Chapter Eleven


“Auntie Ali, wake up.”

I barely heard Shawn’s voice but I surely felt him climb up on top of me and sit on my chest, cutting off my oxygen.

“Shawn, what’s up?” I groaned, trying to roll him off of me and pulling him into my arms. “Auntie has no class or work today and she wants to sleep in so please…”

“No, you have to wake up,” Shawn insisted, trying to wiggle free from embrace. “Seth is here. Remember your friend? With the big red car?”

I forced my eyes open and looked at Shawn who was staring at me with the most serious expression a four-year-old can possibly muster.

“What did you say?”

He put his chubby little hands on each side of my face and gave my cheeks a squeeze. “Your friend Seth is here. With the big red car.”

I blinked. “What is he doing here?”

The boy just shrugged. “I don’t know. He’s downstairs. Come on.”

I groaned and kicked the quilts off. “Fine, I’ll be right down. I just need a minute.”

Shawn jumped off my bed and disappeared out of the door as I dragged myself up and into the jack and jill bathroom that I shared with the two other bedrooms on the second floor.

I washed my face and pulled my hair into as neat a ponytail as I could manage. Then, I grabbed a gray hoodie and put it over the white tank top which I wore with star-print pjs.

When I got downstairs, I found Mama, Abby, Neil, Shawn and Alvin by the breakfast nook with Seth, eating what looked like breakfast overload. There were cardboard trays of croissants and muffins, omelet wraps and bacon strips and sausages.

“Hey, Ali. Good morning,” Seth greeted with a big, bright smile, standing up and beckoning me to the table. “Have some breakfast.”

“Did you bring all of these?” I asked as I sat down and picked up a croissant.

“Yeah,” he answered as he poured me a cup of coffee. “There’s this quaint, little bed and breakfast place just outside of our neighborhood and the old lady there makes the best breakfast ever. She’s famous and she opens breakfast to everybody, not just the people staying there.”

“Thanks.” I picked up the cup he handed me and I took a sip. “What are you doing here anyway?”

“I’m taking you out on a date.”

I nearly spat my coffee out and Mama casually handed me a paper napkin. “You better get ready, Ali. Seth’s been here almost an hour just waiting for you to wake up.”

“But I’m not going anywhere today,” I argued, wiping my mouth. “I plan to stay home and do some cleaning in my room then finish a paper I have due on Monday.”

“And none of those things sound as exciting as a date,” Alvin countered, popping a piece of sausage into his mouth. “Seth’s planning on teaching you to swim too which would be handy ‘coz you are terrified of the water.”

I stared at Alvin with disbelief and a dropped jaw. “I can’t believe you’re letting him abduct me simply because he bribed you with a ridiculously good breakfast.”

Neil snickered. “He’s not abducting you. He did tell us where he’s taking you so come on, don’t be such a party-pooper and go have some fun.”

Abby wiggled her brows at me. “Yeah, Ali. You’re nineteen for God’s sakes. You’re old enough to date.”

My cheeks warmed but I just indignantly got up and picked up another croissant. “I can’t believe you guys would sell me out just because of breakfast. You shame me. I’ll be right back. I’m just going to get dressed.”

Mama chuckled and I went back upstairs to get decent.

A date.

That’s the first time Seth used that word with us. He must be pretty serious.

Well, last night, he seemed pretty serious too but I shouldn’t forget that he is a reputed ladies’ man. Surely it required a certain level of skill to win those women over.

See, in my head it’s quite clear that I have reason to not trust Seth. The better, smarter part of me knows it’s best to stay away. Unfortunately, that better, smarter part of me doesn’t always win.

I put on a pair of casual white cotton capris, a creamy yellow light sweater and white flip-flops with a beaded design on the straps that I made myself.

Alvin mentioned swimming and I’m pretty sure he was kidding but I decided to be on the safe side and packed a vintage, black strapless maillot that I loved so dearly anyway.

Five minutes later, we were getting into his car.

“Why did you bring your laptop with you?” Seth asked curiously, eyeing my bulky old laptop.

I lifted my nose into the air. “So that if I get bored, I can at least get back to my paper.”

He laughed and opened the car door for me. “I promise I’ll try my best to keep you preoccupied.”

“Where are we going anyway?” I asked as we made our way out of Dock Garren. “I don’t even know if I’m appropriately dressed.”

“Don’t worry, you’re dressed just fine,” he assured me with a mysterious smile. “We’re only going to my house.”

My jaw dropped. “And how about your family? You didn’t tell me—“

“Relax, my parents are away on a cruise and my sister lives in London, remember?” he assured me except that it had a different effect—it made my arms fly in cover in front of my chest.

“You mean it’s just going to be you and me there?” I demanded. “I don’t think so, Seth—“

He burst out laughing. “No, silly. The maids will be there of course, minding their own thing. Don’t start getting ideas in your head. I don’t have any evil plans lined up—not yet anyway.”

I slapped his arm but he just laughed harder.

“Why do you still live at home anyway?” I asked. “I live at home ‘coz I can’t afford a place of my own. You, on the other hand, can pretty much do whatever you want.”

“I thought about it but with my sister away and my parents always travelling, it feels like I’m living on my own anyway,” he answered with a shrug. “Except that I don’t have to clean my own toilet or pay my own utility bills. I know, I’m pretty lazy that way but it’s practical too. My parents are already paying to have the house taken care of. I just chose not spend on a place of my own and save that money instead.”

I smirked and narrowed my eyes at him. “You’re just saying that ‘coz you know that’s what I want to hear you say.”

“No, I mean it,” he insisted. “I’m grateful for my family’s fortune but it doesn’t mean I don’t want to make my own. Dad always said that a man can only measure to his merit his own hard-earned success and not his inheritance. I don’t plan on disappointing him or myself for that matter.”

“That’s good to hear,” I said with a casual shrug although I turned my face away to hide a smile from him.

Fifteen minutes later, we entered through the grand gates of the prestigious community Century Hill where the richest of Ballard reside in sprawling mansions and spans of private and lushly landscaped acreages.

I’ve seen tons of feature photos on it but I’ve actually never been here. I never had a reason.

I started feeling a little uneasy at the reminder of how different mine and Seth’s worlds are. I thought making him step into Dock Garren was the big test but I guess I never considered how I’d fare stepping into this luxurious world that he’s part of.

“You look nervous,” he observed with a slight grin as we pulled into the long, winding driveway.

“I look fine. I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I dismissed it with a roll of my eyes although I quickly drew my breath in when the canopy of tall trees revealed the house which was a sprawling Italian villa with the traditional flat tile roof, the arched windows, multiple levels and the warm earth tones that gleamed under the bright sun as it sat primly on what seemed like a four-acre piece of immaculately landscaped land. In the middle of the courtyard was a large, breathtaking water fountain, just a few meters away from where we’d pulled over.

I still couldn’t shut my mouth close as I got off the car, my eyes hardly able to catch up with me as I took in the scene around me. I went to rich schools but I didn’t have a lot of rich friends. Both Liam and Ria’s families are well off but neither of them were ever up to the Wallace’s caliber.

“Hey,” I heard Seth call to me softly and I found my way back to him.

He smiled and touched my chin, his other hand cupping my left elbow. “Don’t be nervous. It’s all material. I’m still the same, annoying Seth you would gladly beat the daylights out of and would happily let you.”

I pursed my lips, trying to suppress a smile. “I didn’t know you’d let me.”

He grinned and shrugged as we started our way towards the door. “Only on one condition.”


“That you’d kiss every bruise away.”

I rolled my eyes and made a barfing gesture to which he laughed. “You so wish.”

He put an arm around my shoulders and softly murmured in my ear. “I do.”


“This is not pasta, Seth. This is now mush,” I told him as I rescued the pasta pot that boiled over after we forgot that the burner was still on. I opened it up and saw that the noodles were too soft and soggy.

Seth looked up from the red bell pepper he was chopping up and gave me a guilty look.

We were in the kitchen, trying to make some type of pasta to snack on after biking around the neighborhood and we were trying to copy some ridiculously complicated recipe we found on the internet.

I insisted we cook it ourselves but I found out too late that Seth was no culinary master and that this kitchen had too many high-tech gadgets and commercial appliances that were beyond me.

I drained the noodles and scraped them to a bowl.

“Uhm, Ali. I think your sauce is burning,” Seth said, nodding to the sauce pan behind me.

I whipped around and saw the smoke coming out from the pan. The tomato sauce had dried out and burned while waiting for the peppers and olives that Seth was still working on.

I grabbed the pan, jumped back after I slightly burned my fingertips with the hot handle and searched for the pot holder I had mindlessly misplaced in the vast gourmet kitchen we don’t deserve to cook in.

Seth came to my rescue with the pot holder and he grabbed the pan and dumped it in the sink as I tried hard to wave off the smoke.

Then the smoke detector went off and a minute later, we were drenched with water coming from the sprinklers.

Seth ran to the back of the kitchen where a large walk in pantry was and turned off the alarm and water.

He slowly emerged, his expression crestfallen.

He had let the maids go on a day off when we arrived and nobody else was home.

I looked at him, as drenched as I was, looking like a poor, wet puppy.

“I’m so sorry,” he started, scratching his head. “I guess I should’ve looked into, uhm, how our kitchen actually works. I forgot that you could delay the sprinklers. They’re on a one-minute default when no one is home.”

I smiled and shook the water out of my hair. “Maybe some Jell-O pudding then we can mop the kitchen dry?”


An hour later, we were sitting on the now-drying marble floor of the kitchen which was now mostly gleaming clean after we wiped it down with half a dozen microfiber cloths that Seth found in the kitchen linen closet.

We’ve scraped the pots clean and they’re now hanging dry from the pot rack.

“This isn’t exactly what I’d planned on but this actually kind of works,” Seth said as he spooned into a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream. There were a bunch of fancy stuff in the fridge but they mostly required some type of cooking and we decided we weren’t touching the stove again so ice cream it was for us.

I grinned and licked my spoon. “Not what I’d imagined doing on what should’ve been my relaxing day off either.”

He scoffed. “You mean on what could’ve been your boring day off.”

I raised a brow at him. “Hey, I have a job and I’m getting a double degree so forgive me if I’m looking forward to a day when I don’t have to deal with either.”

“I know,” he answered with an understanding smile. “I honestly don’t know how you manage.”

I shrugged. “You just do. You adapt, you get used to it and you just automatically function—it’s a true characteristic of nature’s creatures. I just try not to think about it so I don’t notice what I’m doing to myself. That’s why I get annoyed when someone like you points it out.”

“What do you mean someone like me?”

