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Love Redesigned: Chapter 2

Dahlia

If I had known my return to Lake Wisteria would include a panic attack, a car accident, and a trolley full of townspeople waiting to greet me, I would have stayed in San Francisco. Turns out my plan to run away from my problems had a few major flaws, starting with the man who has spent the better part of his life making mine impossible.

Emergency lights flash across Julian’s tan, angular face, casting a red glow over him like a devilish halo as he speaks with the sheriff.

I was so caught up in avoiding Julian over the years that I failed to notice how much he had matured during that time.

Failed to notice? More like was intent on ignoring.

Red, flashing lights draw my eyes toward his sharp jawline, only for them to steal my attention again as they highlight his soft lips and five o’clock shadow.

Based on my eye for luxury clothes and nose for real Italian leather, I can tell Julian’s outfit tonight has to easily cost ten thousand dollars, a shocking assessment in itself. But despite his pristine suit, perfectly trimmed dark hair, and fancy designer loafers, bits and pieces of the rugged Julian I knew peek through.

The slight bump in his nose after I accidentally broke it with my elbow.

A thin, white scar running across his stubbled cheek from when we thought it was a good idea to compete for who could jump the highest from a swing set.

The firm press of his lips whenever someone speaks to him—a habit he picked up when we were kids to stop himself from talking out of turn.

As if he senses me staring at him, Julian looks in my direction. The dismissive pass of his rich brown eyes over my body should annoy me more than anything, but the goose bumps scattering across my skin show it has the opposite effect.

I turn away from Julian in a rush of self-preservation and allow his mom, Josefina, and mine to fuss over me. The two best friends both have brown hair and eyes, but their different heights, facial features, and personalities set them apart from each other.

Although our mothers became best friends growing up together in Mexico, Julian and I most definitely are not. At best, we’re family friends, while at worst, we’re childhood rivals who turn everything into a competition.

“You’ve lost weight. Are you sure you’ve been eating enough?” Mom pinches my cheeks with a dark, furrowed brow. “What do you think?” She turns me toward Josefina.

Her sour expression confirms my mom’s observation. “It’s nothing some good food can’t fix. You know, panza llena—”

Corazón contento,” my mom finishes.

Too bad home-cooked food will only fill the empty pit in my stomach, not the one in my chest.

Mom inspects my shoulder-length hair. “¿Y qué pasó con tu pelo?”

“I cut it.”

“But why?” she moans.

I can only muster up a long, exaggerated sigh.

“I love it, especially because of why you did it.” Josefina winks.

A haircut was what the doctor ordered after my heartbreak, along with a bottle of Zoloft to keep the sadness at bay.

Mom grips my shoulders as she scans me from head to toe. “I’m happy you’re home. The rest we can deal with later.”

“Me too.” My voice cracks. There was nothing I wanted more than my mom’s hugs and her unwavering belief that Vicks VapoRub will cure everything, including a broken heart.

Josefina places her hands on my shoulders and squeezes. “Don’t you worry. We’ll make it all better, starting with some of my pozole.”

Where my mom is a worrier, Josefina is a fixer like her son.

If only Julian had inherited her empathy too.

The sheriff interrupts our reunion by clearing his throat.

Panza llena, corazón contento: Full stomach, happy heart.

¿Y qué pasó con tu pelo?: And what happened to your hair?

“Dahlia.”

“Yes?”

“Julian wants to keep this off the record and pay for both repairs himself.”

“So he’s not going to get a ticket or mandatory community service for hitting me?”

The sheriff chuckles. “Do you want him to?”

“Only if you can promise he gets the kind that requires him to pick up trash on the side of the road for hours.” I snap my fingers. “Scratch that. Days.”

Mija,” Mom warns as Josefina laughs.

“How else is he supposed to learn his lesson? Someone could have gotten badly hurt.”

The sheriff spares me a knowing look. “To be fair, you should have pulled over if you were having car trouble rather than continuing to drive like you did.”

My brows scrunch together. “Car trouble?”

“Julian explained everything already. If you ever struggle with the engine again, pull over and call for help.”

Why would Julian Lopez make up a cover story instead of telling the sheriff I was too busy crying to properly drive?

Perhaps because he plans on blackmailing you later.

My mom gives my hand a knowing squeeze, and the tension in my muscles bleeds away. “I’ll do that.”

