Since she left eleven years ago, I've held conversations with Justine in my mind. Truthfully, I've even talked out loud to her, in the small hours of the night. When I'm alone and lonely.
Asked for her opinion. Pleaded with her. Shouted at the top of my lungs.
Should I invest in this building?
Please, let's talk this out. There's still time.
Why did you give up on us?
And now that I'm standing near her, staring into her sparkling eyes, inhaling her sugary, vanilla scent, I can't think of a thing to say. I'm wondering if her skin still tastes like whipped cream.
I study her with the caution of a tiger-tamer at the circus. I can't believe she's short-circuited my brain this quickly.
Ever since I ambushed her on the sidewalk, her voice has been shaky, like my insides are. I didn't think I'd be this nervous seeing her again. Hearing her soft, southern accent sends a current of desire through me. It's an ever-present feeling, one that ebbs and flows depending on how much, or how little, I'm thinking about her. Now that we're together again, that current is more like a tsunami roaring through my veins.
I need to concentrate on the task at hand.
Which isn't easy, because the newsroom is fetid. Worse than what I remember. It smells like onions, and there's a half-eaten pizza and a stack of yellowed newspapers in the corner. Has anyone cleaned this place in fifteen years? It doesn't look like it. I'd never understood why Justine loved the chaos of newspapers. When we met, she was a reporter for the school paper, and I'd often visit her there. At first, I was captivated by how she seemed extra alive in her newsroom, or when she was writing a story late at night for the paper. But journalism, and her desire to be a star reporter, came between us. Well, that and a lot of other things.
I'm trying to hide my disgust at how run-down everything looks at the Times when Caroline — I always called her Carolina — practically leaps into my arms. I'm genuinely delighted to see her, but her presence also complicates things a bit. I had assumed she was long retired.
"What a surprise, Carolina. Are you here for a visit?" At least I'm hoping that the older woman is just stopping by. In all of my plans to buy and close the paper, I didn't factor Caroline into the equation. I want to inflict damage on Justine's father's legacy. And perhaps Justine herself. Not an innocent old woman who has done nothing but be a loyal employee. And one who had been so kind to me when I was dating Justine.
"I'm still a part time employee, dear. I'm close to collecting social security and my pension, but Justine needs me around." Caroline winks at me.
Well, that's somewhat of a relief, that she's close to retirement. As much of an asshole as I can be when it comes to business, I try not to go as far as putting retirees on the street. I don't want the workers at the paper to suffer for the sins of Justine and her father. My eyes flit to Diana, and I realize with a sinking feeling that she, too, works here. She's hugely pregnant and has a ring on her finger, though — so surely her husband must work. She'll be fine.
I grin at Caroline. I can't get caught up in the lives of people here. I need to treat this like any other acquisition. If layoffs need to happen, they will. If I decide the paper must close so I can make a profit, it will.
This is business. Well, mostly. And pleasure — mine.
"I'm so glad Justine finally came to her senses and called you. I never liked that TV pretty boy she was dating."
A jolt goes through me when Caroline mentions that Justine dating someone else.
I turn to Justine, who is rolling her eyes and making indignant snorting noises. She tips her head to one side, revealing a neck that demands my lips.
"No, not anymore." Why is she so quick to correct Caroline?
I crack a joke about that Will Farrell movie and then hug Caroline again. Promise her lunch, because I want to pump her for as much information about the company, and Justine, as possible.
"Let's proceed with what you came here for, Rafa." Justine sounds annoyed.
"Why do you think I came here?" I'm feeling a bit more on solid ground, now that I notice she's nervously scratching at the cuticle of her right thumb with her left index finger.
"Dating an anchorman." I try to sound light, but a pit's forming in my stomach. I'd checked up on Justine on the Internet over the years, and I'd seen a photo in a regional magazine of her and that TV guy. I assumed it was a professional relationship. I check again for a ring on her finger. Nothing. She's not wearing any expensive-looking jewelry at all, just two silver studs in her ears.
Justine smiles beatifically as we walk into her office. Did she love the anchorman? Did the guy break her heart? Why did they break up?
I smile wide, the same plastic expression I use when forced to attend red carpet galas in Miami. Justine had always challenged me intellectually. Captivated me. Tormented me. Sometimes in painfully infuriating ways, like when she moved away to pursue her career goals. She never looked back after she left me, as if I was an afterthought, a stepping-stone, to something bigger and better. I wasn't enough for her when we were younger.
Now, I'm here to rub it in her face that I'm more than she ever anticipated. And to show her how she's never achieved anything in life. Just look at this nasty office — when it had been her father's, I'd walked in that first Christmas break and thought it so imposing and intimidating. Now it looks like a garbage dump and smells like something drowned and died in the corner. Well, mostly. Every so often Justine's perfume wafts in my direction, and it's a refreshing break from the moldy smell. But every time my nose detects her sweetness, I breathe deeper to savor the smell, and then it vanishes.
I'm reluctant to even sit on this sofa or loveseat or whatever it is, afraid of what I might catch or if these stains will somehow seep onto my clothes. I'd taken great care to choose the finest tailored suit from the Zegna store for this particular meeting. I tug at my French cuffs and look Justine in the eye.
She fans herself with the file in her hand. "Is the air working in here?" she says to Diana, who shrugs and mumbles something about being sweaty all the time.My phone rings and I let out an annoyed grunt. Taking it out of my pocket, I look at the screen. UNKNOWN, it says. I'm about to ignore it when I recall that the Spanish lawyer's number sometimes comes in this way. And if it's about the high-rise I'm building in Madrid, I need to answer. In truth, I can't afford to be here in St. Augustine for a month because I'm too damned busy with projects. But this is closure, something that's essential for my own well-being, and sometimes, business must be put on hold for personal breakthroughs.
I consider this trip the ultimate breakthrough: an exorcism.
"I'm sorry, I need to take this." I point at my phone, and she looks stunned.
No, I'm not putting you first anymore, Justine. I walk out of her office, feeling her eyes on me.
"Yes?" I say. It's how I always answer the phone. No bullshit. I learned that from my uncle. He'd never made enough to get him and his wife out of that little cinder block home in Hialeah, but he taught me to cut to the chase, dispense with the bullshit. I miss him every day.
"Rafael?" The woman's voice is high and hopeful.
"Who is this?" I frown.
There's laughter on the other end. "Rafael, it's me. Christina."
AUTHOR'S NOTE: What are you thinking of Rafael so far, now that you know his point of view?
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Constant Craving: The Complete SeriesRomance
To save her business, she'll trade every last inch of her body... * * * Justine's passion is journalism, and she's trying to beat the odds and save her family's newspaper. With the company on the edge of collapse, she begs a private equity group fo...