Hello and Happy Sunday! I am in a super-duper good mood because my next book releases in just over two weeks. Allow me to present to you the cover and blurb for A Sniper’s Devotion.
Officer Hector Castillo, a sniper on Houston’s elite SWAT team, is content living alone as a perpetual bachelor. But when he opens up his small apartment to a friend in need, their close quarters awaken long suppressed desires Hector can’t help but acknowledge.
Miguel Delgado’s unfortunate detour down a road he never intended to travel ends in a big wake up call, but he vows to get himself back on track. Though he’s always looked up to Hector, Miguel isn’t a kid with hero-worship anymore, and his schoolyard protector has matured into a strong and caring man – who happens to look damn sexy in his SWAT uniform.
Though their physical attraction to each other is undeniable, Hector and Miguel try hard to resist and protect their friendship. Until one night changes everything…
A Sniper’s Devotion is a loving and sexy, friends to lovers erotic romance. Hector and Miguel’s story is part of the Cuffs, Collars and Love series, but it is a stand-alone novel.
Ah, happiness. Hector and Miguel’s story was a joy to write. It made me sad at times, but I really do love the characters. It was also bittersweet, because A Sniper’s Devotion is the last in the Cuffs, Collars and Love series. I’m saying goodbye to my SWAT boys and moving on. Thank you so much to everyone who loved these guys and supported the series.
But wait! I have more to share! The first chapter of A Sniper’s Devotion is now up for you to get your eyeballs on. You can scroll down and read it here. It’s also available on the A Sniper’s Devotion page on my website, where there’s goodies like excerpts and my writing play list. You can also check out the first chapter on my Facebook Page.
And that’s not all! (I really missed my calling as an infomercial sales woman) If you’re interested in getting your hands on an e-copy of A Sniper’s Devotion, there are two ways to win. First, you can enter HERE on my website. The only thing you’ll need is your first name, email and book format preference. You can also enter on Library Thing. But it does require you to have an account with them. Both contests begin today October 22nd and end October 29th.
A Sniper’s Devotion is up for pre-order and you can add it on Goodreads.
Hector sighed with exhaustion as he drove up to his apartment building. The long, solitary drive back from his friend's wedding in the Texas Hill Country had tired him out, and the late hour had him ready for bed. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be going to sleep anytime soon. Drama waited for him inside his apartment. He sighed again. It was a sad day when a man dreaded going into his own home. Hector sucked it up and turned off the ignition. He was here now, so he might as well get in there and find out what the hell was going on.
When he walked inside, he immediately noticed the young man sitting on his couch. Though uninvited, he was a friend from long ago, so Hector gave him a relaxed greeting. "Hey, Miguel. How are you?"
The dark-haired young man shrugged, a lopsided smile on his handsome face. "Been better."
Hector tossed his keys down on the end table. Miguel's mouth was puffy and split, a purplish bruise blooming on his cheek. The sight of the injury put Hector on immediate alert, ready to find out who’d hurt his friend. Before he could ask him about it, the door to his bedroom opened and Hector's mother came out. He didn't bother asking why she was in there with the door closed. From Miguel's face, he knew something had gone down.
"Hector, you're home."
Hector went over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "Yeah, Mamá." He flicked his gaze back over to Miguel, noting for the first time the bulging backpack and duffle bag sitting on the floor at the corner of the couch. "You want to tell me what's going on?" His mother looked off to the side and pursed her lips, a sure sign she was holding back from saying something distasteful.
"Come with me, Hector."
She drew him into his bedroom and closed the door again. His mother's best friend sat in the armchair in front of the window. Her eyes were red-rimmed from crying, and she had the gold cross pendant around her neck pressed to her lips.
"Hey, Tia Claudia." She wasn't really his aunt. He called her that out of respect because she was his mother's best friend and had been in his life since he was born.
"Mijo, it's good to see you. It's been too long."
He went over and bent down to give her a kiss on the cheek as well. When he straightened, he looked back and forth between the two women. "All right. Why is Miguel here with packed bags and a bruise on his face?"
Claudia started crying again. His mother answered the question. "His boyfriend hit him."
