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Excerpt for The Third Wheel by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


THE THIRD WHEEL

A NOVEL BY KATIE GEORGE


The Third Wheel

Katie George

Published by Katie George at Smashwords

Copyright 2018 Katie George


Book 1 (The Flores Sisters Trilogy)


Chapter One


THREE’S A MAGIC NUMBER.

Think of things that come in threes:

The Three Little Pigs.

The Three Musketeers.

God’s Holy Trinity.

Three Blind Mice.

Traffic lights: Green, yellow, red.

Wine. (Red, white, pink. I hate wine. That will probably be your first strike against me.)

Three feet in a yard. (I also hate math.)

A trilogy’s always got three books, doesn’t it?

The Three Stooges.

Three sides to a triangle.

Three sides to every story, huh? (In my world.)

And there are always going to be three wheels on a tricycle.

Cut to: Professional third wheel, Kristina Flores.

And Kristina Flores is me.

I guess you could say that I’m used to it by now, the fact that I’m always your third wheel, but there are still a lot of times when I think what am I doing? and others when I want to bash my face in, and even when I’ve got the fear of missing out, I still want more than anything to have it be just two people, just four people, just six. Give me an even number, because, if not, it’s a guarantee—I’m going to be the odd one left out.

Even now, let’s analyze my situation: I’m twenty-five, somewhat attractive (I do force myself to jog once a month, and I can do five push-ups per workout, if I’m in a good mood), and have some money in the bank. I’m independent, can cook for myself (though my mom may disagree), and keep my legs shaved. I can throw a baton, skate without completely toppling over, and keep a clean-cut lawn, like my grandfather’s crew cut military hair. And yet, yet again, I find myself in the same peculiar situation, just like when I was fifteen.

“So, Kristina,” says Andrew Jester, who is the new boyfriend of my good friend, Hanna Hughes, whom I met three summers ago. Just for good measure, he wraps an arm protectively around her. Hanna, who loves to be the center of attention, bats her eyelashes big and pageant-like. Surprisingly, she wasn’t a sorority girl. “Tell us more about what you do.”

“Well,” I begin, tapping my lips with a napkin. I’ve ordered a traditional plate of spaghetti, and I’m beginning to regret the choice, especially with my Dillard’s dress that cost me nearly a hundred bucks. I should be sticking to a five-dollar Coke with my salary. And while I don’t typically dress in department store clothing, the sparkly blue lace called my name, and unfortunately my credit card too. The dress would be perfect for a first date. Preferably a first date with just one guy—not his girlfriend too.

Andrew’s phone lights up on the table, and then it’s buzzing too, like an uncontrollable bumblebee, and then he’s gone from the table. Hanna’s got me captive, and she grabs my arm, her shiny French manicure catching my gaze. That manicure alone could buy me this fancy meal. My shoulders droop.

“Don’t you just love him?” she exclaims. This is her third guy this year. It’s only April.

“He’s a keeper,” I say, taking a little sip of white wine. The only reason I’m drinking it is because Andrew insisted that I warm up my palate, and Hanna wanted me to liven up for our little arrangement. It was supposed to be a double date, but the guy went down with the flu (good timing), and since I was already dressed up, why don’t you just come out with us anyway?

I can remember it now, and like usual I’m regretting my choice to do social things.

“Darn right he’s a keeper,” she says, throwing a hand through her honey-brown hair. Hanna Hughes looks like a million bucks, because Andrew’s worth a million or more. As she chats on and on about this man, I grow more and more frustrated.

The restaurant is a local’s kind of place. It’s quaint, draped in white stringed lights, and there is a genuine fountain in the middle of the seating area, where lapis colored water is more conversational to me, and I grow fascinated with the constant cycle of the fountain, and Andrew is suddenly back, and he says, “Sorry about that. Work stuff.”

“What happened, honey?” asks Hanna, claiming him again, nestling into him. Come on, Hanna. I’m not taking your man.

“Just the fact that…” Andrew intentionally pauses, waiting for the drama to build, for Hanna to almost—she can’t ruin that fifty-dollar manicure now—chew her nails, and then he exclaims, “we just sealed our two hundred thousand case!”

“What?” Hanna screams, as if she’s personally delivered the deal. Maybe she will bite those nails straight off. “Oh, Andrew!”

He leans in, kisses her on the lips, and says, despite a little leaf of basil coating one white tooth, “This is cause for celebration!”

“Oh, you better believe it!”

Which is how I find myself at a little club on the edge of downtown. It’s close to midnight now, I’m wearing a much-too prudish dress, and unlike the sleazy women on the curb, who will inevitably have the time of their lives out on the dancefloor, I’ve been somehow persuaded to go to a place called THE RAINBOW KITTEN on a Wednesday night, with Hanna Hughes and her boy toy, and I could have left, yes, I could have; but I have a problem with persuasion. I’m like Anne from Anne, the book by Jane Austen. If somebody invites me someplace, I feel like I have to go. It’s been one of my flaws since I exited the womb, and as I stand in bloodthirsty heels, Hanna and Andrew have already left me in the dust. However, they’ve also lured me in by inviting my best friend in the world, Bella Royale, who appears a few moments into my misery.

“Why do you look so good?” Bella shouts over the screams of a hundred women flirting with the bouncer who may be a bona fide mobster. Bella, though a beautiful woman, is coated in makeup that is completely unflattering, but she looks the part. She’s wearing a shirt that barely covers any of her breasts, her skirt is tighter than my high school volleyball Spandex, and she’s standing like the Leaning Tower of Pisa on account of her bargain Marshall’s Manolos.

“Hey,” I say, kissing her cheek. “Thank you for rescuing me.”

“You know I’m always down for a good club,” she says, lifting an arm to wave at Hanna, who doesn’t notice her, because Andrew is talking about his favorite subject: himself.

“I didn’t realize that,” I say.

“Remember when we first came here?”

“How couldn’t I?”

