“Well,” Orlando said as I munched some of the buttered shrimp, averting my gaze from where Diego and Luna were currently talking to some couple, “there’s some history between the two of you.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said, forcing my gaze to meet Orlando’s curious one. “We’re only acquaintances from uni, as I mentioned before.”
He arched an eyebrow. “That’s obviously not all.”
“But that’s all you’ll get,” I murmured, and tensed when I realized we were being approached by the object of our conversation and his ‘old friend’.
Orlando, taking his cue from my sudden tension, turned to see Diego and grinned. “Evaded the clutches of Mrs. Montgomery, I see.”
Diego didn’t smile back, simply said, “Something like that. Listen, I’ve been wanting to talk to you about those shares your father purchased a couple of weeks ago…”
Then, without a glance at me, Diego led Orlando toward the bar, and left me with Luna. She turned to me and smiled. “Men. Can’t stop talking about work even though we’re at a party.”
I looked at her eyes for a short moment, looking to see if she recognized me. But then again, I remembered how she’d acted six years ago; she’d been completely enraptured with Diego, she hadn’t even spared me a glance. Even though I hadn’t liked her then, it didn’t mean I shouldn’t do my best to be friendly now; I didn’t know her, and since I told myself to move on from Diego, it would be a step in the right direction.
And when I smiled at her and said, “I don’t think we’ve been introduced. Paige Harper,” I was relieved to know that, even though I felt uneasy standing next to her, it was nothing like that awful green monster that had taken charge of me back in the day.
It seemed that after Diego had explained some of the things, and solved some of the mystery that was his entire existence, I could finally let go. Yes, there were a lot of things left unsaid, and yes, I didn’t have all the answers. But those things didn’t matter anymore, and for that, I was grateful.
She shook me hand and smiled back. “Luna Castillo,” she said, “so you were with Diego at uni?”
“Well, not exactly with him,” I replied, taking another shrimp from the plate on the counter next to me. “He was a grad student while I was merely a sophomore, but we knew each other.”
“I see,” she said, and frowned. “I always wondered what he was like during those years. He never really told us anything,” she explained, “and by us, I mean his high-school friends. We were always left guessing, you see.”
I remembered that Marco had said the same. “I don’t think there’s much to tell that you wouldn’t have already guessed,” I said, shrugging. “He was popular, always had people around him, and was loved and respected by all.”
Luna’s eyes turned a little dreamy. “It does sound like him,” she said softly. “I just wished he would’ve shared… but no matter,” she chuckled. “It’s all in the past now.”
I was about to say something when the music changed, turning into a fast samba beat, and the volume turned up. Onto the dance floor, I saw Larsen taking the beautiful Ella into a dance, obviously drunk. Over at the DJ station, Primal seemed half-disgusted-half-amused.
Diego and Orlando were suddenly back from their little business chat, and Orlando took my hand. “Let’s go dance!” he said, and before I could protest, dragged me away and toward the dancefloor, which started to feel with people, mostly drunks who didn’t mind the sudden change of ambience.
Orlando’s arms came around me, and I stuffed the shrimp in my mouth and put my hands on his shoulders, unsure what to do. Then, to my surprise, Orlando took my hand, keeping one arm around my waist, and started moving.
Keeping the dance slow, probably on purpose so we could talk, Orlando said, “I’m thinking of stealing Diego’s lady friend.”
Of course that’s what he was thinking. “Don’t bother,” I told him, swallowing the shrimp, “she’s in love with him.”
He cocked his head, his eyes on mine. “How do you know?”
“It’s a girl thing,” I said airily. “But hey, if you want her that much, go for it.”
He pulled me closer. “I was thinking of doing this as a favor for you, Paige.”
Fuck him. “My God, Orlando,” I drawled, irritation sparking to life inside me, “what have I done to deserve your undivided and unwanted attention?”
Orlando smirked. “You really want to know, don’t you?”
He was starting to piss me off. “Just answer the question.”
“I don’t think I want to, though,” his smirk deepened, his eyes flashing as he pasted my entire front to his, “I kinda like seeing you squirm for a change.”
“You’re an asshole,” I told him quietly, refusing to buckle under his gaze, showing him he was starting to grate on my nerves with his attitude.
