The Games We Play Sample

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Chapter 1


“You’re cheating.”

Unable to ignore such a provocative statement, April Merit leveled a look at her best-friend, Alvina ‘Vina’ Song, and asked, “How am I cheating?”

“I don’t know how you’re doing it-” Vina glared at April. “- but you’re definitely doing it.”

Their other friend, Snow Harrison, laughed. “V, there is no way to cheat in rock-paper-scissors.”

Though it was a Sunday evening, all three friends were currently lounging around April’s apartment in their sleepwear with their faces caked in avocado facial masks. Though April’s apartment was the tiniest of their respective homes, it was the most convenient for a sleep-over. Snow lived with her fiancée and their boss, Greyson Teller, while Vina still lived with her meddlesome parents and grandmother.

There couldn’t be three more different women. Vina was the tiniest of them all. At just over five feet, the petite Asian was a full head shorter than April. She was also the only non-black person in their group. April was the tallest of all three, a shade lighter than Snow and model-thin. Often, she wished that she had Snow’s more average height, curvy body and dimples, or even Vina’s waist-length, silky hair and ageless facial features that made her seem decades younger than her thirty-one years.

Then again – she’d probably still find something to complain about.

“There has to be a way to cheat,” Vina insisted. Her narrow eyes narrowed even further as she asked, “How can she win all seven times?”

“That’s God’s way of saying that he wants me to be Maid of Honor.” April chuckled.

For the last couple of months they had been preparing for Snow’s wedding which was set to happen in about two months. Though the three of them now worked in separate branches of Tellers, they had maintained their friendship, which meant that Snow had had a hard time settling on which one of them would be her Maid of Honor. To make matters worse, neither Vina nor April were willing to let go of the position without a fight. After weeks of intense lobbying, they’d finally agreed that the only way to settle it was by playing rock-paper-scissors.

April had won. All seven times.

She wasn’t cheating… technically. Honestly, was it her fault that Vina was predictable? No. Was it her fault that Vina only put out rock or scissors and alternated between the two with comical predictability? No. The world is made up of two kinds of people – the gullible, and those who were born to take advantage of their gullibility.

Eyes wide with fake innocence, April offered, “Don’t worry you can be the Maid of Honor at my wedding.”

Giving her a look filled with malice, Vina taunted, “To who? Roman?”

Snow chuckled. “Ooh! She went there.”

“That is so below the belt,” April said, not finding it the least bit funny.

If she could take back one thing during her tenure as hostess at Tellers, it would be being so open about her feelings for Roman Teller, Greyson’s cousin and business partner. She hadn’t explicitly said she was in love with him but back then she was too unpracticed to hide her adoring looks and everyone had noticed it. Now, she wished she’d been more secretive because she wouldn’t have ended up the butt of so many jokes.

Maybe if Roman had reciprocated her feelings it wouldn’t have been different, but he didn’t. Even though he was well aware of her crush, he’d made it perfectly clear that they were just friends.

Just friends and nothing more.

Ugh!

“Vina, stop teasing her,” Snow ordered. “We still have a lot to do.” She pointed to the seating-chart on the coffee-table. “We haven’t finished deciding on who’s sitting where, and we still have to handwrite the notes that will go with the thank you gift.”

With a groan, all three ladies scooted closer to the coffee table and focused on the task at hand.

After several minutes of moving and arranging guests on the seating-chart, April noticed that Snow had put both her brothers in the same table as her parents. She said, “Don’t put Antonio with my parents.”

“They’re feuding again?” Her friends gave her shocked looks.

“Mm.” April nodded.

“What is it this time?” Snow asked.

“He’s taken another semester off,” April explained. Though her younger brother was ridiculously smart, he was more interested in being a stunt cyclist than in college, to the horror of their parents.

“That boy.” Vina shook her head disapprovingly before offering, “Send him to my family’s table.”

April’s jaw dropped. “Isn’t your mother afraid of black men?”

“She is.” Vina smirked. “And that’s why you should send him there. She needs a good scare – and it will keep her too occupied to search the wedding guests for a husband for me.”

“You’re evil.” Both April and Snow chuckled. Then April asked, “But why should I send my brother there? It will be like sending him to wolves.”

“Then throw Oscar in there too,” Vina suggested. “He’s so rude that he’ll probably end up insulting Asians and even things out.”

April leveled an open-mouthed stare at her friend. “My God, you’re twisted.”

“Thanks.” Vina preened. “I try.”

With a laugh, the ladies went back to their task for the evening. They’d just started on the handwritten notes, when April’s phone rang. Since the phone was on the table, everyone got a chance to see who was calling.

“Ooh! It’s Roman,” Snow said in a sing-along voice.

“Is he calling to check on his baby,?” Vina teased.

“Shut up, you two,” April ordered as she stood up with the phone in hand.

“Where are you going?” “Pick it up here?” “Are you afraid we’ll hear you telling him how much you love him?” Her friends’ amused voices followed her as she made her way to her bedroom.

She closed the door before answering the call. “Roman, hi.”

“April, I’m dying,” he moaned, his voice sounding low and hoarse.

An immediate frown creased her brow. “Is your cold worse?”

“Much worse,” he croaked. “I think I have a fever.”

“Poor baby,” April soothed. “Have you taken any medicine?”

“No. I thought that it would go away by itself.”

“Okay, I’ll get some for you.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Roman protested.

“I don’t mind.” If she didn’t take the medicine to him, she would spend the whole night worrying about him. She asked, “Where are you? Your parents’ place?”

Usually, Roman ate Sunday dinners with his family, but this time he said, “I begged off. I wanted to sleep so I came back to my place.”

“Okay, chill out. I’ll be there in a couple of minutes.” After ending the call, she went to the bathroom to wash off her mask and ditch her night-scarf. She came back to the bedroom to change into a white top and black leggings. Carrying a sports jacket, a pair of high-top, wedge sneakers and a clutch bag, she reentered the living room.

“Yah!” Vina exclaimed as she gave April a surprised head-to-toe once-over. “Why are you dressed up?”

“I need to get Roman some medicine,” April explained as she put on her jacket. “His cold got worse.”

