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CHAPTER 24

CHAPTER 24

CONTEMPORARY FICTION. Photo by Billy Huynh on Unsplash

I’d insisted that the party remain small, but as usual, my mother had other ideas. Not only had the guest list outgrown my penthouse suite at the hotel, but my parents were now hosting the farewell bash at their home in Calabasas. The change of venue is the reason I’d acquiesced when Audrey Cho had asked about bringing her camera crew along to grab footage for the weekend edition of her show.

I watch with amusement as the crew trails after my mother like the train of a peacock. She stops at each food station with a critical eye, editing floral arrangements, quietly giving reminders to the staff about what she expects. I grin at her over the head of the cameraman now squatting precariously close to the edge of our pool. She thrived in the role of hostess and sparkled under the lens. When I’d told her a TVE crew would be joining us for a couple of hours, she’d practically clapped her hands together with delight.

I lift the Boulevardier cocktail I am in the midst of taste-testing to my lips and run my other hand across the smooth surface of the honey onyx countertop my mother recently installed in the kitchen. As with everything else in my childhood home, light seems to glow or bounce off of every object. While my mother had made a costly hobby of reinventing the house over the years, it always felt the way I remembered it as a kid- cozy but gracious- a constant stream of friends and family coming and going. Dinner times were seldom just us three. After Cesar and his mom, Eva moved into our guesthouse; it was always the five of us at dinner plus whoever we’d happened to invite.

The sound of high heels clicking against tile draws my attention. “Think you could spare me a soundbite in just a few minutes?” Audrey, sleek and velvety in a black cocktail dress, her inky hair swishing behind her in a polished ponytail is walking toward me from the east wing of the house.

“I can’t believe there’s anything left to say after the last interview...” I pretend to swipe at my forehead. “Look, I’m already starting to sweat!”

“Ha, ha,” Audrey says, sitting next to me at the kitchen island. “It’ll be painless.”

I give her a wry smile. “I believe your name is listed under ‘effective interrogation tools’ in the FBI training manual.”

Audrey casually takes a sip of my cocktail. “Don’t be silly. You know there’s no handbook. They fly me to Virginia once a year for training.”

I grin. “So, when did you arrive?”

“Maybe an hour ago? Your mother offered me one of the bedrooms. Your house is beautiful, by the way. Oh, and Olivia is already here too since we’re using the same glam squad.”

I turn back to my drink. The knowledge that Olivia is somewhere in my house makes me feel as alert as a teenager having a girl over for the first time. “Maybe I should borrow your glam squad too,” I say, my mind going through the options of available rooms in the east wing. “Hey...I’m a terrible host. May I offer you one of these whiskey cocktails? This is a Boulevardier, but I'm told we’re also serving Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, and any other whiskey drink you might so desire. And if you’re not into the hard stuff, there’s a nice selection of California wines...”

Audrey slips out of her chair as my mother and the camera crew approach. “In about an hour, I’ll send these guys packing and take you up on all of it.”

#

My favorite jazz ensemble is already well into their set, and it feels as though I’ve greeted about forty fashionably late and very thirsty guests when I spot Olivia’s boyfriend walking through the double doors that lead directly from the foyer to the back patio. He’s holding the welcome champagne in one hand, his phone in the other. When our eyes meet, he pockets his phone and heads toward me, a wide grin on his face. “Thanks for having me,” he says, giving my hand a firm shake. “The drive here was pretty spectacular.” He gestures to everything around us; seductive and shimmering as a house in Calabasas should. “And wow...this is a great party.”

We clink glasses, and I wonder where Olivia has gone. I thought I’d seen her briefly with Audrey near the bar, but by the time I’d turned around, both of them had disappeared. “Thanks, man. If you’d like a proper drink, the bar is fully stocked.”

He pulls his phone out of his pocket and glances at it. “Sounds great. I was hoping to find my girlfriend first. Have you seen her?”

Somehow, I’d recognize that walk anywhere—that prance like step—the way she bounces, even in sky-high heels. But the way she’s styled tonight—Olivia is not the girl next door I’d come to know. Rich spots her just after I do, as she appears from a side door at the back of the house.

Tonight, Olivia looks like a smoky-eyed Alicia Vikander in a form-hugging Prada green cocktail dress, an edgy black leather jacket draped lightly over her shoulders. I try to reign in my surprise with a banal expression as the girls draw near, but I’m sure I haven’t succeeded because I have no idea what to do with my face and Audrey is smirking at me. Who knew that under those quirky t-shirts and baggy boyfriend jeans there were such pleasing curves?

