Excerpt for The Question by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

210


The Question

By Katie George



The Question

Katie George

Published by Katie George at Smashwords

Copyright 2017 Smashwords




Prologue


MOM, HOW DID you meet Dad?”

It all started with a simple question, and I was not surprised my daughter asked it. Her entire life was composed of queries, some of which I could answer and others too complicated for Aristotle to explain. She was a Sagittarius, naturally curious; I, a mere Aries, was more of the accepting type. If someone asked me a question, I usually had to think long before answering.

This question was no exception.

Her eyes glinted in the falling light of the sun. “Mom, did you hear me? How’d you meet Dad?”

I suppose this question was bound to happen sometime. Most children know how their parents met, like the typical places such as college, or a sports bar in Midtown, or church. Yet how could I answer my little girl, someone who thought so highly of her father? How could I tell her the truth?

“Well, Evangeline, that is complicated.”

Evangeline frowned. When she frowns, it’s as if the sun is dropped in a bucket of gray paint. “You always say that.”

“Yes, I know, that is true. Then I uncomplicate things, don’t you think? Well, why do you want to know?” I could try to stall time, but there was no way around this. I would have to answer, and because of my personality, I would have to answer honestly. Sometimes I wish I could lie with impunity.

My daughter pulled out a notebook. I recognized it as her little journal, something she used for doodling and writing, and sometimes homework. I had bought it for her on her tenth birthday, wrapped it in silver paper, and placed a teal bow on top. She loved it so much she ran up and kissed me straight on the tip of my nose, something that was becoming increasingly less prevalent now that she was almost a teenager. Her father too had appreciated the gift, and all thoughts of his brand-new purple bicycle for her had gone out the window—at least for the moment.

I’d thought she would forget the notebook, but she never did. She took it with her to school, although I cautioned her against it, but she assured me she’d keep it safe, and she did. She wrote in it so much the entire thing was almost full, and unbeknownst to her, I had a new one stashed in the pantry, ready to gift to her at the appropriate time. In a world so full of technology and gadgets, Evangeline was an outsider.

I blew a piece of hair from my face. “Well, are you going to tell me why you want to know? Now, all of a sudden?”

“It’s for a class project.”

“Oh, really.” As I stuffed a piece of chocolate into my gullet, I considered this project. This might ruffle some feathers, including mine.

“Yes. We’re supposed to write a little article about it.”

“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” I said, sitting on a stool across from her. She cocked her head at me, such innocence.

“Why?”

“Fine. I’ll tell you, but honey, some of what I say is only for you to know. Not everyone gets to know this. I may not even tell you the whole story.”

“But… Mom. I’m twelve now. I’m perfectly responsible.” In this moment, she looked somewhat adultish.

I shook my head. “Sweetie, this is going to hurt me to tell you, okay? Plus, we’ve never told you the story. You deserve to know.”

“Exactly. Why haven’t you told me?”

“Why didn’t you ask before?”


Chapter One


THERE WERE FEW things in the world that satisfied Christopher Rose II more than his best friend, Andrew Atwater, and a sangria underneath the summery sun. Turquoise water sheathed their skin, each drop a world of its own. The humidity was boiling, like some kind of witch doctor had sent it to Earth to harass the inhabitants of the Mid-South. The chirping cicadas were even more obnoxious, their sounds grating against his nerves. However, even though Chris hated humidity, the Mid-South, and cicadas, his life was going pretty well, and he was satisfied.

“Man, I’m so glad you scooped this place up. It was a nice choice.” Drew lazily floated against the water in a pink float. It had been the only one in stock at the store, especially since it was full-blown fall in all other parts of the country.

“I made the right decision, huh?”

“Absolutely.”

It had been nearly two weeks since Chris had moved into his ritzy grange in the outskirts of Memphis, Tennessee, where the houses happened to be cheap and the taxes even cheaper. Its basis bore the similarity of a French chateau, with its sconces and magical architectural prowess, and it had all the upgrades and a lofty price tag near the million-dollar mark. Accompanied were a four-car garage, pool, pool house, and nearly five acres of greenery and bugs. Any twenty-eight-year-old would have appreciated the place, but Christopher Rose II was used to things like this. It had been his life since childhood.

Drew Atwater, on the other hand, was not born rich and lived in a townhouse in Midtown, where the traffic proved to be more annoying than a constant thumb prick. Chris had invited him to live in his new digs, but Drew was afraid of how that would look—two men living together, of course—and declined. Plus, country living wasn’t for everyone—even though Chris insisted he was far from “country living.”

Instead, Drew had accepted life for him would never equal Lambos and spring vacations to Ibiza. In fact, he didn’t even care if it did or not, because his dream was not the same as his buddy’s. Drew wanted to settle down, get married, have a few kids, and live the best life possible with what he had. Maybe someday he’d teach a Sunday school class. Maybe another day he’d go to the Super Bowl with his brother and future son or daughter.

“So, I’ve been thinking. What if I try to move to the suburbs, kinda like you did?” Drew looked up expectantly at his friend. Drew was always one for positivity and agreement.

“Your townhouse is as good as it gets. I think you should wait a little longer, wait till the market picks back up.”

“If you haven’t noticed, you just bought a house, and you didn’t wait till the market picked back up.”

“So?”

“So.”

“It’s a good time to buy, not to sell.” Chris swam under the water, taking a few laps in stride. He was on the other side of the pool by the time Drew was able to float again, and the two exchanged sideways glances as they spotted each other from a distance away.

“I can tell. You actually do want to move in with me.”

“Shut up, man. I do not. I will never be able to find a woman if that is the case.”

Chris smiled. He sure couldn’t understand how a guy like Drew—reasonably attractive, nice job, nice personality—didn’t find selecting women as fun as he did. “Somehow, I don’t think that’s a problem. Most women are scared of you anyway.”

“Nah, that’s you, if you’ve forgotten.” Drew curled his toes as he allowed the water to lap against his shoulders. It was relaxing, especially after a long week on the job in the midst of this spurt of summer in late September. Fall wouldn’t think to begin until mid-October at the earliest.

