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Six, Maybe Seven

SIX, MAYBE SEVEN 215

 

Six, Maybe Seven

BY KATIE GEORGE

 

Six, Maybe Seven

Katie George

Published by Katie George at Shakespir

Copyright 2016 Katie George

 

 

 

PART ONE

Chelsea

 

 

Chapter One

 

“YOU’VE GOTTA BE kidding me.” Not another one. Yet it was another one—another text with a picture of a huge rock on one of my friends’ bony fingers. I bit my tongue and flew into an apathetic state, unable to feel for a good minute. Then the lack of feeling was replaced by a reddening rage, and I gripped my phone so tightly it turned my fingers pink.

Six of my friends decided to get hitched in the summer and in the upcoming year. Six beautiful, eloquent weddings of all shapes and sizes, prices and locations. One was scheduled in Mission Viejo, another on the coast out in Malibu. Then count the one in Kauai, Hawaii, while another set the locale along a rocky Big Sur beach. Throw an additional in Phoenix, Arizona, and then the newest one. The text alert stated that milieu was yet to be determined, but judging from the size of the engagement ring, I thought I would have to buy a ticket to Dubai.

Emma, I said, clenching my teeth and alternately whispering a Lord’s Prayer. Keep it in.

The phone beeped again, revealing a quick text. Can you believe it, Em?!?!

Oh, yes, I could believe it all right. This was nothing new; I was always the late bloomer. I didn’t get my first kiss until I was eighteen, and my first date was literally a little walk into hades. No, I never even had a serious boyfriend, and until I came to college, I knew nothing about the dramatics of girly girls. Emma Richmond, far from rich, people would say. I had a reason to agree.

A moment later I whisked my new cat into my arms and felt its reassuring fur on my skin. If I never found a man, I still had my cat. The little creature slipped out of my fingertips and scrambled away. Okay, maybe I didn’t even have a cat. Truth be told, the only reason I had the thing was because my professor had offered it as an extra credit opportunity for my last final. Of course I took that chance.

I stood up, unable to take any more of my new, almost barren apartment in the hustle and bustle of Glendora, California. My best friend/new roommate was out pining for a role in an audition, and unable to handle any more of the indoors, I stretched and debated where to go. With a quick grab of my keys and a water bottle, I scurried out to my car and drove through the traffic to the nearest park at the base of Angeles National Forest. Nature had always been a method of coping for my puny brain, and once my feet hit a trail curving into the mountains I eagerly loved, I felt a warming peace calm me down. You will be okay, you will be okay. At least the chaparral will keep you company.

Okay, so I admit it, I had a jealousy problem: But after six wedding announcements in the past four months, I’d about had it. I had graduated from college only a month prior, and I’d been living on my own (with Jamie, of course) all of twenty-four days, enough to buy a can of Spaghettio’s and a retro sofa. Meanwhile, my six beautiful friends (Chelsea, Annabel, Lacey, Monica, Sena, and Nina) were either cohabitating with the men they planned to marry or were in the heat of wedding planning. The wedding in Mission Viejo was only a month away, but Chelsea had been planning it since last fall, right after her fiancé decided to propose on fall break. Under a smoggy, starry Parisian night sky, he popped the question, and of course she accepted.

Each step brought more jealousy and more loss of breath, so I dug my headphones deeper into my ear canals and proceeded to trek by myself, which is never a smart idea, mind you. But in my time of desperation, I wanted to be alone, and alone I was.

 

WHEN I GOT home, I found my best friend in the world lying on the hideous couch with a wet cloth covering his face. I wrinkled my nose, something Jamie claims I do in confusion or outright frustration, and hurried over to him. Maybe our cohabitation was now allowing us to analyze each other’s little quirks. Then I thought how Grandma Eunice would roll over in her grave if she knew I were living with a boy, even if there was absolutely no romance between us. Before I could say a word, he croaked, “My dear Emma, please. Please. Just give me a moment of solace.”

“What the heck are you doing?” I asked, sitting beside him. I stared at his long body, albeit faceless body, and understood he’d had a long day. When I realized he wouldn’t talk to me, I started fiddling with my chipped indigo nail polish.

He sat up in a fury and broke my hands apart. “You know that sound riles me up. The sound of your fingernails clashing together is the sound of demons mating. Seriously, Em? Living with another person is really rigid.”

“And having to live with Jamie Stewart is as hard as it gets.”

“Sweetheart, look in the mirror.” He stood up and hurried to the cramped kitchen. By memory, I knew we had nothing of any interest—except a collection of healthy fruits Jamie claimed were “spirits that refresh the soul and bless in an audition.” I was not the superstitious one in our relationship.

I followed him and watched as he pulled a frozen pizza out of the fridge. Despite his health nut tendencies, he always broke sometime during the week. I guessed this was the moment of his loss of resolve, and as he fiddled with the wrapping, I thought to how we’d met back in the first week of college four, long, arduous, memorable years ago.

I’d been sitting underneath a leafy palm tree with a bag of In-N-Out burgers in my lap. I won’t admit that I was teary-eyed, but it was the day my dad and brother had left to head back to Texas, and so I was emotional and menstrual, and I’d needed my alone time.

As I watched the clouds gather in lifeless abandon over the thick, rolling Pacific waves in the distance, a skinny African-American boy toppled over in the grass. I looked up, scrunched my eyebrows, and watched as he stood up, shaking off the grass clippings on his shirt. He saw me staring at him, and then he broke out into a bout of anger. “What are you looking at?”

I raised my eyebrows and shrugged. “I was looking at the scenery. But, you know, that’s always changing.” I could not stifle the few laughs that rose from my chest.

He walked over and stuck out his hand. “James Allen Stewart of Rossville, Tennessee. You’re, like, the only person who has talked to me all day.”

“Tennessee, huh?” I asked, momentarily blinded by the giant glasses resting on his nose and the absence of a thick drawl. “Well, I’m Texas. I mean, I’m from Texas. It’s nice to meet you. How am I the only person who has talked to you all day?”

He sat down and fiddled with his fingers. It would be another year before I discovered he had a troubling abhorrence of fingernails. He pushed on his glasses and said, “Everyone’s constructing their lively social groups already. And here I am, somehow on the edge, again.

“I doubt that. You seem vibrant,” I offered, my voice dripping with playful sarcasm. “I mean, look at your shirt.” It was a trout-red Hawaiian top that bagged over bones void of meat.

“And you seem stubborn like tough biscuits.” He laughed, waiting for me to laugh in response, but then he said gingerly, “That was a joke because no one ever talks about biscuits where I’m from.”

“Aw, poor kid,” I said, lightly punching his shoulder. That punch alone sealed our fate. “Here, want a cheeseburger, no onions? I bought a feast.”

He took a burger but then handed it back. He glanced at it with trepidation—and what could be mistaken for lust. A squeak said, “I’m a vegetarian.”

“Oh, come on.”

He nodded in the likeness of a mockingbird, a thousand little nods in one. “I’ve sworn off all meats for my first semester of college.”

“Give me a break, Jamie.”

“Shut up, Texas,” he said, reaching into his backpack for a Granny Smith apple, green as what I knew of Tennessee.

“That’s not my real name,” I proffered.

“Well, you never know in California…”

“It’s Emma.”

“Okay, Emma. So, do you gots any fries?”

“Gots?”

“Yeah, don’t correct my English. I am a proud scholar in the field; it is my prepossessing milieu.” I was impressed and even stole that vocabulary word from him.

Therefore, our friendship blossomed below a palm in the midst of busy Southern California. Two somewhat Southern (although I consider myself Western, not Southern, but oh well) kids under a yellow Ventura sun. And four years later, in the midst of graduation festivities, not only was Jamie the most popular person in attendance, but he was known as “The Tasty, Zany Jamie Stewart.” He’d accrued friendship—and a whole lot of drama, even for a theatre major.

In the present time, I watched as he heated the oven and began blabbing about his failed audition. Although he was only making a pizza, he’d donned an apron and began gesticulating like a flappy flamingo. “So, I got to the office—there are maybe five guys waiting for this role. Now, shut up, I’ll tell you again: I auditioned for the part of Peter the Gazelle in a piece called Squealy Squid. It is an actual thing, let me tell you. John Millor…”

At this I thought of the handsome, intriguing leading actor of the century. With his tan skin and bright green eyes, he was a genuine Fabio. I’d never met the man but sure had dreamt of our marriage time and time again. The way his eyes lit up in a romantic flick, or the way he led his people in a redemption piece, or the time he was dressed as an alien from a sombrero-type galaxy or something like that… He’d even begun a trend: the “Millor” variation of the common name Miller.

“Earth to Emma, hello?”

“Hi,” I said, slouching against the bar. “You know, when I talk, you do the same thing, so…”

“Anyway, so I’m auditioning for the part of Peter. And right in the middle of my audition, the casting panel received a phone call from another agent, who just so happens to be representing Samuel Woodshaw, as in that freaking some-percent British demi-god who starred in the Galaxy Wars film last year. That was his breakout role, and everything is set for him. Well, he was their frontrunner, and they didn’t think they’d get him. Well, he agreed to star as Peter.”

“It wasn’t a casting where you’re auditioning for any part in the film?”

“Oh, well, I did get offered a part as an extra. But I am James Allen Stewart, a charming Southern gentleman with manners, class, dignity, and proficient cooking skills…”

“James,” I said in a motherly tone, pointing to the smoke puffing from the oven.

“What in the world! It wasn’t in there but two minutes!”

“Oh, well, I don’t know what to tell you. At least you got the opportunity to audition for a role that went to a guy like Sam Woodshaw.”

“Do you even know who that is, Emma? Hmm? You are about to become a casting assistant, and you don’t even know who Samuel Woodshaw is! When you lose your job, I—out of the goodness of my heart—will allow you a bed, but I worry for your well-being.”

“Jamie, the oven.” As a token of his ineptitude, I grinned, because I did know who Samuel Woodshaw was.

He turned around and screamed, “Darn!” Through a mist of haze, I breathed and exited our kitchen, bent instead on taking a nice, cool shower to reward my aching muscles. There is a blissful bittersweet ecstasy that comes with working-out: Through the pain, the body accomplishes what society paints as a success. However, I did not work out to lose weight, or to tone my leg calves; I worked out because it gave me a sort of rush, a release that comforted my spirit in crises like six upcoming weddings. Six little stabs into the Stag Emma cake.

The shower felt nice on my skin, like a healing waterfall, and then I found myself curled into a ball on my bed, with wet hair streaking down my skin. I hated the feeling, but there was a vivid moodiness about my persona. It hurt being such a wuss. People got married every day, young and old, black or white, American or Arabian. While I offered to my own brain, “Well, society defines it as a somewhat remarkable event…” I knew deep down it was not that society wished it, because I understood that my happiness was skewed by the idea. Cue my parents.

When I was fourteen-years-old, a pure-bred Texan girl but a city-girl at heart, I’d walked into the kitchen of our ranch house. The odor of cookies permeated my nostrils, and after a long day as a freshman in high school, I smiled at the idea that my mother had actually taken time to prepare a snack for me. Things were hard at my house, because my parents either bickered or ignored each other a lot. I wasn’t stupid or ignorant, and I knew that the problems could culminate in divorce.

But I did not realize that at fourteen-years-old, my mother would announce her departure to New York City to pursue a career as a recognized interior designer. The idea was stupid to me then, and even more ridiculous to me now. But in a matter of moments, the anticipation for cookies swirled into an acrid taste in my mouth, like the taunting sweet of the original flavor that blends into a sharp, painful aftertaste. I did not understand the words funneling from her mouth.

Your father and I aren’t separating. I am still your mother. I will just be spending some weekends in New York because of my new job.

Slowly, as I knew it would, those weekends turned into weeks; those weeks turned into months; and finally, my parents broke off their marriage. My mother remained in New York, while we remained in Texas. My father, myself, and a little brother—suddenly wifeless and motherless. But it had been a long process. I almost didn’t care when the divorce papers became official—but a little ounce of care still goes a long way in the pain department.

Eventually, my mother met a man named Victor Swann, who happened to be a bigwig in the music scene in San Diego. He owned various homes all over the world, and my mother traveled with him whenever he needed her, so she gave up her “dreams” for someone else—someone who wasn’t me. Our relationship became a habit, and when it finally gave out, I missed her. I missed what I used to have, but I learned to do without.

But spending time at the Texas ranch where my father had devoted his whole life to the Richmond name was like a slow, murderous poison. I felt little pinpricks in my skin whenever I looked into my father’s eyes.

By the time of my senior year in high school, I made up my mind to move as far away as possible. I needed to be away from what I’d known, and away I went.

My eyes slinked into the back of the sockets when a light thump of feet gently padded across the tile floors. I sat up, staring into Jamie’s eyes, and said, “What do you want?” It wasn’t really a question, because I knew he had something important to beg for.

He bit his lip in consternation. “Uh, would you mind if I invited someone over?”

“What do you mean? Seconds ago you had smoke fuming from the oven.”

“Well, it’s Ella. Ella Monrey, you know…”

“No, I don’t know this ‘Ella Monrey’ character. Why would I, hmm?”

Jamie shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t know.”

“Aww, James. Someone’s shy.”

“Shut up.”

I pulled a box of chocolate chips from the drawer and proceeded to pop a few into my mouth. Jamie looked at me like he wanted to actually shove me down a flight of stairs. I stared at him and said, “Okay. I get what you’re saying. You’re not making dinner for me. You’re making it for Ella. I’ll just go and get take-out.”

“Seriously?” he asked quickly, too enthusiastically, although it did not bother me. If Jamie got a girlfriend, so be it. It would just be another wedding I’d have to mark on my calendar. But that was okay, too. I wasn’t even sure if Jamie was the marriage-type. He always acted like such a clown that I could not see anyone being romantically inclined toward him; but then again, I’d been attracted to his effervescent personality and classified myself as his best friend.

“Yes, seriously. Don’t worry about it. I will go to Chelsea’s house—see if I can help her in any way. No worries, Jamie. None at all.”

He got up from the bed and stretched. The fading light of the day poked through the blinds. “You’re the best,” he whispered and off he went.

I fiddled for my phone and quickly texted Chelsea; she agreed that I could come over to her apartment in Corona, a good hour away if traffic was somewhat reasonable. Since it was Saturday, I quickly put a pack together so I could spend the night with her. As I gathered the toiletries, a smile formed on my lips as I heard Jamie humming in the kitchen—something undetectable, but something just the same. I truly wished him happiness, even if I seemed sour about it.

With a backpack on my shoulder, I appeared in the kitchen and spouted off, “Okay, I’m spending the night in Corona. Have fun with Ella. Don’t get too rowdy—and don’t, please hear me out on this one, sleep with her on the first date.”

Jamie turned beet red and shook his head. “I won’t, Em. You know me. You really do know me well. It’ll probably be the second date.”

“Jamie!”

I walked down the two flights of stairs that left my legs even sorer after the workout in the hills. My car sat like a bubble of rust, and a few minutes later, I was blasting down the road, heading to Corona. The sunset was dipping down, splashing a few remaining strokes of pink and orange. I felt blessed in the moment despite the craziness of life. Whose life isn’t hectic and insane, though?

As I drove with the windows down, allowing the wind to cup my face, I thought of Chelsea Villanueva, whose wedding was a month away. She was one of my sweetest friends who had been the first in her family to graduate from college. We met sophomore year in a film class that spawned her love of film editing. She would be starting film school at UCLA in the fall, only a month after her nuptials with Jim Baycroft, a high school teacher and football coach. He was the embodiment of rugged man, while Chelsea was a few years younger and the embodiment of feminine. However, through the makeup and hair products, her passion for film provided a well-cut path for success. Chelsea’s senior year film project had received critical acclaim and won the university’s award for Best Film. It even screened at a few movie theaters in LA as an indie ticket—and had proved a true triumph.

Through it all, Chelsea remained a committed Catholic. She was one of the most religious people I knew and a source of absolute wisdom. We did not always agree, but there was a certainty of trust between us.

That’s why I felt immediately detoxed as I pulled into the parking lot of her apartment complex. The darkness still had a twinge of amber hue, yet a limited viewpoint of the sky offered barely any stars. I missed that about living in the country: The wide open spaces allowed for a major appreciation of God’s handiwork in the heavens.

I pulled my bag out of the car and heaved it over my shoulders. A few muscle-aching lunges up the stairs later, I found myself standing in front of Chelsea’s little loft, which was much dirtier than mine—yet somehow seemed more homey and relaxed. She opened the door on the second knock, and I caught a whiff of her fruity lotion. Her long, dark brown hair was swept into a giant bun on the top of her head, a perfectly messy thing that took more space than the size of Lubbock. She pulled me into the apartment and breathed, “You won’t believe what happened, Em.”

My nostrils wafted the scent of all sorts of candles. The flickering of the little flames offered a mystic tone my apartment would never offer. I was too anal about candles around Jamie. Beyond the flicker, the presence of an enriching presence livened up the air. It was the spirit of the natural scents Chelsea always used to heal her sinuses and clear the dankness of the apartment.

“What?” I asked, dropping my bag by the door.

“The seamstress somehow ripped my dress. She was mending something she said, and then, yeah! I really do not understand the human population. This is my wedding dress, for crying out loud! Am I supposed to be this mad? You know what, I think I am!”

“You didn’t sound this angry when I called,” I pointed out, dropping onto her couch. I’d been with her when she bought it at a yard sale in the burning pit of a Los Angeles August day the previous year. (What is it with me and couches?) I warned her that the man who delivered the couch for her would know her apartment and somehow hijack inside, but Chelsea did not heed the warning. She was the type of person who went with the flow, even though she seemed reasonably level-headed.

“That is not the point. I need sympathy, Emma! My wedding dress. I don’t know what to do. She said she can fix it, but when I tell Mama, she may do some bloody business, and that will not be good. Not good at all.”

“Chelsea,” I said as she fell beside me with a bowl of pretzels. “Things will work out. They always do. What part of the dress was it?”

“The very bottom, you know—a good part where…”

“Ah, no one will notice,” I said quickly, popping a pretzel into my mouth. “You are losing it. One of those, as you called it once, ‘Quacking brides.’”

“I take back all I ever said. Getting married has turned my hair gray.”

I rolled my eyes and watched her mannerisms as she continued to update me on the aspects of the venue, the church setup, Jim’s Protestant parents, and something about the honeymoon. I tried to repress the urge in my stomach that was blooming big into a ball of burning fire. Why did I remain single? Why did my friends find Mr. Right, their Prince Charmings, all at twenty-two? I still felt like an infant, just with sharper cheekbones and a voter registration card. Dear Lord, I realized: Six weddings in six months means six possible children in the next year.

“Chelsea, I gotta pee. Hold that thought.”

She nodded, picking up a bridal magazine from the chocolate-colored coffee table. I found my way to the bathroom and rubbed my skin with some cool water, needing to calm down before I burst out into green, jealous tears. The girl before me was barely a woman; I did not feel that confident. I felt like I needed another shower, a cleansing facial, and a box of Nilla Wafers. The skin on my lips was cracked, there was a hint of redness in my eyes, and I said quickly, “You are twenty-two, and you do not need to be getting married.”

I still felt bitter. And bitterness is a sour flavor. It infects the brain like poison, and it takes a major, earth-shaking event to take it away. Precisely the object I have described is a bowl of minty ice cream (or insert whatever flavor to your liking).

I sat by Chelsea again, who was staring at me with such an honest sweetness that allowed me to drink it in like it was bourbon or some alcoholic beverage I will never taste. After living with a woozy mother for a long period of time—and judging from her life choices—I had decided to be a full-blown teetotaler.

“So, if you don’t mind me asking, when are we going to talk about you in the frilly dress? When is it going to be you?” She smiled, pulling the wooly blanket up to her chin. In this act she seemed like a toddler, especially without the distraction of heavy makeup or her long waves. She seemed momentarily unsure of herself.

“When will it be me? That is a good question. It will be me when Will Smith runs for president, okay?”

Chelsea rolled her eyes and hesitated. Finally, she said, “Take your time. There is no rush.”

Then I rolled my eyes, unable to handle the situation any longer. “Want to watch some trashy TV?”

“You know, I have to shoot early tomorrow. It’s this thing down in Newport Beach, and I need to get my creative juices flowing—by resting. Make yourself at home, but I have to go to bed.”

She disappeared a few minutes later, and I fell asleep to the sound of the faux reality of some production of The Real Housewives. In the haze of my dreams, though, I heard the word, repeated over and over, blasting on repeat: housewife. Wife. Housewife. Wife. Wife. Wife.

 

Chapter Two

 

I STUFFED THE rest of a banana into the throaty space of my mouth, and then I was hurriedly positioning the recording camera for the first round of auditions of a casting labeled Joan D’Narc. From what I’d picked up in my newbie haze, the pilot would be on an obscure channel that sounded like a mixture of science geek and choppy chic. But it was my first day on the job, and I was shadowing an assistant casting director, Margaret “Megg” Holmwood, and her own assistant, Becki Aliaro. So I was about the smallest fish in a medium-sized pond.

In the meantime I had already perused the script and died in awkward fright. Whoever auditioned for this part was desperate. Yet everyone has to make his or her break someday—that is what I had learned from even scrounging up the job offer from Braitley & Richter. I had yet to even see a photograph of either of the owners, and here I was on their property.

“Hey, Emily,” Becki called out, unwittingly (well, maybe it was intentional) mistaking my name. “Can you shift the camera more to the right? Thanks, girl. Also, can you fetch Megg some water—no ice?”

Megg was sorting through papers. From our limited conversation, I deduced she worked hard to stay alive in favor of the wrath of her direct supervisor, Baylee Feta. The hierarchy was tough, and I was at the bottom of the food chain, like one of those feeders or plankton or amoeba who mope around and get eaten.

I found the nearby refreshment room, where a few stray humans were scarfing down lunch or reading something juicy on their phones. I grabbed a water bottle and turned to see the feared, honorable Baylee Feta purchasing high heels off some lucrative shopping website. They were strappy and pink, and I said, “Those are cute.”

She looked up like I was scum, and then her frown turned to disbelief. She sat up and said, “Thanks? Well, I’m buying them for a party. I’ve got the dress, and like any girl knows, I need the shoes.”

“I like them,” I said, shifting so I could walk back to the energetic (not) screening room where Megg awaited her water. But Baylee stuck a manicured hand through her brown hair and gestured me to sit down. Knowing she was my boss’s boss’s boss, I did as she said, noting how pretty she was.

Baylee Feta looked Italian or Greek, some ethnicity like that. With long brownish-black hair and unblemished olive skin, she seemed like the failed-actress type. A woman who had a chance once, but ended up behind the screens. Her large brown eyes reminded me of Bette Davis, yet she seemed like a sexed up version of the old Hollywood glam. The fire in her eyes was something I did not necessarily like, but when one lives off old bread and a health nut’s cooking, there is pretty much anything one will do.

“You’re the new meat. How’s the first day on the job?”

“It’s going well, I suppose.”

Baylee nodded toward the water. “Get used to it. That’s how the first few years are, unless you want to truly prove yourself.” She leaned closer to me, revealing a hint of cleavage, which made my eyes widen as big as hers. “If you’re smart, you’ll see the opportunity—and you’ll take it. This is a tough world…?” She paused, waiting for my name.

“Oh, I’m Emma.”

“Emmy, if you really want to do well, dress like me. Those shoes I bought are ones that really make an impression, especially on men like Richard Braitley and Hugh Richter.”

“Thanks for the advice.”

“Hey, Emmy, how about we grab lunch tomorrow? I’ve always wondered what it’s like being a mentor.”

“Sure?”

“Don’t forget what I said. Now, go. Megg won’t notice you’ve been gone long, but Becki might be a twit enough to say something.”

“Thanks, Ms. Feta.”

“Oh, dear Buddha, if you ever call me that again…”

“Thanks, Baylee.”

A genuine smile dripped from her lips. It seemed like she had a very limited friend group, especially since she had taken me under her wing—officially or not. “Scram before you die.”

I walked back to the casting room, and Megg was rearranging more papers on the opaque desk. Becki’s nose was scrunched up, and loud enough for the supervisor to hear, she asked, “What took so long?”

“I was just talking with…”

Megg took the water. “Thank you. I think we’re just about ready for our first actor. Lights, camera, kill me now. Emily, go get the first one.”

My feet were already aching from the pent-up pressure running around for coffee, bagels, and gossip magazines had built up. I rushed out to the waiting room, where the young secretary waved at me. Her name was Claire, and she was an aspiring actress too. Supposedly, there was a runner—a person who literally ran out to do this work for the panel—but she was unavailable today. That was okay with me, because it gave me an excuse to run around to relieve some tension.

A waiting room of actors and actresses of all shapes and sizes awaited me.

“Okay, this is the process,” I said with a shaky voice, about to repeat what Becki had coached. “I will call back three people at a time, and two will wait right out the door. You all have scripts you’ve had time to look over, and as a piece of advice, give it all to the script.” I watched as the actors assessed my own ability to speak, which obviously wasn’t very well. A lot seemed nervous themselves, but some scoffed at me. I could ruin them, as I did have about a one percent sway on if the panel chose a person for the part.

“Also, I would like some respect from some of you. Act how you want, but remember in the end, we are all humans here.” I shot a glare at a pampered princess in the corner, and then called out three names. “Beth Gellison, Arya al-Chocki, and Samuel Perringer. Please follow me back.”

The three stood and followed me to the room marked Joan D’Narc. Through the small talk and pleasantries, I had a gut feeling this casting would take a good deal of time. “If you three would mind sitting in these chairs for a moment while I check with my supervisors. Then I’ll call you in one by one.”

I went back inside and met with the creator of the series, Dan Hutchison, and a representative for the producer. The studio representative was a middle-aged man with serious halitosis. Dan was a smiley man, which creeped me out, but it was my first run-in with this job, and I was happy to be doing anything productive. Finally, I was given the go-ahead, and I called Beth Gellison in.

The girl introduced herself and took on various roles while I assessed Megg’s response. She furiously wrote in a little journal while Dan watched with a cowering eye. Becki also wrote in a journal, mimicking her boss, but when I strained an eye to see what was written in small scrawl, it was a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Then beside it, where it looked like there could be possible notes on Beth, Becki had written a little love poem. She caught me reading it and scowled.

Beth’s voice croaked, “That is why, Joan, thy can never marry a narc, for thine staff is a protection against thine enemies.”

When I’d glanced at the makeshift script, I did not see any thines or thys or wherefore art thou Romeos. This was supposed to be a modern adaptation, at least from what I had envisioned. The modern populace obviously thinks the practice of old English is old and outdated for a reason.

After Beth finished her monologue, Becki went up beside her and read as Joan’s romantic interest. Megg was still beating the journal to death, but I was floored by my decision to watch horrible acting take place—all while having the inability to laugh. Beth was giving it her all, but her all was pretty insignificant. This is where my father would say some adage like, “If you want people to think nicely of you, think nicely of them,” but some things cannot be repressed.

Finally, the audition was finished for Beth, who was promised to receive a response. As soon as she left, only five minutes or so after we’d called her in, the demure Megg turned to me and said, “Call her in about two hours. Tell her the pool of applicants was huge, but she did not feel like a candidate for our screenplay. Do you understand?” She turned to Dan, who nodded in agreement. That must mean she was superbly terrible to them, as it was purely the director, producer, and studio rep’s choice to whom the role went to.

Dan took a sip of water, making a slurping sound. “Her charisma is lacking, especially for this production. I want the best of the best of the best.”

“Quick notice, and yes, I understand. We’ll find our characters.” Inside I wondered why Megg had spent so much time in her notebook if she hated Beth, while Dan seemed like a giant loaf. A few minutes later, I went outside to pull Arya in, and the auditions continued like this for the remainder of the day.

Finally, around four o’clock, the traumatic issue of Megg’s bleating stomach forced our decision to end soon. With only three left to audition, I was ready for a long shower and a visit to an Arctic pool to cool off. If things continued the way they were going, I might not have needed to jog again. I went back to get the last three, who were just a blur of faces. After nearly a hundred actors, I was ready to never watch a movie again. It hurt to remember that this was just the beginning.

The closing two showed some promise, with Megg promising to call back soon. I had begun my run of phone calls to those definitely not in the running for any role. Unfortunately for me, most people answered their phones on the first ring, so I knew I would have to finish the calls later that night. As soon as we called it a wrap, Dan said, “I’m so glad we have weeks of casting if we need them. I saw maybe three people who showed any sort of the magnetism I want to capture on my show.”

The studio representative nodded in agreement. “I can say on behalf of my company that we will need better results, Megg.”

Megg turned red and then offered, “I promise we will work harder.”

In turn, the producer’s representative offered in a collected voice, “Mr. Baiton agrees with the current predicament.”

I rolled my eyes, wondering just how Mr. Baiton would know how to agree. But my feet ached and I was ready to cruise out, so as soon as we said our pleasant good-byes, Becki shoved me into her little cubicle ten yards away. Megg was shifting into her private office, while I saw the other employees packing up to go. A room down the hall was still shoving people in to audition. Baylee appeared in the hallway, and she motioned me over. When she saw Becki, she rolled her eyes and sashayed over to me.

In the moments awaiting Baylee’s presence, Becki breathed, “You need to finish the calls. We want callbacks from this list, but we will wait to call them until we gather a greater interest in…Oh, hi, Baylee.”

“Becca, it is nice to see you,” Baylee said, not a drip of exuberance in her tone. She flicked her long hair over her shoulder. “I was just coming over to say that Emmy here should meet our bosses, don’t you think?”

“New employees…oh, well, whatever you say,” Becki said with a quizzical smile.

“Come on, Emmy. I’m sure Becca can handle whatever she was just about to ask you to do.” Baylee locked our arms and waved a confident hand to her inferior. I giggled as she said into my ear, “Our office needs more drama. The actors don’t even give anything in passion or interest. I really do want you to meet Richard Braitley, since he just came in from some conference in Mozambique or something exotic like that.”

“Drama does liven things up a bit,” I said, though I heard the lie in my voice. In fact, I hated it. When I worked backstage on theatrical performances in college, I always hated myself for committing to yet another show. Somehow I’d ended up in the entertainment industry, and of course I would do what I needed to do to keep my job. If that meant sidling up to Baylee Feta as a servant lapdog, I would.

“So, how was your first day? It takes a bit to get used to—especially working for a human being like Megg Holmwood.”

As Baylee led me to the starker and more sterile side of our office, I recounted the events of the day with a storyteller’s acute sense of detail. I didn’t care if she was listening or not, but she acted like she was, and then she pushed me into an office marked BRAITLEY, C.S.A. I felt just a sliver of anxiety tingle up my spine, but then I was meeting him face-to-face, and I felt the rehearsed lines come into practice.

“Richard, this is Emma Richmond, a new hire.”

Mr. Braitley was sitting at his desk, and his blue eyes widened. The first thing I noticed was his big gold wedding ring and a portrait on the wall of an English castle. Interesting style. He stood up and offered his hand, which I shook eagerly. He was older, maybe in his fifties, but he seemed younger. Maybe it was the dyed hair.

“Hi, sir. It is an honest blessing to work here.” A hint of my Texan twang came out, but I shrugged it off.

“Oh, Emma, don’t worry about the pleasantries here. Call me Richard. Any friend of Baylee’s can say that.”

“Oh, really?” I asked, surprised.

Then Baylee rolled her eyes quickly. “Emma, Richard is my husband. Surprised, aren’t you?”

This was exactly what Baylee wanted from me: a shocked, confused response. From gauging Mr. Braitley’s expression, I gathered he felt my reaction was quite comical. I waited for saliva to reenter my mouth and then I said with all the acting knowledge I’d gleaned from Los Angeles, “Baylee, why didn’t you say something sooner! Where’s your ring?”

She shrugged, leaning against his desk. I immediately felt like coughing up a lung. I was used to seeing older men with younger women in town, but as a traditional person, I’d never warmed up to the idea. Yet the two seemed genuinely happy, so I played the part of naïve new girl. Baylee scratched the back of her neck while Richard gazed at her long hair.

“I don’t wear it most of the time. It makes it awkward for our employees. A lot of them think that I’m a gold digger—yet they don’t know that I’ve built my own career. Richard just came as an added bonus.” She reached her hand back to him, and he took it in his own. She twirled around and smiled at him, and I felt awkward in the presence of this romantic moment. I took it as a compliment, though. “Richard, honey, I wanted you to meet my new friend.” She turned back to me. “People don’t like being friends with the boss’s wife—except you.”

Yet I hadn’t really done anything. I nodded, probably too eagerly, but I mumbled something like, “Well, I hope to be kind to all I meet.”

“Isn’t she adorable?”

“Where are you from, Miss Emma?” Richard acted focused on me, though he seemed only interested in his model-gorgeous wife. “I recognize the accent but can’t place it.”

“Rural-ish Texas. Now I’m from Glendora.”

The sun was beginning to set, casting a glow over the couple. Richard raised an eyebrow and said, “Texas, huh. We should go there sometime, shouldn’t we, Bay?”

Baylee taunted his anxious look and departed, grabbing my arm. “Maybe. Depends on Emma here. Come on, let’s go.”

My job was already proving to be quite a scandalous and dramatic affair. Even though Baylee had said there was not enough drama, there seemed to be plenty. The antisocial part of me wanted the accompaniment of my cat—and a nice lavender soak in the bathtub. Darn, I remembered sullenly. You live in a cheap apartment in Glendora. You can’t afford a bathtub.

I languidly wondered if I should try to rob a bank, but with the laziness in my veins, I decided a shower would work.

When I got home, Jamie was lying on the couch with some yogurt and a Sobe drink. He was watching a movie on the Lifetime Movie Network about a surrogacy gone wrong. I dipped my head in shame and fell haphazardly onto the sofa. He hated when I began to talk in movies, so I remained mum and waited for a commercial.

Five minutes and a bloodied envelope of secrets later, Jamie finally became responsive. “Well, how was your big day?” He jumped up and ran to the fridge. As I watched a commercial about a prescription drug, I heard the sound of the fire alarm. “Oh, my dear Aunt Lavinia!”

Somehow the alarm stopped bleating, and Jamie appeared with half a cake. “Ta-da,” he said, placing it on my lap. “My best friend conquered her first day!”

“Oh, Jamie,” I said, using my acting skills again for the smile plastered on my face. It looked like it had endured a tsunami, but my heart did ache because Jamie had a caring bone in his body. “Thank you so much.”

“Well, tell me about it! I’ll cut you a piece. Did you see anyone famous?”

“Well, I did meet my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss—who happened to be my boss’s boss’s boss’s husband.”

“Sensory overload. Come again?”

“Yup.”

We sat there, ate some good store-bought cake, and talked like there was no time. I felt very blessed to be part of a moment as such.

 

Chapter Three

 

THE DAYS PASSED into weeks. I enjoyed my job and my budding friendship with Baylee, who had invited me into her inner world of dreams and hopes. She wanted to be a mother, I gathered, but Richard already had two grown children. I convinced Baylee that she could convince her husband otherwise.

As for my job, it went smoothly, and I began a routine that involved sleeping, working, eating somewhere in the mix, and repeating. We were still in the midst of casting the TV pilot, as we’d gleaned three of the needed leads and a few supporting characters, but needed about two more leads to fill the requirement the studio needed. On my days off, I still worked in a sense by devoting my time to social events that Baylee invited me to or networking with agents. Having Jamie as a friend boosted my appeal since he worked primarily as an indie actor and could instruct me in some of the “ways.”

His relationship with Ella Monrey was turning out to last—which surprised me, considering they spent most of their time at her place. I had yet to meet her, which troubled me. I wondered if this was because Jamie was placing too much trust in her, especially after the disastrous ending of his last romantic relationship with my friend, Erinina Huston. Had he begun dating Ella in response to Nina’s wedding invitation on my calendar? I probably should have taken the photo of Nina and her charming fiancé holding hands off the fridge—because I’d caught Jamie watching it in the morning as he snapped banana bits between his teeth.

Yet I enjoyed my days between the wedding calls and nitpicky work scenarios. I’d managed to attend Chelsea’s bridal shower among a mix of Spanish-speaking señoras and some college friends. It had been a good time, but of course, they asked about my marital status. Um, single.

Two weeks after my first day as a casting assistant, I stuck the key into the lock of the door at my apartment. It had been a long day, and I was ready to sleep. I barely had time to jog anymore, which was a bummer, but I’d insisted on jogging right after work that day. Add in a trip to the store for some toiletries and junk food, and one of my fingers twisted into a pretzel from holding the groceries. As I pushed my force into the door, a box of goldfish fell to the floor, and I hissed in response, angered. I reached down to pick them up and heard a quiet murmur, right beside my head, and then a giant man-sized hand touched my own.

Therefore, the rest of the luggage fell to the ground.

“What the blazes!” Instinctively I cocooned myself into a protective ball and then shot up like a crack of lightning. I burst out my arms in a kung-fu type move, although I knew nothing of the skill. As the adrenaline coursed through my veins, I heard squeaky Jamie shout, “Hey, Sam, is everything okay?”

Then I fully took in the person I was about to karate-chop. My heart careened into my gut when I realized the man before me was Sam Woodshaw, the actor whom Jamie had loathed only weeks before, and the man whose success was beginning to seep out into public knowledge. From my limited espionage skills, I already knew that he was a British-American man with an English mum and a Californian father. He was from old money, but he’d spent a lot of time with some big organizations championing starvation and refugee awareness. Sadly, I’d even discovered he supported some ideologies that aligned with the Democrat agenda—an agenda my Texan roots wanted to wrap around and squash.

I stood paralyzed. In the past week since my job started, I’d been around half a dozen actors, some of reputable fame, but none had struck me as Sam Woodshaw did. Sadly, I decided it was his broad shoulders that did the trick, or maybe the long legs. Before I could seem even more ridiculous, I offered, “Are you with Jamie?”

He smiled at me, somewhat embarrassed himself, which surprised me. He offered a man’s hand, and I stared at it. Dear bluebonnets, I screamed internally, a phrase I’d never said in my entire life. “Sam,” he said quickly. I was somewhat proud that he hadn’t mentioned his last name.

I shook, not feeling tingling electricity like many of my friends said they had when they’d first touched their prospective love interests. Instead, I felt tremendously awkward. “I’m Emma,” I said, self-consciously wondering if I came across too strong. I then tried to smile, but my frustration at the meeting turned the attempt sour, and without further ado, I stomped into the kitchen.

“We have a visitor?” I asked as Sam trailed my heel.

Jamie turned around, wearing his green cooking apron. He nodded. “Sam hasn’t had a home-cooked meal in forever, so I thought I’d step in. I was just telling him—before I asked him to open the door for a loud, ruckus-making you—that Ella was supposed to come over, but she canceled at the last minute. I was already prepping for three steaks, so I invited him over.” Funny, I thought internally, since I still haven’t met her. Now you’re jealous because even Jamie has found a date. Ugh.

“I’m not intruding, I hope,” Sam said, standing dangerously close to me. Close enough that I felt my skin twitch. His presence made me feel small.

“Um, excuse me. If I’d known we were having guests, I’d have dressed a little nicer.” I looked at my sweats and a ratty t-shirt. I’d looked better an hour before. Now I was a sweaty mess, with makeup practically sweated onto my skin. My hair was twisted into a tight knot, but I had lost any attempt to care. It was close to eight at night, and Jamie hadn’t slyly commented on our having guests. Problems with roommates, I decided.

“Oh, Emma. You should know by now that that is one of your nicer outfits.”

“Seriously, James?” I punched his shoulder. “Well, do you want me to help with anything?”

“Oh, you smell bad.”

“I just got done jogging. I didn’t come from the shower, Jamie.”

“Anyway, she’s trying to show off,” Jamie insisted as he washed lettuce for salads. “In reality, Emma cannot cook anything. Wait! She can cook pasta, but pasta ain’t even cooking.” He rolled his brown eyes in mock annoyance.

I rolled my eyes and shifted my position to the edge of the kitchen, away from Sam’s brooding and broad body. I caught him gazing at me, but maybe it was the fact that a cuckoo clock hung above my head. It had been a gift from Jamie’s mother when she helped us move into the apartment. She was the only one supportive of the idea of our living arrangements; in fact, I hadn’t even told my dad. What he didn’t know would aid his heart.

Finally, I gathered the gumption to say, “Well, Sam. Let me call out the elephant in the room: You’re a movie star. In my apartment. That doesn’t happen every day.”

“In Beverly Hills it might,” Jamie said as he began to dice some tomatoes. He swiveled around to the oven to check on the meat. “You like yours…?”

“Medium well,” we both said, and I turned around and felt my nose scrunch up. He laughed; I didn’t.

“Okay. Okay, I see. Sam, why don’t you tell her about how you’re shooting a film in Oxnard. Or how you need a new personal assistant with all the gigs you’ve been landing. This boy has real talent, and I know you may need a new job soon…”

“James,” I gritted my teeth. “I do not need a new job.”

“What do you do?” Sam questioned. His lips opened just the slightest, revealing a glimpse of perfect white teeth. They weren’t snow-white however, which was somehow refreshing.

“I’m a casting assistant.”

“Oh, really?” He seemed genuinely interested. “For whom?”

“Braitley & Richter. I just started a few weeks ago,” I said, trying not to sound too interested in my occupation. In all honesty, I wanted to talk about it. Being behind the scenes of character development was a nifty little niche.

“Braitley, huh,” Sam said, leaning against the doorpost in a way that could only be classified as suggestive. “Interesting choice. I primarily work with Swift Star.”

“Ah, yes,” I said, trying not to seem so interested then. Swift Star was definitely a higher class office from the common streets of Braitley, but I did not want to give away the pride rooted in my belly. I liked Braitley and Richter—especially because I’d entered the private realms with Baylee Feta and Braitley himself just in the past few weeks without having an inappropriate sexual relationship or murdering anyone. “Well, I’m enjoying my job.”

Jamie nodded. “Braitley is okay, but I wouldn’t say it is the best to actors.”

“Jamie, it pays for this apartment. Keep your opinions to yourself,” I teased, but Sam seemed to think I was being serious, which made me burst into a little flurry of laughter.

“What made you choose casting?” Sam’s eyes were inquisitive. He wasn’t shy, I decided, but he seemed to have genuine manners.

Yet I stood before him like a complete work-out freak. A twinge of embarrassment flared up my skin, but then I rationalized that this had happened in my ignorance. “One of my close buddies in college introduced me to this world. Her father worked as a casting director, and after I shadowed him, I realized I enjoyed it. What made you choose acting?”

“Well, my mother signed me up for acting class when I was young, because I was ‘severely shy.’ Yet I believe I’ve always been fairly open. I always loved it; it’s been something—one of the only things—constant in my life.”

“Acting is constant? That’s the first I’ve heard of that theory,” I said, wondering if I sounded too harsh. Jamie would probably coach me after dinner on my rude behavior, but I silently thought to myself that I was being hard on Sam to see his reaction—to see if he would back off or fight for my interest.

“There can still be consistency in the fray.”

“Hmm, again, stimulating philosophy.” I saw Jamie’s shoulders slump, so I decided to be nicer. “Well, Sam, I guess I am just sour because every actor I know happens to be a giant airhead.”

Jamie turned and a grin appeared on his face. “And you say that about the class salutatorian.”

“How can an acting major get that?” I said, although I knew in detail that Jamie had the mind of a genius—even if it appeared as if he were on drugs at times. Plus, it didn’t hurt our college was relatively small.

Sam laughed and he took a sip of sparkling water. For a second I imagined it was wine as he poured the liquid into a glass with sure, steady hands. Then I remembered that even though I was of the legal drinking age, I’d decided against the practice. Alcoholism ran in the Richmond blood—something I never wanted to experience. Yet it seemed befitting on Sam, which made me question my whole belief system. He noticed my watching him and asked, “Want some?”

“No, no,” I said. “I hate sparkling water.” I washed my hands in the sink and took salad plates to the small dining table in the corner of the living room. The TV was playing a faint thrum of music, giving the ambiance a slightly romantic feel. It was some jazzy beat, perfect for a Christmas setting under the mistletoe with ice droplets gleaming down red noses. Yet in the somewhat stuffy apartment in a heated, summery Los Angeles, I felt heat flare up my pores. Sam carried bread to the table, and his close proximity made me jump.

“Did I scare you?” he whispered, but it felt like a loud boom.

“Absolutely not,” I said, regaining my composure. I stared at his profile in the dim light of the apartment glow, and settled on, “So, is it true that you support democratic socialism?”

He burst out laughing, which made me frown. After a few moments of his loudness and my silence, he looked down at me seriously, raising an eyebrow. “You’ve read what the magazines say about me?”

“I pay attention, since I’m a casting assistant and all.”

“Or you are interested in the business.”

“Am not. That’s what all my friends do. Stare at the rags and say, ‘Golly, I wish I had that kinda life!’ And I say, ‘I just wish I had a cat that doesn’t bite me when I try to rub her back.’”

“As you said earlier,” he said with a casual smirk, “stimulating philosophy. For your information, I don’t discuss my political views with anyone, let alone a tabloid journalist.” He reached down right beside me and picked a small tomato from a salad plate, sticking it into his mouth. Usually, I’d have a brouhaha over the rude mannerism, but he did it with such class that I was gobstopped.

We walked back into the kitchen, where Jamie presented us with warm steaks and to-the-brim baked potatoes. My eyes watered, especially after my work-out. Steaks aren’t probably the best after-exercise snack, but I was appalled at the idea of not tasting some homemade Southern steaks. (Or as Californians call it, tri-tip.) I also questioned why Jamie, a self-diagnosed health nut, was eating a steak. I decided that he was trying to network with Sam.

A few minutes later, we sat down, a trio I’d never envisioned in my whole life, considering the fact of Sam’s popularity, Jamie’s eccentricity, and my stubborn personality. Yet with the first bite of somehow delicious meat, I was in a better mood, especially with Sam’s gorgeous eyes occasionally locking with my own. Angrily I realized they were the color of springtime bluebonnets.

“So, Sam, what movie are you working on?” I asked, my tone too bright. I actually didn’t know the current film he was working on, though Jamie tilted his head as if I were lying.

“It’s a psychological thriller set in Oxnard. We’re in LA doing the last few weeks of shooting, and then I’m off for a little while. Auditions and such.”

“That’s cool,” I said, again shoving the jealousy down my throat. While he was off frolicking at Joshua Tree National Park for fun, I dealt with crabby agents and actors—along with a PMS-prone Becki and anxiety-ridden Megg. I repented immediately and remembered I was blessed to have a job at all. “So, James, how did you and Sam meet?”

“Just recently, actually,” Jamie began. “We were auditioning for a film, same role actually. We got to talking, and now here we are.”

“Ah,” I said, smiling. You didn’t tell me at all you made personal contact with a famous individual? “Cool.” My limited vocabulary was shining brighter than the sun in the summer solstice. Ugh.

Jamie and Sam began discussing something I didn’t pay attention to, although I offered the necessary laughter at the appropriate times, and bit my tongue from saying anything too disconcerting or foolish to Sam. When it wasn’t obvious, I watched him as the potato dissolved on my tongue. He seemed down-to-earth as I listened to his rambling about his eco-friendly apartment in the Hollywood Hills. Inwardly I decided he did support democratic socialism.

When the plates were cleaned of all food, I jumped up to take care of the dishes, needing a respite from the growing accumulation of nerves because of one guy. He appeared behind me a few minutes later, putting things up in cupboards and bringing leftover items for me to wash. I noticed Jamie’s absence.

“He said he left something in the car.”

“Did he now?” I turned around and rolled my eyes. I knew what he was up to. “There should be some ice cream in the freezer.”

“Really? Ice cream? If my agent finds out…”

“Please tell me you are joking.”

“Even if she did put that restriction on me, do you think I’d follow the rule?”

“Since I don’t know you, I’m not sure.”

“Sharp,” he whispered. Then there was the sound of rummaging from the freezer. “You know, people aren’t like this when they’re around me.”

“What do you mean?” I wiped off the slop of soapy water from my hands. He was shoveling a giant bite of vanilla ice cream into his mouth.

“Everyone is different. They treat me as a celebrity, not as who I really am—Sam.”

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Sam.”

He moved closer to me, just an inch or so, but it felt like a leap. He raised his eyebrow in my direction. “I mean this as a compliment, Emma. Even if you think I’m just rambling.”

“Well, if you’re being sincere, thank you. For Jamie’s sake, I will say that it was nice having someone over for dinner, so I don’t have to hear a continuous gaggle over Galaxy Wars rumors.”

“You see, that’s just part of being an American.”

“I’m not American, Sam. I’m Texan. There is a big difference.” He seemed to take me seriously, and I rolled my eyes. “Joking. That was a joke.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know how to take you. Hot one moment, cool as ice the next.”

“Is that a compliment?”

“Maybe,” he said, turning from me and heading to where Jamie had just entered. He was toying with me, and I narrowed my eyes in his direction.

 

“WHAT WAS THAT?” I asked the next morning as I scarfed down a plate of scrambled cheesy eggs, a recipe I’d learned from my dad. It had run through the generations like a dowry. I gazed in disgust at Jamie’s suckling of chocolate berry yogurt.

“Well, this is chocolate berry…”

“No, idiot. What was last night? You bring Sam Woodshaw for a casual dinner?”

“Oh, that. Well, yes. The opportunity was presented to invite a friend over. I can’t help it if you’re so infected with love termites that you treat him like he is the termite. Don’t even begin to roll your eyes at me, Emma.”

“Don’t give me that motherly lecture voice.”

“Deal with it. Get used to Sam. I like him, and I think he likes me. So, don’t be surprised if you see him at the apartment. He needs some kind of normalcy in a life like that.”

“Oh, yeah, money through his ears and Lamborghinis just don’t seem to offer any sense of happiness.”

“Be nice.”

“I’m trying.”

“You’re always mean to people you like. It is a weird disorder called the Emma Richmond Syndrome. Don’t overthink this—get to work, get on with your life.” He tried to hide the smile forming on his lips, but no amount of acting could hide it.

 

Chapter Four

 

THERE WAS NO appearance of Sam for a while, except on the news, because he’d saved a kid from a burning building. I didn’t exactly expect to see him around the apartment, but still, I felt a twinge of the doldrums because I was experiencing my first case of the, as Jamie called it, love termite. Finally, casting had ceased on Joan D’Narc, and a week of simplicity (ish) had taken root. As I continued working with Megg and Becki, we grew busy setting up the next casting week for a romantic-drama television program. This involved dealing with agents and setting up times for all the bigwigs needed at the casting panel. Yet I appreciated the end of a month of casting responsibilities for one darn TV pilot.

The weekend had come for Chelsea Villanueva’s wedding to Jim Baycroft. Thursday night served as our rehearsal dinner at a restaurant catering to fish lovers. Friday included the bachelor and bachelorette parties, while Saturday would serve as the wedding date. Our party took the patio outside overlooking Newport Harbor, where the water glittered against the backdrop of the setting sun. I thought Chelsea’s wedding party was huge until Jim brought his entire Mormon family along, plus his friends and colleagues and random pals he met in Bermuda. So, in total, we had about fifty people sitting outside on a patio that should only have accommodated thirty, but it made the atmosphere personal and something I didn’t experience much.

