Chapter One CHAPTER ONE Rosie
Someone was trying to break into my apartment.
Fine. Technically, it wasn’t my apartment, but rather the apartment I was currently staying in. That didn’t change the facts. Because if living in a couple of questionable neighborhoods in New York had taught me anything, it was that if someone didn’t knock, they weren’t interested in asking to be let in.
Evidence number one: the insistent rattling of the—thankfully locked—entrance door.
The sound stopped, allowing me to release all the air I had been holding in.
Gaze fixed on the lock, I waited.
All right. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe it was a neighbor mistaking this as their apartment. Or maybe whoever was out there would eventually knock and—
What sounded like someone banging a shoulder against the door startled me, making me jump backward.
Not a knock. Probably not a neighbor, either.
My next breath was shallow, oxygen barely making it to its destination. But heck, I couldn’t blame my lungs, really. I couldn’t even blame my brain for not being able to accomplish basic functions like breathing after the day I’d had.
A couple of hours ago, what had been my cozy and beautifully well-kept apartment for the last five years had all but crumbled down on me. Literally. And we’re not talking about a crack in the ceiling and some falling dust.
A section of my ceiling gave out and collapsed. Collapsed. Right before my eyes. Almost on top of me. Creating a hole large enough to gift me with a clear view of my upstairs neighbor Mr. Brown’s private bits as he looked down at me. And allowing me to learn something I never needed or wanted to know: my middle-aged neighbor did not wear anything beneath his robe. Not a single thing.
A sight that had been as traumatizing as having a piece of cement nearly knock you down on your way to the couch.
And now this. The break-in. After I pulled myself together enough to gather my stuff—under Mr. Brown’s careful scrutiny and still freely hanging… bits—and made it to the only place I could think of, given the circumstances, now someone was trying to force their way in.
What sounded like a curse in a foreign language came through, the noise against the lock resuming.
Out of the more than eight million people living in New York City, it had to be me being potentially robbed, hadn’t it?
Turning on the tips of my toes, I stepped away from the door of the studio apartment I had fled to in search of shelter and let my gaze dart around the familiar place, studying my options.
Thanks to the open plan of the apartment, there were no decent hiding spots. The only room with a door, the bathroom, didn’t even have a lock. There were no weaponizable objects, either, except for a crooked clay candleholder born from a lazy DIY Sunday and a flimsy boho standing lamp I wasn’t sure about. Escaping through a window wasn’t an option, either, considering this was a second floor and there was no fire escape.
The frustrated swearing came through more clearly now. The voice was deep, musical, and the words I did not recognize or understand were chased by a very loud huff.
Heart racing, I brought my hands to my temples in an attempt to subdue the growing panic.
This could be worse, I told myself. Whoever is out there is clearly not very good at this. At break-ins. And they don’t know I’m inside. For all they know, the apartment is empty. This gives me—
My phone pinged with a notification, the loud and sharp sound breaking the silence.
And giving my presence away.
Wincing, I lunged for the device that rested on the kitchen island. It couldn’t have been more than three or four steps away. But my brain, which was still struggling with basic functions like, let’s say, moving three or four steps forward, miscalculated the distance, and my hip collided with a stool.
“No, no, no,” I heard the words coming out of my mouth in a whimper, one of my hands reaching out. Unsuccessfully. Because—
The stool crashed against the floor.
My eyelids fell shut. As if my brain was trying to at least spare me the sight of the mess I had made.
Silence followed the big bang, filling the room with what I knew was a false sense of calm.
I opened one eye, taking a peek in the direction of the door.
Maybe this was good. Maybe that had scared… him? Them? Away—
“Hello?” The deep voice on the other side of the door called. “Is anyone home?”
Squaring my shoulders, I turned around very slowly. There was still a chance that—
The jingle I had set for that stupid motivational app I’d downloaded earlier today blared through the apartment for a second time.
Jesus. Someone was out to get me today. Karma, kismet, fate, Lady Luck, or some all-powerful entity I had clearly pissed off. Maybe even Murphy and his stupid law.
I finally grabbed my phone to set the stupid thing to silent.
Involuntarily, my eyes scanned the supposedly inspirational quote on the screen: IF OPPORTUNITY DOESN’T KNOCK, BUILD A DOOR.
“Seriously?” I heard myself whisper.
“I could hear that, you know?” Intruder said. “The phone, then the bang, then the phone again.” A pause. “Are you… okay?”
I frowned. How considerate for a possible burglar.
He pressed on: “I know there’s someone in there. I can hear you breathing.”
A gasp of outrage left me. I was not a heavy breather.
“Okay, listen,” Intruder said with a chuckle. A chuckle. Was he laughing? At my expense? “I’m just—”
“No, you listen,” I finally blurted out, hearing my voice crack and wobble. “Whatever it is that you’re doing, I don’t care. I’ve—I’ve—” I’d been standing there like a doofus, doing nothing. And that stopped now. “I’m calling the cops.”
