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Forsaking All Others



     “Damn it.”

     That’s what I got for being distracted, I thought, looking angrily down at the porcelain casserole dish that lay in several large pieces near my feet. I should have been focusing on getting things done quickly, but instead I’d been worriedly running through plans in my head.

     Technically, I was off today and there was no reason for me to be at Mateo's house, in his kitchen, putting together the arbitrary list of freezer casseroles I’d come up with the night before. If I was being honest with myself, this was a distraction. I needed to be out of my own house, where I’d be tempted to throw myself on the sofa and watch stupid reality TV shows all day instead of being productive. 

     In my mind’s eye I could still see my house as I’d left it this morning: bed unmade, my suitcase still sitting by the front door just waiting to be unpacked, a stack of mail piled up on the table next to it. I was going to have to deal with all of that when I got home, putting the house back in order before Griffin came back from his father’s place tomorrow evening. Griff had stayed with Magnus for the last week while I’d been hours to the north, in Sonoma, lending whatever help I could to my grieving eldest brother as he buried his only son.

     Our family had seen its fair share of suffering in just the past year. Noah had lost his family to a freak accident and now Thomas had lost his, despite the fact his useless bitch wife was still alive. 

     I really fucking hated Lydia.

     My other two brothers, Aaron and Asher, always seemed to be living life in some sort of disarray. Aaron was in the military and had been home from Afghanistan for a few months now, still based out of in New York as he finished out his enlistment. He wouldn’t talk about anything, not his time overseas; not what he was planning to do next. Even I could tell he was lost, casting around for mooring and meaning now that he was home, totally off schedule and without the wife he’d had when he deployed. He had to find something to fill his days.

     As for Asher, his story was perhaps the least tragic. He was almost as wildly successful as our oldest brother Thomas, who had founded a crazy-successful tech company some years earlier. Asher had followed in his footsteps and was now a high-ranking officer for another tech company located in San Francisco. 

     When it came to a personal life, I was pretty sure Asher didn’t have one. He was quiet and restrained, hard working and stern. I couldn’t imagine him married or with kids--I wasn’t sure he even wanted that--and more than once I’d wondered if he might eventually come out to us, his siblings.

     My own problems were no secret. In fact, sometimes I wondered if I was the running joke of the family: Poor little girl married into money. Boo-hoo, her husband’s a dud. What else you got?

     Growing up in a screwed up home will do that to you: make you get out the instant you can. Make you look for your own stability, even if it’s in the most unlikely places. Make you settle when you could have done far better, just because you didn’t know any better, since no one modeled it for you.

     In my case, I’d barely squeaked through high school and rushed off to France to train at a renowned culinary institute. I’d been young and optimistic, but I wasn’t carefree or foolish. I didn’t take chances or throw myself at any of the gorgeous French men that came into my orbit. I was an old woman before my time, my brother Noah still joked: responsible, serious, the worry hanging over my head like a storm cloud. Fearful of a single misstep, because I knew the price to be paid.

     Everything about my husband was an accident. He’d gotten off the wrong train that day and ducked into the little cafe where I was having breakfast before heading off to the institute. I’d been knocked sideways by the tall man with the white-blonde hair and the icy blue eyes when he dropped a plate onto the table across from me and grinned. 

     Was this seat taken?

     Magnus hadn’t planned to stay in France, but he wasn’t one to take no for an answer and when I pushed and pushed and pushed, telling him that I wasn’t interested (I was), he stayed longer and longer. He hammered at me relentlessly with flowers and gifts, slowly wearing me down with dinners and long walks around what I’d come to think of as My City.

     Getting pregnant hadn’t been a part of the plan--his or mine--and when I showed him the positive test just shy of three months later, his first instinct was to run. He packed up his things and left the city without saying a word to me, leaving me to fend for myself.

     There was no question in my mind that I would have the baby, though I hadn’t exactly planned on having one quite this early.

     When Magnus’s father tracked me down and offered financial compensation to marry his son and carry the baby to term, I’d been shocked and disgusted. It should have been Magnus, begging me for forgiveness. He should have been the one down on his knees, telling me he couldn’t go on without me and our baby. Instead, I was convinced by his father, a man with far more to lose than his son if I wanted to stir up scandal. Because, as luck would have it, Magnus was already married.

     Remarkably, throwing enough money at a problem almost always solves it. The wife turned quickly into an ex-wife and slinked away to Switzerland. Magnus and I were married eight weeks later. I was five months pregnant, and until Griffin was born I moved to Sweden to live with Magnus in his family’s ridiculously ornate home. It took a small fortune to keep me out of the gossip rags, the luffare who hooked the heir to the Swedish shipping fortune.

     Magnus’s father saw me as a means to an end. Magnus was twelve years older than me when we met, thirty-one to my nineteen, and it took mere months to discover that I was to be more of a  mother than a wife to their son. He was incapable of adulting in any capacity, content to jet around the world, to take up ever more ridiculous hobbies, to indiscreetly chase women and to drink, snort, smoke or inject just about anything he could get his hands on. It made him mean, strung out and volatile, and he often lashed out at whomever was closest. Often that ended up being me, the most recent of his very temporary addictions. I was the habit he couldn’t seem to maintain.

     In a desperate bid to maintain some sort of respectability, his father had offered to foot the bill for my continued education stateside and to sweeten the deal, he would pay me half a million dollars for every year I remained married to his son. He would buy me a home wherever I wanted and I argued that while Magnus could live with us, the deed would be entirely in my name. (I knew it was because he wanted us out of the country, living somewhere that would grant us more anonymity as Magnus spun farther and farther out of control. Smart man, that one.)

     Magnus’s behavior had grown increasingly erratic, unpredictable and somewhat dangerous over the past five years, and silently my father-in-law had increased my payments to a million dollars a year. He had the previous year’s payment deposited each new year, on January first, and I’d watched my Swiss bank account climb steadily as interest accrued. But that was that: I could look, but I could not touch.

