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Excerpt for The Blind Date by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


THE BLIND DATE

A NOVEL BY KATIE GEORGE


The Blind Date

Katie George

Published by Katie George at Smashwords

Copyright 2018 Katie George


Book 3 (The Flores Sisters Trilogy)



CHAPTER ONE


I REMEMBER MY first boyfriend. He was a little chunky, a lot handsome, and he serenaded me with a splash of yellow and violet wildflowers. He had blue eyes like my mother’s, and I thought he was kind of gross because he was a boy. All I knew of boys came from my father, who wears suits to the grocery store and polishes his church shoes every single morning until they’re shiny black. And this boy, this boy who had obvious feelings for me in that way adults usually succumb to, was anything but my father, whom I hold in the highest regard.

The little boy was like a rocket blasting into outer space. He was the class wild child, raised on caffeine and action, and he smelled like prepubescent sweat and dirty socks. What was worse was the fact that he wrote me a love letter when we were in the first grade. It wasn’t like him, and that surprised me, Teresa Flores, the little go-getter who did what she was told. That girl was infamous for wearing big, hideous bows that most Southern girls are forced to don because of their old school sorority mothers. I’m still shocked that anybody would find me attractive in the first place. That bow…

The love letter was cute, but there were a lot of misspellings, and when I found the note years later, I laughed at the fact that first grade Teresa Flores had corrected his mistakes in red ink.


Dear Tessa,

I think you are as prettie as your hair.

That’s why I always have to stair.

You make me feel warm inside,

And it’s like a car ride.

I want you to no,

That these feelings just won’t go.

I like you, Tessa Flowers,

Even when it showers.

Then I know your the only sunshine.


The letter was stuffed into an envelope along with dead pink flowers that left a serene scent with the declaration of his love. I was shocked to open up my desk and find the letter, addressed to me, and I was even more surprised when I found out it was Elliot Blake who’d written it. The wild kid with a penchant for tossing paper planes at the back of my neck was actually in love with me?

And there was a bouquet of wildflowers to make things a little more intense.

And so I found myself on the playground, holding out the letter to all my friends, who passed it around like they’d later pass around the bottle. There were endless snickers.

“Tessa, do you know that Elliot wrote this?”

“Tessa’s got a crush on Elliot

“Poor Elliot, poor Elliot.”

“Thinks he can get a girl like Tessa? No way!”

Now, mind you, this was only fourth grade. I wasn’t particularly special. I just knew how to be social, how to be loud, how to force people to congregate around me. I’m not saying that because I’m too fond of myself, because it’s actually not a gift. It’s just how things have always been. Some people are naturally independent, free-thinking individualists, like my sister, Miranda; there are others who are more dependent, but still prefer a small cluster of friends and family, like my sister, Kristina; and then there’s me, the loud, obnoxious, social one.

Until very recently.

Trust me, I remember the boyfriend with whom I fell in love. I remember him like the back of my hand, like the makeup regimen I’ve practiced since I was fifteen-years-young. I remember our love like it was yesterday, and I remember how he hurt me like it was today and not a year ago. The simple truth is that I wish I was more like my sisters, who go about love like it’s a marathon, where I go at it like it’s a sprint. They both have found the loves of their lives: Kristina’s with a hotshot attorney, and they’re planning the wedding, while Miranda met a Californian hotshot doctor, and they raced off to Africa to get married. They treated love with respect and care, and I went about it the wrong way, and I got burned. Flayed really, like my favorite mahi mahi.

It wasn’t fate. It wasn’t real, or Alex would still be here. He wouldn’t have pretended like he loved me and then up and left for Boston, his hometown, without my coming with him. All those years, dedicated to the upkeep and maintenance of our faux relationship, and he left without a proper farewell.

The boy I loved is now the boy I hate. And I still love him, because I hate him, and it kills me every day. It kills me when I look at my sisters and their men; it kills me when I see my parents; it kills me when I see couples on Instagram, when I hear my friends complain about their boyfriends, when my coworkers only read romance books to satisfy that missing component.

“Just download a Tinder account, Tessa!”

It kills me because I wanted nothing more in this life than to marry, pop out some kids, and write a blog about it.

Am I a proper feminist? Burn me like a witch, please. I learned a year ago that honesty is the best policy, and I don’t want to sit around and talk about my feelings. I don’t want to obsess when things went wrong, but they did, and I’ve got my life now to answer for it. Instead of engagement announcements and wedding cakes, I’ve got a hideous tabby cat, a smelly suburban apartment, and a crabby temperament.

And if we’re being honest, the Teresa Flores of today wants nothing to do with marriage, children, or writing a blog about my feelings.

But here I am, and why not have a little fun?

Bring it on, blind date.


CHAPTER TWO


COME TO THINK of it, the blind date idea was terrible. Absolute scum, like the bottom of my feet. How did I get dirt all over them? Oh well. The real root of my serious crabbiness stems from the fact that I still have four more episodes of the fourteenth season of Grey’s Anatomy before I am officially caught up, and a few bags of microwaveable popcorn on the counter in need of a quick pop. The cat would join me for a little Netflix and chill, and Instagram and Twitter and Snapchat could go screw themselves.

But it was Anika had screwed me over.

Not that Dev is all that bad. It isn’t Dev.

It’s just that she should know that I prefer my cat these days.

Oh gosh. Does that make me a crazy cat lady at twenty-three?

Wait, am I only twenty-three?

“So, I’m sorry if my car smells a little funny,” Dev Virani says as he opens the car door for me. Under the streetlights his eyes glow amber, and I try not to look at them too long. He’s jittery and nervous, and he’s being a gentleman.

No puede arrastar el ala, chiquitita. Don’t make your move on him, girl.

I sink into the seat of his nondescript Prius. As he walks to the other side of the car, I glance back at my sister’s house and see that she and her fiancé are peering at us from the kitchen window. I shake my head and fall even deeper into the seat.

