Chapter Twenty-Nine (Part Two)

They’d had dozens of family dinners since Tony had returned to Springfield, but this one was different.  This was those he loved most celebrating his return to the living.  Ray stood up, “These past months have been blessed with additions.  Our Tony returned to us, the newest Santos entered the world, Marah has agreed to join this at times crazy family, and we have our new friend Rafael who helped bring our Tony home.  For all these we are truly blessed.”  As Ray led the prayer Tony allowed himself to feel the absolute joy surrounding him.  He no longer cared if he was going soft.  This was home and this is where he belonged.

Food was being passed around and conversation flowed freely.  Michelle looked up from feeding Danielle, “Tony could you help Hope cut her chicken?  If not she’ll have it all over her shirt.”

But Hope wasn’t looking at the chicken on her plate, she was busy staring at the floor.  Or more appropriately Marah’s feet.  She looked at him with innocent eyes, “Those kind of look like Barbie’s.  Are those hooker boots too?”

Tony risked a glance to the others.  They all looked as if frozen in time with their forks hovering in mid-air.  “Whoops.”

Marah just stuck out her foot so Hope could look at her boots more closely and laughed, “No sweetie, these are Jimmy Choos.  I wish I had a pair like Barbie’s, these pinch my toes.”

Hope seemed satisfied with the answer and started eating her dinner with gusto.  Danny wasn’t so quick to move on from what just happened.  He leaned towards him, “Hooker boots?  Since when does my daughter know about hooker boots?”

“A little warning about how your daughter has a memory about an elephant would have been nice.  How was I to know the inner workings of a six-year old’s mind?”

Danny laughed, “Fair enough.  So here you go.  That little girl is just like her mother.  She’s smart as a whip and I swear thinks three steps ahead of everyone else.”

“A little late but thanks.”

***

The kids had devoured their dessert and had promptly run off to play leaving the adults free to converse without little ears who picked up everything.  Tony was just thankful the subject of hooker boots hadn’t come up yet.  He was sure Michelle was going to get him back for that one, she was just biding her time.

“So Rafael what did you do while living in California?”

“I started out on my father’s ranch, worked part-time in the orchards for spare cash, then as you know I was a Marine.” Rafael took a sip of his coffee before continuing, “Went to college where I met my Maria and to prove my intentions were pure I worked on her father’s ranch.  Finally made it to foreman and was allowed to marry her.  And after her father died we took over operations for several years.”

Michelle swallowed her apple pie, “Do you still own the ranch?”

Rafael’s eyes took on a sad, far away look.  “Sadly no.  When my Maria got sick the medical bills started adding up.  We had to sell the ranch and move to a smaller house closer to town.”

Marah’s heart ached for the man,”I’m sorry for your loss.”

Rafael looked down at his coffee as if it held the secrets of the universe, “She is in a better place now.”

Tony looked at the man who saved his life and at his cousin.  Danny caught his eye and shrugged, well it never hurt to ask.  “So I guess running a full-scale operation like a ranch you are pretty proficient in business huh?”

The haunted look in Rafael’s eyes was gone, replaced by his trademark grin, “That and a business degree from Stanford.  Why do you ask?”

“Danny and I were talking.  This Infierno is going to be significantly bigger than the old one.  And we need a manager with business experience.”

Rafael put his fork down, “Oh I see where this is going.  I don’t need your charity Tony Santos.”

Everyone remained silent, this was between Tony and Rafael.  Neither man may have realized it yet but it was clear to everyone else in the room that the two had bonded over this “adventure”.  Rafael was more than just a friend to Tony, he challenged him to be more.  He was like the father that Tony had never had.

“This isn’t charity this is a business opportunity.”

They were both standing now, facing off like two prize fighters.  “You are full of it.  You are just trying to repay a debt that you don’t owe.  If I saved your life then I was meant to save it, end of story.”

“No it’s not end of story.  You still don’t get it.” Tony shook his head ruefully, “This really does help us out, I wasn’t lying about that.  You have a degree, you have experience ordering supplies and whatnot.  But more importantly it gives you a reason to stay in Springfield.  Sure I owe you for saving my life, but even more than that I want you to stick around.”

Rafael was dumbstruck, “What?”

“You heard me.  I want you to stick around.”

Rafael sat down like with a huff, “And you talk about me ruining a good mad.”  He seemed to think it over a bit before looking back at Tony, “I’ll think about it okay?”

Tony could live with that, “Fair enough.”

Rafael picked up his discarded fork and stabbed his pie, “And if I do take you up on this offer I expect to work.  Really work.”

Danny finally tried to ease the tension, “Trust me that won’t be a problem, this Infierno promises to be bigger and better than before.  We’re all going to have more work than we know what to do with.”

***

“You’re not fooling anyone Tony Santos.  You know you see Rafael as the father you never had and that’s the real reason you offered him a job.”

They sat cuddled together on Danny and Michelle’s back porch enjoying the night air.  Her head lay nestled against his chest so he couldn’t see her eyes but he knew she was smiling, “You know me too well.”

“I do, and you better not forget it.”  She sat up, “I better get going.  My mom and I are going to look at shop locations tomorrow.  And you know how she is, no rest for the weary.”

Tony tried his best pout, “You sure you have to go?  We could go…”

“Don’t even think about it mister.  Besides, Michelle has you on cleanup duty for teaching Hope about hooker boots.”

Tony growled, “I didn’t ‘teach her’ I just said the word and she stuck it in her memory bank.  Who knew it was like a steel trap!”

Marah laughed.  He was never going to live that one down. “Doesn’t matter stud because it’s in Michelle’s memory bank as well.  And on that note I’m going to take my hooker boots and go on home.”

“Honey you know those boots put any and all hooker boots to shame. ”

She kissed him, “You sweet talker you.”

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