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it takes two

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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?”

Chapter Text

Without looking up, she knows that it’s Marquina who greets her at the boarding gate. Instead of good morning, he plops a thick binder that nearly crushes her thighs. The offending object seems unassuming in black. Except it’s littered with a plethora of coloured tabs up top, each with a printed label. Basics, schooling, favourite things, dislikes, sex. When she’d texted him to prepare information about himself for Prieto’s interview, she shouldn’t have put past her executive assistant to turn it into an archival project. After all, his meticulousness and attention to detail are among the qualities that have endeared him to her. How working at CNI has gotten a lot easier with him around.

 

Her fingers run through the binder’s spine. She thinks about how she can use it to her advantage, but until her visa sorts itself out, she is at his mercy. And it’s not a pleasant feeling, to owe someone a debt, especially for her who has been independent all her life. There’s a constant clock ticking inside her head. Fearing that when it strikes it’ll hit not only her career, but Marquina’s too. Their lives are tied to each other for now. It’s terrifying and exhilarating. To share a part of herself to the only man who hasn’t felt like a stranger for the past year. She supposes she should begin learning about her fiance now. Starting with what he looks like outside of office premises. When she peers up from her sunglasses…

 

He looks different - stylish? He has his own pair of aviators on. A baseball cap obscures part of his face. But the casual leather jacket and dark denim jeans straighten his usual timid posture. It’s almost as if his librarian suits have been hindering this man in front of her right now.

 

Or the bathtub episode she refuses to acknowledge has done irreparable damage to her brain. So she takes one of the coffee cups from the tray he’s holding, and tries not to zoom in on those lengthy, solid fingers. Her legs uncross to point out the vacant seat next to her, and finds herself taking off her straw hat to fix her hair.

 

“Is this what you call light reading for the plane Marquina?” she quips, before taking a sip of coffee: americano with soy milk. Definitely her order. Is it out of habit or is he being thoughtful?

 

“Those are the questions Prieto is going to ask us, I’ve done my research,” he replies succinctly. He unzips his jacket to reveal a crisp white tee clinging to his body a little too tight than his work polos. He takes her invitation and sits next to her, placing his trademark weatherted book bag under. At least that hasn’t changed.

 

“The good news is,” he continues as he removes his sunglasses and places it in his bag pocket. There’s a certain clarity in seeing his crackling chestnut eyes as the sun rises over the windows. “I know everything about you, but the bad news is that you only have a weekend to learn all this about me. I don’t think you even know my birthday, so...you should start studying. That’s why I got you your usual.”

 

“Your birthday’s on September 14, an intern gave you a birthday card that got buried in my agenda.” What she doesn’t bring up is the maroon flush of her cheeks that day. And how she had reached out to a booty call that she’d immediately regretted the next morning.

 

“You know all the answers to these questions about me?” she asks, under the lash as she skims through the pages and sees words like “high school,” “office enemy,” “virginity.” This binder may as well be holding the keys to his weaknesses, but his face shows no trace of vulnerability. His nonchalance unnerves her.

 

“Scary, isn’t it?” he teases, showing her a whole other side of him she’d love to discover beyond the pages of a binder.

 

“A little bit,” she admits. But while she’s only gotten a hand of the encyclopedia Marquina, he’s not the only observer between the two of them. And aside from solving the publishing house’s numbers by lunch, what gets her executive assistant going is an equation. So she turns to him, toes pointed, and challenges: “Alright then - what am I allergic to?”

 

“Almonds,” he answers before she even finishes the question. “And incompetence.”

 

“Oh, that’s funny,” she snorts, and instead of wiping that stupid smirk off his face, she’s smiling now too. “And true. Here’s a good one. Do I have any scars?”

 

“Yeah,” he trails off, his wandering to the back of her neck, massaging the tiny hairs that have escaped her chignon. “You once asked me to buy skin cream for a lunch date, and you’ve mentioned to Torres from HR that it’s a backless dress. That was on September 14th, my birthday, Inspectora Murillo.”

 

“Inspectora?” she inquires with pursed lips, holding onto a deep inhale from his perusing hand.

 

“It’s what I used to call you when I started,” he shares. “You’re always looking for something to criticize about me. You couldn’t fault my work ethic, so you went for my clothes instead.”

 

It’s the only way I can look at you without it being strange, she thinks.

 

“You know, it’s exciting for me to experience you like this,” she says instead, glancing at his suede green sneakers. Nothing to fault today - or ever. “Feels like I’m the first student to get to know the Professor. You know that’s what they call you right? In the office?”

 

He nods, shrugs. “Well then, Ms. Murillo,” he snaps the binder in her grasp. The low, buttery way he’s uttered her name seems to have stirred a stark thought in her mind, a memory of running water. She needs to catch her bearings fast. “If you are my star student, whose place do we sleep at, yours or mine?”

 

“Easy. Mine.”

 

“Why not mine?”

 

“Because my living room faces the Empire State Building. And you probably live in some squalid little studio apartment with too many textbooks and not enough shelves.”

 

“Passengers on Flight 618 to San Francisco, we are now preparing for boarding. Starting with guests on zone one!” Raquel throws her head back upon hearing the announcement. Why didn't the attendant speak a second sooner to prevent the literary vomit she’s let out. Remorse weighs heavier with Marquina’s large palm cradling the back of her head.

 

She knows she’s struck a chord with what she’s said, as he doesn’t say a word after that. Not while they’re on the line for boarding, where she peeks at his actual reading for the flight. Marriage and the Immigration Law . An unflattering amount of guilt churns at her stomach as he simply points to their assigned seats in first class. And when the lock on his pod shuts close without preamble, she lets out a loaded sigh.

 

It’s a six-hour flight to San Francisco, so she thanks the company air miles for springing up with amenities. Aside from a wider screen, unreal legroom, and enough plugs to charge her phone, laptop, and camera, on the right side of the armrest is a refrigerated cubby containing cool lemon water and caffeinated energy drinks. Those will definitely help her in cramming about Sergio. The first page entitled “Basic Facts” is enough to beset. While she does know his birthday and phone numbers (both work and personal), it reveals that his address is located in the building next to hers. Well. Joder.

 

She swears she’s planned to go through more than a chapter. But unfortunately, sleep takes no prisoners. And by the time she’s awake, the pilot’s announcing the plane’s descent. Disconcerted, Raquel turns to the pod across hers and sees no one. She doesn't notice its tall occupant walking towards it.

 

“I went to the washroom,” Sergio reports, while putting his seatbelt back on. “We’re thousands of miles above ground, Raquel. Did you think I could bail?”

 

“No,” she retorts defensively. Although her limbs still ache from falling off a dreamt-up building.

 

He’s still in a sour mood when they disembark. Although he wordlessly takes both of their luggages from the baggage carousel. She mumbles her thanks, and cannot wait for the cab ride to the hotel she’s booked for them (separate rooms, of course). She can feel the collapse on the fluffy bed and fresh start tomorrow. But upon reaching the arrival area, they are greeted by a hulking man with a round belly. He carries a sign in cardboard that spells loud and clear: SERGIO. The O is drawn into a smiley, which matches the man’s expression.

 

“Profesor! It’s been so long!” the man exclaims, his unkempt beard bouncing off his chin as he hurtles toward them.

 

“You see, Inspectora,” Sergio whispers in her ear. His voice hoarse against her skin, and she almost drops the binder on her boots. “If you’ve already read the high school tab, you’d know that Profesor has been my teenage nickname.”

 

There’s a smirk on his face now, even if it’s at her expense. It turns into a genuine smile as he extends his arms for their welcoming stranger.

 

“Helsinki!” he shouts, and both men greet each other in a tight embrace. His name is what?

 

“And you must be the famous Raquel Murillo,” the man named Helsinki turns to her. Without warning, he lifts her feet off the ground in a bear hug. She glares at Sergio, who’s gazing at this exchange with laughter in his eyes. Whenever his family contacts him through the office, she’s only ever heard his older brother Andres. So Raquel has no idea what this burly man’s relation is with her executive assistant.

 

“Tell me,” Helsinki remarks after letting her down. He’s posing in silly stances while dressed in a colourful Hawaiian shirt that’s a splash of colour against people passing in suits. “Is my uniform to your liking or do I have to take off a few more buttons?”

 

“Come on, Helsinki,” Sergio cuts in before she can speak, as his arm drapes around her. The heat of his hand passes through the thin fabric of her tee. He’s staring at her with an expression she can’t decipher, but one she doesn’t mind seeing more often. “Don’t overwhelm mi novia , she’s still waking up from her first class nap.”

 

When Raquel hears the word novia , it dawns on her that they’ve landed in California. And Sergio is already on game mode. She needs to catch up quickly. So she clasps her hand with his wrapped around her shoulder. Her slim fingers fit frighteningly well with his long ones.

 

Helsinki continues to take over the conversation on his Jeep. But she's not left out, as he asks equal amounts of questions to both her and Sergio. She learns that Helsinki’s birth name is Mirko. But no one calls him that after spending his two-decade long army stint in Finland. Sergio insists they’re family, but she’s unable to press any further (for Prieto’s interview, not her starving curiosity) as both men get absorbed in talking about the San Francisco Symphony.

 

“Is Helsi taking us to the Hilton?” she interpolates as they exit the freeway, and the driver shakes his head as if he’s offended.

 

“Sergio,” Helsinki says, “What haven’t you been telling this woman?”

 

“Yeah, Sergio,” she taunts, recognizing the advantage she’s been handed. She dances her fingers across his jean-clad knees, looking at him with fluttering eyes. “I thought you told me all about your childhood.” Not so much told as much as handed a printed Wikipedia page, but still. She’s finished that concise “early years." Sickly child which has contributed to him being an academic, separated parents, has a half-brother named Andres and a sister named Silene. That’s it.

 

“I cancelled the San Francisco rooms. I thought you would’ve trusted me not booking, so I didn’t say anything. But we’re going to Napa.” Sergio explains as he steadies her dancing fingers with his own. In the office, she and Sergio have always communicated through banter. Their words and meetings enough to get under each other’s skin. But now, plain as day, they’re holding hands. And it feels strange and familiar at the same time, like finding a piece to a near-forgotten puzzle. With this, she realizes they’re both staring at their joined hands. That causes her to tear away to the window real quick.

 

“Napa. So why aren’t we taking a connecting flight?” she asks, as Helsinki makes a sharp turn to an offbeat road.

 

Sergio coughs out. “We are.”

 

They park in what looks to be miles and miles of field, large weeds swaying by the wind’s direction. It’s a nondescript hangar, Raquel registers. She wouldn’t have recognized it as such if not for the deafening mechanical buzz. White barn-style doors slide open to reveal a shiny microjet, its shadow shimmering on the cement floor. Below the aircraft’s stairs is a man in a black suit, his dark hair parted to the side. She’s too agog that she doesn't even detect Sergio opening the car door for her.

 

“We’re flying private?!” is the first thought that leaves her mouth, her perception of this trip unraveling before her. And before Sergio can answer, the suited man saunters toward them, or specifically him, as he is given an audible smack on the lips.

 

“Sergio, querido amigo de mi corazon has estado ?” the man asks while showering Sergio with kisses on the cheeks, and she can hear Sergio replying “ bien, bien ,” in between.

 

“And…” the affectionate man turns to her, staring up and down. Thank goodness she had the sense to dress casually in a striped shirt and maxi skirt. “Do you prefer Raquel Murillo or Lucifer Incarnate?”

 

“Martin!” Sergio reprimands, and reaches for her hand. It’s become a reflex, she thinks.

 

“What?” Martin sniggers, and Raquel’s other hand balls into a fist behind her purse. “We’ve heard it both ways, we’ve heard it many ways actually, and you come home after a loooong year, now dancing with the devil -”

 

“I’m a very good dancer,” she cuts him - Martin - off, and she feels Sergio squeeze her hand. She looks up to see he’s chuckling, the sound as soothing as the breeze surrounding them. It's comforting. But it also serves as a reminder that like a normal couple, not all family members will approve. In their case, some might even see right through their farce.

 

“We’re set!” Helsinki’s jolly voice booms. He’s already waving from the top of the plane.

 

The microjet’s interior belongs in a magazine, Raquel muses, as Sergio escorts her inside. Instead of the usual armed seats, it is decked in leather L-shaped sectionals on both ends. A hefty panel of walnut comes down from the ceiling, tied to chains as a makeshift table. There’s a minifridge stocked with bubbly and pop in the corner. A basket of chocolates and biscuits wrapped in a bow occupies one of the seats. Martin abuts Helsinki in the cockpit, but not before scowling at her anxious self. The feeling is mutual.

 

She has to look at this well-to-do situation as another cog in an already aberrant playground.

 

Raquel gapes at Sergio their entire ascent. She wonders if his monk-like vow of silence at work has been a method to completely shield this huge piece of himself. How many times has she seen him eat a packed sandwich for lunch, use even the side of his notepad during group meetings, rush to the coffee cart on the sidewalk instead of the neighbourhood Starbucks. She shakes her head at the way her judgment has clouded her perception. She rereads the Basic Facts page, surely “being part of a family that can fly private in California” should be part of it?

 

“When were you gonna tell me that you’re some sort of Spanish Kennedy, Marquina?” bursts out of Raquel as soon as they’re settled miles above ground.

 

“Our Sergio's always modest, querida ,” Martin sneers from the cockpit.

 

“Shut up and fly the plane Martin!” Sergio yells back. “Helsinki’s doing better than you!” And aside from the more casual clothes, Raquel can attest the clear distinction. This Sergio has an air of confidence her executive assistant can only dream of having. His arms leisurely stretch behind his head, exposing a toned mass she never would’ve guessed from his loose polos. His long legs cross and uncross while propped on the walnut table between them. It’s enthralling, Raquel thinks, for he may be an entirely different man altogether.

 

“Marquina,” she snaps her fingers at him. “Answer me.”

 

“We’re comfortable,” Sergio says, a coy smile on his face, and Raquel props her elbows on the table. She wants to get under this man’s skin.

 

“That’s exactly what a super rich person would say,” she counters, as she walks to where the beverages are. The weather with this rollercoaster is parching her throat. But not even the fridge can provide her a cooldown.

 

“Marquina wine? Marquina cider?” Raquel questions, holding a bottle of a 2016 riesling on one hand and a can of cider on the other. “You are not comfortable. You have a hacienda!” She pauses at the bottle’s logo, an intricate sketch of Madrid the background of two grizzly bears. They must represent the two brothers, she deduces. But she’s seen this drawing before, a little hazy, under strobe lights - she’s got it. “Wait. The office party last week - Marquina sparkling - you said that was a coincidence!”

 

“It’s not,” Sergio concedes as he reaches for a glass in the rack beside her. Handing it out, he asks, “Do you mind pouring me a glass, Raquel?”

 

Who exactly is this man - and what has she gotten herself into?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sergio is going to strangle Andres when they get home.

 

He has emphasized, many times last night, that he and Raquel will take the Amtrak to Napa. He doesn't want to swamp her with the whole family (when in reality, it’s to swamp her with interview prep). A pick up at the train station can be the compromise instead. Of course, he should’ve also known better than to tell his brother what not to do. The man’s brain is wired to pursue the exact opposite.

 

Sergio downs the generous pour Raquel has given him with a gulp. He ignores her shrewd gaze from across the table. He’s tried to loosen himself up by relaxing his body on the couch, which had only felt performative and well, not him. Truth be told, he would have fainted at the boarding gate from seeing her earlier this morning. This woman with fire in her brown eyes. Her stare can peer into his mind from sunglasses that cover half her face. Her sheer tee outlines her slender figure. Her flowing skirt tightens around ass as she bends down to grab her camera from under her seat. Great, he sounds like Angel Rubio.

 

“Don’t flatter yourself, even though this is quite the citrusy flavour,” she contends after taking a sip of her own glass. “I’m only interested because you’re a filthy liar. Don’t give me that omitted truth crap.”

 

“We’re home! Fasten your seatbelts!” Helsinki proclaims, and Sergio squints out the window to see the sprawling land he calls home. From this height, he can spot rows and rows of grapevines lined up for picking. The acres allocated for the orchard and winery. Specks of black, white, and brown rolling down the hills. What he can assume to be cows and cattle where they get fresh nourishment from. Centering the vast estate is the Spanish colonial home of his childhood. Its red tile roof and painted white exterior the outstanding sight in a sea of green.

 

He’s home.

 

“Who are those people?” Raquel asks, as the plane targets the concrete pad by the house. There’s a small group gathered in the central courtyard. It's decorated in bulb lights and barrels. Most guests have a drink in hand, some are swaying to a quartet playing string instruments by the fountain. There must be more people inside then.

 

“Who, indeed,” Sergio agrees in an aggressive manner, loud enough for the cockpit to hear.

 

“Come on, Sergio,” Martin chortles, as he slows down the wings upon descending on the helipad. “Did you really expect Andres not to rally the whole pueblo upon your return? Frankly, I had to talk him out of fireworks and uncorking a century bottle.”

 

“I expected him to follow my orders,” Sergio replies through gritted teeth. Raquel looks at him with concern.

 

When Helsinki opens the cabin door to sort out their belongings, and when Martin winks before leaving, informing them they’re free to enter the mile high club (he shudders), it strikes Sergio that this is showtime. He’ll be sharing the biggest piece of his guarded life to Raquel, and how he wishes it wasn’t under false pretenses, that he’d gained the courage to ask her and she’s accepted the invitation out of her own accord.

 

“Sergio,” Raquel says, while looking out the window. “You must be laughing at my Manhattan apartment right now, and I...apologize for my short fuse. But...can we call a timeout on the bickering that we always fall into?”

 

“I thought that’s how we communicate,” he jokes. When she turns to him with a glare, he realizes she must have the same uncertainties that he does.

 

“It won’t be difficult to pretend to be in love with you, Raquel,” he encourages, while tapping her thigh so they can make their way into the lions’ den. “While I wish you the best in pretending to be a nerd’s fiance.”

 

They walk hand-in-hand with uniform giddy smiles towards the house, where the crowd from the courtyard has risen from their adirondack chairs to welcome them. But all Sergio can see, as the sun hits its peak, is how the afternoon light bounces off Raquel’s golden hair. She already looks more California than he’s ever had.

 

“Here we go, Marquina - divide and conquer,” Raquel brings up their business deal mantra from work, before kissing him softly on the cheek, her lush lips brushing against his beard. His eyes widen behind his aviators.

