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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Anna K Away

Anna K (Volume 2)

Jenny Lee

Flatiron Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

I


When Shakespeare wrote “parting is such sweet sorrow,” he never had to say good-bye to a melodramatic French girl in an airport. This was what Beatrice was thinking as she stood in front of Claudine, who was barely keeping it together. Her pillowy lips quivering as she tried and failed to harness her emotions. “Are you sure you don’t want me to come to LA with you?”

“Babe, my internship starts on Monday and I’ve gotta spend the whole weekend with my Uncle Chadwick at a très boring third wedding of some B-list Hollywood actress.” This was the truth, but then Beatrice added a lie. She was so good at lying. Her lies always felt true as soon as she said them. “I tried to get a plus one to bring you, but no dice.”

“No dice?” Claudine repeated in her breathy French accent, brow furrowing.

Beatrice leaned forward and kissed Claudine softly. “It’s a gambling expression. It means we’re out of luck.”

“But you never take no for an answer.” Claudine pulled her face into a petulant pout, which Beatrice knew was a last-ditch effort to get her to change her mind. Beatrice hated to be told no and would rarely let it stand if she wanted something. But what she truly wanted, no, what she needed, was some time alone. And a summer in LA was the exact change of scenery she required. Bringing her “girlfriend” (if that was what they had to call it), no matter how exquisitely sumptuous she happened to be, wasn’t the fresh start Beatrice had in mind.

All she knew was that she needed to get away. Everything in Manhattan reminded her of Vronsky. She saw him on street corners, walking away from her before disappearing in a crowd. She heard his laugh coming up through sewer grates. She turned her head at the vroom-vroom of every motorcycle. She even listened to his voice mails when she was feeling really desperate—Yo Bea, Queen Beatrice in the house, Stop screening my calls Bea-yatch! Her beloved cousin was everywhere around her, as though her memories of him had escaped her mind and now flitted about the city like ghosts.

“Just tell your uncle how sexy I am, and he’ll let me come,” Claudine pleaded.

Beatrice was moments from bringing out her cat claws. But that was not how she wanted to bid farewell to Claudine. Beatrice knew her fuse was short lately. It was understandable in the wake of her cousin Vronsky’s death, but because she cared about Claudine, she was trying to bid farewell on a positive note, even if it was a false one. Claudine was the daughter of her aunt Geneviève’s best friend, so she also had filial piety to consider.

Beatrice gave her a deep tongue kiss, pushing her watermelon Trident gum into Claudine’s mouth as a parting gift. Claudine had once done the same thing to her, and Beatrice had found it hilarious and strangely hot. Now, she copied it symbolically as a sign of things having come full circle.

Claudine smiled and started chewing the gum. “You’ll text,” she said, not asked.

They had spent the last five weeks together, rarely if ever apart, and Beatrice knew Claudine was depressed by the idea of being away from each other. “I’ll do better than that.” Easier to string her along than get in a fight and have to make up over the phone, Bea thought. “I’ll ravish you tonight in our dreams,” she said.

Claudine giggled with delight, her cheeks reddening. Beatrice was the only person who could make Claudine blush. She hooked Claudine’s belt with her fingers and pulled her close, giving her a long slow kiss good-bye. Why did the crazy ones always taste so good?

Walking away, she could feel Claudine’s eyes on her back, willing her to turn around, but Beatrice resisted the impulse to feel anything. Love was a luxury she didn’t get to indulge in anymore. Not with Claudine. Not with anyone. Not since Vronsky … Beatrice adjusted the monogrammed LV duffel strap on her shoulder as she approached the JFK airport VIP hostess, who had been waiting to walk her through security. Normally Beatrice flew private, but her parents were using the G5 this weekend, so she had to fly commercial like one of the terminal people, as she snobbishly thought of them.

“This way, Ms. D.,” the hostess said, taking Bea’s bag. Bea put on her Chrome Hearts sunglasses, feeling safe behind the dark tint of the lenses.

Initially Beatrice’s mother had refused to pay the extra three thousand for Beatrice to be ushered through security, seated in her own private room, and waited upon until boarding. She had recently read in Oprah’s magazine that saying no to your children from time to time would better prepare them for real life, so Beatrice charged it on her own card, knowing full well her mother hadn’t looked at a credit card statement in over two decades.

“Is she still back there?” Beatrice asked the hostess, who stared at her blankly. “The hot French chick. Is she still there? Look, just don’t be obvi about, it ’kay?”

The host turned and looked at Claudine.

“I just said don’t be obvi about it!”

“Sorry, I, uh … She is. Yes. Standing there. Still.”

“She’s not crying, is she?” Bea asked.

“Hard to tell … no, yeah … she just wiped her nose. Definitely crying.”

“Probably because I didn’t let her finish when I went down on her in the limo.” She glanced at the VIP hostess over her sunglasses. “Always leave them wanting more. Remember that…” Beatrice quickly glanced at the woman’s name tag. “Dara.”

