Last week we announced that Paula Hiatt’s Captivating Love Story Secrets Of The Apple is our Romance of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the Romance category: over 200 free titles, over 600 quality 99-centers, and thousands more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!
Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded Secrets Of The Apple, you’re in for a treat!
by Paula Hiatt
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
She looks like a gift, Ryoki thought, rapidly appraising the young woman who paused mid-step before approaching him: mid-twenties, dark hair confined in a twist, brown eyes, pale olive-toned skin, even features, the full, pouty mouth of a lipstick model—a vanilla beauty. His attention flicked back to her eyes, large and intelligent, slightly almond-shaped. Disney eyes. With her head thrown back and a couple of open buttons, she could probably pose for the cover of a romance novel. He focused on her pink plaid suit—attractive maybe, but in his opinion too much like wrapping paper to be taken seriously in this particular office. Couldn’t be a regular employee. He decided to keep his business card in his pocket.
She smiled. “You must be Ryoki. I’m Kate, your assistant while you’re here. Welcome to San Francisco.” She put out her hand.
He held back half a beat too long, still trying to categorize her office status, then shook hands, dipping his head the barest fraction, marking her low rank.
“Tanaka,” he said.
Because he was touching her hand, he felt rather than saw the shift, a sort of stiffening. She drew back slightly, her expression unchanged. A door clicked shut nearby, surprisingly loud in the silence.
“Ahh,” she said, studying him with the clinical expression of a doctor. “I’ve heard the Japanese use last names. You caught me off-guard. I expected a shorter guy with more silver hair, but I suppose you’ll do.” She started to turn, but added over her shoulder, “Have a seat and I’ll let Brian know you’re here.” She disappeared almost as suddenly as she had come. Thrown off by her casual rudeness, he stood for a full ten seconds before sitting down rather gracelessly. He waited another nine and a half minutes, wondering why the receptionist hadn’t informed Brian Porter at once, rather than first announcing his arrival to an underling. Maybe Brian was in a meeting.
Finally the young woman reappeared and led him down a marble tiled hallway to an empty office with walnut wainscoting, deep burgundy leather furniture and wide, creamy moldings, all the decorative clichés of stability and power, intended to leak the secret that the law firm of Porter, Smith and Randall was enormously successful, that is to say, rich.
“This will be your office until you head down to Brazil. I’ve been asked to act as your assistant and interpreter. I speak Portuguese and Japanese and will serve as your liaison to this office. I should tell you up front that I’m not a professional secretary. I do not make coffee or tea, but I know people who do. Do you have any questions?” She looked at him expectantly, gesturing to the modern black and chrome chair behind the desk, the only piece of furniture that didn’t seem to belong.
Ryoki crossed the space in swift, purposeful strides, unfastening his brief bag and tugging at his documents as he dropped into the chair. “I’m going to Ahhhhhyelpsqueak—!” Head askew, legs splayed, arms floundering in the diabolical clutches of his bag’s English tobacco leather strap.
Finding his feet, he popped up like a man stung and whirled to face the chair, a gargoyle’s malevolence instantly surging to the surface, rouging his skin and heating his face. The chair held its ground—leather, chrome, neutral, inanimate.
He took a deep breath, closed his prickly red eyes and settled his face into a more politic mask as he cautiously lowered his heavy bag onto the seat. Once again the whole contraption lurched hard to the left, nearly dumping papers everywhere. He turned to look at Pink Suit, one eyebrow cocked, waiting for her to laugh and tell him the odd chair had been one of Brian’s jokes, possibly caught on hidden camera.
“Fast reflexes,” she said, her face blank.
He paused for her to apologize or to offer him a different chair, but she remained silent. “This chair’s a little uncomfortable,” he said.
“It’s a revolutionary design, guaranteed to align your spine and strengthen your back. Brian ordered it specifically for you.”
“I think it’s broken,” he said.
“It has personality, just lean to the right as you sit and it won’t buck you off.” She popped her hip, leaning sideways to demonstrate.
“Will you have it replaced, please?” he said patiently.
She smiled vaguely, acknowledging she’d heard him.
Annoyed, he decided to skip the usual opening pleasantries and began his barrage of official questions. A little brusqueness was permissible in English; English speakers expected it. In his heart, Ryoki preferred the American directness, but it was a skeleton he kept buried deep. “How much do you know about the acquisition of The Melo Group by my family’s company?” Ryoki was going to be really pushed on this project. For some unfathomable reason, his father had chosen to send him without his team, and he desperately needed efficient help. Pink Suit here appeared to have been chosen exclusively for her language skills. Surely there was a linguist somewhere in the city who didn’t consider it beneath her to pass him a cup of tea.
