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Sergio Marquina has always been set on routine, and today should have been no exception. But as his brother said many times during their childhood, “Life is full of surprises hermanito. That’s the beauty of living.”

 

Here’s how his day usually goes: Wait for the neighbourhood coffee shop to open at 6AM. The morning shift barista would have the order ready pronto: cafe americano with extra room for soy milk, to be added later. Be the first person to greet Benjamin the security guard, who’s been manning the hallowed halls of CNI Publishing since its inception. Walking ten floors up counts as his workout. By the time he reaches the top, CNI’s executive floor is still empty and allows him around ten to fifteen minutes to organize the daily schedule in his designated corner jutting the office of -

 

“Raquel Murillo.”

 

His boss.

 

Golden hair held tight in a chignon, adorned by a sharpened pencil amongst the tresses. A phone in one manicured hand and between her ear and shoulder - exposing the alabaster skin wrapped in delicate pearls. Today, in a cape armouring her strong shoulders and covering a sleeveless top with lace details at her decolletage. For the past year, the clickety-clack of her red-bottomed heels has served as Sergio’s alarm clock, warning bell, the soundtrack of his late night fantasies. The last one he tries not to acknowledge in broad daylight, but how can he compete with a goddess every day?

 

“Yes, yes, I want it faster, yes,” she keeps on repeating on her call as she nears the office, and before Sergio could wonder what it would be like to hear that word from her in a different context, his eyes flicker on his boss’s agenda instead - a document packed with tasks from seven in the morning until minutes before midnight and repeat.

 

“Marquina,” she greets in a crisp tone, breaking his reverie over the 8PM marked ‘dinner meeting.’ “My coffee?”

 

“You have to say good morning first,” Sergio answers, holding her coffee cup above his head, far out of her reach even with those heels. She rolls her eyes, familiar with their dynamic since the moment they met last year. Bumping into each other in a closing elevator that resulted in a spilled smoothie and stained spreadsheets is not the best way to meet one's boss, but alas.

 

“Or I can say you’re fired,” she volleys back, and Sergio lowers his hand holding the large cup of coffee with a sly smile on his face. Most of their banter ends with him yielding to her because a) she’s his boss b) no one else in this company can even attempt a joke with her, other than him, for some reason and c) who wouldn’t?

 

Call him a nerd, but she is an equation with all her problems solved. It’ll be easier to recite all the pi numbers after 3.14 over wiping that smirk off her face. That's a challenge he’s willing to take.

 

“Good boy,” she teases, and there’s a crackle between their fingertips as she grabs her beverage. Sergio thinks he has heard her say that before, once upon a late night dream.

 

Raquel Murillo likes to devour people for breakfast, he thinks. And he’s the first bite.

 

“And Marquina?” she adds, looking over her shoulder, the sculpted curves of her back visible even through the cape she’s wearing.

 

“Yes?” He lets out.

 

“We’re firing Angel Rubio today.” Sergio pushes his glasses closer to his face, to hide his raised eyebrows upon hearing what she’s said. He also considers Rubio a less inspired editor at CNI, but he is also a senior member of the company.

 

“You heard me right Marquina,” Always Marquina, never Sergio. “What you heard on the phone was me calling the people on the Tonight Show to get Parker Ellis on tomorrow’s broadcast. It's something that I initially asked Angel to do. I know Ellis hasn’t done interviews for over a decade, but that’s why they call me the miracle worker. With this failure being his last straw…”

 

Rubio doesn’t take the news very well.

 

“You poisonous bitch!” rings throughout the entire office floor later that morning, causing several people to creep out of their cubicles. Sergio, while stunned, stays by his boss’s side, who is calmly shaking her head with a hint of a smile. Every day his colleagues ask him why he continues to work with her, and this is why. She is the best editor in this publishing house, nay the city. What he doesn’t say is that there’s an addendum that states: And to have frequent box seats to her well-deserved takedowns.

