“I don’t know anything about a new man,” she said.
“Sure looked like it to me.” Romero scoffed.
“She has lunch with clients and stuff all the time,” she said too quickly then turned to Alex as if she caught herself saying too much. “But, uh, she has mentioned moving on a few times.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Sofia dismissed Sarah’s comments quickly then turned back to Alex. “You two have always been that way. But, seriously, let me know if anything changes, Alex. The reservations need to be made at least a couple of days in advance.” She tugged at Eric’s shirt. “Let’s go. The movie starts in less than twenty minutes.” She smiled at him big. “I want popcorn.”
As quickly as they’d all gotten there, they all made their exit. Romero downed what was left of his beer and said goodbye, leaving with Eric and Sofie. Angel rushed off to the back to get whatever it was he and Sarah stopped by for in the first place.
Sarah was the only one left standing there, looking a bit frozen. Alex hadn’t taken his eyes off her the whole time. Finally, he looked down but only to make sure he didn’t spill the extra tall shot of tequila he’d poured himself. “So what does that mean exactly?” he asked without looking up.
“What does what—”
“You know what I’m talking about, Sarah. Is she seeing someone or not?”
“I, uh, don’t think she’d want me to share—”
“Oh come on,” he said, looking up feeling thoroughly disgusted with himself for screwing things up this badly with Valerie. “What difference does it make at this point? She practically told me herself that she was, so just say it.”
“All she said was she moved on,” she said firmly. “But she didn’t mention anyone specifically.”
Of course, Angel would walk back in at that moment, but then Alex had all he needed to know.
“You sure that banquet room upstairs is gonna be ready for the wedding next year?” Angel asked.
Alex nodded. “It better be,” he said, taking the shot in its entirety then wincing and sucking a wedge of lime. When he was finally able to talk, Alex continued. “It’s already booked for a few other parties a few months before your wedding.”
Angel peered at him. “You gonna be okay to drive?”
With a humorless laugh, Alex grabbed the bottle of tequila and put it back where it belonged then stuck the shot glass in the dishwasher. “I’m fine.”
After Angel and Sarah left, Alex waited until all the employees were gone to finish locking everything down. He’d done it all in what felt like super slow motion all the while thinking about what Sarah had said. The entire drive home and the whole hour or two he sat on the sofa, staring at his phone, he tried in vain to convince himself to just let her go. It was over. But that stubborn flicker of hope would not let him forget what he felt from Valerie every single time he kissed her. What he saw in her eyes those last few weeks. There was no way she’d moved on. He refused to believe it. He’d be home free once his parents got back and he could take more than just a day at a time off from the restaurant to devote to her—if he could convince her to let him.
Then his phone rang.
He literally flinched it was so unexpected. It must’ve been close to midnight. The caller ID was private, and it alarmed him as much as it gave him hope that maybe just maybe Valerie was calling him from a new phone. A work phone maybe. So he answered.
“Hello?” He heard breathing then someone take in a few gasping breaths and he sat up straight. “Hello? Who is this?”
“Mijo,” his father said in a strained voice. “Tu abuelito,” he said then cried softly.
Alex’s heart sank as he fell back onto the sofa, bringing his hand to his forehead. With all the emotion already flying high, hearing his dad so broken up had him choked up instantly.
The phone was muffled, and then his mom was on the line. “Mijo, abuelito is gone.” she said, confirming what Alex already knew just from hearing his dad crying. “He suffered a massive heart attack and . . .”
The rest of what she said was a haze of words strung together. He sat there, his head still resting on the back of his sofa, eyes squeezed shut, and his fingers pressed over them tightly. The tears that ran down the side of his face from hearing his mother also break down were a welcome release.
He hurt for his dad. He hurt for his mother, who he knew cried more over the sight of her strong husband so anguished. But he especially hurt because of Valerie. The irrepressible and brutal ache in his heart that had been building for months now and finally peaked tonight was ever present and mounting with the hopelessness of it all.
Finally able to take a deep breath so he could listen to what his mom was actually saying, he sat up swatting the tears away.
“ . . . he wants to be here at least a few weeks. We’ll come home just to pick up some more things, but then we’re coming back. We’ll be gone a lot from here on. We’ve been discussing this for some time now: retiring to spend more time with the family we hardly ever see anymore. We were going to talk to you about it when we got the chance. Do it gradually, but now . . .”
“Wait, wait,” Alex said, clearing his throat and sitting up slowly. “What do you mean retiring? Like from the restaurant? Completely?”
“Yes,” she said, sniffling. “That’s been the plan all along. We’d hand the business to you and your brothers and sister when we retired. It’s just happening sooner than we had planned. Sal has bigger plans for more restaurants, but we’ll discuss this another time. Right now, I just need you to know that the next few weeks and months are going to be difficult, but we can get through this as a family. Your father and I will be counting on all of you, but especially you, Alejandro, to run the restaurant and monitor the construction until your brothers are done with school.” She sniffed again and took a long trembling breath. “You see, Mijo. Everything does happen for a reason. For reasons only God knows, he took your abuelito just when we thought he was doing better, but he made it so your father doesn’t have the added worry of rushing back to the restaurant. It’s a small consolation, but he can mourn in peace and for as long as he needs to. There was a good reason why your education was postponed, but you will go back and finish. For now you don’t know how grateful we are and what a reassurance it is to know that you’re there to keep everything under control.”