Far From Home (A Belladonna Ink Novel)

Far from Home by Lorelei Brown
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-451-0
eBook release: 
Aug 1, 2016
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-452-7
Print release: 
Aug 1, 2016
Word count: 
54,400
Page count: 
205
Type: 
Cover by: 

This title is part of the Belladonna Ink universe.

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My name is Rachel. I’m straight . . . I think. I also have a mountain of student loans and a smart mouth. I wasn’t serious when I told Pari Sadashiv I’d marry her. It was only party banter! Except Pari needs a green card, and she’s willing to give me a breather from drowning in debt.

My off-the-cuff idea might not be so terrible. We get along as friends. She’s really romantically cautious, which I find heartbreaking. She deserves someone to laugh with. She’s kind. And calm. And gorgeous. A couple of years with her actually sounds pretty good. If some of Pari’s kindness and calm rubs off on me, that’d be a bonus, because I’m a mess—anorexia is not a pretty word—and my little ways of keeping control of myself, of the world, aren’t working anymore.

And if I slip up, Pari will see my cracks. Then I’ll crack. Which means I gotta get out, quick, before I fall in love with my wife.

Finalist: Best Short Contemporary Romance in the 2017 Romance Writers of America RITA Awards!

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

anorexia

Chapter One

“I would marry you,” I say.

Naturally, the entire party goes silent.

The bottom drops out of my stomach. What used to be pleasant, cooling condensation on my glass suddenly becomes lube-levels of slickness. I could drop my wine at any moment.

Worst of all, Pari Sadashiv is looking at me. In the small group of four people standing around the useless fireplace of an acquaintance’s apartment, Pari’s green eyes are the only ones that matter.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Rachel,” Krissy says with a laugh. “No one would believe you. You’d have INS on you in an instant.”

I manage to smile a little bit when Krissy and her friend Chase laugh. Pari doesn’t look away from me though.

“It’s not INS anymore, since the Department of Homeland Security took over. But why is it so unbelievable?” Pari’s mouth tips into a tiny smile. “I’ll have you know my amma would be happy if I married anyone at this point. She doesn’t even know I want to give up my H-1B visa just to be independently employed. If she knew that, she’d find the first breathing person who’d marry me.”

Krissy grins. “It’s Rachel. She’s not gay.”

“Weren’t you dating that one guy? Who ran that club?” Chase helpfully offers.

My cheeks are flaming hot. Krissy is talking about me as if I’m not even here. Or as if I’m a child. Not like Krissy would allow children in her ultramodern apartment. They might try to color the begging-for-it matte gray walls.

Why am I here, for that matter? It’s not as if I’m actually friends with Krissy. We went to film school together, though she had her daddy’s money funding her. The tiny production company I work with is too precarious to risk upsetting one of Hollywood’s inheriting golden girls, though. Showing up to her birthday party is mandatory if I don’t want to feel a knife in my back sometime in the next year. She’s that sort of girl.

“She could be bisexual,” Pari says calmly. “They aren’t required to wear signs any longer.”

I narrow my eyes. Had she just subtly compared our host to a Nazi? Not that it’s undeserved, but Krissy’s usual guests aren’t often so willing to throw shade.

Krissy giggles. “That’s so true. You know, I kissed a girl once. At a sorority party. I was sooooo drunk.”

I turn my wineglass in my hands. “Was that the night the Jell-O shooters wouldn’t set, so you bought a brand-new trash can and poured them all in together?”

“Wasn’t college the best?” Krissy sighs.

Well, no. That isn’t what I meant. More like how half our friends nearly gave themselves alcohol poisoning that night. Fifty grand in student debt well spent in order to learn to never mix alcohols. Lovely. Glad I tossed away my time on that.

It worked for Krissy, at least. After graduation she took a job as an assistant in her father’s studio and has spent the last three years making money, working her way up rapidly to assistant director. I stupidly went on to grad school to tack another twenty grand on my debt, leaving me too skilled to be entry-level. Who’s the smart one now?

I knock back the last of my red wine so I can say, “I’m going to get a refill.” I wave my glass as I leave.