“Excellent advice, ma’am,” Dara replied quickly, remembering what she was told when she first started the job a few months ago: the rich weren’t as polite as celebrities. Celebrities had a fear of getting exposed as assholes, but rich people, like really rich people … well, they didn’t call it fuck-you money for nothing.

“Did you just call me ma’am?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry, I just did it again.” Dara turned her attention to Beatrice’s boarding pass. “Headed to Los Angeles, I see.”

“My uncle’s a hotshot manager slash producer out there.” Beatrice had a way of sounding flirty even when relaying basic facts. “I’ll be in LA for basically the whole summer. It’s such a relief, I can’t even tell you.… I’m so fucking sick of New York.”

II

Under normal circumstances, a summer abroad might sound glamorous, adventurous, and luxurious, but for Anna K. there was nothing normal about her current circumstances. When she boarded her father’s plane the morning after a long dark night of the soul in the bowels of Grand Central, she sat down in a chair across the aisle from her father and realized something. She had no idea where she was headed, figuratively or literally.

Anna had a hazy recollection of her father sitting on her bed yesterday morning, outlining their travel plans for the summer. He kept saying things like “new school, new start, new beginning.” But Anna was barely listening. She was still trying to figure out why she felt so altered. She looked the same, sounded the same, but she had undergone a profound change. She heard from her brother, Steven, that the therapist her parents consulted had told them it was impossible to know how she might react in the aftermath. The boy she loved had been killed by a train. In front of her no less. This wasn’t the typical teenage trouble. This was an outlier event, this was … unprecedented.

That was how she felt. Reborn into a life without precedent. Ever since Anna was a young girl everything had gone so predictably, so smoothly, so utterly planned out by her strict Korean father and chilly WASP mother. She did as she was told and didn’t question them and it never bothered her. Not until she met him. He changed everything, first for the better, and then for the worse. She had never soared so high, or fallen this low.

Most people would assume she was in mourning for her once perfect life—a good daughter from a fine family—but that was wrong. What she was mourning right now was a future with Alexia Vronsky. He had been ripped out of the present and relegated to the past so abruptly that her love for him had far outpaced the memories they had created together, which left her feeling shortchanged and grateful at the same time. Miraculously, they had found big love in their teenage years. Their time together was just beginning and then as quickly as it had started, it was over. If offered the chance to go back in time before she had met Alexia, she wouldn’t take it. She was done with that so-called charmed life forever.

But what was she supposed to do now? Was she supposed to pick up the pieces of her old life and try to put them back together, or should she start over completely and build a new life from ground zero? She didn’t know how to proceed; this was also a new feeling for her.

Before Anna left for the airport, her mother pulled her into her bedroom closet and handed Anna a box wrapped in plain brown paper. “What is it?” Anna asked quietly.

“It’s something you should have,” Greer told her. “You’ll understand when you open it. Don’t tell your father.”

“When should I open it?” Anna asked. These days decisions were hard for her to make.

Greer sighed, her expression softening for a moment. “Wait until after his memorial.”

“His name is Alexia,” Anna said with more spark than she had been able to muster in some time. “Was. His name was…” Her eye felt twitchy from the strain of trying not to cry in front of her mother.

“Yes.” Greer nodded. “May he rest in peace, and once he is, I hope you can find the strength to put all of this behind you. You have your whole life ahead of you, Anna. You need to be wiser with the choices you make. It’s the summer. A good time to figure out a way to rein your life in.”

Rein in my life? Like it’s an unruly horse who broke free and ran away? You think it’s so easy to just gather up the pieces of my heart and put them back together again? So I can be—what? An ice queen like you? Your own marriage is crumbling, your husband is taking leave, and you’re telling your daughter to buck up and pull it together? This was what Anna wanted to say, but instead she bit her tongue, took the box with a solemn nod, and tucked it gently into her nylon Prada duffel.

* * *

Her father woke her up after they landed and Steven and Lolly had already deboarded. “Anna, we’re here.”

“Where?” she asked softly.

“Bristol Airport,” he said. “We’ll spend a week here before heading to Italy for…” He didn’t finish his sentence. He didn’t have to. Anna knew what he was going to say. They were going to drop off the dogs in the Cotswolds, then fly to Italy for Vronsky’s memorial service. She nodded to show she understood. She wanted to scream, but all she did was press her lips together and say nothing at all.

“You’re going to be okay,” her father murmured.

You don’t know that, Anna thought. How can anybody know if anything’s going to be okay?

Outside on the tarmac, there were two black SUVs ready to drive them to their country estate in the rolling hills of the Cotswolds. It was a house that Anna adored, but which they hardly ever stayed in. She asked her father once why they needed such a large house in the English countryside when they never spent much time there, and he told her that one of the best ways to store wealth was in the acquisition of real estate. At least the dogs will get to enjoy it, they will romp and play, she thought.

