They’ve been showing up at the bar on random nights for the past three weeks.
It’s pretty hard to miss them, and even if she wanted to turn a blind eye to the American brothers, their loud mouths (Seth) and the fist fights they (again, Seth) tend to start would give their presence away in a heartbeat.
(And, no, Richie, she doesn’t have any horchata.)
It’s odd, really, because this has to be the most obnoxiously blatant stripper bar in all of Mexico and the Americas (Jesus Christ, it’s called the Titty Twister and there used to be an asshole doorman yelling about the different flavors they’ve got – real classy, Carlos). Every man who steps inside is usually looking to get drunk and/or have sex and as long as they’re not complete assholes and they show the girls the respect that every woman deserves, most will leave satisfied and a couple hundred bucks shorter.
And yet, while the brothers will sometimes ogle the dancers and drink until they’re a tequila shot away from landing in the hospital to get their stomachs pumped, neither one has ever even tried to take a girl to one of the backrooms.
Kate’s heard the chatter, and she knows that there’s more than a few who were interested: it’s not every day that potential clients walk in with both good looks and good hygiene. There’d only been one girl, way back on the very first night they showed up, but Richie had immediately sent her away the moment Kate accidently walked into them while looking for somebody to help her get a crate of vodka off from the top shelf.
The other girls tease her for it: claim that her pretty eyes and innocent face has the brothers twisted and hooked where their sultry looks have failed. They say she’s got the makings of a Lolita and should take advantage of it.
(The thing is, Kate read that book when she was seventeen and going through a rebellious phase. She saw beneath the sexual text everyone seems to get so wrapped up on and understood Nabokov was writing about delusion and coercion; cruelty and lies and an obsession so toxic that a girl was stripped of her humanity to satisfy a fantasy.)
So, no; she’s not planning on pretending to be a vixen any time soon.
Plus, the Geckos, they’re…confusing, that’s what they are.
Richie makes her feel odd; like he can look at her through narrow eyes and the thick sheet of his glasses and stare straight into her soul. And maybe it’s because she can sort of do the same for him, (can take a look at the arrogance hiding beneath the intelligence in his eyes and know that his heart is hurting and his soul’s been tortured and he’s seconds away from falling apart), but he takes a liking to her that’s a little bit too flirtatious and intimate to be considered strictly platonic.
He scares the hell out of her.
Seth is, well, she doesn’t know what he is.
Except, you know, an asshole.
He’s taken it upon himself to find different ways to crawl under her skin. Kate doesn’t know why he seems to be so fascinated with her; so intent on forming a mediocre bond while trying to get her to open up and tell him all her deepest sins and secrets. He makes himself at home on the bar’s corner stool, ordering drink after drink and regaling her with stories about his good ol’ Uncle Eddie and past glory days he wishes he could forget.
He calls her Sweetheart, he calls her Miley, but his absolute favorite petname is Princess. It doesn’t matter that she’s less than a month away from turning twenty with a full time job that involves her putting up with drunks (in two languages, mind you) on a nightly basis and enough angst to fill a poetry club: he still looks and treats her like a little kid out past her bedtime. He’d even tried, once, on the day of their third meeting and on a whim that’d hit too close to home, calling her Katie-Cakes.
She’d punched him so hard in the face that the next time he’d come in his lip was busted and there was a thin scab forming that must have burnt like hell every time he took a sip of his drink.
So, yes, he’s always trying to push her buttons, but he’s also weirdly protective of her.
He sits on his stool (no, Seth, I will not write your name on it) and he broods and he drinks and he’s the first one to jump in and pick a fight when a jerk doesn’t take the hint that just because she works the bar it doesn’t mean she’s about to jump on a table and pull her top off. Seth’s broken three different guy’s nose for her on four different occasions and as much as she hates the blatant show of machoism, (and, please, she can take care of herself and if she ever couldn’t, well, that’s why Santanico has four beefed-up securities ready to throw out anybody at the snap of her fingers. Hey, there, Razor Charlie! Make sure to pass by for your vegan cupcakes tomorrow morning!)
Yet, he’s never even tried to hit on her.
It’s like he looks at her and sees some sort of surrogate little sister that must be protected while she’s out playing and pretending with the big kids. He looks at her like she’s a joke he’s already figured out and fuck you, Seth Gecko, because it took her too damn long to build up a life with an ounce of normalcy and control and she’ll be damned if she lets him and his wiseass comments tear it all apart.
Jesus, she can’t wait for both of them to leave town
She’s never been kissed this way.
His lips are rough, chapped from the heat and tasting of cheap tequila and peppermint. His hands grip onto her hips and she’s sure come morning there’ll be bruises matching his fingertips. His scruff scratches against her cheeks and she feels a shiver run straight down her spine and all the way to her toes when he trails his mouth along her throat.
This isn’t her first kiss, a peck more than anything, when she was fourteen. This isn’t Kyle and his sloppy French kiss behind the choir room. This isn’t a boy being sweet and kind and innocent.
This is a kiss from a man who’s experienced and who knows what he wants and will take it without qualms.
He leaves her breathless and panting and lightheaded.
Her fingers dig into his scalp and his hair is silk between them and she moans low and heady when he presses her against the wall and his hips find their way home between her own. He’s thick and he’s hard and she can hear and feel his need when he grunts against her ear before nibbling on the lobe.
She’s weightless and heavy; floating and anchored; trapped and free and freezing and hot and every other contradiction her mind is too fogged up to think about right now. All her planning and her meticulous strategizing has been drowned by his raw impulses and he’s a live wire threatening to set her on fire. It enthralls her just a smidge more than it terrifies her.
He has absolute control.
