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Truly loved this one, I finished it within a day. I just love how she writes about love
09 September 2021 (09:05)
This book is REALLY good
12 September 2021 (09:32)
Fire asf I must say huha. Huha. Huha.
12 November 2021 (21:44)
It's not for everyone, but the way the author portrays Esme really had me crying.
As a half Vietnamese, it hits a lot closer to home.
The build-us, conflicts, raw emotions, and tiny reference to Vietnam were enough to make you love her.
It's not for everyone, but the way the author portrays Esme really had me crying.
As a half Vietnamese, it hits a lot closer to home.
The build-us, conflicts, raw emotions, and tiny reference to Vietnam were enough to make you love her.
19 December 2021 (11:10)
It’s good, just read it.
07 January 2022 (23:52)
I like it. Finished them in less than a day.
01 March 2022 (10:47)
Good book, worth my time
02 March 2022 (10:12)
Wow. This is amazing....you should read The kiss quotient first tho, you would understand about khai and Michael and his autism. So sad and raw yet amazing❤❤?
20 March 2022 (08:52)
It was so good I cried like 5 times
03 April 2022 (06:12)
I cried multiple times, it was so perfect. A must read.
22 April 2022 (01:40)
This book is amazing. I am on my third read. So hard to put down once you start.
26 April 2022 (12:21)
this book is wonderful
15 May 2022 (15:20)
It’s not available anymore huhu
21 August 2022 (18:28)
Front sales 2 pages TK TITLES BY HELEN HOANG THE KISS QUOTIENT THE BRIDE TEST This is an uncorrected ebook file. Please do not quote for publication until you check your copy against the finished book. A JOVE BOOK Published by Berkley An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019 Copyright © 2019 by Helen Hoang “Readers Guide” copyright © 2019 by Penguin Random House LLC Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random House to continue to publish books for every reader. A JOVE BOOK, BERKLEY, and the BERKLEY & B colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC. CIP DATA TK First Edition: May 2019 Printed in the United States of America 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2 Cover design and illustration by Colleen Reinhart Book design by TK This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Contents TITLES BY HELEN HOANG TITLE PAGE COPYRIGHT PAGE DEDICATION ACKNOWLEDGMENTS PROLOGUE CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN CHAPTER FIFTEEN CHAPTER SIXTEEN CHAPTER SEVENTEEN CHAPTER EIGHTEEN CHAPTER NINETEEN CHAPTER TWENTY CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT EPILOGUE AUTHOR’S NOTE ABOUT THE; AUTHOR Dedicated to Me· Thank you for loving me and teaching me how to chase my dreams. I’m proud to be yours. and Johnny I still miss you, but especially at weddings. Love, always. Acknowledgments First of all, I need to thank you, dear reader. I’m honored that you’ve chosen to spend time with my words and hope that something here resonates with you, makes you think, or makes you feel. This book was extremely difficult to write for a variety of reasons, and I’m so thankful for the people who supported me during the process. Suzanne Park, you are the most considerate, hardest working person I know. You inspire me. Gwynne Jackson, thank you for your kindness and patience and always being genuine. It means more than I can say. A. R. Lucas, I’ll forever associate rainbows with you. Thank you for being there when things are rough. Roselle Lim, how is it that we only just met this year? It feels like we’ve been friends forever. Thank you ReLynn Vaughn, Jen DeLuca, Shannon Caldwell, and my fantastic Pitch Wars mentor, Brighton Walsh, for reading early drafts of this book. Thanks to Brighton’s Bs for always being welcoming: Melissa Marino, Anniston Jory, Elizabeth Leis, Ellis Leigh, Esher Hogan, Laura Elizabeth, and Suzanne Baltzar. Thank you to the sensitivity readers who provided alternate perspectives on the diversity involved. I’m grateful for your valuable input. Mom, thank you for leading by example and being you. I wouldn’t be where I am without you. Many thanks to the rest of my family for putting up with me as I wrote this book, especially when I was antisocial and wrote through all of our vacations. I love you all. Because I made the grievous mistake of not mentioning my nieces and nephew last time: Sylvers, you are super, super duper awesome. And Ava, Elena, Anja, and Henry, too. No acknowledgments would be complete without my amazing agent, Kim Lionetti. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner for this publishing journey we’re on. You make this even more special, and I can’t thank you enough. Finally, thank you to the incredible publishing team at Berkley: Cindy Hwang, Kristine Swartz, Angela Kim, Megha Jain, Jessica Brock, Fareeda Bullert, Tawanna Sullivan, Colleen Reinhart, and others. This was an ambitious project for me, and you’ve all surprised me with how supportive you’ve been. I’m proud to work with you. PROLOGUE Ten years ago San Jose, California Khai was supposed to be crying. He knew he was supposed to be crying. Everyone else was. But his eyes were dry. If they stung, it was due to the heavy incense fogging the funeral parlor’s reception room. Was he sad? He thought he was sad. But he should be sadder. When your best friend died like this, you were supposed to be destroyed. If this were a Vietnamese opera, his tears would be forming rivers and drowning everyone. Why was his mind clear? Why was he thinking about the homework assignment that was due tomorrow? Why was he still functioning? His cousin Sara had sobbed so hard she’d needed to rush to the bathroom to vomit. She was still there now—he suspected—being sick over and over. Her mom, Dì Mai, sat stiffly in the front row, palms flat together and head bowed. Khai’s mom patted her back from time to time, but she remained unresponsive. Like Khai, she shed no tears, but that was because she’d cried them all out days before. The family was worried about her. She’d withered down to her skeleton since they’d gotten the call. Rows of Buddhist monks in yellow robes blocked his view of the open casket, but that was a good thing. Though the morticians had done their best, the body looked misshapen and wrong. That was not the sixteen-year-old boy who used to be Khai’s friend and favorite cousin. That was not Andy. Andy was gone. The only parts of him that survived were the memories in Khai’s head. Stick fights and sword fights, wrestling matches that Khai never won but refused to lose. Khai would rather break both of his own arms than call Andy his daddy. Andy said Khai was pathologically stubborn. Khai insisted he merely had principles. He still remembered their long walks home when the weight of the sun was heavier than their book-filled backpacks and the conversations that had taken place during those walks. Even now, he could hear his cousin scoffing at him. The specific circumstances eluded him, but the words remained. Nothing gets to you. It’s like your heart is made of stone. He hadn’t understood Andy then. He was beginning to now. The droning of Buddhist chants filled the room, low, off-key syllables spoken in a language no one understood. It flowed over and around him and vibrated in his head, and he couldn’t stop shaking his leg even though people had given him looks. A furtive glance at his watch confirmed that, yes, this had been going on for hours. He wanted the noise to stop. He could almost envision himself crawling into the coffin and shutting the lid to block the sound. But then he’d be stuck in a tight space with a corpse, and he wasn’t sure if that was an improvement over his current predicament. If Andy were here—alive and here—they’d escape together and find something to do, even if it was just going outside to kick rocks around the parking lot. Andy was good that way. He was always there when you needed him. Except for now. Khai’s big brother sat beside him, but he knew Quan wouldn’t want to leave early. Funerals existed for people like Quan. He needed the closure or whatever it was people got from them. With his intimidating build and the new tattoos on his neck and arms, Quan looked like one badass motherfucker, but his eyes were rimmed red. From time to time, he discreetly brushed the moisture from his cheeks. Just like always, Khai wished he could be more like his brother. A metal bowl rang, and the chanting stopped. Relief was instant and dizzying, like an enormous pressure had suddenly dissolved. The monks worked with the pallbearers to close the casket, and soon a procession filed sedately down the center aisle. Because he disliked standing in lines and the claustrophobic press of bodies, Khai stayed seated as Quan got to his feet, squeezed his shoulder once, and joined the exodus. He watched as relatives trudged past. Some cried openly. Others were more stoic, but their sadness was obvious even to him. Aunts, uncles, cousins, distant relations, and friends of the family all supported each other, joined together by this thing called grief. As usual, Khai was not a part of it. A group of older women that consisted of his mom, Dì Mai, and two of his other aunts brought up the end of the line because of a near-fainting spell, sticking close in adulthood just like everyone said they had as young girls. If it weren’t for the fact that they all wore black, they could have been attending a wedding. Diamonds and jade hung from their ears, throats, and fingers, and he could smell their makeup and perfume through the haze of the incense. As they passed his row, he stood and straightened the hand-me-down suit coat from Quan. He had a lot of growing to do if he was ever going to fill this thing out. And pull-ups. Thousands of pull-ups. He’d start those tonight. When he looked up, he discovered the ladies had all paused next to him. Dì Mai reached a hand toward his cheek but stopped before touching him. She searched his face with solemn eyes. “I thought you two were close. Don’t you care that he’s gone?” His heart jumped and started beating so fast it hurt. When he tried to speak, nothing came out. His throat was swollen shut. “Of course they were close,” his mom chided her sister before tugging on her arm. “Come, Mai, let’s go. They’re waiting for us.” With his feet frozen to the floor, he watched as they disappeared through the doorway. Logically, he knew he was standing in place, but he felt like he was falling. Down, down, down. I thought you two were close. Ever since his elementary school teacher insisted his parents take him to a psychologist, he’d known he was different. The majority of his family, however, had discounted the resulting diagnosis, saying he was merely “a little strange.” There was no such thing as autism or Asperger’s syndrome in the countryside of Vietnam. Besides, he didn’t get into trouble and did well in school. What did it matter? I thought you two were close. The words wouldn’t stop echoing in his head, bringing him to an unwelcome self-realization: He was different, yes, but in a bad way. I thought you two were close. Andy hadn’t just been his best friend. He’d been his only friend. Andy was as close as close got for Khai. If he couldn’t grieve for Andy, that meant he couldn’t grieve at all. And if he couldn’t grieve, the flip side also had to be true. He couldn’t love. Andy had been right. Khai’s heart really was made of metaphorical stone. The knowledge spread over him like petroleum in an oil spill. He didn’t like it, but there was nothing to do but accept it. This wasn’t something you could change. He was what he was. I thought you two were close. He was … bad. He unfisted his hands, worked the fingers. His legs moved when he commanded them. His lungs drew breath. He saw, he heard, he experienced. And it struck him as being incredibly unfair. This was not what he would have chosen. If he could have chosen who went in that casket. The chanting started again, signaling the funeral was nearing its end. Time to join the others as they said their final good-byes. No one seemed to understand it wasn’t good-bye unless Andy said it back. For his part, Khai would say nothing. CHAPTER ONE Two months ago T.P. H Chí Minh, Vitnam Scrubbing toilets wasn’t usually this interesting. Mỹ had done it so many times she had a streamlined routine by now. Spray with poison everywhere. Pour poison inside. Scrub, scrub, scrub, scrub, scrub. Wipe, wipe, wipe. Flush. Done in less than two minutes. If they had a toilet-cleaning contest, Mỹ would be a top contender. Not today, though. The noises in the next stall kept distracting her. She was pretty sure the girl in there was crying. Either that or exercising. There was lots of heavy breathing going on. What