“Are you kidding me?” Snow held up a bundle of cards. “We still have more than a hundred of these to write.”

“Leave my share on the table. I’ll finish them when I get back.”

“We’re guests,” Vina protested. “How can you just leave us like this?”

“Guests? Hah!” April snorted. “You spend more nights here than at your parents’ house.”

“But who pays the rent here?” Vina countered. “You pay the rent. Which makes me a guest who should be catered to.”

“This is not-” April’s breath hitched as she bent to lace her shoes. “a hotel.”

“Look at her. Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.” Snow clucked disapprovingly. “One call and she’s running off to him like he’s her man.”

“Mm hmm,” Vina agreed. “It’s embarrassing.”

“You guys, he’s sick,” April protested.

“And you were the only one he could call.” Snow rolled her eyes then waved. “Go. If you stay here, you’ll only worry anyway.”

“Bye, lady.” Vina added, “I’d tell you to make him put a ring on it, but that asshole will never do it.”

“Hey, that’s my future brother-in-law,” Snow protested.

“He can be your brother-in-law and an asshole,” Vina retorted. Before the conversation could turn into an argument or worse, turn into questions about why she liked Roman so much, April made her escape.

Immediately after leaving her apartment, she stopped at a pharmacy to buy cold medicine. After that she ducked into the supermarket to get some supplies for chicken soup then took a cab. Fifteen minutes later, she arrived at the high-rise that held Roman’s condo.

The doorman knew her well enough not to even ask for her identification. With a quick hello to him, she made her way to the elevators. When the elevator came to a stop on the fifth floor, she got off and headed to Roman’s condo.

She’d been here enough times to know his code by heart. A few seconds after she punched in the code and swiped her thumb over the lock’s screen, the door opened. She walked into the condo to find it steeped in darkness. If it wasn’t for the glowing light coming from the muted TV, she wouldn’t have seen the human-shaped bundle curled up on the couch completely covered in a blanket. Roman.

Careful not to wake him up, she kicked off her shoes then tiptoed into the kitchen. Despite Roman being Midas-rich, his kitchen had to be the loneliest kitchen this side of the Pacific ocean. It looked like it was hardly used and had the barest minimum in appliances; just a stove, a fridge and a blender. She’d asked him a time or two why his kitchen wasn’t better stocked. His response – he owned two restaurants and had the best chefs under his wing. Why should he waste money on cooking?

Furthermore, he claimed he wasn’t a fan of doubling up. Why buy a kettle when his stove could boil water? Why buy a microwave when he already had a stove with an oven? Why buy a juicer when he already had a blender? Why buy several spoons when he lived alone? He’d even chosen to live in a one-bedroom condo because he was just one man – what did he need extra rooms for?

But all those were excuses.

April had known him long enough to recognize that the real reason he did all that was because he hated spending money. The guy was one studio apartment away from being a Scrooge. His stinginess was the one thing she didn’t understand about him. What was the point of earning all that money if you weren’t going to spend it? If she had his wealth, she’d be living it up in some sunny island resort, complete with topless cabana boys to serve her every whim.

She quickly whipped up the chicken soup then set it on a tray along with his medicine and a glass of water. Roman was still asleep when she reentered the living room and set the tray on the coffee table. It was only when she switched on the lights that he stirred.

His head emerged from underneath the blanket, his midnight-black hair messy and his eyes still hooded from sleepiness. With a low groan, he searched the room for the source of the light. When he found her, he offered her a groggy smile. “You’re here.”

She smiled. “I’m here.”

Even while sick, Roman was sexy as sin. He was incredibly male with his grey eyes, beautifully shaped lips and strong jaw. Though he no longer played pro-baseball, he’d kept his pre-retirement body and was still long and athletically muscular. He wasn’t the most handsome man she’d ever met, but for some reason he had all her attention. To her embarrassment and his amusement, she often found herself staring at him as if to imprint him on her memories.

“When did you-” He burst into a fit of coughs that had her crossing the room at the speed of lightning to check on him. Roman turned on his side so she could sit beside him. He asked, “When did you come in?”

“A few minutes ago.” Once she was seated beside him, she stretched her hand out to touch his forehead. She frowned when she found it warm. “How are you feeling?”

“Not so bad now that you’re here.”

But his flippant words weren’t enough to dispel her worry. “You’re burning up. Should we go to the hospital?”

“It’s just a light fever. No need for hospitals.” He set his hand over hers on his forehead, sending immediate electricity zinging through her with just that light touch. His grey eyes met hers. “I’m sorry I made you come all the way here.”

“You didn’t make me. I brought myself here.” She smiled as she pulled her hand from his grasp. “Sit up. The chicken soup is getting cold.”

With a groan, he sat up, pushed the blanket aside and swung his legs to the floor. Despite the warm temperature, he was wearing a hoodie to go along with his t-shirt, joggers and socks.

“Have this first,” she offered him an assortment of pills. After he downed them with the water, she grabbed the bowl of chicken soup and held it out to him. “This will warm you up.”

He took the bowl but gave its contents an unimpressed stare. His upper lip lifted slightly as he asked, “Do I have to eat all of it?”

“All of it,” she insisted. “You can’t go to bed on empty stomach.”

He coughed then cleared his throat before saying, “I don’t feel like eating it.”

“You have to,” she insisted. When he still didn’t make any move to start eating, she took the bowl from his hands, dipped the spoon in then brought it to his mouth. “Open.”

He drew his head backwards. “I’m not a child.”

“Open.” She opened her mouth to demonstrate. “Aah!”

He looked like he wanted to complain but finally opened up for her. She fed him the first few spoonfuls then he took the bowl from her to continue on his own. While he ate, she went around the apartment, straightening and cleaning up. By the time she came back the bowl was empty and Roman was once again curled up underneath the blanket.

“Come on, let’s get you to bed.” She urged him to sit up again.

“Why?” he whined even as he followed her orders. “I’m comfortable here.”

“You’re comfortable for now.” Taking his hand, she stood. “But you’re too tall for this couch. I don’t want you calling me a few hours from now to say you have a backache.”

