“You didn’t tell me you’re dating someone.”
It was Sunday evening, and I was just looking for a special ingredient I used for my Alfredo-sauce ravioli, and which I could only get in a very specific convenience store near the Boston Commons, and which I couldn’t find right now, when Peter spoke.
I rose from my crouch near the bottom cabinet and turned to look at him. “What are you talking about?”
He picked up my phone and waved it. “Some dude called Orlando just texted you, ‘Please tell me you can meet Tuesday night.’”
Shit. After I hung up on him a few days ago during the celebration in Raver’s, he’d been texting me even more. I had no idea what about me incited such an obstinate need for him to reach out to me. Why the hell did he even bother? “He’s a client,” I told Peter now and walked over to him. “Now hand over my phone.”
He scowled. “I’ve never heard of clients who talk like this.”
“That’s because you have never worked in a job like mine,” I said wearily, “now give me back my phone, you snoop.”
“I didn’t snoop,” he said indignantly, “it was just there for me to see!”
“Whatever,” I said, not having the energy to have this fight with him. “Just give it back.”
Still scowling, he handed me back and I returned to my search for the ingredient. But Peter wasn’t done. “You don’t date clients at work, do you?”
“For God’s sake, Pete,” I murmured, “I’m not dating anyone, so shut up. Now where the fuck is this spice - “
“Paige,” my brother said, his voice serious.
I closed my eyes, counted to ten, and turned to him. “What?”
“You’ll tell Pat and me if you’re dating anyone, won’t you?” he said, and I saw in his eyes what he didn’t say, what he didn’t need to say.
Because the truth was, I’d never been the same. Not after what happened. Not after putting every piece of me in someone else’s hands, and getting burned for it again. Only that time, it was worse than the one that came before, the one that should’ve been a better reminder that I should be careful, that I shouldn’t trust like that again.
But what else I could’ve done? After everything that happened, I’d thought..
“I will,” I said, my voice louder than it should be, as if I was trying to quell my thoughts with it. “I promise, Peter. Now let me find this damn spice - “
“Do you mean the green one?” he asked, frowning. “We ran out of it last week.”
“What?” my eyes widened. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier, before I started rearranging the kitchen?”
“I didn’t know you were looking for it,” he said, shrugging indifferently.
Dammit. “I’ll have to go to the store, then,” I sighed, and went to my room to put on some shoes. Before I left, I turned to Peter, and said, “Please start cooking the ravioli, at least. You just need to boil some water, and - “
“I know how to cook, Paige,” he cut me off, rolling his eyes. “Go get that sauce.”
Able to breathe a little easier, I said, “You’re the best.”
But as I left, worries nagged me, this time about Orlando. Because this couldn’t go on. How the fuck would I shake him off me, when nothing seemed to work? And what about Nola? Did I need to tell her now, before this escalated more than it already did?
I did need to tell her, I realized with a grimace. It was either that or keep feeling guilty, and I had enough to be guilty for as it was. There was no need to add another baggage to the overloaded trunk.
It might be weird of me, but I liked going to the convenience store after dark. There was something kind of eerie about the fluorescent lights blinding my eyes while outside the pitch-black was pinpricked with dim street lights. It felt like something could happen at any given moment, and the chilling sense of fear mixed with exhilaration was heady in a way it only got after what happened all those years ago. As if it was a sign that something was going to happen. Something that would bring -
“That would be eleven ninety-seven.”
I snapped my attention to the cashier and handed him the money. He put the groceries in a plastic bag, I thanked him, and left the convenience store behind in favor of the dimly-lit darkness.
It was extremely cold outside. I wrapped my arms around myself, the plastic bag hanging down from my wrist, as I began making my way home. As much as I loved the cold, I also had hunch rain would be upon me soon, and the last thing I wanted was to get wet.
As I walked through the streets, I took out my phone and saw I had a new text from Orlando. Since I had no desire to speak to him, I didn’t return reply, and instead texted Nola, asking if we were still having our usual Monday hangout tomorrow night. We needed to talk about what had been happening behind her back, since she deserved to know, and I wanted to make sure it was going to happen as soon as possible, now that I reached that conclusion.