Once they arrived at the house Anna went straight to the boot room, the UK version of a mudroom, and pulled on a pair of wellies. She grabbed a puffy jacket off a hook by the door and headed out the back door with Gemma and Jon Snow, her beloved black Newfoundland show dogs. She had walked barely twenty paces when Lolly’s voice rang out behind her. “Anna!” she called. “Wait for me! Steven and your dad are both napping, and I’m bored out of my gourd.” She said this last bit in a British accent. “Just trying it out!”

Anna wasn’t in the mood for company, but she stopped until Lolly caught up.

“It’s so beautiful,” Lolly said, looking around at the grounds as they walked the dogs. “I didn’t even know your family had a house here.”

Anna turned to Lolly and grabbed her hand. “I’m sorry, Lolls. I can’t do this right now. I can’t make small talk like everything is normal.”

“Then don’t,” Lolly said. “Say whatever you want.”

“I don’t want to say anything. What I want is…” Anna hesitated, unsure what that was anymore.

“What you want is…?” Lolly encouraged her.

“Is to scream.” Anna looked down at her feet, feeling weird about admitting such a thing.

“Then let’s run and find a good place for you to scream,” Lolly said, pulling Anna forward. Anna, not having much choice, started to run alongside Lolly. Gemma and Jon Snow grew excited and started to chase after them, their deep, delighted barks only making the girls run faster. They ran through the gardens bursting with white roses, alliums, and Red Shine tulips, past the koi pond and the little wishing bridge, and past the crumbling stone wall until they were out of breath, hands on their knees.

And then Anna screamed with every square ounce of air in her lungs. Lolly followed suit, shrieking to the sky. It was exactly what both girls needed, Lolly because she had assumed that Anna had read the same article she had in Vogue about the positives of primal screaming, and Anna because it seemed the only true way to unleash some of the frustration that was building up within her.

The two girls walked back to the house in silence, but before they entered, Anna stopped. “I don’t know who I am anymore, Lolls. I don’t know what I want. I don’t know anything.”

“Anna, you’re going to take it one day at a time,” Lolly said in a mature, assuring voice. She was pleased that she could be the one to help for a change as opposed to being the girl who needed it. “We’re going to get you to Italy. We’re going to get you through the funeral in Sicily. I’ll be there for you and so will Steven. Then we’re all going to get really drunk together in Rome.”

“Thank you for calling it what it is,” Anna said. “A funeral.”

“It’s going to be one big blur for you, but you’re going to get through it.”

“I love you, Lolly.” Anna leaned in and put her head on her friend’s shoulder.

“Oh, Anna! I love you, too.” Lolly cradled Anna’s head in her hand.

* * *

It was now the afternoon after the service, and looking out at the Italian seascape, Anna didn’t feel a dot of closure. It was her second funeral in less than six months. Dustin L., her brother’s homework tutor and new best friend who was also dating Lolly’s sister, Kimmie, had lost his older brother, Nicholas, to a drug overdose in late March. That was the first one. Vronsky’s had just been the second.

And Lolly was right. The whole thing was a big blur.

Anna had watched as Alexia’s mother sobbed behind a black lace veil during the brief ceremony. She stared as Alexia’s older brother, Kiril, picked up a handful of dirt and dropped it into the grave after the coffin was lowered. Where Alexia had been fair, blond, and blue eyed, his older brother was tan, dark-haired, and had a Bowie-like gaze, one blue eye, one green eye, which Anna found unnerving when he looked directly at her.

Everyone in attendance was then permitted to take a small gardening spade to drop in some dirt and say their farewells. When it was Anna’s turn, she grabbed a handful of dirt and tossed it in. Standing there, she tried to open her heart and release all her feelings for him like a flurry of birds. She had fallen in love with him in an instant, as if he had flipped a switch in her. Could she be rid of the pain of his loss just as fast? If there was a switch to flip, would she? Or was the switch once flipped unable to be flipped back? She wanted to whisper a good-bye but she couldn’t find the words.

She felt empty when she returned to the hotel, sad and exhausted. Now she sat and stared at the box her mother had given her before she left. She unwrapped it to find a Post-it Note in her mother’s cursive: “I hope you understand why we chose not to give these to you then. And why I am giving them to you now.”

Lifting the lid, she pulled out the tissue paper and found a stack of letters tied with a black Net-A-Porter ribbon. There were probably more than a dozen envelopes of all shapes and sizes. When she untied the bow, her hands were shaking. The levee of numbness that had been like a fortress for her suddenly gave way to a flood of emotion, and Anna was barely able to keep her head above the rising tide of pain and regret—all because of a box filled with love letters from a beautiful boy who had just been laid to rest in Sicilian soil.

She picked up the envelope on top and turned it over in her hands. Each letter had the date on the back of the envelope, marking the day when he had dropped them off for her during the time they had been forbidden to see each other. The last one was written the day he died. Seeing his handwriting made her heart hurt.

With a parched mouth and trembling hands, Anna opened the first letter.