She had opened her mouth to answer his question, but was interrupted by a knock and a familiar “Hey there, how are you, boy?” in the languid, blurred accent of the polished Southern gentleman. Ryoki never tired of listening to Brian Porter. He smiled, feeling the first real stretch in his lips all day, nearly calling him “Uncle” as he had as a child when he believed it to be a biological fact. Brian greeted him with hands outstretched, the two men ending in an odd handshake/backslap/Japanese bow/man-hug combination that would have made no sense except that it grew from an overflow of mutual warmth and genuine gladness.
This time the pleasantries were fully observed as they leaned on the desk, elbow to elbow. When the conversation got to Ryoki’s father, Ryoki snapped his fingers. “I almost forgot. My father sent you a gift,” he said, retrieving from his bag a small box wrapped in beige paper, holding it out, balanced on his fingertips. Brian accepted with a bow, tearing off the paper and opening the box to reveal a scuffed baseball covered in Japanese characters. “It’s the ball from last season’s opening day, signed by every member of my father’s team,” Ryoki said. Personally, he thought the ball should have been more appropriately mounted in an etched Lucite case, but his father had staunchly refused, asserting that a baseball needed to breathe until everyone who had played with it was dead.
Brian fingered the ball, studying the scribbled characters. “You have some fine players on that team. When we were in college, Hiroshi always said the crack of the bat brought the best luck. I knew he was either going to have to play on a team or buy one.” He threw the ball up in the air and caught it before his glance rested on Pink who had remained silent for the entire greeting. “I don’t suppose Kate needs any introduction. Has she made you feel at home?” Ryoki smiled noncommittally. “She’s been fully informed on this project,” Brian went on. “I called her in and reviewed everything with her myself.” Ryoki took another look at his new assistant who stood looking thoughtfully at Brian. Perhaps he’d been too hasty. For all of Brian’s lazy, elongated vowels and quaint Southern drawl, he was a terror to opposing attorneys because he missed nothing. Perhaps she had valuable hidden talents. Of course, it could be that they were simply shorthanded and making do. No telling.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” Brian asked.
Ryoki considered mentioning the cranky chair, but thought it might be more appropriate coming from his assistant, whom he had already come to think of as Pink. “Thank you, no. I just need to settle in.” The two men again shook hands, this time a warm four-handed shake. Brian smiled at Pink and departed.
Ryoki watched Brian’s retreating figure. He hadn’t seen him in over a year, not since his grandparents’ funeral. But that barely counted. There had been so many people and too many duties crammed into so short a time, though what it was all about Ryoki could barely remember. Even the funeral itself had faded almost entirely as Ryoki had spent most of the service imagining the spectacular blast and fountainous splashes that must have marked the passing of his grandparents and their pilot somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Not that there had been anyone to see, to prove they were really dead.
Ryoki blinked, feeling the dry, tired sting in his eyes as he moved behind his desk, jerking and swerving mid-sit as he remembered about the chair. Recovering his balance, he took an appalled look at his watch and began pulling papers from his bag, quickly placing them in neat, precise stacks as he spoke without looking up:
“The Melo Group’s private preferred shares will be converted to Tanaka common stock and fully absorbed by Tanaka Industries in just four weeks. To begin with, I need to know how far the auditors have progressed in their due diligence, and what progress has been made in finalizing the licensing agreements to allow this new South American division to do business with the U.S.”
If she was surprised by his abrupt manner, she showed no sign and retrieved a large binder from his left-hand drawer before pulling a chair to the opposite side of the desk. “The due diligence is scheduled for completion in three weeks and the licensing agreements should be in place about four weeks after that,” she said. “If all goes well you should be in the clear about the third or fourth week of February. At this point we can’t be more exact than that.”
Ryoki fired off question after question, keeping his eyes on his papers and scribbling notes here and there as she answered—question/answer, volley/return, like a computerized tennis match. Their interaction was so automatic, it was an hour and a half before Ryoki looked up, realizing there should have been pauses and periodic rustling of paper as she searched for the precise answers he required. Inwardly he sighed; surely they’d have to start again.
“Are you certain?” he asked, careful to keep his tone even.
Pink flipped the pages like a well-thumbed book and pointed out the documentation.
“I stand corrected,” he said, though he took the binder and checked a few more answers, just to be sure.
“Brian went over everything with me, but I’m actually the one who prepared these notes,” she said.
“You don’t need to spend time memorizing all the details.” He smiled politely, privately irritated that she would waste so much time in a meaningless attempt to curry favor when there was so much else to do. Americans never seemed to realize that the over-eager often caused as many problems as they solved.
