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"Elena, I don't know how to say this "
"Say what?" Carefully, so not too much filling would spill out, Elena Cabrera lifted a taco off her plate. "I've met someone else."
Elena had her mouth wide open to take a bite. Instead, she eased the taco back down to the plate. Then she put her hands in her lap and stared across the cozy corner table at totally hunky Antonio Aguilar.
So much for going on the pill, she thought.
They'd been dating for two months now. She'd started on the pill two weeks ago. Because she'd been really, really hoping that Tonio would be the one.
"You're a beautiful woman, Elena." His dark-chocolate eyes were full of regret. "I don't know why we never really clicked ."
Clicked. They hadn't clicked. Was that the problem?
Something was. She was twenty-five years old and still a virgin.
Nothing against being a virgin, per se. Until not all that long ago, being a virgin had been her choice. Men had made advances. She'd turned down every one.
After all, she was a woman of principle. She'd been saving herself for true love. Seriously. True, forever love. Like her sister, Mercy, had with Luke.
Like her parents had.
Or like she'd always thought they had.
But then, three years ago, she'd learned that her darling Papi wasn't her biological father, after all. Her father's sworn enemy, Davis Bravo, was. Her mom had been lying to her dad for all these years, letting him believe that Elena was his. Letting Elena believe it, too.
Needless to say, her dad and her mom weren't together anymore.
So much for true, forever love.
"Elena." Tonio leaned toward her across his untouched plate. He looked more than a little annoyed. "Have you heard a single word I said?"
"Uh, yeah. It's not working out. You've found someone else."
"This is pretty much the whole problem. You know that, don't you?"
"This." He said a bad word in Spanish under his breath and made a sweeping gesture with his lean brown hand, his sculpted cheekbones flushed with color. He was definitely not happy with her. "You."
"You. Elena, when we're together, you act like you're a thousand miles away." He pushed his plate toward the center of the table with a look of pure disdain. "And now I've met Tappy, well, there's no comparison. Tappy adores me. A man needs that, to know that his woman is there for him, that he has her absolute undivided attention when he speaks."
"Wait a minute. Tappy. Her name is Tappy?"
He made a hissing sound between his gorgeous white teeth, and looked away. "Now you make fun of her name. A woman cares for me. Really cares. And you make fun of her name." More Spanish swear words ensued.
"Tonio. Come on " Now she felt guiltywhich made no sense. He was breaking up with her. And she felt guilty ?
"No." He showed her the palm of his hand. "It's enough. I don't know why I was so worried about telling you. It's not as if you care."
"It's over. Finished."
"Well, I know that. You said that. But couldn't we at least?"
"Stop." He took out his wallet, threw some bills on the table. "You never respected me. You never wanted me." He swept to his feet. "Well, I have a real woman now. Goodbye, Elena."
And with a scornful toss of his proud dark head, he was gone.
Elena didn't watch him go. She picked up the taco again and finished her lunch, her gaze studiously on her plate. If people were staring, she didn't want to know. The whole situation was embarrassing enough as it was.
Not only had she lost Antonio, she didn't feel all that bad about it.
Was there something wrong with her? Sometimes she really did wonder.
Her cell rang as she stood at the cash register paying the check. It was her sister. Mercy said, "Hey."
Elena signaled to the hostess that the five dollars in change should go to the waiter and smiled at the sound of her sister's voice. "Hey." She turned for the glass doors that led to the parking lot.
"Did you hear?" Mercy asked. "Dad thinks he's found a buyer for the company." Their father was a builder. He owned and ran Cabrera Construction. Lately, he'd been making noises that he wanted to retire. Mercy added, "Some friend of Caleb's, I think."
Caleb was one of Davis Bravo's seven sons, and thus Elena's half brother. He was also Mercy's brother-in-law, since Mercy's husband, Luke, was another of Davis's sons.
