Save Me From You

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A frown is etched on Diana's face

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A frown is etched on Diana's face. "Rafael probably doesn't know you approached Florida Capital, but I thought you should read that before you sat down with someone from the company. If you still want to sit down with someone from the company."

I nod and gulp in a few breaths. "Right. Okay. Yeah. I'm sure he has no idea. We're pocket change to a company like his, yeah?" My voice sounds tight, strangled.

"Mmm. I hope."

I'm nearly hyperventilating. I try swallowing, but my mouth is dry and the swallow sticks in my throat. The coffee is burning a hole in my stomach.

Rafael Menendez de Aviles. I glare at the newspaper again. My hands tremble. This is what seeing his name in black-and-white does to me.

"I'm sure everything'll be fine." Her tone isn't convincing. She turns to squint into the morning sun and at the pirate.

"Yeah." I draw out the word. "Just. Peachy."

We stand in tense silence for a few minutes, me with shaky hands, fanning my face with the paper, Diana staring at the drunk and rubbing her belly. My earlier resolve to drag the pirate away is gone. It doesn't matter if there are a dozen passed-out drunks sleeping in front of the building.

If Rafael now owns the private equity firm, there's no way he'll—

Diana interrupts my dismal thoughts. "Every year, it's always the fat, old guys in the puffy shirts and eye patches who end up at our building after the parade. It's never a dude who looks like Johnny Depp."

Now she's trying to calm me by cracking a joke.

The newsprint has gotten on my fingers and mixed with my sweat. I pass her the paper and wipe a moist, grimy palm on my black pencil skirt. "Whoever thought the St. ARR-gustine Pillage the Village Fest was a good idea a hundred years ago should be drawn and quartered. Or made to walk the plank. Or shot."

"How long do you think the cops will take?" Diana asks.

"Who knows? Not soon enough. Guess I should've scheduled this meeting after the festival was over. Or not scheduled it at all."

We're verbally dancing around the real issue.

Rafael.

"It's okay. It's not your fault that a guy's using the sidewalk to sleep off his buzz. Not like we didn't pillage the village back in the day. Remember the time I dressed like a glitter pirate princess?"

I groan. Now she's really trying to make me feel better, bringing up our wilder moments from our teenage years. Bless her heart.

Pressing my hand onto my hip, I tap my foot faster on the sidewalk. Now I'm sweating everywhere and not because it's so stupidly, unseasonably warm for February in Florida. I'm sweating because the very idea that the most important man of my past could eventually be in charge of my future—and my company's future—is impossible to comprehend.

"So I guess the VP of Florida Capital—or MDA or whatever the company's called now—will see our business, warts and all. We're a newspaper. We traffic in truth. Why try to gloss over the ugly?" I shrug casually as panic pools in my midsection.

Diana shoots me a sharp look. "Come on. We're not that bad of an investment."

"There's a lot of ugly right now at the St. Augustine Times." I spit out a laugh. "I wish I'd stayed a reporter."

Diana sighs. "You were a great reporter, and I know that was easier than being publisher. But what is it that you said to me when your dad died? This is your legacy. You love this. Fighting for what's right. Being the voice of the community. Upholding the First Amendment. It's in your blood."

"Lofty, ivory-tower crap," I mutter.

"Stop being grouchy. You believe in this paper. Otherwise, why try to save it?"

I grunt. She's right. I love this place, this business, even with all the problems. I still think we can make a difference in this fucked-up world. When I'm having a bad day, I often think of a quote from my favorite dystopian comic book character, Spider Jerusalem: "Journalism is just a gun. It's only got one bullet in it, but if you aim right, that's all you need. Aim it right, and you can blow a kneecap off the world."

Trouble is, my gun's been dropped, kicked, and crammed with mud. If it even fires, it might blow my head off.

Diana's eyes soften. "The building alone is worth what you're asking for the loan."

I roll my eyes. The building is the only thing of value, and that's what's heartbreaking. And Diana knows it. As the CFO, she's aware of how dire things are. Everything hinges on this meeting. My career. My newspaper. My entire life. The Times has been my family's heirloom to the city for nearly one hundred and fifty years, and its future is uncertain.

At best.

And now, Rafael is standing in between me and success.

The enormity of it all leaves me at once unsteady and detached, as though I'd been plucked from my safe world and plopped into a different dimension altogether, one where the laws of sense and sanity don't exist.

Larry pokes his head out the door again and calls to me in a loud voice, "Justine, the police said they'd be here in five or ten minutes."

"Thanks, Larr." I smile without showing my teeth and wave. He's worked at the Times for longer than I've been alive and is only a couple of years from retirement. Sweet, white-haired Larry, who used to buy my brother and me Rocket Pops off the ice cream truck when we were in grade school and were forced to spend afternoons at the paper with Dad during summer break.

What will happen to Larry's pension if this deal doesn't go through? He disappears inside. I could be the one to tank Larry's pension. The hole in my stomach spreads into a crater.

I tug my tight pencil skirt down past my knees, then inspect my thumbnail. My red polish hasn't chipped. Yet. I stand with my back to the street, and Diana's elbow nudges my forearm.

"Don't sweat it. Rafael won't show up today, Justine. He probably doesn't know this meeting is even happening."

"Yep. It's a big enough company that he probably doesn't keep track of all the requests for funding, especially so soon after the acquisition. Besides, it sounds like he runs a real estate investment company and owns God-knows-what else in Miami. I wish someone had let on that this was about to happen when I applied for the loan."

"Maybe it'll even work in our favor."

I shrug, but my shoulders stay hunched somewhere around my ears. "Maybe. Anyway, I'll bet Rafael's forgotten I even exist. It's been, what, ten, twelve years since we've seen each other?" I know exactly how long it's been, because I occasionally do the calculations in my mind.

Eleven years, two months, and three days.

Not that I keep track or anything.

Diana clears her throat while looking at the drunk. I wince when the pirate scratches his belly in his sleep.

"Figures," I mutter.

Precise footsteps sound on the sidewalk behind us, and my heart thrashes against my ribcage. I'm about to turn around when there's a pause in the steps and a beat of silence. My heart hammers in time with the throbbing pain in my head. Is it possible for a thirty-four-year-old woman to have a stroke and a heart attack simultaneously?

"I've heard the news business is going through some tough times. I didn't expect skid-row drunks, though. Wait. Is that a pirate?"

My breath hitches, and a sudden heat spreads through my body. That tone. Sardonic and sexy. I haven't heard it in so long, but it's as familiar and seductive as the humid breeze that inspires the Spanish moss to sway in trees all over the city.

Rafael Menendez de Aviles.

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