There’s a noticeable difference between her executive assistant and the man she’s engaged to. Subtle, but to Raquel who’s always had an eye on Sergio, it’s palpable and real. And she files each one into a binder of her own mind.
Her hands are empty as they exit the airport. All the more for her arm to circle his as he carries her luggage and his duffel bag. Marsella’s their welcome party this time, and he greets them with a curt smile and a black sedan. Sergio hugs the man with one arm, the other refusing to part from her. Their fingers remain intertwined on the car ride to the hotel, lacking the desperate intensity from before. The looseness in their hold eases Raquel’s insides as much as the sunrise. They can relax because it isn’t going to be the last time.
Instead of a simple reminder to grab breakfast, he urges her to order out the entire room service menu with a twinkle in his eyes. He peruses the suite’s amenities, grabbing a bottle of water from the minibar without batting an eye. He’s mentioned they’re on a schedule still, no need to worry. But with every languid step he takes while pacing around the spacious room, the further Prieto’s threatening statements flit from her memory.
There’s a newfound sense of humor in him that winks at her instead of pulling away from her gaze. It flutters the butterflies in her stomach that she’s uncovered this new facet of his personality. In example:
“To our dear passengers, before we make our descent into San Francisco, please make sure all your small items are safe and secure.”
Sergio shoots her an intense stare that has her cupping her face, searching for a ketchup stain or smudged lipstick - “Is there something in my face?” she ends up asking anyway, and he shakes his head.
“Are you safe and secure?” he’s so earnest in his question, the joke doesn’t click on her until the seatbelt sign lights up.
The kiss he places on her balled-up fist (ready to strike) is as gentle as morning dew.
The Sergio she’s about to marry is a touchy man, and that’s the most welcome change of all.
“Oops.” His elbow grazes her shoulder while reaching for the toothpaste. There is also more than ample space between his-and-her sinks. Whatever tiredness in his eyes crinkle into crescents. All she can do is stare back at his reflection with a minty grin of her own.
“Wow,” is all he can say when she emerges out of their ensuite bathroom in one of the few clothes she’d shoved into her carry-on. A white sundress that goes down to just above her knees with short puffy sleeves and flower cutouts across the neckline. Perhaps it had been her subconscious’s way of nudging her in the right direction. Toward Sergio clad in the suit from her dreams. Handsome charcoal-coloured shawl lapels and thick-rimmed glasses, holding up two slim ties in similar shades of red.
“Don’t wear one,” she blurts out, her eyes zone in on the loose top button on his ecru shirt. There’s a trail at the exposed skin of his collarbone to his bobbing Adam’s apple she’d very much like to follow.
“No?” he replies, setting both pieces of fabric onto the king-sized bed. There’s a playful smirk splayed on his face as he strides to her. His hands reach for her own, massaging her clammy palms. Then his thumb strays away up her wrists, drawing circles as if breathing a new life into circulation. In a way, he is. His touch moves further up her bare skin, and she exhales when he strokes her neck. The scar in the back slithers at his warm flesh as he sweeps the hairs caught in her dress out of the way. His wandering settles into her reddened cheeks, delicateness reflecting the unabashed wonder in his eyes. And she doesn’t know whether to feel self-conscious or teary-eyed.
“You’re incredible, Raquel,” he rasps out, the hoarseness of his voice at the break of dawn prickling on her skin.
“Yeah?” she croaks back. Her own hands find purchase on the soft press of his shirt. The taut planes of his chest contracting under her fingertips. “I had this white maxi in my closet that would’ve been better for this occasion. But it’s en route to my mother’s house - plus my makeup is so bare -”
“Marsella’s down the hall if you want or need anything for yourself, that’ll make you feel at ease. I’m sure he can procure for you without problem. I, on the other hand, think you’ve already knocked me off my feet just the way you are.”