I sat with some of the other bridesmaids at the edge of Chelsea’s grandmother and aunt club. Chelsea’s four grandmothers were anxiously addressing each other in either heavily accented Spanish or indeterminable English. Even as a somewhat speaker of Spanish, I strained to understand if they asked me a question about anything.

The other bridesmaids included one of the women whose wedding I would also “work” as a bridesmaid. It felt like a job acting as a bridesmaid, even though I dearly loved my friends despite wanting to strangle them at times. So, as I sat with Chelsea’s fiery sisters, high school buddies, and one of the Lucky Six, I sipped on my water and dreamt of a trip to the Bermuda Triangle.

Lacey noticed my dozing off and elbowed me in the rib. “What are you doing, Em?” Her big cerulean eyes always reminded me of a deer, and she whispered, “At least act interested.”

“What do you mean?”

“You literally started falling asleep. One of the grandmothers started ranting in Spanish, a mix of words I’d never care to pronounce, and then bam! You’re out of it.”

I sat up straight, noticing the sun had almost completely disappeared, leaving behind a greenish hue to the light. Down the table, Chelsea was animatedly laughing and crying with Jim and their immediate posse. Lacey, meanwhile, pulled out a compact to check her makeup. “It is your job, isn’t it? I mean, I could never imagine being a casting assistant. What a busy thing to do!”

“It is fun, though,” I offered, glad that Lacey had nudged me awake, but disappointed in my own self for dozing off. A lot of the table was gone, probably to walk off some of the food, so I asked, “Where’d they go?”

“Well, a bunch left already to get prepared for tomorrow night or even Saturday, I guess. Some of the others went down to Newport Beach, just to walk it off. Want to go?”

I nodded, eager for a stretch in my legs. We kissed Chelsea good-bye, who insisted we come over tomorrow night for some good-old fashioned fun at the bachelorette party. To be honest, it would be my first real bridal event, and the only thing I had to base my perceptions of the party sphere was what I’d learned from movies.

Lacey and I walked quietly down to the beach, and she said, “My wedding won’t be as chaotic. I want it to be gentle, smooth, and relaxing.”

“I appreciate that,” I said honestly, noting the beginning of a rip in my purse. I cringed. “I bet Chelsea’s wedding will be gorgeous and fun. But it isn’t as fun when everyone else is getting married except…I’m sorry, Lace. I didn’t mean to…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Lacey said, stuffing a piece of short blonde hair behind her ear. “Your time will come, Emma. Plus, it will be even more special when it’s not in the seemingly daily hubbub of wedding plans. I’m sick of it, too, and my wedding’s not even a month away. Plus, even if you choose not to get married, it doesn’t have to be a big deal. Sometimes I wish I’d thought more about my answer to Carson.”

“Really?” I asked, thinking about how cute a couple Carson and Lacey made. Carson was a pastor at a non-denominational church in Malibu, where their nuptials would take place high in the Santa Monica Mountains at sunset. I was unusually excited about Lacey’s, even though it wasn’t going to be in a destination like Annabel’s Kauai, but because I appreciated the fact that Lacey and Carson would be pledging to each other in an atypical setting compared to the normal atmosphere of a church service while still remaining true to God.

Lacey nodded quickly, looking out in front of her. “I’m young. I don’t know if I want to commit this young. I mean, I’m absolutely in love with Carson. I would die for him, you know? But I’m afraid that what we have is too young to withstand the confines of today’s society.”

“If you have him,” I said, using my best Dr. Phil voice, “and you make a commitment before God, things will work out. I guarantee it. Why wait, if you know you love him so much you’d die for him? You don’t sound like you’re afraid of being married to him—just afraid of losing him.”

Lacey pulled her arm around my shoulder. “Will our friendship change when I get married?” She rested her head against my shoulder.

“It changed when you first started dating Carson, Lacey. But I still love you, and now I love him, too. If it changes, it is meant to change. I really believe that. I will still be your friend, no matter what, unless you do something really stupid like join a socialist party.”

A trickle of liquid spilled down her face, but she didn’t move to clean it. “Thanks, Emma. You’re snarky, relatable, and spunky—which is exactly what I need in a time like this. What they say about the stress that comes with a wedding is a thousand percent true. My first gray hair, my first wrinkle…”

“Shut up, Lace,” I said, nudging her as we entered the sandy beach area. I saw a few people from Chelsea’s party straggling down the beach. There were some guys lobbing a volleyball over a net, which made me cringe, as I’d eagerly quit after one year of varsity play. It had been very straining on my poor muscles, and I’d even bummed my thumb that year.

“Should we go check it out?” Lacey asked, her eyes alit with the prospect. Of course she would jump at the idea, since she played in college, a long year ago. She rushed over like a thirsty puppy discovering an oasis, and I lagged behind, the slow, crabby scorpion.

I moaned as I followed, listening as she introduced herself as one of Chelsea’s bridesmaids to three guys, two of whom I’d recognized as groomsmen. One was named Skylar, and the other was a tall Asian man, Luke Cho. I’d remembered his name because I associated the biblical Luke with him. The third guy was Jim’s older brother or something, a man named Scotty.

“I’m Lacey, and this is one of my best friends, Emma. How about we challenge you to a match?”

“Oh, I’ll sit out. That way it can be even.”

“Emma, come out here right now,” she said in her best matronly voice, which added to my impending grumpy mood. The darkness was soothing to my soul, reminding me that hello, bedtime is soon! Scientifically, my melatonin levels were like an old cat—I needed a bed, a bowl of soup, and a good foot massage. As practically a pauper and secondly a bridesmaid, none of these options were physically, emotionally, or spiritually possible. The sand looked like a good bed, but then Lacey suddenly had snaked her arms through mine and snuck me into the confines of the sand court.

“I haven’t played since I was fifteen, Lacey. I will die.”

“Emma, shut your mouth and play. This will be good for you.”

“I don’t think it would be very fun to play three men on two pretty ladies like yourselves,” Scotty said, clearly not taking in Lacey’s very posh solitaire engagement ring. I gagged when I realized she would be playing with it on. Yet I’d learned to accept the idiotic things of my friends without judging—and if I didn’t say something, it would work as payback for making me play.

Lacey feigned any knowledge of the sport. The men had no clue they were about to be faced with an effective tornado in the sport. But, eh, I wasn’t going to say anything. “Are you suggesting we can’t handle ourselves? Come on guys, it’s not 1955.”

The tall Asian, Luke, gently nodded. “Okay, well, let’s split up the teams fair and even. I say the big talkers should be together. That way, the underdogs can reign superior.” He winked at me, which made me cringe. I’d decided to do nothing, but when Lacey punched me in the shoulder, I groaned.

“What are you going to do about it?” she asked, propositioning me. I wanted to kill her and steal the ring. Maybe pawn it and donate the money to a knitting club.

“Okay, you’re on.”

“Okay, we’ll see about that.”

I took my time limboing under the net, and when I got to my team, I inwardly gagged. We had no chance, no chance at all. The competitive spirit in me was ballooing higher and higher, just because Lacey had challenged me to a duel, Hamilton-Burr style. I assessed Luke Cho and Skylar. Luke would be an effective blocker on the net due to his impending height, but I had a feeling we would need him on the offense. Skylar, a guy a tad shorter than me, seemed scrappy, and a perfect match for the back as the libero. Oh wait, this was informal. I scratched my head and wrapped my hair into a long ponytail.

“So, you guys got any experience?”

Luke shook and then cocked his head. “Nah, but how hard can it be?”

“Well, when you play Lacey Chapman, a former nationally ranked player who was offered a position on the Junior Olympics team, you will understand. We have no chance. But if your friend is awful as he talks, that could be used to our advantage.”

“He called her the big talker, but maybe it is really you.”

“I like to think of myself as deadly, lethal, and silent. But I haven’t touched a ball since freshman year of high school, Luke. We need to use our brains on this one.”

Skylar laughed. “This is a tactical operation, I see. Well, if I analyzed correctly, I’d say you want me in the back. I have some experience, since I was born and raised on the sport.”

I glanced at him. He didn’t look like the one to play anything except video games, but I checked my judgmental streak and nodded. “Precisely. I could try to set, see how that works out.”

“You were a setter when you played?”

What could I tell him? I was a Texan raised on athleticism and grain, but I’d quit the sport in the midst of my parents’ brutal divorce. Volleyball did not mean the same thing to me when I came back sophomore summer, and eventually, I just gave it up. “Yes.”

“Well, I’m tall. I’ll jump and assist?” Luke asked, a smile peeking from his lips.

“Okay. Let’s try this.”

Eventually, our little planning session ended with the first volley, and the next thing I realized, Skylar was passing the ball to me. My fingers ached to feel the leather, to remember what it was like having people cheer. I jumped up and did a move etched in my memory from years of conditioning—but years of rust. As it landed in Luke’s unsteady range, I assessed my own move. It was rusty, but it would work. The ball floated over the net, and it was returned with a minor smack by Lacey. She sent me a little grin—she wasn’t even playing. She probably wouldn’t play the entire game.

Eventually, despite our losing streak, Skylar passed a ball to Luke to set, and I killed it with all the power I could muster. As the ball touched the tag of the bounds, I was momentarily overcome with the memory of my teenage years. Of how much I loved my life—how much I liked the here and now. As Luke and Skylar hooted, Lacey tossed, “Not so bad, Em.”

“Who’s the Olympian?” Luke asked quickly, which one of my friends would have diagnosed as a flirting gesture. He seemed like a nice guy, but I wasn’t interested in guys in my reminiscing mood. I silently waited for the next set, and then the game continued as before.

 

WE DID NOT lose as miserably as possible, but it was still pretty bad. I picked up my purse and hung it over my shoulder after the game was done, but Luke sidled up to me and said, “So, want to take a walk?”

“Not really,” my brain said. Yet my lips said otherwise. “Why?” Noting his nervous and expectant demeanor, I offered, “Maybe just a little one.” I nodded to Lacey, who was tilting her head as she shielded herself from Skylar and Scotty. She seemed happy to have the attention, though I wondered if she would ever threaten them with the impending Mrs. of her position.

We walked at the breakers, where the water latched onto our bare feet in translucent drops. I loved the feel of cool water and sand, so in a momentarily relaxed manner, I asked, “So, Luke. How do you know Chelsea and Jim?”

He licked his lips. “Well, Jim and I went to college together, back at UCLA a few years ago. We were roommates, actually.”

“So were Chelsea and me.”

“Really? Well, that’s something we have in common.” I smiled, though I was glad the darkness hid the feature. He continued, his voice more unperturbed around me now. “But it is interesting because Chelsea and I met a few months ago, after the release of her indie movie. So I’ve been able to work with Chelsea’s career while also keeping up the status of best friend to Jim.”

“Best friend, huh? Anyway, what do you mean, you help Chelsea?”

“Inquisitive, aren’t you? I work in the business. Mostly director nowadays on small budget projects. Well, Chelsea has interned with me, and I helped her get into UCLA for film school. She has talent, and I like helping people. So…”

“You’re a director?” I asked.

“Yes. What’s the big deal? We’re in Los Angeles, aren’t we?”

“Oh, nothing, I suppose.” I decided to keep my career hush-hush, as the devilish part of me wished to see what he’d do if I happened to be the casting assistant working with him on a movie. The thought flickered in and out until I said, “So, are you the rom-com indie type, or sci-fi with a twist, or what? You don’t seem like a wallflower to me.”

“Thanks for that, it is a really touching compliment.” He bumped into me. “Primarily science fiction of all things. Scary alien thrillers, or like my latest film, one about the unlikely appearance of Sasquatch in a Colorado mining town in the 1800s. Sometimes I stray from the genre, though.”

“Scintillating.”

“Very.”

“So, what do you do?”

I shrugged. “Well, right now, I’m just busy with life.”

“Really?” he asked in disbelief, although he wasn’t the pressing type and remained silent on the subject. He did whisper in my ear: “Does that mean you’re a closet serial killer?”

“Nice, very nice,” I said, twisting from him, spinning in a little circle from sheer tiredness. My watch read almost nine-thirty, and I still had work in the morning, plus the magnitude of Chelsea’s bachelorette party and just simply socializing like a normal human being.

“Should we head back?” he asked, though it wasn’t a question he wanted to slip through his teeth.

“Probably,” I whispered, though I wondered if I wanted to go back. For whatever reason, I enjoyed Luke Cho’s presence, even if we’d only been together for a few minutes. It was long enough to gauge a person’s deportment and decide if there was any possible connection, in the friend or more-than-friend stratospheres.

The salty air mixed with Luke’s faint cologne, which surprisingly didn’t smell too awful. I grinned at him, and next thing I knew, he grinned at me. He seemed genuinely carefree and personable, which was interesting. “So, tell me about yourself.”

“Well, what do you want to know?”

“I don’t know what I don’t know.”

“That is a non sequitur if I’ve ever heard one before.”

“What? That was definitely not a non sequitur.”

“Okay, well you should know that I am undoubtedly three things. You must not judge, do you understand? These three things will either make you laugh, make you happy, or make you kinda pissed.”

“So? I can handle it. This is America.”

“Exactly. So, here you go: I’m Texan, Republican, and Christian.”

He broke out into a round of hysterics. Even when he was bowing down from laughter, he was a good few inches taller than me. Waiting for a snarky comment, I tapped my foot against the sand. Instead, Luke said, “Well, that explains your aura, I guess.”

“What does that mean?”

He gently nudged me and offered, “I’m Californian, Independent, and agnostic. How about that?”

“You wanted to know about me—so I told you the most important things about me. You should feel honored.”

“I do.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Yes,” Luke said, his eyes glowing. “I’m not going to blackball you now because you told me who you are. That’s not me. I credit myself as an open, accepting human being—and I’d like to assume we’d agree on more things than we’d disagree on.”

“You sure about that?” I winked, mimicking the mannerism he’d done to me only an hour before.

“Honestly, Emma, I’d rather be with a person who’s honest about who he or she is than in a room where everyone just stands in agreement. There is absolutely no learning from agreement. There has to be some sort of varying viewpoint if there is going to be a real relationship.”

“Philosophical, are you?”

He pursed his lips in a joking manner. “Of course. As a human being, I would have to say I pride myself in being philosophical—even if it is plain mêlée 99% of the time.”

We were back at the restaurant, whose lights glittered in the midst of the darkness cascading from the ocean. If one looked straight at the sea—through all the lights displayed in the mirror—it could be thought that millions of people didn’t lurk just a walk away. Now the patio was filled with couples and a group of teenagers, and with a quick peek to my phone, I’d discovered that Lacey had gone home already.

I directed my path to my clunker-junker automobile. Before I opened the car door, I turned to Luke, who dug his hands in his pockets. “For your information, I had fun tonight.”

“Me too,” he said. “See you Saturday?”

“Yeah, sure. Bye.”

The drive home was blessedly quiet, though I turned up the speakers as high as they would go so I could have a deep, personal connection with the newest Coldplay album without any judgment. My mind was so sleepy, so ready to dream, that when I got home, I didn’t even recognize that there was a woman’s voice in my best friend’s room. Sometimes, I truly believe that the Divine rescues us, because if I had not fallen immediately asleep, I probably would have committed a double-murder.

 

Chapter Five

 

I’D FORGOTTEN ALL about last night when I went into the kitchen and poured myself a bottle of orange juice. It was early in the morning, but the sun’s rays seemed to mirror a mid-afternoon effect. With a quick look, I deduced I’d need to head to the grocery soon, as I stuffed the last blueberry breakfast bar into my throat. I walked back to my room, packed up my necessities for the bachelorette party that night and the wedding the next day.

As I hummed into the bathroom to gather an assortment of makeup, a contact solution bottle, and my toothbrush, a monstrous croak sounded from the toilet. Confused, I gazed to my left, and a woman heaved into the toilet. A full-blown vomiting episode by a woman I’d never seen in my life. I screamed as loud as I could and ran away, running into the wall. The nearest can of Raid wasp spray was in my bedroom, so I hurried and grabbed it from the dresser. Then I came back and shouted, “Who in God’s name are you?”

The woman continued to barf, and I pushed my finger on the trigger. At the exact moment, a face appeared in front of the can and was effectively shot down. Jamie’s body shook on the floor, so I fell down beside him. “Jamie? What is going on here?”

“Ella…Ella!” He sobbed.

I turned to see the woman, who fell against the wall, passed out. I hurried to her, checking her temperature. She came to moments later and squealed, but I pointed to Jamie and she gathered herself. “What is going on?” I demanded.

“Hi. Ella Monrey,” she said, sticking a tan hand at me. I declined.

“I have to get to work, and I find a puking woman, and now Jamie is handicapped due to wasp killer?”

Jamie was still writhing on the floor, so I tossed him a cool cloth. For extra measure, I handed a cloth to Ella too. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I spent the night because I got sick after our date last night.”

“Did he cook for you? Did he make you sick?”

“No, no, no.”

“Good, because I would spray his eyes again. I’ll be right back.” I brought her some saltines and a bottled water. “I wish I could stay, but when Jamie is able to get back to a normal person, he’ll take care of you. I have work. It is nice to meet you.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’ll just be here.” She began gagging, and I hurried back to Jamie.

“Care to explain?”

“Not right now. Go, go, have fun. I’ll see you… Oh gosh, is this what hell is like?”

“Somehow, I don’t think so.”

“Get to work. I’ll see you…later.”

What a great way to meet your best friend’s girlfriend. Okay, okay.

 

MISSION VIEJO IN the dead of June is nothing like the heat of Texas, but the Saturday of Chelsea Villanueva’s wedding was unusually toasty. The sun was bright, which was a treat because June Gloom is a real thing in which gray clouds dominate Southern California skies. So I was glad for the sun, but angry because it was hard to breathe in the cool-based purple twist-front halter bridesmaid dress. It had tightened against my skin since I’d tried it on with the girls a month or so ago, back when I’d jogged regularly. I rolled my eyes.

I was standing in the midst of the busy bridal-prep room where girls were everywhere, running to and fro, fixing hair, makeup, and boobs. Lacey and I stood close to a window so that we could oversee the street of Chelsea’s childhood house in the heart of the town. A little girl biked down the baked pavement, and I wondered if the heat would give her a stroke. Someday, I hoped I’d be blessed with a little girl of my own, with my red waves or even a little semblance of the Richmond gene pool; she deserved the Richmond nose at least, I decided. Aunt Eunice used to parade around town and brag about the prim nose of our ancestral lineage.

Lacey was pulling my hair into a complicated up-do while whispering little adages about how weddings went. From her accepting tone, I wondered if she would appreciate the chaotic atmosphere of the room, where clothes were strewn in all positions, where the young and old alike had taken a tornado to get ready, and where the crazy atmosphere had dictated various spheres of cliques. Luckily Lacey had been invited as a bridesmaid, or I’d be confused in the midst of fluent Spanish and the hint of a Mestizo language.

“So, can you believe this will be you in two months?” I asked when Lacey and I stood, ready.

“Look in the mirror,” she said, pulling me to the vanity. “I really cannot. Seems like yesterday I was a little girl playing dress-up in my sister’s closet.” To me it seemed like yesterday that my father first awarded me with a BB gun and a round of ammo. For years I worked on my aim by shooting at soda cans sitting on a ladder.

Lacey and I were pretty women, I thought (maybe even hoped). Of course, Lacey was the one who was more traditionally beautiful, due to her blonde hair and bright blue eyes. She and my friend Annabel looked similar, but Lacey had the more reserved expression, and her lips were less prominent. I saw myself, the dark red hair and the gray eyes, and bit my lip. Little freckles dotted my shoulders, proof that I was my mother’s child.

“Come on, let’s go check on Chels.” She pulled me away from my momentary mom memory, and then we were standing by the bride.

Chelsea was hyperventilating, a mess of hair and beaded lace. As her mother hurriedly fiddled with the veil on top of Chelsea’s freshly dyed cocoa roots, I assessed the bride-to-be, whose au naturel face would soon be caked with makeup. Through the haze of women, Chelsea reached her hands out to me, muttering, “Dios necesita venir aquí. Ahora.

“Sweetie,” I said, rubbing her hand, “Dios is here. He hasn’t left.”

“Come again? I took French.” Lacey began fiddling with the bottom of the dress.

Chelsea smiled at me and said, “If I pass out up there with Father Dimonada, please be in charge of resuscitating me. I’m not dying since I got into UCLA.”

“Oh, dear Chels.”

Suddenly she was ripped from my arms, off to get her makeup. Part of me cried as she was carried off—because inside, I knew this was the next step toward growing up. I hated being an adult—especially an adult expected to get married.

 

THE MUSIC WAS traditional, something Catholic, because I recognized it, but it wasn’t exactly familiar. I noticed Chelsea’s father first, a suave man whose wrinkles added to his friendly mien. Then my eyes glimmered over to the stunning swanlike Chelsea Villanueva, the gorgeous friend I loved, the woman whose heart adorned her sleeve. In the trumpet-styled gown, she looked like a princess. The gown was gorgeous—an off-the-shoulder bodice, along with a long, snow-white train—but the woman enclosed radiated like a gem. She sparkled, literally, and tears poured out of her mother’s eyes. As everyone stood to admire Chelsea, I gazed over to Jim, who pulled out a handkerchief to pat his watery eyes. Chelsea began to tear up, but she had a look of, If you think I’m about to ruin this makeup…

From my perch near the altar, I remembered the adage: Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. The something old were the pearls stranded across Chelsea’s svelte neck like genuine Christmas lights, while the newness was formed from the trumpet gown. Something borrowed was the veil on the perch of her brown tresses, covering her gorgeous face, though I could still see her beauty. There was a hint of the blue high heels under her gown, the rebel she was. Yet no one seemed to pay attention to that; they were too focused on the enduring love searing between one man and one woman. I almost choked on the goodness emanating from the couple, though the anti-love part of me gagged because I wanted what they had.

Throughout the rite of marriage, I contemplated how Chelsea and Jim had fallen in love. During their relationship, she’d been quite brazen in her approach. “I’m not going to be that person who says ‘I love you’ in the first stage. I’m going to make him say it to me first, even though I know I’m in love with him right now.” Yet as they made their vows known before Father Dimonada, the parish itself, and God, I smiled, blinking back wetness from my own eyes. There was no doubt that Chelsea had Jim wrapped around her dainty little finger.

As soon as the two broke apart from the kiss, they made their way down the aisle in wedded bliss, Jim lifting his wife into his arms like a macho-man. They disappeared and then it was the wedding party’s turn to follow the matriarchs and patriarchs out. As I took my designated groomsman’s arm, I locked eyes with Luke Cho, who took one of Chelsea’s sister’s arms.

As soon as we made it to the foyer, he edged up to me and whispered, “You look gorgeous, Emma.”

“Well, thanks,” I blushed, not expecting immediate flattery.

He took my arm, an act of bravado I appreciated, and pulled me to the left, where we followed the others to the wedding party wait spot. After the guests left, we’d pile into rented limos and cruise down to the banquet hall twenty minutes away, for pictures, drinking (not for me), and a good time.

“So, as a self-proclaimed agnostic, what do you think about the articulate embodiment of a Catholic parish?”

He nodded. “It isn’t shabby in the slightest. Quite stunning, I have to admit.”

“But not enough to convince you that Christ is Lord?”

“No.”

“We’ll keep working on that,” I winked.

“Are you Catholic?”

“I’m Methodist. Like Hillary Clinton.”

“The fact that you said Hillary and not Bill is indicative of your feminist leanings.”

“Gah,” I whispered as we gathered together in a clumped ball of cologne, purple lace, and confusion, awaiting the photographer and time to steadily tock. “The fact that you mentioned that is indicative of your wish to associate away from me.”

“Just the opposite,” Luke Cho said with a cocky smile, and he looked away just in time to not see the redness of my cheeks bloom like a rose in December.

 

THE FATHER-DAUGHTER dance was provoking, and the first dance of husband and wife was the right mix of classy and downright emotional. But then came a round of real grinding-dancing, where some bridesmaids went full-on trashy, some of the groomsmen were insistent on taking off Chelsea’s garter, and I was somehow pirouetting with Luke Cho, letting my body sweat and my hair down from the tight up-do Lacey had crafted.

The dance floor was packed with people—children, adults, the elderly—and somehow, Luke and I hadn’t left each other’s side. As the music went from sultry salsa to indie and electronica, I allowed my body the rapture of letting loose, enjoying a good time, and feeling quite free from restraints of normal life.

Luke spun me in a circle and whispered into my ear, “You know, I didn’t know this would be quite as fun as it has been.”

“You mean, because we are so good at dancing? Did that surprise you?” I was really sore, but ignored the feeling of achy muscles.

Lacey sidled up to us in a flurry of tiredness and bliss. “I wish my fiancé had been able to come—so I could look like you and Lukey here.”

“Lukey?” I gasped, falling over onto Luke’s chest when Chelsea’s grandmother—who had been dancing with a twentysomething surfer groomsman—bumped into me. She blew me a kiss and pointed to her hot date.

“It’s not the weirdest thing I’ve ever been called,” Luke offered, staring down at me. He blinked a few times, and then twirled me around. I felt really short compared to him, yet somehow it was a turn-on.

“One time,” I said, feeling the delirium that comes late at night in the hurry of a party, “someone called me ‘Stinking Polecat Dilemma Emma’ and, ever since, I have been blinded by that fact.”

“Someone’s tired,” Luke said, smiling. “Does she get really talkative when it is late at night?”

Lacey nodded quickly. “Yes, she does. Emma, the crowd is starting to disperse. Do you want me to drive you home?”

“No, I definitely got this. With a handsome guy like Lukey here…”

“She could be drunk,” Lacey offered.

“I’ve been with her all night—she hasn’t had anything except water.”

I felt tired, needy, and ready for a nice, cold shower—like always. There was a sort of ringing in my head from the mixture of sounds, but it wasn’t until midnight when I had an opportunity to leave, once Chelsea and Jim had been sent off to their honeymoon at a resort down in Oceanside and their parents had been formally driven off as well. Then, suddenly, under a thick blanket of stars, I stood at my car. Lacey was gone, but Luke remained, and his warm eyes matched my own.

“Will you be all right driving home? You seem loopy.”

“I’ll be fine,” I said, standing on my toes to kiss him on the cheek. “Thank you for a fun night. I really did have fun, because you agreed to dance like a complete idiot for me.”

“That makes it sound like it was a personal invitation. One I would like to follow up on soon.”

“I’ll see you around?” I asked, dropping him a piece of paper with my phone number enclosed. I had never done this before, but it did not strike me as something strange to do. I simply did it without giving it an intelligible thought.

 

 

PART TWO

Annabel

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

AS SOON AS I pulled into the parking lot at my apartment complex, I felt like falling asleep in my car, but I drudged myself up. I could handle a teeny little walk up to my bed. Part of me debated what I’d do if Ella were sleeping over again. Maybe we could build a fort and have a pillow fight! I gagged at the prospect.

As I fiddled with my bags, I heard someone clear his throat, and I turned around with a can of Raid wasp spray in my palm. “I will shoot,” I threateningly offered, though my voice sounded hoarse. My father had taught me to always be prepared in a parking lot, and even though Glendora was a little heaven, I never took any chances. Jamie had given me a lesson in self-defense as part of his status as a Memphian.

“Don’t shoot. It’s me, Sam.” A man appeared in the haze of fading streetlight, with a black man sleeping in his arms. The picture was quite alarmingly funny, but my face did not represent the hilarity of the event. Sam’s face came into focus, the handsome desire running up my arms suddenly, and then I realized sharply that the black man in his arms was none other than my best friend.

I dropped my belongings and screamed, “Is he dead? What happened?” I lifted my skirt and hurried to them, throwing myself on Jamie. “Does he need CPR? What is going on?”

Sam grinned, but it was so devoutly devious that it took everything in me not to slap his clean-shaven face. “Emma, I know you are like the perfect saint and all…”

“Excuse me?”

“Hear me out. This is Jamie when he is drunk.”

“Jamie…is drunk?”

“You’ve never seen him drunk?”

“Of course not!”

Sam spewed out a burst of laughs. “What?” he questioned in disbelief. “Emma, are you even human?”

“I’m surprised you even remember my name.”

“Oh, cut the crap,” Jamie slurred, his voice melodic and true, though his words were the opposite. I punched his arm which was hanging miserably from Sam’s shoulder. “Hi, Emma,” he said, his eyes lolling around his head. “I’ll be fine.”

“Oh, really? ‘I’ll be fine,’ sure. I’m going to be the one taking care of you, idiot!”

“Emma,” Sam said, his voice laced with a bit of frustration. “I will drop him, because he is like a lump of coal.”

“He’s the skinniest guy I’ve ever met.”

“Would you like to carry him?”

“Come on,” I said, picking up my bags and lunging for the door. We took two flights of painful stairs and made it to our room. As soon as we entered the room, the three of us landed on the sofa in one giant sandwich. My dress was probably ruined, Jamie was ruined, and Sam yawned like a bear awakening from winter’s sleep.

“Would you like to tell me what happened?” I hissed at Sam. “On my night away a couple days ago, I come home to Jamie’s little sleepover friend. Then I come home tonight to find him drunker than a Russian on Christmas eve. So, is the common denominator here—oh, I don’t know—you?”

“We,” Sam began, lowering his eyes, “were at a function, having a good, swell time. You’re not the only one who has a tough existence, dear Emma.”

“That doesn’t mean you have to go out clubbing.”

“Deal with it,” Sam protested. “Jamie took more than he could handle, obviously.”

“Are you drunk?” I interjected.

He shook his head. “I’ve been sober for a few years now.”

“But you let him drink in this situation?”

“And you wouldn’t. So what? It’s his choice.”

“It was your choice to stop him.”

“Emma, oh Emma. Sometimes I think you just like driving me crazy.”

“We haven’t been together but a few hours. How do you know if I drive you crazy or not?”

Jamie mumbled something indecipherable, but Sam and I were moving closer to each other over our friend’s limp body that was splayed in all directions. He was narrowing his eyes, and so was I; his lips pulled in, and so did mine. Finally, we went silent and just stared at each other.

“His mother made me promise that I wouldn’t let him turn into Miley Cyrus.”

“Just because he got drunk… Listen, Emma. He’s young, he has his whole life…”

“If you’re sober, why are you telling me this? You’ve obviously a staunch authoritarian—and I’m a staunch libertarian.”

“How does what you and I identify as even relate to what Jamie wants? What even is an authoritarian?”

“I think we’re arguing right now just because we can,” I muttered, turning away from him, sticking my hands against my stomach. “You take care of him then. I’m going to go change out of this ridiculous gown.”

“It’s a pretty color,” he offered.

“Really? It is too tight, it makes me feel like a popped balloon, and when one stands next to svelte Swedish girl…”

“So, one thing you should know is that Jamie was incessantly blabbering about some girl named Nina. I thought he was dating Ella?”

“Nice of you to check up on him, friend. Nina happens to be his ex-girlfriend. He better not have gotten drunk because… Oh.”

“What?” Sam asked.

I stood up, wobbly, and hurried to the kitchen counter, where a ripped-up card clung to the counter. It was a save-the-date announcement, and shock registered in my eyes. I had received the text from Nina firsthand, but this was how Jamie had discovered it. You see, Jamie and Nina had dated all through college, until the past Christmas, when they’d broken up “to see other people.” Jamie had been heartbroken and in a terrible time, acting like the sky was always gray, and how he could not live without her. Nina responded by getting another boyfriend, whom she was now marrying.

“Oh, man.”

“Again, what?”

“We’ve got a lovesick boy on our hands.”

“Lovesick?”

“His ex-girlfriend, and probably the love of his life, is getting married at Christmas. He found out, and… He’s heartbroken. This is like going back to the Stone Ages. Jamie spent all of winter and spring pining over Erinina Huston—like a little lovesick girl. Okay, that wasn’t the best feminist thing to say. How are we going to get his spirits up?”

“Clubs all night, every night,” Sam cockily said, his eyes turning into two little minds of their own. “Kidding, of course. Well, if we keep him busy, by doing touristy stuff on weekends, that kind of thing, maybe go to the beach, take a drive to San Francisco or San Diego…”

“You’re saying ‘we.’”

“Well, if you’d have me, I’d like to go. There is something about Jamie,” he paused, acting like he was going to say my name too, “that makes me want to hang out with him all the time.”

“Oh, and is that his love of cooking—or his inability to cook?”

Sam smiled. “Why don’t we surprise him? Let’s do something as a trio. You, me, Jamie.”

“You have time off on weekends now?”

“I’m good for Sunday, or Saturday if that’s what fits your schedule best. Remember, I’m between projects right now. Anyway, we could go to Disneyland, although I’d prefer something more low-key.”

“Are you kidding me? You, Sam Woodshaw, at Disneyland? We’d never get anything done. I cannot believe I am even agreeing to go on this three-way date thing we’re setting up.”

“Malibu,” croaked my best friend from his drunken stupor. “Malibu.

A dry puff emitted from my throat. I could not believe where this was going. “Fine. Sunday, come over here sometime in the morning, and then we’ll go.”

Sam’s eyes lit up. “Is this what you’re like when you’re cranky?”

“Am not!”

“Emma, your eyes are beginning to close.”

“Are not.”

“Emma…”

That was the last thing I heard.

 

THE NEXT MORNING, I found a note crumpled up by a folder Jamie had left on the counter. I suddenly had my first peek at Sam’s scrawl, a messy penmanship that needed work.

[_ Jamie will have his first hangover in the morning. If you’ve ever seen a film, you’ll know how to take care of him. As for you, Emma, you fell asleep before I could even apologize for calling just your dress a pretty color. In fact, it is quite obnoxious—just like you. -Sam _]

I cringed, but I felt the hint of a smile climb up my chin to my lips. If he had left some love note, I would have never wanted to see him again. But since he wanted to play this game, I felt that it would make the object of winning that much better.

 

Chapter Eight

 

WORK THE NEXT Monday was arduous, especially after the wedding and the follow-up of Jamie’s incurable hangover. Eventually, I left my apartment and went jogging in the mountains, unable to take any more of Jamie’s “I need more soup, Emma” like I had suddenly become his mother. I wondered where Ella was in the moment of Jamie’s physical needs, but I pushed away the jealousy and looked forward to a week of work. Which seemed somehow unhuman.

As soon as I got to the office building and into my crammed, stubby thing of a desk, I discovered a post-it note. [_ Come to my office ASAP. -B _]

So I stood back up, jamming my purse under the confines of papers from agents. Then I smoothed out my wavy hair—that I hadn’t bothered to do anything with sadly—and made my way to Baylee’s office.

I opened the door without asking, as had been accustomed over the course of our month-long friendship. As I called her name, she spun around in her swivel chair like a famous starlet in a big-budget production, her silhouette illuminated by the hint of Los Angeles skyline beyond. She leaned over her desk and motioned me over. “You will not believe what I have to tell you, Em.”

She had learned my real name a week into our friendship, when she’d presented me a gift of monogrammed lilac towels for completing (and not dying while at) my first two weeks of the job. After that, she took to calling me “Em” just like Jamie did. Usually I would take insult, but I had grown to enjoy Baylee, who still retained the melodramatic spirit all the time—something she would probably never lose.

“What?” I asked, falling into the chair across from her. The stud in her nose glowed. It made her look like an edgy superhero.

“Becki completely spazzed out on us. She left her papers with Richard on Friday. Once her two weeks are up, you’ve got a promotion.”

“Are you serious?” I asked, jumpy. This would make my status go up a little more, from casting director’s assistant’s assistant to assistant’s assistant. Though I hoped I’d be able to work with someone other than Megg and Becki, I’d been assigned to their team again for the new TV show. Yet I could handle Megg, and I was ready to prove myself. “This doesn’t happen, does it?”

“Not usually, but you deserve it.” A hint of a grin shadowed her face. From what I’d learned, Baylee never smiled. She didn’t adhere to Kim Kardashian-esque rules like smiling would cause wrinkles, but Baylee never really had a reason to smile.

“Thanks for telling me.”

“No problem, Em. Anyway, the wedding was good, I take it?”

“Fine. How was the party in the Pacific Palisades?” We went back to our non-enthusiastic selves, though I was still grinning. I’d also gathered that Baylee did not like over-amped positivity in her life, so I toned myself down in her presence, although I was never a true optimist. Baylee and Richard had attended some party for a big-time producer for a huge studio name. It could help with our clientele, as it would pave the road from nothing shows like Joan D’Narc to follow in Grey’s Anatomy’s footsteps.

“Good,” Baylee said, pulling a nail file from a cabinet in her mahogany desk. “Julienne Drain was there, and oh my gosh, Emma, she was so drunk. It was so embarrassing when she tripped down the stairs and her gown flew up. Everyone saw her crotch. No one got a photo, though, but if they had, someone would’ve made a pretty penny for a look at the family jewels.”

“Eek,” I said, having already accepted Baylee’s persona. She appreciated when others failed. “I never liked Julienne.” Which was true, but part of me felt bad for her.

“It is always kinda a drag to go to these things with Richard,” she said, not seeming to care that her voice was loud and the walls were not soundproof. “He’s always sucking up to people, always. So that leaves me socializing with all these arrogant people who’ve been called stars all their lives. It’s ridiculous and so petty. You know what, you should come with me to the next one. That way we can have some fun.”

“Really?”

“Of course. You really have no understanding of how boring it can be. That’s why I need you.”

After I left Baylee’s office, I spent the rest of the day gathering last-minute information from agents to process the finality of the auditions that would begin the next day. After lunch, I was feeling quite loopy but refreshed, and just for fun, I googled Kauai onto the search browser of my phone. Immediately, photographs of large, sharp green mountains and lush countryside filled the screen—along with crystal-clear images of cerulean and navy waters in the forms of oceans, natural pools, and secret cave systems littered with waterfalls. My heart was bursting. Annabel was a very lucky girl.

Then I remembered the day trip I’d committed to with Sam Woodshaw. Even if Jamie were there, it felt like Sam had been asking me on a date, which would be something irresponsible of me to agree to. He was on the cusp of stardom, and I’d just assumed he wanted to be with me. Preposterous, I decided; Sam really was just a guy looking to let loose. Maybe his life was filled with so many parties, studio calls, and booked appearances that he needed a semblance of normal life, which he’d somehow found in Jamie. Selfishly, I decided I was just an added thing, the extra biscuit no one ever eats (terrible analogy, I know).

It would be only two weeks before I was destined to fly off to Lihue, Kauai, Hawaii, for an extravagant long weekend. I’d already had it cleared with Megg, Baylee, and Richard, who all agreed that weddings are hard to come by, and I deserved to be at my friend’s nuptials. I had been surprised at how accepting they were of my being gone for nearly four days (including a weekend), but I’d learned that I had made it into the good graces of my bosses, which is never a bad thing.

After work I called Annabel in the sepulcher of my car while I sat in binding traffic, cars omnipresent in all directions. “Hey,” I mused, waiting for her California accent to fill the radio speakers—thank goodness for Bluetooth.

“Emma! Just the person I was looking for. So, didn’t you think Chelsea’s wedding was to-die-for? So big and stuff! Well, I’m hoping mine will be more intimate, don’t you think?”

“Kauai is a very intimate place,” I concurred, my eyes dreamily batting at the thought that I’d be jumping on a private jet with Annabel and her entourage for a Hawaiian wedding/mini-vacation.

She cleared her throat. I imagined her bleach-blonde waves and big blue eyes, the fact that she was half-Dutch and half-Australian, plus the fact she’d grown up in luxury as the daughter of a record label executive on the Sunset Strip. It was actually a joke that we’d met and become such close friends. I’d been dared to score a moment’s time with the most popular girl on campus—Annabel Rey Tipton, who was practically royalty—and while expecting her to rebuff me, she welcomed me into her arms (literally) and introduced me to her friend group. I’d assumed they would all be stick-thin, rich, and blonde, but in reality, Annabel was a caring, genuine—albeit spacey—person, but she had a spirit that could not be rivaled. She was one of the most generous people I knew, as she devoted her time to being a part-time fashion designer and full-time philanthropist.

“I’m really glad I invited so few people. It will give me more time to spend with those who mean the world to me. So, are you all prepared? I want you to come over soon, maybe this weekend if you can, so we can discuss the plans fully.”

“That should work,” I said quickly. I’d been to her Hollywood Hills mansion many a time, but each step I took on the premises was like a little arrow into my layman’s heart. She only owned one home, but I could tell she was self-conscious about it, and she’d confessed to me she wanted to sell it and take up a loft somewhere without the aura of “rich.” I believed her. “Friday? Saturday?”

“Anytime that is good with you. Saturday would probably work best for me, but if Friday is best for you, we’ll manage.”

“Saturday it is.”

“Oh, one of my little sisters just came in. Hi, Chiara! I’ll see you Saturday, right, Emma?”

After I hung up, I was genuinely pleased with how my life was shaping up to become.

I made it to the apartment in Glendora later than I usually came home, right around six-thirty thanks to traffic, and found Jamie sitting at our makeshift dining table with two plates of spaghetti and a little cake.

“What’s the occasion?” I asked, my eyes lighting up. I had a feeling he would tell me good news.

He looked up at me, his eyes as big as llamas’ ovals. “I got my big break, Texas. Like this is huge.”

“Are you serious?” I asked, throwing my purse on the floor. “Are you serious? Jamie!” I hurried over to him and hugged him tightly around the neck, not being that careful I could choke him, because he did partially deserve it.

“I started auditioning for this role a few months ago, and I thought there would be no chance. It’s for this big upcoming action film about an alien invasion, and they called me back in last week. I didn’t feel that good about it, honestly, but I got the call today from my agent. I’ve got the part!”

“No way!” I screamed. “You’ve worked hard for this.”

He nodded, his eyes beaming with happiness. “I called my mom, and she about flipped out. My dad says he wants to come out to LA to celebrate.”

“Jamie, I can’t believe this!”

“I’m going to the studio to meet with representatives tomorrow. Can you believe my good fortune?”

“Divine providence,” I reminded him gently. “Tell me all about it as we eat some of Mama Stewart’s recipe for spaghetti.”

 

Chapter Nine

 

I SAT IN my car, texting my brother, outside Annabel’s Hills mansion. My brother, Eric, was nineteen-years-old and a rising sophomore at UT-Austin. He wanted to join the Air Force and become a pilot, as he’d flown since his fifteenth birthday. One thing about having a rich stepfather whom you’ve met once or twice is that he does not mind sending monetary gifts on you for Christmas or birthdays. Mom always said it was Victor, but I knew it was her. Annually, on my birthday and Christmas, I received checks for a few thousand dollars—a handsome sum—and deposited it directly into my savings account. I sent my thank-you cards, not afraid to remember some decency she’d taught, but left it at that. Money does not equal a relationship.

Eric was texting me about his day, and his girlfriend Cristina, whom he’d dated throughout high school. They sounded pretty serious, but I was the one who told Eric to broaden his interests. Yet I ignored my instincts by encouraging Eric, who sounded like he missed me for once. Usually when I came into town, we were inseparable, but this was the first summer I hadn’t gone back to Texas because of my job and the apartment I’d leased with Jamie.

Someone tapped on the windshield, and I screamed, scared to death. I reached for the Raid in the passenger’s seat but realized that it was Annabel who was knocking on the door. I opened up and threw myself into her hug, which was quite hard to ignore. The woman had breasts as big as Texas—well, almost.

“I noticed you drive up, and you never came up to the door, so I came to check on you,” she said, her usual scent of fruitiness distinct.

The verdant growth of trees and gardens made Annabel’s locale seem something besides Southern California in the summer, but it made me homesick. I liked greenery; it reminded me of my mom. Then again, Texas is not always green. I stuffed the feelings deep inside and stuck my arm around her neck. The ivy was steadily growing up the side of one wall of the Tudor-style mansion, which was rare here. Most people went with ranch-style homes.

She brought me inside, where her little York terrier jumped on my leg. “Bella, behave,” Annabel gushed. She had received the mansion as a graduation gift from her parents. I had not been jealous of this gift, because Annabel had made it clear that it was open to anyone who wanted to come over.

“Hungry? Thirsty? It’s a drive to come over from Glendora.”

“I had McDonald’s, but I could have a drink of water.”

“Stop with the formalities. You are welcome to anything in this house, Emma. Anyway, it is so nice to see you in person! I missed your familiar red waves.” She tugged on my hair, which she had done since we first met. Red-haired people are so rare was her first slew of words to me.

“I can’t believe you’re about to get married,” I said, though it sounded rehearsed. Annabel didn’t notice that my voice lacked a beat of true enthusiasm. Yet I was happy for her; I was still wounded by my own insecurities.

“I know. Dexter and I were just talking today about how fast our time together has gone. Can you believe we only started dating two years ago?”

It was weird to think about. I’d only known Annabel a handful of months—enough time for a quick spring trip to Cabo San Lucas—and when we came back from summer, for our junior year of college, she met Dexter Banderas, who had transferred from Columbia, which was insanely unusual. All the girls ogled over him, because he was a California-bred native who’d hated the gloom of New York in winter. He came back to the sunniness of his home and in the first week was seriously dating a pretty, modelesque girl named Annabel Tipton.

They’d dated seriously for a year before he popped the question the beginning of senior year on fall break in Paris. She came back sun-kissed (if one can possibly be more sun-kissed when living in SoCal) and with a huge blue stone on her ring finger, a treasure passed down a trickle of Banderas generations. She was the first of my friends to get engaged, but I knew even then that many would follow her lead.

“I can’t believe it,” I said as I took a sip of water Annabel poured for me. “I’m so excited for Kauai though.”

“Oh, me too. When Mom and I scouted the island back in May, I really knew it would be perfect. Promise me you’ll let loose, have some fun, put the paperback down!” Her smile was so big that I desperately wanted to tone it down.

“I can’t guarantee that I won’t read if I have the opportunity to do so, but I will have fun. I can promise you that.”

Annabel playfully rolled her eyes and pulled me into the spacious, gorgeous dining room. Compared to my makeshift table, the orchestration of the chandelier, hidden lights, and a dresser of antique china added to my feeling that I’d entered a haven for an interior designer. On the desk were stacks of pictures, gowns, tourist opportunities, and even the set-up of how the ceremony would play out. Annabel’s aunt worked as one of LA’s premier wedding planners, and of course she had offered her full services to her favorite niece.

“So, I have your tailored bridesmaids dresses upstairs in my wedding planning room. I converted the sewing room into a full-on wedding station. My gown’s up there, and…wow, a glob of hair fell out in the shower yesterday. I’m so stressed out.” She put her face in her soft palms.

“Oh, Annabel! Don’t do this.”

She looked up, tears popping into her eyes. “Mom wants me to lose another five pounds before the wedding. But I’m starving as it is—and Dexter’s busy with his new job and his own familial responsibilities.”

“What about Isabel?” Isabel was the maid-of-honor, Annabel’s childhood best friend.

“She’s tried her best, but she’s busy with her little girl. Oh, we’ll get through it, but honestly, I think I’m stressed because Mom wants this to be the perfect show. I don’t want it to be a show. I want it to be an honest wedding.”

I contemplated her words, thinking that many weddings were shows, were little entertainment opportunities, were places to show off. Yet as I listened to my friend in the only way I knew how, I thought, in the darkest part of my mind, that I would give anything for my mom to care about my wedding at all.

 

WHEN I GOT home, Jamie was snoring on the couch with episodes of House Hunters International faintly in the background. I pushed on his shoulder and he awoke with a start. He would start filming in August in a soundstage in LA and later in the green Mexican jungle, which worried me. With him gone, I’d have the apartment to myself, which scared the living daylights out of me. I was used to being on my own, but not like that.

“Hey,” he whimpered like a little child. “You’re back.”

“Go to sleep. I’d carry you, but we know how that would work out.”

He smiled. “Night, girl.” He stood up like a zombie and went off to bed.

I fell down on the couch and stared down at my phone. For a moment I debated whether I should do what I was about to do, but then my fingers seemling moved without any guidance from my brain. The beeps on the line were in perfect correlation with the beating of my heart, but finally, a sleepy voice murmured over the line, “Emma?”

“Hi, Mom,” I said, wiping a stray tear loose from my face.

“Sweetie,” she said, shock echoing her voice, “it’s almost midnight. Did something happen?”

“Not really,” I said, trying my best to hide the sadness. “I just wanted to hear you.”

“Victor, it’s nothing big,” she said off the phone. She came back to me, as I heard her clear her throat. “Emma, it is so good to hear you. Every time I call I never get a response…”

“I’m sorry.” The little squeak that I heard sounded nothing like the resilient me. I cringed. “I would be lying if I made up an excuse.”

“Honey, what’s wrong? You sound beat.” A hint of her twang reminded me of our old farmhouse, the one where little pencil marks were etched on doorposts. The house I dreamt about sometimes, the house that I could not imagine without both my mom and my dad.

“Sometimes a girl needs her mom,” I said. “Especially when her mom is on the planet—and only a few hours away.”

“Talk to me, Emma.”

“I saw that your address is listed as a San Diego residence. I googled it a few months ago when you sent me the birthday money. Nice place, Mom.” I decided against the tone laced with rat poison, so I offered a sweeter, “If you know I live in Los Angeles, why do you never visit?”

“I didn’t think you wanted to see me, honey. I’ll come tomorrow if you want me to.”

“No, no, no. Don’t worry about that. How is Victor?”

“He’s a good man, Bluebell.”

“Don’t call me that,” I said, fire dripping from my tongue. “Dad calls me that.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice small. “Emma, I want to see you. In person, not over the phone.”

“I know. I’m not ready. This a step in itself, Mom.” The last word came out so pitifully. “Good night,” I whispered, unable to say anything more.

I sat for an hour, my body erect against the sofa, until I remembered Sam would be coming over soon. Yet even that thought did not console the hurt and angst in my lungs, of the fact that my mother, only a few hours away, had not made a move to see me, her only daughter. It was a second betrayal. She had abandoned me for New York, and then for Victor.

My heart pained for my father, who had never gotten over his wife. Yet she had gotten over all of us, seemingly in an instant. An instant is enough time to cause the broadest form of chaos, a chaos not even a crystal ball can foresee.

 

Chapter Ten

 

THE NEXT MORNING I hopped into the shower and allowed the water to wash away my sins. The soapy lather cleansed the filth and reminded me that today needed to be special. I had already forgotten about my mother, and after getting dressed, I sat at the dining table, sorting out receipts. Jamie was freshly dressed when he popped out into the kitchen to pour himself a bowl of cereal.

“When’s he coming?” Jamie asked as he lifted the bowl to his lips.

“Aren’t you his best bud? I don’t want to talk to him.” I placed my old-fashioned paper checking register into my purse as my dad had taught me to do. Online banking was easy, but my traditional upbringing had instilled the way of paper to get things done.

Jamie rolled his eyes. “I wonder what y’all’s chemistry would be like.”

“What does that mean?”

He took a seat across from me, his eyes like firecrackers. In the glow of the morning light, Jamie looked dapper, like a handsome duke. His bone structure was fine and chiseled, and there was no doubt of his appeal to many women. Yet I’d never been one, because he was a brother to me, a father, and a son. People thought we were adopted siblings; they never mistook us for a couple. Some of my pals had asked me if I ever wanted to kiss Jamie—because they obviously did—but the thought made me want to barf.

