Lance Michelli has his secrets, and he doesn’t even know what they are. All he knows is that, after a stroke that left her unable to speak and near death, his Nonna Antonia sent him to Italy to find something for her. Her cousin, Sister Anna Conchessa, sent him to the old family home in Sonoma. There is something he must find there, something to do with his family, something that will give Nonna Antonia peace before she dies.
Antonia was the last member of the family to have lived in the old house, and she left as a young woman. Since then, the property has been divided up and sold, and the house is being renovated for a bed and breakfast. When Lance arrives, the place calls out to him; it is his family home and already in his blood. Unfortunately, however, it is owned by a prickly carpenter named Rese Barrett (for Theresa), who has secrets of her own and doesn’t want or need a man poking around her place – and she is making it hers, restoring it to its original beauty and enhancing it with her own style of beautifully crafted woodwork and carvings.
Rese doesn’t need or want a man around, but she does need a cook/maid. Lance figures he can clean if he has to, and his Nonna Antonia has taught him to cook—no, not to cook, but to create with food. His cooking is an art form, just as Rese’s carpentry is. He doesn’t intend to be deceptive, but Rese has made it clear she won’t let him go through the old place, looking for whatever Nonna Antonia needs him to find. He talks Rese into letting him try the position. He will renovate the carriage house at the back of the garden for his quarters, and use one of the guest rooms on the second floor until the carriage house is livable.
Though they both fight it, Lance and Rese are irresistibly drawn together. Rese thinks Lance is a gigolo, and Lance thinks she is a man-hater. In reality, both are wounded, broken people who are just trying to figure out how to live life without getting hurt again. Gradually, Rese opens her heart to Lance and tells him the secrets hidden there. Lance shares his heart and his hurts with Rese, but holds back the secrets of his connection to the house and his mission for Nonna Antonia. When Rese discovers the truth, it breaks her heart and shatters her trust in Lance and in mankind.
The secret of Secrets is in the characters. Kristen Heitzmann draws characters who tell the story through every thought, movement and word. Rese is hard, closed, solid. Everything about Rese is physical and tactile. She cannot believe in an unseen God. She drives a big truck. She has impermeable boundaries, expressed physically as the door to her suite, which Lance is not supposed to go beyond. She has no family and no relational skills. Her only friend is crazy Star, and the only way Rese knows to help her is to hold her and give her a place to stay every time Star’s life comes apart. Rese is a carpenter, working with her hands to create beauty. Heitzmann describes Rese’s traumas, her searching, even her compassion in physical terms.
Lance, on the other hand, is unbound and free, a spiritual being who sees into Rese’s soul. He has little experience with boundaries, physical or otherwise, and unconsciously manipulates Rese and runs over her boundaries. He rides a motorcycle without a helmet and wears an earring. He has traveled and dabbled, but never settled anywhere. With Lance, the physical is temporary. He touches things—food, tools, guitar strings—but he doesn’t stick to them. He’s built houses for Habitat for Humanity, gardened for others. He cooks and makes music for others, but his offerings wash away with wine and wind. What is “real” for Lance—faith and family—doesn’t exist for Rese, and this brings them into direct conflict.
Even secondary characters are drawn in a way that creates the story. Rese’s friend, Star, is elfish, wispy, frothy. She speaks in Shakespeare and appears unexpectedly but has incisive insight and is drawn in color and elements of nature. Star bridges the space between the seen and the unseen, between Lance and Rese. This is best seen in a painting of the garden she does for Lance. She has painted the flowers, leaves and ferns and Lance, as an elf lord hidden among the leaves.
Because he is who he is, Lance forces Rese to deal with her emotions, with relationships and with the unseen. He provides the context for her to recognize Jesus Christ and accept that he loves her and has protected her since she was a little girl. Because of who she is, Rese forces Lance to deal with physical reality, including the skeleton of his great-great grandfather.
Secrets continues the story that was started in Heitzmann’s “Diamond of the Rockies” series. Rese and Lance’s story continues in a sequel, Unforgotten. These two books stand apart from the series, but not from each other. Secrets feels unfinished, and there are lots of loose ends. That makes me look forward to reading the sequel, but it irritates me, too. It is frustrating to reach the end of a book without reaching the end of the story. The anticipation is stronger than the frustration, however, because Heitzmann is a great writer, and Secrets is a great read.