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Karol’s head is starting to ache, but every time this guy opens his mouth, it’s either roll her eyes or strangle him to death, and the former doesn’t come with jail time. Still -- if he calls her “bebecita” one more time, she may not be able to stop herself.

“How much longer?” she asks the driver, interrupting her companion.

“With this traffic, señorita? Could be half an hour or more. We should still make it on time, but --”

She stops listening. Another half-hour trapped in this car? At the pace they’re moving, it may be faster to get out and walk. The only thing that stops her -- besides the threat of paparazzi or overeager fans -- is that he’d probably insist on getting out with her.

“Don’t worry, bebecita,” Anuel says, and Karol has to sit on her hands to resist slapping his grinning face. “I’m sure they’ll wait for us. We’re not going to miss anything.”

“That’s not what I’m worried about,” she shoots back. At least here, in this car, in relative privacy, she doesn’t have to pretend to be his best friend. She has to be polite, sure, but she doesn’t have to pretend to believe any of the scripted compliments her media team helped her prepare. He has such a big heart. Right.

If she had known he was this annoying, she never would have agreed to do the song. Over the phone, from prison, he was perfectly charming. But face-to-face, he gets under her skin. That smile. Those tattoos. The way he seems to undress her with his eyes every time he looks at her.

In retrospect, maybe “from prison” should have been a red flag.

She tries to look on the bright side. Anuel loves the sound of his own voice enough that Karol doesn’t need to talk too much -- though she’s pretty sure her tongue is bleeding with how hard she’s bitten it at some of his comments. And with all the focus on their new song, there hasn’t been as much speculation about her relationships with other duet partners.

Because everyone thinks she and Anuel are dating.

Is that a plus?

He’s still talking. She tunes back in for lack of anything better to do, and immediately regrets it; apparently he was thinking the same thing she was. “...together for real, just imagine how wild the fans would go. We could do another song, a real love song, and really blow their minds. And our kids -- you want kids, right?”

The response is out of her mouth before she has time to think about it. “Not with you.”

“Oh, damn. Okay. Tell me how you really feel.”

I don’t think you want that, she thinks.

He powers through her silence. “Our hypothetical children would be really cute, though. Think about it. If you ever wanted a real --”

“Stop. I have a question for you.”

“Shoot.” And there’s that grin again.

“Do you say ‘real’ every third word on purpose, ¿o qué?”

He laughs, loud, and she grits her teeth. “Real hasta la muerte, baby,” he cries. Predictable. She’s never met someone who has internalized their own marketing as deeply as he has. She’s just surprised he hasn’t mentioned “hashtag-free-Anuel” yet.

Hashtag-free-Karol might be more appropriate.

“I have a question for you, too,” he says.

“Okay.”

“What would you say if I told you I’d already written another song for you?”

He sounds so genuine that it catches her off guard. “What?”

“Another song,” he repeats. “For you. For us. I mean -- it’s not really finished. But I had the idea.”

“What kind of song?” She raises an eyebrow at him. If he says that it’s a love song --

“It’s kind of a love song.”

Damn it.

“Do you want to hear it?” he asks, and again he sounds more sincere than she’s ever heard him. It’s almost enough to make her say yes.

In fact, Karol is halfway to a nod before his gaze flicks down to her chest again, and she rolls her eyes hard enough to alter the rotation of the earth. “No,” she says.

And for the first time since she’s known him, Anuel is speechless. No one has ever turned him down so flatly, she supposes. As annoying as he is, she knows there are thousands of women who would kill for a love song from him. Unfortunately for him, though, she’s not one of them.

The blessed silence lasts barely five seconds before he starts again. “Karol, I really --”

“Anuel, stop. Just stop.”

Another beat of quiet.

“I’m sorry,” he says quietly.

She freezes. Even her heart stops for a second. She wants to say something snarky -- stop the presses, Enmanuel Gazmey Santiago just apologized! -- but when she turns to him again, he’s looking down. Not at her chest this time, but at his own hands.

“For...?” she says instead.

“Well.” He takes a deep breath. “I know you don’t really like me. Which is fine. But I like you, and also we have to work together, so… like, I can trash the song if you never want to hear it. Then we don’t have to see each other again after this one.”

Now it’s Karol’s turn to be speechless. How is she supposed to respond to that? Obviously that’s the best-case scenario; he deletes this weird one-sided love song, they finish out their current media circuit, and they never see each other again except to exchange cordial nods on award-show red carpets.

But when he talks like this, she can almost see what drew her to him in the first place.

He has such a big heart. Right.

“Just… let me think,” she says at last. He nods, looking out his window now, and she turns back to look out hers.

They pass the rest of the ride in silence, and Karol relaxes slightly. He still dominates her thoughts, but it’s more of a low buzz than the headache-inducing roar from before. When he’s real -- even in her own head, the word makes her cringe slightly -- he’s so real. Maybe that’s why he was so charming over the phone. Less show. Less marketing.

“We’re here,” the driver says.