There is a wistful look in Bella’s brown eyes. She really is beautiful, I think, but she still looks a little bit like a witch tonight. There is a sudden boom of bass, but no one on the streets can tell if it’s from the club or a passing gangster’s car. Bella lifts a pack of cigarettes from her purse, and I swat them away.

“What are you doing?” I hiss.

“I need something to ease the pain. It’s been two months.”

“If I hear one more thing about him, I’m going to personally chop you up. If I’m going into this club, you better go find yourself somebody, okay?”

Time for some clarity. I do not condone random rebounds from the club. In fact, I argue for the opposite. Why not just enjoy being single and dance the night away? But Bella isn’t one of those girls. She’s in it for male attention, and I’m not in the mood to be Bella’s therapist for too much longer. Though I love her to death, and I’d kill for her, sometimes I do want to kill her myself.

“What are all these fools doing?” Bella exclaims, trying to shoo the women in the line. There are fifty women for every one man, and I’ve never been one for competition. This ratio even feels normal.

Slowly the line moves forward, and when we’re finally up to the bouncer, who looks like he may send us to the curb, we’re granted access into the deep bowels of THE RAINBOW KITTEN. Even in my Kate Middleton-esque dress, I’m club-approved. Green and purple strobe lights zoom across furry heads, and there’s the immediate odor of stale popcorn and alcohol. Rihanna’s Barbadian vocals seduce over the thrill of the speakers, and there is the immediate sensation of a thousand grinding Memphians, and Bella is somehow already in the middle of it, singing like a groupie, and I follow her in, wanting desperately to find the right rhythm, to imagine I’m anywhere else, and Hanna and Andrew are already nowhere to be found. Who knows if they even came into the club.

Bella sways her hips like she’s Shakira. She could be, except that I’m the one with South American heritage. “Take your hair down.”

“Why?” I ask. “It’s hot in here.”

“You need alcohol,” she protests, already. This is the normal conversation. Before we even enter a place, Bella is already prepossessed by the desire to drunken herself.

I’m transported to the first time we came here, as sophomores in college, when we were pimpled and more innocent and carefree. I still didn’t enjoy it then. I can almost see my twenty-year-old self in this crowd of drunk, sexual souls, and I’m a little disgusted. Again, my dress is too nice for this place. And I’m in heels.

A few seconds into a Drake song I don’t mind, a man sidles up to Bella. He’s not bad-looking, but he’s definitely a bit creepy. Yet Bella doesn’t seem to mind, and her body begins to move closer and closer to him, because she’s a magnet to anything male, and I know exactly where this is going.

“I’m going to get a drink!” I shout over the screaming horde.

“What?” Bella shouts back.

“I’m going to get a drink!”

“Good. You need it!”

I push through the crowds, forcefully, though there is definitely now a trace of vomit on my gorgeous, hundred dollar Dillard’s dress. I imagine that I am Holly Golightly throwing my own party, but who am I? I’m a lonely woman in the middle of a bunch of ridiculously foolish rap lovers. At least the DJ isn’t playing EDM.

The bar is lonely too. There are a few creepy white men with faux-’fros. I order a Diet Coke and set up camp near the soda fountain. As I sip the foamy substance, looking like a chaperone, I scan the crowd. There are at least a couple hundred people here, even on a Wednesday night, which is ridiculous. Don’t these people have jobs? School? Responsibilities? I begin to wonder how many of these people are drunk right now. Up ahead of me, only fifty feet or so away, a woman begins grinding, hard, on a man who’s wearing a shirt with a picture of a llama on it. Behind them, a group of college girls are jumping up and down, getting a good workout in (more than my five push-ups, that’s for sure). I see a few men trying to make some moves on voluptuous vixens, and in the midst of all this, there is Bella, who is somehow my best friend in the world, her arms wrapped around a random man’s neck, and I know she desperately misses her ex, but this isn’t the proper way to get over it, I think.

I take another sip of my Diet Coke as a man draws closer to me. I can feel his presence immediately, and I grip my cup tighter. At least it isn’t one of the fake Afros.

“What’s a beautiful woman like you doing all alone?” he asks, leaning across the edge of the counter.

I turn to him. I hate this. He’s not ugly, but he’s a creep. I can already tell. Any guy at a club is a creep in my book. Once, I went to a dancefloor with an acquaintance from my Intro to Stats class, and she disappeared with a guy for ten minutes. Scared to death on her behalf (innocence, I tell you), I tracked her down to a random corner of the club, where not even the roaches go, and there she was, making out with a boy who looked like a cotton farmer, and a few days later, she passed out with a severe case of mono. That scarred me for a while. I don’t like guys in clubs.

While I want to be nice to him, I don’t say anything at all. I take another swig of Diet Coke and try to steel my nerves. My Argentine cousins would laugh at my trepidation. Go for it. Adelante.

“Well,” he says, drawing his finger against the rim of the cup. “You’re the most beautiful woman here.”

“Thank you,” I say, looking away from him, thinking that I want to do nothing more than take a hot bath, call my mother, and schedule a manicure for the following day. Maybe make myself a bowl of guacamole, now that I’ve mastered the recipe, after three years of trial and error.

Suddenly, there is an organismic moan from the crowd, because the king himself, Kendrick Lamar, has emerged through the speakers, spewing off hip hop proverbs. While I like the music, I’m not feeling it, and then my friend, the guy who complimented my dress, is already dancing with another woman.

I laugh.

Who knows how long I’m standing here, but it feels like eternity. So much so that I blow through three cups of Diet Coke, and then I’m a bit tired all the sudden, because it’s close to one o’clock, and am I the designated driver? No. Bella can Uber home. Who knows about Hanna and Andrew, because I took my own car.

I squeeze through the senseless zombies on the dancefloor who smell of the dank and dark world known as clubbing. It takes me three minutes, but I eventually make it to Bella, who is full-throttle with her new chico, and I tap her on the shoulder.