APRIL 2019

Dearest Anna,

I’m going out of my mind being unable to see you or talk to you so I’m kicking it old school and writing with pen and paper. I doubt your parents will pass these along to you, but I have every intention of bribing your doormen with doughnuts and Yankees tickets. The hope is they will take pity on me and agree to slip this to you while you’re walking the pups.

I keep thinking back to our time on the plane and how those will be my last happiest hours until I see you again. My feelings are unchanged and, when the smoke clears, you will see me standing, steadfast and waiting. I’m sure your father probably despises me, but I will do whatever it takes to gain his respect. I can be quite charming when necessary, as you well know.

Hmm. My letter sounds overly formal and whiny … am I whiny? You have to tell me if I am; I’m a big boy, I can take it.

I love you so much.

Forever and always yours,

Alexia V.

III

Natalia sat on a bench in the Washington Square dog park, twirling a lock of her bright silver hair as Edgar the pug sniffed around the outer edge of the fence like he was solving little doggie crimes. Edgar had on a white collar with a black tuxedo bow tie that cost five times the amount Natalia made from the dog-walking app service every day. The pay wasn’t great, but she loved the freedom of setting her own schedule and the odd cross section of humanity that hired her to walk their dogs at night.

She’d been in New York less than three weeks and had already fallen in love with the city. She loved it best at night, consistently awed by the sheer verticality of lit windows on high-rises towering up toward the stars. It amazed her that in every window someone’s life was playing out, every pane a reality show more real than anything on television. She had grown up in Vegas, a city with its fair share of bright night lights, but those were different. Vegas lights were all overindulgence and debauchery, whereas the lights of Manhattan were oddly hopeful.

Another thing she loved about the city was all the foot traffic, everyone walking around. It was like your life could begin as soon as you hit the sidewalk. No more being stuck in cars or buses or having to hide away indoors because of the oppressive and unrelenting desert heat. Granted, New York was hot in the summertime, too, and it took her a few days to get used to the humidity and the warm stink of rotting trash, but when fall showed up, it would be the first time she would see trees actually change color before her eyes.

It was Kimmie who suggested Natalia become a dog walker when she needed to start making money. “You know, ’cause you’re already obsessed with walking the streets, might as well get paid while you’re at it, right? Manhattan has millions of dogs and plenty of people too busy to walk them.”

Kimmie was one smart chick, and Natalia knew she was lucky to count her as a friend. Without her help, Natalia would probably be sleeping on a bench in Tompkins Square Park as opposed to a comfy queen bed on Madison Avenue. For the past week, she’d crashed with Kimmie at her dad’s fancy digs, which seemed like a royal palace to Natalia. She had never met anyone as rich as Kimmie before. She could barely comprehend Kimmie’s claim that they were “New York City upper-middle class.” Kimmie had explained there were so many families like her own in the city that to really call yourself wealthy in the Big Apple, you needed to be a double-digit millionaire at the least. Natalia thought about all the times when her mother couldn’t make rent and they had to pack their belongings and sneak out in the middle of the night.

When Natalia and Kimmie first reunited, Kimmie was staying at her mom’s place, and there was no way Natalia could crash there because Kimmie’s mother kept much closer tabs on her and her older sister, Lolly, than her dad and stepmonster did. So the first week she had to bed-hop a bit, which included two nights on a bench in Grand Central, one night at a youth hostel in Harlem for twenty-two dollars, and a fourth night at her dead boyfriend’s dad’s place … only because Nick’s younger brother, Dustin, snuck her in after everyone had gone to bed. In the morning she had hid in his closet until his father, stepmom, and baby stepsister left the apartment. This was all fine with Natalia. All she really required was access to a shower with strong water pressure every now and again.

Meeting Dustin for the first time had been kind of a shock for her. For whatever reason, Kimmie hadn’t bothered to explain that Dustin was Black, so Natalia stood there with her mouth agape, her pierced eyebrows arched, and said, “So you’re Nick’s brother? Cool. Cool. Cool.” She racked her brain to remember if Nick had told her that his adopted brother was Black; not that it made any difference, it just surprised her. Dustin told Natalia he was thrilled to finally meet her, and he’d only heard good things about her from Nicholas.

“So bizarre to hear you call Nick that,” said Natalia. “He never struck me as a Nicholas.”

“I can see that, but old habits die hard,” Dustin said.

“Yeah, or they kill you. Like they did him, the dumbass.” And just like that she had put her big Doc Marten boot right back in her mouth.

Dustin chuckled, which broke the tension of the bizarre situation of having his new girlfriend and his dead brother’s old girlfriend hanging out like besties. He liked that Natalia had absolutely no filter, because his brother had been the same way, and in turn Natalia really liked Dustin, although he couldn’t have been more different from Nicholas. Dustin was a total nerd who reminded her of a hot Steve Urkel from Family Matters, which was one of her favorite shows to watch in reruns when she was in rehab. Natalia loved all traditional family sitcoms. They were so totally different from her own upbringing that she took comfort in them.