“Tell me you want this,” he demands, shifting his hands so they rest on her ass for just a moment before they pull her tighter to him. “Say it.”
“I want this,” she breathes out, clutching onto his shirt and sliding her hands underneath in search of the heat of his solid body, soothing along the dips and curves of his toned abdomen. And then, because she feels it deep down to her bones, she whispers, “I need you.”
It must be what he wanted to hear because his hands are moving and they’re experts with the button of her jeans and pulling down the zipper and Kate feels like she might explode because his hand is slipping underneath the waistline of her panties and his fingers are strong and calloused between her legs before trailing further and –
And then she wakes up in her room, alone and safe and with the sun’s rays being softly filtered through the thick royal blue curtains she’d picked out a couple months ago. Her heart is beating loud and fast inside her chest and her hair is matted across her forehead but she’s fully clothed and her door is locked and the quietness reminds her to take a deep breath and count back from ten.
She’s sweaty and gross and there’s an uncomfortable ache pulsing between her legs that demands attention and what the fuck is wrong with her?
No. No. No.
Not ever, and definitely not with him.
She wants to scream. She wants to cry. She wants to get up and run away and not come back until he’s far and gone and Christ, she is not the type of girl that has those kinds of dreams about men she barely knows. She is sensible and rational and her mother would be turning in her grave if she knew the dilemma her only daughter was so recklessly dangling herself towards.
She might be young and inexperienced (and lonely, darling, don’t you lie there and try to pretend like you don’t miss having someone who holds your hand and kisses your cheek and reminds you that you’re beautiful and amazing) but she is not naïve or stupid or lovelorn.
Kate will not be another story for Seth Gecko, of all the fucking people in the world, to reminisce about when he’s drunk in a bar in the middle of nowhere.
She refuses to.
Santanico gets home after nearly a month of meetings throughout southern Mexico with Carlos.
“Cuentame, querida,” she prompts her, taking off her fluffy pink slippers and stretching her legs out on the comfy sofa. Her hair is pulled back into a messy bun and neither has any make-up on and it’s sometimes hard to correlate this girl with the woman who dances at night and will crush a man’s heart with the heel of her leather boots and never look back (seriously, Beyonce has nothing on Santanico Pandemonium). They’ve both got steaming cups of hot chocolate cuddled on their palms and the fact that it’s ninety-seven degrees outside has absolutely no bearing. “What has you pouting?”
It should not take that much effort to hold in her sigh.
They’re currently sitting in Santanico’s living room, wearing ugly plaid pajamas that feel like Heaven on Earth while the A.C. gets a workout and keeps the home at about sixty-five degrees at all times. They’ve got pan dulce and muffins and ridiculous telenovelas to keep them stuffed and entertained. There are a couple of bags filled with trinkets the older girl picked up for Kate during her travels that she’s been too lazy to drag over to her room.
As far as things go, Kate is fully aware that she’s been lucky.
Lucky, but not blessed.
She stopped counting on God’s Grace long ago: after her mother’s car flipped over and her daddy drowned his sorrows in a bottle and her brother allowed a man filled with greed and self-hatred to hone his anger into pure violence.
(That’s the one thing Tani has gotten wrong: Kate can hate Carlos more than he hates himself.)
They’d been stranded on a tiny town inside the Mexican border, living on the last few dollars left in her father’s bank account. It’d seemed like such a solid plan; Scott had been so excited to get a fresh start away from everything and everyone and the fact that she’d just turned eighteen and he wasn’t even seventeen yet hadn’t mattered. She hadn’t seen that much hope on her brother’s face in so long and she’d have done anything in the world to keep it there and nourish it until they were both happy again.
Reality set in pretty quickly.
And, damn it all, they were just kids.
Children who’d been sheltered and protected and loved their entire lives and who had absolutely no clue what the world was really like.
Santanico showing up when she did had been the best thing that could have happened to them. She’d let them into her home and life and had done her best to help them as much as she could when there was nothing for her to gain besides two orphans who were bruised and bloody and messed up. Kate loved her; sometimes like a sister and sometimes like a mother but always pure and honest and unconditional.
And, still, she’s been living here for almost two years now and she still can’t find it in herself to call it home.
“It’s nothing,” Kate dismisses quickly, taking a bite of her chocolate-chip muffin and doing her best to avoid the piercing eyes staring right at her. “Really!”
“Oh, si,” the other woman scoffs, arching a perfectly coifed eyebrow and rolling her eyes in the same way her mother used to when she knew she was telling a lie. “I’m sure this has nothing to do with the brothers that have been hanging around the bar.”
Kate almost chokes on her hot chocolate and Santanico lets out a knowing and exasperated sigh.
“Katie,” she starts, grabbing ahold of her hand and giving it a solidary squeeze before leaning back to express her seriousness. “Los Hermanos Gecko, they are not the kind of men a girl should get involved with; here one day and gone the next. As soon as their deal with Carlos is finished they’ll leave and we will never see them again.”
“I’m not interested in him,” she tries to defend herself, and the slip of her tongue gives Kate away because, really, she should know better than to try and convince a woman who’s taken it upon herself to guide her (god, she’d been so naïve before they’d met) of something she’s still living in denial with.
“Los chicos malos no hacen mas que romper corazones,” she reminds her, tucking the loose strands of her hair behind her ear. “Do not let a pretty face steal away your happiness.”
A wave of sadness flashes across Santanico face: the kind that comes with experience and heartbreak that leaves you reeling and broken and takes a little piece of your innocence when it fades away. You move on and you learn from your mistakes but the scar remains and it stings when it’s cold and you don’t ever forget. Kate has her fair share of those, and she’s not looking to add any more to her collection.
And, well, that’s the end of that conversation.