“What are you doing here? I asked you to stay away from Alejandro!” Elizaveta Melnyk’s voice rose, echoing across the lawn, and drew the attention of the other graduates’ family members who’d also come to watch Oklahoma State’s Class of 2012 graduate. Alejandro Delgado winced at the volume, as several heads turned toward them. For a woman who prided herself on decorum, his mother could raise a ruckus with the best of them. Clad in his graduation gown and cardboard hat with tassel, the last thing he wanted or needed was a confrontation between his parents. This was supposed to be a happy day. He’d only graduate from college once.
“He’s my son, too, Eliza.” Standing less than ten feet from her, Kemen Delgado, his no good father, crossed his arms over his chest and locked wills with her. “Did you honestly expect me to ignore his graduation?”
Alejandro couldn’t help but stare. It’d been years since he’d actually seen his father. While the elder Delgado’s shoulders were still straight and his body physically fit, his father’s hair was no longer dark under the all-too-familiar black Stetson. Now silver, it gave his father a distinguished look. But what the hell was he doing here? His mother had moved them halfway across the county just to get away from his father.
“Of course I did. You didn’t show up for his high school―” Eliza’s dark eyes were hostile as she clenched her small clutch in one hand. Wearing her best navy blue dress and her mother’s pearls, his mother appeared to be the perfect Ukrainian lady. Only those close to her recognized the potential danger in those chocolate eyes.
“He was homeschooled and you didn’t bother to inform me when he completed his studies. It wasn’t until your foreman called me and told me about his going off to school that I realized he’d finished a full year early.” Kemen seemed to be speaking through gritted teeth.
“If you hadn’t forced me to take Alejandro and move so far away, you’d have known.” Eliza propped her hands on her hips. “And who invited you today? I’m surprised you don’t have your lover with you? Or did―”
“Mom! Enough!” Alejandro stepped between his parents. “This isn’t the time or the place for you to rehash your problems with Dad. Why don’t you find Jase and head back to the car?”
As if the mention of his name had summoned him, his mother’s foreman appeared at her side. The grizzled old man had been on the Bar M as long as Alejandro could remember. “Come on, Miss Elizaveta. The missus and I aren’t as young as we used to be. Sitting out in this hot sun has sure done us in.” He pushed back his white felt hat and nodded toward Kemen. “Give the boy a chance to talk to his pa.”
Eliza stiffened. “But―”
“Stop worrying, Mom. I’m a grown man now. I think I can handle talking to my dad.” He handed her his leather diploma cover. “Why don’t you hang on to this for safekeeping? I’ll be there in a few minutes. I’d planned on taking you to Di’Vinci’s for dinner. I hear they have pasta to die for.”
Eliza’s face softened. Her weakness for Italian food was nearly as great as her growing resentment of his father. She narrowed her eyes at his father. “Fine, I’ll go. But remember your promise, Kemen.”
“I will.” Kemen shoved his hands into the pockets of his slacks.
“See that you do.” Eliza turned to her son. “Five minutes, Alejandro. I’m hungry.”
He nodded as Jase led his mother away. Waiting until she disappeared into the crowd of bodies, he was determined to make this meeting as short as possible.
“Why are you here, Dad?”
Amber eyes, so similar to his own, searched his face. “Can’t a man want to see his only son…?”
“If you wanted to see me, you knew where I was. It was your own choice to stay away.”
Kemen actually looked uncomfortable. “In a way. Your mom and I―”
Alejandro made a slashing motion with his hand. “I know. You and Mom came to an agreement that it would be better if you weren’t a part of my daily life. A decision you both made without consulting me.”
“You were only ten at the time, son. Not old enough to understand…”
Alejandro crossed his arms over his chest. “What? To understand my father was picking his lover over me?” Anger that had been buried deep tried to spill out, but he forced it back down. He wasn’t going to let this happen. He was twenty-three, not thirteen. Hell, he’d even completed a double major. So why did his dad’s presence bother him so much? He’d long ago accepted the fact his dad had other priorities. Nothing good would come from this. “Forget it. It doesn’t matter. All water under the bridge, as they say.”
Kemen sighed. “It is, but it still doesn’t change the fact I’m proud of you. A double degree in agriculture and music? Quite an accomplishment. I remember the times I used to listen to you play. It was always my favorite memory― of you sitting on the porch with my old battered guitar and singing to Bojangles.” A wistful smile crossed his face. “I still have him. He’s getting old, but aren’t we all?”
Alejandro shifted uncomfortably at the memory. He also remembered those clear summer nights where the stars had shone so bright it was like a painter had thrown white paint into the black sky. The smell of hay on the breeze competed with the feel of the strings under his fingertips. He hadn’t been very good, but it hadn’t stopped his dad from sitting on the front porch swing and humming along. It was probably one of the things he’d missed the most when he returned home in the fall. Those quiet times just before bed, where there were no chores left to do, and his belly was full of the spicy Mexican food his dad always made for him. It had been just his dad, their hound dog, and him under the stars without a care in the world.
But times had changed. His dad had changed. “Look, I still don’t know what you want from me.”
A sad smile twisted Kemen’s features. “A visit. Nothing more. Jase tells me you planned to take a few weeks off before you start to work at the Bar M. Spend them on the Rancho de la Luna. Let me get to know the man you’ve become.”
Anger at his old man’s audacity warred with the little boy he used to be. Part of him wanted to tell Kemen to go straight to hell, while the other part urged him to spend time with the man who’d sired him. Perhaps he could find out why he’d shoved Alejandro out of his life all those years ago.
“I should tell you to take a long walk off a short pier.” Alejandro watched as his dad’s shoulders slumped and felt horrible. No matter what the man had or hadn’t done, he was still his father. “I’ll think about it, okay? I have packing and stuff to get done on campus, so I wouldn’t be able to come out right away, even if I wanted to.”
“But you’ll think about it?” Kemen rubbed the back of his neck, before sweeping his hat off his head. His expression was earnest. “All I want is a chance, Alejandro. To be the dad I should’ve been.”
Alejandro sighed. His dad had swallowed a lot of pride to come here, knowing he wasn’t going to be welcomed with open arms. Part of him respected that. Or perhaps his mother was right when she’d claimed he was too soft-hearted for his own good. “You’ll get your chance, Dad. Just don’t fuck it up this time.”
Then Alejandro found himself swept up in a huge bear hug. Even though he held himself stiffly, his dad was smiling when he released him. “I won’t. I promise.”
“See to it you don’t.” Alejandro stepped back. “Mom’s waiting on me. I’ll see you the beginning of next week.”
“I’ll have your old room all aired out and ready.” Kemen’s smile was radiant as Alejandro walked away. Unfortunately, it was the last time Alejandro would see his father alive.