As promised, below is an excerpt from my upcoming book, The Best Love. Please keep in mind that this is not the final draft.
* * *
For a brief moment, Julieta stopped breathing. Her heart rate slowed down and her head grew light and dizzy, making her feel as though she might pass out.
Julieta was, in fact, fine but this was a common malady in her life that only occurred whenever she was around Alex…
Tall Alex, with the slender, muscular frame…
Handsome Alex with the grey, soulful eyes…
Beautiful Alex with the sandy-brown hair, cut short as of lately, just how she liked it…
It didn’t help that she saw him almost every day, but even now, as he walked into her home, she couldn’t resist admiring him. Nestled comfortably under a blanket, Julieta watched as Sonia, her sister-in-law, greeted Alex and welcomed him into their home. He, in turn, offered her a shy smile and allowed her to kiss his cheek. Manny, Julieta’s brother and Sonia’s husband, met his friend at the door with a cold beer and a firm handshake. The two of them worked together at a construction company where they had met years ago. Julieta was too young then to do anything about her crush, but she had recently celebrated her twenty-second birthday. She was old enough to date him and fulfill his every desire, should he ever ask.
But it was all wishful thinking on her part: Alex had never shown interest in her. And even if he did, her brother would never allow it: Manny was the overly-protective type. He had spent her teenaged years warning her about men who were nothing but trouble to good girls like her.
Men, like Alex, who had spent time in prison and wanted only one thing from women: sex. Now that she was older and aware of her own sexuality, the thought was actually quite appealing. And to be frank, his past didn’t bother at all her – everyone deserved second chances. But she also knew she would never convince either of them that a relationship was worth pursuing.
Still, it didn’t stop her from fantasizing, which in turn stopped her from breathing. Julieta released the breath she had been holding and let her body resume its normal functions. She slid down into the couch as Manny and Alex proceeded past the living room to the back deck where her brother had the grill going. Neither offered a glance in her direction. She was invisible to all but Sonia, who approached her with a warm smile. Everything about the woman was beautiful. She had big, brown eyes; flawless olive skin; full, supple lips and the perfect hourglass figure. But she was also patient, loving and kind. She was a saint to deal with Manny, whose explosive temper rivaled that of a volcanic eruption. But also Julieta, who had to depend on others following the accident.
With a soft touch, Sonia brushed her hair back and kissed her forehead.
“Can I get you anything, mamita?”
Julieta shook her head.
“Let me know if you do need something; dinner will be ready shortly,” she added before heading back to the kitchen.
Julieta turned her attention back to the television. She tried to remember what she was watching before Alex walked in, but she was a hopeless case. As long as he was in the house, she wouldn’t be able to concentrate.
You seriously needed to grow up and stop crushing on your brother’s friend, she thought to herself.
Julieta decided to put Alex out of her thoughts (for the umpteenth time in her life). She grabbed the remote and channel-surfed instead. She knew she ought to be looking at the class schedule Manny picked up for her, but school no longer appealed to her. All because of the accident.
Sonia had picked her up from the community college that afternoon. They had two cars between the three of them and Julieta had to depend on her sister-in-law for a ride. It was raining; and neither woman saw the pick-up truck barreling towards them on Julieta’s side. The vehicle rammed them, causing their car to overturn several times. Sonia escaped with little injury, but Julieta was not so fortunate: a metal bar pierced her leg. She lost a lot of blood because of it and had to receive multiple transfusions. At one point, she even went into cardiac arrest and flatlined. But she made it. She was alive and this was something she didn’t take lightly.
Which was why she wasn’t certain about college anymore. She had missed the latter part of the previous semester but now she had the opportunity to retake the classes and get back on track. Yet, she hesitated. Yes, she understood getting an education was vital to her future, but the truth was she didn’t know what she was going to school for anymore. What were her goals? What did she want to do? Could she postpone going for a year while she figured stuff out? And if she never did, could she be happy settling for what everyone expected of her?
Alex plopped down on the seat beside her, a plate in each hand. That he called her by a nickname was as much as a surprise as his choice to sit so close to her. She pulled the blanket closer to her chin and forced herself to breath.
“Hey,” she managed, though it was hardly coherent or intelligible.
He passed a plate to her.
“Sonia said to bring this to you.”
Julieta pulled her arms out from under the blanket and accepted it.
