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Capítulo 1

Pueblo De Oro
Chihuahua, Mexico
Way Back


“Placido and Salvador, this is the last time I ask you to stop talking,” the maestra said loudly as she tapped her pointer stick on her desk. Alej squirmed in his desk. Why she couldn’t just bend and call him Alej like everyone else, was annoying as hell. “The next time I have to interrupt the class because of you two, I’m sending you home. You won’t be allowed back in here until your padres come see me.”

“Yeah, the solterona would love that,” Cido muttered under his breath.

“What was that, Placido?”

“Uh . . . Nothing, Señorita Munoz. I just said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’”

Alej couldn’t help smirking but still gave Cido a warning look. Cido was always doing the talking. Half the time Alej was just sitting there trying to stay awake, especially on Monday mornings like that day.

“Now if I could have everyone’s attention, I’d like to introduce a new student to the class.”

Finally looking away from Cido after giving him a chastising glare, Alejandro brought his attention to the front of the class. He was instantly struck at the sight of the new student standing next to their teacher: a young girl with the biggest most stunning dark eyes he’d ever seen. She stood timidly next to the teacher, holding her pink mochila at her chest.

Sitting up straight suddenly, Alej waited for the teacher to say the girl’s name. For someone who was still trying to figure out what the big deal about girls was, Alej couldn’t take his eyes off this one. He fully expected the teacher to say her name was Angel because it was exactly what she looked like—a stunning angel with the most beautiful yet shy smile, wearing her hair in braids with red ribbons in them.

“I’d like you to give a warm welcome to Isabella Franco who just moved into town with her mother and grandmother. Everybody say hello to Isabella.”

Isabella Franco. Alej took in the name as the rest of the class all welcomed her. He was still too transfixed with her. She continued to smile timidly—awkwardly—as the maestra nodded, clapping and encouraging the class to clap with her. Alej breathed in heavily at the sight of the deep pair of adorable dimples on either of Isabella’s cheeks.

“She’s cute, eh?” Cido said, elbowing him.

“I’m gonna marry her.”

Juana, the girl in front of him jerked around to face him. Giggling, she brought her hand to her mouth. It wasn’t even until that moment that he realized he’d said the words out loud.

“You’re stupid,” Cido said as Alej’s eyes followed Isabella to the desk she was assigned, way on the other side of the classroom. Where the younger kids sat. Trying to snap out of it, Alej sat back in his seat. What the hell was he doing? This was school yard suicide. They’d tease him mercilessly if he continued to act like this.

For the rest of the morning, he could barely concentrate. It was almost annoying. Nearly done with the sixth grade now, he’d yet to so much as have a crush on any girl, let alone feel this struck over one he’d hadn’t even spoken to yet. Aside from her name and what little the teacher had told them, he knew nothing else about her. So, what was his problem?

The rest of the week, he was up bright and early and ready to go each day—something so unlike him even his dad had asked what was with him. Of course, Alej had just shrugged and feigned ignorance of what his dad might mean.

It wasn’t until the end of the week that he finally conjured up the nerve to talk to her. They’d exchanged glances plenty of times since that first day. He was certain she knew about his careless declaration since Juana had wasted no time in going over to talk to her during their first recess that day. Several girls had huddled around her, and they’d all giggled when Alej, Cido, and a few of the other guys had walked by.

He’d been surprised to find out she was only in the fourth grade. Not only did she look older, she seemed far more mature than some of the other annoyingly silly girls at school. He also knew now that La Vuida Franco was her mother and she, Isabella, and her grandma had moved out of the city to Pueblo De Oro to raise Isabella when her father was killed, because it was cheaper than the city. They’d moved into the old house the Infantes had built and lived in for years. Word about the new folks in town had gotten around fast. As everything always did.

Alej’s older sister Lucia was making dinner that Friday evening when she ran out of onions. His dad gave him money to run down to the pueblo’s mercantile to buy one. He’d just walked into the small store when he saw Isabella and their eyes met. Just like all the other times that week when their eyes had met, he felt oddly panicked again. Only this time he was determined to say something to her.

Isabella was standing over by the barrel of frijoles. She was filling a small plastic bag with them. Her hair wasn’t in braids as it had been all week at school. It was long, thick, almost black, and fell beautifully over her shoulders. She wore a red bow in her hair, and unlike the rest of the week when their eyes had met at school, she smiled at him this time. Her dimples seemed even deeper now than when he’d first noticed them.

Alej wasn’t even sure he smiled back. He was too busy trying not to look as panicked as being this close to her made him. After just a moment, she glanced back down and focused on what she was doing. Taking a deep breath, Alej walked over to her.

“Hey,” he said, his heart beating so wildly as those big dark eyes met his again. “I’m Alej.”

“I know.” She smiled sweetly, and once again he was at it like a big sap, breathing in deeply. “Alejandro, but everyone calls you Alej. So why does the maestra call you Salvador?”

“My first name is Salvador. But so is my dad’s, so my parents have always used my middle name to avoid confusion. Only Señorita Munoz is a stickler for using first and full names. So, to her, I’ll always be Salvador.”

She nodded. “I have a Tio Alej in El Paso,” she informed him. “My aunt’s husband. But I’ve never met him. Just heard a lot about him.”

Alej couldn’t care less about her uncle. Only he did want her to keep talking. Her voice matched his first impression of her. It was the voice of an angel. A couple of boys ran into the store, boys Alej knew from around the pueblo and school. One of them took a look at them standing there chatting and was instantly smirking like a pendejo.

