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From New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Marie Force comes a steamy new contemporary romance in her Miami Nights Series that brings two people together who have nothing in common except their feelings for each other…

Nico

My reputation with women stinks. I’ll admit I haven’t always treated them with the respect they deserve. That’s not to say I’m a bad guy or anything. What my sisters and cousin would call toxic, I prefer to think of as selfish. But I’m ready to change everything if it means I’ll have a chance with the lovely, sweet, wounded Sofia Diaz—and her adorable son Mateo. They’ve been through a lot with her ex—and she’s still dealing with him far more often than I’d like—but I’m prepared to be there for both of them, to do whatever it takes to make them happy. If only she’ll stop listening to my family members who would warn her off me and give me a chance to show her how it can be between us.

Sofia

Nico Giordino is the sexiest man on the planet, but from what his sisters and cousin tell me, I need to keep my distance. I’ve already had one serious relationship end in the most painful way possible. I don’t need to open myself to more heartache by letting a player into my life—and my son’s. Mateo is all that matters to me, and as he recovers from brain surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, I’ve got my hands full working at Nico’s family’s restaurant and taking care of my son while trying to finalize my divorce. I’ve got no time for romance or foolishness with a man who makes my heart beat fast. I want him more than I’ve ever wanted anything, even if I know I probably shouldn’t…

Come back to Miami for another sexy installment in the Miami Nights Series and catch up with the beloved Giordino family!

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How Much I Want

Miami Nights Series, Book 4

Chapter 1

Sofia

I’m keeping careful watch over the moro after Marlene taught me how quickly the rice and beans can become mushy. After I turn down the heat on the gas stove, I stir the huge pot to keep the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Marlene said it’s a delicate balancing act. I had to look up the meaning of that expression and learned it means to carefully manage two or more things. Today, I’m managing the rice and beans and the attention of a man who makes my heart race when he looks at me the way he does.

Nico Giordino.

His sisters and cousin have warned me away from him.

Maria says he’s toxic with women. I had to look up the meaning of the word toxic, too. I found out that means his behavior would add negativity and upset to my life, which is the last thing I need after what I’ve gone through with Mateo’s father.

Speak of the devil… That’s another phrase I learned from Livia. Anytime I hear something I don’t understand, I ask for the meaning and then add it to the notebook I keep full of English words and sayings I want to remember. Since my son’s medical emergency brought me to Dr. Jason Northrup and the Giordino family, I’m determined to learn as much English as I can. While I was blessed with wonderful translators who helped me navigate the medical maze, I decided that I need a much better understanding of English, too.

Marlene, who committed to learning English after her first trip “home” to Cuba since the revolution made her realize that Miami is now her home, has been my partner in learning English. While we will always be proud native Spanish speakers, we’re pleased with what we learned at our ESL classes. The instructor says I’m a natural, and I’m on my way to being fluent. I had to look up that word, too, and the meaning made me proud of what I’ve accomplished. We start back to class in March, and in the meantime, I’ve been reading books in English to help with my comprehension. That’s another new word. I try to learn at least ten new words a day that I keep in a notebook that I study every night before bed.

Back to the devil… He’s due any minute to deliver our son to me for Nochebuena and Christmas morning.

Joaquín Diaz was my childhood sweetheart, who, somewhere along the way, fell into the wrong crowd, got himself into trouble with drugs and petty crime and made my life a living hell for years with intense emotional abuse that later became physical. I’ve finally broken free of him, thanks in no small part to Marlene and Livia, who heard about our plight when Mateo was sick, offered me a job with benefits and quite simply saved my life—and my son’s. Thanks to them and a friend who’s a lawyer, I’ve filed for divorce and received a protective order that requires Joaquín to stay five hundred feet from me. The only exception to the order is when we hand off our son between visits.

Sometimes I still can’t believe it’s come to a need for official protection from the man I loved for most of my life.

“Sofia,” Nico’s cousin Domenic says. “Someone’s asking for you outside.”

I experience a moment of pure joy at the thought of seeing my little boy, quickly followed by the dread of having to see his father. After washing my hands, I ask Dee to keep an eye on the moro for me and go out through the garage to greet my son.

Mateo, who is five, is doing a lot better than he was, but he’s still got a long way to go in his recovery from brain surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. Thankfully, Jason got it all, and he recommended a course of radiation that’s now completed. But the damage to his fine motor skills, another English term that has become familiar to me, was significant, thus the ongoing physical and occupational therapy. He also has a slight sag on the right side of his face that Jason says may or may not correct itself. If it doesn’t, he may require another surgery. We’re waiting to see on that.