Chris rolled his eyes. He was about to say something cocky in response when his phone buzzed nearby, and settled for, “Imagine a fancy schmancy dinner here one night. With a few women, a few glasses of wine, a few moments of spellbound peace.” Then he jumped up, droplets falling to his feet, and jogged over to the little piece of cellular device. “Hello?” he barked. He didn’t notice Drew ponder this with a smug grin on his face.

“Christopher, hey. It’s your mother.”

“Oh, of course.” This caused Chris to really roll his eyes. He could only imagine his pristine mother sipping a cup of chamomile as she found his number on her long list of contacts, dialed the number, and prayed he’d answer the phone. To say the least, their relationship was superficial, but at least superficiality was better than… “What’s up?”

Drew raised an eyebrow.

“Well, I know this is somewhat short notice, but I’m leaving for St. Bart’s next week for a women’s retreat, and I need someone to pick up your brother from school. You know, he’s grounded for a while from his truck, and we were thinking it would be best if you take care of that anyway.”

Chris wanted to fall over at the request. First of all, his brother was eighteen—an age of capability where one can give up his life to serve the military. Second of all, his mother requesting anything from him was just a slap in the gut by principle. Third of all, Chris really didn’t like his brother anyway. He was baggage that Christopher didn’t want to be responsible for.

“Um. That is a little short notice, Mom.” He could practically inhale his mother’s rosy scent over cyberspace. Even when his mom turned ninety-nine, she would dress to impress, and that included spritzing everything with that perfume.

“I’m sorry, honey.”

“What about Dad? He’s the true father. You know, he donated the sperm, and you donated the egg.”

Drew pretended to ignore these comments, but he snickered nearby. Another day, another Rose family drama. Constantly, someone was bickering at another. It didn’t help that the five, well, four immediate family members of the family lived in three different houses: Christopher Rose I in the county next door; Lucy and Alexander Rose in Germantown; and then Chris in his new bachelor pad estate. It was the most unhomely family in a good twenty-mile radius. Drew always liked to think of the Roses as the perfect candidates for a reality show about Memphis’s elite.

Meanwhile, Drew’s family was like a bunch of bees around honey. No one could seem to get enough of each other. There was drama, obviously, especially being one of two guys (he and his brother) in a family of three girls (his two sisters and mother, of course), but he loved his life. His family lived nearby in the same house they’d had since he was born. He liked the stable nature of the Atwater surname, though his parents were never rich. He’d learned how to work hard and afford what he needed and wanted. Chris’s presence was just a bonus in his life.

Drew glanced at his water-proof watch, though he was pretty used to judging the actual time by the sun’s position in the sky. He hopped out of the water and waddled over to the nearby lounge chair, grabbing his shirt and a towel to dry off. Though his best friend’s place was definitely an American dream, it was in desperate need of a woman’s touch.

Chris was in the midst of a long spiel, and Drew could hear sweet Lucy’s voice all the way from across the pool. Chris looked up and waved good-bye to Drew, who anxiously threw his shirt over his tan skin and hurried across the green grass to the gate lining the fence. A bush of purple and blue hydrangeas startled him with its beauty.

“Of course I forgot to get her flowers,” he muttered, and looking over his shoulder, careful to check Chris was out of his periphery, he took a few and rushed to his truck out in the driveway.

If Chris knew a lick about this, he’d have eaten Drew alive about it all. He pushed all thoughts of his friend aside, because he had to hurry, or he’d be late for his blind date.


Chapter Two


DIANA SARAFIAN ANXIOUSLY chewed on a thumbnail as Adrian Atwater sidled up next to her. They’d just finished a round of major studying at the library, learning all about the pH of the liver and signs of psoriasis. She always loved studying; it had been an integral part of her entire personhood for as long as she could remember. However, now she was curiously nervous because Adrian had invited her over to dinner next Saturday at his family’s house. To her normally stable soul, this truly terrified her.

“You… You want me to meet your family?” She pulled on her long black ponytail, another anxious habit. Her mother always lectured her about how ridiculous she looked when she twisted her hair around her fingers. “Don’t you think we should wait a little before I meet them? We just started… Dating.” She could barely gather the gumption to even classify their little relationship.

The truth was, Adrian was a nice guy and all, but she wasn’t in the market for a man. She liked Adrian as a friend, and he was a nice study buddy. He’d asked to be more than friends, and she’d complied simply because he was good-looking and proved to be happier when they were “dating” rather than “just friends.”

This entire thought process left Diana, normally cocky and independent, in a kerfuffle. She wanted to break it off immediately with him, but she couldn’t do that now.

Adrian’s green eyes sparkled in the light. They stood outside the public library, the humidity tinging their skin and making Adrian a little more outlandish than normal. “Come on, Di. It’ll be fun. They all want to meet you.”

“Sure they do,” Diana said back. If they were all like Adrian, it would no doubt make the night unbearable. She could only take him in small doses when they didn’t happen to be studying the full innards of a person’s liver.

Adrian wrapped his arm around her shoulders. He didn’t notice her flinch. “I’m telling you, they’ll love you, and you’ll love them.”

The feeling would not be mutual at my parents’ house.

“Well…”

“Come on. Please? It’s going to be fun. Mom will make her famous pita pockets. She makes this special ranch dip with it, and they’re a killer. Or maybe she’ll prepare a warm, juicy steak. The possibilities are endless! Plus, it’ll get us away from Blitzer’s class for a little. For once, no studying between us. We can just… Well, be us.” Adrian looked lovingly in her direction. Diana tried her hardest not to cringe.

If she said no, Adrian would be crushed and would mope about, and the truth was, he was one of her only friends in Blitzer’s body function course. In her other classes, like epidemiology and intro to clinical, she was the popular student. Everyone loved to study with Ms. Sarafian, the world’s hottest nerd. She always laughed when her sister Mel called her that.

