Main The Spanish Love Deception
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FUCK I LOVE THIS BOOK !!!!! AND OMG Aaron is so Fucking HOT !!!!!!!!!!!
20 August 2021 (11:19)
NO WORDS IM SPEECHLESS PLS THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD
22 August 2021 (16:19)
BRO FIND ME A MANS LIKE AARON BLACKFORD
03 September 2021 (05:04)
Excited to read this book, I've seen good reviews about it
08 October 2021 (02:44)
I've read it and it's a good book. Give it a try and won't regret it.
20 October 2021 (22:09)
omg i cant believe people are as OBSESSED AS I AM.AARON BALCKFORD SIR COME AND TAKE ME AWAY!!!!
27 October 2021 (21:33)
Yes I finally downloaded it ackkk can't wait to read it
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Got it from tiktok
13 November 2021 (15:00)
this is that book you can't get enough of even after multiple re-reads!
22 January 2022 (17:55)
I like the story, so good 5/5 for me
06 February 2022 (13:27)
this book is so good omg
16 February 2022 (03:21)
So Amazing! Wanna read it again soon
19 May 2022 (13:03)
I was really disappointed with this book ?
26 May 2022 (10:14)
Copyright © 2021 by Elena Armas All rights reserved. Visit my website at www.authorelenaarmas.com Cover Design: Ella Maise and Elena Armas Editor: Jovana Shirley, Unforeseen Editing, www.unforeseenediting.com No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without the written permission of the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. CONTENTS Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Epilogue About the Author Acknowledgments To those chasing dreams, never give up on them. We are not quitters, you hear me? CHAPTER ONE “I ’ll be your date to the wedding.” Words I had never—not even in my wildest dreams, and trust me, I had a vivid imagination—conceived of hearing from that deep and rich tone reached my ears. Looking down at my coffee, I squinted my eyes, trying to search for any signs of noxious substances floating around. That would at least explain what was happening. But nope. Nothing. Just what was left of my Americano. “I’ll do it if you need someone that badly,” the deep voice came again. Eyes growing wide, I lifted my head. I opened my mouth and then snapped it closed again. “Rosie …” I trailed off, the word leaving me in a whisper. “Is he really there? Can you see him? Or did someone spike my coffee without me noticing?” Rosie—my best friend and colleague in InTech, the New York City–based engineering consulting company, where we had met and w; orked—slowly nodded her head. I watched her dark curls bounce with the motion, an expression of disbelief marring her otherwise soft features. She lowered her voice. “Nope. He’s right there.” Her head peeked around me very quickly. “Hi. Good morning!” she said brightly before her attention returned to my face. “Right behind you.” Lips parted, I stared at my friend for a long moment. We were standing at the far end of the hallway of the eleventh floor of the InTech headquarters. Both our offices were relatively close together, so the moment I had entered the building located in the heart of Manhattan, in the vicinity of Central Park, I had gone straight to her office. My plan had been to grab Rosie and plop down on the upholstered wooden armchairs that served as a waiting sitting area for visiting clients, which were usually unoccupied this early in the morning. But we never made it. I somehow dropped the bomb before we ever sat down. That was how much my predicament needed Rosie’s immediate attention. And then … then he had materialized out of nowhere. “Should I repeat that a third time?” His question sent a new wave of disbelief rushing down my body, freezing the blood in my veins. He wouldn’t. Not because he couldn’t, but because what he was saying did not make any freaking sense. Not in our world. One where we— “All right, fine,” he sighed. “You can take me.” He paused, sending more of that ice-cold wariness through me. “To your sister’s wedding.” My spine locked up. My shoulders stiffened. I even felt the satin blouse I had tucked into my camel slacks stretch with the sudden motion. I can take him. To my sister’s wedding. As my … date? I blinked, his words echoing inside my head. Then, something unhitched inside of me. The absurdity of whatever this was—whatever perverse joke this man I knew not to trust was trying to pull off—made a snort bubble its way up my throat and reach my lips, leaving me quickly and loudly. As if it had been in a rush to get out. A grunt came from behind me. “What’s so funny?” His voice dropped, turning colder. “I’m completely serious.” I bit back another burst of laughter. I didn’t believe that. Not for a second. “The chances of him,” I told Rosie, “being actually serious are the same chances I have of having Chris Evans pop out of nowhere and confess his undying love for me.” I made a show of looking right and left. “Nonexistent. So, Rosie, you were saying something about … Mr. Frenkel, right?” There was no Mr. Frenkel. “Lina,” Rosie said with that fake, toothy smile I knew she wore when she didn’t want to be rude. “He looks like he’s serious,” she spoke through her freaky smile. Her gaze inspected the man standing behind me. “Yep. I think he might be serious.” “Nope. He can’t be.” I shook my head, still refusing to turn around and acknowledge that there was a possibility my friend was right. There couldn’t be. There was no way Aaron Blackford, colleague and well-established affliction of mine, would even attempt to offer something like that. No. Way. An impatient sigh came from behind me. “This is getting repetitive, Catalina.” A long pause. Then, another noisy exhale left his lips, this one much longer. But I did not turn around. I held my ground. “Ignoring me won’t make me disappear. You know that.” I did. “But that doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying,” I muttered under my breath. Rosie leveled me with a look. Then, she peeked around me again, keeping that toothy grin in place. “Sorry about that, Aaron. We are not ignoring you.” Her grin strained. “We are … debating something.” “We are ignoring him though. You don’t need to spare his feelings. He doesn’t have any.” “Thanks, Rosie,” Aaron told my friend, some of the usual coldness leaving his voice. Not that he’d be nice to anybody. Nice wasn’t something Aaron did. I didn’t even think he was able to pull off friendly. But he had always been less … grim when it came to Rosie. A treatment that had never been for me. “Do you think you can tell Catalina to turn around? I’d appreciate talking to her face and not to the back of her head.” His tone dropped back to minus zero degrees. “That is, of course, if this is not one of her jokes that I never seem to understand, much less find funny.” Heat rushed up my body, reaching my face. “Sure,” Rosie complied. “I think … I think I can do that.” My friend’s gaze bounced from that point behind me to my face, her eyebrows raised. “Lina, so, erm, Aaron would like you to turn around if this is not one of those jokes that—” “Thanks, Rosie. I got that,” I gritted out between my teeth. Feeling my cheeks burn, I refused to face him. That would mean letting him win whatever game he was playing. Plus, he had just called me unfunny. Him. “If you could, tell Aaron that I don’t think one can laugh at, or much less understand, jokes when one lacks a sense of humor, please. That would be great. Thanks.” Rosie scratched the side of her head, looking pleadingly at me. Don’t make me do this, she seemed to ask me with her eyes. I widened mine at her, ignoring her plea and begging her to go along. She released a breath and then looked around me one more time. “Aaron,” she said, her fake grin getting bigger, “Lina thinks that —” “I heard her, Rosie. Thank you.” I was so attuned to him—to this—that I noticed the slight change in his tone that signaled the switch to the voice he only used with me. The one that was just as dry and cold but that would now come with an extra layer of disdain and distance. The one that would soon lead to a scowl. I didn’t even need to turn and take a look at him to know that. It was somehow always there when it came to me and to this … thing between us. “I’m pretty sure my words are reaching Catalina down there just fine, but if you could tell her that I have work to do and I cannot entertain this much longer, I would appreciate it.” Down there? Stupidly large man. My size was average. Average for a Spaniard, sure. But average nonetheless. I was five foot three—almost four, thank you very much. Rosie’s green eyes were back on me. “So, Aaron has work, and he would appreciate—” “If—” I stopped myself when I heard the word sounding highpitched and squeaky. I cleared my throat and tried again. “If he is so busy, then please tell him to feel free to spare me. He can go back to his office and resume whatever workaholic activities he had shockingly paused to stick his nose in something that does not concern him.” I watched my friend’s mouth open, but the man behind me spoke before a sound could come out of her lips, “So, you heard what I said. My offer. Good.” A pause. In which I cursed under my breath. “Then, what’s your answer?” Rosie’s face filled with shock one more time. My gaze remained on her, and I could picture how the dark brown in my eyes was turning to red with my growing exasperation. My answer? What the hell was he even trying to accomplish? Was this a new, inventive way of playing with my head? My sanity? “I have no idea what he’s talking about. I heard nothing,” I lied. “You can tell him that too.” Rosie tucked a curl behind her ear, her eyes jumping very briefly to Aaron and then returning to me. “I think he’s referring to the moment he offered to be your date to your sister’s wedding,” she explained with a soft voice. “You know, right after you told me that things had changed and that you now needed to find someone—or anyone, I think you said—to go to Spain with you and attend that wedding because, otherwise, you’d die a slow, painful death and—” “I think I got it,” I rushed out, feeling my face burn again from the realization that Aaron had heard all of that. “Thanks, Rosie. You can stop with the recap.” Or I’d be dying that slow, painful death right about now. “I think you used the word desperate,” Aaron chipped in. My ears burned, probably flashing about five shades of radioactive red. “I did not,” I breathed out. “I did not use that word.” “You … sort of did, sweetie,” my best friend—no, former best friend as of right now—confirmed. Eyes narrowed, I mouthed, What the hell, traitor? But both of them were right. “Fine. So, I said that. Doesn’t mean I’m that desperate.” “That’s what truly helpless people would say. But whatever makes you sleep better at night, Catalina.” Cursing under my breath for the umpteenth time that morning, I closed my eyes briefly. “This is none of your business, Blackford, but I’m not helpless, okay? And I sleep at night just fine. No, actually, I’ve never slept better.” What was one more lie to the pile I was hoisting around, huh? Contrary to what I had just denied, I was truly, helplessly desperate to find someone to be my date to that wedding. But that didn’t mean I’d— “Sure.” Ironically, out of all the damn words Aaron Blackford had said to the back of my head that morning, that one word was what made me break my stance to pretend I remained unaffected. That sure, sounding all condescending and bored and dismissive and just so Aaron. Sure. My blood bubbled. It was so impulsive, such a knee-jerk reaction to that four-letter word—which, uttered by anybody else, would have meant nothing— that I didn’t even realize my body was turning until it was too late. Because of his unearthly height, I was welcomed by a broad chest covered in a pressed white button-down that made me itch to fist the fabric and wrinkle it with my hands because who pranced through life so sleek and spotless all the damn time? Aaron Blackford—that was who. My gaze trailed up rounded shoulders and a strong neck, reaching the straight line of his jaw. His lips pressed flatly, just like I had known they would. My eyes traveled further up then, reaching his blue ones—blue that reminded me of the depths of the ocean, where everything was cold and deadly—and finding them on me. One of his brows rose. “Sure?” I hissed. “Yes.” That head, topped with raven hair, gave one single nod, his gaze not leaving mine. “I don’t want to waste more time arguing about something you are too stubborn to admit, so yes. Sure.” This infuriating blue-eyed man who probably spent more time ironing his clothes than interacting with other human beings was not going to make me lose my temper this early in the morning. Fighting to keep my body under control, I inhaled a long, deep breath. I tucked a lock of