Dev jumps in, and he’s sitting so high that I look like a drug dealer in comparison. “My friend decided to get fish for lunch today, and he left his leftovers in the backseat. I’ll ream him later about it.”

“No worries,” I say, still trying to hide from the binoculars Kristina’s no doubt using to spy on me. On us.

“Anyway,” Dev says, and he’s like a caged animal, bouncing all over the place. His hands accidentally bump against the heater, and a gust of hot air slams into us, though it is the dead of summer. “Well…”

“Why not?” I ask, and I can tell he is afraid of me, so I decide to bring it back a little. Maybe dive into some of the old Tessa, the one who chatted up everyone in a mile radius, the one who knew everything about everyone. I really don’t miss her that much, but she comes back out from time to time. “Hey, it’s okay. Let’s just put the windows down. Cruise through the night, you know?”

He smiles over at me, and it’s a sweet one defined by straight, white teeth. The amber eyes are still glittering against his tan skin, and I’m thankful that he isn’t a real creep. Blind dates can be absolutely terrifying, though this is my first one. And I do trust Anika, Dev’s cousin, my former sorority sister. Anika’s going to law school now, top of the class, and we’re pretty close. She must have smelled the singleness on me during our last reunion lunch, and then the grand set-up was initiated.

My first date in who knows how long.

“Is this your first blind date, Dev?” I ask.

He pushes the car into drive and the tires scrape against the curb. He frowns but drives off. “Actually, no, not really…”

“Tell me about the others.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Were they terrible? Scary women who had armpit hair the length of my hair? Women who reeked of weed and wildflowers?”

“Poetry,” Dev smirks, but I can’t tell if he’s thoroughly terrified of me now or doesn’t mind me after all. “No, not like that. They were just… I don’t know. Pretty awkward.” Says the guy who proceeds to run straight into a massive pothole despite the entire road being clear for a mile straight. We bounce, and he hits his head against the top of the environmentally friendly Prius. I try not to laugh.

“Awkward?”

“No long armpit hair. Not that I would judge that.”

Oh gosh. He’s one of those. Appease the women. No thanks, bro. “It’s okay to judge.”

“Not in the Bible,” he says. “Though I was raised a Hindu, so I… I don’t really know the Bible all that well.”

“What does Hinduism teach about women with long armpit hair?”

Dev’s eyes grow wide, and he pauses at a green light. Lucky for him the light switches to a bright scarlet that streaks across his eyes, highlighting them even more.

“So. They were awkward.”

“The first one was pretty tame,” he says, and his hands aren’t shaking as badly now.

“The others were wild? College party wild?”

“I never liked those,” he admits, and it hits me, that he’s one of the nice boys. The ones who take care of the drunk girls, the ones who make good husbands, the ones who are the best of humanity, and here I am, already prejudging him and whatnot. Let the boy speak. “But… So, her name was Swetha. She was a sweet girl, very nice, but no matter how hard I tried, she wouldn’t talk to me.”

“Was she mute?”

“Maybe. I basically talked to myself the entire night, and I felt like a doormat.”

I whistle between my teeth. “Sounds miserable.”

“And the second one… She was… Well, much older.”

“A cougar, hmm?”

Dev taps his fingers against the wheel of the car. Green again. Friendly Dev, respecting the traffic laws. Driving five miles under the speed limit as he recounts his wild romantic history. “A cougar. Perfect word for her. She was… She was, well, very forward, very charismatic.”

I laugh.

“And… I told her outright that I am not the most… Well, out-there kind of guy. I like taking things slowly.”

“So do I, my friend.”

He nods. “Well, she tried to take me home, and I was very uncomfortable, so I had to call one of my friends to pick me up.”

“Geez.”

“It was one of the most uncomfortable moments of my life.”

“Most men would have jumped at the opportunity.”

Dev shrugs. “Not all.”

“So… I’m the third blind date?”

He flashes me one of his smiles, and it warms my heart, just for a second at least. What a nice guy. “We can pretend you’re the only one, okay? But that’s only if you don’t threaten to kill me with a butter knife if you find out I’ll order a steak at dinner.”

“You think I’m a vegetarian?”

“Anika is, and you guys were sisters, whatever the frick that means.”

“Unlike Anika, I like my meat.”

Dev starts coughing on a gulp of air, and again I’m forcing down a hiccup of laughter. Finally, he settles on: “Good to hear, I suppose.” Then, because he’s one of the good ones and doesn’t want to talk too much about himself, he asks, “And you? You don’t seem like the kind of girl… Pardon me, the kind of woman… Who needs a blind date.”

“Thank you, Dev Virani, but regardless of your opinion, I do appreciate seeing a male once in a while.”

“I don’t have to believe you, you know.”

“You are my first blind date. So the expectation is very high.”

I can tell he is shaken by this fact, and we start going ten miles under the speed limit instead of five. When an elderly grandmother rips out of nowhere behind us, she starts flashing her lights at us, and Dev shouts in perfect Hindi: “Ise dheema karo, daadee!”

If we’re being honest, it’s very attractive.

He returns to his normal speed and turns to me. “Sorry. I get road rage now and then.”

That was your version of road rage?”

“Yes. And it was very… Inappropriate.”

“I am a little curious. What did you say?”

“I told her to slow it down. She can wait, can’t she? Where does she have to be at this hour? Now I’m generalizing.”

“Yes, you may want to slow it down now.”

He glances over at me, and I wink at him.

He is swept away again. “What were… What were we talking about?”

“The fact that you’re my first blind date.”

“Which means the bar must be high.”

“Don’t pressure yourself too much. I’m already having a good time.”

I can tell he thinks that I’m lying, but I am not. He’s a friendly dork, and I’m a recovering jerk. And if we’re being honest, if we’re being truly, deeply, brutally honest…

Within our first ten minutes of being together, I know that Dev Virani is a much better human being than I could ever be.


