Authors: Helen Hoang
It was shocking he hadn’t seen it earlier.
was her primary objective for this entire trip: a different life. Not a romantic relationship. It made perfect sense to him. If he were in her shoes, he would have done the same thing, except he wouldn’t have focused so much effort on one marriage candidate— him. He would have done much more dating to increase his chances of success. Why hadn’t she? Because she thought she’d find her dad and gain citizenship that way?
the best option. If she found her dad, she would automatically be granted citizenship, and she wouldn’t need to marry anyone to do it. The process would probably be expedited then, too. But if she couldn’t find her dad ...
He fished his phone out and Googled “United States citizenship through marriage.” According to the search results, the government granted green cards three years after marriage to an American citizen.
Khai was an American.
If that was all she needed— and it did look that way— he could marry her. He could have this beyond the summer. His head spun as he envisioned it. Him and her, together, sex and TV and sharing a bed and her smiles and laughter, without end.
No, that didn’t seem right. That would be taking advantage of her. A green card wasn’t worth a life sentence, but three years were required.
Three years with Esme.
The force of his wanting grew so intense his skin flashed hot. Compared to the three measly weeks he’d thought he had left, three years was a luxurious amount of time. He could give his Esme addiction
three entire years
of free rein, and then set her free to find love. Win-win.
But only if she didn’t find her dad. With his mom wanting an answer by this Saturday, however, Esme was running out of time.
That decided it. If Esme didn’t locate her dad this week, Khai was proposing.
arly Saturday evening, Esme was pulling her black dress over her head when her phone buzzed with an incoming call. She yanked the dress all the way down and leapt to pick up her phone.
She hit the talk button. “Hello?”
“Uh, hi, this is Phil Turner. I got your message?” a man said. “What is this about?”
She took a deep breath so her nerves had time to settle and repeated lines that had become familiar over the past week as she’d gone through her list of Phils one by one. “Hi, my name is Esmeralda. Have you been to Việt Nam?”
“Yeah, sure I have. If this is a free vacation or something, I’m not—”
“I am looking for someone who was there twenty-four years ago,” she said.
“Oh. Yeah ...” There was a long, drawn-out whistling sound like he was searching his memory. “No. My first time was Hanoi in early 2000.”
She sighed as disappointment weighed on her. That meant there was only one Phil left, and there was no guarantee he was the One True Phil. If he hadn’t been to Việt Nam either, that left her back where she’d begun.
“You are not the right person,” she said. “Thank you for calling back.”
“Sure, no problem. Good luck. I hope you find him. Bye.”
He hung up, and Esme carefully set her phone down on the desk. The last Phil on the list was a Schumacher, or Shoo-mock-er, as Khải pronounced it. She tried the surname on— Esmeralda Schumacher— and frowned. That would take some getting used to, though she liked the meaning, shoemaker. There were a lot of feet in this world.
That reminded her she needed to wear torture heels all night again. She stepped into the offending shoes, picked up a handful of cheap jewelry, and gazed at herself in the floor-length mirror inside the bathroom. She held the sparkly necklace up to her throat but decided against it and put it down. Once she’d finished putting on the earrings, a bracelet, and makeup, a new woman stared back at her from the mirror.
She’d gotten it right this time. She looked classy like Khải’s sister, and it gave her a much-needed boost of confidence.
Tonight was the night. She was going to tell him about Jade, and if he didn’t seem completely overwhelmed, she was going to propose.
Just the thought of it made her hands tremble, and she rushed to the sink in case she vomited. As she was breathing away her nausea, Khải stepped into the bathroom, looking like a secret service bodyguard in his black tuxedo.
“I can’t stand these things.” He twisted the ends of the bow tie around, looped them, and dropped his hands in exasperation.
“I know how.” Glad for the distraction, she undid the mess he’d made and calmly tied his bow tie for him. “All done.”
“Thank you,” he said as he shook out his arms and took a breath like he was preparing himself for battle.
She smiled and smoothed her hands down his lapels, pleased by how he looked in the well-fitted suit. “You’re wel— It’s not here.” She pressed her palms to the area where she thought his inner coat pockets were.
His forehead wrinkled. “What isn’t?”
“The book you always bring.”
He searched her face. “Are you telling me to bring one?”
“No,” she said quickly. “Well, if you want.” She shrugged. She’d much rather he talk to her, especially tonight when she was so nervous, but if he truly hated weddings that much, she didn’t want to torture him.
He smiled. “Come on, then. It’s an hour to Santa Cruz, and I don’t want to be late.”
She followed him out of the house and down the driveway to the curb, where he parked his car. Instead of getting in right away, Khải scowled at the white splats decorating the roof and windshield.
“This is statistically unlikely. It’s not like I park under a tree,” he said.
Esme’s lips wanted to smirk, and she kept them straight with effort. “The birds are telling you to park in the garage. There’s room in there. Just move the motorcycle to the side.”
Then she bit the inside of her lip. Things had gotten so easy between them she’d forgotten this was a sore topic. Her stomach tensed as she watched him, not knowing how he’d react. Would he get angry like the day she’d gone to 99 Ranch?
After a brief pause, he said, “I don’t like parking in the garage.”
He blinked, and his face creased in thought. “Why?”
“What is the reason?” she asked, because it didn’t make any sense to her.
“Because the motorcycle’s in there,” he said in a clipped voice before he went to open the passenger door for her.
Esme got into the car and watched as he shut her door, walked around to the other side, and lowered himself into his seat. He started the car and pulled onto the street like the conversation was finished. But it wasn’t.
“If you don’t like the motorcycle, why do you—”
“I didn’t say I don’t like it,” he said.
