Ain’t nobody got time for octogenarian blackmail, especially Kamilah Vega. Convincing her parents to update the family’s Puerto Rican restaurant and enter it into The Fall Foodie Tour is quite enough on her plate, muchas gracias. And with the gentrification of their Chicago neighborhood, the tour looks like the only way to save the place. Too bad her abuelo made himself very clear; if she wants to change anything in his restaurant, she must marry the one man she can't stand: his best friend’s grandson.
Liam Kane spent a decade working his ass off to turn his family’s distillery into a contender. Now he and his grandfather are on the verge of winning a national competition. Then Granda hits him with a one-two punch: he has cancer and has his heart set on seeing Liam married before it’s too late. And his Granda knows just the girl... yup, you guessed it, Kamilah Vega.
If they refuse, their grandfathers will sell the building that houses their businesses, ruining all their well-laid plans. With their legacies and futures on the line, Kamilah and Liam plan to outfox the devious duo, faking an engagement until they both get what they want. But the more time they spend together, the more they realize how much there is to love. Soon, they find themselves tangled up in more than either of them bargained for.
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Kamilah Vega stomped up the short entryway and yanked the heavy glass door open with more force than necessary. A strong wind, the type only ever experienced in Chicago, grabbed a hold of the door and pushed it back so roughly that it made a loud bang. The front-desk secretary jumped and gave her a dirty look, but Kamilah barely noticed. Her attention went immediately to the two bodies slumped in the love seat outside the director’s office.
She tried her best to keep the anger out of her voice because she already knew how the two troublemakers in front of her would react to it. “What did you do now?”
That garnered an immediate and very predictable response of “Nothing” from both occupants. It was a lie, of course. It always was whenever these two started claiming innocence in unison.
Kamilah rubbed both hands over her face and let out the type of deep and weary sigh that someone should let out at midnight after a hard and long day—not at eight thirty in the morning. She dropped her hands. “Don’t you think it’s time to stop with the shenanigans? You’re eighty years old, Abuelo.”
Her grandfather gasped in outrage at the mention of his age and scowled at her. His salt-and-pepper hair was sticking up all over the place like a fuzzy baby monkey, making him look adorable despite the baleful glare.
Looking decidedly more put together, even in his tattered denim overalls and faded flannel, Abuelo’s roommate and best friend gave her his own version of the stink eye. “You’re only as old as you feel,” Killian replied in his deep Irish brogue.
“And that means what? That you two feel twelve?”
Before they could answer, the door to the office opened, and there stood Maria Lopez-Hermann, the director of Casa del Sol Senior Living. “Hello, Kamilah. I’m glad you were able to come on such short notice. I know you were probably in the middle of morning prep at the restaurant.”
Kamilah didn’t bother telling Maria that after closing the night before, she’d slept through her many alarms and was late to work. Now, thanks to the two hooligans next to her, she was going to be very, very late. Her employers wouldn’t care about her excuses. It didn’t matter that they were her parents. Kamilah was a Vega and an employee, so her main responsibility was to the family restaurant. Always.
Maria motioned for them to enter her office, and they filed in. Kamilah purposely let Abuelo and Killian sit in the two chairs in front of Maria’s desk, while she stood behind them, a hand on each of their shoulders. It was the same stance her mami had taken the time she and her cousin Lucy had got in trouble for skipping gym class for two weeks.
Abuelo crossed one leg over the other and tucked his hands under his armpits, while Killian leaned back, spread his legs wide, and let his arms hang over the short back of the barrel chair. Kamilah once again marveled at their ability to look summarily unconcerned while she was sweating bullets, and she hadn’t even done anything.
Maria took a seat behind her desk and interlocked her fingers, resting them on top of her desktop calendar. “I thought I had made myself clear after the bird incident that being banned from pet therapy would be the least of your worries if there were any more pranks pulled.”
Kamilah closed her eyes and shook her head. It was a variation on what she’d said right before giving the Devious Duo a monthlong suspension from bingo for starting an illicit gambling ring; before that, there was a security-enforced curfew after the strip-poker fiasco. “What did they do now?” she asked, well aware that it was the third or fourth time she’d asked the question that morning and had yet to get a response.
“This morning we had two residents with high blood pressure show alarmingly high readings after breakfast. We did some investigating and found that Mr. Kane and Mr. Vega had snuck into the cafeteria last night and replaced the decaffeinated coffee grounds with fully caffeinated espresso.”
“Abuelo!” Kamilah exclaimed.
“They don’t have any proof it was us,” Killian interjected. “They just want to blame us for everything that happens in this godforsaken prison.”