Nico pulls up in his father’s truck as I emerge from the garage into bright South Florida sunshine. Marlene sent Nico to pick up the keg from a nearby liquor store. He approaches Joaquín’s old red sedan, which is parked in the driveway. “I’ll take him,” he says to Joaquín.

I stand back and allow Nico to intervene on my behalf, not willing to admit what a relief it is to have him deal with Joaquín so I don’t have to.

“I need to speak to my wife,” Joaquín says in Spanish as he tightens his hold on Mateo.

“She’s not your wife any longer,” Nico reminds him, also in Spanish, as he reaches for my son.

“Back off, dude.”

I step forward before the two of them get physical. I wouldn’t put it past either of them. “It’s okay, Nico. I’ve got this.”

Glaring at Joaquín, Nico takes a step back but stays nearby. Just in case.

I take Mateo from Joaquín and hold him close. He smells like cigarette smoke, which enrages me. How can Joaquín smoke around him—or allow anyone else to—after what he’s been through? “What do you need?”

“I want you to come home for Christmas,” he says in Spanish. “Where you belong.”

“I’m sorry, that’s not possible,” I reply in English.

His scowl turns a face I once found handsome ugly. “You’re so fancy now, you can’t even speak your own language?”

“I’ll see you on the thirtieth.” I turn away from him to carry Mateo inside. He’s looking forward to swimming in Marlene’s pool before the party begins later this afternoon.

“Don’t take another step,” Nico says to Joaquín.

I continue on as if I didn’t hear that. I trust Nico to make sure Joaquín doesn’t follow us inside. But the minute I’m safely in the house, I rush to the front window to look out to make sure the situation isn’t escalating. Mateo snuggles into my embrace, seeming relieved, as he always is, to be back with me. I cringe to think about what goes on when he’s alone with Joaquín, but the court requires one overnight a week with his father.

The two men are exchanging words, but that’s all it is.

After Joaquín makes an obscene gesture at him, Nico walks away, his fists rolled tightly by his sides. My heart races at the sight of him, angry on my behalf. Why does that mean so much to me? Maybe it’s because for years no one was ever angry on my behalf while Joaquín was bullying me into doing everything his way.

Nico comes to find me in Marlene’s dining room, where the huge table is covered with serving dishes and other party items.

“Gracias,” I say to him. “Lo siento.” When I’m upset, I revert to my native language.

“Don’t thank me or apologize to me,” he says in a harsh tone that’s not directed at me.

How do I know that? I couldn’t say other than he’s never been anything other than sweet to me, but Joaquín can make the sweetest person angry in a matter of seconds. I never saw that side of him until after we were married.

“I don’t like the way that guy acts as if you still belong to him.”

“He knows I don’t.”

Nico puts his hands on his hips, frustration apparent in his pose and expression. “Does he?”

“If he doesn’t, that’s not my fault. What else can I do besides file for divorce?”

“I hate the idea of you guys not being safe,” he says, softly so as not to alarm Mateo.

“We’re safe.” The waver in my voice tells the true story. I never feel truly safe except for when I’m at work, surrounded by people like him who care about me. And Nico doesn’t even work at Giordino’s. He’s just there a lot, especially when I’m working.

“I wish…” He stops himself and shakes his head.

“What do you wish?”

“We should talk about that sometime when we’re not surrounded by people during a holiday.”

My heart is beating so fast I wonder if I’m going to pass out, or something equally embarrassing, in front of the man who’s become a close friend over the last few months. What does he want to talk about?

“I’m going to contact a friend of mine who’s a cop and ask him to send cars by here later, just in case your ex decides to come back and start trouble.”

I swallow hard at the thought of my ex-husband causing trouble for the family that’s been so good to us. “You really think that’s necessary?”

“I do.”

“Maybe Mateo and I should go. If we’re not here, then no one will bother your family.”

“You’re safer here than you’d be anywhere else. The people here would kill for you.”

“Would they?”

“They would.”

“All of them, or just you?”

“All of them, but especially me.”

“And why is that?”

“That’s the thing we should maybe talk about when my entire family isn’t about to arrive for Nochebuena.”

The look he gives me when he says those words steals the breath from my lungs. Nico Giordino is the sexiest man on the planet, and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. Right in that moment, I don’t care that his own sisters and cousin think he’s toxic toward women.

I just want more of him and the way he makes me feel.

 

Nico

Nochebuena is usually my favorite night of the year, but I can’t relax after the encounter with Sofia’s ex. Not to mention work is busy, and I’m keeping an eye on things while my family parties all around me. My phone buzzes with constant questions that only I can answer as the owner of the car service that’s running at full tilt tonight. Normally, I’d be thrilled about that, but I can’t think about anything other than Sofia, her son Mateo, and the son of a bitch who is her child’s father.