Her first bridal gown had her cinched and prepped for the altar. A pouffy affair that had several feet of silk train. A billowing skirt with an embroidered waistline. A tight heart-shaped bustier that’s taken all the oxygen out of her lungs. And lace sleeves that her former mother-in-law had requested despite the projected heat on the day of the ceremony. With her own mother’s intricate veil framing her painted face, she’d looked every inch a perfect bride. But inside, she was a jumble of nerves threatening to break out at any second. The garment she’s wearing now may not even belong in church by other’s standards. But neither of them are particularly standard - in fact, aren’t they defying norms by facing each other right now? But they’ve already defied so many odds, yet they stand together, in every sense of the word, so what’s one more?
“Nope,” the ‘p’ pops between her glossed lips in nonchalance. The breezy sway of her short skirt emphasizes the lightness wrapping her insides, dancing with thrill instead of anxiety. She takes a step back but keeps a hand on his torso, staring at the fading tan line on her ring finger with a smile. “I think I already look great.”
“So great,” he agrees with an enthusiastic nod that rattles his glasses. His hands coast down to circle her waist. “In fact, do we even need to leave this room when we could test the bed and -”
She smooths her other hand to his pliant lips, brushing over his beard. His aftershave smells of subtle redwood and a tinge of sweetness. It reminds her of his home up in the valley. And she has half a mind to take him up on his offer.“If you want me to still be here by tomorrow, and I really, really do, we have to show up for that appointment. But later…”
Sergio’s wide palm splays over her bare knee as his oxfords tap a staccato beat over the sleek marble flooring. From its curved wooden benches to the painted frescos on the ceiling recalling mythic tales, the San Francisco City Hall shatters Raquel’s preconceived notions of a government building. But with a never-ending hallway and imposing stares of deific sculptures comes a looming weight dangling over their heads at what they’re about to do, hovering with the potent excitement of being with the man she’s fallen for without the ticking fear of a flown-in immigration agent.
“You look very beautiful. Both of you.” With them is Marsella, their requisite witness. (“And photographer. I am a man of many talents.”) She hadn’t had the chance to see him much during their whirlwind of a weekend due to harvest season. But she can surmise that he’s a man of few, but profound words. “You remind me of my pet dogs.”
“What?” Sergio echoes her sentiment. She’d laugh at his confused frown if her eyes weren’t focused on the waiting numbers above the marriage license office. 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, forever and ever...
Marsella’s unfazed by their reaction to his analogy, and pushes through. “Pamuk saved me when I was overseas, and we found Sofia in the local shelter on the day she was supposed to be put down. They bark at each other a lot, but they and their puppies have taken over my house. I even have pictures of their wedding too. Their groomers were very passionate in dressing them up, do you want to see pictu -”
- Thank goodness.
Obtaining their license is less awkward than the wait. The clerk has no patience for chitchat. Sergio, who’s very good at his job, produces all the necessary paperwork and its photocopies with a wink at her direction.
Her first wedding had been a grand, verbose event. She’d presumed that came with getting hitched with a celebrated author in the literary scene. Combine that with Alberto’s ego that she mistook for confidence. The confetti had blinded her. Their reception DJ was too loud. She’d been dazzled by the groom’s disarming smirk to notice her mother’s qualms on the sidelines. The edge in the best man’s tone when he joked his friend could do better. Her own shaky voice as she followed the priest’s robotic intonation of their vows echoing out in a hollow yet packed cathedral. Her senses had been overwhelmed to the brink that she would have swam in the ink marking her as a wife.
But in this nondescript office, surrounded by other office workers and couples with unbridled intentions, there isn’t a hint of suffocation that cloaks over Raquel like a veil. Only pure sunlight filters through the huge Baroque windows. She signs her name in cursive next to Sergio’s meticulous handwriting. Their signatures overlap the other like invisible strings tying a tangible union in salvation paper. She leans on Sergio as the clerk drones on the next steps. A soft chuckle leaves her lips for her head barely reaches the strong curve of his shoulder even with her tallest heels. He places his hand against the small of her back in reply. It fills her with bubbling warmth that comes from not being someone’s wife. But rather a woman who has chosen to share her life with someone who keeps her heart.
“Raquel.” He’s her husband now. Maybe it’s the rays bouncing off the dome of the rotunda, a robust open space that leads to a grand staircase where others are waiting to be wed as well, but there’s a halo around his head, crowning that handsome grin reaching his ears.