“And you’re fascinating,” he murmured, and was leaning forward, his eyes slowly closing, and I felt the panic rising inside me, causing my heart to boom in my chest, making me want to flee, to shove him away, but he was stronger than me, and kept me in place, and when his breath was starting to mix with mine, I knew I had to do something. Anything.
“No,” I blurted, more tense than I’d ever been, and yet he didn’t even hesitate. His lips were only an inch from mine, and I was frozen, locked in place, but his lips were almost on mine -
Without thinking it through, I forcibly unfroze myself and managed to kick him in the shin as I grabbed his hair and pulled him away. His eyes flickered open in shock, and I used the momentum to slide out of his hold. “You’re a disgusting pig,” I hissed at him, so angry I couldn’t see straight. “What part of ‘no’ didn’t you get?”
He seemed honestly confused, and I realized we drew stares from other dancers around us. “But the moment was - “
“There was no moment, you idiot!” I sniped at him, shaking with anger. “If you ever call me, text me, or appear in the office just to speak to me, for the love of God, I will sue your ass off.”
With that, I stormed out. There was so much I could take, and this party was way too much for me. And to think Orlando had almost sexually assaulted me... Was he that full of himself to think that there was zero chance a woman wouldn’t want him, that he took my no as ‘not right now’? Was he so stupid as to need read my very clear back-off signs? What part of ‘I’m not interested’ was so hard for him to grasp?!
Angry tears welled in my eyes as I pushed open the hall doors and strode through the hotel corridor right to the lobby. I was just about to reach the counter, where the coat hangers were when someone called, “Harper!”
Kill me, someone. Please.
I stopped in my tracks, counted to three, and turned around to see Diego walking toward me, his face full of worry. “Are you okay?”
“No, Diego, I’m not fuckign okay!” I snapped, the tears streaming out now. “I was almost assaulted and I didn’t even realize I would get assaulted tonight! I thought he had some boundaries, but I should’ve seen the signs…” my voice dropped as I tried to get rid of my tears, smearing my makeup in the process. “He’s always invading my space… Trying to… Fuck, Diego…”
I was suddenly in his arms, and he was hugging me to him, his hand on the back of my head, caressing my hair. “Don’t hold it in,” he said quietly, “get it all out.”
I couldn’t have held it in even if I wanted. I sobbed and wrapped my arms around him, breaking down all over him. I hadn’t even been aware how much Orlando had bothered me, how much him refusing to get the hint and back off affected me without my knowledge. And there was, of course, the fact he had blackmailed me into coming with him tonight. Who does that? Who paid a probably handsome cost to get their hand on some leverage they could use against some random woman? It was Creepy, with a capital ‘c’, and I felt so stupid I hadn’t even realized… That I thought he must be at the very least somewhat trustworthy because he was Nola’s ex…
Yes, he’d only tried to kiss me, which shouldn’t have been the end of the world. But I’d told him no. I’d told him I wasn’t interested. And yet he got off on that and still tried to kiss me?
The tears subsided after a while, and I pulled back from Diego’s hug, almost dazedly realizing what I’d just done, that I’d just broken down all over Diego, as if nothing had changed. “I’m sorry,” I said, my voice raspy, taking a step back, “I didn’t mean to…”
“Don’t apologize,” Diego said fiercely, and when I raised my eyes to his, I saw a storm brewing in them. “Let’s get out of here.”
“No, Diego,” I shook my head, pulling away from his hold. “You should stay. You’re a guest of honor. I’ll just take an Uber back home - “
“I’m not leaving you like this,” he cut me off with fierce protectiveness I don’t think I’d ever heard from him. “I’ll text Luna, let her know what’s going on, and she can take care of things.”
“Diego - “ I started again but my words died on my tongue at his stormy look. With an enormous lack of energy, all I could do was give him a weak nod.
He swiftly typed on his phone, got our coats - both of us wore black trench coats tonight - and I followed him out of the hotel, wondering if that was a good idea, but at the same time, I couldn’t bring myself to care.
We settled at a coffee shop that was surprisingly open, since it was already ten, and usually places in Boston closed around nine. But I wasn’t complaining, especially when Diego offered to take care of the coffee, something, no matter how ordinarily miniscule, I wasn’t sure I could handle at the moment.
Not after the blatant sexual harassment by Orlando Walker.
