Forget Me Chapters 2 and 3
We were meeting at one of those fancy hipster places where the coffee was fair-trade and organic and the treats—if you could call them that—were low-carb and keto-friendly. A place that appealed to Larissa, who ate practically nothing and never missed a spin class. She belonged to the same class as our donors, always put together, never a blond hair out of place.
I wished I were like her.
But today, I was exactly the opposite. Sweaty, out of breath, and ten minutes late with no presentation to show them. Just my dead laptop in its soggy bag and an aching head full of figures.
I was sixty-three percent sure she’d fire me. Though could you fire someone from a volunteer position? Either way, she wouldn’t give me the praise I craved. Not that I deserved it.
The aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg from Christmas-spiced coffee made my stomach curdle. I swallowed. Puking in front of Jackson and Larissa and the other woman at their table would be the cherry on top of my disaster sundae.
I hurried over. “Sorry I’m late.”
Larissa didn’t have to say a word. The arch of her eyebrows and the flick of her straight, platinum-blond hair said it all. I remembered the last time I’d disappointed her, when I’d asked for more time to process an expense check because I was heads-down in month-end close for Synergy. She’d broken her typical sweet-as-honey front to say with steel in her tone, We’ve talked about this, Miriam. I need to be able to rely on you.
And I’d let her down again. This time, in front of her boss. The flat line of her pink lips hit me right in my squishy, people-pleasing center. My cheeks burned.
“Sit down, Miriam. Let’s begin,” she said coolly.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, letting my laptop bag slide off my shoulder. I didn’t even have a good excuse today. Nothing but a hangover and the mistake I’d made by letting Hurricane Mateo into my apartment.
“Don’t worry about it.” Jackson leaned back in his chair and stretched his long legs out under the table. He rolled his shoulders under his faded black Santana T-shirt. “I’m usually the late one. Feels good not to be the slacker for once. Let me introduce you to my sister, Natalie.”
Being called a slacker made my chest twinge. I put on a wobbly smile and stuck out my hand. “Miriam Levy-Walters. But everyone calls me Mimi.”
She stood, half a foot taller than me in her heels. She wore heels on a Sunday? Her long-sleeved magenta sheath dress showed off her slender figure. She was blond, unlike her dark-haired brother, and her golden hair coiled at her nape in an elegant bun. Their eyes were the same, though. Warm chocolate brown irises fringed with a bounty of dark lashes.
I wiped my sweaty hands on my jeans before shaking her hand. I wished I’d worn slacks instead. If I’d known Jackson’s socialite sister was joining us, I’d have put more thought into my meet-up-for-coffee-on-a-Sunday attire. And worn boots instead of ballet flats. I felt like Ant-Man standing next to her.
Natalie’s grip was comfortingly firm. “I’ve heard great things about you. I’m glad the finances are in good hands.” Her forehead creased, but then she smiled. The transition was so fast I wasn’t sure I’d seen her frown at all. “I’m looking forward to seeing the work you’ve done on the projections.”
The back of my neck itched. She wouldn’t be hearing great things about me today.
“Nat’s joining the team to help with the gala. Coffee?” Jackson shifted his feet as if he’d spring up and fetch it. A bazillionaire like Jackson Jones getting me coffee.
“No, thanks. Funny story…”
“In that case”—Larissa straightened her papers—“let’s get the numbers out of the way.”
Larissa was a paragon in the nonprofit world, having won an award for her previous nonprofit. But apparently, numbers were her weakness. I’d volunteered every week at Jackson’s brand-new foundation for neurodivergent kids ever since he started it, and one day, he’d introduced me to the new director, Larissa. He’d said she needed help to put together a balance sheet and, knowing I was an accountant at his for-profit company, asked me to help her.
Larissa needed a lot more than a balance sheet. Her bookkeeping was a disaster, but I’d organized it, and I was proud of what I’d done.
Well, except for today’s coffee catastrophe.
I swallowed. “I have some unfortunate news about the budget presentation. My laptop died, and the printouts got ruined.”