She set the plate in front of her, and tried to focus on anything but Alex, but she was too aware of his presence to relax or eat.
Dammit, girl, grow up.
“What’re you watching?” he asked, casually.
Julieta tried to answer him, she really did, but no words escaped her lips. She just stared at him.
Then Sonia and Manny entered the living room, sparing her from further embarrassment. They carried plate and drinks with them. They would be eating dinner in the living room, as much on her behalf as there was a game on that Manny wanted to watch. Sonia handed Julieta a glass of water and sat down on the couch across from her.
“What’s this crap?” Manny asked, snatching the remote from her.
Not caring for his sense of entitlement, she exclaimed, “Hey, I was watching that!”
He stopped and turned to her, his arm extended, finger ready to hit the button and change the channel.
“Oh, yeah, what were you watching?”
Julieta glanced at the TV and was surprised to see she had it on a children’s channel.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
“You’re a jerk.”
“And you’re a baby.”
He flipped through the channels until he found the game he was looking for.
“Not everyone in the room wants to watch that,” she insisted.
“So, leave,” he retorted as he took a bite of his food, his eyes glued to the game.
Sonia swatted him on the leg in chastisement.
“Manny! Be nice.”
“What?” he asked without looking up. The ball was intercepted and Manny yelled in frustration.
“Why don’t you go fill out that paperwork for school? You’re supposed to start classes next week,” he remarked. And even though his comment was in question form, Julieta knew it wasn’t a suggestion. He wanted her to leave.
“You don’t have to be so snarky,” Julieta shot back.
He turned to her, his expression hard – he wasn’t playing anymore.
“Ey, I know you got hurt and all, but it’s time to get back to school.” He spoke in a ‘fatherly’ tone, trying to impart whatever wisdom he thought was appropriate. The problem was that she was not his child. She wasn’t even a child anymore, so he could keep whatever advice he had.
“I don’t want to go back yet,” she said, firmly.
“You want to be like me? No college degree, stuck working construction because you can’t get anything better? You’re too smart for that,” he continued. “You have to think about your future.”
Julieta rolled her eyes.
“You never cared before.”
“Yeah, well, I care now.”
“Why? Because you’re not getting a return on your investment?”
Sonia cut in.
“You two need to take this somewhere else.”
“Julieta needs to understand she can’t throw her life away. She’s going back to school,” Manny argued.
“No, I’m not. I get to decide what I want. This is my life,” Julieta retorted.
“Not while you’re living in my house.”
“Then I’ll move.”
“Where are you going to go? Who’s going to take you in like that? You’re a cripple.”
Julieta blushed at her brother’s insensitivity. She had scars that ran the length of her leg and had to walk with a cane. So yeah, she was a cripple, but Manny had no right to say so, especially in front of Alex.
“Then again, maybe that’s a good thing,” he commented. “I don’t have to worry about you getting knocked up.”
“Basta!” Sonia yelled. She was usually the level-headed one, but even she was losing patience now. “This is ridiculous. You two fight like children.”
Manny ignored her and directed his next comment at Julieta.
“I’m gonna say this and I’m done.” His voice was grave and low. “You’re a smart girl and I won’t let you throw that away. You’re going to register for your classes and finish college and that’s all there is to it.”
Julieta didn’t dare argue. Manny was ten years older than her and had spent the past decade parenting her into adulthood. He was the man of the house; and as a good Latina, it was her ‘duty’ to respect the man’s authority and obey. She didn’t like it, but there was nothing else she could do.
“Understood?” he added, making eye contact with her to assure there was no misunderstanding.
“Yes,” Julieta replied through clenched teeth.
Silence followed. The only sound in the room now came from the television; and though Manny’s team scored, there was no celebration.
“I can take her,” Alex suddenly volunteered.
Everyone looked up at him. Julieta stopped breathing again, but for a different reason. While Alex had given her rides in the past, he hadn’t done so since the accident. If he took her tomorrow, he would see her hobbling around on her cane. As much as she wanted to be around him, she didn’t want him to see her like that. She prayed Manny would say no, as it was apparent her fate was in his hands and not hers.
“I’ve got the afternoon off tomorrow. I could come by and take her,” Alex said, then added. “If you’re good with that.”
Julieta groaned when she saw Manny considering it.
“Works for me,” he finally said with a shrug of his shoulder. Then he turned back to the game, the conversation over.