“Cariño.” The moniker rolls off her tongue in a most delicious way, building a home in the roof of her mouth to say over and over.
In his hand swings a familiar golden chain - his mother’s - her mother-in-law’s - bracelet. With the gemmed dove charm joins a simple blue sapphire. It’s carved into a traditional diamond shape sparkling against the sunlight. Brambles swathe around her throat in the best way.
“I took the liberty of getting the bride something old, while Silene’s sapphire acts as new, borrowed, and blue. You really did a number on my sister, Raquel.”
“How presumptuous, Mr. Marquina,” she teases, but extends her wrist out anyway. A coy smile lingers on her lips as Sergio fixes the trinket around her with a fitting clasp. She wiggles the charms together and they sound like wedding bells. “Or perhaps it’s that assistant’s perspective working in your favour.”
“I prefer the term ‘drowning man’s hope,’” Sergio replies, his thumb brushing over her pulse, making her heart accelerate with every pass. “Because I would’ve sunk had you left the country - left me - that way.”
“Shall we begin?” Marsella escorts the judge to their assigned spot. She is an elderly woman in complete judicial robes, minus the powder wig. “Oh, what a good-looking couple.”
Raquel doesn’t miss the creeping blush on her husband - husband’s! - cheeks.
It’s interesting how - in her initial turn as a bride - her perception had rendered her more acute than usual. Her eyes had squinted at the stained glass windows behind Alberto as his ball-and-chain banter with the priest rang through beating eardrums. The scent of candles had permeated her nostrils over the fragrant smell of the rose bouquet she’d clutched with sweaty palms. She’d tasted remnants of her meager breakfast as she repeated after the elegy words that should’ve binded her to Alberto for life.
Today, her sensibilities point to Sergio. Eyes trailing the constellation of spots dotting his face. Ears tuned in to the deep timbre of his voice as he repeats the judge’s calls to action. And when she licks her lips she finds a taste of hotel coffee that they’ve sipped prior to leaving for city hall. Their joined hands are out of the question. This grand, elaborate building may crumble before them, but all she can see is Sergio.
“Does our witness have the rings?” The judge beckons.
Raquel’s eyes widen at this as Marsella pulls out a small velvet box from his suit pocket with a flourish. He hands it to Sergio, who opens it with a shy smile and reveals two gold bands. A plain one with a shimmering finish. The thinner one is an ornate band with a shining round-cut diamond on top that wouldn’t look out of place with the other accessories on her fingers. So many thoughts swirl around her head yet none of them make it past her teeth.
“I guess months of picking after your laundry and personal shopper has paid off huh?” Sergio jokes. She shoves him lightly with her newly-minted hand, and her laugh comes out in a raucous huff, too speechless to say more.
“Oh, the love in your eyes will last you forever, I’m sure,” the judge gushes. “Now, the following part of the ceremony will serve as your matrimonial vows. Both of you repeat after me. I -”
“Take you, Sergio Marquina.”
“Take you, Raquel Murillo.”
“ - to be my lawfully wedded husband -”
“ - to be my lawfully wedded wife -”
“ - to have and to hold -”
“ - from this day forward -”
“ - for better, for worse -”
“ - in sickness and in health -”
“ - until the end of time,” Sergio interjects on the finishing statement, replacing the usual. She raises a piqued eyebrow, and he shrugs. “I don’t think death will part us so...”
“Until the end of time,” Raquel repeats with full credence, tightening her grip on his hands.
When the judge declares, “I hereby pronounce you husband and wife,” a chain unlocks within her. And like all good fairy tales, it’s through a kiss that’s enough to knock her off her feet. Literally, as her keeper sweeps her around with their lips still pressed together. The biggest change from before is this - a dizzying happiness that pauses time. She can hear her own delighted shrieks and his soft laughter, sweet candy in her veins as she plants a peck on his cheek, the bridge of his nose, on top of his head. By the time he’s placed her back down, she can’t discern her lipstick from the flush on his skin.
“You may continue kissing each other,” the judge stammers in amusement, closing her script folder shut.
So they do.