     The money was mine to do with as I pleased, he insisted. Eventually. We both knew it was payment for babysitting his son, as Magnus and I lived together for the first nine years of our marriage in San Diego. At that point he decided he’d had enough of my oversight and he purchased his own home just over the border, in Baja. 

     We hadn’t officially separated and our custody arrangement was due largely to my goodwill, which he hardly deserved. He wanted little to do with raising his son and when he decided he should see Griffin, he often gave me next to no warning, sending a private helicopter to pick Griffin up for the weekend here and there at random.

     Honestly, I was fearful of leaving him. Magnus was unpredictable and suffered violent mood swings, probably mostly because of his recreational activities. But honestly, Oskar scared me more. I knew there was no way in hell Oskar would let me just walk away.

     The small home in San Diego hadn’t been nearly large enough to accommodate Magnus’s overinflated ego. He had hardly ever been there, dropping in while between jaunts around the world. There was always somewhere else he needed to be: Amsterdam, picking up the best weed he could find. 

     Peru, conducting an ayahuasca journey with his favorite shaman. 

     Camping out in the desert, drinking peyote and tripping balls.

     I had learned it was best to let him leave and I’d stopped caring what he was doing a long time ago. He was no longer welcome in my bed, which infuriated him, and he’d knocked me around more than once for it, but I’d maintained my resolve and threatened to tell his father about the mistreatment. For whatever reason, that always put him back on the straight and narrow, and I suspected it had something to do with an allowance. I wondered if he was being paid to stay married to me, just as I was to him. He was the ball and I was the chain.

     His purchase of the house in Mexico was my doing. I had forced him to move out after he’d pinned me to the wall with one big forearm as Griffin looked on in terror. I’d waited until he crashed onto the sofa to sleep off the effects of whatever he’d taken before packing two small bags and leaving. 

     Griffin and I stayed at Thomas’s place in Sonoma while I communicated my demands to Magnus’s father, since I refused to raise Griffin in an environment where he might learn it was normal to beat up on women.

     After finally graduating culinary school, on what seemed to be the extended educational plan, I worked at restaurants in San Diego. Although I’d finally clawed my way through the ranks and landed a head chef position, the pay wasn’t great and the hours were punishing. A lot of my salary went to babysitters, since Magnus couldn’t be counted on to help raise his own kid.

     My real break had come about a year before Magnus moved out. Someone had ordered the stuffed branzino--something I didn’t end up preparing often--and when I sent it out, I thoroughly expected it to be sent back. It was rare that people understood what they were getting into when they placed that order, the name so exotic and intriguing, and often the sight of a whole fish on their plate, eyeball and all, was just too much.

    I was indeed summoned from the kitchen, and I let myself suffer a moment of panic, terrified that perhaps I’d botched the order and someone was furious--someone important, with my luck--and I was about to be dressed down on the floor in front of several hundred other diners. I often had nightmares about that.

     The maitre d’ led me toward the far corner of the dining room, where a large circular banquette held a collection of six brawny men. All were dressed in suits, their hair neatly combed, and I quickly tucked a stray platinum strand back behind my ear. It was just my luck I’d be presented to a table of beautiful men, looking like something the cat dragged in. (Come on, I was married, not dead.)

     “Mr. Rivera wishes to thank you for a delightful dining experience,” Ben said in soothing tones and one of the men raised his head to smile at me. What struck me was how young he appeared, followed by the obvious fact that he was sex on a stick. The thought rushed through my brain unbidden and I must have blushed a furious red, because I felt heat flood my cheeks.

     Mateo Rivera. Sweet mother of all that was holy. He’d been picked up by the Padres a few years earlier, scouted in Puerto Rico to replace the shortstop who’d blown his ACL.

     It was no surprise I recognized him immediately. He’d picked up a contract with a sportswear company and his photograph was on the side of nearly every bus in the city, lounging in a pair of fitted boxer briefs that left little question about his God-given attributes. (Attributes he didn’t seem to be sharing with many women, if the local gossip columns could be believed. His dating life was so quiet, it had been speculated he was locked in the closet.)

     Without meaning to, I licked my lips, and I saw one of his teammates smirk out of the corner of my eye as Mateo scooted out of the booth and stood in front of me.

     “You are my chef?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye and I nodded dumbly. There was just a hint of an accent, his voice smooth and rich. And those eyes...I tried not to hyperventilate. They were hypnotic, a brilliant green that contrasted with the rich black of his glossy hair.

     “You have reminded me of my childhood this evening,” he said softly, moving closer to take my hand and he pressed his lips to the back in a swift, chaste kiss that did decidedly unchaste things to my lady parts. 

     My heart skipped a few beats.

     “My mother used to make a stuffed branzino very much like yours.” His voice remained soft and he crossed himself quickly with the other hand, since he was still holding onto mine. “She has been gone now for six years. Tonight she was with me again for a moment.” He smiled sadly.

     I did the math quickly in my head: That meant his mother never knew he’d been picked up by the Padres. She had passed before he’d even left Puerto Rico.

     Someone behind him cleared his throat and a grin stretched across his face. He turned slowly to face them, his fingers burning my skin as he held onto my hand. 

     “I found her first,” was all he said and he turned back to me, wiggling his eyebrows slightly.

     There was a burst of protest from the table and one of the men cursed grumpily at him in something that was definitely not English.

     Ben was looking at me funny, directing me with his eyes like I should excuse myself to head back to the kitchen. We may have been in the back of the restaurant, but we were causing a scene. Women were whispering and pointing, and a few cameras came out, hovering long enough that I knew video was being taken and uploaded. Nosy, jealous bitches. 

     I smiled at him and thanked him for his kind words, excusing myself back to the kitchen, where I knew orders continued to pour in. In my absence, the kitchen would continue to run, but at a slower pace, since I wasn’t there to check every dish before it left for the floor.

     “I’m glad you enjoyed it,” I said with a sincere smile. I took compliments wherever I could get them these days. “I hope you’ll come back and have it again.”