“Someone like you—someone who doesn’t get it. Okay, fine, I know you do. But other people born into privilege don’t and they like to give advice to just chill and have fun and it makes me want to whack them hard in the head,” I answered, feeling a little frustrated yet worried that Seth may take offense in my blabbering.

His honestly amused expression remained. “I guess they are just like you in a way—they adapt to what their environment is, they get used to it and they just automatically function. It’s totally relative. The only difference is the environment that shapes what their adaptation needs are.”

I opened my mouth to argue and I was pretty sure I had some smart thing to say but I caught Seth’s crooked grin and my words dissolved in resignation. He had a pretty valid point.

“Come on,” he said, getting up and putting down his empty ice cream bowl down. He extended a hand at me and pulled me up on my feet. “It’s nice and shady and warm. Let’s jump into the pool.”

I stopped in my tracks. “Uhm. I don’t know if that’s a good idea. You heard what Alvin said earlier, right? He was not kidding when he said I’m terrified of the water.”

He grabbed my hand and pulled me out to their magnificent, resort-like outdoor space in the back where a large infinity pool was the center piece, surrounded with lounge chairs and palm trees.

“Did you bring a suit?” Seth asked as he grabbed some clean towels that were rolled and stocked in a teak linen cabinet by the pool side. “If you didn’t, my sister has a bunch of never-been-used swimsuits in her bedroom. You could say she’s a bit of a shopper.”

I grinned and shook my head. “No, I’m fine. I brought my own because I’m a girl scout.”

“Too bad you won’t need it,” he said before suddenly grabbing me and jumping into the pool with me dragged right behind him.

Water rushed all around me and in panic I forgot to paddle my arms around or kick my legs but a strong pair of arms quickly wrapped around my waist to pull me up to the surface.

“Seth, you moron!” I screamed at him right after I gulped some air back into my lungs. “Are you trying to kill me?!”

He just laughed and kept me floating. “I just wanted to see if you were truly not able to swim or you just don’t think you can swim. It’s something your body knows how to do subconsciously. It just needs to be triggered to the surface.”

“Well, I guess we now both know I really can’t swim!” I screamed back, wiping the water from my eyes and face. “Thanks for trying to drown me to prove a theory!”

“Aww, don’t be such a baby,” he said before pulling me on the arm and dragging me through the water. “Just relax and let your body lift itself up so it can float.”

“Can we just stay at the shallow part of the pool?” I begged as I tried to relax my jittery legs and make them feel light enough to be buoyant all the while gripping Seth’s hands like a lifeline. “I can’t touch the floor with my toes. How deep is this? Twelve feet?”


“Seth! I demand that we stay in the shallow part of the pool!”

He shook his head like an adult talking to a child. “Nope. You’re just going to have to trust me.”

I looked at him and found that his green eyes were amused and… crinkling happy.

Trust him.

Trust him?

Sounds like trouble but in a flash of clarify, I realized I really didn’t care.


I opened my eyes and I quickly squinted as they adjusted to the light.

Or make that the bright white ceilings now that my vision’s come to focus.

Did I drown and die?

I heard the sound of computer keys typing so I was relieved to realize that I haven’t. I don’t think God Facebooks.

I rolled my head slowly to my side and saw the outline of Seth’s back clad in a gray shirt as he sat on the edge of this king-sized day bed in the middle of this beautiful and vast sunroom, hunched over the laptop table we’d wheeled in earlier.

It was probably late in the afternoon based on the pale yellow light coming through the windows now. It was probably about five in the evening—magic hour—just when the world momentarily gets colored in this lovely shade of gold as the sun sets.

Outside it was raining lightly. Raindrops clung to the glass windows and the palm trees glistened with under the light.

I slowly pulled myself up and came up behind Seth on the bed, my chin pressed against his right shoulder.

“What are you still doing?” I asked.

“I’m just typing up the rest of the stuff you wrote down for this report,” he answered, raising the notebook where I’d originally scribbled some parts of my report.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, grabbing the notebook away from him and dropping it to the floor. “It’s not due until next week. Get back in the bed.”

He smiled and slid back on the bed next to me with a good foot between us.

“Your cheeks are very pink,” he said.

I rolled my eyes. “So are yours. It’s called sunburn.”

“You have to admit that was fun. You can now float and paddle a few feet forward.”

“Nothing that can really save my life if a boat capsizes and we’re stranded in the middle of the ocean.”

He shrugged. “You can swim well enough to get to a floating plank that you can hang on to until help arrives.”

I smiled. “Thanks, I guess. Now go to sleep.”

“Okay,” he agreed and I closed my eyes.

Five seconds later, I opened them and saw that he was staring at me.

“Close your eyes.”

He closed his eyes but this time I was the one who kept staring.

He grinned, his eyes still shut.

“I can’t sleep if you’re staring at me, Ali.”

“I’m not staring at all. I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I answered, closing my eyes again.

I couldn’t suppress a smile.

It’s the littlest things but Seth may have just found a long-hidden path to my heart.


When we got up it was already dark, the sky clear and now studded with a billion stars.

I had asked if he wanted to drive out and get dinner somewhere but he said he had a surprise and when we came out to the garden by the pool, there was a lavish dinner spread out complete with candlelight, luxurious red table cloths, crystal dishes and gorgeous flower settings adorning corners.

There were servers dressed in formal serving us wine and each course, and romantic music floated from what sounded like a piano in the background.

I was so overwhelmed that I barely found my voice throughout the dinner.

“Are you okay?” he asked, reaching to touch my hand from across the table. We were just having the last of the red wine.

I nodded as casually as I could. “Yeah, I’m fine. I’m just…”

“Surprised?” he supplied with a lopsided smile.

I rolled my eyes and smirked. “A little bit. You never struck me as the romantic kind.”

He shrugged. “I’m not so it must be you who’s responsible for all this.”

I was pretty sure my cheeks turned red and I just quickly looked down on my plate. “I don’t even know what… what this is.”

He squeezed my hand gently. “I like to think it’s the beginning.”

Somewhere inside of me my heart soared and crashed and tried to fling itself out of my ribcage. It’s pulling itself in all sorts of directions that I had to draw in a deep breath to soothe it back in place.

He got up and picked something up from the corner of the steps hidden from my view.

“I know these are your favorites,” he said, handing me a huge bouquet of orange tiger lilies, some of them still buds and some in full glorious bloom. “I did my research this time.”

“Wow,” I breathed in, cradling them to my side and brushing my nose against a petal. “They’re lovely. Thank you.”

“I’m glad you like them.”

I put the bouquet down on the table and made my own move to step closer to him. “Thank you. Not just for the flowers but for this entire day. It was… perfect.”

He smiled, his eyes twinkling. “It wasn’t in a lot of ways but I’m glad that you gave it a chance.”

His hands found mine and he gently pulled me close, his forehead touching my own.

“Ali. I’m going to kiss you.”

It wasn’t a question.

I don’t think I would’ve said no if he’d asked.

All I know is that the moment his lips softly pressed against mine, the world stilled except for the wild beating of my heart.

I lost feeling of all my limbs and for a second, my knees buckled but he easily steadied me, his arms encircling my waist and pulling me closer to him.

The kiss deepened and with each second that passed, I felt like I was drowning like I never have before—washed over by wave after wave of emotions, making my heart spin out of control that I thought it would burst out of me.

The revelation was startling—I never realized how much I held back until this flood of emotions broke through the barriers I had surrounded myself all these years so I could easily live in oblivion about how I felt.

Why I hid—the reasons are simple and obvious.

It was easier than confronting the possibility of disappointment and heartbreak or the pressure of making different decisions from the ones you’ve already made before falling in love.

Did I really think I could avoid it forever?

And of all people, did I ever expect to find it with Seth?

“Thanks again for coming with me today,” he said with one of those quiet, heartbreaker smiles of his as he pulled up in front of my house. “Do you want me to walk you up to the door?”

I smiled back. “No, I can take it from here. I’m pretty sure my family’s already spying on us from the windows.”

He laughed and leaned forward to press a soft kiss on my mouth. “Okay then. Goodnight.”


My knees have regained their strength but my mind was still a blur as I watched Seth drive away into the night.

The evening breeze was quite warm and the street was surprisingly quiet and empty.

I smiled.

Then I grinned.

Then I giggled a little bit to myself.

I think that at some point, in all the time I’ve spent with Seth, when I wasn’t watching, love happened.

Chapter Ten


Before I even stepped out of the classroom, I already spotted Seth waiting outside by the lobby. Liam had a point—he’s been showing up a lot more frequently than he used to and I don’t seem to be minding too much.

Fine, I have developed a soft spot for the guy but that’s it. A soft spot is all that I can afford right now.

“Hey, it’s late. What are you still doing here?” I asked him, noting that that was my last class for the day and it was eight in the evening.

“I was in the area. I had to meet with my group for a project anyway so I thought I’d hang around until you were done with class,” he answered casually. Seth, despite this weird, unnamable relationship we’ve developed in the past couple of weeks, never seemed awkward around me. “I feel like dinner anyway. What do you say we grab something to eat at the grill by the university courtyard?”

I bit my lip. “Uhm, I’m not sure…”

“Oh, come on,” he insisted, grabbing my books and my wrist. “That was an accounting class, wasn’t it? I’m pretty sure it was ‘coz you look like you could use some amazingly delicious ribs. My treat. Let’s go.”

Ten minutes later, we were in a table by the outdoor patio space of the grill, going through the menu.

I told him I was happy with a half-rack of ribs and some garlic mashed potato but he named a few more items to the waitress.

“That’s an awful lot of food, Seth,” I told him when the waitress left. “You could feed a dozen people with that.”

He grinned. “We could always have it packed up to take home. There’s still dessert but we’ll figure that out later.”

“If I gain fifty pounds by tomorrow, I’ll know who to blame,” I teased with a knowing smile. “It’s surprising though how I see a lot of rich girls eat out all the time but they don’t seem to be gaining any weight.”

“Because they probably order all vegetarian or vegan stuff or they order normal food but just not touch any of it,” he answered with a shake of his head. “I hate that. They get so excited ordering food and how you’re going to have such a wonderful dinner and by the end of it, their steak looks as complete as it was when it was brought to the table. It’s no fun and it disturbs me.”

I laughed. “Weight-conscious girls disturb you?”

“Skinny girls who seem like they have an eating disorder disturb me,” he corrected just as our food arrived. “Because most of the time, they’re not only going to have a problem eating, they’re going to have all sorts of self-image issues. Guys want a girlfriend, not a psych patient.”

“It may not be that bad,” I replied, watching him as he happily dug into his meal. “It might be easier to deal with than a girl who has a problem with your being privileged and kicks your butt every chance she gets whether or not you’re to blame for it.”