I got to see him in action earlier when he dropped Mateo at Abuela’s for the party. After he hassled Sofia—and me when I intervened on her behalf—I asked my friend Miguel, who’s a cop, to send patrols past the house in case he comes back looking for trouble. Miguel filled me in on Joaquin’s background, which put me even more on edge.

He has a record a mile long and is well known to local police.

And he’s still legally married to the woman I want with every ounce of my being.

My stomach tightens to the point of nausea at the thought of her or Mateo being in danger from a man who should’ve been the one to protect them.

They have me now, and I’d die before I’d let anything happen to either of them.

Abuela’s annual Christmas Eve celebration rages all around me, family, friends, food, music, booze and presents. Santa is due to arrive any minute, and the local Cuban band that plays every year is better than ever.

I can’t bring myself to care about any of it. My entire focus is on Sofia and Mateo.

Watching them playing in Abuela’s heated pool with my sister Maria and her fiancé’s daughter, Everly, I can’t help but smile at Mateo’s pleasure at being in the water. The poor little guy has been through a rough ordeal since Carmen’s now-husband Jason discovered the tumor and removed it in an emergency surgery that was about eighteen months ago now. The cancer is gone, but the little guy is still fighting his way back to full health with rigorous physical and occupational therapy.

In time, he’s expected to make a full recovery, but he may always have deficiencies to overcome. We don’t know yet what the future holds for him, and we won’t know for a while yet, but I want to be there for them both.

That’s a first for me.

I’ve never felt that way about anyone else, but for some reason, the minute I met Sofia, I wanted her in a way I’ve never wanted anyone else.

My sisters and cousin have told her to stay away from me. They say I’m “toxic” with women, and sure, that’s probably been true in the past. But everything about her is different, and I’m determined to be different, too. I understand the stakes. She’s a single mom of a child with special needs and is in the middle of a contentious divorce with a potentially dangerous man.

The last thing she needs is bullshit of any kind, which is why I’m determined to be a much better version of myself with her.

If only I can convince her to give me a chance to prove that to her.

So far, we’ve been all about the flirtation, but nothing has come of it.

Yet.

My cousin Domenic, home from New York for the holiday, brings me another beer.

I take the icy bottle from him. “Thanks.”

“What’s up with you, hombre? You’re wound tighter than a drum today.”

“Nothing. Just busy at work with the holidays. I probably ought to be there, but I didn’t want to miss Nochebuena.”

“Try telling that to someone who doesn’t know you better than just about anyone. Work doesn’t stress you out like this.”

“It’s my first Christmas as the owner. It is stressing me out. Every car is booked through New Year’s.”

“That’s great, primo. Congratulations.”

I shrug. If you want to know how far gone I am over Sofia, the fact that I don’t care that my new business is killing it is a pretty good indication.

Dom sits on the barstool next to mine. “What’s going on, Nico? And tell me the truth this time.”

“Sofia.”

“Sofia-from-the-restaurant Sofia?”

“Yeah.”

“What about her?”

I hesitate to say words that can never be taken back, even to my cousin and close friend. However, I’m clearly doing a piss-poor job of hiding my torment if Dom picked up on it. “Everything about her.”

He goes still, his expression completely blank. “Seriously?”

“As seriously as it gets.”

“Are you… like… seeing her?”

“Not officially, but I’d like to be.”

Dude…

“What?”

“It’s just… you know… not like you to be into a single mom.”

I keep my gaze fixed on her and Mateo. If she’s anywhere near me, I can’t help but look at her. “She’s special.”

“How so?”

“I can’t explain it. It just is.”

“What does she think of you?”

“She likes me, but the girls told her to stay away from me. The word ‘toxic’ was used.”

Domenic cracks up at that. “I bet it was.”

“You’re supposed to be on my side.”

He holds up his free hand. “I am. Always. But Nico… A single mom? Really? You can’t do what you do with her.”

The comment pisses me off. “I know that.”

“Isn’t her son sick, too?”

“He was. He’s better now, but has a long way to go before he’s fully recovered. I like him as much as I like her. He’s the sweetest kid.”

Domenic places his hand on my forehead. “No fever.”

I push his hand away. “You can fuck off if you’re going to be a jackass about it.”

“Wow, this is more serious than I thought.”

“I don’t know how to convince her I’m for real.”

“I suppose you just show up for her—and her son—consistently with no games, no bullshit, no nonsense.”

“I can do that.”

“Maybe some romance, too.” He gives me a side-eye look. “You know what that is?”

“Fuck off, will you please?”

Dom loses it laughing, which doesn’t surprise me.

“She’s checking you out, too.”

“What? She is?”

“Jesus Christmas.” Dom rolls his eyes. “You’ve barely looked away from her. You can see as well as I can that she’s watching you, too.”