     There was a groan from behind him, at the table, and my eyes flicked over his shoulder just quickly enough to catch the flash of green bills being tucked into a pocket. Someone had just lost a bet, whatever it was.

     After that, Mateo was a regular at the restaurant. Some nights he attended with a few of his teammates, and more often alone, but he never brought a date. He always had me brought out from the kitchen to thank me for the meal.

     It was foolish vanity, but I started putting a little more care into my appearance. It gave me a charge to see him every couple nights, even if neither of us was going to act on what was obviously a mutual attraction. I couldn’t. I was married and I knew he’d seen the ring, the ostentatious set Oskar had purchased--not Magnus--may as well have been screaming “Not yours! Hands off!”

     I started making time to exercise, even though it cut into my sleep, and I put more effort into my hair and makeup. 

     I bought new bras, not caring that he’d never see them because they’d be covered up by my uniform. 

     I started getting regular pedicures again--just things that made me feel pretty, like it was ok to be desirable, something I’d tamped down and pushed away for years.

     Magnus noticed. I’d stopped trying to make myself attractive to him a long time ago and when clip after clip hit the internet of Mateo thanking me for yet another meal, Magnus compiled them and sent me links in an email. He threatened to forward them to his father, to point out that I was an unfaithful wife clearly engaged in pursuing other men.

     Rather than put something in writing, I called him and let him have it. Send the links, I told him. The footage would exonerate me, nothing at all untoward or inappropriate to be found there. There was no inappropriate touching, no flirting, and no lips. If anything, I told him, his father would be proud of me: I had succeeded where his son had failed, in that I held a solid, respectable job and was gaining notoriety for my talent. 

     That pissed him right off. The insinuation was clear: I was the sober, responsible adult and he was the forty-one year old failure.

     I checked my account balance moments after hanging up the phone. I watched the balance like a hawk, making sure it continued to grow rather than shrink. It was frustrating to have no control over it, letting it languish in an account when it could have been invested.




     Coming home from another late night, I shook my head at the car parked across the street. I was thankful the two burly men hadn’t begun following me everywhere yet, but I could count on them sitting outside my house every night, without fail. It was a delightful present from my father-in-law, the two men permanent figures in my life the instant Magnus moved out. For my safety, he’d said, but I knew it was really for his. Presumably Oskar installed them to confirm I returned home each night, and didn’t entertain nocturnal visitors.

     My heart hammered as I threw the bolt behind me and Signe rose from the sofa with a small smile on her face. “He’s been asleep for hours,” she said quietly, tucking her e-reader into the tote bag on the sofa.

     Magnus’s sister was younger than me by three years. She’d studied Economics at UC San Diego and decided she liked school so much, she was pursuing her doctorate. (At her own pace, which wasn’t much of a hurry.) She could afford it, and at the pace she was going I figured she’d have her doctorate by forty. In the meantime, it gave her the time to watch Griffin for me when I couldn’t get a babysitter.

     “Um, I think you’re going to want to go out the back tonight,” I said, the warning clear in my voice and she rolled her eyes at me. The men sitting in the car liked to catcall her, having no respect for the fact she was their employer’s daughter.

     “Seriously, are those assholes parked out there again?”

     I nodded.

     “No. Hang it. I’m going out the front and this stops now.” She whirled quickly, slipping into her jacket and slinging the tote over her shoulder. “I’ll bring you some groceries tomorrow, k?” With that, she disappeared into the kitchen and marched back out carrying a carton of eggs. I watched her go, trying to decide whether to protest or to be amused. Signe had gotten all the balls in the family.

     There was a single wolf whistle, and then: “You ugly, pig-headed morons!” 

     Signe hollered across the street, winding up and releasing an egg with such fury, I thought I heard it screaming as it hurtled toward the car. It cracked loudly against the driver’s side door, but she had already grabbed another and it closely followed the first.

     Two startled faces turned toward us, eyes wide, either at the sight of Signe or at the half dozen eggs she’d managed to pelt the car with in the span of only a few startling seconds. Her speed, accuracy and the deadly force with which she’d pitched them was impressive.

     The engine roared to life and the car peeled out, Signe managing another three eggs before they disappeared from view. She handed the carton back to me then, three fat eggs remaining, a big grin on her face. “They’ll be back, you know. will I.” She leaned in quickly, squeezing me before fishing a key fob out of her pocket and hopping into the tiny Fiat parked a few spaces down. How she folded all six feet of her impressive Nordic body into that thing was still completely beyond me, and I watched her do it several times a week.

     I went upstairs and checked on Griffin, kissing him goodnight and bringing him a glass of water when he woke and asked for one. Then I went back downstairs and stripped off my work clothes. I dropped them into the wash and started a load. The only way I kept up with the laundry was to do a load every night while I showered. Then I double-checked that all the doors and windows were locked before walking into my ground floor master and turning the dial on the shower. 

     Showers didn’t take me long and when I stepped out I toweled off, before wrapping the same towel around my head, stepping into a pair of pajamas and brushing my teeth. Then I pulled out a notepad to make a few notations for the next day: things to do, recipes to try, ingredients I noticed were close to the replenishment mark.

     Before crawling into bed I pulled out my laptop and conducted a quick search. I’d been considering getting a dog for a while, and I fired off an email to my brother Aaron. He had recently joined a pit bull rescue operation and spent a lot of his free time rescuing and rehabbing exploited dogs. Often there were puppies involved in the rescues, and I asked him to keep an eye out for one that could be trained as a guard dog: one that I could trust to sleep on my son’s bed, but to eat the ass off of anyone trying to break into my house.

     There was a stack of business cards sitting on my night stand and I reached over, grabbing one as I tucked the laptop between the stand and my bed. Even without turning on the lamp, I knew what the card was. Every card in the substantial stack said the same thing, all with the same logo, the same name, the same cell phone number. It was Mateo's private contact card, as he reminded me every time he saw me, pressing yet another into my palm. And on the back of each, every night he scrawled Call me when you’re ready for a new job.