Maybe I’ll live wildly and mix wines.

At least the kitchen is quiet. Krissy—or her catering company—set up a dizzying array of snacks and wine near the picture window in the living room. The sparkling lights of Los Angeles spread beneath the window as C-list stars compare casting call notes. No one wants to be so passé as to hang out in the kitchen. I like my wine cold, though.

To be honest, I like silence better, as well as not having to look at the orgy of food that’s laid out. I open the glass-fronted fridge and snag the bottle of wine I’ve hidden for myself. I hope Krissy has a drawerful of takeout menus somewhere, or that she has the DoorDash app loaded on her front page, because otherwise I’ll have to admit she lives on cucumber water and plain Greek yogurt. My jealousy probably isn’t healthy.

“Thank you for saying you’d marry me.”

I yelp and spin. Because I’m graceful like that. I try to clap my hand to my chest, but cold wine splashes over my knuckles instead. “Jesus.”

“I’m sorry to startle you.” Pari’s standing in the doorway. Even though her dress looks like silk, she doesn’t seem to mind that the flared skirt brushes against the doorjamb. Her dark brown hair spills around her shoulders, turning the dark-blue boatneck into a bejeweled setting.

I shrug. “Awkward is my personal brand. I probably shouldn’t have said that. About marrying you. I’m sorry if it was weird.”

“It wasn’t weird. I promise.” Pari tips her head enough that long hair slides over her shoulder. “I’m the one who was crass enough to talk about my visa difficulties.”

I love her voice. It isn’t only the lilting cadence of her native India mixed with crisp Britishness, it’s the sweet kindness that is absolutely letting me off the hook.

I lift the wine bottle I’m still holding, only to realize there’s some on my fingers. I transfer the bottle to my other hand and lick my knuckles. “Would you like some? I’ll let you pour so I don’t make any more of an ass of myself.”

“I’ll take some, but not for that reason.” Her charm flashes as she moves, like she carries a bubble of rarified air.

As Pari stands next to me at the slate counter and reaches for one of the hanging glasses above us, my breath catches. Pari has the elegance that I have always lacked and always admired.

“So are you bisexual?” Even the question that would have been unbelievably rude from someone else seems mildly curious from her gentle tone.

“Oh! Um, no. Sorry?” My heartbeat drowns all my other senses out.

“You certainly don’t have to apologize for that. Though I have to admit I’m a little disappointed.”

The tips of my ears tingle, and my stomach takes a funny swoop. “Disappointed? Why?”

Pari glances sideways at me. Her throat is long and lovely. “I’m sorry if this is forward, but Krissy said you have large bills and a job that doesn’t keep up.”

“They’re student loans.” The swoop of my stomach turns into the hot coals of embarrassment that Krissy has implied I’ve been recklessly spending. “I have a master’s. I didn’t have any family to help.”

“A master’s,” Pari echoes. She nods. “A master’s is excellent.”

“Not when it’s an MFA in film. Even with a job, I can’t afford to make my minimum payments.” I try to make my smile wry, but based on how awkward I feel, it’s probably somewhere on the pitiful spectrum.

“Which makes me wonder if we could come to a mutual understanding after all.”

It’s my turn to echo Pari. “Mutual understanding?”

“You see, I’m not rich per se,” Pari says as if those words make perfect sense in that combination. “But I’m comfortable. I wouldn’t be considering entering consulting and giving up my work visa if I didn’t have a cushion.”

“Uh-huh.” I nod as if I have even a slight hint where this is heading.

“And I am a lesbian.” Pari turns and leans a hip against the counter. “A gold-star lesbian, as a matter of fact.”

“Congratulations?”

“It works for me.” Her pale-green eyes glow with amusement. Especially against the rich, clear brown of her skin, they’re magical. “No one would be surprised if I marry a woman.”

“I’m not sure what you’re . . .” Except I do know. I have an idea I know exactly where this is going in that split-second way where I could shut it all down or maybe change the entire course of my life with one conversation.