That information makes my heart do this weird flipping thing that leaves me a bit light-headed for a second, until I see Miguel step onto Abuela’s patio with a concerned expression on his face. When he finds me in the crowd, he tilts his head, asking me to come to him.

“What’s up?” Dom asks.

“I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.”

 

Chapter 2

Sofia

My stomach hurts as I watch Nico cross the pool deck to speak to a uniformed police officer. His presence here can mean only one thing—trouble caused by my ex-husband. He’s not technically my ex yet. I’m counting the days until he is.

“Are you okay?” Maria asks.

I force myself to look away from what’s happening with Nico and the cop. “My ex has been causing some problems. Nico asked his friend to keep an eye on things here in case he tried to come back. It’s probably not a good thing that he’s come in.”

The thought of bringing any trouble into the lives of people who’ve been so good to me makes me sick.

“Go see what’s going on,” Maria says. “I’ve got Mateo.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, of course. Go.”

“Thank you, Maria.”

I get out of the pool and grab a towel on my way to join Nico and the police officer.

“This is my friend, Sergeant Miguel Silva with the Miami Police,” Nico says. “Miguel, this is Sofia Diaz, Joaquín’s ex-wife. Miguel found him lurking outside and arrested him for violating the protective order. He wanted to let us know.”

My stomach hurts even worse as I hear that Joaquín will spend Christmas in jail, which means his family and friends will blame me for that. Nothing is ever his fault with them. No, all his troubles are because of me, according to them.

Nico puts his arm around me like that’s something he does all the time, but it’s the first time he’s ever touched me.

I can’t help but lean into his warm, solid body as tremors shake me. Just when things with Joaquín have started to settle down… There hasn’t been any trouble between us in weeks, since the judge approved the protective order after an altercation got physical, and he left bruises on my arms and shoulders.

He apologized to me for that via text and said the order wasn’t necessary.

I didn’t respond to the text. The protective order has given me some badly needed peace of mind. “What will happen to him?”

“He’ll be arraigned on new charges the day after Christmas,” Miguel says, confirming my fears.

“His family and friends won’t be happy with me.”

“You aren’t the one who violated the protective order,” Nico says.

“Still…”

“We can assign some people to keep an eye on your place, too,” Miguel says.

“I’ll be with her and Mateo tonight.”

Gasping, I look up at Nico.

“I won’t let anything happen to them,” he says to Miguel.

“I’ll still send some patrol cars by. What’s the address?”

While still processing that Nico plans to come home with me and Mateo, I recite my address for Miguel.

“Try not to worry,” he says. “We’ll be keeping an eye out. You folks have a Merry Christmas.”

“You do the same,” Nico says, releasing his hold on me to shake hands with his friend. “Thanks again.”

“You got it, brother.”

“Are you okay?” Nico asks me after the officer goes into the house on the way out.

“I, um… What do you suppose Joaquín was doing here? He knows better than to come here or be near me unless we’re exchanging Mateo.”

“He was looking for trouble, and he found it.” Nico’s voice has a hard edge to it, but Joaquín does that to people. “I don’t want you to worry about anything. You and your little boy are going to have a wonderful Christmas.”

“You don’t have to come home with us.”

“I won’t sleep for a second if I’m worried about you guys. Besides, you probably need help putting together Mateo’s toys.”

“I was going to do that when I get home.”

“Now you have help. If you want it, that is. I can stay in my car outside if you’d prefer that.”

“Why would you do that for me?”

He runs a fingertip over my face, a touch so fleeting, it might as well have never happened, but I feel it everywhere. “Because I care, Sofia. I care about both of you, and I don’t want anything to happen, especially not at Christmas.”

I’m breathless and speechless and every other “less” I can think of.

“If you don’t want me there, I can keep an eye on things from outside. It’s no big deal.”

“Sure. No big deal to sleep in your car on Christmas Eve.”

“I’d do it for you.”

“Why?”

His gaze shifts from my eyes to my lips, lingering for a second before he looks up again. “Because.”

“Okay,” I say with a nervous laugh.

“Are you ready to get Mateo home?”

“The party is just getting started. You don’t want to leave yet.”

“Yes, I do.”

“If you’re sure, I’ll get him out of the pool.” I hope Mateo doesn’t throw a fit. He doesn’t do transitions well. We’re working on that. I return to the edge of the pool where Maria is playing with him and Everly. When she sees me coming, she deftly lifts Mateo out of the pool and into my arms.

I speak to him in Spanish when I tell him it’s time to go home so Santa can come and bring presents. Only because he’s excited for Christmas does he go along with me when I change him into dry clothes and remind him to thank Marlene when we say goodbye. I want him to be bilingual, so I’m teaching him the English I’m learning and switch back and forth between the two languages with him.