He looked up, his green eyes smiling and amused. “May you be referring to someone we are both very familiar with?”

I shrugged noncommittally. “It’s hypothetical.”

He straightened and looked up as if deeply thinking it through. “Well, you see the thing is, true she may have a problem with my being privileged and she may kick my butt every now and then but that may just be because she’s firm on her philosophy that people should work hard for what they get in life and doesn’t tolerate rich kids who use their trust fund as a way through life. I really understand where she’s coming from with that, as hard to believe as that may be.”

His eyes focused back on me, this time, looking a little bit serious. “I guess I’m just hoping that once she’s gotten to know me a little bit better, she’ll see that I’m not planning on being the person she dreads me to be. And maybe then, she’ll go a little easier on me.”

I sighed and gave in to a smile that was tickling the corners of my mouth. “Listen, I’m sorry if I was so harsh and judgmental to you. I’m just naturally—defensive.”

He laughed. “You’re pretty good on the offensive too.”

I blushed but knew that he was quite accurate about that. “Fine, that too. I guess I was pretty comfortable criticizing people like you from afar—comfortable that I’m never going have to find out that I’m wrong. And then you showed up and pretty much knocked me out of that comfort zone. And you wouldn’t leave me alone and that took a while to figure out.”

He smiled and I smiled back but then suddenly there was this unmistakable high-pitched bark of a woman.

“Seth!” There it was again.

I looked up and saw a tall, leggy blonde in skinny jeans, high-heels and a fitted, tangerine blazer over an almost see-through blouse.

She looked very glamorous and very, very angry.


“There you are!” she blustered as soon as she came to our table. “You haven’t returned any of my calls! What’s up with that?”

Seth looked uncomfortable, straightening up in his seat, his dark green eyes narrowing. “Katherine, excuse me, I’m with someone right now.”

Ah, so that’s Katherine.

She turned to look at me as if she just realized I existed. She raised one finely penciled brow at me.

“And who’s this?” she demanded.

“Katherine, this is Ali. She’s my—“

“Never heard of her,” Katherine interrupted, rolling her eyes and flipping back her hair. “Anyway, I don’t know what’s up with you but you’ve been practically MIA in the last couple of weeks. Don’t tell me you’re now doing charity projects for the, uhm, less fortunate students in our school.”

I didn’t miss the surreptitious glance she cast me.

Seth got up and clasped Katherine by the elbow. His lips were set in a tight line. “Excuse me, Ali. I just need to talk to Katherine for a minute. I’ll be right back. I’m sorry.”

I saw him drag her a bit to a dimmer corner of the patio and they quickly seemed to have gotten into a hushed yet heated conversation. This is probably the first time I’ve seen Seth actually upset and Katherine’s attempts at putting her arms around him disturbed something in my gut.

I waited a couple minutes, trying to finish my dinner while pretending I can’t hear or see them.

A few more minutes passed.

Finally, I pulled out a couple of twenty dollar bills from my wallet and quickly scribbled a note on a clean paper napkin.

My head’s out of the sand. Just… leave me alone. Ali

I ignored the ugly feeling that was washing over me like one full bucket of ice cold water after another and quickly escaped the scene.

At the end of the block, I hopped into one of the city’s older street cars. They run a small portion of the city now after the major routes have been replaced with new giant red buses but the university preserved them in the area for historical and tourism purposes.

Five minutes after it rolled out, I tried to get comfortable in my seat, sliding open the half window to let some cool breeze blow in and hopefully calm my jostled thoughts.

Another five minutes later, I saw a familiar red Porsche Cayenne aligning itself with the bus and matching its speed.

My eyes widened when I saw the window roll down and heard Seth yelling from the driver’s seat.

How the hell did he find me?


I glanced at the driver who was looking at me and back at Seth through his rearview and side mirrors.

“Are you trying to get yourself killed, you idiot?” I yelled back though the wind muted my pitch.

“Ali, I need to talk to you! I need to explain!” Seth went on, swerving to the next lane just right before he rear-ended the car that slowed down in front of him. Two minutes later, he changed back to the lane next to the bus.

“Stop this, Seth!” I shouted at him, glad the bus was practically empty except for me and a sleeping old lady in the front row. “There’s nothing to explain. Stop this before you seriously hurt yourself!”

“Get off at the next stop, I’ll meet you there!”

“No, Seth!” I called after him but he had already sped up ahead of us.

“I suggest you get off the bus and talk to your boyfriend miss, before he kills himself or get arrested for reckless driving!” the bus driver, a dear old man, yelled at me as we passed the intersection a block away from the next stop.

I sighed and crumpled back in my seat. Groaning, I pulled myself up and headed towards the door.

When I got off at the stop, I saw his Cayenne parked by the street that led into a residential area.

I grudgingly walked towards it and got into the car.

I didn’t bother looking at him, just at my hands that were clasped tightly together on my lap.

He didn’t say anything.

“I want to whack you in the head, you know that?” I muttered, still avoiding his eyes. “That was a pretty stupid stunt you pulled back there.”

“I know,” he answered quietly. “I just didn’t want you leave without giving me a chance to explain—“

“As I’ve said, there’s nothing to explain,” I interrupted, unable to hide the irritation from my voice. “I may be dense sometimes but I can make pretty accurate deductions when things are quite obvious.”

“It’s not what you think—“

“Does it matter what I think?” I demanded, my voice rising a bit now. “What matters is that I realized the mess I was diving into before I completely drowned. I’m not into this kind of game, Seth. I’m sorry.”

He exhaled sharply, his voice almost pained when he spoke. “I’m not playing some kind of game with you, Ali. Katherine is of no importance or significance to me, do you understand?”

I looked away and out through the side window. “I just want to go home now, please.”

“Ali, listen to me.”

“You can drop me off at the next stop.”


“I don’t want to listen to this anymore, Seth!” I snapped, turning around and glaring at him, my cheeks burning up in anger. “I just want to go home and forget that you ever existed. Understand?”

Then I scrambled out of the car but he was quickly right out after me, grabbing my hand before I could pull away.

“Hey, hey, Ali, please,” he pleaded in a hushed voice as he pulled me close and tight within his arms. “I’m sorry you had to hear that and that Katherine talked to you that way. She’s pretty upset that I’m not accessible to her anymore and I told her why. I don’t like her the way you think I do.”

I groaned and shut my eyes. “Stop messing with my head, Seth. I told you—“

He cupped my chin and lifted my face up so I could look at him. “You told me you’re not into this kind of game. Well, it’s not a game for me. Don’t you get it?”

I swear, I would die if those tears dangerously hovering at the corner of my eyes roll down my cheeks.

The immortal question lately: “Get what?”

He managed a small smile as he gently brushed his thumb against my cheek. “That if there’s one girl I care about, it’s you. Haven’t I made that obvious enough?”

Hearing it from him had its own magic. The anger stripped itself away from my heart and melted like ice on a warm summer day.

“No,” I choked out the word and he just laughed and his arms loosened around me, I guess now that he’s pretty sure I’m not going to jump and run.

“Crazy girl.” He held my hand and gestured to the car. “Come on, I’ll take you home.”

Chapter Nine


The rest of the week was pretty much epic chaos.

Not only were we really feeling the pressure of the fundraiser which was only a little over a week away, we were also scheduled for presentation in Dr. Han’s class.

We spent two evenings rehearsing with the performing group which we found through one of Seth’s friends whose Dad worked as a lawyer for the current chairman of the Indian community in Ballard. The community council has a group of volunteers who perform in their many different cultural activities and they happily agreed to participate in our presentation.

We went through their many, already-performed pieces relating to their vast array of folklore and we picked out bits and parts and merged them into one, custom play which featured large chunks of acting parts, narration, music and video presentation which Seth and I stayed up until two in the morning for at the community council’s office with one of the volunteers who’s also their resident AVP expert.

On the day of the presentation, we came into the lecture hall an hour early to set up the set and props and test the lights, music, audio and video projection controls located in this tiny cubicle at the back of the hall simply referred to as the ‘tech room’.

Half an hour before the class started, the performing group, made up of six actors and one production assistant, arrived and changed into their costumes and did their makeup, finishing up just in time as people started to file into the hall.

When Dr. Han finally arrived and took a seat by the front corner of the dimmed room, I signaled to Seth who was at the tech room to turn the lights off completely and start the intro music. After an hour of stage play, we transitioned to the video presentation of the other popular folklore stories from their movie adaptations.

As the video played on, I went to check on Pardeep, the production assistant, who was briefing the cast about the routes we planned for distributing the Indian-inspired snacks we prepared for the class after the video presentation. It’s a cocktail party-inspired setting where food will be moved to the front of the hall for everyone to enjoy while the casts moved around, still in their costumes, talking to people from the class about their culture and all things related that the students might be interested in. I was cautious about this part of the presentation but Seth insisted it would give the students the chance to get up and around the room (which he said will definitely wake them up), ask questions, speak with the performers, eat and converse casually about the topic, and relax after a long presentation. Surprisingly, Dr. Han had no protest, not even a raise of her eyebrow when we presented this to her.

“Hey,” I greeted softly when I peeked my head into the tech room.

Seth slid off the giant earphones he had on and beamed at me. “Hey, how’s it going down there?”

I closed the door behind me and went to peek through the heavily tinted glass. “They’re ready to serve the food as soon as the video’s done. I have to admit, I have never met anyone so anal about details as Pardeep. More anal than me anyway. She has everything followed to the dot.”

“Do you think Dr. Han’s impressed?” Seth asked. “I can’t see her from here but I’m eager to know if we’ve reformed her old-school mentality about how to run this class.”

“I think we have a pretty good chance,” I told him with a big, victorious smile that I’m pretty sure looks as smug as hell on my face right now. “She didn’t say anything but I think she wasn’t convinced at first that we could pull it off.”

“People should never underestimate us. We make a notoriously amazing team,” Seth added, raising a hand for a high five which I easily slapped with my own. It felt good, it really did. The adrenaline of an obviously successful project was hard to stomp down on but other than that, there was something else that has my blood rushing to my head.

Seth wrapped his hand around mine after the high five and leaned his head down to stare into my eyes. His own green ones glimmered beautifully in the dimly lit, tightly cramped room. “You see, if we work on it, we can do great things together. That counts for something.”

I swallowed hard, unable to pull myself away. “I know.”

“Is that enough to start with?” he asked, his voice gentle and husky.

I closed my eyes to regain my level-headedness but when I opened them, Seth’s face so close to mine blocked out everything around me that might be calling to my reason.

“I…” my voice trailed off but I tried again. “I don’t know what you want from me, Seth.”

He smiled and clasped his other hand over mine as well. “A chance.”