“I don’t know, maybe it means that you guys have this sexual frustration or something. You guys like to bicker, that’s for sure. And Sam doesn’t bicker with people. You bring out the worst in him, that’s for sure.”

“Oh, shut up,” I said, glaring at him from across the table. “If you think I am in any way attracted to Sam Woodshaw…”

“Why wouldn’t you be? He’s good-looking, has a decent sense of humor, is interested in you—and that’s a huge deal, my dear Emma.”

“Oh, give me a break. He’s interested in girls who’re like Annabel Tipton, I’m sure. Not people like me.”

He mimicked my voice with a snarky little, “Oh, give me a break. You’re just too sensitive to see that a man likes you. A man who isn’t me.”

“James, you are a fickle thing.”

“Look in the mirror.”

A few minutes later, a rap filled the silence, and Jamie hurried over to open the door. Ella appeared, a thin, lithe biracial goddess with bouncy curly hair. I was shocked at how gorgeous she was when she wasn’t puking into the toilet, and a flare of surprise electrified my brain. I did believe Jamie was handsome, but not on the level of the amatory Ella Monrey. She waved at me and hurried over to smother me in a hug. She smelled like lilac and the faintest scent of Pinesol.

“I’m so sorry about a few days ago. Jamie brought me home from our date, and it gave me the worst case of food poisoning. I brought you a gift since you’re the Missus of this house!” She handed me a candle that smelled like summer berries, which was very kind of her.

“You know my undoing,” I noted honestly. “I love candles. Thank you very much.” Not around Jamie, my brain pointed out.

“Ella’s here because I asked her to come to Malibu with us,” Jamie said in a dignified voice. He reached over to wrap an arm around her waist. “I hope you don’t mind, Em.”

“Oh, no, I don’t.” Although it meant Sam and I would be spending more one-on-one time, since this was shaping out to be a double date rather than a day trip. Plus, this was to get Jamie away from his romantic issues, not to fuel the fire. Yet I kept my tongue and played the caring, accepting friend quite nicely.

A half-hour later, Sam appeared in a relaxed state. His brown hair was slyly gelled back, and his blue eyes seemed casual and accepting when Jamie mentioned his extended invitation to Ella, who almost swooned in Sam’s presence. However, she collected herself and continued to lean exclusively on Jamie’s shoulder. I didn’t get up from the table, instead focusing on the last coat of nail polish.

“Hey, Emma,” Sam said, his voice enflaming my skin. When I turned around, he was suddenly behind me. For the first time, I noted that he seemed somewhat Spanish in origin, not the British-American I’d originally pegged him as. “What?” he asked.

“Today, you seem Latin.”

“What does that mean?” He cocked his head to the side, intrigued.

“Well, most of the time you just look Caucasian, I guess. Right now, you’ve got some kind of Hispanic flair. I can’t describe it.”

“My dad’s half-Cuban,” he said.

“So you’re American-British-Cuban?”

“I guess,” he said. “Does it really matter?”

“Of course it matters.”

“Are you guys coming?” Jamie called from the door, though he seemed more interested in Ella’s lips.

I stood up, and Sam moved out of the way, careful not to touch me. “My ancestors have been on American soil for generations. I took one of those ancestry tests. Excuse me for having a genuine interest in your genetic makeup.”

“Weird, but okay,” he said as I locked the door behind us. “My dad was born here. In LA from a Cuban mom and an American dad. And my mom is fully British, but I’ve spent so much time in America, I can really only classify as such. Is that better for your liking?”

“I don’t really care,” I said, though I did smile. “Look at Ella and Jamie. This may actually help his lovesick heart.”

Sam shook his head. “He’s trying to get over the other girl, Emma, but that doesn’t mean he’s interested in the new girl that much.”

“Why are you being such a pessimist?”

“Since when did you become an optimist, Emma Richmond?”

There was debate on whose car we were to take, but eventually it was decided that we would take Sam’s convertible Mustang, which was immaculate. Jamie and Ella hopped in the back, which left me completely at the mercy of Sam. As he worked to put the top down, I put my hair in a preemptive ponytail, understanding that hair in one’s mouth does not make for an enjoyable car ride.

Sam looked over at me and laughed. “Really?”

“I will not be that girl whose hair flies straight into her ear canals. Deal with it.”

“You’re as feisty as your hair color,” Jamie added, leaning in to tell us this as Sam whipped out of the parking lot.

Deciding against speaking once we’d hit the interstate, I enjoyed the silence by Sam’s side, pretending to ignore the lovebirds chirping behind us. When we hit a burst of traffic and I could actually hear something besides the lovely wind, I leaned over and said to him, “Thanks for taking us out.”

“A compliment? From you? Hell must be freezing over.”

“I will admit, I can be tough. It’s in my hair.”

We were driving again, but when we turned off onto the scenic route through the Santa Monica Mountains, I really began speaking to him. In the midst of carved-out canyons in the midst of orangey rock, it was easy to converse about anything, really. The magnificence of the California coast awakened my spirit—just because, through the haze of polluted interstate systems, a true treasure glimmered in the void beyond human touch.

“So, do you have siblings?”

“Small talk, huh? That’s not very Emma of you,” he said as he managed around a curve. The laughter from behind us was enough to make me gag. I slid my fingertips across the slit of the window.

“I’m sorry I tried to care. We could just sit here in pure, sweet silence. I wouldn’t mind.”

“But I would,” Sam said, the confidence in his voice distracting. The curve allowed us a view of sharp, ragged rock—rock that had magnified the beauty of this place for thousands and thousands of years. “To answer your question—I am the younger one. Shouldn’t you know this by now? Since you’ve checked into my past and all?”

“Give me a break. I’m not that nosy. Or intrigued. Honestly.”

We both knew it was a lie, but I hadn’t researched into that part of his history. Plus, I’d rather here it from his own lips and know that the truth might surface from a personal account rather than a subjective (probably) public mongrel, AKA paparazzi.

Jamie’s head suddenly popped up between Sam and me. “How far are we? Ella and I need to relieve ourselves.”

“Okay,” I said, checking my watch. “I’m used to your weirdness.”

“Probably twenty minutes,” Sam answered for me. “What do you guys want to do first? Shopping?”

“Sure,” I answered quickly, though I knew it would be a place Sam might wish to avoid. “If you can’t, I understand.”

“Stop,” he said quickly. “I’m not going to hide out like a caveman from a bear. Weird analogy, I know. I’m an actor; I signed up for this life. The least I can do is sign an autograph. It’s bad when there is a whole gaggle of them—a mob, I should say. Anyway, I can handle it.”

“If you say so.”

“Well, I did say so, so…”

“Oh, you people,” Jamie muttered. “Just put the pedal to the metal, because my lady and I have bodily needs that have to be met.”

I pushed his head to the back. If anybody else, like the President or even Marilyn Monroe, had been sitting in the driver’s seat, I would have apologized. But with Sam, I liked the frustration we’d built in our relationship. There was something rewarding about the playful bickering, even if I knew I was slowly developing feelings for him. Nothing close to love—because love is so overrated—but maybe a genuine interest in what it would be like to kiss him, or to have his hand in my own. From his guy’s perspective, he probably did not care at all, yet I doubted that. Any guy who spends time with a woman has to have some kind of sexual desire, right? Yet Jamie and I were proof the idea was bogus. We’d actually kissed once, during an idiotic, childish game of spin-the-bottle after my first and only college party. It was innocent fun; the bottle contained water. I played coy and kissed my best friend, but it tasted gross, like saliva and fruit. This might have been good for a person like Ella Monrey, but for me, I knew that Jamie would only and always be my very best friend on the planet. There was no room for anything more. If kissing him was like kissing one’s brother (not that I’ve kissed my brother), I could not imagine what the physical and intimate act of that would be like. We were not made for each other in the slightest.

Yet I wondered about the chemistry between myself and the casual Hollywood breakout star Sam Woodshaw. There was something palpable, like a summer storm’s scent in the wind, but I wasn’t sure if it would ever be brought to light. For lack of better terminology, I wondered if our relationship would ever bloom to anything if we chose to step out of the closet. There was little doubt that I felt something for Sam, even if it was small, but I wasn’t exactly sure he wanted to spend a night at my place. I wasn’t sure if he ever thought about a first date between us or anything further than that. Not like I had thought about that—this was just a suggestion.

So I toyed with the idea that I could dally with Sam—seriously, what did I have to lose? If something resulted from our playful banter, then it would be meant to be. Deep inside, I wanted him. On the surface, I acted like he was rubbish of the most illustrious kind.

When we pulled into the quaint Malibu Country Mart, the little shopping district in the twenty-seven mile long city of Malibu, Ella blew into a flurry of anticipation. She pulled Jamie by the hand, though he complained that he still needed to urinate. The two did not wait for Sam and me, so the two of us looked at each other in confusion.

“We could just leave them,” Sam said.

“Would it be bad if I agreed?”

We walked daintily past the shops and stopped for some yogurt. Sam definitely got some turns of the head, though less than I expected. People in Malibu seemed to be used to the whole Hollywood thing, but I still wasn’t. A few girls barely younger than me were aiming their iPhones in his direction. College girls, I decided. Me only two months before.

As the attendant handed my mint chocolate chip yogurt once he tallied the weight, Sam nudged me in the stomach. “We’re getting stared down. What does it feel like to an amateur in the public eye?”

“Terrible. How do you deal?”

“You get used to it. I don’t know, I’m really not that popular.”

“Shut up.”

We took our yogurt and headed down the sidewalk, the warm air tingling my skin. The cool yogurt on my lips was like a little piece of heaven. Eventually, we stopped talking, allowing the silence to illuminate the fact we were by ourselves and it felt natural, although since I was inexperienced in the field of men, I probably was just listening to the fading tempo of a nervous heart.

There was a faint glimpse of Ella pulling Jamie into another store, so we caught up with them, eventually.

“You know,” I said, as we were about to enter the shop. “Why don’t we get out of here? Just drive up the coast. Don’t have to worry about anything, just cruise.”

“Sounds nice,” Sam responded, “but let me remind you about that cat of yours. Who would care for him? Who would care for Jamie?”

“We’d take them with us.”

“And Ella?”

“She couldn’t handle it. Even if she works for PETA and is down with nature.”

He laughed, nudging me again. Any physical contact was like a little gold ticket, a welcome reward. “So, what we’re saying is that you, me, Jamie, and a cat would take the PCH up the coast, maybe live like hippies, barely bathe, do whatever we feel.”

“Maybe join a commune.”

“Nice. I didn’t think of that one. We’d probably get bored quickly, so then we’re off again. We get to Eureka, decide that in reality, all we ever wanted was Los Angeles.”

“No, we realize that all we ever wanted was to be with each other. Someone dies, the cat maybe—or you. Something that would break the news. ‘Cat causes heartbreak for three struggling twentysomethings.’ Or, ‘Sam Woodshaw’s death affects all humanity.’ We have a beautiful burial.”

“We get all these donations, buy a new cat.”

“And start all over again. This time, we drive across the desert. To Las Vegas or Phoenix.”

“Jamie falls in love, and he gets trapped in some ridiculous Vegas wedding.”

“And you and I try to warn him, but it’s too late.”

“Then he drives off with his woman, leaving us and the cat.”

“Just us three?”

“Just us three.”

I stopped, observing him, watching him analyze our surroundings. The salty air mingling with our bodies was a tease; we were too close to the ocean not to feel it. We had to see it without distraction. There was a sudden desire to touch his hair, but I kept my hands by my side. “Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. We could live like outlaws.”

“Roach-infested motels, rented yurts, bleeding hearts.”

“Then we con people like Bonnie and Clyde, and end up back in Los Angeles. Buy a big, bouncy house off Mulholland.”

“Why would we come back?”

“Because we’re embracing the point of return. We started in LA, and it fits to come back—especially if all we’ve done is basically nothing.”

“We didn’t do ‘nothing,’ though. See, we actually did everything, because we discovered where we really belong is here. And, surprisingly, together.”

“Well, let’s put it in reality. I run off with some artist, maybe a flamenco dancer on the side; you marry some wholesome teacher from Santa Ana. You take her to Calabasas, buy her a big, nice house. Your career takes off, you win an Oscar, and you get to tell people for the rest of your life that just once, you let loose and had the most interesting adventure. One that would make a great biopic.”

His eyes focused on mine, but I was too stubborn to look away. The breeze played with my hair. “Well, you think you’re in love with the flamenco dancer, but you realize that you were in love with me the whole time. So even though you ran off to Mexico with the guy, you cross the border and find that I’ve moved on. Except that while it looks that I have, I haven’t. But you know that I was never good enough for you. So you’re sad for a while, but you get over it. You meet the guy of your dreams, buy a cat with him, and eventually have a kid or two.”

“A kid? I don’t know if I could handle it.”

“‘It?’ Are you serious?”

“I’ve never been good around children. They hate me.”

“Children can’t hate anybody.”

“Obviously you’re more inexperienced than I am.”

Jamie and Ella appeared from the store, gripping hands. Ella was whispering sweet nothings into his ears, to which he giddily laughed. Sam seemed to tense near me, but he said quickly, “Looks like our imaginary storytelling time is over.”

“It was fun while it lasted.”

“Yeah, it was.”

 

AFTER OUR SHOPPING excursion, during which Ella bought four bags of clothes, we headed to lunch at a little café overlooking the lagoon. The vast void called the Pacific Ocean glittered in the distance. While Jamie raved about the newest science-fiction tragedy novel he’d read, I imagined what kind of damage a tsunami would do to Malibu. Or what it would do to Los Angeles—specifically Santa Monica and the towns on the coast.

Juicy lunch passed quickly, and before we knew it, we were driving around the mansions and houses, looking at homes for sale, laughing at the lofty price tags. While I was laughing because I knew I’d never be able to afford anything like a Malibu playhouse, Sam seemed to take everything in, like he was considering the fact that he might live there someday. I did not want to distract him, but I also believed that it was proof of American capitalism.

Somehow we wasted enough time so that sunset came, and we were walking down the sandy beach, our feet splashing the clean, wondrous water. Ella and Sam were talking about a shared interest, and I haphazardly laid my head on Jamie’s shoulder.

“I can’t believe we are in Malibu right now. With Sam Woodshaw and a girlfriend for you. Crazy. I don’t know which one is more eccentric.”

“Oh, please. I’ve had girlfriends, but you never bring anyone over. The sexual tension between you and Sam is hilarious. Yet I am the good friend; I say nothing because I don’t have to.”

“You just told me, weirdo.”

“Good point. Anyway, thanks for accepting Ella. She really likes you.”

“We’ve barely talked, James.”

“Look at the positive: Finally, I brought home a girl who isn’t jealous of you.”

“Nina wasn’t jealous.” Realizing my mistake, I bit my tongue. “Oh, gosh, Jamie. Ignore that. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” He shrugged his shoulders unapologetically. “I miss her a lot, Emma, but if we were meant to be together, something would have happened.”

“But if someone happened…”

“I’m over her. I’d rather not talk about Nina. No offense.”

“Will you at least be my date for that wedding? You didn’t go to Chelsea’s, you can’t go to Annabel’s, and you’re going to be in Mexico for the rest.”

“Take Sam,” he politely countered.

“Never. We’re not a thing.”

“Want me to talk to him?” I was quiet for a beat too long, so Jamie took that as an affirmative. “I’ll work on it. Early Christmas present.”

A few minutes later, the two duos joined to form one conglomerate, and we decided to head back home. This time, I sat in the back with Ella, who showed me her purchases from the day. We talked about fashion (on my limited knowledge) and pets, plus our common goal of saving the planet. I mean, who doesn’t want to save the planet? I recycled; that was about it.

Eventually, Sam pulled back into the apartment complex. While Jamie and Ella shared a long, slobbery good-bye kiss, I waited with the man who was beginning to grow on me. I jumped into the front seat and said, “Why can’t they have a happy ending?”

“Who, us?”

“Our theoretical us.”

“Happy endings don’t exist, Emma. Unfortunately, they just don’t.” He turned his head just the slightest, alerting me that he fully believed what he’d said. I wondered what had happened in his life, before reminding myself of my own issues.

“They can. I mean, look at people who’ve been married for fifty years.”

“Well, to put it bluntly, we all die.”

“Oh, we are not about to have this conversation,” I countered. “We barely know each other. We shouldn’t be talking about death. Plus, I don’t think it necessarily just ends that way. Actually, I know that I don’t think that.”

“Well, since you sound like a Christian, what if one is saved, and the other isn’t?”

“You know the terminology.”

“Who doesn’t?”

“A lot of people. Anyway, well, I can’t explain how terrible that is.”

“It would be you and me, then.”

“You are in a sour mood.”

“I just got a text from my agent. I’m supposed to fly out to Honduras tomorrow for re-shoots on a movie we did a year ago. Usually I would be happy to get out of town, but I’m anxious to just stay at home for once, you know? Sorry I’m crabby.” His eyes sparkled in the glow of darkness. It hurt to think only days before, he’d dragged a drunk Jamie home and I aimed a can of Raid at his face.

“That absolutely blows.”

He nodded a few times. “I’ll be gone for a few weeks. I’m going to tell Jamie before I go, but I thought you should know. Just in case something prevents our plan from happening. You know, just sailing along, the four of us—including that cat.”

“Okay. Well, I’ll see you when you come back, I guess. If not…”

“Oh, please don’t do that. We know each other now, Emma. We’re friends now. If you like it or not, we’re friends, and I will come see you and Jamie as soon as I get back. You guys are some of the only normal people I know nowadays.”

“We’re the furthest thing from normal.”

“Exactly. You’re not the typical people I’m around.” He leaned closer to me, the smell of a mint on his breath intoxicating, probably just because his presence was intoxicating. This was what it felt like to be physically attracted to a man. Up close, I noted the freckle of green in his eyes, the hint of glow in his sun-kissed skin, the curve of his lips. For a moment, I thought we would kiss, but instead, he sat back in his seat. I knew immediately: Jamie.

The boy stood above us like a looming grandfather clock ticking with impatience. “What are you guys doing in here? I’ve only been waiting a full thirty seconds for you two to finish that conversation.” If he wanted us to be together, I didn’t understand the logic of interfering at the moment we were maybe about to share some intimacy. However, I didn’t need to understand anything Jamie did, because he did it on his own. It was always a mystery in fact.

I hopped out of the car and waved good-bye at Sam. I stood beside my best friend, who took the bad news of Sam’s leaving pretty well. They agreed to see each other as soon as Sam got back in town, though I wondered if that would really happen. Soon we were trekking up the stairs together, sans our romantic interests.

“You know what?” The way he posed the question made it appear to be a statement, so I waited a moment. “I actually miss the idea of just you and me. You and I. What’s going to happen when you get married—or when I get married? Or you move in with some chap? What if one of us ends up alone?”

“Jamie, don’t worry about that. In more ways than one, you are the real love of my life. A lot of times, I wish we could, you know, have that part of most relationships.”

“But everything would change. We wouldn’t be us. I don’t want to change us.”

“Someday, we’re going to change. That’s inevitable. I don’t want it to happen, but I don’t want to be the most important girl in your life, Jamie. I want you to find a woman who is bright, beautiful, and bouncy—just like you. You deserve that. You deserve the chance to fall in love without an overbearing best friend. You deserve a group of guys with whom to watch football—or an opera. I love you so much, but love isn’t always selfish, you know.”

He opened the door to our apartment, his shoulders sagging. “Emma, I want to tell you this. I’ve got this feeling, in the pit of my stomach. It’s eating me up, and it makes me feel queasy, like after I eat greasy popcorn…”

“Jamie,” I said, tapping my foot.

“Okay. I like Ella, but I know deep down that she is fleeting for me.”

“Seriously?” I asked, though I wasn’t necessarily surprised. They had a sweet relationship, one that did help his heartbreak from Nina, but in reality, he and Nina had something special. Special enough to complicate things when she’d announced her wedding date months after breaking up with the boy who made her go crazy every five seconds in melodramatic spasms of, “I never believed in God until he sent me Jamie!” or the classic, “I’m so in love I feel like I could float into outer space!”

Yet Jamie’s eyes filled with something other than truth. They filled with a hint of righteous anger. “There is something weird about Sam. I like him and all, but my man instincts just warn me that something’s not quite right when it comes to his approach toward you.”

“What?” I asked, my voice cracking. “We’re not even a thing at all. We barely know each other. You acted fine around him until he dropped us off.”

He took my hand in his, though I knew my body was limp. “I love you, remember? I saw his texts when you and Ella were in the back. It was from some girl named Amber or something, and it wasn’t good.”

“Well, you might as well tell me.”

“You know,” he said, his eyes glazing over. “Maybe I didn’t see it clearly. Maybe I’m wrong.”

“Jamie!”

“I’m going to bed, Emma. I’m sorry I brought this up.”

He left me standing on the balcony, overlooking the awful park across the street where moms took their little tots to play from our complex. If one strained his or her eyes far enough, a pool could be seen glittering in the darkness. I had never seen my best friend freeze up like this, and I didn’t know how to take it. Eventually I gave in, went inside, and fell into a deep sleep, as I needed all the energy I could muster for a long week of work before jetting off to Kauai for another wedding.

 

Chapter Eleven

 

THE FIRST THING I breathed in was the scent of tropical paradise: fruits, flowers of all types, fresh grasses, maybe even the odor of pavement after a rainstorm. The salty air was normal for my nostrils, but this intoxicating smell brought me to Earth in a way that no other experience had. The rumor mill had been that the more one travels inland, the more one inhales additional fragrances of sugar cane and coffee from money-making plantations.

The drive over to our resort on the eastern shore of the island was quick, filled with mirth, and generated by our primeval interest in the Garden Island. My heart soared at the magic between the crystal blues of the sea to the lush green of Earth behind us. What aided my gentle content was the additional blessing of one of my closest friends, Sena, who was marrying in a fall wedding in Phoenix.

Sena was a close friend of Annabel’s and one of the original posse members when I was informally included in their group. She was half-Japanese, the most amazing artist I’d ever met, and a recently noted realtor for her father’s highly marketable company. She grew up in San Francisco and lived there now, though she was planning on moving to Phoenix after her wedding to expand the company and live with her professional football player fiancé.

On this beautiful day, Sena sat beside me, recounting our college days (a full two months ago, I know) while informing me of the impossibilities of living in the Bay area. “I’m so ready to get out of California,” she informed me as we passed a group of dolphins jumping from the depths. Seeing their agreement, she nodded again. “It’s time for me to get out.”

“I see.”

“You never had that problem, being from Texas and all.”

“True,” I said. “But LA and San Francisco are two very different places.”

The rest of our rental van composed of two other bridesmaids, Roxana and Isabel, and three groomsmen, who were busy serenading the women while Sena and I sightsaw in the back. Roxana was the other girl in the college trio, and honestly, the scariest member. At a formidable six-two, she terrified me with her girth. Isabel was Annabel’s childhood best friend who worked with her in the charity business, as she was an heiress of some phone mobile company. When her father died, she would be worth millions, if not already.

The van in front of us was filled with Annabel, Dexter, and their immediate families, including the wedding planner, Aunt Beatrice. The three vans behind us were filled with close friends, co-workers, and other miscellaneous people invited for the nuptials. Only about forty people were expected at the small (yet pricey) wedding, but it felt like a loftier number after being on a plane with the weirdos.

We were staying at a resort owned by a friend of Annabel’s father, so the rooms were close to gratis, but there were at least two people per room. Sena and I were lucky that we got to be roommates. I knew by heart that Sena preferred a cool sleeping space to warm, like me, and she also enjoyed late night science fiction films. A genre, I realized, that my best friend would be starring in soon, even if it was only as a supporting character. It was a big accomplishment for a twenty-two-year-old graduate of a Christian university.

As soon as we stopped in front of the giant megaresort called Gardenia Resort & Spa, my mouth fell open. The hotel was like a fortress surrounded by green juggernauts on one side and the cool blue ocean beyond. Yet what struck me were the flowers of all shapes, colors, and sizes, especially for the driest time of the year on the island. Blues, pinks, purples, and yellow flora surrounded the entrance, making its Gardenia namesake true.

“Can you believe we’re staying here?” Sena asked. She had grown up in an upper-class family, but by California standards, she wasn’t that rich. She had a strict upbringing, from what I’d gathered of her life, but she now reaped the rewards. She had a well-paying salary from her father’s business and a bright future. Me? Hopefully I would remain employed for the rest of the year.

As I lugged my suitcase with me into the grand foyer, I gulped. “I really hope Annabel got these rooms for free. Even her wealth would take a plunge if…” My tongue fell out of my head as I stared up into the glass windows at the ceiling, revealing baby blue sky. This place was the epitome of luxury, with a waterfall snaking down the elevators, a koi pond at its base. A rainforest-type element sat to the side, with animal sounds playing through speakers. I was still fazed by the windows at the top which shined down on us.

“Wow,” I breathed.

“Wow,” Sena blurted. “Just wow.”

We got to our rooms, which overlooked the mighty Pacific Ocean. Though I was used to the sea, I still felt tiny and small compared to what nature offered. A few rocks jutted out in the distance, little stony islands. A few people lay out on the sand, taking in rays, while a few others surfed in the perfect swell.

Sena fell on the bed, her long black hair standing out against the light blues of the comforter. I fell beside her, though we had two beds to split. “You know?” I asked.

“What?”

“Maybe we should just give up and move here. Find a cheap place, take up surfing, wear leis all the time.”

“We’d get island fever though.”

“True. So we’re supposed to meet everyone downstairs in a few hours—after everyone has a snooze?”

“Yes. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Sena’s eyebrows lifted.

“Of course! We might as well.”

We donned our swimsuits and hurried down the elevators, smoothing our skin with suntan lotion as we went down. Sena wore a blue one-piece that illuminated her svelte type, while I donned a purple bikini I’d bought with Nina Huston a summer ago, back when we (her, me, and Jamie) were an inseparable trio. My heart hurt at the memory, back when we spent all our time together. Eventually, Nina and Jamie became an item, and I respectfully bowed out to do my own things. Yet the memory of our togetherness—and now brokenness—hurt.

“Are you ready for some Hawaiian water?” Sena asked, her eyes aglow.

We took some beach towels and hurried out to the golden sand, where we dropped down and let the sun graze our bodies. Sena fell asleep under the sun’s spindly fingers, but I stayed awake, surveying the crowd composed of some wedding partiers, a few middle-aged couples, and some young people in love.

Eventually, I sat up and went to the water’s edge, allowing the water to lap my feet. Though it was colder than let’s say, the mighty Gulf of Mexico in summer, the water was refreshing to my skin. My back was baking from the rays, so eventually, I placed my head down on the tingly sand.

A few minutes later, a thickly accented voice called out, “Ma’am?”

I giddily sat up, wiping the sleep and sand from my eyes, and said, “Huh?”

A guy fell down beside me, his green eyes electrifying. I was speechless as he spouted off, “I’m Tyron McKenzie. You’re…?” He had floppy, long blonde hair. The accent, I realized, was Australian. He held a surfboard to his chest, along with a black wetsuit.

“Tyron?” I asked. “Hi, I’m Emma.”

“I wanted to check up on you, make sure the swell didn’t take you under. Also, I never resist a pretty lady.”

“Well, thank you?” I asked, not sure how to take him. “You’re the first Australian I’ve met.”

“Wow! Look at you go. A lot of Americans I meet assume I’m British, which is a low-blow. I’m not a bloke, or whatever they say. I was always extremely patriotic of my Australian heritage. Let me guess where you’re from. Most people out here are from California.”

“Well, that…”

“But you don’t sound like them. See, I’ve met enough Americans to deduce the accent. Like those Southerners, they’re obviously the easiest, with all the talk about beer and tractors. Then New Yorkers—their Italians and gangs.”

“Whoa, there, cowboy. You’ve been watching too many movies.”

He batted his eyelashes, his extraverted personality shining through. “There we go. You’re Texan.” When he knew he was correct, a hearty laugh emanated through his body. “You see, I don’t meet too many Texans. I think they’d rather vacation in Cabo. The swells there are mighty terrible.”

“The swells here are pretty gnarly, right?”

He laughed at my joke. “You surf?”

“Never.”

“Oh, geez. Well, if you’re up to it, I’ll teach you. For a small fee, that is.”

“A fee? Are you like some sort of gatekeeper to the ocean?”

Tyron positioned himself just a tad bit closer to me before saying, “I will reveal the payment after our lesson. Now, how much time do you have?”

“Not long. Maybe we should start this lesson tomorrow.”

Sena’s voice reappeared as she shouted, “Em? You okay?”

With a quick glance over my shoulder, I saw Sena stretched out across the towel, staring at us. “I’m fine, Sena. We’ll need to go in soon to freshen up.” Therefore I stood up and looked down at the young surfer, who sensed my own apprehension at the thought of his practice.

“It’s not that bad, Emma.”

“I’m sure it’s not, but you see, I believe in sharks and critters such as octopi, squid…”

Tyron laughed, his blonde curls moving like a mop on his head. He nodded quickly. “I will try this again tomorrow. Ciao.” There was a hint of a song on his lips, one I recognized from years ago. “Release your inhibitions.”

I stared down at him. “Fine. If we’re going to play that way, okay. I can surf. I’m sure it’s just like skating—which I can’t do, but that is beside the point.”

“Well, how about eight o’clock, then? I already saw the swell predictions for tomorrow, and they don’t look too gnarly.

“You’re on, Tyron. Bye.”

 

TWO HOURS LATER, I sat at a giant table at a Kauai gem: a restaurant at one of the sugar plantations. Since there was almost fifty of us, it was a huge accomplishment to rent out the entire restaurant, and from the looks of it, everyone was in heaven. With a view overlooking the Island’s South Shore at sunset, we had nothing to complain about. We could see boats floating into the harbor along with airplanes swirling around the skies.

“So,” Isabel said, her big brown eyes like warm globs of chocolaty smores. It was hard to think that the skinny woman in front of me was already worth more money than probably Tahiti. “Tell us about your love life.” She downed some sort of alcoholic beverage in a jiffy.

I stared down at my placemat, dying for a food source. Sena began recounting how she’d met Steve Blackwood, who played for the Arizona Cardinals. Through the haze of storytelling, I stared out into the Pacific, dreaming of lollipops and candy canes, when finally my sizzling mahi-mahi was brought before me like a sea-based pearl.

As I dug into my fish, Isabel’s perfect voice crooned, “And you, Emma?”

“Emma’s always been Emma. She doesn’t need anyone,” Roxana protested, sending me a wink. Her hair was perfectly straightened down her back like a horse’s mane if it wasn’t braided. Even sitting down, she sat what felt like miles above me.

“Well, come on, Emma. You’ve had to have met someone, right?” Isabel gently cocked her head, an eerie reminder of the man she was indirectly referring to.

“Yes, I did,” I breathed, as soon as Roxana began choking on a piece of whatever meat she’d ordered. She grabbed her throat as she moved like an eel, destroying everything at our table, on a path to havoc.

I jumped up and did the Heimlich, using the skillset I’d gleaned from now-important TV shows Jamie made me watch. Roxana’s face turned a ruddy red, but then a giant piece of meat flew from her mouth and onto Isabel’s plate. Isabel then fainted.

“Rox, you okay?” Annabel squealed, running over. “What happened?”

Roxana breathed in and out, needing all the air she could gather. Finally, she choked, “Emma saved me.”

“You did?” Annabel’s eyes lit up.

My eyes widened to balls of starlight. I probably looked like a complete dork, yet I said quickly, “She was choking; I did what needed to be done.”

Roxana reached for me and to appease her, I acquiesced, so that she gently pulled me to her chest. Just in that one moment of physical contact, she managed to choke me like I was the piece of gruel blocking her windpipe. “You…deserve a medal of honor. Thank you.”

Suddenly the group broke into a fit of hoots, laughter, and applause. “To Emma!” they cheered. I smiled shyly, falling back down into my chair, and felt Sena’s hands wrap around mine.

“Girl.”

I rolled my eyes, playfully of course, and felt just the best giddiness from gathering some attention from others.

 

THAT MORNING I sat on a surfboard waiting for a good wave while Tyron informed me of all the approaches needed to be taken. It was a warm day, even for June Kauai standards, and the northeast trade winds had brought in decent whitecapped waves. Tyron continued to smile his way through our date, or whatever it was even supposed to be called.

“So,” he said, gently staring. His eyes were a jarring jade compared to the crystal of the navy waters lurking behind us. “Eventually, you just have to take a leap—or a wave—of faith. Got me?”

I paddled slowly when I felt the water rise beneath my lungs, and the next thing I knew, I naturally rose with a wave, before becoming crushed under gallons of the sea. I found my way above the water and onto the choking struggle of beach.

Tyron made his way to me moments later. “Oh, Emma.”

“Sorry. I know, I told you. I can’t skate—so I probably can’t surf either.”

“Emma, you want to know the truth?”

“What?”

“I don’t surf either.”

“What?” I choked, thinking seaweed was stuck down in my throat. Nope, it was just the shock from Tyron’s words.

He shrugged quickly, reaching for my arm. “You’re okay, right?”

“Positive. You’re not a surfer? We could have really died, then.”

He struggled to laugh. “I told you these were decent waves. Emma, these are actually baby waves. They’re child’s play. Not to say that I can surf them either.”

“Oh my. I want to drown you right now,” I said, slapping his arms.

“I’m a real estate investor in real life,” he said. “I’ve surfed a few times, but it’s not like I’m a professional. I can handle myself. I just wanted you to know, because I felt like you’d think…”

“Oh, dear goodness. Come here. You’ve got kelp in your hair. Or something like it.”

He didn’t bat an eye as I fished a green leafy thing from his scalp. Instead, he asked quite helplessly, “Do you forgive me?”

“Sure. Yeah, yeah. Okay, well we could try again, but I’m actually quite certain that I’m supposed to be trekking over to Waimea Canyon or something.”

“So?” His eyes glimmered with the hope that we would meet again. Soon.

“How about we meet at five o’clock this afternoon? Go out for a bite to eat or something.”

“An Aussie with a ranga? Of course.” He reached over and kissed my cheek. “If you don’t mind, I’m going back out to practice. I need to liven up my teaching game.”

“Okay,” I said, touching my cheek, thinking okay, well, what the heck. Let him kiss your darned cheek. He didn’t emanate a serial killer whacko vibe, yet I guessed the same thing could be said about Ted Bundy. “Wait, if you’re an investor, or whatever, why are you here?”

“Is it sad to say I’m vacationing alone? Well, I have a business conference partially—I mean, c’mon, it is Kauai. So I took some vacation days to surf, relax, take some time away from the normal work grind.”

“See you?”

“Bye.”

Then I was running up to my room, where Sena was painting her toenails an olive green. Her long black-brown hair honeyed with highlights splayed down her back like perfect rivers. Sena had the softest hair I’d ever touched, which she likened to a vegan diet and oils. She looked up and gave me a hearty smile, reminding me how much I enjoyed being with her. One time, she took me to San Francisco with her to celebrate a Thanksgiving in which I had no money to fly home, but also because I had never been to the city. We’d spent the whole week sightseeing around touristy places—like renowned Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz, and the like—but also lounged about watching TV and cooking together. I’d realized early into my visit that Sena’s parents were not that active in her life. They operated as a system of monetary feed, but in reality, they did not acknowledge us that often, if at all, besides the Thanksgiving meal, during which Sena’s brother Charles, who was a year older than us at Stanford, received much of the attention. However, what really troubled me was my observation that Sena did not really care if her parents paid any attention to her or not. She seemed more concerned about my wellbeing during our stay.

I pulled on a tank top, a light lilac shirt as a cover, and my favorite pair of hiking shorts. I laced up my boots, ready to see the Canyon, when Sena looked up at me. “So, Roxana and Isabel came over while you were down with that Australian hunk, and they mentioned not everyone’s going to Waimea. Some people are staying behind due to being ‘too tired.’” At this, she bunny-eared her fingers.

“Please tell me you’re coming,” I said.

“Of course. I mean, you know I’m the furthest person from a hiker, but I’ll go. We’re in Kauai, and I’m not staying in. Rox and Isabel said they’re coming too.”

Ten minutes later, we paraded downstairs in almost the same outfit. We were twins, minus the difference in ethnicities. We were both the same height—five six, and nothing above. People did ask occasionally if we were separated at the womb, especially when we ordered the same thing, made the same mannerisms, and hung out around each other literally 24/7 back in college. Nowadays, our separation made the heart grow fonder.

About twenty-five people were corralled in the lobby like little sheep. Annabel’s parents were fiddling with hiking gear, while Annabel and her fiancé stood massaging skin cream into each other’s shoulder blades. Tonight was her bachelorette party, which I could only expect to be a nature-loving thing. Annabel’s religious philosophy was a mixture of Christian-Buddhism, as she believed in Christ, but maybe not the fullness of the religious teachings. Yet she and Dexter had chosen to marry in a chapel, and in a picture she’d showed me, a cross hung from its front, so that was a step.

Rox and Isabel came up to Sena and me, and the first pulled me into another tough hug. “Thanks again, Em.”

“You’re welcome.”

Isabel was busy fixing the straps on a giant backpack she was bringing along. I didn’t feel the need to bring anything but a canteen of cool water, and Sena was lugging some sandwiches for us in her hipster purse. Yet a giant backpack seemed somewhat goofy, but I was one to talk. I’d read horror stories of people falling into caves, eating nothing for days until their rescue, and, wow, I wasn’t prepared. Plus, I was a horror fan and read novels about man-eating vines and the repercussions of not having any supplies.

So maybe the backpack wasn’t a bad idea.

Yet I stood stubbornly with my head rested on Sena’s shoulder. Moments later, we’d gathered everyone and headed to the rental vans. I sat by Sena, who was urgently yapping at someone on the phone, while I checked in with Jamie over text.

How is life?

Good, he responded. W/Ella right now, going to Huntington Beach later today. Miss you. Felix the Cat needs you.

We both know Felix is actually Fiona. Miss you too.

My cat’s gender identity was as fluid as a thrown water bottle. One moment, it looked like the cat had parts that aligned with the male reproductive system, yet at other moments, Fiona seemed to be purely feminine. I’d taken her to a barely-out-of-school vet who’d stated Fiona was definitely a she, but time and time again, we weren’t exactly sure. Jamie had taken the cat as a male and direct successor to his empire and named him Felix; I insisted the cat was a princess, like Fiona from Shrek.

“We’re here,” someone called from the front seat. Giddily, I looked out the window, analyzing nature around me.

What seemed like ages later, I was staring down into the most touching painting, which I realized was actually real life. I’d been to the Grand Canyon, but to think that this system of canyons was on a Hawaiian island blew my mind. A few stragglers tried to jump on rocks, but I ignored them, needing to have a moment to myself.

Wow, I thought. Just wow. Some people would never get to see this. Yet it had affected me, like all things inevitably do. My heart soared at the thought that while poignant, elegant harvests like this existed—so did I. In the midst of chaos—of turbulent waters, losing loved ones, or in the stress of normal life—or in the midst of the most plaguing bliss—a wedding (or six), a best friendship, or the most extravagant traveling experience—there was still life to be found. There was still life blooming like the hibiscus that made the Hawaiian Islands so enchanting.

While most of our wedding party snapped pictures, I inhaled the experience, not wanting to lose a moment. It was spiritual to me, proof of a living, breathing God. Proof that when times seemed dark, rough, and difficult—I would make it through. I wondered about the thousands of people who had seen Waimea Canyon before me. Had they had the same opinion as I about this? I hoped so.

Sena pulled me in for a photograph, and I felt her stumble against me. “You know,” she whispered when we were out of earshot, “some people aren’t even looking at the landscape. They’re just looking at their phones.”

The oranges from the canyon systems were bright and perfect accoutrements for greenness to the north. The juts and precipices of the canyon made it seem it was in no way possible they could be on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; yet somehow they were.

Broken from my reverie, I smiled, knowing Sena’s statement was sadly true.

 

Chapter Twelve

 

AT FIVE O’CLOCK sharply, Tyron and I met in the resort lobby, he looking dapper in a Hawaiian shirt (practical) and khakis. He even greeted me with “Arvo,” some Aussie saying. I wore a casual summer dress but had managed to curl my long red hair and carefully do my makeup. So we went arm-in-arm to his rental car, a little Prius thing, where he informed me that while he tried to be eco-friendly, most of the time he failed. “I can’t even routinely recycle. I think the biggest thing I do to save the planet is take care of my dog.”

“You’ve got a dog? I’ve got a cat,” I said as I buckled up. I wasn’t sure where we were headed, but I had informed him that I needed to be dropped off at the chapel at seven for the wedding rehearsal.

“Ugh, you’re a cat person,” he said, though it was a snicker.

“Hey, you lied to me about being a professional surfer.”

“I didn’t lie,” he corrected me, the thrum of gentle music playing through the stereo, “I withheld some information so that I could make an acquaintance with a pretty American girl, okay? You probably wouldn’t have agreed to meet me if I hadn’t been some genius with a surfboard.”

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked, turning to face him. The sun was still high in the sky, enough to illuminate us in the ending glow of the day.

“What?” His accent caught me by surprise again, just because it was something I had never heard in person before. Meeting Australians in day-to-day life is like meeting aliens (and not illegal aliens, thank you very much); it just doesn’t happen that often.

“Give me a break. You’re, like, gorgeous. Either I’m stroking your ego right now or you are clueless. Tyron, you are like the exact stereotype of an Australian male, at least in the Americas.”

He grinned, knowing that I was stroking his ego. “Well, I’m glad you think so. Emma, everything you’re saying about me right now is…. Okay, maybe not the stereotype part, but you are gorgeous.”

I blushed red and rolled my eyes. “Oh my gosh. Let’s talk about something else, shall we? Like, I don’t know, where we’re going to eat. I hope it’s not from the barbie.”

“Oh, cut the attempts, Emma.” He smiled.

Eventually, we settled at a quaint little sandwich shop overlooking the harbor, ironically like the previous day’s meal choice. As we sat and talked about our countries, I gathered that we were both interested in each other as a means of getting out of the normal to-do, the normal rhythm that seeped into our beings. It wasn’t like we were going to fall in love, or something like a romantic-comedy would profess; it was just gentle banter. A gentle break-away from normal. His added beauty was a bonus.

“So, let’s see. You’re a casting assistant who gets to work with aspiring actors from all over. I’m a real estate investor, and we just happen to meet on the sands of Kauai. Somehow, we end up hanging out, letting loose, and just being ourselves. Weird, right?”

“I guess. Is it coincidence or not, I’m not sure? You see, people are allowed to mingle with people. It’s the spirit of humanity.”

“Not for a lot of folk, though. Most people hole themselves in their rooms when they’re not making a quid.”

“What?” I choked on the piece of lettuce entering my esophagus.

“You know, working?”

“Working at a job?”

“Ace!”

I rolled my eyes, wondering if in reality, Tyron was my substitute for Jamie. I decided not. I wasn’t sure what I expected—Tyron and I to have sex or something, or just to have fun. The truth was, we didn’t have to do anything. It wasn’t like that. There was not any sexual tension between us, because when I looked into his eyes, I shamefully thought of Sam.

After he paid for our meal, we decided to head back to the resort and take a stroll through the gardens surrounding the hotel. Tyron acted as my floral guide by revealing his fondness of gardening.

“You see, this is a banana tree, right now teeming with banana blossom. It’s quite delicious if you ask me.”

“Ooh,” I said.

He pointed to a yellow bud which he called allamanda. It snaked to impressive heights, embodied by the length of its vines. There was anthurium, which could be all colors, but Tyron’s favorite was the crisp orange type. I was able to identify a small plot of black-eyed Susan, which Tyron ignored altogether, while he motioned me onward to a collection of blue ginger in a bit of shade. The sun was beginning to set, which highlighted the beautiful pink bougainvillea blooms. “Now, typically, bougainvillea thrive on leeward coasts, which would be on the opposite side of the island. Yet, for a resort like the Gardenia, there are professional gardeners who work their magic on the soil.”

“It is beautiful,” I remarked, the sunset casting an even sweeter impression on the hundreds of flowers of which Tyron was informing me.

“Look!” Tyron shouted, rushing over to a collection of yellow buds. “Evening primrose. They bloom every night at sunset before ripening to a rouge red and falling off in the morning.”

“Primrose,” I whispered. “Now, that is a beautiful flower. It’s like a human. Blooming at night, dying in the morning after a hangover.”

He stared at me, but I shook my head. “I was thinking of a friend. Jamie.”

“Oh, Jamie?” He sidled up to me, knocking me down the little stone path we were on. “Is this fellow your romantic interest?”

“The fact that you just said that. No, he’s like my brother. A brother from another mother.”

“Oh, I see. Now, I don’t believe that is possible.”

I stared at him, my eyebrow raising a few good inches. “Tyron, do not even think like that. Jamie is never, ever going to be my lover. He’s my best friend. Trust me, we kissed once. It was as icky as…I don’t know, eating a beetle.”

Tyron eyed me like he had eaten a few beetles in his life. “Emma, the boy must be in love with you.”

“I’m telling you that’s not possible.”

“Em,” he whispered into my ear, chilling me. The glimmer of vivid pinks, reds, and oranges on the horizon was my own personal lightshow. “You do know that you’re sun on snow, okay? Wow, that sounded so stupid. I think I got that from a song. Anyway, when I first met you, I thought, ‘Yeah, I’d like to be with her.’ But our relationship isn’t like that.”

“Exactly why Jamie and I are not…” I was trying not to think too much on his poetic analogies.

“Emma, we are practical. We know nothing could happen because we probably will never see each other again. Yet this man Jamie you speak of…”

“Tyron,” I said, raising my eyebrows. “Jamie is dating someone else. Plus, like I said, we kissed. Once. We’re never going to do that again.”

Tyron leaned down and suddenly his lips were on my own. I hadn’t realized he was so close to me in our little bicker. I felt my hands tighten around his neck, landing against the shoulders. He leaned into me. Quickly, he drew away, his eyes bright like stars, a grin on his lips. “You taste sweeter than honeydew.”

“Do I?” I asked, feeling the heat rush to my cheeks. I pulled away, feeling my heart rumble. “That was…good.”

He turned to the sunset. “You know, Emma, maybe we were brought together today to have a heart-to-heart.”

“About Jamie?” I furiously asked, unable to fathom the thought of Jamie being my one true love. That just wasn’t possible. It never was.

He shook his head, and then nodded. “You know, maybe. Truth is, I see it in your eyes. You’re young, and so am I. You love someone else, and I do, too.”

“Tyron!”

“Let me finish, Emma. You may not think you love Jamie yet, but I see it in your eyes. Someday, you will realize it. Maybe not today, maybe not when he’s with another girl, but someday you will.” He cleared his throat, and I knew something poignant and real was about to roar through his vocal cords. “My grandmother gave me this sage advice. I never thought I’d need it, but even if I do or don’t, I believe you do. She was a fighter, that one. One day, we were sitting on the porch, and she looked at me and said, ‘Tyron, I’m not the one for you. It’s okay to admit that. I was never your one. I don’t have to be. But please, promise me, when you meet her, when you meet the one, you won’t let her go.’

“You see, Emma, she wasn’t saying this because she wanted to be my lover. She said this because she knew that while I needed her in that moment, someday another woman would take her place. When I met you, I didn’t realize we would become friends like this, but we did. Emma, whatever you do, don’t let go of who you are, okay? Truth is, again, we’re young. We should be living in the moment—which is what we’re doing right now.”

My heart was fluttering like a flapping ladybug’s wings. “I like you, Tyron. I really do.”

“I like you, too, Emma.”

We stopped under a thick clump of mango trees, their leaves like plumage protecting an ethereal, dusky glow. The air was still sweet, paradise. Tyron’s green blue eyes were a paradise of their own as we sold our souls. We knew the impracticality of a relationship like ours, but it didn’t mean we couldn’t enjoy each other while we still could.

“What’s her name?” I asked suddenly, my heart beat slowing down.

He turned to me, his arms tensing up. “Yvonne.”

“Is she still available?”

“I reckon she is,” he said, his voice soft. “We were together six years. We gave it a fair go. But, like all things, we grew apart. I didn’t heed my grandmother’s advice. You see, I let her go.”

“Tyron, don’t do this to yourself.”

“But I did. And I’m warning you not to do the same.”

All I could do was smile, hug him, and hold his hand as we walked back to the resort. As we stood in the lobby, where the rest of the wedding party was congregating, I took his hands to my chest and said, “Promise me you’ll find her, no matter where she is, and tell her what you told me. You’re very much in love with her. You thought I was Yvonne, Tyron. That is why you came for me.”

“Why…”

“I believe so. You think I’m in love with Jamie; well, you yourself are in love with Yvonne. Go after her.”

While I sat in the van, not sure whether I’d see Tyron McKenzie again, I contemplated his little observation. I decided assuredly that he did love Yvonne and did think I was like her. But as Sena hummed beside me, I wondered in the darkest parts of my mind, Jamie?

My heart continued to thump, Sam, Sam, Sam. It was more than likely it was confused.

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

I WALKED DOWN the rose-littered aisle without tripping, which was a miracle in itself, and then I took my place near the minister and the other bridesmaids. As the groomsmen adjusted, I remembered friendly Luke Cho, which even muddled my thoughts more. Luke, I thought, had forgotten all about me, which was okay.

The bouquet I held was like a heavenly realm of its own. Embalmed were lavender orchid, anthurium again (which, Annabel’s wedding planner aunt had explained earlier was also called flamingo flower) and bougainvillea. The lavender orchid matched the dress I donned. The combination of odors was riveting like a psychedelic drug. The minister, a small Asian man who was extremely good-looking, stood with a Bible in his hand at the foot of a cross. We were in a chapel literally by the sea on Kauai’s north shore, with the giant peaks of the Nā Pali coastline behind us. Green etched up like inverted icicles. Combined with the flowers, the scenery effectively placed me in another realm.

Dexter stood at the foot of the minister, his hands at his sides, waiting for his bride. The ceremony was ornate, with the stained glass giving an extra rainbow effect to the already gorgeous décor. The audience, composed of family and friends, waited in silent awe, which I hadn’t seen before. Most people think of enchanting Hawaiian beach weddings; this was something different altogether.

The sound of steady violins played by two Hawaiian women was strumming like a beautiful melody that added to the ethereal experience. Then Annabel was striding down the aisle in a gorgeous sheath-styled cream gown that sparkled like diamonds. The stained glass cast a spectrum on the shimmer from her dress, which made my eyes tear up. She looked like a goddess with her tan skin, light blue eyes, and long blonde hair cascading down her back. She held a simple bouquet like our own, and then it was time to let go of her father’s arm to take Dexter’s hand.

The ceremony went quickly, much quicker than Chelsea’s nuptials. I think it was because I spotted a whale in the distance. As soon as Annabel and Dexter finished their vows, the audience blew into a rapturous applause, and they ran out holding each other’s hands. It was one of the sweetest things, watching Dexter and Annabel rush out into the natural world.