In one of the few times we’ve seen her in recent years, my mother told me I’m going to confuse him. So far, he seems to be getting it. If you ask me, he has much more of a natural affinity for English than I ever will. When Mateo is dressed in Christmas pajamas, I grab my backpack and shove my feet into flip-flops. I zip sweatshirts onto both of us, as the night has grown cooler, like it does this time of year. Then I pick him up to find Marlene among the sea of family members and friends enjoying the music. She’s turned her backyard into a wonderland of white lights woven through palms and strung along the fence. Chairs and tables brought in from a rental company are scattered throughout the pool area along with high-tops and barstools.

I’ve never seen more food in my life than what was prepared for this party, and that’s saying something since the weekly Sunday brunch at the restaurant is no joke.

Marlene, who is seated with her gentleman friend, Mr. Muñoz, her daughter, Vivian, and Vivian’s husband, Vincent, jumps up when she sees us coming. “Are you heading home?”

“We are. This little guy needs to get to bed so Santa can come.”

“Yes, you do,” Marlene says, tickling his feet.

Mateo’s laugh makes everyone smile, as always.

“But guess what? Santa already came to my house, and he left something for you. Do you want to see, my love?”

Mateo nods and goes willingly into her outstretched arms, which is rare for him. If I’m anywhere near him, he wants me and only me. But Marlene has a way with him, as does Vincent’s mother, Livia, who joins us as we head inside to see what Santa brought for Mateo. They’ve told him to call them Abuela and Nona, which is such a lovely honor since his maternal grandmother couldn’t care less about him—or me—and he sees Joaquín’s mother only occasionally.

Nico gives his cousin Domenic a bro hug, punches his brother, Milo, on the arm and follows us inside to the family room, where a stack of gifts is piled next to the tree.

“These are for Mateo.” Marlene gestures to a huge pile. “From me and Livia.”

What? No…” Tears fill my eyes so rapidly, it’s like someone has turned on a faucet.

“We had the best time shopping for him,” Marlene says. “Don’t spoil our fun.”

“It was fun,” Livia adds. “Been a while since we had any babies to spoil, so we went a little nuts over him and Everly.”

“You guys… You’ve already been so good to us. It’s too much.”

Marlene puts Mateo down on the carpeted floor. “Do you want to open your presents, love?”

He looks up at me, his big brown eyes huge with the wonder of it all.

“Go ahead, sweetheart.” My eyes are so flooded with tears, I can barely see through them as Mateo rips into the brightly wrapped packages that are full of trucks and trains and even a Clifford the Big Red Dog, who is his absolute favorite.

Their generosity never fails to astound me. I’ve never in my life known people like them, who wrap their arms around a perfect stranger and make her—and her son—part of their family like that’s no big deal.

“What do you say to Abuela and Nona?” I ask him.

“Muchas gracias,” he says softly as he struggles to his feet and walks to each of them with his crooked gait to hug them. “Thank you.”

“You are very welcome, mi amor,” Abuela says. “I hope you have a very Merry Christmas.”

“Feliz Navidad,” he says. “That means Merry Christmas en Español.”

“Yes, it does,” Nona replies. “Aren’t you just the smartest boy?” She kisses him on the cheek and then sends him back to me while the two of them pack up his presents in a bag one of them produces out of nowhere.

That’s how they are—anticipating every need before you even have it. I want to be them when I grow up. I hug them both and blink back more tears as I thank them again. “I don’t know where we’d be without you and your family,” I tell them.

“We love you both,” Nona says. “You’ll always have a family with us.”

“We love you, too.”

Nico hugs them. “You guys never fail to amaze me. Love you so much.”

“Love you, too, sweetheart,” Nona tells her grandson. “Are you going to see them home?”

“I am,” Nico says.

“Good,” Abuela says as she crooks her finger to bring him down close enough for her to kiss his cheek. “Take good care of them. They’re very precious to us.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He carries Mateo’s gifts in a bag big enough to be Santa’s.

“Mama, play toys?”

“In the morning, love. First you must go to sleep so Santa can come to our house, too.”

“Don’t wanna sleep. Wanna play.”

“I know.”

As I buckle him into his car seat, Nico stashes the bag of toys in my trunk. “I’ll be right behind you.”

I straighten and turn to face him. “You really don’t have to.”

“We’ve already had that argument. I won. Don’t lose me.”

Smiling, I say, “I’ll try not to.”

 

Chapter 3

Nico

I have no idea what the hell I’m doing with her. Domenic is right. She’s so far from my type as to be a whole other species from what I’m accustomed to, but as I follow her home to a rough part of town near Little Haiti, I’m more determined than ever to make her—and her son—mine. I don’t care what it takes or what I have to do to achieve my goal of having her in my life, in my arms and in my bed.

