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Excerpt for The Wedding Party by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


THE WEDDING PARTY

A NOVEL BY KATIE GEORGE


The Wedding Party

Katie George

Published by Katie George at Smashwords

Copyright 2018 Katie George


Book 2 (The Flores Sisters Trilogy)


PART ONE

HERE



CHAPTER ONE


THE RING GLITTERS like diamond dust. It’s like the only star in a black sky. It’s cosmic, lush, perfect in every way, and it’s on my finger, out of place on my boring, dull, loveless hand. This is one of those moments when I know I need to lock down this image in my head, because it won’t happen again. The ring is that beautiful. It’s my own divine eureka moment.

But, unfortunately, there is no such thing as a perfect moment. Charlie Beckman, the annoyed salesman, has a little spool of drool hanging from his lips, his eyes glazed over like day-old doughnuts. He’s used to seeing these sparkly gems that easily cost more than my car. He’s used to it, and he’s bored, looking at the ten-thousand-dollar ring on my finger. And he’s been bored since we walked in here, which is a great sales technique.

“Wow,” I whisper, my lungs constricting. When I can finally breathe again, I look up into Charlie’s eyes and, despite his pessimism, I’m in love. A girl who never thought she could fall in love with a piece of jewelry has been converted. “This is gorgeous.”

“Tacori,” says Charlie laconically, and he’s even yawning as he says it, since he’s surrounded by thousands of sparkling dollars in the shape of stones, “with a sculpted crescent band, rose gold. 2.51 carats in the engagement ring, not including the center diamond. We can order an oval, princess, or round diamond cut if you’d prefer. This one is $15,990, plus tax. Platinum band? More expensive.”

And the moment is ruined.

Wade Bradley is coughing up his lungs beside me. He starts laughing so hard that he begins to tear up, and both Charlie and I look at him in foul disgust. Wade finally picks up on the fact that this isn’t a funny dress-up situation or a trip to Walmart; these are real diamond rings, and everybody else in this highly secure jewelry shop is serious. They’ve got Daddy’s credit card and white-collar jobs that afford wine tours to Napa on weekends and summer soirees in Santorini.

“I’m sorry,” Wade says, scratching his forehead, his sea blue eyes jovial as frick, “but can we possibly find something a little cheaper?”

How did I luck out with this charlatan? Out of all the men in the world, this one? He’s standing there, hands in his pockets, looking like a rebellious teenager, an unworthy client in an engagement ring store. But maybe I’m the same way. Probably so.

However, Charlie nods, waiting for me to deposit my dream engagement ring in his clean palm, and then it is whisked away from me, and I’m left only with a trace of memory of it. It was good while it lasted.

“Can you please act normal?” I hiss at Wade as Charlie leaves with the slim Tacori box. Bye bye, ring.

Wade grins at me. Though I met him only thirty minutes ago, I feel like I’ve known—and hated—him for ages. Despite the fact that I’m pretty sure I could kill him right now, I still feel a little jolt of electricity when he drapes his arm around me, acting as if we’re madly, deeply in love, so in love that I’m his picky fiancée who can’t stand the idea that her man won’t buy her a ridiculously priced ring that could feed a whole lot of hungry kids around the world.

Well, almost.

He leans into me, whispering in my ear, “Remember that my brother’s on a budget. I know your friend may be expecting a ring bigger than Texas, but…”

“Excuse me,” I whisper back, elbowing him away from me, “but I know that. If a girl gets a chance to try a Tacori on, she better darn take it.”

Wade can’t tell that I see him rolling his eyes, but he’s distracted by Charlie’s grumpy expression. The man’s shoulders are slumped just like his lips, and he eerily reminds me of Stanley from The Office, and I know Isabel will find this funny later. Whatever.

“What next?” asks Charlie, who can afford to be a jerk with us, because he works at one of the best jewelers in the area. For crying out loud, Wade’s brother, Alfred, made this appointment months ago, back in the Pacific chill of January.

“How about this one?” I ask, pointing to a princess cut stone. At least, I think that’s what it is. I’m not really up-to-date on the terminology.

Charlie goes about jamming his hand into the case for the ring, and I twist around to face my fake fiancé. That alone reminds me of TLC, and I’m even moodier than before.

“How much is Alfred willing to pay?” I ask, narrowing my eyes, crossing my arms.

Wade shrugs. He pushes a little crop of messy blond hair from his eyes and looks off into space. “Five thousand, maybe?”

“Did he not give you any instructions before you got here?”

“Honey,” Wade says, placing his firm hands on my shoulders, and anybody should be able to tell we are complete strangers, since we are so awkward with each other. We’re standing miles apart, it feels like, and it almost feels like junior high prom. Wade’s fraternity ring cuts into my flesh, and I can hardly stop myself from laughing. “Honey,” he repeats, which almost bursts him into another round of giggles, “you are going to pick out what you want. Money doesn’t buy happiness, does it, sweetie?”

“But you just said…”

“I’m willing to fight tooth and nail for you, my dear,” he says, and I can tell he is enjoying this. Now he wants to be as ridiculous as he can be. That, coupled with the fraternity ring, makes me wonder if he’s still in college.

I twist around and try to forget him again, which is impossible. Charlie sticks this new ring on my finger, and it pulls against my flesh. It doesn’t help that I’m self-conscious about my fingernails, since I didn’t realize I was going to pretend to be my best friend today and pick out an engagement ring, but this one is something she’d like. Emma has been pretty clear about what she wants.

“When he asks you,” she says, every time, which is quite often, “tell him that the only thing that matters is that it’s a gold band. Did you hear me? Gold.”

“Like goldfish,” I’d say in response, because I was no doubt thinking about the snack.

“Exactly.”

