{9}

The light shining into his face was so harsh and bright, Jose turned his face away. Spots danced and swam in his vision, making his empty stomach churn with nausea. His wrists were bound tightly behind him and were chafing; his ankles were also tied to the chair he was sitting in with an extremely tough material. If he tried to struggle out of his bonds, needles of pain pricked his ankles and wrists.

A tall silhouette stood in the shadows and body guards in expensive Armani suits stood in what little visible light there was. Both of them were frowning and one of them, a guy in his twenties with a blond flat top, was smoking a cigarette. A cloud of gray smoke swirled around his head like a halo as he scowled and glared at Jose. Jose stared right back into his steel gray eyes and returned his gaze, trying to exhibit more bravery than he actually felt.

Suddenly, the silhouette stepped forward into just enough light to expose her long, shapely legs. She was wearing black high-heels with matching pantyhose. The rest of her was still hidden in the deep, dark shadows of the room.

"Hello Jose..." she purred in her Midwestern accent.

Jose recognized the woman immediately and scowled. Of course, of all the people in the world, she was the one person that could persuade Elaine to join exclusively on her side; one of Elaine's biggest weaknesses was her huge desire for power.

"I see you're happy to see me," she continued, chuckling under her breath.

Biting his lip, Jose just looked in her direction, just searching in the darkness, trying to see her face. He couldn't see it, but he could see her ruby red lips curling into a smile in her mind's eye.

The casual, playful tone in her voice subsided immediately.

Next thing Jose knew, a pistol was pressed to his neck, just below his chin. As if that weren't enough, the two bodyguard goons drew their own pistols and targeted both of them at his forehead.

"If you want to keep your life, you'll tell me where to find Alejandro," she growled. "I've been more merciful than I should be, Jose. But each time I ask, you keep refusing to tell me."

She hissed through her teeth. Sweat broke out on Jose's forehead and his heart was bouncing all around inside his chest. He could feel his desperation climbing, could feel his instincts screaming at him to run. His throat felt like rough, dry sandpaper.

He closed his eyes and tried to accept the inevitability of dying.

Behind his closed eyelids he saw Alejandro, smiling and hugging his raven haired girlfriend Heather. For the first time in his life, Jose didn't feel intense hatred and jealousy towards Alejandro. Yeah, Al the little shit might have contributed to ruining him and a part of the drug lord he worked for's plans, but there was no way he wanted to see him die...

Clinging to the image, Jose held his breath and waited for the drug lord to lose her patience.

Terror washed over him and he'd never felt so pushed down by gravity before. Completely losing his self-control and composure, he felt the tears falling out of his eyes, felt the gun prodding into his neck. It felt like he was looking down at himself from a third person perspective...he could see her manicured finger pulling slowly on the gun's trigger...

"Lo siento...Alejandro...I love you..." he whispered so softly even he could barely hear it.

A long second passed and then there was the loud crack of a gun shot.

Another second passed...then another...

Confused, Jose's eyes snapped open and he blinked several times. The bonds around his wrist and ankles were being sliced through and he could hear gun shots, yelling. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the backs of the two bodyguards in suits, could hear the receding click of the drug lord's heels. His attention was brought back to a smiling face with blue eyes, an eyebrow piercing, and a green mohawk.

"Hey! Enemy of my enemy's my friend?" he said with a smirk as Jose felt the bonds fall away.

"F**ck yeah!" Jose cheered, leaping to his feet.

The green mohawk kid led him across the warehouse where he'd been held captive. As they ran, another figure caught up with them, her wavy and curly hair bouncing around her face like a halo. She looked up at him and Jose smiled back at her. Good old Mercedes; she was the one Burromuerto who could and would save his ass if he needed it.

The three of them exited the warehouse and the bright sunlight was a huge change from a month of being kept in an abandoned prison cell and being tied to a chair. The light stung and Jose was covering his eyes with his arm, desperately trying to block it out. He was utterly relieved when Mercedes slipped a pair of sunglasses onto his face. Then she grabbed him by the sleeve of his tattered jacket and dragged him towards a motorcycle.

The green haired kid was already gunning it and she pushed him towards it.

"Can't I drive?" he complained and she rolled her eyes.

"Just go!" she barked, pulling a gun out of a holster on her waist. "Also, his name's Duncan. No stupid nick names or you'll find yourself in a pretzel knot or a bullet in your forehead!"

