The Lemon Orchard
A heartrending, timely love story of two people from seemingly different worlds—at once dramatic and romantic
Luanne Rice is the beloved author of twenty-two New York Times bestsellers. In The Lemon Orchard, one of her most moving and accomplished works yet, Rice gives us an affirming story about the redemptive power of compassion, set in the sea- and citrus-scented air of the breathtaking Santa Monica Mountains.
It’s been five years since Julia’s daughter died. When she arrives to housesit at her uncle’s home in Malibu, she longs only for peace. But to her surprise, Julia becomes drawn to Roberto, the handsome man from Mexico who oversees the lemon orchard. When Roberto reveals his own heartbreak, Julia recognizes his pain, but their stories have one striking difference: Roberto’s daughter was lost—and never found. What ensues is a page-turning search across the U.S. and Mexican border and a captivating novel of love, both enduring and unexpected.
Before dawn, the air smelled of lemons. Roberto slept in the small cabin in the grove in the Santa Monica Mountains, salt wind off the Pacific Ocean sweetening the scent of bitter fruit and filling his dreams with memories of home. He was back in Mexico before he’d come to the United States in search of goodness for his family, in another huerto de limones, the lemon orchard buzzing with bees and the voices of workers talking, Rosa playing with her doll Maria. Maria had sheer angel wings and Roberto’s grandmother had whispered to Rosa that she had magic powers and could fly.
Rosa wore her favorite dress, white with pink flowers, sewn by his grandmother. Roberto stood high on the ladder, taller in the dream than any real one would reach. From here he could see over the treetops, his gaze sweeping the valley toward Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, the two snow-covered volcanic peaks to the west. His grandmother had told him the legend, that the mountains were lovers, the boy shielding the girl, and tall on his ladder Roberto felt stronger than anyone, and he heard his daughter talking to her doll.
In dream magic, his basket spilling over with lemons, he slid down the tree and lifted Rosa into his arms. She was five, with laughing brown eyes and cascades of dark curls, and she slung her skinny arm around his neck and pressed her face into his shoulder. in the dream he was wise and knew there was no better life, no greater goodness, than what they already had. He held her and promised nothing bad would ever happen to her, and if he could have slept forever those words would be true. Sleep prolonged the vision, his eyes shut tight against the dawn light, and the scent of limones enhanced the hallucination that Rosa was with him still and always.
When he woke up, he didn’t waste time trying to hold on to the feelings. They tore away from him violently and were gone. His day started fast. He lived twenty-five miles east, in Boyle Heights, but sometimes stayed in the orchard during fire season and when there was extra work to be done. He led a crew of three, with extra men hired from the Malibu Community Labor Exchange or the parking lot at the Woodland Hills Home Depot when necessary. They came to the property at 8 a.m.
The Riley family lived in a big Spanish colonial–style house, with arched windows and a red tile roof, just up the ridgeline from Roberto’s cabin. They had occupied this land in western Malibu’s Santa Monica Mountains since the mid-1900s. While other families had torn up old, less profitable orchards and planted vineyards, the Rileys remained true to their family tradition of raising citrus. Roberto respected their loyalty to their ancestors and the land.
The grove took up forty acres, one hundred twenty-year-old trees per acre, planted in straight lines on the south-facing hillside, in the same furrows where older trees had once stood. Twenty years ago the Santa Ana winds had sparked fires that burned the whole orchard, sparing Casa Riley but engulfing neighboring properties on both sides. Close to the house and large tiled swimming pool were rock outcroppings and three-hundred-year-old live oaks— their trunks eight feet in diameter—still scorched black from that fire. Fire was mystical, and although it had swept through Malibu in subsequent years, the Rileys’ property had been spared.
Right now the breeze blew cool off the Pacific, but Roberto knew it could shift at any time. Summer had ended, and now the desert winds would start: the Santa Anas, roaring through the mountain passes, heating up as they sank from higher elevations down to the coast, and any flash, even from a power tool, could ignite the canyon. it had been dry for two months straight. He walked to the barn, where the control panel was located, and turned on the sprinklers.
