A/N: Welcome to my new story! So, a little bit of bg on this. One of the characters in this story, Ace Salvador, is actually the original Alex Rodriguez (from my story Beautiful Love, Wonderful Disaster). Their personalities aren't quite the same, but when I was beginning BLWD and I needed good name for a character who was kind of bad boy-ish I automatically thought of Alex Rodriguez, thinking I wouldn't need to use my other character anymore. Turns out I did still need him. It's a little weird writing this story and not having his name be Alex, but Ace works well too. That's what I get for not wanting to be more creative. Haha :) Hope you enjoy the story. Revieeww!!

I got a little lazy with my accents and stuff…bear with me…

Raquel

December 2, my seventeenth birthday. Seventeen is just one of those ages, you know, it's just not as big. Turning sixteen is a usually a major occasion, as is turning eighteen, but seventeen is just in between. It's almost in the way. It's the same with nineteen and twenty. At the same time, I guess these transition ages are good. They give you time to do some growing up before your next big birthday. I say all of this to get to my point—I didn't want a party. Of course, my brothers wouldn't hear of it.

My name is Raquel Cruz. I'm the youngest child of the Cruz clan. Lucky me, I have five older brothers. Antonio is twenty-four, Carlos and Carmen are twenty-two, Jorge is twenty, and Miguel is eighteen. My brothers are absolutely amazing, albeit, a little annoying. They're usually pretty cool about things, but sometimes they're just super-protective. Along with my brothers, I have Antonio's wife, Teresa, my sister-in-law. They haven't had any children yet, but I can't wait to have a niece. Yes, a niece. I mean, of course I'll be happy even if they have a boy but come on.

While I get along fine with my brothers, my parents are a different story. Especially my mother. The woman thinks I am completely useless. I'm not kidding. When I was younger I spent my time running around with my brothers instead of learning how to take care of the house, making me a useless daughter. Whatever. My father's only problem is that he's just never really around. He works a lot and when he is home he's usually watching TV or something. We've never had a relationship but at least we can be in the same room without wanting to kill each other.

Anyway, the little party my brothers threw me is over, thank goodness. I was about to gather my gifts and take them up to my room when Jorge ran in and threw his phone at me. "Jorge!" I yelled as I scrambled to catch it.

"Play secretary."

As soon as he said that, his phone began vibrating in my hand. I looked at the caller ID. Ah, Lisa—his current girlfriend. "Hello." I love this game.

"Jorge," she sobbed.

"I'm sorry; Mr. Cruz is unavailable at the moment. May I take a message?"

"I really, really need to talk to him," she hiccupped.

"Would you like me to schedule an appointment?"

The crying stopped and Lisa became irritated. "Who is this?"

I smirked. "This is Mr. Cruz's secretary. Now, he has an open slot after dinner. Say, fifteen minutes. Does that work?"

"What kind of sick joke is this? Where's Jorge? Let me talk to him."

I put on my 'patient' voice. "As I said before…"

"Wait! Are you, like, seeing him? Because I am!"

"No, miss. Well, technically, yes. But no."

"What?!" Lisa shrieked.

I couldn't help it anymore. I burst into laughter and Jorge took the phone back. "Hello. Hey, Lisa. No, that was my sister. Yeah, sorry. No, I'm not mad at you anymore, baby…" his voice faded as he walked further away from me.

Now I could bring my gifts upstairs. I grabbed all of the bags and headed up to my room. There were perks to having brothers with jobs. They never failed to buy me nice gifts. I dumped my bags on my bed and sifted through them for something to change into. Not only did my brothers buy me things, but they had good taste too! I picked out what I wanted to wear and changed quickly.

Just as I finished, there was a knock on my door and Miguel came into my room. "You look nice." He pushed some bags aside and sat on my bed. "Feel like going out?"

"Right now?"

"Yeah. I'm taking Candi out."

I gave him a weird look. "Don't people usually go on dates alone? How will Candi feel about me tagging along?"

Miguel shrugged. "I would feel better if you came."

"You'd feel better? What about that thing called privacy?"

"If you don't want to go just say so. I'll ask Javier or something."

I will never understand him. "No, I'll go. I'm all dressed anyway."

"Good!" he said happily. "We'll leave in ten." He tweaked my nose lightly and left my room.

I grabbed a comb off my bureau and ran it through my hair a few times. It was easy to fall into my normal routine of critiquing myself as I stood in front of the mirror. My hair is definitely a plus. It's long, straight, and silky. On the other hand, it gets pretty frizzy sometimes. I actually like the dark brown color that it is. My face isn't bad. I like my eyes, big and deep brown, framed by long eyelashes, but my left eye is slightly lazy. Lips are good too. I licked them quickly and pursed them comically, then laughed at myself. I tucked some hair behind my ears and cringed. My ears stick out a little bit and tucking my hair behind them doesn't really help my cause any. My skin is clear and a lovely soft brown color, in my opinion. I stepped back and smoothed my shirt down. Figure. Good.