It’s happened once before, when I admitted to my friend Nikki soon after graduation that I had a problem. A problem with a big old capital P, a life-changing Problem. That had been the right choice too. I’m not one to shy away from change.

I hold up a hand. “No. Wait, that is . . . Will you marry me, Pari?”

“Why don’t we start with a first date? A chance to talk about it in depth?” She grins, suddenly more minxish than elegant. “After all, if we get married, we’ll need to get our stories straight. And we really ought to find out if we can be friends at least.”

Pari has the most beautiful smile. Her teeth are perfectly straight and even. I’m dazzled.

I lift my glass in a toast. “To first dates that aren’t first dates.”

“And to the American immigration process.”

 

Chapter Two

My hands start shaking the moment I ring the doorbell of Pari’s condo even though I was fine until now. I immediately shove them in the pockets of my hoodie. She answers the door quickly, as if she’s been hovering and waiting.

She looks great. And I am severely underdressed. I’ve worn shorts and a shirt from H&M under the hoodie, with my hair in a ponytail. Pari is wearing another of those stunning dresses. I’m glad we’re eating in her apartment or I’d be even more self-conscious.

“Nice building,” I manage.

“Thank you. Would you like to come in?” She has killer heels on, in a light brown that’s nude on her and makes her legs look like they go on for miles.

“I don’t live super far away. On the other side of San Sebastian. The side that’s farther away from the ocean.” I think I’m babbling. Of course I am. “I bet you have a hell of a view.”

“It’s not bad. Come this way.”

Pari leads me to the right, into the living room. A wide expanse of blue is the decorating focus.

“‘Not bad’? Okay, so you speak in understatements. Got that, at least.” The view is mind-blowing. I’ve always loved the ocean, and seeing that just-right blue makes me breathe a little easier. Makes my shoulders loosen up.

“To be fair, I saw much better when I was house hunting. They were directly on the sand, not across a road.”

“Yeah, but that’s not just any old road. That’s the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s part of the view itself. History is on that road.”

Pari looks back out the window as if she’s seeing the gray bottom border and the zooming cars in a whole new way. The condo is too high up to hear more than an occasional buzz, so the noise isn’t too much. The balcony is long and narrow.

“Did you grow up around here?” Pari asks.

I nod. This is supposed to be about finding compatibility. I can do that. “Born and raised. I graduated from San Sebastian high school, and then I stayed nearby for college.”

“UC Irvine?”

I’m not surprised she’d guess that. UCI is a respectable branch of the University of California system, but certain ones have more cachet than others. “A little farther than that, but not much. Just UCLA.”

“Why do you downplay it like that? UCLA is a fantastic school.”

“I was dumb enough to get a film degree without having the passion needed to claw my way up in Hollywood.” I drag my gaze away from the ocean and give her a sidelong glance. “And then I followed it up with an MFA from USC. Because the only thing better than a useless degree is a useless degree that costs a hell of a lot of money.” I emphasize my self-depreciation with a flashy spread of my hands.

Pari looks at me for a moment. She’s unreadable, but I don’t know if it’s because I’m not on her level or because she’s closed off. “Would you like something to drink? I have tea, wine, or water.”

It would probably be strange if I ask for water. “Tea sounds nice.”

Pari leads the way to the kitchen, and I try not to be too obvious as I crane my neck to take everything in. The condo isn’t huge, but it’s roomy enough. Without seeing the bedrooms, I can’t pinpoint a square footage, but it’s certainly more than enough space for one woman. Maybe even two if the second is careful and self-contained.

The kitchen is lovely. Cast iron and copper and silver pots hang from a rack above the island, which is topped with natural-stained wood. They obviously were chosen for use instead of appearance, but that doesn’t keep them from being beautiful. “Do you cook a lot, or is this for show?”

“Somewhere in between. I do love to cook, but I don’t often have time.”

“I love to eat. This could be a good thing.” Or terrible. Because while I do love to eat, I don’t exactly have a healthy relationship with food.

Pari pings on that immediately. Her glance skims over me from my head to my oversized hoodie to my toes. “You don’t look like you like to eat. No, I shouldn’t have said that. That was rude.”