“Just because I don’t look like the other girls doesn’t mean guys like me,” Diana always said in their moments of deep conversation. Diana didn’t like to date as a result.

Mel always said something back like, “You’re just too standoffish. Most guys would love the opportunity to learn about the human body with you.”

A hint of a smile played on Diana’s lips as she thought of her sister. Mel was nothing like her. Mel was fearless and followed her own heart. (Plus, Diana had always been very tall, much taller than her own father. That was one advantage in her favor, she believed. Of course I have to disagree with this opinion). While her sister had chosen medical school to incite pride in their parents, Melisende had chosen to major in art history and sculpture. She’d brushed off her parents’ dreams of her becoming a lawyer. No, Mel’s attitude was, I’ll be a teacher if I have to. Ari and Anahit Sarafian believed in utter respect for all teachers, but their own aspirations suffered from Mel’s lack of focus. They hadn’t come to America to have their daughters not achieve the top of the monetary hierarchy, they always said. Of course, they’d been so pleased with Diana that Mel’s choice in life had been quietly forgotten. A disappointment, but not a big one.

“Di?”

“Oh, what?” she asked, totally distracted now. “Oh, okay. Sure. I’ll go with you.” She half-expected him to jump up in giddy glee. Instead, he leaned over and kissed the edge of her lips. She leaned into him.

They began walking to the cratered parking lot. Patches to crevices didn’t usually hold up very long under a humid, baking Southeast summer. Again Diana considered why her parents had chosen Memphis out of all the American cities when they’d first arrived back in the early 1990s.

“I’ll see you Monday, okay?” Adrian asked as he leaned against his car, an old junkmobile that would most definitely arrive at a junkyard in the next year.

Diana smiled as she hopped into her little hatchback. She scrolled through the messages on her phone, unwittingly thinking about how most of them were from her fellow med students who were asking her about the body rather than her personally. It was true, she thought sadly, that she didn’t have many friends. She never had friends, except Mel, who always seemed to get her when no one else did.

Diana waited for Adrian to back out of his spot before she drove home. She passed various little houses and people milling about. Even in the sunset and approaching night, the temperature would remain almost unbearable, and she couldn’t see why anyone would stay outside.

She made it to her parents’ 1950s house in East Memphis around seven o’clock. The house was in perfect condition, along with the grass and shrubs and garden. Her parents had made sure their house was pristine so to fit in with the other Americans. Diana smiled as she pulled into the driveway. Even after leaving for years to attend college at UC-Berkeley, she’d returned to attend medical school in Memphis. She’d done so to be nearer to her wacky parents, especially now that they were getting older and needed her and Mel more often.

She entered the spacious entryway, a few photos of her and Mel as youngsters displayed on the yellow walls. To anyone in the world, the house would appear completely American, with no ounce of Armenia nearby. However, its inhabitants were a different story altogether; they were proud of their heritage, as they should be.

The house was surprisingly quiet as she headed into the kitchen. Usually, around this time, a big smorgasbord of food gleamed on the dining room table. No matter how tired the family was, they liked to congregate for big meals there.

“Mom? Dad?” Diana peeked around the rooms, expecting them to jump out at her with some sort of cake from Kroger’s. They loved those cakes.

When she entered the living room, she found them huddled together on the sofa, Mel nearby in the love seat. She was staring at her chipped blue nail polish. Diana felt like she was walking in on a private conversation. “Um, hi?”

“Sit down, Diana,” whispered her father, whose voice was extremely hoarse. That was typical.

She did so.

“Mel has a bit of news for you,” croaked her mother, Anahit, a woman whose hair had turned steely gray after years of it as inky black as Diana’s was now. Her accent was thick, but she’d insisted on only speaking English in America as to fully learn her new culture. Now and then, she slipped back into Armenian, but her understanding of English was now at a supremely intelligent level, even better than a lot of English-speakers Diana heard around town.

Diana glanced over at her sister, who refused to look up at her. “Well, what? You know I hate suspense. Just say it.”

“Go ahead, Melisende,” said their father, who coughed into his elbow.

Mel’s brown eyes lit up as she looked up at Diana. “I flunked out.”

Diana cocked her head in confusion. She uttered, “What?” simply because she knew it was the appropriate thing to say. In reality, Diana hadn’t heard her sister fully.

“Your sister flunked out,” emphasized Anahit, who picked a piece of lint from her green dress. Her voice strained as she spoke. “Somehow she couldn’t handle art history.”

Mel glared at her mother. The fiery darts flying from her eyes burned her victim. Anahit seemed to cringe in response.

“Oh.” Diana avoided looking at anyone. This would unbearable. She would hear about this for the next twenty-five years or so. This would only add to the pressure of Diana’s needing to be the perfect little angel forevermore. Since Melisende couldn’t do this… You must do this… “Do you mind if I skip out on this conversation? I’m a bit tired.”

Before they could bind and gag her, she was out the door, into the September night. The neighbors peeking through the blinds could see her skinny form ambling down the road, and they cocked their heads. Since her head was always in a book, Diana never went outside.


Chapter Three


THE BARBECUE RESTAURANT was jiving like an Elvis song. The waiters and waitresses were swinging their hips as they busted tables, the cooks were throwing their spatulas in the air in giddiness, and the customers were aflutter with the spirit of a jazzy Saturday night near the Mississippi River. The conversation was rolling like the River itself, and the anticipation of a famous blues band ready to perform in a few moments made everyone boisterous.

For Raina Newton and her mother Kimberly, it was a night they could cross out on Kim’s bucket list.

“Mom, this place is really hopping,” Raina shouted as her mother observed the eccentric décor of the restaurant. Her support group had recommended the place as a go-to spot for locals and visitors alike.

“Thank you for taking me,” her mom responded for the fiftieth time.