chestnut hair behind my ear. “If this is such a waste of time, I genuinely don’t know what you are still doing here. Please don’t stay on my or Rosie’s account.” A noncommittal noise left Miss Traitor’s mouth. “I would have,” Aaron admitted in a level tone. “But you still haven’t answered my question.” “That wasn’t a question,” I said, the words tasting sour in my tongue. “Whatever you said was not a question. But that’s not important because I don’t need you, thank you very much.” “Sure,” he repeated, turning my exasperation one notch up. “Although I think you do.” “You think wrong.” That brow rose higher. “And yet it sounded like you really do need me.” “Then, you must be experiencing serious hearing issues because, yet again, you heard wrong. I don’t need you, Aaron Blackford.” I swallowed, willing some of the dryness away. “I could write it down for you if you want. Send you an email, too, if that’d help at all.” He seemed to think about it for a second, looking uninterested. But I knew better than to believe he’d let it go so easily. Which he proved as soon as he opened his mouth again. “Didn’t you say the wedding is in a month and you don’t have a date?” My lips pressed in a tight line. “Maybe. I can’t recall exactly.” I had said that. Word for word. “Didn’t Rosie suggest that if you perhaps sat in the back and tried not to draw any attention to yourself, nobody would notice you were attending on your own?” My friend’s head popped into my field of vision. “I did. I also suggested to wear a dull color and not the stunning red dress that—” “Rosie,” I interrupted her. “Not really helping here.” Aaron’s eyes didn’t waver when he resumed his walk down memory lane. “Didn’t you follow that by reminding Rosie that you were the motherfreaking—your word—maid of honor and therefore everybody and their mother—your words again—would notice you anyway?” “She did,” I heard Miss Traitor confirm. My head whirled in her direction. “What?” She shrugged, signing her death sentence. “You did, honey.” I needed new friends. ASAP. “She did,” Aaron corroborated, drawing my gaze and attention back to him. “And did you not say that your ex-boyfriend is the best man and thinking of standing in the vicinity of him, alone and lame and pathetically single—those were your words again—made you want to tear off your own skin?” I had. I had said that. But I hadn’t thought Aaron was listening; otherwise, I would have never admitted it out loud. But he had been right there, apparently. He knew now. He had heard me openly admit that and had just thrown it at my face. And as much as I told myself I didn’t care—that I shouldn’t care—the pang of hurt was there all the same. It made me feel all the more alone, lame, and pathetic. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I averted my eyes, letting them rest somewhere close to his Adam’s apple. I didn’t want to see whatever was in his face. Mockery. Pity. I didn’t care. I could spare the knowledge of one more person thinking of me that way. His throat was the one that worked then. I knew because it was the only part of him I allowed myself to look at. “You are desperate.” I exhaled, the air leaving my lips forcefully. One nod—that was all I gave him. And I didn’t even understand why I had done it. This wasn’t me. I usually fought back until I was the one who drew blood first. Because that was what we did. We didn’t spare each other’s feelings. This wasn’t new. “Then, take me. I will be your date to the wedding, Catalina.” My gaze drew up very slowly, a strange mix of wariness and embarrassment washing over me. Him witnessing all this was bad enough, but him somehow trying to use it to his advantage? To get the better of me? Unless he wasn’t. Unless perhaps there was an explanation, a reason, as to why he was doing this. Offering himself to be my date. Studying his face, I pondered all these options and possible motivations, not coming to any kind of reasonable conclusion. Not finding any possible answer that would help me understand why or what he was trying to accomplish. Only the truth. The reality. We weren’t friends. We barely tolerated each other, Aaron Blackford and I. We were spiteful to each other, pointed out each other’s mistakes, criticized how differently we worked, thought, and lived. We condemned our differences. At some point in the past, I would have thrown darts at a poster of his face. And I was pretty sure he would have done the same because I wasn’t the only one driving along Hate Boulevard. It was a two-way road. Not only that, but it had actually been him, the one causing our fallout. I hadn’t started this feud between us. So, why? Why was he pretending to offer me help, and why would I humor him by even considering it? “I might be desperate to find a date, but I’m not that desperate,” I repeated. “Just like I said.” His sigh was tired. Impatient. Infuriating. “I’ll let you think about it. You know you have no other options.” “Nothing to think about.” I cut my hand through the air between us. Then, I smiled my version of Rosie’s fake, toothy grin. “I’d take a chimpanzee dressed in a tuxedo before taking you.” His eyebrows rose, amusement barely entering his eyes. “Now, come on; we both know you wouldn’t. While there are chimpanzees that would rise up to the occasion, it will be your ex standing there. Your family. You said you need to make an impression, and I will accomplish exactly that.” He tilted his head. “I’m your best option.” I snorted, clapping my hands once. Smug blue-eyed pain in my ass. “You are my best nothing, Blackford. And I have plenty of other options,” I countered, shrugging a shoulder. “I’ll find someone on Tinder. Maybe put out an ad in the New York Times. I can find someone.” “In only a few weeks? Highly unlikely.” “Rosie has friends. I’ll take one of them.” That had been my plan all along. It was the reason why I had grabbed Rosie so early in the day. Rookie mistake on my part, I realized. I should have waited to get off work and gotten Rosie to a safe, Aaron-free place to talk. But after yesterday’s call with Mamá … yeah. Things had changed. My situation had definitely changed. I needed someone, and I couldn’t stress enough that anyone would do. Anyone who wasn’t Aaron, of course. Rosie had been born and raised in the city. There had to be someone she knew. “Right, Rosie? One of your friends must be available.” My friend’s head popped in again. “Maybe Marty? He loves weddings.” I shot a quick glance at her. “Wasn’t Marty the one who got drunk at your cousin’s wedding, stole the mic from the band, and sang ‘My Heart Will Go On’ until your brother had to drag him off the stage?” “That would be him.” She winced. “Yeah, no.” I couldn’t have that at my sister’s wedding. She’d rip his heart out of his chest and serve it as dessert. “What about Ryan?” “Happily engaged.” A sigh left my lips. “Not surprised. Ryan is a total catch.” “I know. That’s why I tried so many times to get you two together, but you—” I cleared my throat loudly, interrupting her. “We aren’t discussing why I am single.” I quickly glanced back at Aaron. His eyes were on me, narrowed. “How about … Terry?” “Moved to Chicago.” “Dammit.” I shook my head, closing my eyes for an instant. This was useless. “Then, I’ll hire an actor. Pay him to act as my date.” “That’s probably expensive,” Aaron said flatly. “And actors aren’t exactly lying around, waiting for single people to hire and parade them as their plus-ones.” I pinned him with an exasperated look. “I’ll get a professional escort.” His lips pressed in that tight, almost-hermetic way they did when he was extremely irritated. “You’d take a male prostitute to your sister’s wedding before taking me?” “I said, an escort, Blackford. Por Dios,” I muttered, watching his eyebrows bunch and turn into the scowl. “I’m not looking for that kind of service. I just need a companion. That’s all they do. They escort you to events.” “That’s not what they do, Catalina.” His voice was deep and icy. Covering me in his frosty judgment. “Haven’t you watched any romantic comedies ever?” I watched the scowl deepen. “Not even The Wedding Date?” No answer, just more of that arctic staring. “Do you even watch movies? Or do you just … work?” There was a possibility that he didn’t even own a television. His expression didn’t change. God, I don’t have time for this. For him. “You know what? Not important. I don’t care.” I threw my hands up and then clasped them together. “Thank you for … this. Whatever it was. Great input. But I don’t need you.” “I think you do.” I blinked at him. “I think you are annoying.” “Catalina,” he started, making my irritation grow with the way he uttered my name. “You are delusional if you think you can find someone in such a short amount of time.” Once more, Aaron Blackford wasn’t wrong. I probably was a little delusional. And he didn’t even know about the lie. My lie. Not that he’d ever do. But that didn’t change the facts. I needed someone, anyone, but not him, not Aaron, to fly to Spain with me for Isabel’s wedding. Because (A) I was the bride’s sister and maid of honor. (B) My ex, Daniel, was the groom’s brother and best man. And as of yesterday, I had learned that he was happily engaged. Something that my family had been hiding from me. (C) If you didn’t count the few and pretty unsuccessful dates I had gone on, I had been technically single for roughly six years. Ever since I had left Spain and moved to the States, which had happened shortly after my one and only relationship exploded in my face. Something that every single attendee—because there were no secrets in families like mine and much less in small towns like the one I had come from—knew about and pitied me for. And (D) there was my lie. The lie. The one I had sort of fed my mother and consequently the whole Martín clan because privacy and boundaries did not exist when it came to us. Hell, by now, my lie was probably on the Announcements page of the local newspaper. Catalina Martín, finally, not single. Her family is happy to announce that she will bring her American boyfriend to the wedding. Everyone is invited to come and witness the most magical event of the decade. Because that was what I had done. Right after the news of Daniel’s engagement had slipped past my mother’s lips and reached my ears through the speaker of my phone, I had said that I’d be bringing someone too. No, not just someone. I’d said—lied, deceived, falsely announced—that I’d be bringing my boyfriend. Who technically did not exist. Yet. Okay, fine, or ever. Because Aaron was right. Finding a date in such a short amount of time was perhaps a little optimistic. Believing I’d find someone to pretend to be my made-up boyfriend was probably delusional. But accepting that Aaron was my only choice and taking him up on his offer? That was straight-up insanity. “I see it’s finally seeping in.” Aaron’s words brought me back to the present, and I found his blue eyes aimed at me. “I’ll let you come to terms with it on your own. Just let me know when you do.” My lips pursed. And when I felt my cheeks burn again—because how lame was I for him, Aaron Blackford, who had never even liked me a tiny little bit, to pity me enough to offer himself to be my date? —I crossed my arms over my chest and averted my eyes from those two icy and ruthless spots. “Oh, and, Catalina?” “Yeah?” The word left my lips weakly. Ugh, pathetic. “Try not to be late to our ten o’clock meeting. It’s not cute anymore.” My gaze shot to him, a huff stuck in my throat. Jerk. I swore right then and there that one day, I’d find a ladder high enough, climb it, and chuck something really hard at his infuriating face. One year and eight months. That was how long I had endured him. I had been counting, biding my time. Then, with nothing more than a nod, he turned around, and I watched him walk away. Dismissed until further notice. “Okay, that was …” Rosie’s voice trailed off, not ending the statement. “Maddening? Insulting? Bizarre?” I offered, bringing my hands to my face. “Unexpected,” she countered. “And interesting.” Looking at her between my fingers, I watched the corners of her lips tug up. “Your friendship has been revoked, Rosalyn Graham.” She chuckled. “You know you don’t mean that.” I didn’t; she’d never get rid of me. “So …” Rosie linked her arm with mine and ushered me down the hallway. “What are you going to do?” A shaky exhale left my mouth, taking all my energy with it. “I … I don’t have the slightest idea.” But I knew something for sure: I was not taking Aaron Blackford up on his offer. He wasn’t my only option, and he surely wasn’t my best one either. Hell, he wasn’t my anything. Especially not my date to my sister’s wedding. CHAPTER TWO I wasn’t late to our meeting. Ever since that day a year and eight months ago, I was never late. Why? Aaron