kind of workout could you do in a bathroom stall? Knee-ups maybe. A strangled sound issued, followed by a high-pitched whimper, and Mỹ let go of her toilet brush. That was definitely crying. Leaning her temple against the side of the stall, she cleared her throat and asked, “Miss, is something wrong?” “No, nothing’s wrong,” the girl said, but her cries got louder before they stopped abruptly, replaced by more muffled heavy breathing. “I work in this hotel.” As a janitor/maid. “If someone treated you badly, I can help.” She’d try to, anyway. Nothing rankled her like a bully. She couldn’t afford to lose this job, though. “No, I’m fine.” The door latch rattled, and shoes clacked against the marble floor. Mỹ stuck her head out of her stall in time to see a pretty girl saunter toward the sinks. She wore the highest, scariest heels Mỹ had ever seen and a red skintight dress that ended right beneath her butt. If you believed anything Mỹ’s grandma said, that girl would get pregnant the second she stepped foot on the street. She was probably pregnant already—from the potency of a man’s child-giving stare. For her part, Mỹ had gotten pregnant by messing around with a playboy from school, no skimpy dress and scary heels needed. She’d resisted him at first. Her mom and grandma had been clear that studies came first, but he’d pursued her until she’d caved, thinking it was love. Instead of marrying her when she’d told him about the baby, however, he’d grudgingly offered to keep her as his secret mistress. She wasn’t the kind of girl he could introduce to his upper-class family, and surprise, he was engaged and planned to go through with the wedding. Obviously, she’d turned him down, which had been both a relief and a shock for him, that son of a dog. Her family, on the other hand, had been heartbroken with disappointment—they’d pinned so many hopes on her. But as she’d known they would, they’d supported her and her baby. The girl in the red dress washed her hands and dabbed at her mascara-streaked cheeks before tossing her hand towel on the counter and leaving the bathroom. Mỹ’s yellow rubber gloves squeaked as she fisted her hands. The towel basket was right there. Grumbling to herself, she stalked to the sinks, wiped off the counter with the girl’s hand towel, and launched it into the towel basket. A quick inspection of the sink, counter, mirror, and neatly rolled stack of towels confirmed everything was acceptable, and she started back toward the last toilet. The bathroom door swung open, and another girl rushed inside. With her waist-length black hair, skinny body, long legs, and danger heels, she looked a lot like the previous girl. Only her dress was white. Was the hotel having some kind of pageant? And why was this girl crying, too? “Miss, are you okay?” Mỹ asked as she took a tentative step toward her. The girl splashed water on her face. “I’m fine.” She braced her wet hands on the granite countertop, making more mess for Mỹ to clean up, and stared at her reflection in the mirror as she took deep breaths. “I thought she was going to pick me. I was so sure. Why ask that question if she doesn’t want that answer? She’s a sneaky woman.” Mỹ tore her gaze away from the fresh water drops on the counter and focused on the girl’s face. “What woman? Pick you for what?” The girl raked a certain look over Mỹ’s hotel uniform and rolled her eyes. “You wouldn’t understand.” Mỹ’s back stiffened, and her skin flushed with embarrassed heat. She’d gotten that look and tone of voice before. She knew what they meant. Before she could come up with a suitable response, the girl was gone. And, forget the girl’s grandpa and all her other ancestors, too, another crumpled towel lay on the counter. Mỹ stomped to the sink, wiped up the girl’s mess, and threw the towel into the basket. Well, she meant to. Her aim was off, and it landed on the floor. Huffing in frustration, she went to pick it up. Just as her gloved fingers closed around the towel, the door swung open yet again. She looked heavenward. If it was another crying spoiled girl, she was leaving for a bathroom on the other side of the hotel. But it wasn’t. A tired-looking older woman padded to the sitting room on the far end of the bathroom and sat on one of the velvet-upholstered love seats. Mỹ knew at first glance the lady was a Việt kiều. It was a combination of things that gave it away: her genuine granddaddy-sized Louis Vuitton handbag, her expensive clothes, and her feet. Manicured and perfectly uncalloused, those sandaled feet had to belong to an overseas Vietnamese. Those people tipped really well, for everything. Money practically poured out of them. Maybe today was Mỹ’s lucky day. She tossed the hand towel in the basket and approached the woman. “Miss, can I get you anything?” The lady waved at her dismissively. “Just let me know, miss. Enjoy your time in here. It’s a very nice bathroom.” She winced, wishing she could retract the last words, and turned back toward her toilets. Why they had a sitting room in here was beyond her. Sure, it was a nice room, but why relax where you could hear people doing bathroom stuff? She finished her work, set her bucket of cleaning supplies on the floor by the sinks, and performed one last inspection of the bathroom. One of the hand towels had partially unrolled, so she shook it out, rerolled it, and set it on the stack with the others. Then she repositioned the tissue box. There. Everything was presentable. She bent to pick up her bucket, but before her fingers could close around the handle, the lady said, “Why did you fix the box of Klee-néx like that?” Mỹ straightened, looked at the tissue box, and then tilted her head at the lady. “Because that’s how the hotel likes it, miss.” A thinking expression crossed the lady’s face, and after a second, she beckoned Mỹ toward her and patted the space next to her on the sofa. “Come talk to me for a minute. Call me Cô Nga.” Mỹ smiled in puzzlement but did as she was bid, sitting down next to the lady and keeping her back straight, her hands folded, and her knees pressed together like the virginest virgin. Her grandma would have been proud. Sharp eyes in a pale powdered face assessed her much like Mỹ had just done to the bathroom counter, and Mỹ pressed her feet together awkwardly and beamed her best smile at the lady. After reading her name tag, the lady said, “So your name is Trn Ngọc Mỹ.” “Yes, miss.” “You clean the bathrooms here? What else do you do?” Mỹ’s smile threatened to fade, and she kept it up with effort. “I also clean the guests’ rooms, so that’s more bathrooms, changing sheets, making beds, vacuuming. Those kinds of things.” It wasn’t what she’d dreamed of doing when she was younger, but it paid, and she made sure she did good work. “Ah, that is—You have mixed blood.” Leaning forward, the lady clasped Mỹ’s chin and angled her face upward. “Your eyes are green.” Mỹ held her breath and tried to figure out the lady’s opinion on this. Sometimes it was a good thing. Most of the time it wasn’t. It was much better to be mixed race when you had money. The lady frowned. “But how? There haven’t been American soldiers here since the war.” Mỹ shrugged. “My mom says he was a businessman. I’ve never met him.” As the story went, her mom had been his housekeeper—and something else on the side—and their affair had ended when his work project finished and he left the country. It wasn’t until afterward that her mom discovered she was pregnant, and by then it was too late. She hadn’t known how to find him. She’d had no choice but to move back home to live with her family. Mỹ had always thought she’d do better than her mom, but she’d managed to follow in her footsteps almost exactly. The lady nodded and squeezed her arm once. “Did you just move to the city? You don’t seem like you’re from around here.” Mỹ averted her eyes, and her smile fell. She’d grown up with very little money, but it wasn’t until she’d come to the big city that she’d learned just how poor she really was. “We moved a couple months ago because I got the job here. Is it that easy to tell?” The lady patted Mỹ’s cheek in an oddly affectionate manner. “You’re still naïve like a country girl. Where are you from?” “A village close to Mỹ Tho, by the water.” A wide grin stretched over the lady’s face. “I knew I liked you. Places make people. I grew up there. I named my restaurant Mỹ Tho Noodles. It’s a very good restaurant in California. They talk about it on TV and in magazines. I guess you wouldn’t have heard about it here, though.” She sighed to herself before her eyes sharpened and she asked, “How old are you?” “Twenty-three.” “You look younger than that,” Cô Nga said with a laugh. “But that’s a good age.” A good age for what? But Mỹ didn’t ask. Tip or no tip, she was ready for this conversation to end. Maybe a real city girl would have left already. Toilets didn’t scrub themselves. “Have you ever thought of coming to America?” Cô Nga asked. Mỹ shook her head, but that was a lie. As a child, she’d fantasized about living in a place where she didn’t stick out and maybe meeting her green-eyed dad. But there was more than an ocean separating Việt Nam and America, and the older she’d grown, the larger the distance had become. “Are you married?” the lady asked. “Do you have a boyfriend?” “No, no husband, no boyfriend.” She smoothed her hands over her thighs and gripped her knees. What did this woman want? She’d heard the horror stories about strangers. Was this sweet-looking woman trying to trick her and sell her into prostitution in Cambodia? “Don’t look so worried. I have good intentions. Here, let me show you something.” The lady dug through her giant Louis Vuitton purse until she found a manila file. Then she pulled out a photograph and handed it to Mỹ. “This is my Diệp Khải, my youngest son. He’s handsome, ha?” Mỹ didn’t want to look—she honestly didn’t care about this unknown man who lived in the paradise of California—but she decided to humor the woman. She’d look at the picture and make all the appropriate noises. She’d tell Cô Nga her son looked like a movie star, and then she’d find some excuse to leave. When she glanced at the photograph, however, her body went still, just like the sky immediately before a rainstorm. He did look like a movie star, a man-beautiful one, with sexy wind-tossed hair and strong, clean features. Most captivating of all, however, was the quiet intensity that emanated from him. A shadow of a smile touched his lips as he focused on something to the side, and she found herself leaning toward the photo. If he were an actor, all the aloof dangerous hero roles would be his, like a bodyguard or a kung fu master. He made you wonder: What was he thinking about so intently? What was his story? Why didn’t he smile for real? “Ah, so Mỹ approves. I told you he was handsome,” Cô Nga said with a knowing smile. Mỹ blinked like she was coming out of a trance and handed the picture back to the lady. “Yes, he is.” He’d make a lucky girl even luckier someday, and they’d live a long, lucky life together. She hoped they experienced food poisoning at least once. Nothing life-threatening, of course. Just inconvenient—make that very inconvenient. And mildly painful. Embarrassing, too. “He’s also smart and talented. He went to graduate school.” Mỹ worked up a smile. “That’s impressive. I would be very proud if I had a son like him.” Her mom, on the other hand, had a toilet cleaner for a daughter. She pushed her bitterness away and reminded herself to keep her head down and go about her own business. Jealousy wouldn’t get her anything but misery. But she wished him extra incidences of food poisoning, anyway. There had to be some fairness in the world. “I am very proud of him,” Cô Nga said. “He’s why I’m here, actually. To find him a wife.” “Oh.” Mỹ frowned. “I didn’t know Americans did that.” It seemed horribly old-fashioned to her. “They don’t do it, and Khải would be angry if he knew. But I have to do something. His older brother is too good with women—I don’t need to worry about him—but Khải is twenty-six and still hasn’t had a girlfriend. When I set up dates for him, he doesn’t go. When girls call him, he hangs up. This coming summer, there are three weddings in our family, three, but is one his? No. Since he doesn’t know how to find himself a wife, I decided to do it for him. I’ve been interviewing candidates all day. None of them fit my expectations.” Her jaw fell. “All the crying girls …” Cô Nga waved her comment away. “They’re crying because they’re ashamed of themselves. They’ll recover. I had to know if they were serious about marrying my son. None of them were.” “They seemed very serious.” They hadn’t been fake crying in the bathroom—that was for sure. “How about you?” Cô Nga