All Beautiful Things

All Beautiful Things

Nicki Salcedo

January 2014 $12.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-3-764

The scars. She'll never forgive her attacker. The letters. His brother is her only hope for the truth. The secrets. The truth may destroy them both.

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The scars. She’ll never forgive her attacker.

Seven years ago, a knife-wielding stranger left socialite Ava Camden for dead on the sidewalk of an upscale Atlanta restaurant. She survived, but her face was brutally scarred. The police, the courts, and the powerful Camden family pinned the assault on only one suspect: Joel Sapphire, a twenty-year-old star athlete on the cusp of a pro football career. Too drunk to remember any details, Joel was found over Ava’s body, holding the bloody weapon.

The letters. His brother is her only hope for the truth.

Graham Sapphire grew up fighting on the city’s tough southside, and he’ll never let the Camdens crush his family. Now a wealthy hotelier, he’s determined to clear his brother’s name—and to find the monster responsible for Ava’s scars. Graham started writing to Ava the day his brother entered prison, asking her to give him a chance and offering his help. She never answered—but she never stopped reading.

The secrets. The truth may destroy them both.

Now Joel has been paroled, only to vanish before Graham can reach him. Is he lurking in the shadows or on the run from death threats? Ava is the lure that will bring him back, but she’s not alone in the fight. Graham will give his life—and even his brother’s—to protect her. The bond between them is hot, tender, and almost as dangerous as the hunter who waits in the shadows of the city’s darkest streets.

Nicki Salcedo is a graduate of Stanford University with a degree in English and Creative Writing. She is a two-time recipient of the Maggie Award of Excellence and a Golden Heart Finalist. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband and four kids.



"A masterful debut.” —Donnell Ann Bell, Bestselling Author of Deadly Recall




Day One, Year One of Joel Sapphire’s Prison Sentence

Dear Ms. Camden,

The man who attacked you should die in prison. I understand why you hate that man. I hate him, too. But I believe with all my heart that my brother, Joel, is not him. For your sake as well as Joel’s, I intend to prove it. Please help me find out who really did this to you.

—Graham Sapphire

Year Three

Dear Ms. Camden,

I heard that you started a homeless shelter in downtown Atlanta. Your generosity is a gift to the city. I would be happy to assist with supplies or food if you are in need of donations.

—Graham Sapphire

Year Five

Dear Ms. Camden,

Please accept my condolences at your father’s passing. I am including a check for one million dollars to the cardiac research foundation suggested in lieu of flowers. I don’t think you would ever take solace in flowers.

In addition, I want to sponsor the families of out-of-town patients for the length of their treatment. As a part of your father’s memorial fund, they can be guests of my hotel and will receive the same five-star treatments as our regular guests. I have asked that this gift remain anonymous. I understand if you wish to decline this offer. Regardless of my continuing belief in my brother’s innocence and my on-going efforts to clear his name and find your attacker, I fully realize that you have every right to blame my brother for the stresses that contributed to your father’s sudden heart attack. Again, I offer my sympathies. I continue writing these letters to you in the hope that one day you may answer.

—Graham Sapphire

Year Seven


We received word that my brother is up for parole. I will continue to try to clear Joel’s name and find your true attacker even after my brother is released. I swear on my own life that he did not hurt you. I hope you see his early release as evidence that he is, and has always been, a good person. Being drunk that night was his mistake, not his crime. Being a high-profile athlete didn’t help his defense. His only desire is to resume his life quietly and to work with me to clear his name. He has only sympathy for you and hope that finding your attacker will end both your suffering. I’ll never stop trying to prove his innocence, for his sake—and for yours. It’s been seven years, but Joel still gets death threats for what people believe he did to you. If he were guilty, I’d want him dead, too. But he’s not, I swear to you...




