I looked up at the hospital, my hand growing sweaty in Diego’s, and swallowed nervously. “I’m not sure about this,” I murmured.
Diego gave me a small smile. “It’ll be okay. You’ll see.”
Still a little unsure, he led me inside the VIP ward of the hospital, and we took the elevator to the designated floor. Once there, we walked out, and arrived at a large, sunny room with a pretty woman sitting in bed, bald and beautiful with the same dark brown eyes as those of the man who stood next to me.
One of the many reasons he’d chosen to come back for, Diego told me last night, was his younger sister. The one whom he told me about, once upon a time, that she used to dance, and that she was a redhead. But now she had lymphoma, and she no longer had her red hair, and, even if she wanted to go back to dancing, she couldn’t, not really, what with her being so weak.
But she did want to meet me, and Diego wanted me to meet her, so here we were.
The woman gave us a smile as we entered. “Hey.”
Diego’s face was soft as he came over to her and gave her a gentle hug, pressing a kiss to her forehead. “Hey, roja.”
Her smile widened and then she turned to me. “You must be Paige.”
“I am,” I said with a tentative smile as I took a seat at the chair next to her bed. “And you must be Sierra.”
Sierra looked nothing like her brother, except for the eyes. She had a narrow face and high cheekbones, and her eyes were large and with pinpricks of gold in their irises. She had a softness about her, regardless of her weakened state, and the same kind of warmth that Diego emanated.
She took my hand in hers. “You are just as beautiful as Diego always said you were.”
I smiled now, my nervousness evaporating. “You are way more beautiful than I am. I think your brother is a bit blind.”
Diego snorted. “Don’t listen to her, roja. She has no idea what she’s talking about.”
I rolled my eyes. “And he’s an obstinate idiot, as well.”
Sierra giggled. “He has a problem, you see,” she said, her eyes twinkling with mirth, “if he likes you enough, he might oversee your flaws.”
“It is so very true,” I nodded sagely. “Did you know he called me an entitled, racist white girl once?”
Her eyes widened with shock and she turned to look at her brother, scowling at him. “That’s not very nice.”
Diego sent me a foul look. “We’ve been over this.”
I grinned. “It doesn’t mean I can’t use it as leverage.”
“You got my approval to torment him with his idiocy for however long you want to,” Sierra informed me and we both chuckled.
Diego let out a long-suffering sigh. “If I knew you were going to become a tag-team, I wouldn’t have agreed to this.”
“Shut up, you big baby,” Sierra said with a smirk that was very much like Diego’s before returning her eyes to me. “You have the prettiest eyes, you know that?”
I flushed at the sudden, unexpected compliment. “Yours are prettier, but thank you.”
She scoffed. “Not true.”
“And,” I added, feeling a little brave, “you manage to rock the bald look better than most people.”
She looked at me with a start, and then burst out laughing. “God, I like you already.”
“Ditto,” I told her, smiling, before turning to look at Diego. He stared at us with a soft look in his eyes, a look full of love for both his sister and me, and I couldn’t help but melt a little.
Just then, the door opened, and all three of us turned to see a man and a woman standing at the threshold, looking stunned to find us there as much as we were stunned to see them there. The man was in his sixties, but the only indication for that was his somewhat wrinkled face; his body was tall and firm with obvious muscles, showing a man who was still working out regularly despite his age. His hair was salt-and-pepper, cropped short, and his eyes were pitch-black.
The woman was of average height, with curly dark hair that was pulled into a messy bun, and her eyes were the same soft shade of dark brown as Diego and Sierra’s. She was plump, and there were bags under her eyes, along with more than a few wrinkles. She seemed to be in her late fifties, but could’ve been older for all I knew.
“What are you doing here?” Diego asked, but his voice was suddenly taut, high-strung. I glanced at him to see he was standing, staring at the couple, who must’ve been his parents, with barely-contained anger.
Neither the man nor the woman spoke as they walked into the room, and turned to see me there. “Who are you?” the man asked, his black eyes on me, studying, judging, none too kind.
Warnings flared in my head. Something about this man didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t exactly point my finger on what it was, but it made me more than uneasy. It made me want to make sure there was more distance between us than there was now. Before I spoke, though, Diego said, “It’s none of your business.”
Obviously, there was something awfully wrong here, with Diego and his parents.
The woman walked silently to the other side of Sierra and spoke to her in soft Spanish. Sierra gave her monosyllabic responses, while her eyes kept darting between Diego and their father, who were now engaged in a stare-off.
The woman kept on whispering to Sierra, while Diego walked over to his father and said quietly and tightly, “Leave.”
“I’m here to see my daughter,” the man said, his face darkening, “and you can’t stop me in my own domain.”
I remembered that he was a neurosurgeon, one of the best in the world, and suddenly, with Diego’s reaction to seeing him there, pieces started to align in my head; Diego having all that money to allow himself to rent a studio apartment while we were in uni, Diego - and Sierra, now - being able to afford to stay in the VIP ward of the hospital, Diego insisting I didn’t take him to the hospital that night I found him beaten up in the alley…
But why? Diego said his father wasn’t an easy man, and while he did sound strict and like a control-freak, from what Diego told me, it shouldn’t have deserved such an open animosity from him…
“Diego,” Sierra’s soft voice cut through the silence, and Diego turned to look at her, his eyes full of anger. “I’m tired. Why don’t you and Paige visit me another time?”
