An NPR Best Book of 2022 and “Books We Love” Pick
A PopSugar and BookBub Most Anticipated Romance of 2022!
When fate and tacos bring Ramón and Julieta together on the Day of the Dead, the star-crossed pair must make a choice: accept the bitter food rivalry that drives them apart or surrender to a love that consumes them—perfect for fans of Jane the Virgin!
Ramón Montez always achieves his goals. Whether that means collecting Ivy League degrees or growing his father’s fast-food empire, nothing sets Ramón off course. So when the sexy señorita who kissed him on the Day of the Dead runs off into the night with his heart, he determines to do whatever it takes to find her again.
Celebrity chef Julieta Campos has sacrificed everything to save her sea-to-table taqueria from closing. To her horror, she discovers that her new landlord is none other than the magnetic mariachi she hooked up with on Dia de los Muertos. Even worse, it was his father who stole her mother’s taco recipe decades ago. Julieta has no choice but to work with Ramón, the man who destroyed her life’s work—and the one man who tempts and inspires her.
As San Diego’s outraged community protests against the Taco King takeover and the divide between their families grows, Ramón and Julieta struggle to balance the rising tensions. But Ramón knows that true love is priceless and despite all of his successes, this is the one battle he refuses to lose.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
La Jolla, California
Ramón Montez relaxed in his leather chair and gazed out at the ocean from his home office. In contrast to his sleek, modern gray walls, the blue ripples undulated in the distance. Surfers dotted the coastline, catching the last breaks of the day, and Ramón wished he rode the waves with them, but he couldn't slip away from his desk. Not with a major acquisition for his company on the horizon.
He was confident that he would win the bid for the iconic block of property in Barrio Logan, an area that he loved. Barrio was home to Chicano Park-a Mexican-American historical site that had the largest collection of outdoor murals in the country. More importantly, it had been the center of the Chicano movement in the seventies when residents took over the land after the proposed park was slated to be turned into a California Highway Patrol station. Those protesters were heroes. The town was steeped in culture and community.
He needed to close this deal.
As CEO of the Montez Group, Ramón was responsible for identifying and taking over key properties throughout San Diego. With over two hundred Taco King restaurants in the country and tens of thousands of employees, the Montez Group had brought fast-casual Mexican dining to a whole new level.
To think, it had all started with Ramón's father, Arturo, and his surfing trip to San Felipe in the late seventies. One bite into an epic fish taco and Papá changed the course of his and his future family's life. He opened a small stand on the bay, and now the company was franchised throughout the United States.
He recognized his brother Enrique's voice immediately. Ramón swiveled in his chair.
A deceased desperado donning a poncho and a perished pachuco decked out in a zoot suit popped their heads into Ramón's office.
Ramón took one look at his brothers and burst out laughing. It was a moment like this that made him glad he had agreed to buy this place together with them, despite the fact that they each could've easily afforded to purchase their own pads. But family was important to Ramón, and honestly, he couldn't shake the idea that he still needed to watch out for them, which was probably a lasting concern from protecting them his entire life from the disaster of their parents' marriage.
"Did I miss the memo on Chicano history day? Are we teaching at some school I didn't know about?"
Enrique gave a sly smile, but Ramón's attention was focused on his brother's ridiculous mustache, which curled at the ends. Dude definitely already won Movember, and it was only the first of the month. "Nah, just honoring our ancestors."
"Your usual Day of the Dead outfits weren't good enough this year?"
"No, hermano. These are custom-made." Jaime dramatically leaned back and placed his hand in the pockets of his oversized ballooning pants that tapered at the ankle. Ramón half expected Edward James Olmos to pop out of the closet and start singing. "They took two months to make."
Ramón gave a fake cluck of disappointment. "So, I can't get one at the last minute?"
Jaime pulled his phone out of his pocket and got his hand tangled in his double watch chain. "Let me put in a call to my seamstress. She might have something already made. I know a great-"
"Jaime, it's okay. It was a joke." Ramón shook his head. Jaime had been promoting the event on his social media, and Enrique would be giving a demonstration on how to grow your own altar flowers from a rare cempazœchitl seed he had cultivated himself from a cemetery in Jalisco. No doubt both were just ploys to pick up women, but at least they were somewhat representing the family business.
"I don't know why you two go to that party every year. It's just a bunch of tourists who don't know the difference between Day of the Dead and Halloween."
Enrique grimaced. "Well, I spent months growing the marigolds for the event. Besides, what would you know? You haven't been in years."
Enrique was a master horticulturist who had inherited their abuelo's love of landscaping. He had been lucky to turn his passion into a career and, surprisingly, had even convinced Papá to open a test kitchen garden. Enrique had big plans to streamline the way produce for the restaurants was being harvested at their main suppliers.