She turns around and throws an arm around me. “There you are!”

“Here I am,” I say as she tightens her hold around my neck. I can barely breathe now.

“What are you doing?”

“I think I’m going to head out now. I have some things I gotta catch up on. Like sleep, you know?”

“Oh, come on! We just got here. Come on, Kristina. Live a little.”

If I had a dollar for every time I’d heard someone say that to me, I’d be quite the lucky woman.

“Not really,” I say, shaking my head at her. A woman bumps into me, and I can feel a splash of alcohol stain my leg. Disgusting. “Hey, no worries. You okay? I think I may go on home.”

“Come on, Kristina,” says Bella again, though she’s already forgotten me, and she’s back with her man.

Cue a sad song. Any sad song you’d like. And there’s me, walking out of the club as a gust of forceful spring wind prepares to knock me down. A hundred young people are still trying to clamor into the club, and the bouncers act like they’re guarding the president. I, meanwhile, reclaim my pride and sashay to my car, which is parked five minutes away. When the gale of wind bothers me too much, I unleash my hair, letting the brown I’ve always hated flow down my back, but who cares anymore?

I decide I need a McFlurry. Judge me as you will, but it’s what I need.

Ten minutes later, I’m flying down the interstate, coasting toward the wide open spaces belonging to suburbia, and just for the heck of it, my windows are down, and I can taste the thunderstorm in the air. A crack of lightning lights up the sky up ahead, and it’s frightening, but it’s rejuvenating too. There is no need for music as I speed along, because my eardrums are already burst from the whole clubbing experience. When I checked my phone in the car, I learned that Hanna and Andrew did not even make it into the club, but they wanted me to text them when I got home (as if they would even know when I did, anyway?). Oh well. At least the date was over. Maybe it was for the best that I didn’t meet whoever the man was they wanted me to fall hopelessly, inevitably in love with. For the best.

When I hit Collierville, I bounce off the interstate and cruise to the nearest McDonald’s. While not exactly an ideal restaurant, it’s what I want, and I’m going to give in to my desire for once. I park my car, slam the door behind me, and sashay on in.

The woman at the counter is filing her fingernails. She looks like a high schooler. When she notes me and my expensive dress, she pouts her lips and says, “What you doing here for?”

“M&M McFlurry. Biggest size.” I hand her a five-dollar bill and smile. “And to answer your question, I’m here because I want to be.”

“Looking like that?” she asks with a skeptical eye. “You’re the second one tonight.”

“What do you mean?”

“The man over there,” points the girl, and suddenly I note that her fingernails are a foot long each. Acrylic. Fuchsia. “He comes in, looking fine.”

“Really?”

I look over at the seats, but I don’t see a guy. Supposedly, he’s blocked by a massive, leafy plant that has no reason to be there, except to taunt my curiosity. Really, I don’t even care. I just want my ice cream.

“Yeah. Well, I ain’t one to judge.”

It takes her a hundred years to hand me back my change, and a thousand more to prepare my soft serve delight, but when I finally have it in my possession, I take a giant gulp of it and smile. Maybe it’s the M&Ms. Maybe it’s the boredom. Maybe it’s because I didn’t get myself a man for the night, and I never will.

But I walk over to the restaurant portion, which was supposed to have closed over an hour ago, but they must have made an exception for the guy. That’s all I can think to myself. But I walk over, and I take a seat at a booth. It’s definitely the M&Ms.

I pop some of them into my mouth as I observe the scene before me.

It’s well past midnight. McDonald’s. And somehow, just somehow, there is a well-dressed man, in a suit and tie, for crying out loud, who is eating a Big Mac. He’s probably thirty, has a hint of five o’clock shadow, and he looks about as fed up at the world as I do. My heart starts beating, like that sort of beating, because he’s attractive, and he’s got the same idea I have. He sees me too, and he cocks his head in surprise to see that I too am having the same thoughts.

He smiles at me for a second, his lips twisting into something that melts my heart, and then he shakes his head. And then I know what’s happening—he’s getting up to leave.


CHAPTER TWO


MY MOTHER IS at my door at seven in the morning, and I went to bed around three. She rings the doorbell six times before I stumble out of my chrysalis, throw on a shirt, and groggily open the door, and when I do, she barrels in, cuddling a paper bag of Chick-fil-A biscuits. She pours me a cup of orange juice (jugo de naranja, according to my father, who has and never will say orange juice) and pushes a hand through her platinum blonde hair. She’s very beautiful, even with all the stress we cause her. Or maybe the stress she causes for herself.

“I cannot believe what Emily Applewood announced on Facebook!”

“Mom,” I say, stubbing my toe, but not feeling a thing. The biscuits are exciting me too much. “I’m really flattered by the food, but…”

“And can you believe it? Emily Applewood… That her youngest daughter…”

“The girl Betsy?” I ask, yawning. Still I am able to think, Betsy? Who in this generation names a kid Betsy? I mean, I know some people are into naming their children names from the 1950s, but still. Plus, I’m still pretty tired, which means I’m bound to be a little crankier than usual.

“Betsy is pregnant! A teenage pregnancy! And Emily Applewood expects me to host a baby shower!”

“You love baby showers,” I say, falling into a chair theatrically, though my mother will never notice it.

“I know I do, but it’s the point! We’ve got seventeen-year-olds pregnant left and right. Babies born out of wedlock, couples engaged by the time they’re out of high school. They’re barely old enough to tie their own shoes, for crying out loud! And since they can’t fill out college applications, instead they’re resigning themselves to years and years and years of whipping their babies into shape, except how does one to know that at seventeen? People can’t seem to enjoy their youth these days!”

Sometimes, I believe that Scarlett Flores likes to remember that she too got married barely out of high school. She likes to be reminded that she was already engaged to an Argentine hombre by the time she was twenty-one and ready to pop out a golden-haired baby by twenty-three (me), the auburn-headed brat (my sister, Miranda), and the docilely ridiculous third child (Tessa). Miranda and Tessa had been doomed to be best friends as soon as they exited the womb and discovered the concept of sisterhood, while I was their “older” sister (and therefore uncool), though closer in age to Miranda than Miranda to Tessa. Whatever.