fixed that assessing stare on her again. “What about me?” “Are you interested in marrying my Khải?” Mỹ looked behind herself before pointing at her own chest. “Me?” Cô Nga nodded. “Yes, you. You’ve caught my attention.” Her eyes widened. How? As if she could read Mỹ’s mind, Cô Nga said, “You’re a good, hardworking girl and pretty in an unusual way. I think I could trust you with my Khải.” All Mỹ could do was stare. Had the fumes from the cleaning chemicals finally damaged her brain? “You want me to marry your son? But we’ve never met. You might like me …” She shook her head, still unable to wrap her mind around that. She cleaned toilets for a living. “But your son probably won’t. He sounds picky, and I’m not—” “Oh, no, no,” Cô Nga interrupted. “He’s not picky. He’s shy. And stubborn. He thinks he doesn’t want a family. He needs a girl who is more stubborn. You’d have to make him change his mind.” “How would I—” “Ơi, you know. You dress up, take care of him, cook the things he likes, do the things he likes …” Mỹ couldn’t help grimacing, and Cô Nga surprised her by laughing. “This is why I like you. You can’t help but be yourself. What do you think? I could give you a summer in America to see if you two fit. If you don’t, no problem, you go home. At the very least, you’ll go to all our family weddings and have some food and fun. How’s that?” “I—I—I …” She didn’t know what to say. It was too much to take in. “One more thing.” Cô Nga’s gaze turned measuring, and there was a heavy pause before she said, “He doesn’t want children. But I am determined to have grandchildren. If you manage to get pregnant, I know he’ll do the right thing and marry you, regardless of how you get along. I’ll even give you money. Twenty thousand American dollars. Will you do this for me?” The breath seeped from Mỹ’s lungs, and her skin went cold. Cô Nga wanted her to steal a baby from her son and force him into marriage. Disappointment and futility crushed her. For a moment, she’d thought this lady saw something special in her, but Cô Nga had judged her based on things she couldn’t control, just like the girls in the skimpy dresses had. “The other girls all said no, didn’t they? You thought I’d say yes because …” She indicated her uniform with an open palm. Cô Nga said nothing, her gaze steady. Mỹ pushed away from the sofa, went to gather up her bucket of cleaning supplies, opened the door, and paused in the doorway. With her eyes trained straight ahead, she said, “My answer is no.” She didn’t have money, connections, or skills, but she could still be as hardheaded and foolish as she wanted. She hoped her refusal stung. Without a backward glance, she left. • • • That evening, after the hour-long walk home—the same one she did twice a day every day—Mỹ tiptoed into their one-room house and collapsed onto the section of floor mat where she slept at night. She needed to get ready for bed, but first, she wanted to do nothing for a few moments. Just nothing. Nothing was such a luxury. Her pocket buzzed, ruining her nothing. With a frustrated sigh, she dug her phone out of her pocket. Unfamiliar phone number. She debated not answering it, but something had her hitting the talk button and pressing the phone to her ear. “Hello?” “Mỹ, is this you?” Mỹ puzzled over the voice. It was slightly familiar, but she couldn’t place it. “Yes. Who’s this?” “It’s me, Cô Nga. No, don’t hang up,” the lady added quickly. “I got your number from the hotel supervisor. I wanted to talk to you.” Her fingers tightened on the phone, and she sat upright. “I don’t have anything left to say.” “You won’t change your mind?” She resisted the urge to throw her phone at the wall. “No.” “Good,” Cô Nga said. Frowning, Mỹ lowered her phone and stared at it. What did she mean good? She returned the phone to her ear in time to hear Cô Nga say, “It was a test. I don’t want you to trick my son into having a baby, but I needed to know what kind of person you are.” “So that means … ?” “That means you’re the one I want, Mỹ. Come to America to see my son. I’ll give you the entire summer to win him and go to his cousins’ weddings. You’ll need the time. It’ll be work to figure him out, but it’ll be worth it. He’s good stuff. If anyone can do it, I think it’s you. If you want to. Do you?” Her head began spinning. “I don’t know. I need to think.” “Then think and call me back. But don’t take too long. I need to arrange your visa and plane ticket,” Cô Nga said. “I’ll be waiting to hear from you.” With that, the call disconnected. A lamp on the other side of the room clicked on, illuminating the tight, cluttered space with soft, golden light. Clothes and kitchen paraphernalia hung from the walls, covering every square centimeter of crumbling brick not taken up by the old electric stove, tiny refrigerator, and miniature TV they used to watch kung fu sagas and bootleg American films. The center floor space was occupied by the sleeping bodies of her daughter, Ngọc Anh, and her grandma. Her mom lay between Grandma and the stove, her hand on the lamp’s switch. A fan blew humid air at them on the highest setting. “Who was that?” her mom whispered. “A Việt kiều,” Mỹ said, barely believing her own words. “She wants me to come to America and marry her son.” Her mom propped herself up on an elbow, and her hair fell in a silken curtain over her shoulder. Bedtime was the only time she let her hair loose, and it made her look ten years younger. “Is he older than your grandpa? Does he look like a skunk? What’s wrong with him?” At that moment, Mỹ’s phone buzzed with a message from Cô Nga. To help you think. Another buzz, and the photograph of Khải covered the screen—the same one from before. She handed her phone to her mom wordlessly. “This is him?” her mom asked with wide eyes. “His name is Diệp Khải.” Her mom stared at the picture for the longest time, quiet save for the soft sighing of her breathing. Finally, she handed the phone back. “You have no choice. You have to do it.” “But he doesn’t want to get married. I’m supposed to chase him and change his mind. I don’t know how to—” “Just do it. Do whatever you have to. It’s America, Mỹ. You have to do it for this one.” Her mom reached over Grandma’s thin sleeping form and pulled Ngọc Anh’s thin blanket up to her throat. “If I had the opportunity, I would have done the same for you. For her future. She doesn’t fit in here. And she needs a dad.” Mỹ clenched her teeth as childhood memories tried to spill from the corner of her mind where she trapped them. She could still hear the children singing Mixed girl with the twelve buttholes at her as she walked home from school. Her childhood had been difficult, but it had prepared her for life. She was stronger now, tougher. “I didn’t have a dad.” Her mom’s eyes hardened. “And look where that’s gotten you.” Mỹ looked down at her girl. “It also got me her.” She regretted being with her daughter’s heartless father, but she’d never regretted her baby. Not even for a second. She brushed the damp baby hairs away from her girl’s temple, and that enormous love expanded in her heart. Gazing at her daughter’s face was like looking in a mirror that reflected a time twenty years past. Her girl looked exactly like Mỹ used to. They had the same eyebrows, cheekbones, nose, and skin tone. Even the shape of their lips was the same. But Ngọc Anh was far, far sweeter than Mỹ had ever been. She would do anything for this little one. Except give her up. Once Ngọc Anh’s father had married, his wife had discovered she couldn’t have babies, and they’d offered to raise Ngọc Anh as their own. Again, Mỹ had turned down an offer everyone expected her to accept. They’d called her selfish. His family could give Ngọc Anh all the things she needed. But what about love? Love mattered, and no one could love her baby like Mỹ could. No one. She felt it in her heart. Still, from time to time, she worried she’d done the wrong thing. “If you don’t like him,” her mom said, “you can divorce him after you get your green card and marry someone else.” “I can’t marry him just for a green card.” He was a person, not a stack of paper, and if he decided to marry her, it would be because she’d succeeded in seducing him, because he cared about her. She couldn’t use someone that way. That would make her just as bad as Ngọc Anh’s dad. Her mom nodded like she could hear the thoughts in Mỹ’s head. “What happens if you go and you can’t change his mind?” “I come back at the end of the summer.” A disgusted sound came from the back of her mom’s throat. “I can’t believe you need to think about this. You have nothing to lose.” As Mỹ looked at the black screen on her phone, a thought occurred to her. “Cô Nga said he doesn’t want a family. I have Ngọc Anh.” Her mom rolled her eyes. “What young man wants a family? If he loves you, he’ll love Ngọc Anh.” “It doesn’t work that way, and you know it. If a man knows you have a baby, most of the time he’s not interested.” And if he was interested, all he wanted was sex. “Then don’t tell him right away. Give him time to fall for you, and tell him later,” her mom said. Mỹ shook her head. “That feels wrong.” “If he tells you he loves you but backs out of marriage because you have a daughter, you don’t want him anyway. But this woman knows her son, and she chose you. You have to try. At the very least, you get a whole summer in America. Do you know how lucky you are? Don’t you want to see America? Where in America is it?” “She said California, but I don’t think I can stand being away that long.” Mỹ brushed her fingers across her daughter’s baby-soft cheek. She’d never been away from home longer than a day. What if Ngọc Anh thought she’d abandoned her? Her mom’s forehead creased with thought, and she got up to dig through a pile of boxes kept in the corner. They were her mom’s personal things, and no one was allowed to open them. Growing up, Mỹ used to snoop through them when no one was looking, especially the bottom one. When her mom opened that box specifically and rustled through its contents, Mỹ’s heart started sprinting. “That’s where your dad is from. Here, look.” Her mom handed her a yellowed photo of a man with his arm thrown around her shoulders. Mỹ had spent countless hours peering at this photo, holding it close, looking at it upside down, squinting, anything to confirm the man’s eyes were green and he was, in fact, her father, but nothing worked. The picture had been taken from too far away. His eyes could be any color. They appeared brown, if she was being honest with herself. The lettering on his shirt, however, was easy to read. It clearly said Cal Berkeley. “Is that what ‘Cal’ stands for?” she asked. “California?” Her mom nodded. “I looked it up. It’s a famous university. Maybe when you’re there, you can go see it. Maybe … you can try to find him.” Mỹ’s heart jumped so hard her fingers tingled. “Are you finally going to tell me his name?” she asked, her voice whisper thin. All she knew was “Phil.” That was the name her grandma whispered with hate when she and Mỹ were alone. That Phil. Mister Phil. Your mother’s Phil. A bitter smile touched her mom’s lips. “He said his full name was ugly. All anyone ever called him was Phil. I think his surname started with an L.” Mỹ’s hopes shattered before they’d fully formed. “It’s impossible, then.” Her mom’s expression went determined. “You don’t know until you try. Maybe if they use the expensive computers, they can make a list for you. If you work hard, there’s a chance.” Mỹ gazed at the picture of her dad, feeling the yearning in her chest grow bigger with every second. Did he live in California? How would he react if he opened his door … and saw her? Would he accuse her of coming to ask for money? Or would he be happy to find a daughter he’d never known he had? She opened up the picture of Khải on her phone and held the two photos side by side on her lap. What had Cô Nga seen in her that she thought Mỹ was a good match for her son? Would her son see it too? And would he accept her daughter? Would her own father accept his daughter? Either way, her mom was right. She wouldn’t know until she tried. On both accounts. Mỹ typed out a text message to Cô Nga and hit send. Yes, I want to try. “I’m going to do it,” she told her mom. She tried to sound confident, but she was quaking inside. What had she just agreed to? “I knew you would, and I’m glad. We’ll take good care of Ngọc Anh while you’re gone. Now, go to sleep. You still have to work tomorrow.” The light clicked off. But after the room went dark, her mom said, “You should know with just one summer, you don’t have time to do things the traditional way. You have to play to win, even if you’re not sure you want him. As long as he’s not evil, love can grow. And remember, good girls don’t