Authors: Leslie North
Stephen unclenched his fists and leaned back. “I care because it’s my family. Maybe that’s something you don’t understand.”
She snorted. A few more minutes passed before Stephen spoke again. “Where the hell are we going anyway?”
“To my mom’s,” she said. “My family is in town. We’re having dinner with them.”
He turned his head to stare at her, and for a moment, she savored the look of shock and terror on his face. “You were the one who got in the car,” she pointed out. She enjoyed his silence with a smug smile on her face.
even small children
raced out to meet them. As they screamed and shouted in Spanish, Stephen could only pick up one thing.
They all loved Angie.
She bent down to rain kisses on them, and they all shrieked with laughter. There was more rapid-fire Spanish that sent them screaming into the house. Angie laughed, and for a moment, Stephen couldn’t help but stare.
Even over the weekend, when she drank and relaxed at the Duncan home, it was clear that she was guarded. But the smile that split her face was genuine and full of love. He couldn’t help but feel a little jealous that the smile wasn’t for him.
“I shouldn’t be here,” he said awkwardly.
“No, you shouldn’t,” she said, her smile fading. “But you are, and there’s nothing you can do about it unless you want to call a cab.” Her eyes slid over him. “Feel free to do that. Otherwise, try to be nice.”
She pushed her shoulders back and stalked into the house. Stephen deliberated, but curiosity got the best of him. As he walked into the house, the conversation stopped, and all eyes turned to him.
Angie seemed both pleased and pissed that he was there. “This is Stephen Maxfield. He’s in town for business,” she announced awkwardly.
“Maxfield? As in Duncan Maxfield?” one of the men asked as he appraised him.
“Duncan Maxfield is my father,” Stephen said with a tight smile. “I’m so sorry for crashing your dinner. Angie and I were…”
“We have an unavoidable conference call in two hours,” she interrupted. “So it was easier to stay together.”
Wow. She blatantly lied to her family. He frowned as he stared at her. What else was she lying about?
Her family seemed to buy it, and one by one, they came up to shake his hand or hug him. She had two twin brothers, Joe and Jesus, and between them, they had four children. Stephen stared at Joe and Jesus and tried to figure out how to tell them apart, but he couldn’t spot any differences. Angie also had three sisters: Bonita, Anita, and Carolina. Between the three sisters, there were seven more kids. Everyone was married with husbands and wives with the exception of Angie and Carolina.
And then there was Maria Lopez, the matriarch of the family. She was a tiny woman confined to a wheelchair. Like the rest of the family, she held a question in her eyes and she wheeled up to him, but unlike the rest of the family, she wasn’t so subtle about it. “I always love to have company for dinner. If you hurt her, I hurt you.”
His mouth dropped open, but she gave him a big warm smile and moved on. He looked around to see if anyone else heard the threat, but no one paid him any attention.
Maybe he had imagined it.
The volume in the den grew as the kids screamed and ran around while the adults talked and bickered. Angie had abandoned Stephen, and he sat on the couch and simply observed.
“I said I was sorry,” Angie told her sister as she rolled her eyes.
“But you don’t look like you’re sorry,” the sister pointed out. She was the youngest. Carolina? Stephen was having a hard time keeping them straight. Over in the opposite corner was another fight between the oldest sister, Bonita, and the twins.
“Imagine what you could do if you cooked for us! The festival was a huge hit. You could work full-time!”
“I have two girls. That is a full-time job,” she snapped.
“We would work around your schedule, and we’d pay you enough to hire a sitter. Hell, you’d be able to put them through college.”
“I’m not going to have some teenager raising my girls,” Bonita argued. “And Robert makes enough money to put them through college. When are you boys going to drop this?”
“Never. You’re too good!”
The middle daughter was pushing her mom to the windows. “Mom. These curtains are hideous. When are you going to redo this house?”
“First it’s my clothes, and then it’s my make-up! Now you want to do my house. When are you going to give it a rest, Anita?”
Stephen watched with a smile. This family clearly argued with the best of them, but he could feel the love and warmth in this house. It was something his own family was desperately missing.
Stephen jerked his head around as the youngest sat down next to him. Angie had gone over and joined in the conversation with her mother. “It’s nice,” he said with a smile.
“Nice?” Carolina said with a laugh. “It’s chaos. And this is just on birthdays and family dinners. During the holidays, we have cousins. It’s terrifying!”
“That’s something I would love to see,” he snorted.
“Are you and Angie dating? It’s not like her to bring a guy home to meet the family.”
Wanting to protect her, he shook his head. “It’s business-related,” he said. It was truer than he would like to admit.
“Liar,” she said with a smile. “Angie avoids us all the time for business reasons. This is a family dinner. No one would have batted an eye if she’d bowed out. We all know that she’s busy. So this conference call is horse shit.”
His eyes widened at her language, and she laughed. “It’s cool. I’ll keep your secret. It’ll be fun to see where this goes.”
“Dinner time!” Bonita called out. There was a stampede to the kitchen, and Stephen stood up in alarm.
“Wow. Everyone must be starving.”
Carolina smiled. “Bonita is an amazing cook. Once you try her food, nothing will ever taste the same.” She nodded her head. “Your non-romantic interest is waiting for you.”
He turned and saw that Angie was indeed waiting for her family to pass. He gave her a smile, and she returned it with a shake of her head.
Carolina snorted. “Right. Business my ass.”
But Stephen ignored her. For the moment, over all the noise and chaos, Angie was all that he could see. For a moment, he wished it were real. He wished that he could be a part of this family. He could be a part of something warm and loving. But then one of her brothers whispered something in her ear and her smile vanished. Before he reached her, she turned and walked into the kitchen.
What had her brother said to her?