     At first I’d been insulted, thinking maybe that was some kind of euphemism and he was inviting me to be his mistress. But as time went on, I became curious. I knew some of the players who were more dedicated when it came to their physical conditioning. Some employed private chefs, and I began to hope his implied offer was legitimate.

     That night I finally caved. I enjoyed my job without loving it, and I often spent fourteen-hour days at the restaurant, leaving me only one day a week to spend with my son. I saw him for an hour each morning, before he headed off to school, and by the time I got home at night he’d been sleeping for hours.

     Picking up my phone, I composed a text to the cell number listed on the card and pressed send.



     There was a loud crash in the kitchen, followed by Seraphina’s soft curse, and I grinned to myself as I crept down the stairs. It was Saturday and she wasn’t even supposed to be here, which I hoped meant she just couldn’t stay away.

     After six months of wearing her down, I had finally lured her away from her job and into one as my private chef. I could afford to pay her well and I made the argument that she was saving me tens of thousands every year, since I no longer had to go out to dinner to get her to cook for me.

     She didn’t hear me come down the stairs and I stood watching her as she collected the broken pieces of the casserole dish from the floor, piling them up and then stacking them gently in the trash. She shook her head at it, muttering something as she moved back toward the large island and pulled another dish from a deep drawer.

     I stood there, my shoulder propped against the doorframe between the living room and the kitchen, watching her work. Well, technically I wasn’t really watching her work. I was watching the way she moved around my kitchen in her tight leggings and a fitted tank top, like a creeper. She was always the consummate professional, appropriately and rather severely dressed each day she reported for work, and it was obvious she hadn’t expected me to be home. Then again, maybe she hadn’t really planned to be here, I thought, realizing she was dressed for the gym rather than work. Not that I was complaining. I more than appreciated the way the fabric clung to her, accentuating her long legs, her sculpted butt and her toned arms. Her long platinum hair was pulled up in a ponytail that hung down her back and I fought the urge to sneak up behind her and wrap that ponytail around my wrist so I could kiss the back of her neck. Yeah, that made me the perv, but it was all I had these days.

     I was lost to the fantasy when I heard another crash and Seraphina barked out, “Shit!” She’d been startled to find me standing behind her. I dropped my hands quickly in front of me so she wouldn’t guess where my thoughts had been.

     I grinned at her. “Sorry, I didn’t meant to scare you--sounds like you’re having a rough morning.”

     “At this rate I’m going to break all your baking dishes before lunch,” she moaned, leaning over to pick up even more splintered shards. “I’m sorry, I’m not usually this distracted.”

     I wished desperately that the distraction had something to do with me, but I knew better. She’d been completely immune to my advances for almost two years now. I’d kept it low-key, nothing aggressive or rude or overly suggestive, but she had to know that I was interested in more than just her cooking, right? But my mama had raised me right: to be polite and respectful, to treat a woman right, and I knew until that damn ring set came off her finger, I didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell. Winning her heart was one thing, but she was an honorable woman, and getting into her pants would be quite another. Besides, she had never, ever given me any indication she was into me. 

     I was a quick study and I’d amended my tactics somewhat, extending my seduction attempts to the rest of her family. That was easier said than done, as the rest of her family was comprised of brothers: brothers who were a lot bigger than I was, and all well established in their own right. I’d never gotten the impression they didn’t trust me with their little sister, but of the handful of times I’d met them in the last year-and-a-half, each of them had insinuated more than once that Seraphina deserved more in life than the hand she’d been dealt. It wasn’t a rebuke--not exactly--but it kind of felt like they were telling me to up my game. And what they weren’t telling me, at least not with words, was that I’d better not fuck this up or they would make sure no one ever found my body.

     Of all the brothers, it should have been Noah who scared me the most. He was easily half a foot taller than me and outweighed me by what was probably close to a hundred pounds. If there was an ox in human form, it was him. Lucky for me, he was the biggest goofball I’d ever met.

     It was Thomas who scared me the most: closer to my size, but I think he was actually a robot. He was entirely immune to flattery, star power, free tickets, wealth, or any other trappings that might have been used in my favor. He played a large part in controlling the tech world, according to Seraphina, which meant his contacts were far more wealthy and powerful than my own. He could afford his own season tickets. And he made more in dividends each quarter than I did annually, even with my bloated contract. His frigid glare always made my blood run cold, like he could read my intentions toward his sister. I didn’t doubt he’d order a hit on me if he thought I was up to something.

     I leaned back against the doorway and smiled at her, hoping to draw her up short with a little charm, even though it hadn’t worked yet. “I won’t be mad if you do break all the dishes,” I said gently, hoping she’d look at me again. “You’re in my kitchen on a day off. How can I be angry if a few things are broken? I still get to eat like a king.”

     I had never been in my kitchen so many times as when she started to work for me. Suddenly I couldn’t stay away, constantly curious about what she was doing in there and, honestly, what she was wearing that day. (I always hoped for something short and tight but I’d never gotten my wish. It was clear she had far more class than I did.)

     She relaxed a little when I chuckled, and I rounded the large marble-topped island to sit in one of the bar stools at the far end. When Seraphina was distracted, sometimes I could get her to talk, and when I could get her to talk she softened and opened to me, telling me about her family and their insane stories.

     Crossing to the fridge, she pulled out half-and-half and before I could protest, she’d prepared me a cup of coffee just the way I liked: with strong espresso and a lot of half-and-half, with enough sugar to stand a spoon up in my cup. (I blame you, Puerto Rico.) 

     The woman had me so buttered up...and she didn’t even know it. She’d had me at her feet the day she walked out of that back kitchen, when I insisted on thanking my chef for the incredible fish that had shown up on my plate. I may as well have signed my own death warrant, because the instant I took a bite of that fish, I was a goner. And then I saw who had made the fish for me, and I was done. I was twenty-three years old and I was hook, line and sinker for an older woman with a kid and a wedding ring on her hand.

