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Love Redesigned: Chapter 16

Julian

I park my truck beside Rafa’s beat-up one and hop out. Unlike me, my cousin doesn’t live on the lake. Instead, after his divorce, he chose to purchase land at the top of the farthest hill away from town, where he could have a fresh start away from any prying eyes.

My mom used to say people do weird things once they make a lot of money, and I never understood what she meant until Rafa started fostering unwanted farm animals and being one with the land after Hillary left.

I swear, the man is one step away from signing up for one of those competitive wilderness shows.

“Fina told me you took Dahlia to the hospital yesterday.” Rafa cuts to the chase as soon as I walk through his front door.

“Did you invite me over here to hang out or for an interrogation?”

“A mix of both.” He tucks his hands in his front pockets.

“At least you’re honest.”

He shoots me a look before walking away.

The style of his house is completely different from mine—it feels warm and lived-in, with its oak floors and Nico’s artwork hanging on every wall. The paint colors were chosen by Nico, with each room matching a different pair of my godson’s glasses.

Not my cousin’s smartest design choice, but one made out of love nonetheless.

I follow behind him, only to take a detour toward the classical music playing from the conservatory. Nico sits at the piano with his nanny and music teacher, Ellie. They play in tandem, perfectly in sync as their fingers fly across the keys.

Ellie’s body sways to the music, making her blonde hair shift with the melody.

“Did you get lost on your way to the kitchen?” Rafa says.

Ellie hits the keys all wrong, making the most horrific noise.

“I wanted to say hi to Nico.”

Tío!” Nico slides off the bench and runs toward me. His coordination is a bit off because of his eye condition, but he jumps into my arms with all the momentum he can muster.

“Hey, you.” I ruffle his hair before tipping my chin toward Ellie. “Nice to see you again.”

She rises from her seat. “Likewise.”

“Is Rafa making you work on Saturdays now?”

“Not usually, but he inconveniently forgot to tell me he needed my help today.” She doesn’t bother hiding her annoyance.

Ellie never gets flustered. I’ve watched her be thrown up on by a sick Nico, get kicked in the stomach by one of Rafa’s goats, and twist her ankle during a hike, but I’ve never seen her look like this.

I spare my cousin a glance, only to find him glaring at Ellie. I’m not sure what’s wrong with him, but he needs to figure his shit out and get himself under control before he scares her away like he did all previous nannies. Whether by playing instruments together or learning to read braille, Ellie stands apart from the others with how she goes out of her way to help Nico and support him with his retinitis pigmentosa diagnosis.

Nico still values his independence like every normal eight-year-old kid, but sadly, it is only a matter of time before he completely loses his sight, a reality that has been stressing Rafa out as my godson’s vision worsens.

“Sorry you had to cancel your date.” Rafa’s face might be blank, but his eyes remind me of two burning coals.

Ellie smiles. “No worries. We rescheduled for tomorrow.” My cousin makes the most inhuman noise.

Her hazel eyes narrow. “Still struggling with that sore throat of yours?”

“You’re sick?” I ask my cousin.

“Sick of Eleanor’s bullshit is more like it,” he mutters under his breath before turning back toward the hall.

I fight a laugh. “Eleanor?

“Don’t you dare call me that.” She points a finger at me.

“What’s up with him?” I ask once Rafa is out of hearing distance.

“He’s been like that all week because of the weather.” Ellie’s gaze swings from me to Nico.

There is nothing worse than Hurricane Hillary influencing my cousin’s mood long after their divorce.

I step toward the hall. “I better go before he comes searching for me.”

“Bye, Tío!” Nico gives me one last hug before reaching out for Ellie’s hand. They return to the piano and restart the song.

I find Rafa sitting at the kitchen island, staring at his coffee like it might reveal his fortune.

“You good?” I grab the iced coffee he made me. Rafa might be an irritable dick most of the time now, but he still goes out of his way to do sweet things because he can’t help himself.

He runs his hands through his hair, making a mess of the already-disheveled strands. “Hillary called.”

“Hm.”

His shoulders droop. “She’s flying into Detroit and wants to see Nico.”

“When?”

“The weekend of the Harvest Festival.”

My brows rise. “Is she coming?”

“No.”

“Shocker.” Once the divorce papers were signed, she booked a one-way flight back to Oregon to be with her family and never came back to Lake Wisteria. If it wasn’t for Rafa flying out there so Nico could see his mom, I’m not sure she would have seen him until now.