Hector stiffened. "What?"
Lupita nodded. "Yes. He's not a good man. This isn't the first time he's hit Miguel, but it's the first time Miguel has run away from him."
"Not the first time? Why am I just now hearing about this? Wait." Hector held his hand up to stop his mother from answering. "Shouldn't we be talking about this with Miguel?" he asked in confusion.
"I want to spare him," Claudia said.
"Spare him from what? He's the one who got hit by an abusive asshole. I think he's already had to deal with the worst of it."
"Hector!" his mother snapped. "Don't use language like that."
Hector held back a frustrated sigh. It was ridiculous his mother was chiding him for his language in this situation. But it wasn't unexpected. "Sorry, Mamá. I'm just angry that Miguel is hurt. Why is he here instead of at Tia Claudia's house?"
"I brought him here so he'd have a safe place to stay. He's been living with Santos for three years. Santos didn't let him work, and everything Miguel had Santos paid for. He has no money and got out with a few clothes and not much else. And I don't trust that man not to come for Miguel. I know if he's here, you'll make sure he's protected."
This time Hector didn't hold back his sigh. "I have a one-bedroom apartment, Mamá. It'll be a tight fit with both of us in here."
"It's just for a little while. I don't think it will be a problem for Miguel to sleep on your couch. You two were so close when you were boys. You can help him now."
Looking back and forth between a crying Claudia and a firm Lupita, Hector knew he wasn't going to turn the request down. Miguel was his friend, although they hadn't spoken for several years. Now that he thought about it, they hadn't spoken for about the same amount of time Miguel had been with the boyfriend who hit him. Hector could help him while he got his shit sorted out. "Fine."
"Thank you, mi rey. You're such a good son," Lupita said as she smiled and patted him on the cheek.
Hector went back out into the living room, his mother and aunt following him. He automatically switched into public servant mode as he kneeled in front of Miguel. "That's a pretty good bruise there. Did you put ice on it?"
Miguel nodded. "Yeah. And I already took some ibuprofen."
"Good. Anything else hurt?" He could see the pain in Miguel's dark eyes, and he was willing to bet it was from more than the marks on his face.
Miguel started to answer, then stopped and flicked his eyes to his mom.
From Miguel's reaction, there was obviously something he didn't want his mother to see. He looked back over his shoulder. "Mamá, can you take Tia Claudia back into my room, please? Just for a minute."
Another sniffle escaped Claudia as Lupita put an arm around her shoulders and guided her back into the bedroom.
He waited until the two women were behind the closed door before he turned back to the young man on the couch. "Show me."
"It's nothing. Just more bruises, but I didn't want my mom to see it."
"We'll determine if it's nothing once I take a look."
Miguel nodded and took his shirt off. Hector's eyes went immediately to the right side of his ribs, where a huge, dark bruise covered his skin.
"Foot or fist?"
Hector nodded. "I figured." He gently raised Miguel's arm so he could get a better look and see if the damage went any further. Hector lightly prodded the injury with his fingertips, and Miguel sucked in a quick, sharp breath. "Is it hard to breathe or anything?"
"No. I don't think anything is broken or cracked. Just really sore," he answered in a strained voice.
Hector ran his eyes over him everywhere. The only other injuries he saw were finger-shaped bruises high on his left arm. He eased Miguel's arm back down. "All right. Put your shirt back on. We'll get rid of the mamás, and I'll get those treated as best I can." Hector went back over to his bedroom and opened the door while Miguel tugged his shirt over his head.
"Mamá, it's late. You two should head home."
She started to say something but Hector held his hand up to hold her off.
"I'll get Miguel settled. All he needs for tonight is a pillow and a blanket. We can worry about the rest later."
Lupita nodded. "You're right."
Both women came out of the room, going over to the couch to fuss over Miguel. Hector allowed it for a few moments before he herded them out. They reluctantly left, with promises to come back the next day with food. After closing the door behind them, he looked back at Miguel. "Let's go in the kitchen."
Miguel winced as he stood, his hand going to the bruise on his ribs. Hector watched him carefully, but he didn't seem to be favoring anyplace else. Still, he had to be sure. "You're positive nowhere else is hurt?"