“Why on earth would I do that?” she blurted, then pursed her lips and looked away as if she wanted to start over. “That is, after preparing the notes and then reading them through once or twice, the details stuck in my mind,” she said impassively. “We’ve already been through the bulk of this, so I’ll leave the binder with you.” She stood and smiled. “Did you have any other questions?” He shook his head, blinking. Second time she’d asked him that, as if she was in charge. “To keep things on schedule while you’re here, I’ve included your tentative itinerary in the back of the binder. The rest of your documents are filed in the lower right hand drawer. That’s my desk over there,” she said, gesturing toward a small cubical set up in the corner of his office, completely hidden by high-paneled dividers, “but for the next two weeks I’ll be working in the vacant office next door. If you hit a snag, I’ll be in there for a couple more hours.”
He noticed she smiled when she talked, like a teacher, encouraging, with an edge of command. Almost before he could finish the thought, the door closed and once again she vanished. He paused for a moment to take stock, unable to shake the feeling he’d just been dismissed.
Consoling himself that she’d left because she was getting beyond her depth, he returned to the binder, cross-referencing the information with the documents he’d brought from Japan. He envied Pink her quick absorption of detail, but when she poked her head in to wave a perfunctory goodbye at precisely five o’clock, he decided the talent had been wasted on a flighty girl with no loyalty or sticking power, not much future in business. He sighed tiredly, wishing for the hundredth time his father had listened to him and sent him the team he so reasonably requested.
He kept hard at it until after eleven that night when most of the floor was dark and the unvarying whine of a vacuum cut through his concentration. As English and Japanese began to swim before his eyes, he realized he’d been up more than twenty-four hours. He drove to his hotel, stumbled to his room and into bed, barely pausing to fling off his clothes and brush his teeth, fully expecting to awaken too early, as he always did in an unfamiliar bed.
He had just closed his eyes.
Ryoki lifted his head, vaguely aware of a singsong Spanish accent muffled behind the door.
Housekeeping? In the middle of the night? He wobbled woozily out of bed, stubbing his toe in the pallid dark and staggered toward the door to take a look out the peephole, suddenly realizing he hadn’t locked the inner latch. Panicked, he leaped forward—
Snick. Card key in the lock.
Aborting mid-leap, he lost his balance and stumbled heavily against the coffee table, barking his shin just as the door flung open, revealing a sturdy, round-faced Hispanic woman. Shocked fully awake, he rubbed the bleeding scrape on his shin, fury splattering all four walls with a bilingual mud pie that frightened passing tourists who picked out “philistine,” “troglodyte,” and a brand new invective questioning the evolutionary parentage of every humanoid within a ten-mile radius.
When he ran out of air, the maid opened her mouth, but her words hung fire as her eyes fixed somewhere south of his face.
His stomach clenched and acid burned his throat. Lost his temper again. So often lately, so sudden, and in front of a woman—a helpless maid, which made it worse. Ashamed, he rubbed his fingers through his hair, giving her a moment to recover and wondering when he had become the troll under the bridge. Tired, that was all, just tired, and needing a couple of antacid. He’d recover his equanimity once he’d completed the current project.
The maid remained silent, a look of blank amazement on her face. He’d been very harsh, maybe scared her. He should have remembered to lock from the inside and put out the “Do Not Disturb” sign, so yes, perhaps he bore part of the blame. He composed his face, tried to give her a benevolent look, allowing her the chance to exit with dignity intact. But she didn’t move. “Unbelievable,” he muttered under his breath.
At last she drew herself up to a dignified four-feet-nine. “It after ten, sir. When you want us come back?”
“Ten?” Mouth agape, he looked around—blackout curtains pulled across every window. He checked his wrist where his watch should have—
Skimpy pink silk boxers with purple lipstick kisses, ridden up, slumber-twisted and tucked askew to resemble women’s panties, extra small. Without thinking, he stomped his foot and wiggled his hips, hoping they’d straighten out, no such luck.
When he dropped the woman who’d purchased said boxers, she’d cursed him with all the venom of her soul, but he’d paid no attention, forgetting the gift immediately after shoving it to the back of a drawer. Thirty-six hours ago he happened upon them in a rush in the dark, consciously thinking, I’ve got to get rid of these. But most of his respectable pairs were already packed or sent ahead to São Paulo.
Maybe it was time to start believing in curses.
Instinctively he picked up the closest items to cover himself, a crystal candy dish and the remote. He juggled them for a moment, unable to determine the best configuration. “I’ll be out shortly,” he said stiffly.
“Thank you, sir.” She whipped off the “Do Not Disturb” sign, hanging it on the outside doorknob as she shut the door. He heard the electronic lock click and her rapid, retreating footsteps.