CHAPTER THREE


IN COLLEGE MY reputation was as fake as the zirconia studs in my ears. My mother always said to me when I was a little girl: “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s always going to be a pig.” And, to a certain extent, I was most definitely a lipstick-coated pig, jockeying around campus, whooshing around everyone I could.

That Tessa Flores was a sorority girl who found her validation in clothes, material items, the number of followers and likes on social media, the polo wearing boyfriend, and the BMW sitting in her allotted parking space. She studied religiously Monday through Thursday, partied hard on Friday nights, spent Saturday volunteering like a good girl, and made it to mass on Sunday mornings, where she’d pray her sins away and think about the future.

That Tessa Flores was a husk, and she knew it.

Maybe I should zoom even further back in time, and you’ll understand me even better, especially since I can barely understand myself.

My father, Andrés, is an Argentine immigrant to the United States. He came to Tennessee of all places, married my Southern momma Scarlett, and became one of the most respected lawyers in the Mid-South, in addition to his even more popular status as the best-dressed man in the entire state. (No lie, a few Southern social magazines had done specials on Mr. Andrés Flores, J.D. and fashion icon extraordinaire. It had made my mom jealous for a whole month.)

Then there’s Scarlett, who is like my partner-in-crime, though she doesn’t hide her favoritism for my older sister, Miranda. Scarlett was a purebred sorority girl, raised on jewels and sweet tea, despite coming from a blue collar background. Her dad worked in a machinery, while her mother was a schoolteacher. As soon as she could free herself of her Mississippi reputation, she moved to the big city (Memphis, not New York), and found exactly what she was looking for.

Suddenly, I’m drawn right back to the fireplace of our childhood home in the wealthier side of town. It’s probably Christmas, the most romantic slice of the year, and I’m sitting on the bearskin rug that Papá Andrés thought was so tasteful for the house, but my mother would later give to Goodwill. The fireplace is on full blast, and there is a sweet cackle to the air. I’m munching on caramel flavored popcorn, curled up in a blanket, while my sisters are splayed out on the floor, their long hair curling all around them.

“Dad, how did you meet Mom?” asks Kristina, shutting her book. She perches up just a little bit, exposing a slice of her fine brown collarbone. She’s probably fifteen in this memory, and that means I’m nine or so. She’s starting to fill out a little more, whereas Miranda is as thin as a pin, and I’m bouncing up and down, waiting for somebody to ask me about my ballet performance the next day.

“We’ve never told you?” asks Scarlett. She’s knitting a little onesie for a baby shower, and though she’s only in her thirties at this point in time, she could be mistaken for a grandmother. Her platinum blonde hair is in a bun on her head, and she’s wearing a MRS. CLAUS pajama dress. It’s scarlet like her name, and though this is my first year knowing the real truth of Christmas, I’m still a little disgusted by the fashion choice.

“How is that so?” asks Andrés, sitting up prim and proper. He is still wearing slacks and a button-down, despite the late hour. It’s pushing eleven, but at least his black shoes are at the front door.

“It was when you were young!” I pipe up.

“We still are young,” gently says Andrés, tousling my hair. “Maybe not as young as you, cariña.”

“Tell the story already!” exclaims Miranda as she sucks on a vain lollipop. The swirl of candy is glistening in the sparks, and I want one too.

“I had just arrived in los Estados.”

“Not that story again,” Kristina says under her breath.

“It is his favorite story,” hisses Scarlett, who sets the onesie down. “How about I begin? I was twenty. Not much older than you, my dear.” She looks at Kristina, who is completely terrified. “And college was in full swing. I will admit, studying was not my purpose there. I believed in another ideology.”

“What’s an ideology?” asks Miranda.

“It’s when you believe something, and you believe in it strongly,” I say, rolling my arms. I have always been ruthless, I suppose, trying to answer every question.

“What was your ideology?” asks Kristina, ever the keen listener.

“I wanted to get married, so my degree wasn’t worthless.”

“But a degree isn’t worthless, Mom. That’s why people go to college.”

“That’s why some women go to college, honey, but not me. I went intentionally to find a man.”

Kristina’s disgusted, Miranda’s perplexed, and I am smiling.

“Not just any man,” says Andrés with a smile.

“Oh, don’t get an even bigger head, Andy. Now, girls, let me explain. My greatest privilege and honor is to be your mother, and that’s all I wanted in life. When I went to school, I studied business, so I could be with the most men in the room. I knew that English and art and the other subjects I liked were too feminine, and… So I found myself in a business ethics class.”

“Mom…” Kristina says, shaking her head.

“You don’t sound like a feminist,” says Miranda.

“Feminism,” I whisper to myself. What does that mean? Is it a good or bad thing? Can someone explain? Although I don’t want anyone to explain…

“And,” our mother says, sending our father a lovesick look that we see once a day, at least. They may act like they hate each other half the time, but there is no mistaking how in love they are with one another. Some couples have rough patches, and the children fear divorce may occur. This was never an issue with us Flores girls, because there was no way Andrés could survive without Scarlett. Scarlett would be just fine without Andrés, despite her views as a twenty-year-old romantic. She grew into an independent, self-sufficient woman, and it inspired the rest of us as a result.

“And,” says Scarlett, “I ended up sitting right next to your father.”

“Estamos destinados a estar juntos.”

“Sí,” squeaks Scarlett, though she’s never learned more than a word of Spanish in her life. Sí is the most she knows, despite being married to an Argentine and vacationing in Buenos Aires for a month every year, and the fact that all three of her daughters are fluent in the language too. Hey, all I’m saying is that she has to be independent if she can survive the streets of Buenos Aires without a lick of Spanish.

“So… It was a business ethics class,” says Kristina. “A business ethics class changed everything. That sounds incredibly boring.”

“Kristina!” I hiss. “It’s a love story. Love stories aren’t boring!”