At first, Alej had been annoyed that word of his declaration about marrying Isabella had gotten around school so quickly. But now he was glad it had. Without realizing it, he’d instantly called dibs on the prettiest girl in el pueblo.

Ignoring the smirking idiota, Alej turned back to Isabella, who was now tying a knot on the plastic bag full of beans. “You here with your mom?”

She shook her head. “She’s home with my abuela making dinner. But they wanted to get a pot of beans soaking tonight, and we were out.”

“So, that’s all you’re buying?”

She nodded, and he rushed over to grab an onion before she headed over to pay for her beans. They walked to the counter together and paid for their things. Then they left together. The Infante’s old place wasn’t too far out of the way from his, so he decided he’d escort her home.

“I’ll carry that home for you.” He held out his hand for her to give him the bag of beans.

She hesitated at first but then did so when he kept his hand stretched out.

“Did you guys buy the Infante’s house?”

“No, my mom and grandma are renting. But if they could save up, they’ll have the option to buy it. They just want to see how they like living in this pueblo first.”

“How do you like it so far?”

“It’s different,” she said, and Alej couldn’t make out if that was a good or bad thing.

“You made friends fast.”

Isabella shrugged. “The girls seemed to like me well enough the first few days, but yesterday and today, I sort of got the cold shoulder from a few of them. It doesn’t surprise me, though. At my old school, I had more guy friends than I did girls.”

That really caught his interest. “You did?”

“Yeah, my mom said she was always the same way too growing up. She says it’s sad, but so many girls are so dramaticas. Boys are so much more laid back.”

Alej thought about that. Did this mean she’d be hanging out with the boys at school more now? Cido had since made another comment that week about her being cute. A comment that’d had Alej muttering under his breath since Cido hadn’t been the only guy he’d seen eyeing her in a way that said they thought so too.

The only good thing was, while the guys in this town might be more laid back than the “dramatica” girls, they were all pendejos, his best friend Cido included. Here Alej had only spoken to Isabella for a few minutes, and already he could tell she was far more self-confident and more mature than any of the boys he knew, himself included. Though the two years he had on her helped him play it off a bit.

“I’m sorry about your mom.” Her statement broke him out of his thoughts. “I heard about the accident. That had to be so hard for you.”

Alej stared at her for a moment. He hadn’t thought about his mother’s sudden death in a while. His sister had taken it so much harder than he had. Not that it hadn’t been hard on him as well. But seeing how utterly destroyed his sister had been by the unexpected loss of their mother, had made him step up along with his dad and be strong for her.

“Yeah, it was tough.” He stared out into space as they continued to walk slowly down the dirt road. “We’d been going into the city every weekend for as long as I can remember. So, coming home that weekend without her. . .”

He shook his head unable to finish. This wasn’t what he’d imagined his first conversation with the girl he’d been daydreaming about all week would be like. He swallowed hard, trying not to get emotional. The last thing he wanted was for her first real impression of him to be that of a sniffling marica.

“If I tell you something you promise you won’t share it with anyone?”

Alej turned to her, surprised by this. As if she’d read his mind, she went on before he could respond to that. “I’m only sharing this with you because I don’t think it’s fair that I’d know something so personal about you before ever speaking to you.”

He shook his head. “That’s okay. It was in the paper, and in case you haven’t noticed, chisme travels fast in this pueblo. So, everybody who lives here knew about it before we even got home that night. But yeah, I promise.”

She took a deep breath, staring ahead. “We didn’t really move here because my mom was recently widowed and we couldn’t afford living in the city anymore. I don’t even remember my dad. My dad was killed during a drug deal gone wrong in the city when I was just a baby.” She turned to him and rolled her eyes. “My mom had no idea he was involved in anything like that, but according to the police and witnesses, he was the one doing the selling, and they robbed him then shot him. So, it’s not like we’re chusma, only my grandma thinks it might make us look bad. The widow and daughter of a drug dealer, you know?” She lifted her hands, making air quotes. “Qué dirá la gente?” What people will think or say is all my grandmother ever worries about. She’s the one who’s been insisting for years we move away and get a fresh start somewhere where nobody knows us. She originally wanted us to go along with saying she was my mother and my mom and I were sisters and that my mom had never been married. Since my mom married so young and still looks young enough, we could pass as sisters. But my mom refused. The most she’d go along with was moving and saying she was just recently widowed after my dad got sick and died. But we did move out here because it was cheaper than living in the city.”

Their eyes met, and he took a deep breath when she smiled again, and the deep dimples made another appearance. “Thanks for holding those for me, Alejandro.” She reached out for the bag of beans.

Alej hadn’t even realized they were already just a few feet away from her house. “No worries.” He handed them to her. “And next week, if the girls give you the cold shoulder, you come hang with me.”

Anyone who may’ve heard the invitation would think it just that. That he’d worded it wrong and meant to say, you can come hang with me. But Alej had worded the phrase that way for a reason.

She smiled almost knowingly. He’d been spot on with his first impression about her. She was far more mature for her age than would be expected. Her sharing such a secret and explaining why it was one also confirmed something else he’d picked up about her. Isabella couldn’t care less that he or likely anyone else knew about her dad. She was that poised even at her young age. But she’d honor her grandmother’s wishes by at least trying to keep it on the downlow. Already there was so much to like about her than just how damn cute she was. But if she was going to hang out with the laid-back boys instead of the girls, it was him she’d be doing it with. He’d make sure of it.


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