Blackford. One time. I had been late one single time in Aaron’s presence, and yet he kept flaunting that fact every chance he got. He never chalked it up to me being Spanish or a woman. Both unjustified stereotypes when it came to being notoriously unpunctual. Aaron didn’t do nonsense. He pointed out facts; he stated verifiable truths. He had been disciplined to do that, just like every other engineer in the consulting company where we worked, me included. And technically, I had been late. That one time all those months ago. It was true that I had missed the first fifteen minutes of an important presentation. It was also true that it had been Aaron leading it—during his first week in InTech—and it was again true that I had made a miserably loud entrance that might have involved accidentally knocking over a coffee pitcher. On Aaron’s stack of dossiers for the presentation. Fine, partly on his pants too. Not the best way to make an impression on a new colleague, but tough shit. Things like that happened all the time. Tiny, unintentional, unexpected accidents like those were common. People got over them and went on with their lives. But not Aaron. Instead, week after week and month after month ever since that day, he had barked stuff like, “Try not to be late to our ten o’clock meeting. It’s not cute anymore,” at me. Instead, every single time he entered a conference room and found me sitting there, painfully early, he checked the watch on his wrist and raised his eyebrows in surprise. Instead, he moved coffee pitchers out of my reach with a warning tilt of his head in my direction. That was what Aaron Blackford did instead of letting go of that incident. “Good morning, Lina.” Héctor’s kind voice reached me from the door. I could tell he was smiling before I took in his face, just like he always did. “Buenos días, Héctor,” I told him in the mother tongue we shared. The man that I considered like an uncle after he welcomed me into the close circle of his family placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed lightly. “Doing good, mija?” “Can’t complain.” I returned the smile. “You coming over to the next barbecue? It’s next month, and Lourdes keeps telling me to remind you. She’s preparing ceviche this time, and you are the only one that will eat it.” He laughed. It was true; no one in the Díaz family was a big fan of the fishbased Mexican dish. Which, to this day, I still couldn’t understand. “Stop asking dumb questions, old man.” I waved my hand in the air with a chuckle. “Of course I’ll be there.” Héctor was taking his usual place to my right when our three remaining colleagues in attendance poured into the room, mumbling their good mornings. Lifting my gaze off Héctor’s easy smile, my eyes tracked down the men walking around the table to assemble into our ten o’clock formation. Across from me appeared Aaron, eyebrows raised and gaze quickly meeting mine. I watched his lips tip down as he took a chair out. Rolling my eyes, I moved onto Gerald, whose bald head glinted under the fluorescent light as he folded his rather chubby frame into the chair. Last but not least, there was Kabir, who had been recently promoted to the position everyone in this room held—team leader of the Solutions Division of the company. Which pretty much encompassed all disciplines but civil engineering. Which was a beast on its own. “Good morning, everyone,” Kabir started with the enthusiasm only someone who had been on the job for a month would have. “This week, it’s my turn to lead and protocol the meeting, so if you could, please say present when I call your name.” An exasperated grunt I was extremely familiar with filled the room. Glancing at the blue-eyed man across the table, I found the irritated face that went with the sound. “Of course, Kabir,” I said with a smile even though I agreed with the scowling man. “Please call away.” Ocean eyes pinned me with an icy look. Meeting his stare, I heard Kabir go through each of our names, obtaining confirmation from both Héctor and Gerald, an unnecessarily cheery present from me, and another grunt from Mr. Grumps. “All right, thanks,” Kabir said. “Next point in the agenda is, project status updates. Who would like to start?” He was met with silence. InTech provided engineering services for any entity that did not have the ability or man power to design or engineer plans for their own projects. Sometimes, they outsourced a team of five or six people, and other times, only one person was needed. So, all five team leaders in our division were currently working and supervising several different projects for several different clients, and all projects never stopped moving forward. Eating away milestones and encountering all kinds of issues and drawbacks. We had conference calls with the clients and stakeholders on a daily basis. The status of each project changed so briskly and in such a complex manner that there was no way every other team leader could catch up in only a few minutes. That was why Kabir’s question had been met with silence. And why this meeting wasn’t completely necessary. “Um …” Kabir shifted in his seat uncomfortably. “Okay, I can start. Yeah, I’ll go first.” He shuffled through a folder he had brought with him. “This week, we are presenting to Telekoor the new budget we’ve been developing for them. As you know, it is a start-up that’s working on a cloud service to enhance mobile data on public transportation. Well, the resources available are rather limited and …” I absently listened to my colleague while my gaze roamed around the meeting room. Héctor nodded his head, although I suspected he was paying as much attention as I was. Gerald, on the other hand, was openly checking his phone. Rude. So rude. But I didn’t expect anything else from him. Then, there was him. Aaron Blackford, who I realized had been staring at me before my eyes met his. His arm reached out in my direction, his gaze holding mine. I knew what he was about to do. I knew. The long fingers attached to that massive palm spread out as they met the object in front of me. The coffee pitcher. I narrowed my eyes, watching how his hand curled around the pitcher’s handle. He dragged it all the way across the surface of the oak desk. Very slowly. Then, he nodded his head. Infuriating blue-eyed grudge-holder. I gave him a tight, closed-lip smile—because the other option was launching myself across the room and pouring all the contents of the goddamn pitcher on him. Again. But this time, intentionally. Trying to distract myself from that thought, I averted my eyes and furiously scribbled a to-do list on my planner. Ask Isa if the bouquet she ordered for Mamá was peonies or lilies. Order either a peony or lily bouquet for Tía Carmen. If we didn’t, she’d be giving me, Isa—my sister and bride—and Mamá the stink eye until the day she or any of us kicked the bucket. Send Papá my flight details, so he knows when to pick me up from the airport. Tell Isa to remind Papá that he has my flight details, so he picks me up from the airport. I brought the pen to my lips, this awful feeling I was forgetting something important making me uneasy. Chewing on my pen, I scrambled my mind for whatever it was I was missing. Then, a voice I was terribly—and unfortunately— doomed to never forget thundered in my head. “You are delusional if you think you can find someone in such a short amount of time.” My eyes bounced back to the man sitting across from me, meeting his gaze again. As if I had been caught doing something wrong—like thinking of him—I felt the heat in my cheeks and returned my attention to the list. Find a boyfriend. I scratched that. Find a fake boyfriend. Doesn’t need to be a real one. “… and that’s all I have to report.” Kabir’s words registered somewhere in the back of my head. I continued working on my list. Find a fake boyfriend. Doesn’t need to be a real one. And also, NOT HIM. Surely, I had other options. Not the escort though. A quick Google search had confirmed that Aaron had been right. Again. Apparently, I had been lied to by Hollywood. New York seemed to be filled with men and women offering a wide range of varied and different kinds of services that were not limited to escorting. I grimaced and then chewed harder on the pen. Not that I’d ever admit that to Aaron. I’d rather give up chocolate for a full year than admit to Aaron that he was right. But I was desperate at this point. He had nailed that down too. I needed to find someone who would pretend to be in a serious, committed relationship with me in front of my whole family. And that didn’t only include the wedding day, but also the two days of celebratory events that preceded that. Which meant, I was screwed. I was— “… and that would be Lina.” My name broke into my brain, making everything else vanish. I dropped my pen on the table and cleared my throat. “Yes, here.” I tried to reinsert myself in the conversation. “Listening. I’m listening.” “Isn’t that what someone who wasn’t listening would say?” My gaze shot across the room, meeting a pair of blue eyes on the verge of showing amusement if the man behind them was capable of human emotions. I straightened my back and turned a page of my planner. “I was writing down something for a call I have with a client later and lost track of the conversation,” I lied. “Something important.” Aaron hummed, nodding his head. Thankfully, he let it go. “Let’s recap a little bit. Just so we are all clear on where we stand,” Kabir offered in a gentle voice. He’d be getting a muffin tomorrow. “Thank you, Kabir.” I gave him a bright smile. To which he blushed and reciprocated with a wobbly one. I heard an impatient exhale coming from across the room. Now, he would not be getting a muffin tomorrow. Or ever. “So,” Kabir finally said, “Jeff wanted to attend today’s meeting to tell you personally, but you know how busy the schedule of a head of division is. Lots of parallel appointments. He will forward you all the info you need anyway, but I thought it would be a good idea to give you a heads-up before.” I blinked. What the hell are we talking about? “Thank you again for that, Kabir.” “You are welcome, Lina.” He nodded. “I think that communication between all five of us is key to accomplish—” “Kabir”—Aaron’s voice filled the room—“your point.” Kabir’s eyes jumped to him, and he appeared a little startled. “Yes, thanks, Aaron.” Then, he had to clear his throat twice before he could continue, “InTech will host an Open Day in a few weeks. A big group of people will attend, mostly potential clients who are curious about what we offer but also some of the biggest projects we are working on. Jeff mentioned that all attendants are pretty high in management, too, which makes sense because this is an initiative to expand and strengthen our network and to do it face-to-face. He wants InTech to show off. To look good. Modern. To demonstrate that we are up-to-date with the current markets. But at the same time, show all prospective and current clients that we are not all about working.” He chuckled nervously. “That’s why Open Day will last from eight a.m., when the attendants will be welcomed here at our headquarters, until midnight.” “Midnight?” I murmured, barely able to conceal my surprise. “Yes.” Kabir nodded enthusiastically. “Isn’t it refreshing? It will be a full-blown event. All kinds of workshops on new technologies, knowledge-exchange sessions, activities to get to know our clients and their needs. And of course, we’ll have breakfast, lunch, and dinner catered. Oh, and after-work drinks too. You know, to lighten things up.” My eyes had gradually widened as Kabir delivered his explanation. “That …” Héctor started. “That sounds different.” It did. And it sounded like a complex event to plan in only a few weeks. “Yes,” Gerald answered, sounding suspiciously smug. “It will definitely put InTech ahead in the game.” Kabir nodded as his gaze met mine. “Absolutely. And Jeff wants you to be in charge of everything, Lina. How amazing is that?” I blinked, resting my back against the seat. “He wants me to organize it? All of it?” “Yes.” My colleague smiled at me, like he was giving me good news. “And host it too. Out of the five of us, you are our most attractive option.” Blinking very slowly, I watched his lips fall down, probably because of the expression coating my face. Attractive. Taking a deep breath, I tried to steady myself. “Well, I’m flattered to be considered the most attractive option,” I lied, willing myself not to focus on how my blood had started swirling. “But I hardly have the time or the experience to organize something like this.” “But Jeff insisted,” Kabir countered back. “And it’s important for InTech to have someone like you representing the company.” I should ask what someone like me was supposed to mean, but I didn’t