The Billionaire's Embrace Page 31

Seeing him again was like a hot knife in my belly. I wanted to cry, or hug him, or run away.

He was my first boyfriend, my first love. We started dating our freshman year of high school, and we broke up the night before I left for New York, when I told him I was leaving.

Maybe I had never really gotten over him.

I wandered back out to the living room and stood over the casket, running my hands across the smooth wood of the lid, staring blindly into space.

Coming home had been a mistake.

I thought of Carter, three thousand miles away, and how he would never know this part of me, the Regan I became in California.

New York seemed like a distant country now.

A floorboard creaked behind me, and I turned. Malcolm came up behind me, wiping his hands on a paper napkin. “I should have changed, probably,” he said. “Sorry. I was at work.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “Um. How are you?”

“Good,” he said. “Busy. The shop’s doing well.”

When I left California, he and his brother had been making plans to buy out the local mechanic, who was retiring. “So you bought the garage,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “We’re making a good living.” He stuffed the napkin in his pocket. “You want to go talk outside?” He tilted his head in the direction of the kitchen.

I looked where he was indicating, and saw my aunt and the neighbors peering at us. They quickly turned away and pretended like they weren’t eavesdropping, but that was obviously what they were doing. I rolled my eyes. That had been one of the worst things about my adolescence: trying to do something, anything, without every Filipino person in San Bernardino hearing about it before dinnertime. The grapevine was all-seeing and all-powerful.

Malcolm and I went out into the front yard, and I was careful to close the door firmly behind me. I was old enough now that I wasn’t going to tolerate anyone spying on me.

We stood under the avocado tree. I crossed my arms over my chest, feeling weirdly exposed. When I was eighteen, Malcolm knew me better than anyone; but we were different people now.

He scratched his head. “Now I can’t think of anything to say.”

I laughed, more out of nervousness than because he’d said something funny. “It’s a little strange, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, a little,” he said. “I heard you were in town. I wanted to see you.”

“I thought you would still be mad at me,” I said.

He shrugged. “Yeah, I was mad for a while. But I know why you left.”

“You do?” I asked, surprised.

“Yeah. Your dad, and everything.” He shrugged again. “Right? It wasn’t a secret, that he drank too much and—you know. And you were weird for months, like you were hiding something. I thought it was another guy, but after you left, I figured out that you were just planning your escape.”

I turned away, afraid to let him see my face. I felt raw, stripped down to bare nerves. That last night, when I told him I was leaving, I had said I didn’t love him anymore. I’d been trying to hurt him, to keep him from asking too many questions, and I knew from his expression that I had succeeded. That was the one thing that haunted me, my one regret.

And now he was telling me, in his roundabout Malcolm way, that he had forgiven me.

“Look,” he said, “I have to get back to work. Do you want to get dinner later? My treat. I’ll even talk your mom into letting you out of the house.”

I drew in a deep breath and turned back to face him. “How are you going to do that?” I asked. “I’ve got a strict curfew, you know.”

“I’m an upstanding member of the community now,” he said. “No more sneaking around.”

“Okay,” I said. I smiled at him. “Dinner sounds really nice.”

* * *

He came at 6 and picked me up in the same beat-up Chevy he’d been driving since high school. My mother went out onto the porch with me and said, “That Malcolm’s a good boy. Be nice to him.”

I stared at her in surprise. Malcolm had always been that good-for-nothing or that delinquent. I wondered what he’d done to get my mom on his side.

I walked down the cracked sidewalk and eased myself into the passenger seat of Malcolm’s car. “Can’t you afford a better car by now?”

He grinned. “Sure, but I like this one. Lots of happy memories.”

My memories of his car primarily involved driving up into the hills and making out in the back seat. I blushed and turned my head to look out the window.

We went to the same Mexican place we’d always gone to as teenagers, and sat in a booth overlooking the parking lot. The menu hadn’t changed at all. I ordered a chile relleno and a margarita as big as my head. We ate guacamole and waited for our food to arrive, gazing shyly at each other across the table, like middle schoolers at their first dance.

“I bet you can’t get good Mexican food in New York, huh?” Malcolm asked.

“Well, you’d be surprised,” I said. “These are still my favorite chile rellenos, though.”

“Will you tell me about New York?” he asked. “I still haven’t made it out of the state.”

“Not even to Vegas?” I asked. Whenever anyone had some extra cash, they went to Vegas and blew it all in a single weekend.

“Not even to Vegas,” he said. “I like to keep my money, not gamble it away.”

“Some things never change,” I teased. He’d worked two part-time jobs all the way through high school and saved every penny of it. It seemed to have paid off.

“So, New York,” he said, leaning toward me, arms resting on the table.

“Okay,” I said. I told him about the way I felt the first time I saw the Manhattan skyline, riding the train into the city from the airport. I told him about the hot air gusting up from vents in the sidewalk when a train blew past underneath, and the disgusting pigeons everywhere, and what it was like to walk through Central Park at night while it was snowing. I didn’t tell him about my job, or about Carter. I told him about the guy who made sandwiches at the bodega near my house, who knew my name.

“Is it true that everyone wears black all the time?” he asked.

“Yeah, office workers and people wearing winter coats,” I said. “People are also pretty friendly. It’s not like you hear.”

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