"Would you stop checking yourself out? You're so vain."

I ran my fingers through my hair one last time and blew him a kiss. "You know I'm cute."

"And that, dear sister, will be your downfall."

Ignoring his comment, I grabbed my jacket and shrugged it on. "Let's go. I'm ready to fulfill my duty as date-crasher."

Miguel rolled his eyes at me. We went downstairs and headed to the front door. He pulled the door open and we both froze. There was a boy on the porch with his hand raised to knock on the door. Miguel began closing the door again.

"No, no, come on."

I put my hand on Miguel's arm and stopped him from closing the door. "Javier. What in the world?"

"I'm sorry."

"I told you to give it up, Javier," Miguel snapped.

I noticed that Javier looked pretty beat up. Sighing, I pulled him into the house.

"I'm sorry, Miguel," he said again.

"You're such a—"

"Miguel," I cut him off, "you go meet Candi. I'm going to get Javier cleaned up and meet you. Text me the place."

"I'm not leaving you here with him."

"I'm not gonna try anything, I swear! I can be trusted."

Miguel's eyes darkened. "You haven't showed me that you can be trusted."

"It's okay. Jorge is up in his room. We won't be alone. Now go," I pushed him out the door. Once the door was closed, I turned back and glared at Javier. "Idiot."

Cállate, Raquel!"

"You want me to kick your sorry butt back out there?" I asked, jabbing my finger over my shoulder.

Javier averted his eyes and ran the back of his hand under his bleeding nose. "No," he grumbled.

"Come on. Let's go upstairs so I can get you cleaned up." I walked up to the bathroom with Javier following behind me. In the bathroom, I made him sit down on the lowered toilet seat. "What did you do this time?"

"Nothing major."

"Nothing major?" I echoed as I poured peroxide on a cotton ball. Gently, I dabbed the cut above his eyebrow. "Right." I switched to rubbing at a dirty scrape on his cheek.

He winced. "I wanna stop, really."

"But old habits die hard right?"

"Si."

I wet a facecloth and began wiping away the blood under his nose and on his chin. "You're such a mess. Take your shirt off." He took off his torn, dirty shirt and I tossed it in the corner. "Why do you keep doing whatever it is that you do? You always end up hurt."

"I just can't stop. It's like a drug."

My eyebrows shot up. "A drug? Javier, are you…?"

He shook his head. "No. Almost, but no."

"Javier."

"I know, Raquel." He stood up and examined his face in the mirror.

I felt tiny beside him. He was only six-one, but his slim build made him look taller. When he finished examining his face he looked down at me. "Thank you."

"Mhm." I smiled at him and took out my cell phone, which had just vibrated. Miguel had texted me with the meeting place and an order to HURRY UP. I got Javier a new shirt and told him to clean up a little bit more and meet me by the front door.

A few minutes later we were on our way to Shortiez Burgerz to meet Miguel and Candi. It was a short walk so I didn't have to worry about our silence becoming awkward. We entered Shortiez and I tensed. In a dark corner of the burger joint I could see four rough looking guys and I knew exactly who they were. The group of four liked to call themselves Cua4ro. One of them looked up when he heard the door open and a smile spread across his face. He slid out of the booth and walked toward us.

Feliz cumpleaños, prima! Tengo un regalo…" My cousin, Tito, trailed off and dug through his pockets. "Ah." He pulled out a small box and held it out to me.

I hesitated.

He laughed. "I'm not using you to smuggle drugs or anything. It's a gift. Honest."

I still didn't reach for the box.

"Raquel, you're my cousin. I wouldn't use you." He put the box in my hand and curled my fingers around it so I wouldn't drop it. "Open it."

Slowly, I opened the box. Inside the box was a pair of gold diamond earrings. "Tito! These are beautiful! Thank—" I stopped and narrowed my eyes. "How did you get these?"

Tito laughed. "The legal way. I bought them at a jewelry store."

"Well, you never know with you." I kissed his cheek and switched them with the earrings I had in my third holes. "I have—Miguel's waiting," I changed my sentence and winced when Javier poked me, hard, in the ribs.

"Sure. Adios." Tito smiled, but it wasn't real.

Javier put his hands on my back and pushed me along. "Move it, Chiquita. Miguel's gonna have a cow."

"He's our cousin."

"He's bad news."

"He's family."

"He's bad family."

"Javier!"

"Raquel!" He tugged on the ends of my hair. "I'm just looking out for you."

"I'm very capable of looking after myself," I huffed.

"Everybody needs someone to have their back," he said. "Everyone."