“Yes, Mother,” Roman teased as he rose to his full height. At five-nine, April was certifiably tall, but he was tall enough to dwarf her by a couple of inches even when she was wearing heels – another thing to love about him. In his presence she felt as dainty as precious glass and more womanly.

Hand-in-hand, they headed to his room. Roman’s bedroom was the epitome of masculine. Fabric in shades of deep green, gray and white blended perfectly with the dark wood furniture to form a peaceful yet still warm retreat. She’d already pulled back the covers and sheets for him so all he had to do was slip in before she tucked him in.

A glance at her watch revealed that it was a few minutes past nine. She frowned. “Will you be okay without me? Snow and Vina are still at my place so I need to go back.”

“Can’t you stay for a little bit longer?” He leveled puppy-dog eyes at her. “Just until I sleep.”

She had every intention of leaving, but those eyes got to her and she sighed. “Okay, just until you sleep.”

She got under the covers with him but instead of lying down, sat with her back propped against the headboard. Like the baby he was, Roman immediately set his head on her lap. Having him so close was enough to accelerate her heartbeat and quicken her breath. But April was so used to her body’s weird reactions to him that she didn’t even blink. Smiling, she stroked his hair affectionately, passing her fingers through the silky strands.

Her feelings for Roman were hard to explain – mostly because she didn’t understand them either. Ten years ago, Roman had been at the peak of his baseball career and she was an easily-impressed seventeen-year-old who knew nothing about baseball. Somehow, she’d agreed to go watch a match with her older brother, Daniel, who was crazy about baseball and the Santa Barbara Wizards. That’s where she and Roman had met.

It wasn’t a cute meeting. Actually, it was really painful.

One of his foul balls had struck her smack in the face. Injured and unconscious, she’d been rushed to the hospital. She could’ve lived only knowing him as that player who’d almost ruined her face – but Roman had to be a nice guy. He’d visited her every day at the hospital, brought her gifts, and paid her hospital bill out of his own pocket even though that was supposed to be his team’s responsibility.

And that’s how she’d fallen for him. Hard.

The passing years had eased her initial crush. Sure, she often thought of him and couldn’t walk past a magazine with his face. But eventually he was relegated to a fantasy – someone who was nice to dream about but who she didn’t believe for a moment would ever actually sweep her off her feet in real life.

In time, she probably would’ve met a nice man, had some babies and lived her life with Roman as no more than a happy part of her past. No doubt that life would’ve been easier. But Roman just had to walk out of her past and into her present.

Imagine her surprise when she’d walked into Tellers almost three years ago to apply for a job as a waitress and discovered that her new boss was none other than the now-retired Roman Teller. Her dormant feelings had come tumbling out of their cage like rabbits released after a long imprisonment. No matter how much she tried, she couldn’t get rid of those feelings – or hide them. For the first couple of weeks, she couldn’t even talk to him without blushing or stammering.

It wasn’t that she was ashamed of loving him; loving someone was nothing to be embarrassed about. But April hated being on the wrong side of a crush. She wanted to be the one who was loved, not the one doing all the loving.

It hurt and it sucked. Big time.

Every time she was near Roman she wanted to touch him, she wanted to be held, she wanted him to kiss her, she wanted to ask him to love her. Every time she saw him with another woman, she wanted to snatch off that other woman’s hair and scream that Roman was hers… but she didn’t because she knew he wasn’t. He’d told her so on several occasions. Yet she still loved him… and hoped.

Maybe it was because he was so nice to her. Maybe it was because he’d never pushed her away despite knowing about her crush. Maybe it was because they’d become so close that it sometimes felt like they were really dating – just without the kissing and sex. Either way, her heart refused to budge from him.

Yes, she was pathetic! She knew it all too well. But no matter how hard she tried to silence her heart, it kept whispering, “Maybe one day.”

“April?” Roman groggily cut into her thoughts.

“Hmm?”

He squeezed her thigh. “Thank you for taking care of me.”

“It’s what I do,” she returned flippantly as she smoothed a hand over his shoulder.

 He was quiet for such a long time that she thought he’d drifted off to sleep, then out of the blue he asked, “Do you still like me?”

Surprised by the question, she could only give a high-pitched, “Hmm?”

His head still on her lap, he turned so that he was looking up at her and repeated, “Do you still like me?”

She stared at him for a long moment before shaking her head. “No.”

His grey eyes held hers for a long moment before his lips quirked in a crooked smile. “Liar.”

“I’m not lying.” She smoothed her hand over his chest. “I don’t like you anymore.”

“Why not?” He caught her hand over his heart and held it there.

“Cause you’re a jerk.”

“That’s true. I’m a jerk… among other things.” His gaze turned serious. “You shouldn’t like me. You should like a guy who can like you back.”

“I know.”

“I’m serious, April.” He reached upwards to cup her cheek. “You know I can only offer you friendship, right?”

Immediate pain stabbed through her at his words. Unwilling to let him see her pain, she forced a smile. “I know.”

“Stop smiling,” he said, frustration creeping into his gaze as his hand fell from her face. “Call me an asshole or slap me.”

This time she chuckled. “I’ll do that tomorrow when you’re not sick.”

Sometimes, she felt like he riled her up deliberately just so she’d get mad enough to cut him off. And she’d been tempted to – many times. But her heart kept dragging her right back to his doorstep. Stupid heart!

He watched her for a long moment before sighing. “What am I going to do with you?”

She gave a half-hearted chuckle as she smoothed her fingers over his furrowed brow. “Go to sleep.”

After another long stare, he turned back to his side and closed his eyes. His breathing had started to even out into the deep inhales and exhales of someone drifting into sleep, when he jerked slightly. “April?”

“Yeah!”

“I bought you a pair of shoes to replace the ones whose heels broke yesterday.” Without opening his eyes, he pointed to the corner of the room. “There.”

A black box was lying on the carpeted floor.

“Are they department store shoes?” April asked. When he nodded, she laughed. “Mine were Jimmy Choos.”

“A shoe is a shoe,” he countered, cheekily. “Your feet don’t care if you’re wearing Jimmy Choos or Billy Choos, as long as the shoe is sturdy.”

