It was nearing the end of November when, on Tuesday morning, Nola came by my desk and said, “Clear your schedule for the evening. You’re joining me for a wine tasting with the Workeen people.”
I grinned. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
She shot me a meaningful look. “You’ve been working your ass off lately and I want you to have some fun. And the Workeen guys are fun,” she winked.
That made me chuckle. Ever since the Workeen founders and CEO had come by our office that one time when I’d been out with Orlando and to sign the DJ, they were all that interested the girls in the office. Gabby, who’d been the one to serve them coffee, had become especially popular, since she’d been the one to serve them coffee when they were in a meeting with Nola, and she couldn’t help but constantly talk about how hot they were, and how a specific one caught her eye. The same man seemed to have caught not just her eye but the other girls, and even Nola, who mentioned him in passing.
I, however, tuned out all the Workeen guy-talk. I’d never been interested in this kind of talk, and even when I did listen in to Gabby telling everyone about those guys, I Googled ‘Workeen’ and found only a picture of the CEO, who was a man in his late thirties and, while he was quite handsome, he wasn’t on par with what everyone said. He certainly wasn’t the “tall, dark, and hot” that Gabby kept on gushing about, who was probably one of the two founders, but for some reason, when I got curious and looked for pictures of them online, I found nothing. All I knew, from inserting Nola’s meetings with them in the calendar, was their last names - Rios and Suarez - and nothing more.
“Count me in,” I said, giving her a wide smile. “But I’m coming for the wine only.”
She shook her head. “You’re going to talk differently after you see them. You should definitely hook up with one of them - but please refrain from doing so until after that event is over.”
I chuckled weakly. “Sure.”
She left, and I looked as she disappeared into her office. I’d been lying to Nola all this time that I was hooking up with men left and right. It was easier than to talk about why I didn’t want a relationship, or why I didn’t truly look for even a hookup. It was easier, but it also made me feel guilty; Nola had this perception of me, and yet it was untrue.
It didn’t matter, though. What’s done is done. Sighing, I went back to work, taking my mind off things for a while.
When it was time for lunch, I got a text from Peter asking if I was free to have lunch with him, since his class got cancelled. Since I would always be free to have lunch with my baby brother, I said yes, and we met at our favorite Italian restaurant a few blocks away from my office.
I hugged him when I saw him, and he hugged me back tightly, laughing. “Hello to you too,” he said affectionately as I let go.
Smiling, I pressed a kiss to his cheek. “Hello, baby bro.”
He rolled his eyes as we entered the restaurant. Right after we sat down and ordered - he his favorite calzone and I the minestrone soup - Peter gave me a sudden, serious look that made me come to attention. “I saw that man this morning.”
It was as if someone switched off the sound, and all I could hear was a long, beeping sound. Because there was no mistake as to who “that man” referred to.
But I was better than this, I thought, angry at myself for the initial reaction, and so I straightened in my seat and let the sound come back to my ears. “Did you say hi?” I asked, aiming to sound indifferent. Fake it until you make it and all that.
“No,” Peter scowled, “he was on the other side of the street and didn’t see me, so I didn’t bother.”
The focaccia arrived, our usual first course, and I grabbed a slice and dipped it in balsamic vinegar. “That’s not very polite,” I said, relieved that I sounded normal, like I couldn’t care less, while inside me all sorts of emotions whirled around, fighting one another.
“You saved his life,” my brother said crisply, “we’re even now. I don’t owe him anything. Not even a greeting.”
I looked up at him as I took a bit of the focaccia, even though I was suddenly not very hungry. “That’s your prerogative.”
He didn’t seem to like my attitude, because he began to say, “You haven’t started - “
And I had to cut him off. “No, I haven’t.”
He still didn’t seem happy. Whatever reaction he wanted to get out of me, he wouldn’t get it, because it wasn’t there, and if I just kept telling myself that, maybe it really wouldn’t fucking be there.
After that night, when I’d found Diego, Peter had been worried. He got so worried that he almost called Patrick to tell him about the whole thing, but I talked him out of it by promising him I was okay, and that what went on that night was between Diego and us, and there was no need to pull Patrick into it and worry him, too.