get the man. You need to be bad, Mỹ.” Mỹ swallowed. She had a good idea what “bad” meant, and she was surprised her mom dared to suggest it with her grandma in the room. CHAPTER TWO Present day As Khai’s running shoes hit the cracked concrete of the driveway leading to his Sunnyvale fixer-upper, which he never got around to fixing up, the timer on his watch beeped. Exactly fifteen minutes. Yes. There was nothing as satisfying as perfect increments of time. Except for hitting whole dollar amounts when filling up at the gas station. Or when the restaurant bill was a prime number or a segment of the Fibonacci sequence or just all eights. Eight was such an elegant number. If he added a minute to his run, he could set a checkpoint in the middle. Wouldn’t that be entertaining? He was mentally rerouting his daily commute when he noticed the black Ducati parked next to his bird-shit-smattered Porsche on the curb. Quan was here, and he’d driven that, even though their mom hated it and Khai had provided him with all the death and brain damage statistics multiple times. Giving the motorcycle a wide berth, he jogged to his front door, avoided the thorny weed bush that thrived in the shade beneath the awning, and let himself in. Inside, he removed his shoes and immediately peeled his socks off. Heaven was bare feet sinking into his house’s 1970s shag carpet. Initially, he’d hated it—the pea-green color was offensive—but walking on it felt a lot like taking a stroll in the clouds Mary Poppins style. It used to smell funny, but time had fixed it. Either that, or he’d assimilated the scents of mothballs and old ladies into his identity. He was going to keep the carpet until the house became officially condemned by Santa Clara County. There Quan was, sitting on Khai’s couch with his feet up on Khai’s coffee table, watching some finance program on CNBC as he drank Khai’s only cold can of Coca-Cola—he could see the condensation dripping over the cursive lettering just like in a commercial. The rest of his soda was room temperature because you could only fit one can into his fridge at a time. The valuable real estate was taken by Tupperware containers filled with his mom’s cooking. She thought he was going to starve to death if she didn’t personally feed him, and in true Mom fashion, she never did anything halfway. “Yo, you’re home. How’s it going?” Quan asked as he took a long slurp of Coke and then hissed as the burn worked down his throat. “Fine.” Khai narrowed his eyes at his brother. The hiss and burn from the cold Coke was one of Khai’s favorite things, and now he had to wait four hours until a new can was ready. “Why are you here?” “Dunno. Mom told me to come. Apparently, she’s on her way.” Ah shit, he saw nonsensical errands in his near future. What would it be this time? Driving to the grocery store all the way in San Jose to buy discount oranges? Or importing commercial quantities of seaweed extract from Japan to cure his aunt’s cancer? No, it had to be something worse, because she needed both her sons involved. He couldn’t begin to imagine what it might be. “I need to take a shower.” His clothes were wet and sticky, and he wanted them off. “You might wanna be fast. I just heard someone pull into the driveway.” Quan took a good look at Khai then, and his eyebrows arched. “Did you just run home from work in a suit?” “Yeah, I do every day. This kind is engineered for motion.” He pointed to the elastic cuffs at his ankles. “And the fabric breathes really well. It’s also machine washable.” Quan grinned and took another slurp from his pilfered Coke. “So my brother’s been running the streets of Silicon Valley like an evil Asian Terminator. I like it.” The strange imagery made Khai hesitate, and just as he opened his mouth to respond, a familiar voice outside the house announced in Vietnamese, “Here, here, here, here, I have lots of food. Help me bring it in.” His mom never spoke English unless she absolutely had to. Basically, she spoke English to the health inspector at her restaurant. “What?” Khai asked in English. He honestly didn’t know how to speak Vietnamese, though he understood it well enough. “I still have lots of food. I’m going to start feeding the homeless if you—” His mom appeared in the doorway with a proud smile and three boxes of mangoes. “Hi, con.” Because he didn’t want her to break her back, he stuffed his socks in his pocket and took the boxes from her. “I don’t eat fruit, remember? They’re going to go bad.” He was almost back out the door with them when she said, “No, no, they’re not for you. They’re for Mỹ. So she doesn’t miss home too much.” He paused. Who the hell was Mỹ? Quan got to his feet. “What’s going on?” “Help me bring in more fruit first.” To Khai, she said, “Put those in the kitchen.” Khai walked the boxes into his kitchen in a state of utter confusion. Why was this fruit in his house when it was supposed to prevent Mỹ, whoever she was, from feeling homesick? He set the boxes on his Formica countertop and noted they were three different varieties of mango. There were big red-green ones, medium yellow ones, and small green ones in the box that bore Thai script. Had his mom purchased him some manner of fruit-eating jungle monkey? Why would she do that? She didn’t even like dogs and cats. Why was it taking Quan so long to bring the boxes inside? Khai went to investigate and found his brother and mom deep in discussion out by her beat-up Camry. Khai and his siblings had pitched in together to get her a Lexus SUV for Mother’s Day last year, but she insisted upon driving this two-decades-old Toyota unless it was a special occasion. He noted there was no one sitting inside it. No Mỹ. “Mom, it’s wrong. This is the United States. People don’t do that,” Quan said, sounding more exasperated than usual with their mom. “I had to do something, and you need to support me. He listens to you.” Quan looked heavenward. “He listens to me because I’m reasonable. This isn’t.” “You’re just like that stinky father of yours. You both let me down when I need you,” their mom said. “Your brother is always reliable.” Quan made a huffing sound and scrubbed his hands over his face and buzzed head before he took three more fruit boxes from the trunk. When he saw Khai, he halted midstep. “Brace yourself.” Then he carried the boxes inside. Well, that was ominous. In Khai’s head, the hypothetical jungle monkey morphed into a giant male gorilla. This fruit would probably feed such a creature for one day. On the positive side, he wouldn’t need to pay to get his house bulldozed, and he might even be able to file a claim on his homeowner’s insurance. Reason for damage: rogue gorilla in a mango rage. “Grab the jackfruit and come inside. I need to talk to you,” his mom said. He hefted up the spiky jackfruit—holy fuck, it weighed like thirty pounds—and followed her into his kitchen, where Quan had set the new boxes next to the mangoes and seated himself at the kitchen table with his Coke. Worrying about the sturdiness of his counter, Khai carefully eased the jackfruit next to the other fruit. When the counter didn’t immediately collapse to the floor, he sighed in relief. His mom considered his seventies kitchen with a frown. That look on her face was textbook dissatisfaction. If he lined up his old facial expression flash cards with her face right now, they’d match perfectly. “You need to get a new house,” she said. “This one is too old. And you need to move all those exercise machines out of the living room. Only bachelors live like this.” Khai happened to be a bachelor, so he didn’t see what the problem was. “This location is convenient for work, and I like exercising where I can watch TV.” She waved his comments away, muttering, “This boy.” A long silence ensued, broken only by the occasional slurping of Coke—Khai’s Coke, goddammit. When he couldn’t take it anymore, he looked from his brother to his mom and said, “So … who is Mỹ?” As far as he knew, mỹ meant beautiful, but it was also how you said America in Vietnamese. Whichever way he looked at it, it seemed an odd name for a gorilla, but what did he know? His mom squared her shoulders. “She’s the girl you need to pick up from the airport Saturday night.” “Oh, okay.” That wasn’t horrible. He didn’t like the idea of ferrying around someone he didn’t know and changing his schedule, but he was glad he didn’t need a rabies shot or an FDA permit. “Just send me her flight schedule. Where do I drop her off?” “She’s staying here with you,” she said. “What? Why?” Khai’s entire body stiffened at the idea. It was an invasion, clear and simple. “Don’t sound so upset,” she said in a cajoling tone. “She’s young and very pretty.” He looked to Quan. “Why can’t she stay with you? You like women.” Quan choked in the middle of drinking Coke and pounded his chest with a fist as he coughed. Their mom aimed her dissatisfied look at Quan before she focused on Khai and straightened to her full height of four feet ten inches. “She can’t stay with Quan because she’s your future wife.” “What?” He laughed a little. This had to be a joke, but he didn’t understand the humor. “I chose her for you when I went to Việt Nam. You’ll like her. She’s perfect for you,” she said. “I don’t—You can’t—I—” He shook his head. “What?” “Yeah,” Quan said. “That was my reaction, too. She got you a mail-order bride from Vietnam, Khai.” Their mom glowered at Quan. “Why do you say it so it sounds so bad? She’s not a ‘mail-order bride.’ I met her in person. This is how they used to do it in the olden days. If I followed tradition, I would already have found you a wife the same way, but you don’t need my help. Your brother does.” Khai didn’t even try to talk then. His brain had shorted and refused to compute. “I bought her all sorts of fruit.” She moved the boxes on the counter around. “Lychees, rambutans …” As she continued to list off tropical fruits, his mind finally caught up with him. “Mom, no.” The words came out with unintentional strength and volume, but it was justified. He ignored the instinct that told him he was committing sacrilege by saying no to his mom. “I’m not getting married, and she’s not staying here, and you can’t do things like this.” This was the twenty-first century, for fuck’s sake. People didn’t run around purchasing wives for their sons anymore. She pursed her lips and propped her hands on her hips, looking like an aerobics instructor from the eighties in her hot-pink sweat suit and short hair with a flattening perm. “I already booked the banquet hall for the wedding. The deposit was a thousand dollars.” “Mom.” “I picked August eighth. I know how much you like the number eight.” He raked his fingers through his hair and suppressed a growl. “I’ll refund you the thousand dollars. Please give me the contact information for the banquet hall so I can cancel.” “Don’t be this way, Khải. Keep an open mind,” she said. “I don’t want you to be lonely.” He released a disbelieving breath. “I’m not lonely. I like being alone.” Lonely was for people who had feelings, which he didn’t. It wasn’t loneliness if it could be eradicated with work or a Netflix marathon or a good book. Real loneliness would stick with you all the time. Real loneliness would hurt you nonstop. Khai didn’t hurt. He felt nothing most of the time. That was exactly why he steered clear of romantic relationships. If someone liked him that way, he’d only end up disappointing them when he couldn’t reciprocate. It wouldn’t be right. “Mom, I won’t do it, and you can’t force me.” She crossed her arms. “I know I can’t force you. I don’t want to force you. If you honestly don’t like her, then you shouldn’t marry her. But I’m asking you to give her a chance. Let her stay here for the summer. If you still don’t like her at the end, send her home. It’s that easy.” She switched her attention to Quan. “Talk some sense into your brother.” Quan held his hands up as a constipated kind of smile stretched over his mouth. “I got nothing.” Their mom glared at him. “This is all useless,” Khai said. “I won’t change my mind.” And he really didn’t want a strange woman living in his house. His house was his sanctuary, the one place where he could escape people and just be. When his family wasn’t breaking in, at least. “You can’t make up your mind before you’ve met her. That’s not fair. Besides, I need her at the restaurant. The new waitress quit, and I need people for the daytime shift. Help me with this,” she said. Khai scowled at his mom. He keenly sensed she was manipulating him—he wasn’t completely oblivious—but he didn’t know how to get out of this. Also, when she was short on hands, she made Khai and his siblings take time off their day jobs and come in to help. If he had to choose between waiting tables while