“You’re so cheap,” she teased but softened her words by adding, “but thank you.”

This was the part of him that kept her so confused and unwilling to let him go. He claimed he had no feelings for her yet did little things like these… things that made her feel like he wasn’t completely immune to her. He bought her shoes when her heel broke, drove her to work every morning, got her chocolates every Valentine’s day, checked to make sure she wasn’t skipping meals… How was she supposed to stop liking him when his actions were so different from his words?

Maybe one day. Hope flared once more within her. Maybe one day he’d admit that his feelings for her weren’t completely platonic.

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Chapter 2


Thanks to April and her tender care, Roman was up and in raring form by Thursday the following week.

“Do we really need this much sugar?” he asked as he perused the list of ingredients Vina had just handed him.

“Yes.” Vina, Tellers’ Executive Chef, nodded. “Otherwise the desserts won’t taste as good.”

The two were currently seated in his office, going through the restaurant’s budget for the quarter. The amount that went into sugar was mind-boggling. Roman, who was always looking for ways to reduce overhead costs, asked, “Are you sure you can’t reduce how much sugar you use?”

“We can’t.” Vina shook her head. “The recipes call for specific quantities of sugar otherwise they’ll be ruined.”

“But recipes can be edited,” Roman insisted. “And it would be healthier for our diners if we reduced the sugar content in our food.”

“If our diners were looking for healthy food, they’d be in that vegan place next door,” Vina countered cheekily. She paused for a second before adding, “But if you insist on the food being healthier-”

Roman immediately sat up. “Yes?”

“We could replace the sugar with honey.” Vina’s eyes twinkled with amusement as she explained, “It’s more expensive but better for the body.”

It’s more expensive? Roman immediately rushed in with, “You know what? Health is overrated anyway. I think your recipes taste excellent with sugar.”

Vina laughed. “That’s what I thought you’d say.”

He sat back in his seat to go through the rest of the list. “What about flour? Is there any way we can reduce it?”

“What do you suggest we replace it with?”

When he couldn’t think of a cheap replacement, he offered, “Maybe we can find a cheaper supplier.”

Vina paused thoughtfully. “We’ve been getting it from O’Reilly’s for the last couple of months, but I heard that Ativa is offering discounts to restaurants and hotels.”

“Good, look into that.” He smiled in satisfaction. “What about these-”

An abrupt knock cut into his words, and both he and Vina turned towards the door. Will, one of the waiters, poked his head into the room. “Boss?”

“Yeah?” Roman answered.

“You’ve got a guest downstairs.” Will’s eyes lit up in excitement. “Javier Consuelos.”

“Really?” Roman perked up.

Javier Consuelos was the newest kid on the baseball block and played for Roman’s old team. The outfielder hadn’t broken the batting records Roman had set for the Wizards, but pundits said that he was well on the way to doing it next season which made him big news. Having a celebrity like that around was good for Tellers. Now if only Roman could get him tweet something about Tellers…

Roman stood up. “Vina we’ll finish this later.” As he exited the office, he threw over his shoulder, “And find a way to cut back on that sugar.”

He could’ve sworn he heard Vina’s eyes roll.

Grinning, he bounded down the stairs and entered the dining room. Javier was easy to spot. The twenty-four-year-old’s tan good-looks, puffy comb-over and flashy clothes made him a standout in any crowd. The fact that he already had a few people around him asking for autographs and pictures made him all the more noticeable.

When the man spotted Roman, his mouth widened into a grin. “Roman Teller, as I live and breathe.”

“Javier, my man, I never thought I’d see your punk ass in here.” Roman strode towards the table. “I thought you said you don’t do fancy restaurants.”

“Psh! You call this fancy?” Javier rocked back into his seat and sneered at the glass of wine in front of him.

Roman narrowed his eyes. “Are you disrespecting my restaurant?”

“Yeah!” The younger man stood up and puffed out his chest. “What you gon’ do about it?”

“Come here, you little punk.” Roman swung his hand out just as Javier did the same. The two men met in a man hug. Grinning, Roman slapped the other man’s back twice. “It’s great to see you.”

“Great to see you too.” Javier drew back to give the restaurant a quick once-over. “Man, this place is fine as hell.”

“Thanks.” Roman gestured for his guest to have a seat as he took his. “Have you ordered yet?”

“I was waiting for you.”

Roman gestured for one of the servers to come over. After they ordered and the server left, Roman turned back to Javier. “So how’s life treating you these days? I see you’ve been tearing down the pitch, trying to break my records.”

“You know how it is.” Javier shrugged as his lips twitched as if he was holding back a smile.

“Look at you trying to be humble when I know you want to gloat,” Roman teased. “Go ahead, rub it in.”

Javier broke out into wide grin. “I’m about to break your record. Boom! I’m coming for your ass.”

Roman laughed. “This punk.”

The truth was that Roman really didn’t care about his record. Records were meant to be broken, and if you fixated on them, you risked spending your whole life wallowing in your glory days or worse hating the people who’d ended them. Baseball was part of Roman’s past and he intended to keep it there. He’d been there, he’d done it, and now he was doing something else.

“Actually, I didn’t just come by for a meal,” Javier confessed. “I need a favor.”

“Shoot!” Roman regularly called his friends for favors so he didn’t mind helping out once in a while too.

“I need investment advice.” Javier explained, “I’ve been reading up on you and rumor has it that you’re the most well-off of our team’s past players. Seems like you put your earnings to good use. I figured I could get some tips from you since I’m not trying to be one of these washed-out ex-ballers who spent all their money on women and drugs then ended up filing for bankruptcy or some other bullshit like that.”

Roman wasn’t sure what was more surprising; that a superstar like Javier had time to read about him, or that the twenty-four-year-old was smart enough to start thinking of the future right now.

Smiling, Roman nodded in approval. “And here I was thinking you were just some knucklehead who could hit a ball.”

“Don’t underestimate me!” the younger man retorted. “I was smart enough to get into college without a baseball scholarship. Like you.”

“Okay, my bad.” Roman lifted his hands in mock surrender before asking, “What kind of investments are you looking at?”