I should’ve read the signs. After the whole meeting with Primal, aka Carter, a few weeks ago, when he decided I was interesting and fuckable, I’d felt uneasy, but I’d assumed he was acting like all spoiled rich men acted and I honestly hadn’t taken him seriously, because why would I? It should be a normal thing for men to stop any romantic or sexual advances the moment they hear any form of ‘no’.
But then he started texting me, trying to get me to spend a night with him, and I just thought he was, again, acting like a pompous ass who wasn’t used to being rejected very often, which he probably wasn’t; as a good-looking, wealthy man who comes from old money, he probably had women flinging themselves on him left and right. I thought he was simply seeing me as a challenge, and would soon enough get tired and move on to the next available woman who crossed his path.
He hadn’t stopped, though, and even tried to take the “friendship” road, which I found equally disrespectful to my wishes, but no matter how much I ignored him, or simply texted him ‘no’ he chose to turn a blind eye and act as if I was just playing hard to get.
I should have realized something was amiss when he just wouldn’t stop, but then he’d texted me that he was done with me, which was a huge relief, and I thought, well, he finally got over it. I’d let my guard down, let myself forget about his existence, and so when he’d come to the office and shown me that article, he’d caught me so unready, I couldn’t find a way out of it.
That, I had to admit, was on me. Because I shouldn’t have acted according to my fears. I shouldn’t have let it scare me. Even if he published that article, it’d been more than ten years; who would even care? But at that moment, I’d forgotten that my father was dead, forgot that it’d been so long since, and didn’t even bother thinking about it too much after I felt like I had no choice but to agree to accompany him tonight.
And tonight… It had been fine. I wasn’t enjoying his company, or the event, but I was doing fine. It was all very fine, even when he dragged me to the dance floor, because what could’ve possibly been the harm of dancing with him a little? I would’ve liked him to ask me first if I wanted to dance instead of simply taking me to the dance floor, but it was fine. I was fine with it. Not thrilled, but completely, utterly fine.
When he pulled me close, again, I didn’t think much of it, because why would I? I knew I wasn’t giving him any signs that I was interested. I’d been clear from the start that I wasn’t into him, that I was in that event not by my free choice, and I thought he’d finally got it. And then he tried to kiss me. As if, by ‘agreeing’ to come to the party with him, and by ‘agreeing’ to dance, he was entitled to get a kiss out of me, when I’d been so fucking clear -
I blinked, pulled out of my thoughts, and turned to see that Diego had already returned, sipping his black coffee. I looked down at my cup, saw it was latte, my favorite, and suddenly felt something warm take over some of the bitter anger I felt. “You remember,” I said, sipping the coffee, and shivered slightly. It was sweetened just as I liked, too.
Diego gave me a somewhat sad smile. “Of course I do.”
And, as if breaking down on him earlier hadn’t been embarrassing enough, a new wave of tears welled in my eyes. It was such a small thing, remembering what kind of coffee I liked, but it was the one thing that had made all the difference at this moment, after what had happened with Orlando. A small act of pure kindness that made me want to cry again. “Thank you,” I whispered, my voice choked.
“Hey,” Diego grabbed my hand in his and squeezed it, his eyes worried. “It’s okay. You’re not there anymore.”
He misunderstood my reaction. Hell, I wasn’t completely sure I understood myself, either. “Yeah, I know,” I said, sniffling, wiping my tears with a napkin from the table. When I pulled it back, I saw the smeared blackness all over it. “Damn,” I chuckled shakily, “I must look like a panda bear.”
Diego smiled slightly, amused. “Trust me, you look just as beautiful as you always do.”
To my mortification, I felt myself blushing. “Damn,” I murmured, “have you always been this blunt?” Because I knew for a fact he had never acted like this before. I’d suspected when we’d talked a few weeks ago, but now I was sure of it.
Diego had changed. Gone was the friendly and charming yet closed and secretive man I’d known six years ago; here was a man who didn’t mind showing his emotions, who was more open than I would’ve thought possible.
I’d told Nola Diego probably hadn’t changed since uni, but I was wrong. I’d forgotten, with all his enigmatic charisma and air of mystery he had about him, that Diego was human, too. He grew up, he matured, and he changed just like I, and everyone else, did.
