The moment I was in Diego’s white Mercedes, he turned to look at me with a smile that instantly vanished when he saw my face. “What’s wrong?” he asked at once.
I wiped away some stray tears before letting out a breath. “I basically just quit my job,” the words were out of my mouth before I could filter them in my head.
His eyes widened. “What happened?”
There was a part of me that told me not to say anything, to simply smile and tell him it was nothing, to keep myself as locked up as possible, to not put myself out there for another slam-down, another shut-off, another rejection from this man. But another part of me, a part I hadn’t even realized got so big over the years, that was tired of having to handle shit on my own. Maybe it was thanks to therapy, or maybe it was because I’d grown closer than ever with my brothers, but I was just so sick and tired from having to take care of myself alone.
So I looked at him, and despite my better judgment, said, “I told Nola - you know, my boss - about what happened last night. She apparently thinks I made it all worse than it was, that who could possibly say no to Orlando Walker, and refused to listen when I explained why I reacted the way I did. So I quit.”
Diego’s face turned angry. “She had no right to do that,” he said, and there was fury in his voice, a fury for me that made me want to cry again. “You’re aware that she’s in the wrong here, right?”
“I know,” I said quietly, and gave him a small smile. “But it feels good to hear someone else say that.”
His shoulders relaxed, and he smiled faintly back. “You did good. You don’t need this kind of toxic shit in your life.”
But instead of calming me down as he probably intended, his words only made me swallow a wave of sudden panic. “My God, Diego,” I said shakily, “I quit my job. I need this job.”
He took my hand in his, and my eyes met his. “We’ll figure this out,” he said firmly.
I nodded, but my disquiet didn’t abate. It was turned up a notch, too, when he kicked the car into gear and drove out of my neighborhood toward the highway. Because he used the word we. As if he was with me in this. As if I was… As if we were…
There was a slight note of hysteria in my voice as I said, “It’s not a date.”
His lips twitched. “Okay.”
I didn’t like the sound of that one-word reply. “We’re just old friends who are hanging out for old time’s sake.”
That little curling of his lips didn’t disappear. “Sure.”
I scowled. “Just so we’re clear.”
He glanced at me momentarily as he said, “How long have you been working at Wayla?”
That made me pause. “Two years,” I said, frowning. “Why?”
“Have you actively participated in event planning besides being Nola Way’s PA?” he asked as if he didn’t hear me.
My frown deepened. “I helped her coordinate dozens of events, if that counts,” I tried to think it through. “Sometimes, when Nola and the other workers at Wayla were exceptionally busy, I would deal with suppliers, determine costs, and monitor clients’ approval, mostly low-key weddings and stuff like that.”
He nodded. “Then you’re hired.”
I blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“You’re hired,” Diego gave me a small grin. “Once you resign officially from Wayla, you can accept the event coordinator job at Workeen. Now that we’re expanding,” he explained, “we’re going to have many more events coming up, and we don’t want to hire event planning companies anymore, since it’ll be a waste of time and money while we can just have even coordinators on board. We already have two, and we’ve been interviewing a third and final one, but it appears we won’t need to, since you fit exactly what we’re looking for.”
This was absolutely ridiculous. “I can’t accept that, Diego,” I said, even though a small part of me kind of wanted to say screw it, but I knew it was wrong. “Not when you’re so obviously deviating from protocol.”
“As the founder and main shareholder of Workeen,” he drawled, “I think I can do whatever the fuck I want.”
“But this is too much!” I argued. “What would the people in your company think when I waltz in there without being properly screened and interviewed? They would think I got in not based on expertise, but connections!”
“And what’s so wrong with having connections?” he argued back and slammed the brakes, bringing us to a stop next to some place near the Charles river. He turned to me, his eyes determined. “I know you, Harper,” he said, his eyes locked on mine, “and I know you’re hardworking and smart. Being a PA is no joke, and you’ve been in the event management business for two years. The other two coordinators are older and more experienced, and they will be able to help you out when you start out. So what if you got in by connections?” he arched an eyebrow. “It’s not a bad thing. People help out their friends and family members find work places all the time, and it just so happens I have a job opening in my company that can actually fit your area of expertise. I don’t see what’s so wrong about it.”
He was right. I knew he was right, but something about it felt somewhat dirty, and indignation made me say, “I don’t want you to do this because you take pity on me.”
He sighed, leaning against his seat. “Will you believe me if I say I’m not doing this out of pity?”
I didn’t know whether I believed it or not. I was, however, being completely ungrateful, and that made me feel a little bad. “Thank you for the offer,” I said sincerely, “I’ll think about it.”
He shot me a look that said he didn’t completely believe me, but thankfully let it go. “Well, we’re here. Let’s go.”
“Where’s here?” I asked, but he was already getting out.
‘Here’ was a rooftop bar that had an amazing view at the Charles river and the city of Boston. It was enclosed with thick glass walls and ceiling, which made it the perfect place to be during Boston winter; displaying the wonderful landscape while being warm and cosy.