Have to change hotels, he thought, tearing off the boxers and pitching them into the trash. Better to have been caught naked outright. Even the most sculpted abs could never compete with scanty pink man panties.
With the residual panic of a man still too exhausted to be fully calm, he picked up his cell phone and scrolled for the office number. The chipper receptionist transferred him to Pink.
“I’ve been unavoidably delayed,” he said.
“I see that.” He could hear the teacher smile in her voice.
“I’ll be in shortly for my 11:00 a.m. with Melo executives and the audit committee. I haven’t finished reviewing the proposed adjustments or preliminary internal control findings. It’s going to be close. Could you lay out everything so I can get directly to work?”
“It’s already finished,” she said.
He paused, thinking she must mean “finished laying it out.” Surely she couldn’t be capable—
“You’re ready for your meeting,” she said. “I’ve summarized the findings and gotten the management responses from Melo’s accounting department already.”
An unidentifiable quality in her tone worried him unreasonably—smugness, perhaps, or some sort of secret knowledge, as though she could see him through the phone. Instinctively he pulled a pillow in front of himself.
“Thank you,” he said uncertainly. “I’ll be in as soon as I can.” He thumbed his phone to end the call, absolutely positive she’d never been caught in her underwear. Fifteen minutes later, showered and immaculate, he paused to fish the offending boxers out of the wastebasket and shoved them into his pocket. In the parking garage he furtively crammed them into the first public trash he saw. No point exposing the evidence.
“Good morning, Pink.” He strode into the office smiling mechanically, oblivious to what he’d said or to the perplexed expression on her face. Already homing in on his computer, he dropped carelessly into the bizarre chair, his legs splitting east and west as he grabbed the desk to right himself.
“Chair,” he said with his best Tanaka stare, a legacy from his paternal grandfather, known to shatter the kneecaps of battle-hardened executives.
“I’ll switch it as soon as they send us a replacement, or would you rather I snatch one out from under someone else?” She smiled sweetly. Ryoki demurred, deciding to ask Brian about it later, though he would never remember to do it.
She showed him the completed documents, photocopied, collated, stapled and neatly stacked on his desk. “Brian went through this with me,” she said. Ryoki looked over everything, rapidly scanning the numbers and Melo’s take on them, appreciating her clear, meticulous summary. He had everything he needed, but he knew he wouldn’t have time to familiarize himself with the details. She seemed to read his mind.
“I’m going with you,” she said.
“That will not be necessary,” he replied automatically, his nose in his papers.
She put a finger on the corner of his spreadsheet and he looked up, really seeing her for the first time that morning. Tan corduroy skirt, ivory cashmere sweater and a short strand of graduated pearls, like a professor with a little student thrown in. He still couldn’t figure out what position she held in the office. Judging by her work and overconfident manner, she must be a newly minted lawyer or fledgling MBA, or possibly a clever graduate student who did not yet own a dark suit. Pink looked at him, smoothly determined, momentarily exposing a wide vein of granite under all that cream. But an executive meeting required more than determination. He glanced back at the reports in his hand, then checked his watch. No way to absorb all this in time.
“Look, yesterday I saw the dark circles under your eyes,” she said, biting her lip. “And last night I got to thinking that I may have been a little abrupt, and this morning, well, I think maybe you might need me more than I’d anticipated.”
“I’ve had a good night’s sleep since then,” he said.
“We both have a vested interest in making sure there are no delays in this transaction. I need to be free as much as you do,” she said bluntly.
Her clothes looked so soft, so tactile, so at odds with her frank expression. Somehow her offer to help seemed more palatable yesterday when he didn’t have to parade her into meetings. He checked his watch again, dropping the reports onto his desk with a sigh. Truthfully he could see no alternative. He would have to take the risk.
At 11:00 a.m. she sat near his elbow, unobtrusively handing out materials and generally facilitating the meeting. She moved quietly, almost too quietly. Fourteen dark-suited, dour‑looking men. What if she folded in on herself? What if she tried to disappear? What if—
But when Kate’s turn came, she stood, cracked a joke, made direct eye contact, and led the group through the last set of findings with a sweet smile and the clear, commanding confidence of a secretary of state. Ryoki studied expressions around the room as they subtly shifted from ogling the pretty girl, to actually listening to what she had to say. When she resumed her place, Ryoki stood to wrap up and noticed that fully half the eyes had followed her to her seat and rested there before reluctantly returning to him. Stern faces had softened, looking receptive, an unexpected advantage. Certainly she had done this before.
