The wall of winnipeg and.., p.1
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       The Wall of Winnipeg and Me, p.1

           Mariana Zapata
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The Wall of Winnipeg and Me


  The Wall of Winnipeg and Me

  Mariana Zapata

  Contents

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Epilogue

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Also by Mariana Zapata

  The Wall of Winnipeg and Me © 2016 Mariana Zapata

  All rights reserved. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the author is unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

  This e-book is a work of fiction. While reference might be made to actual historical events or existing locations, the names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Copyright © 2016 Mariana Zapata

  Book Cover Design by Letitia Hasser, Romantic Book Affairs

  Interior Formatting by Jeff Senter, Indie Formatting Services

  In Memory of Alan

  Chapter One

  I was going to murder his ass.

  One day.

  One day long after I quit, so no one would suspect me.

  “Aiden,” I grumbled, even though I knew better. Grumbling only got me the look—that infamous, condescending expression that had gotten Aiden into more than one fight in the past. Or so I’d been told. When the edges of his mouth turned down, got tight, and his brown eyes went heavy lidded, all it made me want to do was stick my finger up his nose. It’s what my mom used to do to us when we were little and would pout.

  The man in question, who was on the verge of either a bloody, imaginary death or a carefully crafted one that involved dish soap, his food, and a long period of time, made a noise from behind the bowl of quinoa salad in front of him, which was big enough to feed a family of four. “You heard me. Cancel it,” he repeated as if I’d gone deaf the first time he’d said it.

  Oh, I’d heard him. Loud and clear. That was why I wanted to kill him.

  Which basically showed how amazing the human mind was; how you could care about someone but want to slit his or her throat at the same time. Like having a sister who you wanted to punch right in the ovaries. You still loved her, you just wanted to sock her right in the baby-maker to teach her a lesson—not that I knew from experience or anything.

  The fact that I didn’t immediately respond probably made him add, with that same facial expression aimed right at me, “I don’t care what you have to tell them. Get it done.”

  Pushing my glasses up the bridge of my nose with my left index finger, I lowered my right hand so that the cabinet could hide the middle finger I aimed right at Aiden. If his facial expression wasn’t bad enough, the tone he was using annoyed me even more. It was the voice he used to warn me it was pointless to argue with him; he wasn’t going to change his mind right then, or ever, and I needed to deal with it.

  I always needed to deal with it.

  When I’d first started working for the three-time National Football Organization’s Defensive Player of the Year, there had only been a few things I wasn’t a fan of doing; haggling with people, telling them no, and sticking my hand into the garbage disposal because I was both the cook and the cleaning lady of the house.

  But if there was something I hated doing—and I mean really, really hated doing—it was cancelling on people last minute. It got on my nerves and went against my moral code. I mean, a promise was a promise, wasn’t it? Then again, this wasn’t me letting his fans down, technically. It was Aiden.

  Freaking Aiden, who was busy inhaling his second lunch of the day without a care in the world, was oblivious to the frustrations he was going to make me face when I called his agent. After all the trouble we’d gone to schedule it, I was going to have to break the news that Aiden wasn’t going to be signing anything at the sporting goods store in San Antonio. Yippee.

  I sighed, guilt niggling my belly and conscience, and reached down to rub my stiff knee with the hand that wasn’t busy expressing my frustrations. “You already promised them—”

  “I don’t care, Vanessa.” He shot me that look again. My middle finger twitched. “Have Rob cancel it,” he insisted, as his giant forearm went up so he could shovel what looked like eight ounces of food into his mouth at once. The fork he was holding hovered in the air a moment as he flicked that dark, stubborn gaze to meet mine. “Is that a problem?”

  Vanessa-this. Vanessa-that.

  Cancel it. Have Rob cancel it.

  Boo.

  As if I loved calling his asshole agent to begin with, much less so he could cancel an appearance two days before it was supposed to take place. He was going to lose his mind, and then direct his frustrations at me as if I had some kind of pull over Aiden “The Wall of Winnipeg” Graves. The truth was, the closest I’d ever come to helping him make any kind of decision had been when I recommended a camera for him to buy, and that was only because he “had better things to do than camera research” and because “that’s what I pay you for.”

  He had a point of course. Between what he paid me and what Zac chipped in from time to time, I could manage to put a smile on my face—even if it was a forced one—and do what was asked of me. Every once in a while, I even did a little curtsy, which Aiden pretended not to witness.

  I didn’t think he really appreciated the amount of patience I had exercised when dealing with him for the last two years. Someone else would have already stabbed him in his sleep for sure. At least, when I went through plans for how I’d do it, it was usually in a painless way.

  Usually.