The water sprayed up, catching rainbows as the sun crested the eastern mountains. it hissed, soft and constant, and Roberto couldn’t help thinking of the sound as money draining away. Water was delivered to the orchard via canal, and was expensive. The Rileys had told him many times that the important thing was the health of the trees and lemons, and to protect the land from fire.
He had something even more important to do before his coworkers arrived: make the coastal path more secure. He grabbed a sledgehammer and cut through the grove to the cliff edge. The summer-dry hillsides sloped past the sparkling pool, down in a widening V to the Pacific Ocean. Occasionally hikers crossed Riley land to connect with the Backbone Trail and other hikes in the mountain range. Years back someone had installed stanchions and a chain: a rudimentary fence to remind people the drop was steep, five hundred feet down to the canyon floor.
He tested the posts and found some loosened. Mudslides and temblors made the land unstable. He wished she would stay off this trail entirely, walk the dog through the orchard, where he could better keep an eye on them, or at least use the paths on the inland side of the property. But she seemed to love the ocean. He’d seen her pass this way both mornings since she’d arrived, stopping to stare out to sea while the dog rustled through the chaparral and coastal sage.
He tapped the first post to set his aim, then swung the sledgehammer overhead, metal connecting with metal with a loud gong. He felt the shock of the impact in the bones of his wrists and shoulders. Moving down the row of stanchions, he drove each one a few inches deeper into the ground until they were solidly embedded. The wind was blowing toward the house. He hoped the sound wouldn’t bother her, but he figured it wouldn’t. She rose early, like him.
The Rileys had left to go to ireland for several months, leaving their niece to house-sit. She had arrived three days ago, having driven cross-country alone with a dog that had white, brown, and blue-gray markings, with one brown and one blue eye.
The woman was small, pale, with silver hair and blue eyes. She looked nothing like the women Roberto had seen in California. Everyone here seemed glamorous, almost perfect, with skin golden from the sun and hair colored lush brown or bright blond, nails done and makeup on—he’d never once seen Mrs. Riley without lipstick. But the niece was different.
She had introduced herself the same morning she arrived. He’d been in the barn, increasing the sprinkler controls to ten gallons an hour per tree, and she’d walked right in and shaken his hand without any regard for the fact his hand was greasy and his face streaked with dirt.
“You must be Roberto,” she’d said, shaking his hand. “I’m Julia Hughes, graciela and John’s niece. And this is Bonnie.”
“Hi, Julia,” he’d said, embarrassed and wiping his hands on his pants, too late. “You made it here safely. Long trip?”
“Yes, thank you. Luckily, Bonnie is a good traveler.”
They locked eyes, and Roberto couldn’t have said why the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. He bent down to pet Bonnie to escape the feeling, running his hands over her silky blue-gray coat. She had a smiling, friendly dog face, but with those spooky eyes, his grandmother would call her a perra bruja: a witch dog. Julia’s blue eyes troubled him even more; when he looked back at her, he felt jolted, as if he’d looked in a mirror.
“I’ll let you get back to work,” she said, as if sensing his uneasiness.
“Thank you,” he said. “Please let me know if you need anything.”
She had walked away, Bonnie leading her onto the cliff path. He had seen her return again since that first meeting. in this world he couldn’t save everyone, but he could do his best to make the trail safe for her.
Working his way along the posts, he realized that he would have to reinforce some—those too loose to grab the earth—with concrete. A kick with the toe of his boot sent pebbles and clay tumbling down the canyon. He grabbed an armful of brush from the hillside and blocked the trail; he’d leave it that way—even adding some yellow hazard tape—until he could fix the danger zones.
Heading back to the barn, he heard trucks arriving and voices talking. The crew had arrived to irrigate and prune the orchard, but Roberto could think only of danger zones. They were everywhere. Some were compact and marked with warning signs, a few feet of cliff along a hiking trail, fixable with the right tools and a bucket of concrete. Others spread for miles, from horizon to horizon, across land crossed by thousands. The luckiest made it with their lives.