Anuel gets out of the car first, then turns around to offer Karol his hand. She takes it reluctantly; she’d rather brush him off, but she can never be too careful when there might be cameras around. His touch is surprisingly gentle. As he follows her into the building, his fingers brush the small of her back, and her spine tingles. It’s not entirely unpleasant.

Stop it, she orders herself. You don’t like him.

In the interview, though, she has to pretend to like him, and she does so expertly. She’s practiced enough -- and had to fake this plenty of times before, with him and others. She does try to be honest where she can: she does appreciate that the song is clean, and it is true that he started calling her “bebecita” out of the blue and it stuck.

But when the interviewer asks about the new song, the love song, Karol’s professionalism cracks. Her smile doesn’t falter, but her eyes widen as she looks first at Anuel, then their managers. No one will meet her eye.

“She told me that she wants to record it with me,” Anuel is saying. “I'm going to record it just because she asked me to. It is very different from what I usually do. It is an acoustic song.”

The interviewer turns back to Karol, and she fumbles for an answer. “It’s…” She glances back at her manager for help, but he’s still deep in a hushed conversation with someone from Anuel’s team. Anuel himself almost looks apologetic when he sees how hard she’s struggling.

“It’s an even more impressive song than ‘Culpables,’” she finally blurts, “because it is a love song, a deep song that he completely wrote. I… I am looking forward to everyone hearing it.”

She somehow makes it through the rest of the interview without entirely losing her mind or making eye contact with the now-grinning Anuel. Luckily, there are no more questions about the new song, but if he brings it up in the car --

* * *

“So you’ll do it?”

Of course.

She sighs and clicks her seatbelt. “Let’s hear it.”

His eyes light up immediately. He digs out his phone and plays a voice recording for her. It’s short -- only a few lines -- but it still surprises her. It is different from his other songs. Acoustic, a capella, he sounds like he did when they first spoke on the phone. No show. No marketing.

Dices que te vas y me abandonas
Dices que te vas por el temor
Y tienes miedo a enamorarte porque puedo lastimarte
Pero esa no es mi intención

She’s quiet for a long time after the recording ends. She can hear the rest of the chorus in her head -- no lyrics, but she hums the tune softly.

“You like it,” he says. It’s not a question.

“Yes,” she admits, “I like it.”

By the time they reach their hotel, the rest of the chorus is written. She’s hesitant to do any more; she tries to be honest in her songs, too, and though he’s growing on her a little, she doesn’t trust herself to compose the verses to a proper love song with him yet. He seems happy with what they’ve done so far, at least.

This. She likes this. The writing process, where he has no choice but to be -- for lack of a better word -- real. This is when she doesn’t mind being forced to spend time with him.

* * *

Her good mood is short-lived. Karol and Anuel are sitting in a corner of the lobby, debating word choice for the intro to the new song, when Anuel’s manager approaches them, his mouth a thin line. “What’s wrong?” Karol asks.

“There was a mix-up with the rooms,” he says, and somehow Karol isn’t even a little bit surprised. “There are no more suites -- only regular rooms.”

Oh. “That’s all?” Karol says. She expected much worse -- that she’d have to share with Anuel or something. She can handle a regular room, as long as she’s alone.

“No. They didn’t book enough rooms, either. Some of us will have to share. Or we could go try to find another hotel, but at this hour…”

Karol already knows how this is going to end. Logically, as the only women in this whole cursed party, she and her agent should get their own room. But she knows deep in her heart that it’s not going to work out that way.

She buries her face in her hands and sighs.

Anuel clears his throat. “We could, uh. We could share. Keep working on the song. I can sleep on the floor. I don’t mind.”

Well. No point in fighting it. “Fine.”

* * *

Two hours later, Karol is in bed, staring up at the ceiling, all-too-conscious of Anuel’s steady breathing on the couch just a few meters away. The song is nearly done already, but she can’t stop thinking about it. Maybe it’s the bottle of wine they finished while working, or maybe it’s his smile, but she can’t stop thinking about him.

No. The song. That’s all she’s thinking about. She makes herself focus on the lyrics again, on that one verse that was giving her trouble. She mouths it silently. The next line will come to her soon.

And then it does.

“Anuel,” she whispers, half-hoping he’s already asleep.

“Yeah.”

“That one verse,” she says.

“Yeah?”

“Aunque trato no puedo dormir, sin imaginar tenerte, aquí, en mi habitación.”

She counts her breaths waiting for his response. One. Two. Three. Four.

“I like that,” he says.

Don’t ask, she thinks. Don’t ask, don’t ask, don’t ask.

“Is it true?” he asks.

“No,” she replies immediately, but even she can hear the lie in it. She bites her lip. “Is the sofa okay?”

“Better than prison,” he laughs.

Don’t say it, she thinks. Don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it.

“You… you can come to the bed,” she says. “If you want.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.”

Karol shifts over to one side of the bed. Anuel approaches cautiously, as if she might change her mind and bite his arm off if he’s not careful. But she doesn’t change her mind, and he slides in under the sheets beside her. The bed that had seemed so big when she was alone in it now feels way too small.

“Karol,” he says, voice low.

“Yes?”

“I really like you.”

“I know.”

“This is kind of hard for me.”