  Since he’d ruptured his Achilles tendon barely a month into the season last year, he’d turned into something else. I tried not to blame him; I really did. Missing nearly three months of the entire regular season and being blamed for your team not making it to the post season, or the playoffs, was hard to deal with. On top of that, some people had thought he wasn’t going to make a full comeback after having to take six months off to recover and rehab. The kind of injury he’d sustained was no joke.

  But this was Aiden. Some athletes took even longer than that amount of time to get back on their feet, if they ever did. He hadn’t. But dealing with him on crutches, driving him to and from rehab and appointments, had taken a toll on my patience more than once.

  There was only so much cranky little bitch you can handle in a day, even if it was called for. Aiden loved what he did, and I had to imagine he was scared he wouldn’t be able to play again, or that he would come back and not play up to the same level he’d been used to, not that he would ever voice any fears out loud. That was all understandable to me. I couldn’t imagine how I would feel if something happened to my hands and there was a chance I might not ever be able to draw agai
n.

  Regardless, his crankiness had hit a level not previously documented in the history of the universe. That was saying something, considering I’d grown up with three older sisters who all had periods at the same time. Because of them, most things—most people—didn’t bother me. I knew what it was like to be bullied, and Aiden never crossed the line into being unnecessarily mean. He was just a jackass sometimes.

  He was lucky I had a tiny, itty, bitty crush on him; otherwise, he would have gotten the shank years ago. Then again, just about everyone with eyes who happened to also like men, had some kind of a thing for Aiden Graves.

  When he raised his eyebrows and looked at me from beneath those curly black eyelashes, flashing me rich-brown eyes set deep into a face that I’d only seen smile in the presence of dogs, I swallowed and shook my head slowly as I gritted my teeth and took him in. The size of a small building, he should have had these big, uneven features that made him look like a caveman, but of course he didn’t. Apparently, he liked to defy every stereotype he’d ever been assigned in his life. He was smart, fast, coordinated, and—as far as I knew—had never seen a game of hockey. He had only said ‘eh’ in front of me twice, and he didn’t consume animal protein. The man didn’t eat bacon. He was the last person I would ever consider polite, and he never apologized. Ever.

  Basically, he was an anomaly; a Canadian football-playing, plant-based lifestyle—he didn’t like calling himself a vegan—anomaly that was strangely proportional all over and so handsome I might have thanked God for giving me eyes on a couple of occasions.

  “Whatever you want, big guy,” I said with a fake smile and a flutter of my eyelashes, even as I still flipped him off.

  “They’ll get over it,” Aiden said casually, ignoring his nickname, rolling back two immensely muscular shoulders. I swear they were wide enough for a small person to drape across comfortably. “It isn’t a big deal.”

  It wasn’t a big deal? The promoters wouldn’t feel that way, much less his agent, but then Aiden was used to getting his way. No one ever told him no. They told me no, and then I’d have to figure things out.

  Despite what some people thought, the defensive end of the Three Hundreds, Dallas’s professional football team, wasn’t really an asshole or hard to work with. For all his faces and grumbling, he never cussed and hardly ever lost his temper without good reason. He was demanding; he knew exactly what he wanted and how he liked every single thing in his life. It was honestly an admirable quality, I thought, but it was my job to make those requests come true, regardless of whether I agreed with his decisions or not.

  Only for a little bit longer though, I reminded myself. I was so close to quitting, I could feel it. The thought made my soul rejoice a bit.

  Two months ago, my bank account had finally hit a comfortable number through sheer willpower, penny-pinching, and working long hours when I wasn’t Aiden’s assistant/housekeeper/cook. I’d hit my goal: save up a year’s salary. And I had. Finally. Halle-freaking-lujah. I could practically smell freedom in the air.

  But the keyword there was ‘practically.’

  I just hadn’t gotten around to telling Aiden I was quitting yet.

  “Why are you making that face?” he asked suddenly.

  I blinked up at him, caught off guard. I raised my eyebrows, trying to play dumb. “What face?”

  It didn’t work.

  With a fork hanging out of his mouth, he narrowed his dark eyes just the slightest bit. “That one.” He gestured toward me with his chin.

  I shrugged in an ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ expression.

  “Is there something you want to say?”

  There were a hundred things I wanted to tell him on a regular basis, but I knew him too well. He didn’t really care if there was something I wanted to say or not. He didn’t care if my opinion was different from his or if I thought he should do something differently. He was just reminding me who the boss was.

  AKA not me.

  Asswipe.

  “Me?” I blinked. “Nope.”

  He gave me a lazy glare before his eyes lowered to focus on the hand I had hidden on the other side of the kitchen island. “Then quit flipping me off. I’m not changing my mind about the signing,” he said in a deceptively casual voice.