     I can’t tell you how many times I went to confession for licentious thoughts.

     Only days later I was back in the tiny confessional cabinet, admitting to the sins of gluttony and lust. Somehow this was getting worse rather than better, despite my piety.

     The next time I showed up in the vestibule, the priest waiting to hear my confession sighed heavily and asked, “Have you completed your Hail Mary’s?”

     Of course I had.

     “Have you made restitution for your sins?”

     I had no answer for that. How could I make restitution for wanting something I couldn’t have, when I couldn’t stop wanting it?

     The priest got so tired of hearing the same thing, he grew bored with my confessions. In fact, eventually he counseled me that as long as I didn’t desire this woman purely for sexual purposes, perhaps my soul could still be saved, so long as I did right by her. It went without saying that I shouldn’t look, but I definitely couldn’t touch.

     My teammates thought the entire situation was hilarious. I had hired a beautiful chef away from a top-notch restaurant, and now she practically lived in my home, creating carefully balanced meals and dietary plans based upon my physical needs for the season. Not a calorie passed my lips that she hadn’t pre-approved, which meant that while my refrigerator and freezers were stocked with an abundance of food, she kept my liquor cabinet under lock and key. (Well, she thought she did.)

     I took another sip of my coffee and groaned in delight. “Seraphina, you are a miracle worker. Tell me when you’re going to marry me so I can stop making that damned pod coffee at four every morning.”

     She blushed the color of the terra cotta tile on the kitchen floor and tipped her head forward, her long ponytail slipping over one shoulder to cover some of the flush. 

     Too far? Probably. But I knew for a fact (thanks to her brother Noah) that her estranged husband didn’t treat her the way he should. I wasn’t at all joking when I told her she needed to marry me.

     I knew Magnus had moved out and purchased a home some time before, somewhere over the border in Mexico. And because of that, I was fairly certain that my favorite chef’s bed had been empty for some time--possibly longer than I’d known her--which filled me with a ridiculous and unrealistic hope. 

     I watched her buzz distractedly around the kitchen, assembling one dish after another and either baking them and writing careful instructions on the tinfoil, with which she wrapped them, or putting them together and wrapping them carefully, leaving an instructional card taped to the top because she was damned thorough.

     As she worked on assembly, slowly she began to talk about Griffin. Since it was my only way into her life, I listened carefully and took mental notes about the sweet little blonde-haired boy whose life had been made a living hell through no fault of his own.

     By the time she tucked the last pan into the deep freezer in my garage, it was well into the afternoon. She looked up then, realization flashing across her face, and she pressed her lovely white teeth into her bottom lip as she thought.

     “Have I kept you from something?” I asked.

     I’d missed an optional training practice, a standing appointment for beer and burgers with some of my teammates, and an appointment for a massage. But in the meantime, my favorite girl had filled my belly with asopao and chicken pastelles and while she loaded up the secondary dishwasher in the kitchen, I mentally rewrote three of the ninety-seven ways I’d come up with to ask her to marry me.

     But she still wore that damned ring set that could blind astronauts in the space station.

     “I should go,” she said finally, both dishwashers cranking away as the sun sank lower and lower in the sky. “I meant to head to the gym before closing.” She gestured toward the gear she wore.

     “Not like you need it,” I muttered in a low voice, a smile on my face as I sipped the espresso she’d slid across the counter. At this point in the day the caffeine was almost a sedative.

     If she heard it, she pretended she hadn’t, and she wiped down the countertops and rinsed out the enormous farmhouse sink as I admired the curve of her fine ass in her tight leggings.

     If you leave that asshole, for me, I’ll make an honest woman of you. I’ll fill your days with happiness. I’ll help you raise your son to be a real man. I’ll put our babies in your belly and I’ll love you like that pig has never even tried to love you.

     “Mateo.” Her voice was a little sharp and it shook me from my sweet, unrealistic reverie. I swallowed hard, a lump in my throat.

     “Thank you for putting up with me today.”

     Oh, my sweet little sparrow, it was all my pleasure.

     “I shouldn’t have imposed on you but I didn’t have anything better to do. Griffin is with his dad and I wasn’t ready to face the laundry or cleaning after my trip to Sonoma. I was just…” She paused for a long moment, thinking it through. “I was too exhausted after watching what Thomas went through. I wasn’t ready to deal with the things that are cluttering my life and my decision making process.”

     She looked contrite and I wanted to ask her more about her trip; about how her brother was doing and what was going on with her deadbeat husband, and what I could do to help. Anything. I’d have done anything. 

     I’d known for a while that she was struggling for time and help, and even with the help of extended family, she seemed to live under a cloud of worry.

     Should I have known this much about the woman who prepared several meals for me daily? Probably not. But I’d made it my business, ever since those liquid brown eyes and that brilliant blonde hair had stolen my breath almost two years earlier when I’d given into the pestering of my teammates and went to dinner with them at a restaurant that served “the best food they’d ever eaten.”

     Damn them, but they’d been right. And since I’d stolen her away from that kitchen, they hadn’t gone back. So to make amends, on occasion I paid her serious overtime and she stayed late to cook and host a dinner party made up entirely of my teammates. But you know, jock style.

     Some of the men openly leered at her tight body and her lovely features, drunkenly whooping that I was an idiot because I had obviously not bedded one of the loveliest, most gifted women they’d ever met. I was the fool. I needed to man up and make her mine. All things I knew, but I feared crossing that line; pushing her too far.

     Each time I had the boys over for dinner, I helped her clean up after they left. I was shamefaced and contrite, quietly apologizing to her for expecting things to go a little differently than they had, knowing some of the things she’d overheard. (A fool’s errand, she would tease, as leopards did not change their spots.)

     The last time I’d had my boys over for dinner, she’d quietly informed me that my pitcher had pressed her up against the wash machine and propositioned her in the laundry room. I’d lost my shit right then and there, right in front of her, descending into an angry diatribe in a language I hoped she couldn’t understand.