I pull my mouth up into a smile, but it doesn’t feel the least bit happy. “So I don’t usually mention this the second time I meet someone, but I’m a recovering anorexic.”

“I’m so sorry for what I said.” Her cheeks turn ruddy. Her fingertips rise to her collarbones. “I’m . . . Oh. Wow. I’m really, really sorry. I didn’t use wheat, because it seems like everyone is avoiding it, but I didn’t ask about anything else.”

It’s kind of adorable that I can shake her at all. Maybe I’ll be able to remember this rather than the burn of her accidental stinger. I rub her shoulder. “It’s okay. I’m in recovery. There’s lots of stuff I eat. That’s the point.”

Pari touches her temple. “Now I’ve caused you to reassure me. I’m sorry. Again.”

“And it’s okay. Again.” A real smile takes over me. “Though this is kind of why I don’t tell people this quickly. Normally.”

“I can see why.”

Pari fusses over serving the meal. She takes a copper dish from the oven and sets it on a trivet. When she opens the lid and the warm, rich scent of potatoes wafts toward me, I try to distract myself. The handle is printed with the name Mauviel and the year 1830. She buys her pots from a company that’s been around that long? I wonder how many years T-fal has racked up.

The main meal is summer vegetables layered in a beautiful spiral and baked. Once we’re seated across from each other, I serve myself a modest portion.

“I tried not to cook with most of the major allergens, but if you want me to be careful of anything else, just let me know.”

“No allergies.” I cut my food into bite-sized pieces, though not as small as I would like. I allow myself small indulgences in my disorder. Sometimes. Only when I’m really unnerved. I set both knife and fork down between bites so I can better enjoy every mouthwatering taste. “You’re an amazing cook.”

“Thank you.”

I think about asking why she didn’t make Indian food but almost instantly decide that’s silly. Why wouldn’t she make delicious French food if she’s capable? We fill the air with a few minutes of small talk on how dry the weather has been and how desperately our state needs rain. Not exactly the most compelling conversation, but okay. I could hang with her company for a while.

Toward the end of the meal, Pari sets her silverware down and folds her hands in her lap. “May I ask you something?”

“Sure.” I lean my elbows on the arms of my chair. My choppy ponytail brushes across the back of my neck.

“Why did you get your degree in film if you say you’re lacking ambition?”

“The short answer? Because I wasn’t always completely aimless. The long answer has to do with my eating disorder. I became disillusioned with the industry. Which I guess is still the short version of the long answer.”

“Fair point.” She fiddles with the metal handle of her spoon. “I don’t have enough money to make your student debt go away. I wish I could offer that.”

“You wish it because you’d like to start a side job as a fairy godmother, or you wish it so I’d be more likely to agree?”

I like making Pari laugh. “Is it terrible if I say both?”

“Not terrible. Just honest, and honesty seems like something we need if we’re gonna do this.”

“Are we?” She leans toward me. Excitement lights her up.

“I don’t know yet,” I say. I like being in control of her excitement. It’s exhilarating. “Tell me why.”

“Why I want this, or why you should agree?”

I shrug. I push my plate toward the center of the table and lean my elbows on the edge of the jacquard tablecloth. The floral pattern is saved from boredom by a red border. “Either. Both.”

“I’ve been in California on an H-1B visa for several years. I work in personnel logistics management, enabling companies to execute multistructured tasks with efficient automation—and I did notice your eyes glaze over there.”

I jump. “Did not.”

“Honesty . . .”

“Okay. I may have faded out.”

“I don’t blame you. Few people find my field even tolerably exciting.”

“But it is to you.”

“You don’t have to sound so doubtful. I like being able to create a viable, tangible change in a workplace’s office culture and efficacy.”

“But you don’t want to do that at your current job anymore?”

“I want to go wider.” Pari spreads her hands. It’s like she can see some interwoven web of businesses between her fingers. “I’m ready to go into consulting. My visa is sponsored by my employer. The two are not compatible.”

“What kind of commitment am I looking at here?”