I couldn’t summon back my anger at Mateo. I was the fool who’d let him into my place to bumble around. Besides, if I hadn’t taken the papers out of my bag to admire them in an overflow of hubris, they might have been saved.
“Aren’t they on the server?” Jackson asked. “I can grab them. I’m logged into the VPN.”
I squeezed my eyes shut as heat flooded from my face to my neck. “No. I finished them up Friday night from home. I didn’t think to upload them.”
“You should have emailed them to me.” Larissa’s voice was sharp as a wasp’s sting. It wasn’t the first time she’d reminded me not to leave anything to chance. She never did. Well, except for those receipts.
I looked down at my shoe. I’d been burned before, and I’d been afraid Larissa might take credit for my work. But that was ridiculous. She might be autocratic and a slovenly record-keeper, but she was no thief. Not like Byron. If I’d sent the presentation to her, at least we’d have something to show the Joneses.
“I thought you accounting types always dotted the Is and crossed the Ts. And it was just creative types like me who fucked up.” Jackson chuckled.
The cold lump in my stomach prevented me from seeing the humor in the situation. “I’m sorry.”
“What’s wrong with your laptop?” he asked.
“Coffee?” I winced.
“Hand it over.” He cracked his knuckles. “I’ll work some magic on it.”
“No, I’ll just…” But I couldn’t refuse his beckoning fingers. I slipped the laptop out of my satchel and handed it to him. He tsked as he pulled the device from its soggy case and patted it dry with the hem of his T-shirt.
Larissa cleared her throat. “Can you at least summarize the financial projections for us?”
“Sure.” I pulled out the fourth chair and sat down. Jackson already had my laptop’s battery out and was drying it with a paper napkin, but he looked up when I began to speak.
I tried to paint word pictures of the beautiful charts and graphs I’d worked so hard to create. But after a few minutes, I caught Jackson yawning behind my laptop, which he’d tented upside down on the table. Larissa’s gaze was on her phone. Only Natalie smiled at me encouragingly.
Finally, I wrapped up weakly, “I’ll send you the presentation tomorrow. There’s an older copy on the server, and when I get back to the office, I’ll be able to recreate the final projections.”
Larissa looked up from her phone. “We need those numbers asap.”
“Of course. Sorry,” I mumbled.
“Now”—Jackson rubbed his hands together—“we get to the fun stuff. I brought Nat here so she can rescue the party.”
The foundation’s gala was hardly a party like Ben’s backyard engagement celebration yesterday. In my ruined projections, we’d planned for it to bring in half the foundation’s revenue for the year. The stakes were high.
“Rescue?” I repeated.
“A minor hiccup,” Larissa said, waving her hand. “The venue canceled on us. But I’ve got a backup.”
“Canceled? We’re getting the deposit back, right?” I asked. Larissa had asked for it in cash although I’d advised against it.
“Deposit? I don’t think we paid a deposit.” She lifted her nose.
“I—of course we did. Didn’t we?” Maybe I’d approved a cash withdrawal for something else.
“I think I’d remember,” she said.
“I’ll check the accounts again.” I glanced wistfully at my dead laptop and the spreadsheets it held hostage.
Jackson said, “Regardless, since the gala’s two months away, it’s all hands on deck. That’s why I brought in Nat.”
“I’ve helped my mother with dozens of these things,” Natalie said. “We’ll pull it together.”
“But my gala’s going to be special, right?” Jackson asked. “Not one of her cookie-cutter black-tie galas.”
“Sure.” She laid a hand on her brother’s arm. “We’ll make it something you can be proud of.”
“I’ll help, too,” I said, scrambling for anything that would make up for my mistakes. “I was my school’s prom committee chair.”
Larissa snorted. “A high-school prom is hardly a million-dollar fundraising event.”
I winced. She was right. Our budget had been a hundredth of a percent of that.
“Still, we can use you. Thanks, Mimi,” Jackson said.
“We need all the help we can get,” Natalie said. “With a brand-new venue and no food, we don’t have much time to pivot.”