“Exactly.” I unlocked my phone with shaky fingers. I was done with this… this… situation. Heck, I was done with today. “You have a few minutes to leave before they get here. There’s a police station right around the corner.” There wasn’t, and I hoped he didn’t know that. “So I’d start running if I were you.”
I took one miniscule, careful step in the direction of the door, then stopped to listen for a reaction. Hopefully, the sound of his steps fleeing.
But I heard nothing.
“Are you listening?” I called, then hardened my voice before speaking again. “I have friends in NYPD.” I didn’t. The closest thing I had to that was Uncle Al, who was a security guard for a company on Fifth Avenue. But that didn’t seem to impress Intruder, because silence continued to follow my statement. “Okay, fine. I warned you. Now, I’m dialing, so it’s up to you… mother… clinking apartment-breaker!”
Ignoring my unfortunate and not at all threatening choice of words, I set the call on speaker and a few seconds later, the emergency dispatcher’s voice filled the apartment. “Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”
“Hi—” I cleared my throat. “Hello. There’s… there’s someone trying to break in the apartment I’m in.”
“Wait, you’re really calling?” Intruder yelped. But then, he said, “Oh, okay. I see.” Following that with another chuckle. Another. Chuckle. Did he find any of this funny? “This is a joke.”
Outrage filled my chest. “A joke?”
“Hello?” came from my phone’s speaker. “Miss? If this isn’t an emergency—”
“Oh, but it is,” I said immediately. “As I was saying, I’m calling to report a break-in.”
Intruder spoke before the dispatcher could, “I’m standing in the hallway. How have I broken in? I didn’t even make it inside.”
Now that he was saying more than a couple of words at a time, I could hear his accent more clearly. The way he enunciated certain words was familiar and set off a bell somewhere in my head. But I didn’t have time or energy to spare for bells right this moment.
“Attempted break-in,” I amended.
“Okay, miss,” the dispatcher answered. “I’m going to need your name and the address to your apartment.”
“I get it,” Intruder said, loudly enough for me to take a step back. “This is one of those pranks. I’ve seen that show on TV back home. What was the name of that guy? The host. The one with the good hair.” A pause. “Never mind.” Another pause. “You got me! It was a really good one. See, I’m laughing,” he added before breaking into a loud cackle and almost shocking the phone out my grip. “Now, can you please open this door and be done with it? It’s past midnight and I’m exhausted.” The humor had left his voice. “Tell her she’s hilarious. We’ll remember this as one of the best pranks in history.”
Frowning, I lowered my voice and spoke right into the phone. “Did you hear that? I think he might be deranged.”
“Deranged?” Intruder scoffed. “I’m not crazy, just… tired.” Something dropped to the floor with a thud on the other side of the door and I prayed it wasn’t him because I wasn’t up for dealing with an unconscious man on top of everything.
“I heard,” the dispatcher said. “And, miss, I’m—”
“Did I get the wrong door or something?” Intruder interrupted.
The wrong… door?
That caught my attention.
“Miss,” the emergency dispatcher hissed. “Your name and the address to your home, please.”
“Rosie,” I said quickly. “I’m Rosalyn Graham and… And, well, technically this is not my home. I’m at my best friend’s place. She’s away at the moment, and I needed… a place to stay. But I didn’t break in, obviously. I had a key.”
“And I have a key, too,” Intruder offered.
A record scratched in my head.
“Impossible.” I scowled at the door. “I have the only spare that exists.”
“Miss Graham.” The dispatcher’s voice was laced with annoyance. “I want you to stop interacting with the individual outside your door and share your location. We’ll send a unit to check on things.”
My mouth opened but before any words came out, Intruder spoke again, “She really outdid herself.”
She. That she again.
Neither of us said anything for a few seconds. Then, the silence was broken by a heavy thump. One that sounded a lot like he had just slumped against his side of the entrance door.
“She?” I finally asked, ignoring the “Miss Graham?” coming from my phone’s speaker.
“Yeah,” Intruder said simply. “My very funny and highly creative little cousin.”
A breath got stuck somewhere between my rib cage and mouth.
The intruder’s thick accent that is so terribly familiar.
The only possible explanation took shape in my head.
No. I couldn’t be that big of a dumbass.
“Miss Graham?” came from the line again. “If this is not an emergency—”
“Sorry, I—” I closed my eyes. “I’ll call back if I… need to. Thank you.”
Oh God. Oh no. If this was one of Lina’s cousins I’d messed up. Big time.
I terminated the call, pushed the phone into the back pocket of my jeans, and forced myself to take a deep breath in the hopes that oxygen would reach my clearly faulty brain cells. “Who exactly is your cousin?” I asked, even though I was pretty sure I knew the answer.
It was official. I had messed up. Yep. And yet, because this was New York and I had dealt with my fair share of strange people and stranger situations, I still added, “I’m going to need more information than that. You could have checked the name on the mailbox.”
A long and loud sigh was released on the other side of the wooden border that separated us, making the already souring sensation in my stomach swirl.