She exhaled a tight breath, even more confused now. “Then why—”
He glanced at her for a quick second before he returned his attention to the road, shifted gears, and sped past a convertible. “That’s just how I like things. It’s like you and ... Why
you roll socks that way?”
She looked down and spun the sparkly bracelet on her wrist. “You kept ignoring me. I did it to make you think of me.”
“So you don’t roll yours that way?”
“No,” she said with a laugh.
He tilted his head to the side. “It worked.”
She grinned. “I know.”
Even though he didn’t turn to look at her, his lips curved as he continued driving, and a comfortable silence followed. She watched the office buildings as they passed by, awed by their shiny exteriors and manicured lawns.
“That one is mine.” Khải pointed at a building that had blue glass walls and large white letters on the top that read
She sat up straighter in her seat and inspected it with interest. “Which floor has your office?”
“The top. I share it with others.”
“Like a boss,” she said with a teasing smile, imagining him crammed in a tiny closet while the important people had all the windows.
He aimed a funny smile at her. “Something like that.”
“Lots of the Phils are bosses. One thought I was his employee,” she said for lack of anything better to say.
An unusual stillness settled over Khải before he asked, “Did you hear back from the last two?”
“One of them.”
“It was a no?”
She pressed her lips together and nodded. “Do I look like a Schumacher?”
He considered her pensively before focusing on the road again. “Possibly.”
“Maybe these are good for shoemaking,” she said, holding her hands out and grimacing at them. “So ugly.”
“What do you mean?”
She flashed an uncomfortable smile at him and crossed her arms to hide her hands, but he held his palm out.
“Let me see,” he said.
He pulled on her arm until she relented. Instead of inspecting her hand, however, he brought her fist to his mouth and kissed her knuckles. “I don’t care what these hands do as long as they’re yours.”
It was silly— he was no poet— but his words made her eyes sting with tears. When he put his hand back on the gearshift, she rested hers on top of his. It wasn’t a pretty hand by any means, but it
small compared to his. Did people think they made a good-looking couple?
She relaxed against her seat and watched him on and off for the rest of the drive, recognizing the emotion bursting in her heart. It had been creeping up on her, growing bigger every day, and there was no denying it now. When you felt this way about someone, you didn’t keep secrets from them. No matter how scared she was, she was telling him everything tonight.
ttending a wedding in a tuxedo and bare feet was a first for Khai. He couldn’t shake the feeling he was missing something—his shoes— but Esme appeared charmed. She dug her toes into the sand like a kid as they walked hand in hand across the beach toward the white folding chairs and wedding altar arranged before the water. She wore that same shapeless black dress again, but she was still so pretty she scrambled his brain. It was her smile. She was happy. All was right in the world.
“Only twenty people?” she asked.
There was a brief pause as he shifted his focus from her loveliness to her words. “Yeah, they wanted it small. Stella doesn’t like crowds.” Just like him. “Do you like big weddings?” He’d give Esme an enormous wedding if she wanted, but something like this was more his style. With less sand.
“Small or big, anything is good.” Esme lifted her shoulders in an indifferent way, but then her eyes sparkled as she said, “The flowers, dress, and cake are the fun part.”
He nodded and immediately committed those items to memory. If she agreed to marry him, they’d go to town on flowers, dresses, and cake. Flowers by the truckload. Couture wedding gown. Ten cakes, a hundred, for all he cared. As long as she said yes. Dammit, his stomach was all knotted up.
“They don’t need to be like this,” she added with a smile. “These look expensive.” She pointed to the giant bouquets of white roses, orchids, and lilies decorating the outskirts of the seating area. “Your cousin spent a lot of money on these.”
He scanned the flowers and things. “I guess so.”
“I can arrange flowers myself. I know how.” But then she bit her lip and brushed the long hair away from her face. “I can make my dress, too. I don’t know how to make cake, but I can learn.” Her green eyes met his, looking vulnerable. “I can make everything nice— but not expensive.”
He didn’t know what to say to that. She didn’t have to make everything herself unless she wanted to. He didn’t care if the wedding was expensive. It wasn’t like he planned to get married over and over. Just once was enough. He would never want anyone other than Esme. His addiction was very specific.
“Here, here, Precious Girl and my son,” his mom said, coming toward them in a black
with bright blue flowers along the front. Without the added height of shoes, the white silk pants accompanying her dress dragged in the sand, and she yanked at them impatiently. “I never thought I’d go to a wedding without shoes. It’s a different experience. Do you two have news for me?”
Esme’s hand tightened on his, and she glanced at him for a second before she averted her eyes. “Not yet, Cô Nga. We still need to talk.”
“I was thinking after dinner would be a good time,” he told Esme.
Esme nodded and flashed a small smile at him. “That sounds good.”
His mom considered their joined hands thoughtfully. “Do what you need, but before you leave the wedding, you two need to talk to me.”
“We will, Cô Nga,” Esme said.
His mom nodded, appeased. “Enjoy the wedding, ha?” With that she went to chat with his sister, aunts, and cousins.
Khai and Esme were wandering toward the seats when Michael appeared, clasped Khai’s hand, and gave him a one-armed hug. He looked like he’d walked off a runway in his three-piece tux, even without shoes on.
“So glad you made it,” Michael said. He smiled, but his motions were abrupt and jumpy, his breathing tight. He had to be nervous. Like Khai was. Except Michael’s woman had already said yes. What was there for him to be nervous about?
“Are you okay?” Khai asked.
“Yeah, I’m great. Did I tell you I’m glad you made it? Because I am. Stella really likes you.” Michael’s gaze landed on Esme, and his lips curved into a crooked grin. “You must be Esme. Happy to finally meet you.” He shook Esme’s hand, and she grinned back with a dazed expression.