When the meeting broke at two o’clock, they all went to lunch at a nearby sports bar, but Kate begged off, claiming work. Ryoki had given her no assignment, but he said nothing. As she headed down the hall, Brian’s partner, Edward Randall, a white-haired, grandfatherly type, caught hold of her arm. “Now, Kate, don’t work too hard,” he said. “Remember, you’re on vacation.” He let loose with a big guffaw, as though he’d told some great joke. With her back to him, Ryoki could only see her right shoulder lift and fall in a delicate shrug as she hurried off down the hall.
Ryoki didn’t get the joke, and felt a nagging suspicion he should have. She was always pulling that disappearing act, and every time she left he sensed some undefined quality evaporated with her, though he would never have admitted it. He should have had a little introductory talk with her earlier, a private chat, not necessarily work-related, just to be polite, to break the ice. In his haste, he’d neglected to do so yesterday and hoped to remedy the oversight after lunch. Unfortunately he didn’t see her again until three-thirty that afternoon, and by then she seemed distracted, hugging a scuffed and stained leather binder to her chest, cloaking herself in mundane tasks like someone who wished to be alone. He held back on the small talk, figuring tomorrow would be better for them both.
However, the 11:00 a.m. meeting proved so successful that the following morning found them plunged neck-deep in draft EPS calculations and sticky licensing agreements. True to her word, Kate focused directly on her work, staying late, keeping close, but never taking time for idle chit chat—which is how Ryoki came to be surprised on his fourth evening in San Francisco when he went to Brian’s home to attend a Porter family dinner. He had already kissed the cheek of Brian’s wife, whom he’d never called anything but Aunt Grace, and had begun a round of jolly back-slapping talk with Tom, the oldest of their four sons, when Kate breezed in without knocking and said “Hey, Claire” to Tom’s wife, giving her a hug and asking when she and Tom had arrived.
“Kate, where have you been? You should have been back an hour ago,” Grace said.
“Bad traffic,” Kate said.
Ryoki looked at Kate’s soft pink dress, her hair loose and wavy around her shoulders. She seemed so different from the office, more relaxed around the mouth, an odd loopiness in her movements.
“Bad traffic, or a wrong turn?” Grace asked, cutting into his thoughts, her head coyly cocked and one eye narrowed to a slit—the same face she pulled the time he and Tom tried to convince her that their broken headlight was a hit-and-run, absolutely nothing to do with Tom’s bat-wielding ex-girlfriend. Ryoki knew that look well.
Kate looked at her toes, muttering something about the confusing number of exits between Oakland and the Bay Bridge, and visibly jumping when she turned around and noticed Ryoki.
“I believe you already know our Ryoki, isn’t that right?” Grace said.
“We’ve met,” she said simply, her elbows stiffening to her sides as though someone had poured starch over her dress.
“Put down your things and freshen up. We’ll wait,” Grace said, her tone more mother than hostess.
Ryoki had stood staring for the whole exchange, his fingers absolutely still on the back of a chair. That was the dress she could wear on the cover of a romance novel. Not a bodice ripper, but something classic, an Austen romance. He blinked.
Austen novels popping into his head made him feel uncomfortably in touch with his feminine side, a feeling paradoxically at odds with the reason he stayed behind the chair, taking conscious regular breaths, and trying to think about baseball.
Kate returned a few minutes later with her hair brushed out and fresh lipstick. Ryoki allowed himself a brief, courteous glance before averting his eyes as Grace herded them all into the dining room, directing him to a seat on her right, opposite Kate. Tom took a seat next to Kate, opposite Claire, and Brian presided at the head of the table.
During the salad course, Tom elbowed Kate, causing her to smear dressing on her cheek. “So, Kate, how’s your vacation going?” he asked with a smirk. She feigned deafness as she wiped her face, her fingers inching toward the cruet as though she might pour the contents down his neck, but a look from Grace stayed her hand.
“Brian, we’ve raised a pack of savages,” Grace said, looking apologetically at Ryoki, but he was distracted. Why did Kate and vacation keep coming out in the same breath?
“What do you mean, Tom?” he asked.
“Oh, Mom called Kate a few weeks ago and talked her into coming to stay for a couple of months, to get out of the snow in Salt Lake. But the minute she got here, their bilingual paralegal quit without notice—”
“I was asked to assist Mr. Tanaka,” Kate chimed in, “only to discover I’d given up my vacation for this punk kid in a bespoke suit who speaks perfect English.” She looked slantways at Ryoki with a raised eyebrow and quirky smile that made his stomach flip. In that dress she could have called him a lap dog without offending him.
Tom sat back, snickering. “Classic bait and switch,” he said.