Raina smiled as she took a sip of her sweet tea. Had she wanted to drive in the traffic to Beale Street? Of course not. Did she want to be around liquor that flowed through most of the customers’ veins like gold ichor? Not really. Yet Kim had written the restaurant down on her bucket list, and here they were, experiencing it together. They’d invited Raina’s dad but he had been tempted by Uncle Joe with a weekend of fishing.

The silence at their table was enlightening, because it opened them up to the others around them. It was here where racism ceased to exist, where the jumpy atmosphere of varying politics disappeared, and where mirth abounded like air particles. Raina had to admit, it was a catchy atmosphere.

“So, let’s play a little game.”

“I know where this is going,” said Raina as she took a quick glance at the menu. The only thing to pop the balloon of Ritalea’s Barbecue Blues Restaurant were the prices. Oh well, it didn’t really matter.

“Yup, yes you do. We are going to guess these people’s backgrounds. Their life stories.”

It was a game they’d played since Raina was a teenager.

“Okay, okay, well, first couple is over there. That woman and her son.”

“Are you sure that’s a woman and her son?” Kim asked as she observed the couple. Just as she said it, with a whip-like intuition, the old cougar placed a leathery hand on the young man’s arm.

Raina almost choked on her tea. “Well, we know the story there. Obviously.”

“She’s been married twice before, and even though she had a good life with her previous two moneymakers, she decided a kid your age would prove to be the most satisfying of them all. Even though he’s got no money to his name, he’s got energy and stamina she wishes she still had.” Kim smiled as she took a bite of bread. “I’m good, am I not? Over there, the group of people.”

“Pastor’s family,” they said at the same time with a laugh. Sure enough, the group prayed as soon as the waitress left their food before them.

“It’s good to see there are still pastors these days,” Kim said before their waiter appeared to take their order.

Raina frowned at the comment. Kim had avoided all church for the past two years, even though her daughter’s entire childhood, she’d been a religious attender. Now that Kim had stopped going, her husband had failed to go, too. Raina frowned even more, feeling a jutting line furrow itself across her forehead.

“Oh, look at your nine o’clock.”

Raina turned just a bit to see a good-looking enough guy lead a woman to a little table overlooking the thriving Beale Street. She turned just a little to see his cropped gold hair flicker against the fluorescents. He sat across from a pretty woman who wore a revealing dress.

“First date,” Kim breathed. She stirred some Truvias into her unsweet tea.

“Why do you say that?”

“The way he’s avoiding her boobs.”

“Nice to way to put it out there.”

“What? Every girl’s got them. Except me of course.” Kim paused, glancing down at her chest, before a grimace appeared on her pink lips.

Raina knew better than to say anything after that, and instead, she focused her gaze on the couple. The man had bright blue eyes and a clean-shaven face, which was almost a commodity these days. He had obviously dressed up for the event, and upon further examination, Raina realized that his personality was what made him attractive. He was incredibly bashful as he talked with his date. Kim had a better vantage point on the girl, though.

Kim seemed to read her daughter’s mind. “She’s only talking about herself, as of now. Her mouth has been open the entire time they’ve been here.”

“Think they’ll go on a second?”

“Absolutely not. I know men, and he’s not looking for a girl like her. He seems to be in it for the long term. That boy’s not a ladies’ man.”

Raina smirked. “I like how you can say that with such certainty.”

“I’ve been living on this planet a lot longer than you have, sweetie. Even though I may not look as strong as I used to be, my brain still works, and that man’s checking you out now.”

Raina blushed, hoping her skin didn’t turn too red. She had been blessed with her father’s skin coloring, as her mother was known to have an easily changeable pigment, almost like a mood ring. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Honey, it’s natural for him to look at you.”

“You’re just saying that because I happen to be your child.”

“Not true.”

“No, one hundred percent true. There’s no fabrication in this truth I’m telling you right now.”

Raina glanced over her shoulder at the man, and he happened to make eye contact with her. She felt herself blush again, and she forcedly gritted her teeth in hopes her mom wouldn’t catch her bluff. When she glanced back up a few moments later, the man caught her eyes again, and Raina pretended not to stare in return.

“It’s practically cheating,” she breathed. “To be on a date with one girl, and…”

Kim spun her straw in a little figure eight around the tea. Raina noted a little vortex in its depths. “No, honey, he’s not really on a date with that girl. They just both happen to be at a table together at the same time.”

“Sure, Mom. Sure.”

And if one thinks the young man suddenly jumped from his table and proposed to Raina, it was never in their deck of playing cards. Instead, Raina and her mother finished their food and left the restaurant in a hurry. Kimberly did not feel well after their meal, and Raina knew her caregiving skills would be required at a moment’s notice. All thoughts of the man and his date were fleeting when Raina remembered the truth about her mother’s mortality.


Chapter Four


HIS BROTHER WAS tall, muscular, and robust, like all men who carried the surname Rose, at least in their direct lineage. Alexander Rose was a senior in high school with hopes of attending the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Unlike his older brother, Alexander needed to escape the confines of his family’s history in Memphis, and what better way to leave than to give his next x amount of years to the United States government?

Chris, even at twenty-eight, knew Alexander would make a better man, someday.

Now, though, Alexander was on probation—at least with his mom—for allowing his girlfriend to sleep over for a weekend in which Lucy had been in Tupelo, Mississippi, for another women’s retreat. Lo and behold, upon her return, she discovered her teenage son and his girlfriend sleeping together (literally, not metaphorically) in his bed. Therefore, Alexander’s life turned into a sucking maelstrom. His truck became a distant memory, at least for a month, dictated by his mother. Of course Christopher Rose I had no leeway over anything his son did. Their relationship was nonexistent.

Chris Rose II sat in his convertible indigo Shelby Mustang in the school parking lot. The sun beat down on his skin, but he didn’t mind. A lot of soccer moms were checking him out, and he enjoyed the attention. He spent some time perusing some work-related emails before giving up and checking out the online web portals for collectible cars. Occasionally, he glanced up and scanned the other cars for women who seemed interested in him. Too many to count.

“Hey, what’s up?”