Natalia was staring at Edgar inspecting the fence and ignoring a Chihuahua named Friendly, who followed him around like a faithful sidekick, when her phone buzzed in her pocket. “Yo, y’got Nat,” she answered without bothering to see who was calling. She never went by Nat, but she was trying it out for a while to see if it took. She felt like she needed a fresh sobriquet to go with her NYC life.

“Where are you?” It was Dustin on the other end of the phone.

“Washington Square,” Natalia answered.

“Wait, now I see you…,” Dustin responded, and moments later he appeared in the dog run, carrying two bottles of water. This rendezvous had become a thing, Dustin meeting her at the various dog parks around the city. For some reason, after both losing Nicholas, Dustin and Natalia found comfort sitting side by side on park benches together. They didn’t always talk about him, but they always felt the bridge of shared loss between them. Today, however, Dustin was missing his older brother more than usual. He handed Natalia a bottle of water and asked her to tell him about when she met Nicholas in rehab and lived with him in Arizona right before he died.

Natalia stared ahead at Edgar the pug and told Dustin everything she remembered. Even though he’d heard some of the stories before, Natalia could tell Dustin was crying, but she said nothing about it. He clearly missed his older brother tremendously, and from what she gathered, his mother still found it too painful to talk about him. He craved a safe space where he could remember his brother out loud. Natalia understood this need because that was exactly how she felt, too.

She talked about Nick, which was how he introduced himself when they’d first met outside of Desert Vista in the smoking area. If she squeezed her eyes super tight, she could still see Nick lying on his back, his legs dangling off one end of the bench, left arm behind his head, taking a long drag off a cigarette. Sometimes, she liked to pretend he had never OD’d on heroin, instead making up a spectacular fake fight, so she could tell herself that they had only broken up and that Nick was still somewhere out there, not dead and buried in a Jewish cemetery in Queens.

Natalia told Dustin how Nicholas spoke of him often, always bragging about what a genius he was and how proud his parents were of his many accomplishments. “My brother, Dust, he’s a human IMDb. He knows all the shit from every film he’s ever watched, all cataloged away in that genius brain of his. His movie knowledge is motherfuckin’ encyclopedic.” Natalia mimicked Nicholas’s speech patterns so well it sent shivers up Dustin’s spine. Dustin asked her if his brother seemed bitter about Dustin taking up so much of his parents’ affection, but she said the opposite was true.

“He was happy they adopted you. He said it was like you lightened the load of your mom and dad’s disappointment about how he turned out,” Natalia answered.

“They weren’t disappointed. They loved him,” Dustin said, his voice thick with emotion.

“Dude,” Natalia replied. “He knew they loved him the same way he knew they were disappointed. Rehab factoid number four hundred and twenty-one: It’s okay to be more than one thing to somebody. He was smart, too, your brother. He knew the score and he wasn’t a bullshitter, which is why I loved him. He always spoke his truth and I have mad respect for people who don’t sling bullshit, and he was top of the heap in my heart. Though I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive him for checking out without me and leaving me behind, y’know?”

“Yeah, I know,” Dustin said quietly. “I gotta tell you, I thank god every day that he fell in love with you before he died. You made him really happy.”

“I did and I didn’t,” she said. “I haven’t said this out loud to anyone, not the cops or even Kimmie. But I chickened out. That last time we were gonna do it together, my first time and his last, but I couldn’t. I was scared and he didn’t pressure me. Why didn’t I tell him not to do it? I had been to rehab two times for meth before we met. I knew he shouldn’t use again. I knew better. I’ll never forgive myself for it.”

Dustin took in her painful confession with a grace way beyond his years. “Like I said, you brought him the love I think he had been chasing his whole life, unconditional love. He knew it and now so do I. It’s not your fault that it was such a brief time. Better that than nothing.”

“Yeah, man, tell me about it.” Natalia stood up and wiped the tears off her cheeks. It was time to get Edgar the pug home. “I know all too well that when the good times roll toward you, you gotta grab on to them and hold tight because it never lasts as long as you want it to. Not ever. Well, at least that’s the way it’s always been for me.”

IV

San Ysidro Ranch was a luxury hotel in the foothills of Montecito, California, and was known for its long history of famous guests. It was where Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier married, John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy honeymooned, and Winston Churchill stayed with his family to escape the miserable winters of England. The property had been purchased in the early aughts by the billionaire creator of Beanie Babies, who lovingly restored it to its former glory. Now if you were a wealthy West Coast socialite, one way to show off to your friends who had known your first two husbands was to marry the third at San Ysidro, all expenses paid. Because Beatrice’s uncle Chadwick had attended the bride-to-be’s first two weddings, they had scored the Winston Churchill cottage, which had a private hot tub and outdoor shower, and there were two perfectly manicured putting greens at the end of a flower garden that served as their backyard. But there was only one bedroom, and Beatrice would have to sleep on a rollaway bed for the duration of the wedding weekend.