Ryoki looked at Kate sitting next to dark-haired, carelessly handsome Tom and suddenly the obvious clicked into place. This had to be the famous Kate Porter, Brian’s niece, whose visits to her uncle’s house had never happened to coincide with his own. He’d always known she existed in a blurred theoretical way, still retained scant memories of the Porter boys mentioning a cousin who appeared to hold the position of sister in the family lore. In fact, he vaguely remembered tuning out as his mother clattered on about the lovely Miss Porter, or was that her Pretty American Friend, some other anonymous girl she would have just loved for him to meet? But the memory was thin and smoky, a lifetime ago, another existence, before his marriage and the ensuing fiasco. Ryoki tried not to squirm in his chair. That little first day chat would have been exceedingly helpful right about now.
“Did your father get tangled up at work? I think I would’ve heard if he was sick,” Kate said.
Ryoki shook his head and opened his mouth to elaborate, but there was a burst of laughter from the other end of the table and Kate turned to hear the joke. Ryoki concentrated on his plate and unpacked the memory of their first meeting, when she had called him “Ryoki.” How had she addressed him since? He realized he had no idea; he had paid absolutely no attention to what impression he might have made.
He looked up at Tom’s wife Claire, the least familiar voice at the table. Even after all the time he’d spent in America, it still jarred him when someone he hardly knew used his first name.
“Your English is so beautiful. How did you learn?” Claire asked.
“Except that he calls me ‘Pink’ half the time, not sure what that is,” Kate mumbled, almost to herself.
Ryoki busied himself with his napkin, trying to remember when he might have called her Pink out loud. He vowed to be more careful, though he would catch himself three more times before finally breaking the habit.
“Ryoki’s always had an amazing vocabulary, even when we were kids,” Tom said. “Hey, do you remember that time—”
“Tom!” Grace said, giving both Tom and Ryoki the mom’s glare of death. Clearly she hadn’t forgotten the day she’d caught him teaching her boys to curse in three languages. He could have pointed out that Tom had taught him a couple of interesting things, but now was not the time. He smiled at Grace, all innocence and saccharine before looking at Claire to explain his English, a question he had been asked a hundred times. Unfortunately, Kate cut across him.
“His English is actually much more sophisticated than my Japanese. He uses clichés like a native,” Kate said. Ryoki wasn’t sure if she meant that as a compliment or not. “He really doesn’t need me to translate,” she added.
“I don’t speak Portuguese,” Ryoki said seriously. “Some of the documents are in Portuguese.” She may not feel the same obligation to him as to his father, and he couldn’t afford to let her wiggle out.
“I remember when you were born. You know that?” Grace said. Ryoki cringed. “Your mother was here visiting us in her sixth month and there were complications, so she stayed. You spent your first month right here in this house. We all took turns walking the floor. I’d never seen a baby with so much bendy black hair.” Grace smiled at him fondly, closing her mouth, story finished. Ryoki let out a breath. That wasn’t too bad. Last time she’d regaled him with all sorts of delivery room drama, details of which he could have spent his entire life in gleeful ignorance.
“I speak English because my mother was a half, born and raised in the United States,” Ryoki said, looking at Claire. “I grew up speaking English and Japanese at home. She was very adamant about that.”
“What’s a ‘half’?” Claire asked, the question itself containing an innate sense of democratic superiority that Ryoki often encountered in the United States. He looked at Claire’s heavy gold necklace and soft manicured hands and wondered if Americans recognize they participate in a fictitious egalitarianism.
“I mean my mother is only half Japanese. My grandmother eloped with an American Air Force pilot and they moved to the States.”
“That’s a relief,” Kate said. “You made it sound like she’d misplaced some crucial body parts.” Her joke did not reach her eyes, making Ryoki wonder if she understood what it meant to be “half” in Japan. His mother flaunted her half status, always pronouncing Ryoki with her hard American “R,” a tease that stuck, continually goading his grandmother into correcting her with a tightlipped smile, “Lyoki, his name is Lyoki.” His father took the middle ground, generally calling him Son. Early on Ryoki learned to answer to anything.
“I understand your grandfather was a tall man,” Brian said. “Gave your mother her blue eyes and I’m guessin’ your height too.”
“He was six-foot four. I’m only six-two, same as Tom.” Ryoki had never met either of his maternal grandparents. For him they existed merely as figures in a black and white wedding photo, dead before his birth. In the picture his American grandfather towered over his tiny Japanese grandmother, almost floating in her pouffy Western-style wedding dress. Because of that picture he’d always envisioned his grandfather as a gentle, slow-witted giant, protecting his miniature princess.
“When you were four, I remember you throwing all your weight against the doors at the mall, to hold them open for your mother and me.” Grace said. “Your mother said she was raising you to be a gentleman just like her father. I thought it was darling, but she said a few Japanese mothers had told her off for making a little boy work so hard.”