I can’t even think about that last one, or I’ll be hard as a rock in two seconds flat. No other woman in the history of women has had this kind of immediate effect on me. Sure, other women have turned me on and gotten me fired up, but not like this. Sofia is unique in every possible way, which is why it’s so important for me to keep her and her son safe and as close to me as possible.

They’re coming with me to my parents’ house tomorrow, too, not that she knows that yet. I’ll talk her into it, or I won’t go.

My cell rings with a call from Angelo, my right hand at work. “What’s up?”

“Dude, we’re getting killed over here with last-minute requests for rides. We could really use you and one more car if you can break free.”

“I can’t.”

“Nico… We’ll have to turn people away.”

“Let me call my brother. I’ll get right back to you.”

I use the Bluetooth in my car to call Milo.

“Yo. I thought you left?”

“I did. I need a favor.”

“What’s that?”

“Can you drive for us tonight? Just for a couple of hours?”

Milo’s groan tells me he feels the same way I do about working on Christmas Eve.

“I know it’s a lot to ask, but I’ve got a situation, and I need one more driver right away.” Milo rarely has more than one drink per event, so I’m not worried about him being impaired.

“Is your situation named Sofia?”

“So what if it is?”

“Let me get this straight—you want me to leave my family on Christmas Eve so you can be with your girlfriend or whatever she is?”

“Did you see Miguel there earlier?”

“Yeah, I was going to ask you what was up with that.”

“He arrested her ex-husband, or soon-to-be ex, lurking outside Abuela’s and probably looking for some trouble. She has a protective order against him. Now he’s in jail for Christmas, and she’s worried about his friends and family coming for her, so I’m following her home and planning to stick around.”

“I’ve got you covered at work, bro. Tell Angelo I’m on my way.”

I breathe out a sigh of relief. “Thanks, Milo. Seriously. I owe you.”

“One of these days, I’m going to cash in on all those IOUs.”

“Any time, brother.”

“Call me if you need backup at Sofia’s.”

“I will. Thanks again.”

“Will we see you tomorrow at Mom’s?”

“I’ll be there.”

“See you then.”

I call Angelo back. “My brother is on his way.”

“Great, thanks.”

“Let me know if anything else comes up.”

“You’ll be the first to know.”

Angelo abruptly ends the call, which is fine. He’s busy. No need for formalities between us when we spend hours together or on the phone every day.

As always, I give thanks for Milo. He’s the best of the best, and everyone knows it. Milo would be perfect for Sofia and her little boy. He’s the sort of upstanding man she needs in her life.

That’s a depressing thought, but it’s the truth.

As I take a left turn and follow her into the parking lot at her apartment complex, I’m fully aware that my little brother is a far superior man. But I’m determined to be better for Sofia and for her son, even if that means changing everything about the life I’ve led up to now.

My gut clenches with concern for her living alone with her little boy in such a rough neighborhood. I haven’t been anywhere near here in years, and I liked it better when I didn’t know where she lives. Calling this place run-down would be generous.

I take a good look around as I park in a visitor spot and follow her up a flight of outdoor stairs to the second floor, toting the big bag of gifts from my grandmothers. Paint is chipping, one of the stairs sags under my weight, and I doubt the banister would stop anyone from taking a bad fall.

She juggles Mateo, who’s half asleep on her shoulder, and her purse as she uses her key in the door. She’d be incredibly vulnerable if someone wanted to harm her in the unlit corridor.

Is this place even up to code? Doubtful. Maybe I’ll make a call to the building inspector at city hall tomorrow and get them over here to do their freaking jobs. But then I remember it’s Christmas tomorrow, and no one will answer the phone at city hall. I’ll save that call for another day.

Sofia flips on a light inside the door and steps aside for me to go by her into a warm, cheerful, cozy space. I marvel at how she’s made the most of every square inch of the place to create a home for herself and her son.

“This is so nice.” She’s asked me to speak to her in English so she can continue to learn.

“Oh, thanks. If you can ignore the outside, it’s not so bad.”

It’s really bad outside, but she doesn’t need me to tell her that.

She turns the dead bolt and applies the chain lock. Both look sturdy, which is a relief. “Let me just get him down.”

“Take your time.”

“His gifts are in that closet.” She uses her chin to gesture to a door. “If you want to get started.”

I wish I’d thought to bring tools. “Sure. I can do that.”

“I have a few tools in the drawer by the fridge.”

“You read my mind.”

Her smile lights up her gorgeous face and makes my heart skip a beat, which is another thing that never happened to me until she happened to me.

“Be right back.”

As my Nona would say, there’s not a pin out of place in the apartment, which is clean and ruthlessly organized. A poster on the wall lists the seven rules of life: Smile, Be Kind, Don’t Give Up, Don’t Compare, Avoid Negativity, Make Peace with Your Past, Take Care of Your Body and Mind.