“Mom,” I say, taking a bite of the biscuit. I won’t lie: It’s very good. “You got married young too.”

She loves to come to me to kvetch. She loves yapping like a terrier, and I’m her bored, apathetic dog owner.

“Especially compared to me,” I add for extra emphasis. This also is one of my mother’s favorite topics, the fact that she’ll beat all of us when it comes to the discussion of one’s marriage age. It’s stupid, but it’s Scarlett’s creed.

“Oh, honey,” she cries out, patting my hand. “Honey, you need to get out more. Do you hear me? You and your sisters. I know you’re all busy, leading lives as women in the 21st century, but I just want you to be happy. And maybe Emily Applewood’s daughter will be happy as a mother. She probably will be. God knows there’s no greater reward than raising babies! But I want you to do it the traditional way. And speaking of that, Emily Applewood says that her son Anthony would love to take you out. Did you know that? That she has a son? It’s from another marriage, her first, but we all know she secretly still loves her first husband. But anyway, Anthony would love to take you out!”

“Is he married?” I ask as a joke. It has happened before. Another staple of my third wheel status: Go out with a handsome man, wait for the kiss good-night, and meet the wife instead.

“Now you know the answer to that, young lady! Anthony Russo is eligible. He meets all the requirements that you and I have.”

Why do I suddenly have a headache now? I wonder if it’s my mother’s loud voice or the fact that I’m still reeling from the fiasco of last night. I could definitely go for some salsa and fajitas right now, but it is too early for Tex-Mex, and I think more on the previous night. Of the stupid place called The Rainbow Kitten, the fact that Bella abandoned me as soon as we entered the club, the fact that I was a third wheel on a supposed double date. I laugh.

My heart suddenly wants to rip in half. I decide not to tell my mom about the McDonald’s guy, because did that even happen last night? Maybe I totally dreamt of him. A handsome guy, well-dressed, well above good-looking, and… He left. As soon as I sat down, in my exhausted, saddened state. How was that the best part of my night? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the fact that he seemed to be wallowing in misery too.

“Honey…”

“Yes?” I ask, glancing back up at my mom.

“Are you listening to me? Tony Russo wants to take you out.”

“I heard you.” For the third time, of course.

“And he’s got a brother too. How about you take Bella with you guys? That way it isn’t as awkward.”

“As if having our mothers set us up isn’t awkward enough?”

“Oh, sweetie.”

“Where’s Dad?” I ask, biting into my biscuit, remembering how buttered it is. Maybe I’ll have to jog twice this month. Probably not.

My mom glosses her lips in petal pink. She fluffs up her platinum hair and for extra measure, she attempts to lift her breasts, as if they need any lifting at all. She twists back to me and puffs out her lips. At least she hasn’t tried Botox. Yet. “He’s playing golf.” She says this as if he’s chopping down a tree with an ax. She will never understand Andrés’s appreciation of the American form of golf. “I swear he loves golf more than he loves me.”

Dramatic much?

“Well. I just came over to tell you the news,” says Scarlett, licking her lips. “I have breakfast with Sophie Sewell soon. Remember her? She doesn’t have any sons, but maybe she’s got nephews. Don’t worry, I’ll be asking!”

“Mom!”

“I’m just going to leave this here,” she says with one of her winks, and she pushes a slip of paper into my hands. She’s got good intentions, but she forgets who she’s talking to.

After she’s gone, because she only talks to me about my love life these days (or what she learns through the churning gossip wheel), the piece of paper seems to smile up at me. It’s got Anthony Russo’s phone number on it in violet ink, so obviously he didn’t write it down. His mother is part of this too, I realize helplessly. Even if I were attracted to him and we fell in love and had a big Catholic wedding (I’m assuming, with Russo as a last name), I would have to put up with the antics of both Emily Applewood and Scarlett Flores. That’s a little too much.


BELLA FINALLY WAKES up at a little after one, and she barrels over to my Midtown house, clutching a paper bag of fast food. This is the second person today smuggling in terrible takeout to me, but I’m okay with it. I’ve already promised myself to do a push-up tomorrow, and I really don’t feel like leaving my house anyway. Some days are like that; introversion is okay.

Bella enters the house somehow, though she doesn’t have a key. She falls on the consignment couch in the living room as I flurry around, dusting here and dusting there, and when I finally note her presence, I don’t even jump, I don’t even scream, I just sit beside her and stick a salty fry in my throat. This has happened before.

“Last night,” she begins, “was terrible. As soon as you left, I knew that I was going to have to make a choice.”

“Did you now?”

“To follow him, or to follow me.”

“Okay.”

Bella bites her lip, as if she is remembering a war story and not a particularly traumatic (ha!) clubbing experience from the night before. She pauses for extra dramatic effect, takes a bite from her burger, and then stares straight into my soul. “The man only wanted me for my body. I had to learn that the hard way, but that is not what I want. I surely didn’t want him for his body, you know?”

“Of course.”

“So I have decided to part with my… With my love of dancing and my love of nightclubs, and… You’ve gotta help me with this, Kristina! As the sister I never had, as the woman I wish to be, you must help me with this!” Bella leans forward, clutching my greasy fingers. She looks like Isolde clamoring for Tristan’s affections, which of course leaves me as the male in this situation. I have got to stop with my comparisons!

Oh, Bella. Bella Royale, a veterinary technician who grew up on Costco meals and a charming ability to get anything she wants. A girl I never would have hung out with until college, when we were randomly selected as partners on a psychology project. Somehow, just somehow, I became her therapist, she became my life coach (look where that got me, I think), and out of all the people I met in college, like roommates and boys and whoever else, Bella Royale became my favorite person. The only person in my life I did not have to share with anybody else, the only person who did not force me into a third wheel situation, like my sisters or my parents or my friends in any other realm.