Honestly, Beatrice found weddings painfully boring, and as this was the bride’s third time at the altar, there was a whole been-there-done-that vibe, so Beatrice promised herself that after she heard five guests make the “third time’s a charm” joke, she could bail. The fifth mention was by the groom himself as he toasted his much older but also much wealthier bride. Bea leaned over and whispered to her uncle, “I’m outta here.… Don’t do anything or anyone I wouldn’t do.”

“So that would be exactly nothing and no one?” he asked with a sly smile.

“Actually there’s plenty of D and P here I’d take a hard pass on. I’m already rich. I don't have to be anyone's sugar baby.”

Chadwick had forgotten how amusing his niece was, and it gave him hope that Manny, Chadwick’s younger trophy husband, would get along with her once they spent some time together. Manny was not happy when he heard the news that Beatrice would fly out for the wedding and then return with Chadwick to their home in Brentwood for the rest of the summer. Since Chadwick was the one who paid for their high-end lifestyle, Manny had little recourse to stop his rich hubby's lugubrious niece from coming. Chadwick was himself a bit concerned with his niece’s current state.

Earlier in the evening he had tried to bring up the subject of Vronsky, whom he had only met a handful of times as he was not technically the boy’s uncle. “I was so sorry to hear about your cousin,” was all he managed to get out before Beatrice cut him off sharply.

“That subject’s off limits unless you want me to flip over this fucking table right now.” Her father had been correct when he told Chadwick that she was not processing her grief well.

“Want me to bring you back a piece of cake number three?” Chadwick asked.

Beatrice shook her head and stood. “Nopes. I’m on the prowl for a different sort of treat. Don’t worry, you won’t come back to find a necktie or a thong on the doorknob. Scout’s honor.” She threw up a peace sign and strutted away from the reception.

As Beatrice walked down the hill, she used her room key equipped with a mini flashlight to illuminate her path back to the cottage. She could hear “Lady in Red” playing in the distance and she pictured all the boomers and aging Gen-Xers slow dancing to it, glad she had left. She was on a mission for a palate cleanser, something to get the lingering flavor of Claudine’s neediness out of her mouth. Claudine had already texted her a million times and it hadn’t even been forty-eight hours. When Beatrice checked in earlier, she had noticed a girl behind the front desk who looked far too cool to be wearing a polo shirt with the hotel name monogrammed on the collar. She took off her Louboutin slingbacks and skipped up the stone steps of the front office, under the archway of magenta bougainvillea.

When she entered, the girl was alone at the registration desk. She had tawny brown skin and a shock of spiraling curls that were an inch too short to tuck behind her ears. “Good evening, Miss D., how may I assist you this evening?”

Normally Beatrice would have said something shocking, but she was momentarily stunned by the girl’s wide-set hazel eyes dazzling her with tiny flecks of iridescent green and silver. “Um, yeah, I heard something about fresh-baked cookies; the wedding cake was not my thing. If you’re gonna screw up a cake by putting fruit in it, the least you can do is spend a bit more and get the seedless raspberry jam.”

The girl gestured toward the counter, where an Italian ceramic platter displayed neat rows of tiny oatmeal raisin, chocolate chip, double chocolate chip, and sugar cookies. “Please help yourself.”

Beatrice walked over and inspected the tray. She had been lying about the cake. It was delicious, and she’d had her piece as well as her uncle’s, who was currently doing an intermittent fasting/keto combo diet. The last thing she needed was more sweets, but she did need an opening salvo.

“Which one’s your favorite?” Beatrice asked.

“They’re all good, but personally, I like the dog cookies.”

Beatrice’s eyebrows lifted. “Say what now?”

The girl let out a robust throaty laugh. She pointed to an iron statue of a cat in a top hat carrying a tray of bone-shaped cookies. “We’re dog friendly here, and our pastry chef makes homemade dog biscuits for our four-legged guests. They’re less sweet, and crunchier. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth.” In a show of good faith, the girl grabbed a dog treat, snapped it in half, and popped a piece in her mouth.

Beatrice leaned over the counter, opened her mouth, and stuck out her tongue for the other half. The girl hesitated for only a moment before placing the cookie on Beatrice’s tongue. She chewed thoughtfully. “Not bad. They kinda taste like…”

“Graham crackers!” the two girls said in unison.

Normally, Bea would gag over such a corny Disney Channel moment, as if actual people ever jinxed each other in meet-cute fashion. But since it had just happened to her, she dropped her cynicism and chose to find it adorable. “Bet you could make a mean s’more with these,” Beatrice said. She and Vronsky used to make them in the fire pit at the country house, the recollection flashing in her mind involuntarily. She scowled at the memory.

The girl noticed Bea’s expression change. “Something wrong?”

“Not at all,” Bea replied, forcing her memory to go blank. “So, what’s your name and when do you get off tonight?”