“I’m sorry,” I blurted out, unable to stop the two words from coming out. Because I was sorry. “I’m just making sure that—”
“That I’m not a deranged person,” Intruder answered before I could get through with the rest of my apology. “Catalina Martín, born the twenty-second of November. Brown hair, brown eyes, loud laugh.” My eyes shut again, the swirling in my belly climbing up to my throat. “She’s tiny but if she kicks you in the nuts, she’ll knock the air right out of you all the same. I know that from firsthand experience.” A short pause. “What else? Let’s see… Oh, she hates snakes or anything that looks remotely like one. Even if that’s a few socks sewn together and filled with toilet paper. Clever, huh? Well, that was what led to the nuts kicking. So the joke was really on me.”
I’d screwed up. Big time.
Big, big, big time.
And I felt horrible. Awful.
So much that I couldn’t even bring myself to stop him when he went on, “She’s away for the next few weeks. Enjoying her honeymoon in… Peru, was it?” He waited for my confirmation, but none came. I was speechless. Mortified. “Aaron’s the lucky guy. A tall and intimidating-looking dude from the photos I’ve seen.”
Hold on. That meant—
“I haven’t met him in person. Not yet.”
He hadn’t met Aaron in person yet?
No. No, no, no. This couldn’t be happening.
But then, he said, “I didn’t have the pleasure of attending the wedding.”
Confirming that this could, indeed, be happening. And just like that, none of my earlier shock or embarrassment measured to what I started feeling right that moment.
Because this man was not a random intruder, or a deranged individual that had stumbled upon my best friend’s apartment.
This man I’d called the cops on was Lina’s relative.
And it didn’t stop there. No. He had to be the one cousin that hadn’t met Aaron.
The one person out of the long list of Lina’s Spanish relatives that had missed the wedding.
He had to be him.
“I heard it was a great party,” he said. And it felt like a physical blow to my chest. “Too bad I missed it.”
Without really knowing how, I realized I was now clutching the handle of the entrance door. As if his words—the realization that it was him—had somehow brought me there and compelled the fingers of my free hand to wrap tightly around it.
It can’t be him, a voice chanted in my head. I can’t be so unlucky.
But it was. I knew it was. And kismet, destiny, luck, or whatever force in charge of deciding my fate, had packed its bags and left me to fend for myself.
Because this man was the one cousin I had secretly hoped would be at the wedding. The only one who had made my stomach flutter with anticipation at the simple thought of meeting him. Of getting those two mandatory cheek kisses from him. Of exchanging pleasantries. Of perhaps dancing with him. Of having him see me in my maid of honor gown. Of finally having him in front of me.
Of the possibilities.
My fingers moved and the door unlocked with a click.
Heart sprinting with the knowledge of this man really being him, I grabbed the handle. Anxiously, eagerly, hope clogging my throat. All the foolishness of whatever my head had fabricated in the months leading to the wedding tangled with new emotions from the mess I’d just made. Anticipation mixed with guilt. Embarrassment coiled around excitement.
Chest pounding, I threw the door open, and…
Something dropped at my feet.
I looked down, my eyes immediately finding the source of the thump.
He was lying on his back. As if he’d been resting his weight on the door and fell backward when I’d opened it.
Air seemed to barely get in my lungs as I took in a head toppled with wavy chestnut locks. It didn’t match the image neatly kept in my memory. Memory, or the screenshot I secretly kept in my phone. I’d only seen him with a buzz cut.
“It’s really you,” I heard myself mumble as I stared at him. “You’re really here. And your hair is different. Longer and—”
I clasped my mouth shut, feeling an intense blush covering my cheeks.
The handsome face I had looked at through the screen of my phone more times than I’d ever be ready to admit twisted with a puzzled look. But just as quickly, chocolate-brown eyes twinkled with a smile. “Have we… met before?”
“No,” I rushed out. “Obviously. I meant you look different from what I expected. You know, from your voice. That’s all.” I shook my head. “And I’m—God. I’m sorry. For all of this. I just—”
You just what, Rosie?
The blush spread to the tips of my ears, and I thought that if the ground under my feet were to open and swallow me right this moment—something I knew now was not that unlikely—I’d go willingly.
“I’m just so sorry,” I breathed out. “Can I help you up? Please.”
But he—the man who didn’t even know I existed, but whose features I was able to summon in my mind if I closed my eyes—didn’t give any indication of being in a rush to stand up. Instead, his gaze inspected my face, taking his time, as if I were the one that had just popped out of nowhere and dropped at his feet.
And just when I thought I’d collected myself enough to say something else—hopefully marginally smart—his lips stretched. That puzzled look dissolved completely, giving way to a smile, and whatever words had climbed to my mouth crumbled.
Because he was smiling. And it was big and bright and, quite frankly, beautiful in this blatant way you don’t really know what to do with.
Possibly more than the smile he wore on the one screenshot I had allowed myself to keep and might still look at occasionally.
“In that case,” he said through his sunny and upside-down grin. “If we don’t really know each other then, hi. I’m Lucas Martín. Lina’s cousin.”
I knew that. I knew exactly who he was. He wouldn’t believe just how well I did.