I watched the three dots that signaled she was typing when I suddenly heard a grunt. Snapping my head up, I looked around me. I was only a few blocks away from the tram station that would lead me back home, and the street was completely deserted. Frowning, wondering if I’d imagined things, I looked back at my phone to see that Nola wrote back, ‘ofc it’s still on ;)’
Sighing, I texted her a thumb-up emoji when I heard that grunt again, only closer to me than before. This time I stopped and looked around me. Not far away from where I was standing, there was an entrance to an alley, and I had a hunch the sound came from there. Cautiously, I walked toward the entrance and then dared sneak a peek into it.
What I saw made me freeze in my place.
A man was sitting with his back to the wall a few feet away from the entrance, and he seemed to be in a really bad shape; he was bleeding from his forehead, his hair a dark, wet mess, and his clothes had seen better days, seeing as they were spotted with dark red stains that were a sign of clotted blood. He had a heavy trench coat hung over his shoulders, but apart from that, he was not clothed for this weather.
My heart thumped wildly in my chest. What should I do? Should I offer to help? But what if he was homeless? I knew, logically, that most homeless people weren’t really dangerous, but still…
I knew I had to help him. My conscience told me I would regret it if I walked away, leaving a man who was in such an obvious need for help. It wasn’t in me to just leave him here bleeding and cold, despite the fear that he might assault me. Worst case scenario, if he tried something - which was highly doubtful, since he seemed out for the counts at the moment - I would knee him in the balls and scream my throat out.
Taking a deep breath, I walked into the alley. “Excuse me?” I spoke softly, blood rushing to my ears with adrenaline born of fear and worry. “Sir, are you okay - “
The man raised his head, and I suddenly saw his face in full. It was bloody from the wound in his head, but I could see his broken nose, strong jaw decorated with thick, dark bristles, and bloody lip. But when I spotted his eyes, dark brown irises that were now pointed at me, a jolt of recognition stiffened my spine with terrible shock.
For a few stunned moments, I simply stared at him, my mouth opened. My voice, when it came, was a raspy sound. “Diego?”
His eyes narrowed, and he lowered his head, letting his thick, dark tousles fall around his face, matted and longer than I remembered. “Go away,” he said gruffly, his voice just as deep and low, just as it was in my memories.
I studied the rest of him, my eyes refusing to believe this was him right here in front of me. His body, despite its current state, was just as muscular, his legs stretched long, his shoulders broad, and not an ounce of fat on his belly, only pure muscles that were evident even through his thick shirt. But how the hell did he get himself into this state? And even more so - why the hell was he here, in Boston?
Old pain made my chest hurt, but I shoved it aside. The questions, too, were redundant. It could all wait; right now, he needed help. “We have to get you to the hospital,” I told him, crouching before him.
He raised his eyes back up to me, but they lacked their soul-ripping effect they’d always had on me in the past; he was in too much pain to conjure any kind of charm or charisma at the moment. It was obvious to me, even though his face was carefully controlled, hiding his pain. “Go away, Harper,” he said grittily, his voice weaker than it should be, but firm nonetheless.
It hurt. After all this time, it still fucking hurt, and hearing him calling me by my last name... The old wounds inside me threatened to rip open, to suffocate me, to kill me again. It was as if we were back in that room, where I last saw him, when he...
This wasn’t the time to go there. Not now, and probably not ever again. “Don’t be a stubborn fool,” I said, angry with his obstinacy and my own, searing pain, “you need to get to the hospital and have someone look at these wounds.”
He said nothing, which was an indication of just how bad his state was. And despite him being the shittiest fucking person I’d ever known, I wasn’t ready to give up on getting his ass to the hospital. I leaned forward to grab his arm and it was a mark of how much in pain he was that he’d let me wrap it around my shoulder.
It took me a couple of minutes to haul him up on his feet, but it was hard; he was taller and heavier than me, and he was about semi-conscious right now. I could tell by the way he didn’t even try to fight me on this, and stopped talking altogether. He even leaned most of his weight onto me, and while I didn’t consider myself a fraily woman, it was too much for me to carry.
But I was going to get him to the hospital. The nearest one wasn’t that far from here, in fact, and I could call an Uber in minutes. But first I needed to get him out of the alley, and so, with all of my might, as rain started pouring over us, I dragged him and myself out of the alley, feeling proud of myself for doing something that was right. That felt right.
Because Diego Rivero might have been the shittiest man alive, but he’d still saved my life all those years ago, and now… Now I finally had the chance to pay off the debt.