simultaneously dealing with his mom all day and having a strange woman in his house … As if sensing weakness, she dove in for the kill. “Tolerate some difficulty and do it for me. It’ll make me happy.” Shit, shit, shit. Frustration built into a giant ball inside of him, growing bigger and bigger and verging on explosion. There was nothing he could say to that, and she knew it. She was his mom. Clinging to his last shred of control, he said, “Only if you promise the matchmaking stops after this. You won’t try to hook me up with Dr. Son’s daughter or the dentist’s daughter or Vy’s friends or anyone. You won’t ambush me with surprise guests when I come over for dinner.” “Of course,” his mom said as she nodded eagerly. “I promise. Only this summer, only this one time. If you don’t like her, I’ll stop. I don’t think I can find a better girl than Mỹ anyway, and—” She hesitated midsentence, and a thoughtful look crossed her face. “But you have to really try. If I don’t see you trying to make it work, I’ll have to do it again. Do you understand, Khải?” He narrowed his eyes. “What does it mean ‘to try’?” “It means you’ll do what a real fiancé does. You’ll take her out, introduce her to your friends and family, do things together, things like that. You’ll take her to all the weddings this summer.” That sounded horrendous. He couldn’t help grimacing, and Quan burst out laughing. “You know, Mom, maybe this was a good idea after all,” Quan said. “See? You kids think I’m crazy, but Mom knows best.” That was questionable, but Khai had no choice but to say, “Fine. I’ll do all that stuff this summer if you promise to stop with the wife planning after this.” “I promise, I promise, I promise. I’m so glad you’re being reasonable on this. You’ll like her. You’ll see,” she said, smiling ear to ear like she’d won the Powerball lottery. Khai was one hundred percent certain she’d be the one seeing, but he kept that to himself. “I’m taking a shower.” He spun around and marched toward his bedroom. It was just like his mom to hatch a scheme like this. The entire thing was ridiculous. He wasn’t going to change his mind. Mỹ could be the most perfect woman in the world, and it wouldn’t change anything. His liking her was inconsequential. In fact, if he liked her, that was all the more reason why he shouldn’t marry her. CHAPTER THREE Mỹ clawed the arms of her seat as the plane landed with a stomach-dipping jerk. Strange mechanical sounds reached her ears, and the lights flickered back on. She never wanted to fly again. Once in her life was enough. The loudspeakers dinged. “Welcome to San Francisco, California. The local time is 4:20 P.M. Thank you for flying Air China …” Thank sky and Buddha for English classes in high school, all the bootleg American movies she’d watched, and the audio English lessons she’d been listening to nonstop while she cleaned these past couple of months. She’d understood most of that. California. She’d finally made it. That meant she’d be meeting him soon. Nausea hit her so hard the skin on her face prickled and her vision blurred. Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up. That wasn’t how she wanted to spend her first moments in the United States of America. What if they dragged her somewhere for disrupting the peace with her vomit? Or—she glanced at the nice old lady in a hand-knit sweater next to her—spraying the people around her? Could she go to jail for that? Could she get deported for that? Maybe they’d send her back without letting her off the plane. Everyone started lining up in the aisle, and Mỹ jumped to get her luggage from the overhead bin. A tall man with in a brown leather jacket beat her to her suitcase and pulled it out. “Here, let me get it for you.” She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Embarrassment locked the English words in her throat. She’d learned the words in school long ago and could read and write a little—enough to fill out the disembarkation form and customs declaration, at least with help from the flight attendant—but actually talking had always been a challenge. She curled her fingers into ineffectual fists. How could she make him stop? All she had in her purse was Vietnamese đồng, and it amounted to basically nothing here. It wasn’t enough to tip him. He set the small navy-blue suitcase in the aisle and smiled, and she yanked it close to herself before he could take it hostage. His smile dimmed, and he turned to face the front of the plane. As they filed up the Jetway, she kept expecting him to “help” her more and request payment, but he never did. When they reached the terminal, he disappeared into the massive crowd, and panic seized her. He’d known what he was doing. He could have told her where to go, but now she was all alone. What if she went to the wrong place and did the wrong thing? She was going to end up getting a full-body search and a lie detector test. As she blindly followed the crowd, she tried to read the signs overhead, but her fear-scrambled mind couldn’t make sense of the English words. “Passport, please.” Somehow, she found herself at the front of a line. Heart pounding, she retrieved the little green booklet from her purse and handed it over along with all the forms the flight attendant had provided on the plane. This was it. This was the part she’d been dreading. The paper part. This was when everything could go wrong. The airport employee scanned the forms, leafed through her passport, and stamped one of the pages before handing everything back to her. “Welcome to the United States, Esmeralda Tran. Enjoy your stay.” She stared at him blankly. Oh, right, she was Esmeralda Tran. It was going to take time to get used to her new name—which Ngọc Anh had given her because Esmeralda from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame shared their coloring. Ngọc Anh had also chosen that moment to announce she wanted a new name, too. After a bit of research, they’d settled on Jade. The airport employee motioned for her to move on. “Please proceed to baggage inspection. Next in line.” That was it? It took her longer to scrub a toilet. Hugging her passport to her chest with one hand, she rolled her suitcase toward the inspection line. She put everything she owned on the conveyor belt and walked through all the spaceship scanner devices. Once she came out on the other side, she grabbed her suitcase and stood still for a moment, taking in the chaos of the airport terminal. Foreign languages all around. The smells of perfume and food and bodies. Expensive-looking shops. Colors, clothes, hands holding suitcases, hands holding other hands. Everyone calm, purposeful, on their way. She wished she knew her way. All of this was too new. Even she felt new. New place, new name, new person, new life. Maybe. For the summer, at least. She should be excited. Hollywood and Disneyland were here. But all she felt was … scared. Home, however, wasn’t an option right now. She had to do this for her girl. Her mom’s advice rang in her head: Seduce first. Love will come. It was time to see a man. She marched straight into the nearest bathroom, took an empty stall, and changed out of her comfortable travel clothes and into a tight pink dress. After exchanging her flat shoes for a pair of high heels that looked like weapons, she left the stall to brush her teeth until her gums hurt and apply the smallest amount of eyeliner, mascara, this shimmery stuff to hide the tired bags under her eyes, and bloodred lipstick. There. That was as good as it got. When she checked herself in the floor-length mirror next to all the sinks, her reflection was completely unrecognizable to Mỹ. But that was a good thing. Mỹ was a naïve poor country girl who never quite fit in. She was leaving that girl behind. She was Esme now. Lifting her chin, she exited the bathroom and joined the crowd. She sounded out the words on the overhead signs with determination and followed the foot traffic through the airport. After she passed security, she scanned the people and their faces, searching, searching, searching … There he was. • • • Waiting on the other side of the security checkpoint was a surreal experience. Khai imagined it was a little like this when people took delivery of a special-order Schutzhund from the Netherlands. Only this wasn’t a trained and certified protection dog. This was a person. As minutes ticked by, he stood still, shoulders back and spine straight like years of martial arts practice had trained him to do. He didn’t pace, tap his toes, or sway. He didn’t do things like that anymore. But he wanted to. If this girl actually showed up, he had to live with her for an entire summer. Even worse, he had to treat her like a fiancée. What the hell did he know about that? He took his phone out of his pocket and pulled up the picture his mom had sent him. If she hadn’t assured him she’d already met the girl, he would have thought this was a prime example of catfishing. The person in the photograph was almost too beautiful to be— Someone stepped into his personal space. “Chào Anh.” He glanced up from his phone. And found himself staring into the same light-green eyes from the picture. Only in real life. It was her. “Hi,” he said reflexively. She smiled, and his thought processes hiccupped. Bright-red lips, straight white teeth, stunning eyes. People would call her pretty. No, she was more than that. Hot. Gorgeous. Breathtaking. Not that he cared about stuff like— His gaze accidentally dropped below her chest, and his mouth went dry. Holy fuck. She was some kind of walking sex fantasy. Apparently, he was a boob man. And an hourglass-figure man. And a leg man. How did they look so long when she was so short? Maybe it was those three-inch heels she was wearing. When he realized what he was doing, he forced his gaze back to her face. Back when his family still had hopes of him dating, his sister had made him memorize a set of rules since he was so good at following them. THE RULES WHEN YOU’RE WITH A GIRL: 1. Open and shut doors. 2. Pull out chairs and push them back in. 3. Pay for everything. 4. Carry everything. (That included her purse if she wanted. Never mind the fact that he preferred keeping his hands free.) 5. Give her your coat if she seems cold. (No, it didn’t matter if he was cold, too.) 6. No matter how she’s dressed, don’t check out inappropriate areas of her body.* 7. *Specifically, boobs, butt, and thighs. He could make an exception if she was grievously wounded. Uncomfortable heat flushed his face and singed the tips of his ears. He’d just gone to town on Rule Number Six. In his defense, he had no practice being with a woman like this. She positioned her suitcase in front of her legs and took and released a fast breath before smiling again. “You’re Diệp Khải. I’m Esme,” she said in Vietnamese. That surreal sensation came back. This was really happening. His mail-order bride was introducing herself. But wasn’t her name Mỹ? Please don’t let there be two of them. He didn’t know what he was going to do with one woman. If his mom had acquired him an entire harem, he needed therapy. After a heart-pounding second, logic returned to his brain, and he concluded she must have adopted a Western name to help her in the States. He did not have a harem. Thank God. “Just Khai,” he said in English, dropping the surname and the tones. His mom was the only one who called him Diệp Khải, and usually when he was in trouble. Her response was a puzzled tilt of her head, and he wondered if she’d understood what he’d said. As she looked him over, a crease formed between her eyebrows. “Why are you wearing all black? Black is for funerals in America. I’ve seen that in movies. Did someone die?” she asked in Vietnamese again. “No, no one died. I just like it.” Picking out clothes was so much easier when it was all one color. Besides, black didn’t stain, and it was socially versatile, appropriate for every occasion from work functions to bar mitzvahs. While she appeared to absorb that information, he grabbed her suitcase by the handle and started toward the parking garage. “This way,” he said. With each step through the airport, words pounded in Khai’s head. What. Had. His. Mom. Been. Thinking. His mail-order bride was nothing like he’d expected—which was a younger replica of his mom, complete with the matching sweat suits and the sriracha and hoisin sauce she always kept in her purse. That, he could have handled. But this girl, Esme, looked like a Playboy bunny. She lacked the trademark platinum hair, but the rest of her fit the description. What did you do with a Playboy bunny? Aside from sex. Not that he was thinking about sex. Except, clearly, he was thinking of sex. Fuck. No, there wouldn’t be any fucking. A sneaky part of his brain reminded