Chris looked up to see his behemoth of a brother. Alexander tossed his backpack on the floor as he jumped in. “Well, all I can say is wow. Life has really taken a change of pace for you. Hotshot realtor to hotshot bro in the carline. I think a lot of my friends’ moms are swooning right now.”

Chris grinned. “What can I say?” As a little showy gesture, he revved the engine and pulled out of the spot as fast as he could, the Mustang generating to life like some sort of machine god. He whipped out onto the main road a few moments later. A car full of teenage guys behind them watched with trepidation.

“You know, I thought it would be pretty awful being chaperoned by my brother. But hey, maybe my popularity will increase.” Alexander had to shout over the roar of the wind.

A few moments later, they sat at a stoplight, where Chris breathed, “I could find the keys for you.”

“Mom took the truck to one of her friends’ houses. She’s nuts, Chris.”

“Are you serious? She did that?” Chris asked with disbelief.

Alexander nodded, his brown hair shining in the light. “Not joking.”

“So is it true? You decided to…”

He frowned and rolled his eyes. “Mom wasn’t supposed to come home until that Monday. Yes, I invited Zoey over for the weekend. And yes, we got caught. End of story.”

Chris smiled. “Wow. You’re learning the ropes, aren’t you?”

“Not like you. Zoey and I have been together for seven months.”

“Why haven’t I heard her name before?”

“Have you forgotten we basically live in different stratospheres? This is the first time I’ve seen you in three months, Chris.”

Chris scratched an itch on the bridge of his nose. “It’s been that long?”

“Yes, it’s been that long. So, yeah, I have a girlfriend. Her name is Zoey. She’s even more busted up about this whole thing than I am.”

“You like her?”

“Of course. I love her.”

Chris shuddered on the inside; on the outside, he acted unaffected. “Don’t you think that’s a little fast to be professing love?”

Alexander shrugged. “I don’t really care, honestly. This is the longest light in the history of the world.”

The Mustang made a jagged left, the tires screeching against asphalt. Alexander dug his fingertips into the leather. “Where are we going? This isn’t the way home. Mom’s probably got cameras installed at her place now.”

“Relax.” Chris slammed on the brakes as an old grandma in a Prius whipped out in front of him. “Come on!” He gritted his teeth.

“Seriously? You tell me to relax. Typical.”

“You can crash at my place. I don’t mind.”

“Seriously?”

“Of course.”

“Well, I still need to go home to get a change of clothes and my toothbrush.”

“No problem.” Chris zigged the car across two lanes of traffic and made a perfect U-turn in response. He looked over at his brother and burst out laughing, to which Alexander stared at him like he was a psychopath. Chris thrust a hand into the air as a truck honked its horn at them.

He boosted the energy to a sprinting pace for a cheetah, and all Alexander could do was stare at his brother with a combination of amazement, wonder, and question.


THEY MADE IT to his mansion an hour later. After a picturesque drive through the country, a few rolling hills acclimated at the top of an oak-lined road called Somerset. Christopher whipped his sports car into his gated, private driveway and punched a few numbers into the keypad. His brother had been to the house a few times but never alone with Chris, and this gave him a morsel of pride at how his brother had spent the past six years post-college.

They crested a hill and arrived at a clearing, where a copse of trees surrounded emerald green grass and a stony Tudor-style mansion shining like a beacon. While the house in itself was grandiose, Alexander could not help but note the impeccable landscaping work circling the grandiose structure. The place was perfectly manicured, just like Alexander expected.

Chris parked the car in the massive garage, where his company car—a sleek, silver Lexus coupe—and an inconspicuous Ford Taurus idled. Chris’s phone buzzed and he took the call, giving Alex ample time to revel in his brother’s house without its cocky owner. He walked into the mud room and followed the Italian stone beneath to the wide kitchen space.

He heard a loud cackle of laughter from the garage and a few sweet nothings. For a man who never seemed to work, Chris had such a nice life.

Alexander found a bag of chips in the pantry, which was stocked to full capacity, probably the result of a hired hand or Aunt Ellie. As he munched on the potato chips, he found the remote to the TV and settled for a show on wildlife in central Bhutan.

A few moments later, a loud pop resounded, and Alexander jumped in fright. He turned around to see Chris appear, along with a beautiful woman who looked Pakistani. She latched onto his arm as he whisked her into the kitchen. Neither of them seemed to notice Alexander sitting at the counter, and they flitted away.

Then, an obvious afterthought, Chris called out from across the house, “Make yourself at home, Alex! Do whatever you want.”

Alex twisted his class ring around his finger. He hadn’t wanted to wear it, but with Zoey’s prodding, he did. It made a good object for his fixations. Part of him wanted to trail his brother and his exotic new pet, but part of him didn’t.

Suddenly, he remembered why he didn’t come over very much.


Chapter Five


THE SKY WAS a dull gray as Adrian and Diana pulled into the Atwater family’s subdivision. A week after their library study date, the weather had taken on a chillier vibe, though it was still not close to cold. Diana wore a casual dress she’d scoured from Mel’s closet and a cropped jean jacket. Mel had curled her long, straight black hair so it hung like a mysterious, black sky of curls, and she wore more makeup for this one night than what she’d wear the rest of the year combined. When Adrian had picked her up, she swore he’d smiled the biggest smile he’d ever given her, which caused her to smile in a happy response.

As Adrian pulled up to the little house, Diana was reminded of the terse family situation at home. Her parents had not spoken more than ten words to Mel over the past week, and it was an unspoken insinuation that their younger daughter would need to find other living arrangements—or at the very least, a well-paid job.

Privately, Mel revealed to Diana that she couldn’t stand college and she wished she’d gone to cosmetology school. However, there were no funds for her to start now, although Diana reminded her Mom and Dad might help as long as she proved to be a hard worker.

Diana pushed all thoughts of her family issues aside as Adrian parked the car. He looked over and with a sheepish grin kissed her cheek. “They’re going to love you.”

“I hope.”