The sheriff tips his hat. “Now that it’s all settled, I’d better get everyone back to the school auditorium for the talent show. Some of these folks should be in bed before their meds kick in at ten p.m.” He whistles and points to the trolley. “Let’s clear out!”

Mija: My daughter.

“We’ll hitch a ride with our kids instead.” Josefina waves the sheriff away.

The deputies wrangle the protesting crowd into the trolley while the first responders head to town, leaving the Muñoz and Lopez families alone.

“What talent show is he talking about?” I ask.

“The one the elementary school puts on each fall.” Josefina passes the bottle of holy water back to my mom. “About that, it would be so nice if you joined us! Nico would love to see you, and then we can all go out to dinner afterward.”

My throat dries up. As much as I want to see my godson and give him the biggest hug, dinner with those who know me best sounds like another panic-inducing situation I’d rather avoid tonight.

“I’m sure Dahlia is tired,” Julian says in that bored tone of his.

Either I look as shitty as I feel, or Julian is making it known that he doesn’t want me there.

I’ll go with the latter.

I consider attending the talent show to prove him wrong, but then I think about what that would entail.

Are you ready to see everyone in town?

Nope. Definitely not. It was a small blessing to be spared from the welcome party this evening, so I better not push my luck.

After two years away, I will have to face everyone eventually, but today is not that day.

“Julian is right.” The words slide across my tongue like daggers, and the bastard has the audacity to stand taller at the admission. “I’m pretty shaken up with everything that happened, and after spending the whole day driving, all I want to do is get some rest.”

“Oh.” Josefina’s smile dies, earning me another scowl from her son.

“What if Julian takes you home on his way to the show and Josefina and I can drive your car to the auditorium?” Mom suggests.

My right eye twitches. If this woman hadn’t spent my whole life raising me, I would never speak to her again. She knows Julian is my sworn enemy, right up there with midnight snacking on pan dulce and driving in California rush-hour traffic.

“But…” My protest dies when my mom shoots me a look. “All right.”

Julian’s eyes narrow as he pulls out his keys. “Let’s go. I don’t want to be late for Nico’s performance.”

Josefina’s fingers fly across her cell phone screen. “No worries. I’m texting the principal now and asking them to switch Nico’s spot.”

Julian’s head swings in his mother’s direction. “You couldn’t have done that before I got into an accident trying to rush over there?”

His mother shrugs while typing away. “You didn’t ask.”

I bite down on my tongue to stop myself from laughing. I’m positive Julian would rather die than ask anyone for help, including his mother. It’s a chronic condition he inherited from his late father.

I grab my purse from my mom’s hand and give her and Josefina each a kiss on the cheek before heading over to Julian’s car. It resembles a spaceship with all the sharp lines and chrome detailing, and I’m sure it flies like one too when given a little gas.

I have a hard time processing how the guy who considered buying a new video game a luxury became the billionaire in front of me who owns an electric blue McLaren. My mom swears Julian has never let money get to his head, but I bet he struggles with an insufferable ego and a god complex.

While I had huge success with my interior design company and home renovation show, Julian struck gold after he helped his genius cousin and computer coder Rafa create Dwelling, the most popular real estate search engine around, at the ages of twenty-three and twenty-five, respectively.

The idea might have started out as another one of Rafa’s crazy, unsuccessful attempts at creating the next best app, but then it evolved into a billion-dollar company with investors, a board of directors, and the Lopez cousins securing a spot on the coveted Forbes 30 Under 30 List.

Julian and I reach for the passenger door. His hand brushes across the back of mine, and a spark of recognition flares to life.

The smell of his cologne—clean and expensive—invades my nose. It twitches before a sneeze shoots out of me. I jolt, and my butt brushes against Julian’s front.

Oh God.

He yanks the door open. “Salud.”

“What a gentleman,” I reply in a dry voice.

His grip on the door tightens until his golden skin turns white. “Can’t have your mother thinking I’m anything but chivalrous.”

“No need to try so hard. She thinks you’re the first person since Jesus to walk on water.”

His deep chuckle, soft and barely audible over a gust of wind, has an unacceptable amount of influence over the pace of my heart.

I throw myself into the passenger seat and bang my elbow on the stick shift in the process of avoiding him, making me wince.