Except…

“What’s that?” she suddenly asks, and I’m reminded why I am her therapist seventy percent of the time.

“What’s what?”

“That!” Bella jumps up and tears Anthony Russo’s number from the table. “A phone number? Did you meet someone last night?” Bella has never looked so excited for me. That is an issue.

“No,” I say, rolling my eyes. I debate whether or not to tell her about the guy in McDonald’s, but I choose against it. I didn’t even talk to him, so that doesn’t even count. I settle for the truth of this morning: “Scarlett’s trying to set me up again.”

“Scarlett! What a woman,” Bella says with a spellbound gaze. She never had a mom, and Scarlett’s the closest thing to a positive female influence to her, which always makes me laugh. “Well, who’s the lucky chico?”

“Some man named Anthony Russo. I’ve never met him…”

Bella whips out her phone, intent on finding his photo on Facebook in nanoseconds. Though normally I would yell at her, I am at least interested to see what he looks like, and within a few more seconds, Bella’s phone is two inches from my face. Tony Russo, as his profile says, is an Alabama-educated math teacher at one of the local private schools. He’s got a white-toothed smile, brilliant brown eyes, and fine russet skin. He’s very good-looking, probably tall enough, and Bella’s nudging me, squealing like girls tend to do whenever they see an attractive XY specimen, and she is dialing his number before I can control her further.

“What are you doing?” I exclaim.

Bella tosses the phone at me as soon as Tony’s voice comes on over the speaker.

“Tony here,” he says, and he’s got a Southern accent. Surprising.

“Hi,” I say as Bella’s grin gets bigger than the controversy of Pluto’s relevance in our solar system. “Tony? I’m Kristina Flores.”

“Kristina Flores?” he asks, but then he says, “Oh! Yes. My momma told me about you, that you’d be calling. How are you today, Miss Kristina Flores?”

I like how he says my name. I know he must be a Southern Italian boy, but I like it. Bella’s eavesdropping beside me, but I’m glad she’s here. She’s my supporter. “I’m doing great, and you, Tony Russo?” Not a bad name either, I think.

“Doing well. It’s my off-period at school, so I’m grading a bunch of geometry tests right now.”

“Enriching,” I say, barely able to hold back my giggles as Bella pokes me in the stomach. “A geometry teacher, huh?”

“And a football coach, if that makes it better.”

I laugh, but I know it sounds nervous. I’m suddenly craving a hair appointment, a fresh highlight job. If I’m going to see Tony Russo in the flesh, I want to look my best. The guy seems like a nice one, although it will probably lead to nothing, and a few minutes into the conversation, he asks me to dinner on Saturday night. He can make a reservation for one of the leading barbecue restaurants in town, and would I mind if his brother comes too?

“I’ve got the perfect girl to meet him,” I say, excitedly, and the Russo brothers are set to pick Bella and me up at five-thirty on Saturday afternoon.

As soon as I hang up, Bella’s sizing me up. “Do I get Tony, or do you?” she asks.


CHAPTER THREE

FOR SOME STRANGE reason, I let Bella fix my hair, and Bella’s not the expert with hair. She sizzles my long hair with a curling iron and leaves uneven pieces hanging all over the place, and I’m forced to re-do half of it while also covering my face in ample amounts of makeup. Bella, like usual, looks perfect without any primping: Her straight black hair falls down her back, she doesn’t even need mascara to coat her fine curly lashes, and her body is curvy and perfect in her violet dress. Is she Italian too?

I, on the other hand, am a nervous wreck as I flush my eyelids in eye shadow. I slip a green dress over my head and spend twenty minutes choosing sandals. It is quite the process, and I’m not satisfied when Bella and I stand in front of the mirror, approving of the other’s appearance.

“Are you sure?” I ask, glancing over at her.

“Of course! Why would you not think so? Come on! He’s probably going to be here soon!”

I push at a piece of weirdly-curled hair and laugh. And, really, if Tony doesn’t like me now, he won’t like me ever.

A few minutes later, there is a flash of light from the front of the house, and Bella’s squealing like a baby pig. I follow her to the window, where we see Tony has parked a luxurious BMW with fancy tires. He pops out of the car like a bottle rocket, and I’m immediately interested. He’s tall enough, for starters, and as he walks across the grass, he pushes a hand through slicked-back hair. He licks his lips as he jumps up the stairs, two at a time, and Bella and I are both so interested that we startle when he rings the doorbell.

“Oh, Lord!” I scream. “I don’t know about this.”

“If you’re not going to open it, I will,” she says emphatically. Her eyes show that she’s being serious.

And so we both have our hand on the doorknob, and then Tony is staring at us both. A gust of fresh wind almost knocks us over, but we don’t care. This is like college again, except Bella and I have never had the same taste in boys-slash-men. In fact, I’m not even sure what my taste is, but I know that Tony is most definitely part of Bella’s.

“Kristina?” he asks, and it is obvious he isn’t sure which girl he’s supposed to be taking out. He hasn’t looked me up then.

“Hi,” I say, throwing out my hand, and he shakes. It is a firm shake, and he smiles at me. “This is my friend, Bella.”

Bella bats her killer lashes, and I know Tony’s swooning. Sometimes you can just tell when two people are falling for each other. I suppose a professional third wheel can certainly tell. “Nice to meet you,” she says, and my heart falls in my chest. This is going to be serious.

“You both are gorgeous,” he says, his Southern boy mannerisms surprising me, and it is so, well, fascinating, and then he’s saying, “You’ll have to excuse this, but my brother was all dressed up, right? Looking fine and good, and then he starts throwing up everywhere.”

“What?” shouts Bella, while I am assessing the situation.

“We think it’s food poisoning or something. Hopefully it isn’t the flu.”

Bella’s on it. She’s over the guy from the club, and she’s eyeing Tony Russo. “Oh, geez! I had the flu once, and it was miserable.”

