“Ah, Mr. Rios!” Nola’s voice cut through the tension that built from Diego and my staring contest, and we both turned simultaneously to look at her. She was smiling as she looked from Diego to me, but there was something ingenuine about her smile, which was strange, since Nola wasn’t a fake person. “I see you’ve already met my personal assistant,” she said, and there was a hint of a question in her voice.
Rios? I thought, but pushed it to the back of my head; I’d ponder it later, if at all, because Diego was about to respond, and I wanted to be in charge of this, before he would do any more damage, and so I said, “We’ve met a long time ago, at uni.”
There was no mistaking the chill in my voice, and, along with Nola, the others turned to watch. Diego’s eyes were the only one who were elsewhere, staring ahead, as if he was trying to detach himself.
The anger inside me turned icy, and thankfully, Nola cleared her throat and said, “Alright, then. Let’s start with the tasting, shall we? Orlando, if you can please lead us to the cellar...”
As we walked to the cellar on the other end of the building, I made sure to stay behind the group. Orlando was telling Diego, Marco, Elijah, and Nola about the wine shop and its history, but I tuned him out, because my rage was too big to be pushed back. It encompassed the entirety of my soul. So many questions I had, all of which would probably remain a mystery for as long as I lived.
But I stuck to the fact, even though they were infuriating on their own, too: a) Diego Rivero founded Workeen with Marco, and he was probably the one Gabby and the others had referred to as “tall, dark, and hot” before, b) he was going by Diego Rios for some reason, and c) he hadn’t been in Boston for so long a time when I’d found him half-dead in the alley.
The latter was what bothered me the most about it, though. The first I could wrap my head about, even if I didn’t understand the circumstances; Diego had been whip-smart back in uni, so it was no wonder he’s gone and done something big, made a name for himself. As for why he went by Rios and not Rivero, I had no clue, and in the grand scale of things, it didn’t actually matter, even if a part of me was dying to know the reason - a part my cold rage thankfully quenched. But the thing about him being in Boston, getting beaten up by someone…
I remembered everything from the events of almost six years ago. I remembered everything that had gone in Danbury, then in Greenwich. I remembered how that Southern man called him Jack, how he beat up those guards, how he acted like a whole different man. But as part of his act, I remembered the conversation he’d had with the Southerner.
“They were planning to flee to Boston, of all places.”
“They wanted to return to me, most likely, considering I made my base there,” Diego said, and he squeezed my waist.
“That’s funny,” the boss said. “That’s Nano’s territory, and he never mentioned you.”
But it had been so long since then, and Diego, whatever his past was, had been gone, developing one of the most successful up-and-rising apps in the country. And yet what if…
Because that meant Peter might not be safe, and I wouldn’t have that. Never again would I have my baby brother in the face of danger with the wrong kind of people. If that’s what Diego’s getting beat-up meant…
Or maybe I was jumping to conclusions and it meant nothing. Maybe he’d just pissed of somebody. How would I know? It wasn’t like he’d been in touch in the past few years.
And the cold rage returned, scattering my thoughts away, consuming me. It turned a tad bit colder when I saw Diego smiling at something Nola murmured to him. It was as if he was thousands of yards away, thousands of worlds, an entire universe away. He was from a different dimension, a different planet, a place I didn’t recognize, a place so alien and detached.
A lifetime ago, I’d thought he was it for me. I’d thought he might be in love with me. Me. As if I, Paige Harper, was a woman who could ever capture the attention of someone from the caliber of Diego Rivero - or Rios, whatever surname he was going by. And that thought, more than anything, enraged me farther, to the point where the cold became hot, and all I could see was red.
“Here we are,” Orlando said after we went down the staircase to the cellar, where barrels upon barrels of wine coated the large corridors. “I’ll get some Sauvignon Blanc to start with. It’s an expensive one, but it’s from a fine winery near Marseille…”
Orlando fetched the wine, and I just stood there, trying to control my rage, but the only thing I managed to do was clear my face of any expression, which didn’t do a lot, since I was shaking all over, my hands clenched into fists, turning my knuckles white.
The rage didn’t abate as Nola laughed at something Diego said. “It must’ve been a crazy time for you,” she said jovially, batting her lashes at him. Apparently, Diego’s magnetic charisma, the force of his charm, was still the same as it was in uni, if it caused Nola, who was usually the sneaky type when it came to flirting, hit on him so openly.
My nails almost drew blood from my palms.
“Here it is,” Orlando came back with the wine bottle, and poured it into six glasses, handing them to us. “Let me know what you think.”
I sipped the wine along with the others, barely feeling its flavor.
“It tastes divine,” Elijah, the CEO, commented with pleasant surprise. “What do you think?” he asked, turning to Marco and Diego.
Marco nodded but Diego spoke, saying, “I think it’s a tad bit too sweet, but other than that, it’s pretty good.”
“Ah, you like them more bitter, Mr. Rios?” Orlando smiled at him, but it was a terse kind of smile, as if he, too, felt the air being sucked from the room just by Diego’s existence, as if he saw that when he spoke, everyone’s attention was on him, holding their breath, waiting for the next word to come out of his mouth.
He should’ve been a politician, I thought tartly.
“You can say so,” Diego said, giving Orlando a small grin that said he felt the underlying aggression in the other man’s words. As always, the fucker didn’t miss a single thing. “But it’s the taste of our guests that I’m concerned with, so the sweeter the better, I say.”