him he’d promised to do all the things a fiancé would do. Fiancés had sex … He shook his head to clear it of the porn thoughts. It was wrong to reduce a person to their sexual value. He was a rational being. He should be better than this. Besides, she could be the kind of person who regularly performed ritual animal sacrifices in her backyard. Was it safe to drop your pants around such a woman? That killed the sex thoughts quickly, and the rest of his trip through the airport went smoothly. Once he passed through a set of sliding glass doors, the clacking of Esme’s shoes on the parking structure’s concrete floor followed him to his car. He stashed her suitcase in the trunk up front and prepared to walk around the car and follow Rule Number One, but Esme opened her door and lowered herself into her seat. Then she shut the door, too. For a moment, he stood still, staring at her side of the car. Did she know she’d just breached social etiquette? Should he tell her? And wasn’t that ironic? That he knew the Rules better than she did? Or maybe they weren’t international? With a mental shrug, he got behind the wheel, started the engine, and shifted the gear into reverse. “Wait a little,” she said. “Can we talk?” He sighed and put the car back in park. It looked like they were going to do more of this thing where they both spoke their own languages and neither entirely understood the other, just like when he and his mom talked. “Thank you, Anh Khải.” Anh meant brother, but when they weren’t related it was more of an endearment. He didn’t find it endearing. But when she flashed another of her disruptive smiles at him, he forgot to be annoyed. Right as his brain function started to stutter, she looked about the interior of his car. “This car is nice.” “Thanks.” He didn’t generally like flashy things, but he loved to drive. His car was by far the most self-indulgent thing he owned. Too bad about all the bird shit on the windshield. She took a deep breath. “I know you don’t want to marry me.” “That’s right.” He saw no reason why he should lie. Silence hung in the air as she worried her bottom lip, and his muscles tightened unpleasantly. “Are you going to cry?” he asked. “There are tissues in the center console.” Should he get them out for her? He didn’t know what else to do. Pat her on the arm maybe. She shook her head before she lifted her chin and met his gaze. “Your mom wants me to change your mind.” “You can’t change my mind.” “Do you have …” She glanced to the side as she searched for words. “A perfect woman in your mind? What is she like?” “She leaves me alone.” He already had a mom, a sister, and a bazillion aunts and girl cousins to send him on senseless errands, harass him about his clothing choices, and tell him to cut his hair. He didn’t need any more women in his life. “You don’t want that,” she said with a decisive shake of her head. “I’ll help you be happy. You’ll see.” He stiffened. “I don’t need that kind of help.” Her suggestion was galling in unprecedented ways. If she was going to spend the summer pushing him to dance and sing, he was probably going to have some manner of epic mental breakdown. Happiness, like grief, was not in his personal emotional card deck. But minor emotions like irritation and frustration were. He was feeling those in healthy measure right this moment. A skeptical look crossed her face. “Happy people don’t wear all black.” His clothes again. He tightened his fingers on the steering wheel. “I disagree.” Black was perfectly acceptable at weddings, and those were happy events. For other people, anyway. He’d rather have a colon exam. Proctologists only tortured you for a few seconds, whereas weddings went on for hours and hours. Her lips thinned, and a tense moment stretched out before she asked, “What work do you do? Do you like it?” “It’s complicated to explain, but yes, I like it.” Her lips moved quietly for a moment, and he was fairly certain she was testing out the feel of the word complicated. But then she glanced about the car, took in his black suit and shirt again, and gave him a funny look. Her lips curved ever so slightly. “Are you a spy like James Bond?” He blinked several times. “No.” “An assassin?” “No, I’m not an assassin.” What was wrong with her? “Too bad.” But she didn’t look disappointed, not with that smile on her face. What weird things were going on in her brain? Shaking his head, he said, “You’re stranger than I am.” She confused him even more by hugging her arms to her chest and laughing down at her lap. It was a pretty sound, musical in a way. When she crossed her legs, his eyes were drawn helplessly to her thighs. Her skirt slid up, revealing another inch of flawless skin. Rule Number Six, Rule Number Six, Rule Number Six. He wrenched his eyes away and stared blindly at the dashboard. “I was an accounting major in school, but I’m more of a tax specialist now. My friend and I started an accounting software company. He’s in charge of the programming, and I handle the accounting, which means I need to stay up-to-date on generally accepted accounting principles and tax law as set forth in the Internal Revenue Code. Lately, we’ve added transfer pricing analysis to our software package, so I’ve had to get particularly familiar with section 482 of the IRC. It’s very interesting figuring out how to test if business transactions are at ‘arm’s length’ when you have large multinational corporations. Sometimes, they’ll create tax shelters in low-tax jurisdictions in, say, the Bahamas, so you have to—” He forced himself to stop midsentence. People got bored when he talked about work. He even bored other accounting people from time to time. The intricacies and elegance of accounting principles and tax law weren’t for everyone. He had no idea why. “Accounting,” she said slowly, this time in English. “Not exactly, but I do have a CPA license. I’m certified to provide tax documentation for public companies in the United States.” “Me, too.” He took a surprised breath. She was an accountant? That was unexpectedly wonderful. The hem of her dress became very interesting to her, and she fiddled with a loose thread as she said in Vietnamese, “In Việt Nam. Not here. It’s probably really different.” “I bet it’s different. I don’t have any experience with Vietnamese tax regulation. It’s probably fascinating. Do they expense bribery as a cost of doing business? Is it tax deductible?” It would be entertaining to see bribery as a line item on an income statement. This was why he liked accounting so much. It wasn’t just numbers on paper. If you knew how to look at them, the numbers meant something and reflected culture and values. She hugged herself like she was cold, saying nothing. Had he accidentally insulted her? He replayed his comments in his head, trying to pinpoint the offensive thing, but it was no use. After an awkward pause, he asked, “Can we go now? I don’t enjoy chitchat like this.” And clearly, he was bad at it. “Yes, let’s go. Thank you, Anh.” Sinking back against her seat, she stared out the side window. He pulled out of the spot, paid for parking, and exited the garage. At first, his muscles tensed in anticipation of more probing questions, but as he left the airport and merged onto the freeway, she was blessedly quiet. Unlike his mom and sister, who could maintain one-sided conversations for hours. Maybe she’d fallen asleep, but every time he glanced her way, he found her watching the landscape beside the freeway, which consisted of squat office buildings, scraggly grass, and the occasional bunch of eucalyptus or pine. Not very glamorous. Well, at least to him it wasn’t. He couldn’t imagine what it might look like from her eyes. “Uni-vers-ity Av,” she said out of the blue. She straightened in her seat and torqued her body so she could see the exit he’d just passed. “Is that where Cal Berkeley is?” “No, that’s where Stanford is.” “Oh.” She turned back around and slumped in her seat. “Berkeley is an hour north of here. That’s where I went for undergrad and grad school.” “Really?” The enthusiasm in her voice caught him by surprise. A lot of people around here weren’t impressed unless you’d gone to Stanford or an Ivy League school. “Yeah, they have a good accounting program.” He continued driving, keeping his eyes on the road, but he could almost feel the weight of her gaze on his skin. Sending her a sideways glance, he asked, “What?” “Are the students close there? They know each other?” “Not really,” he said. “It’s a huge school. Each year, they admit more than ten thousand undergrads. Why do you ask?” She shrugged and shook her head as she peered out the window. He returned his attention to the early evening traffic, exited at Mathilda Avenue, and drove down streets lined with tall, leafy oaks, townhome complexes, apartment buildings, and strip malls. Ten minutes later, he turned onto the side street that led to his two-bedroom fixer-upper with demolition potential. Compared to the other remodeled and newly built homes in the area, his was a bit of an eyesore, but he bet no one else had the finely aged shag carpet. He pulled up next to his section of curb, cranked the parking break, and turned the engine off. “This is it,” he said. CHAPTER FOUR Esme still couldn’t forgive herself for lying like that. Did she want to get struck by the heavens? Why had she done it? She knew why. Because she was a janitor/maid, and he was so much better. She’d wanted to impress him, to show him she was worth his time. But now she had to pretend she worked in accounting, when she didn’t even know what it was, and continue to keep her baby a secret. She was a liar, and she was ashamed of herself. If she were a good person, she’d confess right now, but this feeling of being his equal was too addicting. It didn’t even matter that it was fake. She liked it anyway. She was already pretending to be something she wasn’t—a worldly sexy woman (though not very successfully, judging by her failed attempt at flirting earlier in the car). Why not go all the way and add smart and sophisticated to the list while she was at it? When she died, demons were going to torment her for eternity instead of letting her reincarnate. Or worse, they’d let her reincarnate, but she’d be a catfish who lived under a river outhouse. It was only fair. That was what she got for wishing food poisoning on people. Khải got out of the car, and she followed suit. The crunch of her shoes on rocks was unnaturally loud to her ears, and her head spun as she looked down at her feet. When was the last time she’d eaten? She was too tired to remember. Working her jaw to wake herself up, she forced herself to take in the surrounding area. The houses were so plain compared to the mansions she’d imagined. And short—one level only, for most of them. The air. She filled her lungs. What was this smell? After a moment, she realized it was the lack of smell. She couldn’t smell garbage and rotting fruit. A haze of exhaust didn’t darken the sunset to tamarind-colored rust. She rubbed her jet-lagged eyes and admired a sky painted in bright hues of apricot and hyacinth. What a difference an ocean made. Homesickness hit her then, and she almost missed the pollution. Something familiar would have been nice as she stood there, on an unknown street, in an unknown city, in a world far away from everyone she loved. What time was it in Việt Nam? Was Ngọc Anh—no, it was Jade now—sleeping? Did she miss her momma? Her momma missed her. If she were home, she’d lie down next to her, kiss her little hands, and press their foreheads together like she always did before she went to sleep. She tripped and would have fallen if it weren’t for the mailbox, and Khải aimed a disapproving look at her shoes after he pulled her suitcase out of the trunk. “You’re better off walking barefoot than wearing those.” “But they’re so useful. It’s like having a shoe and a knife.” She slipped both shoes off and made a stabbing motion with one of them. He considered her for a serious moment, not laughing, not even smiling, and she pursed her lips and stared down at her bare toes. There she went, failing at flirting again. In her defense, it had been a long time since she’d dated a man, and she’d forgotten how. As she gazed at her unattractive toes—she hated the unshapely hands and feet she’d inherited from her green-eyed dad; there was nothing elegant or appealing about them—she noticed the scary weeds choking Khải’s yard. “What if I step on all the thorns?” She sent him a smile that she hoped looked sexy. “Will you carry me?” He brought her suitcase to the front door without looking at her. “Stay on the concrete, and you’ll be fine.” Skipping after him, she said, “I can clean the yard for you. I’m good at it.” He fished his keys out