Ramón ran his hand through his hair. "Been to one Día, you've been to them all." Day of the Dead in San Diego had turned into another excuse to get wasted. It used to be a small procession to the graveyard, and now it was a three-day festival of hedonism. Half the people there didn't even understand the point of the holiday-to honor their deceased loved ones.
Ramón didn't need to party to honor his loved ones. He glanced at the altar he had built for his abuelo, a man who had practically raised him. Ramón had made the ofrenda himself and had purchased Abuelo's favorite bottle of tequila. A memory passed through his head of Abuelo teaching Ramón how to work on cars. Ramón had inherited his grandfather's prize possession-his 1967 Ford Mustang, which Ramón had restored and then converted into a slick and shiny lowrider. Ramón would toast to him tonight.
Jaime straightened the feather in his wide-brimmed hat. "No, dude. It's epic. You're missing out. Sexy dead brides and debauchery. What's not to love?"
Everything. Ramón envisioned a bunch of drunk influencers making TikToks in front of altars. He shuddered. No, thank you.
"Well, have fun."
Enrique nudged Jaime out the door. "We will. Later."
Sometimes, Ramón envied his carefree younger brothers. They worked hard, but they played harder. Even so, Ramón struggled with that work-life balance. For Ramón, a self-proclaimed perfectionist, to give anything less than one hundred percent was unacceptable. It explained his bachelor's degree in Economics with a minor in English from Stanford University, and his MBA from Harvard.
He read over the numbers on his computer one more time. The only thing that mattered to Ramón was the bottom line. And the bottom line was that the Montez Group wanted a piece of Barrio Logan and a Taco King front and center on the main drag.
His cell buzzed.
Ramón answered on the first ring. "Apá. ¿Qué tal?"
"Good, Ramón. Good. I called to check on the Barrio deal. How's it going?"
Ramón smirked. It was like Papá could read his mind.
"Great. I've finalized the numbers for the offer. I'm ready to bid tomorrow."
"Ah, good." Papá hesitated. "You know, I could always check those figures, and-"
"Apá, isn't it time you retired? I'm the CEO now. You should be relaxing, kicking back with a beer on the beach tomorrow, not heading to a meeting."
Papá sighed as if he wasn't quite convinced. "I know, but I am chairman of the board."
Ramón sighed. There was no use arguing with Papá. "I'm confident we have this in the bag." And he was-extremely confident.
Papá exhaled. "I believe in you, mijo. I can't wait to close this deal. I've wanted a holding in Barrio for years, but it was never the right time . . ."
His wistful tone needed no explanation. There was a damn good reason why the Montez Group had never secured a property in Barrio Logan.
It was clear.
They weren't wanted.
Papá had been accused of being a sellout, which was just plain ridiculous. His father was a proud Chicano man who always gave back to his community. So what if he catered to the tastes of non-Hispanics? Sure, the restaurants served mild salsa, and the tortillas weren't made from scratch. Still, Papá had created jobs for Latinos and given to countless charities. And that was what mattered.
But Ramón understood the sting of not always being accepted by his community. He'd grown up rich and privileged and hadn't faced the struggles that many others had. He felt Mexican in his soul but wasn't always perceived as a real Latino. His cousins used to call his brothers and him coconuts-brown on the outside, white on the inside. Ramón's heart soared when mariachi music played but sank every time he spoke in Spanish to fellow Mexicans and was answered back in English. He had to constantly prove to his company and to his culture how Mexican he was. And he hated being called not just a gentrifier, but even worse: a gentefier.
But, as painful as it was to admit, he was one.
"Don't worry about it, Apá. I got this."
"I'm proud of you, Ramón. You remind me of myself at your age-young, passionate, full of ambition. But you have to remember to take a break sometimes. You know my work cost me my marriage to your mother."
Yup, Ramón was well aware of his parents' horrible marriage. His mother reminded him constantly. Though lately, she was too busy with her new love interest, a boy toy Ramón's age, to bother with her sons.
Ramón zoned out at his computer screen, which had a screensaver of Cabo San Lucas. The turquoise water rimmed around the natural rock arch. "After this deal closes, let's take a vacation."
"I'd like that." Papá paused. "I have one more favor to ask of you."
"Sure. What is it?"
"Would you stop by the party in Old Town? There will be reporters there and the mayor. I think since we are going to try to acquire in Barrio, we need to be present at cultural events to show we support our community."
"The Día de los Muertos party? ¿En serio?" The Day of the Dead party in Old Town was hands down the best fiesta for the holiday in San Diego, if not the state. Family fun, bro bashes, and cultural classes were all part of the event. There was something about the quaint, historic neighborhood that added genuine authenticity to the holiday. San Diego, which neighbored Mexico, was a true border beach town. With twenty percent of San Diego's 1.5 million population Hispanic, politicians were usually found circulating at these bicultural celebrations. Old Town was literally the oldest settled town in California-a place that could be the set for the next Zorro adaptation. Now it was a tourist mecca that consisted of sarsaparilla shops and tasty taquerías.