Oh, wow. I’d forgotten that the original venue, a hotel, had included catering from the onsite restaurant. The donors expected fancy food for two thousand dollars a plate.
“It’s going to be a blast. You’ll see, Mimi.” Jackson wedged a corner of a napkin into a crevice of my laptop. “The planning committee needs to be out front to represent the foundation. I’m good, but I can’t do it all.” He flashed us a dazzling smile, and if I’d had any cash in my wallet, I’d have whipped it out and given it to him. For the kids.
“Parties aren’t really my thing.” I almost wished I’d opted out of last night’s party. Then my head wouldn’t pound like Larissa had beaten it with my dead laptop.
Jackson leaned forward. “But my parties are everyone’s scene. Right, Nat?”
She rolled her eyes. “Hardly. I’ll make sure you feel comfortable at this gala, Mimi. Promise.” And her smile was so kind I nodded.
I’d always preferred the planning and behind-the-scenes work to actually attending events. At parties, I hung awkwardly at the fringes. Not like Mateo, who was always at the center of the action.
Plus, what was I going to wear? Ugh, clothes were even worse than parties. I’d worry about that later. First, I needed to focus on why I was at the meeting. “I’ll draw up a revised budget with the new venue. You’ll get me the invoices, Larissa?”
Larissa waved her elegantly pale hand. “Jackson’s paying for it out of pocket. You don’t need invoices.”
“But”—I cocked my head at Jackson—“you’ll be writing off the expenses on your taxes. Surely you want to track them?”
“Well, I…” He shrugged and shot a quick glance at Larissa. “Larissa said she’d take care of it.”
I widened my eyes to keep from rolling them. Larissa lost half the receipts before she got them to me. If she tried to take care of anything to do with money, she’d be sure to screw it up and then ask me to fix it. “I’ll help her.”
But Larissa didn’t look like she appreciated the help. She pursed her lips again. “Really, I—”
“Hey!” Jackson cut in. “Speaking of help, what about promoting Mimi to that open assistant director position? Her financial skills are a good complement to your nonprofit experience.”
My skin buzzed, and my breath stuttered in my chest. There was an available paid position at the foundation? One Jackson Jones thought I was qualified for? Assistant director sounded like a lot. And I’d hardly call it a promotion since I was currently an unpaid volunteer, but I wasn’t about to contradict the guy in charge.
Larissa smiled, but it didn’t reach her cool blue eyes. “I thought you said I could select the candidate.”
“Oh.” Jackson shifted in his chair. “Yeah, of course.”
The buzz on my skin turned to painful tingles. Sometimes it felt like the thing Larissa liked best about me was that my labor was free. This morning’s presentation fiasco hadn’t raised my value in her eyes.
“I’m looking for someone with nonprofit experience. Though I suppose I could consider Miriam.”
Mom’s voice sounded in my head. Speak up for yourself. Ask for what you want. “I’d love that. I’ve already done a ton of research—”
“We’ll talk about it later.” She didn’t look at me, but her smile for Jackson was lemonade-sweet. “Thanks for the idea.”
“Have we covered everything?” Jackson asked. “Nat and I need to pick up Alicia and the kids for the family brunch.”
Larissa scanned her paper. “That’s all that was on my list. We’ll meet again in a couple of weeks, after the holidays. Natalie, if you’ll send me your ideas for the gala with projected costs, I’ll send it to Miriam for tracking.”
“I will.” Natalie stood and brushed the wrinkles from her dress. “Mimi, I’m looking forward to working on the gala with you. Happy holidays.”
“Happy holidays,” I said, even though Hanukkah had been over for weeks. “I’m looking forward to it, too.” It sounded like a lot of extra volunteer work, but if I did well, Jackson and his sister would notice. Larissa wouldn’t have a choice but to consider me for the assistant director position. I could finally get paid for my work at the foundation, quit my job at Synergy, and have some free time. Maybe I’d even humor Bree and find time to date.