Words to live by, for sure.

Another poster has a quote from Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

That one makes me feel guilty over the broken hearts I’ve left in my wake. I’m not proud of my track record with women, but the one thing I’ll say in my own defense is I’ve never made any kind of promise to a woman. If they read more into casual encounters than I did, how is that my fault?

It’s not, but I could’ve been less of a dick in my dealings with them. That much is for certain.

I find the tools right where she told me they’d be and get busy unloading the boxes of toys from the well-organized closet. Everything in her home has a place, and nothing is left lying around. She’d hate my house, which is in bad need of some of her organizational skills. I also don’t own a single Christmas decoration, except the tree my sisters insisted I needed. I spend the holidays with my parents and grandmothers, who have the market cornered on that stuff. What do I need with it?

Sofia, on the other hand, has an adorable little tree on a tabletop in a corner. It’s decorated with colored lights and ornaments made from Mateo’s art projects. Everything about her home is cozy, warm and sweet, like her.

“The pool really wore him out,” Sofia says when she returns to the living room. “Usually, I have to read The Night Before Christmas book and put out the cookies and milk for Santa, but he didn’t ask about any of that tonight.”

“I’m glad he had fun in the pool.”

“Swimming is so good for him. None of his problems bother him when he’s swimming. He’s just like a regular kid.”

I turn so I can see her. “He’s doing great, Sofia. You can see that, can’t you?”

She shrugs. “Sometimes all I can see are the things he can’t do.”

“That list is getting shorter all the time. He’s bouncing back, and soon the whole thing will be like a bad memory that happened years ago.”

She links her index fingers as if she needs to do something with her hands. “He might always have some limitations.”

“He’ll find a way to work around them.”

“I hope so.” I can see her trying to shake off her worries about her son to focus on what I’m doing with the toys. “Let me help.”

“I’ve got this if you have other things to do.”

“I can’t let you do all that!”

“I don’t mind at all. I like doing it.”

“No one likes spending Christmas Eve putting together toys, but I sure appreciate your help. Usually, it’s me doing it myself until three in the morning, and then I’m a wreck the next day.”

“Joaquín didn’t help?” I ask as casually as I can, wanting to know more about the man who’s caused her such heartache.

“God, no,” she says, laughing. “He can’t change a lightbulb without help, but he can fix anything on a car. I think it was mostly he didn’t care about helping me.”

“My dad was adamant that we all learn the basics of how to survive in this world, as he put it. If something happened to the water heater, for example, he’d march the four of us to the utility closet for a lesson on what to do.”

“That’s so smart.” She sits on the floor next to me. “He gave you invaluable life skills.”

Her appealing scent surrounds me like a cloud of sweetness. “Yes, he did, even if we had zero interest at the time. Although, I was more interested than the others. He identified a mechanical ability in me early and nurtured that as I was growing up. There’s not much I can’t fix as a result.”

“That’s an incredibly useful skill to have. Your dad is amazing. You were lucky.”

“Yes, we were, and we know it.”

“How’s your mom doing?”

The reminder of my mom’s battle with breast cancer is like a fist to the gut, the same as it’s been since I first heard of her diagnosis. “She’s doing well. Her treatment is due to end in January, and then I guess we’ll see. It’s stressful to think it could come back.”

“You have to stay positive and hope for the best.”

“I’m trying.”

“I didn’t even offer you a drink! How about some of the coquito that my neighbor made for me?”

The Spanish eggnog spiked with rum is one of my favorites. “I wouldn’t say no to that.”

She jumps up from the floor and goes into the kitchen, returning a few minutes later with the drinks. “It’s the rum that Mr. Muñoz gave me for Christmas—along with a huge tip. He’s so lovely.”

I take a sip of the drink, and the rum sends warmth all the way through me. “Mmm, that’s good, and yes, he is.”

“Do you think he and Marlene will get married?”

“I’m not sure. She’s fiercely independent after being a widow for decades. I’m not sure she’d want to give that up.”

“He’s so crazy about her that she wouldn’t have to give up anything to marry him. He’d give her the world.”

I can’t help but note the wistful tone of her voice. Without looking up from the train station I’m assembling, I ask her, “Is that what you want? A man who’ll give you the world?”

“In part. I also want someone who doesn’t want to change me or keep me from pursuing my dreams.”

“Is that what Joaquín did?”

“That was the least of what he did. He wanted to control my every thought, movement, emotion. He isolated me from my friends, who tried to tell me he was no good. I wish I’d listened to them, but then I wouldn’t have Mateo. He was worth it all.”

“I’m so glad you left him. For many reasons, but mostly because you deserve so much better than that.”