I swallowed hard again and what I suspect are tears began stinging my eyes but I quickly looked away to secretly blink them back. “I don’t want to waste your time. Or my time.”

“Please, Ali.”

He cupped the side of my face and once again, I found myself staring into those familiar pair of green eyes that can make my toes curl.

I didn’t understand. I don’t know why Seth’s bothering with me. I don’t know if it’s a game. I don’t know if it’s a joke. I don’t know if I’ve completely lost my mind.

The word ‘no’ was somewhere in the back of my throat but I never got to it when Seth slowly put both of his hands on my shoulder and gently pulled me close, my cheek pressing against his warm, firm chest.

I nodded, at loss for anything else to say.

“Thank you,” he whispered as the video finished and the lights came on.



I looked up at the familiar voice and found Ria and Liam, each grabbing a chair around the desk I was occupying that peaceful Friday afternoon in the university library.

I grinned at them. “Hey, you two. What brings you here? I thought you had class.”

“Teacher just gave us a chapter to read and write an analysis on and Liam’s prof went home sick,” Ria answered, flipping her long, silky, super-straight hair. I always envied her hair. She just naturally had hair that didn’t have a single stray strand while I had a thick dark mane that waved so stubbornly at the ends and well, wherever else it pleases.

“So, don’t change the subject. Spill.”

I raised my brows and looked at Liam for help. Ria is a Biology student so she doesn’t get to hang out with me and Liam as much. She spends a lot of time in the lab for research outside of her classes.

I wasn’t sure if I was missing something obvious here.

Liam rolled his eyes and slipped out his cellphone and started fiddling with it as if he was bored. “She was very clear, Ali. Spill.”

I turned to Ria, still blank on what she was talking about. “I’m lost.”

Ria stared at me with a knowing look on her face and finally sighed. “What’s the dirt on you and campus hottie Seth Wallace?”

I groaned and rolled my eyes. Of course, it’s about Seth. Why didn’t I see it coming?

“What about me and Seth?” I asked, not quite certain what she wanted to know exactly.

“Well, Liam here tells me you don’t seem to hate him as much as you used to,” Ria started with a raised brow.

“I never hated Seth,” I argued. “He just… exasperates me—sometimes.”

Liam smirked. “Well, from the looks of it, you two seem to be getting along much better now—him showing up randomly to help you with the tickets or bring donuts and coffee at the fundraiser meetings he doesn’t really need to attend but you’re attending or him sitting with us every now and then at the cafeteria during lunch—things that, well, Seth normally did before anyway except that now you don’t bite his head off.”

I glared at Liam. “You make me sound like an animal.”

Ria rolled her eyes. “We all know that poor Seth always took a verbal beating from you happily, God knows why. But the surprising thing is that now, you, my darling friend, seem to be finally being civil to the poor guy. What’s with the change of heart?”

I slumped back against my seat and buried my face in my hands. “Oh God, you guys. You know me, you know my temper, you know what drives me crazy. Seth drives me crazy because he’s so annoying but so nice at the same time and I feel like a loony trying to decide how to act around him, whether I should tell him off or be nice as well. I didn’t mean to be nasty to him or anything like that but he just knows how to push the wrong buttons sometimes.”

Liam raised a brow at me. “Seriously, Ali, you don’t get it?”

“Get what?”

Ria and Liam exchanged disbelieving glances.

“Get what?”

Ria leaned forward and suddenly gave me little light slaps on the cheek and I blinked and moved away from her.

“Whoa, what are you doing?”

“Trying to wake you up,” Ria answered after she finally backed off. “Because it seems like it’s never occurred to you that maybe Seth was just trying to get your attention all this time and not being purposefully annoying. “

“Uhm, why would he want to do that?”

“Maybe because the guy likes you?” Liam supplied. “You’re so cute, Ali. You’re amazingly genius but you can’t even get one of the ten thousand hints a guy throws at you.”

I signed, feeling resigned. “Fine. I may have noticed one or two hints. I’m not completely clueless.”

Ria’s face immediately brightened up. “Great! And what are you gonna do about it then?”

“I don’t know. I really don’t.”

Since that moment at the tech room with Seth, things have been spiraling out of control in this slow, blissfully gradual yet  somehow natural manner, the way a flower would suddenly bloom on a spring morning—the process precise yet happening so fast that if you decide to blink you might miss it.

The future feels uncertain and I hated uncertainty but there was something about this quiet, natural revelation of things between him and me that kept me from taking off like a mad woman.

I still don’t really what Seth wants.

And I don’t know what it is that I want myself either.

Chapter Eight


“Over here!” I called out loud behind me as I stopped by the bulletin board outside a gym for seniors. It had half a dozen flyers about vitamins for seniors and book club meetings.

“Oh well, they can tell their grand kids about it when they see them,” I mumbled, taking three posters from the stack in my sling bag and stapling them neatly in a row on the blank spot by the left.

The new posters were brightly colored, glossy and sized at eleven by fourteen—something we wouldn’t have really been able to afford for five thousand copies if Seth’s family didn’t sponsor the printing of all our promotional materials. His family owned one of the biggest publishing businesses in the country and they had their own printing press to support about a dozen of their publications. The posters were shipped from New York.

He wasn’t kidding when he said he could rake in a lot of funds for the Children’s Play Day. He already has plenty of Ballard’s rich sign up as sponsors.

Yet here he is, being my errand boy and helper, putting up posters on foot all over the downtown area in the middle of a hot, humid day, I thought, catching sight of him squeezing through some parked bikes and stapling a couple of posters on a diner’s bulletin. He was in sneakers, golf shorts and a teal shirt, a sling bag of posters on his side, a water bottle on his hip and a staple gun on his hand.

The marketing committee has split up the town and assigned pairs to cover the different areas, putting up posters and distributing flyers. Liam had eagerly paired up with somebody else and Seth quickly volunteered to come with me and to avoid any curious questions if I profusely decline, I casually said okay and now here we are, on our second day scouring downtown.

It wasn’t bad. Seth was actually up for it. He picked me up from home and we parked his car by one of the free parking spots a good ten blocks away from main downtown and started walking and plastering the posters whenever we could. It’s been three hours now and I personally wanted to call it a day.

When Seth still hasn’t come a good two minutes later, I stopped, cast another glance at his direction and almost laughed out loud. He was by the sidewalk, surrounded by half a dozen high school girls, each with a flyer in their hand, pretending to be interested in the event as they asked questions while gawking at Seth with starry-eyed looks.

He caught my eye and flashed me a look pleading for rescue and I chuckled to myself.

I walked up to the small crowd, beamed at the girls who were quite aggressive for their age and slipped my arm behind Seth’s waist.

“Hi, sweetie,” I greeted him with a matching sweet grin and nodded to the girls. “Are you girls coming to our fundraiser?”

The dreamy smiles on their faces withered just a bit but enough to be obvious to the naked eye and they glanced at each other awkwardly.

“Maybe,” one of them, a tall, leggy brunette answered, eyeing me with blatant scrutiny. “We’re not sure. It’s all kids stuff. We’re not exactly into carousels and Ferris wheels anymore. It’s like, so juvenile.”

I shrugged casually. “I don’t know about that. I mean, we will have some of Ballard’s young elites there serving food and facilitating the different activities. All your friends will be there, won’t they, sweetie?”

Seth beamed and even eagerly pressed a kiss on my temple. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel like socking him with my knee for that. “Oh yeah, they’ll definitely be there. They think that it’s for a really good cause so they’re willing to take the day off and help out.”

This is such a shallow thing but the moment we finished saying our lines, the expressions on the faces of these young girls had drastically changed. They now looked like somebody who just got told that Louis Vuitton is giving one girl all the designer clothes she can possibly get and it’s a race to that golden ticket.

It was really sad to watch these sixteen-something girls become the opportunists that they truly seem to be inside. There seems to be nothing more effective in skyrocketing your social status in Ballard than dating a Seth Wallace or one of his friends.

“Well, it was nice chatting with you ladies but we have more posters to put up so we really have to go,” Seth finally said, putting an arm around me and slowly steering me into our exit direction. “We hope to see you at the fair. Take care.”

“Bye, Seth!” they replied in chorus and when we were fully turned away, I giggled and Seth grinned.

“Jailbait,” he muttered, his cheeks turning slightly pink. “Thanks for coming to my rescue. I don’t know how these girls know me.”

I grinned. “Facebook, MySpace, other high school girls, the local town’s gossip blog.”

He rolled his eyes. “I don’t even know if we have one. And I’m not on MySpace. Just Facebook and it’s restricted to close friends only. You have an account? I couldn’t find you anywhere.”

I shook my head. “I don’t have one. I just don’t have the time, as usual.”

“I’m sure,” he said, sighing and putting an arm around me. I didn’t shrug it away and only God knows why. “Us, mere mortals, can only try so hard.”

I wrinkled my nose. “It’s just that I’ve always felt I don’t have the luxury of time or opportunity to relax. That if I’m going after my big dreams, I have to keep going, until I get there.”

“You’re too hard on yourself, you know that,” he said, leaning down, his forehead touching mine. His green eyes were so vivid and bright from the afternoon sunlight bouncing off of the sidewalk. “You need a break—from yourself.”

He flashed one of his mischievous smiles and pulled me by the wrist. “Come on, I’m tired and I’m parched and you need to have a little bit of fun and I’ve got the perfect solution to that.”

“And what’s that?”

“Ice cream, of course!”

So, before I could even make sense of what was happening, we found ourselves in the long line of eager customers at the Ice Cream Deli, Ballard’s famous gourmet ice cream shop where you watch as they make your selected flavor with the freshest milk, fruits, chocolate and candies. It’s a bit steep in price and I’ve only ever gone here, I don’t know, twice in my entire twenty years of life.

Fifteen minutes later, we emerged, each holding a large sugar cone of ice cream. He had pistachios, vanilla and mint chocolate chip on his and I had a raspberry cheesecake with graham crackers and fresh raspberries. They were the best-tasting ice cream in the world, I must say.

“Okay, now that we bought enough ice cream to cover our entire daily calorie requirements, where to next?” I asked before taking a big bite.

The sun was warm and bright and the wind was cool on my cheeks and Seth’s eyes were deep green and happy and he had a silly-looking ice cream cone in his hand.

I had to swallow hard and look away. It’s like one of those hypnotic scenes where after you’ve stared at something for too long, you can’t get the picture out of your mind.

“How about a walk?” he asked, reaching forward to wipe off some ice cream from my chin. “We can walk to the legislative building and sit by the fountain.”

I was going to comment that it wasn’t Seth Wallace’s style to sit by the fountain in front of the legislative building. He was too cool for that. But maybe that’s why I said nothing—because I didn’t want Seth to remember that it wasn’t his style—because I liked Seth when he was just being himself and not what everyone’s reputed him to be.