"I'm sure. He grabbed me and hit me in the face. When I fell, he kicked me. That was it."
Hector raised an eyebrow. "That's it? I think that's more than enough."
Miguel's shoulders stiffened. "I only meant that was all he did, so you'd know I wasn't injured anywhere else. I don't need you judging me."
"Whoa, take it easy. I'm not judging you at all. I'm judging him."
Miguel relaxed, a smile touching his swollen lips. "As long as all you do is judge. I think he's too big for you to stuff in a locker."
Hector grinned, remembering the kid who’d tormented Miguel back in high school. "That punk had it coming. He shouldn't have been messing with you."
"I think he learned his lesson after that. He never bothered me again."
"It'd be nice if it was still that easy to keep people from being assholes," he said as he put ice in a Ziploc bag and wrapped it in a dish towel. Hector squatted once more at Miguel's side, directing him to raise his shirt. Hector ran his fingers over the area, verifying that there were no protrusions signaling broken ribs. With the exception of the bruise, Miguel's skin was smooth and unblemished. Hector passed him the ice pack. "Are you hungry?"
Miguel shook his head then flinched as he held the ice to his skin. "No, I'm just tired."
"Okay, let's get you to bed." They left the kitchen, and Hector started to lead Miguel to his bedroom. Miguel stopped him.
"Uh. I can sleep on the couch."
"No, you're not. You're all bruised up and sore. You need to sleep somewhere you can be as comfortable as possible. You take the bed, and I'll crash on the couch for a few nights." Hector thought that would settle the issue. But Miguel stayed where he was, his shoulders going stiff again.
"No. I'm already putting you out. I'm not taking your bed too."
Hector noticed the hard line to Miguel's jaw. They weren't exactly the best of friends after going so long without seeing each other, so Hector imagined he was probably embarrassed to show up out of the blue with a crying mother, a bruised body, and nowhere to go. If it meant that much to him to sleep on the couch, Hector would go along with it and let the man hold on to his pride.
"Fine. I'll be right back."
He went into his bedroom to grab a pillow from the pile on his bed and a light blanket from the closet. He returned and set them on the couch where Miguel was already sitting.
"Get some sleep. We'll figure the rest of this out in the morning." After Miguel thanked him, Hector turned to go to bed. It had been a long day and he was tired. Before he could close the bedroom door, however, Miguel called out to him.
Hector looked back over his shoulder at Miguel. He sat on the couch, head ducked, shoulders curled in as though he were protecting himself. So different than the way Hector remembered him. "Yeah?"
"The circumstances suck, but it's good to see you again."
Hector smiled at his long-time yet estranged friend. "You too."
Miguel woke up the next morning to sunlight streaming into an unfamiliar room. Confused and disoriented from sleep, he looked around, trying to get his bearings. When he shifted, his ribs pulled and throbbing pain hit him in a rush. That pain brought back the memory of everything that had gone on the day before.
Yesterday afternoon, he'd been bored and decided to go out for lunch and a movie. He'd gone alone because his friends were busy and Santos was off to one of his meetings. When he'd returned home, Santos had met him at the door, yelling and accusing Miguel of cheating on him. He'd tried to laugh it off, thinking he could tease Santos out of his mood like he had many times before. Unfortunately, he'd misjudged how far gone Santos had already been in his temper.
Santos had grabbed him in a painful, bruising grip and pulled him in close to his face, demanding to know who he was fucking. Except he'd said it in a not so nice way, with a few insults thrown in. Offended and getting mad himself, Miguel had snapped back and tried to yank his arm out of Santos's grip. And that had set Santos off. The fist had come flying at his face too fast for him to even try to dodge. It smashed into his jaw, and the world had spun as he'd crumpled to the white marble floor of the entryway. Trapped between Santos and the door, he'd cried out in pain when Santos kicked him with the hard toe of his dress shoe.
From experience, Miguel knew it could have been a lot worse. Thankfully, they were interrupted. Santos's assistant had come out of the office, reminding his boss that he had an associate on the line. Santos had glared down at Miguel, then left him lying there while he went back into the office for his phone call.