“Right now I’m just in real estate, but I’m thinking of diversifying.”

“What kind of real estate are you in?”

The two men settled into a discussion about what investment opportunities were out there. Though Roman had invested heavily in the restaurant business, it wasn’t his primary vehicle. Apart from having considerable funds in stocks, bonds and real estate, he was also an angel investor for many other business including a private-planes rental business, and a couple of IT start-ups in Silicon Valley. He even owned a little equity in his old team. Like Javier, he’d sworn never to end up back on the poor train. He’d been on it once, but baseball had given him a ticket out and he didn’t intend to waste that ticket.

They were discussing the merits and demerits of a jewelry company that Javier was thinking of throwing his financial weight behind when the younger man suddenly sat up straighter. His gaze sharpened as he focused on the entrance to the kitchen. “Who. Is. That?”

“Who?” Roman spun around to follow the young man’s gaze.

Coming out of the kitchen were April, Toby, the front desk person, and Lexie, one of the servers. Roman knew instantly which one of them Javier was asking about and his insides tightened in protest. Pretending ignorance, he repeated, “Who?”

“The tall, fine one.” Javier’s brown eyes were steeped in admiration as he stared at April. “Who is she? What’s her name?”

April, with her full hair, slim but curvy build and creamy, pale brown skin, was gorgeous enough that she was bound to draw extra attention. Even wearing the hostess uniform, she still looked like a model who’d walked off the set of a magazine shoot.

Roman should’ve been used to men, and some women, asking questions about April. But he wasn’t. Each time someone asked after her, his insides ached like they were on fire and anger rose up to his throat. Many times, he’d had to restrain himself from blurting out that her name or who she was none of their business.

This was one of those times.

Quelling his instinctive protectiveness, Roman said coolly, “That’s April, our hostess.”

“April.” Javier tested her name on his tongue as his gaze stayed locked on her. “Damn, even her name is pretty.”

“So what were we talking about?” Roman tried to divert his attention. “Yes, the-”

Javier cut him off mid-sentence. “Call her over.”

“What for?” Roman asked, barely managing to keep the annoyance out of his voice.

“She’s the hostess.” Javier shrugged. “And I haven’t been welcomed properly.”

Roman was about to deny the request when, Javier suddenly said, “She’s coming over.”

Moments later, April stopped beside Roman. Immediately, all his muscles stiffened and his stomach tightened. Every inch of him awakened in awareness. Oh, he was aware; aware of her delightful spring-scented perfume tinged with her womanly fragrance, aware of the warmth of her body next to his, aware of how close she was, and that if he stretched his arm out, he’d be holding her. He balled his hand into a fist to keep it from doing just that.

April greeted them with a soft smile. “Gentleman, are you enjoying your lunch?”

“Yes,” Javier smiled up at her like a star-struck groupie. “We’re enjoying it very much, April.”

The way the young man dragged out her name like it was made out of honey had Roman’s hackles rising. But he quelled his irritation to introduce, “April, this is-”

“Javier Consuelos,” April finished for him while smiling at Javier.

“You know my name?” The young man couldn’t hide his delight. His eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas morning and his grin widened.

“Of course. How could I possibly not?” April grinned. “You’re the guy who’s about to make my ball worthless.”

“Sorry?” Javier’s brow knotted with confusion.

“She’s got one of my game balls,” Roman explained before April could.

If it were up to him, that ball would’ve been gone by now. It was a reminder of the time he’d hurt her. He could still remember how swollen her face had been and the pain in her eyes when she’d had to endure dental surgery. But April insisted on keeping it because it was a souvenir of the first day they met. Roman wasn’t sure whether he should be flattered or dismayed.

“Don’t worry, if I break his record, I’ll bring you my ball myself to replace his,” Javier flirted, as he gave her body a not-so-subtle once-over.

April tittered. “You don’t have to-”

“April, we have other guests-” Roman cut into the sickening display they were putting on. “-and they aren’t going to cater to themselves.”

“Hey, don’t ruin the moment.” Javier shot Roman a glare.

“No, Mr. Teller is right. I should circulate,” April quickly intervened. “It was great to meet you, Mr. Consuelos.”

“It was great to meet you too,” Javier answered. When she left, he turned to follow her with his gaze. “Mm mm mm. Look at her go.”

Roman reached forward to smack the back of the young man’s head. “You’re an embarrassment.”

“For her, I’ll be anything,” Javier retorted cheekily as he rubbed the back of his head. “Do you think she’d go out on a date with me?”

“She’s three years older than you.”

“I like ‘em older.”

“She’s gay.”

“I’ll turn her straight.”

“You’re a fool.”

“A fool for her.” Javier turned to look at her again before shaking his shoulders in a faux-shiver. “Damn, that girl is fine.”

Roman tried to turn the conversation back to investment but April had thoroughly ruined Javier. The young man kept sneaking glances at her until Roman suggested moving their meeting to his office. His excuse was that the dining room was starting to fill up, and they didn’t need people eavesdropping on their conversation. Thankfully, Javier didn’t catch on to the real reason for the move, and went along with it.

But Roman had underestimated the young man’s persistence.

As soon as they were seated in Roman’s office, Javier asked, “Is April single?”

Roman’s hand curled into a tight fist.

 

* * * * *

 

THOUGH THE DINING room was beginning to fill up again for dinner service, April found herself being dragged into the kitchen.

“You need to talk to Roman,” Vina confronted her. “How are we supposed to cook under these conditions?”

“Why am I the one who has to talk to him?” April protested. “I don’t run the kitchen. You do.”

“Because you’re the only one Emperor McStingy listens to,” Oscar, Vina’s sous-chef, jumped in.

Leveling a frustrated look at the pair of chefs, April sighed. “What’s he done now?”

“You mean apart from trying to slash our sugar fund?” Vina looked up at the ceiling as she counted down Roman’s sins. “Let’s see. He’s also slashed the flour and pepper funds. Apart from that, he’s trying to get us to pile all the dirty pans in the sink while cooking and only wash them once to lessen the water bill. That would be possible if we had more pans, but we don’t, and when I asked him to buy more, he threw a fit. And that’s just a tip of the iceberg. Your man is a menace.”