CHAPTER FOUR


MY MEMORY BREAKS away when Dev parks the car, and I have to blink twenty times to rid my eyes of the gauze that covers them from mental story time. Dev is fiddling with his lights, although his car’s probably got an automatic system. When he finally figures it out, he exclaims, “Thank goodness!” and hops out of the car.

“Ready for some barbecue?” He’s sliding his hands together so forcefully that I’m waiting for a bubble of fire to burst up from them. “I’m starving!”

“You been here before, Dev?” I ask as we amble up to the neon, scripted sign previewing one of the best barbecue haunts in town. It’s an expensive place too, which means I’ll be sticking to the cheaper things on the menu. Though I used to be the kind of girl who would get whatever I wanted (why not, if the guy’s paying, right?), but my ideology shifted when I started paying for things myself.

“I actually haven’t. It’s been on my Memphis bucket list, though.”

Sweet Dev Virani opens the door for me, and we’re in the dim lights of this four-star restaurant. Though for a restaurant of this caliber, most would expect modern, rich décor and stringed white lights and romance galore. This place isn’t that. It’s indubitably a little taste of Memphis, with red booths and open ceilings and various knickknacks hanging around: Streetlamps shifting colors every few seconds, a miniature train chugging above our heads, paintings displaying the fresh-faced youth of years past. It’s quaint and so unlike my normal date places that a gust of fresh air sizzles my skin and a smile breaks across the void of my face.

“This is amazing,” I whisper to Dev, and he nods in agreement.

We’re like giddy teenagers as we walk up to the hostess. “Virani,” says Dev, and he does this weird thing with his lips, letting them droop in his surprise. Surprise of what, I’m not sure, but he must not be used to making reservations and going to fancy restaurants. Not like I am either. I just like to observe him.

“Of course, right this way.”

And Dev and I are bouncing down the narrow aisle, and I’m tempted to reach out and hold his hand, just because people are staring at the two of us with frank expressions, and I’m realizing how much fun this could be. A date isn’t just to be some social event with express limitations and expectations. Though I don’t want to compare anything to how things were with Alex, I can see that Dev is completely different, and we’re both looking for love, but I think more importantly, we both just want to have a good time. And even though I wanted to compromise my situation mere hours ago, with one more glance at the light dancing in Dev’s brown eyes, I’m game to open up, relax, and enjoy the night.

We grab the glossy menus, and Dev takes five seconds to exclaim, “Ribs are what I need!” A couple looks over at us, and I ignore them.

“Okay, well, you’ll have to give me a few more minutes to decide.”

“But they’ve also got pork sandwiches, and pork shoulders, and…”

“Thank goodness you’re not a vegetarian.”

Dev is opening up more to me, and it makes me even giddier. He leans across the table, the whites of his eyes widening even more than humanly possible. “How do you think I keep in peak physical condition?”

“You’re ridiculous,” I say, sifting through all the choices. Luckily I’m not a vegetarian either, or this would probably not be the best dinner situation. “I think I’ll go with the chicken breast.”

“Come on, Tessa. That’s not even barbecue.”

“It sounds good to me.”

He narrows his eyes. “If it’s because of the price, then you’d better reconsider. We’re going to do a little splurging tonight, okay? If not because of a blind date, then because we’re toasting to a new friendship.”

“Where’s the wine to do that?” Dev is pointing at one of the waitresses, so I grab his hand and say, “No, no, no, that doesn’t mean we should order any. If the pork shoulder is that expensive, what do you think the wine would be like?”

Dev rolls his eyes. “What part of a splurge do you not get? But maybe you’re right. We don’t need wine to have a good time, do we?”

“Perfect logic. My mom used to say that all the time.”

“Your mom’s a pretty intelligent woman, then.”

“We’re not here to talk about my mom, are we?”

“What are we here to talk about then?”

There is a heated silence between us for just the slightest of the seconds, and I realize that we’re both leaning across the table from each other, so that we’re only growing closer to each other, and the couple beside us is actually watching with jealousy, I think. While I want to explain that Dev and I are far from a couple falling in love, it must be weird to see the possibility of the storm approaching.

But it isn’t the couple that catches my attention, not now at least. Just as the waitress comes to take our order, my eyes fall on a lonely person just north of the older couple. It’s an old guy, flying solo, taking a swig of amber liquid and guzzling it down his throat. Upon further inspection, it’s a can of Coke. He’s got a bushy, Gandalf-like beard, and his eyebrows are bushier than I’ve ever seen on anybody else. He’s watching with speculation, and he waves at me when he notes that I’ve got him in my sights.

“And what would you like, dear?” asks the chirpy waitress wearing bright red lipstick. It’s too strong a color, but I’m still distracted by the weird mountain man over in the booth kitty-corner to ours.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Can I just have the chicken breast?”

“Of course, sweetie,” she says, and she takes our menus and disappears.

“Dev,” I whisper, but the old man is still watching with the precision of a hawk.

“Yeah?” he asks. “What’s wrong?”

“There’s this guy…” But when I look back up at him, he’s focused on something else. I think he’s reading the newspaper, which seems rather odd for this time of night, especially when the restaurant is teeming with people whose laughter and conversation are abuzz like Southern summer cicadas. “You know what? Never mind. I think he’s just a guy trying to enjoy the night, and…”

“You sure?”

“We just made eye contact. Nothing special about it. Anyway, where were we?”

“Let’s start out with the broad topics. Tell me about yourself, Tessa Flores.”

“Okay, you want to start off with broad brushstrokes. I get it.”

“Isn’t that what first dates are all about? Excuse me for being a little behind the times, if I’m not caught up on all the proper lingo these days.”

“Okay, fine. Let’s start out with a more specific question for you, kid. What do you know about me?”

“Well, Anika tells me that you were in her sorority at Rhodes. You were a whiz at English, and you decided to give library-ing a try. You’re blonde, you’ve got amber eyes, and… You’re what, five-seven?”

“Physical attributes are always a good start.”

“I’m just telling you what I know.”