Fueled by adrenaline, but too swept up in the action to argue, Jose climbed onto the motorcycle behind Duncan and hung on. Duncan was silent as they roared off into the rushing wind, wheeling through the streets of Cress. As the town swept by in a giant blur, Jose felt slightly relieved, but weary at the same time. The adrenaline was beginning to wear off and now that he was kind of free, all Jose wanted was a nice, warm bed and to sleep. He'd worry about the next details when he woke up again.

Duncan stopped the motorcycle at Carlos' house and Jose felt a strange pang of guilt as he climbed off of the bike and walked up to the house. His legs felt like rubber and he wasn't sure how his older brother was going to react. And things would be ten times worse if he encountered Al, too...

Before he made another move, he turned and looked at Duncan.

"Thanks," he muttered, biting back his trash talk.

Duncan just inclined his head. "No prob. But just so you know, I did not enjoy driving you here."

"I would've preferred riding with a hot babe with a big butt and double Ds," Jose replied.

Duncan smirked. "So we're on the same page?"

"I'm not telling anybody. And you better not either...dickhead."

"I won't if you don't asshole!" Duncan said, smiling a little.

Jose couldn't help smiling back. "F**ck you!"

"Right back at you!" Duncan said before taking off again and driving away down the driveway.

Once he was gone, Jose jogged towards the front door and knocked. It was Carlos' wife Carmen who answered. Her hair was a bird's nest and she was in pink flannel PJ's. She looked at him for a long minute and then stepped aside, letting him in. As soon as he was inside, Jose made a beeline towards the upstairs, hoping one of the upstairs rooms would be empty.

On his way, he saw one of the doors slightly ajar and he heard loud moaning behind it.

Curiosity getting the better of him, Jose just walked right in...

...and found himself interrupting an intense make-out session Al was having with...Kate?

-Alejandro-

Kate sat on the edge of her bed, fingering the hank of hair that Heather had pulled out. It seemed so unbelievable that I was "going out" with my brother's wife's younger sister, but every time I looked at her...I felt nothing. She knew I was only doing it to make Heather jealous, but she was trying so hard to make me fall in love with her. Miserable, she looked up at me with the same brown eyes that Carmen used to mesmerize Carlos. She might be attractive, but...she's not mi ángel...

It felt so wrong sitting down next to her, when she wrapped her arms around me. The tips of our noses were pressing and I could feel a wave crashing through me wishing she were Heather instead of who she was.

"Heather's done it with Ryan by now," Kate says bitterly, looking at me. "Do it."

She reaches up and pulls at the buttons of my shirt. I let her pull it off and it feels like I'm dreaming as she lies down and pulls me down with her. She wraps her long legs around me and places her hand on my cheek. I feel nothing.

"Alejandro..." she says in a voice with an emotion I can't determine. "Get your revenge. Claim it! Claim it now!"

She pulls my head towards her and whatever reply I was thinking of is drowned out by her lips pressing against mine. Her kisses are light and haphazard, no feeling in them, but we're kissing anyway. We keep kissing, but everything feels so weird. Feebly, I close my eyes and force myself to imagine that I'm kissing Heather. Like magic, I feel our kisses getting hotter, feel everything launching into routine.

An entire minute passes and I keep my eyes closed-

"Holy f**king shit!"

I'd recognize that voice anywhere. Immediately, I pull away from Kate and leap to my feet, whirling around to find Jose standing in the doorway. Jose looks absolutely dumbstruck, his jaw hanging open and his eyes the size of bowling balls. Just seeing him is enough to make me forget everything else and fill me with absolute rage. I thought he was gone. Gone for good.

"What're you doing with her?" Jose cries, gesturing at Kate.

Kate steps around me, her fists clenched. "Get out, bastard!"

"No f**king way, bitch!" Jose screams at her, stepping forward. "What...what happened to your real novia, you little-"

"He's mine now," Kate growls in a low voice, grabbing Jose by the collar of his shirt and glaring into his face. "We both hate your guts, you stinking low-life bastard. You're not welcome here. Go back to the craphole you came from!"

"When did you grow a set of balls?" he asks, his eyes fierce.

"I'm not the one with balls here!"

Shamelessly, she knees him in the crotch and his face squeezes into a sower-lemon pucker. I'm not sure what to think as Jose collapses to the floor, clutching at his crotch with tears streaming down his face. Kate leans down to face him and starts yelling a slew of fierce profanity into his face and, somehow, she grabs one of her high heeled shoes and starts beating at his leg. Jose groans and after an entire minute of being a mindless bystander, I find myself reaching out and yanking her back.