While Santos was busy, Miguel had run upstairs, grabbed a couple of bags, as many clothes and shoes as would fit in them, a few other basics and raced back downstairs. To his relief, Santos was nowhere to be seen. But the assistant had been at the door. His face stoic, he'd asked Miguel to hand over his credit cards and car keys. Miguel had, knowing the bigger man could easily take them from him if he resisted. He'd been upset but not defeated. He could walk out and call someone to come get him. But the assistant had surprised him with what he said next.
"I called you an Uber and charged it to my card. They'll pick you up at the coffee shop down the street."
Holding back tears, Miguel had nodded his thanks and left. He'd had the driver take him to his mom's house, because with so little money, his options were limited. Unfortunately, if Santos wanted to look for him, that was the first place he would go.
Miguel shifted again, wincing at his tender ribs. And that was how he'd come to be on this couch. It wasn't the most comfortable place to sleep, but considering how frantic everything had been yesterday, it wasn't the worst place for him to spend a night.
He got up and went into the little half bath to pee and freshen up. He'd grabbed a few toiletries in his rush last night, so thankfully, he could brush his teeth. He started to brush with his usual vigor, but winced as the toothbrush abraded his sore mouth. Miguel stopped, staring at himself with the toothbrush hanging from his swollen bottom lip. This was pathetic. He had to be careful brushing his goddamn teeth because his boyfriend had punched him in the face. He was lucky a sore mouth was all he had to worry about. As big as Santos was, he could have knocked out some of Miguel's teeth.
With an admittedly pathetic sigh, Miguel resumed brushing, slowly this time, taking care not to unnecessarily aggravate his sore cheek and lip. He rinsed and spit, then went back out to the living room. The door on the other side of the living room opened at the same time. Hector came out, clad in a pair of black drawstring pajama bottoms. He yawned, rubbing a hand across his flat stomach, fingers dancing over the line of dark hair that disappeared into his waistband.
Miguel stopped and stared. Hector had been good-looking in high school. He’d matured into an exceptionally handsome man. Unlike Miguel's nearly black eyes, Hector's were a warm brown that almost seemed to glow in the sunlight pouring into the room. He had dark brown hair cut close on the sides and a little longish on top. It looked soft. But his hair and full lips appeared to be the only things soft on him. Hector’s jawline was strong and graced with the barest hint of morning stubble. His shoulders were broad and very well-defined.
The broad expanse of Hector’s chest drew Miguel’s eye and made him want to reach out and touch it. Smooth, golden skin covered thick muscles that tapered down to ridged abs and a tight waist. Hector’s body was hard, everywhere. Well, Miguel refused to let his eyes drop below Hector's waist to see if he was hard everywhere. He didn’t need to see if his friend sported morning wood. And no doubt, Hector wouldn't appreciate him staring at his groin like a pervert.
He looked back up to see Hector watching him. When he raised an eyebrow, Miguel glanced down at himself. He was standing there in nothing but a pair of tight red briefs. An embarrassed flush scorched his face, and he jerked forward to grab his jeans from last night off the floor.
"Sorry about that," he said as he tugged them on. "I was still half asleep when I got up to brush my teeth and didn't even think." He pulled on his jeans, grimacing at their cold, wrinkled feel as he slid them up his legs.
Hector shrugged. "Don't worry about it." He stretched and yawned again as he headed into the kitchen. "You want breakfast? I have cereal and bread for toast. That's about it."
His jeans on, Miguel pulled a T-shirt over his head for good measure. "Cereal is fine." Miguel hid a grin as Hector got out a box of Froot Loops. It looked like some things were still the same from when they were kids. Whenever he'd been at the Castillo house on Saturday mornings, Hector had always had a giant bowl of cereal in front of him. They each poured a bowl of the colorful cereal and sat down at the kitchen table to eat.
The hum of the fridge and what filtered in from outside the window were the only sounds in the quiet kitchen. Hector seemed content to eat in silence, and Miguel didn't want to be a pest and disturb him. When he was finished, Hector poured himself another bowl before pushing the box toward Miguel.
