The silence in the apartment was horrible. Patrick was pacing, furious with me, while Peter was looking at me as if I was the stupidest person in the world.
It was a mature decision to tell the two of them about Diego and me the day after our… well… coupling. I cared enough about them, and I knew they cared enough about me, too, and hiding that I was seeing someone, especially since that someone was Diego Rivero, was beyond what my moral compass could handle.
But this silence was horrible, and the tension in the air made me fidget in my seat. I’d gone to great lengths to make this a good family dinner; I invited them for dinner - even though Christmas Eve and our scheduled family dinner was only days away - and made them my famous lasagna. I even bought a really expensive champagne and made sure they were a little tipsy before I dropped the bomb.
And yet here we were.
Eventually, Patrick spoke first. “I don’t get it,” he said, stopping in his tracks, his eyes boring holes in mine. “You were a fucking mess after he left you, and yet you go back to him just like that?”
I grimaced. “I explained the situation, Pat - “
“This is not a good enough explanation, though!” he cut me off angrily. I’d told them - with Diego’s permission, of course - about Diego’s relationship with the “underworld” people who almost took Peter away from us. I thought it would at least satisfy them enough, but obviously, they still thought I was a complete moron for getting together with him.
And maybe I was. But in the two days since I slept with Diego, since we put everything important on the table, I knew I couldn’t have chosen differently. I couldn’t have left him, not after he trusted me enough to tell me about the real reason why he’d always pushed me away.
But Diego being an ex-con was his secret to tell, and I had no liberty to tell my brothers that, family or not. They simply had to have faith in me, but as I could see now, that might prove to be difficult.
“I want to meet him,” Peter said, his voice tight and resolute. “I want to look at that bastard’s face and see if he actually means you well.”
“He saved your life, Peter,” I said quietly, just a reminder.
“Which is great and all,” he said bitterly, “and I would thank him for that, finally. But it doesn’t mean he deserves you.”
There it was again, ‘deserve me’. As if I was some fine china that would break with a gentle blow of the wind. “I’m sick and tired of you men thinking I’m too weak to take care of myself,” I said, my hackles rising, and then stood up. “And as you requested, I invited Diego for Christmas Eve dinner so you can get to meet each other officially. Case closed.”
Patrick glowered at me. “It’s family dinner!” he sniped.
“And Diego is my family!” I snapped back. “He’s my best friend, and he’s the best man I know, and yes, he’d hurt me once upon a time, but he explained everything to me, even though I was less than reluctant to hear him out, and I’m a grown-ass woman who can make her own decisions and I’m fucking telling you, he’s the one for me. He’s it. Mr. Right. One true love. Whatever cheesy term you want to call it. So if you love me and want to see me happy, you will come to dinner on Christmas Eve, and you will be civilized as you get a feel of him, and you will not talk shit about how he doesn’t deserve me!”
My brothers looked at me with narrow eyes and folded arms. They looked so alike at that moment, they could’ve been twins. “Don’t worry, Paige,” Patrick said ominously, “we’ll come to dinner.”
“But that’s the only thing we’ll do,” Peter’s eyes gleamed menacingly, “the rest is yet to be determined.”
It was the day of Christmas Eve, and Diego and I were in the kitchen, preparing a light brunch. He was in charge of coffee, and I was in charge of the frittata. He was walking around in sweats, his glorious chest naked for me to ogle, while I simply put on his shirt. It was all very domestic, and very odd, too. It almost felt like we’d been together for ages, instead of less than a week.
I really wanted to have sex with him again, but unfortunately, the moment I set foot at his place yesterday night, I found out I got my period. Since period sex was out of the question - I would never understand women who could have sex while bleeding - we settled on watching a movie and snuggling until we fell asleep.
As I said, it was very domestic and relationship-y, but I found that I didn’t mind it all. In fact, it was like a dream come true.
With breakfast ready, we organized the table and sat down next to each other. “Thanks for the coffee,” I said as I took a sip from the perfect latte he’d made me.
He kissed me lightly on the lips. “Thanks for the food.”
I smiled a little goofily. “You’re welcome.”
As we ate in silence, marvelling in the togetherness of us, my phone beeped. I looked down and saw I had a text from Nola. My good mood threatening to disappear, I swiped the phone open and read the text.