The giddiness coursing through Sergio’s blood bursts like a fine bottle of Marquina bubbly. Sparkling and crisp and tastes of stars, his cork of a heart opened at the most opportune time. But it’s the taste of Raquel’s cherry-flavoured balm that lingers between his lips, the feeling of her deep kiss under a dramatic dome, the sweep of her tongue across his teeth as if a physical meddling of their sworn oath - that sends shivers down his spine and warms his insides more than the San Francisco sun peeking through the car skyroof.
“Sergio,” Raquel cuddles into his beard in a melodic whisper. “Cariño, look at the phone.”
He pulls his gaze from the window and finds Doña Marivi’s pixelated image throwing either coins or rice at the screen, and maybe a smile too from his mother-in-law (!).
“So you’ve swept my daughter away at the very last minute hijo?”
“More like she wrote the path that led me back to her,” he replies without a beat, and Raquel tightens her grasp around his arm, causing his hand to brush over her bare knee, skirting the hem of her sundress.
“You look absolutely stunning, mi hija,” Marivi addresses her daughter, and if he could correct the older woman, that would be an understatement. He wants to count each delicate eyelash, run a finger down the sharp contour of her nose, take out that signature pencil off the top of her head and run his fingers through the golden tresses…
“And Sergio is every bit a man in love as well, I can see those red cheeks from here!”
“Please,” Raquel scoffs, fiddling with the curls falling on his forehead. “I’m the only woman on earth he can stand, and I only married him for his money.”
“And citizenship,” Sergio chimes into the joke.
“And citizenship,” his wife agrees with a giggle that’s as soft as flower petals on an aisle.
“So are you on your way to consummate the marriage?” Marivi asks as if she’s talking about the weather, and he thinks he hears Marsella chortle from the driver’s seat. He blinks and presses a firm finger on the console, willing up the partition between them.
“Well - I see where Raquel gets her sense of humour -” he stutters like a flattened tomato.
“See, Mama? This one’s a gentleman,” Raquel asserts with a high tone of admiration, though he doesn’t miss how her hand on his pant leg has made its way into the inseam, causing his nostrils to flare in panic.
“We’re on our way to lunch first,” she adds, and he doesn’t overlook her smirk mirrored on the phone screen. Her palm splays itself fully against him, and if they don’t reach the hotel in five minutes… “I know with the time difference it must be late there, but I’m sure we’re staying up so I can talk to you all about it later!”
Sergio pins Raquel to the door as it slams shut, closes his lips over her like a man starved; the pencil on her hair flying to the wall with a clatter as she grabs onto his lapels, catching on quick and shrugging it off his wound-up shoulders.
“Wait - wait -'' she mutters between pecks, panting against his mouth. “What about lunch?”
“Fuck lunch,” slips out of him without thought, his arms latching onto the curves of her thighs, and as with a well-synced duet, she wraps herself around him like vines in a lived-in home - if home is a delicious friction slowly burning against his hips, and its roof lies in the flirtatious smile spread across her lips. Her dress hikes up in his clutch and he squeezes hot flesh like he’s never been more alive.
“I didn’t know I changed my name to lunch,” Raquel quips, and warm chuckles reverberate in his throat between heated kisses. It dawns on Sergio once more, and it will take infinite time to finally believe - that he is this majestic force of a woman’s husband, that she’s picked the risk of being with him instead of fleeing on a flight to safety, that he’s vowed to protect her from harm on iron stone - that this is the first time they’re doing this in wedded bliss and it possibly shouldn’t be on the precarious support of a creaking door -
“Sergio -” she gasps out, as he walks them further into the suite, a hazy blur in his eyes save for the strands of golden hair sticking to her alabaster neck, her chest heavy with every pant, the sheen of sweat on her clavicle - when he sets her down on the plush sheets, he might as well sink with her.
A quiet lull falls beneath them as Raquel kicks off her heels and he unties his shoes, shrugging with a shy smile as she snickers at the way he places their footwear neatly at the foot of the bed. He notes the sparse sunlight sifting through thin curtains, white noise from their rustled clothes, how this moment in the height of the afternoon may be the most vulnerable he’s ever felt. “I can’t believe this is real,” he admits.