Chapter 1

AVA CRAWLED ONTO the child-sized bed and pulled the covers over her face, pretending the quilt was a river above her. The patchwork calmed her breathing. In, blue. Out, white. There were thirty-six squares of blue and thirty-six squares of white. Sometimes she was hidden long enough to count each one. In the distance, she heard loud whispers and stifled giggling as her nieces searched the house. She always hid in the same place, and they didn’t go to her usual spot until last. They looked everywhere except where she’d be found. They enjoyed the art of seeking. But for Ava Camden, there was a joy in being hidden.

It felt silly being a grown woman in a child’s bed, but her nieces expected her to dress up on command and hide so they could seek. She couldn’t deny them anything, because they were like her own children. When she thought of the future, she didn’t see a family. She saw a void resembling a hollow space in a tree. The rest of the world grew around her absence.

The approaching laughter allowed her little time for remorse or cynicism.

The girls climbed on the bed. This was their favorite part. When they uncovered Ava, she was hidden again in the mass of her dark hair. The long, twisted strands protected her from unwanted eyes when she needed it.

"I’m sleeping,” she said. Her nieces went back to loud whispers. They put a tiara on her head and smoothed the hair away from her face. The good side was revealed. The side with the scars pressed against the pillow. She knew that when she turned to face them, these two girls would hug her and say she was beautiful.

"Smile,” Lydia demanded. She was almost five and serious and like her mother who always combed Lydia’s hair into a bun like a ballerina.

Ava smiled but didn’t open her eyes.

"Make a funny face,” Lexi demanded. She was three. By her second birthday, she had more than enough hair to make two ponytails. It made it easier for people to tell them apart. Two years separated them, but they looked enough like twins to confuse people.

Ava puffed up her cheeks like a blowfish. Lexi’s small hands popped the balloon of her face, and Ava exhaled dramatically. She felt kisses on her cheeks. No one else in the world was allowed to see her like this. If it weren’t for these two girls, she would have forgotten happiness completely.

She opened her eyes to their laughter, and Lydia hovered above with a camera.

The room lit with the camera flash. It was like lightning from a distant storm. Not dangerous, but worrying.

"Let’s play something else,” Ava suggested. She tried not to move suddenly. She tried to keep the smile on her face even though she didn’t want to. She climbed off the bed. "Can I see?” she asked as she took the camera from Lydia. She kept breathing. "Let’s not play with your mother’s things.”

Lydiaprotested, "You take pictures of us all the time.”

"I’m your aunt. I’m supposed to take pictures of you. Pictures are the only way I know what you look like standing still.”

Lydia started to cry like she’d been punished. She asked repeatedly for the camera as she trailed after Ava to the kitchen. Her sister Nadine’s house was twelve kinds of yellow, open windows, and a roof that parted rain clouds. Sunshine lived in that house.

Nadine chopped carrots with a carving knife. It was the wrong kind of knife, but Nadine didn’t care. Eight chops of the knife made nine carrot pieces. She discarded the stump and tip into the trash can as she smiled. There was sunshine in her house and on her face until she saw the camera in Ava’s outstretched hand. She turned down the volume of the television on the kitchen counter.

"This is yours,” Ava said to her sister.

Nadine clicked through the last dozen pictures taken. She knew what Ava wanted and deleted the images. She turned back to the television and cranked up the volume again. This time it was too loud. This is how they fought. Nadine let the blaring voices of strangers be her shouting. Ava busied herself by setting the table. The girls needed juice and neon plates with matching utensils. They liked to match pink with pink, blue with blue. Ava wanted to maintain order where she could.

"Why can’t we take pictures of you?” Lydia asked. She sounded like her mother, who would not voice the question other than to resume the chopping of carrots like an angry guillotine.

"You did take pictures of me,” Ava said to Lydia. She tried to distract them with plain paper and crayons. They wanted no airplanes. They refused to color. "Why do you want to take pictures of me? You see me every week.”

"Because we don’t have any pictures of you anywhere. When you’re not here, we forget what you look like,” Lydia said. "And we want to see your scars. Where did you get them?” Lydia had not asked before. Both girls were born after her face was scarred. They didn’t know her any other way. They didn’t know what her face used to look like. There weren’t any pictures of her after or before.