“Isn’t it, though?”

Only Bella would be able to fall in love over talk of stomach bugs and the illustrious influenza, but I can tell she’s straightening her posture for this boy, which means she does like him. And Tony too seems to be only making eye contact with Bella, which is unsurprising.

“Anyway,” Tony says, licking his lips again, “my brother is sick. I wanted to call you, Kristina, to warn you before, but this just happened.”

“I can stay back,” says Bella, but I can tell she is only saying this so that Tony and I will jump to her rescue, so that it will, once again, be a three-person date. My second of the week. Just wait until Scarlett Flores hears this. Maybe she won’t know. There are some things I just can’t tell my mother.

“No, no,” says Tony, hurriedly, and I jump in too, because it really would be unfair that Bella thought she was going on a double date, only to find out she didn’t actually get to check out the Rib Shack, or wherever the heck we’re going. At this point, I want to toss my hat and stay in, give the two the chance to go check out the state of their chemistry, but etiquette wise, I can’t. I’d have to answer to my mother. No matter what, Emily Applewood will want to talk about this.

“We’re all going,” I say, practicing my perfect smile. “Come on, Bella. It’s totally fine. You know I don’t care.”

And as soon as we get into the BMW, Bella and Tony Russo are dissecting the art of cross-stitching. I suppose these sorts of conversations are important when you’re falling in love, but as for me, I’m tapping my fingers against the leather seats, wondering if they’re going to insist we go to The Rainbow Kitten after dinner. If that’s the case, I’m going to need to start rehearsing my best no. And even then I’m fallible.

Occasionally, I insert myself into the conversation, but I can’t help but be happy for Bella. This isn’t the first time this has happened, where I witness a love story starring Bella Royale, but it’s still fun to watch. I’ll hear all the details later too, but I like to see happy people, and Bella is laughing more than normal, and Tony’s smiling a lot, flashing his perfect white teeth. I can see most of this from the rearview mirror.

Fifteen minutes later, Tony expertly parks in a tight spot at one of Memphis’s premier barbecue restaurants. There are stringed lights hanging over the rustic building, and it really is a romantic venue. Tony and Bella are still chatting it up as we walk across the concrete road. To pass the time, I stare at the beautiful shoots of spring flowers lining the walkways, and I wonder if flowers look differently to those who are in love. I suppose that people in love don’t really notice flowers much.

We enter the restaurant, and there is the endless beauty of human chatter, and I glance around the intricate, cozy room, and see thirty or so couples, talking over seductive candles and plates of warm, rich food, and there are dates that are going great—and dates that are going terribly. I hear seductive whispers and hurried mumblings. This could be an interesting TV show dynamic.

“Is this endorsed by Match.com?” I ask Bella, who shrugs, as if she doesn’t get the humor of the joke.

“Isn’t he perfect?” Bella asks instead.

“Go for him,” I whisper. And I really mean it. It will be pretty crummy on this date, but obviously Tony and I weren’t going to hit it off anyway.

She narrows her eyes at me. “What?”

Like you haven’t been eyeing him for a century now. “I’m serious, Bella. He’s yours.”

Bella seems to consider this statement for a second, but then we’re walking through the restaurant, an odd three-person couple—I swear, if anyone considers us a “throuple” I may puke—and I’m searching the eyes of all the people we’re passing, but no one seems to care about it. No one seems to even notice us.

Everyone else seems to be at tables for two.

Eventually, we’re sitting down at a little awkward four-person tabletop that the waiters make a big deal about fixing, and though I am sitting across from Tony, it’s obvious that he’s invested in Bella. As they discuss their political ideologies (they’re already to that stage, I guess), I’m bored and staring around the room. There are couples here, and couples there. Black, white, Hispanic, whatever. It’s the UN in here, and I think of Argentina for a few moments. Maybe I’d have better luck in Buenos Aires. Highly doubtful, but maybe I should buy a one-way ticket, attempt Castellano, and adopt a fashion sense as spotless as Argentine women. My children will grow up on empanadas and chorizo. I’ll reprimand them everytime they mention the United States or attempt to speak in English.

My thoughts roam, and as I’m thinking of my Argentine cousins, and their perfectly metropolitan lives, I blink a few times and feel my mouth drop. It’s one of those moments, where you recognize a person, but your mind hasn’t caught up to the situation at hand. It’s like I’m seeing something out of a hazy memory, and this throws me completely off-guard.

It’s him. He’s smiling at me again. While at first it is a rush of attraction, my nerves smooth into choppy waves, and my eyebrows are perched as I stare him down. When he sees it, he starts to laugh, though he’s in the middle of a conversation with a couple who is sitting across from him. However, I know he knows who I am, because he keeps glancing back at me, and I want to punch him!

It’s the McDonald’s fool, the guy who got up and left me with my M&M McFlurry. While I technically don’t know him from Adam, I still want to squash his guts like people stomping grapes into wine. Weird comparison again, I know.

But there’s also the curious fact that he’s sitting with a couple. He knows my pain, I realize. And I take a few minutes to fully assess his physical character, though I try not to be too shallow. All I know is that he’s handsome. I turn away, too angry to look in his direction and try to immerse myself into the conversation before me, but it’s too hard, and nobody’s listening to me anyway, and I eventually get up to go to the bathroom.

In the restroom there’s a muffled sobbing noise from one of the stalls, but I’m too cowardly to say anything, and I reapply Chapstick and wonder what the chances are that the McDonald’s guy would be here too. At this specific, cultish restaurant. Maybe I should throw a glass of water at him. Dramatic, I know, but I’m in a dramatic mood, especially when my date turned into my best friend’s date.

I go back into the veiled atmosphere of the restaurant, where I see that Tony is now sitting across from Bella.

“It was awkward while you were gone,” he explains with a smile, but I wave it off. It’s too late now to salvage the direction of this ship.