“I know.” She takes a deep breath. “It’s hard for me, too.”

“Why?”

The words tumble out all at once before she can stop them. “Because I don’t want to like you. You’re loud, you’re obnoxious, you swear a lot, your whole thing is that you’re a delinquent. You’re not my type. I don’t like bad boys. But…”

“But you like me,” he finishes for her, a smile in his voice.

“Yes.”

There’s a pause, and then he says, “Karol, I’m going to ask you a question.”

“Okay.”

“It’s okay if you say no,” he promises, “really. I’ll understand.”

“What’s the question, Anuel?”

“Karol, can I kiss you?”

She almost says no. She wants to say no. She knows he’ll understand if she says no, really, and he won’t push her to say yes. Every logical cell in her brain screams no.

“Yes.”

They turn toward each other. It’s dark, but they find each other easily, his hand cupping her cheek and her palms on his bare chest. His lips are softer than she expected, his touch more gentle. As soon as he touches her, she wants more.

“Anuel,” she whispers into his mouth. “Yes.”

She pulls him closer until their bodies are pressed together. He’s so warm. So solid. It’s been a long time -- longer than she’d like to admit -- since someone held her like this. With his tongue in her mouth, she can taste the wine again, and her head spins. She likes this.

He shifts slightly, and suddenly she can feel his hard cock pressing into her leg. “Sorry,” he says, drawing back a little.

“No.” Karol moves one hand from his chest to his hip, angling him back toward her and hooking her ankle around his. “I want you.”

“Well, in that case,” he says, and she can hear the smile in it.

A moment later, she’s on her back, Anuel over her, kissing down her neck, his hands under her shirt, her hands on his chest, on his face, on his strong arms. He seems to know exactly how to touch her. It’s so dark, and her eyes are closed anyway, but she can almost see the heat traveling across her skin wherever his fingers land.

And then he pulls her shorts off, and he calls her bebecita again, and it sounds so much better with his mouth between her legs.

She wraps her legs around his shoulders, covering her own mouth with one hand to suppress her moans. She knows how thin these hotel walls are; even tipsy, delirious with pleasure, she doesn’t want anyone but Anuel to hear her.

But, God, he’s good.

“Anuel,” she cries, louder than she intends, even with her hand muffling her voice. “Yes, yes, yes.”

When he kisses her again, she tastes herself on his lips and tongue. He kisses her cheek, then her jaw, then her ear, then he says, “I want to be inside you.”

She starts to say yes again, but something stops her. His comment from the car earlier -- our hypothetical children would be…

“Do you have a condom?”

“Yes,” he says.

Of course he does.

The bed goes cold almost the moment he leaves it, and though Anuel is gone less than a minute, Karol aches with his absence. Here, in the dark, she doesn’t have to fight it. She likes him. She wants him.

She straddles him as soon as he comes back to the bed. They drown each other in kisses as if they’ve been waiting for this night their whole lives. He tangles his fingers in her hair and wraps an arm around her. It’s almost protective, like he’s claiming her.

And then he pushes into her, and they both sigh. His mouth was good, but this is a thousand times better. She rocks against him. With his hands still touching and stroking everywhere they can reach -- her hair, her breasts, her hips, her ass -- she throws her head back and lets him fill her.

Just when she thinks she can’t take anymore, he swears quietly, his breathing growing ragged.

“Yes,” she says for the thousandth time, and then again, “Anuel, yes.”

His hand finds her face again, and he pulls her down to kiss him again hard between moans as his hips buck and he finishes inside her. He lets out a shaky breath, and she laughs softly. “Fuck,” he murmurs.

A few minutes later, they’re cleaned up, semi-clothed, spooning in the bed. Every time Anuel exhales, it ruffles Karol’s hair and tickles the back of her neck, but she doesn’t mind. With his arms around her and his chest at her back, she feels almost safe.

“Anuel,” she whispers, half-hoping he’s already asleep.

“Yeah.”

“What were you saying earlier about us being a real couple?”

He presses his lips to her shoulder. Again, she counts her breaths before his answer. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Maybe he did fall asleep.

And then he says, “I thought you were afraid to fall in love with me.”

“You wrote that line,” she smiles.

“I could hurt you.”

“But you won’t.”

“No. I won’t.” He takes her hand and squeezes it. “I’ve been in love with you since the day we met.”

“I know.”

Anuel kisses Karol’s shoulder again. “I know I’m bad. But for you, I think I could be better. I would do anything for you. Even if you change your mind, even if you decide you really don’t like me, I would bring you the entire ocean to make you happy.”

“Anuel, I think…” She takes a deep breath. Tears are pricking her eyes, for some reason, but she fights them off. She won’t let her voice break. “I think I like you. Really. And I think we could be a real couple. I think… You’re so --”

Her voice breaks.

“Bebecita,” he murmurs, rubbing a small circle on the back of her hand with his thumb.

This time, she doesn’t want to slap him. She wants to kiss him. She wants him to hold her like this forever. He’s humming the song into her ear again, and she wants to die listening to this unfinished love song from his mouth.

Whatever this is, she realizes with a smile, it’s real.