"Yes, I am. I'd go myself, but you are the face of the company, Mr. People en Espa–ol's sexiest eligible bachelor."
Ramón groaned. That title had been nothing but trouble. All the gold diggers had placed a target on his back. Those women didn't like him for who he was, but instead for what he was worth. He'd never wanted to be the face of the company; he was proud of his work but craved anonymity. He'd gladly give that role to his youngest brother, Jaime, who was a model, influencer, and director of the company's social media platforms.
"Not sure that matters, because if I went, I would have to wear face paint."
Papá laughed. "Just go for a few hours, check in with some reporters and the mayor, take a few pictures, and leave. You never know-you could meet a nice young woman there. When I was your age, I always made time for the ladies."
Ramón exhaled. Papá's wild youth was no secret. As a little boy, Ramón loved listening to Papá's stories about hitchhiking through Mexico and surfing along the Baja coast. But Ramón's favorite story was about the spring break love affair his father had had with a señorita in San Felipe. It was there that Papá had first tried fish tacos.
Ramón had no trouble meeting women, usually through dating apps, if he ever managed to take a day off work, which was rare. He had no time to even think about starting a serious relationship with someone. And after his parents' nasty divorce, marriage no longer held any appeal for him.
Even so, sometimes, after he closed a big deal, he wished he could celebrate his success with someone. Toast champagne on his ocean-view rooftop deck or spend a romantic weekend in Paris. It would be nice to meet someone who was actually interested in him and not his money. But he doubted he could find such a woman, and he didn't even want to try. Women were a distraction-a fun one, but nothing more.
"Seriously, Apá. Can't Jaime do it? He will be posting his every waking minute anyway. And they look great in their outfits-they'll get so much press. He and Enrique just left."
"No. You know them. They will both be drunk and spend the night hitting on women. Definitely in no state to schmooze. There is nothing left to do on the Barrio deal. Take the night off. Please, do it for me."
Ramón had no choice but to agree. "Okay, I'll go. But only for a few hours."
"That's my boy. Do you have something to wear?"
Ramón exhaled. He did, but nothing like his brothers' new threads. "Yeah. I think my old charro suit still fits."
"Wonderful. Have fun. I love you. I'll see you in Barrio, mañana."
"See you tomorrow. Love you, too, Apá."
Ramón hung up, saved all his work, and shut off his computer. Papá was right; the best thing he could do for the Barrio deal was to go schmooze.
Ramón walked out of his office, through the long hallway covered with family photos and framed magazine articles, and strode over to his fully stocked rustic bar in the game room, where he took a shot of his stash of Clase Azul Reposado Tequila. Hits the spot. It was smooth, and it took the edge off the day perfectly. He filled a flask with some more and placed it by his keys and wallet.
Then he went to his bedroom closet. He searched in the back and found his charro suit from when he'd played guitarrón with the Mariachi Cardenal de Stanford. The ingrained scents of dried tequila and stale smoke from the fabric brought back memories of his college years performing, which were the happiest times of his life.
The suit fit, surprisingly, even though Ramón had bulked up. His daily workouts running on the beach and flipping tires in his custom gym were his one outlet for stress.
Ramón went to Jaime's bathroom in their beachfront bachelor pad, which, sure enough, had face paint strewn all over the white marble countertop. Their maid, Lupe, would not be pleased. She worked hard and fast, with a smile on her face, and Ramón always made sure to clean up after any parties he and his brothers threw so she wouldn't have to do any extra work.
Ramón had played at plenty Day of the Dead parties in college, so he knew how to do the face paint. He shaved his face with a fresh razor blade, used a white eye pencil to outline his eyes and nose, and then spread white paint over his face. Black eye makeup and a spiderweb on his forehead came next. The perfect combination of beauty and macabre-life and death. To complete the look, he drew black stitches over his lips to indicate that he was dead.
Papá was right—appearing at the event would be good for business. Ramón might even have a good time.
He quickly put the makeup away and wiped down the countertop.
Ramón secured his sombrero on his head. A final glance in themirror, and he was satisfied with what he saw—a man who would doanything to close the deal.
He removed his guitarrón from the stand on the wall. One strumof the brittle strings and the music beat through his heart and awakened his soul. When the notes sprung back to Ramón’s head, he was relieved that he hadn’t forgotten how to play. He’d sung to crowds of women when he performed. Ramón loved being onstage, playingmusic, and singing love songs. He’d been a hopeless romantic, just like Papá.
But there was no time for women or music now.
He had a company to run.