think I wanted to hear the answer. My throat dried up, making it harder for me to swallow. “Wouldn’t any of us accomplish the same objective? Shouldn’t someone with experience in what sounds like a public relations affair throw together an event this important?” Kabir deflected, not answering my question. “Jeff said you would be fine with the organization. That we don’t need to spend extra resources, hiring someone. Plus, you are …” He trailed off, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else. “Social. Perky.” Clenching my fist under the table, I tried my best to hide my inner turmoil. “Sure,” I gritted out. That was every person’s dream, being referred to as perky by their boss. “But I also have a job to do. I also have projects that I’m working on the clock for. How is this … event more important than my own clients and current responsibilities?” I remained silent for a long moment, waiting for my colleagues’ support. Any kind of support. And … nothing, just the usual loaded silence that followed these kinds of situations. I shifted in my chair, feeling my cheeks heat up with frustration. “Kabir,” I said as calmly as I could, “I know Jeff might have suggested that I be in charge of this, but you guys understand that this doesn’t even make sense, right? I … wouldn’t even know where to start.” This wasn’t a thing I had been hired or was paid for. But no one was going to admit that, even when their support would make a difference. That would lead to the real reason why I had been given this task. “I’m already covering for two of my best team members, Linda and Patricia. I don’t have hours in the week as it is.” I hated complaining and fishing for some—or at this point, any—kind of understanding, but what else could I do? Gerald snorted, making my head swivel in his direction. “Well, that’s a drawback of hiring women in their thirties.” I scoffed, not wanting to believe that he had just said that. But he had. I opened my mouth, but Héctor stopped me from saying anything. “All right, how about we all help you?” Héctor suggested. I looked at him, finding him with a resigned expression. “We could maybe all pitch in with something.” I loved the man, but his soft heart and lack of confrontational spirit weren’t helping all that much. He was only tiptoeing around the real issue. “This is not high school, Héctor,” Gerald snapped back. “We are professionals, and we won’t be pitching in with anything.” Shaking his greasy, bald head, he followed that with another snort. Héctor’s mouth clamped shut. Kabir spoke again, “I’ll forward you the list of people Jeff put together, Lina.” I shook my head again, feeling my cheeks heat up further, biting my tongue so I wouldn’t tell my colleague something I’d regret. “Oh,” Kabir added, “Jeff also had a few ideas for the catering. That’s in a separate email that I will forward to you too. But he wants you to do a little research on that. Maybe even think of a theme. He said you’d know what to do.” My lips parted with a silent curse word that would make my abuela take me to church by the ear. I’d know what to do? How would I know? Reaching for my pen and holding it with both hands so I could squeeze some of the growing frustration away, I took a deep breath. “I’m going to talk to Jeff myself,” I said through pressed teeth that formed a tight smile. “I’d usually not bother him but—” “Would you just stop wasting our time already?” Gerald said, making the blood in my face drop to my feet. “You don’t have to take this to our boss.” Gerald’s chubby finger waved through the air. “Stop making excuses and just do it. You can smile and be extra friendly for a whole day, can’t you?” The words extra and friendly echoed in my head as I stared at him with wide eyes. The sweaty man, crammed into a dress shirt designed for someone who had a class he’d never achieve, would take any chance he could get to bring anyone down. Even more so if that happened to be a woman. I knew. “Gerald”—I gentled my voice and increased the pressure on my pen, praying it wouldn’t break and give away how outraged I really felt—“the purpose of this meeting is to discuss issues like this one. So, I’m sorry, but you are going to have to listen to me do exactly—” “Sweetheart,” Gerald interrupted me, a sneer breaking across his face, “think of it as a party. Women know about those, don’t they? Just prepare some activities, get some food delivered here, put on nice clothes, and crack some jokes. You are young and cute; you won’t even have to use your brain all that much. They’ll be eating right out of your hand.” He chuckled. “I’m sure you know how to do that, don’t you?” I choked on my own words. The air that was supposed to be getting in and out of my lungs was stuck somewhere in between. Not able to control what my body was doing, I felt my legs straighten, bringing me up. My chair screeched back, the noise loud and sudden. Smacking both hands on the surface of the desk, I felt my head blank for a second, and I saw red. Literally. In that precise moment, I understood where the expression had come from. I saw fucking red, as if I had slipped on a pair of glasses with crimson lenses. Somewhere to my right, I heard Héctor exhaling heavily. Muttering under his breath. Then, I heard nothing. Only my heart hammering in my chest. There it was. The truth. The real reason why I, among the four other people sitting in this room, had been handpicked to do this damn thing. I was a woman—the only woman in the division, leading a team—and I had the goods, no matter how generous my curves were or not. Perky, cute, female. I was the attractive option, apparently. I was being showcased to our clients as the golden token that proved that InTech was not stuck in the past. “Lina.” I willed my voice to remain firm and calm, hating that it hadn’t. Hating that I wanted to turn around and let my legs carry me out of the room. “Not sweetheart. My name is Lina.” I sat back on my chair very slowly, clearing my throat and taking one extra moment to rein it in. I have this. I need to have this. “Next time, make sure to use my name, please. And address me with the decency and professionalism you do with everyone else.” My voice reached my ears in a way I didn’t like one bit. Making me feel that weak version of myself that I didn’t want to be. But at least I had managed to get it all out without flipping or running away. “Thanks.” Sensing how my eyes were starting to feel glassy out of pure outrage and frustration, I blinked a few times, willing that and everything else away from my face. Wishing that the lump in my throat had nothing to do with embarrassment, even when it did. Because how could I not feel embarrassed when I had snapped like that? When—even after what had happened all that time ago, even being that this wasn’t the first time I’d had to deal with this kind of crap—I still didn’t know how? Gerald rolled his eyes. “Don’t take it so seriously, Lina.” He shot me a condescending look. “I was just joking around. Right, guys?” He looked over at our colleagues, searching the room for their support. He didn’t find any. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Héctor deflating in his chair. “Gerald …” he said, sounding tired and discouraged. “Come on, man.” Keeping my eyes on Gerald and trying to stop my chest from heaving with building helplessness, I refused to look at the other two men, Kabir and Aaron, who remained silent. They probably thought they were not taking any side, but they were. Their silence was doing exactly that. “Oh, come on what?” Gerald scoffed. “It’s not like I said anything that’s not true. The girl doesn’t even need to try—” Before I could muster the courage to stop him, the last person in the room I had expected to speak beat me to it. “We are done here.” My head snapped in his direction then, finding him looking at Gerald with something so thick and chilling that I could almost feel the air in the room drop a couple of degrees. Shaking my head, I snagged my gaze off Aaron. He could have said anything in the last ten minutes, and he had chosen not to. He could remain silent for all I cared. Gerald’s chair scraped against the floor, allowing him to stand up. “Yes, we are certainly done,” he said flatly, gathering his things. “I don’t have time for this either. She knows what to do anyway.” And with that little pearl, Gerald walked to the door and left the room. My heart was still hammering in my chest, pummeling in my temples. Kabir followed suit, standing up and looking at me apologetically. “I am not taking his side, okay?” His eyes moved in Aaron’s direction quickly, returning to me just as fast. “This whole thing came from Jeff; he wants you to do this. Don’t think too much about it. Take it as a compliment.” Not bothering to answer, I watched him leave the room. The man who had almost taken me in and treated me as one more of the Díaz clan looked at me and shook his head. He mouthed, Qué pendejo, which plucked a weak smile out of me because even if that wasn’t something we would ever say in Spain, I knew exactly what he meant. And Héctor was right. What a total asshat Gerald was. And then there was Aaron. Who hadn’t even bothered to look at me yet. His long fingers methodically gathered his things, and his even longer legs pushed the chair back, making it possible for him to straighten to his full height. While I glanced at him, still out of sorts by everything that had just gone down, I watched how his gaze bounced from his hands to me. His eyes, which I could tell had sobered up and returned to that aloof semblance, remained on me for a heartbeat and then dismissed me just as quickly. Just like he always did. My gaze followed his oddly large and sturdy figure walk to the door and into the hallway, the hammering in my chest somehow speeding up and settling down, all at once. “Let’s go, mija,” Héctor said, now standing and looking down on me. “I have a bag of chicharrones in my office. Ximena slipped it into my laptop bag the other day, and I’ve been saving it.” He followed that with a wink. Standing from my chair, I laughed lightly. Héctor’s little girl was getting a bear hug from me the next time I saw her. “You need to raise that girl’s weekly allowance.” I followed him out, trying my best to return the smile. Although I couldn’t help but notice that after only a few steps, the corners of my lips wavered, breaking into something that didn’t quite reach my eyes. CHAPTER THREE T his wasn’t how I had pictured my evening going. It was late, InTech’s headquarters had mostly emptied, I had at least four or five hours of work ahead of me, and my stomach was rumbling so loudly that I suspected it was about to start eating itself. “Estoy jodida,” I said under my breath, realizing how screwed I really was. One, because the last thing I had eaten was a sad green salad that clearly turned out to be a big mistake as much as it had seemed the most sensible idea, having the wedding a total of four weeks away. Two, I didn’t have any snacks at hand and no change for the vending machine downstairs. And three, the PowerPoint slide on my laptop screen was still blinking at me, half-empty. My hands fell on my keyboard, hesitating over the keys for a full minute. A text pinged from my phone, drawing my attention. Rosie’s name flashed on the screen. I unlocked it, and an image immediately popped open. It was a photo of a luscious flat white, topped by a beautiful milk foam rosette. Beside it, there was a triple-chocolate brownie that shamelessly glinted under the light. Rosie: You in? She didn’t need to specify the plan or send me the address. That feast could only belong to Around the Corner, our favorite coffee shop in the city. My mouth started immediately salivating at the thought of being in that caffeinated safe haven on Madison Avenue. Muffling a groan, I wrote back. Lina: I’d love to, but I’m stuck at work. Three dots jumped on the screen. Rosie: You sure? I saved you a seat. Before I could type back a reply, another text came through. Rosie: I got the last brownie, but I’ll share. Only if you get here quickly. I’m not made of steel. I sighed. Definitely better than the reality of working extra time on a Wednesday evening but … Lina: I can’t. I’m working on the Open Day stuff I told you about. I’m deleting that photo, BTW. Too tempting. Rosie: Oh no. You didn’t tell me more than the fact that you were stuck with it. When’s it taking place? Lina: Right after I’m back from Spain. *bride emoji* *skull emoji* Rosie: I still don’t get why you have to do it. Aren’t you swamped with work? Yep. That was exactly what I should have been doing, the job I was paid to do. Not organizing an open-doors day that served as an excuse to show around a bunch of suits that I’d have to feed, babysit, and be extra nice to. Whatever the hell