Authors: Helen Hoang
Khai was one hundred percent certain
be the one seeing, but he kept that to himself. “I’m taking a shower.” He spun around and marched toward his bedroom.
It was just like his mom to hatch a scheme like this. The entire thing was ridiculous. He wasn’t going to change his mind. Mỹ could be the most perfect woman in the world, and it wouldn’t change anything. His liking her was inconsequential. In fact, if he liked her, that was all the more reason why he shouldn’t marry her.
ỹ clawed the arms of her seat as the plane landed with a stomach-dipping jerk. Strange mechanical sounds reached her ears, and the lights flickered back on. She never wanted to fly again. Once in her life was enough. The loudspeakers dinged.
“Welcome to San Francisco, California. The local time is 4:20
. Thank you for flying Air China ...”
Thank sky and Buddha for English classes in high school, all the bootleg American movies she’d watched, and the audio English lessons she’d been listening to nonstop while she cleaned these past couple of months. She’d understood most of that.
She’d finally made it.
That meant she’d be meeting him soon.
Nausea hit her so hard the skin on her face prickled and her vision blurred.
Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up.
That wasn’t how she wanted to spend her first moments in the United States of America.
What if they dragged her somewhere for disrupting the peace with her vomit? Or— she glanced at the nice old lady in a hand-knit sweater next to her—for spraying the people around her? Could she go to jail for that? Could she get
for that? Maybe they’d send her back without letting her off the plane.
Everyone started lining up in the aisle, and Mỹ jumped to get her luggage from the overhead bin. A tall man in a brown leather jacket beat her to her suitcase and pulled it out. “Here, let me get it for you.”
She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Embarrassment locked the English words in her throat. She’d learned the words in school long ago and could read and write a little— enough to fill out the disembarkation form and customs declaration, at least with help from the flight attendant— but actually talking had always been a challenge. She curled her fingers into ineffectual fists. How could she make him stop? All she had in her purse was Vietnamese
, and it amounted to basically nothing here. It wasn’t enough to tip him.
He set the small navy-blue suitcase in the aisle and smiled, and she yanked it close to herself before he could take it hostage. His smile dimmed, and he turned to face the front of the plane. As they filed up the Jetway, she kept expecting him to “help” her more and request payment, but he never did.
When they reached the terminal, he disappeared into the massive crowd, and panic seized her. He’d known what he was doing. He could have told her where to go, but now she was all alone. What if she went to the wrong place and did the wrong thing? She was going to end up getting a full-body search and a lie detector test.
As she blindly followed the crowd, she tried to read the signs overhead, but her fear-scrambled mind couldn’t make sense of the English words.
Somehow, she found herself at the front of a line. Heart pounding, she retrieved the little green booklet from her purse and handed it over along with all the forms the flight attendant had provided on the plane. This was it. This was the part she’d been dreading. The
part. This was when everything could go wrong.
The airport employee scanned the forms, leafed through her passport, and stamped one of the pages before handing everything back to her. “Welcome to the United States, Esmeralda Tran. Enjoy your stay.”
She stared at him blankly. Oh, right,
was Esmeralda Tran. It was going to take time to get used to her new name— which Ngọc Anh had given her because Esmeralda from Disney’s
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
shared their coloring. Ngọc Anh had also chosen that moment to announce she wanted a new name, too. After a bit of research, they’d settled on Jade.
The airport employee motioned for her to move on. “Please proceed to baggage inspection. Next in line.”
That was it? It took her longer to scrub a toilet. Hugging her passport to her chest with one hand, she rolled her suitcase toward the inspection line. She put everything she owned on the conveyor belt and walked through all the spaceship scanner devices.
Once she came out on the other side, she grabbed her suitcase and stood still for a moment, taking in the chaos of the airport terminal. Foreign languages all around. The smells of perfume and food and bodies. Expensive-looking shops. Colors, clothes, hands holding suitcases, hands holding other hands. Everyone calm, purposeful, on their way. She wished she knew her way.
All of this was too new. Even
New place, new name, new person, new life. Maybe. For the summer, at least.
She should be excited. Hollywood and Disneyland were here. But all she felt was ... scared. Home, however, wasn’t an option right now. She had to do this for her girl.
Her mom’s advice rang in her head:
Seduce first. Love will come.
It was time to see a man.
She marched straight into the nearest bathroom, took an empty stall, and changed out of her comfortable travel clothes and into a tight pink dress. After exchanging her flat shoes for a pair of high heels that looked like weapons, she left the stall to brush her teeth until her gums hurt and apply the smallest amount of eyeliner, mascara, this shimmery stuff to hide the tired bags under her eyes, and bloodred lipstick. There. That was as good as it got.
When she checked herself in the floor-length mirror next to all the sinks, her reflection was completely unrecognizable to Mỹ. But that was a good thing. Mỹ was a naïve poor country girl who never quite fit in. She was leaving that girl behind. She was Esme now.
Lifting her chin, she exited the bathroom and joined the crowd. She sounded out the words on the overhead signs with determination and followed the foot traffic through the airport. After she passed security, she scanned the people and their faces, searching, searching, searching ...