of his pocket and unlocked the door. “I like it the way it is.” She glanced over her shoulder at the yard again to make sure she hadn’t imagined everything, and, nope, it was still a jungle of thorns, tangled vines, and dried-up bushes. He’d been wrong earlier when he said Esme was the stranger of the two of them. He won that contest without even trying. He was easily the strangest person she’d ever met. She didn’t know him well yet, but she’d picked up on his strangeness right away. He didn’t look her in the eyes when he spoke, he wore all black, he liked this wasteland of a yard, and he said the oddest things. It gave her hope. Odd was good. Odd was an opportunity. Besides, she was odd, too. Just not as odd as he was. “You’re very … open-minded,” she hedged. He looked at her like he thought she was crazy, and she mentally kicked herself. “Why do you park on the street when you have that?” She pointed to his garage. Judging from the size of the door, he could fit two cars in there. It didn’t make sense that he parked his nice car on the street. Not unless he had three cars, which she doubted he could afford based on the state of his yard and house. Instead of answering her question, he let them into the house. She wondered if he hadn’t heard or if he’d purposely ignored her, but she let it slide. The inside of his house was stranger than the outside, with thick carpet that looked more like grass than his lawn, exercise equipment all over the main room, and fixtures and blinds from a different era. After setting her shoes on the floor, she followed Khải down a narrow hall, and the soft carpet fibers hugged her bare feet with every step. He set her suitcase in a small room that contained a desk, sofa, and closet. When she noticed the old wallpaper, tears stung her eyes. Teddy bears, beach balls, dolls, ballet slippers, and building blocks. This used to be a child’s room. She touched her fingertips to the ballet slippers. Jade would love this. “This is your room,” he said. “You’ll have to make do with the couch.” “It’s nice. Thank you, Anh Khải.” She’d never slept on anything as nice as a couch in her life. She’d never owned a couch. But she didn’t mention any of that. She was sophisticated Esme in Accounting now. Esme in Accounting probably had a nice apartment with two or three couches and had never slept on a straw mat over a packed-dirt floor. The lonely country girl inside of her looked at the big empty couch and felt homesick all over again. She wanted the straw mat, the dirt floor, the single-room house, and the sleeping bodies of her little girl, grandma, and mom. She was exhausted, but she didn’t know how she was going to sleep by herself. “The phone on the desk is for you.” He pointed at the desk before turning to leave. “Wait a little, for me?” She hurried to the desk and lowered a hand toward the shiny silver phone but curled her fingers into a fist before she made contact. It would be a shame to smudge the fancy phone with her fingertips. “My mom said you needed a new SIM card, but a new phone is easier. If you don’t like it, I can probably exchange it for the larger model.” But that would cost even more. “It’s new,” she said. He stuffed a hand in his pocket. “Yeah.” He said it like it was the most normal thing in the world. “Can you return it?” He frowned as he tilted his head to the side. “I don’t think so. You really don’t like it?” She wrung her hands together. “No, I like it, but—” “Then it’s not a problem. Just use it.” A wave of anxious heat washed over her face, but she made herself say, “I’ll pay you back as soon as I’m working.” She hoped she made enough to pay for it. Back home, she’d have to save for the better part of a year to pay for something this nice. “You don’t have to.” She lifted her chin. “I do.” It was important he knew she wasn’t marrying him for his money. This had never been about money to her. If anything, she liked that he didn’t have as much money as his neighbors. They were a better match that way. She didn’t need a rich man. She just needed someone who was hers. And Jade’s. He merely shrugged. “Suit yourself. I’m going to heat up dinner. Come out when you’re hungry.” Her shoulders sagged. He didn’t understand she wanted to earn things herself. “I’m going to call home first, okay?” “Yeah, go ahead.” As soon as he left the room, she carefully shut the door, unplugged the white charging cable from the phone, and sat on the couch, staring at her unbelievably fancy new phone. She hadn’t expected this at all. It was the best gift he could have gotten her, the absolute best. And he didn’t even like her. He was strange and tactless and very possibly an assassin, but when she looked at his actions, all she saw was kindness. Cô Nga had been right. Khải was good stuff. Very, very good stuff. She’d memorized how to dial internationally from the United States before she left and dialed her mom’s cell phone number. Her mom picked up on the first ring. “Hi, Má.” “Already, already, tell me everything.” “First, how is Ngọc Anh? Can I talk to her?” “She’s fine, excited to have a dad soon. Talk to me a little. How are things? Do you like him?” her mom asked. “Yes, I like him.” A pleased hmmmmm sounded on the line. “That’s good. What about his house? Is it nice?” “I like it,” Esme said. “The room I’m staying in has pretty paper on the wall. If Ngọc Anh saw it, she’d like it. There’s a couch for me.” “You’re not sleeping with him?” She rolled her eyes. “No, Má, I’m not sleeping with him. Do you remember? He doesn’t want a wife.” “That doesn’t mean he wants to sleep alone.” “I just got off the plane,” she reminded her mom. She needed time to work her seductive powers on him. If she even had such powers anymore. Working as much as she did, she didn’t have the time to date. Or the desire. Just the memory of her mom’s and grandma’s faces when they’d found out about her pregnancy was enough to make any man look uninteresting. “Oh, that’s right, long flight,” her mom said. After a quiet moment, her mom continued. “Can you unscrew one of the legs off the couch and say it broke?” “Why would I do that?” “So you can sleep with him, daughter of mine.” Esme pulled the phone away and stared at it. Who was this woman she was talking to? The voice sounded like her mom’s, but not the words. “I can’t do that. It’s wrong.” “Fine, forget I said it,” her mom grumbled. “Here, talk to your girl.” “Má.” The little voice made Esme’s heart melt even as it broke her. She should be there, not here on the other side of the world chasing a man. “Hi, my girl. I miss you too much. What have you been doing since I’ve been gone?” “I caught a big fish in the pond yesterday. Great-Grandma killed it by slamming it against a tree, and after that, we ate it for dinner. My fish was good.” Esme covered her eyes with a hand. Killed it by slamming it against a tree … Esme in Accounting would be appalled by this conversation. Not only would she not have a five-year-old daughter out of wedlock, but her daughter wouldn’t be catching her own dinner. There certainly wouldn’t be any killing by slamming anything against a tree. But at least her girl was happy. It was sinful to take a life, even a fish life, but Esme would gladly sacrifice an entire school of trout to distract Jade from missing her momma too much. She put her feet up and rested her heavy head against the couch’s armrest as Jade rambled on about fish, worms, and crickets. When her eyelids drifted shut, she could almost sense the Việt Nam sun on her skin, almost feel her baby in her arms. She fell asleep with a smile on her lips. CHAPTER FIVE Something wet landed on Khai’s face. And again. Like raindrops. Except he was in bed. Was the ceiling leaking? Was his house going to cave in on him? He opened his eyes and almost shouted. Esme stood next to his bed, dripping wet in nothing but a towel. “I think I broke your shower. Water is all over.” She bunched the towel closer to her chest. He sat upright, rubbed a hand over his face, and prepared to get out of bed. “Lemme get it. It’s probably just the setting—Shit.” He yanked the covers back over his crotch. He was sporting some mega-monster morning wood. She didn’t need to see this. The way he was pitching a tent in his boxers was grotesque, and she’d probably mistake it as a reaction to her. When it wasn’t. Most days, he woke up like this, and it wasn’t like he was nursing an out-of-control porn addiction or something. It was just a natural biological response to morning levels of testosterone. One that he could’ve done without. His mornings would be so much more efficient if he didn’t have to jack off in the shower every day. When he caught her looking at his naked chest and abs, however, he stopped thinking about efficiency and inconvenient hormone levels. She bit her bottom lip, and he swore he felt her teeth on his own lip. His stomach muscles tightened, and his senses sharpened. She was pretty even without makeup, wholesome, more real. The water drops on her smooth skin stood out in perfect clarity, calling to him. Something told him they would taste better than regular water. He hadn’t thought it was possible, but he hardened even further. Fuck. Doing his best to shield his boner from hell, he got up from bed and limp-scuffled into the bathroom—the only renovated room in his house. Then he stood in front of the shower and watched in awe as the lights flashed rainbow colors and water spurted from the nozzles concealed in the ceiling and along the sides. How had she done that? He hadn’t known there was a car-wash mode. “Is the shower broken? I’ll pay to fix it,” Esme said. “No, I think you just hit the wrong buttons.” A lot of them. Maybe all of them at once. Or perhaps it was like in a video game where you had to hit the buttons in a certain order. She’d accidentally found the secret combination they didn’t disclose in the manual. There was nothing else for it. He had to go in. He took a breath and marched in there in his boxers. Warm water soaked him from all directions, drenching his hair and massaging his muscles. It would have been nice if it weren’t for the flashing lights, his now-wet underwear, and his audience. When he reached the control panel, he hit the power button. The lights stopped cycling color, and the deluge cut off. Residual water trickled from the nozzles and hit the floor with intimate drips. He slicked his hair back and said, “Come here, and I’ll show you how to turn it on.” Ducking her head and hugging her towel to her chest, she came to stand next to him. “You hit the power button first, here. This turns it off, too. And I usually use rain mode, which is here. Just two buttons. Like this, see?” He pressed the buttons, and water washed down on them in a gentle downpour. “Got it?” She nodded. “You fixed it?” “It wasn’t broken.” Her shoulders sagged as she released a relieved breath and smiled at him. When the water ran into her eyes, she swiped a hand over her face, but it was no use. They were standing in the shower with the water on. Each second, her towel got more soaked. She should remove it. But then she’d be naked. With him. Surrounded by water and steam and misted stone walls. That odd state of heightened awareness returned, stronger this time. The roar of the pouring water grew louder, and he felt each water drop dissolving against his skin like a tiny kiss. Images of him peeling the wet towel off her flashed in his mind, but her body remained fuzzy from her chest down to her thighs. He didn’t know how to envision her there. But he wanted to. No, he didn’t. Yes, he did. No, he really didn’t. He didn’t need that imagery rambling around his perverted head. “We’re smart, huh?” she said with a grin. “We’re cleaning clothes, towels, and bodies at the same time. It saves water.” “I’m not sure we’re getting any cleaner.” She ducked her head and wiped the water from her eyes. “I’m just joking around.” “Are you ever serious?” he asked. She lifted an elegant shoulder and aimed a helpless sort of smile at him. “I only want you to be yourself with me.” “I am.” Wasn’t he? He certainly wasn’t pretending to be someone else, but if he looked at things objectively, that was what the people around him usually wanted—for him to act differently, more appropriate, more intuitive, more considerate, less eccentric, less … himself. Did she really not mind him as he was? Her smile widened, and all he could do was stare. Strange, incomprehensible, beautiful woman. She said the funniest things and smiled all the time. His fingers itched to touch that smile, and he stepped away out of self-preservation. “I’ll leave you to shower. Feel free to use the other towel over there.” He fled. The next thing he knew, he stood in his closet, dripping water onto the carpet as he