     Now, let me say...I was not that guy. I didn’t lose my shit. Ever. Anywhere. For any reason. I was always the peacemaker. But that jackass had cornered the woman he knew I had a thing for. In my house. In my laundry room. And I swear to God, I saw blood when she told me what he’d done.

     Word got out when Castaldo walked out of the locker room with a split lip the next game day. Although it hadn’t happened on the field, Coach benched me that next week. I sat out four games for punching Castaldo in the teeth. I mean, as far as I was concerned, he deserved it. In fact, he deserved more. He was no longer my friend if he was hitting on the woman I’d clearly indicated was my own. He knew better, too. He was Colombian, so he couldn’t complain that my blood ran “too hot.”

     When Seraphina left, she stood in the doorway for just a beat too long. Her eyes flicked to mine and she smiled nervously. “Thanks, Mateo,” she said softly. “I didn’t mean to use you or your house as therapy. I just...I couldn’t be alone in my house today.”

     “Hey,” I tried to force out a jovial chuckle that fell a little flat. “I benefited from this one. You probably put eight more meals into my freezer...for those very rare occasions that you decide to take vacation days.” Then I managed a smile. I didn’t want her to know how hard it had been on me when she’d disappeared to her brother’s place in Sonoma, to be with him while he buried his kid. Yeah, sure, that sucked for him...but I’d been a disaster while she was gone and I hoped she never knew that. She’d never taken vacation time before, not in all the time she’d worked for me, and when she was gone I was like a universe without a sun, everything haywire and out of orbit.

     “I can’t be trusted when you’re not here,” I said with a grin. “That’s when I start eating like an emotional teenager.”

     She smiled back at me, something soft and sweet, and she reached out to squeeze my bicep. “Good thing I’m never gone then,” she said, and before I could step closer she dropped her hand and turned to leave.

     I swallowed hard, watching her go. She had no idea how frustrating it was to watch her walk out my front door every night. The only place I wanted her walking was up the stairs and into my bedroom. There I would show her that I was so much better a man than the one to whom she remained legally tied. I’d give her anything she asked for, no matter what it cost me.

     Only a handful of times, I’d caught her watching me and I thought it was with pity. Usually it was with a sad smile on her face, and each time our eyes met, she’d shake her head and quickly look away. But I saw something in that look. Somewhere deep down, she was hiding what I knew was a wildly passionate woman. Given the chance, I just knew she loved hard, with the loyalty and tenderness that I desperately wanted all for myself.

     I locked up the house behind her and trudged upstairs to my empty, lonely bedroom. I didn’t have women over here--not ever--not since she had come to work for me, anyway.

     Brennan, one of my closest friends on the team, thought it was hilarious. He teased me incessantly that I was pussy whipped, but that I still hadn’t gotten the pussy. He teased and poked and badgered, and almost every day during this year’s spring training he’d met me each morning with wiggling eyebrows.“And how is our little sparrow this morning? You schedule surgery for your carpal tunnel yet?” He asked every time. He was never going to let that go. He’d heard me mutter something under my breath just once, at one of the dinners Seraphina had put together, about my beautiful little sparrow, and he thought that was hilarious. He’d made a point of whipping out his phone to translate my Spanish to English, and when he got the result he’d guffawed loudly, right at the dinner table. It was followed quickly by an obscene gesture.

     That I was a mess over her was probably the worst kept secret ever, since the only person who didn’t seem to see it was her, and when my brother caught sight of her on one of our video calls late on a Friday afternoon he dropped one loud hint after another that the way to my heart was through my stomach. Roberto had never been subtle, but once he started pouring tequila shots down his throat, he turned into a loose-lipped disaster. If she’d begun to ask him questions, he would have told her anything. It was why he’d certainly never have access to important information, at the state or personal level.

     I had never met Seraphina’s husband, which was for the best. As far as I knew, he hadn’t set foot in California since relocating to Mexico. Even when he sent for their son, it was someone else who came to collect him, one of a retinue of paid security guards.

     Just because I’d never met him didn’t mean I didn’t know everything there was to know about the man. On the rare occasion that I allowed myself to get sloppy, I’d pour a few shots and then go in search of my laptop. By now I knew his every angle, his height, weight and birthdate, the color of his eyes and the estimated amount he was worth. I also knew he had a piss-poor reputation: late nights in clubs of questionable repute. A penchant for powdery substances. A preference for cheap women with similar habits. It made it easier to keep that kind of company, I supposed, when both parties knew there was nothing expected of themselves, or the other, right from the start.

     I was careful around Seraphina. I didn’t ask her about her husband, since it was a real hot button for me. But she wasn’t big on offering up personal information, so most of what I thought I knew about their actual relationship was gleaned through her siblings. I knew he’d treated her poorly when they were physically together, living under the same roof. I was fairly certain she’d not been with a man since him, which meant there was at least one area of her life that was lacking a certain level of fulfillment.

     She’d started bringing Griffin around the past six months or so. He wasn’t an easy kid to impress, since his father’s wealth provided him everything he could want. If he wanted season tickets to the Padres, it would have been a nothing purchase to his father. If he asked for a new gaming system or expensive shoes, a new computer or annual passes to Disney, he got it. I got the impression he didn’t ask for things often, and that was only because Seraphina kept him in line, but the point was that if he asked, he received. It was easy for Magnus to buy his son’s love with objects, and it was easier to give him things than it was to give him time or real affection.

     I gave my laptop the side eye that night. I hadn’t had anything to drink in weeks and since we were in the middle of the season, I was going to keep it that way. I was young, but I was disciplined and since I knew the average MLB career wasn’t all that long, I couldn’t afford anything but to be in the best physical condition possible. The money I made playing baseball would have to be enough to last the rest of my life and I was one of the few players I knew who drove a normal car, lived in a house much smaller and cheaper than what I could afford, and dumped a huge portion of my take-home pay into savings and investments. Growing up scratching the dirt had taught me the age old adage of “Waste not, want not.”