“He’s not my man,” April corrected automatically.

Many of Roman’s suggestions about ways to budget and cut costs in the restaurants were extremely effective. But he’d been known to go overboard. While they were all working in the other Tellers, Greyson had been there to balance him out. Now that he was sole manager here, there was no one to reel him in because Vina was way too impatient and mouthy to negotiate effectively with him. Which left April to do the negotiating.

“Please,” Vina begged. “Please talk to him.”

“Fine.” April sighed. “I’ll talk to him while we’re going home.”

“No, you have to do it now,” Vina protested. “Oscar has to go shopping tomorrow morning which means he’ll leave with that defective list tonight unless you and Roman fix it.”

“Fix it, February,” Oscar chanted. “Fix it, please.”

April glared at him. “Call me February again, and you’re on your own.”

“Sorry, Madame,” he quickly apologized.

With another sigh, April started for the door.

“Start with the sugar thing,” Vina called out behind her. “We need our sugar.”

The fastest way to get Roman to back down was to charm and flirt with him, something that was best done while they were alone. Though she knew he was in his office, she wasn’t sure if he was there with Javier or alone. Her plan was to listen at the door to make sure he was the only one in the room before knocking. Thankfully, the door was slightly open, and all she had to do was creep closer to it.

The first voice she heard was Roman’s. He was saying, “You don’t want to get involved with someone like her.”

Obviously, he wasn’t talking to himself. April could have left then but she wasn’t sure if he was talking to someone in the room with him or to someone on the phone. So she stayed. It was the worst decision she’d ever have made.

“Why not?” Javier asked. “April looks like a nice girl.”

April stilled at the mention of her name.

“You got all that from just looking at her?” Amusement colored Roman’s tone.

“We talked a little too,” Javier protested. “Besides, I can usually tell what kind of a person someone is just from looking into their eyes. I told you I majored in psychology, right?”

“Forget that psychology crap,” Roman retorted. “The truth is that April’s a groupie and groupies are trouble.”

The pain that lanced through April at his words was indescribable – beyond anything she’d ever felt. It felt like Roman had just stabbed her in the heart.

Javier protested, “She doesn’t look like a groupie.”

“She is.” Roman paused. “Groupies are pretty easy to point out. They’re pretty, always know who the celebrities are, well-put together, expensive clothes despite holding low-paying jobs and having humble backgrounds – you’ve got to be careful of girls like that.”

Was that really what he thought of her? Tears pricked at the back of April’s eyes, threatening to spill over. How could he say such a thing about her? And to a stranger too! Did he really think of her as a mere groupie? She wanted to rush out of there and back downstairs so she wouldn’t have to hear anymore, but her feet refused to move.

“Once a girl like that gets her claws in you, you’re done,” Roman went on. “One second you’re on top of the world, the next you’re in court fighting with your baby-mama over child support.”

Javier, who was turning out to be her unlikely knight in shining armor, said, “That doesn’t sound like April at all.”

“That’s because you don’t know women like I do,” Roman countered.

A tear slipped down April’s cheek. This was really what he thought of her. No wonder he refused to get involved with her – he’d relegated her to the position of an amusing but leprous groupie who was after him because of his money. Another tear slid down her face. She slashed her arm over her cheek to wipe it off.

 “Trust me, I’ve been there,” Roman continued. “You don’t need that kind of hustle.”

Though she knew that he’d had his fair share of crazy women, she’d never been one of them. She’d never faked a pregnancy, never tried to hawk their sex-tape to tabloids, never faked a rape or even tried to blackmail him into paying her so she wouldn’t tell the world that he slept with married women. She’d thought he knew she was different; that he knew that the only thing she wanted was him – not his money, not his fame.

Apparently, she was wrong.

All these years and she was only now learning what he really thought of her. Finally the veil was torn from her eyes and she could see herself clearly for what she was to him. A groupie.

She’d never felt more like an idiot.

How could she love a man like him? A man who thought so little of her. Her friends had berated her so many times for letting Roman string her along, but she’d always defended him, saying that she was the one who’d chosen continue loving him despite knowing that he didn’t feel the same way. Yet here he was making a fool out of her in front of a stranger.

Unable to listen to more of their conversation, she started back downstairs with tears streaming down her cheeks.

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Chapter 3


By the time Javier left, Roman was sure that he’d effectively dissuaded the man from pursuing April. Some of the things he’d said were harsh but that was the only way to protect her. The fact that Javier was a well-known player shouldn’t have bothered Roman, especially because his own reputation wasn’t exactly squeaky clean. But it did. It bothered the hell out of him especially because the young man’s charms were directed at April.

Somehow, April had managed to do what no woman, outside his family, had done… brought out his protective instincts. Not that she needed them. Given her job as a hostess, she had the experience and skill to resist a smooth man like Javier. The problem was that she might not want to resist him.

Roman had always been suspicious of April’s feelings for him. That she liked him was obvious – but the reason she liked him was what bothered him. He suspected that she was more in love with the idea of Roman Teller, ex-baseball player and now multi-millionaire, than she was with him. His wealth and fame had certainly drawn other women so what made April different? Maybe if they’d met under different circumstances, met when she didn’t know who he was or what he could do for her, then he would’ve found it easier to trust her.

But they hadn’t and he couldn’t.

Javier Consuelos was probably the kind of guy she wanted. He was easy on the eyes, a pro-athlete and moneyed to boot – like Roman. Who’s to say that she wouldn’t decide to forget her long-held crush on Roman and switch her attention to the younger man? Roman couldn’t let that happen.

Not because he was jealous. Of course not!

He really didn’t want her for himself. He just wanted to keep her from being hurt.

As much as he didn’t trust that her feelings for him were genuine, he still considered her as his friend and he wasn’t about to hand her off to the next celebrity just to make his life easier. Especially not to one who loved women as much as Javier did. The young man would likely use her as a jump-off before moving on to the next woman who captured his attention.

Roman wouldn’t let that happen. Not on his watch.