He let go of my hand in favor of his coffee cup. “Are you alright?” he asked, his dark eyes serious, searching mine.
The warmth was gone and everything else returned. But more than that, I needed to know something. “Did you see what happened?”
His lips thinned, his eyes growing hard. “I saw everything.”
Knowing he did see everything made me feel a little queasy, for some reason. “Then please answer honestly,” I said slowly, looking down at my latte. “Did I overreact?” Am I overreacting right now?
His voice, when it came, was furious. “Did you seriously just ask me that?”
“Please, Diego,” I said, my hands tightening their hold on my coffee cup, my eyes planted on the ground, “just answer the question.”
He didn’t speak for a few moments so I raised my eyes in question. He was staring at me, scowling. “Everything about your body language said no the moment he started holding you tightly to him. If he was enough of an idiot not to read the signs, that’s on him, and only on him.”
I nodded jerkily. “Thank you.”
“I was just stating the truth, Harper,” he said quietly, “and you did say no; I saw you, and the fact he didn’t stop right then, makes it his own fucking fault.”
Nodding again, I drank my coffee, and started to feel like I was going back to myself. Diego thought exactly what I thought. It wasn’t just me. I didn’t overreact. It had been close to a clear violation of my touching zone, and I thanked God I managed to stop it in time.
People often had the misconception that hot men, by definition, can’t be sexual predators. Well, I had no idea if this was the correct term for Orlando, but all I knew was that I’d said no, he completely disregarded me, and I would bet all my money that if I was drunk, he might’ve taken me somewhere and slept with me. He was just that kind of guy; entitled, doesn’t understand that no means no, and thinks the sun shines right out of his ass.
Then there were men like Diego. Diego wasn’t just the hottest man I’d ever met in my life, but he was kind, stupidly smart, and strong. He’d never taken advantage of me; hell, when I’d been drunk that one time, he’d helped me get home safely. And it was purely consensual when we’d kissed…
But it wasn’t only that. He’d saved me. He’d save Peter. He’d protected me with his body and soul alike. Yes, he had his faults - a lot of them - but none of them diminishes anything he’d done for me. For my family.
Diego was both the hero and villain of my past.
“You okay, Harper?” the object of my thoughts said now, looking at me with eyes that were no longer furious, but rather concerned.
I studied him for a few moments, let my eyes roam over his face, before I asked the question I’d never dared asking ever since meeting him. “Why do you call me Harper?”
He frowned. “It’s your name.”
“It’s my last name,” I corrected, frowning myself. “You’ve never called me by my first name.” Only once, though, but this wasn’t the point, and that time didn’t really count, since Diego had been half-dead.
Diego’s frown cleared and his lips twitched. “At first, when I’d judged you, I did it because I knew it pissed you off,” he confessed, and my eyes widened in surprise. “Then it just… stuck.”
There was a small gleam of mirth in his eyes that I didn’t trust. “You still like to irritate me, then?” I asked, arching an eyebrow and folding my arms.
A small grin stretched his lips. “As I said, it stuck,” he replied, “but there’s another answer to that, too, but I’m not sure you’re ready for that conversation, and you’ll probably never be.”
Now I was just plain confused. “Come again?”
He shook his head, his grin slipping. “It’s neither here nor there,” he murmured, then locked his eyes on mine. “In any case, that’s my answer.”
I was still a little confused, but chose to let it go for now. That way lies madness, my gut warned me, and I preferred to listen to my gut instead of being angry later that I didn’t. “Just unstick it, then,” I said, drinking the last drop of my latte, “and call me Paige like everyone else.”
He stared at me, his eyes inscrutable. “That’s the thing, though,” he said softly, “I would be just like everyone else for you.”
That confused me again, especially the somewhat forlorn expression on his face when he said that, but then he rose to his feet and said, “It’s getting late. I’ll take you home.”
Wondering if he’d put an end to the conversation on purpose, I nonetheless nodded and got to my feet, too. He led me out of the cafe and toward a nearby parking lot, where he ushered me toward a shiny white Mercedes. It made me remember his beat-up car all those years ago, and I smiled when I got into the passenger’s seat.
As he drove, I remembered something that made me smile. “You know that time you picked me up in the rain?”