 

“You can’t fire me!” Angel huffs out without care. “You’re sandbagging me on this Fallon guesting because you’re threatened by me! Because you have no semblance of life outside of this office, you think that others don’t too! And I'm sorry for you!” The stout man’s eyes are getting redder, but somehow Sergio doesn’t feel sorry. And by the way Raquel is chugging her coffee, neither is she. He’s not even sure if she’s listening.

 

But she throws her cup in the trash and licks her lips with relish. The floor sits at a standstill, waiting for a classic Murillo breakdown.

 

“Listen Angel,” she begins. “I didn’t fire you because you failed to secure a talk show guesting for one of our stalwart authors. I fired you because you are lazy, entitled, incompetent, and you spend more time ogling my ass than you reading manuscripts. And if you say another word, Marquina here is going to call Mari Carmen and tell her about last week’s office party okay? Is that what you want? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have actual work to do.”

 

Sergio slips his hands in his pockets to keep himself from clapping.

 

He gets his co-workers’ concerns, or fears, rather. Raquel Murillo has never exchanged words with a colleague unless it’s a biting comment that hits the bone. She is one of the first people to arrive and last to leave the building. Her day isn’t complete when she hasn’t negotiated a situation in her favour and/or her opponents’ tears.

 

But - as Sergio has observed in his time here - this company has had it for her as well. Aside from the  ass-ogling from Angel, there’s the incessant water cooler gossip about her supposed nasty divorce that’s still being discussed even if it was long before his arrival, so - he can’t blame her for the hardened shell. He doesn’t have the rosiest reputation either. Office recluse, turns down every social invite, still the new guy even a year later. Yet he can’t bring himself to ask about the mysterious Alberto. It’s none of his business, it breaches the workplace trust he’s cultivated with Raquel, and his main objective is to get his own manuscript published.

 

They - meaning she - are called by the top brass for lunch in the steakhouse place next door, and this shouldn’t startle Sergio for Luis Tamayo’s chats with Raquel happen quite often - except it does. For beside Tamayo is a man who’s introduced himself as Alfonso Prieto, an immigration agent.

 

“Ms. Murillo, your visa application has been denied.” There’s a bit of relish in the way Prieto declares this that rubs Sergio the wrong way.

 

But also - what?

 

“What?” Raquel shouts, causing a couple of people from other tables to take a peek.

 

“Raquel,” Tamayo says with a sigh while fidgeting with his suit buttons. “I told you many times not to go to Montreal while your visa is still in process. And you still had the cojones to do so.”

 

“CNI was about to lose Ariadne Truffaut and no one else in my rank was taking action.”

 

“And now we’re about to lose you.” This time Tamayo clicks his tongue, while Sergio thinks he hears Prieto hiss. He can see Raquel’s hands balling into fists under the table. Part of him wants to hold her hand so bad, without any other intentions, but to simply let her know that he’s here.

 

“CNI can still reapply on your behalf,” Tamayo continues, but it sounds like he doesn’t want to. “But you must leave the country for at least a year. We have to temporarily relieve you as well, as this is an American company and Angel Rubio can act as interim EIC -”

 

“Angel Rubio, the guy I fired?” Raquel argues. “You cannot be serious. I am willing to do whatever it takes -”

 

“Pardon me,” Sergio interjects, and immediately winces when three pairs of eyes, with varying levels of daggers, turn to him. “Tori from Fallon’s office left several text messages on your phone” he addresses Raquel, while brandishing the offending device - “and I’ve replied thrice that you’re otherwise engaged -”

 

And Raquel’s pointed look softened immediately, while she takes a deep inhale, as if she’s about to do the unexpected.

 

“Sergio,” Like calling his first name, for example. His name sounds like a melody between her teeth, the way she lingers on the S, the breathy O at the end. How much better would it sound if they’re alone. But when Raquel wraps an arm across his shoulder, her bare skin touching the tweed of his blazer - that's when he feels that he’s ascended to a higher plane.

 

“Luis, Mr. Prieto,” Raquel begins in a sickeningly sweet voice, her grip on Sergio firmer than ever. “I understand the predicament I have put myself in. Mr. Prieto, thank you for taking time off your busy schedule to meet with us today. Mistreatment cases under ICE are a more dire matter, but you’re here instead. And Luis, sir, you don’t want to lose your best editor. So I thought I should let you know...that Sergio and I are getting married."