“Agreed,” Marco said, his lips twitching as he, too, noticed the change of tone.
“Well, it’s your choice,” Nola said, and her light voice dispelled the tension with ease, “but I, for once, think this wine is divine. What do you think, Paige?” she turned to me, doe-eyed. She might’ve been a good businesswoman, but Nola Way was too oblivious for her own good.
“Yes,” I gritted out, noticing that Diego didn’t even look my way, “divine.”
And so it went. Orlando brought expensive wine after expensive wine, making us all drink it. I simply sipped them out of courtesy, but I was in no mood or shape to drink more than that. I was a lightweight, and the last thing I needed was to get drunk here and cause a scene.
When we climbed back up from the cellar, Orlando suggested the clients should taste some beer from the Walkers’ brewery. Marco and Elijah hummed in agreement, but Diego said, “I would like to look into some of the liquor out here, if that’s alright. You can make that decision without me.”
“I can stay and help you out, Mr. Rios,” Nola offered, batting her lashes again. Argh.
“That’s alright, Miss Way,” Diego said, giving her a polite smile, “I’d rather you go with the others, and your PA can assist me, can’t you, Miss Harper?”
My fuse threatened to snap. Miss Harper. He called me Miss Harper. Fuck him. “Sure,” I said, fighting to keep my face blank and my voice even.
Nola gave an airy laugh. “Right, I forgot you two know each other,” she said, turning to look at me. “Make sure to write down any choice Mr. Rios here makes, alright?”
“No problem,” I said quietly. I knew what she was thinking; she thought we might want to catch up, shoot the breeze, as if we were old friends. Did she not see the greeting we’d had earlier? But as I said, Nola was the epitome of obliviousness when it came to this kind of thing, and for once, I was glad.
Explaining the nature of my nonexistent relationship with Diego Rivero wasn’t up my priority list.
They left, but not before Orlando gave Diego and me a narrow-eyes glance, and once they were gone, silence filled the room. I found a Walker family picture to keep my gaze on, as from the corner of my eye I saw Diego strolling down the shelves, checking the liquor brands of some posh whiskey.
The silence was cut short when he suddenly spoke. “Jack Daniels will be too cheap to serve at the bar, won’t it?”
Everything inside me screamed to lash out. To throttle him. To demand answers. But all I did was say with a clipped voice, “Yes.”
He hummed in agreement and moved to another brand, his back to me, as if he couldn’t care less that I was in the room. After a few minutes of silence, in which I returned my gaze to the picture, he spoke again. “Please write down The Macallan M.”
I wanted to do anything but follow his order, but I was still, technically, at work. So I got out my work planner and scribbled it down, pressing my pen so hard against the paper, the tip bent.
After another silence and some more strolling, he finally turned to me. But my eyes were back on the picture, and I pretended to be immersed in it. Then he said, “Look at me.”
It seemed he was done talking business. Alright, then. “How’s your side?” I asked bluntly, managing to keep my voice level enough, even though inside me everything twisted and turned, bitterness mixed with that unshakeable rage.
He didn’t say anything for so long, I finally looked at him. His dark eyes were wide with shock. “What did you say?” he said, his voice quiet.
I narrowed my eyes, my lips thinning. Was he seriously going to pretend that night hadn’t happened? That I hadn’t found him half-dead in some alley? “I asked, Rivero,” I said angrily, “how your side is doing.”
Our eyes locked. My green ones were narrowed to slits, while his slowly returned to their normal shape, as some epiphany seemed to land on him, his face filled with pained wonder. “It was you,” he said, his voice dropping an octave, “at the alley.”
Now it was my turn to be stunned with barely contained fury. How could he… How dare he… “Of course it was me,” I said, my voice venomous with disbelief, “who the fuck did you think got your bleeding ass out of there?”
His face was suddenly shut off, detached. “I hardly remember anything from that night,” he said flatly, “and you didn’t give my friends your name, just your address. All they knew was that you’re an acquaintance of mine.”
Even if I was buying into this bullshit, he couldn’t have bothered trying to figure out who’d helped him? How self-absorbed could he possibly be? “You’re welcome,” I said, and the sarcasm was heavy in my voice.
He walked toward me, and I folded my arms automatically, as if it would keep him at bay. He stopped a few feet away from him. “I didn’t know it was you, Harper,” he said quietly. “Thank you for helping me out that night.”
I’d thought his gratitude would take the edge of the rage, but it only made it spike, and I found myself fighting not to scream at him instead. “I was only paying off my debt,” I grated out, my hands folded tightly.
A furrow creased the space between his brows. “What are you talking about?”
Just then, voices and footsteps grew closer, and I decided to put an end to this for once and for all. Giving him a contemptuous look, I kept my voice low and said, “From now on, don’t talk to me. Don’t address me. Don’t even look at me if you can. I’ll be civil, because you’re a client, but this is where it ends.” His eyes narrowed, and I saw a spike of anger in their brown depths, but I wasn’t done. “As far as everyone is concerned, you and I are no more than former schoolmates who are basically strangers.”
His eyes flashed, but I showed him I wasn’t fucking joking. Then, when the others came into the room, I cleared my face, sent them a polite smile, and said, “Mr. Rios here had some interesting choices I wrote down…”