stared blankly at the black clothes hanging on the racks. His heart crashed like he’d had five cans of Red Bull, and his cock did obscene things to the front of his wet boxers. It took conscious effort to recall what day it was and the corresponding schedule, but then frustration pumped through his body. She’d thrown everything off with her shower fiasco. He couldn’t even brush his teeth with her in there. Not without getting an eyeful, which, honestly speaking, he’d probably enjoy far too—He banged his forehead against the wall in his closet. Damn it all, he had to stop this. Determined to get the rest of the day right, he pulled on his workout clothes, tied the laces of his indoor cross-training shoes, grabbed a spare toothbrush and toothpaste from the linen closet, and went to the kitchen to brush his teeth over the sink, inhale a protein bar, and drink a cup of water. It was Sunday morning, and that meant upper-body-workout time. If he strayed from his exercise routine, he started to lose weight really fast, and he disliked that. It reminded him too much of when he was younger and clumsy and extremely awkward. He might still be awkward on occasion, but not clumsy. He’d trained it out of his muscles with hours upon hours of practice. Like always, he padded into his living room and took his spot at the proper machine. As he did overhead presses at 125 pounds, he was aware of Esme walking into the kitchen, helping herself to the fruit smorgasbord his mom had provided, and getting herself a glass of water, which she forgot on the counter, but he stayed focused and efficiently worked through five sets of five repetitions. By the time he finished with his bicep curls, he’d lost track of Esme’s whereabouts, but that was fine. She was an adult. She didn’t need to be supervised. He started his pull-up repetitions, always five sets of ten. One, two, three … He used to hate pull-ups, but now that he’d gotten good at them, he liked them. He had the timing of his breathing and the pulling of his arms perfectly synchronized. Four, five, six … If he tried, he’d probably be able to do a ridiculous number of them before his body gave, especially if he didn’t have the twenty-five-pound weight strapped to his waist. Seven, eight, nine— Movement outside the window caught his eye, and he froze with his feet dangling over the ground. Esme was in his backyard, hair in a ponytail, wearing baggy floral-print pants—were those Hammer pants?—and a white T-shirt with no goddamned bra underneath. Her breasts swayed gratuitously as she hacked a tree down with … one of his Japanese kitchen knives. His feet hit the carpet with a hard thud, and he was vaguely conscious of how lucky he was that he hadn’t injured himself with the weight hanging between his legs. Still, he couldn’t drag his eyes away from the window. Oh hell, it was the meat cleaver. She was cutting down a tree with a meat cleaver. He doubted lumber work was one of the knife’s intended uses, but in the manner of most Japanese engineering, the knife exceeded expectations. And he could see her dark nipples through her sheer shirt. He couldn’t be the only person who would find this utterly baffling. It was arousing and fascinating but scary, as she was weaponized, and also a little frustrating because she’d so grievously repurposed his fine cutlery. He marched to the window, cranked it open, and asked, “Why are you cutting that tree down?” With a meat cleaver. She pulled the cleaver out of the tree’s narrow trunk and smiled at him like all of this was perfectly normal. “I’m cleaning up a little.” His lips worked without making sound for a bit before he finally said, “You don’t have to.” “I’m making the yard nicer. You’ll see.” But he didn’t care what it looked like. No, that wasn’t right. He cared a little. Just enough so he derived perverse pleasure from irritating his neighbors with his dilapidated home exterior and lawn. He’d been about to start fixing things up, but the pint-sized old lady across the street, Ruthie, had sent him this letter, threatening to take him to civil court if he didn’t attempt to make his house fit in better with the neighborhood. He’d do almost anything if someone asked nicely—case in point being his current predicament, in which a knife-wielding woman was cohabitating with him—but if they threatened him … He and Ruthie were waging a silent battle, and he was going to demolish her. It didn’t matter that she was a hundred years old. Esme gave the sapling one more solid whack, and the trunk split in two. The leafy top of the tree crashed to the ground, and she held the cleaver up proudly, saying, “I’m good with knives.” He backed away from the window slowly. What number had he been on? He had no idea, so he started back at the beginning. One, two, three— Esme set the knife down and bent over to haul the fallen tree away, and her pants stretched over her ass in the most beguiling manner. It shouldn’t be sexy. He was absolutely certain those were Hammer pants now. But his cock didn’t care. It stiffened and pressed against his workout shorts. He shook his head and pushed himself to focus. Mind over penis. Mind over penis. He could do it. Rule Number Six, dammit. Four, five, six— The tree must have snagged on something because she began tugging on it, and her perfect Hammer-pants-clad ass shook like in a Beyoncé music video. Khai stared at her, caught helplessly in the most confusing arousal of his life. When the tree came free, she stumbled backward a few steps and then dragged it to the far side of the yard. She found a shovel from somewhere—he didn’t know where; he hadn’t known he owned a shovel—and returned to drive it into the earth at the base of the newly severed trunk. Her tits bounced, and sweat glistened on her reddened face before she swiped it away with the back of her arm. It occurred to him that maybe he should be helping instead of watching her like landscaper pornography. You weren’t supposed to let women do any kind of manual labor. He might as well add that to the Rules. But he’d already told her she didn’t have to do this. If her hands longed to till the Silicon Valley soil, what right did he have to steal her joy? Besides, he was philosophically opposed, what with his feud with Ruthie and all. He tore his eyes away and got back to his pull-ups. Focus. Mind over penis. One, two, three— She leaned over, making her pants stretch across her ass again, and a groan rumbled from his chest. After digging out a rock from the dirt and tossing it aside, she got back to shoveling. One, two, three … • • • With every stab of shovel into dry earth, Esme’s determination grew. She’d woken up this morning with her new phone glued to her face and a blanket over her. He’d covered her in her sleep. It was a small thing to do, but the room had been cold. What if she’d gotten sick? It was a sign. He wasn’t perfect by any means, but he was perfect for her. And Jade. She was going to do her best to marry him. His name, Khải, meant victory, but the way he said it, flat like that without the accent, it meant to open. That was exactly what she needed to do. He was closed, and she had to open him. In her experience, when you wanted to open something, you cleaned it up first so you could see what you were dealing with, and then you worked on it really hard. Esme wasn’t great at a lot of things, but she was good at cleaning and working hard. She could do this. Maybe she’d been made for this. She’d start by straightening Khải’s yard. Then she’d move on to his house. Last, his life. He’d said he wasn’t unhappy with anything, but that was a lie if she’d ever heard one. For whatever reason, he’d built a thick wall around himself. She was going to knock it down just like she’d taken down that tree and work her way into his heart. With that in mind, she cleared the yard until the sun was high in the sky. Then she went inside to have lunch with him and seduce him subtly, or not so subtly. But he was gone. He’d abandoned her alone in this house without a word. CHAPTER SIX When Khai’s alarm rang the next morning, he smacked it off, sat up, and stared blearily at his room. He’d spent his Sunday in the office to escape her, but then she’d invaded his dreams. He was lucky if he’d gotten three hours of sleep. Fantasies had plagued him all night. Sexual ones. Featuring a certain pair of Hammer pants. He was officially losing his mind, and look at that monster wood. His dick was so hard it was lifting his heavy down comforter all on its own. He needed to take care of this, but how did you do that with another person on the other side of the door? What if she barged in halfway through? None of the locks worked in this house. It hadn’t mattered before now. Walking with his dick pointing ahead like the needle on a compass, he went to the bathroom, turned on the light, and opened the drawer by the sink where he kept his toothbrush and toothpaste. They weren’t there. He yanked the drawer out all the way, but they didn’t roll out from the back. He knew he’d put them back last night. He always put them back. Was he hallucinating? Was he in the middle of a nightmare? Or had some really weird person stolen his oral hygiene products? Why would anyone— His toothbrush and toothpaste were laid out on the counter by the faucet next to a glass from the kitchen. What the hell? Esme must have done this. He picked up his toothbrush, squeezed toothpaste onto it, and crammed it in his mouth. As he brushed, he gazed at the bathroom. She must have gotten up at dawn, because there were new details everywhere. It hadn’t been like this last night. His Kleenex box had been rotated so the sides were no longer parallel to the walls, and the tissue sticking out of the box was folded into a neat triangle. The towels hanging on the racks had been rearranged so they were folded in thirds with a hand towel and washcloth on top. It looked okay, but how was that practical? Barely refraining from growling, he turned the Kleenex box back to the way it’d been before, sides parallel to the walls. In the shower, he accidentally conditioned his hair before shampooing it because she’d switched the locations of the bottles, and he had to condition his hair a second time, which was thoroughly obnoxious. On the way out, he grabbed his bath towel and sent the smaller ones scattering to the ground. He leaned down to grab them and banged his head on the towel rack on his way up. By the time he’d dressed and left his bedroom, he was out of sorts, harried for time, and possibly nursing a concussion. He strode into the kitchen, and the smell immediately enveloped him. Pungent. Seafoody. So strong it startled a cough out of him. Esme stood at the stove, splashing fish sauce into a boiling pot of soup as she distractedly wiped at a spill by the flames with a wet towel. For a stunned moment, he forgot all about the burnt-fish-sauce fumes. She was wearing a T-shirt—and nothing else. Wow, those legs of hers … She beamed at him over her shoulder. “Hi, Anh Khải.” Her chipperness jolted him out of his dazed state, and the heavy fish-sauce scent descended upon him all over again. So potent. Yeah, it made things taste good, but who wanted to smell this all day? And his name, she kept saying it that way. She sent him a puzzled look as he opened all the windows and the sliding glass door to the backyard and turned on the exhaust hood over the stove as well. “Airing out the smell,” he explained. “What smell?” He blinked once, twice. She didn’t notice? It was everywhere. He imagined it was soaking into the paint on the walls at this very moment. “The fish sauce?” He pointed to the tall bottle in her hand with a squid on the label. “Oh!” She set it down on the counter and awkwardly wiped her hands on the wet dish towel. After a tense moment, she whirled past him to open the cupboard next to him. “I made coffee already.” She stretched onto her tiptoes to grab the mug from the middle shelf, and the hem of her shirt snuck upward, revealing the perfectly alluring cheeks of her ass and her white underwear. His dick dug at his fly, reminding him he’d skipped an important part of his morning routine two days in a row now. After the landscaping incident yesterday, it made a strange sort of sense that Esme could cause him to have a concussion, an overwhelmed sense of smell, and blue balls at the same time. The wide neckline of her shirt slipped to the side and revealed one of her graceful shoulders, and he drew in a slow, fish-sauce-laden breath. Blue and getting bluer. She snatched a mug down, poured coffee in, and held it out, smiling at him over the rim, green eyes sparkling. Sexy sleep-tousled dark brown hair with a widow’s peak crowned a heart-shaped face. “For you.” He accepted the mug and took a