She balks, leaning away from me for a moment. Her gaze flicks toward the kitchen, then back again. Abashed? “At least two years. After two years of marriage, I can apply for my green card. There are interviews required, and we’ll have to provide evidence of the legitimacy of our marriage. If this arrangement is still suiting both of us, it might be helpful if we could continue long enough for me to apply for citizenship, but if I need to, I can live on my green card.”

“That’s the permanent resident thing?” I’ve done a tiny bit of googling. Though I’ve probably done more daydreaming about what my life could be like if I had even a little help with my student loans.

“Yes. It really can be permanent. But if we document our so-called relationship well enough, maybe visit a counselor on the way out, I could conceivably apply for citizenship even after we’ve divorced.”

I could be a divorced woman. How strange. I haven’t ever thought of myself in the role. Doesn’t seem terrible to me though. “Isn’t there an easier way out? No other kinds of visa?”

“Immigration has tightened the requirements for self-employment. There are other possibilities, but not as easy as marriage.”

“Two years of marriage doesn’t seem that easy to me. Not if we’re talking about my parents’ example.”

“Were they not happy?”

“Pretty much no. They managed to tolerate each other until I moved out of the house for college. Then they divorced. Six months later, my dad died of a heart attack. My mom seemed . . . relieved more than anything.”

“Is she around?”

“She moved to Alaska.” I shrug, still as confused and abandoned as ever over that one. I’ve learned to accept it, but I’ll never learn to understand it.

“My parents are very happy.” Pari smiles as if she’s remembering something very sweet about them. “Their marriage was arranged. My mother is still confident in her ability to find me a nice doctor within a week if I breathe a word to her.”

“You don’t want to take that option?”

“Still that gay thing. I’ve been out to them for a number of years, and they’ve come around, but not so much that amma will matchmake me with a woman if she can help it. And I’m out enough in my professional world that it will raise alarms if I were to suddenly marry a man.”

“Is that why you want to stay?” My cheeks turn simmering hot. I’m probably bright pink. “God. Listen to me. I sound like I’m interrogating you.”

“It seems mutual. You told me something personal as well.”

“And I’ll answer more too.”

Pari has earnest eyes, her positive intentions smoothing the wrinkles from her brow. Her nose is softly rounded at the end and paired with lips that are generously curved as well. “Yes. Being gay is a large part of why I don’t want to go back. Plus I simply like America. I have a good life here.”

“Why don’t you have a girlfriend? Someone to marry for real?”

“I had a long-term relationship. We broke up.” Her eyes go cool, and she backs her chair up from the table as if to put distance between us. “Would you like to see the rest of the condo? It’s home.”

“Sure.” I push up from my chair and start gathering my dishes. “Just tell me where to put these?”

Pari tries to demur but I won’t accept a no. I didn’t manage to finish my food with all our talking, and I don’t want to put her through the trouble of scraping food into the trash. She might think it’s a reflection on her cooking when it absolutely isn’t. I even rinse my plate before putting it in the stainless-steel-fronted dishwasher. I have to admit that I want to establish myself as a potentially conscientious roommate too.

“I’ll be honest,” Pari says, “when I said ‘show you the apartment,’ I mostly meant the second bedroom. You’ve seen everything else.”

Except I haven’t seen Pari’s bedroom. It feels too intimate to ask, like I’d be inviting myself into her truest, deepest life.

“So you’d want me to move in here?”

“Unless you object? I own it—well, the bank and I do. I could conceivably rent it out and move in with you.”

I can’t help but laugh. “I live in a studio apartment. That doesn’t seem like a good idea.”

“Then I would love to offer you this room.” She pushes the door open. “As you can see, it’s currently my office, but the master bedroom is large enough that I’ll be able to put my desk in there.”

“And I’d get that view?”

A sliding glass door leads out onto the same balcony that’s accessible from the living room.

“If you want it.”

“Rent?”

“Free. No utilities either. I already cover it all by myself now. This could take over two years from marriage to green card. Longer if we agree to take me to full citizenship. I can’t afford to pay for your loans outright, but I can help occasionally. And I can do this. I don’t know how much you’re spending on rent now—”

“As much as my base loan payment.” And man, is that so damn painful every month. I can’t remember the last time I got to have dinner out. Sushi is a wet dream for me. I shove a hand out to shake. “Consider me in.”