that meant. But complaining wouldn’t get me anywhere. Lina: *unamused emoji* It is what it is. Rosie: Yeah, well, I don’t like Jeff all that much right now. Lina: I thought you said he was a silver fox. *smirking emoji* Rosie: I said, objectively. And he can look good for a 50-year-old and still be a jerk. You know I seem to find those particularly attractive. Lina: You kinda do, Rosie. That Ted was a total assface. Happy you two are not a thing anymore. Rosie: *poo emoji* The texts stopped coming long enough for me to think our conversation was done. Good. I needed to work on this crappy— My phone pinged again. Rosie: Sorry, the owner’s husband just showed up, and I got distracted. #swoon Rosie: He is so handsome. He brings her flowers once a week. *crying emoji* Lina: Rosalyn, I’m trying to work here. Snap a photo and show me tomorrow. Rosie: Sorry, sorry. Did you talk to Aaron, BTW? *thinking face emoji* Is he still waiting? I wasn’t proud to admit that my stomach had dropped at the unexpected mention of something I hadn’t let myself think about. Liar. These past two days had felt like waiting for a bomb to drop when I least expected it. No, ever since Monday, Aaron hadn’t said anything about the whole I’ll be your date to the wedding nonsense. Neither had Rosie because we had barely seen each other with how busy both our schedules were. Lina: I have no idea what you mean. Is he waiting for something? Rosie: … Lina: Something like a heart transplant? I heard he doesn’t have one. Rosie: Ha, funny. You should keep the jokes for when you two talk. Lina: We won’t. Rosie: That’s right. You two are too busy staring at each other intently. *fire emoji* An unwanted blush rushed to my cheeks. Lina: What’s that supposed to mean? Rosie: You know what it means. Lina: That I want to light him up in a pyre like a witch? Then, okay. Rosie: He’s probably working late too. Lina: So? Rosie: So … you could always go to his office and glare at him in that way I’m sure he loves. Whoa. What the heck? I moved uncomfortably in my chair as I stared at my phone screen in horror. Lina: WTF are you talking about? Did you eat too much chocolate again? You know it makes you trippy. *shocked emoji* Rosie: Deflect all you want. Lina: Not deflecting, just genuinely concerned about your health right now. Rosie: *eye roll emoji* This was new. My friend had never directly addressed whatever nonsense she thought she saw. She still dropped a comment here and there every once in a while. “Simmering tension,” she had said one time. To which I had snorted so hard that a little bit of water came out my nose. That was how ridiculous I thought her observations were. In my humble opinion, all those soapy shows she watched were starting to mess up her perception of reality. Hell, and I was the Spanish one out of the two. I had grown up watching soap operas with my abuela. But I surely wasn’t living in one. There wasn’t simmering tension between Aaron Blackford and me. I did not glare at him in a way he loved. Aaron didn’t love anything—he couldn’t do that without a heart. Lina: All right, I have work to do, so I’ll let you get back to your coffee, but stop raiding the pastry counter. I’m concerned. Rosie: Okay, okay. I’ll stop—for now. *heart emoji* Good luck! Lina: *heart emoji* *fire emoji* Locking my phone and placing it facedown on the table, I took a deep, energizing breath. Time to get this show going. The image of the chocolate brownie popped in my head. Assaulting me. No, Lina. Thinking of brownies—or any food—wasn’t going to help. I needed to make myself believe that I wasn’t hungry. “I’m not hungry,” I said out loud, putting my chestnut hair in a bun. “My stomach is full. Packed with all kinds of delicious food. Like tacos. Or pizza. Or brownies. Coffee and—” My stomach grumbled, ignoring my visualization exercise and invading my mind with memories of Around the Corner. The delicious scent of roasted coffee beans. The welcome sensory attack that involved taking a bite of a brownie that included three sorts of chocolate. The sound of the coffee machine steaming milk. Another complaint rose from my noisy stomach. Sighing, I reluctantly kicked out all those images off my mind and rolled up the sleeves of the thin cardigan I had to wear in the building, thanks to the AC being tuned up to the max in summer. “Okay, stomach, work with me here,” I muttered to myself, as if the words would maybe make some kind of difference. “I’ll take us to Around the Corner tomorrow. Now, you need to stay quiet and let me work. Okay?” “Okay.” The word echoed in my office, as if it had been my stomach answering. But I wasn’t that lucky. “That was odd.” The same deep voice came again. “But I guess it goes with your personality.” Not needing to lift my head to know who was behind that rich tone, I closed my eyes. Damn you, Rosalyn Graham. You summoned this evil entity into my office, and you’ll pay for this in chocolate. Cursing under my breath—because, of course, it had to be him hearing me rally myself—I schooled my face into a neutral expression and looked up from my desk. “Odd? I like to think of it as endearing.” “No,” he answered quickly. Way too quickly. “It’s a little disturbing when you say more than a couple of words. And you were having a full conversation with yourself.” I grabbed the first thing I found lying around in my desk—a highlighter. I breathed in and then out. “I’m sorry, Blackford. But I don’t have time to pick apart my quirks right now,” I said, holding my highlighter in the air. “Do you need anything?” I took him in as he stood under the threshold of my office door, his laptop under one of his arms, one of his dark eyebrows raised. “What’s Around the Corner?” he queried, starting in my direction. Exhaling slowly, I ignored his question and watched his long legs closing the distance to my desk. Then, I had to watch him walk around it and stop somewhere to my left. I swiveled my office chair, fully facing him. “Sorry, but is there anything I can help you with?” His gaze fell behind me, on my laptop screen, his big body bending down. My eyes shot to his face, probably looking at him in one of the ways Rosie had pointed out earlier—glaring—only without whatever crap she’d read between lines that didn’t even exist. His brows drew in. Aaron placed his left hand on my desk and bent further down. “Excuse me?” I told to his round and kind of huge shoulder. Jesus, what is he, a giant? Realizing how very close his body was to my face and how much larger it seemed up close, I leaned back in my chair. “Hello?” The word came out wobblier than I would have preferred. “What are you doing?” He hummed, the soft noise sounding as close as he was. Right in my face. “Blackford,” I said very slowly, watching how his eyes scanned the PowerPoint slide on my screen. It displayed a draft of the schedule I was assembling for InTech’s Open Day. I knew what he was doing. But I didn’t know why. Or why he was ignoring me—besides because he was trying to be the biggest pain in my ass. “Blackford, I’m talking to you.” Lost in thought, he hummed again, that damn noise sounding all hushed and masculine. And annoying, I reminded myself. I swallowed the lump that had just magically appeared in my throat. Then, he finally spoke, “Is that all you’ve got?” He absently placed his laptop on my desk. Right beside mine. My eyes narrowed. “Eight a.m. Meet and greet.” One bulky arm flew in front of my face, pointing at my screen. I plastered my body to the backrest of my chair, watching his biceps flex under the fabric of the plain button-down he wore. Aaron continued reading out loud from my screen, pointing with his finger at every item, “Nine a.m. An introduction to InTech’s business strategies.” My eyes traveled all the way up to his shoulder. “Ten a.m. Coffee break … until eleven a.m. That will require large amounts of coffee. Eleven a.m. Pre-lunch activities. Not specified.” I surprised myself, noticing how his arm filled out the sleeve perfectly and completely, his muscles snuggled into the thin fabric and not leaving much space for imagination. “Noon. Lunch break … until two p.m. Quite the banquet. Oh, and there’s another coffee break at three p.m.” That arm I had been focused on halted in the air and then dropped. Flushed, I reminded myself that I wasn’t here to gawk at him. Or the muscles I noticed beneath his boring clothes. “This is worse than I thought. Why didn’t you say anything?” I snapped out my trance, looking up at him. “Excuse me, what?” Aaron tilted his head, and then something seemed to catch his attention. My gaze followed his hand across my desk. “An event like this one,” he said. Then, he picked up one of the pens I had scattered around. “You have never planned one. And you don’t seem to know how.” He dropped it in my cactus-shaped pencil cup. “I have some experience with workshops,” I muttered as I followed his fingers repeating the action with a second pen. “But just for colleagues, never for prospective clients.” Then a third one. “Excuse me, what do you think you are doing?” “Okay,” he answered simply, grabbing my favorite pencil, one that was pink, topped with a feather in the same bright color. He looked at it strangely, his brows arching up. “It’s not ideal, but it’s a start.” He pointed at me with the pencil. “This? Seriously?” I snagged it out of his hand. “It cheers me up.” I dropped it in the cup. “Does it offend your tastes, Mr. Robot?” Aaron didn’t answer. Instead, his hands went for a couple of folders I had piled up—okay, fine, they had been rather dropped down somewhere—to my right. “I know my way around events like this one,” he said, picking them up and squaring them on a corner of my desk. “I organized a couple before coming to work for InTech.” He followed that up with going for my planner, which had been lying upside down somewhere in the mess that I was starting to realize was my working space. He held it in his paw-sized hands. “We just need to work fast; there’s not much time to put everything together.” Whoa, whoa, whoa. “We?” I ripped my planner out of his hold. “There’s no we here,” I scoffed. “And would you please leave my stuff alone? What are you even trying to accomplish?” His furtive hand moved again, going around the back of my chair. Aaron was almost sandwiching me between the desk and my chair as his head hovered above mine, his eyes roaming around my things. I waited for my answer, watching his profile and trying really hard not to acknowledge the warmth I felt radiating off his body. “There’s no way you can focus; your desk is all cluttered,” he finally told me in a matter-of-fact tone. “So, I’m fixing it.” My mouth was hanging open. “I could focus just fine until you got here.” “Can I see the attendee list Jeff drafted?” His fingers flew over the keys of my laptop, opening a window. All the while, I felt my body growing … warm. Uncomfortable. But at least he had stopped touching all my things. “Oh, here it is.” He seemed to scan the document as I just stared at his profile, starting to feel overwhelmed by his proximity. Jesus. “All right,” he continued, “that’s not a lot of people, so at least the catering will be relatively easy to get sorted. As for the … outline you prepared, that won’t work.” Dropping my hands on my lap, I felt dread spreading in my belly, making me wonder how in the world I was going to pull this off. “I didn’t ask for your opinion, but thanks for letting me know,” I said weakly, reaching for my laptop and bringing it closer. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll get back to it.” Aaron looked down just as I glanced up at him. He searched my face for a brief moment that seemed to stretch into a full—and very uncomfortable—minute. Stepping from behind me, he moved to my other side. He leaned on the table with strong forearms, which I might have looked at a second too long, and turned on his own laptop. “Aaron,” I said for what I hoped was the last damn time tonight, “you don’t need to help me. If that’s what you are trying to do here.” That last part I muttered. I rolled my chair closer to my desk as I watched him punch in his password, trying hard not to focus on those infuriating broad shoulders that were right in my line of vision as he leaned on the wooden surface. Por el amor de Dios. I needed to stop … checking him out. My starved brain was clearly struggling to behave normally. And it was his fault. I needed him gone. ASAP. At a normal distance, he was extremely annoying, and now, he was … right freaking here. Being extra difficult. “I have something we can use.” Aaron’s fingers flew over the pad of his laptop as he looked for the document I guessed he was referring to. “Before leaving my former employer, they had me put together a list. A manual of sorts. It should be somewhere here. Hold on.” Aaron kept typing and clicking as I grew more and more irritated by the second. With myself, with him. With just … everything. “Aaron,” I said as a PDF document finally blinked open on his screen. I softened my voice, thinking maybe being as nice as I could ever be when it came to him was the way to go about this. “It’s late, and you don’t have to do this. You have already pointed me in the right direction. Now, you can go.” I pointed at the door. “Thank you.” The fingers I was still watching gracefully tapped on the keys one more time. “It includes a little bit of everything—workshop examples, key concepts for activities and group dynamics, and even objectives that should be kept in mind. We can go through it.” We. That word again. “I can do this on my own, Blackford.” “I can help.” “You might be able to, but you don’t have to. I have no idea why you have this impulse to fly in with your red cape like a nerdy Clark Kent and save the day, but no, thanks. You might look a little like him, but I’m not a damsel in distress.” The worst part was that I actually needed the help. What I had trouble accepting was that Aaron was the one willing to provide it. He straightened to his full length. “A nerdy Clark Kent?” His brows furrowed. “Is that supposed to be a compliment?” My mouth snapped closed. “No.” I rolled my eyes even though he might have been a little right. He sort of looked like the man behind Superman’s secret identity. Not the one with the cape, the one who wore a suit, had a nine-tofive job, and was kind of … hot for a guy working in an office. Not that I’d ever admit that out loud. Not even to Rosie. Aaron studied my face for a couple of seconds. “I think I’m going to take it as a compliment,” he said as one of the corners of his lips bent up just the tiniest little bit. Smug Clark Kent look-alike. “Well, it’s not.” I reached for my mouse, clicking to open a random folder. “Thor or Captain America? That would have been a compliment. But you are not a Chris. Plus, no one cares about Superman anymore, Mr. Kent.” Aaron seemed to think about my statement for an instant. “It sounds like you still care though.” As I ignored that, he proceeded to walk behind me. Then, I watched him cross the office to the desk that belonged to one of the guys I shared the space with but who had obviously left hours ago. He grabbed his chair with one hand and rolled it in my direction. My arms crossed in front of my chest as he placed that chair beside mine and let his large body fall on it, making it squeak and look rather frail. “What are you doing?” I asked him. “You asked me that question already.” He pinned me with a bored look. “What does it look like I’m doing?” “I don’t need your help, Blackford.” He sighed. “I think I’m having another déjà vu.” “You,” I stuttered. Then scoffed again. “I … ugh.” “Catalina,” he said, and I hated how my name sounded on is lips in that precise moment. “You need the help. So, I’m saving us both some time because we both know you’d never ask.” He wasn’t wrong. I would never ask Aaron for anything, not when I knew exactly what he thought about me. Personally, professionally, it didn’t matter. I had been well aware of what he thought of me all this time. I had heard him myself all those months ago even if he didn’t know that. So, no, I refused to accept anything from him. As much as that turned me into a grudge-holder too. Just like he was. I’d live with it. Aaron leaned back and placed his hands on the chair’s armrests. The shirt strained with the motion, the change in the tension of the fabric too flattering enough for my eyes not to unconsciously drift there. Jesus. My eyes fluttered closed for a second. I was hungry, tired from dealing with all this, betrayed by my own two eyes, and honestly simply confused at this point. “Stop being so stubborn,” he said. Stubborn. Why? Because I hadn’t asked for his help and I was supposed to take it when he decided to offer it? Now, I was pissed. That was probably why I opened my mouth without thinking. “That’s why you didn’t speak up during the meeting where all this was dumped on me and then some? Because I didn’t ask for help? Because I am too stubborn to ever accept it?” Aaron’s head reared back just slightly; he was probably shocked by my admission. I immediately regretted saying anything. I did. But it had somehow slipped out, as if the words had been squeezed out of me. Something flashed through his otherwise serious expression. “I didn’t realize you wanted me to step in.” Of course not. No one had. Not even Héctor, who I almost considered family. Didn’t I know that by now? Yes, I was more than familiar with the fact that when it came to these situations, there were two groups of people. Those who believed that not saying anything made them stand in neutral ground and those who picked a side. And more often than not, it was the wrong one. Sure, it wasn’t always as harmless as condescending and disrespectful comments like those Gerald had made. Sometimes, it was far, far worse than just that. I knew that. I had experienced that firsthand a long time ago. I shook my head, pushing the memories away. “Would that have made a difference, Aaron? If I had asked you to intervene?” I asked him, as if he held the solution in his hands when he really didn’t. I watched him, feeling my heart race with trepidation. “Or if I told you I was exhausted from having to ask, would you step in then?” Aaron studied me in silence, searching my face almost gingerly. My cheeks heated up under his scrutiny, making me regret more and more that I had spoken. “Forget I said anything, okay?” I averted my eyes, feeling disappointed and mad at myself for putting Aaron, out of all people, on the line when he didn’t owe me anything. Not a single thing. “I’m stuck with this anyway. It doesn’t matter how or why.” Or that it wouldn’t be the last time. Aaron straightened, leaning his body toward me just the splinter of a hair. He took a deep breath as I seemed to hold mine, waiting for him to say whatever was brewing in his mind. “You’ve never needed anyone to fight your battles, Catalina. That’s one of the things I respect the most about you.” His words did something to my chest. Something that created a kind of pressure I wasn’t comfortable with. Aaron never said stuff like that. Not to anyone and particularly not to me. I opened my mouth to tell him that it didn’t matter, that I didn’t care, that we could just drop it, but he held up a hand, stopping me. “On the other hand, I never pegged you for someone who would cower and not give their best when faced with a challenge. Whether it’s unfairly imposed or not,” he said, turning away and facing his laptop. “So, what’s it going to be?” My jaw clamped closed. I … I wasn’t cowering. I was not scared of this thing. I knew I could do it. I just … hell, I was just exhausted. It was hard, finding the motivation when something was this discouraging. “I’m not—” “What is it going to be, Catalina?” His fingers moved on the laptop pad with practice. “Whining or working?” “I am not whining,” I huffed. Clark Kent look-alike jerk. “Then, we work,” he fired back. I took a good look at him, taking in how his jaw bunched up with determination. Perhaps some irritation too. “There’s no we here,” I breathed out. He shook his head, and I swore the ghost of a smile graced his lips for a fragment of a second. “I swear to God …” He looked up, as if he were asking the heavens for patience. “You are taking the help. That’s it.” He peeked down at his watch, exhaling. “I don’t have the whole day to convince you.” Scowl back in place, he returned to the Aaron I knew. “We’ve wasted enough time already.” This scowling Aaron I felt more comfortable with. He didn’t go around, saying stupid stuff, like that he respected me. Now, it was my turn to scowl, as I was painfully aware of how I wasn’t kicking Aaron out of my office anymore. “I’m as stubborn as you are,” he murmured, typing something in his laptop. “You know I am.” Returning my attention to my computer screen, I decided to allow this strange truce to settle between us. Just for the sake of InTech’s reputation. For my own mental health, too, because he was driving me completely crazy. We’d be two scowling idiots who would tolerate each other for an evening, I guessed. “Fine. I’ll let you help me if you are so set on it,” I told him, trying not to focus on that warm ball of emotion forming in my belly. One that felt a lot like gratitude. He peeked at me quickly, something unreadable in his eyes. “We’ll need to start from scratch. Open a blank template.” Looking away, I tried to focus on my screen. We had been in silence for a couple of minutes when out of the corner of my eye, I perceived movement. Quickly after, he placed something on my desk. Right between us. “Here,” I heard him say from my side. Looking down, my gaze found something wrapped in wax paper. It was a square, about three or four inches long. “What’s this?” I asked him, my eyes jumping to his profile. “A granola bar,” he answered without looking at me, typing on his keyboard. “You are hungry. Eat it.” I watched my hands move to the snack of their own accord. Once unwrapped, I inspected it closely. Homemade. It had to be, judging by the way roasted oats, dried fruits, and nuts were assembled together. I heard Aaron’s long sigh. “If you ask me if it’s poisoned, I swear —” “No,” I murmured. Then, I shook my head, feeling that weird pressure in my chest again. So, I took the snack to my mouth, bit into it, and—holy granola bars. I moaned in delight. “For Christ’s sake,” the man to my right muttered under his breath. Gobbling all the nutty and sugary amazingness down, I shrugged. “Sorry, it was a moan-worthy bite.” I watched his head shake as he was focused on the document on his screen. As I studied his profile, an odd and unfamiliar feeling settled in. And it had nothing to do with my appreciation for Aaron’s unexpected baking skills. It was something else, something warm and fuzzy that I had gotten a whiff of a few minutes earlier, but now, I wanted to bend my lips into a smile. I was grateful. Aaron Blackford, scowling Clark Kent look-alike, was in my office. Helping me and feeding me homemade snacks, and I was glad. Thankful even. “Thank you.” The fugitive words escaped my lips. He turned to face me, and I saw him relax for an instant. Then, his eyes jumped to my screen. He scoffed, “You still haven’t opened a blank template?” “Oye.” The Spanish word slipped out. “You don’t have to be so bossy. Not everyone has super speed like you, Mr. Kent.” His eyebrows rose, and he looked unimpressed. “Quite the contrary. Some even have the opposite superpower.” “Ha.” I rolled my eyes. “Funny.” His gaze shifted back to his screen. “Blank template. And make it today, if that’s not too much to ask.” This was going to be a long night. CHAPTER FOUR “M amá,” I said for the hundredth time. “Mamá, escúchame, por favor.” It wouldn’t really matter if I asked her to please listen to me a thousand more times. That wasn’t something my mother excelled at, much less ever practiced. Listening was reserved for those whose vocal cords took breaks. A long and loud sigh left my lips as my mother’s voice traveled from my phone to my ear in heavy spurts of Spanish. “Madre,” I repeated. “… so if you decide to go with that other dress—you know which one I’m talking about?” my mother asked in Spanish, not really giving me a window to answer. “The one that is all flimsy and silky and falls to your ankles. Well, as your mother, I need to tell you that it’s not flattering. I’m sorry, Lina, but you are short, and the cut of the dress makes you look even shorter. And green is not your color either. I don’t think that’s a color the madrina of the wedding should wear.” “I know, Mamá. But I already told you—” “You’ll look like a … frog but in heels.” Gee, thanks, Mother. I chuckled and shook my head. “It doesn’t matter because I’m wearing the red dress.” A gasp came through the line. “Ay. Why didn’t you tell me this before? You let me talk for half an hour about all your other options.” “I told you as soon as it came up. You just—” “Well, I must have let myself get carried away, cariño.” I opened my mouth to confirm that, but she didn’t give me the chance. “Perfect,” she cut in. “That is such a beautiful dress, Lina. It’s classy and flirty.” Flirty? What was that supposed to mean? “Your boobs will be entering the banquet before you.” Oh … oh. So, that was what she meant. “But the color does really flatter your skin, body shape, and face. Not like the frog dress.” “Thanks,” I muttered. “I don’t think I’ll ever wear green again.” “Good,” she said far too quickly for taking it as a good-hearted comment. “So, what’s this boyfriend of yours going to wear? Are you going to match? Papá got a tie in the same