"What the-?" She just stares at me.

"Leave him alone," I command her in a steel tone of voice.

I want to pound him myself, but he's so bruised and battered already. Feeling a sense of chivalry I never knew I had, I lean down and help Jose struggle to his feet. He leans against me all the way to the spare bedroom at the end of the hall and as soon as he's close to the bed, he collapses onto it.

As his face sinks into the pillow, he looks so vulnerable and weak. Two things I've never seen in the one person I hate more than anything in the world.

Everything feels absolutely surreal when Jose looks up at me with a serious look on his face completely devoid of malice.

"What are you doing with Kate?" he demands unexpectedly. "She's so fugly, Alejandro. Heather looks like a f**king supermodel. What the hell were you thinking?"

I turn to leave the room. This is just getting too bizarre for me...

"Alejandro!" Jose screams, making me turn back around to look at him.

He locks his gaze with mine and for a second, it feels like the connection I share with Carlos. That brotherly bond...

"Don't be an idiot. If you lose Heather...you're the world's biggest f**king idiot."

He shoots daggers at me before he slumps back and promptly falls asleep.

As I walk out of the room, I can't help feeling unnerved. Jose actually caring about the health and happiness of another human being? Other than his secret girlfriend Elaine, I haven't seen anyone else. Of all the people to give me relationship advice, he's the last person I'd be taking it, or expecting it, from. My heart's burning and my brain's full of fog.

I need to get out of here.

I march past Kate's room and she runs out, looking at me. As I walk down the stairs, I can feel her eyes burning into my back. Once I reach the door, she lightly touches my wrist and then slaps my shirt into my hand. Then she turns and silently runs back up the stairs. I pull my shirt on over my head and start buttoning it as I walk over towards my rustbucket truck.

As I drive, the route is as familiar to me as the back of my hand. For some reason, I feel a sense of purpose, feel my heart rapidly picking up its pace in my chest. This past month has been so stupid and pointless. All that jealousy. It's like Ryan was fate's attempt at tossing a monkey wrench between Heather and I, but I can't let this spat between us last forever. I'm being drawn to her right now like a magnet. And for some reason, I know that she'll be waiting for me.

Some part of me lights up as I park and lock my truck two blocks away from her mansion.

The rest feels like clockwork as I run towards her mansion. Both of her parents' cars are gone. Ryan isn't there. The yard is empty and next thing I know, I'm climbing the trellis propped up against the side of the mansion. So many memories sizzle through me and, like a naive child, I feel my hope growing the higher I climb up. It feels stupid of me to think that as soon as I get to the window and see Heather, things will return back to the blissful, beautiful atmosphere it was a month ago...but my heart's aching so much I can't help it.

It feels like I'm going to snap in two when I reach out and knock on her window. I'm holding my breath when she pushes the curtains back and appears. There's a look of absolute surprise on her face as she opens the window.

That's when I realize how chilly it is outside. The curtains on either side of Heather's window are flapping like the outstretched wings of a pair of birds. She leans towards me and frowns, our gazes locking for a long, tortured moment. The moment breaks when she reaches to pull the window shut again. Anxiety rises in me, but then it subsides again when she pulls her hand away from the window.

She rests her arm on the window sill and scrutinizes me. "What are you doing here?"

I look at her and try to look confident. "I want to talk to you."

"Well I don't want to talk to you," she says, her tone full of venom.

Just as she reaches for the window again, I feel myself snap. I reach out from my precarious perch and grasp her wrist, squeeze it. Incredulous, she looks up at me and I look back at her, feeling myself want to cry. Despite her angry tone, I can see her eyes shining with tears, too.

"I can't take this anymore," I whisper to her severely, refusing to let go of her wrist. "I don't want anyone else. I want you. Don't you get it? Why did you trade me in for Ryan...?"

She looks up at me, lips trembling and then she looks away.

"I thought I was still in love with Ryan...I...I..." She shakes her head. "I don't know! He's always had a way of getting to me. No matter what he's done...I remember the sweet guy who romanced me in seventh grade...the guy I looked up to, ended up falling in love with. He was my first true love, Alejandro. I don't think anybody ever gets over that..."

She looks up at me again and doesn't look away.

