Audrey Cho has never “launched” herself at anything in life. Even when she first began her Korean beauty blog, staying up until two a.m. every night uploading fresh content and images, answering questions from fans until she couldn’t see straight; she did not “hurl” herself into it, she did not “work herself to death.” She zeroed into the work with the smooth and powerful energy of a lightsaber. But this morning, nearly falling on her backside onto Therese’s slick driveway, Audrey Cho is launching herself at me with a shriek I’m pretty certain will clear the surrounding bluffs of all self-preserving wildlife.
We jump up and down with glee, touch each other’s hair, squeeze each other tight, as my grandmother laughs at us from the porch.
“Hi Halmoni,” Audrey yells, using the Korean word for grandmother.
“Welcome home, Audrey honey,” she calls back. “Get in here so you don’t freeze those pretty eyelashes off.”
“Nicely done,” I say, stepping back to examine her extensions.
“Thank you,” she says, studying me, “You, seriously need some maintenance. When’s the last time you exfoliated anything?”
I cringe. “Um, not since I got here?”
She rolls her eyes, “figures,” she says. “Glad I got here just in time to save you from growing scaly skin and a unibrow!”
I laugh as I help her with her bags, but I’m so relieved to have her here, that I think I might cry; something I’ve been doing with the slightest provocation over the last few days.
“Hey,” she says, as she drops her bags inside the room that’s been “hers,” since college. “After I get about three layers of other people’s dead skin cells and germs off of me, we will make a picnic on your bed and talk until we can’t anymore, okay?”
I can only nod because of the lump in my throat and reach for another hug, but Audrey lifts her hand up in front of me. “Liv, if you hug me again, I will force you to take a shower too.”
I laugh and turn toward the kitchen, “I love you, Audrey.”
“Oh, I know,” she says.
My grandmother lounges in the reading chair across from the bed, her injured leg on the mattress while Audrey and I slouch against the headboard, stemless glasses of red wine balanced against our stomachs.
“Wow…” Audrey says. “Just… wow.”
“Uh-huh,” I breathe out, feeling the most normal I have in weeks. I throw a piece of cheese in my mouth, and then a cracker which mostly ends up crumbling onto my silky pajama top. Audrey hits me.
“You are such a slob!”
Therese laughs. “She nearly walked out of the house in her sweatpants to go to Jake’s the other night. I’m not sure how she survives when we’re not around.”
“There’s no way she would,” Audrey says, toasting my grandmother. “Here’s to you for keeping her in one piece until I got here.”
I shake my head but grin. I loved the way they always ganged up on me. It made me feel loved. “So, what should I do?”
Audrey rears her head back so far I think she’s in danger of falling off my bed. “Girl, no.”
“What?” I say, laughing. “You just said I wasn’t capable of making good decisions without you guys. You know you’ll tell me what to do eventually, anyway.”
Audrey turns to Therese, her almond-shaped eyes holding an expression of exaggerated disbelief. “You know I’d never do that,” she says.
“Oh, I know,” Therese says blinking innocently back, “but if you don’t this time, I think I will.”
Audrey smirks, tossing her silky black hair behind her shoulders. “That’s why I love you Halmoni,” she says.
“Well?” I say, looking from one to the other, knowing instinctively that I won’t get a straight answer about Rich or Jake from either of them no matter how much they’re joking about it now.
Audrey sets her glass down and places both hands on my shoulders. “Liv, you know we can’t make that decision for you. But…” she says, glancing at Therese, “maybe when Rich comes to town he should stay at the Tropical Palm. I don’t think he should stay here with you, as things stand.”
Therese nods in agreement.
I cringe at the thought of what Rich would say to that. He’d often joked that he’d rather sleep on the floor of Marty’s bar than in a bed at the palm.
As though reading my mind, Audrey says with a hint of annoyance, “If he won’t do that for you…”
“You can blame me,” my grandmother interjects. “Tell him I’m being overly protective of you after this little break he put you on and I don’t want him staying here.”
“Grandma!” I say, taken aback. She was the epitome of grace and manners and had never truly objected to anything I’d done or asked for once I was old enough to think for myself.
