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We’re halfway down the block when a sleek black SUV pulls up and comes to a stop on the street, causing the driver behind it to honk. My neck prickles and my skin warms with shame, as if the man inside will know I’ve just made plans to meet the first boy he punished for daring to touch me. The rear window slides down on the passenger side. I want to keep walking, but if I do, I’ll catch hell later.
I take a deep breath and turn. My father stares out at me, nods to Gustavo, and says, “Get in, mija.”
Stepping off the curb, I wait for Papá to open the door, then climb in when he slides across the black leather seat to make room. It’s dark and cool inside and smells of expensive aftershave and the faint, sweet tobacco of my father’s cigars. Classical guitar music plays low from the speakers, and I relax once we pull into traffic and Gustavo’s battered face disappears into the distance.
We sit in silence for several minutes before he asks, “Do you remember your dance teacher, Marcella Santos?”
I blink and turn to him in surprise. “What?”
He tilts his head back the way we came. “Did you know you were just at her studio? She still teaches there, I hear.”
Of course, I know this, and he knows I know. “What I know is that you’ve held on to that building longer than any other piece of property in the city. Don’t play games with me. What’s this about?”
“If you remember her, then you must remember her oldest son. You two were very close once.”
A lump forms in my throat when he turns a piercing gaze on me. The subtext is clear: too close. Is it possible he kept the building to hold over the Santos family? I wouldn’t put it past him. I narrow my eyes. “Yes, we were. But that was just teenage infatuation. It’s ancient history.”
He nods as if my answer satisfies him, but I sense more coming. “His father, Julian, has always been a wildcard. Unpredictable. Violent.”
“Are you just saying that because he refused to work for you?”
My directness doesn’t faze him. He waves off my suggestion. “Even if he tried, I wouldn’t hire him, because I couldn’t trust him. I don’t trust his sons either.”
“You don’t even know them.”
“They abandoned their mother to enlist in the military. I know that much. They followed in their father’s footsteps. They are their father’s sons.”
I have no idea where this is coming from, other than a misplaced need to deter me from reaching out to Maddox. My father isn’t oblivious; if I know Maddox is back, Papá probably knew weeks ago. I try not to let my curiosity get the better of me, but I can’t help it.
“When did he get back?”
“A year ago. He was a decorated Navy corpsman before being honorably discharged, but that doesn’t make him safe to be around.”
It doesn’t make him worthy of me is what he means. I grit my teeth, weary of this back and forth we do whenever my father senses me getting close to a man, but I don’t want to just let it lie. “And Gustavo is evidently safer,” I deadpan.
He lets out a soft snort and looks at me. “Are you in danger of falling in love with Gustavo?” One dark eyebrow rises.
“Dios. Hell no. He’s too old for me anyway.”
Papá laughs and pats my hand. “Then, yes. He’s safer.”
I close my eyes, feeling the hurt of the distance he forces me to keep more acutely than ever. I love my father dearly and trust that he would do everything in his power to protect me. But he’s been like this ever since Mama died, driving wedges between me and any man who gets close enough for me to form an attachment to. As a result, the men allowed into my life are limited.
Leo and Manny were the first men he let close, but only in their capacity as bodyguards. They’ve become friends but still keep a safe emotional distance. If I didn’t have my best friend, Toni, I’d be utterly alone, and ever since she and Manny started dating, Leo and his brother have felt more like close friends than employees. The other two men in my life are Toni’s younger brothers, twins Benny and Baz. The five of them are the only true friends I have. They’re the closest I have to family besides my father, though Leo still tends to maintain a safe distance, as if he’s afraid of getting too close. I don’t encourage him to get any closer, because men who do only wind up hurt . . . or dead.
Whether Leo considers me a friend or just Arturo Flores’ daughter, I couldn’t say, but he’s better off maintaining the safe distance and letting his brother and Toni remain as buffers between us.
“I can’t live my life like this,” I whisper.
“It’s necessary if you want to do this job, mija. You expressed the desire to be part of this business early on, and I have encouraged your participation, but you know it comes at a cost. You are as passionate as your mother was about the things that matter, and that passion can be both a source of power and weakness. When you can learn to control it, things will be different. Until then, anyone you let in becomes a liability. Your mother was mine, and I paid the price. I won’t let you make that mistake.”
I look away, the reminder of my mother’s death still able to draw forth despair intense enough to bring tears to my eyes. It’s been eighteen years, but I still have so many questions—questions Papá refuses to answer.
I can barely remember her face. But I do remember the wreck of a man my father became after her death, and how long it took him to recover. The silver lining during that time was his encouragement of my dancing, which meant spending more time with Maddox, something I secretly loved. For the next seven years, I had another friend besides Toni. Someone who was all mine. Only to have that ripped away from me when the two of us made a mistake.
This isn’t the first time Papá has blamed his shortcomings on his love for her, but I don’t believe he really means it. I inhale to regain my composure and return my gaze to him.
“Is that all she was to you? A liability? Is that what I am to you now?”
“Loving her wasn’t the mistake. It was trusting her welfare to a man who wasn’t willing to die to protect her. Never let your guard down with any of the men you spend time with, especially the ones I pay to protect you. Their loyalty can shift if the price is right.”
I suppress a shiver. Gustavo might be willing to kill for my father’s money, but would he be willing to die for me? Should I expect that of any man? Because if I get close enough, that’s what they’re signing up for.
I think about my appointment with Maddox for next weekend. I should cancel it, but some stubborn part of me refuses. One visit. A conversation to hear from his own lips how he’s doing. That’s all I want. My father can’t begrudge me that, especially if he never knows.