The restaurant at the colorful Hotel Centro in San Cristóbal de Las Casas is quiet, which suits my mood. I want a plate of tacos, a beer, and a shot of tequila. No. Three. Anything to stop the constant refrain going through my head.
You failed. Gil. Dani. Trevor. Everyone.
Every single hike, every night by myself, every solitary meal…they should have helped me figure out who I want to be now. Who I am. Instead, I’ve spent almost every minute rehashing all of my mistakes. All the signs of Gil’s betrayal I missed. The secrets he kept from me. From Dani. From Mom and Dad.
I knew every time he deflected. Every time he kept something from us. Every time he bent—or broke—the truth to suit his needs. But I didn’t want to believe it. He was CIA. It was his job to lie. To keep us in the dark. To protect us. So many times I wrote off his behavior as being “on mission.”
Why didn’t I push harder? Could I have saved him? Or saved Trev or Dani from the hell they both went through?
“Excuse me?” The sultry voice holds an edge of impatience, and I shake off the thoughts holding me down and turn on my bar stool. “Lost in your own world, huh?”
The woman with her hand on the stool next to mine carries her exhaustion in the bags under her brown eyes, and her wariness in the stiffness of her shoulders.
“Sorry. Been a day,” I say. “Can I help you…?”
“Just wanted to know if this stool was taken,” she says and gestures to the rest of the restaurant. Apparently, while I was stuck in my head reliving memories of Gil and all of my other failures, the the rest of the hotel decided it was time to grab a drink.
“Nope. All yours.”
“Thanks.” She sinks heavily onto the well-worn leather seat and runs a hand through her short-cropped brown hair before coughing into her elbow a couple of times.
“You okay, miss?”
After a wheezing breath, she grabs the glass of water the bartender set in front of her and nods, then takes a sip. “Fine. Stupid asthma.” She doesn’t meet my gaze, instead focusing on the menu in front of her.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to pry.” Staring at my beer, I try to forget the pain in Dani’s voice when I called her.
“I had one brother disappear on me, Austin. Are you trying to make it two? Because it sure seems that way.”
With a flinch, I drain the bottle and signal for another. The woman next to me glances over as I curl my fingers around the bottle, and something in her eyes is too alluring for me to turn away.
“You didn’t pry.” Her hesitant smile fades as she sets an inhaler on the bartop. “You were being a gentleman. Or…at least a halfway decent guy.”
I snort. “Can’t say I’m either. At least not anymore.” The alcohol is clearly going to my head, and I crack my knuckles to help me focus. “My mom has asthma. It only bothers her during ragweed season, but she had a couple bad attacks when I was a kid.”
“It’s the humidity for me.” The woman tilts her head and holds out her hand. “Mikayla.”
Mikayla’s grip is solid, as is her stare, stripping me of all my defenses layer by layer, until I release her fingers and grab my beer. “Not a whole lot of Americans in San Cristóbal de Las Casas this time of year.” With a quick glance at the menu, she orders a taco plate, then returns her focus to me. “Outside of my team, you’re the first one I’ve seen. Or…at least talked to.”
“Your team?” Curious, I shift on my stool and take her in. Petite. Maybe five-foot-five at most. Curvy, but compact. Flawless, tawny skin, and dark brown hair that tumbles over her forehead and brushes her sculpted brow.
Another smile, this one full of pride. “My graduate students. We’re researching an endangered orchid that only grows on the cliffs outside of Las Ollas.”
“An endangered orchid?” I almost choke on my sip of beer, but Mikayla’s completely serious, and her dark brown eyes catch fire as she narrows them at me.
“Yes. An orchid.” With a huff, she reaches for her napkin and unfolds it across her lap. “What’s so unbelievable about that?”
“Nothing.” Holding up a hand, I duck my head so I can meet her gaze. “I’m sorry. I haven’t been around people in a while. I guess I forgot how to be—“
“Not a jerk?” Mikayla asks.