“You want the whole life story, or the abridged?”

“Whatever you want.”

“I was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on… Okay, I know you’re acting all interested, but I’ll give you the abridged. I grew up here. My parents are ridiculous and annoying, and my dad’s from Argentina.”

“Argentina?” Dev strokes his bottom lip. “Would you be upset if I told you I’m not sure where that is?”

“Are you serious?”

He laughs, and it’s a nice laugh. “Of course I know where Argentina is. It’s a lovely place, from what I hear.”

“My father would roll around in his pre-selected grave right now if he had the chance.”

“Did you grow up visiting there and stuff?”

“Yeah. A month each year, sometimes a few weeks each year. The travel miles really racked up.”

“I’d bet.”

“Same thing with you and India?”

“Well, my parents were actually born and raised in England, so we’re more British than Indian, at least… Sometimes it feels that way. My grandparents are straight from Kolkata though, but they live here these days. We get to visit Kolkata every so often, though.”

“Culture shock, to come from India to England, and then England to Memphis, Tennessee?”

“You can only imagine, but I really can’t, because I was born in Texas. My parents have always been Southerners at heart, despite being English. My grandparents hate it though. They’ve always had a pure dislike for heat.”

“Explains the move, then.”

“I tend to agree.”

There is that sliver of silence again, where the two of us are momentarily distracted by each other. I’m glad that Dev is loosening up, though, because I really, genuinely like him, and his personality seems to match mine. I wonder what he would think of the old Tessa, though. I know I shouldn’t wrap myself around the memory of the “old” me, but it’s always there, like a coat of dust that you can sweep a million times, but is always there.

The waitress finally brings our water, and she’s off once more.

“I can’t get over the Argentina thing. You don’t look like you’re from Argentina.”

“You can’t just assume people’s ethnicities, Dev,” I whisper, my tone dripping with sarcasm, and he smiles. “Well, some Argentines are more European in appearance, I guess. A lot of Italians there. I think the truth is that I grew up here, so I’m mostly American.”

“Do you speak Spanish?”

“Por supuesto. My sisters do too, though our mother can’t speak a lick. She’s as Southern as they come. When we were younger, we didn’t really want to learn Spanish, because our mom can’t speak it, but we finally figured out that it would be our own secret language to use around her, and… Well, the principle works well.”

“You’re joking,” he says, rimming his finger across the top of the glass. I half-expect him to start making music with it. “Do you guys speak Spanish and think nobody else understands?”

“Por supuesto.”

“I’m going to take a guess that whatever you just said to me means of course.”

“Good job. You already know more than my mom does.”

“I like to consider myself an aficionado of languages, but I seem to only speak English. And some Hindi, I suppose.”

“Stay around me long enough, and you’ll pick up Spanish. Which more accurately is Tessaspeak.”

“Tessaspeak?”

“You know, my form of Spanglish, my form of Spanish, my form of English.”

“You’re ridiculous.” He’s repeating my phrase.

“That’s what they all tell me.”

“I’m sure they do. So, Miss Tessa…”

I spit out my water because of the laughter gurgling against my throat. “Never call me that again, please. Miss Tessa? That was disgusting.”

“Do you not believe in chivalry?”

I clear my throat and put on my best Southern accent. “Why, of course I do, Mr. Virani.”

“Just stop right there. Terrible, I’d say, wouldn’t cover that attempt.”

“So, you’re a Texan?”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“Of course not. I’m a Tennesseean, so how would that be a bad thing? We’re basically cousins on the geographical spectrum.”

“Another terrible example.”

I roll my eyes.

“Grew up in Austin. Always a fun time. Really got to work on my tan.”

“You think I’m the ridiculous one.”

“Because you are!”

“Oh, here’s another fun fact. I actually went to Rhodes as well.”

“What? You did? But aren’t you… Wait, what? How would that work out?”

“I’m two years older than Anika. So we probably did cross paths back in the day.”

“You just now thought to tell me this?”

“It didn’t come until now, while I was scourging around my brain. It’s not like we would have been running in the same circles, Tessa.”

“What do you think that means?”

“Well, I was one of two places: My dorm room, playing video games, or the library, thinking about playing video games.”

“Are you implying that I didn’t go to the library? I was always there too. Among other places,” I say, lifting my chin up. “You know, I didn’t spend most of my time fixing my hair and doing my makeup.”

“That’s not what I meant. I’m just… I’m just trying to say that… That you would have been totally out of my league.” At this, he looks at the table, and his eyes slowly move up to meet mine. The vulnerability is back, and I don’t want him to think that of me, so I shake my head.

“I would not have been out of your league. It’s the opposite, Dev. You would have been out of my league.”

“Oh, come on. There’s no need to rub it in, Tessa.”

“I’m not,” I say, and a flurry of emotions take root in my skin. “I was a different person then, Dev, and Anika can testify to that. I was… I was very concerned with my appearance, but I… I was very… Well, I was self-absorbed, is what I’m trying to say. And a guy like you, well, you wouldn’t have looked at me twice.”

“You must really be that clueless,” Dev whispers, and a hint of a smile drips across his face like a white river.

“I was clueless to the good guys, yes. I will agree.”

“Everybody grows up after college. You have to.”

“Isn’t that right? You’re a wise guy, Dev Virani.”

“Not back in college, I wasn’t. You want to know something funny?”

“Sure. What is it?”

But right at that precise moment, the waitress is back, and she’s got a cool pitcher of water strapped to one arm. She bends down to refill our glasses, but some of it escapes from my cup, and it spills frostily on my lap. I squeak at the chill of the water, and the waitress steps back in terror at what she’s done to me. As her mouth opens into an arching O, she stumbles backward and straight into the arms of another waiter, who’s holding our food. Suddenly, that waiter is pushed back into the other couple, and there is a real catastrophe before us.