* * *
an eye on Stephen during dinner, and unfortunately, so did the rest of her family. Joe and Jesus were less than happy about having a Maxfield present at the dinner table. As far as they were concerned, the Maxfields were the devil.
And they weren’t shy about it.
“So where have you been the past ten years? Spending your daddy’s money?” Jesus asked casually when there was a break in the conversation.
“Jesus!” Angie hissed, mortified.
Stephen didn’t even look surprised. “All of my profits from Duncan Enterprises are actually set up in a trust fund for my son for college. I have my own construction business. It’s not nearly the giant that Duncan Enterprises is, and in fact my father likes to steal work from me, but it’s kept me busy for the past eight or so years.”
Jesus nodded his head. “It’s nice to see your name on a business. Good for you.”
Angie breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t the first shot taken at Stephen, and so far, he’d taken them all in stride.
“This food is amazing, Bonita. Do you have your own restaurant?”
Her sister blushed. “No. I’m content to cook for family.”
“But not the family’s restaurant,” Joe grumbled.
“You have your own place?” Stephen asked. Then his eyes went wide. “Wait. Dos Lopez?
“Si!” Joe said excitedly. “You’ve been to our restaurant? Best Latino fusion restaurant around!”
“Agreed,” Stephen said whole-heartedly. “I’ve been twice in one week just to get your burritos! That restaurant pulls in some major business.”
And that was all it took to get her brothers to come around. Angie felt a sense of relief that her family was warming up to Stephen, but that relief meant that she wanted her family to like him, that she needed them to like him.
Which was ridiculous.
“You picked a good boss to sleep with,” Jesus said casually, and the whole table went silent.
Angie stared at him in rage. “What did you just say?” she asked quietly.
Joe had said the same thing before dinner, but he’d had the decency to say it where no one could hear it. “Aw, shit. Angie I’m just kidding. Lo siento,” he said as he put his hands together.
“Apologize to him,” she said coldly.
“Angie, that’s not necessary,” Stephen said quietly.
Angie threw her napkin on the table and got up. “Dinner was lovely Bonita, thank you. Excuse us. We’re leaving,” she said as she shot a look at Stephen. She didn’t even wait for him to comment as she left the room.
“What was I supposed to think?” Jesus said as she left. “It’s not like it’s her first rodeo with her boss.”
“Jesus!” their mother hissed.
Stephen followed her out onto the front porch and grabbed her arm before she got too far ahead. “Hey,” he said softly. “I don’t know what just happened, but I’m not offended. You don’t need to leave on my account.”
Angie stared out across the front porch. There was a time when the house they lived in wasn’t so nice. When she thought, she needed to do more to support her family.
When she was young and naïve and thought that she knew what love meant.
She didn’t say anything, but she looked down to where his hand still touched her arm. For a moment, she wished it were warmer weather. She wished she was wearing short-sleeves, and he was touching bare skin rather than the fabric of her blouse.
“Angie, I guess your brother should never say something like that to you, but I think he was kidding. I don’t know your family very well, but I’ve never seen a place with more love,” he said softly.
She took a deep breath and tried to get herself together. “Love, yes. But they are always up in my business. Now that they’re all settled and happy, they expect me to do the same. Fall in love. Marry. Have babies. They don’t seem to realize that this job is the world to me. And so I bring a handsome man home, and they automatically assume I’m still that girl who sleeps with my boss.”
She winced when she heard herself admit that there had been a past incident, but he had no doubt heard Jesus’s comment when they were walking out. It wasn’t anything that he didn’t already know.
But he didn’t push.
“You think I’m handsome?” he teased.
“Shut up,” she snapped with a laugh.
“Angie, your family wants you to be happy. And people are rarely happy from only their job. Success and pride go hand and hand, but that’s not love. And your family wants you to have everything. It’s far better for them to be protective and pushy than for them not to care about your life at all. Believe me, I know.”
She turned and inadvertently stepped into his arms. Away from the prying eyes of Duncan Enterprises employees, and away from Duncan Maxfield’s threats, she gazed into Stephen’s eyes. “Success and love rarely happen at the same time,” she whispered.
Stephen slowly pulled her closer, and she let herself brush up against him. He was both warm and exciting, calm and tumultuous. Her mind and her body screamed two very different things as he dipped his mouth. She remembered the taste of him, remembered the way his lips had felt on hers, and she couldn’t help but tilt her head to meet him.
“It doesn’t have to be love at first,” he whispered as his lips hovered over hers. “It’s a first step.”
A first step into an abyss that could end with her broken beyond repair. With a strangled moan, she put her hand up on his chest and stopped him before he captured her lips. “I can’t,” she whispered. “This job means too much to me.”
He stepped back in frustration and stared at her. “Why does being with me automatically mean you lose your job?” he demanded.
“You don’t trust me,” she snapped. “I know you don’t. So I don’t know if you want to be with me to keep an eye on me or because you want to be with me.”
“All you have to do is touch me to know that I want you,” he said in a harsh voice. “What I feel for you has nothing to do with the damn company.”
“I can’t separate you from the company,” she said as she stepped back even further. “I’m sorry. I can’t.”
Embarrassed and close to tears, she grabbed her keys from her purse. “Let’s go,” she said.
“Go ahead,” he said without looking at her. “I’ll call a cab.”
He was angry. She felt nothing but despair when she realized that he wouldn’t even look at her. “Stephen,” she said softly.
“I’m fine, Angie. You’re right. Duncan Enterprises comes first. And that’s why I should call a cab.” He turned to face her now, and those warm blue eyes were as icy as they could be. “We don’t want anyone at the company to see us driving back together.”
He turned and walked away as he pulled out his phone, and she did the only thing she could do.
She went back inside to her family. They, at least, would never hurt her.