“How did your parents meet?” Claire asked, her eyes shining, perhaps anticipating a grocery store romance, soulmates defying distance and culture.
“An arranged marriage,” Ryoki said simply.
Claire’s head snapped back an inch. “Oh.” She cleared her throat, clearly aware she’d been rude, but not sure how to proceed. “I didn’t realize—advanced nation—I imagine parents know their children best,” she said, her cheeks pinking.
“It still goes on,” Kate said. “We hadn’t been roommates a week before I knew you were perfect for Tom, so the first chance I got I dragged you on a road trip to Stanford. Before we got there, I called to make him get a haircut and told him exactly what to wear, practically gift‑wrapped him,” Kate laughed smugly. “If it weren’t for me, Tom would still be spending Friday nights chugging beer with a bunch of smelly guys.”
“Sounds good to me,” Tom grinned wickedly at his wife, but Ryoki caught a certain softness in his eyes and quickly looked away, embarrassed to have seen such naked affection in the face of his old friend.
“Well, Ryoki, I don’t believe you’ve ever been up through Wine Country,” Brian said.
Ryoki had never been to Wine Country because he didn’t care about it.
“Unfortunately not,” he said.
“Well, you need to do that while you’re here. Kate, why don’t you take him tomorrow?”
Kate dropped her fork, flinching when it clattered onto the china plate. For a rare instant her face was wide open and Ryoki could almost see her reaching for a dentist appointment or a major surgery before her expression closed up. “Tomorrow would be good, if you’re free,” she said, looking hard at Ryoki, giving him an out.
He could have easily worked through Saturday and Sunday too, had actually intended to, but he was acutely aware that he hadn’t shown Brian’s niece proper respect and he seriously needed to make it up. Besides, that morning he’d awakened for the third time with his keyboard waffled across his cheek. Eventually the drool was going to make the keys stick. Suddenly spending a few hours with a pretty girl, even an off-limits one, felt like too great a temptation. “That works,” he said. “Ten, maybe?”
“I’ll pick you up,” she said. Ryoki pursed his lips, tried to form a tactful response. He preferred to drive, loved it when he had the time. On the off-chance he could squeeze in the opportunity, he’d rented a sporty little BMW coupe just for the sheer pleasure of speeding through the Northern California hills. That coupe would be reason enough. But there was also that other element, the one you weren’t supposed to mention in the U.S.
He thought of all the little old ladies with their shrunken heads and teased hair barely poking over the steering wheel as they chauffeured their aged husbands around town. I’m the man. The man is supposed to drive.
He opened his mouth to offer his own car, but she had already turned to talk to Tom, whose enthusiasm for Napa Valley burbled large right up until the plates were cleared and Ryoki had missed his chance. Kate invited Tom and Claire, twice, nearly wheedling the second invitation, but sadly they were returning to L.A. early in the morning and couldn’t be delayed.
A little after eight everyone adjourned to the large family room, preferring big leather chairs and comfy sofas to the arch formality of the living room. They had just gotten settled when a low rumble radiated from the depths of the cavernous house. At first Ryoki thought they must have an entire kindergarten in full stampede, complete with clouds of dust and get along little doggies. Instead two children appeared, a girl and a boy, Hannah and Jack, four and three respectively. A month ago Tom had emailed Ryoki a photo of his children at Disneyland, yanking Goofy’s ears while two desperate security people tried to drag them away without traumatizing anyone.
“He was jumping on me and kicking me and biting me and pulling my hair—”
“I didn’t bite,” Jack said flatly.
A harried-looking teenager came running up from behind, clutching a plastic sword that hummed and lit up blue as she handed it to Jack, who made a face at his sister. “I towd you you can’t hide it fowevoe.”
The babysitter had what looked like grape juice on her white sweater and the twist in her hair had tipped precariously to one side, giving the overall impression that she might fall over if she strayed too far from the wall. “I’m sorry,” she said. “They really wanted to say goodnight.”
Tossing her blonde curls, Hannah looked like a magazine angel, but no one who knew her was taken in. All business, she marched to the center of the room, carrying a stack of books, a hairbrush and a few ribbons. Her dark-haired little brother followed behind, wearing a horned Viking helmet, holding a sword in his left hand and carefully balancing a green frog cup in his right. Jack looked at Ryoki very seriously. “If I spilw, I have to stay in da kitchen,” he said, gently placing his cup on an elaborate inlaid chess table over which Ryoki and Tom had spent many happy hours locked in mortal combat. Claire hurried to move it to a more suitable location as both kids commenced chanting, “Story! Story! Story!”
Such perfect unison did not come without practice.
Claire went toward her children, holding up her hands for quiet and trying to look stern, but Ryoki recognized a soft touch when he saw one. “Have you been giving Melanie a hard time?”