‘HR wired you the last monthly wage this morning. I hope for your sake that you come to your sense in the future and realize your mistakes.’
And my mood soured. I put the phone away and went back to my frittata, irked. Diego, though, knew me well, and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Just Nola,” I murmured, “reminding me I have to find a job when Christmas is over.”
He put down his coffee cup. “Have you given any thought to my offer?”
I shot him a look. “I can’t really take it, Diego.”
“Why?” he inquired, narrowing his eyes.
“Because we’re together now,” I said, scowling. “The other workers would think I slept my way into this job.”
He knew I was right, I could tell by the way he sighed. “Why don’t I arrange you an interview with both Marco and Elijah, then? It will be official if they accept you.”
It wasn’t a bad idea, but still… “I don’t know, Diego. It feels kinda wrong.”
His gaze softened on me and he smiled. “Trust me, alright?”
A little cautious, I nodded nonetheless and went back to my frittata, feeling warmth spreading all over my body. Damn him being such a good boyfriend. It was making me want to jump his bones.
When brunch was over, Diego insisted on doing the dishes since I cooked, and I was left to explore the beautiful duplex that was Diego’s place, something I hadn’t gotten to do yet. It was meticulously furnished, with everything exactly in the right place, but it lacked some color, vividness of life, and I mused how it would look if I added a certain type of cushions to the empty white sofas, or hanging a colorful picture on a clear wall.
Not that I would even dare suggest anything to Diego. It might feel like we’d been together forever, but it still was less than a week. I couldn’t actually act like an overbearing control-freak at the moment.
He does meet your brothers officially tonight, though, the voice of reason whispered in my head, but that was a different thing entirely. My brothers needed to know I wasn’t making a mistake, and Diego needed to be the one to reassure them, because they were sexist idiots who didn’t trust a word that came out of my mouth regarding this subject. If they saw me with Diego, though, and saw how much he loved me, they would understand. It was crucial for our relationship to truly take off.
I stopped wandering near a shelf next to the large TV screen. It was full of little wooden figurines, beautifully sculptured into mythological creatures; a unicorn with a flaming tail and a sharp horn, Cheshire from Alice in Wonderland, and then there was that dragon I’d seen once, wondrously sculpted in wood, looking so alive, so fierce.
Diego had made that dragon, I remembered. He’d acted weird about it, too. Frowning, I turned to stare at him as he washed the dishes, humming to himself off-key. Feeling a little cautious, I walked toward him and wrapped my arms around him from the back, burying my face in his back.
He chuckled. “Everything’s okay?”
I took a deep breath, gathering my courage. “The wooden figurines are beautiful,” I said, and even I could hear the tentativeness in my voice.
He tensed, and it made me tense, too, but then he turned around in my arms and looked at me with a careful expression of his own. “Let’s make a deal,” he said.
Frowning a bit, I nevertheless said, “Alright.”
“I’ll tell you about the figurines,” he said, eyes not moving from mine, “and in exchange, you’ll tell me about your singing.”
I should’ve seen that coming, and even though I wasn’t sure I was ready to share this, my curiosity over the small figurines won and I said, “Okay.”
He smiled softly, pressed a quick kiss to my lips, before he finished doing his dishes and led me back up to his bedroom, where he pulled me into his arms and said, “My uncle was a carpenter.”
I hugged him close. “Was?”
“He died when I was about fourteen,” he replied, a sad tone to his voice. “He was my favorite person in the whole world. I loved helping him out at his shop, and when he finished a workday, he would sit me down and teach me how to carve in wood.”
My heart went out to him. “It must’ve been nice.”
“It was the best,” he leaned his head on top of mine, his hands drawing shapes on my back. “I loved wood carving, but when my dad found out I was more busy carving wood than studying, he went ballistic and forbade me from going over to my uncle’s shop.”
He turned to look at me with a small, humorless smile. “My father isn’t an easy man. He’s a top-tier neurosurgeon, very prestigious in the medical world, critically acclaimed internationally for many researches he’d accomplished, and is all around admired and respected by all. At home, his word was law, and my mother, sister, and I had to obey, or else.”
I grimaced, but didn’t interrupt.