He entered the dining room to find it filled to the brim with diners. Every table was occupied with smiling, laughing, chatting, eating guests. Servers expertly weaved between tables, taking and fulfilling orders. And smack in the middle of them was April.

She looked even more radiant when lit by the room’s amber overhead lights. The light lingered on her smooth skin, danced on her plump lips and kissed her soft smiles as she moved from table to table to make sure their diners were happy.

Roman’s heart bumped in his ribcage as he stared at her. Why couldn’t they have met under different circumstances? He could imagine the scenario; she accidentally rear-ends his car on the highway, they both come out of their respective cars to check the damage but she doesn’t recognize that he’s Roman Teller. He instantly falls for her but she doesn’t feel the same way so when he asks for a date, she promptly refuses. Somehow he gets her number, but it’s only after weeks of unrelenting pursuit that she reluctantly lets him take her out on a date. The rest is a given, she falls madly in love with him, they get married and have little babies with his eyes and her beauty.

What a couple they would’ve made!

But that was just imagination. In reality, she knew exactly who he was and it had played a big part in her instantly falling for him. And it irked the hell out of him because now he couldn’t pursue her. If he did, all he’d end up doing was questioning whether their relationship was real. Would she love him if he was just Roman, the bartender, or Roman, the overworked salesman, or Roman, the struggling businessman? He doubted it. In the end his doubts would kill their relationship. And if he somehow found out that his suspicions were correct, their friendship would be dead too.

It was better to keep things between them platonic.

As if she could feel that he was looking at her, she turned and her gaze shifted in his direction. Their eyes met. Locked. He expected her to smile as she always did, and his own lips turned upwards in anticipation. But she didn’t. Her top lip lifted in a sneer before she swiftly turned away from him.

He frowned. What was that about? Had he done something to piss her off?

If they weren’t in the middle of dinner service, he would’ve immediately pulled her aside. But they were. Still troubled, he headed to a table filled with a couple of regulars. Somehow he managed to mask his confusion with an amiable smile as he greeted the diners.

Though his job mostly consisted of behind-the-scenes management and April did a good job of running the front-house, Roman regularly came out to the dining room during service. As much as being recognized as a star could be irritating, it also had its advantages. Some people came to Tellers expressly because he was here. Never one to disappoint the fans or to turn away good money, he always came out to chat, sign autographs, take pictures and so on.

The diners kept him busy all through dinner service, and by the time they closed the kitchen, his mouth was dry from so much talking.

“Great job tonight!” He congratulated his staff as they headed to their break-room to change into their street-clothes.

“Thanks, boss,” a few called out as they passed him.

“Does that mean we’re getting a bonus?” someone teased causing tittering amongst the other members of staff.

Roman just laughed. He didn’t care that people called him tight-fisted. His respect for money had brought him far enough that he could now call himself a millionaire despite his humble beginnings. And if it wasn’t for his being so careful about spending, some of them wouldn’t even have their jobs. So who was really winning here?

 He caught April’s wrist as she passed him. Immediately, she whirled around to face him and curtly asked, “What?”

There was no denying the irritation in her eyes. Roman was about to tell her to hurry so he could drive her home, but he was so surprised by her irritation that he asked, “What’s wrong?”

“What do you mean?” she asked icily as she tugged at her hand until he let her go.

He frowned. “Have I done something wrong?”

“Have you done something wrong?” she returned, sarcasm dripping from her raised eyebrows and her every word.

He had no idea what he could have done wrong. As far as he knew they were on good terms. Through the side of his eye, he caught a few of his employees lingering at the landing of the stairs as if to eavesdrop on his and April’s conversation.

To April, he said, “Let’s talk about this on the way home. Hurry u-”

“I’m taking a cab,” she cut him off.

“What?” He frowned.

“I’m taking a cab,” she repeated slowly as if he was hearing-challenged.

“Why?” he asked. The two of them lived fifteen minutes apart and it was almost eleven. It didn’t make sense for him not to drive her home.

“Reasons.” She swiveled on her heels and started for the stairs. “Bye.”

“April,” he called out but she was already gone. She didn’t even look back at him as she took the stairs one-by-one.

Not quite believing that she was serious about taking the bus, he waited for her anyway. About ten minutes later, she reemerged in the dining room with a group of other employees. His gaze locked on her, he stood up. But she didn’t even look his way. She passed right by him and headed for the door.

If it wasn’t for his surprise mixed in with a healthy dose of ego, he would’ve followed her and insisted she go home with him. Instead, he got into his car and slowly trailed behind her as she walked to the main road. True to her word, she hailed a cab and got in. He could’ve stopped following her then, but his protective instincts kicked in. It was eleven and he didn’t want her moving around alone.

Roman trailed the cab until it stopped in front of the gates that led into her apartment building. He pulled up on the side of the road to watch April disembark from the cab then pay her fare. His frown got deeper. Why would she spend money on a cab when he was here for her? She’d never refused a free ride before so why now? What had he done that had pissed her off so much? He took out his phone and dialed her number.

Because of the streetlights, he clearly saw her extract her phone from her purse. It was too dark for him to see her expression when she saw his number, but a second later, she abruptly ended his call.

“The number you’re calling is unavailable. Plea-” Stunned, Roman cut off the mechanical female voice that taunted him.

Had April really rejected his call? Without a backward glance, she headed into the complex. He must’ve really pissed her off. He wished he knew how so he could apologize. He tried calling her once as he headed home. This time she let the call ring to its natural end but still didn’t pick up. Usually, she sent him a goodnight text message or called him before she turned in for the night but by the time he settled in bed, she still hadn’t made any kind of contact.

Roman could’ve texted her himself but he was so used to her being the initiator that it didn’t feel natural. With a sigh, he set his phone on the bedside table and waited, hoped that she was just late tonight. But no text message or call came.

 

* * * * *

 

APRIL WAS IN battle-mode and had no intention of calling off her cold war on Roman. Five days. Five days since he’d turned her world upside down with his nasty words. Five days since she’d stopped talking to him about anything that didn’t involve Tellers and her job – and even then it was in her wintriest tone. Five days that felt like the longest days of her life.