Diego grimaced, because he knew what Sierra was doing. She was giving him an out.
Diego gave her a curt nod, pressed a kiss to her forehead, grabbed my hand and practically dragged me out of there before either of his parents could say a word.
The drive back was terse. Diego was in shit mood, and I didn’t even know how to start a conversation, or if I should even bother trying. Eventually, I decided to just be silent and hope he would tell me what was going on when he felt like it.
I’d never seen him so worked up before. His jaw was clenched so tightly, I was afraid it would snap, and he was holding the steering wheel with such force, his knuckles turned sheet-white. He looked like he was on the verge of snapping, and it made me scared for him. I just wanted to make him feel better, but I was out of my depth here.
He slammed on the brakes when we reached my apartment. It was already night, and the street was completely deserted, and it was just us, the sound of the rumbling engine of the car, and Diego’s pulsing anger.
Just as I decided that maybe I should nip it in the bud and get it over with, he suddenly said, “He is a piece of shit.”
I turned to him, and saw him looking ahead without really seeing anything. “Your dad?” I asked quietly, my heart beating loudly.
“I cut ties with him when I left six years ago,” he said, his voice hard, “because he was always controlling. Emotionally abusive, too, but only toward me. He didn’t dare raise a hand against women, but I was his punching bag.”
My heart lurched. “Fuck, Diego.”
“Yeah,” he said, and suddenly hit the wheel. “He knew I would be there. He knew I would come visit Sierra today. That’s why he showed up. Now that I made something out of myself, he wants us to make up. As fucking if.”
He turned to me, his eyes blazing. “I hate him. This is why I legally changed my name to Diego Rios instead of Rivero. I couldn’t take it that some part of him was still with me, and my mother’s maiden name seemed better at the time.”
I couldn’t help it; I put my arms around him and drew him close. “I’m sorry.”
With a sudden tag, I was pulled onto his lap in the driver seat, and he hugged me to him. “I hate that he got to see you. He doesn’t deserve that. Any of that.”
I hugged him tightly. “Is he the reason you refused to go to the hospital that night, at the alley?”
He let out a rough breath. “I barely remember anything from that night,” he told me truthfully. “I thought I was hallucinating half the time, because I couldn’t believe that you were there.”
Leaning back, I locked his eyes with mine. “You said to not take you to the hospital,” I said softly, “you insisted on it. This is why I took you to my place instead.”
He grimaced. “My dad never forgave me for the whole gang thing back in San Francisco. Yes, he took care of it, but he loathed the fact I’d almost given him a bad name. It only got worse when I was thrown in jail, and no matter how hushed he made the whole affair be, spilling money to make everyone quiet, some people in his field found out, his rivals, and he hates me to this day for having to deal with that.
“Six years ago, he almost beat the shit out of me in the hospital,” he gave me a frustrated, hurt look. “The nurses managed to get him off me, but he’s had enough. He told me he did everything for me, got me into the best uni with his connections, gave me money to live in that studio apartment, basically forced me back on my feet after I got released from jail. He took credit for everything - my brain, my assets - and told me I was an ungrateful piece of shit. The moment I got released from the hospital, I went to Costa Rica and cut any ties with him. And when I switched phone numbers - “
“Wait,” I cut him off, frowning, “you said your phone got stolen in Costa Rica.”
He tensed momentarily, then hugged me to him, burying his head in my neck. “I’m sorry, Paige,” he said raspily. “I lied. I had to switch phones, because those people found my number, and my dad was constantly trying to get a hold of me, to figure out where I was. So when I changed numbers I… I didn’t put yours back in.”
He squeezed me tightly. “I just knew I might cave and call you if I did, and you were in danger, and it was better for you to hate me, and to not be able to reach me again, and - “
“I understand,” I cut him off again, this time softly, caressing his wild curls. “I understand, Diego. Don’t apologize.”
He held me as if I was his lifeline. “I’m all kinds of fucked up,” he said with a snarl, “how can you still love me like that? How?”
I leaned back just enough to look at him. “Because everything you’ve done, everything you’re still doing, is always for the sake of others.” I cupped his face in mine, his eyes desperately locked on mine, as if trying to hold on for dear life. “You’re the most selfless man I’ve ever known, and now that I know everything, that I know what made you do the things that once hurt me, the things you hid so well, you almost passed for just another man… It only makes me love you more.”
“Fuck,” he whispered. “I don’t deserve you.”
“Don’t ever say that again,” I said firmly, glaring at him. “You deserve everything you have, and that includes me.”
Wonder filled his eyes, mixed with so much love, I felt like I could drown in it. “I love you,” he said quietly, “I love you so fucking much, I can’t breathe when you’re not with me.”
I smiled at him now. “That makes two of us.” And I would kill anyone who would try to come between us. “And the only one who doesn’t deserve anything, is your father. Remember that.”
He kissed me then, and I kissed him back, putting everything I felt in that one, long kiss, full of desperation and love, and so many things we didn’t have to say.