shade of baby blue I’ll be wearing.” A tiny groan slipped out of my mouth. “Mamá, you know that Isa hates that. She specifically told us not to match.” My sister had been very insistent—no matching couples. I even had to fight her over not adding that instruction on the invites. It’d cost me a lot of energy and patience to convince her that she didn’t want to be that kind of bride. “Well, given that I gave birth to the bride and that I already bought that tie for Papá, I think your sister is going to have to make an exception.” Leave it to her to be stubborn. I certainly was, my sister probably even more, but our mother? The woman had created the term bullheaded as she opened her eyes to the world the day she was born. “I think she’ll have to,” I admitted under my breath. Reaching for my planner, I scribbled on my to-do list to call Isa to warn her. “I have an online voucher you can use, I think,” Mamá commented while I unlocked my laptop and absently checked my inbox. “Although maybe it does not work outside Spain. But it should, shouldn’t it? You are my daughter, and you should be able to use my vouchers, no matter where you are in the world. Isn’t that what the internet is supposed to be for?” I clicked on an email notification for a new series meeting I had received. “Yeah, sure.” A quick scan of the contents of the description told me I should have probably waited for my mother to hang up before opening it. “Yeah, sure, the internet is for that? Or yeah, sure, you’ll use my voucher?” I leaned back on my seat, reading through the information attached. “Lina?” What are we even talking about? “Yes, Mamá.” “Well, you’ll have to check the voucher yourself; you know I am not good with this internet thing.” “Of course,” I said, still not knowing what I was agreeing to. “Unless he has a tie already?” He. All my attention returned to the conversation. “Does he?” she insisted when I didn’t answer. “Your new boyfriend.” Small beads of sweat formed on my forehead at the prospect of discussing this. Him. The boyfriend I didn’t have but my family believed I did. Because I had told them. Lied to them. All of a sudden, my lips were magically sewn together. I waited for my mother to conveniently change the topic in that chaotic and speedy way she always did while my mind went on a panicky frenzy. What am I supposed to say anyway? No, Mamá. He can’t have a tie because he doesn’t even exist. I made him up, you see. All in an attempt to look a little less pathetic and lonely. Perhaps I could hang up. Or pretend to be busy and terminate the call. But that would fill me with remorse, and frankly, I didn’t think I was able to take on any more of that. Also, my mother wasn’t stupid. She’d know something was up. This was the woman whose womb I had come out of. More seconds ticked away as nothing came out of my mouth, and I couldn’t believe that for the first time in probably ever, the Martín matriarch was waiting for my answer in silence. Shit. A few more seconds ticked away. Shit, shit, shit. Confess, a little voice in my head said. But I shook my head, focusing on one of the little droplets of sweat trailing down my clammy back. “Lina?” she finally said, her voice unsure. Worried. “Did something happen?” I was a horrible, lying human being who had unquestionably put that concern I could hear in her voice. “No …” Clearing my throat, I ignored the heaviness that felt a lot like shame settle in my stomach. “I’m okay.” I heard her sigh. It was one of those sighs that smacked into you. Making me feel bad about myself. As if I could see her looking at me with eyes filled with defeat and a little sorrow, shaking her head. I hated it. “Lina, you know you can talk to me if something happened.” My guilt deepened, souring my stomach. I felt awful. Stupid too. But what could I even do besides keep lying or coming clean? “Did you guys break up? You know, it would make sense because you have never talked about him before. Not until the other day at least.” There was a pause, in which I could hear my heart drumming in my ears. “Your cousin Charo said something yesterday, you know.” Of course Charo knew. Anything Mamá knew, the rest of the family knew. “So, she said that,” she continued when I didn’t say anything, “you don’t have any photos of him on Facebook.” I closed my eyes. “Nobody posts anything on Facebook anymore, Mamá,” I told her in a weak voice while I kept battling with myself. “And Prinstanam? Whatever it is that you young people use now. No photos there either.” I could picture Charo scouting all my social profiles, searching for this imaginary man and rubbing her hands when she hadn’t found any. “Charo said that if it’s not Prinstanam official, then it’s not serious.” My heartbeat hammered louder in my chest. “It’s called Instagram.” “Fine.” She sighed again. “But if you broke up with him or if he ended things—I don’t care who did what—you can talk to us about it. To Papá and to me. I know how much you have struggled with this dating thing ever since … you know, since Daniel.” That last comment was a knife to the chest. It turned that heavy sensation into something ugly and painful. Something that made me think of the reason why I’d lied, why I struggled—as my mother had put it—and why I was in this predicament in the first place. “You have never brought anybody home in all these years you’ve been away. Never talked about a man you were seeing. And never talked about this one before you told us you were dating him and that you’d bring him to the wedding. So, if you are alone again …” A very familiar and very sharp pang pierced my chest at her words. “That’s okay.” Is it? If it was really okay, I could tell my mother. I had the chance to end this lying circus, bury all that regret somewhere deep and dark, and breathe. I could tell her that, yes, I was no longer in a relationship, and consequently, I was no longer taking my— nonexistent—boyfriend home. That I’d attend the wedding alone. And that it was okay. She had said it herself. And maybe she was right. I just needed to believe she was. Taking a deep breath, I felt a surge of courage and made up my mind. I’ll come clean. Attending alone wouldn’t be fun. The pity looks and whispers of a past I didn’t want to think of would certainly suck. And that was putting it lightly. But I had no options. Aaron’s scowling face popped up in my mind. Unannounced. Definitely unwelcome. No. I kicked it out. He hadn’t even mentioned it again since Monday. It had been four days. Not that if he had, it would have changed anything. I was on my own. But I had no reason to believe he had been serious. And it was okay; Mamá had said so. I opened my mouth to follow up with my decision of growing the hell up and to stop acting like a compulsive liar for something I should have the maturity to face alone, but of course, luck wasn’t on my side. Because my mother’s next words immediately killed whatever I was about to say. “You know”—the way her voice sounded should have tipped me on what was about to come—“every person is different. We all have our own pace to put back together our lives after going through something like that. Some people need more time than others. And if you haven’t managed to get there yet, then there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Daniel is engaged while you are not. But that isn’t important. You can come to the wedding alone, Lina.” My stomach dropped to my feet at the thought. “I’m not saying Daniel needed to put his life back together in the first place because, well, he jumped off that boat, unscathed.” And wasn’t that the damn truth? Something that, on top of everything, would make things even worse. He had merrily continued his life while I had … I had … gotten stuck. And everybody there would know. Every single person attending that wedding would know. As if reading my mind, my mother uttered my thoughts, “Everybody knows, cariño. And everybody understands. You went through a lot.” Everybody understands? No, she was wrong. Everybody thought they understood. Nobody did. They didn’t realize that all those pobrecita, poor little Linas, accompanied by all those pitiful looks and nods, as if they got why I had been scarred and not able to find somebody else, were the reasons why I had lied to my family. Why I wanted to crawl out of my skin at the prospect of showing up alone when Daniel—my first love, my ex, the groom’s brother and best man—being there with his fiancée would only reinforce their assumptions of me. Single and alone after fleeing the country, heartbroken. Stuck. I was over him; I truly was. But, man, all that had happened had … messed me up. I realized that now—not because it’d suddenly hit me that I had been single for years, but because I had lied—and what was worse was, I had just made up my mind not to go back on my lie. “Everybody understands. You went through a lot.” A lot was a very gentle way to put it. Nope. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t be that Lina in front of my whole family, the whole damn town. Daniel. “Lina …” My mother said my name in that way only a mother could. “Are you still there?” “Of course.” My voice sounded wobbly and heavy with everything I was feeling, and I hated that it had. I exhaled through my nose, straightening in my chair. “Nothing happened with my boyfriend,” I lied. Lies, lies, and more lies. Lina Martín, professional liar, deceiver. “And I am bringing him, just like I said I would.” I forced out a laugh, but it sounded all wrong. “If you’d just let me talk before jumping to silly conclusions and sermonizing me, I could have told you.” Nothing came through the speaker of the phone. Only silence. My mother wasn’t stupid. I didn’t think any mother was. And if I believed for a second that I was out of the storm, I was probably wrong. “Okay,” she said oddly softly. “So, you are still together?” “Yes,” I lied again. “And he’ll come to the wedding with you? To Spain?” “Correct.” A pause, making me realize my hands were sweating so much that the phone would have slipped if I hadn’t been gripping it as tightly as I was. “He’s in New York too, you said?” “Yep.” She hummed and then added, “American?” “Raised and born.” “What’s his name again?” My breath got stuck somewhere along my throat. Shit. I hadn’t given them a name, had I? I didn’t think I had, but … My mind raced through my options very quickly. Desperately. I needed a name. What an easy, manageable thing. A name. A simple name. A name of a man who didn’t exist or I still had to find. “Lina … are you there?” my mother chimed. She laughed, somehow sounding nervous. “Have you forgotten your boyfriend’s name?” “Don’t be silly,” I told her, hearing my distress in my voice. “I …” A shadow caught my eye, distracting me. My gaze shot to my office door, and exactly how he had wedged himself into my life one year and eight months ago—with horrifyingly bad timing—Aaron Blackford walked through the threshold and placed himself in the eye of the storm. “Lina?” I thought I heard my mother say. In two strides, he was in front of me, across my desk, letting a stack of papers drop on its surface. What is he doing? We didn’t visit each other’s offices. We never needed, wanted, or bothered to. That icy-blue gaze of his fell on me. It was followed by a frown, as if he were wondering why I looked like a woman currently dealing with a life-threatening crisis. Which was exactly what I was doing. Getting caught in a lie was far worse than lying. After only a couple of seconds, his expression morphed into an appalled one. I could see the judgment in his eyes. Out of every single person who could have walked into my office right now, it’d had to be him. Why, Lord? Why? “Aaron,” I heard myself say in a pained voice. I was vaguely aware when my mother somehow repeated his name, “Aaron?” “Sí,” I murmured, my gaze locked with his. What in the world does he want? “Okay,” Mamá said. Okay? My eyes widened. “¿Qué?” Aaron, who had caught the Spanish words, put two and two together with an ease that shouldn’t have surprised me. “Personal call at work?” he queried, shaking his head. My mother, who was still on the line, asked in Spanish, “Is that him, the voice I’m hearing? This Aaron you are dating?” My whole body locked up. Eyes wide and mouth agape, I stared at him as my mother’s words resonated inside my clearly empty skull because what in the world had I done? “Lina?” she pressed on. Aaron’s frown deepened, and he sighed with resignation as he stood right there. Not leaving. Why isn’t he leaving? “Sí,” I answered, not realizing she’d take that word as confirmation. But she would; I knew she would do exactly that, wouldn’t she? “No,” I added, trying to backpedal. But then Aaron tsked and shook his head again, and whatever had been about to leave my lips scattered. “I …” Oh God, why