But suddenly I’m back in reality, selecting her engagement ring for her, the fiancé nowhere in sight. The trust is pretty heavy, but I’m really wondering how in the world she’ll take it when she finds out that Wade and I will choose her ring. Somehow I don’t think she’ll mind that much, even though, if I were her, it would be quite the opposite.

“What?” asks Charlie, whose tongue is lolling out of his head. He lays an arm on his bulging belly. If he weren’t so displeased with us, I’d think he looks like an adult-sized teddy bear. “What did you say?”

“This is beautiful,” I say, “but I want something in gold. Nothing but gold.”

“Follow me.”

“Are you good for anything today?” I hiss back at Wade, who’s following me across the clean stone floor, when I’m certain Charlie won’t hear our bickering. We pass a lovesick couple, and they’re both in tears (agh) as they choose the right ring.

“Ouch. What was that for?”

“I don’t even need you here.”

“You need me to pretend to be my brother. Basically that makes me the life of the party.”

“Whatever.”

“Whatever back!”

A few seconds later, he says, “Hey, at least we aren’t those people,” pointing to the crying couple.

For a second there, we stand, staring at each other with angry eyes, taut lips like arrows, and neither of us is willing to loosen them to allow the force of our words to hit the other, because we’re both thinking that this is so stupid, that we’re covering for the people we love, and we’re good people for it, but we shouldn’t be here in the slightest. Everybody else here is professional, so happy, eyes glittering, salesmen and women who’re smiling because they’re about to get lofty commissions, and instead we’re… Well, fakers. Wedding crashers. Engagement ring crashers?

What happened is simple, and it starts with two people falling in love, and those people aren’t Wade and me. Those people should be here, picking out the ring themselves, but things happen, I understand that. Everything happens for a reason. All that mumbo jumbo. But I don’t want to be here, not unless I’m with the person I love, and instead, I’m doing this as a favor. I’m pretending, once more. Do I want to be the crying fiancée? Absolutely not, but at least she gets a fine piece of jewelry on her finger.

And just for a second, I think that Wade’s thinking the same thing, in that thick skull of his, protected by that forest of blond hair, and I’m momentarily glad that he doesn’t look like Alfred.

Maybe I should backtrack, explain a love story that isn’t my own, in order to give some clarity as to why the heck Wade and I are here, the best man and maid of honor, two people who don’t know each other from Adam, but two people standing among the lovesick and the salesmen, and I roll my eyes as a smile tugs at my lips.


CHAPTER TWO


EMMA WAS STANDING next to the jukebox while I drunkenly tossed dollar bills into a slots machine that had done nothing but provide me fed-up anger. As I slammed my skinny hands against the screen, Emma pressed her fingers against my shoulder and dragged me from my stupidity. She’d been drinking too, but she wasn’t even buzzed, and I knew she was bored beyond belief, and we knew I had only been drinking because I was deeply, horribly guilty for something I’d done on a recent trip back home.

“Come on, honey,” she said, pulling me with her to a little tabletop where our other friends were sitting, drinking sangria and lazily talking about nothing. We slid into the seats, my head draped across her shoulder, because Emma is like a sister to me.

“Miranda, you look pretty trashed,” said Reese Whitby, who got pregnant a few months later and never finished her graduate degree. But in those days, she was simply Reese to us, a staunch feminist who made us promise never to have children until our thirties, and now she’s Mrs. Xander Wilde, and we barely get to see her.

“Let me get you some water,” said Emma, but my head fell into her lap. “M,” she whispered, lifting me back up, and I laid my head on Reese’s shoulder, but her bones were sharp against my jaw. “I’ll be right back, okay?”

She walked across the crowded bar, men pushing themselves against her, and Reese was too drunk to scream at them, but Emma could handle herself. Emma’s beautiful, one of those true Valley beauties, with long, creamy blonde hair, baby blue eyes, and a Hollywood face. Her mom made her do acting as a kid and modeling as a teen, but she pushed those “shallow” aspirations away and enrolled herself in Claremont for undergrad, where she was summa cum laude as an English major, and then furthered her education at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, where I met her.

She sashayed up to the bartender and asked for water with ice, and every man up there offered to buy her a drink, but she politely declined, telling them that she was the designated driver (a lie, but she wasn’t into the free drinks thing, thank goodness), and twisted around, watching as I happily slept on Reese’s lap now.

But as she twisted, like a bride trying on the perfect white dress, her hand—and the cup of cold, clear water—went crashing into a man’s chest, spraying them both in liquid. Emma jolted back in embarrassment, but she found a pair of big blue eyes on hers, and the man before her was laughing.

“Water, huh? I’d think that’s the luckiest I’ve been in ages,” he said, and everybody in the bar turned back to stare at them. Maybe they all knew that this was going to help the stereotype, of a pair of star-crossed lovers meeting in a bar, or whatever.

“Last week it was vodka?” asked Emma. “Gosh, I’m so sorry. Can I buy you something?”

There was a cacophony behind her, but it only made Alfred move closer to her.

At this point, I was sitting up, able to see what was happening before me, and I punched my hand in the air, over and over again, screaming for love and Emma and the man who would later be at our apartment seventy percent of the time, a man who would also become one of my good friends here in California, and even through my hazy eyes, I knew it was love at first sight. Call it what you want, but it happens to some people.

Emma and Alfred spent two hours together, sitting and analyzing each other in the dim bar. It wasn’t even one of those cute, modern ones you see in movies today; no, it was a trashy, seedy bar that was cheap and didn’t mind a slew of drunk UCLA grad students to visit every Friday, when we needed to kvetch and catch up on all the ridiculousness we put up with as Angelenos.

As the rest of us sat, me clutching a headache-ridden skull, we were putting the pieces together, that some wild things are so good that they can be true. We saw it, in the lovestruck eyes of both Emma and this foreign Alfred character, and eventually, eventually, when we could handle it no longer, due to our sleepy, buzzed bodies, it was time to go home.

