I tell Cesar which exit to take, ask him if we might roll down the windows now that only surface streets remained. “You got it,” Cesar says, giving me a dimpled smile. “Beautiful today.”
“Every day is a beautiful day, in Santa Monica,” I say, pointing my face toward the open window and breathing deeply. I could already smell the breeze coming off of the ocean, and we were still blocks away from the beach.
Within minutes we’re driving down my street, my heart leaping happily at the sight of the palm trees lining the block, fuchsia Bougainvillea streaming like sea foam over the white stucco wall in front of my place.
“You live here?” Jake says, not bothering to hide his surprise as Cesar pulls into the driveway. “I thought you’d said something about an apartment?”
“I let the upstairs. My landlord lives downstairs. When his mom got sick four years ago, he had it converted into a duplex so that he could take care of her. I’ve been here for two years now.” I shake my head. “I know I lucked out. He’s promised to never raise the rent on me, and he treats me more like a little sister than a tenant. We even have movie nights once a month.”
I see the way Jake and Cesar look at each other, so I’m not surprised when Jake asks, “How old did you say your landlord was?”
I purse my lips and smile. “He’s just over forty?” My phone buzzes. A glance tells me it’s Rich. He’s minutes away. My heart pounds and suddenly, I feel an urge to get Jake and Cesar on their way as quickly as possible. The idea of Jake and Rich meeting each other makes me feel uneasy. “Thanks for the ride.”
“No problem. And hey, an older, single, man being nice to a sweet young girl like you? Be careful, mama.” Cesar says, wiggling his eyebrows at me as I gather my bag and open the passenger side door.
I laugh, “Tell me something I haven’t heard before. But he’s harmless.” And then on impulse, because I genuinely wanted to see Cesar again. “Maybe you could join Ted and me, that’s my older, pervy landlord, for a movie night sometime and you can see for yourself.”
Cesar sticks out his hand, and I take it. His dark brown eyes glimmer. “You got it.”
“And what about me?” Jake says from the backseat. I ignore him and shut my door, walk back to the trunk as I hear the sound of it unlatching. Before I can reach inside to grab the handle of my suitcase, Jake is there, nudging me aside with his shoulder. “You’re going to hurt yourself lifting that. May I bring it upstairs for you?”
Jake sets the suitcase beside him but then stands there, looking down at me, the sun glinting off his hair, his shadow blocking the sun from my face. When I hear a car coming down my street, I look behind Jake and feel my pulse race. It’s a navy blue, late model BMW. I look up at Jake. “That’s Rich pulling up. Thank you for bringing me home. I had fun.”
I can tell Olivia wants me out of there by the way she looks over my shoulder, but Rich is already cutting the engine, and I’m inclined to stay. I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable, but I’m curious to see what kind of man Olivia is drawn to. I turn just as Rich starts to walk toward us.
If I hadn’t already known he was in real estate, I could have made a decent guess. Rich wore a tailored suit, a button-down without a tie, loafers without socks, and if his car hadn’t cinched the deal, it would have been his manner. The aloof but expansive smile across his face, the way he quietly assesses me; makes note of the vintage Omega on my wrist, gives my hand a firm shake.
“Jake,” I say.
“Heard your dad speak at a real estate convention in Vegas last year.”
“He’s the star of our little circus,” I say guardedly, noticing Olivia shift uncomfortably as she fiddles with the handle of her suitcase. The guy hadn’t even greeted Olivia yet, just made a beeline for me. Having a well-known name in the industry is a blessing and a curse depending on who was in front of me. I turn toward her, smile at her. “Looks like my back will survive another day.”
“There’s an elevator inside the garage,” Rich says before Olivia can respond.
She gives me a small smile. “And I was going to make you haul it up the stairs on the side of the house, too.”
I chuckle. She probably would have.
I look up when Rich drapes his arm around Olivia, the gleam in his eye different now. I’d come to know the look he was giving me by the time I was seven and sitting courtside with my dad at Laker’s games, sporting the latest sneaks, showing up in the tabloids alongside my socialite mother and her famous BFF's. But I’d had parents who’d taught me that other people’s insecurities didn’t have to affect my actions, that money didn’t define a person, and that I could continue to be myself, regardless of how others chose to orbit around me.
“So, I’ll have my attorneys reach out to you this week.”
I know what I say sounds like a pass off after how personally I’d handled everything else, and I regret that but seeing Rich and Olivia side-by-side, I think it might be good for me to gain a little distance.
I turn back to Rich with a smile. “Nice to meet you, man.” And then, without another word, I slip into the passenger side of the car. Cesar gives me a knowing look as Olivia and Rich make their way toward the garage on the side of the house. As far as I could see, Rich still hadn’t pulled her in for a hug, or a kiss. The way she’d seemed to shrink when he’d arrived... it bothered me.
“She’s sweet, and too smart for you if you ask me,” Cesar says, turning onto the main strip that would lead us straight to Hurst Hotel.
I slide my shades up over my nose, look out the window. “Then it’s good that no one is asking you.”
“Although... her boyfriend seems like a tight ass.”
“I didn’t ask you for an opinion on that either. Talk to me about something worthwhile. Did one of your servers throw a vodka cocktail into someone’s face?”
I lean my head back on the seat and listen as Cesar launches into everything I’d missed at the restaurant while I was out of town. I’d get the full briefing about the hotel tomorrow when I met with pops. He’d made it very clear that he was interested in my project. He said he’d spoken to my friend Parker about the renders drawn up for the hotel in Tomahawk Hill—had some ideas he wanted to run by me. I squelch the misgivings about my father already showing so much interest. Sure, he’d given me a hard time about how much this project was going to cost him when I’d first brought up the subject, but I hadn’t given much thought to how much I wanted his involvement or his money. Until this week, “doing this on my own” had been purely theoretical. I grin wryly. It was something a wealthy, entitled man might say up until he fell back on what he already had.
I clench my jaw, sure of one thing. With or without my father, I didn’t want this to be another Hurst build, using existing partners and our tried and true formulas. I had always been proud to be a Hurst, proud of my family legacy and I didn’t plan to run from who I was. But I did want to take who I was, into something brand new. I hungered for the adventure of it. As Cesar and I pass the valet our keys and stride through the lobby doors, I imagine myself as a lone cowboy riding through the desert, testing his strength and will, free to dream and run his course.