Miguel shook his head and carried his empty bowl to the sink to rinse out. When he was finished, he lingered there, unsure what to do next.
"Are we going down to the station to fill out a police report today?" Hector asked after swallowing another bite of cereal.
Miguel blanched. "God, no. Santos would not be happy to have police attention on him."
"Are you protecting him?" Hector asked in a hard voice.
Miguel laughed at that. "No, more like protecting myself from what he'd do in retaliation."
"Huh." Hector didn't say anything else, he just ate another spoonful of cereal.
Miguel’s face heated with anger, although he wasn't sure if it was anger at himself or Hector. It was easier to be mad at Hector. "I thought you weren't going to judge me," he snapped.
"Did I say I was?"
"You don't have to. I know you're wondering why I was with someone like that."
"Why were you?"
Miguel threw his hands up in the air. "It's not like I knew he would hit me when I started dating him. And he owns legit car dealerships. How was I supposed to know he had shady stuff going on on the side?"
"But you eventually realized he was into things that made him not want police attention."
"So? It's not like I was the one doing them." Miguel knew that was a dumb comment. But he refused to take it back. Instead, he crossed his arms over his chest, staring Hector down.
Hector finished his cereal and leaned back in his chair. "Miguel, you're one of the few people I know who has both book smarts and street smarts. So you know how getting mixed up with someone like that usually goes."
Hector was right. Rather than admit it, Miguel continued to sit there with his arms crossed, except now he stared at a spot over Hector's shoulder.
Hector sighed. "What's done is done. You don't want to file a police report, fine. I think you should, so you can have the incident on record, but I'm not going to force you to do anything you don't want to do."
Miguel finally looked at Hector again. "Thank you."
"What do you want to do?"
Miguel dropped his arms, shoulders slumping forward. "I'm not really sure. Santos didn't want me to work, so I don't have any money other than a little bit of cash in my wallet and maybe a few hundred in my bank account. He had his assistant take my credit cards before I left since they were his accounts. So I guess first is getting one of my friends to let me crash on their couch for a few months. And second is getting a job."
"You already have a friend letting you crash on their couch. Move on to number two."
"I meant a different friend."
"Is my couch that lumpy?" Hector asked with a grin.
Miguel relaxed a little at the teasing. "No, I just don't want to put you out."
"My mom and your mom asked me to look out for you. You think I'm letting you leave so I can have those two breathing down my neck?"
Miguel found his own grin at the mental image of the two tiny women intimidating Hector. Claudia was more likely to shame Hector with tears, but Lupita was a dragon. She'd breathe fire on both their necks if Miguel ended up somewhere other than where she'd left him. Neither of them had been thrilled about letting him out of their sight after the incident with Santos. If Hector weren’t a cop, Miguel would be at his mom’s house instead of sleeping on his friend’s couch. "Well, when you put it that way."
"Besides, if you're here, I won't have to worry about Santos getting his hands on you again."
"Are you going to hold me hostage if I try to go back to him?"
"No. And I meant him finding you. Not you going to him. But if you were thinking about it, I'd try to talk you out of it."
"I had the nerve to leave. Why would I go back to him?"
"Sometimes situations like what happened last night don't seem so bad once the shock wears off. And that can make a victim of abuse decide to go back to their partner."
"I'm not going back to Santos. So if the only reason you want me to stay here is so you can keep me from going back to him, don't worry about it."
Hector sat there silently, softly drumming his fingertips on the table. Finally, he spoke, his voice quiet, gaze direct on Miguel's. "Things are good until he gets pissed at something and he hits you. Then he apologizes, maybe even gets you a present to show how sorry he is, and things are good again. Until the next time he hits you. Am I right?"
Embarrassed, Miguel looked down at the table, thinking of the gifts he'd received each time Santos had lost his temper.
"I'm not your keeper, Miguel. I'm just helping out a friend."
Miguel's voice rose in anger and frustration at this entire situation. "Then be a friend and not my domestic abuse counselor," he snapped again. Miguel immediately regretted the show of temper. He was confused and scared, and he was taking all this out on the wrong person. He pulled in a deep breath, slowly letting it out through his nose. The action hurt his ribs, but it also calmed him down. "I'm sorry."