The immediate family walked behind them rather quickly, while Sena and I took our time on the way out, enjoying every last piece the chapel had to offer. We were whisked away to the nearby banquet hall, where we would dine and dance until the scheduled firework display around seven o’clock.

The sun was setting in its glory again, a full twenty-four hours after my heart-to-heart with Tyron. He was supposedly kayaking the cave systems today with the buddy who’d flown in. I’d told Sena the basics, ignoring Tyron’s plea for my “budding” (and not-going-to-happen) romance with Jamie.

There was a round of photographs, where the bride and groom posed for shots with the golden sands and the green Hawaiian Alps. Instead of the photographer (who happened to be Dexter’s pregnant sister) only taking snaps of the bride and groom (plus immediate party), all were invited to gather for pictures. After we were done, Sena and I took off to a shaded spot under banyan trees to admire the mountaintops.

“Wow,” Sena whispered. “This wedding is going to be hard to top off.”

“You’re getting married in mountains, too. We’ll be all there for you, strewn in a valley, watching the sun disappear past the cracks of desert summits.”

“Phoenix doesn’t compare to Kauai, Em.”

“You know what matters, Sena? You’re getting married. The love that you and Steve share is the only thing I care about.”

 

SENA AND I sat huddled underneath a blanket as we watched the fireworks show, which was as impressive (or more) than a July 4th celebration, due to the close proximity to the mountains and the feature of the open Pacific Ocean. Once the fireworks were done, we stood on our wobbly legs, colors reflecting on the ocean from the display. After a whole two hours of dancing, we threw glitter on the happy couple, who hopped into a limousine to head back to the airport. Whereas we common folk would return to the States the next day, Annabel and Dexter were flying to Tahiti for an extended two-week long honeymoon. (Another paradise vacation? Give me a break.)

Moments after they were gone, we returned, melancholy and dog-tired, to our vans on the way back to the resort. “This is life in a vivid dream,” Sena whispered to me. “We’ll be heading to LA in the morning. Are you ready to go back?”

I nodded, but did not give my answer until a few minutes later, once we were taking the highway back to our resort along the coast. “I’ll miss what we did here, but I miss what I have in LA. What I can tell you is that I don’t miss the traffic, I don’t necessarily miss the daily grind, but I miss my friends, my job, even my questionable cat.”

Sena nuzzled into my shoulder, her hair smelling like apples, or something fruity. As soon as we made it back to the hotel, I fell asleep, dreaming of mangoes, Jamie, and a huge stack of paperwork pertaining to unmanageable actors.

 

 

PART THREE

Monica

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

THE SWEET EMBRACE of a friend after a painfully long time away is something I wish for all. As soon as I made it to my apartment, I cuddled Fiona and felt Jamie fall into the chair beside me with a bowl of popcorn (not surprising).

“So, you look tan.”

“Well, thanks?”

He sighed, throwing a wad of popcorn in the air to catch with his tongue. In the fading light of dusk, he seemed playful and revved up like a caffeine addict discovering the a mine of sugar. He saw me staring, and then he threw some popcorn at my face, which proceeded to fall down my shirt.

“Idiot,” I said, the thrum of heart monitors on the TV distracting me. “You’re watching the Mexican version of Grey’s Anatomy?”

“I’m practicing my skills,” he said, a dimple glowing on his left cheek. “You see, Ella is Afro-Puerto Rican. When we were at the beach yesterday, she was able to communicate fluently with this lady whose car was stolen. There was just something about hearing the Spanish language…”

“Or the woman you’re with…”

“Oh, you sound crabby as always. Emma, you sound like death. Okay, maybe not that bad, but enough so I am allowed to wonder, what happened in Kauai? Sam stopped by on Friday. He wanted to see you, it was clear as day, but he forgot that you were in Hawaii.”

“Oh,” I said, though my heart giddily fluttered. “He wanted to check up on me?”

“I guess. Hey, about what I said, I think I was just momentarily jealous.”

“What did you say?”

“About, you know, how something’s weird with Sam. I was just jealous.”

“Jealous?”

“I’m not used to seeing you with a guy. I mean, in all our time together, you went on a few dates, but to see you hang off Sam and stuff, it just got my testosterone up or something. Forgive me?”

I bit my tongue, brought back to the moment with Tyron. Was it possible I was in love with Jamie? No freaking way. Taking a leap of faith, and heightened by some sort of desire to prove that Australian wrong, I leaned in and touched my lips to my best friend’s. My eyes were closed, yet I sensed his were open in confusion. Slowly, he calmed down and deepened the kiss, our tongues exploring like they never had before. Something in me hummed like a drum, but shame was just around the corner like a rolling rogue wave.

He pulled back suddenly like he had been electrocuted. His eyes were aflame, goosebumps on his arms, and he instinctively moved a few inches away. “Emma?” He roared, his question on fire.

“I…I don’t know, Jamie,” I said, my nerves at an all-time high. What had I just done? “I just wanted to see…”

“Emma, we’ve done this before. You know… Well, I think I know that…”

“We’re not for each other. Never going to happen. The like—which is all still…true?” The question I posed was not meant to be a question, but the shock between us was as palpable as the fact that we were human beings. We stared at our feet, unable to look at each other, realizing the border we’d crossed, from Mexico to the United States.

“I’m with Ella,” he said. I admired his bravado, the respect for his girlfriend, but I wanted him to say something else.

I jumped up, unable to take more of my spontaneous decision. “I’m sorry, James. You see, I met a man in Hawaii. When I mentioned your name, he thought that I was in love with you. I guess I just wanted to see if it were possible, that you and I…”

“Emma,” Jamie whispered, a serious tone invading our normal ease. James Stewart had never looked so distraught.

“I know…”

“I’m with Ella,” he repeated, though I sensed a want in his own eyes.

“I’m sorry. Okay, I’m going to bed. Maybe the jet lag contributed, or…”

“Good night.”

I hurried to my bedroom, shaking from the kiss—and shocked from the issue that it was actually good. Better than good—more like great. Yet there was the fact Jamie was with Ella; there was no shot of our being a couple. We were the best of friends, inseparable. Why would we ruin what we had? What remained was a giant elephant in the room, a rivulet that riveted me to the core: I was possibly attracted to my best friend.

I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get over it, either. I needed to shove that thought into a trash can.

 

WHEN I SHOWED up to work the next day, my brain was in a complete firestorm. Jamie hadn’t been in the apartment that morning, but he’d left a note saying he was going to be at the studio and probably wouldn’t be home for our usual dinner together. I understood: He was avoiding me. Honestly, I would have avoided myself—if I could. Yet, since I was kinda glued to my own body, there was no point in feeling pity for myself. I had caused this strain.

Baylee had been kind to me, sensing my frustration the moment I walked into her office with two coffees, one for her with three sugars, two creams like she wanted. She fingered the desk like it was a drum, asking, “Who’d you have sex with?”

“Bay!”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re twenty-freaking-two in Los Angeles. Don’t tell me you’re still a virgin!” she hissed at me.

“Baylee,” I said, my voice steady, “I made a commitment to my parents that I would stay a virgin until my wedding day.”

“Since they broke apart, it invalidates the commitment. Who even does that, Emma? You’re such a weirdo. Have some fun, would you? You’re one of the most uptight people I know. You want to hear something? Richard and I are nineteen years apart. He’s old enough to be my dad. Yet we knew we were for each other the moment we played house—and it was a good thing, too. I didn’t realize I loved him until we started to work like a married couple, okay? But before that, I was one notorious partier.”

“Baylee. I’m not like you.”

“You don’t have to be…”

Megg knocked on the door, and then Baylee rolled her eyes and huskily breathed, “Dear Zeus.”

Megg stuck a piece of newly dyed honey-blonde hair behind her ear. She looked pretty, so I said quickly, “Your hair looks gorgeous.” She giddily smiled, not used to compliments, to which Baylee confirmed, “She’s right.” Megg almost fell over.

“What do you need, Megg?” Baylee asked, pulling out a nail file.

“I was wondering if I could borrow Emma.” Yes, they had finally learned my correct name. “We need to get started on research for this next project. We’ve got a lot of people to call, especially because it is so important.”

I’d been briefed when I first logged my hours that morning. It was an indie film by an on-the-rise director whose name I’d heard in passing. The movie was going to be about three women pining after one man—who ended up going to prison. It sounded boring to me, but Megg was obviously excited as she ranted about how interesting it would be to cast this one. She’d also requested my help specifically after Becki’s departure.

We spent the first few days contacting agents, scheduling audition times, and making plans to meet with the bigwigs on one crisp afternoon, including the director, producer, and studio representative for a casual lunch at a new place Baylee recommended. We would meet to paint the vision we all wanted for the film’s actors.

So when the day came, Megg and I headed to Pasadena, where we were a little early for our lunch meeting at a new Chinese bar and grille. Megg and I got to talk about life, including her penchant for guinea pigs, and we bonded—especially without Becki Aliato’s grilling eye judging us the whole time.

“So, Emma,” Megg said, her voice laced with wonder, “what’s it like being Baylee Feta’s new pet?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, doing my best not to choke on my water, not liking where this conversation was headed.

She pushed her glasses up. “Well, Baylee usually takes someone under her wing, but she seems to really, really like you. Since I like you, I wanted to warn you. If you get on her bad side, your career is over.”

“Oh, thanks,” I said, though I thought this was inappropriate. I knew Baylee was a bit tense, maybe vindictive if she needed to be, but she was Baylee. She had a heart, even if she showed it in peculiar ways.

Soon enough, a group of well-dressed men appeared at our table, and I was face-to-face with a person I recognized quite well. His brown eyes opened as wide as an IMAX movie screen when he saw me in return. Immediately I stood up and hugged him because it was the socially acceptable thing to do. “Luke, it’s such a surprise to see you!”

“Emma,” he whispered, holding me like we hadn’t seen each other in years. Ah. “This is a genuine surprise.”

Megg cocked her head. “You two know each other?” She gave me a wink, suggesting that we knew each other in an uncomfortable way.

“Yeah. We were in a wedding together a few weeks ago.”

Luke quickly took the position of spokesman, introducing us to John George, the producer, and the Ritalea Pictures studio representative, Skye Bowman. Both men were OCD in their movements, but Megg quickly took like a flamboyant bird to answering their work-related questions. Luke pretended to be interested in Megg’s vision, but he talked to me most of the time.

“This complicates things, doesn’t it?” he asked. “Normally, I would cite a personal interference with a coworker as a disturbance, but you’re Emma. I’m a fierce guard of my works, but I think we click, don’t you?”

“Oh, of course. I think we see eye-to-eye on a lot of things.”

Megg was rambling on about a few low A-list and B-list actors she’d asked to audition. I tried to focus—or at least act focused—which I think worked for most of the time. However, I felt like a beacon of light under Luke’s gaze. Maybe it wasn’t so bad being invisible.

After we finished eating, we headed out into the gray day, perfect for June Gloom, and Luke said, “This means we’ll be working close together for a few days, doesn’t it?”

“It does,” I said with a smile. Ugh.

John and Skye waited for Luke, so he quickly hugged me good-bye and was off with them to who knows where. Once they were gone, Megg stared me down. “Who was the hunk, and where’d you find him?”

When I realized she was serious, I quit laughing and said, “We can see if he has a brother. Or you can take him. He’s single.”

“No doubt you’re better for him, especially considering you and he were like lovesick buffoons that entire lunch, barely contributing to the task-at-hand.”

“Don’t think it was like that, but okay.”

Megg was always so serious, but a hint of a smile peeked from her face, and I knew she was rooting for my own victory at the indication of this romantic thing, or whatever it even was (yet I didn’t even care about him! I was almost feeling annoyed by the idea of this thing). Jamie’s kiss had already flown out the window by the time Luke reappeared at the restaurant, but it wasn’t because I was magically swooning for someone else. Maybe I did belong to the single club.

 

WE DID NOT bring in any actors until the next Monday so that there would be a clean slate and a rested mind to make our full suggestions, concerns, and callbacks. Today’s runner, a college student named Paige, was hurriedly bringing our panel water bottles, bunches of fruit, and anything anyone asked for. Luke made sure to switch his seat to be next to me, which went against his whole argument of not associating with people he knew while lurking behind the scenes of his next project. Yet I did not complain because it was just so awkward.

Megg was to my right, already furiously writing in her journal marked THE THREE MUSKET TEARS. Apparently, it was a reference to an item she’d casted before I came along. So I sat waiting for Paige to bring in the first actress, a woman named Noelle. She spent her first twenty seconds thanking us, which seemed a bit overbearing, and then the rest of her minute monologue was grimy at best. Finally, when she read for the role of Sarah Berkfeldt, Megg gave John George a tantalizing smirk. I sensed some tension between the two, but what did I know about that thing called love? Nada.

“Thank you, Noelle,” Megg said, ending the audition.

We went through forty-two people that day. Around four, with only an hour or so of auditions to skim through, Luke tapped the desk before me. “Want to grab a bite to eat after?”

“Uh, sure,” I said hurriedly. Jamie and I were still sort of avoiding each other, though we’d had a sit-down talk to pore through what happened that night. In fact, we’d both said our apologies, with Jamie making it very clear that while he still believed Ella was a fling, he was happy with her and would not jeopardize their relationship. Especially not for me. Therefore, I would take any opportunity not to make it back to the apartment for dinner. Or, maybe more honestly, I didn’t want to offend Luke.

Once we were finished for the day, Luke and I headed out into the fading glow. The sound of brakes was apparent, along with the belch of a few car horns, and then the smell of gasoline permeated the air. “You know,” I said, “I really did not think we would reconnect like this.”

“Me neither,” he said. “Let’s take my car. I know a place near here we can go.”

I followed him to the Subaru, which confirmed my opinion that he was a safety-proponent, at least more than the average human being. He even opened the door for me, which was surprisingly strange, due to the fact that it had never happened to me before. I distinctly remembered my world religions teachers explaining her first date: When he didn’t open the car door for me on our first date, I walked right back to my front door and slammed it in his face.

“So, what did you really think about the actors we auditioned today?”

Luke backed out of the space with the precision of a professional. He stretched out his chin. “Honestly, a few extras. There was one who might be able to be a supporting role, but none of the main stars were there today. No Sarahs, if that’s what you mean. What I said in the panel is true. It will be extremely difficult to bring actors in for my standards—and Ritalea.”

“We’ll find them. They’re out there somewhere,” I said, feeling a bit wistful. We drove down the road, heading south to the Pacific. From our position, there were no mountains to be seen, due to the immense popularization of buildings in the metropolis.

Luke eventually pulled into a small steakhouse which I’d read about in little LA wine-and-dine magazines Jamie brought home every so often. It was a four-star dining experience, especially due to its heightened locale and brave seasoned tri-tip choices. My heart soared when he parked the car. “Ta-da.”

“You’re joking. Reservations?”

“My mom owns this place, Emma. No—please don’t think I’m introducing the two of y’all. That’s not what I’m doing. But I have leeway here; I’ll get us a table. Have faith, okay?”

I smiled, following him into the dimly lit lobby. Smooth rainforest music streamed from the radios, but mesmerizing blue, stringed lights caught my attention. The place oozed professional, but also something more sensual. My mouth watered when I saw a waiter hurry by with four ribeyes.

“Are you serious right now?” I squealed. “I haven’t had steak in ages, which is terrible.”

“A true Texan. I would have fallen over if you were vegan. It would be a direct shot to the heart for my mom.”

He pulled some strings with the hostess, who batted her eyelashes at him in a playful way. Next thing I knew, we were sitting by a cozy fireplace, the lights casting a blue tint to Luke’s inky hair. He didn’t bother looking at the menu, instead watching me. “The sirloins are to die for.”

“I’ll get whatever you suggest.” I didn’t meet his eye.

“Please don’t feel…”

“It is my feminist right to eat whatever you suggest I should eat.” I closed the menu, spellbound by the polished ether. The entire encounter was heavenly, except for Luke himself. He was so kind, so nice, and here I was, an evil villain for not enjoying myself fully.

We received our sirloins at the speed of light, and then the next thing I knew, we were leaving the table. Being with Luke had gone nippily, thank goodness. Most of our time together was spent in smiles and merriment, but what if he took this the wrong way?

When he dropped me back off at my car at the work building, the sky was dark, and he said, “You know, I’m glad we’re going to get to see each other more.”

“Me too.”

He leaned in and kissed my lips, a quick little peck, but something that twisted my heart. When we drew apart, I felt my body freeze with absolute loss. “That was nice,” I said dishonestly. It wasn’t like the passionate Jamie kiss, or the sentimental Tyron kiss.

“Drive safely. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Of course.” He squeezed my hand, and here I was, yet again, in a sticky situation.

 

 

THE DAYS PASSED by in a strange succession like this. Our five-member panel worked diligently for about ten hours, searching for the right cast members. By Thursday Luke had selected his favorites for a few of the top roles; however, the process was going to be long and complex. We had a list of twenty-five who made the callback list; however, we still had another week or so of original auditions.

The next Monday, I got to work super early and found myself lying on Baylee’s sofa. She was yet to be seen, but her door had been unlocked. Around eight o’clock, I began to wonder where she was. Baylee was always religiously on time. I prodded down the hall to Richard’s office, but he was nowhere to be found, either. I tried calling her cell, but no one answered—now that was typical Baylee fashion.

I returned to the panel, a little nervous about Baylee, but primarily interested in getting another day over with. By lunchtime I was famished and hurried to the break room for microwaveable mac and cheese. Luke followed me to Baylee’s office again, where she still was not.

“Okay, weird. Baylee’s always here. Same for Richard.”

“Richard Braitley,” he said, sticking his hands in his pockets.

“Yup. You know him well?”

“We go back. My sister babysat his son back in the day.”

“Interesting.”

“Very.”

We returned to the panel room, where John and Megg were almost snuggling up to each other. I noticed that she had ceased to write like a madwoman in the journal of hers, which was odd. Was everyone pairing up? I wanted to fall into a hole and disappear. Eventually, we saw another round of actors, only finding a few worthy of a callback. Around two o’clock, Megg got a call.

“Hello?” she asked quickly, shooing the runner Paige out of the room with a new actress. “Really? Are you serious?” Her face paled, question riveting her tongue. “No, Mr. Braitley is not here today. However, I am the casting director in charge for this program. No, it is not too late, I guarantee you, Ms. Neal. All right, see you in a few hours.” When she hung up, her eyes were like firecrackers. “Em, would you mind running to my office for a moment to get the yellow folder on my desk?”

“Sure,” I said, jumping up, though I wanted to be part of the news bustle. Now maybe this would provide some earnest greatness.

After swimming upstream to Megg’s office, I returned with the manila folder and handed it to the recipient. “Well, what’s the gouge?”

“What?”

“You know, what’s up?”

“We have a very interesting audition in a few hours. I swore to the boys,” at this Megg winked at me like I was in on her secret, “that I would keep it a secret.”

Luke rolled his eyes and shrugged. “Whoever it is must be important. I’m just ready to get a move on the next actors.”

The minutes ticked and tocked, each passing second like an unforeseeable eon. This was the lexicon of the casting business: gag, gag, gag. Wanting to gouge your eyes out through the hundreds of faces who all said close to the same thing. Hi, my name is John Doe, and I was born—actually, created—for this part.

Eventually, Paige ran into the room and squeaked, “Leslie Neal is here.”

“Leslie Neal?” I asked in confusion.

Luke sighed. “Just the most wanted agent in all of Hollywood. Actually, let me restate that: She is definitely the most wanted agent in all of Hollywood. She represents the brightest, the brainiest, the most admired celebrities of modern pop culture. Leslie Neal’s name is gold.”

“Leslie Neal?”

Megg nodded like a subservient woman. Everything she said dripped like melting candy, a jewel for each syllable—long, drawn-out. “Leslie Neal is huge. I can’t believe you’ve never heard of her. That is, like, basic even for Hollywood peasants.”

“Okay, well, even though I am a lowly peasant…”

Paige shook her curls out, her college-girl face giddy and red. “Should I get her now?”

“Of course!” Megg squealed. “All right everyone, this is a huge treat. John, I hope this makes your day. Luke, this could be huge for the creative aspect of your film, because this actor is highly-trained, a very popular actor, after all…”

The door opened to let a powerful empress enter, and my body awaited a very famous person. Instead, I saw that Leslie Neal was a six-foot tall black woman, with skin of the most perfect ebony. She looked like an Amazon goddess, ready to kill anyone who dared interrupt her spiel. She stood like an impenetrable fortress, but her eyes locked with the studio representative’s, and then the aura turned incredibly awkward.

“Skye Bowman?” she asked, her voice strong and unbending. “Skye?”

“Leslie?” His voice squeaked. The small man stared straight into her eyes, and beside me, Luke’s face broke out into a giant smile. I wondered what it was, but Leslie ignored him and turned to the other panel members.

“I’m here. Which one of you is Margaret Holmwood?”

Megg was sharper than a jutting rocket. “At your service.”

Leslie shook, then stared at the rest of us, each shot a dagger. “I just wanted to introduce myself here, and to thank you for allowing my client to audition on such short notice. He was incredibly adamant about auditioning for this role. Anyway, I will leave now, but let me remind you—this would tremendously affect your film, and your company, as a result.”

“Who’s the client?” I asked through mashed teeth.

Luke shrugged. “Thank you, Leslie.”

She was off, and then a tall, lavishing man appeared in the place where she’d just been. My heart fell down into a gutter; I could not reach it quickly enough. He hurriedly shook hands with the panel, starting with Skye first, and exchanged warm pleasantries and jokes with the members, who stared at him in awe (or technically, I should say, gold). He was a walking king; everything he touched turned into rubies, amethysts, lapis lazuli. When his hands reached mine, he winked once—a little sliver of a butterfly’s spouting wings—and said, “Thanks again for seeing me on such short notice.”

“Of course,” Megg said, fanning herself with loose-leaf paper from the manila folder. “Thank you for auditioning.” This seemed very, very desperate, but I was too torn-up to care.

“My name is Samuel Woodshaw,” he began with ease, “and I am auditioning for the role of Jason Kurtridge.”

Megg began furiously writing in her notebook, while Skye chewed on a hangnail. John George stared at Sam like he was staring into the pearly gates of heaven, while Paige had, for the first time, claimed a seat to watch the audition.

Sam began a recitation, allowing his eyes to droop slightly like Jason’s carefree spirit called for. “There is a time in everyone’s life when someone has to make a choice. Mine started on the last day of college, not by taking a job offer, or marrying the girl of my dreams, or even finding out I was somehow the king of the world.” Sam then made eye contact with me, our connection instantaneous. His dark hair had grown into longish curls, and I wondered if he was going to grow it out into a man-bun, which made me cringe.

“You see, I bought a plane ticket—one-way—for Orlando. There was no reason for the place, except that it was sunny there, and the farthest place away from the dreary, screwed-up life I’d come from…”

As he continued on, no one made a move to stop him for a good five minutes, which—if it had been anyone else—would have been possibly unbearable. Yet he continued to woo us, like he was Constantine, and eventually, Luke was the one who said, “That’s good, thank you.”

John turned to him, giving an eye, but Luke did not seem to notice. Megg pulled the bones of the script from the manila folder and said, “Sam, would you mind if we went over a tentative scene from the screenplay?”

“Of course not,” he said, before giving me a quick glance.

She handed him a piece of paper. “Okay, hey, Em!”

“Yes?” I asked, though it came out rather hoarse.

“Would you mind reading for Sarah?”

“No,” I said, taking the script from Megg’s dainty hands.

“Go ahead, you can stand beside him if you want.”

“Oh, okay,” I said, hurrying beside him, where he whispered, “Hey, Em.”

“Hi,” I said, turning to the camera.

“So, just as a little background,” Megg began, “you guys are in a park in Kissimmee. Sarah’s been accepted into graduate school at Oxford and will be leaving. You, Jason, are heading off to prison. This is your final scene together.”

“The deepest one for last?” My eyes widened as I scanned the script. In thick italics, I read: Jason and Sarah kiss.

Oh, my dear Aunt Eunice.

Luke also knew what was going to happen, and I could tell from his cringe he was not pleased with Megg’s decision. Yet he knew what was at stake: Sam’s employment and interest in the role. Really, he wasn’t auditioning for them; they were auditioning for him. I wondered what Luke would say once we left the office, when we went out for coffee or a sub, or whatever. Maybe tonight would be the first time in a week we would not go out for dinner. It would be the first time I would be honest and say, “No, thanks, though.” Inwardly I hoped Sam would ask me out.

“Camera’s rolling,” Megg said, her voice stern like my grandmother’s.

“Sarah,” Sam whispered, his eyes passionate and chaotic like a hurricane, “our good-bye doesn’t have to be a last good-bye.”

“Jason.” My voice was like sandpaper—rough and monotone. I was never supposed to be an actress, so I concentrated on properly reading the font in front of me. “I know that, but it feels like we won’t see each other ever again.” I was supposed to cry, but as a non-emotional human being, I stood rooted to the spot.

Sam ignored this, and he reached out to push a piece of my hair past my ear. It was so sexual I wanted to cry, but with a quick glance, I noted that Megg was furiously following the script, Luke was eyeing us with skepticism, and John was smiling like a lovesick fool. Skye, meanwhile, looked sick—probably because of the encounter he’d had with Ms. Leslie Neal.

“Sarah, why make promises now?”

The stubborn, questioning tone in me balked at what I had to say next. Give me a break, my mind roared, the guy’s going to prison. What Oxford girl would think twice about leaving him for British fish and chips? I calmed down and breathed, “If we don’t make promises now, what will we have to hold on to?” Oh, gag. This was like inhaling soapy water.

“Sarah, I understand if you won’t promise me,” Sam said, perfectly in character. He moved a step closer to me so that our noses were almost touching. The flame in my belly almost swiped away the fact that we stood before five other people, including my bosses and a crying college student. “But I promise you: We will not lose what we have.”

We heard Megg call out “Cut!” like she had rehearsed the line a million times, but Sam reached down and kissed me, holding my face in his hands. Swept away by the sheer reaction of my body, I leaned into him, deepening the kiss. This is what I wanted. Only when I heard Megg call out, “Whoa!” did I stop.

I backed away from him as I took the sleeve of my shirt to wipe off the saliva that had dripped to my chin. We stared at each other for a moment, in which Sam’s appetite was clear, and so was mine. Gently, I walked back to my seat and sat down, the radiation from Luke’s tense form cancerous.

“Well,” he said through clenched teeth.

“I did not expect that.”

Megg broke out into applause, followed by Paige, John, and a mopey Skye. Luke refused to participate, and eventually, Megg asked if Sam would mind leaving the room for a moment so she could discuss with the panel. Watching Sam leave the room with a confident catwalk, I announced, “I think I’ll agree with whatever you guys have to say, but I need to pee.”

Hurriedly I exited, following Sam into the hallway. I grabbed his arm and yanked him back to me. “What the heck was that? You were compromising my job.”

Sam’s eyebrows raised in a mocking tone. Leslie rushed over, her eyes furious. She had a cupcake in one hand and a coffee in the other. “Sam, who is this girl?”

“The reason I auditioned today.”

Leslie cocked her head and offered a hand, eager to remain on her client’s good side. “Hi. You’re…?”

“Emma,” I said, shaking. “Sam, please don’t tell me you auditioned because you found out…”

“Yup. I will gladly take the role. Plus, this is a favor for Leslie, especially when I found out that Ritalea was taking care of this film. You see, she and Skye Bowman are on the fence in their relationship.”

Leslie swatted him, and he was in the snares of a female trap. “Skye and I…it’s complicated.”

“Les,” he said, wrapping a hand around her shoulders, “would you mind if I had a moment with Emma?”

“Sure,” she said. “I need to find the little girls’ room anyway.”

The halls grew emptier as the clock tocked later and later. I had this to be thankful for, since no one was out now. I was supposed to see Baylee if she had at least shown up for work, but then, Sam’s lips were on mine again, and I fell against the wall, a total dorky move. “Sam,” I burst, “what are you doing?” He kissed my neck before drawing away.

“You see,” he whispered, his breathing ragged, “I’ve been wanting to do that since I met you. But the only time I was afraid you’d comply was if we were in character. I’m not typically this brazen.”

“Wow, you’re brave, then. Are you drunk?”

“You’re, like, the most uptight person in the world, Em. You’re also the scariest person.”

“Great way to get on my good side,” I said, rolling my eyes, still cowering under his long arm stretched above me. It was an animalistic move, I decided, one that really intrigued me. “I’m uptight and scary. Boo,” I said, blowing into his face, catching his eyelashes in a windy display.

He refused to move. “I know what I want. You do, too. You’re just more closed up about it.”

“So you come in here and compromise my job?”

“I think I gave you brownie points. Your business just got access to the marketable Sam Woodshaw.”

“Are you drunk?”

He started humming the song “Drunk in Love” by Beyoncé, which just infuriated me. I pushed him away and said, “They’re going to give you the job, obviously, but I would like it if you respected me enough to not make a fool of me at my own workplace.”

“It won’t happen again,” he said with another wink. Maybe it was alcohol on his breath.

When Paige brought him back inside, the panel had announced that Sam won the role—and I blushed pink when Sam thanked my good acting skills for helping him get into character.

 

WHEN I GOT home, Jamie sat at the counter, munching on a crème-fraiche orchestration while also watching the news. He saw me and moved his stuff from the chair beside him so I could be near him. When we finally sat in silence, he muted the television and reached over to drape an arm around my shoulder.

“So… I’m leaving for Mexico sooner than expected.”

“When?” I took a bite of the snack as my belly rumbled. Right after work, I’d bolted out as fast as possible. Luke had not even bothered to ask me out, as he stood stupefied with John and Skye. Megg was as blissful as a child on Christmas Eve, but I, on the other hand, was blushing red from the thought that Sam made his interests clear.

He chewed slowly. “August 13th, in the middle of the deadly weather. But pre-production is really swift, and we’re having to hurry to bolster… Hey, Em? It’s okay. It’ll be wrapped by early December, hopefully. Think positively: You’ll get the apartment to yourself. I hope you won’t bring any boys over.” He nudged me, but hearing my silence, he asked, “What?”

We were finally on normal speaking terms, so I did not want to blow it with him. Eventually, I unclenched my hands. “Sam auditioned today.”

“You got to see him in action? No way!”

“He kissed me, Jamie.”

Jamie dropped his fork, his eyes clouding over. He tensed beside me like he’d turned to stone. I had noticed he was working at the gym now, trying to buff up for the movie he’d be off filming on August 13th. Plus, I think it added to his appeal for Ella. He did look good—great, really—but my little crush on him was dwindling. He was my best friend; there was no way I could jeopardize our relationship when I needed him as support. As stupidly as it sounds—he was my anchor.

“He kissed you?” Jamie turned away, his frustration as evident as the fact he was male. “Emma, please, please, promise me you’ll be careful. I hate that I’m doing this to you on your first real relationship…”

At this I swatted him. “Seriously? You conveniently brought that one up.”

“If you’re first serious guy is a Hollywood actor, that’s a pretty interesting fact. ‘I once dated Sam Woodshaw.’ It will forever haunt you—and your future husband. Anyway, I’m being honest. I know you’d do the same if you thought Ella were screwed up. Be on your guard.”

“Okay,” I said, though my ego was not satisfied with this. I appreciated his protection of me, but I felt it was unnecessary. I mean, of course I could handle myself around Sam. It couldn’t be that hard.

 

Chapter Fourteen

IT WAS THE sweltering heat of mid-July that drove most LA residents inside. There would be no jogging up the side of a cliff for many pumped runners, but thousands would flock to pools—whether that be in Beverly Hills, the local YMCA, or like me, a rich friend’s posh mansion. Annabel had returned to Los Angeles from her ritzy Tahitian honeymoon with a perfect suntan, a rich glow on her face, and a thousand stories to tell.

Yet when I wasn’t lounging in her pool, I was dodging work dramatics, like the new documentary we were prepping, along with Baylee’s sporadic new habit of not showing up to work. Since the first day she and Richard had missed their prized possession—the casting firm—I’d wondered what they were doing. Yet when she was at work, she was ultimately crabby, even to me.

Jamie and Ella continued their relationship so that most of the time she crashed at our house or he spent the night at hers. It was a weird changeup to our dynamic, but one that was inevitable. They spent so much time together, and I tried not to be jealous. I thought of the era in which Jamie and Nina had dated, and how they included me in some of their escapades, but not all. This go-around, I was forced to see what it was like to not be included. It was just surreal.

In the meantime, Luke and I had gone out a few times, strictly as friends. He’d made it clear, by not kissing me at all, not even touching me. When we ate, he was lively and energetic, but the romantic part was gone. It was surreal, too, but I’d accepted it. Eventually, our communication dwindled, and by July twenty-first, we’d stopped talking altogether.

Sam, however, was the wild card. He had not talked to me once since the show at my workplace. Not at all. It was careless, made me angry all the way to my nerve endings, and reminded me that I should never fall for a type like him. Undeniable when he was around, but barely around.

In fact, by July 21st, neither of us had made any effort to contact the other. I could have asked about him through Jamie and vice versa, but somehow the wait was necessary. I didn’t want to see him just yet. I had to mentally prepare myself for our next meeting, in which I’d probably want to kiss him and slap his handsome face all in the same maneuver.

It was at the most predictable moment that I saw him next: Jamie’s twenty-third birthday party. Due to the extreme heat, we’d decided to throw a party at the apartment for some close friends, including Ella, Sam, a few friends of his from college, and Monica Granger, whose wedding was promptly in two weeks. Monica was a close friend of Jamie’s, as they’d been in the same acting troupe in college. I’d met Monica through Jamie, who, unfortunately, had already made reservations to head home to Rossville the same weekend Monica’s wedding was to be held.

Monica Granger was the most spontaneous person I’d ever met. She was the kind of human who would jump off a waterfall if a breeze lifted a piece of her hair and hinted that the water would be cool on warm skin. When we first met, she was like a Labrador retriever, bouncy, needing lots of attention. She was stunning, like a cover model, but all attempts in modeling usually ended up in her getting fired. She had warm, tawny colored skin, eyes of the finest verdigris, and an impenetrable heart-shaped face. She looked like a china doll only when she was quiet and still, which was almost none of the time.

Monica had met Giri “Jerry” Bobal at a fundraiser for a political candidate in Eureka. It might have been the weirdest love story I’d ever heard, but I expected nothing less from Monica, with her personality as vibrant as the jade fire in her irises.

Only five months before, in the dead of March, spring break arose for the sleepy college students who had just experienced another dormant winter. Some kids went to Florida, others to Baja, some back home to Irvine. People like me just floated around or hung out with their psychedelic best friends. Monica, however, headed home to Eureka, California, where her mother worked as a huge political powerhouse for the district. It was at a fundraiser for a woman named Jeanine Striker that Monica Granger ran into Jerry Bobal, who was supporting his own sister, an intern for Ms. Striker.

Independent as always, Monica had met Jerry when their family members had disappeared to gain more connections in a growing diagram of political networking. Monica stood to the side of the crowd, holding a wine glass—only sipping it gently, knowing her own limit was a few sips—and watched intently, one of the only moments of this kind in her entire life (say I). However, Monica had always been a watcher who garnered information from others. She spent so much time analyzing that it carried over to the bubbly personality she’d grown into.

Jerry was bored out of his mind. He had flown in from New York City to visit his family. His father was the best physician in the county—maybe even in Northern California—and his mother was a doting, loving woman, who, somehow, had become a Christian and decided to enter seminary. Jerry’s father gently prodded him into the science field, but when he got to college, his life changed. He began doing stand-up comedy, worked as a writer for some TV programs, and eventually cemented his career at Tisch. By his twenty-fifth birthday, he began work on his own comedy sketch show. Life in New York was tough, so he took a trip to Eureka that March for a much-needed break.

His sister invited him to the fundraiser, and he accepted, wanting to show his support for his blood. Jerry wasn’t surprised when she abandoned him within ten minutes once she’d stopped introducing him to folks. He was okay with it, and he went to the side of the foyer. He stood on the marble of a rich person’s house—a type of house whose foundation was constructed in greedy capitalism, as Monica told the story.

As Jerry assessed the crowd, his eyes landed on the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. In his travels, he’d seen women of all ethnicities and personalities, but this woman had her own kind of spell. He was cast by her glow when she locked eyes with him in the midst of the mongering crowd. Then he was beside her, and she was beside him; they made a promise to make the entire fundraiser without getting drunk.

Monica and Jerry Bobal eventually became inseparable. His entire holiday was spent with her. He introduced her to his mother two days after he met her with a breathy, “This is the lady I will marry, Mama.”

The kind old woman brought her to her chest. “You are one beautiful girl. My Giri knows a beautiful woman when he sees one.”

Eventually, Jerry moved to Los Angeles, began doing film, and did his show in the same studio theater where Sam had worked on a few of his past movies. He and Monica got engaged in May, and then they set their wedding date for July 29th, exactly five months after they’d first met. The wedding was to take place in an au naturel Big Sur ceremony, where Jerry’s mother would preside.

As I stood in the apartment watching a line of people stream in with little gift bags for Jamie, I wondered if I would ever get my Prince Jerry. I decided I’d settle for a frog.

The steady influx of people continued to grow until the apartment was unbearable. Monica came twenty minutes late, with a bowl of handmade salsa, and she kissed my forehead quickly. “Hi, babe. Where’s the birthday boy?” She ran off to find him, and in desperate need of quiet, I hurried into the hall.

A lessee down the way was standing outside giving me the eye. He stared at me and I explained, “Sorry. Jamie’s birthday.” The guy’s eyes lit up, and I cringed. Everyone preferred Jamie to me.

I went downstairs, needing to feel the air on my skin. Some of Jamie’s friends stank to high heaven, as they probably did not know how to buy soap from the store. It was that bad.

There was a park bench to the left of the stairs I climbed every day to the apartment, so I hurried over so I could stretch out. Bugs could have crawled into my hair, nesting little eggs, I know; but I didn’t care. Jamie was surrounded by his closest friends, and I was sitting outside like an antisocial pessimist. Oh well.

“What are you doing?” His voice surprised me, like when someone tickles you unexpectedly.

I jumped with the fire of a professional dancer. My heart felt like it was going to rip from my chest, because I didn’t have my can of Raid. “What the…!”

A face appeared in the dim radiance of the nightlights. Of course it was Sam, clean-shaven now, his hair short. It was probably the summer heatwave, the abundance of sun and lack of water. One hand lazily was in the depths of a pocket, the other held a wrapped box. “Em, it’s me.”

“Oh, you. The guy who kisses me at work, and then who doesn’t have the decency to call for weeks. Yeah. Hi, Sam! It’s so nice to see you.”

We stood a few feet away from each other, but with the Los Angeles temperature and the heat emanating from our bodies, I was smothered. If I could see myself, I’d be stunned by the sweaty sheen hanging from my cheeks like a sheet.

“Em,” he said, lifting his hand near me, a white flag.

“Don’t you even try. I’m mad at you.”

It hurt that he was so nonchalant. But it hurt in a good way, like an antidote slowly seeping into one’s veins. Eventually—and I’m not sure how it happened—but his lips were on my own, and we were in a precarious position. We hung over a ledge, hanging by the thread of a tree branch, waiting to fall.

Leave space for Jesus…

“Not now!” I shouted, though I immediately made a sign of the cross in repentance. Maybe Chelsea’s attempts at converting me to Catholicism were starting to work.

“What in the world?” Sam asked, his timbre taunting.

“Dear Aunt Eunice,” I screamed, stomping my foot. “Okay, well, maybe this is what you deserve. Our time here is over.

“Would you like to tell me why?”

“I had a memory. Of my Aunt Eunice lecturing me on young adult sexuality. As a young practicing Methodist, I was convicted…”

“Are you serious right now?”

“Yes! Don’t mock me. It’ll guarantee whatever we have is absolutely zilch.”

He raised his eyebrows like he was dealing with a child. He leaned in slowly, tantalizingly slow, and his lips caressed the tip of my eyebrow. He stepped backward, raising his one free hand into the air, a white flag. “Maybe we should go inside, check on James.”

“He doesn’t need to be checked on. He’s Mr. Popularity right now.”

“Oooh, someone’s jealous,” he taunted as he began up the stairs. “Jealousy isn’t a good shade on you, Miss Emma.”

“What does that mean?” I followed him, each step a reminder of how far Sam and I had to go.

“I don’t want my girl to be jealous about somebody else.”

“Give me a break. It’s Jamie.” I hoped I didn’t act as bad as I felt. I was jealous, but not now. I was furious at Sam. At how he made me feel like I wasn’t in control of my own feelings and actions. How he would impulsively grab me and press me to his body, seemingly without my own consent—though I know I agreed. “Plus, I’m not your girl. If I were your girl, hypothetically, you’d at least call me sometimes. Also, we wouldn’t fight as much. In addition, I wouldn’t see your romantic endeavors plastered all over the gossip rags.”

“Checking up on me?” he asked, knocking on our apartment door. He winked as soon as the door opened, no other explanations. It was official: I wanted to strangle him.

 

MONICA AND I sat on the couch, her rock—even a simplistic emerald stone glittering like a million little diamonds—was grating on my nerves. She was reciting a childhood story I’d already heard sixty times, but I pretended I was none the wiser. To tell the honest truth, I was primarily distracted by Sam’s boisterous energy around Jamie and our friends. He acted like he’d been part of their inner circle for years instead of one lazy summer night. That grated on my nerves.

“So,” I said, eventually shimmying up the length of the couch. “You’re getting married. In eight days. How does that feel?”

Monica shrugged as she examined a stray hangnail. “Well, it’s pretty nonchalant right now. Jerry and I are letting our parents take care of the big details.” It was true—Monica was the least-involved bride I had ever seen. When we went bridesmaid dress shopping, she played Minecraft on her phone while her mother selected our attire. It was a bizarre experience to say the least. Sometimes I wondered if it was just Monica’s apparent immaturity or her lack of devotion to her own wedding. Sometimes, I saw the look of spite in her eyes—like her disinterest in her own wedding was a dagger to her mother’s involvement. However hard Monica tried to disrupt the balance, her mom never relented. She played the dutiful role of mother-of-the-bride and not once said anything to Monica about her rudeness.

“Seriously, Monica,” I said, feeling a feistiness overcome my spirit when I caught Sam staring at our bookshelf. As he glazed his hand over each spine, my body tensed. Books were very personal to me, especially since some of those had been purchased by Eileen, my mother, for birthdays or Christmases when she was not present. “Tell me how you really feel.”

Monica’s eyes widened a sliver like a broadening moon. For a second—if that—she had an aura of naïveté, of innocent girl. Then her tough personality was back, like a scratched lottery ticket suddenly covered in silver again. “I’m really not that pumped, Emma. It’s just a stepping stone to being a grown-up.”

“A lot of grown-up people don’t get married,” I pointed out, feeling defensive of my own status in that realm. Although at twenty-two, I barely felt like a grown-up. In a lot of respects, I was still a little girl in transition.

She shook her head. “For me it is. My own personal guidebook to life. All the regular things people do, like get married, pop out a kid, have the white-picket fence. That’s what I’ve always wanted.” The lie trickled down her tongue like a snake.

“Monica, don’t do this because you feel you have to. Do this because you’re sure you love Jerry—that you would die if you couldn’t be with him.”

Monica nodded, a stray tear forming at the base of one eye. It was small enough that I did not notice it at first, but then it was sizzling down her cheek like an egg on a skillet. “Thanks, Emma. I am in love with Jerry.”

That was as open as Monica would ever become with me.

 

THERE WAS STILL a stray littering of people, maybe three or four interesting souls. who lounged on the couch with Jamie. My best friend sat with a crown on his head, an arm draped around his girlfriend in a casual but protective manner, and a cat on his foot. Somehow, even the cat liked Jamie more than he/she liked me.

“Hey.”

I turned to see Sam, who sipped a coke. “Hi.”

“Well, what’d you think of this little get-together?”

“It’s Jamie’s favorite thing to do. Not mine.”

“So you’re not much of a partier?”

“No.” There was a sudden pause, sharp like a knife. Before I could resist, I heard my lips open. “But your rendezvouses are often publicized, so.”

“Oh, give me a break, Emma.” He gently swirled a piece of my hair around his finger like he was twirling a piece of cotton candy.

“Excuse me?” I said, pushing his hand away.

“I’m sorry that I haven’t been the commitment type for you. I like to think we enjoy each other…”

“Sam, let me interrupt you there.” With a quick sweep, I noted the peace from the partygoers as they watched an episode of Mythbusters on the TV. A man snored. “I’m not going to keep asking you this question. So you need to answer it—honestly.”

“Okay.”

Now or never, I decided. Somehow it was tough when it didn’t need to be. “Are you into me—or not?”

He laughed like the question was as flimsy as it sounded. “You’re serious, Em? It’s like asking if the Earth is round—or flat. Of course I’m into you.”

“Then why aren’t we actually dating? Like normal people?”

“Because we’re not normal people.”

“That’s an excuse.”

He shrugged, like it was no big deal. “Half the year, I’m off in Australia, or Dubai, or Meridian, Mississippi, shooting films. It’s quite a challenge attempting a relationship when…”

“Excuse.”

He stared at me, the glint in his eyes a spark of thought. “I’ve never been a relationship kind of guy, Emma. What makes you think you’ll change me, hmm?” He reached out to touch my hair again, but I took a step back.

“Oh, just another excuse,” I said, ripping our contact quickly. I hurried to my bedroom, slamming the door—gently enough not to disturb the others, hopefully. Not caring if he was there or not, I dug out my cell phone from my pillow, feeling the object carefully in my hands. I tapped the number carefully, making sure I did not misdial.

A few moments later, the chipper voice announced, “This is Eileen Swann. I’m so sorry I haven’t answered, but leave a message, and I’ll get right back to you.”

I hung up the phone, lying on the bed, staring up into the ceiling, imagining a place where I would never care about the people who comprised my life. I decided that I would care in all nooks and crannies of the entire universe.

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

THE NEXT MORNING, I stood at the fridge, glad it was a Friday, and I would get the weekend to watch a bunch of junk TV, eat whatever food I wanted, and basically do nothing. I decided on chocolate yogurt for breakfast, and then I found myself suddenly face-to-face with Jamie, who was groggily murmuring something that sounded like Spanish. He handed me a letter.

Emma,

You are the ficklest creature on our planet. How about we go to dinner Saturday night, six sharp?

Sam

“No,” I said, my brain coming into focus. “I refuse.” I threw the note into the trash and kissed Jamie on the cheek. “Go to sleep, kid.” Then I was down the lane, off to work.

 

ON SATURDAY NIGHT, I sat at Monica’s place as she dug through DVDs. We had popped some illustrious popcorn and watched four episodes of La rosa de Guadalupe, a Mexican soap opera that could only be described as the best show to ever be created. From bearded ladies to drug addiction, the show categorized a new hot topic each time the music began. Now, though, we were ready for an English-language pick, and Monica—a connoisseur of film, almost to Chelsea’s level—was leafing through her collections. She had a wicked case of OCD, with each box labeled by genre and year released.

I’d conveniently left my phone at the apartment, where Fiona/Felix was probably licking it underneath the little cactus tree Jamie had bought me last Christmas. Speaking of the devilish angel, he was off in Santa Barbara with Ella. The two continued their hot and heavy romance, and with little prospects (in committed avoidance of Sam), I’d flown to Monica’s cramped studio apartment in Studio City.

“So,” she said, tossing me a copy of 10 Things I Hate About You, “are you going to explain why you’re here?” She was the only one who had no qualms about an unexpected pal crashing over. Anyone else, I’d at least call. Instead, I showed up with a pillow, a bag of clothes and toiletries, and a little packet of microwaveable popcorn (stolen from Jamie’s stash).

“What do you mean?” I stuffed the movie into the DVD player. Monica’s pet fish swam languidly around in his bowl on the TV dresser.

As the opening sequence began to play, Monica gave me a dreaded stare, her eyes like hypnotic crystal balls. “You show up at my place—completely out of the blue. Emma, you’re one of the most responsible people I know, okay? You’re just so perfectly anal about everything, so of course, I’m suspecting something. Where’s the body? Did you get busted for a marijuana brownie? C’mon.” She winked at me, flopping onto her belly as she turned the speakers up.

“Honestly?”

“Of course. I’m a priest—my lips are sealed.”

“It’s a guy.”

“A guy? You met a guy? What is this?” She paused the movie as the overhead lights flickered.

“This is called life. Yes, I met a guy. He invited me out to dinner tonight—except I blew him off.”

“You stood him up? What in Yosemite are you thinking, Emma?”

“Another thing,” I whispered, biting my lip. “His name is Sam Woodshaw.”

Monica’s mouth fell open like a fish’s. “You’re joking.”

“No.”

“Oh, oh, what have we got here? This is like the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. You’ve met a guy—an über hot guy nonetheless—and you’ve stood him up. There better be an extremely good backstory to this.” The crunch of kernel against her teeth sent shockwaves up my spine.

I shrugged, though it felt like mountains moved on my shoulders. “Sam and I met through Jamie…”

“Jamie knows cool people? What is this?”

“So, we’ve known each other for a month now I guess. Well, he kissed me at work a few weeks ago. He was auditioning for a role, and I worked with him, and then he…just kissed me. It was surreal, Monica.”

She turned as white as a bedsheet, her lips jutting out like balloons rising with air. Her nose ring sparkled in the fading light as one of the bulbs burst overhead. “You…made out with Sam Woodshaw?”

“Get this. He doesn’t call at all after that. The last time we saw each other was Jamie’s birthday party. I asked him if he really likes me, and he said yes. He wanted to go on a date with me.”

“So you’re punishing him by standing him up? This is Sam Woodshaw we’re talking about—and you’re standing him up? What kind of a fool are you?” She punched my arm in a swift motion that seemed light to her but would probably leave a purple bruise beneath my skin.

Again I shrugged, so she punched me. “Okay,” I admitted quietly. “I like him—a lot, really. But I’m not going to sit here and let him get away with this. He shouldn’t be excused to go party every day, and then expect to be my best friend on the weekends. It’s like the party analogy. ‘Don’t go partying Saturday when you’re going to have to answer for your actions Sunday.’ Or better yet, ‘Don’t do anything around town you couldn’t do on a Sunday morning.’”

Monica stared at me with blank eyes. “Speak English.”

“That is the best English I’ve ever heard, sweetheart.”

“You’re right,” she said.

“What?”

“About the predicament guys and girls have. It’s a rite of passage for a guy to do as many girls as he can. For a girl, it’s another world altogether.”

“You’re speaking like you relate.”

“Of course I relate. So do you. We’re both girls, last time I checked.”

I swatted her, but to the athletic Monica Granger, it probably felt like nothing more than a fly landing gently on her bicep. “Thanks for listening.”

“Shut up so we can watch the movie,” she said as tough as she could manage. As the movie began again, I saw her facial reactions: She was thinking. Like any intelligent person would.

 

SUNDAY MORNING CAME, and I begrudgingly left Monica’s for Glendora, where Jamie was passed out on the couchwith a blanket on his head. I ignored the sight and headed for my phone, where twenty or so messages chimed. All from Sam, asking where I was, why I wasn’t answering the door. A drip of guilt slid into my heart, but I finally picked up the phone and called his cell.