“Prison,” Kamilah scoffed. “You two have more freedom than anyone else in here.” It was true. Because of their relatively good physical health and stable mental health, Abuelo and Killian didn’t require as much care as many of the other residents. It was more as if Casa del Sol were their college dorm rather than their senior-care facility. It didn’t help that the two tended to view the senior-living center’s strict rules as friendly suggestions.
“Your feelings aside,” Maria continued, “we do have proof. The cameras that we installed in the cafeteria and kitchen caught very clear images of you both.”
Abuelo softly damned the cameras. “Condenados cámaras.”
But Killian had other concerns. “You hear that, Papo? Freedom,” he harrumphed.
“They won’t even let me drink café con leche,” Abuelo added. “They give me light brown poop water and call it coffee.”
“It’s decaf with a splash of coconut milk, and your doctor says it’s better for your heart,” Kamilah pointed out. Abuelo’s doctor also said his congestive heart failure was very treatable as long as he took his meds, stuck to a heart-healthy diet, and remained relatively active. Of course, Abuelo paid him no attention.
As if on cue, Abuelo made a noise of disdain. “Ese doctor no sabe na’. Cuando me duele el pecho, me pongo un poco de Vaporú y ya.”
Kamilah sucked her teeth more at the claim that his doctor knew nothing than at the miraculous healing quality of Vicks VapoRub. All Latinx people knew Vaporú was the cure for everything from a common cold to heartbreak.
Abuelo looked at the director of the complex with petulance. “And when are you going to start serving carne frita con mofongo?” Abuelo continued, because apparently he was on a roll. “I’m sick of eating all these steamed vegetables like a damn rabbit.”
Maria leaned forward. “Mr. Vega, if you are so unhappy with Casa del Sol, you are welcome to find another living facility to reside in.”
Kamilah jumped in before her hardheaded grandfather could ruin the best thing he had going for him. “Maria, could I talk to these two alone for a few minutes before you lower the hammer?”
Used to their antics, Maria nodded her head and left the office.
Kamilah sank to her haunches between their chairs and waited until both men looked at her. “You guys have to stop this,” she said in her voice of reason tone. She placed a hand on each of theirs. “I don’t have time for you to be staging weekly high jinks like you’re the Little Rascals. I can’t be here all the time making sure that you don’t get kicked out.”
Abuelo turned his face away. “Nobody told you to come act like our mother.”
Killian nodded. “We are grown men.”
“Bullshite,” a deep voice sneered from too damn close, startling Kamilah right as she felt a presence looming over her.
A girl who grew up on the West Side of Chicago and with four tormenting older brothers knew to strike first and ask questions later.
“Not today,” Kamilah declared in her You-Messed-Withthe-Wrong-Bitch voice, spinning around in her crouched position, morphing into famous Chicago heavyweight champion Ernie Terrell, and swinging her fist at her would-be attacker’s crotch.
The moment her fist connected with the very sensitive part of the man’s anatomy and she heard his pained “Son of a bitch,” she knew she’d made a grave mistake.
Oh dear God, no. Not him. Please don’t let him be here.
Meanwhile, Tweedledum and Tweedledee laughed their asses off like a pair of demented hyenas.
When he fell to his knees, Kamilah suddenly found herself face-to-face with the exact man she’d just prayed wasn’t there.
Big, broad, and brooding, Killian’s grandson didn’t resemble him in the least. Where Killian had a round face and wide nose with a bit of a hook at the end, Liam looked like something conjured out of the tie me up and spank me books her sister-in-law was always reading. His face was all sharp angles, set off by dark stubble, a stern mouth, and cool eyes.
“What is wrong with you?” He wheezed. “You can’t just go around dick-punching people.”
The hyenas laughed harder.
Kamilah’s jaw dropped. “What’s wrong with me?” she asked, incredulous. “What’s wrong with you, coming up on me like that? You don’t sneak up on a woman and expect not to get junk-punched. Especially not a woman born and raised in Humboldt Park.”
His French-blue eyes narrowed under dark brows. His nostrils flared while he inhaled deeply. That was Liam speak for I’d really like to tell you off right now, but not going to engage.
Kamilah saw that look often. Whatever. He pissed her off too.
“She has a point, lad,” Killian said, the amusement still thick in his voice. “You deserved that whack to the wanker.” He stood and pulled his grandson to his feet.
Kamilah found herself once again eye level with Liam’s crotch. She quickly stood and turned away from him, her face flushing with embarrassment. She met Abuelo’s gaze.
He arched his brows. “Nena, aren’t you going to apologize to him?”
“Me? Apologize to him?” Kamilah let out an incredulous bark of laughter. “He should apologize for sneaking in here and scaring me.”
“He didn’t sneak. The door was open.”