 

“Isn’t he your secretary?”

 

“Isn’t he on a visa as well?”

 

Raquel kicks him on the shin under the table, while looking at him with fluttering eyes straight from his hidden dreams, which may turn into nightmares. He’s pretty sure a bead of sweat fell down his half-eaten glazed salmon.

 

“I-I prefer executive assistant, Mr. Tamayo,” Sergio coughs out. “And Mr. Prieto, I became a naturalized citizen as a child. I know some kids aren’t so lucky.”

 

“So yeah,” Raquel catches on, “we-we’re two people who weren’t meant to fall in love but did. All those late nights at the office and weekend business trips. My beautiful looks and his...unique charm. We tried to fight it -”

 

“Because of my upcoming promotion -” Sergio interrupts deliberately, and this time it’s Raquel who’s looking incredulously.

 

“Promotion?” Tamayo asks, leaning closer.

 

Prieto howls. “Can’t you see what they are doing sir?”

 

Sergio nods vigorously, ignoring the latter man. He places his and Raquel’s clasped hands on the table before he loses any nerve. “We both felt that it would be very inappropriate, if I become editor while we were…”

 

“Well!” Prieto says. “If you are together like you say you are, I can schedule you for an interview tomorrow, where I will ask every question a couple must know - down to the shoddy details.”

 

“No!” Raquel and Sergio reply in unison. There’s a shared look between them, something deeper than known coffee orders or snide remarks about wardrobes or grudgingly making sure the other gets enough sleep after a long night - beyond camaraderie, there’s friendship. They’re truly in it now.

 

“No,” Raquel reiterates, calmer this time. “I’m meeting Sergio’s family this weekend.”

 

“And where are you from, Sergio?” Prieto sneers.

 

“C-California,” Sergio stutters out. He’s never told anyone, not even her, so he has no idea how she knows about Andres’s birthday.

 

“Raquel, Mr. Marquina,” Tamayo says, rubbing his forehead, "You you must understand Mr. Prieto’s cynicism here. Last time I checked with my secretary, you two are cat and dog. So I hope you both know what you’re doing for if any of this is fake -”

 

“Raquel can be completely deported and will never be allowed back in the States again. While I, as an accomplice can face five years in federal prison and a two hundred thousand dollar fine.” If Sergio feels Raquel’s grip loosen, he doesn’t let it show. “I know what it must look like gentlemen, but with that cat and dog argument, don’t opposites attract? And Raquel,” - he looks at her now, and for the first time, there’s a tinge on her usual bravado, but he gives her an easy smile (we’re here now, might as well go all the way), “is the most special woman I’ve ever met. I mean, look at her. But also, look inside her. I’ve noticed her sharp wit before even looking at her lips. I admire her strength and assertiveness in the company, which bleeds into her, or our, personal life. Working for CNI has been a privilege, but it didn’t become a passion until I saw her fighting for higher recyclable paper use for our manuscripts. She’s....amazing.”

 

It’s the smoothest lie he’s ever told.

 

Raquel seems to think so as well, as they leave the restaurant giving solid handshakes to two very powerful individuals who can break their careers and lives like toothpicks. Her nonchalance is louder than the crowded metropolitan plaza they’ve walked out to, her instructions to buy tickets to California using her black card marches to the beat of his heart beating out of his chest. Now that they’ve temporarily escaped those twin clutches, it’s beginning to sink in: What have they done?

 

“Why aren’t you taking notes?” she scolds, her eyes scanning for a cab in the bustling streets.

 

“You’re giving me that editor promotion, Murillo,” Sergio says through gritted teeth. “Everything I said in that room is real, I need an incentive for it.”

 

There’s hesitance instead of her usual quick fire. “Everything?” she asks softly.

 

“Especially my promotion and the punishment for green card marriages,” he says, walking towards a trash can, ready to throw up fish and vegetables from the high level of anxiety he’s experiencing. “And if you can’t guarantee me editor then I can quit right now -”

 

“Fine!” she shouts, and he turns back around, now more amused than shaken. “What else?”