He answered on the sixth ring, a garbled, “Emma? What…”

“I’m sorry I stood you up.”

“What…”

“But you deserved it.”

“Well…”

“Sam, I have to go. Jamie’s calling for me. If you want to, come over to the apartment today. But if not, I understand. Bye.”

I hung up and hurried to the sitting room, where Jamie blindly lifted his hands into the air. “Emma…oh, dear Emma…”

“Hello?” I said, lifting the blanket from his head.

“Ella dumped me last night.”

“What?”

“She said our relationship wasn’t going to work.”

“What happened?”

“We…kinda ran into Erinina.”

Nina?” I screamed, backing away from him like he was the bug-man from Kafka’s Metamorphosis. “You ran into Nina?”

“Nina and Christophe, her Nordic fiancé boyfriend.” His voice practically ached, before it was replaced with a mocking lilt. “Oh, Emma, I wish you’d been there. It was unbearable, like watching gorillas mate. I mean, we are in Los Angeles, and I can’t seem to get away from that girl.”

“‘That girl?’ We both know she isn’t just ‘that girl.’”

“I know.” His voice cracked. “What’s worse is that I totally ignored Ella. I…I might have spilled tea all over Nordic fiancé, and Nina flipped out on me, and then Ella got really embarrassed, and after we got into the car, she pulled my arm and said, ‘You’re still in love with her, aren’t you?’ I didn’t answer, so she took that as a yes, and she said that she loves me, but I don’t love her, and she can’t handle that.”

“You’ve been dating a month? What does she think, you’re magically going to…”

“I fell in love with Nina on our first date, Em. I’m still in love with her. Gosh, it hurts so badly—to see her with another man, one that I guess would fit her better.”

“Don’t even start with that, Jamie. Anyone would be lucky to have you. Ella doesn’t deserve you, and you don’t need her. Take that mindset.”

He gripped my hand, offering a sullen, melancholia-inducing smile. “You’re kind, Em, but you don’t have to lie.”

“I’m not lying, James. I’m not lying to you. I mean, of course I have lied to you in the past, but I’m not lying in this moment.” He raised his eyebrows, a smirk appearing on his lips. “You didn’t even like her that much, did you?”

“Not like I love Nina.”

“Well, if you love her that much, you’d do something about it.”

“It’s too late for that, Em.”

“It’s never too late.”

“Until it is.”

“Oh, shut up. You’re the one lying here like an invalid. Goodbye, I’m going to the market down the road. We’re out of quinoa and other goofy stuff that’s always stocked in the pantry.”

“Goofy stuff you’ve been eating.”

I rolled my eyes, knowing it was true.

 

WHEN I GOT home, Sam sat beside Jamie as they indolently observed a Discovery special on sharks’ predatory behavior. As a hammerhead prowled a remnant of the sea, I flopped onto the couch with a bag of assorted junk food and some snippets of parsley and quinoa. Quickly, I pulled out some sea salt chips.

“Sharks are pretty cool, I’ve decided,” Jamie said, the blanket wrapped around him like a sheet. He seemed quite comfortable, though it felt warm to me inside our stuffy apartment. The cat rested at his feet, a little guard kitty. “Sam stopped by. I told him you’d come soon.”

Precisely, Sam winked and leaned forward from his position. “Hey, Emma.”

“Hi, Sam. It’s so nice to see you.”

Jamie stared at us with bewilderment. “Oh, cut the civilities. I know that you two have some obvious romantic predilections, and I’m sick of you doing nothing about it. Okay, go get a room or something. Or, Emma, I know that’s not your thing—go swimming or to a movie. But for goodness’ sake, leave me out of this! I just want to sit here and moan like a sperm whale with all that echolocation stuff.”

“Whales have echolocation techniques?”

“Are you judging my intelligence, Emma Richmond? I have been watching the flight of the bumbleshark for about an hour now. There was a whole segment on whale and toothed-whale species (AKA porpoise, dolphin) that I happened to absorb. I do have a brain, my dear.”

“Someone is crabby,” I said, defensively wrapping my arms around my chest.

Sam stifled a giggle. “Emma, would you like to go see a movie?”

“No.”

“Would you like to go to the park?”

“No.”

“Well, how about the zoo?”

“What? No. Have you been outside?”

“I’m just trying here.”

Jamie dramatically flew up from the sofa and his blanket. “I give up with you two. I’m going out. You guys can stay here, cook some salmon, watch a movie, I really don’t care. Good-bye.” As soon as he grabbed his keys and wallet, he was out the door.

Then I was staring at Samuel Woodshaw with an Australian narrator’s voice in the background unfolding the anatomy of a blue whale. He moved closer to me, tossing the remote in my direction. “Anything else, please.”

“Don’t you have work or something?”

“Conveniently, no.”

So we spent a few hours foraging for food in the pantry while intermittently flipping between HGTV, the cooking channel, and the Game Show Network. As we sat in the comfortable silence of our budding relationship, I finally caved. “Why are you here, for real?”

He popped a bar of Hershey’s from the coffee table where our feet rested. A collection of pet-themed magazines lay as a reminder of Ella’s PETA activities. I wondered if Jamie would ever get rid of them. “Just to hang out. I don’t know, does there have to be a reason?”

“Yes, actually, there does.”

He gave me a look, but I pretended not to notice. He leaned over a bit and whispered, “Let’s just try the hanging out thing. Nothing inappropriate, okay?”

“Isn’t that what we’re doing?”

“With kindness, my friend.”

“I’m kind enough.”

“You’re kind enough to fit in with hyenas on the prowl in the African savanna.”

“Thanks.”

I almost, almost invited him to be my date at Monica’s wedding, but decided against it. She wouldn’t be able to handle an impromptu guest like Sam Woodshaw. So we continued to sit at the TV, methodically flipping between episodes of Chopped and Family Feud, while dusk approached, and, finally, night.

When it was close to eleven o’clock, I shut off the TV, turning slightly to be closer to Sam. His eyes were shutting like a broken camera’s, back and forth, little moon slivers. I wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and stood up, intent on making a late-night snack, when he reached for my arm. “Come here,” he breathed.

I tensed immediately, unable to move. “Um…”

“Just be with me. Just sit here. I promise I won’t do anything, okay?”

“Um? I’m not going to scratch your back. That is just weird.”

“Sit here, hum or something, and I will fall asleep like a little baby being cooed to by its mother.”

“A baby isn’t an ‘its.’”

“Emma.”

I finally sat beside him, buckling my legs underneath me. I pulled out a magazine, feeling the glossy pages on my fingertips while each little animal appeared, hopeless and abandoned. Eventually, Sam sat up and said, “Closer.”

“What? I’m not falling for this.”

He slouched his shoulders and laid his head on my lap like a little needy child. I was momentarily shocked, but his eyes lolled in his head, and he entered a sleeplike state almost immediately. Unable to move, I breathed hard and focused on the TV across the way, not on the handsome man before me. Eventually, I tried to stand up, but his arm reached for me, so I stretched out, laid my head against a pillow, and repositioned his head to lay on the same pillow.

Then the blackness overcame my field of vision, like a thief had stolen my rods and cones. While I sat in the limbo stage right before one falls asleep, my heart rapidly thumped in my chest, little arrows hitting a darting board. I was having a sleepover with Sam Woodshaw. Even as a somewhat mature twenty-two-year-old, a giddy seed of excitement was rooted in the pit of my belly.

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

THE SKY WAS a miraculous shade of baby blue azure, the clouds as puffy as pillows. Somewhere in the outskirts of Memphis, Tennessee, a young man stood with a rolling suitcase, a bag of snacks bought at an airport convenience store in Houston, and a dirty cell phone. He punched in the number as he stood with a view of rolling hills on his family’s ancestral property. It was a collection of green knolls mixed in with the flat plains prone to flooding of the Mississippi Delta. His shirt was ragged from sweat, as the heat of a Southern summer mixed with the densest humidity. He hadn’t missed this, but he’d missed the horses, the old farmhouse that was modernly renovated, and the beauty of anything remotely rural. Building after building after building in Los Angeles had sucked some of the juices from his country blood, but now it was roiling back like a flood in his brain.

This is how I imagined it all, of course.

“Emma,” Jamie said, his voice delicate and smooth. The phone line was somehow clear. From what Jamie had told me, phone service was hard to come by in his neck of the woods. “Em, can you hear me?”

“How you doin’, Tennessee?”

A lilting laugh responded, reminding me that I had the apartment alone for a weekend, though I was actually supposed to leave for Big Sur in an hour. “I’m doing fine,” he said. “Just got home. I smell a delicious pot-pie in the oven. The horse dung is scant, which is positive. Are you leaving for Big Sur soon?”

“Yes. Anyway, call me if you need me. I don’t want to interrupt your home time. Have fun for me, and whatever you do, do not mention Nina to your parents.” They still thought their doting, respectable son was dating the gorgeous biology major from the university. Jamie hadn’t had the heart to tell them: We consciously uncoupled.

As for me, my hot, bubbling July 28th was spent driving to Big Sur for the small, intimate nuptials of Monica and Jerry. It would be a lavish affair, I decided, on a grassy hilltop overlooking the jutting coastal region of the Pacific. Whales might even pop out in the distance like little half-moons or skipping stones.

Around one o’clock in the afternoon, I rolled the top down on my old beater mobile’s convertible, and allowed the breeze to streak my hair as I took the interstate to Calabasas, where I jutted down an intersection to pass through Malibu in order to take the Pacific Coast Highway. As the warm air swirled around me, my brain was enlightened by the sense of freedom and the magnanimous coast to my left. I drove like I was a California girl; my heart was innately Texan. The sweet swell of pride in my heart was sharp like a steak knife: My friends were getting married. One by one, like dominoes falling over. Yet they had taken a huge step, a giant leap of commitment, something that many people don’t do anymore. Through the jealousies and annoyances and little spouts of fun, there was a silver lining: The fact that true commitment was possible, even as the millennial generation (me included) remained ignorant about pretty much everything else.

Sunny SoCal passed by. As I cruised north, the sweeping coast poking out like a royal king, I remembered waking up to Sam clunking around the kitchen the previous weekend while Jamie informed him about the latest rumors on a new Galaxy Wars film. We had talked in snippets since then, but if I was honest, I was glad we were taking things (whatever we had) slowish.

My little junker crossed the Bixby Creek Bridge, one of the staple icons of Big Sur, around five o’clock, the sun still high in the sky, its own queen. I’d printed off directions, completely prepared, to the little inn Monica’s mother had rented out for the wedding party and guests. About sixty-five humans were expected at the coastal nuptials, a bigger group than Annabel’s, but still relatively small to how I’d seen large, traditional Southern weddings.

Monica’s bachelorette party had passed by a few days ago, one that I had dutifully passed up on, mostly because I had a job I had to stay focused on. With my frequency of leaving for weddings, I took every day as serious as possible. There was a rehearsal dinner scheduled for that night, a little get together at the inn, where we’d spend most of our time anyway. Supposedly, the inn catered to celebrities and the rich, but I didn’t really care, because as soon as I saw a rose trellis and a perfectly green lawn in the dead heat of draught, I was shocked. Royalty must have vacationed here.

When I parked my car and lugged my baggage to the lobby, Monica’s mother appeared, wearing a large summer hat and donning an umbrella. “Emma! What a nice surprise to see you. Hurry up to get changed now.”

I kissed her on the cheek and headed upstairs to my room, which I was to share with Gerry’s sister Swetha who would be travelling in with her mother and father. It seemed to me a lot of people were missing, but it was still fairly early in the afternoon. A light dusting of rain appeared on the horizon, coating the sea a darker tinge.

As I changed into a casual summer dress, I heard the click of a door opening, and a pretty Indian woman appeared before me, her eyes a sharp brown, her hair black and bouncy. Her skin was a burning russet, a smooth, perfect layer compared to my (still prevalent to acne) face. She genuinely smiled, sticking out a hand. “Are you Emma Richmond?”

“Hi, you must be Swetha.”

“That is me,” she said, setting down her things. “Well, I wish we’d have met on sooner terms, but it seems like Jerry and Monica are ready to jump the gun. Say, do you know when we’re supposed to be ready for the rehearsal? Ms. Granger tried to explain, but I was so happy to be out of the car.”

“Seven sharp. Trust me, Monica’s mom will be all over us if we’re not down there.”

“Very true. I work with her sometimes. She’s an acute woman. Well, I have enough time to shower. It was nice meeting you, Emma.”

As she disappeared, I snuck downstairs, deciding to take a stroll around the garden before the others came. Passing by some flowers I recognized from Tyron’s instruction and others I’d never paid attention to, I finally stopped by a pergola set up in the wide redwood trees, a little oasis away from the inn. The coast was about half a mile away, a short stone’s throw, but far enough to feel like I was in the wild north. The farthest north I’d ever gone was Portland, Oregon, when I took a spring break journey with a few girls from the anti-sorority sorority I’d joined.

Eventually, a ladybug landed on my hip, and I cuddled it in my hand, reminded of the outdoorsy, rural feel I’d grown in. At this point, I took the ladybug as a symbol of peace that would surely come into my life someday once all these weddings were finally gone, like an unwanted, blasted zit. The ladybug fluttered its wings and took off, leaving me stranded in the forest.

I headed back to the group, suddenly homesick.

The rehearsal dinner went smoothly, a joint affair that combined the eccentric Monica with the even more boisterous Jerry. His parents were not shy in the slightest. Once we’d finished our seafood, we moved like a line of ants to the dancefloor, where Jerry’s mother proceeded to steal the show like a professional. In fact, it was discovered she was a ballroom champion back in the day—and I believed it. There was a tremendous great time filled with mirth and ease. Monica’s mother lightened up some, taking off her ascot to relieve the sweat sticking to her neck.

When I landed on my bed at the inn, my heart was pounding like a drum from the partying we’d just done. It was a refreshing workout, one that had replaced any semblance of a jog today, tomorrow, or the next day. Swetha was later in coming to our room, but when she did finally appear, her hair swirled around her like a hurricane had riled the strands into black waves, and she fell into a sleeping heap on the bed.

I pulled out my phone, unable to sleep just yet. A text appeared on the screen, a fleeting ghost. I scrolled through my messages, reading what I’d thought it was.

[_ Nina: Em—hi. Would you like to go out to lunch sometime next week? Only if you can, of course. I’d like to talk about the wedding. Miss you. -N _]

The fact that she’d signed the text with a little sharp N reminded me how far we’d drifted apart. We were cordial; she wanted me to be her bridesmaid, and I’d accepted. But after the whole James Allen Stewart drama, I’d tried to act as glue, a sure non-discriminator, but as time went on, Jamie and Nina began to slowly disassociate from each other altogether, severing any chance of our trio ever hanging out again. At one point, Nina and I stopped talking, just because she was afraid I was completely on Jamie’s side.

I thumbed a quick response, agreeing whole-heartedly to seeing her again, my old best friend, Erinina Huston, the one who—even if she would never admit it or not—would have made the perfect wife for Jamie Stewart, and he would, likewise, be the perfect husband for her. Some make the argument for certain couples to never intermingle, but with Nina and Jamie, there was a spark I’d never really seen in anyone else. A spark that could ignite a devouring, beastly fire—and fires aren’t always bad.

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

THE NEXT MORNING went like a blur, with women and men everywhere around the property, dressing, preparing, and stressing. The previous day’s summer shower had long since diminished, inviting a cooler (compared to LA’s heatwave) temperature for the outdoor marriage ceremony.

After painting my nails a quick glossy neutral, I tugged the bridesmaid dress over my shoulders and disappeared across the hall to where a gaggle of women were surrounding Monica. She stood in her dress, already half-way on, and started crying, the tears riling up all around.

“What are you doing, Monica? This is your wedding day, not your funeral,” interjected a woman whose name I’d gathered was Susie.

“It feels like I’m signing my death warrant.” The tears turned to sobs, which then placed her mother over the edge in frustration and bitterness. There was no doubt that the wedding would take place, even if Monica’s mom dragged her by the hair with the bride in half a dress.

“Oh, Monica,” I said, my voice rather sarcastic. “You’re just being an emotional nutcase. Just listen: Soon enough, it’ll be over. You’ll be on a plane with Jerry, heading to Alaska for a natural honeymoon. Then you can say: Wow! For the first time in my life, I have committed to an ideal. An ideal that is…the best thing I’ve ever done.”

In the midst of the speech I’d delivered, those bustling around nodded in agreement, adding in a few chirpy yeses, but Monica finally ceased the crying and blew into her nose. “Are…you sure?”

“Yes. I’m positive.” I reached for her hand, unable to do anything more.

“Be her shrink,” Swetha said as she pulled Monica’s hair up while another lady worked on zipping up the bodice. “That is your job for right now. Keep the woman calm.”

“If I have to smack an owl, I’ll do it for you,” I said, word vomit beginning to flow. Monica cocked her head in confusion before the hint of a smile popped onto her face. Taking an alternate route, I began again: “You see, when I first saw you, you were dressed up like an English gentleman for one of those college plays. I can’t even remember what it was, but I thought, ‘Isn’t that Jamie’s eccentric pal? The one he claims is the strongest woman on the West Coast at arm wrestling?’ Then I met you after that darned play. You took off this old hat, and your long waves appear—like complete, natural chaos. Entropy is what we called it in chemistry. So…”

“Girl, where are you going with this story?” Monica’s mom appeared under a pouf of lace.

“Hi,” I said, blushing.

“Please continue,” Monica said, her voice still ragged from crying but slowly recovering.

So, I met you. The first thing you said to me is, ‘Hey, I like you. You’re wearing black in the middle of springtime.’ I didn’t even mean to wear black, but you claimed it was a sign we would always have something in common. Then we began to hang out, sometimes around Jamie, other times not. When you had that disastrous food poisoning from the Chinese restaurant in downtown Oxnard, you even said, ‘You know what, Emma? I kinda like you a lot.’ Then you hugged me and fell over, puking your guts out. That has—and always will—stick with me. A food poisoning incident always ties people closer together.”

“Do you remember when we went swimming in that terrible swell in San Diego?”

“You went swimming in the ocean—with all those bozos and sharks?” Monica’s mom tsked. I couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not, as she had a different kind of personality, one that could only be described as original. As a single mother, she’d worked hard all her life—to support herself and her darling little girl. This, for her, was one of the most important events: To send her daughter away to a new protector, who in this case, happened to be an Indian comedian whose mother was a preacher, father was a doctor, and sister was a political activist and contributor. She could not have been prouder of Monica’s selection.

“Yes,” I said calmly, only retelling the story because my entertaining Monica protected me from doing the dirty work of cleaning the messy dressing room, or fixing somebody’s hair, or doing somebody’s nails, or anything for that matter.

Suddenly Monica was humming a familiar tune—a provocative one I recognized—which made me cock my head. It was the hum of a nineties rhythm that was 100% Monica and 100% sexual. “Monica,” I blushed, this time tsking, sounding like the perfect mother. “Monica.”

“Oh, honey,” her mom whispered, holding a needle between her lips from fixing something that I’m sure did not need to be fixed, “I’m a human being. Of course I know that song.” She shrugged, her voice peculiarly accepting, “Trust me, it does not bother me.”

Monica winked at me, and finally, I stood up to move closer to her. “You are one strange bird, Monica Granger.”

“I wish my dad were here.”

“Me, too.”

“I thought he would at least show up to this.”

“I’m here—if that is any consolation. I mean, I will sing with you if you need it; I will attack someone with wasp spray, also, if you need it.”

She reached out to stroke my face, which was weird in itself, but I’d experienced enough lately to consider this event anything but normal. “You’re so sweet, honey babe. Listen, I want this to be you someday, okay?” She moved in closer, her lips pink as a petunia. “This has gotta be you. Someday.”

“Um, yeah.” I said, swiping my hand in front of my face, no big deal. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if all these weddings were turning me off from the practice—or pushing me closer to online dating.

Her tongue slid over the cusp of flowery lips. “You’ll dance with me tonight, right? I sure know Emma Richmond likes a good disco—all without a sip of alcohol. It’s so freakin’ weird.”

“Emma, would you mind running to my room to grab my camera? I left it on my bed.” Monica’s mom handed me her key, and as a dutiful gatekeeper, I hurried upstairs, intent on keeping a personal smile for myself, because for the first time in my life, I considered the fact that there was no law saying I had to get married. In fact, I decided, I might just live as a stag hart for the rest of eternity. I could adopt a kid; I always wanted one of those. Or maybe a cat would do. No, I decided instinctively, I wanted a kid. A kid and a pet cat are never the same, no matter how much Ella used to explain the humanity of a good, faithful pup.

You know what, I said to my heart beat that was like a little advice-giving drum, maybe this all just doesn’t matter. Time would continue to tick, whether I wanted it to or not, because that is the definition of time: Forever and ever. There is no human way to stop forever.

 

JERRY AND MONICA’S lips locked for a brief moment before he gently took the small of her back and dipped her low like a professional ballroom dancer. When he lifted his bride up, he pumped his fist into the air, as he had won the prettiest prize in the world. He shouted out, “The best day of my life!” Monica blushed with a great intensity, a beacon of reddish emotion. They were off like a rocket down the lily-padded aisle and off in the direction of the inn, where they would get ready for the walk down to the reception hall, a little rustic barn close enough to hear the gentle thump of waves.

I quickly whisked away the tears with the back of my hand, intent on keeping it a private matter, when Swetha sidled up next to me. “Emma,” she said, “it’s okay to cry.”

“Oh, darn, you saw that?”

“Yes. Don’t hide your emotions—it’s lying to yourself.”

I begged to differ, but Swetha was an optimist, it seemed. She hadn’t shed a tear at all in the ceremony, looking like a tower of grace mixed with calm solicitude. Her long black hair cascaded down her back in bouncy ringlets. “You know,” I said, pursing my lips. “I guess I get a little teary-eyed at these things because they’re so touching. This is a huge commitment to make in front of all your friends and family.”

“It is.” Swetha nodded, the hint of glitter littering her eyelids. “I never thought Jerry would marry. He’s so crazy, like a bullet train off its rails. He cannot sit still, never will learn how. Then he brings this girl home to our mother, a beautiful woman who is as active as he. That was intervention, Emma. Divine or whatever you believe. I say this because you seem like you could use a hug.”

“A hug?” I asked, though I hadn’t felt convicted by this until the words came out of her mouth. “I guess that is sorta true.”

She pulled me into a side hug as we walked away from the scenic outdoor wedding area, where a floral arch gently swung in the breeze. “People come into our lives for a reason; it is up to us how we treat them, and in return, are treated. People will disappoint me, as I see it; but it is up to me to not disappoint others, if I can help it.”

 

THOUGH THE WEDDING itself was Protestant-based, the reception proved to be a highlighted mixture of Indian and American cultural values. As soon as we arrived in the rustic barn that came with the inn for receptions such as this one, we saw that one side of the area was highlighted with Northern Indian foods like manna from above. A worker from the catering service explained the dishes to us, and I ended up choosing samosa, a savory pastry; a flatbread called naan; and different types of flagrant curries. The dessert area seemed absolutely delightful, from pies to kulfi, an Indian ice cream variety.

At the table littered with little sparkling LED lights, I took a seat next to sweet Swetha, who was about to dig into her naan. “You will just die when you have some samosa,” she explained quickly. “It is my absolute favorite.”

The barn was covered in papier-mâché flowers as big as pigs strewn from the chandeliers and other light fixtures. Lights adorned the entire area, illuminating the partygoers in each ray of the rainbow. The reception, Monica had mentioned, would embody the colorful tradition of the Indian culture, and I could see this now, even though the barn’s bucolic outlook persevered. Three disco balls illuminated the dancefloor, a wide space next to a DJ who had started the night with festive, traditional Indian music while we ate. A large screen played a show of photographs of Jerry and Monica as kids and, eventually, their time together.

A few tipsy members of the wedding party fell over Swetha’s chair, righting themselves. The cocktail hour had livened some folks, I decided.

“Just be glad this isn’t a typical Hindu ceremony,” Swetha said as she forked some food into her mouth. “It would be three days. One day for the Pooja, the next day for henna tattoos and all, then finally the wedding day itself. It’s very intense. Part of me is very glad Mom converted to Christianity—because I honestly cannot go through with a traditional Hindu wedding. A Christian wedding is simple enough, don’t you think?”

“Three days? No way!”

“Yes, yes. I know!”

When the bride and groom appeared, my heart soared. Monica was bedecked in garb unlike anything I’d ever seen in person. Rusted orange, pink, purple, blue—it gave her sari a mind of its own. Jerry took her arm in his, and the two hurried to the dancefloor, where a pumped-up Indian song blasted from the stereos. The crowd went wild as Monica and Jerry entered the haze of their own planned dance. As they pirouetted like professionals, Ms. Granger waved her hands in the air. The fantastic cacophony of excitement was bursting forth like a glorious sunrise.

As soon as they made their formal entrance, lithe as butterflies, they began dancing about to their first song as man and wife, a Bollywood movie theme blaring through the speakers set around the farmhouse. Within a few minutes, the crowd began to jump in with the couple, together forming a wild worm of anticipation. Bodies mixed together, forming a large concoction of sweat and tears.

The music transformed to the American variation, pumping us even more while the party continued to grow larger and larger, mushrooming to the size of an electric cloud. This was the party I’d been waiting for, as I danced between some of Jerry’s Indian relatives, all the while dreaming about what lay in store for tomorrow.

 

 

PART FOUR

Lacey

 

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

MILLIONS OF PEOPLE live in the Los Angeles; sometimes, it feels like trillions. Yet out of all the souls—black, white, Arab, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, atheist, blue-eyed, brown-eyed, liberal, conservative, beauty queen, quarterback, actress, actor, writer, artist, nurse practitioner, struggling lawyer, made-it-all lawyer, or even street preacher—two souls sat in a run-down coffee shop in a little shopping center between Glendora and Azusa. One was about the most selfish person ever (me) and the other was one of the gentlest spirits in the universe (Nina).

“So,” she said, her speech forlorn, unsure. “You look different. More mature, I’d say.”

“Nina, stop the small talk. It isn’t us.” It didn’t come out like a snap, but it slapped Nina.

She sat straighter, the fresh caramel streaks in her hair shining from the afternoon glow. “You’re right. I’ve missed you so much.” Her lips turned a bit, hinting at a smile, though her eyes were still sad.

“What’s wrong? You look like you’re about to cry.” I leaned closer to her, not wanting to intrude into her personal space, but wondering what was up.

She shook her head. “No—nothing like that. I was just remembering things. You know, you, me, and…” She could not even say the name.

“You guys don’t have to pretend like it isn’t possible to get back together. You sure know you can. He still loves you…”

She shook her head again, a snappy movement, but not one made in pure certainty. “I’m with Christophe now. I’m happy with him, Emma. We’re good together, great, actually.”

“I understand,” I said. “Someone needed to move on first.” It wasn’t meant to be so snarky, but the hurt in her eyes was apparent. She tensed like she’d been slapped again—and I knew she wasn’t completely over Jamie. “Anyway, wedding plans. December 18th, right before the big Christmas rush—where at?”

“Right now, we’re trying to book a Methodist church in Santa Susana. We’ll see, though, it may be tough to reserve it.”

“No matter what church you’ll get, it is the Lord’s house.” I placed my hands up like it was a no-brainer, but of course I wasn’t the bride.

She laughed, high and feminine like a tinkling bell. “You’re right. That puts it in perspective a little more.” Moments later, a thick binder was splayed out, loose papers falling over the desk, each one containing a different subject: floral, bridal, bridesmaids, groomsmen, venue, food arrangements. She was chewing on her pinkie nail already.

“Whoa, whoa. First step: Organize. Then prioritize. Then we’ll killitize all this information, guys!” My voice came out chirpy, but as her laugh resounded again, we sat there, somewhat drunk on coffee, happy to be together again. Because some of the best friendships are ones that are cemented through some separation, whether inadvertent or not. When the silence came back, I took up the laminated paper that read FLORAL and said a quick recitation, “I’ve got you covered on this one.”

“Please help me. I cannot tell a rose from an orchid, it’s that bad. Meanwhile, my mom expects me to have hydrangeas or something weird sounding like that.”

“I will draft a list once I gather my evidence. I’ll send it to you. Just trust me, I know just how to do this for you, Nina. I’d like to help you as much as I can.”

“That is very kind of you, Em, but don’t feel…”

“Stop it. That is offensive, and you know it. I am Emma Richmond, at your service. Your dear friend.” I had ached to say it, and when it came out, a thousand memories blossomed in my skull, rapid fire burning my eye sockets.

She smiled, lifting up her coffee cup. “Let’s make a toast. Not to my wedding, but to you, Emma.” We linked our cups, and then the moment returned to reality, back to a time where there were still gaps between us, fissures slowly mending together like mendable heartstrings.

“So,” she said, “I was thinking this color for bridesmaids’ gowns… What do you think?”

 

JAMIE RETURNED FROM Memphis like a thief in the night. One day, he was gone; the next, he was back, of course while I was out at work. I scurried home as fast as I could, needy for my best friend; I know, this might sound weird, but I missed his quirky attitude, his flamboyant and helpful fashion advice, his dorky reading glasses that made him adorable. If we were two fish in a bowl, I think I would suffocate if he died.

I dug the key into the apartment door, excited because I held a pie fresh from the store—cherry, his favorite. He’d only been gone for a week, which made me scared for what would happen when he was gone for a few months. I choked back the fear and opened the door like it was the only obstacle in my way, and a loud yelp occurred as wood met flesh.

“Jamie? What in the world!”

He was on the floor, writhing in the fetal position. “You pretty much destroyed my noggin.”

“What are you talking about?”

“My eyebrow. It’s bleeding, Emma!”

Sure enough, as I pushed his meaty hand (he’d been working out for his new role) away, blood began to gush from a gash the size of three hairpins on the tip of his left eyebrow. His hand was covered in the stuff, and I hurried up to grab a rag and some ice. “James Allen Stewart, what were you thinking?”

“I…ouch, this hurts. Emma—I was simply trying to surprise you!”

“Behind a door? You are so dumb!” I hurried as fast as I could to him, pressing the rag to his head before adding the ice. “Come on, we’re off to the ER. You’ll need stitches.”

“What?” He cried out, this time sounding like a baby. Then real tears started to bounce down his face. “Stitches? Not happening!”

I dragged him from the floor, helping him to a standing position. A little wrapped silver box lay on the floor, a bit crumpled. “What is that?”

“A gift. Now save me. This is an actor’s worst dilemma.”

“It’s a flesh wound. An actor’s worst dilemma is if he or she were about to die,” I protested, grabbing the box and stuffing it into his hand. “Come on, let’s go.”

We hurried to my car, where the tears subsided and he said, “You never saw the crying, got it?”

“Oh, give me a break, Jamie. I have way more gen on you that. Give me a break. Seriously, what were you even doing?”

He lifted a bloody finger and looked at it as if he were about to fall over in disgust. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

“Oh, cut the crap, Jamie. You’re not going to die.”

“I’m supposed to leave the country in a week and a half, and…”

Even with the pedal to the metal, it took twenty minutes to get to the hospital in the steady afternoon traffic. Palms passed by like friends, their fronds outstretched in pleasant waves. I backed the car into a space near the ER entrance, before dragging him to a nurse, a young woman named Raquel, who batted her eyes seductively at Jamie while he held the bloody napkin to his face.

“Cut his eyebrow. Needs stitches. You got your insurance information?”

He threw his wallet onto the counter; I was honestly surprised he even had the wherewithal to have his info.

“Wife?” she asked, like it was the most important question one could ask.

“I honestly feel like it, but no. Want him? I’ll let you take him.” He stepped on my foot with the pressure of a steer.

“Jamie, fine. You take care of this. I’m going to go sit over there. Bye.”

I hurried away, taking a seat by a woman holding a sleeping baby. Many faces were drowning in sadness or outright despair, so I tried to keep my feelings of entertained outrage at bay. When Jamie came to sit beside me, he handed me the little box.

“Open it. It’ll be a while.”

As I unraveled the paper, I stared at his hand. “Do you need me…”

“Open the darn box, Em. I’m okay.”

The little satin box landed in my hand. When I opened it, a beautiful ultramarine ring appeared in my palm, a real treasure. The blue seemed to melt into my hand like the LA heatwave had entered the ER. I lifted it with care, afraid that this was a fortune, one I could possibly damage.

“I want you to have it,” Jamie said humbly, his voice somewhat different than I was used to. “Momma originally gave it to my sister, but she found out that Alicia left it in her cutlery drawer. She wanted someone who cares to have it, and she suggested I give it to you.”

“I simply cannot accept this. You know, Jamie. It is gorgeous…”

His fingers, magnetic, brushed my skin as he took the ring and slipped it on my finger. I was surprised that—as if I were Cinderella—it fit like a glove on my right ring finger. I’d heard the stories that the right ring finger was fatter than the left, and I believed. I lifted my hand, watching the gleam of a precious stone in the light, the sparkle that beamed from Jamie’s eyes—an even more optimistic treasure.

“Thank you, Jamie. This is the most wonderful present anyone has ever given me.”

“I was afraid we’d have to resize, but it is divine intervention.” Swetha’s words mimicked his own. I smiled, imagining a distant Studio City apartment where Jerry was moving in.

“Are you sure that I…’

He took my hand in his, inspecting the glint. “This color is so sharp, it’s like a giant paradise-inspired abyss. An abyss I call Emma—chaotic, magnetic, electric.” His usual, floppy grin formed on his face, and even with the ice dripping down his chin like rapid, tear-shaped rain droplets, I felt something flutter deep inside. Nina, I quietly breathed.

“What does that mean?” I nudged him. “Let me see it.” The red gash had finished bleeding for now, but it was still messy, and I guessed Jamie would need maybe two or three to fix the issue. The swelling was starting to grow like a large eyebrow pimple. “Will this affect the movie?”

“I don’t know. Unless we can rewrite it, because I don’t think makeup will be covering this like I wish it would. However, it may work, as the science fiction novel calls for a grizzled look. You know, when crablike mega-bugs are squashing the planet like it’s the bug.”

“Yes, it could give you a potentially lethal look. Just tell me—does your character die? Will I be crying in the theater because I’ll witness my very best friend die from an alien takeover?”

“I’m keeping it mum, and that’s that, Emma Richmond. You’ll just have to wait until we see it at the movies to know.”

“Won’t you be sick of it by then, with all the premieres and junk?”

“Do you think I’ll ever get tired of assessing my acting repertoire onscreen? Of course I will, but I won’t let you even think about going to see a movie like this without me.”

“Okay,” I said, rolling my eyes. He was the most dramatic person I’d ever met.

A nurse appeared then, calling out, “James Stewart!” He stood up like he was actually the old-school Hollywood legend. Then he locked arms with me and we hurried away, where I wondered if life would ever interfere between our friendship. I decided then that I probably should not see a movie in which he would die.

 

WITH JAMIE ASLEEP in his bed, the swelling increased and increasing, I threw on old pajamas and went back to the kitchen, where I sliced some ham onto a plate. As I gathered all the ingredients for a typical ham sandwich, there was a rap on the door. The sudden sense of Sam was like a cloud. When I opened the door, he stood before me, with a board game, a pack of microwaveable popcorn, and a bottle of Coke. “Hey,” he said, reaching over to kiss me on the cheek.

“Hi,” I said, excitement creeping into the back of my neck. We’d talked a few times on the phone since I left Big Sur, but mostly, it had been a nice separation again. One that brought us even closer together. “You won’t believe what happened to Jamie. He had to get two dissolvable stitches. We were at the ER for four hours this afternoon, and I’m feeling that was good luck.”

“What happened?” Little wrinkles of worry sprouted across his face.

“He was hiding behind a door, and I opened that door, hit him across his eyebrow. There was a piece of wood sticking out of this said door, just so that it perfectly scissored his eyebrow open. He’ll be okay, but there’s going to be swelling.”

“Is he stressed about the movie? I can pull a few strings for him. If his movie is all about guts and stuff, maybe this isn’t as bad as he might think.”

“He would really appreciate that. He’s asleep right now. He just got back from Tennessee, too.”

Sam took a seat on the couch like it was his own. From all the time spent at our place—away from the lights, cameras, and actions of his typical life—it was kind of his. He was slowly becoming a typical fixture there. He unleashed the Monopoly game with trepidation.

“You’ve never played?” I guessed.

He looked up. “How’d you know? This is a childhood staple, is it not?”

“Sam,” I said, covering his hand with my own, “I will teach you. No big deal. Lots of kids don’t play Monopoly. My dad, on the other hand, taught me—as I will teach you now.”

His eyes blinked a few times, a childish quality appearing between the specks. There was a hint of a bruise on the left side of his neck, yet it was barely big enough to notice. I finally picked up some of the pieces and set out to properly prepare the game.

“How was your week?”

“Good,” he began, “but not the best. There were some charity galas I attended, that kind of thing, then some days in the studio for prep work. I’m honestly ready for a long vacation—maybe the South Island of New Zealand, or the Orinoco River… I’m just ready to up and go.”

“The Orinoco River? Where the heck even is that? Sweetie, people like me are used to vacations in the mighty Guadalupe River.”

He clutched the dice in his hand, shaking hard. “Sounds nice. I’d go there, too.”

“Yeah, sure,” I said, reciting the basics of the game, all the while trying not to get too focused on his lithe form near my own. It was hard to concentrate, but I’d gotten through harder things in my life, like burying my first mutt. Or my first kiss—that was just brutal.

As we began, his eyes danced like little fireflies in the dimmed lights of the apartment. “So, Miss Emma, if you could go one place in the entire world, where would it be?”

As I stroked the green North Carolina card in my palm, I pretended to think hard, though it wasn’t very tough. “Jerusalem, but only when no one is fighting—there’s only peace.”

“Jerusalem,” he said, surprised. “Wouldn’t have expected that one.”

“Why not? It’s the Holy Land—Israel in general is on my bucket list. You?”

“The Guadalupe River sounds nice.”

“Be serious,” I said as the dice rolled on the board with a loud thwack.

He shrugged as he purchased a railroad card. “I am. I can imagine you and your family, all together, life’s good and all.”

“Hmm. Nice try.” I scratched the top of my head, knowing where this conversation was headed. Immediately, my mouth felt dry, because the guilt of my desire to see Mom was so strong. It covered me like a blanket.

“What does that mean?”

“It was nice in the beginning. My mom’s brother lived in a nice river mansion estate, and we’d spend a lot of our summers down there. Then, when my mom skidaddled out, it did not feel the same. Eventually I gave up going all together.”

“Your mom left?” he asked carefully, his voice not trying to stir any unwanted drama. “That sucks.”

My little metal dog piece landed on chance; I lost a hundred dollars. “It does. It’s not what it sounds like. We keep minimal contact, which is better than other people. I love her, but it is hard to forgive.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, rubbing his thumb against my own. Slowly, he breathed, “I remember when my parents got divorced. It wasn’t a surprise or anything, but it hurt so badly, like it was my fault. It never was, though. Just like her leaving never was yours.”

Just then, Jamie walked in, his eye swollen and his mouth wide open in a yawn. “Sam?” He walked over and fell on his side, staring at us with sleepy eyes which seemed to close like a broken camera shutter. “I’m too late to play, am I not?” Then he was asleep again, his snore as loud as a cow’s. Somehow, I guessed he was playing the part of older, watchful brother.

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

MY DESK NEEDED a maid, I decided on Monday morning. Already Megg had stopped by with a list of casting details awaiting my aid. It was around nine o’clock, and already the coffee was starting to wear off, that Baylee Feta appeared, pulling up a chair as quietly as a phantom.

I jumped, startled, when her eyes were in my face, giant orbs of dark energy. “Hi.”

“Hi?” I asked, my heart beating fast. “Hi. You terrified me, Bay.”

“I need to talk to you. It is very important, really. After work today, we’re going to your apartment to discuss. Got it?”

“Okay? I mean, sure, I don’t mind.”

She nodded, disappearing as quickly as she’d come.

 

BAYLEE FINGERED A pearl necklace like her life depended on the pendant. She slurped a cup of sweet tea in a moment (yes, I’d introduced it to her) and waited observantly for more. She stared at the pictures lining the faded paint of the walkway into the kitchen, looking at the faces of Jamie’s family and my own.

“I’m from Nevada, did I ever tell you that?”

“No, you never did.” I refilled her glass with the skill of a waitress. Then I went to work slapping some cheese on a Triscuit, my deft fingers almost sliced by the knife.

Baylee splayed her arms out on the sofa then, like she was experiencing pain from a long day. Since I was her coworker, I knew that the majority of her workday included a lunch out, a trip to the nail salon down the road, and a few hours of actual work, with some of that time period drawn at Richard’s office. It was peculiar, but the only thing I cared about was Baylee’s pleasant spirit—nothing like the dangerous maniac she could be.

Which was coming on, right now.

“Why do you not believe in drinking? I promise, it is cleansing to the soul. At least—some of it. Some wine; beer is a little stale.”

“Well…”

“Anyway, I guess I should just say it: I wanted a kid. Okay, I even feel like I need a kid. It’d give me something to do instead of heading to an office I barely care one dime about. I mean, I met you there, but we can see each other without going to where my husband runs his empire.”

“Where is this going?” I asked, not caring that the hint of frustration slipping out was like a sword. Baylee’s eyes widened, her long delivery suddenly evaporated.

“Okay, I’ll just say it. Emma, I’m having a baby.”

I dropped the knife I held but didn’t even care that it careened down to the floor, ricocheting against the lower kitchen drawers. “What?”

There are some people in this world who do not have the ambiance of motherly love. I had never pegged Baylee Feta as a mothering type; more of a mean, crabby older sister who emulates the popular prom queen.

“Don’t worry, I’m having the baby. But…”

“But…Richard doesn’t want a kid. How did this happen?”

“He got a vasectomy, Em, but it obviously didn’t work.” She cuddled the baby in her stomach. It was peculiar, watching her pat a flat tummy. “Basically, this leaves me a choice: Either baby or Richard.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Emma, I do know that. He made it clear: No kids, just us. He’s got kids practically our age. He’s not into another kid, whether it’s a boy or girl or anything. His other kids are perfect in his eyes anyway, so why would he want another? Sometimes I think he believes I’m a child he has to parent.”

I rushed over, hurrying to my friend. “Baylee, don’t say that. You’re an independent woman.”

“An independent pregnant woman,” she corrected me.

“You’ve got to tell him.”

“I know, but it doesn’t mean I want to. I have a doctor’s appointment next week, and I’d really like it if you’d come with me.”

“Shouldn’t you be taking your husband, the father to your child?”

She sat straight up, interesting me in this abnormal gesture. If I didn’t know her better, I’d think she had something to hide. I decided it was the nerves surrounding the fact that she was pregnant—against her husband’s wishes. “I would like you to come—as the baby’s designated godmother. I mean, I could ask Megg to be with me, but I thought at least you’d care.”

“Godmother?” I choked back some saliva. “Me? A godmother? Kids hate me, Bay! And we haven’t really known each other that long…”

“So what? Enlighten me a bit. I offer you to be my baby’s godmom, and you spit in my face? Dios mio, I need a vacation stat. I’ll promise you Richard, but you’re coming with me to my appointment. Deal?”

I bit my lip, pretending to think, before pulling her into a lopsided hug, to which she tried to force me away. “Let’s see. You and a baby? It’s weird, unexpected, yes; but am I absolutely ecstatic about it? Duh! Life is something to celebrate.”

 

IT WAS THE next Wednesday when we pulled into the cracked parking lot of the third-best OBGYN in town, a woman named Dr. Geraldine Rivers, who supposedly catered to the celebrity patients. As we sat in the waiting room, Baylee absent-mindedly flicking through a glossy gossip rag, she began, “Thanks for coming with me. I’m a bit nervous.”

“Calm down. You’re going to be a great mom, and you know it. I’m just glad you told Richard.”

Her hand quivered a bit. She looked up, her eyes wider than usual. “You know, I think I will be a good mom. Nothing like my mother. This baby will have everything.”

“Okay.”

“Seriously. This baby will be my little king or queen.”

Her gold-painted fingertip landed on an article about none other than Sam Woodshaw. As she began a soliloquy of the past and the future, I slipped the magazine into my own palm and assessed the photograph before me. His brown hair was tousled in the photo, nothing like the slickness I’d seen at the apartment. He held a bottle of amber liquid to his lips, a pretty blonde hanging on his arm. You don’t know him, a little piece of my heart sobbed. Even through his impromptu stops to the apartment for Monopoly and TV shows, I didn’t know him well. We hadn’t even really dissected our relationship. Of course I was a monogamous creature, but I wasn’t sure if he was, which sounded really stupid. I needed to be sure.

“It’s why I feel like women are so inspirational,” Baylee continued, her voice intensifying as each word fell out.

“Mmm hmm,” I began, but it wasn’t like I was really paying attention to what she had to say. It was Baylee; as long as I nodded my head and offered a few occasional “okays,” everything would be all right.

Twenty minutes later, we sat in a private little space waiting for the nurse and Dr. Rivers. Baylee untied her hair from a loose ponytail. “So, bets on the due date?”

“If it’s early August, then I’m going to guess March 7th.”

“Ew. I’m guessing April. My baby’s going to be a late little thing, spoiled just like his or her mommy.”

A peppy nurse entered the space, carrying some scientific utensils. “So, which of you ladies is Mrs. Braitley?”

“Feta-Braitley,” corrected Baylee, sticking out a prim hand. “So, let’s cut to it. I missed my last period. The baby was conceived in late June, I assume.”

“All right. Well, let’s go ahead and collect a urine sample, just to be sure, of course.” The nurse had a friendly, earthy face, but her timbre exemplified stress.

“Sounds good to me. Let me follow you.”

In the moment of lucidity—not around my crazy friend—I pulled down a maternity magazine, feeling my heart burst. I was only twenty-two, far too young for a baby, and in the midst of all this wedding drama, I realized that everyone would be having babies way too soon for comfort. If Jamie came home pregnant—or a hypothetical girlfriend proved to be pregnant, I mean—it would end an era of youth.

When Baylee returned, she lay out on the exam bed and let her hair splay out around her, Sleeping Beauty style. She was unusually quiet, so I pretended to leaf through the articles depicting happy mothers—homemakers, CEOs, celebrities, teachers, etc. It was refreshing, but then again—a whole the size of a rock was lodged into my heart from not having that dependable of a mom.

“When do we find out if it’s a lady or a lord?” I asked quickly, desperate for some sort of deviation from where my thoughts churned.

“Oh, that’s not until much later. I’d bet I’m only a few weeks over a month along.”

Eons later, Dr. Geraldine Rivers entered the room, her statuesque frame glowing from the sunrays seeping in through the windows. She immediately shook our hands and offered, “So, how are you, Mrs. Feta-Braitley? And this is your darling sister, I suppose?”

“Friend,” I said. “Well, actually, godmother.”

“A godmother already, huh? How about you come stand next to me, then, to see your little godbaby? It’s time to do the ultrasound.”

Baylee tensed up, just in the slightest motion that I saw, and her lips began to quiver. I hurried over to her, gripping her hand in my own like this was a life or death situation. Richard deserved to be here, I decided, but Baylee had told him the circumstances. Maybe he hadn’t even wanted to come; maybe he had an appointment at the office or something. In that moment, I knew it was not my place to be there.

Yet as soon as the little fetus appeared on the screen, a little globule whose heart was steadily beating, my body convulsed. There was life inside of Baylee, like a little lumpy loaf, but an adorable loaf all the same. Baylee began crying, her tears ricocheting against her cheeks, as Dr. Rivers consoled her.

“Oh, dear, your baby is beautiful. You see that, right?”

“I’m only crying because he or she is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

That compliment—maybe the only one I’d ever heard from Baylee’s sotto voce—was enough to rock my core.

 

Chapter Twenty

 

THERE WAS A soft rap on the door as my knuckle met wood. I’d finally gathered the gumption to visit Sam’s apartment. He had agreed to my coming over, finally, and a gaggle of nervous energy rushed through me. I’d been an emotional soul over the past few weeks—maybe even months—but nothing prepared me for when Sam opened his front door, his curls freely bouncing like waves on the sea, his eyes bright.

“Emma.” It was a simple beckoning.

“Hey,” I purred, holding up the bag of takeout burgers I’d brought as a housewarming gift.

“You brought manna.” He pulled me close to him, delivering a sweet kiss to my cheekbone, allowing his hand to drape over my hip.

“That I did. And I’m finally at your place instead of a shaggy apartment I share with a cat and a couch potato. I think he qualifies more as a couch potato chip, because he sneaks those things daily. ‘I’m a health nut,’ he says, and then I catch him with an entire bag under his bed. It’s the kind of things that…”

“Em, you’re nervous.”

“No, absolutely not.”

“Emma.”

I followed him inside, allowing the cool, modern ambiance to draw upon me with the force of a UFO whizzing through space. The place was ultra-sleek, with silver painted everywhere, not a speck of dust to be seen. It was like walking into an interior designer’s lair, where spick-and-span was the only Bible. An open concept space led to the kitchen where the granite was gray as mountaintops. In the living space a couch kneeled before the largest flat screen I’d ever seen in my life. Large open windows showcased the city, where the jagged rays of sunlight crept past the mountains. The glow cast a rainbow effect on the light hardwood floors, also highlighting the massive bookshelves lining the wall beside the TV.

“This is your apartment?”

“It is. Welcome. But I’m thinking about moving soon.”

“What? You want to move from this place?”

“It’s not really homey, Em. Can’t you tell?”

“Did you hide an OCD diagnosis from me?”

“My maid comes over a lot. She’s like a mom to me. I promise—it isn’t anything big. I can take of things by myself, but Mary needs a job, and she’s been a lifelong…”

“This is so beautiful.”

“I agree, but I don’t want the bachelor pad life for much longer. I’m not saying I want to settle, but I’m twenty-nine, about to turn thirty. A lot of my guy friends are starting to get married, the whole shebang.”

“I see. You’ll fit in more with the Beverly Hills crowd.”

“Em, please, don’t give me that look. It makes me feel like the devil.”

“Sir, don’t even try. You know that you’re a lucky little son-of-a-gun, but I’m okay with this. All right? No, I’ll never own anything like this apartment, but someone’s got to live in it, right?”

He shrugged, his brown hair tinging red in the sunset’s rays. “You’ll show me Texas, right?”

“You’ve showed me some of Los Angeles, I’ll give you that.”

“What’s it like?”

“What does that mean?”

“The farm experience.”

“The complete opposite of this. Imagine instead of people and skyscraper, land and cattle. That’s my upbringing in a statement. But I’m humbled that I came to this from where I was. I was meant to be here—in LA, I mean. Not your apartment.” A wave of embarrassment hit me. I didn’t want him to think I was just into his money.

He closed his eyes, taking my hands in his. “Emma Richmond, let me just tell you, I’m glad you came into my life. Silly, maybe? True, yes.” Suddenly, he pulled me close to him, letting our bodies touch, which suddenly electrified every facet of my skin. He smiled, obviously experienced; I tensed, obviously confused.