 

The first person to receive them is his cousin Monica, thankfully, as he’s the most gracious host he knows. She’s barefoot on the grass, her curly yellow hair swaddled in a tie-dyed bandana, and she hugs both him and his boss in one go. “I love your top, where did you get it?” she asks Raquel, and when the latter reveals divulges it’s from a thrift shop, it piques Sergio’s interest. Maybe he should brush up on his Murillo-isms as well.

 

Monica is flanked by her husband, who shakes his hand while emitting that signature motorboat laugh. Denver is an alumni of their out-of-school summer youth program, and somewhere between picking grapes and reading books, he’s met Monica. Sergio’s never had a problem with him, at least not the way it took some time for the rest of his family to come around. So, he’s glad to get a warm reception from the couple.

 

“I always wanted to know,” Denver asks, “what exactly does a book editor do?”

 

“That’s a great question, Denver,” comes a slithering voice that’s served as Sergio’s guiding light his whole life. “Because I’m curious to know what does an editor do that he can’t accomplish in his beautiful home in California.”

 

A cigar in one hand and a glass of malbec in another, his brother is dressed in a velvet robe, which really shouldn’t work under the climate, but to Andres, grandeur usurps all.

 

Hermanito !” Andres exclaims fondly, crushing him a tight hug that breaks his grip from Raquel. Sergio reciprocates with as much vigor, and ruffles his hermano’s hair, something he’s always done since he’s grown taller than him. He notices Raquel looking with a guise he can’t place.

 

“You must be Raquelita,” his brother, ever the smarmy charmer, delicately takes his boss’s hand before making a show out of kissing it.

 

“Raquel’s fine,” she corrects, and Sergio stifles a laugh as he knows that intonation from work.

 

Andres makes note of her snippy tone, and lets out a hearty guffaw. “Wow, hermanito ! Not only is your girlfriend your boss in the office, she seems to be the boss in your relationship as well. Do I need to look for your cojones under her skirt?”

 

“Actually,” Sergio clarifies as he slides his hand around Raquel’s waist, the curve of her hip jerking to his touch. “She’s my fiance.” No time like the present.

 

This provokes the attention of the entire welcoming committee, and they’re ushered up the terracotta stairs for everyone’s vantage point. Raquel is looking at him in disbelief, her eyebrows raised and lips quirked. His hand on her waist wanders to her back, forming slow, soothing strokes more for his benefit than hers. Thoughts of panic drown his mind, his heart hammers out of his chest, and he feels his back stiffen as they’re cornered into the stucco pillars.

 

Raquel places her own hand around him, sliding into his jean pocket, and it’s somehow more intimate than if she’s left it at his waist. She’s nodding slowly, her surprised eyes now reflecting a sincerity that sobers his woozy head. He finds himself mouthing “thanks” and the smile he gets back is as bright as the Californian sun.

 

“So are you gonna drop the story or do we really have to believe that your boss from hell is in love with you?” jostles Silene, his younger sister, whose pseudo-mullet is as short as her fuse. Always protective over him, she darts towards Raquel, unabashed scrutiny in her beady eyes.

 

“I actually would love to hear the story of how you proposed, Profesor,” Silene’s longtime boyfriend, Anibal, chimes in, while holding onto her wrist. He’s one of those Silicon Valley whiz kids who’ve dropped out of school to work for Google. “It must be really unique, and I’d love to take notes from a fellow geek.”

 

“You know what?” Sergio scrambles, as he spots more guests coming into the courtyard. Raquel’s other hand cups his cheek, her lips quivering in a small smile.

 

“I can bullshit this,” she whispers earnestly. “You’ve lied to your family enough.” He’s reminded of what he’s said, how it won’t be difficult to be her fiance, and he finds that it’s the genuine truth. He kisses the tips of her fingers and decides to follow instinct from there.

 

“Well - um, firstly, I wish you guys didn’t take my rants seriously. That’s just another passionate...part of our relationship. But um, for the proposal, I took her to the library where we had our first date,” Sergio narrates, and looks toward the vineyard to avoid the throngs of people focused on him. Even Raquel is looking on in amusement, her head leaning on his shoulder.

 

“We walked into the Astor Reading Hall, and I had the room filled with all kinds of carnations, her favourite flower. Then Tina Turner’s The Best started playing across the speakers, and I went down on one knee and opened a first edition copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Inside is a bookmark, in my handwriting, asking ‘Will You Marry Me?’ This woman didn’t want a ring so I thought about the one thing that brought us together in the first place, and now I’m the luckiest man alive.”

 

There’s a lull in his audience, save for Andres, who’s enthusiastically passing along tulips of cava for the shift in occasion. It’s Agata, his childhood friend, her eyes sparkling as much as the ginormous hoops on her ears.

 

“That...is the most romantic shit I’ve ever heard, Profe!” The courtyard breaks into cheers and toasts to the happy couple, and the knots in Sergio’s back loosen, thinking they’re off the hook, when Marsella, one of their oldest winemakers and a long-time friend, earnestly raises his glass for a kiss.

 

The indecipherable cheers turn into audible chants of “Kiss! Kiss!” and he sees Raquel down the contents of her tulip, smacking her lips, as if prompting him to do just what they’re asking.

 

He inhales deeply before cupping her face, the warmth of her skin heating up his palms. Her lips curl into a smirk, and his insides stir, because from the few times he’s allowed himself to think about this happening, it’s never from other people’s goading, it’s only the two of them. But maybe this’ll be the only chance he’ll ever get.

 

He kisses her plaintively, lips closed and as chaste as possible. She tastes like the strawberry lip balm she never goes without, and she feels so soft and pliant in his hands. He feels her hands reach up his hair, tugging on the tresses, sending shivers down his scalp. He thinks her cherry red lipstick is smearing onto him, and the world can stop right then and there, and Sergio can fully say he’s lived - now that he knows what it’s like to have Raquel Murillo kiss him.

 

Yet time must unfreeze, and he takes a step back, but not before she nips his bottom lip, her teeth sinking into him for a fracture of a second, and he can’t even hide that he’s panting in front of her, in the midst of his whole family.

 

Venga ,” Andres’s voice cracks through the wolf whistles. “Someone show the lovebirds where they’ll be staying.”

 

Of course it’s one room. They are engaged after all, and Sergio can’t find it in his voice to protest or make some silly excuse about traditionalism. He’s surprised Raquel hasn’t objected, though, as he watches her being led around the hallway by Monica, showing off the assortment of pictures hanging on the walls. Most of it being Andres’s abstract paintings, the canvases taking up most of the space. Monica’s only too proud to point out everyone’s baby pictures, including his. He, on the other hand, sticks to the mahogany paneling on the floor, hoping he doesn’t see a frail kid holding a stuffed rabbit.

 

After having been away, entering his childhood bedroom eases some of the anxieties in Sergio’s mind. The wooden slatted windows are wide open, and there’s a matching door that leads to a balcony with wrought-iron railing. White curtains sway to the gust passing through the space, the fresh air a stimulating change from the bustling city fumes. All furniture is carved out of dark oak - dresser, chesterfield, and of course - the four-posted bed serving as centerpiece.

 

“...and we have extra towels and linens and things in this drawer if you need them,” he hears Monica elaborate to Raquel, whose eyes are looking at the unused fan on the ceiling.

 

“If you get chilly tonight use this,” Silene shoves a patterned quilt in Raquel’s arms with a smug smile. “It’s how my parents got me after ten years of just Sergio and Andres. They called it the Baby Maker.”

 

This causes Raquel to inadvertently drop the fabric, and Sergio catches it before it falls on the floor, while glaring at his cackling younger sister. They haven’t touched each other since that kiss, not even during dinner, and he doesn’t blame her. His gut remains alight from that moment, and the brush of her skin may lead to a blazing fire.

 

“Good night, sweet dreams!” Sergio forces out, nudging his sister and cousin out the door, slamming it with gusto. He turns to Raquel. “Want to use the bathroom first?”

 

“Don’t look, okay?” he hears her plead many, many minutes later. He’s arranging the bed for their predicament - good thing it’s California king. He’s thought about sleeping on the floor, but with his nosy family being the way it is, he wouldn’t put it past them to do some meddling in the middle of the night.

 

“Okay,” he answers, rolling his eyes, too absorbed in placing pillows in an equal barrier between them. It’s alarmingly domestic, their exchange, and he thinks he can get used to nights like this - except he shouldn’t.

 

She tiptoes out, and he wishes he did close his eyes, so maybe he wouldn’t have to live knowing what Raquel Murillo looks like in lingerie. Her baby pink boy shorts put her shapely tanned legs on display, the cold wind from open windows flows through the matching flimsy top, causing her nipples to harden. He licks his lips, looks at his striped pyjamas, and jumps into his side of the bed, obscuring himself from her view.

 

There’s complete silence between them as they lay on the same bed, separated by a fragile wall of feathers. He tries to do a couple of breathing exercises: four seconds through the nose, hold for seven, exhale for eight - to no avail. He’s not gonna be able to sleep until he relieves the stiffening tension he’s feeling.

 

When he gets up, he hears Raquel murmur, halfway to dreamland, “Hey, Marquina?”

 

“Yes,” he replies shakily, his hands already on the bathroom knob. This is so fucking embarrassing, he thinks, as he shifts from one foot to the other.

 

“That proposal...the smart woman who’ll capture your heart is a lucky lady.”

 

Sergio hadn’t planned on showering, too tired from the trip, but hearing her slurred words of admittance, plus the teasing peaks underneath her blouse…

 

He applies a generous dollop of conditioner on his hair, keeping both of his hands away from his waking cock. After ridding his hands of soap, he takes his dick in his fist, while his other hand presses against the tile wall, the hot water pelleting his broad shoulders. Starting at the base, he slides his hand to the tip, alternating pressures as he thrusts against himself. He loosens his grip so he can toy at the head, his calloused thumb playing with his slit.

 

He’s not even thinking about Raquel - he’s done enough thinking about Raquel for a while. All he wants to do is catch that relief, the respite that’s eluded his nerves all day. It’s only a weekend, he thinks as he slumps against the wall, his body dissolving in pleasure. He’s resisted for a year, what’s several days more?

Chapter Text

My veins are blue and connected, and every single bone in my brain is electric! Lazaretto by Jack White blasts in full volume in Sergio’s airpods as he saunters into the bedroom. The door slams shut in its wake without care. A jog around the compound to clear his head had started today. And he can say that it’s been a more productive method of spending pent-up energy than...being a pervert. And it would’ve been completely peaceful too, but he’s forgotten what it’s like to live in a full house.

 

The room is empty.  He glances upon the stack of pillows and folded linen on his way to the dresser to grab a towel. Sergio appreciates that he and Raquel must have the same temperament for a tidy bed. Humidity of the rising morning sun has him soaked in sweat. His undershirt is sticking to his back and his grey sweatpants hang low on his hips. In his full reflection in the mirror, his mother’s kind voice echoes through she’s corporeal. Mens sana in corpore sano , as if he’s still a boy in a school uniform. He toes off his shoes and places them in the rack beside Raquel’s stilettos. Walks the few steps off to the balcony to see if he can catch some air from above ground.

 

Passing upon the veranda, his older brother has managed to rope him in for a cup of coffee at dusk. And in true Andres fashion, Sergio had to watch Andres gather beans from the burlap sack beside the coffee maker. Which he isn’t going to use. Instead, he grabs the french press from under the wooden island, monogrammed AdF, of course. The bristle of Andres's mortar and pestle blends with the birds' chirps. Sergio leans on the island with his elbows, noting the tremors on his brother's hand. Save for the sub zero fridge, the kitchen is an image out of his childhood. Two boys on late nights past bedtime. Getting hopped up on Cola Cao and watching black-and-white movies on television. It may have been his absence. But Sergio thinks the walls are yelling. The beams on the roof teem with unfiltered memories waking his veins. 

 

“I know that me inheriting Mama’s illness has been hard on you,” Andres sashays to his side. His robe sways with every step, velvet brushing against cobblestone. With an unfazed smirk, he hands him a cup of espresso that Sergio accepts without a word. The joy in seeing his older brother is tremendous and true. But with the tightest bond comes the most guarded secrets, and their tension simmers like a hot cup of joe. “Joder, if it had been you, I would’ve destroyed the cellar in anguish. But hermanito - it’s been several years. The retroxil has been managing it better than expected.”

 

Sergio doesn’t answer, his downcast eyes focused on the tan-coloured froth in his cup. Not even flinching when Andres puts an arm around him with a firm grip.

 

“Sergio, I would love to have you back home because uno, it’s where you belong,” Andres counts down. “Dos, if something were to happen, you’d be the sole heir. You’re not as selfish as I am so I’m sure you’d share stock with Silene - but she’d keep the product for herself and you are one of the two bears in the logo. And tres, eres mi favorito. Everyone knows that. Now, I shouldn’t judge considering I’m Mister Five Wives, but what are you doing with Raquelita hmm? You can buy your own paper here in California, why go across the country to be a muchacho for a pu -”

 

“No.” Sergio snaps, jerking Andres’s hand off his back. “You don’t get to call her that, or any woman for that matter. And you don’t ever get to control my emotions over your disease when I was the one who saw our mother shaking on the floor.”

 

That brief rendezvous has ended as bitter as the contents of his demitasse. Sergio removes his shirt in exasperation. From the balcony, past the courtyard and helipad, he sees a group of women emerge from the orchard. Little dots compared to the fruit trees. They’re clad in skirts, one of them in a straw hat, presumably Raquel, as the woman is a known early riser too.

 

He sheds his sweatpants, his boxer briefs along with it. Figures that he should take a shower before facing another day with his family and fiance.

 

He gathers the soiled clothes in a bundle while ambling back inside. Wiping his face with a towel obscuring his vision, he feels his body smack dab against another, wet form. The intense force lands him on a plush bearskin rug that does little to protect his head. His glasses and phone clatter in assorted spots across the room. But he’s not even thinking about the damage those items may have sustained. For when he looks down and sees a halo of yellow hair dripping down his chest, not a stitch of clothing between them -

 

“Holy shit!”

 

“Why are you naked?!”

 

They leap back from each other in reflex. Obscenities and enough curses to damn for eternity sputter out of them in rapid fashion. But Sergio's eyes can’t look away from the goddess swearing at him with as much vigor. Raquel's hair flows over her nipples, peaks teasing through the tresses. Though her breasts, supple and round, are moving from her jumping up and down. Her toned stomach is contracting as she wheezes, as if she’s about to spurt fire through her nose. And before he can stop himself, his look drifts down below. Gulps at the coarse curls above her mound, her slit in broad daylight between her legs. She may as well be a temptress seducing him into her own eden.

 

“Oh, Dios! You’re showing everything!” Raquel screeches in panic. It prompts Sergio to pick up his fallen towel and swathe it around his hips. He’s still holding onto the terrycloth as she springs behind the chaise, and he tries not to laugh. As out of haste, Raquel has chosen to swaddle her body in the ill-named Baby Maker.

 

“Explain yourself, please!” she demands, striding closer towards him while keeping the quilt close to her chest. He wishes she’d stay put for after seeing her stark naked in the flesh might call for late night’s shower encore.

 

“Explain myself?” he repeats, backing away from her until his back meets the dark oak wardrobe. Shit. “I was outside! I was listening to music! I saw a bunch of women walking into the house and thought one of them was you because of that straw hat!” He tears off the airpods from his ears, guitar solo shredding through the tiny speakers. He’s actually surprised it has survived their commotion. She steps forward, trapping him under her stare. Taking the device from his ears, she inspects for proof of noise before placing them on the bedside table. He notes the Baby Mak - quilt dipping down her body, exposing the deep cleavage that’s taunted him even in the office.

 

“What are you even doing in the room?” he stammers, pressing his hands up the dresser handles. If it had been hot before, then he’s sweltering now, despite their damp bodies. “Have you eaten breakfast yet? Shouldn’t you be studying the magic binder? Instead you jump me out of nowhere -”

 

“I didn’t mean to jump you,” she defends, crossing her arms over her chest, and inadvertently pushing her breasts up. “I forgot to bring a towel in the shower, and when I woke up you weren’t here so I thought I could walk out…”

 

“What kind of person would even forget a towel for a shower?” Sergio scoffs, inching away from her to walk to the bathroom.

 

Raquel puts her arms up and raises her eyebrows as she follows him. The last word remains up in the air. “Um - I don’t know! Try a person who’s gone through extreme stress for the past week! Someone who might get deported for not being born here! Who’s getting punished for being CNI’s best publisher. Someone currently saving face in a place she’s never been before. A person who has no choice but to marry some guy -”

 

“I’m sorry!” Sergio launches forward, his chest nearly bumping into her face. “I’m sorry that I’m not one of your gym buddies whose job is to pump iron and grind hips with you in 1 Oak!”

 

“Ha!” Raquel huffs, as she continues to flail her arms everywhere. “You go spew that nonsense and tell me that everything you said in that traumatic lunch is real! That it won’t be” - she does air quotes - “difficult to fall in love with me, only for me to find out from your own family that you think working for me is hell! It makes me so - Sometimes Sergio, you make me so -”

 

“So?” he asks meekly, wanting to put a halt on her arms’ manic movement and place it on his shoulders. “Make you so what?”

 

“You make me so - so - angry! I’m angry!” she’s cackling now, a maniacal tone that’s bound to be nightmare fuel. He presses his thumb and index finger to the bridge of his nose. Except he touches bare skin and not his specs, and it causes Raquel to laugh even harder. “I’m angry,” she reiterates, before packing a fair punch to his arm.

 

“Are you okay?” Sergio asks, trying not to wince. He can’t even begin to process what she’s said, let alone pinpoint the exact words she’s referring to with Tamayo.

 

“I’m - I’m frustrated,” she admits with a serene smile, and it’s a jarring turn from her (adorable) pout mere seconds ago. She shifts closer while giggling, a sound he’d like to hear over and over again in a different context.

 

“How can I help?” he croaks, as her palms press against his chest. Her small hands circle right where his heart is, which must be beating a hundred miles a minute. He inhales as one of her hands slides - down his nipple, his taut abdomen, all the way to the jut of his hip. There’s a distinct interest in her eyes that he cannot comprehend - but he can definitely get lost in. She lets out a gasp of her own, and her breath may scald his skin more than the scorching sun.

 

“Um - I don’t know, I can’t say,” she mumbles, not meeting his inquiring gaze. He observes the flush of her cheeks, her reddened eyes, the quiver in her wandering hands. That he’s not alone in experiencing the electricity between them is an educated guess.