Diego had apparently made reservations, and we were led to a table by the wall facing the river. Looking at the nightlight of the city, I momentarily forgot about everything that had happened with Nola, or my argument with Diego, and said, “I want to live here.”
Chuckling, Diego said, “You would want that even more once you have their mean mimosa.”
I grinned and turned to look at him. It was the first time since I got into his car that I actually got a good look at him, and what I found made my breath catch. His wild curls were pulled into a messy updo, while heavy stubble decorated his jaw, both of which giving him a Viking vibe. He was wearing black trousers, a mahogany-red turtle-neck shirt that accentuated every muscle on his upper body to the extreme, like a second layer of skin, and black combat boots. His black trench coat was hanging over the back of his seat, and with the soft light of the bar, he looked almost ethereal. Too hot to actually be here with the likes of me.
He caught me staring and smiled. “Hey,” he said, his voice low and soft.
My heart drummed in my ears, and yet I couldn’t help but smile back. “Hey.”
“It seems we unknowingly matched,” he said, motioning toward my burgundy dress.
Chuckling, I said, “It does seem so.” My eyes could be torn away from his face, though. He was just too fucking beautiful, his presence as air-sucking and charismatic as it always was, and it took my breath away. It hit me then like a fucking sledgehammer how much I missed him. How much my life had become vacant, devoid of any meaningful relationship but that of my brothers, in the past six years. How important he’d been to me, more important than any other person outside my family had ever been.
How badly he’d hurt me.
My smile faded and I looked away, flicking through the menu. “I think I’ll take that mimosa you recommended,” I said, attempting a light voice as I pushed my thoughts aside, “or maybe a glass of Champagne first - “
“Harper, look at me.”
I tensed, and slowly, I raised my eyes back to him. He looked at me with those dark brown eyes of his, eyes that could’ve swallowed me whole, made me drown. “What is it?” I asked, seeing the seriousness over his face.
When he spoke, his voice was somber. “That’s what I wanted to ask,” he said. “What put this expression on your face?”
This was the moment in which I could’ve laughed it off. If it was nineteen-year-old me, I would’ve put on a fake smile and said it was in his imagination, diverting the conversation from this dangerous area. But I didn’t want that, I realized with a crushing wave of relief. I was tired of self-preserving. I was tired of watching my every word, every step. I was tired of keeping my secrets, of putting everyone at bay.
Yes, Diego had hurt me badly. Yes, he was probably the last person I should be opening up to right now, not after our history, and after the many times he’d rejected me. But the need to have someone listen to me, the need to be important enough to someone so they would be worried about my clamming-up… I couldn’t just let it slide.
Taking a deep breath, and gathering every bit of courage I had inside me, I said carefully, “I think it will be best to get a few things straight if we start being… friends again.”
He stared at me very gravely and nodded. “I’m listening,” he said, promised, even, and he had no idea that this was all the difference in the world for me.
Orlando hadn’t listened.
Nola hadn’t listened.
Ivy, on the very few occasions we spoke, never listened.
Back in the day, when it was her illogical attitude against my word, Hestia hadn’t listened.
Even Patrick and Peter, more often than not, didn’t listen.
And here was Diego, telling me he was listening, and meaning it; his entire attention was solely focused on me, making me feel like I was the only woman in the world, in his world, at that moment in time. He didn’t even blink when waitresses walked by our table, giving him flirtatious looks that turned to disappointment, or when one of them came preparing to take our order, only to see his intense gaze on me and scamper.
This, more than anything else, made me feel at ease as said, “I wasn’t… doing good after you left.”
His eyes widened slightly as he realized what I was talking about, but he didn’t interrupt me, for which I was grateful. “I was doing kind of horribly, actually,” I said, giving him a sad smile. “I barely ate, and when I ate, I binge-ate. My grades dropped. It took everything in me to preserve some Cs just so my GPA would be just high enough to maintain my scholarship. I went from being somewhat social to having no friends; Hestia and I never made up after that fight we had, and she ignored me, and eventually moved out of the apartment when the twelve-months lease ended. Ivy, my other roommate, had been busy with her girlfriend and career opportunities, and moved in with her girlfriend. By the time I was in my third year, I moved into a tiny apartment in Medford, because I couldn’t afford any studio apartment in the city, and refused to live with roommates again.”
I let out a ragged sigh. “It wasn’t just you leaving, of course; everything that happened with those guys kept haunting me. I couldn’t sleep well; I developed some sort of insomnia. I also refused to talk to my brothers; they had to bully me into meeting them, which is fucked up, considering Peter’s situation at the time… But I just couldn’t deal with it all. I started smoking again. I drank too much. It was bad,” I grimaced, my hands curling into fists. “Really bad. And the trigger for it all had been… well, you.”