“No,” Hannah said, shrugging her shoulders, eyes wide and blue as the sky.
Ryoki caught a moment of indecision on Claire’s face; to punish or not to punish?
“We just want a story.” On cue both children pulled out the hundred-watt grins, exposing Jack’s big front gap, the most lethal weapon in his arsenal.
“One story, then bed. Deal?” Claire said quickly.
“Deal!” they cried in unison.
Claire looked at the sitter and took pity. “I’ll take you home, Mel. Tom will read to the kids and put them to bed.”
“No. Kate. We already decided,” Hannah said.
Hannah looked up at her mother, face set, the very image of Kate, despite her blonde hair.
“Okay,” Kate said. “One story, let’s go.”
She took their shoulders to usher them down the hall as Claire and Grace led the sitter in the opposite direction. Ryoki, fearing Tom’s promise to describe all the haunted hotels in Napa Valley, suddenly declared a keen desire to hear a bedtime story and hastily produced two silk handkerchiefs, making one vanish into the other so the children would cut and run in his direction. “That’s prolonging,” Kate said, looking betrayed. Brian and Tom kept quiet, eyes flicking from Kate to Ryoki to see who would win.
“Do you want to see five dollars turn into twenty?” Ryoki asked, keeping his eyes on the children. He’d actually brought a couple of tricks on the off-chance he got to see Hannah and Jack.
“You gotta see this, Kate,” Hannah said, snatching Kate’s hand. “After that we can read our story. But we have to sit in our club because we need to do your hair.”
As he performed his trick, Ryoki saw Brian flip Tom a quarter. “Knew he’d pull it off,” Tom whispered.
“Openin’ skirmish,” Brian answered. “Long haul, my money’s still on—”
Jack squealed and Ryoki missed the clarifying word.
Kate and the children moved to the floor to sit in the crook of the grand piano. Hannah carefully arranged her books around the piano leg, laying the ribbons neatly side by side. She noticed Ryoki watching. “This is our club, Kate’s and mine.” Having made that clear, she returned to her work, placing the brush diagonally over the ribbons. At last she settled with her knees tucked to the side, her princess nightgown frothing all around her, yards and yards of satin and sheer, practically a ball gown.
“That’s quite a nightgown, Hannah,” Ryoki said.
“I drew a picture and Kate made it for me,” she replied distractedly.
“Fings!” hollered Jack.
“Yay, Things,” Hannah seconded.
Kate picked up a book as Hannah carelessly grabbed the brush. Kate looked her in the eye. “Remember to be careful about the pulling, Hannah.”
“I will, I will,” Hannah said, rolling her eyes as if Kate could not be more ridiculous. She plowed the brush into Kate’s hair, back and forth, up and down, winding her ribbons in twists that would not stay put, Kate wincing at regular intervals.
Kate read Where the Wild Things Are, a story Ryoki’s mother had read him so many times that he still knew it by heart. Secretly he would have liked to read to the kids himself, maybe carry them around on his back. Growing up as the only child of two only children, the echoing silences in his vast empty house had made him promise himself a whole baseball team of children, ten at least. But he’d grown up, learned to be realistic, to want less.
Kate’s voice rose and fell, taking her time, giving life to the voices. When she finally read the last hopeful words, Hannah declared Kate’s hair not nearly ready and would Kate please read just one more. Kate read two.
In the middle of the second story Jack leaped up, handed Kate his cup, and began fighting invisible enemies, part knight, part ninja. “Fanks, Kate,” he said, resuming his seat and retrieving his cup.
“When you’re fighting bad guys, someone has to hold your juice,” Kate pronounced sagely.
It wasn’t until the third and final story, when Hannah finally wearied of her brushing, that Ryoki realized he’d been staring at Kate’s hair. It looked so different from the office. He didn’t consider the difference between bleached compact fluorescents and lively incandescent bulbs. He only saw garnet lights winking and shimmering through the shiny mahogany mass. He understood why Hannah wanted to brush and touch it. He wondered what it smelled like, whether it was coarse or soft like his mother’s. His mother told him that as a child he used to ask her every night if he could “hold her hay.” Though he never mentioned it, he did recollect the grainy softness of her curls twining through his fingers as she read to him. Odd to think of that now.
“The End,” Kate said significantly. “Time for B—E—”
“D,” the children said gloomily, hanging their heads before beginning the age-old dodge and weave designed to keep them from bed as long as possible, even accosting Ryoki who made his pinky ring vanish into his eye and come out the back of his head. After that Kate tackled Jack, and Tom snatched up Hannah, slinging them up off their feet and carrying them down the hall and off to bed.