Raquel reaches for his eyeglasses, divesting it and landing somewhere Sergio doesn’t care for. Her softened gaze shows that they’re together even in this unguarded display. “That real enough for you?”
“We don’t…” he trails off, loosening his hold on the sheets. “I mean - none of this has ever been traditional, so just because we’re married doesn’t mean we have to -”
“Cariño -” She’s not hearing any of it, evidenced by the edge in her sweet tone, her deft fingers unfastening each button on his shirt, stroking the hairs on his chest, as if traversing a winding staircase down, down, down the waistline of his pants. The glint in her dilated eyes is unmistakable when she tugs on his belt buckle. “If you leave me high and dry on this unused bed, you would’ve failed your first duty as husband.”
He swats her hand from his trousers gently, unsurprised yet still agog by her boldness. “Let me take care of you, my way then,” his line comes out more solemn than intended, and unlike their previous couplings that had been paired with looming dread or adrenaline rush, all Sergio can perceive is a distorting calm, cradled in feathers and Raquel’s bracing arms locked around his neck like a locket to be a passed on heirloom. His kisses are delicate over her sundress and on every inch of exposed skin he discovers as he pulls the garment off her body, following heart and instinct until he reaches the part of her that’s yearning the most. She encourages him with a whimper and jutted hips, and it’s that sound that sends him kneeling down the polished mahogany floor.
Wild heartbeats thrumming through his chest abate at the sight of his wife in a flimsy set - the white bustier rising with every pant, the matching panties between her spread legs glistening from a light caress from his digits. He shudders in delight at the sensation, grateful for Raquel’s trust and comfort.
He doesn’t even feel his fingers when he positions her parted thighs on his trembling shoulders, as he leans his head forward to tongue her against the silky fabric, her heady scent through the flimsy barrier enough to rupture his neurons. She flails for his hand and places it on top of her stomach, making him touch the growing tremors on her gut. And if she ends up choking him out with her legs - well, it’s a sweeter death than most.
“Why are you laughing?” she asks, the question getting caught in a whine as he sucks on the bundle of nerves above her folds. “Take them off!”
He obeys her as if they’re back in the office and she’s ordered for a lost manuscript except this time, the file room is her smooth skin, the sheer thong sliding off her like a fresh page of a new chapter, and in a way, this moment is exactly that.
His initial kisses are tentative purrs against the apex of her thighs, and she tugs on his hair with a strength surmounting for more, and he groans at the delicious pain. Her bare heel digs into the muscles in his back, and he laps along the length of her folds in no time, and joder - this must be the taste of delirium.
Sergio doesn’t ever recall being ravenous in his limited experience, but he reckons none of those other women were Raquel, whose symphonic shouts and thrashing hands - seizing the sheets, covering her closed eyes, pawing at her breasts - serve as an orchestra he plays at her direction. His tongue is broad and firm as it parts her, licks at her, pushes inside her. He keeps her thighs propped on his shoulder, and if his fingertips jab too hard into her skin, it’s drowned out by the cacophony of moans erupting from her swollen lips. His nose rubs at her clit as he continues to suck on her center, his dampening beard nuzzling at the trimmed hairs on her cunt, the entirety of his face engulfed in her essence. He sneaks in two fingers to softly pinch at her clit, and she screams, legs shaking and closing around his head as he laps up her orgasm like his own personal oasis.
He pulls himself up a bit and lays his head in the valley between her breasts as they return back to earth with uneven sighs, hands roaming across every inch of skin they can find to ground in gratification. Her heart thrums wildly in his ears and they’re glistening in sweat and sex, but there’s no place he’d rather be, which prompts him to remember what they forgot to declare at city hall in haste. “I wasn’t sure how to breach the subject considering the strange circumstances.” His voice is muffled against her supple flesh. “But I do have personal vows written for you, if I may.”
Raquel lets out a faint chuckle, her traveling touch coming to a halt at the evident strain between his slacks. “The formality of your words considering the vulgar mess you’ve rendered me into, only you Sergio, only you.”