 

Raquel continues with a sigh. “Sometimes you say these thoughtful platitudes rich in detail and vivid imagery. It gets blurry.” She lets out a soft chuckle, although it feels heavier than champagne giggles. “I suppose I should take another look at your manuscript, huh. Since you’re sooooo good at spinning stories, and I’m gonna enjoy this wine country vacation before I wake up in an empty apartment -”

 

“Raquel.” His hands brace on her shoulders, his thumbs rubbing the dip of her collarbone. “I’m sorry if I hadn’t acknowledged your feelings enough about this situation. I’m a terrible executive assistant.” She guffaws at this, and part of him wants to be the one who gets that sound out of her every day.

 

“Second,” his hands drift down to her slender arms. Taking away hers from his chest, he intertwines their fingers together instead. He makes wiping motions with them, and she doesn’t seem to budge. “To be honest, I'm confused as well. Nowhere near your stress level of course. But what I do know - is that everything I’ve said since this happened is for the good of your visa. I like working with you, and I’d hate to have it disappear because of your passport. And that’s what’s most important for now, right?”

 

“Right,” she agrees with a gentle tone, nodding her head, as she breaks from his grip finger by finger. Sergio balks, thinking he may have said something wrong, but he can’t act on facial expressions alone.

 

“I’m glad we had this talk,” he amends, as he pinches her nose, flicking her piercing on accident. As she cries out at the sensation, and he immediately follows with an apology, their bedroom door slams open. The plank of carved wood hits the stucco wall and reveals a grinning Agata. Her ring-filled hands rub in glee, making a noise reminiscent of wind chimes.

 

“Don’t you people knock?!” Raquel yells. Sergio picks up his glasses, which had landed on the bench at the foot of their bed in some kind of miracle. He marches towards Agata, his explicit irritation causing the latter to draw back.

 

“There’s no privacy when it comes to big families, Raquel!” Nairobi hollers. “You better get used to it if you’re joining us!”

 

“Your impeccable timing has led us out of the shower, so why don’t you report that to Andres’s brown nosing self, okay?” Sergio says crisply. “And tell Silene - if she’s even up - to eat some more fried eggs if that’s what it takes to be nicer to my fiance.”

 

“It was Martin but okay,” Agata corrects. “Hijo de puta can’t believe you have a heart just because he can’t admit his feelings for - who cares! Los tres a la ducha?” she ends with a suggestive wink, and Sergio hears Raquel choke behind him. Wait til he tells her about that one time he woke up with his childhood friend asking for sperm.

 

“Dejate de hostias,” he answers as he closes the door on her. “Ahora.”

 

When it bangs shut, Sergio turns back to Raquel who’s opened her suitcase over the bed. “I’m sorry about that,” he says as he finally makes his way to the bathroom for real. “For Agata, and the shower -”

 

“I know, I know,” she interrupts, her face blocked by a white polo she’s holding up. “Everything you say is for the good of my visa. Now go take that shower you speak of. You smell like wet towel.”

 

And sweat - and something else, judging by her tone. But he denies it all the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Silene had knocked on her door with her fringe accentuating her puppy eyes. Her lithe hand outstretched with an offer to take her around the city with the girls. Raquel should’ve known that the itinerary wouldn’t include the Golden Gate Bridge or Alcatraz. Although she would most definitely like to lock up Sergio’s sister behind bars. Monica and Agata have been toeing the line between accomplice and host. They point out local landmarks and must-visit restaurants during the hour-long drive. But first - brunch at a place called Mario’s, which had checkered tablecloths on its extended patio tables. But upon entering the premises, the group is met with dry ice fog. An extensive bar with various spirits on display. A rowdy crowd watches an exotic male dancer gyrating his hips on the floor in low-rise jeans. Their shrill screams drowns out Pony by Ginuwine blasting through tinny speakers. Raquel sees Silene kisses a woman with pink hair. Said woman ends up ushering them to a table up front, a reserved sign in bold.

 

“This is why I told you to eat lots of waffles for breakfast,” Monica whispers as they take their seats. Raquel is glad she had taken her advice.

 

Thick curtains close on the last performer, tea lights are blown off. And as the opening chords of Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood blares like a horn at Fisherman’s Wharf, Raquel is anything but. Monica is shaking her arms, double-fisting frozen margaritas with her eyes closed. Agata is hollering and whistling while fishing for cash in her purse. A spotlight descends on a heightened platform on the stage. Silene is sipping on a cosmopolitan, looking at Raquel with unbridled myrrh.

 

“Might as well host a bachelorette party for you while you’re here,” Sergio’s sister purrs into Raquel’s ear, nipping the lobe. Both siblings don't care for personal space while her executive assistant treasures it. “Next time you visit, you might’ve already eloped.”

 

Relax! Don’t do it! And out comes what may be a figment of Raquel’s weirdest dreams. A muscular, hulking man rocking to the music with a grimace and his whole body on display. Save for a barely-there loincloth embroidered with his stage name - Suarez. He grabs the thick rope dangled in front of him and swings down to the stage. Upon landing, he starts to thump his chest. But unlike Tarzan, he’s rotating his crotch to the beat of the song as well - to a (mostly) receptive audience.

 

Raquel downs her martini in a gulp, accidentally swallowing an olive in the process. She coughs violently as Monica rubs her back. Don’t get her wrong, Suarez is an aesthetically pleasing man who’s...very good at his profession. His semi-shaved head highlights his sharp jawline, his thighs are as thick as logs when he squats on the prop chair. He’s constantly sending flying kisses and winks to the crowd - he knows what he’s got.

 

But his tattoos are too on the nose. Anyone who has an image of himself inked on one of his strapping pecs can only be full of himself. And she can’t help but chortle at the drawing of a flexing arm...on his flexing arm. In fact, the sight of those arms entraps her in a chokehold - and not how she likes it.

 

Now - Sergio’s arms are just right. They look like they can be rough on her and wrap her in a snug embrace. Her cheeks turn red under the guise of instant gin and vermouth - really it’s from remembering what had happened after she got out of the shower, when all that had been standing between her and a rabid fantasy is a shoddy towel. Her legs squirm under the table as she recalls Sergio’s prick slightly poking at her belly, the embers in his eyes upon gazing at the tops of her breasts, the gruffness in his breath when she’d reached out to caress the hairs on his chest. She can’t help but wonder now, what would’ve occurred if Agata hadn’t so rudely barged in. The lingering heat from their kiss in the courtyard hasn’t left her, and it’s only been amplified by the feeling of his naked body against hers. Her nails claw at the aluminum table, expressing a desperate need to return to that room. To shut that reasoning mouth with her fingers, for him to snatch the stupid Baby Maker off her, to straddle the considerable length she’s felt and mess their made bed into oblivion -

 

“Her eyes are glazed as fuck!” Silene squawks, startling their neighbouring tables as well. “She wants the stripper, she doesn’t care about Sergio at all!”

 

“Actually, Silene -” Raquel muses, sensing the opportunity to utilize her vulnerability for an upset. “I was thinking what if it’s Sergio on the stage right now. I think El Profesor is a perfect stage moniker.”

 

“Ew!” No one wants to hear that about their own sibling.

 

Many, many hours later, Raquel and Sergio are lying on the bed with their organized wall of pillows between them, too exhausted from their respective family excursions. She can only hear the soft whizzing of the ceiling fan above them - and her mind incessantly replaying the events of today. So, so naked.

 

“Can we please not talk about that?” Sergio says through a pillow over his face. Oops. She hadn’t meant to say it out loud.

 

“I was thinking about the stripper from the red light district,” Raquel covers up, although the image of her executive assistant in her head may never be uncovered again. “Your sister has a strange definition of a Bay Area tour.”

 

“So who has a better body - me or Suarez?” he volleys back, and she nearly bumps her head on the board in shock, but he elaborates: “You weren’t the only victim of the Silene Guide to San Francisco. You know Andres has been married five times right? And every single one of those ex-wives had their hen night to that caveman stripper. That girl shows her protectiveness in the strangest way. Welcome to tradition, Murillo.”

 

“Actually Sergio, no, I did not know that, since all that the binder says about Andres is that you’re half-brothers,” she dodges the first question without subtlety, not wanting to admit a truth with layers of implications. “So what’s the deal?”

 

“I’m sorry, that question is not in the binder.”

 

“Well, you said we needed to learn everything…” she gestures at thin air, the curiosity that’s been chewing at her since Helsinki picked them up at the airport can no longer be abated.

 

“Not that, Raquel,” he shuts down, discomfort palpable in his voice. “Good night.”

 

This trip, so far, has been enlightening on her perception of Sergio Marquina when it shouldn’t. Complicated is an understatement - to say the least, even without their current predicament, she’s still titled as his boss in the workplace, and she can’t put him through the same scrutiny they’ve trapped her in after divorcing Alberto. By sharing bits and pieces of himself and his eccentric family, she becomes enthralled with every unwrapped layer. She ponders on his wry humor, how he drapes his coat over her during late nights at the office (and how its smells of sandalwood and citron soothe the strain in her head), how he always has her published edits on his desk shelf. He’d been chipping at the bruises that have kept her from opening up for so long, and yet neither of them had realized it - until now. It terrifies her, this epiphany, but in a way that a vertical drop on a rollercoaster does. The view from the top is absolutely breathtaking, and she expects a most exhilarating fall.

 

“I like astrology,” she says shyly. “Not ironically. I actually quite enjoy it. Being a Taurus allows me to justify my stubbornness” - she laughs - “and I knew you were a Virgo the moment you started solving the Rubik’s cube on my desk when we first met.” She doesn’t tell him that she’s searched for compatibility after that, but instead: “Aside from work essentials, The Pattern is the most used app on my personal phone.”

 

“Why are you telling me this?” Sergio whispers, and she feels him shift on his side of the bed. She hopes it’s because of those annoying librarian pyjamas.

 

“My go-to karaoke song is What’s Up by 4 Non Blondes,” she carries on. “I was a baton twirler all through my schooling. I lost my virginity in a tent. Don’t like flowers because they remind me of failed relationships. Except carnations, because they’re my mother’s favourite. Never played a video game, I prefer colouring books. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude every Christmas. It’s the first book I bought with my own money. Haven’t slept with anyone for a year. And...I called an Uber and cried in the car after Angel shouted I’m a poisonous bitch for the whole office to hear.”

 

“And the scar in the back of your neck?” Sergio asks quietly, and she discovers that he’s taken off the pillow hiding their faces. He’s on his side, an arm propping his head, the moonlight from the windows illuminating his features in intimate darkness, where words and gazes crackle louder. This may be the first time she’s seen him without glasses or aviators - the warmth in his chestnut eyes clearer than ever.

 

She draws in a heavy breath as she copies his position, except her hand finds itself soothing the aforementioned mark that has scarred her for a very long time. “It’s from a bar fight,” she lets out. “Wild times. But very, very reckless. I’m sure there’s many other things, but that’s all I can come up with right now. Is this okay?”

 

“More than,” he nods, before relaxing and laying his head back on his pillow. She follows suit, her eyes darting up at the fan as if it held the answers to her questioning heart.

 

Between the cool breeze sifting through the curtains, cicadas chirping from the trees outside, and the lightness she feels upon baring parts of herself she thought she’d closed off for good - she might actually belong here. It reminds her of their house in the barrio, where her mother would pin clothes in the yard to dry, and hand out freshly-squeezed orange juice to the kids playing in the streets.

 

“You really haven’t slept with anyone in a year?” Sergio asks in a hushed tone. She raises her hand and feels that the pillow is back up.

 

“And out of all that I said, that’s what stood out to you?!” she answers to the ceiling, drowning out the fan’s whizzing. Her fingers squeeze at the fluff of feathers, wanting to rip the pillow to see his face.

 

“That’s a long time,” he murmurs, as if he regrets the question. As he should. “I mean, I saw those meetings in the agenda. And you’re a very beau - powerful woman who can easily have her pick of the litter. Of course, you’re free to choose not to, it’s just that - I shouldn’t be talking about this, I’m sorry.” Is he jealous or is she already asleep?

 

“Well,” she falters, feeling her cheeks burn and feeling thankful that neither of them can see right now. “I’ve been a little busy.” Tiring herself out like a dull dog, rehabilitating her crushed notion of love, wondering about what makes her executive assistant tick beyond his regimented life. Normal working woman stuff.

 

“Yeah…” Sergio trails off, a dreamlike tone to his voice. “Your go-to karaoke song is Up Down?”

 

“It’s What’s Up!” she rectifies. “An American song, Marquina. You should know. And I say, hey yeah yeah, hey yeah yeah - I said hey, what’s going on! You don’t know? I should get your citizenship card!”

 

“You kinda are getting it,” he chuckles, “considering I’m attaching my citizenship to your wagon. And - um - I do know that song. In fact, 4 Non Blondes are from San Francisco. I just wanted to hear you sing it. I - I’d like to hear you sing it again. Maybe in a proper karaoke place. Then several glasses of whiskey later, I could entertain you with a terrible jazz cover and equally terrible dance moves. There’s a good spot near the office that also serves tapas, it’s actually owned by a man from Madrid...But. Anyway.”

 

Raquel bites her lip and resists the urge to snap at him. A date - that’s what he’s described. None of those boring 8PM dinners asking her to ‘tell me about yourself’ like being a girlfriend were a job interview. No sleazy nightclubs where she has to keep an eye on her hips and some man’s hands on her waist. Music, late night grub, the prospect of Sergio inebriated? Sign her up. If only he’d asked her before…

 

“Raquel?” him calling her name in the dark makes her feel more exposed than under office fluorescent lights.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” he hesitates, yet pushes on, “but you’re a very beautiful woman. And um - And I try, oh my God do I try, I try all the time, in this institution !”

 

Raquel busts a gut at his impression of Linda Perry, and she can definitely see it - going out after doing extra overtime on a Friday night - her in a backless dress she’s covered all day at work, him the the tweed brown suit that’s driving her nuts, their smiles dazzling against dim strobe lights.

 

And I pray, oh my God do I pray ,” she catches him, her sleepy voice getting fuller with every note. “ I pray every single day, for a revolution!

 

They sing together on instinct, bouncing off the shrill insects from outside. “ And so I cry sometimes when I’m lying in bed, just to get it all out what’s in my head, and I, I am feeling a little peculiar -”

 

And isn’t that the truth. Because while she can attribute the fluttering sensation inside her to a botched visa, or a scenic hacienda, or a year without sex - strip all that and what she sees is her phone ringing nonstop, authors clamoring to get their works looked over - an accomplished publishing career and...and Sergio by her side.

 

She falls asleep to the sound of their combined laughter, her body floating on cloud nine.

Chapter Text

Thin curtains begin to filter the sunrise on teak floorboards. Raquel feels her eyes start to stir open. But the rest of her remains in slumber, savouring a dream more jarring than a quick office romp. In this lucid state, Sergio’s intense gaze rakes over her body. She's wearing an exquisite white dress with a lace bodice that flows to a tulle train. He has his signature glasses on and a sleek black suit, the shawl lapels accentuating the shape of his torso. The smile on his face can rival the sun, and she knows she’s sporting the same one. As a guitar strums in a far off distance, he offers an open palm. She takes his hand without question, as his other hand lands on the curve of her hip. Their dancing sways them side-to-side, no fancy turns or counted steps. She leans on his chest, and his fingers caress her blonde locks. This can be an eternity she can live with, if fate would only allow it.

 

Raquel blinks to wake herself up, whining at having to leave a strange, albeit pleasant, mirage. The sprawling orchards out the windows offer a breathtaking view as well. But the man who had been holding her remains fast asleep. His soft snores blend well with the baby bluebirds’ chirps on the balcony railing.

 

You’re a very beautiful woman. His voice echoes from last night, and Raquel finds herself wanting to uphold that notion. She reaches for the essentials kit on her bedside table, and opens the round compact mirror. Rubs her eyes off its gunk. Runs a mini comb through her hair. Pinches her cheeks to give it a natural blush. Applies a generous sheen of lip gloss. She sweeps her hair to the side to lay down again with an au naturel look when -

 

“Breakfast for the happy couple!” a voice outside bellows with several staccato knocks. At least they didn’t barge in a la Agata. “Hermanito, I made you Cola Cao like the old days!”

 

Ah, so it’s Andres. Raquel removes a pillow from their fort. She thinks it’s a genuine crime to wake this man up. She’d rather count every long eyelash, roll a finger down the bridge of his nose, put a close on those puckered lips. But alas. She dismantles the rest of their makeshift barrier, before snuggling closer to Sergio.

 

“Don’t freak out,” she whispers against his pajama-clad shoulder as he groans awake. “But your brother is knocking on our door. So I’m gonna spoon you so we look like functional adults who are sleeping together.”

 

“Are you wearing makeup?” Sergio mumbles while nodding his assent. As she swings a leg across him, it dawns on Raquel that there’s another part of him that’s come to as well.

 

He must realize it too as his eyes widen into saucers and turns both of them over, him becoming the big spoon instead. A gasp escapes her lips as she doesn’t know how this position is supposed to be any better. His arm spans her chest and the length of him pressed against the cleft of her ass. Papery pajamas and silky boy shorts the only pieces barring him from sliding in and taking her -

 

The door creaks open, and in comes Andres carrying a hefty breakfast tray. It contains two steaming mugs of hot chocolate and an array of golden brown pastries. Along with him is Martin, who doesn’t seem to share Andres’s enthusiasm and is sporting a scowl instead. Raquel hasn’t had contact with him since the plane ride, and she’d intended to keep it that way.

 

“Are we expecting anyone else to pop up for this family meeting?” Sergio asks with a frown as Andres places their breakfast on the vanity. “Unlike most of you, we don’t go around other people’s rooms waking them up.”

 

“But your librarian pajamas do,” Martin snides. His beady eyes zone in on Sergio’s sleepwear, and Raquel inches away from his locked grip, her cheeks flushed.

 

“Anyway,” Andres clears his throat. “The family may not be here but we’ve all decided on a proposition, and I happen to think it’s a terrific idea.” He takes a deep breath for dramatic effect as Martin drums on one of the dressers. “We want to get you married in the vineyard tomorrow.”

 

“No!” Sergio and Raquel shout together, parting away from each other completely.

 

“You’re already engaged, might as well get married where we can all be together. Don’t take this away from Andres,” Martin adds. He turns to Raquel with a discerning look that she returns easily. “Sergio’s said before that you’re only family’s your mother in Spain, so Anibal can arrange a livestream.”