“Em, I won’t hurt you.”

“Everyone hurts everyone else.”

“Be positive, okay? I’m not the bogeyman.”

I pushed him away, though I wanted him to be with me desperately. I breathed quickly, feeling the sigh releasing tension, gulp by gulp. “I guess I just want to know what we are.”

“Typical girl,” he winked.

“Maybe—but I want the truth. If you want me, I want us.”

“I think we are two people whose lives are mingling in a fashion that can only be described as something meant to be.”

“Don’t speak poetry, Sam. I’m asking a hard truth. What are we?”

He turned away, a wave of frustration appearing on the curve of his lips. He stared out into the skyline, thrusting his hands into his pockets. “I’m obligated to date Kira Kearney, that actress from the latest Galaxy Wars movie, okay? Our publicists are arranging it, Em.”

“I don’t know who that is, but what does that mean? You’ll be off pretending to be with another girl? I shouldn’t be surprised—it happens all the time, doesn’t it? Sam, let me just be very clear: I’m a traditionalist. I like you a lot, more than a friend, got it? You know, I think anyone else would just succumb to who you are and that junk, but this is Emma Richmond. I never cared about the Sam Woodshaw actor shell—I care about the man standing before me. See, I am twenty-two. I have options. But I want to know, right now, if we are something that has a chance, or something that is fleeting. Women my age get married, have kids by now. I know I’m young, but I’m not going to waste away the best time of my life.”

He stood, open-mouthed, shocked. He was still like a statue, but he blinked hard. There was a sudden murkiness between us, like a drape standing in our way. Finally, he breathed. “Emma, that’s a lot to ask.”

“You just said you’re buying a house to settle down.”

“You want to know the truth, Em? I just got a call from my agent. I landed a film in Iceland for a few months. It starts in a couple weeks.”

“What? What about Luke Cho’s film?”

“Well, some stuff has to be sorted out legally on that one, but we’ll start shooting in late spring. But, yeah. Honestly, I don’t want either of us to be tied down for that long. I like you, obviously. You catch my eye, and all that, but you’re right—you’re twenty-two, you should be having fun.”

“You’re saying we should have an open relationship?”

“Don’t bring out your pitchfork just yet. Let’s resume our relationship when I get back. Whatever we have.”

“So, when I reveal my heart to you, the least you can respond with is some cock-and-bull story about your leaving for Iceland? I hate this. I wish I were a nun.” The anger boiling in me really was a combination of period and frustration toward the situation—it wasn’t all about Sam. Partially, I just wanted to have a longtime relationship. Something to talk about with my friends (even the married ones). I’d never had the experience before, and, finally, the first guy I truly did want to be with wasn’t a commitment type.

I opened the door, poking my cheek out with my tongue, ready to cool down, but feeling the steam blow out of my mouth. “Sam, your apartment is nice, your friendship is nice, but I don’t want to see you anymore. You’re right, I’m not going to waste any more of our time. Bye.”

Then I was gone, not exactly sure how this conversation had turned from positive to downright negative, from zenith to nadir.

 

THE CHILL OF the night was refreshing, especially compared to the drought of the hazy, lazy summer. Lacey came over around nine o’clock with a basket of food items, including (shockingly) more popcorn, some fruits, chips, blueberry breakfast bars, and water bottles. She placed the basket of love on the counter before a slew of words came rushing from her mouth: “WhathaveIgottenmyselfinto, hmm?” The last syllable was drawn out like a chant.

Jamie sat on the stool, as it was his last night home. He’d be jetting off to Mexico City in the morning before taking a commuter plane to a remote village in the middle of the jungle. He began to suck on little balls of pomegranates, spitting out the seeds into a napkin at his side. He had broken down on the health nut issue yesterday by gobbling down a whole box of pizza, so today was a new breath of fresh air to invigorate the physique he wished to present. The stitches had finally dissolved, and he’d pulled out the ties, but his eye still looked a little scary, as the popped blood vessel remained a presence. However, it looked ninety percent healed.

“You know,” he said genuinely, his voice drawn out too, which made me think nostalgia was lengthening time, “Lacey, you’ve gotten yourself into one of the best times of your life.”

“Are you trying to be romantic, James?” I asked, nudging him as I bit into an apple. “You see, Lace, you have this short period of stress, but then the wedding day will come—a giant wave of emotions. It will be, as Jamie did say, one of the best days of your life.”

“But… What if Carson and I don’t make it? What if it’s not my calling to be a pastor’s wife?”

“Lacey, this is the nerves speaking,” Jamie said in a soothing, therapist-styled voice. It sounded ridiculous, but it made Lacey’s eyes cease watering. “You’re in love with Carson. Did you forget the time he came to school, dressed up in an expensive suit, and how he got all of our senior class to hold up signs pointing to, ‘Yes!’ And then he asked you to spend the rest of your lives together! You did not seem one bit nervous then.”

“I guess it is the whole being in front of public thing. I’m just a shy bird.” Jamie and I both cocked our heads, to which she shrugged it off. “Am I really not shy?”

“No,” we both said quickly.

“Okay, well, sure, I’m anxious. What bride isn’t? I’m just at a complete loss. Is twenty-two too young? I mean, I don’t know…”

“Lacey,” I said, my voice rising in temperature, from chilly to burning, “I would be extremely appreciative if a guy loved me as much as Carson loves you. Stemming from that love, I would find marrying him to be one of the most important signs of commitment, especially since people don’t get married a whole lot anymore. Plus, if to be with him meant I’d be a pastor’s wife, I’d live. It’s not the worst position in the world.”

Lacey looked at the floor, her eyes big and cornflower blue, and she finally breathed, “I guess I’m just hyperventilating on this one. Em, I never want you to feel like you’re not going to find that special someone. You will.”

Jamie bit his lip then, and I saw a drop of blood appear. “What happened to Sam?” The tone was slightly laced with bitterness, as if he did not approve of my dating his friend.

“We’re not together. He’s not what I need, Jamie. You should know that, Jamie.”

“You weren’t going to tell me?”

“This happened yesterday, okay? You weren’t home, I was all alone, and then today, you were all busy preparing for Mexico. I didn’t want to burden you with the news.”

“Emma, as your best friend, I have to say you always tell me everything. But not telling me that?”

“Okay, cut it out, you guys,” Lacey said, her position suddenly the therapist one now. “You sound like an old, bickering married couple. The truth is, you guys are about to be separated for a few months. Like normal people, you guys should be spending that time together happy and blithe, not bickering. I will leave now.”

“You just got here!” I shouted.

She nodded, a piece of her hair shining in the glow. “I know, but I think you guys need this time more than I. You just gave me some good, old-fashioned advice. Now I think you guys need to prepare for what’s about to happen. I’ll see y’all soon, bye.”

We were silent, unprepared for this change in events. After I shut the bolt lock, I returned to Jamie, who was still munching on the pomegranate. Eventually, he spoke, “Emma, this will be hard for us.”

“We’ll be okay. We used to spend years apart, since we didn’t know each other.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“I know.”

He blinked a few times, and then said, “You are the closest person in my life. If anything happens to you, I want to know. You may not get a response right away, but call me. We’re not going to lose what we have.”

“Eventually, we will.”

He gripped my hands in his, the juice from the pomegranate quite sticky. “Stop being pessimistic. Emma, I love you, and if you love me, we will communicate. We won’t let a few thousand miles separate us. I’m talking as if I’m going to war, but I just really worry about how the lonely atmosphere will harm you. You won’t have sturdy Jamie to protect you.”

“I think the cat offers more protection than you do, James.”

“Low blow.”

We knuckle-fisted our hands and then I began to clean his mess. “Why don’t I drop you off at the airport tomorrow? It’ll give us a little time before you leave.”

“No worries, Em. I’d rather have my car down there than have you risk it all driving. Let’s be honest: Your driving skills aren’t the best, sweetie.”

“Okay, well, I just wanted to play mom.”

“Some of the other actors have their personal chauffeurs drive them, but not me. I’m representing agricultural, blue-collar America.”

“I’ll miss you, you know that, right?”

“But the Earth’ll keep turning. We’ll make it, Em. It’s not like I’m going to die. I’m just going on a little quest. It’s late, and you’ve got work tomorrow. Let’s get to bed.”

I nodded, but the blessing of his friendship seemed greater at this moment than ever before.

 

Chapter Twenty-One

 

THE HAZE SEEMED a little hazier, the sky blue more sepia-toned. Yet the week since Jamie left went by like a silver bullet primed for the next week’s festivities at Lacey’s weekend wedding. To prepare, I’d gotten ahead on the casting calls and brought Megg and Baylee lunch like a subservient sheepdog, but there was still a void in the nooks and crannies of my spirit: Jamie.

So I went out with Baylee a few nights that week, intent on forgetting his absence, and then I even spent Friday night with Megg, as we went to a mall and ate greasy Chinese food. But it still did not lessen the fact: Jamie was gone.

He called every other night, checking up on the cat, giving me feedback about the rugged, rural feel of the shoot. He had made friends and loved the cast, but the humidity of the jungle was unbearable. A few people passed out every hour, he said, which made it tough on production. Yet the film was coming along brilliantly, polished at a lenient speed.

Eventually, by Saturday, I gathered my clothes and headed to Baylee’s posh condominium, one Richard had insisted on moving to after doing the whole house-in-Los-Angeles thing. The door was already unlocked when I found the place, and then I came in to see her splayed out on the couch, her feet up on the chair, her hand over her forehead, the slight poke from her stomach growing like a blip of sunrise on the horizon. Maybe it was my imagination, but I believed there was a little roundness to that belly.

“Bay?”

“Em, sit down. So, guess what? Remember the casting parties I gesticulated about?”

“Yes.”

“There’s one tonight, down in Long Beach, at John Jeffries’s house. We’ve got to go. I don’t want to go, but Richard’s out of the country at some festival thing in Tokyo, and that leaves you and me as his faithful knights in shining armor. Did you bring a dress?”

“Why on this green Earth would I have brought a dress if I’d assumed I was just spending the night with you?”

“Every girl always needs a dress.”

“I’m living proof that ain’t true.”

“Don’t give me that attitude.” She whipped herself up, the long hair in total disarray. A piece of lentil-lookalike seemed to spin from her front tooth. “I just found out minutes ago. We’re about the same size, right?”

“Baylee, you’re, like, six inches taller than me.”

“Something of mine has gotta fit you. Come on, let us visit the closet of mollifying tendencies.”

I felt the genuine pulse of satisfaction as Baylee led me through the master bedroom to the filled-to-capacity closet where an emporium of clothing awaited us. Golds, blues, valiant violets and rouge reds, pinks, oranges, and yellows gave the rainbow a run for its money. Every shade of the spectrum shined in the glow of the phosphorescent lights. Baylee pulled a fuchsia dress from one pocket of the closet, where she draped it across her skin, illuminating olive tones. “This goes well with me. Let’s see… I think you’d look best in baby blue, or even navy and royal. Let me see what I have.”

She leafed through her clothes like they were children safe in her hands. She pulled out a few options, the ultramarines and lapis lazuli colors bright against her skin. Then with a swift movement, she pressed each dress to my frame, monitoring it against my skin tone and the effect it would leave.

Eventually, through the quietness of her ticking fashion sense, she pulled an electric-blue dress from the confines of her closet and her eyes lit up. “This is it. It’ll fit you, no doubt about it—and look how it compliments your frame. Here, throw it on, sashay around a few times for me. I need to verify my competency.”

Quickly, I draped the dress over my body, allowing it to hang from my curves, feeling the softness of the cotton against skin. I lifted up my arms, intent on checking for pit hair, when Baylee hurriedly adorned a flashy necklace against my decollate. It hung from my clavicles like an icy key until I lifted it to see the diamonds that shone like a magnificent spectacle.

“I cannot wear this,” I crooned, hearing my own voice break at the touch. Honestly, I’d never felt anything so expensive. “This is too much, Baylee.”

“It’s my gift to you. You’re not going to keep it, silly. Just for tonight. That thing is worth more than a car, I’d guess, but you deserve to wear it—especially as my dear pet, my dear muse, my dear Emma.”

The words my dear Emma roared from her lips—a reminder that Jamie was far, far away whipping his acting skills into action.

“Are you sure? You don’t have a knockoff? I mean…”

“Emma, stop sweating this out. You’re wearing it, enough said.” She hurriedly changed into the rose-colored dress, letting her smooth waves cascade down her back. As she zipped up, she touched the flat of her stomach. The roundness I’d thought I’d seen earlier had evaporated. “When will I show?”

“When will you tell everyone?”

Her hand lay assuredly against her belly, until she finally sighed. “I don’t know.” Her face brightened then, like a phototropic plant whose tendrils extend from sunlight. “Let me do your hair.”

“What?”

“It’s a form of feminine bonding, mon ami.”

“Yo hablo español,” I insisted, before following her like a devoted puppy into the master bathroom, which was as spacious as can be for California standards. In Texas it would be considered the size of a pea. Yet she sat me down on the little stool near her tools, where she pulled out a curling wand and allowed it to heat. Then she brought forth heat serum for hair protection.

As she lathered the coconut oil into my tresses, I felt my heart beat a little quicker. “What are these parties like?”

“Well, boring, really. Just a bunch of famous people chilling out with each other. It’s not really that big a deal, I promise. But I knew it would benefit you if you came, and also, selfishly, I need you to be with me.”

“Yeah, sure. You don’t need anyone, Baylee Feta.”

“That is absolutely not true, and you know it, Emma Richmond.” She mocked me, but then her hands were moving at light speed twirling the wand, releasing perfect auburn hair in her wake. “You see, red hair is hard to come by.”

“I dye it.”

“Well, you’re still a natural redhead. See these roots?”

“I live with those roots, honey.”

“What I would give to pull off the look.”

When she finished, she added a few curls to her own hair, and we set about touching-up our makeup. She informed me the party would be outside, so I enhanced my makeup a little more, and a few minutes later, we were walking down to her Mercedes coupe. Honestly, even with Richard’s salary, I wondered how they afforded the perfect luxury of apartment, sports car(s), and designer everything, but I did not judge.

So I hopped in the front seat as she stroked the front wheel. “Just get ready, Em. This is nothing you’ve seen before.”

 

SHE WAS RIGHT. As soon as we entered the property—heck, as soon as we entered the ritzy subdivision—I knew this would be a party unlike one I’d ever attended. For sanity, I stared at Jamie’s ultramarine gift nestled on my finger.

Next thing I knew, Baylee parallel parked, and I followed her sashaying form to the entryway, where the sound of thumping music and mirth drifted like dripping sugar. We were inside then, and the surrounding atmosphere astounded me. Humans were everywhere—humans I recognized from the rags, humans who had won Oscars, humans whom most people would never, ever meet—and then, my hand wrapped around Maggie Marigold’s in a shake of greeting.

Maggie Marigold was a fortysomething actress who’d lived in SoCal all her life. She was an action star primarily but had forayed into the drama scene lately, and she had been one of my dad’s favorite actors due to her looks, of course. “Oh, look at your friend, Baylee.” Those were her first words to me. I smiled.

“She’s my guardian angel,” Baylee said, hanging off me.

“I’m Emma.”

“Well, it’s very nice to meet you. You don’t look used to our type of parties.” Of course she did not need to introduce herself, so I kind of tuned my interest down. She was older-looking in person, and her eyes were not as violet as many photographers portrayed them to be.

“It’s her first one,” Baylee said, pulling me away. “She’s a drunk, Em. Anyway, let me introduce you to Bob Rogers.”

The next few minutes were a blur, because I met so many people and the heat from the damp weather and combined body odor stifled me. Eventually, I gave up on the indoors, where Baylee made her rounds, and hurried to the infinity pool outside. There was a hint of star sparkle beyond the clouds.

Various celebrities hung around outside, along with producers and cinematographers, assistants and friends and families and random humans. So, needing a break from the hustle-and-bustle, I walked to the fence that led to the sandy beach. I remembered Luke Cho then, and our volleyball beach adventure with Lacey—who would soon be a missus.

Instead of dirtying my feet, I watched the nearby ocean, until a feminine voice dawned beside me.

“You okay?”

I turned, startled to see Belle Sealey, a young actress who’d headlined an Oscar-nominated movie the previous year. Her brown hair was shiny in the glow from the party, but her eyes were sad. “Oh, I’m fine.”

“Most people at least hide their sadness over at the party. I can already tell you’re different.”

“Oh, that isn’t good, is it?”

“Belle,” she said, sticking out a hand.

I hurriedly shook in return, though I did not care who she was. At this point, all I wanted to do was return home, stick my head in a warm bath, and soak. “I’m Emma.”

“What do you do?”

“Casting director. I already know who you are.”

“Ah.” She hesitated before nodding. “I’m not bothering you, am I?”

“Well, I guess it doesn’t matter.”

“People aren’t like you. They lie. You’re honest.”

“Why are you complimenting me? It’s weird, Belle.”

She nodded. “I’m lonely.”

“There are a million people here. Not one you can trust?”

She shook her head. “Not that. I just miss my home. I miss the ability to be invisible.”

A man’s voice called out, “Belle?”

“Sam, I’m over here.”

Seconds later—much to my chagrin—a familiar gait appeared before me, the man wearing it the object of my desires and grievances. He was surprised, his eyes unable to hide the fact, and when he finally gained the ability to speak, it was but a squeak in response. “Emma?”

“Hi, Sam.”

“You guys know each other?” Belle asked quickly, her eyes sparkling. “Small world, huh? You’ve worked with Emma the casting director?”

“Casting assistant,” I muttered, ashamed I’d even exaggerated that much.

“Oh, don’t even try, Em. She’s going to be the head of that company soon enough.”

“Stop, that is nothing like the truth,” I snapped, aware of the vicious element to my voice. It was an unexpected factor, though, so eventually my lips curved into the hint of an apologetic smile.

He shrugged, standing on the tips of his toes, the salty air bringing more openness between our makeshift trio. He reached out to steady himself on the fence. “You can’t take compliments, Emma. They’re your enemy, with all due respect.”

“My enemy?” I asked, stupefied. “Not true.”

“Sam,” Belle interjected, clearly used to the spotlight, “what time is it?”

“Ten thirty. Em, let me just say this: You’re so uptight all time, and you don’t even realize your potential at things.”

“You know this how? We’ve literally known each other a few months.”

“And how did y’all meet?” Belle’s voice was sharp and squeaky.

Sam and I continued to stare at each other, deepening the cognizance between us that our togetherness was something. “You see,” he began, “Belle, this is a woman who is a Texan, Republican, Christian. Those are hard to come by.”

“What?”

“Be quiet, Sam. Honestly, Belle, we met when he paraded over to my apartment to hang out with my roommate.”

Belle shrugged, the answer not mattering much, frankly. “So, you guys are a thing, huh?”

“A thing? How about nothing,” I presented, the tone angry.

“Not true. She’s whole-heartedly in love with me.”

I punched him in the gut, feeling the crunch of his stomach pound my knuckles. As he fell backwards, Belle screamed and I stumbled backward, alarmed by what I’d done and quite proud. Sam stood up, gripping his side, until he cocked his head and flashed me an award-worthy smile, glittering teeth like snow between lips of rose petals.

“What’s wrong with you?” Belle shrieked.

“I’m fine, Belle,” said Sam, his eyes bright. “You see, Em can toss a punch, but probably not on the man she loves.”

I fled the scene, gripping my clutch to my chest. A tuft of hair had fallen over my face like a curtain, but in-between the lip-biting and urge to strangle anything that came in my way, I was through the mansion in no time, passing the partygoers sipping their champagne and dancing by the speakers. Baylee was standing near the steps, faux-smizing at a man near her. I hurriedly pulled her away and whispered, “I’m out. I’ll be taking a walk around the houses. See you soon.”

Instead of asking about my obvious emotions, she assuredly nodded. “Be back around twelve or so. We’ll leave then.”

I’d assumed that wasn’t even accurate, but it was not a point of any consideration when my feet landed on the asphalt. The desire to jog, to pull my ligaments like licorice, was overwhelming, but there was something that kept me at a steady pace as each gigantic mansion whirled by me, with green, grassy yards and stone water fountains. Maybe the amped-up pressure of everything was crumbling beneath me, venting out my stress like a steaming volcano. Whatever it was, the impulse of freedom dangled before me as I allowed the spray of the sprinklers to tickle my feet, up my calves, to the fringe of my dress.

Then he was beside me. I knew it intuitively, as one knows the presence of a nearby ghost, but I kept my pace going, ignoring him.

“Emma, this is ridiculous.”

“You think?”

He grabbed my elbow, genuineness painting his eyes blue. “You are a crab, are you not?”

“Always.”

“Why did you punch my stomach, huh? Give me one little sliver of honesty.”

“I don’t want to talk to you.”

“Just tell me.”

“No.”

“C’mon.”

“I said no!”

He braked a little before saying, “Was I right?”

“Honestly, you weren’t. I can frankly tell you that I am not in love with you. But you never gave me the chance to see if I ever would, did you? That’s why I punched you. Also, your tie isn’t even properly tied. Also, if I could continue, I do miss your friendship.”

He smiled, but it was so playful I wanted to sock him again. Instead, he closed his eyes, lifted his palms into the air, and said, “Emma, dear Emma, you’ve got no clue what you do to me. It’s nothing new between man and woman, but it is something new to me. Why, when one ever looks into the sky—all he or she can see are moon, stars, and the glint of your hair. But that is why—I always will—be at the place of your where.”

“Was that supposed to be romantic?”

“I was serenading you underneath a blanket of pollution.”

“I don’t want to be serenaded. I want a bath.”

“I have a shower at my house.”

“Not what I meant.”

“I completely made that all up, by the way. One of my passions is poetry; okay, maybe not.”

I rolled my eyes at him, wondering if he was just a bit tipsy, but instead of taking his hand and following him back to Baylee’s whereabouts, I launched into a full sprint in the opposite direction. Leg met ankle which met road, the crunch of my body electrified against the wind-force, my hair cascading in rivulets as the hurricane passed by.

“Emma!” he screamed out behind me, trying to keep up the pace, knowing he could catch me at any moment, but I was determined.

The violence of my heartbeat pushed me onward as I careened past Range Rovers idled on the road. My feet crushed against flowers lining the sidewalk. Since when had I become dependent upon what was expected of me? I usually followed the rules; I went through the motions. But I was on the brink of a cataclysmic breakdown based on the fact that God was steering me somewhere I didn’t know—something that wasn’t necessarily of my choosing.

Eventually, my body gave out and I heaved over, allowing the release of tension to reflect in my fallen posture. In fact, I toppled onto a rich person’s yard, staining the green grass red with my hair. There was a hint of a trade wind stroking my face as my chest heaved upward, downward, a sign of a living lung.

“Seriously, Em?” He flopped over beside me, his own chest rising up and down, a formidable horizon. He was sweating, but the extra glow on his skin made him glitter.

“Why did you follow me?”

He breathed hard, the sound mimicking my own. “Because the chase is worth it.”

“I don’t want this.”

“I do.”

“But you’re only going to break my heart.”

“I don’t think that is possible; not with Emma Richmond.”

“You’re scared, and you know it.”

“Says the person describing himself. Samuel Woodshaw, I went to your apartment. I was the one who asked where we stood. I am not afraid to tell you how I feel.” It wasn’t complete truth, but just enough to convince me that I had a shot here.

Sam turned onto his side, his blue eyes unwavering before me. He took a piece of my hair and rubbed it between his fingers. “You should go to law school. Do you believe in coincidence?”

“What does that mean?”

“That you came into my life for a reason?”

“That isn’t coincidence, my friend.”

“Words can’t describe how I feel right now.”

“I won’t let you kiss me, Sam. It’s not going to happen.”

He pulled away, his dejected look satisfying. “Will you ever stop running?”

“Running from what?”

“Who you are, what you want to be.”

“Probably not, especially when you speak in such riddles, honey.”

I stood up, brushing the grass clippings from my dress, and then I began the long, wobbly walk back to John Jeffries’ house, intent on pulling Baylee from her social hour so we could make the drive home. This was what my life had become: one giant party. Not a good one, either.

There was a desire in my core to be near Sam, but I pushed myself forward, surprised when I did not feel his breath down my neck. When I turned onto the neighboring street, I looked back to see him staring intently up at the stars, wondering if he was having a come-to-Jesus moment. I kept walking.

 

THE NEXT MONDAY I sat at my desk, a coffee mug to my lips, wondering how I had ever hated caffeine, because now it had replaced Jamie as my best friend. As I debated whether to add more sugar next time, Megg plopped onto the cheap chair we’d salvaged from a grimy closet a few weeks ago. It was the only chair I had for “visitors” who came to my “office.” As she positioned herself on the flimsy thing, I tossed her a packet of M&M’s I had stolen from Baylee’s office, where a hidden assortment of all candies lurked in a cabinet.

“So, you won’t believe who checked up on me out of the blue.” Her eyes widened, big pools of hazel. Waiting for any sort of response, she sat forward and began, “John.”

“John?” Suddenly it dawned on me: the guy who had truly captured Megg’s heart during our days working on Luke Cho’s project. Surprised, I whispered, “John? Well, what did he say?”

“He’s still interested in me. In us, I guess I should say. So we’re going out on Friday night, and basically, I’m totally freaking out. What is going to happen? I mean, I go out on dates and all…”

“Megg, you’re hyperventilating. First off, calm yourself. Second, trust in God. Actually, flip those, please. Let us just go with this: You will be fine. You’re…”

She started breathing like a pregnant woman delivering a child, so I hurried over and lent a calm hand on her back. “I can’t breathe,” she huffed.

“How obvious. Shut up!” Then I was rubbing her back, though I knew this was a weird response to the situation, but unaware of the proper thing to do in this situation, I continued to do so.

Megg finally turned to a normal shade of human complexion and then she said quickly, “I’ll be okay. I will be okay, I think.”

“So, what’s the gen?”

“The gen?”

“You know, information? What’s going on? The plan?”

She raised her hands in exasperation. “Well, he said dinner. We’re meeting in Glendora…”

“Glendora!”

“Yes?”

“That’s where I live.”

“Seriously?” She perked up like a prairie dog emerging from the earth. “So, you wouldn’t mind, you know, spying on us?”

“What?”

“I watch horror movies, shows about death and destruction, crime stuff. I have a true abhorrence to dating. Okay, you know…”

“You just told me you date a lot.”

“I’m sorry,” she responded again, shaking her head. “It’s not entirely true, honestly. I am too afraid of the what-ifs.”

“You want me to chaperone.”

“No, I want you to spy.”

“Megg.”

“I will pay for you to sit nearby, you know, just to watch. Make sure he doesn’t spike my drink.”

“Margaret Holmwood, that may be the weirdest proposition I’ve ever heard.”

“Please,” she said, folding her hands into a prayer-clasp.

I sighed, knowing that no one should ever turn down a free meal, while also knowing that helping a friend in a time of need is a crux to human life and appreciation. Understanding the anticipatory fire in Megg’s eyes, I nodded.

“Seriously? Oh, Emma Richmond, I love you!” She wrapped her arms around her neck, squeezing me to a pinkish hue.

I’d assigned myself to babysit a grown woman and her date, but it was not an issue. I would invite Baylee maybe, or go by myself. That probably would be best. I could enjoy a candlelit dinner, find my way home after Megg was convinced John was a decent guy, and that would be it. Plus, it would get me out of the dark apartment on a Friday night. A nice restaurant full of humans was better than an empty apartment plus cat.

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

THE NIGHT WAS like a shade of bulbous energy. Megg had come over to the apartment in a flurry of jitter, her hair as bouncy as her disposition. She seemed to radiate excitement through it all, and as I sipped on a ginger ale, she related to me all the peculiar facts about this blossoming relationship.

As soon as she finished dolling up, I was shocked. “Margaret!”

“What do you think?”

Her glasses were the only semblance of the woman I knew in the day-to-day work environment. Gone were the frilly, frumpy sweaters. Before me, a curvaceous woman wore a befitting black dress. Instead of au naturel, a dab of makeup here and there highlighted her hazel eyes and plump lips. She looked stunning, and I told her so. “You’re so gorgeous, Megg.”

“Really?” Her eyes lit up.

“John will be all over you. Oh, snap! Look at the time. We gotta rumble.”

“I’d rather strut. Not rumble.”

“Whatever you feel, Megg. You’re the queen tonight. C’mon, just c’mon. If you don’t come on, what are we supposed to do?”

“We just stay here, let loose by watching reruns of Reba.”

“Out. Now. I’ll take my car and follow you.”

Twenty minutes later, I pulled my car into a space near Megg’s Civic at the restaurant, but far away enough to be inconspicuous to the nonexistent private investigator. I watched her shuffle to the front as other diners trickled in too. One can only imagine a Saturday night in Los Angeles, so I sat put for a while, and my reservation wasn’t until seven anyway. It was six-thirty. Plus, Baylee Feta-Braitley was nowhere in sight, and I refused to head in by myself until the last possible minute.

Eventually, her sleek convertible appeared in the parking lot, a silver bullet compared to my junky cockroach-mobile. I needed a new car.

She slipped out like a lithe model, but the hint of a pregnant belly was faintly noticeable, maybe not to the unsuspecting human eye, but to her closest friend, it seemed changed. I met her in a short embrace, unsurprised by her flashy red dress that accentuated the form of a starlet. It was only Baylee, I reminded myself, the person I had become closely intimate with over the two months of my employment. Somehow, our stars had aligned and two polar opposite souls clicked.

“So, where’s MeggMegg?”

“Oh, you know she hates that. She went in already. Our reservation’s later. I told you that, Bay.”

“Well, c’mon.” She locked arms with me, though she stood a foot over me in high heels. I wondered why she did things like that, but it was her personality. Mine was more of the gender fluid cat living in my apartment, because Fiona/Felix preferred couches to human beings. Oh goodness, I realized. I am the weirdest person alive.

When we entered the restaurant, the smell of humans and mouth-watering food condensed like clouds. The line was long, the bodies mixed together like they were jumbled pieces of a puzzle. After we checked-in, we took the only available seats in the waiting area, watching as others mingled about in the midst of social liveliness. We strained to look for Megg and John, but it was possible they’d already taken a seat. It was loud, so I finally turned to my friend, inches from her face.

“So, how is your baby?”

“Quiet down, Em,” she hissed. “I don’t want everyone to know.”

“Why not? I would be the proudest momma in the entire land.”

“Not everyone’s just like you, Emma Richmond. There is this thing called human identification.”

“Um.”

She laughed, her nose crinkling just a little. “You see, we live in a society plagued by physical necessity…”

“Stop now. I don’t want an educational lesson.”

“The truth is simple, Emma. I haven’t told Richard, and I don’t plan to.” She took a toothpick from a nearby table and stuck it into her mouth. The look was something paradoxical, just because a confident, classical woman like Baylee didn’t need rudimentary objects like toothpicks.

The shock wore off to sizzling anger. I felt like sizzling her. I whipped the toothpick out of her mouth and acted like I was going to stab her, drawing the attention of some people around us. “Why wouldn’t you tell him, Baylee? You lied to me.”

“I know, but at least I admitted that I lied to you.”

“True, but that doesn’t excuse the lying altogether. What are you thinking?”

“Your face is so red right now, it’s like a cherry.”

“I swear I will stab you in your perfect face!”

“Ladies?” asked a male voice. I turned to see a friendly man with his wife, who seemed genuinely terrified of Baylee and me.

“I’m so sorry,” I chirped, growing even redder. I turned my back again, hissing every word like venom from my saliva. “What. Are. You. Doing?”

“I’m not terminating, if that’s what you’re thinking. Not after I saw my little shrimp. Here’s the sitch: Richard’s probably not the father.”

What?”

“You see, we love each other very much, but adultery is very tempting.”

Baylee!”

“We’ve been in counseling a lot of mornings for the past month or so. You may have noticed out morning absences, and this is why. I found out he was cheating on me with the receptionist the floor down, and so I went out and did my civil duties back. This has been going on for the past three months. It’s livened our marriage, especially since he didn’t know what I was doing. The revenge.”

“Baylee, this is sick.”

She stopped for just a beat, the truth in her eyes momentarily blinding. Then her normal visage returned like a tide. “I don’t think so. We’ve been at counseling, learning to remain monogamous or something like that. I’ve learned that I love Richard Braitley, but he won’t love me after he finds out about this little gift.” Immediately she burst into tears, revealing the deep fracture of this entire godless situation.

“Baylee,” I said, shaking my head. “You have to tell him.”

“I can’t. He’ll leave me.” The tears were gone as quickly as they came, replaced by a frown that sent its own fission down my soul. “You see, men don’t take it well when their women go out and get impregnated by other men.”

“Baylee, you’re about to have a child.”

A bouncy waitress appeared nearby, calling out, “Richmond, party of two?”

Baylee stood up, shaking out her beautiful dress, her eyes still watery, but her body language as confident as before. “We’re going, Emma.”

“I think we should talk this out somewhere more private.”

“No. We’re doing a service for Megg, and she asked us to be here to watch. So that is what we are going to do.”

Mutely I followed, after apologizing once more to the couple who questioned our morality. As we weaved through the quaint tables around the tropical restaurant, I spotted Megg edging just a little closer to her handsome date like a phototropic plant responding to light. She did not even notice Baylee and I walking past, intent on the proximity of the man before her.

We took a seat that partially blocked our view, allowing only a view of John, whose own body language was friendly and relaxed. Nothing warned us that he was about to strike with his serial killer powers or anything atypical like that.

Baylee ogled the menu before her like nothing was wrong, so I slapped it from her hand and said tersely, “Baylee, stop it. This is bigger than dinner.”

“I know that.”

“Then act like it.”

She laid the menu on the table, her lips pursed into a straight line. “Simply, I’m afraid, okay? John and I never had a perfectly appropriate relationship, that’s for sure. So it was not like we knew how to live that way magically when we got married. You see, Emma, I’m almost two decades younger than him. He saw me at a casting call, and instead of giving me my big break, he asked me to dinner. I was twenty-one.

“Twenty-one passed into twenty-two, and so on. He left his girlfriend for me, a girlfriend I knew nothing about, or at least, I acted like I knew nothing about. Eventually, I was the one desperate to beg to marry him. ‘I want that fairytale,’ I remember screaming at him. So he proposed, and we got married. Marriage only made things harder, honestly, Emma. You see, I don’t have the privilege of a supportive family. I don’t even really have a family, like a lot of people in this world do. Do I feel privileged to drive a nice car and have a nice apartment? Of course. But it is all disingenuous. And I have no way out, because I love my husband, even when we are so nasty to each other that the only thing I can think of when I’m with him is a black hole. We are a black hole together. So please tell me. How do I let him go when he has been the best thing in my life?

“Where would I go if we split? Where would my baby go?”

There was a moment when I knew she expected my reply. A reply of acceptance, and even the hint of assurance. Yet the silence was piercing to my psyche, and I relented. “You’d always have a place to stay at my house.”

“Really, Em?”

I sighed and added a snip of pep to my voice. “Of course. Especially since I’m shrimp’s godmomma.”

The waiter finally approached with a bottle of wine. Sensing our forbearance, the cute old man said, “Hiya girls. Can we…”

Baylee pushed her arms on the table, seductive like a stealthy serpent. “Water for me, please. Same for my friend.”

“Excuse me, I would take a straight-up Coke. Thank you.”

He hurried off, confused, not bothering to ask for appetizers. He was afraid enough as it was. The white lights reflecting from the arches cast a glow on Baylee’s dark hair. Finally, I realized she expected me to offer something meaningful. “Bay, I’m sorry, but I still think you are taking the wrong approach.”

She slammed her hand against the table. “That is not what I wanted to hear, Emma.”

“I’m not going to lie to you. That’s not what I’m here for, and that is why you treasure my friendship.”

She shrugged, her eyes trying to play off annoyance. She turned to find Megg and John. “They’re sipping wine, looking into each other’s eyes. Why did she need us as parents?”

“Some people are not as confident as you.”

“Feisty tonight.”

Our drinks were presented; I ordered a basket of mozzarella sticks. Baylee stuck her nose up at my childish display, but I smiled anyway. “I’m just proud you didn’t take any alcohol. Not with the baby in tow.” Watching Baylee stare at her water glass was giving me anxiety, so I finally said, “Who’s the father?”

Baylee looked frightened, her face wide with fear. “That’s what I’m afraid about. There’s a plentiful amount of men to choose from.”

“Bay, you’re not going to like this, but you have to tell Richard. He’s going to find out soon enough, anyway.”

“I know.”

When she went quiet again, I took a huge swig of Coke, closing my eyes for the smallest of seconds, and when I opened them again, Baylee had her arms draped around a familiar figure, one I recognized in detail. Sam.

As they exchanged greetings, I slammed the glass down, stood up, threw my napkin on the table and hurried to the restroom, unable to take more of the theatrical night. When I returned just before entering, a swarm of fans huddled around the man, and before I knew it, I was out the door of the restaurant, ignoring my call to urination.

I found my car, jumped inside, whipped the engine into motion, and sped off. While I felt like a coward, I also felt like a free woman, so I barreled down the road to the bookstore near the apartment, the one I occasionally dropped into if I needed a cheap paperback.

After a failed attempt at parking well, my feet landed on the asphalt and I was inside the store, smelling leather and yellowed pages, my heart beating uncontrollably from the disaster of the night. I’d let down Megg, I realized in despair; yet she did not need me. I would go back, I decided, but a friendly arm took my own, and I looked into the eyes of Luke Cho. Oh.

“Emma,” he began, his eyes big and bright, offering promise and a future far away from a pregnant compulsive liar and a Hollywood playboy.

“Luke,” I said, a smile playing at my lips, the true excitement of seeing a friend livening my spirit.

“Long time no see.”

“It’s only been a few weeks.” At the lull in our meeting, I felt a need to apologize for the last time I’d seen him. Although there was nothing clearly romantic between us, there had been some questionable feelings shared between us. But it hadn’t excused my actions. “Hey, I’m sorry for what happened…”

“Stop it, Em. Why are you apologizing? You and Sam Woodshaw? It doesn’t matter. We’re just friends, anyway.”

“Just friends,” I said, the words wounding me the slightest, but the intentionality beyond them clearing my muddled brain. I offered my hand.

“What are you doing?”

“Shake. To our friendship. To your directorial skills, to my need to be a better friend.”

“Sure,” Luke Cho said, a glimmer of light appearing in the corner of his eye. “Hey, I’ve got to get, but I’ll see you later?”

When one door closes, another opens; and though I knew Luke would never be my Prince Charming, I also knew he would make a woman very happy. Selfishly, I pontificated about my own future, the depth of possibilities around the youth of my own, and debated if coincidence was at play. I’d seen two romantic interests in one California town in one night. There was no doubt this was the most ridiculous night of my life, and I didn’t feel that weirded out by it. The world was just a weird place, I thought. Deciding to put on my big girl panties, I jogged back to the car, where I knew I had to make a choice.

 

BAYLEE SAT AT the table with Sam, and I poked the embers of pain away, allowing my desire for forgiveness to come about. I took a chair and said without any reservations, “Hi, friends. I’m sorry for my outburst. I’m also sorry for being a thorn in your side. Thanks for putting up with me. I can leave to give you guys space, although Baylee, you need to be working…”

Megg’s voice chirped behind me. “Hi, guys! Sam, what a surprise to see you!” John appeared, waving too.

Sam and Baylee were both speechless, so I smiled. “They’re just about finished here, and I see you guys are heading out. Hot date, right?”

Megg winked, her smile proving my return was worth it. “We’re going to hit up an ice cream shop and then head back home.”

“It was nice seeing you,” I called after their departing figures.

“Emma, what is this?” Sam asked, his classical voice infused with beautiful poetry, each word fresh and fierce.

“I was immature a few minutes ago. So, I’m here to apologize, collect my dignity, and make sure my best friend gets home.”

Baylee tossed a hundred-dollar bill on the table and kissed me on the cheek. “Have a few minutes with him; I’m going home. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Now it was my turn to be shocked, so I stared at Sam, allowing the surprise to mix with trepidation as the friendly waiter appeared, presenting me with a menu. He frowned in confusion at first, but with the possibility of a sweet tip right around the corner, he ran off. After I declined to eat, Sam pulled me up, leaving a plentiful wad of bills for a generous tip, and we exited. The hint of rain filled the night atmosphere, the humidity reminding me of my Texas roots.

Sam took my hand and pulled me in the direction of a little bench outside the restaurant where we saw the night lights shift above us. Silence was the best voice in the moment, until he began with, “Do you ever feel like a caged bird?”

“Philosophy is not my strong point.”

“Baylee and I had a great conversation. It was about you.”

“Oh, well, that’s embarrassing.”

He closed his eyes. “You see, Emma, I’m afraid that you’re latching onto me. I’m afraid that you’re slowly seeping into my bones. But I’m also afraid that I’m not good enough for you, and that the best thing I could ever do for you is to let you go.”

“Wow, that was a lot.”

He nodded once, then muttered, “Yep.” He pulled my hand to his heart, a romantic little fluttery movement. “You see, I’m not a romantic. You know this. I’m not into women because they’re good conversationalists, okay? I’m a carnal, animalistic human being. But the truth is, there is something different about you, Emma. I only want to see you happy.”

“Sam, this is deep.”

He reached out to kiss my forehead, letting his fingers slip through my hair. “Emma Richmond, what do you think? Am I strong enough to let you go?”

“Why do you need to let me go?” I asked, though the question was pointless. I knew the truth.

He kissed me, letting his lips linger on mine. When we drew apart, he said slowly, “I don’t know when I’ll see you again, but I think fate likes messing with us.”

“Fate doesn’t exist; God does.”

“If you’re right, God is fate for delivering me you.” Then he headed to his car and was gone.

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

I STOOD ON a mountaintop, the background jutting beyond my shape, little scraggly upward arrows pointing to the heavens. The aroma of flowers permeated the air, but the California sunset illuminating the cirrus clouds added an ethereal energy to the nuptials. About a hundred people were in attendance, spread out around a circular shape, to witness the couple embrace in a beautiful clasp under a rugged, uplifted cross. Lacey had become Mrs. Carson Porter. The panorama effect of the mountaintop vista prevailed as a testament to God’s unbending grace upon the couple who swore to uphold each other for the rest of their lives. I was not the only person to cry.

It was Chelsea who nudged me as Lacey and Carson ran off, she lifting her bouquet into the air, and he lifting his wedding band hand. As the crowd cheered, Chelsea leaned into me and said, “Life has changed so much just in the past four or so months. Just think, only in May were we college kids.”

“I don’t want to say good-bye to that person I was.”

“Em, you haven’t gone anywhere.”

“You sure, Mrs. Chelsea Baycroft? I’m just shocked you ain’t pregnant yet.”

She elbowed me as we followed the groom’s and bride’s parents and immediate family. I turned my head for just a minute, allowing one last peek of Lacey’s serene wedding scene, praying to God that Malibu would remain as gorgeous forevermore.

Chelsea’s ring glimmered in the fading light of sunset streaking the sky, but somehow it was not too much of a distraction. We followed the other bridesmaids down to the limousine that would take us to the reception at the community church where Carson preached. The beauty of the recent wedding filled my mind like an already cherished memory, even though it still should have appeared fresh as a rose. At twenty-two, I had a failing memory.

It was close to eight o’clock when we arrived at the church hidden in the hills overlooking the mighty Pacific Ocean, a little light upon a hill. The hot mountains radiated energy as the crew pulled into the cool parking lot, where the wedding party hurried to the gardens to take pictures. Due to drought, the flowers were sparse or close to dead anyhow, but with the pink sky and love spread open like a buttered biscuit, the photos seemed like slivers of scintillating history.

As I watched Carson and Lacey’s kissing snaps, I took a piece of the lavender taffeta I held between my hands and imagined it as the color of my childhood bedroom, the place I’d found a lot of solitude and release as I grew up, from a sun-kissed tot to a bratty teen to a struggling young woman who practically lived on peanuts and cat litter.

Lacey was beside me quickly after this time of ponder, purple flowers peeking out from her gold hair. “Oh, Em. You just never give yourself a break.” She pulled me into a hug, Carson appearing behind her, so that we were in a virtual three-person embrace. “Did I tell you that you look beautiful?”

“It’s true,” Carson seconded.

“Stop this flattery. This is your night, Lacey. Somewhat your night, too, Cars.”

He rolled his eyes, a gold wedding band shining from his ring finger. “Emma’s always been your stubborn friend, but the one who gives life to every situation. Come on, Em, live a little. That means you better dance.”

“Or else,” Lace said, looking up to her man in picturesque love. “Okay, c’mon.”

She took my hand in hers, her husband to her right, and I to her left.

 

 

PART FIVE

Sena

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

 

WHEN I TOLD my father I was going to be a casting director (someday), he balked at the idea. He expected me to return to the Dallas area after college, secure a job as a banker or something relative to that, and be close to him. Yet I’d broken that idea completely when I met Sandra Dearington, a parent of a friend, who introduced me to what I wanted to be. So, when graduation came, I surprised Dad with news that shocked his world: I’m actually not coming home. I’m moving into an apartment in Glendora, and I’ve got a job lined up here. There was no point in giving him a heart attack with the fact of my living arrangements with Jamie, but it had hurt him that we still lived a thousand miles apart. His wife had left, and so had I. Yet I only seemed to be able to breathe away, and truth be told, my life was different now. My friends were in Los Angeles, as evidenced by six weddings in six months. Plus, I did not think I could live without Jamie, and the thought was completely off-kilter and somewhat eccentric, but he had been my anchor for a few years. Okay, maybe a wobbly anchor, but an anchor just the same.

So when he told me he was coming in for Thanksgiving, I choked at the idea. “Dad,” I whimpered, immediately freaking out, because Jamie got Thanksgiving off to come back to LA after months of cenote-exploring in Mexico. “Why don’t I come out for a long weekend?” Though honestly, I did not want to ask for another day off work.

“No,” he authoritatively said, his timbre über-masculine. Innately I decided Eric had told him Mom and I had begun a somewhat-relationship again. “I’m coming. I even bought a ticket for Eric and Cristina.”

“What? Why is Cristina coming? My apartment barely has enough room for a cat and a…” I caught myself in the midst of “two adults.”

“Honey, you’ve flown out home for years now. It’s time that I come visit you.”

Finally, I took the bait. “Is this because you heard Mom is out here? That she and I have somewhat reconnected?”

Dad sighed, and I knew I’d won the lottery here. “Would it be bad if I said part of me wants to see her? Just to know that she’s okay? She was the love of my life, Emma. She is the love of my life. I should have gotten over her, but it isn’t easy in the slightest. If you can get over a heartbreak, then it definitely was never meant to be. Yet your mother and I were always meant to be—at least from my perspective.”

“Dad,” I whispered, thinking that I had been transported back to the middle and high school days of pitting my parents against each other. Mom lives in New York, Dad. Mom, Dad is the one here with Eric and me. Where are you?

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to bother or burden you anymore, Emma. But I want to see that fella Jamie again. He’s hilarious.”

“He’s quite the goofiest creature ever.” Oh, yeah, Dad. He actually lives with me. So you might not want to pack a weapon when you visit. “Would you and Eric mind staying in a hotel?” The squeak of my voice was embarrassing. He should have caught the questioning in my tone, but he didn’t.

“Is your apartment that small?”

“It is Los Angeles,” I said, thinking about yurts and campers I’d seen people live in as an alternative to the apartment hunt in the city. But the truth was that the apartment was probably big enough for Eric, my dad, Cristina, and me. But factor in Jamie, and that was a whole other nightmare.

After hanging up with him and deciding I was the worst person in the world, I grabbed my keys and flew down to the nearest high school running track, where I ran my muscles to the breaking point like any idiot should not. Yet I put myself to the test, debating whether I should break down now or later. Most people would laugh at this predicament, but my father hated men. He was like a misogynist to his own breed. This was because he’d grown up around the roughest of men, and he was a loner anyhow. Therefore, Los Angeles was not his stomping ground. Eric enjoyed the California sunshine, but he was too much of a Texan at heart to ever leave, including the added factor of Cristina.

Once my body was done raggedly gulping air, I scrolled through my phone contacts and dialed Jamie’s number. I didn’t care if he would answer or not, so when his cheery voice sounded over the phone, I broke down crying. “We’ve got an issue.”

“What, my dear Emma? I’m literally rappelling down a tree right now. You should be here. The set designers killed it. The design overall is impeccable, with these giant spider-like things. I mean, this movie will have some CGI, but still.” Finally, he heard my nose spouting like a broken hose. “Emma?”

“I just wanted to hear your voice. I miss you.”

“Well, I miss you too. Can I call you in a few hours so I can devote my entire attention to you?” He was obviously busy, and I didn’t even care if that was just an excuse. I agreed and lay on my back until the tears subsided and the sky above loomed over me like a canvas painted by the best artist in the whole universe.

When Jamie finally called back three hours later, his voice was ragged. “Hey, cariña, how you doing now? Dr. Stewart is here for you.”

“Well, it’s been a whole month since you’ve been gone, and it’s still hot as hell here. So, honestly, I’m praying for fall, so I get good weather and my best friend back.”

“I miss you, too. What’s really nagging at your core? I always thought you’re way too much of a thinker and worrier. Like, literally, you have the best friend in the world and all you do is complain.”

“Oh, Tennessee, I’m homesick. And Dad, Eric, and Cristina are coming in for Thanksgiving.”

Jamie paused, his breathing evident over the phone. “You never told him about our living arrangements, did you?” We even used the same terminology.

I looked at Jamie’s ring on my finger, at the sparkling thing, this immense token of friendship. “Nope.”

“That man terrifies me.”

“Yes. What are we going to do?”

“I’ll spend the week with one of my guy friends?”

“But it’s your only vacation, and…”

“What else will we do? Unless you explain to your father that you live with me, which is only going to cause a bloodbath. I can’t bleed anyhow; I need my perfect features spotless for when I return to filming.”

“The features that somehow slam into doors.”

“Emma, let’s see. We can die together, or you can die by yourself. I’m too lively to die. Therefore, I suggest that I will spend the week at a friend’s apartment, you spend a week with your family at ours. Plus, with the buck I’m making in these cenotes, I may be able to afford my own apartment when I get back.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s just a maybe, okay? You know, living with you has its perks, but I can’t bring anyone home, and I certainly can’t feel like a total man while living with a woman such as you.”

“Thanks. A lot.” Angrily I hung up, ignoring as he tried to call back and text repeatedly, so I stood up, finally texting him back, See you in November, before spouting off my own apology.

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

 

SEPTEMBER PASSED AWAY like a squashed bug. It was a quick month, probably because I devoted so much time to work-related issues. The rest of my life was either spent at the grocery store or at Baylee’s house, where we’d cook gnocchi and sauté things she’d learned from the cooking channel, but I had no idea what they were. I ate like a subservient pup.

In the third week of September, Baylee set a bowl of crème catalana on the counter and stared at me, her big eyes like a wolf’s. She breathed and hastily began, “I have something to tell you. Something I am unsure about.”

“You’re unsure about something?” I asked as I popped a deviled egg infused with Worcestershire sauce into the back of my throat. “Has hell frozen over?”