I wonder if Rich would even believe Therese had said he couldn’t stay with us. Another worry rises to the surface. “What if he says he won’t come? You know he calls the palm the Roachside Motel…”
“That’d be reason enough to say, ‘buh-bye’ in my book,” Audrey says. When I say nothing, she softens her tone a little. “I know he won’t like it, but I doubt he’ll make too much of a stink about it, all things considered. He could stay in Nebraska City even. You can’t have him staying here, Livy. It’d be too confusing.”
I groan and slouch down further into the pillows. “Speaking of ‘confusion,’ how do we feel about Jake?”
Even with my eyes closed, I can sense Audrey and Therese giving each other meaningful glances. I’m surprised when Audrey only says, “Well, I know I’d like to see him.”
I open my eyes to see her grinning face. “Just because he professed his undying love for you and made things horribly awkward doesn’t mean I can’t still be friends with him or get some of that love for myself.”
“Let’s have him over for breakfast tomorrow!” Therese says.
“Grandma!” I say, surprised that she’d even suggest it, although, I think wryly, Audrey had this affect her.
“Ooh, yeah,” Audrey says, bouncing on the bed. “And we’d be doing you a favor!” Her eyes shine with mischief. “That way, it’ll be less weird when Rich joins us all tomorrow night. Or maybe it’d be weirder, but then it’d be fun for all of us to watch!”
I groan again and cover my face with both hands. “Can you two please just tell me what to do? I’m begging you…”
They both laugh and Audrey throws Jake’s words back at me. “I love you—even with your terrible taste in food…”
“And your horrible taste in hats,” my grandmother adds.
“That’s it,” I say, sliding off the bed and exiting my bedroom buffered by peels of laughter.
I’d planned with Rich to meet at the diner once he’d settled into the motel. He’d messaged me last night after Audrey, Therese and I had gotten into our second bottle of red so it had relaxed me enough to let Audrey do the honors. In response to his, “Hey babe. Flight lands at 2 pm. I’ll pick up my rental and see you by 3. Miss you.” I’d tossed the phone to Audrey.
“He got a rental—didn’t even ask if I can pick him up. Faster for him to speed away from me,” I’d said, glumly. “I guess he isn’t planning on us driving to his parents together after Christmas.”
“Not necessarily true,” Audrey said in a rare effort to be gracious where Rich is concerned. “Maybe he’s being thoughtful — not making you drive to pick him up at the airport.”
“Be good,” I’d pleaded, as her fingers had danced almost gleefully, it seemed to me, over the screen.
“My grandmother rented a room for you at the palm,” Audrey read aloud. “You can understand how awkward it would be to have you here. Send!”
Rich had immediately responded, “Therese must really hate me to put me up there.”
“See? He gets it,” Audrey had said.
Now, waiting for Rich in the back booth at the diner, I can hear Audrey and Dana laughing and carrying on in the kitchen. I grin, although I wonder if I should have tried to procure a booth further away from their prying eyes.
But looking around the diner, I realize there aren’t any other options tonight. It’s dinner hour and everyone seems to have had the same idea. I’d thought meeting Rich here would feel less intimidating than a one-on-one situation at his hotel or even at my grandmother’s but maybe I’d been wrong. I twist my hair, rearrange my position in the booth, fidget with my phone. Not even on our first date had I felt this nervous about seeing Rich.
I train my eyes on the door, wave at people occasionally when I recognize them. I see there are two booths crammed with men wearing identical construction jackets a few booths over from mine and they seem to enjoy themselves—especially one of the younger men, who is following Alejandra around the diner with his eyes. I see that Alejandra doesn’t seem to mind the attention. Contemplating the man, I think I’d be flattered too. He looks so hearty and masculine in his work gear, so much a product of meat and potato dinners and gallons of milk.
I can’t help myself. “Have you moved out of your mom’s yet?” I text Eli. “You are aware you have some competition over here at the diner right?”
A second later he texts back a cry face. “Looks like an ad for JCPenney’s? He already asked me about her at lunch today.”
And then he writes, “How long are you there?”
“Meeting with Rich in a few.”
“Cool. The boss is making me pass out party invites in costume.” This, he embellishes with a red-faced emoticon. “You get to witness my humiliation.”
“Your girlfriend will love that,” I message back, grinning.