 

“But isn’t it your birthday tomorrow?” Raquel asks Andres, who’s placing plates of croissants on the bed. She remembers the original agenda of his weekend trip before turning his life over. “We don’t want to impose on your day -”

 

“Raquelita,” Andres chuckles, “I’ve had five weddings, and many more birthdays than that. Now, Sergio.” He ruffles his brother’s hair, much to the latter’s chagrin. “This boy never asked for anything in life, never brought a woman home, not until you. So please let me do this for the both of you. Consider it your birthday gift to me.”

 

She looks to Sergio, and he shrugs, as if placing the ball in her court. Joder. There’d always been that simmering assumption that this visa marriage would happen in a courthouse in the city. In work clothes, during lunch break. This new image in front of her presents a different problem. Both families involved, in a lush vineyard, and presumably, written vows. It forms into a tangible shape, it becomes more real than signed papers. And when something is real, the likelier is it to break. Raquel sighs and reaches for Sergio’s hand under the covers.

 

“Okay,” she answers in a soft tone. If it all works out - and she hopes with all her that it must - it can be a strange chapter in her life she can reminisce. But if it won’t - she’s been broken before. At least this instance won’t bear physical scars.

 

“Marvelous!” Andres claps his hands together. “Martin and I will leave you two alone to enjoy my labour of love, and we’ll gather everyone to start preparing.”

 

As soon as their intruders slam the door shut, Sergio places his head in both of his hands. Panic etched across his face, she wants to quell it even if she's feeling the same way. “When my family finds out that this is a sham, it’s gonna be a disaster.”

 

“Your family’s not gonna find out,” Raquel guarantees, though she finds that it’s more for herself than him. She rubs his back in circles and feels the hard planes jutting out of his cotton pajamas. She gulps. “Relax, it’s not like we’re gonna be married forever. We’ll be divorced before you know it.”

 

“Can you get us some of that coffee?” Sergio rasps out, and she hops out of the bed without thinking of the hem of her shorts hugging her curves. A part of her still feels him, that part also imploring her back to bed.

 

“Black with two sugars?” Raquel hums as she prepares his cup. He nods, surprise queried in his lips. She smiles. “I told you Marquina, you’re not the only one taking notes in this relationshi -”

 

She halts on the word, as she places Sergio’s coffee on the bedside table. After this situation, co-workers no longer cut it, friends would be stretching it. And a married couple sends a shiver down her spine that plants an implication she cannot face.

 

“You’re right, Raquel,” Sergio agrees after a long sip of coffee. “We’ll get a divorce as soon as we can, it’s not like you’re unfamiliar with those.”

 

She stops stirring her own cup while munching on a fluffy croissant. The light hint of Sergio comparing himself to the other man she’s divorced is not lost on her. The apprehension dawns that he has no idea what had transpired between her and Alberto. Her ex-husband wishes he had a sliver of integrity the man in front of her possesses.

 

“But before our divorce, I’m going to cook us a lot of food,” she diverts their conversation to a lighter fare. “It’s been a while since I’ve made meals for two, and by the time you’ll leave me, you’ll be asking for my recipes in custody.” There’s a lump in her throat as she says this. Because if anyone’s leaving, it’ll be the person who didn’t have to be here in the first place.

 

“I told you before Raquel, I’m not going to bail. Unless you want me to,” he asserts while taking a bite of his own danish. There’s a question begging for an answer in the way their eyes meet, neither of them willing to provide it just yet.

 

“I’m gonna go outside,” she blurts out, leaving the bed all of a sudden, doing her best to flee the trance his heated look has left her in.

 

“Are you taking a shower?”

 

“Of course,” she chuckles halfheartedly, with a strong urge to knock her head on the bathroom door. “I’m just gonna freshen up, then get some fresh air. Outside.”

 

Sergio’s no longer in bed when she gets out from a quick rinse, but yesterday’s events have erred her on the side of extreme caution, changing into flowy garments that suit the day breeze. Although after the fairytale that is her night’s subconscious, she’d rather live through bumping against him without clothing once more, the lewd memory less personal than a dream of him placing a strand of hair behind her ear while dancing.

 

Two grounding statements take over her mind as she treks past the courtyard and into one of the hiking trails Monica had recommended. This is a business deal. You have to tell your mother. Marquina will be compensated. Mama will want to know. Marquina can go to jail. Sometimes your mother thinks you’re still married to a monster. Her mind must be burning the same amount of calories as her legs as she blazes through the path until she’s led into an enclave of tall trees, next turn to take unclear. Great. She’d only wanted a secluded place with a signal where she can call her mother.

 

However - she hears a faint thumping sound beyond the greenery. Certain no animals make that noise, she follows its direction, and as she moves closer, she also makes out words and screeches that can only spring from an instrument. Speakers.

 

Monica, Agata, and Silene are dancing around a fire pit overlooking the house from an elevated standpoint, including the helipad they’d landed on a lifetime ago. Raquel gapes at the breathtaking view before nearly tripping over a couple of cider cans, and making her presence known to the party - like a record scratch.

 

“Cu ñada!” Silene hollers, a full glass of wine in one hand and the bottle in the other. Raquel stays still, perplexed. Wasn’t it only yesterday that this girl had conspired to invalidate her feelings for her brother?

 

But Sergio’s sister, unfazed, saunters towards her in a black sports bra and a leather skirt shaped like a wing that Raquel would wear herself if it isn’t ten in the morning. Silene swings her lithe arms around her neck, and continues swaying to the pop song on blast. “You know yesterday was a test no? Sergio never bought any of his exes home, so I needed to know if you’re the real deal or if you’re using him.”

 

But I am using him, the uneasy feeling of dread makes it way back in, as Monica approaches with a full-bodied glass of red.

 

“I had the same feeling about you joining the family as I did Denver,” Agata declares, after a gulp of her own cider. “Of course, you’re very different people, what I mean is that you’re both here to stay!”

 

“A toast!” Silene calls out, and Raquel has no choice but to indulge the women. Maybe it’s a good thing, she muses as every glass she intakes loosens a nerve in her system. Lord knows it’s been a long time since she got to have fun or enjoy a ladies’ night in a club, not after the only women she’d known in the city had shunned her for labeling one of CNI’s resident columnist a domestic abuser, and even after Alberto’s absence, his name had continued to chase her in office hallways and staff parties, searching for signs of bruises that had long faded away for protection of her own reputation. In this short time she’s gotten to know the women in Sergio’s family, she can sense that they have the gumption for honour that he does. From Monica’s warm welcome, Agata’s friendly candor, Silene’s strange protectiveness - Raquel believes in her core, that if she were to bare her troubles to them, she’d receive receptive ears.

 

She feels free as a bird, her head spinning to the music, her hips swaying in sync with the group. Smooth hands slide the cardigan off her shoulders and she complies, revealing a green tank top that complements her skin better. A cigarette waved in front of her that she takes in, the strong whiff of menthol sniffing out her worries. Her lungs burn in a good way as they chant lyrics to the rap song on blast, sparkling taste of cider sweet on her lips.

 

“What are you doing?” asks a voice all too familiar, and the group skids to a halt. Monica places her empty glass on the hightop with a small burp. Silene leans on Agata to regain her bearings, and Agata elbows her while flitting the butt on an ashtray, but she’s already coughing out the contents of this brief reprieve.

 

When she faces him, his mouth is parted, breathing heavily, as if he had been dancing himself. His Adam’s apple bobs against reddened flesh, his large hands clutching several bottles of wine they must’ve kicked off in the ruckus. “Your sister and I are bonding with Mon and Agata’s help,” she stammers, as the other women snigger, and she can’t fault them for this humorous situation, “about common interests.”

 

“Over culo?” Sergio references the song still playing, and she hears Agata cackle behind her. A slight smile plays on his lips. “No judgment, you can keep on partying here and Silene can call Suarez, or I can show you around the island, that’s what Andres calls this place, the pompous -”

 

“I’ll go! I’ll go with you!” Raquel strides closer to him, skipping over cans and bottles in her way. She nearly tumbles and her face bumps against his chest. “Show me the whole island, cariño.”

 

The pet name sounds both sweet and slurred at the tip of her tongue as she feels his fingers run through the strands of her hair. Mierda, lack of friendships in the city must have turned her into a lightweight. They’re hugging, she registers, as her own hands find themselves latching onto the loops of his belt. “Let’s get you some sober air,” he decides, a scowl directed to his amused relatives. “We need to study - some work stuff before Monday.”

 

She slaps him hard on the arm. “Why do you have to remind me of that stupid binder?”

 

He doesn’t answer, and truth be told, she doesn’t want one, not after he’s diminished his own words into material for an inconvenient document. Still, she accepts his outstretched arm for support, as he escorts her back down the trail, where between rows of ripe apple trees sits a Vespa scooter in robin’s egg blue fitting a wine country vacation.

 

“Fact, someone in a relationship with me would know,” he states, “I got my license for cars and bikes at the same time, as soon as I’ve been cleared from the hospital. So since I was twenty.”

 

“Wish you’d pair it with a proper jacket next time,” she remarks, her eyes darting towards his patterned polo showing off his strong arms, but the thought of Sergio in leather is just as appealing. “I saw this vintage one while shopping at Bergdorf’s, I’ll buy it, you can consider it a thank you gift -”

 

“I’ll ask for it in the divorce,” Sergio mutters, and she raises an eyebrow at his remark. His pained face shows immediate regret, and her face softens as they mount the bike. As he turns on the ignition, she recognizes the stress she’s driven him under.

 

Her emotions might as well still be dancing with the rest of the girls earlier. The motion to remain calm and unaffected rears its head against the urge of frustration and...and affection threatening to burst and make this situation complicate itself further. The feeling of Sergio between her legs doesn’t help at all, nor the way her arms have to hold on to him out of necessity, nor her thankfully abating tipsiness. She tries to focus on the rolling blades of glass, drops of dew hitting the back of her sandals in the bike’s wake. They stop at a small stone hut near the gate guarding the whole property. A group of fifteen children sprint towards them, happy cheers of ‘Profesor! Profesor!’ mingling with their steps. One of the tiniest kids, a girl in lopsided pigtails, leaps up Sergio’s arms, and he props her on his shoulders with a laugh that reaches his ears, and the sight is enough to send butterflies fluttering in Raquel’s stomach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sergio had never considered himself a family man, but he does have a fondness for children in general that’s rooted from his own upbringing as a sick boy. Memories of nurses joking before blood transfusions and concerns from parents working in the vineyards all day had been his inspiration for the daily daycare. From visiting school book fairs, he knows that Raquel has a mastered disposition towards children - she applies the same attention to students buying their books as Luis Tamayo. And the way Raquel is looking at him with little Naia on top of his shoulders only proves his point - but it also paints him an image far out of reach.

 

Raquel would make a great mother. That warrior mentality can shape any kid of hers into a success, and would also have them protected by a fortress in stiletto heels and a sharp pencil.

 

She lifts up one of the kids sobbing for a boost, Luca, he thinks, from the auburn shade of his hair, and his tantrum dissipates in her arms. “Hey Marquina,” she teases. “You didn’t tell me about the stepmother deal. And here I thought you were a virgin.”

 

“Their parents work here,” he answers, blushing. “And I’d read to them on the weekends. Even back in the city, Anibal would Facetime me in front of them. It’s...not in the binder.”

 

Raquel places a hand under her chin, as if recollecting. “Sergio,” she says, thoughtfully, “Is this why you fought Rubio from defunding the children’s fiction branch? I remember it being one of our first meetings together and you just...exploded.”

 

“Yeah,” he admits sheepishly. Naia keeps on fiddling with his glasses while a pair of twin boys he recognizes as Rodolfo and Romeo from the birthmarks on their cheeks, tangle their arms around his thighs, their tiny feet stomping on his sneakers with no intentions of letting go. “I know, I know, you keep tabs on me too. But...this is something personal to me, Raquel.”

 

“Profesor, are you going to tell us about the Book Fairy again?” Nala screams directly into his eardrums. “And her high heels and magic pencil wand that wards of bullies!”

 

Raquel stares at him, stunned, as her fingers find their way to the pencil perched on top of her messy ponytail. Sergio avoids her gaze, and leads the children to sit on the arranged picnic out on the grass.

 

“Pardon me Naia,” he apologizes to the girl, not about exposing himself in broad daylight, “I think I forgot how that goes.”

 

“I think I can help,” Raquel chirps in to his shock, and she captures the attention of their young audience. Still carrying Luca, she settles on one of the rugs with her legs crossed. “My name is Inspectora, and I work with the Profesor, so I also have knowledge about the Book Fairy. But I need your help in starting the story. Can you help me?”

 

“I’ll help you! You even have her pencil!” Rodolfo leaves Sergio and toddles towards Raquel, before plopping in front of her sandals. “So once upon a time, there was a book fairy. She’s very pretty, but so are her words of hope and stories of joy, giving power to anyone who needs to hear them. One day, she lands in a big, bleak city, where they make stories too. But in this place, everyone wears grey and black, and their words can destroy others!” He stands up in a sudden, frightening some of his playmates. “Each letter spits into poison, and the Book Fairy uses her pencil to rewrite their hate to heal the heart. That’s all I remember, but I am worried about her. How can she defeat a whole city on her own? Isn’t she scared?”

 

Raquel considers the boy’s valid distress with a small smile on her face, and Sergio keeps his gaze on Naia, who’s stopped playing with his glasses, already enraptured by the story. “You see, the thing is kids, the Book Fairy had no reason to be afraid at all. Because with her is the quiet Book Keeper, who got dropped into the city with the same mission. They were both alone, but together, they can conquer. The Book Keeper has his own power, a pair of glasses that can detect poison words miles away, and the Fairy gets a lot of strength from her Keeper, even though he doesn’t know it.”

 

“Are the Fairy and Keeper boyfriend and girlfriend?” Romeo, still clutching onto his jeans, asks loud enough for the other kids to hear, and Sergio adjusts his glasses in reflex as the rest of their young crowd erupts in oohs and aahs.

 

“I think those labels aren’t enough for them,” he hears Raquel say, and this time he can’t look away from her brown eyes melting away all the confusion he’s felt earlier.

 

But before he can fully digest this, a shiny golf cart comes skidding down the grass, nearly knocking over the Vespa. None other than the three marias themselves.

 

“I thought you were gonna show her around, but you only dragged her to boring storytime,” Silene, on the wheel of course, says in jest.

 

“It’s not boring, Tia Silene!” Luca bolts from Raquel’s arms and runs to the cart. “The City of Books is a love story about a Fairy and her Keeper!”

 

“Is it now?” Agata questions from the backseat with piqued interest as Monica ushers Raquel away from Rodolfo imitating kissy noises. If Sergio sees splotches of pink behind her ears, he doesn’t dwell on it. He trails behind the women, when his cousin stops him in his tracks.

 

“You’re not coming,” Monica admonishes, “because we’re trying out wedding dresses!”

 

“What?” Sergio and Raquel exclaim at the same time, turning to each other, their eyes finally locking. Monica’s statement has this morning’s disquiet return within him, yet all that comes out of his mouth is silence.

 

For someone who’s grown up in California, Sergio hates the ocean and the sand - not for its elements, but because his illness had hindered him from taking in his hometown well. His eyes follow the slight waves the infinity pool makes as it flows out into a spectacular view of the sunset surrounded by shrubbery. It’s situated not far off from the house, but far enough that Sergio remembers being wheeled into a cabana with floaties in his stringbean arms. And instead of doing cannonballs with Andres, he’d fold origami by the poolside, watching paper boats sail away as he stays put by the stairs.

 

He’s learned how to swim since fully recovering of course, and he’s learning now that what he has with Raquel ebbs and flows like this infinity pool. That whatever denial or fear swirls inside him will run through the strongest emotion he feels for her. His heart will keep thrumming as is his fascination with her for three hundred sixty five days and counting. Even a gaggle of precocious children had waded in within minutes. Every cool splash, warm wave - he’s enchanted by, like a true fairy to a mere mortal. It’s a matter of sink or swim, and if he doesn’t make a choice, he will drown without a deliberate decision.

 

“I need to get out of here,” Raquel demands, pacing back and forth in front of him. “Call your driver or chauffeur or second cousin, I don’t care - I can’t be in this place any longer.”

 

“Raquel, please calm down” he rises from the lounge chair and places his hands on her shoulders to still her. “What did they do to you? Are you hurt?”

 

“No!” she shrugs off his hold, but remains standing. “They’ve been wonderful. Weird as fuck - but isn’t that what a family is supposed to be? I forgot what it was like to have that! It’s been me and my mom all my life, and she’s so far away! I forgot what it felt like to have people take care of you, and make you eat your waffles, and call you sister-in-law. And there’d been a time when I did have that, only for my ex-husband to smash a beer bottle on my neck and have my whole perception of marriage shattered! This bracelet is burning my skin because Sergio, you’re right! These wonderful people care about you so much and I’m just screwing it up!”

 

“You’re not screwing it up!” he insists, and his eyes flit upon the bracelet in question. Mama’s charm - a flying bird embedded with a diamond beak and strung in a thin gold band. It had been the first piece of jewelry his father had bought using profits from the company, and it never landed on any of Andres’s wives. “I agreed to this! You were there, remember? And -” his blood curdles as the entire truth of her scar is laid out in her outburst. “ - and I can make sure Vicuña never finds another company to publish his drivel. What a piece of shit.”

 

“Your family loves you!” she cries out, her arms extending as if signifying the magnitude of what she’s said. “Do you know that? You’re willing to put them through this? For me?”

 

“They’re not gonna find out! It’s gonna be fine!” he exhorts, inching closer to her, even as she moves away with his every step.  You said so yourself, Raquel!”

 

“So,” she says defiantly, her arms now stiff on her sides, “if I tell you I can’t swim, would you believe me? Because I can’t swim.” She starts trudging backwards, foot by foot, and Sergio’s rooted to the spot, her voice ringing in his ears.

 

In Sergio’s vision, it happens in slow motion. Raquel, in casual clothes, leaning into the air with her back arched, her head crashing against the water, the rest of her leaving a splash that awakens the terror building in his own body. Sending his glasses flying at a cabana wall, every tick thundering against his erratic heartbeat. Diving into the pool arms first, heated waters no match for the panicked chills wracking his spine. Bubbles coming out of his mouth when he screams ‘Raquel!’, as her lifeless form sinks down the tiles. If they ever make it out of this, he vows to face what’s been in front of him all along, everything else be damned. The epiphany hits him with frightening clarity - that this is it for him, it’s only ever gonna be her. 