Emma jumped up and clutched me as I staggered from the table. “Hey, ready for bed?” she asked, holding me against her sweaty skin.

“Let me meet the guy,” I protested as my best friend fiddled with the smeared mascara in the deep bags below my irises. I was definitely a raccoon in this moment.

And he was there, Alfred Bradley, from that point onward. He helped Emma take me to her my car, where the two lay me in the back. They were sweet, attending to my every need. Alfred was telling me things about him, based on the silly questions I was asking. My list was pre-programmed in my head to make sure all my friends’ prospective matches were genuinely good guys.

“What do you think about federal income taxes?” I asked, slurring my words. This was not my best moment, but I was still thinking about money.

Alfred twisted back to face me, his blue eyes like streetlamps in the thick darkness of my little Kia. “You are an interesting one, Miranda,” he said.

I don’t even remember his answer, but I do remember that they half-carried me, half-dragged me into the apartment. I remember that they lay me in bed, with a warm rag on my forehead and the fan above me twirling about—just like I like it. Emma pushed open the curtains, allowing the glitter of the L.A. skyline to pulsate against my sleeping form. Emma kissed my forehead and promised not to do anything too stupid.

“Like fall in love?” I asked with a smile.

“Shut up,” she said back.


THE NEXT MORNING, I stumbled into the kitchen, flopped two pieces of limp bread into the toaster, and tossed a few pills of Tylenol down my throat. I loaded up on water, pulled out a textbook for a silly, unimportant class, and the full facts of last night came back to me: The fact that I got drunk by midnight, that Emma babysat me, and that the whole love story thing seemed like a movie from years ago.

A gulp of sunlight slashed through the windows and blinded me. Emma wasn’t home, I realized.

After placing my toast on a paper plate, I whipped out my planner and sifted through the events of the day. Things were going to be crammed for the next few months, that was for sure, and here I was, spoiling a morning in which I needed to be working, but I was momentarily stunted by the fact that…

Things are going to change. They always will, they always were meant to be this way; but it was one of those cosmic, metaphysical moments where you know that something cataclysmic is about to happen.

Emma struggled with the keys as she neared the front door. It was so bad that I had to get up and open the door for her, and she draped her arms around my neck, and she smelled like salt and body odor, and I stumbled back.

“He’s perfect,” she said, throwing her stuff on the table. Compared to the near-perfect cleanliness of the apartment, her scattered belongings on the table make us look like slobs. “I know nobody’s perfect, but I swear he is… Oh, gosh. I think he’s the one, Miranda. I really think so.”

“Really?”

“He’s perfect. He wants four kids, he’s a high school teacher, football coach… I mean, my parents will love that! He’s handsome, good-natured, and such a gentleman. I mean, Miranda…. I’m telling you. He’s the one.”

It was like my body was struck with adrenaline. This was cause to celebrate. This was one of those moments. Emma was sound of mind, and she controlled her emotions well. This only meant that she was being purely serious. “Are you serious?”

“Yeah.”

For once I shut the planner before me. Screw my list of things to do. Just this once. “Only one way to celebrate…”

“Oh, come on… You cannot be…”

I winked at her and hurried back to my room. I grabbed the speaker and connected it to my computer, and this situation deserved nothing less than a dance party, like we were Meredith and Cristina from Grey’s Anatomy. The volume was punched up to the highest level, and we were hopping around like springtime bunnies, jamming to Dua Lipa and Camila Cabello and Kendrick Lamar, and we both smelled like we’d come straight from the gutter, but today was a new day. After a few showers, we cruised into Beverly Hills, ate lunches from brown bags (we were way too poor to even darken one of those restaurant’s doors), and window shopped like pros. We did our nails, and I pecked poor Emma’s mind, all about her thoughts and opinions on Alfred, and it was very clear that she had been bitten bad.

It was close to sunset when we passed one store in particular. Gems of all sorts and sizes gleamed up at us. Emma struck a perfectly manicured finger against the window.

“You can’t already be thinking about the ring,” I said, but I knew she was. After today, the ring was the least of our concerns.

Emma twisted around, her eyes glazed over like tide pools.

“When he asks you,” she said, the first time she ever told me this, “tell him that the only thing that matters is that it’s a gold band. Did you hear me? Gold.”

“Like goldfish,” I said, thinking about my gurgling stomach. Shopping is fun, but food is more so.

“Exactly.”


ALFRED BECAME A staple at the apartment. He was a genuinely great guy. He was friendly, bubbly, and a bit of a dork. He wore bowties to school. He parted his dirty blonde hair and combed it back. He always teased me and came to dinner on Thursdays, which eventually became Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays, and Mondays. He was from Santa Barbara, and his parents were loaded. He vacationed in Hawaii and invited Emma a few months after they started dating. As the months passed by, I was seeing less of Emma, and much more of Alfred, and I didn’t even seem to mind.

At this same time, I was graduating, and I was planning on moving back to Tennessee, where the rest of my American family lives. I was jokingly considering a move to Buenos Aires, where my dad’s from, but I’m not brave enough for that. I’d only come to Los Angeles for UCLA, and now that it was coming to an end, it was time to move away, to claim the great taxes in a Southern state I didn’t particularly love, and even though Kristina would be there, I’d get her to forgive me. I’d apologize every day for a million years if I had to.

But things have a funny way of working out.

A few weeks before my move, I was at a hair salon in Santa Monica. I wasn’t even getting my hair done, because that is way too expensive. My hair was pulled taut against my skull, and I was waiting for Emma to get out. I had my planner spilled out before me, along with my journal and computer. Everything was organized, and I was focused on my angle of attack for the job search back home.