 

“What do you mean what else?”

 

“I know your deal Marquina,” she pokes his chest, a manicured nail raking over his middle button. “Secretaries cry over your obliviousness, you only join poker nights with the other guys to screw them over - you like negotiations. I mean, isn’t that why you started working with me?”

 

The thin layer of cotton between her finger and his skin warms his insides, like a spark. “If you insist,” he retorts, “I want twenty thousand copies for my manuscript, first run.”

 

“Deal.”

 

“And tell me how do you know about my brother’s birthday this weekend.”

 

Her accusing finger straightens into a palm, and she slides her hands all the way to his stubbled cheek, and she must see him inhale as she raises her already pointed toes to whisper in his ear. A tiny tyrant, as history decreed.

 

“Next time,” she purrs, “tell your family to stop calling you in the office.”

 

“I also want a proper marriage proposal,” he counters, slightly pushing her away. “None of that sarcasm shit.”

 

“What?” she scoffs. Her wandering eyes seem to have focused on the throngs of people passing by them.

 

“You heard me. Kneel.”

 

To his utter shock, Raquel nods, lowering her knees to the ground after placing her purse on the fountain beside them.

 

“Stop! I was joking!” he lifts her back up, his arms hooking around hers. He’s laughing, and to his astonishment she is too. Although it’s more of a light chuckle, a relaxing tune he rarely gets to hear.

 

“You’re a terrible joker, Marquina.”

 

“And you’re just terrible, Murillo.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joder.

 

It’s the word on Raquel Murillo’s mind since Prieto and Tamayo dropped the bomb on her at lunch. It’s what caused her to take an early day for the first time in her fifteen years at CNI. Of course an early day for her is five in the afternoon, so she ignores all the other employees’ looks at the crowded elevator - especially Marquina’s.

 

Marquina, who came into her life after she’s sworn off female secretaries because of Alberto, and after all the other men were either inept or indecent; whose arrival to the company has been driven by the desire to be published; who has looked at her no nonsense work ethic and matched it without fail. If she’s being honest, their back-and-forth quips at each other has been the highlight of her past year.

 

“Murillo.” “Marquina.” Like a well-played chess match.

 

But she supposes it’s Sergio for now, and the foreseeable future. Mierda. She could’ve invented a boyfriend at lunch and brought an escort to the interview? But one look at him - and those warm chestnut eyes...Besides, she trusts him, and he’s asking for something in return. No more different than any other business deal.

 

She pores through the weekly sales from the confines of her white leather couch. The floor-to-ceiling windows provide a vibrant view of city lights over her apartment. She’s never gone home this early, so the chance to take in the space is hard to come by. But the lines and letters start to bleed together on paper. So, she chucks the files back into the briefcase laying on the polished acacia coffee table.

 

Before, there’d been a Raquel who wouldn’t take overtime, would actually use her kitchen to prepare supper, and watch the latest primetime telenovela, without thinking of work at all. That Raquel is classified as pre-divorce. And now in post, she’s defying her phantom loneliness by filling it with presentations and meetings, workouts on the weekend, any strenuous pursuit that’ll tire her brain out by midnight.

 

There have been dates. In fact, she’s supposed to be in one right now, but she’s cancelled it after everything that’s happened; to be in a proper headspace for a man is not in the cards tonight. Maybe she shouldn’t have. A casual fuck could’ve shaken her up some good.

 

She saunters off to the kitchen and pours herself a glass of prosecco from last week’s office party, an event she would’ve declared a bust if she hadn’t spotted Marquina in a corner beside the DJ booth (where she’d decided to take refuge as well to avoid Angel’s invitations to the dance floor).

 

“What are you doing?” she recalls asking Marquina, who hadn’t even bothered to change out of his usual drab ensemble.

 

“I was doing probabilities on how long it would take for you to accidentally spill your martini on Angel, but since now you’re here, I’m thinking of how many times it’ll take for him to spin around the ice sculpture for it to get knocked over.”