 

Yet when he treads toward her, she breaks free from his struggling grip with ease, and strokes back to the poolside with a form perfect butterfly. He catches up quickly, and ascends from the water with all of his clothes sticking to his body. The befuddlement over her trick and the despair at the thought of nearly losing her concoct a rush of blood to his head as his hands return to his shoulders - but this time, he’s shaking her furiously. They’re both gasping for breath, for words that can burst out of them.

 

“What are you doing?!” he cries out, the torment in his tone distorting her face in terror, as if she’d only comprehended what she’d done. “You could’ve drowned, Raquel! What the hell are you doing?!”

 

“I lied,” she stutters out with a pained smile. “You didn’t know but I used to be a competitive swimmer but my height halted my progress. And I think you’re lying too. You say every word that’s come out of your mouth is for my visa - when you’re sincerity is the very trait that’s drawn me to you! No one can act this well Sergio, not even if you study for it. And if you’re no longer sincere, then you’re not...you’re not my Sergio anymore. So I have to go.”

 

She begins to walk away, when his hand finds her arm, digging into the charmed bird clasped around her wrist.

 

“Raquel,” he says, and she shakes her head, her name no longer enough to form a sentence.

 

Now or never. He leans down and presses their lips together, and just like that, he’s gone off the deep end. Her hands begin exploring the sharp ridges of his back, pulling their bodies closer, and her mouth parts in invitation and breathlessness. He takes the plunge, and she gasps against his tongue. His hands make a mess of her coiffed hair, sending her trademark pencil clattering on pebbled tile and into the pool with a plop. Her back hits concrete, and they both realize he’s pushed her against the cabana’s wooden pillar, and he breaks away, while she keeps her clutch around his neck.

 

There’s no other word for it - this Raquel is wildfire, and what a sight to behold. Her pupils are blown wide, her gaze shifting from his eyes, to his lips, further down… “I’m sorry for staring,” Sergio stammers, “And for - that other thing. I don’t know why I…”

 

She places a hand over his mouth, effectively rejecting his apology. Licking her swollen lips with an unwavering stare, she pulls him back in, tugging on the unruly mop of curls and rasping into his ear: “You know exactly why you did that. It’s the same reason that I’m doing this.”

 

She initiates the kiss this time, open-mouthed, and grinds her hips against his leg. His hands drift down to her ass and he squeezes, and it feels better than it’s ever looked in curvaceous dresses or skinny jeans. She moans into his mouth, and the vibration washes over him, sending currents down his body. The power she possesses, that making out is enough to get him hard, but she doesn’t seem to care, rubbing her front against him, then slithering her hand between them and cupping him through his pants, like they’re not in an open area where people can walk in at any minute.

 

There’s warning bells in his head, but it’s drowned out by her wanton purrs from feeling his length, and with that he knows they’re beyond no exit.

 

He moves them inside the spacious cabana, pulling back for a second to ask, “Are you sure?” and she utters her consent as he sits down on the king-sized bed and pulls her onto his lap. He gives her ass a light slap, and the whimper she lets out is something he’d like to keep.

 

She unzips his pants and pulls down at the fabric and then her hand is on him over his boxer briefs and his mind instantly produces numbers from last week’s publishing sales.

 

“What do you have on under there?” he croaks, pawing at the wet jeans hugging her curves, before giving her a firmer slap.

 

She’s trembling when getting up from his lap, yet her eyes are ablaze. It awakens something primal in him. Sinking her teeth deep into her bottom lip, she sheds her clothes wordlessly, revealing skimpy short panties and push-up bra the colour of syrah, with ebony lace at the hem, highlighting the tan of her skin.

 

“Joder,” he quivers while reaching out to touch uncharted skin, as she settles her shapely legs between him once more. His thumbs twiddle at her underwear’s delicate trim, and she lets out a gasp when he tugs on the strap.

 

“Is this what you always wear under your clothes?” he pants out.

 

“Is it up to your imagination?” she taunts, but by the glazed look in her eyes, she’s just as far gone as he is.

 

“Exceeds it,” he admits, the sound of his name causing him to dig deeper into her hips, red crescents marking her skin. One of his hands dances up her body and cups her left breast, letting it fill his palm. “Your tits are so fucking perfect.”

 

Her slender fingers slide at the nape of his neck, manicured nails raking hard into the skin. “Did you think about them too?”

 

He bends his head so he can take her hardened nipple in his mouth through the wine-coloured lace, still kneading the soft flesh. Licking around the stiff peak, he follows the motion on the other breast with his finger, causing her to throw her head back in pleasure.

 

She rubs herself against him and it’s too much. “I thought about them a lot, cariño,” he rasps, adopting the tipsy nickname she’d called him earlier. He can feel her wetness through both their underwear. “I thought about pulling those plunging dresses down and pushing you against your office window. Is that what you want to hear?”

 

“Yes!” she mewls, rubbing her cheek against his beard. “I want that too. I’ve thought about it so many times.”

 

He places open mouthed kisses on top of her breasts, sucking onto the skin in a way that’ll surely leave a mark. “Tell me. Is that something that gets you off? Pressed against cold glass, where the next building can see? Or do you want my hands over you, letting everyone know what I can do?”

 

“Hnggg...I want…” Her fingers drift down the waistband of his boxer briefs and he nods, helping her pull them down. She stands once more, takes his hands to her panties, and they tweak them down her legs. He skims two fingers down her folds when she’s straddling him again and is in awe at how good she feels and how unhinged she sounds. Then her hand wraps around his dick and this...this is paradise.

 

“I want you…” her breasts are heaving as she takes deep breaths, her other hand prodding at his shoulder to secure herself. This is it - she’s lining herself up and Sergio’s mind goes blank.

 

He tries to archive the sensation of Raquel sinking down on him, how hot and wet she is, how her body curves under his hands, the whimpers she makes that bounce off his ears. He might never recover from this moment again, and he wants to relish every second.

 

He notices her eyes water around the edges and before he can ask if she’s really sure about this, she shakes her head and assures him, “I’m sure about this, Sergio. I just needed to adjust.”

 

The initial thrust has her eyes flutter to the back of her head and her mouth releases this shuddering moan. She starts rolling her hips as he drives into her again, and it’s rapid and it’s lawless and nothing from his unspoken fantasies could ever compete. She kisses harder than she argues and she’s silky and feverish all over. He’s not going to last long, not even he knows how long it’s been since...but he knows it’s never been like this for him before. And it may never be again.

 

He slips his hand in between them, cursing at the obscene wetness he finds in her, decides that she should finish before he does. She nearly sobs when he thumbs at her clit, her body quivering, her moans reaching a steady crescendo, and he allows himself to wish for more of this with her, to see her beyond workplace niceties - he can’t even imagine going back to the way it’d been before.

 

She calls out his name when she comes, the ohhh prolonging in his ear, and his plan of pulling out flees at the sound of her voice as he spills entirely inside her.

 

He engulfs her in a warm embrace, his left hand patting her hair in soothing motions, the other stoking a fire on the scar in the nape of her neck, a silent promise to seek closure against anyone who’s ever hurt her. His head props itself on her shoulder, and he whispers straight into her wanting ears: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I got you. I got you.”

 

“You got me,” she reassures, as her fingers caress the hairs on his chest, near where his heart beats for her.

 

Sergio can’t keep his eyes from Raquel’s shivering form as they walk towards the courtyard, his hands continuing to rub at her arms to provide heat, despite the dry, fluffy robes they’ve found in the cabana. It had taken the threat of losing her entirely  for him to assert what he’d felt all along. The words continue to lay heavy on his tongue, but it’s there. And Raquel knows it. He places a firm kiss on the top of her head and she feels her snuggle against his robed chest. She knows it.

 

“I want to talk to both of you,” Martin beckons from the front door, and the grim look on his face signals no good. Neither is him leading them to the basement, where they’re enclosed by thousands of wine bottles in frosted glass cases. Sergio slides a hand down to Raquel’s, and she intertwines their fingers together. The stark difference in their handholds - from mere days earlier - they’re both willing the fever into fruition, and the burns that may come.

 

“Your brother is never to hear about any of this,” Martin huffs out, and Sergio feels Raquel’s grip tighten. He turns to her, and finds a steely look on in her features, that determined expression that’s endeared him in the first place.

 

Immigration Agent Prieto walks out from one of the shelves with a smirk on his face that can only be described as gleeful. “Told you I’d check up on you two!”

 

“What did you do,” Sergio snarls at Martin with gritted teeth, unfiltered rage coursing rapidly through his veins.

 

“Mr. Prieto here called your home phone, and this is your home, so I answered,” Martin discounts. “He told me that if you were lying, and he strongly believes you are, he would send you to prison. So I flew him up here. Andres has been begging for you to stay home for years -”

 

“Don’t use my brother as an excuse!” Sergio shouts. He feels Raquel’s other hand rub circles around his back, but he continues to convulse in anger. Not when he might lose her again.

 

“Luckily for you,” Prieto marches closer, the squelch of his shoes grinding Sergio’s ears. “Mr. Berrote negotiated a deal on your behalf. Now - this offer’s gonna last for twenty seconds, so listen closely. You’re gonna make a statement admitting this marriage is a sham or you’re gonna be a felon. You tell the truth, you’re off the hook, and we’re shipping her back to Spain.”

 

“Take the deal, querido,” Martin urges. “Andres swore to protect you -”

 

“I don’t think so.”

 

“Don’t be stupid, Sergio,” Raquel whispers beside him, nearly inaudible. He scoffs in disbelief, but it’s not her fault that they’ve been backed into a corner.

 

“Here’s your statement,” he pokes Prieto. “I’ve worked for Raquel Murillo for a year. One month in, we started dating, we fell in love. I asked her to marry me, she said yes. I’ll see you at the wedding. Black tie optional.”

 

When they reach the safety of their room, Raquel promptly surrenders to the plush bed, and he doesn’t blame her. Martin’s suspicion for her had been no secret, but Sergio thought one of his oldest friends would trust him enough to know what he’s doing. He slumps on his side of the bed, the desire to be smothered in pillows stronger than ever. Raquel’s arms slither around him, providing much-needed comfort, as her lips press a gentle kiss on the back of his neck.

 

“You sure about this?” her soft voice is muffled against his skin. “I mean, I am very appreciative of what you’ve done, but I think that -”

 

“You’d do the same for me,” he murmurs, taking one of her hands and kissing its fingertips. “But even if you won’t, it’s my choice. And I lo -”

 

“Hope everyone is decent!” Denver’s head peeks in the room, before rambling inside. “Profesor, Monica said you’re sleeping with me and she’s rooming with the other bridesmaids. Couples can’t see each other before the big day, remember?”

 

Raquel nods, and presses another kiss to his shoulder (for good measure, she jokes to Denver). But as their hands break away from its strong grip, Sergio fears it may be the last time.

Chapter Text

Never in a million years did Sergio think he’d be getting married. He’d accepted his eccentricities long ago, had known the life he’d lead would be of solitude. A boy stuck in the hospital, a youth burrowed in books, a man who couldn’t maintain prolonged connections with other people unless they were family. Family that included a winery and its employees' children. He’d believed that one of the assumed founding purposes of marriage had already been fulfilled in his life. Contentment, not commitment, had kept his heart from running on empty. And he’d been satisfied with that. Not to mention its violent roots in an archaic institution built on misogyny and patriarchy.

 

As he looks around the old tasting room, decorated to the brim, the sight belongs to a hazy dream. Dreams are a supposed reflection of reality. But there are always factors that leave it askew to the unobservant eye. Natural morning light filters through rows of arched windows. It calls attention to the assorted bouquets brightening the stone walls. Exposed rafters high above draped in white cloth, also adorned with little flowers. It matches the wooden barn doors. Doors have been slid open, accommodating their small gathering of around thirty people. Andres saunters up and down the aisle, greeting guests as they mill about.

 

Sergio laughs, shaking his head, at the stark contrast between him and his brother. Him, sweating his palms in a fitted black suit on the makeshift altar as he fixes Denver’s lopsided Windsor knot with shaky hands. Andres had gotten ordained somewhere between his third and fourth marriages. (For easy service, hermanito.) And now he's kissing babies’ feet and their parents’ hands. Complete with a collar, stole, and alb, swishing with every suave step. Martin at his side, looking calmer than ever. Whether it be from Prieto’s hawklike stance from the back end of the spacious hall. Or sheer avoidance to belong to the entourage - Sergio doesn't want to know. He’s surprised he even showed up, but he also reckons Andres’ birthday is an occasion he can’t tear himself away from.

 

It’s going to be a beautiful wedding, Sergio muses. But it occurs to him that the dreamlike state of this place comes from the lack of “Raquel” in it. She’s shared her distaste for flowers. He knows that the colour white makes her uneasy for its chances of staining. And the long aisle runner embroidered Raquel Y Sergio is a showy extravagance unbecoming of her. But he can’t raise his concerns because none of the ladies have arrived. Yet, there is one woman whom he must pay attention to. Ten inches tall, dressed in a carnation frock and a fascinator in the same shade, and is sitting in Anibal’s tablet. Doña Marivi, whom he’d only seen prior by holding Raquel’s personal phone during office hours.

 

“Sergio, is that you? You look so handsome without glasses, not like my daughter’s executive assistant at all!”

 

The contacts are drying his retinas out, but he blinks it away, waving at the bunch of pixels that is Raquel’s mother. “Yes, it’s me. How are you doing, is Paula there?”

 

The caretaker reveals her presence with a thumbs up at the edge of the screen as Marivi nods. “I’m still mad neither of you told me you were dating. Yet, after Raquel said you kept it from everyone, I understood immediately. She’d been battered - oh, I'm not sure that's the right word. But I’m sure she wanted to keep a man like you safe. I already had a feeling, though. One day, she called me. Rambling about her new co-worker who kept arguing with her about the importance of children’s books. Then he walked her home in an umbrella because she didn’t bring one. And that day turned into weeks, then months, and here we are, a year later! There’s a spark in how she talks about you, one that I haven’t seen, not even with her puto ex-marido. A mother knows, you know.”

 

Sergio chuckles nervously at the old woman’s heartfelt sentiments. Marivi isn’t under an episode today, which is always good. But this would be a good day to forget about the farce she’s been roped into. And despite her words, none of this would’ve happened if it hadn’t been for a botched visa, so. He says goodbye with a slight wave. Andres finally walks up to the altar, Martin settles beside a gruff Marsella, and Anibal turns the tablet to the door.

 

“Are you ready hermanito?” Andres asks, licking his thumb while thumbing through bible pages with a sly grin. “Dios mio, my brother getting married on my birthday. Best gift ever - because it’s your happiness Sergio.” He gives a tight hug, and he can see Martin’s face churn at their interaction. Remorse?

 

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Sergio answers, which is not at all.

 

Helsinki motions for the hired band to play Canon in D. Their guests rise to their seats. A traditional white car slides into the open doors’ view. The bridesmaids have managed to coordinate under the colour violet. Sergio can’t connect it to Raquel exactly, but they all look pretty. Silene: short dress with thin straps. Agata: pantsuit with a cropped top underneath. Monica: floor-length dress with a high skirt, fitting her role best. Sergio exhales as the veiled figure exits the car. Marsella pats his back in support, but it does little to stop the clenching of his crossed hands.

 

Sergio’s breath catches in his throat as Raquel ascends towards the altar. She looks exquisite in an ecru dress. Her golden brown hair adorned in sticks of wispy chamise on top of a low ponytail. The sun shines on her path down the aisle. And when he hears Marivi sniffle from Anibal’s tablet, he can’t help but swallow a choke of his own. This irresponsible dream might convince his qualms. His eyes widen as she reaches her destination. A bashful smile rests on her face as he lifts off her veil with trembling fingers. She strokes his stubbled cheek with a gaze in her eyes that he cannot placate. He's too agog by her sheer beauty that words cannot comprehend. Their guests settle on their seats and the processional hymn comes to a close. She feels her reach for his hand, which is as clammy as his, but Sergio tries to shrug off any ill doubts. Andres takes to the altar, which from the gait of his chin, he considers a stage.

 

“We are gathered here today,” his older brother proclaims with outstretched arms. “To give thanks and to celebrate life’s greatest gift. To give recognition to the beauty and honesty of Raquel and Sergio’s true love in front of family and friends. From Raquel’s mother, live from Basque country, to myself, who’s marking my birthday by seeing off my hermanito to a world of wedded bliss, this is a blessed unio - Raquelita, why do you have your hand up, do you want me to go straight to the vows?”

 

Sergio turns to look at his boss-bride. Her other hand raised, the question in her eyes, and her slippery grip. It stirs his stomach, and he taps at her chin, compelling her to him.

 

“Don’t do it,” he pleads in a hushed tone, while knowing in a year of working for Raquel Murillo, he’s never convinced her to do something that hadn’t been of her own volition. Her face breaks into a wordless apology - bites her lip while shaking her head, holding onto his hand with a vice grip as if it’s the last time.

 

“This is me doing the same for you,” she whispers back, before facing their puzzled audience.

 

“Anibal, could you turn off the tablet, please?” she asks the young man first. And he complies despite Marivi’s confused protests on the other side of the screen. Sergio looks up the high beams for an anchor. For all he can do is watch as this determined force of a woman steers their ship into the iceberg. Growing tears on the edge of her eyes will not deter her mission. The touch of her hand already clams every second, as if she’s already melting away.

 

“Hi everyone, thank you all so much for coming out,” the cracks in her voice are palpable. And it dents his own, unable to cut her off. “I have a bit of an announcement to make about the wedding. A confession, actually.”

 

“Look into your heart, Raquel,” he plays a Hail Mary. Remember all that’s happened between us the past few days, but may as well be a lifetime.

 

Her eyes dwindle for a moment, and even with the slow smudging of mascara, she’s still the most alluring sight. “I am,” she replies, before letting go of his hand to reject his final plea. “I was born and raised in Basque country. Yes, I am not American. I had an expired visa and was about to be deported. And because I didn’t want to leave this powerful country, I coerced Sergio here to marry me.”

 

“That’s not true!” he appeals to his wedding party. Their expressions range from Denver’s cluelessness, Martin’s guilt, and Andres’s...understanding?