Our orders come out, and I’m digging into my meal, throwing in little mincemeats of commentary here and there. At one point, I even say, “You know? I really do love Elon Musk’s stance on terraforming Mars,” and neither says anything, because they’re too busy looking into each other’s eyes. People in love most definitely do not notice flowers. They sure don’t notice Flores either.

Scarlett would be on me for letting Bella and the boy disrespect me in this way, but I’ve given up. I’m used to this. I’m used to third wheeling. Call it a part-time profession.

For fun, I look up, and I see that McDonald’s Man is still looking at me, and he seems to narrow his eyes at me, as if he’s sending me a mental message: What are you doing?

I shrug at him. I still have not forgiven him.

Why are you wasting your time?

That is obviously not him. That’s me talking. And I can’t help but smile back at him, though I still hate his guts.

He lifts a glass in my direction, and I lift mine in his.

I glance over at Bella and Tony, and I’m laughing at them. I’m laughing at the fact that I’m all dressed up, and I don’t even want to be here. I’m laughing, and I glance over at the chico in the corner, and he’s laughing too. He’s probably got a similar experience. I wonder what the story is.

I roll my eyes and wait for this to end. I wait an X number of minutes, and my phone is buzzing in my pocket, and I could be wrapped up in a blanket, binging some show on Netflix, but I’m out on this disastrous date that Bella and I will one day laugh over, and Scarlett is going to want to wring some necks, and then…

“Hey,” he says, sitting down in the chair across from me.

I startle, and Bella grabs my hand under the table, as if I’m suddenly going to be abducted by Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Tony looks a little bit more like a mobster, and I can’t help but smile in surprise that the McDonald’s Man has finally decided to approach, instead of taking off like a bullet.

“Hi,” I say.

“Sorry to startle you all,” he says, and his voice is void of any accent at all. I don’t think he’s Hollywood royalty, but he definitely could be, if he so chose. “How are you?” he asks, as if we’re long-time friends. He glances at Bella and Tony and sticks out his hand, “Hi. I’m Tristan, Tristan Taylor.”

Bella and Tony shake the man Tristan’s hands, and I’m completely shocked, completely at a loss, and they stare at him.

“We’re friends,” he says, motioning toward me, without even knowing my name. His acting is even legit. “How are you, by the way? You look lovely, as always.”

I want to ask him: You’re enjoying this, aren’t you? But I can’t do that now, not when Tristan expects me to go along with his little game. And honestly, I have nothing to lose here. Up close and personal, now that I can analyze his blue eyes for real, I’m enjoying this too.

“I’m well,” I say, staring at him, wondering why he’s doing this. Maybe he feels guilty about what happened a few nights ago, when it was clear that there was something that should have been said, even if it was just a little hello. Whatever. “A little tired, you know, with everything that’s been going on.”

Tony and Bella stare at us in shock. Maybe now Tony will act a little jealous, a little manly, because I’m talking to another man. Huh? I wonder why the world turns.

“Oh, I’m sure,” says Tristan, leaning in, and I’ve never felt such good feelings for a stranger. Moments ago I wanted to kill him; now I want to hug him. “You have been going through a lot.”

“Kristina, honey…” whispers Bella, who now also seems to care.

Now that Tristan knows my name, he smiles even brighter.

“How are you, Tristan?” I ask, leaning in too, because I feel like I’m winning the game now. This is so unlike me, to participate in this masquerade, but it’s better than just sitting there like a puppet.

“Good,” he says. “I’m having dinner with my best friend and his girl. Do you remember my telling you about them? They’re constantly on me about what they want for me.”

“Of course I remember,” I say, taking a casual swig of my water. I really want something a little stronger now, but whatever. I’m feeling emboldened, and not by alcohol. “Hey, Tris,” I say, though it sounds like a girl’s nickname, but it’s what I’ve said, “these are some friends. Bella Royale and Tony Russo.”

“Nice to meet you,” he says, giving them the up and down. He’s smiling at them, but I can tell he’s displeased with them. He’s on my side on this one. “Hey, Kristina?”

“Yeah?”

“I know you’re in the middle of dinner, but…”

“I’m definitely not in the middle of dinner,” I laugh. My plate is empty, and my brain is on fire.

“Want to get out of here?” he asks.

He could be a serial killer, and he’s inviting me out? Just me? Whatever. I can already immediately tell that I’m going to accept his invitation, regardless of my lack of information on him, because it’s a better alternative than sitting here and playing third wheel for the next few hours. Or worse, if they do decide to go out further, I’d be stuck in the car like a child. Not tonight. I’m just not in the mood. I’m over it. Call it what you want, but with Tristan’s imperative blue eyes in front of me, and the couple to my right, I’m ready to escape.

Bella is still holding my hand, and it’s almost like she’s tapping out a Morse code message on my skin, but I’m not really paying attention any more.

“I’m sorry,” I say, shrugging my shoulders at Bella and Tony, who now seems as if he’s a little jilted. “I haven’t seen Tristan in such a long time.”

What’s even worse? I don’t even offer to pay my side of the bill. If Tony ends up being long-lasting in Bella’s life, I’ll buy him a steak. Whatever. He’s the one who was supposed to be taking me out for a date, not Bella. He should be buying mine anyway. They owe me that.

Tristan nods at me, and it’s settled. “Let me go say goodbye to my friends.”

I watch as he jumps up, and we have a few seconds for Bella to grill me.

“Who is he?” she hisses.

“Tristan, like he said.”

“Why would you not have mentioned him to me? I definitely would have remembered him if you had.”

“It never came up,” I whisper back, and a nervous rush of adrenaline bites me in the heart. I am so glad I did not mention him now, or the cover would have been blown. This is all so stupid. “I’ll be fine.”

“Are you sure?” asks Bella. “This isn’t like you.”