Nos vemos allá,” my mom calls out before taking off down the road while blasting “Mi Primer Millón,” one of my dad’s favorite songs.

I sink into the soft leather seat once Julian shuts my door. The vibration makes something rattle near the hood of the car, so he walks around the front and kneels.

He glares at the bumper for what seems like an eternity before entering the car with a thunderous expression and stiff posture. Neither of us says anything as he pulls back onto the road and presses his foot against the gas.

In the past, I would fill the silence with questions to annoy Julian, but tonight, I draw back into myself.

Salud: Bless you.

Nos vemos allá: We’ll see you there.

Just another way you changed because of Oliver and his family.

Silence eats at me as we catch up to my car, and I take in the damage from the crash. Besides my bumper resembling a crushed pop can and the taillight being knocked out of place, the rest of the car appears fine.

Your therapist would be proud of you for noticing the positives.

After losing my wedding venue deposit and my new agent informing me that the media learned about my broken engagement today, I need all the wins I can get.

“You’re too quiet.” Julian’s rough voice cuts through my thoughts a few minutes later.

My fingernails press into my palms from how hard I clench them. “Shouldn’t that make you happy after all those times you begged me to stop talking?”

That silences him, although the quiet only lasts a minute before he speaks up again.

“You always knew how to make an entrance.” His gaze remains fixated on the road.

Maybe I hit my head after all, because I must be hallucinating. Julian just attempted to start a conversation twice without being influenced by alcohol or his mother.

I sink deeper into the seat. “Believe it or not, I wanted to lie low for a bit.”

“That’s impossible.”

After tonight, I’m worried he might be right. If I could avoid everyone for a few weeks while I gather my bearings, it would be a miracle.

“It’s not like I enjoy all this attention.” All I want to do is disappear and pretend my life in California isn’t falling apart.

“Says the woman who has her own television show and décor brand in stores all across America.” He loosens his chokehold on the wheel.

I fake gasp. “Julian Lopez, are you a secret fan of my show?”

His face remains unreadable. “I have better things to do with my time.”

Ouch. “I’m sure spending every night with your mother takes up a lot of it.”

Whatever drove Julian to attempt speaking with me dies as my shitty shot hits its mark.

A couple of minutes later, we pass the strawberry-themed Welcome to Lake Wisteria sign that boasts about our famous Strawberry Festival and a new tagline that states Home of Dahlia Muñoz, celebrity interior designer and reality TV sensation.

I drop my head into my hands with a groan.

So much for lying low.

The neon Early Bird Diner sign shines like the North Star, guiding me home as we hit the corner of Main Street. From the cheery fall display in the center of Town Square to the lamp pole banners promoting the upcoming Harvest Festival in November, everything about Lake Wisteria is warm and welcoming.

It’s understandable why our small town has grown in popularity, both among summer tourists visiting our beach and wealthy Chicago residents who want a weekend getaway. The unique Victorian-era seaside charm can transport anyone to the late 1800s, and our spotty cell service will sure make them feel like it too.

After spending two years away, I should be overwhelmed by excitement and nostalgia, especially with all the Halloween décor, but my entire body is numb as we drive by the pumpkin photo-op area, the ginormous strawberry fountain lit by orange and purple lights, and the park where my dad always took my sister and me.

Julian turns away from the modernized Main Street and heads south. The southernmost part of town, where both our families grew up, doesn’t have million-dollar lakefront properties and an elite private school like the upper south side or the modern buildings and amenities on Main Street and the eastern quadrant. Nor do we have the rich history associated with the northern Historic District, but we do have the best pizza spot in town, so who needs a fancy mansion or an up-todate apartment with a gym when I can get You Want a Pizza Me delivered in ten minutes or less?

The one stoplight standing in our way of getting to my mom’s home flashes from yellow to red. As time ticks by, I’m left with the grim reminder of how tortuously tense things are between Julian and me.

Once upon a time, we were friends with a healthy competitive drive. Then puberty hit during middle school, and a new rivalry was formed, driven by hormones and immaturity.

But now, we’re nothing but strangers.

An invisible hand wraps itself around my throat and squeezes until I’m breathless. I struggle against the heaviness threatening to consume me, only to fail as I spare a glance at the first man who broke my heart. It took him nineteen years to earn it and only six words to obliterate it.

And I don’t plan on forgetting that.


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