But Peter was restless. He was scared I would fall to the same pit I had six years ago. Since I was constantly worried about him, too, I understood that, but I had to make a few things clear - both for him and myself. “I’m not going to try and find him again,” I told Peter evenly, catching his eyes so he would know I was serious. “I didn’t succeed last time, and I have no intention to bother with it this time around. I paid off our debt. That’s all there is to it. Now promise me you’ll drop it.”
Peter grimaced and said nothing for a while. When our main course arrived, he finally said, “I’ll drop it, but fact is, he’s back in the city, and you might see him again.”
I gave him half a smile. “I don’t think it’s likely, Pete.”
And while he wasn’t convinced, he didn’t have anything else to say, and so, at least, this conversation came to an end.
“Which wine shop was it again?” I asked Nola later that day, as we were in her car on the way to Dedham. Usually, we worked with a specific wine shop in Jamaica Plain, in which Nola got some good deals, but this time, we were heading farther south for just, pardon me, some wine.
“Ahh,” Nola grinned. “The good things that come with working for the Walkers. They let me have fifty percent off all their wines - and their wine shop is in the top twenty of the country, you know. It usually costs a fortune.”
This was an awesome deal indeed. “It’s good that you’re friends with Orlando, then,” I said, then frowned. “Is he going to join us?”
“Well, of course,” Nola said, “it’s his wine shop now.”
Of course it was.
We arrived at Dedham after forty minutes and Nola parked next to the wine shop in question. We entered the place, and Orlando was already there, looking as if he stepped out of a GQ photoshoot, wearing a buttoned white shirt, tailors trousers, and sleek white shoes. His hair was neatly brushed to the side, shining from the cream he’d probably applied to it, and his face was clean and fresh, his smile showing a row of straight, extra white teeth. He could be a walking advertisement for Colgate if he wanted to.
“Nola,” he said and hugged my boss, who clung onto him in return.
“Orlando,” Nola said as she let go. “Thank you for having us and for all that you did for me.”
Orlando cupped her cheeks and smiled softly. “You’re very welcome.”
She blushed, and I felt my insides clench with irritation. I hated men like Orlando the most. He might not mean to come off as flirty, but that’s exactly what he was doing.
Turning to me, Orlando’s smile became fixed. “We meet again, Paige,” he said, and there was a monotonous undertone to his voice now, as if he couldn’t be bothered with me and was only greeting me out of pure practicality.
Not that I minded that, really. It was much better than his nagging text messages. “So we do,” I said, giving him a curt nod.
His lips twitched, as if he found my cold demeanor funny, but just then, Nola said, “The others should come in any moment. Would you mind bringing us some wine to start the evening?”
Orlando looked back at her and nodded. “I have a special brew I think you might like,” he said, and snapped his fingers. Out of thin air, it seemed, a worker appeared at his side. “Bring me the bordeaux blend from Chateau Petrus.”
The way Orlando ordered his worker made my lips turn downward. If there was something I found truly distasteful, it was when people treated service providers with a high-and-mighty behavior, and it didn’t matter if the service providers were their employees; there was a way to talk to a human being, and not even saying “please” and using that arrogant, condescending snap of fingers…
The worker returned with a red wine bottle that, if I didn’t see its three-zeros price tag, I would’ve thought it was some cheap, ten-dollars wine you could find in every convenience store. Orlando expertly uncorked it, and I knew he was doing it just to show off, because when he was done, he handed the bottle back to the worker and took out three glasses from the cabinet near him and ordered the worker to pour.
Nola didn’t seem to notice any of that, though, or if she did, she totally didn’t mind it, because she seemed to enjoy herself as she sipped the wine, chatting with Orlando about the past again, bringing up stories.
I was nursing my own glass, tuning them out, staring at nothing ahead, when the entrance door opened, and Nola said excitedly, “They’re here.”
Putting on a polite smile, I turned around, and froze. I blinked, and for a few moments, I was sure I must be dreaming. But then, as Nola shook the hands of the three people that were about to join us, and she turned to one of them specifically, a man who was now giving her smile as she talked to him with eyes full of awe and respect, a reaction I’d seen him incite in so many people in the past, I found that I couldn’t breathe.