Every time she saw him or he spoke to her, her heart weakened. Every time he leveled those sad ‘what’s wrong’ eyes at her, her heart begged her to forgive him. But each time, her memory countered that weakness by regurgitating the things he’d said, and her resolve strengthened. No forgiveness. No surrender. He didn’t deserve it.

“The food better be good, Ted,” April warned the chef who was supposed to cater to Snow’s wedding. “These two are also chefs.”

“Don’t scare him,” Snow slapped April’s arm.

“He should be scared.” Vina glared at the heavy-set man who was standing beside their table.

“He should,” Yvonne, Snow’s step-mother, leveled an even sharper glare at the poor chef. “If this isn’t up to standard, then we can always go to Marlowe Hotel. I hear that their new Executive Chef is from Italy.”

“Don’t worry.” Ted, Landa Hotel’s Executive Chef, smiled coolly. “You won’t have to run to Marlowe. I promise the food will be good.”

“We hope so.” Vina used the fork and knife beside her table to rap a quick drum-roll on the table-clothe covered table. “Let the tasting begin.”

The best thing about working in different restaurants was that April, Vina and Snow could now sync their days off, something that came in handy on days like these. The four women were currently at Landa Hotel, sampling the menu for Greyson’s and Snow’s wedding. Though most of the couple’s friends were in the food industry, they couldn’t cater the wedding since they would be guests at the wedding. Landa Hotel was the next best alternative. The hotel was known for its good food, luxuriously furnished rooms and well-tended grounds – ideal for a garden wedding.

 “Shouldn’t Greyson be here with you?” April asked Snow as she eyed the plate one of Chef Ted’s assistants set in front. On the plate sat crisply baked tarts stuffed with some kind of white meat and herbs.

“I told him not to come,” Snow said. “He’s too picky.”

“His pickiness is exactly what we need right now.” Yvonne pointed to her plate with her fork as she turned to the chef. “What is this?”

“Those are crab tartlets,” Chef Ted explained. “We’ve stuffed the tarts with Surimi crab meat mixed with creamy herbed cheese and garnished with dill. We’d like to serve these as the tray passed hors d’oeuvre.”

“They look good,” Snow said.

“But do they taste good?” Vina countered.

Almost in concert, the four women each picked a tart from their plates and bit into it. A medley of flavors burst in April’s mouth and overwhelmed her taste buds with deliciousness. Cupping a hand over her mouth, she exclaimed, “Wow! That tastes so good.”

“Yes, Lord. This is what crab is supposed to taste like,” Snow agreed.

Vina and Yvonne were less enthusiastic in their compliments of the dish but it was obvious that they enjoyed it too. After a brief discussion, the women came to a consensus. The tartlets were definitely on the menu. Grinning, Chef Ted brought out the next dish, Caesar wraps that were meant for the vegetarians.

“I think I just became a vegetarian,” April complimented after her first bite. They were that good.

Dish after delicious dish, Chef Ted brought out, leaving no doubt that Landa Hotel deserved its good reputation. Finally, it was time for the desserts that would accompany the wedding cake; brownies, lemon bars and strawberries dipped in white and dark chocolate.

This was what heaven tastes like, April thought as she closed her eyes to better savor the chocolate covered strawberries. Involuntarily, she murmured, “Roman would love these.”

It was only after the words came out that she realized what she’d said. Her eyes snapped open to find her friends watching her with amused expressions.

“You really cannot stop yourself, can you?” Snow laughed. “It’s like you think about that man twenty-four-o-seven.”

“No, I don’t,” April protested.

“You’re one to talk.” Yvonne teased Snow. “These days everything with you is Greyson this… Greyson that.”

“I don’t talk about him that much,” Snow protested.

“Oh yes, you do,” Yvonne countered with a grin.

Thinking the conversation had shifted from her, April relaxed. But it was too soon, because Vina turned to her with curious eyes. “What’s going on between you and Roman anyway?”

“Nothing,” April quickly dismissed.

“Something’s going on between her and Roman?” Snow asked Vina. Now that she worked in Greyson’s branch of Tellers, she was often the last to get in the loop.

“Yup.” Vina nodded.

“What’s going on?” Yvonne jumped in. Though she was Snow’s step-mother, she interacted with the three ladies enough to know some of their secrets.

“She’s been giving him the silent treatment and he doesn’t drive her to work anymore,” Vina explained.

Snow turned genuinely concerned eyes to April. “What happened?”

“Nothing,” April tried but when all the other three women leveled disbelieving looks at her, she went for, “We had a little argument.”

“Why?”

“What was the argument about?”

“Was it about you liking him?” Their questions bombarded her from all sides.

Realizing that she’d have to give some kind of explanation to quiet them, April said, “Let’s just say that I discovered that he wasn’t the man I knew.” She paused before announcing, “I’ve decided not to waste my time on him anymore.”

Her announcement brought her friends to a shocked standstill. For a moment, they just stared at her in silent, wide-eyed shock. Snow was the first to speak, “Are you serious?”

April nodded. “As a heart attack.”

Another long, studying silence from her friends then Vina broke into a grin. “It’s about damn time. That man was riding you like his personal limo and taking you wherever he wanted. I’m glad you’ve finally come to your senses and decided to get back your power.”

“Hear. Hear,” Snow agreed. “I know he’s my brother-in-law but Roman doesn’t appreciate you.”

Yvonne was the only one who wasn’t as enthusiastic about the news. The older woman said, “Don’t get me wrong – I like that you’ve decided to stop focusing so much on Roman when he doesn’t do the same for you. But are you sure it’ll be that easy? Love isn’t a switch that you can just flick on and off.”

“Well, I’ll try to flick it off,” April returned resolutely. “And I’ll succeed. I’m done chasing Roman.”

“Yes, Girl.” “Go. Go. Go.” Vina and Snow responded enthusiastically. Yvonne studied April skeptically.

April could understand Yvonne’s cynicism, after all the older woman had only seen how much April loved Roman. But she hadn’t heard everything Roman had said. If she had, then she would understand why April had to do this, why she couldn’t go back to loving Roman.

He’d broken her heart then crushed it under his heel. With his words, he’d made sure that there was no gluing it back together.

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