 

“See,” Raquel continues, “Sergio has always had this extraordinary sense of honour. I see that this trait has been fostered by being around a family like you. For a year I’ve watched him let his work speak for itself. And I knew that if I utilized that attitude and threatened to destroy his career, he would do anything I told him to. So I blackmailed him to come up here and lie to you. All you. And I thought it would be easy to watch him do it.”

 

He watches her turn to her bridal party, and finds sympathy in two out of three. Silene, as he feared, is a blank. Raquel’s nose is red as roses and Sergio wants nothing more than to shield her from all the pain she’s causing herself.

 

“But turns out it’s not easy to ruin someone’s life once you find out how they’re even a better person beyond office walls. You are a winsome family, and I know that Sergio values you so much. Please don’t make fun of him or give him grief. Because whoever he actually marries will be a woman as wonderful as he is.”

 

“Raquel -” he starts, grasping onto any straws he has left.

 

“Sergio,” she says, swallowing a gulp, “this was a business deal, and you held up your end, but now the deal is off. I’m sorry.”

 

She saunters past the maddening crowd, targeting Prieto. The agent had been recording with a smug grimace in his teeth, rooted to this spot by the door. An audible slap smacks his pallow cheek. Raquel marches out the wide double doors, and out of his life, maybe forever. Not even looking back.

 

“Sergio, what were you thinking?” Andres scolds. “Pulling this buffoonery off on my birthday -”

 

“If I recall, our initial reaction to this was no,” he throws back.

 

“Hermano, you lied to us,” Silene’s tone isn’t of anger but hurt, and Sergio sighs ruefully at his sister’s pained veneer. “Of course your self-sacrificial ass won’t seek happiness if it isn’t tied to a string. And what sucks is that you might’ve actually found your match in her.”

 

“I’m sorry as well,” he apologizes, defeated. “All you need to know is everything that’s happened is real, and she’s done nothing wrong. I have to go.”

 

The bridal car is long gone when he reaches the awning. No other choice but to run up the steep hill separating the tasting room and the house. So he does, and the wild burning in his lungs is miniscule to the flames in his thumping heart. Determined for all this not to end in a piteous manner. There must be a plot twist in this story - one that would allow law to bend and Raquel to be happy. Please, he pants, as he speeds through the backdoor kitchen, leaps up the stairs, clinging to the hope the she might still be in -

 

Sergio slumps against the doorway, drenched in sweat and the stuffy suit sticking to his body. Their bedroom is earth-shatteringly empty. No straw hat on the coat rack, no stilettos beside his oxfords, no coral essentials kit on the bedside table. Pieces that have embedded into the space, and its swift absence has left its remains in fragments.

 

On her side of the bed, like a phantom, lay the elegant wedding dress, the bunch of buttercups, and Mama’s bracelet. The items are limp and bereft without its wearer. But beside the gown - he spots a letter in her dainty handwriting on top of a thick set of binded papers he recognizes as his own manuscript. Loss heavy in his bones, he sinks in the covers, hiding away from the world as she departs his.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Sergio,

 

Remember this? A month in working for CNI you submitted a personal manuscript. You deemed it perfect for our children’s fiction department. I never got around to reading it because first, you’re new. But after - I got scared, for after seeing your work ethic and how you put one hundred percent in every day, I knew you were right. And publishing it would mean I’d lose you in the office. I’ve only gotten around to opening it after that fateful lunch. You held my hand for the first time telling me everything’s gonna be okay, in exchange for a first run of these pages. I knew I’d heard that story from the stone hut kids before. Your words have touched my heart, but I’m afraid that this...fairy has only broken yours. I hope you’ll take my addition into consideration as you are a true keeper - of deadlines, of promises, and after this whirlwind of a weekend - of me. I’ll make sure Tamayo signs you on a first look deal before I leave. Have an amazing life. You deserve it, cariño. And please extend my thanks to your wonderful family, especially the girls.

 

Love,

 

Raquel

 

As Prieto’s sanctioned cab had passed by the Marquina compound’s gate, Raquel had felt a leaden weight drop her being more than mangling the thrown wedding already had. The past few days had been a total dream of a weekend, and watching iron-and-wood close on her had been a freezing cold bucket on the Californian comfort that had been festering inside her. And as the car had sped further and further away, that inkling of regret had etched itself in her mind.

 

But she’d made her bed, and now she must lie in it - without Sergio.

 

Joder. Had it only been less than a day when she felt his hands on her? He’d held her with that shy tentativeness that had made her tick in the office, then she’d ignited a roughness in him that’ll be embedded on her skin for a very long time. The feel of him has stuck between her thighs, and she throws her head back against her seat, as if his lips were still there to mark her neck and breasts. His brash murmurs now haunting whispers, the lewd admittance of pushing her against the window with her dress pulled down causing her to grind harder at his weeping cockhead, hanging onto every word as their breaths mingled together into completion in that peaceful cabana -

 

She hadn’t slept last night, when Denver had taken him away from her, right at the exact moment when those three little words that have scared her beyond belief nearly left his lips. It didn’t help that when she’d called her mother, already past midnight, the news of her unica hija getting married again had sprung an episode of confusion. Sergio’s name had calmed her a bit, but she’d asked Paula anyway to place the key information on a post-it (none of them pertaining to the visa marriage situation - her mother might forget her entirely).

 

After Alberto, Raquel had wished her memory erased, to be able to sleep without a flying beer bottle wrenching her awake. And now a part of her desires that ability to forget once again. That she hadn’t been welcomed into a fold of stunning and bitingly funny women, that she hadn’t unfolded the mysterious pages of The Book Fairy, that her executive assistant remained an office curiosity, and not the man who’d thawed her heart with the warmth of his brown eyes and an even warmer spirit. Yet the idea of not knowing Sergio only brings back memories of life before him, and well, despite the setting scabs, she’d rather remember feeling the wounds. She lets out a loaded groan and taps her fingers out the open window, not giving Prieto the satisfaction of her anguish.

 

“So what now?” she shouts as the immigration agent, who’s reclined his front seat and has his leather shoes up on the dashboard.

 

“Well, Miss Murillo,” the man lingers on the miss, looking directly at her sunglasses through the rearview mirror, “now that you’re leaving voluntarily, it becomes very civilized. Once we land back in Manhattan, you have twenty four hours to head back to Spain. But I may just have a nice little chat with your...secretary in case he gets another urge to play charity.”

 

“Leave him out of this!” Raquel snaps, kicking her heel deep into his seat.

 

“Did I touch a nerve? I’m simply that good, Miss Murillo,” Prieto taunts, unfazed. “Both of you should’ve given up when Luis called me in for that discreet lunch. I always get my man, and I’m only getting better with age...like a glass of Marquina red.”

 

She stomps on his seat once again, as the cab driver declares: “We’ve now arrived at the Oakland Airport departure area, do you need help with your bags?”

 

Raquel stares at the small carry-on beside her, supposed to be for a light weekend, but now weighs heavier with extra baggage. She refuses the offer with a huff, and carries the luggage out the car, leaving Prieto in the dust.

 

She needs to call her mother, she thinks, as she and her hawk-like captor go through security. Her mother must be worried sick when she’d asked Anibal to cut the cameras, and she gets her chance upon their arrival at the boarding gate, excusing herself to the washroom, but not before Prieto threateningly reminds her that he’ll be standing at the entrance. It’s an unconventional choice for sure, but the first class lounge is blessedly vacant.

 

“Hija?” her mother answers on the first ring, thankfully. No longer in that albeit lovely carnation dress, the sight of her Mama in her long night gown with ruffles at the bottom relaxes Raquel, and she slumps against the tiled wall, desperate for a breather after this rollercoaster that’s gone off the rails.

 

“Mama…” she gasps out, like a little girl lost in a crowd. In a way, she is.

 

“Tell me, Raquel, what’s bothering you?” her mother asks while stirring a cup of tea. “You were so happy earlier.”

 

“Was I?” she titters, looking down at her feet. Mierda. She hasn’t even fully digested the events she’d flipped upside down this morning. From Monica traipsing in with the flowing gown she’d foolishly picked the day before, to Silene cooing at how they now have matching bracelets, to the incessant clicking from Agata’s cellphone, to Denver entering the room to greet his wife, but also to inform her that the groom’s entourage is ready, to Anibal sheepishly walking in to ask for her mother’s username, to Helsinki lifting her off in another one of his bear hugs upon seeing her full bridal garb, to Marsella offering her a glass of 1980 Malbec to mark the momentous occasion, to Andres rolling in with another tray of breakfast pastries, to Martin’s pained face when she’d divulged to her fiance’s brother that Sergio’s the best man she’s ever known.

 

“You were,” her mother insists softly, a hint of concern palpable in her tone. “Maybe my mind is playing favourites, but you weren’t like that the first time. Today, I saw you look at your man with the same eyes I had for your father.”

 

Raquel balks at that high praise, for her parents are the epitome of love. And for the longest time she’d thought it found and lost with Alberto - who had wooed her with flowery poems and poetic flowers, who’d sing sonnets or ballads in a crowded mic night, who’d proposed to her in an elaborate flashmob in the park for a public to spectate - grand and visible gestures that had reminded her of her mother and father’s courtship. Yet here is her mother herself, telling that she’s conveyed in a miniscule look - for a man whose actions are so quiet - she shakes her head in disbelief - they’ve bled into her veins, and with every pump of her heart comes a witty retort that keeps her on her toes, an encouraging nod that keeps her steady on important meetings, a thick, disgustingly-brown, annoyingly-effective coat that keeps her warm on rainy days, a curt good night text after a hard day’s work. He’s her keeper, and he’s kept a part of her that she doesn’t mind giving.

 

“But it’s not real,” Raquel surrenders, her eyes watering up. It’s said that telling the truth can lift a daunting weight off one’s shoulders, yet the walls of this stall crumble around her. Still, she pushes on, each word a pebble in a burying jar. “We - we’re not together. My visa encountered problems, so he was gonna marry me in exchange for CNI publishing his books. We didn’t intend for that wedding to happen but his lively family wanted to. On his brother’s birthday too! I’ve ruined it, Mama, I don’t know what to do.”

 

“Raquel,” her mother ponders with furrowed brows, “you mean to tell me that after all this time, you haven’t been in relations with that handsome man?”

 

Raquel blinks. “No?”

 

“But you talk about him so much! Every week it’s Mama take your medicine, then Marquina this, and Sergio that! I wanted to ask if you’re dating anyone but that librarian man is who’s on your lips the most. And he’s not any better, either! Dios mio, the few times you call me in the office I see him staring at you adoringly, and when I got to speak to him today, he’s blushing as much as a bride should be.” Marivi softens at this, before setting her teacup beside a lamp. “Both of you are storytellers, but neither of you can see the one being weaved by your own hearts.”

 

Raquel gapes at her mother’s litany, a sage advice to her clouded mind. Could it be? While strolling down the aisle with too many blossoms in her hair, beneath the slotted veil, she recalls Sergio’s face. Almost similar to the dream she’s conjured, sans glasses and a giant boutonniere on his jacket pocket. She can’t deny the grin reaching his ears, the giddiness in his fidgety fingers, his eyes meeting hers as if it were only the two of them in the flowery tasting room. And how that had been the moment she’s decided that all of this, all of him, deserves more sincere circumstances, one free of conditions and wouldn’t put him in danger.

 

“But the story is over now, Mama,” she chokes out, wiping tears from her eyes. “This is better for him, plus I’ll get to see you again soon!”

 

“This is the ending to your story?” her mother asks incredulously. “I thought this was just a sad part before the heroine gets herself up and rescues her principe from a life alone! In a tiny bathroom with toilet flushing sounds? Bedtime folktales are better than this!” The elderly woman yawns, making a show out of stretching her arms before settling into the sheets. “Think about what I’ve said. Te quiero, mi hija. Buenas noches.”

 

Rinsing off her makeup reveals a bare face and a naked truth laid out in front of her - and armed with this knowledge, she strides out the washroom with invigorated ease, only to be greeted by Prieto’s harumph. “You took a shit in there?”

 

Her patience has worn thin, and she forces out a grimace. “Listen here, you piece of shit. I hope you’ll use whatever commission from tracking me down for gifts to your wife after she finds out about another mistress. I’m sure this bravado must be compensating for something -” she pokes his belt “ - so I’m gonna leave you with what little confidence you might have.”

 

Prieto stops goading her after that, and simply sits beside her with a menacing scowl with no bite. The sun has begun to set outside, a major signifier of a definite end. She takes in the specks of lush green far beyond the runway, thinks of vast rolling hills and a cobblestone courtyard. And like a summon, her phone vibrates to life, a candid photo of Sergio in the helicopter flashing for a call.

 

She gulps, her throat closing up with every ring. Too much, far too soon. She lets it go to voicemail as precaution, and presses the phone close to her ear.

 

“Raquel! Don’t go! We’re flying into Oakland right now - Martin, can this go any faster? Cari ño - we can work this out, I am so sorry that it’s taken me this long to gather a sliver of gut, but por favor...If you want me, I’m here. I - I lo - what’s going on? I’m losing battery - Joder - Raquel!”

 

“Passengers on Flight 223 to New York, we are now preparing for boarding. Starting with guests on zone one!”

Chapter Text

On the walnut desk: one water stain on the tabletop near the edge that had been hidden by a small zen garden. Scratches on the left panel after a tumble that had chained that week’s manicure as well. On the right wall: three unblemished white boxes where frames of her diploma, master’s, and CNI longtime service award had hung. Underneath the leather stitching of the Bauhaus chair she’d ruled in for a decade, a miniscule tear in which an unused emergency cigar had hid. She’d decided to leave that, a test to the lucky bastard who’d reside here next. Those details would’ve evaded the naked eye. But for Raquel, they're indelible blots that divulge her presence. That can show she’d been here. A harrowing emptiness lords the space. Her desk succulents are already in a box to be shipped. The larger plants that had flanked the burnished mahogany shelf behind her chair, she’d already donated to the park. No metal cup of pencils, or post-its stuck on a corkboard, or her name in stencil on the glass door. Ten years of job packed in ten hours, and the disparity between those times weighs heavy on Raquel. They're concrete evidence on how easy life can slip past one’s fingers. She reclines her seat to the ceiling’s view. There'd been times when she’d look up for vast possibilities over work obstacles. But now, there is only dimming fluorescent light.

 

Her fingers dance on the etching she’d made in the table corner - RM, in repeated pencil strokes. A souvenir for this office, but also a reminder for herself. Whatever happens, wherever she may be, she is Raquel Murillo. That burning to be the best shall never cease. Like how bright the city lights shine on the skyscrapers from the windows despite heavy downpour.

 

It’s apt, she thinks, that her remaining hours at CNI be spent alone around supper, overtime as if she’d had a deadline to catch up to. Aside from packing, there’d been one item on her agenda - and Tamayo had approved of it within the first few pages. In his own way, her boss had been the sole person to send to send her off. First, lunch at that Pandora’s Box of a steakhouse. And then, toasting her in front of the whole floor with the last office party’s wine. The sight of the two bears on the label had sent a choke down her throat. Some co-workers had followed suit with hollow platitudes, but their feigned words fell on unattentive ears. Raquel’s eyes had been focused on the corner unattended beside her office. He too, would have to pack his meticulous paperweights, decoration vinyl player, and origami pets, into a bigger and brighter future.

 

She hasn’t attempted to contact him after that fateful voicemail. Although she’d replayed it on the plane. On Prieto’s assigned cab, on a bed too big as she’d bawled in whispers to a stack of pillows obscuring no one on the other side. Upon dawn, her phone had no missed calls. In fact, from emptying her valuables safe, to delegating what needed to be sorted to the building’s cleaning service, to Benjamin saluting her with his hat off, her phone didn’t ring. Not once. So maybe he has taken her letter to heart, understands where she’s coming from. Honours the fact that it had taken a year’s worth of resolve for her to walk away from a want within grasp. It’s easy to pinpoint the hollowness eating at her to the freshness of the drawn wounds. But wounds heal, Raquel remains whole, and she doesn’t balk at her own rules. As it is written for them to part, so it shall be. The city weeps at her departure, continuous rain since supposed sunrise. But there’s no one to put a blazer over her shoulders now.

 

Her flight to Barcelona is a red-eye in five hours, and she’s never left airports to chance. So with a deep sigh, Raquel rises from the old throne and gathers her purse and carry-on from the barren table. Sauntering her final steps from the office, each clack of her stiletto heels a heavy step. She exhales in front of the glass door, a reflection of her bright red bodycon dress catching in the light. The first frivolous piece of clothing she’d bought in the States. She has not worn since the first time, and it’s fitting that she leaves the country in this outfit, long flight be damned. Chin up, Murillo, she nods at the frosted glass as she reaches for the knob. It swings open, hitting the wall, and she tightens her grip on the luggage handle.

 

“Murillo,” Sergio Marquina, in the flesh, panting like he’d run up the stairs. His arms are outstretched and blocking the doorway. Dark jeans, light blue shirt, black sport jacket, as if he's off to work. They're all soaked in rain, droplets of water falling onto his suede sneakers. He takes off his fogged glasses and blinks in rapid fashion, as if he can’t believe what he’s seeing either. Maybe he’s come to the office to finish off some paperwork, she tries to convince herself. As if anything can tame the sudden rush of adrenaline that’s pummeled her heart.

 

“Sergio,” she replies with bated breath. Her eyes glint at the drop of water glistening down his neck and into the trim of his shirt. “Why are, why are you panting?”

 

“Because I’ve been running,” he answers between wheezes while wiping the rain off his glasses with his jacket.

 

“From California?” Raquel knows that makes no sense. But her mind is addled with clouded thoughts that can send her careening off this penthouse floor.

 

“I need to talk to you,” he says, fixing his glasses back on with his thumb and forefinger.

 

“Yeah? Well, I don’t have time to talk." Her rationale kicks into high gear upon thunder rumbling outside. A blatant reminder of her dreary exit and Uber Black waiting downstairs. “I need to catch a red eye to Barcelona.”

 

“Raquel,” his voice is softer now, as he places a hand over hers that’s holding onto the carry-on.

 

“I’m very sorry but it’s too late,” she shrugs him off, and pushes past him before second guessing herself. “I want to make sure I have enough time -”

 

“Raquel!” he repeats, desperation dripping in his bated breaths, and like a moth to a flame, she turns around. She hasn’t even made five steps past. “Please let me say this so I won’t live with regret for the rest of time. This will take an exact minute.”