“Excuse me,” said someone in front of me.

I sat up, cocking an eyebrow.

“What are you doing?” the woman asked. She was wearing big designer sunglasses, and while I used to judge people for wearing shades in places like this, I was used to it and the rampant display of wealth.

I wasn’t in the mood for a conversation, but this felt different. I shut my planner and looked into the woman’s eyes, except that I couldn’t really see them, just the black reflection, which was creepy and intimidating.

“I’m planning things,” was my casual response, but then I added, “but I’m also working on all the job applications I can, because I’m moving away soon.”

“Job applications?” the woman asked, raising an eyebrow at me now.

“Yes.”

“What did you major in?”

“Finance from the University of Mississippi, and I just got my masters in advertising from UCLA.”

The woman nodded in my direction, draping one of her perfectly toned legs over the other. She lifted the sunglasses from her eyes, and I was struck by a beautiful face, one that seemed eerily familiar, and I wondered if she was Hollywood. I wasn’t then—and am still not—good at identifying famous people, which is a strike against me in my line of work, but at this moment it was a good thing.

She knew immediately that I had no idea who she was. Isabel’s always had an incredible sense of reading people, and this made her like me even more. She leaned across the table and grabbed my folder from me, leafing through the apps, and it was obvious that though she was impressed, she was guffawing.

“These sound tempting,” she said, tossing it back toward me. She shook her head. “I’ve got something better.”

“Do you now?”

“First, let me ask you a question. It’s more of a riddle, though.”

“A riddle?”

She winked at me. She knew she had me in her trap. “Bob and Ann were found dead in a puddle of water and glass. What happened?”

I couldn’t believe it, that this obviously wealthy woman was talking to me, asking me a riddle, and a stupid one at that. Now, I am terrible at riddles, and always have been, and Isabel has always hated me for failing to ever get any of her riddles right—except this one. And because I was hungry then too, waiting for Emma, I was thinking about my favorite snack too.

“They’re goldfish?” I asked.

A simple question that changed my life.

The woman who asked me this simple riddle was Isabel Olmetz, whose stage name is Isabel Atwater, who is one of the leading Hollywood women of our day. When I met her, only two years before this, she had just been nominated for her first Golden Globe for a performance as Helen Keller. She had also recently fired her personal assistant for selling topless photos.

Isabel Atwater hired me on the spot to be her personal assistant. Later, she told me she just had a feeling that I was a good egg, but I have always gotten onto her because she makes stupid decisions on the spot (although this one guaranteed me a new life, that’s for sure). She told me about her acting and when I didn’t believe her at first, she made me search her on the Internet.

“Finally. Somebody who doesn’t know me,” she said, selfishly, but it’s Isabel we’re talking about. And my cluelessness was what bought me my job.

It is easy to identify that Isabel is a wild card, but she offered me a ridiculous boatload of money to plan out the details of her life. She liked the color of my planner, and we went to four different stores to get her the same one. She invited me on trips, and in those first few months, I did more traveling than I had in my life. We were in Bali one weekend, Cannes the next, and then began the truly arduous process of filming. Since I’m a personal assistant for a top actress, I’m with her at all times. Some assistants aren’t like me, but Isabel’s needy and she’s forgetful and it’s clear why her other PAs didn’t work before me. I’m meticulous, thorough, and diligent, and though we both drive each other absolutely crazy, we match well. But this means that I’m with her on shoots in the Sahara or in some abandoned Italian monastery. I sit with her as she memorizes lines and cry with her when she’s hounded by the media. I make her yogurt in the morning and sleep in four-star hotels. Sometimes I’m the one shooing her secret boyfriends out the door the next morning.

And so, a lot of the time, I think back to that hair salon. I think to the fact that I was sitting there, being myself, when my life changed, all because of goldfish. And maybe it can even be traced back to the gold band…

The same one that I’m staring at now.


HOWEVER, IT MUST STILL be accounted for: How did Wade and I end up here? Well, things happen, as we know.

Right before Christmas, when it was apparent that none of our friend group was in a real hurry to head home, we all congregated at an IHOP in Burbank around six o’clock in the afternoon. We were actually pretty normal there, all five or six of us, and Reese Whitby had left her baby with a sitter for the first time. We were catching up, and though I wasn’t particularly invested in the dinner, it was really nice, to be warm in the restaurant, garland hanging across the restaurant like friendly green snakes. Light Christmas music sliced through the speakers. Everybody was sharing some ridiculous Christmas stories of years past, when we all still lived at home and wondered constantly about our futures.

Naturally my story revolved around Andrés, my fashionable, womanizing father, who took me specifically to a Dillard’s shop to buy a specific faux-fur handbag my mother had seen in a circular. Since my sisters were MIA (intentionally), I accompanied my dad to the madhouse of the department store and watched as he wooed every woman he came into contact with. He’s a legend, and in his ridiculousness, I learned a lot. Just thinking about him makes me a little homesick, but at the same time, my family drives me manic when I’m with them, especially if we’re thrown together for a week on family vacations.

But anyway, as I was in the middle of my memory, I glanced over at Alfred and knew he was deep in thought about something, and suddenly I got this hot feeling in my gut, and I prayed, over and over, that he wasn’t about to propose to Emma in an IHOP. I prayed that he would wait it out, if that’s what he was thinking about, and seconds later, he looked up at me and turned Peppa Pig pink.

Not here, Alfred.

But it turns out he wasn’t planning on it here. He turned pink because he realized he was going to marry her, my best friend, and though he wanted to propose in a place like this, surrounded by close friends, he couldn’t. Not without a ring.

And so, after dinner, when I was safely snug in a blanket as I prepared to drive off into the distance, Alfred consulted me. Emma was talking to Isaiah, my roommate, and Alfred was a mess.

