The Billionaire's Embrace Page 30

My aunt gasped indignantly. “That’s not true! I saw one just the other day, near that Starbucks.”

“That was a drag queen,” Timo said.

It had been years since I’d spoken Tagalog, but it was my first language, the one I still spoke in my dreams, and it made even my relatives’ bickering more palatable. I still didn’t really want to listen to it, though. I murmured something about helping my mom in the kitchen and sidled away.

I went and hid in the kitchen for a few minutes, where my mother was so busy cooking that she ignored me other than to tell me to stir a pot, but I couldn’t stay in there all evening. As soon as I poked my head out, I was roped into another conversation about New York and how dare I leave my aging mother alone and didn’t I know how to be a good daughter and my grandmother wished she could have seen me one last time before she died. It was excruciating. I gritted my teeth and smiled and nodded and got away as soon as I could.

As the night wore on, people started going home, until around midnight there was nobody left except my mother, her two sisters, and the handful of cousins who didn’t have to work in the morning. I sat down and finally ate something, for the first time in more than twelve hours. As soon as I was sitting, I realized how tired I was: eight hours of travel, and it was past 3 in the morning on the East Coast. I would usually be home from work by then, and getting ready for bed.

The room was warm and familiar, scented with cigarette smoke and flowers and food, and my head started nodding. Each time my chin hit my chest, I jerked my head up and blinked awake, but it kept happening. I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

My mother came over and looked down at me, mouth pursed. “Sleeping at your grandmother’s wake?”

“I’m sorry,” I said. I rubbed my eyes. “It’s the time difference.”

“Hmm,” my mother said. “I made up your bed. Go sleep.”

“But the wake,” I said, and then couldn’t figure out why I was protesting.

“There’s more to come. You’ll sit up with me tomorrow.” She jerked her head in the direction of the bedroom. “Go sleep.”

I wouldn’t say no twice. I staggered down the hallway and fell into bed, and was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

Chapter 10

In the morning, I woke to find an empty house, and my mother smoking at the kitchen table, wearing the same clothes she’d had on the night before. She didn’t look like she had slept at all.

“There’s coffee,” she said.

“Thanks,” I said. I poured myself a cup and sat across the table from her. It was strange, after so long, to be back in this house where I grew up, sharing coffee with my mother like the intervening years had never happened. But if she didn’t want to talk about the past, I wasn’t going to bring it up. “You should get some sleep. I’ll sit vigil for a while.”

She shook her head. “Maybe later. I have some cooking to do.”

“I can do that, too,” I said.

“Oh, you still know Filipino cooking? You haven’t forgotten everything?” She scoffed. “I doubt it.”

That stung. “I still cook for myself,” I said. “Every recipe you ever taught me.”

“Well,” she said. She exhaled and stubbed out her cigarette. “At least you’re not on drugs, or in prison. It could be worse.”

That surprised me. I would have thought abandoning my family ranked me much lower on the scale than someone like my cousin Freddy, who—as I learned the night before—was doing six to ten in Chino but still called his mom every weekend.

We sat in silence for a while, me drinking my coffee, her smoking another cigarette. Then she said, “You help me make lumpia, and then I’ll sleep for a little while.”

“Okay,” I said.

We had made lumpia together more times than I could count, and we fell easily into the rhythm of it: me chopping, her rolling and frying. My mouth watered as the kitchen filled with the scent of frying lumpia and hot oil. We finished quickly, with two of us working, and my mother went into the back of the house to sleep. I set the lumpia to cool on paper towels, and went out into the living room.

One of my aunts, Marisol, had arrived, and was sitting beside the casket, smoking a cigarette. “You made lumpia?” she asked me.

“Yeah,” I said. “Mom is sleeping.”

Marisol nodded. “Good. She needed it.” She motioned to the chair beside her. “Sit and play mah jong with me. It’s no good with two people, but we’ll make do.”

That was how we passed the morning, sitting beside the window with my grandmother’s coffin beside us, playing mah jong in silence. A couple of neighbors showed up, and my aunt roped them into playing with us, happy to have a full set of four players. She won every match. I had never been very good at mah jong, and I had almost forgotten the rules by now, after years without playing. It came back to me soon enough, but I didn’t stand a chance with the way Marisol played.

We took a break around noon and went into the kitchen to eat the lumpia. While we were in there, the doorbell rang.

Marisol looked at me, eyebrows raised. “Well, go get it. You’re the daughter of the house.”

She was right, technically, but I still felt weird about answering the door, when it hadn’t really been my house for a long time. But someone had to get the door, and it wasn’t going to be Marisol. Sighing, I hauled myself out of my chair and went to see who it was.

There was a person standing on the front step, but it was so bright outside, and so dim inside the house, that I couldn’t tell who it was. I opened the storm door, polite smile already fixed on my face, and then froze.

It was Malcolm.

“Hi, Regan,” he said. He looked just the same, only older, and my heart turned over in painful recognition. He was wearing the kind of jumpsuit that auto mechanics wore, and his name was stitched on the pocket. He had cut his hair so short that it looked like a thin fuzz covering his scalp.

“Hi,” I said, feeling dazed, and then belatedly stepped aside to let him in the house. “We have, um. There’s lumpia.”

“Great,” he said, giving me a cautious smile. “I’m pretty hungry.”

I led him into the kitchen, and stood in the doorway while he made easy conversation with my aunt and the neighbors, and ate twice as much lumpia as someone his size should have been able to. Malcolm was a small guy, only a few inches taller than me, but solid and muscular, and I had always been amazed by how much food he could put away.

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