“My name is Tiare. Well it’s actually Vaitiare, but I go by Tiare. It’s Tahitian for…”

“For ‘flower.’ I’ve been twice.”

The girl looked at her in surprise. “I was born there. But moved here in sixth grade. My mom moved back a few years ago.”

“That’s cool,” Beatrice said. “Must be fun to go visit.”

“My mom and I don’t really get along. My dad was some white dude who wined and dined her but didn’t give his real name. After I was born she tried to track him down, but she never found him. It kinda ruined her life.” Tiare had no idea why she was sharing such personal information, but she thought she knew what this guest was after, and she needed to shut it down fast. The hotel had a strict policy about fraternizing with guests. She couldn’t afford to lose this job, not for some fancy rich girl.

“Look, I’m sure there’s some policy about you not hanging with guests, I get it. But I’ll never tell. I couldn’t be more bored, and I just thought…”

Tiare hesitated, biting her lip, which only made her look that much sexier to Beatrice.

Right then, a man entered through a back door behind the desk, wearing a perfunctory smile. “Good evening, Miss D. Are you enjoying your stay with us?”

Beatrice could tell he was Tiare’s boss by the way she stood up straighter in his presence. Bea smiled back brightly. “Oh yes, any place that serves such yummy-looking morsels at the front desk is all right with me.” She stared at Tiare and Tiare’s nostrils flared.

“Please, help yourself. Would you like a plate so you can take some cookies back to your cottage?”

“Is room service closed for the night?” Beatrice asked, knowing full well that service had stopped fifteen minutes ago at 10 P.M.

“It is, but I’m sure we can accommodate you if you had a particular request.”

“I’d love some milk. You know, for … getting my cookies good and wet?” She mimed dunking a cookie and saw that Tiare was working overtime to keep a straight face.

“Tiare would be happy to look into getting you some milk for your cookies,” her boss said.

“Technically, I’m off the clock,” Tiare said. “William’s running late and he asked me to cover the desk until he shows up.”

“I’ll cover the desk and wait for William; I’m sure he’ll be here momentarily. You can leave right after you assist Miss D.”

“That would be amazing, Mr.…?”

“Foster. I’m the night manager here at the Ranch. I know your uncle well and we’ve been fortunate to have him refer many guests to us.”

“Well, thank you, Mr. Foster. I’ll be sure to tell my uncle how accommodating you have been.” Beatrice turned to Tiare. “Shall we?”

Having no other choice, Tiare forced a phony smile. “Certainly, Miss D. Let me grab my bag. Here’s a plate for your cookies.” She handed Bea a small white dessert plate with the hotel logo on it.

Bea made a big show of picking out a few cookies and even snagged a few more dog biscuits as well. “For my uncle’s pup back home,” she said, enjoying the little white lie as her uncle was a cat person and had two gray Persians that were as cold as they were fluffy. “I’ll wait outside. It’s such a beautiful night.”

“I wish you a wonderful rest of your evening,” Mr. Foster said, oblivious to his role in assisting Beatrice on her quest to make her night wonderful indeed.

V

Tiare didn’t say a word after they left the registration office. It was so dark that Beatrice couldn’t see Tiare’s face, so she had no idea if she was annoyed or amused. She realized she had put Tiare in an awkward position with her boss, but Bea knew he was totally clueless about what was really going on. How could she not go for it? That was basically how she’d led her entire life thus far: just going for it, whatever it was, like the reigning princess of pop, Ariana: “I want it, I got it. I want it, I got it…” Bea’s mother would tell her she was selfish, and Bea would just shrug and retort, “I’m a teenager; we’re supposed to only think of ourselves.”

When they entered the room-service kitchen, a man in overalls was cleaning up. He had headphones on and didn’t bother taking them off. He nodded at Tiare, who nodded back. Tiare threw open a large industrial fridge, and in the cool yellow light Beatrice once again marveled at her beauty. She had no makeup on, maybe the tiniest hint of gloss, and wore simple gold studs in her ears. Her eyelashes were extraordinarily long, and Beatrice could tell they were natural, unlike her own Barbie-Gone-Bad fake ones she was wearing on top of her lash extensions.

“What’s your preference? This is California luxe, so we have everything: whole milk, two percent, one percent, skim, almond, hemp, coconut milk, soy, cashew, oat, raw, and even pea. Milk from peas. Not actual pee…” Tiare asked, a forced politeness to her voice.

“What are you drinking?” Beatrice asked back.

“I’m not.”

“You don’t like milk and cookies?”

“Like I said, I’m not that into sweets.”

“But are you into me?” Bea asked, not caring that the guy was still mopping the floor five feet away from them. “I promise I’m more salty than sweet.”

“Skim milk it is,” Tiare said grabbing the jug out of the fridge and letting the heavy door slam shut. Tiare opened cabinets at random until she found the glasses and took out two, which gave Bea a little hope that she was making progress.