The men didn’t notice me there at first as Nola led them toward us. They were focused on whatever Nola was saying - something about the wine shop and the Walkers - and, then as if through a vacuum, I heard, “...And this is my private assistant, Paige Harper.”
As if he couldn’t believe his ears, the man turned around slowly, and when his wide dark brown eyes met my shocked ones, it was as if everything else disappeared; the room, the smell of grapes, the people, the floor. It was just us in a void, staring at one another, and this time, he was no worse for wear, completely healed from his wounds, and that, I realized with a jolt, had been a barrier the last time I saw him. It had been a necessary barrier, because then, I’d only focused on making sure he was okay and getting better. I could’ve put everything else in the back of my mind and didn’t even have to address any of it properly, because he was unconscious, and when he wasn’t unconscious he hadn’t been exactly lucid, and so I could handle, and I did handle it.
But now, Diego Rivero was fully conscious, not a wound in sight, and, somehow, not only he looked better than when he’d been beaten up - obviously - but he also passed his twenty-six-year-old self with how good he looked right now. His hair, the wild curly dark mess, was longer than it was back in the day, and it was pulled into a messy, tiny ponytail at his nape, that somehow gave him a Zoro look that was ridiculously sexy. His face was even more masculine and beautiful than it was, with a stubble decorating his strong, stubborn jaw, looking way more neat than he did when I found him in that alley. And then there was his body; he was just as tall, just as muscular, wearing dark jeans and a black tee under a dark brown trench coat, combat boots at his feet, and if in the past his clothes were always faded and worn out, his clothes now were obviously new, and they were obviously the same designer brands that Orlando wore.
He had the same air about him as he always did, too. The air-sucking charisma that made it seem like he was in charge no matter where he went. It was stronger than it used to be, and it made me feel so small, so tiny, so insignificant; his charisma evolved into a form of pure overwhelming intimidation, and it made me want to take a step back, to run, to never look at him again.
Because now that I saw him, the pain, hatred, loss, the longing… It all rose inside me, threatening to make my knees buckle, threatening to take away everything I’d built for myself in the past six years. It was as if I was twenty again, watching him in that hospital room, begging him to say something, begging him to not do this again, to not push me away…
Someone grabbed my hand and I sucked in a breath, almost jumping in place. I whipped my head to see Orlando easing the wineglass from my hold, putting it on the counter behind me. “You were clutching it so tightly, it would’ve broken,” he said, but my eyes already made their way to the man again, the man who was staring at me, and whose face was inscrutable, closed off, and it was like no time had ever passed.
“It’s nice to meet you, Miss Harper.”
My heart lurched in my chest as I turned to see one of the men approaching me, his hand stretched out to shake. This was the CEO of the company, Elijah Manning. I shook his hand numbly, opting for a polite smile, but my facial muscles were unable to move. Not when my entire world was threatening to crumble. I did manage to croak out, “Nice to meet you, too.”
Then, the other man in the group of three came forward to shake my hand. “Marco Suarez,” he said as he clasped my hand, “co-founder of Workeen,” and when I looked at his face, the slanted dark eyes and the mop of black hair, the tall, athletic build, I suddenly recognized him. He wasn’t just the guy who’d come with that tattooed doctor to pick Diego up when I brought him to my place two weeks ago, but he was also Marco, the guy I had a faint recollection of from that awful New Year’s Eve six years ago. It was at his apartment in Queens that the party was thrown, and it was at his apartment when I’d almost made a fool out of myself.
When he let go of my hand, moving to shake Orlando’s like Elijah did, as if he was a magnet, my eyes snapped to Diego at once. He stepped closer to me, stopped when he was a safe distance away. “Harper,” he said, his voice deep and low,
“Get out of my room.”
My emotional war had a victor, and cold, hard rage filled me up to the brim, almost to a breaking point. “Rivero,” I said, my voice chillingly flat.
I was not the same Paige from six years ago. I would not succumb to the feelings he, apparently, still incited in me. And I would never, ever put myself in a place of vulnerability, of hope, wherever Diego Rivero was concerned.