“Okay, I’m in,” I answered with a grin. “On one condition though—we’re going to have to keep giving out flyers while we’re there.”

He rolled his eyes and feigned exasperation. “Fine, let’s go for it then, master.”

I laughed and his face broke into a cute, lopsided grin. We didn’t say anything else after that.

He took my hand, his fingers lacing through my own. They felt warm and strong and safe and so secure that they felt like they were going to keep holding mine for the rest of our lives.

I don’t know why I didn’t pull away or take a step back. I didn’t want to. Logic is beyond me right now—all I know for sure is that Seth and ice cream are yet to be my favorite combination.

Chapter Seven


I tensed as Seth’s snazzy Porsche Cayenne approached the end of Makawee Bridge that connected Ballard to its back door. The row of MoneyMarts and adult movie rental places were clear signs of the type of neighborhood we were approaching and I instinctively reached for the automatic door lock button.

Seth turned to me at the sound of the click and raised a brow in amusement. “Paranoid much?”

I rolled my eyes and hugged my satchel closer. “The last thing I want is to be ordered to get off the car at gunpoint while stopped at a red light. Your car is eye candy enough to attract that kind of unwanted attention.”

He nodded. “Point taken. Where do I turn?”

I craned my neck forward and spotted Pin Yang, the semi-questionable Chinese restaurant that marked the intersection going to Dock Garren’s outskirts up in the north. “Take a right and drive straight through until you see the Landerdale High School. Our house is at the end of that block.”

“Gotcha,” Seth answered heartily, not appearing to be daunted at all. “Your streets are pretty busy here.”

I don’t know if he’s trying to be nice but he could’ve just simply stated the obvious—there were teenagers and gangster types who hung out inside their vintage cars (milder term for old, salvaged vehicles from the impound lot) and at vending stalls on the street, smoking and giving anybody unfamiliar a death stare as they drove past. We also had a lot of people walking along the sidewalks, mostly talking in other native languages, hauling groceries or bargains from Goodwill while juggling their own umbrellas. Most families here were of immigrant origins and not everybody had cars.

“You don’t have to drop me off at my house, you know?” I told him. “You can let me off at the next block and I’ll walk the rest of the way. It’s not that far at all.”

He shook his head. “Oh, don’t be silly. I’m already here, aren’t I? Besides, your attempt to intimidate me isn’t working and will never work.”

I shrugged. “Just giving you your last chance.”

“Okay, we’re in your block already,” he announced, trying to smoothly squeeze his car through other cars parked out on the road. This wasn’t really a neighborhood of front-attached garages or even garages in general. “Do I park by that cute, yellow house over there?”

I nodded and went to pick up my dripping umbrella from the rubber mat-covered floor. “The party’s inside. Mama had originally wanted it out on the back porch but today’s weather has just been really crappy.”

He smiled and looked around and I briefly hesitated.

“Do you… Since you’re already here…” I started, trying to sound as casual as I could. “Do you want to join us?”

He looked at me, surprised but smiling. “Are you sure?”

I shrugged. “I wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for you. But just to set your expectations, it’s nothing fancy or extravagant. It’s a kid’s party and we’ll be serving hotdogs and cupcakes.”

He laughed. “I love hotdogs and cupcakes. But I don’t have a gift for your nephew.”

I shook my head. “Oh, don’t worry about it. You’re my guest. Now, come on!”

He parked the car by the curb across the street and we jumped out and hurried under my umbrella.

“Nice ride you got there, buddy,” a familiar male voice said the moment we arrived at the covered front porch.

I closed the umbrella and saw Terrence & a couple more of my older brother’s friends sitting by the bench at the corner of the porch, having a round of beer. Seth stiffened up and positioned himself in front of me but I slowly stepped around him.

I frowned darkly at the group. “Make sure that that nice ride stays exactly where it is now, Terrence, or I will beat the crap out of each of you.”

Terrence narrowed his eyes at me for a second before he broke into a grin that showed the wide gap between his two front teeth. “You betcha, sweetheart. You should both get inside. The party started about twenty minutes ago.”

I grabbed Seth by the wrist and pulled him into the empty foyer. I extended my hand for his coat and he slowly took it off.

“Uhm, are you sure those guys aren’t going to hunt us down after your little tirade there?” he asked unsurely.

I looked up and saw that he was really worried. I couldn’t help but smile. “Uhm, I’m sure. Terrence grew up with me and my siblings here in Capitano. He’s an orphan and lives with his auntie. He and my brother work in a computer repair store by the West Stretch.”

“What’s the West Stretch?” he asked curiously.

I smiled. “Dock Garren’s version of Hatter Boulevard without the exorbitant price tag. Their friend owns a second-hand computer shop and Terrence and my brother fix up the goodies they buy off to resell.”

I noticed his amazed expression and patted his arm. “Don’t worry. They look like thugs but they’re good people—at least better than most guys their age in the area. My brother’s the middle child—a bit of a rebel but he’s a nice guy once you get to know him.”


We both looked up at the low, grave voice and found Alvin standing by the doorway with a big white plastic bag. Alvin is twenty-three years old, tall and tanned with the same dark brown eyes as mine and thick stubble. He eyed Seth suspiciously.

“Alvin, what have you got?” I asked, gesturing at the bag he heaped up over his shoulder.

“The last round of party favors. I had to pick them up from Neil’s shop but I could only load one bag on my bike so I had to come back for the second one,” he answered, putting it down and opening it to show me. It contained about a dozen or so little bags with candies and colorful paper masks in them. Neil works at a party supplies store so go figure.

“Who is he?” Alvin asked, nodding to Seth.


“My name’s Seth. Ali and I attend a class together,” Seth answered, stepping forward with an extended hand. He smiled politely at Alvin. “We were supposed to meet with our professor but she couldn’t make it and Ali needed to get home right away for her nephew’s birthday so I offered to give her a ride.”

I waited, slightly tensed now, as Alvin’s jaw muscles twitched. No one can ever tell what’s going on in his head.

Finally, he shook Seth’s hand. “Thanks, then. Don’t worry, Terrence and the other guys are keeping an eye on your Cayenne outside. You might wanna try a more discreet car next time you come here.”

Seth blinked and laughed. “Sound advice. I’ll definitely consider it. Today’s trip here was a bit unplanned.”

“No worries,” Alvin assured him to my utter, secret surprise. “They’re all in the kitchen area. You might want to—“

“Auntie Ali!”

We all turned around and found now-five-year-old Shawn standing by the kitchen doorway with a big grin on his chubby, rosy face.

“Hey there, birthday boy!” I broke into a grin and ran to pick him up in my arms. “You thought I was going to miss your party, didn’t you?”

Shawn nodded. “Mommy said you had to go to school.”

“I did but the teacher couldn’t make it so here I am,” I explained to him, kissing his cheek. “And I got your gift in my room upstairs. You’ll like it, I promise.”

Shawn clapped his hands together before wrapping them around my neck. “Thank you, Auntie Ali. You should’ve seen my birthday cake. Mommy got me one that looks like a car. It was red! I blew five candles on it!”

“That must’ve been nice,” Seth managed to comment and Shawn and I both turned to look at him. I’d totally forgotten he was standing there. He had a big grin on his face.

Shawn gawked at him curiously. He wasn’t a shy kid. “Who are you, mister?”

“That’s Seth, sweetie,” I told the boy, moving him closer to Seth. “He gave me a ride home ‘coz it was raining hard.”

“Happy birthday, Shawn,” Seth said to the boy, extending a hand to shake which Shawn eagerly took. “I’m sorry I don’t have a present for you. I didn’t know it was your birthday today.”

“That’s okay. Mommy says it’s the thought that counts,” the little boy answered smartly and Seth and I exchanged amused glances.

“But you know what? I do have a big, red car. A real one. We can go for a ride later, if you’d like. If you’re Auntie Ali won’t mind.” Seth looked up at me and Shawn craned his neck around for approval.

I bit my lip in uncertainty. “Uhm…”

“Sure, you can, Shawn, if your new friend would like you to,” my sister’s voice floated into the foyer where we’ve all been left standing by Alvin who’d gone to the kitchen with the party favors.

Abby is twenty-four. I’ve always considered her very pretty with her dark eyes, long lashes and taller height but today, I could see signs that she was tired. She was wearing a pretty, green cotton dress and a small, yellow fabric flower on her hair.

“Seth, this is my sister, Abby,” I introduced as Abby came over to extend her hand. “Shawn is her son. Her husband Neil is here somewhere.”

“He’s in the back porch distributing the drinks,” Abby supplied, taking Shawn from my arms. “Mama is in the dining room with the kids. You two better get something to eat now before the food’s all gone.”

I could detect Abby’s curiosity but I ignored it and figured I’ll let her bug me about it later.

I ushered Seth to the dining room where there about thirty kids or so crammed in little plastic tables of four that we borrowed from the party shop where Neil worked. It should’ve been a small party but the owner of the party shop adored Shawn who always dropped by with Abby that he sprung a lot of free stuff for the little boy’s party.

“Ali, great that you’re here!” My mother came over and I hugged her briefly. She was the smallest in the family with her petite five-foot-two frame. I came next at five-foot-five.

She glanced at AJ and her eyes immediately lit up. She glanced back at me. “Your boyfriend?”

My mom talks with a trace of her original accent which usually becomes obvious when she becomes excited. Like now.

I felt my cheeks turn bright red and I quickly shook my head. “Uhm, no. We’re in a class together and he gave me a ride home because it was raining.”

Seth didn’t look embarrassed at all. In fact, he was grinning as he shook my mother’s hand. “I think if we insist on that idea, Ali here is going to faint and fall flat on her face.”

My mother blinked in surprise then chuckled. “You may be right. Come on in. You two must be starving. We’re just about to start the games.”

The rest of the afternoon was filled with what you would expect from a children’s birthday party—songs and games, ice cream and food littered all over the floor, some kids fighting and crying and of course, my mother packing up the leftover food into little bags for other mothers to bring home.

It was around four thirty when the last guest left and Seth and I were sitting on the bench by the second floor deck, eating the last of the mint chocolate chip ice cream.

“Thanks, by the way,” I said quietly, glancing his way quickly. “You were surprisingly good at facilitating the pin-the-sword-on-the-knight’s-hand-game.”

Seth grinned. “I had a really good time. It’s been ages since I’ve been to a children’s party. I’ve missed it.”

“Didn’t you have parties for yours or your friends’ birthdays?”

“Sure, we had big parties until we were like twelve or something like that,” he answered with a shrug. “After that, we were considered too grown up for any more. Instead, our parents gave us gifts like a trip to Disneyland or skiing at Aspen. No more parties unless we threw one ourselves. The pattern became that the older you get, the bigger the gifts you’re given.”