“I carved wood in secret in my room,” Diego said. “My uncle had given me enough wooden cubes for me to make do, and carving wood usually takes me a long time, so I never ran out. However, as much as I tried to hide it, my father found them and threw them all away. Or, at least, the ones he’d found. The figurines you saw are the ones that survived that assault.”
He was quiet, then, and I couldn’t help but ask, “Have you carved wood ever since?”
I expected the answer he gave me, but it still hurt to hear. “No.”
Not knowing what to do, I simply hugged him tightly and said, “I’m sorry.”
He caressed my head, my hair. “Don’t be,” he said, kissing my forehead. “Now it’s your turn.”
A deal was a deal, after all, and since it obviously wasn’t something Diego talked about, and knowing that he trusted me enough to tell me all that, made me take a deep breath and give him that part of myself.
“I always loved singing,” I said, leaning my head against his shoulder, taking support from his arms around me, his warmth, his neverending kindness. “My mom was a professional, and she always gave me voice lessons, but then she died from cancer when I was ten.”
He squeezed me to him but said nothing, listening to me instead. Taking courage from that, I continued. “Because my mom was a pro, I managed to use her name and connections to get gigs, with my father’s approval. We were starting to worry about money back then, since my dad started gambling and doing drugs, two very expensive habits, and while Patrick worked part-time, it still wasn’t enough. Our savings were dwindling, and I used my voice to get any gigs I could get, at all.
“However, my dad was a piece of shit, and one time, he came high to one of my gigs.” I remembered that day so clearly, and yet not clearly at all. “It was an important gig. I was going to sing in Radio City as a part from a children-singing fundraiser. It was the most important gig I’d ever landed. I was thirteen at the time, and I was excited.
“But my dad came high to the show. He met me in the backstage, in my room, and told me I was… that I was…” I swallowed hard. “He told me I was worthless.”
Diego tensed, his arms like an armor, as if he could shield me from the pain he could hear in my voice.
“I was just thirteen,” I said quietly, “and I listened to every word he said. He told me I would die just like mom did. He told me singing was a waste of time, that the money, whatever little money I earned from it, couldn’t even buy him one gram of coke. He completely shattered my fragile confidence, and so when I walked on stage and it was just me and the band, and I had to sing, no note came out of my throat.”
It was the most embarrassing moment of my life. Standing on the huge stage of Radio City Music Hall, facing thousands of people, and not a note would come out. It was a nightmare come to life, and I remembered the flashes of the photographers who sat at the front, the journalists whispering, knowing they had a scandal on their hands. “I ran out of the stage,” I said, “I don’t even remember what happened later, but I was suddenly at home, Patrick paying all of his two-months wages to make sure an article about my relapse wouldn’t see the light of the day, and not only we sank into deep debts, I couldn’t sing anymore.”
Diego’s hand grabbed my chin gently and raised my head so my eyes would meet his. “But you sang,” he said softly, “at that open-mic night, you sang.”
I gave him a sad smile. “I have no idea how I managed to do that. Maybe because it was you there, believing in me, and you picked such a silly song like I Want It That Way, and I knew no one expected anything out of me.”
He mulled it over for a moment, and then asked, “Was that the first time you sang? Since Radio City?”
I chuckled a little. “Yeah.”
“Then I feel absolutely honored,” he said and smiled softly at me. “Especially since you sang to me again a few days ago.”
“It was my mom’s lullaby,” I blurted out, flushing a bit. “What I sang to you, I mean.”
“And it was beautiful,” he said, cupping my face, and frowned. “Can I ask you to tell me one more thing?”
“Of course,” I said, turning my head in his hand to press a kiss to his palm.
He took a deep breath, and asked carefully, “What was the situation with your family when we were in uni?”
It was a loaded question, and Diego felt it, too. But I’d already trusted him with so much, and he was a man who understood me better than most people did. Hell, when he’d gotten his head out of his ass back in Thanksgiving all those years ago, he’d got me all figured out, before he even knew anything about me, and so I knew he would understand my greatest shame, and my greatest guilt.
“As I said, my dad was an addict,” I said quietly. “He couldn’t handle my mom’s death. He was never the best father, and he always counted on my mom to save the day, and when she was gone, and his safety net was gone along with her, he just sank into this deep, dark hole and couldn’t come out.