Family connections. Truly convoluted, at least when it came to the Bravos and the Cabreras. It wasn't quite as creepy as it might sound, though. Mercy, unlike Elena, was not related by blood to the Bravosor the Cabreras, for that matter. Mercy had been adopted into the Cabrera family when she was twelve.
Elena reached her car and pulled open the door. "I remember now. Caleb mentioned that some guy he knows in DallasLogan somebody-or-other?might be interested." In the past few years, after the big revelation concerning Elena's true parentage, Elena and Caleb had become not only newfound siblings, but close friends, as well.
"Not Logan," said Mercy. "Rogan. Rogan Murdoch."
"Rogan. Right." Elena slid in behind the wheel and started the engine to get the air-conditioning going. April in San Antonio could be as hot as August in other places. "Caleb said the guy runs his family's company."
"Murdoch Homes," Mercy confirmed. "And he wants to expand. He showed up yesterday. And he's with Dad now.. "
"With Dad at the office?"
"That's what Papi said when I called."
Elena readjusted the vent so the cold air blasted into her face. It felt good. "You think I should go over there? Check the guy out?"
Mercy laughed. "I would do it myself, but I have a sick heifer to treat." Mercy was a large-animal vet. "And then I have to get home to take Lucas to Mommy and Me." Lucas was her two-year-old. And she was two months pregnant with her and Luke's second baby.
True love, a toddler and a baby on the way. Mercy had it all. Elena adored her big sister. Otherwise, she would be green with envy.
"I'll take care of it." She bent closer to the vent so the cool air flowed down the front of her shirt. "It's Good Friday. What else have I got to do?" Elena taught middle-school social studies. Good Friday was a school holiday.
"You sure? I thought you mentioned something about lunch with Antonio.. "
"Oh." Elena slumped back in the seat and stared glumly out the windshield. "That."
Mercy made a low, sympathetic sound. "What happened?"
"I just got dumped over fish tacos."
"Are you all right?"
"Sadly, yes. I'm just fine."
"Oh, chica "
"Tonio's found someone else."
"Her name is Tappy."
"It's what I saidand I can hear you laughing."
"Stop it, Mercedes." But Mercy didn't stop. And then Elena was laughing, too.
Finally, Mercy pulled herself together enough to remark philosophically, "Well, at least your heart isn't broken over this."
"Yeah. It's really depressing."
"Elena." Her sister's voice was gentle, soothing. "There's someone out there for you. I know there is."
"Keep talking. I'm twenty-five. I've never been in lovenot that I'm feeling sorry for myself or anything."
"What's this never? What about Roberto Pena?"
"That was high school. It's been a decade, in case you didn't notice."
"It will happen. You'll see."
Enough of the pity party. Elena sat forward again and reached for the ignition key. "Gotta go. Got to check out this Rogan character, make sure Papi knows what he's doing."
"Hit me back. Let me know what you think of him."
Cabrera Construction took up half a block in a street of auto repair shops and contractor supply outlets. Years and years ago, the place had been a used car lot, so it had plenty of parking surrounding the flat-roofed central structure, which was the former showroom. It had big windows in front and a giant reception area, with a warren of hallways and office space in back. Behind the main building, there was more parking and also four large sheds where Elena's dad stored equipment and building supplies that weren't currently needed on a job.
Elena pulled in next to her dad's giant shiny red extended cab. There were three other vehicles parked in the same row. One was her dad's secretary's car. One belonged to another Cabrera Construction employee.
There was also a Mercedes she'd never seen before. It was low and lean and fast-looking. A beautiful silver bullet of a car.
As she entered the building that her dad had owned for almost twenty years now, she thought how sad it was that he might actually sell out. She had memories here. Family memories. From back when her mom and dad were still together and so much in love it was kind of embarrassing.
If she closed her eyes and listened real hard, she could almost hear her own happy laughter as she and Mercy played tag or hide-and-seek.
"Tag, you're it!" Mercy would crow in big-sister triumph.
"No fair!" Elena would whine. "Is so!"