They headed back toward the Churchill cottage, Bea trailing slightly behind Tiare, evaluating her frame. Tiare was at least four inches taller than she was, and had a sturdy athletic limberness to her lanky gait. Tiare stopped walking and waved for Bea to catch up. She held her finger to her lips, Beatrice sidled next to her. They stared out into the darkness and Beatrice saw two sets of glowing yellow eyes ten feet away.

“Coyotes?” Bea whispered.

“Foxes,” Tiare said, and as if on cue, two tiny red foxes scampered across the path and ran into a field of flowers.

“Did you watch season two of Fleabag?”

Tiare turned toward Bea quizzically. “I don’t even know what that is.”

“It’s a TV show. Phoebe Waller-Bridge? British chick? Hot priest? The mean stepmom’s the same actor who played Queen Anne in that movie The Favourite…”

“I don’t remember the last movie I went to, and I don’t watch TV,” Tiare said.

“Like, at all?”

Tiare finally smiled. “Like, not even a little bit.”

Normally Beatrice would have mocked her, but since this girl was different from anyone she had ever met, she refrained. Tiare had an air of mystery, yes, but what Beatrice really liked was her confidence. Beatrice hated weakness in others, in herself, and most of all in potential lovers.

Beatrice hadn’t even noticed when they stopped walking, but they were now standing outside the Churchill cottage. She could tell her uncle wasn’t back from the wedding yet, since the cabin lights were dark.

“You’re coming in, right?” Bea asked.

“Not even a little bit,” Tiare repeated.

“Oh, so are you expecting me to beg? Because I will, but my already high expectations for you will only get higher.”

Tiare smirked and shook her head. “You’re too much.”

“You’re not the first to say so.”

“I’m sure I won’t be the last,” she said. “Do you want me to pour you a glass of milk or should I leave the jug?”

It was then that Beatrice knew Tiare was serious about not coming in, and the thought of watching her walk away made her feel frantic. “Fine, forget it. Can we just hang out somewhere else?”

“Miss D.—”

“Beatrice. Bea for my friends.”

“Miss D., please don’t think I’m rude. I really need this summer job. My aunt is the one who hooked it all up. The owner took a chance on me, and I’m not gonna screw it up. My aunt would have my head.”

“Whatever you make, I’ll double it and Venmo you.”

Tiare’s nostrils flared. “Who do you think you are? I am not for sale!”

“Think of it more like a rental?” Bea awaited Tiare’s response, unsure how she would react to her brand of brash humor after being insulted. Sometimes Bea’s crass, devil-may-care attitude went over well, and sometimes it backfired. Though when her manner offended someone, Beatrice was known to double down on her snark, as opposed to backing off. She believed the best defense was to be on the offensive, intimidation as protection.

Without another word, Tiare set the two glasses and the jug of milk on the driveway and walked back down the hill.

“Oh my god! I was kidding. Sheesh, can’t you take a joke?” Beatrice’s voice was shrill. She flung her shoes off and ran after Tiare barefoot. “Wait. Stop! Please.” But Tiare was on the move. “I’m sorry. I’m a fucking bitch. Please, stop?” When that didn’t work, Bea bent her neck back and let out a wild coyote howl into the starry night.

At the howl, Tiare stopped and turned, looking back at Beatrice, whose sequined dress shimmered in the moonglow. Tiare wasn’t usually quick to forgive when she was pissed, and she was righteously pissed at the moment, but the howl caught her off guard. Also, there was something in the girl’s voice, a quality she recognized but couldn’t name. “You’re forgiven. But really, I should go.”

“Can I go with you … please?” Beatrice had never sounded so desperate.

“Why? You want to slum it with the ninety-nine percent for a thrill? See how the majority of the world lives? Play the part of lonely unloved rich girl?”

Beatrice basked in Tiare’s wrathful sneer. “Totally fair. I deserve that. Actually, if you knew me better, you’d know I deserve so much worse. But today’s only my second day in California, and I don’t know anyone, I mean, anyone who isn’t related to me and like a thousand years old. I don’t want to be alone.”

“You should change then.”

“I think it’s a little late for that. Being like this is all I know.”

“I meant your clothes, rich girl,” Tiare said. “Wear something you don’t mind getting dirty, and Uber to the zoo. I’ll meet you there in an hour. I can’t drive you, because we’d pass the guard gate.”

“The zoo?”

“I have a second job at the Santa Barbara Zoo. The late shift. You do know what a job is, right?”

“You want me to meet you at the zoo?” Just hearing the words come out of her mouth, they sounded absurd, and yet Beatrice grew instantly excited by them.

“If you want. If you don’t want, all good.”

Beatrice watched Tiare continue down the hill, just a shadowy figure growing smaller in the darkness. She wanted her to turn around like they did in the movies, and give her the lookback with that playful smile, but Tiare didn’t do it.

Or maybe, it was just too dark to tell.


Copyright © 2021 by Jenny Lee.