Dev leaps into action and pulls our waitress up from the other, flattened one, and there’s a wide, awkward tension cutting through the room. Finally, I realize it is up to me to clear the air, and I say, “Oh, are you all right?”

The waitress is as red as a scarlet tomato, and tears pop up into her eyes. “Oh, I’m such a klutz! I’m so sorry, miss. I can’t believe I just did that. What a fool!”

“No, no, no worries. Look. It’s just water. Are you sure you’re okay? That was a bad fall.”

Dev is still holding onto her, and I’m waiting for her to sneak off with him, but instead she straightens her black shirt and squares her shoulders back. “I dearly apologize, and we will recoup your loss immediately. One moment.” She disappears to the back, and Dev and I stare at each other again.

“Well, I didn’t see that one coming,” Dev says. “At least the lady’s okay. And you…”

“It’s not bad. It’ll dry. I’m just upset about our food.”

We both look down, where my chicken breast and Dev’s pork ribs are smeared into the narrow aisle. The other couple is trying to wipe off the other fallen waiter’s shirt, and there are little streaks of barbecue sauce all over his cheeks, as if he has dipped himself in camouflage and is ready to dive into the forest.

“Gives us more time to talk,” says Dev, and he’s absolutely right.

As we’re in the middle of discussion, the waitress reappears, holding two warm plates of ribs. She places them in front of us, and it’s like manna. “I apologize for the other food, and this will be a token of our apologies. Consider it on the house.”

“This really isn’t necessary,” I begin, trying to swat away the delicious food, but Dev sends me a fierce expression, as if I shouldn’t question this small miracle.

“No, please, ma’am, I’m really sorry. Please consider it as my apology to you.”

And so that is how Dev and I find ourselves stuffing our bellies to capacity. We’re both tossing forkfuls of the ribs into our gullets, giddily chewing and laughing and trying not to choke on our good fortune.

As soon as we finish our food, the waitress takes our plates like clockwork, and we are free to leave the restaurant. We leave down the narrow aisle, and I’m aware that Dev is standing awfully close to me, and I don’t mind his presence. When we spill out into the sultry summer air, Dev and I both shout, “Free food?”

“That’s never happened to me before,” exclaims Dev. “You must be a good luck charm, Tessa Flores.”

“I guess so.”

We both beam at each other, until I scream, and Dev jumps protectively in front of me. So much for chivalry being dead. Though I don’t see Dev being the best defender against a perp, this is the closest we’ve stood toward each other, and I’m able to inhale his distinct musky scent, and I think of Montana, which is so random, especially considering the fact that I’ve never been to Montana before.

The man from the restaurant is standing before us. The one with the long beard. He chuckles to himself and lights a cigar, letting the smoke drift over. “Calm down, you two. I’m not one of the bad ones.”

“What do you want?” asks Dev, considering that the old man appeared out of nowhere, from the darkness into the little glimpse of light.

The old man chokes on his smoke, and a hoarse laugh follows this. “My name’s Oscar Owens. What’re your names?”

“Dev,” says Dev, before biting his tongue. He’s friendly even to strange, possibly dangerous men in the dark.

“Yours, pretty lady?” asks Oscar.

I relent. “Tessa.”

“I couldn’t help but notice the two of you as I was eatin’ my dinner. You two make a lovely couple, don’t ya?”

“Um,” I say, while Dev is as quiet as a church mouse.

“Here, I feel like we’re still in the dark,” says Oscar, and he flicks the lighter on.

“Unnecessary!” shouts Dev, while I too tense behind him.

“You guys afraid of a little light?” Oscar shakes his head, annoyed with us both now. “Now, I know this may be a little creepy for ya, so I’ll explain.” He moves the lighter a little closer to us, and Dev and I both move back. “You two seem like good kids, and I don’t see many of those these days. I thought the ’60s were bad.”

“How old are you, sir?” asks Dev, but I stomp on his foot like he’s a roach to quiet him down.

“I’m old enough to know the plight of the cavemen.”

“Can you drive home safely?”

“Dev!”

“My wife and I were married for forty-nine years, and… The story of how we met is a tale as old as time. But… Anyway, I can’t take away from the time we have right now.”

Oscar reaches into his pocket and pulls a fancy envelope out. Okay, how did that envelope fit in his pocket? I wonder, but I’m just not going to ask unnecessary questions. Oscar reaches over and puts the envelope in Dev’s hands, and he nods with appreciation. He takes a big blow on the cigar and says, “It’s got all the instructions you need.”

“Sir, if you’re wanting us to be drug mules, I’ll have to respectfully decline.”

“That was the first thing you thought of?” I exclaim.

“You never know these days.”

“I’m not a drug dealer,” scoffs Oscar. “Consider me a poet of love.”

“A poet of love?”

“Read the instructions, and follow the map. You’ll know how to contact me. Now, I will have to bid you adieu. My ride is here.”

And, just as he says this, a Mercedes barrels into the parking lot, and Oscar Owens hops into the passenger’s seat. While Dev and I stare at this with trepidation and shock, the car disappears into the dark night, and we are left, standing with a self-proclaimed poet of love’s magic envelope.


CHAPTER FIVE


“WELL, ARE YOU going to open it or not?” I ask. “And staring at it won’t make it open on its own.”

“What if it’s got a bomb in it?”

I lift up the skinny envelope and shake it in front of his face. “Somehow I don’t think this has a bomb in it.”

“What if it’s got poison, and we expose ourselves to a quick and timely death?”

“Dev…”

“I read too many Josh Grisham thrillers, okay.”

“When were either of those scenarios in a John Grisham?”

“You read John Grisham too?”

Before he can stop me, I slip my finger into the top and zap it open. We’re sitting in Dev’s car, and we’ve been here for at least fifteen minutes, waiting to rip this mystery wide open. As my finger slices across the paper, I look up at Dev and bite my lip. “What if there is poison in here?”

“I told you!”

“I’m teasing you. Grow up. It was an old man. He probably gave us some one-liners to use on each other.”