 

She remembers snorting champagne out of her nose, and threatening to call HR on him if he ever tells anyone, as he wipes her face off with a handkerchief.

 

Raquel heads to the master bathroom, two glasses down, third in hand, and fills the clawfoot tub. Her hair is still pulled up, so she simply takes off her top and pants before stepping in. The water feels just right, yet she snickers to herself. It certainly has been a while since she’s done this on her own. She takes another sip of the bubbly, lets it freshness rest on her tongue and closes her eyes.

 

She slides her right hand under the water, down her slender stomach and waist, going to trace the curve of her hips. A light gasp escapes her mouth when she moves her fingers around her folds, stunned to find the wetness building up inside of her. She circles her forefinger all over her entrance, as she slips her other hand, sloshing the water in the valley between her breasts. Taking her time, the excitement buzzes on her skin, and she lets out a satisfied groan when she finally grazes a touch over her throbbing clit.

 

Her mind goes back to that date she’s bailed on. She’d met him at her spin class, maybe she could be enjoying this with a welcome companion, for it feels quite strange to hear her moans bounce off the bathroom walls.

 

And yet she can’t see this man’s face, or any man really, her closed eyes only reveling in the sensations, on how loose she’s become, savoring an evening without work or personal issues. She makes a mental note to do this more often, and smiles to herself. Keeping her right hand on her clit, she presses the nub further, and hovers her left down her inner and outer lips. For the first time in a while, her mind is nothing but a haze of filthy pleasure. She shudders when she slips one finger inside her, and she’s so sensitive but it’s also not enough, so she deftly adds a second one, teasing her walls with tender strokes, before thrusting both index and middle to the hilt. She bites her bottom lip hard as she lets herself get lost in her instincts, listening to what her body craves.

 

She finds herself imagining the fingers not being her own - they’re longer, rougher. Something she can suck on once they’re done with her. Hands that can cover her lithe frame, that can touch her hard and gentle at the same time, that can plunge fast in and out of her, make her feel so full, while soothing her clit slowly. Someone who knows how far she can take it without breaking her. Sharp nails dig into the supple flesh of her thigh, shaping faint crescent moons on her skin. She feels herself peaking now, and her core starts to clench when she introduces a third finger. Her left leg finds its way on the side of the tub, opening her further, sending shivers down her spine.

 

The image in her head is getting clearer - lips nibbling on her ear, a stubbled face nuzzling her cheek, teeth marking the dip of her collarbone, tongue licking a stripe on her neck. How she wishes she had the forethought to get her bullet from the bedroom but it’s too late, she’s far too drunk, and not because of the sparkling - Her other hand slides back up to squeeze her tits to the rhythm of her movements below. She hears silken grunts of encouragement behind her as she arches her back, the volume of her moans increasing with every thrust, reaching the spot inside of her repeatedly, and she’s so close, she can reach the crest with her slick -

 

“Yes Murillo, say it louder,” the voice in her head says, and the moment is broken with a squeak. She stills her hands, one still inside her, the other stopped toying with her nipple. The chandelier hanging above her is blinding all of a sudden, and she dunks her head in the water. Of all the men in the whole world - why on earth did her subconscious summon Sergio Marquina? Her executive assistant, explicitly her employee. And as everyone at CNI has dubbed him, a big fucking nerd.

 

And there’s the appeal isn’t it. This straight-laced man who carries her morning coffee order with the same weathered book bag every day. His unassuming posture sheathed in a color wheel of brown-black-gray. His disarming sincerity towards her and disdain for office hubbub. From what she hears in the ladies’ washroom, there’s an air of mystery surrounding her EA - a barrier she might pierce through this weekend.

 

Joder. The events of earlier come flooding back in an instant. When she rises, the water is still warm, and her hands are absentmindedly still rubbing her body. She pauses, thinks how her world’s gone upside down anyway and -

 

She continues touching herself, shifting her fingers in the same rapid manner as before, while her other hand plays with her breasts - alternating between both hardened buds, and she’s back to where she was. She’s panting embarrassingly now, she just needs that little push, something to get her off the edge -

 

“Kneel,” Sergio’s voice returns in her head, and she comes with her eyes wide open.