Jackson handed back my laptop and the battery. “Leave it out of the case for a few more hours, put the battery back in, and give it a try.”
“Thanks.” I tried to infuse the word with my full gratitude, not only for the laptop help but for speaking up for me about the assistant director position.
He winked and turned to escort Natalie out of the café.
Larissa hit me with a steely glare she must have been holding in for the last hour.
“Look, I’m really sorry,” I began.
She checked that the Joneses had exited the building. In a frosty voice, she said, “If you want to be considered for the assistant director role, you have to up your game, Miriam. Humiliate me again, and I’ll have to let you go.”
She leaned closer, and her voice dropped to a whisper. “I’ll warn every nonprofit in the Bay Area about you. Not even the animal shelter will let you scoop cat shit. Understand?”
I blinked at her uncharacteristic crudeness. “I—of course. It was truly an accident.”
She flashed me a chilly smile. “Women like us can’t afford screw-ups like today. Take my advice: whatever caused this one, cut it out of your life.”
“Absolutely.” I nodded. I could promise her that.
She swept out of the café in a cloud of expensive perfume and a click of red-soled heels.
I stared down at the coffee-stained napkins Jackson had left piled around my laptop.
A server scurried over to me. “That’ll be nine ninety.”
“Nine ninety?” I hadn’t had so much as a black coffee or a gluten-free biscotti. Still, I reached for my wallet.
“That blond chick didn’t pay for her skinny latte.”
I handed over a ten, then a couple of singles.
“Thanks.” The server swept the empty mugs and napkins onto her tray and whirled away.
It figured that Larissa was too concerned with the management of a multimillion-dollar foundation to concern herself with the minutiae of ten-dollar lattes. The next time I saw her, I wouldn’t say a word about it. I’d call it an investment in the assistant-director position.
Which I wanted. Badly.
Nothing would prevent me from nailing this gala and proving to her and to Jackson Jones that I was assistant-director material.
I picked up my coffee-scented laptop.
Not even Mateo Rivera would stop me.
I showed my ID to Bernard at the entrance to my tía’s gated community.
“Got identification for your friend?” the guard joked.
“This guy?” I pointed with my thumb at the eight-foot plastic snowman poking through the back window of my Jeep. “He doesn’t need ID. He’s Frosty the Snowman. A fucking celebrity!”
While Bernard chuckled, I slowly pulled my Jeep inside the gate and up the hill to tía’s place.
My security guy wasn’t in his SUV outside like he was supposed to be. They never were.
So I hauled Frosty out myself and weaved among the other decorations on her football pitch–sized lawn, an orange extension cord looped over my shoulder. I passed the giant inflatables, a Santa who could “ho, ho, ho” and a snow globe with a festive palm tree inside. I patted the nose of one of the plastic reindeer pulling a second Santa’s sleigh. Finally, I trudged past the one I was sure her neighbors were the most thrilled about, a life-sized, floodlit crèche, complete with a pair of resin goats, a cow, a donkey, two lying-down sheep, and one standing. The Magi still waited on the other side of the lawn for Epiphany in January.
When I found the bare spot she’d complained about last week, I set Frosty down and tethered him with a couple of stakes. Then I plugged in his cord and found an empty receptacle on the overtaxed outdoor electrical box. I clutched the gold cross around my neck and sent up a silent prayer before I plugged the cord into the outlet. I said a silent thank-you when light-up Frosty didn’t brown out the entire neighborhood. No, her yard full of Christmas shit glowed brighter than ever.
You’re welcome, rich neighbors.
Dusting off my hands, I hopped up her porch steps and rang the bell.
Carlo answered the door, crumbs trailing down his black fleece. He didn’t even bother looking apologetic, not like he would if it had been my cousin who’d found him inside the house instead of outside, watching for her cabrón of an ex.
“Spice cookies?” I asked, pointing at the crumbs.
The tops of his cheeks went dark as he carefully brushed them into his palm. “They’re my favorite.”
“Mine, too. She in the kitchen?”
“Yeah. Smoke?” He dug in the pocket of his fleece for his pack.