“Hey babe,” Rich says, leaning over to give Olivia a quick peck on the cheek as I stand silently beside him. “Looking nice tonight.”

“Thanks,” she says, smiling prettily back.

When her eyes meet mine, I feel the weight of the compliments I’d normally have no qualms about sharing with any woman, single or not, pressing against the back of my throat, but I say stiffly instead, “Yeah...you look really great.”

Audrey makes a sound expressing her disapproval and pulls Olivia toward the throng of guests now congregating around the spread of appetizers debuting on the other side of the courtyard. “Ya look nice? Ya look great? I’m taking this hottie someplace she can be adequately appreciated.”

Olivia laughs and shakes her head, but she doesn’t protest as she follows Audrey. “I guess I’ll see you in a bit?” she says to Rich.

“I’ll bring you a drink,” he says, pointedly excluding Audrey.

The girls cling to each other’s arms as they walk away giggling, Olivia pausing only to look over her shoulder and say, “and thanks for the invite, Jake.”

I grimace and give her a small wave that I hope she will interpret as comedic. “It’s a pleasure to have you here.”

I feel a nudge at my elbow. “Once, when she was stupid drunk, Audrey told me I was her ‘mortal enemy’.” His chuckle sounds hard and forced.

“She’s pretty subtle.”

I finish my cocktail with a gulp, relieved to see more guests drifting toward us through the foyer. Among them is Cesar, who, at the sight of me, sidesteps the orderly line of people picking up champagne flutes.

Rich takes an inadvertent step back as Cesar brusquely invades our space, wraps his heavy arm around my shoulder. “Que tal hermano!”

“Todo bien,” I say, “tu? I thought you were going to get here an hour ago.”

“Little fires to put out at the restaurant just as I was leaving to get changed.” He seems to realize he’s somewhat awkwardly blocking another person. “Oh, hey man.” He turns and extends a hand.

“Cesar, this is Rich...?”

“Karlsson,” he finishes for me.

“Rich is Olivia’s...”

“Boyfriend, right?” Cesar interrupts, a broad grin spreading across his face. “We didn’t meet, but I gave Olivia a ride to her house from the airport several weeks back. Saw you from my car. I never forget a face.”

“Oh, sure. Olivia mentioned that you’re a chef. Is that how you know Jake?”

Cesar squeezes my shoulder. “We’re also brothers. You don’t see the resemblance?”

I chuckle. The joke never got old for me. “We grew-up together.”

“So, Rich, looks like you need a cocktail,” Cesar says. “Let’s grab one and find Olivia. I’d love to see her again. She promised to invite me over for a movie night soon.”

As the two walk away together, I survey the party. My mother had at least listened to my pleas to keep the decorations on the casual side. Which, for my mother, still meant having two large banquet sized tables custom made from reclaimed wood. Wildflower arrangements sprout out of the center planks like lithely dancing trees. Candlelight spreads down the length of each table, the flames contained in wrought iron works of art, capturing the glittering apparel and faces of my guests.

I take my time winding through clusters of friends and family to say hello, catch their slaps on the back and their hopes for my success. All the while, I feel my attention drifting again and again to the same distracting source. There’s Olivia with Rich, sipping cocktails and talking with their heads together, her arms in the leather jacket now, her hair swept to one side. Later, Audrey’s at her elbow, pulling her away from Rich who absentmindedly releases her hand as he continues to converse with my friend Cash, who owns a tech company in the valley.

I seek her form again after I’ve settled Parker with my pops (I’d had to threaten him with job loss to get him to show up); note that Rich is still deep in conversation with Cash and that Olivia is with a small group of people gathered around Cesar at the bar. The group is laughing and cheersing Cesar as he pours them more drinks. I grin as I make my way over, protesting, “what have you done with the bartender?”

Olivia hands me her glass as I wedge myself between her and the bar. Her eyes are the color of forest moss; her cheeks flushed pink from alcohol and laughter. “You can take mine.” She pauses. “I mean, you should take mine. Cesar is making us try everything, neat, but I don’t think I can drink anything more.”

One of my friends hands Olivia another glass as Cesar pours. “No way you’re stopping now, Livy baby, you’re one of us now.”