“Hey, wait.” Adrian unbuckled his seatbelt and proceeded to jog around the car to open her car door. Diana winced at the sweet gesture, simply because she felt she was getting in too deep with him. He obviously had some intense feelings for her which were hard to reciprocate. And since she was a little girl, she had been the worst actress on the face of the earth.

They ambled up the little stone pathway to the house that was similar to her parents’. Adrian hesitated, like he thought about ringing the doorbell before opening. They walked into a small foyer where a teenage girl sat on the steps staring intently at her cell phone.

“Hey, Whitney. How’s it going?”

Whitney looked up and smiled. “Hey. Hi, you must be Diana.”

“Hi,” Diana said. She was more nervous than she should have been, she thought. There was no reason to be nervous in this situation, especially since she spent every living moment thinking about human bodies. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Is that Adrian I hear?” called out a loud, booming voice. A few moments later, a heavyset woman appeared and tossed her arm around her son and his girl, pulling them both into a buxom bosom. Suddenly Diana found herself smashed between a boy she wasn’t sure she even liked and his plump mother.

“Why, your dear friend is so beautiful. Hello, Diana,” said his mother as she pulled away. Her hair was in a complete disarray now that she had withdrawn from the awkward welcome hug, but her eyes were blue orbs of solicitousness. “Wow, Ade. Your friend is much more beautiful than you described.”

“Thank you,” Diana said, glad her skin concealed her blush. The truth was simply she’d never met a boyfriend’s parents in such a setting because she hadn’t had many boyfriends in her past. She gulped more air as Adrian reassuringly squeezed her hand. This had to be just as awkward for him as it was for her.

Whitney stood up, and Diana realized the girl’s hair was almost down to her butt. “Mom, when’s the food going to be ready?”

“Why don’t you make it yourself, and then you’d see?” The woman turned to her guest. “Hi, sweetie. Please call me Anna. I think that would be best.”

“Well, thank you for having me, Ms. Anna.”

The woman shook her head, feigning a frown. “Not going to fly. I am only Anna to you, dear. Now, come, my little flock of birdies, to dinner.”

As they followed the woman into her domain, Adrian shot Diana an apologetic glance. Diana shrugged it off, but the truth was, she was more concerned with his holding her hand for so long, cutting off the circulation of blood in her fingertips. However, thoughts of Adrian evaporated as Diana lifted her nostrils to the warmth of the aromatic kitchen. She wasn’t sure what she smelled, but it was like a feast for the gods, manna raining down from heaven’s touch.

“Evey, is the gravy almost done?”

A young woman, around twenty, jittered her head in little nods. “Yes, Momma. Hi, are you Diana?” The thick Southern drawl momentarily buzzed Diana, who had grown up around the familiar accent; however, sometimes it still shocked her with its distinct twang.

“Hi. It’s nice to meet you.”

Anna glanced over her shoulder at the couple. “Go ahead and sit down. There’s nothing for you two to do right now, anyhow. We’ll be over in a cotton-pickin’ moment.”

They ambled to the dining room table which overlooked the small, fenced backyard. Diana noted a collection of indigo and lavender Veronica flowers on the patio. Her mother had a knock for gardening, and Diana had been able to recognize a few of the genus names, as it helped her memory, grilling each and every plant Anahit brought home from Lowe’s.

“We’re so glad to have you here,” Anna called from the stove. In one deft move, she poured gravy in its hot pan into the little serving dish. Evey began doling out different foods onto china plates.

Evey smiled as she glanced in her brother’s direction, and Diana caught this clever gesture. She tried to imagine Melisende helping in any capacity in their mother’s kitchen (which would equal a total catastrophe) and how she’d react to her sister’s boyfriend.

“Well, with the promise of good food, I’d go anywhere. I’m sure you are an excellent cook, Anna. Are you sure you don’t need help?”

Her hands seemed to move all over the place, but Anna shook her head. “I’m sure, but thanks for offering your help. Someday, you’ll be in my shoes, feeding everyone from your son’s first real girlfriend to Jimbob the roofer, you know?”

“Oh, yes.” Diana considered the entire proposition of her becoming like Anna Atwater, and she tried not to openly cringe before her gracious host. Did she want children? Absolutely not. She wanted to become a doctor, save lives, and live her life without restrictions. That was the goal.

A few silent moments later, the family was seated at the table, although one seat was empty, though a full plate rested on the placemat. Anna glanced over at the steaming food and furrowed her eyebrows. “Where could your brother be?”

“Traffic,” Adrian offered with a gulp of water.

“He better not be with Christopher Rose right now. I swear, those two are like long lost sisters, always chittering like squirrels and running off together.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes.” Whitney glanced down at the tempting food. “They’ve been like that my entire life. Their relationship is so weird by principle.”

“Are they in a relationship?” Diana hesitated before asking the question. Adrian never mentioned his brother, but there never had been a reason to bring him into any of their conversation before.

The table burst out into mirthful laughter before Anna assuredly shook her head. “No. Christopher’s got a different girl every day, like how some girls have different shoes every day. He’s most definitely straighter than a sharp-edged sword. Drew’s more refined, but he’s always loved girls more than anything else.”

“He’s a romantic,” Evey said with a smile. “He likes romance movies more than us girls do. Adrian’s similar to that.”

Now Diana could not help but giggle a bit. Their brother like romance movies more than they did—as teenage girls? Maybe his family was in denial. Maybe he hadn’t come out of the closet yet. Maybe he didn’t even know it himself. Poor guy.

Adrian didn’t blush but remained quiet for a few seconds. “Well, I love action movies, too.”

“Yes, sure you do.” Whitney took a helping of mashed potatoes and stuffed it into her mouth.

A few moments later, the back door opened and a youthful man appeared, his sea-blue eyes startling against his tan skin. Diana’s quick glance at him proved to be an idiotic idea, as she felt something—maybe it was something—stir deep inside her body. She pretended to observe her medium well steak instead.

The man rushed over to the table. “I’m so, so sorry I’m late. Got caught up in the office, and then traffic was especially horrific tonight.”