When he set the cigarette to his lips and raised his eyebrows, I shook my head again, though my fingers itched to snatch it from him and take a pull. I’d seen the way Mimi’s nose wrinkled when I walked into her place yesterday. How she’d almost puked.
I’d let my nerves get the better of me and taken three quick puffs outside her apartment. Quitting was fucking hard when each drag brought back a dozen rosy memories of hanging with my papá in his tabacaria.
I shoved one hand in my pocket and set the other on the front door.
“I’ll just do a perimeter check.” Carlo slid outside, and I locked the door behind him even though I was going right back out. My cousin’s orders.
I followed the scents of vanilla, cloves, and cinnamon into the kitchen. It reminded me of tía Camelia’s place on the island at Christmastime. She always used to send treats home with Papá and me. My body jolted with the reminder that I wouldn’t be spending Christmas with my extended family back on the island.
But tía Rosa was family, too, and I pasted a smile on my face for her. She transferred cookies from a baking sheet to a length of parchment paper on her counter.
“Hola, tía.” Forcing a careless sway into my hips, I sauntered to her side and kissed her cheek.
“Mateo.” Buttery warmth filled her voice. “I’m glad you came by. Don’t let me forget to send you home with some of these.”
I nabbed one from the counter and crunched into it. “Wouldn’t dream of it. Want to see what I brought you?”
“You brought me something?” Her brown eyes sparkling, she wiped her hands on a towel.
“An early Christmas present.”
I got her a coat from her closet and helped her into the sleeves. Outside, her gaze arrowed to the snowman.
“He’s perfect!” She clapped her hands like she was six and not sixty.
“You need to see him from the street.” I extended my elbow, she looped her arm through it, and we descended the steps and strolled to the end of the sidewalk.
While she admired the fresh addition to her Christmas menagerie, I glanced at the houses on either side. Military-straight lines of clear bulbs outlined the roof gables, windows, and porches. Both of their doors were decorated with lush evergreen wreaths that had to cost more than my monthly grocery bill. Not an inflatable or plastic lawn ornament in sight.
But they wouldn’t dare call the homeowners’ association on Cooper Fallon’s mother.
“Gracias, hijo.” She pulled on my sleeve, and I bent down for her kiss.
“It’s nothing,” I muttered.
“It’s not nothing.” She put her hands on my cheeks so I looked her in the eye. “You’re a good boy, Mateo.”
But I couldn’t meet her gaze. Not after what I’d done to Mimi’s presentation earlier today. My fingers went to twist the ring on my right hand, but it wasn’t there.
She clutched my hand. “I wish you could see yourself the way I do. The way Miguelito does.”
“Miguelito?” I snorted. “He thinks I’m a fu—ah, un tonto.”
“If he thought you were un tonto, he wouldn’t have brought you here and made you my head of security.”
“We both know you don’t need security.”
“Ah.” She winked. “We do. My son doesn’t. So he pays you, you hang out with your favorite tía. It’s what he would call a win-win.”
I tried to flash her a smile, but tía always saw through my bullshit.
She clicked her tongue. “Let’s go inside. I’ll make some coffee to go with the cookies, and you’ll tell me what’s bothering you.”
In her kitchen, my tía stirred sugar into a cup of strong, black coffee. “What happened with Miriam last night? She looked like she’d had a few too many at the party. Lito and Ben were worried about her.”
“They asked me to follow her.” I set down the cookie I’d been about to inhale. “Did you know she was going to a bachelorette party?” If I’d known, I’d have brought more than my bare knuckles to defend her from all the leering guys.
She shook her head, frowning.
“A despedida de soltera. Her friend Breina is getting married next weekend. Ben and Miguelito are going.” I’d only remembered when I saw Breina shove the glittering plastic tiara into Mimi’s dark curls and drape the sash across her gorgeous tits. I smiled, remembering the way Miriam had hugged her friend, her usual formality dropping away as she’d landed a sloppy kiss on her cheek. What I wouldn’t give to have that directed at me. And I had, for a short time last night.