She eyes me over the rim of her glass. “What other reasons?”

“What do you mean?” I know full well what she’s asking but need to buy myself a minute to figure out what to say.

Apparently, I’m not fooling her if the look she gives me is any indication. “What are the other reasons you’re glad I left him?”

“Oh, so you want an actual list?”

Smiling, she says, “A list would be good.”

That smile does it for me, big-time. “Hmm, well… Of course, the fact that you’re single is good news for me.”

“How so?”

My gaze shoots to her, and I find her hiding a smile. “You’re messing with me and enjoying it.”

“I am enjoying it. It’s so rare to see Nico Giordino unsettled. You’re usually very confident.”

“Not around you, I’m not.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m always nervous and off my game with you.”

“Your game… Is that why your sisters and cousin told me to stay away from you?”

I tighten a screw into a train station toy that I would’ve loved as a kid. “I guess.”

“What’s your usual game?”

How can I answer her question without making her think I’m a total asshole? “It’s not a game. At least that’s not the intention.”

“What’s the intention?”

If I tell her my goal has been to remain free of complications and anything that smelled like commitment, I’ll never see her again. Not like this, anyway. Not in her home with her little boy sleeping in the next room. “I’ve just kind of tried to, you know, keep things casual. In the past, that is.”

“Ah, I see.”

I look up to find her watching me closely, a hint of amusement remaining in her gorgeous brown eyes. “Look, I know how that must sound to you, but the truth is… I want to be different with you.”

“Different how?”

“You and your probing questions,” I reply with the hint of a grin.

She shrugs. “When a girl hears a guy is toxic, it makes sense to try to get to the bottom of what that means before she decides whether she wants to spend more time with him.”

“Yeah, I suppose it does,” I say with a sigh. “I promise not to be toxic with you.”

“Have you promised other women that?”

“I’ve never promised anyone anything, which is how I got the toxic title. From the outside, I must look like an asshole, but I never make promises I can’t keep. So, usually, I make no promises.”

“But you’re promising not to be toxic with me.”

“You noticed that, huh?” I place the train station on the carpet so I can install the tower piece that goes on top.

“I’ve noticed a lot of things where you’re concerned.”

“Like what?”

“You’re very handsome, for one thing.”

“Am I?”

She rolls her eyes. “As if you haven’t heard that your whole damned life.”

I laugh harder than I have in a long time. It’s been a rough year with my mom’s illness and getting a new business off the ground. Sofia has been a bright spot, and she’s getting brighter by the second. “I might’ve heard that a few times.”

“Whatever. It’s the cause of all your problems.”

“I didn’t know I had problems.”

“With women. You attract them too easily and discard them just as easily.”

“Ouch. That hurts.”

“Truth hurts.”

“Can I tell you the truth?”

“I wish you would.”

I put down the screwdriver and look at her—really look at her. “I like you. I want to spend time with you and Mateo. I want to be a better man for you so you can have everything you want and deserve. But the thing is… I’ve never really done this before.”

“Done what?”

“I think it’s called a relationship?”

She loses it laughing. She laughs so hard, tears fill her eyes.

“You think that’s funny, huh?”

Nodding, she wipes away tears. “Hysterical.”

I shake my head in pretend despair. “I’m baring my soul to you, and all you do is laugh at me.”

“Is that what you’re doing? Baring your soul?”

“This is as bare as my soul gets. I don’t have these conversations with women. Well, usually I don’t.”

“Right, because you’re too busy taking whatever they’ll give before you move on to the next one.”

I wince at how close to the mark she strikes with that comment.

“I don’t want to be one of your conquests, Nico. I learned that word in a romance novel about a guy like you.”

“I want to do better for you, Sofia. And for Mateo.”

“We’ve been through a lot, he and I.” All hints of amusement are now gone. “Between his illness and everything with his father… It’s been a lot.”

“I know.”

“You don’t know the half of it.” The sharp tone of her voice catches me by surprise. “I’ve been through hell, and the last thing I need is another man in my life.”

And here I thought we were getting somewhere… “I understand if it’s not the right time for you.”

“I’m not saying that. Exactly.”

“Then what are you saying?”

She takes a second and seems to choose her words carefully. “If we’re going to do this thing you refer to as a relationship, we’re going to do it very, very, very slowly or not at all.”

“I can do slow. Isn’t that what we’ve been doing all along?”

“I suppose we have.”

I glance at her. “We’ve both got a lot going on, and neither of us was looking for what this has become.”

“What’s it become?”

“Something special and important to me. I wasn’t expecting that.”

“Neither was I.”

I venture a glance her way. “So it’s important to you, too?”

“If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t be here.”

Boxed Set

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. 

~ Calvin Coolidge

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