 

He strides toward her until her baggage is the single barrier separating them. “Okay,” she relents, realizing that she too, would be imaging his words forever if she’d walk away.

 

“Three days ago,” he says with a sharp inhale, “you were my excruciating boss. Best one in the field without a doubt, but it didn’t stop me from touting you Lucifer Incarnate. Then we had our little adventure up in California and things started to change. Or arguably, what’s been bottled up had been corked open.”

 

“Ah, the vino heir speaks,” she jokes. A feeble attempt to hold onto tangible sanity to avoid jumping head first into wild hope.

 

“P - please let me finish,” he stutters out, gazing down the terrazzo floor as if that’s where he’s written his litany. She wants to place a hand of reassurance on his bearded cheek, but she’s immobilized herself. What she does next will hang onto his every word as each second leads her far away from the departure gate. “A spark was lit when we kissed in the courtyard to cava cheers. And when you told me about that scar in the nape of your neck. He’s done for, by the way. Vicuña. I got to pull some strings and he’s dead.”

 

Her eyes bulge into saucers. “Did you kill -”

 

“His career, though believe me, I want to do a lot more damage.” At this, he stares back up with a wry smile. “And as a fitting contradiction, that spark only grew into feral fire when we’d crashed onto infinity waves. And all throughout, I’d had inklings of realization, but didn’t get to grasp any of this until I was standing alone. In a tasting room...unmarried.”

 

He reaches for her hand on top of the carry-on again, this time threading their fingers onto a proper grip. His palm is damp from the rain and yet a growing warmth seeps through her skin.

 

“Now,” he continues. “You can imagine my disappointment when it dawned on me that the woman I love is about to be kicked out of the country. Anger when our plane couldn’t catch up to your flight. Fear when your phone went to voicemail, thinking you’d banished my calls for good. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the best boss, it’s that you don’t give up. So, Raquel Murillo, high-powered executive, bonita turista, queen of snark...fairy of books - will you marry me? Because I’d like to ask you out.”

 

Raquel’s gasps at the question, said so earnest she could melt. His words have uncaged the thrumming that’s been exhausted since her divorce. The instant charge of blood invigorating her veins is frightening to some degree. The urge to leap without doubt is held back by a chain that’s dragging her to the airport. For her visa status remains unchanged despite this freeing declaration. She blinks away tears for there is only sincerity in his seeking eyes. The pain of finding what she’d been looking for only for it to be snatched away hangs in the balance of their emotions and whether they act on it.

 

“Trust me,” she says. “Even without all this, you don’t want to be with me.”

 

“Yes I do,” he insists, his other hand placing loose strands from her pencilled ponytail behind her ear. “I’ve never felt this for any one before, and there’d be no one else after.”

 

She shakes her head. “See, the thing is, I’ve been married before, and that was catastrophic. You’re the best man I’ve ever known, and you deserve to be with someone who doesn’t have past strings attached. So it would be a lot easier if we forgot everything that happened and I just left.” She allows her palm to glide over his chest, hard planes of his body jutting through the wet fabric, and his breath hitches against her hair.

 

“You’re right, that would be easier,” he agrees, resting a hand on her shoulder, bare and flushed save for the strap. “But when did we ever settle for easy?”

 

Silence befalls them as the downpour commences its onslaught. Their eyes lock upon this stalemate, unspoken truth naked in their longing looks. And that is - Raquel’s never been for easy. She’d pursued a study abroad program despite a language barrier, had become the first woman in CNI’s board of trustees, had taken on the challenge of a know-it-all, bookish recruit against the advice of the human resources department. Now this challenge stands before her with a provocation of his own, that sends butterflies fluttering asunder in her stomach, that’s already led one foot of the ledge upon that shy smile. Her heart’s never been the question - he’s kept it long before she’d given it. She twiddles at his jacket buttons, as if pressing on them would unlock what’s halting her.

 

“I’m scared,” she admits, and lightness after such vulnerability washes over her. “It’s strangely comforting to say - I’m fucking terrified.”

 

“Me too,” he says solemnly, then cups her blushing face in his large hands.

 

His soft lips brush gently against hers - tentative and closed as if it’s his own timid query. But the mere touch of his lips unbridles the crippling alarm refraining her from taking the plunge, and as lightning strikes - so does the electricity jolting her awake. Scorching heat bubbles up within her as she finds purchase on the collar of his jacket, kicking away her luggage into a cubicle.

 

He breaks away from the kiss, yet keeps his hands on her face, his thumbs caressing the brimming tears on the edge of her eyes. “Is that a yes?”

 

She scoffs before inching closer to kiss him once more. She can taste the dewy raindrops in his plush lips, and the steadiness of his presence brings filters crawling troubles awry, proofreading her life into what matters. A part of her wonders where this surge of emotion will take her occupation, but she knows she’ll land on her feet in that regard. When it comes to the man in front of her though, the foot is off the pedal. “I’m throwing myself at you, Marquina, what more do you want?”

 

“Oh, okay,” he concurs dumbly, and her laughter rings loud across an office floor that’d made her miserable. Seeming to have received the message, his hands wander down her hips, gripping her pelvis, his fingertips sinking into the curves of her fitted dress as he pulls her against his rain-soaked body. Unabashed hunger in his molten brown eyes, causing Raquel to bite her lip in heightened intrigue.

 

The buttery tone of his voice still isn’t enough to prepare her for what he says next: “So there’s this specific window. In this empty office. The rain making it darker than it already is. See where I’m going here?”

 

Raquel gapes at him in pleasant shock. If this is what Sergio Marquina as a novio’s like, no wonder they’re heading straight into marriage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plainly put, Raquel compels him reckless. No one else can implore him to sprint to the helipad despite a lack of license until Martin and Helsi had volunteered to pilot, the former out of humble retribution. She’s made him hover an aircraft a hair past city limits to send a failed voicemail from a dying phone. Because of her, he’s uttered words and felt sentiments he’d closed himself off from, unleashing a heart that had long surrendered to slumber.

 

Raquel has driven him to be brave. Not brave enough to call her back once his phone’s charged, terrified at the notion of being rejected through airwaves, but she’s planted in him a fair hint of crazy that had sent him on the next available flight across the country with a black card he’s never used before. For what may be the first time in his life, Sergio has let loose of the regimented reins that had governed his life - and catches the inherent humanity that’s evaded logic and equations. He is alive - alight at the chance of catching a glance of her face once more, his body buzzing in a curdling mix of anxiety and adrenaline that’s flowed him back into her strong arms in the nick of time.

 

She’s stirred a dormant side of him and it had taken nearly losing her for him to get the hang of it. The revelation from his own forward remark hasn’t tapered off though, but from the way Raquel’s eyes rake over his bobbing Adam’s apple, its insinuation is not unwelcome. So,

 

He kisses her again, mouth parted this time, and she whimpers at the sensation. The wanton sound goads him further, causing him to take her bottom lip between his teeth. It draws a high, needy mewl from her throat, as she loops a finger around his belt buckle. She presses a kiss under his jaw, nuzzling her lips against his beard, before brushing her mouth at his ear and nipping at the lobe. Sergio stiffens at her ministrations, should’ve known that he’s no match for the heady sensation Raquel has over him.

 

Surrendering to instinct, he noses the arch of her neck before placing open-mouthed kisses on her collarbone. Each arduous pass of his lips has her gasping in pleasure to his delight, her head falling back and highlighting the extent of her reddened skin. One of his hands slips from her hip to the curve of her ass through the tight red dress, and he groans at the feel of her voluptuous curves.

 

“My, my, Marquina,” she puffs out with a grin. “What’s gotten into you?”

 

“You,” he says without skipping a beat, and her brows raise, not expecting an answer to her rhetoric. The clattering of his belt buckle splits his eardrums, and he swallows thickly at the sight of her dilated pupils and heaving chest. “Without my knowing, you’ve found these dry bones and gave it a heart, a soul. Widened its closed mind, marking me for the better.”

 

He hears her mutter a low ‘fuck’ before wrapping her lips over his clavicle, sucking maddeningly on the damp flesh. Balmy pain blooms over the skin - her teeth scraping across the blemish before laving it with the flat of her tongue. A raspy groan breaks out of his throat as one of his hands trails up her messy ponytail, tugging off the signature pencil holding it together. Sliding his finger through the free locks, it dawns on him that she’d replied with a physical manifestation of a mark, affirming what he’s said.

 

“You’re with me too, you know,” she whines between wanting kisses, her silky hands shrugging off the leather jacket off his shoulders and sliding down his bare arms. “You have no idea, the effect you have on me.”

 

But he does have an idea, as the drunken haze of pent-up passion boils to a point, culminating in this empty office with ambient lights where it all started.

 

He turns her around, her back flush against his chest, and walks them back inside her office, noting the absence of her knick knacks and accolades. CNI’s replacement will have titanic red-bottomed heels to fill. He pins her against the window with a soft thud, like so many times in dreams he’d never thought into fruition.

 

But this is no figment of imagination, as he hears her hiss crisp in his ear, the delicate straps of her dress as he slips it down her shoulders, the groan he lets out that reverberates against paned glass upon seeing her naked breasts and hardened nipples. He cups his hands over the supple flesh and she throws her head forward upon contact, exposing the scar on the nape of her neck. As he peppers airy kisses on the spot, he vows that no one will ever hurt her again.

 

“But you can be rough,” he hears her pant out, both of her hands pressed against the window.

 

“What?”

 

“I trust you won’t hurt me, but you asked in the pool,” she supplements, while rutting her ass against him, “if I want your hands all over me, letting everyone know what you can do and -” she leans her head back, her breath hot on his skin “ - I said that I want -”

 

He twists on the pebbled buds, and she shudders with a pleased smile, seeming to have gotten what she wanted. Her left hand yanks at his hair, pulling at the tresses for satisfying ache while the other cages his palms around her breasts. He nudges his right hand downwards with a low growl he doesn’t even know he possesses. A smirk plays on her lips as she realizes his destination, a large palm splayed against her thick thigh, his long fingers toying at the hem of her skintight dress.

 

With a sharp intake of breath, he drags the fringe up her thighs, baring more and more of the skin that’s taunted his work days until it's bunched at the waist. He senses her widen her stance, as lightning crackles in front of them, a harsh reminder of the public view. But they’re far beyond reason to pause, his fingers skirting at the black lace between her thighs, groaning at the unabashed wetness he finds.

 

He rubs her center through the panties, prompting her to whimper a melody he’d love to hear over and over again. It’s almost corporeal, to discover Raquel like this. Using his thumb to flick her clit through the lace, her knees buckle at the touch, her caps hitting the glass. The first time in the cabana had been a frenzied dash, but tonight is a slow descent into bliss - no airports, no visas, just them. He ruts his jean-clad groin at the cleft of her ass, savouring the sound of their mingled breaths against the pattering rain.

 

Sergio ghosts a finger across her clothed slit in reservation, and she nods with fluttered eyelids, the sight of her open parched mouth in complete abandon sending shivers down his spine. Teasing her with wispy grazes then slipping her panties to the side, he grunts hoarsely as two of his fingers drag across her cunt. Her piercing cry of feverish want is drowned out by rumbling thunder, her loose voice only his to hear. He presses his index and middle on either side of her nether lips, spreading them open to his gossamer touch. Yet he’s honed in on her riveted face, in utter awe at her primal state.

 

“I can feel your pussy clench for me Raquel,” he rasps out as his other hand circles around her nipple, avoiding the hardened peak on purpose. He traces her entrance with taunting touches, before sinking two fingers into her wetness to the hilt.

 

Her jaw drops in ardor, his name getting caught in her throat, evident relief from being filled. He pulls out slightly before thrusting into her again, tweaking and curling his digits while fondling her warm, velvety walls. Her hips buck wildly in response, grinding between his soaked fingers and throbbing erection from behind. An unchaste moan rips from her swollen lips as her thighs twitch at the gratifying stretch inside her. He gasps at her relentless thrusts, sinking deeper with every pass, and he’s going to pass out if she doesn’t stop - 

 

“Talk to me,” she whines, the hand in his hair drifting down to pull up his shirt, her sharp nails digging into his abdomen. “I want to hear your voice.”

 

He marvels at the privilege she’s divulged, pauses at this information as if it’s a new archival project. His voice is hoarse as he complies, foreign obscenities in his tongue sounding natural under her command. “You’re so fucking tight, cariño,” he pants, feeling her cunt tense at his words. Joder. “You’re enjoying this, Raquel? You want me to fuck you against this window, your pussy already out in the open?”

 

“Yes!” she exclaims, her voice strained, and he begins pumping his fingers in and out faster, stroking every nerve inside her. He groans at the tightness gripping onto his digits like a vice, ponders at the beauty in her babbling, out of control self.

 

She lets go of him and places her hands back on the glass, this time curled into fists. This encourages him to push his fingers further, sighing in relief upon finding that sensitive spot for her, his hunch proven correct when her hips startle against his pelvis. He rams his fingers at the bundle of tissues as his thumb rests on her engorged clit, and his mind short circuits upon feeling her thighs tremble, her mouth gaping open, curses skittering from her pillowy lips as the walls of her cunt contract around his fingers.

 

He gasps in curious wonder for a moment so lewd, as he gently pulls out and revels in the slick coating his fingers. Staring at her from the window’s reflection, he laps his fingers of her essence, a potent mix of sweet and tart that he never wants to be without.

 

No preamble, she yanks his head to hers, pressing her mouth against his in a libertine kiss, her tongue licking at his teeth, and Sergio’s eyes widen, recognizing that she’s tasting her cum through his lips, and it’s so deranged for him, he can’t help but plummet into the storm. And a storm Raquel is, as she breaks off him and walks them away from the window, her breasts swaying with every step. She starts unbuttoning his shirt that’s become damper from sweat rather than rain, leaving him entranced under her steely gaze as her hand descends down his uncovered skin.

 

“Turnabout is fair play,” she says breathlessly, pushing him onto the swiveling chair with a whomp. She kneels on the floor, dilated eyes unmoving as trembling fingers undoes the button of his jeans. His breath hitches when she lowers the zipper, not wanting this to be over so soon, so he thinks about getting lost between boarding gates earlier today…

 

An audible grumble emanates from Raquel’s toned stomach as a particularly formidable thunder rolls over the city.

 

Sergio blinks, the haze of ecstasy and lust fading into immediate worry as he fixes his pants on to Raquel’s protest. She reaches for his billowing shirt with an adorable frown, but he stills her hands against his bare chest.

 

“What?!” she asks shrilly, her torso rising and falling with every breath, and he corrects that too, tidying the straps of her dress back on her shoulders.

 

“You haven’t eaten.”

 

“That was the thunder talking.”

 

“Raquel,” he says exasperatedly. “I’m still your executive assistant, and I know when my boss is hungry. Remember when I told you about the late night tapas place near this building? How I’d like to take you on a date?”

 

“But that’s not what I want to eat,” she purrs as she grabs the hand that’s been inside her, peering at his still evident erection with a sultry gaze and her bottom lip sticking out. She turns them around until he feels the hard plank of the table behind him, willingly cornered by a woman nearly a foot shorter than him. Sergio gulps as she nips on his forefinger, the implication leaden on her tongue.

 

“Jesus, Sergio!” she guffaws, pulling him closer for a warm embrace, her head resting underneath his neck. “You’ve sucked my cum in your mouth and yet you’re acting scandalized!”

 

“W - was that okay?” he stammers, as his own arms swaddle around her frame.

 

“Yeah,” she chuckles softly, her hand stroking the fabric cloaked on his back. “You’re genuinely wet, I hope you brought a change of clothes.” She stares up at him with furrowed brows, concern dripping in her features, and it’s a look he sees himself coming home to.

 

“I always keep a change of clothes in my cubicle,” he replies sheepishly.

 

“Ugh, of course you do,” she pinches his cheek then gives him a quick peck on the lips. “Go on then, get dressed, it’s a Friday -”

 

“It’s Mon -”

 

“It’s a Friday night,” she emphasizes, “we got stuck in the office because Rubio messed up his spreadsheets once again and the man had to leave early to keep his marriage and kids intact. You’re taking me out to the closest place open, talk to me about the history of something mundane, like chairs, and I’ll still find you so charming that I invite you for a nightcap. Maybe.”

 

It’s perfect, he thinks, as they exit the building to a crescendo of drizzling rain, hazy lights, and heavy traffic. Downpour trickles down their transparent umbrella, enough to keep them dry but she’s nabbed his blazer anyway, her hands holding onto his clothing like a cape as his own arm drapes around her shoulder. He leads them through a few blocks of evading walking commuters seeking home, his own refuge resting in their clasped hands. Eyes only for each other, rid of any worries that have plagued them for so long, though it will be discussed. That’s for tomorrow, while this night is only theirs.

Chapter Text

If living a regimented life has taught Sergio a valuable lesson, then it would be the ability to craft a well-executed plan. The mental stimulation from molding odds to his favour is the closest he’s come to an adrenaline rush. And most of these plans have happened under the safe confines of a hospital ward, classroom, or business meeting. A great plan required thinking of all possibilities, being twenty steps ahead of the opponent, and a risk that amplifies the reward. And there’s never been a bigger risk than opening his heart for the taking. But when Raquel had said she trusts him over vino and tapas on a rainy city evening, he knows the plan will work. It has to. Because she believes in it.

 

So they end up at the airport anyway. It's three in the morning. Yet Raquel may as well be a deity in Sergio’s lovestruck eyes. He's unable to tear himself away from the halo of golden curves adorning her face, sleepy yet sated brown eyes stealing their own glances, the curve of her red dress around her hips that she’s refused to replace despite the change of plans.

 

“We’re still on our first date, right?” she asks as they enter the chaotic departure area. Sergio can only wink in affirmation. He's still speechless that he’s by her side, the plane they’re about to board on a tangible cloud nine.

 

There’s a stark yet welcome contrast in this airport trip compared to the last. In their joined hands rests a secret and a declaration, wrapped in a twine of nervousness and a thrill of excitement. His coat and purse sit in the same plastic bin as it slides through the conveyor belt. Without the guise of heels, the difference in their height is magnified. It's a fact that presses her lips together in adorable annoyance.

 

“I know we’re engaged now, but I swear, Marquina, if you don’t give me my shoe back - “ she makes a dramatic show of reaching for the stiletto, which he has raised over his head, far out of her range.

 

“You’ll what - fire me?” he plays along. He walks into the duty free area with a hum in his steps. Raquel follows while hopping on her right foot.