“I… I want to propose,” he said, sounding very much like a schoolboy. He was finicky, tousling his fingertips together, and I couldn’t bear to see him losing it like this. There is nothing to worry about, I wanted to tell him, but it probably would do no good. He tends to fixate on things.

“Do you have the ring?” I asked.

“No. And I need to make an appointment at a place, but… Would you be able to help me? I want to surprise her, but I can’t pick out the wrong ring, and I know you, Miranda, and you know Emma so well. I could really use your expertise.”

“My expertise?” I asked with a cocked eyebrow.

“Yes. You know Emma, is what I’m trying to say. So… Will you help me? Will you help me find the ring?”

And so I found myself, months later, hurrying down the 101, trying my hardest to survive the annoying rush of traffic that was taking a decade off my life with each passing year. There I was, hurrying, hurrying, late and upset, because I hate being late with all my being, and I hate it when people are late too. But I couldn’t say anything, because I was really late, and Alfred wanted to map out Emma’s specific interests before the appointment with the cranky salesman Charlie Beckman.

And, little did I know, but Alfred was in a car wreck as he was driving up to meet me. He was transported to the hospital, and his brother, Wade, was sent on his behalf. And so there you have it, that weird things work out the way they do.

“Goldfish,” I whisper to myself.


CHAPTER THREE


“WHOA, there. Earth to Miranda, line one,” says Wade, flashing his hand against my face, trying to revive me from my reminiscing. When he sees he’s finally got me back to reality, his face flushes with relief, and he points to the gold band on my finger. “This one’s got a good price,” he offers, and I’m finally seeing how this goofy guy is related to the also-ridiculous Alfred Bradley.

“This is a good one,” I say, lifting my hand in the air so that we can both analyze with a scrutiny that doesn’t match who we are. “But… I think we need more, honey.”

“Did you just call me honey?” he whispers, obviously feeling a little awkward it with the uncomfortable moniker.

“Maybe.”

“Dear Lord,” says Charlie, under his breath, thinking we can’t hear him, but it’s too obvious. He knows. He has to know. Whatever.

“I want something with a little more pizzazz,” I say, tossing the ring back at Charlie. Yeah, I think to myself, I can just throw thousands of dollars in the air, no problem.

“Are you serious?” asks Wade, rolling his shoulders back. “It’s just a ring, honey.”

“Just a ring?” I shout back, waiting for us to get kicked out for my outburst. But no one seems to notice, because everybody else is so enamored, and everybody else is experiencing the dream reveal of their lives, but though I do agree with Wade—it is just a ring, and I’d rather a guy gift me a house—this means a lot to my best friend. This means the world to Emma, who’s always been one to think about the right guy, and how important a lasting romantic relationship is, and for people like Wade and me, it’s not the same thing, but we’ve been entrusted to this huge mission, and we’re going to complete it, if it’s the last thing we do.

“Just a ring?” I scream back at him, shaking my fist in the air. “If you keep it up, we’re never leaving this place!”

“We close at eight sharp,” yawns Charlie Beckman, whose eyelids have drooped even further.

“All right, all right,” says Wade, who too seems like he may fall asleep at any moment now. He leans down toward me and whispers, “Can’t you just pick one out?”

“Alfred, darling,” I say, raising an eyebrow, “this is a monumental decision.”

“I’m sure Mr. Beckman here would appreciate if you’d… Hurry up.

Charlie rolls his eyes.

For a second I know that Wade is smiling at me, because I’m smiling too. This is ridiculous, but we’re here anyway. We twist back around to the smooth, clean glass cases of the sparkling jewels, and Charlie passes me countless gold bands with various gems ensconced: Diamonds, emeralds, lapis. A lot of women these days want more than just diamonds, and I’m not surprised, not when there are so many beautiful things to choose from. But as the time passes, I’m growing more and more tired, and I know Wade is too. It’s obvious that this process is a little different when you’re actually buying the ring with intention, but that’s not exactly what we’re here for.

But then it happens.

“That one,” I whisper, tapping my finger against the glass. It’s the perfect one. It’s off to the side, and truthfully, it’s because I see that it’s in the sale section, but the ring is Emma’s. It’s got the gold band, a medium-sized square diamond, and specks of sea blue wrapped around the central sparkle.

“What?” asks Wade, who has been staring into space for the past few minutes.

“This one,” I say, turning back toward him.

“You think?” he asks, skeptically, as if he thought it were impossible to figure it out.

I nod. I turn back to the ring, and Charlie pushes it against my finger, and I realize that I’ve got Emma’s engagement ring on my finger. It’s perfect for me, but Alfred will need to get it resized. And when I look up, I note that Wade is nodding in approval, and we both cock our lips to whisper to each other, but Charlie gets it first: “Finally.”


THE PALM TREES were the first thing I noticed when I emerged from the taxi cab and into the pure Los Angeles pollution. The sky was peachy cream, the people lithe and tan, the money oozing from the cracks in the concrete… But I was enamored with the leafy palms, which were impossible to grow in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

Back home, everything was bright green. There was always so much green that it killed my senses, and I got terrible allergies in the springtime. So when I moved off to California, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I found a place where I didn’t sneeze too often, though the dusty rocks get me sometimes. But I say all of that because Tennessee is much different than California in many ways, and I love the sunsets here. I love the palms, their protruding arm-like branches, and the sky, with its pallet of thousands of colors, ready to mix up together like a hurricane rainbow.

But those palms, here they are now, slouching in the breeze.

“What are you staring at?” asks Wade as he follows me into the slithery darkness. He hasn’t got a clue as to what I’m thinking about, probably, because he’s lived here his whole life. But maybe he does.