I’d been happy with the western-themed invites I’d designed, using an old black-and-white image of the hotel my grandfather had from its “glory days”. With just five days left until the Christmas party, all of us are inundated with work.
When the bell jangles above the door, I look up to find Rich standing there, his face tan from the desert sun, his frame sleek and lean under the black cashmere dress coat I’d bought him last season — looking so undeniably out of place that my nerves evaporate completely.
Our eyes meet, and he gives me the boyish smile that is so undeniably Rich he makes my heart flutter.
In this place, he’s suddenly morphed into the guy I’d fallen in love with in college, so sure of his destiny to distinguish himself from the small Iowa town he’d grown up in, so desperate to convince himself that he was enough.
“Mav will not take this well,” Eli says to me as he convinces the pup to sit down so he can strap a miniature horse's saddle to his back.
I chuckle, enjoying the fact that Eli is dreading what he considered a “totally uncool” assignment.
“You’ll be the talk of the town,” I say, eyeing Eli’s green cowboy hat and the red feather boa I’d tied around his neck. “Now where is Woody?” I say, casting about for the toy cowboy I planned to velcro to Mav’s saddle.
“I think I saw Mav hide him under his bed,” Eli says. “Not sure how a half-chewed Toy Story character will spread Christmas cheer.”
I slap Eli on the back. “That’s what your ensemble is for my man; the cheer.”
“I look like a cross between a jigolow and a Vegas cowboy.”
I chuckle, locating and affixing Woody (who was unsurprisingly missing a boot and one arm), to Mav’s back. I stand back and survey my handiwork, whistle through my teeth.
“Olivia will never let me live this down. She said Alejandra’s working tonight,” Eli says, looking as glum as he can in his ridiculous outfit.
“Olivia’s there?” I say, aware that I am trying to sound nonchalant. I haven’t seen her since I’d told her how I felt.
She’d asked for space and I wanted to give that to her.
Eli pulls the feathers further away from his neck. “She’s meeting her fiancé I guess?”
“Rich?” I’d known he was coming to town—but hadn’t known exactly when he would arrive. I’d still held out a bit of hope that Olivia would tell him not to come.
“What’s he like?” Eli asks slyly.
“He’s nice enough,” I say firmly.
“Nice enough for our Liv?” Eli says, sounding like a protective younger brother.
I pick up the stack of Christmas invites, contemplating the loopy gold lettering asking ladies to come dressed in festive 1800s saloon attire and men to come dressed as cowboys or gents. “Tell you what,” I say, giving Eli a wink. “Why don’t I help you with this?”
Real relief floods Eli’s face before he realizes my intentions probably have nothing to do with his comfort level and everything to do with my agenda.
“Uh, boss?” He says, giving me another sly look. “Why the sudden interest in helping me with this?”
I slip my lambskin coat over my shoulders and whistle at Mav to heel. “Oh, so you don’t need moral support?”
Eli picks up his gun holster and buckles it around his waist so quickly it’s comical. “Yes boss, I do. But if you really want to offer support, you can go as ‘painted lady’, since the role of ‘cowboy’ is taken.”
The first punch to my gut is seeing the way they’re leaning into each other across the booth.
The second is how her hand seems to rest in his willingly, his thumb gently rubbing the top of her hand once again wearing the engagement ring.
I can observe all of this through the diner window.
Whatever cautious optimism had buoyed me at the thought of studying Olivia with Rich up close is gone and in its place is a feeling that closely resembles anger. Anger at Olivia? I shake my head as if that will help to clear the negative feelings away.
Before I can dwell further, Eli opens the restaurant door with a sudden flourish. He’s been complaining about this job all day, but he is embracing it now.
The presence of Eli in his hat, me in the red boa and Mav decked out like a horse (Woody bobbing crazily on his back), sends everyone into happy chaos. Phones appear as diners take pictures and people hoot and holler as though they’re drinking in a saloon instead of enjoying an early dinner on a Tuesday night.
“Looking mighty fine Jakey,” one of the construction workers yells. “Why don’t you come sit on my lap and tell me your story?”
“You can’t afford me, cowboy” I yell back in falsetto, flicking the boa over my shoulder for emphasis.
“Looking good, Eli,” Alejandra says, walking toward us shouldering a tray laden with food.