  I pressed my lips together as I dropped my hand. He was a goddamn witch. I swear on my life, he was a freaking witch. A wizard. An oracle. A person with a third eye. Every single time I had ever flipped him off, he’d been aware of it. I didn’t think I was that obvious about it either.

  It wasn’t like I gave people the middle finger for fun, but it genuinely bothered me that he was cancelling an appearance without a legitimate reason. Backing out because he changed his mind and didn’t want to take an afternoon off from training, didn’t seem like one. But what did I know?

  “All right,” I muttered under my breath.

  Aiden, who I was pretty sure had no idea how old I’d turned this year, much less what month my birthday was, made a face for a split second. Those thick, dark eyebrows knit together and his full mouth pinched back at the corners. Then he shrugged, like he’d suddenly stopped caring about what I’d been doing.

  What was funny was, if someone had told me five years ago that I’d be doing someone else’s dirty work, I would have laughed. I couldn’t remember ever not having goals or some sort of a plan for the future. I had always wanted something to look forward to, and being my own boss was one of those things I strived for.

  I’d known since I was sixteen at my first summer job, getting yelled at for not putting enough ice into a medium-sized cup at the movie theater I’d worked at, that I would one day want to work for myself. I didn’t like getting told what to do. I never had. I was stubborn and hardheaded, at least that’s what my foster dad said was my greatest and worst personality trait.

  I wasn’t shooting for the stars or aiming to become a billionaire. I didn’t want to be a celebrity or anything close to that. I just wanted my own small business doing graphic design work that could pay my bills, keep me fed, and still have a little extra left over for other things. I didn’t want to have to rely on someone else’s charity or whim. I’d had to do that for as long as I could remember, hoping my mom would come home sober, hoping my sisters would make me food when my mom wasn’t around, and then hoping the lady with social services could at least keep me and my little brother together…. Why was I even thinking about that?

  For the most part, I’d always known what I wanted to do with my life, so I’d naively thought half the battle was in the bag. Making it work should have been easy.

  What no one tells you is that the road to accomplishing your goals isn’t a straight line; it looks more like a corn maze. You stopped, you went, you backed up, and took a few wrong turns along the way, but the important thing you had to remember was that there was an exit. Somewhere.

  You just couldn’t give up looking for it, even when you really wanted to.

  And especially not when it was easier and less scary to go with the flow than actually strike out on your own and make your path.

  Scooting the stool he was sitting on back, Aiden got to his feet with his empty glass in hand. His Hulk-sized frame seemed to dwarf the not-exactly-small kitchen every time he was in there… which was always. Big surprise. He consumed at least 7,000 calories a day. During the regular football season, he bumped it up to ten thousand. Of course, he was in the kitchen all day. So was I—making his meals.

  “Did you buy pears?” he asked, already pushing our conversation and the middle finger incident aside as he filled his glass with water from the refrigerator’s filter.

  I didn’t feel guilty at all about getting caught flipping him off. The first time it had happened, I thought I was going to die of embarrassment and then get fired, but now I knew Aiden. He didn’t care if I did it, or at least that was the impression I got since I still had a job. I’d seen people come up to him and try goading him, calling him all sorts of name
s and insults that made me reel back. But what did he do when people did that kind of stuff? He didn’t even twitch; he just pretended not to hear them.

  Honestly, it was a little impressive to have that kind of backbone. I couldn’t keep it together when someone honked at me while I was driving.

  But as impressive as Aiden was, as much as his perfect butt made women double-take, and as dumb as most people would think I was for resigning from a job with a man who starred in commercials for an athletic apparel company, I still wanted to quit. The urge got stronger and stronger each day.

  I’d busted my butt. No one else had done the work for me. This was what I wanted, what I had always wanted. I’d kept my eye on the prize for years for the opportunity to be my own boss. Having to call assholes who made it seem like I was an inconvenience, or folding underwear that clung to the most spectacular ass in the country, wasn’t it.

  Tell him, tell him, tell him right now you’re planning on quitting, my brain egged on almost desperately.

  But that nagging little voice of indecision and self-doubt that liked to hang out in the space where my non-existent spine should have been, reminded me, What's the rush?

  * * *

  The first time I met The Wall of Winnipeg, the second thing he said to me was, “Can you cook?”

  He hadn’t shaken my hand, asked me to sit down, or anything like that. In retrospect, that should have warned me of how things would be between us.

  Aiden had asked me my name when he first let me in the front door and led me straight into a beautiful, open kitchen that looked like something straight out of a home renovation show. Then he’d gone straight for questioning my cooking skills.

  Before that day, his manager had already interviewed me twice. The position was in the income range I’d been aiming for, and that was all that had mattered to me back then. The employment agency I’d signed up with, had already called me into their offices on three separate occasions to make sure I’d be a good fit for ‘a celebrity’ as they called him.

 

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