“What matters is you’re here now. Go wash up.”

“Of course.” He hurried off again.

Anna glanced apologetically in Diana’s direction. “That is Andrew. He’s an accountant who works downtown.”

“Oh, that’s interesting,” Diana breathed as Evey cocked her head at her.

The man returned. He was not exceptionally handsome, nor was he as good-looking as his younger brother. In fact, it would probably be easy to overlook Drew, but to Diana, he seemed something out of a prophecy. His golden hair was cut short, although it sparkled in the dining room lights, and a hint of buttery stubble flickered against his skin. His lips might have been too big, but Diana was focused on the intense hue of his eyes.

“Hi, and you are my brother’s new lady.”

She found herself bum-rushed as he extended a hand to her, and she eventually smiled and shook back. “Hi.”

“Andrew, you know not to shake hands over the dining room table. Come on, now.”

“Sorry, Mom. This food smells mighty delicious.”

Did he even notice me? Out of the corner of her eye, she looked up to see Drew sharing a story about his work experience. How a client came in with a Golden Retriever and expected the firm to be okay with it. What is going on with me?

Then she felt her skin burn when Drew stared at her and said, “So, Diana, the family hasn’t terrified you yet.”

“No.”

“Surprising.” The way Drew said that word…

“What is that supposed to mean?” demanded Whitney. “You’re part of this family, buddy.”

“Yes. But a lot of people wouldn’t be able to handle us. We’re too cool, obviously.”

Whitney elbowed him in the side as Adrian cleared his throat. He had remained almost shyly introspective the entire meal. “Well, Drew, I think it’s a blessing to be an Atwater, and I’m glad all of you are being as kind to Diana as I’d hoped you be.”

It seemed as if Drew—for the first time—casually gazed at Diana, like his eyelids had opened a few centimeters. He smirked in her direction, and she looked up at him, trying her hardest not to seem too brash. “So, Diana, do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”

“Yes…?” Her voice trailed off at the end.

“Why pick my brother? Out of all the handsome med students in the world, why an Atwater?”

Anna scowled. Evey cackled. Whitney was flabbergasted at the question. Adrian’s shoulders seemed to droop. Drew’s eyes remained innocent enough.

It was like a giant spotlight illuminated over her head. She placed down her fork on the plate and said confidently, “Why pick anyone in this world? Adrian and I have a connection, don’t we?” She reached over—at the insistence of Drew’s beady eyes—and clasped Adrian’s hand with her own. He smiled in pride and respect at her answer.

“It’s more than you have,” Adrian said with a wink in his brother’s direction.

Drew was quiet for a beat after that comment, until he said, “True. But if someone like Diana can find a goofball like you, surely a classy woman can find me.”

“Here we go again with all the romance talk,” Whitney said, balking. “It’s so annoying.”

Anna re-entered the conversation. “Well, Whit, what do you want to talk about then?”

“Definitely not politics.”

Evey lifted a piece of steak to her lips. “That’s a good answer.”

They eventually cleared the table and headed outside to the patio for ice cream under a shimmery night sky. They took their positions all over the patio, Whitney on one edge, Diana on the other, and munched on Anna’s homemade vanilla recipe underneath a string of Christmas lights hanging from the veranda. The small backyard hummed with cicadas.

Diana and Adrian had one moment to themselves, which Diana would have rather spent with Anna or one of his sisters. Drew remained inside for some of their time outside, because he had to call someone.

“Is your brother always that… Saucy?”

“Did you just call him saucy?”

“Maybe.”

Adrian wrapped an arm around his lady’s waist, ignoring Diana’s involuntary flinch. “No, to answer your question, usually he’s as easygoing as can be. He must be stressed out about something. Drew’s definitely a perfectionist. Everything’s always gotta be spick-and-span, you know? It’s just his way of looking at things.”

“Got it.”

“So, how do you like my family?”

“They’re very different than mine, but I think one thing we share in common is our love for each other. Your family is very kind.”

“It can be a little hard sometimes having two sisters and a mom, but I promise, I’m not that into romantic movies.” Underneath the glow of the stringed lights, Adrian’s blue-green eyes sparkled like a jewel. However, Diana did not feel incredibly attracted to him, and this hurt her. How could she break up with him now she’d met his family—which was a step closer to his true nature? But how could she lie to him about how she felt?

As a firefly landed on the nearby rose trellis, Diana felt a presence behind her. Drew.

He glanced at his brother and her like they were foreigners from outer space. “I’m really happy for y’all.”

“Thanks,” Adrian said with a genuine grin. From what Diana had gleaned, the two shared a brotherly love. There didn’t seem to be much antagonistic behavior them, which was always a positive.

Diana was a little more confident from a secret sip of wine she’d had at her house while Melisende helped her dress. “So, Andrew, where’s your girl?”

He seemed to straighten tall. Waiting for a false concoction about the Ethiopian model he’d snogged last night, Diana bit her lip, waiting. “Well, there’s actually no one right now.”

“Which is okay, Drew,” Adrian said with a sure grin. Diana wanted to elbow him.

Drew grinned, though it didn’t meet those gorgeous sea eyes of his. It was like looking at a glass seashell made of turquoise and emerald. Or it could be a Mexican cenote in the midst of verdant rainforest. Diana stared at him until Adrian nudged her and she said, “You know what? It’s time I go home.”

“So soon?” Drew asked sympathetically, sticking his hands into his pockets.

She nodded her head. “Yes. I take care of my parents a lot, and they’ll be expecting me.”

“That’s cool.”

Of course she couldn’t tell him the real reason she needed to get home fast. So she wouldn’t flirt with her “boyfriend’s” brother the entire night or somehow slip-up on the fact that she wanted to end things completely with Adrian.

“It was nice meeting you,” Drew said, although his smile had vanished. It was like he knew something was happening, and the mien of puzzlement finally altered to a small hint of playfulness. “Hey, man, you should invite her to the mountains with us over Thanksgiving.”