“They got pretty drunk, but they were together, and they were okay. Until their men showed up.” A growl roughened my voice. “They took her friends home and left Mimi alone. And the assholes who’d been circling all night converged.”
“But you were there.” Beaming, tía clapped her hands. “You rescued her like un caballero.”
“I don’t know about that.” I ducked my head, remembering how I’d hidden behind a newspaper until Mimi’s friends left. “I had on my glasses, not armor.”
“Oh.” Her face fell. “But even wearing those lentes feos, no one can resist you.”
“No one except Mimi.” Though for a little while last night, her sparkling eyes and that unexpectedly bright smile had been all for me. She’d seemed to see past my smooth exterior to the essence of who I was. And she liked what she saw. We’d talked about everything: how she loved volunteering at the foundation, how she admired the director. Though from what Mimi said, Larissa seemed like a conniving, gaslighting bitch. She’d even talked about her uneasiness at being the last one of her friend group uncoupled.
I’d hoped to do something about that last one. But when I showed up this morning with my hopeful sack of buñuelos, it hadn’t taken me long to figure out that she had a Mateo-sized gap in her drunken memories. And after I’d ruined her presentation, she hated me even more than she had before.
“She didn’t remember. That’s me. Forgettable,” I mumbled.
“Forgettable? Never, cariño.” Tía laid a soft hand on my arm. “I’m just glad that when the alcohol loosened that stick up her ass, she finally saw how wonderful you are.”
“Tía!” I yelped.
“It’s true. That girl needs to loosen up. I know, I know.” She waved off my protests. “You like her. But you have to admit she’s a little…uptight.”
She shook her head. “Ambitious.”
“She volunteers at Jackson Jones’s foundation. She’s more like Ben than she seems.”
My aunt didn’t look convinced. “Sometimes I think Ben got all the heart in that family.”
My fingers tingling, I jumped up and grabbed the baking sheets. I ran soapy water into her sink and scrubbed at the greasy residue and crusted-on cookie crumbs. No, Mimi had shown all kinds of heart last night, especially when she…
“Do you think I should tell her? About the—the kiss?” I almost didn’t believe it had happened. But I’d seen the proof this morning in the beard burn she’d tried to cover up with makeup. How had she forgotten? I’d never forget the way she pleaded my name just before her soft lips landed on mine. The taste of her—tequila, sweetness, and cinnamon—when I opened to her. The shape of her in my arms, all soft curves I wanted to trace with my hands and my tongue.
“Shouldn’t you?” Tía stepped up next to me at the sink and laid a hand on my back.
“No. Especially not after today. After I ruined her presentation.” The anger flashing in her eyes had cowed me. Angry Miriam Levy-Walters was fearsomely beautiful.
“You should make it up to her. Then you can tell her about last night.” She rubbed a circle on my back. “You’ve had so much sadness in your life, hijo. You deserve to find happiness. And if it’s Mimi you want, go for it. No one can resist your charm.”
“Mimi can,” I grumbled at a sticky spot on the last baking sheet.
“Turn it up a notch, then.”
“I can’t. Whenever I try, I fuck it up.” Like when I’d ripped her paper.
“Remember, she’s human, too. Not some saint above an altar.”
“Is she?” And I wasn’t completely kidding. “She works full time, plus she volunteers at the foundation. And she’s the smartest woman I’ve ever met.”
“You’re smart, too. You don’t have to have a fancy college degree to prove it. You take care of Miguelito and me.”
I snorted. “Lito can take care of himself. And Ben, too. And of course I take care of you. You’re my favorite tía.” And the closest thing to a parent I had left, I didn’t say. She knew.
“You’re a good boy. Worthy of her. Show her. Help her the way you help everyone else. So it didn’t go well today.” She shrugged. “Try again.”
I supposed I owed Mimi that after fucking up her presentation. “Okay. I will. Can I have some extra cookies, please?”
She reached into the drawer for a plastic container. “That’s my boy. Woo her with food.”