“Nothing,” I say, my stomach rumbling, because I haven’t had dinner. And no matter what anybody says, ring shopping can take a lot out of you. My mouth stretches into a yawn, but I know I need to stifle it, because I’ve got a drive ahead of me.

“Was that Sasquatch? Are you hungry?” he asks, and it’s a date, I know it, suddenly, deep in my stomach. He’s asking me out.

My eyes widen and I turn to face him, and I see that he looks more vulnerable than ever before. His normal swagger, that cocksure lilt to his gestures, is missing, and I’m nervous and uncomfortable.

“Miranda?” he asks, digging his hands in his pockets.

“Yeah?”

“Do you want to get dinner?”

“Um…”

“Come on, my treat. We just endured hell in there, don’t you think? The least we can do is fill our stomachs and cheer to Alfred and Emma. And they shoulder cheer to us, for finding their ring.”

I’m about to say yes. I really am. I can feel it in me, in that mushy spot in my brain, but just like clockwork, my phone buzzes in my pocket. A rush of happiness envelops me, because it rescues me from the moment, and I answer easily.

“Miranda Flores,” I say, though I never say my full name.

“Where are you?” Isabel snaps. “It’s close to nine o’clock. I thought we were going to binge on that TV show, that stupid one with that stupid little…”

“I’m still at the jewelry shop. I’ll be at your home in an hour, okay? Make some popcorn, take a chill pill.”

“Hurry up!” Isabel hangs up.

“Oh,” says Wade, nodding, lifting up a hand. “No worries.”

“Yeah,” I say, wondering if he thinks that was my boyfriend. If he only knew. But Isabel’s right. I did promise her we would watch TV, relax a little, forget the scandal that’s going to hit the tabloids tomorrow. And honestly, I’m not ready for this yet. I’m not ready to date again, and even though Wade has tamed down, even though he seems more mature now that we aren’t pretending to be getting hitched, I’m a little too scared to be in his presence any longer.

“I’ll call Alfred,” he says back, a little tug of a smile lifting his sullen mood, and he waves at me. “It was nice to meet you, Miranda.”

There is an awkward moment, and I wonder if he’ll move to hug me, to show any sort of physical contact, but he waves like a lost puppy and turns around, but with one more hint of that dimpled grin, and then he’s sagging off, like one of those palms I always seem to watch.

And as I drive home, heading toward my boss’s house in the electric heat of Los Angeles, I think about the mistake I’ve just made.


CHAPTER FOUR


I’M STANDING IN an Albertson’s with a checklist of groceries. My roommate, Isaiah, a flamboyant celebrity stylist with a shock of baby blue hair, has requested a selection of his favorite vegan dietary needs, and I’m digging through sections of the store that I’d never normally step foot in. I roll my eyes as I pull out a box of quinoa nuggets and throw it in the cart. Though I try to eat healthy, Isaiah’s strict diet drives me up the wall.

I’m fluttering through the cake aisle when I think of Isaiah. He’s a character for sure. In fact, he was one of Emma’s closest Los Angeles friends before I met him, and now he’s my best friend too. It’s wild how that works sometimes, but while I wouldn’t mind throwing him into a kid’s birthday party (he’s not a fan of kids), I love him whole-heartedly, and now that I live with him, I don’t think I could ever not live near him. But you’ll meet Isaiah shortly.

As I sort through cake mixes and birthday candles, my phone starts buzzing in my pocket. I lift it to my ear and ask, “Yeah?”

“Miranda!” screams the person on the other end.

“Hello?” I ask, my eardrum almost bursting.

“Miranda, it’s me. It’s me, Emma! Oh my gosh, M… You need to get over here stat.”

“What’s going on?” Except that I know exactly what’s going on.

“Where are you?”

I hate revealing my location details. Call me cryptic, but I’ve always been like that. “Fine. I’ll be over in thirty, if the traffic isn’t too bad, okay?”

It takes me thirty minutes of not too bad traffic to get to her house in Los Feliz. She lives in a small bungalow with Alfred. It’s made of stucco and has blue tiles all over the place. There’s a cute little fountain spouting out algae-sized droplets of water. The lawn is unkempt, and I know the inside will be a mess too, because neither Emma nor Alfred is big into hygiene relating to their belongings, though they always look put together in public.

I stagger to the front door and knock a few times. Though Emma has offered me a key countless times, I always decline the offer, because this is her house now. We aren’t college roommates. She is a grown woman who lives with her…

She opens the door and throws me into a wild hug. She smells like smoke, and it must be the fact that Alfred is grilling out back. When she breaks away from me, she’s kissing my cheeks, and then she hugs me once more, and I’m afraid that I can’t breathe, but she finally lets go. I’m not sure I have ever seen her so happy before, and then she sticks out her perfect hand, with perfect fingernails that model the ring much better than mine ever could, and there’s the ring, glinting in the California sunlight.

“He told me everything. Miranda, thank you so, so much! Honey, oh my gosh. This is just perfect. Absolutely perfect.”

I think back to the bar, just for a second, when I saw the lovesick couple with my drunken eyes. Even sober I’m struck by the gleam in Emma’s gaze. “Oh, Emma…”

“Silly Alfred! Who gets in a car wreck right before he’s supposed to be getting the big ring? Anyway, at least you got a chance to finally meet Wade, didn’t you?”

I’m standing on the WELCOME HOME matt, and Emma drags me in, and the house is even messier than normal. There are clothes hanging off the fireplace, an orange kitten is lounging in a shoe, and there’s a half-finished game of Monopoly on the coffee table, waiting for us to finish after two weeks of sitting there all alone. Emma leads me to the couch, and it’s like we’re twenty-three again and recounting our days to each other.

Emma pushes her hand toward me. “Isn’t it perfect? Of course you’d know, since you picked it out! You’ve always had the eye for this sort of thing, Miranda.”