Hector shrugged. "Don't apologize. You're allowed to be a little pissy after what you went through."
Miguel sighed. "Yeah, but that's no excuse for yelling at you for trying to help." He was quiet for a moment then got the conversation moving along to the second thing he needed to address: a job. "You know, I finished my dental assistant training."
Hector nodded. "I know. My mom called and told me." Now Hector looked embarrassed. "I meant to call you and say congratulations but things were crazy at work and time got away from me."
"It's no big." Miguel traced the swirly patterns in the wood of the kitchen table with a finger. "Just dental assistant. It's not like I graduated from dental school or anything." He mentally flinched. Those words were Santos's not his. "Anyway, I figured I'd look for a job in a dentist's office. They're hard to come by, so I probably won't be able to get anything great. But I should at least be able to get something that will pay a decent amount of money."
"Sounds like a plan." Hector got up to put his own bowl in the sink. "The mamás are probably going to be here soon, so we should get cleaned up. You can use the shower first. There're towels and soap in the bathroom closet."
"Okay." Miguel went out to the living room where he'd left his phone, hoping it still had life since he hadn't grabbed a charger last night. There was a little battery left, but when Miguel tried to check his notifications, he realized he didn't have any service. Santos had cut his phone off. Miguel wasn't sure why he hadn't expected that. If Santos took his credit cards and car keys, of course he wasn't going to let him keep his phone line. Still, he stared down at his phone in surprise. It was a shock, not being able to do something as routine as go on Facebook and scroll through his feed. As he stood there holding his useless phone, he suddenly realized just how dependent he'd been on Santos.
Hector joined him in the living room. "Is something wrong?" he asked when he saw Miguel standing there, motionless.
Miguel turned and looked at him. He tried to smile, to put his friend at ease, but his cheeks couldn't be bothered to put in the work. "Nothing. I just need a new phone. Santos had this one disconnected." He tossed the cell down on the couch. It landed screen down, the gold glitter of the case sparkling up at him as he continued staring at it. "Not sure how I'm going to get one without any income." He stopped. The tears in his throat and prickling behind his eyelids were more eager to be seen than his fake smile had been. Miguel tried to hold them back, but the glittering phone case went blurry. "Shit. I have nothing," he whispered almost to himself. "Fucking nothing." He was still staring at the phone, silent tears running down his face, when strong arms went around him, pulling him into a hug.
"You've got family, Miguel. We'll get you through this."
Miguel stood there stiffly for a second, not wanting Hector's pity. But Hector's bare chest was warm, and Miguel felt like absolute shit. Maybe he could take a little bit of comfort. He relaxed into the embrace, letting his head rest on Hector's shoulder. His own shoulders shook with sobs as Hector squeezed him tight. It was nice to be held while he cried. Usually it was him alone in his bedroom, too ashamed to share his troubles with anyone. This was the first time he'd let anyone close enough to see the true effects of his relationship with Santos. Thankfully, Hector didn't say anything to make Miguel regret opening up. He didn't offer any stupid platitudes or, worse, blame him. He just gave silent comfort as Miguel cried and came to grips with everything that had happened.
Eventually he calmed. The sobs tapered off and his tears dried up. Hector pushed him back a little, and Miguel stared up at him. He'd had the biggest crush on Hector when they were kids. Of course, nothing had ever come of it. But Hector had always looked out for him, just like he was doing now. Miguel was grateful for that.
"Thanks for helping me. I really appreciate it. I was dumb for getting involved with Santos and for staying with him as long as I did. But I'm going to get my shit together. I promise."
Hector smiled. "Make that promise to yourself, not to me." He ruffled Miguel's hair, giving him a slight push toward his bedroom.
Laughing, Miguel ducked out from under his hand. He took the hint and went to get cleaned up.
An hour later, there was a knock at the door. Hector got up and opened the door to see his mother standing there. She held a foil-wrapped baking dish, and several grocery bags dangled from her arms. Claudia stood behind her with even more bags.