She threw the apron off her slim figure and lifted her t-shirt, revealing a little lump growing in her stomach. “No, just heaven.” Then she plopped down on the barstool beside me, splaying her French-manicured fingertips onto the granite countertops. “Richard and I went to church this past weekend.”

“Excuse me?” I croaked through a mouthful of pasta. “You did what?”

“We have no other option through this web of lies we’ve both spun. He’s going to raise this baby with me, he finally decided, but we have to work our relationship to the best shape it can be. ‘Whip it,’ he said. So, I suggested we try out the nearby church. Just a few Sundays, see how it goes for us.”

“Like, a Buddhist temple?”

Baylee rolled her eyes. “You are a disbeliever in me.”

“No, just a shocked believer that Baylee Feta is seeking God.”

“Baylee Braitley,” she corrected, “is nowhere near ready to meet God, but she’s open to the idea of it.”

“That’s better than last week.”

“I would say so.”

 

WE NOTICED A change in the Braitley dynamic at work. It was soft, unpronounced, but a change just the same. Richard began communicating directly with his employees, asking about themselves and listening with a good ear. Baylee ceased her open dissection of the women around the place, but continued to gossip, such as her nature. However, the two did not seem as charged with lust as before; instead, there was the sense of hope in their healing relationship.

They seemed awkward around each other most of the time, but it was a symptom of their unified front to fix the broken aspects of their marriage model. Yet the fact they tried gave us all hope at work that the dramatic-filled days of the Braitleys were coming to a close, leaving enough drama from actual actors (and even more from agents).

As for me, I continued casting mainly with Megg, who was steadily at it with John, who sent her purple orchids every two weeks. It was a romantic gesture, one most women would appreciate, giving Megg—for the first time—pride in her relationship endeavors. She and I began a trusted friendship, one made in steady endurance rather than superficial dealings as my friendship with Baylee had started. These feminine work relationships kept me sane on the job, which I continued to, well, work at, while reminding myself that communication between Jamie and me was sparse. We were growing apart because of distance, I decided, a symptom not of a unified front, but of a natural barrier: distance. The word filled me with sadness, but I had something else to look forward to: Sena’s October wedding in Phoenix.

So in the daily shuffle, I found myself in group texts with Sena’s wedding party, while keeping up-to-date with the other married women I’d seen off into the world (somewhat), learning the details of Lacey’s Napa honeymoon, which I honestly would rather not know about. Then Chelsea was in the heat of her first year at film school, which combined work stress with newlywed bliss, while Annabel and her man had returned to Los Angeles in a torpor of love and philanthropic charity ideas. Jerry and Monica had invited me over for dinner, filling me in on wedding secrets I also did not want to know. As for Sena, she’d kept a level head as her nuptials approached, the calmest bride-to-be I’d seen. It was like she was simply hosting a tea party, not a desert wedding which would merge Asia, America, and football.

So as the wedding date approached, I prepared for the long weekend in Phoenix and avoided the present issue of living in a lonely apartment. I was going stir-crazy on a Sunday in early October when outside was finally quite cool and an abnormal rainy day. So when a knock on the door rapped, I shot up like a rocket, almost knocking over Felix/Fiona, who was curled into a ball at my feet. I jumped over her, surprised that any human wanted to connect with me, and blissfully called out, “Who’s callin’?” A bit of Southern drawl had emanated from my vocal chords.

When no one answered, I looked through the peephole, but quickly found my heart retching, the pound of distress like a baby volcano seeping out lava. There was a loud throbbing in my ears, but in horror, I found my hand reaching for the door, opening the knob, allowing myself to come face-to-face with my mother, the venerable Mrs. Eileen Swann, whose dark auburn tresses hung in wetness. The tip of her nose was what I noticed first, due to the rain falling from it; her body was skinny, though her age was apparent. She was now in her fifties, and it was starting to show, especially since I hadn’t seen her in years. She stared at me, clutching her purse in soaked clothes with bright eyes. “Emmaline?” She had always called me this, though my birth certificate read Emma. She even said it as Emma-leen, rather than the standard pronunciation.

“Mom?”

“I know, this is weird. I found your apartment listing through the young man called Jamie. But I’m here, and I am surprised I’m here, just as you’re surprised to see me.”

“Why are you here?”

She looked at her feet, droplets hanging from the tips of her hair. “I’ve missed you, my dear. I haven’t been a great mother; you know this. But I live only a few hours from you, and I felt it was time to see you. Maybe the bias from your dad is gone now that you’ve been on your own. Oh, Emma, I’m so sorry. Don’t take that the wrong way.”

“Word vomit, apparently. Mom, don’t come here and expect me to just allow you to diss my dad here. He’s the one who took care of me while you went away to New York.”

“Em, I’m sorry.”

“And I forgive you. But I didn’t invite you here.”

She nodded and then reached for something in her purse. She retrieved a book, The Fountainhead, and placed the first-edition copy in my hands. “When I left, you were obsessed with Ayn Rand. Victor and I searched high and low for it, but I felt…”

“Thank you,” I interrupted, but then I closed my eyes. “Mom, I need time to process this. It is nice seeing you, but if you would allow me to close the door, I promise, I’ll love you even more.”

She nodded, before whispering, “I love you, sweetie.”

“I love you, too.” Then I shut the door behind me, unable to take the weirdness of the afternoon.

By the time I’d calmed down, I departed the apartment and headed to Baylee’s, where I knew refuge was not possible. Yet she was not home, and so I found myself in the car, driving under the drizzle, the California night heading in, but for once void of sunset. Depressed, I drove to the only place that made any sense right now: Sam’s apartment.

 

IT WAS STUPID, even obnoxious, and somewhat pretentious. Yet it felt like the right thing to do, especially when I drove by the building. Knowing I had to call him to get in, I dialed his number, feeling a bit of frustration at my lack of endurance in not seeing him since August.

“Emma?” he answered on the third ring. “What’s the issue?”

“Well, I’m kind of lonely, and I just…”

“Thought you’d drop by my apartment?”

“Do you see me right now or something?”

“Yes, I do. I was just about to leave myself, and then here you come. I’ll alert security that I want you here.”

“If you’re leaving, why…”

He sighed into the phone. “I was about to head out for cheap pizza in Chinatown. I know the best shop run by a guy who is the epitome of awesome. I was going stag, but going with you would put me in an even better mood.”

We met under a blanket of rain a minute later, once I parked my car. He pulled me into a hug, which seemed familiar. “So, you’ve changed your mind? Since you literally left me in your dust at that party.”

“And you left me at the restaurant. Do I have to explain myself? I thought we were just going out for some greasy pizza.”

“Yes, you have to explain yourself, because guess what? I’m your chauffer, and the person who has forgiven your stubborn red hair.”

“I didn’t know hair could be forgiven.”

“It’s very possible, my friend.”

Minutes later, the car cruised down the highway, lights buzzing past our heads through the drizzle of a lonely SoCal night. We did not talk much, not because there was nothing to say; rather, there was everything to say, and we did not know how to begin. I realized that I desired his friendship, the communication between us in general. The absence of Jamie had brought something to my attention: I missed Sam, too.

So when we were finally in Chinatown, past the conglomerates of flashy lights and the stream of cars littering the roads, I began, “Sam, you know you’re my friend, right?”

“Of course I know that. We’re very friendly.” He whipped the car into an alley, dodging a speeding car headed west.

“And you haven’t really judged my ways around you.”

“That’s okay. You think I get to spend my days with many Texans? It’s just not true. You remind me that there is more to America than Los Angeles, especially with that shock of red hair.”

I blushed, jumping out of the car, wishing I’d brought an umbrella. The phone in my pocket buzzed, but I ignored it, taking Sam’s arm in the midst of the hazy, gray air. We walked in the direction of a pizza parlor, allowing the scent to invade our defenses, weakening us. Before we entered, Sam whispered into my ear, “I know you like people, and the fact you’re so forgiving is truly kind.”

Before I could pursue the comment further, we were inside the Americanized shop, eighties music blaring in the background. The walls were chipped red, the tabletops retro and sixties-like. The display cases held various pizzas, thin-crust and hand-tossed, Hawaiian and pepperoni. As we ogled each piece, a plump Asian man appeared cradling a Diet Coke bottle. “If it isn’t my man Sam!” He hurried behind the counter, pulling his friend into a deadlock hug, grabbing around the neck. From my position, I saw Sam wince, but still he smiled goodheartedly.

“If it isn’t my man Cola!”

“Cola?” I asked, not realizing the word had popped out from the crevice called my mouth. Yet it had.

“Sam, who’s this lady you brought to me?”

Sam pulled back, though he still was in a hug with his friend. “This, Cola, is Emma Richmond. I thought she might need some good old traditional pizza, especially in this weather.”

“You’ve never brought a girl to me before.”

“Because none can handle you.”

“True,” Cola said, reaching out a meaty hand. “Hi, there, Emma.”

“How’d you get the moniker?”

He lifted up the can to his lips, gulping. When he had a tank of air, he said, “My affinity for the Coke brand. Coca Cola is my American name, my friend. So, what can I get for y’all? Sam here’s always for the biggest, meatiest pizza.”

“Make it a large pep, okay?”

“What a slacker this time, Sam,” Cola said, hurrying back to where he’d come from. “It’ll be ten minutes, but I can go ahead and get started now. Slow day.”

“You’re not paying?” I asked in confusion when Sam led me to a table in the corner of the small room. We had a vantage point of the rainy street, where a sweet couple held each other as they moved like little figures in a snow globe.

He shook his head before plopping into a chair. “You see, Cola’s got an issue with my paying for anything at his shop, so I’ll stuff a wad of bills up front before we skedaddle out of here. It’s just a game we play.”

“How do you even know Cola?”

“We grew up together, out in Encino. We’re buddies. It was him, this kid named Asustado, and me. We had this trio of love, I’d say.”

“A trio of love?” I asked in disbelief, rolling my eyes. “A trio of love. I just can’t get over it.”

“So, what wedding are you on now, Red?”

“Don’t call me that, bud.” I shook out a tendril of wet hair sticking to my skin. “Well, Sena’s next. Two weekends actually, out in Phoenix.”

“Arizona—I love that state,” he professed, leaning over the table so that his face was mere inches from mine. “Do you need a date?”

“Excuse me?”

“You know, the whole date thing? I’d be obliged to accompany you.”

“No way. Listen to me, you’d be miserable.”

“You know what, it’s sick that I even said that. I’m going to be in New York City filming anyway.”

“New York, huh?”

He nodded, his eyes bright. “New movie, all about a struggling musician played by yours truly.”

“Whatever happened to Luke Cho’s movie?”

“Who? Oh, that guy. We start filming next April, in time for all the requirements to be met. Plus, it worked best with my schedule.”

“A Hollywood film star is hard to come by, I find.”

“And a Hollywood film star has to worry about the pap.”

“Pap?”

“Paparazzi.” He stood up, whisking me across the room, past the counter, away from the flash of cameras that had seemingly appeared from nowhere. Knowing what he meant—the gossip rag photojournalists—I ran with him, not looking back, hearing the buzz behind us like livid mother bees.

Cola appeared in the kitchen, where a skinny white man was kneading dough. Sam’s friend looked frightened, confused even, until he nodded. “Oh, the life of Samuel Darn Woodshaw. I’ll get them out. You guys can use my personal office for food.” He hurried up front where a slew of Mandarin syllables rifled the air.

Sam waved at the other employee before taking me into Cola’s office, which was a tiny, old room that had a little makeshift tabletop. We sat down underneath dying light bulbs beside a vase of wilting flowers. Across the table from me, Sam’s eyes glinted. “You’ve never seen my followers, have you?”

“They better not have gotten any photos. If anyone finds out about this…”

“Emma, darling, can I tell you something?” He leaned in again, which turned me to a form of stone, immoveable, focused on the curvature of his nose, the dip of his chin, the blue of the eyes.

“Yes?” It came out like a rodent’s squeak.

His mouth opened a sliver, and then the words spilled. “I’d be jealous if anyone got your picture.”

“Why is that, Samuel Woodshaw?”

“Because I’d want you all for myself. Selfish, right?”

“You’re a complete egomaniac.”

The smile in his eyes was infectious. “I know this—it’s Hollywood, baby.”

I slapped his arm playfully. “No, I just think it is your personality.”

“You came back, didn’t you?”

“I came for the pizza. I never said I came back for you.”

He rolled his eyes, and then our food was placed on the table, sizzling and beautiful—manna from heaven. Cola plopped in a chair, his beady eyes bright. “So, tell me y’all’s story.”

“We have a story?” I questioned.

“Everyone has a story. And there’s always a story between two people, so of course you have a story.” Cola hunched in, the stink of aftershave near my nostrils.

“We were introduced by a mutual friend,” I began.

Sam interrupted with, “But Emma refuses to date me. It’s against her religion.”

“What are you talking about?”

“A Catholic with a Protestant? Isn’t that against all codes?”

“You’re Catholic?” I asked quickly, a little thrum of excitement beating me down. I’d never heard him utter anything about a profession of faith.

“Well, I go to mass on Christmas. Does that count?”

Cola rolled his eyes. “Don’t even begin with that, Sam. You’re as unchurched as they come.”

“Like you’re any better,” Sam huffed, biting into a cheesy glop of pizza. “I’d convert to be with the right person.”

“Sentimental now, eh?” Cola took a piece from the plate he’d brought. “You see, I consider myself a spiritual person, but I’m not sure I believe the man-in-the-sky way of thinking, with all due respect, Miss Emma.”

“Trust me, He knows what you think. That’s okay, as long as you’re open to talking about it,” I offered, the pizza sliding down my throat, warm like a summer day.

“Thanks for taking care of the pap, man,” Sam said, patting his friend on the back. “You’re the one I should run off with.”

“Hate to tell you, but I’m happily married. Got a wife, Miss Emma, and she’s the best girl I know.”

“What’s her name?”

“Alissia. I’m so in love. I can only hope for the best for this clown.”

Sam did not blush or anything soppy like that; instead, he forced a slice down his throat and continued to munch away. “You know, Cole, not everybody’s as great as you. It’s not easy finding a girl in Los Angeles—that’s why you go to Glendora.”

“Oh, gag,” I said, turning my head away from the compliment. “Okay, stud, don’t get on my bad side.”

“She’s as stubborn as that hair.” Cola acted like his words were winds of whispers, but of course it did not come out that way. He stood up, brushing off his pants, and winked. “You see, the pap will be here all night now. This is their stomping ground. The good thing is that I have a secret back door, one that is hidden by a bunch of vines and a garbage can, something I haven’t opened since before I was born. So here’s the plan: You two sneak out while I create a distraction.”

“A distraction?”

“Free pizza. Think of it as my socialist gift for the year, possibly for my entire life.”

“You’re crazy, Edwin Brewster,” Sam muttered, shaking his head. Without looking at me, he nodded, “Yes, that is truly Cola’s name.”

Cola beat on his chest like King Kong, and Sam and I stood, the first leaving a wad of bills hidden underneath a rubble of paperwork on his friend’s desk. We followed Cola into the kitchen, where an alcove loomed, an old, sullen door waiting for our chance to escape. Cola placed us together in a team huddle. “Okay, when I say go, I want y’all to run like the world’s about to end. Got it? No stopping for anything. I’ve seen the way these fools drive—and run. It ain’t pretty.”

Sam pulled him into a quick hug of thanksgiving. “Bro, your place’ll be infested for a good time.”

“Business is lucrative if one knows a movie star. Get out of here, kids.” He ran as fast as he could out of our sight.

Sam rolled his eyes. “I wonder who the real actor is here.”

“Cola’s a fun guy.”

“An even funnier cook. Ready? Who knows if this door will even open. It looks rusty.”

“I’ll kick it open if need be.”

“You’re going to kick it open?”

“Don’t stand there in disbelief. I can do it.”

“Okay, Kung-Fu Emma.”

“Go!” Cola screamed at the top of his lungs.

Sam’s hands curled around the knob, but the door would not budge. He thrusted his body against the frame, but nothing gave way, so I pushed him and kicked, which did nothing in itself. My leg ached in pain, and Sam laughed before breathing, “Let us kick together.”

“Are you serious?”

I found myself following his lead, and we kicked the door down together, breaking into the chilly alley. We burst out into a furious run, the screech of the pap behind us, some distracted by free pizza (and us no doubt inside) and others waiting by the two scouted doors (not including our secret vine-covered exit).

Sam grabbed onto my hand, our lungs burning from the night air, the sound of camera lights flashing, little stars behind. We ran with abandon, the passion firing between each cell inside, the energy pounding our legs faster, faster. Is there anything worse than a paparazzo? Of course. But to us—in that sliver of a moment—escape was the goal.

We broke down the alley that led to his parking spot, finding the car where a group of cameramen stood ready to hound us. Momentarily blinded, I covered my face as I ran to the car door, whisking it open in a sudden moment. There were cries of, “Tell us who the mystery woman is, Sam!”

Sam revved the engine and deftly pulled out, the tires screeching at the speed he forced on the road. A motorcycle holding a woman reporter matched our speed, but like a movie, Sam whipped the car left, and the woman tried to follow, though a man—whom we recognized as the pizza-maker at Cola’s—pulled a golf cart across the road, blocking her.

“This has happened before,” Sam said for reaffirmation. “Even Rick’s in on it. He doesn’t mind, especially if I leave a thousand bucks to split between Cola and him.”

When we were on the highway, I turned to him and said, “That was lively, don’t you think?”

“I don’t want to go home,” he admitted, though the clock read eight. Usually, by then, I had snuggled up to the cat who watched stupid reality TV with me. Then again, I acted more like an old maid than a young woman at times. So I nodded in agreement, partly because Sam offered excitement, and partly because I felt like I had something to live up to.

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

 

THE FEEL OF torn skin on the back of one’s heel is about as comforting as a beetle resting on a person’s nose.

We’d pulled into a public strip of beach after stowing the car under a palm. Yet—through the ire of minions chasing us and the prospect of dating Sam Woodshaw—all I could think about were my heels. From all the running in my shoes, I’d accrued painful blisters.

The sand felt somehow soothing on my skin as I dug my fingers into its depths. I refused to look at him, knowing he was intently watching me instead. The moonlight reflecting on the ocean offered a momentary respite from the feelings swirling around my brain. I wondered if this same ocean seemed the same to my mother from her overlook in some outlandish behemoth of a mansion. Desperately I wanted to suck the feelings of abandonment into the vacuum it usually went into. But let us face the facts: I was an emotional trainwreck who needed a sip of reality. I fell onto my back, staring into the dark void of space.

Well, it wasn’t like she abandoned me in the traditional sense. She tried to maintain a relationship with me; it was I who didn’t want that. But I knew some of this internal backlash surrounding the happiness of my friends’ and their fiancés stemmed from my own personal issues. Then add in the volatile substance called Sam Woodshaw, who still swayed me with his kindness. The revelation hurt me, because I knew that this should not have been a thought. You are not supposed to think those things.

But I was thinking them.

My eyes gently refocused on his form, his erect posture, the bridge of his nose revealing an intriguing silhouette—one sublimely illuminated by the hint of light in the city surrounding us. I watched his gaze over the ocean before he looked down at me, his eyes bright. In the darkness, I felt a response to him. I wondered if I should get up and leave right now. Waiting for him, I gazed back into the numerous starlight and felt him lay down beside me, our heads touching.

“I dream about stars,” he said, his voice trained like an actor’s should be. “I dreamt about them all my life. What’s up there, why it’s up there, and why I’m down here.”

“Morbid,” I offered, knowing he was about to touch my sentimental side. I tried to quench my moving ribcage. My lungs were bobbing back and forth in a haphazard manner. I’d never experienced this before—never.

“Nowadays, I’m thankful I’m down here. There’s a lot to be thankful for.” His eyes met mine and I did not question if he actually meant what he’d said. In all honesty, I didn’t really care, because my body was beginning to reach a fiery temperature, and I knew I wanted him to kiss me. Even if he wasn’t a professional actor, even if he wasn’t as handsome as he was, I wanted his lips to meet mine.

“Yeah, maybe so,” I said, hearing my voice quiver.

“Emma?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m going to kiss you now.”

“Yeah?”

“Right now.”

He leaned in and there was a momentary rapture, a sort of well, okay. Then I found myself falling deeper in, letting him touch my neck, and then the fingertips headed downward. I suddenly sat up, unable to move. He sat up with me and said, “Emma.”

“Yes?” I asked, staring straight ahead.

“Why are you always so afraid?”

“There is a lot of fear to be had,” I said lifelessly, unable to think. Finally, I looked back at him, at his eyes, and then I whispered, “Kiss me. Again.”

“Will you promise me not to be afraid?”

“No.”

He smiled, gently bringing my head to his. “Okay then.”

The rapture was palpable. My thoughts mixed with the tone of the moment—the thought that I might not be able to stop myself from what was bound to happen. As we matched the pace, I felt my simmering heart, my sizzling brain, and the fact that, through my half-shut eyes, I saw his awareness like my own.

“Can you wait, like, ten minutes?”

“Why?” I asked, as my ragged breathing caught in my throat.

“We can’t do anything here.” He motioned to the sand.

“Oh, good point.” No point in mentioning I’d never done anything like this before. “Where will we go? The paparazzi will be swarming your house.” I asked as a trickle of kisses grazed my neck.

“My house in Beverly.”

“You have a house in Beverly Hills?”

“Got it last week,” Sam said quickly. He was changing; a fool could see it. I remembered our trek through Malibu, while I scoffed at the notion of a home there while he was seriously contemplating it.

I sat up, my heart roaring, my body still weak from his touch. The waves were gently pulsating, heading straight for my toes. I had dreamed of this moment—the moment where I was sure I’d finally lose my virginity, of whom it would be with, of how it would take place. In the position in the reality, my brain whirred with the questions behind it. The truth was, I wasn’t sure I could go through with it. I liked Sam, but it wasn’t like I was in love with him.

“Emma?”

My reverie was broken. “It’s okay. You know that, right? We can take whatever we have slow. It’ll be a new experience for the both of us.”

“I don’t want to do that to you.” It was the only thing that could seep from my lips. “Sam, I’m a kid at heart. Even if my body is that of a woman’s, the truth is, I’ve never been in this situation before. I know I’m attracted to you…”

“Don’t explain,” he said, his eyes glistening, little pools of understanding. “I want to be with you, but only when you’re comfortable.”

You see, I wish I could have agreed. I wish I had been strong enough to agree with his statement, but when we were cruising down the highway, back for my apartment in Glendora, my brain was in a whirlwind, a centrifuge of confusion. Jamie wasn’t home, and I knew that was an issue.

Intuitively it was a huge issue. As Sam’s eyes glinted in the glow of effervescent light poles, I shrugged away the delicious sin of the moment. Honestly, I wanted to be with him. It wasn’t like I didn’t want to do that with Sam—but part of me couldn’t handle the fact about the after, the forever after, the eternity I’d live with once I knew my first time was with Sam Woodshaw. Thousands—maybe even millions of girls—would have jumped at the chance. Just not me.

I opened the door of his suped-up convertible and stretched out my body. Then I looked down at him, knowing his body language urged me to invite him upstairs, but I felt overcome with the ability of chastity. I moved to the other side and kissed his lips, letting that little spark fizzle. “I only want to do what I know is right.”

His smile conveyed disappointment—but also the hint of respect. Not many women rebuffed him, I understood, but maybe I would be the first. Maybe I’d even be the last. But in the grand scheme of things, I couldn’t live with my own disappointment from what lurked secretly in the night.

I hurried inside into the hidden darkness, watching from my window as he swerved away. For the first time in my life, I was completely relieved by a decision not entirely of my own choosing.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

 

THE ROAD WAS long, deserty, and speculative. Because I’d left a few days later than the other members of the wedding party, I jetted down the road by myself, which gave me ample opportunity to decide what to do about my feelings for Sam, the knowledge that he was a young man who was not necessarily ready to tie himself down. I wasn’t sure about my commitment style either, but I knew that, for whatever reason, my time with Sam was instructional, even if the relationship would not end well. I wanted to be with him physically, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be with him emotionally, spiritually, mentally.

As I contemplated these things, the phone in the passenger seat buzzed, alerting me that Nina was chiming in, the dear friend who had once been Jamie’s rock. Her feminine voice purred over the line, “Em?”

“How’s it going, Nina?”

She sighed into the phone. “Can I come over?”

“I’m actually heading out to Phoenix for a wedding. What’s up?”

She began crying into the phone then, the tears evident even across the telephone. “I’m just stressed, that’s all. Not sure if all this work will really pay off anyway.”

“Oh, Nina, don’t say that. You’re in love, right? I mean, it is stressful, but…”

“You’re right. I’m in love. But that is the problem: I’m having doubts about this.”

“Doubt?”

She breathed heavily, the weight of the world resting on her shoulders. I could imagine her long caramel hair pulled into a pile on her head, her brows drawn in consternation, her eyes blithe but torn. “Doubt as to why I agreed to marry at twenty-two. I’m practically a fetus.”

“Practically you’re at a marrying age,” I argued, the truth being that she really was at a marrying age. Yet it was not my place to completely disavow her thoughts, especially since I had only recently gotten back on her good side. I decided to begin with, “Why don’t—when I get home—you and I go out for a day of relaxation and joy, okay? Nina, this should be a happy time for you.”

“You’re absolutely right on that account. You see, Emma, there is a huge problem.”

“What?”

“I was sifting through one of those ridiculous gossip magazines.” My heart beat quickly, wondering if my photos with Sam had somehow leaked, but decided against this. Nina would have murdered me already if that had been the case. Instead, she said, “I saw a production photograph in Mexico. I see all these jungle-type pictures, with these famous actors, and then I see a face I would recognize from anywhere.”

“You saw Jamie,” I iterated, hearing the words as I said them, taking them in. “Nina, this is not good.”

She affirmed. “It was like my spirit galloped. He’s still as ridiculous as when we were together. Emma, is it possible that I’m still in love with him?”

“Nina, you haven’t seen him in six months at least, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, you can’t just judge your heart’s emotional state by a photo. You need to see him again, and see if that palpitation is still there.”

“Will you arrange this for me? It’s all I ask.”

“Is this, in any shape or form, a good idea? You’re engaged to somebody else, my dear.”

“Emma, I need to make sure—for me, and for my fiancé.”

“All right, okay, that’s fine. He’s coming home for Thanksgiving; we’ll arrange a time then.” Once I’d hung up the phone, I wondered how I would be able to matchmake between Nina and Jamie while being an intermediary between LA and my Texan family. I wasn’t sure which would be harder. Knowing there was something dangerous in the horizon, I pulled the cross from where it hung on the rearview mirror, and clutched it in my palm, a peace surrounding me, soothing me, urging me on.

I had places to be: namely, Sena’s wedding.

But a surreal—even depressing—thought then lodged in my belly. After Sena, there was only one more wedding on my calendar. Only one. Had time already passed that quickly? I knew the dangers of time like anyone else, yet it still stung now and then.

 

THE SWAY OF jazz music thrummed in my brain like a bird set free from a cage. It was Friday night, the 17th of October, under a gazebo in a prim Italian restaurant/party venue in the outskirts of Anthem, Arizona. The saxophone created a lithe melody to which the guests buzzed, the mixing of couples gently on the dance floor, the stars lighting hair and jewelry and, obviously, Sena and her fiancé, Steve Blackwood.

The man was like a brick, probably indestructible. Over six and a half feet tall, and with a burly beard the size of Dallas, he was the epitome of rugged man. His normal brown curls had been shaved to reveal a jagged crew-cut on the eve of his wedding day, but now, at the reception before the wedding day itself, his dancing skills were put to the test. As he spun his fiancée around the gazebo, the thick drift of perfume from the ladies congealing with that of aftershave, he seemed out of place. It was Sena who sparkled like a gem, her svelte frame showcasing her dancing skills. Her long charcoal hair cascaded down her back in waves, a contrast to the midnight blue of her night dress. It was the only time I’d seen her truly relax in the day we’d been in Phoenix preparing for the nuptials.

As I huddled beside Sena’s cousin—who, like me, was twentysomething and uncommitted to any man—my mind fizzled when I saw Sena’s older, pretentious-minded brother, Charles, step away from the dance floor. He locked eyes with me, no doubt remembering our awkward San Francisco run-in. Sena had taken me to her parents’ mansion in the Bay area for a week-long soiree, and her brother had made it clear he hated me. It did not go well when I accused him of being a no-good bottom feeder, to which he called me a conservative Trump activist, to which I did not wish to argue for loss of breath.

Since then, I had not seen him, but he walked up to me anyway, a glass of wine firmly placed in his hands, an automatic turn-off. “Why, if it isn’t my favorite woman in the world. Emma, what a pleasure, as always.”

“Cut it now, Charles. Let’s be honest: We are here to celebrate the marriage of your sister, not to debate over politics, not to debate over anything, really.”

“Like the fact that you’re already debating over what we’re going to talk about.”

I rolled my eyes, not in the mood for this, because I really would have rather enjoyed watching Sena amble about as she danced, a firefly drifting back and forth, weaving between her loved ones. Somehow, though, I was caught in a position with her brother, the favorite, the Stanford boy. “You know, you must be bored to chat with me.”

“No, most people bite their tongues, so I don’t get to debate very often. It livens everything, wouldn’t you say?”

“Move to Alabama, experience a change of life. You can debate all day long, then.”

“I don’t think I’d like it there.”

“You can’t handle a difference of opinion? I went from Texas to California.”

He shook his head, watching as his sister slowly drifted with her fiancé. “Texas and California aren’t that much different.”

“Give me a break, Charles.”

“I wish I could, Emma, but let me prove a point here. The point is that a dear sister showed me a photograph of you in a certain tabloid.”

“Excuse me?” I croaked.

“Lying on a beach with a certain film star. A sizzling Sam Woodshaw, who happens to be a playboy if I’ve ever heard of one.”

I rolled my eyes then, my skin flaring, my brain frying. “What do you mean?”

“No one’s shown or told you? On a beautiful strip of beach, under a Los Angeles sky…”

Suddenly my drink was on his jacket, and he scowled at me. No one had noticed our foray, and he tensed, the ice chilling his visible skin. “You see, Emma, I actually came to talk to you to offer a word of advice. But now you’re just playing it rude.”

“That was your way of advice? Basically calling me out for something that is my personal decision?”

“See, you do have California in your blood.”

“Shut up, Charles. I really don’t need to hear anything from you.”

He nodded, taking off his suit jacket, bringing the glass of wine to his lips. “From what I’ve heard about Sam—and what I know about you, Em—I think this is a mistake.” His eyes got serious then, a different person taking root, the competitive nature an evaporating mist.

“I already told you, Charles. I don’t need your advice.”

He nodded then, the seriousness still there, the jerk vacant. He began to walk off, and then waved, and then he was back into the shadows from where he’d come.

I stood by, whipping a bottled water from a table, drinking the whole thing in one sitting. As the figures gleamed nearby, I knew Charles was honest, even if his tactics were quite obnoxious, but that was Charles. Innately, it was true. Jamie had warned me; Charles had warned me, too. It was like there was an unspoken guy code, something I did not know, and like that, my phone buzzed in my pocket.

“Jamie?” I asked, my mind numb to what I’d just thought at the mention of my best friend.

“Hello?” His voice was golden, a return to normalcy. “Em! Guess who is coming home in only two weeks.”

“Earlier than expected?” I shrieked at a minimal volume.

“Yup. That means you and I are going to have an all-day horror marathon at that darned apartment. You won’t believe it, either. I’m already being invited to all these Hollywood parties, and I’d like it so much if you’d come with me.”

Then I thought about the fact that, in the lesser known media world, I was already known as Sam’s girl of the week. Confused, I bit this information down, and smiled at the playfulness in Jamie’s tone. “I can’t believe it. This helps my endurance.”

“Hey, and you’ve only got two more weddings. Two weddings and Hollywood at your feet.” He said it as a joke, but he seemed to backtrack when he realized I wasn’t laughing. “Em, you know that whenever I call you, everybody always teases me about my lady. They think we’re lovers.”

I tensed, taken aback by this Jamie, this person who seemed equivocally comedic and open. “Lovers, huh? Did you tell them our children would probably have red afros?”

“I did tell them you are my lady, but only as my best pal. They don’t believe me. So if you come with me to these events, we can prove that it is possible that a man and a woman can be the best of friends without romantic entanglements.” He was serious, I realized, which dampened my spirits.

“Jamie,” the lie slipped from my lips like evaporated liquor. “I’m still at the reception dinner, and I’ve got to go. Call you soon?” I have nowhere to go.

“Bye, Texas.”

“See you.”

When we hung up, I stood underneath a wispy palm, the chilly desert air tingling the fine hairs on my skin. The wedding party and guests were drifting from the dancefloor to a dessert reception nearby, where waiters sped around to fulfill every person’s wish. There was a sweet melody still playing at the piano under a trellis of white lights, but the tear that was set to drift down my skin was blinked back into my eye. I wasn’t sure why Jamie’s comments stung, because I had to fulfill something for Nina. She wasn’t sure if she was in love with him or not, and I was to be their mediator. I would have to talk to Jamie about this, to make sure he was all right with seeing her again; then he would not need me for any Hollywood red carpets. Terrified of what the future held, I mingled back into the crowd, ignoring Charles’s scowls and the fake smiles of the other bridesmaids. After these wedding fiestas were over, I would need a year-long vacation to the icy, polar slopes of Switzerland.

 

THE NEXT MORNING brought forth the rays of a new marriage ceremony under a sprinkle of palm trees in the depths of a desert garden venue. Yet we were at the hotel, and around nine o’clock, I burst forth into Sena’s hotel room, where she was hurriedly doing a set of fifty push-ups. Her hair was pulled into an inky ponytail that hung over the sinews of her taut body.

She was quiet for a few moments, as I continued to watch her complete this intensive work-out. When she was done, she fell onto the ground, and then she urged me to lay down beside her. “You see, I did not want anyone in here until ten, because I knew they would force me to get ready before I was even ready.”

“Why’d you let me in?”

“Because you’re Emma Richmond, the kid who offers snarky wisdom in the midst of immediate suffering. I’m used to pushovers, especially in the realty world, but in my own family? It’s suffocating. That’s why I believe family is more than just your immediate parents.”

“See, why are you so perfect?”

“What are you talking about?”

“You always have everything together. You’re in love, you make the best of every decision, and you always light up the room.”

“Emma, you’re making it sound as if I’m about to become a corpse.” She sat up, the sweat dripping from her chin. “You are so crazy. If you haven’t noticed, nobody’s perfect, and you sound like you’re the perfect candidate for something totally ridiculous.”

“What do you mean?”

Sena stood up, pulling me with her. “We’re going to break out of here, just for thirty minutes, and we’re going to literally jump into the Jacuzzi.”

“Isn’t that…”

Sena shushed me, the dance in her eyes unmistakable. She did have a wild streak in her, which I had missed by skipping out on the bachelorette party (as I’d been in the midst of unbearable LA traffic), but together, we were aflame. We exited the hotel room, checking the hallway to make sure the coast was clear. Then we hurried to the stairs, jogging down a few flights to the first level, where the crystal blue pool awaited. Weirdly enough, no one was swimming, so Sena dove head-first into the water. Laughter burst from my lungs, and then I was jumping too, fully clothed in my nightwear, but also armed with a happy sense of friendship.

We bobbed at the top of the water, Sena’s eyes streaked with smiles. “Come on, first to make twenty laps gets to skip the wedding.”

“Yeah, that makes total sense!”

“I’m so darn nervous, Emma!”

“I’m so darn screwed, Sena!”

The ruckus from two women equaled the power of a whale, and then the door opened and in flurried Sena’s mother, Elizabeth, tapping her foot on wet tile. Sena and I could not control the mirth that tickled our souls.

“What are you two doing!”

Sena finally calmed down, offering, “Mama, I’m nervous as heck, and Emma here is facing destruction herself. So, if you wouldn’t mind, let us be, so we can wallow in our fear and excited joy and terror and all of the qualities that Jesus advises us not to wallow in. I am in love with Steve Blackwood, but I’m also getting married to him, so I need this.”

Elizabeth stared at Sena as if her confession was a brick wall. The speech had not only dismayed her mother, but Sena was now tired, as if the anxious tick had been replaced by the emotion needed to overcome the long day and the fact that tonight, Sena would be a Blackwood and a wife.

We stepped out of the pool together, soaked and stressed, and Sena laid her head on my shoulder. “We do stupid things together, Emma.”

“Yes, and I love us for it.”

Elizabeth shouted, “I don’t even know what to say to the both of you. There are times, Sena, when I doubt your father’s judgment in giving part of the business to you, and then I remember that you’re barely a woman.”

“I’m a woman in love,” Sena said, her words a lighter incinerating a cigarette. “You see, Mama, since I’ll probably never have the courage to say it again, I’ll say it: Why don’t you save the love for Charles, your pretty little son, the rat who—and Dad even knows—is jeopardizing the entire business by dealing with a drug cartel dealer from Guadalajara. Good riddance.”

Elizabeth huffed and puffed, yelling at her daughter, and still Sena pulled me with her out the door, through a mist of power and some regret. We were wet and watering the elevator, and then Sena was dropping me off at my hotel room, and she whispered into my ear, “You think that hurt or helped?”

“Of course it hurt.”

“Too bad. I’m getting married.”

 

SENA’S MENTAL BREAKDOWN and my own culpability in that process brought forth anger for me in the day. Through the morning breakfast, the afternoon feast in the cacophony of prep, and the bitter tone Elizabeth had set for the rest of the day, life struggled on. By three o’clock, an hour and a half before we were due to depart the hotel, I sat by Sena, who munched on a Twinkie as the hair stylist wrapped her hair into a braided up-do.

“Well, there’s this thing I’m going to ask of you, Emma, something I could not ask of anyone else in this world.”

“Yes?” I asked, careful not to move too much due to my butter-yellow dress and recent waved hair.

“I want you to live life to the fullest, duh, but I also want you to have a carefree, adventurous wedding. This isn’t you.”

“What do you mean?”

“This type of wedding. I mean, really, do you envision yourself getting pampered and dolled up, surrounded by fifty-five women? No offense meant by that, Darian,” Sena said, licking her fingers. She was in a mood, a peculiar mood; it was the wedding, I assumed.

Darian nodded, tousling a tendril of Sena’s hair. “Trust me, I know. When my baby sister got married last fall, I about had it. I think there’s too much fuss about these weddings. Why not just hit the justice of the peace is my question.”

“I plan on marrying at my church back in Stephenville.”

“Only invite the preacher, two witnesses, that funny cat of yours, and the groom. That’s my suggestion.”

“I thought you wanted me to promise you something,” I said, laughing.

Sena stood once her hair was in place, and, like a princess, said, “Well, then you better promise me right now.”

“Sure,” I said, not meaning it.

 

THE CEREMONY WAS due to start in ten minutes, but Sena was complaining of a queasy stomach, and she was being fanned by some of the bridesmaids while receiving advice from her mom and a few of her relatives. I peeked out of the little dressing station at the venue, watching as the guests filed into their seats, all one hundred of them, along with the appearance of the groom and his pals. The pastor, a family friend named Brother Rob, was greeting Sena’s Japanese grandparents. An infinity symbol of red roses was shaped out in the aisle between the white pews. The mountains and twinkling sunset cast an ethereal mood over the wedding as the sun began to slip beyond. An altar of white roses was dawning gold from the slipping sun, and the addition of our butter yellow bridesmaid dresses would add more color to the desert slopes lurking miles away.

Finally, Sena stood, clutching her bouquet of forget-me-nots closer to her bosom, a smile quivering on her lips. I had never seen my friend so nervous, but there was nothing I could do at this point, especially not when a woman pushed us into a line. A harp began to strum, and then my feet were on gravel, following the others across the aisle, stepping on the beautiful roses, feeling them squish under my feet.

Pastor Rob stood by Steve, who looked like a calm demigod, a Perseus-type. The man was large as it was, but the addition of a suit and the jutting peaks behind him reinforced this stereotype. In fact, I wasn’t sure if he was that handsome; it was his impressive stalwart physique that thoroughly intimidated me.

Then, once I had taken my place, the harpist changed tune, mixing in with violins and cellos, and the bride appeared, a woman cast in the glow of fading light, a beautiful rose herself, a sharp contrast to the darkening shadows behind her. The satiny dress she’d chosen was the perfect touch of classic, the lace covering her decollate like finery on a china doll. The wide smile crafting her lips revealed the heavenliness inside, a treasure not only of love, but of human life.

With each step she took, Sena radiated confidence, not the sporadic nervousness she’d displayed earlier in the day. As the sun’s final descent clouded above, she took her place by her husband, gripping his hands in her own, right in front of Brother Rob. As they spoke their vows, highlighting the semblance of togetherness rather than individuality, the emotion from their friends and family was evident. I watched the crowd, seeing a few stray texters, some others staring at the mountain vista, but the majority was overcome by the emotional palpability spread before them like butter on bread.

The sky became a blanket of stars hanging suspended above a group of homo sapiens experiencing something thousands had already partaken in. Yet with the surreal aura of the here and now, I winked upwards, where I assumed God awaited his flock, and thanked Him—for all He’d blessed not only me with, but the entire universe as a principle.

 

 

PART SIX

Nina

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight

 

JAMIE WAS FURIOUS, that much I could tell. A magazine sat on the table, one of those ridiculous tabloids I used to spend so much time reading. I only knew where this was going; he knew. I picked it up, opening it to the ear-marked page, seeing the photo for myself. The image of my kissing Sam, on the beach where we’d sworn ourselves to secrecy, only to have that moment taken from us. The photo made me cringe; it made me cry. I hurt to know what I’d done to myself, for allowing this position to happen, because it was not me. I did not want this. It took that image to offer proof that Sam’s life would never satisfy me. I wanted to be known as a good girl, not this person on top of a man at a beach.

“What are you up to, Em?” Jamie croaked, the brotherly timbre terrifying me. He was meatier now, buff like a self-sustainer, one of those guys living in a hut in Montana. He looked good, I admitted to myself. “I leave, and when I come back, you’re like this?”

“So, it’s not okay for me to do things with a guy? But when you and Nina dated, it was perfectly…”

“What Nina and I did was okay because we were not being photographed. Emma, this is trash.”

“I didn’t know we were being photographed.”

“Did it ever cross your mind that maybe Sam did? There’s a reason I cut it off with him, Emma, and that’s because he’s not what you’d think.”

It was like a train had run into me at that moment, not really because of what Jamie had to reveal, but because he had not told me sooner. It was then that a tear streaked down my face, the first time Jamie had ever made me cry, and when I knew our relationship really had changed. It was entering new territory, something I was not sure was hostile or friendly. “What did you hear?”

“Sam’s a bad influence, Emma. He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He’s got this star mentality, okay, that he doesn’t necessarily exude when he’s around normal people. But I have seen it, when we’re alone, and he begins to admit things himself. He puts his faith in himself and dope, Em. A new girl all the time, even when he’s with you. This same rag has a photo of him and Melody Allsbrook. You’re playing yourself, Emma, and I can’t see you stabbed in the heart.”

“Why wouldn’t you tell me sooner?” My voice was hard like stone. “I’m not that emotionally involved with him, anyway.” It was a lie, but there was some truth in it. Like anything, lies sometimes contain truth; some truth contains lies. There is yin and yang in both yang and yin.

Jamie tensed and offered, “I don’t want to tell you how to live your life. But this,” he held up the magazine, “is just too much. What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking,” I said, my voice strained, cracking like ripped paper, “that I am twenty-two, and I wanted to do what other people do.” I fingered Jamie’s ring, feeling it twist against my flesh. My skin was red, irritated, just like my heart.

Jamie sat down beside me, the traces of anger void from his face. He was now prepared with understanding. “Hey, I’m sorry, Em. You know I’m like a brother to you, and you’re going to hate me sometimes. And you know I’m the way I am because I love you.”

“I know,” I nodded.

“Listen to me,” he said, his eyes familiar, the lilt in his voice similar to when we first moved into our apartment. I was suddenly transported, back to a late May or early June day, this past summer, when we had first moved here. I’d just come home from a jog, and he had been lying on the couch, a cloth on his face. Now, I appreciated his chiseled features, the etching of his countenance signifying his growing age. “I love the fact that you are different than most people, Emma Richmond. You’re not a party girl; you don’t smoke, drink, any of that stuff. You listen to disco with me, and you’re my most trusted friend. I honestly think sometimes that you and I are soulmates—as friends of course.”

“Really?”

“Yes. But then I know you, and I know there is something about you, something uncontrollable, like a hurricane on steroids. You were never meant to be in one place, that I can tell you.”

“What are you saying, Jamie?”

The playfulness had shrunk back, and the next thing I knew, he whispered, “I’m afraid that I’m too harsh on you. Emma, I’ve been needing to tell you something for a long time now.”

“Yes?” I asked, careful to keep my feelings in check. Somewhere inside my gut, a hope furrowed, blossoming carefully, unwilling to unravel. “What is it, Jamie?”

He blinked, and a gentle pause stroked my ego. “I’ve been thinking nonstop about Nina. Nina Huston. I saw the wedding announcement on the counter, and I…I’m still in love with her, Emma. I did not think it was possible to love someone after this long, but…”

My mouth fell open, as this was not what I was expecting of him at all. His eyes were wide, honest, and raw, and so I quickly composed myself, stuffing the hope further down into the pit of my stomach. Why would he have suddenly admitted he not only loved me, but was in love with me? This was Jamie, and that thought was ridiculous. Of course he had been thinking of Nina, the woman he’d loved for years now, a woman whose absence had taught him he loved her more than he knew before.

I realized how terrible I must have looked, staring at him, open-mouthed. Plus, I had forgotten to mention that Nina wanted desperately to see him, to check her own feelings before committing herself to another man for life. I sighed, sucking in air, and told him the truth.

“Are you serious?” he asked, the words like tiny thumbtacks in my skin. But then that belief was covered by waves of my own reaction to my best friend still remaining in love to a woman who was also my friend, a trustworthy soul. If Jamie was in love with anyone, a woman like Nina was the girl to become enraptured by. She had a heart of acceptance and joy unlike my boiling-to-the-brim personality. Frustration was slowly compelled to be forgotten; reservation disappeared.

As Jamie registered the predicament that Nina wanted to see him, my own feelings shifted because of his response. I wanted his happiness more than anything else, and not even the callback for the Mexican movie had produced this joy for him. So I knew this was something special, and I was blessed to have seen this vision of Nina and Jamie together again.

Ten minutes later, after Jamie had flurried away to unpack his things from the long ride home, I dialed Nina’s number. The familiar sweet melody of her voice filled my ears, and she spoke honest pleasantries, asking me about myself before anything else.

When I told her Jamie was finally home and willing to meet her, we arranged two days later as their time to reconnect, of course at the apartment. I would introduce them again, just to break the ice, before disappearing, per Nina’s request.

Once I updated Jamie about the situation, he seemed nervous, his eyes wide as I delivered the news. Eventually, he stalked off to the kitchen to prepare a new vegan dish he’d mastered with some Hollywood hippie girl. Needing air and a change of scenery, I turned on the TV to a geological program where scouts explored a caldera in Hawaii, which of course brought my thoughts to Tyron McKenzie, which prodded my thoughts down the line to James Allen Stewart. As I heard him ambling about in the kitchen, I thought to myself, Soon, he’ll be cooking for another woman, another girl who’ll eat whatever sickness he is about to feed me.

“You know what,” I suddenly burst, standing up. “Jamie, I’m heading out. I’ve got somewhere to be.”

“Where you going?” he called out.

“I haven’t been running in nearly four months. It’s November, and I haven’t jogged since…since I met Sam. Oh my gosh, I’m a total idiot.” I ran to my room, strapped on my old tennis shoes, pulled my red hair into a messy up-do, and bolted outside, into the smoggy air, which seemed beautiful after departing the emotional sanctum of the apartment.

I passed places I drove by every day, or more accurately, places that passed me by every day. I thought of work, of the indie flick I was casting now, which brought to me to Megg Holmwood, who was keeping me in the loop of her romantic relationship with John George. I’d never seen a woman happier.

After I had crunched four miles of earth, my legs gave out under an oak in a community park where the squeal of happy children on the cool Saturday afternoon sounded like popping bubbles. I opened my cell phone, dialed the number, and accepted that I had to accept certain things, because certain things were in my deck of playing cards.

The grass tickled my ear, but then my mother’s voice chirped over the line, “Emma?”

“Hi, Mom.”

“How are you doing?” She sounded normal, which surprised me.

“I’m okay. Just wanted to check up on you.”

“Has an alien replaced my daughter? You want to check up on me?”

I sighed, breathing hard. This was my attempt at a first step, at patching up the holes we both created together. What my mom did to me was not my fault, but what was my fault was living in the sorrow she’d created. As I sat underneath that oak in Glendora, California, I took a step I had not taken in years: forgiveness.

I did not have to love everything my mom did, because there were things I hated about her, but because I had received the ultimate forgiveness, I knew that to better my own life and to give her a piece of life back, I had to forgive her.

She told me more about her life in San Diego, the business she’d set up for a good clientele base there, and how she was happy with Victor. She went to church, she promised, and kept in frequent contact with Eric, probably even more than I did. She expressed her political leanings, how she regretted missing out on my college experience; I told her about my new job and even living with Jamie. I even found myself telling her about a boy I was spending time with, but one I knew was a passing memory. She told me to let him go.

At the conclusion of the conversation, which had taken over two hours, she mentioned, “Honey, thank you for calling me. You don’t know how much this has meant to me.”

“Mom, I love you, and…” The words were sharp, but necessary. “I’m sorry for being such a jerk. For taking after my rebellious, strong mother.”

The tears were obvious through the line, but she quickly stopped me. “Honey, don’t. Please, don’t. I’m sorry. You have to forgive me.”

“I forgive you.”

The sun was setting, another day closed, another one ready to open tomorrow. So, after I jogged/limped the four arduous miles back home, I slouched into the couch beside Jamie, who held a Kafka novel in one hand and a bowl of cheesy, buttery popcorn in the other. I laid my head on his shoulder, saying nothing, allowing the silence to remind us that we were—sadly and passionately—growing up.

 

WORK THAT MONDAY was as long as Mississippi kudzu, dragging on with a batch of particularly difficult actors and agents. Megg, meanwhile, was bitter about her first scuffle with John, and Baylee was a crab because she was experiencing severe and obnoxious cravings. Richard was a doting and loving husband to her, meeting her every need, leaving his business to stand on its own feet as he trekked across town to find the precise brand of refrigerated sushi Baylee preferred.

It was around two-thirty that I decided to cut out of the office, sneakily of course. I would work tremendous overtime the next few days, but I wanted to stop by the store to grab some fresh flowers and treats to liven up the apartment for Nina and Jamie’s reconnection. It was a romantic reconnection, of course, but one just the same—and I felt myself a little nervous for the response they would receive from each other.