“You guys can move to a table for two now,” I say, though I don’t mean for it to be rude or jealous or anything, because Tristan is beside us now, and I stand up. For a man I’ve seen once before and met just now, he seems to be a good guy; and he’s the perfect height for me, I realize with a smile. If he’s a serial killer, I’ve got pepper spray in my clutch, along with a little tube of Chapstick and a pocketknife that my father insists I carry.

I reach down and kiss Bella’s head and wave at Tony, but I can’t resist the little evil seed of joy this is doing to me, and I feel Tristan’s hand on the small of my back, and I’m suddenly reconsidering this vengeful little idea. What the heck are you doing?

We make it outside, and there’s the steady pulse of cars racing by us, but Tristan pushes me away from the door, so that we’re standing in the darkness.

“Time to tell your story,” I say, pushing my finger at him. My tone is already different. “What the heck was that? Is your name even really Tristan Taylor?”

Tristan smiles at me, but it’s that same one from McDonald’s. The one where he melted my heart and left seconds later. I wonder if that was his plan the entire time: Take me outside as his get out of jail free card from his friends, and then leave me in the dust. “Are you really a woman named Kristina?”

“Kristina Flores,” I say, jutting out my hand.

“I wasn’t lying, Kristina,” he says, and I see those white teeth again. He’s definitely whitening them. He shakes my hand.

“What’s your ploy here?”

“We both needed the same thing, right? We were both third wheeling, and you needed to be rescued. Anyone could see that a mile away. What they were doing to you… Pretty rude. I saw it go down.”

“I don’t need anybody to rescue me, thank you,” I say, pulling out the Chapstick and swiping it over my lips. I just don’t want him to think he’s winning again. “But third wheeling is almost like my calling in life. I was fine in there.”

“Were you?”

“I was, yes.”

“Then why’d you come with me?”

He knows he’s got me, and I can do nothing but narrow my eyes and pull out my phone, ready to order an Uber home. It will be pricey, but I need one to show up soon, so that, if Bella and Tony leave, they won’t see me on the side of the road like a lost little puppy.

But Tristan’s one step ahead of me.

“What are you doing?”

“Getting an Uber,” I say.

“No. You’re coming with me.”

I laugh. “In what universe?”

“This one. Come on. I don’t want them to see us standing here.”

“I don’t even know you.”

“Yes, you do. You know my name.”

“No, I don’t!”

“Fine,” he says, rolling his eyes at me, shrugging his shoulders. He knows that a smart woman wouldn’t be getting in his car with little to no information. A name is not good enough. “Again, my name is Tristan Taylor. I’m the son of Marshall and Stephanie Taylor. My dad is an ambulance chaser, and my mom is one of the first African-American women judges in our county. I went to undergrad at Columbia, came back to Tennessee for law school, and am practicing at a firm on Front Street.” He pauses for a moment and pulls out a business card from his pocket. He thrusts it at me, and I take it, straining to see the lettering in the light, and it looks legitimate at least. “I live on Mud Island. I have a dog. I’m particularly uneventful, and I was at dinner tonight because my best friend just got engaged, and he and his girlfriend love to talk to me about my ways. They’re very… Moral people. They’re very traditional, whereas I prefer to go my own way.”

“So, you are a serial killer,” I say.

“If you consider lawyers to be serial killers, then sure.”

“Would I be stupid to trust you, Tristan Taylor?”

“I don’t know anything about you either.”

“We’re wasting our time. Come on.”

“So she trusts me,” he says with a smile, and he pulls out a car key from his pocket. A few seconds later his car buzzes, and I’m not even surprised that it’s a svelte sports car that I can’t even identify, and I don’t want to. I’m not interested in the luxury of his car. At this point, I just want to know who the guy thinks he is, and for him to take me home, so I can take a bubble bath scented with verbena. I may treat myself to a nasty celebrity magazine too. Who knows. The possibilities are endless.

He doesn’t open my door. I don’t expect him to. I can open up my own door, and I fall into the passenger’s seat, and I’m not surprised that the default station is the city’s leading hip hop radio. He glances over at me and turns the music up.

“Kendrick Lamar’s cool,” I say, trying to relate.

Tristan laughs as he whips out of his parking spot, way too fast. Who does this guy think he is? He’s obviously somebody important, but I saw him at McDonald’s (ha ha). Maybe he went there to escape. “You like Kendrick, do you?”

“Yes. I like his music in the club, I guess.”

“In the club? You’re a club kind of girl?”

“Surprising, huh? Not really. I used to be, I guess,” I say, remembering how much I hated The Rainbow Kitten the same night I saw Tristan. “I actually had gotten back from a club right before you snubbed me in McDonald’s.”

He laughs, whipping out onto the main intersection. The car lights that flash by look like shooting stars. He speeds off into the direction of the suburbs, as if he knows I already live that way. He’s got a good intuition, I guess. “Really? You got back from the club, and you had a severe craving for a McFlurry?”

“Yeah. It was pretty gross that night.”

“I’m sure it was,” he says, shifting the car into a different gear. Well, of course he knows how to drive stick. “Why were you alone, if I don’t mind you asking? It’s not safe for a woman to club alone.”

“Thank you. I guess I should be charmed that a virtual stranger cares about my well-being, but I wasn’t alone. I was with that same woman in the restaurant.”

“Oh,” he says, his smile lighting up the dark car. Those white teeth could be my downfall. “Yeah, what was that? What was that at dinner?”

“He was supposed to be taking me out on a date,” I say as we turn at a curve, way too fast, but I’m not going to correct him right now. I’m too amped up. “Funny, right? Well, he liked Bella more.”

“And why was Bella there?”

“You ask a lot of questions.”

“And you don’t?”

“Not really.”

“Well, answer it. Why was your friend there?”

“It was supposed to be a double date.”

“What are you guys, in high school?”

“I know. What’s even worse is that my mom set up the date.”

He bursts out laughing, and I finally realize that he’s a human being too. He twists at another curve, and gravity pushes me into him, and I try to right myself back up, but he’s still laughing. “Your mom set you up. Why?”


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