I smirked. “You sound like you’re complaining. Some people would think you very fortunate.”

“Oh, I’m sure,” he answered, leaning back comfortably against the squeaky bench’s back rest and staring far ahead. “I’m never ungrateful for mine and my family’s good fortune. It’s just hard to be… ordinary. Have ordinary kid’s parties, have ordinary friends, get ordinary gifts.”

He turned to me with an amused expression. “Do you know that the birthday parties I’ve been too had more adults than kids? It’s a social event for them, mostly for business reasons. If I had a classmate whose family owned a company that attracted my parents’ attention, they’d get invited over so we could meet them. Before you know it, my Dad’s booking to play golf with them to talk about business. And there were so many nannies and plain-clothes body guards too. It was nothing like Shawn’s birthday at all.”

I scrunched up my nose. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound like much fun. I never thought of it that way.”

He laughed softly. “Not everything that’s expensive and glamorous is necessarily fun. My older sister grew up dreading her birthday parties. She has quite a strong personality and she’d always made it very clear that our parents only invite kids she knew. She almost succeeded but the potential reward for the business was too high that it just wouldn’t happen. I believe she still resents it to this day.”

“I didn’t know you had a sister. Where is she now?” I asked, curious all a sudden.

“London. She just opened her own interior design business but she’s been working there for about three years now. She’s very independent and outspoken—you’d like her.”

I grinned. “Well, as long as she doesn’t have your ego, I’m sure we’ll get along just fine.”

“Hey, I don’t have that big an ego!” he protested good-naturedly. “I don’t know why you always accuse me of that.”

“Okay, I’m sorry. I was just teasing,” I told him before taking a big spoonful of ice cream. “I mean, after all, you’re here in the slums of Dock Garren, aren’t you?”

He glanced at me wryly. “You say that as if it’s so bad to be here.”

I raised a brown. “Well, isn’t it?”

“No, not really. Sure, it doesn’t have the sprawling mansions, landscaped lawns and infinity pools that became the signature of Ballard’s estate communities but Dock Garren has a lot of character of its own,” he answered with conviction. “Everyone I’ve met here today were pretty nice people and my car is still parked down the street without a single scratch on it, I think. Families are a bit more real here too. Sure, there are some shady parts of the neighborhood that I wouldn’t want to find myself in but I can’t generalize everybody along with all the bad things I’ve heard about the place because today, I’d proven that there’s more than one exception to that common belief. You are excellent example.”

I blinked. “Me? What do you mean?”

“Well, for somebody whom I assume was raised in Dock Garren, you certainly have a lot of class,” he started with what seemed like a really sincere expression on his face. “You’re very intelligent, articulate and well-mannered—except during times when you want me to get out of your face. You take pride in being able to fend for yourself and you don’t like being a charity case—you consider yourself of equal footing as everybody else.”

“No, not equal footing. I just believe everybody deserves equal opportunities,” I answered with a tightness in my throat as I stared into the distance, my eyes absently drinking in the visual proof of why I’m not on equal footing with the rest of Ballard.

“Ali,” he softly said, his face leaning close to mine that when I turned, I got the full impact of the tenderness in his beautiful green eyes. “I know the world isn’t always fair but you got to stake your claim in the opportunities that come your way. You deserve every one of them.”

I smiled. “Thanks. I’ll try—“

Then his phone sounded off and vibrated in his pocket between us. I jumped back and he pulled it out. He looked at the display for a couple of seconds then cancelled the call.

“Sorry,” he apologized, slipping it back into his pocket. Three seconds later, it started ringing again.

With a sigh, he flipped it open and answered the call.

“Hey Katherine, how are you doing?”

I inched away a bit and pretended to concentrate on whatever ice cream I had left on my bowl. Seth stayed in his spot, seeming not to care if I heard his phone call.

“I’m sorry, I can’t pick you up tonight. I know, it’s a Monday. I just lost track of what day it is,” he was saying on the phone, sounding patient. “I’m caught up in something right now. I’m sorry. No, I can’t make it—“

“Excuse me,” I mumbled briefly before getting up from the bench and making my way downstairs. The last thing I wanted was to listen to him talk to another girl.

I found my mother and sister at the kitchen downstairs, cleaning up at the sink.

“Hey, where’s Seth?” Abby asked, her mouth turning up into a big, eager grin.

“On the phone with one of his girlfriends,” I answered, putting down my empty bowl of ice cream.

Abby smirked. “I find that hard to believe. I thought you were his girlfriend.”

“Abby!” I protested, playfully punching her arm. “I am not! Seth has a big pool of girls to pick from and I’m sure it’s a new girl every week.”

“And does that hurt your feelings?” Mama asked with a teasing smile.

“God, no. Seth and I are somewhat friends who constantly banter—there’s nothing more to it,” I told them, picking up some of the newly washed dishes and helping Mama dry them. “It’s not like one of those movies you’ve seen where they start out hating each other when they actually have a secret attraction brewing between them.”

Mama chuckled and shook her head. “Actually, I think it’s exactly like those movies.”

“I agree,” added Abby, nodding and grinning in amusement. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed it at all but Seth’s eyes twinkle every time he looks at you. It’s not often that you see that smitten look in a guy’s eyes and I know it when I see it.”

I rolled my eyes. “Seth just happens to have a dazzling smile and bright, shimmering eyes. That’s why girls fall over their feet around him.”

“Just not you?” Mama asked with a knowing look. “He can have any girl except the one he really wants?”

I groaned. “Ma, you’ve watched way too many romantic dramas. I’m telling you, it’s not what you think. I thought you trusted my opinion.”

Abby shook her head and winked. “Not in the matters you’re not an expert at—like love and relationships.”

I stuck my tongue out at her. “It doesn’t mean that just because I’m not dating left and right, I know nothing about boys especially ones like Seth who are precarious to a girl’s heart because they are sweet and destructive at the same time.”

Mama shook her head. “My, you’re cynical.”

“Who’s cynical?” a bright, chirpy male voice sounded from the stairs and we turned and found Seth walking down the steps with a grin.

“My dear sister here,” Abby answered, maintaining a sweet smile after I threw her a look of daggers. “She doesn’t like boys who are sweet and destructive at the same time.”

“Ignore her,” I interjected before he could answer. I put down the dish towel and turned to him. “So, you’re ready to go?”

“Go where?”

I rolled my eyes. “Go pick up whoever you forgot to pick up today. I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were supposed to be somewhere else. You did tell me you had the rest of the day free.”

Seth shook his head. “Oh, that. No, there’s no need. She hangs out with me and my friends at the university courtyard on Mondays and she always hitches with me. There’s plenty who can offer her a ride home today.”

“Oh, but the poor girl will be crushed,” I replied sarcastically. “I don’t want her brokenhearted because you traded her for a kid’s birthday party.”

Seth narrowed his eyes. “Why do you sound jealous? Are you jealous?”

My sister snickered but stopped when I glared at her.

“I’m not jealous. You’re delusional,” I answered hotly, my cheeks burning much to my annoyance. It didn’t help that both my mother and sister were very amused. “What do I care about whether you pimp yourself out as Ballard’s chauffer service to all the girls in town?”

Seth looked pleased. “I offered you a ride too.”

My eyes narrowed into slits and my ears felt very, very warm that I stormed out of the kitchen and into the living room, making my way through to the back porch.

I heard the swing door whoosh behind me as I plopped down the bench and stared at the view of the tiny lawn and the neighbor’s dumpster.

“Ali, I was kidding!” Seth blustered, plopping down next to me. “It was a joke, come on.”

I sighed. “Whatever. You and I both know I only took you up on that offer due to very special circumstances.”

“I know. I’m sorry,” he said, more patiently this time, stretching his long legs out in front of him. “I wouldn’t refuse anybody who needed a lift and was really in need for one. Catherine doesn’t really need one. She has her own car but she doesn’t like driving. You’re right—she likes being chauffeured around. And I’m too much of a nice guy to say no.”

I snorted. “I’m sure she has many creative ways to return the favor.”

He narrowed his eyes at me. “Ali…”

“Alright, enough of this conversation,” I interjected, putting my hands up in the air. “Besides, it’s none of my business.”

“We can make it your business—“

I put a hand up again to stop him. “No, Seth, don’t go there.”

A long moment of tensed silence—the breeze blew by softly, Mama’s cherry blossoms rustling with gentle grace.

“Why are you so afraid?”

A logical person would ask what that question meant, what the main question was and what its context was in the conversation.

My mind ran short on logic yet the question rang clearly in my head—I knew exactly what he meant.

I looked away. “Fear is good. It keeps me from leaping into the unknown where I could crash and burn.”

He nudged my shoulder, trying to be teasing. “I didn’t know you were a scared cat. I thought you were utterly fearless in everything.”

I smirked and shook my head. “I’m smart enough to know there are things to be afraid of.”

“What’s your biggest fear?”

“Failure. Self-disappointment. Losing someone I love.”

“I think we all have to deal with losing loved ones,” he replied, his voice gaining a hint of regret. “It’s something none of us can escape from—rich or poor.”

The last of the rain was pattering away lightly and a bit of sunshine was starting to gleam on the wet blades of grass.

“When my Dad died, we were all devastated,” I told him, not sure why I couldn’t stop the words from flowing out of my lips. I didn’t talk about my father to just anyone. “Mama took it the hardest. For weeks, she was the unhappiest person in the world that I’ve ever seen. She stared into space for hours, she didn’t eat, and she didn’t want to leave the bedroom. It’s like we lost her along with Dad. I can’t bear that kind of pain.”

“She got better though, didn’t she?” he asked gently, putting a hand on my shoulder. I didn’t shrug it away because it felt good—the touch felt like big, warm hands holding the pieces of my shattered, little heart.

“She did, after she realized there were still her children depending on her. But she never quite returned to her old, happy self. The damage has been done and it’s irreparable and that’s what I’m afraid of.”

“It’s not all about pain though,” he said, his voice hopeful. “I’m sure it’s not. And I’m sure that whatever pain there may be, it’s still always worth it in the end.”

I looked at him with a wry smile. “I didn’t know you were the romantic type.”

He grinned. “I’m sure you didn’t. You were pretty busy convincing yourself that I was the playboy type.”

I raised a brow. “You are the playboy type.”

“I thought you just said I was the romantic type? I have to be one or the other.”

I giggled. “Maybe you’re just as complicated as I am.”

He laughed and nodded. “Maybe. Your complications are contagious.”