"I had an accident, but now I’m fine.”

She said that sentence daily. In the grocery store, at the gas station, on the train.

I had an accident, but now I’m fine.

But she wasn’t fine. Saying the word "accident” created another flash of distant lightning in her mind. A memory of the night her face was slashed.

Lexi stayed yellow happy like the sun. She made a blowfish face and popped it with a laugh. Lydia watched Ava with a scowl. Tomorrow was her niece’s fifth birthday. There were the days of your birth and days you were unborn. Ava had both.

She wanted the girls to be different than she was. For six years, since Joel Sapphire slashed her face outside an Atlanta restaurant, she’d been full of every kind of angry and hate. Eventually, she would need to be things she wasn’t. Happy. Confident. Photographed.

And the television kept shouting at her. News headlines began to fill the room.

Baseball season was headed towards the playoffs with the Braves in position for a pennant. The Falcons had lost a third game in a row. A tropical storm brewed off the Gulf coast of Florida. It would be an unseasonably cold and rainy month here in Georgia. Local Atlanta elections were heating up.

Nadine began to dice another carrot. Ava organized the neon spoons to match the colors of the rainbow. The girls crunched carrots. Lydia refused to eat the cubes of cheese. Lexi spilled her juice. A blue cup fell to the floor.

Breaking news. Nadine stopped the angry chopping. "Ava, come see this.”

Joel Sapphire was paroled from prison today. Sapphire, a first-round draft pick and younger brother of Atlanta businessman Graham Sapphire, served only seven years of his ten-year sentence for a brutal knife attack on Atlanta socialite Ava Camden.

Camden, the daughter of prominent Atlanta lawyers Cecil and Sera Camden, was left with severe and permanent facial scars. The attack and trial drew national and international attention and sparked a firestorm of debate. "White man attacks black woman.” Ironically, there were accusations that the Camdens’ vast wealth and influence in Atlanta's black community expedited a quick verdict and sentencing against Sapphire. Camden was unable to identify Sapphire as her attacker. The Sapphire family maintains the conviction was based purely on circumstantial evidence.

More controversy is sure to come as of today with his unexpected parole. Prison officials are not releasing details of his whereabouts. Both the Sapphire and Camden families have been targeted with death threats in the past. Neither can be reached for comment.

Nadine turned off the television. Her knife hung suspended midair. No more carrots would die that day. There were eleven perfect carrot discs. Nadine put the pieces, including stumps and tips, onto a plate.

Ava closed the utensil drawer. "It means the media is at my house. Waiting. Good thing I’m not going home.” Ava felt her body temperature starting to rise. More cameras. More questions. How could he be free? She didn’t want her sister seeing her panic. "I’ve got to get cleaned up and go over to the shelter.”

Ava walked into the bathroom and stared at her reflection in the mirror. She’d forgotten the tiara the girls had put on her head and took it off. I am not a princess. She pulled back her hair and examined the scars on her face. There were three long pale lines against her brown skin. Instead of being raised or flat, these scars were indented into her face. The scars ran down her cheek like dry riverbeds. No amount of makeup could cover the damage. Her hands shook, and soon her entire body trembled. Her head fell forward, and she gripped the sink in front of her. Outside, she heard wind chimes. Bells were once a musical sound, but now they were only a warning of the wind.

Memories rushed back to her. If she didn’t look at herself, she didn’t have to remember.

That night six years ago, she had left the restaurant to catch a cab when she paused to look for her phone. She felt a sudden stinging blow across the back of her head. She fell to her knees and realized that something had struck her. She immediately wanted to lie down, was surprised by another hit, and twisted instinctively to see her attacker. Her mind buzzed in confusion. A shadowed form loomed over her, and Ava held up her hands to push the person away. She was struck across her face. A strong hand punched her again and again and grabbed her jaw and turned her face to the street. Her cheek scraped against the asphalt until it bled. She could see the glinting reflection of a knife in the darkness. Behind it, an eye looked down on her. It was like a mirror without color. Not blue. Not brown. It didn’t blink as the knife grew closer to tear open the tender flesh above her left eye. She felt a searing pain like acid, and then her vision clouded over with red.