“Ma’am,” he says, tipping his green hat oh so coolly with the tips of his fingers.
She grins, looking a tad surprised and sashays away.
I give Eli a wink.
We make our rounds together and the going is slow since everyone wants to take photos and give Mav a good scratch behind the ears. The pup is eating it up—affection and food both, as children shyly offer him their French fries and bits of food off their plates.
By the time we reach the last table, the chaos has settled down somewhat, but the energy in the diner has risen considerably and I hear a lot of chatter about what people are planning to wear, how happy they are that Therese is sticking with tradition, no matter how late the notice. But in my head, the commotion is louder than before, the ache in my heart swallowing the good sense my mother gave me as my eyes meet Olivia’s.
Her hands are in her lap as I approach, her face pale. Rich has had his back to Olivia most of the time, watching our progression through the diner. When we stop at their booth, Rich jumps up as though we are close friends.
“I don’t know if red is your color man,” he says, slapping me on the back.
“As long as you don’t disparage the feathers,” I say, shaking his hand. “Nice to see you again.” I motion to Eli to come closer. “This is Eli. He’s my project manager.”
“Nice to meet you,” Eli says, beaming at me before looking at Rich. I knew it excited him to be introduced as my project manager, since I regularly teased him about being my intern in front of others. “Intern!” I’d say, “Fetch me some coffee”. Or, “Intern! What’s for lunch?” In return, he continued to call me “boss.”
Olivia sits still, her eyes cooly assessing all three of us as we stand around the booth talking.
I see that she’s taken care with her appearance. Had I seen her in anything other than oversized sweaters and riding boots since she’d arrived? Her attire tonight is more chilly LA evening than dead of winter country in an emerald green off the shoulder cashmere that makes her eyes more green, her skin, more luminous. A deep burgundy lip color accents the pout in her full lower lip. My breath catches, remembering how supple she had felt beneath me. I see the sudden flush bloom in her cheeks, as though she can tell what I’m thinking about, and I realize that my eyes have lingered there.
“Might have been nice to know about this party,” Rich says to Olivia with what I’m guessing passes for a teasing tone. “I have a great cowboy hat in LA.”
I raise my eyebrows and keep them there when Olivia’s eyes flash. I wasn’t expecting this kind of fire after the scene I’d caught on the way in here.
“We weren’t speaking to each other, remember?”
Rich scowls for a moment as he gazes down at her.
Olivia’s response is to lift a single, haughty, eyebrow.
I bite back a chuckle.
“Let’s just air that shit in front of everyone,” Rich says with a stillness in his voice that is chilling.
He looks at me and Eli. “Sorry guys. The stress of the holidays, am I right? I’m just happy to have gotten here in one piece to be with my fiancé before Christmas. Flying anywhere this time of year is a real pain in the ass. So what’s the deal with this party?”
“I’ll be right back,” Olivia suddenly says to Rich, rising from the booth. “I’ll put our order in with Dana,” and she places one hand on the swinging door behind us as if to walk through, but hesitates.
“And I’ll see you guys later,” she says to us, but only looks at Eli. “We’re meeting on Friday night at five right?”
“Yes,” I say, willing her to look at me, but she just nods at Eli and walks through the door.
Snug jeans and actual shoes too, I notice — feeling betrayed.
I couldn’t tell if she was more upset with me for showing up or with Rich for what he’d said, but I hear myself say, “Eli, why don’t we fill Rich in on the party and see if we might rope him into helping us with a few things.”
“Sure,” Eli says, sliding into the seat Olivia had vacated. “We have so much to do. The party is pretty last minute, considering…”
Rich sits down across from Eli but turns to look at me suspiciously when I don’t sit down too.
You have no idea how suspicious you need to be, man, I think, as I gather Maverick’s leash more firmly in my hand.
“I’d better take Mav out for a bathroom break — see you at the office in a few, Eli?” I say.
I give Rich a nod. “Maybe we’ll see you in a few days.”
“I’m sure you will if Olivia has anything to do with it,” Rich says, but he doesn’t sound happy about it.
Instead of walking out through the front, I use the double door Olivia had used, wondering if I had officially put myself on Rich’s radar.