is it so warm in my office? “No sé, Mamá.” Aaron mouthed, Your mother? “¿Cómo que no sabes?” came at the same time. “I … I …” I trailed off, not really knowing who I was talking to. The scowling man or my mother. I felt like I was flying on autopilot while my plane approached the ground at a breakneck speed, and I couldn’t do anything to stop it from crashing. None of my controls were responding. “Ay, hija,” my mother said with a laugh. “What is it? Yes or no? Is that Aaron?” I wanted to scream. All of a sudden, I had this powerful urge to cry or open the window and shove the phone out and onto New York’s merciless traffic. I wanted to break something too. With my bare hands. While I stomped my feet with frustration. All at once. I wanted to do all those things. Curiosity filled Aaron’s blue eyes. He tilted his head, watching me as I struggled to even take a decent breath. I covered my phone with my other hand and addressed the man in front of me in a broken, defeated voice, “What do you want?” He waved one hand in front of him. “No, please, don’t let me—or work—get in between you and your personal call.” He crossed his arms in front of his stupidly wide chest and brought a fist under his chin. “I’ll just wait here until you are done.” If smoke could physically leave my ears, a black cloud would have been trailing up and circling over my head. My mother, who was still on the line, spoke, “You sound busy, so I’ll let you go.” I kept my eyes on Aaron, and before I could even process her words, she added, “Wait until Abuela hears about you dating someone from work. You know what she’ll say?” My dumb brain must have been still flying on autopilot because it didn’t skip a beat. “Uno no come donde caga.” Aaron’s lips puckered lightly. “Eso es.” I heard my mother chuckle. “I’ll let you get back to work. You’ll tell us about this man you are dating when you two come for the wedding then, okay?” No, I wanted to tell her. What I’ll do is die, choked in my own web of lies. “Of course, Mamá,” I said instead. “I love you. Tell Papá I love him too.” “Love you too, cielo,” my mother said right before hanging up. Filling my lungs with much-needed air, I glared at the man who had just complicated my life tenfold and dropped my phone on the desk as if it were burning my palm. “So, your mother.” I nodded my head, incapable of speaking. It was better that way. God knew what would come out of my treacherous mouth. “All good at home?” Sighing, I nodded again. “What does it mean?” he asked me with what might be genuine curiosity. “What you said in Spanish at the end.” My head was still swirling with that horrible, catastrophic phone call. With what I had done and how big I had messed up. I didn’t have time to play Google Translate with Aaron, who, on top of everything, was the last person I wanted to chat with at the moment. Jesus, how did he manage to do that? He showed up, and in the span of a few minutes just— I shook my head. “Why do you even care?” I snapped. I watched him flinch. Only slightly but I was almost sure he had. Immediately feeling like a jerk, I brought my hands to my face as I tried to calm myself. “Sorry,” I whispered. “I’m a little … stressed. What do you want, Aaron?” I asked him, softening my voice and fixing my eyes somewhere on my desk. Anywhere but on him. I didn’t want to face him and give him a chance to see me this … unsettled. I hated the idea of him seeing me at my lowest. If it wouldn’t be completely inappropriate, I would drop to the floor, crawl under my desk, and hide from him. Given that I refused to look at him, I could only notice the difference in his tone when he said, “I printed out some more documents you can use for one of the workshops we outlined.” His voice was almost gentle. For someone like Aaron, that was. “I left them on your desk.” Oh. My gaze tracked down the wooden surface, finding them, and I felt like an even bigger jerk. That emotion churned in my gut, turning into something way too close to helplessness for me to feel any better. “Thanks,” I muttered, massaging my temples with my fingers and closing my eyes. “You could have just sent them by email.” Maybe that way, all this could have been avoided. “You highlight everything by hand.” I did. When something required my full focus, I needed to print it on paper and then review it with a highlighter in hand. But how … oh hell. It didn’t matter that Aaron had somehow noticed. He probably had because it was a waste of paper or bad for the environment anyway. And that didn’t change that I was still a jerk for snapping at him like that. “You are right, I do. That was …” I trailed off, keeping my gaze on the desk. “That was nice of you. I’ll go through them over the weekend.” Still not lifting my head to look at him, I reached for the thin stack and placed it in front of me. A long moment passed where neither of us spoke. I could tell he was still standing there, all statuesque, not moving and just looking down at me. But he didn’t say anything, not giving me an excuse to look up. So, I kept my eyes trained on the papers he had so nicely printed out for me. That long moment seemed to stretch into a painfully awkward amount of time, but right before I was about to lose the weird battle and look up, I sensed him leave. Then, I waited a full minute until I was sure he was long gone. And … I let it all out. My head fell on my desk with a muffled thud. No, not on the desk. My head had fallen on the stack of papers that Aaron had come to deliver—very nicely—right before I put my foot in my mouth and somehow told my mother that the name of my made-up boyfriend was Aaron. A groan slipped out of me. It was ugly and miserable. Just like I was. I softly bumped my head against the surface of my desk. “Estúpida.” Bang. “Idiota. Tonta. Boba. Y mentirosa.” Bang, bang, bang. That was the worst of all. Not only was I an idiot, but I was also a lying idiot. The realization pushed another groan out of me. “Whoa,” came from the door. It was Rosie’s voice. Good. I needed someone I trusted to retrieve me from this madness I had gotten myself into and register me into the closest mental facility. I couldn’t be trusted to … adult properly. “Is everything okay, Lina?” Nope. Nothing about what I had just done was okay. “W , , , .” Rosie shoved her hand between us, making the universal sign to hold your horses. “You told your mom what?” Gobbling down the rest of my pastrami panini, I shot her a look. “You gnow whatf I saifd,” I told her, not caring that my mouth was still full. “I just want to hear that last part again.” Rosie leaned back on her chair, her emerald eyes wide with shock. “You know what? How about you start from the beginning again? I must be missing something because this whole thing sounds a little too much, even for you.” Narrowing my eyes at her, I gave her a fake, toothy smile that I was sure showcased some of the contents of my lunch. I didn’t care that anybody in the coworking space on the fifteenth floor, where we were having lunch, could see me. At this time, there weren’t many people left on this floor anyway. Leave it to a company in New York City to dedicate this much space—and money because the decor was right out of hipsterland—to a coworking and shared space for a bunch of workaholics who didn’t make use of it outside of their lunch break. No more than a couple of tables to my right were occupied by now—the ones closest to the impressive floor-to-ceiling windows, of course. “Don’t look at me like that.” My friend pouted across from me. “And please, I love you, but that’s not a nice look. I can see some … lettuce hanging out of your mouth.” I rolled my eyes, chewing and finally washing down my mouthful. Contrary to what I had hoped, food had done nothing to appease my mood. This pounding ball of anxiety was still asking to be fed. “I should have ordered a second panini.” On any other day, I would have. But the wedding would be in no time, and I was trying to watch what I ate. “Yes, and something else you should have done? Told me about all of this before.” Her voice was soft, just how all things Rosie were, but the weight behind those words prickled at my skin all the same. “You know, like from the moment you decided to make up a boyfriend.” I deserved it. I had known Rosie would—sweetly—kick my ass as soon as she found out that I had kept from her all that me lying to my family about being in a relationship business. “I’m sorry.” I reached my hand out across the table, taking hers. “I’m so sorry, Rosalyn Graham. I should never have kept this from you.” “No, you shouldn’t have done that.” She pouted some more. “In my defense, I was going to tell you on Monday, but we were interrupted by you know who.” I wouldn’t say his name out loud, as he often appeared out of thin air when I did. I squeezed her hand. “To make it up to you, I will ask my abuela to light a few candles to one of her saints, so you are rewarded with many children.” Rosie sighed, pretending to think about it for a moment. “Fine, I accept your apology.” She squeezed back. “But instead of children, I’d much rather get introduced to one of your cousins maybe?” I reared back, shock etched on my face. “One of my what?” As I watched the light blush rise in her cheeks, my surprise only grew when she said, “The one who surfs and has a Belgian shepherd? He is kind of dreamy.” “Dreamy?” None of my savage cousins could ever be considered dreamy. Rosie’s cheeks turned a darker shade of red. How the hell is my friend acquainted with one of the members of the Martín clan? Unless … “Lucas?” I sputtered, immediately remembering that I had shown her a few of his Instagram stories. But it had all been because of Taco, his dog. Not because of him. “Lucas, the one with the buzzed head?” My friend nodded casually, shrugging her shoulders. “You are too good for Lucas,” I hissed. “I’ll let you take part in the kidnapping of his dog though. Taco is also too good for him.” “Taco.” Rosie giggled. “That’s such an adorable name.” “Rosie, no.” I retrieved my hand and reached for my bottle of water. “No.” “No, what?” Her smile was still there. Hanging on to her lips as she thought of my cousin, I supposed, in ways that— “No. Ew. Yikes, woman. He is a barbarian, a brute. He has no manners. Stop daydreaming of my cousin.” I took a cleansing gulp of water. “Stop, or I’ll be forced to tell you some horror stories from our childhood, and in the process, I’ll probably ruin the male specimen for you.” My friend’s shoulders fell. “If you must … not that it would help my case anyway. I don’t think I need extra assistance for that.” She paused, sighing sadly. Making me want to reach out again and tell her that her prince would eventually show up. She just needed to stop picking up only the assholes. My relatives included. “But before that, we can actually talk about your horror story.” Oh. That. “I already told you everything about it.” My gaze fell to my hands as I played with the label on the bottle. “I gave you a play-by-play recap. From the moment I blurted out to my parents that I was dating a man who doesn’t exist to the moment I somehow made my mom believe his name was Aaron because of a certain blue-eyed jerk who had appeared out of thin air.” I scratched harder, ripping the label completely off the plastic surface. “What else do you want to know?” “Okay, those are the facts. But what’s on your mind?” “Right now?” I asked, to which she nodded. “That we should have picked up dessert.” “Lina …” Rosie placed both arms on the table and leaned on them. “You know what I am asking.” She glanced at me sharply, which, when it came to Rosie, meant patiently but without a smile. Or a smaller than usual one. “What are you going to do about all of this?” What the hell do I know? Shrugging, I let my gaze roam around the coworking space, taking in the chipped, old barn tables and the hanging ferns adorning the red brick wall to my left. “Ignore this until my plane touches Spanish ground and I have to explain why my boyfriend is not with me?” “Sweetie, are you sure you want to do that?” “No.” I shook my head. “Yes.” Bringing both hands to my temples, I tried to massage away the start of a headache. “I don’t know.” Rosie seemed to take that in for a long moment. “What if you actually consider him for this?” My hands dropped from my temples to the wooden surface, and my stomach plunged to my feet. “Consider who?” I knew exactly who. I just couldn’t believe she was even suggesting it. She humored me by replying, “Aaron.” “Oh, Lucifer’s favorite son? I don’t see how I should consider him for anything.” Watching how Rosie clasped her hands together on the table, as if she were readying herself for a business negotiation, I narrowed my eyes at her. “I don’t think Aaron is all that bad,” she had the nerve to say. All I gave her