“Somehow I doubt that.”

“Use your imagination.”

“That’s what I have been doing!”

“Here goes nothing…”

Well, after all, there isn’t a mini bomb in the envelope, nor is there poison. Instead, there is a letter, on a thick piece of parchment paper. I unravel the piece of paper, and Dev and I both tilt our heads in utter perplexity at our strange situation.


TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:


My name is Oscar Owens, and I am writing this to inform you that you have been selected! Selected for what, you may ask. Well, just you wait. Let’s just say that I have a propensity for pickiness, and especially when it comes to love. They don’t call me a poet of love for nothing.


“He must not be all right up here,” says Dev, tapping on his skull.

“Shut up and read.”

“Fine, bossy pants.”

“Who even says that?”


You two must have caught my eye for some reason or the other. Maybe you reminded me of Callie and me, back in the day. Probably not though, because nobody can rival my sweet Calliope, God rest her soul. But maybe you two were pretty close.

You see, my sweet Callie was the dear of my heart, the sunshine in my dark sky. And now that she’s gone, I’ve tried everything to restore my belief in the strength of love. Now, as you know, there are many types of love: brotherly, familial, romantic. And that’s where you come into place.

I don’t know you from Adam, and you don’t know me from Eve. We’re strangers here, but one day we’ll be sitting on your porch, sipping sweet tea, and toasting to our friendship. You may think I’m crazy, but you’ll see what I mean soon enough.

The following information pertains to a certain set of rules for tonight’s proceedings. I expect you to abide by them, or there will be consequences (e.g., jail time, fines, the ropes).


“Ropes?” Dev and I shout at the same time.

Okay, maybe that was a little strong. All I ask is that you respect the rules, as they will respect you in return.

Now, your mission is simple. Attached is a rendering of the map of Memphis and its surrounding areas. Please use it at your disposal, because you will need it. You may even need a compass, because I will ask you not to use any GPS or cellular device to complete your mission. But that’s getting into the rules.

I’m a rambling old man, am I not? But I’ve made sure this treasure hunt isn’t, and it will only take you as long as… Well, that’s up to you, if we’re being honest. I know you young people are pretty fast when it comes to things, whereas the older generations like to take it a little slower.

Anyway, here are some of my rules. Please respect my guidance, and follow them.

  1. GPS/cellular device/other 21st century items are prohibited. Compasses, paperback books, and dictionaries are not.

  2. You may use your car to travel from Point A to Point B, and so forth.

  3. Once the rules are read, you will complete this relay. Failure to do so will result in a fine.

  4. I do have the right to fine you if you do not complete the relay. (I have my methods).

  5. You will not lose your temper with each other during this, or there will be deductions. This is about unity, not dissonance.

  6. Failure to complete the treasure hunt by sunup will result in a fine. Again, I have my methods.

  7. There will be no overt sexual situations. Behave on your best behavior.

  8. Have fun, and if you have questions, ask each other, because you will not be able to contact me, though I will be able to contact you.

  9. Good luck.


“No overt sexual situations? Who does he think we are?” asks Dev with absolute terror.

“No cell phone, or GPS? What does that mean?”

“Look here. There’s still another slip of paper.”


STIFF IS MY SPINE, AND BODY IS PALE, BUT I’M ALWAYS READY TO TELL A TALE. WHAT AM I?

35˚2’50.819” N 89˚41’5.007 E


Dev and I both say, almost immediately, “Book.”

“And are those coordinates? What is the purpose of this? We’re in 2018,” complains Dev, “and everything I do is on a computer.”

“So… We must be looking for a book at these coordinates, right?” I ask. “But… I’m assuming neither of us has a compass. Why couldn’t we just plug in the address and find out where we’re supposed to go?”

“He wants us to play this slowly.” Dev shakes his head. “This… Tessa, this is a treasure map he’s given us! He’s giving us places to go, and I bet you this is going to be where the next clue is.”

“A treasure hunt? But… What’s the purpose of that?”

“Who knows? Are you game to play?”

“Are you sure about this, Dev? I mean, what if… What if he’s conning us into a situation that could be… I don’t know, dangerous, maybe?”

Dev shrugs. “Or what if he’s just an old guy wanting to have fun for some young people? Why don’t we just go check out this first place, see if we can even figure it out. If you don’t want to, I can take you home.”

A burst of energy jolts through me. Maybe it’s the slice of light that flashes against Dev’s hopeful eyes, or it’s the total randomness of this situation—this treasure map—but I know I will regret it if I don’t go along with this. What can it hurt? In fact, it’ll probably be fun, and when I take the coordinates from Dev’s fingers, the joy I get from seeing his face twist into happiness seals the deal.

“Now, how do we figure out the coordinates? If we’re going to play the game, we have to play by his rules.”

“Of course we do. Okay. So, this must be latitude, and this is longitude… So, I’m assuming this area will be in Memphis, which means… Which means…”

“We’re going to need a map,” I say. “An actual map, if those things still exist these days.”

Dev starts up the engine, and we’re barreling down the road. Though there is no need to be reckless, we both feel a sense of urgency from the nonexistent time crunch. As Dev is meandering down the streets, I flip over the little sheet of paper with our riddle and sigh.

“Dev!”

“What?” he asks, swerving into the other lane for absolutely no reason. To say he isn’t a little giddy would be an understatement. “What is it?”

“The note says that we can use the GPS for coordinates.”

“But the rules…?”

“I know. But this says we can. There’s also a little comment that says, ‘I realize how hard it would be to calculate coordinates without the GPS, so use it at your disposal.’”

“Come on, old Oscar! Okay, Tessa, use your millennial skills, and plot the coordinates.”

I unlock my phone and the light from the screen is a bright beam of light across my face. I type how to figure out location from coordinates into my phone and wait until I can type out the numbers. As I do this, Dev races into a gravel parking lot that is home to a shoddy, abandoned building, and kills the ignition.