 

“I’ll throw a fit!” she stomps out with a feigned pout, her arms across her chest. There’s a lot of laughter in her eyes, as if they’re still in that same office that had bore witness to their strange courtship. “Let’s see how you fare under attention, secret rich boy.”

 

And as per rules of their patented game, he relents. A wide grin splays on his face as he gets down on one knee and places the heel on the shiny tiled floor. When he looks up, he catches a slight eye-roll before being ebbed by a smile of her own, recognizing the gist of their own tale amidst a buzz of rushing passengers and staff.

 

“So does the Book Fairy turn into a pumpkin at sunrise?” she queries with an undertone of seriousness he can’t quite placate, as she puts a dainty hand on his shoulders to slip on the heeled shoe.

 

“Nope,” he answers, confident, as he stands up and drapes an arm around her. “Being the Fairy, she has her own wand, so she only has to depend on herself.”

 

“Still a good thing for her to have a Keeper, though. And he happens to be prince material too,” she adds, before shaking her head with a smile of her own. “God, you’re turning me into a cheeseball, Marquina.”

 

“I’m sorry,” he says with a sheepish shrug, as if the best few hours of his life warrant an actual apology. “I’ve never felt this way towards anyone before. Is it too much?”

 

“No,” she answers quick, leaning her head by his shoulder while patting his stomach. “I can get used to ‘Too Much’ Sergio. It’s a side of you that’s only for me. Along with the Sergio who’s traveled across the country to stop me from making a grave mistake. Very good for my ego.”

 

When they get their identification checked by the boarding agent, they’re glued at the hip. No uncomfortable silence over formal binders and pressured jabs, just giddy smiles that are too awake for this hour, but the world blurs around Sergio’s vision, only grounded by Raquel’s arm around him.

 

“Where are you off to, lovebirds? And what brings you to the West Coast?” the agent inquires while verifying the validity of their driver’s licenses.

 

“We’re eloping,” Raquel answers without skipping a beat, and Sergio blinks at the boldness of her albeit correct statement. Because they are, aren’t they? Granted, he hadn’t divulged much details about The Plan. Their reunited time had been occupied by heartfelt confessions and retelling each other’s side of their time apart. And the presence of señor Torres from the tapas shop had only unearthed stories of Doña Marivi’s home cooking. He promises her that they’ll visit after the dust settles, while brushing the damp hair off her face.

 

“I’m a lucky man,” Sergio attests as the agent returns their IDs. and with what they’re about to do, he hopes that they’ve got a lot more of it in the tank.

 

This time, they’ve opted for a business-class pod that seats them together. The unspoken routine they fall into while preparing for takeoff delights Sergio into thinking this can be the life he will be led by from now on. Raquel’s carry-on weighs like air as he thrusts it up the overhead cabin. She peruses the essentials kit they’ve been provided for an overnight flight. She’s exchanged her heels for mandated thin slippers, too. And she's all set with a travel magazine and a cool bottle of juice from the armrest compartment, her eyes unabashed on him while sipping through a paper straw.

 

“Your shirt’s riding up,” she purrs, pointing out the exposed sliver of skin above his belt, and redness creeps up his cheeks to her soft chuckles, which grows into a guffaw as he bumps into an elderly couple searching for their own seats. Serving as a profuse apology, Sergio helps them with their luggage as well, and catches sight of a woman across their aisle struggling with the overhead bin too. Soon enough, he has sorted out most of the belongings in their section without complaint until a pair of attendants emerge from the back end to the sight of him squeezing an ukulele case in between a briefcase and a cartoon backpack. He doesn’t think of it until he notices Raquel’s pointed look as the aircraft zooms down the runway.

 

“Distract me,” she says as they feel the wheels go up from under.

 

“I didn’t think you were scared of planes,” he replies with a raised brow, searching for the mints and foam buds in his coat pocket. “Last time we flew you seemed fine so -”

 

“They didn’t ask you to fix their bags you know,” she cuts in.

 

“Pardon?”

 

“Those old people. And that musician. And the single dad with a baby bjorn. But you went ahead and assisted them anyway.”

 

“I - “ don’t know what to say.

 

“I think sleepiness is getting ahead of me,” she stifles a yawn as her voice is drowned out by their ascent, “but are you a robot, or are you trying to impress me?”

 

Sergio tilts his head at the bluntness of her joking question. “A little bit of both, I guess? Maybe, I think, there’s a subconscious part of me that’s urged to step up, for as I said earlier, not only is this the first but also the only, and I want to be enough.”

 

“You’re not a fluke,” she reassures. “And what we have, I’m telling you now, isn’t an equation that requires variables and limits - just be you. So put on some slippers and tell me about the loophole you’ve found under Prieto’s hawk eyes.”

 

“And the old couple reminds me of my parents,” he says at the same time, and Raquel leans forward at this.

 

“Tell me about them,” she murmurs thoughtfully as the pilot dings the seatbelt light off.

 

Sergio doesn’t know where to start. He keeps his family’s story guarded in his heart, both out of protectiveness and self-preservation. It had been one of the driving forces in his pursuance of a literary career, the notion of penning a different ending, although he’s come to the conclusion that as far as their family lives, the fable continues to thrive.

 

“It’s okay if you’re not comfortable in telli -”

 

“They’ve both passed a while ago,” he starts with stutter, the words unfolding before him like unfolded relics. “My mother had fled to America as an opportunity for a fresh start after a tumultuous relationship that had left her pregnant out of wedlock. She disembarked on the port of San Francisco with little money but keen knowledge of the language from translating books from her career as a teacher.”

 

“Profesora,” Raquel muses, and points at him, sitting up straighter. “Profesor?”

 

“Yeah,” Sergio rubs the nape of his neck. “But everyone calls her Dulce, because she’s the type of person who brings baked goods for all the students and sews baby clothes for co-workers. She met my father on a school excursion up the valley where they would end up building a family and the business. The house wasn’t there when they got married, but the fruit trees, vineyards were, and with all other ventures, it had been a gamble in the first place.”

 

A gamble similar to declaring one’s engagement to a co-worker in front of an immigration agent who will no doubt be enraged upon finding out he’s been outsmarted by a bookish man riding on a Raquel Murillo’s goodbye letter.

 

“And then?” she’s combing out her hair, clearly preparing for turndown, but still hanging on to every word.

 

“Four years after Andres, they had me around the same time their first varieties were released for purchase. Mama had earned American credentials that allowed her to teach at university. I have a photo, hold on -” Sergio taps his coat for his wallet and opens the flap - revealing a yellowing photo of a short-haired woman in a long dress, espadrilles, and an old-fashioned child carrier across her small frame. She’s flanked by a freshly-erased blackboard, white chalk speckled on her palms.

 

“Sergio…” Raquel trails off in a cooing tone, before tracing a manicured finger over the laminate. “She has a beautiful smile.”

 

“She did,” he plows through, “Even after she got her diagnosis. Even after I started going in and out of the hospital, she would scooch into my bed in the ward and tell me stories with different voices for each character. She’d taught me how to read and write before even going to school, and she made me origami stars if I got good marks. She’d only given birth to Silene a few months when I - when I found her -”

 

“Hey,” Raquel clasps her hand over his, concern etched on her features. “We can stop here - “

 

“Okay,” Sergio coughs out, grateful for her touch. “Father was never really the same after that, but they were never without the other, you know? So to circle back with the senior citizens earlier, I like thinking of them that way, somewhere.”

 

“I’m sorry, cariño.”

 

“Don’t be,” he says, lips quirking to the side. “My parents had painted this image of a young couple, threw away caution for love, ended up paying for it through the ravages of ill, but never let go of one another. And from what you can deduce, I’ve never found myself charmed to come across the same fate, at least, at least not until a woman in a power suit ordered me to organize her agenda and she’d rearranged my life in the process.”

 

Raquel’s eyes crinkle at this, and they look like crescent moons guiding him home. “You know I’ve already said yes, right?” she teases, and pecks him on the cheek.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The who’s who of the literary world fill this rooftop party to the brim, drinks decorated with umbrellas on their hands to go with the party’s theme. The small space on top of this brownstone is made even more intimate by tiki torches planted on pebbles, standing island tables making up for lack of chairs. Raquel’s throat constricts upon seeing the neon light flashing EXIT, her maxi dress tightening upon every step as she desperately passes through throngs of people too drunk, too absent-minded, too self-absorbed to take note -

 

“Raquel!” Alberto’s meaty hand yanks her away from the door before her fist can even close in on the knob. Her face contorts into a frown for even thinking of a different outcome. “Where are you going mi amor?”

 

“To talk to Mr. Smith about Static ’s new installment,” slips out of her mouth like clockwork, no matter how hard she tries to twist the words into a different truth.

 

“Why can’t you do it up here?” her ex-husband leers, walking her towards the brick railing, gravel digging into the backless form of her dress. They’re both clad in black, though she did have to change into a longer garment because ‘It’s a rooftop, sweetie, I don’t want you to get sick from the weather.’

 

Yet what sickens her at this very moment is the calculating stare in his shimmery onyx eyes. She looks for the man she’d married underneath a palpable haze of inebriation and jealousy, and only heeds more fire to fuel his delusions.

 

“It’s business talk, how can we hear each other amidst this noise?” she reasons, arms outstretched, nearly knocking over a table with the back of her hand. Even their ruse is buried by bongo drums and chanting songs from the hired band. “You’re the one slipping notes on cocktail waitresses’ aprons - “

 

“It didn’t stop him from playing with your hair, chica,” Alberto mocks, swerving past her own accusation, which actually held merit from the peach lipstick mark underneath his ear. Her lips are coloured red. “I thought I told you to keep your hair down so you’ll be warm…”

 

“Smith is waiting for me,” Raquel insists, trying to rid herself of his grip to no avail. “Please, don’t make a scene, mi amor. Let go.”

 

“Listen here, mujer,” he snarls in a snap, pulling her close against his suffocating musk. There’s a vein protruding from the unbuttoned top of his shirt, and it’s never brought good news. “All that I do is for you, babe. Because you’re mine. How many times do I have to tell you?”

 

Can no one see them? Panic flashes through Raquel’s face, not wanting to produce a ruckus in front of a crowd but distressed enough to seek escape from Alberto's threatening hold. When did he begin being like this, the thought presses through her mind with every occurrence, as her feeble protests falter under his tainted ears.

 

“It’s a party, Raquel, why don’t we go find a nice spot where I can rip your - “

 

It happens all so fast. Her knee connects against his shin, and he howls at the contact, his large palm swatting at her in slow motion, her eyes closing to expect a harsh blow. But instead of his calloused hand, she meets shards of glass prickling her neck, most of them tiny prickles dotting her skin, save for one piece slashing across her nape. The supposed sting is numbed by pure shock, and she feels as if it’s someone else’s finger, not her own, that pokes at the bleeding flesh, pure crimson against dim embers.

 

“Mi amor!” Alberto cries out, seemed to have been stirred out of his stupor, and Raquel has seen this charade too many times. “I forgot I had a glass on me, please let me take a look at it, I’ll call a cab - “

 

“You’ve done enough!” Raquel hisses, breaking away from his weakened grasp. Hot tears stream down her face without warning, her feet trudging her to the left, anywhere far away from him. Someone has finally looked at their direction, yet her mind keeps shoving her backwards and there’s nowhere else to turn. This is a memory, she’s supposed to be sprinting down the emergency staircase, but another step and she’s -

 

There’s a split second in which falling feels like floating - relief from breaking free of Alberto’s clutches, the night sky clear instead of foggy, the levity of her body as the hem of her dress is swept up by the wind. Then the descent crawls faster, stacks of brick piling over the other, and her mouth lets out a silent scream as she can see her ex-husband peek from the railing, a smirk on his sharp jaw while raising his broken glass, blood trickling down his wrist. This can’t be real, she whimpers, she has to survive this  -

 

Her body freezes as she starts to hear car honks and mixed shrieks, yet she can’t do anything but fall, fall, fall, her joints stiffen as much as she tries to loosen her limbs against this new trap. Wake up. Raquel, wake up! She hears someone shout from a distance, but she is wide awake, her eyes dried out from the heightened drop. Her head brushes against the concrete, and that must be her skull cracking -

 

“Raquel!”

 

She’s on a plane, on a surprisingly fluffy reclined seat with a scratchy blanket covering her frame. Her dress is several inches shorter, a singular overhead night light casts a glow on her disgruntled veneer, the creases on her forehead...and Sergio caressing her arms with a wild, worried look, as if he had the same nightmare as well. The wound is but a scar, she posits, as her insides slack in this real, Alberto-free environment.

 

“What did I look like?” she asks somberly, curiosity getting the best of her as realization dawns that she hadn’t shared a bed with someone since…

 

“You were tossing and turning on the seat,” Sergio answers, “and I think I heard you say no repeatedly, so that’s where I got anxious. I tried to shake you up first, but it didn’t work. I nearly asked an attendant for a hot towel. What happened?”

 

“Alberto,” she gasps out, and he opens the armrest cooler to grab a bottle of cold water. She guzzles the liquid as solace washes over her. Sergio has resorted to massaging her back in concentric circles, and his touch eases away the gnarly feeling of cement grazing her skin. “I had the same dream when we flew together the first time. I don’t know what that says about me. Or maybe I don’t want to know.”

 

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he says, prodding the bridge of his nose as if pondering a past thought. “God, I can’t even imagine what you’ve been through. If bringing him up earlier had been a factor to this…”

 

“It’s not your fault. I’ve been to a therapist a couple of times, and she’s told me so many times that I have to talk to someone about it, not just herself, but with work, and my mom, and - “

 

“Well, I’m here,” he offers, “and I’ll always be a listening ear if you need it.”

 

Raquel palms her forehead, but she still appreciates the sentiment dripping with his every syllable. Her arms slide down to envelop her crossed legs without prompting, as if still shielding herself from the trenches of her subconscious. Her therapist advice to ‘let go’ mixes with Alberto’s goading habit of yelling ‘go ahead’ with the divorce, but they’re both overshadowed by the recent memory of Sergio pleading ‘don’t go’ at the faux wedding - the root words in all of those sentences directing her to move, step forward, for there’s no use in being stuck in an abyss that has long disappeared. Clogging her life with tasks to the brim had simply supplied a brief respite, a removable band-aid when it needed proper sutures. 

 

“It’s so hard,” she admits in a whisper, her voice cracking at the seams.

 

“I’m so sorry you had to go through that horrifying ordeal,” he mutters while placing soft kisses on her head. “I just - I believe you, with all of my heart, so it baffles me how the office treated your divorce as an offence. Statistically, at least one of them should’ve come to your defense.”

 

She scoffs at the thought of their co-workers’ indifference if it weren’t for juicy gossip, and their platitudes of farewell ring even more empty considering what they’d done during her tenure. She keeps Sergio’s arm close to her own, the anchor that’s supported her before they’d even landed on their emotions.

 

“The reality is,” Raquel breathes out, “it doesn’t start with one slap. If it did, nobody would be with a violent man. It’s the other way around. You fall in love with a smart and charming man, his confidence oozing onto his works. He makes you the center of his world. He asks you to change your profile photo with a picture of the two of you on vacation, and you think it’s sweet because you’ll match. He tells you not to wear a miniskirt to work, and you think ‘It’s hard to be a woman in a man’s world, he’s actually protecting me.’ And then, one day, he yells at you over a triviality that could be solved with a conversation.”

 

It had been due to proofreading an up-and-comer’s prologue that needed a quick skim, and he demanded to know why did she prioritize that over his novella that was still months away from publication. The information that said author is a young woman writing about music therapy had calmed him, but in hindsight, should’ve kept her alert.

 

“Do you want me to order a cup of tea? To soothe your nerves a bit?”

 

“No, thanks,” Raquel declines with a shrug, running her fingers over the hairs on his arms. “I don’t think I’ll be able to go back to sleep anyway. God, I’m gonna look terrible in our wedding photos, eyebags and all.”

 

“Nah,” he jokes, “you’re just stooping to my level.”

 

She pinches the flesh near his elbow in reply. “Look - it’s like going down a step at a time. Like in those scary movies, when someone goes to the basement, and there’s the menace all along. And the charm and confidence you fell for - rear its ugly side.”

 

She’d gotten out of work late because of an error Rubio made on his spreadsheets, and she didn’t hide her displeasure that she’d missed dinner with her husband, as she’d spent the cab ride home thinking of cooking his favourite croquetas de jamon for brunch. Yet what had greeted her is a dark apartment, Alberto sitting idly by their iron dining set, his large fist cradling a tiny glass with swirling amber.

 

“He hits you for the first time,” she soldiers on, and she only notes that her body is rocking back and forth on its cradle, Sergio’s own eyes are watery too. “And then a second time and then a third. We got divorced but, I never really disclosed the specifics of our irreconcilable differences. He was one of CNI’s most popular writers, and I just wanted to leave his house. I guess...I was embarrassed of sitting with Tamayo, another man, and telling him about a year and a half of humiliation and blows.”

 

She’d demanded a single order in the settlement - for him to be represented by another publisher, which he did, but not without stirring a pot she had to taste until her last day of work.

 

“The real problem came a few months later. Because that same girl, whom I helped with her debut book, went ahead and fell for him. I thought he was gonna be a professional mentor. But she too, left CNI, to follow Alberto, causing a hit in a significant quarter. So to their uninformed guise, I’m a jealous psychopath, angry that my ex left me for the younger, prettier model. I wanted to correct them, I really did, but why would I bother pleasing people who have already made up their mind?”

 

Thick air and leaden silence befalls them as she reckons the weight of her words skittering off like marbles on a satchel. Tears flow freely down her puffy cheeks as Sergio holds her tighter into his comforting arms, hushing her sobs with assurances of safety and recognition for sharing the heaviness that has strained her well-being. She nuzzles against his beard, reveling in the warmth that’s eluded her for so long.

 

“This is what I mean, Sergio,” she huffs out, choking down her cries. “I have a lot of baggage.”

 

“Well,” he sighs, soothing her scalp, his minty breath calming the painful throbbing in the back of her head. She sinks further in his snug embrace as much as her seat allows. “Good thing I’m your very own baggage handler.”

 

He looks so proud of his quip, she can’t help but laugh, and in his handsome smile, going from ear to ear, she sees the sun rise on a new day.

Chapter Text

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 -”

 

“Raquel. Cariño.”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“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 -”

 

  1. 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 -”

 

“Raquel Murillo.”

 

“Sergio Marquina.”

 

“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.