We laughed for a bit more and a giddy sense of feeling settled in me. It felt good to laugh again after trekking out of a painful walk down memory lane. And the fact that there was nothing especially funny about our conversation yet we were still able to laugh our hearts out made me wonder if this was only possible because despite our fights and differences, Seth and I actually understand each other even without words.

And maybe—just maybe—that was reason enough not to feel so afraid anymore.

Chapter Six


I glanced at my watch for the fourteenth time in the last twenty minutes and assured myself that I was just being paranoid. There was still a good ten minutes before the meeting with Dr. Han was supposed to start. Neither Seth nor the professor were here yet at the lecture room—just me and the relentless patter of the rain against the window.

I opened my old, trusty, green leather Filofax and reviewed my schedule. It was right there on my Monday afternoon: meeting with Dr. Han & Seth for outline presentation at two-thirty. It was right under another event—Shawn’s birthday at two-thirty as well.

I breathed in deeply and shut the organizer close, turning my attention to the windows.

The small university town of Ballard has two seasons most of the year. It either rained or was very dry and hot. It rarely snowed during winter but the freezing rain is usually enough to keep everyone inside. The other three seasons didn’t really distinguish themselves well from each other as it could rain buckets during summer or could be very hot during the fall. It happens with very little explanation that most people stuck to just two seasons—sunny and rainy.

Today’s apparently rainy.

The rich crowd of Ballard, which made up majority of the town’s population, would be filing into the many posh Italian cafes in Hatter Boulevard which is what you call the long stretch of boardwalk along the beach that housed the swanky restaurants, boutiques and other commercial establishments frequented by the yacht-racing, Dior-toting, champagne-sipping elite. When the sun is high and bright, only very few can be spotted at the Boulevard as they’d be all aboard their yachts, sunbathing or partying with friends. When it rained, they got into their tinted SUVs and met up with their crowd in cafés that put Starbucks at the bottom of the list of outrageously priced-coffee.

How does a poor, odd-jobs girl like me know all this?

Because that’s what Ballard’s all about.

Never mind the highly sought-after Cox University which I attend or the turquoise waters of Sylvan beach. It was the high life of some of the country’s richest families that put Ballard on the map. I grew up doing odd jobs at some of these highly-exclusive shops and restaurants along Hatter Boulevard. It wasn’t hard for me to notice. It was reconciling that life to the slums that lay behind the town’s high-rises and mansions—Dock Garren, where the working class make ends meet every day of their lives through jobs supplied by the rich’s lifestyle—that was difficult to understand. How could two, completely different worlds exist in a small, coastal town boggled me. The separation was clear and defined and no one ever bothered to stand up and challenge its existence. The rich had staked their claim on all things pleasant and abundant and the poor were content to live on scraps. It was a reality that caused me constant inner turmoil and often kept my gap to the rich unbridged.

But I needed to attend their schools. I needed to seize the same opportunities laid out in front of them for their picking. I had no advantage other than my brains and hard work and most of the time they were not enough to keep me ahead of the race. That must explain why every waking hour of my life is dedicated to success—dedicated to prove a point that whatever line there was that separated these two worlds can either be crossed by the poor if they willed themselves to or can be pushed out of the way by the rich if they ever paid attention to something else other than themselves.

Life had many ironies. I always feel like I am one of them.

I blinked out of my deep thoughts at the sound of the door softly shutting close. I turned around and saw Seth walking to my direction.

I looked at my watch again. It was now two-twenty-two. Dr. Han should be here shortly.

“You’re smiling,” was the first thing he said when he finally reached me by the window.

My hand flew to my mouth in surprise. “Was I?”

“Yes, you were until you made it go away,” he answered, pulling my hand away from my face. “You had this very faint smile as if you’d just woken up from a real good sleep late in the morning.”

I snorted. “I didn’t even know there was a smile for that. I was just thinking. They weren’t even happy thoughts. I don’t know why I would’ve been smiling.”

“Don’t believe people who say you’re loony when you smile for no reason,” he said with a small grin, cranking the window open. A blast of cold air hit us but the room was quickly enveloped with a refreshing coolness. “I do it all the time. Well, mostly there’s a reason but sometimes, I’m just plain happy and content.”

I closed my eyes and leaned closer to the open window, letting the cool air touch my face. “It’s hard to imagine someone like you not being content, Seth. You can have everything you want.”

There was a brief gap of silence before he answered. “Not everything.”

I opened my eyes and saw him staring into the distance, his hand outstretched, trying to catch some raindrops. “Well, we can’t always win. If we can, life would be pretty boring. There won’t be anything to work for anymore.”

He turned to me and his eyes crinkled with a smile. “There’s plenty in my life that I have to work for. Some of them demand more than the rest do but I figured it’ll be worth it in the end.”

I nodded. “The battle’s just as important as the prize. Success is greater when well-deserved, wealth is more enjoyable when honestly earned, happiness lasts longer when it’s not superficial.”

“Love is sweeter too when it conquers many great adversities,” he supplied, his smile broadening.

I rolled my eyes and shook my head. “Well, that’s not part of my quote but maybe you’re right. I don’t know. Relationships are not my thing. I can’t make it work.”

He eyed me curiously. “Why not? We can all make it work if we really want to.”

“That’s the thing. I don’t want to. I don’t want to because it will take me away so much from my plans. I don’t want to because… I don’t want to have to find out that I’m right about something.”

“Right about what?”

I blushed a bit and glanced away. “Never mind.”

“Right about what?” he pressed. “Oh, come on. You’ve already started so finish it.”

I took a deep breath and held out both of my hands to catch some of the raindrops myself. “Well… Right about no one ever being able to take me on because I’m difficult to be with. I have a feeling that I will drive that person crazy.”

“You have no idea,” he grumbled so lowly I wasn’t sure I heard him right.

“What did you say?” I demanded, scrunching up my nose.

“Nothing. I said, you don’t know that,” he replied. “Maybe it’ll drive him crazy but if he can see past that and still want you then maybe he’s a keeper. I’d say he’s a little bit suicidal doing that but you may be really worth it for him.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “You’re surprisingly profound today. Are you dating a Psych student?”

He laughed and shook his head. “No. Can I not offer some wise advice because I’m just some popular, superficial guy whose life is so easy and dandy?”

I shrugged. “I didn’t mean it that way. I’m just… curious.”

He leaned against the window and moved a bit closer to me, his expression mischievous. “Curious as to whether I’m dating somebody?”

I scoffed. “Why would I be curious about the most predictable thing in the world?”

“Ouch, that hurt.” He winced and put a hand on his chest. “You make me sound as if I have no credibility at all.”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying.” I broke into a big grin before wiping my dripping hands in front of his face.


Laughing, I darted away from him, slipping through the desks as he raced after me, his hands dripping as well.

“Come here, you sly little fox!” He closed in on me and I shrieked as he backed me into a corner and wiped his wet hands down my face.

“Eew! That is gross!” I blinked the water out of my eyes and wiped whatever I could of my face with the sleeve of my sweater.

“Just giving you a taste of your own medicine.” Seth grinned and pulled out a neatly folded handkerchief from his jeans’ pocket. “Come here. Be still.”

He lifted my chin up with his thumb and gently dabbed my face with the handkerchief. He did it so patiently that I had time to catch a glimpse of how close his lips were and how they curved into a small, faint smile that invited my fingertips to trace it. I balled up my hands into fists and kept them on my side.

“Th-thanks,” I stammered when he finished wiping my face dry. “Your face is wet too.”

His smile evolved into a lopsided grin as he wiped his face with the same handkerchief. “That was refreshing.”

I instinctively reached up to dab off some water on the top of his left brow. “Uhm, you missed a spot.”

He looked at my still-outstretched hand then glanced back at me, his dark green eyes shining. “Thanks.”

We were too close, I finally realized, and so I backed away a couple of steps and tried to change the subject. “Well. Good thing Dr. Han didn’t walk in on us dumping water all over her lecture room. She’d be here any minute.”

“Oh, no, she won’t be,” Seth replied, still dabbing some wet spots in front of his shirt. “She can’t make it today. I ran into her earlier and she has some meeting to go to. She postponed the meeting to tomorrow morning at ten. I came to tell you.”

My eyes widened in shock and irritation. “You knew all this time and you just mentioned it now?”

Seth scratched his ear and looked at his own watch. “Well, I didn’t realize it was that big of a deal. It’s only a couple of minutes after the meeting’s supposed to start.”

I sighed and went back to the desk where I’d put down my bag and books. “It’s just that it’s my nephew’s birthday today and he’s having a kid’s party at two-thirty which I decided to miss so I can attend the meeting with you and Dr. Han.”

Guilt immediately washed over Seth’s face. “I had no idea. I’m so sorry, Ali.”

I shrugged and headed for the door. “It’s okay. I just wish I knew earlier but you don’t have my number so you couldn’t have really told me.”

Seth grabbed the sweater he draped at the back of a chair and followed me out into the hall. “How are you going to get home? It’s pouring outside.”

“Bus, as usual.” I dug into my bag and fished out a plastic ID envelope that protected my bus pass. “It’ll take about half an hour to get home but I should still be able to make it in time for the games.”

“I’ll give you a ride home,” he offered, trying to keep up with me through the crowded hallway. “It’ll be faster that way plus you won’t be soaked.”

I fished out another of the many bulky things in my backpack. “I have a foldable umbrella. I’ll be fine. I don’t want to get in your way.”

“I’m done for the day,” he insisted as we approached the exit to the parking lot. “Please, Ali. It’s the most sensible thing. Don’t you want to make it there as early as you can?”

I paused and looked at him for a full minute. “I live in Dock Garren.”

He looked back at me with a blank expression. “And the problem with that is what exactly?”

“It’s not the kind of neighborhood you’re used to, Seth.”

He exhaled sharply in exasperation and looked heavenwards. “I don’t know why you’re always so sensitive about that kind of thing. So I’ve never been to Dock Garren. So I live in a gated community. So what? Can I not find my way to Dock Garren? Can I not go there and not faint because it lacks the affluence I see around me every day of my life? Aren’t you underestimating me too much, Ali?”

I opened my mouth, ready with a retort but the pained looked in his eyes stopped me. He really seemed hurt and I briefly wondered if I ever really thought Seth was that kind of person.

“Fine,” I conceded, unstrapping the cream-colored umbrella and extending it open. “Just make sure you know what you’re doing.”

He instantly beamed. “Of course, I’m sure. Thanks, Ali. It means a lot to me that you trust me enough to do this for you.”

I rolled my eyes and stepped out into the rain, the umbrella raised over my head. “Drama doesn’t really suit you too much, Seth. Come on.”