"Papi, Mercy cheated ."
"Don't be such a baby." Mercy would stick out her tongue. "Did not."
Elena opened her eyes. The memory of young voices receded. Yes, it was sad to think of someone else running the place, someone else's children playing tag in the reception area.
But then again, neither of Javier Cabrera's daughters had shown any interest in following in his footsteps. Elena was a teacher, Mercy a vet. And there was no son. Her dad was close to sixty and he often complained that he was tired, ready to relax a little, maybe travel some, see the world.
If this thing with Caleb's friend panned out, her dad might get his chance for freedom. Too bad he no longer had her mom to share his retirement with.
He really ought to get out more, Elena thought. He ought to try and meet someone. But he never did. He and her mom were over and done with. But they were true Catholics. They might be apart with no hope for a reconciliation, but there would be no one else for either of them.
Really, it was kind of heartbreaking.
But she shouldn't think like that. Maybe they would surprise her, and each of them would end up happy with someone else.
It could happen. Lately, even though she dreaded the thought of dealing with a stepmother or stepfather, she found herself wishing for one. Hadn't her parents suffered enough? Elena thought so. They both ought to just move on .
"Elena." Marcella, who had been her dad's secretary for as long as Elena could remember, smiled a greeting from behind the front desk.
"Hi. Is my dad in back?"
The secretary nodded and then tipped her big head of red hair toward the hallway that led to Javier's private office and the drafting room. She pitched her voice low. "He's with the buyer."
The buyer. So was the sale already made, then? "Is it all right if I go back, you think?"
Marcella shrugged. "I don't see why not."
Elena hesitated. "I wouldn't want to interrupt anything important. What if they're in the middle of delicate negotiations?" And then she heard voicesher dad's and another man's.
Marcella smiled again. "No problem. They're coming out, anyway."
"Elena," her dad said a moment later as he and another taller, younger man emerged from the hallway to the back rooms. Her dad gave her a warm, tired-looking smile.
They'd come a long way from those first awful days when he'd learned that she wasn't his natural daughter. There had been a time when he could hardly bear to look at her. He'd hated himself for that. But she'd never held it against him. She'd understood his pain. After all, she had lived through that same pain herself.
And slowly, they'd become what they really were again. Father and daughter, blood tie or not.
She went to him and he wrapped his strong arms around her. He smelled of everything safe and good in the world, like Old Spice aftershave and geraniums in the sun. "Papi," she whispered. "I just thought I'd stop by."
"I'm glad." He released her. She gazed up at him, thinking he looked so old, all of a sudden. The crow's feet at the corners of his black eyes were etched so deep they seemed to make his whole face droop. Her dear Papi. Old. When had that happened? "Elena, this is Rogan Murdoch."
She turned to the other man, her gaze tracking up his broad, deep chest to a very Irish-looking face with green eyes and straight brows, full lips, a square jaw and a strong nose that looked like it had been broken at least once. He wasn't handsome, exactly. But he was certainly compelling. And very male.
He smiled at her and took her hand. "Elena," he said, as if he knew her already. As if he'd only been waiting for her to show up. Her throat felt dry. She gulped. Words completely eluded her. "Caleb's mentioned you often." His large, warm hand engulfed hers. She couldn't breatheor more precisely, she wasn't breathing. She had to consciously suck in a breath and push it back out again. "We're just going to lunch," he said. "Why don't you join us?"
She eased her hand free of his. It seemed safer, somehow, not to be touching him. At the same time, she had the presence of mind to glance down, to check out his other hand.
He had thick, strong fingers. And he wore no wedding band.
She managed weakly, "I already ate, thanks."
"Come with us, anyway," her dad said from behind her. "Have a cold drink, maybe a piece of pie."
"Well, I "
"Yeah. Please," Rogan said, in his deep, rich, slightly rough voice that sent a lovely shiver racing under the surface of her skin. "Join us."
She couldn't have said no if her life had depended on it.