I hear Mav’s happy bark. Dana’s “Oh Jake! You know Mav can’t be back here…” and Audrey’s simultaneous squeal of happiness, “Jake! I’ve missed you!” And then her, “feather boa and lambskin jacket? Uh-huh. You’ve already been down here too long.”
He says something quietly to them, and whatever it is, I can’t hear it from the pantry where I’m hiding out, trying to calm down, trying very hard not to cry. When I’d walked into the kitchen, both of my friends had peppered me with questions until they’d seen the look on my face. I’d have laughed if I wasn’t already upset—their questions had stopped so abruptly.
“Pantry?” Dana had said. “Or you can have the keys to my car? It’s parked out back. Go sit in there and clear your head.”
The pantry had seemed the more logical choice at the moment but for the second time tonight I am wrong.
“I’ll take Maverick out,” Audrey says. “I want to see your hotel, anyway.”
I can’t hear anything else because my heart is pounding so loudly in my ears.
Why hadn’t he stayed away? He knew I’d be here. Why couldn’t he have given me space like he’d promised?
Despite all the animosity I’d felt toward Jake when we first met, tonight was the first time I’d felt as though he wasn’t on my side. And this is more crushing to me than Rich’s behavior. Rich, who made me feel so embarrassed when he scowled at me in front of Jake and Eli — as though he hadn’t just begged me to be back in his life—as though I was some misbehaving child that displeased him.
So when Jake’s face peers around the open pantry door — one look into those kind eyes — and I burst into tears.
Jake pulls me into his arms without a word, which naturally makes me cry harder. Eventually, when my cries subside into hiccups, I step back and wipe my nose, turn my back on him, because I can feel what a snotty mess I’ve become.
I hear a paper bag opening, and then a “here,” as a rectangular sheet of paper towel wavers in front of my face. “Thank you,” I sniff.
When I turn back to face him, I see that Jake is still wearing the feather boa — and the contrast of his feathers against the ruggedness of his jaw, those broad shoulders, the perplexed expression on his face… it’s all too much.
I giggle, and then I laugh as his face breaks into a silly grin. He shakes his head at me. “Why can’t people just accept me as I am?” he says. Touching my elbow gently, that same perplexed look back on his face, he says with concern, “Liv? What’s wrong?”
I consider briefly throwing my hands in the air and yelling melodramatically, “Everything! Everything is wrong!”
Instead I cross my arms in front of my chest. “Why did you come here, Jake? Eli has been dreading giving out those invites all day. I know he wouldn’t have complained to me about it if he’d known you’d be his sidekick.”
He smiles sheepishly. “It’s true. I wanted to see how things were going with Rich. But…” Jake raises his eyebrows. “I gave you three whole days Olivia. I didn’t call you, message you or drop by with notes…”
The thought of Jake passing notes makes me smile wanly, “what are you, in high school?”
“Hey, I’m not the one hiding from my fiancé in a kitchen pantry with boxes of pancake mix and cereal.”
“Fine,” I say, trying to keep a straight face. “What did you think would happen when you saw me with Rich?”
He runs his hand through his hair, stuffs both of his hands in his coat pockets. “I don’t know.” He gives me a hard look. “I know I didn’t like the way you were holding his hand like everything had gone back to normal with you two.”
“Well… it hasn’t.”
“Well… good! I also didn’t like the way he talked to you in front of us.”
Jake leans against the door frame with one shoulder. His hazel eyes are so tentative as they look at me, so very un-Jake like that I feel unnerved, my emotions fluttering crazily in my stomach. “So…” he says quietly. “Are you going to tell him about us?”
The mention of an “us” is still stunning, although an “us” is all I’ve been thinking about.
I sound more adversarial than I mean to when I say, “and how do you suggest I even start that conversation?”
Jake shrugs. “With the truth.”
I sink on top of the box of canned goods behind me. “He wants us to get back together, Jake. Before you came in here, he apologized to me for being so… stupid. I asked him about Piper. He admitted he was attracted to her. But he said hanging out with her so much made him realize even more how right he and I are for each other.”
Jake hunkers down so he’s eye level with me and his posture makes me think of a cowboy, assessing the trail, deciding which path he’ll take on his journey. When he speaks, his tone holds the calm of someone used to getting ahead of dozens of potential disasters at once.
