discernable 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 a 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 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 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’s 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.”
“I know where it is—that’s the reason I’m going.” She drew an X across her chest. “Promise I won’t fall in the river again.”
It was his turn to scowl. “Go ahead, make fun of me. But I don’t have to like it. You damned near got yourself killed in the Rockies, so I’m allowed to worry.”
“I’m sorry,” Tessa said. “You’re right. You don’t have to like it, but I am going. My boss is pretty excited about it, honestly.”
“Can’t imagine why. There’s nothing there.”
“Wasn’t much there,” she corrected, tugging a thin blue bar straw out of the glass on the bar. “Evidently it’s a fashionable resort town these days.” Chewing on the end of the straw, she added, “Maybe all the rich people drove out the bad air. ”
“There you go, laughing at your old dad again.”
“Gotcha.” She pointed at him with the straw. “Did we live in town?”
“Nah. That was the commune days.” He shook his head. “Bunch of crazies.”
“Huh. Imagine that! Commune, crazies.”
“Not the commune. The town, the place. There are old things afoot there.”
“C’mon, Dad, admit it. You just want me to stay here.”
“Maybe. Is that so bad?”
“No. It’s sweet, and I do appreciate how much you’ve done for me, letting me crash at your house for so long.” She reached out and touched his arm. “But I really am feeling better and you know as well as I do that I’ve got to get back to work, back into my life. You can’t run away from yourself.”
He nodded. But he put his focus on painting a perfectly elegant G, and she had the feeling he was a lot more upset that he let on. “You’re right. You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.”
It was Sam’s habit to head out into the early morning to surf before the world arrived. This morning, he dutifully carried his board down to the deserted beach, but once he got there, he had to admit there wasn’t much point. The ocean was gray and dark, restless in a petulant way that might prove dangerous. The thought pricked him like a red ant. His younger self would have scoffed at these conditions—what the hell was wrong with him these days?
Old, that was the trouble. He was getting old.
For long moments, he stood there, dressed in a wetsuit, his board by his feet, his narrowed eyes trained on the water. Thick fog obscured most everything, leaving him in a pocket of silence broken only by the sibilance of the waves ruffling against the beach. Not far out was a boat, rocking hard, back and forth, back and forth, at anchor. He wouldn’t want to be asleep on that baby, that much was sure.
He sat down, waiting for the dogs to tucker themselves out. No reason they couldn’t have their romp. Wolfenstein, a giant yellow lab, and Loki, a black Springer mix, raced down the waterline, their paws making a braid in the wet sand. Loki found a stick and raced gleefully back toward Sam with it. Peaches, a raggedy old poodle mix who was defying records at age 23, was asleep back at the house, snuggled on Tessa’s legs. Peaches would miss Tessa as much as Sam would.
She was headed out this morning to Las Ladronas. Just the name made him feel sick to his stomach, a combination of memory and dread, worry and knowledge and superstition. Before Tessa took off, he had to make some decisions. There were a couple of pieces of her childhood he’d kept from her, things it would have only hurt her to know, things he’d pretty much made up his mind long ago that she would never know. The life they’d lived might have been a little eccentric, but it was better than she would have had back there, in that pissant little town.
Which really was riddled with all kinds of bad spirits. Maybe it was old missionaries, slaughtered by the Indians, or maybe it was the Indians slaughtered by the conquistadores, or the seven women who had been carried off in 1826 by the Comanches–or maybe by a campful of miners. No one really knew. Lot of blood spilled in that little valley. Lot of people murdered for land, for money, for women. Sometimes, in the dark of a new moon, the screams of those ghosts echoed down the river with a terrible noise. Some people said it was a trick of the rocks lining the canyon, some said it was La Llorona, the weeping woman of the rivers.
Drawing his knees up to his chest, he took in a deep breath. For all that Tessa insisted she was fine, she hadn’t fully recovered from her ordeal. She was a lot better, and God knew she looked a hell of a lot further along than when he’d finally got her home, rail thin and hollow-eyed.
Still. She was the very center of his life, the one thing he’d done right over a life mostly wasted, and he didn’t want her pushing too hard, too fast. He’d done some time in Vietnam. He knew how deep things could go. You couldn’t unsee a thing, once it was seen; unknow it, once it was known.
Given how much she had yet to make peace with, Sam decided on the gamble of keeping what he knew about her childhood to himself for now. She might get to Las Ladronas, poke around a little, get tired of it, and come back to California without discovering a single thing.
He would protect her as best he could, as he had always done. When—if—that seemed like it oughta change, he could always tell the truth later.
For now, he’d let it be.
Tessa Harlow is on the move again. A travel guide, she’s lived all over the world since she was a child, following Renaissance Faires with her hippie father; but after an accident in a Montana river, she’s been sidelined. When she decides it’s once again time to move, she heads to a small northern New Mexico town called Los Ladrones. The small town is being revived, thanks to the tourists, and she’s testing the waters for work, visiting hotels, restaurants, and churches; but in doing so, she uncovers multiple secrets. Many years ago, she and her father lived on a commune outside of Los Ladrones, now an organic farm, with many of the same residents who now seem to know something she doesn’t. The farm raises more questions than it answers about her family, and memories of something tragic and long buried in her subconscious are resurfacing and cannot be ignored. O’Neal has created a powerful and intriguing story rich in detailed and vivid descriptions of the Southwest.
— Hilary Hatton
from Romantic Times
Readers will identify with this story and the multilayered characters as the themes of home, family, love and food have a strong emotional resonance. With the vibrant and colorful descriptions, you’ll easily be absorbed into the sights and sounds of Los Ladrones, N.M. And with some of the tantalizing recipes for dishes served at the 100 Breakfasts cafe included, O’Neal provides a feast not only for the imagination but the taste buds as well. – Sandra Garcia-Myers
from Publishers Weekly
Tessa Harlow returns home to her father and her birthplace, Las Ladronas, N.Mex., after a traumatic accident. There she meets Vince, a single father with three high-spirited girls. Vince and Tessa soon become lovers, but know they can’t have anything more permanent, because as Tessa tells him, she’s a “wanderer.” Also, as Tessa snoops into town history, she uncovers secrets that call into question everything she thinks she knows about her parents. Too many interlinking plots and convenient resolutions temper the firm grasp O’Neal (The Lost Recipe for Happiness) has of the spiritual Southwest. In her favor is a talent for persuasively portraying men, women and children and a definite reverence for cooking. So while the contrived climax may annoy, the recipes and the depth of the characters will please. (Jan.)