“I knew it from the moment I saw it,” I say, smiling bigger than the sky.

“Oh, Miranda! I will never be able to thank you enough. Those appointments really take months to get, which is so stupid, but it is the premier shop in the county. How many rings did you have to try on to pick this one out?”

“Oh, you know, a few. But it was fun, getting to try them on, watching them glitter in the store. You should have seen our salesman. He was like something out of a comedy show.”

She’s got a weird look in her eye, as if she’s up to something. She suddenly slides closer to me, as if she’s in on a secret that I’ve been hiding from her, which never happens because she’s always had too good an intuition. She picks up my hand and asks, “And what did you think of Alfred’s brother?”

“What… What do you mean?”

“Oh, come on! Don’t pretend. Alfred told me that part too. That you were supposed to help him, but after the accident, Wade had to step in… Which is rare, because Wade is always so busy at work, you know. He’s always got patients and stuff, and so it was absolutely a God thing that he was able to be there.”

“Patients?”

“Wade’s a doctor,” Emma whispers, and her eyes are alight with the practice of matchmaking. Emma’s never really been a matchmaker per se, but I recognize it in her eyes now, the fact that she’s thinking it’s perfect, the idea of Wade and me. A little seed of me entertains the idea, but then Emma’s talking again. “And not just any doctor, either.”

“Okay…”

“He’s a pediatric surgeon, Miranda. He’s the real deal.”

Okay. That is pretty attractive, but I’d never have put that together with the guy I met at the store, a guy who showed up even later than I did, a guy who seemed a little immature and even like a playboy, a guy who’d invited me out to a dinner. I guy I turned down.

“Cool,” I say, and I want to talk more about Emma’s engagement, but she’ll always be like this. She has her happiness, but she wants everyone around her to have it too, and it’s true, it would be so much more fun if we were both engaged and not just her, and we’ve even always wanted to plan our future pregnancies together so our kids can be the same age, but things don’t always work out according to plan. That’s not how life works unfortunately, though I wish it did. I really wish it did.

“And what do you think?”

“What do I think?” I ask, though I’ve been thinking an awful lot just now.

“About him? About Wade? I talked to Alfred about it, and he thinks you two would make a good couple.”

“Oh, come on,” I say, rolling my eyes.

Emma stares at me with a little smile on her face, and I want to slap it off her.

“I mean, he was a nice guy, and he seemed very… Well, he was a gentleman, but I didn’t get that feeling.”

“What feeling?”

“You know, that… That feeling that people get.”

“Oh, come on! Not this again, Miranda. Everyone gets different feelings, if you didn’t know, because everybody is different.”

“But…”

“You’re waiting for your Prince Charming, but if you wait too long, you may realize that he’s slipped through your fingers.”

It’s true. I’ve always believed that love should be magical, if you happen to stumble upon it. My life has been built on everything except romantic love, if we’re being honest. When I was a kid, it revolved around grades and success and the path to college. In college, it was all about internships and furthering myself to get ahead of the rest of the pack. And post-college, there was the whole stress of finding a real, proper job among a sea of applicants just as recommended as me. And once I got the job, the one I’d never pick out for me in a million bazillion years, it was about staying afloat. I didn’t think about love, and it never thought about me.

Maybe it was the set-up defined by my parents, who got married when they were, in my opinion, too young. My father, a lawyer from Argentina, settled in the States when he was twenty so that he could attend the University of Memphis, where he met my sorority-bred mother, Scarlett. They had their first daughter, Kristina, when they were twenty-five, me a few years later, and then my younger sister, Tessa. Their love story was pure and clear-cut. It was like fireworks in their hearts, and they’d stayed married ever since then. Though their marriage wasn’t perfect by any means, it was still well-known that Andrés and Scarlett Flores were the real deal.

As for the Flores daughters, on the other hand, things are a little different. Kristina was engaged to a man for a while, and that is crucial to my story. However, things ended between them, and it took a few years for her to find the true love of her life, a Memphis lawyer named Tristan Taylor. My younger sister, Tessa, had a serious college boyfriend who was supposed to propose by their senior year of college. However, he ended up leaving her and moving back to his hometown in Massachusetts, and she too is in the boat of waiting for true love. And sometimes I wonder if true love exists for everybody.

So maybe I just haven’t cared enough in my life to have a serious relationship. Maybe I’ve always made it quite clear that there are way too many things to worry about in life, and love isn’t one of them. I’ve never really thought I’d end up cold and alone, but Scarlett reminds me quite often, whenever she calls in, that my eggs are drying out and my skin will turn wrinkly in no time, especially with that California sun (it’s a ploy to get me home, of course).

And as I look at Emma, I know that none of those prior excuses are true. I haven’t found love because I’m scared of it. I’m terrified of it, because it’s a life-changing thing, and it’s serious. I’m not one for casual flings. The idea of those terrifies me even more than my fear of anything arachnid. No, it’s not men who scare me: It’s the idea that I could fall in love with one.

I cross my legs and stare into Emma’s blue eyes. She’s blabbing non-stop about Wade’s positive qualities. He went to Fullerton for undergrad, USC for medical school (which doesn’t surprise me); he was a football player at Fullerton and was engaged to a Kappa Kappa Gamma girl for two years (this doesn’t either). He lives in Glendora and wants to move out of California, but his entire family lives in the area and he’s big into the family lifestyle.

“The taxes,” I say, shaking my head.

“You live here too!” Emma protests, swatting my leg with a grin.

I nod. “Well, I mean…”

She leans in, conspiratorially, and she says what’s on her mind too. “Wouldn’t it just be perfect if you fell in love with him?”