Diego glanced at me, and smiled, too. “The one when I caught sight of you stranded out in the rain and had to reverse in the middle of the road?”
My smile grew. “You got cursed at so much.”
“Well, I had to save a damsel in distress,” he said mock-seriously, “couldn’t possibly let your walk in the rain and get yourself wet, now, could I?”
“Of course not,” I shook my head, feeling like laughing, something which I didn’t think was possible, not after what happened at the party. “That’s unbecoming of a gentleman like yourself.”
“Indeed,” he said, suddenly mimicking a British accent, “one does not leave a lady to face the monstrosity which is rain.”
I snorted. “Your accent is terrible.”
“Well, I tried,” he dropped the British accent, but now put a Spanish one on purpose.
Which made me wonder. “You’re fluent in Spanish, aren’t you?”
He grinned. “Among others.”
Others? “Which other languages do you know?” I asked, curious.
“Latin, French, German,” he said, “and Italian, which I’m still working on perfecting.”
Wow. “I had no idea you were into languages.” Which shouldn’t have come as a surprise; we’d barely talked about our hobbies before. This was… nice. More than nice. It was almost enlightening.
“If I was a less practical man, I would’ve majored in linguistics,” he said, his grin fading.
“You don’t like economics?” I asked, frowning, and then was reminded, once again, that he’d co-founded Workeen. “How did you even get to found Workeen to begin with? I didn’t take you for an app developer.”
“So many questions,” Diego murmured, and suddenly came to a stop near my apartment building. He then turned fully to me. “If you really want to know, I would like to ask you some questions in return.”
I blinked, and suddenly realized it was just us in his car. And my heart fluttered in my chest, and my cheeks grew hot, and his eyes were on mine, making me feel like I was the only person in the world…
And it was an addicting feeling. More addicting than anything else. I’d never felt like I was the center of someone’s world. I’d never had such an undivided, yet unbelievably wanted attention on me. It was like a dream come true that the man who made me feel like this was Diego, of all people. And it was also dangerous as fuck.
I knew it hadn’t been a good idea to let him keep me company after what had happened.
Was my curiosity worth more than my self-preservation? Was I willing to let down my guard just to satisfy some of the unanswered questions I had about Diego Rivero? Questions I’d promised myself to let go of, but probably never could?
He could probably see the fear in my eyes. Fear of what he was starting to do to me again. Of how easily he could break through my walls, as if they were made of jello and not titanium like I often thought of them as. He’d been the man who almost made me make a mistake to trust him with every part of myself all those years ago. He’d been the reason I’d suffered, and worked so hard to retreat into myself. To erect these walls around myself. To stop myself from ever letting anyone near me, physically and emotionally.
And here he was, yet again being the reason that my resolve was crumbling.
Something shifted in his expression, and then he got out his phone. “Give me your number,” he said, an edge to his voice.
My heart beating faster than usual, I said, “My number hasn’t changed. You should have it.”
“My phone got stolen when I was in Costa Rica,” was his short response as he handed me his phone.
I saw no harm in giving him my number. I could always block and delete him if I wanted to. But would you ever want to? A little voice questioned in my mind as I typed the number.
Ignoring it, I gave him his phone back and asked, a little suspicious, “Why the sudden need for my number?”
He had a funny look on his face as he said, “Because we’ll need to arrange a meeting to answer those questions both of us have.”
I blinked, momentarily stunned. “A meeting?”
His lips twitched again. “Well, we could call it a date, but I don’t think you’re ready for that, either.”
This time, I fully blanched, not sure I heard him right but knowing that I must have, because his eyes were dancing. “What?”
“And you just proved it,” he smirked fully now.
That sight was what made me slap myself out of my stupor. “Oh, so you think this is funny,” I said, narrowing my eyes. “Well, Rivero, I’ll choose whether to go on a meeting with you or not, and you’ll have to be a good boy and await my decision.”
He grinned now. “Well, since I got your number but you didn’t get mine, I think you’ll be the one who has to wait.”
Fuck him. “Good night, Rivero,” I said pointedly with a huff, got out of the car, and slammed the door behind me, hurrying up into the building before he could catch sight of my now-crimson face, and the frightening happiness I felt, I could barely contain it.
Because, I was almost completely sure now, Diego liked me. And I was so, so fucked.