“But the details?”

“We can work them out later. We’re going to have plenty of time. You and I are getting married.”

 

Chapter Three

“It’s amazing what lengths you’ll go to for a nice apartment in this market.”

I stop with both hands on the flaps of a moving box and look up at Nikki. My best friend since forever—or middle school, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference—stands in the open sliding glass door, her face turned toward the sun. Her long ponytail hangs down her back, perfectly still except for a few strands being tossed in the breeze. She’s like me, born and raised in San Sebastian, and as a result, she’s a sun worshipper of the very highest order.

“Was that supposed to sound so bitter? I didn’t think you, of all people, would object to a gay marriage. Or to improvements in my life.”

Nikki wrinkles her nose. “I’m pretty sure Skylar isn’t the marrying type. I think it’s in the ‘I’m a hard-ass tattoo artist’ creed.”

“Don’t tell me there’s trouble in paradise.” I lean back on my butt. Nikki keeps her problems close and her happiness closer. It only makes me more willing than ever to drop anything and listen if she’s actually going to ask for help.

But she waves a hand. “Not anything worth worrying about.”

I’m not sure about that. The last two times Nikki has been home from the pro-surfing competition circuit, she’s seemed a little less happy. But if she isn’t going to talk about it, I’m not going to pry.

I know what keeping a secret is like.

“I thought you were here to help me move in, not judge me for my life choices?”

“I helped haul your boxes up here. Where you put everything is up to you. You’re the one who’s going to be living in this room for two years.”

“I have the rest of the place.”

“Do you?” Nikki crosses her arms. “Like, I know you can go watch TV in the living room, but can you paint the walls if you want to?”

“I have no idea.” I push up from the floor and make a production of brushing off the butt of my shorts. Mostly so I don’t have to look at her. “But you know what I can do?”

“What?”

“Take that hundred bucks that I would have spent on paint and send it to Fannie Mae. So maybe I have half a chance of digging out from under my debt before it’s time to freak out about retirement instead. Even if this doesn’t work out? Even if it crashes and burns and I’m scrambling for an annulment in three months? That’s three less months of loan payments.”

“Fewer.”

“What?”

“Three fewer months.”

I ball up a shirt from the box at my feet and chuck it at her. She bats it away, making the experience wholly unfulfilling. “Oh, shut up already.”

I don’t think this will go pear-shaped in three months. I think it’s going to work. There’s something I like about Pari. She seems so cool and collected, but then she’ll look at me with those eyes that reveal a wellspring of compassion. I feel safe around her. I know she didn’t mean it when she said I don’t look like I eat.

“Let’s go christen the beach,” Nikki says.

“Don’t say it like that. It sounds dirty.”

“Oh, sweetie.” Nikki smiles and tilts her head angelically while she folds her hands as if in prayer. “Does it hurt your virgin ears? Besides, you know if that were what I meant, I’d have just said it.”

“My ears are not virgin.”

“I think you regrew. You haven’t been done right in forever.”

“That’s probably a good thing.” I made lots of mistakes when I wasn’t well. When I was sickest with my problems. Nikki and I once bonded over our poor vaginal choices. But she reformed by finding true love, and I reformed by gluing my parts shut.

Nikki and I change into our swimsuits, but hit a snag when I can only find one beach towel. “Damn it, I thought I’d put them all in this box.”

Nikki flicks the one towel. “It would seem like you didn’t.”

“Whatever. I’m going to see if Pari has any.”

I find her at the dining room table with a salad, a spreadsheet, and an open laptop. A narrow furrow connects her dark brows as she stares at the glowing screen. The salad next to her is only half-eaten, but she’s tapping her blunt fingernails on the slate-topped table instead of holding her fork.

I stop in the archway. “Everything okay?”

“Hmm?” She blinks as if shaking out cobwebs. “Sure. Just trying to puzzle through a problem.”

“On a Saturday?”