She shakes her head, loose waves swaying softly around her shoulders. “No,” she insists good-naturedly. “Someone needs to make sure you guys don’t fall into the pool.”

I clink my glass against hers, reclaim her attention. “Livy now, is it?”

She shrugs, smiling up at me. “Your friends are quite lovely.”

“You seem surprised.”

“Well, yeah.” Her sudden grin is an apology for thinking they might be otherwise. I chuckle.

“I thought I’d be drifting around here by myself all night.”I follow her gaze as it lands on Rich, who is now at a table with his back turned to us, conversing with someone else.

She suddenly looks uncomfortable. “I apologize in advance if he starts following up with your friends about real estate...”

I shake my head to cut her off, try to put her at ease. “Hey, he’d be a fool not to. There’s millions of dollars’ worth of business just sitting here. He should take it.”

“So...when do you leave for Iowa?”

I see the way she shifts in her shoes, rocks back on her stems, one after the other. “Next week. Want to go sit under one of those heat lamps over there?”

She nods gratefully. “I think I may lose some toes if I don’t get out of these shoes soon.”

“Join us when you can’t feel your faces anymore,” I say to my friends, placing my hand lightly on the small of Olivia’s back to maneuver her away.

I feel her tense slightly at my touch, but she says, “I almost forgot. I have a going away present for you. It’s from me and Audrey. It’s not fancy,” she says quickly, her eyes sweeping over our surroundings. “But we thought you might like it.”

“So, where is it?”

“Well...” she settles into one of the cushioned love seats, slips her shoes off with a small sigh. “Let’s say you’ll find it in your room at the end of the night.”

I coolly raise an eyebrow even as my heart beats a bit faster at the thought of Olivia in my bedroom. “I wasn’t in your room,” she says swiftly, clearly mortified at the thought. “Audrey showed it to your mother, and she suggested having someone take it in there for us.”

“Ah...” I say, grinning. “So, I won’t find an imprint of your head on my pillow tonight? No subtle hints of...” I pretend to sniff the air around her head. “Citrus with floral undertones?”

Olivia swats her hand in the direction of my face, laughing. “No, creep.” She leans back in her chair and hugs the pillow she finds there. “Are you sure you’re ready to leave all this behind?”

She’s so earnest; I wonder if she’s given some though to moving back to Tomahawk Hill herself, someday.

“I’ll miss the people...” I gesture to the band. “I’ll miss all the live music. The weather. The usual stuff. It’ll all still be here when I get back.”

She smiles knowingly. “You’re just ready for something new.”

“I can’t think of a place more divorced from LA than Tomahawk Hill, can you?”

Olivia laughs. “You have no idea just how true that is. You might not be so amused by that a month or two from now.”

We both look up as a server offers us steaming cups of coffee and freshly baked cookies. “We’ll have all of that,” I say, taking the entire plate of cookies, two cups and one of the tiny pitchers of cream off of his tray. Olivia grins at me as I pour as much cream as can fit, into her coffee and then pass her the plate of sweets.

“Aw. You remembered how I like my cream with coffee,” she says, dipping a cookie into her cup.

“You really should be sitting at the kid’s table,” I say.

She grins. “You should get another plate of cookies.”

We eat silently for a moment, and then I ask her the question that’d been on my mind since she agreed to the terms of our real estate contract. “Have you thought about what you’ll do with your newfound wealth?”

She shakes her head, licking chocolate off her fingers. “Rich thinks I should buy some real estate and flip houses. He’s probably right.”

“What do you think?” I say quietly, wondering if she always deferred to Rich on big questions or if she only did that when it came to real estate.

“It is one of the safest ways to build wealth. Our recent transaction is a good case-in-point.”

I nod. “True. But what if you weren’t thinking along the lines of investments or what other people thought you should do? What if you had to start spending your money on something—anything—by tomorrow; or risk losing it all? What’s the first thing you’d do with it?”

She sits up straighter, as though I’ve squeezed the trigger of a starter pistol. “I’d rent a little cottage on an island or off of a coast somewhere. There’d be tons of snow and firewood waiting for me and I’d pack a suitcase with only tins of Earl Gray and Therese’s scones and and write my first novel.”

I snag a cookie off the plate in her lap. “That’s what I was looking for,” I say with satisfaction. “So, why don’t you start planning that trip right now?”

CHAPTER 25

CHAPTER 25

CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER 23