"Knocking?" Hector asked her with a raised eyebrow. She usually came and went as she pleased, often stopping by to drop off food or clean his apartment the way she wanted it cleaned. "Did you lose your key?"
"Don't be smart, Hector. Take some of these bags."
Hector took the baking dish and half of the bags and stepped aside to let them in. Once Claudia put the bags she carried on the kitchen table, she immediately went to Miguel, gently cupping his face and clucking at his injury. She spoke softly to her son in Spanish. Hector stayed in the kitchen with his own mother to give the two of them privacy.
"You don't usually bring me groceries," he said as he watched her unpacking the bags.
"Consider it a thank-you for taking in Miguel. And I know you never have any real food. Miguel likes to cook, so maybe he'll make the two of you dinner."
Hector nodded and helped his mother put the groceries away, but his eyes kept returning to his friend. Miguel looked so forlorn as he stood there in front of his mother. He wasn't much taller than Claudia, which put him around five feet six if he was lucky. Miguel’s build was small overall, but he was in shape. His arms were lean and muscled, his stomach flat. The tight jeans he wore emphasized firm thighs.
As Hector watched Miguel talking with his mother, he noticed his friend’s hair was styled in the floppy curls he’d had as a kid. He remembered the time back in high school when Miguel had shaved his head in an attempt to look more masculine. As far as Hector could tell, all it had done was emphasize his big, dark eyes and long lashes. But he hadn't let his friend know that.
Hector admitted to himself that Miguel was cute. He always had been. Even now with scruff on his jawline and a bruise on his face that made him want to track down this Santos and give him double the taste of what he'd done to Miguel.
Hector yanked his gaze away from Miguel, oddly embarrassed that he'd been caught staring at his friend. "Yeah, Mamá?"
"He's going to need your help you know. More than just letting him stay here."
"I know. It'll be like old times with me watching out for him."
"Mmmm. Yes. But you're both adults now."
Hector assumed she was referring to Miguel's pride. "I won't embarrass him, Mamá."
"Just be gentle. Guide him as he gets his life back on track."
Hector wrapped an arm around her shoulders and kissed the top of her head. "Will do. I promise."
With the groceries all put away, they joined Miguel and Claudia in the living room. Claudia's face was wet with tears again, but Miguel no longer looked forlorn. Instead, he was undoubtedly frustrated.
"Did you tell your mom your plan?" Hector asked.
"Not yet. Too busy trying to reassure her this mess isn't her fault."
"It is," Claudia said as she dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. "I shouldn't have stayed a single mother. I should have married so you'd have a strong male role model. Then you wouldn't have let a man treat you that way."
"Mom, can you please stop with that? I made the decision to date Santos because he flattered me, bought me stuff, and had a big—" Miguel stopped, his face going red. "House," he finished. “It didn't have anything to do with me not having a father. It's because I was shallow and enjoyed what he did for me. So let it go, okay? Let me take responsibility for once."
Silence hit the room. They all stood there awkwardly, none of them sure how to address Miguel's last remark. Lupita finally spoke up.
"Okay. No more blaming. It happened and now the only thing that matters is how we can help Miguel move on."
Claudia sniffed one last time before tucking her handkerchief away. "I have some money in my savings. I'll give that to you to get an apartment."
"Mom! I don't need—"
"Miguel has a plan to get a job and save for his own place. Until then he's agreed to stay on my couch." Hector interjected to head off a possible resurgence of the blame game and keep the conversation on track. Remembering what his mom had said about taking care of Miguel's pride, Hector looked at his friend. "Maybe in exchange you can help me out while you're here."
"My mom said you like to cook?"
"Well, I like to eat. But I eat a lot of take out and frozen shit—"
"Frozen stuff." Hector corrected himself without missing a beat. "It'd be nice to eat real food on a regular basis instead of waiting for my mom to take pity on me and bring me something."
Miguel stared at him for a long moment. He looked like he had something to say but ended up simply nodding.
"That's all settled. We're good. Right?" He looked at Claudia and she nodded too. Hector sighed, glad to have everyone on the same page and Claudia off Miguel's back. He glanced over to make eye contact with his friend. Hector gave him a wink and Miguel rewarded him with a grateful smile.
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