“So, you won’t tell him about us because you plan to get right back together with him, is that right?”
His assessment cuts me deeply, and I feel criticized—annoyed even—that he got it right.
“Jake, please don’t patronize me,” I say finally, even though I know in my heart that he isn’t.
He sighs and looks away from me and for a moment; I worry that he’ll stand-up and leave.
“Liv, I know what it’s like to make a commitment to something but then realize late in the game that I was wrong. Changing course is hard. Confidence-shattering even.”
“Jake,” I say shaking my head, immediately knowing where he is taking this. “I know your decision to work with your family on Tomahawk Hill was difficult, but you can not compare this with a business transaction.”
He frowns. “Why not?”
“Come on,” I say impatiently. “Saying you’ll marry someone and then changing your mind to be with someone else is far more complicated than switching business partners.”
“Both commitments alter everything. Choosing my family business on this deal changed my life and changed me.”
I couldn’t deny Jake that. For him, working on a business venture on his own was the biggest commitment he’d ever made—millions of dollars worth of commitments and risk. But in relationships? When was the last time he’d been in one as long and as serious as mine? Forget everything entertainment news spread about him. It didn’t change the fact that his longest relationship had lasted three months. That was shorter than my briefest relationship. How could Jake even know what it took to make a relationship last?
“When is the last time you’ve even had a real relationship, Jake?”
He rocks back on his heals, a look of displeasure on his face. “So it boils down to that, does it?”
I don’t respond.
He slides his hands down the front of his jeans as he stands. “I guess I have my answer then, don’t I?”
“Jake, please don’t be mad.”
Even as I say it, I see a softness in his eyes that tells me he isn’t—and it’s like I’m looking through the portal of time and glimpsing a life where someone could have an infinite amount of patience for me.
He gives me his hand and pulls me to my feet.
“I don’t think you believe anything you just said about me and my ability to commit,” he says quietly. “You’ve met my parents, Cesar. Parker. They’re my family. I may never have known one person as you have known Rich, but you can’t deny that I know what love looks like. And I think you know who I am, Liv. You know me.”
He lets go of my hand. “Once you began writing your novel… did you doubt that you would finish writing it, even though you’ve never written a book before?”
I think about that for a moment, realizing that I had never doubted, not really. “No.” Since my writing retreat in San Diego, I’d known I’d have created a hole in my heart forever if I didn’t finish.
“And how did you know that you would write this story? What was it that made you believe in yourself and in your book enough to commit to it for all these months?”
I shake my head. How could I explain it? “I just knew.”
He pulls my hands to his lips, taking my breath away as his lips graze the back of them, his stare unwavering. “Please think about what we might look like…” he seems to feel the bandaids hugging my fingers. His eyebrows shoot upward.
I’d cut myself in the kitchen twice this week.
His face lights up with that infuriatingly presumptuous expression that never ceases to make me want to laugh and hit him at the same time. “Wow… maybe you already have been thinking about us?”
“I don’t have to answer that.”
A sudden clattering in the kitchen makes us both jump. Dana’s “Rich! You surprised me,” is so obviously a warning for the two of us, that despite the panic I feel, I grin up at Jake, expecting him to find the humor in it too. Instead, he gazes soberly at me for a moment—drops my hand.
“Stay here,” he says. “I’ll take care of it.” Before I can ask what he means, he’s gone.
“Hey man, I thought you’d left?” Rich says.
I hear the shake of a cereal box.
“I can’t decide if having an office next to a stocked pantry is a blessing or a curse,” I hear Jake say.
“If that’s what you’re eating tonight, I’d say it’s a curse,” Rich says.
“I was just dropping by to tell you Liv got a call about some supplies arriving tomorrow so she had to drop by the office. She asked me to keep you company until she comes back.”
Rich must not be buying it completely because Dana chimes in with, “I’ll have your dinner order out in a few minutes but you must get out of my kitchen.”
I hear Jake’s boots clacking, Rich’s loafers squeaking, the swish of the kitchen door.
Dana walks into the pantry, her eyes wide as she stares at what is undoubtedly a guilty expression on my face, her hands on her hips the way I’d seen Brenda do hundreds of times. “You have some explaining to do. Why in the world is Jake lying about the fact that you two have been hiding out here for the last ten minutes?”