His eyes sharpened, and I looked away, unable to bear his look. “You need to understand,” I said quietly, “it’s not just you. It’s more than that.”
I really didn’t want to talk about it, but I knew I had no choice, if I wanted to make him understand. “When I was fourteen,” I said, my voice clogged, “I met a guy. He was twenty-five.”
Risking looking at Diego, whose eyes were now carefully blank, I continued. “He was replacing a teacher at my school. When he was done replacing that teacher, we met by accident when I went grocery shopping. He lived in my neighborhood, you see.” I smiled a little shakily. “He accompanied me home that day, and we talked. And we made arrangements to meet up again the next week to walk together from grocery shopping. I didn’t think it was wrong,” I added quietly, “yes, he was more than ten years older, but I was only a few months shy of turning fifteen, and I thought he was cute, and I just… I was crushing on him, not having the capability to understand that it was wrong for a twenty-something year old man to become friends with me.” And there had been no one around to explain that it was wrong, too; my father was wiped out of drugs all the time, Patrick was in Law School, working his butt off both in school and his part time job so Peter and I could eat, since Dad’s savings were running out, and I was basically in charge of both Peter and me, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
But that part I wasn’t ready to share, so I stuck to the story. “Wyatt and I became more than just friends as the weeks passed,” I said, closing my eyes as I remembered. “He was my everything. My vault. I told him everything about me and my life, about my fears and dreams, my grief and the things that made me happy. I entrusted him with everything in me, and he made it seem like he cared. He made me fall in love with him, an innocent kind of love, the kind of love a fourteen-year-old could feel, when she barely got any love from anywhere else.”
Diego’s eyes flashed, and I saw questions there, but I pushed forward. “Wyatt and I started getting physical a month before my fifteenth birthday,” I said, “which was extremely exciting for me. I liked kissing him, I liked him touching me, and I viewed it all that as a part of us being in love.” What a fool I’d been. “Then, on my fifteenth birthday, we had sex. Contrary to what you might think,” I added, seeing Diego’s eyes narrowed, “it was consensual. In the state of New York, the age of consent is seventeen, as in many other parts of the US, but for me, at that moment, and even now, I knew that I agreed to it. It was as simple as that. Was it the best experience in my life? Obviously not. It was my first time, and it was painful, but he was really gentle with me, and walked me through it, like a true boyfriend might.”
I looked down at my hands. “He disappeared the next day without a trace. Not a note, not a text, not anything. Just vanished into thin air, and I was a complete wreck. I’ve never seen him again.”
Diego let out a breath, his eyes full of sadness as he realized the point of this little tale. “Harper…”
“I gave him everything,” I said quietly, “and he left me. Was he wrong to ‘date’ and have sex with a barely fifteen-year-old? Sure, the law says it is, and as an adult, I know it is wrong. It doesn’t mean that my emotions were any less real. That I hadn’t put my trust, my entire heart, my emotions in his hands. It doesn’t diminish from what I felt back then, that someone just stole a piece of me I believed I would never be able to retrieve.”
“And that’s exactly what I did,” Diego summed up, his voice tight.
I smiled at him sadly. “I didn’t give you everything to that extent, but I was… ready to give you that.” Tears welled in my eyes, but I swallowed them down. “I was ready to give you everything on multiple occasions. When we almost kissed on New Year’s Eve, when we did kiss at your place, when you saved my life.”
His face darkened. “And each time I pushed you away,” he said, and his eyes looked at me with anger and sadness. “Fuck, I’m sorry, Harper.”
“You didn’t know,” I said softly, “you couldn’t know. Hell, my brothers don’t even know about the whole Wyatt thing. They only know about how I’d been… after.”
“Saying that I didn’t know doesn’t mean I didn’t fuck up,” he said, and I saw the remorse in his eyes now in full. “How can you even sit here with me, after I did that to you? After I hurt you like this?”
Because he’d come over to explain everything. Because he always admitted his mistakes. Because, one time, when I was pissy at him, when I was angry and hurt by him, he’d searched every pine tree in the Commons to find me.
“Because you are probably the only true friend I’ve ever made,” I told him truthfully, “and now that you’re here again, despite everything, despite all the shit I’ve been through, that you’ve been through, I’m willing to give our friendship another chance.”
He stared at me, his eyes filled up with wonder and some unnamed emotion that made my heart stop. He then cleared his throat and gave me another serious look. “Thank you for telling me,” he said, “and I’m so fucking sorry I hurt you. I mean it.”
“I know,” I said, smiling a little, “thank you, though. Apology accepted.”
“Then I would like to treat you tonight,” he said, his eyes on mine, “and I’ll be the best friend you deserve. I’m not going anywhere this time.” He paused, and gave me a small smile. “Paige.”
My entire body froze hearing my name coming out of his mouth. I felt my cheeks heating up, and I found myself smiling widely from ear to ear. “Well, Diego, I shall order the most expensive drink on this menu, then.”