“Nico’s excited to see her.” His fingers tighten around his mug.

“It’s been what? Four months since he last saw her?”

“Five,” he grunts under his breath.

“I forgot she missed his birthday.”

“I sure didn’t.” His voice reeks of self-loathing.

“You’ve got to stop beating yourself up over her poor decisions.”

“I’m the one who got her pregnant. Who else is there to blame but me?”

“You were barely an adult when all that happened. It’s not like you could have predicted things would turn out this way.”

“No, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling like a stupid fool.”

I shake my head. “You’re too hard on yourself.”

“I’ve been thinking…”

“Stop now while you’re ahead.”

“You’re not going to like this.”

The empty pit in my stomach widens as I say, “Then let’s call it a loss and move on to better subjects, like betting on tomorrow’s soccer game. I’ve got a few of my paver guys—”

Julian.

“What’s the problem?”

He stares out the window facing his barn. “I’ve been thinking about moving.”

I blink twice. “What did you say?”

“With Hillary living so far away, I’ve been wondering if it’s in Nico’s best interest for him to live closer to his mom.”

“Is that in your best interest?” Rafa has spent his whole life within the small border of Lake Wisteria, so for him to move…

He rubs his eyes with the heels of his palms. “Forget I said anything.”

A wave of nausea forces me to push my coffee away. “You’re seriously thinking about moving across the country?”

“Only occasionally.”

Losing Rafa and Nico would be devastating for our family. Besides my mom, they’re the only loved ones I have left, so I selfishly don’t want them to move away.

You could find a way to convince Hillary to move somewhere within driving distance, like Chicago or Detroi—

“Don’t mention anything to your mom right now,” he says, stopping me mid-spiral.

“But what if she moves back—”

Stop.”

“What?” I blink away my confusion.

“This isn’t a problem you can solve.”

“Who said—”

He shuts me up with a single look.

I hold my hands up. “Fine. But talk to me before you make any big decisions.”

“Fair enough.” He scrubs at his cheek. “Anyway, I’m sorry to leave you alone to work the booth without me.”

My mom takes a lot of pride in sharing her grandmother’s champurrado recipe during the Harvest Festival. And ever since we were old enough to be trusted with the responsibility, Rafa and I have teamed up to run the Lopez booth together to make Ma happy and share our Mexican hot chocolate with the visitors.

“Josefina told me you could handle it. She reassured me that your booth will be next to the Muñoz one this year so that you can have someone to talk to.”

“How thoughtful of her,” I reply with a brittle tone.

“I told her the same thing before asking her to switch it.”

“And?”

“She says it would be dumb to separate their buñuelos booth from our champurrado one.”

I sigh. “It’s fine.”

“Maybe if you talked to her about how you’re not interested in Dahlia like that, she would let up on her attempts at matchmaking.”

“Knowing her, she will only see it as a challenge.”

“I blame her obsession with those telenovelas.” He takes a sip of his drink.

“I’m hoping Ma will realize Dahlia and I aren’t meant to be once she finally leaves town for good.”

His head tilts. “And when is that?”

“I have no clue.”

“You really think she’s done with Oliver?”

“I’d say yes based on how she sold me her wedding ring before I encased it in a concrete tomb.”

His mouth falls open.

Shit. “It’s not that big of a deal.”

“You, the billionaire who considers eating out at a steakhouse a wasteful luxury, bought Dahlia’s engagement ring just so you could bury it in concrete?”

“One, I think steakhouses are overrated when I can cook the same thing at my house for half the price; and two, it was worth it.”

Rafa drops his head into his hands. “I don’t know what to say to that.”

“Nothing is preferable.”

“How much did you pay for it?”

I don’t answer him.

“Julian.”

“A hundred.”

“Thousand?”

I rub the back of my neck. “Yeah.”

“Why?”

“I wanted to bury it in concrete.”

“I’m struggling to believe you’re the same guy who spent five years hyping himself up into buying a McLaren for double the cost of what you paid Dahlia for a cheap thrill.”

When he puts it that way, it sounds bad. I don’t act irrationally, especially when money is involved.

“Well, I always hated that ring.” The excuse sounds weak to my own ears.

Rafa’s deep sigh makes my stomach churn.

“What?”

“You say you’re over her, but your actions say the complete opposite.”

“Because I bought her ring?”

“Because of why you bought her ring.”

My frown stretches. “I was doing her a favor.”

“Keep telling yourself that.”


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