“As in the Smoky Mountains? In November?”

He shrugged, standing on his tiptoes for a moment. “It’s a tradition we have. You should come.”

“Oh, are you sure?”

Adrian nodded wholeheartedly. “It would be a great time, Di.”

She glanced between the brothers, but the one she gave the answer to was not the one who held her waist.

“Of course.”


Chapter Six


DREW WAS BEATING Christopher by three goals in a game of epic foosball upstairs in his friend’s new digs. As Chris scored another point, Drew hurriedly replaced the little ball in its slot and slammed it in the direction of the goal. He yelped out in joy at winning, and Chris sighed in frustration.

“My luck has run out.” Chris angrily set his jaw.

“Why do I have a feeling you’re not just talking about your awful skills at foosball?”

“Shut up, man.”

“Was it Marlena?” Drew leaned against the little playing table.

Leave it up to Drew to be able to read minds, even if he were just an accountant. Maybe his wise advice when it came to women was from all those stupid romance movies he used to watch with his high school girlfriend, Lacey. They’d been together four years too long.

Chris blankly nodded. “She asked for the thing I don’t want.”

“Oh, come on, Christopher. You can’t date a girl for more than three months? It’s petty, man.”

“What? I’m sorry, but I like new things, okay?”

Drew furrowed his eyebrows. “Listen, Chris, I love you…”

“I know where this is headed.”

“Since I love you, I think I should tell you to…”

“Marlena and I are through. She was fun, but Crystal’s more fun.”

Drew scrunched up his nose. The hint of a dragon tattoo emerged from the bottom of his T-shirt sleeve. Chris fondly remembered the tattooist and her parlor back in Key West two summers ago. “Who’s Crystal?”

“Just a girl I met two weeks ago. She’s fun, and we really have a connection.”

“Well, are you going to commit to Crystal?”

Chris raised his eyebrows in consternation. “Drew, if you think I can…”

“You are the most annoying human being on the face of this Earth. Listen. For once in your life, can you tie yourself down? Maybe, I don’t know. Date someone for more than two days without severing the umbilical cord of sex?”

“You are the weirdest human on this planet.” Chris rolled his eyes before sitting down on one of the barstools at the wet bar. He solemnly took a sip of a Coke.

Drew stretched out against the carpet floors. He answered a call from a client as Chris considered Drew’s words of wisdom. Could he settle down? Why would he want to was the bigger question. If there were seven billion humans occupying the planet, that left around what, four billion women? He had watched programs on animals’ mating behaviors. If he wanted to share his genes with a conglomerate gene pool, why not at least have options? An endless sea of options?

Drew’s voice cut into Chris’s thoughts. “Okay, buh-bye.”

“You know what?”

“Yes?” Drew began rubbing the bridge of his nose. It was a Wednesday afternoon, in the afternoon glow of early October, and it seemed as if he never got a break with work. He missed the good old school days where students got off for fall break, Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring break, an entire two months for summer…

Chris’s eyes held a different fever to them than what was typical. Chris was very animalistic in many spheres of his life: Conquer, then abandon. As a realtor, he’d done okay, but it was more because his father owned the company. He had been an okay student, an okay athlete, and an okay friend. But now, it was like Drew had awakened something in him, just from simple, casual banter.

“Chris, what’s up? You look constipated.”

Chris ignored the barb. “Why don’t we have a little wager?”

“A wager?” Drew itched his ear in confusion. “Chris, you know how awful I am with bets.”

“A relationship wager.”

Drew rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on. What?”

“You’re the one always talking about destiny and true love…”

“Not true. Okay, maybe a sliver bit of true.” He finally nodded in agreement. “So, anyway…?”

“Whoever courts a girl for three months gets…”

“Your Shelby.”

“My Shelby? Come on, that’s not fair.”

Drew crossed his arms. “I know you, Chris.”

For the first time in a while, Chris felt the little prick. “You don’t think I can do it?”

“No, I don’t. Not monogamously.”

Chris shook his head. “It can’t be that hard. People do it all the time.”

“Okay, say so yourself.” Drew still looked frustrated.

“If I win, I get your mother’s cooking for an entire month. If you win, you get my Shelby for a month.”

“Oh, don’t you dare bring my mother into this. She’s done nothing to elicit your crazy schemes!”

Chris jutted out his lower lip, a little thing he always did when he had the upper hand. Unlike his friend, he was good at betting. He bit his lip in pleasant expectation. It was always nice to broaden your horizons now and then, he thought, and what could hurt from a short relationship? Plus, Anna Atwater’s cooking was better than a thousand hired chefs, although the butter she placed into all her ingredients made Paula Deen look like a vegan.

“Come on, Drew.” Chris knew his best friend would do anything to see him “settle down.” It was something Drew aspired to always.

Drew was perplexed for a moment before finally nodding. “Fine. When does this little deal start, then? And how do I know I can trust you?”

“You’ll take my word for it.”

“I’m really placing faith in you, then…”

“Relax. It’s going to be fun. We’ll each have romantic relationships for Christmastime, right? No more week-long flings, no more trips to Cabo for Christmas Eve…”

“Chris, have you forgotten that is your life, not mine?”

He nodded. “Sorry. So, the goal of this is to find a girl soon. Whoever finds one first has the upper hand, but three months is quite a long time.”

“Not really.”

“Would you stop being such a sourpuss?”

“That’s something my mom would call me.”

“Exactly why I would benefit from your mother’s cooking.”

“Deal?” Drew offered his hand.

Chris took it as he gulped some Coke. “Deal.”


Chapter Seven


THE FOLIAGE WAS beginning to liven up into autumn glory, with yellow, orange, and ruby leaves suddenly appearing in bundles against brown bark. In the farm country, past the suburbs of the city, a truck barreled down a road in desperate need of both patch-up work and widening. At each curve, Raina dug her nails into the door handles because there was no way to see if another car was approaching. And each time, her father laughed at her reaction.


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