The youngest ones who hadn’t survived were angels now. They haunted the pilgrimage route, the dry creek beds and narrow canyons, filling the air with their ghostly wails. Some had been taken by La Llorona, the weeping woman who stole others’ children to replace her own. Rejected by heaven for losing her children in the Santa Fe River, she wandered the borderlands and captured any young ones she found alone at night.
“Hola, como estas?” Serapio asked, parking his truck in the shade.
“Bien, y tú?” Roberto answered.
“Bien. We’re digging drainage again today?” Serapio asked.
“Yes,” Roberto said. “You and the guys pick up where we left off yesterday. I’ll be there soon.”
Serapio nodded without question. Roberto could have asked the crew for help, finished reinforcing the trail that much sooner. But the job fell to him, and he knew it. Once in a while he felt inspired— was that the right word? Perhaps not—it was more like the relief of punishment being lifted, the chance to work and redeem himself and his sins. He wasn’t even a believer anymore. His mother had died in childbirth and his grandmother had raised him Catholic. He still carried her hand-carved black wood rosary in his pocket, but it was more for sentiment and love of her than any religious reason.
Still, when he got this feeling—straight from his gut, not his brain—he obeyed it. He grabbed a bag of concrete mix, filled the first bucket with water, slung twenty yards’ worth of yellow hazard tape over his shoulder. Bees buzzed in dark pink bougainvillea growing up the side of the barn, and as he hiked back to the cliff edge, he felt the breeze rushing through sage and coastal scrub up from the sea. it cooled his skin, gave him goose bumps even in the morning heat.
The Pacific Ocean went on forever, as blue but not a fraction as deep as the sky. The wind cracked the surface into small white waves that built and surged and crashed at the foot of the cliff. The pounding was relentless. The noise kept him awake on nights when he stayed in the orchard, and made him lonely for his farm town at the foot of the mountains. He had never seen any ocean before arriving in Los Angeles. if the fall from the cliff didn’t kill him, he would drown—he couldn’t swim.
After mixing the concrete, he filled the holes he’d dug and placed the posts upright. They were solid steel and, once properly anchored, would make the chain strong and effective. Short of standing right here by the edge, this was the best he could do to keep her safe from the dangerous land. The sun rose higher and the sweat that formed on his brow ran into his eyes and made them sting, but he didn’t wipe it away—he didn’t want to stop swinging the sledgehammer, feeling the jolt to his bones so strong it kept him from thinking of loss or danger, or anything at all.
Praise for THE LEMON ORCHARD
"Rice here takes her signature themes of family and loss into the difficult and enigmatic landscape of illegal immigration to powerful effect . . . . Lovely and compelling, with quiet yet brave social commentary that enhances the book’s impact."
“Trust Rice (Little Night, 2012), known for fiction that explores the power of family, to find the humanity in illegal immigration, a topic too often relegated to rhetoric and statistics. . . . An unexpected plot turn will leave readers begging for a sequel.”
"Rice’s fans will appreciate the evocative setting and unconventional romance, as well as the harrowing . . . depictions of border crossing and the fascinating parallels drawn between Julia’s research interests (she studies the Irish who arrived in America over a century ago) and modern-day Mexican immigrants."
Praise for LITTLE NIGHT:
“Poetic and stirring…beautifully combines [Rice’s] love of nature and the power of family.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Best-selling author Rice’s 30th book is an outstanding read that both chills and warms the soul . . . highly recommended.”
—Library Journal, starred review
“Never rushing her story or revelations, Rice reaches the satisfying conclusion that while wounds run deep, love runs deeper.”
“A classic Rice page-turner.”
“In Little Night, Rice plumbs the depths of the damage that physical and mental abuse cause the recipients and allows us into the heads of those who suffer these situations. In spite of the serious nature of the subject matter, the story is filled with happy moments and an undying hope for future happiness.”
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