“Once my consultancy gets fired up, my hours will become incredibly irregular. Saturdays will mean nothing to me.”

“Then you should take advantage of them while they’re still a possibility. Wanna come down to the beach with Nikki and me?” We’d spent four hours together as we all loaded and unloaded boxes. It wouldn’t be awkward to unwind. I’m still surprised to hear the invitation coming out of my own mouth. I shouldn’t be though. We’re going to be together for the next two years. A friendship is the bare minimum we need.

Pari is going to refuse. I’m not sure how I know, because it isn’t as if I actually know her yet. But it’s there in the shape of her face, in the way her lush mouth is suddenly . . . not lush. “I have to get this worked out. I don’t know when I’ll be able to cut ties and open my consultancy. I can’t afford to leave any big projects in the lurch.”

I wish she looked just a little bit more regretful, but I make myself shrug. “Maybe next time. Do you have a beach towel we can use? I can only find one.”

“Of course. They’re in the linen closet at the end of the hall next to the bathroom. Beach towels are on the bottom shelf. Feel free to use anything in there.”

I wouldn’t though. I know myself. I would ask her each and every step of the way, to make sure I’m not overstepping anything.

Weird way to start a marriage, but I’d probably do the same thing in a regular dating situation.

Nikki and I stop by the storage locker at the garage level and pick up two of my boards. Pari doesn’t have much in there, so I was able to just kind of shove my whole rack in without thinking about it. Now I take a moment to look around. I touch the seat of a cruiser-style bicycle leaning against the chain-link wall.

“She doesn’t seem very outdoorsy.”

Nikki lifts a brow. She scoops one of my fish surfboards off the rack and tucks it under one arm. “You’d know that already if it weren’t for the fast-forward style of all this.”

I sigh. The small of my back hurts. My therapist says that’s where I carry all my tension, but I know that isn’t right. I carry it all in my stomach and my chest, because they are always knotted tight. I cross my arms and rub my collarbone. “Look, I think we need to get something out in the open. I’m doing this. I’m going to marry her, and if you continue with the negative comments, I don’t know how I’ll be able to handle that.”

Nikki’s eyes go wide. She leans the fish back against the line of surfboards, and even though she’s being careful to not hurt my gear, she’s moving quickly. The need to make me feel better flows from her. She wraps both hands around my upper arms and gives them a quick rub.

“Sure, sure. I’m sorry. I’ll stop.” Her mouth twists into a wry smile. “It’s just been kind of a rapid adjustment.”

“I took a risk by telling you that this isn’t some romance. You’re the only person I plan to tell about the arrangement, and I did it because I’ll need a safe space. Someone to talk to.”

“I will be there. Here. I promise.” She gives me a decisive nod. That’s the thing about Nikki—sometimes she can be a little obtuse, but if I ever manage to articulate that I need her, she’s willing to dump her heart out on my toes. Or go to battle for me. The best sort of friend.

We each pick boards, but once we get out to the beach, I’m not exactly rushing to hit the waves. I flick my towel out and sit on it. With my wrists draped on my knees, I take a deep breath and try to connect to the rest of me. My toes are on the hot sand. More warmth comes through the towel under my butt.

“I’m going to head out,” Nikki says.

I flap a hand at her and let myself fall back. The sun attacks me from the front and the sand comforts me from beneath. Living right here at the edge of the ocean is such a plus in this situation. When stress gets to me, I’ll be able to come out here. My old apartment wasn’t too many actual miles from the water, but the traffic meant it took a half hour to get myself hauled to the beach. That doesn’t count finding parking.

Not a problem now. I’ve joined the elite.

Whatever that’s going to mean for me.

 

from Guilty Pleasures Book Reviews

[A] beautiful read. . . . [A] short and sweet story.

from Publishers Weekly

**Starred Review** [A] warm, sweet contemporary romance.

from Booklist

**Starred Review** [An] engaging, sweetly soulful romance.

from Kirkus

A well-written novel, both sexy and romantic, with broad and inclusive representation.

from Foreword

This sweet comedy of manners explores classic tropes in fresh, compelling ways.