“After what happened with Wyatt, that man I told you about, I was a wreck. I started smoking, started doing all kinds of drugs, made ‘friends’ with the wrong people at school, and it was Patrick who finally got me out of it, just as I started high-school. I then withdrew into myself, decided that trusting people who weren’t family was beyond me, and led a quiet high-school life.”
I gave him a meaningful look. “When I was only a month shy of turning eighteen, and with Peter being fourteen and Patrick being almost twenty-five and in his last year of law school, a mother of Peter’s classmate realized something was wrong with my brother. We barely had a roof over our head, let alone food on the table, and she was worried, so she came visit us one day. She saw my father, figured things were shit, and called child services.
“It was decided my dad was unfit to raise children and was sent to rehab,” I grimaced. “Patrick fought for custody over Peter and me in court, and the judge decided that, since I was about to be eighteen, I could stay with him, but Peter was taken away. They assigned Alastair Doyle, an NYPD cop, as his foster father.”
Diego’s face darkened. “I guess he wasn’t a good person.”
“No, he definitely wasn’t,” I said bitterly. “He beat up my brother constantly. He had a drinking problem that he somehow managed to hide well. Patrick tried to get him out, but the court and child services refused to hear him out. He was young, after all. A student, to top all that. How could he provide for Peter?” I gave a humorless laugh. “But I was still in the city, finishing high school, and I always visited him, made sure to keep an eye on him, because Alastair didn’t dare raise a hand against him.
“But then I had to go to uni. I didn’t want to, at first, but Patrick was in the city, said he would keep an eye on him, so I left. But when Peter called me one night during my second semester in uni, told me he couldn’t take it anymore, I flew all the way to Brooklyn, confronted Alastair, and he threatened me with a restraining order if I ever came to see Peter again.”
“Fuck,” Diego bit out.
“Yeah,” I scowled. “I couldn’t risk not being able to see my brother, so I got sneaky about it. When I was over there at Christmas break, when we met at Times Square, Alastair was gone to tend to his sick father, and so I could get to see Peter without the threat looming over our head. When he returned, though, I had to stop seeing him. And that was it.”
“What about your dad?” Diego scowled, too.
“He met a woman in rehab,” I said acerbically, “some rich woman who lived in Portland, Oregon. He married her, she took him all the way to the West Coast once they were out of rehab, and she refused to let us see him unless it was Thanksgiving. None of us wanted to see him, really, but we couldn’t deny that he was family, and the nerve of that woman to keep us away was just staggering.”
“I’m sorry this happened to you,” Diego said, angry on my behalf. “You didn’t deserve this. None of you did.”
I hugged him tightly. “Alastair wanted to keep Peter in line. He said he had to do good in school, had to keep out of trouble, or he would send him to juvie. Then the whole thing happened with Juan, and the drug dealings, and those awful people, and Alastair was livid. But, right after you left, Patrick took the whole custody thing to court again, showed the judge he had a stable job, earned enough money, and was capable of taking care of Peter, and won custody. Now Peter lives with me, goes to MIT, and is being a pain in the ass,” I smiled a little at that, choosing not to think about the nights where I could hear him cry in his sleep over everything he’d gone through, everything he’d lost that day in Greenwich six years ago.
Diego was quiet for a while, simply holding me, playing with my hair, leaning his head against mine, when he asked, “What about your father?”
“He died a little more than a year ago,” I replied softly, “from overdose. He never got clean. Not really.”
His hug tightened on mine. “I understand now,” he said quietly, “why you need your brothers’ approval.”
And this is why I loved him so much. “They might be sexist pigs who don’t trust me with my life,” I said, “but after shit hit the fan, we made a silent pact to always look out for each other. We are our only family. They’re worried.”
“I’ll make sure to prove myself to them, then,” Diego said resolutely, tilting my head up to meet my eyes. “I’ll show them how much I love you, Paige. Don’t worry.”
My heart filled with an aching kind of warmth. “Damn,” I murmured, “I want to bang you so hard right now.”
His eyes filled with lust. “Don’t say stuff like that when you know we can’t do anything.”
“Then don’t be such a sweet motherfucker,” I pouted.
He laughed, and I grinned, and then he kissed the hell out of me, as I let myself be completely wrapped in his arms, in his warmth, in his everything, since he already had my everything, too.