Franco hadn’t wanted lifts in his boots anyway.
Everyone had said he needed them, but Elena Hernandez had sniffed disdainfully at the order and said, “Don’t be stupid. There’s nothing wrong with being five feet tall.” She’d put a conventional heel on the boots—making him a towering five feet plus three quarters of an inch—but had refused to, as she put it, compromise the fit any more.
She was right.
Franco had owned many pairs of boots, but this one, shaped to his feet, and making no compromise with his vanity, was the best. And Elena didn’t seem to mind that he was the same height she was, even after she’d met Papá and must have realized that what little height he had was likely to melt away as he got older. They were a grown man’s boots, made to get through a day’s work without looking bad, but not meant to impress a girl on a night out dancing.
There would be no nights out dancing with Elena, at any rate. There were rumors that her sister danced quite a lot at the university in Oaxaca City, but no one had even heard a whisper about it from Elena for two years, since she’d chased off Nicolás Quintana. Nico still played in the square on rare weekends, and one day, Franco meant to punch him in the face. He had told Elena that he would remove her from Santa Cecilia and had all be spat upon Doña Imelda, which had made Elena fanatical about holding her grandmother’s standards at all costs.
Franco didn’t mind this too much. He didn’t hate music, but he was largely indifferent to it. Dancing had never been his favorite pastime. It was hard to romantically dip a lady who was six inches taller than he was, anyway.
And not having to deal with all the noise meant that, when he spent time with Elena, they could actually talk, at least once they got off the motorcycle, and he found that he liked talking with her.
It was a two hour drive up to Llano Grande, and he had to clear the whole trip—and its purpose—with her mother. (Señora Hernandez seemed like the pushover in any house containing Doña Imelda, Elena, and Victoria, but appearances were deceiving. When it came to her daughters—or her perpetually single sister-in-law, Rosita—men were vetted thoroughly, interviewed and constantly scrutinized by Coco Rivera de Hernandez. Even her husband, Julio, was more forgiving. But after three of these grueling interviews, Franco had the sense that he had been approved, and everything from here on out was a question of propriety.) Elena would have been satisfied with a two hour drive anywhere, including in a circle around Santa Cecilia—she loved being on the motorcycle (and even liked hanging about when he was tinkering with it in his father’s shop)—but Franco had wanted to bring her away from town, to someplace so beautiful that it would make her heart stir on its own.
So they’d left the bike near a lodge and taken to a trail toward Cerro Yatin. On the way, she talked about shoes, and business, and charity. “I always bring extra shoelaces,” she told him. “Mamá Imelda started it. She was an orphan, you know.”
“I know. So was my Papá. That’s how we all ended up Riveras.”
“Anyway, she always takes care to make sure we can help if someone needs it. We can’t just carry around shoes, but I can always bring laces. You’d be surprised how many problems can be fixed with proper lacing.”
“And the shoes to the convent and the orphanage.”
“Yes. And the poor.” She grinned. “We once gave shoes to the new President. He lived in Oaxaca for a little while and he came through Santa Cecilia. Mamá Imelda told me all about it. She remembered him because he was so ugly. But he thanked her very nicely for the shoes.”
“I don’t think he was in the orphanage, though…”
“No. Just a boy with broken shoes who happened across the Plaza when my mother was out shining. She went straight to Mamá Imelda, and Mamá Imelda came back with shoes, and now he’s the president.” She grinned. “He’s still kind of ugly, though.”
“Well, hopefully, he’ll be a good president.”
“Mamá Imelda doesn’t trust any politician. But she thinks maybe one who’s worn her shoes can keep his feet on the right path.”
Franco laughed. “A perfectly logical thing to think.” He sat down on a log and pointed at his own perfect boots. “Mine seem to lead me in the right directions!”
“How could they not, when you made them with your own hands? When I wear these, I know that Elena is looking out for me.”
“I would look out for you barefoot, amigo.”
“Amigo?” Franco said, his annoyance only half-feigned. “We’ll need to do something about that pet name.”
“Oh, really? What would you like?”
“Cariño. Mi vida. Mi amor.”
“Boring,” Elena declared. “I don’t want sentimental poetry. I want a friend. Don’t you?”
“To be perfectly honest, I have a lot of friends.”
“Oh. So what were you looking for?” She smiled faintly, obviously knowing perfectly well.
“A wife, to be honest.”
“Well, shouldn’t you be friends with your wife?”
“I hadn’t really thought of that.”
“I would like to be friends with my husband. Mamá and Papá are wonderful friends. They like to work together and build things and go off on trips together.”
“I don’t know what use I’d be working with you. I’m not a shoemaker, Elena.”
“But you know machines. You could keep the machines running.” She caught herself. “I mean, if that’s what you’d want to do. I… I want to keep working with my family. I am a shoemaker.”
Franco pointed at his boots again and said, “Obviously.” He looked at his toes. “And I can learn to fix your sewing machines. That’s something I can do. And I can be your friend… mi amor.”
She blushed and looked away for a minute, never one to let someone see grand emotions on her face… but Franco knew that, if he were facing her on the trail, he would see broad and glowing smile. “Well, then,” she said, “I suppose we have some planning to do…”