The traffic was—for once—easy, and I made it home to the apartment within the hour. By four o’clock, only an hour before Nina was set to come over, Jamie paraded in after a long day at the studio. Instead of the normal view of him in t-shirts depicting flying unicorns, he was in a turquoise polo shirt and dress pants, the embodiment of casually chic—at least for a guy. Careful not to look at him too closely, I fluffed the flowers I’d purchased and left them on the recently cleaned dining room table. I’d chosen purple and blue petals, although I wasn’t sure what the flower was exactly; all I knew was it was gorgeous, a mixture of beauty and class.

Jamie fell onto the sofa, a large sigh erupting from his lips. “You know what I hate?’

“What? Are you not even going to compliment what I’m doing for you?”

He glanced over, nodding in appreciation. “Thanks, Tex. Anyway, I hate myself. What am I getting myself into? Talking to another man’s girl? That’s downright dirty, Em.”

I shuffled over to him, knowing where was this headed. He was going to try to get out of this. I fell beside him, staring him dead in the eye. “Okay, you’re having a loss of faith, bud. What do we always say?”

“In God we trust,” he whispered, though not very convincing as a result. He raised his eyebrows, the cocoa irises warm beneath. “Em, this is so wrong. She’s engaged to another man.”

“Think of it as a loan. A tiny loan, which you’re going to see if you’ll take or not.”

“Terrible, terrible analogy.”

“You know, I don’t have to get you guys flowers and take care of your wants like a dutiful mother.”

He rolled his eyes, playfully nudging my side. “You know, Emma Richmond, I’m thankful for you. More than you can ever know. How about we watch some relaxing Game Show Network?”

“That is far from relaxing, especially when trivia’s on.”

The minutes passed, ticking away quickly. By five o’clock, the shadows had combed us on all sides of the apartment, the California winter in full bloom. It was November, quickly blossoming into December, and after this soiree between Jamie and Nina, I had to plan for my family to arrive the following week for Thanksgiving. Not to mention how snappy-quick December would melt by, and with it, Nina’s wedding and Christmas.

The doorbell rang, and Jamie awoke from a quick catnap. He stood up, the bounce back in his step. I pushed him away and hurried to the door, looking out to see the familiar caramel strands, the beautiful face, the posture of a woman in love.

When she stood before us, I heard my own heart catapult, because I immediately knew that Nina and Jamie still loved each other. As soon as Nina reached out to shake his hand, albeit awkwardly, Jamie pulled her into a friendly hug that lasted a beat too long. Her brown hair on the turquoise of his back pushed me away from my duties as host, because I felt like I was trespassing against their private moment.

Nina pulled away, heat evident by rosy cheeks. She side hugged me, kissing my forehead. “The trio’s back together,” she offered.

“Come on, I bought some cookies from the store, and…”

Nina pointed to the beautiful flowers. “They’re so gorgeous, a mix of my favorite colors. Jamie, you sure you didn’t buy them?” A hint of flirtatious jest beamed between them.

“I do remember those colors,” he whispered, a memory tugging at him. He rested against the archway, leaning comfortably to reveal a chiseled physique, similarly to how Sam had met me on that first day in June. I noted Nina’s awareness of Jamie’s position, but she was also comfortable. She took a cookie and popped it into the redness of her mouth. “So, Nina, how’s the whole grad school thing?”

“Busy, like I’m sure a Hollywood actor like yourself is.”

“I’m sure that isn’t true.”

“You were always terrible at lying—to me that is.”

“Because you read me so well,” Jamie breathed.

Taking this as my cue to leave, I grabbed my keys and a light jacket, heading outside into the fresh night air. Not sure what to do or where to go—and sure as heck not wasting any money on California gasoline—I used my own two feet to walk to a nearby smoothie shop. In between watching CNN, Fox News, and the questionable E! on the various screens, I finally felt the necessary courage to have an hour-long conversation with Baylee, who was known to drain my energy. Had I only known her for a few months? I felt like I’d known her my whole life.

When I told her what I was doing for Jamie and Nina, she huffed over the phone. “You’re playing a freaking matchmaker? What are we—four-year-olds? But kudos to the woman for checking her heart before marrying another man. Let’s be real, she could take a few pieces of advice from my life story. Where are you, anyway? Want to come over? Rich is out, but I’m just sitting here watching that Waco show Fixer Upper. You’ve seen it?”

“Did you forget that I am from Texas?”

“Oh, that’s right. Come on, come snuggle with me.”

“Not that I don’t love you, Bay, but I’m busy. And that’s a weird request anyway.”

“Doing what, Emma? I know you, and I bet you’re hiding away at some little restaurant watching politics. How boring. How are we friends?”

“Well, to your first comment, I’m an informed voter. I wish you were the same. And as for our friendship, I’m not sure how we’re friends, but we are, and that’s a good enough explanation for me.”

After we hung up, I found myself bored and ready to leave the smoothie shop, so I walked outside, staring into the sky, hoping to see a star. In my hometown, the stars would have offered solace and even humility; now, with nothing to see but the black blanket of night, I found myself unsure what to do next.

In perfect timing, my phone beeped in my hand, divine intervention. Sweetly, I realized it was Jamie who was ringing me up.

“Hey, can you come home?”

“What’s up?”

“Well,” he huffed, “everything went pretty well, until we started discussing the future—and the past.”

“Hey, I’ll come now.”

As my car and I ambled down the road, I heard Jamie’s voice ringing in my head, the desperation in his voice. There was something there, something undetectable at the moment, but there just the same. I knew he was in love with Nina, but there was something else, something incomprehensible, a plea. I wondered if there was something more to their conversation, but I knew I would discover whatever it was as soon as I got home.

He was lying on the couch when I opened the door, a blanket covering him, just allowing his face to remain visible. In this moment, he seemed like the kid I knew. When he saw me, he turned off the TV, his voice emotional. “She loves me, Emma, but she’s afraid to admit it.”

Even the flowers seemed dead now, just from the depressing note their date had ended on. As I whipped my shoes off, rubbing my soles, I said, “She’s got a lot to think about.”

“I know,” he whispered. “Can we not talk? Can we just sit here like normal?”

“If that’s what you want.”

“Okay.”

A few minutes later, he was fast asleep. I stood up, deciding it was time for my falling asleep; only moments later, as I finally fell into bed, my phone buzzed with a text from Nina.

At a loss, Emma. Meet me for coffee sometime soon?

 

Chapter Twenty-Nine

 

IT WAS A bright November day, a week from Thanksgiving. I’d just finished cleaning the apartment, from scrubbing the bathroom and kitchen floors to buffing the countertops. Jamie was out with some of his friends. It was a few days after the date, and, finally, Nina was coming over to tell me her side of the story. As for Jamie, he’d left the details of their meeting private, locking me away from whatever he was feeling.

She came in while I was bleaching my bathtub, and when I went out into the foyer to meet her, I tore off my gloves and smiled. Nina had lost some weight from her pre-wedding workouts, which was not in my opinion very healthy; yet Nina was one of the prettiest women I’d ever met, and this was not an exaggeration. Being her friend compromised my self-esteem.

“Hey, you seem busy, so I brought McDonald’s.” She lifted a bag of junk food.

“But you hate take-out!”

“But you love it, and consider this payment for being my shrink.”

“Let me wash my hands. Sit on the couch, I’ll be there in a moment.”

When we were comfortably settled, the only sound being my munching on salty fries, Nina sighed, sticking her legs beneath her. “Emma, I’m even more confused. I’m not sure if I still love Jamie or not. You see, he seemed like a different person to me.”

“He’s changing, but I guarantee he’s still the same old Jamie underneath.”

“You think?”

I pulled a sliver of cheese from the burger, allowing the foam to dissolve on my tongue. “I know so. He’s a big teddy bear. Bear due to his new physique, which I’m sure you’ve noticed; teddy, because he’s the sweetest guy we know.” I set my food on my lap, my eyes narrowing. “If you are having any reservations, do you believe this is the best idea?”

“I have a month to decide. December 13th will be here soon enough, but I wanted to be sure. I’m pretty sure I’m still so much in love with Chris that I’ll marry him. I just had to be sure, to come here, to see Jamie one more time. I needed to close that door. You see, what set him off was when he asked about my wedding, and I admitted that I always knew Chris was the man I was going to marry. He asked me why I decided to meet up with him, and then I felt like a sour skittle. I told him the truth, and then he exploded. ‘You’re not even sure who you love?’

“I felt terrible, and so I told him I needed to leave before we both knew things would get too heated, and that would ruin our relationship altogether. It was miserable. And the worst part is that I invited him to my wedding, Emma. The words came out before I could think. Why would I—his former girlfriend—have invited him to my wedding, when he admitted he is still in love with me? That is like asking for disaster to happen.”

“I’m sure he’ll decline the invitation,” I offered, not sure if he would or not. Jamie would not do anything out of spite, but if he really did want to show support for Nina and her fiancé, he would go.

Nina’s big eyes started to tear up before returning to normal. “I am an awful human being. If Chris knew what I have been doing behind his back, he’d end it right now. But I wanted to be sure.”

“And are you?”

“I think so.”

“That doesn’t sound very reassuring, Nina.”

“I’m ninety-nine percent sure that I am done with whatever I had with Jamie. We may still have feelings for each other, but I am sure that the man I want to be with is Chris.”

My heart felt gutted, because Nina was lying to me, and to herself. Anyone with half an eyeball could see that she was still in love with James Stewart, even if she did not believe so herself. So it was up to me to prove to her that she did love Jamie.

“Why do you have that look, Em? You seem like you’re going to throw up.”

“Have you ever listened to Lissie? I want you to look up the song “Ojai,” and tell me how you feel. Replace Ojai with Jamie, and then you will see my reaction to your predicament.”

“I am engaged to Chris. You know this.”

I nodded, upset that even in our little tiffy, Nina remained a calm human being. “I know. And if you are sure you are in love with him, then you should marry him.”

“I can’t believe I am getting married next month. The thought is so foreign to me,” she said, rubbing her face, a little droplet of mascara smudging underneath her eye. “Oh my gosh, I just wish I could be you. Most of the time, really. You’re so darn independent. ‘I don’t need a man! I’m from Texas!’”

“After all your time of knowing me, that is how you view me?” I swatted her arm. “Erinina Huston, you should know by now that…”

She playfully rolled her eyes. “I know. You may not agree with me, but I envy you every day, my love.”

“You aren’t serious.”

“Of course I am!”

This was my cue to roll my eyes, so I sucked in air and said, “Tell you what—I’ll marry a man as soon as California goes Republican.”

“Stop it, you’re not going to be an old maid.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that!”

“Emma, you’re beautiful, intelligent, and quite spicy. Give it time—you’re going to be the woman every man desires. Long, red-hot hair like a chili pepper.”

“Shut up! You’re crazy.”

She gave me a look and propped her feet on the coffee table as Felix/Fiona swiped his/her tail over Nina’s foot. “I’m crazy? I think the real crazy one here is this darn cat. Okay, instead of everybody else, who only wants to chat about freakin’ weddings, how about we watch some stupid reality TV?”

 

Chapter Thirty

 

MY FATHER, BROTHER, and brother’s girlfriend were due to arrive at LAX any moment, and I waited in the sweaty, incredibly busy baggage claim with Jamie. He wore a ridiculous pair of bright blue sunglasses made for a teenage girl and a hoodie that drew more attention to him than if he went bald. I wasn’t nervous because of my best friend; rather, I wondered what would happen if my mom popped out of a suitcase and scared my dad to a heart attack. Plus, I wasn’t fond of visiting my immediate family with my brother’s girlfriend in tow. Luckily, she could help me with Thanksgiving dinner, although Jamie argued that—while he would not be “living” at my apartment—he would cook for us. He promised he knew how to properly cook a turkey and all the accoutrements. I knew how to make deviled eggs—and that was the extent of my knowledge. I laughed at the thought of Jamie at my Thanksgiving meal, which had never happened before, and this made my heart giddy.

Yet the nerves were still palpable. Jamie hummed beside me, standing behind a barrier, afraid his now prominence as a Hollywood actor would draw attention from the pap. However, I knew that he was not that famous by any means. He had one film under his belt, and plus, the pap were too busy chasing Sam Woodshaw and his collection of one-night stands.

Jamie nudged me so hard I almost fell over, but then I got what he was getting at. My mother appeared, running up to hug me in a big bear hug. It all happened so fast I did not take note of the tanned man behind her—Victor Swann, her new husband—and a few other humans who were part of their group.

“My baby!”

“Mom? What are you doing here?”

“Vic and I just got back from Cabo. What’re you doing here?”

“Waiting for Dad, actually.”

Mom’s face clouded over, and she backed away a few steps. “Your father? Well, I want to see Eric. Victor, come here, meet my baby.”

Jamie’s eyebrows raised in disgust. I quickly grabbed his hand and squeezed three times, signaling that I loved him because he was my family. He squeezed back.

Victor offered a hand, his Arabic background not meshing well with my viewpoint of an English name like Swann. He was a handsome middle-aged man, yet I wondered why he and his entourage had flown into LAX when San Diego had an airport.

“Oh, I see that scowl on your face, Emmaleen. We flew through LAX because we are visiting Victor’s friends from Santa Clarita. You are too much of a detective. Is this the infamous Jamie?” She rushed over, pulling him into a hug, though I saw him tense.

“Hi, ma’am.”

“Oh, don’t. Don’t make me feel like an ancient sea tortoise. I’m Emma’s momma, and you can call me Eileen. So, why are you in that hot hoodie?”

“He’s afraid he’s going to be recognized by the pap,” I said, my vision draining when my brother’s head appeared above a row of Asians. It was easy seeing the tall brother I’d grown up attacking, blaming, and somehow loving.

“The pap?”

Victor interjected, “Paparazzi, dear.”

Ew. I broke out from the group, rushing for my brother, practically jumping into his arms as I reached his lanky body. The boy was barely eighteen, a tall, male version of our mother; with almond-color hair (unlike my mother’s auburn red) and bright brown eyes, he was not necessarily striking in the visual sense, but handsome in the rugged sense. He was developing muscle, I noticed, and he kissed the top of my head.

When we pulled away, still hanging off one another, just a few centimeters farther apart, he whispered in a deep drawl, “How’s my big sis?”

“I don’t feel like much of a big sister right now.”

“Emma,” cajoled my father’s voice, and his arms were wrapped around me, comforting. We made a weird Richmond sandwich, I believed; a redhead scrunched between two tall poles of man-meat. Cristina stood to the side, holding her bags, a woman now. The last time I’d seen Cristina Veraniego, she had been a little slurp of a girl. Now, she stood before me, still youthful, but at the last drop of girl, the sands of time dictating her womanly body was almost formed.

“Cristina!” I pulled her in, too, so that we all four stood there in the midst of a crowded LA afternoon.

She smiled, nuzzling close to my brother. “Emma, this is crazy. How do you live in a city like this?”

“If you’re judging Los Angeles by the airport, just get ready for the traffic. C’mon, let’s get y’all’s baggage.”

“I hear her accent is already coming back,” Jamie said from behind me, tingling something inside me. I liked having him part of the family, even if not in the official reunion hug. Eric pulled him into a man-like clasp before my father did the same, patting his back hard until he coughed. There was never any issue of protectiveness with the guys, because they’d been with Jamie in his late formative years. While they’d only seen each other a handful of times, it was enough to know whole-heartedly that James Stewart was nothing but a generous, God-loving male human being, who was steadily progressing into a handsome, formidable man.

“What have you been eating, JJ?” asked my dad, stepping back. “I guarantee it hasn’t been Emma who’s feeding you.”

“He just came back from Mexico. It was all the enchiladas.”

“That is half-true,” Jamie agreed, laughing it off. “I’m Jamie,” he said, offering his hand to Cristina.

“Cristina,” she responded, taking her place by Eric. She was a good foot shorter than her man, but in their youthful romance, it seemed normal. Somewhat.

As they fiddled with their luggage at the baggage claim, I whispered into Jamie’s ear, “Where’d Mom go?”

“She ran off when she saw you run off. It was weird. Victor kept apologizing, but then he ran after her. I don’t think she was able to handle all of you at once.”

“I’m glad she left,” I said, because I knew WW3 would have erupted otherwise. This was about a Thanksgiving of peace rather than destruction. “Jamie,” I whispered as Cristina giggled with Eric and my dad at her side, “I’m going to miss you at the apartment this upcoming week.”

“Hey, we’re quite used to it, aren’t we? With Mexico and all.”

“I guess.”

“And it’s not like I’m not going to be hanging out with the eccentric and strategic Richmond familia. I see diversity nowadays with the Richmond bloodline. Eric and Cristina, and imagine if it were you and me. Our kids would be the talk of the town. All of Stephenville would be aflutter.”

“Oh, shut up. Why are you even thinking about kids? Who said I was having your baby?”

Jamie rolled his eyes, resting his elbow on my shoulder. “You see, I did not say you were having my children. I just said, if. And you know, we could try…”

“Ew, stop it. Why are you doing this to me?”

His lips broke into a wide grin. “Because I am good at keeping your mind on crazy topics. I help you forget about things, and I do have to say, I am dying to try out this new gym near the apartment, not because of the gym, but because of this ultra-relaxing sauna I’ve been hearing about.”

“Well, don’t expect me to join you.”

“I’ll invite your dad. He loves me, at least.”

“Take Felix-slash-Fiona.”

“That cat would be a disruption on so many levels.”

“You know, that cat is really the only kid we’re ever going to share.”

My family was done by this point with this strange talk, so we went into the crisp November air, following each other in a single-file line as we approached the parking garage. Jamie was trying his hardest at the topic of Dragunov guns with my brother and dad. Jamie supported the second rights amendment—as a Tennessean by birth—but not because he cared anything about guns. I’d seen him shoot once in my life—and a BB gun at that—and he’d accidentally killed a blue jay.

Meanwhile, I had some time with Cristina.

“So, what do you want to do now that you’re in California for the first time?”

Cristina was shy, but she seemed to be warming up to me, as long as I steered the conversation along. “Well, of course the Hollywood sign…”

“That’s a must.”

“But I’m not necessarily into the whole glamour of Hollywood like other people might be. I’d be happy just to walk around a park and see those mountains of yours. That’s interesting.”

“Hills, mountains, whatever—we’ve got them,” I said, smiling at her. “You see, if you and I break free from Dad and Eric, that will be worth it. Whenever they come to town, they’re always hitting up the nearest shooting range. It’s absolutely ridiculous. I’m always fighting with them about doing something California-like rather than Texas-like.”

Cristina smiled. “That is so true. Eric’s obsessed with shooting. Did he tell you that he won second at nationals this past year?”

“What, no, he did not! And he did not even tell me? He must be too preoccupied by this beautiful woman I walk with now. Seriously, though, he did?”

“Yup. Honestly, Emma, I think he’s serious about the military thing. He’s part of ROTC, but he talks about being a full-up soldier. It scares me.”

“You could be a military wife,” I said, knowing my brother’s interest in serving, but not necessarily knowing to what extent he wanted to help out.

Cristina blushed a crimson color. “Right now, I’m focused on making it through college.”

“Sounds like a good plan.”

We made it to my beat-up junkmobile, which was proving to be as durable as steel in a skyscraper. As I pulled onto the access road that would lead us out of the convoluted LAX compound, there was a sense of chaos in the car triggered by a Hollywood actor making terrible jokes to my family.

“What do you call a fish with no eyes?” Jamie began, his voice clear and loud as I maneuvered onto the interstate. “A fsh. Get it? Spelled f-s-h? No eyes?”

Cristina politely chuckled, while Eric fell into a hysteric ball of atoms. “That is so ridiculous. You got any others?”

“That was terrible, son.” My father’s voice was rough, the epitome of rugged man.

“Of course I’ve got plenty. I went to a seafood disco last week…The problem was, when I got there, I pulled a mussel.”

“Jamie, shut up.”

“Okay, I’ve got more. A dyslexic man walks into a bra…”

I whipped my arm behind me and swatted his face. “What are you doing? Behave.”

“Okay, Mom.”

This time, Dad intervened, grabbing the wheel from my hands as I aimed for a sucker punch in the direction of Jamie’s jaw. My dad gruffly yelled, “Pay attention, Emma!” I felt my own stupidity at reacting so foolishly to my best friend, yet Eric was laughing so hard, especially since Jamie was acting more like I was his white grandma than best friend.

“Jamie, say, have you taught my daughter to drive around in Los Angeles any? She’s all over the lines.”

“Dad,” I muttered, feeling my father’s embarrassing tone coming on. He was known to be a critic, which was not necessarily a good thing.

“What? You drive as good as a limp, blue fish. I know I taught you stick shift in the middle of mesquites, but seriously? You’re going to hit that poor Prius.”

“We don’t see Priuses that often,” Cristina interjected.

Jamie inserted himself, “That’s because Texans are infamous for wasting gas on those ginormous lifted trucks. I think I would look peculiar in one of those. Don’t you think, Em? I’m going to buy a giant Dodge Ram, hoist a Confederate flag on the back, and totally anger all these California hippies. And then when they pull up, and see some black guy wheeling around like such, it’ll confuse everyone for sure.”

“Jamie, please tell me you aren’t on drugs in front of my family,” I hissed.

He shook his head. “I know your dad owns shotguns. Why would I risk my life in front of him?”

“Dodge Rams aren’t even the good ones. I’m a Tundra man myself,” Eric said, the conversation shifting into an arena I did not want it to go.

This would mean truck lingo, truck debating, and truck truck truck for the next hour, from Sherman Oaks to Glendale to Pasadena to Glendora. It would be absolutely miserable.

 

CRISTINA WAS WEARING a funny lotion on her face when she padded down the hall to the living room. It was nearly ten o’clock, and Eric, Jamie, and my dad were still not back from an arcade Jamie had sworn was the best in Glendora. It was weird having my brother and dad completely ignore me in favor of my best friend; yet it gave Cristina and me time to catch up, watch some crazy show called The Bachelor, and discuss life in general.

Now that it was late, I was falling asleep due to my moniker as an early bird, and I was sick of waiting up for the boys. I shifted in the sofa as Felix/Fiona cuddled up to my stomach, and Cristina entered, sitting beside me in her pajamas. The thrum of guitar music from a reality show droned on in the background, eerily reminding me of Baylee Feta, my new female best friend. That alone was weird in itself.

“I think your brother is going to ask me to marry him.”

“Why do you think that? You guys are literally young pups. That is way too young to get married, even if we’re from Texas, okay?”

Cristina nodded, pulling her black ringlets into a ponytail. She seemed very young in this moment, and I remembered myself in that action, four years prior, two weeks after moving to California. I remembered distinctly the smell of oranges, because it was the fruity scent of Nina’s lotion. We’d just met that day, and she was staying in my room for the night because she thought her roommate was performing a satanic ritual. When I reminded her we went to a Christian university, Nina laughed it off; later, I’d learned that Nina’s roommate was kicked out of the university for possession of marijuana. Therefore, I spent a lot of time in her room, because Nina was a lucky woman and all having a full room to herself.

Thinking of Nina brought me back to Jamie, who, somehow, had been my first true friend in the universe. He was not a fake friend; he loved me, he wished to protect me. Once, a friend revealed to me that the true measure of friendship is whether a person would die for you or not, and whether you would die for said person or not. In actuality, Jamie was a person I would die for, and vice versa.

“I saw the ring, Emma,” Cristina breathed, pulling her knees to her chin, bringing me back to the present.

“The ring?”

“It is your grandmother’s ring.”

“The blue lapis?”

She nodded, her eyes big. “I’m not ready to get married.”

“Oh, Cristina. I have no idea what to say.” Seeing her confusion, I moved closer to her, offering a hand like an olive branch. “Oh, man. This is tough. Don’t feel like if he proposes, you have to say yes. I don’t see the hurry.”

“I think he’s afraid of losing me, but he doesn’t realize I’m not going anywhere.” Her eyes filled with large tears. “We don’t have to get married to be together.”

“Amen, sista. Here, you need a tissue. And a chocolate chip cookie.” I went to the kitchen, finding some I’d baked the day before in an attempt to make the apartment homelier, when in stumbled three deliriously tired men, two tall like telephone poles, the other a person I wanted to slap.

As Eric and my dad fell onto the sofa, Cristina asking them questions, Jamie walked into the kitchen, his eyes drooping. He held his car keys in one hand, including the key to the apartment. I punched his arm, to which he yelped, “What was that for?”

“You alerted them that you had a key. Isn’t that weird? Remember—they’re not supposed to know we live together.”

Jamie rolled his eyes, instead playfully planting a kiss onto my forehead, which momentarily buzzed me like a bolt of electric shock. “You’re too rigid, Texas.”

“Are you seriously drunk right now…”

“If I’m too tired to tell you this in the morning, I’ll say it now. I think I’m going to Nina’s wedding. Why not?”

“Because she’s the love of your life.”

“I really wish you were the love of my life, but it would be weird for us to pursue that course.”

For a moment, I almost caved into that sentiment, but then I found myself turning around into the dark living space to an awaiting family—apart from the man who might have wished for me to be the love of his life.

 

Chapter Thirty-One

 

THE SMELL OF the seasoned turkey was intoxicating, my first apartment home-cooked meal in ages. Jamie displayed the meat with a beautiful presentation, the grapes mouthwatering in their own right, the hint of orangey scent wafting into my nose. As he sliced a piece onto each plate, I poured the gravy into a dish as Cristina hummed a Christmas tune while doling out the perfect yolk into the deviled eggs, Worcestershire the secret. Dad and Eric seemed out of place but were trying their best at “aiding.”

My phone began to bleep on the table, so I dried my hands on a rag and hurried to answer, finding Baylee’s name displayed over the screen. “You won’t believe what happened. I completely burnt the turkey, Emma. It’s terrible. There’s smoke everywhere, and all Richard wanted was turkey. I’m the stupidest person on the planet.”

“Baby momma, you’ve got to calm down. Stay calm for your little nugget. Is there anything that can be done?”

“What do you think, Emma? That is the stupidest question in human history. We have zilch. I mean, I have stuffing prepared, and a few other trivets of food, but the turkey! How ridiculous is this?”

I did not want to, but I felt it coming out anyway, rising up like a shroud covering my face. As Baylee’s voice twiddled over the line, I mouthed to the group, “Can we handle two more?”

Dad scowled, but Jamie nodded. Eric and Cristina followed suit. “Sure, who is it?”

“Okay, Bay, you and Richard can come over here. We’ve got plenty of turkey.”

“Baylee? Oh, please not Baylee!” Jamie hissed. The two shared an interesting friendship, if it was even possible to call it that.

“Seriously? You’d do that for us?” Baylee seemed unusually anticipatory of my invitation. I scowled, modeling the look from my dad.

“Of course. Hurry up, we’re starving.”

Nearly forty minutes later, Baylee and Richard arrived, her baby bump ever so bigger—a little pea inside. After the introductions were made, including a snide comment between Jamie and Baylee, we sat at the small dining room table, crunched up together in mismatched chairs, with a cat darting underneath our feet.

“So, Mr. Richmond…” Baylee began, a fork of mashed potatoes on her spoon. “Being from Texas and all, do you keep shotguns and stuff?”

“Of course,” Eric butted in, the happiness on his face evident all the way to Mars. “You see, we have a collection. Now, I know we’re in California, and you guys aren’t exactly as pro-ammo as us, but we take big pride in the stock we own.”

“Rich,” Baylee said. The woman looked out of place, her Italian countenance startling in the dark interior of the apartment. “I think, since we’re about to be first-time parents, that we should look into purchasing a gun. Just as protection.”

“Baylee, you’ve never shot anything in your life.”

“So? I’m a parent now.”

“Why do you need a gun?”

As they began rambling on, with the Texans joining in too, I stopped to consider that this dinner—whether as crazy as it was or all in my mind—would probably only happen once in my life. Somehow, I found that thought saddening.

 

JAMIE AND I walked Baylee and Richard out to their car. He lied about wanting to get home to his apartment to take care of work; I knew he just wanted to go to play video games with his ex-roommate, Kip. I was jealous of Kip.

After Baylee and Richard drove out of sight, Eric and Cristina decided to take a romantic Thanksgiving stroll to the nearby park, which allotted me alone time with Jamie and my father, which would be interesting to say the least. Like I expected, my dad and Jamie completely ignored me.

As I stared into outer space, the stars twinkling bright, a tap on the arm awakened me from this momentary reverie. Thinking it was Jamie, I was startled to see our landlord Trisha, who was a one-hit wonder from the crazy ’80s. She was chewing on gum, her hair still big and bouncy and bleached blonde, her eyes ogling my dad in his cowboy boots. It was weird.

“Hey, if it isn’t my favorite pair of roomies. And I can tell, this is sweet Emma’s father, right here.” She placed a manicured hand on my back.

I tensed, knowing where this was headed, a place I did not want it to go. My father hadn’t picked up on the “roomies” comment, but he did incline his head toward Trisha before sticking out a hand. “How has your Thanksgiving been, ma’am?”

“What a gentleman,” Trisha crooned. “It’s been very well. Anyway, let me just tell you, these two pay right on time, just like you raised them to do. I have no complaints about Miss Emma and Mr. Jamie.”

Dad tilted his head, confusion marking his face. “Well, they are respectable young people. They vote, too, which is pretty cool.”

“Oh, that is so awesome. I did not vote until I was thirty-six, and even then, I wasn’t big into politics. Aren’t now either. Well, I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but I just wanted to brag on them. See you.”

With her exit came a moment of unquenchable fear. Maybe Dad had no idea what Trisha had meant by those comments. Jamie seemed uninterested altogether as he swatted a bug near his face. Then, as soon as Trisha was out of earshot, the loud voice came booming from my father.

“What does she mean, ‘these two pay right on time?’”

I gulped, standing beside Jamie, both of us straight as a rail now. We stood beside each other like twins caught grabbing candy out of the jar behind our mother’s back.

“Emma, answer me.”

“Dad, I…”

“Emma and I, sir, well—sir, we’ve been living together for six months now.”

“Emma!”

“It’s not a big deal,” I cut in, though I knew where this was going. “Dad, we’ve never had sex or anything like that, because Jamie and I are best friends. We…”

“You’re living together?”

“Dad, it’s not as bad as it sounds…”

“How am I supposed to take this? Have you been messing around with my daughter without permission? I mean, that’s one thing, but living together is completely unacceptable in every social, ethical, and moral regard… Especially with all the parenting I soaked into you, Emma. What are you thinking, living with a boy?”

I felt the heat sizzling beneath my skin. “Dad, Jamie and I are twenty-two years old, and we make decisions for ourselves. I did not want you to know about our living arrangements, because I knew you would react in a way like this, because of your single parenting excuse and all. Why don’t you just appreciate that I’m still single, but I have a great relationship with my best friend, whom I’m living together with because Los Angeles is that darn expensive? I have a great job, great friends, and thousands of weddings to attend. Like you said, I vote; I pay my bills. Do you really think Mom would be this upset about this? Oh wait, let me tell you: She isn’t, because she actually trusts me.”

That was the final blow, the nail on the coffin, because now I was out of breath, Jamie was turning pale, and my father looked like he was about to punch a brick wall. He breathed in and out, pushing and sucking air, until he staunchly said, “Okay, Emma. I’m going to bed. Good-night.” He scowled at Jamie, heading inside without another word.

 

IT WAS THE day after Thanksgiving, and my mind was spinning. It was two o’clock, and my brother and Cristina waited outside in the rental car. As for me, I stood outside, the cool air whipping my face, the sky gray for once. A gray day in sunny Southern California.

“You’re not kidding, Emma?” my dad barked, his voice rough. He coughed a few times.

“Dad,” I began, my own voice a squeak in comparison. “Mom’s a part of my life, whether you like it or not.”

“You’re communicating with her?”

“You can’t blame me.”

“And you’re living with a boy. You expect me to approve of this.”

“It’s Jamie, it’s not like he’s into voyeurism.”

“Call it what you want, but a boy and a girl together as just friends is impossible. Maybe you should ask your mother about that sometime.”

“Dad, this is seriously how you are going to end this weekend? This isn’t like you.”

His eyes turned to slits, the carefree spirit somehow replaced by bitterness. In the three days they’d perused Los Angeles, they’d found a want for rural spaces in Texas. But as soon as my dad had discovered Jamie was living with me—from that casual inference from landlord Trisha—and the accidental mentioning of Mom and I starting a relationship again, my dad blew up and refused to let me drive him to the airport. Eric was mostly embarrassed, and Cristina was shy as usual. “This isn’t like you, Emma. Especially when Eric shows me some trash magazine with your body plastered on a man’s.”

My body tightened as this revelation came to play. “Dad, give me a break. You can’t expect me to…”

“Emma, just stop it. You’ve changed, that much is clear.”

“I don’t believe I have. I just believe your perception of this me is changing. I am not your little farm girl anymore, and I never really was. Welcome to my life, Dad. You know, I left Texas because it was stifling me.”

“You think I’ve suffocated you?”

“Dad, I love you, but this isn’t your communication style at all.”

“What can I say? I’m disappointed in you. I think you’ve changed, even if you don’t think so.”

“You’re going to leave like this?”

“Emma, I know you. I know you are as stubborn as the Richmond bloodline flows, and I know that if we don’t apologize right here and right now, it will only cause more pain in the long run. But you cannot expect me to accept this situation. Jamie and you need to move apart from each other. And I’m not sure if communicating with your mother is the best idea, and let me just add, I know that sleeping with some Hollywood bozo on a beach is as stupid as it gets.” His voice calmed down more, steadier than when he was practically spitting in my face.

“You know that I love you,” he said again, “and as you are twenty-two years old, you can do as you want. But it is my wish that you will agree with what I say, and realize this is not what I want for you.”

“I know, Dad. I love that you’re watching out for me, and it is true that I should not hide things from you. I know where that gets us typically.”

He smiled, pulling me into a fierce hug, his body heat warm against my skin. There was a moment of silence before he drew away from me and went to the car.

Ten minutes later, they were gone from my viewpoint, and I shuddered, knowing that it was the day after Thanksgiving, and I was not committed to going home to Texas for Christmas. That, to me, was scary.

A few minutes later, I went back inside, pulled my cat to my chest, and dialed Jamie’s number. He was home in an hour later, the bearer of fries and cheeseburgers. This was his break from healthy food for the week.

When he sat beside me, we were quiet, knowing this was inevitable.

“I do believe your dad is right,” Jamie said, sticking a ketchup-covered fry into his mouth. “This is an awkward living position.”

“I don’t think it is.”

“Me either. But I do believe we have to go with what he says.”

“Jamie…”

He nodded, his features livened by the glow streaming through our tacky, affordable curtains. “Honestly, I don’t know what to say, or what to do. I am in love with a woman who hates me, my best friend’s dad wants to skin me alive, and my job is starting to soar, but who says it won’t come crashing down?”

“Well, even if it does, I’m not going anywhere.”

“Comforting. I’ll have to deal with you forever? No thanks.”

“Hey, be kind. It’s been a rough day, getting called out by my dad in front of you guys like I’m a child. Get this, Cristina thinks Eric’s going to propose.”

“They’re practically babies. What is he thinking?”

“I wouldn’t mind getting married at twenty-two, if I had a man.”

“Me either, if I had a woman.” He smiled, but it was faint, fading fast. “Emma, I haven’t told you yet, but I got a role, one set in Vancouver. It’s a huge role, one under a lot of scrutiny, and very hush-hush.”

“And you’re breaking the law by telling me about it.”

“Of course,” he said without hesitation. “But I’d be there for six months. I’d get a million dollars flat, of course the payment goes up if the film does well. It’s huge.”

A smile broke out onto my face, because it was a huge break in his career. “That’s awesome! You’ve gotta take it!”

Jamie hesitated, and I knew this was going to be bad. “I don’t want it.”

“What do you mean, you don’t want it?”

“What I want is to be with Nina, and if I go, I’m letting her go. If I go, I’m letting a big break in my career go, and if I go, I’m going to be away from you.”

“Jamie, Nina let you go, you didn’t let her go. Don’t worry about your career, and don’t worry about me.”

He shook his head. “Of course I have to worry.”

I swatted the back of his head. “I know your mom took you to church. Do not worry, Jamie. That’s a huge, integral part of knowing Christ. If He put this out for you, you have to accept.”

“I think you’re looking at this in the wrong way, Emma. Maybe this has been placed before me so that I can decline it.”

I wasn’t following, so I gently sat up, knowing he knew I was confused.

“Look at Hollywood. Do I want to be like these people? Some are great, but a lot are not. What if I lose who I am—and I lose you, and I lose Nina, and everything I want to be?”

“You’re nervous, that’s all.”

“Emma, you aren’t helping me here.”

I closed my lips, knowing that I wasn’t. “Jamie, if you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to.”

“I think God’s testing me to see if I’m going to trust Him, or follow fleeting dreams.”

Since I did not know what to say, we were both quiet then, like a lot of our time seemed to be now. This was how our relationship was progressing—apart. I wondered if I was supposed to be more of a therapist in this situation, but the quiet seemed more important and more lucid.

“I have to go to Nina’s wedding first,” Jamie said quickly.

 

Chapter Thirty-Two

 

THE WEDDING MARCH droned on like a sad rhythm that could not be stopped; it brought forth tidings of another’s arms, of Jamie’s intrinsic pain, the thought that the woman he loved would belong to someone else. He tensed beside me, the veins straining from his neck. Suddenly, we were standing as the bride glided down the aisle.

She was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. With her long, gorgeous caramel locks, the big amber eyes, and the gown made for a queen, my own heart soared. I felt Jamie’s hand slip into mine as he tried to control himself. Her satin wedding dress took up most of the aisle, a bridesmaid straining to hold the train. Nina walked down by herself, a symbol of giving her own self away.

I quickly glanced down the aisle to Chris, who loomed over the minister like a giant New York City skyscraper. He gave a little smile as he confidently waited for his bride, yet the words Nina had whispered to me two years ago resounded in the confines of my mind. My groom better cry at my wedding; if he doesn’t, we’re not going to happen.

I closed my eyes, inhaling the scent of the warm sand then, the beauty of one life-changing sunset. The memory of how the glow highlighted three goofy college kids reminded me of life’s transience. I knew it before I opened my lids; Jamie’s ebony skin was streaked with gentle, romancing tears. He stood bravely to my side. As soon as Nina passed our row, she locked eyes with him, shocked to see him here for her big day. Through the veil, I saw her batting eyelids. She stared at Jamie, not her own fiancé. As soon as she could see us no more, she looked down.

“Jamie,” I whispered.

“Tell me not to,” he said, his hand trembling in my own. “I’m in love with Erinina Rosetta Huston.”

“I won’t tell you not to.” I gripped his hand tightly.

We sat down as the bride took her fiancé’s hands. From my spot in the middle of the church, I could tell her hands shook violently, like a little sloop caught in a gigantic summer storm. My heart beat so hard I thought it would fly out of my chest, so I could only imagine what Jamie felt.

As the minister began the wedding routine, which I’d memorized as my stint of a bridesmaid for five weddings out of a planned six, I was proud that I’d refused to be Nina’s bridesmaid in favor of Jamie’s own cataclysmic spirit. He wanted to be there in support, and in exchange for his presence, I had to be his support—and not at the altar as a bridesmaid. He never once looked at me, but I could inhale his anger. He was livid.

“Come on, Nina,” he whispered through clenched teeth. “Don’t do this.”

It was at the part where the minister asked if anyone had any thoughts against the nuptials. It was time, I decided. I prayed Jamie would stand: He didn’t.

The wedding was speedy, like a bullet. Moments later it seemed, Nina began the recitation of wedding vows. “I, Erinina Huston, take Christophe Blaketon, to be my wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part…” Her voice began to crack then. Deep inside, I felt like I was going to retch all over my shoes.

“Come on, Nina,” Jamie said again, the strain in his voice torturous.

“Nina?” Chris asked, though no one heard him. “It’s okay, baby.”

Nina suddenly looked unsure of herself, and she began again, “According to God’s holy…” She turned just the slightest, making eye contact with Jamie. Her eyes, through the opaquest lace, shined when locked with his. Their moment was one I felt would blow apart my insides.

Jamie flew up like a rocket. “Erinina Rosetta Huston, take my hand.” His hand jutted out, steadily before him, with the precision of only an actor’s stage presence.

Nina’s mouth opened. A gag, sigh, bubble of laughter emitted from the audience. I stared up at my best friend, suddenly so proud. I looked down at Nina, who turned just the slightest. Chris angrily muttered, “Nina.”

Nina turned her head, wiping a tear from her veil. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered to her fiancé and the minister. Then she looked at the audience, and I honestly thought she was about to return to Chris, but suddenly, she was running down the aisle, grabbing Jamie’s outstretched hand, and they ran off like twin bolts of lightning.

Instinctively, I began to clap. No one else did, so then, unable to take more of this wedding hullabaloo, I jumped up, lifting my skirt, and went outside just in the nick of time.

Jamie and Nina pulled out in his rusty Accord, the car he refused to change even when he had money in the bank, and they sped off into the sunset.

“Thank you, God,” I said, lifting my hands into the air.

In the realms of my consciousness, He approved. I went to my old car, fell into the driver’s seat, and drove off. “You know what?” I asked to thin air, deciding that God would be my confidante. “I think it’s time to go home, put up my feet, and watch a good, classic Christmas movie. Like the Mexican version of Santa Claus, with that creepy all-seeing eye.”

A little giddy butterfly blew up into my stomach. Jamie did it. He conquered.

Could I do the same? Honestly, I wasn’t sure what my answer would be.

 

Chapter Thirty-Three

 

MY HAND TOUCHED the doorbell, and the nerves inside my throat brought me back to the reality that I was about to see Sam for the first time in a good few months. Suddenly, a memory of our night together at the beach played before my eyes—our own movie. Then Jamie’s first warning. There is something weird about Sam. My best friend’s eyes that night shocked me.

What have I done? The momentary repercussions caught me by surprise. This was never going to work, I realized. Sam was not committed to me in the slightest. He had never been. Why had I done this? People don’t talk about this in relationships—the fact that some are just downright slimes of trickery.

The door opened, the fanciful foyer the first optical illustration. Then Sam’s gorgeous face appeared, sending rivulets of despair down my spine. He seemed shocked to see me, but nonetheless said, “Emma.” He pulled me into a hug that I did not reciprocate.

“Hi,” I said. “Can I come in?”

“Of course. Where are my manners?”

We entered, the homely smell intoxicating, bringing me back to the time when both parents lived at home, when life seemed livelier than it ought to be. There was a time when I would have been impressed by the magnificent entryway, but now, it just felt cold and brooding, like a giant testament to sin. Not that it should, but it did.

Sam pulled me into the living room under arches of wood beams. The interior decorator of the mansion deserved an award; I wondered haughtily if my mom had been the one to design this place. For a moment, I thanked God that He’d blessed me with a best friend like Jamie, with a father like my dad, and with friends I could count on. Plus, the rift in my maternal relationship was starting to stitch up.

Sam recognized the scowl in my eyes, so he sat us down on the sofa and grabbed my hands. Eventually, he drew apart, as my hands were limp. He looked handsome as ever, a hint of stubble appearing on his chin. Though he should have lost some of the glow to his face, Iceland had been nice to him.

“Emma. You’re so beautiful. I did not see one redhead my entire time away.”

“Ah,” I said, though it went through a wall. “Sam, what are we doing?”

“What do you mean?” he asked, cocking his head slightly to the side. While it once seemed cocky, it was now insecure. With the glimmer in his eyes, I instinctively knew what was happening inside me. I was almost to the point of loving him.

“You’re a great guy, and I’m attracted to you, Sam, but it wasn’t the best part to me.”

Sam scratched his jaw before turning to me. “What do you mean?’

“I think your spirit is tainted, but you have a bravery, a true sweetness to you. I wish we could still be friends.”

Sam shook his head, confusion filling his eyes. “Why wouldn’t we be?’

“I can’t do this to myself anymore. Whatever we have is really the absence of what we both need. Sam, you’re going to find someone with whom you can commit; but that isn’t me. And I’m not here to waste your time, and to waste mine, and to destroy what I think of myself, too.”

“What did Jamie tell you?”

“He tells me everything; it’s part of his job. But really, he just told me to let you go. That you deserve something good, and so do I. But I’m not looking for you, Sam. Just like you’re not looking for me.”

Sam lightly drew away. “I never was good for you, Emma. You’re strong, beautiful, stubborn, everything I want in a woman. But you have to realize—”

“You’re not the type to settle down like I need. You’re not someone who will stay faithful, you’re not even a person looking for love. You’re just looking for a good time, and even though what we had was genuine—at least for a moment—and what we had was something beautiful, it’s not enough for you.”

“No,” Sam whispered, his voice still serenading my heart, “it’s not enough for you. I’ve already hurt you; can’t you see that I’ll just hurt you more?”

“Then why not tell me, Sam? Why not just pull the band-aid right off instead of leading me on? Instead of letting me fall in love with you?” As soon as the last phrase fell from my tongue, I knew I did not love him, and I never had.

“Emma,” he said, reaching for my hands again. This time, his hands were sweaty, so I pulled away. “You aren’t in love with me. That is a myth, okay? It is possible to care for someone, but being in love is child’s play. It’s for teenagers. Let’s face it: We were never going to make it, and honestly, I’m glad what we had lasted as long as it did.”

“Sam, you’re lying.” No tears fell from the bases of my eyes, though it felt like they did. The torrent inside my chest was rising up, the vivid pain and hurt in the ball of my throat. “You’re lying to me, and you’re lying to yourself. Just tell me the truth. I’m not the one for you. It’s okay to admit that. I was never your one. I don’t have to be. But please, promise me, when you meet her, when you meet the one, you won’t let her go.” Tyron’s words fell from my mouth, and I smiled at the advice of the Australian I’d met months ago.

“Emma,” he croaked, reaching for my arm. “I’m sorry.”

“I forgive you.”

I stood up, knowing it was my time to go. As I passed through the entryway again, I noticed a clump of woman’s clothing on the fourth stair. Just then, a voice called out, “Sam?”

“It’s nothing, Belle,” was the response, but Sam was lying. I could even tell then.

I gently shut the door, and as soon as I stepped into the fresh light of a cool California winter day, I felt something that hadn’t quite plagued me in a while: peace.

Fresh, joyous peace.

As I hopped into my car and found my way slowly back to Glendora, my brain moved a thousand miles per minute. I never needed Sam, I realized instinctively. With the radio blaring into my ears, I felt like a single woman in Los Angeles—ready to mingle maybe, or you know, take a break.

I’d already been going solo for twenty-two years. Why did I think I magically needed a man now?

So I cruised, feeling the wind invade my ear canals and swirl my hair.

And as soon as I got back to the apartment, I placed Jamie’s ring in my drawer. There was a new person in his life for whom he would gift rings.

 

Epilogue

 

THE BLUE ENVELOPE sat on my bed, a little perfect thing that seemed so quaint and feminine. I ignored it, changing into my workout clothes as I struggled to pull my hair into a somewhat decent ponytail. Then came tying my tennis shoes, untangling the self-strangled headphones, and dealing with the fact that my legs were about as limber as rubber. The truth was that I had ignored jogging in my whole time of semi-dating Sam.

The door opened in the living room, and two voices called out, “Emma?”

I jumped up and hurried to where Nina and Jamie waited in light jackets with a cat at their feet. They stood, sun-kissed and bushy-eyed, the love apparent from their stance. I blushed, feeling warmth in my own veins because I was truly happy for their bliss.

“So, how was your little vacation to San Diego?” I asked as they pulled me into a hug.

“Absolutely perfect,” Nina said, dreamily gazing into Jamie’s eyes. “There is no doubt we made the right decision, Emma.”

“You guys didn’t get married, did you?”

“Not yet,” Jamie said, his voice a husky timbre. I imagined, just for a moment, how their wedding might be. Very intimate, I guessed. Nina would wear a white gown again; he would don a black tux.

“I see that Canada is out of the picture,” I said, teasing my best friend, whose radiance was something I’d never seen before.

“Canada?” Nina questioned in confusion. “What about Canada? Now that I’m with a Hollywood actor, I’m not exactly sure what to say about your schedule.”

“I am definitely not going to Vancouver,” Jamie said, his voice deep. “See, this is what was always supposed to happen. The three of us back together.”

“Jamie, that sounds terrible,” I interjected, to which Nina seconded.

“Okay, fine, fine, I’m back with Nina, who’s going to be contacting Emma to be best man and best maid-of-honor.”

“There’s so much wrong with what you just said, James.” Without blinking, my eyes rolled of their own volition.

“Okay, not best man. But of course you’re my best friend, Em, so…”

“Does this mean there’s another wedding I’m going to have to go to?”

Nina laughed. “Duh, Em. We’re not going to live together before we get married, because that would kill my pastor father. He’s already mortified about my running off at the altar.”

I smiled, deciding it was time to head back to my bedroom, where I would cocoon until I had work the next day, where crabby, pregnant Baylee would be venting about her life, while Margaret would be discussing her happy man, and I would be dying to do this actual thing called casting.

“Hey, Em,” Nina whispered, gently tapping my arm. “Thanks for all of this.”

A smirk appeared on my lips, knowing that it was likely Nina and Jamie would not be getting hitched anytime soon, but it still was a possibility.

I needed a break from all the wedding talk anyway.

The bedroom was chillingly cold, and my phone was buzzing on my desk. I found Annabel had sent a snap of a sonogram, her new baby. There would be more of those coming soon.

For a few minutes, I sat staring out the window, surprised at how far I’d come in the past few months. It had been incredibly worth it—through the thick and thin, I’d come out unchanged, and still unprepared for the hectic, busy life ahead of me. Like a lot of people always said: You’re only twenty-two, sugar cup.

Age isn’t just a number, I’ll give it that, but it is important. There was Christmas in a few days, which I’d be spending at a Texan farmhouse with some biting winds and a beautiful family I could call my own. The airfare cost a fortune, but I decided it was worth it.

Suddenly, as I almost toppled over in my desk chair, I noted the cute blue envelope on my bed. Straining my entire being so that I felt limitless in the space between chair and mattress, I clutched it between two fingers.

With the sound of sweet murmurs through the thin walls of the apartment, I glanced at the envelope, noting that it was marked from Cristina Veraniego. Weird.

As I slipped my pinkie through the paper, my heart burst. I knew what this was.

And, surely, it was.

A wedding invitation.

This time, my response was not a whisper. It was an exploding hiss. “You’ve gotta be kidding me!”

 

 

 

 

 


Six, Maybe Seven

Ever been the single one in your friend group? Ever been a bridesmaid in a bunch of weddings while remembering you've never had a committed romantic relationship? Well, Emma Richmond sure does. Recent college grad Emma finds that in the midst of Los Angeles palm trees, she has a job, a best friend, and a strange cat. Yet the one thing she desires—a proper relationship—is more than hard to find. However, as a dutiful and somewhat annoyed professional bridesmaid, Emma meets a famous young man who catches her interest, and while battling her own feelings toward romance, Emma's young career buds as she learns to place value in the people she loves most. Throw in six destination weddings in California and beyond, and Emma’s heart—and morality—are put to the test.

  • ISBN: 9781370220687
  • Author: Katie George
  • Published: 2017-01-01 23:05:20
  • Words: 85733
Six, Maybe Seven Six, Maybe Seven