Kamilah didn’t answer. She should own up to her part and apologize, but her pride wouldn’t let her. Pride was the only thing protecting her from Liam. She couldn’t let it go now.
Liam stared, expressionless. Then he ignored her comment completely. “Granda, what did you do now?”
Kamilah hated when he ignored her.
Killian opened his mouth, but Liam cut him off. “And don’t say nothing, because I know you better than that.”
Before Killian could come up with a story, Maria walked back into the office. “They threw away all of the decaf coffee and replaced it with Café Bustelo espresso.”
“What the hell, Granda? You are willing to get kicked out of this place over coffee? Seriously?”
“It’s not the coffee. It’s the principle,” Killian replied, his nose in the air.
Liam threw up his hands and let out a sound of exasperation. “What principle? That the people you pay to take care of you actually take care of you?”
Killian crossed his arms. “You don’t get it because you’re young.”
“I don’t get it because it’s nonsense. Granda, where do you plan to go if you get kicked out? You sold your house to move in here with Papo.”
At the mention of the house he once shared with the love of his life, Killian’s face fell. That had been his wife’s dream house, and Kamilah had always suspected that he hadn’t really been ready to sell it.
“If you get thrown out, you can’t live with me, Granda.”
That was too much. Kamilah certainly wasn’t in agreement with their troublemaking, but Liam didn’t have the right to speak to his grandfather that way. Not after all Killian had done for him. “Because God forbid Super Loner Liam has to allow someone into his hermit cave.”
He turned on her. “Excuse me?”
“I’m saying that if they did get asked to leave, which we don’t know is going to happen, it wouldn’t kill you to let your grandpa move in with you. That’s what family does.”
“I was referring to the fact that he can’t walk that many stairs anymore, but I guess, as the almost thirty-year-old woman living with her parents, I should take your word on that other stuff.”
Kamilah scowled. He didn’t have to bring up her living situation like that. “It’s interesting, isn’t it? It’s like it’s not a big deal for us, because I’m not a miserable person who is extremely difficult to be around.”
Liam scowled at her. “Don’t you have somewhere to be? Like, off making someone else’s day shitty?”
Rude. Her pulse sped up. “I usually would, but since I already started with you, I can check it off my to-do list and it’s not even ten o’clock. Thanks a bunch.” She added a sweet smile.
“Glad to be of service.”
“Would you two just get a room already?” Killian said. Liam turned his dark look on his grandfather, and she made a disgusted noise.
“What?” Killian shrugged. “All I’m saying is you two fight like a couple.”
“Yeah.” Abuelo added his two cents. “You should just get married already.”
There was a beat of silence, and then both octogenarians’ eyes lit with the same mischievousness. The kind that had no doubt led to all of them being in their current situation.
You know what? Let’s get back to the reason we are here.” She faced Maria. “They may not look it, but I know Abuelo and Killian are sorry for the danger they put their fellow residents in, and next time they will think more about the consequences before they do something so incredibly stupid.”
Maria let loose a world-weary sigh, much like the one Kamilah had released earlier. She gave a small eye roll while shaking her head because they both knew Kamilah was full of shit. “Their cafeteria privileges have been revoked for the next two weeks. Prepackaged paper-bag meals will be sent to their apartment, or their families will have to provide their meals for them.”
“Is that supposed to be a punishment?” Abuelo asked.
“With the stuff they serve here, it feels more like a rew—”
Kamilah covered his mouth with her hand. “That seems totally fair.” In her head she was freaking out because she just knew she was going to be the one providing said meals, and she did not have the time for all that. “I’ll make sure they get fed.” She felt Abuelo’s mouth curve behind her hand, and she saw Killian’s pleased smile. “Don’t get too happy,” she warned. “You think they denied you? Just wait to see what I have in store. When I’m done with you, you are going to wish you could eat rabbit food.”
They were completely unfazed by her threats. Probably because they knew Kamilah was a crème brûlée—right below a crackly hard surface, she was really just pudding.
Echoing her thoughts, Liam scoffed. “As if you aren’t going to end up making them three-course meals complete with dessert.”
Kamilah fought the urge to stick her tongue out at him like a six-year-old. Instead, she ignored him. “I have to go to work, but for the love of God, please behave yourselves today,” she begged the duo of deviants.
She was almost positive she heard Killian mumble, “We make no promises.”
Excerpted from A Proposal They Can’t Refuse by Natalie Caña. Copyright © 2022 by Natalie Caña. Published by MIRA Books.
Natalie Caña writes contemporary romances that allow her to incorporate her witty sense of humor and her love for her culture (Puertominican whoop whoop!) for heroines and heroes like her. A PROPOSAL THEY CAN'T REFUSE is her debut novel.
Author website: http://nataliecana.com/services-and-pricing