 

It’s an arduous task to cook for one, but after a long day and some physical activity, the hunger in her belly isn’t dissipating any longer. Plus, making a late dinner for herself is far more stimulating than her usual takeout order.

 

She takes a couple of potatoes out of the burlap sack, the bag’s colour matching her kitchen island; rinses then peels them until they’re russet yellow. She pares the unskinned starch into paper thin slices, though she’s not paying attention to its uniformity but rather, how the sound of her knife cuts through the silence. Grabbing paper towels from the wooden dowel beside an empty fruit basket, she pats the slices dry, and places them in a large bowl. It’s norm to mix in salt but she tosses it in instead, letting the potatoes bounce off the stainless material.

 

It takes little time for her nonstick pan to heat up a cup of oil, and the potatoes make a lovely fizz when they land on the pan. She really hadn’t thought of what to make for dinner, but as she stares at the starch cradling in oil, it’s clear that she’s been yearning for that slice of home - just not at the extent of a career she’s worked so damn hard for.

 

Refrigerating eggs baffles her to this day, but it’s a habit she’s adapted, mainly because trips to farmers markets come few and far between. She beats cold white and yolk into the same bowl she’s used earlier, sprinkles some pepper aside from the residue salt. She adds the eggs in the potatoes, and stirs them well into the familiar mixture. She scrambles back to check if there’d been onions in the fridge, but by the scarcity she’s discovered it’s lucky her eggs hadn’t gone bad at all.

 

She fries the solidifying eggs and potatoes over low heat, takes the only ceramic plate that she usually uses for breakfast, and covers it over the pan. She flips the plate quickly, and it isn’t a tortilla without egg slipping out, but it’s been a while since her kitchen smelled like actual food and not air freshener.

 

As she sits down on the stool, it comes back to her that this tortilla serves one, and she isn’t even going to her apartment-sanctioned dining room to eat. Looking at the big-numbered clock above the sink; it’s not even late enough for her to sleep yet. But that’s when she gets the idea.

 

Her laptop immediately catches the call.

 

“Hello Ma? Can you hear me?” Raquel calls out to the screen. She sees her mother, in a floral dress she must’ve sewn herself, being assisted to a chair by Paula, the caretaker she’s hired before moving to the States.

 

“Is that Raquel?” she hears her mother say. “I’m Marivi, your mama.”

 

“I know, Ma, I know,” she drops the bite of tortilla for a moment. Raquel remembers the Alzheimer’s diagnosis like it was yesterday.

 

“Como estas hija?” Marivi asks cheerfully, Raquel can’t help but place her hands on her head. Paula has left the screen’s view, but she knows she’s nearby to look after her mom, just in case she gets frustrated with the iPad.

 

“It was shit, Ma,” escapes out of her mouth, and all the ugly details of today comes rolling out as well. “My morning still starts with people talking about my divorce, about Alberto, about how I have a stick up my ass, I had to fire another person today and he humiliated me in front of the whole office. I’m being punished for my citizenship when I was simply doing my job, and I may have gotten engaged to a man I have many conflicting thoughts about -”

 

“Hija, tranquilo,” her mother replies with that serene smile from her childhood, and Raquel snorts, realizing that her nose has gone runny from her tirade. It does help however, as she takes a deep breath, before continuing to eat dinner.

 

“I must say I did not understand half of what you just said,” Marivi admits with a laugh, “but what I do know is that you are the strongest woman I know. And it’s not because I raised you! I didn’t even want you to leave my side but you fought for your dreams by traveling to America with determination and a dictionary. I’m always proud of you no matter what.”

 

Raquel pencils in these phone calls once a week at best, usually around Sunday afternoon after she’s exhausted her weekly schedule - but tonight she’s really needed it. Even the simple tone of her mother’s voice can calm the storm in her head, her words even more so.

 

“Thank you, Mama,” she sniffs out. “You always know what to say.”

 

“De nada, hija. Now, why is that tortilla burnt?”