There he was.
aiting on the other side of the security checkpoint was a surreal experience. Khai imagined it was a little like this when people took delivery of a special-order Schutzhund from the Netherlands. Only this wasn’t a trained and certified protection dog. This was a
As minutes ticked by, he stood still, shoulders back and spine straight like years of martial arts practice had trained him to do. He didn’t pace, tap his toes, or sway. He didn’t do things like that anymore. But he wanted to.
If this girl actually showed up, he had to live with her for an
entire summer. Even worse, he had to treat her like a fiancée. What the hell did he know about that?
He took his phone out of his pocket and pulled up the picture his mom had sent him. If she hadn’t assured him she’d already met the girl, he would have thought this was a prime example of catfishing. The person in the photograph was almost too beautiful to be—
Someone stepped into his personal space.
He glanced up from his phone. And found himself staring into the same light-green eyes from the picture. Only in real life.
It was her.
“Hi,” he said reflexively.
She smiled, and his thought processes hiccupped. Bright-red lips, straight white teeth, stunning eyes. People would call her pretty. No, she was more than that. Hot. Gorgeous. Breathtaking. Not that he cared about stuff like—
His gaze accidentally dropped below her chest, and his mouth went dry.
She was some kind of walking sex fantasy. Apparently, he was a boob man. And an hourglass-figure man. And a leg man. How did they look so long when she was so short? Maybe it was those three-inch heels she was wearing.
When he realized what he was doing, he forced his gaze back to her face. Back when his family still had hopes of him dating, his sister had made him memorize a set of rules since he was so good at following them.
RE WITH A
Pull out chairs and push them back in.
Pay for everything.
Carry everything. (That included her purse if she wanted. Never mind the fact that he preferred keeping his hands free.)
Give her your coat if she seems cold. (No, it didn’t matter if he was cold, too.)
No matter how she’s dressed, don’t check out inappropriate areas of her body.*
*Specifically, boobs, butt, and thighs. He could make an exception if she was grievously wounded.
Uncomfortable heat flushed his face and singed the tips of his ears. He’d just gone to town on Rule Number Six. In his defense, he had no practice being with a woman like this.
She positioned her suitcase in front of her legs and took and released a fast breath before smiling again. “You’re Diệp Khải. I’m Esme,” she said in Vietnamese.
That surreal sensation came back. This was really happening. His mail-order bride was introducing herself. But wasn’t her name Mỹ?
Please don’t let there be two of them.
He didn’t know what he was going to do with one woman. If his mom had acquired him an entire harem, he’d need therapy. After a heart-pounding second, logic returned to his brain, and he concluded she must have adopted a Western name to help her in the States. He did not have a harem.
“Just Khai,” he said in English, dropping the surname and the tones. His mom was the only one who called him Diệp Khải, and usually when he was in trouble.
Her response was a puzzled tilt of her head, and he wondered if she’d understood what he’d said. As she looked him over, a crease formed between her eyebrows. “Why are you wearing all black? Black is for funerals in America. I’ve seen that in movies. Did someone die?” she asked in Vietnamese again.
“No, no one died. I just like it.” Picking out clothes was so much easier when it was all one color. Besides, black didn’t stain, and it was socially versatile, appropriate for every occasion from work functions to bar mitzvahs.
While she appeared to absorb that information, he grabbed her suitcase by the handle and started toward the parking garage.
“This way,” he said.
With each step through the airport, words pounded in Khai’s head.
What. Had. His. Mom. Been. Thinking.
His mail-order bride was nothing like he’d expected— which was a younger replica of his mom, complete with the matching sweat suits and the sriracha and hoisin sauce she always kept in her purse. That, he could have handled. But this girl,
, looked like a Playboy bunny. She lacked the trademark platinum hair, but the rest of her fit the description. What did you do with a Playboy bunny? Aside from sex. Not that he was thinking about sex.
Except, clearly, he
thinking of sex.
No, there wouldn’t be any fucking. A sneaky part of his brain reminded him he’d promised to do all the things a fiancé would do. Fiancés had sex ...
He shook his head to clear it of the porn thoughts. It was wrong to reduce a person to their sexual value. He was a rational being. He should be better than this. Besides, she could be the kind of person who regularly performed ritual animal sacrifices in her backyard. Was it safe to drop your pants around such a woman? That killed the sex thoughts quickly, and the rest of his trip through the airport went smoothly.
Once he passed through a set of sliding glass doors, the clacking of Esme’s shoes on the parking structure’s concrete floor followed him to his car. He stashed her suitcase in the trunk up front and prepared to walk around the car and follow Rule Number One, but Esme opened her door and lowered herself into her seat. Then she shut the door, too.
For a moment, he stood still, staring at her side of the car. Did she know she’d just breached social etiquette? Should he tell her? And wasn’t that ironic? That he knew the Rules better than she did? Or maybe they weren’t international?
With a mental shrug, he got behind the wheel, started the engine, and shifted the gear into reverse.
“Wait a little,” she said. “Can we talk?”
He sighed and put the car back in park. It looked like they were going to do more of this thing where they both spoke their own languages and neither entirely understood the other, just like when he and his mom talked.
“Thank you, Anh Khải.”
, but when they weren’t related it was more of an endearment. He didn’t find it endearing. But when she flashed another of her disruptive smiles at him, he forgot to be annoyed. Right as his brain function started to stutter, she looked about the interior of his car. “This car is nice.”