     I didn’t play around, either. I kept my dick in my pants. I had seen firsthand what one or two ambitious women could pull off, and several of my teammates had one or more baby mamas stashed around the country, raising their obscenely expensive children. 

     My one extravagance? Well, you already know that. I played a private chef off as an investment, but there was a double meaning in that. While I invested in my own health and physical conditioning by eating the carefully balanced means Seraphina prepared for me, I was also investing in her and Griffin. I was keeping her as close and as safe as I could, hoping she wouldn’t exactly notice what I was doing. I was making sure she was comfortable and provided for, and I hoped that someday she would let me do more.

      That night I crawled into my bed after saying the quick bedtime prayer I’d said my whole life. Mama taught me the simple words when I was too young to even remember, and I’d been saying it every night since. Then I slipped under the covers and pulled the other pillow into my arms. 

     I was the lovesick fool who fell asleep wishing it was her.




     The next morning was Sunday and when my alarm went off at six, I was out of bed like a shot. I had always been an early riser, and as usual I got the more unpleasant things out of the way first thing. It was the rare day we didn’t have a game, so I let myself into the garage where I’d set up a complete gym for myself. I hit the treadmill for half an hour, lifted some weights and did a round of stretching exercises the team’s physical therapist told me would help keep me limber. That was important, since the last thing I needed were any sprains, tears or pops. My ligaments and tendons were an important part of my game and I did what I could to keep them in top form.

     By the time I finished, my stomach was roaring. I hurried into the kitchen to blend up a protein shake and while I sipped it, I started the coffee and made a veggie-loaded omelette.

     The front door shut quietly and I froze, the spatula still in my hand. It wasn’t yet eight and I was a sweating, stinking mess, my hair still plastered to my head, as the sweat hadn’t had the time to dry.

     “I guess I couldn’t stay away.” Seraphina’s voice was soft and teasing, and something hopeful fluttered in my chest as she appeared through the doorway. “I’m sorry, I should have checked your schedule last night; I didn’t think you’d be here. You always have a double on Sundays.”

     She was in another pair of leggings and the sweatshirt she wore was wide in the neck, slipping down to reveal one smooth shoulder. I didn’t see a bra strap, and my dick jumped to attention in my shorts. Damned inconvenient, too, since all I could do to hide it was turn back toward the stove and pretend to be stupidly interested in the omelette that was already done cooking. Mrs. Auletta, saggy and wrinkled and naked. Showing up for confession in my pajamas. Getting caught cheating on a math test. I tried to think of all the things that helped kill a boner, but it was taking considerably more concentration these days.

     “Uh, morning.” I took another sip of my disgusting shake and coughed as I swallowed the grit. “Yeah, got lucky today.”

     “That’s gross.” She wrinkled her nose as she caught sight of the jar of shake mix sitting out on the counter. “Come on, Mateo, I can do better than that.” And before I could protest, her hand shot out to snatch the tall glass. She walked it to the sink and rinsed it out, moving quickly to the fridge to pull things from the well-stocked depths.

     “Don’t tell me this is how you eat when I’m not here,” she said, looking over her shoulder as she tossed something onto the counter before moving to the fruit dish, and then the huge pantry cabinet. She was shaking her head at me. “Apparently I need to be here all the time to save you from yourself.”

     Yes, please. If you were here all the time I’d give you everything you ever wanted. You could sleep in my bed and I could wake to your beautiful face, and…


     I had missed something and I snapped out of my beautiful fantasy, raising an eyebrow. “Sorry--still working on my coffee,” I mumbled, and she grinned at me.

     “I’m adding peanut butter to this one,” she said as she dumped items into the industrial blender. “You ok with that?”

     “I’d eat canned mystery meat if you were the one making it for me,” I answered honestly--a little too honestly--and she turned quickly, but not before I caught the faintest hint of pink coloring her cheeks. Maybe I did have an effect on her.

     “You’re sure this is a good idea?” I asked, taking a tentative sip of the smoothie she handed me, and the flavor exploded on my taste buds and ran down my throat like liquid ice cream. “I can’t see how something that tastes this good is supposed to actually be good for me.”

     “Mr. Rivera.” Her sexy, raspy voice dropped deeper in register, almost flirtatious, as she tsked at me. “I would never do anything that wasn’t good for you.” She grinned at me and leaned across the small space, tucking my hair behind my ear.

     Holy shit, she touched me. I sent a dozen desperate messages to my pants, not to get too excited, but it was too late--the blood got there before the command--and I had nowhere to hide. I dropped my head, muttering a vicious Spanish curse. I wanted to place faith in that she’d meant every word of what seemed barely concealed innuendo, but I didn’t think she had any idea what she did to me.

     If she noticed, she was a consummate actress, because she turned away slowly and seemed extremely busy pouring the last of the smoothie out of the blender and into a cup. She turned back then, reaching across to clink her glass against my own. “Bottoms up,” she rasped, and I watched the lovely column of her throat as she threw her head back and chugged the contents. 

     I wanted to lean closer. I wanted to press my lips to that soft skin. I wanted to lick the bare shoulder that was teasing me, peeking out of her sweatshirt. I wanted to watch her beautiful dark eyes burn with the same desire I felt, and I caught my breath painfully as the small motion of her arm lifting the glass higher raised her breasts beneath her shirt.

     I made a choking noise despite myself and took a staggering step backward. It was everything I could do not to grab her hips and pull her to me, and the only thing that kept me from doing it was imagining the look of shock on her face.

     She lowered her glass finally, setting it on the counter and I realized she had no idea what had just happened or how hard I was fighting to keep myself under control. I was going to have to leave the house. I was going to have to invent an errand and leave, before I pushed her back against the counter and pulled her long legs up around my waist.

     The glint of her golden wedding band caught my eye and a sour look crossed my face. Instant deflation. I hated that ring and everything it stood for. It kept her tied to a man who didn’t treat her like the queen she was. It kept her linked to a monster; a cheat; a junkie. 

     “Why do you stay with him?”