His next inhale is as sharp as she unbuckles his belt with a succinct clank. He lifts his face to see a satisfied smirk in Raquel’s bruised lips, eyes glazed as she feels him through his dress pants, cheeks flushed from the high of her core quivering through the rest of her bare body - a true sight to behold that he pledges to cherish for the rest of his life. Which is why:
“Raquel.” His voice is a loud echo in their comfortable silence. Their heightened nakedness would’ve made him shrivel in a different situation, but Raquel makes him brave. “I’m really sorry that it took nearly losing you for this tin heart to shake off its rust. Look...I am many, many years old and you are my first love. I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to talk about this. Or rather, I forgot how to.”
His gaze darts to the bracelet around Raquel’s wrist, his mother’s charm glinting against the light like a knowing wink. Mi niño pequeno, what good is your brain without the blood in your heart? One day, that smart focus of yours will bleed for love - and I will be there to see it.
Sergio chokes up a laugh. Booking a red eye flight to stop a woman from leaving my poor soul crazy enough for you, mama? “Did you also forget the rest of your vows?” Raquel jostles him out of his stupor, pulling on the garter of his boxers against still sensitive skin. “Because I, on the other hand, have not forgotten.”
“Mi vida, you astound me,” he ekes out with a wry grin. “But from the moment I saw you, hair tied by a pencil and wearing a black turtleneck with its sleeves rolled up to carry posters for the annual school book fair, I just knew. I needed you in my life, and I wanted to work with CNI because of your work with developing writers. I’ve been hooked on everything you’ve taught me. To love, to be strong, to enjoy the sugar rush of bubble tea during late nights in the office. And that the Mamma Mia! Soundtrack is very good. Really...you should’ve played it during regular office hours too.”
And maybe, after the paperwork has been processed, they too, can dash off to Greece and be merry - for a honeymoon. Raquel in a white sundress or nothing at all, just like today, on a little boat where they can fish and cook in the middle of nowhere. “I knew it!” she exclaims, swatting his arm. “I knew Meryl Streep is simply too powerful.”
“She’s no match for my wife, though.”
“I’m already blushing -”
“Or maybe because everything is better because you are with me. Because I am in love with you. And despite a novel’s worth of hijinks, I feel fortunate to say it to your face. For a fraction of a second in that dim office, when I watched you near the elevator, a montage of our time swept through my head. And what I found was that every day, I wished for that daily nine to five grind to stretch into infinite time. Because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
His voice hitches at those last words, and her face swells with both love and pride enough to last him a lifetime. His thumb brushes across the flush of her cheek, the bow of her lip, beautifully smudged from throes of ecstasy. This is more intimate than matrimonial oaths in a ceremony, for there are no other witnesses but their naked souls.
Her fingers latch onto his hair as she pulls him closer, the rings on her hands a cooling sensation contrasting the heat of their bodies as he presses his lips to hers, as if to seal his promise between their one breath, a fitting bookend for his lovelorn secret now out in the open and into her heart, his caress tracing the goosebumps of her flesh once more - the strong curve of her arm, the hardened peaks on her breasts, her taut string of a stomach as he skitters down the vee of her hips…
“Marquina!” she yells, pushing him off her with such surprising force that he doesn’t even realize she’s mounted him until her damp center slides against the painful strain in his unbuttoned trousers, and all he can do is ball his fists, his own exploration skidded to a screeching halt.
But she looks absolutely glorious on top of him, her own ministrations doing a number of her based on the tremulous exhales behind a suggestive smile, and her palms pressed flat on the edge of his fly.
“Because you’ve been such a cute sap, I’m keeping my vows short but sweet. Did you really think I’d have nothing to say to the man who’s brought me back to life?” she sniffles out. “Not even after seven reincarnations could anyone understand the nature of our love for to be honest, I’m still trying to make sense of it myself. My unassuming assistant, a beating heart underneath excel codes and punched numbers, a raging romantic who makes my toes curl and speech falter. You’re a book I will never stop reading, and I - I will prove every day I’m worthy of your front page dedication as we continue to fill our pages together.”
Any reply of his to her heartfelt litany is muffled by an ardent kiss, and with eager murmurs and the sound of his zipper tugged down, they’ve pronounced each other man and wife.