Weeks after the surgery the doctor had officially let him know that his playing days were over because she wouldn’t be able to sign a release for him to play again for at least a year if ever. Alex had actually begun to feel as if it were a blessing in disguise. As hard as it was to deal with, he now believed everything happened for a reason as he’d always been told. Maybe this was what he needed. Without school or football to think about, he might get a chance to put some real effort into convincing Valerie to give him another shot.

His parents were still gone almost every other week for days, sometimes a week at a time to see his grandpa, so the restaurant, along with the construction in full gear now, kept him busier than ever. The good thing was his grandpa was a fighter and it was looking as if he might actually pull through this latest scare. His dad said he was looking better every time they visited, but he still wanted to go see him often. His parents assured him the constant visits to Mexico would lessen just as soon as Abuelito was fully recovered, and it appeared that would be happening sooner than later.

Once his parents were home on a regular basis, Alex would definitely go on a mission to get Valerie back. He had to. She was the only silver lining to all the shit he’d had to deal with in the last few months. His constant black mood was getting harder and harder to shake. The possibility of getting her back was the only thing that kept him from falling into that dark place he’d begun to sink into when he had to tell his parents he’d lost his scholarship and would have to drop out of school temporarily.

The restaurant was winding down, and Alex was walking around slowly, making sure all the stations were being closed down and cleaned correctly. Romero strolled in with a big grin and walked straight to the bar where Alex was.

He sat down at the bar in front of Alex and slapped his hands on the flat wooden surface. “Guess who’s one more step closer to getting his PI license?”

Alex rolled his eyes with a smirk, drying off a glass and tried to remember. “What’s that goofball’s name?” He pointed the towel at Romero. “Shaggy?”

Romero scrunched up his face. “Who?”

“Never mind.” Alex chuckled, getting a couple of beers out from the bottom fridge because he was sure the guy was there to celebrate.

“You’re looking at him.” Romero smiled wider. “Just a few more hoops to jump through. This last exam was a monster. I don’t know why they make it so f**king hard.”

“You’ll get there soon enough. One step at a time,” Alex said, placing the beer bottle in front of Romero, then lifted his. “In the meantime, congrats.” He held it out and tapped his bottle against Romero’s. “To small victories.”

“I heard that,” Romero said, taking a swig of his beer.

Alex took one, too, then continued to wipe down the bar as Romero filled him on everything else he still needed to do before he got his license. From what Romero told him, it would only be a few more months before he was fully licensed.

With another bitter swig of his beer, Alex tried not to ponder too much on the fact that even Romero’s career plans were right on track. He was genuinely happy for his friend. He just hated the reminder that his plans were shot to hell for now. Not that Alex had ever made any plans other than to continue with the family business. But like his brothers he would’ve liked to make his dad proud with a degree of some kind. It was bad enough that Sal was so insanely accomplished with his double majors and still striving for more. Now even his younger brother would be getting his bachelor’s before Alex would.

“So I heard your gramps is doing better,” Romero said, setting his beer in front of him.

“Yeah, looks like the old guy’s not going down without a fight.”

“Angel told me. That’s cool. Glad to hear it. But, hey, that reminds me why I came this way in the first place. So things between you and Val are really over, right?”

Alex peered at Romero, who was looking at him strangely. “Why?”

Romero shrugged. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen the two of you together. I know you two have always had this crazy shit going on, but when I asked Sarah if you two were really done this time, just now she said you were.”

“Just now?” Alex asked, trying not to appear as thwarted as hearing this made him feel.

“Yeah,” Romero said, taking another sip of his beer. “I wanted to be absolutely sure.”

For a hot instant, Alex was pulled out of his disillusioned thoughts. The memory of Romero so long ago making a move on Valerie came to him out of nowhere. He’d almost forgotten all about it. But there was no way. Still Alex wanted to get this clear before he dragged Romero’s ass over the bar by his shirt. Unable to hold back the glare, he asked, “You asked Sarah because you wanted to be sure?”

“Yeah,” Romero started then stopped suddenly. The moment his face contorted in disgust Alex knew he’d been way off and felt like an ass. “I’m not asking if she’s available. What are you stupid?”

Instantly, Alex felt like a complete idiot for even thinking it. But he didn’t say anything. He was feeling too tense now to even speak. So he just waited for Romero to go on.

Romero shook his head, but he laughed this time. “I ran into Sarah and Angel down by the marina. Angel was telling me about your grandpa when we saw Valerie drive up with some dude in a suit.” He lifted a shoulder with a smirk. “You know me. My first instinct was to go ask her where you were, and I would’ve, but I know things are different this time, so I asked Sarah just to be sure. She said that you two are finally moving on. But you know how girls can be, so I wanted to double check with you in case I run into that shit again.” Romero cracked his knuckles, grinning even bigger. “I’d be happy to go introduce myself.”