     Oh, shit. Adrenaline coursed through my system like a jolt of lightning, my nerve endings snapping and tingling from the cold rush. I’d really just said that out loud, the question that had been plaguing me.

     “Do you love him?”

     Oh shit, someone please make me shut up.

     A look of surprise flashed across her face and with a quick motion she yanked her wayward sweatshirt back up over her shoulder. 

     “It’s complicated,” she said softly, and her lips flattened into a thin, tight line.

     “Love is always complicated, mi pequeño gorrión.” 

     The hell? This shit was just starting to spill out of my mouth, and I couldn’t keep it under control anymore.

     Her chest heaved with a deep breath, and she leaned back against the counter, her sweatshirt dropping back down around her shoulder. 

     “It would be less complicated if it was love,” she said softly and a swift, vicious joy kicked me in the chest. “But it is not. The law is far more lasting than love, and I am tied to him for the next seven years,” she said, twisting the gold band around her finger. “If I can last that long.”

     I wanted to know what that meant and it took every ounce of my patience and willpower to remain still and silent. If I spoke, I risked knocking her off course. I needed her to keep talking.

     “It’s been a lonely existence,” she admitted quietly, looking down at her feet. “If I can make it, Griffin and I will be set for life--maybe longer. When Griffin is of legal age, the contract I have with his grandfather expires.”

     I couldn’t keep the surprised look off my face, but she still hadn’t noticed it because her eyes were still on her feet.

     “It keeps me bound to their family, and keeps me in line. I suspect Oskar also somehow keeps Magnus in line, probably by hanging finances over his head.”

     “There are stipulations to your agreement, I suppose,” I said, and she looked surprised.

     “Yes,” she said slowly. “As there always are.”

     I waited, leaning against the opposite counter, my arms crossed over my chest. I had to hold myself here, away from her. This was the most she’d ever told me.

     “Why is it lonely?” I asked finally, when she seemed to lose herself in some private thought.

     “Uh…” Her cheeks started to burn, and I waited. “I am expected to protect the family name.”

     Yeah, because your piece of shit husband is doing everything he can to drag it through the dirt. Someone’s got to be on cleanup duty.

     “How exactly do you protect the family name?” I asked, feeling one of my eyebrows start to creep toward my hairline. 

     “No scandal. I’m not allowed to take any lovers,” she said finally, and I coughed. Hard.

     “Que carajo,” I spat, and a small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. 

     “Indeed,” she agreed, and I wondered suddenly just how much she understood when I slipped back into my mother tongue. The endearments I whispered under my breath when I thought she wasn’t paying attention.

     “So he can fuck around and do whatever he wants, but you are not allowed to do the same.” It wasn’t a question, but a statement, and she nodded slowly.

     “No dating and no relationships. No hints of impropriety. I must remain a spotless nun, and I’m constantly trailed by his father’s goon squad, to make sure I’m upholding my end of the bargain.” It was as bitter as I’d ever heard her.

     My nostrils flared angrily, and my hands clenched into fists along the edge of the counter. He was having her followed, tracked like a dog. He had forced her into celibacy in her youth.

     “I’ve made it this far,” she laughed bitterly, and I chewed on my lip. “I’ll make it through the next seven on my own, for Griffin’s sake. If I can pull this off, there’s no more threat to him. He’ll be safely, legally an adult and I can set him up for life. I’ll make sure he’s not the average trust fund baby. I’ll raise him right, teach him how to be responsible, how to invest, and to budget, and…” she trailed off, her eyes filling suddenly with tears, and my heart twisted painfully. I wanted to gather her up in my arms and kiss the tears from her thick, dark eyelashes.

     “Sorry.” She folded toward the counter, hiding her face from me. “I don’t like to think about it, because I get angry.”

     “I’d be pissed off if someone tried to control my life, too,” I said heatedly. I wondered if she knew that I was lonely too, and that she was the one who kept reminding me I couldn’t have the only thing I wanted.

     “Anyway.” She shoved an arm across her eyes, and I watched her square her shoulders. “The frustration is great for my butt--I work out a lot. I don’t really have time for hobbies, but I make sure I get in a workout every day. No sense in letting the machinery rust.” She threw a smile over her shoulder and I let my gaze drift southward. She walked toward the refrigerator and I watched her go, licking my lips.

     “What’s your excuse?” She asked playfully, with a tiny smile that seemed flirtatious as she let her eyes skim my body.

     You. I wanted to say it out loud, but I bit my tongue--literally, stuck it between my teeth and held it firmly in place. I want you to look at me and want what you see.

     “I guess you could say I’m being paid to maintain a certain level of physical fitness,” I answered finally. “Maybe I take it a little farther than most, but that’s because I can’t afford the injuries. I want to be healthy and in prime shape all the time.”

     “Ok, sure.” She scoffed into the depths of the fridge and I waited until she turned around, several small paper-wrapped chickens in her hands. “You’re already perfection.” She said it under her breath, but I heard it. I did. She definitely said it.

     She set the wrapped birds on the counter and moved to the sink to wash her hands. “Diavola for lunch?” she asked, keeping her voice light. She knew the jalapeno-laden, chili-flake-flecked, tomato-sauce-drenched chicken was my favorite. She’d been the first to make it for me and each time she made it, in all it’s spicy perfection, I devoured it rapturously, grunting and groaning my way through several helpings because I just couldn’t help myself. 

     “I have a couple errands to run,” I said finally, slicing the cooled omelette down the middle and splitting it between two plates. I picked mine up, to carry upstairs with me, discreetly adjusting myself. “I’ll be back in time for lunch.” I inclined my head toward the other plate, indicating she should eat it.

     I pushed myself to leave the room, plate in hand, because if I stayed longer I was going to push her up against the refrigerator and devour her like she was my last meal. There was a certain perverse joy in knowing she hadn’t been anyone else’s for a very long time, and I stomped up the stairs with determination.

     She was going to be mine. I would find a way.

Copyright 2021, Erin FitzGerald

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