By the second cut across her face, her mouth filled with blood. By the third, she tried to tear at the hand on her jaw but only dragged her own blood down her neck. Three slices of the knife, and her face was carved into four unequal pieces.

Ava didn’t know how long she lay there before she heard other sounds. The lazy footfalls of a person walking down the street, a scream that wasn’t her own, determined running, sirens, and then whispering. Someone held her hand. One ear pressed toward hell in a pool of her own blood and a strange, deathly silence. The other ear pointed toward heaven, but all good angels were quiet that night. The bells chimed regardless of her pain.

When she awoke days later in the hospital, there had been no signs of sexual assault and later the police would console her with, "Be thankful you weren’t raped.” Only men would try to quantify the magnitude of pain. There was no such thing as more pain or less pain. Maybe one day her niece would prick her finger on a thorn and Ava would console her with, "Be thankful your face wasn’t slashed.”

Ava swallowed down the memories. Plates and glasses clinked in the kitchen. Sunshine returned. A phone rang in the other room. Lexi repeated a single verse of song. How I wonder what you are.

Her nieces wanted a picture of her. For them it was a simple request. Ava washed her hands and imagined holding a carving knife. She closed her eyes. She would do anything to be better for her nieces. She wanted them to be different than her, stronger than her. But they didn’t understand all that was behind the scars. She was hideously disfigured, but Ava didn’t need to be beautiful. She could accept the ugliness, because it wasn’t the scars she hated, it was the anger. She hated the anger. That was all she saw when she saw her face.

How would Joel Sapphire react to her now? She hadn’t gone to his parole hearings. She had not seen him since the trial. She was staring at herself unable to see her own face anymore and suddenly desperate to see his. Maybe it would be easier to face her attacker than look at herself in the mirror.

Ava walked into the kitchen and hugged Lydia and Lexi. She didn’t mind the sticky kisses. Long after she left, their love would still be on her face.

Nadine watched her. "Please be careful at the shelter tonight, Ava.”

"I’m always careful.”

"No, it’s Mother. She wants to see you first at her office. You know what she’s going to say. Now with Joel out...”

"She’s going to say that I don’t need to work at the shelter anymore. She says it every time she sees me. "

Ava reached past the knife on the counter and picked up the camera. She handed it to her sister. Nadine, the sister, the surgeon, the wife, the mother. She used knives to heal people and dice afternoon snacks. Ava had nothing of her own to claim. He’d been drunk, then angry, now he was free. It was a terrible mantra. Ava had always believed the officials wouldn’t parole him, even after she’d read Graham Sapphire’s final letter.

She’d never answered Graham’s notes. Not once in seven years.

"Can you take a picture of me?” Ava asked.

Nadine tucked a few of Ava’s twists behind her ear and started smiling. Where there had been disapproval before turned to hopefulness. "You look—” Ava stopped her sister with a playful nudge.

"I know, I know. Don’t say it.”

Nadine took the camera. She didn’t demand a smile and didn’t get one. Ava would not look directly at her sister. The lens could steal your soul if you weren’t careful. One. Two. Three. Three slices of the knife. She willed her eyes to stay open for the flash. With the flash there would be lightning. There would be the memories.

Nadine turned the display so Ava could see the picture.

"What do you think?” Nadine asked.

The first thing Ava noticed was not the scars, but the exhaustion in her own eyes. She never slept. She worked at the homeless shelter from four o’clock to midnight. After midnight she drove around the city until daybreak. When the sun came up she could sleep for a little while.

"Send the picture to me. I’ll print and frame it for the girls.”

Nadine arched a brow like she didn't believe her sister. If there were no pictures, there were no scars.

It would be the first picture of Ava in six years that didn’t have the caption, "Crime Victim.”


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