Miguel looked up as we approached the table. His eyes searched my face, looking for any sign that there had been trouble. I smiled to reassure him. Candi came back from the bathroom then.

"Oh hey! You made it!"

"Yeah. Sorry for intruding."

"No, no. You're not intruding. It's good to see you. Happy birthday," she added with a smile.

Javier waited for me to sit down and slid in beside me. Miguel wasn't as angry as he had been, but he still wasn't acknowledging Javier. Candi and I shifted uncomfortably. This would be a long night.

**

"Thank you for walking me home," I said as I stood on the porch with Javier. Miguel had gone to take Candi home, so Javier had walked with me.

"No problem." He leaned over and pushed some of my hair aside. "Those are really some nice earrings."

I touched my ear. "Yeah, but it's weird, Tito has never given me a gift before."

"Never?"

"Never."

"Makes you wonder, doesn't it?"

I nodded.

Javier put his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. "So, thanks again for cleaning me up. You're the best."

"Nah. I'm hardly more than useless."

"What? That's not true, Raquel."

I shrugged.

He put his finger under my chin and tilted my face toward his. "You're not useless. Got it?"

"Got it," I said just to please him.

Shaking his head, he let me put my head back down. "Well, goodnight, I guess." He leaned down and hugged me. "Didn't say it before but happy birthday."

"Thank you. Goodnight, Javier."

He backed down the porch, waved, and started down the street.

"Stay out of trouble," I called.

He turned and walked backwards. "What ya gonna gimme if I behave?"

"Un beso on your cheek."

"I'll take what I can get." He waved again and I went into the house.

"Raquel?"

I poked my head into the den at my father's call. "Si, Dad." I went in and kissed my parents.

"Just making sure it was you," Dad said.

"Yep. Buenas noches."

Neither of them answered but that wasn't unusual. I left the den and continued on toward my room. Jorge stopped me in the hallway. "Miguel with you?"

"No. He took Candi home."

Jorge got a odd expression on his face. "Oh." He turned to go back to his room. "Did he seem upset?"

"No."

"Did Candi?"

"No. They were smiling and holding hands."

He looked over his shoulder at me, odd expression still in place. "Oh."

"Am I missing something here?"

Jorge shook his head in a very unconvincing way. "'Night."

I shrugged off his strange behavior and went to my room. Finally. I put my gifts in a corner of my room, changed into my pajamas, and crawled under my thick comforter. Sighing, I relaxed into my pile of pillows and let myself relax as I waited for Miguel to get home.

So I waited.

And waited.

And waited…

I was startled awake at around one in the morning by shouting from the first floor of the house. The Spanish was so jumbled and rapid that I could barely follow it. I sneaked out of my room and found Jorge doing the same thing. We crept to the landing next to the stairs and peered over the banister.

Miguel was standing below us facing our parents. His knuckles were bleeding and his face was red with anger. He was spouting off words that were making even Jorge cringe. Mom and Dad yelled back with just as much volume and profanity.

"Jorge, what are they saying?" I whispered. "I can't follow it."

"Something about—him coming home too late. Him saying for them to get off his back, that he's eighteen. They asked where he was… he told them to mind their business. Mind you, it was a lot more colorful, but—oh, crap! He's coming!"

We both spun and ran to the nearest room, which happened to be the bathroom. Once the door closed, I put my hand over my mouth and broke out in a fit of giggles. "This was a stupid move. He's gonna know something is up if he finds both of us in the bathroom at one AM."

Jorge laughed softly. "You're right."

A knock on the door caused us both to jump. I opened the door a crack and peered out. Miguel stared blankly at me. "You done?"

"Uh, yeah…"

"I need the bathroom."

"Oh…" I glanced over my shoulder at Jorge who just shrugged.

Miguel's face changed when I opened the door and he saw Jorge. "What were—?" he fell silent and I could see him sorting things out in his mind. His face redden again and he proceeded to tell me and Jorge to stay out of his business with a few choice adjectives added in.

Jorge took a menacing step toward him. "I don't care if you talk to me like that—it doesn't bother me—but you better not talk to Raquel like that again."

Miguel mouthed off to him.

Jorge jabbed his finger into Miguel's chest. "Boy, I will beat you worse than whoever did this to you. Watch your mouth."

This struck a something with Miguel. He flipped Jorge off and pushed by him to get into the bathroom. The click of the lock echoed in the silent hallway.

Jorge kissed my forehead. "Go to sleep, hermanita. You have a few hours before you have to get up for school."

"Jorge, do you know what's going on with Miguel?"

He nodded. "I know, but don't worry about it." He stroked my hair lovingly and smiled reassuringly. "Go to bed."

"Okay." I went to my room and crawled back into bed. My head was spinning with all that had happened today.

Happy birthday to me.