He stepped under the umbrella and slipped his hand around the handle, just right under mine that I let go and let him hold it as he was taller. The umbrella was big enough for one person and we had to huddle close to each other to avoid getting soaked on the side. He opened up the right side of his blue-gray jacket and wrapped it around my shoulder, his arm pulling me closer into the warmth of his body.

I sneaked a glance at him and all I could see was his forest green eyes and the quiet smile that hovered on his lips.

I quickly glanced back down at my feet and try as I might, I couldn’t resist a smile of my own.

I suddenly couldn’t remember the many reasons I knew were there as to why I’ve always pushed Seth away.

All I knew at that moment, as rain continued to pour down around us, was that it felt warm and sweet and strangely happy being that close to him.

Chapter Five


“That’s a little too conservative, I think.”

I looked up and stared at Dana, the tall, blonde bombshell who worked the weekend night shifts with me at MerryWorld Books & Travel. She’s a struggling belly dance teacher aspiring to set up her own studio someday but while that hasn’t happened yet, she works the weekends here and in the last three years we’ve been working together, she and I have developed quite a comfortable friendship—comfortable enough for me to know that her definition for ‘conservative’ is anything below mid-thigh.

“This is a bookshop, not a bar,” I argued, sketching the last few details of the MW B & T uniform that I was designing. “I want something comfortable and attractive—something anybody would wear regardless of their concept of conservatism.”

“Hmmm… You do have a point,” she agreed reluctantly with a scrunched up nose, glancing over at my sketch again. “It does look quite elegant. I like the puffed sleeves. It’s very feminine.”

I smiled and held the sketch further away. It could get boring here in the evenings especially on a Saturday when parties and dinners are what’s on everybody’s mind and we entertain ourselves with random little clean ups, chats and several sketches of possible uniforms that we know the owner will never consider getting for whatever staff he’s got.

I did like this particular design—it had a silk, button-down blouse with flowing puffed sleeves that cuffed just right below the elbows and over it was a dark, corset-like bustier. It was paired up with sleek, dark straight-cut pants with a small, ribbon for a belt that was tied loosely on the right hip.

“Are you going to show Sadik the designs you came up with?” Dana asked, reaching forward to straighten a small stack of in-store promo flyers. “You’ve been sketching and sketching for years now and you can almost build an entire wardrobe with the number of designs you made.”

I grinned sheepishly and shut the sketchbook close. “Nah. He’ll just laugh and muse loudly why we ever saw the need for uniforms in this not-so-sophisticated-job. Plus, if he ever agrees to it, he’s still going to make us pay for it and I don’t want to do that.”

“Maybe you can sell your sketches or something then,” she suggested. “You draw so well and the designs are awesome you can probably earn a fortune from them.”

I laughed and put the sketchbook away. “And who’s going to be interested in bookstore uniform designs? None of the major fashion houses, that’s for sure. It’s just a hobby. But I’ll probably make you a dress for your birthday next month—as my present.”

Dana brightened significantly and went to squeal and hug me. “Really? Oh, Ali. I’d love to! That’ll be such a sweet gift!”

I blushed and rolled my eyes. “I did that for your last birthday too so I can’t really see why it’s such a big deal now.”

Dana’s eyes widened. “You mean, you don’t know?”

“Don’t know what?”

“I scored a spot in a dance exhibit at the Gilliad Museum on the night of my birthday!” Dana squealed, jumping to hug me in almost feverish excitement. “The city is doing a celebration of dance history and they recruited several individual dancers and groups to each feature a genre of dance. I’m doing belly dancing of course with one of my good friends and colleagues Jonathan. And I’ve been trying to come up with the perfect outfit. I can’t believe I didn’t think of you at all!”

I couldn’t resist smiling and hugging Dana back. “That’s an amazing opportunity, Dana! The press will be all over it, I’m sure and you can get your much-needed publicity. We need to make you stand out! I’d love to help you.”

Dana beamed and blinked back what seemed to be the start of tears. “I really appreciate it, Ali. We’ll go out for coffee this week and I’ll tell you the look and fit that I’m going for and you can take it from there.”

We looked at each other again and burst out into excited squeals until we heard someone clear his throat.

“Well, this is a rare event,” the all-too-familiar-voice said, not bothering at all to conceal his amusement. “Ali skipping up and down, grinning and giggling. I am stunned.”

Dana turned and a sexy, flirtatious smile immediately blossomed on her lips. “Well, hello there. How can we help you?”

The expression on my face soured as I turned around and found Seth standing across the counter, a big grin on his face. “And what in world are you doing here?”

He quickly held up a thick, hardbound book. “I’m buying this.”

I raised a brow and grabbed the book from him. “The Guinness Book of World Record for 2006 interested you so much that you dragged yourself here in MerryWorld Books & Travel on a Saturday evening when everyone else is out partying in stretch limos and top-down Porsches with sparkling champagne in their fancy wineglasses imported from France?”

Dana snorted. “Uhm, that was quite a mouthful, honey.”

Seth couldn’t suppress an even more amused smile. “I agree. She’s quite articulate when she’s mocking my ‘kind’. She doesn’t miss a beat at all.”

He and Dana laughed and Dana eagerly extended a hand to him. “I’m Dana, by the way. Ali here has forgotten her manners.”

“Seth Wallace. I go to the same university as Ali. Nice to meet you.”

I didn’t care to change my reaction as I rang the book into the till and put it down on the counter. “That’ll be five-fifty. Do you need a bag?”

“Sure, thanks. Credit card?”

I took the card he handed me and printed out the receipts for him to sign and keep. “Sign this and be off. I’m sure you can hardly wait to read this very-outdated book.”

I slid the book into one of MerryWorld’s yellow green medium bags and turned to hand it to him when I saw a big, brown box sitting there on the counter. I glanced at Dana who was too surprised to react.

“What’s this?” I demanded.

“They’re Monte Darschan truffles!” Dana finally sputtered, her eyes bulging wide as she leaned closer to peer at the intricate script writing on a small square area on top of the box. “They’re like, one of the best and most expensive chocolates ever! Each one actually contains a truffle mushroom—oh my God! That’s so sweet!”

I groaned and gently shoved the box in Seth’s direction. “Please take this back.”

Dana gasped out loud in disbelief and Seth’s smile dimmed by several watts.

“It’s my treat for you. I didn’t bring anything to our study picnic this morning and I felt bad. You’d like these chocolates. They’re very good.”

I scoffed. “Oh, I hope they are if you paid, I don’t know, eighty dollars for them—“

“They’re two hundred dollars apiece so a box of twelve’s about twenty four hundred bucks,” Dana interrupted to my utter shock that my eyes almost popped out of their sockets.

I raised a brow at Seth. “I already feel bad buying a bar of Snickers when I feel like one ‘coz I don’t want to spend unnecessarily and now you give me this? What in the world am I gonna do with a twenty-four-hundred-dollar-box of chocolates?”

Seth exchanged uncertain glances with Dana and looked back at me again. “Uhm, eat them?”

I groaned. “You just don’t get it, do you? I don’t want them and you have no reason to give them to me so please take them back to the store and get your money refunded.”

“But I don’t want my money back,” Seth argued, starting to look exasperated now. “It’s not even about the price. It’s my treat after you brought food for me as well today. Take it and say thank you.”

“I’ll take it and say thank you,” Dana blurted out only to yelp out loud immediately when I elbowed her side.

I picked up the box and pushed it towards Seth. “You can tell me thank you for the food and that’d be enough. You don’t need to give me back anything. Okay?”

He looked at me so helplessly for a full minute before sighing and nodding. He picked up the box and nodded his goodbye. “Fine. I’ll go. Have a great night. Nice to meet you, Dana.”

Dana beamed and rigorously waved goodbye. “Nice to meet you too, sweetie! Come drop by again next time.”

“Thanks for the loyalty, Dana,” I grumbled.

“What do you mean loyalty? I wasn’t taking sides!” Dana defended with a dramatic arch of her arm. “How could I when there was no battle? It’s not like he was doing anything bad to you or anything like that. The poor guy was just trying to give you some very expensive chocolate. You were the one who was shooting him down one attempt after another. You were heartless.”

My cheeks burned. “You sound like you mean that.”

Dana rolled her eyes. “Of course, I meant it. I’ve never met a boy as sweet as that one and you were just vile to him. I’m surprised why he likes you enough to keep taking it. If I were him, I would’ve walked out right away. I mean, he’s got looks, an adorable personality and obviously tons of money. He can have any girl he wants.”

I pouted. “I never said he couldn’t. We’re not like that, okay? We just like to fight and banter because he won’t leave me alone although he’s nice enough that I can tolerate it most of the time.”

Drama queen extraordinaire, Dana sighed, closed her eyes in resignation and finally gently put her hands on each side of my face, lifting it up so I can look into her eyes. “Oh, my dear friend. You’re so smart yet so naïve at the same time. Let me know when it’s dawned on you at last. I have to go to the back now to start cleaning. We’re closing in half an hour.”

Then she left me there, stunned and silenced.

What the hell did she mean by that?

I never got to think about it again. We got a handful of customers who walked in as they usually do when you’re just about to close—I don’t know, maybe just to annoy you. When Billy, the big guy who works the stock in the back, finally let us all out, I hugged Dana goodbye and walked through the narrow, well-lit alley in the back to make my way to the main sidewalk which will take me to the nearest bus stop.

I just emerged from the alley when I spotted him right away.

“What are you still doing here?” I asked him, approaching slowly. “You’re borderline stalker now, Seth.”

He laughed and straightened up from having leaned against the side of his car. “I know. It’s beginning to creep me out too.”

I noticed the pink on his cheeks and the slight vapor from his breath. He looks like he’s been out here for at least an hour now. The city’s usually pretty warm but the temperature drops pretty dramatically in the late evening.

I felt a pang of guilt. “Look, Seth. About earlier…”

“Ali, I just…”

We both stopped speaking at the same time and shared an awkward moment of silence. I tucked my backpack up my shoulder and looked down on my shoes.

He shifted and all of a sudden, the box of truffles appeared in front of me again.

I stepped back but he just quickly pulled my hand up and placed the box there.


“Good night and be careful on the bus,” he murmured so gently before cupping both of my ears and pressing a kiss on my forehead.

I stood there, stunned again, watching him jump back into his car and quickly peel out into the road.

I looked down on the box again and noticed a yellow post it on top of the square spot where the name of the chocolates was. I peered at the writing and it simply said, in Seth’s small, scrawled handwriting:

I guess I should’ve thought of your favorites a lot more than what I thought was impressive. Enjoy and thanks again for today. – Seth

I opened up the box and inside was an assortment of Snickers, Maltesers and a whole bunch of more common, less expensive chocolates. I couldn’t suppress a grin which only grew wider as I closed the box and started for the bus stop again.

That guy can truly be surprising sometimes.


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