“Okay, okay, it’s loading…”

“This guy is crazy,” says Dev, “and also, we may not be in the best location right now, either…”

I ignore his reservations and scream, “Okay, got it! The address. I’m plugging it into the GPS right now. All right… It looks like this belongs to the Sheffield’s Antiques Mall in Collierville. Here, I’ll get us there. Make a left, and we’ll be there in less than twenty minutes.”

“An antiques mall?” asks Dev, skeptically, as he whips out onto the highway, much too fast. It’s like driving with a teen driver, but I try not to say anything. He was following all the rules to a T when we were going to the restaurant, but now it’s like he’s in the Indy 500, and he has no need for any safety. “This guy is seriously not sending us to an antiques mall?”

“They’re not that bad, Dev,” I say, shrugging my shoulders. “I like to go there with my mom and dad after a long week of work. There’s something about letting other people’s old items seep into your soul…”

“Everything you’re saying belongs in a horror movie, Tessa.” He looks over at me and shakes his head.

“I’ve gotten a lot of cool things from antiques malls.”

Andrés has always loved Sheffield’s, and he’ll take all his Buenos Aires family there as one of the first stops on their “See America, See Tennessee by Andrés” tour. It’s always important to showcase Elvis, catch a peek at the ducks at the Peabody Hotel, and visit the Pyramid, but an antiques mall that houses a bunch of ancient American relics? It’s how Andrés connects to his American persona, he says, and it’s probably true. He never leaves without at least three knickknacks, which he’ll promptly give to other people, since he’s also a true neat freak. Once he gave me a one-eyed Barbie from the mall, and another time he gave me a lady’s fan from the 1800s.

When Scarlett goes, on the other hand, she’s all about the jewelry. There are booths that smell like ghosts, and she won’t leave until she has some speck of sparkle. It’s always a weird thought, that some other woman once wore the necklace that dangles from your neck, but that doesn’t stop Scarlett from finding the best deals.

“Have you seriously never been to an antiques mall?” I ask Dev again, as he zips across the road.

“Why would I have the need for that stuff? All I need is my laptop, food, and my…” He gulps, but I know he’s going to say something about his video games, so I try not to roll my eyes too much, or he’ll see it and be crushed. “You know, there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of fresh perspective.”

“That’s the spirit!”

“But shouldn’t that place… Shouldn’t it be closed by now?”

“I’ll check the hours. Well, we’re going to be cutting it really close, but… Maybe we can explain the situation to whoever’s working. I’m assuming that they’ll at least know something about it.”

“Maybe. You know, I’m still thinking… Why did Oscar choose us? Why did he wait for us?”

“I made eye contact with him at dinner. I didn’t want to say anything about it, because I didn’t want to make a scene, but he waved at me, and I smiled back. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but maybe… Maybe we remind him of his wife and him.”

“You’re comparing me to that old guy?”

“Maybe.”

“I guess I haven’t looked in the mirror lately.”

“Just focus on driving, and not running us into that pole, please.”

“If we’re going to an antiques mall, won’t there be a hundred books? How will we know which one to check out?”

“One step at a time. We have all the info that he gave us, so there has to be something obvious. We’ll figure it out.”

A few minutes later, Dev twirls us into the parking lot, and it’s dead. No other cars, because of the late-ish hour, and it’s amazing we got there before close. We jump out of the car and rush into the brightly lit space. Immediately, I’m thrown off-guard by the beauty of the lobby. There are a few well-decorated pianos with various flowers on top, and then there is the jewelry section, where Scarlett always loses time, and everything is glowing, like we’re falling through the dazzling cosmos. Dev grabs my hand and pulls me away from my weakness, and we hurry to the guy working the cash register.

He’s a youngish guy, with a shaggy beard and short hair. His glasses are spilling down his nose, and he looks at us with diffidence. He’s holding a John Grisham novel, and I want to grab it from his hands, but I resist that act of strange behavior, and both Dev and I burst out, “We’re looking for a book.” Except we say this at different times, and so our words are jumbling together like scrambled eggs, and the man’s eyes are literally closed in his sleepy haze.

“What was that?” he asks, before letting loose a wide yawn. “I’m sorry. I’m so tired.”

“Do you know anything about a treasure hunt?” asks Dev.

“A treasure hunt? Am I in kindergarten?”

I slam the papers to the counter, the papers that include our riddle and the rules. The man, whose name card reads TRIPP, picks up the papers. Of course they’re backward, and he drops them all over the place. When he finally settles down, he analyzes the words, and he’s yawning a hundred bazillion times.

“This is nifty,” he says.

“Do you know anything about it? These coordinates are actually the location of your establishment,” says Dev, who looks as if he’s holding in a sneeze. It is dusty in here, but we’re not even in the dusty parts.

“Hey, Marion,” screams Tripp, though nobody’s around. “Marion!”

A woman appears out of thin air, which actually means she walks out of a booth, and she screams, “What?”

“Come here, would ya?”

Marion is obviously annoyed, and she doesn’t try to hide it either. She walks like a penguin toward us, and shouts out, “What do you kids need? It’s about quittin’ time, and…”

“Do you know anything about a treasure hunt? Or a man named Oscar Owens?” Dev asks, briskly.

“Oscar Owens?” the woman asks, her eyes aflame. “Of course I know Oscar Owens. Who doesn’t know Oscar Owens? He’s old enough to be the founder of our town.”

“He’s surprisingly older than you, Marion,” says Tripp.

Dev and I are mortified by the comment, because we’re not sure if Tripp is joking or not, due to his blasé personality. Marion promptly swats Tripp, and he falls to the ground. Dev and I exchange glances and try not to melt in this awkward space. Eventually, once Marion is certain Tripp can’t stand back up, she turns back to us. “Now, what do you need?”

“Um…” I begin, but luckily Dev is able to take over.

“We’re part of a treasure hunt, and… Here, maybe I should just show you.”


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