"I know I was stupid. And I know I'm not in love with Ryan. And I'm so sick of everything. Everyone's so freaking depressed...I haven't forgotten about Jose, either..."

She gently pulls her wrist out of my hand and then I crawl into her bedroom through the window. The first thing I notice is that she has a framed photo of us together at prom last year. She looks so beautiful in that picture, smiling and then seeing us. Together. It feels like it was a million years ago. When I turn back to look at her, she's crying and shaking her head. Part of me wants to sweep her into my arms and stroke her hair while the other half wants to scream at her.

As we stand there, silently staring at each other, I realize how much of a mountain climb our relationship is. Heather can be so bossy, so mean, so cruel, an egomaniac...Right now it's so easy to see those faults, but then I remember when I was giving her tango lessons. How she slowly opened up to me like a beautifully blossoming rose. There were so many more good things than bad things, so much about her that I wanted to love and adore. In a way, I hated her now as much as I loved her. The conflicting emotions made it impossible to know what to do here.

Similar thoughts must have been running through her head. She turns to look at me, trembling a little bit.

"Should we really be together...?" she asks. It's the question running through both our minds.

I react before I think it through. That magnet attraction makes me go to her and pull her into an embrace. Then I lean in and kiss her, softly, lightly, pulling away before it can become too intense and passionate. Things are already confusing enough right now.

She looks up at me and digs her fingers into the material of my shirt. As we look at each other, the answer to the question is crystal clear. We keep looking at each other and it just keeps getting brighter, sharper. It's such a bright point in my mind, it's a star. Despite the shortcomings, the faults, our arguments, and fights...

I've known it from the start. Ever since I first fell in love with her.

"I love you. I always have," we both say at the same time.

It feels like the cheesy, happy ending to a movie, but it doesn't stop there. Heather grabs my arm and pulls me over to her bed. She unbuttons my shirt and then we're lying side by side. Things dissolve and become a blur as she tosses my shirt to the floor next to her bed and then we start kissing.

It's really late at night with the moon shining in through the window. Everything's a subdued hue of blue and I'm having trouble getting to sleep. I'm lying in bed with the love of my life, holding her in my arms with her hair falling onto my arm like a waterfall. Gently, I run my fingers through it, sighing deeply as I listen to my heart beat softly in my chest like a drum. Everything feels as peaceful as the recorded rain fall sound on a tape of sounds from the Amazon rain forest.

Affectionately, I lean towards Heather's ear and whisper affectionately to her in Spanish. Even though it's dark, I can sense the wonderful and beautiful smile unfolding on her face like a pair of butterfly wings.

"This is how we should've spent Valentine's Day..." Heather murmurs.

"I know," I say back, snuggling closer to her. "I wanted to..."

"Better late than never," Heather replies. "Maybe...we should run away together?"

"I did not know you were a secret romantic." I smirk a little.

"I'm not...Okay, I read romance novels sometimes. When nobody's looking. It's one of my big secret obsessions...like glitter pens."

"Were you going to make me a Valentine's card with pink and red glitter?" I ask, smiling. Everything feels so blissful right now, I wish it could last forever.

"You wish." Her tone is playful and sarcastic.

There's silence for a minute and then I decide to say something I hope I don't regret admitting later. Right now, I feel so comfortable that I'd confess to my secret lifelong obsession with Star Wars; my favorite character has always been Darth Vader. Though, I have to give my logical side some kind of concession and that's to be careful with what secrets I reveal right now. Heather's not quite ready for the Star Wars secret.

"I've had a dream about us traveling to Barcelona," I tell her. "We get married and have our honeymoon there. I've always loved Spain. I lived there as a very little boy when my mother was still involved in her work as a diplomat, and I always loved it there. After Carlos returned from Spain, I felt such a huge wave of homesickness. Somewhere, deep in my heart, I've always felt that Barcelona is my true home. And, someday, it'd be even more wonderful to be living there with you..."

Heather rolls over and looks at me, smiling.

"So...you're a Spaniard?"

"I consider myself one, yes..."

"It'd be fun to go to Spain."

She leans in and kisses me, sending tingles rocketing down my spine. Then she places her head under my chin and stays there, wrapping her arms around my chest and showing me that she thinks of me as purely hers. I think of her as mine and express it by planting a kiss on her forehead.

"Do you think we will get married?" Heather asks.

The question is so unexpected, so out of the blue. It catches me off-guard, but I've thought about it so much I already know my own answer to that particular question:

"Yes."