I want to protest, I want to argue on my behalf, but there is no use, and I’m silenced by the thought. Alfred barrels in through the door and pulls me into a bear hug, his fingers digging into my flesh. He kisses me on the forehead as Emma hangs off his arm, and they both are snickering, and then they’re both looking into each other’s eyes, that yearning expression so ridiculous but so beautiful at the same time. There’s no doubt that this engagement was the next step in their relationship.

“Thank you, thank you!” Alfred exclaims. “It is the Queen herself, Miranda Flores!”

“How are you feeling?” I ask, though I know he’s doing a lot better.

“Nothing a little doctor can’t cure. While I hate hospital bills, it was pretty life-saving that I ended up going to the hospital, so thank you for taking charge. I was a little afraid at first—and please don’t take offense to this, Randa—but I was a little afraid that you and Wade wouldn’t have the first clue what to do. I mean, obviously, you knew what Emma here would want, but… I don’t know. The stress, the pressure! I should have been there, obviously!” Alfred extends an arm protectively around Emma.

I shrug. “We figured it out, I guess. It wasn’t too bad.”

“Thank goodness for you,” Alfred repeats, before kissing the top of Emma’s forehead. His fiancée giggles at the gesture, and then we’re led outside to the grill. I almost expect to see Wade sitting on the patio furniture, his legs spread open, his feet on the table, but he’s nowhere to be found. A little seed of disappointment simmers in my stomach. Even though I technically spurned him last go-around, I wouldn’t mind a little company in the presence of the lovesick.

“Cheeseburger?” Alfred asks as he tosses the patties on the machine.

“Of course.”

Alfred knows what I like. He taught me how to grill the previous summer, in hopes that I would teach Emma, who doesn’t give a flying flip about grilling or cooking or cleaning, either. In all reality, I was game to learn because we were surrounded by some of our good friends, many of whom were celebrating another wedding in the group. I needed a break from the talk and disappeared to learn the art of the perfect cheeseburger.

But now, as I stand in the back-breaking heat, I’m still staring at Emma’s finger. I catch her a few times, just standing there and staring at the ring, the look in her eye so whimsical that I wonder if she’ll float away from looking too much.

“Well,” I finally say, “are you going to tell me how you popped the question?”

Alfred and Emma beam at each other, sending that personal connection that defies Morse code, that defies all other methods of human communication. Maybe it’s my pseudoscientific mindset, but there’s something particular in the way they act, where I wonder if they can actually read each other’s minds.

“It was spectacular,” says Emma. “It was last night… I knew that you’d want me to call you as soon as it happened, but I just couldn’t bear to wake you up at such an ungodly hour, especially since you don’t get enough sleep as it is.”

“Oh, come on, you know I really don’t care.”

“But I care. I want you to have your beauty sleep.”

“This is a pretty monumental event, Emma.” I would be lying to say that I don’t enjoy harassing her, just for a second, because secretly I’m very glad she didn’t stir me from my deep sleep. And she knows this, which is why she’s my best friend. “So… Are you going to tell me, or what?”

“Oh, gosh!” says Alfred, throwing some of the burgers onto paper plates. “I hope these aren’t too fried.”

“It will be fine, Alfred. Now, somebody better tell me the story, or I may lose it!”

“So,” Emma begins, as we take our seat on the probably filthy patio chairs. She stuffs a bite of hamburger between her teeth, and I tilt my head—she’s a vegetarian, but I guess she doesn’t even notice. After she swallows it, she flashes her big smile. “We were at dinner last night. One of those fancy ones, the one called Splurge L.A.”

“In Brentwood?”

“That one!”

One of the most expensive in the history of the planet, probably.

“And… I just had a feeling. I felt like Alfred was going to do it there.” She turns to face him, and he pats the inner part of her leg. “But…”

“I had something up my sleeve!” he exclaims, rubbing the skin over and over, and I’m a little uncomfortable, even with all the time I spend around them.

“So… I’m paying attention to every opportunity. To when the wine comes out, when dinner comes… I was on the lookout for a mariachi band, honestly, because I wasn’t sure just how Alfred would pull it off.”

“Wow,” I say, trying to show that I’m listening.

“And… To my utter surprise, nothing happened at the restaurant. It was as if Alfred knew exactly what he was doing, piquing my interest and then denying it at the same time! No mariachi bands, none of that… Instead, he teases me about it. Asks why I’m so jumpy.”

“Because you were!”

They’re doing that couples thing, where they’re fully invested each other and telling the story together, as one person almost.

“And… So we leave the restaurant, and he’s adamant that we go home. We need to go to bed early, he says, and I actually get kind of mad. I’m wondering why he’s being so dodgy, and I realize that I need to drop it.”

“So you go home…” I start for them.

“And Alfred falls asleep without hesitation. He’s knocked out like I drugged him, and I fell asleep shortly after that. But then, at a nice five in the morning, the alarm wails off and Alfred picked me up and carried me to the car.”

“Such a deadweight,” he teases and she punches his shoulder.

“And so… I’m like, ‘Where are we going? What are we doing?’ I suddenly wondered if he was a serial killer, and I didn’t have a single clue about it. But so he plops me in the car, and we’re heading south, as if we’re going to the city, but then it’s clear that we’re headed to Santa Monica.”

“At least the traffic wasn’t too bad, I assume?”

“You’re right about that, Miranda,” Alfred says with a smile.

“And he pulls into one of those parking spots, and nobody’s around, except a few homeless people and some strung out druggies, but we didn’t even pay attention to them. Instead, he carried me out to the water, and it was such a beautiful night. Not a cloud, just the beautiful moon over the blue water. A few palms, the mountains out in the distance…”

“And we were sitting there,” says Alfred.

“And, yeah, we were sitting there, and it was just such a beautiful moment, and he asked me to marry him. I didn’t even need to answer, I just put on that beautiful ring!”


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